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The Only Safe Thing

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“The only safe thing is to take a chance.”

--Mike Nichols

 

Arthur Pendragon stares long and hard at the yellow Post-it note tacked to the office bulletin board. This is the third time he’s looked at it since that morning. A new employee skirts his way around Arthur before stumbling down the hall in his eagerness to get out of the junior CEO’s line of sight.

“Good morning, Mr. Pendragon. Excuse me, Mr. Pendragon,” the man mumbles as he goes.

Arthur watches him, a bemused expression on his handsome face, before turning back to the bulletin board.

Neatly written on the Post-it in bright red marker is the following advert:

In need of someone with room to rent in flat ASAP.

Quiet and Neat. Please call number below.

 

A mobile number is scrawled at the bottom. Arthur squeezes his hands into fists, resisting the urge to take the note from the board, just as he has the other two times he’s stopped and read it. He has a spare room, and this could be the opportunity he’s been looking for to expand his comfort zone, but the thought of inviting someone into his home to live is a little more than he thinks he can handle. He moves away from the bulletin board and heads for the coffee lounge.

When he enters, the three employees who have been chatting on their break stop what they’re doing and smile politely at him before scattering from the room like dry leaves. Arthur’s used to this kind of behavior; it comes with being the son of the CEO, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. He hides this with a well-practiced scowl.

Arthur’s never really learned how to communicate with people outside of business situations. It’s only one of the problems he’s been struggling with since being out of uni and living on his own.

It isn’t that Arthur lacks intelligence; he can solve just about any problem given to him within a reasonable amount of time. He is also a gifted speaker. But put him in a room full of people and tell him to have a good time or to show them a good time, and Arthur is lost. He blames this on the rigid upbringing his father forced upon him. If Arthur had ever had the time to just breathe, he might have learned to naturally communicate with people without appearing to have a stick up his arse.

He tries to imagine having a flat-mate. What would it be like?

Arthur thinks about his large, lonely flat with its beautiful view that most people can’t afford, which means he doesn’t have any neighbors except for the wealthy, stuck-up Astors downstairs who are always away traveling. Sure, he has his plants and that’s something, sort of.  But they don’t fill up the quiet. Sometimes Arthur just wishes he could hear another person moving about.

If anyone knew that Arthur Pendragon, only son of business mogul Uther Pendragon and heir to millions, spends most of his free time talking to plants and watching Harry Potter DVDs, they’d laugh him out of the company.

As he sits alone in the coffee lounge of an office building that he will one day own, Arthur realizes that he really doesn’t have much of a life at all. He’s twenty-five, unattached, lonely as hell, and absolutely miserable. He’s also scared to death to do anything about it.

If that isn’t pathetic, Arthur doesn’t know what is.

Before he leaves the break room, one of the other breed of employee breezes in. Vivian Starnes, one of the people from advertising, Arthur thinks. And rather than breezing right back out after spotting Arthur, she stops, flashes a thousand watt smile, and puts on what she probably considers to be the charm.

Only, Arthur is immune to her brand of charm, so the next fifteen minutes of polite nodding and short answers before he can extricate himself from the situation are excruciating.

On his way back to his office, Arthur snaps up the yellow Post-it from the bulletin board and defiantly stuffs it in his pocket.

Well after the rest of the employees have left, Arthur tells his secretary, Gwen, goodnight. She smiles at him and returns the sentiment, looking relieved to be able to shut down her computer and get the hell out of there; it’s dark already, for Christ sake. Arthur wonders if she secretly hates him, although he’s sure hate would be too strong of a word for how she feels. He never yells at her or gives her extra work, or even asks her to bring him coffee. He supposes the most she could feel for him is apathy. In a way, Arthur thinks he’d rather be hated—at least it involves some emotion.

He once considered asking her out for drinks, as a friend, but he was afraid to see the polite smile on her face change to either a flustered attempt to cover up her unwillingness to do so without getting fired, or a flash of avarice and/or lust that would cause Arthur more problems than he was willing to take on. So he’s never asked her, preferring to keep their relationship at a professional, if stilted, level.

He politely rides down in the lift with her, making sure she is escorted to her car by the security guard before making his way to his dark grey BMW with its comforting, new-leather scent.

He drives home, mind on nothing more interesting than which crap freezer dinner he’ll heat up when he gets there. The garage beneath his building is well lit and guarded, as it should be for what he pays. Arthur locks his car and takes the lift up, noting that the Astors’ Jaguar is in its space, which means his neighbors are home from Thailand, and they will more than likely be picking up Taffy. Arthur will be sorry to see her go—she’s been good company, for a fish.

His flat is as sterile and silent as ever. Arthur decides on chicken and gravy and pops it in the microwave before greeting the red and white discus fish in its large bowl and opening the drapes to display a marvelous view of London at night. Arthur was never allowed to have a pet as a child, so he’s always felt a strange sense of pride at being asked to keep Taffy while the Astors are away. He knows it’s stupid—it’s just a fish, for Christ’s sake, and he should probably be affronted or put out. But he can’t help it—he likes Taffy.

He really is pathetic.

Before he can even get a good one-way conversation going with the fish, the microwave dings just as John Astor, a tall gangly man in his fifties, comes to the door to claim his pet. He won’t stay to chat, not that Arthur can really think of anything to chat about, other than the fact that Taffy mostly stayed at the bottom of her bowl while they were away, and even Arthur isn’t ready to venture to that level of pathetic. Astor says his wife has dinner on the table, but she wants Taffy home first. Arthur hands the bowl over, along with the bag of supplies, and bids John goodnight.

He sighs. John Astor’s wife is no more friendly than her husband. As Arthur puts his microwave meal on a plate, he wonders if the two are happy together.

That’s another thing tormenting Arthur. His father would very much like to see Arthur married with children, but that is never going to happen. Arthur spent one time and one time only between a female’s legs and that was enough for him to decide that he never wanted to be there again. Arthur likes cocks, plain and simple. He likes the way they jut out. He likes the heavy sacs that hang beneath them. He likes the way they grow when they approve of him and the way they taste salty like the sea. He likes the feel of a man’s body, hard and strong beneath his hands. He likes the smell of sweat and sun. He likes to push and be pushed, to enter and be entered.

Arthur is gay and has known it for quite a while.

He just hasn’t quite figured out how to tell his father that yet.

Arthur puts on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, leaning back on his black leather sofa and slipping off his shoes. He thinks again about the notecard in his pocket and the possibility of a flat-mate. Of course, it’s highly possible that the person who posted the card has already found someone. Or that he might not want to live with Arthur. And if that’s the case, Arthur reasons, this just might turn out to be a good exercise in putting himself out there, where Arthur can see what it’s like to talk with a stranger about the possibility of sharing a flat without actually having to go through with it.

The more he thinks of it that way, the more Arthur thinks he should make the call.

Thus encouraged, Arthur reaches into his pants pocket and takes the Post-it note out, fingering the edge for a while before reaching for his mobile. He dials the number, twice resisting the urge to end the call before anyone answers.

“Hello?” the voice on the other line is light and jovial with a bit of an Irish lilt to it.

“Hello, I am calling about the advert for a flat-mate.” Arthur uses his business voice, because that’s the persona he’s most comfortable in.

“Oh! Yeah? Terrific. Do you have a room available, then?”

Arthur wants to shout NO! and hang up, but he was brought up better than that. Panic has settled in. This person has not found a flat yet, and now Arthur has to talk to him about his. “Um. Yes. I do. Have a room, that is. Available. In my flat.” Arthur winces. This is what happens when he lets down his guard.

The man doesn’t seem to notice, though. “Brilliant! When can I see it?”

“Er…when would you like to see it?” Arthur asks, his insides tensing. At this rate, Arthur is going to be irregular for a week.

“As soon as possible. I’m in a bit of a mess and need to get out of my place fast. Can I come now? Is that okay?”

Arthur wonders what kind of mess the man’s in. “Sure.” He gives the address and his name. He can almost hear the pause on the other end, the silence is so loud.

“Any relation to the boss?” the man asks.

“Yes. Is that a problem?” Arthur inquires. This will surely be the end of it, and relief, pure and heady, begins to wash over him.

“No, no problem. My name’s Merlin Emrys, by the way. See you in a bit.”

Arthur almost has a panic attack while waiting for the prospective flat-mate.

“I don’t have to agree to let him rent the room,” he reminds the paused face of Harry Potter on his big screen television set. “I could even set the rent impossibly high.” Arthur doesn’t even need the rent. He just wants some company. But what if the guy’s a freak? Arthur paces, coming to a stop in front of his open balcony doors and looking out over the busy streets below. He huffs a sigh, turns and paces back inside, stopping at a table where his Chinese Evergreen, Maud, sits.

“Can you believe this is happening? I have someone coming over here who might move in with me!” he hisses at her before stopping, remembering that Morgana says he looks like a lunatic when he talks to his plants. Arthur calls down to security to let them know to let in Merlin Emrys.

Still, even though he’s fully expecting it, when the bell rings, it makes Arthur jump, and he puts a hand to his heart before pulling himself together, putting on his best business face, and striding toward the door. He’s almost there when he remembers he’s left Harry Potter on the television and circles back to turn it off. He doesn’t want to give off the wrong impression right away.

He opens the door to find a tall man with dark, wavy hair, sharp cheekbones, and well, lovely lips, who flashes him a gorgeous smile right off the bat. Nice teeth, Arthur thinks before stepping back to let him in. One can always trust a person who takes care of his teeth. They shake hands, introducing themselves.

“Arthur, so you’re the son, then?” Merlin asks, and Arthur nods.

“I thought that might be a deal breaker.” Arthur puts on his best authoritative, yet casual, stance—hands in pockets of slacks, weight on one foot.

“No, not at all, but…” Merlin looks around, unfazed. “This is most likely way out of my price range. Unless you have, like, seven other flat-mates?”

Arthur has his out right there. He can just name half his rent, which this man would never be able to pay, and that would be the end of it. His heart is pounding so hard in his chest just from trying to think of casual conversation topics, he’s sorely tempted. But there’s something about this Merlin fellow that makes him not want to push him away just yet.

“Let me show you around,” he replies, ignoring the comment on the price for a moment and bringing Merlin in. Merlin’s jaw actually drops when he sees the view from the spacious living room. They move on through the dining room and kitchen, then to the very large, furnished bedroom Merlin would be occupying. It has its own bath.

“Okay, now I know it’s too much,” Merlin says. “Oh, and there’s something else.” He bites his lip. “I meant to tell you this on the phone, because it could be a deal-breaker for you, but now here I am, and I hope this isn’t weird for you...” The man is babbling a little, and Arthur feels like he does when around small children who chatter.

“What’s that?” Arthur takes a step back. Just a small one. He covers by leaning his hand against the wall.

“I’m gay.” Merlin waits. He doesn’t seem embarrassed or ashamed in any way, just curious as to how Arthur will react. He’s certainly not apologetic. He merely puts it out there like he’s telling Arthur he’s Chinese or something and stares at him, unblinkingly waiting for Arthur’s reply.

“Okay,” Arthur says.

“Well, some people don’t like that, so…”

“I’m fine with it,” Arthur replies, wanting more than anything to say, I am too, but of course he doesn’t, because he’s not capable of being genuine like that. And he isn’t out. At least not now. Not yet.

Merlin laughs, looking relieved. “I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far, when I know I’m going to be shot down with the price.”

And then Arthur does the unthinkable. He names a completely, ridiculously low monthly price.

Merlin is obviously in shock. “What? I couldn’t possibly have heard that correctly.” He rubs at an ear. A rather largish ear, Arthur notices, but in no way unattractive. In fact, Merlin’s ears rather suit him.

Arthur repeats the ridiculous price.

“But…that’s…that’s next to nothing! What’s the catch? Am I to only use the bedroom and do all my eating and washing at the Mickey D’s on the corner?”

“Of course not!” Arthur is affronted.

“Why so cheap, then?”

“It’s not for the money. I—I like to have someone here when I’m not. For…my plants. You know, company is good for them.” Arthur isn’t sure why he suddenly wants Merlin to move in so very badly, but he does. He pushes on, trying to make it sound plausible that he might want Merlin there for reasons other than financial ones. “And there’s the people downstairs—the Astors—they’re strange! I think—I think they might have, er, odd intentions.”

Merlin’s eyebrows shoot up. “Odd intentions?”

Arthur licks his lips, inwardly cursing himself. He used to be so much better at fabricating things when he lived with his father and needed to do so just to get a breath of fresh air or a moment by himself with a book that wasn’t How to Give a Business Proposal in Twenty Seconds or Less.

“Yeah, I—I haven’t figured it out yet. I just want another person here, that’s all. Are you interested?”

Merlin looks skeptical. “Well, I don’t know why I’m giving this so much thought, considering I’m desperate and this is such a great deal. So, if you’ll have me, I guess I’ll take it!”

Arthur finds himself smiling stupidly. “Great! When will you move in?”

“Um, would tomorrow be too soon? I’ll take a sick day and get my friends to help me.”

“Tomorrow will be fine.” Arthur crosses to a drawer, takes out a key, and gives it to Merlin. He can’t believe he’s just done something so impulsive. It feels terrible, but it also feels good. Really, really good. Better than he imagines drugs would feel like. Better than sex. Or, no. Not better than that. Arthur admits that it’s been way too long since he’s had any if he’s even considering that comparison.

“That number I called you on is my mobile number,” he tells Merlin. “If you need to reach me, use that.” Merlin nods, and they exchange goodbyes. As soon as the door closes, Arthur becomes nervous. This is a huge step. A really huge step. He heads back to the living room and his movie.

Mid-way through, just as he’s managed to calm himself a little with the help of some very old scotch, his mobile rings.

“I forgot to tell you, Arthur,” Merlin says without preamble, “that I have a pet hamster. I hope that’s okay. I should have told you right off, but sometimes I forget things. He’s pretty small and his cage will be in my room. I take his wheel out at night so he won’t make noise. And it’s not a cage, exactly but a glass box, so he doesn’t kick out his shreddings.”

“I guess that’s all right,” Arthur tells him. A hamster? Isn’t that something like a rat?

“Brilliant. You’re so easy to get along with, not at all like…um, well, see you tomorrow!” Merlin ends the call, and Arthur can imagine how Merlin’s sentence was going to end. He knows his reputation of being boring and/or disagreeable, like his father. So Merlin was either going to say like people say, or perhaps like I imagined you’d be. He sets his cell phone down beside him and settles back to watching Ron and Hermione argue, wondering what it might be like to have close friends like in the movies, a look of longing on his face.

                                                                                                          ~~~OOO~~~

 

Merlin isn’t exactly sure what to think of his new arrangements. On the one hand, his new flat-mate is hot as hell, but that’s neither here nor there since Arthur’s more than likely straight. Still, a bit of eye candy is always a plus.

On the other is that the flat is fucking amazing—but that’s just it. Merlin just can’t figure out why Arthur’s set the rent so low. He doesn’t for a minute believe the plants need watching, but perhaps there’s something to the neighbor thing.

Merlin’s really just lucky he found a place so fast after old Mr. Kilgharrah kicked him out, and such a nice place at that. He is fortunate the old man put up with him for as long as he did, considering Merlin forgot to pay his rent on time so often. The ADHD medicine helps with his memory, but it’s too late now; Mr. K. has had enough.

It is a bit weird to be moving in with his boss—although technically, Arthur is not over Merlin’s division. Merlin works in the tech department, and Arthur is in sales, but one day Arthur will run the whole shebang. Still, there is nothing overtly awful about the man, and Merlin isn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. He rounds up his friends to help him move.

 

~~~000~~~

 

When Arthur returns from work the following day, he’s more than surprised to see two strangers eating pizza in his kitchen. Merlin appears from the extra bedroom all sweaty and disheveled.

“Oh, Arthur!” Merlin greets him with a smile. “This is Gwaine and Lance. They’ve been helping me move, so I ordered them dinner. Want a slice?”

Arthur looks at the greasy pie, distaste rising in his throat, but takes a slice anyway, putting it on one of his elegant, black, square plates. “Would you lads like a plate?” he asks, noticing that all three men hold their greasy slices in their hands.

“Oi, no, what’s the point of dirtying a dish?” Gwaine asks, grinning devilishly, eyes roaming over Arthur’s body in a way that makes Arthur want to put on more clothes or duck behind the counter.

What’s the point, indeed, Arthur thinks, if not to keep your hands and the table clean? He begins blotting his slice with a napkin, appalled at all the oil that’s coming off it. He looks up to find Merlin watching him, amused. “This takes off half the calories,” Arthur defends.

“Oh, well, I’m not one that’s ever had to worry about that,” Merlin smiles. “I’m a beanpole.”

Merlin isn’t actually a beanpole, although he is thin. His shoulders are quite broad, Arthur’s noticed. In passing.

“You’re not exactly in need of watching your weight,” Gwaine, the leering one, says. He’s rather fit himself, in a scruffy, naughty sort of way. “Looks like you stay fit. You work out?”

“Um,” Arthur licks sauce from his lips and tries to push all his food to one side of his mouth so he can speak without displaying it in that revolting way that Gwaine just did. “I played football in uni, but now just some running a few times a week. I lift some weights occasionally. There’s a room downstairs.”

“Posh,” Gwaine grins.

“My girlfriend is your secretary,” Lance says from his seat at the table. He seems the more quiet, mannerly sort. He’s darker -skinned and handsome in a Mediterranean sort of way.

Arthur looks at him. “Gwen?”

Lance nods, a besotted smile coming to his lips.

“Oh. Well. She’s quite a fine typist.” Arthur knows it was a stupid thing to say as soon as it’s left his mouth. A fine typist? He should have said a sweet girl, or a pretty lady. Merlin is regarding him thoughtfully, and Arthur wonders if he already regrets moving in. Arthur cuts off another bite of pizza with his fork, which tastes a lot better than it looks. He realizes, too late, that eating one’s pizza with a fork is evidently not done, judging by the looks he’s getting. He sighs and puts the plate down.

Gwaine stands and washes his hands at the sink, regarding Arthur over his shoulder with what Arthur can only call a smirk. Arthur is certain that Gwaine has been checking out Arthur’s arse.

“So did you get tired of living here all alone, or did you have a break-up?” the infuriating man asks.

“God, Gwaine,” Merlin says through a mouth-full of pizza, “mind your own business.”

“The former,” Arthur replies, regarding Gwaine warily as he comes closer. He steels himself when Gwaine actually throws an arm about his shoulders.

“It probably gets lonely up in this tower all alone, doesn’t it, Princess? Would you like a third?”

“Would you like me to tie your balls in a knot?” Arthur asks through clenched teeth, and Lance snorts his pizza.

“Only if you do it with your tongue,” Gwaine winks, an enormous grin spreading over his face.

Arthur steps out from under Gwaine’s arm.

Merlin groans and gets up from the table, throwing away his trash. “Sorry about Gwaine, Arthur. He won’t be over much. Now, Gwaine, finish helping me get my internet sorted before you go?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Gwaine gives Arthur another suggestive look before disposing of his napkins.

“Don’t forget to take your meds, Merlin,” Lance says, finishing off his pizza and standing, too.

“Thanks, mate.” Arthur watches Merlin cross to the sink. “Is it all right if I keep the bottle here, Arthur? Just until my memory gets a bit better. I need them in plain sight.”

“Sure,” Arthur shrugs. “Mind if I ask what they’re for?” Merlin’s friends know, so Arthur supposes it isn’t too rude of a question.

“They’re for my ADHD,” Merlin replies, washing one down with some water. “It’s mild, but bad enough that I need something. It’s the main reason I got kicked out of my last place—could never remember to pay, or take out the trash in time.”

“Or lock the door,” Gwaine puts in helpfully.

“Oi,” Merlin says. “Don’t worry, Arthur. I’ll be improving soon enough.”

“My security’s good,” Arthur replies, unconcerned, pushing away from the counter.

“But what about those people below?” Merlin asks, signaling with his head. Arthur has to think a minute before he realizes what Merlin’s talking about. The Astors.

Lance and Gwaine are looking at them, waiting for an explanation.

“They don’t steal,” Arthur assures him. “No worries there. I think I’ll go change.” Arthur moves back toward his bedroom. The exchange with Gwaine leaves Arthur feeling unbalanced, although he suspects it’s all just friendly teasing—something he isn’t accustomed to. He pauses to peek into what is now Merlin’s room.

Arthur barely recognizes it: A colorful spread has replaced the pristine white one that once graced the queen-sized bed, and the empty grey walls are now covered in what can only be termed as gay art.

“My friend Mordred did those,” Merlin says from over Arthur’s shoulder, startling Arthur. The man is like a cat, Arthur thinks. “He’s an excellent artist.”

“They’re very good,” Arthur agrees, clearing his throat as he examines one black and white of a man fondling his genitals.

“It’s okay to have them up, isn’t it? I mean, do they make you uncomfortable?” Merlin asks.

Merlin, I’ve seen naked men before,” Arthur says. “And I told you…I’m fine with the gay thing.” I am gay. “Not to mention the fact that this is your bedroom, and you’re free to do as you like with it.”

A little, furry animal runs on a wheel in a cage on top of the bureau.

“What’s its name?” Arthur asks, stepping over to get a closer look. “The little…rat.”

Hamster,” Merlin laughs. “Not rat. That’s Scabbers.”

Arthur looks at Merlin, surprised. “Like Ron’s rat?”

“Yeah! You like Harry Potter?”

Arthur just manages to hold himself back from yelling I love Harry Potter! like a ten-year-old boy. He nods instead, not trusting himself. Truth be known, sometimes he feels like Harry Potter. Not magical or anything, although that would be cool, but out of place and alone, yet also in the spotlight, although not really in a good way.

“Brilliant, we’ll do a marathon sometime.”

Merlin goes back to his friends, and Arthur heads for the shower, an indefinable feeling stirring within him.

When he returns to the kitchen sometime later, the other men are gone, and Merlin has cleaned up. Already Arthur’s flat has a different feel to it. It seems more lived in, as though Merlin’s presence in it has brought life to the place that Arthur never could. Arthur doesn’t know what that says about himself, and he’s not sure that he wants to.

                                                                                                        ~~~000~~~

“So what is it with him?” Gwen asks one night about a week after Merlin moved in. Merlin’s having a pint with her, Lance, and Gwaine after work.

“He has a great arse,” Gwaine says into his drink.

Merlin looks over at him. “I think you made that clear when you met him, you ponce. Could you be any more obnoxious?”

Gwaine shrugs. “Probably, given time.”

“Okay,” Gwen says, leaning against Lance, spirals of dark hair falling down his shoulder, “but he never seems to really let his guard down. I mean, does he ever just joke around with you?” she asks Merlin. “He certainly never does with me, and I’ve been working for him over a year now. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with him.”

Merlin thinks. “Well, I can’t say that he jokes, really, but he’s always nice to me.”

“He’s nice to me, too,” Gwen says. “That’s not what I’m getting at. I’m talking about him being odd.”

“I don’t know if he’s odd,” Merlin tells her, feeling inexplicably loyal to his flat-mate. Arthur is kind of odd, but he doesn’t think they should be talking about it.

Lance takes a sip of his beer. “Like how he cut his pizza with a fork. That was odd.”

“I think that’s just how he was brought up,” Merlin defended. “Some people use kitchen utensils more than others. It’s posh, not odd.”

Gwen rolls her eyes. “You’re so nice, Merlin.”

“I like him,” Merlin says stubbornly.

“Just wait until you have your first date over,” Gwen teases. “What will he think when all the noise starts?”

“Gwen!” Merlin pushes her sideways into Lance. “There’s nothing wrong with Arthur. He doesn’t have a problem with my being gay, and he isn’t odd. So leave him alone, yeah?”

“Merlin’s right,” Lance says. “Maybe he’s just shy. Have you ever thought of that?”

“Why would someone that rich be shy?” Gwaine asks.

“What does having money have to do with being shy?” Merlin scrunches up his face. Sometimes he really just doesn’t understand Gwaine at all.

“You can have big parties, invite lots of people. His flat is grand…why doesn’t he do that?” Gwaine leans toward Merlin, face intent.

“Um, because he’s shy?”

Gwaine makes a face and goes back to drinking his beer while Lance and Gwen laugh.

“All I know is,” Gwaine says after a moment, “I’d like to tap into that.”

“Gwaine, you’re such a slag,” Gwen says, laughing.

“I think Arthur’s just not used to having people around,” Merlin comments after a moment. “He doesn’t know how to act.”

“Was he raised in a box or something?” Gwaine asks, and Merlin kicks him in the shin.

“Ow!”

Merlin is glad when the subject leaves Arthur Pendragon.

When Merlin gets home, Arthur is already in bed asleep. Merlin wonders if Arthur ever socializes at all. So far, he’s worked late every night and then come straight home to bed. Arthur’s door is ajar, and Merlin peeks in. Arthur sleeps with a nightlight, the idea of which makes Merlin smile, since the man also helps run a multi-million dollar company. Arthur sleeps curled up tightly on one side of a huge bed. Merlin isn’t sure what that says about the man, but it makes Merlin sad. It makes him want to go crawl in the bed with Arthur, cuddling up to him and holding him until he slowly unfurls like a flower.

Merlin bites his lip and backs away from the door. These are not the type of thoughts he should be entertaining about his new, probably straight, flat-mate.

He wanders about a bit, checking to see if there’s anything he can tidy up. He wants to be a good roomie to Arthur since he’s getting such a great deal on the rent. He checks the soil in Arthur’s little group of plants; it feels nice and damp. He’s seen Arthur talking to them a few times. Merlin supposes his friends would call that odd, but Merlin thinks it’s sweet. There’s no way he’d give up that piece of information about Arthur to their speculation and ridicule, the same as he wouldn’t tell them that Arthur admitted looking forward to fish-sitting for the weird Astors downstairs.

“Why do you enjoy fish sitting?” Merlin asked him. “Fish aren’t exactly great pets.”

“I like watching her swim around. She doesn’t expect anything of me,” Arthur answered. He was distracted by the piles of paperwork he brought home, which is why, Merlin suspects, Arthur gave up the information so easily.

Merlin wonders who expects things from Arthur and what exactly it is they expect. So far he’s never seen anyone over at the flat or even overheard Arthur make a private phone call. Except for work, Arthur’s a regular hermit.

Merlin isn’t ready to go to bed. He’s been having some trouble sleeping ever since he’s started on his ADHD medication, and the last thing he feels like doing is tossing and turning. He’d really like to attack the chocolate digestives he knows are in the pantry, but sugar just makes him hyper, so he sits down on the couch and picks up a book, hoping to read until he gets sleepy. It’s a really dull book on speech writing, and Merlin yawns more than once, but his eyes won’t get heavy. Finally, he gives up, shuts off the light, and goes to his room.

Once in his T-shirt and pants, Merlin climbs into the comfortable bed, so much better than the narrow, lumpy mattress he’d had in his old place. Despite this, though, and the fact he’s only had a total of six hours sleep in the past few days, Merlin cannot drop off. Knowing that his work will soon suffer if this keeps up, he resigns himself to phone his physician the following day to find out if there’s anything he can take with his new medicine that might help him to get some sleep.

                                                                                                            ~~~000~~~

 

“You look like something out of a zombie movie,” Arthur notes the next morning as they head out to work. Merlin has suggested carpooling, but that would mean that Arthur would have to cut down on his sixteen hour work days, and he’s just not willing to do that.

“I’m not sleeping well,” Merlin tells him, and Arthur can see the circles under the other man’s eyes. He’s thought he’s heard him up and about at night.

“Do you think it’s the flat?” Arthur asks hesitantly.

Merlin frowns. “Why would it be the flat?”

Arthur shrugs and gets into his car. “No reason.” But he still wonders. Perhaps living in Arthur’s flat, with Arthur, isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep for some reason.

When Arthur sees Merlin in the lift later that day, he’s yawning. Merlin tells Arthur he saw his physician at lunch and was prescribed a sleep aid.

“I’m dead on my feet,” he admits. “I can’t wait to take it and sleep all night.”

In the back of his mind, Arthur realizes this is the first conversation he’s ever had in the lift that didn’t involve statistics or ratios or directions to the rest rooms. “Do you think you can make it the rest of the day?” he asks Merlin.

“Of course,” Merlin scoffs.

After Arthur witnesses Merlin running into a door, he tells him he has to go home, and then insists upon driving him. This means that for the first time in Arthur’s life, he leaves work early.

He helps Merlin into bed, pretending he isn’t affected as he removes Merlin’s clothes piece by piece, slowly revealing pale skin covering toned muscle, some of it sprinkled with soft, dark hair. The naked men all over the walls judge Arthur, their beautiful bodies comfortable in their sexuality in a way that Arthur has never been.

“Wait, I shouldn’t nap…” Merlin says groggily. “If I do, I might not be able to sleep tonight.”

“But you haven’t taken the medication,” Arthur tells him. “So you can nap, and then take it before bed and have a good night’s sleep. I promise I’ll wake you if you sleep over an hour. What do you want for dinner? I’ll cook.”

Merlin blinks up at him, impossibly appealing in his guilelessness. “I’ll eat anything,” he says, yawning. “Thanks, Arthur. You’re not odd at all.” He drifts off to sleep.

Arthur raises a brow. Okay. He turns to leave, glancing at Scabbers peeking out of his little round igloo inside his tank. He’s a cute little hamster—all black like a little bear. Arthur smiles and heads to his room, shedding his clothes methodically, putting the socks and underwear in the dirty clothes hamper, the shirt in the pile that goes to the dry cleaners, and the suit on hangers in the closet, keeping the creases perfectly aligned because that’s the way his father’s butler taught him to do it before Arthur went off to uni. He then goes to the bathroom and showers, because he always showers when he gets home.

Once dressed in track pants and a T-shirt, Arthur goes to the pantry and looks through it for something to make for dinner.

“What do you think, girls?” he asks his plants. “Pasta?” He narrows his eyes at Polly, his pothos plant. “You need a trim. I’ll take care of that as soon as I can. Right now I’ve got to make dinner for Merlin.” The words warm Arthur, and he immediately feels silly. Still, he can’t help humming as he puts water on to boil. It’s been a while since Arthur’s cooked for more than one, but he thinks he’s got the right amount. Better to over guess, he tells himself. They can always have left-overs later. He grins as he imagines actually saving food—he usually just has single servings.

He continues chatting to his plants as he puts together a home-made sauce that Cook taught him to make growing up in the mansion. He used to come home from his posh private school and watch her work in the kitchen.

“Smells wonderful,” Merlin says from behind him some time later, making Arthur squawk in surprise and throw the dish towel in the air. It lands on his head.

Merlin laughs. “Sorry.”

Face pink and sweaty from the steam, Arthur wipes it off with the towel, smiling sheepishly.

“You awake already?” Arthur asks Merlin needlessly.

“I think that wonderful smell woke me up,” Merlin is inspecting the pots, all rumpled and delicious-looking in his tight boxer briefs. Wait. Delicious?

“May I?” Merlin asks, and it takes Arthur a second to figure out that Merlin’s talking about tasting the sauce.

“Oh, sure.” Arthur holds out the spoon, and Merlin leans in. “Careful…it’s hot.”

“Mmm…” Merlin rolls his eyes back in his head. “Wow. Some girl’s going to be lucky to get you.”

Arthur blinks. He turns and takes the pan of sauce off the hob.

“I’ll get the plates, yeah? You want me to throw together a salad? I’m pretty good at chopping,” Merlin offers.

“Sure,” Arthur says, and watches out of the corner of his eye as Merlin bends over and grabs greens out of the refrigerator drawer, his eyes lingering on the way Merlin’s pants pull across his pert, round bum. Arthur loves small bums. He has a real thing for them. Being firmly in the closet as he is, he hasn’t had a lot of experience with men, but when he has ventured out, he’s always looked for tall, lean men with tight arses that are just a perfect handful. When Merlin straightens, Arthur quickly looks away, fumbling a little as he grabs the cutting board and a knife.

“Thanks,” Merlin grins, taking them from him, and Arthur can feel the blush crawling up his face. He quickly buries himself in the lower cabinets, searching for a bowl to put the pasta in.

He’s not sure why his heart is suddenly fluttering in his chest like something gone crazy. It could be the intimacy he shared with Merlin when putting him to bed earlier, he supposes. More likely it was thinking about tight arses while staring at Merlin’s.  Well, it just needs to stop, he thinks. He’s not looking for a relationship. He isn’t. Not that kind of a relationship, anyway. Not when his father could so easily find out, and then where would Arthur be? Disinherited, most likely. What he needs is a friend, for now. He’ll worry about his sexuality later.

Merlin makes delicious, albeit slightly rude, slurping noises when he eats spaghetti, and Arthur finds himself enthralled with watching someone enjoying his cooking so much. He has to admit, he’s really outdone himself. He doesn’t think his sauce has ever turned out this good, and the garlic bread he popped into the oven as an afterthought, sprinkled delicately with parsley just for looks, is divine. It covers Merlin’s lips like gloss.

Merlin has really nice lips for a man, which Arthur has noticed more than once. In his fairly limited experience with men, kissing isn’t at the top of his kink list, but Arthur suddenly imagines that kissing Merlin would be a sensual delight all in itself. And shit—he really needs to go on the pull.

Merlin effectively yanks Arthur out of his thoughts with an appreciative moan over the food. “This is so good, Arthur. God. Moving in with you is like the BEST thing that’s ever happened to me!”

Arthur’s lips quirk, and he feels himself going rosy all over. “Thanks?”

“I mean, this gorgeous flat, the low rent, and now this fabulous cooking! If there’s ever anything I can do for you, anything! Just let me know.”

Arthur stills, fork hanging over his plate. He’s suddenly so hard he thinks if he moves a centimeter, his pants are sure to rip at the crotch. He knows his eyes are wide and staring, but he just can’t help it.

Merlin blinks. “Fuck, sorry Arthur—that really came out all wrong. I made you uncomfortable, didn’t I? Damn. Really sorry. My mouth is just crazy sometimes, runs off all on its own. Seriously, if you ever need me to run your suits to the cleaners, water your plants, clean the place—whatever. I’d be more than happy to.”

Arthur blinks, several really good fantasies dissolving in mid-air. Of course that’s what Merlin meant. Of course. He clears his throat and says it aloud. “Of course. I’ll…keep that in mind.”

Merlin grins and continues eating.

That night, Arthur lies awake for a long time. He leaves his door cracked, because he finds he likes to hear what Merlin’s doing, even if it’s just snoring. He’s lived so long on his own, Arthur just really enjoys having someone else in the flat. And that was the whole point of taking a flat-mate, wasn’t it? So he wouldn’t feel so alone? So he listens, and for a long time things are pretty quiet except for an occasional snort from the other room which usually heralds Merlin rolling over.

Arthur just can’t get to sleep. He starts to make plans to go on the pull. It’s been too long, and he needs this. One of the reasons he doesn’t do it very often is the fact that it’s important that he cover his tracks. He always travels at least fifty miles out of town, which doesn’t give him a lot of choices on where to go. Sometimes he wishes he had a lover tucked away somewhere that he could visit every now and then, but he’s never cultivated a relationship like that. The most he’s done is go to some obscure club and let some stranger suck him off in the toilets.

He allows himself a brief fantasy of paying Merlin’s rent somewhere and going to visit him on weekends to fuck his brains out. But, of course, that’s utterly ridiculous for a lot of reasons. Still, the thought of having Merlin as a secret lover tucked away somewhere as Arthur’s and Arthur’s alone is both comforting and erotic.

He hears rustling from the next room; Merlin is getting up. Arthur’s surprised, because he really thought Merlin was in a deep sleep. He listens to soft footsteps padding into the kitchen and the sound of a cabinet opening and closing. Then suddenly Merlin stands in Arthur’s doorway.

“Merlin?” Arthur rises onto his elbows. In the small glow from the night light, he sees that Merlin is holding a box of chocolate digestives. “Are you really hungry after that big meal?”

Merlin doesn’t answer. He’s staring rather blankly ahead of him. Arthur sits up, watching as Merlin comes forward to sit on the edge of Arthur’s bed.

“Merlin?” Arthur says again, concerned. That’s when Arthur realizes that Merlin is still asleep; he’s sleep-walking.

Raising his hand, Arthur waves it in front of Merlin’s face. Merlin doesn’t blink, his eyes fixed on some faraway spot. Scrambling off his bed, Arthur takes Merlin by the hand and gently tugs. “Come on, back to your room with you.” Merlin stands obediently, allowing Arthur to lead him back into his bedroom and nudge him into bed. Arthur takes the box of digestives back to the kitchen.

How strange. He wonders if Merlin’s ever sleep-walked before, and if he should tell him about it. Would it embarrass Merlin? Make him feel like a burden? Arthur doesn’t want anything to make Merlin feel he should move out. He goes back to bed, deciding that he won’t mention it.

~~~ooo~~~

Merlin gets the best night’s rest he has had in quite a while, and he’s chipper at work the following day. As a result, things go smoothly, he gets more done, and the sun seems to shine upon him. He even gets a call from Mordred, asking him out Friday night. It’s a good thing, too, since living with Arthur Perfect-Arse Pendragon is making him horny as hell. He still can’t believe he said to him what he did the night before—offering to do absolutely anything for him. Sheesh, even completely open-minded straight guys have their limits, Merlin. Having gay men blatantly throw sexual favors in their faces couldn’t be comfortable. But Arthur’s so nice and polite, he’d never say anything about it. Merlin only hopes he’s forgiven for it, and he swears he’s not going to make that stupid mistake again.

No, he’ll fuck Mordred’s brains out and get Arthur out of his system. Mordred’s good for that, and that’s pretty much what their relationship is, anyway. A decent friendship with benefits. Mordred’s a real artist-type, and a bit flamboyant. He’s also a noisy bottom who can really get Merlin’s blood boiling when he wants to.

Merlin’s all in all in a terrific mood that evening, and he decides to have dinner ready for Arthur whenever he drags himself home from his ungodly work hours. Gwen had actually called Merlin the night before, slightly panicked because Arthur had disappeared from the office, since he never does that. Absolutely never. When Merlin told her that Arthur left early to escort him home because Merlin wasn’t feeling well, then cooked Merlin dinner, Gwen was silent on the phone for so long, Merlin thought they’d been disconnected.

“He has never left this office before eight o’clock,” she finally stated. “In a whole year. He’s taken to letting me come in late on the day’s he needs me to stay late with him, but the security guard tells me he absolutely never leaves earlier than that, no matter what, and he never has, even before I worked here.”

“He does seem to be a bit of a workaholic,” Merlin admitted to her. “He needs someone to take care of him.”

“Is that someone you?” Gwen’s voice became a bit coy, then, if Merlin remembers correctly.

“What? Well, er, maybe in a way. I mean, I am his flat-mate, and I can at least remind him to take care of himself.”

“I think that’s sweet, Merlin,” Gwen told him, all soft and cooey. Merlin chose to ignore what she may have been implying, since surely she knows it’s ridiculous and is just being a girl.

“That’s me—sweet Merlin.”

Now Merlin thinks that he’ll make Arthur a good meal, make sure he eats it, and then perhaps drop a hint that it’s okay to come home at a reasonable hour once in a while.

When Arthur arrives, he looks so worn out, Merlin feels sorry for him. Merlin helps Arthur take off his suit jacket, and Arthur gives him a look of real surprise and gratitude. Honestly, the man looks like he could keel over.

“You shouldn’t work so late all the time,” Merlin tells him, following Arthur down the hall, his jacket in his hands.

“I just didn’t sleep well last night. I’ll be fine tomorrow,” Arthur replies.

“Do you really have so much work to do at the office?” Merlin asks curiously from the doorway, watching as Arthur slips off his shoes and puts them carefully in the closet.

“When I don’t, I usually go over old reports. When Father decides to step down, I need to be ready.”

“Is that what you were doing tonight? Going over company business?” Merlin asks, walking in and taking a hanger from Arthur’s closet. He aligns Arthur’s suit coat on it and puts it carefully on the rail.

Arthur nods, lifting one foot at a time to strip his socks off and toss them in the hamper. “That, and talking to Father. He’s lined up a date for me this Friday with someone’s daughter.”

Arthur sounds less than thrilled, but Merlin already feels weird for standing in Arthur’s room for so long while he’s changing, so he doesn’t say anything except, “Well, when you’re hungry, I’ve got dinner in the oven.” He goes back into the kitchen to check on it, wondering why Uther Pendragon is arranging dates for his son. Perhaps he, too, has noticed what a hermit Arthur is and wants to get him out and about. Merlin hears the shower go on, and goes about setting the table.

When Arthur appears in his navy cotton pyjama bottoms that ride just low enough to show the tops of his hip bones, his hair damp and slicked back on his head, Merlin has the chicken casserole out of the oven and is spooning some onto two plates.

“I hope you like your food cooked together like this,” Merlin says. “It’s easy and about all I know how to do.”

Arthur smiles tiredly. “I do, but I’d eat anything right now, I’m so hungry.” He sits down and tucks in as soon as Merlin sets it before him, pausing only now and then to make appreciative noises and add salt and pepper. Merlin eats a little more leisurely, as he’s been tasting as he cooked, watching Arthur out of the corner of his eye. Never a huge conversationalist on the best of days, Arthur is exceptionally quiet this night.

“Does your father have good taste in women?” Merlin finally asks, no longer able to hold in his curiosity.

Arthur’s brow goes up. “Pardon?” he takes a sip of water. Merlin’s noticed that Arthur almost always finishes everything on his plate before he drinks, and he always drinks water, no ice.

“You said he’s fixed you up with someone for Friday, but you didn’t look pleased,” Merlin reminds him.

“Oh,” Arthur nods. “Yes, well. Usually they aren’t too bad, I suppose. It’s just…uncomfortable. I don’t like blind dates.”

“Then why don’t you tell him to stop?” Merlin asks.

Arthur finishes his water and sets the glass down. “Father would like to see me married.” Arthur’s dark blue gaze is unwavering.

“And you…don’t like that idea?” Merlin guesses.

“Right,” Arthur affirms. He stands, clearing their plates. “That was a wonderful meal, Merlin, thank you so much. I believe I’ll go to bed now.”

Merlin watches as Arthur rinses off the dishes and loads the small dishwasher before heading into his bedroom, leaving the door ajar. He imagines Arthur curling up in that tight ball, protecting himself even in sleep, and feels a yearning he can’t define.

~~~ooo~~~

Arthur wakes, his bladder full of the water he’d consumed just before falling asleep. As he makes his way to the bathroom, he catches sight of something in the hallway. Peering out his door, Arthur’s surprised to see Merlin standing there, his hair sticking up on his head, socks on his feet, his pyjama bottoms riding low, and a very blank look on his face.

“Merlin?”

When Merlin doesn’t answer, Arthur takes him by the hand and leads him back to his bed, tucking him under the covers. He watches as Merlin immediately settles down, nuzzling into the pillow. He then turns to peek at Scabbers, who is eating out of his trough. Arthur goes to the bathroom and gets back in his own bed, curling into a comma and facing the wall, the way he’s slept for as long as he can remember. He closes his eyes. He’s just beginning to drift off when the covers around him lift, and suddenly Merlin is in the bed with him, snuggling up to Arthur’s back. Arthur stiffens, not knowing what to do. He can tell that Merlin’s asleep; his breathing is even, his body relaxed against him, and his arm heavy over Arthur’s hip.

Arthur finds that he really likes the way it feels to have someone pushed up against him in bed this way. He’s never slept with anyone before—his sexual conquests have not been of the over-night variety. When Arthur was growing up, his father never permitted sleep-overs, not that Arthur had very many friends anyway. He stares at the wall of his dim room, listening to Merlin’s exhalations, and slowly Arthur’s body begins to relax. The gentle puffs of air lull him into a semi-sleep state, and Arthur knows that if he’s going to get Merlin back into his own bed, he needs to do it now. But he’s comfortable, and would it really hurt to sleep for just a little while? His eyelids grow heavy and he blinks.

Before he knows it, the birdsong that Arthur has set as his mobile alarm fills the room, and the space beside him is empty. For a moment, Arthur wonders if he dreamed it all, but then he throws the duvet back and sees Merlin’s white sock tucked deep inside the covers. Arthur fishes it out, finding himself smiling.

His good mood lasts the entire day. Merlin doesn’t mention the fact that he inexplicably woke up in Arthur’s bed, and Arthur doesn’t give him a clue that he knows that it happened. Merlin casts him a few furtive glances until he seems sure that Arthur isn’t going to say anything, and then things go on as usual.

As Arthur sips tea in the break room, watching as employees walk in, stutter in their gait as they spot him, smile disingenuously before getting their coffee or tea, then make a hasty exit, he wonders if Merlin will continue to sleep-walk, and if he does, if he will get into Arthur’s bed again.

Arthur knows that he can’t allow Merlin to sleep with him every night. What will Merlin think of him if he does? Even if Arthur manages to feign no knowledge of it, Merlin will begin to feel that he has to lock himself in his room, or worse—move out—due to being an inconvenience. He worries his bottom lip as he realizes that he will either have to lead Merlin back to his own bed every time it happens, or he’ll have to alert Merlin of the problem, assure him that it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, and then help him to solve it.

He looks up from his tea when someone else enters the room, a shy smile lighting his eyes when he sees that it’s Merlin.

“Well, hello,” Merlin says, grinning at him in that way that makes Arthur feel somehow special. “Sloughing off fairly early this morning, aren’t we?”

We being the operative word, Merlin,” Arthur replies with mock disdain. “Although I am your superior, and am therefore permitted to use the break room to ….brainstorm. You, however, are obviously using it to goof off.”

“Au contraire, I use it to fortify my undernourished frame.” Merlin opens the refrigerator and takes out a yogurt. “Haven’t you noticed that I am continually in a state of hunger and cold? That’s because blood doesn’t circulate well through stick figures.” He opens the top, licks off the excess yogurt, and tosses it in the bin. Arthur regards Merlin’s lean body in his very snug-fitting dress pants and button-down shirt, thinking he’s never seen a man look less like a stick.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin,” he scowls, and Merlin laughs.

“Actually,” he continues, “I’m watching people lose their ability to walk properly when they see me sitting here.”

“What do you mean?” Merlin frowns.

Gwen walks in at that moment, faltering in her steps when she spots Arthur, then regaining her composure quickly. “Hello, just getting a cuppa, won’t be a minute.”

Arthur raises his brow at Merlin, and Merlin winces.

“Take your time, Gwen,” Arthur replies, sipping his tea.

Merlin makes a face. “So I’m goofing off, but she should take her time?” he asks.

“Gwen works much harder than you do, I’m sure,” Arthur answers.

Gwen quirks a smile as she pours her coffee. “I’m sure Merlin does something other than the daily crossword,” she says, and Merlin cringes.

“Oi, get me fired and kicked out of my posh living arrangements, why don’t you? Some friend you are! I have half a mind to tell Lance you’re cheating on him with some Italian artist!”

“He’d never believe it,” Gwen replies with certainty, leaning against the counter and sipping her coffee. Arthur notices she isn’t immediately escaping, and happiness kindles in his chest, only to have it immediately crushed by Gwen’s next words.

“Speaking of artists, don’t you have a date with one Friday night, Merlin?”

“Only if you mean a one-off with Mordred,” Merlin laughs, spooning out the last of the yogurt and licking the spoon. Arthur averts his gaze. “He and I will never be anything serious. He’s too—flighty.”

He’s flighty?” Gwen chuckles. “Wow. Then what do you call what you are?”

Merlin looks affronted. “I’m not flighty!”

Gwen gives him a look.

“Well, not when I’m on my meds, I’m not,” Merlin says. “Thanks, Arthur, by the way, for reminding me to take them this morning.”

“Case in point,” Gwen says, smiling. “Seriously, Merlin, you’re right--you could use someone with a good head on their shoulders, not a twit like Mordred.”

Merlin just shakes his head.

Arthur rises from his chair and rinses out his cup. Gwen takes that as her cue to leave, and Merlin crosses to the sink to wash his hands.

“So you have a date Friday night, too?” Arthur asks casually.

“Mordred plans to stop by, if that’s okay?” Merlin says. “I know you’re going out.”

“Yes, of course,” Arthur replies briskly. “Well. I’ll see you at home tonight.” He leaves the room, feeling decidedly less chipper than he did earlier, although he’s not sure why that should be. Of course Merlin’s going to have dates. The fact that he’s got one with a man who paints other men in the nude, and that he’s termed it a “one-off,” which screams sex, and he’s going to be having it in the flat where Arthur has to live and breathe and think is neither here nor there.

He grumbles to himself as he walks down the hall, even sneering at a couple of new employees getting the tour of the building from human resources, just to enforce the obviously written-in-stone fact that the CEO’s son is a prat, and odd, and definitely not worth knowing.

~~~OOO~~~

Uther’s taste in women for his son has not improved at all. Violet is ten years older than Arthur, owns her own cosmetic business and therefore speaks of nothing else, wears large, clunky shoes that match her large, clunky glasses, and snorts in a large, clunky way when she laughs. Which is a lot and usually at very inappropriate times, such as when their waiter has a sudden, severe asthma attack and an ambulance has to be called.

Arthur can’t wait to be rid of her, and the bustle of the emergency gives him the perfect chance, allowing him to fake a phone call and inform her he has to leave.

When he lets himself into his flat, he’s forgotten all about Merlin’s date until he sees the half-empty wine bottle on the coffee table, the open sketch book on the sofa, and the trail of clothing leading to Merlin’s bedroom. Arthur stands very still in the living room, unsure of what to do next. After a moment, he shrugs, thinking, this is my flat, sits down, and takes a swig of wine from the bottle. He picks up the sketch pad.

On the first page is a half-drawn pencil sketch of Merlin lounging on the couch, fully-clothed, thank God, although his shirt is rakishly unbuttoned to mid-chest. He has a bemused, rather indulgent look on his face. It’s rather good, having captured something more than just Merlin’s exterior beauty; there’s a spark to his eyes as well, and a mischievous quirk to his mouth. Arthur flips to the next one and recognizes Gwaine in various nude poses. Arthur tilts his head, admiring. Gwaine has a very nice physique, although something about his personality puts Arthur off a bit. He’s only been around once or twice since the day he helped Merlin move in, and Arthur has barely spoken with him, but Gwaine has openly ogled Arthur each time, letting it be known exactly what is on his mind and that it’s quite filthy.

Arthur bites his lip. His unfortunate evening with Violet only served to underline the need for him to get away for a one-off with a man as soon as possible. For just a moment, he considers venturing from his safe cocoon and maybe peeking out of the closet. What would happen if Merlin knew Arthur is gay? He’s sure that Merlin wouldn’t tell Uther or anyone if Arthur asked him not to, but Arthur isn’t ready. Just thinking about it sends tendrils of fear through his bowels. No, he’d rather just keep this part of him to himself and remain safe.

A sudden loud moan from the back of the flat has Arthur sitting up straight, eyes wide.

“Ooh! Oh, GAWD, Merlin, yes!” a male voice, slightly effeminate, pleads. “Give it to me, yes! Harder….oooooh.”

Heat washes over Arthur’s body. He takes several large gulps of wine. It’s sour and rather cheap, but finishing off the bottle gives him the slight buzz he’s looking for.

A dirty laugh from behind the wall, and then, “Yeah, Merls, deeper…you’re hitting it! Harder like that, harder, harder! Oh, Lawdy, boy, you can fuck!”

Holy shit! Arthur grabs hold of his crotch, squeezing it tightly, willing away the images filling his head.

A low murmur from Merlin that Arthur can’t make out.

“Oh, you know you love it!” Mordred (Arthur assumes) retorts brokenly before gasping and crying out. Arthur thanks heaven that Merlin’s climax is more muted, or Arthur knows for certain he’ll come in his trousers right there on the couch. He gets up and quickly escapes to his bedroom and shower, hoping the two men will think he missed all the noise.

Arthur enters the kitchen twenty minutes later dressed in his pyjama bottoms and a red T-shirt, having spent longer in the shower than normally necessary, to find a strange man (strange being the operative word) sitting on the counter eating leftover coconut pie from the tin.

“Hell-o!” the man says with obvious interest in his large, blue eyes. Dressed only in a pair of lime-green bikini briefs, Mordred is apparently very comfortable in his body. He’s quite appealing, being another version of Arthur’s “type,” dark and thin. He pushes his tussled dark hair off his boyish face. “You must be Arthur, the flat-mate.” Mordred shamelessly flutters long, dark lashes. “I’m Mordred.”

“A pleasure,” Arthur replies smoothly, business persona on to cover his decided discomfort at the encounter, reaching out to shake Mordred’s proffered hand.

Mordred takes the opportunity to give Arthur a yank, pulling him close so that he stands in the V of the artist’s legs.

“You’re a handsome bloke,” Mordred tells him, smiling and licking the white bits of pie off his lips.

“Thank you,” Arthur replies formally, trying to politely extract himself from Mordred’s grip. He manages to free his hand only to have Mordred’s legs tighten about Arthur’s middle.

“Hey, where are you going? I want to get to know you better. Ever sat for an artist before?”

Mordred’s breath is sweet with coconut, and Arthur tries very hard not to think about what Merlin has been doing with him.

“Er, no, I haven’t…where’s Merlin?” Arthur looks over his shoulder before giving Mordred a shove and moving away from him.

“Ooo…aggressive, I like that!” Mordred says, righting himself from his topple against the cabinet and jumping down from the counter. “Merlin’s asleep. I wore the poor baby out.” Mordred follows Arthur into the living room. “He just doesn’t have the stamina that I have. Must be because I’m two years younger and live such a clean life. What? No more wine left?”

Arthur turns around to find Mordred holding the bottle with a petulant look on his soft features. Mordred’s eyes flick to Arthur’s, sad and puppyish. It’s impossible not to like him; he’s so ridiculous. “So you say you’ve never sat for an artist? Would you like to sit for me? I’d love to draw you!”

Arthur shifts uncomfortably, his toes digging into the plush cream-colored carpeting. “You mean now?”

“No time like the present,” Mordred states, scooping up his sketch book and throwing things about until he finds his pencils under the sofa. Meanwhile, his lush, plump arse (slightly plumper than Arthur prefers) pokes up for Arthur to admire. “Here, lie back against these cushions. There, no like that. Okay—mind taking your shirt off? Are you shy? How sweet!”

Arthur growls at the man’s baiting and wiggles out of his T-shirt, tossing it onto the floor.

“Growling like a bear…I love it!” Mordred laughs softly, running his hand over Arthur’s shoulders and repositioning his arms a bit. Arthur bites his lips and holds back a shiver.

“Oh, my…what a nice chest you have,” Mordred murmurs, perching on top of the chair adjacent to the sofa, wide, blue eyes moving from Arthur to his sketch book and back again as his hand skims restlessly over the paper. “Nice, wide shoulders, great pecs, just a dusting of hair…those abs, yummy. Love the hip bones…I’d like to bite them.”

Arthur feels his face reddening under Mordred’s close scrutiny and running commentary. Bite them?

“My dick’s getting hard just drawing you; that’s a good sign,” Mordred purrs, and Arthur has no idea what to say to that, so he remains quiet, watching the other man work. “You are sex on legs, boy!” Mordred exclaims after a moment, erasing something and then filling in, smudging the lines a little with his thumb.

Arthur raises a brow. No one’s ever called him that before.

“Hope you don’t mind that I’m using my imagination a bit with this,” Mordred says as Merlin walks into the room, rubbing his eyes. He’s wearing a pair of black pyjama bottoms and a white T-shirt, and Arthur thinks he looks invitingly rumpled.

“Mordred?” Merlin stops when he sees Arthur. “Arthur—hi, I didn’t know you got back. Shit, is Mordred bothering you?”

“I’m not a child, Merls,” Mordred scolds, tilting his head and continuing to draw. “It’s not like I scampered into Arthur’s bed and woke him up. He came into the kitchen while I was finishing off the pie, we talked, and he agreed to let me sketch him. There, I’m finished. What do you think, Merlin?”

Merlin looks over his shoulder. “Mordred! You sketched him nude!” Merlin looks abashed, and Arthur finds himself very, very curious.

Mordred smiles brightly, handing the sketch pad over to Arthur, who leans forward to take it, blushing furiously when he sees that Mordred has indeed drawn him sans pyjama pants, a rather accurate version of his cock emerging from a nest of curls between his legs. It makes him feel things he hasn’t felt before. Not just desire, although he does feel that. He feels like…he belongs. He feels part of something. For just a moment, Arthur actually thinks he experiences what it’s like to be a gay man in the company of other gay men, and he likes it. He really does.

“You’ve embarrassed him!” Merlin admonishes.

“It’s fine,” Arthur says quickly. “It’s a nice picture. May I have it?”

“Well…sure,” Mordred tells him. “I was going to keep it for wanking purposes, but I guess that’s alright.”

Merlin smacks Mordred so hard he yelps. Arthur carefully rips the page out of the book and gets up quickly, saying his goodnights while heading for his bedroom. He hears Merlin fiercely whisper, “Good one, idiot! You’ve made him uncomfortable. Bugger, Mordred, Arthur’s straight!”

“Straight! I’d bet my best butt plug he’s gayer than cum on a mustache!”

Arthur shuts his door quietly, leaning on it and looking over the sketch. In it, he looks relaxed and well…sexy. He’s sitting with one knee raised and looking directly forward, although Arthur doesn’t remember having that smoldering look on his face as Mordred drew him, although he had been a bit worked up, what with Mordred talking about biting hipbones and such. He puts the picture in the top drawer of his dresser and climbs into bed.

~~~OOO~~~

“Arthur you left her at the restaurant,” Uther Pendragon’s voice carries out into the hall where several employees have stopped to listen. Merlin is embarrassed for Arthur. Arthur’s voice is low enough that it can’t be heard through the office door, but Uther’s anger is real and it is loud.

Merlin takes out his mobile and sends a quick text to Gwen to see if she can do something about the matter.

“There was no emergency, and you and I both know it! Arthur, Violet Cummings is a delightful woman with many fine attributes, two of them quite up front and obvious! Any man with blood flowing in his veins would have taken her home to bed!”

Merlin’s eyes widen, and he looks around him at the shocked and amused expressions on his coworkers’ faces. Some are tittering into their hands. Merlin knows that he’s just as guilty of standing there listening, but Merlin walking off at the moment isn’t going to lead anyone else away, and he’d like to know how much damage control needs to be done. Gwen sends him a text that she’s tried to call Arthur to get him out of there, but he doesn’t answer.

“Do not shush me, Arthur, I am your father and the CEO of this company. You know, I wouldn’t be setting you up with these women that you seem to abhor if you would find your own dates, but you don’t do that, do you? And why exactly is that, Son? Perhaps that’s what we should be talking about here…”

Merlin doesn’t think, he just reacts. Trying to look as casual as possible, he eyes the growing crowd of eavesdropping, snickering employees with disdain, straightens his suit, and takes off down the hall at as casual a pace as possible considering his agitation. As soon as he’s turned the corner and is out of sight, Merlin makes a b-line for the landing and what he’s looking for.

Minutes later, crowds of Pendragon employees file out onto the pavement in confusion while fire alarms blare throughout the building.

“Merlin, what did you do?” Gwen hisses into his ear when she finds him at the kerb.

“What are you talking about?” he hisses back. He grabs her elbow and drags her to the pavement.

Uther Pendragon struts about, yelling at people, demanding to know where the fire is, his mobile pressed to his reddened face. Merlin doesn’t see Arthur anywhere.

“You’re really crazy, you know that?” Gwen asks, but her voice is soft and her expression gentle.

“Still don’t know what you’re talking about,” Merlin says looking about. Sirens in the distance alert them that the fire brigade’s on its way. Finally Merlin spots Arthur coming out of the building with the company’s VP, Cenred Murick. They look perplexed, as they should be, since there is no fire.

All in all, they’re outside on the pavement for almost an hour while the fire department goes through the building.  Merlin begins to get the sinking feeling that he’s done something he meant to be good, but that was really very bad. Like the time when he was eight and he wanted his old maid teacher to have a husband, so he invited all the eligible bachelors in the neighborhood to a Getting Miss Franks a Husband party. He still shudders when he thinks about it.

“Oh, Merlin,” Gwen breathes, shaking her head as they finally surge back into the building.

“Don’t say it,” he replies glumly.

The shit doesn’t hit the fan as fast as Merlin expects. He actually gets to go home that night and worry about it for a while. Arthur is late, as usual, and Merlin’s stomach sinks when Arthur immediately appears in Merlin’s bedroom doorway wearing a very odd look on his face. Arthur comes to sit on the edge of Merlin’s bed.

“It’s all right, Arthur,” Merlin saves him the trouble. “I know I’m fired. And I’ll look for another flat immediately.” Merlin just hopes he can hold off bursting into tears until Arthur gets out of the room. He really didn’t mean for any of this to happen.

“Merlin, why would you set off the fire alarm?” Arthur asks quietly, looking down at his clasped hands.

“It was stupid, I know. I do things without thinking sometimes. I was only trying to help, Arthur.” Merlin is miserable.

Arthur looks at him then, perplexed and maybe, Merlin thinks, a little bit angry. “Help? How could breaking the glass and raising the fire alarm possibly help anything? Merlin, you do know it’s against the law, not to mention…”

Merlin pales. Another something he didn’t think out. “Am I to be arrested then?”

Arthur huffs. “Of course you aren’t going to be arrested, Merlin, on your first offense you’d probably just be fined, and besides, I destroyed the security footage! Now I want you to tell me why you did it!”

Merlin’s mouth falls open. Arthur destroyed the film from the security camera? “Arthur, why?”

“Because it was a damn fool thing to do, and I want to hear your explanation!” Arthur is clearly exasperated.

“No,” Merlin shakes his head. “I mean, why did you destroy the footage of me breaking the glass and pushing the button? You didn’t have to.”

“Or course I had to, Merlin,” Arthur says slowly, “otherwise you’d be in big trouble.”

Merlin stares at Arthur a moment, unable to fathom that Arthur has really done this for him.  It truly embarrasses Merlin to tell Arthur why he did what he did, but it seems he really has no choice.

He licks his lips and says, “I did it to get you out of your father’s office. I heard the things he was saying to you about your date. I tried having Gwen call you first, but you wouldn’t answer. I just reacted on instinct, and it was really stupid. I’m sorry.”

Arthur stares at Merlin for several long moments, brows lowered. “You evacuated our building to get me out of a tongue-lashing from my father?” he finally asks, clearly perplexed.

Merlin shakes his head. “No, I did it because your father’s loud mouth had drawn a sizable crowd in the hallway and everyone was listening in on your business. I couldn’t stand it, Arthur. They had no right.”

A myriad of expressions pass over Arthur’s face while Merlin waits. After what seems like a very long time, Arthur finally breathes out a long sigh and stands up. “I see,” he says, looking anywhere rather than directly at Merlin. “Well, I thank you, for your quick thinking.” Arthur sounds as though he’s addressing a board room. “Perhaps in the future you should avoid measures that put you on the wrong side of the law. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to get you out of the mess next time.”

“Yes, I will do,” Merlin agrees, feeling so much better than he had just half an hour previously, even if Arthur was acting a bit odd. He watches Arthur leave the room and listens as he goes about his evening ritual of hanging up his suit and taking a shower. It’s been a difficult day, but Merlin can’t say that he regrets what he did, since it didn’t cost him his job or his friendship with Arthur. And ultimately, Merlin’s glad he was able to keep gossip about Arthur to a minimum at Pendragon. It must be horribly embarrassing for Arthur to have his father fixing him up with awful women and pointing out things like their big breasts to him. It’s obvious to Merlin that Arthur just wants to be left alone. And Arthur has a very undeserved reputation at work as a pompous arse that if Merlin can’t exactly find a way to dispel, he certainly wants to prevent being contributed to if possible.

Merlin reaches into his nightstand drawer and gets out his prescription sleeping pill, taking one tablet with a sip from his water bottle. Turning out the light, he nestles down into his covers and closes his eyes.

~~~000~~~

Arthur is awake when Merlin walks into his room around midnight, Merlin’s eyes open, but his senses deeply asleep. When he crawls into bed with Arthur, Arthur scoots back, making room for him, moving to face him rather than getting into his normal sleeping position facing the wall. He studies Merlin, who has already closed his eyes.

“That was the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” Arthur whispers into the quiet room. “I wish I was as brave as you are.”

Merlin’s exhalations are deep and even, and Arthur watches his chest move under his white undershirt.

“I wish I could be openly gay and do as I want,” Arthur continues. “I wish I could stand up to my father and tell him the truth—that I don’t want to be with these women he keeps setting me up with.” He studies Merlin’s face, calm and child-like in slumber. “Inviting you to move in here is the bravest thing I’ve done to date, Merlin. And I don’t regret it. I hope you don’t regret it, either, because it’s not going to take you long to figure out that I’m not a lot of fun, and sometimes I’m a real pillock.”

Arthur sighs. “I suppose I should also admit that I like it when you get into my bed like this, and I’m not going to lead you back to your own anymore. You’re going to have to get up and go if you want to. I don’t know what runs through your mind when you wake up and find yourself in here, but I guess I’m just a selfish prick. Once you’re in here, I don’t want you to leave.” Arthur closes his eyes and lets himself fall asleep to the sound of Merlin’s breathing.

~~~0000~~~

“I’m telling you, Lance, this is twice I’ve woken up in Arthur’s bed!” Merlin says into his mobile, completely freaked out and in dire need of extra espresso. He’s standing in line at Starbuck’s, and that last bit gets him quite a few curious looks.

“And you have no idea how you got there?” Lance asks, even though Merlin’s already been over that already.

“That’s right.”

“And you’re both fully clothed?” Lance perseveres.

“Yes. We’re just lying side by side. Besides, I told you, Arthur’s straight.”

“Any chance you could be sleep-walking?” Lance asks, and Merlin thinks about this. He’s never done it before, but he guesses it’s possible.

“I honestly can’t think of any other explanation,” Merlin admits. “Other than aliens or Arthur himself carrying me in there.”

“What does Arthur think?” Lance asks.

“I don’t think he even knows! I wake up first and go back to my room.”

“Well, you’re okay, then,” Lance replies.

“Yeah, until he’s the one that wakes up first.”

“Maybe you should tell him, mate. That way he won’t be surprised one morning when it happens.”

“I don’t know. It’s so weird!”

“I’m just saying.”

“It’s my turn in line. Got to go.” Merlin ends the call and orders the coffee. On a whim, he orders a second one for Arthur and takes it to his office.

He knocks lightly on the door with his knuckles, and when Arthur looks up from his paperwork, he’s wearing glasses with black rims that Merlin thinks give him a sexy, scholarly look. For probably the fiftieth time since he’s moved in with the man, Merlin fervently wishes Arthur Pendragon were gay.

“I brought you some Starbucks,” he tells Arthur, moving inside the room to place the cup on Arthur’s desk.

“Thanks,” Arthur smiles, looking genuinely pleased. “That was very nice of you.”

Merlin shrugs. “No big deal. I just thought of you, that’s all. Plus you were so great about…you know.”

Arthur nods, not wanting to say anything out loud there in the office about the false fire alarm and Merlin’s part in it. He takes a sip of his coffee, and the next thing he says surprises Merlin so much, he almost chokes on his own drink.

“Your artist friend, Mordred? He called me just a while ago. He wants to know if he can paint me.”

“Oh, Arthur, I’m sorry he’s bothering you!” Merlin rushes to say.

“He’s not bothering me,” Arthur assures him. “I’m actually considering it. I like his art, and it’s just something—well, it’s just something I’d normally never consider doing, and I’d like to do it.”

“Really?” Merlin asks. “Because, well, you know…Mordred paints nudes.”

Arthur nods. “Yes, I’m aware of that. Mordred says I can have the painting, as long as he gets a copy for his portfolio.”

“Okay. Just making sure Mordred told you that important detail. So he wants you to come to his studio?”

“Yes. He said you’d take me one evening this week—show me where it is. Is that all right with you?”

“Sure. No problem there,” Merlin agrees. Arthur isn’t exactly the type that Merlin would imagine posing for Mordred, but at the same time, Merlin can’t help but imagine what a terrific model he would make. And he also thinks that it’s a good thing, Arthur attempting to step out of his comfort zone a little; he seems an uptight and private person in general, and that doesn’t seem to make him very happy.

That evening, when Merlin arrives home after having a few drinks with Gwen and Lance after work, he gets his third surprise of the day when he finds Arthur already home and asleep on the couch, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince playing on the DVD player. Sprawled on the couch, Arthur is wearing cotton pyjama pants and a T-shirt that says, I get sleazy for Ron Weasley. There is something singularly smoking hot about a man so comfortable in his sexuality that he would wear (even if only to bed) a blatantly homosexual statement that someone has obviously given him as a joke, and Merlin takes a moment to just admire the sight of Arthur, feet bare, shirt riding up to show toned abs, hair adorably mussed and pouty lips slightly parted in sleep, before spreading a throw over him and going to bed himself.

~~~ooo~~~

Arthur can’t believe he was careless enough to wear that particular T-shirt. Morgana had given it to him as a joke one year, after having teased him that he was enamored with the ginger-haired character on Harry Potter. Morgana has long suspected Arthur’s sexual preference, but the truth has never been spoken aloud between them. Arthur hopes that Merlin didn’t actually read his shirt when he stopped to cover Arthur up with the throw—and wasn’t that really sweet of him?

Merlin doesn’t say anything about it, so Arthur puts his worry aside, and after work the following day he and Merlin take a taxi to Mordred’s studio in Camberwell where he shares a flat in a converted Victorian with a bloke named Elyan, a student at Camberwell College of Arts. Arthur learns that Elyan is actually Gwen’s brother, and he’s a sculptor. Elyan and Merlin go off to discuss Elyan’s latest endeavor while Mordred shows Arthur his studio—a room with large windows that really should have been his bedroom, but Mordred explains the lighting is perfect so when he wants to get away from the fumes, he sleeps in the walk-in closet next door.

“What we artists do for our art!” Mordred says when Arthur looks appalled at Mordred’s sleeping in the closet. “Besides, it isn’t forever. One of these days I’m going to be able to afford my own studio. It’s my goal—I put away a little bit of money with every commission.”

Mordred, tanned from hours working in people’s gardens for a living, wears cut-off shorts and a grey tank top. His feet are bare, and his hair looks as though it hasn’t been combed in a few days. His blue eyes are bright and excited, and he walks about gesturing with a long, skinny cigarette as he shows Arthur his portfolio of nudes, and Arthur is truly impressed with them. The nervousness that’s mounted during the taxi ride over begins to melt away as Arthur realizes he’s made the right decision; Mordred is very talented, and Arthur desperately wants to do this. He just wants to belong to something like this even if it’s only for a little while. He wonders what Merlin thinks of it all. Why he imagines Arthur is really choosing to pose in the nude. As far as Merlin knows, Arthur is a straight, uptight businessman without much of a life.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Arthur feels the need to be something else for a while.

“I have this vision of you,” Mordred tells Arthur enthusiastically. “I see you with your hair mussed, like this,” he reaches out and tugs at Arthur’s hair until a large piece of it falls into Arthur’s eyes. And I want you sitting, one leg bent, the other sort of tucked under. Listen, I don’t mean to embarrass you, but since I’m going to paint you nude, I’d really like to see your body, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh.” Arthur wasn’t expecting this, but he supposes it’s only fair. Mordred is being all business, obviously very serious about his work. Arthur shrugs out of his suit coat and unbuttons his oxford shirt, kicking off his shoes at the same time. Mordred walks about, moving his easel and playing with the shades on the long windows until Arthur stands completely nude in the center of the room, trying not to feel like a slave at auction.

“Nice,” Mordred says, nodding his head and circling Arthur with a critical eye. “I’d love to get that arse in the painting, although that wasn’t what I had in mind at first. Hm. I may have to rethink this somewhat. Could you try this? Here, put your foot on this stool,” Mordred drags a high wooden stool over and sets it in front of Arthur. “I love the curves, here,” he runs a finger over Arthur’s bare thigh and arse cheek. “That is so beautiful; you can’t imagine. From this angle, I get a bit of your balls, too. Just a hint. Do you mind if I call Merlin and Elyan in and ask their opinion?”

Arthur flushes a bit at the thought, but he agrees, and Mordred calls to the two men to come into the studio while he continues to stare pensively at Arthur’s arse. Arthur can tell that Merlin doesn’t expect to find him nude when he walks into the room. He turns red all the way to the tips of his ears. Arthur wonders if Merlin finds him attractive at all; he can’t help it—his ego demands it. Merlin’s gay, and Arthur is naked. Does it turn him on? Just the thought makes him show off a little.

Mordred goes over what he’s thinking about with his friends, asking their opinion about the pose.

“I agree that his arse definitely needs to be in the picture,” Elyan says. “The human butt is a thing of beauty, and Arthur’s is exceptional, from an artistic viewpoint, of course.”

Arthur smiles. “Of course.”

“I don’t think the front package is as important,” Elyan concludes. “Merlin?”

Merlin seems to be thinking it over rather seriously. The tips of his ears are still red, but he studies Arthur from all angles, and Arthur knows that if it weren’t so awkward, he’d probably be getting hard from Merlin’s close scrutiny.

“You don’t have many pieces of men from behind, but I wouldn’t want to lose Arthur’s face, either,” Merlin finally says. “Have you considered having him lie down? Maybe like this…may I, Arthur?” Merlin moves to gently lead Arthur to a twin bed near the windows. Merlin positions Arthur on his stomach, raised on elbows, profile turned toward the artist.

“God, that’s perfect, Merlin,” Mordred breathes. “That arse just screams for a good fucking, doesn’t it?”

“Mordred!” Merlin scolds. “Oh, my God. Sorry, Arthur. Mordred doesn’t have a censor on his mouth.”

Arthur is torn between wanting to laugh and have a wank. He squeezes his eyes shut, and knows Merlin thinks he’s embarrassed.

“His jawline is beautiful, and this is the perfect angle to show it off,” Elyan comments.

Arthur listens to them discussing him, his chest slowly filling with the same warmth and camaraderie he experienced the night when Mordred sketched him. And that’s what he wants, what he yearns for, and in the end, why he’s doing this.

~~~ooo~~~

Seeing Arthur like that has given Merlin wank material to last him decades. Arthur’s arse is so sweet and plump, Merlin thinks he’d just like to bite into it. All he has to do is think of Arthur unclothed like that, and Merlin has an instant hard-on that won’t let up. He shares the experience with Gwaine one evening over a beer at an outside restaurant because he simply can’t hold it in any longer.

“Good God, why couldn’t I have been there?” Gwaine moans. “I’ll have to get Mordred to show me his preliminaries.” He taps a matchbook between his fingers on the table. “Only, have you ever stopped to wonder, why is a straight bloke willing to do this? Have you ever asked yourself that question? I mean, obviously, I did it because I’m gay and a shameful exhibitionist.” He strikes a match and lights his cigarette.

“Mordred’s had straight models before,” Merlin reminds him.

“Yeah, but if I remember correctly, they all did it for money and were a bit shier about taking their kit off in front of a bunch of poofs. You said Arthur just stripped off easy as you please.”

“Arthur wants to buy the painting himself. He likes art. And I think he’s trying to step out of his uptight persona and live a little,” Merlin informs Gwaine . “He’s really a great bloke when you get to know him. Not homophobic at all, obviously, since he’s welcomed me into his flat, but he’s even perfectly at home around Mordred, and you know what he’s like.”

“Yeah, I definitely do,” Gwaine replies. “Well, I told you my gaydar went off when I met Arthur. Did he come right out and tell you he’s straight?”

Merlin considers. “I don’t think so, but who does that? I mean, he doesn’t have to. He goes out with women.”

“Yeah, the ones his father sets him up with,” Gwaine points out.

“Well, I’m about to set him up with another one,” Merlin says, coming to what he’s had in the back of his mind. “Arthur’s father has terrible taste in women, and Arthur’s too shy to find his own. I’ve been thinking about introducing him to Elena.”

Gwaine considers this. “She’s a great person, and he’s definitely her type—all blond and toned and rich. But I still think you’ve got Arthur all wrong.”

“No, Gwaine, you do. If Arthur were gay, he’d have no reason to keep it from me, his openly gay flat-mate. He just hasn’t met the right woman yet, and the more I get to know him, the more I see that he’s really just a shy, repressed kind of person that has to be led out of his shell. So I’ll start bringing Elena around, and we’ll see if they get on. Which brings me to another matter…do you want to come to the dinner party that Mordred’s having this Friday night? He told me to ask you.”

“If there will be food, drinks, and hot guys, I’ll be there,” Gwaine answers, downing his pint.

“Good. Perhaps I’ll see if I can get Elena to come, and she can meet Arthur then.”

“You know, this is going to be a little uncomfortable for me. Don’t you remember that Elena and I used to date a bit before I decided I was more into men than women?”

“If I had to eliminate everyone you’ve experimented with, that would leave me with very few to choose from,” Merlin tells his friend with a wink. “I’m sure you’ll muddle through the embarrassment.”

Merlin doesn’t see a lot of Arthur that week because if his flat-mate isn’t working late, he’s over at Mordred’s posing for him. Merlin only wakes up one time in Arthur’s bed, and he’s able to sneak out and get back into his own room while Arthur’s still snoring away. It’s so odd opening his eyes and realizing he’s in someone else’s bed with a warm body beside him---Arthur’s warm body. He wants so much to reach out and touch Arthur. Being in such an intimate situation with Arthur really strengthens Merlin’s feelings for him. He’s already quite fond of the man.

On Friday night, Merlin meets Elena at a coffee shop mid-way between where she lives and Camberwell. She’s never been to Mordred’s, and since Merlin hasn’t seen Elena in a while, he wants to catch up with her a bit before they continue on there.

“So how have you been doing?” Merlin asks her after they get their coffees and sit down. Elena is blonde and pretty in an outdoorsy sort of way. She’s very open and friendly with a great sense of humor, and Merlin’s always got on well with her. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since you were dating Gwaine. Oh, except Sara’s party last June.”

“I’ve been good, Merlin,” Elena says. “I’ve missed you. I heard you moved out of Mr. K’s place.”

“Yeah. I drove the old guy crazy. But I’ve gotten on ADHD medicine since then, and my memory’s a lot better.”

“Really?” Elena asks, smiling. “That’s great! My cousin has ADHD and takes meds for it, but his make him so hyper he has to take something to sleep.”

“So do I!” Merlin tells her. “And now it may be making me sleep-walk.”

“I’ve heard that can happen.” Elena shoves a pastry in her mouth and licks her fingers. “It’s a side effect of some sleep meds. Do you like your new flat-mate?”

“Yeah, he’s great. You’ll meet him tonight. His name is Arthur, and he’s also my boss. The CEO’s son, that is. The flat is gorgeous. It’s got this view you wouldn’t believe. You’ll have to come by sometime.”

“How do you afford it? Are there more than two of you?” Elena asks, wiping her hands on a napkin.

“No, just us. Arthur claims he just wanted someone to be there when he isn’t. I kind of think he’s lonely, though.”

“Aw, poor guy,” Elena says. “Is he cute?”

Merlin nods. “Really cute.”

“Is he gay, then?”

Merlin shakes his head.

“Too bad for you, but goodie for me!” Elena bounces a little in her seat. “Come on, let’s go to this party then, and I can check him out.” They pick up their coffee cups and head out the door.

Mordred and Elyan’s flat overflows with people when Merlin and Elena get there. Mordred’s penchant for ‘80’s music is obvious when the first thing they hear is Air Supply wailing “All Out of Love.” Elena pokes her finger into her mouth, toward her throat, rolling her eyes, and Merlin laughs.

People are dancing, drinking, talking, making out in corners and on the balcony, smoking, and a few are even sketching on large sketch pads. Merlin looks around for Arthur, sure he is going to be feeling out of place in this environment. He spots Gwaine talking to a guy with pink hair and a nose ring and points him out to Elena.

“I can’t believe I didn’t see that when we were dating,” Elena says. “I thought he was so into me.”

“He was into you,” Merlin tells her. “As much has he can be into a girl. He just likes blokes more. He can’t help it.”

“I know,” Elena says. “But I really liked him, and it hurt. Why are all the good ones gay?”

“I’m about to show you a great one who isn’t,” Merlin promises, taking her hand. “I just have to find him in this crowd.”

A small girl that Merlin thinks is called Freya comes through with a plate full of brownies. “Would you like one?” she asks Merlin and Elena.

“Are these funny brownies?” Merlin asks suspiciously, stopping Elena before she takes one. “Last time, you had us all high as kites."

Freya grins. “I can’t promise you that they’re not.”

“We’ll pass then,” Merlin says, tugging Elena’s hand. “Hey, Mordred!” he calls to his friend, who is talking to a tall, dark-skinned woman and smoking another one of his skinny cigarettes.

“Welcome!” Mordred says, enveloping Merlin in a hug and kissing him. He turns to Elena. “Elena, right? Glad you could make it. My friend Geo is mixing some drinks in the kitchen.” Mordred has his skinniest jeans on with an ultra-blue silk shirt that he hasn’t bothered to button. It hangs open, exposing Mordred’s tanned torso.

“Okay,” Merlin says, “but listen-- can you tell us where Arthur is?”

“Um…” Mordred looks around. “He was here a minute ago. Where did he get to? He came by after work and did a sitting for me-gawd that bum! I swear, it’s seven kinds of delicious, and then since he didn’t have time to go home and change, I persuaded him to borrow something of mine. You should see him! So, so hot. Elyan!” Mordred calls over the crowd. “Where’s Arthur?”

Elyan stops meandering through the crowd, his arm around a thin blond man’s waist. “Yeah? Hey, did you know that half these people are from the party next door? No wonder we don’t recognize them!” he laughs. “Oh, hey, Merlin. Elena!” he hugs her. “I haven’t seen you in ages. You look so hot in that dress!”

Merlin’s getting annoyed now, because he still doesn’t spot Arthur, and he knows how Arthur is. The need to rescue him and introduce him to Elena is paramount on Merlin’s mind.

“Eyes Without a Face” begins playing and more people are dancing, a lot of them slow and dirty. Elyan’s obviously been drinking quite a bit, because he tugs his blond closer without even introducing him to Merlin and Elena, and they begin a pretty nasty grind right there in front of them.

The furniture in the flat’s been pushed to the side and the hardwood floors are perfect for dancing. Merlin and Elena step back, but Mordred just begins swaying to the music, still smoking away, his hips gyrating suggestively. Merlin can’t help but find it sexy, remembering how worked up Mordred can get him in the bedroom when he wants to. Merlin hasn’t been with anyone else lately, and living with Arthur and seeing him buck naked so recently has Merlin hot and antsy.

At that moment, Mordred interrupts Merlin’s ruminations about perhaps getting Mordred into a closet for a quickie with, “There he is! Well, who knew the luv could dance like that?” And Merlin snaps his head around to look just as Elena speaks, her breath warm in Merlin’s ear.

“Um, Merlin, he’s hot all right, but are you sure he’s straight?”

Merlin can’t keep his mouth from dropping open at what he sees. Not only is Arthur wearing skinny jeans and a tight, V-necked T-shirt, but his blond hair is all over the place from previous fast dancing, his hips are moving in suggestive ways that go straight to Merlin’s already fattening groin, his arms are high in the air as he slowly slides down the back of a large, well-endowed, practically salivating wolf-of-a-man that Merlin’s never seen before but that practically screams date rape, and he is singing along with ‘80’s pop/rocker Billy Idol.

The beefy guy looks like he doesn’t want to take his eyes off Arthur for a moment and keeps swinging around every time Arthur moves toward his back. He’s just about to latch onto Arthur with his big hands when the music speeds up, and Arthur begins dancing for all he’s worth, head thrown back, face flushed, and eyes…

“What the fuck?” Merlin exclaims. “Mordred!” he latches onto Mordred’s arm so hard, the man makes a yelping noise. “What did you give him? What’s he on?”

“I didn’t give him anything! What are you talking about?” Mordred bends to retrieve his cigarette where he’s dropped it on the floor. “He’s had a few drinks. Stop manhandling me and acting like Arthur’s nana, and let the boy have some fun. There aren’t any drugs here that I know of.”

“He looks stoned!”

“Maybe the people from the other party?” Elena asks helpfully.  “Or could he have had the brownies?”

Merlin thinks that’s highly possible. Mordred probably didn’t tell him what is in them. “I’m going to get him. He’s out of his head.” He cringes when he thinks of what Arthur’s reaction would be if he could see himself.

“I don’t know that bloke he’s with,” Mordred says, “and I don’t know if I’d mess with him. He looks like a cross between a pro wrestler and Sasquatch.”

“You want him messing with Arthur?” Merlin asks pointedly. “Your perfect model?”

Mordred makes a face. “You’ve got a point. Let’s go.”

“Hey, hey!” Mordred says brightly when they’ve pushed their way over there. The beefy guy has finally captured his prize and holds a slowly blinking Arthur close, hand under Arthur’s chin, looking into his face with an intent expression under hooded lids. Arthur is kind of limp like an over-cooked noodle, and Merlin immediately puts a proprietary hand on his back.

“There you are, Arthur!” Mordred continues. “Look who’s here; it’s Merlin! And he’s brought someone for you to meet! Excuse us, will you, mate?” Mordred tries to ease Arthur out of Sasquatch’s grip.

The big man scowls at them. “He’s with me.”

“And who exactly are you, may I ask?” Mordred says haughtily. “This is my party, and I don’t recall inviting you.”

“Name’s Val. Now buzz off.” The big man turns his back to the group, effectively taking Arthur with him. “Goldilocks and I were just about to get to know one another better.”

“If you don’t get out now, I’ll get some friends to escort you,” Mordred says brazenly, and Merlin has to admit, the man has balls; Val is twice his size. Then again, Mordred never has appreciated being ignored.

“No need,” Val surprises them by saying while flashing a smile that shows every one of his teeth. “We’ll be going now.” He wraps one tree branch of an arm around Arthur’s shoulders and begins leading him out. Merlin sends a panicked look Mordred’s way while simultaneously calling out Arthur’s name.

Arthur stops, turning around, a goofy smile spreading over his handsome face. “Merlin!” he says. “What are you doing here?”

Relieved, Merlin steps forward and takes Arthur by the arm. “I came to see you. And to have you meet my friend, Elena.”

Arthur’s glassy eyes turn to Elena, who smiles sweetly at him. “Hello, Arthur.” She holds out her hand for him to shake, and he takes it, squeezing it.

“Hello.” Red, pouty lips form a smile.

“Come on, Arthur, is it? You’re coming with me,” Val growls impatiently.

“Oh, Merlin, meet my new friend…whats-yer-name again?” Arthur asks, posh upbringing struggling with pot and alcohol-addled brain.

“They’ve met me, poshbottom, now let’s go continue our private party, shall we?” Val gives Arthur a tug, but Arthur pulls back and smiles wide, looking at Merlin.

“He calls me ‘poshbottom.’ Kind of like Neville Longbottom!” Arthur looks thrilled.

“Arthur, did you eat some brownies?” Mordred asks. “Freya made brownies and put lots and lots of pot in them.”

“Yeah, I love brownies! I hadn’t any dinner,” Arthur answers. “I ate, like, an entire pan! Let’s dance some more, big guy,” he pulls at Val. “It’s Whitesnake.” And then Arthur hisses like a snake, and Merlin doesn’t know whether to laugh or file it away for future wank fantasies.

“I’ve got some great music next door,” Val tells Arthur, taking his hand. Merlin’s sure the hiss did something for Arthur’s captor; he’s practically radiating lust, and the front of his jeans bulge alarmingly.

“He’s straight and stoned out of his mind,” Merlin tells Val. “Leave him alone and go pull somebody else.”

“I don’t care what he is, he’s coming with me!” To Merlin’s dismay, Val bends down and, in one smooth motion, hoists Arthur over his shoulder, heading for the front door.

“Whoa! I’m upside down!” Arthur calls, laughing gleefully and sliding his hands into Val’s back pockets.

“Oh, fuck!” Merlin yells. “Hey, Lance! Elyan!” he yells to his friends, chasing after Val as he heads out the door. “Let go of him, you arsehole!”

Mordred has scooted along the wall and gotten ahead of the big man and runs ahead to the flat on the floor below, looking for its owner. “Tony!” he yells into the smaller crowd, most of whom are making out on every available surface. The music at this party is decidedly more ethnic, and couples are piled up everywhere in various stages of undress.

A small Latino man with a goatee appears from a back bedroom, a red-headed girl clinging drunkenly to his arm. “Mordred, why are you shouting?”

“Who’s this giant arsehole who’s come to my party to rape and plunder?” Mordred indicates Val, who has set Arthur on his lap on the couch.

“What? Oh, Val. He’s Pete’s friend.”

“Well, he’s kidnapped our friend,” Mordred replies, hands on hips. “I’m calling the police if he doesn’t let him go.”

 “He wants to be with me,” Val says, planting kisses on Arthur’s neck. Merlin hopes Arthur won’t remember any of this, and wonders how many drinks he had before he ate the pan full of brownies.

“Believe me, mate, he doesn’t.” Merlin takes Arthur by the hand and pulls, but Val won’t let go of him.

Lance scratches his head. “Never had this happen before,” he says.

“Arthur, tell the great oaf you don’t want to be with him!” Merlin insists.

Arthur blinks a few times, seems to realize that a stranger has his mouth attached to his neck, and gives a push to the man’s great chest. “Hey, that’s enough. I want to dance.” He places a hand on Val’s face and tries to shove him away.

“Hey, fucker!” Elena shouts in Val’s ear. “Are you so desperate that you can’t find someone willing?”

Val unlatches his face from Arthur’s neck to glare at Elena. “Would that someone be you?”

“Not likely,” she says.

“Ohh…yeah, poshbottom…that’s the ticket.” Val arches up as Arthur suddenly moves his hand down into the front of his jeans, sliding down his lap to unzip him.

“Well, fuck,” Mordred breathes.

“Arthur!” Merlin exclaims as Arthur reaches his hand into Val’s briefs. Val’s face goes slack with pleasure just before turning purple with pain as Arthur makes a quick twist of his wrist.

Val lets out a scream and jumps to his feet, depositing Arthur on the floor. “You twisted my fucking nuts!” Val yells.

Merlin reaches down and helps Arthur up, scrambling him toward the door as his friends block Val’s way until Merlin can get Arthur out.

Arthur laughs all the way back up to Mordred’s flat. “Did you see his face, Merlin? I hate people that think they can bully someone into doing what they want.”

Merlin leans against the wall, breathing hard. “Shit, Arthur!”

“Sorry, Merlin,” Arthur puts his chin on Merlin’s shoulder. “Wanna dance?” He raises his brows.

Before Merlin can answer, Arthur takes off into the crowd and begins gyrating to “Hungry Like the Wolf.

“You’ve created a fucking monster,” Merlin tells Mordred when he comes back into the room.

“Tell me about it,” Mordred says. “That boy really knows how to cut loose.”

“Is Val ready to charge back in here?” Merlin looks fearfully over his shoulder.

“Elena’s putting ice on his balls. He’s really hurting, so I don’t think he’ll be charging anywhere for a while.” Mordred leaves Merlin and joins Arthur on the dance floor, backing up and moving against him suggestively. Arthur catches his lower lip between his teeth, biting it as he dances, and Merlin feels himself growing hard in his pants.

“I need a drink,” he mutters, and heads to the kitchen where he finds Geo and his brother Percy wearing only boxer briefs making drinks. Merlin’s head is beginning to pound.

“It’s hot as fuck in here,” Geo tells Merlin in answer to his raised brow. The brothers are fraternal twins and very similar in looks—big, bulky, and boyish. Percy is straight and Geo is gay. The main difference between them is that Percy keeps his hair shorn, and Geo doesn’t.

“Can I make you a drink?” Percy asks Merlin.

“Yeah, that’d be good. Just a vodka and cran, thanks.”

Percy makes the drink and Merlin stands in the open doorway watching people dance.

“Where’s the blonde I saw you with?” Percy asks, handing Merlin the drink.

“He’s out there dancing with Mordred,” Merlin says, craning his neck to get a better look.

“No, the bird,” Percy clarifies.

“Oh. Elena. She’s next door putting ice on some guy’s nuts.”

“She’s pretty,” Percy says, not even commenting on how odd Merlin’s statement is. “Does she have a boyfriend?”

“What? Um, no, actually. I was going to introduce her to someone tonight, but it hasn’t worked out. You want to meet her?”

Percy blushes a little in that cute way he has, and Merlin promises to introduce them when Elena shows up again.

“Okay, now I’m going to ask about the blond Mordred’s dancing with,” Geo says. “He’s incredibly hot, and I’ve been watching him all night. I think Mordred said he’s modeling for him?”

“Yeah, that’s my flat-mate, Arthur. He got into the brownies.” Merlin frowns.

“There you are!” Elena breezes in and pulls Merlin into a hug. “Never a dull moment, yeah?”

“Sorry, Elena.” Merlin squeezes her back. “None of that was supposed to happen.”

“No worries. That Val guy turns into a regular baby when his plums are in peril. Hey, sweetie, you mind fixing me a drink?” Elena’s fixed her attention on Percy, and Merlin introduces them. Always quick to make friends, Elena talks easily to Geo and Percy, but the latter remains quiet, as is his nature. He hands Elena her drink with a shy smile.

“Thanks,” she winks at him and starts dancing in place. “What is this song?”

“’Betty Davis Eyes,’” Geo supplies, taking a sip of his long island tea and perching on a nearby stool.

Elena nods. “Where did ‘poshbottom’ go?” she asks Merlin.

“Dancing with—oh my God, bloody Gwaine!” Merlin exclaims.

“Well, if you want to dance with him, go cut in,” Geo tells him.

“What makes you think I want to dance with him?” Merlin asks.

All three friends just stare at him.

Merlin lets out a breath, sets his drink down, and heads out into the living room, winding through the twisting bodies. He gets felt up a few times along the way, and has to stop and talk to a couple of people he hasn’t seen in a while. By the time he makes it to Arthur, he’s wrapped around Gwaine like a starfish, and Air Supply is crooning “Making Love Out of Nothing At All.”

“Mind if I cut in, mate?” Merlin taps Gwaine on the shoulder.

“As a matter of fact…”

“You can tell he’s stoned out of his mind, can’t you?” Merlin asks. “Freya got to him.”

“And you think I care, why?” Gwaine raises a dark brow.

Merlin pokes Gwaine none-too-gently between the shoulder blades. Gwaine doesn’t look very happy, but he releases Arthur, handing him over. Arthur gives Merlin an oddly suggestive smile before transferring his grip from Gwaine’s to Merlin’s body, pressing against him in a way that shocks Merlin’s senses.

“Jesus,” Merlin whispers in Arthur’s ear.

“No. Arthur,” Arthur throws back his head and laughs.

“Oh, my God.” Merlin tries not to be too affected by the sensation of Arthur’s sweat-drenched body molded so tightly against his, to where he can feel every breath the other man takes, and Merlin’s own heartbeat pounds against Merlin’s chest. Someone blessedly yanks Air Supply off, receiving a cussing-out from Mordred, and “Sex and Candy” begins playing. Merlin groans. Arthur presses his forehead to Merlin’s and tightens his grip around Merlin’s shoulders.

“You’re a good dancer,” Arthur says.

“I bet you told Gwaine and Val that, too,” Merlin tries to laugh it off, because at the moment his heart feels funny. “Don’t you feel odd out here dancing with men? Have you ever done it before?”

“Rarely,” Arthur tells him. Their groins brush together, and Merlin realizes with a jolt that Arthur is hard.

“Arthur…” he begins, but Arthur’s eyes are sad, and he rests his head on Merlin’s shoulder, so Merlin doesn’t say anything else.

After a while, Arthur says into Merlin’s ear, “Merlin, would you get me out of here? Please?” And Merlin can’t say no to that, so he does.

~~~ooo~~~

Arthur isn’t sure when the night gets so terribly away from him, although later he suspects it is the moment he takes a pan of Freya’s brownies for himself after having drank too many of Gio’s special concoctions. He feels so good for a while, as though all the worries he’s carried around with him day in and day out lift, and for a time he’s completely free of them. It feels wonderful and liberating. He’s alive for the first time in his life, and he can dance and flirt, and generally be someone else entirely. And then Merlin appears, and Arthur feels sure he sees admiration in Merlin’s eyes. Merlin likes this different person that Arthur has become, and Arthur has never felt more vital and true to himself.

Dancing with Val Arthur barely remembers, but dancing with Gwaine is an experience of the senses. The man definitely wants Arthur, and it is intoxicating. But Merlin has told Arthur that he is stoned, and Arthur knows that’s the reason he feels so good and so unlike himself. He realizes that feeling is going to end, so he holds himself back. This isn’t some kind of dream where Arthur can do as he pleases—there will be consequences to his actions. He tries to clear his murky head as Gwaine presses their bodies together.

And then suddenly Arthur finds himself dancing with Merlin, Merlin’s body close against Arthur’s, and gradually it all comes crashing down—the fact that he’ll never have this. It’s all a lie, and if he doesn’t get the hell out of this environment, he might do something very, very stupid.

So he asks Merlin to get him away from there, and Merlin does. Merlin takes him home, and by the time they enter their flat, Arthur’s head is much clearer.

Merlin’s tapping away at his phone, and Arthur imagines he’s apologizing to all his friends for his abrupt departure.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, sinking down onto the couch.

“For what?” Merlin looks up.

“Making you leave.”

“Oh, I don’t care about that. I’m texting Elena that Percy really likes her. You know Percy? One of the big guys fixing the drinks?”

“I’m afraid I have only a foggy recollection of most of the evening,” Arthur says, leaning back, covering his face with his hands and wishing he were someone else entirely. After a moment he looks down at himself. “What in the hell am I wearing?”

Merlin laughs. “Something of Mordred’s. Evidently he shamed you out of wearing your suit. Honestly, Arthur, Freya should’ve told you she’d put something in the brownies. I’m really sorry.”

“Well, it isn’t your fault,” Arthur says on a sigh. He rubs his eyes with his fingertips. “It’s been a long time…I smoked pot a few times in uni, but generally I stayed away from it. My father was always making these impromptu visits, and I couldn’t risk him catching me.”

“Held a pretty tight rein on you, did he?” Merlin asks.

“Still does, in case you can’t tell,” Arthur says wryly.

Merlin sits in the chair and kicks his shoes off. “But you’re old enough now to do what you want.”

Arthur lets out a breath, feeling all the pressure building inside of him. He just wants out of this situation he’s in. He wants to be who he wants to be. “It’s complicated.”

 Merlin tilts his head. “Is it, or do you make it complicated?” When Arthur doesn’t answer, Merlin snaps his head up. “Sorry. That’s completely out of line. Um, do you want something to eat? I’m kind of hungry, and I know there’s some leftover casserole in the refrigerator I can warm up.”

“Sure, that sounds good.” Arthur mulls over Merlin’s words as he watches him rise and go to the kitchen. He looks over his shoulder at London lit up outside his windows. Does he make things more complicated than they are? What would happen if Arthur didn’t have his father to lean on? Couldn’t he find a job on his own? The flat belongs to him—paid for with monies he got from the trust fund his mother left him. So why does he continue to torture himself by doing everything his father asks of him? When Arthur is eighty-years-old, is he going to look back and hate himself for wasting his life doing the things others wanted him to do rather than what he wanted to do?

Arthur’s tired. He smells of alcohol, sweat, and cigarettes. He knows he can’t make any decisions now. He pulls himself up off the couch and calls to Merlin that he’s going to take a quick shower.

When he finishes and comes into the kitchen freshly washed and wearing his familiar pyjama pants and a T-shirt, Arthur feels a million times better. Merlin has the heated food out and on plates, and it smells marvelous. Arthur’s stomach rumbles in reaction. When Merlin sees him, he chuckles.

“How many Harry Potter T-shirts do you have?” he asks.

Arthur looks down. “About twenty, probably. Morgana gets me one every holiday.” This one reads, Make Love, Not Horcruxes.

“Cool,” Merlin says, taking a seat across from him. They begin eating, and Arthur is surprised at how hungry he is. He even goes for seconds. “Pot will do that to you,” Merlin tells him with a smile, and Arthur smiles back. He does the dishes while Merlin heads for the bathroom to wash the party off himself. Arthur puts Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix into the DVD player, curling up on the sofa.He’s surprised when Merlin joins him, pyjamas on and hair damp from the shower. They share the crimson throw, covering their bare feet where they meet in the middle of the couch. After a while, Arthur drops off to sleep, awakened abruptly when the Weasley twins set off fireworks in the great hall.

He rubs his eyes and looks over at Merlin, asleep with his head propped on a sofa pillow, his mouth slightly open. Arthur’s and Merlin’s warm feet are tangled together under the throw, and Arthur smiles. It’s late, and he should get up, turn off the DVD player, awaken Merlin, and head to bed, but he’s too comfortable. This feels too nice. How many nights has he sat in this same place watching his DVDs by himself, the only sounds in the flat his own breathing and the drone of the movie? Now Merlin’s soft snores come from the end of the sofa, and there’s warmth rather than cold in the space next to Arthur. He doesn’t want to move. The only light in the room is coming from the moon shining through the windows and the various lights from the city outside, along with the changing light from the television set.

Arthur remembers what it felt like to have Merlin’s arms around him, their bodies swaying to the music. He’d wanted so badly to kiss Merlin at that moment. He’d been afraid he would. Arthur’s life is changing so quickly lately, and it is all his own doing. He’s invited Merlin to move into his flat; he’s made the decision to pose for Mordred. And Arthur doesn’t regret these decisions. But he’s known that they would have an effect on his life. Sure, in the beginning he thought he’d just be getting a flat-mate; he hadn’t known that Merlin was gay. But once he found out and met Merlin’s friends—seen what his own life could be like—Arthur wanted to make changes. Now he has to figure out how he was going to deal with it.

Arthur is straddling two worlds, and one day he is going to have to make a choice.

~~ooo~~

Uther looks at his son in disbelief. “You’re forty-five minutes late!”

“I’m sorry, Father, but I over-slept.”

“Arthur, this is unacceptable! What is wrong with you?”

“Father, it’s Saturday. Most people don’t even work today.” Arthur has a headache. He fervently wishes his father would tone down his voice several notches.

“Pendragons aren’t most people, Arthur, I thought you knew that.”

“Well, perhaps I’d like to be most people once in a while!” Arthur snaps before he can think twice.

Uther’s face grows ashen and then just as quickly reddens. He takes a step toward his son. “Need I remind you that this is a multi-million dollar company?” he asks quietly, his lips two straight lines on a man made of straight lines. “This isn’t a game, Arthur. You are a Pendragon, and being a Pendragon means responsibility and respectability. One day I won’t be here anymore and hundreds of people will be counting on you as CEO of this company. What you do, what you sayeverything about you matters! When are you going to get that through your thick skull!”

Arthur stands, body trembling. He wants to run, he wants to hide, he wants to shout that he never asked for this responsibility. But he straightens his back and looks into his father’s eyes, his own unwavering.

“I don’t think coming in slightly late on a Saturday morning to go over next month’s projections warrants this kind of tongue-lashing, Father,” he tells him, jaw muscle working, because oh, if his father only knew what he’s done that does warrant this tongue lashing! “Let’s keep things in perspective, shall we?”

Uther trembles with silent rage for a moment, then settles, staring at Arthur, eyes running over his son’s face, no doubt taking in the slight puffiness to his eyes and the way he winces at all sounds above a loud whisper.

“You had too much to drink last night, Arthur; it’s obvious. I can only hope you managed to conduct yourself in the manner I raised you. I’ve been trying to drive home to you that your university days are through—you need to find yourself a good wife and settle down.” He says all this in the quiet, controlled manner of a parent telling a young child what’s best, and it rankles Arthur more than if his father had shouted at him.

Arthur chuckles mirthlessly. “As though my university days held any fun in them at all. You always had someone spying on me.”

Uther slams his hand down on the desk, and Arthur barely manages not to grab his screaming head. “Enough! What is the matter with you? Do you not understand that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated?” Uther’s faded eyes widen, holding the question in the air. “Because you will not throw dung on our family name, Arthur. End of story.”

Because of that scene, Arthur ends up at his sister’s townhouse that evening drinking tequila shots off the glass coffee table.

“Did he really say ‘you will not throw dung on our family name’?” Morgana giggles helplessly, rolling about on the floor. Arthur’s tie is askew and his shirt pulled out.

“He did,” he confirms, leaning his head back against the couch. Morgana’s husband, Leon, comes in, hands on hips.

“Mathilde’s in bed.” He shakes his head at the two adults wallowing on the floor. “What am I going to do with the two of you?”

Arthur studies Leon for a moment. Tall, good-looking, dependable—madly in love with his wife.

“I need a Leon in my life,” he says a bit sadly, and Leon and Morgana look at each other.

“I know you do,” Morgana says softly.

“How did you do it, Gonnie? How did you get away from Father?” Arthur asks after long, silent minutes in which Leon takes a seat on the chair and helps himself to the tequila.

“I just did,” Morgana sighs. “It wasn’t easy, Arthur, but I had to do it. And I’m sorry, because I know it made things even worse for you.”

“It’s okay,” Arthur tells her. “He’d already pinned all his hopes on me anyway.”

“You can walk away from it all,” his sister tells him. “It won’t be easy, but I’ll stand behind you.”

“I will, too,” Leon tells him.

Arthur takes another drink.

~~ooo~~

Merlin spends the day cleaning out Scabbers’ tank and then the flat. He knows Arthur has someone who comes in to do it every two weeks, but Merlin doesn’t want him to have to clean up a lot of extra mess now that he lives there. And that’s something else—Arthur’s maid is a ‘he.’ A man named Lyle whom Merlin has met and who is definitely a homosexual, which is neither here nor there, except that it is.  Because really, what straight man chooses a gay guy to clean his flat over the numerous middle-aged women he has to choose from? Or is Merlin just seeing things that aren’t there? Maybe Arthur is just a really fair-minded, with-the-times, equal-opportunity kind of person, and fuck, isn’t that hot all in itself?

As Merlin picks up clothes and empties trash, he can’t help but think of Arthur and how he looked the night before at Mordred’s party, so loose and swaying to the music in those clothes.

He’s such a beautiful, beautiful man, inside and out. Merlin shakes his head to clear it.

Arthur was out of the flat so fast that morning, he was like a blur. Evidently, he was late getting up, but why it’s necessary to work on a Saturday morning, Merlin doesn’t know. The man is decidedly over-worked. And Merlin’s day lays long and empty in front of him.

He finishes straightening up and takes a long, hot shower, still feeling a little disgusting from the party. He has a missed call from Elena, so he phones her back while he fixes some lunch.

“Oh my God, Merlin, Percy is so perfect!” she squeals as soon as she has him on the line. “He’s so huge, and sweet! And he’s such a gentleman! I love you forever for taking me to that party, you sweet, wonderful man!”

Merlin chuckles, biting into his peanut butter and banana sandwich. “Well, good. At least I didn’t traumatize you with all that went on.”

“No, no. It was all worth it, believe me.” Elena sighs. “Even seeing Gwaine there drooling over various men, and even learning that gorgeous Arthur is gay, too, and even having to put ice on that huge guy’s nuts…”

“Hold it, back up,” Merlin says. “Arthur isn’t gay; he was only high.”

“Merlin, for God’s sake! My brother Jim gets high all the time, but he never dances with men. You are so naïve.”

Merlin frowns.

“Anyway, Percy and I left the party and we went to a coffee house and talked until four fucking AM! He loves dogs like I do, did you know that?”

“Erm, no. I didn’t know that.” Merlin takes a long drink of milk. He has Elena on speaker phone, and her voice reverberates throughout the kitchen, practically rattling the cabinets.

“And we have a date tomorrow! I have to go get my nails done. I just wanted to call and thank you, sweetie. Love you!” She ends the call, and Merlin immediately gets a text message from Mordred telling him he’s downstairs and to tell security to let him in. Merlin does, then goes and opens the door so that Mordred can come in while Merlin finishes getting dressed. When he comes out of the bedroom in his jeans and T-shirt, it’s to find not only Mordred, but a tall, thin man holding a fish in a bowl.

“Oh!” Merlin says, stopping.

“Where’s Arthur?” the man asks.

“He’s working. I’m Merlin, his flat-mate,” Merlin says.

“I didn’t know he had a flat-mate,” the man replies.

“He does, and I’m him,” Merlin says. “You are?”

The man clears his throat. “John Astor. My wife and I live downstairs. Arthur takes care of Taffy when we go out of town.”

Merlin stiffens when he hears this, because didn’t Arthur say there’s something a bit dodgy about this fellow?

“We’re flying out to Barcelona tomorrow, and I’m dropping Taffy off.” He goes to set the bowl on a table in the living room. He hands a bag to Merlin. “Her supplies.” He gives Merlin and then Mordred an odd look before leaving.

“Weird duck,” Mordred says, closing the door.

“Yeah, a bit,” Merlin says. He takes out his mobile and texts Arthur.

Guy downstairs dropped off fish. This ok?

A moment later the reply comes back.

Sure. Taffy. Fish, that is. Not guy.

Merlin can’t help but smile at that. He eyes the discus fish swimming about the bottom of the bowl and shrugs, putting away his phone.

“What’s up?” he asks Mordred.

“Well,” Mordred says, stepping toward him and putting his hands on Merlin’s shoulders. “I was in the neighborhood and hoped maybe you were lonely.”

Merlin raises a brow. “You were in this neighborhood? Really?”

Mordred pouts. “Yes, I was! I happen to have a rich client around the corner who just commissioned a painting, smart-arse. Now do you want to fuck or not?”

Merlin grins. “Maybe.”

~~~

It’s late when Merlin hears noises in the foyer—far more noise than Arthur would make coming in alone.

Mordred lies beside him, having fallen asleep after an evening of fooling around, which was fun, but Merlin’s starting to find it less and less fun, if he’s truthful with himself. Mordred is currently smashed up against the wall. Merlin covers him up and slides out of bed, pulling on his Calvin Kleins and padding into the hall only to come face to face with two people supporting a passed-out Arthur between them.

“Oh!” the attractive woman on Arthur’s right says. “You must be Arthur’s flat-mate! I’m Morgana, his sister, and this is my husband, Leon. Arthur’s had a tough day and a bit too much to drink at my place, so we’re putting him to bed.”

“Nice to meet you,” Merlin replies, a little embarrassed to be in his pants in front of her and her cute husband. “I’m Merlin. He backs into his bedroom. “I’ll, er, leave you to it, then.” He closes his door, and not too long after, hears them leave the flat. He creeps out and checks on Arthur, whom they’ve stripped to his pants and undershirt. He lies on his stomach, cheek smashed to the mattress. Merlin thinks about how Arthur likes to sleep curled up in a ball, and wonders if he’ll end up like that eventually. He goes into the kitchen, realizing he forgot to take his nightly pill. He does so, and then pours a glass of water and gets a few pain relievers, leaving it all on Arthur’s bedside table before going back to his room.

The next thing Merlin knows, he’s being poked in the shoulder. He opens his eyes to find himself staring up at Mordred.

“Well, this is a fine kettle of fish,” Mordred says, a slightly amused look on his face.

“What?” Merlin asks, reaching up to rub his eyes.

“I wake up and find myself all on my lonesome, and where is my lover? In bed with another man!”

Merlin frowns. “What?” he turns his head, then jumps. Sure enough, he’s in Arthur’s bed, lying next to Arthur, who isn’t curled up in a ball or lying in a drunken sprawl as he was when Merlin left him. Instead, he’s snuggled up to Merlin’s side, blond head touching Merlin’s other shoulder.

Carefully, Merlin eases out from under Arthur’s arm and gets out of the bed, following Mordred into the hallway. He shuts Arthur’s door behind him.

“I need to get back to mine so I can paint in the early morning light, which is why I got up in the first place,” Mordred tells Merlin. “I’d set my phone alarm.”

For the first time, Merlin notices that Mordred is dressed. He scratches the back of his neck, embarrassed.

“About that…” he gestures to Arthur’s door with his thumb, “those sleeping pills seem to make me sleep-walk,” he tells his friend. “It’s happened before.”

“I didn’t really think you went in there to shag him after shagging me,” Mordred replies. “But, I wonder what it says about your subconscious that it wants to climb into bed with Arthur every night?” He walks toward the door and gives Merlin, who’s trailed behind, a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for the booty call, luv.”

He leaves.

Merlin sighs and goes back to his room, wishing he could lock himself in somehow. He’s going to have to ask his physician about an alternative to those pills. He can’t keep climbing in bed with Arthur every night. It wouldn’t be long until Arthur would notice, and then how weird would it be?

He lies down, thinking about what Elena said about Arthur. Could he possibly be in the closet? He certainly seems to feel comfortable enough around Merlin and his friends. But why wouldn’t he confide in Merlin about it? Perhaps Arthur just doesn’t feel he knows Merlin well enough to confide in him. Merlin determines to keep his eyes and ears open in the future for clues. Other than the Ron Weasley shirt, a high tolerance and sensitivity for homosexuals, and the willingness to dance with men while high, Merlin can’t think of any so far, and in his book that just doesn’t make a man a poof. There’s no way Merlin’s going to make a pass at him, or even risk simply asking him, since it could seriously offend Arthur, and Merlin like’s him as a friend and a flat mate. He doesn’t want to jeopardize that.

~~~ooo~~~

Arthur resolves that he really needs to stop drinking. Being hung over is decidedly awful, and at the moment he feels like he has a dirty gym sock in his mouth. His father just made him so damned mad, he had to go over to Morgana’s, and she just had to get out the tequila.

It had been fun, though. He can’t remember the last time they’d done something like that, and Arthur is fairly certain he remembers spilling the beans to both Morgana and Leon about him being gay. He hardly cares, though, and that’s what’s weird.

Oh, Arthur knows his sister’s been aware of it all along, but a couple of months ago he never would have thought of voicing it. So many things have changed since then.

Since Merlin.

Why don’t you just admit it to yourself, Arthur? It’s Merlin who’s changed things for you.

Arthur sits on his sofa nursing a hot cup of coffee, staring out over the city of London, which at the moment is covered in a dense layer of fog. He got up early because he’s used to it. When he did, he found water and pain relievers left on the table, he guessed, by Morgana and Leon the night before. He doesn’t remember them getting him home and to bed at all, and he’s a little embarrassed that they’d had to get a neighbor over to watch their toddler in order to bring Arthur home.

He turns his head and gazes across the room at Taffy fluttering about in her fish bowl. Merlin texted about her the day before, wondering if it was okay that John Astor had dropped her off. At the time, Arthur wondered why in the world it wouldn’t be okay, but then later recalled having hinted to Merlin that the Astors were weird and not to be trusted. He smiled, imagining Merlin’s distrust at being handed the fish.

Merlin is still in bed. Arthur takes a long sip of his coffee, looking forward to the moment when Merlin will enter the room, sleepy-eyed and muddle-brained, dragging his feet a little. Already Arthur’s used to having another person around. Not just another person, but Merlin—with his wide grin and sweet ways. More than once Arthur’s caught Merlin chatting with his plants just because Arthur’s told him it’s good for them. He doesn’t like to admit how much that warms his heart.

A text message comes through from Morgana. Alive?

Arthur taps out, Barely.

His sister is an early riser, too. It comes from a childhood of being awakened at dawn, no matter the time of year. Uther was a military man until he developed problems with his knee, and he brought his motherless children up in military fashion. The only softness they got in their lives came from Cook, and she had a life and children of her own.

Arthur finishes his coffee and sets the mug down. He notices a sketch pad among the magazines, and he picks it up. It’s one of Mordred’s. Obviously, he’d been there for a visit. Arthur flips through it, tilting his head, admiring the various sketches, stopping abruptly when he comes to one in particular.

Arthur’s mouth immediately goes dry looking at the clean, long planes of Merlin’s nude body. Mordred has drawn him reclining, one knee raised, his cock barely visible between long legs. Merlin’s arms are folded behind his head, his belly flat with just a hint of definition, and a sprinkling of dark hair leads from his navel down to where a beautiful cut cock lays contentedly on one slim thigh.

Arthur reluctantly drags his eyes up to where an equally provocative smattering of dark hair covers Merlin’s broad chest and nestles under his arms. He’s then drawn to the glorious lines of Merlin’s cheekbones and the dark smudge of eyelashes over luminous orbs that Mordred’s pencil somehow managed to capture. Merlin’s lips are beautiful in their own right, plump and delicious-looking, and Arthur can’t help but wonder what it would be like to kiss them.

Merlin’s body is beautiful. He is beautiful. From his ruffled ebony hair down to his long, curved toes, he’s a work of art that Arthur immediately wants to touch. To own. The urge comes upon him so powerfully, it hurts, and for a moment Arthur doesn’t trust himself not to launch himself off the sofa and charge into Merlin’s room.

Arthur takes a deep breath, telling himself to calm down. With trembling hands, he starts to close the sketch book, but finds he can’t. Instead, he rips the picture of Merlin out. Getting up, he goes to his room and places the drawing in his drawer, beneath some folded shirts. He hopes Mordred won’t notice, or will think that Merlin took the sketch.

Arthur sits down on his bed and tries to still his pounding heart, asking himself reasonably if it’s his need to be with a man that has him feeling this way, or something else entirely?

Arthur can’t deny that, as a gay man, he wants and needs to have a male lover. It’s time. Past time. But he’s developing feelings for his flat-mate that aren’t just physical, and he isn’t sure what to do with them. Even if he only wanted to have sex with Merlin, he couldn’t act on those feelings—not when Merlin works at Pendragon and there is the danger of Arthur’s father finding out. And the fact that Arthur has feelings for Merlin only makes it worse—he can’t put Merlin in such a position. He can’t ask him to have a relationship with a tightly closeted man when Merlin is so openly out of the closet.

So, if Arthur wants and needs to have a male lover, he has two options: either he goes somewhere far away and fucks a stranger every few months and never allows himself to have a serious romantic relationship with anyone; or he leaves the company altogether and sets out on his own, which entails being shunned by his father. He’s long known these are his options. It isn’t as though they’ve changed. They loom before him, larger than ever, threatening to devour him in his uncertainty.

“Arthur?”

Merlin’s voice startles Arthur out of his reverie, and he jumps, his hands falling to grip the side of the bed.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” Merlin says from the doorway. “You just looked so…miserable.”

Arthur barks out a laugh. “That about says it all.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

Arthur tries to hide the desperation he feels, he really does, but Merlin seems to sense something. He takes a step into the room. “Hey—are you okay?” He holds his hand out, and Arthur panics because he really can’t handle it if Merlin touches him. He knows he can’t. He stiffens his back and shakes his head, and Merlin stops, his hand falling to his side.

“I’ll just leave you alone, then,” Merlin says, turning.

“Merlin, wait,” Arthur stands, gripping the spindle of the headboard like a life-line. “Sorry—it’s just that…it isn’t you. I’m, I…I can’t explain it right now.”

Merlin looks over his shoulder. Smiles. “It’s okay. It’s none of my business.” He walks out, and Arthur sags, hating himself and his life, and everything.

~~~

Monday morning finds Arthur posing for Mordred because, now that he’s finished with the preliminary sketches, Mordred wants the early morning sun shining on Arthur’s skin so Mordred can begin painting. Arthur called Gwen and told her to switch around a couple of his appointments. He knows his father has a meeting this morning and won’t notice Arthur isn’t there.

He lies naked on the small bed, the sun warm on his skin, the only sounds in the room those of the paint brush on the canvas. Arthur feels both lazy and decadent, the smell of Mordred’s cigarette smoke tickling his nostrils and the fact that his knee is up, half exposing him, making him a little hard against the mattress. Somewhere in the distance children laugh and a woman calls to them. A dog barks. Arthur falls asleep.

The next thing he knows, Mordred is shaking him awake.

“We’re done for the day, Goldilocks,” he says, slapping Arthur on the bum. “You’d better get dressed for work.”

Arthur sits up and stretches lazily. Mordred watches him as he cleans his brushes.

“You know, you may be fooling some people, but you’re not fooling me,” Mordred says, and Arthur stops mid-stretch.

“What?” he asks, blinking.

“I know you’re so far in the closet you have moth balls for testes. At least, you were. But you want out, don’t you?”

Arthur hadn’t expected this. He doesn’t know how to answer, and he knows the fact that he isn’t answering is an answer in itself.

“You don’t understand,” he finally manages, his heart hammering in his chest.

Mordred flips his hand. “Oh, I get it. Everybody’s got their reasons, and all of them are good ones. You don’t have to justify them to me. But I want you to know that you can be yourself around me. And I won’t tell anyone.”

Arthur looks at the floor. “Even Merlin?” he asks.

“You’re doing Merlin a disservice if you don’t trust him,” Mordred says.

Arthur bites the inside of his lip. “It’s not that. He works with me, and my father…” Arthur shakes his head. “It’s not just me, it’s Merlin’s job, too. I just don’t want my father’s attention on Merlin for any reason.”

Mordred sighs. “Okay. But if he ever asks me point blank whether I know if you are gay, I’m not going to lie.”

“Okay,” Arthur agrees. He stands up and starts to get dressed.

“It must be hell. How do you do it?” Mordred asks.

Arthur looks over his shoulder at him. “I just don’t give in to it.”

Mordred frowns. “You mean…you don’t have sex?”

Arthur nods, concentrating on buttoning up his shirt.

“Oh, my heavens, boy, that’s criminal!” Mordred says, and he looks so upset that Arthur has to laugh.

“I’m used to it,” Arthur tells him, feeling better at just having someone besides his sister know. After all, he can’t talk about this with Morgana.

“Have you ever done it with anyone?” Mordred asks. “Any guy?”

“Just, um. Just had a couple suck me off,” Arthur admits, getting a bit red in the face.

“Well, thank God for small miracles.” Mordred sits down. “but you need something better than that. You want me to set something up?”

Arthur looks up, horrified. “No! No. I can’t do that. My father would find out.”

Mordred makes a face. “Come on. I don’t care who the man is, he’s not omniscient.”

“You don’t know my father,” Arthur tells him.

“You can’t live like this, Arthur,” Mordred says. “You have to be who you are.”

Arthur puts his suit coat on. “I know. I’m working on it. Thanks, Mordred. I’ll see you Thursday morning.”

He leaves, feeling a bit lighter, but worried all the same.

~~~ooo~~~

Merlin doesn’t know what to think about Arthur. In the following weeks, he seems withdrawn and moody. Merlin has awakened in Arthur’s bed five times, and even dreamed about Arthur’s voice talking to him, but that’s the most interaction he’s had with his flat-mate, because Arthur is always at work, asleep, or watching television.

Merlin feels fortunate that he’s always able to wake up before Arthur does and get back into his own bed. He’s been told by his physician that most sleeping pills that work have the risk of making susceptible people walk in their sleep. Merlin will have to choose between sleeplessness, sleepwalking, and ADHD.

There’s no way Merlin can go back to his ADHD symptoms. They’re what got him thrown out of his last flat, and they make things difficult at work, too. Likewise, not getting enough sleep affects his work. So he hasn’t got much of a choice but to get along with the sleep-walking. He’s tried various things to stop himself from going into Arthur’s room, such as shutting Arthur’s door and even locking his own door. It hasn’t helped. Short of tying himself to his bed, he isn’t sure what else he can do. He’s starting to think that he’s going to have to come clean with Arthur and ask him to lock him out of his room at night.

Merlin probably would have done so already if Arthur hadn’t seemed to have so much on his mind. He’s never seen a person so weighed down. The only time Arthur seems lighter is when he gets to work in the morning after his early sessions with Mordred. When Merlin asks Mordred about this, his friend merely shrugs and tells him that maybe posing for him is the only real relaxation that Arthur gets.

Merlin sometimes hears Arthur mumbling to his plants, telling them things, but he always stops when he knows Merlin’s within hearing range. Merlin wishes that Arthur would confide in him, but after that time in Arthur’s room when Merlin tried to, quite literally, reach out to him, and Arthur practically jumped out of his skin, it became plain to Merlin that that isn’t going to happen. Merlin didn’t know what to make of it then, and he doesn’t know now. He only knows that Arthur has something on his mind and it’s making him a nervous, miserable wreck.

And Arthur still never goes out and has any fun. He spends his weekend nights, when he isn’t at the office, watching Harry Potter DVDs, exercising downstairs in the gym, or playing spider solitaire on his laptop. Merlin’s tried asking him to go out with him and Gwaine, but Arthur always has an excuse. Gwen tells Merlin that Arthur’s been letting her leave early, but Merlin knows that Arthur often doesn’t get home until ten o’clock on weeknights.

Merlin has taken to going clubbing with Gwaine every Friday night, although he does it more to get out and about than anything else. Gwaine always manages to pull within the first hour or so, and Merlin’s fairly content to just drink and flirt the rest of the evening, heading home around midnight to find Arthur already in bed asleep or sometimes asleep on the couch with the telly on.

Late on a Friday night, Merlin lets himself into the flat.  Arthur is in bed, and Merlin’s mouth is dry from inhaling second hand smoke. He hasn’t had much to drink, and he’s spent much of the evening, when he wasn’t dancing, being talked up by a man he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in. Gwaine went off with a fey blond practically the moment they got in the door. Merlin found himself wishing most of the night that he hadn’t come.

Merlin pulls Arthur’s door shut and gets himself a glass of water and his sleeping pill. He takes a quick shower, washing the smells of the club out of his hair and off his body.

Fortunately, he has something clean to put on. He’s not as good at getting his laundry done as Arthur is, although when Arthur ever finds the time to do his laundry, Merlin isn’t sure. Merlin pulls on his T-shirt and pants, then crawls into his bed, turning off the light beside it and settling into the soft mattress. His body is exhausted from all the dancing, and it isn’t long until he falls asleep.

~~oo~~

Arthur hears Merlin come home, shower, and go to bed. He gets up and opens his door, listening. Soft snores come from Merlin’s room. Arthur walks across the hall and cracks the door, peering in. Merlin is sprawled on his bed, asleep. Arthur goes back to his room, leaving both the doors open. He curls up into a ball. He’s so fucking lonely, he wishes Merlin would sleep-walk into his room just so Arthur could listen to him breathe in the darkness. He can’t sleep. He’s had a terrible day at work—the kind of day that reminds him that he hates what he does and really doesn’t want to be there at all. To top it all off, he ran into an old chum at a restaurant who told him all about the software business he started and how well it’s doing. Owain, the chum, was so full of enthusiasm and pride, it was like a knife to Arthur’s back. He’s never felt so much like a kept man as he did at that moment. A peon, a cog in his father’s machine. His food stuck in his throat until Arthur thought he’d choke on it, but instead he smiled, acting as though nothing was wrong, and congratulated Owain, asking appropriate questions at all the appropriate moments because Arthur is a Pendragon, and Pendragons don’t show their discomfort to anyone.

He lies staring at the wall for what seems like hours, wishing morning would come and relieve him of these endless moments of relentless reproach. Every moment that he gives himself to think is a moment of torture for him, for he knows what he has to do in order to be happy, yet he simply cannot bring himself to do it because he’s a coward.

He replays those moments with Owain over and over again, wondering what would have happened if he’d just dropped his façade and done what he’d most wanted to do—ask Owain how he’d managed it. How he’d gotten up the gumption to start his own company out of nothing. Where does the courage come to take a chance like that?

When Arthur hears Merlin get up, relief, pure like rain after endless heat, washes over Arthur, because just having someone beside him in bed—no matter how out of it-- is balm to the pain in his soul. Merlin slips in under the covers and Arthur turns over to face him, watching the man settle sleepily as though he belongs there in Arthur’s bed. Arthur watches Merlin’s face, particularly his plump lips, never moving a muscle, heart beating wildly in his chest. He listens to Merlin’s breathing even out, and watches as the muscles in Merlin’s arms relax and go limp, his head listing slightly into the pillow. And then the little puffing snores begin, and Arthur knows Merlin’s deeply asleep, and Arthur can begin talking.

He’s done this before—told Merlin all his troubles in the dead of night when Merlin’s sleeping. There’s something very cathartic about it. Much more cathartic than talking to his plants or to Taffy, Arthur thinks. And because he’s hurting so, Arthur goes one more this night and reaches down, gently wrapping his fingers around Merlin’s inert hand, finding solace in the warmth there. 

He begins telling Merlin, in a very quiet voice, about how, that day at the office, Uther reminded Arthur of the Uther of younger days. How even though Arthur’s an adult, Uther treated him, in the board meeting, like he was still a kid in short pants. How utterly degrading it had been. How Arthur hated his father at that moment, truly hated him, and how those feelings were so strong they scared Arthur.

And then he tells Merlin about how he ran into the old friend at lunch and how jealous he was of Owain’s accomplishments, and how ashamed he is of that jealousy. Arthur feels tears prickle in his eyes as he admits aloud what a coward he really is for not being able to leave his father’s company. How much he hates himself for it--even more than he hates his father.

And then he admits to sleeping-Merlin in his hoarse, quiet confessional how he thinks that if he doesn’t do something about it all soon, he’s going to implode. That there won’t be an Arthur Pendragon anymore. And maybe worse than that—that there won’t be anyone who cares that Arthur’s gone.

Arthur stares at the ceiling, swallowing thickly and letting his tears run down his cheeks and into his ears, misery and defeat eating at him, a broken sob choking his next breath. He’s forgotten for a moment where he is until the hand still gripped in his gives his fingers a gentle squeeze.

“I’ll care.” Merlin’s voice seems loud in the quiet room.

Every muscle in Arthur’s body tenses up at the sound. It’s a long, drawn-out moment before he can move his head to the side to find that, yes, Merlin’s blue eyes are open and peering at him. That he’s awake, and oh God has heard at least a good portion of what Arthur said.  He blinks, clearing the latest tears, astonished.

“I’ll care, Arthur,” Merlin repeats, eyes large and sincere. “I don’t want you to self-destruct. I’m here, and I’ll help you.”

Arthur can’t help it. He can feel his lower lip jutting out of its own volition, the sobs welling up in his chest. He lets out a choked breath. Merlin lets go of Arthur’s hand and opens his arms.

“Come here,” Merlin orders, and Arthur sags into him, giving in to his fear and sadness, clutching at Merlin helplessly while he cries for what seems like forever, sobs racking his body.

When it’s over, Merlin’s shirt is soaked down the shoulder. His hand is hot against the back of Arthur’s neck where gentle fingers sift through hair damp with sweat, and Arthur’s grown accustomed to Merlin’s calming voice in his ear. Merlin’s other arm encircles Arthur’s waist, holding his body close, and Arthur’s never felt so safe in his entire life. For the first time, he knows what it feels like to fall asleep in someone’s loving arms as he slowly recovers from the shuddering onslaught of real grief.

~~ooo~~

Merlin never expects to wake in Arthur’s bed to hear him spilling his uttermost pain to him, but that’s what happens. Merlin’s so shocked, he just lies there quietly listening as Arthur talks about things that hurt his heart. It’s such a good heart, too. A special, sweet heart, that Merlin can’t stand that it’s in pain like it is. And when Arthur finishes, even though Merlin knows he should probably pretend to be sleeping and that he was never privy to the vomitus of heartache, he finds he can’t do that. He has to let Arthur know that someone cares. He’s so afraid at that moment that Arthur will lock him out, that he holds his breath, waiting. The outpouring of grief that follows shakes Merlin to his very center, and it’s all he can do to hold himself together as Arthur cries in his arms.

Now, as Merlin finds himself propped on pillows with a sleeping Arthur resting on his chest, he’s unwilling to give up a moment of this closeness, even to sleep.

Merlin plants a careful kiss to the sleeping man’s head, relishing the scent of Arthur’s hair.

One thing is clear: Arthur is a desperately unhappy man. He wants out from under his father’s thumb, but can’t find the courage to do it. Merlin wonders how Arthur will feel about all this when he wakes. Will he be sorry that he shared it all with Merlin? After all, he hadn’t expected Merlin to be awake and listening. And what will he say about Merlin being in his bed in the first place? Not to mention the fact that he’s still there, because Merlin has no intention of getting up and leaving. Not when Arthur is resting so comfortably on top of him.

Finally, Merlin decides to stop worrying and closes his eyes just to enjoy, and before he knows it, sunlight shines through the windows and the birds sing in the trees outside.

Merlin hopes it isn’t one of those Saturdays when Arthur is supposed to go into the office, because hell if Merlin’s going to wake him up when he’s still sleeping so peacefully. Arthur rolled off Merlin sometime in the night, so Merlin eases out of the bed and heads for the kitchen where he puts on a pot of coffee and makes French toast.

He opens the drapes in the living room, revealing the splendid view, and several pigeons take flight from where they’ve roosted in the corner of the ledge only to settle again seconds after. Merlin smiles while plumping the pillows, thinking of how Arthur named the pigeons Fred and Ethel. He takes a bowl into the kitchen--it appears Arthur had ice cream in front of the telly before going to bed the night before, and that makes Merlin sad now that he knows about Arthur’s frame of mind. When he thinks of what Arthur’s life growing up must have been like, he thinks it’s no wonder that Arthur surrounds himself with his own kind of family—his plants, the pigeons, Taffy, his DVDs.

The aroma of the French toast brings Arthur out of bed, and he smiles sheepishly at Merlin, looking a bit like a lost little boy, his hair sticking up all over the place and pillow marks on his face. Merlin smiles back, pouring Arthur some coffee, glad that Arthur doesn’t appear to be uncomfortable around him.

“So, I guess I should explain why I was in your bed last night,” Merlin says when they’re both seated at the table.

“I know why,” Arthur surprises Merlin by saying. “You were sleep-walking. Do you do that a lot?”

“I didn’t use to,” Merlin hedges. He’d rather not admit that he’s found himself in Arthur’s bed a lot lately. “I think it’s these new pills, but I’m not really sure what I can do about it. My physician’s told me that some people are just susceptible to sleep-walking when they take sleeping medication. But if I don’t take the pills, I’ll not be able to sleep, and I’ll feel awful.”

Merlin wonders if Arthur will ask if Merlin’s found himself in Arthur’s bed before last night, but he doesn’t. He just gives him a nod and tells him no harm done, and of course Merlin should keep taking the medication to help him get a good night’s rest. Arthur looks a bit sheepish, so Merlin doesn’t say anything more on the topic, not wanting Arthur to feel uncomfortable about his break down. It’s pretty obvious to Merlin that Arthur doesn’t want to discuss it. They eat in silence, sharing the newspaper.

“Mordred’s texted me,” Arthur says as he clears their plates. “He wants me to pose for him today. Would you like to go with me?”

Merlin hadn’t thought about what he wanted to do with his day, but that sounds about as good as anything else, and actually spending time with Arthur is a lot better than most things Merlin can think of.

“Sure,” he says. “Just give me about thirty minutes?”

Arthur nods, taking some bread crumbs to the balcony to feed Fred and Ethel. Merlin can barely manage to hide his smile. Seriously, if people at the office only knew what a precious person Arthur Pendragon really was.

They get to Mordred’s just as Elyan is heading out somewhere, and Elyan rolls his eyes. “Mordred’s in a mood,” he tells them on the front porch, “which is why I’m leaving. Can’t stand him when he gets this way. Go on in.”

Arthur and Merlin share a look before heading upstairs. The door to the flat is unlocked, and they let themselves in and head straight for the studio.

They find Mordred mixing colors and muttering to himself. Several canvases in various stages of completion stand about the room, the one of Arthur set up on the easel. Merlin tries not to stare at it, but it’s beautiful. Merlin would dearly love to have it hanging in his bedroom. He would probably wank to it nightly.

“Finally!” Mordred huffs. “What took you so long?” He ignores Merlin and drags Arthur, who’s already pulled his shirt over his head, toward the bed.

Merlin continues to stare at the portrait of Arthur. Mordred’s more than three-fourths finished, and Merlin sees that the pose has been adjusted. Arthur’s left knee is bent so that there’s a slight peek at his ball sac beneath his bum. It’s such an inviting pose, Merlin feels an immediate stirring between his legs and has to sit down to cover it.

By this time Arthur is ready, and Mordred is adjusting his position on the bed, hands nudging here and there to get Arthur’s limbs right. Merlin’s fingers twitch, wanting to touch. He’s got the living, breathing portrait in front of him, and it’s fucking fantastic.

As Mordred begins to paint, he chats with Merlin, who reclines in his chair, eyes pinned to the expanse of Arthur’s naked skin before him.

Merlin tries to give more than monosyllabic answers, but he can’t take his eyes off the area just where Arthur’s arse cheeks part. Merlin’s right hand rests in his lap, and his pinkie finger slowly moving over his cock, the movement hidden from Mordred by the tilt of his bent knee.

Suddenly, Merlin realizes something, and his stomach flips.

Across the room, there is a small, antique mirror on the wall, and it’s about level with Arthur’s head. Merlin lifts his eyes and glances over to it, freezing when his eyes meet Arthur’s in the glass.

“So I’ve been commissioned to do five nudes,” Mordred says. “Merlin, are you listening to me?”

Merlin’s heart beats like a wild thing in his rib cage. Has Arthur seen that Merlin’s been staring at his arse for the past half hour?

“Merlin!”

Merlin jerks, looking up at Mordred.

“God, boy, listen! This rich fucker’s asked me for five nudes. Lots of money, but the man wants them done by the end of the year. How the hell am I going to do that?”

Merlin chews his lip, hands slowing inching forward to cover his thickened crotch. He concentrates on Mordred’s words. He knows his friend could really use the money. “You can do it. I’ve seen you do nearly as much before.”

Mordred sighs, pausing in his painting to light a cigarette. “I’m afraid there’s more to this little tale of woe.” He blows out a puff of smoke.

Merlin waits. “Yeah?” He makes an impatient gesture with his hand, tilting his knee up higher to better cover his erection.

Mordred shrugs.

“Come on, Mordred. Give over,” Merlin orders, his previous embarrassment at being spotted by Arthur making him edgy.

Mordred purses his lips. “I love it when you get bossy!”

Merlin lets out a breath, chuckling in spite of himself. “Just tell me, you slag.”

Mordred paints for a moment more, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, before laying down his brush. “The man…the incredibly rich and powerful man…wants these paintings for his private collection, which is in a very private room in his basement. You’ve got to know that his bigwig mates don’t know he’s gayer than a rainbow, and I’ve even had to sign something swearing I won’t tell, if you can believe that. But the thing is…” and here Mordred glances uneasily at Arthur, and Merlin’s curiosity is really piqued, “he well, saw the sketch for this painting.” Merlin sees Arthur’s back tense. “He loved it, and wants all the paintings to be a series of Arthur posing.”

Arthur sits up, his eyes wide and disbelieving.

“He doesn’t know who you are,” Mordred hurries to assure him. “I didn’t tell him anything, but he was so taken with the sketch. Arthur, you can’t even see your whole face!” Merlin and Mordred watch as Arthur stands, body tense.

Mordred scratches his head. “He wants to commission a series of you and a male lover.”

“Well, that’s just too bad, because I’m not posing for them,” Arthur states, hands on hips. The fact that he’s standing there nude and imposing makes it a bit difficult for Merlin to focus on what’s being said. He can’t ever remember being so turned on, and he’s more than a bit ashamed that he can’t follow the conversation.

Mordred looks to Merlin for help. “I could open my own studio with this commission. He insists it be Arthur.”

“I am only posing because I want a painting for myself!” Arthur shouts, veins sticking out in his neck. His really sexy, bare neck. “You know that. I agreed …blah blah blah … portfolio, blah… it!”

Merlin shakes his head to clear it.

“I know,” Mordred placates, hands held up. “I know. I have no right to ask this of you. And I wouldn’t! It’s just—the man’s got this room downstairs. That’s what he wants them for. No one but his little group would ever even see them, and if you really want to do something that’s out of your tiny comfort zone--”

“Shut up,” Arthur points his finger at Mordred and begins pacing. Merlin just watches, unsure of what exactly is going on.

“I haven’t listened to you complaining for weeks just to hold my two cents in,” Mordred says, lifting his chin in the air. “This is what you’ve been talking about. Admit it. It appeals to you.”

Arthur turns slowly, eyes on the floor, body rigid. Arse perfect. God. “What exactly does this entail?”

Mordred relaxes a bit and begins talking, hands fluttering about in the air. Merlin listens, but his traitorous eyes move to the steely plains of Arthur’s chest where soft hair covers glorious pectoral muscles. Merlin’s erection is back in full force.

“Five poses. This will be one of them, so four. Actually, one will be of the other man alone, so three.” Mordred stubs out his cigarette. “And those three will be the two of you together. I can work it so your entire face is never revealed in any of them. Shadows and all that. And the other man will be Merlin.”

What?” That snaps Merlin to attention. Has he heard Mordred right, or has having Arthur standing naked in front of him completely addled his brain?

“For several reasons,” Mordred says, looking at Merlin pleadingly. “For one, you’re the only one Arthur’s going to be comfortable with. More importantly, though, you’re perfect; your body types and coloring are complementary. You’ll be beautiful together. And I’m so used to sketching you, it’ll be quicker for me.”

“You can’t ask Arthur to do this, Mordred,” Merlin tells him. “Get another blond model. Surely there’s someone out there who looks similar.”

“He fell in love with this painting,” Mordred insists. “After he saw the sketch, he came here. Elyan let him in, and he was supposed to wait in the living room, but he came in here and saw the painting in progress. He’s very rich and eccentric—a real Howard Hughes type. I told him I would never reveal the identity of my model, and he doesn’t care, but he wants him.”

Arthur stares vacantly.

“Please just think about it,” Mordred pleads quietly. “Can you do that?”

Arthur gives a curt nod and, to Merlin’s surprise, lies back down on the bed to continue the session.

~~~ooo~~~

Damn Mordred for throwing my insecurities up in my face, Arthur thinks. In fact, the portraits are all Arthur can think about, day in and day out for the next week. He cancels his Thursday morning session with Mordred, opting to sulk and brood instead, and he avoids Merlin as much as possible. Strangely, it is harder for Arthur to face Merlin now than it was the morning after spending the night crying in his arms.

Arthur has stopped trying to figure himself out. He never makes much sense anyway. But he thinks it has something to do with the fact that Arthur really wants to agree to do the portraits, but he’s just too scared.

Merlin seems to take Arthur’s mood in stride, never pushing him. He simply cheerfully goes about his day, smiles as they pass one another in the halls at work, texts him that “dodgy” John Astor picked up Taffy the night before when Arthur was still at the office, leaves Arthur leftovers from whatever Merlin ate for dinner, and occasionally winds up in Arthur’s bed.

Arthur knows Merlin can’t help that, and Merlin is always gone by the time Arthur wakes up in the morning. When Arthur isn’t thinking about the paintings, he’s thinking about that night in his bed.

Out of everything that happened, the most embarrassing part of that night for Arthur is that he’d been caught holding Merlin’s hand.  Arthur tries not to think about it, or tells himself Merlin hadn’t noticed. But Merlin had squeezed Arthur’s hand, so obviously he had noticed. It had been such a silly, childish thing for Arthur to do--such a symbol of weakness on his part, that all Arthur can hear when he thinks back to it is his father’s voice telling him that it’s time to grow up.

What Uther would say to all the crying in another man’s arms, Arthur can’t even begin to fathom.

Still, Arthur is able to get over that night out of sheer force of will because he genuinely loves having Merlin in his bed. He doesn’t know if it’s Merlin himself, or just another human being, and Arthur isn’t ready to examine that yet. Besides, Merlin has caught him in other embarrassing situations; such as when he walked in on Arthur asking Taffy which tie he should wear (swim to the right side of the tank for the red one, the left side for the blue), or the time Merlin came home to find Arthur singing Neil Diamond songs to his plants.

Arthur has to smile, remembering how quickly Merlin recovered from the latter, even though the sight of Arthur gyrating his hips and belting out “What’s up, pussy cat? Whoa whoa whoa” must have been a shock. He’d merely walked in, taken off his jacket, and immediately begun a fairly decent rendition of “Forever in Blue Jeans.” (Was it Arthur’s imagination, or did his plants grow especially lush after that?)

Arthur sighs and rubs his eyes. Merlin hasn’t mentioned the paintings. He hasn’t said a thing about how big of a deal it is for Mordred and how much the money would mean to him. He hasn’t tried to urge Arthur to do it. He hasn’t even said how he feels about posing for them himself, although Arthur assumes Merlin would be willing to do it. He’s just the kind of open and outgoing gay man Arthur wishes he could be himself.

And that brings Arthur to something else he’s been thinking about: posing with Merlin in the nude.

It is definitely an alluring thing to contemplate, and Arthur can’t get it out of his mind. He honestly can’t get much past the naked Merlin part to wonder how the two of them will be posed, but once he gets far enough to stop thinking No, no, no every time the whole matter comes to mind, he sits for hours imagining Merlin stripping his clothes off as Arthur does the same. This always gets him hard and then wanking, and it usually happens late at night after Merlin’s asleep but before he comes into Arthur’s room, which he does more often than not.

All of this aside, Mordred is right: Arthur wants this. He can’t help but feel the pull of doing something so terribly unPendragonlike. To pose in the nude with another man and have those pictures hanging on someone’s walls where things go on. Things that Arthur really can’t even imagine in his sheltered mind. Sometimes he tries to imagine them, because he has seen some porn. Swings and leather restraints, maybe. But he really doesn’t know that it’s that kind of room that Mordred’s talking about. It might just be a separate apartment where this well-to-do man entertains his male friends on occasion. After all, Mordred’s art isn’t sleazy. It’s tasteful and well-done.

Would it really hurt for Arthur to do this? Mordred has become a friend to him. Arthur enjoys posing for him, talking to him. He’s the only person other than Arthur’s sister and brother–in-law that Arthur’s come out to, and Mordred really has listened to an awful lot of Arthur’s soul-searching lately. It would change Mordred’s life for the better, and who would ever know about it? No one Arthur knows or his father knows would ever likely enter this rich man’s lower rooms, and even if they did, it’s highly unlikely they’d recognize Arthur or be able to prove it’s him if Mordred is really careful not to show his entire face. And Arthur would be sure to see the portraits before Mordred ever released them.

Have I really talked myself into this? Arthur asks himself one morning over breakfast a week and a half after Mordred tells him about it.

Merlin enters the kitchen, showered and looking fresh.

“Good morning,” he says to Arthur as he opens the fridge and gets out the milk.

“Morning,” Arthur answers, fiddling with his coffee. “Merlin, um.”

Merlin turns around and looks at him, his eyes questioning. “Yeah? Want some milk?” He holds up the carton.

“No, thanks.” Arthur shakes his head. “If I were, uh, willing to do the portraits for Mordred. Would you be?”

Merlin’s eyes widen. “You mean you’ve been considering it?”

“I said I would,” Arthur answers quietly.

Merlin pours milk into a glass and seats himself across from Arthur at the table. “Arthur, I feel a bit responsible for introducing you to Mordred. I don’t want you to do anything you aren’t comfortable doing just because you think it will help him. I mean, I know Mordred said something about it being the kind of thing you’ve been wanting to do, but sometimes he can push ideas into people’s heads; believe me, he’s done it to me more than once…”

Arthur puts a hand on Merlin’s arm to stop the flow of words. “Merlin, you’re babbling. I don’t think it will help Mordred, I know it will,” Arthur corrects. “And so do you. Just because I have a lot of money doesn’t mean I can’t imagine what it might be like not to have it. I’d loan him the money for a new studio if I thought he would take it, but I don’t think he would. Do you?”

Merlin shakes his head. “Still. You have a lot on your plate already.”

Arthur can tell that Merlin is thinking about all Arthur said that night in his bed before he fell apart.  Arthur takes a breath.

“I’ve thought about this from all angles. I am willing to do it, but…only with you. Are you willing?”

Merlin’s eyes meet his, and they’re big and blue and impossibly clear. He looks surprised and something else. Impressed? Eager? Had Arthur been right about Merlin staring at his arse while Arthur was posing this last time? The thought brings a jolt to Arthur’s groin, and he wonders if maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all. If Merlin is attracted to Arthur, and Arthur is attracted to Merlin, what will happen when they have to lie together naked for hours?

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll do it.” Merlin licks his lips, and Arthur is suddenly mesmerized by the action. “I don’t know if you realized, but Mordred’s going to pay us. I mean, it isn’t just a favor. He always pays his models.”

“I certainly don’t need the money,” Arthur replies, dragging his eyes back up to Merlin’s, “but I’m glad you’ll be compensated for your time. He doesn’t have to pay me, but if he insists, I’ll give mine to the charity of his choice.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Merlin asks, looking unsure. “Mordred will understand if you don’t. Oh, he’ll flounce around and pout, but really. He’ll understand, and he’ll get over it.”

Arthur smiles. “I know. I’m doing this for myself, too. I can’t explain it to you now, but maybe soon. And you probably understand part of it anyway, although it isn’t really all just me lashing out at my father. As long as Mordred doesn’t make it easy to recognize me, it’s all good.”

“What about us?” Merlin asks, flicking his hand between them. “Will this make things weird?”

Arthur shakes his head. “Not for me, if it won’t for you.”

Merlin’s grin is huge. “Can I be the one to tell Mordred the news? He’s going to freak!”

                                                                                                                       ~~~ooo~~~

Merlin has to hold his mobile away from his ear, Mordred squeals so loudly. He wants Merlin and Arthur to come over immediately.

Arthur grins, nods, and Merlin tells Mordred they’ll be there when they can, rolling his eyes after they end the call. “If we don’t take the upper hand here, he will be impossible.”

They clean up and drive out to the Victorian house in Camberwell. It’s a beautiful day, and Arthur puts the top down on the BMW. Merlin raises his face to the sun, enjoying the feel of it on his skin and the way the wind ruffles through his hair. They’re not going particularly fast, just enjoying the ride.

“Mind if I turn on the radio?” Merlin asks, and Arthur shakes his head. Merlin finds PINK and Nate Ruess singing Just Give Me a Reason, and Merlin starts singing along. He already knows Arthur can sing really well from the time he interrupted Arthur serenading his plants to “What’s Up, Pussycat”. That had certainly been a treat. And there have also been a few times that Merlin’s heard him in the shower.

Merlin loves to sing, and he’s been told he sounds pretty good. They each take a part, the radio turned a bit lower than their voices, and Merlin feels chills going up his back and neck when everything just falls into place and they harmonize. Things get really embarrassing when the people next to them at the light begin applauding.

“Wow,” Arthur says, turning the radio down. “You ever done karaoke?”

“A couple of times,” Merlin shrugs. “I’m kind of shy around crowds. You?”

Arthur smiles. “A little in uni—just goofing around.”

“We should, together, sometime,” Merlin suggests.

“Maybe.  You’d have to get me sloshed first. If you think you’re shy, multiply that by a thousand, and you’ve got me.”

“I find that hard to believe, with all those presentations you give at work,” Merlin says.

“That’s completely different,” Arthur tells him.

“How so?”

“It’s a persona. It’s not…me,” Arthur replies. “I learned a long time ago how to be the man my father wants me to be. It’s like putting on a mask. Acting a part.”

Merlin finds that he can’t reply due to the lump in his throat. He hates to think of Arthur playing a role. He keeps his gaze pinned to the scenery outside the window.

They pull up to the kerb in front of the Victorian and get out, Merlin still thinking of what Arthur said. Why Arthur’s father would want his son to be anything other than the wonderful person he is, is beyond Merlin’s comprehension. Sometimes Merlin just wants to barge into Uther Pendragon’s office, walk behind that big, imposing desk, and throttle the man with his expensive silk tie.

When they get inside and upstairs to the door, Mordred flings it open, a huge smile already on his face. He immediately grabs Arthur by both cheeks and kisses him. Merlin’s mouth falls open, wondering if Arthur’s going to punch Mordred into next week, but when Mordred lets him go, Arthur just kind of rocks backward, leaning against the wall. Then Mordred’s laying one on Merlin, too, but Merlin really thinks it’s much tamer than the one he just gave Arthur. Merlin pushes Mordred away, straightening his shirt, inexplicably irritated.

“You going to invite us in, or what?” he asks.

“Come in, come in!” Mordred waves his hand airily. “I’m so excited! Oh, my God, I love you guys.”

They follow him into the kitchen, where Mordred’s just mixed cocktails. He hands them each one with a flourish.

“Isn’t it a bit early for drinking?” Arthur asks, eyeing his with a look of suspicion that Merlin finds adorable.

“Mimosas, honey! The early morning beverage!” Mordred holds his up and says, “Cheers!”

They all take a sip.

“Okay, now strip naked, fellas, and let me see what I’ve got to work with.”

Merlin chokes on his drink, glancing at Arthur. “God, Mordred, give us a minute, will you?”

Mordred just laughs. “Arthur’s used to taking it off for me, aren’t you, honey? Up to the studio we go! Bring your drinks.”

Merlin doesn’t think he’s imagining that Arthur’s gulping his Mimosa down a bit fast as they head down the hall. Elyan’s door is cracked, and Merlin can just see a bare foot hanging off his bed.

“El have a late night?” he asks curiously, wiping one sweaty palm on his jeans.

“When doesn’t he? That boy is always on the pull.” Mordred pushes open the door to his studio where afternoon sunlight pours at an angle through one large window, dust motes visible in the air.

“Okay, Merlin.” Mordred turns, hands on hips. “You first. I’ve got to figure out how I want you to pose.”

Merlin sighs and begins stripping, careful not to look Arthur’s way. He can feel a hot, tingly blush creeping up his chest and neck all the way up to his hairline. He’s posed for Mordred before (among other things), but having Arthur there watching is different.

“Since Arthur’s pose is from the back, I think yours should be from the front,” Mordred chatters, all business. He leads Merlin to the bed where he’s placed several pillows for him to prop up against. “I’ve always loved your dick, Merlin. I’d like to showcase it.”

“God, Mordred,” Merlin exclaims, embarrassed. He can feel Arthur’s eyes on him, curious, and that causes Merlin’s hands to shake a little as he pulls down his pants.

Mordred’s fingers nudge and poke at Merlin, irritating him. “Mordred, stop! I can arrange my own bits, thank you!”

“Well, la de da! It isn’t as if I haven’t had my fingers all over them before, not to mention my mouth and—“

“Mordred!” Merlin cuts him off, voice sharp.

“All right, all right. Move it to the other leg. Okay. This knee up. Look out the window—no, with your head back.” Mordred takes a few steps away from the bed. “Perfect. Yeah. What do you think, Arthur?”

Arthur starts to speak, clears his throat, starts again. “About his…bits?”

“Lord, no!” Mordred laughs. “The pose, numpty! Although, if you want to wax poetic about Merlin’s bits, feel free…”

Merlin can feel his skin going redder.

“Oh, um…looks good to me,” Arthur replies, and Merlin can feel the discomfort flowing off Arthur in waves. At the moment he just wants to be anywhere else.

“Okay, hold still doll, I’m going to sketch this out real quick.” Mordred grabs his pad and pencils. Merlin stares resolutely out the window, locking his eyes onto some birds landing on a wire and hopping about. The only sound in the room is Mordred’s pencil running over the paper. Merlin is painfully aware of every little thing: the sound of Arthur’s breathing and the creak of the chair as he shifts in it; the way his own cock twitches where it rests on his thigh; the way Merlin is sure Arthur is staring at it.  It doesn’t take too long, and then Mordred is finished, and Merlin covertly watches as Arthur undresses.

“We need three poses with the two of you together,” Mordred tells them. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I just can’t make up my mind how I want to do it.” He scratches his head with his pencil. “Arthur, sit here by Merlin, please.”

Arthur steps over to the bed and sits. Merlin can feel the heat radiating off Arthur’s body only inches away. He gazes at the long expanse of Arthur’s bare back and wants.  Slowly he raises his eyes to meet Arthur’s, finding they are pinned on Merlin’s lips. Oh, God. It’s true, then? Could Arthur possibly be gay? Or bi?

“Now, I’ve spoken to the client, and he definitely doesn’t want something explicit, like rimming or a blowjob,” Mordred continues, and Arthur makes a little choking noise.

“Well, that’s good!” Merlin splutters, squirming a little just thinking about Arthur’s mouth on him. Or his mouth on Arthur. And suddenly Merlin wants that more than anything, to have his mouth on Arthur. His eyes inadvertently roll in that direction to see that most beautiful of cocks peeking out from a bed of blond curls. Merlin swallows and squeezes his eyes shut.

“Yes, well, it’s all going to be very tasteful, so no worries. Lie down, Arthur. Wrap your arms around Merlin, like so. Can you loosen up a little, Merlin? This is a handsome man in your arms, not some slag female. You’re shaming gay men everywhere, really. Okay. Maybe Arthur’s cheek here? That way we can only see the side of his face, and just barely that, and his bum is nice and round in the foreground. The client’s a bit fond of his bum, but aren’t we all? Merlin, close your eyes and tilt your chin up. Try to look lost in the moment, if you will. If it helps, think of all those times I sucked you off.”

Merlin’s eyes pop open. “Mordred, would you please stop bringing up our private moments?”

Mordred laughs. “You make it sound like we’re Bogart and Bacall. ‘Private moments.’” He snorts. “Arthur, hand here at Merlin’s hip, please. Isn’t it sharp and delicious? Personally, I love to bite it.”

Mordred goes for his sketch pad, comes back, makes a few more adjustments. Merlin can feel Arthur’s cock against his thigh, his pubic hair soft against his skin. Arthur’s chest is solid rock, and his abs smooth and hard, and this is excruciating, and who the fuck thought it was a good idea?

When Mordred positions Merlin’s hand so that it touches Arthur’s arse, Merlin thinks he’s going to die on the spot. So soft, so round, so malleable. Thank God the whole thing is fucking embarrassing, or Merlin knows he’d be sporting a woody that would push Arthur off the bed.

The preliminary sketch over, Mordred moves them into the next position. “I’d like one of you two sitting up on the bed, wrapped around one another, faces hidden in each other’s necks.”

This is fairly easy to achieve, although having his groin scrunched up near Arthur’s is a singularly devastating sensation, and Merlin thanks God that Mordred is a quick sketcher. Posing for that portrait is going to be pure torture, and Merlin doesn’t know how he’s going to get through it without embarrassing himself. He’s just going to have to be straight with Arthur—no pun intended—and tell him that, being gay, there’s no way he can help getting hard in a situation like this. And then he remembers the way Arthur looked at Merlin’s lips a while ago—like he really, really wanted to kiss them—and wonders if Merlin won’t be the only one getting hard.

When they finally unwind from one another, stand and stretch, Mordred shows him what he’s got.

Merlin has to admit that the last sketch is going to make a very attractive painting, and Arthur agrees. Already Arthur seems more relaxed, which makes Merlin able to let go a little. He stretches, waiting for Mordred’s directions for the third pose. Mordred vacillates on what he wants, dragging Merlin and Arthur all over the bed, posing them this way and that until they both bark at him that it’s enough for now.

“But I’m not finished!” Mordred pouts.

“Yes, you are,” Arthur says. “I’ll pose for my painting, but we’re done being your mannequins for a while.” He stretches out on the bed, automatically getting into position for his portrait.

Mordred sighs and picks up his palette. “What I put up with for art.”

Merlin leaves them to it, pulling his jeans on and going back into the kitchen to forage for food. He finds Elyan eating cereal at the bar.

“Finally up?” Merlin asks, getting the fixings for sandwiches out of the refrigerator and lining them up on the counter.

“Who could sleep with you three bickering?” Elyan asks moodily.

“Mate, it’s after noon,” Merlin points out.

“I was out late,” Elyan answers, rubbing his eyes and yawning hugely. “Already woke up once with Mordred shouting about you and Arthur agreeing to pose for him and how he’s going to be getting that studio he’s always wanted.” Elyan grins. “You’ve made him one happy man.”

“He would’ve gotten it eventually. It’s Arthur who’s making the biggest sacrifice. He’s putting himself out there.”

Elyan makes a face. “You don’t seriously still think he’s straight, do you?”

“I…” Merlin shrugs. “I don’t know. Whether he is or he isn’t, he’s still doing something that’s way out of his comfort zone, and his father would shit a gold brick if he knew about it.”

Merlin wants Arthur to tell him how he feels and what he wants. He wants to be closer to Arthur in every way possible—that’s becoming clearer every minute of every day.

When Arthur and Mordred appear, Merlin has sandwiches ready, and they sit down to eat. Mordred pulls some water bottles out of the refrigerator.

“What, no more booze?” Arthur teases, moving aside so Mordred can sit down.

“No, the celebrating is over, and the work has begun.” Mordred looks at Merlin. “Arthur’s portrait is finished,” He holds his arms above his head and stretches, satisfaction written all over his face. “It’s gor-ge-ous!” He draws out the word. “And all because of this beautiful hunk of a man!” He drops his arm and ruffles Arthur’s hair. Merlin thinks Mordred’s become awfully physically familiar with Arthur, and, frankly, Merlin doesn’t like it.

“I’m going to be famous!” Mordred squeals, bouncing a little in his seat. “Gay men everywhere will come and worship me!”

“You wish!” Elyan rises from his chair and throws a dish towel at him. “I’ve got a workshop. Merlin, if Mordred’s head gets so big it explodes all over the flat, clean it up for me, yeah?” He disappears into the hall.

“You didn’t wash out your bowl, you twat!” Mordred yells after him. “Bloody slob,” he says to Arthur and Merlin. He bites into his sandwich. “Mmm, this’s good, Merlin. You finally learned to make a sandwich.”

“Sod off,” Merlin mumbles between bites.

“Who’s got your knickers in a twist? Seems to me you’ve had an easy morning of it, posing in the nude with pretty boy Pendragon, here.” Mordred smiles at Arthur in a way that Merlin can only call flirting, and it flies all over Merlin, boiling his blood in his veins.

“When are you going to stop acting like such an arse?” he snaps.

“Merlin, it’s okay,” Arthur tells him. “It doesn’t bother me.”

Mordred puts his sandwich down. “What, exactly, is your problem? Can we get this out in the open now?”

Merlin knows he’s sulking, but he can’t help it. He bites into his sandwich so he won’t have to answer right away. Since Mordred waits him out, he swallows and says, “Just tired.” Then adds, “Sorry.”

“Really?” Mordred asks, eyes big and blue. Merlin nods. “Then give us a kiss.” Mordred leans in, and Merlin sighs, kissing him on the lips. Mordred smiles into the kiss. “We need a date night. You are too tense, luv.”

Now I’m uncomfortable,” Arthur puts in.

“Sorry,” Mordred leans back, fluttering his lashes and not looking sorry at all.

Merlin glances at Arthur, but Arthur isn’t looking at him. Mordred begins talking a mile a minute about the possibilities for the third pose, and Merlin wonders if he’s really up to a shag with Mordred. The whole fuck buddy thing’s been getting pretty old, and lately all Merlin can think about is Arthur.

When they finish their sandwiches, Mordred needles Arthur and Merlin into trying out a few more poses. They go back into the studio.

“I’m getting really tired of taking off my clothes,” Arthur huffs, throwing his pants over a chair.

“Oh, poor baby. If it helps any, it never gets old from this end,” Mordred tells him with a wink. Merlin rolls his eyes.

 “Now,” Mordred taps a finger on his lips. “Hm. This is what I’m thinking—one of you topping the other.”

What?” Arthur and Merlin exclaim simultaneously.

“Not really, obviously. Unless one of you is freakishly able to hold an erection for hours at a time, and,” here he looks at Merlin, “I think I would have figured that out about you by now, luv, don’t you think?” He turns to Arthur. “And you? No? I didn’t think so. What I mean is for it to look like one of you is topping the other. Question is, which one would make the more aesthetic top?”

Merlin and Arthur glance at one another. “I think Arthur would,” Merlin says, thinking about how there’s no way he can spend hours at a time with his dick pressed to Arthur’s arse without becoming painfully hard.

Arthur’s eyes widen.

“I think you’re right, luv, even though we both know you are an amazing top, don’t we?” Mordred kisses the air at him.

Merlin has stopped his fruitless attempts to get Mordred to quit referencing their sex life and remains silent. He notices Arthur has gone pink around the ears.

Mordred directs Merlin to lie down on this stomach on the bed.

“We’ve lost the light for today, but just bear with me…if I can find the pose I want, I’ll be happy and you can go—promise, angels.”

Mordred spreads Arthur out on top of Merlin like he’s playing with his own private sex dolls, then decides that hides too much of Merlin’s body, so he tilts them to the side, arranging their hands this way and that until Arthur appears to be fondling Merlin. At one point Mordred drapes Merlin’s leg up over Arthur’s hip, and Merlin has to object.

“This is too much! I feel too exposed.”

“What’s ‘too exposed’ in an erotic painting?” Mordred asks around his cigarette.

“You’re dropping ash on me, you wanker!” Merlin says, annoyed.

Arthur hasn’t said anything in a while, but his palm is very warm against Merlin’s private bits. Very warm. And every once in a while his fingers twitch.

Mordred stands surveying them, head tilting first one way and then the other.

Footsteps on the stairs alert them to someone’s presence, and Merlin just has time to think it must be later than he thought if Elyan’s workshop is over already, when Gwaine appears in the doorway.

“Oh, holy mother of God, have mercy on my dark, dark soul,” Gwaine stands there gaping at Merlin and Arthur entwined on the bed, Arthur’s hand on Merlin’s package.

Merlin’s head falls back against Arthur’s shoulder and he brings his leg down.

“Quiet, Gwaine,” Mordred orders. “Merlin, keep your head like that, it’s perfect! Tilt back, I think I’ve got my pose. Arthur. Lean down and kiss him—with your hair falling down in your face, it obscures your features just enough.”

Merlin’s eyes get wide, and Arthur seems to be thinking the same thing as he looks down at him: posing is one thing, but kissing is something else entirely.

“Do you mind?” Merlin whispers into the space between them.

“Of course not,” Arthur replies.

Arthur’s eyes are incredibly blue, Merlin thinks as Arthur lowers his head and presses his lips to Merlin’s.

“That’s it!” Mordred squeals just as Gwaine lets out a low whistle, breaking the mood before it can properly settle. All Merlin can do is try to hold on to those precious few moments when he feels Arthur’s mouth against his before Mordred finishes his quick sketch and they pull apart.

~~~

Arthur needs a drink. Badly.

Somehow they wind up with Gwaine, as he’s bored and Mordred wants to spend his evening meditating. Gwaine won’t stop talking about how hot Arthur and Merlin looked pressed together naked, and Arthur is getting the hard-on he just barely resisted getting earlier by thinking disgusting thoughts about his sister.

They go back to Arthur and Merlin’s flat, and Arthur’s distracted by his own fantasies, not to mention keeping his jacket in front of his groin area, or he would have immediately noticed the security guard, Philip, trying to wave him down.

“Mr. Pendragon! Arthur!” The man finally stops Arthur at the lift. “Say, your father came earlier and asked me to let him up. I hope that’s all right.”

Arthur frowns. “Yes, Philip, that’s fine. How long did he wait before he gave up and left?”

“He was here around thirty minutes or so, and then he got a business call. But he had someone with him, Mr. Pendragon,” Philip hurries to say as Arthur turns to join Merlin and Gwaine on the lift. “A woman.”

Arthur looks back at Philip, who appears nervous. “Who was she?”

“No one I’ve ever seen here before, sir. Thing is, he left her here.”

“What?” Arthur screws his face up. “Why?” he asks, before realizing that, of course, Philip wouldn’t know. “Never mind; thank you, Philip.”

“I wonder who Father has waiting for me in my flat?” Arthur mutters as the lift begins its ascent.

“Perhaps an old acquaintance?” Merlin suggests. “After all, he trusts her enough to leave her here alone.”

Arthur turns to look at Merlin as the doors slide open. “Under no circumstances are you two to leave me here alone with her, got it?” he says as severely as if he is giving orders at work, sweat beginning to break out beneath his collar. They nod and head toward the flat.

Arthur does not have a good feeling about this. His father has been too passive as of late when it comes to Arthur’s love life. He sometimes wonders if Uther suspects his son’s proclivities, and the very thought makes Arthur damp under the arms.

It brings to mind the experience of Arthur’s first time. Somehow Uther found out that his son was still a virgin at seventeen and made arrangements to take him on a clandestine trip to a pricey hotel where he’d arranged a high-class hooker called ‘Mary’ to acquaint Arthur on everything from fellatio to cunnilingus.  Mary was around twenty-five, tall, brunette, and quite attractive with very large breasts, which Arthur knew his father preferred. They did nothing, however, for Arthur.

The entire experience started out horrifying. Arthur had known for a couple of years that it was the male gender that turned him on, and the sheer embarrassment of having been thrust into a room with this older, scantily clad woman wasn’t helping matters.

It was fortunate for Arthur that Mary had been very understanding. He knows now that she must have quickly caught on that Arthur was gay and that his father didn’t know, but at the time he trembled in fear of being found out. She’d coaxed him into an erection by telling him to close his eyes, think of something sexy (Prince William in swim trunks), and giving him expert head, then she’d lectured him on safe sex while riding him (his eyes still closed) and detailing how the art of anal sex could be very pleasurable since there was this thing called the prostate. Mary made sure Arthur knew where that was located before he left.

They’d skipped the cunnilingus part, although Mary told Uther they hadn’t. He’s sure she’d told his father that Arthur was very skilled at it, because Uther had slapped him on the back, telling Arthur he was a chip off the old block.

Bless her, Arthur thought as he unlocked his flat. If it hadn’t been for Mary, Arthur might well still be a virgin, too afraid to try anything with men, and too disinterested to be with women. His father had certainly done him a favour that day, although not in the way that Uther had planned.

Pushing open the door to his flat, the first thing Arthur becomes aware of is the enticing smell of gourmet cooking, although all it does for Arthur is make him sick to his stomach due to his nerves.

“Arthur?” A female voice questions, followed by the click of heels, and then the tall brunette Arthur remembers from a recent company function appears in the archway leading to the kitchen.

Bridgette, or Betty…no, Beverly. “Beverly?” Arthur asks, trying not to sound annoyed. After all, he’s sure Uther has told the woman she’d be welcome.

Merlin and Gwaine appear behind Arthur, and Beverly’s green eyes cloud with confusion. “Oh, um. Well, your father told me he spoke with you, and that I could wait here…”

Beverly is wearing a very low-cut, emerald-coloured blouse and a very short, black skirt. Gwaine’s eyes widen perceptibly.

Arthur fishes his phone out of his pocket and sees that he has a voicemail.

“I’ve been out of reach,” Arthur tells her. “I haven’t heard from Father, but it appears he’s left me a message.”

“Well, this is embarrassing,” Beverly says. She’s really a very attractive girl, and not as snarky and annoying as most of the women Uther flings Arthur’s way. He feels a bit bad about it all, but hell if he’s going to give the girl hope where there isn’t any. He looks to Merlin for help, although what poor Merlin can do about it, Arthur doesn’t know. Merlin doesn’t even understand why Arthur needs help, although Arthur sometimes wonders if he isn’t beginning to figure it out.

“My name’s Merlin.” Merlin steps forward to shake Beverly’s hand. “I’m Arthur’s flat-mate. And this is our mate, Gwaine.” Gwaine rushes forward to take Beverly’s hand.

“Oh,” Beverly looks from one to the other and finally puts on a bright smile, as Merlin and Gwaine aren’t offering to disappear for the evening. “I’ve made grilled Tilapia with Cherry salsa…I’m sure there’s enough for everyone.”

“Brilliant!” Gwaine announces, grinning and heading for the kitchen, and suddenly Arthur’s very glad Gwaine’s there with his brash disregard for manners and people’s feelings in general. When they follow him in, he’s already pulling more plates out of the china cabinet. “I always love a fancy meal,” Gwaine says, winking at Beverly and giving her a bit of a leer that makes her blush.

Arthur decides to be helpful and pours the wine, while Merlin chatters away any bits of silence that occasionally settle over the group. By the time the meal’s over, Beverly has had enough wine that she can’t seem to remember that having dinner with the three men wasn’t the original plan. When Gwaine offers to drive her home, she simpers and accepts quite easily.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Arthur says to Merlin after they’ve gone.

“I’m sure he has an ulterior motive,” Merlin replies wryly, stacking the dishes in the sink.

Arthur looks at him in surprise. “But isn’t Gwaine gay?”

“Bi, actually,” Merlin tells him, running water in the sink. “You don’t mind, do you? That he took Beverly home?”

“Mind?” Arthur asks, momentarily confused. “Um, no. No, of course not. It’s fine. She fancies him, I think.”

They don’t talk while they clean up. Arthur’s tired. The dinner hadn’t been as bad as he’d anticipated, thanks to Merlin, Gwaine, and copious amounts of wine, but Arthur hadn’t been able to relax. He is just tired: tired of pretending to be what he isn’t; tired of trying to be what his father wants him to be. And he’s fucking frustrated. Frustrated at everything in his life that holds him back and tells him he can’t do, be, or say what he needs to.

“Arthur?” Merlin’s quiet voice breaks into his thoughts, and Arthur looks over at him, his head swimming a little.

He feels Merlin touch his arm, lifting Arthur’s hand out of the soapy suds of the sink, and Arthur looks down to see that the water is pink. He startles, surprised.

“You broke a glass and cut yourself,” Merlin says, wrapping a clean dish towel around Arthur’s bleeding hand. Arthur feels light-headed for a moment, the sight of the slit in his flesh and the blood dripping from it making his stomach turn, and he staggers. Merlin pushes Arthur down into a chair.

Kneeling at his feet, Merlin holds the towel onto Arthur’s hand and looks up into his face. Merlin’s eyes are large and wonderfully blue as Arthur latches his stricken gaze onto them.

“Arthur, what’s the matter? Please tell me.”

“I can’t,” Arthur says, heartsick.

Merlin lowers his eyes, dark lashes fanning over pale skin, cheekbones beautifully sharp. Arthur sucks in a breath and holds it.

Merlin unwraps the towel and looks at Arthur’s hand. The cut across his palm still bleeds, and Merlin gets to his feet. “I’ll fetch the first aid kit. Be back in a tick.”

Arthur sits staring as the white towel slowly stains red, a little shocked that his anger and frustration manifested in such a way. He’s usually more in control of himself.

Merlin returns and drags a chair up. He begins methodically cleaning and bandaging Arthur’s cut.

“Thank you,” Arthur says softly, and Merlin smiles.

“You’re welcome.”

“It’s just…this whole thing. It was so awful. How could he?” Arthur finds himself saying after a moment.

Merlin seems to consider. “Have you ever asked yourself why he does it?”

“Because he wants to control me!” Arthur sputters, and Merlin glances up at him. Watching the long sweep of lashes over the cerulean orbs acts like a drug on Arthur and he immediately calms, sagging back in his chair. “I don’t know. I guess…in his own way, he wants to see me happy. But why won’t he let me find my own happiness?”

“Perhaps,” Merlin finishes taping the bandage and leans back in his chair, “because he doesn’t see you doing it.”

Arthur stares at Merlin, eyes wide.

Merlin stands. “It’s been a long night. I’m going to get ready for bed.”

Arthur remains sitting in the kitchen long after he hears Merlin shut his bedroom door. He wants to believe Merlin’s right about Arthur’s father, but unfortunately, long experience has taught Arthur otherwise.

 

~~00~~

The next couple of weeks, it’s as though Uther tries to keep Arthur from having a life. Arthur isn’t sure if his father heard about what happened to his arranged dinner with Beverly or what, but he definitely has a bee up his arse. Arthur can barely get time away from work to pose for Mordred, and it’s making Mordred crazy about his deadline.

Merlin suggests that Mordred work on the portrait of Merlin alone while Arthur’s so busy, which mollifies the artist for the time being. Meanwhile, Arthur drudges through sixteen hour days, coming home every night and collapsing in bed only to drag himself out of it again the following morning for another meeting his father has scheduled at the arse crack of dawn.

The only time he ever sees Merlin is the occasional night when Merlin sleep-walks into his bed, and then Arthur uncurls out of his ball and scoots carefully toward the other man, just close enough so that their bodies almost touch and Arthur can feel the sweet heat coming off Merlin’s sleepy form. Arthur doesn’t talk to Merlin anymore in the night; he simply watches as the shadows from the trees outside the window play over Merlin’s sleeping face.

“Father, I can’t work tonight; I have plans,” Arthur says firmly when Merlin’s portrait is nearly finished and Uther shows no signs of letting up on Arthur’s work schedule.  The thunderous look Uther casts him is almost enough to make Arthur back down.

Almost.

“I haven’t had a day off in weeks. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for one evening,” Arthur tells him, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the door frame of Uther’s office.

“If I’m putting in the time, you certainly can do it,” Uther replies, shuffling through the numerous stacks of papers on his massive cherry-wood desk.

“Perhaps you’re overworking a bit, too, Father,” Arthur tells him, unable to resist getting in a dig. “After all, you aren’t as young as you used to be.”

Uther growls. “Just what is that supposed to mean? I am not that old, Arthur!”

“When’s the last time you went out on a date?” Arthur asks. “Perhaps you should think less about my love life and more about yours.”

This is the first time Arthur’s brought up the subject of Uther trying to fix him up with Beverly, and he can tell his father is not well pleased.

“Arthur, I simply don’t understand you,” Uther complains, straightening up and coming around his desk. “You are presented with a lovely woman for the evening, yet you pawn her off on another man.”

So he had heard about it. Arthur isn’t really surprised.

“I don’t want a woman who reports back to my father,” Arthur tells him tightly, coming to stand before Uther.

“Then pick one out for yourself!” Uther demands.

Arthur clenches his teeth so hard it hurts. “How can I when I don’t have a moment to spare for myself?”

Uther sighs, taking a seat on the corner of the desk. “Arthur, you’re twenty-five-years-old. You have a multi-million dollar company in your future, and I would like to see you settled before you take it over.” He leans toward his son, a look of affection on his normally stern face, the novelty of which is almost enough to melt Arthur’s resolve. It is rare moments like these that make Arthur want to throw his own desires for his life away and do anything for the man in front of him who has always commanded Arthur’s respect.

“How about this,” Uther suggests, leaning back and crossing his feet in front of him. “I’ll give you two weeks’ time off on the condition that you get out there and have some fun. Meet people of your own sort and mingle a little. Take a few ladies out that you are attracted to.” He watches Arthur’s face.

Taken aback by the offer, Arthur isn’t sure what to think. Time off from work sounds wonderful. He’s exhausted and needs rest and relaxation, plus it will give him the time he needs to pose for the paintings. But will Uther have him tailed wherever he goes?

“It’s not a vacation with my father watching my every move,” he tells Uther carefully.

Uther’s eyes narrow. “You think I have you followed?”

“I know you do. You haven’t raised a fool, Father. I’m sure you know where I am most of the time.”

Uther’s mouth firms. He doesn’t bother denying it. “You’ve been spending a lot of time out in Camberwell,” he notes instead.

Arthur’s fists clench where he’s stuffed them inside his pockets. He’s thankful he’s had plenty of practice at schooling his expression over the years. “So?”

Arthur knows Uther isn’t about to lower himself to begging information from his son.

“I can only hope you’ve found an appropriate female interest, and that’s why you rebuffed Beverly.”

“I didn’t rebuff her for God’s sake, Father! I came home to find a woman in my apartment cooking me dinner!” Arthur brings his hands out of his pockets and runs one through his hair. “I had plans but revised them and was polite and friendly to her. Kindly do not pull that type of stunt on me again! It was humiliating!”

Uther’s shoulders stiffen. “Take two weeks off, Arthur. Two weeks. And after that, I expect you to be rested, ready to work, and have some serious prospects in your love life. A good looking man like you should have no trouble meeting women.”

“And you will call off the hounds?” Arthur pushes.

Uther sighs. “Yes.”

Arthur leaves his father’s office, feeling both free and inexplicably frightened.

~

Merlin watches Mordred brood over the portrait in front of him.

“Something’s not right,” Mordred frowns, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he stares at the canvas in front of him.

“We haven’t had enough time in the morning sun.”

“Which is why I agreed to spend Friday and Saturday nights here,” Merlin reminds him, turning his gaze back to the street outside the window. Merlin’s also been coming to the flat in Camberwell three to four weeknights after work. He’s gotten so used to stripping off his clothes and getting into position on the bed, Mordred hardly has to adjust Merlin’s pose any more before he gets started painting.

Merlin waits, watching his friend chain smoke and run a hand through his ruffled dark hair until it’s sticking every which way.

“I can’t concentrate,” Mordred sighs, pulling at the scarf around his neck distractedly. He stares at Merlin. “I need an outlet.”

“That would be your cigarette,” Merlin replies, gesturing to it with a lift of his index finger. When Mordred gives Merlin a look, Merlin continues, “I meant what I said last night. I don’t think we should sleep together anymore.”

Mordred takes a seat at the end of the bed where Merlin reclines. He looks at Merlin for a long moment. “You really like him, don’t you?”

Merlin doesn’t reply, just slips the cigarette from Mordred’s fingers and takes a drag.

“I know it’s always been fun and games between us, Merlin,” Mordred says softly. “But I hope you know I care about you. Arthur comes with a lot of baggage.”

Merlin looks away, takes another drag, and gives the cigarette back to Mordred. He exhales slowly, something heavy settling around his heart.

“Bugger it,” Merlin mutters, and makes a move toward the other man, but Mordred lifts a hand, placing it on Merlin’s chest.

“I didn’t say he’s not worth the trouble,” Mordred tells him and smiles.

Merlin smiles back and pats Mordred’s hand where it rests on Merlin’s chest.

“We’re finished here,” Mordred tells him, standing up and stretching. “The portrait’s really done. I’ll figure out what it is that’s bothering me about it, and we’ll deal with it later. You go on home.”

Merlin begins dressing. A neighbor’s dog barks in the distance, and someone shouts a name outside. As Merlin’s tying his shoes, Mordred methodically puts away his paints. A mobile vibrates, and Merlin’s hand moves to his pocket, but Mordred says, “It’s mine.”

He looks up at Merlin after reading the text. “Arthur has the next two weeks off.” He smiles. “This is brilliant!”

Merlin’s surprised. Two weeks off? Uther’s been a devil ever since the night they came home to find Beverly there, working Arthur terrible hours. Merlin had begun to wonder if he’d ever see his flat-mate again, and now Arthur will be around all the time? Of course, Merlin still has to work, but still.

Merlin tells Mordred he’ll see him the following day and hurries home, his thoughts fixed on Arthur. Merlin’s missed him. He’s woken up in Arthur’s bed a few times and taken a moment to stare at Arthur’s sleeping form beside him before slipping out and into his own room, but that hasn’t been near enough to fill up the hole that’s developed in his life.

Merlin thinks about what Mordred said—that Arthur has baggage but may be worth the trouble. Everything inside of Merlin says that Arthur is definitely worth the trouble. What he really wants to know is if Arthur would be open to a relationship with a man. He certainly has proven to be in no way homophobic, although Merlin has never seen solid evidence that Arthur is attracted to the same sex. But on the other hand, he hasn’t seen solid evidence that he’s attracted to the opposite sex, either. In fact, it’s been more to the contrary, what with his failed dates and how Arthur acted with Beverly, who seemed a nice, attractive girl as far as Merlin could tell.

When he arrives at their flat, it’s to be greeted by the tantalizing smell of roasting beef. Merlin walks through the foyer and into the kitchen, giving an appreciative sniff before continuing on into the living room. He notices that Taffy is visiting again, her bowl in its place on the table by the archway. Merlin automatically greets her, pulling off his jacket and looking toward the couch where Arthur is sprawled, asleep.

Merlin can’t help but smile at the picture. Poor Arthur, so exhausted that he has only removed his suit jacket and shoes and loosened his tie a bit. Arthur’s blond hair is mussed and his head has fallen back on the seat rest, exposing a tanned neck covered in a day’s stubble, Adam’s apple protruding prominently. Merlin’s cock stirs at the sight, and he sighs. If he finds out Arthur is heterosexual, it’s going to take some doing to train his body out of its natural reaction to him.

Merlin goes into the kitchen to check on the roast. Seeing that it needs quite a bit more time to cook, he goes back to Arthur and touches his arm gently. “Arthur? You want to go get into something comfortable?”

Arthur blinks up at him, eyes two dark pools of blue. He nods once, makes to get up, and then rolls to the side and goes back to sleep. Merlin chuckles. “I’ll help you if you like?” He gives Arthur’s shoulder a little shake, and Arthur mumbles something but otherwise doesn’t move.

Merlin walks into Arthur’s bedroom and opens a drawer, pulling out a pair of grey, soft, cotton lounge pants. He pulls open another drawer to choose a T-shirt. Some on the top are too new to look comfortable, so Merlin digs underneath for the softer, older ones. In doing so, he dislodges a piece of paper. When he goes to put it back, he stops, realizing what it is.

A sketch that Mordred made of Merlin perhaps a year ago. A nude. In Arthur’s drawer.

Merlin’s heart speeds up. Why would Arthur have this? Did Mordred give it to him? Why would Arthur hide it in his drawer?

Merlin carefully places the sketch back where it was and grabs a shirt, another Harry Potter he sees at a glance, and closes the drawer. Back in the living area, Arthur is exactly as Merlin left him. Merlin takes a seat on the couch, touching Arthur’s knee.

One of the Harry Potter movies plays on the DVD player; Merlin isn’t sure which, but it’s one of the newer ones because all the kids look older—just past their adolescent awkwardness. Merlin finds it endearing the way Arthur likes to unwind in front of children’s movies about wizardry. Arthur had been embarrassed about it at first, but Merlin made sure to let him know how much he enjoyed the movies, too. Scabber’s had leant a bit of credibility to that.

“I brought you a change of clothes,” Merlin tells Arthur. “Put these on and spread out, and I’ll take care of the rest of dinner. It smells wonderful.”

Arthur opens his eyes, looking at Merlin sleepily. “…was going to feed you.”

“And you have—you’ve done it all. I’ll just get it out when it’s ready.” Merlin reaches over and begins loosening Arthur’s tie, pulling it away from his neck. Arthur groggily unbuttons his shirt, cooperating with Merlin as he pulls it off his arms and helps him into his T-shirt.

Merlin looks at Arthur’s pants. “Um, want to unbuckle for me?” His cheeks redden. That sounded really raunchy, and Merlin suddenly very much wants to get on his knees between Arthur’s legs. He distracts himself with pulling off Arthur’s socks.

Arthur’s too out-of-it to notice Merlin’s unintentional innuendo, and he fumbles with sleepy fingers to get his belt undone and his trousers unzipped. He lifts up and Merlin strips the suit pants off, leaving Arthur in his blue boxer briefs. Merlin hands Arthur the lounge pants to put on and then helps him to stretch out, studiously avoiding looking at the bulge in Arthur’s pants. Why Merlin should do so when he’s sat and watched Arthur pose in the nude, he doesn’t know.

He straightens, surveying a much-more-comfortable-looking Arthur. His eyes move to Arthur’s T- shirt, which he hasn’t properly looked at until now. It’s white with words printed in burgundy and gold letters: I AM A SIRIUS FANGIRL.

Another joke from Arthur’s sister? It’s a rather odd one, Merlin thinks. For a straight bloke, anyway. Again, Merlin’s heart speeds up, pounding furiously in his chest.

“Thanks, Merlin,” Arthur murmurs from the couch, reaching out and briefly touching Merlin’s hand before snuggling down under the afghan and closing his eyes.

Merlin gently runs his fingers through Arthur’s hair. “You’re welcome.”

Merlin backs away, nibbling on his lower lip, his gaze pinned on one of Arthur’s bare feet sticking out from beneath the grey throw. There is just something really vulnerable and sexy about it. Resolutely, he turns and picks up Arthur’s expensive suit, taking it to Arthur’s room and hanging it up in the closet before heading into the kitchen. He occupies himself with setting the table, telling himself that if Arthur is gay, Arthur will let Merlin know if he wants him to know. If Arthur’s attracted to Merlin, he’ll let Merlin know that, too.

Merlin rubs the back of his neck, considering. The roast is at least twenty minutes from being done. He decides to take a shower, thinking that although the ball is definitely in Arthur’s court, it couldn’t hurt to push him into making a move. Just a little push. After all, Merlin has found himself so enamored with his flat-mate that he’s ended things with his fuck-buddy. He has a vested interest in this.

He showers, taking special care to look presentable in a tussled, I just toweled myself off kind of way. Then he slips on a pair of jean shorts with holes in all the right places, foregoing a shirt.

Once he has the roast carved and the plates filled, Merlin pads into the living room to wake up Arthur, whose lips are parted in sleep in a very kissable way. How Merlin wants to kiss Arthur awake, just press his mouth to Arthur’s over and over again…

He clears his throat and places his palm on the top of Arthur’s head. “Ready for some dinner, sleepyhead?” he asks.

Arthur groans and stretches, pointing his bare toes toward the foot of the couch. He opens his eyes and looks up at Merlin, taking in the bareness of his chest. Merlin raises a brow. “What?”

“Um, nothing,” Arthur says, rising to a sitting position.

Merlin looks down at his bare torso. “I just got out of the shower,” he says innocently. “Come on, dinner’s ready and on the table. Thanks for cooking, by the way.” As Arthur follows Merlin into the kitchen, Merlin is sure Arthur is looking at Merlin’s arse and legs by the way Arthur’s eyes snap up when Merlin says over his shoulder, “Mordred tells me you have the next two weeks off.”

“Yes,” Arthur smiles, sitting down at the table and looking a bit like a rumpled little boy just awakened for school. “My father told me to get some rest and have some fun. Or something to that effect.”

“Hmm,” Merlin hums, trying and failing to imagine Uther Pendragon saying that.

They begin to eat, and Merlin tells Arthur that Mordred’s finished with his portrait and wants them to pose together the next day.

“This respite from work couldn’t have come at a better time,” Arthur says. “I don’t know how I would’ve had the time if things kept on as they have been.”

“You’re completely knackered,” Merlin observes.

Arthur nods, then looks down at himself. “Thanks for helping me change. I didn’t need to wrinkle that Armani suit any more than I already had.” Arthur’s eyes move to Merlin’s bare chest and then away, and Merlin glances down at himself.

“Do you want me to go put on a shirt? I was just a bit hot after my shower.”

“What? No! No, why would I?”

Merlin shrugs. “I don’t know. I just thought you were looking at me funny.” Merlin’s fairly sure that “funny” was really “lustfully,” and he tries to quell the excitement rising within him. “So, what are you going to do on your holiday besides pose for Mordred?”

“Will there be time for anything else?” Arthur smiles.

“Sure. At night.” Merlin takes a drink of water. “Maybe you’d like to go to a club with me and the others.”

“I might at that,” Arthur says, and Merlin’s stomach flutters with excitement.

They finish eating and rinse off the dishes. Merlin gives Arthur a smile before heading to bed, thanking him for the delicious meal. He feeds Scabbers and takes his wheel out so he won’t have to listen to it all night, then changes into pyjama pants.

As he turns out his light, he can’t help but think about how Arthur looked sprawled out on the couch. He wonders what it would be like to spread out on top of him, skin to skin. It takes everything he has not to slide his hand inside his pants and beat off to the image in his mind.

~

On the way up Mordred’s porch steps the following day, Merlin stops Arthur with a hand to his sleeve. “Um, I’ve been meaning to say something, but it’s kind of embarrassing, so I keep putting it off.”

Arthur looks at him, expression open and curious. “What is it?”

Merlin licks his lips, and yes! Arthur’s eyes follow the motion. “Well, with all this nude posing,” Merlin looks down at his feet, a blush spreading up his neck. “I just want you to know that you’re a handsome bloke and, well, I might not be able to control my…reactions to you.” He slowly brings his eyes up to meet Arthur’s.

“Oh.” Arthur blinks. “Well, um, we lads can’t really help that sort of thing, can we? It’s understandable. No worries.”

Merlin smiles, relieved. Once inside, they climb the long staircase to the second floor and Arthur knocks on the door to Mordred’s and Elyan’s flat.

“Keep your shorts on!” Mordred’s voice is muffled before the door swings open. “At least until we get into the studio, that is.” Mordred winks and escorts them in.

No nonsense as usual, Mordred has the two men undressed and posed in no time. Mordred wants to paint the seated pose first, and fuck! This is nothing like that first time. Merlin is trying so hard not to stare at Arthur’s bum, Mordred has to tell him twice to get into position.

It is much more difficult for Merlin to maneuver himself than it was the last time; Merlin is so aware of Arthur’s naked body pressed close to him, and the way Merlin’s legs are bent over Arthur’s on the bed and their groins are—oh shit—touching.

Arthur is silent as Mordred positions Arthur’s arms over Merlin’s shoulders and Merlin’s hands around Arthur’s waist.

Merlin takes a last look into Arthur’s eyes before turning into Arthur’s neck as Mordred nudges Arthur’s head down to Merlin’s shoulder.

“Relax, mates,” Mordred orders when he gets behind the canvas. “I can see the tension in your muscles.”

Merlin takes a deep breath, exhales, and forces himself to let go. He feels Arthur following his lead, and they sink into each other a bit.

“Fabulous,” Mordred nods approvingly before launching into a story about how he and Gwaine went out the night before and got seriously pissed.

Merlin can smell Arthur’s skin. His neck is so close to Merlin’s mouth, Merlin could lick it if he wanted to.

He really wants to lick it.

He tries to concentrate on what Mordred is saying, but having Arthur so close, being able to feel the muscles of Arthur’s back beneath his hands, is killing him. Arthur’s thighs touch the underside of Merlin’s, and Merlin is acutely aware of the hairs touching his sensitive skin. More urgently, their groins press together, and Merlin’s right leg is curled so that the sole of his foot is touching Arthur’s bare arse. Merlin can already feel himself thickening, and he squeezes his eyes closed, glad he brought the subject up before it happened, because he knows Arthur’s got to feel it.

Mordred’s voice prattles on. “And Gwaine starts doing shots, and you know how he gets when he does them. Before you know it, we’re all over at Christopher’s and half-nude, because someone thought it would be a great idea to play strip poker,” Merlin can’t see Mordred, but he’s watched him paint enough to see him in his mind’s eye, tilting his head this way and that as his wrist controls the brush. “And you know who I ended up pulling, Merlin? Anton, that prissy-arsed ex of Geo’s. But gawd, the man can fuck. Fucked me into the mattress, he did. Well, the floor, actually. We were in the parlor of Christopher’s house-- I have the rug burns to prove it, believe me.”

Merlin is positive he can feel Arthur hardening against him. At first he wasn’t sure, but now he’s certain of it. Arthur’s cock is hot and actually pushing against Merlin’s. He can hear Arthur breathing—feel it against his shoulder, warm and a little rapid. If Mordred didn’t have a couple of noisy fans running to keep them cool, Merlin thinks Mordred would be able to hear the both of them breathing by now. More than that, Merlin can feel Arthur’s heart beating against his own chest. It’s so difficult not to just turn his head and kiss Arthur’s shoulder. It’s right there!

Merlin’s never posed with someone else before. It should be weird, but it isn’t, and Merlin is certain it’s because this is Arthur he’s with. Arthur, who sings Neil Diamond to his plants and talks to fish, who watches Harry Potter and wears T-shirts with homosexual innuendos on them. Arthur, who sleeps curled in a knot unless Merlin’s in bed with him, feeds Merlin’s hamster when Merlin forgets to, and puts up a snobby front at work when he’s really just a huge pile of sweetness. Arthur, who feeds the pigeons, buys Merlin’s favorite chocolate digestives, and gets teary-eyed during ads with old people in them.

Merlin’s so full of feelings for his flat-mate right now, it’s all he can do not to embarrass himself completely by either hugging him to death, professing his overwhelming affection, or rutting up against him until one or both of them comes.

Merlin’s not sure which of these would be more humiliating.

The need to take his palm off Arthur’s back, reach between them, and take them both into his hand—run his thumb up over the tip of Arthur’s cock until Arthur gasps with pleasure-- is excruciating. Arthur has got to be aware of how aroused Merlin is. It’s probably a good thing they can’t see one another’s faces. Merlin has a sudden fantasy of Mordred leaving the room for something and Arthur yanking Merlin’s knees up so that he falls flat onto his back, and then taking Merlin right there on the bed. The vision affects Merlin so strongly, he shivers, and Arthur brushes Merlin’s shoulder with his fingers as though to settle him.

After a while, Merlin is able to calm himself down by breathing deeply and doing a little meditation. Arthur seems to have done the same, as Merlin no longer feels Arthur’s prick pressing against his like a hot branding iron.

Time ticks by, and Arthur’s stomach growls loudly. They both laugh.

“Patience, mates,” Mordred tells them. “I’m on a roll, here.”

“Mm, roll,” Arthur murmurs hungrily, and Merlin cracks up. He feels Arthur shaking with laughter, and then hears a loud sigh from Mordred followed by the paint brush hitting the tray.

“Fuck. Fine. I can see I won’t get any more out of the two of you today. Get up, then.”

That session proves to be the most difficult. After that when they pose, Merlin thinks he does a pretty good job of hiding his lust for Arthur by absorbing himself in work-related thoughts. He tries not to think about where he is and who he’s touching, and thankfully, Mordred doesn’t require him to talk. Arthur is similarly quiet, and there isn’t a repeat of the raging hard-ons they both had the first time they posed together.

The fourth session seems to go on forever, though, because Mordred can’t get the shading right. Arthur smells particularly good—Merlin thinks he’s gotten a new aftershave—and Merlin’s frankly horny, having given up his fuck buddy. He complains a bit, only to be shushed by the temperamental artist, and Merlin gets the feeling that Arthur’s laughing at him.

“Git,” he mutters against Arthur’s shoulder. “You owe me a beer for making fun of me.”

Arthur grunts. “Fine. You can go with me to meet my sister and her husband for drinks. I was going to ask you anyway.”

“Sounds like fun,” Merlin replies, remembering the night Morgana and Leon brought a drunk Arthur home and put him to bed. They seemed nice.

“Mordred can come along, too,” Arthur says. “Maybe he knows a good pub.”

Finally, finally, the session is over. They unwind from one another and spend a fair amount of time stretching their muscles as Mordred puts away his paints.

“This is going to be a stunning portrait,” Mordred states with satisfaction. Arthur steps into his pants and walks over to look at the painting. He smiles.

“It’s beautiful, Mordred,” he tells him with real sincerity in his voice. Mordred beams at him, and Merlin falls a little harder, because Arthur is just so...well, Arthur.

On their way to the kitchen, Mordred asks, “Merlin, have you done your Christmas shopping yet? What should I get Elyan?”

“I don’t know—something for his sculpting, maybe? Are you having a party again this year?”

“Of course!” Mordred turns to Arthur. “Arthur, my Christmas parties are legendary. We have a blast. If it weren’t for the bloody shopping, Christmas would be perfect.”

“We could do like we did that one year and everybody has to shop at Toyotica,” Merlin suggests.

“Oi.” Mordred shakes his head and looks at Arthur. “We played Dirty Santa, I got the gigantic dildo, and Gwaine stole it from me. I ended up with raspberry lube and a sack of ribbed condoms.”

“I got vibrating nipple clamps,” Merlin laughed. “If I remember correctly, you wanted those, but you’d gotten greedy and traded too many times.”

“I ended up with them anyway,” Mordred smirks, opening the refrigerator door and rummaging.

“You lifted my nipple clamps?” Merlin asks, mock-horrified. “Is nothing sacred?”

“You only would’ve wasted them,” Mordred replies, pulling out some sandwich meat and condiments and setting them on the counter. “Mister ‘My Nips are so Sensitive.’ It’s not like you’ve noticed they’re missing, obviously.”

Merlin colours, looking over at where Arthur is regarding him curiously, eyebrow raised.

“Anyway,” Merlin clears his throat. “It’s fun. I’ll spread the word we’re doing it again this year.” He begins a group text on his mobile, glad for the opportunity to hide his flaming face. His nipples really are sensitive, but he could’ve done without Arthur knowing that.

“You need to join in this year,” Mordred pats Arthur on the back. “Get Merlin to take you by Toyotica—the most fabulous adult toy store ever.”

Merlin looks up from his mobile and watches Arthur for a reaction. He seems a little uncomfortable, but smiles at Mordred and nods. Merlin wonders what it will be like taking Arthur into an adult toy store, and his mind fogs over with the idea for a moment before Mordred brings him out of it by placing a plate of food in front of him.

While they eat, Arthur calls his sister to make arrangements. They pick up Gwaine on their way to the pub, then end up texting Lance, Gwen, and Elyan to meet them there.

The weather’s gotten very cold, and the little pub is chilly. Merlin doesn’t warm up enough to unwind the blue scarf from around his neck until he’s on his second pint. Arthur teases him about having bad circulation, but his expression is fond. Merlin uses the excuse to slide a little closer to Arthur than he normally might, and Arthur slides his arm along the back of Merlin’s chair.

Leon and Morgana arrive, and Arthur introduces them all around. They seamlessly fit into the group, Merlin immediately taking to Leon, who, although quiet, has a dry wit and enjoys old monster movies.

“They’re having karaoke tonight,” Morgana says after a bit of general talk. “Arthur, you must sing.” She looks at the others. “He used to do it sometimes in uni. He’s quite good.”

Arthur shakes his head. Having rested a good part of the week, he seems more relaxed than he has since Merlin met him, laughing a lot, white teeth occasionally flashing in the low light over their table. Merlin’s tongue itches to run over those teeth, and he quickly ducks his head into his drink, thinking he’d better get control of himself and fast, before he scares Arthur off.

“You really should,” Merlin agrees. “You have a great voice, and didn’t you say you’d try it?”

“I believe we spoke of doing a duet,” Arthur reminds him.

“I don’t know if this place is that gay friendly,” Mordred laughs.

Elyan, Gwen, and Lance arrive just then with someone else in tow that Merlin thinks he’s met a time or two in the past, but whose name escapes him. He’s on the short side, with long, dirty-blond hair tied back at his neck and a well-trimmed goatee. When he sheds his coat, Merlin sees a tattooed emerald snake curling up his well-muscled arm.

Mordred stands, giving the man a hug. “Donovan! Haven’t seen you in a rat’s age. What have you been up to, mate? Before the man can answer, Mordred’s introducing him to Arthur, Leon, and Morgana, and then saying, “You remember Merlin?”

Merlin smiles and nods to Donovan as he takes a seat across from him between Arthur and Mordred. Morgana excuses herself to go to the ladies’ room.

“Still painting?” Mordred asks as Elyan and Leon go to the bar to get drinks.

“Of course!” When Donovan smiles, it shows all his teeth. “Working on a new portrait now. You?”

Mordred smirks. “A series. Quite a big break, actually.”

Donovan shakes his head. “Wish I could get my stuff out there. No one’s showing—don’t know how I’ll ever make a dime at this. I’ll be a waiter forever.” He smiles as Elyan hands him his drink. “Actually, I’m kind of down on my luck right now--can’t pay the rent. I was wondering if I could crash at yours for a couple of weeks. Elyan didn’t seem to think it’d be a problem, but I wanted to check with you first.”

“Course you can, mate,” Mordred winks at him. “You can help us get ready for the Christmas do.”

“Dirty Santa again, eh?” Gwaine looks at Merlin, eyebrow cocked. “Got your text.”

Merlin nods, grinning into his beer. “Still got the giant dildo?”

Gwaine laughs. “Sleep with it every night.”

“Up your bum?” Elyan elbows him and laughs.

Someone announces karaoke, and patrons begin arranging their seats so they can see the small stage set up near the bar. A balding bloke with red suspenders gets up and belts out such a horrendous rendition of Journey’s “Open Arms” that it’s a real struggle to keep a straight face throughout. Merlin knows if he looks at Arthur or Mordred he’ll crack up, so he keeps his head down and pretends fascination with the tablecloth. Morgana returns from the loo mid-song, her eyes wide as she slips into her seat.

“Arthur, you know you can top that,” she says, hand on heart.

Arthur just shakes his head.

Next, a small girl with tight red curls sings Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” She isn’t too bad, although she has trouble hitting a few notes. For the most part, everyone in the pub is kind and applauds each attempt. Merlin’s developing quite a buzz, but when Mordred announces he’s giving it a go, Merlin can’t help but groan and sink a little in his seat.

“That bad?” Arthur whispers.

“Just wait,” Merlin replies.

Mordred chooses “Grace Kelly” by Mika and sings it as flamboyantly as homosexually possible, slinking about the stage and jutting his arse in a few faces. He does pretty well hitting the extreme high notes, though, and by the end, everyone’s clapping and whistling for him.

“Wow,” Arthur says. “He really knows how to cut loose.”

“You used to,” Morgana tells him, taking a drink.

Arthur frowns, annoyed. “Morgana, that was in a flat of twelve girls after half a bottle of whiskey. Not the same thing at all.”

Merlin tries to imagine a drunk Arthur singing karaoke with a bunch of uni girls in frilly pyjamas and gets the giggles. Particularly when he puts Arthur in the frilly pyjamas. Arthur turns irate eyes upon him. “What are you laughing at?”

“Just can’t see it, mate,” he says, grinning like a loon. It’s the beer—he’s had way too much.

“What do you mean?” Arthur asks.

“Did you wear a frilly gown?” Merlin asks, nudging Arthur in the arm. Arthur, fairly tipsy himself, appears to be trying to work this question out.

“No?”

Neither has noticed Morgana’s disappeared from the table until she’s announcing Arthur’s name on the stage.

Arthur swings his head that way, eyes as large as saucers. “I’m going to kill her!”

Merlin swallows. “It’s okay, mate. Just pretend we’re your plants. I’ll be Mabel.” Merlin starts giggling again; he just can’t help it. He really shouldn’t drink this much beer.

Everyone’s looking at Arthur, and Merlin really has to admire the way he straightens his shoulders and takes the challenge, the way his sister must have known he would. He gets out of his seat to wild applause from their table, along with Gwaine stomping his feet, and Merlin watches as Arthur confers with Morgana. When she returns to their table, she leans in and tells Merlin, “I chose something we used to make him sing a lot. It’s from Pretty in Pink, my friend Sasha’s favourite movie.”

The music begins, loud in the now-hushed pub, and Merlin recognizes it. Arthur doesn’t look nervous, but Merlin thinks he is. The way he can tell is by the closed-off look on Arthur’s face and the stiffness of his spine. But he gives a roguish smile for the audience and pushes his hair off his face. He looks so handsome in his dark jeans and soft yellow button down shirt, Merlin can’t help himself—he lifts two fingers to his mouth and lets out a shrill whistle. Arthur meets his eyes and turns rosey red, but dutifully begins to sing, not even having to watch the screen for the words. Arthur’s voice is smooth and rich and it sends a shiver up Merlin’s spine. Three lines in, someone in the back of the room gives a catcall, and Arthur relaxes a little.

If you leave, don’t leave now
Please don’t take my heart away
Promise me, just one more night
Then we’ll go our separate ways
We’ve always had time on our sides
Now it’s fading fast
Every second, every moment
We’ve got to, We’ve got to make it last

Merlin’s mesmerized and realizes his mouth is hanging open. He quickly closes it. Gwaine whistles loud and long from beside him as Arthur begins the chorus.

I touched you once, I touched you twice
I won’t let go at any price
I need you now like I needed you then
You always said we'd still be friends someday

It seems to Merlin that there are numerous women and men who can’t take their eyes off Arthur as he sings. Merlin drags his eyes away long enough to notice that Morgana has a proud grin on her face, and Leon is also smiling hugely.

“Sing it, Arthur!” Mordred calls out before Arthur starts the next line, and Arthur’s mouth quirks at the side. He gets a little more into it, gesturing a bit and making the girls at the closest table to the stage make swoony noises. Merlin doesn’t blame them. And then Arthur really starts to milk it, unbuttoning his shirt a few buttons and swiveling those hips.

If you leave I won't cry
I won't waste one single day
But if you leave don't look back
I'll be running the other way
Seven years went under the bridge
Like time was standing still
Heaven knows what happens now 
You’ve got to, You’ve got to say you will

Merlin visibly jolts when Arthur’s eyes meet his.

I touched you once, I touched you twice
I won't let go at any price
I need you now like I needed you then
You always said we'd meet again 

The chorus repeats as Merlin’s heart melts and his groin hardens. He realizes Morgana’s giving him appraising glances, but fortunately the rest of their table is busy hooting and hollering for Arthur as he begins wrapping up the song, hitting a perfect note on the last “Don’t look back” which melts into a general buzz in Merlin’s ears as he realizes just how gone he really is for the man.

When Arthur returns to the table, he’s all smiles and blushes amidst the pats on the back from all his mates, and he kisses Morgana on the cheek before taking his seat and downing the fresh beer Mordred got for him. Merlin can’t peel his eyes away from him, and is glad when some girl takes the spotlight and begins to butcher a Christina Aguilera song.

Soon Morgana and Leon announce they have to leave. “Some of us have to work in the morning,” she points out, ruffling her brother’s hair.

Lance and Gwen get to their feet. “I have an early appointment as well,” Lance tells them.  

“I don’t have to work tomorrow, thanks to you, Arthur,” Gwen grins. “I can’t believe you finally took a vacation!”

“I guess it was a bit past due,” Arthur admits, leaning back against the wall and looking a little drunk. Merlin’s reached the point where he’s comfortably numb, and he knows if he drinks any more, he’ll be sick.

He watches as Lance and Gwen gather their coats and wave goodbye, leaving the pub with their arms linked together.

“Let’s all shove off, shall we?” Merlin suggests after the next karaoke disaster finishes his song. “I don’t want to get to the vomiting stage.”

“No,” Arthur shakes his head exaggeratedly. “Can’t have that.”

“You’re an adorable drunk, you know that?” Merlin asks, unable to control his tongue, which is beginning to feel like a wad of cotton in his mouth.

Arthur looks pleased. “You think I’m adorable?”

“We all think you’re adorable,” Gwaine cuts in, getting to his feet. “Now we’d better get our drunken selves to the tube station.” They’d come in Arthur’s car and parked it at his flat, walking to the nearby pub. Donovan and Elyan came with Lance and Gwen, and start arguing cab versus tube.

“You all can crash at ours,” Arthur surprises Merlin by saying. He looks to Merlin, who quickly nods.

 “Absolutely!”

“Mordy, wakey wakey!” Donovan sing-songs, ruffling Mordred’s hair where he’s face-planted into his folded arms on the table. “Time to call it a night!”

“Can’t call it a night,” Mordred complains, blinking at them. “I haven’t pulled yet.”

“You have a pocket full of phone numbers to go through later,” Donovan lies.

His words have the desired effect; Mordred rises, Gwaine helping him steady himself, and the group heads out into the cold night.

Elyan wraps an arm around Merlin’s shoulders, leaning heavily on him as they walk.  “You should really let me sculpt you, Merlin,” he says drunkenly, almost pushing Merlin off the kerb as he careens sideways. “You have all these long, lean lines to you.” He hiccups. “It’d be boo-tiful.”

Merlin laughs, head spinning more than a little. He feels silly. “Maybe. Gwaine, help me out here, he’s heavy!”

Gwaine gets under Elyan’s other shoulder to prop him up, and they continue walking. Arthur walks ahead of the group, singing “Cracklin’ Rosie” a little too loudly. Donovan shushes him, laughing.

“The birds’ll be throwing their undies at you, mate, like they do Neil Di-er-mond!”

Arthur just shakes his head and continues singing.

When they reach the building, Donovan whistles low. “Nice place. You a pimp or something?” Arthur smiles, standing aside as the stony-faced doorman opens the double glass doors for them.

“Do not puke in the lift,” Merlin tells Elyan. “Seriously. This is a posh place. So posh.” Merlin’s words slur a little. “People like dodgy Mr. Astor and his dodgy fish live here.”

“Taffy’s not dodgy, Merlin,” Arthur corrects, laughing so hard he’s holding his stomach. “How can a fish be dodgy?”

“That’s part of my job here—to protect Arthur from the dodgers,” Merlin says proudly, knowing his smile is just this side of simple-looking. His friends’ faces are all smudged, as though someone has run their thumb across them.

“Did you draw these faces with yer charcoal, Mordred?” He asks his friend, who looks flummoxed by the question.

Arthur laughs harder, sliding to the floor of the lift, when Mordred asks, “What the hell’s a dodger?”

Elyan looks around at all the brass and glass in the lift. “Poshity posh!” He belches and holds his fist to his mouth before toppling sideways into Donovan, who props him up.

“Arthur is a prince for letting us stay the night here,” Mordred announces, resting his hand on Arthur’s blond head as the lift reaches the top floor. “Prince Arthur, prince of the princely…” he waves his hand, “princes.”

“Well put,” Arthur agrees, reaching up to pat Mordred’s hand. Arthur’s blue eyes are a bit glassy, making Merlin think of tropical seas.

He wants to tell Arthur this. He staggers over to where Arthur sits, bending at the waist to stare into those eyes, their noses almost touching. “Your eyes are so…gassy, ther like…topical peas.”

Arthur looks impressed.

The doors open and they help Arthur up. Arthur fumbles with his keys, but he gets the door unlocked and open with minimal trouble for his inebriated state. Merlin hurries to gather together enough pillows and blankets for everyone, only tripping over his own feet twice. Gwaine claims the leather recliner, kicking his shoes in the corner and stripping to his plaid boxer shorts as if he lives there, and Elyan and Mordred double up on the couch, fully clothed with a head on each end.

“Why don’t you just sleep in my bed with me? In my bed?” Arthur suggests to Merlin as he leans against the wall looking disheveled and highly fuckable, in Merlin’s opinion. “Then Donovan can –“ he motions toward Merlin’s room with his hand, as though forming the rest of the sentence is too much trouble for his drunk brain to manage.

That probably isn’t a good idea, Merlin’s own drunk brain tells him. “Okay,” he says aloud. Alcohol obviously disconnects said drunk brain from mouth.

Snores soon come from the living room, and Merlin downs his meds with a glass of water in the kitchen before heading into his bedroom to get his pyjama pants.  He finds Donovan studying the pictures on the wall.

“Mordy’s really good,” Donovan says, wavering a little on his feet. “I’m not surprised he got such a sweet commission.”

“You’re good, too,” Merlin assures him, removing the wheel from Scabbers’ tank and setting it on the dresser a little harder than he means to. His limbs aren’t working correctly.

Donovan smiles, deep dimples showing in his cheeks. “Thanks, mate, but sometimes I think maybe I should give it up.” He hiccups. “Here I am, not even able to cover my rent. And it’s not the first time, either. Pathetic, I tell you.”

“It’ll pass,” Merlin pats him on the shoulder. “Believe in yourself, mate.” He walks to the door, still a bit unsteady. “Do you need anything?”

“I’m fine. Thanks, Merlin.” Donovan sits heavily on the edge of the bed and takes off his shoes, yawning.

Merlin shuts the door behind him. He finds Arthur sitting up in bed reading, or maybe just staring at a book.

“Everyone settled?” Arthur asks, removing his sexy wire frames and setting them, along with the book, on the table beside him and watching as Merlin peels off his jeans.

“Yeah.” Merlin wonders if Arthur would shag him while wearing those hot glasses. He shakes his head, reminding himself that he’s still drunk, and so is Arthur, and no one’s going to be shagging anyone.

He’s forgotten his pyjama pants and looks over his shoulder across the hall. The light’s out.

“What’s the matter?” Arthur asks from his nest of pillows.

“Just hate to bother Donovan again. Forgot my pyjamas.” Merlin’s wearing a button down shirt with his jeans. Not something he wants to sleep in. He stands for a moment kind of helplessly staring down at himself while he waits for his inebriated brain to catch up. “I can sleep in my shorts, but not this shirt.” He begins unbuttoning it with fingers that feel three times thicker than usual.

“Grab a T-shirt from the second drawer,” Arthur tells him sleepily. Merlin turns, sliding open the drawer.

“God, I shouldn’t have had so much to drink,” Arthur opines as Merlin fumbles and pulls a shirt out of the drawer. Two more come out with it, and the sketch Merlin saw earlier flutters to the floor. Merlin freezes, taking an extra couple of seconds to realize what he’s looking at, and glances up at Arthur, who’s sat up in bed, looking stricken. Merlin bites his lip, wondering how he can possibly get them through the next few moments, particularly since Merlin can’t string a cohesive thought together. His head isn’t clear, and he can’t for the life of him think what to say.

He shuts the door before picking the sketch up off the floor. Arthur makes a sound—not a word, but probably an attempt at one. Merlin studies the sketch.

“I was skinnier then,” he comments, because he was, and the silence in the room is too thick. Adrenalin works to clear his head a bit. Merlin thinks if Arthur’s going to freak out, he should do it now. He feels for Arthur; he really does. There’s just no good excuse for having this sketch tucked away in his drawer. Arthur had to have hidden it there because he liked it, and he has to feel humiliated that Merlin’s discovered it. Merlin expects Arthur to cover that humiliation somehow, and the easiest way would be with anger or denial, particularly with the alcohol fueling him. Therefore, Merlin jerks his head up in surprise at Arthur’s words.

“I think you look beautiful.”

Merlin meets Arthur’s gaze, swallows, then slowly puts the sketch back into the drawer and closes it. He climbs into bed.

“Aren’t you going to ask me why it’s in there?” Arthur asks after a strained moment occupied only by Merlin scooting down in the bed and switching off the lamp.

“You’ll tell me when you’re ready,” Merlin replies into his pillow. “Besides, we’re both a little drunk tonight.”

Arthur is silent for a long moment before he settles beside Merlin in the darkness.

Part of Merlin kicks himself for not just forcing Arthur to explain. Bring it into the open. But Arthur seems so fragile and uncertain, Merlin just can’t do that to him. Besides, it’s unfair to take advantage of Arthur when his tongue’s loosened by drink. He can feel Arthur studying him in the darkness, but keeps his eyes shut.

Arthur will talk when he’s ready.

~~

Arthur lies awake for a long time, avoiding closing his eyes, because when he does, the room spins around. His adrenalin’s still thrumming in his veins from drinking and singing in public and from Merlin finding that damned sketch in his drawer. It’s odd having people in his flat. Arthur’s so used to being alone, or lately with just Merlin. Various snuffling noises and sounds of people turning over or snorting in their sleep disrupt the usual quiet. Merlin lies beside him, his sleeping pill already having taken effect and put him in a deep sleep. Arthur wishes he were so lucky. All he can think about is the look on Merlin’s face when the sketch drifted to the floor. What must he have thought? He has to now realize that, not only does Arthur fancy men, but he fancies one man in particular.

Merlin breathes out beside him, and Arthur wonders if Merlin will sleep-walk tonight and if he does, where to? Why does Merlin always come to Arthur’s bed when he walks in his sleep? Does it have something to do with the layout of the flat? Is Arthur’s bedroom situated like Merlin’s had been in his last flat or perhaps the place where he grew up?

The minutes tick by and when Merlin does sit up, he turns his head as though looking around.  Arthur holds his breath, waiting, but Merlin lies back down again, settling against Arthur’s side, one arm wrapped around Arthur, nestling close. Arthur breathes out, relaxes into Merlin, and soon falls asleep himself.

In the morning, Arthur finds Gwaine in the kitchen with a pot of tea, face covered in stubble and hair standing up crazily. He grins sheepishly at Arthur and offers him a cup. Arthur accepts and sits down opposite at the table.

“Had to find your pain reliever,” Gwaine tells him. “I’m a bit hung over. Thanks for letting us crash here—I’ll wake everyone up and get them all out in a bit.”

“No hurry,” Arthur tells him, and finds that he means it. He sips at his tea, then reaches for the bottle of paracetamol and shakes out a few, taking them with his next sip.

“So, this Dirty Santa thing…” Arthur begins, for lack of anything better to say. “How exactly does that work?”

“You’ve never played Dirty Santa?” Gwaine grins. “It’s fun. Just show up to the party with a wrapped gift—in this case, something from Toyotica or some other sex toy shop. It’s the best place, though, ‘cause it’s huge and has everything. You ever been there?”

Arthur shakes his head.

“Thought not. Too white bread. Bet you’ve never even used a toy.”

Arthur straightens in his chair. “I’ve…” he searches his brain. The closest he’s ever gotten to using a sex toy was examining Morgana’s vibrator when he found it in her drawer at age sixteen. He sags. “You’re right. I am white bread. Totally bleached and lacking vitamins, in fact.”

Gwaine laughs loudly, highly amused. “That’s okay. Hang with us a while, and you’ll be whole wheat in no time.” He winks, and Arthur feels a tingle below the waist. Gwaine’s sexy, there’s no doubt about that. But Arthur knows that the real object of his affection lies asleep in his bed at that moment.

“Anyway,” Gwaine continues, “you draw a number and choose the corresponding gift. You open it, and everybody gets a look. As the game progresses, each person has the choice of keeping their gift, choosing another unopened package, or taking someone else’s opened present. You can only do that a certain amount of times, though. Two, if I remember correctly.”

Arthur nods. It does sound kind of fun. It’s the sex toy part that worries him.

“Are you hungry?” he asks Gwaine.

“Does Ricky Martin take it up the arse?” Gwaine replies rhetorically.

Arthur chuckles and gets up.

The smells wafting throughout the flat soon wake everyone, and they congregate in various stages of hung-over in the kitchen. Merlin appears still in boxer briefs and the shirt he’d pulled out of Arthur’s drawer the night before. Arthur is a little dismayed to see it’s the fangirl shirt Arthur found himself wearing the other night when Merlin helped him change. What Merlin had thought of it, Arthur isn’t sure, because Merlin never mentioned it. Another good indicator that Merlin suspects, Arthur thinks.

“Nice shirt!” Elyan says immediately, and Merlin looks down, evidently unaware of which one he’s put on. No wonder, Arthur muses, as the sketch took their attention from everything else when it toppled from between the shirts the night before. Merlin doesn’t reply, just asks for some tea.

“My head feels like a lead balloon,” Merlin moans, taking a seat at the table, and Arthur passes him the pain reliever.

“Mate, your bed is so comfortable,” Donovan tells Merlin, leaning against the counter and scarfing up the eggs and beans Arthur prepared. “Sorry to put you out of it, but maybe you and Arthur like to share a bed sometimes?” he waggles his eyebrows.

Merlin chokes on his tea, but Arthur just smiles. He finds that this doesn’t make him uncomfortable in the least—the fact that Donovan obviously assumes Arthur’s gay. It actually feels really good. Remembering how Merlin wrapped himself around Arthur the night before while he was sleeping gives Arthur the courage to say, “We do, actually.”

Merlin’s eyes widen a bit, and Arthur can’t help it—maybe singing in front of a pub full of people did something for his confidence-- he boldly reaches with his bare foot and touches Merlin’s under the table, rubbing Merlin’s smooth ankle with his toes while continuing to sip his tea with an innocent look plastered on his face.

Merlin immediately begins choking for real, and Mordred has to jerk his arm up above his head while slamming his back with the palm of his hand until the coughing and sputtering subsides. Arthur gives Merlin an apologetic look as Merlin grabs a napkin and wipes the tears from his face. God, I suck at this, Arthur thinks. I try to flirt and end up almost killing him.

Elyan shakes his head at Merlin. “It’s just tea, mate, not that beer you were guzzling last night. Slow down.” He mops up the rest of his beans with a piece of toast, shoving it in his mouth and sucking on his fingers. “Delicious, Arthur. You’ll make someone a great wife someday.” He checks his watch. “I have a workshop in an hour. Gonna catch the tube.” He stands up and takes his plate to the sink.

“We’ll go with you,” Mordred announces, gesturing to Donovan. Gwaine decides he’ll get a cab to his. The group breaks up, quietly folding blankets and tidying up before they go.

Arthur heads for the shower, telling Mordred they’ll be by his place later in the day for a posing session.

When Arthur comes out of his bedroom twenty minutes later, clean and dressed, Merlin’s alone in the flat and has the dishes running in the dishwasher.

He’s finishing up his cup of tea, leaning on the counter and looking incredibly sexy in just his boxer briefs and Arthur’s T-shirt, his dark hair ruffled. He meets Arthur’s eyes and blushes adorably. Arthur stops in the archway, arrested at the sight.

“Arthur?” Merlin questions, eyes big and blue.

“I’m…” Arthur begins, determined to get the words out but still wondering how he’ll say this. “I’m rubbish at this.  I mean, I’ve never...” He swallows, feeling stupid. He takes a deep breath. He’s going to say it. Out loud.

“Merlin, I—I’m gay.”

Merlin takes a breath and then nods. Arthur sags against the archway, so incredibly relieved that Merlin doesn’t look particularly surprised. Of course Merlin suspected. Of course he did.

Merlin puts down his cup and comes forward.

“It’s okay, Arthur,” Merlin says. “Really.”

Arthur swallows, throat dry. “I know. I—I just. Um.” He shakes his head. “Shit.” Taking a few deep breaths, he starts again.

“I’m gay, but obviously in the closet. My father would disinherit me, but I’m starting not to care, to be honest.” He looks down at his hands then tucks them up under his arms.

“I’m tired of hiding who I am. I’m stuck in this—this awful cycle of just living the way he wants me to, and not how I want to. I decided to break that cycle when I answered your ad for a flat-mate. I needed—to not be alone anymore. I’ve never really…” Arthur finds himself blushing, “made any friends. Of course, I didn’t know that you were gay, but that’s just made everything better, you know? I mean, easier for me to, I don’t know, figure things out for myself.”

Merlin nods, understanding and sympathy in his eyes.

“And I don’t want you to think I’m some sort of creeper…that drawing of Mordred’s,” Arthur rushes to assure him. “I just, well. I found it in Mordred’s sketch pad, and I had to have it. It’s so, well, spectacular, really. But I haven’t been wanking over it or anything…”

“I’m not sure I would’ve minded if you had been,” Merlin admits with a sly smile, and Arthur’s suddenly harder than a rock and the room seems a lot smaller, with Merlin too far away.

“I really like you,” Arthur manages to croak out. “A lot. But I’m inexperienced and pathetic, and why would you want me?” He finds he can’t meet Merlin’s eyes, but then Merlin is suddenly right there, inches away, warmth seeping off him and into Arthur.

“What? Why would I want you?” Merlin asks incredulously, and Arthur finds himself staring at the pulse point in Merlin’s long, pale neck. “How about because you’re gorgeous, and…and sweet, and incredibly special?”

Arthur is absolutely positive they are alone in the flat, or he’d turn and look behind him to see who Merlin is really saying these things to. He lifts his eyes to lock with Merlin’s.

“You talk to your plants…” Merlin says, shaking his head. “And sing to them.”

“Which makes me sound a bit bonkers,” Arthur points out, and Merlin’s so close now, Arthur can’t breathe properly.

“And you sleep curled up in a ball,” Merlin continues.

“Pathetic,” Arthur winces.

“Except when I’m in bed with you,” Merlin continues, touching Arthur’s hand with two fingers, which sends a jolt of awareness throughout Arthur’s body. “Then you unfold and gravitate toward me. I love that.”

Arthur’s lips part. He’s shaking. He can feel Merlin’s breath against his face, smell the tea on it.

“I—I like it when you get into bed with me. I’ve always liked it,” Arthur admits quietly into the small space between them. “You were doing it, and I never told you. I didn’t want you to stop. I wanted to be near you.” Arthur can’t put a stopper on the embarrassing confessions tumbling from his mouth. It’s like Merlin’s pulling them out of him by proximity alone. He stares into Merlin’s azure eyes. “I watched you sleeping. Talked to you.” He swallows hard. “That’s creepy as fuck, isn’t it?”

Merlin reaches out and runs his finger down Arthur’s arm, and Arthur shivers. “I think it’s sweet,” Merlin states emphatically. “Sexy.”

“Merlin, I…” Arthur stops because Merlin’s brought his hand up to cup Arthur’s chin, his thumb moving slowly over Arthur’s cheek before dragging across his lips.

“Can I kiss you, Arthur?” Merlin asks, sooty lashes lowering.

“Oh—yes, please,” Arthur breathes before meeting him half-way, and fuck, Merlin’s mouth is warm and gentle, teasing, and it tastes so good. Arthur’s sinking and actually feels his knees giving way before Merlin wraps strong arms around him, holding him up against the wall while his lips continue to move over Arthur’s in playful, teasing kisses.

Arthur hears himself groan as Merlin’s tongue slips between his lips, meeting the tip of his own, and then they’re gasping into one another’s mouths, greedily exploring, teeth clashing.

Merlin’s body pushes hard and firm against Arthur’s, and Arthur can’t help but slide his hands southward, gripping onto Merlin’s tight arse through the boxer briefs. God, he’s such a perfect handful. Arthur knew he would be. He squeezes rhythmically, swallowing Merlin’s moan before taking Merlin’s bottom lip and sucking on it. Merlin’s hands curl in Arthur’s hair, tugging, and Arthur can feel Merlin’s erection, hard and insistent, against his hip.

As a tidal wave of desire rolls over him, Arthur slips his hands beneath the waistband of Merlin’s pants, thrilling at the feel of bare skin as he inches down to caress soft, pliant arse cheeks.

“God, I love your arse,” Arthur breathes. “I’ve been staring at it for weeks.”

To Arthur’s delight, Merlin goes a little bit wild then, sucking air through his nose and clutching Arthur tighter, angling his head to better plunder Arthur’s mouth with his tongue while pushing Arthur against the wall.

“Arthur,” Merlin gasps. “Oh, fuck, Arthur…” Arthur’s fingers have found Merlin’s crack and he squeezes, spreading the cheeks wide. Merlin moans low and needy, and Arthur latches onto Merlin’s long neck with his mouth, loving the salty-sweet taste of his skin. He laps his tongue in smooth, long strokes over every inch of it, nibbling at skin with his front teeth, listening as Merlin’s breathing accelerates, and almost doesn’t register what’s happening when Merlin suddenly jerks in Arthur’s arms, urgently pressing his groin against Arthur’s hip bone and gasping inarticulately.

Arthur lifts his head in wonder. “Did you just…?”

Merlin’s cheeks infuse with red. He nods, breathless.

“Oh, my God,” Arthur says, unable to believe it. “Did I really just make you come?”

Merlin gives Arthur a playful shove on the shoulders, but Arthur doesn’t let go of him. He feels a huge grin spreading over his face. “I am such a stud!”

Merlin puffs out an incredulous laugh. “Shut up!” He kisses Arthur, fiercely, before sinking to his knees on the floor, long fingers unbuttoning Arthur’s jeans.

Suddenly, Arthur’s tingling all over.

“What are you doing?” Arthur rasps out, although he knows. He just desperately wants to hear Merlin say it.

“What do you think I’m doing?” Merlin rolls his eyes. “I’m going to suck you off. I’ve wanted to do it forever.”

“Oh, my God,” Arthur falls back against the archway, cock throbbing painfully as Merlin draws it out with a warm hand.

Arthur knows he must look pathetic, standing there panting like a racehorse—like he’s never been blown in his life. “It’s been so long, I—don-,” he says, looking down just in time to see Merlin taking him into his mouth, and he stutters, all words flying out of his head. Arthur pushes forward into the sweet heat, but Merlin steadies him with an arm across the abdomen, so Arthur settles for two fistfuls of Merlin’s luscious, dark hair.

Merlin’s mouth is so wet and his tongue runs over Arthur’s cock so fucking perfectly. Merlin sucks on the head, looking like he’s loving it, and Arthur’s wound so tight, he has to struggle to make it last. When Merlin starts bobbing, though, Arthur’s gone, barely able to push Merlin back in time as ropes of semen shoot out from his cock, painting Merlin’s lust-wrecked face.

“I knew I wouldn’t last,” Arthur breathes, helping Merlin to stand. “It’s been…I don’t know how long.”

“I love the way you taste,” Merlin tells Arthur, pressing into him and giving him a sloppy kiss, and Arthur’s almost hard again just from hearing him say that. He licks his own cum off Merlin’s nose and lips, kissing him again and again.

“It’s so much better than with a woman,” Arthur marvels dizzily, sagging against the wall, Merlin’s lean body the only thing holding him up.

“What? Kissing? Or the blow job?” Merlin asks, nipping at the tendon in Arthur’s neck. Arthur can feel Merlin’s rapid heartbeat against his chest, and it excites him.

“Both. Everything.”

“Arthur,” Merlin pulls away a little. “Am I your first experience with a man?”

“I’ve had a few blow jobs. I’ve never kissed a man before you.” Arthur smiles a bit giddily.

“Wow,” Merlin shakes his head. “I’m—I’m honoured.”

Arthur nips at Merlin’s sharp cheekbone. “As you should be,” he jokes.

“Prat,” Merlin says fondly, pinching the underside of Arthur’s arm.

“Ouch! Bruises, Merlin, bruises!”

“Poor baby,” Merlin shakes his head. Their lips meet again, long, lingeringly.

Arthur pulls Merlin in tighter, hips flush. “That was really great,” he whispers a little shyly into Merlin’s ear.

“Yeah. It was.” Merlin grins and then kisses him again, the warmth of Merlin’s lips and the slickness of his tongue when it enters Arthur’s mouth making Arthur a little dizzy as he brings a hand up to the back of Merlin’s head, cradling it as he deepens the kiss.

~~~

As soon as Merlin and Arthur walk into Mordred’s flat later that afternoon, their friend knows something’s up.

“What’s happened?” Mordred demands suspiciously. Donovan lifts his head from the newspaper, curious.

“Mordred, would you shut up?” Merlin snaps, not wanting Arthur to feel embarrassed. “You’re so fucking nosey.”

“Yes, I am,” Mordred agrees, coming closer to Arthur, who eyes him warily. Mordred pushes Arthur’s collar away with his index finger, revealing one of the large love bites that Merlin bestowed on Arthur’s neck earlier. Mordred cuts accusatory eyes to Merlin, eyebrow raised.

“Why Merlin, you little tart. Have you been debauching our Arthur behind my back?”

“Did you expect a front row seat?” Merlin returns caustically, and Donovan laughs from behind the newspaper.

“Shut up, Donny-boy,” Mordred gives the side of Donovan’s head a playful slap. “You don’t understand the significance of this.”

Donovan catches Mordred’s hand and squeezes it playfully before letting it go, and Merlin is surprised to see Mordred blush.

Mordred turns to Arthur, sliding an arm around his waist. “What have you and Merlin been up to, eh?”

Arthur just laughs, evidently comfortable enough with Mordred to put up with his teasing, and Merlin relaxes a little. He hasn’t been sure how Arthur is coping with what they’ve done; he’s been quiet most of the morning.

“I’ll leave that speculation to your wank fantasies,” Arthur says, pushing Mordred away. “Now come on, let’s get to work. I’m hoping for some more fun tonight.”

“Fun” turns out to be the gay club Tantra. Arthur’s bursting with excitement about going, and insists that his friends dress him for the occasion. Mordred squeals with delight, practically tearing both his and Elyan’s closets up in his quest for the perfect outfit.

“You’re positively glowing,” Merlin tells Arthur as they admire him in the tight, light blue, silk shirt and form-fitting black jeans.

“I’m not a pregnant woman, Merlin,” Arthur says, but gives him a dazzling smile all the same.

Mordred tries to talk Arthur into letting him smear some kohl around his eyes, but Arthur declines. “I think this is enough for now,” he tells him, changing back into his own clothes. “Merlin and I will meet you guys at the club at nine.”

They go back to their flat to shower and change, talking about the paintings and other things, but avoiding the subject of what they’d started that morning.

In the cab on the way to the club, Merlin is reflecting on the day’s posing session and how he can’t figure out if it was easier or more difficult to snuggle up naked with Arthur now that Merlin knows what Arthur’s cock tastes like, when Arthur turns to look at him.

“Did you see the painting Donovan’s working on?”

“Yeah, pretty amazing,” Merlin replies.

“Is all his work that good?”

Merlin nods. “Donovan’s talented. He just needs a break--a showing, maybe. Lots of artists that specialize in gay nudes have trouble finding sponsors for their showings. There just aren’t a lot of people out there with the money who are willing to put it out there for them.”

Arthur nods thoughtfully, turning to gaze out the window.

The club is very crowded, bass throbbing through the floor, and Merlin holds onto Arthur’s hand so as not to lose him as the throng surges around them. Merlin wants to say so many things to Arthur, but he’s unsure of his footing. And he wants to kiss Arthur again. Very much.

A text from Mordred tells Merlin he and Arthur can find them near the bar.

“Drink?” Merlin asks Arthur, but Arthur shakes his head, looking around, excitement visibly thrumming through him. He looks like a kid in a candy shop, staring at the room full of men dancing and kissing. “Blurred Lines” begins playing loudly over the speakers, and eagerly Arthur tugs on Merlin’s hand.

“I want to dance!” he shouts, and Merlin lets Arthur pull him into the mass of people. Arthur is intoxicatingly sexy like this—totally uninhibited and having fun. It’s so different from the shy, introverted way he normally acts, it absolutely bowls Merlin over. And this isn’t drunk Arthur high on pot brownies, either. This is the real Arthur—the man normally buried beneath a façade of who he thinks he’s supposed to be.

Arthur begins singing with the song, hand on stomach, gyrating and swinging around. It’s infectious, and Merlin laughs, dancing with him while a fine sheen of sweat forms on his skin. A few minutes into it, a big bloke with a Mohawk cuts in on them, and Merlin moves back, watching Arthur as he wraps the moose of a man around his finger, bumping and grinding against him, turning and flirting shamelessly.

Merlin stays away until a slow song plays, and then he pulls Arthur back, holding him close. Arthur’s breathing hard, sweat running off his forehead.

“Having fun?” Merlin asks, smiling, and Arthur flashes him a grin.

“So much fun,” he tells Merlin. “I can’t explain how it feels.”

“I think I know,” Merlin tells him. “I remember the first time I went to a place like this—where everyone was like me. It’s exhilarating.”

Arthur presses the palm of his hand to Merlin’s cheek before leaning in and kissing him, sweetly, longingly. “I want to have it all,” he whispers into Merlin’s mouth.

“You deserve to have it all,” Merlin answers, meaning it. Arthur’s face clouds over for a moment before clearing. The music picks up, and Arthur grinds into Merlin, lifting his hands up in the air as he dances, and Merlin keeps a light touch on Arthur’s ribs, feeling the bones beneath his fingers, so hard for Arthur, it hurts.

Arthur dances with Mordred, Elyan, and Donovan in turn, not drinking much alcohol or stopping long to rest. Merlin sees Arthur propositioned seven times by various men before he stops counting. Arthur always laughs it off, says no thanks, and keeps dancing or moves on to another partner.

Arthur and Gwaine make a sexy couple doing a corny, yet somehow evocative, seventies dance to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” and the sight makes Merlin a little jealous. But he can’t begrudge Arthur his night of being out and proud, so he swallows the feeling and dances with his friends and others until Arthur finally seeks Merlin out and drags him into a corner.

And then Arthur’s lips are all over Merlin’s mouth, nipping and sucking, teasing and licking. Merlin pulls Arthur closer, gripping his back with his fingers, pasting their bodies together, breathing in the scent of Arthur’s sweat and aftershave and wanting more.

“Let’s go home,” Arthur murmurs silkily, and Merlin nods, unable to speak. He texts Mordred with fumbling thumbs before they rush outside, the cold night air quickly drying the sweat on their skin as they hail a cab.

Arthur is still singing “Dancing Queen” when they enter their flat, and he makes Merlin dance with him through the living area. Merlin laughs so hard his sides ache as Arthur bends their arms behind their heads and leads them in a circle around the floor. He finally has to beg Arthur to stop.

“I haven’t had that much fun in…” Arthur stops to consider. “Never!” He shakes his head. “That’s my problem, really. I never have any fun.” He flops down on the sofa and reaches out a hand for Merlin to take, pulling him onto his lap.

Merlin adjusts so that he’s straddling Arthur’s legs with his thighs rather than lying strewn over him like a girl. “You should have more fun, Arthur,” he tells him, his gaze zeroing in on Arthur’s reddened lips. Arthur grins happily, tugging Merlin closer by the shirt. Merlin’s mouth opens against Arthur’s, and all thought spins outward, flying into space somewhere, and all he’s left with is how soft Arthur’s lips are and how the slide of Arthur’s tongue feels against his.

“Mm, mmph,” Merlin murmurs, slipping his fingers into blond hair too silky for a grown man. Arthur’s erection presses into Merlin’s arse, making Merlin crazy. Merlin rocks back on it, teasing. He doesn’t know how far Arthur wants to take this. After all, he as much as told Merlin he’s a virgin as far as men are concerned. Merlin tries to reign himself in and follow Arthur’s lead.

Arthur seems content to snog while keeping his hands on Merlin’s arse, and Merlin isn’t complaining, sinking further into the kiss as Arthur’s thumbs move languidly up and down either side of Merlin’s denim-covered crack.

After a while Arthur pulls back and looks up at Merlin, his face open.

“Just so you know, I think you’re kind of wonderful,” Arthur says, and Merlin’s stomach does a series of somersaults. It’s already full of butterflies just being with Arthur, but to hear Arthur say that…it brings a lump to Merlin’s throat. He doesn’t know how to reply.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and Merlin smiles sheepishly, pulling it out. It’s a text message from Mordred.

Donovan’s just snogged me. What do I do?

Merlin frowns before typing in, Snog him back?

He leans down and kisses Arthur, tongue tasting Arthur’s lower lip. The mobile buzzes again.

R u sure that’s a good idea? Friends n all.

“What the hell?” Merlin quickly types in, ??? I’m busy here, before turning off his phone and tossing it away.

Arthur smiles and licks his lips. “There’s something I’d really like to do, if you’ll let me.”

“What?” Merlin asks.

Arthur’s eyes roam from Merlin’s face, down his chest to where their crotches press together. “I’d really like to suck you off.”

Merlin stills, then swallows convulsively. “Er…okay.”

He eases off Arthur’s lap, heart pounding in his chest even as blood fills his cock to the point of pain. He hopes he doesn’t embarrass himself by coming before Arthur even gets his mouth on him. Oh God, that mouth! So pouty and pretty.

Arthur stands, too, and taking Merlin’s hand, leads him to his bedroom. “I’d like you naked, lying down,” he tells Merlin, voice husky. Merlin’s cock pulses in his jeans. He takes a deep breath and begins to undress. Arthur keeps his own clothes on, which makes the whole thing very erotic, in Merlin’s opinion. Having Arthur climb up the bed between Merlin’s legs, still wearing his outfit from the club, blue eyes lust-laden while zeroing in on Merlin’s hard prick, lips red and parted in anticipation…Merlin lets out an embarrassingly long moan.

Arthur’s tongue licks a stripe from just under Merlin’s balls all the way up to the tip of his leaking head, and a shudder runs through Merlin’s body. He wants to look like he’s in control, lounging there just getting a blow job, but he can’t…it’s excruciatingly sexy. He grips the bedspread with shaking fingers, trembling as Arthur swipes his tongue over sensitive skin, eliciting all manner of noises from Merlin’s traitorous lips.

“I’ve never done this before,” Arthur tells Merlin, hot breath ghosting over Merlin’s sensitive skin. “I always wondered what it would be like…to have a man’s cock in my mouth. I want you to know that I’ve never wanted anything more than I want to suck you right now. I’ll try to make it good for you.” He looks at Merlin with such sweet sincerity in his eyes that Merlin’s heart stutters in his chest. Merlin’s pretty sure Arthur could do just about anything right now and it would be okay with Merlin.

Then Arthur takes him all the way in, deep until the head of Merlin’s cock touches the back of Arthur’s throat, and Merlin has to try very hard to keep from coming right then. It’s wet and hot, and Arthur’s bobbing up and down, making filthy squelching noises and looking so fucking into it, humming in his throat, the vibrations running through Merlin’s cock until Merlin’s breathing hard and sweating. And then Arthur takes Merlin even farther, all the way down to the base, and Merlin can feel the head of his cock curve down into Arthur’s throat. A buzz sets up in his ears and his head gets light---the pleasure is unbelievable.

“Oh, holy shit, Arthur!” Merlin arches up, but Arthur catches his hips, pinning Merlin to the bed as he begin to suck again. Grasping the base of Merlin’s cock, Arthur twists it in his spit-slick fist while licking the head before taking it all in again. Merlin hears himself yelling; he can’t help it-- his release is so close…

Reaching up, Merlin grasps the headboard as wave after wave of pure pleasure crashes over him, forcing him to squeeze his eyes shut and gasp for air. He feels Arthur swallowing his seed—sucking Merlin dry before switching to short, gentle licks. And Merlin has the passing thought that he should have said something to Arthur about safe sex and condoms and shit like that, but fuck that was good.

“Oh, fuck,” Merlin sighs, completely depleted. He slowly lets go of the carved headboard, fingers stiff from the hard grip he had on it, and sinks into the mattress. He looks down at Arthur, who has a proud smirk on his face. “That was fantastic. Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”

Arthur smiles widely. “Was it really good? You wouldn’t lie, would you?”

Merlin gives him an incredulous look. “You think I faked that?”

Arthur laughs, crawling up to lie beside him. “I guess not. I just tried to do what I like, plus I…well, I really enjoyed it. Guess that helped. And I don’t have an easy gag reflex.” He blushes, and Merlin can’t help but reach out and touch his face with his fingertips.

“It was awesome,” Merlin tells him. “I guess it’s a little late to say this, but I get tested regularly. I’m clean. I always use protection. I should have insisted that I put on a condom.”

Arthur kisses Merlin’s shoulder. “I don’t want to suck on a condom. I trust you.”

“But you shouldn’t, Arthur. It’s dangerous.”

Arthur grunts. “I trust you. I don’t trust anyone else.”

Merlin doesn’t know what to make of that, but he drops it for now. He looks at the large bulge in Arthur’s pants. “Tell me what I can do for you.”

Arthur unzips his jeans, revealing his swollen prick. “Just…touch me,” Arthur sighs, and Merlin gladly complies, running his fingers gently over the sensitive skin of Arthur’s erection before licking his palm and taking it firmly in hand. Arthur gasps, closing his eyes and exposing his throat. Merlin leans in to kiss and suck at Arthur’s Adam’s apple as he begins to slowly move his hand, enjoying the feel of Arthur succumbing, bringing Arthur to his climax in record time, his gasps of pleasure reverberating against Merlin’s mouth.

They must have fallen asleep after that, because the next thing Merlin knows, the doorbell is ringing, and he’s blinking through the dim light in the room. Arthur’s asleep beside him, his flaccid cock still out of his trousers. Merlin slides off the bed, almost falling as he slips his jeans on.

“Hold on!” he calls when he gets to the hallway, wondering who it is. The guard wouldn’t let just anybody up; it has to be someone on their list.

Seeing Mordred through the peephole, Merlin sighs and unlocks the door.

“Well, it’s about time!” Mordred walks in, still in the clothes he was wearing at the club.

“What are you doing here?” Merlin asks. He looks in the hallway, but it’s empty. “Where is everybody?”

“They went home,” Mordred tells him, taking a seat on the couch. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?”

“Oh, I…er, turned it off.” Merlin looks around and finds it on the floor where he tossed it earlier. He switches it back on.

“Donovan wants me,” Mordred says without preamble.

“So you said. What’s the problem?” Merlin sits down in the chair and runs a hand over his bare midriff, his mind still in the bedroom with Arthur. “Aren’t you attracted to him?”

“Sure,” Mordred says, scratching the back of his head, “but he doesn’t mean as a fuck buddy. He really wants to date me! As in, take me out to eat and stuff. Not that he has any money right now, but he’s still trying to be all romantic.”

Merlin shakes his head. “I still don’t see the problem. You don’t like him as a person?”

“Of course I do! But…I don’t know if I want to date someone.” Mordred pouts, and Merlin rolls his eyes.

“Why not? Afraid he might make you happy?”

“I’m already happy!” Mordred retorts.

“You haven’t dated anyone since Greg, and that was three years ago,” Merlin points out. Mordred doesn’t answer.

“You should go out with Donovan,” Merlin says.

“You’re only saying that because you’re all happy with Arthur,” Mordred mutters.

“So? I can’t want you to be as happy as I am?” Merlin raises a brow.

A slow smile spreads over Mordred’s face. “So you admit you’re happy with Arthur?”

“Things are complicated,” Merlin replies. “We’re just…I don’t know yet.”

“Oh, I knew that before you did!” Mordred tells him. “But I think he should live his life the way he wants to.” Mordred shrugs and then sighs. “Can I sleep on your couch?”

“You can sleep in my bed,” Merlin grins. “I’m in Arthur’s.” He gets up and leads Mordred that way, taking Scabber’s wheel out and filling up his water bottle. Then he goes into the kitchen and takes his medication before heading back to Arthur’s room to find that Arthur’s removed his clothes and gotten under the covers.

“Was that Mordred I heard?” Arthur asks, after Merlin’s slipped off his jeans and crawled into bed.

“Yeah, I told him he could sleep in my bed—I hope it’s okay if I stay in here.”

“Of course,” Arthur tells him, and Merlin relaxes a little. “Mordred’s all freaked out over commitment issues. Donovan wants a relationship with him.”

Arthur kisses Merlin’s shoulder. “I wish that was my biggest problem—deciding on whether or not to have a relationship.” He sighs, and Merlin waits.

“I have to go back to work soon. Father thinks I’m looking for a woman and getting myself straightened out—no pun intended--during this vacation. That I’ll settle down and be the person he thinks I should be. I can’t do it, Merlin. I’ve had a taste of other things, and I just can’t be that man anymore.”

Merlin turns his head and kisses Arthur softly on the lips. “So don’t be. I know it isn’t going to be easy, Arthur, but you can do this.”

Merlin’s words hang in the air as Arthur nuzzles into his neck and they slowly fall back to sleep.

~~~OOO~~~

Arthur finds he can’t get enough of going to gay clubs and pubs, and the next few evenings are spent exploring them with his friends. He enjoys being able to dance closely with other men, Merlin in particular, and he finds himself really coming out of his shell. It’s almost as though he’s discovering his true personality for the first time—the one hidden under a lifetime of inhibitions and restrictions.

Arthur surprises himself when he calls his father and tells him he needs another week. “It’s almost Christmas,” he tells Uther. “How many of those have I taken off in the past?”

“I hope this is time spent wisely, Arthur,” is Uther’s only reply before hanging up. Arthur celebrates that night with the whole gang and karaoke at their favorite pub in Soho.

It perhaps should bother Arthur more that Gwen has figured things out. It’s been impossible for him and Merlin to hide their growing intimacy, and she’s seen too much of them together not to notice. However, Arthur trusts her instinctively, and Merlin assures him that she would never out him to anyone in the company. Morgana has become fast friends with Gwen, too, and that’s another reason that Arthur is comfortable with Gwen knowing. To be honest, it feels liberating to have someone else know the real Arthur Pendragon rather than the one he puts out there for the world to see.

A particularly cheesy rendition of “Karma Chameleon,” in which shirts are removed and there’s altogether too much hip gyrating, gets Arthur, Merlin, Gwaine, and Mordred fondly booed off the stage, and they order another round of beer.

“Next stop is Toyotica,” Donovan announces. He has his arm wrapped around Mordred’s chair, although Mordred is still playing hard-to-get. “We have to choose our Dirty Santa gifts—the party is Friday night!”

Elyan groans. “Shit, we have to clean the flat.”

“We’ll all help,” Morgana offers. She and Leon have been invited to the Christmas party, and while Arthur is happy to have them included in the group, he’s a little wary of opening sex gifts with his sister.

“We can’t all see what the other is buying, so we’ll have to be discreet about it,” Merlin tells them. They finish off their beers and take a cab to the large toy shop, which stays open all night.

“The better to serve all your sexual needs,” Donovan comments at the flashing neon sign as they enter.

“Because you never know when you’ll need a giant orange butt plug in the middle of the night,” Morgana says, glancing around.

“Yeah,” Leon breathes from behind her.

“There is an entire area devoted to BDSM,” Mordred tells Arthur, who immediately flushes red. Merlin smacks Mordred on the arm.

“Let’s check it out!” Donovan suggests, pulling Mordred that way, and Merlin laughs at Mordred’s almost frightened expression.

“I think he’s finally met his match,” Merlin tells Arthur, and Arthur nods, his eyes roving over at least a dozen varieties of vibrators hanging on the far wall.

Gwaine and Elyan have wandered off to look at outfits, and Arthur cringes when he sees his sister showing her husband a whip. Gwen and Lance check out a shelf of videos.

“Look at this!” Merlin leads Arthur to a gigantic black dildo. Arthur’s eyes widen. The thing is huge.

“There is no way someone can actually fit that anywhere!” he exclaims.

“Wouldn’t you love to see Gwaine opening that up?” Merlin asks.

Arthur’s eyes are drawn to a shelf of party favors. “Look at all the penis straws,” he says. “We should get some of these. That’s right up Morgana’s alley—I can see her serving her snooty friends with them. Also maybe these cupcake tins shaped like boobs.” He begins loading a basket. “We have to have some things the girls might like.”

“You don’t think they’d like one of these?” Arthur turns to find Merlin holding up a long vibrator. Arthur blushes.

“I don’t want to think about it,” he says. They continue to shop, splitting up so as not to see all of the other’s purchases. When Arthur finds that no one’s paying attention, he looks at the wall of butt plugs. He hasn’t been able to stop thinking about Merlin and how Arthur would love to have him inside him, but Arthur has never even put his own fingers there. He lifts down a rather small and unassuming plug and looks it over before chucking it in his basket. Then he chooses one that’s a little bigger and throws that one in, too.

Forty-five minutes later, everyone has made their purchases and stands giggling outside the store, bags in hand.

“I have a text from Geo,” Mordred tells them. “He and Percy want us to come by.”

Morgana and Leon have to get home to the baby, but everyone else heads for the tube. Arthur stands close to Merlin, one arm around a pole, breathing in the scent of his hair, and stealing a kiss when no one’s paying attention. He finds Merlin’s plump lips addictive.

“I can’t believe your father gave you another week,” Merlin tells him, moving slightly away. Arthur knows he should be more careful out in public like this, even though he doesn’t see anyone he recognizes, but he finds it difficult; he’s grateful to Merlin for being mindful for him. Then again, another part of him can’t help but wonder if perhaps Merlin doesn’t want the attention. After all, Arthur is new to all of this, and it’s no secret he’s on a little gay vacation, so to speak. Merlin might find that a little off-putting. Arthur certainly wouldn’t blame him if he did.

“Considering the fact that I’ve never taken time off before, he can’t say much about it,” Arthur replies. He looks over to where Mordred and Donovan sit close together, Donovan whispering something in Mordred’s ear. Gwaine and Elyan stand, as Merlin and Arthur do, holding to a pole, ready to disembark as soon as they reach their station.

They get off in Brixton and take a bus to Percy and Geo’s flat in East Dulwich, which is small but has a homey feel to it, particularly with all the artwork hanging on the walls. As soon as they get their coats off, a blonde girl that looks vaguely familiar to Arthur greats Merlin with a hug and kiss to the cheek.

“Arthur, do you remember my friend, Elena?” Merlin asks. “You met her at Mordred’s party.”

Elena comes forward, placing a hand on Arthur’s arm. “You’d gotten hold of a lot of Freya’s brownies, along with Geo’s drinks. You may not remember me at all,” she says with an open grin.

“You seem familiar,” Arthur tells her, a little embarrassed.

“That was a great party—it was the night I met Percy.” She gestures toward one of the two big men, who smiles boyishly and winks at Elena.

“I actually had plans to fix you up with Elena,” Merlin tells Arthur after they’ve turned away from the others. Arthur looks at him in surprise.

“Really?”

Merlin shrugs. “I didn’t know you were gay, and I felt bad that your father kept fixing you up with all those snooty bitches.”

Arthur laughs. “Wow, thanks for that. I guess.”

Merlin grins, shaking his head. “It all worked out.”

“Merlin, come see this painting Christopher did for Geo!” Mordred calls from a room down the hall. Merlin follows his voice, Arthur trailing after him. They find Mordred in a tiny bedroom furnished with only a twin bed and a small dresser. There’s a painting hanging over the bed of a nude man by a poolside, arresting in its simplicity and color.

“I love the clean lines of it,” Arthur says, his eyes running over the painting.

“Yes!” Mordred agrees excitedly. “Chris’s work is so crisp and clean, but the colors just pop. He uses so many shades of blue.”

“Did Geo buy this from him?” Merlin asks.

“No, Chris gave it to him—can you believe it? I’ve told him not to give away his stuff, but he never listens to me.”

Merlin elbows Mordred in the side. “Oh, and I suppose Geo bought those three pieces of yours in the living room,” he says sarcastically.

“Oi! Okay, you caught me. But seriously, Chris really needs a showing if he’s ever going to sell anything.”

“Mordred,” Arthur speaks up, realizing that this is an opportunity to mention something he’s been thinking about lately. “If I arrange for a showing and invite the people, could you supply the artists?”

Mordred stares at him, stunned. “What? But, Arthur…how could you possibly do that?”

Merlin is staring at Arthur, too, and Arthur finds that he quite likes the attention he’s gotten from shocking them.

“I don’t know,” Arthur replies. “But if I figure out a way, you have enough friends with work to show to do that, right? I mean, there’s you, and Christopher, and Donovan?”

“Yes, of course!” Mordred says excitedly, “And Elyan has his sculptures. We’d all have enough to put in a showing together.” Mordred touches Arthur’s arm. “But Arthur, please don’t do anything for us that’s going to make your life any harder. You need to go slow.”

Arthur nods. “I know. I’m just thinking over some things. Don’t worry about me.” Arthur knows that the whole idea is nuts, but he hasn’t been able to get it out of his mind lately. There are too many talented artists and no one to put their work out there for them. Arthur has so many contacts, and he really wants to help them. It would be easy for him to do, especially with Morgana’s help. He decides to speak to his sister about it as soon as possible.

~~~ooo~~~

Morgana is intrigued. “But you know, Arthur, this is going to really put the spotlight on you in Father’s eyes. He’s going to wonder why the interest in art—gay artists in particular.”

“Maybe it’s the perfect way of telling him,” Arthur replies, lifting his one-year-old niece, Mathilde, onto his lap and letting her play with his key ring.

“I hope you don’t mean that you plan to just invite him to the function, or let him read about it in the papers. You will tell him about it beforehand, won’t you?” Morgana asks.

Arthur flinches. “I suppose.”

Morgana laughs, a smooth, tinkling sound. “It’s all going to come out soon, anyway. Don’t you think he’ll notice that you and Merlin are in a relationship?”

Arthur colors.

“We aren’t exactly in a relationship.”

“Could have fooled me,” Morgana tells him.

Arthur looks down at his hands. “I don’t know what Merlin wants this to be.”

“Arthur?” Morgana teases. “Oh, my God. You’re so adorable!”

“Morgana, stop!” Arthur pleads, and Mathilde reaches for Arthur’s lips, pulling on them. “Ouch! Matty!”

“Matty wants an Uncle Merlin,” Morgana says. “Don’t you, Matty?”

Mathilde nods sincerely, and Arthur sighs. “I’m going to tell Father.”

“When?” Morgana asks.

“Soon.”

“Okay. Well, then, let’s make the guest list for this showing, shall we? You know, we could do it in January. My friend Connie would let us rent a room in that lovely building on Highgate, and I know just the caterer…” Morgana gets a pen and tablet from her antique desk and begins rattling off ideas, while Arthur listens, nods, and basically allows her to take over, all the while his brain going over various scenarios in which he tells his father that he’s gay and leaving Pendragon. To do what, Arthur still doesn’t know.

When he arrives at the flat, Merlin is home from work and something smells delicious.

“Merlin?” he calls out, delighted when the tall brunette appears, high cheeks flushed from steam and blue eyes bright and crinkling at the edges with a smile.

“Hello,” Merlin greets him. After a slight hesitation, he gives Arthur a kiss that starts small but turns into a lot more. Arthur can’t get enough of Merlin’s mouth. He thinks about the plugs he’s been working into his arse ever since he bought them at Toyotica, attempting to loosen himself up for what he’d very much like to happen with Merlin, and immediately gets hard.

Merlin feels it and pulls back, surprised.

Arthur smiles a little shyly. “Something smells really good.” He looks toward the kitchen.

“Chicken and rice always have that effect on you?” Merlin teases.

Arthur kisses Merlin again before tweaking his nose.

“You want to go change? It’ll be ready soon.”

Arthur nods and goes into the bedroom. He hangs up his suit and gets into the shower, taking the larger plug with him. After washing, he puts a foot up on the built-in seat of the shower, lubes the black appliance, and carefully presses it into his anus, twisting it a little as he does so. It feels nice and snug. Arthur’s done this several times now with the smaller plug, and the larger isn’t much more of a stretch. He gets out and dries off, pulling on a pair of soft track pants and one of his many T-shirts, leaving the plug in. He feels naughty wearing it.

Most of their days that week have been spent posing for Mordred, and the portraits are coming along nicely. Mordred is certain he can make his deadline for his buyer, although he claims he’s not going to be able to attend any more of their wild nights out until he does. Arthur’s going to miss posing; he’s really enjoyed it. Not only does he like curling up naked with Merlin, but he also just relishes the down time of lying still and listening to Mordred natter on about this and that, or just the quiet sounds of the neighborhood outside the window and the swish, whoosh of the paintbrush against canvas.

“Christmas party’s tomorrow night,” Merlin reminds Arthur as they sit down to eat. If he notices that Arthur’s a little careful when he sits down, he doesn’t say anything. Arthur’s had one of the maintenance men bring his artificial tree up from storage, along with the boxes of decorations. He usually has someone decorate the tree for him, but since Merlin seemed to expect that they would do it, Arthur left it for them.

“Everything matches,” Merlin exclaimed when they opened the boxes up the night before.

“Of course,” Arthur said, frowning.

“Our tree always came from the forest and our decorations were all handmade,” Merlin informed him, taking out a crystal ball and inspecting it. “These are beautiful, but they wouldn’t have lasted a day in our house.”

“Things were all about looks at home,” Arthur replied dismally.

Which is how the decided to make their own decorations for the tree.

Arthur isn’t sure how it’s going to work, but he’s seen some bags from a local craft store in the entryway and assumes Merlin has a plan. They eat the chicken and discuss the fact that the plants are doing so well, and Arthur suggests they get Matty books for Christmas from the small bookstore on the corner near Pendragon.

When they finish eating, Merlin announces that Arthur must put on one of his Harry Potter DVDs. While he does so, Merlin disappears, coming back into the living room with a large bowl of popped popcorn. The huge, artificial fir tree stands in the corner pre-lit with hundreds of tiny white lights. Merlin knows for a fact that it looks beautiful from the street.

“Sit down,” Merlin instructs, before giving Arthur a needle and thick thread and telling him to string it with popcorn.

Arthur stares for a moment, slightly dumbstruck before taking a breath and saying, “Popcorn on a tree?"

"Saw it in a movie once," Merlin explains. "Come on, it'll be fun."

Arthur shrugs. "I'll need my glasses.”

Merlin grins and goes to the bedroom to fetch them.

While Arthur threads the needle, tongue poking out the side of his mouth, Merlin goes through the bags for a while before joining Arthur on the couch to help him.

“We can do a different decoration every night,” he suggests as they settle down to string popcorn and watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Arthur smiles, watching Merlin trying and failing to get his needle threaded.

“Here, let me,” he finally says, taking it from Merlin’s hands and deftly slipping the thread through the eye. “Perhaps you could use a pair of reading glasses yourself, Merlin.”

Merlin just harrumphs at that, loses his focus, and jabs his finger with the needle. “Ouch!” he puts his fingertip in his mouth and sucks.

Arthur laughs outright, and Merlin tosses a handful of popcorn at him, prompting an all-out war. When the contents of the bowl are mostly on the floor, they calm down, pick it all up, and get back to stringing.

By midnight the tree is bedecked with popcorn strings. Arthur stretches, admiring their work. Carefully not looking at Merlin, he suggests that Merlin spend the night with him in his bed.

“You’ll probably sleep-walk in there anyway.”

Merlin doesn’t say anything, but he follows Arthur into his room, toppling in after him and curling up against Arthur’s chest.

Arthur’s taken the plug out, and he can’t stop thinking about how he’d like Merlin to fill the empty space with his cock.

As they lie on the soft sheets, slowly turning toward one another and kissing leisurely, Merlin’s lips move to the side of Arthur’s jaw, sending jolts of desire throughout Arthur’s body until he moans. “Merlin, I want you so much.”

Merlin leans up and looks into Arthur’s eyes. “Tell me what you want, Arthur.”

“I want you inside me,” he admits, a little embarrassed.

Merlin kisses Arthur, hard. “Are you ready for that?” he breathes into Arthur’s ear.

“I’ve been preparing myself.” Arthur tells him about the plugs, and he hears Merlin’s small groan. Arthur wants him so badly, he can’t stand it. He pushes his hips forward, and his erection grazes Merlin’s stomach. Merlin breathes out, long and ragged. Both are naked, and Arthur lies back, slowly spreading his legs in invitation. Merlin closes his eyes and lets out a moan.

“I’ll be okay. Just…do it,” Arthur pleads, reaching for the bedside drawer and the tube he knows is there.

Merlin takes the lube from Arthur and kisses him. Arthur, lost in sensation, truly doesn’t know how he previously survived without the singular treat of Merlin’s plump lips moving against his or the feeling of their tongues swirling against one another. After a few moments, Arthur feels questing fingers at his entrance, and although he can’t help but be nervous, he opens his legs wider and helpfully lifts his arse. Merlin gasps into Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur nibbles on Merlin’s bottom lip, his breath hitching in his throat as one of Merlin’s long fingers slides inside.

It all goes more easily than expected; Arthur’s prep with the plugs has accustomed him to the stretch, so that when Merlin’s condom-covered erection finally begins to push into Arthur’s hole, he’s able to cover his discomfort and take it.

When Merlin is fully-sheathed, Arthur lets out a long sigh and then a groan as Merlin begins to move. Arthur bends his knees, thrusting upward rhythmically, his eyes locked with Merlin’s. It feels so good, so right. This is what he was meant for.

“So good, Arthur,” Merlin echoes Arthur’s thoughts, bending forward to kiss his lips before struggling back and quickening his pace, each delicious slide bringing a grunt of satisfaction from Arthur. Before long, Arthur’s ascending in a dizzying spiral as his prostate comes under constant bombardment, calling out Merlin’s name, hand groping to stroke his swollen prick as he comes undone, ejaculate spilling over his fingers in violent spurts.

Merlin keeps fucking Arthur, chin tucked to chest, teeth clenched as he grunts and groans over the squelching noises of their bodies, arse bobbing frantically as he chases his release.

When Merlin collapses beside Arthur, finally spent, Arthur turns and pulls him close, hiding the tears that have come to his eyes.

“I hope that was okay,” Merlin says into Arthur’s chest, and Arthur blinks rapidly.

“Perfect,” he manages to say into Merlin’s hair, hoping the other man attributes the hoarseness in Arthur’s voice to exertion and not the raw emotion he’s feeling.

Merlin’s hand slides over Arthur’s ribs and down into the nest of strawberry-blond pubic hair, fingers playing. Arthur squeezes his eyes shut, willing his heartbeat to slow. Wouldn’t he know that he couldn’t just ease into the gay scene.

He had to go and fall in love, too. 

~~~OOO~~~

The evening of Mordred’s Christmas party is appropriately snowy and cold. It just so happens that the employee get-together for Pendragon is on the same evening, so Arthur and Merlin are forced to go to that function first.

As in previous years, the lobby of the building is dressed to the nines and set up with tables and refreshments. Christmas carols pipe through the sounds system, and most employees have simply remained after work for the festivities, although some have gone home, changed, and brought back spouses. Arthur’s father wears his Father Christmas tie, a red cardigan sweater replacing his suit coat. Merlin thinks it looks extremely out of place on the man’s imposing form—a little like the devil in disguise.

As Arthur begins greeting people, Merlin looks around for Gwen. He finds her near the humongous red and gold Christmas tree that stands in the corner, drinking punch and chatting over plates of snacks with other administrative assistants.

“Merlin!” she greets him with a smile and kiss to the cheek. Lance steps up with two cups of green punch, handing one to Gwen. “Glad you came back.”

“You didn’t believe me when I told you I would?” he asks her, grinning around a bite of cookie he’s nabbed from the table. “I just wanted to change clothes. I hate standing around in a suit, and we’re going straight to Mordred’s from here.”

“You look cute,” Gwen tells him, eyeing the Christmas sweater he’d put on with a more casual pair of slacks. “And I wasn’t sure that you wouldn’t skip this and go on to Mordred’s. I admit I was a bit tempted to do that myself.”

“Arthur had to make an appearance,” Merlin replies.

Gwen looks into her cup. “I heard his father talking this morning.” She looks over her shoulder to make sure no one but Merlin and Lance are listening. “He seems to think Arthur needs guidance.”

Merlin frowns. “What does that mean?” He brushes cookie crumbs off his sweater.

Gwen shrugs. “I don’t know, but it gave me the willies. The way he talks about him…like he owns Arthur or something.” She shudders. “I used to think how great it would be to have all this money and prestige, but if it comes at that kind of price, no thanks.”

Lance puts his arm around her. “I’m sure Mr. Pendragon only feels a fatherly responsibility.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, Lance,” Merlin replies. “Uther’s extremely overbearing.” He looks over to where Arthur is standing with his father, speaking to several board executives and looking less like the happy man he’d been for the past few weeks and more like the subdued, miserable wretch he’d been prior to his vacation. “He’s killing Arthur. Look how miserable he looks.”

Gwen puts a hand on Merlin’s arm. “I’m sure it will be okay,” she tells him. “Arthur will see what it’s all doing to him and…”

Merlin raises a brow. “What? Disown his father? It’s not an easy decision, Gwen.”

She smiles sadly and nods her understanding.

An hour later, Arthur is still being led around by his father, and he looks decidedly downtrodden. Merlin can tell that he’s trying to get away, but Uther keeps bringing different people into their group to talk. One of them is a very attractive young woman who can’t seem to keep her hands off Arthur.

“Who is that?” Merlin hisses at Gwen, catching her about the wrist as she passes by. “That bitch pawing all over Arthur?” he specifies when Gwen looks confused.

Gwen covers a smile. “That’s Gordon Childer’s daughter, Marisa. Very posh.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Well, she’s acting like a slag.”

Gwen and Lance share amused looks.

“Seriously, is it necessary for her to touch him every single time she speaks to him?” Merlin asks. “Isn’t that a bit excessive?” He looks to his two friends for agreement, and they nod their heads.

“Totally,” Gwen agrees.

“Complete and utter slag,” Lance says definitively.

Merlin huffs, managing to meet Arthur’s eyes across the room.

“Let’s go,” Merlin says resolutely. “Arthur needs us to get him out of here.”

The three friends make their way over through the milling crowd of employees, some slightly tipsy from the strong punch and talking and laughing a bit too loudly. Millicent from accounting playfully slaps Merlin on the arse, even though he’s never made a secret of the fact that he’s gay.

“Sorry, but I’ve always wanted to do that,” she tells him with a bold wink.

Merlin blinks and staggers forward, finally reaching Arthur, who looks his way with relief in his blue eyes. Merlin’s dying to gather Arthur up in his arms, the memory of being buried deep inside him still fresh in his mind.

“Sorry to be a bother,” Gwen says with a smile, “but Arthur, you promised to come with us?”

“You’re leaving?” Uther stops his conversation with his accounts manager and raises an imperious brow at his son.

“We have another party to go to, Father,” Arthur explains, extricating his arm from Marisa Childer’s iron hold with what Merlin judges to be extreme difficulty.

Uther looks decidedly displeased at this. “Arthur, this is our company party…”

“I know, but it will go on without me,” Arthur replies, and a tiny thrill runs through Merlin from seeing the surprise mixed with displeasure on Uther’s face at his son’s reply.

Arthur makes his goodbyes and joins his three friends at the door, pushing his way out into the night as though escaping the confines of hell itself. Lance has gotten their coats, and stands on the pavement, distributing them.

Lance pats Arthur on the back. “Take a deep breath; it’s over, mate.”

Arthur does so, slipping his arms into the sleeves of his London Fog, and Merlin smiles. “Duty over! Now it’s just fun for the rest of the night.”

Arthur nods, a spark of light coming to his eyes. “Let’s go, then, shall we?”

The party’s already in full swing when they arrive at Mordred and Elyan’s flat, “Jingle Bell Rock” blasting so loudly it can be heard at the base of the stairs on the way up.

Elena spots them first. She’s dressed in an elf costume, the skirt of which barely covers her arse. She smiles brightly, taking their coats, and directs them to the make-shift bar they’ve set up where Christopher is currently fixing drinks. Merlin takes Arthur over to introduce him.

“I saw the painting you did for Geo,” Arthur tells Christopher after shaking his hand. “It’s brilliant; I love it.”

Merlin can tell Christopher is pleased at the praise. “Thanks,” he says to Arthur, long fingers gripping the neck of the gin bottle. “Can I get you guys something to drink?”

“Gin and tonic would be good,” Arthur tells him.

“Same,” Merlin says.

Freya wanders over holding a tray, and Arthur takes a step back. “Uh, oh, those aren’t what I think they are, are they?”

“Sorry,” Freya replies, laughing. “You don’t want a brownie, I take it?”

“Definitely not,” Arthur tells her. Freya just giggles and moves on. Merlin takes his drink from Christopher and wanders over to where Mordred is dancing with some guy Merlin doesn’t know.

“I think you’re making someone a bit jealous,” Merlin tells him close to his ear so Mordred can hear over George Michael’s “Last Christmas.”

“Why, Merlin!” Mordred says, draping his arm over Merlin’s shoulders, “You do care!”

“Oi, get your sweaty bod off me,” Merlin pushes him away, laughing. “I was talking about Donovan, idiot!”

“Oh.” Mordred casts a glance over to where Donovan sits on the sofa, Percy and Lance by his side. “It’s not like we’re together,” he tells Merlin sulkily. “I belong to no man. I am an island.”

“You’re drunk,” Merlin grabs Mordred’s cheeks between the fingers and thumb of his right hand and waggles Mordred’s head before letting go. “If you’re not careful, you’ll miss out on a good thing.”

 Merlin hears Arthur’s laugh ring out at the bar, and turns to see him still talking to Christopher.

“Maybe you should worry about your own man,” Mordred suggests coyly.

“Shut up,” Merlin pouts a little.

Mordred puts a hand on Merlin’s arm and leans in, his face suddenly serious. “Is Arthur really thinking of having a showing for us?”

Merlin shrugs. “I don’t know. I assume so, since he brought it up. Did you tell Chris and Donovan?”

Mordred nods. “Everyone’s so excited, they could shit. Part of me is worried Arthur will back out, and the other part wants him to. What’s his old man going to say?”

Merlin bites his lip. He’s worried, too, but Arthur has to do what he feels is right. He tells Mordred this before being pulled onto the improvised dance floor by a grinning Elyan.

Someone has blessedly changed the music for a while, giving everyone a respite from Christmas. Time seems to slide by as Merlin dances, and he loses track of Arthur after a while. He’s aware that Morgana and Leon arrive, and at some point Gwaine lets him know that Dirty Santa will be held after everyone else leaves, since so many of their friends couldn’t make it before the party. Merlin has the presents wrapped and in the boot of Arthur’s BMW, ready.

There’s a lull in the music, and Merlin looks around.

“Look what I got myself for Christmas!” Mordred’s voice suddenly booms over a loud speaker, crackling in the air and making everyone but the most drunken cringe. Merlin turns to find his friend on a small stage made from cinder blocks and wood with a karaoke machine set up in front of him.

“For my first number, I will sing ‘White Christmas,’” Mordred announces with satisfaction. “You know, I have been told I look like a young Bing Crosby.” There is some groaning amongst the scattered applause, and Mordred makes a face as the music begins.

“Oh, my God,” Gwaine moans as Mordred begins to croon. He belts down his drink and heads to the bar for another. Merlin laughs, looking about the room for Arthur. He doesn’t see him right away, and when he doesn’t see Christopher either, a sudden, irrational fear wells up in his chest. What if…

Of course, Merlin doesn’t really think Arthur’s the type to go off in a back room for a fling with a man he only just met, particularly not when he and Merlin have started something up between them, but that doesn’t keep Merlin’s heart from squeezing tightly in his chest and the air in his lungs from suddenly become scarce.

Swallowing, he makes his way toward the back of the flat. Elyan’s room is empty, and the bathroom door stands open. The only room left is Mordred’s studio. The door is cracked, and taking a breath, Merlin reaches out and pushes it open.

Both Arthur and Christopher turn around upon Merlin’s entrance, faces registering surprise and then welcome.

“Look at these, Merlin!” Arthur puts out a hand to clasp Merlin’s, and Merlin’s world suddenly rights itself. “Mordred’s done a beautiful job. We look like models.”

Merlin squeezes Arthur’s hand and turns his attention to the five portraits set up on easels. They really are gorgeous and some of Mordred’s best work.

“I know Mordred’s still putting the finishing touches on them, but shit! He hasn’t let us see them in days, and I had no idea!” Arthur’s eyes are huge as he looks over the paintings.

Christopher agrees, nodding his dark head. “Mordred’s going to be famous one day.”

“People are going to love your paintings at the showing, too, Chris,” Arthur tells him.

“I still can’t believe you’re doing this for us,” Christopher says, shaking his head.

Merlin wraps his arm around Arthur’s waist, squeezing him in close.

“It really is a wonderful thing to do,” he tells him. Arthur blushes and finishes off his drink.

“Is that Mordred I hear wailing in there?” he asks, undoubtedly to change the subject.

Merlin nods. “Broke out his new karaoke machine.” He grins. “Arthur, this is our chance to do a duet; you realize that, don’t you?”

Arthur looks at him, eyes dancing. “What do you have in mind?”

Christopher’s face lights up. “Oo! How about ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’? I love that song.”

“That would be seriously gay,” Arthur replies, laughing.

Merlin nods. “I’m up for it if you are.”

Arthur smiles, blue eyes flashing. He shrugs, putting his glass down on a nearby table. “Sure! Why not?”

“You can sing the woman’s part,” Merlin tells him as they head back into the living area.

“What?” Arthur bumps Merlin’s arm with his elbow, but he doesn’t argue. Merlin grins at Arthur before leaning over to tell Mordred the plan. Mordred laughs, delighted, giving them each a big squeeze before turning to quiet everyone down.

“Okay, okay, now I thought everyone was going to be too chicken-shit to follow my fabulous performance, but now I’ve got a duet for you. So, without further ado--Merlin and Arthur!”

A burst of applause and Merlin follows Arthur up on the stage. Merlin isn’t as nervous as he gets in pubs because he knows everyone at the party, and Arthur appears relaxed and at ease beside him. There’s a twinkle in the blond’s eye that accelerates Merlin’s heart-rate, and as they begin to sing, Merlin suddenly feels like he could burst with happiness. Fortunately Mordred has two microphones, but they still have to stand close together or risk falling off the stage. The heat from Arthur’s body makes Merlin’s nerves tingle. He realizes with a jolt just how bad he has it for Arthur. He doesn’t even remember the last time he felt this way about anyone.

Arthur: I really can’t stay

Merlin: Baby, it’s cold outside

Arthur: I’ve gotta go way

Merlin: Baby, it’s cold outside

Arthur: This evening has been

Merlin: Been hoping you’d drop by

Arthur: So very nice

Merlin: I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice

Merlin takes Arthur’s hand that isn’t holding the microphone. He’s lost in the song and in Arthur’s eyes. The room is quiet, except for the music and their voices, which sound good together. Gooseflesh pops up all over Merlin’s arms and the back of his neck as he realizes just how good they sound and just how much everyone is enjoying their performance as they continue to sing. Someone does a catcall, and Merlin’s willing to bet it’s Gwaine. Somehow Arthur pulls off the girl’s part without seeming girlish. He’s just so handsome, Merlin thinks, and not at all feminine. Merlin’s bowled over by the powerful attraction he feels for the man.

The song continues, and their voices grow stronger, their eyes never leaving each other’s as they really get into the parts. Arthur plays coy while Merlin is persuasive. He enjoys calling Arthur “Beautiful” because, really, he is. They reach the last stanza.

Arthur: I’ve got to get home

Merlin: But, baby, you’ll freeze out there

Arthur: Say, lend me a coat?

Merlin: It’s up to your knees out there!

Arthur: You’ve really been grand

Merlin: I feel when you touch my hand

Arthur: But don’t you see?

Merlin: How can you do this thing to me?

Arthur: There’s bound to be talk tomorrow

Merlin: Think of my life-long sorrow

Arthur: At least there’ll be plenty advised

Merlin: if you caught pneumonia and died!

Arthur: I really can’t stay

Merlin: Get over that hold out!

Arthur: Oh!

Both: Baby, it’s cold outside!

Clapping and hooting when the song finishes accompanies Merlin and Arthur as they hop off the small stage and hurry into the kitchen where they grab a couple of bottled waters. Merlin turns to talk to Elena, who bubbles over with praise on their performance.

“You two are so cute together!” she squeezes Merlin’s arm. “Good thing he isn’t straight, isn’t it?”

Merlin takes a long drink of water, still feeling heady from the adrenalin rush, and smiles at his excited friend. He looks over to where he thought Arthur stood behind him to find that he isn’t there. Setting his water down, Merlin turns around and is dismayed to see Uther Pendragon by the door talking to Arthur, face full of fury and disdain. Merlin starts forward, but Uther disappears out the door and then Arthur walks back to Merlin, and it’s as though a switch has been hit, shutting off all the light in Arthur’s countenance.

“I’m heading back to the flat with Father,” Arthur tells him, handing Merlin his keys. “You drive mine home whenever you’re finished here.”

“Oh, Arthur,” Merlin breathes. “When did he come in?”

“In plenty of time for our show,” Arthur replies, rubbing a hand over his face. To Merlin’s surprise, Arthur leans in and kisses him softly on the lips. “Try to have a good time, Merlin. I’ll see you later.”

Merlin watches him go, his heart heavy. He turns back to Elena, who gives him a questioning look. “I think Arthur just outed himself to his father,” Merlin says. He looks around the living room where people have started to dance again. Spotting Morgana, he heads that way.

“Morgana!” He calls to her, feeling suddenly frantic, but it’s so fucking noisy, she can’t hear him. Donovan grasps Merlin’s arm.

“Hey, that was some duet!” he says, smiling.

“Donny, I’ve got to go,” Merlin tells him. “Will you tell Mordred? Arthur’s father was here for that whole song. He’s gone back to our flat with Arthur, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can’t let Arthur face it alone.”

“Sure,” Donovan nods, expression becoming serious. Merlin finally manages to reach Morgana and spill out what happened.

“Oh, fuck,” she says with feeling. “We have to get over there.” Leon nods his agreement, taking both their drinks and setting them down.

“I’ll get our coats,” Merlin tells them.

“Mine’s long red wool, and Leon’s is the charcoal grey London Fog,” Morgan says.

Leon drives and Morgana announces she’ll ride with Merlin. Merlin knows she can see how agitated he is; she probably wants to keep him from wrecking Arthur’s BMW.

“Father probably followed him from the office,” Morgana says caustically when they’re well on their way. She’d been grinding her teeth and staring out the window, and Merlin realizes his hands are white-knuckling the steering wheel. He relaxes them a bit and looks over at her.

“What’s he going to do?” he asks.

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll make Arthur feel like utter shite,” Morgana replies. “Sometimes I just really feel horrible for leaving home so young and letting Arthur deal with Father like I did. He’s always tried to be such a good little Stepford son, but I’ve always known Arthur is gay and not suited to the cutthroat business world, to boot. Perhaps if I’d stayed, I could have deflected Father’s attention for a while longer.”

Merlin makes the turn onto their street and eases into the parking garage. “I just don’t want him to go through this alone,” he says, releasing his seat belt.

Morgana puts her hand on his. “I’m so glad he has you,” she tells him with feeling before reaching to open the car door.

“It won’t be pretty,” Morgana warns Merlin as they head into the building. “Uther’s a tyrant and doesn’t care about people’s feelings, even when it comes to his own family. Sometimes I think especially when it comes to us.”

It seems to take forever to get upstairs, but when the lift doors open, they can hear Uther shouting. Somehow, Leon has made it there ahead of them and stands white-faced outside the door to the flat.

“I didn’t know whether to go on in or what,” he says, and Morgana doesn’t reply, just uses her key to get in.

Uther and Arthur are in a stand-off in the living room, both of their faces red. Uther’s back is to the front door, and he turns to see them walk in. Merlin has to brace himself not to falter in his steps.

“Well, this is certainly very fitting,” Uther drawls cruelly, “Those guilty of bringing you to this degenerative state have come to back you up.”

“Hello and happy holidays to you, too, Father,” Morgana gives him a feline smile, and Merlin has to admire her ability to goad him. “I hear I just missed you at Mordred’s party. Why-ever didn’t you come over to say hello?”

Uther’s eyes narrow to small slits. “You!” Uther points at his daughter. “It wasn’t enough that you left the family and the business, but you couldn’t rest until you’d swayed your brother in the same direction!”

Before Morgana can say anything, Uther turns to Merlin. “And you! I’ve seen you around Pendragon, but I had no idea that you’d moved in with my son!”

Merlin isn’t sure what to say to that. “I’m his flat-mate,” he finally manages.

“Oh, I think you’re much more than that,” Uther replies derisively. “Let’s lay this all out on the table, shall we? You have taken my son to bed, haven’t you, Mr. Emrys?”

“Father!” Arthur shouts. “I am a person, not a thing! If I’ve slept with Merlin, it’s because I chose to, not because he ‘took me to bed’!”

“He turned you into a homosexual deviant!” Uther shouts.

“Oh, my God,” Morgana shakes her head. “What century do you live in?”

“Uther, perhaps you should sit down,” Leon suggests calmly. “This couldn’t be good for your heart.”

“You shut up! I don’t even acknowledge you!  My daughter married a software technician, for Christ’s sake.”

“Don’t you speak to him like that!” Morgana’s eyes blaze. “He’s the father of your grand-daughter, whether you like it or not. A grand-daughter you’ve never even gotten to meet, thanks to your horrible attitude! You manage to drive everyone away who loves you.”

“I will not let Arthur go down the road you have taken,” Uther swears, face purpling. He turns to his son. “You live here like a hermit, Arthur, watching children’s movies and talking to your plants. There is food on your Christmas tree, for God’s sake! Are we in America?” He points to the popcorn bedecked tree, making it look like something dirty. “I shouldn’t be surprised that now you’re fucking men. What will it be next? Bestiality? How low can you possibly go?”

Merlin is stricken by the man’s ability to demean his son so thoroughly with his snobbish, tainted reasoning. The way he goes from popcorn on a tree to fucking animals is mindboggling.

 

“You can’t control me,” Arthur replies in a carefully restrained tone, although Merlin sees the vein bulging in Arthur’s neck as well as the tell-tale tick by his right eye. “I quit, Father. I quit Pendragon. Thanks to Mother, I have funds of my own, and I don’t have to rely on you to live, although I think if it were up to you, I never would have known that. Uncle Agravaine told me long ago, and that’s why I used my trust fund to buy this penthouse flat.”

Uther is absolutely seething. Merlin watches the older man’s nostrils flare like a bull ready to charge.

“You’re Uncle Agravaine is an idiot as well as a queer-- you probably got the gene from him on both counts. And as far as your saintly mother is concerned, I assure you, Arthur, she’s rolling in her grave as we speak.” He turns abruptly on his heel and stalks out, slamming the door behind him.

Arthur’s face is ashen as silence reigns in the flat for several long seconds before Morgana makes a sighing noise, stepping toward her brother.

All at once, a terrible, hoarse yell bursts from Arthur’s throat, and he swings his hand, hitting a row of plants on the table by the window and knocking them all to the floor in a crash of pottery, dirt and leaves. He continues on to swipe two lamps from another table and to heave an expensive vase full of flowers to the floor.

Stunned, Merlin and Leon simultaneously snap into action, grabbing each of Arthur’s swinging arms, trying to still him, while a white-faced Morgana whips out her cell phone.

Arthur has gone from deathly pale to enraged red within seconds, cursing and yelling obscenities. He manages to punch a hole into the wall before Merlin and Leon can get him seated in a chair, heaving and trembling.

“Arthur, calm down,” Leon tells him, hand on his brother-in-law’s shoulder. “It’s all right. He’s gone.”

“That bastard!” Arthur bursts out, tears spilling. He growls, chest heaving, and pushing Leon away, jumps from the chair and paces the length of the living room and back. “That fucking bastard!”

Arthur stops in the center of the room, all eyes on him. His fists clench and unclench at his sides, and Merlin aches to go to him and somehow make it all better. If only that were possible.

Suddenly, Arthur turns and knocks the television off its stand before lifting it with the intent of throwing it through the glass windows.

Leon immediately tackles Arthur to the floor and Merlin sits on his scrambling, thrashing legs while Morgana brings a wet rag to put on her brother’s head.

“I’ve phoned a friend of mine who’s a physician,” Morgana tells Merlin over Arthur’s heavy breathing and sporadic swearing. “Harvey,” she informs Leon, who nods and pats Arthur’s arm.

“Are you calm now, Arthur? Can we let you up?” Leon asks the man beneath him.

Arthur’s face is pressed to the floor, and Merlin’s heart breaks for him. Uther Pendragon is an arsehole, and Merlin would like nothing better than to drive his fist through the man’s face for hurting Arthur like he has. They wait a moment while Arthur closes his eyes and stills his sobs, Leon gradually letting up on the pressure on Arthur’s back.

“Let’s get you to your room,” Merlin suggests, moving off Arthur’s legs and helping him to stand. Arthur’s shaking all over, crying and refusing to speak. Leon runs the shower while Merlin helps Arthur to undress. They guide Arthur under the spray for a few moments before getting him to bed.

Morgana’s friend arrives and after some consultation, administers a sedative to Arthur.

It’s agreed that years of stress have come to a head, and Morgana promises to make an appointment for Arthur with her therapist. She calls her babysitter and arranges for the girl to spend the night, and Merlin changes his bed sheets in his room for her and Leon to sleep on.

When he climbs into bed with Arthur, it’s well after three AM, and Arthur’s in a deep sleep, his face creased by the pillow and streaked with tears. Merlin reaches over and strokes golden hair from Arthur’s eyes, wishing he could make things easier for him. He can’t believe that earlier that evening they were singing to one another and everything was wonderful. The things that Arthur’s father shouted at him in their living room were horrible, and Merlin can’t contain the anger he feels every time he replays them in his mind. He doesn’t think he can get to sleep, even after having taken his pill.

He snuggles down and scoots in close to Arthur, remembering how it had felt to move inside of him. Pressing soft kisses to Arthur’s face, Merlin whispers to him that he loves him and that everything will work out.

~~~ooo~~~

It’s Arthur’s fault that Merlin is looking for a new job, just like it’s Arthur’s fault that Merlin is in a relationship with someone who obviously needs more than three therapy sessions, judging from the anxiety attack Arthur’s just had in the men’s room. Arthur tries to hide it from his sister over lunch as they discuss their final plans for the showing the following week, but Morgana is shrewd and very observant. She literally pulls what’s bothering him out of his mouth.

“Of course Merlin’s looking for a new job, Arthur!” she tells him frankly as she spears an avocado out of her salad. “Do you think he’d want to work under Father after what he witnessed? Not with the way he feels about you.” Morgana looks at Arthur with soft eyes. “Merlin loves you, Arthur. Surely you get that by now. And fortunately you’re in a position to write him a letter of recommendation and he doesn’t have to rely on ‘he who must not be named’ to do it.”

Arthur can’t help but smile at Morgana’s allusion to Voldemort. He’s got the best sister ever.

“And you’re the one he wants to be in a relationship with—stop putting yourself down! You’re perfect.”

Arthur blushes. “No, I’m not, but I know better than to argue with you,” he says with a sigh before cutting his chicken. “I just keep thinking, what if I weren’t well-off enough to be able to quit my job like I did? How would I get along?”

Morgana shrugs. “I don’t know, Leon and I would take you in, I guess. But you have plenty of money, so why worry about it? And Merlin will find something. Until then, he’s living with you, and he isn’t going to starve. Leon thinks he might be able to get him an interview where he works. So please stop worrying!”

“Okay, okay,” Arthur grins, honestly feeling much better. “I’ll stop. Go ahead and tell me about what Matty’s up to.”

As Morgana readily shifts to her daughter’s recent milestones, Arthur tries not to let his thoughts drift to Merlin and the way he’d replanted Mabel and all the rest of Arthur’s plants that he’d wrecked the night of his break down, or the sweet Christmas they’d shared, just the two of them in their flat. And definitely not the red hot sex they’ve been having at every given opportunity, or the way that Arthur’s heart swells every time Merlin’s name is even mentioned.

He manages to nod and comment at all the right places as Morgana talks, and soon the lunch ends. Arthur kisses Morgana on the cheek, agreeing to see her the night of the showing. He walks the few blocks home, the January wind biting his cheeks, and finds Merlin scrubbing the bathroom, having insisted that he clean the flat instead of the maid while he is unemployed.

“Mordred called,” Merlin tells Arthur, stripping off the plastic gloves and throwing them in the bucket. “He said that his client picked up the portraits and absolutely loves them. He’s on cloud nine---Mordred and the client.” Merlin pulls Arthur in for a kiss. “The client also says we are the sexiest models he’s ever seen.” He presses his lips against Arthur’s again, and Arthur sinks into him, opening his mouth to meet Merlin’s eager tongue.

When Merlin pulls away, he looks serious. “I told Mordred that he can show a few of the paintings he’s done of me on Friday. I just want you to know, so you aren’t blindsided when you see them.”

Arthur takes in a long breath. He isn’t sure he likes the idea of other people looking at Merlin’s nude form, especially while Arthur’s there to see them do it, but what can he say? He can’t talk, because there will be some of Arthur there as well. “Okay. Thanks for the warning.” Arthur kisses Merlin again. “You smell like pine cleaner.” He wrinkles his nose.

“I guess I’d better shower, then,” Merlin raises a brow and steps back. “Care to join me?”

A few minutes later and they are both standing under the spray, mouths connected, groins frantically moving against one another. Arthur steps back and sits on the jutting, tiled seat, pulling Merlin down to straddle him, and they continue to snog, tongues tangling. Arthur’s so aroused, his hands shake as he reaches around and clamps his hands over Merlin’s arse cheeks. He can’t get over how perfect they are. His fingers creep inward, not stopping until he touches the sweet pucker hidden inside, and Merlin gasps into Arthur’s mouth, hands clenching on Arthur’s shoulders.

Merlin reaches up to the soap dish for the lubricant, and Arthur fumbles with it, wetting his fingers before continuing to brush against Merlin’s hole. They’ve dispensed with the use of condoms; Arthur having never had anal sex before Merlin, and Merlin having a clean bill of health. The first time Arthur put his bare cock inside Merlin, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. He’s discovered that Merlin loves his arse to be played with, and Arthur’s more than willing to play with it. He sticks two fingers in now, loving the way Merlin writhes in his lap, head thrown back and groaning for more.

Then Merlin lowers himself onto Arthur’s erection, easing down, and it’s Arthur’s turn to groan. He pumps up into Merlin’s slick heat, Merlin wrapping his legs around Arthur’s waist, and he fucks Merlin while kissing him and stroking Merlin’s long cock, and Arthur can’t help but think this is so worth it.

Merlin comes between them, whining into Arthur’s mouth, and that sets Arthur off—he moves his fingers to where they’re joined, feeling the connection before lifting Merlin’s bum so Arthur can drive in and out ruthlessly until he shudders in completion. They continue to kiss until the water runs cold, driving them out of the shower and into the bed.

That night Merlin lies on top of Arthur’s back, pushing into him, lying between Arthur’s spread legs, his weight on his locked arms. Merlin tells Arthur how he likes to watch his cock disappear between Arthur’s perfect arse cheeks, as Arthur moans loudly. Arthur makes all the noise he wants to because Merlin likes it so much.

“Yell for me, Arthur,” he tells him, and Arthur does, which makes Merlin push into him faster and harder, making it hurt so good. Arthur kind of hopes the Astors can hear him downstairs.

The feel of Merlin’s cock nudging Arthur’s prostate along with the friction of the sheets on Arthur’s dick makes Arthur come hard, crying out and pushing his bum back up against Merlin, who begins pumping faster, groaning out Arthur’s name as he climaxes.

They lay in one another’s arms, hearts beating together, listening to the familiar sounds of the building settling around them until they drift into a peaceful sleep.

~~~

Quite a crowd gathers on the night of the showing. Morgana has made certain that everything is perfect for the occasion from the flowers to the food to the display of the art, and she and Arthur have left no one of importance in the art world off the guest list.

Arthur thinks Merlin looks divine in his rented tux, and as the evening wears on, it becomes more and more difficult for Arthur to keep his hands off him.

As he looks around the rented room, Arthur can’t help but be filled with pride for the talent of his new friends. Christopher, Donovan, Mordred, and Elyan all mingle with the guests, answering questions about their various pieces and displaying their portfolios. Arthur insisted earlier that the paintings of himself be included with Mordred’s. After all, they are some of Mordred’s best work, and Arthur’s face isn’t fully visible in any of them. He isn’t sure it matters anymore anyway.

It makes Arthur particularly happy that all four artists are attracting so much attention. The way that Merlin looks at Arthur like he hung the moon doesn’t hurt, either.

While Arthur is standing at the buffet table drinking champagne and talking with his sister and Merlin, a gentleman that he recognizes as one of his father’s old friends approaches.

“Arthur!” Jim Ballinger shakes Arthur’s hand. “And Morgana. How nice to see you.” Feral eyes sweep over Morgana in her tight-fitting blue silk dress. “I came with my friend, Mildred Lacings, who received an invitation.” He indicates a plump woman in the corner who is looking over Christopher’s work.

“Lovely to have you here,” Morgana tells him, and Arthur is sure he is the only one who can tell she is lying and how much she loathes the man.

He’s a little thrown himself at seeing his father’s friend there. Jim Ballinger used to be a frequent visitor at the Pendragon estate when Arthur and Morgana were growing up, and Arthur associates him with late night brandy sessions, the smell of cigars, and various big-breasted, loose women.

“This is Merlin Emrys,” Arthur introduces Merlin, and they shake hands.

“Are you one of the aspiring artists, Mr. Emrys?” Ballinger asks.

“No,” Merlin smiles. “Afraid not.”

Ballinger looks around. “I must say, this isn’t the type of art I normally go for, but there is a certain aesthetic quality to the male form.”

“Indeed,” Arthur agrees, forcing a polite smile. “All four artists are extremely talented.”

“I hear you are no longer working for your father,” Ballinger notes, raising his champagne flute to his fleshy lips.

“That’s correct,” Arthur replies, purposely not offering any more information.

“Mr. Pendragon!” A tall, thin man suddenly interrupts, rushing upon them from out of the crowd. “Oh, excuse me, I didn’t realize you were in the middle of a conversation.” He apologizes to Arthur and Ballinger who nod. “My name is Vince Parson’s. I just wanted to say that I am enjoying the artwork you have displayed here so much, and I noticed that I’ve seen some of it before. I’m rather a fan of Mordred Darkwater’s already, it seems. A friend of mine has an entire wall of his paintings, and imagine my delight when I turn to find both of the models for the tableau standing here together!”

Arthur immediately stiffens, looking over at Merlin, whose lips have parted in surprise.

“You both are so striking, I couldn’t miss you, even though none of the paintings show your full faces. Who could miss those cheekbones?” Parson’s says to Merlin.

Morgana immediately directs Parson’s attention to Christopher’s work, leading him that way, and Arthur clears his throat.

“Have you tried the shrimp, Jim?” he asks Ballinger.

“Er, no. No, I haven’t.” He picks up a plate. “So you’ve modeled for some of these pictures, have you, Pendragon?” Ballinger looks like he’s swallowed a lemon.

Arthur shrugs, feeling resigned and suddenly more than a little cheeky. “What can I say? When you’ve got it, flaunt it.” He smiles and moves away, pulling Merlin along with him.

When they reach the balcony, Merlin covers his mouth with his hand. “Oh, God. What a line! Shit, Arthur, I never in a million years thought anyone would recognize you from those paintings!”

“I’ll probably be getting a lethal message from my father soon,” Arthur replies with a sigh.

Merlin looks worried. “Are you upset?”

“No.” Arthur shakes his head. “I don’t care anymore.” He pulls Merlin in for a kiss. “I’m happy, Merlin. Truly happy for the first time in my life.”

Merlin wraps his arms around him. “I’m glad.” He kisses Arthur, and Arthur can taste the champagne Merlin just drank. He pulls Merlin closer as the frigid January air nips at them.

“I have an interview at Leon’s company tomorrow,” Merlin tells him, moving his lips to Arthur’s jawline.

“Really? That’s brilliant!” Arthur hugs him. Pulling together all his courage, he whispers in Merlin’s ear. “Merlin… I’m in love with you. I think I’ve always been in love with you.”

Arthur feels Merlin tremble in his arms. Merlin’s breath is hot in Arthur’s ear as he whispers, “I love you, too, Arthur.”

Arthur moves so their mouths connect in a heated kiss. It’s freezing, and the wind drives snow into their faces, but it doesn’t matter because for the first time in his life Arthur feels like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

A noise to their left grabs their attention, and Arthur turns his head in time to see a rumpled Mordred and Donovan appear from behind the potted plants, both men looking well-snogged.

“Well, well, well, what have we here?” Merlin teases.

“Shut up,” Mordred says pulling a smiling Donovan inside by the hand.

Arthur turns Merlin’s face so that he’s got his full attention. “When this is over, let’s go home and never get out of bed again.”

“Do you think Leon’s boss will do my interview from there?” Merlin asks huskily before nibbling the side of Arthur’s mouth.

Arthur chooses to answer with another kiss.

 

 

finis