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The Sex Shop Around The Corner

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Merlin always looks up from the computer when the door to the shop jingles open. It’s just some sort of Pavlovian reaction, he assumes, and while it’s a good idea to keep an eye on who is going into and out of the shop, it always unsettles Merlin, always makes him feel like he’s been caught doing something he ought not be doing, when he gets an eyeful of one of the ones who look like they’re about to vomit all over his clean floors.

The guy who just walked in is one of those.

He pauses in the doorway, looking panic stricken and disoriented, and glances around the shop. Merlin can’t help but feel a little defiant under the scrutiny; his place certainly isn’t as gaudy and in your face as some of the shops in town, but it is a sex shop, and if the sight of a wall of dildos is going to send this guy into a gay freak out, Merlin thinks he probably ought to head home and order his playthings online.

“Can I help you?” he says, sitting up on the bar stool and offering the guy a tight-lipped smile. The guy grimaces.

“No,” he says. “No, I’m just — just looking.”

“You’re letting all the heat out, mate.”

“Not your mate,” the guy says, but he steps inside and lets the door swing shut behind him.

“Right,” Merlin says. “Well, let me know if you need help finding anything.”

The guy grunts and wanders in the direction of the porn flicks, and Merlin returns to his computer. It always surprises him a bit, seeing how much porn people are actually willing to pay for, given the sheer volume of it available for free on the internet, but he’s not complaining. It keeps his lights on. For now, anyway.

The guy crosses his arms over his chest and shuffles down the aisles, shoulders hunched, like he’s protecting himself from Merlin’s gaze. If Merlin has learned one thing in the last two years of working at the Magic Dragon, it’s that people generally want to be left alone while they shop for sex toys. There is, of course, the rare person who wants to discuss the merits of various cock rings or nipple clamps, but on the whole, no one wants a spectator while they try to covertly measure butt plugs, so Merlin stays behind the desk unless it looks like someone is jerking off on the blow up dolls or wandering around in a daze. This guy isn’t either of those things; he walks stiffly around the store, not looking at any one thing for too long, not pausing in any particular area. Merlin glances up at him occasionally, trying to determine if he ought to go offer help, but the guy never even looks in Merlin’s direction.

The ringing of the phone nearly startles Merlin off his chair. He jerks his eyes away from the guy — had he been staring? please God, let him not have been staring — and reaches over and picks it up, cradles it between his ear and his shoulder.

“Hello, Magic Dragon.”

“I’ve got a Magic Dragon for you.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Hey, Gwaine.”

“Hey, wanker. You still meeting me at the pub?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, craning his head around to glance up at the clock. “Yeah, what do you think, half an hour?”

“Sounds good,” Gwaine says. “Hey, can you bring me some condoms?”

“I’m not buying you condoms, Gwaine. You can come down here and buy them like everyone else. And not likely you’ll need them tonight anyway.”

“You wound me, mate,” Gwaine says, but Merlin can hear the laughter in his voice. “Okay, see you in a bit.”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, and he drops the phone back into cradle. He looks up to see the guy pushing the door open. “Have a good day,” he says, and then, “prick,” when the guy walks out without a word, sorry when the door doesn’t catch him on his perfectly round arse.

*

“What did she say then?”

“Slapped me in the face, didn’t she? Told me it’d be a punch in the dick next time.”

Gwaine throws his head back and howls with laughter, and Merlin grins into his beer. When Will, his best friend from back home, moved to London, Merlin had never anticipated that he’d get on so well with flatmate Gwaine, but the pair of them got on like a house on fire, and during the two months that Will had crashed on their couch, they’d shared so many nights out on the piss that they’d probably be friends for life. Merlin was glad of it; he was a horrible wingman.

“How was your day, mate?” Will says, slapping Merlin on the shoulder. “Thrilling? Titillating? Tell us all about it.”

“You just wanted to say ‘tit’,” Gwaine says, and Will throws a crude gesture at him.

“Fine,” Merlin says. “Bit boring; I just worked all day.”

“Only you would find working at a sex shop boring, Merlin. It’s wasted on you.”

“What do you think goes on there, Gwaine? It’s just a shop.”

“That sells vibrators.”

“That sells vibrators,” Merlin agrees. “But it’s not like anyone is offering to use them on me, so.”

“Rotten luck,” Will says, shaking his head sadly. “Maybe one day your prince will come.”

“Okay, that time you just wanted to say ‘come’,” Merlin says, and Gwaine snorts into his pint and signals for another round.

*

Arthur’s father gives him a searching look when he opens the door on Sunday afternoon. It’s as if he thinks that now Arthur’s gay, there will be some sort of visible change in him. Like he expected Arthur to show up in bright pink hot pants and heavy eyeliner and an “I ♥ Cock” sandwich-board. Arthur wishes he knew what to tell him. He wishes he had some sort of answer to the questions written across Uther’s face. He wishes he knew how to tell him how, for so long, he was so scared of doing the wrong thing that he’d done nothing at all, and now he’s 25 years old and trying to figure out what it means to be gay, and that he’s terrified out of his fucking mind.

Instead, he just nods, shakes Uther’s hand and says, “Father.”

“Arthur,” he says. “Drink?”

“Oh yes,” Arthur says, though there’s not enough alcohol in Uther’s house. Possibly there’s not enough in the whole of London.

“Your sister is running late.”

“Morgana’s in town?”

“She flew in this morning,” Uther says. He pours two fingers of scotch and passes it to Arthur, then lifts his own glass. “Your good health,” he says, and even though Arthur hates the taste of scotch, he knocks it back so that he can feel it burn. “You’re well?”

“Very well,” Arthur says, turning his head to a little to catch a glimpse of the clock on the mantle, watches time inch forward. They’re halfway through dinner when Morgana breezes in, like she’s being chased by the police but wants to be elegant about it, thumbs flying over the keypad of her phone.

“Father,” she says, dropping a kiss on Uther’s forehead. “Hello, Arthur, dear. I hear you’re a homosexual now.”

Arthur chokes on his fish. “Christ, Morgana,” he manages, “you can’t just — what the hell is the matter —” but he’s cut off by a the sound of a fist pounding on the table. Arthur looks up; Uther’s entire face has turned purple.

“Oh God,” he says, rising out of his chair, trying frantically to remember the Heimlich maneuver. “You’ve killed him. Is that what a heart attack —” but Uther is shaking his head and reaching for his water glass, wiping the back of his hand across his eyes and squeaking “A homosexual. Arthur, your face.” And that’s as far as he gets before he dissolves into giggles.

Morgana looks at Arthur and arches one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Is he high?”

Arthur shakes his head, lowers himself into his chair and signals for more wine. Arthur has never understood his father, and is starting to wonder if he ought to give up trying. “I have no idea,” he says. “None at all.”

“Okay,” Morgana says easily, dropping gracefully into the chair opposite Arthur. “How are you, brother, darling?”

Arthur takes a deep drink from his wine, and says, “Gay, apparently,” which sends Uther into another fit of giggles. Morgana smiles.

“And that’s going well?”

“How does — how exactly does being gay go well? I’m sort of new at it.”

“Please,” Morgana says, waving one hand dismissively. “I’ve known you were gay forever. Or bi, anyway. Don’t you remember how you used to follow Leon around that summer I was dating him? Like you could eyefuck him into the guest room to have your way with him?

“I did no such thing,” Arthur says, shooting a concerned look at the end of the table, where Uther has put his head down on the polished wood and is positively trembling. “And this is really not a conversation I think we should have.”

“I’m just concerned about you,” Morgana says. “I don’t want your personal life to affect business, that’s all. Maybe you should take some time off, have a holiday? Maybe one of those gay cruises, what are they called? Gay and away?”

“You’ve already got Paris,” Uther says, lifting his head and sobering. “You can’t have the London office as well.”

Morgana holds her hands up and smiles. “I just want my brother to be happy,” she says, which Arthur would be touched by if he didn’t know Morgana would chop him up and sell him for parts if she felt the business warranted it.

“Your concern is noted,” Uther says. “But unless Arthur feels the need to be gay and away,” and at this he shoots Arthur a look, eyebrows raised, and Arthur shakes his head, “then I’ll assume he can manage just fine.”

Morgana smiles at Arthur over her wineglass, and Arthur wants to roll his eyes, but he’s long since learned that it’s better to not have Morgana outright against you. He lifts his glass and nods at her.

*

The same guy is working behind the counter at the Magic Dragon, which makes Arthur swear under his breath and wish he’d worn some sort of hat. He knows it’s ridiculous, but he can’t help feeling like some sort of pervert when he walks in and the guy’s eyebrows lift in recognition. Arthur tries to smile; judging by the way the guy’s mouth twitches, he doesn’t quite manage it.

“Can I help you find anything?” the guy says, marking his spot in his book with one long finger. Arthur tracks the movement with his eyes, anything to stop himself staring at the guy’s soft curls, the cheekbones that look like weapons.

“No, thank you,” he says, fighting not to cross his arms over his chest. “I’m just looking.”

“Okay,” the guy says easily. “I’m Merlin.”

“What?” Arthur says, feeling his palms go sweaty all at once. Why is this guy telling him his name? Is he coming onto Arthur? And does Arthur want him to be? Should he introduce himself? Should he —

“I’m Merlin,” he repeats. “So, in case you need anything, you can just say, ‘Hey, Merlin’.”

“Oh,” Arthur says. “Yeah, right. Sure, of course.”

“Okay,” he says again, grinning. Arthur’s heart kicks in his chest and oh, bloody fuck. That is most inconvenient.

What he does next could probably charitably be described as fleeing. He shoves his hands in his pockets and scurries away, not even looking where he’s going, trying not to care that he’s making an utter tit of himself. The guy — Merlin — is probably used to awkward and uncomfortable people shuffling through the shop with their eyes on the ground, right? It’s not like Arthur’s the first person to ever have a big gay epiphany and go looking for some education, surely. He’s mostly just mortified that he’s so fucking skittish about the whole thing, because Arthur doesn’t really know how to go about things without going balls out on them.

“Oh Jesus,” Arthur says, pulling up short in front of a dildo the size of a forearm. It’s thick and black and … obscene, is what it is. Who would make such a thing? And why would they make it? And who the hell would buy it?

“That’s the Outlaw,” Merlin says, and even though he’s not looking at him, even though he doesn’t know this guy from anyone, Arthur can tell he’s trying not to laugh. “It’s uh … for the rather more experienced consumer.”

“Yes,” Arthur says. “Yes, I’d assume so.”

And at that Merlin actually does laugh. It’s a nice sound and Arthur, feeling a bit dizzy and reckless, turns to watch him in it. “Look,” Merlin says, leaning forward and propping his chin in his hand. “Are you sure I can’t help? Only you look sort of lost out there, and this is my job, you know? Trust me, whatever you’re looking for, it isn’t going to shock me.”

Arthur wants to say yes. He badly wants to say yes and to ask Merlin to please point him in the direction of the ‘whoops, you’re gay’ starter kit. Instead he just shakes his head, and feigns a phone call, and gets the hell out of there.

He grabs a cab back to his flat, which is expensive and a little bit ridiculous, but Arthur’s pride is stinging for a reason he can’t understand and he just wants to go home. It feels like there’s a storm inside his chest, and the pressure is almost painful to bear. He pays for the cab and takes the lift up to his flat, unlocks the door and lets himself in, breathing in the familiar, comforting scent of it.

Arthur tosses his keys onto the breakfast bar and starts stripping off his clothes, tossing them in the general direction of the bathroom. When he’s down to his boxers and undershirt, he grabs a beer from his fridge and sits down on his couch and powers up his laptop. “Okay,” he says, taking a pull from the bottle. “Okay.” He checks his personal email, then his work email, spends a few minutes skimming through the news. Eventually the clench in his stomach gets the better of him and he opens his bookmarks and clicks on the link titled ‘Safe Zone’.

And he can breath a little easier, just from that. He knows it’s not like he’s actually doing anything, but just the tiny action of visiting the webpage, reading the words “So you’re coming out!” bold on the screen makes him feel better. He’s visited the site every night for weeks, but he clicks around at random anyway, skimming articles he’s already read, looking at pictures of smiling couples, heads bent close together, hands clasped. He stares at them until his vision blurs.

“Okay,” he says again, and he moves his finger over the Chat Now button. Stomach in knots, he clicks it.

Nothing happens. His computer doesn’t blow up, no warning bells go off, no one asks him how big his dick is. There’s just a new, blank window open on his screen with a blinking cursor in it. Arthur pauses, reconsiders his entire fucking life, and types in,

Guest: Hello?

And still, nothing happens. Arthur takes another drink of his beer and wipes his hands on his boxers. He stares at the blinking cursor. A minute passes, then another and just as Arthur is about to give the whole thing up as a bad job and resign himself to a life of unhappy celibacy, the box lights up.

Emrys227: hi

“Shit,” Arthur says. “Shit, fucking fuck. Buggering fuck.”

Emrys227: do you need someone to talk to?

“Fucking fuck.” Arthur bites down on the inside of his cheek, hands hovering above the keyboard.

Guest: Sort of.
Emrys227: okay
Guest: I’m not sure where to start.
Emrys227: wherever you want. do you want to tell me your name?

Arthur’s eyebrows go up.

Guest: Not really, no.
Emrys227: i meant a pseudonym.
Emrys227: we don’t use real names. and everything you say in safe zone is confidential, okay? this is a safe space.

Before he can stop himself, Arthur types:

Guest: Then it’s aptly named, isn’t it?

Emrys227: lol, okay, i deserved that.
Emrys227: so what do you want to talk about?

Arthur taps his ring against against the mouth of his beer bottle. He tips his head back against the couch and sighs. He doesn’t even know where to start, can’t get the thoughts in his head to settle long enough to mold them into words and sentences that make sense to him, let alone another person.

Guest: I just came out to my father
emrys227: how do you feel about that?
Guest: Fine, I think. I don’t know.

Arthur drains his beer. He pushes his computer out of his lap and pushes himself off the couch to go find another one. In the kitchen, he splashes his face with cool water and washes his hands, flips through the stack of post on the breakfast bar. He separates it into piles, throws the junk mail in the bin and then walks back into the living room.

Emrys227: still here?
Guest: Is it normal that I’m in my twenties and only just now realizing I’m gay?
Emrys227: i think it’s never a good idea to try and fit things like that under an umbrella “normal”, because whose definition would we go by? It’s dangerous to start qualifying stuff as normal or not, especially when you’re talking about sex and everything that comes with it.

Arthur leans forward and moves the computer to the coffee table, presses his fingertips to his temples. He reads over the words again, inexplicably pictures Merlin leaning towards him, saying, it isn’t going to shock me, and that settles around him somehow, comforting.

Guest: Are you a therapist or something?
emrys227: no, just a volunteer. just a guy who’s been there. i can refer you to someone, though, if you want me to.
Guest: No, no. I just wanted to check.
emrys227: okay
Guest: Okay.
Guest: How old were you when you came out?
emrys227: 17. my mum cried, then baked scones.
Guest: She was sad?
emrys227: relieved. didn’t think i’d ever tell her.
Guest: That’s great.
emrys227: yeah, only now i can’t eat scones without thinking about my mum crying. and i love scones.
Guest: Tough luck
emrys227: i know. my life, so hard.

Arthur laughs. He reaches for a pillow and turns on the couch, sliding down and resting his head on the arm, laptop pillowed on his stomach. He feels oddly contented like this, at ease, less like someone has thrown him a life raft, and more like someone walked in after to show him the water is only waist-deep.

Guest: How long ago was that?
emrys227: eight years this autumn.
Guest: Oh, wow.
emrys: didn’t realize it was that long until you asked.
Guest: You don’t celebrate some sort of...
emrys227: gay-aversary?
Guest: Hey, I’m new. Don’t mock.
emrys227: sorry. am i messing up your introduction to all things queer?
Guest: No. It’s a bit refreshing, actually.
emrys227: the whole thing just takes some time. just. you should be kind to yourself, okay? give it some time. coming out is a really personal thing, and it’s different for everybody. you don’t have to be on any sort of schedule. and we’re always here if you need someone to talk to.
Guest: I’ve never had sex with another guy.
emrys227: do you want to?

Arthur shifts on the couch, warm all over. He didn’t mean to just blurt that out, but now it’s out there and Arthur can’t get it back and he finds he doesn’t really want to get it back. There’s a dull ache inside him, lodged in somewhere between his sternum and his heart, and Arthur is sick of the pain when he breathes.

Guest: I do, yeah.
emrys227: then being gay is going to work out pretty well for you.

And at that, Arthur laughs a little, and the ache inside him eases up, loosens up a bit, just enough, and he sleeps.

*

It’s an entire week before the guy, Blond and Devastating, comes back in to the shop. Merlin was starting to wonder if he’d scared him off with the Outlaw, which, really, it’s not like he’d brandished it at him or anything. He can’t help that it’s there. Well, technically he supposes he could, the Magic Dragon being his shop and all, but all the blood drains from Gwaine’s face every time he sees it and Merlin can’t bring himself to move the display.

“Welcome to the Magic Dragon,” Merlin says when the guy walks in, and he actually nods at Merlin this time, setting loose a flutter of heat low in Merlin’s stomach.

“Hi,” he says. He pauses just over the threshold, hovers there for a moment and then turns and walks toward the books. Merlin would like to pretend like he doesn’t watch him walk away, but there’s no one to lie to inside his own head.

It’s quiet in the shop, even for a weeknight, and Merlin sighs and turns back towards his computer, makes himself a note to go to the library and look for some comprehensible books about owning your own business. Things have been lean since he bought the Magic Dragon two years back, but with the economy in the pot, Merlin is really starting to worry about keeping the lights on. And being well-lit is kind of of essential in a sex shop, otherwise Merlin shudders to think what sort of stains he’d find on the carpet in the mornings.

“Merlin, was it?”

Merlin swivels around in his chair. “Yeah. Can I help you with something?”

“I’m just —” the guy runs a hand through his hair, making it stand on end. “I’m looking for a book, but I was wondering if you had some that are a little —”

He’s holding a copy of Bend Over! The Complete Guide To Anal Sex. The cover is a full colour photo of a guy, well. Bending over. “A little not so much plastered with naked arse?”

The guy turns pink. “A little more discreet.”

“Have you thought about an e-book?” Merlin says. He stands up and walks over to the display rack. “You’d probably feel more comfortable reading something like this on an e-reader if you’re going to be reading it in public. Of course, I don’t know many people who read stuff like this on the Tube, you know? Bit awkward.”

“Oh,” he says. He glances down at the book in his hand and seems to come to a quick understanding of exactly why reading sex books, no matter how clinical, could be awkward while surrounded by strangers you don’t want staring at your crotch. “Right.”

Merlin grins. “That’s a good one. This one too,” he says, reaching for a copy of Ultimate Gay Sex. “Lots of photos, so definitely not group reading. I mean, unless you’re into that. It’s probably more of a beginner’s guide than the other one. The Joy of Gay Sex is also really good, but I don’t have that one in stock. I could order it for you, if you wanted.”

“No,” he squeaks. “No, no, these’ll be fine.” He grabs the book from Merlin’s hand and hurries up to the counter, leaving Merlin to follow in his wake.

“Can I get you anything else? Lube? Condoms? Batteries?”

“Uh,” he says, casting wildly around the shop. “I don’t —”

“Here,” Merlin says. He reaches under the counter and grabs a basked filled with trial size packets of lube. “Take some of these. Just grab whatever. This one is, uh, this one is blue raspberry, I think, and this one is strawberry. The green pack is organic and vegan, though, I don’t know, you don’t really look like a vegan kind of guy.”

“What does a vegan guy look like?”

Merlin glances up at the guy; it’s unfair that he’s that attractive when he’s blushing. “Leather shoes,” he says, nodding at his feet. He smiles, and their gazes catch and hold, and later, Merlin will marvel that those four seconds felt like four years, felt like something inevitable, felt like something inside him shifted and settled into place.

“Arthur,” the guy says, and Merlin echoes him, liking the way the name fits inside his mouth, the way it pushes up against his teeth and tongue.

“Why don’t —” Merlin says. He fumbles for a bag and begins stuffing samples inside. “You take these and the books —”

“Take them,” Arthur says. he takes a step forward and lays a hand on them, palm pressed flat. “No, I couldn’t possibly.”

“Of course you can,” Merlin says. “I’d hate you to pay for something that you’d end up hating.”

“I think you’ve rather missed the point of owning a shop.”

“What? Selling you something you hate?”

“No,” Arthur says, lifting his eyebrows. “Selling something.

“Well,” Merlin says. “Sort of. I mean, yes, of course it is, but not — you didn't even want this one!” He reaches for Ultimate Gay Sex and tries to tug it out of Arthur's grip.

“But I want it now.”

“That's silly,” Merlin says. He tugs the book again. “You don't need two books.”

“I do. And order the other one for me too.”

“Now you're just being ridiculous,” Merlin says. He yanks the books free. “Just take these —”

“At least let me pay for the one with the arses.”

“They're gay sex guides, Arthur. They're both filled with arses.”

The sound of Arthur's laughter is a relief, even though it only serves to highlight how stupidly, terrifyingly attractive he is. Merlin clutches the books to his chest and grins, helpless against the wave of unbridled affection and want that crests in his chest.

“At least let me pay for the one I picked out,” Arthur says through his laughter. “I really do insist. If I hate it, or if I have a sudden and overwhelming urge to retreat back into heterosexuality, I swear I'll bring it back for a full refund.”

Merlin wrinkles his nose. “No refunds,” he says, and Arthur starts laughing again.

“Probably a good policy,” he says. He pulls his wallet out and hands Merlin a credit card. Merlin goes about ringing the book up and swiping Arthur's card, but it's a process he can only drag out for so long, really. Eventually he hands Arthur the pin machine; Arthur enters his number and slides back across the counter.

“Thanks for your business,” Merlin tells him, sliding the bag across the counter. He can tell Arthur's fighting not to roll his eyes.

“Have a good night,” he says, and Merlin replies, “You as well,” before he realizes how that sounds. He groans as the door closes behind Arthur, tries to resist the urge to slam his face into the counter.

Twilight is falling around the city when Merlin locks up the shop and sets off for the Tube. He loves this hour, just before dusk settles over London, and he loves the people and sounds it's filled with. He walks slowly to the station, letting the energy of it all pull him out of his head. What he really wants is a cold drink and half an hour with Gwaine taking the piss, Have a good night, Merlin, after you gave him a fistful of lube? Honestly? but he's scheduled to man Safe Zone's chat from seven on, and being half-cut probably isn't the best way to see to that.

It's just as well anyway, because the flat is quiet when he gets home and there's a note on the counter from Gwaine:

Pub Quiz at The Royal Oak. It's in your best interests to come round when you get this.

Merlin finds a bag of crisps in one of the cupboards, a Coke in the fridge, and the remote stuffed in between two couch cushions. He powers up his laptop and checks his email, curses Gwaine when he sees he's deleted his recording of Top Gear and recorded Strictly Come Dancing in its place. He presses Play on it anyway, because the Safe Zone chat window is quiet.

It's been nearly six months since Merlin joined the staff at Safe Zone, helping keep the website up to date and writing the occasional article about coming out and whatever else they need him to. He likes this part the best, when he gets to talk to someone — if not face to face, then person to person, at least, because he figures what's the use of having gone before if you can't help show the way to someone who's following after?

It's quiet tonight, though. Merlin gives up on Strictly Come Dancing after twenty minutes and finds a Doctor Who repeat, settles down into the couch and pulls a blanket over his feet to watch the Doctor try and sort out why everyone in 1941 has a gas mask fused to their face. Captain Jack is blowing a hole in the floor with his Sonic Blaster when his chat window flashes. Merlin clicks on it.

Guest: hello?

Merlin digs the remote out from under his arse and punches the volume button.

Emrys227: hi.
Guest: Hey.
Emrys227: do you need someone to talk to?
Guest: Are you the guy who was in here the other night?
Emrys227: what night?
Guest: With the mum who baked him scones?

Merlin grins and tucks the blanket in tighter around his thighs.

Emrys227: that's me. you're the guy without a name?
Guest: I am.
Emrys227: i've been calling you Aptly Named in my head, jsyk
Guest: Fair enough. I actually just wanted to say thank you. I realised later I never said it after we talked the talk the other night.
Emrys227: you don't have to thank me. that's what i'm here for.
Guest: I know, but that doesn't mean I can't say thank you.
Emrys227: well, you're welcome. anytime.
Guest: Lancaster.
Emrys227: sorry?
Guest: you can call me Lancaster.

And it's a bit irrational. Merlin knows it's a bit irrational and a bit ridiculous, but he can't help but feel happy and a little proud of this guy for that. It flares up in his chest before he can check it.

Emrys227: you can call me emrys.
Guest: I don't need to use the numbers?
Emrys227: nah, not now we're on a first name basis.
Guest: Okay, well, then, thank you, Emrys.
Emrys227: you are most welcome, lancaster. i mean it, anytime. that's what i'm here for.

And for a while, Merlin thinks that's it. The guy doesn't say anything else, and the window sits silent for a while, and Merlin gets up and puts the kettle on and makes a cup of tea. When he comes back, Lancaster has typed in:

Guest: So I did a thing today.
Emrys227: hey, sorry, I was getting a cup of tea
Guest: I'm having beer.
Emrys227: that sounds better. so what thing did you do? i mean, if you want to tell me.
Guest: I think it was less what I did and more … the act of doing it, you know what I mean? It was my first -- I don't know how to describe it. I feel like it was my first step towards. I don't know. Something. Does that make sense?
Emrys227: it does, yeah, and that's fantastic. i think we all know, sort of innately, when the right time is for us to take those steps, whether it's coming out to family or friends or dating or whatever they may be. we all just have to go at our own pace.
Guest: Yeah. I mean, it's like I can logically understand that.
Guest: but it's still scary.
Emrys227: i know it is.
Guest: I feel good about it, though. It wasn't as hard as I thought it'd be.

Merlin battles down a ridiculous grin, mourning all the dirty jokes he can't make. He drains his tea and then rearranges the couch cushions into a nest and settles down into them.

Emrys227: you said you'd told your dad, yeah? does the rest of your family know?
Guest: My sister. They're pretty much it.
Emrys227: and how are they doing with it?
Guest: Better than I'd have thought. My dad, at least. My sister is … she's complicated. But my dad is actually my boss, so it's good that he's not flipping out.
Emrys227: sounds like the whole thing is complicated.
Guest: Yeah, you could say that. Hard to say business isn't personal when it's family.
Emrys227: I'd imagine.
Guest: Not as complicated as using Nanogenes to heal half of London, but what is, really?

Merlin laughs and reaches for the remote.

Emrys227: are you watching Who?
Guest: I am, sadly. Addicted.
Emrys227: Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant?
Guest: Matt Smith.
Emrys227: Ah, secret option number three.

No one else signs into chat, so they stay on through the end of The Doctor Dances, through Boomtown and Bad Wolf, and by then it just makes sense to finish up with The Parting of the Ways. Merlin's eyelids are drooping by the time they sign off, but he's feels happy and contented in some bone-deep way, and he doesn't even mind when Gwaine and Will tumble in at half-past one, so out of their fucking minds that Gwaine is listing persistently to the left, and Will is practically crawling.

“How the hell much did he drink?” Merlin says, planting Will on the couch and tugging his shoes off.

“We met Gwen and Lance at the pub,” Gwaine says, grinning, reaching over to ruffle Merlin's hair and missing entirely.

“And what? He drank them?”

“Gwen's friend Morgana was there,” Gwaine whispers, and Will moans.

“Magnificent breasts,” he says, closing his eyes and making a gesture in front of his chest. “Magnificent.”

“Okay, well, be that as it may, could you please not vomit on this blanket? My mum made it.”

“Magnificent,” Will moans.

“They really were.”

“That's great, guys. I’m really happy for you.”

“We're meeting them for dinner tomorrow.”

“Who, Morgana’s breasts?”

“And the rest of her, God willing,” Gwaine says. He claps Merlin on the shoulder and bends to peer at his face. “You must come, Emrys.”

“Must I?”

“Magnificent.”

“Gwaine, I think Will is dying.”

“He's not dying. He's been transported to a higher plane.”

“Well, transport yourself to the toilet if you're going to sick, all right?”

Will moans his agreement, or at least what Merlin hopes is agreement. He really does love that blanket.

*

Emboldened by the successful procurement of actual gay material with actual gay content, not to mention the piles of lube Merlin had given him and which Arthur can’t quite bring himself to take out of the bag, Arthur steels himself and heads back to the Magic Dragon the next day after lunch. He’s got a bit of time to kill before he meets Morgana for drinks and, after spending four hours chatting with Emrys about everything but being gay, Arthur is starting to feel like himself again, like maybe this doesn't have to be some huge, extravagant thing, like maybe he can still be Arthur, just Arthur who prefers men to women.

He half-hopes Merlin won't be at the shop when he gets there. It's not that he's embarrassed, but he wonders if going back the very next day makes him look like some sort of sex fiend. Then again, maybe a bloke who works at a sex shop isn't really going to care one way or the other. The other half of him hopes Merlin is there, for reasons he really doesn’t want to examine.

There's a little bell above the door that jingles when Arthur pushes it open, and sure enough, Merlin is sitting behind the till again, staring at the computer and tapping his mouth with a biro. Something pleasant flops over in Arthur's stomach when Merlin looks up and smiles at him.

“Hi,” he says, and then he adopts a stern face and tells Arthur, “I hope you haven't come to make a return.”

“No,” Arthur says, and he wants to laugh, but it feels like he's been doused with icy water. “No, just, uh ...”

“Browsing?”

“Yes,” Arthur says. “Yes, just browsing.”

“Okay,” Merlin replies easily. “Let me know if you need anything.”

There's an entire wall filled with dildos, and as soon as Arthur walks over to it, he wishes he'd asked for Merlin's help. He doesn't even know where to start. There are pink dildos and purple dildos and black dildos. Some of them have bumps on them and some of them have suction cups on the end and right there in the middle is the goddamn Outlaw, huge and horrifying and making Arthur want to clap his hands over his arse and edge out of the shop.

“The Silk is a good place to start,” Merlin says after a few moments. Arthur glances over his shoulder at him, grateful.

“Which one is that?”

“The purple one.”

“There are a dozen purple ones, mate.”

“Oh,” Merlin says. “Now I'm your mate.”

“Everyone has a price.”

Merlin laughs and pushes back from the counter, stands up and walks over to the display wall.

“This is the Silk,” he says, taking one of the boxes off the wall and handing it to Arthur. The purple dildo inside it is hardly larger than one of Arthur's fingers. “It's silicone, so it's easy to clean with soap and water, and it's dishwasher-safe.”

“Dishwasher-safe?”

“I'm just telling you what it says on the box,” Merlin says, corners of his mouth curving up. He pulls another box down and hands it to Arthur as well. “It comes in two sizes, so you can pick which one you think would work for you. And it's got a little give, which you might appreciate now. I don't think you want to start with glass or —”

Glass?”

Merlin laughs. “It has its benefits,” he says, and Arthur feels the back of his neck heat up.

“Uh,” he says, looking at the boxes in his hands, the boxes left on the wall, anywhere that's not Merlin's face. Merlin just keeps talking, taking boxes off the shelf and pointing at them, saying things like “flared at the base” and “curved for prostate stimulation” and Arthur feels like his fucking heart is going to beat right out of his chest. He can't even breathe without breathing in the scent of Merlin's skin, and why is it so bloody hot in this shop?

“Here,” Merlin is saying, and the way his fingers are moving over the flap of the box is not at all comforting.

“What are you doing?” Arthur says, hoping that didn't sound as panicked as he fears it did.

“I want you to feel this,” Merlin says; Arthur wonders if it's possible for a person's heart to actually explode. “Put your hand right here.”

He lets Merlin take his fingers in his and push them against the dildo, but he can hardly even feel it, can only nod when Merlin looks at him and says, “You see?” because Merlin's fingers are warm on his and Arthur has never even kissed another guy, and right now all he can think is how badly he wants to turn his head towards Merlin's and just see what happens.

“I'll take it,” he chokes out, pulling his hand free. “And the other one. The first one.”

“Both of them?” Merlin says. “You’re sure?”

“Yes,” Arthur says, falling back a step, wiping a shaky hand over his forehead. Merlin looks over at him, smiling, eyes bright and far too blue, and however hot he was before, this is so much worse. This is like a fever breaking over him. Arthur blinks and sways on his feet.

“You okay?” Merlin says, sounding alarmed. He takes a step towards Arthur and steadies him with a hand to the shoulder. Arthur tries to catch himself so that he doesn't push up into the touch. “Arthur, you don’t have to — gay men, we don’t all —”

“No! No, I’m fine. Fine, I just … I, uh. My wallet.” he says, inventing wildly, thinking only of fleeing as quickly as possible. He can’t just stand here and hear these things. He can’t bear it. “I think I left my wallet —”

“You can pay for them next time,” Merlin says. “Let me get a bag.”

“I can't take them,” Arthur says. “You gave me — you gave me the books.”

“I gave you one of the books,” he says, finally retracting his hand.

“Still, I can't — it wouldn't be right to —”

Merlin waves his hand and ducks his head to grab a bag from under the counter. He shoves both boxes in it and starts stuffing it with packs of lube. “It's not a big deal. If you like them, you can pay for them next time.”

“Next time? I —”

“I hope there's a next time,” Merlin says, and he straightens up and holds the bag out to Arthur. “I've started to get used to you.”

Arthur isn’t sure where to look, can’t decide where to rest his eyes because he’s worried what he’ll do if he looks at Merlin, so he lets his eyes drift across the pattern on the floor and fumbles for the bag, tells Merlin, “Thanks. Thank you," and then stumbles out onto the pavement.

He can't remember going home once he gets there. He feels disoriented and unsteady on his feet, feels like he's been unraveled and then wound up again, but too tightly this time. His skin doesn't fit properly along his limbs, and the jack hammer of his pulse is everywhere, in his throat, his wrists, but mostly between his thighs, where he’s so hard that he’s dizzy with it. He's been hard for ages, has been hard at least since he had Merlin’s hands on him, and Arthur kicks the door to his flat shut and sags against it, tearing at his zip.

“Christ,” he bites out, leaving off fumbling at his zip to press the heel of his hand against his dick. He aches with wanting.

“Okay,” Arthur says into the stillness of his flat. And then, “Okay,” again as he straightens up and pushes off the door and picks the bag up from where he’d dropped it to the floor. He’s not a bloody teenager, he’s not going to toss off against the wall like one.

Somehow he gets to the bedroom and gets his clothes off. He climbs onto the bed and empties the contents of bag on the duvet. His palms are sweating as he reaches for one of the dildos, and in his head he can hear Merlin’s voice Arthur, you don’t have to, and he knows, fuck, he knows he shouldn’t do this, but he can smell Merlin all over him, can feel Merlin all over him; he’s so fucking turned on he feels wild with it, and his dick is dripping everywhere.

He gets the box open and fumbles the dildo out. It’s heavier than he thought it’d be, and he likes the weight of it in his hand, likes it far more than he’d have admitted to himself once upon a time. “Jesus,” Arthur says, fisting his hand in the duvet, sure that he’s going to go off like a rocket as soon as he touches himself.

He handles the dildo instead, measures the weight and girth of it with his fingers. It’s not the real thing, but it feels close enough for Arthur in this moment, and he lifts the toy, pauses, breathless, and then touches it to his mouth. His dick spurts, slow and wet against his stomach, and he opens his lips and pushes the head of the toy between them. He could do this, he thinks wildly, could take a dick in his mouth. He sucks the head of the dildo further in and rubs his knuckles against his stomach, right above the place where his dick is smearing a sticky trail across his skin.

It comes to Arthur in flashes, burning the backs of his eyelids; the curve of Merlin's neck, the surprisingly broad set of his shoulders and the narrow width of his hips. Arthur thinks his hands could span the entire measure of them, thinks his hands would look huge on Merlin's body. His hips jerk up and he pulls the toy out of his mouth, panting up at the ceiling.

And then, somehow, it's as easy as breathing to reach out and grab one of the lube packets and tear it open, to get the slick on his fingers and then onto the dildo. He bends his knees and plants his feet on the bed, then reaches between his spread thighs. He lines the toy up with his own dick and then fits his hand around the pair of them and pushes up into his fist. Men do this, he thinks, half-mad with it, watching the head of his cock push up over his fingers, slippery and dripping precome from the slit. Men fuck like this. He squeezes his eyes shut and gasps, because he knows you can’t control what you think about when you jerk off, but all he can see is Merlin’s lovely fingers and the way they’d fit around the toys when he handled them, the way they’d look on Arthur’s dick.

He fucks his fist. He holds the dildo against his dick and fucks his fist just like that, reaching down to roll his balls in his palm. His forehead beads with sweat, but it's not fear this time; it's arousal and want and need, tangled together darkly and climbing up his spine like it's a rope ladder.

And then it’s not enough anymore. He's read the books, and he knows this isn't the right way to do it, but right now he doesn't care about that; right now he just wants to feel. He grips the dildo with slick fingers and slides it back, lines it up as best and can and pushes the dildo against his hole —

He doesn't get any further than that. The pressure of it, just the very idea of it has Arthur coming all over himself. He groans and jerks his dick, emptying it all over his stomach and chest, jerks it until he's too sensitive to keep on, no matter how bad he wants to keep feeling it.

When it's over, when his breath evens out and he comes down from it, he rolls over onto his stomach — the sheets are already beyond saving, soaked with sweat and lube — and buries his face in the pillow, sucks in a deep breath, and then he laughs until his stomach hurts with it, laughs until he's breathless, because oh, God, this is going to be brilliant.

*

Arthur isn't surprised when Morgana, singularly focused as always, spends the entire hour they scheduled for drinks talking shop. It’s always been like this with her, vision narrowed to the of exclusion of everything else, and for once Arthur doesn't really mind, because little though he wants to be talking about the fourth quarter earnings for Pendragon Holdings, he's frankly just glad she's not grilling him on his sex life, such as it is. Arthur isn't sure he could have that conversation without turning red and being forced to make a tactical retreat into the toilets.

Then she glances at her watch and offers up a smile like a Christmas present and Arthur's stomach squirms unpleasantly. She's just been biding her time, he thinks, waiting until she had an audience. Taking the piss out of Arthur has always been the exception to every one of Morgana's rules.

“So I should probably go,” Arthur says, draining the last watery dregs of his gin and tonic. “A pleasure as always, sister.”

“I thought you were coming with me.”

“Oh,” Arthur says. “I — you'll want to catch up with Gwen. I'd just be in the way, surely.”

“Not at all. I'm sure Gwen would love to see you.”

“I really wouldn't want to intrude.”

Morgana slides off the stool and stands up, smooths down the line of her dress. It probably cost more than Arthur's couch. “Don't be polite, darling,” she tells him, picking her bag up and tucking it under her arm. “I won't take no for an answer.”

So Arthur sighs and wipes his fingers on his jeans and follows Morgana out of the pub and into a taxi. Maybe it won't be that bad, Arthur thinks as they slip through the streets of London. Morgana seems in high spirits, her laughter light and tinkling as she makes easy conversation with the driver, and besides, she's leaving for Paris in the morning. This is just a dinner, and Arthur has endured worse things for longer.

They're nearly to The Albion when Morgana's phone beeps. “They're in the garden,” Morgana says, and Arthur's mood lifts. It's a gorgeous evening, unseasonably pleasant, and a drink and fresh air suddenly seems like just the thing. He smiles at Morgana and she smirks at him. “Gin caught up with you, has it?”

When they arrive, he pays for the cab and helps her out of it, follows her into the restaurant with a hand on the small of her back. He sees Gwen almost immediately, and he presses into the small of Morgana’s back to steer her in that direction, then freezes when he sees a familiar shock of dark hair bent towards her.

“Arthur?” Morgana says, turning to glance at him over her shoulder. “You all right?”

No, Arthur thinks. No, he’s not all right. This must be what a heart attack feels like, because his palms are sweating and his chest hurts and he can’t get a proper lungful of air. He pushes his fingertips hard against his sternum and tries to swallow.

“Arthur?”

A hundred thoughts slam into one another as Arthur turns to look helplessly at Morgana. How did she do this? Did she do this? How could she have known? And how the hell is Arthur supposed to —

“Morgana, Arthur,” Gwen calls, waving a hand over her head. Morgana lifts her eyebrows questioningly and then nods her head at the table. Somehow Arthur picks up one foot and then the other and then they’re standing beside the table as Morgana kisses the air on either side of Gwen’s cheeks. Arthur’s vaguely aware of introductions being made, but all he can do is stare at Merlin, who stares right back, eyes bright and blue, and looking just as shocked as Arthur feels.

“Merlin. Merlin. Merlin.”

“What?” Merlin snaps, jerking his head over to look at Gwen. Gwen lifts an eyebrow.

“This is Morgana, my friend from uni.”

“Right,” Merlin says, half-rising out of his chair and reaching for Mogana's hand. He grimaces. “Morgana, nice to finally meet you.”

“Likewise,” Morgana says. She knocks Arthur with her elbow. “This is my brother, Arthur.”

Merlin swallows. “Arthur,” he says, giving a curt nod and then collapsing back into his chair. He reaches for the bottle of table wine, picks it up and pauses with it halfway to his glass, like he's considering drinking right from the bottle. Arthur can't say he blames him; he feels completely wrong-footed, like he's seven years old and seeing his teacher picking out a head of cabbage at Tesco, only instead of a teacher, Merlin is the guy who works at the sex shop round the corner from Arthur’s flat, and instead of a head of cabbage it's a great bloody dildo. Arthur pulls a chair back from the table and tries to sink down into it, but his limbs seem to be working independently from the rest of his body and he gets stuck halfway there, staring at Merlin as he fills his glass to the brim and gulps it down.

A hand claps his shoulder and pushes him down into the chair; Arthur turns his head to look at the dark haired bloke beside him. The guy grins and winks — fucking winks — and Arthur wants to smash his face in.

“Join us, princess,” he says, and Merlin chokes on the wine in his mouth. The guy beside him whacks him firmly on the back and then props his chin in his hand and sighs at Morgana.

“Gwaine,” Merlin says, shaking his head almost imperceptibly. Arthur looks over at the guy, who smirks at Merlin and knocks back his drink. Gwaine, Arthur thinks, poking his memory. Gwaine. Is that — he's the guy on the phone, that first night at Merlin's shop. Arthur shoots him a look and tries to size him up without actually appearing to size him up. He's … almost stupidly good looking, with swishy hair and a mouth that quirks easily into a smile, and frankly more charm than could possibly be good for anyone, and Arthur feels an almost irrepressible urge to haul Merlin away from the table and demand to know who Gwaine is to him. No more alcohol tonight, he thinks, nodding firmly as though he’s just made a grand proclamation to the table at large.

“Wine?” Gwaine says, reaching for the bottle and offering it to Arthur.

“No, no,” Arthur tells him. He covers the top of his wine glass with his palm.

“You sure?”

Arthur glances around; Morgana is watching him with something uncomfortably close to amusement, eyebrow arched; the guy beside Merlin is staring dreamily at Morgana’s cleavage; Gwen and her fiance are snuggled together and sharing one wine glass, and Merlin is pink and flushed and his lips are stained red.

“Yeah,” Arthur decides. “Actually, yeah, all right.”

The wine isn’t the best Arthur has ever had, but it’ll do. And besides, he’s already two gin and tonics into the evening, so he’s not feeling particularly discerning. Mostly, he just wants the pleasant haze that comes with alcohol so that he has something else to blame for the blush in his cheeks and the way he can’t stop glancing at Merlin’s throat when he swallows, at the way his fingers skirt across the table to pluck a piece of bruschetta from the plate of starters. .

“Oh,” Morgana says. “Olives, I love olives.”

“Me too,” says the guy beside Merlin — what is his name? “Me too, I love olives too.”

“What’s your name?” Arthur says. The guy doesn’t even glance at him. “Oi, you, with the olives. What’s your name?”

“That’s Will,” Gwaine says. “You’ll have to excuse him; he can’t focus on anything when there are breasts at the table.”

“Oh, come on,” Arthur says, grimacing. “That’s my sister.”

“Sister or not, mate, you’re not blind, are you?”

“You’ll have to excuse Gwaine as well,” Merlin cuts in, leaning forward and shooting Gwaine a look from under the thick sweep of his eyelashes; Arthur curls his hands into fists. “He’s an absolute perv and he’ll shag anything that stays still long enough, so —”

“You’d know, wouldn’t you?” Gwaine says, leveling a leer at Merlin. “And besides, who wants a shag that stays still? I want a shag that fights back, isn’t that right, Merlin?” He bangs on the table with a closed fist. “We want fiesty fucks!”

Morgana chokes on an olive and Will nearly upsets the entire table trying to scramble over it to get to her. Arthur drains his wine and Gwen flags down the waitress for another bottle. “Well,” she says, smiling tightly. “This is going well.”

Arthur orders some manner of pasta with prawns in it. Gwen and her fiance decide to split a dish, as do Merlin and Gwaine, which, Arthur decides after a moment’s consideration, doesn’t bother him in the slightest. Morgana orders something in flawless Italian, and when Will fails to order anything at all, Morgana rolls her eyes and motions to Will and holds up two fingers.

“So,” Gwen says, once their orders have been taken and their glasses refilled. “Arthur, you live here in London?”

“I do,” Arthur replies. “Morgana and I usually operate best with a body of water between us.”

Morgana laughs. “Actually,” she says. “we always got on quite well until we started trying to work together. Father had to separate us.”

“When Elyan and I were growing up and needed to be separated,” Gwen says, “it usually meant one of us to each corner of the living room.”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, tossing Arthur an easy smile, and Arthur hates him a little in that moment, that anything should come easy for him right now. “That’s some sibling rivalry.”

Morgana laughs. “It’s not so much a rivalry as it is … a, uh … what would you call it, Arthur? A differing business sense? My darling brother allows his employees far too many liberties. The entire acquisitions department in his office is — ”

“Acquisitions department?” Merlin says. “What do you two do, anyway?”

“They’re Pendragons, Merlin,” Gwen says. “Pendragon. Their father owns Pendragon Holdings.”

Merlin’s gaze flit from Arthur to Morgana, then back to Arthur. He bites his lip and shrugs. “I don’t …” he says uncertainly.

“They print money, Merlin,” Gwain says. “And honestly, all this business talk is ruining my buzz.”

“I think it’s interesting,” Will says. Gwaine snorts.

“Of course you do, William. But let’s not talk about business, unless, of course, Merlin here,” and he raises his glass to Merlin, “wants to talk about business, eh? That’s always good for a laugh.”

“Gwaine, no,” Merlin says. “Could you just not, tonight?”

“Come on, mate. Give us a laugh.”

“What do you mean?” Morgana asks. “What do you do, Merlin?”

When it’s obvious Merlin isn’t planning on answering, Gwaine leans over Arthur and offers in a stage whisper, “Merlin owns a sex shop. A bona fide sex shop, but it’s all very hush hush, you understand.”

“Gwaine,” Merlin groans, but he’s dropping his head into his hands and laughing. “Must you? Must you always?”

“I must,” Gwaine says, shaking his head like he’s resigned to his fate. “I must, Merlin, you know I must.”

Morgana straightens up in her chair and cocks her head at Merlin. She grins and says, “You own a sex shop?”

“Yes,” Merlin says. “But it’s not something I talk about a lot, to Gwaine’s near constant disapproval. I just think people have a right to —”

“To what?” Morgana says, eyebrows raised. “Buy their butt plugs in peace?”

“Well,” Merlin says, pausing. “Yeah, basically.”

Morgana nods as though she’s pleased. “Good,” she says. “I think that’s commendable. Too much information is for sale these days. Businesses would be better run if —”

“Don’t even try,” Gwaine says. “Merlin has the business sense God gave a cardboard box.”

“Shut up, arse,” Merlin says, flicking an olive at Gwaine and grinning.

“Morgana, you look lovely tonight,” Will says. He sighs. “Very beautiful.”

“So!” Gwen’s fiance says after a few awkward moments, clapping his hands together. “Who saw the seventh Harry Potter film?”

Eventually, their food arrives, both the dishes they ordered and an extra half-dozen, which the waitress arranges in a half-circle around Gwaine. After she’s smiled and backed away, nearly knocking into one of the busboys, Gwaine finds her mobile number written on a napkin and tucked under one of the plates. He whistles, low, and makes rather a show of smoothing the creases out of it and then tucking it into his wallet.

“Do you need help with all that?” Arthur says, pointing his fork at the dish at Gwaine’s left elbow. He can smell the sweet scent of rosemary rising from it.

“It’s always like this,” Merlin tells him, reaching across the table and spearing a piece of asparagus with his fork. “Everywhere we go, people throwing their wares and their knickers at Gwaine.”

Gwaine grins and flips his hair over his shoulder and God, Arthur hates him, hates him. “I always share with Merlin though, don’t I, love?”

Arthur eats his pasta without tasting it, trying to feel mutinous but a little too tired for it. He wants to just put his head down on the table and sleep and then wake up to find that this whole awkward affair was just an alcohol-fueled nightmare. His stomach is pitching heavily, though, so it can’t be a dream.

He pushes his plate away; the prawns must have gone off, he thinks, either that or the cheap wine. He’s sure it’s that, and not hearing Gwaine talk about sharing Merlin, like he’s some sort of play thing, like he’s a toy to be passed around at someone’s whim. Arthur would never — if Merlin was his

But no, no, that doesn’t bear thinking about, not when his blood is heavy with drink and Merlin and Gwaine are flirting shamelessly with one another over the candlelight and from the other end of the table, Morgana’s teasing grows lighter and lighter until she’s not teasing at all, but rather staring at Arthur with outright concern. At least, Arthur assumes it’s concern. He’s had quite a lot to drink, and it could well be pity, and that’s the one thing Arthur can’t handle. His chair scrapes when he pushes back from the table and everyone looks up. He says, “Excuse me,” and wobbles to the toilets on legs that don’t work in quite the way he wants them to.

The men’s room is blessedly, blessedly empty. Arthur splashes cold water on his face, rubs his eyes and looks at himself blearily in the mirror. Fucking wine, he thinks. Fucking Morgana, and fucking Merlin for that matter. And fucking Gwaine, just for good measure. He can’t believe Merlin would have taken up with such a … a … he stares at his bloodshot eyes and tries to think up a word to express the violence of his disapproval toward Gwaine and his stupid face and his stupid hair and his stupid finishing Merlin’s sentences and his stupid making Merlin laugh with jokes that Arthur doesn’t get.

Arthur grabs a handful of paper towels and dries his face off. He’s being stupid, he knows, and he’s self-aware enough to know jealousy when it slaps him in the face like a cold fish. But this feels different somehow, and Arthur isn’t exactly sure why. He hardly even knows Merlin. He knows … what? What does he know? Very little, in fact. He knows that Merlin is deceptively attractive, that he’s funny and kind and understanding, that his smile makes heat spark up and down Arthur’s spine, but that’s it. It’s hardly anything to be getting this stupid over.

“Enough,” Arthur tells his reflection. “That’s enough, Pendragon.”

“Arthur?”

Arthur stumbles over his feet when Merlin pushes the door open and ducks his head in. He straightens up and knocks his elbow on the side of the sink.

“Ow! Fuck!”

“Oh Christ,” Merlin says, stepping into the room and grabbing Arthur by the shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Fuck,” Arthur says again, hopping away from Merlin, clutching his elbow. He trips, narrowly missing the bin before he comes to rest propped against the wall. “Fucking fucking fuck.”

“Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Arthur snaps, cradling his arm to his chest. “Yeah, don’t I look okay?”

Merlin sighs. “Do you want me to look at that?” he says, gesturing towards Arthur’s arm.

“Why?” Arthur says. “What are you going to do, rub vegan lube on it?”

Merlin’s mouth twitches and Arthur wants to die. He groans and rubs at his elbow. “Morgana asked me to come check on you.”

“Oh, fuck her,” Arthur says. “And fuck you too.”

“Okay,” Merlin says, eyes going wide. He holds his hands up, palms up, placating. “Look, I think maybe we should call you a taxi.”

“You don’t tell me what to do,” Arthur says, which is perhaps not his best comeback, but he’s drunk and hurt and Merlin is standing so close that Arthur can smell the sweetness of his cologne. He thinks if he leaned in he could kiss the curve of Merlin’s neck.

“Arthur,” Merlin says again, and Arthur snaps back to himself.

“What?” he says, narrowing his eyes. He squints one and then the other; Merlin bites down on his bottom lip.

“Let me get you a taxi.”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Arthur snaps.

“Apparently you do,” Merlin says, and he takes Arthur by the elbow and steers him out of the bathroom. Arthur means to jerk away, but Merlin’s hand is cool through his shirt and Arthur feels feverish, so he just … let’s him. He lets Merlin walk him through the restaurant and out onto the pavement, where Morgana is standing beside a waiting taxi. Will is holding the door open for her, looking so hopeful that Arthur snorts into Merlin’s shoulder and oh, that’s nice. He doesn’t remember Merlin’s arm going round him, but he likes it, now that it’s there. He turns to find Gwaine and shoot him a triumphant look; Gwaine is smiling indulgently at him with Merlin’s jacket folded over his arm. Bastard.

“Where’s Gwen?” Arthur says. “I should,” he waves a hand and Merlin ducks out of the way. “Oh, sorry, Merlin. Did you see Gwen? Did she leave? I should apologise for, probably, with the —”

“You certainly should,” Morgana says. “You can do it tomorrow with flowers. She planned a lovely dinner, and you got shit-faced and called her fiance ‘France’.”

“Bloody French.”

“His name is Lance, Arthur.”

“Oh,” Arthur says. He straightens up and looks at Merlin. “Well, that’s better, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Merlin says. He’s very, very close, and he has freckles on his nose. At least, Arthur thinks they’re freckles. There are a lot of spots in Arthur’s vision. “Much better.”

“I should pay for dinner!” Arthur says suddenly, turning under Merlin’s arm so that he can go back and settle the bill, fuck, how could he have forgotten to pay the —

“It’s taken care of, love,” Morgana says. She catches the back of Arthur’s shirt and tugs. Somehow he ends up flat on his arse inside the taxi. Arthur scrambles up and means to lean out the window and tell Merlin bye, in a dignified fashion, of course, but by the time he gets it rolled down, Gwaine has his arm flung over Merlin’s shoulder and they’re walking away towards the tube station.

“Bastard,” he says, slumping down in his seat. Morgana sighs.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” Arthur says. He crosses his arms over his chest and refrains from kicking the seat in front of him.

“Is it —” Morgana says. “Is it the gay thing?”

Arthur snorts inelegantly. “The gay thing,” he says, shaking his head. No, not it isn’t the gay thing. It’s the Merlin thing. It’s the goddamn fucking Merlin thing.

“Right, okay, so — is it the Gwaine thing?”

Arthur’s head snaps up so quickly his vision swims. “What?”

“It is, isn’t it? Oh, Arthur, love, that’s rotten luck.”

“Isn’t it just,” he says. He tips his head back against the seat. “Stupid … bastard.”

“Your lack of vocabulary right now is a bit appalling, dear. And besides, Gwaine can’t help that he’s straight.”

“He’s what?” Arthur squeaks, jerking upright. “He’s no such thing.”

“Gwaine?” Morgana says. “He is very, very straight. I thought that’s why you were upset.”

“I’m not upset.”

“Oh, good, so this drunken disaster is what? Some sort of teenage regression?”

“He’s not straight. Didn’t you see him, all over Merlin like that?”

Morgana rubs her eyes. “Arthur,” she says. “Is this about Merlin? He and Gwaine aren’t together. They’re flatmates, Arthur, best mates, but nothing more. Gwaine is as straight as an arrow.”

Arthur squints at her. Maybe she had too much to drink as well, he thinks. And anyway, it’s not like she can tell who’s straight and who isn’t, looking like that. When your breasts enter a room a full minute before you do, it’s fair to assume you’re going to cause a bit of disturbance. “Your breasts aren’t actually magic.”

“I have no idea what this conversation is about anymore,” Morgana says, shaking her head, “which is just as well, because this is your stop.”

“This is — oh.”

She reaches across him and pops his door open and Arthur tumbles out. He straightens up and focuses on the kerb, smiling when he navigates it with ease.

“Nailed it,” he calls over his shoulder.

“Send Gwen flowers,” Morgana says. “And take care of my brother all right? I quite like him, when he isn’t a drunken idiot.”

“Send my regards to Paris,” he says, lifting a hand. Morgana smiles and shakes her head.

“I always do.”

Arthur navigates the lift and the hallway with something that could almost be grace, manages the door to his flat with slightly more difficulty. “Aha!” he says, triumphant, when the door finally gives up and lets him in. He tosses his keys toward the kitchen and kicks his shoes off and stumbles to the couch, where his laptop is waiting.

Two hours into the last chat with Emrys, they’d decided to move to their private accounts, where their discussions weren’t being recorded. Arthur had created a new email with the name Lancaster, and he signs into and is about to open a new message when he sees the green light beside Emrys’ name.


Lancaster: u awake?
Emrys: hey. just got in.
Lancaster: hey
Emrys: you okay? where are your caps?

Arthur peers at the screen. Caps? Like, hats? Was he supposed to wear a hat?


Lancaster: what?
Emrys: your capital letters, mate
Lancaster: oh. perhaps a bit pissed
Emrys: ah. then I say again, you okay?
Lancaster: fine. except found out the bloke i like.
Lancaster: i mean, not like like, but sort of like
Lancaster: turns out not only is he an arsehole, but he’s got a boyfriend, and he’s an arsehole too.
Emrys: oh, rotten luck.
Lancaster: yeah.
Emrys: man. what is WITH the arseholes in London tonight?
Lancaster: you too?
Emrys: i was trying to have dinner with some friends and this drunk arsehole
Lancaster: arseholes!
Emrys: lol
Emrys: you should get some sleep, sounds like.

It’s the last thing Arthur sees before he slumps over on the couch, snoring into one of the cushions.

*

It’s not so much that Merlin has a bad day as it is that he has the sort of day that makes him want to go home, curl up under a blanket and call his mum. It starts when he oversleeps and winds up stuck on the Central Line for the better part of an hour. By the time he finally makes it in to the shop, nearly two hours late, he finds that he’d misread an order form and, instead of ordering twelve Hot Lips Vibrating Cock Rings, he’d ordered twelve <i>dozen</i>. He skips lunch to try and catch up on paper work and see if he couldn’t return at least some of the cock rings, but then he can’t get Gwaine on the phone to bring him a sandwich, and by the time he finally closes the shop, he’s hungry and grouchy and then soaked by the sudden rainstorm that drives him into the corner shop where he runs, quite literally, into Arthur Pendragon.

“Christ,” Arthur exclaims, stumbling back and slipping on the wet floor. Before he can think better of it, Merlin reaches out and grabs Arthur, steadying him and consequently getting him soaking wet.

“What the —” Arthur says, and Merlin lets go of him as quickly as he can manage, but the damage is already done. Arthur has dropped his eggs all over the floor and his shirt is soaked through and clinging to him in ways that Merlin finds wholly inappropriate. It occurs to him that they're really standing far too closely, and he steps back, cheeks burning.

“Sorry,” he says, resisting the urge to reach out and smooth down Arthur’s shirt. “Sorry, I didn’t want you to fall.”

“That wouldn’t have been a concern had you not nearly run me over.”

“It’s raining.”

“And what?” Arthur says, eyebrow quirked. “You’re made of candy floss?”

Merlin clenches his jaw. “I forgot my umbrella.”

“Pity,” Arthur says, and he shoots Merlin a look that Merlin can’t decipher. Then Arthur says, “Ugh,” and his face twists up as brushes the water off his shirt, and Merlin thinks that maybe he’s projecting just a bit. It’s probably to be expected, he thinks. He’s been thinking about Arthur far too often in the past two weeks, since the disastrous dinner at The Albion. Part of it, he knows, is simple physical attraction. Arthur is beautiful, and candlelight and wine and a white button down open at the throat hadn’t served to make him any less so.

And part of it is something else, and that part has Merlin wiping his sweaty hands on his soaking wet trousers, for all the good that does him. Merlin is used to stupidly attractive people; Lance looks like something out of a romance novel and Gwaine is so bloody gorgeous that Merlin had nearly got hit by a lorry the first time he’d seen him crossing the street. But Arthur — Merlin doesn’t even know Arthur, so there’s no reason why looking at him should make Merlin feel like he’s been punched in the solar plexus.

Outside, a low rumble of thunder scatters the last few stragglers off the pavement. Merlin shifts his weight from one foot to the other and crosses his arms over his chest. The corner of Arthur’s mouth quirks up in a sheepish smile.

“Hi,” he says, and chills race up Merlin’s spine.

“Hi.”

“How are you?”

“Cold,” Merlin says. “Bit wet.”

Arthur blinks at him and then he grins, bright and blinding in the thick grey of the day, and Merlin’s stomach swoops. Every piece he has of Arthur is through some filter or another, the shop, that damnable dinner, but this is real and this is close and Merlin wants to reach over and take Arthur’s hand in his so that he can warm up in the heat of Arthur’s skin. Instead he clears his throat and says, “Sorry about your eggs.”

Arthur glances down. “Yes,” he says. “That was my dinner.”

“You realize you’re in a shop, don’t you? You can just walk back there and grab another box.”

Arthur shrugs, and his <i>shoulders</i>, Merlin thinks a bit stupidly. You could build houses on them. “I’ll just get a takeaway,” he says. Merlin’s stomach rumbles traitorously and Arthur laughs. “Have you eaten?”

“Bit of toast for breakfast.”

“Breakfast?” Arthur says, eyebrows lifting. “And nothing since then? No wonder you’re so skinny.”

“I’m wiry,” Merlin says, resisting the urge to puff up his chest.

“Is that right?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says. “I’m a lot stronger than I look.”

“I’m sure you are,” Arthur says. He grins and then freezes, mouth falling open a bit, and Merlin can see the moment when it occurs to Arthur that this should probably be rather awkward, but instead it’s almost … nice, and Merlin isn’t ready to let go of that.

“Have you eaten at Nando’s yet?” Merlin says quickly. “There’s one across the street. It’s fantastic.”

“I don’t think so,” Arthur says. He glances over Merlin’s shoulder and Merlin turns his head to follow his gaze; it looks like the rain is stopping. “Is that the spicy chicken? My friend Leon keeps going on about it.”

“It’s really nice,” he says after a minute. “You should try it.”

“I will,” Arthur says. “Thanks.”

“Do you like spicy chicken?”

Arthur smiles. “I do,” he says, and Merlin wants to bang his head on the nearest shelf. He hasn’t been this bad at letting a guy know he was interested since he was thirteen and had tried to kiss Will during a misguided game of sardines.

“So I’m probably going to pop over and …” Merlin says, trailing off and nodding his head at the door. Arthur nods, pauses and then says, “Oh! Oh, do you want to…”

“Sure,” Merlin says, quickly. “I mean, if you want.”

“Sure, yeah, I’m obviously not eating eggs.”

“You’re hilarious,” Merlin deadpans, relieved and a little thrilled when Arthur puts a hand to his elbow as he holds the door open.

The rain has turned the evening cool, and a light breeze whips the last drizzle of rain into Merlin’s face. Arthur turns the collar of his coat up against it, but since there’s pretty much nothing on Merlin that isn’t already wet, he just shoves his hands into his pockets and curves his shoulders in. They duck across the road when the traffic slows and hurry into the tiny shop. It’s a little too warm inside, and muggy from the press of hot bodies and damp clothes, but Merlin likes the way he gets jostled up against Arthur as they press into queue, likes the way Arthur steadies him with a hand to the small of his back.

“So,” Merlin says, pointing up at the menu. “You get the chicken and then chips or sweet potato mash, which is absolutely aces. And those are the sauces you can get. I like the lime one. Gwaine always gets the hot, which he says isn’t too bad, but I frankly don’t trust him. There’s also the extra, extra hot, which I think is only eaten by people who are actually insane.”

“Extra, extra hot,” Arthur says, when they make it to the front of the line, and Merlin has to swallow down a laugh.

“Arthur,” he says, putting his hand on Arthur’s forearm.

“What? I like hot food.”

“You’ll burn your mouth off.”

“Hyperbole doesn’t suit you, Merlin,” Arthur says, but he’s grinning and pulling out his wallet. “Two beers, then.”

“And a glass of water.”

“And a glass of water,” Arthur agrees. He pays for his food and then stands at Merlin’s elbow, mocking him as he orders. He ends up paying for Merlin’s food as well, which Merlin knows is simply his way of paying for the books Merlin had thrust upon him, and that this is in no way a date — if it was a date, Arthur wouldn’t be wearing a tie and Merlin wouldn’t be soaking wet — but he still flushes when he tells Arthur, “Thank you,” and Arthur answers him with an elbow to the ribs. They find a table by the door and squeeze into it, knees knocking together beneath it.

“Perhaps they could boil yours in some salted water, Merlin, and serve it to you with brown rice and raw broccoli.”

“Mock all you want,” Merlin tells him. “Go ahead, get it out. Soon you won’t be able to feel your lips well enough to do it.”

Merlin’s stomach rumbles, but he really wants the full experience of this, so he just props his chin in one hand and dips his head at Arthur’s food, eyebrows raised expectantly.

“Oh, for the love of —” Arthur says. He picks up his burger and takes an enormous bite.

“Good?”

Arthur nods, chokes, wipes his watering eyes with the back of his hand. He chews slowly, pauses to breathe through his nose, then reaches for his beer and holds it right in front of his mouth.

“Arthur?”

“Mmmhmm,” Arthur grunts. He swallows, then downs half his beer in one. He swipes at his eyes again and then presses his beer bottle to his forehead. “Christ,” he chokes out, red-faced. “The devil is in that burger.”

Merlin doesn’t mean to laugh, not in the too loud, startled way that he does, but he can’t help it. Arthur looks like he’s been run over by a fucking bus, and God, Merlin is going to get himself into so much trouble. He can already feel it.

“Satan’s chicken,” Arthur says. He finishes his beer and then coughs into his napkin. Merlin takes a bite of his own burger and leans back in his chair.

“I tried to warn you.”

“Yes,” Arthur says. “Thank you, Merlin, that’s terribly helpful right now, thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Merlin says, grinning. “Grab a knife; I’ll split mine with you.”

Arthur wraps his sandwich in a napkin and favours it with a filthy look, then sets it to one side of the table, as far away from his plate as he can get without actually putting it on the floor. They split up the rest of the food, with Arthur surrendering half his chips for half of Merlin’s sandwich. Merlin knows he’s still going to be hungry when he finishes, but it’s worth it for the easy way Arthur laughs when Merlin threatens him with a chip for stealing a forkful of mash off his plate.

“So your sister’s back in Paris?”

Arthur nods. “She is, yeah. We had some quarter end meetings that she wanted to be a part of, though I don’t know why. Morgana knows everything that happens in the company before it happens.”

“Is that weird?” Merlin says. “Your whole family working together like that?”

“Mmm,” Arthur says. He take a deep pull from his beer. “I guess it might be to some people, but it’s all I’ve ever done. I went to work for Father straight out of university.”

“I don’t know how you do it, I’d go mad.”

“It’s not so bad, really,” Arthur says. “Morgana’s in Paris and Father’s mostly retired, so...” he trails off and shrugs. “I thought it would be weird when I came out, but he was fine.”

“That’s good,” Merlin says. “I’m glad.”

Arthur looks at him and smiles. “Do you always do that?”

“Do what?”

“That,” Arthur says. “I don’t know, how you … care about people you don’t even know?”

The words “I know you,” slip out of Merlin’s mouth before he can stop them, and he carries on, aiming for light and teasing because fucking hell, what did he just say? “I mean, come on. I sold you a dildo. How close are we?”

Arthur turns bright red, but he smiles, head ducked, a little embarrassed, but genuine nonetheless, and Merlin feels something warm tuck in behind his ribs. He stuffs a bite of chicken into his mouth; Arthur scratches the pale curve of his neck and says, “the chips are nice.”

Arthur makes a choked noise, and Merlin grimaces at him sympathetically. When he'd eaten a bite of Gwaine's burger once on a dare he'd been miserable for hours. “Another beer?” he says. Arthur shakes his head.

“How is Gwaine?”

Merlin laughs. “Gwaine,” he says, “is … Gwaine. He's good, I guess. Been busy lately, so I haven't seen him much, but he's good, yeah. I'll tell him you asked.”

Arthur stuffs a chip into his mouth. “How did you two meet?” he says.

Merlin feels heat spread out along his cheekbones. Years later and it's still mortifying to admit that Gwaine saved him being run over by a lorry because Merlin had been stunned into inaction by the wind in Gwaine's hair. Still, Merlin feels like he owes Arthur some currency in the abject embarrassment department, so he tells him the whole story, playing it up to amuse him. Arthur laughs in all the right places, but his mouth is all wrong, too tight at the corners, and when Merlin finishes, Arthur blurts, “I've been thinking I should start dating.”

Merlin pauses, hands still in the air. “Okay,” he says after a moment. “Um.”

“I don't know, though,” Arthur says. He shoves a hand through his hair. “I'm not really the sort of person … I don't go to clubs or anything, you know? I don't —”

“Oh,” Merlin says. He blinks twice, rapidly, and tamps down the feeling of disappointment spreading through chest. It's ridiculous, he thinks, to be jealous about something that hasn't even happened yet. “Do you want me to —” he pauses to take a sip of his beer so that it doesn't sound like he's choking on the words. “I probably know ...” He sighs and risks a look at Arthur.

“Yeah,” Arthur says. A muscle in his jaw jumps, and Merlin wants to reach across the table and touch his fingertip to it. He feels guilty for absolutely no reason he can understand. “Okay, then.”

*

“Gwaine!” Merlin shouts, slapping a hand over his eyes and kicking the door shut behind him. “You can’t lock the door? Or put a sock over it?”

Gwaine chuckles, says, “Sorry, mate, hang on,” and then there’s the rustle of fabric which Merlin sincerely hopes is the shirts belonging to both Gwaine and the pretty blonde he has on the couch. He waits until Gwaine says, “All right, all the womanly bits are covered,” before he removes his hand.

Gwaine looks an absolute wreck. His hair is a disaster, his shirt is on inside out, his mouth is swollen and one entire side of his neck is covered with —

“Merlin, Elena. Elena, my flatmate, Merlin, who has impeccable timing.”

Merlin gives a little wave with one hand and rubs his forehead with the other. He normally wouldn’t care about finding Gwaine half-naked on the couch with someone — a person can’t live with Gwaine without anticipating a certain amount of nakedness — but he feels frustrated and more than a little confused about Arthur’s sudden coldness at dinner, and the last thing he wants is to be confronted with someone else having what he can’t. He knows it’s selfish, though, and petty and small, so he forces a smile to his face and says, “Nice to meet you, Elena.”

“Merlin,” she says. She runs the back of her hand over her mouth. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Have you?” Merlin says, lifting an eyebrow at Gwaine. Gwaine laughs.

“Just the good stuff, mate, I swear.”

“I’m sure,” Merlin says, and he feels his mood loosening up already. Damn Gwaine. “Just the good stuff, yeah?”

“All the good stuff. Hell, I even made up some extra good stuff.”

“Yeah,” Elena says, “but I only believe about half of what comes out of his mouth, so you may be in the hole yet.”

Merlin smiles. “I like you already.”

“Likewise,” Elena says. “Now I’m going to go—” she waves her bra in the air, “find the toilet.”

“Down the hall, second on the left, don’t look under the sink.”

“What’s under the sink?” Merlin asks after the door clicks shut. Gwaine shrugs. “Dunno. Just wondering if she’ll look.”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Is she—”

“The waitress from the other night? Yeah.”

“You called her?”

Gwaine shrugs. “Seemed like the thing to do. She’s nice.”

“Nice?”

“And funny. And she kicked my arse at ultimate frisbee this afternoon.”

“You took her to play ultimate frisbee?” Merlin asks, raising an eyebrow. He follows Gwaine to the kitchen and grabs a beer from the fridge, offers it to Gwaine who shakes his head.

“She took me to play ultimate frisbee.”

“Shit,” Merlin says. “You may have to keep her.”

“I know,” Gwaine says. “So what’s the matter with you? What’s with the face?”

Merlin twists the top off the beer and tosses it onto the worktop. “What do you mean?”

“You look all—” Gwaine says, gesturing at Merlin’s face vaguely. “Puppy-ish.”

“Puppy-ish?”

Gwaine crosses his arms over his chest and leans his hip against table. “Come on, Merlin, I’ve known you too long. What’s the matter?”

Merlin sighs and takes a deep drink from the beer. “I saw Arthur.”

Gwaine grins. “Arthur Pendragon?”

“The one and only.”

“And how was that? Did you swoon at him, Merlin? Did you declare your undying love for his shiny hair?”

“No,” Merlin says. “I set him up with Percy.”

“You — wait, you did what? You set him up with Percy? What the hell , Merlin?”

“He said he wanted to be set up.”

“Why didn’t you set him up with you, idiot?”

“That’s not what he asked for.”

“What did he ask for?”

Merlin picks at the label of his beer bottle, dropping tiny shreds of paper onto the kitchen floor. “He said he wanted to start dating, and did I know anyone who—”

“What, and you couldn’t sort of just … raise your hand?”

“If he wanted that, he’d have just asked me out,” Merlin says.

“Right, because he’s been out for all of twenty minutes, Merlin. Of course he’d feel comfortable asking out the guy who owns the local sex shop where he’s been buying all his gay … things,” Gwaine says, making a vague gesture that Merlin has no trouble deciphering.

“He … wait. How did you know that?”

Gwaine grins. “It wasn’t that hard to figure out, what with the way he went green all over when he saw you, and then drank about four bottles of wine by himself.

“Christ,” Merlin says, thinking of Arthur drunk and warm under his arm, his breath sweet on Merlin’s face, and how Merlin had wanted nothing more than to climb into the taxi after him and hold Arthur against his chest while he slept. “I am so —”

“Fucked? Yeah, mate, I think you are.” Gwaine reaches over and ruffles Merlin’s still damp hair. “I’ll ring Percy up and tell him to keep his hands to himself.”

“No,” Merlin says automatically. “No, don’t do that. That’s not fair.”

“They don’t even know one another, mate.”

Merlin blows a frustrated breath out and rubs his eyes. He’d been up until nearly two, chatting with Lancaster about everything and nothing. Towards the end, Lancaster had confessed that he was scared to try and date men, because what if he was absolutely rubbish at it, and Merlin finds that he can’t knowingly subject Arthur to a bad first date, no matter how much he fears seeing Percy with his huge arm slung over Arthur’s shoulders.

“No,” Merlin says. “Tempting, but no.”

Gwaine shrugs and says, “Whatever you want, Emrys. We’re headed down to the pub. You coming?”

“No,” Merlin says miserably. “I just want a hot shower.”

The problem, of course, is that once the flat is empty and he’s standing under the steady spray of too hot water, Arthur is all he can think about; his hair and his hands wrapped around the neck of his beer bottle and the way his mouth had twisted up when he laughed. He’s got one hand braced on the wall above his head and one hand wrapped around his dick before he realises it, and he knows, he knows it’s not like you can help what you think about when you’re having a wank, but it doesn’t stop him feeling dirty and wrong and pathetic when he imagines being on his knees in front of Arthur, mouth stretched wide. He imagines Arthur’s eyes wide and shocked, imagines tugging on his balls with slick fingers, imagines the terrible, beautiful noises Arthur would make as he spilled into Merlin’s mouth.

When he comes, mouth falling open and filling with the stream of warm water, his orgasm is so good it nearly knocks him off his feet.

Fucked, Merlin thinks, watching the shower rinse his slick release from his fingertips. Completely, utterly fucked.

*

On Saturday, Merlin receives the following text messages:

Gwaine; Have drastically overestimated abilities of bedframe. Sleeping on the couch for forseeable future.

Gwaine; At Elena’s if you need me. Hoping you remembered to pack a lunch.

Arthur: Will you judge me harshly if I ask you what I’m supposed to wear on this big gay date?

Arthur: You know what, fuck it. What am I supposed to wear on this big gay date?

Percy: I hate blind dates, Emrys. You owe me.

Percy: nevermind

Arthur: Are you serious? This guy is the size of a house.

Arthur: Also, I’m craving spicy chicken, fuck you very much.

Luckily, the shop is busy enough that Merlin isn’t able to dwell on any of it. He does enough business that he feels confident of making rent on both his shop and his flat, so it’s only with a small, dull ache in his stomach that he locks up for the night and heads for home. He’s not even surprised when his mobile rings and Gwaine’s number flashes on the screen.

“MERLIN!” he shouts. “MATE. You gotta come down here!”

“Gwaine?” Merlin says, holding the phone away from his ear. “Where are you?”

“The Rose and Crown,” Gwaine says. “Come meet us!”

“Ugh, Gwaine, I just want to go home.”

“Lame,” Gwaine says, and the noise behind him dims a bit and Gwaine lowers his voice. “Come out, Merlin. Seriously, mate, please come down here.”

“Who are you with?” Merlin says, checking his watch. It’s not like he has anywhere to be and a drink with Gwaine might be just the thing to dispel the low level misery he’s been in since he punched Percy’s number into Arthur’s mobile. “Will?”

“Elena,” Gwaine says. He clears his throat. “And, er. Arthur. And Percy.”

“You’re what?”

“Right,” Gwaine says. “Ran into them in the park, didn’t we?”

“Are you out of your mind? No way am I coming down there; I don’t need to be witness to … whatever.”

“Great, so we’ll see you in a bit, then.”

“No!” Merlin shouts. A woman passing him clutches her purse a little tighter and shoots Merlin a dark look. “I’m going home, Gwaine, and changing the locks.”

“Sure, I’ll get you a pint.”

Gwaine

 

In the background, Merlin hears the rumble of Percy’s voice, and then Gwaine says, “"Yeah, Merlin's on his way down."

"No,” Merlin says. He wants to punch something. Probably Gwaine. “I'm not."

"He'll be here in a bit."

"No, I won't."

"Merlin,” Gwaine says, whispering now. “Trust me. When have I ever led you astray? And you can't use that time we ended up in Belgium as an example; you loved those waffles. "

"I just hate you."

“See you in a bit, then,” Gwaine says cheerily, and hangs up.

Merlin turns around and heads in the other direction, hands shoved furiously into his pockets. He tries to steel himself as best he can but if he has to see Arthur kiss someone tonight, he’s going to shave Gwaine’s hair off.

He sees them as soon as he walks into the pub, sitting round a table in the far corner, and starts weaving his way across the sticky floor, heart beating too hard and too fast. Arthur sees him first, and he grins and lifts a hand, and Merlin wants to cry at how happy he looks. He’s rumpled and flushed, cheeks stained pink for reasons Merlin doesn’t even want to contemplate. He smiles pathetically and sinks into the chair beside Gwaine, barely resisting the urge to lay his head on Gwaine’s shoulder.

“Mate!” Gwaine says, putting an arm round his shoulders and squeezing him. “You made it.”

“I made it,” Merlin says. “Drink?”

Gwaine nudges a pint toward him and Merlin takes a drink, glancing around the table. Elena is arguing furiously with Percy and gesturing at some sort of sketch on a napkin, Gwaine is watching him with a raised eyebrow and Arthur is just … smiling at him. Just smiling, loose and relaxed in a way Merlin has never seen him, and it actually hurts Merlin to see it.

“Hi,” he says, eyes crinkling up. “How are you?”

“Fine,” Merlin says automatically. “How are you?”

“Good,” Arthur says. “Really good, actually.”

“Oh,” Merlin says. Fuck, he’s going to get so drunk tonight. “Good, yeah.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says. “I got some good news today.”

“For God’s sake, he’s the worst striker in the league!” Elena bursts out, slamming a hand flat on the table. Arthur chuckles.

“They’ve been at it all afternoon,” he tells Merlin, leaning in. “I’ve lost track of what they’re arguing about.”

“Percy thinks;” Elena cuts in, shooting Percy a disgusted look, “that fucking Arsenal

“You know what, love,” Gwaine says. “I don’t think they actually care.”

Elena huffs, blows her hair out of her face and then sees Merlin. “Oh!” she says, “Hi, Merlin. I”m making all sorts of bad impressions on you, aren’t I?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, finding it’s hard to stay miserable when Arthur is beaming, even when it’s nothing to do with him. He can do this, he thinks. He can manage this. “I hardly recognised you with your shirt on.”

Percy stops talking and furrows his brow at Merlin. “We’ll come back to that later,” he says. “Merlin, mate, how are you?”

“Fine,” Merlin says again, glancing at Gwaine. “How are you lot? Been playing football?”

“No no,” Gwaine says quickly, wrapping a hand around Merlin’s mouth and tugging him into his shoulder. “No football talk, Merlin, please, if you ever cared for me at all —”

Merlin licks Gwaine’s hand, realising belatedly what a potentially horrible that idea is. He pulls a face and reaches for his drink again as Arthur bursts into laughter.

“We’ve been playing all afternoon,” he says. “Percy and I ran into them in the park earlier. It’s been … interesting.”

“Interesting because —” Elena starts; Gwaine smacks a hand on the table.

“Shots!” he declares.

They have one round and then another, and then Merlin begs off, because the alcohol is already starting to make him feel fuzzy, and he’s having trouble deciphering the looks Arthur is shooting him. He likes Arthur like this, softened and warmed by sunshine and easy in the way he sprawls back against his chair. He likes it too much, and he knows that Arthur is on a date with Percy and that he shouldn’t be looking, but … but he and Percy don’t seem very date-like. There isn’t any kissing and the only touching they’ve done is an extremely off-putting fist bump at the mention of something Arthur had done during their impromptu football match this afternoon.

“I’m going to get some air,” Merlin says, pushing back from the table. “Bit hot in here.”

The brick of the pub’s exterior is rough against Merlin’s back through the thin cotton of his shirt. It’s steadying, grounding, and Merlin tips his head back against it and breathes deeply. He’s stupid. So, so stupid. He never should have come down here tonight, he never should have set Arthur up with Percy. He hardly even knows Arthur, but there’s something there, something past attraction and Merlin can’t believe he let it just slip away so fucking easily. Stupid.

“Hey.”

Merlin turns his head and sees Arthur walking toward him, arms crossed over his chest. He smiles and leans up against the wall.

“Hey,” Merlin says.

“I needed some air myself. Percy and Elena are at it again.”

Merlin smiles. “Poor Gwaine,” he says. Arthur laughs and Merlin curls his hands into fists. “Poor you too, I suppose.”

“Poor me?”

“Well,” Merlin says over the tight clench of his throat. “If she and Percy are always going to be at it …”

Arthur sighs, shoulders rising and falling against Merlin’s, and he pushes off the wall and steps in front of Merlin. That muscle in his jaw is working again and his mouth is set in a thin line as he stares unblinkingly at Merlin, looking like a man who’s staring down the edge of a blade. He swallows, throat working, and says, “Merlin.”

Merlin thinks that the people in the pub can probably hear his heartbeat, it’s so loud. “Arthur,” he says. He means it to be teasing, but his voice is shaking too bad.

“I’m not —” Arthur says. He glances down at their shoes and then up at Merlin. “I’m not interested in Percy.”

All of Merlin’s breath leaves him in one great rush. “You’re not?”

“No,” Arthur says. “Not in the slightest.”

“Oh.”

Arthur laughs a little and shakes his head, shifts his weight and taps the top of Merlin’s foot with his toes. “I thought you were dating Gwaine.”

“No,” Merlin says. “No, I’m not.”

“Apparently.”

“Arthur,” Merlin says, and Arthur lurches forward and kisses him. It happens so fast that Merlin doesn’t even have time to shut his eyes. The light of the evening is dim, and in it Merlin can see every one of Arthur’s eyelashes, the way they fade from brown to blond to so pale that they’re practically invisible. Merlin reaches out and touches Arthur’s waist and Arthur’s eyes squeeze shut even tighter. His hands are trembling against Merlin’s jaw.

Merlin’s eyes slip closed. He reaches up and covers Arthur’s fingers with his own, stills them. He curls his hands around Arthur’s and brings them to his chest and presses them there so that Arthur can feel the quickened rise and fall of his breath, the relentless hammer of his heart. Arthur smiles into the kiss and twists his fingers into Merlin’s shirt.

They stay like that for some time, kissing softly in the coolness that comes at the end of a long summer’s day, learning how their mouths fit together. Arthur slips his hands out from beneath Merlin’s and curves one around the back of Merlin’s neck, rests the other on his hip. He’s bold in it, opening his mouth and letting his tongue slide against Merlin’s, making heat jolt low in Merlin’s belly. He doesn’t kiss how Merlin thought he would, when he lets himself think of it at all.

“Arthur,” Merlin murmurs. “Arthur, we should —”

“Mmm,” Arthur says, tightening his grip on Merlin’s jaw and tipping his head back so that he can rub his lips along the line of Merlin’s neck. Merlin shivers.

“Arthur,” he says again, and he means to be firm, but he gets distracted when Arthur moves back to his mouth, thumb pressing at the corner of Merlin’s lips, like he’s learning how it works with someone taller than him. Merlin moans a little without even meaning to; he tightens his grip on Arthur’s waist and turns him, pressing him up against the wall. Arthur makes a surprised noise low in his throat, and Merlin can’t stop himself dipping his head to press his mouth to the line of Arthur’s neck, finding the place where that vibration shakes beneath Arthur’s skin. He kisses it and noses at Arthur’s jaw, breathing him in.

And then it’s his mouth again and his tongue and his breath in Merlin’s lungs. They come back again and again, fingers mapping chests and necks and ears, a hand to the small of Arthur’s back to pull him closer. They kiss until Merlin feels dizzy with it, until he feels unravelled. He pulls away reluctantly, and now he’s the one who’s shaking.

Arthur opens his eyes slowly, blinks at Merlin’s like he’s just woken him, and touches his fingers to his mouth. “I didn’t —” he says. “I didn’t mean to do that.

Merlin laughs shakily. “I’d like to know what it’s like when you actually mean to kiss someone,” he says.

Arthur flushes in the pale light. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know.”

They stand there for far too long, grinning at one another stupidly. Merlin feels untethered, like he could float away if a breeze caught him just right. He wants to reach out and grab Arthur’s hand again, but then the door to the pub opens, bringing with it the sounds of laughter and music, and Merlin remembers that he’s not actually supposed to be kissing Arthur, seeing as Arthur is here on a date with one of Merlin’s mates.

“Oh, fuck,” he says. “We shouldn’t —”

“It’s fine,” Arthur says, cutting him off. “I’ve already … Percy and I aren’t …”

“We should get back,” Merlin says. He drags his free hand through his hair, trying to smooth it into place, for all the good it does him. It’s not like anyone in the world couldn’t look at them and know they’ve been kissing. Merlin’s heart leaps in his chest. Kissing. He’s been kissing Arthur.

“It’s fine, okay? I swear, stop with the face. You’re giving me a complex.”

“Okay, okay,” Merlin says, and follows Arthur back into the pub. The table goes quiet as they slide into their chairs, and then Gwaine bursts into laughter. Percy throws a coaster at Merlin.

“Buy me a pint, mate, at least,” he says, but he’s smiling in that easy way he has and Merlin pulls out a twenty and hands it over.

“A round on me, then,” he says, face flaming. Arthur kicks his leg under the table and grins.

“Not for me, lads,” Elena says. She drains the last of her beer. “I’ve got lunch at the parents' tomorrow.”

Gwaine groans and tries to stand up, but Elena laughs and pushes him back into his chair, tells him to have a good night and then kisses him so soundly everyone else has to look away. Gwaine is blushing when she pulls back.

“Bring me back some muffins,” he calls after her, and she waves over her shoulder. “And scones!”

“I could bloody go for some food,” Percy says, rubbing his stomach. “Who wants a kebab?”

“Sorry, mate,” Gwaine says. “Not drunk enough. Craving scones now, though.” He waggles his eyebrows at Merlin. “How about you, Merlin? Hungry for scones?”

“Oh, ha ha,” Merlin tells him.

“What?” Arthur says. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” Merlin says, nudging Arthur with his foot, thrilled to be allowed. “Just Gwaine being an arsehole. He thinks he’s so bloody funny, right, because I have this thing about scones, so he brings them up all the bloody time to torment me.”

“Scones?” Arthur says. “Who has a thing about scones?”

“Merlin does,” Gwaine says. “Because when he was just a wee little homosexual —”

“I was seventeen.”

“He came out to his mum and she cried and baked him scones.”

Merlin turns to Arthur, meaning to share a look with him, but Arthur is staring at Gwaine, face gone white.

“She what?”

“Baked him scones,” Gwaine says, frowning.

“You were how old?” Arthur says, turning to look at Merlin. His eyes are huge in his pale face.

“Seventeen,” Merlin tells him. “Arthur, what —”

“Oh my God,” Arthur says. He stands up suddenly, knocking into the table and sloshing beer everywhere. “I need to go.”

“Go?” Merlin says. His stomach clenches horribly. “Hang on, Arthur.”

“I need to go,” Arthur says again. He casts around the table, eyes flitting everywhere. He grimaces when his gaze lands on Percy. “Thank you for dinner,” he says. “And the football, and the drink. Sorry, I … sorry. I’ll just —” He motions at the door.

“Hang on,” Merlin says, panicked now. “Arthur, wait a second.”

“Let me walk you out,” Percy says, standing up.

“No, no,” Arthur says quickly. He draws in a ragged breath and then looks down at Merlin. He looks almost pained. “I’ll just —”

“I’ll walk you to the station,” Percy says, tone firm. “See you lot later?”

“Okay,” Gwaine says. His hand curves over Merlin’s thigh under the table and squeezes. He lowers his voice as Arthur walks away and mutters, “Phone one of us later.”

“Obviously,” Percy says. He smiles tightly at Merlin and then follows Arthur out of the pub.

“What,” Merlin says as the door shuts behind them, “the hell was that?”

*

It’s hard for Arthur to know when Saturday night turns into Sunday morning. He sleeps in short stretches, waking up each time to a sick feeling in his stomach that lurches into abject mortification as soon as he opens his eyes. Merlin. Fucking Merlin. Fucking Emrys. Arthur grunts and flips over, punching his pillow into shape.

He wakes again to the sound of rain against the windows. The clock on the bedside table tells him it’s half past seven, which is pathetic for a Sunday, but Arthur has never really been one for a lie in. He kicks his duvet to the foot of the bed and reaches for his lamp, blinking into the gold light that washes over the room.

Coffee, he thinks blearily, and climbs out of the bed, rubbing at his eyes. Unfortunately, the kitchen is empty, aside from three different types of pasta, a jar of olives and some mustard, so Arthur pulls a jacket on over his t-shirt, digs the previous night’s jeans out of the pile on the bathroom floor, and braves the rain for a latte big enough to jump start his brain. When he makes it back to his flat, he still feels like something that was washed up in a gutter, but at least he’s caffeinated.

He tries to work for a bit, but being on the computer only makes him think of Emrys and of the flashing chat box that has been a constant for Arthur these past few weeks. There’s an ache in his chest, like a bruise under his skin, and eventually he snaps his computer shut and, because he can’t think of what else to do, calls Morgana.

She answers on the third ring with a surprised, “Arthur?”

And Arthur tells her everything.

*

 

“And you just walked out?” Morgana says some time later. “Just … left?”

“Yes,” Arthur groans, head buried in his arms.

“Feeling a bit dramatic, love?” she says, laughing. Arthur drops his head to the table with a thunk.

“I should have known you wouldn’t be sympathetic,” he tells her miserably, turning his head and pressing his cheek into the cool wood of the table.

“Look,” Morgana says. “I sense that you’re very tortured about having gone and fallen for an amazing guy who gets you and makes you laugh and spends his free time volunteering for an organisation that has benefited you enormously, and I can only imagine how difficult that is, what with him being, at the very least, interested enough to engage in what sounds like a pretty fantastic snog —”

“Morgana,” Arthur says, squeezing his eyes shut.

“— but I have to ask you, Arthur, honestly; what are you doing?”

“Eating a jar of olives,” Arthur tells her.

“No,” she says, exasperated. “You’re sitting there feeling sorry for yourself while Merlin is at home, wondering what he did wrong. And don’t start,” she says, before he can even begin to protest. “I get that you’re all wounded pride and bruised ego and of all the sex shops in all of London, but Arthur, my darling, my love. What the hell are you doing?”

Arthur sits up so quickly he goes dizzy from it. “Fuck,” he says. Morgana laughs.

“Call me sometime,” she says. “When it’s not an emergency.”

“Adore you,” he tells her, and hangs up the phone and then, while he still has courage enough, dials Merlin’s number.

“Arthur?” Merlin answers, sounding winded. “Hello?”

“Hi,” Arthur says, wincing. He presses a hand flat against his stomach. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Merlin says quickly. “Worried about you, you left really suddenly last night.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. I uh, something …” he says, trailing off.

“Arthur,” Merlin says. He clears his throat and then says softly, “If I did something that —”

“No! No, no, nothing like that. I just …” Arthur steels himself and says, “I think we should talk.”

Merlin pauses, then says, “Okay.”

“Can you come over?”

“Come over?” Merlin says, and then, “Yeah, of course. If that’s … okay, sure.”

“Okay,” Arthur says, swallowing down the feeling of panic creeping up his throat. Jesus, this is it. No going back after this. “Okay, so, uh, get the Central Line to Bayswater.”

“Bayswater,” Merlin mutters; Arthur can hear him rummaging around for something to write with.

“I live in Lancaster Gate.”

For the longest time, Merlin doesn’t say anything. When he finally does speak, he sounds like the words are being strangled out of him.

“You live where?”

“Lancaster Gate.”

“Lancaster?”

Arthur presses the heel of his free hand into his left eye until spots dance behind his eyelid. “Like I said,” he mutters, “we need to talk.”

“Christ, Arthur,” Merlin says. “I didn’t —”

“Can you just come over?” Arthur says, because he can’t have this conversation over the phone. As it is, he’s about two seconds from tossing the thing out the window and fleeing to Scotland.

“Are you sure?”

“Not really,” Arthur says, but he gives Merlin the address anyway and then goes to hang his head in the sink until the nausea passes.

*

 

By the time Arthur buzzes Merlin up an hour later, he’s showered and shaved and changed into clothes that don’t smell like last night. The flat is as tidy as he can manage, and he just hopes Merlin doesn’t have cause to go looking in the cupboard in the guest room.

“Hey,” Merlin says when Arthur opens the door. He smiles sheepishly and holds up two cups of coffee. “Bit early for alcohol, I thought, no matter how warranted it might be.”

And just like that, all the nerves and the fear, the embarrassment, all the worst case scenarios, they just melt out of Arthur’s mind because … this is Merlin. This is skinny, silly, ridiculous Merlin, but it’s Emrys too, and Arthur knows him, is known by him. It’s scary; it’s downright terrifying, but it’s nothing compared to the horrible pit in Arthur’s stomach when he thinks of not doing this, of not taking this chance. His palms go sweaty all at once and he chances a smile and motions Merlin into the flat.

“Come in,” he says. “Thank you for coming over.”

“No,” Merlin says quickly. His hair is still damp in the back from his shower, and curling behind his ears; Arthur curls his hands into loose fists so that he won’t touch. “Thank you for calling. I thought …” He shakes his head. “I don’t know what I thought. Nothing good.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, wincing and scratching the back of his neck. “That was, um —”

“Yeah,” Merlin says. He sets the coffee cups down on the table and then turns towards Arthur, looking very much like he’s going to throw up, and says, “Arthur, I feel like the biggest arsehole. If I had known, I’d never have … not like that. That’s not how I wanted to —” He makes a frustrated noise and looks pleadingly at Arthur, whose heart leaps in his chest.

“How did you want to do it, then?” he says, taking a step towards Merlin. Merlin makes a soft noise and reaches out for him, looking almost shocked at himself. He tries to draw his hand back, but Arthur reaches out and catches it in his.

“Merlin,” he says, voice soft. “This isn’t … I wouldn’t have chosen it like this, but … I don’t want to not do this. I don’t want to be too scared to do this."

Merlin whimpers and clutches at Arthur’s fingers. “I don’t know if I can .. it’s so much, Arthur, and you’re only just —”

“Would it help if I pretended I’m looking for someone to experiment with?” Arthur says. His thumb tracks a circle on the soft skin of Merlin’s wrist.

Merlin exhales and shakes his head, almost frantic. “No,” he says, pulling him closer and leaning his forehead against Arthur’s. “No, I don’t want that at all.”

Arthur doesn’t know which of them closes the distance between them, just that one moment they’re not kissing and the next they are, mouths falling open, tongues and fingers tracing necks and jaws, sweeping up the line of Arthur’s spine and curling in his hair. Merlin is making soft, sweet noises into Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur finds himself echoing them involuntarily, like they’re learning a language from one another. He clutches at Merlin’s shoulders and tries to pull him closer, wanting to lose himself in Merlin’s warmth.

Somehow, Arthur isn’t quite sure how, they end up on the couch, Merlin pressed deep into the cushions with Arthur in his lap, one knee bracketing each of Merlin’s hips. The skin of Merlin’s stomach is hot beneath his palm, and it trembles as Merlin's breath comes in tiny, hitching gasps that make Arthur’s fingers shake, make his dick jerk in his jeans.

“Please,” he murmurs, pressing the words into Merlin’s mouth. “Merlin, please.”

Merlin groans, deep and heartfelt, and grips Arthur’s hips, slides his hands back and palms his ass, head dropping back against the couch.

“Arthur,” he says. “Fuck, Arthur. I don’t—”

“Please,” Arthur tells him. “Please, Merlin, I want this.” He shudders and rocks down against the hard line of Merlin’s dick. “I’ve wanted this for ages, since that night in the shop and probably before and I just … I … Merlin, I want you.”

“Christ,” Merlin mutters, and his voice is shaking, but his hands are sure as they reach for Arthur’s zip. “Tell me,” he says, “if you want me to stop.”

Arthur nods, because he doesn’t trust his voice. He shifts his weight back to make room and then tips his head forward and rests it against the curve of Merlin’s neck, so that he can watch Merlin’s fingers moving into his jeans.

Tears spring to his eyes at the first brush of Merlin’s hand on his dick. His mouth falls open and he jerks forward, gasping, because fuck, fuck, this is happening. Merlin is here and he’s real and this is happening.

“Arthur,” Merlin whispers, turning and nosing at Arthur’s ear, leaving soft kisses there. “Fuck, Arthur. Is this — is this okay?”

“Yes,” Arthur chokes out. It’s more than okay; it’s fucking brilliant. He clutches at Merlin uselessly and stares down between their bodies, watching the slippery head of his dick push up over Merlin’s fingers. He moans, unbidden and buries his face in Merlin’s neck.

“Christ,” Merlin says, splaying his free hand wide between Arthur’s shoulder blades and rubbing his thumb over the head of Arthur’s dick. “You’re so beautiful, Arthur. You feel so good, you’re so good, that’s it, love, that’s it.”

“You too,” Arthur says suddenly, wanting it fiercely, madly. “You too, Merlin, come on,” and then Merlin is tearing at his jeans and pulling his dick out. Arthur moans wildly at the first brush of it against his, feeling hot and slick and huge as Merlin shoves his hips up. “Oh, fuck, oh fu— Merlin.”

He whimpers pathetically when Merlin pulls his hand away, even though it’s only to bring it up to his mouth and lick, wet and sloppy across his palm. Their eyes lock, and Arthur leans in, opens his mouth around Merlin’s thumb.

“Yes,” Merlin hisses. He pushes his thumb into Arthur’s mouth, pushing the pad of it gently against his tongue, and Arthur moans around it; he’s so fucking close, balls drawn tight against his body; fucking, he’s going to come all over Merlin’s —

He slams his mouth into Merlin’s as soon as Merlin pulls his hand away to wrap it, dripping now, around their dicks. It takes nothing at all, barely even two strokes, and Arthur is coming hard, vision whiting out, blood roaring in his ears. Merlin works him through it, breathing hard into his neck, hand going slick with Arthur’s come. He keeps at it, long past the point when Arthur slumps forward against him. When he comes, he does it almost silently, tucking his head in beside Arthur’s and holding him tightly around the waist, whispering, “Arthur, Arthur.”

Arthur doesn’t know how long they stay like that, and he doesn’t care. They breathe against one another, hands wandering softly under shirts and smoothing down ribs, finding the ticklish places there and soothing them lightly. Arthur drops a line of kisses up Merlin’s throat and then across his jaw, feeling contented down to his bones. He wants a shower and then he wants to push Merlin down into his unmade bed and kiss him until neither of them can keep on. Everything he’s ever heard of or thought of or read about, he wants to do them all to Merlin, and then he wants to drag him back to bed and think up a thousand more.

Merlin tries to go home at least once a day, but he doesn’t always manage it. He knows this whole thing is much, much too fast but he can't seem to force himself to do anything about it, not when Arthur is right there, all smooth skin and soft mouth and eager, willing fingers. Merlin hasn't had so many handjobs since he was a teenager and only just figuring out how it all worked, with someone's fingers on him. He can't complain, though; Arthur is delightful against him and under him, and Merlin feels drunk on the first rush between them.

After a week, he manages to drag himself out of Arthur's enormous bed long enough to go home to his flat and collect a few things. He ignores Gwaine's pointed looks and raised eyebrows and declines to mention the bed that he and Elena broke.

Arthur pounces on him as soon as he gets back to Lancaster Gate, pulling him into the enormous shower and rubbing off in the wet hollow of his hip. Merlin's mouth hangs open, hot water trickling into it as he gasps for breath against Arthur's shoulder, trying to understand how just this can be so good that Merlin is starting to wonder if he's been doing sex wrong all these years. Arthur presses his face into Merlin's neck and groans, low and loud, and they stay like that until the warm water starts to run out.

Afterward, Merlin dries off and pulls on a pair of Arthur's tracksuit bottoms, puts the kettle on and boots up his laptop. Arthur follows after him, grabbing mugs and sugar out of the cupboard and then poking at Merlin's computer.

“What's this for?” he says, sitting down on one of the stools at his breakfast bar. “Working?”

“And here I thought you were sex-addled,” Merlin says, grinning. “I just need to check a few things.”

“Okay,” Arthur says. “You need any help?”

“Help?” Merlin says. He takes the kettle off the hob and pours the hot water into the teapot. “You want to help me?”

“Gwaine did say you had the business sense of — what was it? A cardboard box?”

“Yeah, well, Gwaine's an arsehole,” Merlin says.

“No disagreement here,” Arthur says, turning Merlin's computer towards him.

“Oh, please. You like Gwaine fine now you know he's not shagging me.”

Arthur doesn't answer, but his ears turn pink. After a moment, he lifts his eyes to Merlin's and shrugs one shoulder, mouth quirked up.

“You were jealous.

“A bit,” Arthur tells him. “Perhaps.”

“Madly,” Merlin says. He walks around the bar and crowds Arthur up against it, pressing his mouth to the back of his neck, where his hair is still damp and so soft. “Desperately. Wildly.”

Arthur clears his throat and punches something into Merlin's computer. “For starters,” he says, “you should probably stop giving stuff away, especially to people who can buy and sell you ten times over.”

“Mmm,” Merlin hums, reaching around Arthur to finger the buttons of his shirt.

“Are you listening?”

“I don’t want to talk about business right now,” Merlin says. Arthur huffs.

“You know that’s part of the problem, right?” he says, but he tilts his head to make room for Merlin’s mouth. “All play and no work...”

“Hush now,” Merlin murmurs. He bites at the juncture of Arthur’s neck and then licks the sting away, working his buttons open. “I want to teach you something.”

“That’s not new,” Arthur says, and Merlin grins into his neck.

“Tell me when I get there, then,” Merlin tells him, and he slides his fingers under the edge of Arthur’s shirt and peels it off. He sweeps his palms over the broad width of Arthur's back, all fine golden skin and shifting muscles. Arthur makes a rumbling noise low in his chest and his head drops forward, chin to his chest.

“Is this,” he croaks, then clears his throat and tries again. “Is this right? You've got too much money tied up in inventory, Merlin.”

Merlin presses a sucking kiss to the topmost knob of Arthur's spine and then starts working his way down. Arthur's breath hitches and gooseflesh breaks out along his skin.

“Merlin,” he says. “What ...”

“Trust me,” Merlin says. “Don't you?”

“Yes,” Arthur says, so quickly and easily that Merlin's heart loses a beat. He drops his forehead to the space between Arthur's shoulder blades and breathes there for a moment, steadying himself.

“Come on,” he says. “Up you get.” He urges Arthur up and presses him flat against the bar, reaching for his belt.

“Merlin,” Arthur breathes. “I don't —”

“Shh,” Merlin says, hushed. He pushes Arthur’s jeans down and smooths a hand up the back of Arthur's thigh. “Trust me.”

Arthur has always been responsive, but it’s nothing compared to the way he goes completely unhinged when Merlin drops to his knees and drags his thumbs over the swell of his arse. He makes a strangled noise and shoves back, nearly knocking Merlin backward.

“Easy,” he says, laughing lightly against the curve of where Arthur's arse meets his thigh. He kisses Arthur's leg and then spreads his arse gently and leans in, breathing hotly against Arthur's hole. Arthur makes a shocked, bitten off noise and grabs at Merlin's hair.

“Merlin,” he gasps.

“Do you want me to stop?” Merlin says. His lips brush the hot rim of Arthur's arsehole and Merlin's cock fills, growing heavy. He reaches down to press his hand there, fingers outlining the shape of it. Arthur tightens his grip in Merlin's hair; he shakes under Merlin's mouth.

“No,” he whispers, and Merlin opens his mouth gratefully, pressing a kiss into Arthur’s skin. Arthur moans, sounding wounded, and Merlin spreads him even further, mouth open so wide it hurts him. He licks Arthur's hot skin, the impossible clench of his hole, ducks down to mouth at the place where his balls are drawn tight. Arthur shouts and shoves forward, then back, off-balance and whining, like his body has betrayed him.

“There,” he says, panting, “There, there, Merlin, there.”

Merlin groans, turned on almost past the point of endurance, and shoves a hand inside his pants. His grip is too dry, but he doesn't give a fuck. He clutches at his dick desperately and buries his face against Arthur's arse, abandoning any technique. He licks and sucks, pressing his tongue flat against Arthur's arsehole and then thrusting the tip of it inside, inside, fuck, inside Arthur.

He comes like that, on his knees in the middle of Arthur's sprawling kitchen. His chest heaves and he screws his eyes up and rides it out. It takes him several moments to realize that Arthur is groaning, “don't stop, don't stop,” and that he's using the hand twisted in Merlin's hair as leverage, rutting back against his slack mouth.

“Oh, God,,” Merlin says. He reaches for Arthur's dick with his come-slick hand and manages one, two, three stokes before Arthur is crying out and coming all over his marble floors.

Merlin collapses back onto the floor, breathing heavily though his mouth. Arthur slips off the barstool and lands on top of him. He laughs, breathlessly and slides his hands under Merlin's shirt.

“Uff,” Merlin grunts. “You're heavy. Get off, you oaf.”

“Shut up,” Arthur says, and kisses him.

*

As summer rages towards its end, Arthur finds himself in Paris for a week — alone, since try though he might, he couldn’t convince Merlin to come with him.

(“You know I can’t leave Gwaine in charge of the shop for five days, Arthur,” he’d said. “Especially not now I’ve finally started to get my head above water.”

“And who do you have to thank for that?” Arthur had said, walking his fingers down the dip of Merlin’s spine; Merlin had produced a thin leather cock ring and thanked Arthur quite thoroughly.)

He tries not to feel like a teenager about it, but he misses Merlin horribly. During meetings he stares out the window and wonders if it’s raining in London, and during the long, relentless business dinners he pokes at his food and wishes he were splitting a curry with Merlin and Gwaine. The worst of it is at night, when he crawls under the crisp hotel sheets, because however much he bitches and no matter how many pairs of wool socks he buys for Merlin and leaves on his pillow, he actually sort of loves the way Merlin tucks his cold toes under Arthur’s legs as they’re dropping off to sleep.

“Pathetic,” Morgana tells him when he begs off after-dinner drinks, but she’s smiling as she says it and waving Arthur out the door, turning back to to the dinner party with an easy, “Shall we?”

Arthur takes a taxi back to his hotel, head tipped back against the seat rest as the lights of the city filter through the windows and flicker in the corners of his eyes. He picks his messages up at reception and then takes the lift to his room, tugging his tie off and stuffing it into his pocket, toeing his shoes off as soon as he pushes the door to his room open. The bed has been made up neatly, all straight corners and fluffed pillows, and Arthur collapses onto it, pressing his face into the sheets, then flips over and reaches for the phone.

“‘lo?”

“I want you to know,” Arthur says, feeling the sound of Merlin’s voice settle over him like an old blanket, “that I blame you entirely.”

Merlin laughs and says, “What have I done now?”

“I’m not sure,” Arthur says. “But I do know it’s your fault.”

“Okay,” Merlin says, a bit breathless and distracted, and Arthur goes hot all over all at once because he knows that tone.

“Merlin,” he says slowly. “What are you doing?”

“Mmm?”

“Merlin,” Arthur says again. “Are you —” he swallows with some difficulty. “Are you touching yourself?”

“Mmmhmm,” Merlin hums; Arthur sucks a breath in through his teeth.

“What,” he says. “Merlin, what are you … why did you answer the phone.”

“Wanted to ... talk to you,” Merlin says. He breathes a soft noise that makes Arthur’s half-hard dick twitch. “Miss you.”

“Miss me, fuck, Merlin, I’m about to swim back to London.” Merlin laughs, the end of it getting carried away by a moan, and Arthur reaches for his belt, heart pounding. “What are you doing?” he asks, shutting his eyes.

“Research,” Merlin tells him. “One of my suppliers sent me — ah, ah —”

“Sent you what?” Arthur ask desperately, shoving his trousers and briefs down. His dick is fully hard now, and hot when he gets his fingers around it. “Merlin—”

“A new plug,” he says. “A sample.”

“A new — Jesus Christ.”

“It’s steel,” Merlin says, breath hitching. “It was cold, but —”

“Is it cold now?”

“No,” Merlin says. “No, it warmed pretty quickly—”

“In your arse,” Arthur finishes breathlessly, irrationally jealous and half out of his mind with want. They’ve haven’t got that far yet, and Arthur wonders about it sometimes, if Merlin is bored of him or is going to get bored of him before Arthur works up the nerve to bring it up. It’s just that … he doesn’t really understand how this all works, doesn’t know what pace they should be moving at. He wants Merlin, with a ferocity that overwhelms him sometimes, and he knows that it’s perhaps a bit incongruent, that Merlin has a toothbrush and a pillow at his flat when they still aren’t fucking, and he wants to change it, but he can’t find the words to do it.

“I want you,” he blurts, wincing.

Merlin laughs. “You’ve got me, love.”

“No,” Arthur says. “No, I …”

“Fuck,” Merlin breathes. “Oh God, Arthur, are you —”

“Yes,” Arthur says. He squeezes his cock at the base, heat curling up in his belly and then spreading out through his arms and legs, pricking at the back of his neck. “Merlin, I …”

“Oh fuck,” Merlin gasps. “Fuck, oh, fuck.”

Arthur listens to him come: the gasps, the murmurs, the half-swallowed words, and then he works himself to an orgasm to the sound of Merlin’s soft encouragement, telling him how bad he wants it, how he wants to feel Arthur inside, how he wants to be split open.

He stifles his moans in the pillows and ruins one of his nicest shirts and he doesn’t even care.

“When are you coming home?” Merlin asks, when his breathing has settled.

“Saturday morning,” he says, and then, “No, no, fuck it. Friday night.”

“Should I come to the —”

“No,” Arthur says quickly. “Just … meet me at my flat?”

“I’ll be ready for you,” Merlin says, words careful and deliberate, and Arthur’s heart clenches like a fist, squeezing until he can barely breathe under the pressure in his chest.

*

Arthur texts Merlin when he leaves his last meeting Friday afternoon, then again before he boards the plane, and then, feeling utterly ridiculous, again as he’s waiting for his driver to load his bag in the boot. His legs bounce against the fine leather of the seat, and he presses his hands against his thighs. It’s gone half-nine already and it’s entirely possible that Merlin is out with Gwaine or Will, or has been pressed into service stuffing invitations for Gwen’s hen do. It’s entirely possible that what Arthur thinks isn’t at all what Merlin meant, but it doesn’t stop Arthur’s stomach being a tangle of nerves, doesn't stop his heart threatening to beat out of his chest.

The flat is messier than Arthur left it, which is comforting in a way he never would have expected. He drops his bag just inside the door beside a pair of Merlin’s trainers and a still wet umbrella and calls out, “Merlin?”

“In here,” Merlin calls out. Arthur follows the sound of his voice into the living room, where he finds Merlin sprawled across the couch, a book propped open on his chest.

“Welcome back,” he says, smiling and setting the book aside. Arthur crawls on top of him and settles into the cradle of Merlin’s hips, pushing his shoes off with persistent toes and letting Merlin tug his jacket off his shoulders.

“Hello,” he says, and kisses the corner of Merlin’s mouth. Merlin turns into the kiss and hums softly. “Been keeping yourself busy?”

“Always,” Merlin says. “I hope you don’t mind I’m here.”

“I’d mind if you weren’t.”

Merlin laughs a bit and reaches down, slipping his fingers under the waistband of Arthur’s trousers and nudging his hips forward. He’s hard already, the hot length of him pressing deliciously against his hip, and Arthur is nearly there himself. He rubs the tip of his nose down the bridge of Merlin’s, propping himself up on one elbow and letting his free hand slide beneath the edge of Merlin’s shirt and rest against the soft skin there.

“You know,” Merlin says after a moment. “I’m sort of a sure thing,” and Arthur lets out a laugh, surprised, and says, “Thank heaven for that.”

He kisses Merlin properly then, slanting their mouths together, sliding his tongue against Merlin’s. There’s an ease to it now, borne of hours and hours spent in bed, kissing drowsily, fingers fit against the curve of a hip, the dip of a spine, but there’s something new in it, something Arthur can feel down to the arches of his feet.

“Merlin,” he gasps, pulling his mouth away.

“I want you to fuck me,” Merlin says in a rush, all at once. “I’ve been trying not to push, Arthur, I swear I don’t want to push—”

“Yes,” Arthur chokes out. “Yes, I want that.”

“Fuck,” Merlin swears, and then, “yes,” as he hooks a leg around Arthur’s hip and shoves up so violently they nearly topple off the couch and onto the floor.

Arthur loses the threads of it from there — one moment they’re on the couch, the next they’re in the hallway, the next they’re spread out on top of Arthur’s messily made bed. They lose their clothes somewhere along the way, and then it’s just miles of pale skin and the hint of silver tucked into the curve of Merlin’s arse. Arthur gasps and reaches out, running a finger along the edge of it.

“I want you to teach me to do this to you,” he says, voice shaky.

“Fuck,” Merlin breathes, jerking back into the touch. He’s braced on his knees and elbows, head hanging down heavily. “Yes, fuck yes. Just … next time?”

“Okay,” Arthur says. “Can I pull this out?”

“Yeah, do it.”

Arthur closes his fingers around the base of the plug and tugs, gently at first and then harder. Beneath him, Merlin is making soft, pained noises that would make Arthur pull away, if it weren’t for the way Merlin’s dick is dripping messily onto the duvet.

Arthur swears softly under his breath when the plug edges out of Merlin’s arse. It’s teardrop shaped, tapered at the end and so slick with lube that Arthur fumbles it and drops it onto the bed where it stays, forgotten. Merlin’s arse is … open. Stretched. Ready, Arthur thinks dizzily. He reaches out and presses his thumb there, traces it around the rim and letting the tip slip inside. Merlin whines and shoves back.

“Can you turn over?” Arthur says, pushing his thumb all the way into that slick, hot space. It gives easily around him, and Arthur pulls out and comes back with two fingers. “So that I can see you?”

Merlin makes a ragged noise; his skin is slick with sweat. “I think … think it’ll be easier like this,” he says.

“Turn over,” Arthur says. He pulls his fingers out and shoves at Merlin’s hip. Merlin goes easily, rolling over and blinking up at him, flushed red everywhere, dick hard against his stomach.

“Please fuck me,” he says, grabbing for Arthur’s shoulders. “Fuck me, Arthur, come on, just —”

“Yes,” Arthur breathes. “Yes, Merlin, Christ.” He fumbles in the bedside table for condoms and lube, comes up with one of the sample packets Merlin had shoved at him all those weeks ago. “Blue raspberry,” he says, and Merlin laughs.

It takes two tries to get the condom on, his hands are shaking so badly, but eventually he manages it. He squeezes the lube onto his fingers and then smears it onto his dick, hissing at the contact. His heart is pounding a frantic beat up near his ears. Jesus, he’ll be lucky not to go off as soon as he —

“Ready?” Merlin says. He cants his hips upward; Arthur swallows down the feeling of hysterical panic clawing up the back of his throat and grips his dick. He steadies himself with his other hand to Merlin’s hip and lines up, exhales and pushes in.

His mouth falls open on a moan, and even though he wants badly to watch, he can’t keep his eyes open, not when Merlin is touching him everywhere. He’s soft inside, soft and slick and so hot inside Arthur thinks he could burn up from having this.

“Oh my God,” he chokes out. He can’t hold himself up, so he goes down on one elbow, sinking in until the fronts of his thighs are flush against the backs of Merlin’s. He holds there, shaking so hard he’s a little worried about what Merlin must think of him, but then Merlin is reaching up and smoothing his fringe off his forehead. His fingers are cool on Arthur’s overheated skin, and he trails them down the side of his face, soothing. Arthur turns in to the touch and presses a kiss — grateful, adoring, undone — to the tips of them.

“Arthur,” Merlin murmurs. “Love. Move.”

Arthur pulls back a fraction, moaning softly at the heavy drag of his cock and then pushes back in, rocking Merlin back into the deep pillows. Merlin’s legs go up and around his waist, and he uses that leverage to pull Arthur into him, lifting his mouth for kissing. Arthur obliges him a bit messily, but Merlin doesn’t seem to care. He slides his hand back and into Arthur’s hair and holds him there, rocking down to meet Arthur’s aborted thrusts.

“What—” Arthur says, struggling for enough air to speak. “What do you—”

“Uh uh,” Merlin says, tugging softly at Arthur’s hair. “Just feel,” he says, so Arthur does. He drops his forehead to rest on Merlin’s and fucks him, slowly at first, then harder as he finds his rhythm, loving the sounds Merlin makes against his mouth, loving the way his body goes hot and shaky all over. Merlin is a wonder under him, and Arthur loses himself in it.

His orgasm knocks him off his rhythm, shoving its way up his spine and making him falter and clutch at Merlin’s thigh as he empties himself deep inside. Merlin makes a noise, high-pitched and startled, and shoves up against Arthur’s stomach, rutting against him wildly. Wrung out and ruined, Arthur tries to get a hand between them to help, but Merlin comes before he can manage it.

And all the while he’s nipping at Arthur’s mouth, kissing him and licking along his bottom lip. Arthur pulls out carefully, worrying a little when Merlin hisses at it, but Merlin just keeps at his mouth, even when Arthur rolls off to one side, even when Arthur laughs and pinches his side gently. He doesn’t seem inclined to give up Arthur’s mouth anytime soon, and Arthur finds that suits him perfectly.

*

“So then,” Merlin says, “I go, look, mate, I can’t give you a partial refund on a half-empty box of condoms, I don’t care that your girlfriend broke up with you. Do you need a fork?”

“Please,” Arthur says. “What did he say then?”

“Started crying, didn’t he? Great fat tears, like he’d never get to shag anyone else ever again.”

Arthur grins and takes the fork Merlin hands to him. “Then what?”

“Well,” Merlin says. “I let him cry on my shoulder for a minute, because I’m not a complete bastard, then I pointed him toward the DVDs. Made a bloody fortune.”

Arthur bursts out laughing. “I’ll make a business man out of you yet,” he says, pointing at Merlin with his fork. Merlin rolls his eyes at him, for show more than anything, and folds himself up on the couch with his plate of curry and his laptop, tugging a blanket over his feet. His stomach lurches a little when he sees his chat box light up.

Lancaster: You around?

Merlin’s eyebrows shoot up. He tosses Arthur a look, but Arthur is staring intently at his laptop, fingers poised over the keypad.

Emrys: Hey.
Lancaster: Long time, no talk to.
Emrys: yeah. how are you?
Lancaster: Good. Really good.

“Arthur,” Merlin says; Arthur shushes him.

“I’m working here, Merlin,” he says.

Emrys: i’m glad to hear that.
Lancaster: Yeah. I uh, I met someone.
Emrys: did you? how’s that, then?
Lancaster: Really good. I’m
Lancaster: I think I fancy him quite a lot.
Emrys: wow. that’s … sudden?
Lancaster: Yeah, I know. He wore me down, though. Relentless, that one.

“Oi! You’re the one who —”

“Working, Merlin. You have heard of it?”

Emrys: well, lucky for you he puts up with you then, i guess.
Lancaster: Very lucky. Very, very lucky.

“You can just tell me that,” Merlin says, grinning and snapping his laptop shut. He shoves his food aside and crawls into Arthur’s lap, pushing his computer to the floor. Arthur smiles and reaches down to cup Merlin’s arse; he slides down on the cushions, taking Merlin with him.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. “And put on some socks. Your feet are bloody freezing.”

“Warm me up, then.”

Arthur groans. “You’re pathetic,” he says, but he does it anyway.

*

Merlin looks up from his book when the bell above the door jingles, grins when he sees Arthur pushing it open.

“Hello,” he says. “This is a nice surprise.”

Arthur quirks an eyebrow and closes the door behind him. “Hello yourself.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know,” Arthur says. He leans up against the counter and reaches out, fingering a display of ribbed condoms. “Just looking around.”

“Looking for anything in particular?”

“Not really, no.” He picks up one of the condom packets and flips it over, eyes skimming across the words, then nods and tucks it into his breast pocket.

“You can’t—” Merlin says, blinking up at him. “You’ll mess up my inventory.”

“You don’t mind though, do you?” Arthur licks at his bottom lip, and Merlin wants to lean over and bite it. He shivers.

“My boyfriend said I wasn’t to give anything else away,” he says. “No matter how good looking the customer.”

Arthur pauses for a long moment, and then grins. “I’m your boyfriend now, am I?” he says. Merlin feels his cheeks flame up, but he just draws a deep breath and holds Arthur’s gaze.

He closes the shop half an hour early; for once, Arthur doesn’t reprimand him.

*

Once the weather turns cool, it doesn’t take Merlin long at all to teach Arthur the value of a Sunday morning spent in bed. It’s warm there, tucked beneath the duvet, and Arthur loves the way his sheets smell like Merlin. He presses him down into them, kneeling between his spread thighs and pushes two fingers deep into his arse. Merlin sighs and pushes down to meet him.

“More?”

Merlin hums happily and then says, “Oh, hang on, I brought something …” He struggles up to his elbows and reaches over the side of the bed. There’s a rustling, and then Merlin pulls his arm back; he’s holding that ridiculous fucking dildo, the fucking Outlaw. It looks even huger than Arthur remembers, flopping around in Merlin’s hand, and Arthur chokes down a laugh and falls forward, pressing his head in between Merlin’s shoulder blades.

“Come on, give it to me,” Merlin says, but his shoulders are shaking with laughter, and Arthur lifts his head and presses a kiss to the dip of Merlin’s spine.

“You’re a disaster,” he says, pulling his hand free and nudging Merlin over onto his back. Merlin grins up at him and Arthur’s heart stutters in its traces at the sight of him. He leans down swiftly and kisses Merlin’s mouth, trying to push all his blind, overwhelming affection against his lips.

*

In December, Gwaine tells Merlin he and Elena are talking about moving in together, which Merlin doesn’t take well at all. Arthur can’t tell if it’s the stress of paying rent by himself or the idea of not living with Gwaine after so long, and it only takes one enormous fight (in which Arthur sides with Gwaine and then ends up sleeping on his own couch) for Arthur to work out that he doesn’t really need to know. He’s not meant to understand, only to nod when Merlin calls Gwaine a selfish arsehole and shoot him dirty looks when they’re all within a three hundred yard vicinity of one another.

Merlin already has a key to Arthur’s flat, a chest of drawers full of clothes, and a cupboard full of his favourite crisps, so Arthur finds it’s altogether too easy to tell Merlin, “You know can move in here with me, right? You know I …”

Merlin watches him insistently that night, gazes locked as he clutches Arthur’s fingers and fucks himself on Arthur’s cock.

He and Gwaine renew their lease, and then spend a weekend celebrating together drunkenly, which Arthur is apparently not meant to understand either. It’s early Sunday morning when Merlin drags himself to Arthur’s flat and crawls underneath his sheets, smelling like sweat and cheap beer.

“You’re not upset, are you?” he slurs, mouth pressed against Arthur’s ear in the stillness of the room. “That I want to live with Gwaine?”

Arthur sighs and rolls over, kisses Merlin’s messy mouth.

“Shattered,” he tells him. “I’d have kept you in pot noodles and wool socks.”

Merlin grins and kisses him, and Arthur slots their legs together and kisses right back. He doesn’t mind really; he knows it’s much, much too soon to be thinking about such a thing, but the idea is planted in the back of Arthur’s mind and it grows there, sending out tender little green vines that curl around Arthur’s thoughts and hold fast.

*

Arthur creeps out of the bedroom the next morning for a quick run while Merlin sleeps off his hangover. It’s nearly noon when Merlin finally stumbles in, looking rumpled and adorably confused. His hair is a wreck, sticking up at odd angles, and Arthur ruffles it when Merlin collapses onto the couch beside him.

“You okay?”

“Coffee,” Merlin grunts, burying his face in Arthur’s shoulder and whimpering when Arthur pushes him off to go put the kettle on.

Arthur calls off lunch with his father and they spend the day in the flat, curled up on the couch with their feet under a blanket, dozing and watching whatever happens to be on the telly. Merlin, who has always been tactile, has his hands everywhere, shoving them up under Arthur’s clothes all afternoon, so that Arthur is already hard, breaths coming uneven and shallow by the time they fall into bed that night. He rolls over onto his side and grabs condoms and a bottle of lube out of the bedside table and presses them into Merlin’s hands.

“Here,” he says, “Just, Merlin, Jesus, you’re driving me mad.”

Merlin grins and kicks his boxers off, reaches for Arthur’s dick.

“No,” Arthur says quickly, grabbing his wrist. “You.”

It takes Merlin a moment to get there, but when he does, his eyes go wide and he freezes, staring at Arthur.

“Yeah?” he says. “You want—”

“Yes,” Arthur tells him. “Very, very much.”

Merlin kisses him so fiercely then that Arthur is half-convinced they won’t get any farther than this. Eventually though, Merlin pulls back and tells Arthur to, “Roll over, onto your side; yes, like that,” and then curls up behind him, a hand to his hip. Arthur closes his eyes and clutches at the pillow with fingers that shake, not out of nerves or fear, but because he’s swamped with a want so thick he can almost taste it in the back of his throat.

Merlin spreads him with slick fingers and works two into Arthur’s hole. This isn’t anything new, but the knowledge of where it’s leading is, and that’s enough to make Arthur moan and push back into it, enough to make him reach down and curl his fingers around his dick. Merlin chuckles and says, “Don’t get ahead of me, now.”

“Bloody hurry up, then,” Arthur says, and Merlin works another finger in.

“How’s that?” he murmurs, pressing a kiss to the back of Arthur’s neck. “Good?”

“Mmmhmm,” Arthur hums. “Very.”

From there everything gets hotter and slicker, and Arthur can hardly even breathe under the heavy drag of Merlin’s fingers inside him. Then Merlin whispers, “Ready?” and Arthur nods and forces himself not to hold his breath.

He’s thought of this a hundred times, a thousand. Every time he’s taken Merlin’s cock in his mouth he’s thought about it and wondered … and then it’s real, because Merlin is steadying Arthur with a hand to his thigh and pressing in, so slowly Arthur almost can’t tell he’s moving. Arthur has a vague thought that it should hurt, and it does, but above that and below it is a pleasure so intense that Arthur thinks he won’t be able to bear it.

“Oh my God,” he gasps. “Merlin.”

“Okay?”

“Just—” Arthur says. “Fucking —”

“Okay,” Merlin says. His breath is ragged on Arthur’s neck, hitching when he pulls back and then pushes back in. “Okay, I just— just—” He slides his hand up Arthur’s thigh and then over his hip, up further until it’s spread wide over Arthur’s chest, steady above the thud of Arthur’s heart. Arthur squeezes his eyes shut and fists himself, head curled in toward his chest, and Merlin kisses the curve of his shoulder, open-mouthed. He murmurs the entire time, words that Arthur can’t understand and probably isn’t meant to.

And for all the pain and all the heartache, all the worry and the sleepless nights, it turns out that this is far less complicated than Arthur ever would have thought. Turns out, it’s the simplest thing in the world.

He comes when Merlin reaches down and covers Arthur’s hand with his own, their fingers tangling together over Arthur’s dick. Merlin curls tighter around him and shoves in half a dozen more times, then gasps and presses in and stays and stays and stays.

*

“Merlin!” Arthur shouts, holding the door open with his foot. “We’re going to be so late.”

“I know!” Merlin yells from the bedroom. “I just can’t find the …” he trails off and Arthur rolls his eyes and checks his watch.

“Unless you’ve lost the rings, I don’t think whatever it is is that important.”

“It was a set,” Merlin calls. “I can’t give them handcuffs without a blindfold!”

“You’re giving Lance and Gwen bondage as a wedding gift?”

Merlin appears in the doorway, triumphantly brandishing a small, poorly wrapped box. “To go with the ball gag I gave them as an engagement present,” he says.

“You gave them— you know what, I don’t want to know. Let’s go.”

“Hang on, let me get my —”

“Merlin!”

“It’s my tie, Arthur, stop shouting at me or I’m going to think you’re jealous I didn’t get you a ball gag.”

Despite himself, Arthur laughs and shakes his head. “Of course,” he says. “Because nothing says I love you like a ball gag, right?”

Merlin grabs his tie off the table and then pauses, head tilted to one side, considering. He smiles softly and says, “I do, you know.”

“What? Want to gag me?”

Merlin laughs and crosses the room, touches his fingers to Arthur’s jaw. “That too,” he says. “But the other bit.” His breath is warm on Arthur’s cheek. “The love bit.”

It’s like walking outside in the middle of August, or like being caught in a sudden downpour, it hits Arthur with that much force. He lets the door go and grabs Merlin around the waist, pushing him back into the flat.

“Good,” he says, nipping at Merlin’s bottom lip and walking him backward. “I’d hate if it were just me.”

Merlin grins against his mouth and wraps his free arm around Arthur’s neck. “We’re going to be so late,” he says, and Arthur pushes him down onto the couch.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I think we were exactly on time.”

And Merlin groans, shaking his head, but he opens up when Arthur kisses him. “You’re so, so hopeless,” he says.

“I know,” Arthur tells him happily. “I know.”

♥The End♥