”Look at that face,” Morgana said when he found her in the kitchen, her hand wrapped around the neck of a large bottle of Prosecco. “I don’t like it when you look like someone kicked your puppy. It makes you seem, like, human.”
Arthur grunted and held his hand out in a wordless request, ignoring Gwen’s worried looks.
Morgana handed him a flute, nearly spilling it as someone pressed past and knocked against her shoulder. “Have you talked to her?”
“Do you have something stronger?” He peered into the Prosecco and pulled a face.
“I mean, Uther stocked the bar when I moved in, so I’m sure there’s enough to keep half of London drunk off their tits for a few weeks.”
“Maybe a quarter of London once I’m done with it.”
“Did you talk to her?” Morgana asked again as he took a sip from the flute.
“Yeah.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Somehow went worse than last time.”
“Never liked her anyway, did we, Gwen?” Morgana looked over at Gwen for support who just elbowed her and said, “Oh, stop.”
“It doesn’t matter. It was only, like, two months. Dad didn’t even start planning for a wedding this time around. And hey: happy housewarming.”
“Thank you,” Morgana said and wrapped an arm around his shoulder for a one-handed hug. “Promise to have a good time. You know I can only feel 75% happy when you mope.”
“You’re the picture of selflessness, Morgs.”
She grinned at him for a moment before her attention was caught elsewhere, her hand raising in a wave. “Mordred, babe!” She slipped away, leaving the bottle of Prosecco on the counter in her giant kitchen.
“This house is ridiculous,” Gwen said when she’d gone and Arthur huffed a laugh.
“Jesus Christ, tell me about it. A massive house in Knightsbridge with a private garden? You can literally see dad’s guilt dripping off the walls.”
“His guilt is a good look, though, I have to say. Very classy.”
“Yeah, can’t fault Morgana’s taste.” Arthur pushed his empty flute across the counter, feeling like he might as well just have drunk sparkling water. “Where’s Lance?”
Gwen’s mouth stretched into a fond smile. “Made up some ridiculous excuse to get out of it.”
“Classic. What was it this time?”
“Something about a dog shelter being co-opted by a crew of evil villains who want to make a mutant army of homeless dogs.”
They smiled at each other and a silence settled, comfortable at first, until Arthur’s hand started feeling clammy against the counter. “Hey, Gwen.”
She nodded, eyes meeting his.
“I asked Sophia why she broke it off.”
“She said it was because I was in love with someone else.”
The afternoon sun was spilling in through the large glass windows, illuminating Gwen from behind. Her curls looked like they were glowing bright around her head. Her lips were bright coral, her white sundress fell soft around her shape.
She should have been the love of his life.
“Arthur,” she said, expression mild.
“God, don’t you say it too.” He couldn’t look at her. His fist clenched on the counter, nails digging into his palm. “Jesus, don’t tell me that’s why—”
“I should’ve been honest with you. Like she was. I just thought it was easier if I didn’t push it, if I just broke it off and let you figure out whatever it was. I guess I always…” Her voice wavered. “I guess I always thought you just needed time.”
“Don’t you?” He could see her cross her arms over her stomach out of the corner of his eyes. “Obviously, I don’t know. Sophia doesn’t know. I should probably have asked you, just straight up asked. But I always felt like there was something there I didn’t want to get in the way of. You know?”
No, he didn’t know.
That was a lie. Just another damn lie.
“I’m sorry about Sophia,” Gwen said, and Arthur almost wanted to laugh. Sophia already seemed so far away, like she’d broken it off three years ago instead of three days ago.
“Thanks. Sorry Lance is out there saving dogs from supervillains tonight.”
“Honestly, I prefer it that way.”
“True, he is a bit of a wet blanket.”
She kicked playfully at his shin, and he moved out of harm’s way. “I like that this all makes him nauseous.”
“Yeah, I know you do,” Arthur said. “I kinda do too.”
They headed towards the living room together, but separated when Arthur made a beeline for the bar. The room was fairly crowded, the doors to the private garden open to let in the smell of warm Summer afternoons. He caught Morgana’s gaze where she stood by the open doors with a couple of her colleagues, and she just raised an eyebrow at him as he grabbed an empty glass from the bar.
There were about 15 kinds of whisky in the bar cabinet. Extremely excessive for someone who didn’t even like whisky, but then everything about the house was excessive so it seemed to fit in well enough. All of them were top shelf (Uther approved), so he only picked one at random and poured it over ice.
He slipped into an open spot on the nearby sofa and took a large sip of his drink. Pressing his wrist to the side of his mouth to wipe it, he looked up just to see Merlin in a conversation with a bloke Arthur had seen a couple of times with the rest of Morgana’s friends.
Merlin Emrys: scholarship kid and eternal pain in the ass.
Merlin Emrys: long, slender, with shaggy hair and surprisingly strong-looking hands.
Merlin Emrys: star of his wank fantasies since Upper Secondary.
Merlin Emrys: love of his life, probably.
“You’re being a coward, Arthur,” she’d said. He wondered if she knew she’d never been more right in her life.
He’d been a coward since Merlin stepped foot in their stupid, posh school, looking out of place and like no one else. He’d been a coward since the time Merlin looked at him with dark eyes from across the room as he wet his lips seemingly without realising, and Arthur had known.
Living a coward’s life in style, one piece of denial at a time.
“Chin up,” someone said, and Arthur looked up to see Gwaine. “The two of you looked way too blonde together anyway. It just wasn’t right.” Gwaine flopped down next to him. “You looked like siblings.”
“Don’t let Morgana hear you say that, she’s still hasn’t entirely come to terms with being my actual blood-relation.”
“I don’t know, mate. I could probably handle having you for a brother if I got this house as a bonus.”
“Uther as a dad, though?”
“That’s another thing entirely,” Gwaine said, shuddering. “Have you downloaded tinder again? Let me have a swipe.”
Arthur passed him his phone with a shrug. Ahead of them, Merlin was still talking to hot beardy bloke. He was one of those cool, laid-back rich kids. Unlike Arthur, he was wearing a pair of jeans and a band tee that said Lamia across the front and he was drinking beer from the bottle. Arthur was in his most casual suit, chugging whisky.
“Shit, you matched with this girl? She’s unreal.”
“Hm?” Arthur glanced at the screen and shrugged. “Yeah, yesterday I guess.”
“You haven’t even talked to her? Jesus, mate. You need help.”
“Have at it.”
“You want me to do the dirty work for you so you’ll reap the rewards?”
“Do what the fuck you like, honestly,” Arthur said and watched Gwaine grin at him before he began typing.
Hot beardy bloke was, objectively, stupidly hot. Arthur had witnessed his magnetism before on nights out with Morgana’s friends. And he had it dialled up to eleven now, his eyes intensely focused on Merlin’s face as Merlin was talking, free hand gesticulating.
The weird thing was Arthur didn’t even get jealous anymore. He couldn’t be when he’d long since decided that it was more than enough to have Merlin as a friend, that it was easier for the both of them if Arthur ignored the fact that Merlin had feelings for him.
Even if he’d wanted to act on it now, it was too late. How would he even explain that he’d known for six years and never done anything about it? That he’d let Merlin think it was one-sided, hoping it’d pass, that they’d both move on and be happy.
“Madison’s coming,” Gwaine said, throwing Arthur’s phone back into his lap.
“Who the heck is Madison?”
“Who do you think, genius?”
“What the hell, Gwaine, it’s been like 30 seconds.”
“I’m not interested,” Arthur said.
“Yeah, you better not be, because I definitely did not do all this work for you.”
“Wow, you’re truly a great friend to have in times of need.”
“What, should I tell her to bring a friend?” Gwaine stood from the sofa and tousled his hair, checking his reflection in the mirror by the bar.
Arthur tossed back the last of his drink. “Only if you’re planning a threesome.”
“Now, there’s a thought.”
Arthur groaned. “Just leave.” He got up to fill his glass again as Gwaine disappeared out of the living room to await Madison’s arrival. Peering into the mirror, Arthur slipped his fingers through his hair and straightened his suit jacket. He looked like just another London business man on the tube, unlike hot beardy bloke or Gwaine with the deep vee shirt that showed off his chest hair.
When he went to sit back down on the sofa he nearly spilt his drink over everything as he found Merlin sitting in Gwaine’s empty spot, smiling brightly at him.
“Morgana probably wouldn’t appreciate whisky all over her new, white sofa.”
“Probably not,” Arthur conceded as he sat down. “I’m sure Uther would just buy her a new one, though. Pretty sure he thinks she’ll forget one year of his lies for each item he buys.”
He missed the intended mark and ended up sitting too close to Merlin for comfort, not quite knowing what to do with his arm as their shoulders brushed.
“Where’s the beardy guy you were talking to?” Arthur asked, proud of the neutrality in his voice.
“Dunno,” Merlin said easily.
“He was totally into you.”
Merlin’s lips pulled into a smirk. “I know.”
Arthur just looked at him, eyebrows raised.
“Not my type.”
“What, hot and rich not your type?”
“The good thing about being uprooted from your life filled with normal people to spend life at an unbelievably posh school is that I’m immune to hot and rich.”
“What a superpower,” Arthur said.
Merlin nodded solemnly. “Highly underrated one, I’d say.”
Merlin must have had a haircut, Arthur noticed. It was fluffy as it always was, but it was more contained around his ears and it seemed more controlled at the nape of his neck as well. Sometimes it ran wild, curling around the tip of his ears, making him look a bit dishevelled in a way Arthur had always found hard to handle. Now, Merlin looked like he’d done this to his hair on purpose, like he was controlled but wild at the same time. Arthur didn’t know if it was better or worse.
“You still look way too glum,” Merlin said, a slight upturn at the corner of his mouth. “Do I need to take you on another pub crawl?”
Arthur leaned forwards, trying to escape the press of Merlin’s arm along his. “Do I really look that miserable?”
“Only for the ones who know you. You get those sad, big eyes. It’s pretty hard to ignore.”
“I’m good. It’s really no big deal, seriously. Thanks for taking me out, though, it helped a lot.”
Another lie, really. It hadn’t really helped much at all, since all he could think of was Sophia telling him she couldn’t ignore that he was clearly in love with Merlin. Just undressed him of all his secrets, just like that. Like he hadn’t tried to cover it in layers upon layers of pretence.
He’d felt naked. Still felt naked. Like when Morgana used to rip the covers from his bed when he was still asleep.
He felt like everyone could see it from the moon. And it seemed almost impossible to hide again, like now that daylight had shone on it, it wouldn’t go back into the dark.
“Not sure how much it helped,” Merlin said. “But at least you got hammered.”
“Always a plus.”
“Hey,” Merlin said, sitting up. “Wanna check out the garden?”
Something about Merlin’s face made Arthur want to say no—that they should stay here on this sofa. Arthur could convince Merlin that hot beardy bloke was great. Maybe Gwaine had invited that girl’s friends.
He looked at Merlin, his tentative, open smile.
“Sure,” he said, setting his whisky aside.
Merlin took him by the sleeve of his suit jacket and pulled him along—through the room that seemed significantly more crowded than before, out the open doors and up the few wooden steps that led to the garden.
It was a circular lawn enclosed by hedges and a few tall trees that gave shade to a bench with large, comfortable-looking pillows. It wasn’t very large, but it felt like a private hideaway.
“I love this,” Merlin said, smile playing on his face. “A private garden with an actual grass lawn. In London. I want one.”
Arthur had to stop himself from saying something stupid like, I’ll buy you one.
“It’s pretty great,” he said instead.
His blood was bubbling like Morgana’s Prosecco, just like it had done years ago at Arthur and Morgana’s second ever pool party when Merlin had shown up in swim trunks and the bottom had fallen out of Arthur’s stomach. When everyone else had left and it had only been the two of them in the pool. When Arthur had realised how easy it would be to just kiss him.
He’d felt that moment—that moment where their eyes met and they both knew that the other wanted to, that it was only a matter of seconds before one of them leaned in. He’d had time to think about it, think about how Merlin’s eyelashes might look if Arthur opened his eyes mid-kiss, whether he’d smell of chlorine from the pool, if it was his first one.
And then he’d panicked.
Leaving it to be a point in time that seemed forever suspended.
He wondered how Merlin remembered it, wondered if Merlin had spent years knowing about Arthur, too. Knew that Arthur was a coward who couldn’t break out of the mould created for him, who couldn’t find the way out of the road his dad had paved.
The sun was setting, the sky turning a yellow-y orange and pink above them. Merlin’s skin looked golden in the light.
“Merlin, I need to tell you something.”
The words felt like rocks in his mouth, sharp and heavy and painful.
Merlin looked at him, slight surprise visible on his face. He moved further into the garden, away from the chattering voices inside.
“Is it about Sophia?” Merlin asked.
“Sort of. But not really.”
“Ok. You know you can tell me anything, right?”
Somehow, Merlin was making it worse. Arthur’s heart began to pick up speed, his breath becoming shallow in his chest. Merlin, who had always been a good friend to him, who had never turned away even though Arthur could sometimes see the longing on his face when he thought Arthur wasn’t looking. How was Arthur supposed to explain how messed up he was?
Arthur was tired. Tired with a capital T, exhausted to the bone, completely done.
“Merlin, I know you have feelings for me. I’ve known, I guess, for a long time.”
Merlin’s eyes widened and his cheeks filled with colour. He looked everywhere but at Arthur, his jaw tight.
“You don’t need to—we don’t need to talk about this, you know,” Merlin said. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s just go back inside.”
Arthur reached out and closed his hand around Merlin’s wrist, stopping him from moving past. “Of course it matters.”
There was a beat of silence between them where all they could hear was the music from inside.
“Why does it suddenly matter now? After all this time?”
Looking down, Arthur sighed.
“It always mattered. I’m just… a coward.”
“What does that even mean? Hey, look at me, Arthur.” Merlin’s hand came up to Arthur’s jaw and forced him to look up, meeting his eyes. “What does that mean?”
“She broke up with me because I’m in love with someone else.”
Merlin seemed to search Arthur’s face for something. “Please stop circling the point, Arthur. What do you mean?”
Arthur felt like his entire body was trembling from the inside. Was he supposed to say this out loud? God.
“I’m in love with you,” he said, voice embarrassingly croaky. “Have been probably as long as I’ve known you have feelings for me.”
They stood close in the middle of the lawn, Arthur’s hand circling Merlin’s wrist, Merlin’s mouth open, unable to speak. Arthur couldn’t move, couldn’t say anything, could only listen to the generic pop song flowing out of the open doors.
“It’s been years.”
“Jesus Christ.” Merlin looked away, jaw working furiously. “Have you just been expecting me to sit around and wait? Or were you never gonna tell me until someone figured you out?”
“Merlin.” Without truly knowing what he was doing, Arthur circled his thumb soothingly over Merlin’s wrist and they both stilled, looking down at their hands. “I thought it would be better if we were friends. My dad is… my dad. My life has felt planned out for me since—forever. I thought if I just left it, you would move on and be with someone who wasn’t so complicated, and I would be happy to have you as a friend.”
“How’s that been working out for you?” Merlin said, lifting an eyebrow.
“Yeah, because it’s a shit idea. You’re such a fucking moron sometimes.”
“Well, if it’s only sometimes.”
“Shut up,” Merlin said and Arthur felt it was probably his place to do that, just this once.
He didn’t want to move, didn’t know what would happen if he did. As long as they stood like this, as long as Merlin was still next to him, maybe things wouldn’t go horribly pear-shaped.
Inside, the song changed and cheers erupted. Merlin’s attention moved to the party for a moment before he looked back at Arthur and said, “So, what do you want?”
“I just don’t want you to hate me. That’s all.”
Merlin rolled his eyes and pulled his hand out from Arthur’s grip, making the bottom fall out of Arthur’s stomach. Instead of pulling away, Merlin threaded their fingers loosely together.
“That’s aiming a bit low, isn’t it?”
Arthur’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, so he just nodded dumbly, making Merlin laugh. Moving further into Arthur’s space, Merlin’s hand squeezed his.
“Do you remember that time in the pool?” Merlin asked, lip quirking up at the corner.
“It’s pretty much a daily thought.”
“I did think back then that you maybe… but then nothing like that ever really happened again.”
“Sorry,” Arthur said, wetting his lips nervously. “I did. In the pool. You know, want to.”
Merlin smiled, and there was a sadness to it that made Arthur’s chest tight. “Me too.”
And there it was again—that moment where their eyes met and they both knew that the other wanted to, that it was only a matter of seconds before one of them leaned in. He had time to think about it, think about how Merlin’s eyelashes might look if Arthur opened his eyes mid-kiss, how it would feel to finally let himself do what he wanted to.
He felt like his blood was full of bubbles, making him weightless in the warm Summer afternoon, only anchored to the ground by Merlin’s hand on his waist. Merlin smiled against his lips when Arthur buried his fingers into Merlin’s hair, making it almost impossible to kiss him as thoroughly as Arthur wanted to.
Merlin’s mouth was kiss-red when he said, “You know you’re never gonna live this down, right?”
Merlin moved away and took him by the hand. He pulled Arthur towards the open doors, and looked back at him over his shoulder, grinning. “You can start making it up to me by causing a scandal at the party.”