"So." Arthur slung an arm around Merlin and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Didn't peg you for a Hitchcock fan."
Merlin slumped into him, then righted himself. "Always had a soft spot for Strangers on a Train."
"I can definitely see why." He never did this: off-beat movie house showings of black and white films that didn't last over three hours. It just went to show how pleasantly muddled Arthur had become over this entire flirtation.
Well. It wasn't really a flirtation anymore, seeing as how he'd had Merlin up against the wall of his own shower just that morning. And there had been plenty of groping to satisfaction on the couch in the sitting room, among other things. Thank god for roommates with night shifts. Merlin had very dexterous hands and a way of rolling his hips against Arthur's groin just so, and combined, that had to be the filthiest sort of 'flirtation' Arthur had yet encountered.
He just wasn't good at graduating to terms like 'dating' and 'boyfriend' anymore. Though if Merlin ever used those terms in conjunction with anyone else, Arthur might have to gouge someone's eyes out with a butter knife. Merlin had lovely eyes, so it wouldn't be him. Arthur thought he would probably be able to control himself for long enough to find the 'anyone else' in question, but if push came to shove, there was always Morgana.
Merlin shrugged his arm off his shoulder and slipped their hands together in one sinuous flow that had Arthur debating the merits of dragging him in for a spontaneous snog in the middle of downtown Newcastle. Merlin tucked their sides together and plunged their joined hands into Arthur's pocket. The wind whipped at their jackets, trying to push its way closer to bare skin.
"If I said I wanted ice cream, would you look at me— Oh, stop it." For Arthur was looking at him in a very scandalized manner already, if he did say so himself. Merlin's face flushed and he ducked his head to hide the tiny escaping smile.
"I'd still buy you one."
Merlin's smile erupted into a grin. He didn't meet Arthur's eyes.
"Sadly, I think everything's closed." Arthur sighed, squeezing Merlin's fingers. "That's what we get for bothering on a Monday night."
Merlin murmured agreement. They kept up their gradual, meandering pace down Pilgrim Street, until just after the darkened storefront of Maplin's, when Merlin's fingers tightened and he turned to Arthur. "Mind if I stay tonight?"
Arthur wasted no time wrapping his free arm around Merlin and pulling them together. "What, here? Like this? No, I don't mind at all."
Merlin snorted. He leaned briefly against Arthur's chest. "Yes, but no. I meant do you… mind if I stay at yours again tonight?"
Ah, yes, and there was the crux, the moment Arthur had been awaiting with a shivery tremor in every one of his muscles. He still wasn't sure if it stemmed from anticipation or fear. "I don't mind, of course. But I'm afraid Lance has commandeered the flat tonight. Study group for exams tomorrow. I don't want to be the one who gets pushed out the window for breathing too loudly, and I really don't want that fate for you either. How about we go to yours instead?"
He feared it had all come out much too fast, and it probably had. Arthur wasn't used to being uncertain of himself, but standing in the cold and the dark with his hand tangled intimately with Merlin's in his own pocket, it was hard not to be.
Four weeks, and he had yet to be invited back to Merlin's place. He'd never even seen the building. For a while that fact hadn't asserted itself: Arthur lived just off the main drag in a loft that dripped with wealth, thanks to his job as a corporate executive and Lance's old money relatives, and everything was just closer to his couch, his bed, his shower. His kitchen, in which Merlin had twice made waffles in nothing but his boxers and one of Arthur's work shirts. Arthur was comfortable at home, Merlin was obviously fine with being there all the time, and… But it was weird. Wasn't it?
Merlin's expression looked a little weird right then, too, and Arthur tracked back over his words, racing to pick out anything rude or untoward, maybe even too aggressive. But there was nothing.
"My place?" Merlin offered belatedly. Arthur nodded.
He may or may not have engineered their date in such a way as to conflict with Lance's study extravaganza. In the genial light of day, with his stomach full of tikka masala and memories of Merlin's hands clasping and squeezing at the backs of his thighs, slipping in the water that sluiced from the showerhead above, the idea had seemed like a sly one. Merlin might even have found it funny in retrospect, Arthur'd thought, a harmless joke to open the next door for them.
Now, Merlin's gaze had gone dark, worrisome. The frown bent a tiny bow between his brows and his fingers twitched, as if trying to untangle themselves from Arthur's. Something unpleasant twitched in the vicinity of Arthur's belly as well.
"I'm…" Merlin paused. "My place is no good." He peered at Arthur hopefully. "We could be quiet. At yours?"
Not that quiet. Arthur's jaw clenched without his permission. He struggled to keep his breathing normal. "Only if you want seven postgraduates going for their doctorate in medicine to hear us and put it on You Tube."
Merlin's eyes darted away. Arthur saw him swallow.
God, what was it? Did Merlin still live with his parents or something? He was twenty-seven; worse things had happened. And at least it would explain some things, like the fact that Merlin only ever gave him his mobile number and that he could manage rent payments in Newcastle on the relatively shoestring wage he made waiting tables at Wagamama's. Not a bad place to work, definitely, but not lucrative enough when one only worked thirty hours a week. Merlin was a student who had to be paying tuition somehow, or racking up a debt to struggle with later. Besides, Arthur would be the biggest hypocrite alive if he jumped all over Merlin for accepting help from his parents.
"Come on," Arthur said, bending to kiss the spot just in front of Merlin's ear. His hair smelled heavenly, a little like leather, clean as castile soap. "I've never seen your place. Can't be that bad, can it?"
It was a joke, but Merlin's hand was gone from his pocket before Arthur managed the accompanying laugh. Merlin backed up a step, hunching his shoulders and shoving his hands deep into his coat. He gazed down at the pavement. "I should go. I've got… class in the morning."
It was a lie. Arthur knew Merlin's lies, and the fact that he could recognize the tells so readily only made the burn in his throat all the worse. God, why did he keep doing this to himself? Morgana always called him a bleeding heart, but even she had no idea how hurtful it was never to learn from his mistakes, each time he allowed himself to be cut, each time he allowed someone to worm in just enough to rip him apart on the way out.
Damn it, fuck, he just kept letting them in. Like a sickly masochist living on desperation. Could he even fall for someone anymore without slashing himself to pieces on the spikes below? It welled up all at once.
"Oh god, you're with someone. Or something." Arthur jerked a hand through his hair, already hurting, already bleeding from his stupid, stupid heart, and it had only been one month. Four shags in the shower, seven blow jobs on the couch, and two times in his bed when he'd welcomed Merlin into his body for a change and hadn't… hadn't thought he needed to look back.
He was so naïve.
"What do you mean, I'm with someone?" Merlin sounded confused. "Of course I'm with someone. I'm with you."
"Yeah." Arthur shut his eyes, wanting to voice the anger, but in too much pain to do it. "Yeah."
"I get it. Here I was thinking you just lived with your folks or something, but that's not it, is it?" He couldn't help the crack in his voice. "Are you married? Is that it? In the closet?"
Merlin's eyes widened, but Arthur did not stop. "Trust me, you wouldn't be the first person to choose being straight over being with me."
"Oh god, no." Merlin made a move toward him and Arthur jerked back. Merlin stilled, hands rising between them, placating, as if Arthur were some sort of frightened animal. "I'm… Arthur, no. That's not— I'd never—"
He stuttered to a halt and drew a deep breath. Arthur watched him warily, and when Merlin did not speak again, just looked at the cement under their feet, Arthur closed his eyes. "Just… I wish you'd told me earlier. Whichever it is."
He turned away, feet leaden.
"Arthur!" It was uncontrolled, followed by another ragged breath. Arthur stopped, debating whether he could stand to turn around and face Merlin again. But it hardly mattered; he would eventually turn anyway. He couldn't seem to escape the compulsion to torture himself.
Merlin's hand was tangled in his hair, pale fingers laced between dark strands. His lower lip was bitten and red. When he met Arthur's eyes, Merlin's were a little wild. "I'm not… in the closet. I just…"
Arthur waited, insides aching.
Merlin reached out and grabbed Arthur's hand in his. His palm was clammy, grip shaking. He turned, and tugged Arthur after him, not looking back. Just walking. So stiff. Arthur followed, sore inside, despairing at the way he couldn't even seem to let go of his hold on Merlin's hand.
They walked down Pilgrim Street and Merlin turned in the direction of Arthur's flat. His fingers were clenched tight around Arthur's, as if afraid Arthur would pull free. It was an understandable fear; Arthur wanted to jerk away, to finish the walk home on his own, attempting to compose his thoughts before he had to face Lance and the rest of his study group. He wanted to sit in the dark of his bedroom, safe in the knowledge that Merlin wasn't anywhere near his flat, and try his best to recover from this. Except Merlin was two feet away, holding his hand like there was a life at stake, and Arthur wanted to scream at himself.
Merlin veered off about a block from Arthur's flat, onto a little side street that housed a closed tea room and a Poundland. He led Arthur down the street, skirting a lamppost, and finally letting Arthur's hand go with a shuddering sigh, just to the side of a battered blue Yaris with a dozen knickknacks dangling from the rearview mirror. He gestured, hunching his shoulders again. "That's my car."
Arthur looked closer in spite of himself, because this was part of Merlin, a part he'd never seen before. He'd assumed Merlin didn't have a car. Most students didn't because walking was just simpler, and often faster. He noted the faint scratches in the paint and the smudge of fingerprints on the front window. Dust on the bonnet. Arthur looked back at Merlin.
Merlin seemed to have shrunk in size. He huddled as much in the darkness as in his coat, staring miserably back from damp eyes. Arthur frowned.
He turned back to the car, searching for whatever had caused Merlin's discomfort, and noticed that the back seat was full. He leaned in, squinting through the glare of the streetlight on the window. Socks. A hat tossed over the back of the seat, with a scarf wrapped around one of the headrests. There were shoes on the floor and a blanket draped over a mess of stuff that Arthur couldn't see, but there were power cords and plastic food containers with forks locked inside, nondescript coffee cups with the sleeves still on and several paperback books. Detergent. Towels. A pair of jeans. A phonebook and a box of tissues, and a plastic sack from Boots that looked like it was full of empty tin cans.
But it was when Arthur saw the nail clipper lying in the shadow of the seatbelt that he got it.
He spun around, staring wide-eyed at Merlin.
Merlin's eyes slid shut. A grimace passed over his face and suddenly he looked much older. His shoulders tightened up even more.
"Merlin." There were a dozen questions Arthur wanted to ask. How long? and Why didn't you tell me? and Are you all right? But he could only stare.
Merlin shuddered. He met Arthur's eyes, only to immediately look away. "You're rich." The words slipped and slid. "You've got a nice flat. And I like you. A lot. I didn't want you to—"
Think the worst of him. Only Arthur had thought the worst, but this wasn't it, and now Merlin was probably thinking the worst of him.
"It's no big deal," Merlin said, very quietly. "I mean, I eat three squares a day, I do my laundry. I have money and a bank account and all that. I…"
He shrugged and folded even further into himself.
Arthur glanced back at the car, and then approached Merlin slowly. Merlin watched him come, looking like he might dart out of reach at any second, but Arthur reached him first and wrapped his arms around him. Tugged him close.
"Should have told me," he breathed into Merlin's hair. The chill in the fabric of Merlin's coat disappeared under his palms as he rubbed up and down, finding his way over the person he knew so well and yet hadn't known at all.
Merlin clutched at his shoulders. His breath ghosted over Arthur's throat. "I'm not after your money, Arthur, I'm not doing this to—"
"I know." Arthur shushed him, wove a hand into Merlin's hair, and kissed his mouth. Merlin whimpered into the kiss and dove in, latched on to Arthur and clung there, breathing against his lips. Kissing back. Arthur gathered Merlin to him, feeling a heat he hadn't anticipated in the embrace, something stronger and fiercer than he'd been ready for.
He broke off, gasping, and Merlin sagged against him, trying to catch his breath. Arthur nosed his cheek. "So… Do I get that invitation to yours now?"
Merlin laughed, a weak puff of air. Bit his lip and nodded. Arthur kissed him chastely.
"You're parking it under my building. No arguments."
Merlin nodded again wordlessly. He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out his keys. Arthur released him and Merlin walked hesitantly to the driver's side door. His eyes followed Arthur as he made his way around the car. The idea that Merlin thought he might still leave him alone here on the side of the street made Arthur's heart ache all over again.
Merlin unlocked the car. Arthur opened the door and slid into the passenger seat. He had his belt buckled by the time Merlin had shut his own door. Merlin looked at him, and his eyes looked so raw that Arthur touched his hand.
The drive to his building was short. Arthur guided Merlin underneath into the garage, and then to the parking space that would have been Lance's, if Lance ever bothered to bring his car up from Kent. Merlin killed the engine and then sat there, staring out the windscreen. Arthur unbuckled his seatbelt, and Merlin looked at him, still mute, still clamping down on something. Arthur made to leave the car, but Merlin's voice stopped him.
"Arthur." His name sounded chopped in half on Merlin's tongue. Arthur leaned over, cupped a hand around Merlin's nape, and kissed him, long and fervent, with plenty of tongue. Merlin sighed out of it when Arthur pulled away. His eyes had closed again, lashes dark against his cheeks.
"I'm sorry. Arthur, I'm—"
Arthur brushed his lips over Merlin's one more time. "It's all right."
They exited the car together. Merlin hesitated, then leaned back in to grab a backpack that had been covered by the blanket. He followed Arthur through the garage to the stairs, and they marched silently up the four flights to the flat. Arthur could hear the sound of laughter beyond the door. He unlocked it and ushered Merlin inside, spilling cheerful chatter out into the hallway.
The foyer was not large, and Arthur knew by the way Merlin halted that they'd been seen before he was ready.
"Ah, Merlin!" Lance, approaching with a sweating bottle of Coke. "Welcome! Arthur, you two want some tandoori? Sophia brought it from her dad's shop."
"Thought you were studying." Arthur dropped his coat over the couch, and Merlin followed suit more slowly. Lance shrugged.
"Were. Time for brain food and liquid courage."
"Lance, that's a Coke you've got there."
Lance's expression looked offended. "Yes, it damn well better be! You think I'd risk a hangover tomorrow? Good lord."
The people lazing about the sitting room amid piles of textbooks and notepads chorused a sloppy hello. Arthur recognized Gwen and Viv against the far wall, but everyone else was a stranger. One of the guys went back to the anecdote he'd been in the midst of, and seconds later, everyone was cackling.
"Tandoori's in the kitchen," Lance managed around a mouthful of soda.
"Cheers." Arthur drew Merlin past the others, waving a goodbye as they passed through to the hallway. Viv's voice rose over the rest, "Oh, don't go yet, you just got here!" and everyone dissolved into giggles again.
Arthur bypassed the kitchen and headed for his room. Merlin breathed an audible sigh of relief once the door was shut behind them. He stood there for a moment while Arthur moved around the room, closing the blinds and turning on his bedside lamp. He heard a thump and craned around to see that Merlin had set his pack down next to the door. Merlin was looking around like he didn't recognize the place, teeth gnawing at his lower lip. Arthur paused, debating, and then went to his computer and woke it up. The screen hummed to life. Arthur set about looking through his music files, and decided on Fleetwood Mac. The first sultry chords of Rhiannon drawled into the room, muting the voices in the sitting room.
Merlin was watching him, an odd look on his face. Arthur crossed the room and took Merlin's hand.
Merlin's lips quirked. He came away from the door, only to stop again when it became apparent where Arthur was heading. He shot a glance over his shoulder at a raucous eruption of laughter. "Wait. I thought…"
Arthur threaded their fingers together. He tilted his head toward the computer. "Hence the music."
Merlin blinked. He reached out and touched Arthur's collar, sliding his fingers over the fabric. Arthur sat down on his bed and drew Merlin to stand between his knees. Merlin's fingers made their way from his collar to his throat, stroking lightly up to cradle his jaw. Arthur felt Merlin's other hand against his cheek. Merlin leaned in and kissed him gently. Arthur let Merlin do what he wanted with the kiss, followed him into it and along its edges, feeling the sway of Merlin's body against his chest. Merlin's hands climbed into his hair and anchored themselves there, gripping and releasing in time with the pressure of his lips.
Then the kisses moved, over the crest of Arthur's cheekbone to the bridge of his nose. His eyelids, one at a time. His temple. Merlin lingered there, touching the tip of his nose to Arthur's skin. Arthur felt a tug at his throat as Merlin began to finger open the buttons on his shirt. Merlin mouthed his temple again, then darted down and parted Arthur's lips with his tongue. Arthur grabbed his hips and pulled him in, and Merlin gasped, hands faltering. Arthur pulled Merlin onto the bed, scooting back until Merlin's knees rested either side of his hips, bracketing him. He pressed Merlin down into his lap. Kissed him hard.
The song segued: Christine McVie and piano and drums. Merlin cradled his face and gripped his hair and rolled his body against Arthur in a maddening rhythm. Arthur twisted, felt a button pop free. He urged Merlin onto his back, settled in the vee of his thighs and searched out his belt buckle. Merlin's head sank back onto the duvet. His eyes were dark and fogged. He splayed his fingers over Arthur's chest, pushing at the widening gap of his shirt. Arthur freed Merlin's shirt from his jeans and pulled it up, stripping it off of him as smoothly as he could manage. He kissed Merlin's chest, and felt the hiss of breath; Merlin yanked Arthur's remaining buttons loose and shoved the shirt off of his shoulders. It only made it halfway.
The noise Merlin made was distressed, helpless and soft. He struggled with the shirt. Arthur gripped his hips and snugged them together. He felt the brush of Merlin's bare stomach on his, the shudder as Merlin's legs bent, rose, clutched to either side of Arthur's hips, and dragged them together so sinuously and completely that Arthur clenched fistfuls of his duvet in both hands. Merlin's throat worked, a silent swallow, voiceless mouthings that felt like words all the same.
Arthur held still until his head came back to him, the slight, desperate rocking of Merlin's hips against his nearly unbearable. Merlin's hands traced over his face, and Arthur remembered to open his eyes, to make sure this was not being misinterpreted. He looked Merlin in the eye and worked both hands beneath the waistline of his jeans. Slid them down. Eased them over hips and thighs until Merlin twisted away from him and frantically kicked them off. Arthur knelt on the bed and hustled his belt free of the trousers. Merlin caught his hands and pushed them aside, fingers flying over buttons and zipper, and then in, pushing in, and Arthur choked, nearly fell forward.
Someone guffawed from the sitting room. Arthur heard Lance talking loudly over it. Merlin curled in at the sound, ducking his head to Arthur's chest, still working at his trousers. When he lifted his face to Arthur's again, it was with purpose: Merlin caught his mouth and locked them together, pulling Arthur's hips against his own, kissing him breathless. Arthur fought to keep his balance, to keep quiet. And then a moan escaped Merlin, and Arthur pushed him down on the bed.
"Sorry—" Merlin lost it in a gasp, lost it in Arthur's mouth.
"No, it's fine, it's—" Arthur gave up, wanting noise, wanting discretion, just... wanting Merlin. Merlin whimpered into a kiss as if he could taste what he wanted right there in Arthur's mouth but he couldn't get at it, so Arthur reached down between them and gave it to him instead.
Merlin bucked, fingers digging into Arthur's shoulders. His breath hissed in and out of his nose as he thrust up into Arthur's grip; he scrabbled down and rocked Arthur into him until there was no room for Arthur's hand. Arthur reached, dragged Merlin's hand into his and pressed it over his head into the mattress. Merlin mouthed his neck and flung his head back, blinking up at the ceiling.
"Merlin," Arthur groaned, losing his control in heaves and starts. Merlin's free hand pressed to his lips, silencing him, then wound around his neck and pulled him down until they were breathing into each other's mouths, licking, nipping, trying to kiss but failing, and then Merlin went rigid, hips stuttering, grinding upward. His fingers clamped tight enough around Arthur's to hurt, and Arthur came.
Merlin's breath on his neck felt much heavier than it was. Arthur's body was a single mass of trembling nerves. He squeezed Merlin's fingers, trying to gather himself, and felt Merlin squeeze back. Arthur exerted himself enough to roll them onto their sides, and finished kicking his trousers off, shoving tiredly with his feet until they fell to the floor with a jingle of keys and coins. Merlin's hand climbed up his side, palm hot and damp; his lips traveled Arthur's face, dipping finally into weighted kisses, drowsy and deep on his mouth. Arthur could feel their fingers still twined together between them.
There was nothing he wanted more than to kiss Merlin back.
After a time, McVie's languid contralto eased back in on his senses. The room was warm, the very air comfortable. The voices from the sitting room had dulled to a steady murmur. Merlin's body rested against his, bare skin radiating heat. The push and pull of his breathing lulled Arthur into a sated stupor. He stroked fingers up and down Merlin's spine until it occurred to him that Merlin might have fallen asleep.
He reached up and pulled a corner of the duvet free, hitching until he got it out from under himself, and cleaned them up. Merlin's eyes opened. The heat in them was soporific and beautiful. Merlin made a sound, shifting his limbs, but Arthur just pulled him forward until he could get the duvet out from under him, too. He flung it back over them and wrapped his leg around Merlin's, clasping him close again.
Merlin stifled a yawn. "I could eat."
"Me, too." Arthur kissed him, graceless and wanting, nearly getting— Merlin let out a tired little moan and arced his hips into Arthur's— but easing off and slipping out of bed. He rummaged around until he found his boxers, halfway out of his trousers on the carpet, and pulled them on. Grabbed a night shirt from his dresser and pulled that on, too. He crawled back onto the bed and kissed Merlin again. "Back in a tick."
He shut the door behind him and padded into the kitchen. The tandoori sat cooling on the hob; Arthur took down a plate and heaped a double portion onto it, grabbed two forks, looped his fingers through the handles of two mugs, and went back into the hallway. The group in the sitting room had returned to discussing their revision, except for Gwen, who had curled up on the couch and was fast asleep. A couple of them looked up in acknowledgment, returned to their notes, and then glanced up again. Lance waved absently. Arthur didn't wait for comments about his state of dress.
When he got back to his room, Merlin watched him from the bed. He lay there like he'd been fashioned along with the mattress, and yet his eyes held a muddle of nervous energy. Arthur set the mugs on his desk for later— he always got thirsty after tandoori— and crawled onto the bed, plate in hand. Merlin shifted upright, making room. He took a fork and held it poised over the plate between them as Arthur got settled, but then did not make a move to eat.
Arthur looked at him, curious. Merlin darted forward and kissed him on the lips. He shrugged at Arthur's raised eyebrow. "Just because."