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Merlin has hammered out ten variations of the same clumsy sentence before deleting them all, letter by letter. He’s been doing this for close to an hour now, the same song on repeat and his tea growing cold as he ignores it to stare blankly and furiously at his laptop screen. Nothing decent at all has come out since he resolved to open his newest draft. He’s basically just writing to write, so he can say that he did it when Arthur comes home from the barn tracking mud into their flat, looking all stupid and perfect with his sweat-encrusted helmet hair, cheeks ruddy-bright as he pops open a beer and asks Merlin if he got any work done today. So he can line out the write! bullet point on today’s to-do list where it falls between rubbish out and Arthur laundry. So he can give Morgana a word count at the end of the week when she inevitably sends an email and asks in a tone that connotes poorly concealed panic if he’s made any progress or not.

He has jotted down two chapters’ worth of notes, at least. He’s not sure he likes them, in fact he’s fairly certain that he hates them, but he has a deadline and an advance he already spent on a perhaps very foolish holiday to Wales last spring, so it’s not like he can just quit. Unfortunately, a bad book is better than no book, when you are only a moderately well-known gay romance novelist and you possess no real power to renegotiate your publishing contract because you have a terrific case of writer’s block.

It is days like today when Merlin realizes how very grateful he is to be best friends and flatmates with the very wealthy and very generous Arthur Pendragon, even if it makes him feel literally insane most of the time. Even if the writer’s block is sort of Arthur’s fault in the first place because Merlin finds it increasingly demotivating and depressing to try to write emotionally satisfying gay romance novels when he suffers the misfortune of living in a rather emotionally unsatisfying one, with endlessly building tension and no fucking climax. Still, as frustrating as it is to have been secretly in love with Arthur for the seven years they've lived together, Merlin at least does not have to pay rent or utilities or even for food. Arthur takes care of all their combined finances in exchange for Merlin cooking every night and washing his clothes and sheets and generally keeping their flat tidy.

The thing is, Arthur is extremely rich and extremely spoiled, and as a result, does not have the foggiest idea how to take care of himself. Merlin discovered this tragic reality during their first year of uni, when he and Arthur first began to share a room.

Merlin had hated him back then. For being an insensitive prick. For being completely out of touch with the world in this way that only truly posh boys are. For leaving his filthy, shit-flecked riding gear all over their room. For partying too much and studying too little and puking up Jaeger in Merlin’s bed more than once, for never, ever letting him sleep because he blasted music all the fucking time, but mostly for being so wildly, improbably, life-ruiningly pretty that Merlin could hardly look at him without his eyes burning.

He doesn't remember when it changed, really, but it did. The more time he spent around Arthur, the more he realized that he wasn’t actually an asshole, he just badly wanted his idiot polo friends to think he was. He was secretly insecure, and secretly sensitive, and he’d sometimes come back from long phone calls with his dad sniffling, eyes red-rimmed and swollen, and Merlin thought he looked even prettier like that: broken open, vulnerable. It seems Arthur wanted to prove to his father that he was capable of being independent at the same time he sort of wasn’t, and so Merlin helped him. Taught him how to feed coins into the washing machine, and how to boil Pot Noodle, and how to revise before exams. In turn, Arthur ordered them takeaway, or brought Merlin along on weekend trips to Yorkshire or Brighton or Leeds or wherever he was carting off to for his horse shows.

All the while, Arthur relentlessly teased Merlin, who dealt it as well as he took it, which seemed to earn him some sort of respect, and they spent most nights laughing together, sharing a blunt after finishing homework, or else attending the worst sort of parties before deciding they weren't worth it and sneaking around campus at midnight to drink stolen beers until they were dizzy. They gradually shifted from tentative allies to good mates and then, somehow over the course of three years, to being absolutely inseparable. Before Merlin realized it, his irritating crush had evolved into a powerful, all-consuming sort of love, and there was nothing to be done for it, so. He tucked it away, pretended it was the type of thing that might wither and die if left unattended.

Arthur bought a flat in Kent upon graduating uni, and Merlin, of course, went with him. One year turned into two, which turned into four, and here they still were, with no end in sight. Merlin’s love has not withered one bit, but he’s at least learned to live with it.

He suspects this is because, in some ways, his dynamic with Arthur does not function that differently from a relationship. He takes care of him much the same way he did when they were boys, since he works from home, and Arthur’s job (if buying, showing, and reselling horses even counts as that) requires long hours at the livery. He still cleans up after him, spot-treats his dirty breeches, cooks him dinner every night, and takes his debit card grocery shopping. They used to go to the pub together, but more often than not, they spend their nights marathoning ‘90s TV together on the couch or kicking a football around the nearest park, when the weather is good enough. Merlin gets Arthur all to himself nearly every night, and even if it’s not in the way he wants, it’s certainly better than nothing at all.

It helps that they don’t talk about dating or sex that much, if ever. Arthur has not had a serious relationship since his uni girlfriend Gwen left him to move to the States for a job, and Merlin’s never been able to justify dating men when he knows where his heart belongs. Instead, he has one-night stands with blokes on Grindr once every few months and imagines Arthur does whatever the straight-guy equivalent of that is about as infrequently. Merlin doesn’t know because he does not ask, and that’s because when it comes right down to it, he’d rather not know what Arthur is doing the nights he fails to come home from the pub. It’s easier (albeit more pitiful, he knows) to pretend Arthur is eventing in Liverpool or staying the weekend in Gloucestershire to try out a new horse. Merlin is a writer, so he’s quite good at inventing scenarios in his head and finding them believable enough to live inside of.

Maybe this is why he’s satisfied (or mostly satisfied, anyway) with what he does have from Arthur. Why he believed their setup could go on indefinitely, with no negative consequences whatsoever, save for his ever-aching heart, which was easy enough to nurse or, better yet, ignore.

But that was before he sat down to write the third and final installment in his fantasy romance series and realized that he simply could not. His main characters were all set up to actually confess their love after two prior volumes of tragic pining and routine misunderstanding and repeated instances of steamy but thwarted almost-kisses, and yet, Merlin could not make them do it. Every time he tried, it came out as stilted, dispassionate garbage. He is realizing, much to his (and his agent’s) dismay, that while he’s content to write about his characters endlessly dancing around each other and in and out of shared beds and mortal peril and saving one another’s lives so many times it's getting ridiculous, he isn’t ready to give them their happy ending.

It’s a very embarrassing problem to have, but life imitates art and all of that, so, he perhaps should not be surprised.

As if Morgana can feel him thinking about all the ways in which he’s disappointed her, his phone buzzes with her text. How’s book three coming my lovely? she asks.

He frowns at the screen and resolutely types back I'm afraid you won’t be using pet names for me if you knew :( I've been writing all day but no dice. not loving it.

She texts back immediately, efficient as always. you don’t have to love it merlin, just FINISH IT. how are our boys? do we have our long awaited resolution yet?

they’re getting there he sends before taking a self-punishing gulp of cold tea. It aches on the way down.

You know what I am going to say her next message reads. Rather than give her the satisfaction of admitting that, yes, he does, he only braces himself for it. Your readers are not going to stick around forever. You write great tension and great sex, but WE NEED that emotional pay off!!

I know he shoots back. I’m working on it. It’s hard, when you’re in love irl but without the confessions and kisses and all that.

Instead of scolding him via text, Morgana actually calls to tell him off this time. He has no choice but to answer since they were only just texting, he can’t pretend he doesn’t have his phone on him, so he hits accept, grimacing with his eyes shut in resignation. “Hullo,” he mumbles.

Morgana skips straight ahead to business. “Listen, Merlin, I know you already know this, but you’re not writing about your real life. You’re writing about a spoiled prince and his pitiful servant boy, and if you do not make them kiss in the next volume, you’re going to be accused of queer baiting on twitter and the publisher is going to drop us.”

“That sounds quite catastrophic, don’t you think?” he asks her, tugging at his lower lip to keep from pouting. “I mean I’m gay. I can’t really be a queer baiter, can I?”

“Nineteen-year-olds on twitter do not care,” she says crisply, though not without sympathy. He can almost imagine the pitying shape of her mouth, her grey-green eyes flashing. “Look, I know you’re hung up on your flatmate. I know that’s driven a lot of the content for the first two books, and that’s great you took such inspiration from experience. But you need to look outside your own life now. Or if you can’t, then change your life. Maybe just—and I know you’re gonna hate this—but what if you dated? Fell in love again. Or I don’t know, at least had a few snogs? Just. To tap into those feelings, again. The excitement. The release of pressure.”

“I have sex sometimes,” Merlin offers. “I’m not just, like. Sitting here in our house crying about Arthur not loving me.”

“Merlin, please. Just. Consider,” she says flatly. “Looking elsewhere for some material. I am begging you, Merlin. It’s not just your job on the line if you don’t produce the book in time.”

He sighs, rubbing his face with his hand. It smells sad and sterile, like dishsoap and the ghost of Earl Grey. “I know, Morgana. M’trying my hardest. It will be done when it needs to be, I do promise you that. Even if I have to submit a shitty manuscript, there will be one. M’asking you to trust me on that bit, at least.”

She takes a sharp, tired breath. “I trust you,” she says, her voice somewhat tetchy. “Don’t make me regret it.”

Then she hangs up, because Morgana can be really effective and scary when she means to be.

Merlin tosses his phone to the couch and turns back to his draft and forces a few paragraphs, typing painstakingly until Arthur comes home, smelling of hay and sweet-feed and dirt and leather. He sneaks up behind Merlin while he’s hunched in front of his laptop and drops a heavy hand onto his head, rucking up his hair. “How’s the gay porn going?” he asks, pressing his face up alongside Merlin’s to try and catch a glimpse of what he’s writing, because he’s an awful snoop. “Have they shagged yet?” His cheek is sweat-sticky against Merlin’s neck, and it makes his stomach twist as he pulls away, shutting his laptop with a snap.

“Not yet, unfortunately. Morgana called to crack the whip, though.”

Arthur makes a face, wrinkling up his nose as he ducks in and presses it behind Merlin’s ear, because he is awful and thinks nothing of touching Merlin very liberally, as if he is not making the sort of memories that break hearts. Or the sort of writing inspiration that Merlin doesn’t need. “Not Morgana,” he says. “What does she know about gay porn.”

“Enough to tell me I should date for inspiration,” Merlin grits out as he bats Arthur off. “Dinner is in the slow-cooker.”

Finally, that is enough to make Arthur get up and leave Merlin alone. He collapses onto the couch and grabs his phone, trying hard not to think as he reactivates his Tinder profile in Arthur’s absence, like it’s a secret. He sort of hates that Morgana actually instilled fear in him, but maybe…maybe this really will be good for his future. And if not his future, at least the future of his book. He locks his mobile and sighs, fingers brushing idly over the place where Arthur’s sweat is still tacky on his cheekbone.

—-

Soon after that, Merlin meets Gwaine.

He’s perfect for the job: he’s hot, he’s charming, he’s into Merlin, and most importantly, he has a boyfriend and isn’t looking to date seriously at all. They’re in an open relationship, and whatever might happen is just sex, which is a huge relief. There is no chance of catching feelings or expecting to commit. Just, hopefully, the promise of regular sex and casual dates, which is about all Merlin thinks he can handle at this point, anyway.

They meet for drinks and end up making out in the lift on the way up to Gwaine’s apartment. Merlin balks for a moment when they stumble into the living room and there’s another man on the couch, but Gwaine just puts him up against the wall, grips his ass in greedy fists. “That’s Elyan,” he says, mouth hot against Merlin’s neck. “My boyfriend. He’ll join us if you want.”

His grin is a wide thing, easy to get lost in, and Merlin feels reckless and tempted, can still taste his gin and tonics under the bitterness of Gwaine’s ale. He steals a look at Elyan—he’s very handsome, dark-skinned and bright-smiled and strong and compact—but he’s just not sure he’s ready for that. “Rain check?” Merlin asks, and Gwaine laughs, the sound of it rumbling through him.

“You got it,” he promises, and then, they’re tripping down the hallway.

“Have fun!” Elyan says to them as he restarts whatever game he was playing on the Xbox. Merlin feels a weird surge of guilt even though it’s not necessary. Clearly, they've worked out their dynamic together, and it’s simply not his place to judge, even though he’s certain if he had a boyfriend like that, he wouldn’t be on Grindr picking up other guys for the night. But whatever. He’s hard and he’s dizzy, and those are far more pressing matters than this relationship, which is not his business.

After it's all over, he lies spread out in Gwaine’s dirty sheets, staring up at a stain on the ceiling that looks vaguely like a dragon. “Thanks,” he mumbles, hand covering his spit-wet, soft cock. “I really needed that.”

“Why, been awhile?” Gwaine asks conversationally, rolling on his side and propping his head up to study Merlin through the wreck of his shoulder-length hair. “I can’t imagine why. You’re fit. Those dick-sucking lips go a long way, bet you have no problem pulling blokes.”

Merlin chokes out a laugh, shaking his head. “Nah. I mean, maybe, it’s just that I never try. M’sort of bad at casual sex.”

“I thought you were quite good at it,” Gwaine assures him with a shrug.

“No, I mean. I just. It’s hard for me. M’hung up on my best mate, been in love with him for years, and… m’not hoping he’ll reciprocate. I know he won’t. But I sort of, like…get lost in playing house with him anyway. Forget there are other fish in the sea.”

“Oh, no, Merlin,” Gwaine groans, making a disapproving face before rubbing his cheek into his pillow. “Lemme guess: straight guy?”

Merlin frowns, picking little bits of crusted come out of the hair beneath his navel. “Probably,” he says. “We don’t talk about stuff like that.”

Gwaine’s eyebrows shoot up. “Does he know you’re gay?”

“Oh, absolutely. We’ve been living together since uni.”

Gwaine chews the inside of his cheek for a few seconds, eyes bright as if he’s trying to school a smile. “Does he have a girlfriend?” he asks eventually.

Merlin squirms, feeling judged. “Not currently,” he mumbles.

“Hmm…and what does he do?”

“Um. Horses? Somehow? It’s not entirely clear to me even after years of hearing him talk about it, but I think the basis is that he buys young, sort of trained horses for relatively cheap, shows them and trains them for a few years until they can jump and win ribbons and shit, then he sells them for triple what he got them for.”

Gwaine looks baffled for a moment before he erupts in sudden laughter. “My god. Sounds like a rich prat.”

“Oh, he is,” Merlin admits, tugging at his stomach hair, mouth twisting into something self-deprecating and just shy of a smile. “But he’s also kind, and generous, and has a good heart under all that money.”

“Let me guess: he’s also terribly handsome.”

Merlin’s gaze flashes to Gwaine, stomach dropping. He feels caught, examined, like he’s a stereotype Gwaine has fucked before and cataloged in his brain as a particular brand. It’s unsettling. “Yeah,” he confesses anyway, flushing in spite of himself because thinking about Arthur’s face always does that to him. “I think so, anyway.”

Gwaine shoves him. “Whatever he looks like, you can do better,” he scolds. “No straight bloke is worth the trouble.”

“M’trying to do better. I’m here, aren’t I?”

A grin flickers across Gwaine’s mouth before he replaces it with a mock-sternness, lifting his finger to point at Merlin. “Do not fall in love with me,” he warns, staring at him from beneath arched brows. “Everything else is on the table but that.”

Merlin smiles, holding up his hands. “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t.”

“Good,” Gwaine says, slapping his shoulder before kissing him.

They’re fooling around again when Elyan busts in without knocking. He has takeaway, and they decide to quit and share. In a few surreal moments of dressing in front of a couple, they all end up shirtless in the living room eating pad thai and listening to records. It’s weird, but it’s also sort of nice. Merlin tries out forming a few sentences in his head just to test how he’s processing it all, and they’re not that bad, he thinks. Perhaps he will go home and write.

—-

When he gets back to the flat, it’s nearly dawn, and Arthur is asleep on the couch, curled up under Merlin’s quilt with the TV still on. As soon as Merlin sees him, his heart clenches tight and painful, a familiar ache washing over him with irritating predictability. Perhaps he is foolish, to think he can change the way of the world. He nudges Arthur awake, thumb digging into his shoulder, which is sleep-warm beneath his palm. “Hey,” he says gently. “M’home.”

Arthur rolls over, blinking up at him. “You smell like cheap cologne,” he mumbles.

Merlin tries to smile, but it feels like something else. The wobble before a sob, maybe, or else a skull’s grimace, cemented indelibly. “I had a date.”

Arthur frowns. “Was it good?” he asks.

Merlin shrugs with noncommittal brevity, and Arthur drags himself up, rubbing his eyes before handing off the quilt. He has a perfectly good one himself, but he is the sort of person who does not discriminate when he rifles through the laundry and linens. He’s always accidentally stealing Merlin’s shirts, even though they hardly fit, forcing Merlin to witness the way he looks with a strip of stomach showing, arm muscles stretching out the sleeves. Still, Merlin is pathetic and likes to see it all the same: his sweat stains in Arthur’s underarms, like a memory. “It was okay,” he says eventually.

—-

Gwaine turns into a semi-regular thing. The sex is very good, after all, and Elyan sometimes joins for a few rounds, which is even better. Merlin has not done something like that in a very long time, and it makes him feel young and wild, a past version of himself instead of this version, sad and pathetic and stuck loving someone impossible. The excitement of it all helps him write a little bit, though he’s not entirely sure it’s exactly what Morgana is thinking. Still, it’s words, it’s chapters, it’s something more cohesive than scratchy, typo-riddled notes, and that has to count for something.

The only real issue with any of this is Arthur, actually, who much to Merlin’s shock and embarrassment has been a complete ass to Gwaine the few times he’s brought him over. He honestly doesn’t know what to do about it. Arthur has never been rude to his boyfriends before, or at least, he doesn’t remember him acting that way. It has been awhile, he admits, but still. Arthur has never been flat-out homophobic to him, but it’s getting harder and harder to write this off as anything else.

It begins with small, tense interactions: Arthur refusing to shake Gwaine’s hand, or making rude comments about his hair, or “accidentally” forgetting to let him in the flat while he waited outside in the rain. At first, Merlin makes excuses for him or chalks up his bad behavior to external issues, like poor weather or rough days at work. However, it becomes too routine and too specific to ignore any longer. Before Merlin has a chance to work up the nerve and confront him about it, though, the whole thing culminates in an altercation that comes alarmingly close to fisticuffs. It happens like this:

Gwaine arrives, kisses Merlin as soon as he walks in, and shoves a fistful of papers into his chest. “Test results came in, m’squeaky clean,” he announces, quirking an eyebrow. “We can bareback now, if you want.”

They haven’t even had anal sex yet. It’s mostly been hands and mouths and other things, and Merlin isn’t terribly eager to do more, but it’s still nice to have the confirmation. “Wonderful,” he says, voice muffled against Gwaine’s stubbly jaw.

Arthur, who is watching footie in the living room, makes a very loud and affronted coughing sound before making a show of turning up the volume. Merlin is prepared to roll his eyes and let it go, but Gwaine is endlessly entertained by Arthur’s apparent dislike of him and pops his head in to start shit. “I thought you’d be glad, Pendragon! Since you're so eager to stick your nose in Merlin’s business.”

It makes Merlin flush, his stomach dropping as he curls a warning fist in Gwaine’s shirt. “C’mon.” he says. “Bedroom.”

 

But Arthur is already muting the game, already standing and rounding on Gwaine with his chin tilted defiantly, something flexing at his jaw. Merlin is expecting a joke, maybe. Something scoffing and sharp-edged but not cruel. Arthur isn’t cruel, in his experience, not really. But then he shoves Gwaine and says, “I wouldn’t have to worry about his business if he wasn’t buggering a fucking slag.”

It hits Merlin like ice water, like shattered glass. Something clear and cold and barbed and shocking. “What the fuck!” he sputters, pushing past Gwaine and catching Arthur around the waist to push him back, since he’s still advancing, fists balled at his sides like he’s planning to strike. “Arthur. Stop. Stop.”

Gwaine seems positively delighted by the drama, eyes bright and incredulous. “What I want to know is, why do you care who he’s buggering?!” he asks, pushing his tongue into his cheek to create a suggestive bulge.

Before Arthur can lunge, Merlin steers him to the couch and dumps him there, holding him down with sheer adrenaline strength. “Stop,” he says, heart pounding, voice hoarse. “If you have any fucking respect for me, you will stop right now, Arthur.”

The tension drains from Arthur’s body, something frantic flickering over his face, fragile like flame before it snuffs out. Merlin lets go of him, breath tight in his throat while Gwaine stands and laughs near the door. It’s breathless, stunned, half-drunk laughter, like he had a shot or two before he came here, like he’s got better things to do than watch Merlin hold his best mate back from punching his lights out, like this is all bad TV and not his real life because he has a fit, stable boyfriend back home, and Merlin doesn’t really mean anything to him at all. So suddenly, Merlin is exhausted, the fight drained out of him as he deflates, fingers flexing in Arthur’s polo. “Well, it’s been fun, lads, but I’m heading out,” Gwaine says then, saluting them both before grabbing his test results from the floor and shouldering his way through the door. “Seems you two have some things to work out. Merlin—next time, my place, yeah?” And then he’s gone.

Merlin’s head swims for a moment, guts churning in furious knots before the reality properly dawns: Arthur almost hit Gwaine, and now he’s left. The shock tastes metallic in his mouth as he stands on tremulous legs, fingers hot and tingling. “Jesus Christ, Arthur,” he spits out, staring at him sprawled there on the couch, face an unreadable mask. There’s some sad, wavering regret swimming in the blue of his eyes, but Merlin can’t deal with that right now, he can’t pity Arthur when he’s just acted so fucking insane, so instead he backs away, tripping across the carpet to follow Gwaine out.

Wait—wait,” he says, panting as he stops Gwaine on the stairs. “God. M’so, so sorry. He’s never acted like that before.”

Gwaine claps a hand down on top of Merlin’s head, ruffling his hair. It’s condescending, but mostly it’s sweet. “You don’t need to be sorry, Merlin,” he says, shrugging. “Not your fault the guy you live with is a homophobic prick.”

Merlin shakes his head violently, heart rupturing with the desire to defend Arthur, even though he’s just acted so inarguably indefensible. “He’s a prat, maybe, but he's not—he’s not a homophobe. I’d know,” he argues, even though talking feels like choking on blood.

Something indistinct wavers across Gwaine’s mouth, the fluorescent lights humming eerily above then, filling what would otherwise be silence with a faraway mechanical hum. “Hey—s’alright. Whatever you need to tell yourself,” he offers, squeezing his shoulder in a way that is, again, somehow both condescending and sweet. Gwaine is good at straddling dual extremes with charm, and Merlin considers what it says about him that this hardly bothers him when Gwaine blurts, “Have you considered he might be jealous?”

Jealous of what? Of me?” Merlin bites out.

“No! Of me,” Gwaine explains, gesturing to himself.

Merlin sits with it for a while, even as his insides crawl and gather uncomfortably at the thought, his eyes welling up in overwhelm. “No. I mean. He’s not. He couldn’t be.”

Gwaine sighs, gaze sliding up to the ceiling, which is that pock-marked Styrofoam paneling you can imbed a pencil in, if you toss it point-up and it's sharp enough. Merlin has never noticed the ceiling out here, but at the same time, he’s never had reason to look at it. It’s possible he’s never been so embarassed in his fucking life, and the shame makes it hard to meet Gwaine’s eyes. “I wouldn't be so sure,” Gwaine says eventually, turning back to Merlin with a forced smile. “Think it’s maybe time you square up with the truth, mate. Either Arthur is homophobic, or he’s jealous. No other reason to pick fights the second he hears about your sex life.”

Merlin chews at his cheek until he tastes copper and backs off, sucking in a shuddering breath. “I’ll talk to him,” he says. “Try and figure it out.”

Gwaine raises his eyebrow, makes a face. Condescending but not sweet, this time. Merlin supposes he deserves that. “Good luck,” he says, squeezing Merlin’s forearm. “Text me next time you want to suck dick, no drama.”

Merlin nods crisply, weathers a chaste kiss, and stands there catching his breath. He leans against the wall for a long time, well after he hears the main door click shut behind Gwaine, as if he’s waiting for something. And maybe he is. A bolt of lightning, a shock of inspiration, a series of well-outlined answers prescribing what he should do next. Nothing comes, of course, and eventually he has to let out a long exhale and head back upstairs to his flat, no seared skin, no inspiration, no clarity.

In Merlin’s absence, Arthur has changed out of his breeches and polo and into a faded old tee-shirt and PJ bottoms, but he still smells like horses when Merlin drops down next to him on the couch. “What is your fucking problem?” Merlin asks, yanking the crisp bag from Arthur’s hands and sending a spray of crumbs flying.

Arthur sits there for a moment with his hands wide open and spread in his lap, brows knit, lips pursed. Then he grabs one of the wadded-up blankets on the couch and wraps himself in it defensively before mumbling a begrudging, “M’sorry.”

It’s reluctant, but Merlin is still shocked he says it at all. “Are you really?!” he snaps.

Arthur frowns, gaze still fixed upon the TV, even though there’s nothing but muted adverts playing. “Yes, I really am. I just. I just don’t— and then he cuts himself off with a clipped sigh.

“Don’t what?! Don’t like him?” Merlin asks, tilting his head and regarding Arthur with flashing eyes. “Because let me tell you, Arthur, no matter how you feel about him, I rather like Gwaine, so I intend to keep seeing him.”

Arthur leans back and tilts his chin up, gazing at the ceiling as his eyes glisten in the blue glow of the telly, haunting and dark. “I don’t want you to get hurt is what I was going to say,” he spits out. “Though, now that you mention it, I’m not overly fond of him. He’s got a boyfriend, Merlin, if he’s seeing you, that means he's seeing lots of other guys, too.”

“So?!” Merlin asks. “You think I don’t know that? I’m choosing to date someone like this. I’m choosing to date a couple. It just—it seems safe, to me,” he ends on awkwardly, heart pounding in his chest.

Finally Arthur turns to look at him, with his pupils wide and black, mouth twisted and parted over something unspoken. “Safe!?” he eventually sneers. “Safe from what?! From where I’m standing, you’ve got twice the chance of venereal disease and twice the chance of a broken heart.”

Merlin snorts, waves of disbelief wracking his body, making his scalp prickle and blood roar in his ears. He cannot believe Arthur has thought about this enough to even be having such a conversation. It makes him feel judged and scrutinized, drawn and quartered and pinned open like a dissected frog for Arthur to prod at. “We’ve been safe and careful and Gwaine just got tested. Plus, no one will catch feelings, that’s the whole point.”

But what if you do?” Arthur asks then, throat bobbing as he swallows thickly, eyes still hard and wet and full. It takes Merlin aback, to see his own reflection wavering back at him from that endless black. “You’re fucked if you do. You—nothing will ever go anywhere. If you fall for this guy, he’s not gonna leave his boyfriend and love you back. He’s already got his fucking story, you’re just some footnote.”

“Yes,” Merlin agrees, nodding. “That’s what I want to be, right now.”

Arthur doesn’t seem to know what to say to that, which makes sense. He’s rich and handsome and has never, not once in his life, suffered the fate of being someone’s footnote. He’s always been the protagonist, in his own story and in Merlin’s, too, and this realization tightens in Merlin’s throat like a fist around his vocal cords, cinching them tight with silence. He swallows painfully, carding a hand through his hair and gathering his legs up under him. “Just. I’m okay, Arthur. If this is some weird, misguided attempt to protect me, you can give it up.”

Arthur shakes his head and gets up to walk meaningfully into the kitchen. For a moment, Merlin thinks he’s not coming back, but eventually he returns with his cheeks wet from the sink and an open bottle of beer in his hand. He sits, pressing it to his lower lip without taking a sip, and mumbles, “I really didn’t mean to punch your boyfriend.”

“Luckily you failed to actually get a swing in,” Merlin sighs, rubbing his arms and settling into the couch as the tension drains from the air and leaves it dead, empty, aching. “He’s fine. He thinks you’re funny.”

He assumes Arthur will bristle at that, but instead he just takes a long drink, swallowing the mouthful before studying Merlin over the neck of the bottle. Merlin shifts and winces, uncomfortable under the scrutiny. “What’s wrong with you?” Arthur asks in his usual voice, as if nothing at all out of the ordinary has happened. He unmutes the TV and turns back to it. “You keep making these faces, like you’re hurt. Like, physically hurt.”

Merlin’s stomach drops as he quickly takes inventory of his body. It’s too much for Arthur to notice things about him before he notices them himself—it stings, makes him feel cracked open all over again, looked at but not wanted, when all he needs from Arthur is to be wanted. God. He’s so fucking tired. He sits up and straightens his back experimentally, notes the trademark writer’s tightness from being hunched in front of a laptop all day. He cringes at the sensation before sagging into the couch in defeat.

“Just. The usual. Pulled something in my back.”

Arthur smiles, but it’s a measured, controlled thing. A far cry from his regular smile, which is broad and mischievous and boyish and golden. “What, from sucking two cocks at once?” he asks.

Merlin coughs before forcing it into a clipped laugh. “No. From writing.”

“Hmm,” Arthur says, raising his brows. “Must be very hard, sitting at your desk all day thinking up pretty words…did you know the new Warmblood mare I picked up is an absolute demon on the lunge line? She nearly yanked it from my hands today, bucking in some sort of strop. My palms would have gotten burnt if I hadn’t been wearing my gloves.”

Merlin tries his hardest not to smile, but it comes forcing its way up on his lips anyway, because he loves Arthur, loves his foolishness and his horse stories and his self-deprecating faux-superiority. He supposes this is the way it’s going to go now: they’re back to pretending nothing transpired, sharing takes from their day, sitting on the couch together half-watching telly. He sighs, because even if it’s infuriating, it’s also a comfort. This is how his life has been for many years, and if he didn’t have a book to finish, he might let it carry on this way for many more, without complaint. “Good thing you were wearing those gloves, then,” he quips, shooting a look at Arthur. “Wouldn’t want your soft posh hands taking a beating.”

Arthur doesn’t joke back, though, he just looks at Merlin, his eyes still so dark. Perhaps he really is sorry. “Do you want me to do something about your back?” he asks then, tearing his gaze away and to the screen with a firm resoluteness. “Gaius, one of the old guys at the livery, taught me a thing for when my shoulder gets fucked up from lunging.”

“A thing?” Merlin asks, shifting his weight nervously. The room is taut again, crackling with his own anxiety. “Sounds professional.”

“Shut up, he’s a doctor, it’s real. I mean, holistic doctor slash horse chiropractor, so half-real, but that’s got to be better than eating, like, ten paracetamol a day or whatever you do,” Arthur argues, reaching for Merlin’s shoulders and turning his back to him, even as he tries to resist. “I didn’t make it up.”

You’re going to do horse chiropractic medicine on me?!” he asks. He’s too exhausted by the events of the evening to fight Arthur, though, so he allows himself to be arranged.

“No, I think it's, like. Indonesian medicine? Cambodian maybe? I don’t know, Gaius said it worked so I believe him,” Arthur offers, squeezing the back of Merlin’s neck briefly in a firm grip. “Take your shirt off,” he orders. “M’gonna grab some stuff.”

And then he disappears, padding off to his room and leaving Merlin sitting there in the dark, heart pounding against his sternum so hard it aches. He takes a minute to regroup while Arthur is out of the room, putting the discarded crisps away and shutting off the telly, which dims the lighting of the room so much that it feels oddly moody, so he flicks on a few lamps to compensate. Then, much to his own disappointment, he strips his shirt off and grabs a couch pillow to drape himself over and hide his stomach and chest with, since he feels so oddly exposed. He shouldn’t be doing this, he knows it in his bones. He shouldn’t even be forgiving Arthur for being an ass to Gwaine, let alone pretending like everything is okay and baring his sore, naked back for him to play doctor on. It’s stupid and masochistic, and Merlin is well aware, but still, he does it, because there are things he craves and things he’s powerless against and Arthur is every one of them, and at the end of the day, he is only human.

Arthur returns with a jar of tiger balm and a 50 pence piece. “Gaius said it’s safe, but it hurts before it feels better,” he announces, unscrewing the cap and coating his fingers in a generous amount of red, greasy balm. “So, cheers, I guess.”

“Oh, fantastic. Wonderful. I feel quite safe in your capable hands,” Merlin grits out, teeth grinding as Arthur smears the dollop on either side of his spine. It’s cold and awful, but Merlin is stupidly moved by the way he doesn’t even need to tell Arthur where his muscles are pulled tightest, where he hurts the most. He knows from instinct, or perhaps observation. Neither possibility helps Merlin feel any better.

“Stop flinching,” Arthur says, flicking the back of his skull. “You know I’d never hurt you.”

And that makes his throat so fucking thick, he can’t do anything but hide his face in the pillow and swallow, head bent like this is a death sentence, like Arthur’s hands are a guillotine.

Arthur digs his thumbs in before brandishing the coin, which he scrapes from the tuck of Merlin’s shoulder blade down to his mid-back, following the line of his spine. “Oh,” Merlin chokes out, voice muffled. “That does hurt.”

“Suck it up, Merlin, it’s good for you,” Arthur says cheerily, scooting in so close that his knees frame Merlin’s hips, floppy blond hair brushing against his back, likely adhering to the sheen of tiger balm. He drags the coin repeatedly over the same place, digging it into the muscle, scraping his skin again and again until Merlin is half-numb with the burn of camphor. “How does it feel?” Arthur asks.

“Looser,” Merlin admits, rubbing his face into his forearm until he sees stars. “Also. On fire.”

“Perfect,” Arthur grits out before moving to the other side of Merlin’s spine and doing the same thing, in a mirrored image. The hand he is not using is braced on Merlin’s side, holding him in place like he might bolt without that extra anchor point. It is not how Arthur usually touches him—it’s firm, clinical, like he is a horse that needs steadying. Merlin focuses on the point of tension, trying to put his whole body into it so that he can escape all the other strange, careless places they are pressed flush. He is not jealous, Merlin tells himself, trying to force the sound of Gwaine’s voice from his head where it echoes tauntingly. Do not get your fucking hopes up again. Morgana will kill you.

All the while, Arthur is quiet, head bent as he focuses on the coin hot between his thumb and forefinger, ironing Merlin out with it, as if this is just a part of his apology. Let me hurt you and heal you, the pressure says. Since I cannot want you, and never will.

—-

It helps so much that Merlin actually sleeps soundly and dreamlessly that night, the darkness heavy in his room like a solid thing while Arthur snores one wall away. When he wakes up, his back is less tight than it’s been in months, and as he cranes his head around to study it in the mirror, he finds two long, red-purple stripes framing his spine and marking the coin’s relentless pathway. The sight makes his stomach roll over, his cheeks hot. They look like hickies, specked in the same way, and he tears his eyes from them to will himself to not think about Arthur marking him.

It’s been a long time since his body bore any lasting physical evidence of Arthur’s touch. He suspects the last time was in uni, when Arthur had carelessly tossed a metal thermos across the room to get Merlin’s attention and accidentally (or at least that was his story) hit him in the face with it. The impact left a bruise on the curve of Merlin’s cheekbone, and they’d laughed about it in the moment, but when it hadn’t faded several days later, Arthur got drunk and cried, tracing the swelling with clumsy fingers and apologizing over and over again until Merlin had to shove him off, heart racing. They didn’t discuss it the next morning, and Merlin had almost forgotten about it until now.

He tries to smear some arnica on the marks, but they’re out of his reach, so he gives up, pulls a dirty tee-shirt on, and writes my OWN fucking laundry on his to-do list, just under write.

—-

The next night, Gwaine and Elyan invite Merlin over to have a foursome with their friend Percival. He decides to go even if he’s not feeling it, thinking that perhaps what he needs to get over both Arthur and his writer’s block is three good-looking men and a bottle of red wine. He’s seen pictures of Percy, after all, and his arms alone are the stuff of romance novel infamy.

Once Merlin is there, though, everything starts to fall apart. As soon as his shirt is off, Elyan’s eyes widen at the marks on his back, and he razes his nails over them, making Merlin wince and hiss into Gwaine’s mouth. “Ow,” he says.

“And what in the hell are these?!” Elyan asks before turning Merlin around to show Gwaine, who lets out a whistling breath that is dangerously close to a catcall. “Are you seeing someone else?!”

“No,” Merlin admits, making a face as he forces out the truth. “Arthur did it.”

“Oh, did he?!” Gwaine asks, pinching Merlin’s bottom and exchanging telling, assumption-heavy glances with Elyan.

“Not in a sex way, in like—it was body work. He did some holistic medicine horse chiropractic thing on me the other night because my back was acting up,” Merlin explains, even though he’s well aware it sounds absolutely ridiculous. Predictably, Gwaine snorts in laughter.

“Oh, is that what they’re calling it these days?” he jokes, tracing the marks. It feels weird, to have his touch layered over the ghost of Arthur’s, so Merlin peels away, breath tight in his throat as he extricates himself from between Gwaine and Elyan. They don’t seem to mind, and fall into making out. “Told you he’s jealous,” Gwaine mumbles into Elyan’s full, grinning lips, and then they share a private titter.

Merlin feels awful. He decided to come tonight only because he’s trying not to think about Arthur. He doesn’t want to be reminded of him. “Gonna get some water,” he says, shouldering into Gwaine’s robe and waving to them, even though they can hardly be bothered to separate mouths long enough to acknowledge his departure. “Be back in a minute, I guess.”

While he anxiously chugs an entire bottle in the kitchen, Percival arrives and lets himself in. He’s every bit as big and stupidly handsome as his Grindr profile promised, and it really makes Merlin wish he was not in such a rotten mood. Or at least not so generally, constantly heartbroken and in love that he can’t even appreciate the spoils right in front of him. He introduces himself anyway. “God, I’m so sorry,” he says, shaking Percy’s hand and wistfully beholding his stunning blue eyes, his impressive biceps, his shy smile. “You are literally one of the hottest men I have ever seen, but m’afraid I’m having a bit of a night tonight,” he admits, shaking his head. “Elyan and Gwaine are down the hall and in their room, though, having a marvelous time without me. They’d be thrilled if you joined in, m’sure.”

Percy nods politely. “Maybe you’ll accompany us later?” he asks, quirking one brow up.

It’s infuriating, how mouth-watering and sexy and fucking perfect he looks in his cut-off shirt and loose-fitting joggers with no pants underneath, the shape of his cock thick and soft and visible as he shifts his weight. Merlin could kick himself for failing to capitalize on such a fantastic opportunity. He shakes his head as he squeezes Percy’s strong palm. “Maybe,” he says, hoping.

—-

Eventually Merlin finds himself back in the bedroom while the other three fool around. There’s trance music pulsing rhythmically from someone’s laptop, and it smells close and humid like a club, sweat mixed with ass and latex and cherry-lube. Merlin badly wants it to turn him on, normally it would, but it’s overwhelming right now, and he ends up letting himself onto the balcony instead, sucking in fresh air to clear his head and gazing up at the stars until he feels too existential and has to stop.

London glitters in the distance like a faraway beacon, even though it’s not so far away at all, and he leans against the railing and studies it, imagining all the people living there, breathing there, fucking there, dying there. Writing novels in time for their deadlines there. Then his phone vibrates against his thigh, and he fishes it out of the pocket of Gwaine’s robe. Of course, it’s from Arthur: hey, got home and you weren’t here :( u planning anything for dinner or should i order takeawawy? hows your back?

Merlin reads it a few times over, eyes stinging, perhaps from the smell of cigarettes coming from the flat next door, or else from something he’d rather not think about. I miss you he types out, knowing full well he won’t send it. and I love you so fucking much. i’m supposed to finish my book and I'm supposed to get railed by a hot guy named Percival and I'm supposed to be normal, but all i want to do is go home and get takeaway with you and i don’t really know what i’m supposed to do about it. He chews his lips and deletes the whole text, letter by letter, but before he can type and send I'm actually out tonight, see u tommorow, back is much better Thank you!, Elyan throws the sliding glass door open and whisks out into the night, hooking his arms around Merlin’s waist and burying his hot face into the ditch between his shoulder blades. “Enough moping, mate, come have some fun,” he growls, biting him. “Put that away.”

Then he takes Merlin’s phone, shuts it off, and tosses it into the bedroom where it disappears in a heap of discarded clothing. “Fine,” Merlin mumbles, shrugging the robe off and falling into the bed beside Percival, who is very solid and very warm and very heavy and every bit as delicious as he anticipated as he rolls on top of Merlin. “M’ready,” he says.

And the night is lost in a blur of tongues and fingertips, spit-slick and prying and kneading bruise-deep. Merlin comes enough times that he hurts after the fact, but he supposes it’s fitting, since he’s pretty sure this is the last time he’s going to be doing this. He really likes Gwaine and Elyan, and Percival seems great, but it’s just not fair for him to bring the mood down every time he’s here for the sole sake of forcing out a few words, like droplets from a withered dry lemon.

 

At least he can tell Morgana he tried.

He showers the sex off at Gwaine’s in the morning while everyone sleeps in a heap, then slips out the door some time after sunrise. He couldn’t sleep anyway, even though his back is no longer aching. When he lets himself into his flat, he expects Arthur to still be in bed, so he’s stunned to find him sitting at the kitchen table in a stained shirt and sweats, hair a wreck like he hardly slept, too. “Hullo,” he says, cocking his head. “Awfully early to get up for work, isn’t it?” he asks with feigned nonchalance.

Arthur stares at him with wet eyes before letting out a sharp, barking laugh. “Work?! I’m not up for work, Merlin, I’m up because I was so fucking worried about you that I've been pacing all night considering calling the police to send out a sodding search party!” he spits out.

Merlin makes a face. “I was at Gwaine’s, I told you.”

“You did not,” Arthur fires back through grit teeth, eyes flashing. “I texted you about dinner and you never texted back, and I was left with no fucking choice but to consider you’d been kidnapped and murdered. “

The dull, persistent, ache in Merlin’s chest never really goes away, but it surges to full attention now, filling him up like water in a rapidly sinking dinghy. “Oh…I might have shut off my phone,” he admits, opening up his texts with a guilty look creeping over his face, try as he might to keep it blank. “I thought I texted you back, but—”

“But you were having such a good time sucking dick that it just slipped your mind, is that it?” Arthur snaps.

Merlin’s heart cracks, his stomach plummets. “No,” he growls in response, sucking his own teeth, gaze skittering along the ground noncommittally because he can’t look at Arthur, not right now, not when he’s talking about sucking dick.

He doesn’t stop, though. “Then what, getting your dick sucked?” Arthur says, lip curled in a mocking not-smile, every motion big, overblown, exaggerated. As if he’s playing a part, and Merlin doesn’t understand where this man came from, this ridiculous version of his Arthur, who once bruised his face but cried about it days later, like all of Merlin’s wounds were his own. “Why else would you shut off your fucking mobile without telling me where you were, Merlin?”

He blinks, eyes wet and stinging, throat tight. “Arthur, stop!” he eventually rasps, hating how many times he’s had to say that in the last few days. “What the fuck is your problem, lately?! You have never cared about who I dated before this, you’ve never been so overprotective and weird. I know your dad was a fucking homophobic asshole, but—”

“Shut up,” Arthur says, voice low and cutting. “This has nothing to do with my father. It’s not. It’s not like that.”

Merlin chokes out a helpless laugh, though nothing about this is funny. “Fuck you, Arthur,” he eventually spits out, since there is nothing else left to say. Then he turns on his heel and storms to his bedroom. The door doesn’t lock, it never has, and he’s worried Arthur will try and follow him in and pry more truths from his lips, so instead of bedding down and sulking in the comfort of his own sheets, he grabs a jacket from his closet and decides to leave. He pushes past Arthur in the hallway, careful not to touch him, not to look at him, not to get mired in the honey-sweet, golden stickiness of his fly tape. “M’gonna have a walkabout,” he grumbles, shrugging into his jacket. “I’ll see you later.”

Halfway around the block, he finds an ancient half-pack of cigarettes and a lighter tucked into the jacket’s inside pocket, and even though it’s been years since he smoked, he decides that desperate times call for desperate measures, and all that. He parks on the corner, hunches his shoulders against the bitter wind, and lights up.

After taking a slow drag, he coughs and gobs on the pavement. It tastes awful. He stands there and watches the cigarette burn to ash, tapping the butt against the nearest fence and shivering, wondering what the fuck is so wrong with him that all he wants is to go home. He keeps trying to push a wedge between himself and Arthur, he keeps trying to dig for his dignity in long-since frozen ground. To finish his book is the reason he’s been pinning it all on, but if he asks himself sincerely, he knows that he can hardly even feign genuinely caring about the deadline. But it’s hard, to finish a story he’s still mired deep in the meat of, stewing and aching. But more importantly it’s hard, to work when he knows Arthur will gladly pay for all his failures. They’re so tangled up, so dependent on each other, so used to filling the other’s fissures and vacancies that any manner of separation feels like surgery.

And so, maybe Arthur is jealous. Not of the sex, or the dating, or even the intimacy, but just because he doesn’t have all of Merlin in the way he’s used to: washing his dishes, doing his laundry, returning his texts, eating dinner with him every night like they’re a fucking married couple. Maybe it is not so different from Merlin refusing to finish writing a story that he’s satisfied to draw out infinitely, until one of them dies.

He puts out the cigarette and buys some mint gum from the corner shop, hating himself for how reliant he is on habits. And bad ones, at that. After tossing the pack in the bin, he returns home, thinking that maybe—just maybe—he can tell Arthur a fraction of the truth. That he’s not going anywhere, at least. That he doesn't have to worry about that bit.

—-

Merlin finds him at the kitchen table where he left him, next to a cup of untouched tea, eyes red-rimmed and brow heavily creased. He stares, not sure he’ll ever get used to the rare sight of remorse twisting the shape of Arthur’s mouth into something unfamiliar.

Arthur blinks wetly up at him. “You’re back,” he says. “I thought you were going to leave.”

“Where would I go?” Merlin asks with a sigh, sitting down across from Arthur to study him. The bags beneath his eyes, the lines at the tails of them from smiling. He’s not smiling now, but Merlin can see the ghost of it in those fine little lines, like memories.

Arthur coughs, then shrugs. “Gwaine’s,” he offers, prodding at his crooked incisor with the tip of his tongue.

Merlin shakes his head. “No,” he murmurs, too tired to say more. His scalp prickles hotly as Arthur regards him, staring and chewing the inside of his cheek, breath catching and catching again, like he is preparing to say something but keeps rethinking it before the words actually come out.

“I owe you an apology,” he eventually says. “I’ve been acting really, truly childish and unfair and I absolutely know it’s not okay. I know, Merlin, and I’m so fucking sorry,” he sputters without looking up, pushing his full teacup around in a choppy circle with his index finger. “I just. I can be better. But I need to set some boundaries, if that’s okay.”

Merlin swallows thickly, taken aback by how careful every word is. How unemotional and not at all combative. Arthur does this sometimes—reacts first, then returns several days later with solid, rational proof that he’s actually listened to Merlin, taken his time to think about what he's said. But it was always over petty nonsense—chores and money, mostly. It aches to hear him use the same prudence around a subject that actually matters. “What sort of boundaries?” Merlin asks.

Arthur takes a deep, shuddering breath. “I don’t want Gwaine—or any of these other guys—in our house,” he says, voice very nearly cracking over the words our house, even though this is his house, technically it’s his and his alone.

Merlin wants to tell him so, remind him. But instead he just nods curtly and forces out an aborted “fine.”

“And I don’t want—fuck,” Arthur curses, wiping his eyes with the back of his sweatshirt sleeve, grimacing. “I can’t see the two of you together. Kissing and things.”

Why?! Merlin thinks, the word tight and barbed in his throat, too angled to swallow down and silence. His heart is beating too quickly, his palms suddenly sticky with sweat. He wipes them on his jeans. “Arthur,” he says, trying his hardest to keep his voice even. “I’ll do it, whatever. But I just. In all the years I've known you, you’ve never once been disgusted or weird about me being gay. Even when you were a polo prat in uni and made fun of me constantly, you didn’t for that. Never for that, and I just want to know—”

Arthur makes a face, shakes his head, moves his tea so the amber brown of it sloshes out chaotically onto the table in storm-messy droplets. “Jesus Christ, Merlin, I’m not disgusted you’re gay,” he grinds out. There’s a note of desperation to his voice, something making it thin, reedy, frantic. “I just. I can’t be around you.”

Merlin’s ears begin to ring, a self-protective numbness washing over him, but not before he feels his heart shatter and fall to bits. “Do you want me to move out?” he mumbles, every word thick and slurred and muddled in his mouth, which is hardly working.

“No! I don’t know,” Arthur says, standing up with such force that he nearly upsets his chair. Then he begins to pace. “I don’t want you to go anywhere. I don’t want things to change. Not like this, anyway, I want—I—” he dissolves into sputters, and Merlin stares, heart pounding.

Then he stands, too, feeling helpless as he sits there while Arthur blusters about the room nervously. He can’t move, though, his knees are locked and he just stares, arms crossed defensively over his chest. “What?! What do you want? What on earth, what problem could you possibly have with this if it’s not about me being gay? Gwaine—he’s not a bad guy, I know he’s with someone else, I know he—”

Arthur shakes his head violently, rucks a hand through his already thoroughly mussed hair, and his eyes flash in such a way that Merlin’s voice dies in his throat. “You are so stupid,” he says then, voice small and furious before he steps in, cups Merlin’s face between his palms, and kisses him square on the mouth, like he’s making a point.

It’s over as soon as it begins. Merlin’s lips tingle with the ghost of pressure, and he’s left gasping as Arthur shakes him. “That’s why. That’s fucking why, you fucking idiot.” Then, perhaps because Merlin is not shoving him off, he kisses him again, like he can’t stop. His lips are soft, even if his kisses are rough, and Merlin is not in a position to do anything but open up to him, lace his fingers behind his neck, and hold on as tight as he can.

Arthur backs him up against the kitchen counter, licking into his mouth, like he’s hungry for his shock, his incredulity. He tastes like insomnia and Earl Grey and home, and Merlin cannot get enough, sucks his tongue into his mouth and makes fists in his hair, keeping him in place even as Arthur pulls away, gasping, their brows pressed flushed. “Fuck,” he murmurs, voice in tatters. “I should stop. You have a boyfriend.

Merlin thumbs up the cords of his neck and sucks in his messy breaths, staring in awe-stricken disbelief at the swollen wet of his mouth, eyes hooded. “No, no, I don’t. Not really. Please don’t stop.”

Arthur shakes his head, then hikes Merlin up onto the counter easily, tilting him down and kissing him deep, touching him all over with hungry palms, dragging him to the edge and parting his thighs so that he can rub against him right between them. It’s so—he’s so unafraid. Or, unafraid of the things Merlin might have thought he’d be afraid of, if he ever let himself imagine kissing Arthur outside the constraints of fantasy. The only thing Arthur seems afraid of is that Merlin might leave.

I’m so sorry,” Arthur says into the wreck of their kisses, like his mind hasn’t quite caught up with his body yet. “I just can’t—I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else touching you, Merlin. I love you, I’ve been in love with you for so fucking long and I thought I could survive it, but I was wrong.”

Arthur,” Merlin gasps, biting his lower lip punishingly, sneaking a hand beneath the collar of his tee-shirt to touch skin. “What the fuck. Why didn’t you say anything?!”

Arthur chokes out a breathless laugh against his lips, and Merlin’s heart goes a little crazy in his chest. “Because—god. So many reasons. Because when I first figured it out, my dad was still alive and I knew nothing could ever happen. And then—after—because you’re my best fucking friend and I couldn’t risk losing you if you didn’t feel the same way,” he mumbles, rubbing his face into Merlin’s neck and inhaling from his skin, the whole of his body trembling. Merlin squeezes him between his thighs, tries to keep him still as he clings to him.

“God, you are so insanely stupid. I never—I love you. Couldn’t have lost me if you tried,” Merlin admits, rubbing his tears into Arthur’s dirty hair.

“I don’t know! I’d never been with another man before and I thought that even—even if you did want me, you’d eventually get bored. No reason for a fit, experienced gay bloke like you to stick around with someone like me. Not when there are guys to have fucking threesomes with and—”

“Stop, oh my god, you’re hopeless, you’re the worst, just stop talking and fucking kiss me,Merlin begs, dragging Arthur back to his lips, kissing him rough and sweet and possessive. “I’d be so patient,” he murmurs into the slick mess of their mouths. “I don’t care about any of that stuff, just want you, Arthur.”

That makes him pull away, trembling there in the cage of Merlin’s arms as he touches Merlin all over with searching palms, face somber. “How could you not tell,” he asks, thumbing over Merlin’s lips, studying them so closely that it makes Merlin’s stomach drop, hot and painful. “It’s like—it’s what I live for. It’s all I fucking am, every day.”

And as Merlin lets himself be kissed, he thinks of all the times Arthur’s come home from the barn dirty and smelling of horses, wrapping his arms around Merlin from behind while he cooks before he even heads off to the washroom to have a shower. All the times he has a bit to drink and lays his head on Merlin’s thigh while they watch Netflix, cheek pressed to the narrow plane of his thigh. The way that Arthur looks at him, has always looked at him, a particular softness to his mouth that is Merlin’s, and Merlin’s alone. He’s noticed all of this, he just—he never let himself lean into any of it, never let himself think it could mean anything because he was so sure Arthur could never be his. He thought he had to settle for what he did have of him, to protect himself from the pain of longing for the bits he’d never touch. The tears prickle sudden and hot, and he pulls away, rubbing them into Arthur’s shoulder and catching his breath. “How did you not notice that your gay flatmate never dated seriously and spent every fucking night with you? I have been so busy loving you, Arthur, it’s ruined me for everything else. I only started talking to Gwaine in the first place so I could try to get over you, and it—well. It clearly didn’t work.”

He thinks Arthur is going to say something rude when he mentions Gwaine, but instead he just kisses the corner of Merlin’s mouth, brushes his knuckles up and down the cut of his cheekbone, pulls him close. “M’sorry. I’ve been so stupid and scared. I just—I thought I could carry on this way. Being flatmates and friends and maybe eventually you’d just. Realize we should get married. I don’t know. I fucked it up.”

“You didn’t fuck it up,” Merlin tells him, voice snagging as he dissolves into begging. “M’here, aren’t I? Just—don’t be sorry. C’mere. Kiss me. Take me to bed.”

“Mine or yours?” Arthur asks, lips right up against the shell of Merlin’s ear, hands kneading into the skin of his lower back, possessive and hungry and full of promise. Merlin is already half-hard and desperate at the contact, his mind a blur of static and heat as he clutches back at Arthur’s broad shoulders, still only half-certain he’s not dreaming. “Yours, I guess,” he says. “I wash your sheets more than my own.”

Arthur hauls him off the counter and steers him down the hallway, kissing him the whole way. “Yours, then,” he says as he kicks the ever-unlocked door open and dumps Merlin into his own rumpled bed. “I want your dirty sheets. Want everything. God,” he mumbles then, staring down at Merlin and rubbing his palms over his own flushed face and into his hair. “Can’t believe this is happening. I’m sort of—freaking out, I guess, but in a good way. You’re so. I love you more than I really have words for,” he explains in a reedy voice, letting himself into Merlin’s bed beside him. They face each other, closely enough that Merlin can taste the sweet, nervous huffs of Arthur’s breath, heart racing, tight in his throat.

“I love you, too,” he murmurs, fitting his hand gently around Arthur’s throat and feeling out the rapid-fire thud of his pulse with his thumb. “M’freaking out, too. Never thought this would happen, so—we can take it slow, if you want.”

Arthur kisses him, hands drifting up and down his ribcage, his hip, as low as his thigh. “Told you, I want everything. I just. Just tell me if I do anything wrong,” he whispers, words crushed between their lips, fragile like pressed flowers. Merlin surges into him, sucks his tongue, and scoots across the bed to thread their limbs and fit himself against Arthur perfectly, how he’s meant to be. All the while, Arthur holds him, rubs his hands exploratorily over his clothes, touching him so carefully, like he’s glass. Merlin grins, then nips at the corner of his swollen mouth. “You don’t have to be gentle with me,” he says. “I won’t break.”

Arthur huffs a shaky laugh and makes a fist in Merlin’s tee-shirt, dragging him closer. “I’m worried I’ll hurt you if I touch you how I want to,” he admits, digging a thumb into the ditch of Merlin’s waist bruise-deep, as if to demonstrate his wavering restraint. “I want you so badly.”

“You won’t hurt me,” Merlin promises, so fucking hungry for Arthur’s hands that he’s trembling just thinking about being mauled, touched, cracked open. “Or hell, I don’t care. Hurt me. M’yours.”

“Fuck,” Arthur chokes out, pushing his knee between Merlin’s legs and rolling him onto his back, grinding against him so the weight of his body crushes a strangled gasp from Merlin’s lungs. That’s more like it. Merlin touches Arthur, his back and his shoulders, and eventually shifts his palms down to span over the round, taut heft of his ass, which is perfect and muscular and so fucking sexy that he’s pulsing, his briefs wet where they cling to the crown of his cock. They kiss and kiss, endless and furious until Merlin’s chin is spit-wet and he’s achingly hard, hanging on the friction of Arthur shifting their hips together, pinning him down. Just when he’s about to tell him that he can’t take it any longer, Arthur peels away, eyes hazy and half-lidded, spots of crimson on his cheeks. “Can we, like. Be naked?” he asks.

“Yes, definitely,” Merlin promises, eyes already watering with the mere thought of seeing all of Arthur. Being allowed to see him, instead of forever averting his eyes, cheeks hot, pretending he doesn’t know the curve of his spine and the thickness of his thighs like he knows his own. Arthur sits back and tugs his shirt over his head as Merlin unbuckles his jeans and wiggles out of them, gasping at the relief as he frees his cock and kicks his pants away. He shivers upon shucking his shirt, not because he’s cold but because Arthur is looking at him, eyes hooded and wet as he blinks, swallows. Then he lowers his body back onto Merlin’s, rubbing against him and, fuck, god, it’s maddening. He’s so warm and heavy and feels so fucking good, the smoothness of so much skin a positively dizzying thing as Merlin drowns in it, drinks from Arthur’s lips, drunk on the taste of his sleeplessness, his worry, his need. Arthur eventually detaches from their kissing long enough to mouth his way down Merlin’s neck, his chest, lying on him as he sucks his nipples with a rough, hungry mouth. He must be able to feel Merlin’s erection digging into his thigh, Merlin can certainly feel his, anyway, but he doesn't make a move to touch him there yet, so Merlin holds back, smoothing his palms over everything else, waiting as patiently as he can.

Arthur asks before he actually does it, voice muffled and breath hot where it’s tucked into the hollow of Merlin’s throat. “Can I?” he murmurs, thumbing very low on Merlin’s stomach, rubbing the precum-sticky hair there with tremulous fingers. “I really want to.”

“I want you to,” Merlin says, kissing his temple, licking the sheen of Arthur’s sweat from his lips. “Please.”

Arthur groans as he curls his fingers around him, silencing Merlin’s reflexive gasp with a deep kiss. There are a few moments of clumsy, maddening, experimental feeling before he starts to actually jack him off in earnest, and then the explosion of sensation is so much that Merlin is keening into Arthur’s mouth, arching his back off the mattress, shuddering in overwhelm. It’s insane. He’s been having so much sex lately, with so many fit, well-practiced men, but this—Arthur’s inexperienced palm hot and rough and sweet around his length—is the best thing he’s ever fucking felt. “God,” he chokes out, fucking his fist, stomach roiling as Arthur lets go long enough to wet his palm with spit and take Merlin in hand again. “How the fuck do you feel so fucking good?”

“Do I really? I don’t know what m’doing,” Arthur admits, lips soft and plush as they ghost against Merlin’s skin. “You just. God. You feel so good. I’ve thought of doing this so many times. Touching your cock. Making you come for me,” he says, thumbing through the slick beading at the tip, eliciting a hiss.

“If you keep it up, m’gonna come fast. Love your hands,” Merlin tells him, whimpering when Arthur lets go in favor of squeezing his thigh, his ass.

Then Arthur nudges his wet finger tip against Merlin’s hole, rubbing gently, making his heart go positively mad thudding against his ribs. “Can I touch you here? Do you have lube?”

“You know about lube?!” Merlin jokes, trying to keep his voice, even though he feels like his whole fucking body is fraying, everything about him reduced to thread and breath and want.

Arthur makes an offended face. “Yes, Merlin, I know about lube. I know how this stuff is done. I’ve watched plenty of gay porn.”

Merlin gasps, shocked in spite of himself. “You have?!”

Of course! I’ve been in love with a man for five years, did you really think I hadn’t had a wank about it?” Arthur mumbles, thumbing in maddening circles over Merlin’s rim, making him flutter and twitch against the pressure and heat. “God, look at you stare. Don't look so jealous, m’talking about you, it’s always been you,” he promises, leaning down and kissing Merlin’s pleasure-slack mouth, licking into him wet and messy as he plays with his hole. “Please, fuck, Merlin, let me touch you inside, please,” he begs in desperate, snagging whispers. “Want to feel you.”

“Yeah, fuck, of course. Lube’s—here,” Merlin mutters, pulling away long enough to twist at the waist and rifle through his bedside drawer for the bottle. He hands it off to Arthur, cock flexing heavily against his stomach as he watches him coat his fingers, the knuckles shiny before he’s reaching down again, feeling beneath Merlin’s balls to spread the slickness into his crack. “Arthur,” he groans, eyes fluttering closed, chest heaving as he’s breached. “Fuck.”

“Okay? You’re not sore? Bet you got fucked here just last night, yeah?” Arthur asks, touch faltering as something dark flickers over his face.

Merlin shakes his head, reaching down and encircling Arthur’s wrist to hold his fingers steady enough to sink down on. The stretch is a beautiful thing, stomach-turning and hot and perfect. “No,” he admits in a hiss through clenched teeth. “Always feels like too much trouble to prep for that. Unless it’s you, apparently.”

Arthur crooks his knuckles and pushes deep, studying Merlin’s face as he opens him up slow and hungry, tracking his reactions, expression positively devastated. “Really?” he asks as Merlin hikes his own thigh closer to his chest to split himself, offer his body up. “S’okay if not, I—”

“Yes, god, don’t you feel how tight I am?” Merlin gasps, feeling his hole clench and spasm around Arthur’s fingers, sucking him deeper. “M’all yours, promise, all of me. Just—ah, god, fuck that’s so good,” he chokes out as Arthur adds another finger, lube squelching filthily as he withdraws before pushing back in. There’s something possessive in his touch that drives Merlin mad, makes him feel slutty and desperate, positively lost to this. He takes his cock in hand and strokes it, gaze skittering from Arthur’s flashing eyes, the flex of his forearm, his own erection red and dripping as it swings between his thighs with each motion. “God, you’re so fucking fit.”

“You are. God. Can’t stop staring at you. And you’re not—you’re not that tight, you’re opening right up for me. So fucking needy for it, s’beautiful,” he babbles, getting up on his knees for more leverage and fucking deep and hard, fingers thick and agonizingly good as they slide in and out rhythmically, lube-messy and dirty-hot. Merlin moans into the pillow, knowing he probably did slacken up stupid-easy, his hole loose and fluttering as Arthur fingers him.

“You can fuck me,” Merlin moans, feeling so greedy and wanting so much more, wanting everything.

Arthur kisses his inner thigh, open-mouthed and wet, “I am fucking you,” he murmurs, punching his fingers deep on the downstroke.

“No, I mean—with your cock, you can put it in me, if you want—m’just. So fucking ready for you, need you so bad, Arthur, please,” he slurs, wiping tears into the sheets, stomach in desperate, unclenching knots.

Arthur’s eyes slide shut and his kiss turns into a bite. “God. Are you sure?”

“Yes. Please. Condoms are in the same drawer as the lube was,” he murmurs, crying out as Arthur withdraws his fingers, wipes them on the sheets, and leans over to grab a condom. For a few seconds, Merlin feels terribly, achingly empty, hole pulsing as he arranges himself on his back, knees drawn to his chest and eyes fixed on the lewd, perfect sight of Arthur rolling the latex down his cock and lubing himself up.

Then Arthur bears down on Merlin, eyes dark, lips bitten. “Fair warning, m’not gonna last long. I’m usually quite good at that, but it’s you and I’ve been waiting ages and I just—”

“Shut up, please, Arthur, just fuck me. I don’t care how long it lasts, just want your cock inside me,” he begs.

Arthur curses, bends him in two, kisses him deep and sloppy as he aligns his cock, then he’s sinking in, and Merlin can hardly fucking believe it, he’s never fancied himself the sort of person who actually gets everything he wants. Just the sort of person who writes about it, imagines it, craves it with such paralyzing intensity that he cannot do anything but long in stagnancy. But here he is: being cored in steady pressure while Arthur sucks in his breaths between wet, hungry kisses.

“Fuck. You’re so perfect, so fucking pretty,” Arthur hisses, thumbing over Merlin’s cheekbone as he settles inside him, steadies his breath. “Always knew if I ever got to fuck you, you'd make the prettiest faces while you took my cock.”

Merlin reaches between their bodies and strokes his own dick, squeezing it as he twitches and pulses with each thrust. Arthur is graceless and hungry and that makes it all the better, just to feel him, his desperation, how badly he wants this. “I love you,” he groans, hooking his free hand around the back of Arthur’s neck, fingers tangling in sweat-slick hair, teeth grit at the feeling of being filled up, split in two, filled. “Love you so fucking much. Want you to come inside me.”

But as Arthur holds him down and pistons his hips, Merlin is the one who comes first, tugging himself to a sudden, messy ending between their bodies, head thrown back and gasping. Arthur follows him right away, Merlin’s hole milking his cock as he sobs against his neck, the entirety of his body wracked with wild, stunned spasms. Merlin goes limp and breathless as Arthur pulls out, ties off his condom, and tosses it to the floor, then immediately shifts down to fit his mouth over Merlin’s spent cock, sucking the come from his pubes, inhaling from him. “Fuck,” Merlin whimpers, making a fist in his hair to keep him there, even though he’s sensitive and it almost hurts. “Gentle.”

Arthur softens his lips, makes his tongue extra wide and wet and sloppy to lick all over Merlin as he softens and twitches. “Want to get you off this way next,” he murmurs, voice a ticklish rumble that makes Merlin lurch and kick, wheezing, a grin splitting his lips. “Want to suck you.”

“Well, give me a minute,” Merlin says, tugging at his fistful of hair to direct Arthur back up into his arms so he can kiss his dirty mouth. “I can’t believe you. I tried not to fantasize about fucking you too much, for, like, self-preservative reasons, but when I did, I never thought you’d be like this.”

Arthur looks at him with a defensive sort of suspicion twisting his obscene mouth. “Like what?”

I dunno…giving? I thought you’d have one too many pints, pretend I was a girl, and fuck my mouth with your eyes closed or something, and that would be the only way I ever got to have you.”

Arthur lays his head on Merlin’s chest and pouts, brow lined and heavy. “You think so little of me, Merlin.”

“No .I just—I thought—doesn’t matter. M’not complaining,” Merlin mumbles, burying his nose in Arthur’s oily, sweat-mussed hair and inhaling him. “M’glad you want me is all.”

“Terribly,” Arthur says, voice quiet, fingers drifting idly up and down Merlin’s ribcage and bumping over the divots between his ribs. Then, after a while, he asks, “Was it good, though? Be honest.”

Merlin snorts, endeared by how genuinely uncertain he sounds. Like he knows Merlin has been having loads of sex lately and is worried he doesn’t measure up. As if. “Arthur, it was fucking perfect. You’re perfect, I love you, and literally just kissing you was better than anything I’ve done with Gwaine or whoever else because, like. Things are always better when you're in love.”

Arthur lets out a long, shuddering exhale and turns to hide his face in Merlin’s throat. “M’sorry I was such a prat to him,” he sighs. “And ruined your relationship.”

Merlin shrugs. “S’fine, it wasn’t serious, I told you. Gwaine was the one who was onto you, by the way, not me. He told me he thought you were jealous. Saw through your bullshit.” He smooths his fingers down Arthur’s neck, marveling at how easy this is, how natural. How something he’s wanted for so long was something he already had, this whole time, and now all he has to do is settle into the cushion of it. “S’amazing you got so cross about a casual relationship…what would you have done if I’d really been dating? Punch the guy?”

He feels Arthur frown against his pulse. “No, I would have eventually told you, if I thought there was any chance of, like. Legitimately losing you. I knew there was a chance you felt the same, but I just couldn’t risk telling you if you hated me for it, but if you were, like, getting serious with some bloke, I would have broken down, clearly. I broke down with this,” he explains, squeezing Merlin tightly for a moment, like the mere thought of not having him aches. Then he curls an arm around Merlin’s body and shoves a hand between his back and the mattress, seeking out the marks he left on either side of his spine, and digging his fingers in. “I almost told you this night, when I coined your back. I wanted to, that was my plan, but—ugh. I lost my nerve. Just had to get my hands on you and make a mark instead. I don’t know. M’a coward.”

“You’re not,” Merlin murmurs, holding Arthur tight, sucking the smell of him in. His deodorant and his sweat and his tea and his shitty, cheap two-in-one shampoo because even though Arthur has the money to buy nice toiletries, he’s gross and doesn’t. Merlin loves him so fucking much. “I never said anything, either. Kept it a secret, too, because I thought you’d kick me out or something. But I’ve loved you since uni.”

“I’ve loved you since then, too. I just. I didn’t know what it was, at first? I was such an idiot about it—I’d wank to the thought of you wanting me. Like thinking, oh, my fit gay roommate wants to suck my dick, and getting off on that. Like that's normal.”

“Very clever loophole,” Merlin tells him.

“So clever. But of course it got worse and didn’t go away, and I eventually figured out that I’d just been in love with you the whole fucking time. But, you know, my dad. Made me think being with a man wasn’t an option so I just. Ignored it and dated Gwen and pretended I could fucking survive sleeping in the same room as you every night and getting drunk and wrestling on the footie green with you and sharing a fucking toothbrush like that was all normal.”

“Did we share a toothbrush in uni?!”

“Sometimes,” Arthur says, craning his head up to look at Merlin, a sated, sweet smile on his wide pink mouth and, god, Merlin’s heart races to behold it. Mine, he thinks. All this time. “Or I dunno, I used yours. Maybe it was a secret. I don’t remember, our lives have been so tangled up ever since the beginning.”

“You’re disgusting,” Merlin says, curling his lip even though he actually finds the thought of twenty-one-year-old Arthur Pendragon clandestinely using his toothbrush extremely romantic. “You know, I didn’t even think you liked guys.”

“I did! I just. I never did anything about it, obviously, because of my dad. And it seemed weird and stupid to tell you so late, like after we’d already moved in together. Like I’d tricked you into living with me under false pretenses. Because a gay guy living with his straight uni roommate is one thing, but, like…two gay blokes living together…I don’t know. I just didn’t want to do anything that might make you leave.”

“I would never have left. Even if you were straight and didn’t love me, I would have stayed here doing your fucking laundry until you got married and had kids and moved to London or whatever,” Merlin admits. “I’ve been quite pathetic.”

“Good,” Arthur says smugly, levering himself over onto his side and pulling Merlin along with him. “I like you that way.”

—-

They kiss and kiss, until the light changes outside and Arthur gets heavy-eyed and slow and twitchy. “Are you going to fall asleep with your tongue in my mouth?” Merlin asks, thumbing up the line of his stubble-rough jaw

“No,” Arthur says before yawning. “Can I nap here in your bed, though? I never sleep when you’re at Gwaine’s, even when I don’t think you’re getting murdered. I just stay up all night drinking and crying and feeling awful.”

“Of course you can sleep here,” Merlin tells him, nuzzling into his back after he rolls over. “I’ll sleep with you.”

But even after Arthur has nodded off in his arms, spread out and heavy beneath the quilt he’s always stealing, Merlin cannot shut off his mind. It’s racing, replaying moments that twist his stomach and heat up his cheeks. Plus, there’s the occasional spike of adrenaline in his chest when he remembers that he has to tell Gwaine what’s happened. He’s fairly certain this doesn’t count as cheating since they never said anything about being exclusive, and Gwaine knew about Arthur the whole time, but still. He just wants to be clear and up front about everything, so he eventually rolls over and finds his phone in the pocket of his discarded jeans. not gonna believe this, but you were right. Arthur and I just fucked. he’s asleep in my bed now, he sends.

Gwaine sends back an abrupt !!!!!! Fuckin told you mate. how was that straight cock. Everything u dreamed ;) ?

yes, and more. not straight, clearly Merlin replies. Then he frowns and hammers out what might be a breakup text. I really want to stay mates with you and El. But I also think i’m just not cut out for nonmonagamy. plus, Arthur and I were already basically married, just now I don’t need to find the sex bit elsewhere. i get it if this is the end of the line, but I’m still down for pub and x box or dinner and whatever with you guys if thats alright. He’s anxious as he sends it, even though he knows Gwaine is cool and probably won’t care and is likely not even surprised by this turn of events. Perhaps he and Elyan are cashing out a bet as they speak.

hey, no hard feelings at all, I figured. happy for you. def still down to chill as mates provided Arthur doesn’t want to kill me anymore.

Merlin sighs in relief, grinning in the glow of his mobile screen. No, he feels rotten about it. would probably like to buy you something in apology since he doesn’t know how to do feelings without getting the chequebook involved.

i wON’T say no to your posh boyfriend’s blood money :)))) Gwaine texts, followed by cheers <333

Merlin feels better, but he still can’t nap. His brain keeps rapidly constructing sentences, providing him with a multitude of images and words all rushing behind his shut eyes like a projector screen as he presses his face to Arthur’s warm, sleeping back. After several minutes of this, it hits him: he’s inspired. He’s writing in his head. It’s just been so fucking long since that happened, he hardly realized it.

He sits up and kicks out of bed, finding a pair of dirty pants to tug on so he can get his laptop and brew a cup of tea. He brings them both back to bed, then crawls in beside Arthur to finish his book. And they lived happily ever after, he types out, finally figuring out the ending.

The rest falls into place.