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The Difference of You

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So, here’s the thing: It’s not that Arthur Pendragon can’t get girls to fall for him (because they always do); it’s just that he can’t seem to keep them around. It never bothered him when he was in university because, frankly, he was never looking for a long-term relationship anyway and it was kind of convenient that they took off after a couple of weeks. And then he crossed some kind of magical threshold where it suddenly mattered and it made him feel like a pile of shit. It might have been around the time when he realised that he couldn’t keep someone as loyal and loving as Gwen, who then turned around and found her perfect match in his best mate. So now he cares because he’s no longer a university kid with a pack of single friends and Morgana keeps pointing out that his inability to keep a relationship going for more than a few weeks is about three years past the point of being cute.

“I liked her,” he says sullenly, staring into his pint as if it holds the solution to all his problems.

Lance’s hand is heavy on his shoulder. “We know, mate. Drink up.”

Arthur does as he’s told, pushing down two large gulps of beer, hoping it’ll wash away the mortification of Vivian’s hand patting his cheek telling him he’s “a good lad, but it’s just not enough.”

“It’ll be fine, Arthur,” Gwen says like she always does (she even did when she did the dumping) and rubs slow circles on his back. “The next one will be better.”

He hears Morgana snort and turns to glare at her, feeling his dull hurt flare into anger when his sister just smirks at him.

“You knew her for two weeks; it’s hardly a huge loss.”

“It’s not about that,” he snaps, curling his fingers around the glass. Embarrassment is catching up with him now, burning in his cheeks and down his neck. He’d been about to say that it’s not about Vivian, really, it’s about all of them – it’s about him and his inability to keep anyone around, because apparently he’s completely repulsive beyond the initial attraction. But he can’t say that: it’s mortifying and personal and – “Never mind.”

Morgana’s face softens a little and she reaches out to hover her hand awkwardly over his arm for a moment before she pats it once and retreats. He coughs and she pulls her face back into a frown as they both ignore Gwen and her rolling eyes.

“Gwen’s right,” Lance says, looking pointedly over at Morgana. “The next one will be different. To the next one.” He raises his glass, nodding at Arthur with a wry smile.

“Cheers,” Arthur says, a brief glimmer of hope waiting at the bottom of his pint.

***

He meets the next one at the corner shop. She’s smiling at him over the mangos and he likes how her lip curls a little at the corner as if she has a secret he’ll figure out if he just asks the right question. Her kisses taste like peppermint and the soft touch of her hand in his hair is comforting. Mithian is clever and bold, she sings sweetly to herself when she reads and when she tells him goodbye she looks genuinely mournful about it.

Maybe it’s the memory of her wistful expression that makes him knock on Gwen and Lance’s door with his pride left behind in a muddy puddle somewhere down the street. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that Mithian was perfect and he still felt removed from her, like he was staring in on himself trying to have a relationship as if it was an artsy film he couldn’t figure out.

“Oh, Arthur,” Gwen says with a sad smile when she sees his face and yes, his pride is definitely being run over by a car somewhere.

He doesn’t know why he’s here. Well, he came here because being alone seemed like it’d be worse, but then there’s Gwen’s eyes being all sad and looking right at him all the time. And that wrinkle between Lance’s eyebrows that keeps reappearing ever since Arthur admitted after too many beers one night that Gwen picking Lance messed him up a little. He hadn’t planned to ever tell any of them that, but he’s a chatty drunk and now he can feel the pity roll off them sometimes in a way that he hates.

But then they’re also infinitely understanding as well – probably more than they should be. He can’t quite find it in him to hate them for creating the life he was supposed to have with Lance starring as the lead instead of him – if only because he realises begrudgingly that the life of Arthur and Gwen would never have been as happy as the one Gwen has now.

He loves them (he really does). And he’s the one who came here in the first place to be plied with homemade biscuits and mindless action films, but he feels itchy all over from the way Gwen keeps looking at him with intent. There’s something in the way she keeps eyeing him, in the way her jaw clenches a little and then she says “Lance, will you leave us alone for a bit?” and Arthur wants to run so bloody far so fast that he’d make the Olympic marathon team.

Sending Lance a pleading look, he rubs his palms on his jeans, back and forth, as if it’d help anything. Lance leaves anyway (the wanker) and Gwen immediately shifts on the sofa, facing him with one leg tucked under the other. He wants to tell her to just shut up before she’s even started talking, but she looks so earnest and he’s never known how to hurt Gwen.

“I haven’t wanted to say anything, because I know… I know it’s complicated, with us and with me and Lance and everything.” She picks at her tights, not looking at him. “And I don’t know anything about the other girls, but for me it was never... it’s not about you being a bad person if that’s what you think. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

He’s unable to hold back a snort and she looks up at him, narrowing her eyes.

“No, stop that,” she says, gripping his wrist tightly. “It’s not. I liked you, I really did, and you’re… well, you can be a bit of an arse when you want to be, but you’re smart and generous and charming.”

He twists out of her grip, his chest tightening with the discomfort of everything. It feels a bit like he’s being placated like a child. Your drawings are lovely, Arthur, that horse is so life like. Fuck, he doesn’t need to hear he’s amazing. It’s not that he doesn’t know he’s a catch, because he knows that, on some level, he just doesn’t understand why it never works.

“Will you just… oh, come on,” she says her voice sharp now. “Christ, will you stop being such a git and just listen?”

Squaring his jaw, he turns and looks at her, trying not to look as tense as he feels, but he can feel the way his muscles clench.

Gwen gives him a small smile and reaches towards his arm again, but thinks better of it and twists her hands together in her lap. “It’s just that your heart was never in it, Arthur. It was like you weren’t really there with me. It seemed like you wanted to be, you just weren’t. There was something missing, it’s just… there was something that wasn’t there, but that’s not your fault or mine.”

And fuck, there it is: the bloody crux of it all. It’s missing, something’s missing, something that no one can describe and least of all him. He knows it’s true, because it’s been nagging him for so long – that feeling that something just isn’t right. Even though the life he envisioned with Gwen looked perfect in every way, it never felt like it was his life.

He sinks back into the sofa cushions, not wanting to answer and tell her she’s right, or tell her that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, why it’s not working, why all of it feels wrong all the time.

“I just want to watch Top Gear,” he says instead, knowing that he sounds petulant, but he can’t bring himself to care.

Gwen looks at him for a moment and it seems she might have found what she’s looking for because she nods and passes him the remote before she heads into the kitchen. He looks after her for a brief moment and when the door falls open he sees Lance slip his arm easily around Gwen’s waist, pulling her to him with a brilliant smile and that’s it: that’s the something that he never knows how to locate. He wonders if, maybe, it just wasn’t made for him. And then he wonders when he started caring so damn much about all of this.

***

Shielding his iPad from the sharp glare of the sun, Arthur tries to focus on the report he’s already read three times through for the meeting with Mercia, the company he’s trying to enlist as new sponsors. He’s never been particularly good at blocking out all the distractions on the bus, though, and when it comes to a stop he looks up and stares out the window, his gaze sweeping over the small crowd waiting for their line. He looks briefly at a small girl with a huge dog tugging her along and he finds himself smiling.

The bus starts moving again and he looks out one last time at the girl when he sees a bloke that starts into a full on run, chasing the bus out into traffic. Arthur frowns, angling his head further to see the guy flailing almost ridiculously as he sprints. Normally, he’d just let the idiots who can’t catch the bus on time run themselves tired until they give up, but the guy looks like he could actually get himself killed by an oncoming car.

“Hey, excuse me!” he calls out to the driver. “There’s someone who wants on.”

When the bloke steps into the bus, he’s wheezing slightly and his entire face is flushed. Arthur has to wonder why he stood completely still at the stop for ages and then only started running when the bus left. It seems like a bloody stupid thing to do. He fights the urge to roll his eyes at no one in particular and looks back down at his report.

“Thanks,” someone says and he looks up, finding Flailing Bloke sagging back into the open seat next to him.

Arthur raises his eyebrow at him, not sure what he’s being thanked for.

“You told him to stop didn’t you?”

“Well, yeah, you looked like you were ready to get killed out there,” Arthur says, a little incredulously. “You know there’s another one in ten minutes, right?”

Flailing Bloke shrugs. “Important meeting to catch.”

“Important enough to get yourself run down and killed?”

“Well, I didn’t get killed now, did I?” the guy says, smiling crookedly at him. “You saved me.”

Arthur snorts, his forgotten iPad nearly slipping out of his grip before he can tighten his fingers around it.

“Hardly. And how do you know, anyway; were you watching me while you did your suicidal run into the middle of traffic?”

Interestingly, the tip of the guy’s strangely large ears look flushed, but then again all of him seems a little flushed from the run.

“Are you always this conceited? Watching you while I was sprinting to catch the bus? Honestly,” the bloke says and Arthur opens his mouth to snap at him when he sees that Flailing Bloke is smiling blindingly and is very obviously teasing.

Arthur settles for giving the guy a very, very menacing glare and hopes that it gets his point across, but then Flailing Bloke just gives a silent laugh, his shoulders shaking with it and Arthur gives up because obviously this guy is impossible.

“So, where you going then?”

The guy’s facing him – studying him almost, but Arthur doesn’t really feel uncomfortable about it, which is strange because one of the downsides to public transport is that strangers are always sitting way too close, pushing at his personal boundaries. And he especially hates it when they want to talk, so he usually ignores them. He plans to ignore this guy too, but then Flailing Bloke’s eyes kind of crinkle at the corner and Arthur realises the guy is still smiling.

“Work,” Arthur says, nodding down at his iPad.

There’s a soft hum in reply. “Seems important.”

“It is. Important meeting, actually.” He smirks. “Which is why I caught my bus on time.”

“You are hilarious, clearly.”

“It’s one of my many delightful qualities, yes,” Arthur says, no longer able to look at the ridiculously bright smile and casts his eyes back to his report, reading the words without registering them.

“Mm, alongside being a haughty prat and a snob.”

“Charming,” Arthur says dryly without looking up. “Here I save your important meeting and probably your life and you mislabel me as a snob.” He shakes his head in exaggerated disappointment. In all actuality, he’s way less bothered by the comment than he probably should be.

Flailing Bloke snorts. “Well, you do have an iPad.”

“If that’s your criterion for being one it would make half the world a snob, you know.”

“You use the word ‘criterion’,” Flailing Bloke points out. “Exhibit B.”

Arthur rolls his eyes and looks up at the guy, rolling his eyes again for good measure in case he missed it the first time.

“How does using the word ‘criterion’ make me a snob?”

“You’re right. It makes you pretentious.”

“You’re an idiot,” Arthur says with feeling, but god damn it, he’s smiling and why the fuck is he smiling?

Flailing Bloke laughs, the sound bright and sharp as his face scrunches up a little. Arthur is about to argue his point further when he suddenly notices that his stop is up next and he jumps a little in his seat, grabbing his bag and stuffing the iPad carelessly into it.

“My stop,” he says in explanation and pushes past the guy, nearly getting entangled in his long legs.

“Off to your swanky office?” The teasing tone is back in the bloke’s voice and he smirks up at Arthur. “With a top floor panorama?”

“Hardly,” Arthur says, hoisting his bag up on his shoulder as he steadies himself against the seat. “Excalibur Law Centre doesn’t have a lot of swanky office space and our view consists of three dumpsters, a brick wall and Timothy the resident alley cat.”

The amused look on Flailing Bloke’s face vanishes completely and he looks taken aback, his entire expression suddenly serious and his eyes alert.

“Excalibur Law Centre?” he asks in disbelief. “The non-profit legal place?”

Arthur grins so widely his cheeks hurt a little.

“That’s the one.” He’s always taken a perverse pleasure in defying people’s expectations and the expressions people get when he tells them he runs Excalibur never fails to brighten his day.

The guy looks a little sheepish and it serves him damn right for assuming Arthur is a snob just for having the money to buy himself a piece of technology that makes his job easier.

“Don’t get yourself killed,” Arthur says, raising his hand quickly before stepping off the bus.

***

“What’s wrong with you?” Morgana asks, swatting his arm as they exit the shop where they’d been looking for Gwen’s birthday present. “That girl was adorable.”

She had been adorable. Elena (her nametag said) had slightly frizzy blonde hair, a wide, toothy smile and bright eyes. And she’d been interested too; it isn’t that he hadn’t noticed the way her hand lingered a little too long on his arm and the way she blushed faintly when he laughed at her joke. He just doesn’t care, just like he’d never truly cared about Vivian or even Mithian, really.

Arthur shrugs a little, avoiding Morgana’s frowny face of disapproval. “Yeah, I guess.”

“You guess?” Morgana asks incredulously. “Even I’d do her.”

“You should. She was eyeing you too.”

“Sod off,” Morgana says, her hair managing to hit him in the face as she swiftly looks away. “You’re just deflecting. And don’t you dare think it’s working.”

“It’s just... I wasn’t interested.” He gives a one-shouldered shrug. “Where did you park?”

Morgana tugs on his sleeve when they’ve exited through the large revolving door, leading them down the street and around the corner where her silver Mercedes is parked haphazardly with one wheel very much outside the marked line. Arthur doesn’t say anything because he’s been through that one before and he’d rather not ruin the entire day.

“You haven’t given up, have you?” she asks as she’s in the driver’s seat, looking over at him.

He stares out the window as she swings out from the parking space, trying not to sigh audibly.

“You know I don’t give up. What would father dearest think?”

“It kind of seems like you have. You haven’t really looked at anyone since Mithian. It’s just unlike you.”

The radio comes on. It’s a terrible song that he knows he’s heard on the bus before and he’d really rather like to murder the person who croons on about love like it’s something they just hand out at the grocer’s.

“I haven’t really had the time, have I?” He knows it’s a half-baked excuse the moment he says it, but it’s too late to take it back. “Trying to get Mercia on the team for Excalibur has been a mess, you know that. It’s taken up all my time.”

“God, that’s bollocks, Arthur.”

“Why the fuck does it even matter?” he exclaims, throwing his arm out and turning to look at her again. “I can’t force anything to happen anyway. And why are you pushing for me to throw myself at people? You know, I kind of miss the days when you’d tell me to lay off girls.”

She puffs her cheeks out, exhaling slowly for a moment.

“That’s because you used to be an arsehole to them,” she says pointedly, giving him a look out of the corner of her eyes. “I’m just looking after you, Arthur. Because I know Uther sure as hell isn’t going to care, so I’m doing it.”

He looks at her, all his complaints dying on his lips. Maybe she said that because she knows it’d make all his retorts fall flat or maybe she’s being genuine (a mix of both seems likely), but whatever the reason, he can’t very well tell her to fuck off after that. He snaps his mouth shut and her lips curl upwards a little in satisfaction.

Letting his head fall back against the headrest, he resigns himself to reliving this conversation another fifty-eight times in the near future. “Let’s just eat. I’m famished; I haven’t had anything since lunch.”

***

For some reason it’s a complete surprise when Flailing Bloke slips easily into the seat next to him on the bus. He’d (mostly) forgotten about their last bus ride, but as he looks at Flailing Bloke’s pleased grin he realises it’s been exactly a week since the last encounter and maybe the guy takes this bus every week.

“Fancy seeing you again, Mr. Swanky Technology,” the guy says, pushing himself up until he can cross his legs in the seat.

“Jesus, don’t call me that.”

“Then what can I call you?”

Well, fuck.

He doesn’t usually go around giving his name out to strangers on the bus, and he definitely doesn’t get tricked into doing it by some lanky, flaily guy with floppy hair.

“La-Arthur,” he says, changing his mind in the middle of trying to give a fake name.

The guy is clearly trying to hold back a laugh. “La-Arthur.”

Arthur.”

“And here I thought your parents had been particularly original,” Flailing Bloke says, pulling a tattered backpack up into his lap and hugging it to his chest. “I’m Merlin.”

Arthur raises an eyebrow at him. “I gave you my real name, you know, so maybe drop the fake one?”

The guy laughs so hard that even his ears move.

“Are you always this grumpy?” he asks lightly, ignoring the looks his fit of laughter has drawn. “And my name really is Merlin, but believe me, it’s probably the best I could’ve ended up with. I think my mam was considering Engelbert at one point.”

“Like Humperdinck?” Arthur says, not able to hide the smile.

“Exactly like Humperdinck. She’s disturbingly obsessed with him.”

Arthur shakes his head a little. “I guess it could’ve been even worse.”

“How does it get worse than Engelbert?” Flailing Bl- Merlin asks incredulously, tugging at the zipper on his backpack.

“I don’t know, she could have been a Hitchhiker’s Guide fan. Would be kind of rough going through life being called Slartibartfast.”

Merlin snorts, bringing his hand up to push against his lips. “I’d pay you to name your kid that. All the money I own.”

“Deal,” Arthur says, if only because at this point the chances are about 90 to 10 that he’ll never actually have a kid at all.

Arthur nearly misses his stop again.

***

Arthur rolls his shoulders, angling his head from side to side to ease the tension in his muscles. At this point he’s not sure if it actually works or if it’s basically a lost cause already, but he gives a few more rolls anyway, stretching his hands out in front of him and then above his head. Outside, Timothy is curling up on the lid of the middle dumpster (which seems to have been his favourite from the day he arrived).

“Well,” someone says and Arthur turns around to find Leon leaned against the doorway, his tie slightly undone and hanging askew, “you look like shit.”

“Yeah, well. Figured I’d step aside and let everyone else have a chance for once.”

Leon gives a wry smile and pushes away from the doorway, tossing himself into the chair in front of Arthur’s desk. “I’m glad you’re still alright enough to joke. Although you’d probably do that on your death bed.”

Arthur just shrugs and leans back in his chair, still feeling the muscles in his upper back seize uncomfortably.

“You know what I’m going to say, right?” Leon asks his lip curling into a lop-sided smile as he bends over and picks up the magic eight ball that had been a gag gift from Lance (“It’ll make better decisions than you.”)

“I’m working too hard, yeah, I’ll delegate more. I’ll take breaks and get a hobby. Was it hang gliding you suggested last time?”

Leon nods. “Or needlepoint.”

“Don’t worry,” Arthur says, trying to find a comfortable position and hoping that Leon won’t notice he’s fidgeting. “I’ll definitely find something suitable to do somewhere between needlepoint and hang gliding.”

“See that you do.”

They smirk at each other for a moment before Leon’s face turns serious as he sits up straighter and in those miniscule changes he’s suddenly every inch the influential barrister of Knightly & Avalon.

“Are you any closer to the deal with Mercia?” he asks, weighing the magic eight ball in his hand.

Arthur groans, rubbing a hand across his cheek. “They want another report. I’ve written three for them before; I don’t know what they think a fourth one will tell them. But I have to pull up a lot of old case records and budgets, and hope that I find what they’re looking for.”

“It’ll be worth it if they end up sponsoring, though. Maybe you could even move to a bigger office space.”

“I like my office,” Arthur says, shrugging.

Leon snorts. “It’s a box.”

“I know. But it doesn’t help any one of our clients if my office is bigger.” Arthur looks away from Leon and stares at the computer screen, pretending to read the budget he’d pulled up for the report. It probably doesn’t fool Leon at all, but he must have realised Arthur’s discomfort because he lets the comment slide.

“How’s Alice’s case coming along?” he asks instead and Arthur looks up again, pulling open a drawer to find the file.

It’s buried in the mess that is Arthur’s ‘things I’m working on right now’-drawer and he smiles sheepishly at Leon as he fumbles for it.

“We’re ready to go for the hearing,” he says, flipping the file open on the desk between them. “All the evidence is on our side. You should be able to do it in your sleep.”

“Brilliant,” Leon says, reaching for the file and flips through the documents idly. “I have that property dispute case that’s killing me right now. For a while I was worried I might have to pass Alice onto someone else, but this is pretty straight forward.”

“I wouldn’t know who else to send it to,” Arthur admits, pursing his lips for a moment. “Everyone’s already taking on as much as they can.”

“You need more people. Maybe Morgana can do another one of her functions and drum up some interest.”

Arthur groans at the mention of Morgana, but Leon sends him a stern look to shut him up.

“You’ll suffer a tiny box of an office for your clients but not an evening with Morgana?” He says, eyebrows raised.

Flopping back in his seat, letting his head fall back against the backrest, Arthur sighs. “Fine. I’ll talk to her. But the clients better appreciate my martyr tendencies.”

“You know they do,” Leon says, way too serious for Arthur’s liking, really.

As Leon flips through the folder again, his eyebrows knitted together in concentration, Arthur feels his shoulders loosen a little. He’s really bloody lucky to have someone as competent as Leon willing to come in and do work for free, and maybe if he’s even more lucky, Mercia will sponsor and he’ll be able to hire himself a recruiter. It would be nice to have one thing in his life kind of click into place.

He leans forwards, supporting his head on his arm propped up against the desk. “Should I let Morgana set me up for Gwen’s birthday party?” There’s nothing he wants less, but maybe Morgana’s right: maybe he has given up and Arthur Pendragon doesn’t give up.

“Magic eight ball says –” Leon draws out the word and gives the ball a quick shake, his lips curling, “All signs point to yes.”

“Bugger.”

***

“You’re smiling.”

Arthur had been staring out the window, maybe wondering just a little if Merlin would show up and then spent some time panicking over what to do because a middle-aged woman with two gigantic shopping bags had taken Merlin’s... err, the available seat.

At the sound of Merlin’s voice he turns, finding him standing in the aisle, holding himself upright by clinging to the bar above his head, his other hand clutching the strap of the backpack slung across his shoulder.

“It’s been known to happen,” Arthur answers lightly, wondering why the fuck there’s a definite feeling of relief to see Merlin standing there with his hair looking windswept and his cheeks slightly flushed. “And hello to you too.”

Merlin nods, gripping the bar tighter and sways a little as the bus weaves through traffic.

“What’s got you so happy, then? Not that I’m not pleased for you, but I am a little suspicious.”

“What, you think I’m plotting to kill you or something?”

“That wasn’t entirely what I had in mind, but now I’m kind of worried,” Merlin says, his eyes crinkling with mirth.

Arthur rolls his eyes and raises his hands up to wiggle his fingers. Narrowing his eyes, Merlin looks at Arthur doing jazz-hands as if it’s a particularly challenging game of Sudoku.

“No iPad,” Arthur hints.

“So, you finally realised it made you look like an Apple fanboy and you got rid of it in favour of pen and paper?”

When Arthur glares at him over the head of the woman between them who’s pretending not to listen in on their conversation, Merlin’s entire face lights up as it splits into a wide, open-mouthed laugh and it might be the most ridiculous thing Arthur has ever seen. And then he’s smiling too even if he’d been in the middle of trying to look affronted.

“No, Merlin,” he says slowly, fighting his grin. “No more reports to read through in the early morning right now. I finally got this company to sponsor.”

If Arthur had expected a mocking reply, he’d be wrong. Merlin looks genuinely pleased and sounds entirely sincere in his congratulations.

“So my important meeting was conquered,” Arthur says lightly, trying not to pat himself on the back too hard, but it’s a little difficult. “What about yours?”

“Hm?”

“The important meeting you nearly killed yourself over.”

“I did not nearly kill myself. Stop saying that,” Merlin mutters, looking away. “Uh, it went fine.”

“Yeah?” Arthur says, frowning a little. He might have stepped in it now, if the tense set of Merlin’s jaw is anything to go by. “What do you do, by the way? I never asked.”

“Oh, uhm, I work at a chemist’s.” Merlin shrugs. “It’s fine. It’s not my dream job by any stretch of it, but it gives me lots of time to read.”

“Hey, sounds like a good job to me.”

“Yeah, my boss, Gaius, he’s really great, so that’s basically why I’ve stayed.”

Arthur studies him a little, wondering why Merlin feels like he has to explain why he’s working at a chemist’s. He wants to tell him he doesn’t have to make excuses for making a living, but Merlin looks a little uncomfortable so it seems like a bad idea. Arthur isn’t Uther’s son for nothing: he knows when to press things and when to leave it. He’s always been good at interrogations, if only because Uther made sure he was. Arthur has never liked them much, though.

“I bet you’re reading The Fountainhead,” Arthur says, making a face.

Merlin’s tense expression changes immediately as he rolls his eyes, the corner of his mouth quirking a little. “I’m not reading Ayn Rand. You judge people unfairly.”

“Says the guy who thought I was a snob because I have a tablet.”

“That was a totally fair deduction on my part.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Arthur points out, smirking.

A couple getting off the bus slip past Merlin and he arches his back a little to let them pass. “You didn’t actually ask a question.”

“Well, it was implied.”

There’s a short silence before Merlin ducks his head and mutters, “Kafka.” And Arthur throws his head back and laughs so loudly that the woman next to him jumps and loses her grip on one of the shopping bags.

“Shut up,” Merlin says, rolling his eyes. “Also, this is your stop, mate.”

“Shit!”

***

The next time they ride the bus together the weather is a dreary, monotone grey and it’s been raining since Arthur set foot outside the door. When Merlin slips into the seat next to him his hair is sticking to his forehead and he rubs the rain from his cheeks with the sleeve of his jacket. He doesn’t comment on the coat Arthur left in his seat to make it seem occupied, but just moves it out of the way and leans his head back against the headrest with his eyes closed.

“What are you wearing?” Arthur asks by way of greeting.

“A jacket,” Merlin says, cracking one eye open to look at Arthur. “It’s kind of raining, at least for us common folk. Maybe the skies just kind of clear a way for your prattishness, but the rest of us aren’t that lucky.”

“It has elbow patches. You look like a fifty year old poetry teacher.”

“Thanks, I was aiming for that, actually. It makes me look sophisticated.”

They both manage to stay serious for a few moments, but then Merlin breaks first, giving a snort of laughter and Arthur can’t quite keep it in either. It’s stupid, really, how weirdly familiar it feels to talk about these things –things that don’t actually matter. It’s familiar with Merlin, even if he doesn’t even know him. With anyone else it feels like it always has to mean something. It always seems to be work or relationships or things that should be important. But it’s weird how nothing seems as important as Merlin’s stupid elbow patches.

“My sister set me up on this date,” he says without knowing why. “I pulled out my iPhone to check my messages and then I went ‘oh my god, you’re not going to call me a snobbish prick, are you’?”

Merlin snorts as he flops around in the seat a little, pulling one leg up to tuck it under the other. “And then she did?”

“No, she looked mortified and spent five minutes reassuring me that it was totally fine to own expensive things if that’s what I wanted.”

“Sounds like she’s perfect for you,” Merlin says dryly, raising an eyebrow in Arthur’s direction.

Arthur shrugs. She should be, probably. He hadn’t expected Morgana to bring Elena to Gwen’s birthday party (on a roof top. Morgana may be a thoroughly ungenerous person on the whole, but this does not extend to Gwen. There’s not a single other person in Morgana’s life that she’d rent a roof top for. Arthur’s pretty sure she wouldn’t even rent a cupboard for him.)

But Morgana had brought Elena from the store. Elena was a bit like a puppy: cute and bubbly, dancing happily to the music. She talked easily with Lance and Gwen, gesticulating excitedly, but Arthur hadn’t quite known what to say to her.

“Yeah, she might be,” he says noncommittally.

“Man, when’s the wedding? That level of enthusiasm can only mean one thing.” Merlin nudges his arm jokingly with his elbow (patch included).

Arthur laughs half-heartedly. He thinks it’d probably be kind of weird to tell Merlin that he’d been oddly put out about not being called a snobbish prick. Also, he hadn’t quite admitted it to himself yet.

“Do you like her?” Merlin asks and just like that the perpetually teasing look he always seems to give Arthur is replaced with utmost sincerity.

“She’s nice,” Arthur says, thinking about how she’d snuck him the last brownie with a mischievous grin. “Yeah, she’s sweet.”

When there’s no answer, Arthur looks over to find Merlin studying him with his lips pursed and Arthur feels oddly exposed.

“I don’t mean if she’s a likable person. I mean do you like her?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur mutters, but it’s not true. He knows he doesn’t, not really.

His eyes widen slightly as Merlin mutters to himself and turns to face Arthur, scooting a little closer in the process.

“Okay, then. Do you want to talk to her all the time? Do you think about her when you’re not together?”

Rubbing his palms against his trousers, Arthur tries to breathe through the thoughts. How did he get into this conversation again?

“What, are we in When Harry Met Sally or something?” he snaps, not looking at Merlin.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Merlin says, drawing out the last syllable. “It’s not like I can tell you that everyone feels the same but there are some pretty universal signs. Actually wanting to be around the person is usually one of them.”

“I don’t know,” Arthur says again, but damn, that’s a lie. He really couldn’t care less if he ever saw Elena again.

“Well, then, how would you feel if she went out with someone else?”

And god, does Merlin always prod this much? He’s a pest, Arthur thinks before he says, “I wouldn’t really care.” When Merlin looks at him with an expression that’s almost exasperated, he imagines getting on an earlier bus next week just to spite Merlin and his stomach seems to drop down with a sickening woosh.

He must look about the same as he feels because Merlin reaches out a hand, resting it calmly on his arm.

“Hey,” he says quietly, “I didn’t mean to pry.”

Arthur clears his throat. “It’s fine. Just... whatever.”

Humming in reply, Merlin settles back into his seat.

***

“What do you mean you lost?” Arthur knows he’s yelling, because his voice seems to fall like the lash of a whip and Timothy leaps from his spot on the dumpster outside; he just doesn’t care. “What the fuck do you mean you lost?”

Leon’s fingers are curled tightly, whitening around the knuckles in a rare display of frustration.

“It was impossible to lose,” Leon says, throwing his brief case down into the empty chair in front of him.

“Yeah, it was. So what, exactly, are you on about?”

“It was impossible to lose,” Leon repeats, his cheeks starting to flush. “But I did. All the evidence is on our side and we still lost.”

Arthur moves out from behind his desk, throwing the file he’d had in his hand onto the desk with no care for where it lands.

“What exactly are you saying?”

He has to push back the irrational urge to grab Leon by the front of his jacket and throw him into the wall. Rationally, he knows Leon isn’t the one he’s angry with, but his anger is so blinding that it’s hard to focus on anything.

“I’m saying that judge Cenred hardly came to this decision on his own.”

They stare at each other for a moment before Arthur leans back against his desk, tugging at his hair until his scalp prickles. “Bugger fuck.”

“Yeah,” Leon agrees, slumping down into the seat, wincing slightly as he pushes his suitcase out of it.

“No proof?”

“Not a single one.”

“How did Alice take it?”

Leon’s pained look is answer enough and Arthur wants to lie down and sleep until this whole thing goes away.

“What do we do then?” he asks, realising that he’s almost begging Leon to have an answer because he sure as hell doesn’t.

Tipping his head back, Leon shakes it slightly from side to side. “There’s nothing to do unless we can find proof.”

Arthur texts Lance that he really needs a pint and spends the bus ride to the pub wishing the seat next to him wasn’t empty. Then he tries to drown that realisation in beer.

***

Arthur doesn’t like losing; it’s defeat and he hates knowing that someone else bested him. It makes him feel small and it bugs him because out of all of his vices pride has always been what’s gotten him in trouble the most. But there’s still nothing worse than losing when someone else suffers for it. He hasn’t been able to get Alice out of his mind, even after she patted his cheek and told him that he’d done what he could and she’d be fine.

She shouldn’t have to be fine. She’d been wrongfully evicted from her own flat and every single piece of evidence was in their favour. And yet they’d still lost.

His leg bounces restlessly and he’s barely even aware that he’s doing it until a hand rests on it. He stops the movement automatically and looks up to see Merlin studying him with a frown that looks foreign on his face.

“Hey,” Arthur says, completely unable to think of anything else.

“You look like someone dragged you through a hedge backwards.”

“Thanks,” Arthur says dryly. “You sure know how to make a guy feel better.”

Merlin shakes his head. “No, we’re not doing that today. Today, you get to tell me what’s wrong and then I’ll fix it.”

He looks so pleased with himself that Arthur almost wants to believe he can, but then reality slots back into place and he laughs, cringing a little at how bitter it sounds.

“Well, at least you believe in your own abilities,” he says, his words coming out a lot softer.

Merlin’s eyes narrow, giving Arthur a pointed stare until Arthur sighs and settles back into the seat, crossing his arms over his chest. He’s about to speak when Merlin’s hand slips from his leg and he realises it’s been there all along like a calming pressure, leaving him to fight the urge to bounce it restlessly again.

“We lost a case,” he mutters.

It’s quiet for a moment as if Merlin’s waiting for the rest of it. “I would’ve thought that wasn’t a new experience for people who work in legal.”

“It’s not –” Arthur stops and takes a deep breath, the mind-numbing rage threatening to flare up again. “If I lose because the evidence was against us, then that’s just the way it is. But this case... I’ve been researching it for months. Everything was in our favour and we still lost. I had my best barrister on it and we still... fuck, we still lost, Merlin, and it was impossible to lose.”

“Hey,” Merlin says and nudges Arthur lightly with his shoulder. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not, though. It’s really not. Do you understand what I’m saying?” He doesn’t know how to tell Merlin how serious it is without saying too much. “It wasn’t how it was supposed to be. It wasn’t right. And Alice is the one who’s got nowhere to go.”

When Merlin doesn’t answer, Arthur just shrugs, his gaze flickering to the window.

“Alice will be fine.”

Merlin has turned to face him, their knees knocking together as the bus gives a lurch, and Arthur momentarily forgets the question that had been at the tip of his tongue before it suddenly rushes back to him.

“How would you know?”

“Well.” Merlin looks a little sheepish, his eyes glancing downwards at his hands briefly. “I’ve kind of not mentioned that I’ve heard Alice talk about you. She knows my boss, you see, they’re old friends. She’s been welcome to stay with him ever since things went to hell and to be honest I think they’re happier living together. You should see them in the morning swapping newspaper sections like a married couple.”

Arthur’s eyes widen during Merlin’s speech and reaches for him, curling his fingers around Merlin’s wrist. “Oh fuck. I shouldn’t have talked to you about this, I –”

“Oh, shut up, I’m not going to tell anyone,” Merlin hisses, looking a bit indignant as if Arthur should know better, which is insane considering they shouldn’t really know each other that well at all.

He feels Merlin’s pulse under his finger and lets go immediately, his head whipping up to see that he just missed his stop. Jumping up, he gathers his things hastily as he swears so loudly that the woman in front of them turns to glare. He offers a half-hearted apology.

“She’s really fine?” he asks Merlin as he slips his jacket on. “You’re not just saying that?”

Merlin’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “She’s not going to live on the streets, I promise.”

Arthur smiles quickly before pushing forwards to beg the driver to let him off even though they’re between stops.

***

It can’t be normal to feel someone’s phantom pulse against your fingers three days after you’ve let go of their wrist. This is why Arthur is voluntarily subjecting himself to Morgana planning a charity function for Excalibur, if only because he can lose himself in her prattling on about venues and invitations and ice sculptures. (Or whatever.)

He watches her gesticulate, pausing periodically to jot some notes down in her notebook with a bright purple pen, and he tries to keep up with the conversation, focusing on the chairs and the colour schemes and the auctions.

It’s around the topic of which band to book that he loses the grip on his attention and it slips off, leaving him to stare vacantly at Morgana’s pen while the rhythm of Merlin’s pulse seems to thrum through his skin. This can’t be fucking normal. He wants to bang his forehead against the table repeatedly to see if it’ll finally let him think about something other than Merlin’s voice earnestly reassuring him that it’s fine, about their knees knocking together and Merlin’s hand on his leg.

“Why should I do this for you if you’re not paying attention?” Morgana snaps suddenly and he jolts at the sound of her sharp voice, shaking his head to clear it.

“Sorry,” he mutters on instinct and he only realises his mistake when Morgana’s eyebrows rise almost impossibly high on her forehead.

She clicks the top back on her pen and leaves it between the pages in her book, leaning forwards with an attentive look on her face. “Okay, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he lies, straightening up a bit.

“Why do you always try to bullshit me? Do I look like an idiot to you?”

“Oh, sorry, what I actually meant was: It’s none of your goddamn business.”

“Please.” She scoffs. “You made it my business when you brought me here to be your distraction or whatever. Don’t think I don’t know how you work, brother dearest.”

He looks down at the sorely neglected sandwich he’d ordered for lunch. Picking a little at it, he shakes his head. What’s he supposed to say? He can’t exactly ask Morgana how she knows she’s straight (or if she even is, he’s never really asked). It feels weird. Shouldn’t he have gone through this earlier? Shouldn’t he have had some doubts about how he felt about girls and their bits if that’s how it is?

And then as he looks up at Morgana he realises with startling clarity that it’s been going on for fucking years. It slams into him like a wall: all the things that have felt wrong, all the times he’s been looking for something else. The way Gwen was perfect, the way Mithian was perfect and yet it was all wrong.

“Fuck,” he grits out, reaching out for his glass of water and gulping it down like it’s the last he’ll ever have.

Morgana reaches out a hand. “Calm down,” she says firmly.

“I’m just confused,” he blurts, and at least that’s the truth, “about someone. I don’t know.”

“Is it Elena?” she asks and he shakes his head.

For a moment he hates Merlin for not being Elena, but it fizzles out under a massive amount of guilt. Merlin is Merlin and that’s what he should be, elbow patches and all.

“Well,” Morgana says slowly and he can feel her studying him as he shreds his napkin into pieces. “Whoever it is, it seems like you’re a lot more invested in this than you usually are. Usually you seem like you don’t even care and now you just tried to drown yourself with a glass of water.”

“Oh god, shut up,” he manages to press through gritted teeth.

Morgana tuts while shaking her head. “I’m just imparting my endless wisdom. You should be very grateful, young padawan.”

“Stop that, you haven’t even watched Star Wars once.”

“Of course I haven’t. What a complete waste of my time.” Morgana rolls her eyes. “I’ll leave you to watch all of that silly stuff. How’s it going with My Little Pony?”

“For the last time, Morgana, I was in the process of changing channels.”

Morgana just brushes him off with a flick of her hand. “What I’m trying to say, Arthur, is that you’ve never cared before and now you do, and actually caring about someone is about as scary as the worst horror flick you’ve ever seen. So don’t freak out, because you’re doing it right.”

He looks at her doubtfully. Sometimes he’ll admit (if only to himself) that Morgana isn’t wholly wrong about everything, but it’s still at least a 70 to 30 chance that she’s giving him shit advice.

“It’s supposed to be like this?” he asks flatly.

“Pretty much.”

“Then why would anyone want this?”

“That,” Morgana says, opening her notebook again, “is the only reasonable question you’ve ever asked.”

***

It’s a terrible idea: Not just a mildly stupid idea or a temporary lapse in judgement – no, it’s the flat out worst idea he’s ever had. He had checked Alice’s address in her new contact info, looked it up online and found that, yes, the flat is above a chemist’s and he’s now staring at the door of said chemist’s like the bloody stalker he is.

Arthur wants to turn around and leave, pretending he’d never done this in the first place, but the thing is, he did do this, so obviously there’s one part of him that wants to be here. And if he’s honest with himself it’s a rather large part. He swallows around the heart lodged in his throat and pushes the door open, wincing at the way a bell tinkles merrily to alert the store of his presence.

He’d hoped that it would be packed with people, but it’s completely empty, affording him no way to slink into a crowd if needed. Part of him had also hoped that Merlin might be occupied with a customer so Arthur could prepare himself, but Merlin is right there behind the old wooden counter, leaning forwards on his elbow over a notebook. He doesn’t look up immediately. Instead, he scribbles quickly and then pauses, tapping the top of the pen against his jaw. Arthur tries to fight a smile at the thought of how many times his boss must have told him to pay more attention to customers.

Arthur is still not prepared when Merlin does angle his head upwards, looking at him from under his messy fringe. Not knowing what to do, he just stands there while Merlin squeaks and drops the pen as if it’s burnt him.

“Arthur,” Merlin says, straightening up and running a hand over the front of his t-shirt. “What are you doing here? Alice is out if you’re looking for her, but I’m sure I can –”

“No, that’s fine, I’m just here to... uh, shop,” Arthur says, and god, it’s awkward. They’ve never been this weird before, it’s always just come so easily and Arthur wonders if he’s gone about this all wrong.

“Shop,” Merlin parrots, his lip quirking. “Stocking up on your herbal medicine, then?”

“I thought you said this was a chemist’s?”

“Of sorts,” Merlin says with a slight rumble of laughter deep in his throat.

Arthur smiles sheepishly, realising it was probably a terrible excuse to begin with. He feels Merlin’s eyes on him, and he reaches out to grab at the notebook on the counter while Merlin’s distracted. He’s not quick enough, however, as Merlin’s hand slams down on it.

“Hey,” he exclaims, his cheeks flushing. “That’s private.”

“What, are you writing in your diary or something?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing,” Merlin says, rolling his eyes before he scrunches up his face and picks up an imaginary pen. “Dear diary. Today a massive prat came by the store –”

Arthur’s lips quiver as he tries to fight a grin, an increasingly unmanageable knot of fondness and fear and contentment swelling in his chest.

“- to disrupt my work and insult my writing –”

Moving around the counter, Arthur stops in front of Merlin and marvels at how they’re nearly the same height.

“- but to the prat’s misfortune I, the valiant hero, would never...”

Merlin’s voice falters in his imaginary diary entry as he seems to clue into the fact that they’re standing closer than they’ve ever been, or at least that’s the way it feels. They’ve bumped shoulders and knees on the bus, but they’ve never just stood in front of each other like this, face to face. It shouldn’t be different, but somehow it is.

“So, you’re writing, then?” Arthur asks, nodding towards the notebook.

“Yeah, I write,” Merlin says, sounding a little breathless. “I’m not published or anything, yet, but I’ve been inspired lately and I have some contacts in a few publishing houses and, well.”

His arms flail a little as he speaks before he seems to catch himself and he locks them together over his stomach. Arthur is about to answer when Merlin takes a deep breath and tilts his chin up before he rushes out a barely intelligible “Why are you really here, Arthur?”

It’s a really hard question to answer. What is he really doing here? He feels that dull panic at the pit of his stomach, rumbling softly below everything else. Maybe he’s read everything wrong; maybe he really did like Mithian a whole lot, maybe Merlin is just freakishly friendly to people on buses, maybe–

His thoughts fall into a tangled, useless heap when Merlin rushes forwards, nearly stumbling over his own feet, and kisses him as he steadies himself against Arthur’s shoulders. The angle is strange and the kiss is slightly off-centre. Merlin mouths at the corner of his lips and when Arthur kisses back, his lips drag softly across Merlin’s cheek. It’s unlike any kiss he’s ever had, and not only in the way it’s imperfect and a little fumbling, but also because it matters in a way that is entirely new to him. It’s not just a press of lips: it’s a feeling of warmth; it’s a shiver in his neck and a strange knot in his gut.

The bell tinkles and Merlin jumps back, moving to press random buttons on the till and Arthur nearly has to laugh at the way he tries to seem occupied. There’s a blush on his cheeks that makes Arthur want to reach over and run his fingers over Merlin’s cheekbones, but there’s the problem of the customer poking around at the back of the store.

“Hello, Mrs. Dunham,” Merlin greets, his voice a bit high-pitched.

“Good morning, dear,” the woman says without looking up.

Merlin stares daggers at Arthur, though, and he moves swiftly to the right side of the counter, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“So, you were shopping for something?” Merlin looks at him significantly.

“Uh.” Arthur looks around and grabs the first thing he can find. “This one.”

“Ah, that’s massage oil,” Merlin says, biting down on his lip to keep from smiling.

“Do you have a problem with that?”

He hadn’t known what it was, of course, but now that he’s made his choice he might as well stick to it and he raises a challenging eyebrow at Merlin.

“Not a single one,” Merlin answers lightly as he scans it. “I’m sure you’ll be happy with it.”

“I think I will be.”

Arthur smiles and leaves Merlin with a nod. It’s only after the buzzing in his head has subsided that he realises they never discussed a single thing and Arthur still has no idea what the next step is. He thinks that, maybe, this should be the point where he freaks out, but instead he grins widely at Gwen over dinner and she looks surprised for a moment before her lip quirks in return.

***

Arthur has spent the last few days thinking about Merlin in a variety of situations, trying to figure out what he’d say or do, wondering what it’d be like. He’s imagined himself cooking him dinner (Merlin would surely try to eat it all before it was done), he’s seen himself take him to the movies and fumble for his hand in the dark. And on one memorable occasion he’d pictured Merlin on his knees, spread out in front of him, rutting into the sheets and Arthur had pumped himself roughly until he came to the thought of Merlin moaning his name over and over.

Thinking and doing are two very different things, though, and now that Merlin is sitting next to him on the couch, everything he’d imagined seems a world away. Arthur feels the tension in his own body, afraid to let himself relax in case their legs accidentally brush.

Maybe if he’d been given time to prepare he could’ve psyched himself up for this, but Merlin had just shown up on his doorstep proudly proclaiming that Arthur wasn’t the only one who knew how to show up unexpectedly and that Merlin at least had the decency to show up where they wouldn’t be interrupted.

(Arthur had told Merlin that he clearly did not know Morgana.)

He wants to enjoy sitting here with Merlin just watching old episodes of Life on Mars, because it’s comfortable despite everything, it’s just that there’s this odd unresolved thing that he can’t shake. Ever since Merlin kissed him he’s thought about it over and over. It was really extremely chaste and yet he can’t stop replaying it like a film, making him more and more preoccupied with kissing Merlin properly.

His head is about to burst with everything: the way he can’t seem to figure out what to do and the way he keeps comparing Merlin and Mithian until he’s downright frightened by the differences in his feelings. Maybe slowly going crazy isn’t what he should be looking for in a relationship, now that he thinks about it. It was always easy with Mithian; it was never this terrible insecurity about himself and this fear of failure. And then just when he thinks he’s about to lose it, Merlin’s hand is on his knee, pressing down softly.

“You always do that when you’re thinking,” Merlin says, his thumb moving in slow circles.

Arthur realises he’d been bouncing his leg again and he hums in a way that’s meant to be noncommittal, but ends up comically strangled instead.

“I know this is horribly clichéd, but maybe you should stop thinking so much.”

“I just... I don’t. I never realised about... this. Before.” Arthur waves his hand back and forth between them, realising that none of what he just said made any sense at all.

Merlin smiles and it looks unbearably fond. “Don’t you think I’ve realised that already? I’m not blind. You’re so closeted you’re basically in Narnia.”

“I don’t want Narnia,” Arthur mutters, trying to focus on something other than Merlin’s fingers splayed over his leg.

“That’s ridiculous, Narnia’s pretty brilliant.”

“Not when you’re on the other side.”

And if that’s not the cheesiest thing Arthur has ever said, he doesn’t even know. He closes his eyes as his cheeks flush red hot with mortification, but then he feels long, gentle fingers at his jaw pulling him into a kiss. Merlin’s mouth opens under his own, hot and searching and fucking brilliant in every way.

“I can’t believe every ridiculous thing you say makes me want to come in my jeans,” Merlin mutters into his mouth before pressing closer, his kiss insistent and curious, catching Arthur’s bottom lip between his own.

Arthur fists his hand into the back of Merlin’s t-shirt, attempting to pull him closer, but the angle is awkward and they end up laughing breathlessly against each other.

“So, everything I say, huh?” Arthur says, smirking.

Merlin glares at him, but the effect is ruined by the way his fingers skim down Arthur’s neck, dipping into the hollow of his collarbones while Merlin watches with his lips parted. Arthur feels high on it all, his self-consciousness buried somewhere under the tingling in his lips and the knowledge that Merlin is right there because he wants to be.

With Merlin’s fingers pressed over his racing pulse, he leans in, trailing his lips across Merlin’s jaw before mouthing slowly at the shell of his ear.

“What if I say that I came all over myself thinking about you spreading your legs, moaning for me, so desperate for me to take you,” he says, spurred on by the way Merlin’s hands grips at his shoulder. “Came so hard, Merlin, thinking about fucking you until you begged me to let you come and –”

The words leave him when Merlin knocks him backwards, scrambling over him and nearly kneeing him in the groin in the process. He gets a lapful of Merlin before they both sink back on the sofa, Merlin stretched out above him, his cheeks flushed. A lazy, satisfied smile is about to spread on Arthur’s lips, but it disappears into an eager kiss when Merlin’s mouth is open and greedy against his. Merlin licks into the kiss, angling his head slightly as he flicks the tip of his tongue over the roof Arthur’s mouth.

Threading his fingers into soft, unruly hair, Arthur tries to remember what it was like to not kiss Merlin, but it’s nearly impossible. He remembers wanting this, picturing it, but the fantasies that had sort of driven him crazy seem pale in comparison now that Merlin’s weight is pressing down on him, warm and solid and real.

His lips are swollen and almost aching, but Arthur can’t get himself to stop moving his lips against Merlin’s mouth, licking at the corner of it, nipping at the soft flesh, tasting it until the hunger is quelled (which seems to be never). It’s Merlin who breaks away with heavy breath, slanting his lips across Arthur’s jaw and down his neck, his tongue wet and hot on the sensitive skin.

Arthur doesn’t know if Merlin only really wants to kiss and maybe there’s a chance he’ll be rejected, but even if the fear of being pushed away is there somewhere, he’s beyond the point of caring. He needs it, he needs more – more of this, more of the something that keeps slotting into place inside him like it belonged there all along.

Holding his breath, he runs a hand down the lithe but still solid form above him as Merlin sucks a bruise into his neck. Arthur slips his hand in under the t-shirt, closing his eyes as he finds heated skin and stills, waiting to see how Merlin reacts.

Disappointment flares through him when Merlin pushes himself up and to the side, but it only lasts a moment when he feels Merlin’s hand brushing across his stomach, tugging at his shirt. He must have been unable to hide it in his expression because Merlin laughs incredulously as he pulls Arthur’s shirt over his head.

“God, you thought we’re stopping?” Merlin says, throwing his own shirt into the flat somewhere. “This is really not the moment to get all self-conscious and coy, Mr. I-came-all-over-myself.”

Arthur just makes a face at him and runs a tentative hand over Merlin’s back, making Merlin rest his forehead against his chest and laugh, his breath hot on Arthur’s skin.

“You can touch me, you know. Maybe it hasn’t quite registered through your thick skull yet, but you don’t exactly repulse me.”

“Wow,” Arthur says, finding his voice, finally. “Don’t flatter me too much; it may go to my head.”

Merlin hums and shifts a little on his chest until Arthur suddenly feels his tongue flicking against his nipple in teasing strokes. His hand tightens as he grips Merlin’s side and he can’t quite stop the shallow push of his hips. Merlin looks up at him, his pupils blown wide and his lips obscenely red as he flicks his tongue over Arthur’s nipple again. It rips a moan from Arthur that he’s been trying to hold back for a reason he can’t quite remember now and Merlin grins.

“So, I have some questions for you,” Merlin says as he skims a hand down Arthur’s stomach, stopping at the waistline of his jeans.

Now?” Arthur asks incredulously and he wonders if Merlin always talks this much, but then realises it’s a stupid thing to wonder because of course he does.

Merlin looks like he wants to laugh. “Yes, now. I want to know. Do you think about me when I’m not here?”

Merlin,” Arthur says, embarrassed.

“Answer me.” Merlin pops the button on his jeans open and Arthur feels his fingers brush his aching erection.

“Yeah.”

Merlin palms his cock through the jeans and he pushes up into it, throwing his head back at the feeling.

“Do you want to talk to me all the time?”

The question triggers a memory and Arthur’s lip quirks a little. He remembers it now: the conversation where Merlin had asked him if he had feelings for Elena.

“Ngh, yeah, but right now I’d rather like you to shut up,” he says, his jaw clenched, and Merlin laughs, pressing a kiss to the naked skin just above his jeans.

“Just one more,” Merlin assures him as he starts pushing his jeans down, prompting Arthur to tilt his hips. “How would you feel if I went on a date with someone else?”

Pushing himself up on his elbow, looking down at Merlin pushing his jeans down his legs and tossing them away, he tries to picture Merlin doing that to someone else and the amount of furious rage that slams into him is almost sickening in its intensity. Merlin looks at him, his fingers resting lightly on the waistband of Arthur’s boxers that are wet with pre-come at the front.

Arthur doesn’t look away even if he kind of wants to. “I’d want to kill them.”

Oh hell, that sounded a little much, although he didn’t say he would kill them, just that he’d want to, because he already wants to kill them and they’re only hypothetical.

Merlin’s hand falters as he attempts to slide the boxers down when he starts laughing and Arthur would be offended by this if Merlin didn’t look so utterly pleased.

“If you’re about to say something now maybe you should consider if there’s something better to do with your mouth,” Arthur says over the sound of Merlin’s laughter.

“Oh, shut up, you love my talking.”

That’s a blatant lie, obviously, so Arthur shakes his head as he reaches over and tries to paw at Merlin’s jeans to get them off. “No, I really just need you to shut up right now.”

“Yeah?” Merlin smirks at him as he shuffles a little, settling himself between Arthur’s legs as he runs a hand along his inner thigh. “I think I’d like to keep talking, actually. Maybe I should tell you how I wanked in the shower thinking about all the things I want to do to you. And I was thinking about how you’ve probably never done this with another guy, yeah? So I fucked into my hand imagining it was your mouth, swallowing my cock until you choked on it.”

Merlin’s fingers wrap tightly around Arthur’s cock as he speaks and there’s no way Arthur can stop himself from pushing his hips into the touch, throwing his head back as Merlin’s words dig into his head.

“Fuck, Merlin,” he says, his voice strangled.

“Mmm, still want me to shut up then?”

Arthur wants to say ‘yes, definitely’ on principle, but forgets why, exactly, when the hand on his cock gives an unexpected twist and his breath hitches.

“Didn’t think so,” Merlin says his voice more breathless now. “Maybe I should tell you how gorgeous you look right now, trying not to moan - even though you should know I really want to hear you moan – and you’re just so fucking greedy for me, aren’t you?”

The words seem to explode in his head and fuck if Merlin isn’t right about how he loves that Merlin talks. Would it be so much to ask if Merlin was wrong once? It’s hardly an unreasonable request. It would’ve been nice if he could keep this realisation to himself, but his traitor cock twitches under Merlin’s fingers in a shameless display of want.

Arthur can almost hear the smirk.

He knows he asked for quiet, but now that he’s got it he’s not sure what it means. Merlin’s hand has slowed, only running lazily over his erection and Arthur has no idea what to expect. Lifting his head, he looks down the length of his body just in time to see Merlin’s mouth close over him and the combination between the sight of it and the feel of the tongue flat against the head of his cock makes him arch up into it.

Merlin’s hand comes out to still his hips, pushing him back down and holding him there with his hand splayed over Arthur’s hip bone. When Merlin sinks lower, wrapping Arthur’s cock in a tight heat as he hollows his cheeks around it, Arthur breathes in stuttering gasps and reaches out to bury his hands into Merlin’s hair.

He forces himself to open his eyes even as Merlin licks at the base of his cock with broad strokes and looks down, needing to see this as if he’s not entirely sure it’s real until his eyes have verified it. The sight of Merlin’s head bent over him slams into his chest and it gets even worse when Merlin seems to sense his gaze and looks up, meeting his eyes head on as he eases himself up a little, tonguing at the head of Arthur’s cock.

Arthur’s heart pounds frantically as he disentangles one hand from Merlin’s hair and runs a thumb over his cheekbones, dipping into the hollow of his cheek before touching the corner of Merlin’s lips. He can press the pad of his thumb against the spot where Merlin’s mouth wraps around his cock. The feel of it wrenches a deep groan from his throat and his cock pulses in response, leaking pre-come onto Merlin’s tongue.

Merlin’s eyes close and he looks wrecked as he hums around it. It’s so fucking good that Arthur bucks against him, not able to look away anymore, and he’s hit with the sudden thought that this is Flailing Bloke, this is the guy he met on the bus, who was easier to talk to than anyone else in his life. This is Merlin who writes in tattered notebooks and hates iPads and takes the bus every Tuesday.

An overwhelming wave of fondness mingles with the pulsing want and his broken moan is out before he can think about it.

Merlin,” he says in a strangled voice.

Looking at Arthur with heavily lidded eyes, Merlin takes him deeper, sealing his lips tight around him as he sucks, his thumb rubbing in slight, soothing circles at the base. Arthur thinks he might have known words at some point, but he’s far beyond that now and all he can do is tilt his hips as much as Merlin will allow him to. The magnificent drag of Merlin’s tongue is maddening and Arthur doesn’t understand – he can’t figure out what it is Merlin does that makes his breath hitch until he gasps out a deep groan unlike any sound he’s ever made in bed.

His head falls back, hitting the armrest with a dull thud, his back arching with need since Merlin’s hands keep his hips pinned and he feels it building, slowly at first, before it slams into him in a way that has him grasping for something to hold into and he thinks it might be Merlin’s hair. He writhes under Merlin’s hands, his breath getting lodged in his throat for a moment before it all surges out in a rush of sounds that may have included the words Merlin and fuck and what the hell.

He’s still heaving for breath with his eyes closed when he feels a kiss pressed softly to the inside of his knee and he looks up to find Merlin glancing at him with a satisfied smile on swollen, red lips. His haired is mussed and there’s a bright flush across his cheeks.

“Come here,” Arthur says his voice low and strange. He doesn’t have it in him to move.

Merlin climbs up, fitting himself next to Arthur on the sofa, pressed all along his side. His erection pokes Arthur’s thigh and guilt seeps in through the sated fog of his mind. He leans down and kisses Merlin softly; licking soothingly at the swollen lips until Merlin keens a little, moving his hips in erratic thrusts against his thigh.

Merlin breaks the kiss, licking his sore lips tentatively. “Well, that was rather nice,” he says, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “We’re going to have to work on your complete fear of touching me, though. I’m not going to push you away, you know.”

Arthur lets out an indignant huff. “I’m not afraid of touching you.” And to prove it he shifts a little and moves the hand that isn’t slung over Merlin’s shoulders down to wrap gently around his cock.

The terrible truth that he is kind of scared of touching Merlin because he just doesn’t know what he’s doing. The angle is awkward since he’s only touched his own cock and, really, the angle is never like this. He doesn’t know if he’s applying enough pressure and he doesn’t even know how Merlin likes it. The complete lack of any impulses to respond to leaves him hanging in mid-air with nowhere to go.

It must’ve been written on his face, though, because Merlin frowns a little before he leans down and presses a soft kiss to Arthur’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you,” he says quietly. “Press a little harder.”

Biting back the sense of pride that wants to figure this out on his own because he should dammit, he tightens his grip and gives an experimental tug, watching as Merlin’s lips fall open and his head drops to Arthur’s shoulder. Spurred by the reaction, Arthur keeps going, stroking Merlin languidly and a little erratically.

“Mm, faster,” Merlin mutters into his skin and Arthur complies, feeling Merlin’s breath fan hot against him.

Merlin pushes into his grip and Arthur becomes a little more confident that he’s not entirely useless at this, so he changes the rhythm a little, squeezing a little harder and Merlin’s eyes open suddenly as he groans deeply. He tries to remember what he does to himself, because at least the basics must be at least a little similar, and he pumps Merlin a few times before twisting his hand a little over the head.

God, Arthur,” Merlin moans before his cock pulses under Arthur’s grip and he comes, hips jerking upwards.

Merlin nuzzles into his chest and nips a little, muffling his groans until he goes limp, pressed against Arthur’s side. Looking down at him, Arthur runs his hand up over his hips, following the contour of his body until he can bury his fingers in Merlin’s hair (god, he can already tell he’s going to be obsessed with that).

“Sorry,” Merlin mutters and licks gently at the small mark he left on Arthur’s chest.

“Yeah, that was almost unbearable,” Arthur says dryly and Merlin’s chest rumbles with nearly silent laughter.

“I’m gonna shut up now.”

“You do that,” Arthur says, even though he really secretly finds he doesn’t mind the talking so much.

***

The more time Arthur spends with Merlin, the more Merlin sneaks into every part of his life and it becomes increasingly weird to not tell anyone about it. He knows that his friends have noticed that something’s going on and he doesn’t know exactly why he hasn’t told them anything. It’s been two weeks and he finds he’s enjoyed having Merlin all to himself with no prying questions. It’s not that he’s ashamed of Merlin; he just doesn’t know how to explain everything. And in a way he doesn’t want to ruin it with explanations. He doesn’t want to dissect it.

But he knows as he finds Merlin at the kitchen table sleeping on his notebook that he can’t see Merlin going anywhere, so it’s not going to help anyone to keep him hidden. He finds his iPhone in its charger and looks up at Merlin for a moment, grinning as there’s a slight snore, and is about to start a message to Gwen when he gets an impulse and snaps a quick photo.

Dinner tonight? bringing someone. (guess u can ask Morgana)

He takes his time making toast, moving about the kitchen as quietly as he can, before he slips down across from Merlin with food enough for them both. Reaching over, he rustles Merlin’s shoulder until he looks up, the bleary fog of sleep still in his eyes. There’s a mark across his cheek from the spiral on the notebook and Arthur laughs into his coffee.

“Fuck,” Merlin says, looking around, disoriented.

“Morning.”

Arthur pushes a plate with toast towards him and hands him a mug of coffee. He’s not able to resist the impulse to run his hand quickly though Merlin’s mussed hair, smoothing it down. He feels like a bloody sap.

“Fuck, I drooled on my notebook,” Merlin says, his voice gruff with sleep as he fumbles for the coffee. “Why didn’t you tell me to come back to bed?”

Giving a disbelieving huff, Arthur shakes his head.

“Well, I was actually sleeping in bed and not getting up to doodle in my notebook like an idiot, actually.”

“And you didn’t wake up because you felt cold and lonely without me?” Merlin asks, giving an exaggerated pout.

Arthur shrugs. “Sorry, mate.”

“Some boyfriend you are,” Merlin says, biting into the toast.

“Yeah, I’m terrible,” Arthur agrees just as his phone beeps and there’s a reply from Gwen.

Wondered when u would introduce us. Morgana reading this over my shoulder.

Of course she is.

He doesn’t bring it up at once, but he can see Merlin looking pointedly over at his phone a few times and Arthur shuffles a little in his seat.

“There’s a... well,” he stops, forgetting where he was going with the sentence. “Would you want to meet my friends? There’s a dinner tonight and my sister’s going to be there too and you really don’t have to if you don’t want to, I didn’t mean to totally jump into something here, I mean, I should’ve asked I just –“

Merlin kicks him in the shin and Arthur shrinks back, reaching down to clutch at it. “Ow!”

“Shut up, pillock. Yes, I’d like to meet your friends. Now quiet down and eat your toast.”

“Look who’s asking who to shut up,” Arthur mutters into his cup of coffee, trying not to smile stupidly.

“I know it’s a foreign concept for you and all, but really –” Merlin stops and straightens up. “Oh!” he scrambles for his notebook and searches frantically for the pen before writing so fast that Arthur wonders how he can even understand any of it afterwards.

He lets Merlin write as he shuffles around to get ready for work, stopping next to Merlin’s chair to press his lips quickly to the mop of hair and he’s really glad Morgana can’t see him.

“Don’t forget to go to work,” he says as Merlin looks up briefly, smiling as he waves goodbye.

“I won’t,” Merlin assures him.

Arthur calls him from the office to ask if he’s left yet and laughs at the answering “Oh shit!”

***

Merlin gets along perfectly with his friends and he doesn’t know why he was worried about that even for a second. He had been a little worried about Morgana, because he never does quite know what she’s going to pull out of the hat and it had been more than a little awkward when she had clapped her hands and yelled “Well this certainly explains a lot!”

She had made up for it by being nothing short of beaming after that, her usually demonic self hidden deep down where it was sleeping until the next time the two of them had a moment alone.

Arthur rises from the sofa, moving into the kitchen to get another beer and looks back at Merlin talking to Gwen, his hands moving in ridiculous patterns that Arthur can’t decipher.

It had dawned on him as they stood outside Gwen’s flat that this might’ve been easier if he’d prepared them for Merlin being... well, Merlin. And really, he was the one who should’ve been comforting Merlin, but instead he was the one who’d been nervous and Merlin had run his fingers across Arthur’s palm in slow circles.

“Fuck, I didn’t tell them about you,” Arthur had said, wincing at the panic in his voice. “I’m sorry, I should’ve. It’ll be awkward. I didn’t think...”

“I can deal with a little awkward,” Merlin said and was the one with the strength to actually press the doorbell. “I’m not a delicate flower.”

Arthur must’ve looked about as frazzled as he felt because Merlin reached up and pressed a quick kiss to his lips, pulling back just as Gwen opened the door.

As he’s about to close the door to the fridge, Lance moves up stops him, reaching for two bottles.

“Greedy,” Arthur comments, smirking.

“I’ll have you know that one is for your guest,” Lance says, raising an eyebrow. “At least I had the decency to ask him if he wanted one.”

Arthur rolls his eyes as he snatches the bottle opener out of Lance’s grip.

“So, Merlin seems nice.” Lance looks at him, searchingly. “You could’ve just told us, you know. All this time?”

“No, it’s not...” Arthur sighs, rubbing at the back of his neck. “It sounds stupid, but I had no idea, really. I never even considered it before, it just never worked out and I didn’t know why. And then it just clicked, I guess.”

“Good. That’s really good. I knew it would, you know, eventually.”

They look at each other for a moment and it gets unbearably awkward until Lance clamps a hand down on his shoulder, slapping him almost painfully a couple of times. They laugh and Arthur lets himself be guided back into the living room.

“Oh, you guys are just in time,” Gwen says, petting the open spot next to her. “Merlin was just about to tell me how you guys met.”

Arthur groans a little as he slips back down, brushing an arm across Merlin’s shoulder as he drapes it over the back of the sofa. “It’s not very interesting.”

“Well, actually,” Merlin says, “Arthur doesn’t know the entire story.”

“What?”

Morgana throws her head back and laughs, patting Arthur’s thigh. “Of course he doesn’t. He never does.”

“Basically,” Merlin continues, pulling his knees up to his chest and resting his hands on them, “I was standing at the stop waiting for my bus. Another bus stops for a moment and I look up, seeing Arthur, and he looks so serious, you know? But then he sees something outside and he smiles and I just... I don’t know what came over me but I ran after the bus like an idiot.”

“Wait,” Arthur says, leaning forwards. “Wait. You don’t actually take that bus every Tuesday?”

“Oh god, not even close,” Merlin says, laughing a little as his cheeks flush. “It’s in the complete opposite direction from where I usually go. But I don’t know, I felt like a bit of an idiot just asking for your number, I didn’t know if you’d want me to. So I just kept taking it because I start work late on Tuesdays.”

“So where did you go every Tuesday then?”

Merlin shrugs, looking sheepish. “I just took the bus to the last stop and rode it back. After your stop I’d just sit down and write, so it was pretty productive anyway.”

“Oh my god,” Gwen says, looking like she’s doing everything in her power not to squeal. “That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Oh Jesus,” Arthur groans, resting his forehead in his hand. “We’re never living this down.”

Morgana looks happy in a way that is both creepy and foreboding. “Nope. I hope you know that all of your birthday gifts will be bus themed from now on. It’s just the way it’s got to be.”

“I hate you so much.”

Morgana changes his ringtone to The Wheels on the Bus.

***

Later that night when Arthur is stretching Merlin open with two lube-slicked fingers, he looks at the way Merlin curls his hands into the sheets as he pushes himself back against Arthur. Merlin keens, needy, and his eyes are wide.

“Did you really run after that bus for me?” Arthur asks, one hand rubbing soothingly over Merlin’s inner thigh as he curls the fingers inside slightly.

A long moan escapes Merlin as he shudders, his hand slamming down against the bed.

“Yeah,” he says breathless, calming a little as Arthur stills his fingers. “I saw you smile and I knew I had to know you. It’s stupid, I know, I just – ngh, god, don’t stop.” Merlin tries to fuck himself on Arthur’s hand but Arthur grips his hips and stops him. Merlin groans, looking defeated. “Your entire face just, just changed and I wanted you to smile like that for me.”

Merlin throws his arm across his eyes and groans, not in pleasure this time. “God, it’s the most pathetic thing, I just –”

Arthur wants to kiss him, but he can’t manoeuvre himself enough to reach his mouth. Instead he bends down and nuzzles softly against Merlin’s hip bone, brushing his lips softly against the skin.

“I’m glad you did,” Arthur says quietly.

“Yeah?” Merlin peeks out from under his arm.

“Yeah. But why on earth did you come with me two days ago? It’s not like you didn’t spend all afternoon with me anyway.”

Merlin shrugs, his face twisting in a grimace that may have been an attempted smile. “I just like it, so I didn’t feel like stopping.”

“You’re an odd duck, Merlin.”

“Fine, I am. Now will you just get a sodding move on, you tease?” Merlin says, moving his hips down against Arthur’s hand, his eyes rolling back into his head.

***

Merlin is scattered-brained. He leaves notes with passages from his novel all around Arthur’s flat and Arthur has to create a bin for them to make sure that Merlin doesn’t lose any. He’s impulsive and sometimes secretive if he thinks Arthur won’t understand whatever problem he has. Sometimes he’s shockingly incompetent at the simplest things and Arthur wants to shake him. He’s always cheeky even in moments when he really shouldn’t be. When Morgana gives Arthur a miniature bus for Christmas, Merlin finds it hysterically funny (the traitor).

Merlin is also spontaneously affectionate. He works well as a pillow despite being slender. Even if he sometimes seems oddly naive and easily breakable, he’s strong as a pillar, sometimes holding Arthur up when work goes to hell. Sometimes Arthur thinks Merlin is the one of them who’s got everything figured out. He’s loyal in a way that almost shocks Arthur because it feels strange to have someone be so fully devoted to him even when things are shit.

It’s not perfect. It was never perfect. But it’s real and it works.

And Arthur cares. He cares so much that he can’t remember what it was like to be lost in a sea of indifference.

***


For Arthur,
Who came into my life on a bus and continues to ride with me without pressing the button to stop the journey.