This, Arthur thought wildly, is absolutely ridiculous.
It was just so cliché. He could practically hear the music swell, and he half wondered if Merlin was going to do his Graduate impression and pound on the glass wall at the back of the conference room. He didn't, of course. In fact, Merlin looked a bit uncomfortable standing there, clutching Arthur's dear-fucking-god-so-vital printouts in one hand and what appeared to be a shoe in the other.
"Gentlemen, we'll begin in just a moment. Please make yourselves comfortable," Arthur said quickly, barely registering his own words. He was already halfway out the door before he finished his sentence, and two steps later he had Merlin by the elbow, dragging him towards his office. Merlin went willingly, for once.
Arthur shut the door behind them, not bothering to turn on the light. The room was bright and grey with morning sunlight, almost peaceful, and Merlin shone with it, all sharp-angles and pale skin.
"You brought my printouts?" Arthur said, wonderingly, sort of surprised and yet sort of not. Sort of not at all.
Merlin smiled, hesitant, and pressed the folder to Arthur's chest. His fingers brushed Arthur's shirt, and Arthur felt his heart leap into his throat, because now that he saw it, saw all the little ways Merlin had become part of his life, he couldn't exactly un-see it. And perhaps that's why, without even thinking about it really, Arthur babbled his gratitude, telling Merlin that he was amazing, and that he loved him, and that dinner was on Arthur. Except, by the time Arthur got to "dinner," Merlin was staring at him like Bambi on opiates, with too-big, glazed-over eyes and a posture that screamed paralysed-by-shock. It was then Arthur realised that while he was pretty sure he did love Merlin (even more certain than he'd been before saying it aloud), perhaps he could have chosen a more opportune moment to mention it. Even so, it shouldn't have mattered, because mates could love each other, could even tell each other as much when they're drunk or dying, only Arthur was pretty sure he'd missed his chance to laugh it off and pretend it was bourn of gratitude and relief, not years of quiet wanting.
"Did you—" Merlin attempted after a lingering silence.
"Right, well. That," Arthur interrupted, fumbling with the folder still pressed to his chest by their combined fingers. Merlin drew back like he'd been burned, wary and, yes, that was probably also Arthur's fault.
"Arthur," Merlin said cautiously, his voice quiet and curious.
"Look, I didn't – I think I just-" Arthur attempted to explain, but Merlin cut him off again, this time by pointing to the door over Arthur's shoulder.
"You should - your meeting. You're late," Merlin said.
Arthur nodded dumbly, then realised what Merlin was saying, panicked, and nodded again. "Right, shit," he said frantically, "I'd better," he gestured toward the door.
Merlin gave him a strained smile and Arthur felt his internal organs do something strange and uncomfortable, because god, this was just not how it was supposed to happen – not that Arthur had given it a lot of thought. There were supposed to be flowers and wine and maybe moonlight or something equally homosexual, given the circumstances.
"Listen," Arthur said suddenly as Merlin began edging towards the door. Merlin stopped, hand on the doorknob, eyes downcast. "I'll be home early, all right? I'll be – and it would be nice if you were around so we could – talk. Or something," he finished awkwardly.
Finally, for the first time since Arthur's accidental, life-altering Freudian slip, Merlin looked him in the eye, a little uncertain, a little hopeful, and said, "Yeah. Yeah, ok."
Arthur grinned, and he must have looked like an idiot, because Merlin struggled to maintain a serious expression, then smiled back at him, bright and brilliant as the sun.
Merlin knew all about being in love with his best mate. When he was thirteen, he spent an entire moping, besotted summer mooning over Will, his oldest and, at the time, closest friend, only to have the wind knocked out of him when Will, in a feat of epic hormones, started snogging Nina Wilson, who'd been known primarily for her tremendous breasts and apparently willingness to share them. It had stung, of course, in the way of all first loves gone sour, but it had been all the more painful because he couldn't confide his adolescent pain in the one person in all the world who was sure to understand. Still, he'd managed to shed his shroud of heartbreak with coltish resilience, and when he confessed his once-consuming crush to Will several years (and pints) later, Will had laughed and kissed him sloppily on the cheek and assured him that Nina had been a crap lay anyway.
This time though, they were adults, and Merlin couldn't decide if that made it better or worse. Arthur was a complete arse, of course, but he'd always managed to come through for Merlin when he was love-sick and wounded, even if he tended to offer consolation in the form of alcohol and vicious remarks directed towards the suitor in question. But with this, well, this was uncharted territory. What if Arthur regretted it? The kiss on the sofa all those months ago, the loaded glances Merlin couldn't help but return, and now this, this outburst, as Merlin had decided to label it, that wouldn't mean a thing if it weren't for everything else.
By the time he made it back to their flat – his and Arthur's flat, because there was no "they," was there? – Merlin felt certain he was on the verge of an anxiety attack. It was unsettling to want something so completely for such a long time, only to have the chance dealt to him just when he'd accepted that it wasn't in the cards. Without a lot of conscious thought, Merlin liberated a bottle of wine from the refrigerator and settled himself on the couch. He considered skipping straight to whatever hard liquor they had on hand, but the thought of taking shots before noon instantly dredged up memories of days spent curled over a toilet back at uni. Perhaps as a testament to Arthur's indelible influence, he didn't bother with a glass, taking long, hurried sips straight from the bottle and pointedly not thinking of how appalled his mother would be.
On the end table beside him there sat a photograph of he and Arthur at one of Uther's legendary soirées, each with a drink in hand, Arthur's arm slung over Merlin's shoulder. They looked happy, grinning drunkenly at the camera, and while Merlin couldn't for the life of him remember where or why the party took place, it still represented a fixed point on the timeline of Merlin's existence, one he could always point to and think, then, I was content; then, everything was right.
After a few minutes, the dull warmth of alcohol began to fill up his limbs, and Merlin let himself sink into the sofa as he waited patiently for everything to change.
It was nearly four by the time Arthur escaped the herd of VPs and board members eager to ask him inane, self-important questions. He may or may not have broken a half-dozen traffic laws on his way back to his and Merlin's – no, their – flat, but he definitely made impressive time, and he figured that of all the reasons to break the law, this was a really, really good one.
"Merlin?" he called the second he managed to fumble open the door. For a second, he received no response, and his heart sank at the very real possibility that Merlin had decided to skip town or something stupid, but then he caught sight of a tuft of black hair sticking up over the back of the sofa. "Hey, how was your day?" Arthur said, coming to stand between Merlin and the coffee table upon which sat an empty bottle of wine.
"How did the meeting go?" Merlin said, oblivious to Arthur's question.
Arthur fought a twinge of frustration, because really, Merlin could barely nurse a pint without giggling (after two he often began making statements of a rather unseemly variety, but Arthur tended to stop him after one when he wasn't feeling masochistic). Of course he'd choose today to embrace his inner alcoholic.
"Long. I came straight here, so, that's what? Seven hours? Mostly questions, coffee breaks to sneak off and whisper, a two hour lunch. God, they did drag it out, but. But I think it went… well," Arthur said hesitantly afraid to jinx his luck and unsure whether he even was supposed to answer that question.
Without meeting his eye, Merlin nodded, his long body limp against the back of the sofa. For a long moment, Arthur stood frozen by his own ineptitude, rocking on the balls of his feet as he tried to decide whether to flee with his dignity in tact or charge into battle for a second time that day, with higher stakes this time.
Finally, he settled on a simple but firm, "so."
Merlin glanced at him, frowned, and looked away, so Arthur added, "I'm sorry, Merlin, really."
And he was, because this was his fault. He couldn't keep his bloody mouth closed in the face of Merlin saving his arse (yet again), looking worn out and more than a little irritated, but still there when Arthur needed him. But more importantly, because Merlin deserved better than that, an unintentional outburst of the things he should have been brave enough to say on his own. They both did, after so much waiting and wanting and secret, guilty hope.
"Are you?" Merlin asked, and god, even drunk he had this way of looking right past Arthur's eyeballs and directly into his brain. Usually, it was disconcerting; right now, it made Arthur want cover his face with his hands like a five-year-old.
"I—" Fuck it, Arthur thought, sensibly, just, fuck this. "I think about your knees. A lot. Rather a lot, probably, I don't know. How much is it normal to think about your best mate's—oh, sod it," Arthur said, and then got down on his knees, wedged himself between Merlin's outstretched legs, jerked him forward by the front of his shirt, and did what he should have done months ago, years even.
Merlin, bless him, kissed back, a little wet and uncoordinated, but still. It was more than Arthur figured he deserved. Merlin's mouth tasted like expensive wine and crisps, and his tongue was hot and soft against Arthur's teeth, the roof of his mouth. When Merlin pulled back, just enough to look at Arthur without going cross-eyed, Arthur realised he had his hands fisted in Merlin's baggy jeans, and that Merlin's fingers were twisted in his hair, holding on, keeping him there, as though Arthur could ever leave.
The strange, uncertain expression on Merlin's face made Arthur's stomach clench.
"What?" he asked quietly, trying not to sound defensive.
"My knees? That's sort of weird," Merlin said, wrinkling his nose unattractively.
A laugh burst out of Arthur's mouth before he had a chance to stop it, it was just that sort of chest-swelling, stomach-turning relief.
"Oh, not just your knees," he said, aiming for pseudo-seductive. If it came out sounding low and rough and earnest, well, he supposed there were worse things. "Your hands, too. And your hips," he said, sliding his palms up to rest on the sliver of exposed skin where Merlin's shirt had ridden up in the back. "Did I mention your ears?"
"God," Merlin said, sounding a little breathless, "I always suspected you were a disgusting pervert. Tie fetish notwithstanding."
Arthur smiled up at him, and wondered if it was too soon to suggest they relocate to someplace where he wouldn't be forced to kneel. Well, unless that's what Merlin was into. Merlin seemed to have the same idea, pushing Arthur away, then standing up and dragging Arthur to his feet.
They kissed again, this time with more intent and less finesse, and it took every microbe of discipline Arthur possessed to pull back and say, without much conviction, "Um. You're drunk. I think."
The look Merlin gave him was as positively predatory, if bleary. "Yes. Maybe. A bit," he said, and Arthur's heart sunk. "But I haven't been drunk for, like, the past three years, so, just. Can we maybe pretend I'm not?" he asked, cocking his head to one side coquettishly.
Arthur groaned and resisted the urge to bang his head against the nearest wall. "God, I hate you. No, no we can't. I can't. This is too…" he didn't want to say "important," because that made it sound like there was something left to be decided here, and as far as Arthur was concerned, the facts of the situation were pretty well established. They were going to fuck, a lot, soon, and hopefully many times over the course of their… well, in the future. It just wasn't supposed to begin like this. "Special," Arthur settled on after a too-long pause.
Merlin gave him a sceptical look. "You… do know you're not going to be sullying my innocence or anything? I mean, it's pretty sullied."
Arthur resisted the urge to roll his eyes.
"Sullied in several very creative ways, I might add. Would you like a demonstration?" Merlin said, leaning in close so that Arthur could feel the words breathed against his skin.
"You are such an idiot," Arthur said, if only to avoid saying nevermind, pick a bedroom and take off all your clothes.
"Look, as much as I appreciate your need for… romance—"
Arthur gave in and rolled his eyes. "Shut up," he said, tugging Merlin towards his room. When they made it through the door, Arthur did in fact throw Merlin across the bed and yank off his trousers, but much to Merlin's dismay, he then shucked his own trousers and button-up and turned back the already unmade sheets.
"Under the blankets? Pendragon, you are such a prude."
"Oh, just get in you lush. Jesus," Arthur snapped, trying desperately to will away his own rather insistent erection.
As soon as Merlin settled under the sheets, Arthur crawled in beside him and sort of wrestled him into submission, arms tangled and faces close, too close for comfort, really, but good nonetheless.
"Now. Go to sleep. And when you wake up, if you can say you're A-B-C's backwards I'll let you have your way with me," Arthur told him with all the authority he could muster.
And Merlin must have been drunk, because instead of telling Arthur to sod off, he giggled, and tucked his head against Arthur's shoulder.
"Sir yes sir," he replied enthusiastically.
A long, comfortable silence stretched out between them, and Arthur found himself petting the back of Merlin's head, quite without meaning to.
"Hey," Merlin said, lifting his head suddenly, just when Arthur was sure he had passed out. "What are you going to do until then?"
Arthur shrugged. "Fantasize about your knees. Go to sleep," Arthur said quietly. "What's a few more hours?" he added, almost inaudibly.
Merlin gave him a soppy grin and kissed the side of his nose. A few moments later he was snoring, drool pooling on Arthur's soft cotton undershirt.
"I hope you're not hung-over, because I'm going to screw your brains out now."
Merlin opened his eyes. There was something heavy on his face, and it took him a moment to realise it was his own arm. When he could see again, after some bleary blinking, Arthur was hovering over him looking far too smug for anyone's good.
"Can I clean my teeth first?" Merlin asked.
Arthur shook his head. "Nope. I'm sorry, but I've had a raging hard-on for about six hours. Your dental hygiene is just going to have to take one for the team," Arthur said, then turned towards bedside table. He returned with a glass of water, two pills, and what appeared to be a mint.
Merlin took them all without question, draining half the glass in one gulp. Arthur leaned back against the headboard and glanced at him impatiently.
"Christ, spoiled rotten," Merlin muttered, reaching over to put down the glass and straddling Arthur's lap in one move.
"Yes, well, you're a sloppy drunk. I didn't want teeth in unfortunate places," Arthur said, palming Merlin's hips through the thin cotton of his pants.
"I am not. And you shouldn't lie. We both know your sense of chivalry won out over your libido," Merlin said, scooting closer to Arthur's chest, close enough to realise Arthur wasn't kidding about being ready to go.
"Are you done talking?" Arthur asked, leaning forward so that their foreheads touched.
Having sex with Arthur, or Having Sex With Arthur, as Merlin's brain kept putting it, was a lot like living with him: there was bickering, Arthur was bossy as all hell, Merlin complained through most of it and wanted to do it for the rest of his life.
Towards the end, though, something shifted in the air, and it got very quiet. The sounds of their skin slapping, Arthur's hips against the backs of Merlin's thighs, had Merlin clutching the pillow lodged under his chest, pushing back with every thrust. Arthur kept running his hand up and down Merlin's back, his side, over his ribs, and Merlin wanted to tell him that he didn't need soothing, thank you, but the tenderness of Arthur's lips on the bumps of his spine made the words tangle and stick in his throat.
"God. Oh, god, Merlin, I—you," Arthur whispered nonsensically.
Merlin nodded, worried that if he started talking, it would all come flooding out, the devotion and affection and blind, helpless need he'd kept carefully tucked into the corner of his chest for so long.
"I can't believe we waited so—oh. Fuck," Arthur said, speeding up. His right hand slid along Merlin's stomach, down between his legs to fist his cock, already aching and slick. "Shit, love. Just, ah, you just. God, god," he grunted, hoarse and soft against the skin of Merlin's neck, hips stuttering.
Before he could even think about holding off, Merlin was coming over Arthur's clenched fingers and onto the bed, shivering-hot and babbling anything and everything that came to mind. Arthur wrapped his free arm tight around Merlin's chest and pulled him up and back, into his lap, fucking up into him hard and deep, holding him there as Arthur shuddered and came, forehead pressed to Merlin's shoulder, murmuring words like "want," and "need" and Merlin's name again and again, until the syllables ran together, senseless and lovely.
Afterward, they lay on their backs, shoulders pressed together, fingers tangled beneath the blanket Merlin had pulled over them both when he noticed Arthur's arms and chest were covered with gooseflesh.
"That's not—I'm not cold, you idiot," Arthur had said, too breathless to be taken seriously, and it had taken Merlin several seconds to understand. Then he'd tucked them both in anyway.
"Can we make this room a study? Or a den. I've always fancied having a den. I could start smoking a pipe, and I'll have a moose mounted on the wall over the fireplace," Arthur said after a few minutes.
Merlin glared at the ceiling. "Why can't we convert your room? I like my room," he said, and yes, perhaps it came out sounding more petulant than reasonable, but so what. Arthur couldn't bloody well talk.
"Because this is my flat! And my room's bigger," Arthur countered.
Merlin turned onto his side and propped himself up. "Fine, your highness," he said, leaning down to kiss the smugness off of Arthur's mouth. If it took a few minutes then, well, he was just being thorough. "But you're not mounting anything."
"Oh, really?" Arthur said, because god, he was so completely insufferable.
"Nothing dead," Merlin corrected quickly.
"Nothing furry. Well, until your winter coat grows in," Arthur suggested, hands wandering down Merlin's chest, tugging at the sparse line of hair beneath his navel, as if to emphasize his point.
"All right, don't push it," Merlin said, not quite managing to keep a straight face. "Just because we're—whatever we are now, doesn't mean—"
"Us," Arthur interrupted. "We're us, just, more so, I think."
"Right. Of course we are," Merlin said softly.
"A lot more… so," Arthur said, and God, if he hadn't looked so troubled, so very serious just then, Merlin might not have caught on. It seemed stupid, in light of the sweat-soaked sheets and the slickness on the backs of Merlin's thighs, but after all the confusion and the severe, manful lack of communication, Merlin supposed it was only fair.
"I—I love you, too. You know that, right?" Merlin asked, because apparently, it needed to be said.
Arthur frowned at him. "Well, I figured, but—"
"But nothing," Merlin cut in, irrationally annoyed that Arthur couldn't just look at him and see all the ways Merlin was pathetically and irreversibly ruined by him. "I love you. And I want you. And I think I always will, all right? So, none of this yuppie angst, please. It's so unflattering."
Arthur snorted, rolling over to press Merlin back against the mattress. "So's that stupid face you make when you're pining after me and you think I'm not looking. I'm always looking," he said, pressing a kiss to the bow of Merlin's mouth. "Always," he murmured again, and Merlin couldn't help but believe him.