It was Friday before Arthur worked up enough courage to go see Merlin after he left work. On the way he picked up some more groceries, including a six-pack of beer. He drank one bottle on the drive over to his father's apartment, not caring about how many laws he was breaking or even about getting pulled over.
He made it in one piece and knocked loudly on his father's door, waiting diligently for Merlin to open it.
"Oh," Merlin said in surprise when he saw Arthur and the bags. "Hi."
Arthur nodded. "Can I come in?"
"Yeah, of course." Merlin stepped aside to let Arthur through the door.
Arthur went straight for the kitchen and began unloading the groceries.
"I'm not sure what you eat," he explained, pulling out cans of fruit and boxes of pasta. "You should give me a shopping list or something."
"I'll eat whatever you buy," Merlin said kindly. "Just as long as it doesn't have meat."
Arthur looked over at Merlin. "You're not a vegetarian, are you?"
"That's sort of what not eating meat is, yeah," Merlin said, smiling awkwardly.
Arthur shook his head and returned to unpacking the groceries. He didn't understand vegetarians. Gwen wasn't one, but she loved vegetarian food and had constantly tried to feed it to him when they had been going out.
"Thanks for the food," Merlin said when it was all put away.
"It's no problem." Arthur looked around the kitchen and then around the living room, trying his best not to look at Merlin. He saw the ugly gourds lined up along the windowsill and remembered the day Merlin had bought them. He had to admit that he had ended up enjoying himself that day, as much as he had been annoyed by some of the people they had been with. Helping Merlin pick out gourds and carving the pumpkins and watching Gwaine fight with the juicers had been entertaining, and exactly what he had needed on the day after his father's funeral. He had even allowed himself to think that he was making new friends. Merlin, for one, had been so open and so friendly. He had been funny and caring and interesting. Arthur suddenly remembered how much he had been looking forward to getting to know Merlin. And now here he was, barely able to look at the kid.
"I'm sorry about what happened the other week," Merlin said quietly.
"It's no problem," Arthur said again. He didn't want to talk about it. He just wanted to reassure Merlin that no one was getting kicked out of anywhere.
"It won't happen again."
Merlin sounded so guilty that Arthur had to look at him. His huge ears were burning.
"You're allowed to have him over." The words spilled from Arthur's mouth without forethought. "He's your - it's your apartment, too. You can do whatever you want."
There was a moment of silence as the blush spread to Merlin's high cheekbones.
"No, I mean... it won't happen again because we, um. He started seeing someone else."
Arthur blinked. "What?"
"He started seeing someone else," Merlin repeated. "Last weekend."
"He broke up with you?" Arthur asked, somewhat indignant.
"No. No, no, no. We weren't - that wasn't. Um." Merlin rubbed the side of his neck nervously. "We weren't dating. We did, once, a while ago, but not, um... we're just friends."
Arthur blinked again, trying to reconcile this information with all the assumptions he had made that night. They had seemed so intimate, so trusting, so in love.
"So, you, um... you're not... are you okay with that?"
Merlin frowned slightly. "What?"
"Are you okay with that?" Arthur repeated, not at all sure why he was asking. "With Gwaine just... seeing someone else?"
"Oh, that." Merlin shrugged easily, his blush starting to fade slightly. "Yeah. Like I said, we're not dating anymore. I just want him to be happy."
Arthur nodded, still confused. "When did you stop dating?"
"Maybe two... no, three months ago. We just, you know... we get along really well and everything, but we wanted different things." When Arthur said nothing, Merlin continued. "He likes going out every night and seeing people all the time and always having guests over his apartment and drinking himself silly as often as possible. I like those things sometimes, but..."
"But not all the time," Arthur finished for him, suddenly ready for this conversation to be over. Gwaine and Merlin had been fuck buddies, nothing more and nothing less. He didn't know why, but this information didn't make him feel any better. In fact, it only made him feel worse and more awkward and more unsure. "Look, Morgana and Gwen seem to think that you're on your way to Canada."
"Oh." Merlin smiled uneasily. "I just thought... well, Morgana told me how, um... how conservative you are, so I just thought it might make you feel, um, more comfortable if I... if I left."
"Left for Canada," Arthur said blankly.
"Well... yeah. That's where my..." Merlin trailed off and looked away.
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Your what?"
"He's sort of like my grandfather," Merlin explained quietly. "He's friends with my mom. He paid for my college education."
"Why don't you ask him for money?" Arthur asked. "If he has enough to pay for four years of college, surely he can spare a few hundred dollars to help you get an apartment."
Merlin shook his head and looked sternly back at Arthur. "You don't understand. He doesn't have money, anymore. He's old and retired and he gave me his entire life's savings so I could go to the school I wanted. He paid for my degree and I can't even get a job. I can't ask him for more money."
"But you can go live with him?" Arthur asked, blown away by the raw emotion in Merlin's voice but trying to ignore it.
"I wouldn't tell him why," Merlin said. "He's getting on and my mom thinks he needs someone to look after him."
"So you're going," Arthur said, his voice low. He couldn't believe Merlin would be happy moving to Canada to take care of some old man.
"Not if you're not kicking me out," Merlin said. "I don't think he needs any help. He's a very smart man and he can take care of himself. My mom's just being paranoid. I'd rather stay here. I just thought it would make you uncomfortable."
Arthur shook his head. "You can stay."
"Thank you," Merlin said.
Arthur nodded once and then reached for a bottle of beer from the six-pack he had left on the kitchen island. "Have one," he told Merlin as he pulled out a bottle opener from one of his father's kitchen drawers.
Merlin took one and handed it to Arthur for it to be opened.
"You don't have to stay," Merlin said quietly, taking back the bottle after it was opened and staring down into his beer.
"I don't exactly have anything better to do," Arthur said truthfully.
Merlin looked up, his expression completely blank. "You don't mind?"
Arthur opened his mouth to ask, but then he realized what Merlin meant. "No," he said, barely managing to get the word out and hoping Merlin would attribute his flushed face to the beer. "I don't mind."
"We could watch a movie," Merlin suggested, his face suddenly as bright and happy as Arthur had ever seen it. Arthur felt relieved that their awkward confrontation was over and that Merlin was back to his goofy self. "I just borrowed a bunch of DVDs from Freya."
"Okay," Arthur agreed, moving over to the couch.
Merlin joined him a minute later and set the box of cookies that Arthur had bought for him on the first shopping trip down on the coffee table.
"They're really good," Merlin said, sitting down next to Arthur. "I just can't finish the whole thing by myself. They'll go stale."
Arthur reached for a cookie as Merlin flipped open the giant DVD binder that was sitting next to the cookie box on the coffee table.
Arthur woke up on Saturday morning with a bad headache and a worse stomach ache. His more pressing problems were his full bladder and his incredibly stiff neck.
He sat up, shifted his legs onto the floor, and opened his eyes.
It took him a few seconds to realize that he wasn't on his own couch in his own apartment. He was still in his work clothes, though his suit jacket was in a crumpled mess on the floor next to his shoes. Merlin was nowhere to be seen, but Arthur assumed he had gone back to the guest bedroom to sleep on a proper bed like a normal person.
As he made his way to the bathroom, Arthur vowed to start getting more sleep. He needed to stop waking up in strange and unexpected places. Not for the first time, he wondered what his father would have thought of his recent actions. If Uther had ever found out that Arthur had accidentally spent a night at work, he likely would have given Arthur a long speech about the importance of maintaining an image - concern for Arthur's sleeping habits and general well-being would have been buried somewhere in his words, but Arthur hated reading between the lines.
After he had relieved himself, Arthur washed his face at the sink and tried to coax his hair into a more presentable state. He looked utterly ridiculous - he had huge bags under his eyes, his skin was deathly pale, and his unruly hair was sticking up in all sorts of unattractive directions.
There was a knock on the bathroom door and then Merlin burst in looking ten times more disheveled than Arthur.
"Sorry," he croaked, waddling to the toilet. "Have to pee."
Arthur left the bathroom quickly, not even allowing himself to think about looking back. He went into the kitchen, plugged in the toaster, and started pulling out slices of bread. He wasn't actually hungry, but he thought Merlin might be. He also didn't know what else to do. He knew he could leave but he didn't want to be rude. He also didn't want to go home. There was nothing to do in his apartment except work and avoid looking at porn. At least here he had the distraction of Merlin - Merlin and his amusing, befuddling ways.
"Sorry," Merlin said again as he emerged from the bathroom. "Nearly pissed the bed."
Arthur simply shrugged and dropped two slices of bread into the toaster. "What would you have done if I'd actually remembered to lock the door?"
"Luckily we'll never have to know," Merlin said as he took a seat at the island. "How'd you sleep?"
"Like a rock," Arthur said truthfully.
"Yeah, you seemed to be passed out pretty hard."
Arthur shrugged and took the seat opposite Merlin. "Sorry for crashing in the middle of the movie."
"Don't worry about it. I was barely awake for most of the first one, anyway. I'm surprised you lasted as long as you did. You looked like shit when you came over."
"Thanks," Arthur muttered, patting at his ruffled hair again.
"In a good way," Merlin added.
"How is it possible to look like shit 'in a good way'?"
"Sometimes shit looks really good."
Arthur burst out laughing as the toaster popped. Merlin stood to retrieve the toast, leaving Arthur to chuckle to himself at the island.
"What are your plans for the weekend?" Merlin asked, setting down butter and jam on the island. He returned a moment later with two plates, each with a slice of toast. "I put more in," he said, sitting back down.
"I don't have any plans." Arthur spread the butter and jam sloppily onto his toast and then took a loud, crunchy bite. "Do you have plans?"
Merlin shook his head. "I'm supposed to meet up with Gwen and Lance tomorrow for lunch, but that's it."
Arthur nodded and took another bite while watching Merlin slather butter over every centimeter of his toast.
"What's Lance like?" he asked, keeping his voice steady and casual.
Merlin shrugged and spooned out far too much jam, but spread it on his toast anyway. "He's nice. I like him a lot. He's really kind."
"That's good," Arthur said quietly. All he wanted was for Gwen to be happy - if she was happy with someone else, then he wouldn't have to feel so bad about what had happened between them. "What does he do?"
"He's a teacher," Merlin said through a mouthful of toast. "Fifth grade, I think."
Arthur nodded as the toaster went off. He stood to get the hot slices, a knot slowly tying itself in his stomach. Gwen and Lance were, quite frankly, an adorable couple. He could easily see Gwen being happy with an elementary school teacher. Suddenly, he didn't feel very relieved that she was happy - he just felt jealous. His ex-girlfriend had someone perfect for her, and he had no one.
"Do you want more?" he asked without turning around.
"Please," Merlin replied. Arthur put two more slices into the toaster, then brought the fresh toast back to the island. "Thanks," Merlin said when he dropped a slice onto Merlin's plate.
"So, I guess you don't..." Arthur trailed off, not entirely sure how to phrase his question, and even less sure that he wanted to ask it.
"You guess I don't what?" Merlin asked, scraping copious amounts of butter and jam onto his toast.
"...have a boyfriend," Arthur mumbled, picking at the corner of his toast.
"Nope," Merlin said, shrugging. "Sometimes I hang out with Gwaine and Freya, but other than that..." He smiled and took a bite of toast.
Arthur cleared his throat and began spreading butter on his own toast. "Do you 'hang out' with Freya the same way you 'hang out' with Gwaine?"
Merlin nodded, but waited until he had finished chewing and swallowing before he spoke. "Yeah, we dated in college. Me and Freya, I mean."
Arthur nodded slowly and focused on the jam for a few seconds. "So, you're... um."
"Fairly queer, yes," Merlin said, laughing slightly. Arthur blushed and took a large bit of toast to save himself from having to respond. "What about you?"
Arthur swallowed too quickly and a large piece of toast scraped his throat on its way down. "I'm not seeing anyone," he rasped before coughing loudly.
"Well, I figured that much."
Arthur shrugged and let the unasked question hang in the air between them. He wasn't going to answer it and he was pretty sure Merlin knew that. He didn't care what Gwen had implied - he was straight. He liked gay porn on occasion and he had, in an intense moment of weakness, let another guy give him a blowjob back in his university days - but they had never kissed and Arthur hadn't touched the other guy at all. He could appreciate why Merlin would be attracted to Gwaine and especially why Gwaine would be attracted to Merlin. But he never - almost never - acted on those sorts of thoughts and he wasn't planning on changing that at any point in his future. He dated women and had a distant future planned out that involved a wife, some kids, a dog, a house outside the city, and incredible amounts of money and success in his professional life.
"Do you want to come to the dog park with me?"
Arthur looked up from his plate. "What?"
"There's this dog park I like to go to. You should come with me. I'm trying to go as often as I can before it gets too cold."
"Dog park," Arthur said stupidly.
Merlin grinned. "Yeah. Dog park."
Arthur shook his head and stood to get the toast again. "You're ridiculous," he said, tossing both slices onto Merlin's plate.
"You don't like dogs?" Merlin asked, sliding one slice onto Arthur's plate.
"I like dogs," Arthur said casually. He pushed the toast back to Merlin. "I just don't see the point in going to a dog park if you don't actually have a dog."
"To watch the dogs," Merlin said, putting the slice on Arthur's plate and then setting the jar of jam on top of it to keep it in place. "It's good for people-watching, too."
Arthur pulled the slice of toast out from under the jam and placed it on Merlin's head. "I'll go with you, but only if you wear this hat."
Merlin sniggered and lowered his head so that the toast fell back onto his plate.
Arthur smirked as Merlin began buttering the slices and went into his father's bedroom to dig around for any clothes that might fit him. The only things he found that wasn't hideously ugly or too big was a pair of sweatpants he would never be caught dead wearing in public.
"I'm not sure about the dog park," he announced as he approached the kitchen island again. "I don't have anything else to wear."
"You could have worn my hat if you hadn't made me eat it."
Arthur bit back a smile and grabbed their empty plates. He deposited them in the sink and then put away the butter and the jam.
"We could always just stay here and watch more movies and get drunk," Merlin suggested.
"There's only one beer left," Arthur pointed out.
Merlin moved beside him and pulled a plastic bag out of the fridge. Arthur had assumed it to be Chinese or some other take-out food, but it was another six-pack.
"That's that, then," he said, closing the fridge. "What should we watch?"
After two and a half beers, Arthur was feeling somewhat silly. Merlin's tipsy commentary on the stupid comedy they were watching was infinitely more entertaining than the movie itself, and Arthur's stomach hurt from laughing so much. They were sprawled out on the couch, their legs propped up on the coffee table and the box of cookies sitting between them.
"Why don't they just - who the fuck wrote this?" Merlin asked exasperatedly. "This movie has stopped making sense."
"I think you're just drunk," Arthur teased, reaching for a cookie.
"I'm not that drunk," Merlin protested, putting one of his ankles on top of Arthur's.
"You're drunk," Arthur said. He kicked his foot to dislodge Merlin's leg.
"I'm not," Merlin insisted as he replaced his foot on top of Arthur's and reached across the couch to lay his arm across Arthur's middle.
"Merlin," Arthur grumbled in protest, pushing Merlin's limbs away. "You're definitely drunk."
"I'm not drunk," Merlin said stubbornly. He dramatically flung his arm and leg back over Arthur.
"You're such a lightweight," Arthur complained, shoving Merlin away again.
"You like it that way," Merlin said, replacing his limbs.
"I don't," Arthur said. He pushed Merlin away with a bit more force than was necessary and then put his own arm and leg over Merlin in an attempt to win the battle.
Merlin simply took Arthur's hand in both of his and began exploring it. He ran his fingertips over the back of Arthur's hand, then turned it over to trace the lines of Arthur's palm. When Merlin began stroking the length of Arthur's middle finger, Arthur took his hand back. He didn't like where that was going. He had thought it was an innocent, childish, drunken game, but it wasn't any of those things if Merlin was going to touch him like that.
He tried to turn his attention back to the movie, but found that he had no idea what was going on. There were new characters in a new setting and he struggled to find the context of the scene. By the time he had worked out most of what was going on, the scene was over and the movie had switched its focus back to the main characters.
Merlin moved the box of cookies from the couch onto the coffee table, and before Arthur could ask why that was necessary, Merlin was in his lap.
Arthur opened his mouth to ask what the hell Merlin was doing, but Merlin pressed a long, bony finger to Arthur's lips to silence him. Arthur rolled his eyes, unable to keep himself from smiling against Merlin's finger. Merlin really was a very silly drunk.
He looked up at Merlin's flushed, serious face and dropped the smile. Arthur had been told his entire life that his blue eyes were beautiful, but he couldn't think of anyone else's eyes that were as breathtaking as Merlin's. They were a lighter shade of blue than his own - a crisper shade of blue that suggested winter. Arthur gulped and glanced down at Merlin's lips. They were curling into a small smile.
Merlin pressed his finger into Arthur's lips for a second, then moved his hand to Arthur's shoulder. Arthur licked his lips, tasting cookie crumbs, and looked back up into Merlin's eyes.
Merlin kissed him and Arthur went very still, keeping his lips slack and his arms limp at his sides. His head was spinning and his fingers were twitching on the couch, but he fought to control himself. He wanted - no. He didn't want this. He didn't want to kiss Merlin and he didn't want to slide his hands up those skinny thighs to that slender waist. He didn't want to grip Merlin's sides or taste Merlin's neck or smell Merlin's hair.
He didn't want any of that.
Arthur pushed Merlin away and Merlin fell onto the floor, just barely managing to not bang his head on the coffee table.
"Sorry," Arthur said lamely.
Merlin looked up at him, disappointment written across his face. "Sorry," he echoed tonelessly. "Sometimes, I get a little too friendly when I drink in the middle of the day."
Arthur forced himself to smile. Merlin pushed himself off the floor and resumed his seat at the opposite end of the couch. They turned their attentions back to the movie, but Arthur could barely put for the effort to pretend to be watching it.
He wanted to go home and he wanted to drown himself in whiskey. He also wanted to shout horrible things at Merlin, but despite his beers, he was able to repress that particular desire. He tried to think of a reason to leave that would sound plausible and not like a frantic excuse.
"You've never kissed a guy?" Merlin asked quietly.
"No," Arthur said quickly, because it was true.
"Gwen should learn to keep her mouth shut," Arthur said harshly.
"-that you're a really good kisser," Merlin finished.
"I just wanted to see."
"Well, sorry to disappoint," Arthur muttered. "Look, I'm going to go." He sat up straighter and grabbed his shoes from beside the couch.
"You can't drive," Merlin said gently.
Arthur shrugged. "I'll call a taxi."
"Let me." Merlin pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called a taxi while Arthur finished getting ready. "They said-"
"I'll wait downstairs," Arthur said decisively. He left without saying goodbye.
When he got down to the street, he found that it was very cold out and that he was a bit more drunk than he thought he had been. He supposed that two slices of toast really weren't enough to prevent him from getting trashed on three beers.
The taxi came and he slid into the back seat and rattled off his address. He tried very hard to control his thoughts - he tried to watch the buildings and the pedestrians. But all he could really think about were the patches of heat on his neck. He could still feel Merlin's hands there, could still feel Merlin's fingers digging into his skin and teasing the nape of his neck and brushing ever so slightly against his hair.
He shivered and pulled out his cell phone to play a game to keep himself occupied.
When he finally reached his own apartment, he drank a large glass of water, took a very long shower, and then curled up on his couch with a bag of baby carrots and let himself get completely absorbed in trashy television. He watched women use coupons to buy over a thousand dollars worth of groceries for less than twenty dollars. He watched minor celebrities detail every minute of their lives for the constant cameras in their homes. He watched groups of young assholes drink themselves silly every night for the whole world to see.
He let his mind go blank.
All week, Arthur waited for the bomb to drop, but nothing happened. He received no concerned phone calls from Gwen, no threatening ones from Morgana. He did his best to convince himself that this meant Merlin hadn't told them what had happened, but he still worried. Maybe they all knew he would likely fly into a homicidal rage if they tried to talk to him about it.
By the time the following Friday came around, Arthur was sick of pretending. His nerves were on edge and he wasn't sleeping well, and even Leon seemed to know that something was wrong. He was finding it more and more difficult to get out of bed each morning. All he wanted to do was stay at home and let himself be paralyzed by fear and paranoia and - and all his unspeakable, unthinkable perversions.
Merlin hadn't just done that to see if Gwen had been right about Arthur being a good kisser. He had done it because he expected Arthur to kiss him back, hadwanted Arthur to kiss him back. He had done it because Arthur had been letting his guard down around him, because Arthur hadn't answered his question about being "fairly queer."
But why should he have? Arthur wasn't queer.
Arthur left work early on Friday. He had never once done that, in all the years he had been working at this firm. No one gave him a second glance as he left, his heart beating frantically in his chest and his legs moving far too quickly to be casual.
He took a taxi to his father's apartment. He'd been using taxis all week because he'd been too paranoid to go back and get his car. But he didn't want to waste any more money on taxi fare and he didn't want to spend any more nights staring up at his ceiling and not thinking about what had happened.
He needed to talk to Merlin. He knew it this time, and he didn't need Morgana or Gwen or anyone else to convince him of it. For his own sanity, he needed to talk to Merlin.
It took Merlin almost a full minute to open the door after Arthur had knocked. His hair was dripping wet and he looked like he had barely managed to get his shirt on before opening the door. There was a towel wrapped around his waist.
"Hey," he said, a wide smile on his damp face. "Come in. Sorry, I just got out of the shower."
"Yeah, I can see that," Arthur said, looking down at Merlin's skinny legs.
"Let me finished getting dressed. I'll be back out in a minute."
Merlin disappeared into the guest bedroom and Arthur wandered into the kitchen. The oven was on, but there was nothing in it. There were two pots boiling on the stove - one was filled with pasta and the other was filled with broccoli and what looked like onion.
Arthur peeled off his suit jacket and tossed it onto the island before stepping close to the stove. He picked a wooden spoon off the counter and stirred the pasta idly, wondering what Merlin was making. If he was boiling the pasta on the stove, why in the world did he need the oven on? Arthur knew next to nothing about making food, but he was pretty sure pasta wasn't cooked in the oven.
"Are you hungry?" Merlin asked, appearing behind him.
"Depends what you're making."
"Macaroni and cheese broccoli onion thing," Merlin said, stepping up to the stove and moving the wooden spoon from the pasta to the broccoli. He stirred it, then fiddled with the knobs on the front of the stove.
Arthur stepped back to look at the clothes Merlin had put on. He was wearing obscenely tight jeans - Arthur didn't even know how he had been able to get into them. They hugged his skinny calves and his slight thighs and his narrow waist and his small, round, extremely distracting behind.
Merlin coughed and Arthur snapped his eyes back up, relieved that Merlin was still facing the stove.
"Did you leave those boiling while you were in the shower?" he asked.
"The heat was on low," Merlin explained. "And I take quick showers." He put a lid on the broccoli, turned on another burner, and placed a third pot on top of it. "You can help me make the cheese sauce."
"Cheese sauce," Arthur said vaguely, watching as Merlin went to the fridge. He pulled out a stick of butter, half a gallon of milk, a bag of shredded cheese, and a stack of sliced cheese. "How does one make a cheese sauce."
"Like this," Merlin said, tossing a chunk of butter into the empty pot.
Merlin instructed Arthur to measure out two cups of milk while he added flour to the melted butter. Then he grabbed a whisk and stirred the clumpy liquid as Arthur slowly poured in the milk. Arthur watched Merlin's thin wrist flicking in rapid circles as he whisked the sauce.
"Cheese," Merlin said, looking up expectantly.
Arthur blinked and then looked down at the remaining ingredients that Merlin had laid out on the counter. He picked up the bag of shredded cheese and held it out to Merlin.
"Nope," Merlin said, smiling. "Sliced. We have to add half a pound."
Arthur unwrapped the stack of sliced cheese and pulled the first slice off the pile. "Um."
"Drop two slices in," Merlin instructed, still whisking.
Arthur pulled off another slice and dropped them both carefully into the sauce. Merlin poked at them with the whisk, pushing them into the sauce and then wiggling them around slightly. After a few moments, he began stirring again. When the first two slices had melted, he told Arthur to add two more.
This continued until the entire stack of sliced cheese had been melted into the sauce.
"Can you drain the pasta for me?" Merlin asked, still whisking the sauce.
Arthur looked at the boiling pasta. "Um."
"There's a strainer in there," Merlin said, pointing at a low cabinet with his foot.
Arthur dug around until he found a metal bowl with holes it in. He placed it in the sink and then glanced at Merlin. "Is that, um."
Merlin clearly tried to hold back his smile, but his efforts failed miserably. "I'm sorry," he said, laughing. "Morgana said you were useless in the kitchen but I didn't believe her."
Arthur glared at Merlin, grabbed the handles of the pasta pot, and carried it carefully over to the sink. He poured everything into the strainer and a cloud of hot steam hit him in the face.
"Thanks," Merlin said as Arthur stepped back to avoid getting his eyebrows singed off.
Arthur set the pot back down on the stove and watched as Merlin finished preparing the meal. He poured the pasta, broccoli and onions, shredded cheese, and cheese sauce into a pan in several different precise layers.
"Come help," Merlin instructed, grabbing two slices of bread and handing one to Arthur. He began tearing off small chunks of bread and sprinkling them over the top of the food, coating the cheese sauce in crumbs.
Arthur shrugged and began destroying his own bread. It reminded him of feeding birds in the park with his grandfather when he had been very young. Merlin finished before him, but he continued shredding the bread and letting it crumble between his fingers.
"Thanks," Merlin said, his hand ghosting across the small of Arthur's back. A shock of heat ran all the way up Arthur's spine to his neck and he straightened up slightly as Merlin grabbed the pan and slipped it into the oven. "Now we just have to wait," he said, grinning and setting a timer on his watch.
Arthur nodded and looked around at the mess they had made. "I'll start cleaning up," he offered, immediately blushing at how high-pitched his voice was.
Merlin disappeared for a moment and Arthur turned on the hot water, squirted some dish soap onto a sponge, and began cleaning out the pots they had used, one at a time.
Soft, folksy music filled the apartment and Merlin returned to the kitchen to dry the pots as Arthur finished cleaning them. Then Arthur started washing off the measuring cups and the rest of the utensils and tools Merlin had used.
"So," Merlin asked when Arthur handed him the whisk. "How have you been?"
"Fine," Arthur said automatically.
"I mean, with everything that-"
"I really don't want to talk about it," Arthur cut him off. "Actually, no, I need to ask you something. Did you tell Gwen or Morgana about it?"
Merlin stared blankly at him for a moment, and then his eyes widened. "No," he said, shaking his head. "No, of course not. They don't need to know about my stupid drunken antics."
Arthur nodded and went back to cleaning off a particularly large knife. "Well, good. Thank you."
"That wasn't actually what I was asking about," Merlin brushed past that part of their conversation. "I just mean, in general, you know... how are you? With your - your dad and stuff."
"Oh." Arthur passed the knife to Merlin and started cleaning off a wooden spoon. He didn't want to seem heartless, but he had been far too distracted with work and everything that had been going on with Merlin to dwell on the loss of his father in the last few weeks. His father's death hadn't come as a surprise and he had made his peace with its inevitability a long time ago. There was no doubt in Arthur's mind that part of him was still grieving and still distracted - he was sure he would be handling the whole Merlin situation differently if he was feeling less scattered - but that part of him was buried beneath more pressing, current issues. "I've been okay," he said simply.
Merlin nodded and took the spoon from Arthur. "Good."
When they were done, Arthur wiped his hands with a paper towel as Merlin dried off the cutting board. Then Merlin was behind him and Arthur froze.
Merlin placed his hands gently on Arthur's hips and pressed a single kiss to the back of Arthur neck.
"Merlin," Arthur said, his voice a mangled gasp. He felt Merlin smiling into his shoulder.
"Arthur," Merlin whispered in reply, his lips moving against Arthur's skin. His warm breath washed over Arthur's neck and down Arthur's collar and up into Arthur's hair. Arthur's mouth fell open as he shuddered.
Merlin pressed another kiss into Arthur's neck and Arthur tossed the paper towel into the sink before turning around. Merlin's hands fell away and Arthur tried to take a step back, but only walked into the kitchen counter.
Arthur could feel Merlin's eyes on him, could feel those endlessly blue eyes boring into him. He stared down at Merlin's feet, noticing for the first time that Merlin's socks didn't match, and tried to think of something - anything - to say. He tried to open his mouth but found that it was already open, and then he realized how loudly he was breathing. His breath sounded ragged and completely wretched, almost as if he had just been running sprints or maybe sobbing.
He closed his mouth and swallowed heavily. One of Merlin's hands drifted up and brushed against his arm. Arthur forced himself to look up into Merlin's face for a moment, but then his gaze fell back down to Merlin's mismatched socks. Merlin was staring intently at him, watching his every breath and blink. Arthur felt blown open and exposed.
He tried to rearrange his features into something other than completely torn, but his face turned out to be just as stuck as his brain.
Merlin's fingers shifted on his arm and he looked up again. Merlin was smiling slightly, his lips barely turned up but his eyes crinkling around the edges. Arthur's breath hitched in his throat and he looked away, but not before seeing Merlin's smile grow wider.
Merlin leaned forward slightly, his nose nearly brushing Arthur's. He licked his lips, his tongue brushing against Arthur's lips as well. Then, he licked meaningfully across Arthur's lower lip before slipping his tongue into Arthur's mouth to skim Arthur's bottom teeth.
Arthur gulped nervously and gripped the counter behind him, trying to work up the will power to walk away even as his cock started stirring. Merlin moved one hand into Arthur's hair and tugged on Arthur's lower lip with his teeth. Arthur let out a strangled huff in an attempt to repress a groan.
"Come on," Merlin whispered, pressing his hips against Arthur's. "Just-" He cut himself off by kissing Arthur again, encouragingly.
Arthur let it carry on for a moment. Merlin's lips were soft and wet, his hands were rough yet gentle, and his hips were just barely rocking against Arthur's. Arthur kept his hands on the counter and his lips completely slack, but he took in what it was like to have another man kissing him. He took in the smell of Merlin's shampoo and the taste of Merlin's tongue and the intoxicating slide of Merlin's crotch against his own.
And then he stepped away, out of Merlin's grip and toward the door.
"Arthur," Merlin breathed, sounding sad and sorry and full of longing.
Arthur couldn't help himself - he looked back over his shoulder at Merlin and took in the sight. His eyes raked over Merlin's messy hair and tight jeans and red, glistening lips. He memorized Merlin's flushed ears and sharp cheekbones and softly curled eyelashes. He let his eyes drift down to Merlin's long, thin fingers, hanging limply next to long, thin legs.
He tried to turn away, to escape from the situation, but his heart was thrumming in panic each time he tried to move his muscles toward the door. There was a dull ache in his stomach, working its way up into his chest, and it was rooting him to the spot.
He didn't want to leave. If he was really and truly honest with himself - more honest than he ever allowed himself to be, even when he gave into his most hidden and guilty pleasures by watching gay porn for days on end - he had never wanted anything more than this, than Merlin.
"Arthur," Merlin said again. Arthur looked back up into Merlin's open, hopeful face.
"Fuck it," Arthur muttered and spun around, pressing Merlin into the fridge and kissing him roughly. Merlin's lips were eager against his own and he allowed himself to stop thinking and let himself do what he so desperately wanted to do. He moved his hands to Merlin's sides, but after a few seconds he slid them under Merlin's shirt and around to Merlin's back, touching the soft, warm skin there.
Merlin hummed into the kiss and dragged his tongue along Arthur's as he dug his fingers into Arthur's hair. Arthur groaned and leaned into Merlin, trying to get as close as possible. He wanted to wrap himself in Merlin - he wanted those ridiculous long limbs around him, smothering him, claiming him.
Merlin raised one leg slightly and hooked it over Arthur's thigh, pulling Arthur closer. Arthur gasped into Merlin's mouth and then had to pull away for breath. He thought he should be embarrassed by how hard he had gotten just from a bit of kissing, but then Merlin started sucking on his neck and his mind went blank again.
When Arthur could hardly breathe from the way Merlin was attacking his neck, Merlin escaped from his spot against the fridge and pushed Arthur against it instead. The back of Arthur's head banged into a magnet as Merlin's teeth grazed his ear. He let out an embarrassing noise and grabbed onto Merlin's soft hair.
"You've really never done this before?" Merlin asked, his voice hot and low in Arthur's ear. His hand slid down Arthur's front and cupped Arthur's erection.
Arthur gulped and shook his head. "No," he managed. Then, "Once."
"Tell me," Merlin said. He unfastened Arthur's belt and flicked open the button on Arthur's dress pants. Arthur struggled to keep his eyes open as Merlin's tongue went to work on his ear and Merlin's long fingers started unzipping him, moving at a ridiculously slow pace. "Tell me," Merlin said again, his lips pressed to Arthur's ear.
Arthur bit back a whimper as Merlin's hand slipped into his briefs and began stroking him with a sure, tight grip. He moved his hands down to hold onto Merlin's waist.
"Um," Arthur gasped when Merlin's hand twisted over the head of his cock. "Um. Once, in - at school."
"Go on," Merlin said, smiling against Arthur's neck.
"Just a blowjob," Arthur croaked out. Merlin's teeth raked over his Adam's apple and he gasped, gripping Merlin's hips more tightly.
"Oh yeah?" Merlin pulled back slightly and grinned widely at Arthur, his eyebrows raised in surprise. "Did you like doing it?"
Arthur shook his head. "Didn't do it," he said breathlessly as Merlin's hand sped up. "I didn't - ah - I didn't touch him or kiss him or anything. Just..." His mind blanked for a second as Merlin's fingers dropped down to his balls. "Just let him blow me," he finished, his hands grabbing for Merlin's hair to bring Merlin back for a kiss. Merlin allowed the kiss, brief and filthy, before he dropped to his knees, dragging Arthur's briefs down with him.
"Just so you know," he said, rubbing his hands gently over Arthur's thighs, "I don't do one-sided." Merlin's tongue flicked over the tip of Arthur's cock and Arthur gasped quietly, his hips pushing forward slightly and his hands grasping at air. "I fully expect you to return the favor," Merlin continued, looking up expectantly. He wrapped his hand around Arthur's cock and held it still, his grip getting tighter and tighter with each second of silence that followed.
When Merlin leaned forward to breathe down Arthur's cock, his breath a hot shock on Arthur's skin, Arthur nodded desperately. Merlin smirked, curled his lips over his teeth, and sank his mouth onto Arthur's cock.
Arthur snapped his mouth shut to stifle his moans. This was so much better than any other blowjob he had ever received, even better than the one he had gotten from the guy at his university. That guy had been drunk - Arthur had been drunk - and very sloppy. Merlin was skilled and confident. The grip of his hand was tighter than any girl's - his technique was much closer to the one Arthur used on himself. And his tongue - warm, wet, long, flexible, curious, demanding - was making Arthur's eyes roll back in his head.
"Fuck," Arthur breathed when Merlin slid back to suck roughly on the tip of his cock. He brought one hand to Merlin's face and brushed his fingers over one of those high, sharp, prominent, flushed, beautiful cheekbones. Merlin's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at Arthur from his position on the floor. Arthur groaned at the sight and moved his fingers into Merlin's messy hair.
He tugged on it too roughly and Merlin moaned around his cock and then Arthur was there, gasping and squirming, his back arching off the fridge as he came onto Merlin's tongue.
Merlin licked him through the orgasm, letting the come pool on his tongue and then drooling it back onto Arthur cock, smearing it around with his lips. Arthur found it bizarre and somewhat disgusting, but undeniably hot. Everything about Merlin - his slight frame, his jet black hair, his big goofy ears, his sharp angles and perfect bone structure, everything - everything about him was hot.
Merlin licked Arthur's cock clean, then sat back on his heels, looked up at Arthur, and swallowed. Arthur groaned and covered his eyes with his hand as he tried to catch his breath. What had he just done? He didn't know where to go from here. He didn't think this was something he could walk away from. This wasn't some nameless guy in a dark room on a drunken night. This was Merlin - Merlin. Merlin who had taken him pumpkin and apple picking, Merlin who had let him help carve a jack-o'-lantern, Merlin who had shared pumpkin pie with him, Merlin who had decorated his dad's apartment with ugly gourds, Merlin who had taught him how to make cheese sauce. Arthur dropped his hand but kept his eyes closed as he listened to Merlin moving around nearby.
"Hey," Merlin said quietly, his voice right in Arthur's ear.
Arthur found Merlin's lips without looking and kissed him gently. "Hey."
He opened his eyes and saw that Merlin's skinny jeans and briefs were already pushed down on beautifully pale thighs. Merlin was stroking his own cock slowly, his eyes fixed on Arthur's flushed face. Arthur licked his lips and felt his softening cock give an interested twitch. Merlin's cock was long and thin and gorgeous, like all the rest of him.
Arthur wrapped one hand around the back of Merlin's neck and brought him in for a hard kiss. Then he turned, switching their places again, and pressed Merlin into the fridge. He pushed his other hand up Merlin's shirt to tug at Merlin's nipples, and Merlin groaned into his mouth.
"Arthur," Merlin moaned when Arthur's mouth moved to one of his large ears.
Arthur pushed Merlin's hand away and replaced it with his own, curling his fingers around Merlin's cock and giving it a sharp tug. Merlin's hips followed his movement, so he did it again, twisting his hand as it brushed over the head of Merlin's cock.
"Yeah," Merlin breathed when Arthur's hand started moving in a quick, steady rhythm. "Yeah, keep doing that."
"I wasn't exactly planning on stopping," Arthur muttered against Merlin's cheek before dipping his head to lick across Merlin's neck. Merlin sighed in pleasure and tipped his head back, elongating his neck and exposing more skin for Arthur to kiss. Arthur kept up a tight grip on Merlin's cock as he sped up his hand, and Merlin let out a low, needy, breathless noise and arched his neck further back. Arthur dragged his teeth along the straining cords on Merlin's long neck, then soothed his tongue over the same skin. He wanted to map every inch of Merlin's body, wanted to taste each pore and catalogue all of Merlin's reactions to his hands and mouth. Merlin was letting out strangled whimpers and moans, grabbing at the back of Arthur's shirt, and trembling all over as Arthur pulled him toward release. Arthur couldn't believe that he was doing this, that he was the one responsible for turning Merlin into a quivering mess. He had rarely allowed himself to think about what this would be like, but it was even better than he had fantasized. He felt powerful and sexy and wanted.
"Oh, God," Merlin whined when Arthur moved his other hand to roll Merlin's balls between his fingers. Merlin squirmed deliciously against the fridge, knocking several magnets to the floor.
Arthur grinned and sunk his teeth into Merlin's neck, sucking roughly and causing Merlin to tug at his hair. He hadn't ever been with anyone this responsive - the girls he had dated were always much more reserved - and it was driving him mad. His cock was already hard again, but he could have spent days driving Merlin wild like this. Merlin was breathing harshly, sucking in shallow breaths and shuddering out the air a moment later with a heaving sigh.
"Fucking sexy," Arthur murmured, moving his mouth to Merlin's ear and flicking his tongue inside once before grabbing the lobe with his teeth.
Merlin groaned low in his throat and pressed himself hard into the fridge, rising up on his toes and pulling Arthur with him. Arthur let his cock slide against Merlin's for one impossibly long and dreamlike moment. And then Merlin was crying out and coming all over Arthur's shirt.
Arthur licked Merlin's lips as Merlin fell apart, suddenly regretting that he hadn't been brave enough to do what Merlin had done for him. He wanted to taste Merlin's cock. Merlin's hand slid onto Arthur's face and they kissed sloppily as Merlin lowered himself and tried to catch his breath through Arthur's mouth.
Arthur loosened his grip on Merlin's cock but continued stroking it, his fingers playing in the sticky mess, until Merlin broke the kiss.
"Please," Merlin said, pushing Arthur's arm away. Arthur smiled and brought his hand up between them to lick at Merlin's come. Merlin helped clean off his come, smiling and gazing through Arthur's fingers as he licked Arthur's hand.
"Um," Arthur said when they had finished.
"Not too bad," Merlin said with a lopsided grin. "For your first time."
Arthur rolled his eyes and stepped away to pull his pants back up. His shirt was covered in come but he was still too horny to work out a solution. He tucked his persistent erection away and buckled his belt, trying to figure out what was going to happen next. He wondered if he should leave, if Merlin was expecting him to leave.
Merlin redressed himself and looked back up at Arthur with a giddy smile. "Come here."
Arthur stepped forward and let himself be pulled in for a long kiss. He wrapped his arms around Merlin's middle, holding on tightly and practically crushing Merlin against his own chest.
Merlin's watch started beeping and they broke their kiss reluctantly.
"Hungry?" Merlin asked. He dragged his swollen lips across Arthur's neck as Arthur nodded. "Good." He extracted himself from Arthur's arms, put on two oven mitts, and then took the pan out of the oven. He placed it on the stove and fiddled with the knobs until the oven clicked off. Arthur moved over and looked down at what they had made. The breadcrumbs were crispy and brown, the cheese sauce was bubbling, and the smell was making his mouth water.
"Get the plates?" Merlin asked, cutting into the macaroni and cheese with a spatula.
"Do you mind if I change first?" Arthur asked, feeling himself blush. "I'm not sure if I can eat that with, um." He gestured to his shirt.
Merlin laughed. "I think that's fair. Do you want me to see if I have anything that'll fit you?"
"No, I can just find... something..." Arthur said, gesturing toward his father's bedroom and heading in that direction.
He couldn't find anything remotely casual in his father's closet, not even an old t-shirt. He dug around for a few minutes anyway, trying to decipher his emotions. He wasn't sure if he was panicking or not, which led him to decide that he was in shock. As he mulled over his thoughts, he realized that he didn't feel especially worried or alarmed. He felt slightly numb - from the shock, he guessed - but mostly, he just felt satisfied.
Eventually, he took off his button-down and went back out to eat dinner in his undershirt. Merlin said nothing about his clothes, just smiled and handed him a bowl of the steaming macaroni. He could see pieces of cheese-covered broccoli sticking out between the pasta. For a vegetarian dish, it looked positively delicious.
"It's really good with sun-dried tomatoes," Merlin said, taking his plate to the island and settling down. "I just didn't have any."
"It looks good this way," Arthur said, sitting across from Merlin and grabbing one of the forks Merlin had gotten out.
As they ate, Merlin started asking questions about Arthur's job. Arthur did his best to explain what he did all day and why he enjoyed it, but he could tell that Merlin really didn't understand why divorce law would be interesting to anyone, though was putting in a valiant effort to listen to Arthur talk about it. He directed the conversation to Merlin's past and listened to Merlin recount his college experience as a literature major.
"It wasn't the smartest thing to study, all things considered," Merlin admitted, poking at the last pieces of pasta in his bowl. "But I learned a lot and had a really good time and I think I feel smarter for the experience."
Arthur nodded and smeared the remainder of his cheese sauce around in his otherwise empty bowl. "Well, that's commendable. That you studied something you love."
Merlin shrugged. "I suppose. You didn't study something you love?"
"Not at first," Arthur admitted, leaning back in the barstool. "I sort of started with divorce law to, um... piss off my dad. He was hoping I'd go into politics, like him. But, I didn't want to, so I chose a little corner of law that was on the complete opposite end of the room from anything remotely political. Turns out I actually enjoy it, but that's not why I picked it."
"Why didn't you want to go into politics?"
Arthur fiddled with his fork. "Lots of reasons. I'm not - I was never as political as my father. He was so opinionated and passionate and just... just full of hate. That's what it was for him. Politics were this, this thing that consumed him and filled him with so much hate. He was blind to other people's needs and feelings. I saw it happening when I was growing up I just couldn't even dream of putting myself in that position. I went along with most of what he said over the years, mainly just to avoid arguments, but generally... generally, I just don't care. It's hard to reconcile, you know, my father on one hand and Morgana on the other. Equally passionate, equally invested in their beliefs and their causes, equally insane. I really don't have that many political opinions. The two of them scared me off."
Merlin smiled guiltily. "I'm somewhat relieved," he admitted. "Morgana thinks you're some sort of Uther clone."
Arthur shrugged. "She's just as narrow-minded as our father was. Sometimes she doesn't observe everything she should."
"She's still brilliant, though," Merlin said, standing up and taking their bowls over to the sink. "As a business woman, anyway."
"I guess that's true." Arthur really didn't know more than he strictly had to about Morgana's organization. He preferred to stay away from her politics, which was probably why she assumed he had been more closely aligned with Uther's. That, and the fact that he had never once pretended that he disagreed with his father's conservative ways. He hadn't wanted to cause any problems - he didn't want what had happened between Morgana and Uther to happen to himself and Uther. He had loved his father very much, despite his father's many flaws. It had always been easier to pretend he cared and agreed than to say otherwise.
However, now that his father was gone, he could stop pretending and embrace his moderate apathy.
"Do you want to stay over?" Merlin asked, looking back at Arthur over his shoulder.
Arthur snapped out of his thoughts and glanced up at Merlin's innocent face. "Um," he started, already feeling heat rising up his neck. "I'm not sure I'm... quite there yet."
"We don't have to do that," Merlin said, turning back to continue washing their bowls. "We don't have to do anything. I just meant that I have some beer and some really shitty TV shows I wanted to watch. You can join me if you want."
"I think I could probably handle that," Arthur said, smiling. He was feeling amazingly content in that moment, and wanted nothing more than a quiet evening watching stupid things on TV with Merlin. He was somewhat amazed at himself - if he'd had to guess, he would have assumed he'd be crawling out of his skin by this point. He had just hooked up with another man. He thought he should be hiding in shame, but all he wanted to do was drink some beer and cuddle on the couch.
He wondered if he would have reacted this way with any other guy. Something about Merlin was so comforting and familiar. He barely knew Merlin, but Merlin himself was so sure and confident that Arthur couldn't help but feel the same way. Everything about this situation was foreign, but Arthur didn't feel that scared by it. He knew that feeling would come later, after he'd left this apartment and this bubble of happiness and returned to the real world - but until that time came, he just wanted to enjoy himself. He had rarely felt so free.
Merlin wrapped the macaroni and cheese pan in tin foil and put it into the fridge. He pulled out four beers and walked over to the couch with them, Arthur following behind him.
Over the course of three hilariously horrible shows, Merlin had moved from his end of the couch, into the middle, and then onto Arthur's cushion. He had his hand on the back of Arthur's neck and his mouth on Arthur's ear, breathing into it and licking across it and nibbling on the lobe.
Arthur had his hand on Merlin's thigh, squeezing it and rubbing his thumb along the seam of Merlin's jeans.
"Before this, um..." Arthur trailed off, distracted by Merlin's lips moving to the spot just behind his ear.
"Yes?" Merlin prompted.
Arthur closed his eyes against the hot breath all over his neck and tried again. "I just wanted to let you know that, um... I will most likely be a complete mess for some of this. And also that I don't really know what I'm doing. And I might, um... be a little terrified."
Merlin pressed a wet kiss to the side of Arthur's neck and then pulled back. He left his hand on the back of Arthur's neck, his fingers playing with the hairs at Arthur's nape.
"Do you still want to do this?" Merlin asked quietly. "I don't want you to feel obligated."
"I definitely don't feel obligated," Arthur said, clutching his beer with both hands and staring down at the bottle. "I'm just... I don't want to say 'nervous,' but..."
Merlin smiled and twirled his fingers in Arthur's hair. "I understand."
"I just thought I should warn you. You know, in case the next time you see me I'm a complete wreck."
"It's not like you're doing this alone," Merlin reminded him gently.
"True." Arthur took a sip of beer and then turned to look at Merlin. "You don't mind?"
"Nope," Merlin said happily. "Somehow, I think you're worth the drama."
Arthur laughed awkwardly. "You barely even know me."
"True, but you're cute and your cock is sort of glorious."
Arthur snorted. "What?"
"Come on," Merlin said, reaching out with his free hand and rubbing it across Arthur's crotch. "No one's told you that before?"
"Uh - no."
"Well, then you're just going to have to trust me on this one."
Arthur licked his lips as Merlin's hand moved away. "I - yours, too," he said lamely.
Merlin grinned and pressed a kiss to Arthur's temple. "Thanks."
Arthur leaned into Merlin and gave him a long kiss. Merlin pulled Arthur with him as he lay down on the couch, his hands scrambling at the back of Arthur's undershirt. Arthur reached out blindly to put his beer on the coffee table and then settled comfortably over Merlin, bracing himself with one arm so he wouldn't crush Merlin below him.
"Do you want to keep watching the shows?" Merlin asked pointlessly when they broke the kiss.
"Not really," Arthur mumbled, his mouth already on Merlin's neck.
"Good." Merlin wrapped his legs around Arthur's back and pulled Arthur up for another kiss