"How do you spell love?" Piglet asked.
"You don't spell love," Pooh replied. "You feel it."
- A.A. Milne
I Love You Beary Much.
Arthur stared at the offending, obscenely large teddy bear which some poor sod of a delivery guy was trying to balance in his arms while thrusting the little tablet device forwards, as if actually expecting Arthur to sign for the monstrosity.
"That can't be for me," he insisted, nothing if not stubborn till the very end.
"It says here, Arthur Pendragon," the guy said, sounding bored. "One bear. One signature. 'S all I need, mate."
"But... I don't want it, take it back," Arthur insisted, waving his arms – aware that all around him his co-workers had started gathering, eyeing the gargantuan lump of fluff with various mixtures of alarm and amusement. He hated them all.
"Can't. You're Arthur Pendragon. The bear's yours." His voice was muffled from behind the mass of fluff and faux fur, but Arthur could still sense the annoyance in his tone and did not appreciate it one bit. He narrowed his eyes, mentally preparing some very choice words for this young man who'd dared come into his place of work with this... this... thing.
"Oh go on Arthur, just sign for the bear," Morgana said sweetly, sidling up to him and taking the proffered tablet out of the guy's hands (who now looked like he was drooling on the bear, which didn't exactly make it more appealing), signing her own name before handing it back to him. She then turned to Arthur, raising both eyebrows expectantly.
"I... oh fine," he huffed, and then actually huffed when the abomination which would have made even Teddy Roosevelt himself roll in his grave was thrust into his arms with quite unnecessary force. The bloke was probably glad to be rid of the damn thing; it weighed a ton.
"So, um, anyway, I was thinking..." the boy started, eyes on Morgana, but his words trailed off into nothing as she waved her hand dismissively, already turning Arthur around, putting a delicately manicured hand on his arm to guide him back to his office (and Arthur was secretly glad of that fact, since his face was full of bear and he could see nothing but offending brown fluff).
Somehow Morgana managed to manoeuvre all three of them (yes, Arthur considered the bear a person in its own right; it certainly weighed enough to warrant the title) into his office, which suddenly looked a lot smaller with the giant beast taking up most of the space. Arthur started towards different corners before finally giving up and loosening his hold, letting the bear thump to the floor where he stood. Maybe later, when his arms didn't feel like lead, he'd muster up the energy to lift it up again and throw it out the window.
"Right," Morgana said, voice meaning business, and Arthur winced. He thought he knew what was coming. "What the hell is going on with you and Merlin?"
Arthur sighed. "That is a long story," he said, glancing down and the bear, absently wondering if it'd prove as comfortable of a seat as the old beanbag chair he used to have at uni.
After all, this could take a while.
As most good stories do, this one started with the beginning:
"Oh hi! Um, I'm Merlin? Gwen's friend from the party?"
"Hello, yeah, you know what? Now's really not a good time for me, got a meeting in five minutes."
"Oh but... okay, well I – bye then?"
Yeah, okay, so that wasn't one of Arthur's finest moments – but in his defense, he had been running late for the meeting, and the queue in the coffee shop had been particularly long that afternoon.
And fine, this maybe hadn't exactly been the beginning, per se. Because there was also this:
"Arthur? You haven't met my friend Merlin, have you?"
"Hi, nice to meet you! I'm Merlin, obviously, like Gwen said... I also like to state the obvious and look, I have two eyes!"
"And ears, clearly."
"Er... yeah, so I've been told."
"Sorry, that was rude. I've just really got to take this call, I was actually just..."
"No, no, I'm sorry, go take your call. I didn't mean to... okay, aaand he's gone. Gwen, why did you even invite that guy?"
"Oh be nice Merlin, you know he's my boss. I'm just being friendly."
"I think you're too friendly for your own good sometimes, you know."
"I do know, you tell me all the time. Just go get yourself another beer, Merlin, and let's see what Gwaine and Lance are up to."
...Also not one of Arthur's most cherished memories. But again, he really had had to take that phone call. It was his father calling with yet another life or death crisis (to him, anyway), and Arthur'd had to leave the party soon afterwards to deal with it. He had only briefly had time to say goodbye to Gwen with a promise that he'd see her Monday, and Merlin had been nowhere to be seen – not that Arthur had looked, or anything.
And then he'd bumped into him at the coffee shop. And then...
"I'm so sorry I'm late Sir, I swear, I was here on time but I just needed a coffee and then the line was really long and someone jostled me and now there's a stain and I- oh, it's you again."
"And you. So you're the one who Gwen set up a meeting with this afternoon."
"She didn't tell you I was coming?"
"She just said there was a guy perfect for the position I should meet with before putting up an ad... guess that was you."
"Huh. All she told me was that one of the higher-ups were looking for an assistant. Um... surprise, I guess?"
And quite against Arthur's expectations, it had actually gone fairly okay from there. After the initial shock had settled, it turned out that Merlin was actually a really nice, competent person (discounting the coffee stain and the lateness, but to be fair, Arthur himself had been a victim of that queue), and they hit it off so well during that first meeting that he didn't put up the job ad in the end – Gwen was right, Merlin really was the perfect candidate for the PA position. Which in itself was slightly annoying, since Arthur hated when Gwen was right (because she always was), but it worked out well for everyone in the end. Gwen got to be smug, Merlin got a job, and Arthur got a new assistant.
And one year later, here they were, and somewhere along the way Arthur's life had been thrown completely off its axis – and it was all Merlin's fault, whatever anyone else might try to claim.
"I'm going to stop you right there," Morgana held up a hand, leaning back languorously against the bear as though it was a throne and she was the queen of everything (Arthur had been banished to the floor after a brief and very embarrassing wrestling match). "I already know all of this. What I don't know is why Merlin – your very platonic, very 'No Morgana, for the hundredth time I am not shagging my assistant!' friend Merlin – is sending you giant teddy bears and chocolates. For not to mention the massive bouquet of roses last week, which I saw you give Rosa the cleaning lady when you thought no one was looking!"
"First of all, I don't sound anything like that," Arthur grumbled, "second, Rosa is a sweet old lady who isn't appreciated enough, and you're just jealous you didn't think to send her flowers. And third, I'm getting to it. Just... er, bear with me."
"Very funny. Now talk, or you will be beary sorry you kept me waiting."
Merlin was a terrible assistant. He spilled coffee constantly, he got lost on the way to the copier (every day for three weeks until someone much more overbearing than Arthur actually thought to put up a sign for him – he suspected Morgana was somehow involved), and he Never. Stopped. Talking.
But Merlin was also the best assistant Arthur had ever had. He fired off emails at breakneck speed, never missed a point in Arthur's calendar, and sometimes seemed to have an almost prescient knowledge of exactly what Arthur needed and when he needed it.
And not only that, but they were also quickly building up what Arthur grudgingly had to admit was a real friendship. It wasn't that Arthur had some lofty ideas about upper and lower management not being allowed to mingle socially – he considered Gwen his friend, after all, and she was (slightly, but still, it counted) his junior – but it was just that Merlin wasn't someone Arthur would ever have consciously considered seeking out outside of work hours. It just sort of... happened. And before either of them knew it, they were going out without the buffer of Gwen and the guys, just the two of them, for lunch, and to the pub after work, and to dinner, and sometimes to the cinema or the park, just to hang out.
And that, Arthur supposed, was how it had really started.
Because that was when people had begun to talk.
The thing about Arthur and Merlin was that yes, they were close. That they had struck up an uncommonly close friendship uncommonly quickly, that they spent the most of every day together and still wanted to hang out after work, and that despite being so different they seemed to find themselves sharing more jokes and thoughts than either had with anyone before, were all undeniable facts which neither of them saw any point in trying to shy away from.
But this seemed to make everyone around them jump to all these assumptions. Assumptions that just simply weren't true.
"Do you know," Merlin said one lunch break as they sat on a park bench munching on their shawarmas, "that this morning Morgana came to see me at my desk, and actually asked me not to break your heart?"
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Huh. What did you tell her?"
Merlin rolled his eyes. "That an iron heart like yours would never suffer the blow of my feeble fists."
"I bet she told you to blow something else," Arthur waggled his eyebrows, jostling Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin laughed so hard, shawarma actually came out of his nose. And that, very effectively, put an end to that conversation.
Or so they thought.
"Ah!" Morgana exclaimed triumphantly. "I knew I had a hand in this beautiful madness."
Arthur winced. "Yeah, well, don't let it get to your head. You were far from the only one."
"Can you blame us? Look at the bear!"
"Oh just stuff it and let me tell the story, Morgana."
"Ahh but I can hardly bear the suspense."
A few days later, Merlin and Arthur went out for drinks with Lance, Gwen and Gwaine. And yes, by this point they really had become Merlin and Arthur. It wasn't something either of them really thought about... but clearly their friends had.
"So, Arthur," Lancelot said the moment Gwen and Merlin got up to get them their drinks (Merlin didn't need to ask Arthur what he wanted, of course - but it was always scotch on the rocks, that wasn't weird for Merlin to know at all), "you know we think you're a great bloke, and you're Gwen and Merlin's boss, and obviously we don't want this to in any way reflect upon your opinions of them as professionals..." he trailed off, glancing at Gwaine, who nodded and leaned across the table, seemingly to continue what had evidently been a rehearsed speech.
"Right, but what Lancelot is trying to say here is that Merlin's our friend, and obviously you care about him, but this? With you? It's very new for him. We've suspected for years, of course, but..."
Arthur's eyes widened. He may have gaped. "Wait. Did Morgana put you up to this?"
Gwaine and Lancelot shared a confused look; clearly Arthur's reaction hadn't been one they'd been anticipating.
"Um," Lancelot said, "your sister Morgana?"
"The one with the...?" Gwaine extended his hands out in front of him, raising his eyebrows suggestively.
"Oh my god gross," Arthur exclaimed, reaching out to bat Gwaine's hands down. "No! I mean, well, yes, I guess, but – oh wipe that look off your face, that's my sister we're talking about."
"Whatever the size or her, er," Lancelot gestured vaguely, but quickly let his hands drop when he saw Arthur's look, "that's beside the point. We didn't speak to her, if that's what you're asking."
"I... oh." Arthur frowned. "So this is actually you thinking that me and Merlin -"
"Me and Merlin what?" Merlin asked cheerfully as he and Gwen came back with the drinks. He scooted into the booth and bumped his hip against Arthur to make him move over, and Arthur suddenly noted the press of Merlin's leg against his own in a way he definitely hadn't been paying any attention to before. To his very extreme annoyance, he blushed.
"We were just..." Lancelot was blushing too, Arthur noticed (though he wasn't sure if that made this situation more or less embarrassing for anyone), and glanced at Gwen, who looked between the four of them with a nonplussed expression.
"Oh for god's sakes, let's call a spade a spade!" Gwaine exclaimed, throwing his hands up and sloshing beer everywhere. "We know you two are shagging. And quite frankly, Merlin, we thought you trusted us enough to tell us yourself, but this has clearly been going on for months, and -"
"What Gwaine is trying to say," Gwen cut across, shooting Gwaine a look, "is that this is fine with us. Really. We weren't even going to mention it," she added, sending both Gwaine and Lance her patented Glare of Death before returning to look at Merlin and Arthur, her face now a carefully composed mask of sympathy and supportiveness.
"So, you weren't even going to mention..." Merlin started, eyes flickering over to Arthur's briefly before moving back to Gwen, mouth twitching slightly.
"...The fact that we've been, er, what was the phrase? Shagging for months?" Arthur finished, raising an eyebrow.
Lancelot, Gwaine and Gwen all nodded their heads in unison, such utterly sincere expressions on their faces, it was just too much.
Merlin and Arthur burst into simultaneous, uproarious laughter. The others shared confused looks, which only made Merlin and Arthur laugh harder, clutching each other for support.
"Guys," Merlin managed after a few minutes, when his laughter had subsided into the occasional hiccup, "we appreciate the support and all, but we're not actually shagging."
Arthur shook his head empathetically, wiping his eyes. "No. Very much not shagging. But hey, thanks for the go-ahead if we ever feel the need."
They caught each other's eye again and snorted.
Gwaine, Lance and Gwen looked back and forth between them, clearly completely lost.
"But we thought..." Gwen started, then trailed off, frowning.
"What, that two guys can't be friends without secretly wanting to fuck each other's brains out?" Arthur rolled his eyes. "If that were true, Gwen, I think you need to have a word with your fiancee about his good friend Gwaine. And Merlin for that matter."
Gwen, at least, had the grace to blush, and Lancelot was very decidedly not looking at any of them. Gwaine, however, slammed his beer down on the table.
"Bullshit," he said. "You two are like siamese twins these days, always hanging on each other, it's not the same."
"Are you saying you think siamese twins secretly want to get it on? Because that's one kinky fantasy I don't think you should really be sharing with the world, Gwaine," Merlin smirked.
Gwaine rolled his eyes but said no more on the subject, although Arthur was pretty certain he saw the other man mouth bullshit once more when Merlin reached over to dab at Arthur's collar where it had been stained by Gwaine's sloshed beer.
Whatever. These guys had clearly been watching too much television, seeing hidden relationships and unrequited feelings when there just weren't any. Sometimes a friendship was just a friendship.
And sometimes, certain friends really needed to learn to let things go.
"But... we didn't, did we?" Morgana asked, and Arthur noted with surprise that she sounded faintly embarrassed.
"No, you really didn't." He sighed.
"Still doesn't explain the bear."
"I'm getting to it, hold your horses."
"Don't you mean hold your... no, you know what, I can do better than that. Keep going, I'll get back to you."
"Oh I'm just bursting at the seams with anticipation."
"Darn it! Just tell your story and let me have the bear puns."
At first, Merlin and Arthur very carefully did not speak of That Time All Their Friends Thought They Were Gay. Until it started becoming a big fat rainbow-coloured Elmer-like elephant in the room, and Arthur decided they probably should just get it over with and clear the air.
"Hey, remember that time all our friends thought we were gay?" he asked one day as they were walking to Arthur's car (he always drove Merlin home these days; they didn't live very far apart, and he could claim it was to feel less guilty about having a car in central London while really it was because he knew that even with a steady job, Merlin was still struggling to make ends meet, and might as well save on the public transportation fee).
Merlin hmmm-ed his assent, but said nothing. Arthur glanced over and felt a twinge of worry when he caught Merlin's frown.
"You're not... it doesn't actually bother you, right?" Arthur asked, clicking his car key and letting the familiar beep beep penetrate the brief silence.
Merlin shook his head, smiling at Arthur, no trace of the frown from before. "Of course not, they were just being presumptuous. When you think about it, them seeing gay people everywhere probably says more about them than it does about us."
Arthur let out a laugh, because it felt good to laugh, and because for a few days he had actually maybe been a little worried that this was going to become A Thing between them, something they'd have to worry about and which might make them hesitant around each other. But that was stupid, of course, he shouldn't have thought something like this would matter to Merlin. And if it didn't matter to Merlin, well, who was Arthur to have a problem with it? They were modern, metrosexual men who styled their hair and wore tailored suits (well okay, that was just Arthur, but he had tried to stealthily bring Merlin to his tailor a bunch of times. It wasn't his fault that the other man felt like it "disrupted the balance" between them or whatever if Arthur bought him expensive things), and if a few people assumed they were gay then why should that bother them? Nothing wrong with being gay. Merlin and Arthur just... weren't.
Arthur went to the passenger side to open the door for Merlin before going around to the other side and opening his own door, sliding in to the driver's seat to find Merlin watching him, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth.
Oh, crap. Arthur groaned, his head falling back against the seat. "It's stuff like that, isn't it?"
"I think it might be," Merlin sighed, leaning his own head back in a pose which mirrored Arthur's.
After a moment's pause, Merlin shifted his head to look at Arthur; Arthur turned his head as well and found the other man watching him intently.
"Do you think it's weird? This?" Merlin's voice was quiet, unsure, and Arthur wanted to reach out and place a comforting hand on his shoulder - then thought better of it. It was stuff like this, after all. But then he thought better of that, too, and reached out to grasp Merlin's shoulder almost defiantly. Because yes, it was true that Merlin was unlike any friend Arthur had ever had before, and maybe he did find himself with this strange need to reach out for these casual, reassuring touches - but so what? He wasn't going to let some outdated sexuality perceptions define how he interacted with his best friend.
"No," he said decisively, looking straight at Merlin and refusing to let his eyes wander, like Merlin's had done, to where his fingers grazed the exposed skin of Merlin's neck. It was normal, it was, blokes accidentally touched each other all the time and it meant nothing.
"Okay then. Good to know," Merlin nodded, Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed. "Just wanted to make sure, I mean, in case you did think..."
"But I didn't," Arthur said, trying to inject an air of finality into his voice, though he wasn't actually sure what Merlin had been about to say - but it didn't matter. He squeezed Merlin's shoulder one last time for good measure before turning his face and body forward, preparing to actually start the car and get them home. To their separate homes, where they did not live together, because they were just friends and that would be weird.
"But now you live together," Morgana said, arching one elegantly pencilled eyebrow.
Arthur grumbled his assent. He couldn't exactly deny that, considering that Morgana had been to dinner at their place only a few weeks ago.
"That's beside the point," he said, reaching out to straighten a ruffle on the bear's ridiculous cuff for want of anything better to do with his hands. It was wearing a little suit, which Arthur had belatedly realised was probably meant to resemble his own. Damn Merlin.
Morgana smirked in a way that suggested she very much didn't think so. Damn her, too. And Gwen, and Lancelot, and Gwaine. And – he shuddered – his father.
Arthur had been in a terrible mood all day. He'd had very little sleep the night before, which had totally been his own fault – he and Merlin had stayed up much too late playing this new video game Merlin absolutely insisted they try out, and then Arthur had to call Merlin a taxi in the middle of the night because for whatever reason Merlin refused to sleep on his sofa and they were both too drunk to drive. And then Arthur'd had to get up just a few hours later to drive over to Merlin's to pick him up before work (something that had seemed a natural addition to their routine lately seeing as he'd already been driving him home), and Merlin had been asleep, so Arthur'd had to go up all those damn stairs and enter the flat himself (with the spare key Merlin had given him weeks ago) and literally haul Merlin out of bed and practically push him into the shower.
"You should have just slept on my sofa," Arthur had told him later in the car, after having shoved a mug of coffee into Merlin's hands and frog-marched him down the stairs, seeing as Merlin's eyes were still halfway closed and he didn't want him to fall and break the mug.
"Mmm no, would've been weird," Merlin mumbled, head lolling back, mouth drooping open. A moment later he was snoring.
"Would not," Arthur grumbled into the silence.
Merlin snored some more.
And now they were at the office, and Merlin got to stay peacefully sitting at his desk while Arthur was the one being called in to see Uther Pendragon – head of the company and also his father, roughly in that order – and he just knew it'd be about his less than stellar behaviour towards his colleagues today. Yes, maybe he had shouted at Merlin in the break room a little bit, but Merlin had shouted right back, and he didn't really think it was fair that only he should be punished for it.
That was the problem with working for your father and with your sister. You never really learned the difference between bosses and parents.
He tentatively knocked on Uther's door, and waited until the older man called him inside before entering. Uther sat at his desk, back as painfully rigid as ever, giving Arthur his patented disapproving glare. Arthur swallowed.
"You wished to see me, Father," Arthur said carefully, hovering.
"Arthur. Come in, sit down. No, shut the door."
Arthur moved – a little slower than usual, maybe, but he did move – towards the chair in front of Uther's desk. Very deliberately lower, harder and uglier than Uther's own swivelling leather chair, of course.
For a moment they simply stayed like that, Uther surveying him thoughtfully across the table, and Arthur trying very much to seem perfectly at ease while he waited for Uther's scolding. He hated these moments, they always made him feel a lot younger than his 25 years.
In the end, it was Arthur who broke the silence. "Look, I don't know what you heard about what happened earlier, but it was just a one-time thing, neither me nor Merlin had had much sleep and we just sort of both snapped. It won't happen again, and I can assure you Merlin's isn't going to issue a complaint." Wait, unless he already had. Unless that was why Arthur was here. Arthur had a brief moment of internal panic before his tired brain caught up with him and he realised that of course Merlin wouldn't do that – that when Arthur had brought him a coffee half an hour later (from their favourite coffee shop, too, none of that breakroom gruel), Merlin had actually offered him a soft smile and squeezed Arthur's hand briefly before taking the proffered cup.
Uther's mouth had pinched into an impossibly tight line at the mention of Merlin, and Arthur sat up a little straighter, prepared for whatever Uther had to say next.
Well, he though he was, anyway. Until...
"Yes, well, Arthur, I would appreciate it if in the future you keep your domestics out of the office. And you can tell this to that boy of yours, too: I might be willing to accept that this is going on, despite the fact that I had to hear it from Morgana of all people, but that does not mean it gives you a right to flaunt it with these very inappropriate public displays. I would tell any of my employers this."
Uther stopped talking, but Arthur just sat there gaping. A hundred initial reactions ran through his mind, the chief of which were What? Who? Who's been flaunting what with who? and I'm going to kill Morgana.
In the end he took a deep breath, praying for patience. "Father, whatever you assume about me and Merlin, I assure you that you've got it all wrong. We are friends, yes, but there are absolutely no... domestics to bring anywhere, I promise you."
Uther's eyes narrowed. "You deny it, even now." Arthur noted with surprise that he sounded disappointed rather than relieved – not that Arthur had ever thought about it in great detail, of course, but he'd imagined that if Uther had ever had to deal with something like this from one of his children, even blatant denial about the whole thing would have been preferable to having to face the truth.
"There's nothing to deny!" Arthur exclaimed. "Really, I don't know when everyone around us started thinking it was okay to make all these blatantly unfounded assumptions, but that is all they are. And frankly, I think you all need to find yourselves a hobby, because you spend way too much time paying attention to the way me and Merlin behave around each other."
Uther raised an eyebrow. "Maybe if everyone else is seeing it, Arthur, it is the two of you who need to be paying closer attention."
Arthur opened his mouth, then closed it. He really didn't have a reply to that.
He left the office not soon after, excusing himself and feeling more awkward than he ever had around his father.
As he passed Merlin's desk, Merlin shot out a hand to grab Arthur's wrist lightly, stilling his movements. Arthur had to fight against the urge to snatch his hand back, and hated it. "What did your father want?"
"I..." Arthur wanted to explain, he really did. But what could he say? My father thinks we're shagging and so does everyone else and now I'm starting to wonder exactly who are the delusional ones here. He didn't say that, though. "He wanted to issue a friendly reminder not to shout at employees in the break room, no matter how annoying they are."
Merlin snorted. "Fine, next time we'll do it in your office."
Arthur absolutely did not splutter as he snatched his hand back, and he absolutely did not notice how their new intern Elena (who had been passing them as Merlin spoke) blushed to the roots of her hair as she picked up her pace, practically running back to where Vivian and Mithian were sitting. And he very resolutely did not notice their shrill, highly inappropriate laughter following him as he escaped into his office (alone).
"Oooooh so it was papa bear who got all this started then!"
"Okay, don't ever call him papa bear again, Morgana, that is just creepy. And started what? How many times do I have to tell you that nothing is going on?"
Morgana did not even dignify that question with an answer, merely motioned for him to continue as she pulled up her knees, readjusting her skirt and shifting to make herself more comfortable. At least she had the bear, Arthur thought jealously, while he had to sit on the hard, itchy carpet. He wished they had some coffee, but of course this would be Merlin's day off, and he had a feeling Morgana wouldn't let him leave until he finished his story.
"So anyway," Arthur said. "It was a few days later when..."
...Merlin, Arthur and Gwaine were out at a gallery event across town which Gwaine had absolutely insisted they attend, because as he'd explained to Arthur earlier, Merlin was something of an artist himself and terribly insecure about his work (which was why, he reassured Arthur, that Merlin hadn't yet shown any of his paintings to him. Arthur still felt a bit stung by the fact that Gwaine had seen them when he hadn't, though, not that he'd ever admit that to either of them). So basically Gwaine was dragging Merlin, and by extension Arthur, to this event to prove to Merlin that no matter how shit he might think his art was he couldn't deny that it was better than this rubbish.
And as Arthur looked around at the collection of semi-pornographic stills of nude elderly people, he very much hoped that was true.
But despite the fact that they were all desperately uncomfortable, Arthur actually found himself having a great time. They'd been laughing so uproariously at some of the images that a custodian had been over to shush them twice, and the second time he very politely warned them that the next time they could not respect the art, they would be asked to leave. And this, of course, had led to a bit of a challenge between the three of them to see who would crack first and get them thrown out of what Gwaine had dubbed The Senior Porn Exhibit.
So far, Merlin seemed the most likely candidate. He was giggling at everything, leaning into Arthur as his shoulders shook, and Arthur had to drape an arm around his middle to keep him upright.
"Excuse me," a voice came from behind them and Merlin and Arthur started, sure that this was finally the moment when they'd get tossed out on their arses. But when they turned, it was to face an elderly woman who must be upwards of 90 (probably one of the models, Arthur suddenly realised, trying not to associate the kindly old lady with the outrageous poses struck in some of the pictures), who was looking at them with an indulgent smile. "I'm terribly sorry for imposing, but I just have to tell you how nice it is to see young love these days. You two seem very happy together."
Merlin gaped. Arthur gaped. Behind them, Gwaine snorted.
"Erm," Merlin said, and Arthur felt him deftly slide out of Arthur's hold. "Thank you, but it's not, I mean, we're not -"
"Oh please don't be embarrassed," the woman shook her head, clearly misinterpreting his tone. "It really is very sweet. You remind me of myself when I first fell in love with Bill. We were married for more than 60 years before he passed away this spring, you know," she said, sighing sadly.
"I... oh," Merlin said, looking distinctly awkward. Arthur winced; they couldn't exactly tell this poor old woman that the love between her and her dead husband which she thought she saw reflected in him and Merlin was actually all in her own head.
That was when Gwaine stepped in, literally, coming to stand between Merlin and Arthur and putting an arm around each of their shoulders, hugging them both to his sides. Arthur wasn't sure if he was relieved or annoyed. "Well, that is very kind of you to say!" Gwaine said, flashing the woman a bright, wide (and inappropriately flirtatious, but then Arthur didn't think he could actually turn that off) smile. "You must excuse my friends if they get a bit shy, they aren't used to being out and about if you catch my meaning."
The old lady giggled, and Merlin blushed to the roots of his hair, and Gwaine continued to grin in the most obnoxious way possible. And Arthur thought, fine.
"Yes," he said, pushing Gwaine back so he could move to Merlin's side, pushing his arm past Merlin's to wrap it around Merlin's waist again, pulling him in, ignoring Merlin's sharp gasp of surprise. "Do excuse us. We sometimes forget that it is okay to show the world how in love we are." And, with a triumphant look back at a stunned Gwaine, Arthur leaned across to plant a light kiss against Merlin's cheek.
Merlin turned his head, eyes wide like a deer in headlights. Arthur raised his eyebrows, waiting. Then, Merlin's shocked expression turned mischievous.
"Oh Arthur," he crooned, with a very exaggerated pout, "you know I love you more."
The woman was practically beaming, and to Arthur's intense satisfaction, Gwaine's jaw had practically dropped to the floor. Just to see if he could make it better, Arthur slid his hand down from Merlin's waist to rest against the curve of his arse, and glanced back to find Gwaine staring at the hand, bug-eyed. To Merlin's credit he didn't even flinch, merely leaned even further into Arthur as he started chatting to the woman about the exhibit – and actually showing, in Arthur's opinion, a little too much interest in the composition of the photographs.
They stayed pressed together like that all evening. And if he was completely honest with himself, Arthur would have to admit that after a while, he forgot to look back to see if Gwaine was even still watching them.
Morgana said nothing for a moment, hand absently stroking the hand of the bear she was, essentially, spooning at this point. Arthur shuddered; he'd seen Ted, and that made this situation decidedly creepy. That was it, the minute she was gone that bear was out of here.
"So," Morgana said at last, "all of this with you and Merlin... that is what's been going on? I mean, obviously when the pair of you were practically sitting on each other's laps after that dinner at your flat I wondered, but I thought it was just the two of you being, well, you. But you were... what? Trying to prove a point?"
Arthur winced. That was the part of the story he'd been dreading having to tell, because it would require him to actually justify his actions over the past few weeks – and he wasn't sure that would be as easy. "Er, well, kind of. It's a bit more complicated than that."
"I knew it," Morgana said triumphantly. "You are shagging him, aren't you?"
"For crying out loud Morgana, stop it with the shagging! I have never and will never shag Merlin, you need to let it go," he said, rolling his eyes and pointedly ignoring the much too vivid images that flashed in his mind. It wasn't his fault; his stupid friends and family had put them there.
"Hey, you're the one who licked his earlobe."
"...There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for that. Which I would be able to eventually get to if you'd stop interrupting me."
"I'm listening! I'm on the edge of my bear here."
"That's not even..."
"Whatever, I'm still thinking. Just continue the story."
Arthur was prepared to let the incident at the gallery go. It had been a fun, one-time thing just to prove a point to Gwaine – that he and Merlin weren't afraid of the accusations, and weren't above poking fun at themselves about it. But apparently Merlin had other ideas, because the next time they went to the pub with Gwen and Lancelot, he very non-discreetly tangled their fingers together where they lay, very exposed, on the table.
Gwen noticed first, her eyes bugging, and a moment later Lancelot let out a startled, "Ow!" and reached down to rub his leg – and then he noticed, too, and let out a very girly squeak, followed by another "ow."
Merlin raised his eyebrows at them, silently daring them to comment, and Arthur fought to hide his smirk.
"So," Gwen said after a supremely pregnant pause. "Who's hungry?"
And that was that – but Merlin didn't let go of Arthur's hand, and Arthur made no move to let go, either. He wasn't really sure what they had accomplished, and whether Gwen and Lance's decision to ignore them was a way of calling their bluff or an acceptance of whatever they believed to be the truth about Merlin and Arthur's relationship, but why should he care what they thought anyway? It was quite a nice feeling, this solid, steadying weight in his hand. Merlin's fingers were warm and not at all clammy where they twined with his, and why shouldn't they be able to do this if they wanted to? That's what Gwen and Lance got for making outrageous assumptions that had no basis in fact.
From there, it was like Merlin and Arthur had entered into an unspoken, mutual pact of agreement that if everyone was going to assume that their physical closeness made them gay and hot for each other, then they may as well give them a show for it. And Arthur found that it actually helped the situation quite a lot, because he could stop worrying about what boundaries he needed to uphold with Merlin to make sure no one misunderstood their relationship – in fact, he found that he could be as close to the other man as he wanted, and after a while, no one even batted an eyelid (whether because they'd accepted the pair's unusual but platonic behaviour or because they thought Merlin and Arthur had just finally given in to "the inevitable" was anyone's guess, but Arthur tried not to think about that part). And as long as they didn't talk about it – like Fight Club – there was no awkwardness at all. He and Merlin were closer than ever, in every sense of the word, and Arthur couldn't be happier.
Until it got weird, which in retrospect had probably been inevitable. Because as it turned out, this game they were playing was a slippery slope.
The first time was when Arthur realised that he could use this new situation with Merlin to his advantage.
"Yes," he said to Leon, an overly bright, stupid smile on his face as he pulled Merlin closer, leaning in to make his voice heard in the crowded, noisy pub, "we are very happy together, thank you for asking. In fact," he paused, shooting Merlin an evil look, "Merlin just agreed to move in with me!"
"I did what?!" Merlin spluttered, but it was drowned out by a particularly loud outcry from the blokes watching rugby in the corner.
"Oh wow, I didn't know you were that serious," Leon grinned. "Congratulations!" He patted them both on the back and Merlin stumbled into Arthur, glaring as he pulled back.
"What?" Arthur said innocently a little while later, as they were walking back to Arthur's. "Don't give me that look, you know it makes sense. It's not like you don't already live there half the time anyway."
"Yes, but... this is stupid, Arthur, you could have at least asked me," Merlin pouted, leaning against Arthur despite the fact that they were alone.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "What did you want, a bouquet of flowers? I'm not asking you to marry me, Merlin."
Merlin groaned. "My mother will be so happy. She's been telling me for months that this would happen, you know."
Arthur laughed, making a mental note never to introduce Hunith to Uther. They'd be picking out names for their non-existent grandkids before they knew it.
The next day, Arthur ordered a large bouquet of lilies to be delivered to Merlin's desk with a note that read, Move in with me and make me the happiest man alive?
And okay, so really this might all have possibly been his fault, but whatever. After all, he wasn't the one who'd Crossed The Line.
"...And shagged you?"
"For the last time, Morgana, there has been no shagging!"
"Kissed you, then?"
"I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that word while sitting on a giant stuffed bear."
"Looks like he's not the only one getting stuffed here. Ha, nailed it!"
"I need new friends."
Merlin did move in – though he very firmly informed Arthur that this was despite the flowers, not because of them.
And it really was the perfect set-up. At the end of the day they could simply go home, full stop, and not need to worry about Merlin having to leave later. Nothing really changed aside from that though; they still flung themselves down on the sofa every night, had a few beers, ordered pizza or Chinese (whenever Merlin wasn't in the mood to cook, which Arthur to his delight discovered was one of the other man's talents), and talked or watched crappy TV until much too late at night. Then they'd drag themselves to their respective rooms and fall asleep, separately, tandem alarms waking them at 7:00 sharp to get up, shower (again separately), get dressed and have a quick breakfast before leaving for work at 7:45. A wonderful, easy routine, until it wasn't.
It was late one Thursday night, and Arthur and Merlin really had no business watching Mission: Impossible at this hour, but Merlin had let it slip earlier that he'd never seen the films and Arthur, of course, had felt the need to remedy that fault immediately.
They'd started sitting next to each other as they always did. Usually as the evening waned they'd each scoot back to opposite ends of the sofa, legs tangled as they slipped into drowsiness. But on this particular night, Merlin looked about ready to keel over where he sat, and when he tilted it was not away from Arthur but towards him.
Arthur stiffened for one moment, but then Merlin looked up at him sleepily, a question seemingly on his lips – and Arthur thought Fight Club Fight Club Fight Club, suddenly feeling like that first rule was the most important thing in the world. And so, more to stop Merlin from saying whatever he'd been about to say than for any other reason, Arthur reached over and tugged at Merlin until they could both scoot back – and before he really realised what he was doing, Arthur had draped Merlin half on top of him, leaning back and letting out a sigh of relief when he felt Merlin relax against him.
Neither of them actually ended up watching the rest of the movie, but when Arthur woke up a few hours later, Merlin's elbow digging into his ribcage, he found himself not caring about that one bit.
Inside of him, however, a silent war was raging. He knew that this was decidedly different from before – there was no one else here this time, no one to prove a point to, and no way to justify their behaviour. But still, Arthur didn't want to pull away, because this was nice – and if he should refuse himself the right to enjoy this closeness with Merlin, wasn't he just proving everyone else right? Wasn't that just a sign that Arthur, like everyone else, believed that two guys couldn't be this close and still feel nothing but friendship for each other?
No, he thought stubbornly, he and Merlin weren't like that. Stupid social ideas that were born out of too many buddy-cop movies and hormonal teenagers taking the idea of subtext a little too far shouldn't define him. Just because the rest of humanity was repressed didn't mean he had to be, too. He had no problem admitting that he liked being close to Merlin – spending time together, touching him, this – and that didn't make him gay. Plain and simple.
He wrapped his arms more securely around Merlin and felt the other man let out what sounded like a relieved breath as he, too, snuggled closer. Was he awake? But no, a moment later Merlin had relaxed completely against him, and Arthur thought he must have imagined it.
When they woke the next morning to their alarm clocks going off in their rooms, they untangled themselves without speaking, going their separate ways to prepare for the day ahead. But as Merlin handed Arthur a cup of coffee when he entered the kitchen twenty minutes later, their fingers brushed together and Arthur looked up to find Merlin smiling at him. And Arthur returned the smile, and then everything was fine.
From then on, things were no longer awkward at all. But they were different. Both Merlin and Arthur had begun to see it like a bit of a sport to see how many people they could convince that they were in fact a couple, and neither seemed to care at all about the fact that around London, more and more of their acquaintances were beginning to treat them like they were actually together. After all, it hardly mattered, considering that if they were honest with themselves they had to admit that for all intents and purposes they were. Except they weren't, and that was a line Arthur never ever let himself even think about. As far as he was concerned there was no line, and therefore nothing to cross, because he wasn't gay and Merlin wasn't gay and everyone else were delusional and wrong, and wasn't that the reason why he and Merlin were doing all this anyway?
He was pretty sure that this was why, when Morgana came for dinner, Merlin had gently pulled Arthur into his side. It was definitely the reason why Arthur had turned his head to nuzzle at Merlin's neck, darting out his tongue to lick at his earlobe. And they'd both had a long laugh about it later, because surely that kind of stuff only meant something if other people thought it did?
But there was still something about the way they acted when they were alone which Arthur knew he should probably let himself think about, but which he continued to stubbornly ignore.
Because after that night, Merlin and Arthur no longer saved their touching and their gazing and their endearments for when they were trying to get a reaction out of others. No, they did it all the time, as though it was as easy as breathing, and the worst part about it all was that it really was.
Arthur's hand was now placed low on Merlin's back as they walked towards the car. Merlin now leaned his chin on Arthur's shoulder, his chest pressed up against Arthur's back as Arthur unlocked the door to their flat. Their fingers now brushed together much more frequently as they prepared their food together, Merlin's hands guiding Arthur's as he taught him how to slice tomatoes julienne (and really, when would he ever need that skill in real life? But Merlin had insisted, all soft eyes and smiles, and how could Arthur turn him down after that?). And on the sofa it was no longer just their legs that tangled but their whole bodies, as they lay draped together and more often than not drifted off to sleep there. Then, one of them would wake in the middle of the night and drag the other off to his bed before tiredly stumbling away into his own room.
And suddenly Arthur missed Merlin when he wasn't there, and found himself looking forward to these moments alone, when everything they did was for them and he didn't have to look out for how everyone else were reacting, and didn't have to play anything up for anyone.
It all felt very backwards, somehow, but he couldn't quite work out how or why.
And then one night, they hadn't managed to actually extricate themselves from each other at the end of the night and just stumbled into one bed rather than two separate ones, waking up in the morning tangled and sleepy and smiling stupidly at each other. And later that day Arthur had got the twelve long-stemmed red roses with a note that read You complete me, and then Arthur had reciprocated with a giant heart made out of chocolate, and a week later, here they were.
"And a week later, here we are," Arthur finished, spreading his palms as though he'd just presented Morgana with the Holy Grail.
But Morgana was not impressed. "You do know that's not how this story ends, don't you Arthur?" she asked, sounding almost pitying.
Arthur frowned. "What do you mean? I have just proved to you that despite the wild fantasies everyone and their mother – literally – seems to have about me and Merlin, we are not, in fact, shagging. We're friends. Platonic friends who aren't afraid to joke about this because we're comfortable with each other. Come on Morgana, I've seen you be all over your friend Morgause and no one ever says anything about the two of you!"
"Oh you'd be surprised," Morgana snorted. "But that's beside the point, Arthur. While you are absolutely correct that just because two friends are close doesn't mean there's anything more going on, my dear brother, you're missing a very important factor here."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "And what's that?"
"You're not close friends. You're Arthur and Merlin."
And with that she reached over and patted his cheek, raising herself from the (now slightly squished, but looking suspiciously pleased with itself in Arthur's opinion) bear, shooting him one final pitying smile before exiting the room, leaving Arthur alone with his thoughts.
And the damn bear.
Arthur raised himself to his feet, shaking his legs to get his blood flowing again. He glared down at the offending presence, but found his glare softening as he realised that the suit really did look like one of his own (apart from the ruffles, which his did not have). And the bear's face was set into an awfully familiar, almost reproachful expression – Arthur was sure that Merlin must have spent hours tracking down this particular one, which made something soft settle in his chest and stay there.
If this was a game, Arthur was pretty sure that Merlin had just won it. But Arthur suddenly wasn't sure what they were even playing for anymore.
He didn't throw away the bear.
When Arthur came home that evening, Merlin was setting the table for dinner. Arthur took a moment to appreciate the domesticity of the moment, how right it felt to have Merlin here when he came home, before Merlin turned to greet him. When he saw Arthur he looked like he was trying to hold back a smile, but Arthur also thought he saw something slightly anxious in his eyes.
"So," Merlin said, turning his back to him as he laid out the cutlery, "anything interesting happen today? Any... unexpected guests, perhaps? Or should I say..." he turned to Arthur, a mischievous grin on his face, "bearhaps?"
Arthur said nothing. He let himself watch Merlin for a moment, feeling the way his body wanted to move closer.
So he did. Arthur moved towards Merlin slowly, and he didn't stop until their bodies were almost touching, and his his face was inches from Merlin's own - finally letting himself try to follow his instincts; see what would happen if he didn't let himself hold back at all.
"You're as bad as Morgana," he murmured, watching as the look on Merlin's face shifted into something else; something Arthur was pretty sure he'd seen before, except he'd never really let himself look. He wasn't completely aware of what he was looking for, now, but he was pretty sure that whatever it was, he'd just found it. Merlin swallowed, and Arthur's eyes darted down to watch his Adam's apple moving up and down against his throat.
"I..." Merlin started, but then a loud ding! made them both jump, and Merlin's face broke into a nervous grin. "Dinner's ready."
And he moved away from Arthur so quickly, Arthur had to resist the suddenly insatiable urge to reach out and pull him back – because at that moment, nothing had seemed more natural than that, and that realisation left him completely floored.
Dinner was spent in a heavy, contemplative silence. Neither looked up as their hands brushed while both reaching for the salad, nor when their feet touched under the table – but neither pulled away, either, and Arthur was suddenly not sure what part of all this was a facade and what part of it wasn't.
They did the washing-up side by side, and moved into the living room automatically, because that's what they always did and neither seemed able to come up with a reason for why they shouldn't.
Arthur sat down on his side like he would any other day, but this didn't feel like any other day. Merlin sat down a moment later, perched on the edge of the sofa, knee not quite touching Arthur's.
For a moment they both sat staring at the television, not seeming to notice or care that it was off and that the only sound in the room was their ragged, nervous breathing. Arthur listened as Merlin's uneven breaths pierced the silence, which suddenly felt charged with something different, something new. And whatever it was, judging by Merlin's silence, Arthur suspected that he felt it, too.
And this time, when Merlin's fingers tentatively entwined with his own like they had a hundred times before (although somehow never quite like this), Arthur let himself acknowledge the tiny tendrils of heat spiking out from where their skin touched, and the way his pulse quickened as he felt Merlin's hand press against his thigh where their joined hands now rested.
"Um, Die Hard?" Arthur asked, hating that his voice shook a little bit.
"Sure," Merlin replied after a moment, own voice carefully blank.
Arthur lifted himself off the sofa, and this time he wasn't able to ignore the loss he felt when Merlin's fingers slipped out of his own. He moved to the cabinet to bring out the movie, placing it in the DVD player with slightly shaky hands and turning on the TV. All the while, Merlin stayed completely still and silent behind him.
They'd seen this movie a dozen times before, but Arthur had panicked and blurted out the first title that'd come to mind. His heartbeat had sped up quite ridiculously, and for the first time since meeting Merlin he found himself unsure. When the movie began to play he kept his back to Merlin for another moment, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, trying to calm himself. This was ridiculous. It was just Merlin.
You're Arthur and Merlin.
Shut up, Morgana, Arthur thought, feeling foolish for trying to argue with a voice in his head but not really caring. Maybe he was just losing his mind, that'd certainly explain all of these... nerves, or whatever this was.
When he turned back to the sofa, it was to find Merlin watching him with a soft, unguarded expression on his face.
Arthur swallowed, but felt himself inexplicably relax as he met the other man's gaze. It was, after all, just Merlin. He knew Merlin. He liked Merlin. We're Arthur and Merlin. Surely that was all that mattered.
He moved towards the sofa as though in a daze, settling himself down against the backrest and raising an eyebrow. Another challenge; familiar territory. After a moment, Merlin smiled fondly and rolled his eyes, and moved forward, draping himself over Arthur and settling into the familiar position they'd perfected over so many nights of this. Of them.
But this time, Arthur wasn't watching the movie at all, and he knew that Merlin wasn't either because he was looking at Merlin's profile, struck by the sharp lines of his face, and the way the light caught his dark hair and made it shimmer every time he shifted slightly. Then Merlin took one of Arthur's hands in his own, softly stroking the skin of his palm, and Arthur's breath hitched, something jolting deep in his stomach.
"You're shaking," Merlin murmured, tilting his head upwards to search Arthur's eyes, an inscrutable expression in his own.
Huh. He supposed he was. Arthur moved their hands until he could position them over Merlin's heart, and was unsurprised to find it beating just as fast as his own. And as Arthur brought up his other hand to touch his fingers to Merlin's throat gently, just because he was curious to see if he'd find a similar rhythm there, it was Merlin's turn to gasp.
"So are you," he breathed into Merlin's ear, feeling Merlin's shiver echo through his own body.
Merlin took a deep breath in, and turned around in Arthur's arms until he could hover above him, eyes much darker than Arthur had ever seen them before. "Yeah, I guess I am," Merlin shrugged, leaning in until their faces were inches apart, a small, hesitant smile on his face. An invitation. His tongue darted out to lick his lips, and Arthur's eyes followed the movement.
And then it felt like the most natural thing in the world to tilt up his own head and bridge the final bit of distance between them, finding Merlin's lips soft and pliant as they tentatively brushed against his own. Their kiss was slow, at first, careful; and yes, this was what Arthur had been searching for. But it wasn't enough - Arthur moaned, drawing Merlin down against him until their bodies aligned flush against each other, and fisted his hand in Merlin's hair as he captured the other man's lower lip between his own. Merlin sucked in a sharp breath, his mouth parting against Arthur's, and his tongue darted out to meet Arthur's in a slow tangle more intense and intoxicating than anything Arthur had ever experienced before.
Merlin made a small, deep noise in the back of his throat when they finally had to come up for air, tightening his grip on Arthur's shoulders, and thrust himself against Arthur in a way that left them both panting, foreheads touching, eyes never leaving each other.
"So, we haven't done that before," Merlin whispered with a shaky laugh as Arthur moved his hands over his arms, his sides, then brought them down to ghost against his stomach, and finally pushed them up under his shirt, feeling both overwhelmed by all the new intense sensations and as if they'd already done this a million times before. Now that he was touching Merlin this way, it was like his entire being was screaming yes and finally and more, and he didn't think he'd ever be able to get enough of this. "It feels... oh god, Arthur," Merlin breathed, his words punctuated by little gasps as Arthur's hands continued their tentative exploration of his body.
"You wanna stop?" Arthur asked, even as he pushed himself up to nibble at Merlin's throat, pressing soft kisses along the line of his collarbone.
"Fuck no," Merlin breathed, moaning softly as Arthur's fingers grazed a nipple, throwing his head back to give Arthur better access to his throat.
"Good. Because I've been wanting to do this for months," Arthur groaned, only realising as he spoke the words that they were true.
"Me too," Merlin panted, rutting against Arthur again, "you have no idea." Arthur's only response to that was to lick a trail up Merlin's neck, capturing his mouth with his own and showing Merlin that actually, he really did.
And as they moved together, learning to explore each other's bodies in a way that was so new, yet not so much different from the way they'd been with each other all along, Arthur vaguely thought that really, everyone but his sister of all people seemed to have gotten it wrong, including Arthur and Merlin themselves.
It was not about labels. It was not about proving anything to anyone. It was simply about being, and giving in to the inevitable. Merlin and Arthur would always be, and had always been, Merlin and Arthur. And that was more than enough.
"Some people care too much. I think it's called love."
- A.A. Milne (who clearly shipped Merthur before it was cool)
I have no excuse for the terrible bear puns, but hopefully you enjoyed them! Please leave a review and tell me what you thought?