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The Burdens of Being a Best Friend

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   No matter the time of day or night, no matter what Arthur may be doing at that exact moment, when his best friend calls him, he always answers. No exceptions. That morning, was no different. Arthur was staring down at the pile of paperwork on his desk, hands buried in his blond locks, as his shoulders sagged a bit. He was tired. More exhausted, actually. He had got barely any sleep the night before, tossing and turning into the early hours of the morning as he tried (and failed) to not think about what today would bring. Now, he was paying for it. His cell phone, sitting on his desk next to his left elbow, lighting up with Merlin's name was both a nice distraction from the figures blurring in front of his eyes, but also brought along a throb of familiar pain in his chest.

   "Hello, Merlin." He says, trying his best to sound pleasant. When he still got no reply after a moment, he says, "Merlin?"

   There's a sniffle over the line before Merlin's choked voice replies, "Arthur?"

   The raw pain in his friend's voice makes Arthur sit up, immediately concerned. He drops his other hand from his hair, paperwork forgotten entirely. Why was Merlin calling him, clearly in tears, when he was supposed to be leaving for a week long trip with his boyfriend? Arthur inhales deeply, trying to calm his racing heart before trying to talk to his distressed best friend.

   "Merlin? What happened?" He asks softly, hoping he sounds as soothing as he's trying to be. He isn't always the best at dealing with extreme emotions.

   "I..." Merlin says, stops to take several sniffly inhales, then continues, "I don't know. Everything was fine, and now, I... Arthur, I don't know what happened." He's rambling, and Arthur's head is starting to spin now.

   "Merlin." Arthur says. His voice cuts Merlin's distressed voice off effectively. "I need you to slow down, and take a deep breath." When he hears Merlin comply, he says, "Good. Now, please tell me what happened."

   Silence reigns over the line before, in a very small voice, Merlin says, "Will just broke up with me."

   Arthur would be lying if he said that he hadn't always, in some way, dreamed of hearing those words. Will had been Merlin's steady, and infuriatingly serious, boyfriend for the past three and a half years. Merlin was always gushing about how in love they were. How he had thought they'd be together forever. He now felt stupid about those dreams of his. The raw pain in Merlin's voice at that very moment was not worth the small jolt of ill-placed hope that sprung to life momentarily in his heart.

   Arthur swallows down the flutter in his throat. "I'm so sorry. What happened?" He cringes as the words come out. Hadn't Merlin just said he didn't know?

   "I don't know." Merlin replies in a choked voice. "I thought we were happy. I thought he was going to..." His voice trails off, and Arthur feels a hot flash in his gut. He didn't need Merlin to finish that sentence to know exactly what he was going to say. Merlin had thought that Will was going to ask him to officially move in together. Arthur only just manages to not choke as he flounders helplessly for something to say. How did one comfort the man they were desperately in love with when said man had just been dumped by the man they were desperately in love with?

   "Where are you now?" He asks, a half-formed idea taking root in his mind. He refused to let Merlin sit around by himself and mope. Not when he could do something about it.

   "Uhm, at home, why?" Merlin replies, voice once again nasally and betraying the tears no doubt running down his pale cheeks. Arthur's heart twists in his chest again. He nods, despite the fact that Merlin can't see him.

   "Good. I'm coming to get you." He says briskly, already pushing back from his desk and reaching to pack up his paperwork.

   "What? No, Arthur, it's fine. Really." Merlin protests weakly. Arthur easily brushes him off with a scoff.

    "Shut up, Merlin. I wasn't getting anything done today anyway." He says. He doesn't tell Merlin why, and he sincerely hopes that he never finds out. He refused to risk their friendship of ten years because he had developed some small and decidedly pesky feelings for the man. Except, they didn't feel small.

   "Arthur, I..." Merlin drags off, then sighs. "Fine. Thank you." He adds on in a small voice. Arthur's betraying heart flutters approvingly in his chest. However, he clamps down on it, not wanting his fondness for his friend to show through.

   "I'll be there soon." He says curtly, hanging up before Merlin even has a chance to reply. He makes short work of packing up his things, slinging his suit jacket over his shoulder and grabbing his briefcase before moving to the door. His secretary, Gwen, looks up as he appears in the doorway. She quirks an eyebrow in his direction.

   "Gwen, I hate to do this to you on such short notice, but I need you to clear my schedule for the rest of the day. Tomorrow as well. I'll be in touch about the rest of the week." He says. Gwen stares at him incredulously.

   "Sir, you have several important meetings over the next couple days. Including some with your father." She protests.

   Arthur winces visibly as he says, "I know, but something important has come up, and I'm not sure how long it'll take to deal with." He remains as vague as possible, but he can still see the precise moment that Gwen realizes exactly what is going on. She gets a ridiculously pitying look on her face that makes Arthur grimace and blush profusely.

   "Leave it with me, Arthur. Take as long as you need." She says softly. Her comforting tone just makes Arthur scrunch up his face more. By now, he is sure that he looks decidedly like he's eating something sour.

   "Right. Thank you, Gwen." He says, turning his head slightly to hide his burning cheeks. Gwen says something else, a goodbye perhaps, but Arthur isn't listening. He is already, once again, refocused solely on his best friend. He pauses at the elevator when he hears Gwen call his name loudly. He lifts his eyebrows in a nonverbal way of telling her to continue. Gwen purses her lips for a moment.

   "One of these days you're going to have to do something about how you feel." She says, confirming Arthur's suspicions that she had guessed what was going on. To some extent, anyway. He had no idea how Guinevere had figured out about the secret feelings he harboured for his best friend, but she definitely wasted no opportunity to tell him to fess up to them.

   Arthur merely nods, turning back to the elevator doors as they ding open. He steps on, only looking back as he turns and presses the button for the underground parking garage. Gwen is looking back at him sternly, in the way that only she and Merlin can ever get away with. Her piercing stare gets cut off as the doors close. He relaxes minutely now that he is no longer under scrutiny.

   Once out of the elevator, Arthur makes his way to his car on autopilot. He climbs in behind the wheel and buckles out of sheer muscle memory. Equally, his drive to Merlin's is more out of habit than actual driving ability. He had gone to his best friend's place after work so often that it was almost as second nature as going home to his own stark, and borderline unlived in, posh flat. Before he truly knows what's happening, he's parking outside of the building Merlin lives in, sending up a silent prayer to whomever may be listening that he made it in one piece as he gets out of his car and locks the doors. With a single deep breath, he makes his way toward the main complex doors, Merlin's spare kay in hand.

   As usual, the elevator is out of order, so Arthur takes the stairs to the fourth floor, his feet taking him to Merlin's door automatically. He slides the key into the lock, and turns it, frowning when he realizes that the door was already unlocked. Making a mental note to remind Merlin (again!) to lock his door, he pushes the door open and strides in.

   "Merlin?" He calls. He hears a scuffling from the direction of the small kitchen, and then Merlin appears. He has bloodshot, puffy eyes, a red nose, flushed cheeks, and slightly rumpled hair. In short, he looks a mess.

   "Arthur." He all but whimpers, and the sound makes Arthur's anger flare to life in his chest. Yes, seeing Merlin happy with someone else hurt, but Merlin should never look like this. No one should ever reduce him to such emotional lows. How dare Will do this to his best friend. He never deserved Merlin, anyway. Not in Arthur's opinion.

   Without pausing to take off his shoes, Arthur strides farther into Merlin's small flat and wraps his arms snugly around the man. He pulls him close, skin tingling where he feels Merlin tuck his nose into his neck. Deceptively strong arms wind around his own body, squeezing him closer. Arthur allows Merlin to snuggle in as close as he wants to, ignoring how the contact makes his stomach flip flop.

   Turning his head, Arthur buries his nose in Merlin's hair by his ear, and murmurs, "I'm so sorry, Merlin." All he gets in reply is a sniffle, and what feels like tears soaking into his expensive white button down. He can't find it in himself to care. Arthur's half-formed idea from earlier starts to take on more of a solid shape in his mind.

   "Thank you." Merlin whispers, voice constricted. Arthur's keen gaze lands on his friend's still packed bags. Decision made, he pulls back a little more, just enough to once again see Merlin's heartbreakingly crumpled expression.

   "We're going away for a bit. I had Gwen rearrange my schedule for the next few days. I'm taking you to my mother's cottage." Arthur states simply, despite the hammering of his heart. Arthur had never really known his mother, her having passed shortly after he was born. She did, however, leave quite a few things to him in her will. One of these was a lovely, isolated cottage set in some trees, out in the country. Arthur rarely had the time to go out there, and when he did, he seldom took anyone with him. The last had been his last "steady" girlfriend, whom his father had wanted him to impress.

   Merlin's eyes widen almost comically at the suggestion. He knew how special the cottage was for Arthur. What he didn't know, was that, to Arthur, he was even more special. There was nothing that Arthur was not willing to do for his best friend. If taking him away from the city to just relax and detach himself from reality for a bit worked, then he would do it in a heartbeat. That is the kind of treatment that Merlin deserved.

   Stopping that train of thought before it can build up any kind of steam, and therefore run rampant in his head, he untangles himself from Merlin's arms and steps back toward the door. Merlin is still staring at him in something kind of akin to wonder, and he shifts awkwardly.

   "Come on." He says gruffly, hoping to cover up his feelings sufficiently. "I'm certainly not carrying your bags out to my car. Let's get going. We still need to swing by my place so I can pack a few essentials." His mind is already jumping several steps ahead. He'll need to call the company he employs to look after the place, make sure it's habitable and the fridge fully stocked before their arrival. Before he is even fully turned around to go back to the door, he's stopped by a hand on his wrist.

   Merlin's inquisitive blue eyes are fixed on him as he asks, "Why are you doing this?"

   Arthur feels something soften in his chest. "Because you're my best friend and I would do anything for you." His cheeks warm at his words. He had perhaps stepped a little too close to the rather unfortunate truth with that particular statement, but they weren't a lie. Merlin blinks. Arthur finally turns, easily pulling his wrist from Merlin's now lax grip. "Come on."

   Merlin obediently follows him to the door, detouring to grab his packed bag before pulling his shoes on. Arthur ushers him out the door, then closes it and locks up behind him. They both remain silent as they descend the four flights of stairs to the main floor. Merlin only speaks again as they step out into the sunshine and make their way to Arthur's car.

   "Thank you, Arthur. You're a good friend." His words are spoken quietly, but firmly. No room for doubt is left in their delivery, and that fact is why Arthur feels a knife plunge into his chest. You're a good friend.’ That's all he would ever be to Merlin. He turns his head to give him a taut smile.

   "You don't need to thank me, Merlin." He replies, hoping that his tone doesn't give away the pain in his chest. "What are friends for, after all?"

   Merlin smiles back, seemingly oblivious to the battle of emotions raging inside Arthur. They lapse back into an easy silence as they reach his car, stowing Merlin's bag in the back seat. They slide into the front, Merlin reaching for the dial to change the radio station as Arthur turns the key in the ignition. Arthur lets him. The local alternative station starts playing as Arthur backs out of the parking spot and pulls out onto the main road.

   The flat that Arthur very loosely referred to as "home" was not a very long drive from Merlin's. Only seven minutes later, he is once again parking the car and climbing out. Merlin follows him, as Arthur had expected he would. What he doesn't expect is for Merlin to crowd closer to him than he usually would. Their arms brush consistently as they move, making Arthur's skin tingle and his heart race. He does his best to force back his body's involuntary reactions, but they persist. Slamming his mask of aloofness down over his face, he leads them into the building.

   The elevator here is not broken, and so Arthur steps in, pushing the button for the top floor. One bonus of being the son of one of the richest businessmen in England meant that he could afford a spacious, penthouse apartment in his choice of the city. Or, at least, that's what Merlin always said. Arthur found that his flat often felt lonely. Almost clinical. It didn't feel homey and lived in like Merlin's much more meagre flat.

   When the doors ding open, Arthur heads down the short hall to his door, Merlin still practically glued to his side. He brushes his confusion at his best friend's behaviour aside as best he can, and unlocks the door, pushing it open and gesturing Merlin inside.

   "Help yourself to anything you want. You know the drill. I don't have much in the way of quickly and easily consumable food, but I should have a bottle of red and white wine in the fridge." He gestures to the kitchen as he shoots Merlin a grin. "Just in case you feel the need to start day drinking."

   Merlin sticks his tongue out at him. "I am not drinking before noon, you prat." He shoots back, making Arthur's grin turn more genuine. For the first time since he talked to Merlin on the phone, his friend seems to be more like himself. The thought relaxes him somewhat. Merlin was going to be okay. He would make sure of it.

   "If you decide to, I won't judge you." He says. "Well, not a lot, anyway." He gets a halfhearted glare in response. "I'll just be a minute." He tacks on over a chuckle, them disappears into his flat.

   Once in his room, Arthur grabs his gym bag and empties the contents onto his bed. In their place, he stuffs a few changes of clothes, and any other necessities he can think of. Holding it by the strap, he crosses the hall to the bathroom, and grabs his toothbrush and toothpaste, fitting them in along with his deodorant and shampoo. Before going back to Merlin, he pulls out his phone to call ahead and announce their arrival later that day. He gets the solemn and professional assurance that everything will be in order when they arrive. Satisfied, Arthur stows his phone away in his pocket, and zips up his bag. With a deep breath, he tries to calm his still racing heart. The act is futile, and Arthur resignedly makes his way back to his friend.

   Merlin looks up from his spot on Arthur's plush armchair as he enters the living room. "You all ready to go?"

   "Yes." Arthur replies, hefting his overstuffed duffle higher onto his shoulder. It wasn't exactly designed to have quite this much stuff crammed into it. Merlin nods in reply, and unfolds himself from the chair, passing Arthur close enough that he can smell the scent of the man's shampoo and body wash mingling in the air around him. Arthur inhales sharply, and hopefully discreetly, as he watches Merlin continue to the door and toe his shoes back on. Arthur hadn't even noticed that he had bothered to take them off. With another shaky breath, Arthur follows him to the door.

   Their earlier silence resumes as they exit Arthur's flat, and return to the elevator. Arthur keeps shooting glances over at his best friend, that earlier pain returning as he sees the sadness seeping back into Merlin's eyes. For a short, paralyzing moment, Arthur briefly thinks that it looks like Will has broken Merlin. In the many years they had known each other, he had never seen Merlin's eyes so dull. He quickly shakes the thought away, though. Merlin was going to be fine. He may be hurting now, but he would recover. He would bounce back, and be happy again. Arthur would make sure of it.

   Once back in the car, Merlin twists his body so he's facing the door as much as possible, back to Arthur. Arthur almost feels rebuked by the action, but forces the oily feeling aside. This was not about him. This was about Merlin. He would grant the man as much privacy as he could, with being stuck in the car with him. His hand reaches automatically for the volume dial on the radio as he catches sound of the first hastily choked off sob coming from Merlin's side of the car. From the corner of his eyes, he sees Merlin curl in on himself. Arthur mentally sighs as he keeps his gaze fixed on the road ahead. This was going to be a very long drive.

~~~

   At some point during the drive, Arthur is unsure when exactly, Merlin had mercifully fallen asleep. Arthur cast short glances at him across the seats, taking in the relaxed features of his face, and loathed having to wake him up. To wake him again would be to reawaken his pain, and Arthur really didn't want to do that. He didn't have much of a choice, however. Especially now that he was driving down the tree-lined, twisting driveway to the cottage.

   "Merlin." He says as he parks the car and twists the ignition off. "We're here, wake up." He adds, reaching out to shake the still sleeping man's shoulder. Merlin groans, nose wrinkling as he's slowly pulled back into consciousness. Arthur looks away for a moment to dull the thoughts of 'damn, he's cute' ricocheting around in his head.

   Merlin's eyes blink open, and his brow creases as he takes in the lavish cottage and the trees surrounding the car. "How long was I asleep?" He asks, voice still thick with past-shed tears.

   Arthur shrugs. "At least half the drive." He replies, physically biting his lower lip to stop the usual snarky jab from tumbling out. 'I had to endure your incessant snoring for at least the past two hours.'

   "Oh." Is all Merlin says, eyes roving back over the cottage as he unbuckles his seatbelt. Arthur allows himself one long look at the back of Merlin's head, eyes fondly tracing the black locks that are now sticking up thanks to his impromptu nap, before turning and sliding out of his own car door. Despite his earlier comment about Merlin's bag, he grabs the handle and pulls it out of the back seat along with his own. He had never brought Merlin here before. The man deserved to look around a bit unencumbered.

   Merlin's eyes blink back to him as he passes by him, heading for the door. Mild surprise shows on his face as he takes in his bag clutched tightly in Arthur's left hand. He doesn't say anything, just silently follows Arthur up the stone steps, stepping inside after him as he opens the door and strides in. Arthur shoots him a glance over his shoulder, wanting to see Merlin's initial reaction to the place. He was not disappointed. Merlin's eyes were wide as he stared around himself in open awe. He really couldn't blame Merlin. His reaction to his mother's cottage the first time had been much the same. There was just something in the air here, that tended to wrap close around one's heart. Arthur thought maybe it was love.

   The whole cottage was constructed of matching coloured stones, accented by a rich brown wood. The floors were hardwood, of the same colour, and the countertops in complementing granite. The ceilings were high, for the type of building it was, and there was a huge fireplace inlaid in one wall. There were fresh logs inside, more set off to the side. The stainless steel appliances were all cleaned and gleaming with polish. As promised, the fridge and cupboards were fully stocked. The whole place exuded a warmth that Arthur felt deep in his bones. He wondered if Merlin could feel it too.

   "Do you think this will do as a suitable replacement for your week vacation?" He asks, trying for playful and ending up somewhere serious and worried. He bites his lower lip again as Merlin turns to him. He doesn't say a word, just strides forward and burrows himself into Arthur's arms. The blond automatically holds him closer, something in his chest purring in contentment.

   "This is perfect, Arthur." Merlin mumbles, voice muffled where his face is pressed into Arthur's shoulder. "Thank you."

   Arthur allows himself a single moment to enjoy the feeling of Merlin snuggled up against him before pulling away. He offers his friend what he hopes to be a convincing smile, and then steps back fully. Confusion flickers briefly across Merlin's face, gone before Arthur can even truly question its existence.

   "We best get settled." He says. "Grab your bag and I'll show you around." Merlin nods, following Arthur back to the front door where they retrieve their bags. Arthur leads them through the cottage to the stairs, pointing out the living room, kitchen, study, and bathroom on the main floor as he goes. Once on the upper level, he shows Merlin the other bathroom, the linen closet (in case he gets cold and needs more blankets. God knows he doesn't have enough meat on his bones to keep him warm), and the three bedrooms. Merlin deposits his things in the one closest to the stairs. Neither one comments on how Arthur leaves his belongings in the room farthest away.

   They both gravitate to the kitchen when they return to the main floor, working around each other to pull mugs and tea bags from the cupboards. Arthur seeks out the kettle, then fills it with water and sets it to boil. He can feel Merlin's eyes on him as they wait for the water to heat up, but he refuses to meet his gaze. He's too afraid that his own eyes will betray all the thoughts and feelings whirling around in his head.

   "We should get a fire going." Merlin says as they move on to the cozy living room, each with a steaming mug clutched in their hands. Arthur quirks an eyebrow at him. Although it wasn't the height of summer anymore, it was still quite warm outside. Merlin just offers up his childlike, innocent grin in return, knowing that, that never fails to get what he wants from his best friend. Even if he didn't truly know why. Arthur already knows that he is going to give in, even as he huffs for show, and dramatically sets his mug down before moving on to the fireplace.

   It takes longer than he really cares to admit to get the fire started, and he pointedly ignores Merlin's grin as he turns back to sit on the plush sofa positioned across from the fireplace. Merlin hums contentedly as the fire crackles, sipping cautiously on his still piping hot tea. Arthur feels a shiver down his spine at how utterly right this all feels. Being here with Merlin felt natural. Like it was always supposed to be just the two of them. No one else coming between them. He again finds himself wondering if Merlin can feel it too. He forces the thought aside, closing his eyes as he leans his head back against the sofa. He inhales deeply, letting it out on a prolonged sigh.

   A shaky inhale from the other side of the sofa makes his eyes open. He turns his head slightly, looking over at Merlin and keeping his head rested back at the same time. Merlin notices his eyes on him, and offers a tense, watery smile. Reaching up, he scrubs at his eyes, shrugging his shoulders slightly. Arthur feels that flicker of anger rise back up in his chest, his protective instinct telling him to pull Merlin into his arms and never let him go.

   "'M sorry." Merlin mumbles.

   "Whatever for?" Arthur retorts. Merlin drops his hands to look at him properly, revealing his glassy eyes.

   "For being such a mess?" Merlin replies. He shrugs his shoulders, like he isn't entirely sure himself. "I know you and Will never really got along."

   Now that was an understatement. Shortly after Will and Merlin had gotten together, Will had pulled Arthur aside at a party, and told him to back off. He was dating Merlin, and he viewed Arthur as a threat. Even though they were merely friends. Arthur was the one that Merlin always seemed to go to first. When he needed comfort. When he had exciting news. When he was making group plans to go out for drinks. Will hadn't liked how... involved Arthur was in Merlin's life. Arthur had merely leveled Will with a glare, and told him that he was the one who had Merlin in his arms, not Arthur, and if he couldn't hold onto Merlin properly, then that was his fault. There had been several conversations like that between the two of them over the course of Merlin's relationship with the man. Arthur suddenly feels a stab of guilt at the thought that maybe he was to blame for Will breaking things off. Did his refusal to back off from Merlin's life cause his best friend all this grief?

   "Did he tell you why?" Arthur hears himself ask. He immediately regrets it, not sure that be can really stomach the answer.

   Merlin shrugs. "Not really. He said something about how we had started to grow apart." Merlin drops his gaze to his still full mug of tea. "He told me that he didn't believe that he was the one I actually wanted. When I asked him why, he refused to elaborate. I don't know what he meant."

   Arthur feels another misplaced jolt of hope in his chest. He quickly smothers the small flame before it can grow too large. The last thing he needs is hope. He doesn't think his already throbbing heart could handle having that hope extinguished after growing too large. Best to disappoint himself now, to spare himself later.

   "I don't know how he could think that." Arthur replies airily. "All you seemed to be talking and thinking about during your time together was him. Getting you to talk about anything else was a feat worthy of a medieval knight's grand quest."

   Merlin's eyes snap up to study Arthur's face, even as his own cheeks flush a tasteful pink. Arthur lets himself admire the soft colour before ripping his gaze away, and taking a sip of his tea.

   "Apparently not." Was Merlin's soft, sad reply. Arthur looks back at him, sees the renewed tears back even stronger in his eyes, and sighs. He leans forward and places his tea on the small table next to the sofa, then leans back and opens his arms.

   "Come on." He beckons, willingly showing his vulnerable fondness for physical affection. He only ever seems to show this side to Merlin. Merlin says nothing, just sets his own mug down and crawls across the sofa to cuddle in close to Arthur's side. Arthur settles his arms around Merlin, steadfastly ignoring the flutter in his chest as he murmurs soothing words into the shaking boy's hair. Merlin curls in as close to him as he can possibly get.

   "Thank you." He says again, hoarsely. Arthur doesn't reply, just brings one of his hands up to card through Merlin's hair. He doesn't so much as move a muscle when the first cold tears land on the skin of his neck.

~~~

      Merlin ends up falling asleep again, curled up on the sofa, practically in Arthur's lap. Arthur knows that he should wake his friend, that allowing this to happen will only end up causing himself pain in the end, but he doesn't care. Just this once, he is going to selfishly take whatever he can get.

   Arthur can't help but notice now angelic Merlin looks while he's asleep. His dark eyelashes, fanned out over his pale skin, seem to highlight his already pronounced cheekbones. His slightly pouted lips made them look even softer. His relaxed features made his appear more innocent, like he doesn't actually feel the weight of the world currently on his shoulders. He looked peaceful, and Arthur knew he would do anything to have Merlin look just as serene while awake.

   He's continued running his fingers slowly through Merlin's soft hair, hoping that the action keeps him relaxed. Looking down at him now, he stops. He knows that he's just falling deeper. He needs to stop before it's too late. Before he's dug himself so far down, that even Merlin can't pull him out. As his fingers still and pull away, Merlin frowns in his sleep. Arthur feels a twinge of guilt, but pushes it aside. He needs to at least try to distance himself, for both their sakes. Still, as he stares down at his best friend, he feels words bubbling up in his throat.

   "I'm sorry this happened to you, Merlin. I always told you that I was here for you, that I would keep you from getting hurt. I failed that promise, and now all I can really do is be here for you, to try to help you pick yourself back up again. You never deserved this, Merlin. You deserve the whole world, and I would gladly give you mine, but I can't, so... I'll just be here, waiting to soothe the bruises should you fall. That I can, and will, promise."

   Merlin shifts in his arms, grumbling something unintelligible under his breath. Arthur feels his blood run cold for a moment, terrified that Merlin was actually awake, and had heard every single word of his verbal vomit. After a heart stopping moment, Merlin settles, eyes still closed, and breathing still even. Arthur lets out the breath he hadn't realized that he had even been holding. 'Thank God for that. How mortifying would that have been?'

   A quick glance out of the window shows the fading light. It's getting late, and Arthur can feel that his stomach is mere moments away from protesting the fact that he hasn't had anything to eat since his blueberry muffin that morning. He glances down at Merlin, still snuggled in his lap, and purses his lips. When had Merlin last eaten? He was notorious for skipping meals, especially breakfast. He closes his eyes and tries to recall what food had been in the kitchen earlier. He has no master chef, by any means, but he could get by when he needed to. He thinks he remembers seeing some boxed macaroni and cheese in the cupboard, and figures that, that is as good as anything. Now, all he had to do was get to the kitchen without waking Merlin.

   He shifts slightly, testing just how asleep his friend really was. When Merlin doesn't stir, he moves a bit more, holding Merlin's shoulders steady as he tries to slide out from under him. He has almost made it when Merlin grunts and blinks his eyes open. Only once he has practically fallen into the endless blue of Merlin's eyes does he fully realize just how close they are.

   "Arthur?" Merlin mumbles his name, his voice coming out slightly slurred with sleep and warbling the single word.

   "It's late. We should eat, and retire for the night. Someone needs to prevent you from falling asleep draped over random things throughout the place." Arthur replies, keeping his voice down. Merlin blinks.

   "'M not hungry." The man says, closing his eyes again. Arthur huffs and lightly pats his cheek. Merlin groans, but blinks his eyes open again.

   "I know for a fact that you haven't eaten anything for most of the day. I'll shove something down your throat if I have to." He replies in a warning tone. Merlin stares at him for a moment, blank faced, before snorting out a laugh. Arthur's cheeks flush as he goes over what he just said. Groaning, he hastily adds, "Not like that, Merlin. Shut up." When Merlin refuses to settle, Arthur playfully shoves his shoulder, making him collapse onto his back on the sofa.

   Arthur gets to his feet, grumbling under his breath as he turns his back on his friend and moves toward the kitchen. His cheeks are still burning as he pulls open the cupboards until he finds the boxed mac and cheese. Pulling out a box, he sets out on a search for a pot. His limited time spent here meant a limited knowledge of where things were. When he finally locates a pot, he fills it with water, and places it on the stovetop to heat up. By that time, Merlin has wandered in. He still has a twinkle of mirth in his eyes, and Arthur is honestly just so relieved to see him somewhat happy that he can't find it in himself to be annoyed that it's at his expense.

   Merlin opens the fridge and rummages around for a moment, before popping back out and holding a head of lettuce in one hand and a red pepper in the other. "How about a salad? May as well try to eat something healthy."

   Arthur shrugs noncommittally, but it's enough for Merlin to place the ingredients on the counter beside him, and dive back into the fridge for more. Arthur leans back against the counter beside the stove, one ear listening for the water to boil as he watches Merlin methodically wash the vegetables, then locate a bowl to dump them in as he cuts them up. When the water boils, he reluctantly turns away, dumping the noodles into the pot. He is keenly aware of eyes watching his back. He doesn't turn back around.

   When the noodles are done, he shuts off the element, then takes the pot to the sink, draining the water out. Without a glance at Merlin, he returns to the stove and adds in a bit of butter, milk, and the powered cheese. Once it's all mixed, he reluctantly turns to face the kitchen, spotting Merlin at the table, two bowls of salad sitting in front of him, eyes already looking his way. Swallowing thickly, he approaches the table.

   "Thank you." Merlin says as Arthur places the pot down in the middle of the table, right next to the two empty bowls that Merlin had already taken out for them. "I know how much of a sacrifice cooking can be for you."

   Arthur huffs a laugh. "It is hardly my fault that I had maids and a professional cook in the house while I was growing up." He says. Merlin grins openly at him, and Arthur's stomach flip flops at the sight of it. He quickly averts his eyes. "Eat, and then bed. I wasn't kidding earlier. You look exhausted, Merlin."

   The man shrugs as he looks down at his hands on the table. "Yeah, well, I've had a very long and trying day."

   Arthur softens at his friend's words. "I know." Is all he says, reaching out to take up one of the empty bowls and scooping half of the pot into it. He passes it to Merlin wordlessly, then fills his own. Silence fills the room as he sits, but it feels different. While Merlin was sometimes known for his inane chatter, he could be silent for long periods of time if he wanted to. This, however, felt tense, bordering on awkward. Neither man met the eyes of the other, and it set Arthur's nerves on edge.

   They clean up in a similar silence. Never before had things felt so forced between them, and Arthur felt the beginnings of doubt and worry starting to creep into his mind, taking root in his chest and threatening to tighten in around his heart. He swallows them back as best as he can, giving Merlin a wan smile before heading up the stairs and slipping into the bathroom. All he can think of as he leans against the counter, trying desperately just to breathe, is Merlin.

   Turning on the taps, he cups his hands under the stream, splashing cold water over his face. He gasps at the chill, blinking water out of his eyes. He repeats the process a few more times before scrubbing his face dry, and leaving the bathroom to fetch his toiletries from his bedroom. He can still hear Merlin downstairs, talking lowly on his phone. He's probably back in front of the fireplace, curled up on the sofa. Arthur lets his mind wonder who he's talking to for a moment. Perhaps Will? Maybe he's begging his ex to reconsider, to take him back. Maybe his mother? Arthur has always been a little jealous of Merlin's relationship with his mother, considering that he'd never had one that he could remember. He pushes the thoughts aside, returning to the bathroom to brush his teeth. Merlin could talk to whomever he wanted to.

   The cottage is silent as Arthur leaves the bathroom the second time. He pauses in the hall, straining his hearing to try to catch any sounds of life filtering up from downstairs. He debates for a moment on whether he should go down to check on his friend. In the end, he decides to give him some privacy, forcing his feet to carry him to his room instead. Once inside, he closes the door and sheds his clothes. He has to pull a few things out of his duffle before he gets to his flannel sleep pants and the soft, old tee shirt he usually sleeps in. Shrugging the shirt on, he eyes the bottoms, deciding to toss them on the floor and just crawl into bed in his shirt and boxers. It was still quite warm, after all.

   He lays there on his back, staring up at the ceiling. After some time, he hears Merlin come up the stairs, slipping into the bathroom himself to ready for bed. He idly listens to the water running, then the footsteps away down the hall to his own room. He only realizes that every muscle in his body is tensed up as he hears Merlin's door close shut, and he relaxes.

   Unbidden, memories of Merlin curled into him, solid and warm, rush to the forefront of his mind. He shivers as he recalls the feeling of Merlin's steady breaths on his neck, the gentle graze of his lips against his skin as the man spoke. Heat tingles in Arthur's belly, and he groans, trying to push the thoughts aside. The attempt is futile, only serving to make more memories rush to the surface, older memories. With one arm draped over his eyes, he takes himself in hand, hips bucking as he reaches completion far too quickly, a gasp forming Merlin's name leaving his lips.

~~~

   Arthur groggily blinks awake in the early hours of the next morning, having only managed to snag a few hours of sleep. He lays there, staring unseeingly at the ceiling for a few minutes before shoving the blankets off his body and sitting up. He rubs tiredly at his gritty eyes as he swings his legs over the edge of the mattress and gets to his feet. A large yawn makes his jaw crack as he blindly grabs a change of clothes, his shampoo, and crosses the floor to the door. A quick peek out shows the hallway and the bathroom empty, so he quietly slips out of his room and crosses to the bathroom. He only releases his breath once the door is closed and locked behind him.

   After turning the water on in the shower to heat up, Arthur strips out of his clothes, leaving them in a pile on the floor. He does his best to keep his thoughts off Merlin as he relieves himself, washes his hands, then steps under the hot spray of water. He hums in contentment as he feels his muscles slowly relax one by one. Only once he feels more loose and limber does he grab his shampoo and pour some into his palm. He washes his hair thoroughly, scrubbing the rest of his body, mind blissfully blank. That is, until he shuts the water off and hears movement in the hall as he steps out and reaches for his towel. From there, he can't think of anything except Merlin.

   The mouthwatering scent of freshly brewed coffee and bacon hangs in the air as he emerges, fully dressed, from the steamy bathroom. He makes a short stop in his room to drop off his old clothes before making his way downstairs. By the time he reaches the last step, he has done his best to resolve himself to getting things back to normal with Merlin. Whatever tension that had hung in the air last night had been excessively unwanted. Arthur didn't want to experience it ever again.

   He finds Merlin in the kitchen, sitting on the counter next to the stove, keeping as eye on some cooking pancakes while nursing a mug of coffee. He glances up as he catches movement, and smiles softly in Arthur's direction. It seems like all traces of last night's awkward tension are gone, and Arthur breathes a small sigh of relief.

   Merlin gestures to another mug beside him wordlessly, and Arthur approaches. Sitting there, still steaming, is another mug of coffee. Arthur takes it up in is hands, wrapping his fingers around the warm ceramic, and takes a small, cautious sip. It's perfectly made. Not that Arthur had any doubts on whether or not Merlin knew how he took his coffee or his tea. He hums appreciatively, moving to lean against the counter next to Merlin's gently swinging legs.

   "Did you sleep well?" Arthur finally breaks the easy silence when his mug is half drained. Merlin shrugs, taking a moment for another sip of his own brew before offering any kind of verbal response.

   "Well enough, considering." Merlin muses. Arthur looks over at him, at the dark circles under his eyes, the sad tinge to his facial expression. He suddenly regrets not descending the stairs last night to see if he was okay. His decision to just go to bed now felt undeniably selfish. Before he can say anything in reply, or even think of an appropriate reply, Merlin hops off the counter and grabs up a plastic spatula on the other side of the stovetop, and flips the pancakes. Arthur's mouth starts to water as his stomach grumbles.

   "What did you want to do today?" Arthur asks, moving to pull plates and cutlery out. Merlin glances at him.

   "What is there to do?" He asks. Arthur's mind immediately jumps to his last stay here with a guest. There had been quite a bit of touching, and heavy panting, and sweating. To his horror, he feels his jeans tightening at the thought of that girl's curvy figure and soft face replaced by Merlin's sharp angles and barely there stubble.

   He clears his throat awkwardly before replying, "Not a whole lot. I know there are some nice trails through the surrounding trees, if you enjoy that sort of thing." He ignores how strained his voice sounds.

   "That sounds nice." Merlin hums, checking to see if the pancakes are fully cooked yet. "Some fresh air might do me good." He adds on as he lifts the pancakes out, gesturing to one of the plates Arthur had taken out. Arthur dutifully holds one up, allowing Merlin to place the two pancakes on it before spooning more batter into the hot pan.

   "Yes." Arthur agrees. "I've heard that fresh air and calm surroundings can do a world of good for a person." He adds on, still avoiding Merlin's eyes. That tension from before felt like it was slowly creeping back in. Arthur swallows thickly around the lump forming in his throat. His instincts were screaming at him to escape the situation. To leave until things had once again returned to normal. His feet remain glued to the floor, keeping him in place.

   Merlin nods, seemingly unaware of Arthur's current panic. "That's settled then. After breakfast, and a shower, we'll go out for a walk. I know you could use it, too. Your father puts too much on your shoulders at work." Merlin says, voice hinging on reproachful as he speaks of Uther Pendragon. He never really liked how his best friend's father treated his son. Arthur, as usual, brushed the barb aside, not wanting to acknowledge anything regarding his father. Did he wok him hard, and often offer more harsh criticism than praise? Yes, but Arthur believed that he usually deserved it. Merlin doesn't say anything else on the subject, just returns his attention to cooking breakfast.

   The stifling silence is still lingering around them as they finish cooking, and take their loaded plates to the small table to eat. Arthur can feel Merlin's brief glances in his direction, but keeps his gaze down on his food. When he rises to fill his mug again, he gestures wordlessly to Merlin's own almost empty mug. Merlin hands it over just as silently, offering up a small smile in thanks as Arthur hands it back full. Arthur's heart has started up a heavy beat in his chest as he settles back down in his seat.

   Merlin finishes first, pushing back from the table and carrying his dishes to the sink. He pushes the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows, making ready to wash the dishes. Arthur gets to his feet and joins him at the sink, stilling his movements with a touch to his elbow.

   "You mentioned you wanted a shower. Go. I can do this." Arthur says, already turning the water on and grabbing the soap to fill the sink. Merlin nods, an unreadable expression on his face. After a moment of uneasy eye contact, Merlin turns and leaves. Arthur listens to his steps up the stairs, his movements on the upper level, until he hears a door close, and the water start up. Arthur gasps out a breath, feeling sharp strands wrap around his heart and pull tight. Today was going to be a long day. Perhaps he had been wrong, and bringing Merlin out here would simply do more damage than healing.

~~~

   Forty-five minutes later, Arthur found himself wandering through the trees in the steadily growing warmth. He found that he had been right. He did feel better now that he was outside, getting some fresh air. If the permanent smile on Merlin's face said anything, then he was feeling better, too. Their newfound awkwardness seemed to have been left behind in the cottage, and for that, Arthur was extremely grateful.

   Faint birdsong could be heard all around them, and for some reason, it made his heart sing right along with it. The fact that Merlin was once again walking much closer to him than usual didn't help matter. He was constantly having to bite back small gasps and hitches of breath as Merlin's arms brushed against his, or their hands bumped. Honestly, coming here was probably the worst decision that Arthur had ever made. It was turning out to be an absolute nightmare.

   "It's quite beautiful out here." Merlin says conversationally. Arthur hums mildly in reply. Merlin shoots him a look. "I don't get out of the city much, unless I'm visiting my Mum. Must be nice to have a place like this you can just escape to whenever you want."

   His words startle a short bark of laughter from Arthur's throat. "Merlin, I rarely ever come out here. You know that."

   Merlin nods. He knows very well how overworked Arthur was. These past twenty-four hours had probably been the first that Arthur had spent away from the office since graduating university, weekends and stat-holidays not included. He never took time off. Looking around at their surroundings, Merlin couldn't figure out why.

   "Who were you talking to last night?" Arthur hears himself ask, wincing even as the words leave his lips. Merlin gives him a slightly startled look, before averting his gaze.

   "Oh, you heard that?" He says back, avoiding the question.

   Shaking his head, Arthur replies, "Not any specific words, but I did hear your voice. I figured you were on the phone." He tries to keep his voice nonchalant.

   Merlin scrunches his nose up for a second. "Right. It was, uh, Will, actually."

   Arthur has never felt his blood run cold so fast in his life. There was something about the tone of voice he has used that made him feel uneasy. He lifts his eyebrows, silently urging his friend to go on. Merlin has to clear his throat before he can continue.

   "He wanted to know where I was, and when I was going to be back. He left some things at mine, and he wants to pick them up." Merlin shrugs, trying to sniff discreetly. Arthur still catches it, being as in tune with everything Merlin as he is.

   "So that's it?" Arthur asks a little heatedly, some of his previous anger at the other man returning. "Still no real explanation?"

   Merlin gets a shifty look across his face, but he forces it away before Arthur has a chance to really study it. "Looks like." He says with a sad chuckle, looking away. 'That's a lie. Why is he lying to me?'

   "Well," Arthur says, clasping his shoulder firmly, "you already know my opinion. You were always too good for the likes of him anyway. You're better off without him, trust me." Will had been far too controlling over Merlin for Arthur to feel one hundred percent okay with him.

   "Yeah, so you've always said." Merlin says softly. "Looks like you were right. I should listen to you more often." Arthur spins around at the defeat in his friend's voice. A crestfallen look has once again descended upon his features, tugging painfully at Arthur's heart. Against his better judgement, and his own self-preservation, Arthur crowds closer and pulls Merlin into a secure embrace, a firm hand on the back of Merlin’s head pulling his face into the crook of Arthur’s neck. Merlin goes willingly, sagging into Arthur's strong arms.

   "If I could do anything to ease your pain, Merlin, I would. " He says quietly. For a brief second of time, Merlin stiffens in his arms, making Arthur's heart rate spike. The next blink of an eye, he's relaxed again.

   "I know." Merlin replies, voice rough. "That's why you're my best friend. I always know that I can count on you."

   Arthur closes his eyes and breathes in the fresh scent of nature around them, content to simply stay in this moment for a while. Merlin, however, has other plans, and pulls away after a moment. He gives Arthur a watery smile, then continues on into the trees, venturing farther away from the cottage. Arthur doesn't even think before following him.

   A short while later, they step out into a small clearing in the trees, the sun shining down past the canopy of leaves overhead. Merlin inhales deeply beside Arthur as he looks around. Arthur apparently only has eyes for his friend. His ocean blue eyes are sparkling again as they take in the beauty around them, and all Arthur can think is that Merlin outshines everything here.

   "Come on. Let's just go sit for a bit." Merlin says, startling a sharp breath out of Arthur as he reaches out to grab his hand and tug him forward. Arthur gives no resistance, numbly letting himself be lead to the middle of the clearing, and pushed down into the lush grass. He stares at Merlin mutely, still feeling a bit like he had been knocked over the head. Honestly, he'd had this innocent crush on Merlin for years, why was it suddenly turning him into a love struck girl.

   Merlin's legs fold under him, and he settles in the grass next to him. Arthur thinks he looks a bit like a foal lying down, his legs are so long and lanky, but it lends him an endearing quality that warms Arthur's chest. As much as he teased Merlin for his gangly limbs and awkward habit of tripping over his own feet, he wouldn't want him to ever change. Everything about Merlin was already perfect as it was.

   "What?" Merlin's amused voice breaks into his thoughts.

   Arthur blinks. 'What do you mean, what?"

   Merlin looks like he's holding back a rather fond smile. "You were staring at me." He replies. Arthur feels his cheeks flush even before all the words are out of Merlin's mouth.

   "I was not." He gripes, looking away. He hears a muffled snort of laughter behind him.

   "Whatever you say, Arthur. I know what I saw." Merlin retorts easily. For the second time in less than two hours, Arthur feels his blood run cold. Had what Merlin seen been Arthur's unbridled affection? Morgana and Gwen were constantly telling him that his emotions could be quite easy to read from his facial expressions.

   "And what was that, exactly?" Arthur chances asking, looking back at Merlin, who has by now laid down in the grass, hands crossed behind his head, and eyes closed against the sun. He looks radiant. He just hums vaguely in reply. Arthur's mind kickstarts into a panicked frenzy. Was he ruining his friendship with Merlin?

   "Arthur, stop. You're thinking too loud. Just lie down and clear your mind. I brought us out here to relax and let go of our stresses, not to overthink things that don't need to be." Merlin chastises, eyes still closed. Arthur marvels at how well Merlin knows him as he does as he's told, settling on his back in the grass next to his friend. Once he's settled, he realizes that their elbows are pressed together. A steady thrum starts in his blood. He takes a deep, calming breath, and almost feels like his body sinks further down into the ground. It doesn't take long before he feels himself drift off to sleep, a familiar voice saying his name reverently ringing in his ears.

~~~

   The nap outside in the sunshine and fresh air had apparently been exactly what Arthur had needed. He had awoken refreshed, both physically and mentally. His spirits had only been further lifted when the first thing he had truly seen, once his vision was focused again, was Merlin's sunny smile beaming down at him. They had travelled back to the cottage in an easy and companionable silence. Though Arthur noticed that there was still some kind of energy thrumming in the air around them, it wasn't oppressive, as it had been earlier.

   They had spent the rest of the day in the cottage, drinking tea and reading the variety of books his mother had kept hidden away in the vast bookshelves. They had even had an impromptu, and decidedly childish, food fight while preparing a late lunch. It had taken quite a while to clean up properly afterward, but Merlin was laughing, and seemed genuinely happy, so Arthur didn't mind. Things, it seemed, had returned to their normal, and Arthur could not be more thankful. Losing Merlin would probably kill him.

   The light was slowly fading outside, the sky visible out the window tinged with oranges, and pinks, and golds. A fire crackled merrily in the fireplace, lending a cozy quality to the already peaceful atmosphere. Arthur was sitting on one side of the sofa, foot propped up on the coffee table as his eyes shifted over the words of the book clutched in his hands. He wasn't entirely sure that he was retaining anything though. In fact, he had reread the page he was on three times already. He was having difficulty focusing on anything other than his companion in the room.

   Merlin was curled up on the other side of the same sofa. He had just finished a large mug of tea, and his cheeks were still flushed from it's warmth. His lower lip was caught between his teeth, as his bright eyes read his own book. Every now and then his tongue would poke out as his long, slender fingers turned the pages. Arthur's mind kept trying to wander to other things that those fingers would look good curled around, and he kept having to wrestle it back under control. The last thing he needed was for his body to get too obviously excited about the direction of his wayward thoughts. It certainly didn't help matters that they had both consumed several glasses of wine that he had discovered in the cellar outside the cottage.

   He glances over at Merlin again as he catches movement out of the corner of his eye. His tongue pokes out, catching his attention first, then his fingers turn the page, demanding his attention next. His other hand reaches up to brush his dark locks off his forehead, capturing his attention instead. Then, Arthur's eyes drop involuntarily to lips touched by dark red wine. The rich colour makes him lean forward, trying to get subtly closer, before he catches himself and forces his body back onto his side of the sofa. Settling deeper against the support behind him, he closes his eyes and sighs.

   "What?" Merlin's curious voice makes Arthur's eyes snap open. He looks over and sees Merlin looking back, book closed and resting in his lap. Arthur has his full attention.

   "Nothing." He replies breezily, hoping that he doesn't notice the lie, and if he does, that he doesn't comment on it. Merlin purses his lips and studies him intently, making Arthur's heart race, before shrugging slightly and nodding obligingly.

   "Alright, if you don't want to talk, then I can't make you." Merlin says placidly. Arthur cocks his head, lifting an eyebrow.

   "And what exactly would I have to talk about?" He asks. "You're the one going through a breakup right now, not me. If anyone should need to talk, it's you. Your current problems are worse than mine, and all that." He waves his hand slightly in the air.

   "So, you admit that there is something, but you're hiding it for my sake?" Merlin says, and Arthur frowns. How exactly had Merlin come to that conclusion?

   "I never said that." He retorts mulishly.

   "Not in so many words, but I know you, Arthur. You're my best friend, and I can tell when something is bothering you. Now, out with it. Did it never occur to you that a distraction from my problems might be welcomed?" Merlin shoots back immediately.

   Arthur represses a groan, and lifts his hands to scrub at his face. He so did not want to have this conversation with Merlin. He couldn't exactly tell him what was wrong. 'Oh, nothing, just the fact that I'm desperately and foolishly in love with you, and watching you so upset over a different man is slowly killing me for too many reasons to properly articulate.'

   "Nothing is wrong with me, Merlin. Just drop it." He says, a little more snappy than he had intended. He hears and feels Merlin shift on the sofa.

   "No." Merlin says stubbornly. The man really shouldn't be able to surprise Arthur anymore, but this still manages to startle a laugh out of him.

   Dropping his hands, he turns his head to look at Merlin again as he asks incredulously, "No?"

   Merlin nods, a determined set to his jaw. The sight makes another chuckle bubble up through Arthur's chest.

   "You said yourself that you can't make me talk, Merlin." He points out smugly. Merlin's eyes narrow.

   "No." Merlin relents after a moment. "But it's only fair. I talked to you." A lance of pain lodges itself in Arthur's chest.

   "Merlin, I can't." He says quietly.

   Merlin tilts his head in confusion. "Why not?"

   Gritting his teeth, Arthur closes his eyes and turns his head away. "Because I just can't, Merlin. Please just drop it."

   He feels the cushions beside him shift, and looks back over. To his surprise, Merlin is right there, looking at him intently. Arthur opens his mouth to ask him what is it that he wants, but closes it when no sound comes out. Merlin's eyes flit restlessly over his face, never staying in one spot too long. He tilts his head a little more to the side as his eyes narrow just a bit. He leans ever so slightly closer, hand reaching out to take the book from Arthur’s grasp and setting it on the small table, and Arthur's heart rate starts up a pounding rhythm in his chest. He is honestly surprised that Merlin can't hear it himself. Then again, maybe he can, as his eyes flick down at that very same moment. Although, they looked more fixated on his mouth, not his chest.

   Arthur's breath stutters in his lungs as a tentative hand reaches up to touch his cheek, a thumb and forefinger settling on his chin. A firm, guiding grip tilts his head up. He blinks, forcing his own eyes to try and seek out Merlin's. His friend's are already looking back at him, uncertain and brimming with questions. Arthur parts his lips in a shaky exhale as a new vibration takes up residence throughout his entire body.

   Merlin blinks once. Twice. Then lets his eyes fall shut slowly as he leans closer, his fingers curled around Arthur's chin pulling him in to meet him halfway. His own eyes close of their own accord as they draw closer to each other. He feels Merlin's breath fan out across his lips, and shudders. The next thing he knows is his breath hitching as his lips tenderly caress his own.

   As far as kisses go, it barely even counts. Still, it makes Arthur's head spin and his body ache with want. With need. He gasps out a breath as Merlin retreats, not far, just enough that their lips are no longer actually touching. Arthur mourns the loss immediately. However, he doesn't have to wait long before Merlin is pressing closer and kissing him properly.

   If Arthur thought that his brain had short-circuited after the first innocent press of Merlin's lips to his, it's nothing compared to this. His brain practically melts out of his ears at the feeling of one hand caressing his cheek as the other slides around his neck and tugs him closer. Once the initial shock that this was actually happening passes, he kisses back with a fervour. He relishes in the little pleased groan that slips from Merlin's mouth into his, something deep within his chest purring happily.

   A shudder passes through his body again as he feels Merlin's tongue slip past his open lips to caress Arthur's own lower lip. He moans agreeably as he parts his lips, allowing Merlin to do just about whatever he pleases. Merlin shifts closer as he explores the inside of Arthur's mouth greedily. Arthur just exhales shakily and heavily through his nose, leaning back as Merlin presses in closer, handing over whatever control the man wants. Merlin takes every bit afforded to him.

   A whimper crawls up his throat as Merlin pulls away slightly to breathe. His panted breaths fan out over Arthur's spit slick mouth, driving him wild with want and desire. His mind is so hazy, so intoxicated on Merlin alone, that he doesn't stop to analyze what exactly they were doing. Something in the far back corner of his mind is telling him to stop, but he resolutely ignores it as Merlin dives back in for more.

   What feels like mere moments later, Merlin is pulling away again, his hands falling from Arthur's hair to grab the hem of his tee and pulling it over his head. Of course, Arthur had seen Merlin shirtless before, many times, but he still can't stop himself from looking over the expanse of smooth, pale skin now on display. His hands itch to reach out and touch, so he does. Merlin closes his eyes and leans his forehead against Arthur's, sighing contentedly as Arthur maps out his torso with careful touches. He only retracts his hands as Merlin reaches down to divest him of his own shirt.

   It's Arthur who pulls Merlin back in, craving the feeling of his bare skin against his own. That small part of his mind telling him to stop has grown in size, and he pushes it aside with mild annoyance. To prove that everything is fine, he wraps his arms around Merlin's back, shifting him easily enough that he can push him back against the sofa cushions. As he slowly reclines, Arthur gets pulled along with him by Merlin's hands in his hair. They both groan almost helplessly as Merlin settles on his back, Arthur hovering over him, pressing closer as he kisses him harder.

   Arthur pulls away, pressing a trail of hot kisses into Merlin's jaw as he works his way down to his neck. He teases the skin over Merlin's pulse point with his teeth, biting down as he feels Merlin squirm beneath him. He laves his tongue over the spot, preening over the fact that he no doubt left a mark.

   "Oh God, Arthur." Merlin moans breathily, and it's this, of all things, that makes the fog in Arthur's brain clear. What the hell was he doing?

   Abruptly, he sits up, clambering off the sofa and backing away. Merlin stares after him, eyes unfocused and lips still slightly parted. His chest was flushed and heaving, a very obvious red mark already starting to bloom on his throat. Arthur feels like he might be sick.

   "Arthur? What's wrong?" Merlin asks, voice wobbling as he sits up.

   Arthur swallows thickly. "This. We shouldn't do this." He stammers breathlessly. Merlin frowns.

   "Why not?" He asks, genuinely confused.

   "Because." Arthur says, running a hand up into his hair. "Because we're best friends, and your boyfriend just broke up with you, and you're feeling emotionally vulnerable, and I'm... I'm the only one here, and I'm convenient, and we've both been drinking, and I can't- We just shouldn't do this." He rambles.

   Merlin opens his mouth to reply, but Arthur is already swooping down to retrieve their shirts from the floor. He holds his protectively against his chest, right over his still racing heart, as he holds Merlin's out to him. He notices that his hands are trembling violently. Merlin numbly reaches out to take it from him, their fingers brushing making Arthur flinch.

   "Get some rest, Merlin." He mumbles, already on his way to the stairs. He bypasses the bathroom completely, stepping into his room and closing the door. He keeps the lights off as he turns and presses his back against the cool wood. Leaning his head back, he closes his eyes. Now that Merlin is no longer in close proximity, he can feel the shaking in his whole body. Slowly, he slides down the door behind him, his legs bending until he settles on the floor. Keeping his eyes closed, he focuses all his attention and energy on simply breathing. Maybe that way he won't feel his heart cracking dangerously in his chest.

~~~

   Arthur awakes groggily from a painfully short and restless sleep. His muscles are tense, and he already has a headache blooming behind his eyes. Try as he might, thoughts of last night flood back. The feeling of finally having Merlin pressed against him. The heated passion of their shared kisses. He groans as he rubs at his eyes. Everything was ruined. It will never be the same again.

   Reluctantly, he rises and climbs out of bed. His sparse belongings are scattered about the room, so be takes a minute or two to collect them, shoving them back into his gym bag. They're going home today. This place wasn't healthy for either of them, and Arthur especially needed space from Merlin to try and put his fracturing heart back together.

   He hears noises drifting up from the kitchen as he steps out into the hallway. A quick look at Merlin's room proves him right. The door is open, lights turned off. He averts his gaze as he half stumbles into the bathroom. Avoiding looking in the mirror, he gathers his stuff, packing them into his bag as well. That done, he rests his palms on the counter and hangs his head, his chin coming to rest on his chest. He takes a few moments just to breathe, trying to rally himself enough to go downstairs and face Merlin. Was he in a similar state as Arthur? Or was he unaffected by their close call last night? With nothing else to do, he pushes off the counter and slings his bag over his shoulder. Setting his jaw in what he hopes looks like grim determination, he steps back out into the hall and makes his way down the stairs.

   Merlin jerks his head up as Arthur steps into the room, but Arthur doesn't meet his pleading gaze. Instead, he drops his bag in the entry, and proceeds to the mostly full pot of coffee. So that was what Merlin had been doing down here. The sounds of a chair being pushed back makes Arthur flinch, spilling coffee on the counter.

   "Arthur, about last night-" Merlin starts, but Arthur cuts him off with a raised hand.

   "It's fine, Merlin. You don't need to justify yourself, or explain yourself to me." He says, slightly shaky hands reaching for the cloth draped over the kitchen sink to wipe up his mess.

   "Arthur, please-" Merlin starts again, and this time Arthur turns to face him.

   "Merlin," he interrupts, "I said it's fine. I get it. I understand. Please, just leave it at that."

   A look of intense frustration and exasperation crosses Merlin's face, making annoyance bubble up in Arthur's chest. He didn't want to talk about this, wasn't even sure that he could. Why was Merlin so intent on bringing it up?

   "Look, it was a mistake, okay? I know that. Can we please just forget about it?" He says finally. Something in Merlin's eyes shutters, and he takes a small step back.

   "I don't-" He starts to say, but Arthur cuts him off again.

   "We need to head back to the city. I got a call from Gwen. Something came up at work that I need to be there for." He's turned his back to Merlin, knowing that his best friend would be able to read the lie in his eyes. Was he even still his best friend? The thought tightens the noose around his heart, and he has to squeeze his eyes shut and just remember to breathe for a moment.

   He hears a shuffling behind him before Merlin says, "Of course. Have your coffee and I'll go pack up my things."

   Arthur's already fragile heart only cracks worse as he listens to Merlin's retreating footsteps. He glares down at his mug full of black coffee, waiting patiently for cream and sugar. As his frustration, and anger, and pain builds in his chest, he grips the mug firmly in his hand and spins to throw it at the opposite wall with a yell. Shards of ceramic and splatters of hot coffee rain down on the floor, but Arthur can't seem to being himself to care. He'll send a little extra to the cleaning company for their troubles.

   Turning back, he leans heavily against the counter, arms trembling. He hears Merlin upstairs, moving around methodically as he collects his things. The sounds of his breathy gasps the night before ring in Arthur's ears, bringing tears surging up in his eyes. Pushing off from the ledge, he brushes them away angrily. Spinning on his heel, he leaves the kitchen, not even sparing the mess of coffee and shattered (most likely expensive) mug on the floor a single glance. He grabs his bag as he passes, making a beeline for the front door.

   When Merlin returns, his own bag in hand, he looks wary. Almost skittish. Arthur makes no comment, just pulls his shoes on and opens the door. He wordlessly gestures for Merlin to go first, following him out and pausing to close and lock the door. He takes a second to look over the intricate wood. He has a feeling that he won't be coming out here again for a very long time. The ghost of him and Merlin tangled together on the sofa wasn't going to be leaving anytime soon, and it was too painful to even think about facing again.

   The pair make their way down to Arthur's car in silence. After stowing their bags in the back, they climb into the front. As Arthur starts the engine, Merlin turns to him, mouth open to say something. When Arthur visibly tenses, he snaps his mouth closed with an audible click, and turns to look out the window. Arthur's tension stays as he puts the car roughly into drive and starts the long journey home.

   Arthur finds himself hoping that Merlin will fall asleep again, but has no such luck. The tension in the air, all their unspoken words, is stifling, and Arthur feels like he's almost struggling to breathe. The only saving grace is the volume of the music pouring out of the car's sound system, which Merlin had cranked up after only a few minutes of awkward silence between them. Every part of Arthur's body is conflicted between wanting to pull Merlin close and tell him that everything is fine, and wanting to pull away entirely for a bit in order to heal. The warring emotions are so intense that all he can do is sit there, numbly focusing on driving. It'll do no one any good if they end up dead on the side of the road.

   After what feels like an eternity, Arthur pulls up outside Merlin's apartment complex. He leaves the engine running. Merlin once again looks at him, opens his mouth to say something, then closes it with a weary sigh. He opens the car door and climbs out, opening the back to pull his bag from the seat. Arthur prepares to leave as Merlin closes the door, but looks over in surprise when Merlin opens the front door again.

   "Arthur," he says in a rush, "I just want you to know that you're still my best friend. I don't-" He drops his eyes for a moment before looking back up with a sad resolve on his face. "I wasn't that drunk, hardly at all actually, and I knew exactly what I was doing. I don't- I don't regret it, but if forgetting it happened is what you want, then forget it I will." The door closes before Arthur can even begin to formulate a response.

   He watches Merlin disappear into his building, thoughts swirling around in his head. He feels sick, and his head hurts worse now than it did that morning. He has to physically shake himself before he can make the drive to his place. He makes his way up to his flat in a daze. He barely makes it into his flat before he feels like his chest caves in. He never should have taken Merlin to his mother's cottage. Leaving his bag in the small entryway, he makes his way to his room, collapsing on his bed and promptly passing out, Merlin's parting words echoing in his head.

~~~

   No matter the time of day or night, no matter what Arthur may be doing at that exact moment, when his best friend calls him, he always answers. For as long as Arthur and Merlin had been friends, that had always been true. Up until their return from Arthur's mother's cottage, it had been true. Now, Arthur watches his phone ring, Merlin's name lit up on the screen, with a heavy weight in his chest. He hasn't even replied to any of the plethora of text messages he had received from the man. For the first time in his life, he couldn't bring himself to talk to his friend. For the first time in his life, not talking to him was the less painful option.

   His phone goes dark and silent, leaving Arthur staring down at his pile of paperwork with a ringing in his ears, and his heart in his throat. The sudden quiet is broken a few minutes later by Gwen barging into his office. Arthur knows it has to be something serious, since she didn't just phone back to him, or even knock first. When he looks up at her, he finds himself on the receiving end of a ferocious glare. He opens his mouth to ask her what's wrong, but she starts talking before he can even draw a breath.

   "Arthur Pendragon, you have a lot of explaining to do." She says harshly, and Arthur actually flinches back. Never before had he ever been scared of his kindhearted secretary.

   Holding his hands up protectively, he says, "Why don't you start at the beginning. What happened, and why is it my fault?"

   That question seems to be the wrong one, as all it does if make her eyes flash with more anger. He stares at her incredulously as she turns and slams his office door closed, rounding back on him with a tense set to her shoulders.

   "I just had a very interesting phone call." She says sternly. "Apparently you've been ignoring Merlin's calls. Which I find quite interesting as I am always covering for you because your best friend is on the other line."

   Arthur deflates slightly. He should have known that Merlin would try contacting him at work. After all, Merlin and Gwen were quite good friends too. It was only natural that he would phone her to find out why he was suddenly getting radio silence from Arthur himself.

   "Right." Arthur says, rubbing at his face tiredly. He'd barely gotten any decent sleep since his return from the cottage, and the sleep he did get left him feeling even more groggy the next morning. "That's complicated."

   Gwen gives him a look, and sits down in the chair across the desk from him. She levels an expectant look at him, silently demanding the whole story. Arthur flounders, unsure how to proceed. On one hand, he liked Guinevere. He often dared to refer to her as his friend in the solitary space of his own mind. On the other hand, she was his employee, and thus, any personal talks like this felt like a misuse of office time, and of his perceived power over her. When she quirks a demanding eyebrow, however, he caves.

   He decides to start at the very beginning, with the phone call that kickstarted the whole mess. He then explains how Arthur insisted on taking Merlin to his mother's cottage to get away from everything (Gwen finds this disgustingly cute). Their brief stay there gets lined out in detail for her, from the sudden awkward tension between the two, all the way to the blooming red welt that Arthur had left on Merlin's neck. By the time he's gotten Gwen up to the current moment, he is blushing hard and swallowing the heavy lump in his throat. Or, trying to, anyway.

   Gwen just stares at him for a moment. "You really can be quite thick, can't you, Arthur?" She asks.

   Arthur sits back in his chair, not sure if he should feel offended or not. "Excuse me?" He splutters.

   Gwen purses her lips disapprovingly. "Honestly, Arthur, it doesn't take a genius to figure any of this out. Merlin just broke up with his boyfriend, and now he feels abandoned by his best friend, too. Who, I might add, he has feelings for. That much is very obvious."

   Arthur chokes on his own tongue at Gwen's easy delivery of those dangerous words. "Merlin does not have feelings for me." He chokes out.

   "And how do you know that?" She challenges, raising an eyebrow at him.

   "Well," Arthur says, "he-he would have told me."

   "Oh, like you told him?" Gwen retorts, face sweet and innocent, and yet still somehow stern and almost disappointed. Arthur withers at that, knowing that his secretary has a very valid point.

   "I shouldn't even be telling you this, Arthur, it's not my place, but Lord knows that the two of you need help." Gwen says again with fond exasperation. "But even if Merlin hadn't told me about the feelings he has for you, it's very obvious that they're there. If you spent less time focusing on yourself, and more time looking at Merlin's actions and behaviour, you would be able to see it, too. Everyone else around you two can see how head over heels in love with each other you are."

   Arthur stares at her with his mouth hanging open for a minute. "But what about Will?" He demands. Gwen huffs a sad sigh.

   "Will was Merlin's attempt to get over you, and I almost thought it would work, but Will felt threatened by your relationship with Merlin. He never trusted you, and when he told Merlin that he wanted him to spend less time with you, Merlin refused."

   Arthur feels a jolt in his stomach. "You mean, Will broke Merlin's heart because of me?"

   "Will broke up with Merlin because Merlin chose you, just like he always has and always will. I can't say that Will broke Merlin's heart, because I don't believe that Merlin's heart was ever Will's to break." Now Gwen's face shifts back to her earlier anger. "You, on the other hand, have seemed quite intent on breaking poor Merlin's heart ever since you came back to the city a week ago."

   Arthur winces, and drops his gaze to his lap. "I should go see him, shouldn't I?" He asks softly. Gwen huffs and rises to her feet.

   "Yes. I think that is the least you could do, considering your behaviour. I've already rescheduled your day." Gwen says, already moving to the closed door.

   "Thank you, Guinevere. I owe you one." Arthur says sincerely. Gwen looks back, her facial expression much softer now.

   "Go fix what you broke, and bring the two of you some much needed happiness, and we can call it even." She replies. With that, she's gone, and Arthur is left with nothing but his own loud thoughts for company. He tries to pack up his things, but his hands are shaking so bad that the whole endeavour seems pointless. Abandoning it after a few failed attempts at tidiness, Arthur just gets to his feet and shrugs his coat on.

   Gwen looks up as he opens his office door. "Good luck, Sir." She says with an encouraging smile. He offers her an uncertain one back, then makes his way to the elevators. He avoids looking back at her as he steps in and pushes the button for the underground parking. He takes several deep breaths as he descends to the lower level, mind spinning as he tries to think of ways to fix things with Merlin. When the doors ding open, and he makes his way to his sleek car, he is no closer to a solution. He sincerely hopes that the short drive to Merlin's flat is more mentally productive.

   It is not. By the time he parks his car and climbs out, eyes seeking out the window that he knows is Merlin's, he's shaking slightly, and has sweaty palms and a frustratingly blank mind. This, whatever this turned out to be, was not going to go well. Arthur figured he'd count it as a win if Merlin didn't just chuck him out at first glance. Still, he dutifully makes his way to the main doors of the building and slips inside.

   The elevator is working today, but Arthur still opts for the stairs, futilely hoping that the climb up four flights is enough to kickstart his brain. He isn't sure if the feeling in his chest can even qualify as disappointment as he reaches Merlin's floor and is no closer to having something to say. After all, he knew it was a long shot that luck would he on his side. He pauses in the hallway, Merlin's door looming ahead of him, and all he can think of is the feeling of Merlin's lips pressed against his. How the whole world had seemed to make sense in that very moment. How he really, really would like it to happen again.

   Before he even realizes that he has moved, he's knocking firmly on Merlin's door. For a second, he is worried that maybe Merlin isn't home, but Gwen had told him to come see Merlin immediately. Surely she wouldn't have if Merlin was out. Then he hears the sound of approaching footsteps, slowly growing louder as Merlin gets closer. The sound of the lock sliding back makes Arthur smile, glad that (for once) he doesn't have to tell Merlin off about his seemingly cavalier attitude towards his safety (this isn't a small town, Merlin, this is the city. Anybody could come by and just walk right in). The door opens, and there he is, radiant as always, even with his sad eyes and downturned mouth.

   "Arthur? What are you doing here?" He asks, puzzled. Arthur doesn't say anything, just steps forward and kisses him gently on the mouth.

   Merlin squeaks in surprise, hands coming up to hover over Arthur's biceps, as Arthur's hands rise to cradle Merlin's jaw. He sighs softly through his nose as he feels Merlin tentatively begin to kiss him back, hands finally coming to rest on his shoulders. When Arthur finally pulls back, he has to take a moment to catch his breath before he can speak.

   "I am so sorry, Merlin. I've been a right bastard this week, and you didn't deserve that. Can-can we talk?" He asks, throwing in his best pleading, puppy dog eyes. Merlin huffs a small laugh.

   "When do I ever say no to you?" He says. "Come on in. I'm sure my neighbours don't want to hear all this." Arthur grins as Merlin steps back, inviting him into his flat. Arthur toes his shoes off at the door, then follows Merlin to his small living room. They both take a seat on the sofa, which has definitely seen better days, but Merlin refuses to replace.

   "First off, I've been an idiot, and it took Gwen chewing me out, rather politely, to realize it." Arthur says. Merlin smiles, dropping his eyes to his lap.

   "That sounds like Gwen." He agrees mildly.

   "Second," Arthur pauses to take a gulp of air, "I'm sorry for the way I acted when we were at my mother's cottage. I was only thinking about myself, and I never gave you a chance to explain yourself after, and I should have. I had already made my own assumptions about what had happened between us, and that was wrong of me."

   Merlin looks at him with narrowed eyes. "You've been spouting off quite a few apologies in the last few minutes. Are you sure you're feeling all right?" He teases, instantly making Arthur relax. He huffs a laugh, and reaches out to shove at Merlin's shoulder playfully. Merlin catches his hand with his own before he can fully retract it.

   "Shut up, Merlin. I'm trying here, the least you could do is humour me."

   Merlin clearly bites the inside of his lower lip to try to control his smile, only sort of succeeding, as he gestures Arthur to go on. Arthur scowls for a moment before taking a shaky breath. This next bit would change the dynamic between them forever, for better or worse. Once it was said, it couldn't be taken back. When he meets Merlin's shining blue eyes, he suddenly feels that prospect not so terrifying. Laying his heart bare in Merlin's hands, and asking him to be gentle with it, just felt like the most natural and obvious course of action.

   "The truth is, Merlin, that you are the most important person on my life. I appreciate your caring words, and your kind actions, much more than I ever admit to you. I love you, Merlin. More than just as my best friend. I'm in love with you, and I have been for quite some time. Again, I assumed that you never felt as strongly for me as I do for you, so I never brought up, or acted on, those feelings. That night at the cottage, I thought that you were just using me to help yourself get over Will, and that was a foolish and selfish assumption to make. I never meant to hurt you more than you already were, and I'm sorry. I should have been more open and honest with you."

   Silence hangs in the air following his speech. Merlin is staring at him, expression unreadable. Arthur is honestly just surprised. The words had just flowed out of him without a single thought on his part. They had felt like the right words to say, and so he had said them.

   "Gwen was right. You are an idiot." Merlin finally says. Arthur gapes at him when he doesn't add anything else.

   "That's it? That's all you have to say? If I had wanted to be insulted more, I would have stayed at work and braved Gwen's frosty looks." Arthur huffs indignantly.

   Merlin's whole body softens as he smiles fondly as Arthur beside him. Raising the blond's hand, still clutched tightly between his own, he presses a feather light kiss to his knuckles, turning his hand over and doing the same to the middle of his palm. Arthur stares at him, eyes wide. When Merlin meets his gaze again, his eyes are brimming with unmistakable affection.

   "We're both idiots, Arthur." He adds with a smile. "I've had a crush on you since we first met. When it seemed like all you wanted was friendship, I took what I could get. That doesn't mean that those initial feelings ever went away. Despite being an entitled prat, you have a good heart. You care a lot about the people closest to you, and you never hesitate to drop what you're doing to help them. Try as I might, your good qualities outweighed the exasperating ones, and just made me fall even more in love with you."

   Arthur exhales the breath he had been holding slowly. "You're right, we are idiots." After a silent moment, he adds, "What about Will? You were genuinely upset about him leaving."

   Merlin chews on his lower lip, and tears his gaze away from Arthur's. "I did care for Will, deeply and truly, and him leaving did hurt a lot. I will be honest that I wasn't entirely truthful when you asked about what he said. I mean, everything I told you was the truth, but it wasn't all he said."

   Arthur raises a curious eyebrow. What else had Will said to him that would've hurt him so bad? Merlin heaves a weary and mournful sigh.

   "He told me that I would never be truly happy as long as I was hung up on you. That as long as I had you in my life, every relationship I try to have would fail. He said that- that I was wasting my time, and that you would never love me back. The sooner I came to terms with that, the better off I would be. He left because he didn't want to have to compete with someone else for my affections." Merlin admits quietly, gaze still averted.

   Rage bubbles up in Arthur's chest. "I always did say he was an ass who didn't deserve you. Now I can add insecure and controlling to the list as well." He snarls.

   Merlin looks up at him with doe eyes. "He wasn't exactly wrong, Arthur. Every relationship I have will be doomed to fail because you already hold my heart. I can't give it to someone else when I've already willingly given it to you." He says with a small, sad smile.

   Arthur opens his mouth, retort ready, but it dies on his lips. Pointing out Will's flaws at this point was fruitless. He was out of the picture. Arthur no longer had to worry about watching someone else hold Merlin's hand, or kiss his lips, because the man was his, had apparently always been. God, they had wasted so much time, and for what?

   Without another word, Arthur leans closer, stopping mere inches from Merlin, offering Merlin everything he has, and seeing if his friend would take it. He sighs as Merlin presses closer, meeting him halfway, offering himself in return. The cracks in Arthur's heart magically close up, repairing themselves with every press of Merlin's lips against his own. That night in the cottage had felt undeniably right, but while that moment had felt stolen and fleeting, this moment felt calm and eternal.

   Arthur feels peaceful, even as they pull apart, like everything is finally right with the world, and nothing could ever change it. The look on Merlin's face tells Arthur that he must feel it too. He has a shy smile on his face, and a flush to his cheeks that highlights his cheekbones. Arthur has never seen anyone more perfect.

   "I love you, Merlin." He says softly, a hand coming up to gently graze his fingertips over Merlin's rosy cheeks.

   "So you've said." Merlin replies, a cheeky quality to his voice. When Arthur puts on a theatrical pout, he chuckles. "I love you, too."

   With a smile fixed firmly in place, Arthur dives back in for another kiss. Merlin greedily accepts, threading his fingers into Arthur's golden hair, urging him closer. Arthur obeys, shifting across the sofa until he can push himself up to hover slightly over Merlin's frame. Merlin leans back over the arm of the sofa behind him, humming agreeably. Flashes of that night flood Arthur's mind, and he groans as they send a jolt of heat to his lower belly. Merlin groans too as Arthur shifts closer and Merlin can feel his arousal.

   Insistent hands push on his shoulders, urging him back. Arthur pulls away in confusion, ready to ask Merlin what's wrong, but Merlin is already pushing him further, guiding him to lay back on the cushions, allowing Merlin to crawl over him. He relaxes, hands moving to grip sharp hipbones as Merlin mouths at his neck. He remembers the sight of the love bite he had left, high and visible, on Merlin's throat, and flexes his fingers possessively. Merlin is his, and he wants everyone else to know it as well.

   Apparently, Merlin has the same thought. Arthur's mouth falls open in a breathy moan, something he'll probably be embarrassed about later, as he feels Merlin's teeth mark his throat. Merlin hums against his skin as he soothes over the area with his tongue. With one hand curled in his hair, Arthur pulls Merlin off his neck, and captures his lips with his own again. Merlin's lips had very quickly become his new favourite thing, and he very much doubted that he would ever grow tired of them.

   A needy moan slips past Arthur's lips as Merlin shifts his hips, and Merlin takes advantage of the opportunity to slip his tongue seamlessly into Arthur's mouth. Arthur had always viewed himself as a dominant person. In most things in his life, he was the one in charge. In this, however, he ceded control over the Merlin without a fight. He felt safe here, boxed in by Merlin's lithe form. For the first time in his life, giving up control didn't terrify him.

   When they pull apart to breathe, Arthur takes the opportunity to ask, "So, I take it that if I ask you out on a date, you'll say yes? Cause, honestly, I feel like it would be awkward if you didn't."

   Merlin barks out a laugh. "Yes, you clotpole, of course my answer is yes." Despite his joking tone, a part of Arthur had been genuinely worried. Merlin's words soothe and relax him.

   "In that case, do you want to get dinner with me tonight?" He asks. Merlin leans down and presses a languid kiss to his lips.

   "Yes. On one condition." He replies. Arthur scrunches up his nose.

   "And what's that?" He drawls.

   "That we don't count it as our first date, cause I really want to ravish you right now, but I don't want to seem too easy. I've never put out on the first date before, let alone before the first date." Merlin replies with a grin. His answer startles a pleasant laugh out of Arthur.

   "I think I can work with those terms." He says as seriously as he can. "But between you and me, you are rather easy."

   Merlin swoops down and nips at his lower lip gently in retaliation. He soothes it first with the tip of his tongue, then with his own lips, sucking it into his mouth and tugging before letting go. As they separate again, he stares down at Arthur with a heat filled gaze. The look of complete and utter desire makes more heat flash through Arthur's body.

   Leaning down close enough, so his lips brush the shell of Arthur's ear as he talks, Merlin whispers, "Only for you, Arthur."

   Arthur groans his approval, allowing Merlin to climb off him, then reach down and pull him up as well. Their lips connect again, in the middle of the living room floor. Arthur's blood is buzzing, his heart singing a tune of contentment. This was where he was always meant to be. It had always been Merlin for him, from the very beginning. He had never believed in fate or destiny before, but perhaps Merlin coming into his life had been just that. A gift, just for Arthur, all wrapped up in a package of selflessness and sass. Arthur honestly wouldn't take Merlin any other way. He was perfect for him. His heart.