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Merlin buried his face in his pint as he watched Lance lean over and kiss Gwen’s cheek, while she ducked her head and blushed furiously.

Merlin barely refrained from groaning. If he had to watch Gwen and Lance be disgustingly in love and get lost in each other’s eyes one more time, he was going to fling himself out of the window.

Being as painfully single as he was, he didn't know why he was spending this much time with newly married couples. However truthfully, he had to admit that he did actually enjoy their company quite a lot when they weren’t at the peak of their honeymoon phase. They had been some of his best friends for years and he loved them.

Less so by the minute, he thought, as Lance whispered something in Gwen's ear and she laughed, utterly delighted.

Merlin looked away.

The worst part was that he didn't even find it all that awful, owing to the fact that he wanted the same thing for himself.

He too wanted someone who would hold his hand when they walked together, who would know Merlin’s drink order by heart, who pressed up warmly against Merlin’s side when he was drunk and took care of him afterwards. Someone who whispered hotly in Merlin’s ear in public and kept a proprietary hand on Merlin’s thigh at the pub and maybe –

Merlin nearly thumped his head on the table.

Fucking hell, the yearning had to stop. The dry spell he’d been languishing through for months was long overdue for expiry.

He was going to do it. He was going to start dating again, even if he had to ask Gwaine for help –speaking of, where even was the wanker?

It was so typical of him to leave Merlin alone with Gwen and Lance and their bubble of eternal love.

As if on cue, Gwaine materialised by their booth, complete with his leather jacket, raucous laughter and endlessly positive energy.

Merlin couldn’t help but smile.

*

“Took you long enough today,” Merlin said later that night, as he shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking, watching his breath curl into a mist.

Gwaine laughed, eyeing Gwen and Lance who were walking away in the opposite direction all wrapped up in each other. “Ah, couldn’t handle all the jealousy, could you?”

Merlin blinked. “Whose jealousy?”

“Yours,” Gwaine answered, giving him a knowing look.

Merlin reddened, burrowing into his scarf. “I’m not jealous, I’m happy for them.”

 “I didn’t say you weren’t but you’re also dying to have what they do. It’s obvious, mate,” Gwaine informed him bluntly.

Merlin sighed, avoiding his gaze. “Fine, you caught me. Being loved by someone doesn’t sound like a terrible idea to me.”

Gwaine hummed, a slow grin spreading over his face. “You know what you should try out?”

“If you say the stupid Destiny dating app again –”

“The Destiny dating app,” Gwaine answered unapologetically.

Merlin groaned. “No.”

“Why not?” Gwaine asked, sounding wounded.

“Because it’s weird!” Merlin exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “And stupid and pretentious and exclusive. And just weird. What kind of dating app asks its users to get references from their exes? It’s not a bloody job application.”

Gwaine shook his head sagely. “No, no, Merlin. You’re thinking about this all wrong. It really does work. The compatibility stats are unbelievable and people have found their soulmates on this thing.”

“You’re just promoting it because you want to get in the pants of the bloke who developed it,” Merlin grumbled.

Gwaine gasped, putting a dramatic hand on his heart. “How dare you suggest that? I think Percival’s idea was brilliant and this has nothing to do with me being potentially attracted to him.”

Merlin snorted. “Potentially.”

Gwaine rounded the corner of the street, expertly ignoring his barb. “Just try it out. You get higher points and better options if the recommendations are good and you need only three anyway.”

Merlin flushed, fidgeting with his sleeve. “I have three exes in total, Gwaine.”

Gwaine beamed, slapping his shoulder. “Perfect! See? This was made for you. Now, let’s see. There was the childhood sweetheart –”

“Will,” Merlin supplied. “Hmm, he’ll be an arse about it but he’ll agree to be a reference, most likely.”

“Of course he will, always liked him,” Gwaine said in cheer and Merlin rolled his eyes. “Who else? That guy you dated recently –”

“A year ago –”

“Gilly, was that his name?” Gwaine enquired.

Merlin nodded. “He was nice and we ended things on good terms. He won’t be a problem,” he guessed, his mind slowly travelling towards the last of his exes.

“Well, that’s two,” said Gwaine thoughtfully. “Who’s the third? Wait –wasn’t there someone at uni? I think you mentioned him a few times.”

Merlin swallowed, his heart suddenly pounding against his ribs. “Yeah. Yeah, there was.”

An image flashed in his mind –of shining blond hair, a teasing smile, eyes the colour of the sky, and probably the poshest accent Merlin had ever heard.

“Well? Who was it?” Gwaine asked curiously.

Merlin shivered and he wasn’t sure it was from the cold.

“Arthur Pendragon.”

***

 

Convincing Will and Gilly had been a piece of cake, easy enough to directly counteract just how difficult Arthur was going to be.

Merlin rubbed at his chilled hands as he walked towards the café Arthur had told him to meet him at. Well, at least he would get a hot beverage out of the whole thing.

Truthfully, Merlin didn't even know why he was really doing this –freezing his arse off in the middle of winter to convince his arrogant prat of an ex to give him a recommendation, for a dating site of all things. It wasn't like Merlin was that desperate for a relationship –it had most likely just been a temporary moment of weakness after seeing Gwen and Lance so loved up. He should have probably turned back now and saved himself the inevitable embarrassment.

However, the thought of cancelling was just as unappealing and the image of Arthur waiting for him made his strides longer.

He wondered how he looked now, what he was up to. He was vaguely aware that Arthur worked at his father’s publishing company and that it wasn’t just what was expected of him, he actually enjoyed it. He’d secretly used to devour all types of books in uni, hoarding them at the oddest places. Merlin had once tripped over one in the bathroom in the middle of the night, and Arthur had laughed at him.

Merlin smiled at the memory.

He had been nineteen and stupid when he’d first met Arthur Pendragon. Their thing had only lasted for a few months but Merlin still acutely remembered how each moment with him had felt. He often wondered why they hadn’t tried to pursue anything further but Merlin had known even less about what he wanted then than he did now.

Somehow, at some point, they’d come to the unanimous decision that whatever they had together would end come graduation. And that's exactly what had happened.

For Merlin's part, he had been ridiculously into Arthur and would be lying if he said he hadn't often thought about him over the years.

Merlin’s heartbeat picked up when he reached the door of the café. He drew his coat tighter around himself and entered.

The bell on the door dinged.

*

 

Arthur looked up from his tea at the sound of the bell announcing someone’s arrival.

His chair was facing the entrance of the café and his breath caught at the sight of Merlin walking inside, cheeks flushed from the cold. Arthur had to remind himself that he wasn’t a hungover uni student staring at the clumsy kid who had just barged into the wrong class anymore.

When Arthur had received Merlin's email asking to meet out of the blue, he didn't know what to expect but he’d agreed without much ceremony. The thought of seeing Merlin again…it was tempting. He was someone who’d meant a lot to Arthur once.

“Right, I need a favour,” Merlin declared as he dropped down on the seat opposite Arthur’s, impatiently removing his scarf.

Arthur pasted on a smile. “Hello to you too, Merlin. Long time, no see. Yes, I’m doing well, thank you for asking.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, alright. How are you, Arthur?” he asked in a monotone, and Arthur had to bite back a smile at just how Merlin it was.

He raised an eyebrow, sliding over Merlin’s coffee to him. “What’s the favour?”

Merlin blinked down at the cup, then looked up at Arthur. “You ordered for me?”

Arthur felt his cheeks heat up. “Um, yeah. I know what you like so I thought I would have it ready for you –unless your coffee order has changed?”

Merlin had a small smile on his lips now. “No, it hasn’t changed.”

“Still cinnamon dolce latte with extra whipped cream?”

“Still cinnamon dolce latte with extra whipped cream.”

Merlin’s smile widened as he took a sip, licking the cream that had gotten on to his top lip.

Arthur tried not to stare. “So, the favour?”

Merlin wrapped both his hands around the coffee cup and sighed. “Right. Um…so this is awkward. I need something from you…a –a reference, of sorts.”

Arthur’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

Merlin flushed, avoiding eye-contact. “IneedrecommendationsfromexesforadatingsiteIjustjoined.”

“I’m sorry, what?

Merlin exhaled, as though this whole situation was giving him immense pain. “I need recommendations from my exes for a dating site I just joined. It’s called Destiny.”

Arthur knew Destiny. He had heard of it from Morgana, who prided herself on holding one of the top spots –all of her exes sending in glowing recommendations of her. Arthur wasn’t sure if it was genuine or if they were being threatened in some way.

Regardless, it was a little too out there for Arthur and he was surprised that Merlin was using it.

“Oh,” he said after a pause. “I see.”

Merlin glanced at him nervously and continued. “Yeah, you need a minimum of three to be eligible. I’ve got two already.”

Something ugly flared in Arthur’s chest at the idea that Merlin had met two other men just like this before him.

“And you came to me because?”

“Because you’re a lovely person who I know would help me?” Merlin tried with a winning smile.

Arthur studied him thoughtfully.

He could agree. He could agree to it and be done with the whole thing. It wasn’t a huge favour and would cost him nothing. Arthur could take half an hour out of his day for an old friend and help him get on with his personal life.

It was that simple.

But something stopped him –springing up desperately to make Merlin stay somehow, an inescapable gravitational pull. Ironically, it felt like destiny.

"I can't give you the recommendation," he blurted out.

Merlin startled. “Excuse me?”

“I can’t give you the recommendation,” Arthur repeated, voice sturdier this time. “I’m sorry.”

“Why the hell not?” Merlin exclaimed.

Arthur racked his brain for something logical to back his reasoning. “I’m a professional, Merlin. I don’t give recommendations unless I know the person is up to the job, otherwise it reflects badly on me.

Merlin huffed in disbelief. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

And somehow,” Arthur continued with emphasis, “I didn't get the full Merlin Dating Experience in uni."

Merlin snorted, leaning back in the chair and crossing his arms. "Fucking on weekends is not the full Merlin Dating Experience, to be honest.” He looked away, sighing. "We weren't exactly dating, were we? I mean, not in the proper sense."

Arthur had to begrudgingly agree with that. If they had been dating, it hadn't really been an elaborate version of it. It wasn’t like they were seeing other people while they were together but maybe friends with benefits was a more appropriate term for what they were, even if it didn’t nearly encompass just how strongly he'd felt about Merlin.

Arthur cleared his throat, taking a sip of his now horribly lukewarm tea. “Exactly, just proves my point.”

Merlin paused for a few seconds, chewing on his lower lip.

“Alright,” he said finally. “What do you want, then? What do I have to do to list you down as a trustworthy reference?”

Arthur contemplated how he’d tackle a professional situation of this type and reached a decision. “Just prove your dating worth and I’ll write you a recommendation.”

Merlin studied him. “Prove my dating worth? So, what –take you out on a few dates to show you I can really do this?”

Arthur shrugged.

Merlin didn’t seem to be putting much of a fight and Arthur was surprised, wondering just how badly he wanted to get on this dating site and exactly what kind of role Arthur was playing in it. The idea of Merlin dating other blokes didn’t exactly thrill him and the fact that he would be facilitating it suddenly made itself to known to Arthur.

Well, fuck. He couldn’t take his words back now.

“Sure,” he managed through clenched teeth, praying for Merlin to shut down the whole idea.

“Okay. Fine.” Merlin agreed, annoyingly contrary that he was. “Let’s do this. I’ll take you out a few times and then you have to give me the recommendation, okay?”

Arthur smiled, ignoring the unsettling feeling in his gut. “If I find you good enough.”

Merlin glared at him, but there was a challenge in his eyes. “Oh, you will.”

With a sinking heart, Arthur realised that that’s what he was worried about.

***

Merlin knew exactly where he was going to take Arthur on their first (fake) date. The idea had come to him right as he was falling asleep three days later and he was so excited about it the next morning that he barely heard Gwen as she expressed concerns over their strange arrangement.

“Merlin,” she said in a worried tone on the other line. “You’re going to get your heart broken.”

Merlin looked up from his laptop, clutching the phone tighter. “What makes you say that?”

“You refused to go out with anyone for like, eighteen months after you graduated,” Gwen reminded him.

Merlin huffed. “Yes, but that had nothing to do with Arthur. I just didn’t want to date. What’s wrong with that?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Gwen sighed. “I’m just –I don’t want to see you get hurt, Merlin. Please be careful.”

Merlin smiled. “It’s going to be fine, Gwen. I promise. Besides, I’m going to sweep him off his feet tomorrow –he might just agree to give me the recommendation immediately afterward.”

Gwen hummed. “This Destiny app business –are you sure you should be listening to Gwaine?”

“Now that,” Merlin laughed, “is a valid concern.”

*

 

Merlin wished he could permanently preserve the look on Arthur’s face as they stood in Trafalgar Square, staring up at the domed top of the National Gallery.

“Merlin…” he breathed, unable to finish the sentence.

Merlin bit back a smile and grabbed his arm, dragging him inside. Arthur followed in a bit of daze.

It was a lesser-known fact that Arthur was the biggest, most passionate art hoe in the world, and he kept this part of himself so carefully hidden that most people weren’t aware of it. However, Merlin, having been subjected to his late-night ramblings about Rembrandt, was intimately familiar with it.

“How long has it been since you’ve been here?” Merlin asked as they entered the first room.

“Years,” Arthur replied, his eyes darting around and trying to look at everything at once. “I don’t like –”

“ –coming here alone, I know,” Merlin smiled, touching his hand. “That’s why I’m here.”

Arthur glanced at him, a soft smile on his lips. He squeezed Merlin’s hand once, lingering, and then let it go, moving forward.

Merlin reminded himself to breathe.

Arthur’s stupor was soon replaced by barely contained excitement as they made their way through the gallery, and he regaled Merlin with obscure facts about the paintings, the artist, the stories behind the art and Merlin found himself thinking that he could listen to him forever as long as his eyes kept shining like that.

“That tailor is so fit,” Merlin remarked as he gazed at the portrait by Giovanni Battista Moroni. “Look at that smoulder. If I lived in sixteenth century Italy, I would never leave his shop.”

Arthur glared at him but the twitch of his lips gave him away.

“You’re an uncultured heathen,” he told Merlin. “I hope you know that.”

Merlin crossed his arms in defiance. “I bet the tailor would’ve treated me better than you, he doesn’t look like someone who calls his dates names.”

“Bet the tailor already had someone then,” Arthur replied with a smirk. “You’re stuck with me, like it or not.”

Merlin knew Arthur didn’t mean anything by it but his heart still skipped a beat. He made the executive decision to ignore it and listen to Arthur’s rant about Madame de Pompadour’s political influence during Louis XV’s reign instead.

That, he discovered sullenly, didn’t help his dilemma at all.

*

They were in Room 44 and Merlin looked over The Gare St-Lazare appreciatively one last time before moving to Arthur’s side.

He seemed stuck on one Monet painting, his eyes glued to the white landscape depicted on the canvas. It was a beautiful snow scene, vague outlines of houses in the distance and two figures walking together in the middle.

Arthur was incredibly into Impressionism and a huge Monet fan in general. Merlin had seen him practically drool over the play of light and the aesthetic component of his work, but this…this was something different, more personal.

“I begged my mother to take me to Argenteuil after seeing this painting for the first time,” Arthur said quietly. “I wanted to see this place so badly.”

Merlin bit his lip. “What did she say?”

Arthur smiled a little sadly, his gaze not leaving the painting. “She laughed and promised me that she would, when I was older. It never happened.”

Merlin’s chest squeezed painfully and he gave in to the urge to comfort –to gently reach out and hold Arthur’s hand.

Arthur didn’t comment on it, just shifted his fingers slightly so they fit more snugly between Merlin’s and Merlin breathed a little easier, smiling to himself.

Arthur’s mother, who he’d lost to cancer when he was twelve, was the reason he was so passionate about art in the first place, and the reason he kept it hidden from others. She had been an artist herself and had taught Arthur everything she knew about it. The National Gallery had been their favourite place to visit together and Arthur couldn’t bear coming here alone anymore.

Merlin knew the pain had faded but the memories still lingered.

Arthur wanted to see one more painting before leaving, called Venus and Mars by Botticelli. He didn’t specify the reason but Merlin could see the striking resemblance Venus held to Ygraine.

It was only after they’d exited the gallery and Arthur bent down to tie his shoelaces that Merlin realised Arthur hadn’t let go of his hand the entire time they were inside.

*

 

“So,” Merlin said as they walked back from Arthur’s favourite ice-cream parlour. “Did you have fun?”

The sky was darkening and the back of Arthur’s hand brushed against his. “Yeah, I did. Wouldn’t give you a perfect score but it’s high enough.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows, laughing. "What, are you going to rate me?"

"Absolutely,” said Arthur seriously. “This is an evaluation, Merlin."

Merlin turned to Arthur, stopping him in his tracks and pulling him into a deserted corner on the street.

"Well, how did I do?" he asked.

Arthur’s lips twitched and he answered, "Could be better. Seven out of ten."

The grin Arthur was wearing was so infuriatingly smug that Merlin couldn't help what he did next.

He grabbed Arthur's neck and pulled him in for a kiss, pressing his whole body along his front and relishing in the little helpless noise that Arthur made at the back of his throat. Merlin kissed him briefly but thoroughly, threading his fingers into the soft hair and tugging him closer.

Arthur’s breath hitched and his hands hovered near Merlin’s waist.

Just as abruptly, Merlin let him go.

Arthur stumbled back, eyes flying open.

"How about now?" Merlin asked smugly.

"That's cheating!" managed Arthur breathlessly, his cheeks flushed bright.

"How is that cheating? I always kiss people on the first date," Merlin informed him. “It’s part of the deal.”

It was a lie. He hadn’t planned to kiss Arthur or cross any physical barriers with him but Merlin couldn’t bring himself to regret it either.

It was just a kiss, he told himself. They’d shared a million before.

Arthur didn’t look convinced. “Harlot,” he muttered.

“Thank you,” Merlin grinned.

Arthur shook his head, smiling. “Merlin, you’re…”

He didn’t finish his sentence.

He didn’t have to.

***

 

Merlin could feel himself getting a little bit addicted to Arthur’s company, bringing back familiar sensations from years ago.

He planned their next date soon after their first, telling himself that he was only doing it to get the recommendation faster.

That was all.

"Why are you looking at me like that?” Merlin pouted.

Arthur gave him a withering glare. "This is an ice rink. I don't know how to ice skate."

Merlin beamed, looping their arms together. "That's why I brought you here, so I can teach you and you can stumble and fall into my arms."

"You're a plague upon this land."

"I'm romantic."

Arthur scoffed. "'Romantic’. This is just an elaborate ruse to publicly humiliate me.”

“Now that’s just mean,” Merlin said, shoving him down on the bench and bending down on his knees to tie the laces of his boots.

Merlin,” Arthur hissed, his cheeks colouring. “I can do that myself.”

Merlin looked up at him through his eyelashes and Arthur blushed even harder.

Biting back a smile, Merlin tied the last knot. “No need to be embarrassed, love. All done.”

Arthur rolled his eyes, dragging Merlin up by the shoulders. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”

Merlin lost his footing and stumbled when they stood up, Arthur’s hand reaching out to steady him.

He huffed out an amused laugh. “Bet you’ll be the one falling into my arms in the end.”

Merlin grinned, linking their fingers together and guiding him slowly over the ice. “Gladly.”

Arthur turned out to be unfairly good at ice-skating, getting the ropes of it quickly enough for Merlin to be a little annoyed about it.

“I think you were lying when you said you didn’t know how to skate,” Merlin muttered bitterly, as Arthur glided in a circle around him. “Show off.”

Arthur was looking far too pleased with himself. “Aw don’t be grumpy, Merlin. Not everyone can be as perfect as me.”

“Perfect arse,” Merlin shot back.

Arthur lifted his eyebrows and smirked. “You think my arse is perfect?”

Merlin shrugged nonchalantly. “Yes, but that’s not what I meant.”

Arthur spluttered, eyes widening in surprise and then lost his balance.

Merlin’s arms were ready; the rest of his body was not.

They fell in a heap on the cold ice, laughing breathlessly into each other’s shoulders.

Arthur lifted himself up after a moment, arms bracketing Merlin’s head as he looked down at him. His smile was soft.

Merlin could do nothing but smile back, warmth spreading through his chest.

Arthur leaned down slightly and Merlin held his breath, heart rate picking up. However, he merely brushed off a stray lock of hair from Merlin’s forehead and pulled him up by his elbows.

Merlin felt wobbly on his feet afterwards and he wasn’t sure it was because of the fall.

The lines in his mind were rapidly blurring and he had to sternly remind himself that this wasn’t real.

It was getting harder and harder to believe himself.

***

 

Merlin didn’t know when during the last month he’d reached the point where he couldn’t go a day without talking to Arthur. It started out as little texts through boring work hours that Merlin would smile at, to occasional phone calls while he was cooking and once even a long email exchange in the middle of the night when Arthur was conflicted about a manuscript and needed Merlin’s advice.

Lance claimed that it was a miracle that Merlin hadn’t bitten Arthur’s head off for disturbing his sleep. Merlin was of the opinion that Lance should keep quiet unless spoken to.

Merlin didn’t think twice about calling Arthur after work on Friday, as he toed off his shoes and collapsed on the sofa.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked, rubbing his eyes tiredly.

Arthur was clearly surly at the moment. “Deciding on the best way to land myself in the hospital.”

“Hmm, I could volunteer to help if you tell me what’s wrong,” Merlin offered.

Arthur sighed and Merlin could hear the exhaustion in his voice. “Morgana and I were supposed to go have dinner with father tomorrow, except she’s stuck in the States because her flight got cancelled and now I have to go to this thing alone.”

Merlin stiffened at the mention of Uther Pendragon.

Merlin had been Arthur’s close friend for nearly two years before they’d started sleeping together and he knew just how wretched his father was capable of making Arthur. They’d even gotten into a fight about it once and Merlin decided to tread carefully.

“Oh,” he said in a neutral tone. “Morgana is like a buffer between the two of you, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” Arthur exhaled. “God Merlin, I wish I could cancel but I know he’ll hold it over my head forever and the next time will be even worse.”

Merlin bit his lip and held the phone tighter. “I could –well, I’m free tomorrow. I could join you. Take the heat off you a little.”

Arthur paused and Merlin could hear him breathe over the line.

“Merlin,” he said in a soft voice finally. “You’d do that for me?”

Merlin took a deep breath, knowing the answer with surety. “Of course.”

“He might be rude to you, Merlin. I don’t know if I can –”

“Arthur,” Merlin interrupted soothingly. “It’s fine. I don’t care what he thinks of me. I promise I’ll be okay.”

There was crackle and suddenly, Arthur’s voice sounded a lot closer. “It won’t be nearly as much fun as whatever you were about to suggest.”

Merlin gave a dry laugh. “I know, but you can treat me to a drink me at The Rising Sun afterward and we’ll be even.”

“I’ll treat you to two,” Arthur declared graciously.

“How generous,” Merlin grinned, closing his eyes against the sound of Arthur’s voice in his ear. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

*

"Father, I'm sure you remember Merlin."

Merlin smiled winningly at the middle-aged man in an immaculate suit, staring up at them with barely disguised contempt.

"Certainly," Uther said tartly, as though remembering Merlin was his least preferred activity in the world. “So glad you could join us. I didn’t know you were still in contact with Arthur.”

“I wasn’t,” Merlin piped up. “But we happened to meet up a few weeks ago and I asked him out.”

Arthur turned to him with surprise but Merlin just squeezed his arm tightly, silently asking him to go along with his story. Arthur smartly kept quiet.

Uther looked like he’d bitten into a sour lemon. “Naturally,” he replied, gesturing for them to take their seats.

All in all, it wasn’t that bad. The restaurant was obscenely expensive, the food was pretty good and Merlin wasn’t paying for any of it.

Uther was predictably a right bastard of course, expressing his disapproval for Arthur’s life choices in an atrociously unsubtle way and only stopping to throw a few thinly veiled barbs in Merlin’s direction as well but at least he didn’t outright cause a scene.

Merlin let Uther’s words roll off him with ease but on the other hand, he could see Arthur tensing up whenever they hit a bit too close to his own insecurities about himself. Merlin quietly slid his hand over Arthur’s, letting the warm weight of it ground him and he could see Arthur relaxing under the touch, shooting Merlin a grateful smile.

Merlin didn’t know if it because of his presence but the whole affair was fairly short-lived, Uther excusing himself and bidding them goodbye earlier than Merlin had expected.

Merlin pouted mockingly at Arthur. “Aww, was it the homophobia or was he scared that my poor people germs would get him?”

Arthur laughed, eyes crinkling at the corner. “Shut up, Merlin. Just be glad he’s gone.”

“I can do that,” Merlin replied with a smile. “Now, I believe you owe me a drink.”

“I believe I do,” Arthur said, his gaze bright. “Lead the way.”

The Rising Sun was probably Merlin’s favourite pub. It was rustic, pleasant and felt like home. He’d brought Arthur there a few times during uni and while the posh prat had turned his nose up at it in the beginning, he’d also quickly settled into the cosy cocoon of the pub. He’d even known all the bartenders by name at one point.

Arthur came back with their drinks and when he handed Merlin his rum and coke without a word, a rush of warmth flooded Merlin’s chest. He still remembered Merlin’s drink order.

Arthur still knew Merlin’s drink order.

He took the seat beside Merlin instead of the one across him, their sides pressing together.

Merlin couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

It was when Merlin was on his second glass and feeling pleasantly tipsy that Arthur turned his body towards him, lips quirked up slightly.

“Thank you for today, Merlin,” he said. “You didn't have to do that."

Merlin cocked his head to the side, letting his eyes run over Arthur’s relaxed face. “Don’t be silly. You know I'm on my best behaviour."

Arthur smiled. “Merlin.”

"I’m serious.” Merlin said, shifting closer. “I’m glad I came. I know you have a troubled relationship with your father.”

Arthur looked away, huffing out a dry laugh. "Troubled,” he repeated sardonically. “He'd just started listing down all the ways I'm a failure before you asked about dessert."

“Arthur,” Merlin said softly, placing a light hand on his thigh. “You’re not a failure. With all due respect, your father is wrong and I really, really hope you’ve been trying to not let his words get to you.”

Arthur didn’t answer the last part but his lips twitched. “With all due respect,” he echoed. “Could be none.”

Merlin met his gaze, strangely intense. “That’s why I said it,” he joked but it came out far too breathless than he intended.

Arthur continued to stare at him with impossibly blue eyes and what Merlin saw in them felt far too huge for his heart to handle. He tightened his hold on Arthur’s thigh and slowly leaned forward to kiss him, firm and grounding.

It seemed to be the next natural step and he was rewarded with Arthur sighing against him and reciprocating in an instant, curling his fingers in Merlin’s collar and pulling him closer.

Merlin’s mind was a flurry, the buzz of alcohol muting all other senses that weren’t being occupied by Arthur. He could hardly hear the distant music playing in the pub but he could taste the bitterness of whiskey on Arthur’s tongue, could hear the little catch in his breath when he shifted their angle to deepen the kiss, could feel his fingers setting Merlin’s skin on fire.

A loud cheer from one of the other tables startled them apart, flushed and winded.

Arthur’s eyes moved slowly over Merlin’s face, as if in a daze and he brushed a thumb across his lower lip. Merlin’s eyes threatened to flutter close.

Arthur smiled. “I think I might like rum and coke after all.”

*

The sex was not supposed to happen.

Merlin had just come up to the door of Arthur’s flat to make sure he didn't pass out before making it inside ("I'm not even drunk, Merlin") and they had stood together in the corridor staring at each other. Merlin didn't look like he wanted to leave and Arthur didn't want him to leave either.

Next thing he knew, Merlin was giving him that look and Arthur was pressing him against the back of the door to snog him within an inch of his life, with Merlin trying to get impossibly closer to him and making needy little noises. It wasn't long before they were stumbling towards Arthur's bedroom, leaving a trail of coats and scarfs on the floor.

It was when Arthur had pushed Merlin into the pillows and he had gone so easily, his eyes closing –so utterly trusting –that Arthur had a moment of doubt.

"Merlin,” he breathed in a rush. “I know we aren’t really –you know. Is this okay, I don't want to pressure you or make you uncomfortable or –”

"No, shh," Merlin whispered, bringing up a hand to gently cradle Arthur’s jaw. "I want this, Arthur. I really fucking do."

Seeing the sincerity in his eyes and feeling the hands tugging at his shirt, Arthur leaned down and kissed him.

Somewhere around dawn, Merlin shifted in the sheets and seemed to be contemplating leaving. But then Arthur sleepily pulled him closer, burrowing his face in Merlin's shoulder and Merlin seemed to decide to just stay instead.

*

 

The sex wasn't supposed to happen. Or it was supposed to, but only that one time in the heat of the moment.

But then it kept happening because they did it again the next morning and then again three days later, after which Arthur got the brilliant idea to ask Merlin out to Leon's New Year’s party.

His heart thudded in his chest. He didn't know if this was allowed. It was usually Merlin who took him places, as per their arrangement.

God, their fucking arrangement. Arthur wanted to throttle himself.

Besides, Leon's party was weeks away and he didn't even know if he and Merlin would still be –

All of his worries dissipated when Merlin just smiled at him sleepily and said, "Sure, I'd love to."

*

 

Arthur was leaning against the table with a file in his hand, rubbing at his eyes tiredly and squinting at the text.

He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. Maybe Morgana was right and he really did need glasses.

He was just debating shredding the whole file in frustration when he heard the door open. Arthur looked up in irritation –he’d specifically told George to not let anyone in.

His heart surged up at seeing Merlin.

"Merlin!” he exclaimed in surprise. “What are you doing here? Is anything the matter?"

Merlin took a second to take in his appearance, tutted his disapproval and turned around to lock the door. Then he wordlessly walked up to Arthur, grabbed the file from his hand and tossed it on the table, before steering him backwards towards the chair with a hand on his chest.

Arthur stared at him, mouth starting to get increasingly dry. “Merlin.”

Merlin didn’t answer, just pushed Arthur on to his chair and slid onto his lap.

Arthur's eyes widened. "What –”

Merlin kissed him with the full weight of his body and the rest of Arthur's sentence ended in a string of embarrassing sounds in Merlin's mouth.

"What's this?" Arthur gasped out when they pulled apart after a moment.

"The Merlin Dating Experience," Merlin replied with a smile.

Arthur’s hand skated over Merlin’s thighs, onto his waist. "All your boyfriends have private offices?"

Merlin shrugged, looking Arthur straight in the eye. "I don't mind a bit of an audience."

"God,” Arthur’s head hit the back of the chair as Merlin laughed and started kissing down his throat. His fingers skimmed the length of his tie and Arthur's stomach gave a jolt of excitement but Merlin just tightened the knot and got off his lap

Arthur absolutely did not whine. "Where are you going?"

Merlin lifted an amused eyebrow.  "What, you think I came here to have office sex with you?”

Arthur had been rather hoping it would lead to that, and it must have shown on his face because Merlin rolled his eyes. “I'm taking you for lunch and then we're going to the Bath Christmas Market.”

Arthur’s chest rapidly filled with warmth and fuck, why did the idea that Merlin had showed up at his work to take him for lunch and then bloody Christmas shopping a hundred kilometres away make him feel even giddier than the prospect of office sex?

He viciously tamped down the schoolgirl butterflies in his stomach and exhaled wearily. "Merlin, it’s the middle of the day. I can’t just leave –”

"Really?” Merlin asked. “Because I asked your lovely PA and he seems to think otherwise."

Arthur narrowed his eyes at him, a smile tugging at his lips. "Got it all planned out, have you?”

Merlin frowned adorably. “Still the tone of surprise, even after all this time. Come on,” he pulled Arthur to his feet.  “I’ll drive and you can take a nap in the car. Have you looked at the dark circles under your eyes? Nope, it just won’t do. I won’t allow it. I mean, it’s one thing to –”

Merlin rambled on about his unhealthy sleeping habits and Arthur had to dig his nails into his palms to stop himself from saying something horribly sentimental.

“–Arthur, are you listening to me?”

Arthur snapped back into attention. “Huh?”

“I said, George has a crush on you,” Merlin informed him with a small, teasing smile as he wrapped his red scarf around his neck.

Arthur blinked. “He does?”

“Oh, he’s definitely an ardent admirer,” Merlin said. He flushed a little, before adding, “Takes one to know one.”

Arthur was going to lose his mind.

***

 

Christmas was always a very quiet affair at the Pendragons and usually Arthur preferred it that way. His mother had been the one who’d used to make the holiday something to look forward to and ever since she’d been gone, his father had been determinedly keeping the mood as sombre as possible.

Which was fine with Arthur, he didn’t care. But this year –this year, he wished for a little of that spark back.

Arthur looked towards where Morgana and Mithian were huddled up together in the ancient armchair by the fireplace. His father had retired to his bedroom an hour ago, leaving Arthur to nurse a drink with his sister and her girlfriend.

Morgana had made it just in time with Mithian, who'd decided to join them. Morgana had her arm around Mithian’s shoulder and she was playing with her hair, while Mithian was leaning against Morgana’s side with a small smile on her lips.

Arthur’s thoughts automatically turned to Merlin. He imagined what Merlin being there would be like. He’d probably be at the piano, Arthur thought, knowing full well what a gifted pianist Merlin was. Uther would be drinking himself stupid, not unlike now and Arthur's night would be so much better.

Suddenly, Arthur longed to see that image come to life and he almost couldn’t bear how much his heart ached with want.

He toyed with his phone, locking and unlocking it with his finger nervously hovering over Merlin’s contact.

Merlin had gone home to Ealdor to spend Christmas with his mother. Arthur wondered what he was doing, wondered if he was wearing the ridiculous orange sweater that he had a strange attachment to.

Arthur gave in to the urge impulsively and called Merlin. The call connected, it rang once and then Arthur immediately hung up.

He sighed. It was probably a bad idea to call right now, he’d be intruding on Merlin’s family time and it was the last thing he wanted to do –

He jumped when his phone started vibrating, Merlin’s picture flashing on the screen.

"Arthur?"

Merlin sounded breathless and Arthur clutched the phone to his ear.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have called,” he rushed to say. “I know you must be busy with your mum and –”

“What? No, don’t be silly,” Merlin replied and the anxious knot in Arthur’s chest loosened. “Tell me.”

Arthur bit his lip, twisting away in his seat to avoid Morgana’s scrutinizing gaze. “It’s nothing. I was just thinking of you and –”

"Will, get the fuck away from that piece of pie or I swear to god –” Merlin suddenly yelled, then got back. “Sorry, what were you saying?”

“Will’s there?” Arthur enquired dryly.

“Look, I know you two don’t really get along –”

“He punched me in the face.”

“Let’s be honest,” Merlin said and Arthur could hear the smile in his voice. “You deserved it a little.”

“The jury’s still out on that,” Arthur retorted.

"Speaking of, stop sending me those stupid lawyer jokes,” Merlin told him. “I mostly don’t understand them and Mum keeps asking me why I'm smiling at the phone screen."

Arthur laughed. "Now I'm going to send them even more. You look good when you smile."

"Thank you, Arthur,” came Hunith's voice from a distance. "That's what I keep telling him."

Merlin squawked in protest, resulting in various scuffling noises and Hunith's laughter rang in the background.

"You couldn't have told me you were on speakerphone?" Arthur asked when he heard Merlin closer to the phone.

"Didn't know you'd start flirting,” he shot back.

Arthur scoffed. "Don't insult me, Merlin. My flirting is heaps better than this."

"I wouldn't know," Merlin sniffed and Arthur chuckled.

“Don’t be such a child,” he replied with a smile. “If you want me to flirt with you, then just say it.”

I’m being a child?” Merlin exclaimed incredulously. “You’re the one who called me because you missed me.”

Arthur’s heart stopped beating.

Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, "You're right. I do. I do miss you."

There was a sharp intake of breath and Merlin’s voice came after a long second, much softer than before. "Arthur, I –”

And suddenly Arthur couldn’t take it anymore, some unnamed emotion threatening to choke him.

“Shit, Morgana’s calling me,” he lied, his blood roaring in his ears. “I’ll –I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

“Okay,” Merlin whispered after a pause. “I’ll see you soon. Happy Christmas, Arthur.”

“Happy Christmas, Merlin.”

***

 

When Merlin sat down for tea with his mum next morning, she was studying him curiously. It had freshly snowed in the night before and Merlin was in his cosy orange sweater and fuzzy socks. Being back home never failed to make him feel like a child again.

He rubbed at his eyes sleepily and glanced at his mother.

“What?” he asked, warming his hands on the cup.

“You’re being quiet today,” she observed, an unexplainable glint in her eye.

“I just woke up,” he told her, avoiding her sharp gaze.

Hunith hummed and took a sip. “Don’t play coy, Merlin. You might think you can hide things from me, now that you’re a big city boy but I can still read you like yesterday’s newspaper.”

Merlin’s tea went down the wrong pipe and he coughed violently. “Mum!”

She merely lifted an eyebrow. "What's going on between you and Arthur?"

Merlin froze and stared at her, a lie and dismissal on the tip of his tongue, when she added, "and the truth please."

Killy, their ancient tabby cat, sauntered into the room and jumped on Merlin’s lap, curling himself for a nap. Merlin stroked his fur absently as he ruminated over his next words.

He sighed finally, head hitting the backrest as he looked up at the ceiling. "I don't know. It wasn't much of anything before, just something crazy I agreed to do with him but now...” he trailed off, having no idea how to finish the sentence.

Hunith placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and he closed his eyes. “He said he missed me last night.”

“Ah,” his mum replied. “And do you miss him?

Merlin rolled his eyes half-heartedly. “Mum, it hasn't even been five days since I last saw him.”

“Do you?” Hunith inisisted.

Merlin exhaled. “Yeah, I do,” he whispered, his heart feeling uncomfortably large for his chest.

Hunith smiled at him. “You should tell him that.”

Merlin turned to look at her, eyes wide.

She merely ran her fingers through his hair tenderly before getting up and heading to the kitchen.

*

The first thing Merlin did when Arthur opened the door of his flat was pull him into a tight hug.

He should’ve probably waited a bit before barging into his home unannounced. Hell, he could’ve waited a few more days since they were going to Leon’s party together anyway.

Merlin didn’t want to wait.

He latched on to Arthur without shame, clung to him like a lifeline. Arthur didn't seem to mind once his surprise faded, as his arms went around Merlin's back and he buried his face in his shoulder.

Merlin thought Arthur might have pressed a kiss into his hair but he wasn't sure.

Regardless, he was soft and warm and Merlin sighed, letting go of the tightly coiled tension in his body and melting into Arthur right there on the doorway.

“I missed you too,” he whispered, barely perceptible and he didn’t know if Arthur heard or not but Merlin had told him.

He’d told him.

"You're freezing," Arthur murmured against his ear, even as he held him tighter.

"I don’t care, deal with it," Merlin replied, voice muffled against the side of Arthur’s neck.

Arthur laughed and leaned back slightly, looking at Merlin with such unbridled fondness that Merlin's breath caught.

"Good to see you too," Arthur said in a soft voice. "What do you want to do today?"

Merlin had an answer ready for him. "Watch The Lion King and eat Indian food. Think you can handle that?"

"I can try."

Arthur made good on his promise and nearly two hours later, they were sprawled on the sofa with their feet kicked up on the coffee table, empty takeout cartons surrounding them.

The lights were dim, Arthur was a soothing presence by his side and Merlin found himself realising that he’d never felt such bone-deep contentment in his life.

He startled out of his reverie when his phone buzzed in his pocket and he pulled it out to see Gwaine’s name flashing on the screen. Merlin ignored it.

The phone buzzed again, annoyingly loud and Merlin groaned.

Arthur glanced at him with raised eyebrows. “Who is it?”

“Gwaine,” Merlin mumbled and then glared at the screen. “He’s not going to let up until I pick up, the bastard. Mind if I take it in the kitchen?”

Arthur nodded his assent and got back to the movie as Merlin punched the ‘accept call’ option.

He leaned against the kitchen island and snapped irritably. “What?

Gwaine’s tone was surprised. “Alright, calm down. What’s gotten your knickers in a twist?”

“Nothing,” Merlin replied shortly. “What’s up?”

Gwaine chuckled. “Oh, you’re going to love me for this. Have I got the perfect bloke for you –I can’t believe my own genius sometimes –”

“You’ve what?” Merlin’s voice interrupted weakly.

“I’ve found your dream man, Merls,” Gwaine announced proudly. “His name is –”

“But –but,” Merlin stammered, clutching the countertop. “What about the app?”

“Forget about the app and the reference, Merlin,” Gwaine said impatiently. “You don’t need them anymore.”

His pulse quickened. Gwaine was right. He didn’t need them anymore.

Merlin’s gaze involuntarily drifted over to Arthur, who was propped up on two cushions, clearly fighting back sleep as his heavy-lidded eyes squinted at the television screen. His light hair was sticking up at odd angles and Merlin knew exactly how it would feel like under his fingers.

Something fluttery coursed through him and he took a shuddering breath.

God.

God, he was... he was falling in –

"Merlin, you there?"

Merlin swallowed hard. "Yeah," he answered hoarsely, trying desperately to keep his emotions in check.

Gwaine was way more perceptive than he let on. “Merlin...” he began carefully. “Where are you right now?”

Merlin bit his lip. “With Arthur.”

There was a pause and then Gwaine’s booming laughter filled the silence.

“Of course,” he said, sounding uncharacteristically fond. “I should’ve known. I’ll tell David you said no.”

Merlin flushed when Arthur glanced at him with a questioning look. “Thanks, Gwaine. For everything,” he said in a low voice.

“All fine?” Arthur asked him once he’d sat down beside him again.

Merlin smiled. “More than.”

***

 

Leon, being Arthur’s childhood friend, was someone who’d heard a lot about Merlin but never actually met him and Arthur was a little nervous about how their first meeting would go.

He knew he had nothing to worry about. Logically, they were both likeable people who would probably take to each other immediately but Leon would always be a part of Arthur’s life and Merlin…well, he was carefully hoping that Merlin was going to be too.

"Leon, this is Merlin,” Arthur introduced to a beaming Leon. “He's my, um –”

"Boyfriend," Merlin supplied, reaching out and shaking Leon’s hand.

Arthur froze, twisting around to raise his eyebrows at Merlin.

Merlin just shrugged.

It made sense, of course. What they were doing was too complicated to explain to people on their doorstep, and pretending they were just friends when they were so past beyond that point would be horribly regressive of them. But god, Merlin introducing himself as Arthur's boyfriend could be frighteningly easy to get used to.

Arthur tried to regulate his breathing.

“Ah Merlin, I’ve heard a lot about you,” Leon said, smirking at Arthur. “Especially in uni when I was just trying to cram for my exams in peace and Arthur would call to rant about the gorgeous boy who’d just insulted him in front of the entire footie team –”

Okay,” Arthur cut in with a sharp glare, taking Merlin by the shoulders and steering him inside. “I don’t believe anyone asked. Now, if you don’t mind Leon, we’re going to mingle.”

Merlin, who was wearing an infuriatingly smug grin didn’t protest Arthur’s manhandling, but called back, “I’ll find you later so you can finish that story, Leon!” and Leon, the bastard, gave him a thumbs up.

“So, ‘gorgeous boy’, huh?” Merlin waggled his eyebrows. “Those your exact words?”

Arthur scoffed, his face feeling hot. “Of course not.”

“No?” Merlin asked, clearly holding back a smile. “So, they were Leon’s? Is he single?”

Arthur gave him an offended look and blurted out unthinkingly, “That’s a very rude thing to ask your boyfriend, Merlin.”

Merlin flushed, suddenly a lot less cocky. “You know, about before. I meant –I didn’t really –” he stammered.

Arthur, who didn’t really want to find out the end of that sentence, smoothly guided him towards the kitchen. “Come on, let’s get some drinks in you.”

Merlin, for his part, shut up and followed Arthur.

The awkwardness and the pit of dreaded uncertainty in Arthur’s stomach faded somewhat after a while, as Merlin was introduced to some of his and Leon’s mutual friends and didn’t waste any time in charming them.

Arthur watched from a distance as he animatedly talked to Elena about horses probably, who being the celebrated equestrian that she was, couldn’t shut up about them.

Arthur took a sip of his beer, his body comfortably loose by that point, and pretended for a second that Merlin really was his boyfriend –seamlessly fitting himself in Arthur’s life, stealing all his friends, probably collecting blackmail material on Arthur because he was secretly a lowlife demon, but then finding his way back to Arthur at the end of the night, with his blue eyes bright and his dark hair sticking to his forehead and smiling in the way that made Arthur weak in the fucking knees.

His toes curled involuntarily in his shoes at the image that almost seemed close enough to touch.

“Deciding what your future children’s names are going to be?” came a silky voice from his side.

Arthur didn’t even flinch. “Morgana,” he acknowledged. “I was wondering how my life was so peaceful all of a sudden.”

Morgana laughed pleasantly. “Oh, please, Arthur. I’d say your life is going exceptionally well at the moment,” she said with a pointed look in Merlin’s direction.

Arthur vaguely searched for Mithian in the crowd in case he needed her to take his harpy of a sister away.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he muttered.

“You know damn well what I mean, Arthur,” she snapped, suddenly serious. “I hope you’re not going to fuck this up.”

“My love life is none of your concern,” he shot back. “Just because you and Mithian started dating from the moment you met doesn’t mean the rest of us have it so easy.”

Morgana rounded on him, and said incredulously, “Wait. Wait, hold on a minute. Are you under some ridiculous impression that you and Merlin aren’t dating?”

Arthur sighed, massaging his temple. “It’s complicated. I know it looks like we are –”

“No,” Morgana interrupted. “You are, though. You actually are.”

“I know you love to control everyone’s life,” Arthur replied with a scowl. “But this is not something you can decide.”

Morgana exhaled in a long-suffering way and grabbed his arm to take him aside to a quieter corner. "All right. Where did you get my Christmas gift?"

That was a rather odd question. "Uh, Merlin took me to the Christmas market in –” he began

Morgana snorted and crossed her arms, irritatingly self-satisfied. "I rest my case. You went Christmas shopping together, Arthur. Mith and I haven't even done that yet... Wow, that was easier than I thought. I knew you couldn’t have picked out a gift that good.”

"What's your point, Morgana?" Arthur exclaimed, really not fond of riddles.

She rolled her eyes. "My point is that you're head over heels for that boy and you're doing a brilliant job of self-sabotage right now. You two are dating. There is nothing fake about this.”

Arthur pursed his lips, turning his gaze away.

Somewhere, he knew that. Of course, he did. Maybe he’d chalked it up to wishful thinking in the beginning but the last several weeks were more than enough proof.

Merlin appeared at his side not long after, tipsy and light-headed. He was a horribly mouthy drunk in addition to being clingy and would not stop whispering the most random gibberish in his ears as he draped himself all over Arthur.

Arthur resisted at first, catching Morgana’s smug smile from afar but gave in to the temptation soon enough, wrapping an arm around Merlin’s shoulder and pulling him close. Merlin hummed happily and settled comfortably against Arthur’s side, a possessive hand resting on Arthur’s knee, as if that was where he was always meant to be.

Arthur knew how they looked, of course he did. Earlier it had been just the two of them privately acting like a couple but they were in public now, all wrapped up in each other in front of other people. The thought made him feel heady with a rush and by the gods, he couldn't bring himself to regret it for a second.

Soon, the clock was striking down to midnight and Merlin was turning towards him –taking his face in his hands and kissing him full on the mouth.

Arthur closed his eyes and held on.

*

Arthur couldn’t help but notice the way Merlin easily entangled their fingers as they walked back together from Leon’s party.

Morgana’s words came back to him.

It was a simple gesture.

It meant everything.

***

Arthur woke up surprisingly clear-headed, blinking slowly and trying to guess the time by the light filtering in through the windows. It couldn’t be more than seven in the morning, it was the first day of the new year and he didn’t understand why he was up so early.

Suddenly, the reason became abundantly clear as he registered the chilly air against the bare skin of his arms and shivered, reaching out a hand to grab at the covers –only to be met with empty air.

The blanket-swaddled bundle beside him sniffled and Arthur turned around to find Merlin having stolen all the covers from Arthur’s side in the night.

After engaging in a losing battle with Merlin to claim back his share of the blanket, Arthur just sighed and shuffled closer to try and get into them with Merlin instead.

Merlin was facing him, his brows creased after all the disturbance and Arthur could tell the exact second consciousness returned to him.

His eyelids moved slowly and then his lashes fluttered as his eyes opened blearily, dazed with sleep.

Arthur couldn’t tear his gaze away from his face. He wanted to wake up like this every day, blanket-hogging and all.

Merlin’s eyes finally focused and they stared at each other, the moment strangely fragile.

Then Merlin smiled lazily and leaned over to press a kiss to Arthur's lips, chaste and light. Just a kiss, no ulterior motive to it. Not as a prelude to anything more. Just a kiss.

They didn’t do this.

Except they did now.

Arthur continued looking at him, memorising the moment when the fact registered in Merlin’s mind as well.

His lips parted in a soft gasp, and his eyes traced the lines of Arthur’s face.

Merlin brought up a hand to Arthur’s jaw, leaning in again to continue pressing soft kisses to his cheeks, lips, chin –any part he could find.

"God, Arthur,” he breathed, leaning his forehead against Arthur’s. “I want this. Properly. I want it so bad."

Arthur’s eyes widened as blood rushed to his head at a dizzying speed. “You want –what? What about –what about that dating app and the recommendation –”

"Arthur –”

"Because I don’t –”

"Arthur, I deleted the app three weeks ago."

There was a stunned silence, Arthur’s mouth falling open.

"What?" he managed weakly, his mind swirling into chaos.

Merlin face split into a heart-stopping smile and he cupped the back of Arthur’s neck. "What part of me waking up in your bed for the second morning in a row gives you the impression that I'm still looking for a fucking recommendation from you to date other people?"

Arthur swallowed, hardly registering the words that were coming out of his mouth. "I –well, you should've said so," he whispered.

Something in Arthur’s expression made Merlin’s smile drop and be replaced with a wide-eyed look of uncertainty. "Unless –unless you don't want to –”

Merlin started to draw his hand back and some deep-seated instinct in Arthur kicked in, as he caught it, bringing it to his chest.

"Merlin,” he said gently. “Of course, I do. What part of me refusing to hand you the recommendation in the first place gives you the impression that I haven't wanted this all along?"

There was a pause, the moment in suspended in time. Then Merlin exhaled, falling back against the pillow. "You're an ass."

Arthur grinned, propping up on an elbow to hover over him. "Yet you're in my bed for the second morning in a row.”

Merlin made a face. "Ugh, I am, aren't I? And we didn't even have sex last night, literally just slept together. Pathetic."

Arthur poked him. "We could fix that right now."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

“As if you wouldn't," Arthur retorted. "You need to know when to shut up, love."

"Love?" Merlin echoed with distaste but the pleased quirk of his lips betrayed him. "Are we doing pet names now?"

Arthur leaned down and kissed his cheek, "Well, you're getting the full Arthur Dating Experience.”

Merlin contemplated that, humming thoughtfully. "Is it too late to back out?"

Arthur rolled his eyes. “You’re awfully chatty in the mornings, aren’t you?”

Merlin smiled indulgently, curling his fingers into Arthur’s hair.

“You’re about to find out.”

***