Title: The Road Taken
Word Count: 12,500
Warnings: Age difference (Merlin is 20, Arthur 35), American modern AU
Summary: Arthur does a favor for his nephew by giving his friend Merlin a ride across the country for the holidays.
Author’s Notes: Three things leapt out at me when I saw your prompt - age difference, road trip, and bottom!Arthur. I couldn’t shake them, and this is what happened. Thanks to cruentum for the beta!
Disclaimer: The characters depicted herein belong to Shine and BBC. I make no profit from this endeavor.
The first time Arthur thought, “What the hell did I get myself into?”, they were somewhere in the middle of nowhere Nevada. Less than a day out. At least two, if not three, days until DC.
An eternity if the past several hours listening to Merlin chatter on about anything and everything was any indication.
But when Morgana had posed the request, he hadn’t been able to say no. He never could when it came to her. Somehow, some way, in spite of common sense that said she was manipulating him each and every single time, Arthur always caved on whatever she asked, whether it was introducing her to his buddy Leon his freshman year at Stanford when he knew Uther would blow a gasket about his daughter dating some long-haired hippie (forget the fact that Leon was the star of the Material Science & Engineering department and knew everything there was to know about every kind of substance known to man ever, Uther only saw what he wanted to), or chasing down the best doctors in the country the night Leon got caught in a fire at work, or pulling strings with some of his European contacts to get her some designer’s phone number so she could seduce the poor rising star into creating a one-of-a-kind dress for her.
This particular request had sounded completely innocuous. Which probably should’ve been his first warning.
“He’s a friend of Mordred’s.” Her adopted son. As much as she might protest otherwise, Arthur knew she’d pushed for adopting an older child for the sheer pleasure in constantly being told she was too young to have a son that age. “You’d be doing him a huge favor.”
“Why can’t he fly?”
“Because not everybody has money to burn, you know. He’s at Stanford on scholarship. And you’re driving to DC anyway. What’s the big deal if you’ve got some company for the trip?”
None, he’d thought, especially when he’d pulled up to the curb in front of Merlin’s apartment building and got pinned by a brilliant set of blue eyes, an engaging smile, and a long, lean body not even the baggy jeans and windbreaker could hide. No other pinning, unfortunately, though the image of what it would be like if the college kid had pushed him to the hood of his Charger, caught both of Arthur’s wrists in one large hand and trapped them over his head, then pounded into his ass like there was no other place his cock wanted to be had kept said-ass glued to the driver’s seat for fear Merlin would see his embarrassing erection trying to split the seams of his Levi’s.
Thank god he could open the trunk from inside. Though Merlin’s “My bag didn’t look that heavy, did it?” annoyed him for a split second.
The rest of the annoyance had settled in by the time they hit I-80.
“I can’t imagine driving all the way to DC on your own,” Merlin commented. “When I came out for school, there were six of us piled into my pal Will’s van. We traded off so nobody got sick of being driver. Don’t you get bored or tired or something?”
“But it’s three thousand miles.”
“But I can stop and get out whenever I want. I can’t do that on a plane.”
“You’re not stuck in a plane for three days, either.”
Arthur’s hands tightened on the wheel. “I like driving. It relaxes me.”
“You’re not afraid of flying, are you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Because that’s what it sounds like.”
“Well, it’s not.”
“It wouldn’t be a problem if you were,” Merlin went on, as if Arthur hadn’t just denied it twice. “Though honestly, you’re more likely to get in an accident—”
“—driving rather than flying,” Arthur interrupted. “Yeah. I know.” He looked pointedly at his companion for the next three days, hoping he’d take the hint. “I like to drive. End of story.”
Except it wasn’t, or at least not of Merlin’s prattling, because he simply switched subjects, from Arthur to his trip two and a half years earlier (which made him twenty, fuck, young enough to be Arthur’s kid if Arthur hadn’t been paranoid in high school about knocking up Vivian). He heard about their detours, to some amusement part in Ohio he’d never heard of, to the Grand Canyon—which wasn’t so much a detour as it was a whole ‘nother trip, but nothing Arthur said to point that out seemed to sink in for Merlin—as well as proclivities among Merlin’s friends he really wished had been kept private.
The kicker was Merlin’s blasé acknowledgment he was gay.
Regardless of how much Merlin ran his mouth, Arthur didn’t need to know that. He especially didn’t need Merlin talking about his dating life as casually as if they were girls he took home, not boys. Arthur had ignored his bisexual tendencies for years, and then when he’d finally had the nerve to act on them, that asshole Lancelot had stabbed him in the back (except he wasn’t an asshole, not really, not when that sense of decency Arthur had liked about his friend—forget about the bedroom eyes and determination to get Arthur off as hard as possible whether it was a quickie in the closet at work or a whole night at a hotel in Boise during a work thing—was exactly what had driven him and Gwen to go straight to Arthur as soon as they realized their feelings for each other).
Only Morgana knew the truth about the divorce and Arthur’s sexuality, and that was only because she’d called the night that would’ve been his and Gwen’s eleventh wedding anniversary and he was drunk out of his mind already.
A different generation, he tried telling himself. College kids now had more freedoms than he’d ever been allowed at that age. He shouldn’t resent this near-stranger for something that wasn’t his fault.
Except he did, a little, and partially because Arthur knew he was being slightly hypocritical about the closet he couldn’t seem to break free of. He lived in San Francisco, for god’s sake. If there was anywhere on this planet it would be perfectly okay for him to like men, that was it, and yet, he didn’t seek them out. Lancelot had been the only one to break through the walls Arthur had imposed around his sexuality, and that only happened because they’d been friends first.
Merlin had no walls whatsoever, it seemed. And no apparent inclinations to throw any up for Arthur’s sake, either.
He broke just outside Salt Lake City.
The snow had started falling as they were going over the mountains, and though it had cleared passing through Nevada, clouds rolled in to bring an earlier night than usual. Arthur slowed down to keep from losing it on the quickly slicking roads, but Merlin didn’t, his commentary shifting yet again to a white Christmas in DC.
“I’m stopping for the night,” Arthur announced, sliding into the right lane to get off at the next exit.
With a frown, Merlin glanced at the clock on the dash. “I thought you were in a hurry to get there. You can still get in a good four or five hours before you have to stop, can’t you?”
“The snow’s starting to freeze,” he lied. “And I don’t have a scraper or anything.”
“How can you not have an ice scraper?”
“Because I live in San Francisco. Do you know when the last time they got snow?”
“It snowed last year.”
Arthur scowled. “A couple places in the hills got a few flakes. That doesn’t count.”
“It’s still snow.”
“I’m stopping.” Semantics wasn’t going to get in the way of a break.
He found a Holiday Inn Express near the airport, functional and cheap since Merlin had made it clear he couldn’t afford a room on his own. They agreed to order a pizza, and while Arthur would’ve loved to take a long, hot shower for a few minutes of peace and quiet, that would mean changing into his sleep sweats. In those, he’d never be able to hide an erection that decided it absolutely had to declare he wasn’t as oblivious to Merlin’s physical appeal as he wanted to be.
Settling for leaning against the headboard and flipping through the channels on the TV was his best option while they waited for the food to arrive.
Merlin stretched out on his bed, though he didn’t even pretend interest in what might be on. Propping his head in his hand, he turned toward Arthur, a half-smile slanting his wide mouth. “So what’s your story?”
Judge Judy was yelling at an emaciated teenager for some infraction involving a dog, some beer, and a pair of hair clippers. Somehow, Arthur found the fortitude to keep his eyes on the TV. “A boring one.”
“That’s because you know it already.” When Arthur held his tongue for several long seconds, Merlin sighed and added more softly, “I know about the divorce, if that helps.”
Magic words. They fractured his attention on the TV enough for him to whip his head around and stare hard at Merlin. His stomach was in fluttering knots at the prospect this veritable stranger was privy to his embarrassing history. “What exactly do you think you know?”
“Nothing specific.” He said it quickly enough to sound genuine. “Mordred just said you got divorced last year. That it was why you hadn’t been back to see your family in so long.”
That and so many other reasons, not the least of which he had no desire to see the disappointment in his father’s face about his failed marriage. On top of that, he knew Uther would use the opportunity to try and coax him into moving back to Washington, in hopes Arthur would marry someone “more suitable” and further Uther’s political aspirations.
Before he’d met Gwen, he would’ve done it. But the one positive thing he’d gained from that relationship was the knowledge he deserved to be happy for his own sake, not for anybody else’s. Nobody, not even Uther, would tell Arthur who he could or could not date.
“I haven’t been back because I have a very busy life,” Arthur said. “That’s all.”
Merlin nodded knowingly. “And you don’t want the family to meet who you’ve been dating. I got it.”
“So why were you going to drive alone?”
“Because I’m not dating anyone.”
“But you’re hooking up. You’ve got to be.”
“Oh, god no!” His vehement reaction to the casual reference was tempered by Merlin’s latter statement sinking in. “Wait. Why do you think I have to be?”
Merlin shrugged. “Because I have eyes?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re hardly a troll.” He shook his head and flopped onto his back. “Your ex must have really done a number on you if you can’t even see that.”
The compliment, back-handed as it was, settled Arthur’s fears that his preferences were written across his skin for everyone to see. The last thing he needed when he walked through his father’s front door was a sign on his chest that said, “I’ll bend over if you’re big enough.”
“How do you know Mordred?” He’d much rather listen to Merlin talk about himself than spend the rest of the night fending off personal questions he had no intention of answering.
“From school. We met when we got assigned to the same period for library duty.”
“Aren’t you older than he is?”
Merlin grinned. “Have you even met your nephew? He’s older than anybody else I know. Including you, which should tell you something right there.”
“I’m not that old.” Even though the constant reminders of the age difference between him and Merlin kept slapping him in the face. It was a shame it didn’t do the same to his overeager dick.
As he spoke, Merlin ticked off his list on his fingers. “You don’t date, you don’t hook up, and you haven’t been home in over a year because you’re too busy which means you’ve got to be a workaholic because that’s all that’s left. Face it, Arthur. You have no idea how to have fun anymore.”
Hearing this…kid nail his life so succinctly without really knowing him threw up even more hackles. “I know how to have fun.”
“Really? Prove it.”
“And how do you propose I do that?”
Merlin’s gaze strayed to the windows and the fat flakes sticking to the other side of the glass. “Let’s have a snowball fight.”
Arthur stared at him, disbelieving what he’d just heard. “You’re kidding.”
“We don’t have any gloves.”
“So? Better to pack the snow.”
“Our pizza’s going to be delivered any minute.”
“We’ll do it out front so we can see them pull up.”
He was running out of excuses. “Do you have an answer for everything?”
Merlin smiled, smug and gleeful. “Pretty much.”
The snow fell steady and sure, not nearly heavily enough for his earlier worry but certainly adequate for Merlin’s purpose. Arthur couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent more than a few minutes in the snow, and he definitely couldn’t pinpoint the date of his last snowball fight. Common sense screamed at him to tell Merlin it was a ridiculous idea, that grown men didn’t chase each other like children to prove a point, but then there was this smaller voice, one that had been locked away for over a year, the one that had coaxed him into taking a risk with Lancelot (though maybe that should’ve been a negative right there, considering the results of that decision), that wanted to take Merlin up on this offer. From the look on Merlin’s face, he fully expected Arthur to turn him down.
All the reason he needed to say, “You’re on.”
He bought a cheap pair of gloves in the hotel’s convenience shop, ignoring Merlin’s gibes about his delicate hands. Nobody noticed as they went out into the parking lot, and though the snow was still coming down, he led Merlin to a patch of lawn, already covered with half an inch.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s lay down some rules.”
Merlin’s brows shot up. “Rules? It’s a snowball fight, not a chess match.”
“You think I’m going to let you make this up as you go along? That’s cheating.”
“It’s not a game. It’s supposed to be fun.”
“Games are fun. And? Games have rules.”
With a roll of his eyes, Merlin folded his arms over his chest. “All right. Let’s hear them.”
He didn’t actually have any in mind, but he couldn’t very well say that now he’d made such a big deal about them. “One. No iceballs. I’m not losing a day because we’re stuck at the hospital getting stitches.”
“Two. No head shots. Same reason.”
“Do I get to make a rule?”
“Like calling time outs.”
“Why would we need a time out?”
“In case one of us breaks rule one or two.”
It was Arthur’s turn to roll his eyes. “I think we’re good with just the two.” He began scanning the ground for a thick patch, entwining his fingers to crack his knuckles and loosen up. “But you know, if you decide you—”
A block of cold hit the back of his neck, showering beneath his collar in loose clumps.
“Hey!” When Arthur jerked around, Merlin was six feet away, wearing a shit-eating grin, holding another chunk of unformed snow in his hands. “What was that for?”
Merlin shrugged. “You didn’t make a rule about when we would start. So I started.”
Arthur recognized a gauntlet when he saw it. He backed up, slowly, attention fully on Merlin. Ducking the next throw was easy.
After that, the game was on.
For all his enthusiasm and early luck, Merlin had a lousy arm. His throws often went wide, and as long as Arthur could see him when he released, the way he telegraphed his intentions was all Arthur needed to stay snow-free. His height was a disadvantage, too. A long reach meant nothing when he often tripped over his own feet in his excitement.
Arthur laughed as much from watching Merlin take a fall as he did watching him shake off each of Arthur’s (on the mark) hits. He forgot the cold and the growing ache in his shoulders. When Merlin tried using an Audi for cover, Arthur crept around the long way to pelt him from behind with three balls he’d stashed specifically for a sneak attack.
Neither one of them saw the pizza guy pull into the parking lot until the smell of garlic wafted from the car when he climbed out in front of the lobby.
“Game over!” Arthur called. His breath huffed in front of him as he jogged to intercept the guy, but rather than tired, he felt exhilarated, more so than he could remember being in a long time. He grinned at Merlin when he joined him on the curb. Merlin’s ears were bright red, and the hair on the top of his head was frozen into frost-bitten, irregular spikes where he’d taken a header into a drift after wiping out on an unseen patch of ice. “Ready to concede defeat?”
“Well, I would if you’d ever made up a rule about how to determine the winner. But since you didn’t…” He reached inside his coat and pulled out his wallet, turning toward the pizza guy. “I guess it was just for fun, now wasn’t it?”
Arthur’s buzz took a left turn, as much out of shock that Merlin was paying for their dinner as it was Merlin was exactly right. He’d overlooked that detail, so wrapped up in showing off that he wasn’t a stick in the mud—or ice, as the case may be—and now he couldn’t even claim victory for the privilege.
He hadn’t moved in the time Merlin took to finish, still motionless when the car drove off. Merlin balanced the pizza box in one hand and reached for the door with the other.
“Going to join me?” he asked.
For all his wide-eyed innocence, amusement twisted his mouth into a smile. Arthur scowled and pushed past him, ignoring how he jostled Merlin slightly with his shoulder. “Next time, you won’t be so lucky,” he warned.
“Maybe next time, I won’t let you off so easy.”
Arthur snorted. “Please. Like you ever stood a chance.”
“Do you want a rematch?”
The smell of the pizza had woken up his stomach. “Right now, I want to eat.”
“Then let me know when you’re ready for it.” They reached the elevator, and he nudged Arthur back, his gaze lifted to watch the numbers descend on the display over the doors. His contact held none of Arthur’s belligerence, playful as he’d been outside, and some of the annoyance thawed around Arthur’s mood. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
“I’ll pay you for my half of the pizza when we get back to the room.”
“I wasn’t talking about that.”
The elevator dinged, and the doors slid open. Arthur waited for Merlin to reply, but the answer never came.
The second time Arthur thought, “What the hell did I get myself into?”, he was switching the channel away from sports news when the bathroom door opened and Merlin walked out in a cloud of steam.
With water still dripping from his hair onto his shoulders.
Wearing a towel.
And only a towel.
That did nothing to hide the long line of his cock where it hung against his thigh.
Merlin wasn’t even hard and it had to be at least six inches.
Oh, fuck me.
“All yours,” Merlin said, flopping down in the chair next to the beds. He reached for the remote that hung uselessly from Arthur’s hand, their fingers grazing as he took it away.
He didn’t put himself on display or anything, but his indolent sprawl sent Arthur’s imagination into overdrive. What it would be like to crawl between those long legs, push the towel out of the way, and suck Merlin hard. Or straddling his thighs and jerking off their cocks together. Or licking away the last of the dewy moisture from Merlin’s chest and shoulders while he ground against him.
“I thought you wanted the shower?”
Arthur snapped himself out of his daze to find Merlin frowning at him, confused by his immobility. “Just tired,” he said in explanation, and climbed off the other side of the bed, scooping up his clothes and toiletries without looking back. The click of the bathroom door sent a relieved shudder through him, and he sagged against it, growling in frustration under his breath.
He should’ve gotten laid before he’d left San Francisco. None of this would be happening right now if he’d only taken the edge off.
The mirror was still misted over, and Merlin had left a second damp towel wadded up on the floor, but Arthur couldn’t muster the indignation about the mess or being left with only one towel to dry himself. He stripped down, trying everything he could not to touch his throbbing dick, and set the spray to a lukewarm temperature. The residual chill from the snowball fight was enough to deter anything colder. Jerking off would have to suffice.
Bending beneath the water, Arthur braced one hand against the wall and squeezed his eyes shut, but as soon as he fisted his cock, images of Merlin flooded his head again. He tried replacing them—with Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Gosling, even the pretty brother from Supernatural—all to no avail. It always came back to Merlin, to that mischievous, knowing glint in his eye, those long hands ready to tease and taunt at the slightest provocation. In the sanctuary of the shower, Arthur could admit to himself that he’d fuck Merlin in a heartbeat, but what he really wanted, what he craved, was for Merlin to pound into him and make him forget anyone else had ever touched him.
A handjob wasn’t going to cut it. Adjusting the angle of the spray, he laid down in the tub and propped his heels against its edge. His cock weighed against his stomach, pre-come dripping onto his skin. He smeared the fluid around the head, digging his thumbnail into the slit for the slight bite that would make his orgasm even better, then reached between his legs to rub his sticky fingers over his hole.
When he pushed two inside, he sighed in bliss. Every muscle immediately relaxed, and he closed his eyes again to give over to the sensations.
Arthur forgot the cool tub behind his shoulders, as well as the lingering frustrations of his current situation. Each lazy pull at his cock echoed the thrusts into his ass, tight to the edge of pain, long and determined like he best loved to fuck. That was the lesson Lancelot had taught best. Arthur hadn’t been patient at the start, starved (even though he wouldn’t admit it) for everything Lancelot had to offer, but eventually, he learned.
How he preferred being taken for a change. How satisfying it was to play it slow and rough. How good aches could feel the day after, and then the day after that.
That was the role he cast Merlin in now. Where instead of diving into the pizza when they’d come back to the room, Merlin had tossed aside the box, pushed Arthur over the desk, and ground his cock into him until Arthur begged for more. Where he’d taken both of Arthur’s wrists into one hand and pinned them to the small of his back while he’d yanked down Arthur’s jeans. Where—
His orgasm came with a cry, too soon, far too soon, but there was nothing he could do to stop it, nothing he could do but ride it out as his cock jerked inside his grip, ropes of come splattering onto his chest. He left his fingers buried—hell, he hadn’t even got up to three, where was that endurance he’d learned a lifetime ago?—and shuddered through the release, swallowing air until his lungs began to work again.
Too soon, if he was honest with himself.
His breathing evened out, and his arms fell to his sides. Staring up at the ceiling, Arthur became too aware of the cramped tub, and how unsatisfying the orgasm had been, even as quick as it was. The water felt colder than when he’d started.
This was going to be a very long night.
“Wake up, sleepyhead!”
Something heavy landed on Arthur’s head, or rather, on the pillow covering his head, jarring him from a rather graphic dream involving Merlin, a snowman, and some very obscene carrots. He reached up to brush it off, peering out from beneath the pillowcase to see the hotel directory slide to the floor.
Next to it stood Merlin, holding a rumpled white bag.
“What time is it?” Arthur grumbled.
“Time for breakfast.” Merlin shook the bag. “You looked dead to the world, so I ran out and got us some doughnuts and bagels. I know you want to get back on the road.”
Too much information to process in too short a time. Squinting against the morning brightness, Arthur emerged from beneath his pillow and sniffed. “Do I smell coffee?”
“Yep. I got you black with sugar. That’s the way you like it, right?”
It was, and the fact that Merlin had remembered that after only one Starbucks stop the day before helped soften Arthur’s annoyance at being woken up by having something dropped on his head. Well, that and the promise of a sugar overdose just inches from his nose.
As they ate, Merlin’s chattering didn’t seem to bother him as much as it had before, though Arthur credited that to his fuzzy head and the fact that he probably heard only every fifth word. He was fully alert when they checked out forty minutes later, and even more so when he saw his snow-free car sitting in the parking lot.
“I picked up an ice scraper while I was out, too,” Merlin said. He flipped it toward Arthur, who caught it automatically. “Ready to hit the road?”
Though Merlin talked as much as he did the first day, the morning flew by. Merlin suggested some music when they got on the other side of Salt Lake City, and Arthur spent a couple hours getting an education on what was popular on today’s college campuses. Some of the bands were even good. At Arthur’s request, Merlin started keeping a list of the ones he would look into more once they arrived in DC.
They stopped for lunch at a Burger King in Rawlins, in spite of Merlin’s constant assertions they had plenty of time to try the diner around the corner.
“We lost a lot of time yesterday,” Arthur said for the eleventh time. “Now that we’re clear of the snow, I want to make up for it.”
Besides, it wasn’t as much torture being stuck in the car for hours at a time with Merlin. When he wasn’t going on about nonsense, or prying too hard into Arthur’s life, he was well-versed in more than a few subjects. Much to his surprise, he discovered Merlin was about to finish his degree in molecular and cellular physiology, which prompted a whole new line of conversation.
“How on earth did you pick that?” he asked. Meaning, really, the subject seemed too intellectual and cerebral for someone like Merlin, though he’d never utter that aloud.
“A friend of the family, actually.” His tone turned wistful, his gaze drifting to the window, leaving Arthur the freedom to steal glances at his tempting profile without fear of being caught. “He was a doctor, not ours officially, because my mom never had decent insurance with all her jobs, but he looked after us all the same. He was always trying to teach me how things worked, how magical science could be if you looked at it from the right angle.”
There was no way to miss the past tense, though the last thing Arthur wanted was to root around in Merlin’s pain and make him feel worse about it. “So it’s a tribute to him, then.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it that. That kind of negates my genuine interest. I mean, I’m not going into medicine like he did. I don’t think I have the patience for it.”
“So what are you going to do with it?”
Merlin turned a brilliant smile in his direction, the slight melancholy gone. “Make the world a better place, of course.”
Arthur couldn’t help but laugh at that. Triteness notwithstanding, he had the sneaking suspicion Merlin meant every word. And would do what it took to make it reality.
“You went to Stanford, right?” Merlin asked. At Arthur’s nod, he added, “Why didn’t you move back to DC when you were done? Did you get some fantastic job offer that was too good to pass up?”
The last question was the perfect out. Embellish the truth, play with the timeline a little—which, all right, was lying—to avoid delving into more personal matters. He could do it. Merlin probably half-expected him to.
But hadn’t expectation been the bane of his existence all along? In every aspect of his life, from his childhood, to college, to Gwen, all the way to Lancelot and the divorce. He’d fought against it last night by agreeing to the snowball fight (which he’d won, no matter how Merlin might claim otherwise). Doing so again wouldn’t kill him.
“Actually, I didn’t find anything for almost a year after graduation. I got by doing some pretty shit jobs until something finally panned out.”
“But your dad—”
“—is the reason I stayed in the Bay Area,” Arthur finished. “I mean, sure, I could’ve found something back in DC. Easy. Everybody there knows who the Pendragons are. But…” He sighed, his grip fidgety on the steering wheel. “I’d spent my whole life like that. I needed to find out if I could succeed on my own.”
He wasn’t sure if Merlin would get it. He had a lifetime of struggles behind him, a mom who worked too hard to provide for her son, scholarships and loans the only way he could get the college education he deserved. If anyone would condemn Arthur for throwing away such riches, Merlin was the guy.
“It’s hard living in a shadow when you deserve better.” The solemnity in Merlin’s tone drew Arthur’s gaze back to him, unafraid now of being seen. “But I can’t say that surprises me.”
“Really?” Arthur shook his head. “Sometimes, it still boggles me, and I’m the one who pretty much flipped off his dad and everything he’d worked for just to prove a point.”
“You think too much.”
That generated a snort. “I’ve been told a lot of things, but that is not one of them.”
“Doesn’t make it less true. Look at all your rules for the snowball fight. I just wanted to have fun. You’re the one who tried turning it into something else.”
“That’s because games have rules.”
“Sounds more like you trying to impose rules on your life to me.”
This was exactly the type of armchair psychoanalysis Arthur had been trying to avoid, especially since Merlin was twisting the one thing he’d thought Merlin would actually approve of into something else entirely. “Forget it. There’s no way you’d understand.”
“Because you think I’m just a kid?”
Though Arthur’s cheeks heated in embarrassment, he didn’t back down. “Because life has a way of not behaving how you expect it to.”
“Life or people?”
Merlin had finally gone too far. Clamping his jaw shut, Arthur punched the volume up on the radio, forcing Merlin to give up the ghost on generating more discussion on this or any other matter. Enough was enough.
The only words either one of them said before Arthur finally called it a day in Lincoln, Nebraska, were to a McDonald’s cashier when he stopped for dinner and a bathroom. He’d gone over the speed limit. He’d ignored taking breaks. His primary goal was to get them as close to DC as he could, but as he pulled into the Days Inn off 80, he wondered if it had all been worth it. He was exhausted, mentally and physically, and guilt was already starting to gnaw at him for overreacting like he did to Merlin’s observations.
When the night clerk looked at him apologetically and said, “I’m sorry, sir, the only rooms I have left tonight are single queens,” he almost laughed at the irony of it all.
“I can sleep on the floor,” Merlin said as Arthur slid the keycard into the lock.
He would’ve preferred Merlin’s first direct statement to him to be a joke. He could deal with that better than this quiet deference.
“I’m not that big of an asshole.” I hope. He dropped his overnight bag to the floor and rolled his neck. “Are you going to shower?”
“Nah, I’ll do it in the morning.”
With no more excuses, they prepared for bed in silence, walking around each other like an old married couple and this had been their routine for two years rather than two days. Last night, he’d found it impossible to stop thinking about Merlin’s body after they’d killed the lights, but embarrassment had a way of killing a boner. Even when they had climbed gingerly under the blankets, and the darkness was there to invite him back into fantasies, Arthur spurned his wayward thoughts.
“If it means anything…” Merlin wasn’t speaking loudly, but without any light, his soft words weighed heavily in the air. “…I’m sorry about what I said earlier.”
Arthur sighed. “Go to sleep, Merlin.”
“Will we make DC tomorrow?”
As much as he’d like to… “No. The day after.”
“I could drive if you don’t want to stop tomorrow night.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’ve never been in an accident.”
“Have you ever owned a car?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Go to sleep, Merlin.”
The silence returned then, as oppressive as ever. Arthur stared up at the ceiling he couldn’t see, listening to Merlin breathe. He hadn’t noticed it the night before, that steady pulse, hypnotic in ways he’d forgotten in the divorce’s aftermath. For all his fears about not being able to sleep around Merlin before, he’d eventually drifted deeper than he had in months, but whether it was a product of being tired, or jerking off, or a combination of things, he hadn’t known. To be honest, he hadn’t even thought about it. Their morning had started on much better terms and improved enough until their argument for it not to be important.
But the way it relaxed him now, regardless of his rising shame about his behavior, offered a different reason. He’d missed that soundtrack, the gentle knowing that another person was there.
Something else Merlin had provided, albeit unknowingly.
The blankets rustled slightly. “Yeah?”
“You’re not asleep.”
“Neither are you.”
“I can still sleep on the floor. Just say the word.”
“That’s not it.” He turned his head toward Merlin, seeking out the vague outline against what little light filtered through the curtains. “I owe you an apology, too.”
“I was pushing.”
“Yeah,” Arthur agreed. “But I still owe it to you.”
The mattress shifted beneath his back, and Merlin’s profile changed, the hard angles sloping as he looked to Arthur. “Do-over tomorrow?”
He smiled at the way Merlin phrased it. So typical. “Yeah.”
“Good. Maybe you could share some of your favorite music this time.”
“And you won’t give me crap for it being old man music?”
Merlin laughed. “Yeah, probably.”
“The snowball fight was fun, by the way.”
“I know. But having a few rules was a good idea. I might’ve taken advantage of you, otherwise.”
“Ha. Like you ever stood a chance.”
“What, you don’t think I could take advantage of you?”
In the blink of an eye, the renewed camaraderie had deepened to flirtation, the amused promise in Merlin’s tone reawakening those parts of Arthur he’d considered dormant for the evening. He became aware of the heat beneath the blankets, the proximity of supple muscles that held up more than enough against Arthur’s. Merlin’s breath wasn’t the metronome from moments ago. Now it was a drum, insistent throbs that settled beneath Arthur’s skin and demanded satisfaction.
He swallowed against his dry throat. Did Merlin know he was bi? Was this deliberate, or was Arthur’s imagination churning this into something more?
Did he want it to be something more?
Yes and no.
Jesus. No wonder he was a mess. He couldn’t even make up his mind about a potential one-night stand. Or two nights, since they wouldn’t be in DC for another thirty-six hours.
His delay in responding felt interminable. Merlin solved it by nudging Arthur with his elbow.
“Get some sleep,” Merlin said. “If you’re not going to let me drive tomorrow, I don’t want you falling asleep at the wheel and killing me before I get to taste my mom’s apple-raspberry pie again.”
“Better not let that happen.” He’d never been so grateful for a reprieve. Or so disappointed. “You need the calories. You’re all skin and bones.”
Another nudge, this one harder. “Someone’s just jealous because I don’t have to worry about that middle-aged spread yet.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Just like I’m jealous of having to get stamped every time I go into a bar. Oh, wait. I’m not.”
Merlin chuckled. “Good night, Arthur.”
He murmured good night in return, tugging the blanket back over him when Merlin rolled over. The distance did little to dampen the sound of Merlin’s slow breaths.
Sleep came quickly for Arthur.
So did dreams.
Concluded in Part 2.