It goes on like this all day until it's seven, and everyone else has left for the night except Merlin and Arthur, who are staring at each other through Arthur's doorway over the box on Merlin's desk, daring each other to make this happen first. It's Merlin who breaks, getting up with a sigh and entering Arthur's office, shutting the door behind him even though there's no one this late on a Friday who could possibly infringe on their privacy.
"Well." Merlin stuffs his hands in his pockets. "I guess this is goodbye then."
"Right," Arthur says. The walls feel like they're closing in on him, but he bravely adjusts his coat and comes to stand in front of his desk formally. "Well, it's been... not an honor, exactly, but a strange sort of privilege."
Merlin gives an odd little snort, ducking his head. "It's one way to put it."
"Right." Uncomfortable silence descends on them again, the same one that's been between them ever since... well. Merlin takes one hand out of his pocket and sticks it out for Arthur to shake, utterly steady, and as Arthur takes it and pumps their hands up and down he keeps thinking no, this isn't it, this can't be it. Because this is the moment his entire life's been working towards. It isn't running for parliament or being the Prime Minister, both of which are jobs he doesn't even fucking want to do, anyways. It wasn't to date Alice or Vivian or even Gwen, as perfect and lovely as she was. This is why he's been miserable for so many years, this is why Merlin kissed him, so he could stand in his office with the setting sun on Merlin's face and finally have the courage to say I will never allow myself to be my father and I am allowed to be happy.
Swallowing, Arthur stretches out his fingers and brushes them along the inside of Merlin's wrist where the skin is impossibly soft and delicate. If Merlin notices, he doesn't give any indication, just is quizzically examining Arthur as if waiting for some reason as to why they're still clasping hands but not shaking anymore, frozen. But Arthur can't offer an explanation for the first time in his life, so he steps forward into Merlin's space, their hands trapped between them.
"Arthur?" Merlin asks, swallowing.
"Please just..." Arthur lets go of Merlin's hand to run his fingers up Merlin's arm. The gesture makes Merlin's eyelashes flutter shut and eyebrows draw together in what could be emotion or anger. But when Arthur brings his hand to stop over Merlin's heart, he can feel the frantic pounding, like it's trying to leap out of Merlin's narrow chest and into Arthur's palm. "I don't know how..."
"Arthur," Merlin repeats, sighing. His other hand comes up to cover Arthur's, and for a terrible moment Arthur's sure Merlin is going to lift his hand and say sorry, this train has left the station, but instead he leaves it there. Warm. Comforting. Not moving away from Arthur even though they're so close that Arthur can smell that Merlin had gotten himself one of those girly Starbucks drinks he likes so much with the whipped cream halfway through the afternoon.
"I want..." Arthur whispers, still afraid to voice it in case he gets slapped away. Merlin's mouth quirks upwards just slightly and his head seems to unconsciously dip closer and that's enough permission for Arthur to fist his hands in Merlin's jumper (his navy blue date jumper Arthur realizes a little giddily) and press their mouths together, taste the mocha chips and soured taste of cream. He feels dimly like the rest of the world has fuzzed out, like his brain is on mute and not running through disaster scenarios, which is weird, like everything is so good his throat feels thick and his eyes feel prickly and he could just die here, he could die from joy when Merlin moans softly and wraps one arm around his neck and the other around his waist in a vice-like grip. He's pressing them so close that there's nothing in the universe but the two of them and their ragged breathing before they nudge back into each other, kissing and kissing and kissing because it's the only thing they can possibly do.
"God," Merlin breathes. His hands keep running down Arthur's face like he's a blind man trying to make sure Arthur's really there. "Arthur, I thought, I thought you wouldn't."
Arthur nods and swallows, pressing their foreheads together. "I had to," he says. "I had to once. If I didn't, I'd just. I couldn't live with myself. Not if I didn't."
Merlin makes a soft noise, almost like regret, and when Arthur pulls back enough to look at him. Merlin's eyes are soft in that expression Arthur's seen so many times and never dared to hope before was some sort of affection.
"Come home with me?" He asks, leaning his head down against Merlin's shoulder and closing his eyes so he can't see Merlin's reaction, but he needn't. Merlin's silent for a few moments before letting out a little choked laugh.
"You're pretty sure of yourself," he says. "What makes you think I'm that kind of girl?"
"I've already bought you dinner a few hundred times," Arthur says dryly. "Call it a hunch."
"Prat," Merlin laughs, kissing Arthur's forehead before moving away. "Okay, give me your keys though, I'm driving us."
Arthur crosses his arms and glares. "It's my car."
"You're shaking," Merlin says gently, and Arthur realizes, when he puts his hand down against his desk to steady himself, it's true. It's a fine tremor, but it's one Merlin would feel because they were just very close and - oh god.
"I, uh." He coughs. "I've wanted - that is, I've never with another... and I've wanted for... Shit."
"Me too." Merlin's voice is still gentle, but there's a note of real, raw regret in there that makes it hard for Arthur to breathe. "And that's why I refuse to die in a car crash before I have sex with you."
This time, when Arthur full-body shudders and his knees have trouble supporting him, he can't even pretend not to notice.
"Arthur?" Merlin's voice abruptly loses all edge of mockery. "Arthur, I was kidding, if it's too much for you -"
"If you finish that sentence, I will hire you back just long enough to fire you," Arthur grits out. "Just, Christ, if you talk about that in here again I'm going to do something very, very regrettable."
"Right then!" Merlin exclaims cheerfully after a few moments of awkward silence where neither of them can speak from the tension in the air between them, so much thicker now that they both acknowledge it, burning hot enough that the room temperature goes up a few degrees. He's a bright, bright pink and Arthur thinks dimly that something regrettable might happen right here, right now, damn it all. "I'll just... better go get the car running, then?"
"I think that's for the best," Arthur agrees, fishing around for his keys in his pocket before tossing them over. "Let me just, um, gather my stuff. I'll be out in a few."
"If you're not, I'm stealing your car," Merlin says, and after a moment of indecision grabs Arthur's face and swoops in for a brief, hard kiss that makes Arthur very, very glad he's gripping onto the desk. "Right," Merlin pants when he pulls away. "So you should, you know, hurry."
"Right then," Arthur says, watching Merlin back out of his office, grab his cardboard box, and flee. When Merlin's gone, he allows himself to collapse against the desk and laugh slightly manically for a few moments. This was it. This was what he agonized over, violently suppressed, and made himself miserable with for three years, and as easy as that, it's gone. This is what was going to ruin his career.
And, well, if this is ruining his career, it's never felt so good.
Arthur wakes up to someone tracing his face. "Mmmmmmrmph," he grumbles, nudging into the fingers. He has no idea who it is, but it feels nice. Tickly, but nice. He hears Merlin huff out a laugh. Good, he thinks vaguely. It's good to know that the last couple of hours weren't some sort of holographic sex fantasy. "Time's it?"
"Very late," Merlin whispers, his hand stilling. "Or very early."
"Hm," Arthur says, mourning the loss of Merlin's hand as he retracts it with one last, fond brush along Arthur's jawline, apparently satisfied. He wonders if Merlin really enjoys that, just... feeling Arthur's face after he's looked at it for so many years. Curiously, he reaches out and places his hand against Merlin's cheek, fascinated. It's not the feeling of Merlin's thin cheek that's so nice as the way that Merlin's face moves under his hand, the way he smiles slightly and his eyelashes flutter. Arthur wants to kiss him, suddenly, just for being so wonderful, and then he remembers he can.
Merlin tastes bad - stale, breath too hot, but it's good, because this way Arthur knows it's real, that Merlin's elbows he's struggling to free so he can wrap his arms around Arthur are his, not a dream that Arthur's going to wake up from and then spend the next day watching Merlin's elbows at his desk and pretending he's not doing that at all.
But Merlin will never be at that desk anymore. Jas will, and Merlin's leaving him. Well, not really leaving him, but leaving. And he can't, he still can't, Arthur doesn't know how to live without Merlin almost every day, smiling and making terrible jokes and with his hair sticking up just so.
"Don't go," Arthur whispers when he pulls away for air, panting.
"Not going," Merlin agrees, kissing Arthur's nose, his forehead, the high point of his cheekbone, soothing.
"I love you," Arthur says. It's too soon to say, he knows as soon as Merlin pulls away, eyes wide and staring at Arthur like he's never seen him before. Arthur stares back, refusing to back down from the challenge. He does, he thinks, strangely defiant. So what if it's only been, like, six hours since he first let himself kiss Merlin back, properly? It's how he feels. And it hasn't been six hours, really, this has been going on for years, building layer after layer until it's become too big between them to ever just be a one-off release. Merlin knows that. He has to know that.
"You... really?" Merlin squeaks, eyes huge. "I didn't think you... I thought you just... you needed to. Once."
"No," Arthur says hoarsely. "I need... I need a lot. Very much. Often. From you."
"Arthur," Merlin says, choked sounding, and then surges up to kiss him again. Arthur's just glad that out of that inarticulate jumble that fell out of his mouth, Merlin seems to have understood what he meant, if the way he's clutching Arthur closer is any indication.
"You too?" Arthur mumbles against Merlin's mouth, not quite willing to part with his lower lip.
Merlin pulls away, and Arthur darts in for one last taste before going, "Love me too."
"Of course I do, you idiot," Merlin laughs, but he presses a kiss to Arthur's temple, like he doesn't really mean the 'idiot' part, but Arthur knows he does. "I can say with complete honesty that if I wasn't madly in love with you, I, like any sane person, would have quit two months into my job."
"That long?" Arthur asks, pressing himself against Merlin for re-assurance.
"You took a long time to come around," Merlin says, tucking Arthur under his chin and stroking his hair as if Arthur were child. Surprisingly, Arthur finds he doesn't much mind.
"Sorry," he says into Merlin's chest. "Here now."
They're quiet for a long time, long enough that Arthur starts dozing again, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he won't fake being sick on Monday just to avoid Jas. Maybe he'll actually go in and face her and the fact that she's not Merlin, since he's got Merlin in a new way now - a better way. Of course, he might not have any assistant at all if he's really as terrible as Merlin says he is.
"I'm not that bad a boss, am I?" he mumbles. "I mean, Jas isn't going to be gone in six weeks, is she? 'Cause I don't want to have to go looking for a new assistant all over again..."
"Not the time to be discussing your treatment of employees," Merlin says, sounding half asleep as he strokes through Arthur's hair.
"Yeah, yeah, okay," Arthur sighs, and between one pass of Merlin's hand and the next, he falls asleep, boneless and content for the first time he can remember.
It's surprisingly un-weird to have Merlin not in the office. Proving once again that he was like nothing more than a particularly lovable fungus, Merlin had somehow managed to move into Arthur's flat within a week, claiming quite rightly that Arthur's flat was closer to work and school, and it only made sense that way. On some level, Arthur logically knew their relationship was in its fledgling stages and that perhaps it wasn't the best idea to let Merlin gleefully re-arrange bookshelves and get rid of double kitchen appliances, but it was very hard to stick to logic when coming home actually seemed like a positive prospect for the first time in his entire life.
"And you're sure this isn't too fast?" Merlin had asked him solemnly after Arthur had caught him moving his scarf drawer in.
"No," Arthur had said frankly, kissing the tip of Merlin's nose which he found an extremely useful trick in his ongoing quest to make Merlin shut up and listen to him. It was best deployed in the middle of a stupid argument over something like how they planned on having their eggs that morning, because the element of surprise was usually enough to make whatever Merlin was about to say grind to an abrupt halt, mouth gaping, and Arthur could lean in and kiss him properly next, which always made Merlin much more amenable. Sometimes, though, Merlin's nose looked just so and he had to kiss it for no reason other than it was there and he could. "But I am sure that I'm no longer capable of functioning without you bothering me for at least half of my day, and I'm beyond positive that I'd move you in even if you weren't sleeping with me in order to have you make me coffee every morning. Jas' is strong enough to form an angry mob and declare independence."
"Yes, yes, your life is like a Dickens novel without me," Merlin had said, waving him off with a flush of satisfaction creeping its way up the back of his neck, hot under Arthur's stroking fingers in a thoroughly delightful manner.
"Don't mock my pain," Arthur said solemnly. "You must, for queen and country, make me a pot of coffee."
So Merlin still makes Arthur his coffee, at least on the mornings Arthur allows him out of bed to do so. He sleeps so nicely, is the problem, cheeks a little pink, mouth parted, hair askew. The quality of Arthur's work in the office may be at an all-time high, but his rate of productivity, especially in the mornings, is at an all-time low. It's simply impossible not to lean over and run his lips along one of Merlin's poky shoulders, and then Merlin will murmur and roll back into Arthur, smiling faintly as his eyes flutter open, and then how is Arthur supposed to leave bed without kissing Merlin everywhere? Merlin never has his graduate courses until 9:30 at the earliest, which is plenty of time for sleepy, hushed, lazy sex, which before Merlin Arthur had never had or understood the desire for. But now... now Merlin's in his bed and he's his own boss and to hell with it, he'll have a bit of a lie-in if he wants.
Gaius seems to approve, at any rate. "You look positively radiant, Arthur," he smiles when Arthur shuffles in sheepishly at 11 in the morning on one of Merlin's days off, collar just covering a mark Merlin made in a hastily-planned moment of passion, and his hair is still wet from the shower he'd only managed to have when he'd finally appeased Merlin (and mostly himself) with a good ten minutes of farewell kissing. There is a tiny bit of his pride that balks at this ridiculous creature he's become, but it's mostly soothed by the promise of Merlin, Merlin, sex with Merlin, lots of sex, Merlin! "I do think this new schedule is agreeing with you."
"Um, right," Arthur says awkwardly.
"And Merlin, I'm assuming, is similarly well? You're keeping him happy?" For an old man with Dumbledore glasses who may as well be Merlin's kin, Gaius manages to make that statement sound mortifying and filthy.
"Er," Arthur coughs. "I... I should hope so. I mean, I think. Goddamit, Gaius!"
"Right, right, I apologize," Gaius' face looks utterly solemn but his eyes are twinkling wickedly. Arthur wonders if Merlin learned that trick from Gaius, or vice-versa. "I do forget how terribly British you are, sometimes."
"And as the Prime Minister, you are, of course, the expert on all things British," Arthur shoots back, and then adds, "...sir."
"That I am," Gaius nods. "And as such, I order you not to come into work until you damn well please. Now tell me how Gwen plans to spin the continued rise in unemployment."
If Gwen's constant smile and increasingly excellent performance during press conferences is any indication, the new schedule is suiting her as well.
"First of all," she says when Arthur goes into her office to discuss the changes in hours with her, "I won't say I told you so, but I absolutely told you so."
"Yes, yes," Arthur flops down in her visitor's chair. "I am looking into bestowing knighthood upon you."
Gwen looks pleased. "See? You even have a sense of humor now. That's a lovely new development. You never used to have one when you insisted on starting work at seven."
"I'll have you know I'm a constant delight at all hours," Arthur sniffs.
"Of course you are," Gwen soothes. "But it's also nice for the rest of us to get a lie-in occasionally."
"Speaking of which, those are some lovely flowers Lance sent you on your desk there," Arthur says innocently. "He's enjoying his extra sleep as well, hm?"
It's nice to know he can still fluster Gwen enough to reduce her to blushing and indignant spluttering.
The only thing that leaves Arthur with a bad taste in his mouth about the whole matter is that it turns out Merlin does have a strong work ethic, he just never bothered to use it when he was working for Arthur.
"Hello, Merlin," Arthur says, leaning on Merlin's office door (Arthur uses the term "office" lightly, it's really like a large-ish broom closet filled floor-to-ceiling with books and a few pieces of furniture, Kilgharrah swimming happily in his tank in the corner), where he's curled up on his squashy couch taking notes on what looks like a book about the history of salt. Honestly. "It's nice to see you're alive."
"What?" Merlin blinks over the edge of the book. "What are you doing here? I thought you were working until five."
"I was," Arthur agrees, sitting down and plucking the book out of Merlin's hands, but he takes care to bookmark where Merlin was with a post-it in order to stave off indignant squawking. "And Gaius is fully prepared for Question Time on Monday. Actually, he was prepared at four thirty, which was five hours ago."
"What, really?" Merlin fishes his phone out of his pocket. "Oh, and you tried calling me, a lot."
"Yeah, but you silence your ringer at work."
"Well that's what's professional," Merlin grumbles, but he lets himself be pulled practically into Arthur's lap, who buries his face in Merlin's dark hair and sighs. He's been missing Merlin the entire stupid day, and his poky elbows, and the way his shampoo smells, and all he wanted when he came home was Merlin waiting for him, which he doesn't think is so much to ask. It's Saturday, for goodness sakes.
"I don't like this new professionalism of yours," he mumbles.
"You?" Merlin looks incredulous. "You don't like my new professionalism."
"Well," Arthur coughs uncomfortably, rubbing his hand up and down Merlin's arm in a nervous gesture. "I've recently come to realize that there are some things that may be, well. Slightly more important than work."
Merlin smiles gently. "Are there, now?"
"A few, yes." Arthur mutters. "Not too many, mind you, but some."
"Really," Merlin smiles. "Like what, pray tell?"
Arthur turns his nose into one of Merlin's ears and whispers "You."
He doesn't even have to open his eyes to know how widely Merlin smiles.