Title: The Proof is in the Photograph
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin, Gwaine
Summary: Merlin is feeling insecure and Arthur has some explaining to do.
Warnings: Not sure if it is considered a warning, but this is a Modern AU.
Word Count: 3083 words *cringe. Sorry!*
Author's Notes: A bit longer than a drabble. I apparently suck at writing drabbles. One of these days I will get it right! :-) In the meantime, I hope the comm will forgive this one.
The Proof is in the Photograph
"Merlin! Merlin!" Arthur banged on the scarred door, its green paint peeling. "Please, Merlin. Open the door!" His knuckles were starting to bruise. "Please! I can explain!"
There was no answer. Not a sound from within.
But Arthur knew Merlin was in the flat; knew all too well that Merlin would seek refuge with Gwaine.
Gwaine. Who fancied himself Merlin's champion.
Arthur banged harder on the door, using the side of his fist. Fucking Gwaine. "Merlin!"
Someone rode by on a bicycle. Arthur was peripherally aware that the rider had slowed down to watch him make a spectacle of himself, but he ignored the stare. There was too much at stake to worry about dignity or decorum.
Merlin was too important to Arthur and he would gladly act the grovelling fool if it meant Merlin would forgive him.
"Please, Merlin, let me in!" Arthur slumped against the door, suddenly weary. "Please," he quietly. "Just, please."
He laid a palm against the sun warmed wood, wishing he could push himself through it. "Merlin," he pleaded achingly as he slid down to huddle in the doorway.
There was no way he was moving until Merlin, or more likely Gwaine, opened the door.
With every blow against the door, Merlin flinched. Each strike beat at his battered heart and he so desperately wanted to let Arthur inside. But he wasn't sure it was a good idea.
Merlin glanced down at the photograph clutched in his hand. He didn't need to unwrinkle it to see the four people at a pub enjoying a round of drinks. The image of two of them locked in a heated kiss was burned in his brain. It was a moment frozen in time that had destroyed Merlin.
Merlin heard the imploring words and blinked back tears, his head throbbing with unreleased sobs. He curled up tight against the door, lying his forehead against the wood and closed his eyes, imagining Arthur on the other side looking sad and wishing he could reach out to him.
But it wasn't really the door which separated them.
Merlin's heart broke a little more.
The last of the sun's rays faded, bringing an evening chill.
Arthur shivered, but didn't move. He'd sleep right here if he had to. He would not leave until he saw Merlin and explained that damning photograph.
He knocked again. Not so loud or hard. More casual and less demanding. Gwaine wouldn't hesitate to keep Merlin inside well away from Arthur if he thought Arthur was being too much of a querulous prat.
Frustration welled up inside him when no one answered. If he could just talk to Merlin, explain, he was sure everything would work out and they could get back to normal. "Merlin," he called desperately. "I'm not leaving until I talk to you."
"He means it," Gwaine said quietly, looking down at Merlin who was still sitting on the floor. "He can be quite the stubborn arse."
"I can, too," Merlin retorted stubbornly.
Gwaine squatted down beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "But you don't want to be," he said gently. "Merlin, mate, maybe you ought to hear what he has to say."
Merlin laughed weakly. "Never thought I'd hear you say that."
Gwaine looked at him sadly. "While I wish things were different," he began, brushing his fingers through Merlin's fringe. If his fingers trembled a little, neither of them said anything. "I am not the one you want." He nodded toward the door. "And if you want to keep him, you're going to have to fight for him."
The words pained him to say, but seeing Merlin huddled in on himself, wringing his hands, misery robbing the light from his eyes, hurt Gwaine more. He'd do anything to see Merlin happy even if it meant pushing him into another man's arms.
Gwaine would just have to suffer the resulting loss on his own. He swallowed, complex emotions momentarily making it hard for him to speak. "Go on, Merlin, do what your heart tells you."
Merlin gazed up at him. He reached out and touched Gwaine's jaw, eyes watery. "You're too good to me, you know."
Gwaine patted him on the cheek and offered him a lopsided smile edged with a bitter grief he couldn't hide. Not from Merlin. "I know."
"Right," Merlin murmured, giving him a look of understanding. He threw his arms around Gwaine and hugged him hard. "Thank you for being such a good friend."
"No need for that, Merlin," Gwaine responded, closing his eyes against the sudden prick of tears. Comforting Merlin had become second nature and he'd always do it, without a thought. But it was torture, too. "I'll always be here for you."
Merlin pulled away from him, sniffling. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Gwaine asked even though he knew.
"For, well." Merlin gestured at the two of them then throwing a vague wave at the door.
Gwaine caught his hand, giving it a squeeze before lowering it. "No, Merlin. None of that," he said firmly.
"But." Merlin began to protest.
"No," Gwaine repeated. "Nothing to be sorry about."
"But," Merlin said earnestly. "I--I know I hurt you."
Gwaine gripped him by the shoulders and leaned forward until they were eye-to-eye. "Merlin, stop it. You aren't hurting me. If your friendship is all I can have then I will gladly accept it. Everything else is for me to bear alone."
Merlin's eyes were watery again. "But I don't want you to be alone."
Gwaine bit back a sigh. Merlin's kind heart was one of the things he loved. "Don't worry about me, Merlin."
"But I do," Merlin responded candidly.
"Right now I think you have other things to worry about." Gwaine nodded at the door where the insistent banging had begun again.
"I guess I should sort that out," Merlin said apprehensively.
"I think you should," Gwaine agreed. "You don't want to let him go."
"No, I don't," Merlin said quietly. Then he looked sad again, and earnest. And Gwaine knew Merlin was once again thinking about him.
Gwaine couldn't have that. He just couldn't take much more today. He might consider himself a masochist, wanting to stay within the sphere of Merlin's light despite not being able to contain it all to himself, but there was a limit to his self-flagellation.
"Then you need to talk to him." Gwaine hauled Merlin to his feet, tone matter-of-fact, adding with a touch of humor, "Off you go. Wash your face. Comb your hair. Make yourself lovely for the fair Pendragon."
Merlin rolled his eyes, but started walking along the hallway to the bathroom. After a few steps, though, he shot back to Gwaine and gave him another hug.
Gwaine wrapped his arms around Merlin, savoring the feel of the long, sturdy body in his arms. He closed his eyes for a brief moment and imagined that Merlin was his and his alone.
All too soon, Merlin was pulling away.
Gwaine watched him disappear into the bathroom, allowing himself some time to long for something he would never have.
With one last look in Merlin's direction, Gwaine squared his shoulders, pasted on a smirk, and threw open the door.
The wind was picking up, bringing a hint of rain with it. The moon peeked out a spotty blanket of clouds and Arthur thought a little crazily that it was sheer lunacy that he was still out here, waiting for a door to open.
But Arthur was crazy in love so he was justified in waiting.
The door abruptly opened, pulled harshly away from him, and Arthur fell to the floor just inside Gwaine's flat. He glanced up to see the man himself staring down at him.
"Why if it isn't the mighty Pendragon," he boomed, "lying at my feet. I thought I'd never see the day. One could get used to this."
Arthur glared and stood with as much dignity as he could muster. He was willing to grovel at Merlin's feet, but hell if he was going to bow down to Gwaine. "Don't."
Gwaine lifted an eyebrow as he loomed in the doorway. "A bit cocky, aren't you?"
Arthur, fists clenched at his sides, took a step forward. He found his path suddenly blocked by Gwaine.
"And just what do you think you're doing?" Gwaine asked, hands on his hips.
Arthur bristled, wanting nothing more to push pass Gwaine, perhaps ramming his fist against Gwaine's jaw to ease his passage. But he knew such a maneuver would not endear him to Merlin. "I'm here to see Merlin," he tried to say as evenly as possible, but couldn't quite hold back the growl from his words.
Gwaine's eyes raked him from head to toe, his expression telling Arthur that what he saw was severely lacking. "That's too bad, then."
"What?" Arthur barked. "I know he's here, Gwaine."
Gwaine shrugged. "Possibly," he said nonchalantly, but his eyes were dark with a hint of anger. "But that doesn't mean you get to see him."
Arthur pushed up into Gwaine's space, aggressively pushing at the other man with his body. "I will see him."
Gwaine just looked at him. "And what if he doesn't want to see you?" he asked quietly.
Arthur felt the words like a blow and for a brief moment he knew the devastation he was feeling was written all over his face. "Then I guess I'll have to respect that."
Gwaine was quiet for a moment. "So you're just going to give up, then?"
Arthur glared at him. "I will respect Merlin's wishes," he said icily. "But I will never give up on him."
Gwaine stared at him, then slowly nodded. "Good."
"I will wait as long as I need--" Arthur began, stumbling to a stop. "Good?"
"Yeah," Gwaine said gruffly. "He wants to see you."
"He--he does?" Arthur asked confused.
"Yes, princess, he does," Gwaine said with a roll of his eyes.
Arthur frowned. "Alright, Gwaine, what's your angle?"
"Yes," Arthur hissed. "What's your game? I know how you feel about Merlin. You could--"
"I could," Gwaine interrupted with a nod. Then he added in a quieter tone, "but I'm not the one he wants."
Arthur felt as if the ground was uneven. "You...want me to work things out with Merlin?" he asked cautiously.
Gwaine shook his head. "I'm not quite sure what Merlin sees in you, Pendragon, but yes, that's what I want."
"Why?" Arthur was still suspicious.
"Because you make him happy," Gwaine said simply. Then he glared at Arthur. "Most of the time. So get your arse inside and fix this mess you've created. You've managed to survive one break up with him, might not survive another if you don't talk to him."
"That's all I want, Gwaine," Arthur said quietly, still feeling a bit nonplussed that Gwaine was actually on his side. "I just want to talk to him."
Gwaine jerked his head toward the inside of the flat. "Get to it, then."
Arthur nodded and made a move to get past him when Gwaine grabbed him by the shoulder.
"Know this, Arthur," Gwaine began softly, menacingly. "You fuck up again, I will take Merlin away from you."
"What if that isn't what Merlin wants?" Arthur couldn't resist throwing Gwaine's words back at him.
Gwaine glowered. "Just see to it you don't fuck this up," he growled and was gone.
"Arthur?" Merlin stood a few feet behind Arthur, his hands thrust into the pockets of his hoodie.
"Merlin," Arthur returned, his voice sounding rough. He jerked his head toward the open door. "You hear all of that?"
Merlin blushed, hunching in on himself. "Most of it."
"Of course you did," Arthur muttered, closing the door. "Merlin, we need to talk."
"So you've said," Merlin said quietly, turning and walking toward the living room and settling himself on the couch. He drew his feet onto the cushions, tucking his chin against his knees and refused to look at Arthur. "So talk."
Arthur heaved a great sigh. "Mind if I sit?"
Merlin turned his head, cheek settling on his knees. Arthur was hovering, looking uncertain. "Go ahead."
Another sigh and Arthur was sitting down next to him. "Do you--" Arthur's voice failed. "Do you still have the photograph?"
Merlin flinched as if Arthur had punched him. Instead of answering, he dug into his hoodie pocket and pulled out the wrinkled, slightly torn photograph and handed it Arthur. Then he buried his face in his knees because he couldn't bear to look Arthur in the face. He heard the crackle of the paper as Arthur unwrinkled it.
"This was taken on St. Patrick's Day," Arthur began quietly.
"I know," Merlin said, his voice muffled. "All the pints are green."
Arthur chuckled, but there was no mirth in it. "Oh, right. Yes, easy enough to see."
There was silence.
"We'd broken up a couple of weeks before," Arthur said eventually.
That brought Merlin's head up and he glared at Arthur. "So that makes it okay, then? Is that why you left me?" he asked, jerking his chin toward the photograph. "So you could be with your ex?"
"No, of course not!" Arthur exploded. "Don't be an idiot."
"Oh, so now I'm an idiot," Merlin said angrily, impatiently swiping the back of his hand under his eye to obliterate the one tear that had escaped.
"Damn it, Merlin," Arthur said in exasperation. "I didn't mean--that's not....fuck, I was stupid to say that." He looked down at the photograph. "But I didn't leave you to go back to Mithian. You know why I left. We've already talked about it."
Merlin's shoulders slumped. They had talked about it. Just two weeks ago when they'd gotten back together. Merlin's accidental discovery of the picture had destroyed any happiness they'd managed to achieve since then. He didn't understand it. Didn't know what to make of it. "You said you got scared," he said, feeling infinitely weary.
Arthur's shoulders stiffened. He hated to admit to fear. "Yeah. Loving you is like living in an inferno, Merlin."
"And...and that's a bad thing," Merlin said in a small voice.
"No," Arthur answered quickly. "Just...just I didn't know how to handle that. Like I told you before, I was out of my depth. Our relationship was too intense and I needed some breathing space."
Merlin nodded. Arthur had already explained all of this. "But--but you told me you were wrong to leave me." Merlin's voice cracked and he hated the tears that threatened to fall. "That--that you couldn't live without me."
Arthur jerked around in his seat, startling Merlin. He stared into Merlin's eyes and said earnestly, "I can't live without you, Merlin. We're two sides of the same coin. We're destined to be together. I need you."
"If you say I 'complete' you, I shall have to smack you," Merlin joked weakly.
Arthur smiled. "Can't smack me if it's true."
Merlin bit his lip and looked sadly down at the photograph. "If it's true then why were you kissing Mithian?"
Arthur ran a hand over his face. "She was drunk, Merlin. She kissed me."
"That's...that's not what it looks like," Merlin said bitterly.
"The photograph doesn't tell the whole story though, does it," Arthur said sharply. He let out a breath. "Look," he said, tone softening. "Look at the picture again, Merlin." He held it up for Merlin to see.
Merlin cringed, but resolutely looked. He had to if he wanted to work past this. His heart broke all over again as he took in the image of Arthur and Mithian kissing, Lance and Gwen smiling beside them.
"You don't see it, do you?" Arthur questioned sadly.
Arthur pointed at the jacket he wore in the picture.
Merlin inhaled sharply, taking the photo from him and bringing it in for a closer look. There, pinned to the lapel of Arthur's jacket, was a silver dragon. It had been a birthday present from Merlin. "You wore it even when we weren't together?"
"I had to take it to the jeweler's to be polished," Arthur confessed. "Every time I thought about you, I couldn't help but touch it. It became my talisman of sorts. You were never far from my mind, Merlin."
Merlin reached out and touched Arthur's shoulder. "Really?" he asked, unable to contain his hope.
"Really." Arthur crumbled the photograph and threw it behind him, not looking where it landed. He slid down to his knees in front of Merlin and tugged at Merlin's ankles, bringing his feet down to the floor. "I'm sorry, Merlin, I didn't mean to hurt you. Again." Arthur laid his hands on Merlin's thighs. "That kiss shouldn't have happened. Mithian took me by surprise. You can ask Lance or Gwen. Or even Elyan. He was the one who took the picture. Believe me, all I was thinking about was you that night. Like I had--have been every night."
Merlin twisted his hands in his lap. "I saw that photo and I thought maybe you had come to your senses and realized Mithian was perfect for you and I couldn't understand why you came back to me."
Arthur surged forward, framing Merlin's face with his hands. "No, that's not true," he said firmly, a little desperately. "You, Merlin. It's always been you. You are perfect for me."
Merlin still felt the pang of uncertainty lingering in his chest. "Are you sure, Arthur? Really sure? Because I can't--" his voice cracked. "I can't be apart from you again. I just can't."
"That's good to know, Merlin," Arthur responded huskily. "Because I can't be apart from you either."
Arthur kissed him then.
Merlin slipped his arms around Arthur's neck, pulling him closer, deepening the kiss.
Arthur, never breaking away from him, slowly stood, one knee going to the couch, waiting for Merlin to make room for him to settle between Merlin's legs. They stayed pressed together, kissing fervently, slipping hands under t-shirts to touch bare skin until Gwaine came home and shoved them toward the guest bedroom.
And if Gwaine found the photograph and tore it up, throwing it in the rubbish bin, no one said a word about it.