Pairings: Merlin/Arthur, Arthur/other, hints of Merlin/other
Warnings: violence, bondage, references to past minor character death, angst, brief mention of bloodplay
Summary: Arthur had had it all figured out. And then Merlin shot him in Beijing.
Note: Written for this prompt at the kink meme: I seem to want the things I can't have. Occasionally when something is finally attainable, the chase appears to be over and the fire burns out.
Thanks: to ella_bane for the beta and the encouragement; to maybelater__ for audiencing; and to arinna05 for the title and the encouragement. Also, thank you to everyone on the kink meme for reading and commenting, I appreciate it more than I could ever say. All mistakes are mine.
Extras: I bullied maybelater__ into making a playlist for this fic, which you can download here.
They meet in Beijing:
“Put the gun down,” Merlin says, his hair a wreck, his smile bright, because he’s twenty-two and he’ll never be younger than this, never more alive than this.
“You first,” Arthur invites.
Merlin is twenty-two, fresh out of university. He’s wearing jeans and a worn navy hoodie and his hair looks as if it hasn’t seen a comb in three days. He’s young, impossibly young, and a little bit beautiful, and he’s playing a game that he can’t possibly understand; he’s playing a game which he can’t beat Arthur at because Arthur is the best, has been doing this for years.
“Are you going to shoot me?” Arthur asks, amused. He’s moving closer, shoes clicking neatly across the floor, and he doesn’t know what he’ll do when he gets there, when the muzzles of their guns are pressed against each other’s hearts, reverent as any kiss. He rather thinks that he’ll wind his arm around Merlin’s neck and kiss him like that, kiss him slick and sultry as the Beijing summer. He’ll drag a hand through Merlin’s hair, bare Merlin’s neck to slide the barrel of his gun, cold and metallic and empty, along the beautiful curve of Merlin’s throat, and then he’ll chase the cold away with a line of hot kisses. And then he’ll push Merlin’s gun away and he’ll toss his away too, and he’ll shove Merlin up against the wall and kiss him some more, hard and desperate, because Merlin may be twenty-two and fresh out of university, but Arthur is twenty-seven and he always wants what he can’t have.
“Maybe,” Merlin says, smile going small and private, like it’s only for Arthur.
And now Merlin’s mouth is close, so close, and Arthur is supposed to burn the building to the ground, erase all evidence of his ever being here, but now all he wants is to lick into the burning heat of Merlin, suck kisses into the sharp angle of Merlin’s jaw until the pale skin goes bruised and angry – until Arthur can write himself into Merlin’s skin.
He wonders whether Merlin tastes like Arthur does, cigarettes and cold coffee and that faraway taste of ash that grows a little thicker with every year that goes by. Or maybe – or maybe there’s something purer there, maybe Merlin tastes sweeter than Arthur ever will. There’s so much outside these four white, white walls: there’s a job to be done, money to be had, a life to be lived, but right now there’s just this, and he doesn’t know who Merlin is, who he’s working for, doesn’t know how Merlin got into this life of always looking over your shoulder and checking that all your windows and doors are locked three times before going to sleep at night, but Arthur wants to know. He wants to know all of it.
“Go ahead, then,” Arthur says, low, tempting. “Shoot me.”
He doesn’t think Merlin will. Merlin is twenty-two and when you’re that young, death is so far away. When you’re that young, you’re careless with life, spinning in circles that bring you closer and closer to the edge and thinking that you’ll never fall. Merlin can wave that gun around, fingers light and intimate like it’s a part of him, a phantom limb, but when it comes down to it, Merlin loves life and doesn’t want to take it away from anyone. Not like this.
Except. Merlin shoots.
The bullet grazes Arthur’s side. He feels the pain burn through him, electric.
Merlin catches him as he falls, gentle as he helps Arthur to the ground.
“You missed,” Arthur says, hoarse, even though it doesn’t feel like it.
Merlin kisses the corner of Arthur’s mouth. He looks manic and beautiful and Arthur’s got his hand clasped around the nape of Merlin’s neck, and when Merlin kisses him, bending over him, hand lightly pressing against Arthur’s chest, it’s the easiest thing in the world, even as Arthur’s blood glosses the tile red.
“I never miss,” Merlin says, and then he’s taking Arthur’s gun and he’s gone.
Arthur watches the ceiling spin, watches the world go kaleidoscopic. He says: “Fuck.”
Monte Carlo is a city of imperfections.
It’s a city of elegance left to decay, but you don’t realize the sickness that the luxury has bred until you get close, and you find that everything is a painfully shiny façade, that the glittering lights aren’t meant to illuminate but to conceal, that the blur of lipstick on that glass isn’t lipstick at all but poison.
Arthur stares at the men and women through the stained glass, the colors hiding all the ugliness. The women are lovely, tall and thin and expensive, and the men are no such things, but they can afford it. They gamble and they drink and they shake hands and all the while they’re plotting each other’s deaths.
Arthur should know. They call him, when they’ve decided to play judge, jury, and executioner.
He shoves his hands into his trouser pockets and ducks out into the cold. He’s not in Monte Carlo for that, but that doesn’t mean that no one will die today. Arthur somehow leaves a trail of death behind him wherever he goes, even when he’s not the one doing the killing.
He walks two kilometers, watching the city unfold below him in an icy sheet of light, until he finds the hotel he wants. It’s an understated affair in a city where everything is lurid with grandness. He goes up three floors and knocks.
Merlin opens the door, hand hidden behind his back.
It’s been three months and Arthur’s thought about him every day. He hadn’t memorized him properly, no, because memory isn’t enough to capture the insolent curve of his mouth, the way his lashes whisper across his skin. And anyway, Arthur never got to see this, Merlin dressed in a suit that fits too well, cut narrow because Merlin is all angles that Arthur can’t possibly smooth out.
Merlin smiles at him and takes his gun from where it’s tucked into the waistband of his trousers, twirls it idly around his finger. “Of course,” he says, sounding amused and not at all surprised, although he must be, because twelve hours ago, Arthur was in Athens, with absolutely no intention of going to Monaco until Lance called him up to tell him that he had an offer for a job. Arthur declined it, because he’d worked for the mark before, had liked him, and Arthur tries not to kill people he likes.
He’d come on a whim though, not expecting to find Merlin but hoping to, nonetheless, because where you found the rich and glorious, you also found death lurking around the corner, and this place seemed like Merlin, somehow: beautiful.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, low and almost filthy, and the sound wraps around Arthur like a slick ribbon, heats him bone-dry. Merlin moves aside to let him in, tosses his gun into an open suitcase that’s full of colorful banknotes, and Arthur looks sidelong at Merlin, recognizes the languid grace in his movements, the headiness of his smile: it’s the high after a job gone well, perfectly, that brush with death that you dance away from without a scratch. It’s the reason Arthur has been doing this for eight years, this drug that he can’t get enough of, intoxicating and on some days consuming, because there is nothing, nothing, like meeting death and defeating it, twisting it around, unleashing it on someone else.
“Job went well, then?” Arthur asks, sitting down in an armchair.
Merlin angles his body away from Arthur, takes off his suit jacket. The starched crispness of his shirt wavers a bit, ruffling and then stretching taut against Merlin’s back. Merlin carefully starts on his shirt now, unbuttoning with fingers that are slower as usual, because like all the beautiful people in the world, he knows that he’s ever on display. But right now there’s no one here save for Arthur, and Arthur leans back, eyes following the slow reveal of pale skin, the lovely, lissome cradle of Merlin’s hips.
Merlin’s mouth is red, messy with kisses Arthur hasn’t given him yet, but fully intends to.
“It only took one bullet,” Merlin says, alight with the ecstasy of it. “Clean, right between the eyes. I wish they’d stop making it so easy, I’m starting to get a superiority complex.”
“Nice,” Arthur says, distracted by Merlin shrugging his shirt off.
Merlin tosses his shirt away. It ends up pooled at the foot of Merlin’s bed, a chaste scrap of white cloth cast aside because Merlin is not chaste, has never been chaste, will never be chaste.
Merlin says, “I’m good, you know.”
“I know,” Arthur says. He wouldn’t want Merlin this much if he wasn’t. “You shot me, remember?”
Merlin’s eyes go dark, intent. “You were in my way.” He’s coming closer now, taking away the space between them and Arthur’s air too, apparently, because it’s too much and Arthur doesn’t want to waste time with mundane things like breathing when there’s so much more to concentrate on, like having Merlin this close, smelling like the blandness of expensive hotel soap and the vaguest hint of cologne. And then Merlin’s knee is nudging Arthur’s thighs apart to stand between them, and it should be impossible to feel the searing heat of Merlin when he’s not even touching him, but Arthur can, knows right now that when he kisses Merlin, Merlin will taste like wine gone sour, because sometimes that’s the only brand of courage strong enough to get you through the kill.
Arthur curls his hands lightly around Merlin’s hips, thumbs the juts of them. “And now?” he asks, tilting his face up to Merlin’s, watching Merlin’s eyes shutter closed, pupils blown with want.
Merlin leans forward, against the back of the armchair, trapping Arthur. “I think,” Merlin says, mouth agonizingly close, “that right now, I’m in yours.”
And then there’s nothing left to do but yank him down, so Arthur does, yanks him down and kisses him. It’s nothing like in Beijing, soft as a goodbye; this is hard, biting, painful, and Arthur doesn’t want to stop, doesn’t think he could if he had to. They’re scrabbling at each other, nails dragging white and then branding red half-moons into each other’s skin. Merlin curves an arm around Arthur’s neck, trying to get closer, closer, even though that’s impossible, they’re as close as two people can get without melting into each other. Their bodies lock together, Merlin open and hot and beautiful, Arthur’s for the taking.
Arthur doesn’t know where to start, wants to do everything at the same time. He should do this properly, it’s been three months of thinking and thinking about how he’d go about it: he’d figured that there would be a bed involved, at least, that he’d kiss Merlin pliant, kiss him until he unwound for Arthur. And then he’d suck him off, maybe, or, no, he’d have Merlin suck him off, just to see that gorgeous red mouth stretched out around him, and maybe Merlin would complain all the while, and yes, that’s what Arthur wants, Merlin complaining even as he wraps his lips around Arthur, sucking too hard, because Merlin looks like the type who wants to be the best at everything he does. And later, Arthur would bring Merlin off with just his mouth and fingers, their foreheads pressed together, because Arthur wants to watch Merlin come undone, wants to watch him unravel.
But right now there’s no room for finesse, and maybe it’s been three months of planning, but it’s also been three months of lying awake and wanting, aching without relief. Arthur brushes a hand down the front of Merlin’s trousers, feels the sheer weight of him, watches Merlin tremble like a series of explosions until he’s positively vibrating. They find their rhythm quickly, here in the early Monte Carlo morning, tumbling onto the floor and rutting helplessly against each other. Merlin’s heels dig into the small of Arthur’s back and Arthur wants to kiss him, but he doesn’t have the patience to do it, just gasps, low and desperate into Merlin’s throat,
“I want to fuck you, have you ever been—”
“No,” Merlin says, shameless, and they stare at each other, wide-eyed, and Merlin comes.
Arthur rolls away from Merlin, gets his hand into his trousers; this won’t take long because Merlin is twenty-two, lithe and dangerous and he’s never even been fucked before and Arthur wants to fuck him, wants to be his first, wants to tie him to his bed and keep him there, Arthur’s secret, wants to kiss him until he’s gagging for it, messy with it. They’ll only take a break when they’ve got a job to do, and even then, killing is a sex all its own, hand curled lovingly around your gun, finger careful, intimate on the trigger, drawing the whole thing out, these last few precious moments of life, until it’s gone.
He’s almost there, almost, but then Merlin is shoving his hand out of the way, replacing it with his. Merlin’s hand is rough, almost too rough, and Arthur never knew that he liked it this way, but apparently he does. He likes the way Merlin tucks himself into Arthur’s side, breathing hot in his ear, whispering – something, something lewd and degrading and so, so good.
He comes into Merlin’s hand, going taut as a bow and then utterly boneless, and Merlin stretches the moment out, hand slowing but never going still. And then, at the end of it, when Arthur’s nearly aching with the painful paradox of needing Merlin to keep touching him and also needing Merlin to stop, Merlin finally extracts his hand, and, staring at Arthur, he licks a slow trail up his palm, mouth wet with Arthur’s come.
Arthur throws his forearm across his eyes. “Fuck,” he says.
Merlin laughs beside him, pleased and lazy, hooking his leg over Arthur’s. “Jesus,” Merlin says, and when Arthur opens his eyes, it’s to see Merlin propped up on his elbow, hand skimming down Arthur’s chest, pausing every so often to tuck a finger into the spaces between the buttons, striping his finger against Arthur’s bare skin.
“Next time,” Arthur says, thick with indolence.
Merlin smiles, and he looks younger with his hair rumpled like this, with his trousers wrinkled and stained with his come. “Yeah,” he says, and from anyone else, it would sound like a promise. Coming from Merlin, it sounds like a challenge.
And Arthur thinks: I’ll find you, wherever you are.
Merlin sits up, looks at the bed. The sheets look fresh and pressed, probably because Merlin hasn’t been in Monte Carlo long enough to make use of them.
Merlin says with casual cruelty, cruel casualty, “You can find your way out, I trust?”
Arthur watches as Merlin stumbles over to the bathroom, turns on the light, shuts the door behind him. The shower turns on, the water drumming hard against the tile for a minute before the sound is muffled because, God, Merlin’s naked in there, maybe even is touching himself because Merlin is twenty-two and he can still have the kind of sex that can go on for days, honey-thick, a slow burn.
Arthur gets to his feet, sore, and he’s absently trying to tug his trousers into place, sticky as they are, tucking his shirt back in. His suit jacket is rumpled – it’s a good thing he has four more just like it – and as he turns to go, his eyes catch on the suitcase filled with money so colorful it looks fake, like money from a child’s board game.
There must be fifty thousand euros in there, Arthur muses. At least.
He looks briefly towards the bathroom door, shut and locked to keep Arthur out – or maybe Merlin in.
Well, Arthur thinks, because he might be a moralistic criminal, but he’s still a criminal.
And besides – the best sex in the world isn’t enough to make him forget that Merlin shot him in Beijing.
Arthur is in New York when his mobile rings.
“Hi,” he says.
“I’m going to punch you in the face,” Merlin says.
“How did you get this number?” Arthur says.
“You stole my money,” Merlin says, his voice flickering in and out over the poor connection. For a moment it sounds like he’s standing right next to Arthur, voice pouring into Arthur’s ear, warm and silky, and then in the next moment, it sounds like he’s a million miles away.
“You shot me,” Arthur points out.
“And this time I’m going to punch you in the face,” Merlin says, the consonants clipped. There’s an indistinct haze of noise around him, the blur of a deep, guttural language haloing Merlin’s familiar voice: he’s at a metro station, maybe. Cairo? Marrakesh? Arthur could find out, if he thought that Merlin would welcome the sight of him.
“You’ll have to find me first,” Arthur advises, and then hangs up.
He doesn’t know when this all went to shit, when he started thinking that he could get – involved with someone like this, when he started thinking that it was perfectly okay to wake up to the thought of Merlin in a cramped shower in St. Petersburg, a long tease of pale skin marred only by paler flecks of scar tissue. He doesn’t know when he started thinking that it was perfectly okay to fall asleep in Madrid to the thought of Merlin somewhere in Brussels, tucked into bed, hand dipping low across his stomach, maybe – just maybe – touching himself and thinking of Arthur.
He is, Arthur thinks mournfully, in such deep shit.
Merlin catches up to him in Sofia.
He presses Arthur up against the wall of the lift, lighting up the buttons for all the floors between three and seven. He’s kissing Arthur, hands fisting in the lapel of Arthur’s coat, sliding down along the flat planes of Arthur’s chest, heating Arthur’s skin even through his cotton shirt. He tastes like smoke, Arthur thinks wildly, trying to turn them around because he doesn’t like being pinned like this, and it’s a surprise, really, that Merlin is able to pin him at all. He thinks of Merlin, sitting sullenly in the hotel lobby, waiting for Arthur to show up, going through cigarette after cigarette, long legs crossed at the ankles, clever fingers toying with his lighter.
Waiting for Arthur.
Arthur scrapes his teeth up the line of Merlin’s jaw, not as gentle as he should be, loving the way Merlin unfurls for him. He wants to know whether Merlin does this with anyone else, or if it’s just for Arthur, only for Arthur. He slips his fingers into the waist of Merlin’s trousers, reveling in the hot strip of skin.
“Come on,” Merlin says, trying to hook his leg around Arthur’s hip, trying to climb him. “Come on, come on,” he says, hurried, desperate, fingers curling too hard in Arthur’s hair. It hurts and Arthur loves it, loves it as Merlin slants his hips into Arthur’s, finding a rhythm that should be impossible to recapture after two months of not having it.
“Fuck,” Arthur says, huffing into Merlin’s ear. “God, I want to—”
“Yeah,” Merlin says, head tilting back and Arthur can’t help but kiss the stretch of white neck, can’t help but adore the trembling shift of Merlin’s throat.
Arthur runs a hand down Merlin’s spine, learning every bump. “I’m still,” Merlin says, hot into the crook of Arthur’s neck, “I’m still going to punch you in the face, you took my money, you bastard.”
“I,” Arthur says, unraveling in the heat of Merlin. The lift opens to the eighth floor and they barely have the presence of mind to stumble out of it. They make it to Arthur’s door but apparently Merlin doesn’t have the patience for Arthur to get his key out, and so they’re moving together against the door, Arthur’s bed close but nowhere near close enough. “Do you,” Arthur tries again, licking the sweat from where Merlin’s hair curls around his ear, a shade longer than it was in Monte Carlo, a shade too long. “I haven’t, with anyone else,” he manages, hauling Merlin closer, until it hurts, the way their wrists collide as they go for each other’s belts.
Merlin halts, peers at Arthur through dark, dark lashes that cast spidery shadows across his face. He looks thinner than he did in Monte Carlo, and Arthur wants to ask him what he was doing those two months, why he looks jaundiced in the dim lights of the hallway. He’s twenty-two, Arthur thinks, despairing, he doesn’t even know how to take care of himself, he’s lucky he’s not dead, and Arthur wants to take care of him, wants to – he wants to. He wants to have this, whatever it is.
But Merlin’s mouth twists itself into a beautiful, ugly line. “Don’t do that,” he says.
Arthur nods, slow. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”
Merlin goes to kiss him, hesitating, almost, and he’s stupid, Arthur thinks, stupid to think that anyone could want just this from Merlin and nothing else. He’s stupid if he thinks that Arthur can fuck him like this, in the toilets at bars, in a string of shitty hotels across Europe, and then just walk away. He’s so stupid and Arthur’s stupid for wanting him.
They make it into the bedroom, writhing against each other on scratchy sheets. Arthur fucks him like that, with two too-rough fingers, obscenely crooked at the knuckles, trying to stutter those lovely hitches of breath out of Merlin. He tries not to think about the practiced way Merlin’s knees bend, bracketing Arthur. He tries not think about the way Merlin rocks against him – body arching in such a beautiful, impossible way that architects could study it for years and still not be able to replicate the perfection of it – when Arthur finally pushes in, as if he’s done this before, somewhere between Monte Carlo and Sofia.
Later, when they’re getting dressed, Merlin doesn’t look at him as he says, “I’m going to be in Paris in February.”
“Okay,” says Arthur, deliberately casual.
The one o’clock shadows pool around Merlin’s smile, and then the smile is gone and Arthur is left wondering if it was ever even there. “Okay,” Merlin says, shy, maybe. He walks carefully over to Arthur, with measured steps, as if Arthur is his mark and Merlin has twenty seconds to do this cleanly. He reaches out, languid, slings a finger around Arthur’s belt loop, tugs him close.
His eyes are blue, Arthur realizes, startled, so very blue.
He wonders how many men there are, waiting for Merlin in every city. Beautiful men, because Merlin is beautiful, and beautiful women too. He wonders how Merlin chooses them: does he like a certain height? Does he even prefer men, or is Arthur an exception? Does he have all their names memorized, all their numbers programmed into his mobile, does he call them up when he gets in to whichever city it is that month, and do they let Merlin dance in and out of their lives, skipping around the world because he’s twenty-two and can do anything he wants?
Arthur is twenty-eight and he’s never felt so old.
Merlin doesn’t kiss him, just bites at the triangle of skin bare at Arthur’s open collar. “I still want my money back.”
“Spent it all,” Arthur says seriously. “Hookers in Amsterdam, so many hookers, you wouldn’t believe.”
Merlin pulls away, smiles. And then he punches Arthur in the face.
This is January through June:
Tangling with Merlin until they’re both fucked out, until the world around them blurs and they could be in Paris or Vienna or Rome or Moscow or Barcelona or Bangkok because all those cities look the same when Arthur is braced over Merlin, rocking over and into him, wanting to hear Merlin beg until he’s reduced to beautiful unintelligibility (and then wanting to do it again).
Merlin comes to him with blood on his hands and Arthur licks it off his fingers and Merlin laughs, wild and crazed, and they fuck everywhere – against the walls, on cheap mattresses, on the floor with Merlin complaining about the carpet burn but not unwinding his legs from around Arthur’s waist long enough for Arthur to move them to the bed.
There are new things to discover, each time. In Berlin, Arthur kisses down Merlin’s hip to find a long line of not-quite-knitted-together skin. He runs his tongue over it, careful. Merlin’s eyes are half-lidded, tracking his every movement in that way that means that he doesn’t quite trust Arthur, and Merlin threads his hand through Arthur’s hair, forces him to look up, and says, “Jealous?”
“Insanely,” Arthur says, and he sort of is. He doesn’t like other people marking what’s his.
August is Budapest. They don’t really mean to meet up, but Arthur hears that the Russian mafia is getting restless in the way that always ends up with ten people dead and the police unable to do anything about it. And he also knows that Merlin has been in and out of Hungary ten separate times in the past two years since apparently even Russian mobsters have a soft spot for Merlin.
Merlin looks very briefly annoyed when Arthur finds him in a restaurant, but then it doesn’t seem to matter, because Merlin is dragging him to the house he’s renting – small and cozy with a garden, for fuck’s sake – and peeling off his clothes. They fuck desperately against Merlin’s blue front door and then, when Arthur is trying to crawl to the toilet on legs that don’t want to work, Merlin says from the floor, “How’d you find me?”
Arthur looks at him, long and considering, and then says, “I can always find you.”
He means that Merlin is careless, because while Merlin can hit his mark from a car that’s going 145 kilometers per hour, he’s shit at the simple things, the things you’re supposed to figure out from day one, because it’s either that or getting yourself killed. He’s shit at covering his trail; Arthur could follow him across the world, if he wanted, piecing together stolen credit cards and fake passports. Sometimes, it does feel like he is following Merlin across the world.
Merlin must hear the disapproval in Arthur’s words, the You need to be more careful, because his mouth goes tight, and when Arthur comes back from the toilet, Merlin and his clothes and his gun are gone.
Arthur doesn’t stick around in Budapest. He hates it there.
And then there’s Istanbul, tucked into a tiny flat Merlin apparently vaguely remembers buying when he was nineteen and needed somewhere to hide out for a month or five, trying to shake off the memory of his first kill. It was a knife across the throat, Merlin tells him casually, nineteen years old and he hadn’t realized just how much blood there would be, not until he stood up to find it splattered everywhere, drenching the white walls red with death.
Arthur almost reaches out to – hold him, maybe, he doesn’t know. Merlin is sprawled out on the bed next to him, skin pale and glittering in the beams of moonlight that filter through the curtains, and they’re barely touching now, just at the shoulders. But when his hand curls around Merlin’s thigh, Merlin shies away, gives him an irritated look, and Arthur knows that Merlin has drawn a line: here is all the room he’ll give Arthur and no more. Merlin doesn’t want to touch him, doesn’t want to be with him, just wants to fuck him.
Arthur tucks his hand under his head and tells himself that that’s fine, he can do that. He can be whatever Merlin wants, because it’s worth it as long he gets to have this tiny piece of Merlin, all to himself.
It figures that the moment Arthur tells himself he can do this – this non-relationship, this thing that is everything to Arthur and almost nothing to Merlin – Merlin falls off the map for two months.
Arthur spends August in London, brushing the dust off his old life, the one he’d left when he was twenty and bright-eyed and certain that there had to be more to the world than a cramped cubicle and years that stretch out for so long that you don’t know you’re going in circles until you realize you’ve been here before, done this before, and aren’t sure if you’re coming or going.
He doesn’t like coming back to London: he remembers being sixteen and on the cusp of what he’d always been sure was greatness, living in this big, glittering city, ready, ready for something, something grand. He remembers the beating heart of it all, the people, colorful and fascinating, how thrilling the city lights had seemed at night, London, rolled out for him, for Arthur.
Now he walks these streets and all he sees are the shadows, London, shattered into tiny, nearly invisible pieces that no one could ever put back together. There, on that dimly lit street corner, is where Arthur had his first kill, a forty-year-old man who’d walked three blocks before he realized he’d been shot, and then died from the surprise, alone in an alley, surrounded by litter and shit, because this is how London looks underneath the decadence. This is how London decays.
Arthur had spent that night retching into a toilet, in a hotel that would be closed down within the month for various reasons, among them mold and the cocaine racket being run out of the basement. He’d pressed his forehead against the cool and probably filthy porcelain and tried not to look at the banknotes scattered around his knees, curling with the damp. They’d looked so neat in the suitcase when the client had handed it over, promising things that Arthur didn’t understand but knew he wanted. But strewed on the dirty bathroom floor, they looked menacing.
When morning had poured into the room, through streaky windows and tattered curtains, he’d carefully peeled the money from the floor, tucked the banknotes into his suitcase, and taken a taxi to the airport.
He hadn’t returned for five years. London will forever hold memories that Arthur doesn’t want.
That first year had been a bad one: a different city every week, always looking over his shoulder because he’d been sloppy, left so much evidence that he might as well have also left signed and dated confessions. Kills that were supposed to be clean and easy turned out to be messy, and messy kills turned out to be messier. His skin had gone raw from all the soap he’d used, carried on him, because there was always so much blood, so much blood, and it started to stain him with tattoos he didn’t want. He’d got used to eating too little and drinking too much, trapped inside a life that he’d wanted but didn’t know how to live.
There’d been a brief love affair with heroin, but that had been more stupid than naïve. Each day was one day closer to the edge, and the days were strung together like that, closer and closer and terrifying and horrible until Arthur didn’t know if he was in danger of falling or if he was already falling.
And then he nearly got killed in Kiev.
He’d fucked up a job in Ankara because the mark had changed his plans and instead of being alone he was with his daughter and Arthur couldn’t, he couldn’t, because the girl had lovely dark hair that curled around her shoulders like sleek ribbons, and she was pretty and alive and – she looked like Morgana, Morgana who Arthur hadn’t seen in two years, who probably thought that Arthur was dead. Who would be better off if she thought that Arthur was dead.
The indecision had cost him: he hadn’t yet found the accuracy that comes with proper training; he wouldn’t find it until he met Lance, a few days after his twenty-third birthday, most of which he’d spent in a Kolkata prison cell. Arthur had fired, but he hadn’t shot to kill.
That had been a mistake.
He’d left a laughably obvious trail behind him, fake names that matched up too easily, credit cards he didn’t ditch fast enough. For the first time in his life, Arthur was the mark and for all that he knew how to find people, how to kill people, he’d never learned how to lose them, how to save himself.
He’d barely made it out of Kiev; if the bullet had erred a few centimeters down and a few more to the right – well. There’d been a nasty two weeks under the care of a doctor Arthur didn’t think had quite made it through his licensing exams, but he hadn’t spent much time thinking over it, as he’d been too busy sliding in and out of a fever. Arthur had crawled back to Ankara because in this life, the only end is death, and he did what he was supposed to do two months ago: he killed the mark, collected his money, and, before leaving Ankara, he sent the daughter some flowers and a card that simply said, I’m sorry, because he was.
Arthur had quit it all, after that – he’d stopped ducking into questionable bars and taking white pills with funny names that blurred the world into soothing reds and blues, reduced hours into mere minutes, made everything deceptively simple. He’d built himself into something stronger, into someone smarter. He’d learned how to fight and he’d learned how to erase himself from the world, how to render himself invisible in the middle of a crowd. He’d patched together various aliases with dull names and duller histories, nothing so grand as Pendragon, because Arthur couldn’t afford to be grand, couldn’t afford to be noticed.
Most of all, he’d learned how to ignore the part of him that was still left behind in that shitty hotel room in London, crying and vomiting over the death of a man whose face Arthur hadn’t even really seen. He’d learned how to divorce the part of him that had sent flowers to the mark’s daughter, eighteen-years-old and the world laid out wide open before her until Arthur had come along to snatch it away. He’d learned to care only about himself because at the end of the day, you could only trust yourself. People were slippery, fickle creatures: friendships could easily be bought out, signed documents ignored. He’d learned not to ask women their names before he kissed their glossy pink mouths, and he’d learned not to look too closely at men’s faces before he outlined their bodies with his, pressing ashy kisses to their necks, and then stealing away in the dawn, the sunlight a disapproving voyeur.
He’d been twenty-two years old and he’d been so sure of everything, that this was the way the world worked, and this was how Arthur would conquer it. Life was still difficult, it would always be difficult, but Arthur had figured it out and he was finally where he wanted to be, who he wanted to be – someone of his own making, someone far more real than that sixteen-year-old boy who’d loved dearly a father who would always love his stupid company more than he would ever love Arthur.
Arthur had had it all figured out. And then Merlin shot him in Beijing.
Thunderstorms wash August into September and Lance sends Arthur to Buenos Aires.
The client, Lance tells him, is a well-known businessman burdened with too much money and not enough charity. The mark is the client’s soon-to-be ex-wife, who is about to uncharitably take approximately half of that burden off the client’s shoulders.
“Ah, the sacred bonds of matrimony,” Arthur says flatly.
“Indeed,” Lance says, and then informs his daughter that no, she may not have a second ice cream because Lance may be wanted in the majority of the European Union, but there is nothing so terrifying as a two-year-old who’s ingested too much sugar. Lance hurriedly herds her toward his car, just as the pink bow of her mouth curls downward and she tips into a full-blown tantrum, the incomprehensible, screechy kind that no one above the age of five can understand but everyone can certainly hear.
Arthur watches Lance disappear into the haze of an hour that isn’t sure if it’s late afternoon or early evening, and he thinks that he might want that, what Lance has, one day. He doesn’t want a tidy little house in the country, not exactly, and he doesn’t want that cramped cubicle on the twentieth floor of some building that’s all sheets of metal and glass and going home each night just to wake up and do it all over again. But he wants parts of it, like living in one place long enough for the girl at the coffee shop to know that you like your tea white and your coffee black. Like being able to walk around without worrying that someone is going to recognize you, find the fragile spots between your plates of armor and pull until the last five years crumble around you in dust that catches the light and then fades.
He wants all that; but all Arthur has is a gun strapped to his calf and a plane ticket to Argentina.
He gets in to Buenos Aires just as it’s shaking off the last of winter. He spends a week following the mark around and trying not to think about Merlin, Merlin unbuttoning his shirt, the lights of Monte Carlo limning his shoulders in gold, Merlin saying, I wish they’d stop making it so easy, because it is easy, because sometimes the art of killing is so absurdly easy.
(He also tries not to think about Merlin asleep in the Istanbul moonlight, all sooty lashes and thin fingers that are furled into fists at his heart, like he’s praying to someone, though to whom, Arthur doesn’t know. He tries not to think about Merlin in the Paris dawn, blinking sleepily and smiling a kiss into Arthur’s mouth before tucking himself closer into Arthur’s side. He especially tries not to think about sitting in the airport right before his flight out of Budapest, wondering if Merlin would call, though that was stupid because Merlin never calls.)
Friday night is the grand reopening of the Teatro Colón, and the client sends Arthur a long, convoluted message that’s partially in English, partially in Spanish, and inexplicably partially in German. Arthur can only read the bits in English – the Spanish looks like another language entirely on this half of the equator – but what it boils down to is that the client would prefer that Arthur do the job during the reopening, since both he and the mark and the rest of the Buenos Aires elite will be there, giving the client a solid alibi. The client doesn’t seem to realize the difficulties that presents: getting away from the scene quickly, for one, and this means that Arthur will have to get close to the mark, which he hates, because if he fucks up the job, doesn’t kill her in one go, she’ll have seen his face and then it’ll all be over. He can’t do this from long-range, not with a crowd of three thousand, because the odds are that he’ll kill four innocents and miss the mark completely.
Arthur crumples up the client’s note, calls Lance up to tell his voicemail exactly what he thinks of clients who hire Arthur to do what he’s best at and then tell him how to do what he’s best at, and gets insanely drunk in the hotel bar. When someone kisses him, he lets her, because under the dim bar lights and in the soft glow of too much whisky, all he sees is the pale curve of white cheek, the dark sheen of hair. And if he says, Merlin Merlin Merlin, well, it’s all right, because she’s gone by morning.
He spends most of Thursday trying to match up blueprints of what the theater looked like before the extensive refurbishments and then deciding that the blueprints are useless when he goes to go have a look in person. When Friday morning rolls around, bright and sunny, he checks in briefly on the mark only to find that she’s spending the morning in church. Arthur would find it ironic if he thought there could possibly exist a lower circle of hell than this one.
She’s a lovely girl, Arthur thinks, watching her disappear through the church doors. She’s younger than him – twenty-six to the client’s fifty – fair hair caught up in an elaborate chignon, dress a vibrant blue, and she’ll be dead within twelve hours.
He doesn’t waste time with guilt; he’s done this too many times before.
There comes a moment, though – as there always does – right before the kill, where your legs don’t want to work, where your mind starts to spin with what ifs and maybes. Where you start to picture how everything is going to go wrong, where Murphy’s Law – any assassin’s religion – suddenly becomes the enemy. Where your hands go damp with sweat, and what if the knife slips between your fingers, what if she’s wearing some ridiculous dress with layers of tulle and bows and you can’t get to the femoral artery?
Arthur finds an empty bathroom, hangs a Closed for Maintenance sign on the door, and forces himself into this most mundane of routines: he uses the toilet, goes to the sink, washes his hands of the blood he’s not yet spilled. He’s not twenty-one anymore, isn’t green and stupid with this newfound freedom that feels, some days, a lot like a prison. He’s twenty-eight and these moments of uncertainties are no longer so crippling. By the time he’s got his hands dried, he’s calm, and he’s already picturing how deep to push the knife, how quickly he can weave through the crowd and out of the theater, how long it’ll take for someone to realize what has happened. How far away he’ll be in his rental car, how long he’ll be able to drive before he ditches it for another.
He fingers the hilt of his knife and doesn’t look into the mirror; he can’t. He never can, not right before a job. That must mean something, something deeply philosophical or psychological, but Arthur doesn’t want to analyze it. He doesn’t think he’d like the answers.
Arthur opens the bathroom door.
Merlin stares back at him in wide-eyed horror.
“What,” Arthur says, but then Merlin’s hands are pushing him back into the bathroom, and it’s stupid because there’s a job, it’s all planned out, neat and orderly, and Arthur’s got a knife strapped to the flat of his hip for fuck’s sake, but when Merlin knots his hands in Arthur’s shirt, opens his mouth to Arthur’s, slick and hungry, Arthur can’t help but fall back against the wall, hands sliding up and down Merlin’s back, kissing him until the air’s chased out of his lungs and then kissing the air back in.
He hasn’t – there’d been that girl, a three-o’-clock-in-the-morning mistake that had only happened because Arthur couldn’t have who he wanted. But for two months, Arthur has gone to sleep between cold, empty sheets, wrapped in the memories of Merlin’s hot mouth and clever fingers and that fond, sweet smile that only came out when Merlin thought Arthur wasn’t looking. He’d wasted so much time trying not to pine after Merlin and then pining after him anyway, that there hadn’t been room for anything else, for anyone else.
Merlin is drawing a wet arc of kisses along Arthur’s neck, mouthing along Arthur’s collarbones to drop another kiss in the hollow between them, and it’s so tempting to think that maybe Merlin hasn’t had room for anyone else either. But that way lies madness, Arthur thinks, even though this feels like madness, wanting to slide down to his knees and take Merlin apart with long lingering touches, here in this bathroom with the opera spiraling towards its climax outside.
“Why,” Merlin says, and then interrupts himself to bite at Arthur’s shoulder, teasing a starved-sounding whine out of Arthur. “What are you,” Merlin tries again, the consonants all smoothed out into vowels.
“I’m,” Arthur says, trying to undo his shirt and Merlin’s at the same time. “Christ,” he says into Merlin’s smile as Merlin curves a sure hand around the swell of Arthur’s trousers.
Merlin drags his teeth under Arthur’s lip, nipping too hard because Merlin is never as careful as he should be, only wants to feel, and it’s lucky, that, Arthur thinks, because these days, the only time that Arthur feels anything is with Merlin. “Tell me,” Merlin says, his eyes just a hazy sliver of blue through dark lashes.
“Job,” Arthur says impatiently, and he’s struggling with the last button of Merlin’s shirt, and Merlin should look ridiculous, the way his shoulders are bare, the way the shirt is hanging off him, how obscene it all looks, except he just looks wonderful, and he’s all Arthur’s, at least for right now. Or, no, maybe that’s not right: maybe Arthur is Merlin’s, because Merlin will never be Arthur’s.
Arthur finally gets the damn shirt undone, then curls an insistent hand around Merlin’s neck, kissing him, licking into his mouth, thinking dazedly that it feels a bit like coming home. Merlin’s fingers wrap around Arthur’s wrist, and at first the touch seems like a part of it all, so Arthur lets him have it, lets Merlin lay a kiss to the arch of his palm, lets him stroke his thumb along Arthur’s pulse, skittering wildly just under the delicate skin at his wrist.
Later, he’ll think that he should’ve seen this coming.
(Later, Arthur will wonder where the hell Merlin was keeping those handcuffs.)
It’s just that Merlin is pressed up against Arthur in a long lovely line of bare skin, all pointy angles where other people would have curves, and Arthur is left gasping into his mouth, utterly helpless, as if Merlin is air and food and water, everything, as if he could just live off this – as if this is Arthur’s entire world: the close confines of these walls, the stark white lights, the mirror greedily taking in the sight of them (tangled in each other, absolutely wrecked, perfect), and Merlin, Merlin who Arthur doesn’t know, not really, but who Arthur needs. Merlin, who makes Arthur feel like maybe he’s falling in love, because it’s either that or just falling into pieces.
And so when Merlin somehow gets him turned around and somehow – somehow – slides the cuffs around his wrists in one cool, efficient snap of metal – it’s a bit of a surprise.
“Ha!” Merlin says, stepping back, looking wild and sort of psychotic.
Arthur takes it back, he’s not in love with Merlin, because Arthur doesn’t fall in love with crazy people.
“You carry handcuffs around with you,” Arthur says, which is not at all what he’d meant to say.
Merlin looks absurdly pleased, his skin flushed from Arthur’s regard, Arthur’s adoring fingers, and there’s a delicate pink cresting high on his cheeks. He looks tired and too young; there’s a bruise painted across his clavicle, one that doesn’t belong to Arthur. His hair is standing in about a million different directions and the thin skin under his eyes is smudged with shadow and he looks sort of horrible and like everything that Arthur could ever want.
“Handcuffs are very useful in many situations,” Merlin informs him. “This one, for instance.”
“I hope this is a prelude to sodomy,” Arthur says. “Because otherwise I’m going to be cross.”
Merlin just looks thrilled as he gets his shirt back on. “I’ve not got the time to properly debauch you, I’m afraid,” he says apologetically. He gets his shirt done up, and Arthur is angry, he is, he’s absolutely angry, there’s a job and the opera is about to end on a long, mournful note which tomorrow’s newspapers will compare to a death knell. He’s angry, Arthur tells himself, even as Merlin comes closer, and that’s one of Merlin’s myriad faults, he doesn’t think things out, because he’s got Arthur handcuffed and now he’s underestimating him, it would be so easy to just kick out, and Arthur could, should – except Merlin’s mouth is tantalizingly close, heating the curve of Arthur’s jaw with quick, shallow breaths, and for a deep, sweet moment, Arthur’s world narrows to just this: to just them.
“It’ll have to wait until next month in Prague,” Merlin says, and presses a kiss to the corner of Arthur’s mouth.
Arthur says, low, “You’re working for her, aren’t you? Your mark is my client.”
Merlin says, “And I’m guessing my client is your mark. Unfortunately, I can’t let you kill her. It would be unprofessional, and plus I need the money. I was robbed in Monte Carlo, see.”
“You shot me,” Arthur says.
Merlin smiles into Arthur’s cheek. Arthur shuts his eyes, breathes him in.
“Prague,” Merlin says, the word curling at the edges like a promise note, and then he reaches around to slip his fingers beneath one of Arthur’s cuffs, Merlin’s fingertips dragging hot across Arthur’s palm. “Bring these with you; they’re my favorite pair.”
“When I get to Prague,” Arthur says, “I am going to strangle you with your own esophagus.”
“I look forward to it,” Merlin says, and it’s insane, the way they’re grinning madly at each other across the bathroom, almost like the exhilaration after a spectacular kill, that thrill of skirting death, of achieving the impossible and both never wanting to do it again and needing it like air. It’s a bit like being able to fly after being told that you don’t have wings, like running when you didn’t even think you could walk.
Merlin leaves, off to finish the job and then off to Prague, where he’ll wait. For Arthur.
Arthur doesn’t know how he’s going to get out of these handcuffs; he doesn’t know if Lance is going to be annoyed that Arthur has now fucked up two jobs within the last year; he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to get out of the theater, what with his shirt unbuttoned and fluttering like some sort of cuckolded wife.
He’s angry, Arthur tells himself again, except he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, the way his eyes are bright and his mouth is stained with Merlin’s kisses. The way is hair is a mess, the way his collar is irreparably crinkled because that’s Merlin – always holding onto things too tightly.
And Arthur tips his head back against the bathroom wall, shuts his eyes and thinks: God help me, I’m so in love with him.
This is Prague:
The metal links of the cuffs wound around and through the headboard and Arthur has never been to Prague before and when he thinks back to it, a year or maybe two or maybe ten from now, all he’ll remember is Merlin braced over him, Merlin inside him, the dizzying bare heat of it all, falling asleep with Merlin’s fingers still hooked into him (I love you like this, slick and open from me, wet and leaking, you’d let me do whatever you want, wouldn’t you wouldn’t you wouldn’t you) because neither of them is very good at letting go.
Merlin up against the wall, his laughs disappearing into something sweeter, something far more intimate, and Arthur pressed up against him. Montreal glitters with the October twilight, the sky a riot of violets and reds, but Arthur can’t look away from Merlin, Merlin, who’s got a hand twined in Arthur’s hair, whose fingers are light across Arthur’s wrist as Arthur slips a hot hand down the front of Merlin’s jeans, cupping, squeezing. (Someone will see, Merlin says, because they’re at a bus station, not sure where they’re going, and Arthur’s breath ruffles Merlin’s eyelashes as he says, Let them.)
Peeling the winter off Merlin’s skin, the coat and the hoodie and the three shirts, and then pinning his hips to the bed, taking him into Arthur’s mouth, scraping his teeth against Merlin because Merlin likes it that way. Merlin is a study of motion, of kinetic energy, a perfect sine wave, arching and falling, toes curling, and Arthur keeps getting distracted, wanting to taste the unmarked skin at Merlin’s inner thigh, that notch at Merlin’s hip, and Merlin, Merlin, his voice gone to hoarseness (Let me fuck your mouth, Arthur, Arthur, please oh God please, until your mouth’s bruised and sticky with it and when you go outside, everyone will know and you’ll love it, won’t you?) and Arthur comes, shocked, the orgasm startled out of him.
But that’s not all, because this is Vienna:
Sleepily reaching for Merlin as Arthur heads for the toilet, their hotel room lit gold by the dawn, and when Arthur kisses him (because he has to, because he starts to count the hours by Merlin’s kisses, by Merlin’s breaths, because his bed is always a little bit warmer with Merlin in it), he finds Merlin’s mouth full of toothpaste and Merlin is laughing, trying to push him away, but Arthur decides he doesn’t care, licks into Merlin’s mouth until the toothpaste is gone (until they taste like each other).
And there’s Amsterdam:
Sprawled on the bed, bodies curved toward each other like commas that bracket blueprints of the mark’s house, his office, detailed files of where he goes, who he talks to, what he does when he thinks no one is looking. It’s Arthur’s job, but they’re both lying on their sides, the conversation sleepy in the two o’clock morning, meandering languidly from the job to their favorite movies to Arthur’s father to Merlin’s ill uncle to Arthur’s hopes to Merlin’s dreams. They fall asleep in the middle of the bed, the blueprints and folders and files and lists wrinkling underneath them, and Arthur’s hand warm on Merlin’s chest.
And spring in Cyprus:
Their little boat rocking lazily beneath them, and Merlin draped over Arthur like a starfish, murmuring into Arthur’s neck about how he wishes they could stay here forever, just like this, floating out into these blue seas that gleam gold in the sunlight. Arthur strokes circles across Merlin’s back, lets him talk himself to sleep, and then he whispers all those things that he doesn’t dare tell Merlin when he’s awake (I’d follow you anywhere and I want this, forever and quieter, because it has to be kept a secret from the sun and the water and oh, especially from Merlin, I love you).
Except. They’re at a bar in Paris:
Merlin slants a sideways look at him, blinking tiredly into the gaudy neon city lights. “Don’t fall in love with me,” he says, twenty-three and beautiful and cruel with it, too young and too beautiful to be tied down to this thing called love.
Arthur looks back at him, at his whisky-wet mouth, at the indolent curve of his back. And Arthur thinks: It’s too late.