Despite being most assuredly early, Merlin hurried down the corridor, hugging his books to his chest.
He only tripped twice — once as he rushed up the stairs and once as he skidded right into the wall — but made it to Mr Monmouth's chemistry lesson in time, all his teeth intact.
Which is more than he could say for his elbow, because that smarted like hell after his having half smashed it into the rustiest banister to ever have graced a building.
Though he might have got to classroom 6C, he had no intention of filing in as his other schoolmates. Not yet.
Instead he kept standing by the door, craning his neck from time to time to get the best view of the long, white-washed corridor.
As he waited, he had enough time to establish that this was the most depressing corridor in the whole wide world, the white of the paint verging on grey, the informational posters pinned here and there coming off in strips, the floor unmistakably dirty, dust collected in heaps in the corners.
At least ten of his chemistry classmates glided by during that time, including Arthur, who raised his eyebrows at him in a what-the-fuck-are-you-doing-standing-there way until at last Cenred appeared, marked out by his long hair, real facial scrub (not the bum fluff most of the blokes in year thirteen sported) and decisive strides.
Merlin stopped him, saying, “Hey, Cenred, I, er, I got your homework fixed. I mean, the lab report was a little short but it was good. I made it a bit longer.”
Merlin did omit the fact that Cenred's original report was a two-line effort and that he'd upped the word count by six hundred. “And you seemed to have a few more problems with the questions...”
There were thirteen of them in quiz form and Cenred hadn't got a single one correctly.
“But I sort of pointed out the right answers for you...”
Eyebrow raised, Cenred walked into the classroom and Merlin trotted after him as he rooted into his school bag for Cenred's copybook.
It was easily spotted because it looked untouched, only two pages having been written on, and thinner than any of Merlin's, who liked to cram notes, doodles and all sorts of stuff between the pages. He opened it on page two and showed Cenred how he'd changed (every little thing about) his homework.
“Thanks,” said Cenred. “That's brilliant, mate.”
“Do you want me to point out you the parts I changed?” Merlin asked, shuffling a bit. He was ready to bet all he had (twenty-six quid), that if asked a question about his choice of answer by Monmouth, Cenred wouldn't be able to come up with one. Hydrates didn't seem to be his forte. Or mole ratios. Or anything really.
Cenred gave him a tight smile. “Nah, that's brilliant as it is. I just want to fool that old wanker, Monmouth, into thinking I'm actually doing something. You're the clever one.”
Merlin beamed, smile stretching wide despite his best attempts to curb it into some sort of cool grin. “So how about hanging out, as you said?”
Merlin was pretty sure that Cenred was about to answer, and though he knew that statistically the odds of Cenred wanting to do anything more than simply and literally hanging out were slim, he tried to exude a confident air that could, maybe, possibly, best case scenario, get Cenred curious about a grope or two.
He was trying to stick his chest out a little when Vivian sashayed in, a picture of blonde perfection, her hair curling at the bottom, her skirt probably a few inches shorter than a regulation skirt should be, nails varnished into shocking pink brightness, and looking, in short, more like a model than a normal upper-sixth former. She didn't even look bleeding seventeen, but more like she was twenty-five.
A whiff of fruity perfume emanating from her, she put her hand on Cenred's shoulder and rested her chin on top of it. “My parents are going out tonight,” she purred. “All night long. Wedding out of town. Come to mine.”
Cenred took her chin between his thumb and forefinger, said, “Sure, babe,” and kissed her.
Merlin could see more than a hint of tongue and felt a little sick about it. Sick out of wanting to be the one this was done to and out of misery for being passed over. He'd have gladly disappeared with a little pouf and a cloud of smoke if he could have, though of course he couldn't.
He'd have to decide what to do before Cenred could cop a feel of Vivian's breasts and Merlin's mortification levels started to soar. Cenred's fingers were already hovering around the breast area anyway when Merlin saw he had better be quick about making his decision.
“Right, okay, guess that's a 'no' then.”
Which was when he realised that he was talking mostly to himself, Cenred being too busy snogging the living daylights out of Vivian while she was too busy giving back as good as she got - and groping Cenred's arse.
Merlin left Cenred's copybook on one of the desks and beat a hasty retreat to his own right in time for Mr Monmouth's appearance.
When Mr Monmouth saw Cenred and Vivian's PDA, his eyebrows shot up like very animated wispy bushes. “All right, Mr. King, Miss Trevor, we've seen enough. This is a chemistry lesson not—”
Someone shouted, “Clothes off, clothes off,” from the back of the classroom, drumming their hands on their desk, but Monmouth's thunderous, “I said that's enough, Mr Grant,” put paid to that.
Merlin propped his elbows on the table, raked a hand through hair he'd taken fifteen minutes to comb into docility, and puffed out a breath.
Arthur leant over from the desk behind and whispered, “Hey, Merlin, what's wrong?”
Merlin turned his head to the side. He liked Arthur, he did. But he didn't feel like talking about what had just happened - in front of the entire first row, might he add - or why he felt like he did, which was like complete and utter shit. Like one of the lowest points in his life had been reached. Like a horde of savage buffalos had tramped all over him. Like his heart had been squeezed tight and hung up to dry. Okay, maybe that was flowery imagery but heat was crawling up his neck for all the wrong reasons and a big ball of hurt had taken abode right in his stomach.
What had he been thinking? Idiot, he was an idiot.
“Nothing,” he said, more than a little lost in self-commiserating thoughts. “I think I might have flunked the answer to question nine.”
Arthur poked him with his pen, digging it right into Merlin's shoulder blades. “Merlin,” he said, as if Merlin was meant to know what his tone implied. And, all right, he did know, but he wasn't in the mood.
For all that some of his classmates said that he was a whiner or a girl, he didn't like all and sundry to know what he was feeling at any given moment, especially when it felt as if his legs had been kicked from under him.
“It's nothing, all right!” he hissed, batting Arthur's pen off.
But Arthur wouldn't let go, prodding him with a pencil, a different pen and a set square in turn, throwing paper balls — hopefully not spit balls — at him till Mr Monmouth gave them both the eyebrow and they had to cower as abjectly as possible so as not to be sent to the head of sixth for a word or two.
“I'll get it all out of you,” Arthur said and it sounded very much like a promise. Or a threat. Maybe, more like a threat in the mood Merlin was in.
Merlin ran like the wind. Though he wasn't built for long distance, he was great at sprinting.
Now he was hurtling forward, wind whistling around him, hair plastered to his skull, breathing through his nostrils. His neck muscles were relaxed as were his shoulders, square in the lane at all times.
His arms moved smoothly and his legs were pushing off the track, foot-toe strike perfect.
Pulling the ground under him, Merlin gained speed, completing his sprint to the finish-line.
Arthur, who was panting after having run the previous stint, his team shirt still sticking to his chest, smiled.
Their coach did too, especially when he stopped his watch, showed the display to Arthur and then yelled to Merlin, “Great time: 42.73”
Lancelot and Elyan clapped and jumped up and down.
Arthur cheered Merlin, even though perhaps he exaggerated a little, which could be excused since, thanks to Merlin's times and his own, they were going to win the 400x100 and bring home the Track and Field League trophy.
Merlin smiled inanely at him, causing Arthur to smile back wider, possibly a little stupidly too, until something changed and Merlin's smile dwindled by degrees as did his pace.
Arthur frowned while his coach droned on, “Well, I've got to admit it, Arthur.” Arthur got a shoulder punch from Coach Aglain. “You were right. At first I thought Merlin wanted to make the team just to puff up his UCAS personal statement, but he's not as awkward as he seems”
Merlin stumbled as he made his way over to Lance and Elyan, who were sitting, hands under their thighs, on the stands.
“Most of the time,” added Aglain. “When he's not walking, babbling, or doing anything that is not running.”
“Yeah,” said Arthur, a little busy observing Merlin's drawn, thoughtful expression. “Yeah...”
Misreading Arthur's own absent expression entirely, Aglain chuckled. “I see you want to be off.” He clapped his hand on the back of his clipboard and said, “Okay, boys.” Merlin, Lancelot and Elyan gathered around him. “You've done well for today. I want you here a little earlier on Tuesday so we can discuss the best techniques to pare down times for the relay.”
“I've got Bio,” said Merlin. “Ends at three.”
Coach Aglain scratched his forehead. “Ah, Merlin, you and your schedule. You had to go for four A levels, hadn't you? I'll talk to Mr Borden and see what I can do to get him to let you off a bit earlier, all right?”
“Well, then,” said Aglain, “Off you go, boys.” As an afterthought he told Elyan, “Oh, Elyan, we can talk about your wish to do the 60 m hurdles on Monday.”
“Yes, sir,” said Elyan, puffing his chest out as if he was in the military.
“I'll see everyone else on Tuesday,” Aglain said placidly.
They didn't let themselves be told twice and scattered, plodding back to the lockers, Elyan with an arm round Lancelot's shoulder, ribbing him about having rescued a kitten from a tree during free period, Arthur ignoring Lancelot's customary blushes to focus on Merlin’s uncharacteristic silence.
They stripped in the lockers, throwing their joggers, shirts and socks in their bags and stepping under the cold spray of the showers.
“No, really, working at the animal shelter changed my outlook,” Lance was saying.
Elyan lathered his head and rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Yeah, you're bullshitting me. You're telling me that you're actually wasting two afternoons a week to save the planet? There must be something else behind this. Fit volunteer? Paying part time gig?”
“At an animal shelter?” Lance snorted though he did it amiably. “They're almost bankrupt.”
Elyan wrinkled up his nose. “Right, then... a mention in your personal school report? I refuse to believe anyone would spend time down at the Sherford centre for any other reason.”
Lance shrugged his shoulder. “It's a good cause.”
Arthur was waiting to hear Merlin pipe up in Lancelot's support, but that didn't happen.
In fact, Merlin gave his scalp a forceful, almost angry rub, tipped his head back, letting the water cascade over his face, and closed his eyes, not uttering a single word.
Arthur wanted to reach a hand over the waist-high wall and touch his hand to Merlin's shoulder, except that that seemed like a huge breach of privacy, especially given the fact that Merlin was naked, standing with his back stiff and his legs planted a little apart, a certain vulnerability wrapped in the intimacy of the moment.
Reaching out seemed even more like a violation of the sacred locker room code when Merlin cupped his fingers up and worked them round and round, tangling them in his pubic hair until there was a froth of lather at his crotch.
Arthur quickly turned his head the other way, bracing himself against the shower wall as he ducked more fully under the jet. “Something's wrong with you, Merlin.”
There was no answering blithe chirp from Merlin, no teasing, nothing.
Arthur watched the water drain away, drops of it trickling down from his chin. “I know it and I'll get it out of you.”
Merlin huffed a sigh. Arthur slanted his head Merlin's way, to be faced with Merlin's back, arse and thighs. They looked pale in the artificial light.
This time he watched for a second or two, then shook his head and turned off the water, grabbing a towel as shudders started to flit down his spine.
Elyan and Lancelot were already finished with their showers anyway and back into the locker area proper. It was time he joined them and let Merlin finish at his own pace. Even if he was taking a bloody long time to rinse his hair.
Out of his stall, Arthur patiently towelled his face and arms. After a while had passed he scowled at wall dividing the toilets from the shower area.
Put out, he finished drying himself off and padded barefoot into the locker area. Once there, he grabbed a pair of boxer shorts from his bag and had put on a fresh shirt and socks. By the time Elyan and Lancelot, prodding each other on, called out, “See you tomorrow, mate,” Arthur was almost fully dressed.
By the time Arthur started doing up the laces of his trainers, Merlin hadn't got out of the shower yet. Arthur locked his jaw and stayed put on the bench.
Five minutes later, Merlin emerged from the tiled shower area, teeth chattering, a little blue about the face. “You moron,” Arthur said, “the water turned Arctic on you, didn't it?”
Merlin didn't say anything, just dived for his locker. His movements were a little convulsive, the idiot, hands trembling, jaw quivering, lips bluish. He quickly slipped his underwear on and burrowed into the school's jumper like an animal does into its hole, wet towel flopping around his neck. Soon enough he was dressed, hair still sticking up wetly, ears pink, lips of a more human colour.
Arthur tapped his foot on the floor; Merlin got his shoes out and hopped about trying to pull them on without sitting down to do so.
“You could sit down and do that.”
Startled, Merlin toppled backwards, still clutching a shoe.
Sighing and laughing low under his breath, Arthur heaved himself up and stretched a hand out to Merlin.
Merlin alternately scowled at his shoe, at the hole he seemed to just have spotted on his sock, and at Arthur's proffered hand. The scowling lasted all of five seconds. After what must have been a quick evaluation, Merlin accepted Arthur's hand up. Once he was vertical, though, he shook Arthur off.
Holding onto his shoe, he hobbled to the bench and plonked down. Then he bent over and busied himself with a triple knot, which looked like outright knot overkill.
“It's not about your dad again, is it?”
Merlin tightened his triple knot and made a non-committal noise.
“Stop fussing with your bloody shoes, Merlin, and tell me that nothing's wrong.”
Merlin looked up, lips pinched. “Nothing's wrong.”
Arthur threw his hands up in the air. “Don't be a tit, Merlin, and tell me what's going on.”
“You'd never understand any way,” Merlin said on a puff of breath.
“Well, try me!”
Merlin seemed to study him for the longest time, clearly looking for some sign, though Arthur didn't know what that might have been. He'd already made it more than clear that he was ready to listen, that he would there for Merlin, like a good mate, so he didn't see what Merlin's problem was.
“You'll take the piss,” said Merlin.
Arthur bit on the inside of his cheek. Well, he'd been known, on occasion, to have done such a thing, but never concerning anything that got Merlin so sad and riled. Well, not after their rocky start anyway. “I promise I won't.” He made a funny face. “Hand on my heart.”
Merlin straightened hands lax between his knees now that he'd got both shoes on. “It was Cenred, okay! Cenred. Cenred King—”
“I know who Cenred King is.”
Merlin's face got a little red as it did at the end of a run. “Cenred King, the fit rugby team captain.”
“I know who—”
“The fit rugby team captain who asked me for homework help and who, I thought, bloody silly of me I know, liked me.”
This was going to be one of Merlin's little impassioned rants, Arthur saw.
“The fit rugby captain who gave me to understand we'd date, okay, maybe not date date, but hang out one of these days and who is currently probably shagging the equally fit and popular Vivian Trevor.” Merlin's shoulders slumped. “I liked him, all right. I really, really thought... And he was...”
Arthur clamped his lips together. “Leading you on by the nose.”
“I could kill him for you.” Arthur smiled with the intention of perking Merlin up a bit. A sad Merlin was mostly a rarity. Merlin was chatty – even during lessons, though he'd charmed most teachers into putting up with it because of his good marks – bright eyed and good-humoured. A morose Merlin was basically as rare a sight as a dodo.
Merlin looked the other way but snorted, lips quirking up. “I thought of doing that myself but then remembered I was all for non-violence.” The hints of a smile tugged at his lips. “And if I was known to have an aggressive streak that they'd never hire me at MDF.”
“The wanker isn't worth chancing your big dream, is he?” Arthur agreed.
“No.” Merlin breathed out, smile now an ember. “But I thought... I wanted it.”
Arthur ran his palm through his hair. “I— He's not the only one around, you know. I mean how many students does Avalon Park count? Three hundred? There's bound to be some other guys for you out there.”
Merlin hung his head, pinching his nose between his fingers. “Yeah, sure. Yeah. Just...”
Arthur crossed over to him, lifted Merlin's towel from around his neck, and rubbed his hair dry, making it stand on end, a little on purpose.
Merlin batted him away, kicking when Arthur, tongue sticking out as he saw to his masterpiece, persisted. “Hands off my hair, dollop head.”
“And by the way, dollop head?” Arthur said, gripping both ends of Merlin's wet towel to dry Merlin's hair into stiff little spikes. It was short enough to do so, except for Merlin's fringe, which flopped forwards over his forehead. “That's the most uncoool insult ever.”
“Is uncool even a word?” Merlin asked, kicking at him.
“Sure is,” said Arthur, letting go to save his shins from further abuse. “If I say so.”
“You're a prat.” Merlin stood up, slinging his sports back over his shoulder. “A big one.”
“What was I saying about your choice of insults, Merlin?” Arthur asked as he followed Merlin out of the lockers.
“I don't know?” Merlin had trotted forwards and was now craning his head back to taunt Arthur. “I wasn't really listening because you make up words, you arse.”
Arthur's eyebrows climbed up. “That's better.”
Merlin laughed. “God, you fell for it. Now, I have a free pass. Can insult you any time I want.” So saying, Merlin started running.
Arthur couldn't leave the insult unchallenged. He gave chase.
For Merlin, the last hurdle to jump before the weekend officially began was a scheduled meeting with his career tutor.
And as far as weekends went, this one didn't seem to be all that shiny.
To begin with Merlin was told by an officious assistant that he would have to wait since Mrs Taylor was busy on the phone. So he stayed put, perching on the chair outside his tutor's office door like the good student he was supposed to be.
He sat there, jiggling his leg, desultorily texting Arthur or reading the leaflets the waiting room was strewn with. He waited for more than twenty minutes before he was told that he could come in.
To reiterate, just not a good beginning for a weekend.
Even though Mrs Taylor was not a scary woman in any way, her opening words were more than worrying. “Merlin, I see that you're doing very well,” she said. “But I have a concern.”
Merlin frowned and sat himself down. “A concern?”
“Yes.” Mrs Taylor rearranged the items on her desk. “I understand that the only UCAS choice you seem to be truly interested in is Oxford.”
“Yeah,” he said, hands sweating. “I want to become a doctor and that seems like the best possible choice.”
“I'm sure it is,” said Mrs Taylor, “and you are predicted top grades. So that's all good.”
Merlin sensed a ‘but’ coming.
“But I don't want you to be disappointed in case you don't make it.”
And there it was.
“I see,” said Merlin, standing up and grabbing his school bag. “'I'll try to remember not to set my hopes too high.”
“Merlin, they've got lots of applicants and all of them are as brilliant as you.” Mrs Taylor made a sign for him to sit down. “That's not to say you're not a fantastic student. Frankly, if more of our pupils were as gifted as you, the teacher body would rejoice, but, you're yet to take the BMAT and sit through your interview. I merely want you to focus on the positives of other institutions as well. You're given more than one choice for a reason.”
“I will,” said Merlin, chin tipped down. “I promise.”
“And I was hoping you could relax and enjoy yourself in the meanwhile so you're not a ball of nerves when you get there.”
Merlin nodded, promised that he would take Mrs Taylor's advice to heart, and claimed that he had to go because his mum wanted him home.
Since Mrs Taylor was guilty of having made him wait, she let him go, though he didn't miss the concerned look she cast at him before he could slip out.
Merlin was glumly faffing around the school's courtyard when his mobile pinged; telling him he'd just received a text.
It was from Arthur and it said:
Come over around eightish.
Merlin naturally assumed that Arthur wanted some company, being, as he was, between significant others and easily bored when left with no one to talk to.
Arthur was a bit of a high maintenance friend, one that needed to be humoured and cosseted and who liked the attention, but a friend all the same.
Merlin decided to go.
Merlin couldn't have been more wrong as to his supposition as to Arthur's invitation. Although, in all honesty, the music sounding from half a mile away should have been enough of a warning.
In fact, when Merlin got to Arthur's, admittedly a bit late, a party was in full swing.
Half the girls from school seemed to have gathered in Arthur's extensive drawing room, while half the male population of Avalon was either orbiting around them, dancing with them, or perched in front of Arthur's big telly playing the Wii.
“This is a party,” said Merlin, the number of people swaying in the background confirming his suspicion.
“Yeah,” said Arthur, clapping a hand on his shoulder and pulling him in.
“And you didn't care to mention that in your text?” said Merlin, looking down at the old jeans and ratty white tee he'd changed into when he got home from school.
The get up was okay for an evening at Arthur's spent watching Star Wars while guzzling soda and eating popcorn, but marked him as definitely doomed at a party attended by the likes of Vivian Trevor and Arthur's fashion-conscious ex, Sophia.
Arthur looked extremely shifty for a moment or two, rubbing at his scalp and looking at Merlin's chin instead of in his eyes. “It came up last second.”
“Yeah,” said Arthur. “Yes, yes. Why wouldn't I have mentioned this before otherwise?”
Merlin could see the point in that, though he had a tiny inkling there could be some other reason for Arthur to lie. “You haven't thrown this party together in the hope that Sophia would come and get back with you, did you?”
Arthur screeched, “What? Sophia! No! I'm not into her anymore.”
People turned around to see what it was that Arthur was getting so loud about.
“Yes,” said Arthur lower, “that's water under the bridge, now come along.”
Merlin followed him, hoping people would be too busy snogging to care about his funny sartorial choices.
“By the way,” said Arthur, “my cousin's staying over for the weekend.”
Merlin perked up an eyebrow at the news and trailed Arthur into the kitchen. “Who? The one who goes to that grammar school two villages over?”
“Yeah,” said Arthur, pulling a beer out of the fridge and giving it to Merlin.
Uther Pendragon let Arthur have a go at beer as long as he didn't do anything stupid and for as long as he stuck only to it. While there had been a minor incident involving tequila once, Arthur had proved somewhat reliable on that score (minus the incident with the Vodka Elyan's dad had brought back from Prague that Elyan had raided), and so his parties were generally – or so the word round Avalon went – more than okay to attend. “Him.”
“Uh,” said Merlin, who had nothing wittier to say on the subject. “Going to be fun, I guess.”
Arthur grimaced. “Well, no, he's posh.”
Arthur gave him a pretend kick. “I'm not. I'm perfectly down to earth and charming.”
Merlin scoffed, the beer he'd tried to drink from the can going down the wrong way. “Positively. You're radiantly charming...”
“Shut up, Merlin,” said Arthur, tugging him out of the kitchen much like he had directed him to it. “What I meant was, would you mind getting him off my back for a while? I'm supposed to be nice to him, but I'd like to...” Arthur trailed off as if he had run out of words. “Chat someone up, so I need you to...”
“To what?” Merlin asked, as he was being steered towards the back garden where a few more people were hanging out.
“Keep him company,” said Arthur. “Have a nice long chat with him while I go and.... do stuff. Stuff I should do as the host. And chat a girl up.”
“But I don't know him!”
Arthur squeezed Merlin's shoulder so hard it was more than a little painful. “Come on, be a good sport.”
Merlin shrugged him off, saying, “Stop that, Arthur.” But he agreed to help.
Mostly because he was now facing a ginger haired bloke wearing a jumper and expensive looking trousers who could be none other than Arthur's cousin. And Merlin couldn't run away now that he was there. That would be rude.
“Geraint,” said Arthur, “this is my mate, Merlin. He's our secret weapon to win the track relay trophy.”
Merlin blushed. “Hello, Geraint.”
“I'm more into golf and badminton myself,” said Geraint, shaking Merlin's hand in a strong grip, “but I'm very pleased to meet you.”
“Me too,” Merlin said, even though meeting Arthur's cousin hadn't been in his plans.
“Well,” said Arthur, “Merlin's a bit of a genius so if you explain the highlights of badminton to him, it'll be fine. You can have great conversations with Merlin.” Arthur hip-nudged Merlin closer to Geraint. “Now, I'll leave you to it.”
Before Merlin could ask him back for help with Geraint, Arthur had darted back into the house as if he had devils at his heels.
Merlin gaped after him because that was just a tad rude and not much like Arthur either, who was usually politer. But then he remembered that Arthur had said he wanted to chat up some girl and let it go.
Despite his claims to the contrary Merlin suspected Arthur wanted another chance with Sophia now that she was single again – or so the rumour mill would have it.
“So,” Merlin said, “you've, ah, known Arthur for long?”
“I'm his cousin.”
Crap, that's why Merlin needed Arthur. “Yes, of course, sure. I mean you're related so you've always known him and I'm an idiot for asking.”
“Well, yes that was a less than clever question.”
Merlin looked at his shoes, trying hard for something to say. “Er, and what do you think of Avalon?”
“A little boring to be honest,” Geraint said, sounding very much like Prince Charles. “I usually spend my weekends in country houses or in London if the family driver's available.”
Merlin tried to sound sympathetic, though he was getting huge knob vibes from Geraint. He was like Arthur had been when Merlin'd met him, minus the charm and good intentions. “But your parents foisted you onto Arthur.”
Geraint's brow sprouted multiple creases. “No, Arthur asked me here. I said I'd rather not attend one of his parties, but he insisted and, since he had knowledge of some unsavoury events I was involved with last summer, I decided it was prudent to cut my losses and accept in case he told my parents.”
“So basically Arthur blackmailed you?”
“Yes.” Geraint nodded. “Nothing personal,” he added, “but this town is clearly full of common people and Arthur's friends, again no offence meant, aren't much better.”
Merlin twisted his lips and thought wryly that Arthur had been right. Geraint was boring. And a prick. A boring prick he would gladly run away from if Arthur hadn't decided that Merlin had to babysit him “I see how that would be a devastating experience. I mean spending time with a bunch of working class people, barring Arthur, what a nightmare.”
Geraint was built, but Merlin guessed he was spared a punch on the nose because he'd said that in an amiable tone and Geraint was actually trying to decide whether Merlin was yanking his chain or had meant what he'd said.
Geraint didn't seem like a super bright bulb either because he hadn't yet figured out the intent behind Merlin's words. Which was all to Merlin's advantage, really, because he might be tall but he wasn't as big as Geraint.
Merlin was busy trying to devise a reason to drop Geraint, when Morgana, metallic dress shimmering as she moved, floated by on heels, walking as confidently on them as though she was barefoot. Wonder of wonders, she stopped right where they were.
Oh, right, though Morgana wasn't Arthur's full sister, she was Uther's daughter. Given that Geraint was a relation from Uther's side of the family, Morgana was his cousin, too. She probably wanted to say 'hi' to him. Unlikely that she'd be greeting Merlin when most of the time she simply ignored him.
Morgana swished her hair off her shoulder and to the side. “Hello, Geraint, nice to see you here.”
Geraint was left speechless at Morgana's glamorous entrance but then, even pretentious twats tended to be struck by Morgana's looks. “Hello, Morgana.”
Merlin was about to sidle off, hopefully unnoticed, when Morgana hooked an arm around his and said sultrily. “I expect you in my room later. For a repeat of the other night.”
Merlin gawped. Honestly, unless his mind had been wiped by aliens, Merlin had no idea what she was talking about. He naturally protested his innocence. “Morgana, I don't know what—”
She put her lips to his cheek, so very close to the corner of his mouth they would have been kissing if Merlin had tilted his face an inch. She swatted his arm. “Shush, Merlin, no need to be chivalrous in this day and age. I don't care who knows what we get up to.”
What had she smoked? “Morgana, I really do—”
She dug her heel into his foot. It brought tears to his eyes and rendered him incapable of speech for a few pivotal seconds. The few pivotal seconds needed to clear matters up. Then lots of things happened. Morgana pinched his arm, right above his elbow, someone broke the Pendragons’ garden table by jumping up and down on it to the rhythm of a Katy Perry song and Geraint was called in to help dispose of the debris. Merlin supposed his help had been asked because he was so tall and muscular.
Merlin was now alone with Morgana. “What the fuck was that?”
“Ask Arthur,” said Morgana, sashaying away like Jessica Rabbit.
Merlin threw his hands up in the air, deciding to do exactly that.
Except for the fact that it turned out to be impossible.
At first because Arthur was busy retrieving peroxide and plasters from the first aid box in the bathroom upstairs. The girl who'd been jumping on the table had apparently hurt herself. “A deep scratch down the side of her leg, Merlin,” Arthur informed him when Merlin tried to flag him down.
And later because Arthur was invited to play a game of Never Have I Ever and Merlin couldn't possibly ask him what was going on when Arthur was surrounded by so many people.
Since Sophia had turned eighteen two months before, she had brought along some booze she had legally bought, as testified by the bottle of Smirnoff Vodka propped against up her leg. It was booze Arthur couldn't frown upon despite his dad's dictates without being called a bore.
The booze being there, a way for it to be drunk had to be devised. Hence, Merlin surmised, the game.
A dozen of his schoolmates including Lancelot, Gilli, Sophia, Elyan, and Elyan's sister, Gwen, had gathered round in a circle. Pellinore, Arthur's mate from fencing, and Owaine, his social studies pal, had joined them right after.
Arthur sat among them, facing Gwen, who looked down and started playing with her hair, and between Owaine and Lancelot. As many tumblers as there were people had been placed before each participant.
Merlin was invited to join in. “Come on, Merlin,” Elyan said. “Come mingle.”
But Merlin leant against the back of the sofa, tapped the side of the beer can he'd appropriated on his way in from the garden and said, “No, thanks.”
“Don't be such a stick in the mud, Merlin,” said Gilli. And coming from him, that was a bit rich. “We want to know your secrets.”
Merlin's lips tightened. “No, thanks,” he said again, to be saved by Arthur's, “Leave him be. He said no.” Arthur turned, gave him a conciliatory smile, and was sucked into the game.
Gwen was watching their by play very intently, an odd searching expression on her face.
But then Elyan started and she got distracted. "Never have I ever had sex on school grounds."
Sophia, Owaine, and Arthur drank.
It didn't take a genius to establish that Sophia and Arthur had done it together.
Elyan said, “Good for you, mate,” Owaine shouted, “Hey, how come no one's complimenting my prowess?” and Gwen looked out the window, brow creased, flashing Merlin a glance she then shifted onto Sophia.
“My turn,” said Sophia, “Never have I ever smoked weed.”
Everybody but Arthur drank.
“So sad,” said Owaine. “I thought better of you.”
“I fence and I run. Runners need to be healthy,” said Arthur, craning his neck to half shout at Merlin, “Right, Merlin?”
Merlin nodded absently.
“Why do you ask him?” said Sophia derisively. “I mean, it's Merlin.”
Arthur said matter of factly, “He's the best relay runner we have.”
“But he's a geek...” Sohpia objected. Gwen just stared at Merlin, probably trying to assess whether Sophia was right or not about him.
Elyan mediated, “It's Lance's turn.”
“Never have I ever...”
Given its premise, the game could be potentially endless and seemed so to Merlin, a chorus of drunken snorts, giggles, and exclamations following every bout.
At last at around half past one, Morgana came down again and said, “Arthur, Uther said he wanted this to be over by one, even if he's not in.”
Arthur said, “Well, if you're so eager to enforce his rules, then why do you keep calling him Uther? He's your father, too.”
Morgana's face set and her eyes became hard. “Because I like to stomp all over you for fun. And remember you owe me thirty quid.”
“Morgana!” Arthur's voice went down two registers, as though he was really, really angry.
Merlin watched from one to the other of them and wondered what having a sibling like Morgana would be like. Probably terrifying, he decided. To him she was more a mysterious cipher than a woman.
Merlin's mental ruminations were cut short by Morgana's words, “Don't get all worked up, Arthur.” She smiled predatorily. “But remember: I'll text Uther if your friends are still here in twenty minutes.”
People started dispersing, Elyan and Gwen offering Merlin a lift home.
Given that it was late and Merlin didn't fancy walking all the way home, tackling Arthur about Morgana's odd behaviour and the Geraint fiasco would have to wait.
Arthur was avoiding Merlin.
At least a little.
At first he hadn't done it consciously. It was just that Geraint stayed over for the weekend and had to be borne since Arthur had asked him round. Plus, he fenced on Saturdays. Then Father had monopolised his Sunday; he somehow thought introducing Arthur to his middle-aged business partners over a formal lunch even Geraint found less than thrilling was a way of grooming him for the business. Then he and Merlin didn't share any lessons on Mondays.
But by the time he'd ducked out of the common room because Merlin was there, he faced the hard truth.
He was avoiding Merlin.
In his preoccupation with Merlin, he almost ran right into Gwen.
“Hello, Arthur,” she said, ducking her head and smiling at him. “You seem to be in a bit of a hurry.”
“Yes, I am,” he said, knowing she would walk with him into the common room if he didn't do something. Anything. Like right now. “I forgot my economy book in my locker,” he offered as an explanation. Then he fled.
He was sure Gwen was looking daggers at him even if he couldn't see her as he was discreetly speeding down the corridor.
He'd have to apologise to Gwen at some point, but now was really not the right time. He had to come up with a battle plan first and one that didn't make him sound like a plonker.
Since Arthur and Merlin took chemistry together, Arthur's avoidance tactic couldn’t be long lasting. It had served him well for most of the morning and early afternoon but it failed him later once school was out.
It epically did the moment Merlin thundered up the stairs to barge into his room, saying, “You've been avoiding me,” sounding both belligerent and a little hurt too. The belligerence was easily spotted even over the notes of Arthur’s favourite song. The hurt was right there in his sad eyes.
“No?” said Arthur. And, crap, he didn't sound convincing to himself either.
Merlin's eyebrow climbed up.
Arthur straightened on his bed and put away his headphones. “Okay, all right. But my father did co-opt me into going to a lunch with his friends on Sunday.”
“And has this got something to do with Morgana letting Geraint understand I shagged her in this very house when I did no such thing?”
From his comfortable sprawl, Arthur jumped to his knees, bedsprings complaining. He put both hands up. “A bit louder, so Father can come up and strangle you, yeah?”
Arthur made a moue of disgust. “She's his darling.”
Merlin kicked the door shut behind him and sat at Arthur's desk, swivelling in Arthur's chair until he was facing him, both arms crossed across his chest. “You still haven't cleared up that little Morgana mystery.”
“I was lending a hand?”
“How?” Merlin asked. “I don't see how that little fiction could have helped me in any way. And helped me to do what exactly?”
Arthur scratched at the side of his face. “Well, Morgana's my sister, but even I know that half my mates want to...” He refused to actually put that into words. Especially since, as a boy, he'd thought that Gorlois and Vivienne's daughter was pretty, if conceited and impossible. Well, before learning that she wasn't the neighbour's daughter but his half-sister.
Merlin raked his hands through his hair, “This makes even less sense than before.” Then Merlin smirked. “Unless we're going for Freudian.”
Arthur took off his sock and hurled it at Merlin.
“Oi,” Merlin said, ducking it. “That stinks.”
“Less than your feet.”
“I've proof positive that yours stink more.”
Merlin hurled himself at Arthur and tickled his sides till Arthur started laughing hysterically and in a high-pitched tone, pummelling Merlin's back with pulled punches while Merlin straddled him. That lasted until the noise level got Arthur's dad to shout from downstairs. “That's enough, Arthur. Some people are working here.”
Father's distinctly miffed tones were enough to scare the both of them into behaving.
It wasn't something you could have explained if you didn't know Father, but if you knew him, you'd immediately get why immediate acquiescence to his wishes was required. The fact of the matter was that Uther Pendragon may shout but he never lost his nerve. And that was scary and more than moderately impressive.
They resettled: Arthur still on the bed, one knee up with the other leg stretched out in front of him, one sock on and the other off.
Merlin sat at the foot of the bed, keeping an insulting distance from the foot Arthur was dangling off the edge of his bed. “Are you still keeping mum about Geraint and Morgana? Because I can start again with the tickle attack and then who'll hear your dad.”
Arthur poked at Merlin's shoulder with his foot, the uncovered one. Merlin batted it off. “Arthur, come on, spit it out.”
“All right,” said Arthur reluctantly. He tipped his head back against the wall and stared at the ceiling.
Arthur swallowed while Merlin kept side-eyeing him. Somehow, he didn't think that boded well for his own continued sanity. Fessing up might be the better choice.
“The other day in the lockers,” Arthur began. “You said... Well, basically you said you wanted someone. Now, I've asked around and Cenred was jerking you around because he's not gay and not even remotely bi.”
Merlin wrinkled his nose. “I think I got that when he started groping Viv Trevor.”
“Yeah, so you were making long faces and you were being all quiet and mopey.”
“If I was mopey it follows that I wasn't all that quiet.”
Arthur's foot hovered menacingly close to Merlin’s face. Maybe that would convince Merlin to shut up for two minutes so he could explain. “Let me finish, okay? I was saying that you were being a sad, sad case, so I decided that you'd be much happier if you had what you wanted.”
“Dare I ask what you think that is?”
Arthur's voice got a little high. “A satisfying shag?”
Colour bloomed on Merlin's cheeks. “I wouldn't have put it like that.”
“Don't tell me you fancied Cenred because of his shiny, sunny personality?” Arthur snorted.
Merlin conceded the point. Ha, victory! “Not really, no. Cenred's abs are legendary though. I spotted them when he lifted his shirt at the tail end of a rugby match.”
Arthur made a little crowing noise. He enjoyed winning arguments with Merlin. “See, I was right. So I set off to find you someone.”
“You're sounding like a pimp now.”
“Hey,” said Arthur, shifting around so he had his elbows on the mattress, face looming much closer to Merlin's. He hoped his expression was suitably impressive. “Don't whinge. I tried to find you a boyfriend or at least a decent friends-with-benefits arrangement. And I thought to myself ‘Merlin liked Cenred,’ so, well, I should go for someone athletic.”
“Badminton?” asked Merlin, grinning in a teasing way. “Really, badminton?”
Arthur's brow got furrowed. What was so wrong with Badminton? “Geraint still trains. It's still a sport. And, besides, I sort of know who he is and what he gets up to. So I know he's safe. And he's kind of well-to-do so if you ended up being serious...”
“Oh, god,” said Merlin, goggling. “You were trying to pimp me out to your minted cousin.”
Arthur got off the bed and stated playing with his anti-stress ball, throwing it at the opposite wall. “Look at the bright side. We'd have become relatives.”
Merlin scratched at his head with a single finger. “I still can't see the bright side?”
Arthur lobbed the ball at Merlin's head; Merlin said, “Ow,” grabbed it and lobbed it right back.
Arthur, thanks to his fantastic reflexes, caught it, sank into his desk chair, and started playing with it again.
There was a silent pause and Merlin seemed to see the flawless logic behind Arthur's reasoning. There was still a little crease on his brow though. “So, why Morgana?”
“Because,” said Arthur, making a duh face, “as I explained before, most of my mates think she's hot though hard to get. Maybe because she's older or something. So if Geraint thought Morgana had let you...” Arthur made obscene gestures that made Merlin blush and his own face heat a tad, “You'd automatically score cool points with him.”
“Even if he's gay?”
“Yeah,” said Arthur, because it was glaringly obvious. “It's a universal law. If you score someone hot, you're hot.”
Merlin covered his face with his hands. “God, this is so embarrassing.” Then he seemed to ruminate for a second or two and looked up. “Wait. And Morgana agreed?”
Arthur winced and absently patted his pockets. “I had to pay her for her performance.”
Merlin re-buried his face in his hands. “This is pretty humiliating.”
“You're saying that because it didn't work out.”
Re-emerging from his face-palming, Merlin pulled at his hair with both hands. It looked like he wanted to strangle Arthur; if it didn’t happen be illegal. “You're saying that because you have something else up your sleeve.”
“I talked to Sophia yesterday when you were busy with Geraint.”
Merlin turned and quirked up both eyebrows.
“We did more than shag, just so you know.”
Those eyebrows waggled.
“Okay, marginally little more.”
“That's more like it.”
“Anyway, she said she has a friend,” Arthur said, leaning down to boot his computer. “His name's Tristan. He's older, doing law in uni, which is something that should go down well with you because he's educated and has a cause, like Lance, except he fancies blokes, and is into intellectual stuff. Soph reckons he'll like you and she'll introduce you if we go on a double date.”
“This still sounds like a horror film to me,” said Merlin. “And you realise that she only said that because she wants to date you again.”
Arthur had gone out with plenty of superb girls. Girls Merlin had made friends with. Like Elena or Mithian. The only one Merlin hadn't got along with was, mysteriously enough, Sophia. Arthur couldn’t exactly pin down why. True, Soph was a bit of an airhead, but Merlin always liked everybody, so Arthur didn’t understand why Merlin cringed at the idea of tagging along.
“You know Sophia hates me.”
“She doesn't.” Arthur said, pulling him down by the neck so he could watch the screen. “I don't know anyone in their right minds who doesn’t like you.”
Merlin bit his lip as if to silence a nascent rant, but it was pretty clear he still wanted to object. Merlin’s ability to keep mum lasted twenty seconds. “It's still a horrible idea. It's practically like a blind date.”
“No, it's not,” said Arthur. “It's a brilliant idea.” Arthur tapped at his PC's screen so Merlin could now see that he'd pulled up Tristan's Facebook page. Arthur had friended him already – to further his plan. “See, he likes the same things you do.”
“Liking Memento and 1984 doesn't exactly make him my soul mate, Arthur.”
“Memento was a weird film, though.”
“You sat through it.”
Arthur shifted his eyes around guiltily. He tended to get bored when films were slow to take off.
“You fell asleep!”
“It's the thought that counts!” said Arthur, producing a pout. After a while he cleared his throat and added, “Oh, look, he likes House too. House is a doc.”
“A fictional one.”
“He still likes doctors,” Arthur logically argued.
“Still doesn't mean anything,” said Merlin, looking at the picture Tristan had chosen to display on his wall. He was blond and blue eyed, fringe swept before his eyes. Arthur could see Merlin was tempted by the glint his eyes. “I don't know.”
“Oh, come on, Merlin. What's the worst that can happen?”
Many, many things could happen on a date that started off with Merlin's date not being there due to road traffic and Sophia curling her lips sneeringly at him when Arthur's back was turned.
“I think this is a nice place,” said Arthur. “What do you think, Merlin?”
Merlin was busy counting the meagre wad of fivers he'd broken out of his piggy bank, (and, yes, he still had one) when Arthur covered Merlin's fist with his hand. It was warm and his grip was strong. “It's on me.”
“Arthur!” Merlin protested. “It's not fair. And it's not how you do it.”
“I'm not letting you pay.”
“As far as I know,” said Merlin, trying to keep his voice down so that he could keep the secret of his less than florid finances to himself, “there's no rule that says 'foot the bill of hapless friends out on a stupid double date with you'.”
Arthur backed Merlin against a huge flower pot. “I got you into this. Soph chose the place to begin with. It's on me.”
Arthur put his hand on Merlin's shoulder, applying some force. “Really, Merlin. I dragged you into this.”
Merlin looked up, locking eyes with Arthur, trying to make him see what the problem was here. “I don't want to be a charity case.”
Arthur took in a big breath, as if there were loads of things he wanted to say and he needed enough lung capacity to say them. He made big eyes at Merlin and was about to begin what Merlin suspected would be a little speech about honour, friendship and loyalty between mates, when Tristan turned up.
“Sorry I'm late,” he said, kissing Sophia's cheek and shaking hands with Arthur first and Merlin last. “I'm so glad I could make it.” He smiled a very charming smile and Merlin started to think that perhaps Arthur's idea hadn't been so bad at all. “I'm Tristan, but I guess you were expecting me.”
“Merlin, but I suspect you knew about me, too,” said Merlin, feeling more than a little drawn to Tristan.
“Yes,” said Tristan, “yes, indeed.”
Sophia wrapped an arm around Arthur's waist, putting her hand in his back pocket. She smiled up at him and said, “I'm hungry; let's go inside.”
Arthur looked around, “Is everybody okay with the place then?”
Tristan said, “I don't see why not.”
Merlin banked on only ordering soup and ice-cream and on kicking Arthur in the shins if he refused to go Dutch. “Sure.”
Sophia clung to Arthur and herded him inside.
Tristan said, “Let's follow them.”
The restaurant was packed. Most of the tables were full. Yet there were two in the corner that were unoccupied. Sophia headed towards the largest one, pulling Arthur after her, leaving Tristan and Merlin behind.
“How did you get to know Sophia?”
Tristan twisted his lips wryly. “I used to baby sit her little brother before I left for uni.”
“Her little brother is a handful.”
Merlin saw how that could be if they were the spawn of the same parents. But by then they'd joined Sophia and Arthur at the table and he couldn't comment farther.
Sophia was sitting next to Arthur, her arm looped around his, her head on his shoulder. Arthur looked a bit stiff, backed up as he was against the wooden partition.
Merlin sat across from him and smiled. Arthur smiled back and hit his foot with his. Merlin read that as encouragement.
Tristan handed out the menus on the table, while Sophia ran her hand up and down Arthur's arm. When Tristan offered her a menu, Sophia waved him away. “Arthur is choosing for me.”
Merlin's eyebrow modestly climbed upwards as he hid behind the menu.
Arthur said, “But I wouldn't know what to pick!”
Sophia swatted his arm. “You're the gentleman. You ought to choose for the lady. Besides we were together so long I feel like you know me.” She paused, blew air through her half parted lips and added, “deeply.”
As Arthur and Sophia argued the point, Tristan nudged him to get his attention. “I heard that you want to become a doctor.”
“Yes,” said Merlin, letting go of the menu. “I— I thought I could do something useful that way. And hey, I know you're doing law.”
“Yes,” said Tristan. “I'm doing a BA in Law and Human Rights at the University of Essex.”
“Human Rights, wow, that's fantastic. I mean, it's about helping people.”
Tristan shrugged modestly. “I'm only in my first year,” he said, “but we're already tackling consumers, workers and children's rights. In the long run, we'll delve into even more interesting subjects. And the exciting part is that we won't just focus on domestic law. Frankly, we live in a privileged country and it's the underdog I want to defend.”
“I couldn't approve more.” Merlin smiled. “Did you always know you wanted to do that?”
“Yes,” said Tristan. “I come from a humble family; you might say I was a problem child. Those issues are close to my heart. I've always felt the need to fight the system.”
Merlin leant closer, almost forehead to forehead with Tristan. “From within?”
“Yes,” said Tristan. “Anarchy is the next step and anarchy comes with its own slew of problems.” He toyed with his glass. “Am I boring you?”
“No!” Merlin waved his hands about. “No way. You're a little bit great.”
In short, as loath as Merlin was to admit it, Arthur had been right. Blind dates could lead to meeting a bloke that was just right for you. A smart, personable, older bloke who had ideals and was articulate. That made Merlin's skin tingle a little bit with the earliest stages of arousal.
Merlin was about to say something more when the wine waiter appeared. “Anything to drink?”
Sophia said, “A glass of Château Pontet Canet.”
The waiter scratched at his neck with his pen. “I'm afraid we don't serve that.”
“How about a Chateuneuf du Pap?”
Merlin was getting lost amid French châteaux. The waiter seemed as confused as he was for he shook his head at Sophia's litany. Maybe because this wasn't exactly an up-scale place, even though Merlin could hardly afford anything on the menu.
“Can you manage a bloody Sauvignon Blanc then?”
“Soph!” said Arthur. The waiter though jumped at that. “Yes, yes. We do have that.”
Tristan ordered next. “A pint of lager, please.”
“Forsters?” the waiter asked, expelling a big relieved breath.
Arthur said, “The same,” and Merlin wondered whether he would be caught since, unlike Sophia and Tristan, he was as under-age as Merlin. The waiter wrote down his order without batting an eyelash. Must have been the muscly biceps and big torso. Even though Merlin didn't have similar bodily features, he tried his luck. “I'll have a pint, too, please.” He was as polite as could be, hoping it would bring him the desired result.
“I need to see your ID first.”
“Of Coke,” said Merlin, wishing he could hide under the table, especially when Sophia smirked.
Coming to the rescue, Tristan said, “Oh, come on he's seventeen, having a meal and in company of an adult. The law says he can have his pint.”
Merlin had never felt so much like a kiddie as right then. “I think I'll stick to the Coke.”
The waiter said, “My colleague will get your food orders in a moment.”
When the waiter was gone, Tristan patted down Merlin's hand and chuckled. “I don't know how many times I tried having alcoholic drinks when I hadn't hit eighteen yet. Which wasn't so long ago, either. Though that was in pubs for the most part.”
“I bet this didn't happen to you, though,” said Merlin. “Not being served and all even when you should be. I hope he didn't think I was fifteen.”
Tristan winked. “Unlike Arthur,” he looked his way and raised his hands as if to point out he wasn't taking the mickey, “I was a bit on the reedy side, too. So what just happened to you, happened to me, too. Many more times than I can count.”
Arthur leant closer, “Yeah, how many?”
Merlin didn't hear the answer because he was a little bit busy developing a crush on Tristan.
When he'd recovered enough from the initial flush spurred by this knowledge, he caught Arthur's eyes and smiled. Arthur gave him the thumbs up, his lips nudging upwards and twitching as though he was trying to stay serious but couldn't.
“I know,” mouthed Merlin, dreaming of how this evening would end. Maybe Tristan'd kiss him.
As a prospect, it was a little scary and a lot exciting. Mostly, his blood started pounding in his ears really loudly, and his stomach flipping and turning as if it was undergoing PE training.
In short, he was both looking forward to being alone with Tristan so he could get a snog and dreading that he'd make a fool of himself the moment it happened.
He needn't have worried. When he turned towards Tristan, Tristan was making googly eyes at the new waitress. And all right she had blue doe eyes, plaited blond hair that must have reached to her waist when loose, and a very sweet smile.
“I'm Isolde,” she said. “And I'll be your waitress tonight.”
“That's fantastic,” said Tristan, not taking his eyes of Isolde. “I'm Tristan.”
Isolde dimpled at Tristan. Tristan gave her his hand to shake.
She fussed with her notepad, put it down, and held Tristan's hand in hers.
Merlin glumly realised that he didn't stand a chance. A little inkling that was confirmed over the course of the evening by the ramped up smiles Tristan threw at Isolde, his attempts to strike up a conversation with her even though she had other tables to attend, and by his inviting her to sit at their table during her pause.
“The table's for four.”
“But you've a moment to spare, haven't you?”
Tristan stole a free chair from the next table, asking its occupants whether they were okay with his act of rapine.
Showing Merlin no solidarity they said, “Sure, go ahead, we're only three here.”
After that Tristan and Isolde plunged deep in conversation, heads together.
Merlin turned the other way, propped an elbow on the table and started shredding up the label of his bottle of coke. And to hell with those who said it was a sign of sexual frustration. Because it totally was.
At the other end of the table Sophia was all over Arthur; Tristan and Isolde were practically cooing at each other and Merlin wanted nothing better than to be alone so he could sniff and indulge in a spot of self-pity.
So, all right, he couldn't exactly dump his friends here, because again, he'd got a lift from someone, namely Arthur, but nothing was to say he couldn't be alone for a little while. He pushed the chair away from the table, legs screeching on the faux marble tiles, and said, “I need the loo.”
Before anybody could say something, he'd vaulted over the chair. He was congratulating himself about the smoothness and slickness of the manoeuvre when he ran smack into a waiter who thus lost his tray, scattering food all over the floor.
Abjectly cowed, Merlin mumbled, “Sorry,” went to his knees, mopped some of the food up while he was being glared at by the waiter he'd overrun, gave up when the latter told him, “Christ, let go,” and repaired to the toilets.
One look into the mirror told him that he'd gone red all over, though at this point it didn't much matter. The whole date couldn't have gone worse anyway. He sniffed, opened the water tap, and splashed water on his face. Not feeling cool enough he bent and put his head under the tap.
Which was when he was surprised by Arthur saying, “Merlin, what the hell? Are you trying to drown yourself?”
Merlin hadn't been counting on Arthur popping up. At all. So he banged his head against the tap. “Ow,” he yelled.
Arthur stalked over, grabbed him by the collar and extracted him from under the tap. “Merlin!” he said. “What the hell?”
Merlin massaged his head, little waves of pain shooting down from his skull. “It hurts.”
Arthur took Merlin's face in his and said, “Duck.” Merlin lowered his head and Arthur inspected and probed his bump with his fingers. “Of course it does,” he said. “You nearly brained yourself, you idiot.”
Merlin swatted Arthur's hands away. “Well, thank you, doctor. I meant the whole evening. Not the bump.” Though the latter did pulse and throb.
“Oh,” said Arthur, whose hands now rested on Merlin's shoulders. “I thought... Look, he's just a twat. I mean he dumped you for the waitress. A pretty waitress, okay, but that's just—”
“He's not a twat, Arthur.” Merlin stepped away from Arthur, leaning against the line of basins. He'd spilled some water so the back of his jacket got a bit wet and probably a bit soapy too. The soap in the dispenser was a rather disturbing shade of pale pink Merlin preferred not to think about. “The definition of twat isn't people who don't find Merlin attractive, you know.”
Arthur scuffed the toe of his trainer along the tile's edge, removing some grout. “It should be.”
Merlin chuckled and wiped at his nose with the back of his hand. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“He still hurt you,” said Arthur, jaw working. “That's not right.”
Merlin sniffled. “It was just a blow to my ego. And....”
“It wasn't just that,” said Arthur, looking up this time. “You were really into him. I noticed.”
“Look,” said Merlin, passing a hand through his hair and recollecting only too late that he'd bumped his head into the tap. “Liking a gorgeous girl better isn't a crime.”
“No, but,” Arthur tried. “He went out with you.”
Merlin slumped down, sitting with his back against the basin counter. “And he should have... what? Lost a brilliant opportunity to get to know this girl he's obviously mad about? I mean, have you seen the way he was looking at her?”
Arthur sat himself down next to Merlin, knees drawn up. “I'm sorry, Merlin.”
Merlin lifted his shoulders to up to his ears and tried to go for a grin. “I do want that for myself, you know. I do want a boyfriend. But it's not going to be him. Even if it might have worked in a parallel universe or something.”
“Oh,” said Arthur, knocking his shoulder with Merlin’s. “You're going to go all geeky on me.” He made his eyes go round, so round Merlin couldn't help but laugh. “Should I call the Doctor?” He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Doctor, we need you to get into a dimension where Tristan is shagging Merlin all the time.”
Which was of course the moment another patron chose to frequent the loos. As the man shut himself into a stall, Arthur and Merlin looked wide-eyed at each other, miming zipping their lips. They did manage to stay silent between a giggle or two until the man was gone (without washing his hands).
At which point they both burst out laughing until their sides were shaking.
They recovered only after multiple bouts, which began as soon as the preceding one had subsided. Merlin was sure they weren't laughing about Arthur's less than 'stellar' joke. They were just taking their cue off each other, funny expressions setting them off again and again. It was a hair trigger response, really. At last, when Merlin had tears in his eyes and his ribs ached from laughter, Arthur stood up and reached a hand out to him.
Merlin tipped his head back and asked, “Mind if we stay in here a little longer?”
Arthur crouched back down. “No, not at all.”
They stayed hidden in the loo for the best part of an hour.
When they came back Tristan was playing with the food on his plate as he ogled Isolde, who'd had to go back to work, and Sophia had apparently drunk two bottles of wine and Arthur's pint.
“Mixing drinks is never good,” said Merlin worriedly.
The truth of that statement was confirmed when Sophia saw them. An odd light went on in her eyes, she grabbed a glass, jumped on the table while holding it up, tinkled a spoon against its side and shouted, “Ladies and Gentleman, I have a public service announcement.”
She was slurring her words but her message had made every single patron in the restaurant look up and Tristan hiss, “For Christ's sake, Soph, get down!”
Sophia wasn't listening to his injunction though, for she continued, and quite histrionically too. “Arthur Pendragon is the biggest twat alive.”
Arthur ducked his head and went puce. Merlin's jaw just fell open.
“If you don't know who I'm talking about,” she yelled, “that's him in the back.” The spoon was pointed right in Arthur's direction.
Every head in whipped towards Arthur. Most people shot decidedly unfriendly glares at Arthur.
“Arthur,” her pronunciation was still very garbled, “is not only a dick and a fuckwit. No, there's worse.”
Sophia's audience seemed by now rapt; not a fly stirred.
Arthur buried his neck in his shoulders.
“Arthur,” she pointed an accusing finger at him. “Couldn't even get it up the day his best friend...” She helpfully pointed at Merlin, even as she laced her words with mockery. “Run away from home because he wanted to find his daddy. I mean who does that? What impotent—”
Tristan had jumped into action, getting Sophia back down and putting a hand over her mouth. “All, right. Show's over.”
A hundred heads moved simultaneously. Most stared into their dishes. The din of cutlery rose again.
Merlin had been decidedly mistaken when he'd thought the worst day of his sixth form career was the day Cenred had spurned him. Oh, no. This was.
“Had I but such an interpreter to speak my soul” Arthur read when he was struck by an idea he considered rather brilliant.
So, all right, the double date had been inglorious and Arthur called himself lucky Sophia hadn't continued her drunken ramblings on Facebook, having been stopped by Arthur's friends.
Her Arthur is a twat tweet had been replied to by Elena’s, ‘Arthur is as sweet as a puppy' tweet which was embarrassing but endearing. (He'd have a word with Elena about suitable similes to be used in connection with his name but still, he appreciated the motivation behind the gesture.) Elena's tweet had been retweeted ad infinitum, after which Sophia had stopped.
No amount of embarrassment, though, public or otherwise, would stop him from helping Merlin.
Smiling at the ceiling, Arthur rolled onto his side, slipped his copy of Cyrano de Bergeracunder the pillow, and turned out the light.
Actuating his plan would have to wait till the morning though since he needed to be on school premises to make it effective. Arthur fell asleep feeling fully optimistic and a tad proud of himself.
The next morning, Arthur woke earlier than usual and thundered down the stairs, feet light and mood lighter. He had just grabbed himself a cuppa and a snack, ruled notepad and black marker on the counter in front of him, when Morgana came down, hair flowing, satin nightgown looking like a film's costume department prop. “When is your gap year over again?”
Morgana smirked. “It's just begun, get used to it.”
“I thought people did vocational things during their gap years?” said Arthur, munching cereal with his mouth open because that disgusted Morgana. “Like going to South America to help preserve the rain forest or something.” He stuck his tongue out and started writing on his notepad in big clear letters.
“You're saying that because you want to pack me off to Brazil.” Morgana sneaked closer and her eyes sharpened. “What are you writing?”
“Nothing,” he said, digging the point of his marker in to make sure the full stop was visible. Grammatical clarity was always impressive. “Just something for school,” he added absently.
Morgana snatched his pad away from him and read aloud, “Fit, male, running team star seeks nice personable male to hang out with/date. Wit and literacy a must. Amoral twats needn't apply. Write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org” Morgana started laughing, like the witch that she was. “Oh, Arthur, I know you haven't been dating since Sophia, but this call for help is verging on the pathetic.”
Arthur snatched his notepad back. “Shut your mush, Morgana. It's not for me because I have a flock of admirers.” He stuck his chest out a little. “It's for Merlin.”
“Yes,” said Morgana, “the good old ‘it's for my friend’ excuse.”
She stole a piece of cornflake from his bowl.
“It is, really,” Arthur protested. “It's for Merlin and part of the same amazing plan I've had going since I paid you for your little comedy act.”
Morgana's eyes sharpened. They looked like a cat's and he was waiting for her to stick her claws out. “I think I may believe you.”
Arthur lifted his tea mug. “Cheers.” He downed some of his tea.
“You know what they say about vicarious matchmaking?” said Morgana, flicking up an eyebrow.
“No,” said Arthur, “and I don't care about psychobabble.” He took a more measured sip of his tea to show her he could rise above her petty taunting.
“So you don't want to know about your misplaced sex drive?”
Arthur's tea went down the wrong pipe. He went red, spluttered, and dabbed at his face with a paper towel. “I have no idea what you're talking about.” He hopped off his counter stool. “And I'm not talking sex with my sister.”
“As you wish, dear,” she said and winked. “You should be more open to discussion though. You're old enough to know that sex is a natural—”
Arthur stopped up his ears. “Not hearing you.”
Morgana was still talking.
“Still not hearing you!”
She jerked his arm down. “You'd better listen because I was saying you were late for school.”
Arthur cast a look at the clock. “Shite,” he said, grabbing his school bag, dashing out of the house, and climbing onto his bicycle. “Shite.”
Arthur made it to school in the nick of time and that only because he had learnt a thing or two while on the school track team. As a consequence, his plan of action was subjected to some slight alterations, involving his actually affixing the message to the announcement board during his free period instead of first thing in the morning.
He pinned it next to a 'seeking bass player ad' and underneath a 'selling old textbook in pristine condition' note that sported Percy's phone number at the bottom.
Content with the placement, he pushed his hands in his pocket and started whistling.
Over the next few hours he checked his mobile as much as he could. Which involved quite a few trips to the loos.
Finally, during lunch break — spent eating Merlin's mum’s fish pie — the mail icon on Arthur's mobile shone red, telling him he'd just been emailed. “What's up?” asked Merlin. “Sophia giving you grief?”
“No,” said Arthur absently, “just a mail from a mate.”
“Oh,” said Merlin, poking at the pie's crust with his fork. “I’ll let you read it in peace then.”
Arthur did. The message said. “Hello, I'm writing to you in response to the personal ad you left on the school board.” Arthur sniggered. This person was a little formal. “I meant to say that I'd be eager to meet and go out on a date with you. Although I can't promise wit or looks, I think we could get along. If you're on board, let me know.
PS: I think I may know you and I admire your sports records.
Arthur grinned. This was really shaping up nicely. “Merlin,” he asked. “What are you doing tomorrow after school?”
“Er,” said Merlin, putting his fork down. “Nothing much. I thought I'd pop up at Uncle Gaius' for a mock Oxford interview.”
“So I suppose you wouldn't want to hang out at the shopping centre and help me choose a new pair of earphones, would you?”
He made puppy eyes at Merlin. At the ripe age of three he'd learnt that they were a sure fire way to get his baby sitter to do whatever he wanted, be it giving him an extra dollop of ice cream, letting him go to sleep later than he was meant to or taking him on a walk to the park that wasn't sanctioned by his father. They didn't work on anybody much anymore except for Merlin.
“Oh,” said Merlin. “Okay, all right.”
“Great.” Arthur beamed at him and Merlin looked back at him as though he suspected Arthur wasn't all there. “Is six all right?”
“Yeah. I suppose you'd still get plenty of time to browse.”
Arthur tamped down on a smile that might have got a bit too large, considering he was hiding a key fact or two.
He played it casual by dipping his head and busying himself tapping an answer to the mail he'd just got. “Meet me at the shopping centre tomorrow at six. @ HMV. I'll be wearing the school uniform. He doubted he could supply Merlin with a good reason to change if he omitted the date part.
“Arthur?” asked Merlin. “Are you sure you're all right? You haven't got food poisoning, have you?”
“No,” Arthur said, wondering who L was and whether he'd be good for Merlin. He'd have to make sure L wasn't a thug. Or someone that wouldn't do for Merlin. He supposed this meant he'd have to stick around for longer than he was wanted. Well, he wouldn't be a good friend if he left Merlin alone on this and he was okay with being called a meddler by the other party for as long as he could be assured Merlin would be okay. “I'm fine.”
“Because you're sort of leering.”
“Leering? Me?” He waved his hand in denial. “Nah.”
The next day was a rainy one and Arthur blessed his accidental foresight in organising a shopping centre date.
Having preserved a certain degree of dryness and comfort, he and Merlin were standing in front of the local HMV branch when a tall, strawberry blond guy who was attempting to grow some facial scruff, loped up towards them. Merlin tugged on his jacket's sleeve. “Er, Arthur, I think that guy just waved at you.”
The moment of truth had arrived and Arthur's confession died on his lips at the look of sheer confusion on Merlin's face. He waved at L, having decided he'd inform Merlin of the date-y nature of their outing later. When he felt easier about this guy and after Arthur had reviewed him for suitability.
L had come up to them in the meanwhile. He extended a hand towards Arthur and Arthur shook it. “I'm Leon. Leon Noble. Maybe you know me. I directed the school play last year. Well, under Mr Cox.”
Arthur cast his eyes around for inspiration, a shred or recollection. He didn't remember this guy at all. Maybe because last year he'd been busy snogging Elena in the back seats. It had been the last day before she moved to Essex. He did the only thing he could do. Shake back as forcefully as Leon and say: “I'm—”
“Arthur Pendragon, I know,” said Leon warmly, still not letting go of Arthur's hand. Uh, perhaps this Leon was a bit clingy for Merlin. “I told you, I'm a bit of a fan of the track team.”
Ha, finally they were on the right ‘track’. “Then,” said Arthur, re-appropriating his hand. “You should know Merlin very well indeed.”
As Merlin shifted his weight from foot to foot, Leon rubbed at his scalp. “Uhm, yeah, he joined last year.”
“Yeah,” said Merlin. “I, erm, did?”
“Perfect,” said Arthur, rubbing his hands together.
Even though Leon's conversation wasn't the most sparkling, Arthur reckoned he hadn't involved Merlin with a psycho serial killer. “Why don't you two discuss Merlin's times and prospects down at the Haagen-Dazs café over there?” Arthur pointed and sidled closer to Leon to whisper, “Merlin likes mint chip ice-cream best.”
Helpful tip delivered, he ducked into HMV, ignoring Leon and Merlin's chorus of, “Arthur.”
Yeah, well, two was company....
Arthur stayed inside for as long as he could, browsing CDs and DVDs, the poster section, and the book area, and ended up buying himself earphones just for the hell of it. He started from scratch when he found that he'd only been inside twenty minutes. He spent another twenty sniffing around the sheet music section. (Even though he couldn't play any instrument whatsoever.)
That was when he realised he needed some diversification. If he had to give Merlin and Leon some privacy he'd better find himself something to do. He texted Elyan.
what u up to?
Helping dad out building shed.
Arthur tried Lancelot.
Lancelot's answer was: @shelter. Saved litter of puppies. washing & feeding them now.
Okay, maybe Arthur could wander back up to Merlin to see how the date had panned out.
When Arthur ambled up to Merlin and Leon's table two things happened: Leon shot up and scarpered towards the escalators and Merlin pulled him down by his school tie. “Arthur, what the hell is this?” He tossed his hand about.
From this close he could see how red the tip of Merlin's nose was. Was that embarrassment? A little guilty feeling made itself heard. “Oh, well, I might have something to do with this. See, I—”
He would have explained, honest, but Leon popped back, clutching a bunch of red roses. Well, perhaps Arthur hadn't been so mistaken about Leon's intentions after all. Even if the gesture was a little old fashioned and Merlin was allergic to pollen, it was the thought that counted.
Leon stuck his hand out and thrust the bunch of roses at Arthur. “I know that maybe you rethought our date when you saw me. I know first impressions count. But give me another chance.”
Merlin shook his head in disbelief and buried his head in his arms, shoulders shaking. He was laughing, the bastard.
“Leon,” said Arthur, ducking the flowers, “there's been a little mistake.”
Leon's eyebrows knit together. “What mistake?”
“The personal I stuck to the board?”
Merlin's head shot up from the cradle of his arms. “What personal?”
Arthur bowed his head and scuffed his toes. “The personal ad I stuck to the bulletin board at school.”
“So you did what?” asked Merlin, brow all wrinkly. “Write a personal in my name?”
“Yeah,” said Arthur. “I had to make it up to you for Tristan.”
“But you wrote,” said Leon, taking out a piece of paper Arthur recognised as his notepad sheet, “star of the running team. That had to be you.”
“No?” said Arthur sheepishly, seeing where this had gone awry. “Merlin's our star sprinter.”
“But it had to be you,” said Leon, sounding utterly confused. “You said to write to email@example.com. Artpen? Arthur Pendragon? It was obvious. I mean, I get it. You don't like me and are edging out. But you can come out and say so. You wrote the personal, didn't like me, and bailed.”
Arthur held both his hands up, eyes filling with horror at how his scheme had been misconstrued. “No! Look, I swear, I double blind-sided you both. I thought Merlin would be more likely to go on a blind date if he didn't know it was one. And I thought you liked the personal and were on board. How could I have known you were expecting me and not him?”
“I—” Leon's shoulders slumped. “Of course.”
Merlin glowered at Arthur, though he had to have guessed before Leon.
“But all's not lost.” Arthur could still make everyone happy. “Now that you know you can continue with your date. There's a nice film at the Vue and—”
Merlin threw a praline at him.
Leon said, “No offence to Merlin; he is lovely. But, honestly, I just thought that Arthur Pendragon had finally seen me. But... Well, I'll be off now.”
“Wait,” said Arthur, mostly to Leon's retreating back. “I'm sorry! I really, really am.”
But Leon waved without turning, binned the flowers, and disappeared into a lift.
For his part, Merlin stuck his lower lip out and folded his arms across his chest. “You went behind my back.”
Arthur flopped down in the chair next to him and propped his head on his hand. “I'm sorry,” he mumbled. “I did because I know how down and low you got over Tristan and I was reading Cyrano...”
Merlin's lips twitched and then broke into a smile. “Cyrano. You painted yourself in the role of my... what? Love mediator?”
“It might have worked.”
“Did you read the play to the end?”
“Well, no,” Arthur admitted, pressing his heels against the legs of his chair. “How does it end?”
“Cyrano dies, though Roxane finds out it was him all along. So basically you should be dead and Leon should sigh melodramatically and kiss you and get your sweet love.”
“Idiot,” said Arthur.
“I haven't forgiven you yet.”
“I wanted to help.”
“Well,” said Merlin, threatening him with a tea spoon. “Now you should set Leon up with someone great, if only to apologise.”
“I want to help you,” said Arthur, casting down his eyes. “Not Leon. You're my friend.”
“The problem with you is that you're a prat who does nice things.”
Arthur brightened up. “So I'm forgiven?”
“I know you meant well.”
Arthur grinned. “I am forgiven.” He rested a hand on his heart as if he thought he a was a Thespian on stage. Maybe the actor playing Cyrano. Then Arthur’s stomach growled and broke the mood. “Are you eating that?” He pointed at the ice cream tub. “I like mint chip, too.”
Merlin pushed his tub towards Arthur. “We'll have to ask for an extra spoon. Leon slobbered over his and I over mine.”
“That yours?” asked Arthur, pointing at the one next to Merlin's napkin.
Arthur scooped it up, raked up some ice cream and popped Merlin's spoon into his mouth.
“That's slightly gross.”
“Not afraid of your slobber.” He ate the whole tubful.
Mithian walked into his room, school bag hanging behind her back.
“Cyrano de Bergerac?” said Mithian, putting down her bag and sitting on the shapeless pouf only she ever used. “You're not doing A-level French, Arthur.”
Arthur closed the book with a snap and buried it under the pillow. “I was reading it for a lark.”
“A lark?” Mithian asked, rooting in the bag at her feet to extract their economy textbook from its depths. “And why French lit all of a sudden? Is it for a girl? I remember you trying to get into poetry when I told you I liked it. Back when we dated.”
“No,” said Arthur, conscience clear on that score at least. “It's not to impress anyone. I wanted to check the ending out for myself.”
Mithian shrugged. “Okay,” she said brightly, tapping her fingers on her textbook's cover. “There was something I meant to tell you before we started revising...There's someone I rather fancy.”
“Are you asking me if I'm okay with that?” asked Arthur, leaning over on his knees. “Because I'm not a caveman. And you know I want all the best for you.”
Mithian smiled sweetly at him; she looked lovely when she smiled. “I know that,” she said, almost cooing at him, which fact was quite embarrassing. “It's just that I need your help.”
Oh no. He had his hands quite full with Merlin. “I, er—”
“Don't worry,” Mithian promised. “It won't be excruciating.”
Arthur hummed. “So what are you asking me for?”
“You know Lancelot du Lac?”
“Of course I know who bloody Lance is. I'm on the track team with him, remember?”
“Yes, of course,” said Mithian. “I was just being silly. Anyway, as it happens I find him hot.”
Arthur spluttered. “Lance?”
“Yes, Arthur,” said Mithian serenely. “Your mate is hot.”
“Oh.” He furrowed his brow. “So what has that to do with me?”
“I need your help to impress him.”
“Oh, no, no, no, no.” Arthur flailed his hands about to underline his refusal. “You're gorgeous. You aren't shy. You don't need my help at all.”
“But I do,” she said both sweetly and reasonably. “I think Lancelot looks at morals first. At a girl's soul.” She sighed; the little curve her mouth was describing told Arthur she knew how she sounded. “And I may not be shy but I'm not so confident that I can reach those standards.”
“Then Lancelot is a moron,” Arthur shot back.
“Why, thank you.” Mithian took a bow with the upper part of her body. Arthur might have ogled her cleavage just for a second or two. For old times' sake. “But I still want to show Lancelot that I care about him and his projects.”
“So?” asked Arthur, still not seeing how he came into the picture. “I'm not sure I know what I've got to do with that.”
Mithian folded the top pages of her textbook backwards as if she was ear-marking them. “I was talking to him the day before and he told me that he's worried about keeping his volunteer job.”
Remembering what Elyan and Lancelot had been talking about the day Arthur had first learnt of Merlin's Cenred problem, Arthur said, “The shelter?”
“Yes. The shelter. Apparently it's struggling to keep its doors open. And even though a good part of the workers are volunteers, that's not true of all the personnel. Lance was told that if things continued as they are, they would close down in about two months.”
Arthur made an appropriately sad face.
“So, of course, I donated money.”
“But that wasn't enough.” She smoothed her ear-marks back with some difficulty, pages still curling backwards at the top. “So I wondered what I could do to raise some more money. To cut a long story short, I approached our econ teacher.”
Arthur hooted. “You went to Mrs Tregore and told her about your love woes. This is hilarious, Mithian.”
“Shut up,” she said rather benignly, considering she'd reddened a little. “I just told her I wanted to raise some money for the shelter. She said that donations were all right but they were a play on people's consciences and that most people prefer a fat wallet to a spotless conscience.”
“I didn't think she'd be as cynical as all that,” Arthur commented. “She would get along well with my dad.”
Mithian smiled. “She's divorced, didn't you know?”
“Don't you dare introduce them. I don't want my econ teacher to become my step mother.” He shuddered.
Mithian waved that off. “Anyway she told me I'd better organise an arts and craft type of event where I could sell things. People could both donate and get something in return for their efforts.”
Arthur cocked an eyebrow. “And what would you be crafting?”
Mithian stuck her neck out proudly. “Clothes. Well, I'm not that good at sewing, but I'm good at designing and I like fashion. Gwen is brilliant at actually putting clothes together.” She tugged on her frilly top. “This is actually something she made.”
Arthur had long ago decided that he was above fashion fads, so he just grunted.
“So we'll be selling clothes,” she said. “I've already been staying up all night to design a few pieces.”
“All that for Lancelot?”
“No,” said Mithian, “I actually had fun doing it. Anyway, as you well know, clothes don't just sell themselves. Not when people can go to the high street or click on a website and get pretty clothes at relatively cheap prices.”
“Yeah,” Arthur agreed, thinking of the kind of market she would be setting herself up against. “So?”
“So I had this idea.” Mithian put her book away and leant forwards. “We should do a fashion show. So that people can see how well the clothes fit and how good you look in them.”
Arthur had to hold his sides for laughing. “And who'll model them? As far as I know we don't have Kate Moss in our ranks at Avalon.”
Mithian twisted up an eyebrow. And damn, for someone so lovely she looked pretty shifty there. “Oh, no, no way, not me.”
“Oh, please,” said Mithian, “I'm doing it, Gwen's doing it and I rope— I convinced Percy, Percy Sage from year twelve to do it, too. Elyan's building the runway. And I also... Well, I got a real male model booked.”
“With whose money?” Arthur screeched.
“No one's!” said Mithian gleefully. She bent to root into her school bag and came up holding a ring binder. “See, he's been modelling since he was two.”
Arthur snorted through his nose.
Mithian proceeded undaunted. “Then he left school after his GCSE, and became known as a bad boy. Now he's eighteen and his agent wants him to go for a different image.”
Arthur couldn't believe his ears. “And how the hell did you manage to score him?” His eyes crossed when he realised how that might have sounded. “I mean, a real model.”
Mithian scooted over to sit next to him on the bed. “My dad's a good friend of his agent's.”
“See,” she added, opening her binder. “This is him.” Mithian had a photo clipped to the first page of her binder. It represented a dark haired toddler standing in nappies with his foot balanced on a football. Arthur couldn't help but chortle loudly. “Is it?”
Mithian elbowed him. “I told you he's been doing that for ages. His mum and dad thought he was a cute kid and had him model. Then this photo came out and boom. Everyone wanted to work with him.” She batted her eyelashes at him in the way old stars from silent films did. “And now I want you to do the same.”
“No.” He sealed his lips and lifted his chin. “No.”
“Please?” she hooked an arm around his and hung on to him. “I've got two boys and a pro. I just need one more man and I'm okay.”
“Wait.” One of his eyebrows shot up as he thought of the general trend of the conversation. “People think models are hot, don't they?”
“Some people do, sure,” Mithian answered. “There's lots of shows about models and becoming models. People buy magazines to see photo-shoots.” She trailed off. “I'd say they're fairly popular?”
“So if someone modelled alongside a pro on your charity fashion show folks at school would think them...?”
“They'd get some popularity out of it, maybe.” Mithian looked confused now, a big line appearing on her forehead. “Arthur, you're not thinking of accepting because you think you're not liked, are you? Because of Sophia's tweets?” She rubbed his arm soothingly. “Because you know we all love you.”
“Thank you,” said Arthur, clearing his throat and disentangling himself. “I was thinking of Merlin though.”
“Yeah. Anything against that?”
Mithian flashed him a smile and kissed his cheek. “I love how defensive of Merlin you are. But no I didn't mean to say he wasn't good enough for us. Actually, he's lovely. It's just that he's somewhat shy unless he's with you and I never honestly thought I could persuade him.”
Springing up to get the phone, Arthur said, “I think I can.” He dialled Merlin's number and it rang for a while until Merlin's mum picked up. Arthur put on his polite tone and asked if he could speak with Merlin. Merlin was apparently in the garage fixing his bike's chain but Hunith would get him for Arthur in a jiffy. Arthur waited a while, hearing background noises as he did, until at last Merlin answered, sounding very perky though winded.
Receiver between his chin and shoulder, Arthur stared at Mithian, who mimed the words: 'conversation opener first.’
Arthur listened to her because she was supposed to be wise. “Hello, Merlin, I was wondering how your day went today?”
“Arthur, are you okay? Did you drink or eat anything odd?” Merlin asked.
Mithian waved him no, flailing her arms about. “More natural!”
So Arthur face planted on his bed and abandoned all strategies, opting for summing up Mithian's story and asking Merlin if he wanted to do it.
“No,” Merlin deadpanned. ”I’m not modelling.”
Mithian dived to her knees by the bed, lifted her head, and stage whispered, “Tell him that he'll model a jeans and shirt outfit and an evening jacket combo.”
Arthur rounded his eyes at her. “I don't think that's going to go down well somehow.”
“I heard that,” said Merlin.
Mithian put her mouth to the receiver, “Please,” she mewled. “It'd make me so happy.”
“Love you but no,” said Merlin. “I mean, I normally trip over my feet without any help. Think what a runway would do to me.”
“It's for charity,” Arthur piped up, “you'd be helping and you wouldn't be the only guy doing it. Percy and another bloke are too.”
“Percy Sage?” asked Merlin from the other end of the line. “He never trips.”
Arthur used the last weapon in his arsenal. “Do it for the puppies!”
Merlin chuckled and the sound was very pleasant to hear even if it was garbled because of the poor connection. “The puppies?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, using his epic, histrionic tone. “All those little puppies and kittens that won't have a home and will die if the shelter closes. Alone in the cold, now winter's coming. Think of their little paws and wet muzzles....”
“And whiskers,” added Mithian, loud enough so Merlin could hear even if she'd backed a little away. “Think of the whiskers.”
“You know I know why you're doing this, Arthur.” Arthur could picture Merlin's expression right now, lifted brow and dimpling cheeks, and smiled himself because, based on the tone, he knew he'd won.
“Yeah, I know you're smart, Merlin.”
“There's nothing like buttering someone up, eh, Arthur?” Arthur heard a little crackling sound. “But okay, I'll do it.”
“I knew you would. You're brilliant!”
Mithian gave him the thumbs up.
Arthur heard Mrs Emrys in the background asking Merlin for help with the 'windows downstairs' and Merlin's voice yelling, “Coming, mum,” before Merlin's voice sounded closer again, “I've got to go now, but, remember, you're helping me with this.”
Merlin hung up. Arthur wondered what kind of help Merlin would require but then he simply basked in the knowledge of having succeeded.
Merlin would be a model for a day.
Merlin could safely not dwell on having been coerced into modelling for a whole week and a half, during which period he followed his normal time table and was allowed to forget about Arthur's dramatic failures at matchmaking.
(Although he dropped his gaze each time he accidentally crossed paths with poor Leon.)
He trained twice a week, prepared for his BMAT and Oxford interview with Uncle Gaius, and even managed to take in a film. Admittedly a zombie one Arthur dragged him to, but one that ended up being fun because they kept mocking each gory scene till they had other audience members laughing.
But when the day dawned for the first fitting, Merlin could no longer pretend it wasn't happening. So he did the only thing he thought he could do to be saved from the situation. He slouched against the fridge and whined, “Mum, I'll be laughed at.”
His mum smiled gently, fixed his school tie for him (though she didn't tell him to tuck his shirt tails in because she knew it was a lost battle), and said, “I think it's a very good idea, Merlin. You need to stop being afraid of yourself.”
“I'll trip!” Merlin said, “I'll be a laughing stock.”
“And even if you did, what's the worst that could happen?”
“I'll be a laughing stock.”
“You should show them that you're not afraid of what they think.”
“They're not going to care,” said Merlin, clearing away from the fridge to let his mum get the milk.
“Success is not being perfect, Merlin,” she said. “It’s knowing how to laugh at yourself while doing your best.”
Merlin gave her a little smile. He really wanted to be the man his mum thought he could be. He liked that version of himself. “I—”
“Besides I talked to your friend Lancelot and his cause his very worthy.”
Merlin buried his head in his hands. “Oh, no! You talked to my mate. Mum, there's a holy divide between friends and parents.”
His mum smiled. “I'll try to remember that.” With those words on her lips she set out for work.
And so it was that, bolstered by his mum's words and by dreams of pulling it off without actually falling off the catwalk, Merlin made it to the fitting, finding Gwen armed with a measuring tape and bustling about the room that drama students used for rehearsals.
The room was small and therefore crowded by its five occupants. Mithian was standing in a corner reading a bunch of stapled papers. Gwen was busy measuring Percy's inseam and smiling up at him in a way Merlin thought suggested some sort of romantic interest springing up there. A girl Merlin didn't know was holding a skirt up against her hips, looking in the mirror. “This is not midi. This is a random in between length.”
And then there was a bloke, hair to his shoulders, the bit of scruff he was sporting – well tended scruff – reminding Merlin of Cenred. Except this bloke was in more of a state of undress than Merlin had ever seen Cenred in, for he was wearing nothing but his underpants, a pair of blue briefs that left nothing to the imagination. And the man also had washboard abs, which never hurt.
Merlin would blithely have admitted to being shallow: he was glad he'd taken up this job if only for the opportunity it gave him to ogle this guy.
Gwen, now finished with Percy had moved on to Merlin, handing him a shirt that had some kind of leather inserts at the elbows and a pair of dark wash jeans.
Merlin, meanwhile, wasn't drooling at the hot man he didn't know, honestly.
Mithian looked up from her reading and crossed over to him, having to bypass the girl who'd objected to the length of her skirt. “Oh, hello, Merlin,” she said, giving him a smile and a swift peck on the cheek. “You're perfectly on time.”
Which Merlin read as, 'I wasn't sure you'd come.”
“My mum approved very much.”
“I'm so glad she did,” Mithian said, pivoting towards Gwen. “Gwen, where are the rest of the clothes for Merlin?”
At that point, both Gwen and the unknown sexy bloke with the scruff turned towards him and Mithian. “Check on top of the stand,” said Gwen in the tone of someone who wasn't too sure. “If they aren't there, then I put them on top of the basket.” She pointed at a traditional, wooden sewing basket that was resting on the floor next to a fake potted plant.
It was one of those quaint things Merlin had seen in Uncle Gaius' attic. It had a number of compartments, drawers and little trays, one of which was folded out. One half of the lid was propped open, while skeins of fabric were neatly pinned to the other.
Peeking inside it by standing on his toes, Merlin could see all sorts of odds and ends like buttons, needles, safety pins, thimbles, scissors and other little objects he couldn't put a name to. It seemed Gwen had come prepared.
(So basically he was the only one who'd be abysmal at this.)
He had no time to fret over that, though, because the sexy bloke with the scruff hobbled over to him, having slid only one leg in his jeans, the other not so much. He reached a hand out and clasped his, shaking it vigorously. As he did, his jeans slid off again. He looked down, grinned saucily, stepped out of his jeans entirely and continued with his shaking as though his public near nudity was a condition he found himself in every day. “I'm Gwaine,” he said.
Merlin felt his palm go sweaty in Gwaine's grip. “I'm Merlin. I'm—”
“Our final act,” said Mithian. “I thought he'd be very handsome in an evening jacket.” She cocked her head at Merlin. “Gwaine is a pro model.”
Merlin's ears went a bit red, too, another mutinying part of his anatomy, or so it would seem. “I, er, uhm, don't really buy that many magazines so I wouldn't know. But I'm sure you're brilliant. While I—” he patted his own chest, “am going to be a disaster.”
Gwaine sidled closer, a brush of naked skin against his arm, a whiff of after-shave. “It's all about swagger. If you swagger about people will think you're cool. Even if you're not. I swear it works. They're still booking yours truly.”
Merlin laughed. “I'll bear that in mind.”
“I could give you swagger lessons.”
“Something tells me that I'd fail all the same. There are some things you can't fake.”
Gwaine folded his arms across his chest, pecs standing out. “Like attraction.”
Merlin was quick to fix his eyes on something else, the something else being the clotheshorse someone had dragged in there. He felt he would find it in himself not to go tomato red all over if he didn't hold Gwaine's gaze.
Mithian seemed to sense his embarrassment for she saved him from having to come up with a witty reply. “Here, Merlin.” She passed him a bunch of clothes. “Try these on. Gwen can pinch them, hem the trousers by a few inches, and move the buttons around, so the whole looks fitted.”
“Okay,” said Merlin sorting out the clothes he'd been given. “All right, so basically I should...”
“Just put them on as you would at a shop,” said Mithian, “Gwen will sort you out when you're done.”
Merlin had sorted out the pieces that went with the two outfits. “Uhm, where do I change?”
“We don't have screens,” said Mithian.
“There's a lord,” said Gwaine, raking his eyes over Merlin from head to toe. “Praise be.”
“But you can change in the toilets if that's a problem and come back when you're done,” came from Mithian.
Merlin didn't think himself a prude. He wasn't. He showered naked with the track team twice to thrice a week, and loved lounging on a towel at the beach. Basking in the sun was great and he never gave a thought to the fact he was wearing a costume or that his pale torso showed. But Gwaine was basically undressing him with his eyes and that was... titillating to say the least. Especially if a few other factors were considered.
Given that, Merlin didn't much fancy sporting a boner before all and sundry. “Bathroom,” he said, hurrying out of the dressing room so he wouldn't hear Gwaine's comment. He heard the wolf whistle, though, and that was more than a little flattering.
He came back three minutes later wearing the first outfit, the casual one.
Gwen put her hands on her hips and said, “Jeans need hemming. Shirt's fine about the shoulders, I think, but I'd pinch it a bit to make it tighter.”
Merlin tugged on the hem of the shirt. “”But it's about the same size of the shirts I own. Tighter is too tight.”
Mithian and Gwen exchanged a complicit look. Gwaine translated it for him. “They want something that shows off your body.”
Merlin went through with it though he'd have liked to keep the shirt as loose as it was.
Gwen knelt at his feet, took a hold of the jeans hem, tucked the excess fabric inside, and pinned it in place. She did something similar to the shirt grabbing some fabric, folding it over and pinning it at his back. She stabbed him with the pin and started apologising, “Sorry, sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. Is it bleeding?”
Merlin reassured her that it wasn't and went to change into his second outfit. When he came back he underwent the same process, except he felt much more comfy in this outfit, perhaps because it was a closer fit that had a traditional feel about it.
When they were done, Merlin was allowed back into his normal clothes. He was about to wave goodbye to everyone, when Gwaine came over and asked, “Would you like to practice your walk?”
Merlin grinned. “Uh, I just plan to walk normally.”
“You're lovely as you are,” Gwaine said, “but perhaps you could stand a little practicing.”
Mithian winked like she was possessed. Gwen said, “Is Gwaine always that subtle?”
So as not to overhear them, Merlin accepted and watched as Gwaine strutted it down the runway Elyan had painstakingly built using some of the tools in his dad's new shed.
Merlin sat on the edge, foot dangling. When Gwaine stopped, thumb in his pocket, hair billowing forward, Merlin laughed. “I don't think I'll ever cut it. But—” He heaved himself to his feet, wiping his jeans at his back and knees. “...I can try my own version.”
Merlin did, ambling down the catwalk as he did when he walked to uncle Gaius' of a Sunday morning (i.e. when there was no danger he'd be late for school), lifted both his shoulders and smiled as amiably as he could.
Gwaine clapped. “Shit model walk, but endearing.” He placed a hand on his heart. “Very much so.”
He walked up to Merlin so they were standing very close, auditorium seats empty around them. Gwaine leant in so close that Merlin was sure he was about to kiss him, (the hints he thought should be there were all there): Merlin could smell Gwaine's breath, see his pores, and had a special vantage point view of his slightly dilated eyes.
Throat dry, heart skipping a beat, two or thirty-two, Merlin, did.... Nothing. Like the idiot he was. He'd have loved the experience, wanted to say, 'yes, please, that'd be nice', but he just froze, breathing through his nostrils like a horse after a race, eyeing Gwaine's lips as if they were a foreign thing. He probably looked spooked too, eyes gone wide, features frozen.
(Gaius always said that Merlin could look vacant — read dim-witted — when he had his deer-in-headlights look.)
It wasn't a surprise when Gwaine backed away and Merlin was both grateful that Gwaine hadn't pressed it and sad because his chance at being a little special for someone (who wasn't his mum or uncle) was gone. But Gwaine didn't leave him dangling there and didn't disappear in a flash. “How about I take you to the pub?”
“Seventeen,” Merlin admitted and Gwaine said, “I'll buy you a burger, come on. And I'll get two pints so you can have one.”
“Only if we go Dutch.”
“In Italy they say ‘pagare alla romana’, which basically means the same thing.”
“Been to Italy often?”
Gwaine raked a hand through his hair, pushing a lock back. “Milan Fashion Week is good business.”
They did end up going and Merlin wolfed down the burger Gwaine ordered. It was exactly the type he liked, no garlic or onion to foul it, and enough ketchup and mayo to make Merlin happy. So much so he made slurpy noises. Realising this, he looked at Gwaine appalled, because someone who had the glamour job he did was bound to find that horrible.
Instead, and to both his pleasure and surprise, Merlin found that Gwaine didn't mind at all. “I hate people who give themselves airs. Act unnaturally. You're great. Few people are as honest about themselves as you are.”
Merlin said, “Not so totally honest.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Merlin pushed his lips together and shook his head no.
Gwaine swiped a thumb along the corner of Merlin's mouth and dragged up a ketchup blob. He sucked on his thumb. When he was done making Merlin half hard in a public place he said, “Pity. But if you should ever want to, you can give me a ring.” So saying he pushed a professional waiting card across the table.
Merlin nodded silently and pocketed it, stealing a swig of Gwaine's beer because he did need some liquid courage to say what he was about to. “I like you. I was afraid you'd be vain and a bit posh and maybe you are a bit vain — I'm sure you know you look good — but I like you. You're down to earth.”
“My fart and scat jokes are hilarious,” Gwaine vouched, making a very stagey serious face. “And I can burp like a pro.” He showed Merlin how, loud as thunder.
The passing waitress even gave them the stinky eye. Merlin had tears in his eyes by then. “God, you'll get along with Mithian.”
“She seems so nice and proper.”
Merlin shook his head. “That is, she's gorgeous,” he said. He leant closer to whisper conspiratorially, “but if you get to know her you'll find out that she can out burp you. Seriously.”
“Sorry,” said Gwaine, leaning back in the booth and stretching his arms out over its back, so that the tips of his fingers were brushing Merlin's nape. “But I don't believe you. I'm a master burp man.”
Merlin laughed. “No, but seriously, she is.” Merlin went into anecdotal mode. “She used to be Arthur's girlfriend.”
Gwaine cocked an eyebrow, indicating he wasn't following.
“Arthur's my best friend,” Merlin explained, knowing he was babbling too much thanks to the delicious pint of Forsters. “And they dated. Well, obviously since she was his girlfriend. Now Arthur has a strict dad. Very strict.”
“No strict father will ever scare me,” said Gwaine, mugging outrageously. “Not even my own.”
“Uther Pendragon would scare you, believe me,” Merlin said, “and he's also a little prim at times... Likes things proper. Anyway, Arthur told me he'd invited Mithian to a family dinner and she burped for a joke and Uther stopped speaking to her altogether and still doesn't.”
“He's a man with no sense of humour,” said Gwaine. “I don't much like those.”
“Yeah, poor Arthur. Sometimes I think he has to put up with more than ordinary blokes do. He's always convinced he isn't doing well enough at school when he's almost all straight As and always says I'm the star runner when he's a great runner, too and the relay team wouldn't go anywhere without him pitching in. And he fences, too.”
Gwaine was balling up their paper napkin. When Merlin finished he smiled a little tightly and said, “You sound like a good friend, Merlin.”
Liking the praise, Merlin grinned. “I want to be.”
“I hope you can be mine, too,” he said. “I move about a lot and... The short of the matter is that I don't have as many friends as I'd like to.”
Merlin touched his hand to Gwaine's shoulder. “I'd like to be your friend, too.”
Gwaine looked down at Merlin's fingers wrapped around his bicep. He seemed to shudder and his voice sounded like whiskey on the rocks when he said, “Actually, I don't think I've been very honest.”
Merlin couldn't help himself; his face fell. He snatched his hand back but his hand was intercepted by Gwaine's, who took it in his. “Because I find you a fair bit hot and outgoing and lovely.”
Merlin wasn't sure anybody had ever said so many lovely things about him. He made noises that didn't exactly qualify as words.
They weren't necessary, however; Gwaine steamed on. “And I'd be a great idiot if I didn't tell you. Didn't seize the opportunity to ask you out.”
“Out?” Merlin considered the word and implications. “On a date?”
“Yes. A date. Me, you, and...” Gwaine cast a glance at Merlin's cleaned up plate. “And more burgers if you want.”
Merlin had never really thought it could be this easy. Or that one of Arthur's plans wouldn't fail. Like the one time they'd pranked Mr Monmouth just to see what his eyebrow would do and had been caught and dreadfully condemned to a week's detention after school.
“Merlin,” Gwaine said, squeezing his fingers. “What do you say?”
“Say?” Merlin startled.
Then he took in Gwaine's less than confident expression, one he'd never expected to see on such a charismatic person, and hurried to say, “It's a date.”
Arthur was flipping the pages of Top Gear Magazine when Merlin burst into his room, cheeks the colour of very ripe plums, saying, “I've got to talk to you. I've been meaning to all week!”
Arthur slapped the magazine on his desk and shot to his feet, crossing the room to put a hand on Merlin's shoulder.
He checked him over to make sure Merlin looked all right. Apart from the alarmed tone from before, the burst of colour on his face, and the wide-eyed look of stupor on his face, he didn't look as if he was majorly upset about something serious.
Merlin just kept rocking on the balls of his feet, clenching and unclenching his hands as if there was something he was eager to say. “Hey, what's up?”
Merlin started blabbing and at first Arthur wasn't sure he could make out the words or pick one from the other, but when Merlin slowed down a bit he did catch their meaning.
“And, after all, you weren't so epically wrong. I thought you'd be. And, well, aside from Leon wanting to direct the fashion show, which is just making me want to a hide a little, it's happened.”
“What?” asked Arthur. “What happened? You're making no sense.”
Merlin breathed in, nostrils flaring. “From the beginning?”
“Yeah.” Arthur drove him to sit on his bed and dragged his desk chair over so he could sit and face him fully. “From the beginning. Causality and all that.”
“Ha, ha,” Merlin said, “your sense of humour leaves me breathless.”
Arthur did a little eyebrow wag.
Merlin continued, “What I was trying to say is that after Tristan preferring Isolde and Leon rather fancying you than me, I was pretty sure you'd been talking bollocks about this dating lark.”
“So very refined, Merlin.”
Merlin pushed at his foot and Arthur pushed back.
“Well, I'm talking to you, not addressing the Queen,” Merlin said, “Anyway, I was convinced you were seeing things from your skewed perspective.”
“Skewed!” Arthur repeated in a definitely higher tone, “How could it even—Wh— What the hell are you—?”
Merlin dimpled up at him. “It's just that you've got, you know...” Merlin flapped his hand about. “Sort of everything. Like you’re good at sports but you don't fail at school. You're boy band handsome...”
Arthur covered his eyes though he should have covered his ears. “I'm taking that as an insult, just so you know.”
“Why?” asked Merlin. “You should have heard the girls from bio rattling on about you. Some of the things they want to do to you are filthy.”
Arthur felt a bit of heat climb up to his face. It was a hot October. “Has this got anything to do with what you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Yeah,” said Merlin, leaning forward on his elbows. “I was sure you were talking bollocks because I was convinced you were seeing things from a Pendragon perspective. So you thought that blind dates would work because they'd work for you.”
“So you mean to say that they don't for you?” Arthur jerked a thumb at Merlin. “That's stupid, Merlin. It's a question of perseverance.”
“I know!” Merlin said, grinning mischievously. “Well, yours is not a failsafe method, that's clear, but I met this guy...” Merlin's grin faltered.
“Wait, what?” said Arthur.
“I met this guy and he seems to like me, I mean he said so, and I had a burger with him, and then he cut to the chase and asked me out. He texted me an hour or so ago with a definitive time and place, but there's a problem...”
Arthur wasn't sure he'd got all that right. Or that he'd been expecting that outcome. Well, he'd been trying to find a hook-up for Merlin, but he hadn't thought one he had no control over would materialise this soon. Out of the blue. Sleight of hand. Abracadabra. His eyebrows knitted together and he attempted to form questions that would give him more insight into this new development. “Someone who? And what problem?”
“Well, the who and the problem are linked.” Merlin rushed out the next words. “He's the model Mithian got to work for the fashion show for free. And he's not a school kid.” Merlin winced. “He's gorgeous but he's kind of experienced.... Been around a lot. And he asked me out...”
Arthur was starting to see where this was going, getting the lay of the land, so to speak. This bloke wanted full sex on the first go. No fuss, no complications, no strings. Merlin had probably said 'yes' and wasn't too comfortable with the answer he'd given.
Unbidden and unprecedented images sprang fully formed in Arthur's mind, most of them pornographic, most of them involving Merlin sprawled in the back of a car in the company of some unknown person, giving or receiving a blowie, hands clutching the leather – he didn't know why leather, maybe he'd been pouring too long over that magazine – mouth stuffed with cock or...
Merlin snapped his fingers. “Oi, Arthur, some help would be appreciated if you could stop fugue-ing?”
“Mmm, yes,” Arthur said. Not his most eloquent moment, to say the least. “Help. I'll help.” He frowned. “How?”
“As I was saying.” Merlin stressed his words. “This guy is experienced and while that may seem like heaven, like hey, hurrah, Merlin found himself someone who'll put out easy, there's a wee bit of a problem I can't seem to get rid of.”
Arthur was impressed with the number of words Merlin could fire per second.
“Because,” continued Merlin, “I have none, zero, zilch, nada experience myself.”
Having rattled that out, Merlin sprawled lengthwise on Arthur's bed and buried his head in Arthur's pillow, the colour of his face matching the shade of the red duvet. “I'm hopeless and he'll know it,” he mumbled into the pillowcase. “And I'm screwed. Or rather I won't be. The moment he finds out he...”
Arthur blinked — repeatedly. His hand went again to Merlin's shoulder and he said in a very, very level tone, “Let's qualify this zero experience, all right?”
Merlin turned his face towards him; his eyes were big as saucers and his lower lip was trembling a bit. “Well, Mr Economy, quantify the value of zero.”
Arthur's eyebrow raise was directly proportional to his level of surprise. “No furtive hand-jobs?”
“No heavy petting, or rubbing up or....”
“Snogging? What about Freya? She was sweet on you.”
Merlin sat up and said rather sarcastically, “Brilliant, super chaste pecks on the lips I might have received from my aunt now count?”
Arthur could see how they did not. “So basically...”
“Yeah,” said Merlin. “Yeah. At seventeen. Which probably puts me in some depressing statistic or other, but frankly it's become just plain humiliating. So I've been avoiding situations in which people might... you know, find out. And it's actually very much worse now than it was two years ago. Because.... Well.”
“Very helpful, Arthur.”
“And so you want....” He made recourse to his trusty hand mimicry. “To snog this model idiot? Have a one-off? Fuck him?”
Merlin's lips curled up despondently. “He's just.... wank material, Arthur. Really, absolute wank material. And in a perfect world? That would be my first shag and rabbits would cluster round me and birds would chirp. Given, though, that he'll laugh at me the moment I do something wrong, I won't get that.”
“If he laughs at you he's an idiot.” Arthur thrust his jaw out, already disliking this nincompoop. A model... pfft. Then, since Merlin was still mostly mauve, he traded one embarrassing factoid for another. “Mithian was my first. I wasn't her first. She never laughed.”
Merlin said, “That's because she's very classy, and you're you.” He fetched a sigh. “I'm me... Clumsy is my middle name and Gwaine's a lot of things... but he's not Mithian.”
“So what do you propose to do?”
Merlin banged his head against the pillow. “Dunno,” he muttered into it. “Read a manual? Watch porn on the internet? Buy myself an hour with a nice prostitute not prone to laugh at me while having to hide the fact from my mum forever and ever?”
Arthur took action. He manhandled Merlin into a sitting position and dug his hands in the tense muscles of Merlin's shoulders. “I'll teach you,” he said. “I won't let you get an STD from some unknown person...”
“Two footnotes,” said Merlin, pupils blown out of proportion. “I may be a virgin but I know about condoms and two...I hope you noticed, but you're not gay.”
Arthur snapped his fingers against Merlin's forehead. “One, I hope so. Two, I don't mind snogging you. It's just lessons, not real sex.”
“Uh,” said Merlin, “okay, so.... lessons then?”
“Yeah,” said Arthur. “Lessons.”
Merlin looked up at him, looking really trusting out of his wide blue eyes. “So what's lesson one?”
“Snogging,” said Arthur. “Lesson one is snogging.”
“So how do I—” Merlin began.
Arthur dove in; his hands slipped behind Merlin's neck as he pressed his lips to Merlin's.
He waited for Merlin to breathe, and when Merlin dilated his nostrils and seemed to slump against him, Arthur pressed on.
It was a soft lip lock, the fleshy parts of their lips sticking together when the kiss got dry, which was to be expected with all their rubbing together.
Changing it up, Arthur caught Merlin's fat upper lip between the both of his, sucked on it, and then held it between his teeth, ever so gently.
Merlin made a muffled noise and Arthur drew back.
Like this, Arthur could feel the tickle of Merlin's breath and he could see the darker flecks in Merlin's blue eyes. He was close enough to know when Merlin's breathing stopped in wonder or surprise and to feel when it started again.
Arthur watched as Merlin dropped his gaze and pulled off a faint smile. A definite blush was staining his cheeks and nose pink.
In a way, Arthur was glad he'd offered to help Merlin out with this, because Merlin's reaction spoke volumes and he wouldn't have wanted this Gwaine person to guess something Merlin considered so private.
A wave of protectiveness swept over him and there was little he could do to stop it or reason it away. He knew that Merlin didn't need it, but it was there and it made his belly warm and his chest ache, so he basked in it a little.
His fingers spread across the nape of Merlin's neck. “Open your mouth,” Arthur said, moving in closer again, lightly drawing his tongue across Merlin's lips, wetting them, tasting them in short little licks.
Merlin closed his eyes and Arthur was able to sense his uncertainty as he opened up to him and his lips parted, allowing Arthur to push deep into his mouth.
It was a shock of warmth that felt really, really good. It was then that Merlin's tongue started moving under his, retreating, then pushing back at the tip of his as their tongues started playing chase. Heat burned its way from Arthur's lips to his throat to his cock.
A little shudder worked its way down Arthur's back and a hitched breath escaped him when Merlin slipped his arm around his waist, pulling him closer so that Arthur wound up standing between his legs, a knee on the bed, mattress dipping under his weight.
Out of instinct, Arthur slipped a hand under Merlin's tee, travelling down his side and working towards Merlin's back, counting the notches of his spine.
He made a slight groan and lifted his lips from Merlin's. They looked redder than they ever had and plumper still than they usually were. He watched as Merlin slowly opened his eyes and sweetly smiled at him, feeling his lips with the tips of his fingers.
Guessing that Merlin had enjoyed that and that he'd got the gist of French kissing, Arthur moved on to his jaw and throat, wrapping his mouth around the muscle at the side of Merlin's neck, and sucked.
He sucked hard, calling the blood to the surface, and then gentling it down with a lick or two. His tongue flickered over the teased skin; he stroked it in little laps, probing. He nipped at the flesh he found in his path. Dragging his parted lips from that spot, he ran kisses along the line of Merlin's jaw, placing wet kisses right under his ear, breathing heavily.
Merlin's chest rumbled with gentle laughter. Arthur worked his way down Merlin's neck again.
Merlin said, “It tickles.”
Arthur pulled back, brushing Merlin's ruffled hair with one hand. Merlin's smile warmed him all over, so that he had to get back to work again, saying, “I'll show you.” He sealed his lips on the side of Merlin's throat he’d so far left alone and pulled against it, fastened them around his pulse. It was thudding.
“Dracula,” Merlin said, breath hitching.
Arthur paid him no heed, finding the task he was involved in rather engrossing, feathering open-mouthed kisses along the throbbing vein, running his now swollen lips to the hollow at the base of Merlin's throat and lapping at it like a cat.
“That tickles more than the thing you did before,” Merlin said, voice less steady and definitely lower than it had been.
Not that Arthur was much better off. He hadn't told Merlin and he hoped it wasn't too evident, but his cock had been stiff in his jeans ever since he'd slipped more than a hint of tongue in Merlin's mouth.
True, it was the most wayward part of his anatomy, with a tendency to think on its own terms and a hair trigger capacity for rising up to the challenge, but still he had a hard on and his breathing was coming fast and hard, a sure sign he wasn't pulling off his teacher role as he might have wished. “All right,” he said loftily, “do it to me.”
“Which part?” Merlin asked
Arthur said, “A bit of everything? Kiss me?”
“Then you'd better—” Merlin pulled him down so Arthur was sitting facing him on the bed. “Yeah, that's what I meant.” Merlin seemed to see how shutting up would be more conducive to kissing so he did and angled his head, touching his lips to Arthur's.
So far so good, Merlin's lips were firm but soft enough and the kiss was very nice indeed.
Seemingly not content with how things were going, Merlin scooted closer, cupped Arthur's cheek and nudged his mouth open, tentatively flicking the tip of his tongue inside.
He was hesitant for a while longer, and then something changed. Maybe Merlin had found his way about it or he was growing more confident. However that was, Merlin's tongue came right in, pushing deep, stroked Arthur's, his gums, the roof of his mouth.
Arhur's breathing got messy; and he grabbed Merlin by the neck, pulling him closer.
They were taking each other's mouths and perhaps it wasn't the most sophisticated kiss ever, but there was a lot to be said for it.
It was wet and hot and there was some spit, but, Christ, it was brilliant. Though there was a little problem. Arthur needed to come up for air. Since it was either that or breathing through his nose like a racehorse, he peeled himself off.
And all right, Merlin's chest was rising and falling and so was Arthur's. Merlin's lips were red and worked raw and Arthur's felt the same. That didn't mean the lesson was over yet.
Arthur guided Merlin's head to his neck and said, “We haven't covered this yet and it seems pretty essential.”
Merlin grinned impishly, the way only he knew how. “Good, because I liked it when you did it to me. Makes me hard and my belly funny.”
Arthur went a bit slack jawed at the admission but it wasn't as if he had time to vocalise his thoughts.
Before he could produce more than a string of sounds, Arthur felt hot lips on his throat, resting where his pulse beat, then moving feather soft.
Arthur's eyes rolled back and he had to close them when Merlin touched a spot with his tongue, dabbing it with flicks of his tongue, as if he was testing the texture there.
A spark crackled down Arthur's spine. Merlin's tongue swept his flesh in longer, wetter stripes that cooled down quickly; he raked his neck with his teeth without ever hurting Arthur.
Arthur stopped him when he felt warmth spread low in his belly. If Merlin went on like that, he'd come and that'd be an end of the lessons. Arthur didn't honestly think he was supposed to get off. “Shirts off if you're all right with it?” Arthur croaked. “It seems like something that could happen pretty soon if Gwaine's as experienced as you say.”
Merlin pulled of his shirt without too much of a fuss, balling it up and throwing it behind his shoulder.
“My, my,” said Arthur, “tidy....” But then he couldn't be bothered with that anymore and he latched onto Merlin's jaw again, getting his knees under him and pushing Merlin's back so he could get free access to the spots he wanted to get at.
He pulled himself on top of Merlin, knees outside his legs, and started to nibble on his shoulder, which was bony and pointed; pulling Merlin's head back by the hair but in a way that wouldn't hurt, Arthur bared Merlin's long throat.
He began a line of gentle kisses that went from neck to shoulder to chest.
Merlin's fingers buried themselves in his hair; his hand sneaked like a sneaky thing under Arthur's shirt and was now splayed on his back somewhere below his shoulder blade and a lot shy of his side.
Not even thinking about what he was doing over much, Arthur put tiny little kisses to Merlin's mouth, around it, on his chin, under his nose. All quick, shallow ones, only notable in their number.
Lips meeting puckered up and dry, just to brush one against the other.
He better braced his arms and felt like thrusting, hips going off on their own. It was pretty intense.
Truthfully, it was like fire in his insides. His cock brushed Merlin's from within their jeans and Arthur saw for the first time what it was they were doing, what it was that was about to happen to him.
His mouth dropped open and he stilled, willing himself not to go over, not to come, please no, no, no. Somehow, he didn't. Though Arthur ascribed that to his quick thinking in the situation (he focused his thoughts on his father shagging Mrs Tregore and Arthur's urge to come then and there went down several notches.)
Breathing very, very raggedly indeed, he said, “Uhm, I guess, that the first lesson is over.”
Merlin's eyes stole to their crotches. “How about that? I'm not walking home with an erection. It's enough that my mum gave me the talk when I was thirteen... I don't want to relive anything close to that.”
Arthur saw how that would be. “You can use the bathroom...”
“Wanking in your bathroom!” Merlin screeched. And Arthur found himself forced to shush him with a hand on his mouth. “Shut up, idiot. My dad isn't home but Morgana's around. Now she's perpetually on the phone with those friends of hers so she won't even notice if you have a little wank in there, provided you don't shout now.”
Merlin looked dubious. And half shagged out. Which hadn't happened but Arthur had better not dwell on that. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” said Arthur, getting his legs off Merlin. “Just lock the door.”
Patting his hair down, Merlin went to have a wank in Arthur's bathroom.
If Arthur dug a tissue out of his drawer and stripped his cock hard and fast, without lube and right into said tissue, it was because it hurt. Merlin was in the master bathroom and Arthur would never bring himself off in Morgana's flowery scented bathroom. There were limits. Besides, he couldn't let Merlin know; he'd think him a perv, not a teacher.
The tissue ended up in the bin, which Arthur had safely hidden in his wardrobe by the time Merlin came back to collect his shirt. He put it on quickly. “Well, that was... educational. I already feel better about my snogging skills.”
Arthur twisted his mouth. “You still need practice on a few key issues.”
The corners of Merlin's lips drooped. “A few?”
Arthur nodded his head wisely. “Yes. Nothing that can't be smoothed out.”
Merlin rocked on his feet, lowered his gaze, and then locked gazes with Arthur. “I have an idea,” he said rather genially. “My date with Gwaine's more than a week off. He wanted to make it a celebration of the fashion show or something. So we can practice till then. If you're not busy and if it doesn't feel strange to you, ‘cause you're my friend.”
Arthur grew thoughtful. “Does it to you?”
“No,” Merlin said, honesty in his tones. “It was... nice and okay... and I wasn't feeling ashamed at knowing next to nothing. At all. It felt... good and safe.”
Arthur wasn't sure he wanted to be called 'safe', but then Merlin had said it had been good for him, so he wagered that his pride had come off unsullied.
“But then... I'm gay and maybe you felt like... Dunno.” Merlin pushed his fingers in the back of his pockets and balanced on his toes. “Not doing it again.”
“No,” said Arthur quickly. “Not a problem. It was more than all right. Even if I'm straight. Kissing is kissing and I'm good at it... So let's practice by any means.”
Merlin seemed to have a little qualm. “What about those things that aren't that universal. I mean once we get to cocks...”
Arthur hoped so hard the heat he felt about his cheeks hadn't translated to a blush. “I know how to work mine; I suppose that it’s the same by you and that yours isn't a little alien cock. Apply your knowledge of yourself to Gwaine.”
“Who said it was little?” Merlin quipped and Arthur made a little noise in his throat.
“Well, then,” said Merlin, “I'll leave you to your magazine and choice of car wank.”
Merlin opened the door and Arthur heard him clomping down the stairs. The noise was followed by Merlin greeting Morgana in a somewhat high-pitched screech, and the thud of the front door falling shut.
Well, this had certainly been a less than ordinary afternoon.
Over the next week, Merlin came over almost every afternoon.
Even Arthur's father, who was always in his study when at home and anyway always had his head on some matter of business or another, noticed by way of grunts and non-committal eyebrow raises. Not that he said anything. Or that he tried to knock on Arthur's door or to anyway infringe on Arthur's privacy. That just wasn't Uther Pendragon.
And thank God because Arthur and Merlin got up to a few things while cooped up in Arthur's bedroom. For one they snogged a lot, till their jaws tired and their chests heaved with it.
They took their tops off and kissed, mostly on the bed, and mostly everywhere above the belt. There were long sessions completely dedicated to necking, because Merlin liked it and was as gifted at giving as he was at receiving.
At times it got a bit heavy and they undid the top buttons of their jeans, and sometimes the tip of their pricks would peek out, but they gave themselves breaks by going to stand at the window or running downstairs on a foraging mission. (Fortunately Arthur's father had never skimped on groceries.)
It could be frustrating, because Arthur got so hard and ready for sex that he found himself wanting to go past that boundary, but it didn't seem like it would be fair.
For one because Arthur was just supposed to be giving a hand, (not literally, God), and for another because that could have been construed as poaching on territory that wasn't meant to be his.
Then there was the fact that they hadn't laid down the law or discussed this much apart from technique and performance. So he didn’t know what Merlin thought of as okay as far as their lessons were concerned. Though they discussed what they thought of as hot and what didn't turn them on much.
For all of his inexperience Merlin discussed things quite frankly, not balking at any piece of anatomy or sex act. It was some kind of innocent sex talk that more often than not made Arthur's ears ring and feel hot.
Arthur knew Merlin wasn't doing it on purpose but Arthur found that that coupled with the flashes of what they got up during the afternoons had him wanking much more liberally — once Merlin was gone — than he ever had before. Even the days when he'd first discovered the activity for himself.
Though Merlin kissed eagerly, smiled when he was done, ran his hands all over him as if he wanted Arthur, nibbled on his neck with soft lips and open mouth and gasped wetly in Arthur's ear when Arthur did the same to him, that didn't mean he meant to seduce Arthur. Arthur didn't believe that for one single moment.
It was just Merlin being Merlin. Open, frank, shy and impossibly pert at the same time. So Arthur shook it all off and tried to mentor Merlin as best he could, while attempting to perform his sexual best (he'd have been a sorry mentor otherwise) while not lingering on the little spot of frustration that seasoned their encounters.
These were just lessons, after all. Nothing more, nothing less. When he'd restated that, Merlin had clearly agreed.
“Of course I'm a brilliant teacher.”
“Come on, these are very good lessons. “
“Lessons, yes, lessons.”
Amid these shenanigans the day of the school's pro bono fashion show rolled around.
Some of the students, Arthur included, had been recruited to help with the behind the scenes.
Lancelot was supposed to give the models their cue to walk on the runway. Mithian was meant to keep track of the music and schedule. Leon (who kept looking longingly at Arthur) was to direct. And Arthur had been roped in into helping the 'models' change.
This was how he met Gwaine. Contrary to expectations, Arthur could say that Gwaine wasn't all that. He wasn't taller than Arthur. He didn't have amazing eyes. And he wasn't particularly built. Like Percy was. Yeah, all right, he had that kind of smouldering, dark looks that some people were into, mostly aided by not having shaven in days. Which only was a plus if you considered slovenliness a great thing.
When Arthur arrived, Gwaine (who had been pointed out to him by a proud Mithian), was kissing Merlin on the cheek, hand wrapped around Merlin, as if they were at a Paris fashion show and not at a school charity event.
Arthur sauntered up to them and slung an arm over Merlin's shoulder. “Hello, Merlin,” he said, “guess what I'm helping to do today?”
Merlin grinned at him. “Dunno?”
“Gearing you up.”
“Sounds comforting to me. At least two of us will figure these outfits out.”
“Be confident,” said Arthur wisely. “Everything’s going to work out.”
“If this goes well, Lance will be happy.” As an afterthought Merlin added, “As will Mithian.” The delivery made it all sound a bit saucy.
“Ha,” said Gwaine, “so love is in the air.”
Merlin turned towards Arthur, which wasn't that difficult since Arthur still had an arm hooked over his shoulders. “Uh, Arthur, this is Gwaine, the pro model Mithian found for us.” He tilted his head towards Gwaine. “Gwaine, this is Arthur. He's the friend I talked to you about.”
Gwaine stretched his hand out for Arthur to shake. Arthur took it and did. “Ha, Gwaine,” he said, “Tell me, do you enjoy being paid for faffing around? I suppose the ego kick must be massive.”
Gwaine let go of his hand. “Actually, there's quite a lot of work involved in photo-shoots.”
Arthur arched an eyebrow. “Fancy that. I didn't know it was harder than working 14-hour shifts in some poor country.”
The muscle along Gwaine's jaw twitched. “And I bet the money that went to buy that shirt of yours didn't go into charity.” Gwaine thumbed at the fabric folded over Arthur's sleeve. “Hugo Boss, I'd say. I know my brands.”
Merlin stepped on Arthur's foot. “Oh, so sorry,” he said, only to hiss in Arthur's ear, “cut this, all right?”
Arthur opened his mouth to say that he'd been merely making a point but he was overshadowed by Mithian's appearance, clipboard in hand.
“Hi everyone,” she said. “So... the auditorium is filling and there's quite the turn up.” She gave Gwaine and Merlin their roll call sheets, all perfectly typed up.
Not that they were needed, since he peeked over Merlin's shoulder to see that Merlin only had two changes scheduled, but he couldn't fault Mithian for being precise when she wanted to be.
“This tells you what to wear and in which order. And what your cue is.” She pointed at the various items with her pencil. “Any questions?” she pointedly asked that of Merlin.
“Oh, come on,” Arthur said, squeezing Merlin's shoulder. “That's two lines of text. Merlin can do that!”
Mithian's eyebrow went up a notch, but she kept on talking to Merlin. “Any problem with that?”
“No,” said Merlin. “I think I've got it. My musical cues are High and Dry and Rhapsody in Blue. When I hear the songs, I just walk down the runway, stop at the end, make my way back, stay still a bit for people to have a proper look at the clothes and then duck back in? Think I can do it.”
“If Gwaine can, Merlin,” Arthur said, “I'm sure you can, too.”
Gwaine gave Merlin's shoulder a little punch. “It will be as easy as breathing. Besides, you're naturally cute. People will lap it up.”
Merlin looked very pleased at hearing Gwaine's flattery. Arthur told Mithian, “So, I call dibs on helping Merlin.”
“I thought—” said Mithian and then stopped when she noticed Arthur's facial mimicry. “Oh, well, I'll give Percy a hand myself. I don't think anybody's going to mind that I'm a girl. Just remember, casual outfit first. I think even you can be trusted to recognise a pair of jeans.”
“Bloody ha, Mithian,” said Arthur, “at least I'm not an air-head fashionista.” He pushed Merlin to the corner where the clothes for the show had been stacked in the absence of proper stands. “Come on, Merlin, let's go help the puppies.”
“Arthur,” Mithian called after him, “Just— Your dad is in the audience. He donated 500 quid, so be nice and go sit next to him when you're done with Merlin.”
Arthur held up a hand to indicate that he had everything under control and led Merlin to a corner, where he left him to go and find Merlin’s clothes changes.
Arthur took the sheet with the indication of the clothes Merlin was supposed to wear. Now that he looked at the mass of clothes that had been set aside for the show he wasn't sure which item he would need to pick. So he did the obvious thing: he ransacked.
After some burrowing in a pile of clothing, he emerged victorious, or so he thought. The definition associated to the jeans was esoteric enough to put a less intuitive man on the wrong track, (dark worn wash, slim leg, slim fit, distressed, five pocket jeans, really?), but Arthur felt he was now on safer ground: how many leather inserts shirts could there be?
The evening jacket was also a stand out, though the trousers going with it were harder to find. The definition Mithian had typed out this time was too laconic: black evening trousers. There were lots of black trousers in the mix.
“Problem?” said Gwaine, who'd already changed into his first outfit. (Privately, Arthur thought he looked like a clown.)
“Not in the least.” Arthur had three pairs of trousers draped over his arm. He was sure that if he went by size, he could guess which one was meant to fit Merlin. (He did have a pretty good idea of Merlin's body shape by now.)
The ones he was currently holding in his left hand seemed long enough to fit Percival, which probably meant they weren't Merlin's. “I'm doing admirably.”
“It doesn't really look that way.”
“I think I can cope without your help.”
Gwaine held his hand out in sign of amity or surrender or some such kind of blasé nonsense models indulged in. “Hey, there, I really don't know what I've done to rub you the wrong way, but it's clear that I did.”
Arthur spluttered. “Nothing. I don't know you. So nothing,” Arthur said. On reflection that sounded like he was justifying himself when he didn't need to. “Now,” he said in a tone borrowed from his father, “if you'll excuse me.” Which was just as well, for the first couple of girls had been announced. “Merlin’s fourth.”
Gwaine's eyes likely boring holes in his skull, Arthur retreated to the corner where he'd left Merlin, handing him his armful of garments. This made him realise that he'd brought along all three pairs of black trousers. “Wait a sec,” he told a confused Merlin. Trainers skidding, he about faced, and marched back with great dignity. “I don't suppose you know which pair goes with the formal outfit?” he asked Gwaine.
Gwaine smirked and picked the right pair of trousers for Arthur.
“It was a pleasure,” he said.
Arthur harrumphed and scuttled back to Merlin. When Arthur got back to him, Merlin had already changed into the jeans Gwen had fitted for him.
Arthur had to admit he looked good. Very good. Gwen had certainly done a good job at underlining Merlin's best assets: his long legs, round arse and tapering hips.
Arthur cleared his throat and Merlin looked up. “Hello again,” he said. “I feel like an arse.” He craned his head. “Look at Gwaine: how can he manage not to look self-conscious at all?”
Arthur cleared his throat. “You look better than him.”
Merlin's eyes crinkled at the corners. “Wow, thanks for the outlandish praise. Only a friend would say that.”
The second couple, formed by a girl from fifth form Arthur didn't know and Percy, was presented. This meant that there was only one person left to go before Merlin's cue was called.
The music had already changed to the Radiohead song Merlin was supposed to model to the rhythm of.
Looking panicked, Merlin stripped off his crew neck tee and bent to retrieve the shirt Gwen had made to go with the jeans.
When Merlin straightened, Arthur noticed the purplish raised edges of a new bruise that had formed at the base of Merlin's neck.
Arthur lifted his hand to his neck to mirror the same spot on Merlin's. “You've got—” He started, coughed since his throat had gone dry, and tried again. “You've got a love bite.”
Merlin touched the spot, wincing when his fingers pressed against the blemish. “It does sting a bit, yeah.”
Arthur closed the space between them and thumbed the area ever so softly, without putting any pressure on it. “Didn't mean to mark you.” Though he couldn't take his eyes off of the mark either.
“No, I know,” Merlin faltered.
“Sorry if it hurts.”
Merlin's raked up a smile for him from somewhere. “It only stings.” Merlin put on the shirt.
“It still shows,” Arthur said huskily. “I mean our lessons paid off but do you want everybody to....”
Merlin winced. “The lessons, yeah, right.” There was a silent pause and then Merlin seemed to make up his mind. “Not really?” he said, fingering the area self-consciously. “Erm, no?”
“Wait another moment, all right?” Arthur dashed off to the sound of Merlin's saying, “I'm on in about fifty seconds!”
Arthur had seen a bandanna looking thingy amid the heaps of clothes he'd extracted Merlin's outfit from.
It was a brown and blue thingy, quite ugly to look at, though Arthur was sure it'd cover Merlin's neck quite nicely.
At first Arthur couldn't find it in the pile. Someone had ransacked it and the clothes weren't piled up in the same way they had been when Arthur had been looking for Merlin's blasted black trousers.
Hearing the current song swelling, Arthur hurried, pushing the top mound of clothes aside to finally dig up the bandanna look alike. Clutching it, he raced back to Merlin.
He pushed it into his hand, saying, “Put this on.”
Merlin did, tying it around his neck like a farmer's neckerchief.
The love bite wasn't visible anymore. Arthur gave him the thumbs up.
“Wish me luck,” Merlin said, diving onto the makeshift runway to the sound of High and Dry.
From behind the curtain Arthur could hear people clapping, liking the show. He peeked out and saw that the auditorium had quite filled up. Merlin stumbled but was enjoying a good reception, people who knew him calling out his name and stamping their feet in support.
“He's a looker and doesn't know it. People like that kind of quality,” said Gwaine, making Arthur jump like a startled cat.
Once he'd recovered, Arthur said, “What do you know of Merlin?”
“That he's nice, humble, endearing, sometimes trips, counts you as a friend...”
Arthur would have answered that with a piece of sarcastic repartee if Merlin hadn't just come back.
“Your turn,” he told Gwaine, who then marched onto the stage to the sound of I'm in Miami Beach. Of course.
The rest of the fashion show went down rather well, too. Arthur was called on a bit of an emergency when Percy couldn't manage to close the zip of his trousers (Gwen had apparently cut off too much cloth). Mithian said, “I refuse to fondle his privates.” Arthur said, “I refuse, too,” (he'd rather do it to Merlin) but then buckled under the weight of peer pressure saying he had to save the day.
Awhile later, Leon stopped him on his way to the clothes stand, saying, “Are you enjoying the directing?”
“Yes, indeed, yes.”
“Thank you,” Leon said. “Your opinion counts to me.”
Gwaine modelled four outfits and almost stripped out of the top half of one to the enthusiastic cries of the female student population — and a percentage of the male. (Probably because Arthur purposely gave him a shirt baring his mid-riff that had been meant for one of the girls.) More of the girls were then on and Merlin closed the act with his evening ensemble.
By then Arthur had joined his father in the audience. “Your friend is ridiculous, Arthur. It's clear he's not cut out for this kind of thing.”
Arthur curled his fingers around the armrest and said, “I think you're mistaken. Merlin's being great about this.”
“He's certainly making up for his shortcomings with his... bumbling enthusiasm, but he shouldn't have lent himself to this. And what was that horrible neckerchief?”
Arthur bit back any further remark, though Gwen had the same question for him once the show closed. “Arthur, what were you thinking? I know you volunteered and shouldn't be held responsible but that thing was ugly. It was Percy's from his garage job!”
“Yeah,” said Percy, “I'd been wondering where it got to and then I saw Merlin wearing it.”
“Well,” said Gwen, eyeing Arthur strangely despite the gist of her words, “all that matters is that we actually made heaps.”
“Yeah,” Mithian said, holding a metal strong box. “We made six thou! That's unbelievable, isn't it, Arthur?”
Arthur couldn't say he was listening. His eyes were on the door of the empty auditorium. Gwaine was leading Merlin out for their date, a hand on his shoulder.
If questioned about it, Merlin would never have thought that being asked on a date could possibly be so confusing. Yet over the last two weeks he'd found that such was the case.
When the date with Gwaine was confirmed, he'd gone and sought out Arthur and blabbed everything about his lack of experience.
The resulting actions had been... fun. Merlin had wanted sex, or an initiation to some areas of it at the very least, and he'd had it. Except now he couldn't quite get it out of his brain.
Because Arthur was good. His mouth was clever; his grip was strong. His chest was a ripple of muscles. And Merlin had a love of strong bodies. He must have developed it when his interest in sports did.
Even Arthur's little imperfections worked for Merlin. Grounded him in the knowledge that Arthur was still his good old friend. And then those were easily overlooked because Arthur was dedicated, patient, rambunctious when Merlin felt daring, and coaxed little reactions out of Merlin that Merlin hadn't thought he had in him.
If Arthur hadn't been smug about his teaching role and very adamant about keeping it in place though, Merlin would have probably been more relaxed about the whole experience. And done more. (Though Arthur probably wouldn't have wanted that.)
So the confusion seemed in part to be stemming from something he'd asked for himself. And the fact that he now had a skewed comparison metre.
Since he couldn't compare and contrast gay boys to Arthur since Arthur was straight and doing this as a favour to Merlin, he shouldn't use Arthur as a standard by which to measure people he could have a real chance with.
Hence confusing dilemma number two. Gwaine. He was fantastic.
On their first date Gwaine had asked him what he wanted to do, mentioning their original plan but leaving the choice as to what to do that night open for discussion.
They ate a burger and then went for a walk, passing by the park. With winter approaching, the sun had gone down a few hours before, when they'd still been at school for the fashion show. Merlin had thrust a longing glance at it and Gwaine caught it. “Wanna go inside?”
An amused chuckle had billowed out of Gwaine's chest. “That fence is five foot. I heard you're into sports.”
And that had been the oddest hurdle jumping Merlin had ever done.
The park at night had been quiet, still and ripe with possibility. It was like an adventure waiting to unfold, a new odd world unfurling before him. Trees looming like big grey giants, the footpaths indistinct, the flowers in the flower beds colourless phantoms bending in the breeze.
“Chase you! Merlin had said, and Gwaine had and Merlin had won.
Merlin had slowed down then, perched on a bench with his feet gathered before him. “I've kissed someone before,” he'd said. “Before you.”
Gwaine's distinctive chuckle had made a return. “I don't require a purity manifesto. Actually I can vouch for my utter and complete lack of purity.”
A smile had teased Merlin's lips. He'd been playing with his trainers' laces when he said, “After you asked me out.”
“Told you, small matter,” Gwaine had said. “As I mentioned, I've done lots and lots of things. Not going to weigh a kiss or two against you. Though—” He'd sat next to Merlin, a leg bent under him as though in a half lotus position, the other stretched out before him, “I might claim one for myself.”
He'd angled his head then, wagging his eyebrows to advertise his having put the moves on Merlin.
Merlin hadn't been able to think that not charming, so he'd grinned and Gwaine had taken his mouth, sweeping his tongue along Merlin's lips, demanding entry.
Gwaine's tongue had slipped between his teeth, thrusting in deep in a quick and hard kiss, his stubble burning.
Sucking hard on his tongue, Gwaine had made Merlin groan: the kiss had been a raw tangle of lips and Merlin had been lost as to what to do, trying to think back to what he'd done with Arthur. What Arthur had liked, what had made him moan and say Merlin was good and a fast learner.
And then Gwaine had slid his hand down Merlin's torso to his cock.
And that was the difference between a gay man and a friend teaching you things. Gwaine had smiled into the kiss and cupped Merlin through his jeans, the flat of his hand pushing against Merlin's cock, pressure building and ebbing.
Merlin had only been able to buck his hips, completely useless at returning any of that and completely out of his depth, too. He'd sprang to his feet, hard as a rock and said, “Wow, that was wow but, I didn't— Didn't do anything — for you.”
“No need,” Gwaine had said, “one thing at a time?”
And that had been the end of the evening, sensorial inputs and the comparison thereof driving Merlin more than slightly crazy.
Two weeks passed after that and Merlin saw Gwaine at least two or three times a week.
He was grateful for Gwaine not giving up on him after that more than slightly embarrassing outburst, but couldn't help thinking he was giving less than he got, which was hard and fast hand jobs, abundant doses of heavy petting that made his toes curl in his shoes, and raking kisses that were never quite as sweet as Arthur's but so passionate it was clear that need drove them (instead of technique).
So all in all Gwaine was fantastic; he was handsome (so handsome he shouldn't have been in Merlin's league), he was a no sweat kind of guy, as he himself admitted, and he took things as they came, Merlin included.
Hence the confusion.
Now if Merlin could just stop with the pesky comparisons. Not that there was anything to compare Gwaine to anymore, because Merlin and Arthur's lessons had stopped once the real thing had begun and because Merlin and Gwaine had gone a little past kissing with some of their clothes off. And Gwaine was the person that had made Merlin come.
The only downside to this nearly perfect situation was that he was seeing his friends less and less now that Gwaine was a thing.
Having to fit his studying schedule with his sports one, and then make time for Gwaine wasn't easy. He slept less, was always on the run and saw too little of Arthur.
He admitted it freely to Gwaine one evening as they were trekking towards Lizard point, where Gwaine had driven them one Sunday because Merlin had let fall a piece of curio: how it was the southernmost spot in mainland England.
“I miss him,” he said. “I shouldn't have dumped him — As a friend. I should be able to be a good friend, see you, and not drop my friends because I'm... with you.”
Gwaine had stopped then, afternoon breeze playing with his hair. “You two are close.”
“It didn't start out that way,” Merlin sad, looking at the old lighthouse in the distance and smiling to himself. “We really butted heads in the beginning. I called him names.”
“What changed?” Gwaine asked, more serious than before. Merlin wouldn't have answered that if Gwaine had made a joke of it. If he'd taken it as lightly as he did most things.
Merlin loved Gwaine's light touch but there were things not made for it, things you needed to keep close to yourself. But he saw that Gwaine was interested in him, in his story, so he said, “We've always done chemistry together, though it's a mystery why since he actually wants to read economy, so, we saw more and more of each other willy-nilly. We...” Merlin snorted at the memory. “...caused a bully to be expelled from school.”
He shook his head at his less than rosy memories of Valiant. “And formed a pact because of that. I stopped calling him prat and air-head and he stopped calling me poor boy and geek. And then we were friends.” Merlin made a little gesture with his hands.
“Sounds like good grounds for a friendship,” said Gwaine. “Bootlickers are never good friends and I get many of those with my job, so I'd know. But less of me and more of you. I sense there's more.”
They started walking again, picking their way carefully because rocks were strewn everywhere and the path was less than even. (The vista was breath-taking, though, and made up for it.)
“Yeah.” Merlin drew in a steadying breath, tasting sea and salt. “A year and a half ago I had a bit of a row with my mum. Over my dad.”
Merlin turned his face so Gwaine couldn't see how the word 'dad' affected him. It always did and he suspected it always would.
“See, technically I have a dad. Somewhere.” And, fuck, Merlin would have given anything to know just where. “Like everybody else. But I never knew him. He doesn't even know I exist.” Oh, how Merlin wanted to be claimed as someone's son. He even envied Arthur Uther sometimes oddly enough.
“That day I asked my mum and she refused to tell me much more than she already had. He'd been a doctor, didn't know about me and left when he was scheduled to. She cried. I think I had a rage fit or something and she let drop that he'd been with MSF and she hadn't been able to trace him down once he left for God knows where. So I ran away. I thought I had this bit of extra info...” Merlin's voice broke some. “And that I could find him. I didn't have any money and it was stupid. Arthur dropped everything too and came to find me. He was there... He was just there and that's why he'll always...”
Gwaine punched him in the shoulder then, not rough, no, more like a playful little acknowledgment meant to perk Merlin up. It did, in a way. His, “Why don't we go to that party at your friend's next week?” constituted Gwaine's attempt at conciliating Merlin's different needs.
“Yeah,” said Gwaine. “Arthur will be there and your other friends, too. You can catch up.”
“That'd be brilliant,” said Merlin, kissing Gwaine the way he wanted to and knew how to. It wasn't Gwaine's way perhaps, but Merlin thought Gwaine liked it all the same because he smiled into the kiss and said, “How about exploring the coves now?”
They ended up exploring a dank cove just like they would if this was a big adventure and kissing just outside it as the sun went down.
Arthur's school marks were improving, not that that they had ever been anything short of reliably good, but now they were skimming perfection.
The fact was that he had so much more time for himself now that Merlin had a boyfriend that some of that had gone into studying.
Father, not always so perceptive as to Arthur's non-academic needs, had noticed this trend — nothing short of three perfect As — praised him with a few sparing words and told him that if he passed his driving test he'd buy him a car.
“Don't test your luck, Arthur.”
“I thought so.”
So Arthur was being a model student, did well at track training (when he saw Merlin but felt a little like the kids in that cartoon, the poor hungry ones who press their noses to the pastry shop window because they can't afford the sweets) and aced his final driving test, his examiner telling him that he'd been, “One of the most confident drivers I've tested. You have good reflexes and a good head for not getting into trouble.”
When Arthur got back home, it was to find a red 2010 Nissan Sentra parked in the driveway, his father jangling its keys a few steps behind it. It looked like a commercial. “You won't drive it until we've had it checked.”
Arthur summoned a little smile, said, “Thank you, Father,” and perfunctorily texted his friends with the news, not Merlin though because Arthur didn't want to infringe on his privacy with Gwaine.
Mithian, Gwen and Elyan dropped by to see the car while Lancelot didn't because he was at the shelter or so Mithian maintained.
“Well,” said Elyan, “it's not bad at all. Not bad at all.”
“I like the colour,” said Mithian, circling round the car and running a finger along the paintwork. “It suits you.”
Arthur said, “Yeah, I suppose.”
“No, it's really great, mate,” Elyan said. “Way better than what I have to drive — and will have to share as soon as Gwen passes her examination…”
Gwen ignored her brother's jab and took Arthur's hand in his, warm and supportive. “You don't sound too chuffed for someone who's just got his first car, Arthur.” She sighed. “You're... honestly being.... depressing really. And I don't like seeing you like that.”
Arthur accepted the physical comfort but denied the implication. “I'm perfectly all right...”
“Said long face,” Elyan butted in.
Mithian put an end to her car contemplation to study Arthur critically. “I think Gwen might be right, Arthur.”
“I believe...” said Gwen, tailing off and then finding her thread again, “I believe you need a bit of a pick me up. I think I'll give a party later this week, invite a few friends. I'm sure it will take your mind off M-—”
Elyan coughed into his fist.
Gwen looked at her brother out of rounded eyes, said, “Oh, silly me,” and then changed the subject to party arrangements.
“Are you sure your dad is okay with it?” asked Arthur, afraid to impose.
“Our dad is cool and will be all right with it. No worries there,” said Elyan.
Gwen's party took place the following Saturday. It was the first time Arthur took the car out and as a consequence he had to stomach his father's repeated recommendations of 1) don't speed, ever 2) don't drink drive and 3) don't reverse out of tight spots.
“Father! I think I can handle reversing!”
The event also brought about Morgana's taunting about the little one in the family stretching his tiny wings. Arthur would have given her the finger if Father hadn't been there.
Thinking zen thoughts, Arthur shook his head and drove off.
A few minutes later Arthur parked some way away from Gwen's house and got to Gwen's on foot to be welcomed by a rather worried Gwen, who said, “I invited a few friends through Facebook and then someone else got wind of me having thrown a party and now there's plenty of people I haven't invited stomping about!”
Arthur grinned and kissed her cheek, stepping inside.
A brief overview of the front room told him that Gwen wasn't exaggerating at all; lots and lots of people were scouring her house, moving from one room to another, drinks in hand.
Sofas and armchairs were full, girls even propped themselves on the armrests to find some kind of seating.
Mithian was chatting Lance up by a potted plant and Percy was browsing Elyan's video game collection.
A boy and a girl were holding hands on the stairs. A couple was snogging on the first floor landing, causing Elyan to call out, “No sex in my room or you'll clean it up.”
More randoms seemed to be crawling out of the kitchen.
More people were collected in Mr Smith's tiny drawing room. Among them a few people Arthur wouldn't have minded seeing the back of, like Cenred and Vivian, a few he was indifferent to, and one couple that made him slow to a halt in the doorway.
Gwaine and Merlin were sitting together on the window seat. Gwaine was drinking a beer and cracking jokes that made Merlin hiccup with laughter. Merlin was paying such close attention to Gwaine that he hadn't picked up on Arthur's arrival.
There was some kind of easiness to Merlin and Gwaine's body language, in the way their thighs brushed close, their shoulders knocked together, and Gwaine leant in to murmur something in Merlin's ears, lips grazing his neck. It told Arthur they had probably had sex. They were certainly intimate.
That knowledge burned. Made him feel small, stupid, desolate, and his heart clench and twist till he kind of wanted to empty his stomach. He was aware of his face closing off, of his jaw settling into a grim line.
He tried to tell himself that this was a reaction to Gwaine's show off ways, to how shame-faced he was in his staking a claim on Merlin, but got a reality check the moment Gwaine ran his knuckles down Merlin's throat and over the spot the love bite Arthur had given Merlin had been.
At the moment he had more questions than answers; his world was upside down and he wouldn't have known what to say or do to save his life.
Then Arthur overheard Natalie, a girl from fifth form say, “I really don't know what a hot man like that finds in a little boy like Emrys.”
Arthur spoke before he'd untangled the mess in his brain. “You don't know what you're talking about. You don't know Merlin.”
He'd said that too loud, though, for Merlin to at least pick up his own name. In fact he looked up, met his gaze, lifted his cup and waved at him. Happy and smiling and everything that was good about him. Arthur turned on his heels to go and hide in the kitchen.
He needed to sort things out.
He opened the fridge to cool his face, asking himself why he felt so horrible. The cooler air steadied him somewhat, made his thoughts stop whirling and churning, though the smell of food didn't do anything for his queasiness.
He was leaning his head against the fridge door, when Vivian's words — that voice couldn't possibly belong to anyone else — surprised him, “Hello, Arthur. Nice seeing you here. We never talk during chem.”
Arthur closed the fridge door and slowly spun around. “I suppose Monmouth wouldn't like it,” he said, “if we talked over him.”
“He's a sad old man,” she said. “I bet he wouldn't notice.”
Arthur had doubts as to that. Monmouth could be very stern when he wanted. But Arthur didn't care one jot about Monmouth at the moment. “That's questionable,” he said and left it at that, sure that his lack of active participation in the conversation would lead her to leave him alone with his strange thoughts.
“I like the way you speak,” said Vivian. “That's questionable,” she parroted him, making him sound much more like Colin Firth in a posh film adaptation than himself. “It's very adult. Very — hot. Not like Cenred at all. He talks like a little boy.”
A peal of laughter reached him from the drawing room. Arthur thought he recognised Gwaine's voice.
Arthur refocused on Vivian. “He does, does he?”
“Yeah.” Vivian looped her arm around his and led him back into the living room, where most of the people were. She scowled at Cenred's back. “He only talks about rugby. And getting idiots to do his homework for him.”
Arthur tensed for a moment. “I see,” he said. So Cenred's spiel was systematic and even worse than Arthur had thought.
“But you aren't like that,” Vivian said, looking over her shoulder at Cenred lording over his little group of rugby players.
Arthur took the pause to scope the room for Merlin — and Gwaine.
And there they were: Gwaine was making an impression of someone, Merlin gnawing on his lower lip as if he needed that to keep the giggles in.
Arthur was shocked into remembering how sinking his teeth right at the centre of that bottom lip had felt like. And even more into remembering what a party like this would have been like a couple of months ago.
Merlin would have been cracking jokes with him, making fun of things and people with him, leaning into him to deliver a bit of quick but never spiteful commentary into his ear.
He inhaled strongly.
“You're sophisticated and interesting,” she said. “And Cenred has got nothing on you.” She said her piece a little louder, trailing her nail down his chest, stopping right above his belt. She drew back and bit on her finger, sucking her nail in.
“Why don't you dance with me?” Vivian asked the moment Gwen pressed play on the household's iPod dock.
“I don't think that's a good idea.”
Wild Ones started playing and Arthur heard Gwaine tell Merlin, “Come on, stud. Have a dirty dance with me.”
The music drowned Merlin's answer though Arthur could see that he was shaking his head, only to be dragged mid room by Gwaine, who put his hands square on Merlin's hips.
“On second thoughts,” said Arthur as he watched Gwaine dance provocatively around with Merlin. “I think I’d like to dance.”
Vivian took his hand, walking backwards to share space with those other of Gwen's friends who'd decided to have a dance.
As the song got more hip-poppy and animated, Vivian proved just how good a dancer she was, pumping her arms over her head, keeping the rhythm, using steps that were probably taught in dance schools, hair whipping her face.
She periodically thrust her hips at him, pressing herself against him, both hands splayed over his chest. She raked them down his front as she went down to a crouch that brought her level with his stirring cock.
Arthur caught Merlin's eyes over Gwaine's shoulders.
Like a practised stage dancer, Vivian jumped up again, bumping her bum against his hip, clutching her hair and gathering it up into a knot as she swayed against him, her arse brushing against his crotch.
Merlin's eyes were on him, on them both. His mouth had fallen open.
Arthur started at that, locking gazes with Merlin. He mouthed, “I—” but didn't know how to explain this.
Needing to clear his head, he grabbed Vivian's arm to push her gently away, the lyrics, “I'm a wild one, tame me now,” ringing in his ears.
Vivian seemed to misunderstand the intent behind his touch, for her eyes got wider and lustier. She pushed off her toes, cupped his neck, and kissed him, slipping him the tongue the moment he gasped.
Still kissing him she turned him around with purpose.
Arthur didn't realise what it was she had done until a raging Cenred came over, yanked them apart and landed an uppercut to his cheek bone. It snapped his head back and knocked him backwards, causing him to land with a skid and thud on the floor.
Arthur's head rang; his cheek was giving off waves of pain. Cenred's fist had caught him so unprepared he hadn't had a chance to duck or parry. It had felt like a lump of steel slamming right into his face and glancing off the bone.
And he was probably going to taste some more. Since Cenred was about to close in on him again, he willed himself up, but found that he was too dazed to move.
It all happened quickly. Cenred was saying, “Keep your hands off her or I'll rip you a new face, Pendragon.”
Then Cenred was on him, his hands at Arthur's throat.
Arthur pushed onto his feet to buck him off. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin push Gwaine away.
He grabbed Cenred by the shoulder, but Cenred wouldn't be dislodged. Actually he was being quite good at cutting Arthur's air off.
Merlin half climbed onto Cenred's back, bar brawl style. This seemed to bother Cenred for his grip on Arthur slackened. He jabbed Merlin hard in the belly with his elbow and shook him off, vaulting off Arthur to punch Merlin in the midriff.
Gwen screamed for them to stop, “Please.”
Seeing red, adrenalin making him forget about how much his face hurt, Arthur jumped forwards, intercepting Cenred's fist, and jumped onto his back when the man threatened to shake him off.
Merlin straightened, fists balled, eyes glinting with determination.
Seeing Cenred was getting overwhelmed, a rugby team pal of his joined the mix, stopped by Gwaine.
Cenred grabbed Arthur’s shoulder, lowered his back, thus getting Arthur off it, and dumped him on the floor.
All hell broke loose.
Merlin kicked at Cenred. Cenred half charged him, driving him back into the wall. A picture crashed down, frame shattering. A vase sitting on a shelf next to it fell to the same destiny.
Gwaine intercepted a fist from Cenred's rugby sidekick. Elyan came thundering down the stairs, chest bare, crying, “What the hell!”
Arthur got off the floor, nursing his shoulder, preparing to stop Cenred from hurting Merlin.
And Mr Smith walked in on all that. “What is happening here?”
The fist-fight ceased.
Given Mr Smith's understandably more than miffed expression, the party was soon over, too, Gwen and Elyan's mates trickling out of the house with their heads bowed.
Mithian and Lancelot stayed and offered to clean up and so did Percy.
Arthur's face was swelling by then and Merlin favoured his side. They were both asked to stay until they could be patched up. Gwaine wanted to stay, too, but had work in the early afternoon tomorrow and had to drive all the way back to London. “Go,” Merlin said. “It was just a punch. I'm okay.”
Gwaine's eyes narrowed. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” said Merlin. “At worst I'll sleep on the sofa and be as right as rain tomorrow. I'm a big boy, go.”
Gwaine hesitated, eyed the door, Merlin's drawn face, and the door again. He sprang forwards, kissing Merlin's lips chastely and left, worry lines etched on his brow.
Arthur and Merlin were herded by Gwen into the kitchen, where they were both made to sit on the counter and given ice packs. Gwen also made Merlin take his shirt off and made Arthur apply the cold pack to his cheek.
“Gwen?” Mithian called from the other room, “Percy wants to know where he can put the glass shards from the frame?”
“Coming,” Gwen shouted back, craning her neck. “Look, I've got to go and help Lance, Percy and Mithian out. And then probably explain to dad that Cenred was a pig and hit Arthur first... and all the rest. In the meanwhile try to behave.”
Arthur lowered his head, shame staining his cheeks.
Merlin said, “Sorry, Gwen.”
Gwen put a hand on Merlin's knee, smiled sympathetically and left them alone.
The silence that followed was punctuated by the sound of Merlin's heels periodically drumming against the counter.
The clock ticked and Gwen's voice wafted over from the other room as she tried to explain to her dad what exactly had happened.
Arthur ingloriously felt like it was all his fault.
“It was not your fault.”
“I shouldn't have played along,” said Arthur.
“Vivian is a free woman and should be able to choose who's she's with,” said Merlin. “Cenred was just being brutish. I don't see how I could have liked him at all.”
“Agreed on Vivian,” said Arthur. “But I shouldn't have gone along with her plans to make Cenred jealous.”
Merlin hissed as he turned on the counter. “Plan? I thought— That you just liked her and went for it.”
Arthur pressed the ice pack against his cheek, hoping it'd numb the throbbing. “No, she turned me around to make Cenred notice us. I went for it but... I wasn't planning to.”
“Attraction doesn't work that way,” Merlin breathed out. “It's never planned.”
“Merlin—” Arthur started but Merlin cut him off by saying, “How are you feeling? You sure you don't need a doc?”
“No, Merlin,” Arthur said plaintively. “I'm sure an aspirin will do.” He was about to ask Merlin the same but Gwen came back and said, “That's exactly what my father said I should do, give you two something for the pain.”
She rooted into a drawer and her finger closed round a blister of tablets. She took two out and grabbed two glasses out of the cupboard, which she filled with water. She handed them a tablet and a glass each, saying, “Be good boys.”
They knocked them down without any objection. “Dad is phoning your parents.”
Arthur stiffened and Merlin made a face.
Gwen said, “Don't worry. He will make it clear it was Cenred that got punch happy. Obviously, you're staying here tonight. You're in no condition to make it back to your homes.”
Arthur said, “Gwen, I appreciate it but I wouldn't want to—”
“Oh, shush,” she said. “You'll be doing as you're told.”
They both sheepishly acquiesced given that they'd had a hand in damaging her house.
“One of you can have the sofa and the other a camping sleeping bag.”
The thing was arranged over their heads and they could do nothing else but thank the Smiths profusely. Mithian, Percy and Lancelot left after having helped to put everything back in order. Elyan got a sleeping bag out of the attic and dragged it down into the living room.
Merlin and Arthur eyed both. “You take the sofa,” they both said at the same time, causing Gwen to giggle.
“No, you take it,” said Merlin, only to be echoed by Arthur.
Gwen left them to quarrel it out for the better part of the next twenty minutes. They only stopped when a pyjamas clad Mr Smith glared at them on his way upstairs.
Merlin ended up taking the sleeping bag, saying it reminded him of when he'd been little and Uncle Gaius had taken him camping to Dorset.
“I'll be right as rain,” he said, kicking off his shoes and pushing down his jeans. He was proved to be the lying liar he was when he settled onto one side only to roll quickly onto the other.
“Hurts, doesn't it?” said Arthur, as Merlin burrowed into his sleeping bag. Merlin just said, “Go to sleep, Arthur, God knows you need it.”
By one o'clock all the lights had gone out, except for the sliver that flooded in from the kitchen.
Arthur pulled his blanket up to his chin and stared at the ceiling, Merlin's soft, tired snoring keeping him company without allowing him to forget what it was that he'd done tonight. And why?
A little insistent voice nagged at him but he determinedly clamped his mouth shut and closed his eyes.
He did fall asleep; the pill Gwen had given him having acted.
He woke again some two hours later though he couldn't be sure of anything past it being still fully, sombrely dark.
Someone smacked their lips and Arthur groggily remembered where he was. He flipped onto his side and took in Merlin, of what little of him was visible from underneath the shiny folds of his borrowed sleeping bag.
Basically he was just a tuft of dark hair and the tips of his fingers from where he was clutching at the bag's nylon.
Arthur smiled softly to himself at that, fighting the urge to thread his fingers through Merlin's spiky hair.
Heat crept up his neck and face at the thought of indulging, actually doing it, and his heart missed a beat.
He pushed his blanket down, inhaling sharply. He wiped at his face and watched the lump in the sleeping bag rise and fall with Merlin's breaths.
Watching Marlin now, he saw with a certain clarity that over the past couple of weeks he'd missed Merlin, the perfect slot in his life where he was, where Arthur had always thought he'd find him.
He guessed that tonight he'd just been feeling that more; even now it seemed to him as though something was not right.
Even though Merlin was right there, something was different about him now.
Well, perhaps not about Merlin per se but about the way Arthur viewed him. The niggling thought of Gwaine's presence in Merlin's life irritated Arthur.
It was like a subtle itch you ignore for a while until it becomes impossible to and you just have to scratch and prod.
He ought to be happy for Merlin. He knew he'd embarked on his mission to make Merlin happy with the intent of finding him someone. Well, perhaps not someone so obnoxiously... Gwaine. But now that Merlin had, Arthur felt it was wrong.
He sat up, scrubbing a hand down his face. Leaning over, he put his elbows on his bare legs and let his hands hang down between his knees in an effort not to reach out and touch Merlin, in an effort not to feel the skin at his neck.
It had to be warm with sleep now. Arthur knew what Merlin's skin there felt like but he kept wondering about other things. Like... How would it be to have sex with Merlin, going all the way? How it would be if he could get him to come?
Gwaine probably knew.
And fuck Arthur's heart was broken over that.
He moved a little, hand reaching out towards Merlin. The stairs creaked and his eyes connected with Gwen's. She slowly crept down, mouthed the words, “Follow me.”
Arthur drew his hand back and trailed after her into the kitchen. She wagged her eyebrows at the door and Arthur let it clunk shut.
Gwen smiled, dug an orange juice carton from the out of the fridge and said conversationally, “You know there was a time when I fancied you.”
Arthur was taken aback. “Gwen, I'm—”
“Going to say something noble about how you don't want to hurt my feelings?”
Gwen grinned, her curls bouncing on her shoulders in a way that made him smile. “I got that. Actually I'll tell you how I got over my crush and shifted in onto Percy. I saw that you were confused. At first I thought it was Sophia. At your house party a couple of months ago? But then I realised you kept trying to draw Merlin in, asking him questions and defending him when Sophia was being less than nice to him.”
Arthur scratched at his forehead. Had he done that? That was when he'd started acting on his plan to get Merlin hitched, so... probably. “And that was when I suspected that you might be into him. Though I wasn't sure because you'd dated so many girls.”
Arthur sank into one of the kitchen chairs, taking an orange from the bowl and juggling it. “I really fancied them. Mithian and Sophia and... I think you’re beautiful.”
Gwen curtsied. “Thank you.”
“But I guess,” He said, “I think I— God, I'm an idiot.”
“It's Merlin, isn't it?” She came and sat across from him, head resting in her hand. “I thought it might just have been a strong friendship before, you missing him. I knew for sure only tonight.”
Arthur might have had a clue before but he'd stupidly thought along the lines of a touch is a touch and a hard-on is a hard-on, the natural product of someone fondling you. He'd thought that Sophia, Mithian, Elena and the splendid Cypriot girl he'd met on holiday and whose name he'd never grasped made him straight. When apparently — “I swing both ways.”
“Are you eating that orange or just groping it?”
Arthur laughed a little hysterically at the non sequitur. Maybe it was what he'd needed to take his mind of his sorry state. “Eating it,” he said. And had a very early breakfast with Gwen.
The following morning Arthur drove Merlin home. “You know you don't have to,” Merlin said.
Arthur told him he was just postponing the inevitable confrontation with his dad. But he was lying through his teeth: now that he knew where he stood, he just wanted to spend as much time as possible with Merlin, even if he was just watching him from afar, playing second fiddle to someone he'd inadvertently put there himself.
(The laws of cosmic irony probably confirmed that he deserved this anyway.)
As Arthur weaved through the light Sunday morning traffic, Merlin prattled on good humouredly even though a dressing down was probably waiting in the wings for him, too. “After I've sat my Oxford interview, I'll have time to be trying for my driving licence. So you won't have to shuttle me around anymore.”
“I'm glad to,” Arthur said, pinning his eyes to the road because now was just not the moment to be punched in the gut by one of Merlin's smiles.
“Yeah, I know,” said Merlin.
They rolled down Merlin's road, Merlin waving at his neighbours, Arthur slowing down before parking kerbside in front of Merlin's house.
Merlin opened the passenger door and swooped round to tell him something, something he never did tell him because Merlin's mum appeared on the doorstep, expression less than pleased.
Merlin grimaced, “Yeah, an epic show down awaits me,” he said, clamping down on Arthur's wrist by way of a good-bye.
Arthur watched him duck into the house with his heart beating fast.
Merlin's mum was really furious when she learnt that he'd taken part in a fist fight at a friend's house.
“You're repaying the Smiths for the broken frame and vase out of your own savings,” she said, and “I really thought you knew that violence never solves anything.”
Merlin snorted. “Tell that to Cenred King. He punched Arthur first!”
His mother's cocked eyebrow told Merlin he'd better zip up if he didn't want to make her shout.
She didn't shout but she did make sure his social life was severely limited after that.
His list of chores magically quadrupled, and no “But, Muuums!” worked on her either.
She packed him off to study at Uncle Gaius', where, supposedly, he could concentrate better and suffer no distractions.
Which was true. Except for Alice, the pharmacist down the High Street, no one even rang Merlin's uncle.
And Merlin's Saturday outings were cut short till he could rake up the money to repay the Smiths for a frame the Pendragons had already bought new for them.
“Better,” said his mum. “They'll have two. Considering they were put to the bother of housing you that's the very least that should be done for them.”
Even taking a day out of normal lessons to go and sit the BMAT seemed like a welcome diversion (though Merlin was scared shitless that he wouldn't score high enough to be admitted into Oxford.)
Merlin also took on a part time job to refund the Smiths, basically he was the new newspaper delivery boy.
Over the summer he usually mowed lawns and covered shifts at the local esoteric bookshop, but during the winter those jobs weren't available, so newspaper delivery it was.
Merlin would have called himself happy with that but for the circumstance of Mrs O'Brien’s Great Dane puppy, which was as tall as a pony despite its puppitude, and hated Merlin.
Till Merlin had earned a hundred and two pounds at his honest job, he couldn't go out with Gwaine. He complained about this, saying, “Mum, I like him.”
This time, his mum listened to him, probably because she knew, just like Merlin himself did, that he was hopeless with boyfriends and that he wouldn't find another one till he was twenty one if he lost this one.
Merlin might cheekily have affixed a drawing to their fridge door, depicting him sad and old as he sat alone in a corner.
So she relented but was still strict about Merlin's partial house arrest. “Invite him over,” she said.
Though Merlin didn't particularly want to entertain Gwaine when his mum was there, he did invite him over. Gwaine came but Merlin knew that the domestic one wasn't his scene. Though Gwaine had parents and was just eighteen himself, he never even mentioned them.
To Merlin it seemed as though he'd been allowed lots of freedom from an early age. Gwaine shrugged it off, saying, “I was the bread winner. It wasn't as if they could control me much when I was the one paying for most things, as sad as it is to say.”
At Merlin's, Gwaine roamed around the house on the pretence of exploring it though he was mostly restless, Merlin could see.
Gwaine dragged him into the back garden for a prolonged kissing session away from his mum, though he even stayed over for dinner for once.
But his eyes often strayed to the clock, he jiggled his legs, and he got a little puce when Merlin's mum asked him rather embarrassing questions about why he'd chosen to leave school so young.
Gwaine flipped his hair and said, “I suppose I'm making more money and being more productive this way than if I'd mucked around pretending I was interested in A levels... Mrs Emrys.”
The most embarrassing moment, though, must have happened when she found a spread dedicated to Gwaine on one of the magazines she usually read. Gwaine was there.
Merlin never touched her pile of magazines so he hadn't known what was on the page.
“Mmm,” she said. “I think that's you, Gwaine.” Gwaine walked up to her and bent over her armchair to see what she was talking about. “Yeah, the polo shirts one. That's almost the most dressed I've ever been in a shoot.”
Merlin just wanted to disappear.
The next day his mum ambushed him over their own lawnmower. “He's quite famous, you know. I hadn't realised.”
“His popularity levels went a bit down,” Merlin said, not specifying why. Gwaine hadn't told him much about that but Mithian had. Gwaine had been a bit wild and his reputation for punctuality had plummeted.
Mithian had almost seemed as if she was trying to discourage Merlin from seeing Gwaine when she'd said that. Since she'd been okay with their being together at the fashion show Merlin couldn't see why she'd changed her mind. But none of that was something he wanted to share with his mum. It would be like gossiping about Gwaine.
“Merlin,” she said as Merlin cut the grass near the bed of roses. “Just watch out.”
Merlin turned the lawnmower off. “Mum, Gwaine isn't a bad man just because he posed in underwear once or twice.” Tiny, tiny underwear, but he wasn't about to tell his mum that Merlin had specifically Googled that. Or that someone on YouTube claimed to have a sex tape of him around.
“No,” his mum agreed. She was using her wise mum tone. “I was young myself once, too, you know. Whatever you may think. And I don't just judge people on how many layers they're wearing. It's just that... He—”
Merlin hoped she wasn't going to say that she thought Gwaine too good for Merlin. Because Merlin sometimes thought that, too, and hadn't failed to hear the comments of those schoolmates of his who'd seen Gwaine at Gwen's. “He's what, mum?”
“Young, just as you are, that's all.”
Merlin was sure the word 'young' was supposed to be loaded but he decided he didn't want to feel bad about himself or Gwaine so he didn't let the thought stick. Anyway his mum was worrying too much.
He discussed the thing over with Arthur but Arthur nipped that conversation in the bud.
He was polite and nice about it but he said, “I won't poke my nose in, Merlin.” A little line had appeared across his forehead, a line Merlin felt the urge to smooth out, and he fixed his attention on the school canteen olives as though they had turned purple.
Merlin let it drop. Perhaps Arthur wasn't okay with playing confidante. Maybe he found Merlin’s romantic problems boring. So Merlin smiled and gave Arthur his slice of fudge.
“It's yours,” said Arthur. “You love it.”
Merlin winked, said, “Nah, eat it,” and watched Arthur do just that, frown line gone.
Merlin's birthday came a week later. He celebrated it with the track relay team. He unveiled a cascade of sandwiches his mum had made, veggie ones for Lance, and a cake that had whipped cream on top.
His friends pounced on the food, the least pouncy being Arthur, and started to take the mickey out of each other over their meal.
Elyan teased Lance because he was now going out with Mithian. “Jealous, Arthur?” He asked. Arthur drummed a rhythm on the table and said, “Not in the least.”
“Have you,” Elyan asked. “You know got somewhere with her?”
“That, though,” said Arthur, “I don't want to know.”
Lance said, “You don't think I'd honestly tell?”
“Yeah, I forgot,” said Elyan. “You're a gentleman.”
Lance smiled and chomped on his sandwich.
Elyan gave up and turned the inquisition on Merlin, “How come you're celebrating your birthday with us and not somewhere fucking your boyfriend?”
Arthur scraped his chair back. “Sorry,” he said, “going to the loo. I think the tuna did a number on me.”
When, after ten minutes, Arthur hadn't come back down, Merlin said, “I'll go see if he's all right.”
“Merlin, Merlin,” said Elyan. “Always fretting over Arthur.”
“He might have food poisoning, though, so Merlin had better check him out,” Lance pointed out. “How are you feeling, El?”
Merlin didn't stay to hear the answer but clambered up the stairs and knocked on the door to the loo. “You all right?” he asked through the door.
Contrary to Merlin's expectations, Arthur opened the door immediately. His face was all wet, fringe sticking up. He was red about the face. Merlin repeated his question and put a hand on Arthur's forehead, worrying for real.
Arthur leant into his touch for a second, and then brushed him off, undoing one more button of his shirt. “Yeah, Merlin, I'm all right now. I told you, it was the tuna.”
Merlin bit on his lower lip, not convinced that Arthur wasn't putting on his usual strong front. “You sure? Completely and one hundred per cent?” He quirked his lips up to convince Arthur it was okay to speak if he didn't feel okay.
“Yes, Merlin,” said Arthur. “I'm well able to judge my own state of health.”
Merlin still wasn't buying it and had to smile at Arthur pretending to want to shake him off so he could be all manly and stuff. Arthur always wanted to come off as strong. He always wanted to be a good friend for Merlin, going to the lengths of trying to find him a boyfriend because Merlin was unhappy. Arthur never asked for anything in return. Arthur always played it cool, even when it wasn’t, never wanting Merlin to worry, like right now.
Merlin decided that a friendship like that was a rare, wonderful thing, something that warmed his heart and made his ribs tighten. Instinctively, he pushed off the hallway wall and gave Arthur a hug, his nose buried in Arthur's neck.
For a second Arthur wrapped his arm around Merlin's waist, nostrils flaring in a kind of half sniff Merlin found funny, then Arthur pushed him off, punched him lightly on the shoulder, and gave him a smile. Still pretty red in the face, Arthur said, “Happy birthday, Merlin.”
“It was,” said Merlin. “Happy, I mean.”
Arthur's fingers twitched at his side as if he was about to maybe slap Merlin's shoulder again or something, eyes all intent and focused and super blue, but then Lance called out from downstairs, asking whether Arthur was still alive and he aborted the motion.
They both went back downstairs though Merlin had the impression Arthur wanted to tell him something all evening.
It was past midnight when his friends made their way to their respective homes, Arthur texting him 'happy b-day' again from the road.
His second birthday celebration was to take place the next Saturday. Gwaine was taking him all the way to London for a special thing, Merlin's mum moratorium on Merlin's nights out having suddenly lifted much as it had been enforced.
Excitation played under Merlin's skin and turned his stomach upside down. This was meant to be his first night out by himself, as an adult, not just sleeping over at a friend's.
They took the train so as to be faster and Gwaine kept teasing him all the time, kicking at his foot and telling him, “How does it feel to be finally eighteen?”
“Great,” said Merlin, “absolutely great.”
“Good,” Gwaine told him, “because I have a surprise for you.”
Due to the strange sort of smirking Gwaine did while saying that Merlin was convinced the surprise was to be of a sexual nature. He told himself that Gwaine had probably decided that having full on sex, no furtive sneak-arounds, would be the best sort of birthday pressie.
Once, after Merlin had made him come by teasing his sleet with his fingers and tugging on his balls, a winded Gwaine had said that orgasm was the best celebration of life there was. Merlin could see how this would tie up with that.
He wasn't sure how he felt about it; he was thrilled to be here, watching the landscape blur past and coalesce into so many colours he couldn't count them, but he supposed his excitement wasn't entirely about the sex.
Yes, he'd been wanting the experience, probably even from before he'd asked Arthur to teach him how to kiss, but that didn't seem big now, not as big as going to Arthur and admitting he'd never been touched before.
And anyway he was sure he was lucky. Whatever he wanted Gwaine would go with him.
He'd never forced his hand or guilt tripped him into anything, so Merlin felt safe. And this was going to be a life experience everybody went through: graduating from hurried, mostly clothed sex to a slower version dictated only by what you wanted.
London was big; Merlin impressed with its magnitude compared to Avalon.
He'd been before, of course, but then either Uncle Gaius or his mum had taken him. They'd been educational trips: Uncle Gaius had shown him the old Operating Theatre and the Royal London Hospital Museum while his mum had opted for taking him to Westminster Abbey and telling him which famous personages were buried where.
Gwaine took Merlin to his first club. There was the embarrassing moment when the bouncer scowled at his real ID — a perfectly valid citizen card he'd gone through the pains of obtaining while he waited for his provisional driving licence — as if it was a fake. Since it was clear it wasn't he was let through.
Inside the lights were dimmed but flashing, especially over the dance floor area. The booth area had two-toned leather sofas arranged in L shapes that allowed people to chat and mingle, tables covered with glasses in between.
Glass brick windows were there for decorative purpose to create a film noir ambience, Merlin guessed, and a narrow metal stairway covered in plush plum carpet led to another floor. The VIP zone, maybe.
Hundreds of light bulbs were strung high above the dance floor, behind which was the DJ position, from which a skinny guy was calling the shots.
“Do you want a drink?” Gwaine asked, shouting a little over the music.
Merlin thought about how getting drunk would probably ruin the rest of the night's potential and weighed that against the fact that he should celebrate. Even if in a measure he already had with Arthur before. “Sure, something minty and not too alcoholic.”
“Wait here,” Gwaine yelled and Merlin gave him an extremely stupid thumbs up sign.
While Gwaine shouldered his way to the bar, Merlin was left alone to contemplate the place and how little he fit into the scene. The crowd here was that sort of hip mixed with urban chic that Merlin, Cornwall boy through and through, had little in common with.
Helpfully the clientele seemed made up of all sorts of couples: girls with girls, girls with boys, boys with boys.
That was a plus. Merlin couldn't help but see a bit of Gwaine in it. The casual boneless elegance and sexual openness Gwaine sported reflected in the patrons. He couldn't ponder that for long since the man himself returned, holding two glasses, one containing a transparent liquid and the other containing a brown one, crushed ice and mint leaves on top. Merlin guessed that the one with the tiny mint leaves was his.
“Here you go,” said Gwaine, handing Merlin his glass and downing half of his.
Merlin drank a sip of his and coughed, fire burning down his throat. “What's in it?” he exhaled, voice momentarily gone.
Merlin flapped one hand around the glass. “Besides the mint.”
“Crushed ice...” Gwaine's eyebrows danced. “Sugar syrup and bourbon.”
Ha, that explained the burn all right. “I thought—”
“Come on.” Gwaine towed him along. “Let's have a dance.”
They danced to more alternative rock tunes than Merlin could care to remember, Merlin not being too good at it, his limbs all over the place — this included lots and lots of unintentional jabbing —, Gwaine actually brilliant at it, charisma oozing out of everything he did.
Merlin felt more and more like a fish out of water; he was a seal sitting on top of an iceberg with Gwaine canoodling round and round him.
Maybe Gwaine had sensed the innate difference between them, too — and what a quintessential loser Merlin was when around good-looking, charming people — for while they were slow dancing now, Gwaine didn't kiss him or neck him or anything at all.
Merlin tried to focus on moving slowly and not on thoughts of how this was getting awkward when Gwaine's mobile buzzed between them. “Ha,” Gwaine said. “I've got to answer this.”
Merlin stepped back. Gwaine slipped his phone out of his pocket and grinned. “Come with me,” he said, grabbing Merlin by the wrist and herding him towards the stairs Merlin had noted before.
Halfway up a velvet rope not visible from downstairs was barring the way. A fairly large bouncer with shoulders wider than an American football player's was manning the passage to the inner VIP sanctum.
“Gwaine,” asked, Merlin, nonplussed, “where are you dragging me off to? I don't think we can get past the kindly gentleman.”
Except they could. The scowl on the bouncer's forehead dissolved the moment his eyes fell on Gwaine. He lifted the cordon and slapped Gwaine on the arm.
Mouth hanging open, Merlin followed him into the private VIP zone. The tables were sparser here, one or two every now and then. The music from the dance floor was muffled by what must have been a really good soundproofing system.
Gwaine led him to the table in the farthest corner. Around it were three girls wearing shimmering party dresses that were a little see-through in certain areas and two men, one of which was...
“Lamorak Jones,” Merlin breathed out, a little awed. “How did you know?”
“Saw the poster in your room.” Gwaine gave him a push forwards. “Hi, folks,” he said, “this is my intimate friend, Merlin. He runs track.”
“Gwaine,” Merlin hissed, “you don't say that to the 100's world's fastest man!” Merlin waved at Mr Jones. “Hello, I, er, urm, am a fan.”
“Hello, Merlin,” said Mr Jones, “Why don't you have a seat so you can tell me about your specialty?”
Merlin grinned half sweetly, half cheekily, “Only if you tell me of your exploits at the World Outdoor Championship.”
“Deal,” said Lamorak, a few of the girls making space for Merlin to sit in the booth. “I'll tell you about how I ran my personal best in Osaka and then maybe we can talk about yours.”
Merlin blushed, heart thumping very fast, hands a bit damp. Gwaine leant over to murmur in his ear, “Happy birthday, Merlin.”
Mr Jones was really nice to Merlin, letting him stay at his table for more than an hour, offering him a drink and telling him about his efforts to get to pro. He'd been a late bloomer by sprint standards, starting his career back in his native Ohio when he was in high school.
“I was ancient compared to others,” he joked.
He shared things about himself that weren't in interviews, including his memories of his high school coach.
Jones was a funny man, not just a brilliant, brilliant sportsman, and Merlin guessed he had hearts in his eyes by the time Mr Jones asked him about his sprinting record, (he'd said it was good) and whether Merlin had ever thought to make it into the semi-professional circle, (trying to become a doctor), Merlin was sure he was half in love.
Inevitably Mr Jones had to go, having been invited to a party at a friend's house. His scintillating group, including a girl who called Merlin 'Sweetie', rose to leave, waving goodbye to Merlin and Gwaine.
Merlin sighed helplessly watching them go.
Merlin and Gwaine had another dance downstairs and left around four, the night air bracing and balmy after having spent the evening breathing in the over saturated atmosphere of the club.
They were making their way down Leicester Square and back towards Piccadilly when Merlin said, “Thank you. I don't even know how you got me to meet my idol, but you did. That was a fantastic present.”
“Managing it was pretty simple.” Gwaine shrugged his shoulders. “I did some modelling for a sports gear label a few months ago and he was in it. We hit it on immediately and I had his phone number. When I saw that poster in your room, I knew it was better than giving you a stupid shirt or a watch or anything of that sort.”
“It was the perfect present,” Merlin said, avoiding the still persistent Saturday night crowd. “Arthur will be a little bit green with envy. Jones is his favourite, too. It was like the influenza... I started reading articles about him and it spread. Now Arthur's got it, too.”
Gwaine stopped walking and Merlin had to backtrack.
Gwaine said, “I think we need to talk, Merlin. I meant to do this tomorrow morning, but... I've always said, 'don't do tomorrow what you can do today'.”
Merlin nodded as Gwaine led him to a quieter nook. “Okay, shoot.”
“You're great company, Merlin, and hot,” Gwaine began.
“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” said Merlin, uncomfortably hunching in his pea coat.
Gwaine took his hand, threading their fingers together. “You're one rare find,” he said. “But — My career has been in a slump since I was stupid enough to ruin it a year and a half ago. There have been jobs but not as many as before. Well, after Mithian and the charity event, people in the business have realised I've cleaned up.”
Merlin bobbed his head up and down. “I see.”
Gwaine's thumb moved, trailing along Merlin's pulse point. “And I've been offered a comeback job. A big one.”
“That's fantastic,” Merlin said brightly, even though his stomach started doing flips in anticipation of a less than positive outcome. “I'm happy for you.”
“It's in New York,” said Gwaine. “I'm sorry.”
“I was expecting something of the kind, actually,” said Merlin as he tried to analyse how he felt about it.
Maybe he was attempting to step away from it, but for now he had no other reaction than feeling a bit sad over how he wasn't worth it and a bit thankful that Gwaine had been very thoughtful in giving him a good after birthday. (Not on the day.)
“I can't let that opportunity go,” Gwaine said, “It's going to be a pretty binding contract and I'll have to be there most of the time.”
“Gwaine...” Merlin tried to summon up his best and brightest smile. “You don't have to apologise. Not to me, not for... doing what you want to do.”
Gwaine crushed him close and kissed him, firm and sure, driving his tongue into his mouth in one quick foray before letting Merlin go. “You're really special, Merlin. I was afraid you'd... I want us to stay friends because you're the best one I have.”
Merlin gave Gwaine one little kiss to the side of his mouth and said, “You'll always be my friend, Gwaine.”
December came with a touch of frost but sunny days, chemistry and economy surprise quizzes, (thank God for Mr Carleon and his free approach to teaching in spite of school curriculums) and an announcement on the part of the school board allowing an end of first term party the attendance of which was limited to all those year twelve and thirteen pupils with an 85% attendance rate. (There was to be punch, live music and it was meant to be a general rehearsal of the levers' ball that would take place in the summer.)
Mithian and Lancelot got together at last, Lancelot a bit slow on the uptake as to how serious she was about him. Percy and Gwen had got together too but the other Smith sibling wasn't as blessed in the amorous department. The girl Elyan had gone out with over November dumped him.
Sophia was with someone again, a Charles Bedivere, who was apparently an Honourable.
Vivian approached Arthur to apologise for the disastrous results of Gwen's party and Arthur found she wasn't bad at all when she wasn't trying to make Cenred jealous.
“I was stupid. I wasn't even acting like myself. It's just that I really like him and he's always with his mates. I thought that he'd be nicer if he thought he could lose me.” She shrugged. “Love makes you do strange things, doesn't it?”
Arthur whimpered in half-agreement, half denial, very self-conscious about how honest Vivian was being with him.
They parted over her, “Don't think too badly of me, all right?”
“I won't. I promise.”
And as for Arthur himself, he was thinking about Merlin — kind of constantly. He spaced out over breakfast (Morgana picking up on it), during lessons and even when Merlin was right there in front of him.
As a result, his school performance suffered a little. He even got a detention. Mr Monmouth was very serious about paying attention, it would seem.
The sad thing about it was that Arthur wasn't even fussed about it, not when he found Merlin sitting on the floor outside the classroom at five pm.
“What are you doing here?” asked Arthur, heart double thumping when Merlin's eyes crinkled up.
“Waiting for you.”
“I thought you were supposed to be at your uncle's having mock Oxford interviews?”
Merlin rose and dusted himself off. “Couldn't leave you to suffer alone, could I?”
Arthur's insides curled with sizzling warmth, making him wish he could rewind time so he could go back to before. When he’d had Merlin all to himself. Maybe if he hadn't been so stupid, he'd have found a way to keep him.
“Thank you, Merlin,” he said as normally as he could, “for not being the rat that abandons the sinking ship.” Oh God, he'd just compared Merlin to a rat.
Merlin, however, didn't seem to be insulted at all. “I can go to Gaius' tomorrow.”
The next day Merlin wasn't so blasé about his Oxford interview anymore.
Arthur plonked down next to him on the ratty common room sofa. Merlin was drowning in notepads and books, his laptop in front of him, three National Railways PDF timetables open at the same time. “Are you revising for your interview or planning to get a job with First Great Western?” Arthur asked him.
“Mum can't drive me to Oxford next week ‘cause she's working,” Merlin said, enlarging the PDF, “I can't drive yet and I need to find the cheapest fare from here to there.”
“Can't Gwaine drive you?”
Merlin stopped squinting at the screen and re-draped himself over the sofa. “No, er, no. He—” Merlin sucked his lower lip. “He's got an important job.” Merlin reprised his clicking and squinting.
Arthur closed the lid of Merlin's lap top, sending it into stand-by, a smile of reassurance on his lips. “Calm down. I'll drive you.”
“B—but you've got school.”
“Yeah,” Arthur said, “but I can skip a day or two. When is the interview anyway? Monday, the fifteenth?”
“Then we can start from here on Sunday.” Arthur made a few rapid calculations regarding mileage and the amount of petrol needed to cover the journey there and back. “Then you can go sit your interview on Monday and, depending on how late it finishes, either drive back or stay another night.”
Merlin made a hopeful face but he tamped down the smile by pursing his lips. “Won't your dad be angry?”
“Not when he knows the reason why,” Arthur said, and even if his father objected Arthur was old enough to decide how to administer his own time. “It won't even affect my 85% attendance rate.” Arthur brushed his knuckles down his shirt and blew on them. “You're not the only model student, geek.”
Merlin jumped up like an eager puppy, palming the side of Arthur's neck. He leant close as if to brush a kiss over the top of his head, allowing Arthur to smell him deep in his nostrils and look up at him in proud wonder.
Merlin stopped short when some other sixth formers ambled in, Sophia in the lead.
Arthur managed not to curse by thinking of extremely relaxing thoughts and concentrating on the little depression on Merlin's bottom lip, the one he fantasised about kissing all the time. Looking at it a tad intensely, he went a bit crossed eyed, but that didn't matter because Merlin was patting him on the head, praising him about how he was the best friend in the world.
Arthur closed his eyes trying not to think of how he wanted to be more than that.
When he re-opened them Merlin was looking at him in that sweet way of his.
Arthur would have said something, though he'd blanked out of thoughts, when Merlin's career tutor appeared, asking for a word with him. After Merlin had trotted up to her, she said. “Candidates' BMAT result went up on-line.”
Glancing at him over his shoulder, Merlin idled in the doorway. Arthur mouthed 'break a leg' and Merlin exited.
Time had a strange way of passing; sometimes it stretched and warped so that it seemed endless. And sometimes it went by so fast you had no idea of how you'd got to a certain point. Arthur had experienced neither of those sensations but rather a mixture of both.
Sometimes it seemed like the thirteenth would never come, as if it was eons away and all of his and Merlin's planning (car servicing, B&B booking, map studying of which Merlin wasn't aware because Arthur didn't want to give the impression of being less trustworthy than a train) wouldn't come to fruition.
Sometimes, though, he felt like he had no time to steel himself for what was about to happen. Oh, he was aware that nothing was likely to happen because Merlin had a boyfriend, but he still half dreaded, half wanked about sharing a room with Merlin.
As un-poetic as it might have sounded, he'd even had a couple wet dreams about that too, like a fucking thirteen year old.
The Sunday before Merlin's fateful Monday (as Merlin himself referred to it, the adorable wanker) finally rolled around and Arthur parked outside Merlin's house at eight pm sharp. He sounded the horn to tell Merlin he was there.
The door flew open and Merlin came scurrying out, gripping his carry-all bag tightly. Letting the car window down, Arthur said, “Put it in the boot, yeah?”
Merlin nodded tightly, a little ball of nerves.
Merlin had the boot open when his mum came out of the house in her dressing gown, holding a hard shell thermos container by the handles. She stuffed it in the back, saying, “So you boys have something to eat along the way.”
“Mum!” Merlin complained. “I've got money for that!”
“Don't be silly, Merlin, this is much better than processed food.”
Getting out of the car, Arthur thanked Mrs Emrys profusely, earning some praise from her for being such a polite young man, though he secretly sided with Merlin. He'd meant to take Merlin out tonight, like Gwaine had done on his birthday.
Sure that one-upmanship games wouldn't go down well with Mrs Emrys, and considering that she was shrewd enough to suss him out, Arthur didn't voice that thought. He merely reassured her about intending to drive safely and stopping frequently.
“Sorry about that,” Merlin said, as his mum went back inside, waving from the kitchen window, presence advertised by a curtain flutter. “She means well.”
Arthur reversed out of the driveway. “I suppose that's what mums are like.”
The happy, humorous gleam in Merlin's eyes went out to be replaced by a look of sadness and sweet, wide-eyed sympathy. He rested his hand on top of Arthur's on the gear lever.
Arthur reversed right into the recycling bin, knocking it down flat. (It took them twenty minutes to put everything back in order.)
219 miles and seven hours later they drove into Oxford. It was too late to visit any of its famous sights and they were too knackered for anything more than a cursory pointing out of landmarks. “Look, that's the Bodlean,” said Merlin as they drove down Broad Street.
By dint of asking around they found their B&B. It was a Victorian terraced house next door to a 12th century church and opposite the rail station.
“Go on, get inside,” said Arthur, “while I try to park this monster.” After seven hours on the road and a spare forty minutes wasted in trying to locate their B&B, Arthur's back was screaming blue murder and he'd started regretting ever learning how to drive.
Twenty minutes later he'd found a spot to park and hied himself back to their room. Merlin was sticking his stuff rather haphazardly inside the creaking wardrobe while Arthur sat with a loud sigh on a bed that sighed louder than him.
His eyes went to Merlin as a reflex, following him as he bustled around, nipping into the bathroom to put his things on the shelf there, setting his books on the nightstand next to his bed.
He found himself dwelling on the tiny things: how Merlin's long fingers curled around the pillow as he gave it a testing squeeze or how funny his feet looked as he paraded about in his white woollen socks.
After the best part of a day spent in the car, Merlin's fringe was all sweaty and sticking to his forehead as if it was wet. It was kind of sexy. Kind of how it had looked when he'd pushed down, Merlin under him, Arthur's mouth on his neck.
The familiarity of Merlin settling down in their shared quarters was more than a little bit terrifying because of what it suggested. Things that weren't real.
Things that Arthur wanted to be real.
“Christ, I smell,” said Merlin, sniffing his armpit. “Mind if I have a shower and then we go grab something to eat?”
Arthur nearly jumped out of his skin so lost he'd been in watching Merlin. “Yeah, yeah, okay.”
Merlin yanked off his jumper and tee in one go, ducking his head to fit through the tiny door into the bathroom. Arthur was fucked if he thought he could survive 48 hours of this: casual semi-nudity and closeness.
Yet somehow the sound of the shower going lulled him to sleep, the shapeless and lumpy mattress, having sunk under him, forming some kind of not particularly comfortable cradle.
He woke an undetermined amount of time later, the street outside already pitch dark, the light in the room sombre and given out by a bedside lampshade. So it was much, much later than he'd thought. He'd just meant to have a cat nap and had instead slept for hours.
Merlin was leaning over him and speaking low. “It's past nine, Arthur.”
Arthur shot up to a sitting position, back complaining. “Oh, shit, sorry, I don't know what's got into me. Give me a mo and we'll head out.”
Merlin pushed him down. “No, stupid, I just woke you to ask you if you wanted me to nip round the corner and get some take away. I'd have let you sleep but this place doesn't exactly have a restaurant and I thought to myself what if he gets hungry at three?”
Arthur smiled, letting his hand go to Merlin's hip. He was still foggy; that was his excuse.
Merlin's eyes went to his hand then closed on his face again. He was biting his lip, a slight tremor going all over him. Arthur ran his fingers in circles at his waist but Merlin didn't shake him off. Gasping up a big lungful, he said, “So about me... getting you food?”
“I should have been the moral support. I thought I was meant to cheer you along and instead—”
Merlin sat on Arthur's bed, springs giving again. “Don't be absurd. You're tired; you've been great. Now let me go and provide. We can have some of my mum's stuff from the car and some hot food as well.”
“I want Chinese.” Arthur smiled. “And something sweet. And a beer. And a hot coffee, too.”
“As you wish, Your Highness.”
Arthur slipped his hands in his trousers and handed Merlin the car keys so he could open the boot.
“I'll be back in a jiffy.” So saying Merlin grabbed his coat and went out.
Arthur dozed some more and only woke properly when Merlin came back with the food. In the absence of any other available surface they spread the cartons on the floor and ate using paper towels and little paper bowls.
At first they chatted about school and telly shows and sports and other inanities, and then they fell quiet for a while, until Merlin shuddered. “Nervous,” he said.
“For tomorrow?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah,” said Merlin, his back to the wall, his legs stretched out before him, shoeless feet crossed at the ankles.
Arthur was mirroring his position, his back to the wall opposite. Sitting this way their legs brushed close because the room, minus the area occupied by the beds, wasn't all that big.
“What if I sound like a tit? What if I make a complete and utter fool of myself? I want this with everything I have. So maybe—”
“You can follow in his path and find your dad?” asked Arthur.
Merlin poured out a sigh that was half a sob. “Yeah, maybe, stupid of me.”
Arthur pushed himself forward, back curved towards Merlin. “When I was about six,” said Arthur in the lowest voice imaginable, “I sneaked out of the house. I thought: if I follow that road, I'll find her. My mum. See, they'd told me she'd died in Tintagel hospital, giving... giving birth to me. And... I'd just learnt to read.” He smiled bitterly. “And road signs...”
“Arthur—” Merlin moved onto his knees, straining forwards, putting his hand on his and clamping down as if with all the strength he had. “You didn't have to share that.”
“What I mean, Merlin,” he said, willing Merlin to see. “Is that I get you. I do. Deep down here.” He passed his free hand over his heart. “But I also know that you're more than the search for your dad. Crap, you're the best student we have at Avalon. You get by like a breeze. And... You want to be a doctor. Fine, go and give it your best shot. But, don't do it to find him. Do it your own way. And you'll be... You'll leave us all behind.”
Merlin tilted his head, eyes a little wet. “You don't know how great you are, Arthur, do you?”
Arthur didn't answer. He slapped Merlin's consoling hand off instead, a big smile on his face to wash away the sting. “Go to sleep or Prof what's his name will get a zombie for an interviewee.”
Merlin kissed his cheek, his lips soft and smelling faintly of beer. “Yes, sire.”
After some changing, flossing and teeth brushing, Merlin slipped under the covers, and was soon out like a light.
Arthur changed into his Pjs more leisurely, had a bathroom run, and came back into the room, standing in the space between the two beds.
He stared at his and then at Merlin. He chortled sotto-voce at the idea of having developed a sleeping Merlin fetish. Then he moved. He stretched by Merlin's side, Merlin too deeply asleep to know.
Just a moment, he thought to himself. Just a moment like this, fancying things were different and that he could wake Merlin, climb on top of him and push, push inside, get lost in him.
Chest too tight to breathe, Arthur took a moment or two, enjoying his scenario and a hundred other ones at least. He was thinking of them a few years down the line, Gwaine out of the picture, maybe Merlin in theatre whites...when he wasn't thinking anymore.
He fell asleep.
It was a combination of light playing on his lids and Merlin's mobile wakeup call tune that brought him back to the land of the living. The first sight that met his eyes was a close up, an extreme close up, of Merlin's fluttering lashes. They were thick and the colour of charcoal. Oh crap, he'd fallen asleep on Merlin's bed. This hadn't been meant to happen.
His fuzzy brain told him that he should come up with an explanation. Merlin’s lazy, sleepy, totally unperturbed smile told him that one wasn't needed.
“Hello, Arthur,” said Merlin, stirring, stretching and purring.
Arthur laughed and said, “Ride of the Valkyries, Merlin? That's your wake-up tune?”
Merlin kicked him, even though Arthur had fallen asleep on top of the covers and Merlin under them so the kick didn't connect. “I needed something loud. Today's my big day.”
Merlin was so goofy, looking at him from under his lashes like a little kid full of mischief who knows he'll be forgiven because he knows you're fond of him, that Arthur, propped up as he was on his elbow, wanted nothing more than swoop down and kiss him. Kiss his mouth open, slow and thorough.
He parted his lips, moved his head an inch closer, keeping his head angled so they wouldn't bump noses. He locked gazes with Merlin who sucked in a big shuddering breath, lips inching apart. But then Arthur was struck by the trust in those eyes and stopped short, Merlin's breath almost a taste on his tongue.
Stopped, thinking of Gwaine, who was the person Merlin had been looking for and thought he couldn't have. Gwaine, who was Merlin's dream boyfriend.
Hating Gwaine, Arthur hopped off the bed, Merlin's absurdly wide eyes following him around the room.
Arthur's eyes went stony for a moment, not wanting the attention if it couldn’t be the kind he wanted. Then he told himself to relax. This wasn't Merlin's fault. “Time to get showered and dressed,” he said. “Or you'll be late for your interview.”
Merlin kicked off his blankets and heaved himself up. Head hanging strangely low, Merlin vanished into the bathroom.
He sped out of it three minutes later, dressing at super speed, having swapped peacoat for a suit jacket he'd donned over his usual jeans.
Wielding a map of the town, he stopped by the bed in front of Arthur. “Uhm, I’m going, so, I was thinking...” Merlin's eyes were so big and earnest they'd have been funny if they weren't so communicative, if it wasn't as though Merlin was trying to tell him something Arthur felt too breakable to analyse. “... That you could sleep on, wait here, or maybe go on some kind of tour.”
Arthur said, “I'll do great. Stop worrying about me. See you on the other side, okay?”
Merlin jutted his jaw out, saying, “Interview, right,” and marched out, nose in the map he'd already opened.
Not knowing whether they were to keep the room for another day or not, Arthur spoke to the desk employee, then, since he couldn't possibly have gone back to sleep with all those thoughts of Merlin floating in his brain, he went out.
He bought himself breakfast at a place on Gloucester Green, a large one of the kind he wouldn't have at home on any day but Sunday, and a chocolate bun for Merlin.
When he was full, he went on a quick tour of the town, popping into shops, and giving the centuries old colleges furtive once overs. He ducked into Winchester College and had a look at the students flitting by like dark ghosts, at the ancient brick buildings and the large courtyard.
Since it was a cold and damp day, he didn't stay long, but re-emerged just in time for the sun to pop out again, almost high in the sky. Merlin had to be almost done.
Arthur stood outside the entrance to Brasenose, the cupola of one of the buildings dwarfing him in the background as he settled down to wait.
He waited for a while, kicking at the pavement with his hands in his puffy jacket, until Merlin finally emerged.
Not having seen Arthur, he'd almost walked past him, lost in thought as he was. Arthur fell into step with him.
Merlin whipped round and a smile started to play around his mouth the moment he recognised Arthur. “It's you,” he said. “I'd have texted you to meet up. Didn't want you to wait.”
They stopped walking, students dashing past them. “How did it go?” asked Arthur, cutting to the chase.
Merlin beamed, cheeks dimpling, eyes crinkling at the corners. “There were two tutors. They saw I was nervous, crawling out of my skin really, so I guess they tried to put me at ease.”
Arthur wasn't sure that was good, a nervous Merlin was rarely clear-headed. Though Merlin's smile couldn't be misleading, could it? “And?” he urged.
“And they said they would just ask questions aimed to see how I thought. I was worrying already but they led in with a question about my mentioning sports in my UCAS application. So I said I ran. And then the other tutor asked if I could see sports medicine in my future. I said yes. And then we talked about the books I'd read about the subject and then they got to ask more in depth question about my basic knowledge of stuff that might be useful during pre-clinical and then it was over.”
Merlin half threw himself at him, giving him a hug that was unhurried and lingering.
Arthur pressed back, held him so very tight they were making a scene.
Merlin said low, “And it's all up to you. What you said yesterday. About doing it my way. It worked.”
Arthur's fingers curled around the fabric of Merlin's jacket and balled it within his fists, breathing him in and closing his eyes when Merlin couldn't see the side of his face for being so close.
“I'm so glad,” he said, breathing him in only to swat him off before Merlin saw how bad he had it. “So, glad.” Arthur punched his shoulder. “Now let's get a move on. Home waits.”
The door closed behind him with a hollow thump, Merlin dragging his carry-all along the floor behind him.
His mum must have heard him because she tore down the stairs at unusual speed. “Merlin,” she said. Her eyes growing softer and brighter. “How did it go?”
“I think it went well.” He left his carry-all in the living room and moved over to the kitchen. He pulled a carton of milk out of the fridge and drank a long drag of it, setting it on the counter when he was done. He turned around, hands braced behind him, kicking at the hard surface at his back.
Looking at him searchingly, his mum went to sit at the table. “You know you can tell me if it didn't go well. Your career tutor said it's hard to get into Oxford and you have three other choices—”
“Mum,” said Merlin, a cross between tired and petulant, “it really went well. By the end of it the tutor was having a chat with me and smiling. I may still not make it, but the interview went well.”
Eyebrows crossed in thought, his mum said, “Then I don't get it. You look pretty miserable, dear.”
Yeah, that was probably because he did feel more than moderately low. “It's okay, mum. I still have a good chance at Oxford, I didn't go over budget while there, and—”
This time it was his mum who didn't let him finish. In a ‘you don't fool me voice’, she said, “Something's wrong.”
“Nothing's wrong.” He shifted his gaze onto the table top. “Seriously.”
His mum tipped his chin up so he had to look at her. Her eyes flashed with warmth. “You're my boy. I know you're a grown up now. And it's up to you if you tell me or not, but I want you to know that seeing you like this hurts.” She let go of his face.
With an elbow propped on the table, Merlin shoved a hand through the short stands of his hair and let out a big breath. “What if.... I think I might have gone and fallen for a straight guy. I mean I thought there'd be this... this barrier that would have made it impossible ‘cause he's clearly not available. But I did and that's it. It'll go away.”
His mum looked surprised, eyes a little restless. “I thought you liked Gwaine.”
“Yeah,” said Merlin. “I liked him. Not like this though. And he's gone so that's not... He'll always be a friend. But this other thing, I thought it was friendship...”
He was sure his mum would guess now. He didn't have that many friends that would make settling on a name difficult. Mostly he hung out with the relay team, Gwen by way of her brother, and Mithian ever since they'd got closer because of Arthur. End of.
Choice restricted to four guys, his mum would know which one Merlin was talking about. Yet he didn't name names. “The best possible friend,” Merlin continued. “It's just that it's friendship for him and not for me.”
His mum patted the hand that Merlin had flat on the table. “I can't help you with that, Merlin. I wish I could make it all right for you. But a mum can't fix those things.”
Merlin blew out a breath; he just wished he'd kept it secret and that nobody knew. “Does it get better?”
“It will,” his mum told him with some confidence. “Over time.”
Merlin accepted that as some kind of rational truth that would become evident once he stopped hurting. Stupid damn Sunday in Oxford that had made him feel so close and so appreciated. Yet Arthur had made a point of keeping him at arm’s length. More than once. He was likely trying to spare Merlin from disappointment, or demarcating lines, or something like that.
He'd just been given the kind of support sure to see you through everything by such a wonderful friend he remembered kissing and wanting — which was what had messed everything up, he was sure — that what he felt for Arthur just took on huge proportions. It was like a little explosion, growing under his skin and revealing itself for a part of him that had always been there.
None of that helped. Tail between his legs, Merlin went to hole up in his room, going to bed early in preparation for his return to school the next day.
The mood at school over the next week wasn't conducive to peace of mind.
Everyone was talking about the end of term party and in a lovey-dovey mood. Lancelot and Mithian snogged every time the head of sixth wasn't around to check on them, Gwen only talked about couples and dresses, and Elyan kept being sad over having been dumped.
Everybody tried to get hooked up with somebody else, whether they liked it or no. Gilli made a point of asking everyone if they wanted to go with him. Merlin was sure he'd stumble on a ‘yes’ as a matter of statistical certainty.
In the common room the party and attendance thereof were talked about — extensively. Everybody asked Arthur who he'd be going with but luckily every one forgot to ask Merlin.
Mithian, Gwen, Lancelot, Gilli, Arthur and he were sitting in the common room one free period a few days before said end of term doom, when Gwen said, “So, Arthur, have you decided?”
“No,” Arthur said, “we'll see.”
Mithian said, “Arthur has been asked by two girls during economy today and he turned them down. I don't know what he was thinking. Unless there's someone in his thoughts already.” She winked at Merlin as though Merlin was supposed to know who this person was. As if. After the matchmaking spree he and Arthur had stopped discussing subjects like that.
Leon passed by then. Likely having overheard that one bit of news, he stopped short, back all stiff, and only after a while did he move on to go have a game of table tennis.
“He's still hoping you might decide to turn to him,” Gilli said, following Leon with his eyes. “I think he's been moping.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” said Arthur in a vaguely annoyed tone. He edged closer to Merlin, saying, “That was just an incident to do with.... other things,” but Merlin felt that was just further confirmation of Arthur's never contemplating blokes as more than friends, friends he'd go to extreme lengths for sometimes, a spot of harmless fooling around inclusive, but just friends. After all, Arthur had orchestrated the Leon thing for Merlin.
“Let Leon be,” said Merlin crossly. “You just noticed because he's a sensitive person.”
“No,” said Gilli. “I noticed because he ogled Arthur instead of the models when we had our little fashion show.”
“Shut up, Gilli,” Gwen hissed, throwing a ball of crumpled paper at him.
Merlin pulled himself up and said, “Got to give back a book I took out from the library.”
On occasion libraries were safe places to go and hide in, even if they were haunted by stiff librarians who hated Merlin on sight for actually making them work when most other pupils gave the place a pass.
Well, four more days to go then the party would take place, be a bygone and give way to the holidays. Merlin would just have to hold on till then. Then people would focus on couples much less and maybe Merlin would learn how to think of Arthur as a friend once more.
The gym had been temporarily converted into a sort of disco to host the end of term party. The décor was a shout out to the eighties — or originals 80s pieces that had been recycled — and very psychedelic. The catering was almost edible. And the supervisors, two head teachers, seemed to be willing to overlook snogging and groping as long as no school fixture was permanently damaged like the sink getting smashed last year.
When Arthur had got there a good many couples were either eating snacks at the catering table or dancing to songs chosen by a body of school staffers and pupil committee.
For a while Arthur kept to the sides, chatting with either Elyan or Lancelot. When Mithian arrived Lancelot excused himself, saying he'd promised her they'd dance to a couple of songs. Since Mithian looked ravishing, Arthur nudged him on very happily. They joined Gwen and Percy.
Into the third song a girl called Cate Preston asked him to dance. He didn't know her well, not studying the same subjects as her, but thought why not and followed her to the dance floor.
This was when Merlin arrived — stag.
He had jeans, a tee and a jacket on, the jacket not properly ironed. He looked as though he'd decided to come at the very last minute and come to think of it, Arthur had never heard him mention the event.
He looked a little sad as he took one of the chairs that had been lined up against the wall and straddled it, chin on its back. Arthur wondered why Gwaine wasn't there. He couldn't possibly be working on a Friday night a few days short of the Christmas holiday.
Arthur stepped on Cate's foot. “Sorry,” he hurried to say, realising he'd almost hobbled her.
“No, it's nothing,” she said, smiling at him though her eyes were a bit teary. “Really, let's continue.”
“Actually,” said Arthur, “if you could excuse me... There's something I need to tell someone.”
“And it can't wait?” she asked between hopeful and confused.
“No, I'm afraid not. It's... pretty urgent.” He waved Gilli on, “But my friend would be honoured to take my place.” He let Gilli cut in. She shrugged and seemed to find Gilli okay as a dance partner.
Arthur took the chair next to Merlin. “Hey,” he said. “Fashionably late?”
Merlin turned his face slightly to the side, still not taking his chin off the chair's back. “More like unfashionably doubting that coming would be a good idea.”
Arthur bit on his lip not to say it but then he said it. “Because you're missing Gwaine?” Really what was with him? This was probably the kind of admission he didn't want to hear. He guessed he had a masochist streak of some kind.
“Gwaine?” Merlin asked, taken aback.
“Yeah, Gwaine,” repeated Arthur, irritated by Merlin's tone of surprise. After all, Gwaine had been there at Gwen's party and frequently mentioned later. “Yeah, Gwaine, your boyfriend.”
Colour drained from Merlin's face. “Oh, god,” he said, pulling at his hair. “I'm so sorry. I never told you because I noticed you didn't like me talking about him. You changed the subject all the time when I did.”
Arthur couldn't say that he hadn't or that he welcomed the subject now but if Merlin wanted to talk about Gwaine or tell him the reason why Gwaine wasn't there, which probably entailed a preference for work over being with Merlin, Arthur was ready to listen. Even though he did want to strangle Gwaine for not appreciating what he had in the way he should — or Arthur would.
“You can tell me,” Arthur said. “I'm your friend; you can always talk to me.”
Merlin cast down his eyes, shoulders drooping. He drummed his fingers over the top of the chair and sat up properly, a little abruptly. “He... He's in New York.”
Arthur clenched his jaw. “Working.”
“Yeah,” said Merlin, smiling a little. “He's getting his career back and... he's no longer my boyfriend. Hasn't been since the end of November.”
“What!” Arthur got up abruptly, chair nearly toppling backwards. “You didn't— You aren't.” Arthur's pulse kicked up a notch, seeing hope for the first time since he'd sorted himself out. Then he sobered. He was being selfish. Merlin was probably sad about being ditched. “And...” He fluttered a hand about. “How are you doing?” He cleared his throat.
Merlin met his gaze dead on then, a little hint of a smile on his lips. “Thank you for asking,” he said. “I think... I think it's okay.”
“If it's less than—” Arthur stepped forwards quite instinctively. “I'm there.”
Merlin's smile became both pained and brilliant, breath-taking. “Only you, Arthur. But I'm okay, I guess. I was a bit sad over it. But I wasn't heartbroken. Kind of happens when you're not... When you're into someone but not actually... in love or anything.” Those words were mumbled and a definitely delivered too quickly to be clear, but they sent Arthur's heartbeat ratcheting up.
A surge of joy overwhelmed him and he acted on it, pulling Merlin upright and dragging him out the gym, down the hallway and into the courtyard.
“Arthur,” Merlin complained, “I get that the music choice was horrible but it's December and it's cold.”
It was. Arthur guessed the temperature was hovering around the thermal zero but he couldn't care less.
He whirled around with a big, energised smile on his face. “Merlin,” he said, though what he actually heard was his heartbeat in his ears. He took two forwards strides that brought him face to face with Merlin. “Merlin, I—” His hand cupped Merlin's face, tracing his cheekbone with a thumb. “I care about you and... I'm an idiot for you.”
Merlin's eyebrows were dancing up and down as if he was disconcerted. “Arthur, what—”
Arthur guessed he'd never articulate this properly and that he’d be explain this till kingdom come if he tried to put his feelings into words. And he didn’t want that. Oh, no they’d equivocated long enough. He closed in, tilted his head to one side, and pressed his slightly parted mouth against Merlin's, kissing him softly, catching the fullness of Merlin's lip between his. “Get this?” he said, breathing quickly.
“Yeah.” Arthur nodded vigorously. “What do you think? About me and you?” He swallowed around the knot in his throat as he waited for an answer.
“But—” Merlin still looked mightily confused though his eyebrows were now level if perhaps attempting to join. “You're straight. You— Your girlfriends. They were very real. And those lessons. You specified they were just lessons.”
Arthur had a perfectly imperfect explanation for that. “I thought so too, which is where the idiot part comes in. Because I really liked those girls. But then we started macking around and, God, you made me so hard. I wanted to yank down your trousers and lick your cock. I wanted your mouth around mine. I wanted to fuck between your legs and wanted inside you. I wanted... you to do me. Things... Things I wanked about.... And all of that? Yeah, not into boys right?”
“So you're bi.”
“So I'm bi.”
Arthur gave Merlin's lips a light nip. “Does that mean that you're okay with this?”
Merlin's return kiss was deep and filthy, his mouth pushing Arthur's open, the twinge of want from their previous little kisses flaring up into a throb. Merlin tugged hard on his hair, saying, “Stupid, idiot of a prat—”
“Aren't you being redundant, Merlin?” Arthur quipped, his hands at Merlin's hips.
“I've been thinking I was in love with you ever since Oxford and if your dare poke fun at me for that, I'm gonna—”
Merlin was best silenced with kisses, lots of kisses, with the longest snog ever.
The sound of giggling and heels broke them apart.
“It's only us,” said a slightly tipsy Gwen, Percy on her arm. “Go ahead, I might even watch.”
“Perhaps we'd better move this,” said Merlin, panting into Arthur's mouth. “Maybe your car.”
“Not freezing my arse off in the car, Merlin,” Arthur pointed out reasonably though he'd been quite happy to freeze his privates off here. “Not when I have a perfectly comfy bed at home.”
“But your dad and Morgana?”
“Dad's having a dinner out with friends and not likely to be back early at all and Morgana's hied off to a friend of hers.”
“To yours, then.” Merlin just dragged him back into the school to get their coats and scarves and then they slipped away, everybody too interested in their own affairs to pay them any attention.
The drive back home was the longest in terms of expectations that Arthur had ever experienced.
His hand strayed from the wheel from time to time, in an attempt to touch Merlin, grazing his thigh, cupping his knee, kneading the inside of Merlin's thighs when Merlin spread his legs wide as if he wanted to push off the seat and into his hand.
He stopped because he knew it was dark and that he had to pay attention to the road, though a brush of Merlin's fingers over his cock, made him grip the wheel in a death grip.
Finally Arthur's house came into view and he parked right behind his dad's second car.
The house was dark and silent but he didn't turn on the lights, pushing Merlin up the stairs by the hips, stopping on the landing to brush a kiss on the nape of Merlin's neck, his hand straying to palm Merlin's cock.
It twitched, he could feel it, and it made Arthur more than a little bit light-headed. They were going there tonight. Despite his having had sex before, it was going to be new in a way. He wanted it with everything he had.
On a jerk, Merlin's hips pushed into his hand and only by a sheer effort of will did Arthur manage to steer Merlin into his room without trying to get off where he was.
Finally, he closed and locked the door behind him and shed coat and jacket on the floor. They went down with a rustle of fabric.
Heart thumping, he strode up to Merlin and held his face between unsteady hands, kissing his mouth, licking into it, stroking Merlin's tongue and hitting the roof of his mouth with the tip of his.
Merlin kissed him back the way he had before, the way that Arthur liked, the way that made him hard and his bones feel like water. He placed one hand on the back of his neck, pulling him close.
Arthur went, couldn't not go, sucking on his lips, fretting them into plumpness by holding them between his teeth.
He then latched on lower, nibbling on Merlin's throat, the cords of Merlin's neck standing out in the light from outside when he turned it to allow Arthur access.
Arthur's hands roamed over his back but met cloth, not skin. He pushed it blindly out of his way, jacket dropping to the floor with a swish.
Merlin meanwhile had caught a tuft of his hair in a death grip, allowing him to guide his head.
His breath hitched each time Arthur pressed his mouth to his throat, kissing him gently, moving his lips against Merlin's skin where it was at its softest.
The rush of Merlin's breath told Arthur he liked this. So he persevered, sucked on Merlin's ear lobe, and then worked his way down again. Only to find more clothes barring the way in the shape of Merlin's tee.
They stepped one away from the other.
Merlin kicked his shoes off and pulled his shirt off his shoulders, dropping it on the floor, belly caving as he did.
Arthur couldn't take his eyes off him: his torso was long, lightly muscled, tapering at the waist, his shoulders wide, an image he remembered from before and then not. Not exactly. Not like this.
Stepping out of his shoes, Arthur took one hand and pushed his trousers and underpants down below his knees. As he looked at Merlin, he took his cock in his hand, giving it a few pulls.
Merlin padded close and put a hand on his shoulder, a light stroke along the curve of the bone, their eyes meeting as Arthur touched himself, teased the slit with his nails. Then Merlin knelt between his legs.
He looked up at Arthur from under the fan of his lashes, voice shaky and raspy both. “I've never done this before.”
“You don't—” Getting those words out was the most difficult thing ever, but Arthur owed it to Merlin. “Don't have to. Just—”
Not listening to a word he'd said, Merlin did just what he wanted, covering his cock from base to tip with wet, lingering kisses. He sometimes gave it a little lick or nip, rubbing his chin against the head. It bobbed back at him, slapping him in the face.
Arthur could safely say this was different and probably the worst of the few blow job's he'd ever received, the tease great indeed while nothing Merlin was doing was quite enough to get him there.
Merlin's sense of humour came back though because he laughed, said, “Hang on a tick,” and then brought his hands to bear, holding Arthur up in his palm.
The tiny kisses continued as before, like tiny love bites, until Merlin covered Arthur's cock with lips that had got swollen and were a sin to watch. Reddened and shiny with spit. Arthur emitted a groan
Merlin sucked a little, getting a better grip on this than before.
Arthur's eyes almost popped out when Merlin inched a little bit more of him inside, his mouth hot and wet. Oh, God. This was so good.
He tipped his head back and Merlin squeezed with his hands and worked him with his lips.
He tickled Arthur's length with his tongue, swirling it round and under when it became clear he couldn't take him deep.
Arthur had to watch this.
Spit now coated the head of Arthur's cock. White fluid oozed from the red tip. He could feel it.
A drop of it ran from there and all the way down, making him gasp. As Merlin continued to lap at him, tracing it downwards, he quickly dabbed at it with his tongue, and then drew more of it in by sucking on the tip.
Arthur began to shake. “Stop.” Arthur's voice cracked. “Or I'll come.”
Merlin fell back on his haunches, colour high, eyes spirited. “Wasn't that,” he said in a raspy tone, “what you wanted?”
Arthur eyed the bed then Merlin. Merlin followed his line of sight. “Oh, all right, that's okay.” It was still panted but that sounded way more human.
Arthur said, “I want to but not if you don't.” The truth was he could have begged, but didn't, waiting for Merlin to choose.
Merlin dropped his trousers and socks, standing naked before him. There was a huge difference between catching glimpses of him naked in the lockers and this.
Bathed in moonlight and the reddish light from the street outside, Merlin looked quite something else. Arthur let himself openly admire what he was seeing.
Hard, Merlin looked different, his cock pointing straight in front, no curve, definitely longer and fuller, the head flaring over the shaft. The head was pink and tender looking, mouth-watering.
Merlin was better than any fantasy. But there was more than the fantasy to it. This was Merlin and Arthur's heart went soft at the simple thought that it was him. He grinned stupidly to himself.
Merlin shifted from foot to foot hands almost going to his crotch in a sneaky attempt to cover it. “So, erm, how do we do this?”
“Go lie on the bed.” Arthur believed they'd better not get too inventive about his. Not when Merlin was being shy again and not when Arthur's forehead was beaded with nervous sweat. He stepped out of his trousers, turned the light on, erection flagging a tad, and went to his desk. He opened the bottom drawer, getting condoms and the lube he used for wanking.
Merlin was lying on the bed when Arthur turned around to drop his supplies at its foot. His head was on Arthur's pillow, his lower lip between his teeth. He was staring at the ceiling, his hand trailing up and down his belly, sometimes stopping for a tug on his cock.
Arthur sat on his haunches on the bed. Merlin bent one knee and Arthur rested his hand on a knobby kneecap, heart having climbed into his mouth at the sight presented to him.
Merlin was awkward when he planned what he was doing but managed grace when he wasn't thinking about it at all, when he was distracted. When he was laughing too hard, or when he was worried, or when he was like this.
Arthur stored that nugget of knowledge and declared it his. “So,” he said.
“Are you okay with me.... fucking you... or we could, you know, you could top me.”
Merlin gave him a smile then, one that broke slowly on his lips. “Never shagged anyone before either. Just...” He moved his hands about and Arthur thought he got it. “So I think we'd be safer if you did it to me first, then I can... learn from your mistakes!” Merlin finished in a peal of laughter.
Arthur swatted Merlin's thigh, Merlin's laughter sounding light and bright. The sound made Arthur happy. It faded too soon.
Merlin spread his knees open, feet flat on the bed, his hands on his thighs, fingers curling inward.
Arthur placed both hands on Merlin's knees and pushed them even wider open, figuring the logistics out. He decided he needed another pillow, so he went and got one from the cupboard, legs pretty much like jelly and barely functioning.
He tried to cover that up so as not to make Merlin nervous by bouncing back on the mattress. A sign he thought should be interpreted as nonchalance. Merlin didn't look as though he was particularly fooled, but he took the pillow from him, placing it under his hips, not a question asked.
Arthur slotted himself back in place, his breathing as harsh as Merlin's as he picked up the lube bottle and spread massive amounts on his fingers.
“I guess that's enough, Arthur,” Merlin put in.
Arthur pushed one finger in and Merlin bore down on him. It was a tight clamp and Arthur wasn't sure he was ever going to fit. He looked at Merlin. “How does it feel?”
“Weird,” Merlin supplied on a hiss. “But not weird bad.”
Arthur made it wetter still, adding fingers one by one, circling and teasing first when Merlin got tense or breathed through his nostrils.
He spread him open soft and gentle, Merlin gasping on recurrent breaks, pushing down after a while, gaining a rhythm when Arthur jabbed in more roughly, rubbing a couple of fingers upwards.
The quality of Merlin's panting was wet and broken as he fucked himself on Arthur's fingers, spine arched, muscles rippling as a flush spread from chest to throat.
His words were broken, all gutturals, all sobs he bit into a fist. Then his hips pushed up, bore down again, his muscles locked and he gushed come over his belly and chest, ropey and milky white. “You were so silent,” said Arthur in wonder, “so...”
But Merlin was too far gone to answer yet. Arthur waited though his cock was hurting by now, the sight of Merlin coming having made him as hard as he was when Merlin had been giving him head.
“Hey,” said Merlin, “I thought you were supposed to... go ahead with the plan.”
“Yeah, right, yeah.” Arthur drizzled more lube into Merlin's stretched hole. It closing tight because Arthur had forgotten to warm the lube in his hands first. Merlin chuckled.
“It's so squelchy,” he said. And Arthur's throat dried up because he was having visions of Merlin tightening around his cock just like that.
Arthur frowned at the foil packet containing the condom; his fingers were so slippery he couldn't open it.
“Toss it here,” said Merlin, mellow and grinning. Arthur did. Merlin opened the packet easily, sat up, covered Arthur's cock, Arthur trying not to come at touch and pressure, and nipped on his lips before lying down again.
Arthur slid closer, pulled Merlin down and worked his cock in by guiding it with his hand. He gave a push with his hips and was in, gave another little thrust and he was in deep, stomach to belly. He held; couldn't move.
So hot, beautiful, perfect, tight: his cock laying stiff and still inside Merlin.
He blinked sweat off his eyes, arms trembling when he focused on the way Merlin was looking at him, radiating some kind of warmth from his eyes.
Arthur's guts went liquid.
He moved a tiny inch, pleasure working its way down his spine, kissed Merlin's throat, planting soft kisses on his neck and chest and flicking his tongue at the hollow between collarbones, Merlin's belly sticky between them.
As he slid his tongue deep in Merlin's mouth, Arthur's chest rose and fell in big waves. Merlin, looking tenderly up at him, said, “You can... move, fuck me. Don't have to hold back.”
Arthur listened to Merlin. He rolled his hips once, twice, a third time, all control slipping away from him, and his orgasm rode him more than he rode it.
It was like a punch in the gut, but a nice one, one that made him drunk and climb high with it, like heat spreading through belly and cock, even as he was wishing it back so he could have this to do all over again.
Spent, Arthur slumped on top of Merlin with an oomph. “Sorry,” he said a while later, putting kisses to Merlin's chest. “I suppose I wasn't too impressive.”
Merlin grabbed him by the hair a tad roughly and said, “Actually, I liked it a lot. Wouldn't be at all adverse to trying it on you.”
Merlin bit the tip of his nose. “When does your dad come back again?”
Arthur buried his laughter in Merlin's neck but Merlin flipped them, climbing on top of him and looked down at him like a very proud and territorial... “Lion puppy,” said Arthur.
Merlin pushed their cocks together. “Say that again? I'm not sure what you called me.”
“Lion puppy!” Arthur repeated louder as Merlin rid him of the used condom.
Merlin's filthy hard suck on his cock made him howl: “Simba. Fucking Simba... No, the king of the forest... the pride of his pride... the....”
With January a new term began. And new chemistry lessons. And obviously more of Mr Monmouth's decidedly bushy eyebrows were to be seen. There was a difference, though.
Sometimes Merlin snuck a glance at Arthur while Mr Monmouth droned on about reaction kinetics and Arthur held his gaze and smiled, or thumbed his upper lip, or did something else, and Merlin would tell himself that life was good.