Arthur stared nervously at the man standing opposite him, fidgeting slightly and at a loss for what to say. He stole glances at him, trying to gauge his reaction or state of mind, but quickly looked away before their eyes could meet. This went back and forth for a while, and eventually when they did make eye contact, they both smiled shyly at each other before staring at their feet once more. The awkwardness was bordering on excruciating.
Then again, things could have been a lot worse, if Arthur could be completely honest with himself. For one thing, he could have been paired with the guy with that humongous beard he’d seen in the waiting room for the experiment. He shuddered to think what that would have been like – it probably would have resulted in beard burn on his own clean-shaven face. Hindsight was a bitch. Why had he signed up for this again?
Morgana had put him up to this. She’d found an advertisement on the Internet calling for volunteers to participate in a ‘social experiment’ where they had to kiss a random stranger. Morgana reasoned that since Arthur was single, this would be an excellent opportunity for him to practice his snogging skills. Arthur had stupidly agreed, passing it off as something he would probably laugh about five years later. It was just kissing, right? There was nothing to it, after all. He only had to snog someone with no strings attached, and he’d done that before, so-called friends with benefits when he was younger in high school. So, without further ado, Morgana had called Dr. Kilgarrah, the man in charge of organizing the experiment, and relayed Arthur’s details to him, signing him up.
But now that he was actually here, Arthur realised this was nothing like he had imagined. The prospect of kissing a random stranger suddenly seemed frightening to him. Kissing was rather intimate for someone you didn’t know at all.
He had to get this over with. He glanced at the other guy again, doing a quick once-over. The man was dressed in a light blue cotton shirt and loose-fitting jeans, had dark hair, blue eyes… and the most ridiculous ears. Arthur felt the corner of his mouth tug upwards in a half-smile as he noticed how they stuck out awkwardly from his face, so prominent they reminded him absurdly of cup handles. At the same time, though, he felt that they framed his face in a rather charismatic way.
Noticing that he was staring, the other man spoke first, breaking the silence with an exceedingly eloquent, “Um, hi.”
Arthur flinched. “Hi,” he said weakly, knowing that he sounded as nervous as he felt.
The cameraman poked his head around where he was focusing the lens on them and grinned. “Hey guys, relax,” he called out. “Dr. Kilgarrah told me to tell you guys you can have as much time as you want to get ready. It is quite a harrowing experience, after all.”
“Right, thanks,” said Arthur, shoving his hands in his pockets. He knew that the gesture made him look somewhat aloof and unwelcoming, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was to relax as much as possible so he could get this over with. He gave the man another glance. Their eyes met, and the man smiled at him, shy but friendly. Now that they had broken the ice a little, Arthur noticed that the guy actually had a rather nice smile; carefree and warm. He opened his mouth to tell him, but the momentary courage dissipated into nothingness before he could get the words to come out of his mouth.
“Should I stand closer?” the other man said, and Arthur noticed that he had a nice voice too, all husky and low. He stepped forward, right into Arthur’s personal space, and gave him another dazzling smile. Arthur was momentarily stunned by his eyes, which were impossibly blue, in a shade that was difficult to describe. He thought they glittered like sapphires and reminded him of the sea and the sky. Arthur could count each of his (impossibly long) eyelashes, and could feel a warm heat emanating from his slight frame, hovering less than a foot away. He was taller than Arthur, just a little bit, but not in an intimidating way or anything. Given that they had never met, Arthur felt surprisingly comfortable in such close proximity.
“You have nice eyes,” said Arthur before he knew was he was doing.
The man snorted loudly. “Thanks,” he said, and stepped back a little, smiling again with those perfect teeth. Inexplicably, Arthur felt a little tug somewhere in his chest, but he couldn’t stop himself from smiling as well.
“Hey, so…” the man bit his lip. “What we’re doing is pretty intimate and all, so I think that we should get to know each other a bit more before we do it, yeah?” He glanced at the cameraman. “That’s okay, right?”
“You have all the time in the world,” the cameraman reminded them, smiling. “I’ll leave you to it. Carry on.”
“Right,” said the man, turning back to face Arthur. “Let’s start again.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Merlin, what’s your name?”
Arthur was so surprised, he burst into laughter. “Are you kidding?” he said in between gasps, awkwardness forgotten. “Oh gosh, this is crazy. Are you for real?”
“Yes,” said Merlin, looking like he was wondering just what was so funny about his name, so he asked inquiringly, “Why?"
“Because,” said Arthur, trying to hold in his giggles, “my name’s Arthur, that’s why.”
Merlin took one look at him, his eyes widening, and started laughing uncontrollably as well. “Arthur and Merlin, like the legend?” he chortled. “Fancy that! I bet Dr. Kilgharrah put us together on purpose.”
Somewhere in the back of Arthur’s mind, he decided that he quite liked the way their names sounded together. “Maybe,” he said. “Okay, I think we’re ready.” He looked up into the man’s – Merlin’s – face and said slowly, tilting his head, “So… shall we?”
“Sure, if you want,” Merlin whispered.
This time it was Arthur’s turn to step forward into Merlin’s space, even daring to circle his arms around his waist, twining his fingers so they rested just over his lower back. In such close proximity, Merlin smiled at him again, his own hands moving to Arthur’s back and resting there. Arthur could feel his fingers splayed out between his shoulders, thin and delicate wrists pressed along his back.
“Right, then,” he said quietly.
He placed a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and leaned in, closing his eyes. Here goes. They kissed, chaste and gentle. Arthur felt an inexplicable tingle that went all the way down to his toes, and the feeling made him grip tighter onto Merlin’s shoulder. They pulled apart for a moment, but Merlin’s lips chased after him and their lips met again. It was in this way that they each stole kiss after kiss from each other, like they were playing some sort of sweet, wicked game. At some point their noses got in the way and Merlin snorted so loudly Arthur started laughing as well.
A few minutes had passed before they realised they had been carrying on for a lot longer than the experiment required them to. Arthur and Merlin finally broke apart, breathless and slightly wide-eyed. Merlin had Arthur’s shirt bunched up in his fist, and at some point Arthur had moved his hand to cup the back of Merlin’s head, sliding his hands into the soft strands of dark hair there. Arthur looked into Merlin’s eyes and found that they were almost black, with a burning ring of blue surrounding his dilated pupils. They stared at each other for a few seconds, then something shifted in Merlin’s gaze and both of them started chortling softly. Cheeks flushing (and in Merlin’s case, cheeks and the tips of his ears), they turned to the cameraman, looking embarrassed.
“I feel like I just wanna hug you,” said Arthur. It felt right, given the circumstances.
Merlin looked back at him again, mumbled something that sounded like, “Why not,” and put his arms around Arthur’s waist, holding him close. Arthur leaned into the touch and breathed Merlin in. He smelt of shampoo and sea salt.
Arthur thought with a pang in his heart, This is the last time I’ll ever get to do this.
They looked back at the cameraman, who gave them a thumbs-up. “That was quite good,” he remarked, pressing a button to stop recording. “Thanks – this will be great footage for the film.”
“There’s a film?” said Arthur. He looked at Merlin, eyes wide.
“Yeah, it was in the online contract,” said Merlin, shrugging. “Didn’t you know?”
“Oh my God,” said Arthur, putting his hands to the sides of his head. “Morgana.”
“My sister,” said Arthur by way of explanation. “She signed me up for this, but she never told me that the kissing was going to be made into a fucking film.”
“Short film,” said the cameraman reassuringly, correcting him. “Hey, relax, mate. It’s only going on YouTube.”
“Can we go now?” said Merlin, changing the subject.
“Yeah, you’re done,” said the cameraman a little dismissively, gesturing at the door. “The exit’s on your right. The link to the video will be emailed to you in around two weeks or so.”
“Right,” said Merlin. He made for the door, but then he turned around to look at Arthur. “Come on, then.”
Still a little stunned, Arthur followed him out the door. He was going to kill Morgana when he got home. What if the video went viral? What if his friends found out about it and posted it all over Facebook?
“So I guess we won’t be seeing each other again,” said Merlin when they finally made it out into the street. Arthur couldn’t help but admire the way the sunlight reflected in his eyes and made them sparkle. “That was… quite an experience.”
“Yeah,” Arthur agreed, smiling a little. “I’m glad we got to share it together.”
“You too,” Merlin replied. For a moment he looked like he was about to say something else, but then he said, “Um, I’ve got to get home, so I hope we’ll meet again someday.” He stuck his hands in his pockets. “Bye, Arthur.”
“Bye,” called Arthur as Merlin turned and walked away. Arthur noticed that the back of Merlin’s head was mussed up from the way Arthur had run his hands through his hair and smiled at that. He took one last look back at the building they had emerged from and left in the other direction.
Arthur’s phone dinged with a new email exactly fifteen days later. Arthur scrambled out of bed to reach for his phone, almost dropping it on the carpet as he fumbled with clumsy morning fingers. The email was titled ‘First Kiss’, and apart from the usual formalities there was a YouTube link. Knowing what it was, Arthur took a deep breath and clicked on it.
Like the email, the video was also titled ‘First Kiss’. It turned out that there had been twenty people involved in the experiment, most of them heterosexual couples, with the exception of Merlin and Arthur, and two girls. The video showed snippets of the strangers meeting for the first time. Arthur watched the screen closely, waiting for the moment when he and Merlin would appear on screen. When they finally did, it was the clip of him smiling at Merlin and saying, “You have nice eyes.”
Arthur smiled, fondly recalling the memory.
He watched the rest of the video, and found that they had also included the clip of them hugging towards the end of the shoot, and Arthur was pleased to see the way Merlin’s head rested affectionately on his shoulder. He wondered if Merlin was watching the video as well, or whether he would see it any time soon.
Something wrenched deep in his chest. How he longed to see Merlin again. He wanted to know more about him – his favourite colour, whether or not he liked to read (and he hoped he did), and whether he thought about him too every night before he fell asleep.
The video had gone viral, as Arthur had feared, but so far his friends hadn’t made such a big deal out of it, thank God. Around two months later, he was on the Underground train to Piccadilly Circus on his way to meet Morgana for lunch. He looked around at the many strangers around him holding onto their phones, rows of people tapping away on their mobiles, each in their own private world, resolutely not looking at each other. Arthur felt a sudden urge to do the same, feeling the press of his phone in his back trouser pocket, but first he had to find a more comfortable place. The man sitting next to him was slowly taking up more and more of his seat, and it was beginning to annoy him. If he moved another inch, Arthur would have to resort to standing.
Throwing an irritated look over his shoulder, he stood up and made his way to the railing by the door. A dark-haired man who was already standing there shifted his position as he saw Arthur approaching, holding on for dear life to the handle rails.
Dodging the legs of multiple passengers on the train floor, Arthur made his way across, wavering slightly as the momentum of the moving carriage threw him slightly off balance. Unfortunately his sense of coordination proved to be slightly flawed, because a sudden lurch of the carriage sent him careening sideways and crashing into the man’s torso. He heard a gasp of pain from the man before he unceremoniously dropped down painfully to land on his arse.
“Fuck, sorry!” he exclaimed. Several mothers on the carriage started in alarm and hurriedly covered the ears of their precious children, glaring at him. He raised a hand by way of apology and looked up into the eyes of the man he had crashed into. The sparkling, dark blue eyes of the now very familiar man he had crashed into.
Arthur gave a violent start. His brain short-circuited, and he could swear his heart skipped a beat.
The other man was similarly dumbstruck, but had enough humour in him to reply in the same tone, “Arthur?” He extended an arm and pulled him back up with a burst of strength Arthur didn’t know was possible in a man so skinny in frame.
“Oh my God,” said Arthur. “It’s actually you.” He grabbed Merlin’s bicep, as if to confirm that he wasn’t just some sort of apparition. “This is surreal.”
Merlin laughed, and Arthur thought he could get drunk on the sound alone. His laugh was as carefree and uplifting as his personality, with an irresistible charm that made him want to get as close as he could.
“Are you going anywhere?” Merlin asked him.
Arthur knew that there was somewhere he was supposed to go, but he couldn’t be arsed to think about it right now when he had finally found the person he’d been pining after for weeks. “Nowhere special,” he said.
“I’m going for lunch at the next station. Want to come with me?”
“We’re doing this all backwards,” Merlin remarked, once they had settled down in a comfortable Italian restaurant. There was a faint operetta playing in the background and the place was rather quiet, since it was still early in the afternoon.
“What do you mean?” asked Arthur, leaning forward.
“Well, normally people go out for lunch dates before kissing each other, but we’ve done it the other way round,” said Merlin. “That was an experiment, but still.”
“Well, I fully intend to kiss you again after this,” said Arthur, “so hopefully I’m not being the complete opposite of backward.”
Merlin flushed bright red, but looked extremely pleased. Arthur took this as a good sign. Then the food came, and both parties used this as an excuse to not talk for a while but surreptitiously stare at each other when they thought the other wasn’t looking.
They ate and talked, and Arthur got his wish to know more about Merlin. He learnt that he was a vegetarian (hence the vegetable ravioli he devoured as he talked), was completely addicted to Twitter, and had an irrational fear of falling into manholes, among many other interesting things. He himself divulged to him (in between mouthfuls of spaghetti and meatballs) his dream to be a footballer, which had been abruptly shattered when he broke his left leg in sixth form, his obsession with Lord of the Rings, and his hatred of spiders.
At some point, Arthur’s phone rang. Since he was in the middle of a conversation he pressed the ‘decline’ button, but after half a minute it rang insistently again, vibrating in his trouser pocket. Annoyed and slightly apologetic to Merlin, he took out his phone and looked at the name flashing on the screen: Morgana Pendragon.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “I was supposed to meet my sister for lunch.”
Merlin reached across the table and smacked him on the arm. “You complete arse!” he said, laughing. “Answer your damn phone!”
So Arthur did. “Hello?” he said tentatively.
What happened next was a litany of shrill insults and various combinations of Arthur’s full name with random profanities. Arthur had to hold the phone several centimetres away from his ear, grimacing. “All right, I’m sorry!” he said placatingly. “I met the guy from the experiment two months ago, and we’re eating lunch!”
There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Feeling a little more confident that his sister had gone quiet, he pressed his ear to the phone again. “Morgana?”
“Which restaurant are you eating at?”
“I want you to introduce me.”
Arthur frowned. “Morgana, Merlin is gay. Besides, you’re going out with Leon.”
“Is Merlin his real name?” said Morgana, sounding surprised. “Like the wizard?”
“Yeah, it is. I know, I know, it’s ironic,” said Arthur.
“Well then, dear brother,” said Morgana with a touch of affection. “It looks like you two are meant to be.”
Arthur blushed furiously, thankful that Morgana couldn’t see his face. “We’re kind of on a date at the moment,” he tried to explain. “I’d rather you not come.”
“Can I speak to him then?”
Arthur bit his lip, thinking. He had no idea what Morgana had to say to Merlin, but he didn’t want her coming along and being a third wheel, not to mention a total cockblock. He made his decision and handed his mobile to Merlin, gesturing for him to take it. “She wants to speak to you.”
Merlin looked warily at the phone like it was about to explode any moment. “Are you sure?” he mouthed, but he held it to his ear and cleared his throat. “Hi, I’m Merlin.”
Arthur watched his reactions carefully, trying to gauge what Morgana was saying to him. It was fortunate that Merlin was an expressive person, because he showed a colourful spectrum of expressions going from dubiousness to wide-eyed surprise. Morgana seemed to be doing most of the talking, and Merlin only interjected with occasionally “yeahs” and “okays” so she knew he was listening. “No, of course I wouldn’t,” he heard him say, and looked at Arthur, his eyes speaking a silent promise. “Sure… mm-hm…”
At long last, Merlin ended the call and handed the phone back to Arthur.
“What did she say?” Arthur asked, curious.
“She, uh, warned me not to hurt your feelings or she’d tear my throat out with her bare hands. You know, typical older sister stuff,” said Merlin, sounding almost sheepish. Arthur laughed out loud. “She doesn’t know what I look like, so I guess she assumed I would be some beefy, dominant type. Rather intimidating, your sister.”
“Yeah, she is,” said Arthur, and Merlin smiled at him.
They finished the rest of their meal and headed out the door. It was a nice, sunny afternoon, and a breeze was blowing in such a way that it ruffled Merlin’s already fluffy hair. Arthur walked a few steps before he stopped. “So,” he said.
“So,” Merlin copied him, with a mocking twinkle in his eye. “You said you fully intended to kiss me?”
“Indeed I did,” said Arthur. He looked down and reached for Merlin’s hand, twining their fingers together in what he hoped was an intimate gesture. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since the experiment,” he confessed. “And when I saw the video I felt even worse.”
“Good that we bumped into each other then,” said Merlin cheerily. “Otherwise you’d just keep on pining forev – mmppf!” Whatever he had been about to say was swallowed up by Arthur’s lips, which didn’t matter anyway because Merlin started responding so enthusiastically that the words were forgotten. This was a different kind of kiss to the one they had shared two months before – this was more insistent and demanding, exploratory. It was simply exhilarating. Arthur found that if he skimmed his tongue over Merlin’s front teeth it elicited a delightful shiver that sent tremors through him as well, and when Merlin decided to suck on his bottom lip it made him go slightly weak at the knees. Unable to stop himself, Arthur rubbed the tip of Merlin’s right ear between his thumb and forefinger, and Merlin let out a gasp into his mouth that bordered on filthy.
They eventually had to come up for air after what seemed like a thousand years. Wide-eyed and panting slightly, Arthur said, “My flat’s not so far away from here, do you want to – ”