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A New Low

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Merlin's fingers are already starting to curl up when he leaves his desk, and it seems like common sense to get in the lift rather than try to negotiate five floors worth of concrete stairs, especially since the light is out over the gigantic orange number three some way below his feet, and really what kind of company colour-codes its floors, and why can't they use nice, non-eye-searing colours like blue and yellow rather than shocking pink and lime green and other hues never found in nature?

"Are you getting in, or are you just going to stand there?"

"Uh," Merlin says, but the git is already pushing past him. Merlin follows him into the lift, biting his lip to stop the silent monologuing from spilling out of his mouth (like biscuit crumbs, maybe, little bits of cracker spraying across the lift). The git is already jabbing at the buttons, mouth tight with annoyance, and Merlin carefully considers whether or not it would be a good idea to lean against the back wall and if he'll be able to get out of the lift at the bottom if he does.

It's only after the doors close and the lift starts moving that he remembers there's half a packet of stale biscuits in the back of his desk drawer. Well, never mind. They'll still be there if he needs them again later today and as soon they get to the ground floor, he can get into the canteen and there's always chocolate cake and Barbara there likes him and will slip him an extra slice. He'll eat that first, then whatever variation of curry, pasta or hot-pot makes up the main today, and then he'll plead a medical emergency and go around for seconds. If he's lucky, this won't even be one of the ones where his head hurts for the next three days.

His feet don't quite feel like they're connected with the fuzzy floor of the lift any more, so he focusses himself by thinking about that cake, how it will taste dry and gritty on his tongue and he'll swallow it anyway; how he kind of hates chocolate when he actually has to eat it; how it will split apart under the clumsy press of his fork.

There's low grinding noise and the lift suddenly shudders and stops, lights blinking out. Then after a second of sheer darkness, when Merlin feels as if he's spinning off his feet and up the walls, a dim orange light comes on over the doors. Wow.

"Sorry," he says carefully to the git.

"What for?" the git snaps back and leans his full weight on the emergency button. "Hey, is anyone down there? Get this thing moving!"

For breaking the lift, Merlin almost says, but then realises that he probably didn't stop it with his mind. God, he really needs that chocolate cake.

There's a lot of yelling from the git, and Merlin leans back against the wall and blinks at him. The git is reflected on the metal walls in dim amber-hued blurs, anger in triplicate (and why he can remember that word when he doesn't know the git's name any more, he will never understand). The git works at the other end of the office, and would be gorgeous if not for his personality. He likes to glare at people for laughing and breaking the hallowedish silence of the research division. He always gives Merlin the most boring jobs and explains them in slow, short words as if he believes all temps are morons. He has a dead plant on his desk which he won't let Merlin water, and he always put the most cash in to any birthday or leaving collection (yet never eats any of the cake Merlin has to buy with the money).

Merlin's on the floor, and he can't remember getting here. The carpet is rough and prickly under his hands, as if it's sucking all the remaining sugar in his system right away, and he keeps shaking into the cold wall of the lift.

The git has stopped shouting at some poor maintenance guy to stare at him. "You look terrible." Then, with a hint of sympathy, he asked, "Claustrophobic?"

"Nuh," Merlin says, horrified to realise that most of his vocabulary has turned to sand. He tries to pick through what's left to explain, but the only thing he can get his mouth to shape is, "I'm flying."

"Oh my God," says the git, voice rising. "Are you high?"
Merlin wants to roll his eyes at that, but instead focusses all his will on making himself lift his wrist. The medical bracelet hanging there catches the light, thick links gleaming.

He doesn't see the git move, but suddenly he's kneeling there, his fingers rough on Merlin's wrist as he pulls the bracelet round to read it. Then his eyes widen and he says, "Oh, shit."

"That's not very nice," Merlin complains, but the git is already moving away. He's speaking into the grille under the lift buttons again, and this time he's not shouting. His voice is low and urgent and calm now, no longer yelling. Then, to Merlin's inexpressible indignation, the git gets his phone out.

With all his heart, he wishes that the lift would move, so he can get to that chocolate cake and then everything will be okay. The world will stop wandering off in different directions from him and he'll be able to remember what his feet are called and how to stand up.

Maybe he should call his mum and tell her he's okay in case she's worried about him being stuck in here. Except his phone is also in his desk drawer.

He closes his eyes for a moment, and soon he's being chased by huge chunks of chocolate cake. Their thick icing hangs heavily over their rippling flesh as they hunt, circling slowly as he flounders through a marsh of sugar cane. He can feel their hatred, the way they want to devour him, to leech the blood from him and munch upon his bones, and he cowers as they close in, their mouths gaping to show the moist and crumbly darkness of their throats, their needle-sharp sugar-icing teeth. They call his name as they close in, their voices posh and urgent.

He must pass out from fear, because he dreams that he's stuck in a lift with the git, who is shaking his shoulder so hard it makes Merlin rock and lose his balance. It's a very strange dream, he thinks, looking around for the cake-monsters in worry.

"He's awake," the git says, but Merlin barely hears it. He can't feel his toes and he thinks it's probably because they've been eaten. "I think. Merlin!"

"Sssh," Merlin says, trying to put his finger to his lips but only managing to smack himself. The git mustn't attract attention. He hasn't done anything to get eaten by cake.

"Don't shout at him," a calm voice chides from the phone that's lying open on the floor. "Can you get him to eat the chocolate now?"

The git is pushing something at his mouth. Merlin parts his lips automatically and then recoils when he tastes it. He can't eat chocolate! The monsters will know.

"Stop fighting me," the git snaps and it's sharp enough that Merlin blinks and does what he's told. The chocolate tastes terrible, cheap and fuzzy, as if it's been in someone's pocket for months, but he swallows it down.

After the second piece, the world suddenly makes a little more sense. The cake monsters seem to have got as far as his libido, he realises, because normally he'd enjoy a dream where he was being hand-fed chocolate by a handsome man, even if it was the git.

"Can he tell you his name and what day it is?" the girl on the phone asks.

"Merlin," he says, around the git's fingers. "I'm Merlin. Hullo."

"Hi, Merlin," she says back. "I'm Gwen. I'm a nurse and a friend of Arthur's. Well, not exactly a friend - it's his sister that I'm-"

"What day is it, Merlin?" the git asks.

"Dunno," Merlin says and accepts another bit of chocolate. "Does it matter, if we're all going to get eaten?"

"Okay," Gwen says. "Not quite there yet. Keep going with the chocolate."
By the time the git (his name is Arthur, Merlin suddenly remembers) runs out of chocolate, he's feeling better. He still thinks it would be a good idea to get to the canteen soon, and he suggests it to Arthur.

"The engineers are working on it," Arthur tells him. He's looking far less stiff and prim than usual, his face strained and his tie pulled loose. Maybe he's ill too.

"Okay," Merlin says. "I might just head down there now, though, if you don't mind."

Arthur gives him the usual you-are-a-moron glare and then looks guilty. "How do you plan to do that, Merlin?"

"Well," Merlin says. "I thought I'd just-" He looks around the lift, wondering why the doors are closed and then gets up and goes to poke them. His legs keep trying to roll up under him but he can manage a few steps. "Huh."

"The lift is broken," Arthur tells him. "Not working. Stuck."

"I know that," Merlin says indignantly. "I'm not stupid."

"You're not?" Arthur asks with what sounds like genuine curiosity.

"You can't ask him that!" Gwen protests over the phone.

"I just want cake," Merlin tells them and tries to pull the doors apart. As he still can't uncurl his fingers, he fails, but Arthur comes and moves him back to the other side of the lift, his hands hasty but gentle.

"You can't have cake," he tells Merlin. "Come on, you should be better by now. Don't be slow."

"Actually," Gwen says. "He has a point. The chocolate was fast-acting, but he'll burn through it quite fast, and then he'll probably crash again. He needs something slow-acting now - bread or pasta or rice. Even biscuits would be better than sweets on their own."

"I don't have any biscuits, Gwen."

"My mum always made me marmite sandwiches," Merlin tells her. His legs are getting steadily wobblier. "All falling apart because she'd spread the butter too hard."

"If they can't get you out soon, can you get them to send some food in?" Gwen asks.

"Certainly," says Arthur. "They can use their teleporter."

"I mean on a cable thingy," Gwen says, sounding hurt. "Isn't there one of those doors in the roof? Lifts always have them in films."

"We could climb out," Merlin suggests.

"We could not," Arthur says firmly and heads back to the intercom.

"Or we could blow it up," Merlin suggests to Gwen, and Arthur makes a little sound of horror. "For the kick."

"Oooh, I love that film," Gwen says, and then adds, "But it's only a film. This is reality."

"You'd say that anyway, if this was a dream. And he's called Arthur."

"And he has no idea what either of you are talking about," Arthur interrupts. "Now shut up, both of you, so I talk to the engineers."

"He's grumpy," Merlin complains. He feels awful, as if someone's squeezed the life out of him like he was a lemon, and he can feel the ache in his fingers and toes which tells him it's about to get worse again.

"He doesn't like small spaces. When he was little, Morgana locked him in a-"

"Guinevere!"

"I feel-" Merlin says, to stop them fighting, but then realises the next word isn't there. He searches for it, with an increasing flutter of panic. "I feel... not-good."

#

He drifts away again not long after that, his hands curling against Arthur's side as Gwen talks at them, trying to keep him awake.

When he wakes up, he's down in the foyer, and there's a kind stranger leaning over him, asking soft-voiced questions. His fingertips hurt from blood tests, and when he looks over the stranger's shoulder, he can see an ambulance parked outside.

"Oh, no," he says and tries to get up.

At that moment, Arthur appears, pushes him down into the seat again and demands, "Is he better yet?"

"He's on his way back up," says the nice stranger (nice ambulance man, that is, and oh fuck, his mum's going to kill him). "But I'd be happier if we could keep him in for observation for a few hours."

"No!" Merlin wails again, but no one's listening to him, at least until he babbles, "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to and I'll never, ever skip breakfast again, I swear on my life."

"You'll never what?" Arthur growls. "How much of a moron are you?"

"I've done it before," he tells them, trying to cross his arms, but Arthur's hit his stride now and there's not much he can do except sulk. You'd think a near-death experience would exempt him from being yelled at for a while.

He does object when Arthur pretty much picks him up and manhandles him into the ambulance (okay, that's an exaggeration, but it's not as if he has the strength to resist a gentle push at the moment, let alone a pointed shove).


#


The next morning, he sneaks out of the house before Will and Gwaine wake up and tries to go to work. He feels like shit, but his blood sugars are through the roof now so at least he won't faint again (throw up the half slice of toast he choked down to make sure his insulin worked, maybe).

He gets as far as the foyer before he's stopped by the most terrifying woman he's ever encountered. She's impossibly gorgeous and looks at him as if he's less than the carpet beneath the soles of her undoubtedly expensive and very pointy-heeled shoes.

"Merlin Emrys," she says, glancing at him coolly. "What do you think you're doing here?"

"I work here," Merlin says, trying to sidestep around her. "Upstairs."

"Go home," she tells him and his heart sinks. Surely they can't fire him for this, even if they did have to cut the lift open. Anyway, what right does she have to tell him anything? "Who are you?"

"I," she proclaims, "am Human Resources."

Crap.

But there are laws about this, he's sure, even for temps. "You can't sack me. Not for getting ill."

She looks at him for a second, eyebrows arching. Then she rolls her eyes and adds, sounding more human. "Also, it was my girlfriend Arthur phoned for help yesterday. She says you shouldn't be at work today."

"I'm fine," Merlin protests weakly.

"Now, you don't live alone, do you? Someone will be around for the rest of the day?"

"My housemates are students,” he admits, because her glare is scary. “They won't be up for hours, and they won't go to the library until three at the earliest. Not that I need a babysitter."

"Excellent," she says. "You'll need to be supervised for the next day or so. You've not taken any sick leave since you started, so that's not a problem."

"Do you do this for every sick employee?" Merlin asks. He doesn't think it's fair.

"Only the ones my brother and my girlfriend are both worried about," she tells him and then actually walks him out to the bus stop.

It's not until he's sprawled grumpily on the back seat of the bus that he realises that he never asked her name.


#


He spends the day huddled up on the sofa, feeling grim and doing blood tests every twenty minutes. There's nothing on the telly, so he starts a Torchwoodmarathon and only grunts at Will when he finally stumbles downstairs.

Will's known him long enough to leave him alone when he's like this. Back when they were seven and Merlin's mum wouldn't let him go on school trips unless he wore the special I am a diabetic! Feed me if I faint! t-shirts she'd had printed, it had been Will's job to carry the spare glucose tablets and remind Merlin to do his blood tests. Mum didn't know that Will had also been the one to smuggle a spare t-shirt out in his school bag, or about his role as the person who punched people who thought that the world's funniest rhyme for diabeticwas pathetic.

He does bring tea, though, and stop to make leering comments about the cyberwoman costume.

"This episode is tragic," Merlin informs him, breathing in tea fumes and huddling further into his corner.

"Is that why the snivelling dude won't shut up?" Will asks and plonks himself down beside Merlin, clutching his tea in one hand and six digestives in the other. "Are there any blokes kissing in this one?"

"No," Merlin tells him sweetly, just so he can hear him scream and cover his eyes ten minutes later.

He gets lunch made for him, though Will demands to see a blood test result first to prove he's still ill. Gwaine's easier to guilt trip, though, and is the only person in the house who can actually cook, so Merlin gets an elegant salad he struggles to eat, and the even more welcome relief of his next insulin shot.

Mid-afternoon, just as Will's starting to grouse about library time, the doorbell rings. Merlin gets it, and is thrown to see a complete stranger on their doorstep, a pretty black girl with a bright, slightly nervous smile.

"Oh, you're Merlin, right?" she asks and her voice is familiar. "I'm Gwen. Morgana sent me to make sure you wouldn't be on your own."

"I'm fine," he tells her, confused.

"No, he's not," Will says, pushing past them. "Mate, I want to work at your place. I'm off, by the way."

"Oh, it's only because we have to live with Arthur," Gwen says. "He was horrible last night. I mean, not that I wouldn't want to come by and help otherwise, because you sounded nice on the phone, but we don't do this for everyone in the office, you know."

"Arthur's always horrible," Merlin points out.

She shrugs and says, "Only at work. Sometimes he's a tolerable human being at home. Can I come in?"

He liked her too, from what he's pieced together about yesterday, so he steps away from the door. "Sure - sorry about the mess. Three blokes in one house, y'know."

But she's stopped, her hands clasped in front of her heart and her eyes wide.

"Um," Merlin says. Not everyone reacts well at this point. A lot of people assume they're all crazy. "Er, that's Mabel."

"She's beautiful," Gwen says, reaching out tentatively towards Mabel's eyestalk. "Is she.."

"A real dalek? No. Sixth form art project. Mum says there's no space for her at home, so Will and I stuck her on the roof of the car when we moved down here."

"You tied a rainbow-coloured dalek to the roof of your car?"

"Got some right funny looks on the way through Milton Keynes," Merlin tries, as nonchalantly as he can, and she laughs and digs out her phone.

"Take my picture, please, even if you want me to go home. This totally overdoes the time Morgana almost groped John Barrowman."

"Stay if you want," Merlin says quickly. Nobody in this house appreciates Mabel properly. "I'm watching Torchwood..."

By the time Morgana starts sending increasingly strident text messages demanding that Gwen come home, Merlin feels like a healthy human being again. He's also pretty certain that he'd marry Gwen right here and now if they weren't both gay (maybe despite that, if he wasn't already terrified of her girlfriend).


#


Work is horrible the next day. The very first thing he sees is the still-broken lift, cocooned in yellow tape. He shuffles up the stairs, keeping his head down, and tries his best to creep through the door to his desk.

He gets two steps into the room before Freya tackles him, hugging him so hard that he's afraid he's going to fall right out into the corridor again. After that, it just gets worse. Everyone in the office, even those who've never spoken to him before, feels the need to stop by and tell him how worried they were and how much he frightened them. A lot of them bring chocolate biscuits, which they don't seem to realise he cannot eat unless it's an emergency.

Nobody gives him any work to do. It's not as if his job is ever interesting - he and Freya have the same vague lack of a job description. They're both here to do whatever mindless shit the researchers are too highly paid to bother with. So far it's been everything from data entry to booking taxis to moving large boxes of crap to the basement and then bringing them back upstairs a week later because someone had left a single important piece of paper somewhere in one of them (and searching all the boxes for said bit of paper, of course).

At one, Arthur appears beside his desk. He helps himself to a biscuit without asking and says abruptly, "You haven't had lunch yet."

"I'm about to," Merlin says.

"You're supposed to eat at the same time every day."

"I can feed myself, you know."

"Obviously," Arthur says, sneering a little, "you cannot." And he keeps standing there, even as Merlin splutters outrage at him. It's clear he's not going to piss off until Merlin gets food, so he sighs and grabs his insulin out of his drawer.

"Fine. I'm going."

"About time," Arthur tells him, and, to Merlin's astonishment, comes with him.


#


Arthur's a terrible person to eat lunch with. He doesn't talk, just works through his meal in intent silence, potato first, then spinach, then meat, never allowing different foods to touch. Merlin babbles away in self-defence, and gets nothing but disapproving stares. Eventually, Arthur lines up his knife and fork neatly and says, "You do realise that you can't talk about people like that, Merlin. They're all far more important than you."

"They seem to think so, at least," Merlin says.

"It takes years of study to get the qualifications needed for this job."

"Must be nice to be able to afford postgrad," Merlin says and doesn't bother disguising his bitterness in the way he would for someone who was less of an arse.

Arthur fiddles with his cup of tea (and it's only now that Merlin realises that he's not the only one without a pudding). "Oh. So you, er, have a degree?"

There's almost nothing Merlin can say to that, except, "Yeah, and mine isn't in Arrogant Pratliness."

Arthur stiffens up. "I didn't mean-"

"Yeah, you did," Merlin says. "French and German, actually. I'm pretty good in some of the medieval dialects - probably better than anyone else in the office."

"You're working in a room full of linguists, Merlin."

"Bet none of them are medievalists."

"Not that I know of." Arthur takes a slow, contemplative sip of tea and says, "If you stayed on here, properly I mean, there's some funding available for further study."

"Oh, I'm leaving at the end of August," Merlin tells him. "If they don't kick me out earlier, of course. I'm turning into the ultimate arts graduate cliché."

"Oh, God," Arthur says in faint horror. "Not another teacher?"

"I believe in the children of the future," Merlin tells him, as wide-eyed as he can manage and gets great joy out of watching Arthur snort tea out of his nose.


#


Thankfully, within a fortnight most people have stopped treating him as if he's about to drop dead at his desk.

Most people,except Arthur, that is.

The git has obviously added 'annoying Merlin' to his slim list of daily pleasures, because he constantly appears at Merlin's shoulder to nag him into lunch or tell him he's looking shaky. When he strolls over to announce, "I haven't seen you do a blood test yet today," Merlin loses patience.

"You know I've been managing this myself since I was six?"

"And look at you," Arthur shoots back, with a grimace.

"What? What's that supposed to mean?"

But then Uther comes out of the corner office and glares at them, and they both shut up. Merlin does a blood test, though. He emails Arthur the result (6.2 and close to perfect) together with a really obnoxious smiley. He hears Arthur's quiet snort from right across the room and grins to himself as he goes back to entering questionnaire results into a spreadsheet (Associated web-resources do or do not influence your choice of language textbook, Y/N? and they'd better let him proofread the next one of these before it goes out).

He's not the only one to notice Arthur's change in routine. Freya keeps shooting him reproachful looks over the partition between their desks. They'd agreed Arthur was an irredeemable git on the day they'd both started, and she seems to view Arthur's sudden fit of completely unneeded and unwanted protectiveness as somehow being Merlin's fault.

"Sleeping with the enemy!" she hisses at him during their morning break, spooning extra sugar into her tea with a ferocious clink of the spoon against the side of her mug.

"Who is?" Arthur demands, sitting himself down uninvited. "And which enemy? Not HarperCollins?" He picks the sugar bowl up and moves it across to a neighbouring table.

"Oh, come on," Merlin protests. "When have you ever seen me put sugar in my tea?"

"Yesterday afternoon."

"Okay, but that was because I needed it. It spoils the taste, you know."

Arthur's eyes narrow. "You had a hypo and didn't tell me?"

"I didn't phone my mum and cry either," Merlin says as Freya presses herself into the corner and glares at them both. "It was a blip. I dealt with it."

He wishes he'd never mentioned it when Arthur bullies him into taking the stairs for the rest of the week.

Lunchtimes aren't so bad, now Morgana's taken to joining them. Just watching her eat salad and nothing but salad makes Merlin feel like he's about to keel over, but she's got a way of baiting Arthur with the slightest hint of disdain, and Arthur's spectacularly offensive once he starts arguing back. It's fun to watch and Merlin eventually figures out how to wind up both sides. On Mondays, though, he and Morgana talk Doctor Who for the whole hour while Arthur slumps against the table and complains that he shouldn't have to put up with this at work too. On Fridays, Arthur talks to Merlin about football, in French, casting meaningful glances at Morgana at random intervals just to make her paranoid.

"She's the only monolingual person in the building," Arthur informs Merlin over fish fingers one Friday, shaking his head sadly.

"There's a reason why I'm in HR and Arthur's doing research," Morgana agrees. "I'm almost as terrible at languages as he is with people."

"I'm good with people," Arthur says, gesturing with a forkful of mushy peas. "I've kept Merlin alive for weeks, haven't I?"

"I'm not a goldfish," Merlin protests. "And I could have done that quite well on my own, thank you."

They both give him sceptical looks at that.


#


Admittedly, all this nagging means his control is better than it's been since primary school, but that doesn't mean he appreciates it. It's bad enough living with Will, who won't always let him get away with the odd extra digestive, but Arthur's a thousand times worse. It took him years to persuade his mum that he was safe and independent, and it's not as if he's had any major problems, and he is sick of people assuming they know better than him about his own body.

He rants about it to Gwen, over tea in the cinema café, and she pats his hand and says soothing things.

"I don't know what his problem is," Merlin grumbles, passing the little complimentary biscuits to her. "He saved me once. I'm not his responsibility."

"He's just trying to help," Gwen says.

"I don't want his help. And don't tell me he means well. That's no excuse."

"At least your control's better," Gwen says.

Unfortunately, that's the only bit of the message that seems to get to Arthur, because he appears behind Merlin in the queue for the coffee machine the next morning, and says, "I hear I'm good for your health."

Merlin jumps, spills hot tea all down his front and yelps, "No!"

Arthur takes the cup out of his hand with a tutting noise. "Really, Merlin, how did you ever survive without me?"

"Quite well, actually," Merlin says, trying to snatch his precious morning caffeine hit back. "I lived a quiet and happy life with my little white-haired mother in a cottage in the woods, and the most annoying sound I ever heard was the clucking of the little hens at the bottom of the garden. Then I had to seek out my fortune in the wicked city and I was forced to live on the streets and beg for crusts - oh, wait, that's what you think my life is like."

"You've got a photo of your mum on your desk," Arthur tells him. "Her hair isn't white."

"I hate you and want you to die," Merlin says fervently.

For that, Arthur makes him sharpen pencils all morning. Merlin hands them back to him, point first, just before lunch, along with an unflattering portrait of Arthur as a rooster, strutting around and crowing about how wonderful he is. Arthur sticks it to the side of his computer and makes everyone who passes his desk stop to admire it.

After that, he gets worse. Merlin is quite capable of filling his own lunch tray, thank you very much, and he does not appreciate the gruesome pictures of gangrenous feet Arthur keeps sending him under the heading This Could Happen To You!

"If you're trying to make sure I never eat again, you're doing well," he tells Arthur that lunch time, prodding the lumps in his stroganoff suspiciously.

"It's important that you be aware of possible complications," Arthur tells him. "Eat that before it gets cold."

"Yeah," Merlin mutters. "Hopefully I'll go blind, and then I won't have to look at your face any more."

Arthur looks hurt.

It finally gets to be too much on Friday, when Arthur actually comes along to the end of the week drinks for once. As it's usually just Merlin, Freya, the temps from downstairs, and any of the younger researchers they think they can scam drinks off, this starts off awkwardly, especially when Freya says in too loud a whisper, "He's actually stalking you, isn't he? Should I call the police?"

"I asked him to come," Merlin tells her, which he sort of had, without thinking about it. He really hadn't expected Arthur to accept the invitation.

"I'll get the first round," Arthur offers, which appeases Freya a little.

"Pint of Fosters," she tells him.

"Same for me," Merlin says. "Ta, mate."

Arthur's brows narrow a little but Merlin doesn't think anything until he comes back with the drinks, and presents Merlin with a glass of Diet Coke. With an umbrella in it.

"Er," Merlin says.

"You're not supposed to drink alcohol," Arthur says reasonably and takes a satisfied swig of his own pint.

"I can drink what I like, actually," Merlin says, shoving to his feet. He'll buy his own drink and then he's going to tell Arthur to fuck off for good.

"Not in here you can't," says Arthur. "I told the barman you were seventeen and your ID was faked."

Arthur has obviously never had a drink thrown in his face before. It's long overdue.


#


He's halfway home before he calms down enough to phone Gwen. She listens to him rage with little worried interjections, which help a lot more than the distinct sound of Morgana whimpering with laughter behind her.

"..and I don't know what is wrong with him!" Merlin finishes, flourishing his phone even though she's in her nice warm sitting room on the far side of Camelot. A couple of girls suddenly cross over the road to avoid him, but he doesn't care. He has a perfect right to look crazy if he wants to. Arthur can't tell him not to do that!

"Well," Gwen says. "Arthur doesn't have many friends, and most of them he's known forever. He's not very good at-"

"He is not my friend. Completely the opposite, actually - he's like a great big blond moronic walking symbol of not-friend!"

"I'll talk to him," Gwen promises.

Merlin snorts. "Go ahead. I'm never speaking to him again."

He's still fuming when he passes Sainsburys so he goes in and buys himself a huge bar of chocolate. He eats it too quickly, feeling it cling to his tongue, sweet and cloying, and thinks,Take that, Arthur Pendragon!

He stays angry all weekend, turning his music up loud and muttering at Mabel, who has almost vanished underneath everyone's piled up winter coats. By Sunday neither of his housemates are speaking to him, and he stomps into the office on Monday determined to act as if Arthur has been wiped from the face of the planet. Let Freya sharpen his stupid pencils and reformat his crappy footnotes.

The story seems to have gone right around the office, and the first job he gets offered that morning involves digging around the basement to find a load of old exam syllabuses for the woman who sits behind him.

"And then they need to be sorted by language, exam board and year," Linda explains, and adds, rolling her eyes towards Arthur. "You could probably do that in the basement, if you wanted. There are tables down there."

"I might just do that," Merlin says and gets the lift down there, just because. It's working without a hitch again, and the only hint that something had happened is the panel in the door that's much newer and shinier than the rest of it.

The basement is huge and complex, with rooms within rooms and occasional strange corners where entire empty offices have been set up behind screens, dark computers and dusty desks and chairs that roll uneasily across the bare concrete when Merlin spins on them. Cables creep up the walls and hang from the ceiling in multi-coloured bundles and it's half an hour before he even starts looking for Linda's boxes.

It's a surprisingly satisfying morning, for all that the work is mindless and he's spent it underground. It's not until ten to one that he realises he's left his insulin upstairs.

When he gets back to his desk, Arthur's sitting in his chair, drumming his fingers on the desk and frowning at the little cyberman that sits beside Merlin's keyboard. Merlin glares at him and pushes past him to pull his drawer open.

Arthur's hand closes around his wrist. Merlin scowls and tries to pull away, not saying anything.

"Look," Arthur says, staring over his head. "I may have been a little overbearing."

"Just a bit, yeah," Merlin says and then remembers that he's not speaking to Arthur.

"Right," Arthur says. "Er, so Morgana's cooking dinner tonight for people. And you could- I mean the girls would like - Gwen has a recipe for sugar-free vodka jelly."

"Oh, well, if she's gone to all the effort," Merlin says, and most of his lingering rage just disappears when Arthur smiles at him, quick and honest and a little crooked.

"Half seven," he says. "Now why are you hanging around here? You'll be late for lunch."


#


Arthur and Morgana's friends are all ridiculously good-looking. None of them are too smartly dressed, to his relief, and even Arthur's switched his normal suit for jeans and a red t-shirt.

"Finally," he says when Gwen lets Merlin in and bears off his proffered bottle of wine with a happy giggle. "Good God, what is that thing around your neck?"

"Shut up, Arthur," one of the others says amiably. "We only got here five minutes ago and Morgause is still stuck in traffic somewhere."

"Thank God," Arthur mutters and then shoots a wary glance towards the kitchen, where Morgana is hunched over her saucepans like a witch over her cauldron.

It takes a while for Merlin to attach names to all the faces, but he gets there by the time Gwen starts ushering them all towards the table. Morgause is the scary blonde, Leon is the easy-going one who redirects potential arguments almost as neatly as Gwen, Elyan is Gwen's brother, Percy and Lancelot both work at the hospital.

Lancelot spends most of the meal casting longing glances at Gwen. Merlin can see Morgana's mood get steadily stormier and decides to ignore Arthur's attempts to goad him in favour of distracting Lancelot.

It turns out that Lancelot is just as happy to flirt with him. It's not every day that Merlin gets hit on by a sexy doctor, so he tries his best to charm Lancelot in return. His mum would probably cry with relief if he brought a doctor home for Christmas.

Things are just getting towards sly double-meanings and significant silences when Arthur suddenly interrupts with, "Merlin, you want to talk with Leon."

"I do?" Merlin asks and yelps as Arthur pulls him to his feet and propels him across the living room. "I thought we agreed you weren't going to tell me what to do any more?"

"I'm not. Leon, talk to him. Merlin, remember that all teenagers are evil and if he claims otherwise he's clearly lying."

"Uh," Merlin says, glancing back wistfully at Lancelot. They'd been bonding, he was sure.

But it turns out that Leon is a teacher, and has enough interesting stories and advice that Merlin forgets about Lancelot quite quickly. When he does glance back, Arthur seems to have started an argument with him about rugby which has drawn in Elyan, Percy and Morgause. Gwen and Morgana are both in the kitchen, their voices murmuring softly as they clear up and make coffee.

Later, they all end up sitting on the floor, cheating at cards and laughing. Merlin's been pretty much knocked out by just one of Gwen's vodka jellies, so he simply leans back against the side of the sofa and smiles at them all.

"Such a lightweight," Arthur says softly, leaning down to prop him up.

"Am not," Merlin says and grins at him. "See, I'm not dead yet."

"Miracles will never cease."

He's disappointed when the party breaks up, and people start calling taxis. He's trying to work out how much one will cost back to his side of town when Arthur says, "I'll drive Merlin home. Anyone for the station want to jump in the back?"

"I don't need-" Merlin protests automatically.

Elyan's already saying, "Cheers, mate," though, and the matter seems to be settled. He hugs Gwen and Morgana goodbye, shakes hands with Leon and Percy and then gets propelled out the front door before he can get to Lancelot.

When Arthur draws up outside Merlin's house, he's almost too cosy to move. Arthur's car is warm, the seats are comfortable and it's been humming softly all the way through the back streets.

"You planning to stay here?" Arthur asks, mouth curving into a surprisingly soft smile. "I may have to charge you rent."

"Couldn't afford it," Merlin says and smiles back at him. He's thinking about what Gwen said yesterday, and maybe he and Arthur are friends, but it's the strangest friendship he's ever had. Arthur's oddly likeable for such a git, and once you get used to his face, most of the time you just see him as the well-meaning prat he is, but then you get a moment where the streetlights come softly through the car window and he tilts his head just so, and he's the most beautiful thing in the world.

"God, are you even going to be able to do your insulin?" he asks and then switches to speaking slowly. "You need to get out of the car, Merlin."

"I'm never too pissed for that," Merlin says and pushes himself out reluctantly into the cold night. Arthur doesn't pull away until he closes the front door behind him.

Merlin slumps down against the back of the door and stares up at Mabel's plunger in despair, because Arthur Pendragon's beautiful and now he's so, so fucked.