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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.

Chapter Text

Freya grabs him the next day, as soon as Arthur trails into a meeting with his father, and drags him round the corner to the coffee machine to hiss, "How was your date? Are you actually sleeping with the enemy?"

"It wasn't a date," Merlin protests. "It was just dinner. With his sister, who I know."

"He's introduced you to his family?"

"Not like that!"

"Merlin," she says, grasping his hands and lowering her voice. "You do know he's still a git, don't you?"

"He's not that bad."

"He makes girls burst into tears and run away to hide behind the photocopier."

"He always feels awful about it afterwards," Merlin says and Freya shakes her head dolefully and pats him on the shoulder.

At lunchtime, Morgana demands that he hand his phone over.

"Why?" Merlin asks. All this emotional crap is messing up his blood sugars, and he has pudding today, to Arthur's silent horror.

"Lancelot wants you to have his number."

He hands his phone over quickly, but Arthur snatches it out of Morgana's hand and starts prodding at it. "You can have mine instead."

"Maybe I want Lancelot's," Merlin points out. "You know I can just find him on facebook, don't you?"

"Not at work you can't."

"Oh, yeah?" Merlin asks, because he and Freya hacked their way past that filter months ago.

"That's abuse of your access privileges, isn't it, Morgana?"

She shrugs, yawning. "If you say so, Arthur."

Merlin decides not to tell Arthur that he's been playing Scrabble against her all morning.

 

#

 

Not long after that, the teachers start appearing out of the woodwork. Their division of Camelot University Press publishes language textbooks and, if Merlin had ever stopped to think about it, he might have guessed that there'd be a few ex-teachers working here.

All of a sudden, though, they're everywhere. They slip into the lift behind him, linger in wait at the coffee machine, lurk in the shadowy corners of the library until he comes in to reshelve the books. They gaze at him mournfully from shadowed eyes and whisper of stink bombs and spit balls, tactical farting, chair hurling and Year Eleven on Friday afternoon.

By the second week, Merlin is starting to get a little suspicious. It isn't until Tuesday lunchtime, however, that he really figures out what was going on.

"They smile behind their hands," the latest one is confiding, leaning her full weight on the table to regale him with her life story.

"Er," Merlin says, watching casserole slop off the side of his plate as it slides down the table. "That's nice."

"And, sometimes, sometimes they laugh and they whisper, and soon it's all of them. They all watch you as you walk past and they giggle. Oh, how they giggle. And that's the just the children," she confides as Arthur smothers laughter behind a serviette and Morgana looks on in disdain. "We don't mention the parents. Never mention the parents."

"Right, no parents," Merlin says, nodding and trying to kick Arthur under the table. "None whatsoever."

She seizes his arm, fingers digging in. "Don't do it, young Emrys. Your destiny lies elsewhere."

"Oh, look," Morgana says brightly. "Isn't that Jean Vivian from the Key Stage Three working group? She used to be a lead inspector for OFSTED, you know."

Merlin's never seen anyone run away that fast in his life. Arthur's almost turned purple beside him, and now he throws back his head and roars with laughter.

It doesn't matter how good he looks doing that, Merlin thinks. This is not on.

"You can't put me off that easily, you know," he says. "I want to teach."

"Oh, Arthur," Morgana says with a little moue of disappointment. "I'll find you some nice people to talk to, Merlin. Have you ever met Nimueh from the Vivateam? She loved teaching."

"She loved her Sixth Formers," Arthur says, still chortling. "Which, incidentally, is why she's no longer a teacher."

"Don't be vulgar," Morgana says, nibbling a lettuce leaf delicately, and then adds, "Or I'm telling Uther."

"She always told tales," Arthur tells Merlin and switches to a high-pitched whine. "Daddy, Arthur was mean to me. He dared to breathe near my special sparkly Barbies."

Morgana narrows her eyes. "You fed my one and only Barbie to the dog. Who died."

"Six months later," Arthur says as Merlin chokes.

"Pah," Morgana says. "You only stole it because you were jealous that you weren't allowed pretty glittery things."

"Oh, is that why you blew up my train set?" Arthur's voice is perhaps a little too loud for a crowded room, and several tables away Uther suddenly rises to his feet and glowers.

"Was your entire childhood like this?" Merlin asks as Freya slides in beside Morgana, eyes nervous.

"No other free seats," she squeaks at Merlin.

Morgana bestows a dazzling smile on her, and then says, "Arthur was just jealous because I'm the oldest."

"By three months!" Arthur hisses.

"Um, how-" Merlin starts before thinking better of it.

Morgana's snit dissolves into glee. "Oh, God, has no one ever told you about Uther's little naughty times?"

"Not in the canteen, please," Arthur groans, stabbing his fork down so hard that the piece of cauliflower he's aiming for just disintegrates.

"I really don't need to know," Merlin tries, but Morgana's already started.

"So," Morgana begins. "This was all back in the Pendragon and LeFay days - the company Uther and poor old Uncle Gorlois ran back then - Camelot bought them out years ago. So, there's Daddy Uther-"

"Who is sitting three tables away," Arthur hisses.

Morgana waves her hand lazily. "-who not only has a new young wife at home, but is shagging his business partner's wife on the side. The thing is, Uther's not quite as sterile as everyone-"

"Morgana, there are people listening!"

"Let them. Anyway, he knocked Mummy up, which was a bit of a shock to everyone, including poor Uncle Gorlois who was in Singapore at the time and the teensiest bit suspicious. So, months of accusation and counter-accusation later, Mummy turns up on Uther's doorstep with little me." She smirked. "I'm told that the resemblance to Uther was far stronger before my hair grew."

"Oh, God," Arthur mutters, slumping down behind Merlin. "Do you have to enjoy this so much every time?"

"And that's when Auntie Ygraine, who knew nothing of Uther's little side-venture, opens the door. She sees Mummy's tears and my no-doubt adorable little face, and promptly goes into labour. And, voilà, Arthur. My little brother." She reaches out and pats his cheek fondly.

"Er," Merlin says and eyes the back of Uther's head nervously. "That's- um- seriously?"

"Absolute truth," Morgana promises. "I'm surprised you didn't know already?"

"I knew," Freya says suddenly, and goes pink when they all stare at her. "I was warned about him on my first day - never bend over in a skirt where you can be seen from the corner office."

"That's-" Arthur starts, but Merlin elbows him before he can scare Freya.

She shoots him a grateful little smile and then says, biting her lip, "But, if you don't mind me asking, why didn't your mums just bring you up without him?"

Morgana's grin widens with a slow curl, and Arthur makes a wordless noise and actually leans his face against Merlin's back to complain into his shoulder, "Do you know how long it takes for people to stop giggling behind my back every time she does this? It's not like we can all just retreat to payroll and look scary."

"Arthur's embarrassed about our mothers," Morgana says, shaking her head.

He sits up fast, thumping his fist on the table so hard the plates jump on their trays. "I am not."

"It's because he drank too much at their wedding and threw up on a monkey."

"It was not a monkey! Not that I-"

Morgana lifted her voice over his. "You see, Mummy and Auntie Ygraine ran off to travel the world before we were six months old. Uther was rather awful about custody, but by the time we were school age it all worked."

"Term-time with Dad," Arthur explains gloomily. "Hols with Mum and Aunt Vivienne in Aruba."

"Did he just say Aruba as if it was a bad thing?" Freya whispers to Merlin.

"He's broken in the head," Merlin sighs back and oofs as Arthur knees him. "Hey, what's with all the violence?"

"Poor socialisation, obviously," Morgana says and gathers her tray. "Back to the grindstone. Merlin, Scrabble rematch later?"

"Sure," Merlin says and waves goodbye.

"She was socialised in exactly the same way as me," Arthur complains, but lets Merlin steer him back towards the office.

 

#

 

Arthur comes to Friday drinks again that week, although he suggests a different pub and manages not to do more than twitch when Merlin gets the first round. He comes the Friday after that as well, and the next. By then even Freya has warmed to him a little, possibly because he's the one who noticed when she got cornered at the bar by some drunk student and went to loom menacingly until the idiot ran away.

Then, the week after that, Merlin suddenly gets invited to an interview at his first choice uni. On Friday, and oh, could he spend two days observing in a local school beforehand.

"I don't know any local schools," he wails over lunch, waving his hands in the air. "I can't just phone up and say, 'Oy, I'm a random. Can I watch some French lessons?'"

"I'm sure they'd be helpful," Morgana says. “You do come across as mostly harmless.”

"Only if he found a special type of school," Arthur says. "Which is to say, a special school, where they're probably used to- that's my pudding!"

"Not any more," Merlin informs him, giving it to Freya. "You just relinquished all rights to pudding until you stop being a total prat."

Arthur scowls and crosses his arms. "I don't see why you even want to go back to school." Then, to Freya. "Go ahead. I'm not going to take it back. I didn't even want it in the first place."

"Then why did you take it?" she asks and then pulls the bowl of rhubarb crumble closer, eyes wide.

"Nobody respects me any more," Arthur complains. "Morgana, I want new temps. Get me some who still know how to cower."

"Where's the fun in that?" she asks.

"Excuse me," Merlin says, thumping the table. "I thought I was the one having a crisis."

"Your whole life is a crisis," Arthur says feebly, and then rolls his eyes. "Just worry about asking Dad for the time off. I'll sort the rest."

"What, you're going to bully a headteacher for me?" Merlin asks, and Arthur looks very wistful for a moment before he shakes his head.

"Trust me."

Merlin wants to, but that doesn't stop him from spending the afternoon worrying and looking up the phone numbers of local schools. There's an excruciating ten minutes in the middle where Uther stares at him as if he has no idea who Merlin is and then graciously grants him three days off at short notice, but most of his afternoon is spent panicking until his hands start shaking and he has to dip into his biscuit stash.

Just before the end of the day, Arthur appears behind him, hands shoved into his pockets and shoulders tight. He comments on Merlin's handwriting, typing speed and organisational skills for a few minutes before he shoves a printout of an email at him.

"What's this?" Merlin asks.

"Leon's school," Arthur says casually. "Expecting you at 8.20 on Wednesday morning. Now, for God's sake, Merlin, will you take that mug home and wash it."

Then he strides off, very purposefully and doesn't meet Merlin's eye again that day.

 

#

 

School is manic, exhilarating and exhausting. He's tumbled from Leon's rowdy, cheerful Year Eight form ("Sir, sir, who's that man? Sir!") to sulky GCSE students who groan at every instruction, flirting glances at each other to check reactions, and then light up with pride and ambition when they manage to curl out an A-grade conversation, to round-cheeked little Year Sevens, giggling over the simplest phrases, to a pre-lunch bottom set Year Nine, all spitting rage and swearing and barely contained rebellion. He watches a young teacher, Elena, dance through that one with precise grace, and wonders if he'll ever have the nerve to do that. And then, when one of the fuming boys finally crosses a line, Merlin's the one who takes him out of the room and sits with him until the deputy head comes to get him. The boy paces and scowls and seems constantly on the edge of bolting, but he stays and actually talks, struggling to find the English vocabulary to spit out why he hates languages so much, why they're so fucking hard and what's the fucking point and who does that bitch think she is, giving him detention for fucking nothing?

He barely has time to wolf down lunch; almost fails to find a quiet corner to do his insulin. He scrawls notes so fast he doesn't think he'll be able to read them; and sits with the kids and helps rather than just watching. Elena leaves him with her lower sixth for five minutes while she dashes off to make a sneaky cup of tea, and he just chats to them in French, surprised by how often they stumble and realising for the first time that he had it easy, that understanding doesn't come like a gift to everyone.

By the end of the day, he's wondering how the hell Leon manages to stay so calm in the face of all this, especially when afternoon registration features three sobbing girls, one tantrum over a detention and three boys crawling under the tables and trying to steal the girls' shoes off their feet. Leon casually redirects the crawlers towards the weepers, distracting them, sits the tantrum by his desk and gets him to do the register, initials thirty homework diaries, sends the crawlers back to their seats and talks to the no longer weeping trio, hands out letters, confiscated phones and reward stickers and somehow gets them all out of the room on time and with all their belongings.

In the sudden quiet, he says to Merlin, "Good day?"

"Brilliant!" Merlin tells him and can't keep the grin off his face.

Then, when he gets out of the school gates, Arthur's parked across the road, in the most ridiculously ostentatious sports car Merlin's ever seen, red and sleek and low.

"What are you compensating for?" he enquires, going to lean against the side.

Arthur shoots him a look. "If you don't want a lift home-"

"I never said that," Merlin protests and climbs in.

Across the road, someone shouts, "Sick car, sir!"

Arthur looks alarmed. "Is that good?"

"Dunno," Merlin says, sinking into his seat comfortably. He hadn't realised how tired he was until he sat down. "Seriously, where did you get this?"

"Graduation present," Arthur says and pats the dashboard fondly. "She goes through fuel like you do through tea, but I like to take her out now and then. I see you survived a day with the hellspawn."

Merlin takes that as a cue to start talking. He's so engrossed in his day that it's not until they reach the outskirts of Camelot that he realises Arthur isn't taking him home.

"Where are we going?"

Arthur grins and speeds up a little as fields open around them. "Dinner."

"What?" Merlin said. "Where?"

"Steeple Mordreth?" Arthur said, eyes fixed on the road. "I heard there might be a good pub to get food there."

Merlin was about to ask whether it had been Gwen or Morgana who recommended the place, where a horrible thought occurred to him. "You heard? Have you never been out there?"

"We can't all go tiptoeing around the countryside picking flowers, Merlin."

"How long have you lived in Camelot?"

Arthur went a little red and muttered something inaudible.

"I bet you've never been punting, either. Or done May Morning."

"Those things are for tourists."

"You're joking. You're just trying to wind me up, right?"

But Arthur is started to look irritable. Thinking again, Merlin shuts up until they're drawing up outside the Knight and Dragon in Steeple Mordreth. Arthur pushes him gently in the direction of the garden and Merlin ambles down to the riverbank, finding a table in the evening sun where he can look down on the ducks dabbling in the shallow stream below.

Arthur returns with a couple of drinks and settles in opposite him, his knees brushing Merlin's under the tiny table. They talk idly as the day fades over Summer Common and the river and the flat, quiet stretch of the countryside. In the distance, so far away that Merlin, who grew up among mountains, still feels a little thrown when he tries to find the horizon, long lines of trees stand out darkly against the dusk.

When it gets too cold to sit outside, they move into the pub, which is one of those over-polished, red-walled places that paints poetry on the walls, caters for weddings and office parties, and uses the phrase gourmet experience on its menu. Merlin finds himself peering at the menu wistfully, trying to find something he can afford.

"My treat," Arthur says stiffly, and follows up with, "Are you yawning already? That's pathetic."

"Tired," Merlin says. "It's exhausting, this teaching lark.”

"Well, if just watching wears you out-" Arthur starts, but Merlin just rolls his eyes.

"I liked it."

Arthur smiles at him then, one of those little, quick genuine grins which he tries to hide by ducking his head. "I noticed. Back tomorrow, yeah?"

"Yeah, and I've got a presentation to write as well. Need to show I've understood the methods behind two of the lessons."

"There are methods?" Arthur asks, and Merlin almost falls for it before he spots the grin.

"You probably weren't paying enough attention at school to notice."

He gets a haughty look. "I'll have you know that I was a straight A student."

"Is that A for arsehole, arrogant prat or-"

"I suppose you think you're funny."

"You think I'm funny," Merlin says and smiles at him. It's surprisingly easy to sit with Arthur like this, watching him across the table, his hair shining softly golden under the low lights and his tie loosened. The only challenge is resisting the urge to reach across that last inch and lace his fingers over Arthur's as he banters.

When Arthur goes to order the food, Merlin sits back and just watches him, the confidence he assumes as he leans against the bar, how his shoulders relax a little as he turns back towards their table, how preposterously gorgeous he is. When, he wonders, did he get this smitten with the interfering git? He just can't help himself from looking at Arthur any more, here, at work across the length of the office, in the pub on Fridays, walking down the stairs for lunch: Arthur always draws his gaze.

He knows Arthur has at least a little bit of a thing for him, but he isn't sure if Arthur himself recognises it for what it is. It's all wrapped up in banter and grumbling and pushing each other for independence, this not-quite-relationship of theirs.

He kind of likes it this way.

"They'll give us a nod when it's almost ready," Arthur says, sitting down again. "So you can go and do your insulin in time."

"I usually do it between courses when I'm out," Merlin says, shrugging. "Tell me something."

"What?" Arthur goes a little wild-eyed and edgy all of a sudden.

"This thing I'm doing. Everyone on a arts course at least thinks about it as a career. Did you?"

"God, no," Arthur says, relaxing. "I hate children."

"But you do research into how they learn."

"I like the research, idiot, not the snotty little brats."

"Why?" Merlin fiddles with the candle in the middle of the table, turning it round until Arthur reaches out to touch him, his fingers brushing the back of Merlin's hand like a shock. "Tell me about a bit of research you liked."

Arthur gives him a puzzled look, but starts to talk about a project Merlin did the filing for, a few weeks back, which got teachers around the world to film themselves teaching beginners' Spanish classes, and compared the methods used with students from different linguistic groups. He talks most about the organisation - the ways they set the project up, how they ensured that the groups were comparable, the logistics of getting digital video back to Camelot, the way they advertised the study and the shipment of new textbooks to some of the poorer participating schools.

"So what did you find out?" Merlin asks, thinking about his own teaching.

Arthur shrugs a little. "Still correlating findings."

"Sounds to me," Merlin says, as someone comes over from the bar with cutlery, "like it was the managing you liked."

"I do like research," Arthur snaps back, lifting his chin. Merlin lifts an eyebrow and waits, and after a moment, Arthur sags back down and says, "Yeah, okay, maybe."

"So why aren't you doing that?"

He gets a wry twist of Arthur's mouth. "My father thinks the family should diversify."

"But-" Merlin starts, but someone calls over to say it'll be out in a minute.

"Go and do your insulin, Merlin," Arthur says, and when Merlin comes back he changes the subject and they talk about teaching again. The food is good, and Arthur manages to get them to make a fruit salad for dessert, which isn't on any menu Merlin can see, and by the time they wander back out to the car, Merlin's full and happy and more relaxed than he thought he could be this week.

"So what was this in aid of?" he asks, as casually as he can, leaning against the side of the car.

Arthur doesn't meet his eye. "Traditional before an interview, isn't it? For luck."

"If it was Morgana who originally told you that, she probably had ulterior motives."

"She always does," Arthur says, with a hint of fondness.

They drive back quietly, across the soft shadows of the fens towards the lights of Camelot. It's been nice, Merlin thinks hazily, not just for the company, but to eat a meal with someone who doesn't need all the problems with food to be painstakingly and tactfully explained. He could get used to this.

When Arthur stops outside his house, they sit for a moment, and Merlin thinks, If this was a real date, I'd kiss him now.

But he doesn't quite have the nerve, so he just pats the side of the car vaguely and says, "Thank you, yeah. See you Monday?"

"Phone before then," Arthur commands. "Good luck."

"Thanks," Merlin mumbles and stumbles back into the house, where he crashes onto the sofa and spends the rest of the evening bemoaning his stupid heart, as Gwaine pretends not to be laughing at him too much.

 

#

 

The second day in school makes a little more sense, not least because he's started to recognise and like some of the students. There is no Arthur that afternoon, although he does get a text mid-evening that says, Wake up and write your presentation, moron.

He sends back, was planning 2 make it up as i went, and then turns his phone off so he can concentrate.

The interview itself is a mixture of anxiety and excitement - he likes the other two interviewing with him, and gets through his presentation with grace if not flair and then does his utmost not to blather in his interview. Then, set loose with nothing more than a kind smile, he goes home again. On the way back, he opens his phone to find fifteen text messages from Arthur, ranging from, You'd better not have overslept, you idiot to Hope they haven't run you out of town yet to Dinner with Gwen and Morgana at Vietnamese place on Fen Lane. I'll bring booze. 8pm.

He shakes his head at that, smiling a little too stupidly for a mid-afternoon bus. He has enough time for a shower and a change of clothes, and finds himself reaching for his date jacket and the jeans that flatter his arse. For a moment, he hesitates, calling himself an idiot, but then he shrugs and puts them on anyway, running his hands through his hair and grinning at the mirror.

Gwaine gives him a wolf-whistle as he rushs down the stairs, but Merlin just ignores him to pat Mabel on the head as he hurries out. It's a bright spring evening, just starting to turn cool, and he walks into town briskly, grinning at the clumps of daffodils growing in the gardens of the grey terraces of south Camelot, and the tubs of tulips in the marketplace. He cuts up through Jesus College and over the river and comes round into Fen Lane from the west, bumping into Gwen and Morgana at the corner. By the time they get to the restaurant, they're already plying him with questions, and Arthur seems thoroughly put out when he arrives last.

"When will you know?" he asks as they settle around a small table in the basement.

"Next week," Merlin says, shrugging.

Arthur fusses with the wine for a moment, before asking, "Think you got it?"

"I don't know. I didn't do anything too stupid, but I wasn't, y'know, dazzling."

"You're always dazzling," Morgana says. "Isn't he, Arthur?"

Arthur goes, "Er, quite, um. Are you all ready to order?" and Merlin feels oddly warmed.

Gwen gets the giggles for some reason, and ducks behind her menu for a few minutes, but soon they've all ordered and a waiter has opened their wine.

Morgana took a slow, appreciative sip, and then leaned forward. "So, Merlin, Arthur won't tell me which university this interview was even with?"

He stares at her, taken aback. "This one. Y'know, the one we all indirectly work for."

"Camelot has a education department?" Gwen asked, sounding surprised. "I didn't think they did anything vocational."

Arthur's eyes have widened and he's staring at Merlin with all his normal masks gone, startled and breathless and hopeful. Merlin's breath suddenly catches in his throat - Arthur hadn't known; Arthur had thought he was planning to leave.

Oh, God, he has to get this place now, he has to, because his second choice is bloody Oxford and it's too, too far away if Arthur's going to look at him like that.

 

#

 

It's Tuesday morning before they phone him, and he's busy composing a scathing email about Arthur's spelling when his phone goes.

He picks it up, reels off, "Camelot University Press, MFL publications, research and development division, how can I help?" which is a mouthful it took him weeks to remember.

"Is that Merlin?" a friendly, vaguely familiar voice says. "This is Guy Blaise from the School of Education."

"Um," Merlin says, "I mean, yes, it's me, Merlin, that is. Hi."

Freya suddenly appears over the top of the partition holding a piece of paper which reads, IS IT THEM??????

Merlin nods at her frantically and then tries to ignore her crazy semaphoring to Arthur as he talks. He really cannot let Dr Blaise think that he's a moron.

By the time he puts down the phone, Freya is hanging over the partition, hands clasped over her mouth, and Arthur is behind him, clutching the back of his chair tightly.

"Well?" Freya squeaks.

"I got in," Merlin tells her, grinning so wildly it hurts.

She squeals, and Arthur spins him round and drags him to his feet. For one insane moment, Merlin thinks that he's about to get kissed in the middle of the office, not three feet from Uther's door, but then Arthur shakes his hand so hard his fingers go numb. Freya dashes around to hug him and Linda, at the desk behind, is shaking his hand and telling him not to pay any attention to Arthur because her husband is a teacher and loves it. They make such a commotion that Uther actually comes out of his office to glare at them. He does grace Merlin with a nod and a handshake when told the news, though the way he stares, half hostile and half resigned, makes Merlin wonder if Uther actually does take an interest in his son's life (either that, or Morgana's been gossiping, which is more likely).

Uther's appearance sends everyone else slinking back to their seats, and Merlin sits down to email his mum. A few minutes later, Arthur emails to demand that they celebrate in the pub.

Merlin's tempted, because he'd love to spend another evening with Arthur, even if they're just going to sit there while Arthur stares at him and Merlin wonders if the idiot even knows that he wants to make a move. But Will's latest girlfriend has offered to cook them all dinner, and he's promised he'll be there, so he turns Arthur down reluctantly.

The problem with Arthur, he thinks as he fails to do any work for the rest of the day, is that he only sees what he wants to see. Everybody in the world seems to recognise his attitude to Merlin, but Arthur just thinks that he's being helpful and heroic, as far as Merlin can tell. He knows that Morgana managed to resist all Uther's efforts to turn his children into ambitious and well-mannered heterosexuals, but he's less sure about how Arthur sees himself. Arthur's open-mindedness tends to apply more to other people than to himself, Merlin's noticed.

The others do drag him to the pub for one drink, and he's startled at the number of people who come along - from his office and the canteen, people he knows but didn't think paid any attention to him; Morgana and her minions; Gwen, with her brother and Lancelot, who hugs him so long that Arthur goes pink and starts to bluster and Morgana stops laughing at them to frown. Arthur sits beside him, running down the entire teaching profession and beaming proudly every time someone comes over to offer congratulations.

Maybe, Merlin thinks as he fights the urge to just lean smugly against Arthur's shoulder, he should just tell everyone that he and Arthur are together. If the rumour spreads far enough, Arthur might be too embarrassed to deny it.

He doesn't want to go, but he has to, so he drags himself away later than he should, and walks home with a spring in his step. He's staying in Camelot, and he'll be damned if leaving the office means no more Arthur. He doesn't care how long it takes Arthur to work out what's going on. He'll wait.

Or, maybe, he thinks, turning into his own road and whistling cheerfully to himself, he'll just jump Arthur himself. All he really needs to do is pick the right moment.

When he gets home, both Will and Gwaine thump him on the shoulders and Will's latest, who is either called Eloise or Lisa (Merlin wasn't listening), flutters congratulations at him. Then she throws them all out of the kitchen with the faint flourish of a carving knife.

"What's she making?" Gwaine asks, retreating to the corner and scooping up his laptop.

"Dunno," Will says, sprawling out on the sofa. "She wants to surprise us. And you will appreciate her cooking, right?"

Gwaine rolls his eyes, but Merlin nods. Over the years he's eaten all sorts of things he hates to stave off hypos. He can cope with anything she's likely to throw at him, be in burnt, raw or soggy (she can't be any worse than Will's mum, who used to turn mashed potato pink). All the same, he points out, as lugubriously as he can, "I could have stayed in the pub."

"What's in the pub that's so special?" Will demands.

Gwaine sniggers as the faint sound of warfare starts to emit from his laptop. "Arthur's in the pub, right, Merlin?"

"Um, yeah, but that's not, er. Yeah, basically."

Will rolls his eyes and mutters. "What happened to thinking he was the gittiest git to walk the earth?"

"Oh, he is," Merlin said quickly. "Just, y'know, he means well."

"I suppose it's not like you're known for your good taste in men," Will allows.

"He slept with me," Gwaine points out, grinning savagely as a death-squelch and clash of swords sounds faintly.

"Once!" Merlin protests as Will sniffs.

"Proves my point," he says. "And will you leave off that bloody game for five minutes?"

"Got a raid this evening," Gwaine says. "With six rather lovely lady druids. Can't let the girls down now, can I? Is it his looks you're after then, Merlin?"

"No," Merlin says and sulks back into the corner of the sofa. "He's just Arthur."

"Looks it is," Will says with a sigh of relief. "Oy, pause that thing and let us have a look at his facebook page."

"He can't pause in the middle of-" Merlin starts but Gwaine just hums a bit and tabs out of his game. His fingers fly across the keyboard and then he lets out a low wolf-whistle. "Ooh, posh totty. Looks it is, mate."

"It's not," Merlin protests, but Will's gone over to have a look.

"Good God," he says. "Where do you find them? Seriously, mate, he went to fucking Charterhouse."

"You're studying at Camelot," Merlin tries, but Will's already in full flow. Gwaine shrugs at him and goes back to his game, and Merlin just settles down and mumbles.

By the time Elo-maybe-Lisa sticks her head out of the kitchen and says, "Five minutes, boys," Will's got most of it out of his system. Gwaine's making snide comments about luddite technophobes over the top of his screen as Will and Merlin shuffle cards. They don't play for money any more (he's learned his lesson about gambling against a mathmo, because Will can count cards when he's too pissed to sit upright) so Merlin is quite happy to mess about and try to remember the few tricks he once knew.

"Right," Will says as she disappears again. "Do us a favour, will you, and do your insulin now. Lou's scared of needles."

"Things I do for you," Merlin grumbles, but heaves himself up and goes to sit on the stairs for long enough to jab himself with just enough units to cover anything from curry to pasta.

He comes back into the room as she emerges from the kitchen, bearing plates. He takes one and thanks her, before looking down.

On his plate is a large lump of ham, six stalks of asparagus and a delicate pool of some creamy sauce.

"It's a no-carb meal," she says proudly and a little anxiously. "My flatmate and I started this diet last week - it's wonderful. Will said you couldn't have sugars, so I thought this was best for everyone."

"Er," Merlin says, feeling the insulin already pulling his blood sugars down. "Yeah, thanks."

The only bread in the fridge was mouldy (bloody grad students promising to go the supermarket and staying late in the library instead) but there is some only slightly off milk and a very old packet of instant porridge in the back of the cupboard. As soon as he's finished choking down chocolate digestives, he shoves it in the microwave with trembling hands, leaning against the side of the sink and listening to Elo-whatsit wail confusion in the main room. He hadn't meant to embarrass her, or spoil her evening, but he can't stop himself from resenting her and her stupid diet. Why couldn't people just think without always having to be told?

As the microwave hums, he fishes his phone out and texts clumsily should hat stayed in sub and sends it to Arthur.

By the time the microwave pings, the biscuits are starting to take effect. He stays in the kitchen and forces the porridge down his reluctant throat. It tastes slightly cheesy, and his stomach clenches against it, but he keeps at it. He's not ready to go back out there and reassure Elo-thingy, and smile at Will like it doesn't matter, and just play it down and play it down until everyone forgets that anything went wrong. It's all so endlessly awkward, and he's good at pretending to laugh about things afterwards, but he's not ready for it yet.

His phone beeps and he drops his spoon back into the porridge gratefully to read, Predictive text is not a new invention, Merlin. Learn to use it. Food not to your taste?

His fingers and brain are working properly again, so he sends back, no-carb diet. am eating old porridge. He hesitates to send it. Arthur will over-react, he knows, and maybe blame him for this, but he might get some sympathy too, and he wants that. It might ease the sting of yet another evening gone wrong because of something as fucking basic and straightforward as food.

He's pressed send before he thinks about it any further. Then, sighing, he goes back to his sour-tasting porridge.

Arthur doesn't text back, but Gwaine slides into the kitchen a few minutes later with an, "Alright, mate?"

"Grand," Merlin says, and scoops up another smelly chunk of porridge. He's pushing it now, and it really will wreck the whole evening if he doesn't go out and smooth things over soon, but this was supposed to be his night.

He gives up on the porridge after that, scraping it out into the bin and hoping it will be enough. There's enough digestives left that he can leave them on his bedside table tonight and fill up on them if he needs to. They're a little stale, too, but the chocolate's still good and they'll do. He's eaten worse, in an emergency.

Five minutes later, there's a thunderous pounding on the front door.

"I'll go," Merlin yells, because it'll give him a little longer before he has to go and be nice to people. Still feeling a little sick and fuzzy, he stomps down the hall and flings the front door open.

"Can't I trust you to look after yourself for one night?" Arthur demands, shoving his way in.

"Er," Merlin says, and feels the smile spread across his face.

Arthur stops dead just inside the doorway, halfway through shrugging his scarf off. Then he rolls his eyes and says, "I suppose that's Mabel?"

"Yeah," Merlin says, patting his dalek fondly to stop himself from leaping at Arthur.

"Typical," Arthur says, brushing past. "Do hurry up, Merlin, or your dinner will get cold."

"My what?" Merlin says and he can't really blame his blood sugars for making him stupid any more. This is all Arthur.

All Arthur, who reaches under his coat with an impatient sigh and produces a polystyrene box which he shoves at Merlin. Merlin opens it to see chips, greasy and golden and still steaming.

"Your dinner," Arthur says slowly. "Good God, how impaired are you this time?"

Arthur strides onwards into the living room without hesitation, and Merlin just follows, clutching the warm box of chips to his chest as his heart leaps. He should say something, he really should, because he shouldn't be encouraging Arthur in this habit of needless rescues, but Arthur's brought him dinner and Merlin just wants to grab him and kiss him senseless and then drag him home to meet his mum and he wouldn't even care if she got out the photo of him with his potty on his head, not if it was Arthur.

Then Arthur looks around the living room with a curl of his lip and remarks, "Must you live in squalor?"

Will, who Merlin knows actually vacuumed before Elo-thingy got here, tenses and glowers, but doesn't say a word. Good. He should feel guilty.

"You'd be Arthur, then," Gwaine says from behind the shield of his laptop. "Quite a knight in shining armour, isn't he?"

Merlin makes a little noise because he feels he ought to say something, and Gwaine snickers and waves at himself. "Gwaine. Will's on the sofa and, er, Lulu."

"Louisa," she says icily, and then clasps her hands together anxiously. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean-"

"Delighted," Arthur says, in a voice that's anything but. "You people don't eat off the floor, do you?"

"Dining room's through the back," Merlin says, not meeting Louisa's eyes as she stutters and goes red. "Don't use it much, though."

Arthur snorts and strides off towards the back of the house. Merlin shoots Gwaine and Will a smile which is probably too huge to be properly apologetic and follows. He's just in time to hear Arthur fall over Gwaine's collection of traffic cones in an attempt to find the light switch.

Merlin helps him up, hands tangling in Arthur's sleeve and then switches the light on himself. Arthur stares at the teetering piles of dissembled motorbike, scattered sheets of equations and dusty odd socks in horror.

"Um," Merlin says, and picks his way through the chaos to the patio doors. "Garden's tidier."

Their garden is ninety percent rabid clematis, but there's a bench against the back wall and a space heater he and Will cobbled together from the bits they didn't use for Mabel. Merlin switches it on and then settles beside Arthur on the bench, diving into the chips with relief.

Arthur's right beside him, warm and strong, and the chips taste better than anything he's ever eaten, hot and greasy on his fingers and tongue. He knows the actual process is slower, but every bite feels like it's mending him a little bit. He's eaten half of them before Arthur's silence registers.

Arthur's watching him, his eyes wide and intent and his mouth curled into a half-smile, impossibly fond. Merlin stares back at him, hand halfway to his mouth.

"You're not telling me off," he says stupidly, and nudges the box towards Arthur so he can share.

Arthur takes a chip, but doesn't eat it, just turns it in his fingers as if he needs something to fiddle with. "I was under the impression that you didn't care for my advice. Such ingratitude, Merlin."

"Yeah," Merlin says stupidly, dropping the chip he's holding back into the box. "No appreciation, me."

"None whatsoever," Arthur says, and he sounds a little breathless.

"Of course, if I did appreciate you properly, you know what I'd do?" Merlin asks, shoving the food aside. He's had enough now, and he's safe to do anything he wants.

"I dread to think," Arthur manages, but he's blushing and it's the most ridiculously charming thing Merlin's ever seen.

"This," he says, heart dancing in his throat, and leans forward.

On occasion, Merlin has brought Arthur surprise biscuits or cups of coffee, just to see him stutter and brace his shoulders in self-defence and then duck his head to hide the softening of his mouth and the warmth of his eyes. Kissing Arthur has the same effect a thousand times over - Arthur freezes and then kisses him back frantically, as if he thinks Merlin will run away if given the chance. His hands are shaking as his fingers curl into Merlin's jumper, knuckles clenching, and Merlin can't help the little noise he makes into Arthur's mouth.

Arthur hesitates then, and Merlin doesn't need to read his mind to know the idiot's suddenly decided that he's taking advantage of something, somehow (and only Arthur could possibly misinterpret this). Well, he's not having that.

"Merlin," Arthur breathes as he pulls away. His mouth is slick and his eyes are wild, and it takes all Merlin's willpower not to dive right back in. Instead he waits until Arthur untangles his hands and shuffles back, biting his lip and struggling to slow his breathing.

"I'm still showing my appreciation," Merlin tells him then, before he gets completely the wrong idea. This time he cups Arthur's face in his hands and swings himself onto Arthur's lap. "Unless you're feeling over-appreciated, of course. It would be awful if your ego grew any-"

This time Arthur kisses him, mouth hot and eager as his cold hands slide under Merlin's jumper. It's just as good as Merlin has been hoping, and he spares a moment to be grateful for broken lifts and medical emergencies (and this may be the first time in his life he's been glad of the stupid disease), before he forgets everything but the rough brush of Arthur's lips against his, the tender clutch of his hands and the hot clamp of Arthur's arms holding him close.

Then, with a very ominous creak, the bench shifts beneath them.

"Er," Arthur says, pulling away a little. "How strong is this thing?"

"It's been here since before we moved in," Merlin says, bracing himself against the ground. "Could be an antique."

"Being old doesn't make it an antique," Arthur says with a faint sneer.

"Actually," Merlin begins, but it creaks again. "Er, why don't we move inside? I mean, I have a room."

Arthur blinks at him as he stands up, face narrowing a little in disapproval. "Isn't that a little fast, Merlin?"

Merlin throws his arms out in dismay. "You bought me dinner! In fact, you took me out for dinner in a romantic country pub! I've met your sister! I've met your father! You've saved my life! What more could-"

"I mean," Arthur interrupts, hilarity brightening his face, "that twenty minutes ago you were in the middle of a hypo."

"Oh," Merlin says. "Right. Er, well, what with the chips and the biscuits and the porridge, my sugars are probably up far too high. I mean, I might need to burn some energy up."

"Well, seeing as it's a medical emergency," Arthur drawls and lets Merlin drag him upstairs.

 

Two years later

 

By the time Merlin gets to the pub that evening, everyone else is on their third drink. He's in time to hear Freya lean over to the latest temp, Owain, and say sorrowfully, "More than half of teachers drop out in the first five years, you know. You can do more long term good with us."

"Morgana!" Arthur complains. "Your minion is trying to steal my temps again."

"No one deserves to be your temp," Freya tells him with a sniff. "Not when there's a very nice vacancy in-"

"Don't listen to her," Arthur informs the temp grandly. "She's just bitter that there wasn't a permanent job going in research. Really, at least Morgana just intimidates people into long-term contracts."

"I heard that," Morgana calls from the next table. "And he's lying."

"I think I'll stick with teaching, thanks," the latest temp says calmly. Merlin thinks that's probably the best reaction - he should remember this one, because anyone who can cope with Arthur, Morgana and Freya when they're tipsy and competitive will be fine with OFSTED.

"Excellent," Arthur says. "Very noble profession, teaching. Giving back to the community and all that."

"Arthur hates children," Freya fake-whispers. "He even hides from the work-experience kids."

"A noble profession," Arthur repeats pointedly. Freya's doing a good job of keeping him in line, but Merlin thinks it might be time to go to the rescue before she goes too far. Then Arthur adds, smugly, "My boyfriend's a teacher."

"He used to have your job," Freya confides and shakes her head. "Then he got stuck in a lift with Arthur. Tragic."

Definitely time for a rescue. Merlin pays for his drinks and slides over to their table, squashing in between Freya and Arthur, who moves up automatically.

"PGCE next year, is it?" he says to the new temp, sliding Arthur's drink along and kicking Freya under the table.

Owain nods. "Got a place at Southampton. Primary."

"Brave man," Merlin says. "I'd rather have a whole day with Year Nine than half an hour watching Year Two eat glue."

"We're not supposed to let them do that any more," Owain says with a grin, and Arthur relaxes against Merlin's shoulder and mutters something rude about Merlin's sixth formers and glue-sniffing.

He ignores that to start his drink, which is very welcome after the day he's had (whatever the Daily Mail may imply, chairs don't get thrown across the room all that often in normal schools and that sort of incident always leaves him on edge).

Arthur is eyeing his beer critically, but he doesn't say anything. Merlin grins at him and says, "Shut up. It's Friday."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Arthur says. "I'm not going to get you biscuits at three am again, though."

"Yeah, you will," Merlin says, curling his fingers around Arthur's under the table.

"Well," Arthur huffs, but his eyes are happy. "I suppose if there's no other option, I will be forced to save your life yet again. Only for the sake of your poor students, however. It's not like I expect proper appreciation and gratitude."

"Bought you a drink, didn't I?" Merlin says and relaxes to the sound of Arthur's contented grumbling.