Merlin worked in a coffee shop. He spent his mornings serving the seemingly undead masses their daily fix of caffeine and sugar. He spent his afternoons in lectures. He spent his nights reading poetry and fiction and revising. Merlin lived in a small flat with his childhood friend, Will and flirted with his neighbor across the hall, Gwaine. He was good friends with his coworker Gwen. His favourite mode of transportation was a yellow bicycle that used to be his mother’s. On occasion, he went to the pub and drank until he was pissed, had his share of ill-advised hook-ups and usually ended up being dragged home by an equally drunk Will and a laughing Gwaine. All in all, Merlin’s life was stunningly normal.
Then he met Arthur.
And everything changed.
Their first interaction would forever be indelibly seared into his brain.
Arthur had sauntered in to the coffee shop, all artfully tussled blonde hair and aviator sunglasses, and approached the counter.
“Grande skinny latte, extra whip.”
Merlin looked up from the register, confused. “What was that?”
“With the size of your ears I think you would’ve heard it,” Arthur said.
Merlin blinked. “Oh, I only wanted to confirm so I could mark my calendar as this being the day I received the dumbest order in history.”
Arthur spluttered. “The dumbest order…”
“You do realise whipped cream has probably twice the calories of the sugar and cream that would be in a regular latte, right?”
“Look here, I play footie and have to choose my calories carefully and I happen to like whipped cream… Why am I explaining this to you?”
Merlin shrugged and adjusted the strap on his ugly green coffee shop apron. “I have no idea. It’s rather boring actually and you’re holding up the queue.”
“You can’t talk to me this way. I want to speak to your manager,” Arthur leaned in and squinted at the metallic rectangle on Merlin’s chest. “Does your nametag actually say Spartacus?”
“One day I will rise up and lead all the baristas in rebellion against our coffee shop overlords.”
There was a pause, a long pause, where Merlin and Arthur stared at each other, (Merlin challenging and Arthur incredulous) before Arthur burst into laughter. Merlin followed suit and suddenly they were both clutching the counter, trying to stay upright as they continued to giggle madly.
Arthur wiped at his eyes as his chuckles quieted. “I’m Arthur,” he said.
Merlin smiled. “Merlin.”
“Oh, not Spartacus?”
Merlin shook his head. “My parents were cruel but not that cruel.”
Merlin made Arthur his drink and passed it over the counter. “Skinny latte with extra whip. No charge.”
Arthur took a sip, whipped cream making a white mustache on his upper lip. He let out a little moan and feigned his eyes rolling back in his head in pleasure. “Brilliant! And you could’ve charged me. I wouldn’t have gone to your manager.”
Merlin shrugged. “We barista-slaves have to make friends on the outside. It will make for a better rebellion.”
Arthur laughed softly and saluted him. “I’ll keep that in mind. See you later, Merlin.”
“Bye, Arthur,” Merlin called after him.
Arthur paused at the door, looked back and waved.
Merlin hadn’t believed Arthur when he said that he would be seeing him later. Arthur was a prat, a good-looking one at that, and a bit posh, and Merlin didn’t really think he would be making another appearance at Gaius’s little coffee shop. But he did. He came back, ordered the same drink and called Merlin “Spartacus.” Merlin called him a cabbage-head.
Arthur, apparently, was one for abuse, because he came again. Merlin was on break and sitting at a table in the corner, sipping tea and eating an immense piece of chocolate cake. Arthur sat next to him and asked when his break was over so Merlin could make his drink as he did not trust the other “coffee shop peons” to do it correctly. Merlin ate his cake very slowly, licking the thick frosting from his fork and making Arthur wait fifteen minutes. Arthur did, grudgingly, and talked about how his cat, Ambrosias, ate a bunch of chocolate once and had horrible gastrointestinal issues for days. If Arthur had somehow thought it would put Merlin off his chocolate, he had been grossly mistaken.
Things just seemed to have spiraled from there.
Four months since their first meeting and Arthur’s number was the most called on Merlin’s mobile. His last five texts were from Arthur and the one before that was from Leon reminding him of the quiz night outing at the pub down from Arthur’s flat. Merlin had met all of Arthur’s friends and Arthur had met all of Merlin’s and it had become one big conglomeration of people they both knew who knew each other. (Merlin was fairly certain Will had a crush on Arthur’s sister, Morgana, despite the fact that she and Leon had been circling each other for years and Gwaine and Elena had totally shagged but no one was saying anything.)
Merlin wasn’t quite sure when he and Arthur had crossed over the line of acquaintances that snarked at each other to being actual friends. It had been an odd sort of process that, when looking back, hadn’t really seemed like a process at all but more of an evolution, like some sea creature that had flopped up on land and suddenly grew lungs. It was as if Arthur had dropped into Merlin’s life, made himself comfortable, and had decided he was too contented to leave and put his feet up on Merlin’s coffee table and ate all his biscuits. All metaphors aside, which was hard for Merlin being a literature student, Arthur had become a permanent fixture and Merlin wasn’t honestly cognizant of the exact moment when not speaking to Arthur for an entire day made him feel hollow and wrong.
It bothered Merlin.
Not because he didn’t like Arthur. Arthur was pretty brilliant. Arthur was larger than life and told interesting stories that made Merlin laugh and he made sure Merlin always had a seat at the table when Arthur was surrounded by his hangers on. He waved at the stands when Merlin showed up to watch him play footie on the weekends. He allowed Merlin to mock him for his love of economics and only minimally mocked Merlin when Merlin had poetry assignments and had to read them aloud to make sure they didn’t sound utterly wonky. He only bit his lip and rolled his eyes at Merlin’s banana-yellow bike. (Everyone else either laughed or lectured him on bike safety.)
Merlin was pretty sure Arthur enjoyed his company as well. Arthur invited Merlin to things like parties and pubs and outings he knew Merlin would enjoy. Arthur laughed, not his polite chuckle or his amused snort or even his condescending smirk, but wholly laughed, head thrown back, smile wide and unfettered, when Merlin did something particularly ridiculous. And it was okay, because Merlin liked that he was able to bring that out in Arthur.
So, Merlin didn’t really know when Arthur’s presence in his life had become essential, but it had and it was disconcerting.
Merlin had received a text from Arthur that said Ambrosias was missing his favourite scratching post (Merlin’s trouser leg) and when was Merlin going to come by and watch that film and drink the rest of the soy milk he had left in Arthur’s fridge when Merlin had a stark realization.
“Gwen,” Merlin said, staring at his phone. When she didn’t answer right away he looked up. “Gwen,” he hissed, a little panicked.
“Kind of busy, Merlin,” she answered, dancing by him and handing over a cup of steaming coffee to a customer.
“But this is important. I think Arthur and I are friends.”
Gwen rolled her eyes and brushed a stray piece of hair away from her eyes. “Yes, Merlin. The entire world knows you and Arthur are friends.”
“No,” Merlin said, waving his phone around, “I think we might be… best friends.”
Gwen paused, hand hovering over the pump for the sweetener, cup of some sickly sweet concoction in her hand. “Merlin,” she said with a twist of her lips, “where did you wake up this morning?”
“Uh huh,” she said, pressing down again on the pump. “And who was the last person you talked to beside me?”
“And who was the last person you had dinner with?”
Merlin gulped. “Arthur… but Elyan and Percival were there too!”
“Right,” she answered as she passed off the drink to her customer. Her hair smelled like coffee and her green apron had a mysterious stain on the lower left corner. “And you think you and Arthur are only friends?”
“No, we’re best friends.” Merlin answered. He cocked his head to the side. “That was kind of my point.”
Gwen sighed heavily. “You sweet oblivious thing,” she said, patting his cheek, eyes full of sympathy and lips trying to fight back a smile. “You’ll figure it out one day, hopefully soon. Until then, get to work before I put whipped cream into your coat pockets.”
Merlin frowned, because he knew she would, he had the ruined mittens to prove it. He chanced one last glance at his mobile. There was a text from Arthur saying he had hid all the purple ones from a tin of Quality Street from Leon just for him.
He didn’t really know what Gwen was trying to imply but he did know that maybe his and Arthur’s lives had become a little too entangled.
Merlin was attempting an Arthur-less day. He ignored Arthur’s texts. He didn’t respond to his emails. Merlin tried very hard to not even think about Arthur and the ache in his chest not thinking about Arthur elicited. Merlin hid in the library, curled into an overstuffed armchair and reading a book for his next assignment, beanie pulled low over his ears because it was chilly and not at all because he was hiding.
He was engrossed in his book when he heard the loud scraping of a chair being dragged across the floor shattering the silence. Merlin looked up, scowl firmly in place only to startle when he found Arthur sitting across from him, gracefully sprawled, wearing jeans and a jumper Merlin knew cost a week of his salary, if not more.
“Arthur?” Merlin shouted. He was instantly shushed by all the students in the immediate area. He flinched and dropped his voice to a whisper. “What are you doing here?”
“Spartacus,” Arthur said evenly, “you did not come over last night. Ambrosias missed you.”
Merlin snorted. “Ambrosias didn’t miss me at all.”
“And why is there still soy milk in my fridge?”
“You should drink it. It’s good for you.”
Arthur leaned forward, eyes very blue and hair very golden in the artificial light. “Why are you hiding? Is there something wrong? You’d tell me if there was, right? Is someone bothering you? I wouldn’t stand for it, you know.”
Arthur’s expression had taken on a fierce, worried quality and Merlin immediately shook his head because he hated that he had worried Arthur in any way.
“No, I… I needed a day to myself.”
Arthur leaned back, features smoothing, and gave Merlin one of his wide smiles, the ones where Merlin could see every crooked tooth and that did more to ease his chill than his beanie did.
“You could’ve said,” Arthur said.
“Well, I thought the library would be a safe place. It’s not like you come here.”
Arthur laughed and Merlin’s belly fluttered. “Right.”
“How did you find me anyway?” Merlin asked.
Arthur rolled his eyes. He reached out, patted Merlin’s knee, the contact warm even through Merlin’s jeans. “You ride a ridiculous yellow bike and it’s parked out front. You’re hard to miss.”
Merlin sighed dramatically. “Foiled again.”
Arthur stood and loudly put the chair back in position. “Come on, Spartacus. It’s cold out. Let me give you a ride home.”
Merlin scrambled to his feet, shoving his book into his bag and following Arthur out the door. The ache he had felt was gone, and Arthur was smiling, his arm draped warmly across Merlin’s shoulders and Merlin wondered why Arthur-less days had ever seemed like a good idea.
It was beginning to snow by the time they all piled into the pub a few days later. It was a Friday and Merlin didn’t have to work the next morning and it was his goal to warm up from the past few frigid days with alcohol laden drinks.
Someone had thought it would be a brilliant idea to see how many of them they could shove into a booth so Morgana was in Leon’s lap and Gwen was squished between Lance and Percy but not looking too upset by it. Gwaine was off already on the pull, some poor girl unwittingly falling for his charms. Will was trying and failing to strike up a conversation with a girl Merlin recognised from one of his literature classes. Elyan and Arthur were deep into a conversation about some country’s economy while Elena tried very hard not to stare at Gwaine. When Merlin walked up, there were already a dozen empty glasses on the table and a few dozen more in various states of fullness.
“Merlin!” they chorused loud enough to be heard over the awful music and the usual din and chatter of the bar.
Arthur broke off mid-sentence and looked up. He smiled and Merlin managed to shrug out of his jacket before Arthur grabbed his wrist, pulling him down into the small space left. Merlin barely fit in the booth and only could if Arthur’s arm was around his shoulder and their legs were pressed together from hip to knee. Arthur slid a full pint over and squeezed Merlin’s shoulder.
“Saved you one,” he murmured into Merlin’s ear.
Merlin nudged closer and took a sip.
“Merlin,” Morgana yelled, leaning over somewhat drunkenly and showing off her cleavage. Merlin was sure she would’ve fallen over if not for Leon’s hands on her waist. “Please, tell me you didn’t ride your bike here.”
“Yes,” Gwen added fervently, “it’s dreadful weather.”
Merlin frowned. “Contrary to popular belief, I’ve ridden my bike around for years and I haven’t fallen yet.”
Leon snickered. “Except for that time in the park.”
“And that time on the sidewalk outside of the literature building,” Elyan offered.
Percy smiled. “And that time with the birds…”
“Okay, a few times but…”
“Don’t worry,” Arthur interjected, “the girls like someone to look after. If it wasn’t your bike, they’d be after Gwaine for not wearing a scarf.”
Merlin giggled into his drink at the protests from the rest of the table at being called girls.
Conversation continued and soon Merlin found himself warm from copious amounts of alcohol and the heat from Arthur’s side. He also found his glass empty again and everyone looking at him expectantly.
“Fine,” he said dramatically, stumbling to his feet, “I’ll get the next round.”
There were cheers when Merlin made it the bar without tripping. It took a few minutes to get the bartender’s attention and while he waited he noticed a bloke on a nearby barstool who was staring at him. Merlin smiled, a little tipsy, but friendly all the same. The bloke, who had dark hair and dark eyes and a leather jacket, lifted an eyebrow and raised his glass in Merlin’s direction which made Merlin blush and duck his head.
Before long, it was Merlin’s turn to order and he forgot about the man while he waited for enough drinks to drown a whale to be placed on his tray.
“Hey,” a smooth voice said into his ear.
Merlin turned and found the bloke had sidled next to him and was grinning.
“Hey,” Merlin said back.
Cenred’s gaze raked over Merlin’s frame and he smiled, predatory, as if liking what he saw. Merlin shuddered, a little wary but a little pleased and glad he had worn his best jeans and the blue shirt that Gwen had bought him on his birthday. He hadn’t thought he’d be able to pull, not with his friends clamoring all over him, but Cenred was showing definite interest.
Merlin threw him his best flirty smile and Cenred inched closer.
“So, Merlin, having a good time tonight?”
Merlin nodded. “Yeah, out with friends.”
Cenred smirked. “Boyfriend?”
Merlin felt the slow coil of arousal flood his veins at the simple question. He felt the tips of his ears go hot and he knew his cheeks were red but he looked up through his eyelashes and gave Cenred a coy smile.
Cenred leaned in, his lips close to Merlin’s jaw, his hand hot where it rested on Merlin’s bicep. “That’s fortuitous...”
“Spartacus!” Arthur yelled, right into Merlin’s ear, making him and Cenred jump apart. Arthur’s hand was warm and sweaty and proprietary on the back of Merlin’s neck. “Where are the drinks?”
Cenred took a step back, and Merlin could see his dark eyes focus on the way Arthur was leaning into Merlin’s side and the familiar way Arthur was touching him.
“Who’s your friend?” Arthur asked, nodding toward Cenred and giving him an appraising look. By the expression on Arthur’s face, Merlin could tell he found Cenred unsatisfactory.
Merlin scowled and shrugged off Arthur’s touch but before he could say anything, Cenred was already talking.
“Sorry, mate. He said he didn’t have a boyfriend.”
Merlin spluttered. “No, wait, Arthur’s not…”
“Unless, you were looking for a threesome.” Cenred gave Arthur a once over with his eyes and his lips curled suggestively. “I wouldn’t say no.”
Arthur shook his head. “No, thanks.”
“Shame,” Cenred said, with a shrug. “I can tell you two are brilliant together.”
Merlin knew he was doing an excellent expression of a fish on land, his mouth opening and closing in shock, while Cenred walked in one direction and Arthur pulled him in another. Arthur’s hands were insistent, curled into the fabric of Merlin’s shirt, as he manhandled him back toward their booth.
“I swear, only you would attract the creepiest person in the entire bar. It was a good thing I was watching. He looked like he wanted to eat you alive.”
Merlin dug in his heels and struggled against Arthur’s grip. “Arthur! Let go!”
He must have because one minute Merlin was being dragged and the next, he was on his bum in the middle of the sticky pub floor.
Arthur huffed, bent down and hauled Merlin to his feet, brushing off the back of Merlin’s trousers, his palm sweeping over the swell of Merlin’s arse.
“Look at you. You can’t even stand up!”
Merlin staggered upright, blushing, and pushed Arthur’s helpful hands away. Anger surged, hot in his belly at Arthur’s interference, his constant touches and at the confusion twisting Merlin’s own insides about Arthur’s strange behavior.
“What the fuck, Arthur?” Merlin shouted. “What was that?”
Arthur stepped back, surprise plainly written in his features. “What was what? I was helping you.”
“You were cockblocking me!”
“Merlin,” Arthur started, “you weren’t seriously thinking about… with him?”
Merlin straightened his shirt and untangled his scarf. “What if I was? It’s not like it’s your business.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Arthur asked genuinely confused.
“I can take care of myself, Arthur. I don’t need you trying to protect me. If I want to go home with some bloke from a bar then it’s not your concern.”
“I’m your friend.” Arthur’s tone had been calm until that point but it became loud, sharp and it pierced Merlin to the core. “Of course it’s my concern!”
Merlin brushed past Arthur back to the booth and grabbed his coat. He slipped it on and roughly pulled his beanie over his ears. Merlin pushed his way out of the bar, ignoring the calls of his friends, and stumbled out onto the street.
He should’ve known Arthur was right behind him.
It was dark save for the street lamps and the snow was falling lightly. The night was cold and if Merlin hadn’t already sobered up significantly in the bar, the bitter wind would have done it for him.
“Spartacus,” Arthur said, reaching out to grab Merlin’s arm but stopped due to Merlin’s fierce glare, “I’m sorry. Alright? You’re right. I overstepped.”
“That’s the problem, Arthur. You always overstep.” Merlin flailed his hands in the soft moonlight.
“Look, I know I can be… overbearing sometimes.”
“Sometimes? Sometimes? Arthur, you called my mother when I had a cold to know what kind of medications to purchase and shove down my throat. You know where all my classes are and what times. You call me by that ridiculous nickname. You know my favourite drink and food and colour and…”
“So?” Arthur defended. “I’m interested in you. I like you. You’re my friend. Shouldn’t I know these things about my friends?”
“You are always interested, and always touching and always wanting some part of my time and… you are… you are not my boyfriend.”
Arthur looked stricken, like someone had sucker punched him in the gut, his eyes wide, his mouth open. Merlin tried hard not to stare at the stray snowflakes clinging to Arthur’s hair and eyelashes and he barely resisted the impulse to haul Arthur in for a hug and apologise and attempt to wipe away that awful expression. Instead, Merlin wrangled with the chain holding his bike to the light pole. With shaking and reddening hands, Merlin pulled the chain off and shoved it in his pocket.
“Wait,” Arthur said, “at least, at least take a taxi. It’s snowing and it’s cold and…”
Merlin straddled his bike. “I’ll be fine.”
Arthur stood there, posture bent, hands in his pockets. “Will you please text me when you get home? Let me know you’re safe.”
Merlin nodded once abruptly. He didn’t look back at Arthur, scared at what he would see, scared at the ache that was already taking up residence in his chest. He pedalled off down the street.
It was cold. The wind whipped at Merlin’s cheeks and ears as he pedalled back to his flat. He shivered underneath his jacket and scarf and tears leaked from the corners of his eyes from both the weather and the turmoil swirling in the pit of his stomach.
He sniffled, and scrubbed at his face with his sleeve.
It was a stupid argument. It shouldn’t have upset him so much that Arthur was looking out for him and Merlin could admit, in hindsight, Cenred had been a little creepy.
As soon as he got home, he’d text Arthur and apologise. Tomorrow, he’d go to the coffee shop, even though it was his day off, and he would get Arthur his skinny latte extra whip and track Arthur down before his footie game and give it to him and apologise again. Arthur would smile, swing his arm over Merlin’s shoulders and everything would go back to the weird whatever-it-was that was them. And Merlin would be okay with it and he would accept all of Arthur’s hugs and touches and invites to pub nights. He would accept that his trouser leg would be Ambrosias’ scratching post, that he would keep soy milk in Arthur’s fridge and would shamelessly use Arthur’s enormous television for his own ends. And he would push away the nagging thoughts that had started plaguing him a week ago when he realised his world revolved around Arthur and everything was off kilter when it didn’t.
The problem was, even if it hadn’t been snowing, even if Merlin had sobered up as soon as the cold night air bit into him, even if he hadn’t been concentrating all his thoughts on Arthur, there would have been no way he could have stopped.
The taxi door swung open in front of him and Merlin had a split second to think oh fuck before he rammed right into it.
Merlin registered the sound of glass shattering, the sound of his own anguished cry and the pain that exploded in his temple. Within seconds, Merlin was on the ground, one leg twisted in the wreckage of his bike, blood leaking into his eyes, the hard cold pavement beneath him. There were frightened shouts, the sound of a woman crying hysterically, the distant sound of sirens and as darkness encroached on Merlin’s vision, he could only think that he should’ve allowed Arthur to pay for a cab.
“Arthur,” he gasped, scared when pain radiated up his torso. “Arthur,” he said again, before his eyelids fluttered and he passed out.
It was Arthur’s voice, panicked, high-pitched, but far away, muffled by the hum of machines and the sound of Merlin’s own heartbeat in his ears.
“Merlin! Merlin! Are you in here? Answer me, you idiot!”
“Sir, you need to calm down or we will have to ask you to leave.”
“Merlin Emrys,” Merlin heard Arthur’s voice lower, but it was still shrill, fearful. “He was brought in. They called me from his mobile. He was in an accident. I’m his friend, Arthur Pendragon.”
“Mr. Pendragon, I can look, but until I know exactly where he is, you are going to have to go back to the…”
There was a shuffling of steps and Arthur’s voice rang out again. “Merlin! Please! Answer me!”
Merlin pulled his leaden eyes open and groaned, squinting against the harsh, artificial light. He felt like someone had pummelled him with something blunt, and large and… painful. He would’ve much preferred going back to sleep but Arthur sounded panicked and he was harassing some poor woman and Merlin thought it would be better for everyone involved if he said something.
“Arthur,” he whispered then gasped. It hurt but then again everything hurt so that seemed par for the course in his current state. He swallowed and tried again. “Arthur,” he called.
The curtain separating him from the rest of the world was violently yanked aside and Arthur stood there, in all his blurred glory, his hair a golden halo around his head, his face flushed and worried and Merlin instantly knew two things. The first was Arthur was going to kill him. The second was he was sure he was on some very potent pain medications because his first reaction was to smile up at his friend blearily and let out a little giggle-snort at the idea of Arthur wearing a halo.
“Merlin,” Arthur breathed. Arthur’s body seemed to give out, deflate, and he sank into a nearby chair positioned at Merlin’s head. “God, Merlin. You scared the shit out of me.”
Merlin felt Arthur take his hand, curl his fingers around Merlin’s gently in a reassuring grip.
Merlin tried to roll over onto his side so he could look at Arthur better but it caused a spasm of pain down his arm and Merlin let out another gasp. Merlin also realised he was on a gurney, in the hallway of some hospital, and he had a few tubes and wires hooked up to him. It was his turn to panic and he knew his eyes were wide and frightened when he looked up at Arthur.
Arthur leaned in and patted Merlin’s shoulder, his grip steady on Merlin’s hand.
“Are you in pain?”
“Yes,” Merlin managed.
Arthur took that to mean he needed to yell at more people. Merlin tuned him out and took stock of his situation.
He remembered their fight outside the pub. He remembered riding his bike. He remembered plowing into the taxi door and… oh. That explained everything.
“I have no idea how long my friend has been lying here but he is covered in blood and is in pain and if there isn’t a physician over here within the next five minutes I will have so many lawyers on the phone your head will spin. Am I clear?”
Then Arthur was beside him again. “Merlin?”
“You don’t even know any lawyers,” Merlin accused softly.
Arthur smiled. “They don’t know that.”
Merlin tried to return Arthur’s grin and was surprised when it didn’t hurt. His eyes were heavy and he wanted to close them, slip into some kind of half-waking world, but he couldn’t. Arthur was leaning in so close, his eyes so blue, his expression shifting from worry to fondness and back and his hand was gentle in Merlin’s hair.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered, “I’m so sorry. That fight, it was stupid and Cenred was creepy and you…”
“Don’t worry about it, Merlin. Don’t,” Arthur’s voice was tender, soothing.
“Arthur, I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, Merlin.”
“Arthur,” Merlin said, voice a little slurred, “I like that you know all those things about me.”
Arthur laughed. “Actually, a few hours ago you made it pretty clear that you don’t.”
“I was wrong,” Merlin said, squeezing his eyes shut as a wave of pain and nausea washed over him. The medication had to be wearing off because Merlin felt every bruise, every abrasion and it made tears prick behind his eyes. “I was frustrated and confused.”
“Morgana tells me on a regular basis how frustrating I am.”
Merlin chuckled then grimaced. “Thank you for finding me.”
He felt Arthur’s fingers squeeze his own.
They were interrupted when the physician came over and began examining Merlin in earnest. Merlin suffered the indignity of being poked and prodded with Arthur standing at the head of the gurney saying things like “What about that bit there? It looks wonky,” and “Check him again.”
In the end, the physician gave Arthur a severe look.
“As the admitting physician assessed, your friend here has a mild concussion, a broken wrist, a dislocated shoulder and a sprained ankle. He’ll need some x-rays and some stitches and then he can be released into someone’s care.”
“My care,” Arthur corrected.
“Fine, but quit harassing my nurses or I’ll have you thrown out on your ear.”
Several hours later, Merlin had a soft cast on his wrist, stitches in his forehead, a tight binding around his shoulder, one crutch to hobble on and enough pain medications to sedate an elephant. He also had the memory of a conversation with his mother that didn’t go at all well and the reassurances from Arthur that Leon wouldn’t mind if Merlin stayed with them for a few days while he recovered.
One last large dose of pain medication at the hospital made the car ride more comfortable but also made Merlin loopy as hell.
“Merlin, is there any way you can use your good leg to get us in the building?” Arthur asked, Merlin’s non-injured arm curled around his neck as he tried to maneuver them in through the doors.
Merlin tried to concentrate but only ended up tangling his feet even more and almost pulling them both to the ground. Arthur grunted, barely managing to keep upright. Merlin thought it very impressive.
“Arthur, Arthur, Arthur, you… you are so strong.”
“Now you notice,” Arthur grumbled.
“Oh, I’ve noticed. Your arms and your hair… and your bum! Your bum is magnificent.”
“Merlin, I think you might be a little out of it.”
“No, no I’m right. It’s the best of bums. Gwaine’s is nice but yours… I like it.”
Arthur somehow managed to get Merlin into the lift and together they leaned against the wall. Merlin knew he didn’t do well with too much alcohol and he was beginning to find out that he didn’t do well with medication either. At least, he only minimally hurt. He leaned into Arthur, pressed his nose into Arthur’s neck, the fabric of Arthur’s collar scratching his chin. He allowed his eyes to fall shut and let his limbs go limp.
He felt Arthur shift beneath him and a hand was patting his cheek. “Oh no, Merlin. You need to stay awake. At least let me get you to the bed.”
Merlin inhaled. “You always smell so good and you’re always so nice to me, Arthur. So, so nice.”
Merlin felt Arthur sigh, the rise and fall of his chest, his breath ruffling Merlin’s hair. “Merlin, I think you should stop talking.”
Arthur made an amused snorting kind of sound. Merlin thought it sounded amused. He wasn’t sure. It could’ve been a perturbed sound because, despite the amount of meds thudding through his veins, Merlin was very aware he was hanging on Arthur like he was a very drugged coat and Arthur was a shapely coat rack.
“Did you just refer to me as a coat rack?”
“Am I still talking?”
Getting into Arthur’s flat and subsequently his bedroom was some kind of exquisite torture. Merlin assumed Arthur had finally given up on getting Merlin’s ungainly limbs to cooperate and that was the reason Arthur simply scooped him up and carried him down the hallway. Merlin didn’t mind because it made things easier and if he snuggled into Arthur’s chest and inhaled he could always blame the medication.
Arthur deposited him gently on the bed and Merlin sank into the soft mattress and the fluffy pillows and the warm blankets, eyes fluttering shut. He felt Arthur take off his shoe, the other already gone, and prop his injured foot on a pillow. The jeans were tricky and the pyjama bottoms even trickier but at least the bloodied shirt had been cut off by the nurses when they bound Merlin’s arm. All Arthur needed to do was ease off the borrowed hoodie from the hospital’s lost and found.
Merlin was floating in a haze of Arthur’s hands and warm blankets and a general feeling of contentment.
“You alright there, Merlin?”
Merlin let out a low hum that he hoped Arthur took as a yes.
“I’m going to be on the couch. You… yell if you need anything.”
Merlin pulled his eyes back open and saw Arthur standing in the doorway looking at him, brow furrowed, lips pouting, hair disheveled. Suddenly, Merlin had to tell Arthur, had to let him know about the weird twinge in his chest that happened when Arthur wasn’t there, how he enjoyed Arthur’s company despite his devil cat, how he was glad the hospital had called him and not anyone else.
“Arthur,” Merlin said softly, tongue thick in his mouth.
“I just… I need you to know.”
Arthur swallowed and took a step forward. “Need me to know what?”
“You’re the best part of my day.”
Arthur smiled softly, fondly. “You too, Merlin. You too.”
Merlin slumped back to the pillows, exhausted, hurting, yet happy.
Merlin woke up slowly. He didn’t really want to wake up because he was warm and surrounded in comfort except for Ambrosias kneading his needle-like claws into Merlin’s leg. He knew with consciousness was going to come the inevitable soreness of smacking head first into an open taxi door. Merlin tried to push Arthur’s fluffy orange cat out of the bed with his eyes closed and only received a swat from said cat for the effort and a spike of pain that travelled up his body and settled in his skull.
He sighed gustily and cautiously opened his eyes.
From the amount of light that was streaming in around the curtains it was the afternoon which meant Merlin had slept for several hours. Merlin’s head was much clearer since the medications had worn off but the previous night remained a blur. He had a recollection of maybe saying some inappropriate things to Arthur and had the fleeting thought that he might need to be embarrassed but if he was honest with himself, it was all things that needed to be said anyway and he really couldn’t muster up the energy to be properly mortified.
He would have to deal with the repercussions, whatever they were, and he knew they wouldn’t be nearly as bad as a broken wrist and a dislocated shoulder.
Merlin struggled into a sitting position and gladly took the medication that had been left for him on the night table with the glass of water. The water was room temperature and the pills slid down easily.
After a moment, Merlin took stock. His right arm was entirely bound to his chest, a soft cast on his wrist. His left ankle was swollen and purple. He was bruised from top to toe and wearing only a pair of pyjama bottoms.
And someone was yelling.
He didn’t notice at first over the throbbing in his temple but now, sitting on the edge of the bed, he could distinctly hear Arthur’s raised voice.
Curious, Merlin managed to get to his crutch leaned against the wall and then slowly, and with much effort, opened the door.
“I don’t care who you are but you had no right to steal Merlin from the hospital and bring him here without informing any of his friends!”
It was Will’s voice and he sounded absolutely livid.
“The hospital called me, Will. They said he was saying my name when he passed out and they found my name in his mobile. Mine. Not yours.”
Merlin blushed hard at the thought of Arthur knowing that bit of information. Maybe he did have some things to be mortified about, though the warmth amidst the steel in Arthur’s tone did something funny to Merlin’s insides that didn’t have anything to do with the accident.
“That doesn’t matter!”
“Will, mate, calm down. The important thing is that Merlin is safe.”
Merlin never thought he’d hear Gwaine be the voice of reason.
“He’ll be safer once we get him home.”
“You’re not taking him anywhere. He’s hurt and he’ll recover much more comfortably here than at your flat.”
Merlin inched closer, trying to be quiet as he limped down the hall.
“The hell he will, Pendragon! I’ve known Merlin since we were six years old and I’ll be the one responsible for him!”
“Right,” Arthur replied in that flat, patronizing tone of his that Merlin just knew would make Will bristle. “He’s not a pet, Will. You’re going to have to do more than feed him, water him and put down newspaper.”
“You pompous arse!” Will yelled. “Just because you fancy yourself in love with him does not mean you’re his protector.”
Merlin sucked in a quiet breath. He stopped there, in the hallway, waiting for Arthur’s blustering denial, his bark of a laugh that he used when he found something truly absurd or one of his random facts that he liked to use as a deflection when a conversation veered toward something he didn’t want to discuss.
Merlin heard only silence.
There was an awkward shuffling of feet and then Gwaine cleared his throat.
“Maybe, we should ask what Merlin wants, yeah?”
“He’s asleep,” Arthur replied, quickly.
“When he wakes up then. Right, Will?”
Will mumbled something that sounded like acquiescence.
Merlin quietly hobbled back to Arthur’s room and eased himself back into the bed. When Arthur came to check on him a few minutes later, Merlin feigned sleep.
Merlin must have actually fallen back to sleep because the next time he woke, it was dark, his stomach was rumbling, his bladder was full and Arthur was sitting on the edge of his bed. Arthur, who hadn’t denied Will’s ridiculous claim, who had come running to Merlin’s rescue at the hospital, who had given up his own bed, who always wanted Merlin around, who sent silly texts. Arthur, who was gorgeous and kind in his own prattish way and pretty much everything Merlin had ever wanted in anyone. Arthur, who could get Merlin to smile even when everything was rubbish and who made Merlin giddy and happy and…
Merlin really was oblivious.
“Hey, Spartacus,” Arthur said with an indulgent smile. “How are you feeling?”
Merlin grinned. “Like hell,” he answered.
Arthur shook his head. “Only you, Merlin.”
“Only me, what?”
“Would still be able to conjure a smile after being hit by a car.”
Merlin chuckled. “One of my many charms.”
“One of many,” Arthur agreed with a serious nod.
Merlin allowed Arthur to help him into a sitting position and he savored the feel of Arthur’s palm sliding over his shoulders, down the knobs of his spine, coming to rest on the small of his back. He shivered at the intimate touch.
“Gwaine and Will came by earlier,” Arthur said, as he adjusted the pillows and blankets to prop Merlin up against the headboard. “They wanted to make sure you were alright.”
Arthur froze for a long second before continuing with vigorously plumping a pillow. He didn’t look up, kept his gaze solidly on the lush sheets and the misshapen lump of feathers.
“So,” he said, drawing out the ‘o,’ “exactly what did you hear?”
Merlin swallowed and nervously licked his lips. Butterflies were dancing a jig in his stomach but he plowed on.
“I heard Gwaine being levelheaded for once. I heard you and Will arguing over me.”
“Right. Look, if you’d be more comfortable…”
“God, no, Will would be insufferable.”
“I just don’t want this to be… awkward.”
“It wouldn’t be the first awkward thing between us.”
“No, no, you’re right. I seem to remember an incident with a lemon and a tambourine.”
Merlin chuckled but quieted when Arthur still didn’t lift his gaze from his expensive bedding.
“Will… Will can be an arse,” Merlin started gently. “Don’t pay attention to anything he says. I would much rather recuperate here than anywhere else.”
“That’s good to know. Ambrosias likes it when you are here.”
“Just Ambrosias?” Merlin asked tentatively.
“I… I…” Arthur cleared his throat. “I rather like it when you are here as well,” he said softly.
Arthur ducked his head and his cheeks reddened. It was the first time Merlin had ever seen Arthur blush. It was shocking and attractive and it eased the persistent ache in Merlin’s chest, turned it into a warm blooming thing that thudded through his veins, settled in his middle, made his breath quicken and his heart flutter.
Merlin smiled, large and happy. He reached over with his good hand and rested it atop Arthur’s, curling his fingers around to Arthur’s palm.
“I like being here. Arthur, I don’t know if I can even explain it but… without you, the world… it just doesn’t make sense.”
Arthur stared hard at their joined hands before the side of his mouth quirked up.
“To be honest, Spartacus, I quite adore you, actually.”
“For heaven’s sake, why?”
Arthur settled his gaze on Merlin, expression serious once again. He reached out, his fingertips tentatively tracing over Merlin’s cheek then running gently across Merlin’s bottom lip.
“Because everything you do that should irritate me only endears you to me more.”
Merlin didn’t know quite how to take that. He lifted an eyebrow and opened his mouth to respond but was cut off by the quick press of Arthur’s mouth to his own.
It was clumsy for a moment. Merlin was wide-eyed and open-mouthed and Arthur was insistent, his lips fumbling over Merlin’s. Then Arthur’s hand was tangled in Merlin’s hair, tugging on the strands to angle them both better, and Arthur’s tongue was skirting along Merlin’s lip and Merlin melted into it. He moaned, his eyes fluttered shut as he relaxed into the pillows. He kissed back, relishing the heat of Arthur’s mouth, the taste of him, the tangle of their tongues.
They kissed until Merlin’s jaw ached, until the world had zeroed down to the feel of Arthur’s lips, and the caress of his hands. Merlin knew that kissing Arthur would become a habit, an obsession, that he would have to, multiple times per day for the rest of his life or he would surely shrivel up from the want of it.
It was all utterly brilliant until Arthur shifted and happened to bump into something bruised and painful and connected to Merlin.
Merlin tore his mouth away and gasped, eyes squeezed shut.
He heard Arthur jerk backward so fast there was a thump that indicated that he had fallen off the bed.
Merlin would’ve laughed if he didn’t feel like he was going to vomit.
“Fuck! Merlin, I’m sorry. You alright?”
“Brilliant,” Merlin grit out.
“Fuck! I’m… hold on… I’ll get your medication.”
Merlin heard Arthur rummaging and shuffling around the room and he kept his eyes closed because he didn’t want Arthur to see the tears pricking behind them.
“Here, take these.”
Merlin felt Arthur place the pills in his hand and he peeked out to see Arthur’s kiss-swollen lips, flushed face and concerned expression.
“Before I take these and become loopy again, I just want you to know, Arthur, that… I adore you, too.”
Arthur smiled, genuinely, happily, before offering up a smirk. “Of course you do. Everyone does.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Oh, it’s the return of the arse.”
“Oh,” Arthur said, eyeing Merlin’s medication, “since we’re speaking of arses, for the record, I think yours is magnificent too.”
Merlin blushed to the tips of his ears but smiled all the same before tossing the pills down his throat.
Six Weeks Later
It was snowing outside.
Gaius had gone home hours ago. Merlin had allowed Gwen to sneak out with the last of the customers so she could start her Christmas celebrations early. Merlin envied her only because it meant she was saved from having to make another gingerbread latte or peppermint mocha and she would not be forced to endure the last half hour of Christmas music Gaius had been piping in over the speakers for the past month. The Christmas Eve crowd had petered off as soon as the sun had gone down and Merlin had already started the shut-down procedures. He had a long drive with Will to Ealdor in the morning and the faster he could get out of there, the sooner he could start preparing for the road trip.
Merlin wiped down the counter, catching all the spilled coffee and sweetener, his wrist still in a cast but healing, his ankle still an occasional bother if he moved incorrectly, but for the most part, Merlin was completely healed.
He was also completely head over heels, involved, attached, stuck with skinny latte, extra whip Arthur Pendragon.
All of their friends were happy that he and Arthur had finally sorted themselves. They also continued to give Merlin lectures about bicycle safety. Merlin only listened and nodded since it didn’t matter anyway. His banana-yellow bike had been mangled beyond recognition and unable to be repaired. It had been sad for Merlin and he was now stuck riding the tube or walking wherever he went if Arthur wasn’t available to give him a ride.
The bell above the door rang and Merlin looked up to see the object of his affection standing there shaking off the flakes of snow clinging to his hair and jacket.
“I’m sorry, we’re closed,” Merlin said with a grin.
Arthur snorted. “I think you have about five more minutes before you can make that claim.”
“You’re mistaken, sir, and I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Haven’t you heard that the customer is always right?”
“Not when their order is ridiculous. Today I made a Grande extra hot, soy, caramel macchiato, no foam, stirred, with whip and extra caramel.”
Arthur pulled a face. “That’s disgusting.”
“It really is,” Merlin said with a nod.
Arthur leaned against the door, his hand sliding over the lock, before twisting it into place. “Oops. Guess you are closing early.”
“By an entire two minutes.”
Arthur stepped up to the counter. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell your boss.”
Merlin cocked his head to the side and eyed Arthur, his cheeks and lips red from the cold, his scarf tangled in his jacket collar, errant snowflakes melting in his hair. “Now, what to do with my extra time,” he teased.
Arthur quickly strode around the barrier between them and crowded Merlin against the back wall, grasped Merlin by the waist, as he leaned in, his mouth brushing softly over Merlin’s jaw. “You could kiss your boyfriend.”
Merlin let out a stuttering breath. “I could.”
“I think you should because he has something for you.”
“Well,” Merlin grinned cheekily, “that changes things.”
Merlin had to admit when he pressed his mouth to Arthur’s, and tangled his hands in Arthur’s cold hair, that Arthur was a fantastic kisser. He just knew how to make Merlin moan and melt and feel like his legs had gone wobbly. Merlin was sure it was just part of the Pendragon DNA because Leon had said once that kissing Morgana had been a revelation. Merlin could only concur especially when Arthur moved his soft lips over Merlin’s, gently sucking, nipping, kissing Merlin like he was precious and fragile. It always made Merlin’s chest feel too full, like he might burst from the meaning behind it. Of course, it seemed that Arthur was also capable of flipping some switch inside Merlin that made him want to climb Arthur’s body like a tree and use him for all kinds of naughty things.
Arthur was doing just that, his hands clenching and unclenching in the fabric of Merlin’s ugly coffee shop uniform, pulling Merlin toward him, until he was pressed as close as possible, his tongue doing dirty and scintillating things inside Merlin’s mouth. They shifted slightly, Arthur’s leg slipping between Merlin’s, his thigh warm and pressed tightly to just the right spot. Merlin moaned and shuddered and just as interesting things were happening, Arthur pulled away.
Merlin made a ridiculously high-pitched whine and buried his nose into Arthur’s neck.
“What are you doing?”
Arthur was panting. “Sorry, sorry, but I really do have something for you.”
“Can’t it wait?” Merlin asked breathlessly, lips shamelessly brushing over the sensitive spot on Arthur’s neck in an attempt to get him moving again.
“Yes… No… No, as much as this will make you happy,” Arthur said, stroking Merlin’s back, “what I have outside will make you even more.”
Merlin pulled back and looked up. “Really? Happier than sex in the coffee shop?”
“What the hell do you have out there?” Merlin stood on his tiptoes, trying to peer past Arthur’s shoulder and out of the window. “Is it a unicorn? Tell me you bought me a unicorn.”
Arthur laughed. “No, you idiot.”
“Then what is it?”
“Come and see.”
Merlin allowed Arthur to drag him outside into the freezing cold night air in nothing but his uniform. Merlin trusted Arthur to not allow him slip and die on the pavement so he closed his eyes upon Arthur’s request. They didn’t go far, maybe a few feet from the shop entrance when Arthur paused and manhandled Merlin into position, his hands strong on Merlin’s shoulders.
“Alright, open them.”
Merlin did and positively did not squeal. Okay, maybe he did. A little.
“My bike! You fixed my bike!”
“Not exactly. It has pieces of your bike that I could salvage in it. So, technically it is a new bike with old bike parts. ”
“It’s brilliant!” Merlin turned and jumped into Arthur’s arms, kissing all over his face. “Fucking brilliant, you brilliant fucking person.”
Arthur laughed. “Wait, wait, it’s not the best part.”
Arthur managed to disentangle himself from Merlin’s octopus limbs and grabbed the bag hanging off one of the handlebars. He thrust his hand in and pulled out a bright yellow helmet with “Spartacus” emblazoned across each side.
“So now, if you run into any open car doors, at least you won’t knock yourself out.”
Merlin laughed, giddily, jumped up a down a few times before flinging himself back at Arthur, and kissed him. Their teeth clacked and it certainly didn’t have the finesse that Arthur’s kisses did, but Merlin didn’t care, because he was happy, in love, kissing Arthur in the snow on Christmas Eve and everything was absolutely fucking perfect.