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Four Seasons in One Day

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Arthur is handling the situation perfectly well until Merlin opens his big mouth. Despite the background chatter of the pub, his muttered “I’d like to see you try,” from a few steps behind Arthur carries to the disgruntled-looking blokes facing Arthur down at the bar. In response, the undertone of aggression that had been present in their snarky comments takes on a more overt display in the shift in how they’re standing, as if suddenly brought to attention. Arthur can practically smell the testosterone rolling off their gym-bunny biceps, mingling ominously with the pervasive scent of spilled beer.

Then there must be a surge in the crowd behind Arthur—their not-quite-altercation is holding up the shuffled progress of the masses towards the bar, after all—and someone stumbles heavily into Arthur’s back. The “Whoa, whoa, sorry—” sounds more than a little drunk, and even if it was an accident it doesn’t matter, because Arthur’s being shoved into the brick wall of grumpy blokes, and they’re shoving back.

“You right there, mates?” someone asks indignantly, and a little too loudly; it’s the guy who pushed into Arthur, stumbling between him and the muscly guys and attempting to put more space between them with indiscriminate shoves. He seems to be barely able to keep to his feet, though; just the head-jerk of flipping his long hair off his face sends him staggering backwards, fetching up against Arthur’s chest.

The crowd has parted a little around them, and their observation feels heavy on Arthur’s shoulders, making sweat prickle under the starch of his shirt. The small gap the drunk guy has made between Arthur and the snarky blokes seethes with animosity, and Arthur has no fucking idea where the hell Merlin is—not that he’d be much use in this situation, anyway. Fuck, Arthur’s not sure he’d be of any use—he wonders if now’s the time he should start balling his fists up, or if that would just antagonise them more. The solid wall of people at his back doesn’t yield when the drunk guy pushes against him to propel himself forward again, and Arthur braces himself—but the tense mood is shattered by a shout from the bar.

“Oi!” He looks over to see the bartender glaring in their direction, leaning halfway over the bar as if he’s about to climb right over in order to march right up and deck them one. His expression is furious. “None of that bullshit in here. Get. The fuck. Out!”

He’s punctuating his shouting with stabs of his index finger directly at Arthur, and the mix of humiliation and relief makes Arthur’s knees feel weak and brittle as he immediately turns away. Abruptly, the crowd loosens around them and it’s easy to push his way through them to the door. He flinches as someone grabs his elbow—but it’s just Merlin, trailing after him without loosening his hold, hitching a ride on a Arthur’s speedy exit.

The chill autumn air rushes into Arthur’s lungs as soon as they step outside, clearing away the humid cling of adrenaline and leaving him just feeling irritable. At least he’s not being kicked out with the aggro blokes—because of course, it’s not his regular—but dammit, Arthur’s had a shit day already. Which is why he’s at the Sircuit, and why he’s there without having gone home first to change into something a little more appropriate. Because Merlin had decided that the best course of action would be to whisk him away from the horror of his workplace the very moment Arthur’s boss had finally relented and let him leave. Which was well after close of business, needless to say.

And to top things off, drunk-and-indignant guy is bursting out of the pub after them, laughing loudly and still stumbling—stumbling right into Arthur, and Arthur can see him forcing a less gleeful expression on his face as he wraps an arm around Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur thinks it’s intended to be sympathetic, but it’s so affected that’s it’s practically caricature.

“Mate,” the man says, wafting beery breath over Arthur’s face. “That was not on. Tolerance!” he thrusts a finger up into the air, as if giving a political speech. “Needs to be more of it. Nothing wrong with a straight man wanting to try a bit of experimentation if you ask me.” He leans into Arthur heavily.

Arthur peels the man’s arm away, not even trying to keep the expression of distaste off his face. Not that the man isn’t attractive—in a sort of highly-groomed country-boy kind of way with his scruffy beard, red plaid shirt and tight black jeans—but not when he can barely stand upright. Undeterred, he shoots Arthur a coy look from a few paces away, and this time the hair flip is slightly more well-executed.

Arthur raises an eyebrow, thoroughly sick of having assumptions made about him. “I’m gay, actually,” he says drily.

Merlin snickers, and at least he’s slightly less drunk than flippy-hair. In fact, the tipsy brightness of his eyes and unselfconscious broadness of his smile makes a wave of fondness wash warmly through Arthur, softening the solid lump of disappointment that sits in his chest.

“I told you,” Merlin says pointedly, holding Arthur’s gaze, “what you need is a waistcoat.”

Arthur scowls and straightens his suit. Not that it needs straightening any more; and that just sends a counter-surge of glumness against whatever positive feeling he was regaining for a moment there: fucking work, and its inability to convince him that all this fucking play-acting is worthwhile.

Merlin, always too bloody perceptive, comes forward and wraps his arms around Arthur’s neck, planting a sloppy, wet kiss on Arthur’s cheek—and then undoes half the gesture by unwrapping one arm to hold his hand out to flippy-hair guy.

“Merlin,” he introduces himself. “And this is Arthur.” He tightens his hold on Arthur’s neck, knocking their heads together a bit.

The guy grins, seemingly unfazed at having his pull-the-straight-boy fantasy whipped right out from under his nose. “Gwaine,” he answers, eyes searching boldly over Merlin’s face; and there’s a sharpness there that suggests he’s perhaps not quite as hammered as Arthur thought he was. “Where to next?”

Arthur finds that he has no urge to dissuade flippy-hair—Gwaine—of the assumption that he’s going to carry on with them. It’s not like he needs to consult Merlin about it—adopting attractive strangers is a calling of Merlin’s that Arthur has no wish to deprive him of, and he can see they’re already sizing each other up.

At any rate, the topic of where to go next is under discussion. The Peel is out—even if Arthur didn’t feel thoroughly jaded about gay bars after being kicked out of Sircuit, none of them are the dancing type. When he suggests Brunswick Street Merlin wrinkles his nose and declares that if he wanted to drink with undergrad hipsters, he’d spend all his time at the Union bar—all this said with a completely straight face as he stands there in his skinny jeans and grandpa cardigan. Eventually, they decide to head into the city; hailing one of the lurking taxis and climbing aboard.

Arthur’s sinking feeling that they’ve made the wrong decision only increases as the cab crawls down a narrow street through Chinatown; the pedestrians spilling down the pavement on either side are moving faster than the the car. Straining to hear Gwaine and Merlin’s chatter in the back seat—while pretending not to out of some misplaced sense of value in what the cab driver might think of him—Arthur stares out the window. The sheer volume of teenage girls in white mini dresses and packs of young men sporting popped collars only serves to heighten his reluctance, but he pushes it aside as Merlin finally calls forward for the taxi driver to stop.

They finally end up in some sticky-floored, poorly-lit place that Merlin had apparently heard via a friend of a friend, where Arthur’s work gear makes him fit in far more than he’s comfortable with. They find the corner of a table free; Gwaine and Merlin cram together on the couch side, leaning close to make conversation over the obnoxious blast of early 90s rock ballads. Arthur can’t make out a word, and he finishes off his bottle of imported beer while watching their body language drift closer; Gwaine’s arm sprawled out over the back of the couch, Merlin’s head dipped towards him.

Arthur waves to catch Merlin’s attention, and when he has it, lifts his empty and tilts his head towards the bar. Merlin lifts his own half-full bottle and shakes his head, as does Gwaine—who, much to Arthur’s relief, seems to be sobering; he’s still nursing the shallow, cloudy cocktail he’d had Arthur order him when they arrived.

It’s a slow shuffle through the crowd, groups of people too deeply engaged in their shouted conversation to make room as Arthur tries to forge a path between them. Seeing that the crowd around the bar is ten deep is enough to cure him of his half-hearted desire for another drink; not ready to face the other two so soon and empty-handed, on a whim he heads for the bar’s balcony instead.

It’s much quieter outside, and the night air crisp. Tall buildings rise serenely around them, environmentally-unfriendly office lights patterning their surfaces in various colours, like an unplanned mosaic. Arthur braces his forearms on the balustrade and stares out into the night; the street below looks deserted, the pavements seem almost scoured clean by the fluorescent street lights.

The sound of a tram—possibly the last of the night—coasting its way up the centre of the road scrapes faintly up at him, storeys above. Behind that is the background respiration of industrial ventilation, and above it the constant, irregular chatter and thump of loud music and drunk people shouting over it, spilling from the hidden corners of the city. Arthur fancies he can hear a tone to it—the smugness of all the thousands of people whose satisfaction is gained by simply knowing the location of bars too cool to be signed from the street—and he’s had just enough to drink that it tips him into feeling a petty kind of resentment. It makes his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth, like the bitter after-taste of swallowing a sharp lump of envy: if only his own sense of contentment was so easily obtained.

“Good night?” The hoarse voice comes from a few feet away; Arthur turns to see a tired-looking bloke in a business suit leaning with his back to the balustrade, elbows propped up, cigarette hanging between his fingers.

Arthur grimaces, feeling an immediate kinship with the man that spurs him to both self-pity and honesty. “Pretty crap, actually,” and before the bloke can ask why— “Following an utterly shit day at work.”

The guy drags his bloodshot gaze sluggishly over Arthur’s suit. “Sometimes there’s just not enough money in the world, eh?”

Arthur frowns, stares down at the street again, watching as a girl in a short skirt clop-clops her was across the road at a jog; her heels must be truly spectacular for the sound of her footsteps to reach him. “There’s no money at all, in this case,” he says.

The guy doesn’t reply, and when Arthur looks up, he’s looking confused.

“Internship,” Arthur explains. “Basically, slavery.”

“Doesn’t look that bad,” the guy says, and his tone seems a little stiffer than moments before. Abruptly, Arthur’s even more aware of his suit; it’s bespoke, one of half a dozen his father had had made for him when Arthur was first accepted to Law at Melbourne. Of course Arthur still wears them years later—he has to, for work; can’t afford to buy his own, has become accustomed to the brief flicker of anger and resentment that crawls over his skin whenever he puts one on.

The businessman stubs out his smoke and fishes in his breast pocket to pull out a squashed-looking pack. He doesn’t even meet Arthur’s eyes as he holds it out to him. “Smoke?”

Arthur’s sorely tempted to take up the offer, even with the guy’s obvious standoffishness after their epic failure of a conversation, and that more than anything is a sign that it’s time to go back inside.

“Nah,” Arthur says. “Have a good one, though.” And he pushes in through the heavy glass door to the sound and stink of the bar again.

Merlin perks up upon seeing him approach, waving cheerfully. Gwaine slaps a hand down on Merlin’s thigh and leans in to speak into his ear; Merlin nods and Gwaine rises. He gestures towards the gents’ as he passes Arthur, not trying to speak over the music. Arthur nods, and when he turns back to Merlin, Merlin shuffles over and pats the free seat next to him.

“Having a good time?” Arthur shouts into his ear as soon as he sits down, before Merlin can ask him the same; Merlin’s good mood is practically radiating out of him and Arthur’s reluctant to ruin it with his self-absorption.

Merlin grabs his hand and squeezes it. “I am,” he shouts back. “I really, really am. You don’t mind, do you?” Arthur’s head is bowed to listen to him, and Merlin tilts his own to look up into Arthur’s eyes as he finishes speaking, gaze open and guileless.

Arthur searches his face for a moment and then smirks, shaking his head a little. He doesn’t mind, actually: all he wants right now is to go home to his own bed and pyjamas and quiet, so Merlin’s plan works quite well. “I don’t blame you. He’s quite—” Arthur waves his hand jerkily, illustrating god-knows-what.

Merlin beams, bouncing a little in his seat. “He is a bit, isn’t he?”

“Home?” Arthur asks shortly, tired of shouting.

Merlin nods eagerly, and Arthur finds himself relaxing in relief that this entire ridiculous day is almost over, unaware just how tense he was until then. Merlin squeezes his hand again, then disentangles and stands up, slipping easily through the crowd to where Gwaine’s walking towards them. Arthur follows a little slower, watching Merlin rest his hand lightly on Gwaine’s arm and lean in close again to speak. Gwaine grins and nods, eyes darting over Merlin’s shoulder to Arthur. He raises an eyebrow and Arthur shrugs, mustering a smile that, while weary, is genuine.

He doesn’t bother trying to hear what they’re talking about in the back seat on the way out of the city, just concentrates on the serene glide of the traffic around them, directing the taxi driver quietly until they’re home.

He makes a beeline straight for his bedroom, listening to Merlin and Gwaine’s soft conversation and telling silences as he starts to undress. By the time he hears footsteps pass and the fan come on in the bathroom, he’s down to his shirt and boxers, and Merlin slips into the room, closing the door quietly behind him. Arthur glances questioningly at him over his shoulder, belatedly loosening his tie. Merlin steps forward to take over.

“You okay?” he asks and, before Arthur can answer, “You had a really shit time tonight, didn’t you.”

Arthur grunts noncommittally. “It’s work,” he says begrudgingly—not so much in an attempt to make Merlin to feel better at utterly failing at Friday-night-cheering-up, but because Merlin knows his story, and despite having told Arthur firmly that he doesn’t give a fuck who Arthur’s father is, Arthur still hates to complain. “It’s just…”

“Utterly soul-crushing?” Merlin completes, tugging Arthur’s tie free and tossing it in the direction of the chest of drawers. Arthur watches it slither to the floor and tries not to make a face. Merlin presses a sympathetic kiss to his jaw. “It’s only for one month, right? So you’ve only got two more weeks to go.”

And then every other internship to look forward to after that, Arthur doesn’t say. And the rest of my career. Instead, he grabs Merlin’s bum and gives it a quick, affectionate squeeze. “Fuck off and let me sleep, will you?” he says, weary but still warm, and turns away, fingers on his shirt buttons. He jerks when Merlin’s hand lands in a quick smack on his own arse, but by the time he’s turned around to retaliate, Merlin’s gone, door closing soundlessly behind him.

It’s only mid-autumn, but still cold enough that Arthur knows he’ll regret it if he doesn’t wear at least a teeshirt with his boxers, and though the sheets are chilly against his skin, almost as soon as his head hits the pillow he’s dead to the world.

He wakes up when the mattress tilts under him, and cold air whispers against his back as the blankets lift up and shift around him. He doesn’t even bother opening his eyes—doesn’t need to to know it’s still completely dark—when Merlin shuffles up behind him.

“You awake?” Merlin whispers.

Arthur grunts a response—not quite affirmative, but getting there—and Merlin inches closer, slipping an arm over Arthur’s waist and snuffling up against the back of Arthur’s neck. Arthur huffs a sigh that’s deeper than he intended and shifts into more of a sprawl onto his belly; Merlin nudges his leg up to snug his knee behind Arthur’s. His skin is warm and slightly damp, and the smell of his soap and shampoo sits delicately in the air. Arthur breathes deeply—hearing himself whuffle and too asleep to care—and hums out a pleased sound.

Merlin kisses the back of his neck, keeping Arthur from dropping back into sleep with the desire to savour the lingering touches. He reaches for Merlin’s hand, presses it where it rests against his body.

He feels Merlin’s lips curve in a smile. “Can I’ve a kiss?” Merlin whispers.

Arthur turns his head enough to meet Merlin’s mouth; he’s barely awake enough to do anything but purse his lips as Merlin’s tongue sweeps in, cool and sharp with the taste of toothpaste. It lasts just a moment before Arthur flops down again. Merlin’s arm squeezes tightly around his middle, and he feels Merlin’s body give a happy shiver as Merlin presses up tight against him. “You’re the best.” Merlin’s words tickle against his neck. “The best.”

Warmth suffuses Arthur’s body, like a living thing under his skin where Merlin’s palm rests on his belly. He falls back into sleep, content.

*

Arthur’s slightly more awake the next morning when there’s a light tap on the bedroom door; he opens his eyes blearily to see Gwen peeking in. She smiles when she sees him, closing the door softly behind her as she tiptoes over. He rolls back a little, making room as she hops onto the bed, doona crunching a little under her weight as she lies down next to him on top of the covers.

Gwen is a shameless cuddle slut, but as far as Arthur’s concerned, that’s what weekend mornings are for, so he slings an arm over her as she nuzzles up to his chest.

“Who’s the hairy bloke on the couch?” she asks softly after a while, unable to keep her curiosity suppressed for long.

Arthur snorts. “Just another stray Merlin couldn’t resist bringing home with him.”

“Oi,” sounds groggily from behind him; Merlin’s not quite as asleep as Arthur assumed, then. “He was defending your honour.”

“So nice of you to reward him on my behalf, then.”

“His name is Gwaine,” Merlin says, managing to drag himself closer, propping himself up with his chin dug into Arthur’s upper arm to peer over at Gwen. “He’s from Perth,” he tells her, as if this explains everything.

Gwen makes a considering noise. “Sounds like there’s a story there. Was it a good night, at least?”

“Mmm,” Merlin makes a satisfied, affirmative noise and flops back down to the bed behind Arthur. “He needs somewhere to stay. He only landed yesterday.”

“What about the spare room?” Gwen reaches over Arthur to prod the nearest bit of Merlin; Merlin yelps and kicks out reflexively. Arthur grimaces and kicks him back.

“That’s my bedroom,” Merlin says in an injured tone.

“Really. I thought it was where all the old readers went to die,” Arthur says drily—because seriously, he can’t remember the last time Merlin slept in his own bed; since the end of last semester he’s not sure they’d even be able to find Merlin’s bed under the stacks of photocopied academia.

“Piss off,” Merlin says congenially, and he wriggles closer again, cinching an arm tight around Arthur and digging his bony fingers in Arthur’s side, making Arthur thrash. He ducks his face out of the way of Arthur’s elbow by biting down on the meat of Arthur’s teeshirt-clad shoulder. His next comeback is muffled: “You fucking love me.”

Arthur bucks him off and Gwen shrieks and tumbles off the bed in the subsequent wrestle for dominance, and Arthur’s managed to get Merlin mostly restrained within the tangle of the doona when Morgana’s voice rings out from across the hall, loud and pissed off: “For fuck’s sake, Merlin!”

“Shit.” Merlin goes limp, chest heaving under Arthur’s as he pants to get his breath back.

In their sudden silence, Arthur can hear Morgana slam the grey water bucket onto the bathroom floor, and the resulting splash. “If she brings it in her and empties it on my bed again—” Arthur begins

“I know, I know, no blow jobs for a month!” Merlin scrambles out of the bed, hurriedly fishing a pair of underwear off the floor and yanking them on before bolting out of the room.

Gwen climbs back onto the bed, sitting cross-legged near the edge. Arthur sprawls out on his back, spreadeagled, taking a few moments himself to regain his breath. He can’t help but avoid her gaze for a little while, annoyed at himself for being self-conscious but unable to help it.

“It took a month just for my mattress to dry out, last time,” he says at length, almost apologetically.

Gwen smirks. “I know.” She pats his hand. “Tea?”

“God, yes.”

She leaves the door open on her way out, and Arthur stays where he is and soaks up the morning for a little longer. The room is small enough that he can use his toes to grip the corner of the curtain and drag it open, filling the room with light. Morgana’s singing some angry feminist song in the shower, and it drifts in and out of sync with the rhythmic snip of the neighbour’s secateurs, barely a few metres from Arthur’s window, behind the weather-beaten wood of the side fence.

The kettle rumbles to life in the kitchen, a smooth segue of white noise as the shower cuts off. He can hear Gwen speaking with someone, her laughter communicating the tone of their conversation where he can’t figure out the words clearly enough, the slam of the flyscreen punctuating the end of it.

Finally Arthur gets up. The kitchen is empty, but there’s a mug on the bench with a teabag hanging limply over its side. The steam curling up from it looks almost solid in the brilliant morning light washing through the large windows, and the sky is a crisp, clear blue above the terracotta roofs of the neighbouring houses. Arthur puts bread in the toaster before picking up the cup, breathing the steam in deeply.

The kitchen overlooks the backyard, and Arthur gazes out as he waits, sipping at tea still too hot to gulp and listening to the hum of the toaster’s elements. Gwaine is sitting on the overturned grey water bucket, wearing the same tight jeans as last night and a perfectly fitted Chesty Bonds singlet, mug in one hand and cigarette in the other. Merlin’s stomping around the garden beds, still in nothing but his bright green jocks and unlaced boots, keeping up a constant stream of cheerful chatter. As Arthur watches, he dips to pluck a snail from the vege patch, dropping it onto the concrete paver before crushing it underfoot.

Footsteps sound behind Arthur; he turns and Morgana gives him a friendly smile. Her hair is pulled back in a damp ponytail, face clean of makeup, and she’s wearing the enormous black-rimmed glasses she sports when her contacts aren’t in. “Morning.”

“Morning,” Arthur returns. She’s hauling another bucket of water—far more responsible at that chore than Merlin by far—and Arthur holds the flyscreen open for her as she carries it outside.

The toast pops up. Arthur watches Morgana totter across the concrete to the lemon tree, emptying the grey water at its base. Merlin hops towards her through the garden beds, body language all apologetic affection as he speaks to her. She lets him rest his hand on the side of her neck and draw her in for a kiss, her own hand coming to stroke the bare skin of his side then sliding around and up to his shoulder as they embrace.

Arthur takes the toast out of the toaster and puts another two pieces in. The pieces he took out he slathers on a thick yellow layer of margarine followed by a lighter covering of Vegemite, and the plate is waiting on the counter nearest the door by the time Merlin makes it back inside, following after Morgana.

“Oh, you’re awesome,” Merlin says with profound sincerity when he sees the toast, shoving a piece into his mouth immediately, crumbs from the stiff, cold bit of bread dropping onto his bare chest.

“Weirdo,” Arthur counters, making a face and plucking his own toast out of the toaster, flinging it onto his plate before his fingers have much of a chance to be burnt. Perfectly-melted butter is followed by a more generous portion of Vegemite, and Arthur sinks his teeth into the hot-melty-salty slice of bliss gratefully.

Morgana holds her nose and makes a disgusted noise. “You’re both revolting. Put in a piece for me, would you?” She digs around in a cupboard and pointedly slams a jar of her home-made marmalade on the counter before wandering back toward the bathroom with her empty bucket.

“I’m going to put some pants on,” Merlin informs him once he’s scarfed down both pieces of toast; Arthur’s still savouring his first. Merlin drops his plate into the sink with a clatter, then gives Arthur’s cheek a quick peck on his way out of the kitchen, as if he hasn’t just blatantly disregarded the wash-your-dishes-straight-away rule.

Arthur’s not alone for long; Gwaine stops squinting into the middle distance and stubs out his cigarette on the concrete, bringing the butt back inside. Arthur shows him where the bin is and Gwaine flicks the kettle on again, fishing out their ancient jar of Nescafe as if he’s been living there for years. He leans back against the counter opposite Arthur, scrutinising him in a friendly sort of way. Arthur eats his toast, and they both listen as Merlin’s footsteps thud up the hall and a door slams; Gwen’s laughter rings out abruptly in a surprised shriek.

“You’re a brave man,” Gwaine says, and gestures towards the rest of the house. “You’ve got quite the love-fest going on here.”

Arthur shrugs, chewing. He swallows his mouthful. “I’m just here for Merlin.”

Gwaine’s eyebrows raise. “Really. So it doesn’t bother you that…?” There’s no judgement in his tone, just honest curiosity.

“If it did, I wouldn’t have moved in,” Arthur says shortly, slightly irritated; if seeing Merlin naked gave people permission to ask personal questions, then his sleeping arrangements would be the business of half the inner north.

“He must live a charmed existence, then,” Gwaine says, grinning.

Arthur grunts noncommittally. “You’d have to ask him.”

Finally, Gwaine seems to get the hint, changing the subject abruptly. “Hey, listen, thanks for letting me crash. I have a cousin in Sunshine who offered, but…”

Arthur can’t help his instinctual lip curl. “But Sunshine?”

Gwaine grins, ducks his head. Flips his hair out of his eyes as he looks up again. “Yeah, pretty much.”

“Ask the girls,” Arthur says. “It’ll be their TV-and-knitting routine that you disrupt.”

“Fantastic. It probably won’t be for very long, and I can buy bread and milk…”

“Morgana’s vegan.”

“Soy milk, then.”

Arthur takes his plate to the sink, scrubbing both his and Merlin’s before setting them on the drying rack. “Make it Bonsoy, if you want to win her over.”

Gwaine grins, confident again. “Cheers.”

*

A week later and the days are getting shorter; Arthur’s walk from the tram back to the house at the end of the day is mostly in shadow, now. He’s half a block away when he spots Gwen and Morgana coming towards him; Morgana’s pushing their hijacked shopping trolley up the uneven pavement, and Gwen is riding in it. Arthur steps aside onto the grassy verge as they reach him.

“Off to Coles,” Morgana declares, coming to a halt. “Want anything?”

“No. Just so long as you don’t go bringing another piece of junk home this time.” Last time they’d gone out with the trolley, they’d come back bearing a battered old armchair they’d found on the footpath.

“It was a gorgeous piece of retro design,” Morgana protests, “how were we supposed to know about the fleas?”

“Or the used condom.”

Morgana grimaces at the reminder of that unexpected discovery. “Speaking of—Gwaine’s moved into the spare room.”

“Merlin’s room, you mean.”

Morgana shrugs. “Merlin’s the one who suggested it. I’ll recalculate the rent when we get home—it’s better off for all of us, really.”

Arthur hums, not entirely convinced—but he does tend to find himself in more cynical moods after a day of running fruitless errands for people who seem physically incapable of gratitude, so.

When he gets to the house, the mouthwatering smell of roasting pumpkin greets him, and after shedding his suit he heads to the kitchen to peer into the oven. It’s Merlin’s turn to cook, and Arthur finds him in the living room, sprawled lengthwise on the couch, covered in papers: it’s marking season again, then. Gwaine is sitting on the floor with his back against the couch, staring transfixed at the TV while he crunches loudly through a packet of corn chips, Merlin’s sock-clad toes scritching idly against his nape.

Arthur’s stomach rumbles, and Merlin looks up, smiling around the pen he’s holding between his teeth. He gives Gwaine’s head a light shove with his foot, and Gwaine glances up at Arthur before scooting forward without comment.

“What’s for dinner?” Arthur asks, leaning down to lift Merlin’s feet before sitting on the couch; Merlin settles his legs back over Arthur’s thighs. The floor is warm under Arthur’s feet where Gwaine was sitting.

“Pumpkin something,” Merlin mutters distractedly, frowning as he scribbles another note on the essay he’s marking. He wriggles his toes in Arthur’s squeezing hold.

“The one from the garden?”

“Mmm. It was ready, so I chucked it in the oven. Morgana went to buy risotto rice.”

Often Merlin’s cooking nights turn into Morgana-has-a-better-idea nights. “It’s not going to have that vegan cheese, is it?” Arthur asks.

Merlin wrinkles his nose. “You can put whatever cheese you want on it. It’s post-production cheese, this time.”

“Good-o.” Arthur watches the TV for a while in silence, rubbing Merlin’s feet absently. Home and Away ends, and Gwaine flips over to Masterchef. Arthur’s stomach is going to eat itself.

Finally, there’s the sound of a key in the lock, and Merlin is off the couch and in the kitchen before Arthur can blink, leaving essays fluttering in his wake. Arthur goes to the front door, holding it open as Morgana stumbles past, laden with green bags. It’s getting on dark outside, just the last hints of the hot-pink sunset left in the sky, and the air decidedly chilly. The light over the front step is busy with gnats and tiny moths; Arthur spots a huntsman poised for a feast on the wall nearby, nearly invisible on the red brick. He pointedly doesn’t tell Gwen about it.

Steadying the trolley at the bottom of the steps, she passes him a bag and he peers into it: it’s full of wholemeal pasta and rice cakes. “Cheese?” he finds himself asking plaintively as she hefts up another two bags and hands them to him.

Gwen looks very sad and apologetic for a moment, and then, as if suddenly realising something, she gasps and reaches into the pocket of her parka. She pulls out a triangle of shrink-wrapped parmesan with an overplayed how-did-that-get-there expression.

“My saviour,” he says with fervent gratitude.

She grins, pleased with herself. “Your knight in shining armour, am I?”

“You have my eternal devotion.”

“Hmm, sounds like something I could use.” She lets her eyes skim down his body, beaming playfully all the while, corner of her lip caught between her teeth, then flicks up her gaze to meet his again.

Arthur flushes, abruptly feeling out of his depth. It’s far from the first time he’s felt it since he’s moved in with Merlin; usually, though, it’s Morgana being intimidating and opinionated that sets him off, rather than affectionate, approachable Gwen.

Arthur shifts the weight of the shopping bags in his grip. “I’m letting the bugs in,” he says, looking up to the light again. When he looks down at Gwen, her smile has shifted into something that almost looks rueful.

“Suppose I’d better stable the trusty steed, then,” she says, and pushes the trolley around to its parking spot down the side of the house.

In the kitchen, Morgana is shooting instructions at Merlin while she stacks tins of chickpeas into the cupboard. Arthur helps unpack then goes back to the living room to clear enough space for Gwen to slump down on the couch as well. The smells coming from the kitchen throughout the rest of Masterchef have Arthur in the kitchen every second ad break to check on the progress of dinner; it doesn’t take long before Merlin’s cooking night has devolved into him sitting up on the counter and chatting while Morgana hovers over the stove.

Finally, they’re all sitting in front of the TV with bowls emitting the most mouth-watering smells ever, and half an hour later Arthur’s still nursing a burnt tongue from how quickly he scarfed it down. It’s not enough to sully the glow of satisfaction spreading out from his belly, though, and he sprawls back onto the couch, his feet in Merlin’s lap this time. Someone scritches his hair; he tilts his head back to see Gwen looking at him fondly, laid out comfortably in her own chair.

“Morgana, that was amazing, thank you,” Arthur says in the next ad break; the others murmur agreement.

“Thank you, Merlin, for growing and roasting such a spectacular pumpkin,” Merlin adds.

Arthur tips his foot to poke his toes into Merlin’s belly. “When you can produce a meal from it that tastes like that, then I’ll thank you.”

“Fuck you very much,” Merlin returns sulkily, then delivers a horsebite to Arthur’s knee and proceeds to act as if Arthur’s instinctive kick towards Merlin’s face deserves retaliation. Arthur’s unfortunately at a distinct disadvantage at being already on his back, but on the other hand it means he has leverage to knee and prod upward when Merlin descends on him in a frenzy of poking and squeezing.

“Oi. Oi!” Morgana shouts after a while. “Don’t make me get the hose.”

“You wouldn’t,” Merlin counters, hands still for a moment where they grip Arthur’s sides. “It would be a terrible waste of water.”

“Not if I wring you out afterwards, like the wet rag you are,” Morgana deadpans.

“Bitch,” Merlin laughs breathlessly.

“Brat.” Morgana crawls over from where she’s sitting on the floor, then scrubs her knuckles briskly over Merlin’s scalp.

Merlin cries out in dismay and clings to Arthur, pressing his face to Arthur’s chest to try and escape the attack. Morgana draws away, laughing in victory; then the ad break ends and the crappy Friday night movie comes back on. Merlin stays where he is instead of sitting up again, turning his head on Arthur’s chest to face the TV. Arthur shifts his legs to let Merlin’s fall between them more comfortably, and combs his fingers through Merlin’s hair.

By the time the credits start rolling, Merlin’s gone completely limp, his chest rising and falling with his deep, steady breaths. Arthur can’t tell if his eyes are open or closed, but he grips a handful of Merlin’s hair and tugs lightly. “You’d better not be drooling on me,” he says softly.

“’M not,” Merlin says, his body tensing to slightly as if he’s just come awake, lifting his head scarce millimetres from Arthur’s chest before dropping it back again. “Mmmf. Sleep with you tonight?”

“It’s only ten-thirty.”

“So?”

Arthur glances around. Gwen is curled up in her chair, her attention flitting occasionally up from her knitting to the TV; Gwaine’s lying on the floor with his head on a couch cushion, still seemingly mesmerised by the scrolling credits; Morgana’s long since left to chill in her own room.

“All right.” Arthur pats Merlin’s shoulder then helps him up and off the couch. Gwen glances up as they rise, smiling briefly back at Arthur as he chivvies a sluggish Merlin out of the room.

Merlin squints blearily when Arthur flicks the light on in the bedroom. His face looks soft and sleepy, cheek flushed and hair stuck up on the side that was pressed to Arthur’s chest. He lifts both hands up to rub his eyes, and lists against Arthur when Arthur steps up close to embrace him. Arthur squeezes the backs of his shoulders. “Long day?”

Merlin grunts agreement. “Just meetings with students, and the head of the bloody department, and then an email from my supervisor…”

Arthur runs his hands up and down Merlin’s back in long, soothing strokes. Merlin rests his face in the crook of Arthur’s neck and heaves a sleepy sigh. “You?” he asks around a yawn.

“Yep,” Arthur non-answers. “Come on, then.” He steadies Merlin with hands on his waist for a moment, then tugs up the hem of his teeshirt. Merlin leans away long enough for Arthur to pull it up and over his head, then follows as Arthur steps backwards to sit on the edge of the bed.

He undoes Merlin’s fly, and Merlin braces himself against Arthur’s shoulder as he steps out of the jeans. One of his socks is already half-off, and seeing it looking floppy and ridiculous makes Arthur feel breathless from the fondness suddenly cramming into his chest.

He practically pours Merlin into the bed before undressing himself much more efficiently. Merlin seems to already be asleep, but he rolls in and curls closer as soon as Arthur turns the light off again and gets under the covers. The doona is cool against Arthur’s bare skin and Merlin is so sleepy-warm, and Arthur gets all shivery under his skin with the need to wrap Merlin up and touch every bit of him. The urge is so much easier to give into in the dark; he can’t stop stroking down the long line of Merlin’s side, or palming Merlin’s arse through the soft cotton of his underwear. He runs his hand down Merlin’s thigh to hook it up over his own, and gives in some of the restless energy zipping around his body by rocking his hips forward.

“Mmm,” Merlin hums, body loose and malleable in his lassitude. “I’m not—”

“S’okay,” Arthur reassures him, pressing his face into Merlin’s hair and breathing deep. He crooks his knee up between Merlin’s legs and settles, focusing on the damp-cool rhythm of Merlin’s breath against his chest, and the sweat starting to stick them together where their skin touches. He can still hear the TV but it’s faint, just the occasional crash or shout of an action scene audible as the late-night movie plays. The skin of Merlin’s back is smooth and lovely under Arthur’s touch; he can’t stop stroking it, and can’t tell just how much time has passed when he finally slips down into sleep.

*

It’s a slow morning, in part because Arthur wakes early feeling refreshed. He has a semi-conscious moment of oh-god-I-have-to-go-to-work before remembering that it’s Saturday, and the brief surge of adrenaline is enough to flush the rest of the sleepiness out of his system. Merlin’s expelling morning breath like it’s going out of style, so Arthur takes it as impetus to get out of bed.

The house is quiet, and he pads softly up the hall past everyone’s closed doors to the bathroom. The cracked lino is cold enough on his feet that he decides to jump into the shower immediately, and is sufficiently warmed up enough after that that he hauls the bucket out into the garden straight away, wearing nothing but a towel. His skin steams a bit in the cool morning air, and for a moment he wants nothing but to stay out there until it all burns off him and the sun rises high enough above suburbia to just bake down to his bones.

But it’s May, so that’s unlikely; instead he jogs back into the house, scuffing the concrete grit off the soles of his feet on the mat, filling the kettle and flipping it on before making his way back to his room.

He slips back in as quietly as possible, but Merlin’s awake: sitting up in bed with an essay propped on his bent knees, looking sleep-muddled and disgruntled. Arthur huffs in amusement as Merlin gives him a hangdog look, but he comes close enough for Merlin to wrap arms around his legs and press his face to Arthur’s hip. Arthur rubs the back of Merlin’s neck, and Merlin’s hands creep up under the towel to play with the hair on Arthur’s thighs.

Merlin seems perfectly content to just stay there—at least until there’s the sound of another door opening in the hall, and crockery clinking in the kitchen. Then he draws away again with a long-suffering groan and slumps back to the bed, flopping his hand out onto the discarded essay but making no effort to pick it up again.

Arthur snorts, and steps away to find something to wear, pulling the towel off to scrub at his hair before he digs around in his chest of drawers. “Are you coming to brunch?” he asks as he pulls on a pair of jocks, then practically burrows through a mess of Merlin’s teeshirts in the next drawer to find a long-sleeved top of his own. Naturally, Merlin hadn’t considered what would happen to all of his stuff once he let out his room.

Merlin only answers when Arthur tugs the top over his head and turns to look at him again; he still hasn’t picked up the essay, but is watching Arthur dress with a wistful expression.

“Too much bloody marking to do,” he says when Arthur smirks and raises an eyebrow. “And no money.”

“I’ll shout you.”

“You don’t have any money either, you dag.” Merlin throws his red pen at him, and Arthur bats it away, turning his back on Merlin again to root around on the floor amidst Merlin’s extravagantly discarded clothes for his own pair of jeans.

He tugs them on and then has to dive back in to find his belt; eventually he turns up one of Merlin’s—complete with ridiculous retro rhinestone buckle—and sits down on the edge of the bed to put it on.

“It won’t always be like this,” Arthur says at last, stilted despite his extended silence; Merlin’s probably forgotten what they were even talking about.

“Like what?”

“You know.” Arthur finishes buckling up and waves his hand in the air for a moment, still not turning around. “Completely fucking broke.”

The mattress tilts under Arthur as Merlin crawls up behind him. Merlin’s chin digs into Arthur’s shoulder, and he wraps his arms around Arthur’s waist. “Don’t be an idiot,” Merlin says, “we’re all impoverished students, I didn’t ask you to move in with me because I wanted to be bloody kept.”

Arthur prods his elbow back into Merlin’s belly gently. “Really,” he deadpans. “You could’ve fooled me.”

“What do you think I am?” Merlin lowers his tone suggestively and rubs his bristly jaw against Arthur’s neck. “Your bit of rough trade or something?”

Arthur can’t help but laugh at that. “Merlin. You’re an academic, for fuck’s sake.”

Merlin’s bony fingers—which have probably never seen a day of actual physical work in his life—wriggle expertly under the hem of Arthur’s shirt, and they’re fucking cold against that tender bit of skin, making him shout and jerk his arm back reflexively. That just makes Merlin’s fingers dig in tighter, which makes Arthur force them both down onto the bed in an attempt to throw Merlin off, and it takes at least another three minutes of tussling before Merlin finally begs him to stop. Arthur withdraws, and Merlin stays on his back for a few moments longer, long, skinny limbs folded in protectively over his extraordinarily ticklish belly: he looks not unlike a dead spider.

“Seriously, though,” Merlin pants, relaxing enough to peer up at Arthur; Arthur shifts a little to give him more room and Merlin lets his limbs unfold, sprawling out expansively. “Money’s got nothing to do with it.”

“With what?” Arthur can’t stop himself; with Merlin exposed like that Arthur can’t help but reach for him again. But instead of squawking and flinching, Merlin lies still and placid, allowing Arthur to rub his concave belly without complaint.

“With how I like you a truly a stupendous amount.” Merlin’s tone is serious, and warm with his sincerity; the way he’s looking Arthur right in the eye as he says it would be alone enough to convince Arthur of that.

Arthur almost wants to pull away, then; he feels Merlin’s words as if they’ve literally uncurled right under his skin, nerves raw and shocked. It’s a feeling he greedily wants more of, even while the reaction makes him feel exposed, needing to get away. But it’s half the reason he’s here in the first place—and undoubtedly the reason Morgana and Gwen are too, and fuck it, even Gwaine—Merlin is always so fucking candid with his affection; it’s hugely disarming and inescapably addictive.

He’s smiling up at Arthur now like he can see right through him—and Arthur doesn’t doubt he can, for all that Merlin seems oblivious and naive the majority of the time. Merlin’s still holding Arthur’s gaze as he begins to stroke the backs of his fingers against the inside of Arthur’s wrist, and it’s too much; the tenderness swelling in Arthur’s chest rises thickly under his tongue, and he hides his shiver by pulling away and standing up again.

“Well, it’s a good thing I can put up with you too,” Arthur says, scooping his hoodie up from the floor and testing whether he needs to toss it right into the laundry basket by giving it a sniff. When he sneaks a look at Merlin again, Merlin’s still sprawled back on the bed; only this time he’s got his hands tucked behind his head and his expression is exceedingly smug. Which makes it easier for Arthur to roll his eyes and snort, shaking his head as he leaves the room.

There’s tea waiting for him in the kitchen, and Gwen’s there too, leaning against the counter and yawning. She makes her sleepy-cat face when she sees him and holds out her arms, and Arthur can’t turn her down, pulling her in for a hug.

This had been weird at first—as soon as she’d ascertained Arthur wasn’t averse to hugs, Gwen had simply began claiming them several times a day—and it had taken him a while to realise that the weirdness was that there was no weirdness. Most of his life, physical affection was something that happened after long, anxiety-tinged periods of him constantly over-thinking things; the whole guessing game of when it was okay or not to touch people was one that he found profoundly awkward. Apparently it wasn’t to Gwen, though; in a way she’s just as honest as Merlin with it, her guilelessness eradicating any weirdness Arthur might have felt.

Also, Arthur realised almost immediately that the hugs she gives are excellent, and she’s pretty much the perfect size for cuddling. And she does this kind of rocking-from-foot-to-foot thing that has them swaying there in the kitchen at nine-thirty on a Saturday morning. It’s absurd and yet awesome, one of those moments when Arthur is taken unawares by the feeling of being at home.

Morgana walks into the kitchen and laughs when she sees them. Gwen, still beaming, tilts her head back—happy-sleepy-cat face—and Morgana drops a kiss onto her lips while she’s still in Arthur’s arms. He’s surprised, somehow—his heart suddenly thumping loud and fast, and he lets go so Gwen doesn’t feel it. She doesn’t seem to notice anything untoward, thank god, simply turning to wrap arms around Morgana instead, but Morgana shoots him an inscrutable look over the top of Gwen’s head.

It’s definitely time for coffee. “Ceres?” he asks, picking up his cup of tea and holding it in front of him as if it’s a shield, wrapping both hands around the warm ceramic.

Gwaine chooses that moment to wander into the kitchen, and it unpicks the odd mood Arthur’s somehow stumbled into a little more.

“Ceres,” Gwen moans into Morgana’s bosom. “Definitely. In fact, I think I might die if I don’t drink a soy chai within the hour.” She extracts herself enough to glance over at Gwaine. “Coming?”

Gwaine shakes his head. “Job interview.”

“On a Saturday morning?” Arthur asks before he can stop himself.

Gwaine looks at him and shrugs. “Coffee shop.”

“Oooh, on campus?” Gwen had escorted Gwaine around uni during the week with a stack of resumes. Not that Gwaine was studying. But Gwen’s excited chatter on the multitude of opportunities and the promise of ‘the scads of nubile youth just wandering about’ had apparently been enough to sell him on it.

Gwaine nods. “Castro’s.”

In unison, Morgana and Gwen let out excited gasps and then somewhat lusty moans.

“That little coffee stand?” Arthur asks, equal parts alarmed and intrigued by the girls’ response.

“The one with the hot dyke barista,” Morgana confirms.

“Oh my god, oh my god,” Gwen’s jiggling a little on the spot. “You have to get it. You have to! Then I’ll have a totally non-creepy excuse for buying forty coffees from there a day.”

Morgana looks sceptical. “Then she’ll get the wrong idea.”

Gwen pauses in her excited movement, expression confused.

“That you’re there because you’re visiting Gwaine, and not because you love perving on her?” Morgana explains.

“Oh.” Gwen wilts a bit.

“Besides, Gwaine’s from Perth,” Arthur says with exaggerated self-assurance. “Don’t go counting your chickens.”

“Fuck off, Melbourne didn’t invent good coffee, despite what you wankers seem to think,” Gwaine retorts cheerfully.

“Just try to look pretty,” Arthur advises him, laying on the patronising tone.

“Oh don’t worry, princess,” Gwaine says, batting his eyelashes. “I will.”

Gwaine sweeps out of the kitchen, and over Morgana and Gwen’s continued conversation Arthur hears his own bedroom door creak open, and then the sound of a body dropping down onto the bed; a particular squeak of springs at the bottom that Arthur had flipped his mattress to avoid setting off at inopportune moments.

When he tunes back in to the hot dyke barista discussion, it’s turned to questioning the morality of objectification, and Arthur blinks. “So, finding people attractive is morally objectionable?” he clarifies.

Gwen pulls a face, and she and Morgana look at each other.

“Caffeine,” Morgana concludes.

“The cause and solution to all our problems,” Gwen declares. “Ready to go?”

*

The three of them walk along the creek path, dodging cyclists and marvelling at the watermark provided by the wash of rubbish up on to the banks. Arthur thinks it might be the first time that he’s been out with just the two of them and not Merlin, and he feels odd and uncertain, out of place. As soon as he goes quiet, though, Gwen hooks her free arm into his and they walk three abreast until Arthur has to break away again, making room for another cyclist.

Ceres is crawling with people; coming through the gate from the creek they have to pick their way through the build-your-own-bike workshop that seems unconcerned about spilling on to the path, and while there are fewer people wandering through the gardens—already looking more dormant as the seasons shift—the cafe is packed.

“Grab a table, yeah?” Morgana says, and then is off weaving between the diners, tapping someone on the shoulder who exclaims cheerfully when they see her.

Arthur looks at Gwen to find her looking back; they share a rueful smile. “I think I saw a free table around the deck on the other side,” she says, and Arthur follows her back past the kitchen. It’s much quieter on the deck, and they grab the table right as the previous occupants are getting up to leave. Gwen stacks the dirty plates up before perching down on the edge of her stool.

“So,” she says at length, drawing Arthur’s attention back from where he’s trying to catch the dredlocked waiter’s eye. “It’s Morgana and Merlin’s birthday soon.”

“Tell me about it,” Arthur says with a huff; the joint party planning had been underway for weeks. Arthur had thought that perhaps once the Facebook invitations went out for the Great Gatsby themed bash that they’d settle down, but oh, how wrong he’d been.

“I’m thinking of getting them a joint present. Sort of. Sort of a joint present. And I thought, maybe you could help me buy it? I mean, I will buy it—I don’t mean, um, a joint present from us. Just that. You could probably help me choose it. I mean. If you wanted.”

Arthur blinks. “Shopping?” he asks—there’s a background of sinking dread in that question; he used to have straight girl friends, but had lost a few after he came out when they suddenly assumed that the pinnacle of social time with them was to buy clothes. But mostly, he’s intrigued. “You have ideas?”

“Yes, well…” Gwen rubs her hands briskly on her thighs, and she glances over her shoulder quickly—checking for Morgana, Arthur realises. “Yes. I want to buy them a strap-on.”

Arthur blinks again, sternly instructing his stomach to quit the fluttering, even while his palms go suddenly clammy. He’s not used to this kind of frankness about sex—at least not about sex that isn’t vanilla, as much as he hates that word—even after months of living in The House Of Sexual Positivity and Empowerment (capitalisation care of Morgana). He’s not exactly a prude when it comes to discussing it—he went to an all-boys’ school, for fuck’s sake—but it’s not just the frankness, it’s that the conversations aren’t dripping with a safe buffer of machismo.

Gwen is looking hopeful.

“Doesn’t Morgana already have… one?” he asks, genuinely curious, and at his tone Gwen breaks into a smile; he hadn’t actually picked up on her nervousness until then.

“It’s sort of nice to have special ones for each partner,” she says. “And dildos, totally. It’s kind of a safe sex thing as well, and—”

“Okay,” Arthur blurts, hating how awkward he feels, desperate to feel just as at ease as she does in talking about this. He knows that if she keeps talking, though, he’s not going to be able to keep down his blush.

“They’ve been talking about it, anyway,” Gwen says, “and Morgana does love her toys.”

“I don’t know how much use I’ll be,” Arthur says; it’s not that he doesn’t want to go with her—in fact, he realises, he definitely does—but he doesn’t want to mislead her into thinking that he’ll have any useful input into her decision whatsoever. “I’ve never… exactly… used one. Well, not at all.”

Gwen grins. “That’s all right. I just figured you’d probably know what Merlin would like.”

Arthur frowns a little in confusion.

“It’s a joint present,” she says. “Sort of. I mean, the harness is for her, the toy is for him.”

Arthur finally gets it. “Ah,” he acknowledges, and he’s definitely blushing now; he stares out into the garden in an attempt to get his ridiculous, over-reacting face back under control.

When he looks back at Gwen, she’s bright red as well. She fans her hand at her face and giggles. “Sorry. Sympathy blusher.”

Arthur laughs, surprising himself, and Morgana chooses that moment to stroll onto the deck, seeing them immediately and waving a little as she walks over. She sits down, then reaches over to stroke the backs of her fingers against Gwen’s cheek.

“What have you two been chatting about?” she asks casually, glancing over Gwen’s shoulder as she does so and waving down a waiter with ease.

“Nothing,” Gwen says, then amends, “Just your birthday.”

Morgana smiles, and there’s a weight to it that Arthur would have read as private even a week before; now it just gives him a kind of vicarious joy, and a personal one too: he recognises it. Morgana cups Gwen’s cheek and leans in for a kiss, and this time Arthur doesn’t look away.

*

Gwen meets him after work and they catch the tram out to Brunswick Street, right past all the bars and restaurants and boutique dress shops, to where the tram stops outside Lucrezia & De Sade.

It’s early on a Monday night, so there are no other customers in there; mainly Arthur’s too exhausted from a day in the office to feel relieved about that. Gwen immediately strikes up a conversation with the clerk—who seems more than happy to enter into a cheerful discussion about ‘hardware’—and after a few moments of hovering behind Gwen’s shoulder and staring blankly, Arthur takes himself off to wander around the rest of the store.

It’s only a small shop, walls lined with shelves crammed full of books and DVDs, and a tall island in the middle with all kinds of paraphernalia hanging off the metal mesh display surface. Arthur browses them idly, baulking a little at the size of some of the toys, trying to get his mind from work mode into sex-toy-buying-with-my-boyfriend’s-girlfriend mode. Towards the back of the shop there’s a little nook with leather gear hanging on racks up to the ceiling—gleaming black vests and kilts and jocks and corsets.

Arthur stares at them for a while, trying to imagine himself wearing any of it—or, god, no, that’s not sexy at all—but perhaps Merlin? Arthur huffs in wry amusement; there’s no need for embellishment, Merlin’s wardrobe now is sufficient. The stovepipe pants folded up to leave room for his half-laced boots, the well-worn teeshirt that should look too big but hangs off his narrow chest and angular shoulders just right, even the daggy cardigans with sleeves that end over his knuckles: Merlin wears all of his tatty clothes with the nonchalant grace of a supermodel, and it’s enough as it is to make Arthur weak at the knees.

He shakes his head to brush away the mental revelry, and turns and walks straight into something solid and warm that goes, “Oof.”

It’s another bloke—perhaps a little taller than Arthur, and perhaps a little broader… or perhaps not. And it’s just the lumberjack-leaning-towards-bear look that he’s sporting that makes him seem so… looming. In a good way.

Arthur still has his hands on the guy’s chest from where they’d automatically come up to brace him at the unexpected impact, and the guy’s shirt is soft, the sort of plaid flannelette you buy at the supermarket rather than an actual clothes shop. “Sorry,” Arthur says, making himself back away.

“My fault,” the guy says. His hair is a dirty blond sort of colour, and when he smiles—apologetic and a little sheepish—Arthur has the abrupt urge to scritch the pads of his fingers through the man’s beard. “Thought you were going in there, didn’t expect you to turn around so fast.”

“It’s fine,” Arthur says, a little too quickly, embarrassed at how the guy’s soft gaze is making heat creep up from his neck. He’s in a sex shop, for fuck’s sake, of course he’s a little bit horny; the sudden appearance of a boy-next-door dialling up the feeling is totally unsurprising. “I was totally out of it.” He laughs a little, then cringes inwardly.

Lumberjack guy’s smile gets a little more relaxed. “Not your style?” He asks, nodding past Arthur at the leather. “You seemed to be contemplating it for quite a while.”

“Hah! No.” Arthur shakes his head, figures… well. He is in a sex shop, there’s no use pretending otherwise; surely here, with a backdrop of enormous dildos and whips and chains, he can come out to someone? “I’m here with my… boyfriend’s girlfriend. She wants help buying sex toys for him and her girlfriend. To use. On each other.”

The guy’s eyebrows do odd things for a moment, mouth quirking in wry amusement. “Sounds complicated.”

“It’s not, not really,” Arthur says, feeling himself relax, and realising that it’s true. “Only to explain.”

The guy shrugs. “You seemed to manage it in a sentence or two.”

Gwen chooses that moment to make an appearance again, popping around from the side of the toy display, brandishing a package in each hand. “Arthur! Can you give me your opinion on… Leon!”

As soon as she looks up, her demeanour changes from thoughtfulness to glee, and she flings her arms around the lumberjack guy, making him stagger back a pace or two. “Oh my god, what are you doing in Melbourne? It’s been forever!

The guy—Leon, apparently—laughs, and squeezes Gwen tight enough to lift her off her feet. “I’m on secondment here in the city for a month or two.”

Gwen steps away and smacks one of the packages—clear plastic casing containing a bright purple dildo, Arthur sees—against Leon’s chest. “And you didn’t Facebook me?” Before he can answer, she turns to Arthur again. “Arthur, this is Leon. We practically grew up together.”

“In St Albans?” Arthur asks, unsure of what else to say.

Leon nods. “She’s to blame for a lot of things, really. I shouldn’t be surprised to find you here.”

“Fuck off,” Gwen thwacks him with the dildo again before looking back at Arthur. “My mum used to work late, and we were next-door neighbours. So I’d hang around at Leon’s place after school.”

“She was the first girl to put me in a dress,” Leon says, confessional.

“Ah.” Of course, the thirty second crush Arthur bumps into at the sex shop is Gwen’s childhood friend. Of course. The sharehouse crowd is an incestuous bunch, so now that Arthur’s in the family, he’ll probably never get out. “I’m Arthur, by the way,” he says belatedly, holding out his hand for Leon to shake.

“Oh! I’m sorry,” Gwen exclaims. “Leon, Arthur’s my…”

“Boyfriend’s boyfriend,” Arthur completes.

“Right,” Gwen says, tone inexplicably lowering from its excited pitch. “Anyway, which one?” She holds up both dildos, one purple and one black, each with their own size and shape.

“That one.” Arthur points quickly, praying that Gwen didn’t expect him to give him a detailed explanation as to why—or any explanation at all, really. Certainly not with an audience.

“Great!” She perks up again. “Going to buy this. Want to come for a drink?” She speaks the last to Leon, half-bouncing hopefully on the spot.

Leon’s mouth presses in an apologetic frown. “Can’t, sorry. Other plans.” He glances around the shop pointedly, then back at his watch. “Really, right now, actually.”

“Well, shit,” Gwen says cheerfully, then cranes up on her toes to peck a kiss onto his bearded cheek. “Give your phone number to Arthur, yeah? You can’t escape me that easily.”

“Be happy to,” Leon says, shooting a grin at Arthur. “I ought to know by now that all attempts to escape are futile.” He winks, and Arthur’s not quite sure what to make of it.

Gwen goes to the counter and Arthur hands over his phone. “Good choice, by the way,” Leon says as his thumbs tap on the touchscreen. “Hope your boyfriend likes it.” He hands the phone back.

“Oh, he likes them all,” Arthur says, and then, mortified, “Oh god, that sounded awful.”

Leon’s grinning again. “Not at all. Nothing wrong with honesty. Or liking them all, for that matter.”

“Of course not,” Arthur agrees, still feeling wrong-footed.

“See you later?”

“Sure, I’ll give Gwen your number.”

Leon laughs a little, as if there’s a joke that Arthur’s not getting. “Look forward to it. Gotta go.” And he strides out of the shop.

*

Arthur’s phone goes when they’re on the tram heading northwards and home. When it first buzzes against his thigh he assumes that it’s a message from Leon—because of course, Arthur’s the kind of guy who only realises after the fact that he’s being flirted with.

The message is from Merlin, though. where r youse? footy n burgers in edinb gdns.

Arthur tilts the screen towards Gwen to show her, and she looks quickly out the window and back, taking the phone off him and rapidly typing, on tram past piedemontes.

get off, Merlin returns in an instant, and Arthur stands to yank down the cord, making the buzzer chirp.

They hop off at the next stop and head back southward through the wide, terraced streets of North Fitzroy. The streets are quiet this long after rush hour, at least of human noise; every so often they pass a palm tree or eucalypt whose canopy hides a flock of lorikeets chirruping out their raucous pre-sunset chorus. After a few blocks, the street they’re on spokes down to the rounded top of the Gardens, its huge elms rising impressively against the early evening sky, branches still thick with green leaves.

Where r u? Arthur texts.

playground near dog lawn, look 4 goal posts

He and Gwen walk down the stately avenues, past the empty plinth for the missing Queen Victoria. Arthur spots the goalposts first—clearly the patchy, well-trod oval gets more use from impromptu games, rather than the fancy fenced-off one on the other side of the park. Enough dogs to make up a pack cavort on the lawn on the other side of the path, the city rising serenely beyond, glassy buildings gleaming like polished metal in the golden light of the sinking sun.

“Oh, fuck me,” Gwen says abruptly, clutching his arm.

Arthur whips his head around, looking for what’s startled her. “What?”

“Over there, by the playground.”

Arthur looks, but it’s just to see familiar figures standing around near the bike rails; Merlin leaning back against one—his fixie chained to the other side of it—with his arms folded over his chest, Gwaine bouncing a football expertly on the asphalt path, and Morgana with her hands on her hips nearby, chatting to some other dark-haired bloke that Arthur doesn’t recognise. Morgana’s facing in their direction, and as Arthur scrutinises them for a hint of what’s got Gwen digging her fingers into his arm, Morgana catches sight of them and waves.

A moment later, the guy Morgana’s standing with seems to see them too; his arm lifts in a hesitant wave as well.

Gwen moans. “That bitch.”

“What?”

“That’s Lance.”

“As in…”

“As in Lance from the co-op. Who I have an enormous crush on. Who Morgana knows I have an enormous crush on.”

Arthur can hear the underlying delight in her mournful tone, and he smirks. “How awful for you.”

“You have no idea.”

She makes a beeline for them, and Arthur watches as she enfolds Lancelot in a no-holds-barred hug immediately. He wanders over to Merlin.

“Hey, you,” Merlin says cheerfully, hands smoothing up Arthur’s lapels and then gripping them to pull him in for a kiss that’s over far too quickly.

“I believe I was promised burgers,” Arthur says haughtily, not backing out of Merlin’s personal space.

“Footy first, Danny’s after,” Merlin says firmly.

“You can’t expect me to play in a suit,” Arthur protests.

Merlin reaches behind him, yanking forward the bag that must have been tucked in the milk crate strapped to the back of his bike. It’s Arthur’s sports bag. Merlin tilts his head towards the public toilets across the way, and Arthur sighs, feeling about as resentful as Gwen did for Morgana bringing Lance along. So he takes the bag.

“If I die of some horrible public toilet related disease, I’m blaming you,” he warns Merlin.

“Fuck off, you ponce,” Merlin says on a laugh. “Those toilets are probably cleaner than half the lecture theatres you’ve been sitting in for the past four years.”

“Not in the law school, they aren’t,” Arthur retorts. “Don’t know what it’s like for you filthy arts students.”

“I said, fuck off,” Merlin says around a grin, shoving him in the direction of the toilets. “Unless you want me to throw you down now, pretty suit and all?”

“I love it when you talk dirty,” Arthur says, mainly just to rile him, and it works; Merlin chases him half the way across the lawn.

By the time he walks back to them—feeling far more comfortable in teeshirt and trackies, suit folded into the bag as carefully as possible—they’ve already picked teams. Arthur’s with Merlin and Gwen; Lancelot, Gwaine and Morgana forming their opposition.

“Is that a Collingwood jersey?” Arthur asks incredulously as he watches Morgana do elaborate stretches that he’s half-sure are meant to look intimidating.

“Carn the ’pies!” she roars in response, startling a laugh out of him that tapers off when he realises how deadly serious she is.

By the time she knocks him down with a running tackle for the fourth time, he’s less amused by it, especially after watching Lance gradually take more liberties with ‘tackling’ Gwen, her helpless giggles getting louder and louder every time.

Arthur just feels more and more bruised. “Come on,” he says in desperation as Morgana takes him down again, this time straddling his chest with her knees pinning his arms to the ground, her spine victoriously straight. “Don’t you think you’re maybe taking this a little bit too seriously?”

She bares her teeth in something he thinks is meant to be amusement, and he goes still and quivery, like a baby rabbit caught in the shadow of an eagle, as she swoops down until her face is scant centimetres from his. “Don’t you think you might be playing for the wrong team?” she says, just loud enough for him to hear it though her voice far from soft; and then she dismounts and struts off, fists in the air.

Merlin helps him up this time, helpfully patting the grass and dead leaves off Arthur’s arse. “She hates me,” Arthur can’t help but blurt, and, “Can I have my hamburger now? Can I?” Saturday morning grammar school soccer had never been this vicious.

“There, there,” Merlin says kindly. “She’s just pulling your pigtails.”

“Merlin, you think everyone is flirting all the time.”

Merlin shrugs. “Mostly, everyone is.”

“It must be nice in your head.” Arthur didn’t mean for that to come out without any of the fondness that seasons their usual teasing, and Merlin looks at him, gaze sharper than it was moments before.

“Mostly, it is.”

Before Arthur can respond, the game starts up again.

“Oi, Mezza, keep your eyes on the ball!” Gwaine goads from half-way across the oval, jogging forward as he lines up for a kick.

“Are you fucking serious? Gwazza?” Merlin shouts back, ignoring the footy as the kick goes wide; Gwen catches it in her arms and woops victoriously.

“Yeah, Merlin’s always got his eyes on the balls!” she crows. “Arthur, pay some fucking attention!”

Arthur manages to get into position just as she’s passing the ball to him, moments before Lance tumbles her to the ground again. Arthur only gets to the chance to take a couple of steps, though, because instant later he’s down, Morgana’s weight bearing down on his back and the ball bouncing off erratically out of Arthur’s sight.

“You never learn, do you?” Morgana whispers gleefully, breath hot against his ear.

“You will pay,” he mutters as she clambers off again and he can finally get his breath back. He climbs to his feet to find her still dancing around a few paces away.

“I look forward to it.” She winks, then skips backwards rapidly, eyes focused beyond him and up; the ball falls gracefully into her arms.

*

Somehow, Arthur’s Tuesday is even shittier than his Monday, which just goes against the way of the universe.

His usual tram is running late, which means that by the time it arrives, it’s to trundle straight past his stop without pause, packed to the gills. The next two stop, but are too full to get on, so by the time he finally gets to work—forty-five minutes late and having travelled there without any personal space whatsoever—he’s already feeling stressed out and persecuted by the world at large.

The look the legal assistant gives him is sympathetic—she’s bottom of the ladder but for him, so naturally she’s the only one who treats him remotely like a human being—and the look one of the partners gives him as she nearly bumps into him coming out of the lift is deeply unimpressed.

But Arthur has more filing to do that can be done in a century, so he just resolves to put his head down and try to make it to lunchtime with at least some sense of achievement.

That goal lasts until it’s epically derailed at about ten-thirty, when Arthur catches movement out of the corner of his eye and looks up curiously to see—Leon.

Time seems to slow down for a moment. Arthur can hear the rushing progress of his blood flowing up to his face and making his head throb, and then just as speedily crashing down, a lead wait in his belly. He feels a little numb at the shock, but at least it means he can keep his expression from showing the sudden inner turmoil he’s been thrown into, as the legal assistant leads Leon over.

“And this is Arthur,” she says. “Sorry Arthur, we already did the formal introductions this morning before you got in. This is Leon, here on secondment from Canberra for the next month or two.”

Leon looks completely different in a suit—more greenie pollie than rustic lumberjack, and his is handshake impressively firm. Naturally, his hand is warm and dry where Arthur’s is no doubt clammy, but but he doesn’t say or do anything to indicate that he already met Arthur yesterday, in a sex shop for fuck’s sake, where Arthur told him all about the sordid details of is love life before he even knew his name. It makes the solid weight in Arthur’s belly suddenly surge again into hope, and it’s all he can do not to ruin it all by clinging to Leon in gratitude.

“Arthur’s interning,” the assistant explains, oblivious to Arthur’s gibbering mental state as she turns her focus back on him. “Helen’s due back at eleven for our meeting, you don’t mind running down and grabbing us coffees, do you?”

“Of course not,” Arthur says blankly, humiliation now added to the tumult of emotions hell bent on making him nauseous. He drags over a pad of post-its and lifts a pen, looking down at it instead of Leon when he asks, “Leon, was it? What can I get you?”

“Latte, double shot, please,” Leon says.

Arthur scribbles down something unintelligible, then stabs the end of the pen into the desk to retract the nib again. “Right, back in a bit,” he declares with as much enthusiasm as he can muster, and is up and striding away before the assistant can even thank him.

The best thing to happen to him so far that day is that the lift doors open pretty much as soon as he presses the button, and as soon as he steps in he’s frantically jabbing the button to close them. It’s not until he gets out into the atrium—all chilly marble and complete lack of ceiling—that he realises he’s left his jacket on the back of his chair. He hovers uncertainly with one foot lifted in the air when he realises, then curses himself anew and keeps walking, striding right past the cafe planted near the entrance and through the revolving doors.

It’s even colder outside, the biting autumn wind slanting down Collins Street, and Arthur crosses his arms and finally lets the “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” trapped behind his teeth seethe out. The scrape of dried leaves along the asphalt pavement mask the sound of him cursing—though the only person likely to hear it is the fluoro-shirted courier jogging up the steps a couple of meters away, who looks like he’s got his own problems to be going on with. Arthur takes a deep breath and climbs the slope up to the 7-11 on the corner.

Less than two minutes later and his fingers are numb but his chest is hot, burning with his lungful of cigarette smoke that he expels abruptly again on a cough. The only other occupant of the alleyway is a greasy cookie perched on a milk crate, and he gives Arthur a sympathetic look as Arthur hands back the borrowed lighter. Hot air that smells like dumpling fart blasts out of a vent nearby, and though the heat of it becomes appealing as soon as his sense of smell becomes overwhelmed with the cigarette smoke, Arthur makes himself stand out of its way, so as not to return to the office smelling worse than he’s already going to.

It takes a pitifully small amount of time to get to the filter, and Arthur stomps the butt under the slippery sole of his leather shoe with far more viciousness than it probably deserves.

Then he goes to get the coffees.

*

It’s not until late in the afternoon that Leon approaches Arthur’s desk again.

“Hey,” he says. “Coffee?”

“I can show you how to use the machine, if you like,” Arthur begins reluctantly—not that Helen doesn’t have him make her cappuccinos several times a day, but the rest of the staff tend to make their own, thank god.

“Oh, god no,” Leon laughs. “I mean, let me buy you one. Downstairs?” And, before Arthur can protest, “Helen suggested it, so we might as well take advantage of the skiving time until at least five.”

The cafe is quiet at this hour, just a few people in suits either paired in meetings or staring down at their own overflowing portfolios. The shrieking sounds of grinding beans and steaming milk, trebled in the echoey space, mean Arthur and Leon have to shout their orders to the cheerful baristas. The small table they end up choosing is far enough from the bar that there’s no need to raise their voices for conversation, though.

“So,” Leon starts. “This is a bit of a coincidence.”

Arthur huffs a pretence of a laugh. “It’s certainly unexpected.”

“You’re not out at work, then, I take it.”

Arthur frowns, watching as the crema in his flat white disperses with the steady circuit of his spoon. “Didn’t really seem like it was worth it.” Which is… almost the truth. Part of the truth. Maybe.

“What, to tell them you’re queer, or that you’re poly?”

Arthur puts down his spoon and wraps his hand around his cup, the hot ceramic scalding on his cold fingers. “Why should there be telling? No one’s ever asked, what difference would it make?”

“And what would you tell them, if they asked?”

Arthur looks up at Leon again, struggling not to glare, though he’s not sure why he shouldn’t. He’s managed many a cutting remark in response to far subtler inquiries into his personal life, but somehow—perhaps because that first urge to be frank with Leon in Lucrezia & De Sade had flipped some switch in his head—he wants to have this conversation.

Arthur shrugs. “As far as I can see, there are degrees of truth. They know I live in a sharehouse. If someone pressed, I’d tell them I live with my boyfriend in a sharehouse.”

The corner of Leon’s mouth curls; not quite a smirk. “And your boyfriend’s girlfriends.”

Arthur takes a sip of his coffee. “That’s the next degree. The one before it isn’t a lie, exactly.”

“Right.” Leon lifts his own cup, holding it in front of his mouth after taking his first, savouring sip.

It’s hard to read his silence as anything but judgment, and Arthur feels his jaw start to tighten. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming you didn’t exactly come out during your ‘formal introduction’ this morning.”

“You’re right,” Leon smiles a little. “If you don’t say anything people just go ahead and make assumptions.”

Arthur sits back. “Go on, then. I won’t assume. Gay or straight?”

Leon raises an eyebrow—in amusement, to Arthur’s relief, rather than offence. “None of the above.”

“Bi?”

Leon looks at him for a moment, as if weighing his answer up. “I don’t really think of it like that.”

“All right then: who are you attracted to?”

Leon picks up his cup again then sprawls back comfortably, as if he’s deeply enjoying himself. “Good people.”

“That’s fairly standard, though,” Arthur reasons, “Surely there’s a type you have somewhere in there, even if it’s not something stuck to a gender. What do you go out looking for?”

Leon sips his coffee, thoughtful. He swallows and looks outside past Arthur’s shoulder for a few moments longer before returning his gaze to Arthur’s eyes. “Someone to be loyal to.”

Arthur’s not quite sure what to say to that. For all that his questioning had a tone of flippancy, he finds himself genuinely interested, but he hadn’t expected that sort of answer.

“That’s… I was waiting for you to give me a singles ad list there, to be honest. You know, seeking someone who loves to read, with sense of humour and great arse. But that’s… Getting pretty D&M about it.” Arthur frowns, mildly perplexed. “You hardly even know me.”

Leon shrugs, unconcerned. “There’s no shame in honesty,” he says. “So why not just say what you really mean?”

Arthur laughs. Because it makes it really hard for me to tell if you’re flirting or not, he doesn’t say aloud, but when Leon catches his eye again and holds it as he grins, it’s kind of hard to misread.

Arthur swirls his coffee around in the bottom of his cup, looking down at the cooling liquid. “I have a boyfriend,” he says, watching as he sets his cup carefully back on the saucer.

“Yes, I gathered that.” Leon’s tone is dry, and his expression a bit skeptical when Arthur lifts his gaze again. “But since when is loyalty the sole purview of monogamy?”

Arthur blinks. “Fair point,” he admits. “But then there’s the not-so-small matter of sleeping with people you work with. That’s kind of a deciding factor, for me. Especially here.” He says the last with more feeling than he intends, and gulps down the last of his coffee to hide it.

Leon leans forward again. “It’s that bad?”

Arthur nods, the aftertaste of hot milk and bitter coffee souring on his tongue. “Not that I can complain, really,” he says, unable to keep the sharp edge from his tone. He grimaces. “I suppose they probably already told you about me today.”

“About what in particular?” The hints of flirtation have gone from Leon’s demeanour, but at least he’s not shutting down entirely; just watching Arthur impassively.

“Well, my evil overlord father, for one,” Arthur says, “And my horrible coffee-making skills. I just can’t seem to master that steam wand.” The joke falls entirely flat, naturally; Arthur’s laughter sounds off to his own ears.

“I did wonder,” Leon admits, “what you were doing here.”

“What, instead of living it up as heir of a multi-billion dollar media empire?”

“More what you were doing here, specifically. To be honest, I’m not surprised that a firm specialising in industrial relations is a bit prickly towards a Pendragon. Surely with your grandmother’s connections, you could have got placement with a firm specialising in not-for-profit law?” When Arthur’s silent for long moments, Leon adds, “I mean, sorry, I just assumed with the rest of your family—”

“No,” Arthur shakes his head, surprised at his own vehemence. His chest feels solid with the deep breath he’s taken. “That assumption was right, but… I hate assumptions,” he confesses, air rushing out of him with the words, “that I’m straight, that I’m just going to climb the ladder my family left leaning up for me, all of it.” He feels weary, all of a sudden, his limbs heavy. He drops his gesturing hand back to the table. “I’m just trying to do it myself.”

He blinks up at Leon, who’s watching him with a hint of amusement—which makes the sympathetic twist to his mouth much easier to bear. Rather than offended, Arthur just feels relieved. He thinks maybe that’s the first time he’s actually come out and said it, and it’s to a relative stranger, no less. As much as he likes (loves) Merlin, Arthur feels suffocated at times by the vastness of difference between them—which is never enough to stop what they have working, but is nonetheless this overwhelming barrier to Arthur ever being able to talk to him about this aspect of his life, at least not properly.

“Most people just think I’m a spoilt brat going through a rebellious phase,” Arthur blurts out, half horrified at himself, and half surfing gleefully along the deluge of honesty caused by the opening of these particular floodgates.

“Must be hard,” Leon says shortly. “I suppose it’s worth putting yourself through miserable situations like this—” he tilts his head upwards, in the general direction of their office, floors above— “to prove them wrong, then?”

Arthur huffs. “Well, since my father cut me off I’m not exactly in a position where what people think of me doesn’t matter.”

“But—” Leon looks confused, leaning forward in his chair again. “Yeah, well maybe a little bit, but… You live with Gwen, for fuck’s sake. Surely you’re at least on track to surrounding yourself with people who don’t actually give a fuck about what your job is or how you got there, or whether or not you have money, or where the fuck you came from!” He throws up his hands and slumps back again.

“It’s not that easy,” Arthur says stiffly, as if by rote, needing to respond to Leon’s unexpected intensity but frankly, requiring far more time to process before he can figure out how.

Leon huffs a short laugh and shakes his head, looking at Arthur and smiling wryly. “It’s your life, mate.”

*

“Gwen says he’s like a giant teddy bear,” Merlin says through a mouthful of foam, lifting an eyebrow at Arthur in the mirror. He leans down to spit in the pink enamel basin, the knobs of his spine standing out of his bowed back like a H.R Giger illustration. Arthur frowns; Merlin sees the expression when he rises again, and grins cheekily. “I’m sure he’d be open to a little cuddle or two, when work’s getting you down.”

“Piss off, it’s not happening,” Arthur says, flicking the back of Merlin’s ear.

Merlin flinches, then pouts and rubs at the hurt. “I’m just saying, at least you have a buddy there now. Someone to go out for ‘important coffee meetings’ with, and, you know. Bitch about how much of a wanker everyone else is.”

Arthur elbows him out of the way of the basin, searching for his own toothbrush amongst the forest of them bristling out of the chipped mug on the vanity. He finds it, and pinches the last smidgeon of his paste on. “I’m only going to be there for another few days.” He shoves the toothbrush into his mouth and starts scrubbing intently.

Merlin, typically, refuses to properly get out of the way, and instead wriggles around in the narrow space to wrap his monkey-like arms around Arthur’s waist, angling to avoid the energetic pump of Arthur’s elbow as he brushes. He doesn’t respond to Arthur’s last comment, and it’s a little while—of staring at his own troubled expression in the mirror—before Arthur realises that it’s because Merlin’s staring in the mirror too, looking at the splay of his own hands over Arthur’s belly.

Arthur snorts, then leans down to spit. Merlin’s hands slide to his hipbones, squeezing and pulling him back a little into Merlin’s hips as he folds over. Arthur shakes his head as he rises, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, and Merlin barely moves back an inch as Arthur turns around.

“Then what?” Merlin asks at last, his face as close as he can get and still focus his gaze, his breath minty and unavoidable.

“Then I get totally shitfaced, have a week off, sleep, start a new semester.”

“And madly shag Leon as soon as your star-crossed love is no longer forbidden by the hideous spectre of ‘professionalism’?”

Arthur feels his mouth press uncertainly, and he looks down at the saggy neck of Merlin’s teeshirt, his hands fiddling with the draping hem over Merlin’s hips.

“What?” Merlin asks, fond but not teasing. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to?”

Arthur doesn’t look up, but doesn’t step back, either; giving himself a few moments to get his thoughts into order and figure out what he wants to say. “What would it mean if I did? Want to, I mean.”

They had talked about this before Arthur moved in—before then, even, when they’d decided to make it more than casual, to have an actual agreement with rules and things. But Arthur’s never had the urge to be anything but monogamous before in his handful of relationships, as bland as they’d all seemed. He’s never had anything like this before, certainly nothing this serious, and there was no doubt—and no resentment—in his mind that he wanted to stick with it when they’d talked about just who Merlin was allowed to sleep with.

Merlin slips his arms around Arthur’s torso and scratches his fingers up and down Arthur’s back. “Then you should go for it, totally. And you know I’d love to hear about it.”

Arthur feels a bit unexpectedly overcome about that. “I hadn’t really thought about it before,” he says—and finds that it’s the truth, actually. He’d kind of idly imagined what it might be like in an objective sort of way, but never as something that he could actually do—or want to do. For some reason, he’d not really imagined the opportunity would even come up.

He might even be completely over-thinking this entire thing; Leon is friendly because he grew up with Gwen, and feels sorry for Arthur being closeted at work. “It might not even happen… I mean, ever.” He laughs a little. “I mean, it’s not like I’d go out looking for anyone.”

Merlin laughs, arms tightening until he’s pressing Arthur’s chest to his, and he kisses the tip of Arthur’s nose. “You’re such a dork.”

“What?”

“Well, you’ve already got a whole freaking household of people here dying to get into your knickers, and you’re getting all pitiful thinking about how it’ll never happen because you’d have to find someone?”

Arthur’s voice is stuck somewhere in his throat, a solid obstruction he has to swallow, hard, before he can catch his breath again. “What?”

Merlin’s hand slides up Arthur’s back to curl softly around Arthur’s nape, his nails scraping lightly against the sensitive skin before he grips gently, guiding Arthur’s head forward a little. His lips brush along the line of Arthur’s jaw before his hot breath puffs against Arthur’s ear. “Well, Gwen has such an enormous crush that it’s frankly surprising that she hasn’t jumped you already. And Morgana has shared with me in great detail exactly what she’d like to do should she ever get you into her bed.”

Merlin’s whisper sends a prickling rush of heat down Arthur’s neck and up to his face, and his his breath stutters in his chest; he’s unsure as to whether he’s embarrassed or turned on.

“I suppose they’re perfectly fine with you sharing their pillow talk, then,” he says lightly. Finally needing his personal space back, he pushes Merlin away, squeezing Merlin’s waist apologetically even as he does. Merlin steps back, smiling wryly, and it turns into something far too close to pity for Arthur’s comfort when Merlin sees his red face.

“At least, keep it in mind, all right?” The hand on the back of Arthur’s neck slips down to his chest as he draws away, and Merlin grips the front of his shirt and gives him a light shake. “Because it is all right, yeah?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Arthur says, stepping around him, praying he’ll at least manage to avoid the girls for the rest of the morning; he’s not sure he could keep the knowledge of what Merlin’s told him off his face.

*

Even though Leon behaves with nothing but the utmost professionalism—which Arthur can’t quite figure out if he’s relieved or disappointed about—the week passes more quickly with a friendly face in the office, which is blessed relief as Arthur feels constantly aware that he’s on the home stretch. By Friday morning he’s already relaxing as if his last day’s already over, and it’s a good thing most of his tasks are mindless as it is; he’s constantly distracted by thoughts of waking up tomorrow morning with the knowledge that he has an entire week to do whatever the hell he wants, the Gatsby party the only thing in his schedule, seeing the week out in style before it’s back to uni again.

The weather is oddly warm considering it’s the last third of autumn. The wind gusted all night, pulling the sounds of cars driving down their street into odd directions, making Arthur half-wake up several times in anxious confusion. He was buffeted violently by it on his walk to the tram, and been glad he wasn’t carrying an umbrella then, but through the plate glass windows of the high rise office, it looks as if the slate-grey clouds are heading right towards them. And quickly. Peering down at the street, he can see from the angle of pedestrians’ bodies that the wind is just as powerful as it was this morning, and the murky atmosphere feels heavy with the threat of breaking over the city, even from indoors.

Arthur calls Merlin in his lunch break.

“Hey,” Merlin answers. “Can’t talk for long, in between student meetings. How’s your last day?”

“Can’t end quick enough,” Arthur replies. “Did you ride today?”

“Yeah, course.”

“And you didn’t get blown right off?” Arthur can almost picture it; Merlin’s style of riding is already not unlike a bit of flotsam drifting along the wind currents.

“Nope. Though I probably won’t ride home.”

“You’ve seen the clouds, then.”

“What clouds? I’ve been in the cell all day.” Merlin sighs—the cell being his tiny, windowless office. Arthur had almost given him a conciliatory blow job in there in an attempt to make it a more pleasant place to spend time in, but they’d been interrupted by the other PhD student who shared the office with him—who had seemed unfazed, but then proceeded to engage Merlin in an apparently very important discussion on themes of sex negativity in Buffy.

Merlin occasionally mentions a blow job rematch, and sometimes when they’re in bed in the dark he likes to whisper filthy things in Arthur’s ear about wanking in there thinking about it. Arthur’s passed some boring afternoons in the filing compactors thinking of it, too.

“Looks like it’s going to storm later, or at least bucket down,” Arthur says.

“I have a thing on tonight, so I’ll probably taxi home, depending what time we finish up,” Merlin says. “Come out drinking with me? We’re starting early. Probably at uni.”

“Maybe,” Arthur says—and it’s his last day, so fuck it: “Probably. Yeah. I’ll call you?”

“Definitely,” Merlin says. “You should, I want you to, you definitely should. I feel like we haven’t been out in ages.” He gets more enthused as he goes on, and it would probably warm Arthur a little bit more if he didn’t know that tonight will probably wind up with he and Merlin drinking together, yes, but also Merlin surrounded by a whole crowd of his uni mates as well, talking about things that Merlin finds deeply entertaining, but that Arthur generally doesn’t. He has been out drinking with Merlin at uni before, after all, he knows what to expect from the arts graduates crowd. Sometimes just seeing Merlin enjoying himself is enough to keep Arthur’s buzz going, but other times he just needs someone—needs Merlin—to give him attention.

“It’s been at least two weeks,” Arthur agrees, amused. “Try not to get too hammered before I get there?”

“Yep,” Merlin says. “Gotta go. Love ya, bye!”

It’s mid-afternoon when Arthur’s phone goes off again—the screen lighting up with Unknown, indicating a blocked number as it buzzes on the desk. He picks it up and jogs to the staff kitchen, relieved that half the office seems to either be in court or skived off early. He slides his finger across the screen to answer the call.

“Hello, Arthur speaking.”

“Hello Arthur, it’s Melanie calling from Tintagel, how are you?”

“Good thanks, and you?” he asks on autopilot, even as is stomach drops. Melanie is his grandmother’s assistant, and it’s been weeks since he’s been to Tintagel—months since the contact has been anything but big family occasions arranged via official email, so a call from her now must mean—

“Dame Nimueh would very much like to see you. Are you available this evening?”

“Of course,” Arthur says without pause—few things trump granny’s call when it comes to degrees of availability. “Just let me know what time.”

“We’ll expect you for a meal at Tintagel at six,” she says.

“Six at Tintagel. Thanks.”

They exchange polite goodbyes and Arthur hangs up, heart pounding; all at once resentful and grateful for the short notice. He’s got no time to get changed into anything smarter—though a bespoke suit should be sufficient, he reminds himself scathingly—nor to mentally prepare. But at the same time, he’s only got an hour or so to tie himself up in knots.

The almost-full packet of cigarettes is still in his desk, and he’s pulling the drawer open and reaching for it before reminding himself that he doesn’t want to turn up to Tintagel with his bespoke suit reeking of smoke. He slumps back down onto his chair and props his elbows up on the desk, dropping his head into his hands, realising that he might as well just write off the rest of the work day completely.

“Everything okay?”

Arthur looks up to see Leon standing at his desk, looking part concerned but mostly amused. Arthur drops his hands down again and tugs his chair in, dragging his keyboard closer and absently aligning it with the edge of his desk.

“Yes, fine, just…” Despite their discussion earlier in the week, something in Arthur rebels at the thought even giving Leon the vaguest explanation of family troubles. Part of it is bred-in instinct: the Pendragons have always been profoundly private, despite their public stature. But more than that… He wants Leon to like him. Doesn’t want to be complaining to him every five minutes, especially with things like, Woe is me, I’ve been called to the family mansion to dine with my illustrious and frankly awe-inspiring grandmother. “Friday afternoon. All gets a bit much, doesn’t it?”

Leon smiles. “Yeah. Look, I’m off to see a client, but do you fancy a drink after work? Might give you a chance to debrief.” His smile gets a little cheekier.

Oh, god. Arthur’s stomach lurches in thwarted eagerness. Any other night. “Sorry. Plans I can’t get out of.”

“Never mind, then. Another time.” Leon taps his fingers quickly against Arthur’s desk, and walks on.

“Hang on, wait—” Arthur calls after him, standing up, and Leon turns around. “How about—” Now, now is when Arthur needs to flirt, to respond to Leon’s invitation with a suggestion in kind. He sucks in a deep breath. “Merlin and Morgana are having a joint party next Friday.” Perfect. The intimate setting of an enormous sharehouse fancy dress party. He feels like an idiot standing there at his desk, the adrenaline of his aborted attempt draining away and just leaving him feeling pitiful. “If you’d like to come?”

Leon smiles again. “Gwen invited me. I’ll see you there, yeah?”

“Yeah, right, of course.”

Leon gives a little wave, and heads out of the office.

Arthur falls back down to his chair again. There’s practically no one left but him, anyway, so he gives in and rests his head on his desk with a groan.

*

Southern Cross Station is full of weary-looking people in business suits and drab work-casual garb. Looking into the enormous, cavernous space from the entryway at Spencer Street, they all seem like tiny subjects in a tilt-shift miniature, crawling along the escalators, scurrying across the huge expanse of paving.

It’s up and down three sets of escalators to get to the platform for a train to Hawksburn, where Arthur waits on the dark, clean asphalt with dozens of other dazed-looking passengers. A V-Line train thunders through the platform without stopping, the roar of its long-distance engines obliterating all other sound, and once it’s passed Arthur’s almost surprised to see that his fellow commuters haven’t been pulled along in its slipstream like tumbleweeds.

Naturally, the train is running late, and the fifteen minute ride he anticipated stretches out; he should be off the train and walking through the cultured streets of Toorak to Tintagel by now. Finally, after the display screen switches to an entirely different service—to the audible dismay of almost everyone on the platform—and back again, the five-thirty to Frankston finally arrives.

The seats are all full within moments of the doors opening, but Arthur’s too restless to sit down anyway, and he stands uneasily by the opposite doors as the train lurches off. Late as he is already, once the train is moving his punctuality is out of his hands; the twisting nervousness in his belly turns his thoughts to just what his grandmother might want to talk to him about.

One hand in his pocket, clenched around the solid glass of his phone, and the other holding a rail above his head for balance, Arthur weighs up calling Merlin. While Merlin was used to him working late and no doubt didn’t expect to hear from him until much later; some sympathy and a fond, familiar voice could help regain Arthur’s equilibrium.

The train stops at Flinders Street and a wave commuters pile on, at least twice as many as there were at Southern Cross. Arthur’s crammed into a corner with people crowding in at him from all sides; there’s no way he’s getting out his phone to call his boyfriend for an emergency pep-talk when there are at least four other people in his personal space, and five times that many within eavesdropping range.

By the time he manages to force his way out of the press of bodies at Hawksburn, the dark, corpulent clouds that had been rolling toward the city for most of the afternoon are weighing down directly above. The air feels thick and oppressive, and the first fat drops of rain ooze down through it like sweat. Arthur leaves the station starts walking at a fast clip, pulling out his phone as he goes.

The glass is hot against Arthur’s ear from holding it in his fist, but Merlin’s phone rings just a few times before changing to the trio of beeps that means the call’s been rejected—and naturally, Merlin’s on a tightarse prepaid plan that doesn’t include voicemail. Arthur scowls at the phone, refusing to let himself catastrophise. He’s got other things to worry about, after all: his phone’s showing the time at 6.03, and he’s at least a fifteen minutes away from Tintagel. He starts jogging.

The security passcode he hasn’t used for months still works at the gate, and breathless as he already is, in the stifling humidity of the air, he starts to sweat on the final leg up the hill to where the enormous house sits. The day lists on the cusp of twilight, darkened further by the ominous clouds, and the garden’s old, European trees rise dark and austere around him. The driveway curves around gracefully and there, finally, is the house: its warmly-lit windows staring benevolently over the city, as if imbued with the generous spirit of the Pendragons who have occupied it for generations.

Melanie answers the door—she’s butler as much as PA—and while she accepts Arthur’s apologies for being late with a forgiving smile, he cringes inwardly as her eyes flit over the wet splats on the shoulders of his suit. “Started raining at last, has it?” she asks politely, stepping aside to let him in.

The front hall is lined with portraits of Arthur’s forbears, gazing out serenely from the gleam of oil paint, and the resonance of his footsteps on the polished wood floor is muffled by the well-trod Persian rug. Arthur half-hopes that Melanie leads him right down the hall and around to the back of the house, where the more modest kitchen and dining room look out onto a different kind of garden. The lawn there was never as closely clipped, and the ground tilted on with a more gentle slope. It was bordered with lavender and daphne bushes at just the right height for a five-year-old to crush flowers in his chubby fist to release their intoxicating scent. Arthur wonders if it’s changed much since he was young enough for his father to leave him here for visits with his grandmother.

Despite his wishful thinking, Melanie stops before the door to the formal dining room, gesturing Arthur inside. The table is set but unoccupied; one place at the head and another adjacent to it. Arthur takes the seat to the side, allowing himself one last moment of wishing he’d gone home to change his suit; or caught a taxi so he hadn’t been late and rained on; or managed to get through to Merlin for some innuendo-laden reassurance—then lets it go on his exhale, and waits for his grandmother.

Within minutes she’s walking through the door, smiling fondly and holding her hands out to him. “Arthur. There you are, at last.”

“Sorry I’m late,” he says, standing again and going to take her hands, leaning down for her to press a kiss to his cheek. “It’s good to see you.” And it is—the last time he’d seen her face it had been staring down from her grand portrait in the benefactors hall at the gallery (Arthur hadn’t been able to help but stare, but he’d tried to hide it, not wanting to attract Merlin and Gwen’s attention to it), and she looks even more impressive in person. Ageing well is in the Pendragon genes, apparently; though with the number of times he’s been told he resembles his mother, Arthur feels like he shouldn’t place too much faith in inheriting it. Dame Nimueh looks barely old enough to even be a grandmother, her dark hair only peppered with grey and her face relatively smooth; she still moves with the grace of someone with far fewer years of wear upon them.

“Was traffic terrible?” she asks, gesturing for him to sit down; he does, after holding her chair out for her.

“I caught the train, actually.”

“Ah. Well, good to think of the environment and all that,” she says, recovering after a moment.

Arthur thinks it best not to tell her that he doesn’t even own a car, instead just nodding in response. It’s not long before another member of his grandmother’s staff brings through the first course, and Arthur feels guilty anew for holding up proceedings.

They make small talk about Arthur’s studies, and his internship—which is much easier to speak positively of now that he never has to go back there, ever—and the latest news of his cousins’ endeavours, philanthropic and otherwise. When Arthur expresses his polite surprise about being invited for a private dinner, instead of being here with the rest of his cousins for one of the usual, sprawling family catchups that are held at Tintagel roughly every quarter, Dame Nimueh reaches over and rests her hand briefly on his wrist. “Well, with your father abroad, I do like to keep an eye on you, make sure you’re getting along all right,” she says kindly.

Arthur looks down at the last few morsels remaining of the perfectly-cooked salmon steak on his plate, his appetite receding.

“I am getting along, Granny,” he says, though suddenly, awfully, he feels the thickness of threatening tears in his throat; he can’t even look up to meet her eyes.

“I was talking to Monty at the Trust—you know there’s always work for you there, if you’re after experience in the field, and he could give you far more interesting things to do that would no doubt provide you with enough to live more comfortably. You’re studying so hard, Arthur, you needn’t—”

“I—thank you.” Arthur cuts her off with as much politeness as he can manage. “It is quite all right, really. I’m—my situation is quite comfortable.”

She gives him one last pat and withdraws her hand, and when he feels composed enough to lift his head again, she’s watching him thoughtfully. She swallows her mouthful of food, takes a sip from her wine glass, and says, “I do worry about you, my dear. You are like your father, you know—so set on his own ideas about how he should be doing things. It wasn’t until your mother came along that he reached the right kind of balance. They really did compliment each other splendidly.” She sets down the glass again, her smile turning sympathetic and hopeful all at once. “I only hope you can find the same kind of support. I suppose there are lots of clever young ladies reading law at the university as well?”

Arthur takes a mouthful of his own wine, and he has to swallow hard to wash down the solid lump of tasteless food at the back of his throat. “I’ve not seen any other students for a while,” he says. “Back at uni the week after next.”

“Well, do keep your eyes open. And bring her for a visit when you’re ready. You know, the first time I met your mother I knew she would bring great things into Uther’s life.” Her smile fades a little, sadness creeping in at the edges, and Arthur’s almost grateful for it; if she’s preoccupied with it enough, perhaps she’ll read his body language as self-consciousness rather than a sudden welling of despondence. “He’s too far away.” She shakes her head, and reaches over to touch his hand again. He stares down at it instead of meeting her eyes. “You shouldn’t be alone.”

They’re interrupted by the waitstaff quietly entering the room again, clearing away the empty plates. Arthur looks at the dark stain of wine in his glass, and thinks with mild hysteria what might happen were he to bring Merlin to dinner with Granny—god, gender aside, Arthur can’t see any way it would end in anything but disaster. But would probably be less disastrous than bringing him along to one of the family dos—and Arthur’s stomach knots, both in imagined embarrassment and in shame for the imagined embarrassment—god, he’s so fucked. It’s like being at Tintagel just activates all the awful bits of him that his father ingrained, and he hates that—hates that this beautiful place that he had, in childlike naivety, considered his home for the time after his mother died—should trigger such self-loathing.

“Arthur, dear.” Granny is speaking to him, looking amused and slightly impatient when he blinks away his thoughts to refocus on her again. “Would you like some tea?”

“I’m sorry, Granny, I—” he glances over to the mantle clock that overlooks the room with its regal facade; it’s nearly 8.30. “Really, thank you for the lovely meal, and it’s wonderful to see you…”

“No need to make excuses, I’m only happy to catch a glimpse of you again.” For all that her tone is kind, Arthur knows he’s treading a fine line, but he’s not sure just how much longer he can stay without turning into a gibbering mess. “You must contact Melanie soon, if you are going to insist on seeking placement outside the sector. Opportunities to see you do not seem to occur so frequently as they do for your cousins.”

“I will, of course,” Arthur says, bowing his head a little, taking the reprimand for what it is.

“Good, good. I’ll pass on your good health to your father.”

Arthur’s jaw clenches before he can stop it, and he can’t make himself thank her.

*

Melanie shows him to the door again—as if he would have lost his way—and offers to call him a cab.

Arthur waves her off. “I’ll hail one from the street,” he lies. “Shouldn’t be too soaked by the time I get down there.”

Any hint of warmth there might once have been in the air has been leeched away with the sunset, but the wind is still present, whipping back and forth in unpredictable gusts, bringing with it patches of fierce rain that hits him as if it’s being thrown in vicious handfuls. By the time Arthur gets down to the street he is nearly soaked—at least, the thighs of his pants are, and the shoulders and back of his jacket; he hopes against hope that it at least protects his shirt from getting too damp before he reaches whatever hopefully-heated bar Merlin’s drinking in.

He can hear the grinding drag of a tram coming down Toorak Road as he walks up the cross-street towards it, and runs the last fifty metres or so to arrive on the corner just as it does; at last, some luck. No waiting in the rain in the middle of the street, and this one will take him all the way up St Kilda Road, through the city, and drop him off right outside uni. Arthur slumps down into a seat, grateful that there’s any left; it’s Friday night and they’re city-bound, after all.

He pulls out his phone, ineffectually trying to wipe some dampness off the screen before trying Merlin again.

This time the call just rings out after an irritatingly long time, and Arthur huffs out an impatient sigh as he taps the cancel button, slipping the phone back in his inner breast pocket. He presses against his jacket afterwards until he can feel the hard shape of it against his chest, reassuring himself that even if for some reason he can’t hear it ring, he’ll be able to feel it vibrate.

At least the tram is heated. The damp fabric of Arthur’s trousers pinch against the tops of his thighs as they warm and dry, and he plucks at it irritably, trying to get it to sit more comfortably. Rain batters against the windows, making the lights of the restaurants and bars of South Yarra drip like wet paint; instead of looking out Arthur surreptitiously takes in the tram’s other occupants.

It’s one of the things he likes about public transport on a Friday night—it’s the usual broad variety of people, only dressed in their finest, all simpatico for a change if only in intent: to go out, to enjoy themselves. Considering the tram route, it’s unsurprising that most of the passengers are tanned women in tiny dresses and ridiculous heels, and their male counterparts in pressed trousers and pastel shirts. There are a few older people as well—obviously well-off couples in evening wear, clearly on their way to a show and a meal on Southbank—and some younger, the sort Arthur’s more used to seeing around home; hipsters and geeks.

He’s one of a handful of passengers who seem to be travelling alone, most are in groups or paired off at least—his eyes catch on one couple, fake-tan and pastel-shirt, leaning into each other with arms wrapped comfortably. As he watches, their heads come together for a kiss, and abruptly he feels a great, sickening wave of envy rise up within him. It feels complicated, longing muddied with bitter resentment, but he knows it’s simple, really: he’s tried to have that life, and failed miserably, and what he has now means more than any of that desperate striving did. It’s unfair that failing at it should still make him feel so angry.

He presses his hand to his chest, but his phone remains still and silent in his pocket. The PDA couple are still leaning close, talking softly while their friends laugh and chatter drunkenly nearby, and Arthur makes himself look away.

The rain gets heavier, the sound of it drumming against the roof of the tram beginning to obscure the sounds of conversations around him, reducing them to just occasional enthusiastic shouts above it. The tram trundles around the bend onto St Kilda Road, the blurred view out of the windows getting darker as the road widens.

The green-lit plane trees by the gallery are glowing eerily outside Arthur’s window when the rain sound suddenly rises to a roar. The tram slows, seeming to coast along on its own momentum for a while before the driver brings it to a halt. Then, somehow, the rain gets louder; pounding down on the tram, it feels like from all sides; Arthur can’t make out anything outside. A few voices from within the tram raise anxiously, but it’s impossible to hear what they’re saying, and everyone’s expression is alarmed as they meet each other’s eyes, the intensity of the downpour enough to draw them out of their own ignore-everyone-else bubbles.

It can’t be more than ten minutes later when it finally eases again—the sound and obscured visibility dialling back from apocalypse to simply deluge, and the tram starts to tentatively move forward again.

It takes at least three times as long as it should to make it down the last stretch over the bridge and to the superstop at Flinders Street Station, and then the tram jerks to a halt and the driver’s apologetic voice sounds over the loudspeaker: “Sorry, folks, can’t take you any further. All change, please. All change.”

There are cries of What? and You can’t be fucking serious, from the uneasy crowd, but the long, toneless warning chime rings and the doors open, letting in a bracing gust of cold air. Checking his phone one last time, Arthur grits his teeth and makes his way outside, attempting to avoid the morass of people reluctant to destroy their Friday night primping by exposing it to the elements.

The platform is even more crowded than the tram, though, a tight cluster of people huddled into themselves and wearing matching expressions of dismay. Arthur’s not sure what the big deal is—the rain has eased back to stinging gusts of icy water, as opposed to unavoidable buckets—at least until he forces his way through the crowd and pops out at the pedestrian crossing from the station to Federation Square, and he sees Flinders Street.

Calling it flooded would be an understatement; the street is a river within which some idiots are even swimming, whooping as they’re swept along the current westwards. Trams are banked up Swanston Street on the city side, and Arthur feels abruptly amazed that the tram he was on made it to the superstop; when he looks back up St Kilda Road it’s to see even more trams drawing in to join the queue, miserable hoards of people clambering off in the middle of the road and running for the shelter of the station.

“Fuck,” Arthur mutters, picking through the entirely stationary traffic toward the station himself. Most people have their phones out, either photographing the chaos or chatting excitedly, and Arthur pulls out his as well.

There’s a message—he must have been getting off the tram just as it came in—and it’s from Merlin.

still @ uni! call if/when ur here

Disappointment tightens in Arthur’s chest—why the fuck hadn’t Merlin just called?—but he’s even more determined than before to just overcome all the bullshit of today and make it to uni, make it to the bar, make Merlin buy him at least one. Fucking. Drink. And Merlin will laugh, and wrap his arms around Arthur and press a sympathetic kiss to his cheek. Or his neck. And it’s university, the heart of progressive ideals, so maybe Arthur will even turn a bit and make Merlin give him a proper kiss, and then he’ll finally be able to let everything go and relax.

Any drying off he’d done on the tram has already been undone by the scurry from the tram stop to the station, so Arthur just takes a fortifying breath before striding out from under the shelter of the station and towards the street. There are no trams going, so he’s going to have to walk up to Carlton. Which should only take half an hour or so, but he’s going to have to cross Flinders Street, first.

“Turn back, mate!” some drunken fuckwit shouts to him as he marches to where the water’s lapping up onto the pavement. “Save yourself!”

Arthur ignores him, and, trying not to think about just how filthy the water he’s stepping into is, he starts to wade across the street.

It’s deeper than he anticipated—because since when do you notice depth when you’re crossing a road?—but the current isn’t that strong after all, and at least the superstop in the middle provides some respite. There are more idiots splashing around on the raised platform—the water rising above it just enough to cover Arthur’s shoes—and they don’t even look at him as he hauls himself up with the help of the hand rail.

“Gazza!” one of them shouts, laughing as another belly-dives back into the water, using an esky lid like a body board. “It’s my turn, ya faggot! Bring it back, for fuck’s sake!”

Arthur resists the urge to shove them all into the water, or possibly into oncoming traffic. Instead he focuses on the sight of Young & Jackson’s seedy glow, clenching his jaw and wading the rest of the way across the road. A small round of applause greets him when he finally stumbles up onto the pavement again, and he looks up to see a pair of women huddled in the pub’s doorway, arms clutched to their chests and cigarettes poised between their fingers. Their bare knees are practically knocking in the cold.

“Nice one, mate,” one of them says; the other just gives him a quick look up and down. “Buy us a drink?”

“Hard to turn down an offer like that, but no,” Arthur says, though he can’t help but smirk a little as he starts his long way up Swanston Street, the seed of something victorious in his chest.

*

The rain peters out to the occasional stinging slap when Arthur’s halfway through the city; the streets are mostly deserted, just the occasional shrieking flock of Friday night revellers flitting from one bar to another, coats hooded over their heads. Once he gets out of the CBD he’s entirely alone as far as pedestrians go. His extremities feel numb with cold, and the skin on his legs is tender from chafing against the roughened, soaked wool of his trousers. Under his wet jacket he’s sweating, though, getting hotter as Swanston Street slopes up toward the uni and his determined stride turns into a climb.

The potent smell of frying fat signals his approach to Grattan Street, and he dodges through the drunken, ravenous students loitering outside KFC before running across the road against the red pedestrian signal. There’s hardly any traffic around, anyway, and the headlights are easily seen, doubled with their reflections bouncing off the wet tarmac and shiny tram tracks. The Arts Centre building rises solid and silent on the corner, and Arthur climbs up its steps to shelter under the roof overhanging the entry. The glass doors are like blank eyes, emptiness and darkness within, and Arthur turns his back to them.

He takes out his phone again, trying to catch his breath as he slides it unlocked and brings up the recent calls list.

It rings, and rings and rings, for so long that Arthur considers just fucking giving up and sitting on the filthy steps, spending the night there. He can’t bring himself to cancel the call, though it must have been ringing for what feels like at least twenty minutes, and then at last it cuts off and into actual sound as the call’s finally answered.

Arthur hears the auditory chaos of bar noise first, garbled and uneven like it’s underwater, and a snatch of Merlin’s laugh and the rougher scratch and rustle of the phone’s receiver being fumbled with. And then Merlin’s voice: “About time, sunshine! Are you here yet?”

“I’m on Swanston,” Arthur says. The thought that he might nearly actually be there, with booze and warmth and Merlin’s easy affection within his reach, makes Arthur’s voice wobble in his throat. Thankfully, it sounds loud enough where Merlin is that he probably can’t even hear it. “Near Grattan. Where are you?”

“Bloody fantastic,” Merlin says with unmerited relish; he’s clearly well into tipsy and on his way to drunk. “We’re at Tsubu, just behind the 1888 building. Come find us!”

“Okay,” Arthur’s already walking down the steps again, feet still squelching a little in his shoes. “See you in a sec.”

Tsubu is blessedly close; just behind the pale-bricked block of the Arts Centre, and halfway down the alleyway towards it Arthur can already hear its raucous sound. It’s much louder inside, raised voices bouncing off the polished wood floor and amplified in the open space. The shape of the bar is not unlike a large shed, with long tables packed full of undergrads drinking and laughing and shouting. It’s also much warmer inside, and Arthur feels the tension in his shoulders ease, the tightness caused by hunching against the cold beginning to melt away.

He doesn’t keep more than the barest eye open for Merlin, instead heading straight for the toilets, feeling a stab of guilt before locking himself in the disabled cubicle. The hand dryer is a poor substitute for a dry set of clothes, but it manages to at least get his trousers from thoroughly wet to very damp. He feels a bit ridiculous wringing his jocks and socks out in the sink before stretching them out under the blast of hot air, but they manage to get much drier for it, and warmer besides. His jacket seems to have afforded him some protection from the rain—thankfully the he’d missed the worst of it while on the tram, and his impromptu wading-through-the-floodwaters had left it with a sodden bottom hem, at worst. Despite being inside, he feels cold when he takes it off—some of the dampness has seeped through to his shirt and the exertion of climbing the hill to uni has steamed it up, jacket trapping the heat—so he puts it back on.

Dressed again, Arthur checks his reflection in the mirror. The fluorescent light makes him look ghoulish, skin too pale and eyes too wide, still-wet hair darkened to a dirtier shade. He straightens his tie in an attempt to look less disheveled. Though he suspects that by now it’s pretty much a lost cause.

Belatedly, he checks his wallet—luckily not waterlogged, thanks to being kept in his inner breast pocket—and is finds himself bolstered by the amount of cash he discovers; enough for a few drinks, at least. Which he’s well beyond ready for, at this point.

He can’t find Merlin anywhere in the bar—and keeps looking for longer than necessary, even with the irritation of having to shuffle through crowds of people overflowing into the not-quite-wide-enough gaps between the long tables—because the heating really is bordering on glorious. When he’s at last confirmed that Merlin is absolutely nowhere indoors, Arthur pauses by the doors to the courtyard, fortifying himself with a deep breath before heading out into the cold again.

Tsubu’s courtyard isn’t large; just big enough for the redbrick arms of the postgraduate building to embrace the massive plane tree growing out from the bench-edged garden bed in the middle. The sprawling branches are tinted a faint green from some unseen spotlight, silhouetted against the pale night sky, clouds lit dirty orange by the city lights.

The crowd isn’t as dense outside—the cold and sporadic splats of belated rain dripping from the tree above is enough to see to that—and Arthur locates Merlin fairly quickly: he’s standing with a group of people all chatting animatedly, interspersing laughter with swigs from craft beer bottles.

“There you are!” Merlin exclaims when Arthur sidles up to him. “What took you so long?” It’s far from accusatory, so Arthur pushes away the sting—along with all the reasons that well up in his throat—and lets himself lean in as Merlin wraps an arm around his waist. Merlin tilts his head a little to the side at the last minute and makes a showy “mwah!” sound as he presses his cheek to Arthur’s in an air kiss. “Get caught in the rain, did you?”

“Yeah,” Arthur begins, and then someone else in the group says, “It’s flooding in the city, isn’t it?” And before he can respond to that, another’s piping up with “I saw it on Twitter,” and the conversation flows on into discussion on social media and riots and revolutions, and of course annoying undergrads using their phones in tutes. Merlin gleefully joins the fray—which is borderline snarky in the way that every postgrad Arthur’s ever known seems to have honed to a fine art—and when a new person appears at the edge of the group carrying a tray full of shot glasses, Merlin unwraps his arm from Arthur’s waist to reach for one.

He comes back with two—handing one to Arthur with a cheeky grin, then saying, “It was Johnno’s completion seminar this afternoon—that’s why I missed your call, sorry.”

Arthur shrugs and holds his glass still as Merlin clinks his against it, and the group knock back their shots en masse, pulling faces and laughing at each other; the dirty punch of tequila makes Arthur gasp and his eyes water.

Arthur manages to identify Johnno as the short, cheerful bloke at the centre of attention, grinning around a wedge of lime; eventually he notices Arthur looking at him, and takes the lime out of his mouth, beaming back brightly.

“Congratulations,” Arthur says, as politely as he can with his voice still feeling abraded by the shot. “What’s your thesis on?”

“Homoeroticism in contemporary British murder mysteries,” Johnno says, looking even more pleased with himself. Someone else pipes in with their opinion on the revival of the bromance trope in genre television and the conversation sweeps away from Arthur again—but, god, he is so glad he didn’t do an arts degree.

“I’m going to get a drink,” Arthur murmurs to Merlin; the curl of Merlin’s ear is icy where Arthur’s lips accidentally brush it. “Want one?”

“Yes,” Merlin says, turning to him. Despite the chilly air, Merlin’s cheeks are flushed—it’s the booze, Arthur knows, but something low in Arthur’s belly recognises at as some sort of signal that his body responds to with the first whisperings of arousal. “Another pint of the pale ale,” Merlin requests. Arthur holds his gaze for a little longer than necessary, and Merlin’s grin spreads wider until he halts its progress by biting lower his lip. “You shouting me?”

“Absolutely,” Arthur says lowly. Merlin’s attention on him, as coy and flighty as it is, is enough to shut out his self-conscious awareness of everyone else around them, he’s at last feeling glad to be here; even while willing Merlin to give him clearer signals: Arthur would absolutely give in to a kiss me right now.

But Merlin’s not, so after another moment Arthur goes to get the drinks. He orders and downs another shot while waiting for them to fill the pint glasses—in mind of catching up with the rest of them, if nothing else—and when gets back into the courtyard, the group is still on the same topic.

“Lycra just isn’t camp enough any more,” one bloke declares. “It’s the traditional trappings of masculinity that are the most ironic, these days.”

“Fucking metrosexuals,” another agrees—not entirely on-topic, Arthur thinks; but then again maybe it is, and Arthur is actually just as clueless as he tends to feel in this crowd.

“It’s the suits, mainly,” the anti-lycra bloke continues. “It’s all the geeks’ fault. Suits have become these costumes of normativity adopted by the underdogs as trophies for their brand new lives at the top of the ladder. With that much performativity, how can it not be queer?”

There’s some uneasy laughter and some muttered remarks that breaks the group into smaller conversations. Arthur watches a few of them slump all on each other’s shoulders, expressions intent and yet befuddled; he wonders just how long they’d been drinking before he got here.

“Nah, no way,” someone else speaks up, loudly, “suits are, and always have been, a symbol of represh— oppression. Both! I mean, look at this guy.” The man who’s speaking turns somewhat drunkenly, feet twisting precariously beneath him as he gestures towards Arthur. “He looks like he could represent Australia in the repression olympics, for fuck’s sake.”

“Sit down, you drunk fuck,” Merlin says, half-laughing.

The drunk fuck laughs, thread of the conversation apparently lost as he stumbles back and into someone’s lap.

And of course, Arthur shouldn’t give a fuck what some arts grad wanker makes of his day job getup. Which is why Merlin’s not even looking in his direction, instead now engaged in conversation with the drunk fuck, stumbling away from Arthur to lean down and brace his hand on the guy’s shoulder. Because well-adjusted people don’t give a fuck what random strangers think of them, especially when they’re just bullshit throwaway comments. So of course it wouldn’t even to occur to Merlin to look to see how Arthur’s received it.

Arthur’s drink is cold in his hand; his fingers have practically gone numb. He wishes he could put it down somewhere so he could fold his arms over his chest, tuck hands under his arms to warm them. Merlin’s pint is still three-quarters full, and Arthur forces down bitter mouthfuls of his own beer as if willing Merlin to somehow telepathically follow his lead. At least once Arthur’s finished he’s able to get rid of his glass, though the beer sits cold and hard in his belly, like it’s turned immediately to ice, swelling and solid.

By the time Merlin finishes his drink Arthur’s missed at least twenty minutes of conversation, his focus fixed avidly on the goal of catching Merlin’s attention again, and when Merlin finally drains the dregs and looks around to wave his empty at Arthur, Arthur tips his head in a beckoning gesture, feeling almost giddily relieved.

“Another round?” Merlin asks as he saunters back to Arthur—well, Arthur supposes it’s meant to be a saunter; the shot with beer chaser have clearly pushed Merlin undeniably into the ‘drunk’ camp.

Arthur takes Merlin’s empty glass and sets it down on the low bench surrounding the plane tree—and Merlin may be shit at picking up social cues, just as Arthur is shit and broadcasting them—but Merlin’s apparently well-versed in reading Arthur’s mind when it comes to sex. Because it seems the fact that Arthur has called him near and hasn’t answered immediately is enough to clue Merlin in, even though just what will happen next is still in the process of occurring to Arthur.

So when Arthur straightens and turns again, wiping the condensation from the glass on his still-damp trousers, Merlin is standing right there in Arthur’s personal space, breath warm and beery on Arthur’s cheek, his eyes gleaming and slightly unfocused.

“I might need a slash first, actually,” Merlin says quietly, attention entirely on Arthur; suddenly Arthur’s warmer in his damp clothes.

“The toilets here are pretty crap,” Arthur replies, voice a little rough from disuse and cold and booze. “Downright revolting by this time of night. How about the ones in your building?”

Merlin’s smile is small, but a whole lot more expressive than his usual hold-nothing-back grin. “I have keys.”

Arthur hooks his finger under Merlin’s belt buckle, behind the trail of his untucked gingham shirt, out of sight of the others. He tugs a little, pulling Merlin’s body subtly toward him. “I know.”

“Okay.” Merlin heaves a deep breath all of a sudden, and turns very briefly to wave behind him, breaking free of Arthur’s minute hold. “Back in a tick!” he declares, then walks briskly off and out of the courtyard; Arthur has to jog a few steps after him to catch up.

Away from the bars the uni seems deserted, their footsteps sounding loud against the wet ground as they leave the noise of Friday night revelry behind. Merlin leads them confidently through a series of shortcuts that Arthur has no hope recognising in the dark; he’s just hurrying to keep up, barely able to avoid the occasional sheet-like puddles, the pavement’s surface made uneven by ancient tree roots spreading below it.

“Slow down,” Arthur complains when he manages to get close enough for Merlin to hear him.

Merlin turns without stopping. “I really do need to piss,” he says, skipping backwards just out of reach, his teeth shining whitely in the solar-powered street lighting as he grins.

Arthur huffs, but finally they’re approaching a building that’s hard not to recognise; gorgeous Victorian sandstone facade hiding a sheltered staircase, lit up from behind in rich red, making the old windows glow with all the subtlety of a Disney cartoon. He climbs the stairs just a step behind Merlin, trusting Merlin’s familiarity to lead them in the dim light, and when Merlin stops at the locked door and fumbles for his keys, Arthur crowds in close. The opportunity of seclusion—and having Merlin finally standing still—is too good to resist, and Arthur presses up against Merlin’s back to palm his belly, lick his neck.

Merlin laughs, breathless, protesting even as he tilts his head to give Arthur more room; “Hang on, hang on, just let me get inside—”

The door opens and Arthur stumbles over the threshold, unwilling to relinquish his hold just yet as Merlin steps forward. It’s just slightly warmer inside, completely silent once Merlin closes the door after them, and without the decorative red light, it’s darker than it was in the stairwell. Arthur’s breath sounds loud and close, and Merlin turns in his hold. His hand reaches up to find Arthur’s face, fingers icy against Arthur’s cheek as he guides their mouths together for the kiss that Arthur’s been wanting for hours and hours. It lasts long enough to stoke Arthur’s need for more into something hot and urgent in his belly, then Merlin draws away, sliding his hand down to reach for Arthur’s instead. “Come on,” he whispers.

He leads Arthur through dim corridors, concrete walls on either side radiating cold, new carpet crunching underfoot. It feels more labyrinthine than the last time Arthur was here, and he tightens his hold on Merlin’s hand involuntarily, abruptly worried that if he lets Merlin go, he won’t be able to find him again, let alone find his way out. Apparently Arthur’s a bit drunker than he thought; he swallows down the paranoia and focuses on the warmth of Merlin’s grip instead.

The door to Merlin’s office doesn’t look any different than any of the others they’ve passed, and he lets go of Arthur’s hand to pick through his keys again. As soon as he opens the door he reaches around the lintel to flip on the light switch, and Arthur squints as cold fluorescent light floods the enclosed space. Merlin drags him in while he’s still got his eyes mostly closed, and Arthur’s thigh jars against the corner of a desk that he doesn’t even see. He grunts in discomfort, then forgets it when Merlin kisses him again. Drunken eagerness overwhelms Merlin’s usually impeccable technique, the stroke of his tongue sloppy and lips hungry against Arthur’s. It’s certainly nothing to complain about, though, especially when Merlin pushes his whole body forward, lean and solid and warm.

When he withdraws, again, Arthur groans, clutching Merlin’s jacket and stopping him from pulling away entirely. Merlin laughs, husky and fond, and kisses Arthur again—quick, ardent presses of his lips against Arthur’s mouth, his cheekbones, his forehead.

“I will be right back,” he reassures, even as Arthur tightens his grip and pulls him in, mashing his face against Merlin’s shoulder. The corduroy is rough against his face and slightly damp, cool against his hot skin. “Seriously, you just fed me a pint, you don’t get to deny me needing a piss.”

Arthur lets go reluctantly and Merlin walks backwards to the door before stepping out into the dark corridor and disappearing.

Arthur takes a deep breath and rubs his hands down his thighs, blinking slowly as he looks around the room; his eyes still sting from the unnatural tint of the light. The lack of window in the room is deeply disconcerting; Arthur has no idea what time it is, the deathly silence outside the room the only indication that it’s not daytime. The silence also gives the impression that the little box of a room might be anywhere—elderly sandstone building, CBD slum, or underground for all he can tell. Arthur folds his arms over his chest and makes himself focus on the room’s decorations instead.

Merlin has cheesy posters pinned to the enormous pinboard above his desk; Keira Knightly with a ridiculous hessian boob tube and bow and arrow, Sam Neill with long hair and a glowy cup, dragons and robes and suits of armour everywhere. The least-embarrassing picture Arthur can see is a Waterhouse; a miserable looking woman holding herself very carefully in a boat, looking as awkward as he feels about the amount of swords and sorcery surrounding her. When Merlin had told Arthur his thesis was on Arthurian legend remixed in Western popular culture, Arthur had been amused (and vaguely unsettled) by the coincidence of their names, but since living with Merlin and seeing him re-watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail forty times with an endearing intensity, Arthur feels more indulgent.

His officemate’s desk is less cluttered, though their decoration isn’t much better—women in leather pants bearing stakes and guns and knives, glaring out of their glossy print outs—and Arthur’s gaze drifts back towards the door again. There’s one more bit of paper stuck there above the light switch, and when Arthur steps closer to look at it he sees its a blandly designed evacuation map with the title, NIMUEH PENDRAGON BUILDING - EMERGENCY PROCEDURES.

Of course—Arthur was stupid, so stupid not to remember—the gorgeous sandstone building’s renovations were of course funded by Dame Nimueh, and somehow he’d learned not to have his heart leap in self-consciousness every time someone mentioned visiting the NPB. Not that Arthur remembering makes a difference. Merlin surely must have made the connection, but he never comments on it when his building name comes up in conversation. Maybe he’s just adjusted to it, let it comfortably slip his mind like it had for Arthur.

But he can’t let it slip away this time. Arthur feels a jolt when he remembers where he’d been that evening—not that he’d forgotten that, but since he’d began the trek from the city up to uni it had felt months rather than hours in the past. And now, here he is in the building named after his grandmother, unable to get his grandmother’s voice or face or expectations out of his head.

Merlin chooses that moment to return, smiling at Arthur as he sees him standing by the door, coming in and closing it behind him before slinging his arms around Arthur’s neck. This time his kiss makes something surge and jerk to a disconcerted halt under Arthur’s ribcage; a feeling of anxiety that lurches between two equally ridiculous fears: that Merlin will be standing here, thinking about Arthur’s granny as he snogs him; or Arthur’s granny will somehow be thinking about Arthur snogging Merlin in her building.

“What’s wrong?” Merlin murmurs after a while, mouth red and wet when he draws back to look Arthur in the eye, clearly picking up on Arthur’s distraction. “You didn’t have that much to drink, did you?” He grins cheekily, and cups the back of Arthur’s neck, pulling him in hard and holding him firm while he kisses him once, twice; fast and intent. “I can see you thinking.”

Arthur feels something tender in him yield at Merlin’s awareness, even as he feels a little panicked that Merlin’s picking at something he doesn’t want to disclose. “I’m not drunk,” Arthur says, half to himself, and he tightens his hold on Merlin’s waist, masking his unhelpful thoughts with decisive action; he turns them around and walks Merlin backwards to his desk. “Just thinking about how terrible this little room is.”

“Better give me something nicer to think about when I’m in here, then,” Merlin says, a little breathless with eagerness, his grip on Arthur already shifting from holding his neck to pressing down on his shoulders.

Arthur makes sure to give him a smug, smouldering look as he goes down to his knees, and immediately he feels more comfortable on the ground—something he doesn’t examine too closely, succeeding this time in pushing his thoughts away to focus on the business at hand.

Merlin’s fingers stroke through Arthur’s hair as Arthur runs his hands up Merlin’s thighs, Merlin’s worn jeans soft under his palms. They’re soft against Arthur’s lips, too, when he kisses the bulge of Merlin’s dick where it’s pressing against the hard line of his fly. Merlin’s breath catches and his hands tighten in Arthur’s hair, and when Arthur looks up—opening his mouth to breathe hotly against the taut denim—it’s to see Merlin’s expression open and fixed on Arthur, adoring.

“Condom?” Arthur asks without really moving away, reaching up for Merlin’s belt.

“In my wallet,” Merlin says breathlessly, “but—got tested last week. No one since then. If you want…?”

Arthur unbuckles the belt and carefully unzips Merlin’s fly, trying to school down his grin before he looks up again. “Suppose I’ll manage to suffer through it.”

Merlin tugs his hair, laugh low and unoffended.

The equilibrium Arthur was seeking is well and truly in the bag; within reach beyond it Arthur sees something more like joy, something he’ll happily strive for. He pushes his head into Merlin’s cupped hands as he pulls Merlin’s jeans and jocks down to his thighs without pause. Merlin’s dick is mostly hard, getting stiffer in Arthur’s mouth when he takes it in. The taste that bursts against Arthur’s tongue is thrillingly familiar, making his mouth flood with saliva that he has to suck and lap back to stop from spilling.

It has Merlin groaning above him, Merlin’s thighs tensing and pushing him forward from the edge of the desk. Arthur falls into a rhythm that’s almost meditative, stroking Merlin just how he likes it with a spit-wet hand, taking the rest in his mouth as far as he can. Even the ache of his jaw is brilliant, a perfect counterpoint to the soothing rub of Merlin’s fingers against his scalp.

Merlin’s sounds get more helpless as he gets closer to coming, the Arthurs and Fuck, yeses turning into desperate, wordless noise. When Merlin’s hand flails away from Arthur’s head to grab his shoulder instead Arthur braces himself and holds on, accepting Merlin’s last frantic thrusts as he loses control, gripping as tight as he dares with his fist to stop Merlin from pushing further than he can take.

Then Merlin’s slumping back, body trembling and limp where it was tense and taut moments before, and Arthur’s finally closing his mouth, licking his swollen lips, swallowing down the last thickness of Merlin’s come.

Merlin cups the back of Arthur’s head again, drawing him up until Arthur’s standing—well, leaning anyway, braced against Merlin’s body on legs that are tingling painfully with pins and needles. He’s shaking; in part because he’s so bloody turned on he can barely think straight, but as well as endorphins there’s the adrenaline jittering through his body, getting het up at having Merlin’s dick nearly shoved down his throat. Arthur’s heart is pounding in his ears; all his focus now is intent on thrusting mindlessly against Merlin’s hip as Merlin frantically kisses him. Then Merlin’s fumbling with Arthur’s belt and Arthur’s head is falling to Merlin’s shoulder, and Merlin is talking but Arthur can’t pick up anything but the tone, soft with admiration and praise.

He’s half-braced for a wash of cold over his bare skin, but Merlin just shoves his hand into Arthur’s pants instead of pushing them out of the way, and the fact that there’s hardly enough room to stroke him properly is hot in itself. It doesn’t take long for Merlin to make him come; especially with every handjob he gives Arthur ever reminding Arthur of that first time: the giddy rush of realisation that this felt so damn good, good enough to dismiss any internal negotiation as to how much he was allowed to enjoy it.

“Jesus,” Arthur pants as he comes back down, Merlin’s strokes slowing on his sensitive cock, the come caught in Merlin’s palm making his touch hot and slippery. “Fuck. Christ.

Merlin laughs and kisses him again, and they pant breathlessly into each other’s mouths, and Arthur loves absolutely everything about Merlin: his slick mouth and deft fingers, the ruddy flush of his cheeks, the taste of his come on the back of Arthur’s tongue, the shameless press of his lean body as they hold each other upright. Arthur is fiercely happy.

When he starts twitching away from Merlin’s touch, Merlin carefully withdraws his hand, bringing his arm up to Arthur’s back to pull him closer even as he angles his messy hand away from Arthur’s jacket. It takes a while longer for Merlin to stop kissing him; finally he draws back and straightens his body, making Arthur stand on his own and step back a little.

Merlin makes a noise of dissatisfaction at that, but only leans in to give Arthur one more brief kiss before saying, “Just stay here, you gorgeous thing. I’ll go get something for—” He waves his messy hand and sidesteps away, and Arthur watches him take wavering steps across the room and out the door.

Arthur’s caught his breath by the time Merlin comes back, bringing handfuls of paper towels from the bathroom, half of them wet. He helps Arthur clean off a little—Arthur mostly pushing his hands away, having thoroughly having had enough of cold water for the day—and Merlin laughs.

“You really were soaked, weren’t you?” Merlin remarks as he wrestles with Arthur’s damp trousers.

Arthur groans. “Don’t even ask,” he says, privately pleased for Merlin noticing, at least. God, it really has been an awful day, if he’s that needy. “Do you have enough cash for a cab?” he asks when Merlin finally tosses all the paper towel in the bin. “I’ve only got a few bucks left, after two pints of that organic ale.”

Merlin frowns a little. “I might. It depends on how much more I have to drink.”

“What,” Arthur says, the euphoria of moments before starting to turn cold and heavy in his chest. “You want to go back to the bar?”

“Well, yeah,” Merlin says, putting his hands on his hips and jutting his elbows behind him, looking at Arthur with a little consternation from where he stands a pace away. “I’m hanging out with my friends.” He doesn’t even sound that drunk any more. Arthur supposes it’s something he’s planning on rectifying.

“Right,” Arthur says. “Okay, never mind.” He pulls his jacket straight, buttoning it automatically, then shrugging uncomfortably and unbuttoning again.

“We’re celebrating,” Merlin says, and he still looks more confused than anything else. The coldness of the building around them feels like it’s clinging to Arthur in a film. “I can shout you more, you bought my last round.”

The thought of going back to Tsubu is almost repulsive. As much as the comfort of intimacy with Merlin is already receding, returning to the snark and perceptiveness of the crowd—and have Merlin’s focus entirely off him again, as if the last half hour had never happened—makes Arthur feel a bit sick.

“Nah, I’ll just—I’m going home,” Arthur says gruffly, unable to even speak in a reasonable, nothing-is-wrong tone.

Merlin frowns outright. “Arthur—”

Arthur drops his gaze, looking to the door instead. “Shall we go?”

They’re silent as Merlin locks up and leads them through the dark corridors. When they finally get to the bottom of the stairs, Merlin’s expression has shifted to concern, and Arthur feels revolted with himself for ruining Merlin’s buzz. Doubly revolted when he recognises a part of himself that feels victorious for having such an influence.

“See you at home.” Arthur gives an awkward wave, so far out of Merlin’s personal space that he’s practically on a planet, and turns on his heel and walks away. He doesn’t let himself look back, something clenching tighter in his chest with every step he takes where Merlin’s not calling after him.

*

It’s been a while since Arthur’s caught the tram home from uni, so he’s not sure whether he’s missed the last one of the night or not—and realises when he gets within sight of the tramstop that he doesn’t really care. There are a few other people huddled around on the platform, and he finds himself profoundly averse to being in their vicinity. Not to mention in the vicinity of everyone else that would be crammed on the last tram heading to Brunswick; his skin feels raw with just the thought of it.

Instead, fuelled by the restless jitter in his limbs, Arthur starts walking.

It’s hard to tell whether the pounding rhythm of his footsteps sets the pace for the furious whirl of his thoughts, or if it’s the other way around. At any rate, he’s walking fast enough that the alcohol he’s drunk turns hard and painful in his gullet, any warmth or tipsiness he might have reaped from it freezing off in the icy night air.

It takes nearly an hour to get home, and by the time he turns into their street he can’t even tell if his clothes are damp any more; numbness has soaked in to every inch of his skin in a way that he knows is going to hurt when he gets inside and his fingers start to defrost. The only warm part of him are his lungs, burning from exertion. He half-wishes, petulantly, that he had a smoke, or even someone around to bum one off—just imagining inhaling the licking heat deep into his chest has him seriously considering whether he wants to go straight home, or go via the 24 hour servo four more blocks away.

He doesn’t realise how much indulging in the thought had distracted him until he gets to the gate of the house and sees someone sitting on the front steps: the sight instantly snaps all the tension back into his body. It’s Merlin, of course—hunched over with his hands between his knees, as if the harsh porch light is a palpable weight on his back. Moths whir wildly in the air above him, impervious to or uncaring of his presence, a dirty cloud of them that Arthur doesn’t look forward to walking through.

Merlin stands as Arthur comes up the short path. Arthur keeps his eyes on the ground ahead of him, trying to keep his expression blank but unable to keep his face from tightening into a scowl at the sudden brightness, eyes sensitive to the light.

“Forget your keys?” he mutters as he climbs up the steps, walking right past where Merlin’s standing.

“No, I was waiting for you, I—” Merlin cuts himself off with an unhappy sigh. He comes to stand closer, fists shoved in his jeans pockets, as Arthur tries to operate his keys with stiff, senseless fingers. “—I said goodbye to everyone then got a cab, I figured you must have got the tram home, but—”

Arthur manages to get the door open at last, and steps in before Merlin can finish, leaving it for Merlin to close and lock behind him. Merlin, thankfully, falls silent as soon as they’re inside; Morgana and Gwen and even Gwaine’s doors are closed and the lights are off, so they’re all home and asleep. Which is unsurprising; Arthur can see the red glow of the oven clock all the way down the hallway: it’s nearly 2.30am.

Arthur heads straight for his room—finally having reached the point where he can no longer stand to be in his wet, cold suit. The room looks small and strange in its familiarity when Arthur flicks the light on. Perhaps, over-used to the depth of staring into the murky night, his eyes find the bare, pale walls peculiar.

Or maybe—probably—he’s just really fucking tired. And wants nothing more than to change into something warm, dry, comfortable, and go to sleep.

Merlin sidesteps into the room around the half-open door, and stands there watching him with an anxious expression on his face. Arthur can’t bear to look at it—the familiar burn of frustration that he has to feel the nauseous roil of anger in his gut right now instead of just being someone who can deal with Merlin being Merlin. If he was, he could turn around and look Merlin in the eye, could open his mouth and tell Merlin something reassuring, and laugh, and they could fall into bed together for warmth and comfort and no fucking resentment or uncertainty whatsoever.

As if trying to get into Arthur’s line of sight, Merlin sits down on the foot of the bed, tucking his hands under his thighs. “Do you need a hand?” he asks quietly, as Arthur shrugs off his jacket and flings it somewhere out of sight.

And that—that, Merlin offering him gentle consideration now—takes the cake. Arthur can’t even answer at first, struggling not to just rip his shirt buttons off as he fumbles with numb fingers. He bends over to dig through the mess on the floor to try and find something to replace the shedded clothes, but it seems every fucking thing in the room is covered with a layer of Merlin detritus—clothes and papers and books, primarily—making it impossible for Arthur to find anything. When he rises upright again, his head throbs dizzily with the sudden change; he bites the edges of his tongue to force it to pass, but the pounding ache remains.

“You could start by not leaving your crap all over my room,” Arthur finds himself saying, not even turning around as he starts kicking viciously through the clothes in an attempt to unearth something. Finally he uncovers one of his hoodies, and shucks the damp shirt and singlet to pull it over his head. The cotton lining is so soft and warm, it loosens the fierce grip Arthur has on his boiling emotions. His hands start to warm up at last, and it’s agony.

“Sorry, it’s just been pretty chaotic with my next chapter due next week—”

“Right,” Arthur says. “That explains the constant fucking mess, then.”

He hears Merlin huff out an annoyed breath behind him as Arthur finally rubs him the wrong way enough to shed the concern. “If it bothers you that much, then you should tell me about it when it does—”

“I’m telling you now, Merlin,” Arthur grits, voice raising a little to cut Merlin off. “You can’t even follow basic house rules, so why the fuck should I have to parent you in my own fucking room?”

“And I’m telling you that I’ve had my mind on other things lately, there’s no need to be such an arsehole about it.” Merlin’s voice rises with his irritation, and with the creak of the mattress Arthur hears him stand up from the bed.

Nape prickling, Arthur still doesn’t turn around, instead toeing his shoes off and kicking them away; they thud-thud into the far wall.

“Maybe if you weren’t so uptight about it—” Merlin continues, clearly antagonised by Arthur’s seething silence, the irritation in his tone ramped up to unfriendly snark.

“And maybe if you weren’t such a self-absorbed brat—”

“Oh, that’s so rich, coming from you.” Merlin’s tone is drenched in scorn. “I’m not the one who spent the entire night moping and then flounced once he’d got off.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Arthur spits, not even trying to keep his voice down now, finally whipping around to glare at Merlin. “Some of us aren’t fucking obsessed with constant self-gratification and have other things going on in our lives. Maybe if you stopped fucking everything that moved you’d actually notice once in a while.”

“That is not fair,” Merlin says after a leaden pause, his voice practically vibrating with restraint; he’s holding himself very still and tense. Arthur can see the tightness of his jaw, and he thinks Merlin’s gearing up for a retaliatory shot until Merlin’s eyes begin to gleam a little brighter than before. Merlin’s mouth twists up abruptly and his stillness breaks; he shouts, “Fuck you!” before reeling around and storming out of the room.

Arthur hears him stomp down the hallway and then there’s the sound of the door to Merlin’s room slamming. Or Gwaine’s room, as it is now.

Arthur feels sick.

Ears ringing, he finally strips off the last of the suit, pulling on a pair of pyjama pants and digging in the chaos of what was once his sock drawer. The discovery of one last pair tucked away in the back almost moves him to tears, and he slumps down onto the edge of the bed and grinds the heels of his palms into his closed eyes.

Sleep feels very far away, now, despite the persistent ache behind his eyes, and the room is far too familiar—and far too full of Merlin’s stuff, still ricocheting Arthur’s words back at him—to possibly relax.

He really fucking needs a smoke.

The only cigarettes in the house are likely to be in Gwaine’s room, but there’s not a fucking chance Arthur’s going knocking on that door right now, and he’s half-resolving to crawl to the servo when he remembers Merlin’s stash. Something in Arthur leaps with a perverse sense of vindictiveness, and it drives him out of his room and into the kitchen, the sense of purpose shoving aside all the sad and bitter dregs of the argument that he’s not ready to pore over just yet.

Reaching behind a shelf full of crushed tomatoes, chickpeas and vegan stock powder, Arthur manages to grab hold of the sweetened condensed milk can, fumbling it a little when he feels how light it is. With spoon in one hand and can in the other, without further ado Arthur heads for the back door. His breath is whipped away instantly by the chill of the night air—surely at least twice as cold as it was when he got home half an hour ago—but before he can baulk, Arthur steps out and pulls the door closed beside him.

At least it’s not windy any more. And it only takes a moment or two for Arthur’s eyes to adjust; the kitchen light shines through the broad back windows and lights up the backyard enough for Arthur to see what he’s doing. He settles down on the back step—concrete freezing his arse instantly through his flannel PJs—and levers open the can with the spoon.

As well as the baggy of Merlin’s weed, Arthur’s grateful to find papers and filters in the tin, and he gets out one of each and lays them on his thighs, carefully opening the press-seal on the bag. He holds the baggy between his knees and attempts to sprinkle pinches of leaf on the paper he’s holding with the other hand, but after four tries of having it fall apart when he tries to roll it, Arthur curses explosively and throws the whole handful back into the tin.

It’s by sheer force of will that he doesn’t pelt the whole thing into the dark depths of the vege patch. Instead, he just tucks it on the step behind his heels and folds himself down over his legs, hugging his knees and pressing face into flannel. It’s much warmer this way, anyway.

He’s not been outside for all that long when he hears the door open behind him. He can’t stop himself tensing, but he doesn’t sit up, instead willing the interloper to go away—he’s got no wish to see Merlin again tonight.

There’s the scuff of footsteps on the concrete steps, then the warmth of someone sitting beside him, and then Morgana’s voice says, “Give it here, then.”

Arthur lifts his head in surprise, looking over to see her sitting there in an enormously fluffy black bathrobe and black-and-white stripe beanie. Her slippers are modelled on the evil fluffy bunny from Holy Grail, and seeing them—the slippers, for fuck’s sake—makes the last of the viciousness that’s flitting righteously around Arthur’s head dissipate, leaving just sadness and disappointment in its wake.

Arthur takes a moment to surreptitiously wipe his face, then sniffs and gives her a look that he hopes is haughty. “Give what?”

She rolls her eyes—though not unkindly—and reaches under his legs for the condensed milk tin. It’s the matter of moments for her to roll a joint, though she has to hold it up centimetres from her eyes to do so; she must have taken her contacts out before bed, and the big black-framed glasses are no where to be seen. She whips the long stove lighter out of the pocket of her dressing gown to light up, brows drawn seriously and lips pursed around the skinny joint. After taking the barest of puffs to get it going she hands it over, and Arthur sucks in the silky smoke in a deep lungful.

“Thanks,” he says after several minutes have passed, and, “Sorry if— Sorry for waking you.”

Morgana grunts in acknowledgement, taking the joint back when he offers it. “Don’t even,” she rasps around the edge of a drag. “It’s pretty much a given for living with Merlin already. Although,” she bumps shoulders with him. “Didn’t know we had two drama queens under the one roof.”

Arthur ducks his head, stung and unsure how to reply.

“Oh, honey,” Morgana says. Her arm wraps around his shoulders, and after a brief moment of resistance he lets her tug him in to lean against her side. “I’m just fucking around. Though, you shouldn’t worry so much, god knows he’s able to bounce back from a good shouting-at.”

“That’s just it, though,” Arthur blurts, stilted, “It’s just—so fucking easy for him—”

Morgana’s silent for a moment, though she rubs his shoulder idly. The joint crackles faintly as she takes another suck on it before handing it back. “It’s hard to feel resentful about that,” she says at last, then amends, “well, hard to let yourself feel resentful about it.”

Arthur hates feeling like he’s being psychoanalysed, but Morgana’s words resonate, and the fact that she’s delivering them in a smoky drawl while slumped casually on the back step makes them much more palatable than they might otherwise have been. Also, the smoke is warming him up, and the weed unscrewing the clamps of his headache, and he’s starting to actually feel like sleep is something he might be able to achieve at some point in his lifetime.

There’s a possum on the roof of the carport; they watch its fat, black shape venture ponderously back and forth across the corrugated iron before it climbs into the bottlebrush overhanging the neighbour’s fence. They follow its progress in the rustling of foliage, then hear it thud onto the neighbour’s roof and scuttle obnoxiously to the far side.

“I kind of get it, you know?” Morgana says. “I mean, first world problems disclaimer and all, but…” She drags her slippered feet in closer to her again, lining her heels up with the back of the step. “When someone’s blithely carrying on like it’s the easiest fucking thing in the world to ‘be themselves’, then it kind of… means that if you don’t match that, you can’t possibly be doing it right.” She waves her hand in the air agitatedly, nearly knocking the bright tip off the joint between her fingers. “I don’t know, I’m too fucking tired.” She heaves an enormous sigh. “Life is hard. Love is hard.”

Arthur huffs a laugh and straightens, pulling away from her and looking out into the garden.

“But it’s supposed to be,” Morgana continues. “You know? At least, otherwise I think I’m doing it wrong. It’s supposed to be full of anguish and selfishness along with all the good stuff, isn’t it?”

Something solid swells in Arthur’s throat, and he lets it escape as choked laughter before clenching his mouth shut again. And then he thinks, repression olympics and peels his lips back from his teeth.

“I don’t know,” he says, trying to inject some sardonic humour into his tone, at least. “I always thought love always came hand-in-hand with self-loathing.”

Such a drama queen,” Morgana reiterates, though not cruelly, and that’s pretty much all sympathy Arthur can bear. She drags him into a awkward sideways half-hug, and he gives into it—it’s far easier to when they’re still not even facing each other, and dark enough that she couldn’t even see his expression even if they were. He stays there while she finishes off the joint and stubs it out on the top of the condensed milk tin, then wraps her other arm around him too.

“You should let us take care of you,” she says softly, warm against his scalp, though he could be imagining it—half-stoned and exhausted, eyelids heavy.

“Need to sleep,” he mumbles. Her dressing gown is amazingly soft against his face.

She squeezes her arms around him one last time. “Come on then, bright spark,” she says, and hauls him upright and helps him inside.

*

Arthur wakes feeling if not entirely rested, then at least settled into his sadness. Not quite as comfortable as slipping into an old coat; but more like lying in a shallow pool of custard that’s adjusted to match his body temperature. Extracting himself from it is difficult and disgusting, but he can’t lie around forever, so he drags himself out of bed—feet tender and aching as soon as he puts his weight on them; he walked way too far yesterday—and goes for a shower.

The hot water is rapturously good; he really should have had a shower as soon as he got in last night, or at least before he finally went to bed. When he gets back to his room, limbs feeling pleasantly pulverised by the the heat and water pressure, there’s a cup of tea steaming away on his bedside table. Arthur closes the door after him and just sits on the bed for a while, cross-legged and eyes closed, hands warming around the mug and steam heating his even breaths.

He starts to get chilly around the same time the tea becomes drinkable, but he resists the urge to pull the doona up around him and sink back into his cocoon. Instead he rises and pulls on the trackies and hoodie from last night again—which pretty much cements his plans to not leave the house at all today—slugs down the mostly-hot tea, and steps out of his room again.

He can hear Morgana and Gwen chattering in the kitchen and making cooking noises—it’s well past breakfast time so they must be plotting an elaborate brunch; Arthur’s stomach perks up at just the thought of it. Gwaine’s door is still closed, though, and that’s enough to have the hunger twist immediately into something less comforting. Before he can lose his nerve, Arthur steps close and knocks.

There’s no answer, and no other sound from within when Arthur holds his breath to listen; best-case-scenario is that they’re both asleep and Arthur can quietly wake and extract Merlin without any extra humiliation. Despite the loudness of his knock, Arthur finds himself turning the door handle carefully to minimise noise as much as possible, and he peeks in through the gap, still holding his breath.

Compared to Arthur’s room, this one is starkly clean—well, the floorspace is at least; every surface of the shelves and desk are covered with books and readers, but at least they’re stacked into neat piles. Merlin lies alone in the unmade bed, sprawled on the mattress protector and his head dark on the naked pillows, coverless doona tucked up under his chin, though his knee is jutting out under the edge—still wearing his jeans. In fact, it seems he’s not got out of his clothes from last night at all—just his jacket and discarded shoes lying on the floor. His eyes are closed but he’s clearly awake—frowning as he listens to whatever tinny pop music is pumping through his earbuds at top volume.

When Arthur sits down on the edge of the bed—careful not to touch Merlin, not yet—Merlin’s eyes fly open and he tenses. He relaxes a little when he sees Arthur, and pulls the headphones out.

“Communing with Taylor Swift, there?” Arthur asks lightly.

Merlin frowns in consternation. “Of course not,” he says. “The Smiths.” But he turns his iPod face-down on the mattress as he switches it off. His eyes flit back to Arthur’s, expression subdued but still obviously anxious: he looks as weary as Arthur feels.

Arthur’s chest aches with missing Merlin’s sleepy just-woken-up face, so easy to mould into happiness with a surprise kiss or quick grope.

“Are you—” Merlin begins, just as Arthur says, “Where—”

They both stop abruptly. Merlin flails his hand to gesture Arthur to continue; when he drops it again his knuckles rest against the edge of Arthur’s thigh. “You go,” Merlin says, his mouth tilting at a hopeful angle.

“I was just going to say,” Arthur starts awkwardly, “where’s Gwaine?”

Merlin’s expression twitches into confusion. “He’s gone to Byron. Left on Thursday afternoon, I think he’s hitching his way up…”

“Oh,” Arthur says eloquently, something in him loosening; he feels his chest sink as the tightness of his breathing eases.

Merlin’s expression softens, pressing his lips together to give Arthur a look of cautious sympathy.

“I thought—” Arthur starts, laboured.

Merlin cuts him off deliberately this time, shuffling away from Arthur in the bed. Arthur’s legs tense with the instinct to get up and get out, but Merlin’s not backing off—he’s lifting up the doona in Arthur’s direction.

“Come here?” Merlin asks hopefully, and Arthur thinks, fuck it all and crawls under it.

Merlin tucks the doona up right over Arthur’s head, and Arthur presses his face under Merlin’s encircling arm. Merlin’s shirt smells like cigarette smoke and sweat, and Arthur breathes it in deep, feeling the flexing frame of Merlin’s chest under his hand as Merlin breathes deeply too.

“I didn’t realise it bugged you so much,” Merlin says at last; Arthur’s felt him work himself up to it with closer-placed increasingly deep breaths. He sounds miserable, and Arthur can’t help but throw his remaining caution to the wind and wrap his arm around Merlin’s chest, squeezing tight.

“It doesn’t,” Arthur says, the words he spat out last night sliming their way through his head like something toxic. “I didn’t mean— It’s just that sometimes—”

His throat constricts tightly, and he’s grateful for Merlin pulling the covers up over his head; even if it’s childish, if he had to look Merlin in the eye now he might just storm out instead. It’s frustrating, because he wants to talk, but it’s like his body needs to remind him of all the arguments he’s had in his lifetime that he’s lost or regretted—which is pretty much all of them—especially the last one with his father. Which he’s pretty sure many would say he’d won, but most times it’s hard to think of it that way, when they haven’t spoken since.

But he said horrible things to Merlin less than ten hours ago, and now he’s clinging to Merlin like a baby monkey while Merlin rubs his back, so the situation is slightly different. Arthur wishes his body would just get with the program and recognise that it doesn’t need to go into emergency shutdown mode.

“I really wish you’d tell me when something’s pissing you off,” Merlin says, not at all caustically, but there’s an edge of genuine disquiet to it.

“I’m trying—” Arthur forces out. “I try. But I don’t want—I know you just want to have fun.”

“Arthur—”

“I don’t want to ruin things for you just because I’m feeling particularly—”

“Don’t be such a wanker,” Merlin says softly, scrubbing his knuckles gently over Arthur’s back. “Fuck, Arthur—I hate when you just do your whole keep calm and carry on routine.”

“Sorry,” says Arthur miserably.

“You don’t—” Merlin starts, exasperated, and stops. He sighs, quick and sharp, then starts again. “I love connecting with people,” he says, tone noticeably calmer. “And I love sex, and I don’t see why—”

Arthur’s heard this speech before—and it’s not justification, it’s just Merlin, and Arthur loves him for it—but Merlin must have felt him tense, because he cuts himself off again with, “Arthur—I’m not looking for another boyfriend.”

Arthur relaxes—his body pressed against Merlin must be far more telling than his stilted words—and Merlin’s arm tightens against his back.

“Though, fuck,” Merlin half-laughs a little helplessly. “I don’t know why you insist on using that word.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Arthur mumbles, feeling affronted—he likes that word, likes saying it to people to watch their face as they re-evaluate the straight-looking guy standing right in front of them. Though it is a petty sort of joy, like the first time his dad caught him smoking when he was still in his rebellious teen phase.

“It’s just so… high school. Besides, you’re not—we’re not—you’re my partner.”

Arthur frowns. “What about Morgana and Gwen?”

“Fuck’s sake, Arthur. You’re not all interchangeable.” Merlin’s exasperation is good-natured, and his hand moves from Arthur’s back to his hair, fingers stroking through it with preoccupied firmness.

Arthur tests out the word in his head—thinking it might be a little too close to his job to be something that he can actually apply to their situation—but… it works. And even with—especially with—Morgana and Gwen as well, it works. They’re a team; and the comfort of that thought outweighs the vague, self-conscious silliness.

“You’re not on a trial period or anything, here,” Merlin says. “So you should just… tell me when there’s stuff, okay? I’d rather make you happy than get laid.”

“What if getting laid would make me happy?” Arthur deflects.

“Seriously, though—”

“It’s not that easy,” Arthur grunts out.

“It doesn’t have to be hard, Arthur—”

“Merlin, I’m just—I’m telling you now.” Arthur stops, breathes. Merlin’s tense under him, but he’s listening. “Don’t fucking patronise me, okay? I’m telling you it’s hard for me, can you at least respect that?” Arthur feels sickly dizzy, like he’s just careened down a verbal rollercoaster with no warning; he braces himself for the next drop. “I’m fucking trying—

“I know.” Merlin puts him out of his misery. “I just… don’t like it when you get all repressed and then explode at me.”

“Then try not being so oblivious all the time.” He feels Merlin’s breath catch at that, and it hooks into Arthur’s chest as well, but it feels more like a necessary hurt, this time. Maybe this is what Morgana was talking about.

“Okay,” Merlin says. “Okay.”

They lie still and silent for a long while. Merlin’s hand takes up its idle movement in Arthur’s hair again, calmer this time, and it’s not long before the decision as to whether Arthur’s going to fall asleep again is about to be taken out of his hands.

Merlin stirs, nudging Arthur out of his drifting. “I think I smell pancakes.”

“Mmmf,” Arthur agrees, “probably; that would explain all the drool.” He lifts his head and wipes at his cheek.

Merlin makes an unconvincing noise of outrage. “On my shirt!”

“Which smells like an ashtray,” Arthur informs him. Before Merlin can respond, Arthur levers himself up, easing back out of the bed. “Get changed and I’ll save you some.”

“You’d better,” Merlin says, and, “Wait. Please—”

Arthur pauses half-way to standing up and Merlin scoots forward to wrap arms around Arthur’s neck, dragging him back down for a kiss.

“This mean you’ll be sleeping in your own bed again?” Arthur asks when he finally manages to extract himself from Merlin’s clutches, standing in the doorway and looking around the room.

“Not bloody likely,” Merlin says like it’s the most outlandish thing he’s ever heard. Arthur smirks, and goes to follow the smell of frying Nuttelex.

*

Monday is strange. In the true tradition of Melbourne weather, the whole weekend had been wet and chilly, but Monday dawns with a china blue sky, just the occasional brisk breeze reminding them that it’s still autumn.

Especially after spending the weekend lazing inside, it feels odd not to be going to work. Arthur feels strangely sedate, suffused with a not entirely unpleasant kind of torpor; his limbs feel weighted but relaxed, and his thoughts meander unobtrusively. It almost feels like he’s emerging from a long illness, and this is the start of his low-pressure week of convalescence.

The house seems to reflect his state of mind—Merlin’s left and been at uni for hours by the time Arthur even gets up and gets dressed, and he’d heard the sound of someone else’s keys jingling and the door slamming behind them as they left while he was lying in bed. There’s not even sound coming from outside the house—Arthur supposes everyone else in the world is at work; he’s used to hearing the barbecues and lawn mowers on the weekends when he’s home. There are a few plates and mugs on the draining rack but otherwise no sign of anyone inside, and Arthur puts on a cup of tea to brew before going to have a shower.

He’s dressed again and hauling the grey water bucket out into the backyard when he sees Gwen, digging through the accumulated crap in the carport.

“Hey,” she says when he wanders over, smiling at him briefly before continuing to ferret around, now flipping through the dusty sheets of plywood and cardboard and plasterboard leaned up against the fence.

“What are you looking for?”

“Ah—” Gwen says, crooking up a knee to balance the weight of the ones that she’s picked through before awkwardly tugging at a thin sheet of wood. “This.”

Arthur helps her extract it from the pile, and she props it up against one of the rusted supports, standing back to look at it critically.

“Didn’t know you were the DIY type.”

“I’m not, really.” Gwen dimples at him. “It’s for the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.”

Arthur blinks. “The what?”

“For the party,” Gwen explains. “The ophthalmologist sign.”

Arthur pauses for a beat. “Would you kick me out of the house if I admitted I’ve never actually read Gatsby?”

“Hah!” Gwen exclaims in amused delight. “Not even in school?”

Arthur pulls a face. “We got Catcher in the Rye instead.”

“We had Great Expectations,” Gwen admits with some regret. “Give me a flapper party over cockney waifs any day.” She sighs. “There’s this billboard in the story—of great symbolic significance, you know? With a giant pair of eyes looking down on everyone and finding them wanting.”

“Sounds like a great party fixture,” Arthur says drily.

“Yup.” Gwen looks over at him, squinting thoughtfully. “Want to help me paint it?”

Arthur frowns. “You do know you have more artistic talent in your fingernail than I have in my entire body?”

Gwen waves her hand dismissively. “Don’t need talent for the base coat,” she says. “Just some good wrist action.”

“Well, yes,” Arthur says, faux-gruffly. “I could probably help with that.”

Gwen laughs. “Thought you might. And actually…” She sends her scrutinising gaze over his chest, as if measuring him up. “You don’t have an old shirt or something, do you? My smock’s at the studio at uni.”

“I might be able to rustle something up.”

Gwen sets up the drop sheet in the carport while Arthur goes back into his room. It still looks somewhat like a bomb hit it—he’ll have to just shovel everything on the floor into the washing machine at some point this week, and then sort the clean stuff back into Merlin’s room—and for a moment he despairs of digging through it all to find something suitable for Gwen.

But he shouldn’t be looking on the floor in the first place—he kicks aside the mess enough to open the wardrobe door, and burrows through the coats and suits and shirts until he gets to the clothes that he doesn’t think he’s even touched since he moved in. And not even worn for far longer than that.

He returns to the backyard with a shirt on each arm. Gwen, sitting on the drop sheet before the propped-up board, looks up at the sound of the flyscreen slamming behind him. “Which one?” Arthur asks, holding the shirts up.

“They look far too new to be art smocks, are you sure?”

Arthur shrugs, looking at the shirts each in turn. They aren’t new, though when he’d bought them they had cost him what he pays in weekly rent now. Each. Even so, he can’t find even an inkling of desire to wear them ever again, and with their pastel colours and checked pattern, they’re definitely not suitable for work. “Absolutely.”

“I’ll take the yellow one,” Gwen says. “Pink suits you better, anyway.”

She buttons the shirt over her clothes, and Arthur fiddles with the cuffs of his in an attempt to stay warm while not leaving his long-sleeved teeshirt vulnerable to paint drips. Gwen’s set out two big brushes, and he picks one up and brushes the thick bristles idly over his palm while he watches her stir the big pot of white paint.

“Any requests for technique?” Arthur asks once she’s set the open tin between them and picked up her own brush.

She smirks. “Slow and steady strokes, until I say stop.”

It doesn’t take them very long to do the first coat, Arthur mimicking Gwen’s long, confident strokes once he gets the paint-to-brush ratio right. By the time they’ve covered the whole surface, sitting back on their heels to look at it, Gwen’s yellow shirt is already lightened with spots of white paint; Arthur’s is still pristine.

Gwen catches him preening. “Oh, you have got a bit,” she says, “just—” She leans forward while he’s looking down, and drags her wet brush down the front of the shirt. “—There. That’s better.”

“Great,” Arthur says. “Nice. Thanks, Gwen. Why don’t you let me just—” He lunges forward, his own brush swiping the edge of her collar and half onto her neck; Gwen shrieks and dodges away not-quite-fast enough, jabbing her own brush out in an attempt at retaliation. It doesn’t quite work—well, it does get Arthur more covered in paint, but it doesn’t stop him from painting right back—so she changes tack.

“Wait, stop, wait!” she gasps out between giggles, braced back on her elbow. Arthur backs off, poised just out of reach as she clutches her chest, panting and laughing. Moments later she’s got enough breath back to flop more dramatically, throwing her arm above her head and giving him a smouldering look. “Paint me like one of your French girls,” she commands, sultry tone destroyed by her collapsing back into helpless giggles again.

“You are hopeless,” Arthur tells her as he crawls over, unable to keep his grin down even in the slightest. “Hopeless.” He slathers the brush over the front of her shirt, tickling, and she squirms around, still laughing, her back arching. It pushes her breasts out, small and lovely under the drape of the now mostly-white shirt, and Arthur doesn’t even avoid them with the broad swipes of the brush.

Finally there’s not even the tiniest bit of paint left in the bristles, and he sits back on his haunches and watches her sprawl, chest heaving as her laughter slowly settles, her hands resting comfortably on her belly.

“Should be just about ready for the second coat, now,” Gwen says at length, her voice raw from laughing. “Then we are totally having a tea break.”

The tea break includes the last few slices of yesterday’s vegan carrot cake, and they sit up on the counter to eat it, staring out the window and watching the leaves of the lemon tree wave back at them with the occasional puff of wind. Clouds scud across the sky, sporadically obscuring the sunlight, getting thicker as they watch.

“Maybe we should bring it inside for the proper painting bit,” Gwen muses, licking crumbs off her fingers. “Don’t want the wind to blow up dust onto it. It’s proper acrylic canvas paint, so it won’t stink up the place too much.”

They cover up the kitchen floor lino with the drop sheet and carry the board inside; after baking off in the remains of the morning sun, the quick-dry paint remains just a little tacky, but Gwen seems keen to carry on. She goes off to her room and comes back carrying a big sketchbook with a black cover, dropping it on the floor and sitting down next to it. Arthur watches her flick through pages and pages of sketches and colour palettes and fabric swatches and photocopies and cut outs until she gets right to the back; she pulls out a sheet of glossy paper that looks like it’s been torn from a magazine—a pouty model with magnificently retro glasses.

Pushing aside the sketchbook, Gwen begins to sketch onto their painted board with a pencil, laying out the lines of the glasses confidently.

Arthur grabs his cuppa and lowers himself to the floor nearby, sitting cross-legged as he watches. Once she starts getting in closer and spending more time on sketching out each eye, it gets less interesting to watch, and Arthur finds his gaze catching on the sketchbook instead.

“Can I…?” he asks even as he’s reaching for it.

Gwen blinks and glances down at it. “Of course,” she says, sounding distracted; she turns back to the eyes on the board before he’s even picked it up.

Arthur closes the book and hauls it into his lap—it’s heavier than he expected, but he supposes that’s due to the epic amount of extra stuff that’s been stuck into it.

The first pages are mainly photocopies and sketches of photocopies; a variety of images ranging from classical portraiture to old photographs to runway models. It’s the clothing she’s focusing on most of all—the barest details of a face or figure, and bold, detailed lines copying particular aspects of what they’re wearing.

“I didn’t know you were doing fashion design?” Arthur asks after a while.

“I’m not.” Gwen glances over her shoulder at him. “But I like wearable art. Stuff that actually maps on to the ideas—people—I’m talking about. And my dissertation is on queer identity, so clothes and accessories kind of have a lot to say about that. I’m focusing more on metalwork than textiles right now, anyway.” She smiles.

As he continues through the sketchbook, he pores over each page longer—seeing more sketches and less photocopies, the drawings repeating the elements he’d seen on previous pages, combining them in more interesting ways. Particular motifs begin to emerge; a mask covering half a face, looking whole in profile; a detailed pedestal with a sketchy figure posed atop it; something that looks like gloved hands—or maybe gauntlets?—and a particular swirling pattern that twists throughout all of them.

Then there are quite a few pages with photos stuck to them: Gwen mixing up a tub of plaster; Merlin, shirtless and grinning with his hair slicked back and a towel wrapped around his neck; Gwen laying wet plaster strips over Merlin’s face. Then less people and more equipment; Gwen’s metalwork as she shapes the raw metal to the mould of the cast, her doodles and notes and calculations filling up the blank spaces between images.

It looks like months of work, but the result is breathtaking; Arthur turns the page to see another photo of Merlin—nothing like the inkjet-printed happy snaps of the previous pages; this one is glossy and saturated, clearly professionally done. Merlin’s framed like a bust—from shoulders up—and he’s shirtless, so his pale skin contrasts starkly with the dark background, and the bone structure Arthur is so fond of looks practically carved. The mask fits him almost seamlessly, engraved pattern swirling across the dark patina of the silver, contrasting and yet somehow complementing the smooth texture of his skin on the bare half of his face. The set of his mouth uncharacteristically somber, and his blue eyes blaze.

Arthur stares at it for a long time, startling when Gwen brushes against his back as she walks behind him—he hadn’t even noticed that she’d got up.

“Ah,” she says as she sees what he’s looking at, and sits down again on the drop sheet, carefully depositing an armful of paint tubes and a grungy-looking palette. “That piece. Quite happy with the way that turned out.”

“It’s beautiful,” Arthur says. “Do you… exhibit it just in photos? Or…”

“Oh, it’s at uni—on display somewhere at the moment, I think. But the photos are good to show off in my portfolio.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says roughly. “I can see.”

She leans in to bump shoulders with him, smiling, and though he’s not sure if he’s ready to stop looking at the photos, he asks—“Have you done any more?”

“Yeah,” she says, smiling softly. “I have. Actually, wait here, just a sec.” She clambers up again, and Arthur listens to the sound of her footsteps as she jogs back to her room. When she returns, she deposits another sketch book on Arthur’s lap—this one only half-full. The strip of masking tape on the cover has QUEER MASCULINITIES scrawled on it, and when he opens it it’s to find the sketchy gauntlets of the previous book expanded out into a full suit of armour—many suits. There are printouts and photocopies of all kinds of them; from medieval manuscripts to movie stills, and, as with the last book, the copies peter out and the drawings proliferate, and the figure Gwen is sketching over and over becomes more and more familiar, until finally, it gains a face. Arthur’s face—drawn in a few economic lines, jaw firm and expression impassive, suit of armour beautifully detailed below.

“You’re going to make this?” he asks, feeling a mix of bewildered and excited.

“Yeah,” Gwen says, voice soft; she’s leaning in against his shoulder to watch as he turns the pages, and he’d hardly noticed. “I want to.”

“Looks like a lot of work.”

“It will be. But worth it, I think. I’ve been reading up all I can on medieval blacksmithing, and there’s this bloke in Ballarat who actually makes armour now—for roleplaying and stuff. But…” She pauses, takes a deep breath. “I’ll have to get the measurements right from the start. If… you know.”

“If what?”

“If you want to be a part of it. If I can… I planned on properly asking you, you know, but I suppose now is as good a time as any.” She presses her lips between her teeth for a brief moment before taking a deep breath. “Can I make you a suit of armour? You won’t have to do anything except stand still while I measure you and stuff, and probably some fittings later on when I’ve actually made something. And it’s probably going to be pretty heavy, so advance warning for that, though I’m not suggesting you’d have trouble or anything, I mean look at you, and— Oh god, shut up, Gwen.”

She presses her face against his shoulder, laughing a little at herself.

“I’m not going to look at you,” Arthur tells her after a little while. “Otherwise we’ll get into the vicious cycle of sympathy blushing again.”

Gwen’s laugh is more relaxed this time, and she draws back to take a deep breath. “Well? You can think about it, if you want—”

“Yeah,” Arthur cuts her off. “Yeah, that sounds… cool. I want to.”

“Awesome.” She bounces a little where she sits. “It’s going to be so great, oh my god.”

Arthur laughs, some of her gleeful excitement fluttering in his own chest. The sensation surges when he looks at the drawing again, on the edge of unbearable, so he closes the book.

*

Arthur doesn’t mean to sleep in the next morning. But Merlin not starting class until ten apparently means that there’s time enough for some lazy morning sex before he has to hop on his bike, and he’d crept into Arthur’s bed at around the same time Arthur’s brain would be waking up anyway, alarm or no. For some reason, the hazy, boneless sleep that follows Arthur’s orgasm is more satisfying than the eight hours of slumber that preceded it, and he doesn’t stir out of it until Gwen comes and flops down on the bed next to him a few hours later.

“You awake?” she asks softly, pushing the matter by brushing Arthur’s hair off his forehead and playing her fingers through it. “You should really open a window in here.”

Her voice is teasing, but Arthur’s still feeling to blissful to be embarrassed, so he just grumbles wordlessly, trying to get enough energy into his limbs to shove her off the bed.

“Want to come into uni today?”

“What time?” he mumbles.

“In about an hour, maybe,” she says, and tugs lightly at his forelock. “You could come into the studio so I can measure you, before you go back to crazy-law-student hours.”

Arthur wakes up a little more. “Yeah, okay.”

A little over an hour later and they’re hopping off the tram in front of the Arts Centre—which looks far less imposing in daylight; amidst the pale brick, its long grooves of windows brightly reflecting the blue sky and empty ochre building opposite. It’s also crawling with students; Arthur finds he’s almost missed the feeling of irritable superiority at having to dodge through clusters of morose-looking first years.

Gwen leads him downstairs into the basement, where there are no other students whatsoever, just a huge, low-ceilinged space with a dusty concrete floor. Long, paint-stained tables hold bits of pottery and junk—found objects, Gwen calls them—and past them the room opens out, industrial-looking metalwork equipment standing to attention along the walls. Arthur stands awkwardly while she digs through her locker—extracting a measuring tape and intimidatingly technical-looking book—and then even more awkwardly while she measures the circumference and length of every one of his limbs.

Last of all she does his torso, and Arthur finds himself staring down into her hectic curls—bound in a thick ponytail at her nape, today—as she wraps arms around his chest to pinch the tape at his back.

“Oops,” she says, when she’s flush against him. “I did this the wrong way, didn’t I?”

“No, no, it’s fine—” Arthur says before cutting himself off, and she laughs and draws back again to slide the tape around so she can actually see the measurement.

It shouldn’t actually be awkward, considering that the number of hugs she’s given him must be in the hundreds by now. Maybe it’s the scrutiny—Gwen’s cuddles are usually more about mutual comfort; with her focus so intently on him he feels keenly attuned to every deliberate touch. After the clusterfuck of Friday night and the weekend of lazy recovery, Arthur had almost forgotten what Merlin had told him about Gwen’s alleged enormous crush, but the memory of that conversation snaps back into his body now, making his breath catch.

The tape loosens around his chest and Gwen cinches it again around his waist, and from there down to his hips; Arthur doesn’t breathe at all. Air jolts back into his lungs when Gwen gives his bum a fond pat as she finally lets the tape go loose for the last time.

“All done?” he asks, wincing internally as it comes out sounding far too chipper; he feels off-kilter, and it’s not disconcerting so much as just… unexpected.

“Yup,” she says absently, already turned away to make the last few scribbles in her notebook. Once she’s done, she tucks it back into her bag. Hitching the strap up on her shoulder, she smiles at him. “Lunch? My shift at the co-op starts at two, we might as well go over there early and eat.”

Arthur’s not used to being around on the main campus—the law building keeping an aloof distance with the buffer of University Square—and he’s forgotten how beautiful it is; the Victorian sandstone and deco brick, the enormous trees and open spaces. Arthur feels an echo of the same awe that he felt the first time he visited; that such grand expansiveness existed amidst the cluttered terraces of Carlton.

Union House is far from the most charming building on campus, but it is welcoming in its own way. The main corridor into it is generously wide, and when they get to the stairwell the various scents—fried donuts from the foodcourt ahead, faint bleach and rubber from the lockers and toilets in the basement, and hot pastry and spices from the co-op above—mingle in a way that’s not entirely unpleasant.

The co-op itself is by design nothing fancy, just a little room with a glass front and open door, looking out onto the carpeted and couched chill-out area of the first floor. Arthur recognises Gwen’s own style in the artfully hand-made UNDER NO MANAGEMENT poster that has pride of place in the window, but he only has a moment to admire it because Gwen is skipping eagerly inside.

Morgana’s behind the counter, serving the few customers who effectively occupy all of the small shop space; unfazed, Gwen darts between them to squeeze in to the little gap between the counter and the wall. With the help of another bloke—which Arthur belatedly recognises as Lancelot-from-the-co-op-who-played-footy-with-them, when Gwen squeezes him in an enthusiastic hug—Morgana clears the customers out and turns to Gwen at last.

Morgana smiles indulgently and holds her arms out. “Hello, my love,” she says easily, greeting Gwen with a kiss that matches her words in its fondness. Arthur, still loitering against the wall, shares a somewhat-reserved nod of acknowledgement with Lancelot, and by the time he glances back Gwen and Morgana have parted and Morgana’s saying to Arthur, “All right, sunshine? What’ll it be?”

“I don’t suppose you have anything with meat in it?” he drawls, strolling closer to the counter and eyeing the pie oven behind her.

Morgana smirks, picking up a set of tongs and heading for the oven. “You’ll have a mushroom and lentil pie and you’ll like it.”

There’s another hour to go before Gwen’s shift actually starts, and the flow of customers into the co-op increasing as it clocks over officially into lunchtime, so they lay claim to one of the enormous couch-like things—more giant, cushioned platforms than anything else—to people-watch while they eat their pies.

Once he’s finished eating, Arthur sprawls back on the cushioned surface, propping himself up on his elbows, and finds he’s actually enjoying himself. Watching people move through the space confidently—and bump into people they know just as confidently—gives him a vague feeling of being out of place at first. But having Gwen sitting beside him, kicking her heels against the bottom of the couch and occasionally swaying in to bump shoulders with him, sends that feeling packing. Besides, the chill-out space is bordered by all the student council offices—including the Queer Department, whose open door has a number of people wander in and out while Arthur idly watches. He finds that just the sheer relaxedness of its very existence is making something warm and joyful tighten a fist under his ribcage.

The fist flexes in happy surprise when the next person to stroll cheerfully out of the office is Merlin, and Arthur’s shouting, “Oi!” before he’s even had a chance to think about it. Merlin’s head turns in their direction immediately, and he grins, his hands squeezing the strap of his satchel where it crosses over his chest as he walks towards them.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Merlin says when he gets close enough, coming to stand almost between Arthur’s legs. He kicks the sole of Arthur’s shoe and raises an eyebrow, letting his gaze run down Arthur’s sprawled body. His mouth is twisted in a confident smirk and his eyes, when they lock on to Arthur’s again, are warm with knowing; Arthur feels heat prickle from the back of his neck down his arms, remembering the last time he saw and touched Merlin this morning—just before he’d pretty much passed out in bliss.

Arthur props himself up higher on the heels of his palms, and smirks right back. “Pure coincidence,” he says, tipping his chin up minutely; of course Merlin gets the hint, leaning down to kiss him—sweeping the breath right out of Arthur’s chest with a sneaky lick of his tongue that Arthur was not expecting. As lovely as it is, Arthur starts to draw back as he feels the moment stretch beyond the standard allotment of time given for PDAs; Merlin stops him with a firm hand to Arthur’s nape, holding him in hard for a few beats longer before drawing away again.

Merlin’s eyes are bright and still locked on Arthur’s when he straightens, hint of a flush high on his cheekbones. Arthur feels a similar heat below his own skin, but it’s more exhilaration than embarrassment—he can’t look away. At least until Gwen giggles beside him, and he glances to her then looks down—only becoming aware when he’s done it that the bashfulness is calculated.

“By all means,” Gwen says—not so much breezily as confessional—“don’t mind me.”

Merlin laughs lowly, and Arthur watches as Merlin seizes up Gwen’s hand to kiss it fervently—caught out as Gwen sneaks another look in his direction, hand still in Merlin’s grasp.

Merlin sits down next to Gwen, perching on the edge of the couch and leaning forward so he can look at them both. “How’s your life of leisure?” he asks Arthur.

Arthur thinks of lazy mornings, endless cups of tea in the bright kitchen, getting to see everyone transform from dozy and pyjama-clad to wet-haired and dressed every morning. “Magnificent.”

“I’m jealous,” Merlin says without heat. “Got another tute in half an hour, and then the last one doesn’t finish until six thirty.”

“How’s the chapter coming along?” Gwen asks.

Merlin pulls a face. “Don’t ask. Trying not to think about it. My supervisor’s on leave until the Monday after next, so I probably won’t even think about it until next weekend.” He glances at his watch and sighs. “I should probably start heading across campus.”

“Want company?” Arthur asks.

Merlin smiles. “Course.”

Gwen waves him off when Arthur turns to her apologetically. “My shift starts in a bit anyway,” she says, already reaching in her bag and pulling out the complicated mess of her knitting. “See you later?”