“I can’t believe I’m dating a frat boy,” Merlin laments, only half-joking as Arthur leads him through the security gate and up the walkway to the Rho Lambda Mu fraternity house. The place reminds him a little of the swanky mansion from The Skulls, albeit on a smaller scale: all elegant angles and whitewashed perfection, complete with the requisite manicured lawn. And the size—well, maybe it wasn’t on par with Hollywood expectations, but if Arthur were to tell him that there was an Olympic-sized pool hidden in the cellar, Merlin would not be overly surprised. Talk about excess! He’d suspected that Arthur had come from at least a moderately wealthy family since the moment he’d noticed that absolutely none of his tailor-made clothes could possibly have come off the discount rack at Tesco. But this. This is insane. No wonder Gwen’s eyebrows had nearly crawled off her face in an eerie imitation of his Uncle Gaius when he’d told her where he would be celebrating this New Year’s Eve. There’s a sense of unease growing in his belly—because he doesn’t belong here!—but he hides it with a laugh and smile. Surely Arthur wouldn’t have brought him here if there was any chance that he wouldn’t be welcome. “And I’m dating a posh frat boy, at that! What will my mother say?”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Arthur demands, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He’s enjoying this. Merlin supposes that three weeks is hardly enough to train the ‘prat’ out of any man (especially if that man has been living in this sort of opulence), but he’d harboured such high hopes!
“It means,” Merlin starts just as his left foot manages to find a beer bottle some moron had left laying in the middle of the walkway for some poor unfortunate (read: Merlin) to break his neck with. Luckily, Arthur is prepared for precisely such an occurrence, sweeping a flailing Merlin safely against his chest with practiced ease. Three weeks may not have done much for Arthur’s ‘prat’ side, but his ‘knight-in-shining-armour’ side is flourishing. Blushing, Merlin finishes in a low grumble, “that I am so screwed.”
“Only if we’re lucky,” Arthur says with a lecherous wriggle of his eyebrows—which, frankly, comes across as more silly than seductive. Merlin chokes back an incredulous laugh and gives Arthur a playful shove back, but one arm remains wrapped around his waist proprietarily as they continue toward the house. Strangely, he feels a little more at ease. But he’s hardly going to just let his argument drop. He’s allowed to be annoying about this.
“For the record, if anyone starts blowing fireballs with 180 proof alcohol or cracking bestiality jokes, I’m leaving.”
“What?” Arthur gapes, eyes going impossibly wide. His gobsmacked expression is rather cute, really. Merlin makes a mental note to shock him more often. Heaven knows the prat teases Merlin enough for less reason. “You’ve seen Animal House too many times.”
“Revenge of the Nerds, actually.”
“Figures,” Arthur says, rolling his eyes. “I promise you’re not dating a Hollywood stereotype. Greek life isn’t about toga parties, drinking, hooking up with easy women, hazing the initiates, skiving by on Daddy’s money, or generally behaving like pretentious berks.” He pauses mid-stride, turns them both so that they’re face to face, grasps Merlin’s shoulders, and quite solemnly explains that, “Also, there will be no bestiality. Tonight. We only rape sheep around the time of the full moon, in honour of the pagan god that gives us our good fortune and inhumanly good looks.”
“Uh huh,” Merlin snorts. “Well, that’s okay, then. Around the full moon, I turn into a slavering werewolf and eat sheep.”
“We all need hobbies,” Arthur graciously allowed, and slipped his hand back around Merlin waist with a grin. “Oh, and for the record: we prefer to call ourselves fraternity men.”
“Of course. Because that’s not pretentious at all.”
“Are you always this exasperating, or am I just special?”
Merlin is just opening his mouth to return what would have surely been a very witty rejoinder when a man suddenly staggered out of the bushes to their right, wheezing hard and dressed in what looked to be none other than a makeshift toga fashioned out of a Noddy bed sheet. Possibly he is not wearing anything underneath that sheet. He has frighteningly hairy legs. The stranger lights up immediately at the sight of Arthur.
“Arty, my man!” he cries out enthusiastically, stumbling a few more steps over to throw an arm over Arthur’s shoulders with a goofy cackle, almost whacking Merlin in the head with a bottle of Jack Daniels in the process. The bottle is half empty. Oh, what a shock. “You’re here just in time!” the stranger crows, throwing his body weight around so carelessly that Merlin has an inkling as to where Arthur’s uncanny ability to handle Merlin’s clumsiness might come from. “Bors arrived with the second carload of beers not ten minutes ago. We’re rounding up the freshers to see who can handle the most beer before throwing up. You should totally join us!”
“Uh, yeah,” Arthur says, clearly lying through his teeth (much to Merlin’s relief). “That sounds great. Maybe I’ll join you later, but, ah...” He squeezes Merlin’s waist tighter, nodding lightly in his direction, and apparently it finally registers with the stranger that Arthur isn’t alone.
“Oh, right,” the stranger says knowingly, leaning over Arthur to leer obnoxiously at Merlin, who cringes back a bit. He can smell the fellow’s breath, and it isn’t minty fresh. “So you must be Arthur’s new piece of tail. You’re a cute thing, aren’t you?” He tilts his head so that he’s practically nose-to-nose with Arthur, pats Arthur’s cheek with drunken affection, and concedes, “You’ve got good taste, my brother. If I was a queer, I’d do him.” He then releases hold of Arthur and stumbles back to the very bushes he’d emerged from, where he proceeds to start retching noisily.
Wincing, Arthur hurries Merlin away, embarrassed. He acknowledges Merlin’s incredulous expression with a mulish set to his chin. “Tristan doesn’t count.”
One of Merlin’s brows arches doubtfully skyward—
—followed quickly by the second.
“Oh, shut up.”
“Did I say anything?” Merlin asks placidly, suppressing a smirk.
Arthur exhales the sigh of the long suffering—and pauses.
They’ve reached the stairs.
The cacophony of voices, of music, of life exuding from beyond the door is nearly deafening. It’s already after nine—Merlin hadn’t managed to sneak out of work until seven—so the party is well under way.
Merlin swallows thickly.
“If you really don’t feel comfortable going in, you can say so,” Arthur says, quiet but sincere. Blue eyes study him with concern. “I know I didn’t prepare you properly for this, and I apologize. I don’t know what I was thinking, because you’re— Well, you’re not like the other people I’ve dated. Which is what I like about you, really, just... Um, I really want to show you around and introduce you to the guys, but if you’d rather put it off for another time, we can go back your place. Your roommate is out, right? So we can put in a film and ring in the New Year quietly together, yeah?”
And this is exactly why Merlin likes Arthur so much. They’ve only been together for three weeks, so they’re still learning each other’s quirks and sensibilities, but Arthur is remarkably sensitive to Merlin’s moods and always willing to do whatever it takes to make him happy. He’s a bit of a prince, really. Only he’s also a bit dishonest. Maybe he wouldn’t hold a grudge if Merlin were to decide that he didn’t want to join the party, but he would be disappointed, possibly even hurt.
“No, it’s fine,” Merlin assures him, leaning in to press a chaste kiss against the stubbled curve of his boyfriend’s jaw. “I’m just a little nervous. But I want to meet your friends, really I do!”
Arthur lights up like the Christmas Tree that had brought them together, bright and handsome and very much Merlin’s. “All right, then.”
And, yeah, when they step inside to join the party, Merlin’s finds himself feeling somewhat intimidated by the crowd of strangers, but most everyone is friendly and (other than a few snooty underhanded comments that were brushed off easy enough) have only nice things to say. Some of the Knights (as the members of Rho Lambda Mu seem to like calling themselves) are perhaps a bit crude, but they seem to be a good sort. They genuinely care about Arthur, that’s for certain! Each of them takes his turn sizing Merlin up like overprotective fathers looking out for their only daughter’s virtue as they’re introduced, but somehow he seems to pass inspection because within the hour he finds himself deposited on a sofa between two gruff fellows by the names of Galahad and Gawain, who keep on petting his hair while Bors-the-beer-guy intermittently appears to ply him with beer and Arthur looks on with helpless amusement.
“I think they want to adopt you,” Arthur murmurs in his ear, leaning over the back of the sofa to nuzzle possessively at his neck. Merlin shivers, blushing under Galahad and Gawain’s pleased gazes. His face is going to be stained permanently red before the night is over.
“I’m not a puppy!”
“Are you sure?” a suspiciously familiar female voice calls out—and then the girl the voice belongs to steps into view, grinning like the cat that ate the canary. “Because I could have sworn you were part black lab.” She cocks her head to the side, considering. “Or maybe basset hound. You’ve got the ears for it.”
“Gwen?” Merlin gasps. “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you tell me you were going to be here?” He pauses, eyes narrowing. “You knew I had no idea what I was getting into, and you didn’t warn me? Some friend you are!”
Gwen only grins impishly—and interlinks her arm with a tall, exotic-looking man that has slipped up beside her. “Merlin,” she says, brushing off all his questions in the way she always does when she thinks he’s being particularly stupid, “I want you to meet my new boyfriend, Lancelot. He’s a member of the fraternity.”
Merlin blinks. “The Lancelot?” Gwen had been going on-and-on about her assigned Chemistry lab partner over the past semester, speaking of him with such admiration and angsty-affection that Merlin had begun to believe him nothing more than the product of too much chemical inhalation. No one could be that wonderful. Apparently the guy really did exist. And Gwen (probably it had been Gwen) had finally gone after her man. Huh. “Wow, you really are tall, dark, and dreamy, aren’t you?” he says, eyeing the fellow up with approval. “If I didn’t love Gwen so much, I’d drop Arthur and steal you away in a second.”
“Hey!” Arthur exclaims, repeatedly whacking Merlin playfully upside the head with a decorative sofa pillow (and later Merlin will marvel that a house full of undergraduate ‘fraternity men’ has such things as decorative sofa pillows).
Lancelot, who proves to be a surprising good sport, sounds a battle cry and leaps over the sofa to defend Merlin’s person via an impromptu wrestling match, soon joined by Galahad and Gawain, who are not to be outdone. That’s about the time that Merlin, breathless with laughter, realises that he’s not merely coping with the situation, but he’s actually having fun.
Alas, every good story needs a conflict. Merlin meets his shortly after eleven, when all the liquid he’s been drinking finally catches up with him. He’d switched to mixing Shirley Temple cocktails (despite the mockery) shortly after his third beer had left him crawling into Arthur’s lap and reciting bad love poetry (no shock there: alcohol has never been his friend); however, even Shirley Temples weigh on the bladder. The problem, of course, doesn’t come from needing to relieve himself. The problem comes after, when he is weaving through the masses to discover where Arthur has wandered off to.
The problem comes in the form of a dainty foot outstretched just a little too far at precisely the wrong moment.
Merlin’s doesn’t see her foot slip quickly out into his path—is utterly caught off guard when he finds himself flat on the floor, beer soaking into his shirt and dripping down his jaw. The young woman whom he had tripped over is hovering over him, hands on her hips and lips curled into a derisive sneer. “So, you are the pathetically clumsy oaf Arthur has taken up with. I don’t know what he sees in a nobody like you, except that you probably like taking it up the arse.” She sniffs, kicking at him with the point of her shoe. “You’ve cost me my drink. I think you owe me an apology.”
His mouth opens and closes like a fish, but no words come out. Is this girl for real?
“I— I don’t— But I didn’t—”
“My, you are an eloquent little worm, aren’t you?” She says, reaching down to pat his cheek condescendingly, expression pitying. “I suppose Arthur doesn’t keep you around for your brains.”
“That’s enough, Sophia,” another woman snaps, shoving aside a pair of curious onlookers in a fashion that reminds Merlin very much of his elder sister, Morgana, when she’s in what he calls her ‘avenging angel’ mode. She appears ready to claw out the eyes of Merlin’s attacker. “Just because Arthur dropped you like the bitter tart you are doesn’t give you the right to treat other people like rubbish.”
“Why don’t you stay out of this, you meddling bitch? This has nothing to do with you!” Sophia hisses.
“This has everything to do with me,” Merlin’s rescuer spits back. “Any friend of Arthur’s is a friend of mine. I’m not going to let you bully this boy just because you’re too self-absorbed to let Arthur go. In case you’ve forgotten, he broke up with you more than year ago because you were sleeping around on him. Do you really think he’s going to come crawling back to you? Get your head of out the clouds and tune into reality.”
Sophia glares, stomps her foot like a petulant three-year-old, and flounces away with a murderous aura that the crowd seems to sense, because a path opens before her like Moses parting the Red Sea. Merlin stares after her with baffled trepidation. “Arthur was dating that? I hate to know what it says about me if his taste is truly that dismal.”
The remaining woman laughs warmly, and Merlin bows his head contritely. He hadn’t meant to speak out loud.
“Sophia was a severe lapse in judgement,” the woman assures him with a kindly smile, proffering her hand. Merlin allows her to help him to his feet with a hesitant smile of his own. “His father was vocally opposed to her, so naturally Arthur was determined to be with her. It didn’t last all that long, really.” Interesting. Merlin hadn’t realized Arthur’s relationship with his father was (still is?) so conflicted. Then again, Arthur doesn’t talk about his family much.
“Thank you for coming to my rescue. She took me by surprise—not that I’m ever very good at confrontations.” Well, except with Arthur. For some reason arguing with Arthur comes naturally.
“That’s because you’re a bit of a sweetheart, aren’t you?” the woman says, grinning at his answering blush—which he’s sure deepens from the usual pink to a deep tomato-red when she procures and handkerchief from her purse and starts dabbing at his beer-sticky face with it like a mother hen. “Marlin, is it?”
“Merlin,” he corrects.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Merlin. I’m Vivian,” her grin becomes somewhat wicked, “the woman who turned Arthur gay. You should be thanking me for a lot more than saving you from the Sophie-monster.”
“What?” he gasps—because that’s a terribly odd thing to announce. And, also: he’s really quite tired of surprises. This evening has had far too many of them!
“Yes,” Vivian nods, brushing her blond curls over one shoulder as she pulls back to study him with a frown. “I was dating him for a while last spring, when he came to the stunning conclusion that he preferred men. We parted amicably.” She tugged lightly at Merlin’s drenched shirt. “I think you’re going to need to raid Arthur’s closet for a change of clothes, dear. That can’t be comfortable. Where is that idiot, anyway? What could he have possibly been thinking, leaving a tasty morsel like you alone in the lion’s den?” She licks her lips with a playful wink and sidles seductively up to him, so close that Merlin can smell the subtle sweetness of her perfume. “Why, I might be tempted to take you for myself!”
“I don’t think so, wench,” Arthur rebukes, tugging Merlin into his arms from behind—and naturally Vivian had seen him coming. She laughs when Arthur nips possessively at Merlin neck with a muffled, “Mine!” The romantic gesture is ruined when Arthur pulls back, wrinkles his nose, and declares: “Good God! You smell like a brewery!”
Merlin buries his face in his hands.
“It was our darling Sophia,” Vivian supplies. “She’s played a bit of a prank on your boy, I’m afraid.”
“Is that so?” Arthur says with a frown, turning Merlin about to fuss at him.
“You’re wet,” Arthur corrects, “and you smell vile. If you’ll excuse us, Vivi, Merlin needs to get cleaned up.”
“Of course, Arthur dear,” Vivian replies—and shamelessly shouts after them as Arthur guides Merlin away, “but please remember that if the two of you are ever interested in a threesome, you have my number!”
“Frat boys have strange friends.”
“No,” Arthur says wryly, shaking his head in good humour, “fraternity men have strange friends. I thought we’d been through this.”
Merlin rolls his eyes and allows himself to be let up the stairs and into the party-free zone.
Arthur’s bedroom is located on the third floor at the far end of the west corridor. From there, the music is nothing more than a faint ringing in Merlin’s ears, which is nice. It had been difficult to hear himself think downstairs, particularly in the room the DJ had taken residence in.
The room itself is neatly kept—rather Spartan, really, except for the textbooks thrown haphazardly on the bookshelf and the post-its plastered all over the writing desk tucked in the corner. The blankets on the queen-sized bed reflect a little more of the occupant’s personality, sporting the rich red and gold Arthur so favours, but other than that—there are no posters, no knick-knacks, no evidence of hobbies. It’s not at all like Merlin’s room, which forever looks as though a tornado has gone through it (contrary to what everyone claims, this is mostly due to his roommate, Will, who Merlin is privately convinced is a tornado in disguise).
“Do you even live here,” Merlin asks dubiously, settling himself at the edge of the (impossibly soft) bed to watch Arthur dig through his colour-coded closet for a replacement shirt.
“My father does not believe in wasting money or space on frivolities,” is the muffled reply, which has Merlin considering that he might not know much about Arthur at all. Biting his lip, he fidgets with his shirt’s buttons—and, unable to stand having the disgusting thing on him a moment more, peels the fabric off and launches it toward the laundry basket hidden in one corner.
When Arthur triumphantly turns with something that will suit even Merlin’s “scrawny frame,” Merlin is sprawled out across Arthur’s comforter, shirtless and innocently provocative. Arthur drops the shirt with a choked sound. Confused, Merlin blinks at him, unable to decipher why Arthur might suddenly appear red-faced and shifty—until he catches sight of the telling tent in the front of Arthur’s trousers.
Merlin’s own heart speeds up as he considers his options. “Um,” he says, shy. He glances at the clock—it’s quarter to midnight—and licks his lips timidly. “Maybe we could ring in the New Year alone, after all? I— I would really like that.”
“Merlin,” Arthur groans, “don’t tease me, if you’re not absolutely sure—” Because they haven’t done this before. Merlin had been in just two significant relationships, both of them in secondary school, and he hadn’t wanted to rush into sex—that shocking intimacy—right away. Arthur, being the gentleman he was, had respected that. In fact, he hadn’t even mentioned sex since that first (awkward) discussion of experience and intent. But they’ve been together for nearly a month and Merlin—he knows being with Arthur isn’t (won’t be) a mistake. So—
“I’m sure. I want this.” He shifts, embarrassed. “I mean, I want to try. I don’t think I’m ready for—for penetration. But we can do other things, yeah? I want you to touch me. And I want to touch you back.”
Arthur swallows audibly. “Yeah,” he breathes. “Yeah, whatever you want.”
And Arthur approaches the bed slowly, as if convinced that a single too-quick movement will startle Merlin into changing his mind, so it’s up to Merlin to grab his boyfriend once he’s within reach and jerk him down for a deep kiss, licking into the other man’s mouth in filthy abandon. He wants this. “You’re awful meek for a wild and crazy frat boy,” Merlin chuckles against parted lips when Arthur doesn’t immediately respond with equal ardour, too befuddled to properly react. This sparks Arthur into motion.
“I’ll show you meek,” Arthur growls, eyes laughing, and pins Merlin down for a proper ravishing.
When the shouts of “Happy New Year!” ring out from two floor below them, they’re both sticky and happy and contentedly curled together like they haven’t a care in the world.