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This Silly Ol' Dance Is Perfect for Two

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Merlin Emrys did not usually brood in public, but after watching his date leave the pub without so much as a backwards glance, he found himself frowning at his half-empty beer. He felt more pathetic than he had in four months, when his most recent boyfriend had dumped him. His date tonight had been boring and not very attractive, but that just made the rejection keener. Merlin clearly hadn't been interesting or good-looking enough to hold his date's attentions either.

He sipped his beer and stared moodily down at the table, trying to convince himself that it was no great loss. The bloke really hadn't been his type at all. He'd been short -- shorter than Merlin, anyway -- and dull. He'd shown up late for dinner without apology or explanation and had spent most of the meal talking about his copy editing job. He also had mousey brown hair, a distinct lack of muscles, and a burgeoning beer belly. Merlin preferred blonds -- big, built blonds with enormous brains to match their other body parts. He liked to pick apart beautiful men's minds over dinner and then get fucked apart back at his flat afterwards.

Rubbing his eyes tiredly, Merlin considered phoning Gwen and making her come console him. He felt that she owed him an apology too, as she had been the one to set him up on the failed date. He really thought she should have known better; they had been friends long enough for her to know quite well what kinds of men he liked.

Although, Will had been a recent exception, so maybe she'd thought Merlin would be open to more exceptions. Will hadn't been blond or overly muscular. He had just been smart and kind and interesting. Somehow, that had led to over a year of commitment before Will had finally decided that they both deserved something better. No matter how much Merlin hated to admit it, the truth was that their relationship had been boring and nothing worth fighting for. They'd had too much in common and neither of them had been satisfied being with someone so similar -- the conversations were always dull. Merlin had agreed to end things, even though he had been crushed to see Will walk away without so much as a backwards glance, as if Merlin and their relationship could be so easily forgotten.

Merlin coughed and sat up a bit straighter, trying to clear his head.

He had promised himself that he wouldn't think about Will tonight. This had been his first date since their breakup. Gwen had been begging him for weeks to let her set him up, but he had resisted until tonight. He preferred wallowing in self-pitying misery instead of meeting new men. She meant well enough, but Merlin knew she was really only trying to get him laid. That had obviously been her intent when she had set him up with the short, mousey man -- sex and nothing more. Merlin appreciated the sentiment, but bitterly thought that his evening would have been much more satisfying if he'd stayed at home to watch crap reality telly and drown himself in fruit-flavored tea. He missed Will; even though they hadn't been a great couple, they had been great friends. But Will had said when he ended it that he wanted to make a clean break. Merlin had been too hurt to bring himself to say that that wasn't the right way to treat friends, so he hadn't seen Will since then.

Merlin finished off his beer and set his empty glass down with a sigh. He knew he must look pathetic -- sadly drinking by himself -- but he didn't care. He felt pathetic and didn't want to bother pretending otherwise. The date had been a disaster and it hadn't made him feel any better about his most recent failed relationship, either. He knew that he was partially to blame for letting his and Will's stagnant relationship go on for so long. It had been sixteen months of nothing more than a nice friendship with nice sex, and the only thing Merlin had gotten out of it was a feeling that he wasn't really someone worth bothering with.

He'd been in worse relationships, of course, but he'd also been in better ones. Things with Will had been strictly fine -- never bad, but also never great. Merlin couldn't speak for Will, but he had spent most of their relationship waiting -- waiting for things to get more exciting or more passionate or at least more out of control in bed. Of course, waiting would never solve any of those problems, so things hadn't improved, or even changed. Merlin knew he shouldn't have let it get so serious between them, but he had liked Will and Will had liked him, and their relationship had made him content.

"Oi!"

Merlin snapped his head up at the shout, grateful that something had finally broken him out of his thoughts.

An unfortunately sweaty man that Merlin recognised as a frequent patron of the pub was staggering out of the loo and shouting to the bartenders.

"SOME DRUNK IS PASSED OUT NEXT TO THE TOILET!"

The sweaty man resumed his seat and mumbled loudly to himself, and Merlin rolled his eyes, thinking that the man had no right to refer to other people as drunks, at least not in that state.

Kilian, the old Irishman who had owned the Dragon since it first opened over twenty years ago, left the bar and went to check out the situation in the loo. Merlin pulled out his wallet, thinking that it was about time to get home and curl up in front of the telly. He paid, but before he could leave Kilian came back out of the loo and nodded meaningfully at him.

Merlin simply stared back, at a complete loss as to why Kilian would want him to help with the night's first drunk. He put his wallet away and tried to turn and leave, but Kilian pointed at him and gave him a desperate, pleading stare with wide eyes and pursed lips. More out of curiosity than anything else, Merlin made his way toward the loo. When he reached the door, Kilian grabbed his shoulder and guided him inside.

"He's your neighbour, yeah?" Kilian asked over the horrible noise of the drunk man being sick.

Merlin's stomach protested at the sound and smell of it, but he forced himself to glance toward the open stall. There, sprawled on the floor and barely managing to vomit into the toilet, was Arthur Pendragon.

"How'd you know he's my neighbour?" Merlin asked, turning away. He opened the door a few inches with his foot, desperate to get out of the rank and stale air of the filthy pub loo.

"He's mentioned you before," Kilian said shortly. "Can you help him out?"

Merlin pulled a face as Arthur retched violently.

"How the hell has he mentioned me? I've never said a single word to him!"

"Are you going to help him or not?" Kilian pressed.

Merlin snuck another peek toward his neighbour. "I don't know, Kilian. Look at him. He probably can't walk and he's twice my size. I'll never be able to drag him all the way back to his flat."

"Please," Kilian said quietly. "You know I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important. Normally I would just call a cab, but, you know, considering..."

"Considering what?" Merlin asked dryly.

"Well, first of all, considering he only lives around the corner. And second of all, considering he's a world famous footballer! Come on, Merlin. He's obviously in a bad way and he doesn't need to be noticed by anyone else."

Merlin sighed and watched as Arthur slumped down onto the dirty floor.

"You're going to owe me big for this."

"I owe you nothing," Kilian said haughtily.

"And I owe him nothing!" Merlin said, exasperated. Dealing with his drunken arse of a neighbour was not how he had hoped to end his evening. Merlin really did not care for the man and generally tried to avoid him and his celebrity at all costs. Helping him home when he was off his face was definitely not a good way to stick to that rule.

"What if it was you, Merlin?" Kilian pressed. "Would you really want to be left on the floor? Or would you want someone to take you home, give you a glass of water, and tuck you into bed?"

Merlin rolled his eyes, knowing that there was no way that Kilian would let him leave without Arthur in tow. Odd and eccentric as he was, Kilian was kind and genuinely concerned about his patrons' well-being.

"Whatever," Merlin said, resigned. "At least help me get him to his feet."

Kilian nodded and after much grunting and cursing, the two of them managed to pull Arthur into a vertical position.

"Wanna stay," Arthur mumbled in protest as he swayed ridiculously between Merlin and Kilian.

"Can't stay here, mate," Kilian said, steadying Arthur with his hands. "Merlin's going to take care of you."

Arthur peered curiously at Merlin and cracked a wide grin. "Merrr-lin," he drawled.

He belched loudly and Merlin turned away from the smell.

"Big ears," Arthur said, sounding proud of himself.

Kilian laughed, but Merlin had to clench his jaw to fight down a barrage of swears. He really wanted to drop Arthur back on the floor and leave Kilian to deal with the mess alone. He owed Arthur no favours and even though Kilian was a friend, he didn't owe Kilian any favours, either.

"Off you go," Kilian said, giving Arthur a gentle nudge toward the door.

Merlin sighed and tugged on Arthur's arm. "Come on," he grumbled.

Arthur followed willingly but stumbled so dramatically that Merlin had to pull Arthur's arm over his shoulder. He dragged Arthur across the pub, resolutely ignoring the questioning looks from other patrons until they reached the front door.

"Elena," Arthur said suddenly, just as Merlin had opened the door for them.

"What?" Merlin asked absently, trying to negotiate Arthur's weight out onto the pavement.

"Elena!" Arthur shouted.

Merlin glanced back inside the Dragon and saw everyone staring at them. Recognition was flitting across quite a few faces. He smiled awkwardly at them and pushed Arthur out of the pub so quickly that Arthur fell forward onto a bike rack.

Merlin paused long enough to make a very rude gesture at Kilian for sticking him with this task, then closed the door behind himself. He turned around and saw Arthur on his hands and knees under the bike rack, dry heaving over the curb.

"Come on," Merlin said, prodding Arthur's shin with his foot. "Come on, get up."

When Arthur only slumped lower, Merlin bent down and grabbed Arthur around the waist.

"Get. Up," he grunted, pulling pointlessly.

Arthur grabbed onto the bike rack and struggled gracelessly to his feet.

"God, you're a nightmare," Merlin said as Arthur leant against his side. "You're damn fucking lucky we only live on the next street over. Otherwise, I would leave you here and not even feel guilty about it."

Arthur just smiled dopily and let Merlin support almost all of his weight as they staggered along the pavement.

By the time they reached their apartment block, Merlin was sweating with the effort of dragging Arthur. He grunted as he leant Arthur up against the outside of their building.

"I am so not a fan of yours, just so you know," Merlin said as he propped open the front door with his foot.

"Everyone's a fan of mine," Arthur said seriously. "People love me."

He laughed heartily, wobbling so much that Merlin had to rush to steady him.

"Yes, you're a right sweetheart," Merlin said, lifting Arthur's arm over his shoulder again. "All right, come on you lazy idiot. We're almost there."

"I am not lazy," Arthur protested as they entered the lobby.

"No, of course not."

Merlin nodded at the night shift guard sitting behind the front desk before shoving Arthur into the first lift that opened. He rolled his eyes when Arthur only barely managed not to fall over.

"Not lazy at all," Merlin mumbled, stepping into the lift and jabbing at the button for the 15th floor. "You only got so sodding drunk that you were sick at the Dragon--"

"Where's Elena?" Arthur interrupted, looking frantically around the tiny lift.

"And who is that? Your imaginary girlfriend?"

"Why're you so mean? She's not 'maginary."

"Then where is she?"

"That's what I asked you!" Arthur scowled and moved to stand in front of the doors. "Why isn't it opening?"

"We're not at our floor yet."

The lift jerked to a stop and Merlin had to use both hands to keep Arthur steady when he lost his balance at the sudden movement. Arthur insisted on getting out of the lift by himself, so Merlin watched with cruel amusement as he stumbled down the hallway, tripping over his own feet every few steps.

When Arthur reached his door, Merlin unlocked his own flat, which was directly across the hall from Arthur's, and considered just going inside and going to bed. He'd gotten Arthur into the building and to the correct flat, and that was all he really felt he needed to do. But then Arthur started mumbling about eggs as he tried to work his key into the lock. Merlin watched Arthur's pathetic attempt to get home as he talked himself through the steps of making scrambled eggs.

"Stir over medium heat," Arthur said in a strangely soothing voice.

Merlin shook his head and stepped into the hallway again to take Arthur's keys.

"There is no way in hell I'm letting you turn on the stove in this state. I will not have you burning down the whole building just because you lost your girlfriend."

Arthur crossed his arms grumpily and Merlin started flipping through Arthur's keys to find the right one.

"Didn't lose my girlfriend, Merbert."

Merlin's mouth dropped open in shock and he looked up at Arthur's indignant face.

"What?" he asked incredulously.

"What?" Arthur said blankly, dropping his arms.

Merlin shook his head in disbelief and unlocked Arthur's flat.

"Straight to bed," he said, cringing at how much he sounded like his mum. "Do not turn on the stove, do not pass go, do not choke on your own vomit."

"What go?" Arthur asked as he sat down on the coffee table to kick off his shoes.

Merlin turned on the lights, closed the door, and looked around Arthur's flat. It was much bigger than his own and filled with what looked like brand new furniture. There were dirty clothes and towels and newspapers draped over every surface, making the beautiful and expensive modern decor look cheap and uncared for. The view out of Arthur's living room windows was much nicer than Merlin's, which he supposed explained why Arthur's flat was so much bigger and probably much more expensive.

"Eggs," Arthur said vaguely.

He stood up and immediately tripped over his shoes. Merlin darted forward to catch him and eased him back down onto the coffee table.

"I will make you eggs," Merlin said exasperatedly. "Just sit. Sit."

He backed up slowly, making sure that Arthur stayed put, and went to find eggs.

When he found Arthur's kitchen -- which he bitterly noted had much more counter space than his own -- he opened the fridge and sighed at what was inside. There was an open container of sour cream, a few assorted bottles of beer, and one apple.

Merlin went back into the living room to break the bad news, but Arthur was gone. He glanced at the closed front door, wondering if Arthur had somehow wandered off down the hallway.

"MER -- MERR!"

Merlin groaned, not feeling very relieved that Arthur was still inside the flat, and followed the sound of Arthur's call. He stepped into another room and found Arthur in the middle of a battle with his jeans.

"I need eggs," Arthur huffed.

"There are no eggs," Merlin explained.

Arthur fell backward on the bed as he tried to free one of his feet from the jeans.

"Stop, just stop," Merlin said, taking pity on the struggling drunk. "Here, let me." He stepped forward and yanked the jeans off Arthur's muscular legs. "There. Just. Um."

Merlin had wanted to tell Arthur to go to bed, but then Arthur took off his shirt as well and Merlin found himself staring at a broad, tanned chest. His eyes caught on the silver jewellery in Arthur's left nipple.

"Stop drooling," Arthur mumbled, flinging an arm over his eyes.

Arthur shoved his free hand into his pants and Merlin took that as his cue to leave. He retreated across the hall to his own flat, sent Gwen an angry text, and went to bed in hopes of erasing the whole night from his memory.


~~~

As soon as Arthur woke up, he wished he hadn't. He had been dreaming about being naked on the pitch -- a horribly cliché dream he had frighteningly often -- but even that imaginary humiliation was preferable to the blinding pain of his hangover. He rolled over, hoping to find a cool spot on his pillow to fall back asleep on, and promptly fell off the bed with an undignified flail and yelp.

He whimpered into the carpet, waiting for his stomach to stop rolling. He wanted to open his eyes to see if he could figure out why he was on the floor and, more importantly, find the quickest and easiest route back onto his bed, but he was pretty sure that his head would explode if even the slightest hint of sunlight hit his poor eyeballs. It felt like someone had dragged the wrong end of a cheese grater over the back of them in the middle of the night.

He wanted someone to help him back into bed, but there was no one. Elena had dumped him and now his only non-football friend left was his sister. He knew he would be able to find another girlfriend easily enough, but he didn't want one. He hated going through all the motions over and over and over again with always the same bad results. He hadn't ever had a relationship that lasted for more than six months, except for one that had mostly been a publicity stunt, anyway.

The other players at Camelot Football Club were always teasing him about his love life. He was known, internationally, as a bachelor, and this was a source of never-ending entertainment for his friends. Some of them had taken to asking why he kept letting go of such beautiful girls, and Arthur's standard answer was always that he got bored and that he wasn't ready to settle down, anyway.

But the truth was that he just couldn't bring himself to settle down with a woman, no matter how beautiful she was or how well they got along or how many people said they made a perfect couple. He couldn't bring himself to fully accept that fate; he wasn't quite ready to resign himself to that future.

Arthur made a pillow of his arms and let his mind drift off. An old fantasy flitted across his consciousness and he let it play out as he fell back asleep.

He imagined himself sitting at a press conference. It was a familiar enough occurrence, but this time was different. He wasn't with the manager or any other players. He was on his own, making an important announcement. He was coming out.

Morgana was there, not as the editor of a major newspaper, but as his sister. And Uther was there, not as the owner of Camelot Football Club, but as his father. His manager and teammates were there too, fully supportive and even proud of him.

Arthur wasn't nervous and the news was well-received. The reporters asked a few questions and Arthur gave a few vague answers. He felt relieved that the world finally knew, that he didn't have to hide and pretend anymore.

He smiled at a faceless man who had been standing on the side of the room for the whole conference. The man was Arthur's strength and Arthur's future. He had no characteristics yet, but Arthur knew that he would be tall and strong and gorgeous.

The next time Arthur woke up, he managed to push himself into a sitting position in less than five minutes, which he considered to be a fairly pathetic success. He still didn't want to open his eyes, so he leant against his bed and did his best to stare mournfully up at the ceiling without actually looking at it.

He knew that he should get up and try to do something useful with his day, but all he wanted to do was sit and wallow in his misery. He was single -- again -- and his nerdy, awkward neighbour had had to drag him home the night before. He supposed he should be grateful, but all he felt was embarrassed.

Arthur had never even really spoken to the nerdy, awkward man who lived across the hall before. He'd made small talk with the nerdy, awkward man's flatmate plenty of times, but never with the nerdy, awkward man himself. Every time they ended up in the hallway at the same time, Arthur would try to smile at him, but all he ever offered back was a glare.

It had happened so many times that Arthur didn't even bother with niceties anymore -- they had been mutually ignoring each other for years.

Still, Arthur felt that he owed the nerdy, awkward man an apology and a thank you. If he hadn't taken it upon himself to drag Arthur home, someone else would have noticed Arthur's drunken state at some point. And Arthur probably would have ended up in some trashy tabloid or posted all over some trashy website, and that was the last thing he needed right before a season.

He knew he needed to be more careful. Granted, he didn't get that drunk very often, but he really should have known when to quit, or at least when to continue drinking in the privacy of his own flat.

After a few minutes of silently contemplating his bad choices, Arthur decided that he needed to brush his teeth before he started gagging from the taste in his mouth. He cracked one eye open with a groan and looked hopefully toward his alarm clock, praying it was late enough that he could justify spending the rest of the day curled up on the couch and watching cheesy movies.

Unfortunately, it was barely 9:30am.

Arthur swore and got to his feet, wondering how the hell he had even managed to wake up this early with such a bad headache. He cursed his early weekday schedule and made his way toward the bathroom.

There, he brushed his teeth before rummaging around for any sort of pill he could take for his headache. He downed some of the first painkillers he came across, stepped out of his boxers, and slipped off his thumb ring, setting it down on the sink. He turned on the hot water in his shower and waited a moment before stepping into it.

Soaping himself up, Arthur tried to wash away the dejected feeling he always had after his press conference daydream. Of course, he would love for that to be his future. He wanted to be himself, with the full support of his friends and family and faceless boyfriend. He wanted that desperately, but he also knew that it would never happen. He had accepted that long ago, even though he hadn't yet managed to give himself over to the straight lie well enough to find a long-term girlfriend.

Even if he did somehow manage to get everyone's blessing to come out so publicly, Arthur was sure that he would never have a serious boyfriend. He couldn't imagine finding a man who would be willing to date the first openly gay footballer in the Premier League since Justin Fashanu.

Besides, Arthur barely knew any other gay men. In fact, he tended to avoid them because he didn't want to be distracted or tempted. The last time he'd fancied another man -- during the most recent season -- he'd been so stressed out that he'd stopped eating. The club had hired an additional nutritionist just for him and he hadn't been allowed to play in any matches for over a month.

Arthur washed all the soap off and poured some shampoo in his hair. He scrubbed his scalp roughly, remembering how horrible that time had been. His eating disorder had been kept out of the tabloids, but only just.

Football had been his entire life for as long as he could remember, and he truly loved his job, but Arthur had almost left it all behind at the end of the last season. Even after he had gotten his eating habits under control, there had been days when he couldn't stand to eat or look at other people or leave his flat because he was sick to his stomach from who he was and who he had to be. He had spent years perfecting his public and professional persona, and all it had taken was one cute assistant physio to bring his entire world crashing down. He hated feeling like he had to hide his true self all the time just to please the media and the fans and everyone else who expected him to be certain way -- who demanded that he be a certain way.

His anxiety had gotten so bad that he had almost convinced himself to retire early or fake an injury or just throw a tantrum and quit. He had even gone so far as to ask Morgana if her newspaper was in need of a sports photographer because that was the only other thing he had ever been passionate about. She had simply laughed and told him to keep his day job, and then Uther had assured him anther year's captainship despite all of his failures during his first year. Arthur had taken a few weeks off after the end of the season, postponing his usual summer camp for local youth and avoiding all contact with anyone related to football -- which was everyone he knew.

At the end of his secluded holiday, Arthur had decided to accept Uther's offer and return to Camelot Football Club in the fall with more focus and determination. He had chosen this career and he wouldn't quit until he had to -- and he didn't have to, yet. His life wasn't ideal but it was far from terrible, and he could learn to live with the consequences of his choices. He loved football and as long as he could keep his errant feelings and food issues under control, he could continue playing it for a very long time.

Putting the whole incident out of his mind with a loud sigh, Arthur stepped out of the shower and brushed his teeth again for good measure. He felt reasonably more human now that he didn't smell like death. Fitting his thumb ring back on, Arthur looked at his face in the mirror; there were definite bags under his eyes. He scrubbed a hand over his face and left the bathroom, deciding that he would simply stay at home for the rest of the day. There was no need to show his horrible hangover to the world.

He knew he should venture across the hall to thank his neighbour at some point, but since doing so would result in trying to make uncomfortable conversation with a man who generally ignored his very existence, he wanted to put it off as long as possible. Instead, Arthur went into his kitchen in hopes of finding some excuse to stay inside his own flat. All he found was a practically empty fridge, which was particularly frustrating because what he really wanted, and what he knew would soothe what was left of his hangover, was eggs. He was craving an omelette.

The only food in the kitchen suitable for immediate consumption, besides the old and bruised apple in his fridge, was cereal, but he didn't even have milk. Arthur ran his hands over his face again and let out a frustrated sigh. He really didn't want to get dressed or try to make himself presentable, but if he wanted actual food any time soon, that was what he had to do. And if he was going to do all that, he had no excuse not to stop by his neighbour's flat on his way out.

Resigning himself to what was sure to be a painfully awkward conversation, Arthur retreated to his room to find clean clothes. He stood hopelessly in front of his wardrobe for a few minutes, searching out clothes that would leave him looking casual and inconspicuous -- in short, just like any other person. He didn't want to be bothered by fans if he had to go out in public while hungover just to eat at a café because he had no food in his home.

Eventually, he settled on jeans and a t-shirt. He grabbed sunglasses, hooked them over his shirt collar, and went back to the kitchen to get out cat food. His cat was nowhere to be seen, but he filled her bowl and gave her fresh water, knowing she was probably napping or hiding in some cupboard.

When Arthur left his flat, he found the hallway empty and quiet, as it usually was. He wished pointlessly that the nerdy, awkward man's flatmate had been the one to rescue him last night. The flatmate was friendly and polite, on top of being a Camelot supporter. They had always been able to enjoy a few minutes of chatting about football as they left the building together in the morning or came home at the same time in the evening.

Hoping that the flatmate would at least be there to relieve the tension, Arthur knocked on the door opposite his.

"Come in," came a muffled voice from inside.

Arthur frowned slightly, not wanting to just barge into his neighbours' home. He knocked again.

"Come in," was the only reply.

Arthur sighed and tried the doorknob. It was unlocked so he let himself in, wondering if his neighbours were always so lax about letting strangers inside.

The living room was empty and Arthur looked around, taking in the perfectly organised books on the huge and beautiful bookshelves, the uncluttered coffee table, and all the maps hung on the walls. He cleared his throat and the nerdy, awkward man appeared in the kitchen doorway, an oven mitt over one hand and a fork in the other. He dropped the fork when he caught sight of Arthur standing uncertainly next to the front door.

Arthur tried to smile and say something, but all he could manage was an uncomfortable teeth-baring grimace and blatant staring. The nerdy, awkward man was dressed in faded jeans and a closely-fitting plain white t-shirt. Usually Arthur saw the man in his work clothes -- nice trousers and a button-down shirt and, on some days, a tie. He always looked bookish in that attire, but in this casual outfit he looked normal and distinctly un-nerdy.

The man blinked and Arthur tried smiling again.

"Sorry, I--" The man cut himself off and bent down to pick up the fork. "I thought you were someone else."

"Are you expecting company?" Arthur asked stupidly.

The man just nodded at him.

"Well, I just..." Arthur fiddled with the sunglasses hanging off his collar, trying to pinpoint exactly why he felt so wrong-footed. He was used to talking with strangers and members of the press and anybody, really. Part of his job was to be personable and talkative. But something about the way his neighbour was staring at him with those sharp, critical blue eyes was making him forget most of his vocabulary.

The man wasn't showing any signs of stepping into the conversation to help Arthur, so he tried again.

"I wanted to say thank you," Arthur blurted out, the words too quick and close together. "You didn't, um -- I really appreciate your help last night. And I'm really sorry you had to deal with me like that."

The man nodded again. "You're welcome," he said after a long moment. "Though, to be perfectly honest, I only did it as a favour to Kilian. If he hadn't asked me... well, I wouldn't even have known you were there. So..."

Arthur nodded, feeling the back of his neck getting hot. "Well, thanks, anyway, even if you didn't want to do it."

The man shrugged and slipped off the oven mitt. Arthur couldn't help but notice how thin his fingers were -- and long, very very long.

"I'll go," Arthur blurted out, forcing himself to look away from his neighbour's hands. "Before your company comes. Just, um."

He crossed the room and his neighbour's face became guarded and tense. Arthur paused, noticing for the first time that this man was just slightly taller than him, and not nearly as thin and scrawny as Arthur had always assumed; he had definite muscles underneath his tight, white t-shirt.

The man's eyes narrowed and Arthur cleared his throat and held out his hand.

"I'm Arthur," he said, his voice too loud for how close they were standing. "I don't think we've ever had a proper introductions."

The man hesitated before shaking Arthur's hand. It was a brief shake, but Arthur still had time to register the feeling of those long fingers on his skin.

"Merlin Emrys."

Merbert echoed in Arthur's head and he felt the flush moving to the front of his neck.

"Merlin," he repeated. "Right. Well. I'm sorry, again. I really, um... you're sort of a life saver. If there's anything I can do -- I can get you tickets, if you want."

Merlin's brow furrowed. "Tickets," he said blankly.

Arthur shifted as the blush spread over his cheeks. "To a match," he said, feeling utterly pathetic. "I play football."

Merlin's lip's twitched. "I know."

"Oh." Arthur twisted his thumb ring around nervously. "Well, if you want tickets..."

"I'm not exactly a fan," Merlin said coolly. "But thanks."

Arthur nodded and turned toward the open door, physically aching to get away. Before he reached it, however, someone else came through. A pretty woman stepped into the flat, smiling brightly. She had dark curls that fell over her bare shoulders and down to the cleavage accentuated by her dress. Arthur registered her beauty and felt an all-too familiar guilt sink in. If only her beauty meant something more to him -- then he wouldn't have to be dealing with press conference daydreams and stress-induced starvation.

The woman caught sight of Arthur and stared, her eyes wide with shock.

"I -- Merlin?" she asked, her eyes still on Arthur.

"Arthur, this is Gwen," Merlin introduced them quickly. "Gwen -- Arthur."

Arthur forced a smile and shook Gwen's hand. "I was just, um... I live across the hall and--"

"I know," Gwen said kindly, interrupting his rambling. "I just didn't know you two were friendly."

Arthur opened his mouth to explain, but Merlin beat him to it.

"We're not. He's just leaving, actually."

Gwen glared at Merlin and Arthur could feel his blush returning.

"Don't be rude," she snapped. "He can stay if he likes." She smiled sweetly at Arthur and Arthur couldn't help but notice her endearing dimples. "You should stay, actually. My brother's got a fever and we need a fourth player."

Arthur glanced at Merlin, who was shooting daggers at Gwen through narrowed eyes, and then back at Gwen.

"Player?" he asked cautiously.

"For Taboo," Gwen explained. "We get together every Sunday and play games."

"Oh," Arthur said blankly when Gwen gave him an expectant look.

He didn't know what to say or how to explain that he wasn't exactly the board game type. He was also fairly sure that Merlin would try to poison him if he volunteered to stay. Merlin clearly disliked him for some reason and wanted him out of the flat as soon as possible; Arthur quite agreed with that sentiment.

"I shouldn't," he said, smiling politely. "I have to go find some food to eat. My fridge is empty."

"But Merlin's made breakfast," Gwen said helpfully. "Haven't you?"

Merlin grumbled something behind Arthur.

"I really--"

"Oh, please stay," Gwen said, her brown eyes ridiculously imploring. "I'm always telling Merlin he should make friends with you. Besides, we really can't play without four people."

"I..." Arthur looked helplessly between Merlin's angry face and Gwen's hopeful one. His stomach growled and he cleared his throat, trying to come up with the most polite and firm way to excuse himself.

"Did you make quiche?" Gwen asked Merlin.

Arthur kept his eyes on Gwen, but assumed that Merlin nodded because she looked back at him with a grin.

"Do you like quiche?" she asked.

Arthur nodded stupidly as his stomach growled again. "Yes, but--"

"Please stay. I promise we don't bite."

Arthur looked over his shoulder at Merlin, who simply rolled his eyes and disappeared back into the kitchen.

"I guess I'm staying, then," he said slowly.

Playing board games on a Sunday morning was completely out of the ordinary for him, but then again, so was being saved from drunken tabloid pictures by a nerdy, awkward man who hated him.

"Brilliant!" Gwen beamed at him. "Do you know how to play Taboo?"

Arthur nodded. "It's been a while since I've played it sober, though."

In truth, he had only ever played it once, and he had been so drunk that he could barely stand and ended up passing out halfway through the game. He decided not to share that story; he had a feeling it wouldn't win him any points with Merlin.

"That's okay. Here, I'll give you the tour."

Gwen closed the front door, dropped her purse on the coffee table, and beckoned Arthur to follow her.

"No, you won't!" Merlin shouted.

There was a slam from the kitchen and Merlin appeared in the doorway again a few seconds later, glaring at Gwen.

Gwen rolled her eyes, unfazed. "Come on, at least pretend to be a good host."

Merlin clenched his jaw for a moment before putting on the worst fake smile Arthur had ever seen.

"Fine. I will give him a tour. You can make the tea."

Gwen grinned triumphantly, looking far more pleased than Arthur really thought was necessary, and switched places with Merlin. Merlin watched Gwen retreat into the kitchen, then turned away and gestured vaguely around the room.

"Here's the living room."

"It's nice," Arthur said quietly. "Look, if you want me to go--"

"If you leave now, Gwen will just yell at me all morning."

Merlin scratched at his morning stubble and pointed to a large wooden bookshelf that had extremely fat books on the lowest shelf and all sorts of colourful animal figurines on the top shelf.

"There's some books," he said dully.

Arthur bit down a laugh and murmured his agreement that there were indeed books on the shelf. He took a few steps closer to read some titles, but found that most of them were in French.

"What do you do?" he asked, glancing back over his shoulder.

Merlin moved to the nearest door and opened it. "I'm an archivist. This is my room." He closed the door before Arthur could look inside and hurried to the next room. "My study."

He left this door open, so Arthur stepped inside and found even more bookshelves.

"Are you archiving your own book collection or something?" he asked.

"No."

Arthur looked over the tidy desk where Merlin's computer sat next to a foot-high pile of notebooks.

"Do you work from home?"

"No."

Arthur chanced a glance at Merlin. He was standing with his hands in his pockets, studying the titles of the books on his shelves as if he had never seen them before. Arthur licked his lips and ran over a few lines in his head, trying to find the best thing to say that would put Merlin more at ease. He knew he was imposing and intruding, but something more was clearly bothering Merlin. Arthur just wasn't sure what it was. Merlin didn't seem particularly starstruck, and Arthur was positive he would have said something by now if he was a Mercia supporter, so it had to be something else.

"It's a great flat," he said kindly.

"Thanks," Merlin muttered without looking at Arthur.

He shuffled awkwardly back out into the living room and Arthur followed politely.

"There's the loo," Merlin said, pointing to the next door. "If you need it. And my lizard. And the kitchen."

Arthur glanced at the lizard. It was sitting in a tank on a stand between the loo and kitchen, and it was staring unblinkingly up at him. It was long, with a yellow head, green body, blue tail, and black spots all over.

The lizard wiggled closer to Arthur in a threatening way and Arthur fought the urge to give it a placating smile. It looked as though the lizard was judging him and maybe even plotting his doom.

After a moment, he turned away and looked around for another door.

"Where's your flatmate's room?"

Merlin frowned. "What?"

"Um. Your... your flatmate. Isn't he playing with us?"

"I don't have a flatmate," Merlin said slowly, looking at Arthur with concern.

"Did he move out?" Arthur asked, confused.

"I've never had a flatmate."

Arthur fiddled with his sunglasses again, thinking over the conversations he had had with the man he had seen come out of Merlin's flat countless times.

"But... there's this bloke I always see coming in and out your door. We talk about football." Arthur looked back at the lizard tank as he spoke, feeling remarkably stupid.

Merlin's confused expression fell away as he moved toward the couch. "That was Will," he said, offering no more explanation.

"So, I didn't just invent a person?" Arthur pressed. "He's around?"

Merlin crouched down near the coffee table to pull Taboo out of its cupboard. "He's not around," he said shortly. He set the game on the coffee table and perched himself on the very edge of the couch.

"Oh."

Merlin glanced over his shoulder for a moment, his face serious but otherwise unreadable. Then he turned back around and opened the box to set up the game.

"We broke up."

"Oh," Arthur said again. Oh.

Before he had time to process and respond to that, the front door opened and another woman came into the living room.

She was tiny, skinnier than either Gwen or Merlin, but very pretty. Merlin stood to hug her in greeting and Arthur shifted slightly from where he stood awkwardly behind the couch. He tried not to stare as they embraced and kissed each other on the cheek and spoke in low tones. If Merlin hadn't just said that he dated men -- which Arthur was trying really hard to pretend hadn't happened -- Arthur would have assumed that this newcomer was Merlin's girlfriend. They were obviously close.

Just as Arthur was wondering if maybe Merlin dated women as well, the woman glanced over Merlin's shoulder and gave Arthur a wary smile.

"Is that--"

"Yeah, that's Arthur," Merlin said quickly. "Arthur, this is Freya."

Arthur moved across the room to shake her hand, trying to appear confident and less out-of-place than he felt. "Good to meet you."

"You, too," Freya said sweetly and turned back to Merlin. "Are Gwen and Elyan here?"

"Gwen's in the kitchen. Elyan's not coming, so..." Merlin gestured unenthusiastically at Arthur, who blushed instantly. "He's playing instead."

Freya raised her eyebrows but didn't comment.

"The tea's probably ready," Merlin said after a moment of awkward silence. "Would you like some?" he asked Arthur.

Arthur nodded, surprised by the offer. "Yes, please."

Merlin hurried into the kitchen and Arthur started twisting his thumb ring again. He couldn't even remember the last time he felt so uncomfortable. He was used to being around strangers and people who were intimidated by him, but Merlin made him feel like he must be a terrible human being; Merlin clearly disliked him and wanted nothing to do with him. All Arthur wanted to do was go back to his own flat and eat his dry cereal and spend the rest of the day on the couch with his cat.

Freya was still standing by the door, smiling awkwardly and attempting to catch his eye, but Arthur avoided her. He usually considered himself to be a very good people person, but his entire morning was making him re-think that sentiment.

He tried to convince himself that he was just having an off day; he was still hungover and probably still getting over the break-up with Elena. Besides, he wasn't used to socialising with gay men, or men who were so disdainful toward him for unknown reasons.

Just as Arthur had decided that he might as well escape while Merlin was in the other room, Merlin and Gwen came back out with tea for all of them.

Merlin handed Arthur a mug and Arthur brought it up to his lips to blow into the tea, but then Freya stifled a high-pitched giggle. He glanced at her for a second, confused, but she just looked away, a small smile on her face. He went back to cooling his tea, but then Gwen snorted back a giggle of her own.

Arthur looked at Merlin, but Merlin was determinately blowing into his own tea and staring at the floor. Compulsively, Arthur looked down at himself, hoping his fly wasn't open. Then he turned his mug around and saw what the girls had been trying not to laugh at.

Merlin had given him his tea in a gay pride mug. Arthur blinked at the rainbow flag painted across it, trying not to panic and trying to calmly rationalize Merlin's move. Merlin was probably just testing him to see if he was homophobic. He wasn't, but that didn't mean he wanted to drink out of a gay pride mug.

After a few seconds, Arthur decided not to make a comment. He simply brought it back up to his lips and blew into it, trying to seem calm and unaffected. It was just a mug and Merlin was just taking the piss. There was no way that any of them could have realised that Arthur was gay so quickly.

A timer went off in the kitchen and Merlin excused himself, muttering something about the quiche, and then Arthur was alone with Gwen and Freya.

"Don't take it personally," Gwen said quietly. "He's had some trouble with footballers in the past and I think he's--"

"He's just uncomfortable," Freya interjected quickly, her tone suggesting that Gwen had revealed far too much. "He gets sort of, um, snarky when he feels like people might not, um... be comfortable with..." She gestured at the gay pride mug.

"He's really very kind," Gwen insisted. "I think he's just caught off-guard. He doesn't like new people."

Arthur nodded, wanting them to stop their rambling explanations. "I don't have a problem with it," he said, lifting his mug slightly to indicate the rainbow flag.

"Great," Freya said, grinning widely. "Then you can be on his team for Taboo."

"Yes!" Gwen agreed quickly. "Battle of the sexes."

Arthur forced a smile and took a sip of his tea even though it was still too hot. He tried not to make a face as he burnt his tongue.

"Can you grab some plates?" Merlin asked as he reappeared, one quiche balanced in each hand.

Arthur's mouth watered at the smell, his burnt tongue already forgotten. His stomach growled embarrassingly loudly as Merlin set the quiches down on the coffee table. Freya went to fetch plates as Merlin sat down on the couch.

"Thanks," Gwen said, sitting next to Merlin and kissing him on the cheek. "They look delicious."

"Yeah," Arthur agreed.

"This one's regular," Merlin said, pointing to one of the quiches. "That one's vegan, if you're interested."

Arthur glanced between the two quiches. "Vegan?"

"I don't eat eggs," Freya explained, coming back in with plates and forks. "Or cheese or milk or what have you. Merlin always makes me a vegan version of whatever he's serving everyone else."

Freya sat down on Merlin's other side and kissed his cheek, too. Merlin smiled and set about slicing the quiches. Arthur hovered uncertainly for a few seconds before deciding to sit in one of the armchairs that bookended the coffee table.

"Let's start the game," Gwen suggested as Merlin started lifting quiche slices onto plates.

Arthur grabbed one and dug in quickly, glad for something to distract him.

"Merlin, you and Arthur are going to be a team," Gwen said casually. "Do you want to go first?"

Merlin turned to glare at Gwen, annoyance written all over his face. Gwen just smiled innocently and grabbed the card tray.

"Arthur, can you buzz me?" she asked as she stood and moved to the other side of the coffee table so that she was facing the couch.

Arthur looked up blankly from his already half-eaten quiche slice.

"Here." Freya handed him the buzzer. "Go stand next to Gwen and hit the buzzer if she says any of the words she's not supposed to say."

"Oh, right." Arthur set down his quiche and got back to his feet. He rounded the table to stand next to Gwen, looking over her shoulder at the cards.

By the end of Gwen's turn, Arthur was deeply regretting his decision to play the game. Freya had been able to guess every single one of the words and Arthur hadn't had to use the buzzer even once. Gwen and Freya were clearly experts at this game and Arthur's only experience with it included far too much scotch and unsympathetic teammates who had hidden his clothes after he'd passed out. He knew he was going to both embarrass himself and make Merlin part of the losing team, and he wasn't looking forward to it. All he wanted to do was eat the quiche, which was, frankly, delicious.

"Merlin's turn," Gwen said decisively, passing the card tray to Merlin as she sat down.

Arthur resumed his seat and grabbed his fork again. He took a few hurried bites as Freya finished off her vegan slice before standing to take her turn with the buzzer.

"Ready?" Merlin asked Arthur, his eyebrows raised skeptically.

Arthur nodded and swallowed a bit too quickly. "Ready," he coughed.

"Okay." Merlin looked down at his first card, quirked his lips for a moment, and began. "How do pregnant women move from place to place?"

Arthur pulled a face. "What?"

"How do penguins move?"

"Um. Waddle?" Arthur could feel himself flushing. Gwen and Freya had been much quicker with their guessing.

Merlin nodded and moved to the next card. "You put this on your grilled food. Um, it looks like blood and comes in a bottle."

"Ketchup?"

"Yes. This is a... um, mystery--"

BZZZZZ. Freya laughed and shook her head.

"Fuck." Merlin flipped to a new card, his jaw set and determined. Arthur recognised the signs of competitiveness and smiled to himself.

"A priest and rabbi walk into a bar."

Arthur waited for more, but Merlin just stared at him with wide eyes.

"Joke?" he guessed.

"Yes. This is an animal -- like, lions, and this, and bears, oh my."

"Tigers!" Arthur moved to the edge of his seat. He was better at this than he thought.

"This is a tiny... um, sweet thing that you eat after dinner and it's round and has its own baking tray."

"What?"

"Its own baking tray!" Merlin repeated. "Fuck. It's -- argh, it's small and round and maybe you stick a candle in it."

"Cake? A tiny cake? Oh, cupcake." Arthur laughed.

"Okay, this is what... blokes from up north wear if they... like... patterns on their lower halves."

"Kilt!"

"Yes. You use this to warm up your food quickly and some dishes are not safe for it."

"Microwave."

"Yes. This is -- you -- um -- it's pointy. And..."

"Pointy?" Arthur asked, staring at Merlin's stumped face.

"It's, um, it's a sport. Like a track and field sport, I guess. And you... you chuck it and... it's pointy."

"A spear?" Arthur asked, knowing that couldn't be the right answer.

"Time!" Gwen called. "Javelin."

Merlin nodded and handed the card tray to Freya and took the buzzer from her. "Not bad," he said to Arthur.

Arthur picked up his plate and took a large bite of quiche to hide his smile. He had seriously underestimated how fun shouting out random words could be. He knew he wasn't as good at the game as anyone else, but he almost didn't care.

He kept time for Freya and Gwen's next round and tried to keep up with Freya's quick explanations, but Gwen was an even faster guesser than Freya had been. Arthur realised that they had an advantage because they were friends and had played together before; they knew how each other's minds worked and had common experiences to reference for the really tricky words.

When it was his turn for the cards, Gwen took the buzzer and grinned at him reassuringly.

"Don't worry, Merlin's really smart."

Arthur wasn't sure how that was supposed to make him feel better. It just made him feel self-conscious. He knew they were all thinking that he was some dumb jock and he wasn't entirely sure that he was about to prove them wrong.

Freya flipped over the hourglass timer and Arthur looked down at his first card and blanked. He had to get Merlin to guess 'sleepwalk,' but he couldn't say 'night,' 'awake,' 'stroll,' 'conscious,' or 'bed."

"It's, um, when you -- at, um. Oh, fuck."

Merlin slumped slightly and Arthur wracked his brains, trying to come up with anything to say. He really wanted to prove himself to Merlin as something other than a stupid drunk. Gwen and Freya were being nice enough to him, but they hadn't seen him last night. He tried again.

"If you're dreaming and you're... you're going somewhere and then suddenly you really do go somewhere in real life."

Merlin scrunched his face up in confusion and Arthur could feel his neck getting hot again. "Um. Like, you get up, but you're still dreaming, and you... um... you go somewhere. In... in your dreams. But, in reality, too. Like, down a hallway. Or. To the loo."

"Oh -- sleepwalking!" Merlin pointed enthusiastically at Arthur as he shouted.

"Yes!" Arthur grinned and flipped to the next card, which was 'fuzz.' "This, um... you might... find it stuck to your sweater."

"Fluff?"

Arthur shook his head. "I feel warm and..."

"Fuzzy! Fuzz!"

"Yes!" Next was 'speedometer.' "What the -- shit. This is in your, um, the thing that you drive and it... it tells you if you're going too slowly. Or... too quickly. Or just right."

"Oh, what's that even -- speedometer?"

"Yes, excellent." Arthur flipped to the next card and saw 'pupil.' "It's in your -- oh, no. Um, In... okay, if you're a learner, you're a..."

Merlin frowned. "Learner? Um. Apprentice. Student. New-comer. Trainee."

"No, like, in... um, if there's a teacher and she has lots of..."

"I said students. Students. Textbooks? Desks."

"Learner!" Arthur shouted.

"What?"

"Time!" Freya called, laughing.

"Pupil!" Arthur said, turning the card around to show Merlin.

"Oh," Merlin said, sounding disappointed.

"Sorry," Arthur said, the rush of adrenaline wearing off. "I'm not very good."

"You'll get the hang of it," Gwen said sweetly, taking the card tray from him. "Here, buzz me."

Arthur took the buzzer and watched the cards as Gwen sped through them. He tried not to think about losing or how stupid he suddenly felt compared to everyone else. He knew it was just a game, but Arthur had never really able to look at anything as just a game. He was too competitive for that.

He tried to shake off the shameful disappointment that had settled over him. When Gwen's turn was over, Merlin took the card tray and Arthur sat down to guess. He reminded himself that the outcome of this game mattered much less than the outcome of one of his football matches, and even if he ended up completely humiliating himself, it was only one day. He doubted he would ever spend time with this particular group of people again, anyway. This was just one strange morning, and tomorrow it wouldn't even matter.

"This is not where I work," Merlin said after Gwen had flipped the timer.

Arthur blinked and tried to think if Merlin had ever said where he worked. The most he had said was that he didn't work from home.

"Home!" Arthur shouted, much louder than necessary. "House, home!"

Merlin grinned and moved onto the next card. Arthur just smiled broadly and continued shouting out his guesses, unable to stay calm or quiet when he was trying to get his brain and tongue to work in rapid succession. He was much better at guessing than he was at hinting, but now he was thinking that he might be able to improve. He just needed a few more turns to practice thinking so quickly and creatively.

"Good," Merlin said appraisingly when his time was up.

Arthur beamed and watched Merlin take over the buzzer for Freya's turn. The girls were still winning, but Arthur was already starting to accept defeat. Merlin didn't seem too upset that they were losing, anyway; he seemed more concerned with having fun than truly competing. That was a concept Arthur hadn't come across since childhood.

Merlin clearly wanted to give good hints and make good guesses, but it was obvious that his main goal was to enjoy himself and this time with his friends. His eyes were lit up as he rested his thumb on the buzzer, eager to interrupt his friend. Freya was a pro and never needed to be buzzed, but Merlin waited at the ready anyway. He laughed when Freya gave humorous hints or when Gwen guessed the wrong word for a split second before giving the right answer. He bounced on the balls of his feet as Freya upped the already quick pace of the game, spewing short and concise hints and flying through her stack of cards. He was alive and practically shaking with excitement about the game.

It was strangely adorable but Arthur tried not to focus on it. Instead, he ate his quiche and forced himself to pay attention to the round that the girls were playing.

Freya and Gwen were flawless as a team. They were like a well-oiled machine and Arthur couldn't help but wonder if Merlin was the same way with the missing Elyan. Part of him wanted to see Merlin at the top, connecting and winning with a teammate who was just as quick and clever.

Another part of him wanted to be that teammate, that other half, for Merlin. He wanted to work with Merlin the way the girls worked together. He knew that the other three were more concerned with fun than winning, and he was pretty sure that no one was even keeping score, but he couldn't help himself. He was a competitive person; he had been raised that way and would always thrive on pitting himself against some worthy opponent and coming out on top. He wanted to win and he wanted Merlin to win, too. He wanted to see the look on Merlin's face when they beat the girls, wanted to see pride flashing across those bright blue eyes.

Arthur approached his second turn with more confidence. He was sure that he could improve his performance.

He had to pass on his first card when he couldn't come up with anything to say for 'Thomas Edison.' He tried not to let it affect him though, and his next cards were easier. He still stumbled over his words and took a while to figure out exactly what to say, but Merlin was a quick thinker and seemed to follow his thought process fairly easily. Arthur tried to keep his eyes on the cards, but he could see Merlin leaning toward him as he tried to spit out easy hints, could see Merlin straining to get closer and to understand and to get inside his brain to come up with the answers.

Arthur got through twice as many cards on his second turn as he had on his first, and he considered it to be a victory. Arthur gave Merlin a huge grin when Freya called the time, and Merlin returned it.

After he took the buzzer for Gwen's turn, Arthur sat back down and finished off his second slice of quiche. He was still hungry, but the pie pan was already empty. He set his plate down on the coffee table and looked up in time to see Freya sliding a slice of her vegan quiche onto it.

"It's good, I promise," she said, handing him his fork.

Arthur glanced up at Merlin, who was shuffling a new set of cards for the card tray.

"It's not going to kill you," he said flatly, sounding unimpressed by Arthur's indecision.

Arthur frowned slightly and considered the quiche slice. He had thought that Merlin was warming up to him, but apparently that was only for the game. Merlin still didn't like him, and Arthur felt the discomfort from earlier creeping over him again.

"Walk on the wild side," Gwen teased. "Drink out of rainbow mugs, eat vegan quiche."

Arthur rolled his eyes, fighting back a blush at the mention of the mug. "I'm not scared. I'm just... what's in it, exactly?"

"Tofu and almond milk," Merlin said.

"My favourite," Arthur muttered, staring down at the quiche again.

"Go on," Freya said, grinning.

Arthur shrugged and cut off the tip of the slice. He lifted the fork and sniffed it cautiously, giving them all a dubious look before putting it in his mouth.

"Well?" Merlin asked after a moment, his eyebrows so high that they had disappeared under his unruly fringe.

Arthur wondered why Merlin even cared. He chewed thoughtfully, mostly for show, and swallowed.

"It's not the most horrible thing I've ever had in my mouth," he conceded.

Merlin snorted in amusement before turning his attention back to the card tray. "Ready?"

Freya stood to take the buzzer and Arthur ate another bite of the vegan quiche.

"I have a question," he said around his mouthful. Merlin looked somewhat offended, so he swallowed quickly. "How do you win this game?"

"We don't really play that way," Freya explained. "We just keep going until we're bored. Sometimes we keep piles of all the cards each team guesses correctly so we can count them up at the end, but I guess we forgot this time."

"We didn't forget," Gwen said. "Merlin just didn't want proof that he's on the losing team."

Merlin scowled. "Just flip the timer."

The game continued on for at least another hour and while Freya and Gwen continued to dominate, Arthur felt that he and Merlin had done a good job of slowly but surely catching up.

Arthur had eaten half of the vegan quiche before Gwen said she was bored and Freya said she had to leave to meet someone for lunch.

"Who is it this time?" Merlin asked cheekily, dropping the card tray onto the coffee table. "Same girl as last week?"

Arthur glanced up from where he was putting the timer and cards back into the game's box.

"Yes, actually," Freya said happily.

"Is she a keeper?" Gwen asked.

Freya shrugged, still smiling. "I don't know yet. She's fun, though."

"That's good to hear," Gwen said, sounding surprised. She turned to Arthur and explained, "Freya has the worst taste in girls."

"Oh," Arthur said stupidly. He glanced between Freya and Merlin, then over at Gwen. "Are you... all gay?"

Gwen burst out laughing and Arthur felt himself going red even though he was relieved that she wasn't offended.

"No, I'm straight," she explained.

Arthur nodded and continued putting the game away, glad to have something to do. His face was burning and he was pretty sure that Merlin was watching him.

He listened to Freya get ready, waiting for someone to break the awkward silence.

"What's her name?" Merlin finally asked.

"Mithian," Freya said. Arthur looked up through his fringe and saw her standing by the door with Merlin. "She's tall, dark, and handsome. Only, you know, in lesbian form."

"I'm pretty sure 'tall, dark, and handsome' only applies to lesbians," Merlin teased.

Arthur put the lid back on the game and looked up in time to see Freya and Merlin kissing each other on the cheek. Freya gave him and Gwen a wave before scurrying out the door.

"I should probably go, too," Gwen said, standing up. "I promised Elyan I'd make him some soup."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "He's pathetic when he's sick."

"Please, like you're any better."

Merlin smiled innocently and Gwen laughed before turning to Arthur. "It was nice meeting you," she said, holding out her hand. Arthur stood to shake it. "You should come again next week. We'll play a different game and maybe Elyan will be here. You'll like him, he's a massive football fan. He coaches it and everything."

"Er... yeah, maybe." Arthur gave her a smile, thinking that there was no chance in hell that Merlin would let him back into their tight circle of friends for another week.

Gwen grinned back at him and turned to hug Merlin goodbye. Arthur waved when she left a moment later, then reached up to fiddle with the sunglasses still hanging off his shirt collar.

"Thanks for the quiche," he said quietly, hoping Merlin wasn't going to snap at him now that the girls were finally gone. "They were really good, even the vegan one."

"Thanks," Merlin said as he bent down to put the Taboo box away. "Sorry if you found that whole thing boring, but it's what we like to do."

"It wasn't boring," Arthur said honestly. "I had fun. Thanks for letting me stay."

Merlin nodded. "Well, like I said, Gwen would have had my head on a platter if I'd kicked you out, so..."

"Right." Arthur slipped his hands into his pockets and made for the door, ready to leave. Apparently Merlin hadn't changed his opinion of Arthur at all over the course of the morning. "Well, thanks again for last night," he said, opening the door. "I really do appreciate it. The last thing I need right now is to end up in some horrible tabloid looking like a crazy drunk."

Merlin shrugged it off. "It's fine. Don't mention it."

"Well." Arthur looked across the hallway at his own door and then back at Merlin. "Thanks for having me." He held out his hand and Merlin shook it politely.

"Thanks for staying," Merlin said, not quite meeting Arthur's gaze. "You really made Gwen's day. You probably made her whole month, actually."

"I'm glad." Arthur stepped out into the hallway and gave Merlin a small wave. "See you around."

"See you," Merlin said before closing his door.

Arthur retreated quickly into his own flat and flung himself dramatically onto the couch. He landed on a magazine and a pair of socks, but he didn't care. He knew he should clean, or at least hire someone else to clean for him, but all he really wanted to do was lounge on his couch and bask in the disarray.

He thought about Merlin's flat across the hall, and how neat and tidy it had been. Everything Merlin owned seemed to have a proper place, and more importantly, everything had actually been in that proper place. It had been a nice change, but honestly, Arthur didn't mind having a messy flat. He actually loved it, but he knew it put other people off. Morgana, for one, was constantly giving him hell for it -- though Arthur supposed that was what siblings were for. Most of his ex-girlfriends hadn't been fans either, though Elena hadn't minded too much.

Pushing away thoughts of Elena, Arthur got off the couch and went into his kitchen. He inspected his cupboards and the fridge, writing down every single missing food item he could think of until he had a two-column list on the back of an envelope. He read over his list when he was done and put it down with a sigh. Shopping could wait for now; he was still quite full from Merlin's quiches. He wondered if it would be worth finding a quiche recipe so that he could try out making them for himself.

Something warm and soft settled on his feet and he looked down to see his cat sitting on his toes and blinking up at him.

"Oh! There you are."

Arthur wiggled his toes but the cat just rubbed her face on his legs.

"If you get off my feet, I promise to buy you a treat later." The cat looked up at him curiously and Arthur rolled his eyes. "Come on, Matilda. There's better places for you to sit."

He lifted his feet until she stood and stalked off, putting on a very good display of being offended.

"Stupid cat," he muttered, following her back to the couch.

When he sat down, Matilda sprawled herself across his feet again. Arthur shifted around slightly, trying to find a comfortable way to sit with a cat trapping his feet on the floor.

"You are such a weirdo," he said, leaning down to scratch at her ears.

As he sat back up, he grabbed his laptop off the coffee table, set it on his knees, and opened it up. He had emails from his sister and his agent, but he didn't bother reading them. If it was important information, they would call.

Realising he hadn't checked his mobile in at least twelve hours, Arthur glanced toward his bedroom.

"Get up," he told Matilda, wiggling his toes again.

She stayed in place, so he reached down and picked her up. She squirmed, leapt out of his hands, and ran into the guest bedroom.

Arthur pushed his laptop onto the couch and went into his room. His clothes from the night before were still on the floor by the bed and he knelt down to fish his mobile out of his jeans pocket. He turned it on and went back to the couch, settling his feet on the coffee table and waiting for it to boot up.

He had three unread texts, two from Elena and one from his teammate Lance.

From Elena: I'm sorry.

From Elena: Let me know when it's convenient for you and I'll come get my things.

From Lance: Are you okay? Come for dinner.

Arthur stared at his phone for a while, trying to decide if he really wanted to see either Elena or Lance. He would see Lance the next day at training anyway, and he wasn't sure he was up to spending the evening pretending to be upset about Elena, especially when he didn't even know how Lance had found out about their break-up.

Besides, he was okay. He was more than okay, actually. The game of Taboo had really lightened his mood, even if Merlin had still hated him by the end of it. He couldn't pretend that the game hadn't been fun.

He didn't care when Elena came to get the few things she had left at Arthur's flat over the past weeks, but he did have other plans for the afternoon. In his experience, nothing cured the remnants of a hangover headache like a good, long wank.
His mind made up, Arthur wrote back to Lance first.

I'm okay. I can't come for dinner, but I'll see you tomorrow.

Then he text Elena, trying to keep his tone polite and neutral. He didn't want her to think that he didn't care, or alternatively that he cared too much.

I'm pretty busy today, but you can come over any other time. Let me know when works for you and I'll make sure I'm home.

When the text had sent, Arthur turned his phone back off and dragged his laptop back onto his legs. He briefly checked the news and the weather before digging through his bookmarks and opening his favourite porn websites.


~~~

Merlin checked his watch and frowned. It was only 4pm, which meant that he had another hour of work -- and then two hours of working on his thesis -- before he could go home. He loved his job -- and he loved his thesis -- but he was already exhausted. He had spent most of the day trying to re-write budget lines, and it had nearly put him to sleep.

"Merlin."

Merlin looked up from his computer to see Geoffrey Monmouth, the director of the archives, standing in the doorway of his office.

"Sir?"

"There's a woman on the phone. She doesn't speak English but she refuses to speak to me in French. I'm tired and old, so you can deal with her for me."

"Yes sir," Merlin mumbled as his boss walked away. He waited a moment for Geoffrey to transfer the call and when his phone rang, he picked up the receiver and tried to sound as cheerful as possible. "Bonjour, je m'appelle Monsieur Emrys. Comment puis-je vous aider?"

Merlin struggled through the conversation for half an hour before he finally convinced the woman to come into the archives in person. He knew that she wanted to donate something, but because she only spoke a dozen words of English and refused to speak to him in French, he couldn't find out much more information.

After hanging up, Merlin slammed his head down on his desk and groaned. He let himself be frustrated for a minute, but shook off the incident with a roll of his eyes. There were other tasks he had to finish before he could start working on his thesis.

Work dragged on for another thirty minutes, and then Merlin tried to research for what felt like five hours. When he finally allowed himself to check his watch again, hoping it was close to seven o'clock, he was mortified to find that it was only 5:45.

He slumped in his chair and rubbed his eyes tiredly, wondering how he was going to make it through over an hour of more research. His eyes were stinging from staring at his computer for so long, and he was having trouble concentrating.

Deciding to give himself a five minute break, Merlin checked his mobile. There was a text from Gwen that had come through an hour ago.

From Gwen: Can we have dinner when you're done at work?

Merlin grinned and replied quickly.

Can we have dinner now?

His five minutes were almost up before Gwen responded.

From Gwen: Aren't you there until 7?

I want to quit now, though.

From Gwen: Hang in there, kiddo. Let's meet at the Dragon at 6:45.

Perfect!

Merlin worked diligently for another half hour, taking copious unnecessary notes to make himself feel better about slacking off earlier, and then packed up his belongings quickly. Everyone else at the archives had already gone home, even Freya who often stayed late to do extra work of her own, so he turned off all the lights, locked all the necessary doors, and headed out for the tube.

Gwen was already sitting at the back of the pub when he arrived, but she stood to hug him hello.

"I ordered you the chilli," she said as she sat back down.

"You're the best." Merlin settled into his seat and took a sip of the beer that Gwen had also ordered for him. "I should really change my schedule," he said after a moment of peaceful quiet. "Two extra hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays is too much... what was I thinking?"

"You were thinking that if you worked extra hours on those days that you could go to your yoga classes on the other days."

"Oh, right." Merlin sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I wish I had time for yoga every day."

Gwen laughed and patted his hand gently. "You're an addict."

"I'm okay with that. Maybe I should cut thesis stuff down to one hour, though. I could also go in on Saturdays to make up for it."

Gwen shook her head. "You work too hard."

"I'd like to see you trying to earn a Ph.D. while having a full-time job and not work too hard."

"That's not a situation I'd ever put myself into. I'm perfectly happy with one degree, thank you. I don't need three."

Merlin made a face and took another sip of his beer. "When's the food coming?"

"After they finish making it," Gwen deadpanned.

"I thought they served it half-cooked?"

"Only when you're here," Gwen said, raising her beer in a mock toast.

Merlin clinked his glass against hers. "How was work?" he asked after he'd swallowed another mouthful of beer.

"Awkward. Matt hasn't been too pleased with me this week."

"Matt showed up to our date twenty minutes late and spent over an hour talking about commas and semicolons. Semicolons, Gwen. Besides, he was short and fat." Gwen stared at him and Merlin rolled his eyes. "Okay, fine, he wasn't that fat. But he was short."

"He's taller than me," Gwen pointed out.

"Everyone's taller than you."

"Is that supposed to offend me? Anyway, he said you were rude."

"Because he showed up twenty minutes late and didn't even bother apologising," Merlin defended himself.

"You're too picky."

"There's nothing wrong with wanting punctuality and basic politeness -- not to mention good conversation."

"And at least two degrees and an interest in queer culture and a desire to help the community and the ability to finish crossword puzzles and a love of nerdy board games. Not to mention blond hair and a winning smile and blue eyes and a prominent Adam's apple and enough strength to toss you around in bed and big enough thighs to crush your head and a long enough cock to--"

"Okay, okay!" Merlin held up his hands in surrender. "I get your point. I'm just saying that Matt was nothing close to my type and you should have realised it wasn't going to work out."

"I wasn't trying to get you two engaged. I just thought you might like access to another man's cock for once. You're obviously gagging for it."

"And you're obviously spending too much time with Elyan," Merlin retorted. "Gagging for it? Honestly. I thought you were supposed to be the innocent one."

"I never signed that contract."

"Whatever. The point is that Matt was late and boring and not that hot."

"Maybe you should lower your standards. It's unlikely you're going to find someone as gorgeous as Arthur Pendragon who is also qualified as a doctor or a lawyer or whatever it is you're looking for."

"Arthur Pendragon is not gorgeous," Merlin protested pointlessly. "So, you can get those creepy little plans out of your head. He's straight and I'm not interested, anyway."

"Yeah, you made that perfectly clear," Gwen said, rolling her eyes.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means you were exceedingly rude to him on Sunday."

Merlin shrugged. "He's a dick."

"He seemed nice to me. Besides, Morgana's always saying he's harmless."

"Did he tell you why he was even there on Sunday?"

"No. I assumed you'd made small talk in the hallway and invited him in or something."

Merlin paused while their waitress brought their food. He stirred his chilli and waited until Gwen's mouth was full of chips before explaining. "He got completely pissed on Saturday night and Kilian had me drag him home and put him to bed. He came over to apologise on Sunday morning and you showed up before he could leave."

"Did you get to see him naked?" Gwen asked, waggling her eyebrows.

"No."

"Shame."

Merlin shook his head and took a bite of chilli. "He's straight, Gwen. And a prat, so I'm not even interested."

"He wasn't that bad. He was nice! He even drank out of your gay pride mug."

"Whatever. That doesn't make him my friend."

Gwen sighed and Merlin went back to his chilli.

"I could do it, you know," she said with a small smile. "I have my ways."

"You mean you work for his sister and think she'll help you set up her straight brother with your gay best friend. Good luck with that."

"Morgana's his step-sister," Gwen corrected. "Or adopted sister -- something like that. Anyway, I have no such plans. I'm just glad you finally agreed to go out, even if it was just with Matt. It's really time to get over Will."

"I am over Will," Merlin said firmly. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to run around fucking every available bloke."

"Sleeping around has its benefits," Gwen said wisely.

"Says the serial monogamist."

"Just because I don't do it doesn't mean it's not worth doing."

"I don't know why you're so concerned with my sex life, but I'll stick to my hand for now, if that's all right with you."

"It's not, but I can see I'm not going to convince you. How is your hand?"

"Just fine, thanks. And yours?"

Gwen grinned. "Busy, busy, busy."

"As always," Merlin muttered. He started in on his chilli again, wondering if maybe he and Gwen knew a little bit too much about each other's lives.


~~~

Arthur grunted as he set the weights back on their stand. He relaxed for a moment, lying across the bench press and staring up at the club ceiling, then sat up and watched Lance finish a set.

Lance sniffed and wiped sweat off his forehead as he sat up and turned to Arthur.

"Are you ready to talk yet?"

"What?"

"About Elena," Lance explained. "Are you ready to talk about it?"

Arthur frowned slightly, taking in Lance's earnest expression. "You've been waiting all week to ask me that, haven't you?"

Lance gave him a small smile. "Well, maybe. I thought you would bring it up, but it's already Thursday and... I just want to make sure you're okay."

"I'm fine," Arthur said with a shrug. He hadn't given Elena or their relationship much thought since she had come by to get her things on Tuesday evening. He had been more preoccupied with the upcoming season -- and with replaying the game of Taboo over and over again in his head, though he kept telling himself that he was doing it unconsciously. "How did you find out, anyway?"

"She phoned me on Saturday night," Lance said guiltily. "She asked me to look after you... she said you were pretty upset."

"I wasn't upset -- I'm not upset. I'm..."

"Single and loving it?" Lance suggested.

Arthur forced a smile.

"Who's single?" Leon asked, coming over to sit on Lance's bench.

Lance pointed at Arthur. "Who else?"

Leon gave Arthur a concerned look. "Again?"

"I'm fine," Arthur insisted. "Honestly. I'm great. Never better."

Leon and Lance looked at each other and Arthur lay back down to do another set, hoping they would drop it.

"What happened this time?" Leon asked gently.

"Nothing," Arthur said through clenched teeth as he lifted the weights. "Just didn't work out."

"Do my ears deceive me?"

Arthur looked around to see Valiant approaching his bench with Gwaine close behind. He looked toward the ceiling again and tried to focus on his biceps.

"The great Pendragon single again?" Valiant teased.

"It happens," Lance said. "It's not like you're seeing anyone."

"I'm taking Gwaine's sister on a date this weekend," Valiant said proudly.

"She lives in Italy," Leon pointed out.

"She's moving here tomorrow," Gwaine said in his thick Italian accent. "She will live with me."

"And you're really letting this one take her out?" Lance asked.

"No," Gwaine said, laughing. "He keeps saying that, but she's a lesbian."

"Doesn't matter to me," Valiant said. Arthur could practically hear his shit-eating grin. "I like a good challenge."

"She wants an English girlfriend," Gwaine said, giving Valiant's arm a punch. "Not an English boyfriend."

"Well, if I can't convert her, I'm sure Pendragon can." Valiant kicked harder than necessary at Arthur's shin. "He wouldn't even have to try. He'd just smile and she'd be all over him. Girls always fall for that big stupid grin, don't they?"

Arthur dropped the weights back on their stand. "Not lesbians," he said, sitting up and moving down the edge of the bench. He hooked his feet around more weights and started lifting them, trying to ignore the conversation going on around him.

"She doesn't even like nice guys," Gwaine said. "Why would she like you?"

Lance and Leon chuckled, but Valiant scoffed.

"I am a nice guy, especially to lesbians."

Arthur started pumping his legs faster. There was silence for a moment and Arthur hoped that no one would bait Valiant on the topic.

"Why?" Gwaine asked, sounding genuinely confused.

Arthur swore in his head. Gwaine was a great guy, and a great drinking partner, but sometimes Arthur wished that he would just stay quiet. His English was almost perfect but he always seemed to miss out on the obvious jokes.

"Because then I'll get to watch."

Gwaine laughed and punched Valiant again. Arthur glanced over at Lance and Leon, who were rolling their eyes but still grinning.

"No lesbian will ever let you watch," Lance said categorically. "That's rather the point of being a lesbian."

"Maybe you can find gay men to let you watch, instead," Gwaine said, chuckling.

"Why would I want to watch a bunch of queers?" Valiant asked, his tone serious.

"Maybe they can teach you something about how to treat a lady," Gwaine said without missing a beat.

Leon snorted and Arthur let the weight drops with a clang.

"I'm going to stretch," he mumbled, pushing his way past Valiant.

Arthur settled himself on a mat in the far corner and started stretching out his legs. He tried to clear his mind, but it was reeling. He had never got along with Valiant, but for the first few years they'd played together, it hadn't mattered. Then Arthur had been made team captain the year before, and he felt pressured to get along with everyone. Valiant certainly didn't make it easy; he seemed utterly clueless about how rude and offensive he almost always was.

Arthur knew he should just shake it off and move on, but his tolerance for Valiant's bullshit was extremely limited. He'd found out at the end of their previous season that Valiant had been the reason behind one of the assistant physios quitting. Arthur had been relieved to see him go -- he'd been the source of Arthur's stress-induced eating disorder-- until one of the other assistant physios let slip that he'd quit because of Valiant's constant homophobic remarks.

The news hadn't been entirely surprising. Arthur had seen Valiant interact with the man and was frankly amazed that he had lasted as long as he did, considering it was the reason he'd finally quit. Every time he'd laid his hands on Valiant, for stretching or massaging or anything, Valiant had teased him about enjoying it and then said in no uncertain terms that he had better keep his hands in appropriate places or risk being punched.

Arthur thought about Gwen and what she had said about Merlin having "trouble" with footballers. It didn't take much imagination to figure out what she had meant. Arthur knew first-hand that athletes could be crass, lewd, and downright offensive. He had heard racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks tossed around in the locker room for so long that he was almost -- almost -- desensitised to it.

"Hey."

Arthur looked up to see Lance hovering over him.

"You all right?" Lance asked, grabbing Arthur's right leg and holding it straight up in the air.

Arthur breathed through the tight burn running down the back of his leg.

"I'm good," Arthur said on a sigh as Lance let go of his leg.

"Good." Lance stretched Arthur's left leg before lying down on the next mat to do his own stretches.


~~~

Merlin had already had quite a lot to drink. He was out with his friends, celebrating the start of the weekend and also the fact that he had accomplished so much on his thesis. It was rare that he had such a productive week, especially since he'd quit early on Tuesday afternoon. Usually he got distracted by his job, or got lazy about analysing data, or got overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done and just let it pile up around him.

However, this week he had managed to exceed his goals, and so he felt that he deserved a night out. When he suggested it to Gwen, she immediately called their friends and told everyone who was free to meet them at the Unicorn.

The Unicorn was the gay club across the street from the Dragon. It was small and full of glitter and people who liked to do drugs and take their clothes off.

Freya and Mithian were dancing, Gwen and Elyan were chatting near the door, and Merlin was at the bar with Morgana, eye-fucking a huge blond across the room.

"Go talk to him," Morgana shouted in his ear to be heard over the thumping music.

"No thanks," Merlin screamed back. "I rather fancy my dignity."

"You're no fun," Morgana teased.

Merlin shrugged, finished off his cocktail, and turned to order another. He flirted a little with Mordred, the suspiciously young-looking bartender, licking his lips a few too many times and admittedly overusing his bedroom eyes.

"You're drunk," Morgana pointed out as Merlin started sipping his new drink.

Merlin nodded and tried to search out the blond again, but he had disappeared.

"You should go dance with someone. Aren't you supposed to be celebrating?"

Merlin shrugged and swallowed too much of his cocktail at once. He coughed and shuddered as the alcohol burned on the way down. He wasn't in the right mindset to go find someone to dance with. All the drinks had put him in a weird headspace. He liked watching sexy men dance, and he was definitely horny, but he had a horrible pang of loneliness that had settled in his chest somewhere around the time he had seen Freya and Mithian making out over their shared vodka shots.

He really didn't want to get off with some random guy. Something like that would only be satisfying until the moment of orgasm, and then there would be nothing left but awkwardness and regret.

Merlin wanted a boyfriend. He had liked being with Will, even if it had been boring and unfulfilling. He liked having someone there, someone to share things with, someone to cuddle and say stupid things to in the middle of the night.

He wanted even more than that, though. He wanted someone who drove him out of his mind with desire. He wanted someone who made him desperate with lust. He wanted someone who could really do a number on him in bed... and cover him with kitten licks afterward. He wanted someone who liked to watch stupid shows and drink lots of tea and do puzzles. He wanted someone to race against in crosswords or sudokus or even jigsaws. He wanted someone who wouldn't judge him for wanting to make an ice-cream-eating fort in his living room during the summer. He wanted someone to help him build the fort, someone who would buy specific ice-cream-eating-fort ice cream, someone who would smear that ice cream on him and then lick it off and fuck him in the fort. He wanted someone who liked weird pets and rainbows and vegan chocolate and glitter eyeshadow.

"HEY!" Morgana's fingers snapped in front of his face.

Merlin startled and fumbled his glass. Morgana caught it and set it down on the bar, but Merlin quickly grabbed it again and started sipping at it.

"You zoned out," she said, looking concerned.

"Sorry. Drunk."

Morgana gave him a lopsided smirk. "You're really adorable sometimes."

Merlin rolled his eyes and tried his best not to pout. "Adorable isn't going to get me an ice-cream-fort-building boyfriend!"

Morgana gave him a worried look for a moment, but then burst out laughing. "God, you are drunk, aren't you?"

"Yes, we've established that."

"Such big words," Morgana teased. "Let me tell you what. I don't know about the ice cream fort business, but I know some very attractive and very available gay men I can set you up with, if you're in the mood for boyfriend shopping."

Merlin finished off his drink, pulled a face, and slammed his glass down on the bar. "Fuck your availactive and attractible gay men. I can get a boyfriend on my own!"

Before Morgana could do anything other than blink, Merlin pushed himself away from the bar and headed toward the door. Gwen and Elyan tried to stop him from leaving, but he told them that he had a headache and, after many assurances that he was fine to walk home and that he would call if he felt like he was going to choke on his own vomit, they let him leave.


~~~

Arthur was sore, but he was almost always sore. He had gotten an extra long massage at the end of training that day, and while it had eased the pain in his knees, it had also put him half to sleep. He was exhausted and all he wanted was ice cream and maybe a long cuddle with Matilda.

Unfortunately, he and Matilda had never followed the same cuddling schedule. She was usually highly affronted when he tried to interrupt her naps for a bit of affection.

Also unfortunately, he didn't have any ice cream. He never bought himself sweets, because eating ice cream and cookies every time he felt sore and lonely was no way to stay fit for a season.

Arthur shifted slightly on the couch, wishing not for the first time that he had magic food-summoning powers. He had some granola bars in the kitchen that would have to do for his late-night snack, but he really didn't want to get up to find them. He wanted them to just come to him, and he really didn't think that was too much to ask for.

Just as he was deciding to stay on the couch and suffer though a snackless night -- with lots of porn to ease his pain -- Arthur's doorknob started turning. He watched curiously as it shook pointlessly, the muffled sounds of someone struggling with a key coming into his supposedly soundproof flat.

When it had gone on for at least a minute, Arthur stood up and checked the peephole. Merlin was in the hallway, looking red-faced and sweaty. Arthur took pity and opened his door. Merlin nearly fell into him and only just managed to put a hand out to stop himself.

"Sorry," Merlin said, blinking at his hand, which had landed on Arthur's chest. "Get out of my flat."

Arthur took in the glitter splashed across Merlin's eyelids and cheekbones, wondering if it had smeared or if Merlin had done it that way on purpose. It was odd to see a fully-grown man covered in glitter, but Arthur quickly decided that it was a good look on Merlin; it brought out his already prominent cheekbones, emphasising how long and sharp they were.

"This is my flat," Arthur said quickly when he realised he'd been staring. "You must be very drunk."

"Your fucking sister made me drunk," Merlin mumbled, dropping his hand. He wrestled with his keys for a moment before managing to pull them out of Arthur's doorknob.

"You know my sister?" Arthur asked, slightly panicked. He was close with Morgana, but he generally tried to keep their lives very separate. He didn't socialise with her friends and he never invited her to socialise with his teammates. It was bad enough having his father so involved in his professional life -- he didn't need his sister there as well.

"Everyone knows your sister," Merlin said vaguely as he stumbled through an attempt to turn around and face the correct door. He unlocked his flat and made a beeline for his couch, not bothering to turn on the lights or close the door.

Arthur stepped out of his own flat, careful to close his own door, and walked across the hallway. He flipped the lights on and eyed Merlin warily.

"Do you like need a bucket or something?"

Merlin, who was sprawled out on the couch like a glittering, dying starfish, shook his head. "I need a good fuck."

Arthur blinked, trying hard not to imagine someone fucking Merlin right there on the couch. "I'm not sure I can help you with that."

"I don't want your help!" Merlin shouted. Arthur quickly closed the door, eager not to disturb anyone else on their hall. "I don't want anyone's help! I'm not so pathetic that I can't find my own damn dates."

"Mate, I wasn't saying--"

"Your sister!" Merlin sat up slightly and pointed accusingly at Arthur. "She's trying to set me up with hot men."

Arthur couldn't help but laugh at Merlin's offended tone. "I didn't realise that was such a horrible thing for someone to do."

"I can get my own dates," Merlin insisted. He yawned and stretched, reaching his arms over his head and letting his shirt ride up his front.

Arthur gawked slightly at the hint of ink on Merlin's side. He never would have pegged Merlin as the type to have a tattoo, but he was suddenly wondering if Merlin had any other tattoos -- or piercings. Before he could try to get a good look at it, Merlin's arms flopped back down dramatically. Arthur realised he had been staring again and snapped his gaze to the lizard's tank instead. The lizard was gazing at him steadily and Arthur thought it had a distinct expression of disapproval.

"Do you have any idea how long it's been since I've had sex?" Merlin asked mournfully.

Arthur shook his head. "Can't say that I do."

"Almost five months," Merlin said gravely. "Do you have any idea what that's like?"

Arthur shook his head again, still trying to push images of Merlin getting fucked on the couch out of his head. "No, but--"

"Of course you don't," Merlin said, pouting and rolling his eyes. "You're a fucking football star. You're the whole world's sweetheart, aren't you? Popular and famous and fucking dripping in pussy, I expect. You probably get pussy like, like -- like a cat."

"Wow. Okay, I think it's time to end this conversation and get you into bed."

"You are not taking me to bed," Merlin said angrily, barely managing to get to his feet.

"I'm not taking you to bed," Arthur mumbled, pushing at Merlin's shoulders until Merlin started staggering toward his room. "I'm putting you in bed. Same as you did to me."

"I saw your nipple ring, by the way." Merlin turned the light on in his room and crawled ungracefully onto his large bed. "I don't like this bed," he said, kicking off his shoes. "There's no one to cuddle with."

"You're like a pre-teen girl when you're drunk," Arthur said, deciding against revealing that he had felt the same way not ten minutes earlier.

"I don't like you." Merlin made a face at Arthur before face-planting into his pillow.

"Yeah, I've noticed. Why is that exactly?"

Merlin rolled over onto his back and glared up at Arthur. "You're a stupid famous footballer who doesn't care about anything but girls and -- and food."

Arthur held back a laugh. "Food?"

"I've never seen anyone eat that much quiche," Merlin said grumpily. "Besides, you're a prick and a homophobe and I don't like you."

"You said that already. And I'm not a homophobe," Arthur added, unable to stop himself.

"Of course you are." Merlin crossed his arms over his chest for a moment, then shifted them up to cover his face instead.

"I drank out of your rainbow mug, didn't I?"

Merlin peered at Arthur through the gap in his arms. "So?"

"So... I'm -- I'm not a homophobe."

"Morgana says you're a homophobe."

"Morgana doesn't know--" Arthur stopped himself quickly. "Doesn't know that I'm willing to drink out of rainbow mugs."

"Homophobe," Merlin accused.

Arthur sighed. "Merlin..."

Merlin lowered his arms and looked curiously up at Arthur. "Why are you even here?"

"Because I'm not a homophobe," Arthur said, close to shouting. "Besides, I'm returning the favour."

"What favour?"

"The dragging-my-drunken-arse-to-bed favour."

"Oh." Merlin considered this for a second before rolling back over onto his stomach and mumbling something into the pillow.

"Care to repeat that?"

Merlin grunted and turned his head just slightly. "Will you read to me?"

Arthur blinked downed at Merlin's earnest face. "What? Are you serious?"

Merlin nodded, looking exactly like a sick child hoping for his favourite soup. "Please?"

"You're ridiculous," Arthur said flatly. "Not ten seconds ago you were calling me a homophobe, and now you want me to read you a bedtime story?"

Merlin propped himself up on his elbows and Arthur noticed that some of his glitter had rubbed off on the pillowcase.

"Are you going to read to me or not?"

Arthur sighed, feeling defeated, and looked around Merlin's room. Like the rest of Merlin's flat, his room was tidy and filled with bookshelves. There was a sizable television on top of his dresser, dozens of small art prints hanging on the walls, and what looked to Arthur like a few hundred books spread out over various shelves and also lying on every available surface, except the floor.

"What do you want me to read?"

"Phantom Tollbooth."

Arthur glanced toward the nearest bookshelf, wondering where to start his search.

"Side table," Merlin said, toeing off his socks.

Arthur pulled open the top drawer of Merlin's side table. The book was right on top, but as Arthur picked it up, he couldn't help but notice what was underneath. Merlin's drawer was filled with lube and condoms and sex toys. There were dildos and vibrators and handcuffs and at least three different cock rings.

Arthur gulped and closed the drawer quickly, struggling to keep his mind on the task at hand. He was supposed to be taking care of a drunken Merlin, not getting distracted by thoughts of Merlin handcuffed to the bed with a vibrating dildo shoved up his arse.

"Find it?" Merlin asked, speaking mostly into his pillow again.

"Yeah."

Arthur cleared his throat and sat on the edge of the bed, and Merlin immediately snuggled up to his back and wrapped an arm around his middle.

"Don't," Arthur said, jumping up at the touch. "Um." He stared down at Merlin's annoyed face, his heart racing. "Don't -- um. I'm sorry."

"Homophobe," Merlin said, slowly and clearly. He rolled onto his back again.

"I'm not a homophobe," Arthur said, feeling he would never be able to prove himself to Merlin. "Just... please don't touch me."

Merlin glared at him for a long moment, then sighed and slid begrudgingly onto one side of the bed before getting under the covers.

"I won't touch you," he promised, motioning for Arthur to lay down on the other side of the bed. "Scout's honour."

"Were you a scout?" Arthur asked sceptically, brushing his fingers over the duvet.

"No."

Arthur licked his lips nervously. "Right."

He got awkwardly onto the bed, careful to keep a safe distance between himself and Merlin. His heart was still hammering away in his chest, and he hoped Merlin wouldn't notice how nervous and clammy he suddenly was.

"Shall I start from the beginning?" he asked, deciding to get the reading over with quickly so that he could go back to the safety and comfort of his own flat.

"There's a bookmark."

Arthur let himself glance over at Merlin and saw that he had curled up on his side and closed his eyes. He looked ready for a good, long sleep, buried under the covers and peacefully waiting for his bedtime story. His cheeks were flushed from the alcohol and his lips looked dry and chapped.

Arthur's gaze lingered on Merlin's lips for a moment. They were bigger than he remembered them being. They were full, almost plump -- especially the bottom one. Arthur licked his own lips again and dragged his eyes away from the sight. They landed instead on Merlin's eyelashes, which seemed much longer than a man's eyelashes should be. Arthur couldn't claim that he had ever paid attention to another man's eyelashes before, but he was pretty sure that Merlin had feminine eyelashes. They were long and delicate and Arthur wondered if it was just an effect of all the glitter.



Merlin's eyes opened and Arthur snapped his attention back to the book. He found the bookmark quickly and started reading without processing a single word he was saying. Merlin was silent on the other side of the bed and Arthur didn't dare check to see if his eyes were closed again.

Two chapters later, Arthur finally relaxed enough to pay attention to what he was reading. Best he could figure, there was a small and excitable boy traveling through a magical land with a part-dog-part-clock and giant well-dressed bug. There were puns that made him smile and alliterative dialogue that tripped him up, but he kept on reading. It was obviously a children's book, but Arthur couldn't bring himself to judge Merlin. He found it kind of sweet that Merlin liked to read kids' books at night. Although, why Merlin kept such an innocent book in the same drawer as handcuffs and cock rings was totally beyond Arthur.

After three more chapters, Arthur finally paused and allowed himself to look over at Merlin. Merlin's eyes were closed and his mouth was hanging open slightly. He was breathing deeply and calmly.

"Merlin?"

There was no answer, so Arthur slid sideways off the bed as gently as he could, not wanting to wake Merlin. He set the waste bin next to Merlin's side of the bed, just in case, before turning off the lights and closing the door as he left.

Once he was back out in Merlin's living room, he realised he was still holding the Phantom Tollbooth. He dropped it onto the coffee table and was about to go back to his own flat when he noticed Merlin's mobile sticking out between two couch cushions.

Arthur picked it up and considered going back into Merlin's room to leave it on the side table for him to find in the morning. He tapped the screen and the mobile lit up and prompted Arthur to unlock it with a single slide of his finger.

He knew he shouldn't, at least not without permission, but he did it anyway. Merlin had a picture of his lizard as the background for his mobile. Arthur grinned at it and decided to look through the rest of Merlin's pictures.

There were an embarrassing amount of pictures of the lizard, and Arthur had a hard time not laughing every time he came across another one. The lizard looked the same in every single picture.

The rest of the pictures seemed to be of Merlin and his friends. There were a couple pictures of Freya and Gwen posing with brightly coloured cocktails, pictures of Merlin positively covered in glitter and kissing his friends on the cheeks or on the lips. There was even a picture of Morgana and Gwen hugging in what Arthur was pretty sure was the Dragon.

Arthur didn't know what to make of the pictures. They were happy and carefree and so foreign to him. He couldn't imagine being so comfortable with himself that he would go out in public covered in so much glitter. Of course, Merlin wasn't famous and didn't have any paparazzi after him, so it really didn't matter what he did in public.

Arthur continued scrolling through the pictures until he came across one of the man he recognised as Merlin's ex-boyfriend. Staring at him with what Arthur could only describe as bedroom eyes was Will, the man Arthur had seen coming out of Merlin's flat countless times.

Wondering why Merlin still had a picture of his ex on his mobile, Arthur scrolled past the picture. The next one was of Merlin and Will together. As far as Arthur could tell, the picture was taken in Merlin's bed, while the couple was lying down together. They looked happy.

The next picture was of them kissing.

Arthur went back to the home screen, not at all sure he wanted to see the rest of the pictures. He moved to put the mobile down, but thought better of it. He added his number to Merlin's contact list, deleted it, added it again, and dropped the mobile on top of the Phantom Tollbooth before he could change his mind.

After fleeing Merlin's flat, Arthur sat on his couch and opened up his laptop. He went to his regular porn site, logged in to his account, and scrolled through his saved favourite videos. He opened a few and let them load as he searched for more.

When his choice videos for the night were all ready, he shed his clothes and plugged in his headphones. He didn't care if his flat was supposed to be soundproof; he didn't want to take any chances of anyone overhearing him wanking to gay porn.

The first video featured two attractively muscular men fucking with reckless abandon on the floor next to a couch. Arthur watched them go at it, their rough grunts loud and hot in his ears. He stroked himself with a loose grip until he was hard, then paused the clip and moved onto the next.

This video was of only one man. He was sitting up at the head of his bed, wanking with one hand and fucking a dildo into his arse with the other. He was skinny but toned, and he had dark hair lightly covering his legs and arms and even a little bit of his chest. A thin line of hair ran down from his navel and into the patch of neatly trimmed hair at the base of his cock.

Arthur tightened his grip on his own cock, loving the long, smooth slide that his thumb ring made against his skin. He watched, enraptured, as the man on the screen bucked his hips and let out obscene moans that left Arthur panting and aching to come in record time.

The man's face was cut out of the frame and Arthur couldn't help but let his imagination slip. He pictured Merlin propped up in bed, desperate moans falling past those full, red, wet, bitten, swollen lips.

The man in the video fell silent for a moment and Arthur watched his hips rise off the bed. Arthur took his hand off his cock, not ready to come yet. He rubbed his fingers over his nipples instead, arching into the touch and almost moaning as he played with the barbell in his left nipple.

The man's arse clenched wildly around the dildo as he came on his chest, and Arthur squirmed at the harsh panting noises he made during his release. With his cock still twitching, the man slid the dildo out and reached for a remote. The video went black and Arthur quickly moved onto the next one.