Funny how it only takes a few pints and the company of friends to put things into perspective, Merlin thought as he sat perched on his stool at the White Lion. Just a few hours before, he’d been miserable, hardly able to work until Gaius took pity on him and sent him home from the coffee shop, and now, well, now he was sort of drunk.
“You’re better off without him, mate,” Leon said, finishing off his pint and back-handing the foam from his moustache.
Merlin forced a smile, nodding his head in too-vigorous agreement. “You’re right. I know you’re right.”
Arthur, who was sitting on the other side of Merlin at the table, nudged him with an elbow. “Of course he’s right. The bloke was a tosser; I never trusted him. What kind of name is Valiant, anyway?”
“A bloody ridiculous one, if you ask me,” Leon chimed in. “And those trousers he used to wear sagging down around his arse like he was a teenager. Not a proper gay man.” Leon shook his head in disgust.
“And you should know,” said Arthur.
“I wrote the book.”
“I liked his trousers,” Merlin said.
“You liked what was under them.” Arthur smirked, his top lip curling up.
“That too. But he did have horrible taste in music. And he couldn’t cook to save his life.”
“Neither can you,” Arthur observed.
“Yes, but that’s why I need someone to look after me.”
The music in the pub was louder than usual for a Thursday, and Merlin was glad for it; it was nice to be out with his mates, especially since he hadn’t seen much of Arthur lately, what with his new promotion. He raised his glass to toast the end of his most recent relationship. “To Valiant. Goodbye and good riddance.”
“You know, mate,” Leon said. “I think I know what your problem is.”
“Well, you’ve basically been in a string of relationships since uni. You haven’t gone more than a week without a boyfriend in all the time I’ve known you.”
Arthur leaned in closer. “That would be eight years, seven months, to be exact.”
Merlin’s mouth dropped open; he couldn’t help himself. That was certainly not true. There’d been almost a month between Theodore and Richard. “There was nearly—”
“—a fortnight between Theodore and Richard,” Arthur said, his self-satisfied smirk growing. It was times like these when Arthur was at his most infuriating. They’d been mates since they met during fresher’s week, the three of them, but while Leon had always been supportive, offering constructive criticism whenever one of his romances went wrong, Arthur seemed to derive an almost sadistic pleasure from teasing him. Most of the time it just rolled off of his back, but sometimes it got under his skin—like now.
Merlin scowled. “It was a month. And anyway, you’re one to talk, Arthur.”
“I’m not dating anyone.”
“Yeah, but you’re fucking half the women in London. At least I’m trying to establish a steady and meaningful relationship. And I don’t value people based on their looks. I want someone intelligent, funny, someone I can talk to—”
Arthur snorted. “You’re trying to tell me that you were drawn to Prince Valiant because of his intellect? He was thick as two short planks.”
“He had other . . . qualities,” Merlin said, unsure why he was getting defensive over the man who’d just up and left him without so much as a goodbye fuck. “Good qualities. Solid qualities.” Peculiar, though, right now he couldn’t name one.
Leon looked thoughtful. “God, he did have a nice, firm arse. When you could see it under those ridiculous trousers, that is. And those arms—like tree trunks.”
“Leon,” Merlin said through gritted teeth. “You’re not helping.”
“Sorry. I’ll just—” His friend got up for another round.
“So you want one thing and I want another,” Arthur continued addressing Merlin, “but the difference between us is I’m satisfied with my life. I’m not looking for a relationship. You, on the other hand, are miserable. You go from man to unsuitable man and then you’re surprised and disappointed when it doesn’t work out. I think—you know what I think?”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “No, but I’m sure you’re dying to enlighten me.”
“I think you purposefully pick men that you have nothing in common with.”
“You think I set myself up for failure.”
“Exactly.” With a flourish, Arthur finished his drink.
“If I wanted to be psychoanalysed I’d call my mother.” It wasn’t like Merlin didn’t know he had a habit of getting attached too easily.
“You two squabble like an old married couple,” Leon said when he returned with the pints. “Worse than my parents.”
“God forbid anyone ever marry Arthur,” Merlin rejoined, still feeling tender from Arthur’s accusation. What if he were right? “Anyway, I challenge you to get serious about someone for once; then you can talk to me about relationship issues.” But of course Arthur never would; Arthur was so gorgeous he didn’t have to worry about being alone. He could probably have anyone in the fucking pub if he wanted, when he wanted.
Leon laughed, and Arthur frowned at them both.
“I have an idea,” Leon told Merlin. “Maybe you should just take it easy for a bit. Not jump into anything. Sort yourself out.”
“Terrible idea!” Arthur interrupted. “What Merlin needs is a one-off. Or several. Think of all the single men in London you could be shagging. Have some fun for a change.”
As if on cue, the barman collected their empty glasses, giving Merlin a wink and a smile in the process. Merlin smiled back, flattered. The bloke was fit, a new addition to the staff whom he’d only seen once before.
“He’s cruising you,” said Leon.
“He cruises everyone,” Arthur said.
Merlin laughed. “So says the winner of London’s Slag of the Year award.”
“You wound me, Merlin. I’m trying to defend a title here.”
Leon’s eyes travelled appreciatively over the barman’s denim-clad arse, and Merlin’s followed. “It doesn’t matter. When someone like that looks at you like that, you don’t say no.”
“You men, do you ever think of anything but sex?” The female voice interrupted them from behind, and Merlin didn’t need to turn around to know it was Morgana, Arthur’s sister and Leon’s number one hag.
“Not really,” the three of them replied in unison.
“Well, that makes four of us, then. Cheers. Budge up, lads.”
They moved to a larger table to accommodate the new addition, and talk gradually drifted from Merlin’s unlucky love life to Arthur’s overactive one. Apparently Morgana had her sights set on hooking Arthur up with a new girl at work, someone she described as petite and blonde and all of the things Arthur usually looked for in a one off. This was apparently not the first time such a topic had been broached. And not only was Elena beautiful and sweet, but what was inside her head was just as interesting, at least according to Morgana. Merlin couldn’t help noticing Arthur looked intrigued.
“—so yeah, I think you should take her out. On a date, Arthur, not to fuck in the back room of some club.”
“Morgana, you know I don’t want—” Arthur trailed off mid-sentence when he caught Merlin’s gaze. “Actually—on second thought. Yes. I’ll go out with her. On a no-shag date.” Their eyes locked for a moment, and in that span of time Merlin remembered a long-forgotten folly from university days, when he and Arthur had drunkenly snogged back at Arthur’s flat after a party. They’d both been beyond pissed, and what had started out as an affectionate peck goodnight had morphed into something involving tongues and tentative groping. Thankfully things had broken off before they got too heated when the gallon of beer sloshing in Merlin’s stomach had made him feel queasy; he’d just barely made it to the loo before he’d thrown up and then passed out on the floor.
The next day they’d both agreed it had been a ridiculous mistake, and neither had spoken of it again, both too embarrassed to acknowledge the fact that—well, there had been two erections involved. Merlin had barely even considered it, knowing it was foolish and futile to do so. After all, Arthur was straight and they were friends. And Arthur was annoying. Who could be bothered to fall for to someone who flossed after each meal and refused to ride the tube without unscented antibacterial spray?
“—let her know tomorrow. Is it okay if I give her your number?” Morgana asked, and Merlin realised the conversation had continued on while he’d been lost in his head.
“Sure, sure,” Arthur said, and then looked over at Merlin again. “On one condition. Merlin?”
“What does this have to do with me?”
“Exactly this: remember what we were discussing before?”
He wracked his brain, trying to remember what had happened before Morgana had arrived; oh, it had been about Valiant, and Merlin’s penchant for falling for complete knobs. “What of it?”
“I accept your challenge.”
Merlin wrinkled his forehead, the alcohol making his recollection imperfect. “My challenge?”
“You challenged me to take someone seriously for once. I vow at least to try.”
“Okay. Still don’t know what this has to do with me.”
“If I’m taking a page out of your book, you have to take a page from mine. The barman is still making eyes at you.”
Merlin looked from Morgana, to Leon, back to Arthur, before casting a glance over his shoulder at Gwaine. It was true; Merlin received another wink and a nod, and then a casual beckoning of distressingly perfect fingers. Merlin gulped, feeling his face heat, and then turned around. Arthur wriggled his eyebrows suggestively, the prat.
“Go get him, tiger.”