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Of Fate and Footie

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-o-o-o-

 

It was a Saturday evening tradition for Arthur and his friends; an impromptu footie game at the park and a couple of pints at the local pub.

As they entered The Great Dragon, Arthur couldn’t help but let his eyes wander, searching the crowd for a distant but somehow familiar pair of sapphire blue eyes and a shock of unruly ebony hair that belonged to one of the most gorgeous men he’d ever seen in his entire life.

Arthur stopped dead in the doorway as his eyes found what he’d most hoped to see.

He was there as he had been the last several Saturdays, sitting in the corner alone and nursing a drink. A sharp pang of surly loneliness rolled off him in waves. As if feeling the weight of Arthur’s stare, the man looked up and their eyes connected…

…and then Arthur felt a shoulder jostle him from behind, startling him. “Oi, mate!” Gwaine grumbled good-naturedly as he threw a friendly arm across Arthur’s shoulder to steer him toward their regular table. “Stop hogging the doorway! Not a good idea to get between a man and his ale…”

“Especially not you,” Lance teased, giving the lone Irishman in their group a friendly shove. “Isn’t drinking an Olympic sport where you come from?”

Bawdily, Gwaine winked. “Were that true, I’d have a gold medal already!”

“Probably more than one,” Leon grumbled as he sat down beside Gwaine at the table.

“You’re just jealous that I can hold my liquor better than you!” Gwaine crowed, elbowing the man just seating himself on his other side, “Right, Perce?”

“I’m staying out of it,” Percy replied, putting up his hands in a sign of neutrality.

“Coward… Just like the French!” Gwaine teased, pointing a finger at Lance, whose mother was French.

Lance, who had just seated himself between Arthur and Leon, raised one unamused eyebrow at him but said nothing. Gwaine grinned at him unrepentantly and popped a pretzel in his mouth.

Arthur chuckled as he settled down between Lance and Percy. “Remind me again why we put up with you?” he asked Gwaine with a smile.

Gwaine’s answer was immediate. “Because I’m funny and witty and charming, and attract all the girls.”

Once the waitress arrived and Gwaine, Leon and Perce were properly distracted by the slight girl with a rather ample chest, Lance leaned in toward Arthur and whispered, “So…is he here again?”

Arthur nodded, jutting his chin toward the corner of the room where the mystery man still sat.

“Why don’t you go and talk to him?” Lance asked gently.

Arthur blushed and turned away. “I don’t know…I…don’t think…”

“Yes, you do,” Lance prompted. “He’s all you’ve talked about for weeks.”

“But what if I’m wrong? What if he…isn’t…”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Look, I know you’re new to all this, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Might as well be with him.”

“Easy for you to say; you’ve already found your true love,” Arthur groused.

Lance’s face cracked into an ear-to-ear smile. “I know; Gwen is a treasure. Thanks for that, mate.”

Arthur shrugged, his eyes straying back toward the lithe dark-haired man in the corner. “She was special, but certainly not for me. I’m glad it worked out for you.”

“Well, I’m trying to do the same for you,” Lance responded encouragingly, giving Arthur’s shoulder a shove. “Go on, Prince Charming!”

Arthur rolled his eyes at his best friend and started to stand up, stopping when his eyes stuttered across the rest of their group.

Lance immediately interpreted his reaction and pushed Arthur the rest of the way to a stand. “They won’t care…” he said.

“Won’t care about what?” Gwaine interjected, confused.

“Nevermind,” Lance hissed, giving his mate pointed look. For once, Gwaine took the hint and shut up.

Arthur stood and surreptitiously wiped his damp palms on the thighs of his jeans. He’d only come out to his friends a few months before and, while they had been really great about it, this was the first time he was actively going to talk to a guy he was attracted to in their presence. Or, really, talking to a guy he was attracted to at all.

Arthur felt sure the man must have known he was approaching by the way he was studiously ignoring him when he arrived at his table. Still, the cold shoulder he was getting could have frozen all of Wales. Determined not to chicken out, Arthur stuffed both his hands into his pockets and said, “Hi.”

“Very funny,” the man said, not bothering to look up from the mouth of his ale glass. “Now, bugger off.”

“Sorry?” Arthur said, taken aback at the dark and abrupt tone, let alone the harsh words. “What’s funny?”

“You and your sodding gits all goggling at us. That’s what’s funny.” His bright blue eyes snapped with annoyance. His Irish lilt was lighter and smoother than Gwaine’s, melodic and harmonious with his deep-timbred voice. “As if I couldn’t tell what you all are up to…as if I’m stupid. How much did they pay you to come over here and make a move on the token poof in the room?”

Arthur goggled, his mouth opening and shutting of its own accord several times, as if he was a fish out of water. “What?” he gasped once he finally remembered how to speak.

His heart hammered in his chest. He’d been right; this ethereally handsome man that had so entranced him was gay, too. The thought made Arthur lightheaded.

The man pursed his gorgeous full lips and huffed, “Look, I’ve seen you and your buddies come in here every bleeding Saturday for the past two months, drinking and cozying up to all the pretty girls. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on.”

Arthur felt his legs trembling and slid himself into the bench seat across from the man before his knees gave out. “Not all of us are interested in girls…”

The dark head snapped up and Arthur could feel the man’s cerulean eyes searching his face, looking for…something. Finally, he nodded once and leaned back in his chair. “Do they know?” His eyes flickered back to the table where Arthur’s friends sat, watching the progression of their conversation with barely concealed interest.

“About me?” Arthur asked.

One succinct nod was the reply.

“Yeah. They do.”

“Huh,” Arthur’s dark-haired companion said as if that news vaguely surprised him.

“They’re good mates, really,” Arthur admitted. “I’m lucky.”

A wistful, faraway expression passed over the other man’s features. “Yeah…you are.”

Now that the ice was broken, Arthur smiled and asked, “So, I take it you’re not from around here?”

Crinkles formed in the corners of his eyes as the man laughed—a rich, warm sound that made Arthur’s toes curl inside his trainers. “Is that the best you can do?”

A rueful smile touched Arthur’s mouth and he shrugged. “I…don’t know. I’m kinda new to this.”

Understanding and empathy filled the blue eyes as they stared at Arthur. "That's all right," he said. Then, he reached his hand across the table in obvious greeting. “I’m Merlin Emrys.”

Long, graceful fingers clasped warmly over Arthur’s own as he slipped his hand into them. An electric shock sizzled up his arm at the touch. Then what he’d heard belatedly registered and both his eyebrows rose in shock. “Merlin?” Arthur repeated breathlessly.

Merlin’s eyebrows scrunched together in annoyance and he pulled his hand back abruptly. “Go ahead,” he challenged, crossing his arms across his chest in defiance. “Make whatever snide comment you were thinking, because I’m sure that I’ve never heard it before…” Sarcasm dripped from every lilted word.

Arthur huffed a laugh and put his hands up in surrender. “No more than I’ve heard, trust me. Hello, Merlin Emrys…my name is Arthur Pendragon.”

This time, it was Merlin’s eyes that widened to the size of saucers. “You’re having me on!” Merlin pointed an accusing finger at his tablemate.

But Arthur was already fishing into his back pocket for his wallet. Without another word, he plucked out his driver’s license and handed it to Merlin.

Merlin stared at it for a long moment before his eyes raised to connect with Arthur’s. “Holy shit,” he breathed.

“Yeah…” Arthur agreed, losing himself in Merlin’s wondrous blue eyes.

Finally, Merlin seemed to come to his senses and broke the connection, looking instead at the card in his hand. “Here,” he said softly, holding out Arthur’s license.

Arthur shivered as their fingers brushed when he accepted the card. As he tucked it back into his wallet, he teased, “Well, fancy meeting you here at the Dragon, of all places. Maybe it was fate.”

This elicited another delighted laugh from his companion. Arthur loved how Merlin gave his whole body up to the action, his belly heaving, his arms wrapped protectively over it. “Now, that’s a much better pick up line…” he teased good-naturedly.

“Shut up, Merlin…” Arthur muttered, but his eyes, bright with amusement, took the sting out of the words. “Come meet my friends?” he asked with a smile.

Merlin’s mouth softened to a fond grin and he nodded. “Yeah, okay.” He stood and picked up his drink while Arthur guided him gently back to his table with a hand at his back.

The din of the predictable debate over footie teams dropped off awkwardly as Arthur and Merlin approached. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes at his well-meaning friends, he said, “Everyone…this is Merlin.”

Their reactions were nothing if not predictable: Percy’s eyes goggled, Lance hacked and coughed as he accidentally inhaled his beer, Leon’s mouth dropped open…and Gwaine snorted loudly and declared, “Bullshit!”

 “Truth,” Merlin confirmed, his blue eyes boring a mutinous hole into Gwaine’s skull.

“Who names their kid Merlin?” Gwaine shot back. “Your mother hate you or something?”

Arthur covered his eyes with one hand in mortification. Leave it to Gwaine to say something completely inappropriate and embarrassing…

Merlin shrugged and took a calm sip from his glass. “Mine loved me more than yours did, apparently, since my mum didn’t drop me on my head.”

Gwaine’s eyes narrowed. “Merlin…do you know magic, too?”

Merlin’s lips twitched as if he were amused in spite of himself. “Perhaps. Better watch out or I might turn you into a frog.”

They stared for another tense moment before Gwaine’s face split into an ear-to-ear grin and he guffawed. “You’re all right, man.”

Leon looked from Merlin to Gwaine and back in astonishment. “Was that some sort of weird Irish greeting ritual or something?”

Merlin’s eyes actually twinkled and he grinned broadly. “We Irishmen never give up our secrets, do we Gwaine?”

He nodded toward Gwaine who promptly supplied, “Nope!”

“We Irishmen?” Percy teased, shoving his shoulder into Gwaine’s, “or ‘wee Irishman’?” Percy held up a thumb and forefinger a few centimetres apart in front of Gwaine’s face.

“Don’t hear none of the lovely lasses complaining,” Gwaine replied with a righteous nod and a wink.

“That’s ‘cause there aren’t any,” Leon rejoined with a smirk.

Christ…” Arthur swore under his breath. “Right, well…if you all are done acting like the wankers you obviously are and embarrassing the shite out of me…”

Surreptitiously, Arthur peeped at Merlin to see if his crazy friends were scaring him off. The warm glance and cheeky smile that met his anxious gaze went a long way toward settling his jangled nerves.

Going around the table, Arthur introduced them, “This is Percy…” Percy did the side swipe wave with one hand. “Lance…” Lance smiled warmly in greeting. “Leon…” Leon nodded once and said, “Hey.” Gesturing toward Gwaine last, Arthur harrumphed, “And this pillock is Gwaine.” Gwaine stood up and put out his hand, which Merlin shook. Gwaine tightened his grip on Merlin’s hand, pulled him closer across the table and said in a stage whisper, “He’s just jealous of all my Irish charm…” before letting go.

Merlin chuckled and gave everyone a friendly nod. “Nice to meet you all.” He looked at the crowded table and then back to Arthur, as if unsure what should happen next.

Arthur looked unsure, too…so Lance took it upon himself to rectify the situation. “All right, you berks, budge up and make room…” he ordered, scooting his chair closer to Leon’s. Moments later, there was room for one more at their table between Lance and Arthur.

Merlin smiled gratefully and pulled up a chair. “Thanks,” he said, placing his glass on the table and squeezing himself into place next to Arthur, their legs touching from hip to knee in the crowded space.

Heat flooded Arthur’s cheeks and he suddenly couldn’t contain his smile.

Moments later, he was literally shook from his reverie by Merlin’s hysterical laughter.

Everyone turned to look at the newcomer with various levels of shock. “What’s so funny?” Gwaine asked him.

“You thought my name was so comical…but look at all of you!”

“What?” Arthur asked, still confused, but enchanted by the sound of Merlin’s voice just the same.

He pointed around the table in succession. “Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Leon the Loyal, Sir Gwaine the Strong, Sir Percival the Righteous, and King Arthur Pendragon the Courageous.” He indicated the shape of the surface they were all sitting around. “The Knights of the Round Table!” he crowed in delight.

Stunned amazement followed that statement until Leon breathed, “Holy crap…he’s right.”

“And Merlin the Mage, of course,” Gwaine countered impishly. Merlin quirked one bemused eyebrow at him.

“Now all we need is a Guinevere and everything would be…” Merlin trailed off, stunned, as Lance sheepishly half-raised his hand.

“Really?” Merlin squeaked in disbelief.

“Uh huh,” Lance admitted. “Going on nine months now.”

“Wow…” Merlin breathed, looking between Arthur and Lance thoughtfully. “That’s good, right?” he finally asked, his eyes meeting Arthur’s, questioning.

Arthur smiled gently, slid his hand on top of Merlin’s under the table, and squeezed reassuringly. “Yeah, it’s a very good thing.”

Merlin’s hand squeezed back.

“So, Merlin…” Leon asked, “What do you think of Man Uni?”

“I try not to,” Merlin replied. “I like West Bromwich.”

Groans echoed around the table. “Not another one!” Gwaine moaned aloud, rolling his eyes.

“What did I say?” Merlin asked, looking at Arthur for reassurance.

Arthur grinned, stroking his fingers along the side of Merlin’s thigh. “They’re just disappointed because Albion is my team, too, and now it’ll be the two of us against each of their teams…”

Merlin’s cheeks pinked and Arthur was just smug enough to think it had nothing to do with the conversation. “Ah…”

 

 

 

-o-o-o-


Two hours later when the guys decided to break off for the night, it was almost as if Merlin had always been a part of their group. They teased him as much as any other person at the table, and he gave it back as good as he got.

They milled around just outside the pub as they made their goodbyes. Lance was the first to take his leave. “I gotta be getting home before Gwen gets worried. Merlin, it was nice to meet you,” he said, shaking Merlin’s hand. “Hopefully we’ll see you again soon?”

Merlin glanced at Arthur and then nodded with a smile. “Hopefully.”

Gwaine coughed, “Whipped…” into his hand before giving Lance a back-slapping hug. Lance gave his head a good-natured shove in revenge.

“Well at least he’s getting some,” Leon teased, pushing a stumbling Gwaine out of the way. He nodded once at each of them. “Lance, Merlin, Arthur, Perce, Loser…” In response, Gwaine sprang like a cat and put Leon in a headlock, rubbing his knuckles against a laughing Leon’s forehead.

Meanwhile, Percy quietly made his goodbyes to everyone, promising to see them next Saturday.

Gwaine was the last to leave. “I always knew you had it in you, Princess,” he teased cheekily, sliding his eyes not very nonchalantly toward Merlin and then snickered when Arthur blushed.

“Shut up, you eejit,” Arthur protested with a smile.

“Merlin, it’s been a pleasure.” Gwaine said, shaking his hand. “Thanks for putting up with us nutters on your date night…” He whispered the last two words while waggling his eyebrows and nudging knowingly at Merlin with his elbow.

Merlin just shook his head and chuckled with helpless laughter at the other man’s antics.

“I hope you’ll come next week, if only to save me from being the only honest Irishman in the midst of all these English tossers…”

Merlin smiled as his eyes connected with Arthur’s. “We’ll see what I can do,” he replied softly.

And then they were alone.

“Princess?” Merlin questioned with raised eyebrows.

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” Arthur explained with a grin. “Gwaine was calling me that long before he ever knew about my orientation…It’s his way of making fun of the fact I’m named after King Arthur.”

“Ah, I see,” Merlin replied, one side of his mouth quirked up in amusement.

Arthur shifted his weight from one leg to the other nervously. “So…was that really terrible? I mean, with the guys?”

“You mean your friends? They were fine; brilliant actually. I liked them, Arthur.”

“Good, good…” Arthur wiped his palms on his trouser legs again and pursed his lips. He fervently hoped that that meant Merlin liked him, too. “My…my place isn’t far from here. Do you…Would you…like to come over?” Arthur tripped and stumbled over the words, nervous and excited and terrified all at once. In the space of one evening, Arthur knew that Merlin was well on his way to having completely stolen his heart; he didn’t know what he’d do if Merlin said no.

But he needn’t have worried.

Merlin threaded his fingers with Arthur’s so that their clasped hands hung between them and then placed a soft kiss on Arthur’s lips. Then he leaned in so that their foreheads were resting against each other and sighed breathlessly, “I’d love to.”