Disclaimer: The following story is set in the entirely fictional college of Londinium. Any similarity to actual colleges in the real-world city of London is entirely coincidental and reflects no research or fact-checking on the part of the author. This fic should not in any way be used as a guide to the university housing application process, nor does the author advise anyone seeking student housing to follow this method in the expectation of finding themselves with a mysteriously cheap apartment in central London and a hot blond flatmate. It just won't work. (If, however, the reader should discover a method of obtaining such an arrangement, the author encourages use of the "feedback" option below.)
"What do you mean, there isn't one?" Merlin asked.
The officer of student housing gave him a slightly fixed smile.
"I'm sorry," she repeated, "but there is no room reserved for a Merlin Emerson, Emson, Emeryson, Emryson, Emrys, Emrison or Emmerson. Are you sure you applied for college accommodation?"
"Yeah, of course. I mean, I think I did? I'm a first-year student and, so, housing is guaranteed for first-year students, right? It said so in the information package."
"But did you fill out a housing application form?" She said it very slowly, as if she were worried about Merlin's basic comprehension of the English language. From the way the words were failing to sink in, Merlin wasn't at all sure she was wrong.
"Housing application? I'm sure I, what? I mean — there was — but it said, but the registration package said housing was automatic — that there was a housing guarantee for first-year students?" Merlin knew he was repeating himself, but couldn't seem to find anything new to say.
"Yes, there is," the girl said patiently, "but you still need to fill out an application. Did you fill out one of these forms?"
She handed him a yellow form that looked horrifyingly familiar. Merlin was fairly sure it was in his knapsack with instructions for the London underground scribbled all over it.
The girl seemed to read the answer from his face, because she sighed, handed him a pen and said,
"Fill this out now, we'll see what we can do. In the mean time, we don't have a place reserved for you, so you'll have to try short-term housing. Do you have a place to stay for tonight?"
Merlin hyperventilated slightly.
She reached over to extract a paper from a file drawer.
"This is a list of emergency accommodation in the area. Try to arrange a room as soon as you can — there's not much available on such short notice."
She gave him the list, which Merlin glanced over and found frighteningly short.
"So, uh, I guess I should call, uh..." Merlin waved the piece of paper vaguely.
"There's a phone outside you can use."
"Right, uh, thanks," Merlin said and headed for the door.
The girl called him back halfway there. Merlin tried not to hope that she'd magically discovered a spare place while his back was turned.
"My pen," she said, holding out a hand.
"Oh, right, sorry," he said, fumbling with the papers and missing her hand by a couple of inches.
"Look, just..." she said as he stumbled back towards the door again. She looked him over and winced a little. "Just... skip the hostels. They're... students have had problems sometimes. You should try one of the people who offer rooms. The ones on that list, well, they won't be anything special but at least they'll be safe, right?"
Merlin didn't feel very safe with the sound of something scrabbling at the wall above his head as he tossed and turned on a lumpy mattress, but Gaius had assured him that any vermin were far more likely to be afraid of him than vice versa. Besides, there hadn't been any cockroaches around the place in weeks.
Room and board included porridge every morning and a lecture about being a responsible student. Merlin called the housing office four times a day to ask about vacancies.
The girl at the housing office, who'd seemed quite kind and patient on his first visit, gave him a much less welcoming smile when he walked in again the next Monday. She took his housing request form with a face that said it was going straight to the bottom of the pile along with all the others from people who'd been pestering her non-stop. This time she handed him a new list: places to find short-term housing and off-campus rental listings.
"Please don't hesitate to call if you need anything else," she said. Merlin was pretty sure she meant the opposite.
Merlin spent his first full week of term running around town, looking at rooms that were either a) smaller b) dirtier or c) more infested than the one he was renting from Gaius. The first time he saw a flat with a full-sized, clean window he almost broke down into tears.
"Oh, but it's just been rented. Sorry, mate."
Merlin choked back a sob and trailed his fingers lovingly across the window pane. The renter ushered him outside with a half-sympathetic, half-perturbed look.
Some plaster fell down onto Merlin's face that night, and he told himself the tiny, beady eyes looking down at him from the ceiling were probably part of a bad dream.
There was a lovely girl named Gwen in his British History lecture. She was kind, smart, funny, and she had a room in the residence halls. Merlin proposed the third time she let him stay after a study session to sleep on the air mattress on her floor.
Gwen just handed him a cup of tea as he redoubled his pleas.
"Seriously, Gwen, I will marry you right now. We can apply for family housing, I hear those vacancies are much easier to get into."
She shook her head at him, laughing.
"Whoever told you that was lying — it's a much longer waiting list. Besides, I'm not going to risk my place in the halls over housing fraud."
"It wouldn't be fraud if we were married!" Merlin protested. "Look, I'll take you home to meet my mum, she'll love you like I do. Probably have the whole wedding sorted by Saturday."
"Don't you think she'd be a bit confused about you bringing a girl home with you?"
"Oh, she doesn't discriminate. She was really good about my friend Will when we were kids and he was straight."
"I don't know if I want to be married to someone who thinks of me as a sister, though, honestly."
"Everything is just about sex with you, isn't it, Gwen? Sex and rugby players — what was that fellow's name of yours, Ocelot?"
Gwen hit him in the arm, but gently.
"Lancelot isn't my... my whatever. He's just..." she trailed off, mumbling.
Merlin teased her about her crush until their lecture, where Professor Pendragon directed a stern look at the two giggling undergraduates. Nothing quite killed Merlin's playful moods like hearing the Dragon talk about blood feuds and hangings at 9:00 in the morning.
Merlin yelped when something wet struck his face in the middle of the night. Just a little yelp.
"Oh for pity's sake," Gaius said when he found Merlin huddled in the far corner of the room, still tangled in the blankets and regarding the ceiling above his head balefully. "From the way you screamed, anyone would have thought you were being murdered in your bed."
Gaius fetched a bucket to put under the drip while Merlin dragged the bed to drier ground.
"Does the student health clinic treat pneumonia, do you think, Gaius?" he asked over breakfast the next morning, teeth chattering noisily.
"Possibly, though I doubt there's anything they can do for your condition," Gaius said with a remarkable lack of sympathy, though he did put an extra spoonful of honey in Merlin's tea so Merlin figured he could forgive him for being a heartless old bastard.
The second week Merlin fell asleep in his British History lecture, even with Gwen nudging him periodically and letting him steal sips from her ("horrible, strong" — "it's a latte" — "coffee" — "yes, Merlin the kind with caffeine") coffee cup, Uther Pendragon coughed at him significantly as Merlin stood up to leave.
"Erm," Merlin said, looking desperately to Gwen for assistance.
Gwen, cruel woman, made impatient shooing motions with her hands and left Merlin to face the enemy alone.
"Tell me, Mr., uh, Emer... Emry... Emyrson? Is there something fundamentally uninteresting to you about King Alfred?"
Merlin was a little tempted — probably the result of the sleep-deprivation or the hours of watching the baseboards for signs of rodent activity — to say that, actually, he didn't think that educational reforms or the occasional Viking put one on par, epithet-wise, with someone who'd conquered entire continents, but it had really seemed like more of a rhetorical question. Professor Pendragon left a significant pause, though, as if expecting an answer.
Merlin shrugged helplessly.
"I, uh, haven't been sleeping that well?" he said, and immediately hated how whiny he sounded. "I mean, it's just, this place I'm staying, well, it's not that it's bad, exactly — well, maybe I wouldn't say horrible &nmash; only it's a bit difficult, and there was no space left in the residence halls and —"
The Professor cut him off with an imperious wave of his hand. "Yes, I know all this. Gaius is an old friend of mine," he continued, and Merlin wanted to sink through the floor, because of course he'd just managed to insult the man further. "He's mentioned your housing difficulties, and that you seem to be a very responsible young man —" he gave Merlin a look filled with doubts about young men who fell asleep during lectures and Merlin tried to look as responsible — and awake — as he could "— which could not be more fortuitous. As it happens, my son has been looking for a new flatmate. The last one turned out to be... undesirable."
Merlin wondered what that meant.
"Gorgeous," Merlin thought as soon as the door opened. And then he got a look at the flat. "It's gorgeous," he breathed. "Is that your kitchen?"
He stepped past the blond man — presumably Pendragon's son — and headed straight for the granite counter tops. There was a large, shiny oven set into them on one side. Merlin tried not to moan aloud as he caressed it with all the love borne of a month eating porridge made on a hot-plate. There was a vent above the oven and everything. Merlin was willing to bet the ceiling wouldn't catch fire even a little if he tried cooking on it.
"Do I know you?" demanded a voice from behind him.
Merlin turned away from the burners with regret.
"Please, please tell me you still need a flatmate."
"Oh my god," the man said, "tell me you are not the history student."
Merlin grinned and stuck out his hand.
"I'm Merlin," he said.
"Arthur Pendragon," said Arthur. "Do you know you're wearing your boots in the kitchen?"
"That's, uh, a very... nice part of town, isn't it?" he'd asked, when Professor Pendragon gave him the address, wondering what the polite way was to tell your professor, who had very kindly offered you a place to live, that there was probably no way in bloody hell you could afford the rent.
"Hmm? Oh, yes, I suppose so. My family's owned property in that area of London for years. Used to be more," he added a little wistfully, "but all good things must come to an end — or taxes."
"Still," Merlin said, "that's lucky, I mean, I bet it would be really expensive to rent something in that area... you, uh, don't happen to know how much the last person was...?"
"Hmm? I'm afraid you'll have to work it out with my son, I have another lecture to get to. I'll tell him to expect you around four o'clock?"
"Yeah, sure, but —"
The professor had already left.
"Maybe it's an attic," Merlin had said hopefully to Gwen, after recounting the conversation to her. "Maybe it's a very small, dingy, draughty attic that just happens to be in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in London."
Gwen bit her lip and looked worried. "He's a professor, though, he must know — I mean, it's not like it's a mystery that you're a student, he must know what you can afford, right?"
Merlin thought of Professor Pendragon's casual wave of the hand when he mentioned owning property like that.
"Maybe it's a broom cupboard he's letting," Merlin said optimistically. "I could afford a broom cupboard, maybe."
Gwen just patted his hand sympathetically.
"I'm going to murder him," Merlin announced the next time he saw Gwen. "Of all the stuck-up, arrogant, completely useless, toff prats..."
Gwen looked up from her social economics textbook as Merlin fell onto her bed and collided with her knees.
"What am I going to do, Gwen? If I have to look at his stupid, smirking face every day, I just know I'm going to end up punching in his perfect features, which will almost definitely get me booted out and probably failed on his father's course as well, which means I'm completely and utterly doomed, because he is without a doubt the most frustrating person I have ever met. And even if I don't actually try to strangle him, he'll probably turf me out anyway for, I don't know, moving his designer hair-care products two millimetres to the left when I'm dusting — dusting! — and that's another thing, what kind of self-respecting university student wants his things dusted every single day? I mean, to most people, to most reasonable people, saying there will be maintenance duties does not mean knocking on your door at 6 o'clock in the morning asking why you haven't run his highness a bath yet. And made him breakfast. And scrubbed out the bath because he doesn't like watermarks on the tub, whatever that means, other than that apparently charging anything less than extortionate rent makes me some kind of a servant. And then after I've finished picking up for him and running around doing everything, he just stands there, half-naked, staring at me, saying, 'Don't you have some place to be?' as if I'm some kind of an idiot, because maybe if he hadn't woken me an hour before my alarm and made me do all sorts of ridiculous things I would have remembered that I had class with his father and I wouldn't be late walking into lecture and trying to edit Arthur Pendragon's stupid, bath-taking, towel-wearing, hair-drying... face out of the way while I'm supposed to be learning about English common law!"
Merlin finally paused for breath and collapsed against Gwen's side.
"It's good to see you, too, Merlin," Gwen said while he whimpered into her shoulder. "How has your week been? Mine was all right, I have coursework up to my ears already and I may have forgotten to sleep last night but I'm finished my art history paper and that's what counts, now, why don't you tell me about your new flatmate?"
Merlin looked up at her in confusion for a moment, then blushed.
"Sorry, Gwen, it's just... he's so frustrating and I have to live with him and see him every day and he just sort of... takes over the room, when he's in it and he's impossible to ignore and I have to see him every single day!"
Gwen sighed and put an arm around him. "It sounds to me... has it occurred to you that part of the problem may be that you're a little bit infatuated?"
"I know I am!" Merlin wailed. "That's the whole problem! This flat is so perfect, Gwen, you have no idea — it might just be the one true love of my life and I can't give it up, no matter if I have to share it with the most irritating man in London!"
"That's..." Gwen paused. "That's not quite what I meant, actually."
Merlin looked at her blankly.
"Never mind, I'm sure you'll be very happy together."
Merlin nodded miserably, then perked up a little.
"Did I tell you how good the water pressure is?"
Merlin had known, from the very first moment, that their meeting had been destined. He had fallen instantly and irrevocably in love. It was a match made in heaven.
He liked to whisper this to the flat every now and then, lest it mistake his frustrated feelings for its owner for resentment towards the flat itself.
He was just expounding to the floors on the beauty of their wood grain as he mopped them when a prickle of awareness tickled at the back of his neck and he looked up to find Arthur watching him intently. Merlin shifted in embarrassment, pushing the mop against the inside of the bucket and running his toe around a damp patch.
"Merlin, there's something..." Arthur trailed off.
Merlin pushed his hair off his forehead, where it was sticking, damp and uncomfortable, with sweat.
Arthur stared for a moment longer, apparently forgetting what he had planned to say.
"There's something..." Merlin prompted. "Was there something else you needed me to do?"
"Uh... no, I just. There's something about you, Merlin."
It was like being caught in a blinking contest. Arthur just kept watching Merlin with a vaguely bemused expression on his face and Merlin watched Arthur's eyes looking back at him.
Merlin didn't realize how heavily he was leaning down on the mop until it caught against the edge of the bucket, tipping it on end and splashing Merlin with the dirty water.
Arthur laughed. "Something odd, definitely. You're not just going to stand there, are you? Or do you think I want my furniture ruined by flooding?"
"I'm doing this for your sake," Merlin muttered to the wainscoting, as he wiped it down for the second time that evening. "Someday, my love, we shall be alone together."
Merlin startled at a cough from behind him.
"When you've done proposing to my floorboards, Merlin, hadn't you better clean yourself up before you fetch our supper? I was thinking a curry, but they won't let you into the front of the restaurant looking like that."
Merlin waited until he heard Arthur's door shut to whimper quietly.
Merlin had to spend half an hour coaxing the beautiful, misunderstood coffee maker back into good spirits after Arthur thumped it repeatedly and abused its abilities before storming, uncaffeinated, out of the flat.
"Don't believe a word of it," Merlin murmured as he watched the intoxicating sight of dark liquid dripping down into the pot. "He doesn't know what he's talking about, it's not your fault we're stuck living with a man who only understands technology from the dark ages."
He drank the whole pot, standing at the counter (granite! it never stopped being lovely, even when Merlin scrubbed it down after Arthur felt the need to experiment with the complicated task of opening a package of biscuits) and revising his notes on the Norman conquest.
Almost as an afterthought, he peeled off one of the post-its he used as place-holders in his textbooks to explicate:
"Coffee maker requires electricity."
And then, helpfully, in case this was too advanced a concept for Arthur to master on his own:
"Electricity can be obtained by inserting plug into wall socket."
On a beneficent whim, and out of frustration with the word Bayeux, which he felt had the wrong number of vowels, Merlin added a third post-it, marked only with a large arrow, obligingly pointing out the direction in which the wall socket could be found.
Eventually Merlin went in search of Gwen, who rolled her eyes at him and talked a lot about the concept of history and the significance of its artistic representation while Merlin alternately groaned into a pillow and teased her about her rugby player boyfriend. By the end of their study session he had at least partially forgiven the Normans for having a conquest and entirely forgotten the post-it notes.
When he returned to the flat, he found a post-it stuck next to a notebook he'd left lying out:
"1066, not 1606, how did you ever get accepted to do a history degree?"
The next day, Merlin found a take-away container shoved to the back of the refrigerator that looked like it had originated in the 17th century and put it out on the table with a post-it note to that effect. Instead of finding it disposed of, a new post-it exclaimed:
"So throw it away! You're disgusting, Merlin!"
Merlin, who had removed the offending item from the refrigerator with the aid of rubber gloves, disinfectant, and profuse apologies to the ill-treated appliance, retorted with a chain of post-its shaped like a giant arrow pointed at the garbage bin, across which he scrawled in large block capitals:
"IT'S NOT THAT DIFFICULT. YOU CAN DO IT."
He came back later to find the ancient take-away removed to its final resting place and the post-its rearranged into a rude shape. He threw those away and left a single post-it with a large, obnoxious smiley face and the words, "Good boy. Don't you feel better now?"
Merlin, deciding that positive reinforcement was a good methodology to adopt, began to leave post-its praising Arthur's occasional successes at domestic life.
"Congratulations on finding the towel rack," he wrote one day when Arthur's towel found its way there. He was actually fairly certain it had happened by accident or else been the result of some disturbing new ambulatory abilities on the part of the towel, since Arthur seemed to believe in the floor-towel disposal method in general. Notes to this effect had generally received the response of "I will when you will" attached to some item Merlin had — entirely temporarily — left lying about himself.
Dinners were a constant subject of negotiation. Arthur would generally leave a post-it affixed to his empty (unwashed, because the man didn't understand the process) breakfast dishes, "chicken or pork tonight?" to which Merlin would respond something like, "I'm happy to let you cook either," and Arthur would find time while Merlin was off at the university to reply, "take-away it is, then."
It wasn't that Merlin objected to cooking double portions sometimes — in fact it was rather pleasant to watch Arthur, who for some reason approached everything Merlin made as if expecting it to bite him, let his expression go soft and surprised and say slowly, "that's... rather good, actually" — it was just that Merlin hadn't expected to find himself constantly catering to a flatmate and the experience got a bit wearing. He did, however, finally give up on prodding Arthur to cook something for himself after, in a fit of pique that accompanied having far too many essays to write about the class system, he purchased a series of ready-to-serve meals and left them lying about with notes about expanding one's culinary abilities and the use of the oven.
It turned out it was possible to set fire to things in even the best, safest oven.
While attempting to escape the heady fumes of oven cleaner, Merlin crumpled up five post-its explaining the complicated process of removing the packaging first before he gave up and simply resolved to do it himself in future.
"Is this what your last flatmate died of?" Merlin asked with his head buried in Arthur's wardrobe. It was all very well for Arthur to offer up one of his coats for Merlin's use, but how he expected Merlin to find it in the chaos of his closet was a mystery.
"For heaven's sake," Arthur had exclaimed, because it was actually snowing, which Merlin hadn't accounted for happening so soon, "just wear one of mine. You're useless to me if you catch pneumonia—" and he'd manhandled Merlin out of his inadequate and threadbare coat, propelling him in the direction of his own room and disorganized jumble of winter garments.
He'd asked if Merlin wanted a cup of tea to fight off the hypothermia, too, but Merlin couldn't sort through Arthur's closet and simultaneously put out the fire that Arthur would start by fiddling with the kettle, so he declined and let Arthur laugh at him while he got attacked by a pile of jumpers falling off the top shelf.
By the time he'd extricated himself, and dug out something that looked vaguely usable, Arthur was simply stretched out lazily on the bed, watching him with an abstracted look on his face.
"Is this all right then?" Merlin asked of the soft wool coat he was holding up. It had been buried pretty far down and he didn't think it was one he'd seen Arthur wearing, still...
"It's fine," Arthur said, "whichever one, it doesn't matter. Just — shouldn't you try it on first?"
"I doubt anything you have is going to fit me," Merlin said, with a sad thought about how he compared to Arthur's physique, despite the similarity of their heights. He tried the coat on, though, struggling with the sleeves. Arthur leapt up as if to help him, but just ended up making unhelpful suggestive hand motions indicating apparently random parts of the coat. Once Merlin was fully immersed in the coat, though, Arthur did reach out to adjust the collar that was scrunched against Merlin's neck.
The wool was soft and warm and despite its sojourn at the bottom of the wardrobe, still smelled faintly of Arthur — it was a smell Merlin was intimately familiar with from the amount of time he had spent picking Arthur's clothes up from around the flat. The coat and the activity he'd gone through in finding it had left Merlin far too warm, and he could feel himself flush as Arthur left his hand resting at the collar, rubbing at the wool, looking distracted.
Merlin cleared his throat, which was feeling unaccountably odd, to ask, "Seriously, is this what happened to your last flatmate? Did he make your toast wrong one morning and his body is buried in mothballs somewhere down here?"
Arthur dropped his hand and his expression twisted around in a way that was even harder for Merlin to interpret.
"He wasn't — I believe he was uncomfortable... he wasn't the most tolerant of people, as it turned out."
Merlin blinked at him, utterly bewildered. "Do you mean about things like your obsession with the correct bath temperature? Because that I could sympathize with, unless it means you're going to kick me out."
Arthur chuckled faintly. "I'm not going to turn you out of doors for something like that. My coffee, on the other hand..."
They really did have a bad argument soon after that, not about coffee, but Merlin's favourite kind of marmalade that was surprisingly difficult to get a hold of in London, and Merlin's mother sent to him specially, and which Arthur was a little too willing to eat, considering the fact that he made no effort to replace it.
Merlin had been leaving angry post-it notes on the jar, but actually finding Arthur in the kitchen, sucking on a finger that had clearly been plundering Merlin's marmalade bare moments before somehow tipped Merlin over into a state of complete frustration. He snatched the jar away in the midst of a furious tirade, during which Arthur had the effrontery to look amused, which just made everything worse and left Merlin to storm out angrily in search of sympathy.
"And he didn't even seem to care!" Merlin complained, as Gwen tapped her foot impatiently and stared hard out the window, biting her lip. "He just looked at me as if he had no idea what I was talking about or as if, as if I were funny to him, as if it were funny that he doesn't listen, and I just..." He trailed off. "You're not listening to me either, Gwen."
Gwen just crossed her arms and seemed to peer even harder out at the darkness.
"Look, Merlin, I'm sorry," she said, "I'm really, truly sorry that you and your emotionally constipated husband are having yet another domestic dispute, but could we please have a conversation about something other than your marital difficulties for once!"
Merlin just stared at her, flabbergasted. "I'm not — what?"
"For instance," Gwen continued, as if she hadn't just said the most bizarre... "we could discuss the sort of man who thinks that chivalry is a wonderful, feminist concept and thinks that it's romantic when some girl nearly gets herself hospitalized trying to act out the Lady of Shalott, but can't figure out the basic concepts of ordinary, decent punctuality when he is supposed to show up to drive a girl to her father's house for the hols, because it's so important that he be the knight in shining armour who takes care of everything, except that he doesn't, except that I could have taken the train and I would already be there by now if he didn't think that being in love means everything has to be about him."
Merlin was chagrined to notice that there were furious tears spilling down her cheeks as she spoke. He pulled her away from her contemplation of the window and into a hug.
"It's probably — the last train's probably left by now, hasn't it?" Merlin asked.
Gwen nodded against his shoulder. Merlin held onto her with one arm as he fished his phone out of his pocket. He cut Arthur off in the middle of a half-sarcastic, half-apologetic rant about marmalade to say, "Listen, you've got a car, haven't you?"
Halfway out of the city, as Gwen was drifting off at Merlin's side in the back seat, he mumbled out an awkward thanks, to which Arthur just shrugged, his eyes still on the road, and said, "you know, whatever."
Merlin stared hard at the back of his head for the rest of the drive, wondering.
Exams crept up with a horrifying inevitability that left Merlin staggering home after long study sessions with Gwen, missing the days when he'd had time to eat something that wasn't from a cafeteria or a box, and collapsing onto a bed covered in textbooks. He liked to imagine that maybe some of the information would seep through their covers and into his skin as he slept, but mostly they just poked into him uncomfortably in the morning and he didn't feel any more familiar with the consequences of the fall of the Roman Empire. Once or twice he made it no farther than the sofa and woke to find himself covered with a blanket, a post-it note stuck to his forehead: "If you didn't use your bed as a bookshelf, you could sleep there."
After one such study session, he stumbled back into the flat to find an important note waiting for him:
"MERLIN NEED PLUMBER ASAP"
The reason for this became obvious when he poked his head into the bathroom to find a bucket sitting under the sink, filling steadily with water from a leaking pipe. A second bucket sat off to the side, already full. Merlin let his head fall forward against the door jam, desperately calculating the number of hours he had left to sleep before his British History exam against the time it would take to hunt down a plumber late on a Monday night. The computation was not a pleasant one.
Merlin stood there for half a minute watching the water flowing into the bucket, then caught himself drifting into unconsciousness where he stood. He grabbed up the phone directory from where Arthur was using it as a door stop again and dropped it on the table in front of the couch, flipping through Petunias — Pumice — Planters — Plates...
The next thing he knew he was swimming through a network of dark and grubby pipes, noticing as he passed them a number of things that Arthur had sworn he couldn't possibly have lost in the sink so Merlin must have done something with them. He was fighting off a ball of wayward dental floss that had been slowly growing in size and complexity until it had achieved sentience and now intended to take its revenge. He struggled with it as it wrapped its tangled, minty limbs around him...
"Merlin, stop kicking me," said one of Arthur's contact lenses, floating along beside him. If Arthur weren't such a vain prat, he'd just wear glasses, and then Merlin could use the ear pieces to dislodge the ragged and soggy phone book that the dental-floss monster was pinning his feet down with.
"Call your own petunia plates," Merlin retorted, though his voice came out as nothing but a series of small, muttering post-it notes trapped in individual bubbles that drifted away from him as he tried to collect them.
"Should wake you," said the contact lens, peering down at Merlin where he remained locked in battle with the white stringy blanket. "Don't know why I have to do everything around here."
Merlin thought this was a bit rich coming from the bit of shiny glass that probably couldn't figure out how to dial a phone if it tried, but as he attempted to express this he found himself being whirled out of the dark pipes and rushing away into the wide world, into a rising ocean...
Merlin woke from a deep sleep with bright light streaming in all around him and the complete conviction that if he looked down at the floor, he'd find it several inches deep in water. At least, from the familiar pattern of the ceiling above him, he could ascertain that the couch hadn't actually floated away in the middle of the night. These facts took a moment to connect themselves in his mind, but when they did he gasped and jumped off the couch onto a mercifully dry floor.
"Plumber!" he yelled, whipping his head round frantically, expecting some combination of verbal or physical assault from Arthur on the topic, but the flat was not only surprisingly un-flooded, but lacking any signs of plumbers in the vicinity. Or, indeed, of Arthur.
Merlin pushed the door to the loo open gingerly, not entirely sure what sight would meet his eyes, but when it did, he found everything looking perfectly normal, with no leaking pipes and a faucet that didn't even show signs of its venerable old drip... drip. The bucket, when he looked for it, had been tucked neatly behind the door.
Merlin relieved himself and wandered back out in a daze, sure that he had stumbled into an alternate dimension. Possibly one where Gwen was his flatmate, or some Arthur doppelganger who could figure out how to call plumbers for himself when the pipes got busted and didn't expect Merlin to deal with it the night before...
Oh, hell. Oh bloody buggering hell.
Merlin tripped twice in his mad run for the hall clock, from which he learned that he still had twenty minutes to shave, shower, and eat something before he absolutely had to leave for his exam.
On consideration, he was willing to dispense with everything but the eating in favour of letting himself sink into a chair for a few minutes while breathing at slow, regular intervals. He put his head between his legs for good measure, because Gwen had once told him that this did something to his blood flow, or possibly his breathing, that was effective for "people prone to hysterics and whatever special category you fall into, Merlin."
Once he had let the clock tick round to about two minutes past the point at which he really had to get up to make his eggs and coffee, he finally levered himself up again and very calmly made his way into the kitchen, where he proceeded to stop breathing altogether.
The counter-top was covered in a confused mixture of flour, whole raw eggs, coffee grounds, and what looked like the last of Merlin's marmalade. The broken toaster stuck half-way out of the sink, its cord dangling — thankfully unplugged — over the edge. The cook top had a pile of pots on it that Merlin was fairly certain had been in cupboards Arthur was completely unaware of. The kitchen table was littered with what looked like the remains of Arthur's breakfast and a thick layering of post-it notes scribbled over heavily with black ink.
Merlin picked his way through the wreckage in the direction of the breadbox, trying not to think about why Arthur had unleashed this fresh hell on an innocent kitchen, or how Merlin could do anything about it with ten minutes left at the flat.
The breadbox was empty.
Glancing around in his third blind panic of the morning, Merlin managed to locate their fresh loaf of bread in the bin — or, he assumed it had been their bread. Most of it was now reduced nearly to charcoal. With a sinking sense of foreboding, Merlin opened the refrigerator to find it in a state similar to the rest of the kitchen, only without any evidence of containing eggs. Another quick check of the bin revealed what might have been eggs before they had been given a presumably similar treatment to the toast. Some smears near the sink might, charitably, have been called batter.
Merlin's brain finally kicked in with a hypothesis that left him stranded and gaping amid the chaos, unable to process the thought that had just entered his head.
Had Arthur tried to fix breakfast?
As soon as he could bring himself to move again, Merlin made his way over to the kitchen table, where he found a single piece of dry, mostly burnt toast sitting alone on a plate and a cup of sludge that looked like what someone might get who had tried to stir ordinary coffee grounds into cold water.
The table around the desolate plate and cup was littered with post-it notes, layered one on top of the other as if Arthur hadn't been able to decide what to say. Amid the confusion, there was one propped up against the piece of toast that caught his eye.
EAT THIS, MERLIN
& DON'T FORGET YOUR EXAM
Merlin stared at the toast in bewilderment, taking the precaution of poking it tentatively with his finger before he picked it up, half-expecting to find it booby-trapped somehow.
It wasn't, but it wasn't edible either. Merlin spit out the charcoal-flavoured mouthful and replaced the toast carefully on its plate. The coffee he didn't even consider. He had five minutes left, no caffeine, and no food left in the flat. He didn't even have time to panic properly.
He picked up one of the post-its that read, "You'll be fine, just don't forget 1066" and found another beneath it that just said, "good luck!" and yet another that said, "Don't you dare mess this up, I know you know this stuff."
Merlin found himself peeling the notes off the table one by one, faint smile turning to a broad grin.
He looked up to find that he'd lost ten minutes somehow, and with a curse ran out the door, slamming it behind him.
He was halfway to the street before remembering his bag and dashed back into the flat, nearly colliding with Arthur in the hall, who was just emerging from his room in pyjamas spattered with the non-success of his cooking.
Arthur froze, flushed bright red, and choked out, "Why haven't you left? You have an exam, you idiot, you're going to be late..."
There was a thrum of excitement running through Merlin's veins, heavily mixed with terror. His head was a mass of names and dates and words on small yellow pieces of paper all jumbled up in his head. He needed to run out the door, he needed a cup of coffee, he needed to eat something...
He needed, desperately, to kiss Arthur.
By the time they pulled apart, Merlin wasn't particularly bothered about being very, very late for his exam.
His empty marmalade jar was still sitting out on the counter. Merlin grabbed the post-it off of it that read, "Property of Merlin Emrys" and stuck it on Arthur's forehead before he walked, grinning, out the door.