"It's a shame," Will said, "that the person with the least ability to hold their drink is the one who gets the free beers. A rotten shame."
"Shut up," Merlin said, and laid his head down on the cool, slightly sticky wood of the table, just for a moment. "I'll have another one in a minute."
"He's going to have a third beer," Will announced to the group. "Heaven help us."
Merlin pushed himself back upright. "That's right," he said. "And I'll have it now." He ignored the significant look Morgana was giving Will - the 'you'd better take your boyfriend back now while he can still walk' look. The very fact that he could interpret her look meant that she was severely overestimating his drunkenness.
"Another Budvar it is - no, Gambrinus this time, I think." His legs did get tangled slightly as he rose out of the booth, but that was all right. Will steadied him with a warm hand low on his back, and Merlin made it to his feet just fine.
He was drinking more out of a sense of duty than common sense, it was true. There was a responsibility that came with being offered free alcohol in his namesake's pub that should not be taken lightly. It was also true that it would probably be up to Will to get Merlin from the pub back to the hostel at the end of the evening, but no harm there. Merlin wouldn't be embarrassed, and Will wouldn't mind. Wouldn't be the first time, wouldn't be the last.
The Gambrinus was golden-pale and topped with a layer of huge, frothy foam. Merlin batted Will's hands away as he slid back into the booth. "No sharing, it's a matter of honour," he said, lifting the glass. So of course Will jostled him with an elbow, and there was sloshing, and Merlin ended up with white foam between his fingers and dripping down his wrist.
Morgana was laughing, a bit louder than the occasion really called for - encouraged, Merlin was sure, by her new friend Gwen's bright smile. "Go on, Will, lick it off."
Merlin set his glass down, then held his hand back up, wiggling his fingers a little. All easy and fun, all part of the joke, except that Merlin's heart was beating strangely hard and he didn't catch Will's eye.
What followed was a short sweep of Will's tongue up the side of Merlin's hand. It was frankly kind of disgusting, and Merlin wiped the saliva and remaining beer off on his jeans a second later. It was also, as far as Merlin could remember, the first time he'd ever felt Will's tongue in public. There were things they just didn't do - buy grapefruit, watch X-Factor, get up before noon on weekends - and PDAs were one of them.
That night they made it back to the hostel without Merlin falling in any gutters or stepping off any kerbs, at which point Morgana declared the evening an unqualified success. In the room, they moved around in the dark, quiet in that way that people who've been drinking are - which was to say, not nearly as quiet as they tried to be. Merlin had been sleeping on the top bunk since they'd been in Prague, and was at the ladder, working on getting a foot on the bottom rung, when Will pulled him away and bundled him into the bottom one.
Merlin stretched out obediently between scratchy sheets that smelt like Will, a special spicy warmth over the harshness of overstrong Czech laundry soap. He closed his eyes, his brain a muzzy, happy place, and felt Will brush a kiss over his forehead, then another, briefer one against his lips, before climbing up the ladder himself. Merlin listened to the clink and squeak of the springs as Will settled above him, not falling asleep until after they'd stopped.
Everyone in Ealdor knew that Merlin and William weren't just best friends, but best friends who didn't date girls, and were happy not to be dating girls together. Everyone knew, but no-one ever saw. That was how it was.
Merlin didn't want anyone bothering his mum down at the shops, or at church, or the post office, going on about what so-and-so had seen Merlin doing the night before. Or suggesting that it was perhaps all Hunith's and Will's mum's fault for letting the two of them be so close for so long; what if they'd been supervised more? Merlin and Will had had sleepovers, hadn't they? Tents in the back garden? Maybe that should have stopped when they were young.
Or maybe it was just what happened when two boys grew up without fathers. Will's mother had never remarried, had she, and had Hunith ever thought about finding a husband?
Merlin and Will never held hands.
Someone might see.
Morgana's Gwen was quiet. (In the light of morning, Merlin no longer applied the word 'friend' to her, because it was clear that Morgana was interested in more than friendship. That topless show had gone on for quite a long time, even for Morgana. Will had taken to privately referring to her as 'the object of Morgana's worldly desires,' amongst other, less delicate things, but Merlin was sticking with 'Morgana's Gwen.') She was the type of quiet person Merlin liked best - the kind whom, when she spoke, said things that were apt or clever or funny. She'd made him laugh last night, he remembered, though the details were fuzzy in his morning-after head.
She'd looked at him and Will and Morgana like they held the keys to something; Merlin remembered that too. He wished he knew what.
Morgana's Gwen always seemed to make herself smaller than she really was, always seemed to be perfectly, painfully aware of her body, of the space it took up, of the things it might do. Merlin could see that in her now, as they drank coffee and picked at heavy pastries. Her hands stayed wrapped around her hot mug, her elbows were always tucked into her sides. By contrast, Morgana seemed larger than life, and growing more so by the minute. Her voice, her expressions, the way she shifted her legs, the way she gestured with her arms, the way she leaned towards Gwen - Morgana was filling in the gaps, doing her level best to erase them.
Merlin envied her, just a bit. Morgana lived her life out loud, writ large; her wants, her insecurities, her determination, were never a thing of whispers. Merlin didn't know how to do that. He didn't know where to start.
Thing was, Merlin and Will spent eight months of the year away from Ealdor, and had done ever since they'd started uni. Thing was, they weren't in Ealdor now.
Habits: easy to form, relentlessly hard to break.
And Merlin knew Will. Will took things to heart. Merlin wouldn't want to say something and have Will think that he was being criticised, or that Merlin was criticising their relationship. Merlin wanted change to come in some natural, perfect way, for something (a kiss, a hug) to simply happen, and for the two of them to look at each other and say, "You know, we should do that more often!" A moment of mutual realisation, that's what Merlin was after.
He imagined such things were hard to come by.
Morgana and Gwen were gone by the night of the absinthe. Merlin and Will had tried to convince them to stay one more night, mainly because they both thought Morgana would have some highly interesting things to say when half out of her mind. But the girls had hefted their packs and waved goodbye, bus tickets in hand, Morgana very shamelessly ogling Gwen from behind as they went.
The drink was green, and then, briefly, it was on fire, and then it was herby and liquoricey. Merlin soldiered through three-fourths of his glass before admitting defeat.
Merlin and Will weren't drinking alone. Gwen's departure with Morgana seemed to call for a lot of desperately romantic pining from Lancelot, who was staying in a neighboring room at the hostel, and the prospect of an evening with the Green Fairy had suited him down to the ground. And Lancelot was the one to get both Merlin and Will home, in the end. He steered them through the streets with one arm around Merlin's waist, and one around Will's. Merlin had a strangely clear memory of the walk back: the strong, unfamiliar support at his back and the utterly fucked colour of the sky.
Lancelot deposited them both in the bottom bunk, and even tucked them in. Merlin didn't remember that bit at all, but it must have happened, because sometime before dawn Merlin woke up (or came to; it was debatable) and found the covers snugged neatly under his chin. Will was beside him in the narrow bed, sprawled out on his back, half-smothering Merlin.
Merlin's mind was in a very strange, confused place, and he might have been about to throw up, but apart from that, it felt like a really good night.
In early morning the room began to stir, filling with the small sounds of feet hitting the floor and duffle bags being zipped. Whoever was heading out for the day cracked open the heavy shutters over the window for a moment, presumably to check on the weather. The sunlight wasn't gentle. Merlin groaned, squeezing his eyes shut.
"Are you going to be sick?" Will whispered. He'd rolled onto his side at some point, and had left Merlin with most of the pillow.
Merlin considered. "No. I don't think so."
"Mm. Because I don't think I can move. And that would be messy."
Merlin gave a soft snort. "Another hour?"
"Oh god, at least," Will said.
It was such a typical exchange, so like a Sunday morning at home, that Merlin turned to Will without any thought and snuggled into his shoulder, burying his face in Will's neck.
Will swallowed a sharp breath. Merlin could hear it and feel it, close as he was. But Will didn't move away. Maybe he couldn't - he'd said so, maybe he hadn't been exaggerating. Maybe he didn't want to hurt Merlin's feelings. Maybe his eyes were open and he knew something Merlin didn't, like that whoever had woken them had slipped out, and everyone else was still fast asleep.
Maybe, maybe, he just didn't want to.
Merlin and Will had stayed in Prague long enough to develop a routine. They liked to walk the Charles Bridge in the hour or so before dusk, when the crowds started to thin and the sun began lowering over Prague Castle. They'd take their time about it, debating over where to go for dinner and beer - the beer was the most important part, neither were particularly taken with Czech food - until the sky turned a warm, soft orange, and the city's spires and arches turned to silhouettes against it, dark and truly Gothic.
They were just setting out one warm, clear evening when Merlin's phone buzzed. "Text from Morgana," Merlin said, flipping it open. "She wonders if we want to meet back up with her and Gwen and head to Krakow."
"You want to?"
"Yeah, think so. I'll miss Prague, though."
They'd moved over to the side of the bridge, stopping in the shadow of some medieval saint or another. Will leant against the base of the statue. "Yeah. I've had a great time."
"Me too." Merlin said it without hesitation, because it was the truth. That was the wonderful thing about Will, and being with Will; even when everything wasn't perfect, even when there were still things Merlin wanted, what he had was damn good. "I'm telling her yes, and to ring me, so we can sort the details," he said. "Oh, wait, she's sending a picture."
There were Morgana and Gwen on a brilliantly sunny afternoon, sitting on a rock in front of a steep, rushing waterfall. Their long, dark curls were wild and damp against their shoulders. Gwen's arm was around Morgana, and Morgana was turned away from the camera, kissing Gwen on the cheek.
Will peered over Merlin's shoulder. "So Gwen found herself powerless to resist the temptation of naked Morgana."
"Morgana's wearing clothes in the picture," Merlin said, his voice sounding unsteady to his ears. Jealousy, he thought, that's what that was. Impossible not to be jealous of Morgana, who went after what she wanted, and got it. "A wet, clingy t-shirt, but still."
"Gwen never stood a chance," Will said.
Merlin couldn't stop staring at the picture, at Gwen's happy smile. The curve of her lips and the light in her eyes said she'd got what she wanted, too. "Should we send them a picture back?"
"Sure, yeah. There's plenty of light yet."
They shifted around, leaning against the stone wall of the bridge together, the river at their backs. Merlin held his phone out in front of them with one hand. Will pulled Merlin in closer, an arm around his waist.
Merlin held his finger over the button, not quite breathing. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears now, his pulse urging him on. And then he did it: when he pressed the button, he pressed his lips to Will's jaw as well.
"We'll match, sort of," Merlin said, pulling back. He made himself look at Will - that was even harder to do, somehow, than the kiss. Except maybe it shouldn't have been, because there was nothing to see on Will's face but pleased surprise.
"Perfect," Will said.
"Yeah," Will said. His arm was still warm around Merlin's waist when Merlin pressed send.