Merlin had chosen the table in the farthest corner from the crowd, all his walls up for the night.
It was Saturday night again, and being at the pub was only him fulfilling a promise to his best mate and nothing more. Dead best mate, he corrected himself, feeling miserable. Will had fought a long battle with cancer before he had succumbed last week. Merlin had tried his best to be Will’s lieutenant in that battle at every stage. Will was the guy who had been right alongside him at every turn his life had taken - good or bad, the guy who had not blinked an eye when Merlin had come out to him, and had defended him against all the homophobic insults that had come his way all through school and college, the guy who had bought him his first beer. He was the guy who had been his best friend since they were two, the guy who knew Merlin the best, and Merlin had never imagined his life without Will right by his side.
Merlin had spent almost every spare second with Will for the last few months, almost getting on Will's nerves after a point, until one day about two months ago Will had yelled at Merlin before extracting a silly promise from him which had caused him to come to the pub every Saturday night to nurse a drink or two before heading home or to the hospital, wherever Will had been. Will had looked at him more and more disappointedly, though, as weeks passed, as if he knew exactly what Merlin had been up to. And he probably did know that instead of socializing like he had been ordered to, Merlin had sat and stared into his glass morosely the entire time.
"Just because I'm dying doesn't mean you have to too, you pillock," he had said only two days before he had died. "Promise you'll live enough for the both of us."
And thus, even though there was no Will to check on him now, he had returned to the pub. Not that he was doing a mighty good job of socializing. He wasn't feeling very sociable yet. The world seemed to not give a damn that his best friend had passed away, taken at the prime of his life. He looked around him and only found that everyone seemed to be happy about something or the other. How was he supposed to talk to any of these people? Case in point, a group of guys had only then pushed the door open, walking in laughing and joking as if they did not have a care in the world. Merlin looked away, not being able to bear the cheerful sight, feeling lonelier than he had in a long time.
"Promise you'll live enough for the both of us."
“If you could show me how,” Merlin said quietly, before he sighed, swallowing his thoughts and looking up again, only to find himself looking into the clear blue eyes of one of the guys from before. Merlin frowned slightly, hoping that he wasn't going to be attacked by the gang, clearly being the token poof in the pub. His guards came up as he looked away again, curling into himself, trying to make himself invisible. Granted, the gang had come into the pub almost every other Saturday night that he had been there, but they hadn't exactly paid Merlin much attention, too busy cat-calling after the skanky waitresses instead.
Thankfully, the rowdy gang had taken a seat quite a way away from Merlin's corner, but Merlin had only finished heaving a sigh of relief when he saw the guy who had been looking at him before get up and start walking towards him.
'See Will, this is what happens when I try to socialize,' he mentally scowled at his friend even as he scanned his options for a quick escape. There was one that was a long way around the room, and there was another shorter one but the blonde git was directly in the way of that, and even if he somehow manages to knock him down, he's got 4 other blokes as back up and--
"Very funny," he snapped before he could check himself. "Now bugger off."
'Smooth, Merlin,' he could almost hear Will saying in his head. He scowled even more.
“Sorry?” the other man seemed genuinely taken aback by Merlin’s attitude. “What’s funny?”
Despite his earlier resolve not to, Merlin looked up, curious. Away from his gang, the guy didn’t look all that menacing. Merlin had to admit, on another day he would probably find the guy very attractive. Now, however, it would take more than a pretty face to get his walls down.
“As if I’m stupid. As if I couldn’t tell what you all are up to,” he snarled back. “How much did they pay you to come over here and make a move on the token poof in the room?”
He could almost feel Will frowning at him but the comically gobsmacked expression on the other guy’s face stole his attention for the moment. Merlin almost took his words back. He felt the need to defend himself.
“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.”
The guy sat down unsteadily opposite him, looking like he was almost about to pass out. Merlin understood why from his next words.
“Not all of us are interested in girls.”
Merlin remembered his first time trying to talk to a guy after he realized he was gay. He hadn’t even told Will at the time and he had been terrified to even approach the guy. He could have kicked himself. He had been wallowing in his own misery so much that he had almost been blind to what was going on around him. He almost winced.
“Do they know?” he asked, hoping he could make this easier for the guy, in exchange for being an arse earlier. He glanced toward his friends who were pretending like they were not watching the proceedings.
“About me?” the blond asked.
“Yeah. They do.”
Merlin was surprised. It seemed like his initial impression of this group was entirely wrong. He didn’t even have the heart to knock the smug look off of Will’s face in his head.
“They’re good mates, really,” the other man went on. “I’m lucky.”
Merlin agreed. He remembered how difficult it had been for him. Not only did he have to put up with the bullying, but people he had grown up with had turned their backs on him. Will had been his only constant. And now even he was gone.
He forced himself to snap out of it. Will had wanted him to move on, and it was as good a time as any to try and do just that.
So he left his inhibitions behind and flirted with the guy, whose name turned out to be Arthur of all things. Before he knew it, he was being led to Arthur’s friends with a warm hand on his lower back guiding him. He spent the rest of the evening stuck comfortably to Arthur’s side and laughing and joking with the lads about fate and footie, and the time flew by.
After that it was the easiest evening Merlin had had in quite a while, and soon he found himself outside the pub saying goodbye to the lads, making vague plans to repeat the evening, and then it was just Arthur and him.
“My…my place isn’t far from here. Do you…Would you…like to come over?” Arthur asked, somehow still nervous in spite of the turn the evening had taken.
Merlin suddenly realized that it was the first few hours he had spent without talking to the ghost of Will in his head. He tried to feel guilty, but he found that the last wisp of the image of Will was smiling at him proudly, and Merlin felt more at peace than he had all week.
He smiled back at Will, shook his head and looked at Arthur, who was still looking at him like he would disappear. Merlin moved closer and took his hand before leaning over and placing a kiss on his lips.
“I’d love to.”