Arthur’s hands fidgeted, his knees bumping the table as he shifted anxiously in his seat. He’d been waiting fifteen minutes, clutching his drink like it’d somehow save him as his thoughts whirled a mile a minute. It was 2:40. Merlin should have been at the table ten minutes ago.
Arthur kept compulsively checking his watch, feeling a little bereft. He scolded himself silently. Surely he didn’t think this was actually a legitimate thing. It would have been laughable, Merlin somehow actually knowing who he was much less wanting to meet him out for lunch. They were at opposite ends of the spectrum; Merlin was the athletic type that was a star swimmer as well as being on the lacrosse team, and Arthur… well. Arthur was the social science nerd with asthma and crippling social awkwardness. The type of person Merlin Emrys was didn’t look twice at.
Which was why it was utterly baffling how he’d gotten an invitation to lunch, at the nice little café Arthur frequented before school. Merlin had strode up to him while he was jamming his books in his locker, a vision of grace and power and Arthur had barely been able to choke back his squeak of surprise when he turned and faced those startling blue eyes and charming smile. Then Merlin had proceeded to purr out an invitation, charm oozing from his bright smile. A group of snickering jocks were conspicuously leaning against the adjacent line of lockers behind them; Arthur had spared them a glance, feeling like he was in third grade again and some girls were playing Oreo. He’d looked right at Merlin, noting his smug grin and his blue eyes that were glittering already with victory and felt an overwhelming rush of anger. And then he did something he never thought he’d ever do.
The look on Merlin’s face was priceless. Smug satisfaction was wiped cleanly away to reveal absolute disbelief. His lackeys immediately shut up and gaped at him. The entire hallway seemed to come to a complete stop, staring at the sight that was Arthur James Pendragon, classic history nerd that people shoved into lockers and mocked mercilessly through junior high and the beginning of high school, asking Merlin freaking Emrys when to meet him up for lunch. Arthur was even shocked himself, but he hoped he didn’t show it, pulling on his carefully neutral mask that he practiced in front of the mirror.
Merlin’s throat had worked for a second before he managed to say something out loud. “Um. 2:30 then?” he’d asked, sounding much different than the confident jerk he’d started out as before. Arthur felt something akin to satisfaction spreading through is chest.
“2:30’s great. I’ll see you then,” he’d said, closing his locker with a slam and walking away, leaving Merlin Emrys, the swim team, and the general populace of Camelot High to gape after him.
Which led him to where he was currently, trying desperately not to start wheezing in the middle of a surprisingly busy Aithusa’s Café. The small white establishment became Arthur’s second home in freshman year, when he walked to school early to try and avoid getting caught up in the late horde of students that either shoved past him or mercilessly bullied him. The owner of the café, a fiery dark-haired woman by the name of Morgana, had essentially adopted him by the end of his freshman year. He was now a junior, and he’d never abandoned Aithusa’s once over the course of his two-and-a-half years of patronage.
“Hey, it’s Princess!” greeted one of the servers raucously, and Arthur looked up just in time to see Gwaine, one of the few workers at Aithusa’s that remembered Arthur’s name. Gwaine was stocky and a few inches shorter than Arthur, muscular and broad with an even broader smile and silky brown hair he tied up in a loose ponytail. He was only a few years older than Arthur, but acted like he was still eighteen. “What can I get for you, man?”
Arthur smiled up at Gwaine, feeling a little lighter now that such a welcoming force greeted him. Sefa, a younger girl that went to the high school across town, had taken his order earlier but she’d been so harried that she’d had barely any time to smile at him (and had less time to spare listening to him stutter).
“S-Sefa got me a few minutes ago, thanks,” Arthur said quietly, but Gwaine was used to his mumbling, so he only sent Arthur a shining grin.
“You waiting for someone?” Gwaine asked, cocking his hip against Arthur’s chair. Arthur blushed furiously and nodded, not trusting his voice. Gwaine threw his head back and laughed, but he fondly ruffled Arthur’s hair. “Well look at you! I remember when you still were writing your orders down on napkins so you wouldn’t have to talk to us, and now you’re going on a date? I’m impressed, Princess,” Gwaine said, no trace of mockery in his voice. That’s what Arthur loved about Gwaine—for all the man was brash and crass, he truly did have a heart as large as an ocean.
“I thought I could only make him blush like that,” said a familiar voice, and Arthur startled so hard in his seat that Gwaine nearly fell over. Merlin was grinning at him, his dark hair tousled and falling into his eyes a bit. He wore a simple black button-down with gray jeans, and Arthur felt his mouth go immediately dry.
Gwaine raised an eyebrow, but the playful smirk on his lips never faded. “And who might you be?” he asked, coming back to stand slightly in front of Arthur. Arthur inwardly groaned; the people at Aithusa’s had become his family, so he knew it was a risk meeting Merlin there, but he’d hoped at least Gwaine of all people wouldn’t go all mother bear.
Merlin blinked in surprise, his charming smile wavering for a moment. “I’m Merlin. I was supposed to meet Arthur here ten minutes ago but I got caught up in something, so I left a little later than I planned. I’m really sorry about that, by the way,” he said, leaning over to look at Arthur, who was still bright red and unable to untie his tongue from his embarrassment.
Gwaine huffed but said nothing, his wide grin never giving anything away. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Merlin. My name’s Gwaine, and I’ll mostly be taking your order this afternoon, but I can’t say that any of the other waiters or waitresses will be around asking if you need anything.” Merlin’s eyes widened slightly at the implication behind Gwaine’s words, but Gwaine just smiled serenely. “I think I’ll just come back with a water, yeah? ‘Till you get yourself straightened out.” Gwaine left with a small pat on Arthur’s shoulder and a meaningful look Merlin’s way, going to stop at another table to see if they needed anything.
Merlin blew out a breath and settled in his chair, watching Gwaine leave nervously. He turned back to Arthur, his expression the same as always, despite a lingering note of hesitancy. “That was different,” he said wearily.
“I’m so sorry,” Arthur blurted, his fingers knotting underneath the table. He felt an immense feeling of guilt—he knew that the staff at Aithusa’s was going to be protective; he knew that Merlin probably wouldn’t feel welcome—why was he doing this again? “I-I know this must be really uncomfortable for you. The staff here, they—they really like me, I-I’ve been coming here for years and they all know me, and they’re kind of protective because… well, you know, I’m me, so—”
“Arthur, slow down,” Merlin said, chuckling, his eyes crinkled at the corners with mirth. Arthur didn’t think there was a prettier picture in the entire world. “It’s fine. I understand, really, I do. I was just a little surprised, that’s all.” Merlin smiled, then, and for just a fleeting moment, Arthur thought it was genuine. For a moment, Arthur thought that this wasn’t just some joke being played on him yet again, that Merlin might actually like him and he asked him out on his own accord. But those thoughts were immediately stomped out, with the reminder that Merlin voiced: “When I asked you out yesterday, I didn’t think you’d have befriended the entire wait staff!”
And just like that, Arthur felt himself shut down. He forced a smile (he was good at that, smiles were easy to fake) and he looked down at his knotted hands. “Yeah,” he mumbled, fidgeting slightly in his chair, “they just kind of adopted me.”
The rest of the date went similarly. Small conversation was passed between them; Arthur even laughed a few times, which was rare, and Merlin thought so too, given the fact that he’d stared wide-eyed at Arthur for a whole five minutes afterward. The only interruptions they endured were from Gwaine, Sefa, and occasionally Morgana, who glared at Merlin predatorily before she announced: “He’ll do,” and then stalked back behind the counter. Merlin had gone white as a sheet and Arthur barely restrained himself from patting his hand in reassurance.
Eventually, the time slipped away and it ended up being 4:30. Merlin looked at his phone and hissed in surprise, looking up at Arthur apologetically. “I’m sorry, Arthur, but I have practice in thirty minutes. I really have to go,” he said, already scrambling up from his seat. He pulled out his wallet and started to rifle through the bills.
Arthur gazed up at Merlin for a moment before he snapped himself out of it. “O-Oh, okay,” he said, slowly rising from his own seat. For some reason, he was sad to see Merlin go. As their conversation had continued, Arthur forgot that Merlin was the unattainable, something to look at but never to touch—at least not by the likes of him. He’d forgotten that this was nothing more than a joke gone wrong.
Merlin chewed on his lip, looking at Arthur with a strange look in his eye. He seemed to be deliberating something. Then, he spoke: “Would you like a ride home?” just as Arthur said: “I guess I’ll see you around.”
Arthur gaped incredulously. “Wait, what?”
“I asked if you wanted a ride home,” Merlin said, looking astonishingly like he was embarrassed. A shell pink blush settled over his high cheekbones and Arthur just stared, disbelieving.
Merlin shifted his weight from foot to foot, his gaze locked on the toes of his Converse. “Uh, okay, since you’re silent I’m guessing that’s a no, so…”
“N-No! I mean, u-um, yes, I would very much like a ride home,” Arthur stammered, feeling his flush flare up once again. He caught and held Merlin’s eyes—honestly, he’d never expected to think such a cheesy line like his eyes were sapphire, but they were, goddamn it, fuck his life—his breathing unsteady. Merlin stared back at him, equally shocked.
“Well, um… Okay, then. Just give me directions.”
They both settled into the car with relative ease (Merlin owned a black Dodge Charger, go figure) and pulled out of Aithusa’s Café with only minimal amounts of cooing (Sefa), wolf whistling (Gwaine), and cackling (Morgana). Arthur had blushed all the way to the car, Merlin laughing all the while.
Arthur gave Merlin directions to his house, humming along to the song on the radio as Merlin drove. He hummed when he needed to calm himself down; music was one of the few things that helped his anxiety, and Arthur was so on edge that he needed to relax a little. He barely noticed when they pulled up in front of his house, still immersed in the melody.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, drawing him out of his thoughts. Merlin was looking at him strangely, his brow furrowed and his mouth turned downwards in an unhappy frown. “We’re at your house.”
“Oh,” Arthur breathed, looking at the house in front of them. It wasn’t a bad house; his father worked hard after his mother passed away, and they had a three-bedroom, single-story house in a relatively nice neighborhood. Arthur relaxed a bit more at the familiar surroundings. “Thanks for driving me home, Merlin,” he said, about to unbuckle his seatbelt, when Merlin’s hands closed over his, halting them.
“Wait a second, Arthur,” Merlin said softly, swallowing thickly. “I need to… I need to do something, okay?” he continued, and Arthur nodded, wide-eyed, the contact of Merlin’s fingers on his sending tingles up his arms.
For some reason, it didn’t click with Arthur until Merlin’s lips were already on his. Merlin’s eyes were closed, sooty lashes sweeping low across his cheekbones, his soft lips a nice pressure on Arthur’s. Arthur felt himself melt into it easily; his eyes were just about to close all the way when reality decided to hit him in the face. This was a game. Merlin didn’t actually feel anything for him. This was probably apart of the dare; kiss the nerdy queer kid and make him like you before you drive off and pretend he doesn’t exist after.
Arthur wrenched himself from the kiss, lightheaded and dizzy and craving the feeling almost immediately. He felt the beginnings of tears prickling at the back of his eyes, his chest squeezing painfully. He squeezed his eyes shut against the sensation.
“Arthur?” Merlin asked, reaching out to touch Arthur’s hands again. When they connected, Arthur almost sobbed; no one had ever held his hands. His father wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of man, and his mother died when he was young. Hugs, cuddles and handholding were mere myths to Arthur. No one had ever even kissed him, not even in Truth or Dare.
He must’ve said this aloud, because Merlin’s face crumpled with something scarily close to pity. “Oh, Arthur,” he said softly, gripping his hands tighter, but still gentle. Something in Arthur rebelled against it.
“No, please don’t,” Arthur said, his voice choked with tears. His breathing was ragged and erratic—his inhaler was safely in his pocket, just in case. But there was something that he wanted to say, first. So he took a deep breath, and started.
“I-I know this is just a joke,” he said, his eyes shut tightly against the onslaught of tears, but he heard Merlin’s sharp intake of breath anyway. “I know I-I’m just the weird gay kid that n-nobody pays any attention to. I-I know that I’m n-not good-looking, or particularly s-spectacular, or n-noteworthy in any way—I kn-know that. S-So you don’t have to pretend anymore,” Arthur continued, finally opening his eyes to see Merlin’s face, stricken and ashen. “You don’t have to pretend this is real. Y-You can go back to your f-friends and tell them that their b-brilliant idea worked. B-Because I l-like you, M-Merlin,” he whispered, a steady stream of tears running down his face. “And I kn-know it’s imp-possible for you to like m-me at all.”
“Arthur,” Merlin said, bringing a hand up to brush away the tears lingering on Arthur’s face. Arthur stared, disbelieving, as Merlin cradled his head in his hands. “Arthur, this isn’t a joke,” he said quietly, his lovely blue eyes meeting Arthur’s and holding them. “I really do like you. It’s entirely possible; I liked you before you even said yes to this date,” he said, and the words hit Arthur like a ton of bricks.
“What?” Arthur croaked, but Merlin only laughed softly.
“Yeah. I didn’t think you would say yes,” Merlin said, his smile different from the wide grin or the playful smirk that Arthur had seen before. This one was sweeter, and made his eyes crinkle a bit at the corners in the most adorable way. Arthur wanted to memorize that smile.
Arthur scrambled to understand, his breath wheezing out of his lungs. “B-But, what about your friends? They were laughing,” he said at Merlin’s confused expression.
Merlin’s eyes widened when he remembered the snickering that Arthur honestly couldn’t forget. “They were laughing because I was finally doing something about the stupid crush I had!” he exclaimed, making Arthur gape. “I’ve been crazy about you for months, they finally told me to either ask you out or move on.”
Arthur felt like his entire world had shifted. What was this about the Merlin Emrys having a crush on him? “B-B-But—” Arthur stuttered, feeling lost, “W-Why me?” he asked, his hands already knotting together since Merlin’s were currently cupping his face.
Merlin smiled at him again, softly and sweetly and adoringly. “Because you’re amazing, Arthur Pendragon,” he said, making Arthur sob in surprise. “You’re wicked smart, you’re kind, you don’t take shit when people are in your face. You’re incredibly loyal and you love so much,” Merlin murmured, his thumbs rubbing lightly over Arthur’s cheekbones. “Not to mention you’re extremely attractive. You’re all of that and so much more. I would be proud to date you, Arthur, not uncomfortable. I’m not pretending at all,” Merlin said, leaning his forehead against Arthur’s. Arthur thought it was difficult to breathe. “I never was pretending.”
Arthur didn’t know what exactly compelled him to do it, but one second he was staring into Merlin’s eyes, the next he was kissing him senseless. He didn’t know how to exactly do it—he’d only had one kiss, after all, and that was Merlin—but Merlin didn’t seem to mind. In fact, Merlin eagerly responded. For what Arthur lacked in skill, he made up for in enthusiasm; the kiss was sloppy and a little wet, but good all around. It was also fortunate that Arthur was an incredibly quick learner, and eventually got to the point where he kept Merlin on his toes.
Soon, though, Arthur had to pull back, his lungs screaming for air as he dug around in his pockets for his inhaler. He leaned away from Merlin to inhale the medicine, flushing with embarrassment, but Merlin just smiled dopily from where he sat, the car’s engine still idling.
“Sorry,” Arthur mumbled when he was done, stowing the yellow plastic inhaler back in his pocket.
“It’s alright. I knew I was good, but I didn’t know I was that good,” Merlin said, his grin turning sharp. Arthur rolled his eyes—a sign he was truly relaxed.
Arthur snorted. “You could have done so much better with that line,” he said quietly, unbuckling his seatbelt. Merlin’s eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Oh-ho! Really? What could I have done to make that line better, then?” he asked teasingly, threading his fingers through Arthur’s. The sharp, satisfying tingle ran up Arthur’s arms and he smiled widely.
“Well, y-you could’ve said something along the lines of: ‘I’m so good I take your breath away,’ or s-something really cheesy like that,” Arthur said, squeezing Merlin’s hand experimentally. “That would have m-made me laugh.”
“So you like terrible puns?” Merlin said, squeezing back lightly. “I could do that.” His bright blue eyes were teasing but fond, making Arthur feel warm and weird on the inside.
“I’ve got a thing for guys who make terrible jokes,” Arthur confided quietly, slowly, so he wouldn’t stutter. Merlin’s eyes widened at the unintentional lowering of Arthur’s voice, his pupils dilating.
Merlin laughed a little breathlessly. “That was probably unintentional, but I think that was one of the hottest and weirdest things I’ve ever heard,” he said, and Arthur blushed hard, mortification spreading through his chest. Merlin smiled, though, and gently smoothed back a lock of Arthur’s hair. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fun, yeah?” he murmured, shifting in his seat so he could drag an unresisting Arthur closer. “Let’s see what else you haven’t done yet.” He said, his eyes gleaming mischievously.
Arthur had a long night (and rest of the weekend) of glorious discovery. And he found he didn’t hate it one bit.