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Subject, Verb, Object (of my affection)

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It was one of those perfect autumn days. It was pleasantly warm but not humid, it was sunny but there were clouds so it wasn't overbearing, there was a slight breeze but it wasn't so much as to be a nuisance. It was a day meant for sitting outside, reading an assignment or doing maths problems or typing up a paper on a laptop. It was a day meant for abandoning work and playing football with some mates or going for a jog or maybe lying out in one last attempt to get tanned before the seasons really changed. It was a day for lounging about with friends and eating outside and napping against tree trunks.

Unfortunately for Merlin, he was stuck inside the writing centre with a student who didn't even need help. She had first class marks in all her classes, but she wanted more. She wanted 100s instead of 90s. Merlin had tried to explain that it depended on the professor and that she needed to try to cater to her audience, but she wasn't having it. She was convinced that her professors were perfectly unbiased and that there must be something she could do, some improvement she could make in her writing, to help her get perfect marks on every single paper.

Merlin would much rather be outside than poring over her latest tome on Shakespeare. At the very least, he would rather be working with a student who really needed his help. All he could do for Sophia was point out the few sentences that could be restructured with semi-colons to make her points and connections a little clearer.

She seemed satisfied with that, though, and she left with a smile on her face, optimistic that this time her professors would have to acknowledge her genius.

When she was gone, Merlin went to the front desk and marked down her visit in the log book. He scanned the room, seeing the other writing tutors working with some of the centre's regular visitors, and, deciding that no one needed his help, pulled out a book to read while he waited for the end of his shift.

Barely a page into it, though, the door opened. Merlin looked up to see a student standing by the desk, looking lost and, for some reason, angry. He was clutching his laptop to his chest, scowling out at the other students and their tutors.

"Hi," Merlin said, drawing his attention away from the rest of the room. "Can we help you?"

The student narrowed his eyes. Merlin put on his best smile and waited, taking in the rest of the student's appearance. He had sun-kissed hair and tanned skin and a broad, muscular chest. He was dressed like any other student—jeans and a hoodie—but he had a sports bag draped over one shoulder. Maybe he'd just come from the uni gym, or maybe he'd been outside taking advantage of the weather and playing some game with his mates.

"No," he said after a moment, frowning at Merlin's scrutiny. Without any further explanation, he turned and left the centre.

"Okay," Merlin said to himself. That had been an odd interaction. First timers were usually a little shy, a little embarrassed, a little unsure, but Merlin had never seen anyone just give up and leave before. The student must not have been too concerned about his work. Or maybe he'd got lost somehow and had wandered into the out-of-the-way but clearly marked writing centre by accident.

Putting it out of his mind, Merlin checked the time. He had an hour left in his shift, and the afternoon surge was dying down. The centre wasn't likely to get many visitors in the evening. He went back to his book.

~~~~

A few days later, Merlin was in his usual spot at the library. There was a back room on the second floor that he favoured due to its comfortable, low-sitting armchairs. They were wide enough that he could pull his legs up and cross them, making a sort of shelf for his laptop if he had to write a paper. The arms were comfortable enough that he could turn sideways to use one as a pillow and the other as a perch for his feet or as something to hang his knees over. They were old chairs, and much of the stuffing had been lost over the years, but he loved them. He had read so many books on these chairs, written so many papers, listened to so many albums, watched so many stupid YouTube videos as he procrastinated. They were his chairs, and he hated when he wasn't able to secure one for himself. Sitting at the tables was uncomfortable and distracting, with other students coming and going, putting their things down, picking their things up, invading his space. He hated the tables.

Luckily, on this day, his chairs were free. He grabbed the one in the corner and pulled his laptop out of his bag, setting it up on his lap and opening up a fresh Word document. He had a paper due in a week, and if he let it sit untouched any longer he might never get it done. Slipping in his headphones, Merlin set to writing his opening paragraph.

It took several tries—and a lot of checking the book he was writing about to make sure he would have enough supporting evidence for his claim—but eventually he had his introduction and argument laid out. It wasn't going to be the most original or mind-blowing paper, but it would be solid, and he expected that, as long as he stayed on point, he'd get a good mark. He always got good marks on his papers. He was a good writer—he knew how to structure a sentence, how to transition between paragraphs, how to construct a thesis with supporting statements and quotes from primary and secondary texts.

That was why he was a writing tutor. One of his professors had recommended him for the job during his first year, and he'd taken up the role with a sort of pride for being recognised. It turned out he liked helping other people as much as he liked doing his own writing, so he'd stuck with the work and had helped dozens of other students improve their papers. Each time one of them came back to thank him, to show him their final paper, to boast about their good marks, Merlin swelled with pleasure. He liked to be useful.

Tonight was about his own work, though, and as soon as he was happy with his first paragraph, he dived into the second. He fleshed out his first supporting argument, pulling quotes from the book and drawing on ideas his professor had explored in class. He was just getting into the rhythm of it all when there was a loud clunk as someone set their things down on one of the nearby tables.

Merlin looked up, annoyed, and saw the student who had fled the writing centre getting settled at the table. He looked neither lost nor angry this time, although he also didn't look sorry about the loud noise he'd just made. He had his headphones in, so maybe he didn't even know how disruptive he had been.

He pulled out a large book and set it on the table, opening to his bookmark and uncapping a pen with his teeth. He started writing in the margins almost immediately. He looked like he was enjoying himself, like he was enjoying the book.

Merlin wondered what he was reading. It was a thick book, taller than usual, and it had a grey cover. That was all Merlin could see from his chair. He wanted to know, though. He wanted to know what kind of books he would like, what kind of notes he was taking, what class he was reading for. He wanted to know if he was always as prickly as he had been at the centre the other day. He wanted to know why he had come in, what he had been hoping for, what had made him leave in such a huff.

The student looked up, perhaps sensing Merlin's gaze, and Merlin hurried to busy himself with his laptop. He wrote a few more sentences, keeping his eyes firmly on the screen until he reached a point where he needed to quote a passage from the book he was writing about. He glanced up as he paged through the book and saw that the other student had changed positions. He was slouched almost all the way down in his chair, his long legs stretching out under the table. He had the book propped up on the table at eye level, and he was chewing on the pen cap. It didn't look like a particularly comfortable way to read a book, but he still seemed engrossed.

Merlin turned in his chair, dropping his legs over one of the armrests and leaning his laptop against his thighs. He went back to his paper, determined to knock out a first draft before the library closed.

~~~~

The next week, Merlin worked his usual shift at the writing centre. It was a slow afternoon, and he and one of the other tutors, Gwen, were free and manning the front desk. They were looking over the course catalogues for the next term, talking in low voices about which classes they wanted to take. They were both studying Literature, although Gwen was focused more on the Romantics and Merlin preferred Modernism. Their class schedules rarely overlapped, but they'd been working together at the writing centre for a couple terms.

"Have you had him?" Gwen asked, pointing at a professor's name in the catalogue. "I've heard some bad things."

"He's fine," Merlin said, glancing over the class description. "He's just strict about participation."

"What does—"

Her question was cut off by a student coming into the centre. Gwen greeted him cheerfully and escorted him to one of the tables so she could discuss what he needed help with. Merlin stayed at the front desk, flipping through the catalogue and wondering if he would be able to fit in a film course next term.

It was nearing the end of his shift when another student—that student, the one who had fled on his first visit—came into the centre. He looked just as lost and angry as he had the first time.

"Hi," Merlin said, setting down the catalogue and trying to appear as unthreatening as possible. "Can we help you?"

The student set his jaw. It looked like he was about to reveal his deepest, darkest secret. "I need help with a paper," he said.

"Sure," Merlin said, smiling. "Why don't you come over here and we can talk about what you need." He stood and led the student to one of the tables. "I'm Merlin, I'm one of the writing tutors here."

The student didn't respond, just sat down and pulled a paper out of his bag. He set it on the table and crossed his arms.

Merlin glanced at it and saw the name Arthur Pendragon at the top.

"Arthur?" he asked, and the student nodded. "Cool. Well, what seems to be the trouble?"

Arthur just shrugged. He looked thoroughly uninterested in being at the centre, like he thought the whole place was beneath him. Merlin had worked with that type before, and he found it exhausting. Students like him were always so sensitive to any criticism of their work.

"All right," Merlin said, trying to stay upbeat. "I can explain the kinds of things we offer, if that helps you figure out what you need. I can look at the basic things like grammar and punctuation—that's the easiest stuff. I can look at the structure of your paper, your thesis, your supporting arguments, that sort of thing. I can look at the overall style and flow of your paper, help you maintain a consistent voice. If you really need it, I can help bounce ideas around, although I might not be much help if I'm not familiar with the subject."

Arthur, who had been staring down at the table during Merlin's spiel, shrugged again.

Merlin sighed. Arthur was giving him absolutely nothing to go on.

"I can just read your paper and give you some general feedback," he offered.

Arthur nodded, and Merlin pulled the paper towards himself. It was on Ulysses, which surprised Merlin for some reason. He had never met anyone who looked like Arthur—he seemed so athletic—who liked James Joyce. He flipped through the paper, and the first thing he noticed was that the block quotes weren't indented correctly.

He turned back to the first page and skimmed through the first few paragraphs. The punctuation was all over the place, the citations weren't formatted properly, there were no transitions to be had, and there were run-on sentences for days. There were dangling modifiers, some odd uses of capital letters, and poor word choices. The paper was a mess.

The ideas were good, though. And interesting. Arthur was arguing that the main character was feminised throughout the text and that, because of this emasculation, he failed as and was rejected as a father figure by one of the other characters. The fact that his thesis was about gender was even more surprising than the fact that Arthur was reading Ulysses in the first place.

"All right," Merlin said, not needing to read through the whole thing. "I like your premise a lot."

"Thanks," Arthur muttered.

Merlin looked at the top of the paper again and saw that Arthur was writing it for Geoffrey Monmouth's Joyce class. Merlin had taken it in his first year and had written his own paper on Ulysses, although his ideas hadn't been anywhere close to original as Arthur's.

"Monmouth treating you well? He can be a bit grumpy, can't he?"

Arthur nodded.

Merlin licked his lips. None of his attempts at small talk were working. He wondered if Arthur had been required to come to the writing centre by one of his professors.

"Would you feel more comfortable in one of our private rooms?" Merlin asked.

Arthur said nothing, just grabbed his bag and the paper and stood. Merlin hurried to lead the way to the back of the centre where there were three small rooms for situations like this. He led Arthur inside the middle one and closed the door behind them.

"Your ideas are solid," Merlin said as he sat down at the table. "It's just the mechanics of your writing that need some work. If you like, we can go over everything together and you can edit as we go along. Or I can take some time to mark up your paper. Some students prefer that, but fair warning that it can look a bit intimidating when your paper comes back covered in red."

"Covered in red?" Arthur scoffed. "It's not that bad."

"No," Merlin lied to avoid bruising Arthur's overlarge ego. "Just needs some touching up."

Arthur sighed and, after a long moment of stewing, pulled his laptop out of his bag. He opened up the paper and turned the screen a little so Merlin could see. It was colour-coded in some kind of way Merlin couldn't quite decipher. All the quotes were in blue, and then there were random words scattered throughout that were green, purple, orange.

"When's it due?" Merlin asked, hoping it wasn't within the next 24 hours. He had a feeling it would take multiple sessions to get Arthur's paper into shape.

"Two weeks."

"Oh. That's—you're very ahead of schedule," Merlin said, impressed.

"I've read the book before," Arthur said.

Merlin found himself surprised again—and wanting to know more about Arthur. He looked like he would prefer spending his time on the football pitch rather than reading Ulysses—never mind reading it more than once.

"Did you like it?" Merlin asked before he could stop himself.

Arthur nodded and pulled out his copy of the book. It had a grey cover, and Merlin realised that he had been reading it at the library the other night.

"Cool. Let's get started yeah?" Merlin asked, knowing he would have to cut the small talk at some point and wanting to dive into the paper to gauge Arthur's reaction to feedback. "I think you should take out all your semi-colons and just use full sentences. If you like, I can show you how to use them properly, but it's probably going to be easier if you just avoid them."

Arthur went red but didn't protest the idea. Using the Find and Replace feature, he highlighted all of the semi-colons in a bold, extra large font and then, with Merlin's help, went through and adjusted each instance. He did it mostly on his own, with Merlin chiming in about commas whenever he came across a particularly egregious one.

Arthur didn't exactly warm up to Merlin—he still seemed annoyed to be at the centre at all—but he accepted all of Merlin's suggestions without fighting back. Merlin found himself wishing he would ask a question or at least show some kind of understanding as to why he was making the changes. Merlin couldn't tell if he was learning or absorbing any feedback or if he was just going along with it for the sake of improving his paper.

He also found himself staring at Arthur a little more than strictly necessary. He was sort of pretty up close. He had charmingly crooked teeth, bright blue eyes, a strong nose, a square jaw, a hint of stubble. He was very nice to look at, and Merlin couldn't stop looking.

"Anything else?" Arthur asked once all the semi-colons were gone.

Merlin forced his eyes back to the laptop screen. "There are some other things that could be worked on," he said, grimacing and hoping Arthur wouldn't take offence.

Arthur just checked the time. "I have to meet someone for dinner," he said. "Are you here tomorrow, or…"

Merlin found himself pleased that Arthur wanted to continue working with him. "In the morning, from nine until noon. If you'd like, we can schedule an appointment to make sure I'll be available."

Arthur nodded. He packed his things away and followed Merlin back to the front desk.

"What's your schedule like?" Merlin asked, pulling up the writing centre's calendar on the desktop computer.

"I'm free all morning. I can come around ten?"

Merlin set the appointment and assigned it to himself. "Ten it is." He smiled up at Arthur. "Thanks for dropping in."

"Thanks for…" Arthur frowned a little, like he hadn't meant to say that. "Thanks."

He left quickly, leaving Merlin staring at the door he'd just gone through.

"Merlin," Gwen said pleasantly as she walked up to the desk. "What are you still doing here?"

Merlin checked his mobile and saw that he was well past his shift end. "Got caught up with a student," he explained.

"The blond one?" Gwen asked.

Merlin nodded, and she grinned.

"He's quite fit," she said.

Merlin obviously agreed, but he wasn't going to say that out loud. Instead, he said, "He's a bit of a prat."

Gwen just laughed at him. "Come get dinner?" she asked, and Merlin followed her out of the centre.

~~~~

The look on Vivian's face as Arthur came into the dining hall told him all he needed to know. He was late, she was mad, and it was going to be another rough night.

"Sorry," he said, walking up and pressing a kiss to her cheek. "I got caught up in something."

"When was the last time you got caught up in me?" Vivian asked.

"Last night," Arthur reminded her. "I didn't get any work done because of you."

Vivian's frown wavered a bit. "Last night was good."

Arthur smirked and gave her a quick kiss. "Last night was very good," he said.

Vivian finally smiled and gave him a hug before tugging him along to get food. They ate in the back room, away from where Arthur's football teammates were likely sitting together and having a blast. Arthur wished he were out there with them, laughing and taking the piss out of his friends.

Instead, he was stuck eating with his girlfriend, who was just going on and on about some small slight one of her friends had made and how offended she was and how she couldn't possibly trust said friend anymore and wasn't Arthur listening?

"What?" Arthur asked at hearing his name.

Vivian pouted. "I asked if you were listening."

"I was," Arthur lied. "I'm sorry she did that to you. It's not fair."

"It's not," Vivian said emphatically, and then she started ranting again.

Arthur tuned her out and focused on his dinner, thinking about his Ulysses paper.

He felt slightly bad about how he'd acted at the writing centre. It was just that he had been so uncomfortable, so embarrassed, and the tutor had been so nice.

He'd been more than nice, really. He'd been warm and welcoming and friendly. He'd been respectful of Arthur's work. He'd been sweet. And he'd been kind of gorgeous, with those striking blue eyes and those cheekbones and those lips. If Arthur hadn't been so caught up in his own head, he would have been extremely distracted by those lips.

As it was, he'd barely made it through the session without insulting Merlin. He had a bad habit of lashing out when he wasn't feeling like his best, confident self, and it had taken a lot of effort to get through the meeting.

Merlin's demeanour had helped, though. And the fact that he seemed truly unbothered by Arthur's apparently atrocious use of the semi-colon. He had looked it up before he started writing, determined to take proper advantage of it, but even that hadn't helped. He just didn't understand sentence structure. He didn't really know much beyond subject, verb, object. He knew nouns and adjectives and adverbs, but what the hell was a conjunction and why didn't a semi-colon need one?

He just didn't get it. No one had ever taught him. Or if they had, he hadn't paid enough attention. But even if that was the case, he had never got in trouble for it. None of his teachers had ever corrected his papers the way Merlin had. Not even his stupid Literature professor from last term—he'd just given Arthur a bad mark with no comment.

Arthur knew his ideas were solid. He knew how to come up with something original, and he knew how to use the texts to support his arguments. It was everything around that that he struggled with.

And, if he didn't want to get bad marks on yet another paper, he needed help.

He hated to admit it. He wanted to be able to do everything on his own. He was smart. He knew he was smart. He knew he could write a good paper.

But he also, deep down, knew he needed help to properly structure his sentences.

Mostly he was just mad it had taken him so long to get to this point. Surely someone should have pointed out his weaknesses at some point. A teacher, a friend, anyone. Everyone had just let it slide, let him get away with feeling exceptionally literate, let him focus on sports and music. They had enabled him, and Arthur wasn't happy about it.

He wasn't really happy about anything. He wasn't happy about needing help, he wasn't happy about the substandard pizza he was eating for dinner, and he wasn't happy with the relationship he had with Vivian.

"It's not like I had a choice!" Vivian said, and Arthur snapped out of his thoughts.

"No," he agreed despite having no idea what she had just been talking about.

Vivian sighed and gave him a look like she knew he'd been zoning out.

"What do you want to do tonight?" she asked.

"Another film sounds good," Arthur said. That was what they had done the night before, and the night before that. A film and then sex—that was their routine. Except Vivian didn't have the patience for films, so it was more like a few scenes and then sex.

Arthur always went back to finish the films, later. He liked them. He liked the stories and the interesting ways they could be told. That was what he liked about books, too.

"How about we skip the film?" Vivian suggested. "I have wine in my room."

Arthur shrugged and finished off his pizza.

~~~~

Merlin definitely didn't put on his favourite shirt the next morning. He definitely didn't spend an embarrassing amount of time in front of the mirror, trying to get his hair to do anything other than the nonsense it usually did. And he definitely didn't check to see how his arse looked in his jeans.

He was the first tutor to arrive at the centre, so he unlocked it and spent a few minutes pushing in chairs and realigning tables. Eventually Freya, the other tutor on shift, showed up with two coffees.

"You look nice," she said, handing him one.

"I look like I always do," Merlin said innocently.

"No, you look like you're… trying," she said with a smirk.

"Not trying anything," Merlin insisted. He sipped at his coffee and flipped through the log book for something to do.

Freya settled behind the desk and pulled up the centre's calendar.

"Who's Arthur Pendragon?" she asked.

"Hm?" Merlin kept his eyes firmly on the log book.

"Says you've got an appointment with him. Who is he?"

"Would you believe me if I said he was a student?" Merlin asked.

Freya rolled her eyes but let the topic drop.

It was a slow morning, and no one showed up in the first hour. Then, looking gloriously tired and like he'd just rolled out of bed, Arthur came in. He was wearing shorts and a loose t-shirt, and it looked like he was planning to go on a run rather than work on a paper.

"Morning," Merlin said from where he was sat behind the front desk with Freya. "How are you?"

Arthur just shrugged and yawned.

"Want to grab one of the private rooms again?" Merlin asked as he got up and rounded the desk.

Arthur shrugged again, so Merlin led the way, ignoring the look Freya was giving him.

"How was your night?" Merlin asked, watching Arthur pull out his laptop.

Arthur slumped back in his chair and rubbed his eyes, heaving a great sigh. "Didn't sleep very much," he said.

"That sucks," Merlin said sympathetically.

Arthur gave a half-hearted shrug and turned his laptop a little towards Merlin. "Well?" he asked.

"Can you tell me about the colours?" Merlin asked, gesturing at the screen.

"I was… trying to make sure the quotes were spread out enough," Arthur said, sounding embarrassed. "And that I didn't use the same words too many times."

"I like that idea. Does it help?" Merlin asked.

"Not really," Arthur said.

Merlin laughed. "Well, it's good that you try. What do you want to work on today?"

"Whatever needs worked on," Arthur said, clearly still uninterested in fully engaging over his work.

"Let's keep working on punctuation," Merlin suggested. "I noticed some comma splices and run-on sentences."

Arthur frowned and scooted his chair closer to the table so he could reach his laptop. Using the Find and Replace feature again, he highlighted all the commas and then had Merlin take him through each one. Merlin pointed out the ones that worked and explained why, and he helped Arthur reconfigure the ones that didn't, offering suggestions but letting Arthur take the lead on re-writing.

As they were nearing the end of the paper, Arthur's mobile beeped.

"Sorry," he said, pulling it out of his pocket. Merlin's eyes drifted to his biceps.

Arthur put his mobile back away almost immediately, looking annoyed.

"Let's keep going," he said, apparently more interested in what they were doing than whoever had texted him.

Merlin forced his gaze away from Arthur's toned arms and went back to helping Arthur edit his commas. When they were finished, Arthur scrolled back to the top of the paper and pouted a little.

"It's… good, right?" he asked, his voice low like he didn't really believe what he was saying.

"It's not bad," Merlin said quickly, not wanting Arthur to feel discouraged after all the work they'd done and not wanting to spoil a moment of something close to openness from him. "This stuff's really hard."

"You know it," Arthur muttered.

"Well…" Merlin trailed off, not sure how to respond. He'd just always been a good writer. He didn't have an explanation as to why grammar and punctuation and sentence structure and style came naturally to him.

"Whatever," Arthur said, closing his laptop. "I have class."

"Okay," Merlin said, taken aback at the sudden end of the session. "Um… do you want to come back again, or…"

"Do I need to?" Arthur put his laptop in his bag and looked over, catching Merlin's eye.

Merlin froze, struck by the fact that this was the first time they'd properly looked at each other. Arthur had been avoiding his gaze so far, but now he was staring at Merlin with those blue eyes, waiting for the verdict on his paper.

"Up to you," Merlin said. "There's always room for improvement. And you've got a lot of time to make it."

Arthur nodded and stood, shouldering his bag. "Are you here tomorrow?"

"I'm not," Merlin admitted. "I only work two shifts a week. But we can schedule time, anyway, if you want to keep working with me."

Arthur looked unsure. "Really?"

"Yeah." Merlin put on a grin to show he didn't mind. "Plus I'll get paid more, so… it's a win-win, really."

Arthur nodded and followed Merlin back to the front desk.

"I can only do the afternoon," Arthur said as Merlin pulled up the calendar.

"That's no problem. How's three?"

Arthur nodded and left without saying goodbye or thank you. Merlin added their appointment to the calendar and their visit to the log, and then he busied himself with homework. He tried not to think about being able to see Arthur for the third day in a row, but that fact was repeating itself on a loop inside his head. There was something about him that Merlin found interesting, except that ‘interesting' wasn't quite the word for it. He was aloof and embarrassed about his need for assistance, but he took all of Merlin's feedback without comment, like he knew it was for the best. It was an odd combination, but Merlin kind of respected it. He knew it was difficult to admit a weakness. Not that Arthur had really admitted it to Merlin, but he at least seemed to have admitted it to himself, and Merlin could appreciate that.

He could also appreciate the fact that Arthur was just undeniably attractive. His hair, his mouth, his shoulders, his wrists—there was something to like in every bit of him, and Merlin had catalogued it all during their sessions. He wondered what he would discover during third meeting. Maybe Arthur would wear sandals and reveal that he had hideous feet. Or maybe he would wear shorts again and Merlin could get a better look at his muscular thighs. Or maybe he'd open up a little more, show Merlin that he was learning. Maybe he'd even smile.

~~~~

It turned out that Arthur was in a foul mood when he arrived at the writing centre the next day. He stomped in, looked around for Merlin, and actually scowled when he saw him.

"Let's go outside," Merlin suggested when he saw the look on Arthur's face. "Get some fresh air while we work."

Arthur turned back around and stomped out of the centre. Merlin followed quickly and guided him to one of the picnic tables set up in the small quad. The writing centre was hidden away in the basement of one of the administrative buildings, between the old computer lab and an abandoned space that used to be some sort of coffee shop. There were a few picnic tables spread out, probably left over from the days when the shop was open, but now they were mostly used by the writing centre and students who wanted to use the computer lab's wifi without actually stepping inside.

Arthur dropped his bag on the table and sat down in a huff. He pulled out his laptop and opened up his paper, and then he sat there, sulking, waiting for Merlin to do or say something.

"Rough day?" Merlin guessed.

Arthur opened his mouth, looking ready to vent, but then he closed it and simply nodded his head.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Merlin said. "If you want, we can reschedule—"

"No," Arthur said quietly. He glanced over at Merlin. "It's fine."

Merlin held his gaze. "Fine?"

"Fine," Arthur confirmed. He nudged his laptop towards Merlin. "What else do I need to do?"

Merlin skimmed through the paper again, but most of the punctuation and grammatical errors had been fixed. The next step was to work on paragraph transitions and fleshing out the quote analyses, and Merlin really wasn't sure how Arthur would take to that news.

"It's definitely in better shape now," he said, flashing Arthur a smile. "There's some structural things that could be worked on."

"Like what?" Arthur asked, looking unimpressed with the concept.

"Well, for example…" Merlin scrolled to one of the block quotes Arthur had used. "You only talk about this for about 50 words, but anything you quote should be discussed for at least twice the length of the quote."

Arthur blinked at Merlin like he was speaking a different language.

"Like," Merlin tried again, "this quote's 100 words, so you need to say at least 200 words about it."

Arthur frowned. "Oh. I've never heard that."

"It's a best practice. You can get away with not doing it on occasion, but really that should be the standard. And you should indent it one more time."

Arthur did so and then frowned at his laptop. "So I'm supposed to come up with 150 more words about this quote?"

"Yes," Merlin said, trying to sound upbeat. "You don't have to do it right now. Maybe just make a note for yourself and you can work on it later when you have the time, and I can look at your next draft when you're ready."

Arthur highlighted the quote and added a comment in the document, telling himself to expand the analysis.

"What are you studying?" Merlin asked, wanting Arthur to open up more before he delved into the work needed on the transitions.

"Music." Arthur took a deep breath and then added, in a low voice, "I like reading."

Something in Merlin melted a little at the thought of Arthur reading Ulysses and the like for fun, on the side, in between bouts of writing or playing music and football matches. Not that he knew if Arthur played football, but he looked the part. Merlin could imagine him running around, perhaps shirtless, his sweaty hair plastered to his face, getting tanned under the sun, chest-bumping his friends when they scored a particularly good goal. He could imagine Arthur getting good and riled up on the field, going home for a long shower, and then curling up with some tea and a good book. He could imagine a lot.

"Merlin?" Arthur asked, and Merlin realised he'd zoned out.

"Yup," he said, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand and not the way Arthur's collar bones were peeking out from the v-neck collar of his shirt. "Um. The other thing is transitions between paragraphs. You want your ideas to flow into each other, not start and stop at random."

"Transitions," Arthur said blankly.

"For example…" Merlin pulled Arthur's laptop closer to himself and pointed at one of the paragraphs. "Here, you're talking about action that takes place in the morning of the book's timeline. In the next paragraph, you go on to talk about something that happens in the evening, but you don't mention the relationship between these two things. The time is a simple one, you can say something like, ‘later that day,' or whatever. But I'm sure there's more that links the two that you can flesh out to make your discussion flow more naturally."

"How'd you know that happens in the evening if I didn't mention it?" Arthur asked.

"I've read it," Merlin explained, wondering if Arthur had picked up on anything else he'd said. "Does that make sense, or…"

Arthur nodded. "Yeah. It makes sense. Since…" He glanced between his laptop and Merlin, looking conflicted. "Since you've read it, could you help me, or is that not allowed?"

Merlin smiled. "It's allowed. I mean, I can't write it for you, but I'm happy to brainstorm."

"All right." Arthur tugged the laptop back over to himself. "So, for this part—"

"PENDRAGON!"

Merlin looked up to see another student jogging towards them. His curls bounced as he ran, and when he reached their table, he towered over them.

"Leon," Arthur said. He plastered on a smile, but Merlin could see his fists clenched under the table.

"I heard what happened," Leon said, and then he seemed to notice Merlin. "Sorry, hi. What are you two doing?"

"Working on a group project," Arthur said quickly. "This is Merlin."

Leon reached out to shake Merlin's hand. "Hey. Well… do you want to hang out after dinner? I've still got some beer in my room."

"Sure," Arthur said.

Leon nodded and then took a few steps back. "Well, I'll let you get back to it." He waved and then took off again.

Arthur sighed and gave Merlin a guilty smile. "Sorry."

"It's fine," Merlin assured him. He hadn't minded the lie.

"Does this always feel so…" Arthur trailed off, frowning.

"So what?" Merlin asked.

"I don't know. Intimate?"

Merlin found himself blushing at the implication. "It doesn't have to. Try to think of it as more of a business interaction. I'm getting paid to help, and you're a client. It doesn't have to be so personal."

"I'll try not to fall in love, then."

Merlin stared at Arthur, his brain stuck on those words.

"Kidding," Arthur said, smiling awkwardly.

Merlin forced out a laugh, bewildered at Arthur's sense of humour.

"So, um…" Arthur licked his lips, and Merlin forced himself to look away. "I think I'll go work on this on my own for a bit. The quote stuff and the transitions. And then I can show you when I'm done?"

"Yeah," Merlin said quickly. "That sounds like a good plan."

"Should I just stop by the centre when I'm done?"

"Email it to me," Merlin said, and he added his email address as a comment to Arthur's paper. "We can set up a meeting time once I've looked it over."

"Cheers." Arthur hurried to save the document and shove his laptop into his bag. "I'll email you, then." He stood, and his hand drifted a little, like maybe he wanted to shake Merlin's, but then he shoved it in his pocket instead. "See you around."

"See you," Merlin said quietly as Arthur walked away.

~~~~

On Friday, after a long week of finalising his paper, Merlin was ready to stop thinking about school and relax for the night. He went over to Gwen's room and found her already in the company of her boyfriend, Lance, and Freya. They were doing shots.

"Save one for me," Merlin said, closing the door and walking over to where they were all gathered around Gwen's desk.

Gwen poured him a shot, and he downed it quickly, shuddering.

"There's a party over at Lance's hall," Freya explained. "We're pre-gaming."

"Naturally. What kind of party?"

"The kind where someone's going to end up naked at the end of the night," Lance said, and Merlin couldn't tell if he was joking or not.

"As long as it's not you," Gwen said. "Your dick is mine."

Lance chuckled and kissed her on the cheek. Merlin took another shot. He loved Gwen—and he loved Lance—but sometimes he found it difficult to be around them. He knew they probably had the same kinds of problems all other couples had, but they always seemed so perfect, so in love, so right for each other, and it was hard not to get jealous. Merlin had never had anything like that. He knew he was still very young and would have plenty of time for epic romances in his life, but he still found himself—more often than he would have liked—wishing he had something like Gwen and Lance. Or at least someone to fuck every once in a while. As it was, it'd been nearly six months since his last hook up, and he was starting to feel a bit desperate.

Maybe he could find someone at the party.

A few more shots later, Merlin and his friends headed over to Lance's hall. The party was in the common room, in the hallways of the first floor, in the bushes outside. It was everywhere, and it was glorious. It was exactly what Merlin wanted for the night.

Abandoning Gwen and Lance to do whatever they were going to do, Merlin grabbed Freya'a hand and led her into the throng. They stopped when they found a small pocket between groups and started dancing to the music that was pumping so loud Merlin could barely hear himself think. He didn't need to think, though. He just needed to move.

He loved to dance. He knew he wasn't especially good at it—he was awkwardly lanky, and his sense of rhythm was only mildly developed—but that had never stopped him from enjoying it. He liked the freedom, the way he could get totally lost to the music, the feeling that nothing else mattered except the beat and the lyrics.

Freya was a good dance partner, too. She wasn't afraid to touch him, and it didn't take long before they were moving together. Merlin was gay—Freya was gay, too, but they were both making do. It was uncomplicated, and it was fun, and that was all Merlin cared about.

~~~~

Arthur stood in the corner with his friend Gwaine, surveying the party and considering his options, the best of which involved more drinking and the worst of which involved attempting to make civil small talk with Vivian.

Their break-up hadn't been pleasant—she'd ranted at him for a long time—but he was feeling better about it every minute. It was like a weight lifted off his shoulders. Or his soul. He felt lighter, more free, more happy.

She hadn't been the one for him. She was fun, sometimes, and she was beautiful, but they didn't have anything in common. All they had ever talked about was Vivian's social drama. She'd never asked him anything about himself.

Arthur was ready to move on. He wanted something more exciting than rote sex. Something more real, more substantial. Something with someone who cared, who wanted to know, who wanted to share in return.

He wanted something fresh and new.

He wanted to be with a guy, really, was what he wanted. He was sick of pretending to be perfectly straight, and he wanted to try his luck in the gay dating pool. He wasn't gay, but he knew the university had plenty of attractive guys. Surely at least one of them would be better company than Vivian had been.

"Earth to Arthur," Gwaine said, waving his hand in front of Arthur's face.

Arthur blinked and turned to look at his friend. "What?"

Gwaine laughed. "I was asking how you're feeling."

"I feel fine," Arthur said.

"I mean about Vivian."

"I feel fine," Arthur said again. "Honestly. It was overdue."

Gwaine nodded. "You're better off without her, mate. You'll find someone else."

Arthur looked out over the sea of dancing figures, wondering if there could be someone for him in there.

His eyes landed on Merlin, and his heart did something funny in his chest. Merlin looked good—he had his hair tamed, and he was wearing a tight shirt, and he…

He was dancing with a girl.

Arthur frowned, questioning his instincts. He had been so sure Merlin was gay. The thought had pinged almost as soon as they'd met.

Maybe Merlin was bi, like him. But it didn't matter. He was clearly taken. He and the girl were grinding together, and Merlin's hands were all over her. They were definitely a couple.

The thought rubbed Arthur the wrong way much more than he would have liked to admit. He'd spent the whole afternoon working on his Ulysses paper, replaying Merlin's words in his head to help guide him. He had been trying to impress Merlin, to make him proud. He wanted his paper to be good, not just for himself, but for Merlin and all the effort he'd put into helping Arthur. Arthur had been so excited with the results—it was the first time he'd ever felt really good about anything he'd ever written.

He had been looking forward to seeing Merlin's face as he read it over and saw all the improvements Arthur had made.

Now he wasn't sure what he wanted.

Arthur finished off his drink and handed the empty bottle to Gwaine.

"I'll be right back," he said, and then he left the party and went back to his own room, needing time alone.

~~~~

In the morning, Merlin was dehydrated and hungover. He was clammy from all the sweating he'd done while dancing the night before, and he could smell himself. It wasn't a particularly pleasant start to the day, but he got out of bed anyway.

He took a shower and then wandered to the dining hall to get breakfast. He helped himself to a plateful of scrambled eggs and potatoes, and he ate at a large table by himself, staring out a window and letting his mind go blissfully blank.

Eventually he was finished his breakfast, though, and he had to get up and start his day properly. He went back to his room to grab his things, and then he headed to the library.

He passed a small game of football on the way, and, not surprisingly, he found Arthur among the players. Arthur was shirtless, just like in Merlin's fantasy, and running after the ball with a determination not exactly matched by the rest of his mates. He looked good. He looked enraptured by the game, focused on the ball, obsessed by the play. His friends looked more casual, less concerned. Arthur was clearly all in, though.

Merlin had to stop himself from pausing to watch, not wanting to draw attention to himself. He continued on to the library, trying not to dwell on this new mental image he had of Arthur.

It was early enough that not many students were there yet, and his chairs were all empty. He grabbed his favourite one, the one in the corner, and pulled out the next book he had to read now that his paper was done. He brought his feet up and rested the book on his knees, opening to the first page and diving in.

It took him a few minutes to clear his head enough to focus. He kept thinking of Arthur, of the football match, of those muscles and that hair and that tanned skin.

Eventually, though, after adjusting his position in the chair and clearing his throat and reminding himself that he had work to do, Merlin was able to pay attention to the book.

It was an odd book, but an enjoyable one, and Merlin found himself so immersed that by the time he finally decided to take a break, it was well past lunch time. He stretched out his legs and stifled a yawn, looking around the room. It had filled up while he was reading, and all the other armchairs had students in them.

Knowing that if he left his chair would be taken but needing more food, Merlin packed up his things and stopped at the computer bank on his way out. He checked his email, not really expecting anything but finding a message from Arthur. Attached to it was an updated draft of his paper, which Merlin printed and brought with him to the dining hall.

Once he had food, he set himself up in the back room to read over Arthur's work in peace.

It was much better. Arthur's transitions weren't the smoothest in the world, but they were a lot better than the nothing he'd had before. And he'd added more insight around his quotes, fleshing out his thoughts and expanding on the meaning of the original text.

It was a good paper. Merlin was convinced by Arthur's arguments, and he was no longer distracted by the atrocious grammar that had riddled the first draft. He found that he almost wished he'd written it himself. He didn't think any of his own papers had ever had so many original thoughts. He usually borrowed from scholars, taking the seeds of their ideas and working off of them to build his own arguments, but he had never just had his own innovative thesis. He was perfectly aware that his good marks came mostly from his solid writing skills and ability to present his arguments in a clear, concise way.

Arthur didn't have that skill set, but he had original ideas, and Merlin knew that could be just as valuable. That wasn't something that could be taught the way grammar and punctuation could be.

Merlin circled a few commas that needed to be removed from Arthur's new sentences and hurried to finish his lunch so he could get back to his room to respond to Arthur's email.

~~~~

When Arthur met Merlin at the writing centre the next morning, he seemed to be in good spirits. He was even smiling as he came in.

"Morning," Merlin said, a little disarmed. "How's it going?"

"Good, thanks." Arthur tilted his head towards the back rooms, and Merlin followed him into the middle one.

"How's your weekend?" Merlin asked as they got settled at the table.

"Fine," Arthur said. Then, after sitting in the awkward silence caused by him not asking about Merlin's weekend, he said, "I saw you on Friday night."

Merlin tried to think back. "What? Where? When?"

"At the party in Vilia. With your girlfriend."

Merlin remembered grinding with Freya in the middle of the room, drunk and oblivious to the world around them.

"Oh, that's… she's not my girlfriend."

"Oh," Arthur said. "Sorry."

Merlin shrugged. "She's actually another writing tutor. I think she was here one of the first times you came in."

Arthur said nothing to that, just opened up his laptop and showed Merlin his paper. It was still colour-coded, and Merlin could see how much more spaced out all the quotes were now that Arthur had added more analysis.

"You did a really good job," Merlin said, pushing past their awkward conversation. "I just had a few notes on commas, and then I think you're probably good to go."

Arthur's smile was small but proud, and Merlin beamed.

They worked through the commas quickly, with Arthur making each change Merlin suggested, and then, before Merlin was ready to end the session, they were done.

"Is there anything else?" Arthur asked, scrolling through his paper. "Anything at all?"

"We could nit-pick it to death," Merlin said. "But overall I think it's really solid."

Arthur nodded and saved the document before closing his laptop. "I'm…" he trailed off, looking embarrassed. "Thanks for helping."

"Of course," Merlin said brightly. "I'm happy to do it. If you ever need help again, you're welcome to reach out to me directly." He blushed a little as he said it.

"Yeah. Maybe." Arthur paused with his hand on his bag, looking like he didn't really want to leave. "I'll, um… see you around?"

Merlin nodded and watched as Arthur stood and let himself out of the back room. He stayed put for a while, trying to get over the disappointment that he no longer had any excuses to see Arthur again, not unless Arthur reached out first.

~~~~

By the next week, the weather had turned and it started getting cold, windy, wet. The nice autumn had turned into a foul one, and Merlin found himself longing to be indoors more than usual. At least it was dry inside, if not warm, and there was no wind to blow his hair and papers about.

The only problem with being stuck inside all day was that it was so much easier to be bored. When the weather had been nice, all Merlin had had to do to break up the monotony of studying was go outside for a walk. Now he was stuck in his room or stuck in the library, and moving between buildings was a chore.

That wasn't going to stop him from finding a suitable activity for the weekend, though. Lance's hall was off limits after the raucous party from the previous weekend, but Merlin knew his friends would find something else to occupy their Friday night.

"Looks like there's something going on at Nemeth," Gwen said, scrolling through texts on her mobile. She was sprawled across her bed, her feet in Lance's lap. Freya was hovering near by, inspecting her weekend look in Gwen's mirror.

Merlin, stood by Gwen's desk, poured himself a shot and downed it quickly.

"What kind of something?" he asked.

"Dunno. Let's go find out." Gwen rolled off her bed and sprang to her feet. "After another round, of course." She poured more shots and everyone knocked them back before bundling up and heading over to Nemeth Hall.

It was drizzling, which probably meant that Merlin's friends would be unwilling to party hop, so Merlin just hoped that whatever was going on at Nemeth would suffice for the night.

The hall was quiet when they arrived, and Merlin frowned over at Freya.

"Doesn't seem like much of anything," he said.

"Don't be so sure," Gwen said as they headed towards the suites in the back of the building. There was some noise up ahead, and Merlin was relieved to see, when they found an open door, that there was indeed a party in full swing.

The lights were off, the music was loud, and it was exactly what Merlin wanted. He tried to pull Freya into the crowd, but she wanted more to drink first, so he went by himself, feeling drunk enough that he didn't really care if he ended up dancing alone.

He made his way to the middle of the crowded room and threw his hands up, wiggling his hips and singing along with the music. He wished he were at a proper club with a proper dance floor rather than in someone's living room, but at least no one was stopping him. He made a fool of himself, jumping and dancing and ignoring the world around him until someone put a hand on his shoulder.

"Sorry," he said automatically, assuming he'd knocked into someone.

When the hand stayed put, Merlin turned to see Arthur standing behind him. He was flushed—probably from alcohol—and his hair was messy, like someone had been running their hands through it. Merlin wanted to do the same.

"Hey," Arthur said, shouting to be heard over the music.

"Hey!" Merlin stared at him, unsure what else to do. They were standing so close—the room was so crowded—and he had no idea what to do.

"Where's your girlfriend?" Arthur asked.

"I told you—she's not my girlfriend."

Arthur just smirked and took a swig of whatever drink he was holding. It was a bottle, but it didn't look like beer. It might have been tequila. He offered it to Merlin, and Merlin took a sip. Definitely tequila.

Arthur's hand was still on Merlin's shoulder. They were standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by dancing fools, and they were just staring at each other. Arthur's lips were wet from his drink, and Merlin couldn't tear his eyes away from them.

Arthur shifted, and Merlin followed, desperate not to let the moment break. Then Arthur shifted back, and Merlin realised he was dancing. He was dancing. He was standing in front of Merlin, drunk and with his hand still on Merlin's shoulder, and he was dancing.

Merlin forced himself to move, to find the rhythm, to follow Arthur's lead. It was clumsy at first, but then easier, and then they were dancing together. Arthur's hand dropped down to Merlin's side, and Merlin reached for the tequila again.

They carried on like that—dancing and drinking, shuffling together, decidedly not talking about what they were doing—until someone fell into them. The tequila bottle got knocked to the floor, out of Arthur's hand.

"Arthur," the girl said, leaning on him. Arthur's face turned to stone.

"What?" he asked, unamused.

"Arthur," she said again, clearly drunk.

Arthur shook her off and walked away. Merlin ducked down and found the tequila bottle, unbroken and dribbling out its contents. He picked it up and wiped the mouth off on his shirt, and then headed in the direction Arthur had gone.

Merlin didn't find him near the kitchen, so he checked the hall and just caught him leaving out the front door of the building.

Taking another swig of tequila, Merlin followed and found Arthur standing out in the rain, rubbing at his temples.

"Hey," Merlin said, holding out the tequila. "All right?"

Arthur took the bottle but didn't drink from it.

"Did you know that girl?" Merlin guessed.

Arthur said something that was lost in a roll of thunder.

"What?" Merlin asked, stepping closer.

"She's my ex," Arthur said, and then he took a long gulp of tequila. "We just split this week."

"Sorry," Merlin said, thinking that must have been why Arthur had been so grumpy, especially that day they'd sat outside. "That sucks."

Arthur shrugged and took another drink. "It's fine. I mean, it does suck, but… it needed to happen."

"Why?"

Arthur scoffed. "Because I didn't want to be with her anymore. Is it really that difficult?"

"Sorry," Merlin said quickly. "Sorry."

Arthur shook his head. "It's fine. She just wants, like, a fucking dissertation on my reasons, and I don't have anything to give her. I don't love her, isn't that enough?"

Merlin nodded. "Sure, yeah. That… that's a valid reason to break up."

"Thank you." Arthur huffed and handed back the tequila. "Don't let me drink anymore."

"Do you want to go back inside?" Merlin asked. "Get out of the rain?"

Arthur nodded and led the way, taking Merlin up the stairs rather than down the hall. He unlocked a door, and Merlin found himself standing in Arthur's room.

It wasn't exactly tidy, and there were dozens of books stacked on the desk. Some of them looked to be music compositions, but most of them were novels.

Arthur closed the door and plopped down on his bed. He looked up at Merlin, his expression blank, and Merlin took a drink of tequila before setting down the bottle.

"So, um…" Merlin trailed off, not sure where his sentence had been heading.

"You're, like, really smart," Arthur said after a moment.

Merlin blushed. "You're smart, too," he said, gesturing at the books. Then he noticed an instrument case on the floor. "What do you play?"

"Trumpet. And piano. Some violin. Mostly trumpet."

"That's cool," Merlin said, trying to imagine Arthur playing any of those.

"I'm really good at music," Arthur said. "I'm crap at writing, though."

"You're not," Merlin said quickly. "Your paper's really good."

"Now it is," Arthur said. He stood and came over to Merlin to get the tequila.

"You said—"

"I know." Arthur took a drink anyway. "I just…" He sighed and set the bottle down. "Just realising you probably shouldn't be here."

Merlin heart sank. "Sorry," he said. "I can go."

"No, I mean—I'm drunk, and… and we should do this in the morning instead."

"Do what?" Merlin asked.

"This," Arthur said, waving his hand between them.

Merlin had no idea what he was trying to get at. "What, compliment each other on our writing skills?"

Arthur chuckled, low and rumbly. "No," he said quietly. "Kiss."

"Kiss," Merlin repeated blankly, wondering if he'd missed some crucial part of the conversation.

Arthur locked eyes with him, and Merlin suddenly felt warm all over. Did Arthur mean—did Arthur want to kiss him?

Merlin licked his lips and saw the way Arthur's eyes followed the movement.

"Your ex," he said stupidly.

Arthur frowned. "What about her?"

"She's… a she."

"So?" Arthur asked.

Merlin shrugged. He just hadn't thought Arthur would be interested in him. Even after they'd danced together—shit, he'd completely forgotten the way they'd danced together. The way Arthur had held onto him. How close they'd been. They were close again, now.

Arthur reached out and trailed his fingers up from Merlin's hand to his shoulder, and Merlin shuddered at the touch. He had no idea what was happening, but whatever it was, he wanted it. He wanted Arthur.

Arthur leaned in, pressing his lips to Merlin's. Merlin pressed back, trying to find his bearings, trying to stop his head from spinning. Arthur's lips were wet, and the tequila taste was strong on his tongue as he brushed it against Merlin's. Merlin shifted closer, bringing his hand up to Arthur's side, and Arthur huffed and broke the kiss.

They breathed against each other for a moment, and then Arthur took a step back and took an extra long swig of tequila.

"I've never done that before," he rasped, setting the bottle down.

"What?" Merlin asked.

"Kissed a…" Arthur gestured vaguely.

"Boy," Merlin finished for him.

Arthur nodded, avoiding Merlin's gaze. Merlin just licked his lips and stared, too drunk to come up with the right thing to say, just sober enough to stop himself from saying all the wrong things.

"Should I go?" Merlin asked when the silence stretched on for too long.

Arthur said nothing.

Merlin turned and left, closing the door behind him. He was too drunk for drama. He just needed to get his coat from the party downstairs and go home. Everything else he could deal with in the morning.

~~~~

The morning came far too quickly for Arthur's liking, especially because of how terrible he felt. He didn't normally drink tequila. It took him a long time to force himself out of bed.

He dressed slowly, his head pounding, and made his way down to his hall's kitchen. He stole some slices of bread from someone who was stupid enough to leave a loaf in the fridge and made himself toast, too tired to go to the dining hall for a proper meal.

After he ate, he took a steaming hot shower, and that made him feel a little more human.

He still had no idea what had happened the night before, though. He'd kissed Merlin, and Merlin had just left instead of talking about it.

Arthur knew what he wanted. He was very clear on that. He just had no idea what Merlin wanted, and Merlin hadn't given him any signs. He'd kissed Arthur back—it seemed like he had been very into it—but that was all Arthur had to go on.

He wished he had Merlin's number. He wanted to text him, to meet up, to talk. They needed to talk. Arthur wasn't going to let Merlin's awkward exit be the end. Even if nothing more happened, he couldn't let that be the last thing.

He spent the afternoon alternating between reading and practicing his trumpet, and then, when he was pretty sure it around the same time as his first visit the writing centre, he went to try to find Merlin.

He was at the front desk when Arthur arrived, playing Solitaire on the computer and looking hungover.

"Hey," Arthur said.

Merlin looked up. "Hey."

"Can we talk?" Arthur asked, getting straight to it.

"I can't," Merlin said, and he had the decency to look guilty about it. He nodded out at the room. "I have to be available."

There weren't any students loitering around waiting for his help, but Arthur didn't know how the centre worked, and he didn't want to argue.

"I'm off in a few hours," Merlin said. "If you want to talk after…"

"What time?"

"Six."

Arthur nodded and left without saying anything else. He went to the library and poked around on the internet for a while—checking the news, reading blogs, looking at webcomics—until it was close to six.

He went back to the centre, arriving exactly on time, and found Merlin alone.

"Do you want to go somewhere else?" Merlin asked by way of greeting.

Arthur shook his head. He tried to think of something to say, but now that the moment had come, he had nothing.

"I'm sorry I left," Merlin said quietly. "That was pretty rude."

"A bit," Arthur agreed.

"I was confused," Merlin said, and it was a poor attempt at an excuse. "I mean, that doesn't really—"

"I was confused, too," Arthur admitted. "I'm still confused."

Merlin frowned. "Because you've never kissed a guy, or…"

"No," Arthur said. "I know what I want."

"Oh," Merlin breathed, and he went a bit red at the implication that Arthur wanted him.

"Confused because… because you were nice to me from the beginning, even though I wasn't nice to you."

"It's my job to be nice," Merlin said, and Arthur's heart dropped to his stomach. "I didn't mean it like that," Merlin said quickly. "I meant—I didn't mind being nice to you. It seemed like you needed it."

Arthur had needed it. If Merlin had been even slightly less nice, Arthur never would have gone through with getting his paper fully edited.

"Can we just start over?" he asked.

"Start over from where?"

"I don't know," Arthur said. "From last night, I guess."

"You want to pretend it didn't happen?"

Arthur shook his head. "I want to move forward."

Merlin licked his lips, looking confused. Arthur huffed, frustrated that he wasn't communicating what he wanted to.

"Look," he said, "I want—"

He cut himself off by stepping forward and capturing Merlin's lips in another kiss. This one was sober, with Merlin tasting like Merlin rather than tequila, and Arthur leaned into it. Merlin got his hands on Arthur's back and his tongue in Arthur's mouth, and Arthur held him close.

"You," he finished when Merlin pulled back.

"What?" Merlin asked.

"I want you," Arthur said. "In case that wasn't clear."

Merlin chuckled and gave Arthur a lingering kiss. "I want you, too. I want to know more about you."

Arthur couldn't help but smile. "Like what?"

"Like why you've read Ulysses multiple times."

"Because I like it," Arthur said simply. "Don't you?"

"I do, but I've still only read it the once."

Arthur shrugged. "What else do you want to know?"

"Whatever you want to tell me," Merlin said, smiling.

Arthur wasn't sure what else he wanted to say, but the words formed by themselves. "I'm not just some stupid football player."

Merlin shook his head. "I didn't think that you were. Your ideas are really good."

"I know," Arthur said emphatically, and Merlin laughed. "I just… I never really learned the writing part. I think my teachers went easy on me. No one ever told me how bad my writing is until I got here."

"I can help," Merlin said.

"You have helped."

"I can keep helping."

Arthur chuckled at Merlin's eagerness and pulled him in for a long kiss. "I'm sure there's lots you can do," he said, smiling against Merlin's lips.

"Oh, there is."

Arthur gave him another kiss and then stepped back. "So, I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with me."

Merlin's whole face lit up, and Arthur's heart jumped into his throat.

"Yeah," Merlin said. "I'd love to."

Arthur held out his hand, and Merlin took it. Warmth spread out from where their palms touched, and Arthur could feel himself blushing.

"So, what's your next paper on?" Merlin asked as they headed outside.

"Finnegans Wake."

Merlin snorted. "God help us all."

Arthur laughed and paused to give Merlin a kiss. Merlin leaned against one of the picnic tables, pulling Arthur in as the kiss deepened.

Then Arthur heard a snort behind them, and he turned to see Leon standing there, a rather smug look on his face.

"Leon," Arthur said, feeling caught. "What are you doing here?"

"You know I live right there, don't you?" Leon asked, pointing at a building on the other side of the small quad.

Arthur did know that. "Right. Sorry," he said.

"It's Merlin, yeah?" Leon asked, stepping closer to shake Merlin's hand.

"Yeah," Merlin said, and it sounded like he was trying not to laugh.

"Well." Leon's grin took over his whole face. "I'll, uh… I'll leave you to it." He waved and walked off towards his hall.

Arthur exhaled and hide his face in Merlin's neck, trying not to panic.

"Arthur?" Merlin asked, petting his hair.

"Yeah." Arthur took a deep breath and straightened back up. "Sorry. Um…"

"Are you out to your friends?" Merlin asked quietly.

"Sort of," Arthur said. Then, "Not really," because that was more of the truth.

"I'm sorry," Merlin said. "We can be more careful."

The thought of hiding Merlin didn't sit well with Arthur. "I don't want to have to be careful," he said. "Leon took that rather well, didn't he?"

"He's your friend," Merlin said, as if it was a given that all of Arthur's friends would take the news so easily. "I'm sure he doesn't care."

"Apparently not." Arthur sighed and, pulling himself together, gave Merlin a small smile. "Dinner?"

Merlin nodded and let Arthur take his hand again. He intertwined their fingers and gave Arthur's hand a squeeze as he led the way to the dining hall.