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War of Attrition

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Transferring to a new school mid-degree hadn’t been a part of Merlin’s initial college plan, but life always loved throwing curve balls. His mother had gotten sick, lost her job, and moved in with his uncle, and though she’d assured Merlin that he didn’t need to do anything, Merlin felt too much anxiety being across the country during her time of need. So he’d found a good school with a matching curriculum to his current course work and moved back home to California.

 

He was used to dorm living and had actually really liked his last roommate, Will Dempsey. The feeling was mutual, as evidenced by the fact that Will was texting him every thirty minutes to make sure Merlin’s trip was going smoothly and that no one was being mean to him, and did Will need to fly across the country to kick someone’s ass? No. Merlin assured his friend that everything was fine, and he was sure his new roommate would be just as annoying but wonderful as Will had been when they’d met.

 

So it was with very little apprehension that Merlin unlocked his new dorm and stepped into the main room. It was a really nice place, actually. Way better than Merlin had expected. The dorm had a tiny hallway that opened up into a spacious living room and a good sized kitchenette. There were two doors, one on either side of the living room, that must be bedrooms, and since he saw no other doors Merlin had to assume each room had its own toilet. It was a full apartment, god damn it.

 

It was already loads better than his last place, where he and Will had made do with one room that was both bedroom and living room. They’d had one bathroom to share and their ‘kitchen’ had been a microwave and mini fridge stacked on top of each other in the corner. Camelot University blew Ealdor University out of the water, but that was to be expected from the cost of tuition.

 

“Wow,” he breathed out and slowly walked forward. He knocked on the first bedroom door he came to. No answer. Cracking the door, he checked for signs of life. There was a bed inside and dresser, but otherwise the room was bare. The bed didn’t even have sheets on it.

 

Merlin slid his luggage into that room for the time being and then walked to the other bedroom door. He knocked again, but again he got no answer. This time when he peeked inside, however, he saw a room covered in collegiate regalia and a bed only half made. A tiny desk had been maneuvered into one corner and a laptop sat closed on top.

 

Clearly his roommate lived in there, but no one was home at the moment.

 

Nodding, Merlin returned to his new room and shut the door behind himself. He unpacked his clothes into the dresser, moved his toiletries into the small bathroom, and even produced his own bed sheets – which he’d intended to use even if his new bed had come outfitted for him. He had nothing to decorate the walls with except two framed documents: one was an award for winning a mathematics competition and the other frame showed off his scholarship reward letter. He set two objects on top of the dresser – a tiny dragon toy and a small first place ribbon – both reminding him of childhood memories with his father.

 

Maybe he was a minimalist nerd, but it sure made packing easier.

 

He heard the front door open and shut, and then the fridge door cracked. Leaving his last bit of luggage, Merlin got up and went to introduce himself.

 

He opened the bedroom door, took a few steps into the main room, and paused. His roommate was tall, blond, and built like a runner. Damn, he was really attractive, even with Merlin only able to see part of his profile. The blond was pouring a glass of milk, but Merlin’s brain didn’t catch up until the milk was back in the fridge and the glass was already touching the other man’s lips.

 

“Hello,” Merlin said, trying not to be too loud in the otherwise silent room. “I’m-“

 

His roommate jolted, pouring his new milk all down his chest. Cursing, he set the glass down and hopped back out of the new puddle forming on the small bit of tile the kitchen had. When he raised his eyes to see Merlin, he was glaring.

 

“What the hell?!” he fumed. “Who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing in my dorm?”

 

Merlin held his hand out in greeting. He tried not to hold the shouting against the other man. Merlin had scared him, after all. “I’m Merlin. I’m your new roommate.”

 

“No, you’re not,” the blond replied, his mocking tone suggesting he thought Merlin was dim. He shook out his arms as though they had gotten soaked in the milk fall as well. “Because I don’t have one.”

 

“You do now. I just moved in.” Merlin fished in his pocket and held up his new key. “See?”

 

The blond still did not introduce himself. He walked to the edge of the tile but stopped there and looked down at the carpet. He growled in frustration and tried to reach Merlin without dripping on the carpet. His hand swiped for the key in Merlin’s hand, but Merlin quickly pulled away, frowning.

 

“What are you doing?” he asked, closing his fist around his key.

 

“I don’t have roommates,” the blond grunted. “Never have. Never will. So give me the key, get your shit, and get out of my dorm room.”

 

Now it was Merlin’s turn to glare. “Yeah, I won’t be doing any of that. I was assigned this room fair and square, and it’s not like you were even using the second bedroom. Rooming with strangers is part of college, so get over it.”

 

Rolling his eyes and sighing the loudest annoyed sigh Merlin had ever heard in his life, the blond let his shoulders slouch. Then he grabbed the hem of his wet shirt and pulled it off over his head. Wow. Like oh wow, that wasn’t even fair. If his key wasn’t securely inside his fingers, it would have been open for the blond to snatch at that moment. Merlin’s brain was sort of preoccupied.

 

Built like a runner indeed.

 

Luckily his key was safe and it didn’t look like his roommate wanted to grab for it anyway. The blond balled up his shirt and stormed off to his room. On the threshold, he turned and glowered at Merlin. “Clean up the milk in there. It’s your fault it even happened.” Then he stepped into the room and slammed his door shut.

 

Merlin was left standing in the main room, dumbfounded. His new roommate was possibly too attractive to be good for Merlin’s concentration during the school year, but luckily he also lacked any noticeable understanding of basic human decency and manners. In short, he was an asshole.

 

His phone dinged in his pocket and he pulled it out to read the message from Will.

 

‘Have you met your new roomie? Bet he’s not as cool as me.’

 

Perfect timing, actually. Sighing with disappointment, Merlin typed out a quick response.

 

‘The guy’s a dick.’

 

Welcome to Camelot U, he thought sarcastically. Hopefully things only got easier from here.

--- --- ---

 

His roommate spent the better part of two hours shouting in his room. He was on the phone with at least three different people at one point or another, and only got more frustrated the longer his call went on. Merlin sat in his new room, on his new bed, using his old laptop while he listened to repeated threats of his roommate calling ‘my father’ and how ludicrous it was that they expected him to share a room with a complete stranger.

 

“Jesus,” Merlin grumbled just before the call ended. “Who does he think he is, the president?”

 

A few moments later, silence reigned in the dorm. Merlin breathed a sigh of relief and let his head fall back against his headboard, his eyes slipping closed. If every day in this dorm turned into his stupidly attractive roommate shouting like a lunatic, he might just try to switch rooms. Although, staying just to piss the guy off was also pretty tempting.

 

A noise he couldn’t place had him opening his eyes and he found himself being watched. His stupidly attractive, surprisingly rude roommate was standing in his doorway, still glowering. Merlin stared back, just as determined.

 

Eventually, his roommate huffed to break the silence. “Don’t get used to staying here,” he said. “You’ll be moving before the end of term.”

 

That was a threat if ever Merlin heard one, but it was also a challenge. He shrugged, acting unaffected. “I’m guessing the school told you to suck it up, so I’m not worried.”

 

The blond crossed his arms and leaned on the doorframe. His eyes were probably meant to be intimidating, but they looked half-hooded to Merlin. His smile, meant to be dangerous, looked predatory in an almost good way. “I think you’ll find I can be very persuasive.”

 

“Doubtful,” Merlin teased, because the situation suddenly didn’t feel much like a fight. “But feel free to try and entice me anyway.”

 

The blond frowned, like he wasn’t sure how to react to the statement. He turned his face away, looking back into the rest of the apartment, and his fingers tightened momentarily on his arms. Then he sniffed derisively and pinned Merlin with a deadpan stare. “Keep joking, Merlin,” he said, pronouncing Merlin’s name with a sneer, though his face was blank. “It won’t be funny for long, at least not for you. I’ll try not to laugh too much in your face when you leave.”

 

Then he left Merlin’s doorway. Merlin scrambled out of bed and to the door, catching sight of the blond entering his own room.

 

“Hang on,” he called, effectively stopping the other door from closing.

 

“What now?”

 

Merlin frowned. “Well you’ve yelled at me, shouted at everyone in the admissions office for two hours, and now threatened to run me off. Your manners are obviously atrocious, but you could at least have the common courtesy of introducing yourself.”

 

The blond looked affronted, but also a little surprised. Maybe he hadn’t noticed the lack of introduction? He put his hand on the door and, for the first time, lowered his gaze to the floor and didn’t look at Merlin when he spoke. “Arthur,” he said. “Now leave me alone.”

 

And he shut the door once more.

--- --- ---

 

For the two days leading up to the start of term, Arthur and Merlin generally pretended the other didn’t exist. They stayed in their rooms mostly and tried not to see each other. But when classes began, it was rapidly clear that they both had to be on campus at the same time. This meant they tried to eat breakfast at the same time, tried to walk out the door at the same time, and even had to walk in the same direction for half the campus at the same time.

 

“Stop following me,” Arthur snapped just before Merlin would have branched off in a new direction.

 

“We have class on the same campus, Arthur. I’m not following you.” He pointed off toward his class. “If it calms your prissy butt, I’m going this way now. Don’t get so riled up. Seriously.”

 

Arthur was attractive, but he was a cliché’d pretty face over an ugly personality. Why did the hot ones always have to be assholes? Why couldn’t just one guy be smoking hot and super nice? Was one perfect guy too much to ask for? Apparently yes, and Merlin hated the universe for it. Kind of.

 

Class was a welcome distraction. Merlin’s morning class was a History of the Middle Ages course for Merlin’s minor. The professor was there earlier than him, and the woman who sat beside him had a friendly smile. During the opening of the lecture, they were paired with whomever they were sitting beside for a group project that wouldn’t be due until after the mid-term, but they weren’t given any time to exchange information. The lesson went on as any first class did – handing out a syllabus, discussing the online portion, giving an overview of how the class would function, the usual stuff.

 

When it was time for class to end, Merlin turned to his seat mate. She was a dark skinned beauty in a subtle way. Her hair was probably long, but the braided design she pulled it back in made it stay entirely up on her head, and only a stray lock in front managed to escape. Perhaps if she was in an evening gown or if she held her chin up higher she would look regal and imposing. As it was, she kept her head down and was wearing a shirt a few sizes too large so that it hung down off one shoulder and exposed the strap of the tank top she wore underneath. Paired with dark blue jeans and flats, she looked like a college bound millennial, not an elegant lady. She was still pretty though.

 

“Hi, I’m Merlin,” he greeted.

 

She was half standing to leave but hesitated at his words. She smiled again, albeit shyly. “I’m Guinevere. Oh, but my friends call me Gwen. You can call me Gwen too, if you’d like. Not that I’m assuming we’re friends now just because we got paired for the midterm and final projects.  I just-“

 

Merlin smiled brightly and somehow that cut her off. He laughed softly. “We can be friends,” he said. “I’d like that. I don’t have any others right now. I just moved here from across the country.”

 

“Oh, really?” Gwen beamed. “That’s so exciting! Can I- Oh!” She glanced at her watch, her eyes widened, and then she was scrabbling to pull a scrap of paper from her binder. “Sorry! Here, this is my phone number. Text me yours. I’m sorry. I have to get to my next lecture. We’ll talk later, okay?”

 

“Sure thing, Gwen,” Merlin said, taking the paper. “I’ll see you on Wednesday.”

 

She smiled at him, a genuine smile, a thankful smile, and then she was hurrying from the room. Merlin entered the number into his phone before he could lose the paper and then sent off a quick text to her so she’d have his number too. Gwen sent back a winking face, which seemed a bit too teasing for the woman he’d just met, but it was cute anyway.

--- --- ---

 

He noticed rather quickly that something was off when he got home that evening. His bathroom had no toilet paper, even though Merlin had brought some from home. He could always buy more, but he’d purposely brought one roll from home in case his room didn’t already have some, and he’d been right to. But he’d been using it for two days and definitely had plenty left, so where had it gone?

 

Arthur, he thought, but Arthur wasn’t home. He couldn’t just go steal toilet paper from Arthur without proof that Arthur had done anything wrong. Could he?

 

Shaking his head, Merlin decided to wait and ask Arthur about it when he returned from classes. In the meantime, he’d take a shower.

 

Except his shampoo and body wash weren’t in his shower. Mouth gaping like a fish, Merlin closed the curtain on his shower and went off into the apartment to find his things. Toilet paper, Merlin could get over that, but Arthur taking his bathing products? What was up with that?

 

The missing toiletries weren’t in Arthur’s room, not that Merlin could find. He didn’t check everywhere, like in Arthur’s dresser, because there had to be some boundaries a person just didn’t cross. But he scavenged the bathroom and under the bed and around the desk. Nothing. Out in the main room, Merlin checked in the kitchenette’s cabinets, around the small couch, behind the tv. His stuff wasn’t to be found.

 

Grumbling, Merlin grabbed his wallet and keys and stormed from the apartment. Maybe Arthur had put the stuff in a really good hiding place. Maybe he’d thrown them all away. Maybe Arthur had nothing to do with it, but Merlin highly doubted it. This was Arthur trying to get Merlin riled up so he’d want to move out. Well it wasn’t going to work.

 

Camelot University had a miniature convenience store on one corner of the campus. Merlin simply bought some travel sized toiletries, a new pack of toilet paper, and a small sewing kit. He needed the kit in case he had to retaliate. If this act of theft was more than a one off thing, Merlin wanted to be ready.

 

When he returned to the dorm, Arthur was back from school and lounging on the couch, computer on his lap.

 

“Coming in late won’t be tolerated,” Arthur commented without looking up.

 

“Lay off. It’s only eight.” Merlin took his shoes off and left them by the door. His bag of purchases crinkled, and Arthur finally looked at him.

 

“What’s that?” he asked, and he did a good job of hiding that he knew exactly what it was. Good, but not great. Merlin could hear the taunt.

 

He shrugged, not giving Arthur the victory. “I ran out of some stuff in the bathroom and had to grab some more. No big deal.” He held the bag up for viewing, though only the toilet paper peeked out of it. Adopting the most innocent expression he could muster, he asked, “How are you on toilet paper? Need to borrow any?”

 

Arthur’s brow knit and his lips pursed ever so slightly. “No,” he said slowly, a beat later than a normal person would. “I’m all set.”

 

“Good.” Merlin moved to his door. “Well, I’ve got homework already, so I’ll probably be in here all night. See you tomorrow.”

 

“Right.” Arthur was watching him with a look that would have been suspicious if Merlin had been the one to steal Arthur’s toilet paper and not the other way around. Arthur had no reason to be suspicious, but that was the only way to explain his expression.

 

“Good night,” Merlin said pointedly, making direct eye contact.

 

“Night.” Arthur’s response was more of a mumble, a grunt, forced out of him by the manners that Merlin had compelled into action with his stare. Arthur did not look pleased with his own response. Good.

 

When his bedroom door was shut behind him, Merlin sighed out a long stream of air. It was only day one of classes. He talked a big game, but he didn’t actually want to get into some kind of roommate war. He just wanted Arthur to back off and relax. Despite all the angry threats and yelling, despite the pompousness, Merlin still thought he and Arthur could be friends some day. He hoped this was just some ‘new roommate adjustment period’ anger, and eventually Arthur would warm to him. Proximity breeds fondness and whatnot.

 

Oh, but wasn’t there another version that said ‘Proximity breeds contempt’? Frowning as he put his new toiletries away, Merlin prayed for ‘fondness’ over ‘contempt’, but he honestly wasn’t sure which was more likely in his situation.

--- --- ---

 

In his Wednesday class with Gwen, Merlin really tried to focus. Honestly he did, but all he could think about was how the snack cakes he’d bought after moving in were already going missing. First his toiletries, now his snacks. Was Arthur trying to smoke him out with poverty? Because Merlin wasn’t made of money. He couldn’t keep buying travel shampoo and coffee cake snacks!

 

“Are you alright?” Gwen asked when the professor had dismissed them. “Your leg was bouncing for half the class.” Her hair wasn’t as tightly bound to her head today, so he could see a bit more of how long it would be if she let it down.

 

He sighed and rolled his shoulders. They were quickly the only two left in the lecture hall. “It’s my roommate. For like two weeks now… He’s stealing my snacks, I think. But he’s definitely stealing my shampoo and toilet paper.”

 

“You should tell him to stop,” Gwen said, not trying to rush off to her next class. Knowing college, she probably didn’t have another class today. “I mean, is he scary looking? One of those rough, tough, save the world kind of men? I can see the football field from my dorm window, and if one of them is your roommate, I don’t blame you for not standing up to him.” She hesitated and noticed Merlin giving her a half-affronted look. “No! No, no! Not that I don’t think you can handle yourself. It’s just they’re all so… muscle-y and...well...”

 

“What?” Merlin asked, still not sure if he should be offended. Was she calling him weak? A push over? Should he fight back? Oh. Maybe that last question kind of proved the point?

 

“Well you don’t look like that,” Gwen finished, fiddling her fingers together and glancing away from him in embarrassment.

 

Honestly, he couldn’t even be mad at her. She was so sweet and kind of adorable, and she clearly didn’t mean to offend him. Merlin smiled at her to ease her nerves, which seemed to work at least. “Hey, I can take my roommate. Don’t you worry.”

 

She smiled too, something full of relief. Then she perked up and motioned to Merlin. “So what’s the terrible roommate’s name? Maybe we can look him up, find his weakness or something.”

 

Merlin groaned. “I don’t-… His name is Arthur. Arthur Pendragon.” He didn’t know what they’d find by looking Arthur up in the school system or even by Googling. But he doubted it would be useful in getting his roommate to stop being a dick.

 

Slowly he noticed that Gwen had not answered him. She was strangely quiet. When he looked at her, her face was pinched with worry. It looked even more troubling on such a sweet face as hers.

 

“What?” he asked, nervous.

 

“Well… it’s just…” Gwen clasped her hands together to stop herself from playing with her fingers more. “That’s… Arthur’s the captain of the football team here.” She winced, as though Merlin might be mad about that revelation. “Also his dad’s on the board of directors, so even if we report him I don’t think anything will happen. I’m sorry.”

 

“Oh.” Merlin secretly admitted that he’d been thinking about when he’d have to escalate his problems to some kind of campus authority. That option was probably moot now. “Hey, how do you know that? Do you know Arthur?”

 

Gwen shook her head. “Not really. My father is on the board too. Arthur and I have been at the same events before, but we’ve never spoken. I do know that he can be hard to get on with, though. He’s definitely adopted his father’s temper, if rumors are believed. Oh! But he’s not all bad!”

 

She looked scandalized, as though she’d just said something blasphemous. Merlin almost laughed. “Oh yeah? What’s good about him? And you can’t say his face,” he added quickly.

 

Gwen halted mid-answer. She’d grinned when he asked, but now she was stumped. After a half-second of thought, she laughed. “That’s not fair. I can’t think of anything!”

 

Merlin laughed too. “See? Nothing good about him!”

 

Gwen hid her laugh behind her hand. “Merlin,” she tried to scold, but it was lost in her smile. “That’s not nice. I’m sure you just have to get to know him!”

 

“Sure.” Merlin shook his head and finally stood with his bag. Gwen quickly joined him, still smiling. “I’ll let you know if I live long enough to find out.”

--- --- ---

 

“Hey, I invited some friends over tonight.”

 

Merlin looked up from his textbook and stared at Arthur in the doorway. Merlin was on his bed, studying, with papers all around him. Arthur, of course, was leaning on the door frame and looking for all the world like a totally sane and not asshole-ish human being. It took Merlin a long time to realize he was meant to respond to the statement, but in his defense it was the first normal thing Arthur had possibly ever said to him.

 

“Um. Okay. That’s fine?” he answered, sounding more like he was guessing the next lines in a play he hadn’t rehearsed for.

 

Arthur sighed. “Honestly.” He rolled his eyes. “Just stay in your room, alright? I don’t need you ruining the atmosphere.”

 

“Excuse me?” Merlin’s forehead knit and he glared. “I wouldn’t want to hang out with your friends anyway, not if they’re anything like you.”

 

Scoffing, Arthur pushed off the door frame. “Yeah right. You barely leave this room. I bet you’re dying for an invite to a party like mine.”

 

Wait. Merlin still frowned, but his forehead lost a lot of its anger. “Party? I thought it was just friends coming over.”

 

Shrugging, Arthur said, “I have a lot of friends.”

 

He left Merlin’s doorway but Merlin, as usual, scrambled up to go after him. “Hey! I have my first test in the morning for my practical science class. So just keep it down, alright? And you know, not too late. I need to sleep.”

 

Arthur picked up the remote for the tv from the stand and then shot a quick, deceptively nice smile over his shoulder at Merlin. “Oh, of course. I understand. Don’t worry.”

 

The answer made Merlin worried, but it was agreement… right? Arthur was in classes too. Surely he would understand the need to study beforehand and get some sleep before going in for the first major test of the semester. Or any test, for that matter.

 

For most of the afternoon, the apartment was docile. Arthur pulled out some cans of coke and two six-packs of beer, but Merlin was nice and wouldn’t call campus security on him for that. As long as no one got rowdy or broke anything, no officer had to know there was unauthorized alcohol on campus. Chips and dip appeared. Pizza showed up at the door.

 

Then the people started knocking. At eight pm. The first two to show up turned the TV on and cast their music players onto it so that the sounds of rock filled every cranny of the apartment. At first the sound level didn’t seem so bad, but the more people to show up, the louder it got. Arthur had said a few friends, but by nine there were a good dozen people in their small apartment living room and kitchenette.

 

At ten, Merlin couldn’t wait any longer. He needed to go to bed soon, and maybe if he showed his face Arthur would remember and ask everyone to turn it down or leave. He opened his bedroom door and a few curious faces turned to look at him, surprise evident in the rise of their eyebrows. Arthur turned too, but he didn’t lose the smile on his face.

 

“Arthur, you got a roommate?” a woman asked, as though Merlin were a scandal. She looked him over like his t-shirt and pajama pants equated him to a homeless man.

 

“So it would seem,” Arthur said, still smiling. He nodded sage-ly. “He’s got class in the morning, though, so he won’t be joining us.”

 

Merlin frowned. “Arthur. My test.” He nodded pointedly toward the TV where the music was still blaring. “The noise?”

 

One of the guys frowned too and took a step back. “Test? What kind of test? Medical?”

 

Before Merlin could explain that the test was for science, not one of his medical courses, Arthur stepped up to save the day. “No. My roommate is a bit deaf, see? He’s just worried about the volume because he can actually hear it. Don’t worry, Merlin. We’ll make sure not to disturb the neighbors.”

 

What. An. Ass.

 

The others looked somewhere between sympathetic and further grossed out. Merlin ground his teeth. “Deaf? Me?” he asked. “The whole hall is going to be deaf by the time you lot are done!”

 

Arthur’s smile dropped, but only to be replaced with sympathy. “Ah. Dumb as well as deaf. Well don’t worry your pretty little head, Merlin. My parties never get shut down.” Even acting patronizing, Arthur couldn’t help the wicked grin that threatened to take over his face during his last sentence.

 

It was a threat. It was a promise.

 

It was a declaration of war.

 

Well fine. If Arthur wanted war, then Merlin would give him war.

--- --- ---

 

No thanks to Arthur and his party, Merlin passed his first test. His mood did not fare so well. He spent all of his classes hunched over and irritable, so that even classmates who normally liked to chat gave him a wide berth. His headache from lack of sleep made the whole day unpleasant for everyone involved, and Merlin just blamed all of it on Arthur.

 

Back in the dorm room, he retrieved the sewing kit he’d bought after the initial theft of his shampoo. Luckily, Arthur had stopped stealing his bathroom supplies, and Merlin had decided not to use the tricks he’d learned from life… and the internet. The snacks Merlin could possibly forgive as Arthur being raised to eat whatever was in the house, regardless of whose it was.

 

But the party was a definitive move to ruin Merlin’s morning and subsequent day. The things Arthur said to his friends were not only lies about Merlin but jeering. Merlin wasn’t going to just roll over and let Arthur do whatever he wanted. He might not be a rough, tough, save the world type of guy, but he could bet he was smarter than Arthur at least. Two could play this game, and Merlin could play it better.

 

He pulled the needle from the sewing kit and then went to the kitchen. Arthur shouldn’t be back to the dorm for another twenty minutes, if Merlin’s tired brain was remembering right. He always went to the gym on Thursdays after class. That would give Merlin plenty of time.

 

Merlin went to the fridge and lifted a bottle of the energy drink Arthur chugged every morning. Carefully, and over the sink, he poked a tiny hole near the base of the bottle. A tiny bit leaked out, but then the liquid stopped. Moving a bit quicker, he poked three more holes around the base. Even more carefully, Merlin returned the bottle to the fridge. Then he did the same thing to the front bottle of water. Whichever Arthur tried to drink, he’d get a nasty surprise.

 

Sabotage complete, Merlin retreated back to his room and slid the needle and kit back into place in his bathroom cabinet.

 

As expected, Arthur arrived just as Merlin was pulling his laptop out. The blond hesitated for half a second in front of Merlin’s door, clicking his tongue in disapproval that his roommate was still a problem, and then went to put his bag down in his own room.

 

“How’d the test go this morning?” Arthur asked, shouting since he was still across the apartment. Merlin didn’t dignify the question with an answer. Let Arthur think he really was deaf. Eventually his roommate returned to Merlin’s field of vision. “Hey! Merlin!” he nearly shouted. Then he waved like Merlin might actually have a hearing disability. Only when Merlin had put his computer to the side and glared at him did he even pretend to be normal. “You had a test this morning, right? How’d that go?”

 

“Fine, thanks.” Merlin pursed his lips slightly. “No thanks to your friends.” He stressed the word, not sure if he believed Arthur had that many real friends. Most of the people from the night before, he was sure, were just socialites.

 

Shrugging noncommittally, Arthur took his signature pose against the door frame. Merlin was growing used to the stance, as Arthur often leaned there when he wanted to tease Merlin for a few minutes. It seemed to be his favorite evening event. If he ever skipped a day, Merlin would actually have to go find him and make sure he was alive. Today had the added bonus of Arthur still being half-sweaty from his work out, so his hair was stuck to his forehead and his shirt looked a little too tight. Not that Merlin was looking.

 

“Let’s call them acquaintances,” Arthur admitted. Merlin had been right. “Too bad about your beauty sleep, though .You really could use some.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Merlin returned his attention to his computer. Lazily and possibly as non-threatening as he could be, Merlin said, “Get the hell out of my room, Arthur. I’m too tired for you today.”

 

Arthur didn’t move for a moment, probably glaring at Merlin, but Merlin continued to ignore him until he finally turned and left. Merlin kept staring at his screen, but he wasn’t seeing anything on it. His focus was on the sound of Arthur’s footsteps into the kitchen, on the fridge door opening, of Arthur lifting out a water bottle.

 

“SHIT!”

 

Merlin pressed his lips together so he wouldn’t bust out with a laugh and ruin his whole ruse. He closed his eyes, picturing the scene based on the sounds. Arthur was throwing the leaking bottle into the sink, slipping slightly in the now soaking floor. He reached for a hand towel and then dropped it at his feet, pushing it around to mop up some of the mess. Or he could be on his hands and knees. That would be funnier.

 

Trying to play innocent, Merlin put his computer to the side and went to his doorway.

 

“What are you doing?” he asked, trying to mix annoyance and curiosity in his tone.

 

“Nothing!” Arthur snapped. He was not on his hands and knees. How disappointing. He dipped down to pick up the full towel and then tossed that in the sink as well. “God damn water bottle had a hole in it. Stupid packaging- I swear, if they’re all faulty, I’m gonna-“

 

It was like Merlin wasn’t there anymore. Arthur was talking mostly to himself. He turned back to the fridge and carefully lifted out a second bottle. He moved it over the sink, eyes on the base of the bottle like a crack might show itself if he glared enough. Then he turned the cap, releasing the pressure, and continued to stare down the bottle for another two minutes, turning it first one way and then the other, making sure he could drink it without making another puddle.

 

Merlin couldn’t take it. He retreated to his room, grabbed a pillow, and shoved his face into it to hide his wide grin. The best pranks were the ones where people had no idea they’d been pranked at all. It took several moments for him to calm down enough to remove the pillow. The prank worked fantastic, and would only improve in the morning, but Gwen was right. Arthur was definitely stronger in build than he was and Merlin didn’t want to get punched.

 

When the pillow fell away, he saw Arthur was visible through the doorway. He had his eyebrow raised, his new water bottle in hand. “You’re… very strange,” he said.

 

“Yeah, I get that sometimes,” Merlin agreed.

 

With a ‘huh’ of a sound, Arthur retreated to his room, and moments later Merlin heard the shower kick on. Careful not to hit his laptop, Merlin flopped onto his bed. Stage one complete, asshole.

--- ---

 

How’s the war with your roommate going?’

 

It’s going.’

 

‘details!’

 

Merlin sighed, leaning back against the elevator wall. Will had texted before class with his question, but Merlin’s response clearly hadn’t been good enough for him. When class ended, Merlin saw the request for more details, but he hadn’t tried responding. He just focused on heading back to the dorms. Rolling his shoulders, Merlin tried to think of how to give details without ranting. He and Arthur lived on the third floor, so he had a few moments before the elevator doors opened.

 

‘He dyed my underwear pink, so I put purple kool-aid in his conditioner.’

 

He expected the joke to be hysterical, and there was no doubt that Arthur screaming from across the apartment was one of the highs of Merlin’s entire college experience so far. When Merlin had poked holes in Arthur’s bottles, it had been funny and only more so because Arthur had never confronted Merlin about it. As far as Merlin knew, Arthur still thought the two bottles were annoying but unfortunate faults of the manufacturers. However when Arthur looked in the mirror after his shower and saw his fine blond hair dyed halfway purple… well that one he immediately assumed was Merlin’s fault.

 

He’d shouted Merlin’s name in anger, but by the time he’d stormed across the apartment, Merlin had shut and locked his bedroom door. Arthur banged on the door for so long that Merlin thought the door would break. Eventually, however, Arthur had stormed away again, fuming. When Merlin finally had to leave for class, he saw Arthur wearing a beanie, all of his hair hidden under it. His eyebrows had escaped the dye, but there was a bit of lilac coloring peeking around the edges of Arthur’s scalp.

 

Merlin spit out the water he’d been drinking when he noticed the color, and then he’d run from the apartment before Arthur could work up a proper shout.

 

But now he was headed home, and Arthur would be there before too long. How long should Merlin lock his bedroom door and avoid Arthur before Arthur decided it wasn’t worth murdering him? The color would probably fade in a week. It wasn’t like Arthur massaged it in for eight hours or even ten minutes.

 

Actually, Merlin didn’t even know how bad the damage was. He hadn’t seen Arthur’s hair yet.

 

The apartment was empty when he got in, as usual. Arthur’s football practice always kept him away on days he didn’t have class. So Merlin grabbed a drink and then dropped his stuff off in his room. He felt hotter than he should, probably from all the nerves he had building up over the day.

 

He stripped off his shirt and frowned at the scent of sweat. Before Arthur got home and murdered him, he was going to take a shower. Better to be the cleanest corpse possible so all the evidence pointed right at Arthur.

 

His phone buzzed.

 

‘haha! That’s amazing!’

 

Merlin rolled his eyes. ‘Remember that sentiment when they find my body.’

 

‘Lighten up! Your roomie cant be that bad or you wouldn’t have picked a fight at all.’

 

Well, maybe Will had a point. Merlin knew better than to fight a war he couldn’t win, right? Hopefully. Honestly, he was hoping the dye prank was an end to it. Arthur now knew Merlin could fight back, so now he had a chance to stop being an ass. Right? That’s how it worked.

 

In the bathroom, Merlin removed his underwear and threw back the curtain to turn on the water. His hand hovered over the knob. Looking around, Merlin realized that, once again, his toiletries were missing.

 

“Damn it,” he cursed. They’d been there in the morning, which could only mean Arthur still wasn’t done messing with him. Unless this was just a small bit of payback about the hair.

 

Pursing his lips, Merlin grabbed a towel and walked over to Arthur’s room. If Arthur wanted to keep stealing Merlin’s supplies, then Merlin would just start using Arthur’s. The bottle in the shower was still the conditioner with the kool-aid, but Merlin didn’t need to use it. Even if he did, his hair was black, so it wouldn’t show up anyway.

 

He turned the water on, waited a moment for the heat, and then stepped inside. The water pressure was the same, as was the heat and the shape of the shower. Arthur’s curtains were different, but mostly it was the same set up as Merlin’s. Yet it still felt like a strangely intimate action, bathing in someone else’s shower. It was almost like Merlin was at Arthur’s house, like he’d stayed the night.

 

Merlin glared at his crotch. Now was not the time. He didn’t even like Arthur. Hormones were weird.

 

For the rest of his shower, Merlin went over information from his classes, studying while washing his hair. Maybe that made him a nerd, but it kept him from thinking super inappropriate things about people he should hate.

 

When he couldn’t justify taking any more time, Merlin shut off the water. Hesitantly, he pulled back the side of the curtain. Arthur was not in sight, though he should have returned to the apartment by then. Merlin’s towel was where he’d left it and he snatched it up before it could prove to be a hallucination.

 

Towel wrapped around his waist, Merlin crept through Arthur’s room, then across the main room while looking around for signs that his roommate had come home. He didn’t notice anything odd… until he got near his own room.

 

The sound of running water had him freezing. It sounded like his shower. But that was ridiculous. There was no shampoo in there. Merlin continued to move cautiously as he entered his room and crossed to the bathroom. The water shut off just before Merlin could look in, and he froze in the middle of his room. The curtain drew back. A towel shook.

 

Merlin hazarded a look, leaning around the doorframe. Arthur was there, alright, standing by the tiny sink with nothing but a towel on. He pushed his hair back from his face so that it looked almost gelled back, and water ran down his fingers as it was squeezed out of the locks. Arthur’s hair was a light shade of lilac, as Merlin had expected. The kool-aid hadn’t been applied long enough for any vibrant color, but it was still noticeable.

 

Arthur flicked the water from his hands at the same time he opened his eyes and noticed Merlin watching. At first he seemed surprised, as anyone should be when caught half naked in a bathroom, but then his features fell into an arrogant grin.

 

“Like what you see?” Arthur asked and ran one hand over his purple hair once more. Well, honestly, Merlin did like what he saw but he wasn’t looking at the hair. A shirtless Arthur was one thing, but this Arthur had legs and hips and all on display except for the small covered area of the towel. “I actually got a compliment from a girl today about your random act of vandalism. So until the color naturally runs out, it looks like I won’t be needing my hat.” He frowned. “Your prank failed.”

 

Merlin frowned. “I wouldn’t say that. Your scream was pretty fulfilling.”

 

While they glared at each other, Arthur finally walked out of the bathroom. Merlin was proud to say he noticed a slight widening of Arthur’s eyes when he realized Merlin was also dressed only in a towel. But Arthur didn’t let the expression last. Looking unimpressed, he glanced over Merlin from head to toe and back up.

 

Meeting Merlin’s eyes, he raised one eyebrow and said, “And what’s your sport, exactly? Chess?”

 

Shame burned on Merlin’s face. He wasn’t out of shape, but not everyone could be fit like Arthur and the other athletes. “Get out of my room,” he growled, unable to meet Arthur’s gaze. “And stop stealing my shampoo.”

 

“I don’t know what you mean. It was sitting on the shelf when I just used it,” Arthur said with mock innocence.

 

He left with practiced grace. Merlin entered the bathroom to finish drying off and checked the shelf in his shower just in case. As Arthur had claimed, all of Merlin’s toiletries were back, sitting exactly where Merlin had left them.

 

Arthur was still a dick, but maybe they really had come to some kind of agreement in their war. If Arthur stopped the pranks, he might not be a half-bad guy. And then Merlin could stop feeling like a hypocrite for admiring the other man’s entire physical existence. Only time would tell.

--- ---

 

Two days after the shower incident, Merlin woke up on his free Saturday to the sound of Arthur shouting. The angry voice had Merlin immediately at attention, but he quickly realized no one was shouting at him. The sound of Arthur’s voice was through Merlin’s door and all the way into Arthur’s room.

 

Trying to be stealthy, Merlin cracked his bedroom door open.

 

“I am trying!” Arthur shouted.

 

The following silence signaled that the other conversationalist was not in the room. From Merlin’s angle, he could just make out the sight of Arthur pacing back and forth in his own room, hand up near his ear. Ah. A phone call.

 

“That’s not-! No! No, you don’t have to come down here!” Arthur gripped his lilac hair in frustration. Then he gasped in open shock. “Father!” Merlin winced. Judgmental parents were always the worst. Not that Merlin had any personal experience in the matter. “I am a grown man and I can handle my own issues… I can!”

 

Merlin wondered briefly if he should stop eavesdropping, but then he remembered that he could hear it through his door. This was just clearer. Okay so maybe it wouldn’t be quite eavesdropping if he shut the door, but he was too interested to stop now.

 

“Give me another month. I promise you will see improvement.” Arthur turned in a full circle, pacing momentarily paused. “I swear on my life… Okay. Yes, sir... Yes, sir… No, sir… I understand. I won’t let you down.”

 

He hung up the phone and sighed heavily. Merlin closed his door as quietly as he could. Moving back to his bed, he sat down and was grateful his parents were so… calm. Sure, Merlin had chosen to go to school for medicine, but they’d never bullied him into it. They hadn’t urged him down this path over others. His mother had tried for years, in fact, to get Merlin into some type of art, but obviously she had failed. When he was about fifteen, she finally ran out of potential art hobbies and left him to his own devices. But even when trying to make him be creative, she was never mad at him for failing.

 

Merlin didn’t know what Arthur’s father was upset about, but Merlin would bet money it was school related… or perhaps football related. Or both. Football Merlin couldn’t help with but… well, depending on the subject, maybe Merlin could actually help with the school bit?

 

He waited a few minutes before getting dressed and venturing out into the kitchenette. Arthur was sitting on the couch, but the TV was off. He shot Merlin a suspicious look when he passed by.

 

“Did you hear anything this morning?” he asked.

 

Merlin stared him dead in the face and answered in the flattest tone he could manage. “I just woke up.”

 

Arthur nodded as if to say ‘good’, like that put an end to whatever conversation he’d been prepared to have. Being overheard arguing with his father was clearly not something he wanted to happen, and Merlin could see he was still embarrassed about it even though he believed Merlin hadn’t heard anything.

 

The vulnerability made Merlin like him a bit more, but the feeling was tempered with the suspicion that Arthur was days away from a new prank. First impressions are hard to kill, and they’d been at war for a month. Healing that kind of rift would need help from both sides.

 

“You hungry?” Merlin asked.

 

“Excuse me?” Arthur raised an eyebrow.

 

“Food. You. Yes?” Merlin asked, speaking loudly and slowly, like Arthur was either deaf or didn’t speak English. Then, ignoring Arthur’s glower, he returned his voice to normal. “I’m cooking. What do you eat?”

 

Arthur snorted. “What a stupid question. You’ve seen me eat before.”

 

“I meant besides the souls of poor college students.” Merlin opened the fridge door and saw they had eggs. Perfect. Now did they have anything to go with the eggs?

 

To his surprise, Arthur actually let out a laugh. It was a short and sudden, and even Arthur seemed stunned about it. Merlin turned to look at his roommate and found the blond covering his mouth. His shocked expression became sour and he turned his face away.

 

“We have eggs,” he grumbled, dropping his hand. He stood from the couch and made his way into his room, a solid escape. “Just make whatever.”

 

Merlin stood, silent, in the kitchen. He’d just made Arthur laugh… by insulting him. But still. He’d made Arthur laugh! An intoxicating feeling swam through his veins, and he knew he wanted to feel it again. If their war truly was over, Merlin would have to make Arthur laugh some more.

 

For now, he turned to the fridge and started making omelets.

--- ---

 

“He’s the absolute worst,” Merlin grumbled, angrily scribbling notes on his sheet of paper.

 

Across from him, Gwen sighed and looked out the window. Her dorm had a view over the football field, and she had set up a chair by the window “for reading”. However, Merlin had been over to her place twice to study and he was pretty confident that she liked the view of the athletes as much as any reading she got done.

 

One particular footballer, to be specific.

 

“If I come over there and you’re watching Lancelot again, I’m going to march down to the field and tell him all about you,” Merlin threatened.

 

Gwen laughed, but she looked away from the window all the same. “Merlin, if you talked about Arthur any more, I might think you liked him.”

 

Slamming his pencil down on his textbook, Merlin groaned loudly. “I do not like him! I offered to make him breakfast and he LET ME, even knowing he’d switched the salt and the sugar! They were disgusting! And then he had the audacity to insult my cooking skills, like it was my fault!”

 

She giggled again and shook her head. “You’re cute, Merlin. Let’s focus on the history project, shall we?”

 

They researched beside each other, each on their own laptop, and then compared notes. They bookmarked pages, saved reference photos, and generally tried to be productive college students. Gwen left for a moment to grab a bowl of chips for them to snack on, and the second Merlin bit into one all his focus was lost again.

 

Salty chips were usually something he enjoyed, but now all he could think of was his sugar infused eggs from the other morning. He’d thought their war was over, but clearly Arthur had other plans. Had he walked into his room to secretly laugh at Merlin’s attempt at civility? His acting had been superb when he took an innocent bite of the eggs before spitting them out and cussing. He acted properly scandalized and disgusted, like he hadn’t been the one behind the ingredient switch. Merlin was dealing with a pro.

 

“You’re thinking about Arthur again, aren’t you?” Gwen asked.

 

“What? No. Why?” Merlin tore his gaze from his computer screen, where he’d been staring without seeing for several moments, to look at Gwen.

 

“Because you’ve been holding that same chip for about five minutes now?” She pointed at the half-eaten chip in his fingers. Merlin shoved it in his mouth as though that would negate her logic. “Listen, there’s nothing wrong with seeing the good in someone even when they seem bad. I mean, I’ve seen Arthur on the field, and he seems like a really nice captain. All the guys like him a lot.”

 

“I don’t know if I can base his character on the judgment of other athletes,” Merlin said around the chip. “They all tend to be the same breed, don’t they? No offense to Lancelot.”

 

Shrugging, Gwen gave him a sympathetic smile. “I’m sure he wouldn’t hold the stereotype against you, but it is still a stereotype.” She crossed her legs on the couch. “Anyway, I think you’re better than stereotyping. Maybe you should meet some of the guys? See Arthur outside out your apartment. Maybe he’s not so bad when you know him as a person instead of just as a roommate.”

 

Merlin considered the idea. How would he even begin to hang out with Arthur? The process seemed impossible. Then an idea hit him and he grinned mischievously at his friend.

 

“Alright. I’ll try it, but you have to help me.” He picked up his pencil and pointed at her, daring her to contradict him.

 

Innocent, beautiful Gwen didn’t even notice his ulterior motives. “Okay. What do you need me to do?”

--- --- ---

 

The football team was in the midst of a heated game when they arrived on the field. It was a fake game, sure, and fought between members of the same team, but the point was it was a skirmish and everyone was playing hard. They’d already finished half the game when Merlin and Gwen slipped unnoticed into the stands to watch. Merlin picked the second row of seats so they’d be visible over the fence but not too far back as to blend in with the background.

 

Arthur led one team, of course, since he was the captain. A black man led the other, and Gwen clapped when she saw him get the ball.

 

“That’s my brother, Elyan,” she explained. “He just joined the team this year.”

 

“And you don’t come to watch him practice? You have the perfect excuse to see Lancelot up close!” Merlin threw a hand out toward the field, but Gwen quickly pushed it down and blushed.

 

“Not so loud,” she whispered. “And it’s not like that.”

 

“Right.” Merlin was unconvinced.

 

On the field, lots of sweaty football players were crashing into each other, trying to get the ball from Arthur as he booked it down the field. Elyan was coming at him fast, but just before he made contact with Arthur’s body, Arthur lobbed the football ahead. Another player, with hair long enough to peek out under his helmet, caught the ball and scored the point.

 

Gwen cheered, caught up in the excitement, and several players glanced their way. This included Arthur, who walked straight into the player who’d made the point because he stopped paying attention to where he was going. Merlin tried not to laugh at him.

 

Elyan smiled and waved, and Gwen waved enthusiastically back. A few players exchanged words with Elyan, although the two spectators were too far away to make out the conversation. Probably they were asking who the girl was and how Elyan knew her. At first Elyan smiled, clearly explaining it was his sister, but then he frowned and shrugged. He didn’t know Merlin.

 

Arthur said something then, loud enough for Merlin to notice his voice but still not loud enough to understand. He was sure the blonde was saying something like ‘it’s just my stupid roommate.’ Several of the guys made ‘oooh’ faces, but then they all started reorganizing for the next play.

 

Everyone except the guy who’d scored the point. He jovially trotted over toward the seats, slipping his helmet off as he went. He was roguishly handsome, with shaggy brown hair and stubble. He smiled cockily as he got to the fence.

 

“Well now, it’s not often we have visitors,” he commented then motioned over his shoulder. “The boys an’ I were just talking about how nice it is, havin’ two such fine people as yerselves watchin’ us.”

 

He had a British accent, verging on Irish. Gwen blushed at his words. “I don’t think the others were talking about that,” she said quietly.

 

Merlin, however, grinned back and leaned forward. “Yeah. I think you’re just a big flirt.”

 

The player winked at him. “That, I might be.” He extended his hand. “Gwaine. And who do I have the pleasure of speakin’ to?”

 

“Merlin.” They shook and it was a firm handshake, full of confidence.

 

“Ah, the princess tells me yer his roommate.” Gwaine inclined his head toward the field, where Arthur was looking over with an impatient air exuding from his entire stance. Gwaine winked again. “What’s say we make a bet. I make your roomie look a fool, and then you and I go out for lunch sometime, eh?”

 

Merlin laughed at that. “So you know we’re at war,” he said. Gwaine shrugged but his grin said Merlin was right. Merlin nodded. “Alright. Deal. Though I don’t know how you can make him look bad and not lose when you’re on the same side.”

 

Gwaine wagged a finger at him. “Ye of little faith. Watch an’ learn.”

 

From across the field, Arthur shouted for Gwaine and the flirtatious man rolled his eyes. Slipping his helmet back on, he trotted back to his teammates and got into formation. Merlin watched him go, smiling all the while. Then Gwen elbowed him and he frowned.

 

“What?”

 

“Look at you, flirting,” she teased.

 

Merlin shrugged. “He started it. Plus he’s cute. And if he can make Arthur look like an idiot, then he’s my new hero.”

 

Gwen scoffed but didn’t say anything more. They watched as Arthur called out the game plan, then the whistle sounded and they were off. Almost immediately, Arthur had the ball, and almost as quickly he lost it by tripping backwards over Gwaine’s foot. The ball nearly fumbled, but Gwaine snatched it up and took off running in Arthur’s place. With Arthur still in the dirt, and several teammates distracted by his fall, Gwaine made an easy score.

 

There was cheering from the team, but also from Gwen and Merlin. Gwaine pointed at Merlin, then gave a thumbs up. He made the sign for a phone, telling Merlin not to leave before they exchanged numbers. Merlin waved back to show the message got through. Then Arthur was up and in Gwaine’s face.

 

The argument didn’t last long, as Gwaine held up his hands in surrender almost before Arthur began it. They ran the play again, this time without Gwaine’s interference. It still went off well, but it wasn’t as funny.

 

Gwen and Merlin stayed for the rest of the skirmish, cheering and clapping after every score on both sides. Lancelot glanced their way multiple times and waved his thanks more than once. Whenever he looked away again, Merlin would elbow Gwen and grin at her. She’d elbow him back and blush. It was adorable.

 

At the end of the match, they stood to leave, but Gwaine caught them before they got far. He was panting and even sweatier than before, but somehow he was only more attractive.

 

“So about that lunch date,” he began with a grin.

 

Maybe Merlin hadn’t seen a better side of Arthur yet, and maybe he’d only suggested going to the practice to force Gwen to see Lancelot up close, but somehow Merlin had scored a date out of it. And honestly, that worked too. He grinned back at Gwaine and pulled out his phone.

 

“Ready?” he asked.

 

Gwaine laughed. “When you are.”

--- --- ---

 

Two days later, Merlin was standing in front of his bathroom mirror. He’d put a bit more effort into his appearance than usual, but it was also his first date in years. Gwaine had said they’d go out for a quick bite, nothing fancy, so Merlin was in a t-shirt that was more form fitting than he normally wore and the jeans Will swore made his ass look the best.

 

“Well this is the best I’ve got,” he murmured and tried not to focus on his own large ears.

 

He slid his wallet and keys into his pockets, then headed out into the main room to grab his shoes and head out the door. He’d barely closed his bedroom door, however, when he noticed Arthur leaning on the counter in the kitchenette.

 

The blond looked him over from socked feet to combed hair. Slowly, he popped a chip into his mouth. Merlin tried to ignore the crunching sound as he went for his shoes, but it was hard to not pay attention to Arthur Pendragon. He sort of sucked up all the attention in the room.

 

“Well you certainly put a lot of effort in today,” Arthur said. From some people, that may have been a compliment, but somehow it sounded like an insult from Arthur’s lips.

 

“Yeah, well, it’s not every day you go on a date,” he said back, trying not to sound as annoyed as he really was. He tied his shoes as quick as he could. Did Arthur really have to pick on him today of all days? Did he really have to be waiting in the kitchen like he gave a shit that Merlin was going on a date?

 

“No, no. I think he’ll be very impressed. You look nice.” Arthur set the bags of chips down and rinsed his fingers off in the sink like they were having the most casual conversation in the world.

 

Now Merlin’s brow pulled down in suspicious confusion. He bit his cheek for a moment before saying, “Thanks?”

 

Shrugging, Arthur grabbed a towel to dry his hands. “I mean, Gwaine’s not super hard to impress. He’s dated a lot of people in the time I’ve known him, and let’s just say not all of them have been attractive.”

 

Merlin sighed and rolled his eyes. “Your pep talks before games better be leagues more impressive than this, Arthur, because this one sucks.” He tapped the toe of one shoe on the ground to adjust how it sat against his foot. Then he pulled his bag over his shoulder. “Don’t wait up,” he said, as though it were evening and not noon.

 

Then he slipped out of the apartment before Arthur could make anymore useless comments. Really, what did Arthur care if Merlin looked nice? It wasn’t Arthur that Merlin was meeting for lunch. And Merlin didn’t care about Gwaine’s ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, or ex-anybody really. This date was about them. And only them.

--- --- ---

 

They met off campus at a pizza parlor. Nothing fancy, but the food was delicious. Gwaine insisted on paying even though Merlin tried to pull his own card out multiple times. At a corner seat by the windows, they ate and talked. What classes were they taking? What degrees were they aiming for and what were their dream jobs? Merlin talked about Will and now Gwen as his two best friends. Gwaine had Percival, who was also on the team. Gwaine mostly discussed football. He’d been playing since before his school even had a team for it.

 

“I grew up in the UK, see? It’s not really popular over there. ‘Cause over there, football is yer soccer. It’s really kind of backwards, actually, how you lot call a game involving grabbing a ball and running ‘football’ but a game where you use only your feet ‘soccer’. Like who came up with that?”

 

“Hey,” Merlin complaining lightly. He didn’t really care either way, but it felt like he should at least pretend to be affronted in defense of his country.

 

Gwaine chuckled. “Anyway, I also grew up watchin’ a lot of American television, including yer sports. So me and a couple’a mates would play football in the street. You know, ‘til they got tired of it and moved on to real British sports, like rugby and chasin’ girls. ‘Course it became obvious I was playing a different variation on that sport when I went after some of the gents too, right?”

 

He winked so Merlin laughed. Gwaine had a way of speaking that made everything seem light and harmless, even the idea that he probably got left out of things for being bisexual.

 

“Then mum and I moved to the states fer her work. Dad tagged along ‘bout a year later. I started football officially in high school and got a scholarship – as I deserve – and here I am. But I’ve been ranting fer awhile. Tell me more about you!” He pat Merlin on the shoulder roughly, like they were old friends. “How’s university treatin’ you?”

 

Merlin rolled his eyes at the question. “I mean my first year was great. I moved across country for my dream university, but I came back this year because my mother got sick.”

 

“Sorry to hear that. What’s wrong with her?” Gwaine asked, setting down his pizza. He’d barely touched it since he’d been speaking most of the time.

 

“She-“ Merlin hesitated. Saying it out loud was like admitting it was serious. He swallowed thickly. “She’s fine. My uncle is a doctor, and she’s living with him.” Gwaine’s brow knit slightly, like he was about to inquire further, so Merlin cleared his throat. “Anyway, I moved to this school, and then I landed myself the world’s worst roommate, so yeah. School’s going great.”

 

Gwaine took to the topic shift like water in more water. He perked up and smiled before shifting into more of a smirk. “Ah, the princess. Yeah. He’s never had a roommate before. Some of the guys an’ me were takin’ bets on how long you’d last before he got daddy to kick you out.”

 

“Oh, apparently they can’t move me for some reason.” Merlin took a sip of his soda and glanced out the window. “Something about there not being anywhere else to put me because of my funding type.”

 

“Convenient.” Gwaine seemed delighted by the news. “And he hasn’t driven you out yet, either.”

 

Merlin squinted through the sun streaming in the window. He thought he saw Arthur in the pavilion outside, sitting at one of the tables and eating a taco, but the sun was angled just right to obscure his vision.

 

“Hm?” he glanced back at Gwaine. “What? No. He’s trying, but I’m fighting back.” He gave a quick smile before looking for Arthur again. The man in question had packed up their bag and was walking away. It certainly reminded Merlin of Arthur’s frame, but he didn’t recognize the jacket and he couldn’t see their face.

 

“Everything alright there?” Gwaine asked.

 

“Hm?” Merlin turned from the window again. Damn. He was being rude to his date. This was a fantastic way to chase off his first date in… a long time. Like forever. “Sorry. I just thought I recognized someone. It’s nothing. What were you saying?”

 

Pursing his lips, Gwaine considered Merlin for a long moment. His brow knit and his head tilted, and Merlin knew he was about to be dumped before the end of the first date. Great.

 

“I don’t wanna lie to ya, Merlin,” Gwaine began, and Merlin braced himself for the rejection. “I came to talk to ya at the field because I knew it would ruffle Arthur’s feathers. An’ I asked you out today ta make him mad.” What? “He’s clearly got a mind about ya, and it was like taking somethin’ away from him.”

 

“I-“ So… Gwaine didn’t really want to date him? Merlin slouched in his seat, trying not to let the disappointment cloud his concentration.

 

“I know. I know that makes me kinda deplorable, but I wanted you ta know. I also need you ta know that Arthur has nothin’ to do with why I’ve enjoyed myself so much today. Yer fantastic. Really you are.” Gwaine smiled then, something roguish but still guilty. “Yer worth every minute. And yer cute too.”

 

Merlin felt himself blushing despite the conflicting emotions inside him. “Thanks? I mean… I guess I can’t win a date on my own, but I’m glad you came clean and that, apparently, you actually like me… I think.”

 

“I do! I do like ya,” Gwaine insisted, leaning forward. He placed his hand loosely over Merlin’s, giving the other plenty of options for pulling away. “Honestly. And, if you still like me after that confession, I’d like ta take you out proper. Next week, if you’ll have me.”

 

Merlin took a moment to consider the proposal. He may not have won the date on his own, but he had apparently charmed his way into the second. He fought the little smile that wanted to break free. Turning his hand over so that he and Gwaine were basically holding hands, he said, “Okay. I’ve got no class on Friday.”

 

“Friday it is,” Gwaine declared instantly, as though afraid Merlin might change his mind. He grinned excitedly. “I’ll meet ya outside the dorms about noon, ey?”

 

The smile would not be tamed on Merlin’s face now. It came out as a direct reaction to Gwaine’s. A few more dates wouldn’t be bad, he thought. Not if Gwaine could make him smile so easily.

 

“Noon it is,” he agreed.

--- --- ---

 

Arthur rearranged the drawers in Merlin’s dresser the day before his next date with Gwaine. In retaliation, Merlin hid Legos in Arthur’s shoes. A few days later, all of Merlin’s personal snacks went missing, only to be found a day later, hung in a bag just outside Merlin’s window, melted from the sun. Merlin poked holes in the bottom of every one of Arthur’s solo cups for his parties. There was no immediate pay off, so Arthur thought he won that round, but Merlin let him have it. It was kind of fun to watch him walk around so smug, unaware of the commotion to come.

 

Of course, Merlin couldn’t let him think he’d won for long, so he rigged a homemade stink bomb out of matches and a few tablespoons of ammonia in a bottle and set it to be released when Arthur opened his bedroom door. It took him four days to prep but the pay off was worth it. Arthur tossed the bottle out the window instead of settling for a garbage can. The smell was so bad that the football captain couldn’t sleep in his room and was forced to take up residence on the couch for two days until the smell fully dissipated.

 

Merlin wasn’t complaining. The sight of Arthur asleep was so peaceful and sweet that it made Merlin remember that Arthur was just another student, fighting his way toward a degree and a dream. That sight of Arthur, blanket sliding off onto the floor, one sock missing, his hair disheveled, made Merlin empathize with Arthur more than Gwen’s plans with the football field.

 

In fact, Gwen got more out of visiting the field than Merlin. Kind of. Merlin and Gwen found time to visit practice twice a week after classes once Merlin started dating Gwaine. Sure, Merlin was dating a player, but Gwen finally officially met Lancelot and was starting to have full conversations with the man. Score one for the team!

 

Football still wasn’t particularly interesting to Merlin after dating a player for three weeks, but it was fun cheering for Gwaine and Lancelot. Also, whenever Gwaine scored a point, he made time to swing by the stands and high five Merlin or give him a hug. They had discussed it and decided on no PDA in front of the other guys. According to Gwaine, they were a bunch of twats who’d tease him incessantly if he was kissing his boyfriend during practice.

 

And every time Gwaine said the word ‘boyfriend’ Merlin smiled and felt lighter. He’d never had a boyfriend before, and it sounded so good in Gwaine’ accent. And yet… It only took Merlin two practices to realize that every time Gwaine returned to the game, Merlin’s eyes would seek out Arthur on the field. He wasn’t sure why he did it, but he blamed it on a need to show off to Arthur. As if making eye contact after being cute with Gwaine was throwing that happiness in Arthur’s face.

 

It wasn’t a perfect excuse though, and he knew it. He just didn’t know any other reason.

 

Dating Gwaine was great though. They had lunch together every other day, and Gwaine was a master of texting. He texted twice as much as anyone else Merlin knew, at minimum. The texts were usually cute but sometimes about school. Often, Gwaine just displayed his lack of passion for classes.

 

‘Borrrrred! Could this prof be any worse?!’

‘What class are you in? It’s 8 pm.’

‘No class. Homework.’

 

‘Your professor assigned a lot tonight?’

 

‘Not really. But the bit we got is so….idk’

 

‘Boring?’

 

‘you took the words right outta my mouth. Love ya! <3’

 

‘:) You’re funny.’

 

Merlin woke up to ‘G’morning handsome’ texts, and he always knew when Gwaine went to bed because he got ‘Too tired to function. Crashing. Maybe I’ll see you in the morning. Maybe I’ll die. It’s a toss up’ style texts.

 

It was a strange whirlwind of happiness and continued prank wars for several weeks, and then suddenly it was mid-term exams.  The peace and consistency in Merlin’s life was fantastic, but Mid-terms would be followed by a week he wouldn’t soon forget. Step one, Arthur sent out the invitation texts to his after-exams-celebration-party. And Merlin entirely forgot he had one prank left up his sleeve.

--- --- ---

 

The weekend after mid-terms, Merlin was already hard at work on his next set of quizzes for his anatomy course. He had two due by Wednesday, and he hated stressing at the last minute about it. Better to get it done ahead of time, he always thought. He was sitting on his bed, relaxed and tapping away on his laptop, when Arthur leaned through the doorway.

 

“You’re alright then?” he asked, curious and confused.

 

Merlin’s brow knit and he frowned. “Yes?” Then he frowned deeper. “Wait, alright for what?”

 

Arthur motioned to the rest of the apartment. A line of solo cups were on the counter, prepped for drinks. Easy-to-grab snacks were laid out on the table. “The party? Normally you just run off somewhere, or at least complain about it loudly for a few hours.” He rolled his eyes at the thought before continuing. “But the others are meant to arrive in a bit and you’re still here. And you’re silent. It’s making me… suspicious.”

 

He narrowed his eyes, as though limiting his field of vision would somehow expose all of Merlin’s dirty little secrets. Now it was Merlin’s turn to roll his eyes.

 

“No, you ass. I just had some quizzes to do and forgot today was your little alcohol poisoning party.” He checked his phone for the time and sighed. Almost nine. “It’s too late to make plans with Gwen. Guess I’ll just lock my door and make the best of it.”

 

Pursing his lips, Arthur drummed his fingers on the doorframe. Then he looked up to the ceiling and asked, in a failed nonchalance, “Can’t make plans with your boyfriend?”

 

Merlin groaned. Arthur had a habit of bringing up Merlin’s relationship status on the regular. “No. Thank you. Gwaine drove to visit his parents this weekend.”

 

“Oh yeah.” Arthur shook his head. As Gwaine’s captain, he probably had already known that. “Well… Try not to be too distracting in here.”

 

“Riiiight,” Merlin said with a drawl. “Because me, sitting in my room using my laptop and doing school work, is going to be so distracting to your party, with its obnoxiously loud music and cacophony of drunken chatter?”

 

Arthur sighed and rolled his eyes, as though Merlin were the one being illogical and not him. “Don’t be obtuse, Merlin.” But he walked away without any further explanation as to how Merlin was the one being dumb. Ah, too proud to admit defeat. Merlin couldn’t help but grin in victory.

 

As expected, people began showing up only a few short minutes later. Merlin quickly shut and locked his door, not wanting anyone drunk searching for a place to make out or use the bathroom and deciding his room looked best.

 

Merlin slipped his noise-cancelling headphones on when the music started in the next room, but the base still got through, as well as some of the lyrics depending on the song. He tried to play his own music to help drown the party out, and he found that helped most of the way. He brought up his Spotify and chose a random station from his favorites. It didn’t matter what came on, so long as it kept him from focusing on the rave going on in the next room.

 

A party on its own was not a problem. The problem with Arthur’s parties was that they were an excuse for every social climber in the university to get black-out drunk and not get kicked out of school. Everyone wanted to be Arthur’s friend because Arthur got special privileges, like having raging parties that didn’t get shut down. They wanted to be Arthur’s friend so he could introduce them to his father later in life when they finished their degrees.

 

Gwaine was the one to explain it to Merlin. Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, was a lawyer in California and only worked with very rich clients. He had more money than he knew what to do with, apparently. The King of all Lawyers, with an impressively high win rate. Arthur’s father had so much sway over the school that Merlin was surprised to learn he didn’t own the place. No, he just financed most of it. Money didn’t talk. Money screamed.

 

Speaking of screaming…

 

Merlin paused his music and squinted at the door. Then he pulled his headset off and realized the music had stopped outside of his room. He’d thought… But there was no screaming. There were a few angry shouts out there, but nothing like the shrieks he’d thought he heard over his music. The angry voices grew softer, distant. The front door slammed.

 

Silence.

 

Merlin’s heart pounded in his chest. Had something happened? Something bad? Nervously, he slipped off his bed, set his laptop aside, and crept toward his door. Silence continued in the rest of the apartment, but what if there was someone dangerous out there?

 

He unlocked his door and peeked out. If someone was prowling around, they’d have heard his lock click and he’d be doomed.

 

The scene was chaotic. A bag of chips had been knocked to the floor, scattering broken bits of salty goodness across the apartment. A dozen red solo cups lay like dead bodies around the edge of the kitchenette, their contents dripping from the fake porcelain and soaking into the carpet.

 

Not a single party guest remained in the apartment, but Arthur was sitting on the floor, his back against the end of the counter, just out of the pooling remains of drinks. His knees were bent, his elbows resting on them, and his face was hidden where it was pressed into his palms. One hand still loosely held the remote for the sound system.

 

Everything was silent.

 

Quietly, Merlin left his room and padded carefully around the debris until he got in front of his roommate. Then he crouched down there, crossing his arms around his knees for support.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked.

 

“Fine.” Arthur grunted, not moving.

 

“What happened?” The party had barely begun and now the apartment was trashed.

 

Arthur most definitely sniffled, but in a strangely manly way, like he was trying to pretend it wasn’t happening. He cleared his throat. “Poured all the drinks. Everyone picked them up, and the alcohol started pouring out the bottom of the cups. People started screaming. A couple thought I did it on purpose. Everyone left wet and pissed off. Party’s over.”

 

“Shit.” Merlin remembered putting the holes in the cups, eager for Arthur’s friends to get a rude awakening at the next party. He’d totally forgotten about it! And it worked was more effectively than he’d expected. The whole party got shut down from the inside! Still, Arthur looked pretty torn up about it. Merlin frowned. “I’m sorry. I… It was me. I was trying to prank you.”

 

Finally Arthur pulled his hands away, snuffling again as he looked over at the wreckage. “No. It’s fine.” He waved off Merlin’s apology. “The prank was good. I’d have done the same.”

 

Pursing his lips, Merlin tried to tilt his head and catch Arthur’s eye. “Then… why are you so upset?”

 

The blond glanced back at him, then away, then finally settled back on Merlin. He sized Merlin up, as though they hadn’t known each other for three months already. He sighed again and let his hands hang loosely over his knees.

 

“It’s my father,” he admitted. “If I don’t pass all my classes this semester, he’s threatened to pull me from the football team and have me spend all my free time with tutors and extra classes.”

 

Merlin’s frown deepened. “But you love the football team.”

 

Arthur let out a harsh laugh. “Of course I do! That’s why it’s a punishment!”

 

“So how bad could you be doing that you’re this nervous? Come on, I know you’re passing that business course, and that… whatchamacallit class about politics.” Merlin waved his hand around in the air, trying to remember what courses a business major would be taking.

 

Sighing in annoyance, Arthur bat the hand away until Merlin dropped it. “Shut up, you idiot. It’s just math.”

 

Merlin’s brow knit tightly. “You’re failing math?”

 

“I’m not good at it, alright?” Pouting, Arthur looked away into the mess of an apartment again. “I passed the basic math course by getting classmates to basically do all the homework for me and using the internet for online quizzes and sweet talking professors when I did poorly on tests. But that’s not going to work anymore, is it? Because I’m flunking, and my father is livid and I already know I failed the midterm spectacularly, and if I don’t pass, my days on the football team are over. And then I won’t have time for parties anymore, much less more enjoyable past times.” He motioned lazily at Merlin, almost an unconscious wave. “Our prank war would be on hold indefinitely, no doubt.”

 

Merlin’s legs were beginning to ache, but he stayed down on Arthur’s level. Tilting his head slightly, he bit the inside of his cheek. Arthur was failing math. Merlin was a math wizard. If Arthur failed Algebra 2, he’d lose the one thing he really enjoyed doing – not the parties or the pranks, but the sports. If Arthur failed Algebra 2, life in the dorm apartment would be normal, studious, and peaceful.

 

And unbearably boring.

 

“Hey.” Merlin waved his hand out toward Arthur to catch his dismal attention. “I’ll help you. Not, like, doing your work for you. But I’m an ace at math. I could tutor you.”

 

Frowning, Arthur glanced around at the debris. “You would help me? Even though our usual interactions lead to disasters like this one?”

 

“Well if you need some kind of stability in your sad little life, then the prank war can continue too. But yes, I mean it. I’ll tutor you.” He pat his knees and stood. Then he offered his hand down to Arthur. “What do you say? This weekend we clean the apartment and then we’ll spend a little time each day until your father won’t even recognize your grades.”

 

For a long moment, Arthur simply stared at the outstretched hand. For sure, neither had a real reason to trust the other, but Merlin was willing to mend bridges or whatever the saying was. He just needed Arthur to meet him part way.

 

“Come on, Arthur. Let me help you up.”

 

Finally Arthur gave in. He reached up and gripped Merlin’s hand firmly. Merlin helped lift him to his feet, and they stood there smiling cautiously at each other for another long moment before Merlin pulled their hands free and cleared his throat.

 

“Well with that settled, do you think we should start with a broom, a vacuum, or a mop?”

--- --- ---

 

“No. See- You’ve rushed the order again.” Merlin flipped his pencil around and erased the last three lines Arthur had written. They’d been studying for an hour already, and the strain was starting to show in the hunch of Arthur’s shoulders.

 

The blond groaned in frustration. “Damn it!” He dropped his head into his hand, luckily the one without his pencil this time. It had been amusing once but making Arthur bleed was not the goal of this exercise.

 

Merlin shook his head. “Now you’re letting nerves take over. Remember to breathe. Even the greatest mathematicians make mistakes when they rush.” He flipped to the page in his notes that covered the formula Arthur needed.

 

After the party, the two had worked together to pick up as much of the debris as possible before going over the carpet with a dry-vac, then a regular vacuum, and then shampooing the whole apartment. It fit nicely into the timeline of “spring cleaning” although that hadn’t been the goal. It had been a week since the party, and they found time to study together every day. Arthur had gawked at Merlin on the first day, because Merlin had managed to compile a list of notes to use already. His surprise was both over Merlin’s dedication to helping and also the fact that Merlin had found time to type up the notes around his own schoolwork.

 

“I’m not a great mathematician and I never will be,” Arthur countered, sighing in defeat and looking away. He set his pencil down, giving up.

 

“Maybe not,” Merlin agreed. Arthur made a noise between affronted and surprised, and looked at Merlin with openly amused shock, like he couldn’t believe Merlin had actually insulted him like that. “But you will be one of the greatest businessmen this country has ever known.”

 

Snorting, Arthur turned away again, looking toward the window. From their height, the school grounds weren’t visible, but a distant plane was passing by. “That’s just a dream,” he said. “If I’m lucky, I’ll manage to just be a decent one.”

 

“No.” Merlin shook his head and gained Arthur’s attention once more. “I’ve seen the way you lead the team, and I know your stubborn tenacity firsthand. You won’t settle for ‘decent’, Arthur.” He shook his head again, making sure they had eye contact. “And neither will I. You are going to pass this class, and then you’ll graduate with honors, and then it’ll be too easy for you to start the greatest company ever.”

 

Silence followed his small speech, and heat flooded Merlin’s cheeks. Why did he always insist on trying to encourage people with stupid speeches? Will always teased him about it, and now Arthur was probably thinking of him as some lunatic. Normal people didn’t give inspirational speeches. Idiot.

 

“You know, Merlin,” Arthur mused. “Sometimes you don’t sound like a complete fool.”

 

Merlin let out a breath he only just noticed he’d been holding. Arthur didn’t hate the speech. That was a small victory. A small smile teased on Arthur’s handsome face, but then he cleared his throat and looked back down at his math work. With one more clearing of his throat, Arthur picked up his pencil and spun it once in his fingers.

 

“Well that’s enough of that,” he said, eyes shifting over the page. “We’d best get to work if I’m going to have any chance at becoming the greatest businessman in the country.”

 

Something warmed inside of Merlin, and he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. It felt good, a lot like how shoplifting felt good, tinged with guilt but not enough to ruin the high. That was probably a bad sign.

--- --- ---

 

The movie theater had been crowded, but that was expected on the opening night of a new movie. The diner that followed was objectively barren in comparison. They’d chosen to eat there because it was a ten minute drive from the theater and they hoped the distance would keep it less busy. Their bet had paid off.

 

Gwen and Lancelot slid into one side of the booth while Merlin and Gwaine took up the other side. After many weeks, and not so little prodding and hinting from both Gwaine and Merlin, Gwen and Lancelot had finally admitted their mutual attraction and agreed to go on a double date. It was almost obnoxious how cute and sweet they were. They were both so nervous about messing things up, but they smiled at each other like they were seeing the sun for the first time.

 

The group, to keep conversation flowing, covered all the basic small talk that Gwaine and Merlin had treaded a dozen times before. How was school? How was football? How’s the family? Any plans for the summer? The usual stuff.

 

“Oh,” Gwen gasped suddenly mid-conversation. “Merlin, are you doing alright? I know you’ve been working extra hard this semester.”

 

“You have?” Lancelot asked, raising a curious brow. Gwaine too looked surprised.

 

“Not really. I-“

 

Gwen interrupted, shaking her head. “Don’t lie, Merlin. You’re staying up late to do your school work and texting me at one in the morning.”

 

The attention of all three of the others was on him, and Merlin felt unusually small. He hadn’t realized his day-to-day was so noticeable, or apparently so secret. Gwaine put a hand gently over Merlin’s on the table.

 

“Everythin’ alright there, Merlin?” he asked. “Ya told me yer classes were cake.”

 

His care softened Merlin. Merlin loved the way Gwaine cared. He lost all of that macho-ism when he was being caring. Merlin nodded. “My classes are nothing. I didn’t lie. I just end up doing all the work after Arthur goes to bed.” He shrugged. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

 

Gwen frowned. “Oh no. Is Arthur’s pranking getting worse? Is he keeping you from doing schoolwork?”

 

“That doesn’t sound much like our captain,” Lancelot mused, looking concerned.

 

Shaking his head, Merlin waved a hand to clear the air. “It’s nothing like that. We’ve actually put a pause on our war.” They didn’t look any less confused, so Merlin sighed slightly. “I’ve been helping Arthur study in the evening when he gets back from practice. That’s all. It’s like a truce.”

 

His boyfriend did not look relieved. In fact, Gwaine’s mouth was pressed so tight that Merlin feared the man was trying to sew his lips shut. Across the table, Lancelot was all smiles and talking about how happy he was that Merlin and Arthur had finally found some common ground, a way to interact where no one got hurt – either emotionally or physically. Gwen shared his enthusiasm, giddily talking about how wonderful it would be if Arthur and Merlin could actually become friends. Belatedly, Gwaine agreed.

 

An hour later, when the two pairs split ways, Gwaine still seemed out of sorts. Merlin couldn’t account for the change. “Okay, now what’s wrong with you?” he asked.

 

The roguish man shrugged. “I know I can’ stop ya from bein’ around Arthur. He’s yer flat mate. I know. But I can’t help feelin’ like he’s got an advantage here.”

 

Merlin let out a loud scoff. “As if. An advantage in what? I’m just helping him study so he doesn’t fail and I don’t have to endure his father being a total ass anymore.”

 

Gwaine hummed in agreement then stopped walking. He gently grabbed Merlin by the bicep and turned him until they were facing each other. “Ya know…” He cleared his throat, and his nervousness jumped over and infected Merlin. The whole situation was beginning to give him a bad feeling. Gwaine cleared his throat again. “I’m pretty sure I love ya, Merlin.”

 

Eyes wide, Merlin fought not to let his mouth just hang open. They’d been dating for only a few weeks! And Gwaine didn’t strike Merlin as a fall-in-love-fast type of guy. And Merlin wasn’t even really that great of a boyfriend. How had this happened?

 

“I know. It’s too fast.” Gwaine shook his head and released Merlin’s arm. “I can’ help it. An’ I seriously doubted it fer awhile. But I’ve- I’ve never felt this way, ‘bout anyone. I just want yer eyes on me. Only me. Can ya understand that? Do ya feel anything like that?”

 

He didn’t want to lie, but love didn’t grow that fast for Merlin. He pressed his lips together and tried not to wince. After a pause that went on too long, he finally answered. “I really like you, Gwaine. You’re funny and you’re great to be around. But I just don’t know that I can say I love you yet. That’s a big deal. I’m… I’m sorry.”

 

Undeterred, Gwaine shook his head. “Think nothin’ of it,” he said. “I told ya I knew I was movin’ too fast. You just keep being yer glorious self. I can’ hold it against ya that my heart took a stupid runnin’ leap at ya when we met. That was jus’ me being an idiot.”

 

He shrugged and began walking once more, smiling like nothing had happened. But Merlin’s heart felt heavy. “Gwaine,” he called out, hurrying to follow his boyfriend. “You’re not an idiot. It’s fine.”

 

Gwaine shrugged again. “Like I said, think nothin’ of it. We’re still goin’ strong, yeah?” He gave Merlin a quizzical look, and Merlin nodded in assurance. “Then I’m good. We’re good.”

 

Merlin nodded again. “Yeah. We’re good.”

 

Admitting you loved someone should be a joyous moment, but Gwaine’s confession was met with an air of uncertainty. They both claimed everything was fine, but Merlin couldn’t help wondering if he should slow down with Gwaine. Somehow the playful man had fallen in love, and Merlin couldn’t help but feel at fault for that. But… shouldn’t that be a good thing to be at fault for?

 

The thought stayed with him all night, long after he’d left Gwaine and returned home. Why did it feel like he’d done something wrong? Maybe Merlin just didn’t know how to be in a relationship. Maybe he was just really terrible at all of it.

--- --- ---

 

The prank war wasn’t over. It couldn’t be. Merlin was cooking dinner when he realized it. Since the mid-term party, almost two months ago, neither Arthur nor Merlin had set up a prank in the apartment. Merlin went to school, went to football practice, tutored Arthur, did his own homework, and all the while he assumed Arthur had taken up a truce like him.

 

But the prank war must have been going on the whole time, right under his nose.

 

He realized it while reaching for something in the cabinet – where they kept their salt, pepper, sometimes garlic powder, and other cooking supplies that were of a similar size. He’d reached in for that ‘sometimes’ garlic powder, realized part way that they’d run out last week and not replaced it. Arthur didn’t cook, so he never shopped for supplies, and Merlin hadn’t gotten to the store since running out. He’d remembered all this while he reached in on instinct and slipped his fingers around a very full shaker of garlic powder.

 

How did he have a full shaker of garlic powder? It literally wasn’t possible. Unless.

 

Unless Arthur had done it. But Arthur didn’t cook and Arthur certainly didn’t shop for cooking supplies. Warily, Merlin checked the freshness seal and found it intact. Even so, he sniffed and tasted the powder just to be sure. It definitely seemed to be the real deal. Carefully he added it to his pasta sauce, and nothing blew up so he continued to use it.

 

The garlic bugged him even as he sat down to eat when the pasta was done. Now that he thought about it, the garlic wasn’t the only odd thing to happen in recent memory. His bathroom supplies, which had always been Arthur’s go-to prank items, had seemed somehow refilled last week. Merlin had assumed he’d just forgotten how much he’d used. But now the garlic had mysteriously been restocked.

 

And two weeks ago, Merlin had come back from a study session to find all of his laundry washed – but not folded – on his bed. Arthur claimed his own load had been too puny to warrant walking all the way down to the laundry room, so he’d just grabbed Merlin’s bag too. No big deal. Don’t be weird about it. But now the garlic…

 

And yesterday Merlin had broken his pencil during their study session, and Arthur had handed him a new one without even looking. And all of Merlin’s favorite snacks were available for them to munch on while they worked. And Arthur hadn’t snipped at Merlin at all. And now the garlic.

 

Arthur joined Merlin on the couch, where they ate most of their meals, his own plate loaded with noodles. He didn’t say hi or anything, but he did make an appreciative noise about the food. Merlin frowned, confused.

 

“What… are you planning?” he asked.

 

Arthur’s brow knit while he chewed. After swallowing, he said, “What on Earth are you talking about?”

 

Merlin motioned to Arthur from head to toe. “This. Are you setting up a prank or something?”

 

Now Arthur frowned too. “We haven’t pranked each other in months, Merlin. Are you on something? Why would you think I was planning a prank just because I’m bothering to eat your barely passable cooking?”

 

Lies. Merlin’s cooking was much better than ‘passable’ and Arthur knew it. But that wasn’t the point. Merlin set his plate down on the coffee table. “You bought garlic powder,” he said, like that explained all of his in-depth thought processes.

 

Shaking his head, Arthur took another spoonful of pasta before setting his plate down beside Merlin’s.

 

“What?” Merlin snapped, annoyance flaring up inside him at the way Arthur’s head bobbed back and forth. “I’m not being ridiculous, Arthur. You never buy seasoning. Or my snacks. Or do my laundry. Of course I’m wondering if it’s gonna lead up to something. I’d be an idiot not to.”

 

“No, you’re an idiot for thinking like that,” Arthur grunted in return. He’s eyebrows were drawn sternly down. “Is that what you think about me? I’m such an ungrateful ass that my help is a ruse?”

 

“I mean, I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond that, but come on. Doing my laundry?” Merlin was still frowning, and Arthur was frowning, and maybe Merlin was getting this all wrong. Maybe he was being a dick. “I mean… Why are you being so nice to me?”

 

With a great put-upon sigh, Arthur picked up his plate and then walked around the table and toward his bedroom. “We’re in a truce, you idiot. I was just trying to be a decent roommate. Didn’t realize you’d get all defensive about it. Damn.”

 

Merlin couldn’t see his face, but his heart rate ticked up a notch at the thought that he’d messed this all up somehow with his paranoia. He flubbed out a word that wasn’t a word, but it slowed Arthur down. “I mean, no. I mean-I’m sorry. I’ve liked all the help. I just-“

 

Arthur shook his head again, hand on his doorframe. With a scoff he said, “Hell, Merlin, I probably would have been suspicious of you too. Just drop it.”

 

Without turning to look at Merlin, Arthur retreated into his room, shutting the door and even going so far as to lock it. Damn, Merlin really was just shit at all kinds of relationships, wasn’t he? Sighing, he pulled out his phone and texted a very familiar number.

--- --- ---

 

“Don’t let that high and mighty bastard get to you,” Will said. “You’re worth two of him and he knows it.”

 

Merlin groaned and flopped down onto his bed, head buried in the pillows. He immediately had to shift so he wasn’t crushing the phone against his ear and could actually hear it. “You don’t get it,” he said. “Arthur’s not acting high and mighty. He’s acting… nice. Friendly. And I went and accused him of being sketchy. This once, Will, I actually am the problem. Without a doubt. No wiggle room.”

 

Will snorted. “Like hell you are. Listen, if he hadn’t exposed himself as the largest jerk to exist within the first ten minutes of meeting you, maybe I’d have some forgiveness for him.”

 

“Yeah right,” Merlin drawled.

 

“But he did expose himself,” Will continued without the slightest pause. “And he’s an asshole. He’s using you for his grades and paying you back, sure. Maybe. But you have every right to distrust him, and he has to live with that. It’s his own damn fault.”

 

Merlin rolled his eyes even though his friend couldn’t see it. “You’re a ray of sunshine, Will.”

 

“You wanted the hard truth, my friend. That’s why you called me, and you know it.” Will sounded as far from apologetic as a man could get.

 

But was that what Merlin wanted? Had he called Will to hear Arthur confirmed as the asshole he’d been when the semester began? Will had always been distrusting of people Merlin met without him around, somehow convinced that Merlin was too kind for his own good and bound to be taken advantage of. This was a little insulting, but Merlin normally appreciated the care that lay behind the thought process. 

 

“Maybe,” Merlin admitted. Still, hearing Will say so many negative things about Arthur made Merlin feel a little queasy. Arthur had been nothing but nice to him since they began studying together. It felt wrong to allow someone, even a good friend, to badmouth him.

 

“Anyway how’s your guy? I mean, your boyfriend.” Will cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I mean, is he treating you alright? I haven’t met that one either.”

 

A chuckle escaped Merlin despite his own discomfort. “I don’t understand how you can so eagerly give a negative opinion about someone and yet you get so easily flustered when it comes to relationship questions.”

 

“S-Shut up. It’s just personal!” Will sounded very close to whining.

 

The sound made Merlin laugh more, and he felt his unease slip away. For the next several minutes, he filled Will in on his own relationship with Gwaine and also on Gwen’s with Lancelot, since the two were partly connected. Will was happy not to talk about Arthur anymore, but when the phone call ended, Arthur was the only one on Merlin’s mind. He still felt guilty. That was frustrating.

--- --- ---

 

It wasn’t unusual, near the end of term, to find Merlin and Arthur both in the main room of the apartment on their computers. Studying, Researching, or Slacking – they had gravitated from doing these things in the silence and solitary of their rooms to partaking of these tried-and-true college past times together in the main room. Often they didn’t even speak. Merlin still helped Arthur with his math, but they didn’t study the subject for as long as they used to.

 

Part of Merlin suspected that his friends had spoken to their captain about Merlin’s late nights, because their shortened study sessions began just after the group date with Gwen and Lancelot. After helping Arthur with math for a bit, the blonde would move anything math related away from Merlin and ‘casually’ groan and say, “Don’t you have your own work to do, idiot?”

 

It was actually kind of sweet. Merlin didn’t know why Arthur couldn’t just come out and be nice about it, but he did seem to be putting in a good amount of effort. Merlin could appreciate that. And feel it in his chest.

 

So they often sat together to study, but that was not today. Finals had ended two hours ago, and for Merlin and Arthur they had ended the previous morning. The two were sitting on the floor in front of the couch, their backs up against the furniture and their legs out in front of them. It seemed like an odd thing to do at first, except it let them use the coffee table like a real desk if they needed it.

 

Merlin was signing up for Fall term courses even though they had just finished Spring. It was never too early to snag a good spot, after all.

 

Suddenly, Arthur slammed his hand down on the table. Startled, Merlin almost dropped his computer off his lap and onto the floor, but he caught it just in time. He turned shocked eyes on his roommate, who he saw was staring intently at his own laptop.

 

“What?” Merlin finally asked when it became apparent Arthur had no intention of speaking.

 

The blonde jerked his head around, looking as startled as Merlin felt. When he spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper. “I passed.”

 

“You what?” Merlin set his computer to the side and shifted over closer to Arthur’s screen, their shoulders bumping. “You passed?”

 

There on the screen was Arthur’s course list. His first final of the semester was the dreaded math final, and his professor had obviously decided to be a stellar example to her fellows because she had already posted the final grades. Arthur’s stood out as though it were written in neon Technicolor.

 

“B,” Arthur murmured, still in shock. “I got a B.”

 

Barely, Merlin noted, but he wouldn’t voice it. “B-cause you’re awesome,” he said, smirking over at his friend.

 

Arthur shoved him over, causing him to collapse onto his side. “That was a terrible pun, Merlin,” he said and rolled his eyes. Merlin laughed once on the floor. “You are so much better than that.”

 

There went that stupid warm feeling in Merlin’s chest again. Arthur teasing and complimenting him really shouldn’t matter so much, but it did. Will had a point about Arthur making his disdain for Merlin vividly clear on day one, but maybe that was why getting his smiles and his praise now meant so much to Merlin. Somehow they had cleared their initial hatred of each other, and now Merlin even thought of Arthur as his friend – in his head and in public.

 

“We have to celebrate,” Merlin announced as he sat back up. “Oh, let’s go to Dave and Busters! We can invite Gwen and Lancelot, and Gwaine of course. We can celebrate everyone passing in style!”

 

Arthur snorted. “We have very different ideas of what ‘in style’ means, Merlin. In my family’s circles, ‘style’ means tuxedos and 5-star restaurants.” He playfully mussed Merlin’s hair until Merlin whined and pulled away. Arthur smiled. “But it’s been a long time since I went to Dave and Buster’s. Should be fun.”

 

Merlin snorted. “Should be fun? You’ve never been to Dave and Busters with me, then.” Arthur gave him a skeptical look, and Merlin scoffed. “Of course it’s going to be fun.”

--- --- ---

 

They started the night simple enough. Gwen and Lancelot versed Merlin and Gwaine at air hockey – was it fair to do two on two? Not really, because it was almost impossible to score past two people. Was it even really possible? Also no. They caught each other’s fingers almost as often as the puck, but they laughed it off and stopped the game after one round. Then Lancelot suggested a group activity – this location had a bowling alley.

 

Gwaine stepped up to input everyone’s names, then Gwen stepped up to fix Arthur’s name after Gwaine accidentally spelled it ‘Rather’ . Merlin and Lancelot snagged a couple of balls and then the pins were set. The first one up was Gwaine, and he sauntered to the lane like a man who’d bowled his entire life and was ready to school them.

 

His first ball went straight down the middle, until it veered off into the gutter at the last moment. Arthur let out a loud laugh while Gwen cheered Gwaine on.

 

“You’ll get it next time, mate,” Arthur called out as Gwaine went for his second ball. Gwaine looked a little conflicted over the British lingo coming out of an American, but he let it slide and went back for his second attempt.

 

He got eight pins. Not too shabby.

 

Merlin went next and got a strike on his first try.

 

“Great job, Merlin!” Gwen exclaimed with a wide grin.

 

“Oi.” Gwaine motioned to the alley. His smile was stunned and impressed at once. “Ya act like you’ve done this before.”

 

Arthur snorted loud enough to be heard over the music. When the attention landed on him, he took it in stride and shrugged. “You won some kind of championship, didn’t you?”

 

All the attention shifted back to Merlin, who flushed. “It was a junior tournament when I was eleven,” he said, stressing the number as he gave Arthur a stare he hoped said ‘shut the fuck up, you’re embarrassing me’. “Anyway, how did you know that?”

 

Arthur sighed as he stood up to take his turn. “You’ve got the award in your room. Not like you’re hiding it.”

 

He was right, of course. Merlin had won a trophy and a ribbon at that tournament. It was a bit tacky to carry around a childhood trophy at college, but the ribbon was small and Merlin hadn’t even thought someone would notice it. At the moment, he had it pinned to a small corkboard he’d purchased a month into the semester. Merlin cocked his head to the side, staring at where Arthur had vacated. Color him surprised.

 

Gwaine sat down in Arthur’s seat and smiled up at Merlin, motioning for him to sit beside him. For a moment, Merlin didn’t understand the gesture, but then he shook his head.

 

“In a moment,” he said. “I’m going to buy us a round of drinks. Bowling and arcade games get way more hysterical when you’re tipsy.”

 

He approached the bar and ordered five bottles. Merlin wasn’t rich, but he could afford one round. Hopefully someone else offered for the next one.

 

So they drank and they bowled. Merlin alternated between leaning on Gwaine and sitting by Gwen. Once he ended up beside Arthur while Gwaine was in the bathroom, and getting more drinks, and it was the tensest Merlin felt all night. Luckily it only lasted a few minutes.

 

Merlin was the clear winner, with Lancelot coming in second. Gwaine scored a slim third, at two points more than Arthur. Gwen wasn’t competitive and had no issue coming last.

 

Arthur paid for the next round of drinks, and he didn’t settle for bottles. He bought them each whatever drink they wanted as they paused their games to grab food. Dave and Busters was the kind of place where an adult could feel like a kid while still enjoying adult things – like alcohol and good food. The third round of drinks kicked in quick and they were all laughing about everything as they went around the table telling stories of their semester.

 

Arthur even let slip that his dad was a perfectionist bastard, and that they didn’t get along as much as they once had. It was lost in a rant about his math teacher and such, but it surprised Merlin all the same.

 

After dinner, Gwaine, Arthur, and Lancelot competed at the basketball arcade game, then at skeeball. Arthur won at basketball, Lancelot at skeeball, and that made them all evenly matched for the night if they allowed Gwaine to claim he won at bowling between the three of them. While they argued about which game to use as a tie breaker, Merlin excused himself.

 

Tipsy Merlin made questionable decisions, so he headed to the bar to order another round, ignoring his crying bank account. After ordering, he turned to look at the crowds around the room. He couldn’t see where he’d left the group, and he smiled when he imagined their faces when they saw the drinks.

 

The drinks hit the counter, but the bartender refused his card for payment. “Already paid,” she said and motioned to the person standing just to Merlin’s right. Technically there was a bar stool between them, but it was empty so Arthur was still the person beside Merlin.

 

He didn’t say anything, just lifted one shoulder and reached for two of the bottles. Merlin’s mind was a little slow from his previous three rounds so by the time he opened his mouth to question the gesture, Arthur was already ten feet away.

 

He paused and looked back at Merlin. “Coming?” he asked.

 

Merlin nodded, confusion not helping his delay. He grabbed the remaining bottles and followed Arthur back to the group. When they handed out the drinks, Arthur told everyone Merlin was an idiot and bought them another round.

 

“If there’s another round, I’ll pay,” said Gwen, frowning. “Don’t spend all your money today, Merlin. We can all chip in.”

 

“Right,” Merlin agreed slowly. “Sorry.”

 

He exchanged a glance with Arthur, but the blonde looked as innocent as a newborn kitten.

 

After that, Gwaine chose the final showdown location: A ticket snatching game called ‘Zombie Snatcher’. Whoever knocked the most tickets off was the victor of the night. The game was mostly luck, as everyone knew these things were most likely rigged with delays and glitches, but it seemed everyone was too drunk to care.

 

Though it was a competition between Gwaine, Arthur, and Lancelot, there were enough spots for all of them so Gwen and Merlin jumped in too. There was shouting and cheering and a few bumping elbows on accident, or on purpose, and at the end Gwen was bouncing up and down in victory. Of the official combatants, Gwaine came out the winner.

 

“Don’ look so sad, mates,” he said, slurring slightly and making his accent harder to understand. “S’not everyone who can be thisss awesome all the time.” He smacked a hand into his chest. “ ‘M just the best.” His jaw dropped open while he obviously considered an idea, then he flipped to Merlin and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “I lied! ‘M sorry! Merlin! Merlin is tha best! Yer the best!”

 

Merlin laughed as his boyfriend jabbed him in the chest, trying to make his point, and then began covering his head and face with sloppy kisses. He kept repeating ‘I love ya’ over and over, in slurred and mumbled tones as Merlin tried to escape the onslaught, still laughing.

 

“Okay, okay!” he shouted. “I’m the best!”

 

That was the secret code, because Gwaine laughed and stopped the love attack. He gave Merlin one last, tight hug, and released him.

 

“Aw, you guys are the cutest,” Gwen said, fawning.

 

“No, my lady. You are,” Lancelot said, taking up her hand to kiss it like some old-school chivalrous knight.

 

Arthur made a noise of discomfort and disgust as he rolled his shoulders and his eyes. Gwaine smacked him on the shoulder.

 

“Ah, cheer up, Princess! There’s bound ta be someone who’ll put up wit’ ya soon.” Then he laughed, like maybe he didn’t actually believe that.

 

They stayed another hour after that, bouncing around the rooms to play as many games as possible, loaning each other coins near the end when some started to run out. Gwen and Lancelot bought the last round together, and it was almost more alcohol than any of them could drink and still walk straight.

 

When those drinks were down, Arthur disappeared from the group. It took Merlin walking half the arcade to realize he was missing, but then he convinced everyone to back track until they found the young man leaning on a wall and groaning. He couldn’t focus enough to walk a straight line, and kept mumbling some weird kind of apology for that.

 

“I think we all should probably head home anyway,” Lancelot said. “Nobody drove, right?”

 

They walked as a group to the bus stop and then rode together in relative silence as the drinks began to take their toll. Lancelot admitted that the last round had probably be a mistake when he began to get queasy. As soon as they stepped off the bus back on campus, he found the nearest bush and vomited. Merlin didn’t blame him. Buses had a knack for making him queasy too, especially if he was already sick.

 

Arthur and Merlin were the only ones who lived in the same building, so they paired up as the group went its separate ways. Gwaine took his hands before leaving though, and repeated a few more times how much he loved Merlin.

 

“Don- Don’t walk in ta traffic on yer way back,” he mumbled drunkenly. “An- And remember-“

 

“You love me,” Merlin finished with a grin. “I know. Don’t worry about me. I just have- have to get this idiot back.” He’d almost lost the sentence in the middle, but his brain wasn’t quite that muddled. He kissed Gwaine on the cheek, then collected Arthur from the bench he’d dropped onto, and together they hobbled their way to the dorm.

 

The key didn’t fit the first time. Or Merlin missed. Twice. Third time’s the charm, and he got the lock. They stumbled in through the door, Arthur half-way to dead weight, and Merlin kicked the door shut. Arthur, by some miracle, managed to lock it once more behind them. Merlin laughed a little too loud and Arthur grinned while shushing him, also too loud.

 

Then Arthur’s feet forgot how to stand and he stumbled, tipping wildly to the left. Merlin snatched up his arm, trying to offer a counter balance, and they almost tipped over in the opposite direction.

 

Arthur snickered. “God, you’re bad at this.”

 

Merlin let Arthur lean on him as they slowly made their way to Arthur’s room. “Why should I be any good at it?” The apartment was dark, but a light under Arthur’s door suggested he’d forgotten to turn off his small desk lamp – again.

 

When they got to the door, Arthur shouldered it open then tripped his way to the bed. Merlin tried to balance him again, but he wasn’t steady either and they just got their feet tangled and ended up in a heap on the bed. It was a miracle they hadn’t slipped right off the edge and onto the floor.

 

Arthur was full on laughing now, and Merlin was too. They had to look ridiculous. Merlin glanced at Arthur and his laugh faded away. The blonde looked so good like this, disheveled and carefree. He had never laughed like this before, open and boisterous. Actually, Merlin couldn’t remember any time Arthur had laughed before, outside of an offhanded snicker.

 

The thought made him incredibly sad at the same time it made his stomach knot happily. Arthur was laughing with him. Somehow Merlin had made that happen.

 

Eventually, Arthur seemed to notice Merlin had gone quiet. His laughter died off and he disentangled himself just enough to look at Merlin. For a long moment, they just stared at each other, both a little too drunk to move.

 

God, why did Arthur have to be so attractive? In the half-dark of Arthur’s room, Merlin could see his beautiful blue eyes, made slightly watery by the alcohol and reflecting the light of Arthur’s lamp. His nose was so perfect, Merlin thought drunkenly. That jaw line was the stuff of legend. His hair was so fluffy that Merlin wanted to reach out and touch it. And then he was. He realized, with some horror, that his fingers were petting Arthur’s bangs.

 

He froze there, terrified, and glanced back down to Arthur’s face. The blonde looked sleepy and content, but he was smiling. Damn, his lips were just plump enough to be distracting. And they were getting closer.

 

Arthur pressed his lips to Merlin’s in a slow, tired kiss. The grogginess infected Merlin’s already slow brain, and he couldn’t help but close his eyes. Arthur’s lips pulled away, and when Merlin’s eyes reopened, he saw Arthur’s eyes were shut. His chest rose and fell in a steady pattern, and his mouth was slightly open. He was asleep.

 

He looked soft. He looked beautiful.

 

Merlin began to smile, forgetting his fear, and then the drowsy nature of the alcohol mixed with the dim lighting of the room and Arthur’s soft bed. In minutes, he was asleep, and it wouldn’t be until morning that the worry crept back in.

 

--- --- ---

 

Merlin woke slowly, from a beautiful dream that fled from him before he could grab hold of the details. In the wake of his dream, his head ached and he recalled the night of celebration – the games and the drinking and the way Arthur looked when he laughed. The kiss.

 

Eyes still shut, he smiled lazily. Then his chest seized and he jumped to a sitting position with a start.

 

“Shit,” he cursed, covering his mouth. He’d kissed Arthur last night! Or- Arthur had kissed him! But did it matter? Merlin had let it happen! No matter how much alcohol was involved, he shouldn’t have let it happen!

 

Shit, he’d cheated on Gwaine! Perfect, romantic, suave Gwaine, who was already worried about Merlin’s growing relationship with his roommate! Shit! Guilt swarmed Merlin like a hive of angry bees, and he shivered intensely.

 

Outside the room, someone was talking. It was then that Merlin realized he’d woken up alone, though he was sure he’d fallen asleep tangled up in Arthur. The muffled voice, now that he’d noticed it, was Arthur talking on the phone. Merlin pushed his panic and guilt to the side and crept to the door.

 

“ –nothing to worry about now,” Arthur was saying. Through the crack in the door, Merlin could see Arthur pacing back and forth slowly as he spoke. His back was to the room for most of it. “Yes, sir. Are you coming to the first game in August? … Right. I understand. … No, sir… Some friends and I went out to celebrate, but we stayed out of trouble. No, nothing you’d find interesting.” His head turned toward his bedroom door and Merlin quickly moved out of view. “Thank you. Let me know when you’re in town next and maybe we can grab dinner. … Yes… Yes… Alright. Goodbye, Father.”

 

The call ended with much less shouting and angry muttered tones than normal, and Merlin sat back on the bed while he considered that. Arthur must have called to tell his father about his grades. Everything sounded alright, except for the bit where Uther Pendragon obviously said he’d be missing the next football match. What a dick. He hadn’t been to any of the practice games or pre-season games all semester. Now the real season was going to begin and he wouldn’t be coming to those either?

 

The door opened slowly, like Arthur trying not to disturb his own room, then swung open when Arthur realized Merlin was already awake. For a moment, he seemed unsure how he wanted to phrase his greeting. Merlin could almost see the fight between ‘usual douche’ and ‘friendly’ warring in his features.

 

What he settled on was, “Well… It’s about time you woke up.”

 

“Tell that to my head,” Merlin said, rubbing at his temples.

 

“Don’t be such a crybaby, Merlin.” But he set a glass half-full of water on his dresser alongside a few migraine meds. “Take those and get over it. Then… Then get out of my room.”

 

He walked quickly into the bathroom and shut the door. Merlin dropped his hands to his lap and tried to ignore the suspiciously-close-to-butterfly feeling in his stomach. It wasn’t a big deal that Arthur had brought him something to help with his hangover. It just meant Arthur didn’t want to listen to him whine.

 

Anyway, Arthur wasn’t acting like they’d done anything weird last night. Definitely nothing as intimate as kiss. Was it possible he didn’t remember? He had fallen asleep right after it happened. Maybe it was possible. Either way, Merlin wasn’t going to bring it up. He had a boyfriend. An awesome boyfriend that loved him. He wasn’t going to ruin that by focusing on the fact that his very attractive roommate, in a very drunken state, had found him appealing enough to kiss.

 

Merlin jumped up, walked stiffly to the dresser, and took the offered medication quickly.

 

He wasn’t going to think about it. No, sir. He’d put it out of his mind the way this medicine was about to get rid of his hangover. He said that, but his hands were still shaking when he closed himself off in his own room.

--- --- ---

 

Things got weird during the summer, and it was mostly Merlin’s fault. He knew it was, but he couldn’t seem to stop it. Whatever wasn’t Merlin’s fault was Arthur’s, because the blonde had decided he liked hanging out with their group even if he was the only one without a partner. Lancelot was thrilled and Gwen was more than happy to let him join if just to prove to Merlin that Arthur was as good a guy as she’d said he was all those months ago.

 

There had been no infamous Arthur Pendragon parties since the disastrous one that was ruined by Merlin’s prank. None of the party goers seemed to care, because Merlin never saw any of them asking when the next one was or even checking up on Arthur from time to time. As Merlin had suspected, none of them were actually Arthur’s friends. However, Arthur had decided that Gwen, Lancelot, Gwaine, and Merlin were people worth forming friendships with.

 

Seeing Arthur made Merlin weird. He tried to act normal, but he knew he got a little closer to Gwaine whenever he noticed Arthur within ten feet of them. Whenever Arthur laughed, and he did so with increasing regularity, Merlin was drawn back to that night when he’d laid there and watched how Arthur’s face had lit up. The guilt gnawed at him and he tried to make up for it by being a little more handsy with Gwaine – holding hands or leaning on him, giving him random kisses or scooting a little closer on a bench so that they were pressed close.

 

At first, Gwaine seemed to love the new level of intimacy, but even he started giving Merlin odd looks after a few weeks.

 

To ease his own stress, Merlin convinced Arthur to hang out with the other players on the team. He needed more friends – at least that was the excuse Merlin gave. It worked, and Arthur began dividing his time between several group outings, most of which did not include Merlin. Thankfully.

 

And yet Merlin’s oddness didn’t abate. He would watch a movie with Gwaine, cuddled up on Gwaine’s couch, and Gwaine would lean in to kiss Merlin. Without prompting, Merlin would flashback to Arthur’s face closing the distance. It only ever lasted a moment, and Merlin never pulled away from Gwaine’s kisses, but his chest felt guilty all the same.

 

It didn’t happen all the time, of course. But it was often enough to drive Merlin insane. He wasn’t tutoring Arthur anymore, so he avoided the apartment whenever he knew Arthur would be home alone. He hung out with Gwaine, sure, but he also spent afternoons with Gwen and her brother. They played video games and had group study sessions, and Merlin did not bring up Arthur or why he wasn’t invited.

 

It was a fun summer, despite the course work and Merlin’s oddness. Merlin had always found summer courses to be easier somehow, though it was clear that Lancelot did not feel the same. Several times, Merlin found Lancelot in their study group, stressfully mussing up his otherwise gorgeous hair. Halfway through the semester, he showed up with all his hair cut off and gave the group a heart attack.

 

Blushing, he said, “It’ll be easier for football. Plus I won’t have to worry as much about styling it.” He ran a hand over the much shorter locks. “Anyway, it’s just hair. It will grow back if I don’t like it.”

 

“I like it,” Gwen said, also blushing. “It – It suits you. Really.”

 

Lancelot beamed, and that was the end of the matter.

 

Everything was going great with Arthur half-distracted, actually, and Merlin fell into a smooth rhythm for the summer. Even when Arthur hung out with the group, Merlin didn’t panic or let guilt take over. He tucked it away and found ways to ignore the feelings. He was with Gwaine, and he was happy.

 

Everything was working out. He repeated that line every morning and every night, and he really believed it was true.

--- --- ---

 

A week before the last summer finals, the first football game of the season was set to be played as a home game. The whole school was dressed in fan attire and tickets had long since sold out. Merlin had his ticket before they went on sale, courtesy of being friends with half the team. Gwen and he would be sitting in the front row – best seats in the house.

 

The event was such a big deal for the campus that classes ended at noon the day of. Classes the day before were bogged down with excited chatter to the point that Merlin’s final professor gave up trying to corral them and released them half an hour early.

 

Merlin wandered into the apartment just as his phone rang. It was his Uncle Gaius, which wasn’t uncalled for. Merlin typically called his uncle once a week to check up on his mother, but they’d spoken two days ago. As he answered the call, he glanced up at Arthur’s room. The blonde was looking back at him and they both waved to each other while Merlin said, “Hey, Gaius. What’s up?”

 

He dropped his bag at the foot of his bed as his uncle fumbled through a greeting.

 

“My dear boy,” Gaius finally managed. “It’s your mother.”

 

Merlin’s chest went cold. His voice was tight. “What happened? Is she alright?”

 

“She’s been admitted to the hospital. She was complaining of chest pain and her breathing was labored. The doctor says it’s a respiratory infection.”

 

Merlin could complain about chest pain and labored breathing too. He clutched at his shirt and shut his eyes. “Is – Is she going to –?”

 

“She’ll be alright. I wanted to keep you informed. The doctor says she should be back on her feet in a few days.”

 

“Thank God,” Merlin breathed out in relief. “Should I come over? Should I –?”

 

“Oh! No, no. You have that game to go to tomorrow. Support your friends. You can come to visit afterward. There’s no hurry. Your mother is receiving the very best care.”

 

“Are you sure?” Merlin didn’t want to miss the first game, but his mother was in the hospital. There would be other games.

 

“I am.” Gaius sounded so steady, so calm. That was a good sign. “Stay where you are, my boy.”

 

Merlin pressed his lips tight together for a moment. “Alright. But call me if anything changes. I don’t care what time it is.”

 

“Of course. You have my word.”

 

They exchanged short pleasantries and then ended the call. Merlin tossed the phone haphazardly onto his bed and ran both his hands through his short hair, groaning. Part of him wanted to ignore his uncle and go visit his mother anyway. He’d stay the night if the nurses allowed it, or else he’d come back, sleep, and drive back to the hospital in the morning and stay all day. It was an hour drive, even after Merlin moved across country to be nearer, but it was worth it if his mother might get worse.

 

“Everything… alright?” Arthur asked carefully from the doorway. “That was your uncle, wasn’t it?” He was leaning on the frame as he normally did, and something about the casual stance made Merlin nearly sob.

 

He slapped a hand over his mouth to stop the sound of the gasp he couldn’t catch in time. God, he couldn’t handle this right now. His mother was sick and then Arthur had to show up with his perfect normalness and bring Merlin’s guilt with him. Merlin turned away from the door and walked to the other side of his bed.

 

“I’m fine,” he managed after a few breaths. “Just… I need some time alone right now.”

 

“You know you can talk to me, right?” Arthur shifted into the room based on the sounds, but Merlin threw his hand back in a sign for him to stop, and the shifting stopped. “Merlin?”

 

“Please just leave me alone, Arthur.” He shook his head, took a deep breath. “I promise I’m fine.”

 

It must have been obvious how not fine Merlin was, but Arthur only hesitated a moment before he left. Part of Merlin was sad that Arthur had left so quickly, had left at all, but that was the part of Merlin that made him feel guilty whenever he thought too long about Arthur. So he sat on his bed and took deep breaths to calm his nerves, and his heart.

 

Gaius said his mother was fine, and Merlin should trust his uncle. But how could Merlin enjoy the game while knowing he could be with his mother?

 

It felt like he sat there for over an hour and maybe he did, because the smell of food wafted in from the kitchen – the kind that took a while to make. Curiosity took over the space that his nerves were easing out of, and Merlin got up to investigate the scent.

 

Arthur stood in the kitchen, looking for all the world like a natural chef. He was stirring a pot intermittently and cleaning up the small counter space when he wasn’t. Neat and tidy in the kitchen, Merlin noticed. Such a contrast from how Arthur kept his room. Arthur returned to the stove, turned off the burner, and then grabbed two bowls from the cabinet. Two.

 

Merlin watched, a lump in his throat, as Arthur ladled two bowls full of what looked like soup. When Arthur turned around, bowls in hand, he hesitated upon seeing Merlin. The hesitation lasted only a moment, and then he walked confidently across the room and offered a bowl to Merlin.

 

“You cook?” Merlin asked, taking the bowl. Out of habit, he followed Arthur to the couch and saw down on the floor with him. Arthur had always made disparaging comments about the kitchen and cooking, so Merlin had assumed he was a bad cook, but the soup looked really good.

 

Shrugging, Arthur said, “I can make this. It’s one of my mother’s recipes – chicken and rice soup. We used to make it together when my father was too busy to join us for dinner. It’s not hard.”

 

Merlin slowly brought his spoon to his mouth, then blew on it when he saw all the steam coming off it. He knew Arthur was watching him as he finally took the first sip. His eyebrows rose and he actually made one of those stupid ‘mmm’ sounds people faked on TV.

 

“This is really good,” he said, making sure to get chicken in his next spoonful.

 

“Thanks.”

 

They ate in relative silence and it was a comfortable thing. The soup warmed Merlin from the inside out, and he relaxed. There was truth in the term ‘comfort food’. Merlin glanced at Arthur, who was eating much slower than him, and realized the soup was for him. Merlin had told Arthur to leave him alone, and Arthur had set about making him food. It was Arthur’s comfort food growing up, made with his mother.

 

Merlin took a deep breath and stared down at his empty bowl. His chest ached.

 

“It’s my mother,” he admitted aloud. “She’s in the hospital. Respiratory infection.” He took another long, deep breath, and Arthur just waited. “My uncle says she’s fine, but I can’t help but worry. She has, um… She has COPD. Not from smoking.” He glanced at Arthur, worried what he was thinking, but Arthur just looked appropriately pitying. “She had a job for like twenty years in this factory that they later found out had chemical irritants in the air. A lot of people got sick from it. She gets a stipend to help with the medical care, because a lot of people sued the company.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Arthur murmured. “I had no idea.”

 

Merlin shook his head. “I haven’t told anyone here. My best friend back in New York, Will, he knew. It’s the reason I moved all the way over here. But, uh, you’re the first one to find out. Around Thanksgiving, my mom got really sick, and we weren’t sure she’d pull through. I spent a week in the hospital with her – almost failed my courses. After that, I couldn’t stay away. I had to come back.”

 

Arthur nodded, like he actually understood how Merlin felt, and he probably did. His own mother had died when he was young, or so Gwen had told him.

 

“I won’t hold it against you if you skip the game tomorrow,” he said. “I’m sure the others would understand as well. I skipped a piano recital when my mother was last in the hospital. My father was furious.”

 

“Ouch. Sorry,” Merlin said, wincing at the idea of a father being so angry about his son visiting his dying mother.

 

A small smirk pulled on Arthur’s lips. “I got my revenge. I haven’t touched a piano since. I don’t think he’s ever gotten over it.”

 

Despite his melancholy thoughts, Merlin laughed at that. He caught himself after only two chuckles, but the damage was done. Arthur was smiling openly at him, an oddly fond look in his eyes.

 

“That’s better,” he said.

 

And it kind of was.

--- --- ---

 

The game was loud and crowded, and Merlin wouldn’t buy the food if you paid him to because it was so overpriced, but the energy of the fans was infectious. He was almost able to forget his mother was in the hospital, but not quite. The game hadn’t even started before Gwen was trying to make sure he was alright.

 

“It’s my mom,” Merlin explained. “She’s in the hospital. Oh, but don’t worry. I called her like an hour ago. She’s… She’s fine, and she told me to stay and watch the game for her.”

 

Gwen’s hand was over her mouth. “Oh my goodness! Merlin, I’ll understand if you leave. We all will.”

 

He shook he head. “No. I’ll support our guys. I’m planning to visit the hospital tomorrow anyway.”

 

“Well, if you’re sure.” She still looked concerned even as she turned her eyes to the players.

 

When Merlin looked over the field, he found Arthur without trying. The captain was looking right back at him, and he gave a questioning thumbs up. Merlin returned it with a matching thumbs up and Arthur nodded and returned to pre-game prep. Then Merlin caught sight of Gwaine. After a second, Gwaine looked up and spotted him. He waved excitedly. Merlin might be ‘okay’, but he wasn’t really ‘excited waving’ okay, so he gave a pitiable wave in return.

 

“Popular,” Gwen said with a small grin. “I only have one admirer on the team. You have two. Lucky.”

 

“Oh, shut up,” Merlin said with no heat.

 

“No, honestly.” Gwen stared out at her boyfriend with a hazy grin. “Lancelot says Arthur talks about you all the time. Apparently between him and Gwaine, it’s like you’re a member of the team, present at every practice.”

 

“Shut up,” he said again, more forceful, but he was grinning too, and that alone was a win.

 

The game was a wonderful distraction. Merlin took a bit to get into it, but then he was standing and cheering with the rest, shouting curses when the opponents checked Arthur so hard he was sent flying back several feet. He was fine, but Merlin knew now why so many football players got concussions. The game was ruthless.

 

The check didn’t matter. In the end, they won by a large margin, though Merlin still wasn’t positive how many points were earned for what. For all he knew, they may have only won by one touchdown.

 

The team celebrated by going out for drinks, but Merlin didn’t join them. He high fived everyone and then went home to pack. He was asleep whenever Arthur got in, and he left before Arthur woke up. At the door, he glanced back at Arthur’s room, but he didn’t go back to say goodbye.

 

--- --- ---

 

He spent the whole of Saturday at the hospital with his mother. His uncle, Gaisu, dropped in when he wasn’t tending to his own patients, but mostly it was just Merlin and his mom. He sat by her bed and kept her company.

 

“You really didn’t need to come, Merlin.” She squeezed his hand. “It’s just a small infection. They say I can go home as early as tomorrow.”

 

“It’s just an infection this time,” Merlin argued. “And besides, I wanted an excuse to come see you.”

 

She laughed at that. “When have you needed an excuse to come see me? When you were in New York, you’d video call between classes. You showed up for Thanksgiving without a word of warning.”

 

“Yeah, well school’s been kind of hectic lately. It was helpful to have an excuse this time.” It was partly a lie. It was true that he hadn’t gone to visit his mother as much as he should have, especially considering he moved all the way across the country to be close to her, but it was a stretch to say he’d needed the excuse to get away. No one would even question him if he took off one day to spend the weekend with family. Gwaine did it all the time.

 

“Tell me about school,” his mother said, latching onto the topic.

 

So Merlin told her about his old prank war with Arthur, though she’d already heard most of it before. He explained their truce and how he’d almost ruined it by being suspicious of Arthur’s intentions. Merlin explained Gwaine, how handsome and fun he was. He told her about Gwaine winning at bowling against everyone but him, and he told her how worried he was that he was going to screw the whole relationship up.

 

“Why would you need to worry, dear? It sounds like the two of you are doing well.” She only looked away to thank a nurse who brought in their lunches. Once the nurse was gone, she returned her attention to her son. “Unless you’re thinking of breaking up with Gwaine and maybe going out with Arthur? He sounds nice too.”

 

“Mom,” Merlin said with a whine. “I’m not trying to date Arthur. I’m with Gwaine. I’m trying to be serious about Gwaine.”

 

She laughed softly. “I know, I know. I was teasing.” She ate a bite of her lunch and then made a thinking sound. “It just seemed like you and Arthur have come a long way since the last time you told me about him. It sounds like he’s moved on from just being your roommate and actually likes you now. I’m so glad you’ve made good friends at this new school. I felt so bad when you left all your friends in New York.”

 

“It’s fine. I see Gwen about every other day, and the guys on the football team are cool.” Merlin pressed his lips into a thin line as he counted his new friends in his head. Was everyone on the team his friend or were they just friends-by-association? Whatever. “Obviously I see Arthur every day. We usually catch up on shows together and complain about plot lines, kind of how Will and I used to, but Arthur isn’t as big a stickler as Will was. And Arthur made me soup to cheer me up after Gaius called the other day, which was a surprise because I didn’t even know he could cook.”

 

His mother smiled mischievously over the edge of her drink. “Mm. Arthur is a sweetheart, isn’t he? You two are a good match.”

 

Merlin groaned and put his face in his hands. “I told you – I’m dating Gwaine.”

 

“I know. I know.” But she didn’t sound convinced. Merlin should be offended, but it was his mom. He could never stay upset with his mom.

 

He continued to tell her adventures from his life as a college student, as boring as they may be, for another hour or so. She made no less than two more references to how compatible he and Arthur seemed, completely ignoring Merlin’s protesting that Arthur was not his boyfriend.

 

“You just seem to enjoy his company so much,” she said eventually. “You smile when you talk about Gwaine, of course. But, dear, you glow when it’s about Arthur.”

 

She must have meant it to be encouraging, but it made Merlin anxious. Was he like that around other people? Did he perk up and ‘glow’ when he talked about Arthur? Did he do that around Gwaine? Biting his lip, he tried to think back on his dates and interactions with Gwaine, trying to remember if he’d changed at all when Arthur was brought up. He couldn’t think of any difference, but he hadn’t known he was doing it today with his mother either. Hopefully she was just imagining it.

 

Clearing his throat, Merlin changed the subject and decided the best course of action was simply to not talk about Arthur anymore in front of his mom.

 

She seemed happy either way. Seeing his mother doing better was the best antidote to Merlin's anxious mood, and he left at the end of visiting hours feeling infinitely better than when he’d arrived.

--- --- ---

 

A week later, Merlin and Gwaine finished their finals and decided to have a small celebration before making plans with anyone else. They met up at the pizza place where they'd had their first date, and they talked with relief about the few days between then and the start of the fall term. Merlin’s eyes drifted over the crowds outside, half expecting to see Arthur sitting on one of the benches. He felt distracted and a little bit anxious to get home, but he pushed that aside to enjoy his time with Gwaine.

Gwaine seemed slightly distracted the whole time too, but he claimed there was nothing wrong the three times Merlin asked him about it. Each time, he turned the conversation to football. The new season had started off strong, and he planned to put every bit of extra energy he had into practice so they could win the whole season.

 

“After this season, I was actually thinkin’ ‘bout movin’,” he admitted.

 

“Moving?” Merlin asked, eyebrows knit. “Where? Back to the U.K.?”

 

Gwaine shook his head. “Nah. Family’s movin’ to northern California. Mum wants me ta look inta schools up there so I can be closer.”

 

The thought was hard, losing Gwaine like that, but Merlin nodded anyway. “I can understand that. I moved all the way over here to be closer to my family too. Anyway, we could still skype and stuff if you moved. Long distance isn’t unheard of.”

 

“Nah. ‘Course not,” Gwaine agreed, though he sounded like he was lost in thought.

 

After they ate and discussed their coming courses, they began the walk back toward the dorms. Gwaine diverted from his own path to walk Merlin all the way to his building, though they lived in different corners of the campus.

 

“So,” he said into the evening air. The sky was burning orange above them. “I hear yer mum’s in hospital.”

 

“Hm? Oh yeah. She’s fine. She’s already back home.” Merlin ran a hand through his hair. “Did I not tell you?”

 

Gwaine shook his head, his shaggy hair falling into his face so that he had to push it back out of the way. “Gwen told me. Said how impressed she was wit’ how yer able ta focus on the game an’ finals an’ all wit yer mum sick.”

 

Shame blushed on Merlin’s cheeks. “Sorry. I thought I’d mentioned it. That or I thought Arthur would have told you. He knew I’d gone to visit her after the game. Anyway, she was only in the hospital for a couple of days.”

 

“Arthur, hm?” Gwaine hummed and Merlin wondered if he shouldn’t have brought up that Arthur had known. “Nah. Captain didn’ say a word.”

 

They walked a moment in silence, uncomfortable and awkward, until they reached the door to the dorms. Sighing, Gwaine came to a stop. Sighs were rarely good omens, but then he turned and gave Merlin a little smile.

 

Gwaine leaned in for a kiss, as he’d done so many times before. He was so smooth about it, and his persona made Merlin relax and welcome the contact. It was habit, true, but there was just something intensely charming about Gwaine. Merlin let his eyes slide closed and allowed some of the tension to slide from his shoulders.

 

But the kiss did not come. Gwaine had stopped a breath away and then backed up just enough to have a clear view of his boyfriend. When Merlin opened his eyes, he saw Gwaine looking over every inch of his face, a tense expression in the set of his brow and the curve of his doggish dimples. It was almost as if he was… sad.

 

Gwaine carded his fingers up and through Merlin’s short hair, then danced his fingertips over the shell of Merlin’s ear.

 

“A good man knows when he should bow out,” he murmured.

 

“Bow out?” Merlin didn’t understand.

 

Gwaine nodded slowly, his face unnaturally serious. “T’was like you were made fer me, Merlin. But not the other way ‘round, unfortunately.”

 

“What do you mean? Did I do something wrong?” He clenched his fists at his side and tried to think of what habit he may have that was driving a wedge between them. Was there a way to talk his way around this?

 

“Not as such,” Gwaine admitted. “I mean, kinda. I’ve been thinkin’ it over fer awhile now, an’ I’ve forgiven all invested parties, but yeah. I felt pretty wounded at first.” He poked Merlin in the nose. “If ya want an example of what I was goin’ over, look at what ya just said. Yer mum was in hospital an’ you didn’t tell me. You told Arthur. An’ Gwen. But not me.”

 

Frowning deeply, Merlin said, “Tell me this isn’t about Arthur. There’s nothing going on between us.”

 

Again Gwaine nodded. “I know. But there will be.” He touched Merlin’s jaw, as smooth as always - unlike Gwaine’s. “All I gotta do is walk away.” He smiled ironically, meeting Merlin’s eyes. “Shoulda never walked in, I s’pose, but then I was a moth an’ you were a candle.”

 

Merlin shook his head. Now was not the time for Gwaine’s poetic nature. “We don’t have to end things. I’m not cheating on you or anything. I promise. I don’t look at Arthur.” He didn’t let himself look.

 

“Maybe. But yer heart is already steppin’ on his side o’ the field.” He held his hands up, placating, when Merlin opened his mouth to argue. “Don’t worry. I take no offense. He’s a swell bloke. Great captain. An’ I know ya didn’t do it on purpose. Just… promise me ya won’t sulk over me too long. I’m movin’ away by Christmas anyhow. No use draggin’ this out… Just give the ruddy bastard a chance, ey? I'm not givin’ up just so you can be miserable too.”

 

Merlin stood there, struck dumb. He liked Gwaine, like a lot. He couldn’t believe Gwaine was breaking up with him and even going so far as to give his blessing for a relationship with Arthur! A relationship that didn’t even exist! But at the same time, he couldn’t find the desire to argue further. Every time he came up with a rebuttal – We’re great together, I’ll miss you too much, I don’t even like Arthur – it felt like a lie in his chest and died before he could voice it.

 

Maybe Gwaine had seen that hesitation in his eyes before and that was how they’d ended up here. Maybe Merlin really did ‘glow’ when he brought up Arthur and Gwaine had noticed. God damn.

 

The Brit took a deep breath and gave a weak smile. “One for the road?”

 

He closed the distance between them and finally connected their lips. Merlin took the chance. He grabbed hold of Gwaine’s collar and the back of his head, holding him hostage to the kisses. He peppered kisses on Gwaine’s lips and down his jaw. By his ear, he heard Gwaine sigh.

 

“Yer not makin’ this easy, Merlin.”

 

“It’s not supposed to be easy,” Merlin countered.

 

With a grunt of agreement, Gwaine pressed Merlin against the wall of the building and kissed him hard. They stayed there, pressed insanely close and making out, for far longer than any normal couple breaking up would have. But eventually Gwaine did pull back.

 

“You were the best,” he breathed into the scant air between them.

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t stay that way,” Merlin said, sadness bleeding into every part of him, even his words.

 

Gwaine grunted again in agreement and they embraced.

--- --- ---

 

If seeing Arthur post kiss was nerve wracking, seeing him post break up was next to impossible. Merlin had been a terrible boyfriend, letting his attraction to Arthur cloud his moments with Gwaine. Even when he'd tried to be loyal and good, he'd somehow made Gwaine uncomfortable and jealous. He'd made Gwaine feel like the third wheel, like he was expendable.

Merlin was a terrible boyfriend.

Word about their breakup spread quickly through their friends. Of course it did. There was no way to hide it when people brought Gwaine up with Merlin or vice versa. And it was the only excuse for why Merlin never made it to practices anymore. Everyone knew. That’s just the way the world worked.

 

The first week of classes, Merlin avoided Arthur entirely, avoided everyone really, locking himself in his room to keep everyone else out. He knew he was the cause of his breakup even though Gwaine had been the one to call it off. It was Merlin's fault, and he couldn't face any of his friends.

Gwen and Lancelot texted him, more so Gwen, just making sure he was holding up alright. Arthur tried knocking on his door a few times, but all his well placed concern just made Merlin feel worse.

After the first week, he let Arthur drag him from his room for more soup, which seemed to honestly be the only thing Arthur knew how to make without a doubt. They watched movies on Netflix until Merlin passed out on the couch.

He woke up an hour later with his head on Arthur's shoulder. The blond was asleep too, his head tilted half on top of Merlin's. Merlin couldn't see Arthur but he could imagine the scene, and it made his chest ache.

‘Give the ruddy bastard a chance, ey? I'm not givin’ up just so you can be miserable too.’

He wanted to do as Gwaine said, but it had only been a week. He just couldn't. So he slowly extricated himself from the cuddling position and gently shook Arthur awake.

“Thanks,” he said when he had Arthur's blue eyes on him.

“Yeah,” Arthur answered brilliantly. He blinked in a daze and reached up to rub an eye. “Um. Anything for a friend.”

Just a friend, Merlin repeated in his head. He liked Arthur, he did, but this was all he could be right now.

--- --- ---

 

Their old routine was a small comfort. Merlin would come in from classes and find Arthur leaning back against the couch, headphones in as he listened to an online lecture video. Without a word, Merlin would grab his own computer or text books and join him on the floor. Some days there was a drink on the table waiting for Merlin. Some days a pizza would arrive just as Merlin was sitting down. Some days nothing special happened at all.

Arthur had no math courses left, but he still got Merlin's opinion on topics and presentations from time to time. Merlin made sure to bug Arthur for his insight whenever possible to make up for it.

It was comfortable, and as the weeks went by Merlin found himself itching to text Gwaine less, waited for his calls less, and generally felt less guilty. Maybe one day he and Gwaine could be friends again, or at least hang out in the same group.

Arthur never said he was trying to help Merlin recover from the break up, but the drinks and the food spoke for themselves. He never pestered Merlin for details or tried to get him to talk it out. Gwen tried to be good, but she gave him sad looks too often when she thought he wouldn't notice. Lancelot hung out with Gwaine a lot which meant Merlin didn't see him as much, and when he did he could tell Lancelot was trying hard not to reference Gwaine in any way. It was like walking on eggshells around his friends.

Arthur just was. And that was all Merlin needed.

Merlin began to perk up in October, when the campus started getting into the holiday spirit – the spirit of Halloween to be specific. Halloween had always been Merlin's favorite holiday. Dressing up and hanging out with friends, and really just the whole aesthetic got him excited.

“My brother and I are hosting a Halloween party since our dad lives nearby. You should come,” Gwen said when they met up to study. “Arthur's invited too, of course. Can you tell him?”

“Sure. Costumes are allowed, I assume. Do I need to bring anything?” Merlin asked.

“Just the best costume game you've got. There's going to be a contest.” She grinned and the challenge was set.

Well Merlin wasn't about to lose a contest. He hadn’t brought any of his costumes from home, so he'd need to make a new one. And pair costumes were always a hit. Maybe he could… unless Arthur didn't want to go…

“Hey. Arthur. Gwen and Elyan are throwing a Halloween party. You’re invited,” he said, trying to casually lead up to his real question. They were sitting on the floor again, a pizza box open on the table as they did homework.

Arthur looked up from his textbook, eyebrows raised curiously. “That’s cool. I’ll have to see if any of the guys are going as a costume group.”

Bingo. “Actually I was wondering if you'd want to go as a pair with me. I had a mind to make something Alice in Wonderland, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to do the March Hare or Mad Hatter.”

Arthur would be a brilliant Hatter, he thought. Merlin personally loved doing animal face makeup on himself so the Rabbit would fit better.

“Do the rabbit,” Arthur said. “The silly ears would suit you.”

“And you're as mad as the Hatter. How fitting.” He smirked at Arthur’s affronted look.

 

The blond tossed a couch pillow at him. “And that’s how you ask me to dress up?” he asked, astonished. “Idiot! I should turn you down right now!”

 

“But you’re not,” Merlin pointed out, hope bleeding out through his chest. “So is that a yes?”

 

Arthur shook his head and rolled his eyes and grabbed the other couch pillow. Just before he threw it, he stopped and sighed in mock frustration. “Yes, Merlin. I suppose I could help you not look as big a fool as you normally do.”

 

“Ass,” Merlin grunted out, but he was grinning too.

 

“Idiot,” Arthur fired back. They hit each other with the pillows a few times before deciding the cheap stitching couldn’t handle it. Then they used the pillows as back support and turned homework into a movie marathon. Alice in Wonderland, of course, so they could get ideas.

--- --- ---

 

Arthur was not crafty, which wasn’t a surprise since his father hadn’t bothered to teach him any real life skills. Cooking? Nope. Sewing? Nada. Dishes? Minimal. Cleaning? Mostly done by a maid at home. Laundry? Arthur taught himself that via youtube when he went away for college because he didn’t want to look like a total buffoon in front of other people. The laundry room was communal and people might notice if he never went in. In fact the only thing Arthur seemed particularly skillful in around the apartment was picking movies to watch. His vudu account seemed to house every movie known to man, and he always picked stellar films to watch almost every night. He’d introduced Merlin to a few movies he’d always meant to watch but never got around to – like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Dead Poets Society’, where they both shed a little bit of a tear, not just because of the content of the movie but because of Robin Williams.

 

Knowing all of that about Arthur, Merlin was not surprised that Arthur could help very little in the creation of their costumes – at least in the literal creation process. He was a very supportive cheerleader, however.

 

They went thrift store shopping after agreeing on the costumes, and then Merlin would work on the wardrobe whenever he had time outside of class and homework, altering the old coats and pants they’d found. Arthur still had football, but he came home with food that he’d picked up in the food hall most nights. Merlin’s favorite food on campus was pork gyros, and every Friday the Greek shop was open long enough for Arthur to swing in before they shut down. So every Friday in October, Merlin was treated to authentic pork gyros.

 

“Football practice doesn’t end until seven or seven thirty,” Merlin noted on the second weekend, holding the remains of his gyro in his already messy fingers.

 

“You’re always so perceptive, Merlin,” Arthur teased. He took a large bite of his own gyro, trying not to get as dirty as Merlin.

 

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Right. Fine. But the Greek place shuts down at eight. So you must be rushing to shower, change, and get across campus for this.” He began cleaning his fingers with some little wet wipes provided by the shop. “I love it. I do. I love gyros and the fact that you keep getting them. But I’m just saying you don’t have to kill yourself to get across campus in time. I’d be fine with prepackaged sandwiches from the mart downstairs.”

 

Arthur hit the TV remote with his elbow to turn on the screen. He often watched television while Merlin worked. He shrugged and settled in to watch. “Duly noted,” he said. “I won’t go out of my way for it anymore.”

 

He still showed up with gyros the following Friday.

 

Merlin finished the Hatter top hat and went to have Arthur try it on, only to find Arthur hand washing dishes that didn’t fit in their tiny dishwasher. He came up behind the blonde and put the hat on his head. Arthur startled and jumped back from the sink, dropping a bowl into the soapy water but luckily not breaking it.

 

“What the hell?” he asked, hands hovering and sudsy.

 

Merlin appraised the look then nodded with a grin. “Suits you,” he said. Then he motioned to the sink. “Did you youtube how to wash dishes?”

 

Flushing in embarrassment, Arthur scowled. “No. I’m not an idiot. I know how to wash dishes. I just never had to before.” He returned to the sink, hat and all. “Just because you’re busy with the costumes doesn’t mean it’s okay to leave the dishes piling up. If I left it to you, we’d get rats.”

 

“That’s a funny way of saying you’re trying to help out.” Merlin crossed his arms lazily. “Why can’t you just admit you’re a nice guy? Your fake friends aren’t here, Arthur. They haven’t been for months. You can just be you, and that’s enough. If you want to help me by doing chores or getting my favorite food or whatever, you don’t have to lie and pretend about it. You can tell me the truth – just say it’s for me. Or don’t. Whichever.”

 

He couldn’t see Arthur’s face, couldn’t even see if he was still blushing because the rim of the hat obscured his profile. But he just wished Arthur would stop performing around him when it mattered. Merlin wanted the man who answered honestly when he was too tired to think up a lie, or who smiled as he fell asleep on Merlin and didn’t try to fake it away in the morning, or who made soup for him when he was sad and didn’t pretend it was just extras of what he’d made for himself.

 

Why couldn’t Arthur be like that all the time? How was Merlin meant to try a relationship with someone who couldn’t even be honest with themselves?

 

Arthur finished cleaning the bowl, rinsed it, and set it to the side on a hand towel to dry. With a sigh, Merlin realized he wouldn’t be getting a response, so he carefully grabbed the hat from Arthur’s head, ignored the way it left Arthur’s hair fluffy, and headed back to his room.

 

While Arthur cleaned the few remaining dishes and then put away the ones from the newly finished dishwasher cycle, Merlin moved on to his own hat – adding the ears he’d saved for last. The costumes were almost complete, just a few little details. Just in time too – the party was next week.

 

When Merlin looked up from his work, the sun had long since set. He had class in the morning and probably should have stopped sewing an hour or two ago. Merlin licked his dry lips and began putting his projects away. One glass of water and he’d go to bed, he decided. So he cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders, and then returned to the kitchenette.

 

The apartment was dark – Arthur had already gone to bed – but Merlin didn’t need light to find his way. He opened the fridge and grabbed one of Arthur’s bottles of water. He turned back around at the same time he shut the door, and he thought he saw something on the counter just before the fridge light went out. Brow knitting curiously, he flipped the light switch for the kitchenette.

 

There was a sticky note on the counter. All the dishes were put away and the counters were clean, which just made the note stand out more. Merlin leaned over it, not picking it up in case it needed to stay on the counter.

 

‘Cleaned the kitchen so you didn’t have to.’

 

Merlin carefully pulled the note up to look closer at it, as though he might be misreading it. Almost numbly, he shut the light off and carried the note back to his room. Sitting on his bed, he continued to reread the note a few times. He felt kind of warm and tingly in his stomach, and for the first time he didn’t try to convince himself to stop it.

--- --- ---

 

Halloween was a fun and vibrant time, but college didn’t pause for it. Merlin’s Anatomy and Physiology course had a test the day before, and Merlin was infinitely glad he’d finished the costumes over the weekend. He poured himself into studying, even reading his textbook while cooking dinner for him and Arthur.

 

Arthur didn’t have it any easier, either. The night before Halloween was a football game. He’d come home every day leading up to it so run down that he almost forgot to eat at all.

 

“Why are you going so hard for this match?” Merlin asked, half-feeding Arthur by force. “The team is doing amazing, and it’s not like this is the finals or anything.”

 

Arthur laughed. “You really don’t understand the sport much, do you?” he asked, eyes fond with their teasing. Merlin smiled right back at him, and they shared a happy moment before Arthur’s mouth dropped into a frown and he sighed. “No, it’s my father. He’s coming to the match.”

 

Merlin almost dropped his fork. “He’s actually going to show up? That’s huge!”

 

“I know.” Arthur groaned and ran his hands through his hair, which was still damp from his shower. “If we somehow manage to fuck up for the first time, I’ll never live it down.”

 

“You won’t fuck it up,” Merlin assured, and his conviction surprised Arthur. Merlin shrugged and handed Arthur a forkful of food, which the blond ate obediently. “The team has done amazing all season. I know I stopped coming to games and practices, but Gwen keeps me up to date. You’re the best player. You know how to play the game, and your father being there changes nothing about that game. So just go to the match and play it like you would any other time. He’ll see your best only when you don’t focus on him.”

 

For a long while, Arthur said nothing. He went back to eating on his own, brow furrowed in thought. Then, after swallowing a particularly large mouthful of macaroni, he said, “You know, there are times, Merlin, when you display a sort of… I don’t know what it is.” He tapped his chin. “I don’t know what to say. It’s not ‘wisdom’.”

 

He paused, still searching for the word he wanted. When his eyes shifted over and matched with Merlin’s, Merlin felt his whole chest light up. He smiled and couldn’t stop. No matter how Arthur ended the thought, he’d already admitted to thinking Merlin gave good advice, and that made Merlin happy enough.

 

Then Arthur’s eyes softened and he smiled such a private smile that it made Merlin’s chest ache. He nodded slightly.  “But yes, that’s what it is.” He lowered his eyes to his plate, embarrassed. “Thank you, Merlin.”

 

“Any time,” Merlin said and lowered his own eyes to the food. If he kept smiling at Arthur like this, the blond was bound to call him out on his growing fondness.

 

After another quiet moment, Arthur asked, “Will you be coming to the game?”

 

Merlin wanted to. He wanted to support Arthur, but he wasn’t sure if Gwaine would appreciate that, nor was he sure he could ignore his ex-boyfriend and not relapse into guilt. He was trying to focus on Arthur, after all.

 

“Um. I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. Sorry.” And he was. For his part, Arthur just nodded like he understood and dropped the subject.

 

It was one thing to be told to ask Arthur out on a date, but it was another thing entirely to follow through. Technically Merlin had no proof of Arthur’s sexuality either way – he’d only ever spoken of women he’d dated, but he’d only ever dated them because his father told him to and he always said it with an air of annoyance. He’d kissed Merlin, but he’d been drunk at the time and never brought it up afterward.

 

Even if Arthur was gay or bi or pan or whatever, there was no definitive proof he’d even accept Merlin’s offer. They’d only been friends for a few months, and part of that had Merlin dating a friend of Arthur’s so the history was bound to make Arthur uncomfortable. Arthur had been kind to Merlin a lot recently, but that did not automatically denote a dating level of affection. The whole thing was an annoying mine field.

 

The next day, Merlin left class feeling almost one hundred percent confident that he’d aced the test. He ran by the store afterward and bought a few quick things. The football game had started by the time he finished paying, and it was in full swing when he got to the field. He had no ticket, but the ticket booth was being run by a woman who’d seen Merlin at all of the practices before the breakup.

 

When she saw what Merlin had brought with him, she didn’t even ask him for a ticket. She just waved him through. What Merlin had were two signs that he’d hand written outside the store on large poster boards.

 

Once inside, he hurried to the side of the stands, on the side of the field where the coach would be drawing Arthur’s attention the most. He spotted the coach instantly, recognized him from all the practices, but the man beside him gave Merlin pause. The man was large and imposing, with graying dark hair and a stern brow. He watched the game with the intensity of a scout, but there was something in the angle of his cheekbones and the set of his eyes that told Merlin this was Arthur’s father.

 

Merlin quickly grabbed a chair that was just on the other side of the fence and stood up on it to get above the heads of the coach and Mr. Pendragon. Then he waited for the whistle to sound and end the current play. Arthur seemed a little more run down than Merlin was used to, especially since the game wasn’t even half over. As the players regrouped, Arthur’s head glanced up at the coach, and that’s when Merlin threw his signs up.

 

On the top board, he’d just written ‘Oh Captain, My Captain’, like from the Dead Poets Society movie. On the bottom board were the words ‘Play the Game’.

 

Arthur’s helmet suggested he’d raised his head even more than when he’d first looked over at the coach. He was looking at the signs. The ref blew his whistle, but Arthur did not immediately get into formation. He held his hand up, a motionless wave, and Merlin grinned and shook the signs slightly.

 

When Arthur dropped into rank with his teammates, Merlin let his eyes wander. Instinctively, he glanced back at the captain and Arthur’s father, and there he locked eyes with Uther Pendragon. Merlin almost fell off his chair in surprise, he almost lowered the signs, but he held firm. He was here to help Arthur beat the shadow this man cast. That wouldn’t work if Merlin cowered as well. So he stared back, unflinching, until the man finally huffed and turned away.

 

Merlin counted ‘winning a staring contest with Uther Pendraon’ as a huge mark of bravery. But then he put the man out of his mind. He spent the rest of the game cheering for the team and holding up his signs between plays. He thought Arthur glanced his way each time, but it was probably just once, maybe twice, after the initial time. Arthur had a game to play, and he played it phenomenally. He didn’t have time to keep paying attention to Merlin anymore than he had time to devote to his father.

 

They won by a landslide, and Merlin almost went hoarse with cheering.

--- --- ---

 

Merlin got back to the apartment first because he didn’t have to stay for post-game speeches or team meetings or talking to fathers. He just went home. He put a bottle of water on the counter closest to the door and set Arthur’s favorite post-practice snack bar beside it. Hopefully his dad was being cool, but in case he wasn’t at least Arthur would come home to the reminder that he still had support somewhere.

 

Since he had no idea when Arthur would be back and he’d been sweating even as a bystander, Merlin decided to take a shower. While he waited for the water to warm, he glanced over his tiny bathroom and remembered when he’d lost all of his shower products multiple times. Ah, he was so glad those times were behind them. They hadn’t known each other for a full year, but they’d already grown so much in their relationship.

 

With a smile, Merlin stripped and got in. He didn’t hear anyone come in while he bathed, nor when he shut off the water or dried off. Not that he’d been in for too long, but he wondered just how long Mr. Pendragon intended to keep Arthur behind. He pulled on his pajama bottoms, grabbed his shirt, and headed out toward the kitchenette.

 

When he opened his door, he saw Arthur by the counter. The water was open beside him, but the food was untouched. Arthur was facing away from Merlin, his hands carefully holding up one of Merlin’s signs. It was the ‘Oh Captain, My Captain’ one. As Merlin watched, Arthur’s thumb rubbed over the edge, gentle.

 

“I didn’t hear you come in,” Merlin said, walking over.

 

Arthur shook his head. “I didn’t expect to see you at the game.” He lifted the sign as an example as he turned around. He looked oddly tense. “And then you go and do something silly like this.”

 

“Um?” Merlin frowned. Silly? “Sorry? I just –”

 

Arthur cut him off by wrapping his arms around Merlin in a tight embrace. The large board smacked Merlin on his back and made him drop his shirt, but after the initial shock wore off, he quickly hugged back. Confusion warred with the pleasure of being hugged, and it didn’t take long for the confusion to lose.

 

“Thank you,” Arthur murmured into Merlin’s neck. He hadn’t sounded so vulnerable since Merlin had found him on the floor after the disaster party. “I needed just this kind of silly thing to remind me what really mattered.”

 

“Yeah, I figured you’d get too wrapped up in your own head. You just needed a little push.” He pat Arthur on the back. Gosh, it felt so good to stand there in Arthur’s arms.

 

All too soon, Arthur pulled back and cleared his throat. He glanced at the sign again, opened his mouth to make an obviously snarky comment based on the way his nose started to wrinkle, then shut his mouth. He cleared his throat again, furrowed his brow slightly, and then exhaled.

 

“Um.” A bit of anxiety flickered through his voice. “Since you won’t need these again, I think I’ll keep them.” His gaze flickered nervously over Merlin. “I mean, if that’s alright?”

 

Merlin couldn’t stop his grin. Arthur was trying to be nice, fighting his urge for critical sounding comments to play off what he actually wanted. Merlin shook his head, a tiny laugh escaping him, before he nodded instead. “Yeah, Arthur. You can keep both of them.”

 

Arthur nodded in a sort of smug manner, like he hadn’t just nervously asked permission to take the posters. Then he glanced over Merlin, noticing for the perhaps the first time that Merlin was shirtless. He cleared his throat and glanced down at himself.

 

“Well I haven’t showered, so I guess I just ruined yours. Sorry about the… uh…,” and he motioned between them.

 

Merlin waved the apology away. “No, no. I didn’t mind. Don’t! I don’t mind!” He smiled nervously. “Uh, eat your snack bar.”

 

He made a swift exit when Arthur looked away for a second and then groaned into his hands once his door was shut. Wow. He’d been doing such a great job for that whole conversation and then had some kind of brain aneurism at the end. He was so weird. If he was Arthur, he wouldn’t want to date himself.

--- --- ---

 

The Halloween party was off campus and started after most classes let out for the day. Merlin and Arthur decided to put on most of their outfits before heading out, except for the hats because costume hats always hit the roof of the car and that could hurt them and so why would anyone wear a costume hat in the car? Arthur agreed with that sentiment after a short rant from Merlin. Or he just wanted Merlin to stop ranting. Whichever.

 

Merlin did his own makeup. He didn’t paint his whole face white – mainly he just did a white mask over his eyes and cheeks and edged it in a furry design, then he added the cute bunny nose and whiskers. To add some flair, he took an idea he’d seen online and added a curve around his left eye like the edge of a clock and filled it in with roman numerals. At the end, he styled his hair with a colored gel – white, obviously.  When he was done, his dark hair was almost entirely white.

 

Merlin was no professional, but looking in the mirror, he was very impressed with himself. When he walked out in his white pants, his short-sleeved white collared shirt, his blue vest, blue gentleman’s coat, and the tiny lacey ascot he’d made out of a tea cozy, he felt pretty darn good.

 

Arthur was leaning on the counter, already done styling his hair and whatever else he did to look gorgeous. He was outfitted in a long deep red coat, sleek black pants, a long-sleeved white shirt with lacey cuffs sewn onto the ends, a patterned black waistcoat, and topped off with a big polka dot bow near his neck. Merlin had sewn streamers and things into the pockets of the coat to make it look wilder since Arthur wasn’t wearing a wig. He’d adamantly refused to do a crazy orange afro, and Merlin really couldn’t blame him. After all, Merlin wasn’t wearing a wig either, although he’d still colored it.

 

They looked each other over in the main room, and Arthur examined the makeup a bit longer than was strictly needed. Eventually, he nodded. “I like the clock work on your face,” he said. “Not bad at all.”

 

“You look pretty spiffy yourself,” Merlin replied. He slipped his phone into his pants pocket, grabbed his hat with ears, and motioned for Arthur to lead the way.

 

Arthur put his top hat on as they walked, but he humored Merlin’s disdain for costume hats in cars by removing it as he slid into the driver’s seat. Gwen and Elyan’s father lived twenty minutes from campus, and when Arthur pulled up to the house there were already six other cars parked out front.

 

Merlin slipped his hat on just as Arthur rang the doorbell. The house was fully decked out for the holiday – with spider webs and glowing gravestones and floating ghosts. A fog machine covered the lawn in a thin layer of mystery, and speakers hidden in rocks broadcast creepy Halloween sounds. The party inside involved at least one color-changing light, because they could see it from outside, and the classic Halloween song ‘Thriller’ was noticeable even through the door.

 

A Victorian monarch answered the door, surprising both men. It was Gwen, hair expertly pinned but showing off the beauty of her natural tight curls. Her rose and peach colored dress was gorgeous, if a bit extravagant, and she looked radiant.

 

“Oh my!” She grinned as she looked them over. “You two look amazing!”

 

“Speak for yourself, woman,” Merlin exclaimed right back, moving in to carefully hug her. He didn’t want to ruin her dress.

 

Arthur glanced over her a few more times. “Sorry. I mean, you look great, but who are you meant to be?”

 

Gwen did a small turn at Merlin’s urging. She giggled. “Dido Elizabeth Belle. Did you see the movie? Belle?”

 

Recognition sparked in Arthur’s eyes. Movies were something he definitely knew. “Yes! I knew I recognized the outfit from somewhere. It’s very… flattering.”

 

Merlin didn’t miss the way Arthur’s eyes dropped temporarily to Gwen’s breasts, but luckily it seemed Gwen had. She did her best curtsy. “Thank you. I think I really just wanted an excuse to wear a dress as beautiful as this one.” Then she beckoned them inside. “Come on in! Elyan made a ton of terrible looking food he wants everyone to eat and we’ve got pizza.”

 

Merlin laughed at that. The food ended up being amazing – bleeding lady fingers, eyeball jello snacks, witches brew cakes, and a vivid green punch that seemed to be smoking. Elyan had obviously spent a little too much time on pinterest. Arthur and Merlin dared each other to eat the eyeballs simultaneously and kept close eyes on each other to make sure they were going through with it. The snacks were surprisingly delicious, but the eyeballs definitely had some vodka in them.

 

Several classmates Merlin recognized were in attendance, as well as many members of the football team. Most were in costumes you could purchase at the Halloween store or in an aisle at Wal-mart. Not that there was a problem with those, but it gave Merlin hope that they’d win the costume contest. They were complimented by everyone they talked to, and several commented on how ‘cute’ Merlin looked with his bunny nose.

 

“The costume suits ya,” an achingly familiar voice said behind Merlin.

 

Arthur was off getting a drink, and it seemed Gwaine had waited until Merlin was alone to announce he was at the party too. He was dressed as a vampire; with his hair pulled back in a half-bun and fake blood makeup around his mouth. He looked depressingly attractive – at least depressing for Merlin.

 

“Thanks,” Merlin answered after a long pause. “You look really good too.”

 

“Ah, but I never said ya looked good,” Gwaine said with a teasing smile. “Just kiddin’.”

 

They stood awkwardly for a moment, neither speaking and both looking around for conversation inspiration. They’d been broken up for three months, but it didn’t make meeting any less tense. Eventually, Gwaine cleared his throat.

 

“So, you and the captain an item yet?” he asked.

 

“What? No.” Merlin glanced over to Arthur in the kitchen, just visible from where Merlin was standing. The blonde was talking to Gwen, smiling and motioning to her outfit. Merlin frowned. “I don’t even know that he likes me. Right now he seems more interested in Gwen.”

 

Gwaine snorted and rolled his eyes. “Please. The idiot’s about as observant as a block ‘o wood. Only thing keepin’ his attention off ya tonight is the lady’s very displayed, very lovely chest. Not ‘cause he prefers ‘em. They’re just impossible to ignore. Trust me. I had ta walk away ‘fore Lancelot could slap me.”

 

As well meaning as Gwaine’s explanation was, it didn’t make Merlin feel better. Gwen was sweet and obviously didn’t mean to draw every man’s eye to her bosom, but she was doing it anyway. Arthur had drunkenly kissed Merlin but his eyes were drawn repeatedly to Gwen’s boobs. Did that mean he was bisexual after all? Or just straight with a gay-leaning when he was drunk? How could Merlin step up when Arthur refused to show his side?

 

In front of him, Gwaine sighed. “Listen. I’m speakin’ from experience here, Merlin. The captain’s mad about ya. I mean he used ta be mad at ya, but now he’s definitely just attracted to ya. He only stops talkin’ about ya when I walk into the room. What more proof do ya need?”

 

“I don’t know, Gwaine.” Merlin reached up to mess with his hair but remembered he had a hat on. So instead he adjusted the hat. “I’m not good at this. The only reason we started dating was because you made the first move.”

 

Nodding, Gwaine adopted a sage-like countenance, which really didn’t fit with his fangs and blood makeup. “True. But not everyone can be as fantastic as yers truly.” He smiled, something slightly strained. “Ya just need ta practice.”

 

“Well I’ll have to if I want to get even close to how smooth and confident you are,” Merlin admitted.

 

They smiled at each other, and it was so casual and normal that Merlin forgot why they broke up for a second. It was amazing they could even be this normal and friendly with each other. That too, Merlin noted, was all Gwaine. He’d made Merlin comfortable in their relationship, and he was doing it even now. The thought of talking to Gwaine had made Merlin nervous, but Gwaine came right up to him to chat. If they did manage to pull a friendship out of the wreckage somehow, it would be entirely to Gwaine’s credit.

 

“Well I just wanted ta compliment the outfit, make sure you were doin’ alright. I’ll leave ya to it now.” Gwaine clapped Merlin on the shoulder, gave a determined nod, and then moved into the crowd of other party guests before the easy air of their interaction could be spoiled.

 

Merlin watched him go and was happy to discover his chest didn’t ache as much as he’d expected it to.

 

A cold glass touched his cheek and he jerked away. Arthur didn’t even look particularly amused by his own trick, just held out the glass for Merlin to take. He nodded his head toward the others. “You alright?”

 

He must have seen Gwaine and Merlin talking. Merlin nodded. “Yeah. I’m fine. We were just… We’re fine.” He took a swig of the drink, realized it was alcoholic punch, and then took a longer drink.

 

“Right,” Arthur said, sounding dubious as he watched Merlin down the entire glass. He snatched the cup back as Merlin finished. “Alright, that’s enough of that.”

 

Arthur didn’t bring Gwaine up again, and Gwaine didn’t try to make eye contact or anything across the room. In a way, it was like Gwaine wasn’t even there.

 

Merlin and Arthur dispersed into the other guests, talking with friends and complimenting costumes, playing karaoke on the TV and playing drinking games. The costume contest consisted of people writing their favorites on paper and dropping them into a bowl to be counted. At midnight, Gwen counted the votes and announced with no small amount of excitement that Merlin’s hard work had earned him ‘Best Costume’. Well technically the Mad Hatter won, but Merlin made it so he counted it as a win.

 

Despite Arthur’s best efforts, Merlin managed to get past tipsy. To Merlin’s credit, he was at least better than Arthur because he could still walk into the apartment without needing to lean on someone. Getting out of his costume was another ordeal entirely.

 

He tossed his hat onto the couch without looking to make sure it landed. He got half an arm out of his jacket sleeve before he got stuck. Arthur, coat already hung over the back of a chair, came to his rescue, laughing the whole time.

 

“You’re ridiculous, Merlin,” he said as he shifted the coat off and hung it over his own. “You can sew costumes and face ex-boyfriends, but you can’t undress yourself while drunk.”

 

Merlin leaned back against the wall, humming with his eyes closed and trying to undo his vest buttons. He was failing. Arthur shook his head and started doing it for him. “I’m better than you. At least I can walk,” he argued, though he realized he was heavily leaning on the wall and not supporting himself or his argument. “Or… At least I’ll remember everything in the morning,” he amended.

 

Arthur undid the last button of the vest just then, and his fingers hesitated there. Merlin opened his eyes to see what the holdup was and saw Arthur was watching him with a tense, embarrassed expression. They were barely a foot apart, and Merlin could still vividly remember what had happened the last time they’d been so close.

 

Maybe the buzz of alcohol was messing with Merlin’s time, but it felt like they stood there for an hour just watching each other breathe. Arthur’s fingers relaxed slightly, letting the vest fall open, but he didn’t move away.

 

When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “You think I don’t remember?” he asked.

 

God, he was beautiful. Merlin couldn’t stop himself from thinking it, and Arthur’s words only gave him hope, which made Arthur even more beautiful.

 

Merlin frowned. “You never said anything.”

 

Now Arthur’s brow knit and he was frowning too. “I was totally out of line,” he said. “You were dating Gwaine.”

 

Merlin’s chest constricted and he didn’t mean to sound so desperate when he said, “I’m not anymore.” He reached out and slowly closed his fingers around the edge of Arthur’s waistcoat, but his eyes never left Arthur’s. “I’m not dating anyone now.”

 

He pushed off the wall and used his grip to keep Arthur in place. This time it was him who initiated the kiss, but he pulled away a second later and Arthur did not follow. He looked conflicted and gently pushed Merlin back into the wall.

 

“You’re drunk, Merlin,” he said.

 

“I’m not,” Merlin argued. Arthur raised an eyebrow. “I mean I am. I am drunk. But that’s not why I kissed you. I’ve just really… really been wanting to do that. For, like, awhile now. But I didn’t know if you were even into guys or me, and I really like you and didn’t want to ruin what we had by pushing the issue. But Gwaine said you were ‘mad’ about me, and I just –”

 

Arthur covered Merlin’s mouth to stop his drunken rambling. He cursed softly, looking off toward the windows. “Shit, does everybody know?” He lowered his head, sighing heavily. A moment later, his shoulders rose with a deep breath and he looked back up at Merlin, still silenced against the wall. “Well, if everybody knows…”

 

He pulled his hand away from Merlin’s mouth and replaced it with his lips. His fingers curled around the side of Merlin’s head and made Merlin sigh into the kiss. Merlin chased that kiss with a third kiss, and then Arthur pressed him further against the wall with the fourth. He pinned Merlin’s body with his own and held Merlin’s head in place as he broke away to kiss down Merlin’s jaw.

 

Merlin groaned and wrapped a hand around Arthur to try and pull him closer still. He was still drunk and wanted to feel Arthur, wanted to make sure this was really happening. He trailed his hand down, grabbing intermittently at fabric, until he found Arthur’s ass through his slacks. Arthur moaned softly and returned to kissing him, deepening the kisses and rolling his body against Merlin’s, and – oh! Oh, it felt good and clearly Arthur thought it felt good too, because Merlin could feel him.

 

Merlin turned his head away, gasping. “Arthur.” He released Arthur’s ass and put both hands on the other’s chest. “Arthur,” he said again, clearer and steadier.

 

The blonde’s chest rose and fell with heavy breaths, but he nodded. “No, you’re right,” he said. “We need to slow down. Y-… We’ve only just admitted we like each other. We should – We should slow down.”

 

He was caressing Merlin’s cheek even as he said it, which really didn’t give any weight to his words. Merlin was trying to focus through the adrenaline and the alcohol and the hormones.

 

“Tomorrow,” he said. “When we’re both sober. We’ll talk.”

 

Arthur nodded then leaned in for one more kiss. “We’ll talk,” he agreed.

--- --- ---

 

The morning came with a small hangover that was only made worse by the fact that Arthur was shouting. Merlin forced himself up and pulled on actual clothes because he didn’t know who Arthur was shouting at. Actually, Merlin didn’t fully remember getting undressed after the make-out session, but he hoped Arthur helped with the buttons. He wasn’t sure he had the dexterity while drunk to not pop a button off if he did it himself.

 

When he opened his bedroom door, he realized that Arthur was shouting to someone on the other end of a phone – which was actually pretty normal now that Merlin thought about it. Arthur only ever seemed to get this riled up when he was talking to his –

 

Merlin hurried over to Arthur’s bedroom door, heart racing. What could Uther Pendragon be upset about now?

 

“Fa-Father! No, listen to yourself! This is crazy!... But why?!... No, you don’t –… Father! I can’t just go!... Because –! Because!” In the next silence, Arthur sighed heavily, something sounding like defeat. His voice dropped two levels by his next words. “No, I… I understand. I just –… Father, please.” Another sigh, another drop in volume. “Yes, sir.”

 

The call was over. All he heard through the door was Arthur repeatedly sighing. Then Arthur let out a loud, frustrated growl and something broke. By the sound of it, Merlin would guess it was one of Arthur’s trophies as it was thrown violently at the wall.

 

Before Arthur could catch him snooping, Merlin moved away from the door and into the kitchenette. After a call like that, Arthur would need something good to eat. Merlin pulled out eggs and whatever leftovers they had in the fridge – some mushrooms that needed to be used, a tiny bit of shredded cheese in the bottom of a bag, some grilled chicken from a few nights prior – and decided to make some simple omelets.

 

He managed to finish both omelets before Arthur came out, which made him a bit concerned. Just before he could decide to go storm the fort, however, Arthur came out on his own. He was dressed more formally than Merlin had ever seen him – more like the businessman he wanted to be than the college student he was, though he lacked a tie.

 

“I made breakfast,” Merlin pointed out, setting two plates on the counter.

 

“Thanks.” Arthur sounded tired, and Merlin wished he could just make a sign again to push the stress of Uther Pendragon from both their minds.

 

They didn’t even sit. They just stood at the counter to eat their breakfasts. It was a quiet morning, though Merlin had expected them to have some lengthy conversation about the night before. One morning phone call had thrown off all their plans.

 

“So, what’s with the suit?” Merlin finally asked about halfway through eating.

 

Arthur ran a hand over his face and up through his hair, almost ruining the styling he’d done to it. “My father wants me to come see him at the office to meet some new client of his. Some kind of scout for Notre Dame.”

 

“Well that’s cool,” Merlin mused, trying to remember where Notre Dame was located. He took a bite of his eggs, trying to remember the state at least.

 

Arthur gave him a blank, unimpressed look. “In Indiana,” he said, as though he could somehow read Merlin’s mind.

 

“Indiana.” Merlin sounded it out slowly. He’d lived in New York and moved all the way to California to be with his mom. If Arthur got scouted to Notre Dame… “You’re… moving to Indiana?”

 

Moving. Just like Gwaine. How could they both be moving?!

 

The groan that came out of Arthur was a modicum of the volume Merlin had heard through the bedroom door, but it was no less defeated. “I don’t want to.” He pushed his mostly-finished omelet away and smacked the counter. “I like my team here. I like my professors. I like–!” He stopped, as if someone had cut off the sound to his voice box. He let out a cough of air that sounded like a hidden word.

 

Merlin knit his eyebrows. “Sorry? What?”

 

Arthur cleared his throat and glanced away. “You.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I like you.”

 

And he was even admitting it out loud. Merlin grinned instantly and wondered if that made him look like an idiot. Oh well. “I like you too,” Merlin said. “I mean, I don’t try to make out with guys I don’t like. Actually, I’ve never made out with anyone I wasn’t dating before.”

 

Relief spread over Arthur’s face at the proof that Merlin hadn’t been too drunk to remember. But honestly he hadn’t been anywhere near black-out drunk. He was just over the limit for sober driving or, you know, being efficient.

 

“I think the continued validity of that statement depends on if we start dating,” Arthur said.

 

“You know, you could just ask me out,” Merlin teased. He kept talking as he finished off his eggs. “It’s faster than talking in circles.”

 

Arthur’s skin flushed, but he kept his demeanor otherwise. “Well do you?” he asked, then quickly added, “Want to be my boyfriend, I mean. Obviously.”

 

Merlin swallowed quickly, not wanting to leave Arthur in an awkward silence. He held his hand out and waited for Arthur to take it, then squeezed their fingers together. “Absolutely,” he said and pulled Arthur a little closer. Honestly, he was still a little shocked this was actually happening. They were really having this conversation. They were boyfriends. Holy shit.

 

They smiled at each other, breathing each other’s air and staring into each other’s eyes. It was a moment of innocent happiness before the weight of the real problem came back to them both. Dating was almost pointless if Arthur was going to move next semester. He’d be more than halfway across the country. Will would be closer to Arthur than Merlin, and really that was just unacceptable.

 

“And I don’t want you to go to Indiana, either,” Merlin added. “I heard you shouting this morning. Is there no way to convince your father to let you stay?”

 

All the relief left Arthur. He shook his head. “Once my father has made up his mind about something, there’s no changing it.” His brow knit and he put his fist to his mouth in thought. “Actually… I mean, it’s a long shot, but…”

 

“Shut up, Arthur, and just tell me what the plan is,” Merlin said, turning away from his empty plate.

 

Arthur tried to look annoyed by Merlin’s impatience, but it was rapidly replaced with fondness that Merlin could absolutely get used to seeing on a regular basis.

 

“Fine. My father is speaking at a gala event next week. I’m meant to come show my support, and I’ve got a standing plus one to all events.” He cleared his throat again, a nervous habit Merlin was discovering. “Would you come as my plus one? It takes me a long time to speak against my father, but if you were with me, spouting off your encouraging, silly ideas, I think I might just have the inspiration to tell him how I feel and to stand my ground.”

 

“That was an adventure of a question, but yes. I’ll go with you to face off against your father. “ Merlin smirked, leaning back slightly on the counter. “You’re stuck with me now. Wherever you go, I go.”

 

He meant to the gala, really, but it sure sounded like he’d just promised to move to Indiana as well. Oops. Whether or not Arthur got that implication, Merlin didn’t know. All he knew was that the blonde was crowding him against the counter and kissing him again.

 

And they were both sober.

 

“Careful,” Merlin murmured when they broke apart. “A guy could get used to that.”

 

Arthur smiled, not stepping away. His hand came up to trace the edge of Merlin’s ear. “That’s sort of the plan, Merlin. Try to keep up.”

--- --- ---

 

Merlin had never been to a gala before – not in any sense of the word. His high school prom had an underwater theme, so even that wasn’t an upscale party. He’d never worn a tux before, and he wasn’t sure he liked it very much now that he had. It wasn’t that the clothing was uncomfortable, but it was bland. Every man at the gala seemed to be wearing some shade of black or gray, except for one man in white, and all of their ties and bowties were neutral as well. Merlin’s was black. So was Arthur’s. It was all just so boring. Where was the color? The originality? The individuality?

 

The women weren’t entirely better. Sure there were reds and blues and oranges and whatever, but even there the dresses were all of a similar cut. All clearly worth a small fortune. All dripping in jewels. The whole party was one huge status symbol, like ‘look how much money I have to spend on this one outfit.’

 

Merlin didn’t have much room to talk. Arthur had purchased Merlin’s tux and had him fitted for it. It was worth more than Merlin could have hoped to afford on his own. He’d tried to turn Arthur down, but apparently he’d stick out like a sore thumb in simple slacks and a button down. Now that they were at the gala, Merlin had to agree.

 

“I brought you here to give me courage, but you look like you’re about to die of fright,” Arthur mused as they hovered near the entrance to the ballroom.

 

“Yeah, well I’ve never been to one of these before. What if I embarrass you? Or break something? Or both?” Merlin took a deep breath and couldn’t help but notice all the very fragile statues and decorative pieces sitting around the room. Even the food looked like he could ruin it somehow by breathing on it.

 

Arthur’s hand found the small of his back and grounded him. “Calm down. No one knows you here, and you’ll likely never see any of them again. It doesn’t matter what they think.” Then he shrugged. “And if you do something embarrassing, I’ll just pretend I’ve never met you so they won’t know we’re together.”

 

Merlin laughed loudly, bending forward slightly in his shock. That was such an Arthur thing to say, and still Merlin hadn’t expected it. When he righted himself, Arthur was grinning at him.

 

“See? Just relax.” He pat Merlin on the back and then began steering him into the crowds.

 

They moved to the long tables of food, picking some hor d’oeuvres from one or two plates each. The food looked fancier than Merlin’s whole life: caviar and crème fraiche tartlets, lobster and shrimp toast, mushroom and parmesan palmiers, grilled oysters, escargot, salmon rillettes, and plenty more even Arthur couldn’t name for sure. Merlin stuck to things he could pronounce, more or less.

 

Eventually someone announced that the speeches would soon begin, and Arthur led Merlin to the table with their reserved seats. A waiter brought around glasses of champagne, and Merlin just about laid his head on the table. This party couldn’t get any fancier, honestly.

 

Arthur downed two glasses of champagne before Merlin started waving the waiters away.

 

On the stage, Uther Pendragon approached the podium to mass applause. Everyone in the room seemed to recognize him and the chatter around the room died instantly.

 

“Thank you all for coming,” Uther said into the microphone, amplifying his already booming voice. “It’s such a pleasure to see so many fine people gathered together for a wonderful cause. Thank you for your support.”

 

Well shit. Merlin had no idea what they were supporting. He’d just been admiring the food and the décor. He glanced around at the signs and the banners. Shit, was this a political campaign dinner or something? He looked to Arthur for clarification, but the blonde looked like stone. His father’s appearance had immobilized him and turned him into an obedient observer.

 

Damn.

 

All of Merlin’s doubt faded, however, as Uther continued to speak. He talked about a judge he’d worked with for over twenty years, about all the positive work they’d accomplished, and then he called for the support of that judge as the man put in his bid for a seat in the California State Senate.

 

Merlin sort of hated politics.

 

Uther’s speech was well written, but it was clearly penned for the rich and famous. No one worth less than a million dollars would relate to any part of it. But, looking around the room, he supposed no one seated was worth less than a million dollars. Even Arthur had bought Merlin a thousand dollar tuxedo without batting an eye, never mind that they could have rented one for a fifth of the price.

 

The speech was long and a bit nauseating, but Merlin tried not to let his distaste show. Everyone else watching was smiling or nodding or otherwise showing agreement. Eventually, however, the speech had to end. Uther introduced the judge and was replaced on stage. The judge waved and smiled and the room lit up with uproarious applause.

 

Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm and urged him up from the table. No one paid them much mind at all as they quickly moved through the other tables and then skirted the edge of the room. Merlin wanted to ask where they were going, but he doubted Arthur would hear him over the noise. Arthur led him back out into the hallway they had originally entered the ballroom from, which was completely empty of other people. Except for Uther Pendragon.

 

“Wh-?” Merlin began.

 

“He always leaves a room after a speech, so that people pay attention to the next speaker instead of him,” Arthur answered his question faster than he could ask it.

 

Hearing their voices, Uther turned to see who had come out after him. He was as stony faced as always now that he wasn’t in front of an adoring crowd. When he spotted his son, some of that stone cracked away and he smiled.

 

“Arthur,” he greeted. He walked toward them, arms opening to embrace his son. “I wasn’t sure you would make it. It’s good to see you again so soon.”

 

“I’m always at your galas,” Arthur pointed out, returning the offered hug. The embrace was short but strong. “Well spoken, as always, Father.”

 

“Oh!” Uther waved the thought away. “These parties are all the same. I feel as though I simply repeat myself every time.” Then the man took notice of Merlin and his brow knit in curiosity. “Now you look familiar. Have we met before?”

 

Merlin bowed his head and stepped forward to offer a handshake, which Uther took. “Ah, not officially, Sir. I’m Merlin. I’m Arthur’s roommate.”

 

“Ahhh. Yes.” Uther straightened after the handshake and looked Merlin over from head to toe. “Yes, Arthur’s spoken of you before. You were the boy with the signs at the last match.”

 

“I mean, I’m twenty-three. I’m not sure if ‘boy’ really –”

 

“I hear you also tutored Arthur in math last spring,” Uther interrupted. “I’m grateful to you. But honestly Arthur should have gone to a real tutor. I could easily have hired one for him.”

 

“Father,” Arthur warned. “You’re being rude.”

 

“Nonsense.” Uther waved that thought away too. “I’m simply apologizing for the inconvenience.”

 

Wow. Now Merlin felt affronted for Arthur. “It really wasn’t an inconvenience. It actually helped us become friends.”

 

Uther hesitated, considering. He looked Merlin over again then turned his eyes on his son. “Is that so? Very good friends, I see, judging by the new suit. Really, Arthur. You need to be more sensible.”

 

Arthur sighed. “Father, I didn’t come to discuss what I do with my money.”

 

“I think you’ll find it’s still my money until you start your own business,” Uther interrupted again.

 

“Fine.” Arthur’s hands clenched momentarily by his sides. “I came to talk about Notre Dame.”

 

Uther’s face lit up. “You’ve had word? Have they accepted you for the spring or are they trying to push you off until next year? I’ll make a call.”

 

Arthur held both his hands up, trying to stop the freight train that was his father. It worked, at least momentarily, and Uther frowned deeply. Merlin noticed that his boyfriend’s hands were shaking slightly, but then Arthur ripped them back to his sides, probably noticing the same thing.

 

“Father, I know this will be hard to hear, but I don’t want to go to Notre Dame.” He said it clearly and with strength, sounding every bit as assured as a businessman should. Merlin had expected the words to sound rushed or harried, but they were perfect.

 

Uther frowned harder. “If this is about the football, Notre Dame has a better track record for victory. I’ve already sent an email to the coach about getting you a spot as a co-captain.”

 

Arthur’s hand was still shaking by his side, and it seemed to be out of anger this time. “I don’t want you to buy me a place on a team, Father. I earned my spot here fair and square, and I want to win the championship with the team I built. This is my school. This is my team and my friends, and I will not abandon them now.”

 

The tension was thick, and neither Pendragon looked close to backing down. Uther’s expression was hardening back into stone, and Arthur had never resembled him more. Slightly out of the warzone, Merlin felt like he was eavesdropping on a personal conversation, but he couldn’t leave.

 

“And it’s not just the football. I like my school and the people in it. I like my city, my state. I don’t want to move halfway across the continent because you made ‘friends’ with a scout.  I want to graduate where I am and start my business here in California.” Arthur’s hands gradually stilled as he spoke the truth he’d been hiding from his father. “And another thing – I don’t want to go on anymore blind dates. This isn’t the middle ages, Father. I refuse to marry someone who only sees me for my position and inheritance.”

 

Marriage. Merlin swallowed thickly. He’d forgotten about all the dates Arthur complained about. He’d forgotten how many people were interested in Arthur for his name, his money, and his father’s position. Merlin hadn’t known any of that when they’d met. He didn’t care about it now, except that those things could one day force Arthur to choose a different path in life. Gosh, Merlin had forgotten entirely about marriage.

 

“And this is how you truly feel,” Uther said, though it was worded like a question.

 

“It is,” Arthur answered as if his father had asked it properly.

 

Uther’s eyes glanced back at Merlin as he took a deep breath. Merlin’s presence seemed to hinder him, and he let his breath out loudly through his nose. He looked back at his son. “You’re making a mistake,” he said. “Going to Notre Dame will guarantee us a connection with some very powerful men and women. A few are going to be very upset if I tell them you’ve thrown a tantrum and refused to go.”

 

“So tell them,” Arthur answered, not backing down. “Tell them you raised a young man capable of thinking for himself and making his own life decisions.”

 

Uther frowned, the only thing he knew how to do anymore. “As for the marriage aspect–” Cheers erupted in the ballroom, drawing Uther’s attention. “I’m needed back on stage. We’ll discuss this later. In private.”

 

“We won’t,” Arthur said even as his father turned away. Uther hesitated in his step, but he did not turn around to continue the conversation. Instead he walked to the nearest door and reentered the gala in silence.

 

The hallway was eerily quiet after his departure. They listened as Uther was welcomed back to the stage and as he began speaking once more. Merlin watched as Arthur’s shoulders rose and fell in heavy breaths, and he wished he’d been able to contribute anything to that confrontation.

 

He hadn’t been able to speak much at all. Uther controlled the entire flow of conversation, and Merlin could understand how that would be daunting even to a son. He stepped up beside Arthur and slipped his hand into Arthur’s.

 

“Okay?” he asked.

 

Arthur tore his eyes from the door his father had gone through. “Hm? Yes.” He squeezed Merlin’s hand. “I’m okay.  He won’t let me off that easy, but this was a good start. And short of kidnapping me, he can’t actually force me to move.” He nodded sternly. “Make no mistake. This was a victory.”

 

The Pendragon family was weird if this was a normal conversation between them. Also, how did Arthur seem so sure of things when he’d just admitted that his father wouldn’t respect his wishes? The Pendragons were kind of terrifying.

 

On the other hand, Merlin technically won a prank war with Arthur and lasted through his disdain, so surely he could help outlast Uther’s stubbornness as well. Ah, if only poking holes in solo cups could end this war too.

--- --- ---

 

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said. He was pressed close to Arthur on the couch, enjoying the warmth of the other’s bare arm against his own.

 

When Arthur glanced at him, he didn’t seem worried at all. “For what?”

 

They were in their apartment, watching some classic Oscar winning movie that Arthur adored, but Merlin had been zoned out for the past ten minutes and had no idea what was going on. Something had made him think back to the gala, perhaps the fancy dress of the characters. A week had gone by with no word from Uther Pendragon, which Arthur assured him was totally normal and also a good sign. Merlin wasn’t so sure.

 

“I wasn’t able to help at all at the gala,” Merlin clarified, pausing the movie. He shifted to fully face his boyfriend. Boyfriend! “You bought me a tux and took me to the gala to spout silly speeches, and I didn’t say a word.” He looked at the floor, unable to meet Arthur’s gaze. He thought about that night almost daily. Multiple times, in fact. He’d been useless.

 

Snorting, Arthur raised Merlin’s chin with a hand until they were looking into each other’s eyes again.  He looked somewhere between amused and exasperated. He released Merlin’s chin and crossed his arms loosely.

 

“With my father, everything is a war of attrition. I needed you there for emotional support. You didn’t say anything that night, but remember? You’ve told me tons of stupid, inspirational things since we became friends. That’s what I wanted you there for, and you fulfilled that job. You were good just the way you were,” Arthur assured. “I don’t believe I could have said any of that without you standing beside me.”

 

Merlin snorted a little, but he smiled and got a smile in return. “I’m pretty sure I was standing behind you, not beside you.”

 

Arthur hummed and nodded in agreement. “We’ll have to fix that next time. And the time after that. And any times after that one too. I don’t want you in my shadow, you know. I want you beside me.”

 

“Really?” Merlin found it doubtful that anyone as rich as Arthur would want anyone as middle-class as Merlin. Besides that, they’d gotten off to a very rocky start. Arthur knew a lot of Merlin’s annoying habits and his bad manners and his obsessive nature on projects. He knew Merlin could use science against him.

 

“Well, who else is going to give me the courage to stand up to my father?” Arthur asked, and it didn’t sound very romantic. At least, Merlin doubted it was meant to, but it still kind of sounded that way to him. “And who else will convince me I’m the world’s next best C.E.O. if I don’t have you there to remind me with silly speeches?”

 

“Do you have to call them silly?” Merlin complained, but he was feeling a little too warm and fuzzy inside to really be annoyed. “I’m just trying to encourage people.”

 

“I’ll just call them speeches so long as you promise to save the best ones for me and no one else.” Arthur’s hands came to rest on Merlin’s shoulders. “And if you promise not to let my general stubbornness end our relationship. We’ve only been dating for a couple of weeks. It’d be a shame if I managed to break you this soon.”

 

Merlin chuckled and put his hands on Arthur’s arms. “I promise,” he said. “But only if you promise not to hold my tunnel vision focus against me. You saw me with those costumes. I’d hate for you to feel unappreciated.”

 

Arthur chuckled too and cupped Merlin’s cheek. “I promise. Idiot.” Then he kissed Merlin, letting their lips linger together. “Now stop worrying about nothing. My father isn’t going to win. We are.”

 

“I’m still not sure how you can be so certain about that. Your father is friends with politicians and basically owns the school board,” Merlin reminded. He wasn’t going to be the first one to pull away. He loved being this close to his boyfriend.

 

“Oh please.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “I’ve never met anyone as stubborn as you. You managed to break me down off my high horse. I’m sure you can work some magic and survive my father.”

 

Merlin hummed, considering. Arthur probably had a point. Merlin had thought about how to outlast Uther Pendragon before, and apparently Arthur thought it was possible as well. Together they could certainly take turns in waiting out Uther’s decisions, and eventually Arthur would have his own company. Maybe then Uther would stop trying to dictate to him. Merlin hoped he was still with Arthur long enough to see that day.

 

“Maybe I should make a stink bomb to throw in his office?” he asked, ninety percent in jest.

 

Arthur laughed so hard he almost fell off the couch. The sound of his open laughter was wonderful, and Merlin decided that he would go up against Uther a hundred times if it meant getting Arthur to smile and laugh like that every day. Huh. Arthur had a point. Merlin was a pretty stubborn guy, and he was stubbornly in love with Arthur.

 

Uther Pendragon better watch out.