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Wake Up, Sunshine (somebody loves you for yourself)

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Arthur did not enjoy maths. Professor Kilgharrah set them so much homework that Arthur was now plagued by frightful dreams in which random people would approach him and demand that he work out the diameter of their bucket or calculate the number of lemons they’d need to buy if everyone in Camelot wanted a glass of lemonade.

Honestly, the only part of maths class that made it slightly bearable was Merlin Emrys, the gorgeous dark-haired boy who sat a row in front of Arthur. Arthur had shared most of his classes with Merlin since year seven yet, somehow, he had never managed to hold a proper conversation with him. There was the time Arthur dropped his pen and Merlin very honourably picked it up, but Arthur had only mumbled a quick ‘thank you’ before Merlin scuttled off, either afraid of Arthur or in a rush. Arthur also complimented Merlin’s t-shirt once, though Merlin was so startled, apparently not having seen him approach, that he spilt strawberry milkshake all over himself. And, of course, there was an entire term in year nine that they were assigned to sit at the same table but Valiant spoke over and condescended Merlin so much that he was forced into silence most of the time.

One of Arthur’s favourite sights to behold was watching Merlin’s ridiculously large ears redden. Unfortunately, that only seemed to happen when he was flustered and since Arthur didn’t much fancy upsetting or agitating Merlin, and most certainly did not have the confidence to flirt with him, he was in quite the predicament. On the plus side, Gwen, Freya and Will apparently saw no issue with pestering Merlin, meaning that Arthur had spent the vast amount of his class time delightedly observing how the back of Merlin’s ears would blush when his friends relentlessly teased him over how Channing Tatum was his first celebrity crush (frankly, Arthur didn’t understand the embarrassment there, who didn’t have a crush on Channing Tatum?!) and recalled humorous anecdotes from their childhood. Of course, Arthur’s grades probably were not helped by this distraction and maybe, just maybe, that was why he was struggling so much with maths.

On that note, Arthur looked down with dismay at his homework.

‘A curve C has parametric equations

x = 9 + 11 sin (t),         y = 7 + 3 cos (2t)’

Merlin loved this sort of equation because he found the sheer chaotic energy of it all exciting. It’s a code! Quick, if we don’t solve it within the next minute the Queen and all her corgis could be in danger. Arthur stopped reading. He groaned, face falling into his textbook. Merlin wasn’t even in Arthur’s house – Arthur would probably explode if he was – and yet he was distracted enough by the mere thought of the boy. It was pathetic.

The bedroom door thundered open and Morgana swept in, slippered feet padding against his carpet as she approached him. If Arthur wasn’t occupied with having a crisis over failing maths, he would have yelled at her to knock first. As it was, Arthur was starting to regret every decision he’d ever made in his life. He didn’t even like maths but that was the agreement he’d come to with his father. If he wanted to pursue sociology and history, he had to also study maths and politics. The unspoken extra condition was that either sociology or history would be dropped at the end of this year.

“You alright?” Morgana asked without a hint of concern.

Arthur opened his eyes. Numbers, letters and the word ‘sin’ swam in front of his eyes and he jumped back from the textbook shakily. Terrifying.

“No. It’s Professor Kilgharrah. I swear he’s an actual dragon – look at all the work he’s set our class.”

Morgana peered down at Arthur’s measly attempts to understand maths. Whilst she was a natural at maths, she had disagreed with their father’s approach on controlling their education and at least pitied Arthur slightly.

“Oh, he set our class the same questions last year. I still have my books somewhere.”

Relief. Sweet, glorious, relief. If only he could take Morgana’s books into his exams, then he might stand a chance at not failing. He was well and truly fucked this year.

“Have I mentioned lately that you’re my favourite sister?” he sighed, pushing his hair from his forehead.

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Morgana retorted, disappearing behind his door to retrieve her old books. “I need to borrow your phone charger, so it’s a trade.”

That explained it. Actually, come to think of it, Arthur thought that he might have taken her phone charger in the first place, though he elected not to tell Morgana this.

“Okay, pretty sure mine’s fully charged anyway,” he called to her instead.

Morgana returned in record time, obviously desperate to text Leon. It was sickening how often they talked, Arthur thought to himself, not at all bitter that he didn’t have a boyfriend. Arthur flicked through Morgana’s exercise book carefully, not wanting to damage the answers that would likely save him from detention.

How on earth she managed to keep her working out so neat and precise was beyond him. Arthur was the sort of person that had to work things out five times because he tended to, very confidently, write something silly, like 2 + 2 = 5, at the early stages and then have to backtrack and redo everything. Then again, Merlin’s homework wasn’t neat either. They were randomly assigned to mark each other’s work sometimes and one time, fate had decided that Arthur Pendragon was destined to mark Merlin Emrys’ sheet. His handwriting was cursive and neat but the massive sloth that took up half the page was certainly unconventional (and, of course, had meant Merlin deserved a bonus mark).

He looked down at the first answer. Yep, Arthur had worked that one out wrong because, sure enough, his unfocused brain had calculated 3 x 8 = 42. He rectified his answer and moved on swiftly.

“Who’s this?”

“Who’s what?” Arthur responded distractedly, scribbling down answers.

“Merlin Emrys? Isn’t he Gwen’s friend?”

Arthur spun around so sharply that his desk chair made a dangerous clicking noise. Morgana, the conniving witch, was frowning at Arthur’s phone. Arthur’s phone. Arthur had been contemplating sending Merlin a message earlier about maths, but wasn’t sure if ‘hey, you’re smart, what did you get for question eight?’ would be too forward. It wasn’t that Arthur was shy. On the contrary, Arthur was captain of the football team, popular, and actually had a social life… or he had one before sixth form began at least. But when it came to Merlin, he was utterly hopeless.

“I-er must have accidentally clicked on his page.”

She snorted, “And then your phone glitched and his profile picture from, huh, 2012, appeared. Sucks when that happens.”

Okay, fine, so Arthur got curious. That was normal. Healthy. It wasn’t as if he printed and framed a photo of Merlin to kiss before bedtime. In fact, Arthur hadn’t felt brave enough to even look through Merlin’s photos before, terrified at the prospect of accidentally liking one of them.

Still, he was hardly going to confide his crush in Morgana. He spun back around and tried his best to focus on maths, lest she notice how the mere mention of Merlin's name made his cheeks burn.

“Sod off. Why are you on my phone anyway?”

And that seemed like a valid question. Was she really that obsessed with Leon that she couldn’t withhold texting him in the time it took for her phone to charge?

“I wanted to change your contact names. Don’t think it slipped my mind that you have me saved as ‘Satan spawn’.”

“Yeah, well, you’re hardly proving me wrong now, are you?”

She narrowed her eyes, “Remember whose answers you’re copying there.”

Arthur mimed zipping his mouth shut and diligently got back to copying her work. He was conscious of Morgana tapping away on his phone, taking a suspiciously long time to change her contact name. Still, he had to focus on the maths. Why had she divided everything by three there?

“So, tell me about Merlin,” Morgana teased him a moment later.

“Morgana,” he growled warningly.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Arthur was already failing maths, he would have thrown the book at her.

“No, come on seriously. You set me up with Leon and look how happy I am.”

Oh god, somehow this was worse than the teasing. Was Arthur really that obviously hopeless that his own sister felt the need to involve herself?

“I distinctly recall hearing you wail My Chemical Romance in the shower this morning,” he pointed out, determined to change the subject.

He knew that Morgana was perfectly content with Leon. Leon was a perfect gentleman and wouldn’t even consider badmouthing Morgana. He thought that her methods of annoying Arthur (from putting temporary hair dye in his shampoo to making him cups of tea with salt instead of sugar) were cute, for goodness sake.

“I don’t love you is a classic song and you know it. For your information, Leon bought me flowers just yesterday for our anniversary.”

“Flowers?” Arthur questioned, wrinkling his nose. Did Leon know his sister?

“Okay, fine. He got me a skull candle but that’s even more romantic.”

That was more like it.

“Yes, I’m sure the secret to the perfect date is a melting skull emitting the smell of decay and-”

“It’s vanilla scented, you pillock. Anyway, stop changing the subject, why haven’t I heard about this Merlin guy before? He’s cute.”

Arthur’s shoulders tensed. Morgana could be horrendously persistent, something she’d undoubtably inherited from their father.

“Stop saying his name.”

For some absurd reason, Arthur was paranoid that Merlin would somehow know about his feelings if Arthur so much as admitted out loud that he knew Merlin existed.

“Why, he’s not Voldemort is he?”

Whilst Tom Riddle did, in fact, cause Arthur to have a sexuality crisis aged ten, Arthur was not amused by Morgana’s comment. She knew how ridiculous he was over the whole mushy-feelings-thing. Coming out to their father hadn’t been easy and Uther took every chance he could to convince his son that there was a beautiful girl in his office that he could set him up with for a good three years. Eventually, after some harsh words with Morgana, he accepted the truth and was now slightly less annoying. Though he decided to give Arthur a horrendously graphic talk about the ‘bees and the bees’ when Arthur turned 16. Needless to say, it had scarred Arthur and he no longer wanted to talk about relationships with anyone. Ever.

So, to put Morgana off continuing their discussion, he put his pen down and sighed.

“Morgana trust me on this. I have absolutely no chance with him.”

Unfortunately, Morgana read this as: Arthur opening up.

“Hah. So, you do like him!”

“I barely know him,” he countered, gritting his teeth.

“Well, I can tell you that he’s single and gay.”

Arthur had deduced as much himself. Merlin’s friends were forever gibbering on about various people they should set him up with. Annoyingly, none of these people had a first name starting with A and ending in R. Merlin hadn’t, so far, been convinced by any of their options, for which Arthur was very grateful, claiming that he wanted to focus on his studies. Arthur didn’t think he could take listening to Merlin gushing over someone else for an entire class. He might actually favour focusing on classwork if he did.

Still, none of this explained how Morgana could possibly know Merlin’s relationship status and sexuality. Not unless… not unless she had stooped so low as to message Merlin from his account? It would be a low blow but Morgana, despite meaning well, could go too far sometimes. Horror-struck, heart thumping, he slowly turned to face her.

“How on earth did you get that from his 2012 profile picture?”

He could hear Morgana rolling her eyes.

“I didn’t. Gwen’s mentioned him a few times. I could ask her if you stand a chance, if you want?” she offered brightly.

Duh. Arthur had started enjoying Morgana’s netball games a lot more the day Gwen joined their team as it meant that Merlin would frequently tag along to cheer her on. Arthur hadn’t counted on that being the reason he might have to move towns. Morgana could be bloody ambitious when she wanted to but if Gwen knew, there was no chance she wouldn’t tell Merlin. That girl told him everything. And by that, he meant everything. He sat near them in sociology and last lesson Gwen was telling Merlin about the woes of bra shopping on a budget.

“No thanks. She’d tell him and I really really don’t want that,” he emphasised.

“The alternative of creepily watching from afar, waxing poetry over his eyes and painting a portrait of him from memory in your spare time is so much better.”

Arthur frowned at his maths book, troubled over both the last question (what even was that symbol?) and Morgana’s conclusion that he had the spare time to do any of that.

“Okay, firstly I have not written any poetry and you’ve seen my art, the best I could do anyone is a stick figure. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with appreciating that someone is attractive without making a move on them.”

“Yes, but it is quite nice to be told you’re attractive.”

He bit his lip, contemplating how to argue against that. Morgana did seem to have a point, especially in Merlin’s case. He’d heard Merlin complain to Gwen before about how his teeth weren’t straight or his hair wouldn’t fall the right way. And he suspected that Merlin got changed for P.E. in the toilets because he’d never seen him in the boys changing room before.

“I guess. I’ll think about it. If you tell anyone about this-”

“Oh, don’t worry. I wouldn’t do that without your permission. I just want you to be happy, plus it’d be fun to double date you.”

Arthur knew he’d have to trust her on this one – and tread lightly. His days of pestering his sister were over now that she knew his deepest secret. He shut his maths book, pleased that he’d at least made some progress in understanding maths.

“Whatever, I’m going to bed. Keep the phone charger, I have a spare one anyway.”

Morgana, unsuspecting that his ‘spare one’ was in fact her charger, nodded appreciatively at Arthur and left the room. Arthur settled down in bed. Morgana had planted a rather wonderful idea in Arthur’s head. After all, Merlin deserved to know that he was beautiful…

 

By the next morning, Arthur had a plan. A James Bond style plan with exit strategies and plan B, C and D just in case plan A flopped completely. Eyes twitching with nervous energy, he popped a piece of toast in his mouth while tying up his shoes to save time. This did not work. The crumbs crawled down his throat, causing him to choke and he was forced to rush back to the kitchen for a glass of water before fleeing the house, running now. The timing had to be perfect for this to succeed. He could not afford to be late, not today.

He arrived at school thirty minutes early. The birds on the way twittered noisily and Arthur, completely irrationally, got stressed that they could be reporting on him. He chided himself on being so paranoid. The school itself was, mercifully, quiet. There were only a few extra keen students, too young to have had their enthusiasm for education burnt out of them, lingering by the gates. He almost swore at the sight of a geography teacher Arthur was half-convinced lived in his classroom walking to the staff room, but managed to flatten himself against a door, undetected.

The hallway in which target’s locker was located was empty. Arthur knew it was Merlin’s locker because there was once a fight down here a few months ago and Merlin’s locker got punched during all the chaos. Merlin frequently complained about the dent being offensive, hopeful that his friends would trade lockers. None of them had been willing thus far. Arthur surveyed the area. He estimated that if anyone did come to school early, he would hear their footsteps and have ten seconds to abort mission. Arthur’s locker was on the other side of the hallway, but three lockers to the left of Merlin’s locker was Lancelot’s, so worst come to it, he could claim that he was trying to prank his friend and got mixed up.

Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Arthur opened his rucksack, wincing at the grating noise of the zip, took out his note and slipped it into Merlin’s locker. He decided to keep it simple, jokey and anonymous when he wrote it last night, scrawling down ‘your smile is brighter than all of our futures’. He would, if this succeeded, build up to write something less cheesy and more meaningful but this was a trial run. Merlin might hate it. Merlin might even become more conscious of his smile. Merlin might stop smiling. Panicking, Arthur tried to retrieve the note, but it was too late to back out now, the note was firmly in Merlin's locker.

Phase one of plan complete, Arthur set off to the library to pick up a book. Any book. Arthur normally walked to school with Gwaine, so he decided that early morning research would be his excuse for abandoning him today.

 

The door to their maths classroom opened with a loud bang and in strode Merlin Emrys. His hair had been tousled, pushed back out of stress, and he appeared to be more on edge than usual, fingers curled around his sleeves as he cast a suspicious glance around the room.

“Alright, fess up.”

He sauntered towards Will, hand clutching what might have been the note. Arthur ducked his head in mild panic and emptied his pencil case out across the desk, deciding that now was an appropriate time to sort out his pens. The girl next to him sniffed in disapproval but Arthur knew he had to look casual and preoccupied. He had to look disinterested. He knew nothing about the note.

Will sighed, “Fine, I did it. I was the one that ate your cookie. I’m sorry, Merlin, but you can’t expect me not to eat it when-”

“Wait, that was you?” Merlin gasped, aghast.

Arthur felt slightly guilty for getting Will into trouble about the cookie, but he supposed justice was fair. If someone ate his cookie, he’d punch them. He carefully lined up his highlighters in rainbow order, then panicked – what if Merlin saw the gay flag and put two and two together? With a brief shake of the head, he reprimanded himself for overthinking and got back to sorting.

“What were you talking about?”

“The note!” Merlin exclaimed from the row in front.

“Right, the note…?” Will prompted, understandably confused.

Merlin dropped the note onto Will’s desk and started unpacking his books.

“This note!”

Will picked up Arthur’s note and, to his utmost horror, started examining it. This was not in his plan. Sure, Will didn’t know Arthur’s handwriting but Gwaine, Elyan and Lancelot, who were all mutual friends, did. What if one of them ratted on him? Why didn’t Arthur think to disguise his handwriting? He thought back to a crime book he read once in which letters were cut out from newspapers to form death-threats. Would doing that with his admirer notes have been a little psycho?

“That’s not even my handwriting, you worm.”

Merlin shrugged, “Well, Gwen and Freya say it’s not them. You’re my only other friend.”

This made Arthur’s heart pang. Everybody (except Valiant, but Arthur didn’t deem him worth counting) in the school liked Merlin simply because it was impossible not to. In year ten, he baked the entire year cupcakes. The entire year. Arthur didn’t even know the entire year. And in year seven, a hysterical, feral cat randomly appeared in their science classroom so Merlin, cool as a cucumber, got out a pouch of cat treats that he apparently always carried around with him, and led the cat out using them.

“That’s not true, everybody adores you,” Will pointed out. Arthur tried his best not to nod.

“Well, you’re the only ones that know where my locker is.”

Pfft. As if. With the amount of complaining Merlin did, he wouldn’t be surprised if even old Kilgharrah knew that Merlin’s locker was the one with the massive dent in it.

“Have you considered that it’s genuine?”

Merlin laughed, “It can’t be though – I’ve seen my smile. Every day, I see myself smile. The one exception being that day you stole my cookie. There was no smiling that day, only pain and anguish. But anyway, there’s no way my smile is that special to anybody.”

Arthur shoved the last highlighter in his pencil case a touch aggressively. It hadn’t worked. And, what’s more, stupid, beautiful Merlin thought that there was nothing special about his smile. Fuck that. He would show him. He would leave so many notes in his locker that Merlin would have no choice but to accept that he was pretty.

“Dunno mate, looks to me like you’ve got an admirer.”

Merlin shook his head defiantly and Arthur tried not to stare at the way his hair moved, graceful and lovely and, “Nah, either Valiant is messing with me or it’s a joke.”

Valiant? Valiant wasn’t even smart enough to spell ‘smile’.

“There is another possibility.”

Merlin shrugged and their teacher walked in, muttering ominously about exams, prompting everyone to hand in their homework.

“You’re right – maybe it was meant for someone else. It’s easy to mix up lockers,” Merlin murmured to Will quietly. Will, not hearing him because he’d apparently filed his homework in a damp corner of his rucksack, did not respond.

 

Arthur’s next note was more direct. He was incredibly sneaky, too, claiming to need to use the toilet during his final class so that he could force a note into Merlin’s locker. Arthur knew that Merlin was unlikely to see it until next morning because the corridor was so congested after school that Merlin always extracted whatever he’d need from his locker at the end of lunch to take with him. Arthur also thought to change pens. He wrote with a black pen, so he wouldn’t be suspected if he wrote in blue ink. Right?

‘you’re the reason I’m failing all my classes, Merlin’

It took a lot of bravery for Arthur to write Merlin’s name on the note. If someone had caught him before the note was posted then he couldn’t claim that it was meant for Lancelot, but he knew that it was necessary for Merlin to know that this wasn’t an accident. As notes go, Arthur didn’t think it was a very original or strong compliment, though it did reveal that they shared classes, so that was enough for now.

 

In sociology the next day, while they were meant to be reading a page in their textbook about the tripartite system, Merlin and Gwen were heatedly discussing the notes. Guinevere was apparently enthusiastic about Arthur’s messages. Even more so than Merlin. Arthur had a good mind to nickname her Sherlock because she’d even, to his utmost horror, suggested using a fingerprinting set to determine who was writing the notes. Arthur decided to use gloves next time he wrote one. Fortunately, Merlin had only laughed the idea off and told her that if this person wanted to remain anonymous, they shouldn’t expose them. Unfortunately, Merlin also expressed his confusion over the second note.

Arthur had assumed that calling someone a distraction obviously indicated attraction, but he was wrong. Merlin was convinced that his admirer was annoyed at his massive ears getting in front on the board.

“That’s why they want me to smile more, because if they can see my smile then I must be sat next to them instead of in front.”

Arthur actually sat in front of them in this class, so he couldn’t turn around but judging by the thumping noise, he guessed that Gwen had dropped her face to the table in dismay.

“I don’t think it’s your ears that are making them fail. Why didn’t they just ask you to tutor them?”

Why on earth would he do that? While there were plenty of things Arthur would like to do with Merlin, learning maths from him was not on the agenda.

“Because not everyone obsessively reads fanfiction like we do.”

Gwen paused and for a moment, Arthur thought their conversation was over and focussed on his reading again when-

“What else do they do after school?”

“I don’t know. I try not to think about it,” Merlin shuddered.

Their teacher shushed Merlin and Gwen for the fifth time that lesson and silence settled. Arthur added ‘read fanfiction’ to his to-do list. He wasn’t entirely sure what it was, but it clearly meant a lot to Merlin and his friends, so Arthur wanted at least to understand why it was so important.

“I think I know who it is,” Gwen exclaimed ten minutes later. Their teacher had disappeared to get more coffee.

Arthur’s heart thumped loudly in his chest. Gwen knew and, being the ruthless detective that she was, she was going to reveal his identity right here. He could still deny it. He could say that it wasn’t his handwriting or pretend that he wrote them on someone else’s behalf.

“Wha- who?”

Arthur prepared himself to be unmasked like a Scooby Doo villain.

“Gilli. Didn’t he stand up for you when Valiant pushed you down the stairs?”

Valiant did what? Arthur clenched his fists under the table. That guy was out of order and Arthur was getting sick of it. Thank goodness for Gilli stepping in, Merlin could have been seriously injured.

“Yeah but I- I’m fairly sure he’s not into guys. Oh god, Gwen, what if it’s not a boy at all?”

How could it not be a boy? Merlin was very publicly out. And by that, Arthur meant that Merlin was head of the LGBTQ+ society and had a rainbow pin on his bag. He shook his head in exasperation.

“Then at least you’ll make a new friend.”

“Fair point.”

 

Thursday, like Tuesday, was a horrendously early morning. Although Arthur had tried to sneak a note through Merlin’s locker when he excused himself to use the toilet, a few students were filming for their media project down the hallway. Then Arthur had thought maybe he could slip a note through after football practice, but the school was locked by then. And so, Arthur set his alarm for an unholy hour, texting Gwaine on the way that he needed another book from the library.

He definitely deserved a coffee after this. Last night, Arthur had explored the grand world of fanfiction and, well, he could understand Merlin’s interest now. He got caught up in a devastating, slow burn Marvel fic that Arthur couldn’t put down until his eyes were itching and the sun was peeking through his blinds. It was only with the realisation that he needed to get up in a couple of hours if he wanted to leave Merlin another note that he reluctantly put his phone down.

Yawning, Arthur welcomed Merlin’s locker cheerfully. The dent in it seemed to smile back at him. He retrieved the note from his rucksack, using the sleeves of his shirt to hold it (he no longer trusted that Gwen wouldn’t fingerprint them all) and shoved it through.

“Hah, so that’s what you’ve been doing!”

Arthur jumped back, eyes wide. Gwaine. This was okay. Everything was fine. He had prepared for something like this to happen and at least it was Gwaine and not Will or, the thought made Arthur’s breath hitch, Merlin.

“I thought it was Lancelot’s locker,” he explained, shrugging casually.

“No, you didn’t. You’re the one that’s been leaving Merlin love notes,” Gwaine proclaimed smugly.

Arthur scowled. Were his notes now common knowledge or something? He blamed Morgana for this. It was she that suggested that Merlin deserved to know someone liked him. Still, he could blag this. He proceeded to back-up plan c.

“Merlin? Who’s that?”

Even to Arthur’s own ears, it sounded weak and unbelievable. He'd never been great at acting.

“Fuck off,” Gwaine laughed, not buying it. “You’re in most of his classes and stare at him in assembly.”

That was a ridiculous accusation to make.

“I do not.” Arthur paused. “Do I?”

Okay, maybe not that ridiculous. But Gwaine had never mentioned this before. Arthur would have been far more subtle if he knew other people had noticed.

“Stop worrying. I’m not going to tell. It’s okay to be a chicken.”

A chicken?! Arthur had a lion emblazoned on his P.E. shirt for a reason – and it wasn’t just because that happened to be the Camelot football team logo. He glared fiercely at Gwaine, who looked about as threatened as a dragon being intimidated by a cotton-tailed rabbit.

“I’m not chicken! He just- he needs more confidence,” Arthur grunted through grit teeth.

And if Gwaine had overheard how Merlin was reacting to his notes so far, he’d know that. The boy was obviously not accustomed to being complimented or flirted with. It was probably better that Arthur had decided on notes. If he had said anything face-to-face, Merlin would have assumed he was joking.

“I’m not disagreeing with you, mate. Valiant’s been a right prick to him lately.” Arthur nodded, glad that Gwaine was being understanding for once. “And it’s great that you’re finally acting on your crush.”

Arthur did not appreciate his patronising tone.

“Shut up. If you tell anyone I’ll-,”

“Send me insulting notes to express your feelings?” Gwaine smirked. "Maybe an email?"

Arthur shook his head, he had a far more effective alternative. There was only one thing Arthur could threaten that would really make Gwaine afraid.

“No, I’ll tell your mother what really happened to her vase.”

Gwaine’s mother adored Arthur. She also was under some sort of false illusion that Gwaine was an angel. If Arthur told her that her favourite vase was used by Gwaine as a rounders bat last summer just because Gwaine couldn’t be bothered to venture into the attic and get his bat out, she would be devastated.

Gwaine flinched, “Low blow but fine. I wasn’t going to say anything anyway. Besides, you could do with a lookout, right?”

Arthur shrugged, “That actually would be helpful.”

 

“If this was a fake dating AU, I’d offer to be your boyfriend,” Merlin read to Gwen, Will and Freya just before assembly began.

Arthur could physically feel Gwaine trying to hold his laughter in and felt his cheeks heating up. He was very tempted to thump his friend but restrained himself with some truly superb self-control.

“That’s fucking cute,” Freya sighed.

“Yeah seriously, marry him.”

Arthur’s lips curled despite himself. He didn’t call himself the hot prince of Camelot for nothing. He got out his phone, not wanting to be caught smiling without reason, and saw a message from Gwaine pop up on his screen, ‘wtf is a fake dating AU??’. He rolled his eyes and responded quickly, ‘nerd language for I like you’.

“It is… although…” Merlin hesitated. “What if they have me mixed up?”

That wiped the smile off Arthur’s face.

“They used your name in their second note. It’s not exactly a common name.”

“Okay, but like one time I asked my mum the name of her friend’s husband and she thought I mean her other friend's husband, so I ended up calling him by the wrong name. What if that’s happened?”

He looked down to see another message from Gwaine, ‘wooow’, then ‘u have a point abut the confidensse thng’. Arthur hated how sloppily Gwaine texted and decided to correct every single typo in that message.

“Can’t be a mix up. Your smile is the only one I know of that shines, what did they say, brighter than all our combined futures.” Will joked.

Gwaine started shaking next to him and, sure enough, his phone vibrated. Arthur clicked it open warily, ‘omggg u said that?’. Before Arthur could protest, he messaged again, ‘Sorry, Master Pendragon, I meant to say: ‘Oh my, did you really say that?’.

“Nah, yours is infinitely brighter.”

Arthur decided not to respond to Gwaine, hoping that would be the best way to avoid teasing. Apparently, he thought wrong because a moment later he received, ‘who knew u could be so soft’.

 

Arthur realised he needed to be more specific. The issue was that he didn’t want to freak Merlin out or look super creepy. He was no Edward Cullen, so couldn’t claim that Merlin slept like an angel or smelt delicious. The eyes also felt too intimate and cliché. It would also demand eye-contact if Arthur wanted to get the shade spot on, which might seem a little obvious. Gwaine suggested that he compliment Merlin’s bum. Arthur actually did thump him for that. Gwaine knew nothing about being a gentleman. He settled eventually on appreciating his clothing taste. In Merlin’s latest profile picture, he was wearing a tight-fitting Queen top, so Arthur settled on writing:

‘you have the best taste in t-shirts, I’d love to listen to Queen with you’

He thought it was good – flirty, but also evidencing that they had something in common. Merlin, however, voiced otherwise the next day in maths.

“I don’t know. What if they sing over Freddie?”

 

And so, Arthur’s first week of note-sending was unsuccessful. Over the weekend, he tried his absolute best to avoid Morgana. However, after spending thirty minutes on a particularly cruel and nonsensical maths question Saturday afternoon, he admitted defeat. At first, Morgana was fine. In fact, she was suspiciously patient and nice. She even showed Arthur a particularly amusing video that made a song out of an equation he had to remember for one of his exams. He was starting to believe that she really and honestly had forgotten about Merlin or was at least being discreet about it.

They were still giggling about it when, having lured Arthur into a sense of false security, she casually asked, “Have you made a move on Marvin yet?”

Merlin, and that’s none of your business,” Arthur snapped back.

He knew it was too good to be true. Morgana never forgot anything. When Arthur was five, he threw a tomato at her and she still claimed that her cheek hurt from where the offending fruit had hit her. He was five.

“He’s cute, Arthur, really cute. He won’t stay single forever.”

Arthur knew that. But he also didn’t much want to face rejection. He told Morgana as much before quickly adding, “Besides, I don’t think dad would be too happy if I got a boyfriend.”

“Dad’s a dickhead. Don’t mind him.”

That was easier said than done. Uther Pendragon thought Leon was an excellent match for Morgana. Frequently, he pulled Leon aside to talk about getting him a job in the law firm he worked at or asked him about the sports teams he supported with a hearty clap on the back. Arthur had overheard him saying to their doctor, Gaius, that he was worried Morgana would date a serial killer, so anyone that seemed relatively normal was quite frankly a relief.

“I still don’t think Merlin’s interested anyway. I don’t think he even knows who I am.”

The issue with anonymous notes was that they stayed anonymous. So far, Merlin knew that his admirer was a male at their school that liked Queen and knew the basics of fanfiction.

“Not true. He liked your new profile picture.”

Arthur blushed, smiling a little. Yes, that notification had filled him with joy. Until he’d seen that Merlin also liked pretty much everyone else’s photos and remembered that this was Facebook. Arthur thought of all the photos he absentmindedly liked on Facebook. Going by Morgana’s logic, he had a crush on half the school and most of his family.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Arthur retorted, closing his maths book.

“It means he knows you exist, jerk. Come on, he deserves to be appreciated.”

“Yeah, and I’ve been complimenting him this week,” Arthur admitted.

He knew that if Morgana thought he hadn’t done anything at all, she would take matters into her own hands. Now that would be disastrous.

“Why didn’t you say so sooner?” she squealed, leaning forwards. “How’s he reacted? Any flirting back?”

“I-er, I’ve been putting notes in his locker.”

Arthur expected her to chide him for this but instead her smile broadened.

“Wait, you’re the secret admirer?”

The secret admirer? That suggested that Morgana already knew Merlin was being flirted with. Why didn’t she say something, save Arthur the torment?

“You knew?” he asked, faintly.

“I knew one of Gwen’s friends had been receiving notes. Didn’t know it was you. Gwen thinks you’re great.”

Whilst Arthur was pleased that he at least had Merlin’s friends’ approval, there was only one person who’s opinion truly mattered.

“Yeah, well, Merlin doesn’t,” he huffed.

“Nah, Gwen said her friend can’t stop blushing. Besides, you’re a Pendragon, don’t give up yet.”

Arthur nodded solemnly. He wouldn’t. It wasn’t that he was desperate to make Merlin his boyfriend or anything. But he couldn’t stand how meekly Merlin would protest every single time that the note wasn’t meant for him or was hiding an insult. He’d always liked a challenge and getting Merlin Emrys to realise he was beautiful was his toughest one yet.

 

The next week, Arthur’s notes were met with varying responses from Merlin.

On Monday morning, Arthur slipped ‘it’s seriously endearing how excited you get about animal crossing’ into Merlin’s locker.

“Oh, that’s a sweet one,” Gwen gushed. The pair of them usually debated whether cherries were superior to pears in sociology, whatever that meant, so Arthur was hoping it would be popular.

Merlin, to Arthur’s disdain, was less convinced. “Do they mean excited or, you know, excited? Because I would like it to be public knowledge that Tom Nook is not my type.”

 

On Tuesday, Arthur decided to tackle the confidence shaker that was Merlin’s ears: ‘I know you hate your ears, but I think they’re cute, especially when they turn red’.

“I’m starting to think my mum is writing these. She always tells me they go scarlet when I’m tired.”

Will choked on his water and coughed viciously.

“I don’t think your mum wants to be your boyfriend, mate,” he managed between sniggering.

 

By Wednesday, Arthur had given up on being creative and kept it simple with: ‘you have the softest looking hair ever’.

“He’s right, you do have very nice hair,” Freya remarked from where they were lingering outside Merlin’s locker.

“The secret is to condition it twice,” Merlin winked.

 

Arthur counted his Wednesday note as a success. Merlin hadn’t seemed offended or rejected the compliment. In fact, Arthur had seen him looking at his hair in the reflection of a classroom window later that day. Arthur was so pleased with his accomplishment that he bought himself a milkshake after football practice, then headed down to the sports hall, a hint of chocolate fresh on his tongue. Morgana’s team had an important game tonight and, since their father never bothered to attend anything other than parents evening and Leon was visiting his grandma, Arthur wanted her to have some support.

The sports hall was already frantic. Morgana hadn’t been overreacting when she said it was a big game – half the students had face-paint and banners with them, making it a sea of crimson and blue. The room was loud with the chattering and rushing of people, darting about to find their friends and be seated. The netball players were huddled together for a last-minute team talk, meaning that Arthur couldn’t wish Morgana good luck, though he made sure to nod at her on his way to the stands. He squeezed past a few classmates to get a seat on the back row and waited for the game to begin. In his boredom, he thought up lines that he could potentially put through Merlin’s locker. The hair was obviously a good line and, whilst Merlin had brushed aside Arthur’s other compliments with joking or sarcastic responses, Arthur didn’t think any of them had actually offended him. He got out his phone to ask for Gwaine’s opinion on complimenting Merlin’s cheekbones when a cough sounded from above him.

“Hey, mind if I sit here?” Merlin asked, meekly. He had ‘Go Lions’ painted in red across his cheeks, drawing out the blue in his eyes.

Arthur quickly forced his mouth to form words, shoving his phone into his short pocket.

“Sure. I-er are you here to watch Gwen?”

Merlin sat down next to him. Arthur tried not to focus on how Merlin’s skinny jeaned legs were close to brushing against his bare skin, warm and near. He regretted not showering after football and changing into something more fashionable.

“Yeah, though watch is probably the wrong word, I usually space out. I don’t really understand netball,” Merlin confessed. “But I’m here for moral support uh, are you here for anyone?”

“My sister, the scary looking one stood next to Gwen,” he pointed at Morgana.

She was, rather appropriately, cackling wickedly at something Gwen had said.

“You’re Morgana’s brother?”

Uh-oh. Arthur inhaled sharply. It would be a typical Morgana move to tell Merlin, ‘my brother has stupidly big crush on you even though you’ve barely ever spoken’ and then claim innocence because she hadn’t named Arthur directly.

“You know her?” Arthur asked, trying to hide his panic.

“No, not personally. She helped Gwen out a lot when she first joined the team.”

Arthur let himself relax again. Yes, Morgana liked Gwen immediately and they had become fast friends.

“You’re into sports, right? Captain of football and all that.”

Arthur blinked in surprise. He supposed that their team did get mentioned in assemblies every now and then, so it wasn’t that shocking that Merlin knew he was the captain.

“Yup, that’s me.”

Merlin smiled, “Great, can you tell me when they get the ball in the goal and stuff? Last match I accidentally clapped when the wrong team scored.”

Arthur kindly decided not to point that that netball had a hoop instead of a goal and nodded quickly.

“Yeah, no worries. Do you do any sports?”

It was a panicked question, one that came without much thought or rationality. Merlin hadn’t ever been in the same P.E. class as Arthur and, on sports day, had a note from his mum saying he’d twisted his ankle every single year. In other words, even if Arthur hadn’t heard Merlin swear his undying hatred to P.E. class various times before, it was pretty clear that Merlin abhorred physical exercise.

“Er, not really. I used to enjoy skipping. That’s not really a sport though, and I think everyone enjoyed skipping in primary school, so I don’t really know why I mentioned it.”

Arthur smiled at him reassuringly. He thought the nervous rambling was cute. He’d have to put that in one of his notes. Would that make it obvious who he was though? No, Arthur could recall Merlin rambling equally nervously when he had to give a presentation in history last year.

 “I miss skipping,” Arthur said, more for the sake of conversation than anything else.

Arthur had never been particularly good at skipping. He wasn’t exactly a delicate person and had wound up on the floor, skipping rope tied around his legs, too many times. Though it was nice to have an excuse to jump without looking completely crazy.

“Me too! Whenever there was a big maths test coming up in primary school, my mum would read questions to me while I skipped," he giggled.

The image of that made Arthur laugh too, “That’s so sweet. My dad would lock me in the basement with a maths textbook. He knew I was scared of the spiders down there, so it’d be the fastest way to get me to do my work.”

The mention of his father made his shoulders hunch and he shifted a little in his seat. Arthur didn’t much mind spiders by the age of twelve. They barely ever bothered him, content with spectating from the ceiling as Arthur kicked around a flat football.

“That’s awful,” Merlin frowned.

“It probably explains why I hate maths so much now.”

“You must be decent at it to be taking it now, though.”

Trying to mask the shock at finding out that Merlin recognised him from his maths class, Arthur fumbled with the hem of his top distractedly.

“I’m not great, Morgana helps me with all our homework.”

He decided not to divulge that Merlin was part of the reason Arthur struggled so much to focus in class, leaving him stranded when he looked at their homework sheets.

Merlin was about to say something when the school anthem started up. Arthur peeled his eyes away to wave at his sister, who was looking very smugly in his direction on the court. She’d be a prying nuisance once they got home.

The rest of the match passed in comfortable quiet aside from the occasional comment from Merlin:

(“God, what I would give to have legs that long.”

“Was that your sister? Good pass. That’s the word, right? Or is it throw? Yeet?”

“That little witch, did you see that? Red card, ref!”

“If I could aim that well, I would shoot myself out of a canon into school every morning.”)

After the game, Merlin said ‘see you tomorrow, Arthur’ before finding Gwen to congratulate her (their team won), leaving him feeling giddy and hopeful. Arthur’s good mood couldn’t even be dampened by Morgana interrogating him as they walked home.

“Great, so you told him it’s you that’s sent the notes?” Morgana asked after Arthur summarised the conversation, eyes narrowed at him.

No way. How weird would that have been? Hey Merlin, sure you can sit here. I know this is our first proper conversation, but, fun fact, I’m your secret admirer. Arthur shuddered at the very idea of it.

“No, of course not.”

He avoided his sister’s disapproving gaze by grabbing her netball from her, the texture cool and rubbery and firm. Morgana never trusted the school ones so would always insist on bringing her own in for big games.

“Are you ever going to tell him?”

Arthur dribbled the ball in front of him for a moment. It was odd - he could accept that without the judgement of Morgana and Gwaine - but he didn’t really want to ruin this. Keeping Merlin a daydream away was safe and made Arthur feel light without the fear of rejection. It really was a pleasure to know that he could brighten Merlin’s day by something so small, so harmless, as a note.

“No, I don’t think he wants to date anyone. I just want to compliment him,” he shrugged.

“And that’s sweet but for how long? Won’t you run out of things to say soon?”

Arthur looked up at the sky, dark and warm azure. Silver stars would push through soon, insistent and bright, but currently the only light came from the tall streetlights that fearlessly fought bravely against the shadows.

“I doubt it.”

Arthur thought that he could spend the rest of his life coming up with nice things to say about Merlin Emrys.

 

‘your legs look amazing in black skinny jeans’

“Doesn’t he always wear them?”

Arthur snatched the note from Gwaine and thrust it into his pocket, not wanting it to get wet in the light rain that splattered the pavement with daunting, dark grey blobs. Gwaine had thieved the note from Arthur’s bag under the pretence of wanting to check out what brand Arthur’s rucksack was. If it hadn’t been ridiculously early in the morning Arthur would have seen through his ploy immediately.

“No, he has a blue pair. He looks good in those too, though. Maybe I should cross out the black?”

It was unbelievable how good Merlin looked in whatever he wore, though. For Halloween last year, Merlin posted photos of himself made-up to be a zombie. And Arthur thought he was hot. A fucking zombie.

“Might as well write down that he looks good in clothes, mate. Or would they be optional too?” Gwaine laughed, using his geography textbook to protect his hair.

“Not everyone is a pervert like you,” Arthur sniffed, though Gwaine probably had a point.

 

Arthur was late to assembly that day. He usually aimed to get there early but Gwaine had demanded that Arthur buy him a cup of coffee from the common room machine as payment for being his lookout. Gwaine then announced that he was skipping assembly – leaving Arthur to go to there alone. The worst part about being late was getting caught in the traffic that was the humanities/school administration building. This block was, rather stupidly, constructed with tiny corridors that couldn’t have been more than the width of three students. It used to have a one-way system instated but this had been abandoned long ago, meaning that the corridors had become a war ground. Looking ahead, Arthur could see the familiar dark hair of Merlin, on the phone to someone, making his heart do somersaults in his chest.

Out of nowhere, the bulk of Valiant appeared and, before Arthur could even think to act, shoved a sharp elbow into Merlin’s side, making him keen over, dropping his books and phone at the impact. Arthur strode ahead, pushing past some annoyingly slow year sevens.

“What the fuck was that for?” Arthur growled at Valiant.

Merlin looked up at Arthur, eyes wide, and leaned down quickly to grab his books but Arthur kept a hand on his shoulder. The corridor stopped moving, students more drawn to the possibility of a fight than committed to attend form.

“Merlin dropped his books,” Valiant smirked.

“You’re a dick. Pick them up for him.”

The echoing ‘oooh’ noise of anticipation rose through the corridor. Valiant had never been especially popular at school, known for his bullying and intimidating ways.

“Didn’t know you were so precious over him, Pendragon.”

Arthur would not blush or be embarrassed. He would stand up for anyone mistreated that way, Merlin or not.

“Didn’t know you were so into touching him,” Arthur retorted, cocking an eyebrow.

Valiant leapt back, clearly shocked at the very suggestion of him having feelings. To be fair, Arthur wasn’t entirely sure Valiant had enough of a brain to understand what liking someone meant.

“Don’t make me sick.”

Arthur debated punching Valiant. He was wearing a relatively new shirt today though, one that he didn’t want marred with blood.

“You’re right, Merlin shouldn’t be contaminated with your filth. Touch him again and I’ll get you kicked off the rugby team.”

“Yeah, and how do you plan on doing that?”

Arthur raised his eyebrows, “We both know what you get up to behind the bike sheds.”

Actually, Arthur had no idea what Valiant did back there. There was a rumour that Valiant had been dealing drugs though and it seemed harmless to at least take advantage of that.

“Fine, he’s not worth it anyway,” Valiant snarled, pushing Merlin’s books into his arms and storming off.

Arthur picked up Merlin’s neglected phone. Fortunately, it hadn’t smashed against the ground. Merlin’s face and ears were scarlet, but he looked miserable. Arthur internally cursed. He hoped that he hadn’t completely humiliated him by causing such a scene.

“Thanks, can’t believe that’s the second time you’ve had to do that. Sorry, I’m not usually that helpless but my mum was on the phone and he caught me off guard,” Merlin mumbled, refusing to meet Arthur’s eyes as they continued down the corridor.

“Second time?”

“Well, er, yeah. We had to share a table with him in like year nine or something and you told him to shut up.”

Arthur could only vaguely recall snapping at Valiant. It hadn’t felt significant back then, he just felt irritated at him for talking over Merlin and being unnecessarily unkind.

“Oh, right. No problem. If he does it again- not that you can’t deal with it, I’m sure you can – but you know where I am,” he finished, looking into the assembly hall and waving at Percival and Lancelot, who had saved a seat for him.

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

 

Arthur couldn’t help but notice Merlin’s ears remained red for the rest of the day. He was also abnormally quiet in maths later that day. Strangely enough, Merlin’s silence distracted Arthur more than the incessant chatter that he was used to. Arthur wasted the majority of the lesson wondering what he could do to help. Obviously, Merlin felt embarrassed over the hallway incident this morning, and Arthur wasn’t sure how to remedy that.

Eventually, Arthur settled on fixing things in the only way he knew how: another note.

‘you’re one of the bravest people I know’

It was true. Although Arthur’s friends and family knew he was attracted to boys, he wasn’t publicly out in the way Merlin was. Merlin went to pride every year with his mother. Merlin made speeches to their entire year about the LGBTQ+ society he was head of and, in the gentlest voice Arthur had ever had the pleasure to hear, reminded them that if anyone needed someone to confide in, he was there for them. Merlin was tolerant and kind even when Valiant was so cruel.

Arthur, on the other hand, dreaded speaking to his father most of the time, fearful that he’d change his mind and go back to treating Arthur like this was all a phase.

“I don’t know if that’s the word I’d use,” Merlin said to Will in maths on Friday. “I haven’t felt brave in a long time.”

Arthur supposed bravery was easier to see from the outside.

“You’re fairly brave. Unless daddy longlegs are involved.”

“They’re evilness embodied. Who gave them the right to be flying spiders?”

To be fair, Arthur remembered reading once that daddy longlegs are highly poisonous and would be one of the most dangerous spiders. Just because their fangs are too short to bite anyone now doesn’t mean they can’t evolve.

“You still worried it’s him?”

Arthur paused in his multiplication sum. He’d spoken to Merlin a lot more over the last week than he usually would. It’d make sense if he’d worked it out. Although, it did seem a little insensitive for them to be discussing this right here, a mere row away from Arthur.

To Arthur’s horror, Merlin leaned forward and sighed. Actually sighed.

“I really hope it’s not. Is that an awful thing to say? It could literally be anyone else. Anyone. And I’d be honoured that they put the effort into this.” Arthur’s heart ached painfully. “But if it’s Valiant I swear I will yeet myself out of this country.”

What? Valiant? They thought the notes were written by Valiant?

 

It was with grit teeth that Arthur wrote Merlin another note after class. He would have to make it clear to Merlin that his admirer wasn’t Valiant, even if the chance of exposing himself was higher than before. Annoyingly, he couldn’t risk putting it in Merlin’s locker until the very end of the day, which meant Merlin would go an entire weekend believing that his secret admirer was a toad-faced buffoon.

However, when Merlin skipped up to Gwen come Monday, beaming from ear to ear, and read to her:

‘I’m very offended that you think I’m Valiant. also you have the prettiest laugh’

Arthur thought his efforts were worth it.

“Thank goodness for that,” Gwen laughed. “Any other ideas on who it could be?”

“Nope, but at least I won’t want to punch whoever it is.”

 

The rest of that weeks of notes were comparably more successful.

On Tuesday, Arthur slipped ‘your new shoes look great!’ into his locker.

“He noticed!” Merlin cried, clapping his hands together happily.

“Of course, he noticed, he seems to notice everything,” Will deadpanned. “And yet you still have no idea.”

“Not a clue,” Merlin agreed.

 

‘it’s really cute how you ramble when you get nervous’

“I don’t agree there. Remember that one time you told my grandma all about that stupid bug film.” Will noted after reading the slip of paper over Merlin’s shoulder during break.

“Firstly, A Bug’s Life is a classic. Secondly, your nan is terrifying, and this was the first time she didn’t look like she wanted to throw me into an oven-”

“Only because she was so concerned that you were crazy,” Will countered.

“And third, your opinion doesn’t matter. My admirer thinks I’m adorable.”

A table away, Gwaine smirked around his lasagne and texted Arthur a summary of the conversation.

 

On Thursday, Arthur was caught by a wave of nostalgia and wrote down:

‘not sure if you perform magic anymore but I’m enchanted by you’.

“What’s that mean?” Freya asked, who had only joined the school in year ten.

“Merlin used to do magic tricks,” Gwen explained between giggles. “Oh, I completely forgot you did that. I think my mum has a video of you doing a card trick somewhere.”

“That’s so fucking cute. I need to see this.”

“You show anyone and I’ll-well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’ll do something.”

 

Arthur didn’t find out Merlin’s reaction to Friday’s note, which was a rather daring: ‘really hoping you’re at Elyan’s party tonight. that’s the main reason I’m going’. Their maths lesson was cancelled because of staff sickness.

It was, therefore, with an uncomfortable surge of doubt that Arthur dressed himself for the party that evening. He settled on a blue t-shirt, a hoodie and some jeans, then took an hour debating whether or not to wear cologne. Eventually, he decided he may as well wear it, chances were that the stench of alcohol in Elyan’s house would drown it out anyway. He set off with Morgana, who had black lipstick and a pretty black dress, and Leon, who was also wearing black lipstick (though Arthur didn’t think that was intentional). She quirked an eyebrow at him but didn’t comment on the cologne. Arthur had been assigned as their sober driver, so they had to be nice.

“It’s Friday night, have a drink mate,” Gwaine urged him as he stepped through the door.

A mob of people behind him echoed the word ‘drink’ but Arthur resisted. He’d never tell anyone, of course, but he actually quite enjoyed being the sober mother hen of the group.

“Can’t, I’m meant to drive them home.”

Gwaine shrugged and downed the vodka shot he’d presumably kept for Arthur. Arthur looked around at the throng of people around them. Elyan had claimed that would be a small party – twenty people tops – yet in the hallway alone there had to be at least a dozen. He shuffled through to the kitchen, Gwaine chattering enthusiastically in his ear about how footballs were round because they were a metaphor for community or something. Arthur assumed he was already halfway drunk.

Elyan had an enormous kitchen. The sort of granite-surfaced paradise that Morgana relentlessly pestered their father about. Uther had money for a nice kitchen like this, but he didn’t see the point in it when they had a fully functioning microwave and fully stocked fridge. Looking around, however, Arthur couldn’t see a single surface that was not covered by booze. He also had yet to spot Merlin. The room stunk of sweat and alcohol. Arthur unzipped his hoodie and took it off, deciding not to add to the smell.

“Arthur, you made it!” Elyan boomed, leaping over a girl that had, for some unknown reason, started writhing around on the floor while singing Britney Spears.

“’Course. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Elyan clapped him on the back merrily, “Knew I could count on you. Look, lads.”

The Camelot football team, all huddled around the dining table, turned from their drinking game.

“Pendragon!” They cheered at him. Arthur supposed he should be glad that his friends were happy to see him. However, looking at the disarray that was their friendship group, all he could feel was a general sense of frustration. Apparently, everyone had decided to drink buckets because shot glasses littered the table, and nobody had bothered to mop up a fallen bottle of vodka on the carpet. It was only half-nine.

Percival bounded towards him, looking strangely like a buff, overgrown puppy. And gosh, if Percival was drunk then they were in trouble. Unlike Gwaine, who was wasted after two sips of cider, Percival was not a lightweight.

“Mm, feel these,” he said, guiding Arthur’s hands to his impressive biceps. Arthur poked one of them, purely to entertain him.

“Oh, great. Very-er, firm?”

Percival grinned at the praise and lifted his arms in triumph.

“We need to set you up with someone tonight, my brother.”

Arthur wasn’t really interested in that. Even if he wasn’t hopelessly pining after Merlin, he foresaw an entire evening of looking after his friends. There was no way he was going to let any of them drive or walk home in this state. And then there was be Elyan’s house, which was sure to be a mess after all of this. He’d have to stay late and help out with that too. He was about to explain this when Gwaine intervened.

“Noo, Arthur’s already in love.”

Arthur swore. He forgot that Gwaine turned into a blabbermouth when he was drunk. Fortunately, most of the year knew that Gwaine could bullshit for England when he’d had a drink, so it was unlikely anyone would take him seriously.

“No, Arthur is not in love. How much has he drank?” he asked, turning to Gwen, who was perched on Lancelot’s knee. They had a habit of flirting at parties, only to never speak a word to each other at school. Judging by the way she was giggling at whatever Lancelot had been saying (Lancelot was not that funny), Arthur judged that she was tipsy, though he trusted her more than everyone else.

“Far too much. He told Merlin that he reminded him of a penguin earlier.”

Oh no. He’d spoken to Merlin. It was a blessing that Gwaine hadn’t revealed the secret notes to Merlin. Arthur would have to be more careful in the future about arriving at parties early and keeping an eye on Gwaine.

“Bloody typical.” He spotted a bottle. “Is that water in there?”

“Yeah, it’s just from the tap though.”

“That’s fine,” he said, pouring some into a shot glass. “Hey, Gwaine, you should do shots of this stuff.”

Gwaine accepted the shot glass gleefully and downed it in one. Then took the bottle and poured himself another one.

“Shots! Shots! Shots!” everyone chanted around them.

Arthur took the trend of taking shots of water as an opportunity to slip away. This would probably be the safest time to use the loo all evening. He heaved himself up the stairs in search of Elyan’s bathroom. Upstairs was comparatively quiet, most partygoers mingling in the kitchen and living room. The bathroom door was locked, so Arthur sat down on the carpet next to it and stared down at the carpet. Suddenly, he heard a noise from the door next to the bathroom.

“Please get off, I really don’t-,”

Arthur stood up immediately and barged in, instinct propelling him forwards. Valiant turned from where he’d been pinning someone to the wall, blatantly enraged at having been interrupted. Arthur didn’t bother wasting time paying attention to him, however, craning his head to make out the person who had called out.

“Merlin?”

To his horror, he was right. Merlin Emrys was trapped between Valiant’s ugly arms, hands forced against the wall.

“Get out, Pendragon,” Valiant threatened.

“No-no, he’s wasted, get him off.”

Arthur didn’t give a damn if he was wasted. Alcohol did not excuse assault. He strode forwards, anger blossoming in his chest.

“Get the fuck away from him.”

Valiant loosened his grip on Merlin to face Arthur. Merlin took this to his complete advantage and, getting his hands free, punched Valiant in the face. Apparently, he packed quite the punch because there was a nasty click and Valiant staggered back, nose dribbling on the carpet. He cried out in pain and bolted from the room.

“Are you okay? Want me to get you Gwen or Freya? Or we could get ice for your hand?”

Merlin peered down at his hand, test-flexing his fingers.

“I’m fine, don’t worry.”

Arthur noticed how his entire body was shaking and decided that no, Merlin was not fine. Nobody in his position would be fine. He couldn’t believe that Elyan had invited Valiant in the first place, especially after what had happened a few weeks ago.

“You’re shaking badly. Here, put on my hoodie. He’s such a prick, did he touch you?”

He offered his hoodie to Merlin, not wanting to get too close in case it upset him further. Merlin accepted it gratefully and wrapped it around himself.

“No, but-, but I really didn’t want it to be him,” Merlin said miserably, avoiding Arthur’s eyes.

Arthur had no idea what ‘it’ meant but he didn’t need to ask.

“He’s been leaving notes in my locker,” Merlin explained. “It’s some sort of twisted prank.”

Arthur shook his head determinedly, “No, that’s not him.”

Merlin looked up at Arthur, eyes damp and shocked.

“I didn’t want it to be, but he’s the only one that-,”

“No-Merlin, it’s not him. I’m certain of that.” He paused, acknowledging that he’d have to stop being a wimp and face the music. “It’s me.”

Obviously, this wasn’t the way Arthur had pictured revealing the truth to Merlin, but it was necessary, even if Merlin would feel another surge of disappointment and dread. Arthur knew that he was at least slightly more desirable than someone that would stoop so low as to assault someone. There was no way he wanted Merlin to leave school thinking that the likes of Valiant was the only sort that would think him worthy of attention.

There was a beat of silence in which Arthur stepped back, terrified of Merlin’s reaction.

“You’re the one that’s been sending me notes?” Merlin said quietly.

And gosh, this was somehow worse than it might have been to flirt with Merlin the way normal people did and get rejected that way. The notes had made him fall in love with him, drawing out his beauty. The notes had helped him to see all the ways in which Merlin, quirky and wonderful, was perfect for him.

“It doesn’t matter,” Arthur clarified. “I’ll stop them, and you don’t have to worry.”

Merlin had suffered enough trauma tonight. He felt heavy knowing that he’d added to that.

“No, no it does matter. Unless- was it a joke or?”

“What? No, of course not.”

Right now, Arthur couldn’t think of anything less funny.

“Then that’s great, isn’t it? If you sent them and they weren’t a joke,” Merlin said breathily, wiping his eyes against Arthur’s hoodie.

Except it wasn’t great. Not to Arthur, and certainly not to Merlin. Merlin had just been through a horrendous experience and yet he was still being nice, still being brave, still being Merlin. He should be angry. How dare Arthur, who had only spoken with him a few times, write flirty notes about him? Arthur felt angry on Merlin’s behalf.

“Look, I appreciate you being nice. It’s very sweet. But,” he sighed. “This is all Morgana’s fault.”

Merlin sat down on the bed. Arthur hadn’t even noticed they were in a bedroom but realised that, yes, this was the guest room.

“As in your sister? What did she do?”

Arthur moved to flop down on the other side of the bed, making sure that the gap between the bed and door was absolutely clear so Merlin could run if he wanted to. He looked up at the blank ceiling and pretended that Merlin wasn’t here. He had to be brave and honest. He owed him that much.

“Nothing she- she gave me the idea to write notes, you know, because I suck at flirting and then you kept saying you weren’t gorgeous, which is wrong by the way, or that you thought they were jokes and they haven’t really worked at all.”

“So, you wrote them because you were worried about my self-esteem? Not because you -like- me?” Merlin asked, voice breaking off.

“No, I definitely wrote them because I like you, that’s the problem.”

Merlin flicked Arthur’s cheek. Arthur sat up, confused. Why wasn’t he running?

“I don’t see how that’s a problem.”

Did he really have to spell it out?

“Because you don’t like me back.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows at Arthur, “Who said I don’t like you?”

That put Arthur at a loss for words. He looked down at the duvet and started drawing stars with his thumb. What was Merlin playing at? Was he suggesting that- no, Arthur would not let himself finish that thought.

“I guess I just figured.”

But to Arthur utmost surprise, Merlin was suggesting exactly what he had forbidden, “Well you figured wrong, idiot. In fact, I bet I’ve liked you for longer than you’ve liked me.”

Arthur laughed hollowly. He didn’t even know how long he’d liked Merlin. It felt as though pathetically pining from afar had become part of Arthur. If Merlin was saying he liked him now, it was because he felt vulnerable and Arthur was not about to take advantage of that.

“I seriously doubt that.”

“First day of secondary school. You were in my English class and we had to name a fact about ourselves. You said your favourite animal was a dragon and everyone else said that dragons aren’t real but you said-,”

“I said they’re only not if you don’t believe. You’re such a nerd. Of course, that would be the reason you like someone.”

Except, the very fact Merlin knew that, had bothered to remember that, was evidence. Merlin really did like him. And he didn’t just like him because he was football captain. He liked him because of dragons. Fucking dragons, of all things.

“Yeah, well, you like me for stupid reasons too. I have it written down on paper that you find my Animal Crossing obsession cute,” Merlin laughed and shifted to sit next to Arthur. “Hey, would you want to swap lockers? You know, since you think I’m cool and stuff.”

Arthur scoffed, “I’ve never said you’re cool, Merlin. Not once. But alright, fine, if you agree to go out with me then we can swap lockers.”

His heart thumped, hard, in his chest, and he looked down at the duvet again. Somewhere along their conversation, he’d started drawing hearts instead of stars.

“You drive a hard bargain,” Merlin began, then grabbed Arthur’s hand. “I’ll say yes, but only on the condition that you kiss me.”

“I thought the locker was the condit-,”

He stopped. Why the fuck was he arguing with Merlin about this? He snagged Merlin by the front of his shirt, taking a moment to appreciate that it was the Queen shirt he’d complimented in one of his notes. Merlin shifted around and for a moment, Arthur feared that he’d been too hasty or startled him, but instead Merlin had maneuvered himself to straddle Arthur’s lap. He moved forwards, forehead settling against his and Arthur took a moment to admire his eyes. Gosh, now that he was close enough, he knew it was a true injustice to not have mentioned them in his notes thus far. Then, Arthur moved to put his mouth over Merlin’s, lips sliding against each other. Warmth spread in him and he couldn’t stop smiling, effectively stopping the kiss from deepening. Merlin pulled away breathily.

“Mm, do you want to go to the zoo with me?”

Arthur laughed, ducking his head so that it knocked gently against Merlin’s chest.

“Funny. I could have sworn I just asked you out, not the other way around,” he mumbled, then moved to sit up.

“Yeah but they’ve got a Komodo dragon there so, you know, thought you’d be enthusiastic.”

Arthur’s eyes flickered to Merlin’s lovely, pink lips – another thing he’d simply have to write a note about. It took him a few seconds to process what he’d said.

“They have a Komodo dragon?”

“Knew that’d get your attention.”

Arthur stroked Merlin’s cheek delicately.

“You get my attention.”

And, oh, he was being kissed again. Mouth firmly against his. Soft, hot and insistent little kisses this time. He hummed against Merlin’s lips, reeling him in deeper, and bit his bottom lip. This was bliss. This was absolute bliss and-

“Arthur, help me with Gwaine!” called Lancelot.

Arthur pulled back from Merlin reluctantly. Merlin pouted at him and – it would be unreasonable not to kiss that pout away…

“Arthur!”

Arthur scowled as Merlin’s lips moved away from him.

“Go, I’ll be down in a bit anyway. Need to check on Gwen, Freya and Will anyway.”

 

Monday morning, Merlin opened his locker to yet another note.

‘you’re an excellent kisser <3’

For once, he didn’t confer with Will, Gwen or Freya about it though, but found his boyfriend, leaning conveniently next to his locker, and kissed the smug smile off his face.