When Merlin looked up there was a beautiful blond guy perched on the edge of the bathtub. "Oh, hullo," Merlin said, startled. "Didn't realise anyone was in here. Though in fairness, it's customary to lock the door."
It was after midnight but the corridor was still pretty active, people flitting from room to room with beers and Pringles. Merlin had gone to the bathroom to wash himself off after Will had spilled a Budweiser down his arm.
He had opened the bathroom door and just wandered in. He hadn't noticed the guy leaning against the bathtub until he'd already turned on the tap and stuck his beer-sticky hand into the warm water.
It was that blond guy who had the room at the end of the corridor. Merlin had seen him around, all golden good looks and terribly posh accent. The term 'out of your league' was made for guys like him: beautiful and rich and terribly entitled.
"It's quite all right," the guy was saying. "I just…" He swallowed.
Merlin looked at him again, taking in the tension in his body, the fingers clenched over the rim of the bath. There was a bottle of vodka by his foot.
"You're drinking alone? In here?" Merlin asked, incredulous.
Blond guy's eyes flashed for a second before he shrugged. "It was too loud in my room."
Merlin laughed self-consciously. "Oh, right, you're next to Gwaine, aren't you?"
Blond guy frowned. "That the bloke who looks like a shampoo model?"
Merlin found his lips curling upwards. "That's Gwaine. He's all right when you get to know him but he's a bit wild, you know? They've pretty much got his room hot boxed."
"I don't know what that means."
Merlin winced. "Of course you don't." He turned back to the sink and finished cleaning himself off. The guy just watched him do it.
There was something really off about him, Merlin thought. Not off-putting, just… off. Here he was, sitting alone in a bathroom with a bottle of vodka, jumpy and exhausted looking. Merlin felt sorry for him, which was a bit of a change from the previously-formed opinions based on three-second glances. Said opinions had started with 'he's bloody gorgeous!' before being replaced quickly with 'he's an arse!'
Now he just seemed… Merlin considered. He seemed kind of lonely.
Making up his mind, Merlin said, "Look, you want to come hang out with us?"
"No," the guy said flatly.
"Oh," Merlin said.
The guy looked at him, taking in his slightly hurt expression, and made a frustrated sound. "It's not… I mean, thank you, but I…"
"I get it," Merlin said, his brain having caught up. "You came here for a bit of privacy so I'm guessing a room full of people you don't know? Not on tonight's to-do list."
The guy looked at him ruefully. Merlin was struck by how very blue his eyes were, how very sad their expression.
"All right," Merlin said, sliding down the wall to lean against it. "Guess I'll stay with you here instead."
"Oh sure," Merlin said, ignoring the guy's expression. "Gwaine's been trying to cop off with Elena since Fresher's Week anyway, and Will be probably pass out in another half hour or so. Besides, we ran out of booze." That last part was absolutely not true; Gwaine never ran out of booze.
Merlin reached out for the bottle. The guy's fingers tightened on the bathtub but he made no move to stop Merlin from picking it up.
"Nice," Merlin said approvingly. "Nicer than we can afford, definitely. Got anything to mix it with?"
Cracked, savage laughter burst from the guy's lips – just for a second, just one guffaw, but in it Merlin heard something terrible he didn't understand.
"Something I said funny?" Merlin might have been more offended if he wasn't a little stoned, and basically trying to help himself to the guy's drink.
"No," the guy replied. "Not at all."
He was lying.
"Look," Merlin said, a little frustrated now. "I can go. Or I can grab some coke and a couple of tumblers from my room and come back. Assuming you want to stay in here."
"I mean, who wouldn't, after all," Merlin went on. "It's got hold and cold running water. Somewhere to sit, somewhere to sleep if you don't mind waking up on ceramic. Not the loveliest smell in the world, mind."
The corner of the guy's mouth curled up in a reluctant smile.
"I'll get the coke then shall I?" Merlin said. "Good thing I'm chatty, one of us should be. I'm Merlin." He stuck out his hand.
The blond guy smiled wider, revealing crooked teeth that Merlin found oddly attractive. "Arthur," he said, taking Merlin's hand.
"Well, Arthur," said Merlin, grinning. "Don't go anywhere."
Arthur looked at him with that unreadable expression again. "No," he replied very seriously. "I won't."
"Arthur, I'm Dr Gaius," the doctor said as he sat, patient notes in hand. "This is your first visit to the Student Health Centre?"
"Yes," Arthur said. "I have a private doctor, but…"
He let his voice trail away, unable to articulate why he had chosen to visit an NHS practice instead of going to the extremely expensive doctor his father had arranged for him.
Dr Gaius made no comment on the matter. He said only, "What can I do for you today?"
Arthur shifted in his seat. "I haven't been sleeping very well," he said, knowing how his face must look, eyes bloodshot and puffy. "It's been going on for a while now, and it's getting worse. I'm exhausted, all the time, and-" he broke off, his throat beginning to close up a little. "I'm all over the place."
"I see," Dr Gaius said, frowning. "And how long exactly has this been going on?"
Arthur shrugged. "I'm really not sure."
Notes were made. "Have you made any recent changes – for example to your diet or your exercise regime?"
"No. I mean, I've been eating less."
Gaius' gaze sharpened. "Oh?"
Arthur shrugged. "Haven't been that hungry."
"But you play rugby?" The doctor indicated his university club-branded sweatshirt.
"Yeah. I usually eat a lot, but recently I start eating and then I get full really quickly. If I try to eat any more, I feel sick."
"I see. And how would you describe your emotional state?"
Arthur frowned a little. "I beg your pardon?"
Dr Gaius shifted. "How do you feel?"
"All right, I suppose," Arthur said, bewildered.
"Really?" Dr Gaius eyebrow raised itself quite alarmingly; Arthur wasn't sure what he could have done to warrant it.
Arthur swallowed. "No, not really." He twisted his fingers together and looked away from the doctor, unable to stand the scrutiny.
Eventually Dr Gaius nodded. "All right, Arthur. I'm going to prescribe you an SSRI. Do you know what that is?"
Arthur shook his head.
"The symptoms you describe are usually linked to depression," Dr Gaius said. "An SSRI is a mild anti-depressant which should help you to sleep and should hopefully lift your mood."
"Depression?" Arthur repeated.
"That is what it sounds like, yes," Dr Gaius said gently.
"I'm not depressed," Arthur said quickly.
"It is nothing to be ashamed of Arthur. One in four people experience problems of this nature."
"'Problems of this nature'?" Arthur's voice was filled with contempt.
Dr Gaius' mouth tightened slightly at the corners. "If you prefer, I can give you Temazepam to deal with the sleeping, but it is considerably stronger."
Arthur's fingers gripped the sides of his chair until his knuckles turned white. "I just don't see how you can talk to me for less than a minute and reach the conclusion that I'm depressed."
"You're not sleeping, you're not eating and your demeanour suggests that you are unhappy. The SSRI will help with all these problems." Dr Gaius watched Arthur carefully as he gave his medical opinion: Arthur squirmed but did not object as Dr Gaius reached for his prescription pad.
"Take the medication," he said as he handed it to Arthur. "Be aware that you will need to allow at least two weeks for it to take effect, and read the information on the side effects carefully."
"You've been awful quiet, Merlin," Gwaine said when he'd finally finished extolling all of Elena's virtues for the thousandth time.
"You noticed?" Merlin said dryly.
"You don't want him to talk," said Will from his seat in the desk chair, focused entirely on the Xbox not a foot away from him. "He'll go on about the blond git again."
Merlin absolutely did not blush. "It isn't like that," he protested. "He just seemed… I dunno, sad."
"Aw, and you want to look after the puppy, do you?" Gwaine mocked, reaching out to ruffle Merlin's already messy hair.
Merlin batted his hand away. "I don't think he's got many friends, that's all."
Gwaine shrugged. "So invite him out next time there's a big night. He'll get to know a bunch of people. Just make sure he knows Elena's off limits." A smile crossed Gwaine's face. "Or does he play for your team?"
"Yeah, Merlin only wishes," Will chimed in as he shot another sniper on the screen.
"We didn't really talk about that sort of thing," Merlin hedged.
"So what did you talk about in the bathroom until four in the morning?"
"Yeah, Merlin," Gwaine grinned. "What did you find to talk about?"
Merlin sighed. "We just talked. Seriously. He seemed sad and we talked."
"No filthy loo sex?"
"No, Gwaine," Merlin said, covering his face with his hands. "No filthy loo sex."
"Your stories are lame," Gwaine said, flopping back down on the bed.
"Says the man who won't give us the dirty details about Elena," Will muttered.
"I've told you loads," Gwaine protested.
"Yeah, because waxing lyrical is the same. Oh, fuck!" Will slammed down the controller as he got shot to pieces. "I've died a hundred times tonight, and it's your fault, both of you. Behaving like bloody girls. Let's go and get pissed."
Merlin honestly isn't sure quite what he and Arthur did talk about, if it comes to it. Four hours talking about nothing. Merlin did most of the talking, to be honest. Talked about Gwaine and Will and the ridiculous trouble the three of them kept getting into. How he and Will decided to come to university together from Ealdor and sort of acquired Gwaine during Fresher's Week. Merlin had rambled on and on about his literature courses and the classes he was taking in Old English, how fascinating he found language change. Arthur had for his part mostly just looked at Merlin with expression ranging from 'who is this crazy person?' through to 'can he possibly be real?'
Merlin couldn't really blame him. He wasn't sure how he'd react to a rambling stranger who kept helping himself to vodka he hadn't paid for. He couldn't even have said why he'd kept talking; it hadn't been to keep drinking, though heaven knew the vodka had been better than anything he could afford. It had just seemed very important not to leave Arthur alone.
Gwaine clapped him on the shoulder, waking him from his thoughts. "Not still brooding, are you?"
Merlin smiled up at his friend. "Course not."
"You chapped on his door," Gwaine reminded him. "If he wasn't there, no big deal, he's probably got actual friends he just didn't mention."
"Yeah," Merlin said. He had been so disappointed when his knock had gone unanswered, but that was no reason not to try to enjoy himself now.
"Oy, Gwaine," Will shouted from across the bar. "Pool table's free."
"In a minute, mate." Gwaine turned back to Merlin. "You going to play?"
"You know I'm awful at pool."
"Yeah, a gay guy who can't play a game with sticks and balls. Most ironic thing ever if you ask me."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "I think I'm going to go."
Gwaine frowned. "Mate, come on, we just got here."
"Yeah." Merlin picked up his pint glass and rotated it in his hands, letting the remaining beer slosh around a bit. "Just not feeling it tonight, you know?"
"Uh huh." Gwaine eyeballed him for a moment, then sighed. "You really worried about the guy?"
Merlin shifted in his chair. "It's not just that."
"Do what you need to do." Gwaine clapped him on the shoulder again and wandered off.
Merlin sighed, downed the rest of his pint and stood, wandering out of the student union and into the cold night air.
He didn't get very far before he heard someone shout, "Get back here you little poof!"
He turned at once from sheer force of habit. He hadn't had any trouble since he'd moved here but the instincts born of a fairly hellish time at high school had kept him sharp. Magic flared in his body unbidden, waiting to create a shield or to ensure that the punch didn't connect.
Instead he saw Gilli, one of the most harmless members of LGBT Soc, rushing away from a group of drunk rugger buggers and into the safety of the union building. Merlin steeled himself as two of the larger ones came closer.
"Damn. He got away lads!" the bigger one of the two called to his friends.
"Fucking shame, Valiant!" another called.
"What were you going to do to him?" Merlin knew he shouldn't get involved but he couldn't just let something like this pass. He couldn't.
The big one, Valiant, turned to look at him. "What the fuck do you care?"
Merlin stood his ground. "Well there's what," he tilted his head to take them all in, "eight of you against one skinny little guy? What were you going to do to him?"
Valiant grinned, all teeth. "We were going to show him the error of his ways. Do we need to show you the error of yours?"
"Valiant, what are you doing?" came a voice Merlin recognised.
"Seems like we might have caught another queer here, Pendragon," Valiant replied.
The voice cursed and then, "Come on Valiant, can't you think of anything better to do than taunt the local bum boys?"
"It never gets boring," Valiant called back, never taking his eyes off Merlin. "Does it, Owain?"
Owain had been trying to get behind Merlin, who had slowly turned his body to keep both of them in front of him. Adrenaline pumped through his body: he wasn't exactly afraid but he was furious.
"It does not," Owain said. He was huge: these guys all played rugby and they looked it. Sixteen stone or more of solid muscle and Merlin must look like easy prey to them, so skinny he might snap.
The others were coming closer. "Fuck's sake, Valiant, we don't need this. Just let the poofs go fuck each other, what do you care?"
Merlin's stomach dropped to the floor. "Arthur?"
Arthur's head snapped up at the sound of his name. "Merlin?"
Valiant sneered. "Fucking priceless – this your boyfriend then Pendragon?"
"Fuck off, Valiant," Arthur replied, uneasy, but Merlin had already put it together. They were here in a group, they were all together. This wasn't the first time Valiant had done something like this and Arthur still spent time with him, still seemed to count him as a friend. Arthur had called him a poof and a bum boy without even knowing who he was.
"What's going on here, then?" Merlin had never been so glad to hear Gwaine's voice.
"Yeah, Merlin, picking fights again are you?" Will, right behind him. His best friend for years, solid as a rock, taking punches for the sake of who Merlin was since they'd hit puberty and Merlin hated it. He'd come here and come out and thought it would be different and that had just been taken from him. And none of that was as bad as knowing that Arthur was one of the people who would tear him down for being who he was.
Valiant looked at Gwaine and Will dismissively. "We still outnumber you."
Gwaine slung a companionable arm across Merlin's shoulders. "For now. But I'm thinking that the little guy who told us you were out here might be mentioning it to the bouncers about now.
Will stepped forward. "So it's your call. Mate." The last syllable was full of fury.
Arthur reached out and pulled on Valiant's sleeve. "Come on. Valiant, come on."
With one final venomous glare at Merlin, Valiant shook Arthur off and stalked away.
"Night night!" Gwaine called after him; Owain sneered at him but said nothing.
"You all right?" Will asked Merlin quietly.
"Not really, no," Merlin forced out, staring after Arthur who was staring back at him.
"The pills aren't helping," Arthur said flatly. "I'm sleeping a bit better but I'm eating even less and I feel worse if anything."
Dr Gaius made a few notes. "I see."
"No you don't see," Arthur blurted out. "I'm a fucking horrible person. I don't know how I got this way but I am. I do these things and I don't even know why and now I'm thinking about it all the time. Is there a drug for that? Something to make that go away?"
Dr Gaius put down his pen and looked at Arthur carefully. "Last time we met you insisted you were fine. Now you're telling me you want to block out all your emotions. That doesn't sound especially fine to me."
Arthur swallowed. "I…" He couldn't get any further.
Dr Gaius nodded. "Arthur, I think you should consider carefully whether you might benefit from psychotherapy."
"I'm not crazy," Arthur bit out.
"Psychotherapy isn't for crazy people, despite what the media would like you to think," Dr Gaius retorted. "It is for people who find themselves ill-equipped to deal with their emotions and who need help sorting through their problems."
"I don't need help! Pendragons don't need help!"
"That simply isn't true, Arthur, you must see that," Dr Gaius said gently.
Arthur swallowed hard.
"I understand that there is a lot of stigma attached to therapy, but Arthur, sometimes it truly is the best thing for a person. But perhaps a less formal setting would suit you better. Are you aware that the university has a Student Counselling Service?"
Arthur could never remember the rest of the conversation. He took the card Gaius gave him and went back to his room, exhausted.
"Seriously? That guy you thought was a friend?" Will cracked his knuckles. "He lives on this corridor, yeah?"
"Leave it, Will," Gwaine said.
"You don't think we should let him get away with…" Will trailed off when Gwaine indicated Merlin's slumped posture. The two exchanged glances. Merlin was the common ground between them. Neither was an emotional genius but they could both read him well enough.
"He came to apologise this morning," Merlin said quietly.
Will snorted; Gwaine glared at him. "What did he say?"
"That they just played rugby together, and he was sorry I'd got mixed up in it all. So I asked him if he'd apologised to Gilli."
"Take it that was a 'no'?" Gwaine said as kindly as he could.
Merlin shrugged. "The look on his face… it hadn't even crossed his mind, you know? So I told him I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass."
Gwaine and Will exchanged another glance. "You let him off light," Will said even as Gwaine said, "I'm sorry, mate."
Merlin pulled a face. "Whatever. I just thought he was better than that, you know?" Merlin knew he was being a girl, attaching far too much significance to what had been nothing more than a drunken conversation which might have led to a friendship. But he remembered the way Arthur had said goodnight finally after four am, tired but reluctant, seeming much happier than he had when Merlin had first found him.
"Thank you," he'd said. Merlin had smiled and shrugged.
"For what? Drinking all your booze?"
Arthur had smiled, all crooked teeth and blue eyes. He'd seemed to light up with the force of it and maybe it was just the alcohol but Merlin had found him pretty damn attractive in that moment. "That and the rest." He'd tipped his head to one side and studied Merlin's face. "There's something about you, Merlin. I just can't put my finger on it."
There had been something about Arthur, too, or so Merlin had thought. Obviously he'd been wrong.
"What do I call you?" Arthur asked, swallowing hard. The counsellor's office wasn't what he'd expected. No leather couch to lie on, no huge desk. Just two chairs, two lamps and a low table all from IKEA. The only thing in the room which suggested its function was a box of tissues.
"My name's Leon," the counsellor said. He had longish sandy hair and a beard, and though he couldn't have been much older than Arthur his face seemed both kind and wise.
Arthur shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "So, how do we do this?"
"That's really up to you," Leon said easily. "Is there something particular you'd like to talk about?"
"Not really," Arthur said.
Leon nodded. "So it's everything?"
Arthur frowned. "I didn't say that."
Leon seemed to smile to himself, then looked up at Arthur. "Arthur, I understand that it can be very difficult to talk about how you're feeling. There's a lot of pressure, particularly on young men, to live up to a certain image."
"My father," Arthur said without meaning to.
"You feel you have to live up to your father?"
Arthur's gaze shot back to Leon's eyes. For a moment he would have done anything to be away from there, feeling horribly exposed without even having said anything yet. He nearly got up, apologised and walked away.
But if he did then he'd wake up tomorrow still the same person who Merlin had looked at with such hurt and disappointment, still feeling like he barely recognised himself. He would keep hating himself until the night no one came into the bathroom to stop him mixing the painkillers with the vodka in the hope of making it all stop.
Arthur swallowed. "My mother died when I was very young."
Leon nodded. "Go on."
The student union building was a virtual warren, spread over three floors with bars and games rooms all over the place, each one catering for a different type of student. Merlin had left Will and Gwaine in the pool hall; he hadn't anticipated finding Arthur propped up at the bar in the library bar.
He had been turning round to go when Arthur saw him, called after him. "Merlin!"
Merlin closed his eyes briefly, then turned to face Arthur, who was staring at him half-afraid, half-hopeful. Merlin swallowed and walked over to him.
"The thing about you being an ass? I really meant that," Merlin said.
Arthur squirmed. "I know, I deserve that. But will you sit with me a minute?"
Merlin hesitated until Arthur said simply, "Please?"
"It's just…" Arthur swallowed. "Not very long ago I was seeing this girl Gwen."
"Right," Merlin said.
"Gwen was lovely, you know. Pretty and kind, and…"
"I'm not about to hit on you, Arthur," Merlin snapped. "You don't need to tell me how heterosexual you are."
Arthur's face went white. "That's not what…"
Merlin continued, "I do not see how this leads to gay bashing."
After a moment of tense silence, Arthur said quietly, "I'm trying to explain. I should have known you'd be too angry with me. I'm sorry." He made to stand up.
That was all it took for Merlin to feel bad. "No, wait. I should hear you out at least."
Arthur looked at him, gauging his sincerity before sitting back down. "Gwen was wonderful, and I was feeling all these things that I had wanted to for a long time but never had before. I was neglecting everyone for her so most of the friends I made in the first few weeks dropped away. The only person I was really making time for was my best mate, Lance."
"Oh," Merlin said. "I think I see where this is going."
Arthur's mouth twisted. "I wish I had." He pushed himself upright on his barstool and took a long draught from his pint. "When I was studying for exams they spent a bit of time together and when I got back from the holidays they told me they were sorry but they couldn't help it." He shrugged as though the memory wasn't tearing him to pieces even though Merlin could see it clear as day.
"After that I only really had the rugby guys," Arthur said. "I didn't want to end up with no one so I went along with a lot of shit I shouldn't have. I want you to know, though," he said, gazing at Merlin intently, "I made sure they never hurt anyone. Physically, anyway."
"I suppose that's something," Merlin allowed. "But it doesn't let you off the hook. Do you know how bad gay teens have it at school? Do you know how relieved I was to come here and have it all be different? And then you pissed all over it. And it fucking mattered, because…" Merlin didn't know how to finish that sentence.
"I won't let you down again, Merlin," Arthur said, blue eyes blazing into Merlin's own. "I swear I won't."
"Last time we talked about your mother," Leon prompted.
"I barely remember her," Arthur said heavily. "It was definitely hard for my father. He never remarried, never even had a girlfriend that I know of while I was growing up. My father has always seemed," he struggled for the right word, "distant," he settled for. "He never demonstrated much feeling and he made sure I understood that I was supposed to emulate that in him."
"And you find that uncomfortable."
"I suppose. But it just seemed how things should be, right up until…" Arthur swallowed. "I met this guy Merlin. His feelings are all right there on the surface, you know? Anger, joy, pain, it's all there for anyone to see – but he's not weak. Far from it."
"So this Merlin is showing you a different way to be a man," Leon proposed.
"You could put it like that." Arthur bit his lip. "It's more like he's reminding me of things I should know. I mean, my father is about as conservative as they come – he's always giving money to campaigns against immigration and he opposed the Civil Partnership Bill but he'd be horrified if he knew I was spending time with people who'd actually beat people up for being gay."
Leon frowned until Arthur managed to force out the story. Arthur didn't know what reaction he was expecting, judgement or anger perhaps, but Leon just asked, "How did you feel about that?"
"Awful," Arthur admitted before looking away.
"Are you still spending time with them?"
"Less. We're still on the rugby team together."
"Let me ask you this," Leon said, leaning forward a little. "What would, say, Merlin do about these people?"
Arthur's mouth formed an unhappy line. "He'd report them, maybe."
Leon didn't say anything else, but the idea hung there for quite some time.
"I quit rugby," was how Arthur announced himself in the breakfast hall. Merlin always had breakfast alone, being the only one stuck with 9am classes, and apparently Arthur was a morning person.
"Sit," Merlin said quietly, indicating the space opposite him.
Arthur slid into the chair quietly. His tray held only two pieces of toast.
Merlin frowned. "I assumed you'd be a full English kind of guy."
Arthur took a moment to discern Merlin's meaning and then shrugged almost apologetically. "I haven't been that hungry lately."
Merlin nodded abstractedly. "You quit the rugby team."
"Yeah. I mean, I love the game, but…" Silence fell.
Merlin studied Arthur from under his eyelashes. He looked so uncomfortable, so awkward. But he was here, wasn't he? He was trying.
Merlin sighed. "So, you looking forward to the Six Nations?"
Arthur accepted the proffered olive branch with a wide smile of relief. It made his face younger, more open, and it made something in Merlin instinctively respond with a smile of his own.
"Yeah, I am," Arthur said eagerly. "I mean, all right we've not had a Grand Slam for a while, but we managed to walk it last year after all…"
"'We'?" Merlin echoed.
"England," Arthur said as though it should be obvious.
Merlin raised an eyebrow. "I did mention where I was from the other night, didn't I?"
"Ealdor, wasn't it?" Arthur stilled. "Why, is that…?"
"In Wales," Merlin nodded with a wry smile. "And it really is true that we'll support anyone but England."
Arthur made a face. "Well, you see, Merlin, that's where you're just wrong. I mean, surely a team with a good chance of winning is a team which deserves your support."
Merlin grinned. "Well perhaps if the team wasn't composed of and supported by such arrogant prats…"
Arthur scoffed. "You're only saying that because Wales hasn't won the Grand Slam in… what, five years now?"
"Three. And you are absolutely not proving my point."
Arthur grinned again, even freer this time.
"Eat your toast," Merlin said mock-sternly, hiding the size of his smile with his tea mug. Fleetingly he wondered if this is how Arthur used to be all the time – if this was who he could be when he was happy.
"So what, you're a homophobe apologist now?" Will spat.
Any other time, Merlin would have made a crack about Will knowing such long words. Now though his friend was deadly serious and Merlin didn't know what to say.
"Mate," Gwaine said, ever the voice of reason, "Is it really smart to get mixed up with him if those are the people he hangs out with?"
"I'm not mixed up with him," Merlin said flatly. "Besides, he told me he quit the rugby club."
"Since yesterday? Because that's when I saw him drinking with those bastards like the other night never happened," Gwaine said.
Merlin looked at him. "He wouldn't – I mean, I don't think… He's not a bad guy, he's just kind of mixed up."
"So you're not thinking about how to get into his blond, prattish pants?" Will snapped.
Merlin flinched as Will verbalised what he hadn't wanted to face even in his own head.
"Oh, mate," Gwaine winced in sympathy as he clapped Merlin on the shoulder. "You can't seriously fancy the guy."
"I don't," Merlin said fiercely. He didn't, it was true – just because he thought there might be something more to Arthur than what he could see didn't mean that he was going to go and fall for someone who was a) straight b) probably bigoted and c) kind of depressive.
"I'm going out," and a slammed door was Will's only reply.
"You talk about your friend Merlin quite often," Leon remarked.
"Yeah," Arthur said. A long silence followed. Arthur had come to know that kind of silence well: Leon was prepared to outwait him until he said something, anything else about the topic he clearly wanted to avoid.
Arthur sighed. "I quit rugby. I didn't know what to do."
Leon nodded. "There is a zero tolerance policy. If your teammates were found to have committed any crime on university property they would be asked to leave."
"I don't know if I can…"
"How did you feel when they were threatening Merlin?" Leon interrupted. Leon never interrupted; it made Arthur's head come up at once.
"I- Shocked, mostly."
"All right. But think about it now. These people threatened someone who seems to be becoming a true friend to you. How do you feel about it?"
Arthur's voice was hoarse when he finally admitted, "Sick with myself."
"Just because of Merlin?"
The squirming shame of the thing Arthur denied, admitting to himself only when his hand wrapped around himself in the shower or the dead of night, came to life in his gut. "I don't know what you mean," he said, fearful, and for now Leon did not press the subject further.
Breakfast became a daily ritual, a quick pint at the union not infrequent and eventually Arthur and Merlin were even meeting up on purpose.
The subject of Arthur's rugby friends had been pushed to one side since Merlin had seen Arthur speaking quietly to Gilli in the central quad one morning between classes. He had never mentioned it, never used it to ingratiate himself to Merlin but Merlin knew it had happened and it had loosened the knot he'd felt in his stomach whenever he remembered that night.
Unfortunately that knot had been about the last thing keeping him from falling for the git.
It had only been four weeks, but Merlin had grown used to Arthur. The shy look on his face when he offered to source a book Merlin couldn't afford, and the way he covered his real insecurities with a double-dose of arrogance. The sadness he carried around with him and the brilliance of his happiness in the rare flashes where it appeared.
Merlin had, on that first night, spoken until he was damn near hoarse. He'd told Arthur about his mother and the way his father had never been around, about Ealdor and the hell of the small town. He had talked about Hunith and Will and Gwaine and his classes and everything. There were just a couple of highlights he'd glossed over. The big one, of course, was that he was gay.
Merlin didn't know if Arthur had realised or not. He hadn't exactly made a big secret of it and then there was his anger over the Gilli incident – but Will had been even angrier and Will was straight.
Of course, Will could be made furious by almost anything so perhaps it really was obvious.
The story of Arthur's life had taken longer to take shape but it was beginning to take shape.
Merlin had mentioned that Hunith sent him care packages sometimes with Welsh cakes and a few other things it was hard to get in the city. Arthur had smiled ruefully. "My mother died when I was very young," he'd said.
Merlin tried to imagine life without his own loving, interfering mother. "Just you and your father then?"
Arthur shrugged. "I had a step mother, and a step sister for a while. Morgana. We used to spar and argue and take the piss out of each other but…" His face twisted into regret.
Merlin nodded. "I wouldn't have thought," he said. "You have the most pronounced case of only child syndrome I've ever seen."
For once the sarcasm fell flat: Arthur's shoulder slumped a little. "She reconnected with her half-sister a few years ago. Morgause hates my father and so Morgana started to feel that way. She doesn't really keep in touch anymore."
"I'm sorry," Merlin had said.
Arthur's life was littered with stories of loss and it tugged at Merlin's heart. He'd had to restrain himself then from running a hand through Arthur's blond hair and making ridiculous promises.
Really, it was sort of pathetic.
Merlin blamed it on the sheer amount of time they'd been spending together. Gwaine had been busy with Elena, who had decided that she liked him but who could be rather high maintenance. The fact that she got unspeakably clumsy after a pint or two had rather discouraged Merlin from wanting to spend time with them – that and the near constant snogging.
As for Will, he was still sour over Merlin spending any time at all with Arthur. Merlin had tried to encourage a friendship between the two, inviting them both for a pint at the same time but, as he should have predicted, it had not gone particularly well.
"What kind of arrogant arse just stands by and lets his mates terrorise a guy half the size of any of them?" Will had bellowed, and Arthur had curled in on himself, unwilling or unable even to argue.
Merlin's attempts to make peace had been met with "I cannot believe you are taking that git's side!"
It had been something of a relief when Will had become too busy with his coursework to do much of anything but study.
And now they were in Merlin's room, messing around with the juggling balls Merlin used to practice his telekinesis. That of course was the other big thing Merlin had neglected to mention.
Arthur had seen them on Merlin's shelf and picked them up, laughingly hassling Merlin for a demonstration until Merlin confessed he had never mastered the art.
Arthur had begun tossing them in the air in sequence, cursing faintly with frustration when he dropped one. Merlin had begun to laugh and at first Arthur had tensed, so much of his ego bound up in being taken seriously. But then Merlin had showed him how awful he was at juggling manually and Arthur had laughed right back.
Now they stood on either side of the room tossing the balls back and forth between them, trying to add flourishes to make it harder for the other to catch without actually damaging any of Merlin's things.
"You would never have made a court jester," Merlin mocked when Arthur dropped one of the balls for the fifth time.
"Of course not," Arthur said, revealing those endearingly crooked teeth as he smirked. "I would have been the King!" To punctuate the sentence Arthur threw a ball back at Merlin, catching him off guard.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Should I start calling you Your Majesty?" His throw was a little harder this time.
"'Sire' will do," Arthur returned, lobbing a ball with a little too much force. Merlin fumbled the catch and send the ball wide – it flew into the shelf behind him and knocked down a picture.
"Sorry," Arthur said, stepping across to where Merlin was righting the frame.
Arthur reached out to catch Merlin's hand. "Is that your family?" he asked quietly.
Merlin smiled softly. "Yeah. That's my Mum and my father."
"And the squirming baby between them?"
"That'd be me," Merlin shrugged ruefully. "It's just about the only picture of us all together. Dad left when I was a baby and he died not long after. I hadn't seen him in years."
"I'm sorry," Arthur said, laying a hesitant hand on Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin felt his eyes flutter closed as he leaned into the touch. "I don't really remember him," he said, Arthur's hand scalding his skin even through his t-shirt. Merlin cleared his throat and forced his eyes back open. "I have vague memories, but I'm not sure how many of them are real and how many of them are just because of the pictures I've seen."
"I don't even have vague memories of my mother," Arthur said softly. "I'd give anything even just for a picture like this."
"Yeah," Merlin said, not even knowing what he was saying. The heat of Arthur's body so near was making his brain short-circuit. He replaced the picture on the shelf lest the nerves go from his fingers and he did in fact drop it.
Arthur had not moved away.
Merlin turned his head to look at Arthur and found him wide-eyed and staring. Merlin's gaze dropped to Arthur's mouth, his lips pink and perfect and before Merlin had decided he was going to do it he had brushed his own lips over them.
Time stopped. Merlin drew back, startled by himself, but Arthur followed. Their eyes were still open and wide, shocked but carrying it through. And then Arthur's eyes closed, his hand came up to the back of Merlin's head and they were kissing again, lips moving slowly. Chaste but intensely moving, the kiss burned its way up and down Merlin's senses. Arthur's scent, the nearness of him, the feeling of his fingers at the nape of Merlin's neck turned him hot and cold all over. He pressed himself closer to the hard planes of Arthur's body, his hands coming up to caress Arthur's beautiful cheekbones. His tongue slipped out to slide across Arthur's lips and he moaned.
Immediately Arthur jerked away.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
Merlin flinched away from the fury and panic in Arthur's voice. "I…"
"Don't touch me!" Arthur snapped before Merlin could say anything; in the next moment Arthur was gone.
When Leon arrived at the counselling office the next morning, someone was already sitting on the steps up to the main entrance.
"Hello?" Leon said gently. This was not exactly a regular occurrence, but it had happened before.
The boy looked up. He was wearing a hoodie which had covered his hair and most of his face, but when he turned, Leon was startled to see Arthur, tear tracks all down his face.
"Please," Arthur said. The word was mangled, forced out by a voice which sought only to sob. "Please," he said again. "I don't know what to do."
Merlin had spent most of the night berating himself and Arthur in turn. He hadn't slept very well, conscious of Arthur just down the corridor. Dozens of questions rattled through his mind and the moment of the kiss kept replaying itself.
In the morning Merlin didn't dare go to the breakfast hall. He didn't know what he would do if he saw Arthur but he was fairly sure it would involve furious embarrassment, hysterical fury or some combination of the two.
He went instead to the Costa Coffee strategically placed between the halls and the teaching campus.
"You don't usually come in in the mornings," the girl at the counter said cheerfully when he went up to order.
Merlin blinked in surprise. "I didn't realise I came here that often."
"Oh, well, I've noticed you," the girl said. Then her brain seemed to catch up and she said, "That is, I haven't noticed you, it's just that you're rather distinctive. You know, a little odd looking." Merlin felt his expression shift into disbelief. "But not in a bad way! You're really quite attractive. Not that I'm attracted to you! I have a boyfriend! I just…"
Merlin felt his mouth tug into a rueful smile, which grew into a soft laugh as the girl blushed furiously. "Thanks," he said. "I was needing a laugh."
"Glad to help," the girl said, shrugging hopelessly. "I'm always sticking my foot in my mouth."
"There are worse things."
Reassured that no offense had been caused, the girl reverted to business. "So what can I get you?"
"Double espresso," Merlin said.
"Yeah." In answer to her unspoken question he said flatly, "Boy trouble."
"Oh," she said, startled, before she smiled again. "Well, we all know that one."
Conversation paused as the coffee maker clanked and sputtered.
"Take a seat," she said. "I'll bring it over to you."
Merlin thanked her with a smile and took a seat. He knew he should eat something but he wasn't hungry. He didn't know how he was going to make it through his classes. Every nerve in his body was jangling even as his eyes burned with the need to close. His brain felt clouded over and he couldn't face the thought of doing anything except perhaps finding somewhere away from his corridor to get some sleep.
When the coffee appeared in front of him, Merlin glanced up to thank the girl, but it wasn't her – it was a male-model beautiful bloke, all dark hair and smouldering eyes.
Maybe it was a sign from above. Maybe the universe was saying, give up on Arthur and all his confusion and here's some ridiculously gorgeous incentive.
The hope was dashed when the vision said, "My girlfriend asked me to make sure you were all right."
"Oh," Merlin said. He shook himself. "Yeah, I'm fine, just… tired."
Sir Smoulder nodded. "I don't mean to bother you. But if you would like someone to talk to – sometimes it's easier when it's a stranger."
"Yeah," Merlin said. He sighed. "I just… I made a move on a guy and I don't think he was ready for it. Like, for any guy to make that kind of move."
"Oh," Sir Smoulder said. "I don't have any prepared advice for that one."
Merlin reached for his coffee and took a long swallow which jerked his eyes open. "Ugh. Well, yeah, it was stupid. I should have waited."
"Sometimes waiting doesn't make things simpler, just more complicated," Sir Smoulder said with feeling.
"You and your girlfriend waited too long?"
"You could say that." Silence fell.
"It's none of my business," Merlin said. "But you started this chat, so…"
"There was a third party involved. It was messy and it was entirely my fault. We should have been honest long before we were."
"That must have been difficult."
"I lost my best friend over it." Sir Smoulder's face showed nothing but regret. "And I deserved to. But the thing was, I couldn't have done anything else."
Merlin tried to imagine not kissing Arthur. He tried to imagine just spending the rest of last night normally. And he was sure he'd been right to say that Arthur wasn't ready, but he couldn't have held himself back. He couldn't have borne not to kiss him, even if it meant everything was ruined.
"Lance!" the girl at the counter was calling. "I've got your tea now. Sorry, someone had hidden the Ceylon and I didn't want to give you anything less."
"You are my angel, Gwen," Lance said. He didn't say it as some men would have, joking or patronising or ostentatiously flattering. His tone was completely matter of fact, as though she really was his angel and she should know about it. And she blushed so prettily up at him, her face all lit up and lovely.
"Wait," Merlin said suddenly. "Lance and Gwen? You're… The third person was Arthur!"
Gwen recoiled immediately, nearly knocking over Lance's tea. Lance himself turned to Merlin at once. "You know Arthur?"
Merlin gulped. "Only a little."
"Please," Gwen said. "Oh, please – how is he?"
Merlin looked from Lance's face to Gwen's. They had been so unthinkingly kind to him, a total stranger. They had betrayed someone who had trusted them completely. Merlin might have wondered about the completely different sides of the two people in front of him had he not been able to see the guilt and shame in their faces. They had known what it would cost them and they had done it anyway.
Merlin could almost sympathise with that.
"He's…" What could Merlin possibly say? "I don't really know."
By the time Leon had managed to clear time to sit down with Arthur, the boy had calmed down.
It didn't take long to get the story out of him.
"I'm not gay!" Arthur finished, his whole body trembling. "I'm not!"
Leon nodded to himself. "You haven't really talked much about missing your girlfriend Gwen," he said. "You mentioned her as a catalyst for this bout of depression but I haven't heard you talk about her other than that."
Arthur looked a little wild-eyed at the change of subject. "I don't think about her much."
"Really?" Leon's scepticism shone through.
Arthur rubbed his forehead, curling in on himself slightly. "It hurt, you know?" he said. "I met her and she… We were friends first and she was just cool." Arthur smiled sadly at the memory. "She didn't let me get away with anything, and she was pretty and sweet and it was the first time I ever really felt anything for a girl, you know? But…"
"But?" Leon prompted when the silence had gone on for too long.
"She had a stronger connection with Lance," Arthur said. "I think I saw it right away but I didn't want to. She was the only girl I'd ever felt that way about and she was falling for my best friend right in front of me. And I couldn't even blame her because I was trying you know, really trying to open up to her and everything but I just didn't know how and there was Lance who's always been like a knight in shining armour."
"It's him you blame?" Leon asked, face inquisitive.
"He was the only person I had told some of this stuff to. Anything close to what I talk about here. But he took her anyway." Arthur wiped his mouth. "I was so angry with him. I still am."
"Have you seen them since?"
"Couple of times around town. We're at the same university, you know?" Arthur clenched his fists and released them slowly when the palms of his hands began to burn. "It's a real pain because Lance volunteers for Nightline so it's not like I can call them if I've got a problem."
Leon looked him dead in the eyes. "Maybe you should think about it." He let that find its target before he went on, "You mentioned twice that Gwen's the only girl you've ever had those kinds of feelings for."
Arthur tensed again. "So?"
"So I wonder," Leon said softly, "if there's ever been another person."
"I'm not gay!" Arthur burst out again. "I can't be!"
"Your reaction to the idea is very strong if you are sure that it isn't the case," Leon said in the same level tone.
Arthur had been shaking his head even while Leon spoke. "You don't understand – I can't be gay! I'd be a target for the Valiants of the world all my life. My father would disown me!"
Now they were getting somewhere. Leon took a calming breath. "You said before that your father would not approve of what Valiant had done."
"Oh, he'd never resort to brute force," Arthur spat. "But he's got more money than God and he pumps it into the most right-wing political forces going. Anyone who was against the Civil Partnership Act got a sizeable donation from Pendragon Industries. I'm already a disappointment to him – what will happen if I tell him something like this? It will kill him and he's my only family! Mother's dead, Morgana doesn't care, it's only him and if I lose him that's my family gone!" There were tears in Arthur's eyes when he finished and Leon had to supress the unprofessional urge to hug him.
"Arthur," Leon said, "this realisation is difficult for many people, for many reasons. But the reason you ended up here, talking to me, is because you were not able to acknowledge your feelings."
Arthur's face was white.
"You have always spoken about Merlin as an example to you. Is it such a leap to think that there might be some attraction there?"
"I can't-" Arthur couldn't stop shaking. Leon started to fear that he had pushed too hard too quickly.
"Arthur," he went on, "this is just something for you to think about. But I really think you need to examine the reasons this has disturbed you so badly."
"I can't," Arthur said, the word wrenched from him in total despair, and then before Leon could stop him he was up and gone.
Merlin wasn't a girl and therefore didn't say things like 'my heart skipped a beat', not even in his own head. Because that was how things started and then he would end up saying it aloud and Will would never let him live it down.
Still, the feeling when someone knocked on his door was more akin to the phrase that could not be thought than any other description his mind could conjure.
"Oh it's you," he said when he opened the door to find Gwaine standing there.
"Cheers, mate!" Gwaine said, brushing past Merlin and into his room.
"Sorry," Merlin said as he closed the door. "It's just…"
"You were hoping I was your fancy man, ain't that right?" Gwaine had already taken up lounging position on Merlin's bed.
Merlin flopped down beside him with an "Ugh."
Gwaine tipped his head to the side. "You all right there Merlin? I thought you'd be glad of the chance to hang out given that I've not exactly been around so much lately." He shrugged. "Fucking like rabbits, you know how new relationships are."
"Yeah," Merlin said, "she's holding out on you. Will told me."
"Damn him. Ah, well, can't blame a guy for chancing his arm," Gwaine said without a hint of embarrassment. "Anyway I saw your Arthur heading off so I figured you'd be around. Thought I could buy you a pint to make up for being a crap friend lately."
Merlin couldn't help himself. "Arthur's gone out?"
"Gone away for the weekend he said," Gwaine shrugged. "It's only Thursday sure enough but skiving should be encouraged wherever possible."
Merlin didn't say anything though his stomach squirmed within him. Gwaine was no fool and it took him mere moments to diagnose. "Oh, hell. You really did go and fall for the prat didn't you?"
Merlin swallowed hard. "Gwaine, I think I've fucked everything up."
Gwaine slung a companionable arm around Merlin's shoulders. "Right then. Let's go and get bladdered and you can tell me all about it."
"Arthur," Uther acknowledged.
"Father," Arthur replied, his hand clenching tighter on the handle of his suitcase. The train journey back to London had seemed to take forever as Arthur's mind whirled and now he stood in front of the man whose approval had always been the most important motivation in Arthur's life.
He couldn't, couldn't let his turmoil show.
"It's good to see you, son," Uther said. "I'm sorry I couldn't meet you at the station. Why don't you go to your room and get settled. Dinner will be at…"
"Seven o'clock," Arthur finished for him. Uther ran a tight ship.
His old bedroom was exactly the same, right down to the stash of rugby magazines he'd kept to wank to in his teens. Arthur swallowed hard when he looked at them.
It was funny: he'd thought because he'd never been attracted to any of his team mates that it hadn't been real, just harmless teenage stuff. Gwen was supposed to be his salvation.
Nothing had worked out the way Arthur had hoped.
Morgana's old room, next to his, hadn't been opened since the day she'd announced to Uther that she was never coming back. Arthur lingered by the door, longing to open it and find her there to advise him, or mock him, or force him to do the right thing. He missed her.
She didn't miss him, though. Arthur left the door closed.
Dinner was already on the table when Arthur took his seat at precisely 7.02. Uther's mouth twitched in displeasure but he didn't say anything.
Arthur began to eat in silence.
"So, Arthur, " Uther began. "How are your studies going?"
Arthur swallowed. "Well enough." He really wasn't that interested in Economics but he had a good head for figures and he was passing his courses well enough.
"Confident about the upcoming exams?"
"Good," Uther nodded. "You'll need a strong business awareness if you are someday to assume control of the company."
Uther looked at Arthur hard for a moment. Then, "And how is rugby?"
Arthur felt his face tighten. "I quit the team."
Uther frowned. "Why would you do that? You know that sport is important."
"My team mates weren't the kind of people I wanted to associate with."
Uther snorted. "Well, quite, but you will always encounter a mixture of people, Arthur. There is no reason to become snobbish."
"That's not what I mean, Father," Arthur gritted out.
"Ah?" Uther nodded. "No, I suppose that would have been rather out of character."
"Leon says I need to stop doing things that are out of character or I'll never work out what my character is," Arthur said without thinking.
"Leon?" Uther pounced. "Is Leon a friend?"
Arthur swallowed; his eyes dropped to his plate. Uther had given him an out. He could take it or he could tell his father the truth for what might as well have been the first time in his life. "Leon is my therapist."
Uther's eyebrows shot up. "You're seeing a therapist?"
Uther put down his fork. "But there's nothing wrong with you."
Arthur's mouth ran dry. "Nothing wrong with me?"
Uther looked at him. "Certainly. I cannot understand why you would waste time…"
Arthur wasn't listening. "Nothing wrong with me?"
"Father, I am miserable," Arthur blurted. "I feel like there's no room to breathe, like there never has been, like I've spent my whole life numbing myself to everything I should have been feeling and I don't know what to do! I've done everything you ever asked me to and it is killing me, do you understand?"
"Arthur, you're being hysterical," Uther said calmly.
"Maybe I am! It's better than feeling nothing."
Uther looked at him then, some odd expression on his face. "You think I feel nothing?"
"I think Mum died and you decided that you never wanted to be hurt like that ever again. So you shut everyone out and you taught me to keep everything locked up inside and you didn't realise just how badly I was choking on it." Arthur laughed shakily. "You always made it so clear what you expected of me and I did it all – I played rugby, I mixed with the right people, I went to read Economics and I never wanted any of it. I just wanted to stop feeling like a big disappointment to you."
"Arthur, you were never…"
But Arthur couldn't hear him. "Do you know that two months ago I was spending every day thinking of suicide?"
Uther fell into silence.
"I realised," Arthur went on, "that I had never really been myself in my whole life. And you're saying there's nothing wrong with me." He laughed again, absolutely hollow.
Uther swallowed. "Arthur, you never told me any of this. If you need help, then of course we'll get you the best possible care – time to rest, perhaps, any doctor you want to see-"
"You're not listening to me!" Arthur shouted. He had never shouted at his father in his life. "You cannot take this over and wish it away and make it better. I am telling you that I am working this out, and what I need from you is just a little bit of support."
Uther looked at his son for a long time, saying nothing.
Arthur nodded to himself. "Right."
"Arthur, please," Uther said, his voice subdued. "I'm just trying to understand."
"Well that's a first," Arthur spat, and without another word he stormed back to his bedroom and lay there in the dark, arms tightly around himself in case he shook apart.
"Well that's the thing, isn’t it?" Gwaine slurred. "You think you know what you want and then a beautiful blonde wanders in and fucks it all up."
"Yeah," Merlin nodded. "Yeah, exactly."
"I mean, I just wanted something casual!" Gwaine went on. "I was never attracted to the ladettes! But this girl, she can belch the alphabet! And she can climb without fumbling but then she'll fall off her high heels which aren't even that high! And I keep feeling all this stuff I didn't expect to feel until… well, never!"
Merlin had been nodding along, but Gwaine had lost him somewhere around the high heels. "Can't say I get you there," he admitted.
He jumped when Gwaine suddenly roared at someone across the bar. "Gilli! Come and take a seat!"
"You're pissed, aren't you?" Gilli asked wryly.
"Extremely," Gwaine agreed happily. "Pint?"
"Not a fan," Gilli said. "I wanted to say thanks to you though Emrys."
"Me? For why?"
"For helping out with those guys. You know that guy Arthur?"
"He's trying not to," Gwaine interjected.
"Why?" Gilli asked. "He's a good guy. I was scared to tell campus security so he came with me. Valiant's been told that one more report and he'll be asked to leave the university and Arthur made it clear that if he came after me again I'd report him again."
"Shit," Merlin breathed. He turned to Gwaine. "See, he does something like this – how am I supposed to hate him?"
"Guess you're not," Gwaine commiserated. "Drink more instead!"
Breakfast at the Pendragon house was strained, to say the least.
"I'm going back to Albion tomorrow," Arthur said flatly. "It was a mistake to come here."
Uther folded the newspaper he had been reading in lieu of looking his son in the face. "Arthur, you cannot come here and tell me that you've been thinking of- of harming yourself, and then just disappear."
"I'm telling you that I'm handling it," Arthur said. "I'm in therapy and I'm on medication. But, Father, there's a lot that's coming out of it all and I need…" He ran a hand through his hair tiredly. "There are a lot of choices I've let you make for me and that has to change. I can't keep trying to live up to you and failing. It's too hard."
"I never wanted you to be me," Uther replied. Arthur made a noise but Uther cut him off, "No, Arthur. You said a lot last night and maybe we do both need some time. But I want you to know, you've never been a disappointment to me. Not ever."
Arthur's face twisted. "Father, I think I'm gay." He hadn't meant to say it. It just fell out into the middle of a moment that was the closest he'd felt to his father in years.
Uther's face drained of all expression. And then, without a word, he got up and left the room.
Merlin was not expecting the loud knocking on his door that night; he winced, still a little rough from the night before. He stumbled to the door, shocked to find Arthur standing there.
"What-?" was all he got out before he saw that Arthur was crying. "Arthur, what's wrong?"
Arthur looked absolutely wretched. "I just came out to my father," he whispered.
Merlin's brain fused. He'd been so worried about having pushed Arthur too fast and Arthur had taken it upon himself to go nuclear. Part of him was just shocked. Part of him was delighted, thinking This might mean I can have him! and the rest of him was disgusted with himself for that tiny elation because Arthur was coming to pieces right in front of him.
It didn't matter what Merlin wanted, not right this moment. What mattered was that Arthur understood he was not alone.
Wordlessly, Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur, pulling him just far enough into his room so that he could close the door. Arthur was shaking but still broader and stronger than Merlin and when he abruptly returned the embrace, Merlin was all but winded.
"Come on," he said gently. "Let's sit."
The room was tiny; there was nowhere for two people to sit except the bed. Merlin hoped that Arthur didn't panic as he guided the two of them down, his arms still around Arthur who wept as though he would never stop.
It took a long time, but eventually Arthur was all cried out. Merlin was still holding him, stroking his hair and murmuring nonsense designed to soothe.
"I always knew," Arthur said, his voice dead and heavy. "I never wanted to know but I always did. I couldn’t… I loved Gwen, I did, but I didn't want her."
Merlin kept stroking. He'd never had to face this sudden reversal of who he'd thought he was: when he'd hit puberty Merlin had realised that it was boys not girls who elicited sexual feeling in him and that had more or less been that.
"I want you," Arthur said so quietly that Merlin wasn't sure he'd heard him.
He stiffened, looking down at Arthur's head tucked in against his skinny shoulder. Arthur didn't look up.
"I'm so tired," Arthur said, and Merlin sighed.
"Lie down," he said as gently as he could. "I've got you. It's all right. You can sleep now."
Arthur woke up still wrapped in Merlin's arms. It was terrifying and yet the safest he could ever remember feeling.
Merlin had already been awake. Arthur had pulled away, mumbling something about classes. "It's Saturday," Merlin pointed out quietly.
Arthur bit his lip.
"It's all right," Merlin said. "I know this has been a hell of a few days. It's OK if you need time to think."
I love you, Arthur thought, which was irrational and insane and God, he hoped Merlin could feel that way too.
He was behaving like a total basket case. "Yeah. Time to think," he agreed. "And a shower."
"You know if you need to talk," Merlin said haltingly, "I'm right here. Any time."
"Don't be such a girl, Merlin," Arthur said, taking refuge behind his usual armour, but he squeezed Merlin's hand as he said it.
Merlin squeezed back. "Prat."
Arthur got up.
After a shower and a clean set of clothes, Arthur wandered out into the town. He didn't know where he was going until he was there, standing at the entrance to Costa coffee the way he had stood outside the entrance to Morgana's room.
This time, though, he went inside.
Gwen was at the counter bustling about, her curly hair wild and all over the place the way it always got after an hour or so of steaming milk. The café was pretty full. Lance was sitting in a corner booth. That used to be him, Arthur remembered. Watching Gwen work while he pretended to study, drinking endless cups of coffee while she experimented with new blends. And sometimes his best mate would come.
"Arthur," Gwen said as though his name had just tumbled out of her mouth without her volition.
Lance's head jerked up; he half-rose.
"Pot of tea if you would," Arthur said to Gwen. "I'll be over there."
Gwen's eyes darted back and forth between Arthur and Lance. She nodded jerkily and turned to make his tea.
Arthur sat down opposite Lance. For a long while neither of them spoke.
"I've been worried about you," Lance said at last. "I wanted to see how you were, but I didn't think you'd want to talk to me."
"I didn't," Arthur said. "But the last few days…" He shrugged.
Lance nodded. Silence fell again.
Gwen brought over the tea on a tray with a tiny jug of milk. Arthur was half-expecting her to fumble it, but she placed it in front of him effortlessly.
"I think you did the right thing breaking up with me," Arthur said to her elbow.
Gwen stilled. "Arthur-"
"No, I really mean it," Arthur said. "Because as it turns out I seem to be…" He swallowed. It was only the second time he would ever say it, and the first time he had consciously chosen to. "I seem to be gay," he forced out.
Gwen made a soft sound in the back of her throat; Lance's face reflected a deep sympathy. "Arthur," he said, "I'm so sorry."
Arthur knew what he meant. Lance was sorry he'd had to go through this alone.
"Have you told your father?" Lance asked softly.
Arthur met his gaze and nodded. It was all he could do to prevent the tears from rising again.
Gwen squeezed his shoulder gently. "I'm glad you told us," she said, her voice trembling. Arthur sank into her touch and Lance's hand on his arm, the warmth and the familiarity of them.
"Me too," he managed to say.
"Well," Leon said, sitting back. "That's quite the remarkable few days you've had, Arthur. You accepted your sexuality, came out to your father and forgave your best friend. You certainly don't waste time when you've decided on the right course of action."
Leon was usually neutral throughout their sessions – that was why Arthur recognised the glint of admiration in his eyes. Pride filled him.
"Guess not," Arthur said, shrugging. "Wonder what else I'll find out about myself."
"There's still a lot to be dealt with," Leon said.
Arthur nodded. "My father hasn't spoken to me for a week. I don't know yet whether he's going to."
Leon nodded. "Do you regret telling him the truth?"
"No," Arthur said at once. "No, it was killing me. I see that now." He laughed. "You know, when I was in school Merlin would have been someone I picked on. And yet, he's the reason…"
Leon eyed Arthur. "How do you feel about Merlin?"
A smile tugged the corner of Arthur's mouth. "It's like hope came in the shape of a person."
"That's a lot to put on a person you know, Arthur," Leon cautioned.
"I know," Arthur said, his face turning serious again. "I know, and it's not- I know I'm not all magically fixed now. I do. I still feel like hell some days, and my sleeping's still all over the place. I've still got a lot I want to talk about but the thing is, I want to now. That's something, yeah?"
"Yes," Leon said, smiling. "Yes, it is."
"OK," Arthur said, brushing past Merlin as soon as he opened his door. "Here are some things you should know. I haven't made a public service announcement, but I've told the people who matter to me and it hasn't all been smooth sailing. But there's more. I'm being treated for clinical depression. I'm on medication, and I'm going to therapy. I'm probably going to be broke now because it seems pretty certain that my Father's going to cut me off. I hate Economics and I think I want to be a teacher. I'm not always brave like you and I'm probably going to fuck this up at least once. Will you go out with me?"
Merlin stood looking at him slack-jawed.
"Doing a wonderful goldfish impression there, Merlin, brilliant. But I'm a little anxious here, so would you do me the honour of answering the question?"
Merlin's expression turned to one of incredulity. "You are such a prat. You just blurt out all of that and… You are still such a prat!"
Arthur felt the knots in his stomach ease. "That's a yes, isn't it?"
Merlin gulped. "I'm a virgin," he blurted out. "I act like I know what I'm doing but I haven't got a clue. And not just about boys, about everything. I'm not brave, I just don't think things through because if I did I'd be paralysed. I have superpowers. Are you sure you want me to?"
"Certain," Arthur said, reaching out to grasp the nape of Merlin's neck in his hand. "So?"
"Let's do it," Merlin said right before Arthur's mouth descended on his.
It hadn't been easy. It hadn't been all rainbows and hearts and flowers. Arthur still had bad days, terrible days when he could barely force himself to get out of bed, and Merlin had to deal with it. The magic thing had led to a fight when Arthur finally realised Merlin had been serious about the superpowers.
But Arthur went to sessions every week with Leon and he got stronger. Gwaine had taken to him, and even Will had covered his back that time Valiant had shown up. Merlin got to like Gwen and Lance more and more. They were the kindest people he could imagine, and he was glad that Arthur had managed not to hate them even if in his darker moments Merlin wondered how much he was paying for their mistake.
There was love, too, in the way Arthur kissed him slowly, drugging him, and the way he steeled himself but held Merlin's hand all the way along the high street. There was trust in the way Arthur let Merlin slide inside him. There was hope in the mornings when Merlin woke to find Arthur watching him sleep. All those things were also true.
Merlin never understood quite how bad it had been until the morning he awoke to hear Arthur having a hushed conversation on the phone.
"I know what you think, Father," Arthur said quietly. "But the fact is, this is not a snap decision and it is not something I would be prepared to change even assuming I could."
A pause, and then, Arthur's voice full of menace, "If 'that boy' hadn't stayed up talking to me until after 4am, I would have killed myself that night. So don't tell me he's a bad influence."
The phone snapped closed angrily.
"Is that true?" Merlin asked, completely awake now.
Arthur turned to him. "I thought you were asleep."
"I was," Merlin replied. "Is that true?"
Arthur took a deep breath, looked Merlin right in the face and nodded. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I didn't… It seemed like it would be too much. I didn't want to scare you."
"It does scare me, but not the way you mean." Merlin was out of bed and across the room in seconds. "Arthur, promise me, don't ever… It would kill me too."
Arthur looked into Merlin's face, and saw nothing but anguish; he wrapped his arms around Merlin immediately, one large hand cradling the back of his head. "No, Merlin, no – I'd never do it now. And not just because of you, though God knows I love you. No, I see now you have to face things. So I never would."
Merlin clung to him. "Good. Good. God, you're a prat. I can't believe you were thinking like that."
"Yeah. If I'd done it, we'd never have had any of this." Arthur's arms tightened. "Even if this ends up… No matter what, this was worth it."
"Yeah," Merlin said, tears in his eyes, his beloved idiot in his arms. "Yeah."
Arthur kissed the side of Merlin's face. "Life's short enough. Let's go back to bed."