"Oh my god," shouted Arthur, staring in horror at where Merlin was nibbling on the neck of an unfamiliar girl, sitting perched in his lap on the couch. "You're cheating on me?!"
Arthur had known Merlin for about a year. He'd met him the previous winter, while doing his usual cut through the city park on his way home from his night lecture; Merlin had been sitting on a bench at the edge of the pond, throwing the occasional handful of crumbs toward a duck, which was sleeping with its head under its wing near the grasses at the edge.
"Ducks aren't nocturnal, you know," Arthur had said, after a few moments of watching the other man pollute the water with bread. He hadn't quite meant to say anything, but the man turned to him and smiled.
"I know," Merlin had said. "But you can never be sure. Maybe it'll want a midnight snack."
"It's only nine, mate," Arthur had said.
"You can call me Merlin," said Merlin. And then he'd patted the bench beside himself and said, "You look hungry. I have sandwiches?"
And that was how Arthur had come to know Merlin. Upon hearing the story, Morgana had screeched something to Arthur about the dangers of going up to strangers in the park and accepting food from them, but then she'd met Merlin and had gone screeching something to him about what if Arthur had been a serial killer, Merlin shouldn't have offered him food, it could have been dangerous.
Yeah, all it took was meeting Merlin. Arthur was pretty sure that everyone was a lost cause after that. It certainly couldn't just be him.
Merlin broke away from the girl's neck to stare at Arthur in horror. Except Merlin couldn't be horrified, because Arthur was ten times more horrified than him, because Merlin's mouth had lifted from the girl's neck and appeared to be smeared with blood.
The girl's blood.
From the girl's neck.
"You're a cannibal!" Arthur shrieked.
Merlin was a gangly, pale thing with a bright laugh and a smile that took over practically his entire face. Most nights he worked the late shift at the 24-hour shop on Arthur's route home, and the other nights he sat in the park by the pond. He seemed to like the pond, for some reason Arthur hadn't got around to asking. Or rather, he'd asked once but it had devolved into Arthur calling Merlin "rather creepy, actually" and Merlin looking put-out for a minute and then refusing to give Arthur the sandwich he'd made, cold ham and salami with pickles, peppers, and mustard.
That was Merlin's thing. Sandwiches. Arthur wasn't quite sure why he liked them so much, but he always happened to have one on hand to give to Arthur, and it was always different from the one before. Arthur was half-certain that Merlin had created some sort of sandwich-language and was trying to communicate with Arthur through it; he was always watching intently whenever Arthur started eating, as if he was trying to pass information into Arthur's head while he chewed.
On anyone else it might have been creepy, but Merlin was odd and endearing. He was pale under streetlights, and he had funny ears that Arthur often had the urge to flick. He had these long legs—Arthur hadn't quite realized how long until he'd shoved Merlin one night and he'd gone flailing onto the other half of the bench, limbs everywhere. He'd helped Merlin up eventually but couldn't stop himself from staring at various inappropriate parts, like Merlin's wrists and hips and scruffy hair. And his mouth.
Merlin sometimes caught him looking, and smiled.
"Oh god you're a cannibal," Arthur whimpered, pulling at the jammed doorknob. "You're a cannibal and you've stuck the doors so I can't escape and you're going to eat me."
"I'm not a cannibal," Merlin insisted. He had been saying as much for the past few minutes, but this was clearly a dirty lie. He'd been eating that girl, for god's sake! There was still blood on the corner of his chin, and on his shirtsleeve where he'd wiped the rest off. Arthur needed to get away fast, or he'd be turned into dinner. He was probably a lot more filling to a cannibal than that scrawny girl. He had meat on his bones. Muscle.
Arthur took a deep breath and turned his back to the broken door. He raised his fists and said to Merlin, "I'll fight you before I die."
"This is ridiculous," the girl on the couch finally said. Arthur jumped—he'd thought she'd been lying there dead, but apparently Merlin wasn't a very efficient cannibal, because she was still alive. "Merlin, just tell him already."
Merlin swallowed. "There's nothing to tell," he said.
"Merlin," she said, sounding stern. Merlin wilted.
"If you're trying to tell me that you're a cannibal, I've already figured that part out," Arthur said. "I'm not stupid, you know. I'm as observant as anyone."
One time Arthur sought Merlin out in the park, long after dark as usual, on a night when he didn't have the excuse of an evening lecture to explain his presence. He had brought some sandwiches along instead, in a plastic bag that he had clutched in a sweaty hand.
"I made them," Arthur said, unwrapping the sandwiches on the bench between them and offering one tentatively. "I don't know what you like in your sandwiches, but you've made pretty much every kind so I thought chicken would probably..."
Merlin took one, beaming at Arthur like nothing in the world could have pleased him more. He took a bite and chewed for a moment. Then he paused.
"Arthur," he said slowly. "Is there any garlic in this sandwich?"
Arthur later apologised, staring woefully at the rash of hives that had broken out all over Merlin's lovely face. He hadn't known people could be allergic to garlic, but well. You never knew.
He ended up staring at Merlin's face so long that Merlin said, "Oh, I don't know what you're waiting for," took him by the shoulders, and kissed him.
It was perfectly wonderful, and tasted only minimally of garlic.
"Cannibalism is the sort of thing that you should mention before the first date, Merlin," Arthur said. "If I had known, I would never have shagged you. I would have never let you put your mouth around my—"
The girl coughed.
"Would you stop that already?" Merlin said to Arthur, looking irritated. "I'm not a cannibal."
"Fine then, I'm curious," Arthur said, crossing his arms. "How else do you explain the neck-biting, then? I'm dying to know."
Arthur wanted to invite Merlin on sunny mountain-climbing dates, but Merlin insisted that he was horrible at mountain-climbing and also that he slept during the daytime to account for his night shift. So they just made out and shagged a lot instead. Sometimes they went to the cinema. Sometimes they went to the park. Sometimes they meant to go to the cinema or the park, but just ended up shagging in the hallway a few times before retreating back to bed.
Arthur wondered what Merlin looked like in the sun. He'd probably burn red as a lobster, he was so pale. Arthur wondered whether the sun or Merlin's smile would look brighter.
It wasn't all that strange that in a year, he'd never once seen Merlin by the light of day. Merlin still had his night job, after all. They'd gotten into a routine, and hadn't bothered changing it. That was all it was.
"Oh," Arthur said, "no. No. You can't be. That makes no sense."
"No," Merlin agreed.
"It's just," Arthur said. "You can't be—how could you be a—"
"A vampire?" Merlin said.
"There's something wrong with me," Merlin had admitted once in the dark, reaching across the pillows to thumb tenderly at Arthur's mouth.
"What isn't wrong with you?" Arthur asked, snorting. Merlin was the strangest person he'd ever met.
Merlin frowned, and promptly tore off one of the chapped bits on Arthur's bottom lip with his fingers.
"Ow," Arthur shouted, and clapped a hand to his face, gasping as the shock fizzled away and a deeper pain started welling up. "Merlin, you complete—what was that for? You can say goodbye to sex for the rest of your—"
But then Merlin brushed Arthur's hand away from his face and dipped over to kiss him, smearing the beaded up bit of blood on Arthur's lip between their mouths before licking it away. And then he started sucking on it, on the place that hurt, which was kind of fucked up but also kind of made a weird "hnngk" sort of noise come out of the back of Arthur's throat. There was a hint of blood in his mouth and it tasted kind of good—tangy.
His lip throbbed again, and Merlin licked over it, humming.
"Oh god," Arthur said. His knees wobbled.
Merlin had an arm around his waist before he realised he needed the support. He was warm against Arthur's side, so warm. Vampires weren't supposed to be warm, were they? Or funny, or sweet, or incredible shags?
"You're not a vampire," Arthur said firmly to Merlin.
Merlin sighed and kissed his neck. His teeth scraped a little.
"Oh fuck," said Arthur. His knees wobbled again. "You're a vampire."
One strange thing about Merlin that Arthur had noticed was how little he always had in his fridge. He attributed it to Merlin being a single man like himself (until recently), but really, considering that, Arthur would have thought Merlin would have more one-step ready-meals in his fridge and not things like steak and greens.
"I bet you don't even eat those steaks," Arthur said. "You're like a skeleton. I bet they're just for show."
"I do too eat them," Merlin said. "They're good for me. Lots of iron."
"We need to establish some ground rules," said Arthur when the girl on the couch (whose name was Freya) had drunk a bottle of water and finally gone home. "Firstly, you can't give me a blowjob ever again."
"What?!" Merlin exclaimed.
"I'm not happy about it either, trust me," Arthur said. He really wasn't.
"Arthur, this makes no sense," Merlin said. "Is this about the teeth? Because if you didn't have a problem with them before, I don't see how—"
"Second," Arthur said, ignoring him, "no cheating."
Merlin winced and looked away. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean for you to—"
"—Find out?" Arthur asked.
"It's not cheating," Merlin said. "I have to eat, Arthur. I can't help it. Freya's been helping me out for a long time."
"How long?" Arthur asked.
Merlin shifted uncomfortably. "Forty years or so?"
Arthur's heart jerked about angrily in his chest. "Guess she means a lot to you then, doesn't she? What am I, Merlin? Why do you even have me around? Am I supposed to be your—your bit on the side? Is it just for the shagging, because I'm sure she wouldn't mind helping you out with that too—"
"No," Merlin said, catching Arthur by the wrists. "Arthur, no. I like you. I like you so much."
"Then why wouldn't you have asked me to—" He broke off.
Merlin stared at him.
It bottled up in Arthur's chest faster than he could tamp it down. "Let me," he said, the words spilling quick out of his mouth. "I want to do it."
Merlin said nothing.
"No?" Arthur said, hopes crumpling, after the pause had stretched too long. "Well. That's fine. I don't mind not being attractive to you as a meal option. Not at all. In fact, it's probably safer that way."
Merlin squeezed his wrist; Arthur imagined he could feel his pulse jumping against Merlin's hand.
"It would be safer that way, yeah," Merlin agreed, looking down. "Unfortunately, you've always been attractive to me. In pretty much every way."
"Oh," said Arthur, brought up short. Then he grinned slowly, only a little bit smugly. "Really, now? Everything about me is attractive?"
"Everything but your personality, obviously," Merlin said. "That part could use some work."
There had been times when Arthur had asked Merlin out and Merlin hadn't been able to accept. There had been times when Arthur had rung Merlin and Merlin hadn't answered. There were times when Arthur had asked, "Where were you?" and Merlin had answered, "Book club."
Once Arthur had gone to Merlin's apartment out of the blue and traveled up to Merlin's floor, passing a pale-faced girl making her way down. He'd got to Merlin's door and Merlin had opened it for him, rosy-cheeked and surprised.
Arthur hadn't thought anything of it. And why should he have?
They didn't shag that night, but they slept together, in just their boxers under the sheets. Arthur waited patiently until Merlin was still, breathing deeply with sleep, before extracting himself from the bed. He found a flashlight in the hall cupboard and returned to the bedroom, carefully peeling up the duvet and shining the beam onto Merlin's pale, naked chest.
It didn't sparkle in the light.
"What are you doing?" Merlin asked. Arthur looked up and found Merlin staring down at him. He stared back for two seconds before hurriedly fumbling the flashlight off.
"Nothing," Arthur said, and quickly dove back into the bed, tossing the flashlight away. "Go back to sleep."
"You're aware that I don't actually sleep," Merlin said, "right?"
"Not even during the daytime?" Arthur asked. "In a coffin?"
"No, and no," Merlin said.
"Oh," said Arthur.
Merlin peered at him curiously for another moment or two before asking, "Arthur, were you trying to use a flashlight to see if I sparkle like those ridiculous, made-up—"
"No," Arthur said quickly. "Why would I be doing something silly like that? I wouldn't do that."
"Hmm," Merlin said. "If you relent about the blowjobs, I'll pretend to believe you."
Merlin's flat was small, wedged into a cramped building with a row of others. It had only two tiny windows in the back, which were always covered by heavy blue curtains. The sun didn't peek through even around the edges.
Arthur had tried opening the curtains one morning, only to find that the windows were broken, and had been boarded solidly up from the outside.
On the inside of the boards, someone had used a felt-tip pen and set of colored markers to draw a picture of a sunny hillside, bright with blues, yellows, and greens, and spots of red flowers. It was a far cry from the drab expanse of alley that the windows probably actually looked out on, almost garish in its radiant optimism. The smiley face drawn on the sun was a hideous, yet strangely fitting, final touch.
Only Merlin, Arthur thought, rolling his eyes, but left the curtains open.
"Aren't you even going to ask if it'll hurt?" Merlin asked quietly, when Arthur had settled carefully with his back to Merlin's chest, and bared his neck.
"You couldn't hurt a fly if you tried, Merlin," Arthur said, and squeezed Merlin's hand. He didn't say: I don't care if it hurts.
(it all works out.)