The first time, Merlin really doesn’t recognize him, which Will tells him later is ridiculous, though Merlin will swear on anything that it’s true.
It’s quarter to nine on a Thursday morning, and Merlin is about to start his first shift as a nurse at Camelot General, but there’d been a leak in his flat the night before so he was up late finding an emergency plumber and begging the super for assistance, which meant he had to stop by the cafe a few blocks from the hospital for a coffee. “Black. Possibly with six shots of espresso in,” he tells the girl behind the counter, a pretty girl with pre-Raphaelite hair and a badge that informs him her name is Sophia.
“Wait, what?” she says, staring over his shoulder with a dreamy expression.
Merlin assumes that whatever boy from uni she fancies is next in line, so he doesn’t begrudge repeating the order. “Black coffee, strong as you can make it, large, please.”
“And my usual, Sophia,” someone says from behind him, and Sophia simpers over his shoulder, continuing to ignore Merlin’s order. Merlin sighs and reminds himself that perhaps he’s not the only one in need of a massive caffeine fix. It’s a gloomy day, so it’s hard enough for anyone to get going. “Quickly, please.”
“Of course, sir,” she breathes, and Merlin suspects she isn’t speaking to him. Then he’s sure, because she goes to the fancy cappuccino machine and starts doing something complicated with foam that definitely is not involved in getting a cup of black coffee.
Sure enough, she putters around for nearly five minutes making a heinously complicated drink and Merlin manages not to turn around and tell her uni boyfriend to stuff it up his arse as some people have to get to work, but he’s sort of forced to acknowledge the other patron when he reaches around Merlin to slap a note down on the counter and Sophia reaches to give him his drink. “You’re an angel, Soph,” says the man, and Merlin backs away because the way his morning is going he’s bound to get the drink spilled on him and gets the impression of a strong arm and a broad chest and very blond hair before turning away. “Sorry, mate,” the voice continues, far too cheerful, “just, some of us have to get to work, yeah?”
“Yes,” Merlin gets out between gritted teeth, “some of us do.” Sophia starts and looks at him in the middle of getting the other man’s change. “Wanker,” he whispers, and she gives him a scandalized look.
“Do you know to whom you’re speaking?” the other man asks.
“No, and I don’t care to,” says Merlin, and looks over his shoulder to find the man frozen, still holding his ridiculous drink. “Black coffee, miss? Large?”
“Oh, right,” she murmurs, and holds out the other man’s change.
“Use it to pay for the grumpy bugger’s drink, Soph, he is obviously in desperate need of caffeine.” Merlin thinks uncharitably that the man sounds like he’s waiting for a laugh track, so he doesn’t respond and Sophia miraculously gets him his drink in time for him to run down the street towards Camelot general, blasting past the blond man in his haste.
It isn’t until he bursts through the doors just in time to check in with Freya, the head nurse, that Merlin stops short and realizes Oh, fuck, that was Arthur Pendragon.
“You,” Will slurs that night, “are a lying liar. Who lies. Every bloody one knows who Arthur Pendragon is. He is fucking Arthur Pendragon.”
“Really?” says Merlin, who is about three shots of rum behind Will and feeling glummer by the second. “I’d say it’s pretty hard to be screwing yourself.”
Will gives him a look reminiscent of a confused puppy. “You think you’re clever,” he mumbles, and Merlin nods, because most of the time he does. “Also, you are a liar. You pre-prevar--ah, fuck it, you lie. Like the damn carpet in the movie where Robin Williams is blue.”
Merlin stares at him. “You make very little sense.”
“You are not telling me that you stood in the same coffee shop as the biggest rock star in the bloody hemisphere and didn’t recognize him. Or that he paid for your drink.”
“Maybe he was a lookalike? I dunno, Will, I was exhausted and he was being a wanker and I was running late.”
“You should seduce him, and then introduce me to those hot chick bandmates of his.”
Merlin ignores Will, because it’s wisest to do that when Will is drunk and starts talking about girls, and also because he is trying desperately to remember how any songs of Arthur’s go. He knows he’s heard them on the radio in the car a few times, and that they’re catchy, but none of them will stick. Probably at least some of that is the rum’s fault. “You haven’t even asked me about work,” he points out at last.
“If you want me to pay attention to how many kids you poked with needles today, you should not talk about meeting rock stars first. Seriously. Seduce him. I’d do him, but I’d rather do the hot chicks. The drummer, Merlin.” Will hiccoughs. “The drummer is walking sex.”
“I wouldn’t want sex walking. Also, there is no conclusive evidence that Arthur Pendragon is gay, and there’s pretty conclusive evidence that the ladies in the band are.”
“You are ruining my dreams.”
“I am not.”
“Why are you my best friend again?”
Will slumps down on the couch, and Merlin sighs and hits the remote so they can watch whatever home improvement program is on so Will can pretend he’s a feng shui expert and Merlin can forget about being rude to radio stars.
A few days later, Merlin returns to the coffee shop on his (far less rushed) way to work to find Sophia behind the counter again. She gives him a wide-eyed look, but he attempts his most charming smile, as it wasn’t her fault she was a bit star-struck. It probably isn’t often that rock stars come in to order drinks (even though he’d ordered “my usual,” but Merlin is willing to bet that Sophia would have remembered his order even if he’d only been there once). “Mocha, no whipped cream, please, Sophia. Oh, and one of those blueberry muffins.”
“Yes, sir.” She sniffs and gets to making his drink.
The bell on the door rings and Merlin turns automatically, only to find Arthur Pendragon strolling in, a terrifying dark-haired woman in a leather jacket one step behind him. Merlin thinks he recognizes her as the drummer Will ... mentioned. “You again!” says Arthur with a gleeful grin, and Merlin raises his eyebrow. “Back to glare at me some more?”
Merlin turns around to give Sophia his money, as she has managed to get his drink ready by some miracle, and shakes it a few times before she takes it. “Thank you, Sophia,” he says, but she’s ignoring him now. Merlin takes a sip of his coffee. “Sorry about the other morning, mate, I’m never at my best on too little sleep and I was starting a new job. No hard feelings, and thanks for the drink.”
He heads for the door, and thinks he can feel someone staring at him on his way out.
The next Saturday morning, Will is hungover and being an arse, so Merlin buys a paper and retreats to a table in the coffee shop with another mocha. There’s a girl named Vivian behind the counter, and she’s rude to him from the start, unlike Sophia. Merlin makes a mental note to find a coffee shop where the employees don’t look at him like he kicks puppies on a regular basis.
Because this is his life now, Arthur Pendragon shows up fifteen minutes later, no one in tow this time. Vivian falls all over herself getting his drink, and Merlin smirks at his paper until he realizes that something is blocking the sun and looks up to find Arthur standing over him with eyebrows raised. “Can I help you?” he asks. “Oh wait, it’s you. Sorry, was I meant to pay you back for that first drink or something?”
“Um, no, that was a gift.” Arthur’s smirk is subsiding into confusion, and Merlin tries hard not to relish it. “I’d never seen you in here before last week,” he tries.
“Just moved into a new flat a month ago, and started my new job last week, like I mentioned, so I never had reason to.” It occurs to Merlin that Arthur probably thinks he’s developed a stalker or something. “I’m a nurse, at Camelot General.”
“Right.” Arthur still sounds confused. “Well, welcome to the area.”
“Thanks. The name’s Merlin.” The next words are out of Merlin’s mouth before he can stop them. “And you are?”
Arthur stands above him, blinking rapidly, for a long minute. “Um. Arthur.”
(Later, Will stares at him. “You. You pretended you didn’t know who he is.”
“Why are you my best friend again?”
“That’s my line.”)
Merlin goes to the cafe again on Monday, earlier than usual because he finished his first night shift at the hospital and has groceries to shop for before he can sleep. Arthur is there, at a table with two women, and all three of them look knackered. Merlin can sympathize, so he sends them a tired wave and Vivian gives him a scandalized look and puts cream in his coffee even though he ordered it black. He doesn’t bother to object.
Arthur stands up and walks over to him when Merlin turns around to stumble back out. “Aren’t going to say hello, Merlin?”
“Hello. Too exhausted to talk much right now, sorry. Didn’t want to scare off your friends with my raccoon eyes.”
The friends are, he realizes a second later, the drummer and the bassist who back Arthur up in all his concerts, and sure enough, they’re holding hands under the table, and the bassist, who’s incongruously wearing a yellow sundress, is leaning on the drummer’s leather-jacketed shoulder. “Too bad,” says Arthur. “Late night partying before work?”
“Late night at work,” Merlin corrects. “What are you so exhausted for?”
“Monday mornings ought to be banned.” Merlin resists the urge to ask why a rock singer has to be up at the crack of dawn on a Monday, but he is still playing ignorant, which puts a bit of a damper on that conversational topic. “Can I convince you to stay a few minutes? I pointed you out walking by and now Morgana and Gwen want to meet you.”
Merlin suspects that if he says no, Will will never forgive him, so he nods and trudges back to Arthur’s table, where the women perk up a bit as he arrives. “You must be--” starts the bassist.
“This is Merlin,” says Arthur, and the drummer smirks. “Merlin, these harridans are Morgana and Gwen. Ignore everything they say. It’s all lies.”
Merlin, in between yawns and sips of mocha and Arthur shoving a scone with jam in his hand, establishes that Morgana is the drummer and can reduce Arthur to a squirming five-year-old in under a minute, and that Gwen is the bassist and prone to somewhat tangential babbling. Though that might be because Arthur not-so-subtly kicks her whenever she starts talking about work. “You look familiar,” Merlin informs Morgana during a silence, and all three of them freeze. “You were in here with Arthur one morning, right?”
She smirks. “Yes, in fact, I was.”
“Right, well, I guess that’s enough of that,” says Arthur, a bit too loud. “Didn’t you have some shopping to do, Merlin?”
Merlin waves at them all and wanders off, trying not to smirk.
(“Ohhh,” says Will late that night when Merlin manages to stagger out of bed. “I get it. This is all part of some epic secret plan to seduce him. Teach him humility and all that.”
“It is not!”
“What is it, then?”
“... Can I get back to you on that?”)
After that, it seems like whatever time of morning Merlin goes to the coffee shop, Arthur is there. Morgana and Gwen show up a few times, but mostly it’s just Arthur at a table with a book or a paper, and he and Merlin chat for a bit before Merlin goes off to wherever he’s going, or more rarely, until Arthur has to go somewhere.
He learns that Arthur likes his drinks fancy because then they taste less like coffee, and that he can’t stand nuts in his baked goods, and that he reads tabloids for fun (there’s one morning when he’s on the cover of one, Merlin sees at the newsstand, and Arthur almost falls out of his chair folding the paper up when Merlin comes in. Merlin wonders how thick Arthur thinks he is). Merlin talks about the hospital and Will and his mother and the fact that the hospital caf’s coffee is possibly made of dead snails.
Vivian and Sophia seem to hate him more by the day, but he trusts them not to poison his coffee when Arthur is around.
He runs into Gwen at the pharmacy one afternoon when he’s being a good flatmate and replacing Will’s Magic Hangover Pills. “Arthur would never mention it,” she says with a huge grin, “but Morgana’s having a party at our place next weekend, and I’d love it if you came.”
Merlin thinks about Will’s probable reaction if he turns the offer down and Arthur’s probable reaction if Merlin actually dares show up in his real party-boy life. “Love to, but I’m on night shifts at the hospital this weekend,” he says, and vows not to tell Will about the invitation. “Besides, I wouldn’t know any of your friends.”
Gwen grins at him. “You might want to put Arthur out of his misery soon, just so you know. You’re driving him crazy.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” answers Merlin in his loftiest tone, but he knows his answering grin is giving him away.
“Got you a drink,” Merlin calls across the coffee shop one morning a few weeks later. He’s in the middle of a few weeks’ rotation of night shift at the hospital and actually getting used to being nocturnal.
Arthur blinks and comes over while Sophia doesn’t bother to hide a glare. “You didn’t have to, it’s not like I can’t afford it,” says Arthur.
“Well, you’re always buying me drinks, and it’s not like I’m flat broke or anything.” Merlin shrugs. “Got you one of your frilly bits of nonsense, hope it’s one you’re in the mood for.”
“I’m not a girl,” mutters Arthur.
“I’ll bet you drink pink cocktails.”
“I do not!” Arthur looks scandalized. “I drink real booze, like any self-respecting man, I’ll have you know.”
“Sure you do.”
Merlin could keep up that argument indefinitely, since he often has similar ones with Will, albeit with a bit less eye contact and wanting to haul him across the table to taste his drink, but at that moment the radio station playing softly in the background starts playing Arthur’s latest single, and Arthur freezes up. Merlin sips his coffee and listens to Arthur sing something about reality never quite measuring up to imagination that’s actually pretty damn catchy. “So,” Arthur blurts, a bit too loud.
“Catchy,” says Merlin, mostly to mess with him. “And it’s actually not about getting laid, which is pretty rare these days.”
Arthur turns bright red. “Um.”
(“You are a cruel, cruel man.”
“Will, he’s the most famous man in Britain right now, with the possible exception of Hugh Grant, and he is much more attractive than Hugh Grant. He knows I know who he is.”
“Well, he also sounds a bit thick.”
“Why are you my best friend, again?”
“Introduce me to the drummer, you bastard.”
“Her girlfriend could take you.”)
Merlin runs into Morgana at the book shop on one of his rare days off, and she smirks at him the second she sees him. “You weren’t at the coffee shop this morning. Arthur is worried.” Merlin stares at her. “You haven’t missed a day in weeks, you realize.”
He didn’t realize until just now, actually, so it takes him a minute or two to answer. “I’ve got the day off work.” The thought that Arthur wondered about his absence is more shocking than it ought to be, maybe because he’s never seen Arthur outside the coffee shop and thus out in the real world he actually seems like a celebrity, not the regular guy who knows what kinds of muffins Merlin likes. “I’ll see him tomorrow.”
“He thinks you live under a rock or something,” Morgana informs him, picking up a copy of The Second Sex and staring at the cover far too casually to be believed. “It’s absolutely hilarious.”
Merlin rolls his eyes. “He can’t possibly think I don’t know who he is. One of his songs came on the radio in the shop the other morning.”
“Yes, he mentioned afterwards,” she says, voice cool and amused. “He was having a bit of a heart attack.” Suddenly her smile goes wide and sharp. “We’re doing a concert, two weeks from Saturday. I can guarantee you front row seats.”
Merlin thinks about Arthur’s reaction to Merlin hearing one of his songs on the radio, and the fact that apparently he thinks Merlin is a complete idiot. “I ... ah, maybe that’s not the best idea, Morgana. He doesn’t seem to want me to find out that he’s Arthur Pendragon.”
“He just doesn’t want you to like him because he’s one of People’s hottest bachelors or whatever the hell that list is.”
“Is he?” asks Merlin, distracted, before getting back on track. “Look, if this is your way of screening me to make sure once and for all I’m not a groupie, I don’t even own your CDs, though I keep meaning to get them now that I know you, and I really didn’t recognize him the first time I met him.”
Morgana waves her hand dismissively. “We know you aren’t a groupie, don’t worry. But you ought to tell Arthur that you know soon, and I’d really like to see his face when you show up at the concert.”
Merlin suspects that Morgana always gets her way, and that arguing would only delay the inevitable. “Yes, okay, fine, but you do realize he’s going to murder me for letting him think I don’t know who he is, right?”
“That,” she says, “is not my problem.”
(“You are giving the extra ticket to me.”
“Who the hell else would I give it to?”
“So I can seduce the drummer.”
“Never mind, Freya gets it.”)
Merlin is pretty sure that over the next two weeks Arthur has figured out that something is up, which makes their breakfasts awkward to say the least. Merlin’s aware the whole time of the two tickets taped to the refrigerator in his flat, and he doesn’t know what Arthur’s thinking, but it can’t be good.
It’s almost a relief on the night of the concert, when he’s still exhausted from working a week of ridiculous shifts and tearing the flat apart searching for the shirt he wants to wear while Will looks on in smug amusement, because he knows that at least everything will be on the table.
Everyone in the line to get into the stadium is verging on giddy, talking about the tour Arthur will be going on in a few months, and Merlin pretends his heart doesn’t sink at the thought of Arthur being away for months. Judging from Will’s expression, he doesn’t do a good job of it.
They get glared at by what feels like a million girls from age sixteen up as they head for the front row, and Merlin hunches his shoulders and wonders what the hell he expects to happen when Arthur sees him (the lights on the stage are bright, but Morgana wouldn’t have been so insistent on his coming if she didn’t have a plan for making Arthur notice him). Will, on the other hand, is as giddy as all the girls, and engaging in misguided attempts to pull a few seated in the second row.
He’s unspeakably grateful when the band strides out on stage and the audience surges to its feet, cheering. Merlin cheers along with them, but he’s too busy being disconcerted to do much more than that. Morgana looks the same as she always does, and Will whimpers at the sight of her in leather trousers that she’s probably not wearing pants under. Gwen is different, though, edgier and filled up with restless energy that he doesn’t recognize--until she searches him out with her eyes and treats him to a blinding grin that makes Will elbow him before playing a few notes on her bass.
And then Arthur walks out, microphone in hand, and Merlin forgets to look at anyone else, because this is not the Arthur who comes into the coffee shop every day and buys frilly drinks and always wears a beat-up brown coat. This is Arthur with his hair tousled just right, in indecently tight jeans and a black shirt (and oh sweet Jesus is that eyeliner), putting the microphone in a stand and picking up his guitar (which is red, of course, how could it not be?), confident and alien and Merlin belatedly wonders why the hell a rock star has been buying him coffee for months because for the first time he realizes it doesn’t make sense.
“You’re drooling, mate,” says Will, with exquisite sympathy, and any answer Merlin might make is drowned out in the sudden crash of drums coming from the stage.
Merlin thinks the music is good. He’s honestly not sure. He knows the audience is singing along with Arthur and Arthur is everywhere on stage at once, playing with Gwen, smirking at Morgana, tossing riffs back and forth with the other guitarist--Lance? Larry? He’s more and more removed from the Arthur of the coffee shop, who keeps trying to make Merlin teach him how to pull coins out from behind people’s ears, and who will sit and talk about politics and haggis and horrid television comedies until they’re both late for whatever they’re doing.
Arthur notices him when he comes out for the second set. He’s grabbed an acoustic guitar backstage, and he’s under a spotlight, the rest of the band not out, but he looks down to the front row with a smirk, one Merlin thinks he recognizes, and then freezes the second his gaze hits Merlin. There is a long, long moment of frozen silence while Arthur looks stricken and Merlin stares back, unable to think of anything else to do.
Some blessed fan starts cheering, and Arthur steps back a bit in the fresh wave of applause, still looking a little shell-shocked, and starts playing. He looks at Merlin at least once per song after that, like making sure he’s still there, but Merlin can’t bring himself to do anything but stare and wonder if he’s completely ballsed things up.
Almost immediately after the show, he’s approached by a man in black, with an earpiece. “Mr. Pendragon wants to see you.”
“Um, give me a minute.”
(“Oh my God, Will, he’ll kill me and bury the body.”
“Nah, he’ll just make you blow him.”
“He would not send a bodyguard to proposition me.”
“Put in a good word for me with the drummer, yeah? And if you come home before morning I am locking you out of the flat for your own good.”
“Why are you my best friend again?”)
“So,” says Arthur, covered in sweat, eyeliner (oh sweet Jesus) smudged, toying with a guitar pick.
“So,” replies Merlin, because he’s still reeling from Arthur’s ninja telling him not to worry, their paths lay together.
“Not that first time, but after that, yeah.”
“You could have told me.”
“It ... really didn’t matter that much to me.” Arthur snorts. “It didn’t, Arthur. I wasn’t a fan, I just wanted some coffee, and then I discovered that I liked your company, and I figured that if you wanted it to be acknowledged, you would have told me. Honestly, I thought you knew I knew.”
Arthur smiles, the familiar expression out of place when he’s still dressed for the concert. “I just thought you were abysmally thick. Or living under a rock.”
“And yet you still hung out with me.”
“Well,” starts Arthur, and huffs out a laugh as he rubs the back of his neck. “It was nice, having someone who didn’t care I was famous. And I’m not mad, really, though I feel a bit of an idiot. Had a big confession all planned out.” Merlin’s heart kickstarts into high gear. “Look, I thought I was lying to you, so it’s not like I can get pissed because you didn’t tell me everything.”
“Can we save the pointless recriminations for another time?”
Arthur throws his head back and laughs, and Merlin grins at him, realizing he’s rarely as happy as he is when he makes Arthur happy. “Yes, of course we can. I’m ... this is sort of unbelievable. And it explains why Morgana looks so pleased.”
“I’m glad you aren’t upset,” says Merlin, still grinning like a besotted idiot. “Because Will said I was probably being dragged back here so I could blow you in apology or something.”
In the silence that follows, Merlin actually realizes what he just said, but before he can stammer out an explanation or say he was joking or something, Arthur’s gaze goes hot and he takes a few steps forward, and he’s all rock star again. “Is that an offer?”
“What?” Merlin splutters. “No!”
Arthur steps forward again. “It was an offer.”
“It was a statement of my flatmate being insane!”
“You wouldn’t have told me if you didn’t want me to consider it. Merlin, you are offering to blow me.”
Merlin thinks of Arthur buying him muffins and possibly bribing them to have the sorts he likes because they’ve been showing up more and more frequently. He thinks of Arthur on stage earlier, clutching the microphone with his eyes closed. “Yeah, okay, maybe it was a bit of an offer.”
Arthur takes another few steps forward, and Merlin’s almost cross-eyed he’s so close. “Offer declined,” Arthur whispers, and his breath smells like mint, smells like he planned to bring Merlin backstage and get him this close, and Merlin’s pants are suddenly far too tight. “I think I’ll blow you instead.”
“Holy fuck,” breathes Merlin, and then Arthur’s kissing him, hot and wet and filthy and so damn good, but his hands are gentle in Merlin’s hair, on the back of his neck, skimming over his shoulder blades (and okay, eventually coming to rest on his arse, but still gentle).
Some indeterminate time later, Arthur drops to his knees, always looking Merlin in the eye, and unzips Merlin’s fly, and then Merlin isn’t doing much thinking at all.
(His phone rings at eight the next morning.
“Will, I will kill you if this is not a life-or-death situation.”
“Somebody got laid last night!”
“I hate you.”
“Is he good?”
“Why are you my best friend again?”
“Merlin, put the phone down and concentrate on what I’m doing. I promise it’ll be very nice.”
In an hour or so, they’ll stagger out of bed and head for the coffee shop, rumpled and holding hands even though Merlin will offer not to in case the paparazzi are watching, and Sophia will look murderous. Morgana will call Arthur and gloat like Will did with Merlin. There’s a whole world out there who wants to know who’s sleeping with the biggest rock star in Britain.
But as far as Merlin’s concerned, he’s just with Arthur, and the rest of the world can wait a little while, because what Arthur’s doing is indeed very nice.)