Merlin's last class on Tuesdays ends an hour before Arthur's, and sometimes when Arthur gets back to his room he finds Merlin in his bed. If Merlin's shoulders are pale and bare above the covers, then Arthur knows that he's completely naked underneath. Arthur never asks how Merlin gets in; that's been an unsolved mystery since the day they met and Arthur may let it stay that way. It's not something he wants to discourage, and certainly nothing he wants to take time to discuss under the circumstances.
Merlin's usually listening to his ipod, earbuds and cord incongruous against all that skin, and Arthur is careful to make a good deal of noise so that Merlin will know he's no longer alone.
And Merlin's hands won't stop. Arthur knows what they're doing under those sheets: how Merlin likes to touch his nipples, rolling them under his thumb, doing that and that alone for far longer than Arthur ever could himself without touching his cock. How Merlin only lets his hands go low for quick rubs on very certain occasions, when the voice he's listening to swallows audibly, or coughs, or pauses a beat too long.
When the recording gets rough, so does Merlin. Arthur would be jealous if he didn't know whose voice it was on the tape.
"What am I reading today?" Arthur always asks, and Merlin says something like "the Bohr-Einstein debate" or "density functional theory"; then he turns off the ipod, and Arthur joins him in the bed, and things get warm and wet and interesting.
"Look, there are channels for this sort of thing," Arthur explains to the person who's shown up at his dormitory room with a collapsible white cane in one hand and rolled-up papers in the other. "Either you or the professor submits the coursework to the Disability Centre, and in four to six weeks -"
"Which would be brilliant, but the professor is allergic to saying exactly what he bloody well means," the stranger interrupts, "which includes exactly what he wants us to read. He just mentioned this article this morning. The exam's tomorrow."
"Then it sounds like you have a fabulous discrimination complaint brewing there. There are forms down at the Centre -"
"I'll add one to my pile." The stranger makes no move to leave.
Arthur sighs. As a matter of principle, he's unimpressed with people he doesn't know appearing on his doorstep and making demands, but mostly he's putting up a fuss because there really are channels for this kind of thing. Going outside of them can lead at best to hand slaps and at worst to lawsuits, and what if he makes an error in his hurry? Arthur always reads over articles and chapters to himself before recording them, because people are relying on the information he makes accessible. He doesn't want anyone failing anything because of him.
He replays that last thought.
"All right, all right, come in," Arthur says. "I can give you an hour."
Arthur discovers that the article is twenty-eight pages long, and such a poor photocopy that no matter when it had been submitted to the Centre or what the stranger's - Merlin's -preferred accommodations were, a human reader would always have been the only option. No scanner would ever be able to turn that mess into text that screen-reading software could manage.
In the past two years, Arthur's done a lot of reading for people with print disabilities, but he's never read face-to-face before, not once. It's oddly intimate, and that's the main reason Arthur had never tried it - he'd thought it might be, and that he'd prove not to be the man for the job. They sit together on Arthur's bed, a tiny digital recorder balanced on Merlin's leg, capturing Arthur's breach of protocol for posterity. Merlin's knee bumps Arthur's thigh, their shoulders almost touch, and Arthur's words wrap around them both.
Read aloud long enough, and no matter how focused you try to be, you'll hit the odd moment when the words lose all meaning, and all you can process is the rise and fall of your own voice, the shapes and sounds within each word; do it even longer and you'll find yourself past that, words flowing without any thought from you at all. You'll distantly listen to your voice and think about the fact that there will never be another episode of Kingdom, and what the hell was that final one all about; or how much curry is left in the fridge; or the way the person beside you smells, spicy and warm and sweet.
It takes more than an hour to get through the article. Arthur's voice goes dry halfway through and he has to grab a bottle of water; he gets Merlin one as well, and watches as Merlin twists off the cap.
"Thanks for doing this," Merlin says. He looks a little sheepish, now, chewing his lip, like it's finally hit him that he's invaded someone's home and forced them to perform services against their will.
Arthur shrugs before he remembers to verbalise. He doesn't know how much vision Merlin has - there must be more in his right eye than his left, because he turns that side of his face towards Arthur when Arthur speaks, but on the whole Arthur's going to guess very little. "Ah, well. Hate to see initiative go unrewarded."
"Desperation, more like," Merlin says with a snort. He takes a long drink, and then, not particularly charmingly, wipes his mouth on his sleeve. "I chose you because I remembered your name," he adds.
"Nah, don't think so. But I've had some books you've done before. 'Arthur Pendragon here, reading Physics for a Modern Age'."
It's a terrible-sounding impression, but Arthur doesn't bristle, because he doesn't get the feeling that his voice or accent or class is being mocked. Just that Merlin is horrible at impressions.
"I'm taking that as a compliment," Arthur says, and seems as if he's right on all accounts; he makes himself to look away from the pretty red blush creeping over Merlin's cheeks.
There are other, rarer times when Arthur comes in and finds Merlin on top of the covers, fully dressed, curled away from the door.
Arthur closes the door quietly on these occasions, and says hello very soft and very low.
He hadn't known what to do the first time. Merlin had mentioned that his fucked-up retinas occasionally came with some truly fucked-up headaches, spikes of ocular pressure that sank deep into his skull. But knowing it had left Arthur totally unprepared for seeing it, for dealing with it. That first time he'd thought Merlin was just napping, hadn't realised differently until Merlin responded to Arthur's dig about lazing the day away in a dull, pain-slow voice. Arthur had stood there in the middle of his own room, clenching his hand around the strap of his laptop bag, useless.
When Arthur was a child, he stole paracetamol from the medicine cabinet and secreted it around his room so that when the time came that he felt achy or feverish, he could carefully and strictly dose himself without anyone else ever having to know. But Merlin, on the other hand, Merlin feels how he feels and seems to find little point in pretending otherwise. When it comes to pain, when it comes to everything.
It's a while before Arthur begins to come to grips with that.
These days Arthur places his bag on his desk, then slips onto the bed behind Merlin and cups a hand over Merlin's upper arm. Lets Merlin move it, if he wants, to a place where it hurts: the side of his face, the well of his jaw.
When an article on quantum mechanics comes in that is quite clearly a copy of a copy of an original that's been around since the dawn of time, Arthur doesn't need two guesses to know who it's for. He suspects Merlin needs it sooner rather than later, and it only takes three clicks to access Merlin's schedule and see that their paths might easily cross if Arthur were to pass by Physical Sciences on his way home.
This one's only five pages - should be easy, and quick. Arthur plugs in, settles his headphones and mic, and does the job. Notices a few things along the way, for the first time: the sound his breath makes when he gets a little too close to the microphone. The length of the pause before a heavy-going bit of physics jargon - short, very short, but still something he can feel.
Not that it's anything to be ashamed of. Arthur's reading law, and he'd like to see Merlin do better with some of the legalese Arthur has to deal with every day.
Arthur leaves the Centre with a burnt cd in his pocket. It's no trouble to catch up with Merlin just outside the main Sciences lecture hall. With the cane he's not hard to spot amongst the exiting students, but Arthur thinks he'd notice Merlin anyway, tall and lean.
Merlin turns that wonderful warm colour again when Arthur falls into step and greets him, letting him know who's there. When Arthur hands over the cd he goes a little warmer still, with a massive, equally wonderful smile.
"I was just going to grab a bite," Merlin says, pushing the cd into his coat pocket. "Are you hungry? Want to come?"
And Arthur - Arthur who on no level had planned this out in his head, Arthur who had thought no further than Merlin needs this, and I should help, because a thought that began with I want would not have led him here today - Arthur rather does.
They decide on a pub, rather than the dining hall. Merlin taps with his cane as they cross the worn stone paths of the quad. They discuss the weather (chilly; Merlin sports a long, deep red scarf) and politics, because Arthur has a hard time striking up conversations without beginning with something he's read in the Times. This does not prove dull.
"I probably won't vote, I'm waiting for someone I can vote for with a clean conscience," Merlin says, which is the sort of statement that drives Arthur mad even as he sympathises with it. Which in turn just annoys him even more.
There may have been sputtering. Arthur's admitting to nothing.
When they pass through the college gates and out onto the busy city street, Merlin says, "Listen, do you mind?"; and Arthur finds himself saying, "No, not at all," before he has any real clue what he's agreeing to.
Which is Merlin's hand on his arm, fingers curled just above the elbow, and a fast, swooping feeling running straight through him. They're much closer now, a little unit against the crowd, and there's something good about it, and something distracting.
So distracting that he lets Merlin walk off a kerb.
"Well," Merlin says, collecting himself after a slight stumble on that jarring step down. "You'd at least warn me if I was about to walk into a car, right?"
"Of course I would." Arthur snaps because it's his default reaction to being caught making a mistake, and because he's angry at himself.
"Never heard your angry voice before," Merlin says, grinning now. "Should've known it would be a good one."
Arthur's never met Merlin's guide dog. He lives at home, someplace deep in the country with Merlin's mum. He'd been getting slow, Merlin had explained, having a hard time keeping up with the pace Merlin set at school. Starting to make mistakes, walking Merlin into a lamppost or two, forgetting to warn for steps a few times too many.
Arthur knows that the dog's a honey-coloured retriever, that he and Merlin have been together since Merlin was sixteen, and that Merlin doesn't imagine being able to take on another dog while he's still alive. Maybe never again.
The day Arthur had learned all this - after not exactly eavesdropping on a phone call between Merlin and his mum, but not leaving the room either - he'd got a new glimmer of understanding of some important things. Like the complexities of the guide dog/owner relationship, and the fact that Merlin is a complete sap.
That night, Arthur had pulled out his phone to make a notation on his calendar, and scheduled a number of reminders to go off, beginning in early January and ending in February.
It was possible he could have considered the wording of them a bit more carefully, but if Morgana wanted to make a fool of herself by collapsing onto a chair and crying, "You can't forget V.D.!" the next time she borrowed his mobile, well, that was her choice.
Next time Arthur meets Merlin outside a lecture hall, Merlin's waiting. Fingers curled around an ipod, one earbud in his ear, sitting on a tucked-away bench in the corridor. Right where he'd said he'd be.
Arthur slows down a little when he sees Merlin. Stops passing people in the crowd, lets himself be carried along until he's near enough to say, "Hello, it's Arthur."
Merlin's smile as he pops out his earbud and thumbs off his ipod is sweet and just a tiny bit wicked, and makes Arthur wonder exactly what he'd been listening to. "I've been thinking about curry all day," Merlin says, flicking out his cane as he stands.
"Same here," Arthur says. It's true. Truer still would be that he's been thinking about it all week, because that's how long it's been since Merlin mentioned the new curry house on the High Street, just on the heels of their afternoon at the pub.
All week, and Arthur has scrupulously avoided the Physical Sciences building up til now. It's been a surprise, how much he's found himself wanting to catch sight of Merlin from afar: walking to classes with that scarf blowing in the wind, talking to friends, snacking on an apple during a break. Surprise is actually a understatement - a shock would be more like it. Posed some problems for his concentration, when he was supposed to be revising, or defending an answer in class.
It would have been easy to do, and that was what made it both so tempting and so horrible - there probably wasn't much lower left to go once you started stalking a blind man.
"Now listen," Merlin says, as they push through the doors into the golden autumn sunlight, "if they bring us roti instead of naan, or something, you're not going to -"
"No promises," Arthur says, grim.
"We certainly can't show our faces in that pub for a while."
"They brought us the wrong meal," Arthur points out through gritted teeth. "Twice."
"And you're definitely not a fan of bad service," Merlin laughs. His fingers work the buttons of his coat as they walk. There are leaves underfoot, more than there were a week ago.
"Should I be? And I'll remind you, you're the one who said, Now we should be fair, Arthur, maybe he thought I wouldn't notice."
"Because you're a terrible influence on me. And -" Merlin pauses, then finishes, almost but not quite as lightly, "Thought I'd better before you said something of the sort, and I had to be annoyed."
"If -" Arthur swallows. If you can head me off every time I'm about to be an arse and forgive me for it, this is going - But he can't bring himself to finish the thought, even inside his head.
"I like all sorts of bread," is what Arthur says, and Merlin smiles and takes his arm, a hundred yards yet from the city street.
There's not much that takes place between the sheets (or on the floor, or in Merlin's deliciously ergonomic desk chair) that Arthur doesn't love, but mutual handjobs will always hold a special place in his heart. There's something about the way Merlin's hand goes wild and unpredictable around Arthur's cock when Merlin's about to come that completely undoes Arthur every time.
It's strange, in a way, because normally Arthur is a fellow who enjoys a good, steady rhythm and can lose his way when one gets broken, but with Merlin -
Part of it is that Arthur has a small obsession with Merlin's fingers. They're incredible, any impartial observer would have to agree: long and slim, sure and strong. And seeing them like that, grasping and clenching, out of control, with Arthur's own cock slick between them... Arthur's helpless against that kind of view. Helpless, and he doesn't mind in the least.
It's really Merlin's fault. He's the one who's a terrible influence, not Arthur. Arthur would never give himself permission to indulge so shamelessly (and he does; he watches Merlin's hands not just when he and Merlin are naked, and pleasure is the point, but while Merlin's drinking tea, fingers splayed around the mug, or tapping at his computer, or searching out the raised numbers on his bank card to tell which side to run through the machine) if Arthur didn't know just how much - and how filthily - Merlin appreciates what Arthur brings to the world of accessible text.
Arthur hasn't actually told Merlin any of this, but he thinks Merlin may have a good idea, judging by the absolutely sinful way his lips curve when he lays a hand above Arthur's heart and begins that slow, torturous journey down.
"How bad is it?" Merlin asks, opening his coat stealthily in the crowded corridor, like a slow-motion flasher.
"Your greetings are nothing if not unconventional," Arthur says. And then, "Ah. Bad. Is that tea?"
"Coffee," Merlin says, poking at his shirt, where there's a dark, wide stain all down one side. "Hot. Not fun. Still, at least it's dry now. I can just keep my coat on during lunch."
"Curry and wool," Arthur says thoughtfully. "If I were the dry cleaner who stood to make money off you, I'd call that a fantastic plan. Want to swing by yours and change shirts?"
Which is how Arthur ends up in Merlin's room for the first time.
It's a little smaller than Arthur's, carved out of an oddly-angled space at the end of a corridor. The floor is neat as a pin; nothing lying about for Merlin to trip over. But the surfaces, dear God.... Arthur supposes Merlin knows what's on top of the chest of drawers, and what's on the desk, and what's on the small table in the corner, but Arthur's fingers fairly itch with the urge to tidy.
Merlin pulls out the second drawer in the chest. It's stuffed with shirts in a dozen different shades of blue. "My mum used to always put me in prints, for exactly this reason," Merlin says. "Plaids, stripes. Camouflage. But I kind of like the idea of one solid colour."
Arthur does as well. Merlin looks lean and strong in his solid tees; things Arthur likes - his shoulders, his waist - would be lost under a screaming plaid. "And the idea of blue, it seems," Arthur says.
Merlin nods, tossing his coat and scarf onto the bed. "I decided blue was my favourite when I was five or six. Mum says she told me my eyes were blue, so I decided it was my colour, and refused to wear anything that didn't have blue in it somewhere. I expect she lied to me an awful lot," he adds, hitching up his tee, "but she's yet to admit it."
Merlin's shirt is up over his head, and there's the waistband of his jeans, there's his stomach, there's his pale chest and his fine, dark hair. And here's Arthur, staring. He turns around with pointedly loud feet, and when he's got his back to Merlin and his throat clear, Arthur says, "I don't know if I should be the one to break this to you," his voice sounds funny to his ears, quavery, "but your scarf's not blue. Rather the opposite, in fact."
Merlin laughs. "I know. I had a girlfriend back in sixth form who tried to teach me about accent colours. It didn't really take." He's closer now, Arthur can hear the slight hesitation, the catch in his breath. "The colour thing, or the girlfriend thing," and Merlin's hand is on Arthur's shoulder, drawing him back around.
Oh, yes. Merlin is very close.
"I love that scarf though, it's so soft. And you should only turn away if you want to," Merlin says. There's a pause in which Arthur doesn't move, not an inch.
Merlin's hand slips upwards, warm against Arthur's cheek, thumb tucking under Arthur's jaw, fingers stretching past his ear. Arthur's feet are the quietest, stillest thing in the room and his pulse is the loudest; he's pinned in place and it's good, good, so good, and that's even before Merlin kisses him.
Before Merlin, Arthur went on dates. First dates, second dates, occasionally third dates, usually on Friday nights, usually beginning with a film and ending with drinks or dessert. (Arthur was strategic: the film had to come first, so there would be at least one guaranteed topic of conversation after.) At the end of a date, there was kissing; if the kissing got a little heavy, there was a bed.
Merlin and Arthur eat lunch together, and they study together, and they balance Merlin's laptop against their knees to watch Lost together. (Merlin loves that show; Arthur finds it completely frustrating. He has to pay attention, though, because dramatic sound effects will invariably signal that some important thing has happened sans dialogue, and Arthur will be called upon to explain, in great detail.) They talk about anything, anytime, anywhere - whether or not Arthur is, indeed, the most patient and long-suffering stepbrother in the world being a particularly hot topic on days that have had Morgana in them.
And every week is packed with opportunities for Arthur to explore a world of varied and wonderful techniques for initiating sex.
Whispering into Merlin's ear while out in public is one of his favourites. Arthur enjoys making the actual subject as banal as possible; just commenting on the amount of rain lately can have a lovely effect. It was a happy accident that first clued Arthur in to this technique: after half an hour's steady, silent working at the library one evening, Arthur leaned in close to quietly let Merlin know he was going to pick up some photocopies. Merlin's full-body shiver was a beautiful thing to behold.
Arthur likes slipping a hand under Merlin's blue shirts, pressing his palm to the small of Merlin's back or against Merlin's hip, letting his fingers dip just slightly below his waistband. This one's maybe a little more for himself than for Merlin - he loves to feel all that secret skin - but Merlin gets the point, and it usually works well.
But not during Lost.
"Ow," Arthur grumbles, making a show of rubbing the spot on his side where Merlin's pointy elbow has just dug in. He rocks the laptop in the process, purposefully, and gets another sharp dig for his efforts. "Abuse," he adds, shifting his fingers to more neutral ground, but not giving up Merlin's skin completely.
After Lost, Arthur thinks, the laptop's going on Merlin's desk. And Merlin's going on his back on the bed, and that soft scarf is going - yes - around his wrists, up over his head. And Arthur is going to tell Merlin every single thing he's about to do before he does it, and pause each time in between, just a little, because anticipation can't be overestimated.
And then he'll let Merlin's hands go...
It really is going to be good.