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Drown My Sorrows in Yours

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As much as he loathed to admit it, Arthur knew he was capable of making mistakes. It brought some comfort to know that they occurred few and far between each other, and any aftermath was cleaned up so neatly by his father that it was like the prodigal son had never stumbled from grace. Of course, Uther didn’t act with concern for Arthur’s wellbeing in mind, but the preservation of the Pendragon name and reputation.

It wasn’t concern that had filled Uther’s eyes when he glared down at Arthur’s own, red-eyed and glossing over from the bright fluorescent lights of the police station. But then again, why would Arthur expect anything else from his father? In Uther’s mind, once again his son had sought to bring shame to him and the family.

Arthur had to bite back a snort at that; why his father thought he would exact a personal vendetta by climbing behind the wheel of his Porsche with a few drinks in him, he had no idea. After all, if he really was interested in dragging the Pendragon name through the mud, he would have sold his story on how Uther had been an absentee father through most of his childhood, much like the expose his step-sister Morgana had done a few months back.

Besides, he didn’t understand what the big deal was. Okay, maybe he had more than a few drinks in him, but it was easy to forget just how many beers you’ve had while having a good time, wasn’t it? He had only felt a little buzzed when he made his way home, reasoning that it was only a few miles away, a minute chance of anything going wrong. And if he had been swerving in the lanes a little, that could be easily chalked up to the long day he had and the time he had left the bar instead of the alcohol.

As Arthur expected, his father waited until they were the privacy of their home before releasing his full anger. “How could you be so stupid?!” Uther roared as soon as the front door was closed, his voice echoing loudly over the foyer. “Do you realize how lucky you are?!”

By sheer chance, the officer that had pulled Arthur over earlier that night was Sergeant Leon Knight, a close friend to the Pendragon family who had called Uther to explain what had happened before they even reached the station. Though there was no doubt in Arthur’s mind that if it had been any other officer, Uther would have thrown his power around to get Arthur released.

Having practiced the best way to appease his father during disputes, Arthur lowered his head while trying to keep a diplomatic tone. “I understand what I did was wrong, but my blood alcohol limit was below what they--”

“That was on the second try Arthur!” Uther interjected, clenching his jaw as if he was resisting the urge to physically strike Arthur instead of his usual verbal barbs. “When Leon performed the field sobriety test, you were over .09! I had to convince them that the equipment was faulty, and when you redid the test at the station, you were just barely under .08!”

For a couple of minutes, Arthur remained quiet, knowing he was supposed to appear humble and thankful for what his father had done from him. That he should be grateful that the same tactics Uther used in the court room to excel as one of the top defense attorneys in the country had been used for Arthur’s benefit. But in all honesty, Arthur just generally regarded his father as a huge bully, twisting situations around to his advantage.

Arthur’s silence seemed to placate Uther somewhat, but his voice hadn’t lost his edge as he continued, “You must learn, Arthur, that every action you do can have severe consequences.”

How can I learn when you take control of everything I do? Arthur wanted to scream, but instead swallowed the urge and gave a quick nod. “I apologize for my indiscretion, and promise make a donation to a charity that’s against this sort of thing as soon as possible.”

“That is a commendable start, but it is not enough, not this time.” Uther paused with a deep, thoughtful frown that made Arthur slightly nervous. “What are you doing for the summer break? It starts next week, doesn‘t it?”

Arthur stiffened; he hadn’t really planned anything besides a trip to someplace sunny, drinking to his heart’s content while relaxing on the beach, worries about exams and Uther miles away. But of course he couldn’t say that, not now. “Between studying for next semester, I planned on doing traveling with some friends-”

“Cancel your plans,” Uther ordered brusquely before adding, “Except for studying, you will make no other arrangements this summer.”

“Sir?”

Uther ignored Arthur’s confusion as he pulled out his Blackberry, thumbing through his contact list. “You will start to make repentance for your own messes, Arthur. I’ll have the details for you in the morning. You are dismissed.”

Even if Arthur wanted to argue, his father had made it pretty clear that the conversation was over. Pressing his lips together until they formed a thin line, Arthur nodded again. “Good night then, Father.”

Resisting the urge to dash up the stairs and slam his door like a petulant child the whole way to his room, Arthur sighed as pulled his clothes off haphazardly and sank into the comfort of his bed. He would be thankful if he didn’t have a hangover in the morning, but now he knew wasn’t as lucky as he originally thought.

He had really fucked up this time.

--

Arthur was late, and while deep down he knew it was his fault for throwing his alarm clock across the room that morning instead of getting up on time, he was perfectly content in blaming the fact that he couldn’t find a parking space that wasn’t for handicapped use only.

Though it did make sense to have so many in front of a rehabilitation center specializing in spinal cord injuries, Arthur wondered where the employees parked their vehicles. After almost an hour of trying to find a spot, Arthur managed to squeeze his Honda (his father had temporarily taken away his Porsche as additional punishment, though Arthur guessed he should be glad that his license hadn‘t been revoked as well) into what may or may not have been a legal space before dashing through the center entrance.

It hadn’t been the first time that Arthur had heard of Excalibur Center or its Head Director; Dr. Gaius Norris had been yet another member of Uther’s circle of allies, and had often been the one who had been consulted on medical affairs of the Pendragon family while Arthur had been a child. Arthur hadn’t seen the older man in years though, and idly wondered what had been discussed concerning his forced community service.

A blast of cool air hit Arthur as soon as he went through the automatic doors, and he pulled off his sunglasses to clip over the collar of his shirt as he looked around. The clinic didn’t seem to differ much than others, with an exception of paraphernalia about spinal cord injuries plastered on the walls. The waiting area wasn’t completely full, but it seemed to be buzzing with activity nevertheless. A young boy bounced eagerly in what appeared to be his father’s lap, not understanding why his father couldn’t race him around in his chair right now. A teenage girl listened to her mp3 player with gusto, her fingers tapping to the beat on the rim of her wheels. A woman straightened the strap holding up the man in the electric wheelchair next to her before kissing his cheek with such tenderness that Arthur had to look away, feeling he had intruded on a private moment.

“Can I help you?”

Snapping out of the notion that he didn’t belong there, Arthur raised his head to try and find the source of the voice, the sarcastic reply of, “No, I just wanted to get some free air conditioning” dying on his lips when his gaze met the bluest eyes he had ever seen. They were the color of a large ocean, deep and vast, and it could be very easy to drown oneself in them.

Arthur blinked repeatedly, trying not think about how he had been staring into the eyes of the man sitting behind the counter, and instead switched into what he liked to refer to as “business mode“. Crossing the expanse of linoleum between the two of them, Arthur dug out the notice his father had given him as well as his ID before handing them to the man. “My father contacted Dr. Norris about volunteer opportunities here at the center?”

The man’s eyes widened in recognition, a hand running nervously though dark hair that didn’t look like it had been brushed this morning. Or yesterday morning for that matter. “Oh, so you’re Arthur Pendragon then? Gaius had been expecting you a couple hours ago.”

If there was one thing that Arthur never did, it was blush, but there was probably something close to it on his face now as he cleared his throat. “Sorry about that, I got caught up in traffic--”

“You overslept and then couldn’t find a parking space, could you?”

“How the hell did--” Arthur caught himself, glancing around and mumbling an half-hearted apology to anyone who had overheard. When he turned his attention back, the other man was covering his mouth in attempt to muffle a laugh, and Arthur determined that he disliked him immediately. Incredibly blue eyes or not.

“I’ve heard it all before; most of the spots fill up if you don’t get here early enough.” The man explained before turning to the woman sitting next to him, a waifish thing that looked like she could be blown over in a strong gust of wind. “Hey Freya, Gaius asked me to show the newbie around if he ever showed up. Mind watching the front by yourself for a bit?”

Instantly Arthur became indignant. “Who are you calling a newbie--”

Oh. Arthur didn’t know why he didn’t notice it earlier, but it wasn’t until the man came around the counter that Arthur realized he was in a wheelchair himself. Whether or not the man registered the surprise on Arthur’s face, he didn’t say anything, just raised his hand up in offer to shake. “I’m Merlin by the way, and don’t even bother with the jokes because everyone else has already. Though I’m sure you’ll be getting plenty yourself if you stick around long enough.”

“Jokes?” Didn’t that seem a bit cruel, to joke about a man in a wheelchair? Arthur knew he could be crass himself sometimes, but he didn’t think he could ever sink that low.

“You know, about me, Merlin, working at center called Excalibur? And now there’s you, Arthur?” Merlin drew his words out slowly, as if he were explaining something to a child.

Arthur looked at him like he had grown a second head.

“God, this is going to be fun,” Merlin mumbled as he placed a hand over his face in exasperation. “Never mind, I’ll tell you later. Gaius is busy with patients at the moment, but he wants to see you in his office once he‘s finished. In the mean time, he asked me to give you a tour of the facility.”

Suddenly, Merlin turned his wheelchair around with a fluid motion, heading down one of the side halls with incredible ease. He stopped, turning his head to wink at a clearly dumbfounded Arthur. “Try to keep up, okay?”

--

While Arthur had been aware of the center long before he arrived there, he had never known what exactly went on there. The expanse of services provided to those with spinal injuries was astounding, and while he never had interest in it before, Arthur couldn’t help but be mesmerized as Merlin explained the purpose of the different sectors.

“--and this is the home care ward,” Merlin announced, pressing a button on the wall to get the doors to open up. “Most families can’t really afford an in-home nurse or specialist visits, or they just want to do it themselves. So we have instructors here to describe different methods of how adjust to a new way of life, both for the families and the person in question.”

Merlin knocked on a room door, waiting for any response before opening it. “Good, no one is using this one right now, I can show you what I mean.”

Arthur glanced around; he didn’t know why he had been expecting something akin to an examination room (probably because of some unconscious reminder in the back of his head that he was in a clinic), so seeing something that looked like a small apartment surprised him. “It’s like somebody’s home.”

“That’s the whole point,” Merlin sighed, rolling his eyes at Arthur, who felt one of those not-blushes rise to his face again. Wheeling his chair deftly to what seemed to be the kitchen area, Merlin gestured to the cabinets and the straps hanging from the handles. “It depends on someone’s range of motion on what accommodations they need. For instance, someone might be able to open the cupboard by pulling on the straps and using a device with a long handle to take things down. Or, if they have decent upper body strength--”

Before Arthur could protest, Merlin locked the wheels on his chair and pressed his palms on the formica countertop, hauling himself up until he was sitting on top of it. “--they could always learn to pull themselves up to get what they need. Of course, it’s probably better if they had lower cabinets installed, like these ones here.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier to ask for help?” The question was out of Arthur’s mouth before he could consider if it was insensitive or not. Merlin just shrugged, reaching down to adjust the angle of his chair. “It depends on the situation. Some people don’t have others to help them, or just want to be independent. No one should feel like they’re a burden on someone else.”

Merlin’s words rang in his ears, causing Arthur to frown; was he a burden to his father? Uther had hinted at it enough times (at least in his son’s opinion), but Arthur had never thought on what he should do about it.

The sound of Merlin’s chair squeaking caught Arthur’s attention again, and he looked up in time to see Merlin plopping down in his seat and instinctively winced. “Doesn’t that hurt?”

Merlin laughed, shaking his head as he unlocked the wheels. “Not like my bony butt can feel it, but it’s a short drop anyways.”

Right, right. Arthur didn’t know how he could keep forgetting that Merlin was paralyzed as well, that he was like one of the many people that came to the center for assistance. Though just from the short time they had been together, it seemed like Merlin had adapted pretty well; Arthur had slowed his walking pace in the halls in fear of being too fast, only for Merlin to speed by him, teasing him loudly as he did so.

How long had Merlin been in the wheelchair? And what exactly had happened? Those questions were on the tip of Arthur’s tongue the entire time they talked (well, while mostly Merlin talked, Arthur listened), and the urge to ask them was getting hard to bear. Only some trepidation on whether it would be considered polite or not stopped him, but now seemed as good as of a time as any.

Unfortunately, before he could even open his mouth, there was a knock on the door, a woman with curly dark hair and dressed in a purple scrubs coming in, halting when she saw it was occupied. “Oh, Merlin! I didn’t expect you to be in here! Not that you‘re not allowed in here, just I thought it was empty--”

“Gwen, hi!” Merlin grinned widely, moving next to Arthur before gesturing sideways to him. “The newbie finally decided to show up--”

“Stop calling me a newbie!”

“--so I was just showing him around,” Merlin finished, ignoring Arthur’s outburst. “We’re just about done if you need the room. Arthur, this is Gwen Martel, one of the instructors I was telling you about.”

Arthur offered his hand, flashing her a brilliant smile; proper introductions had been drilled into him since birth, and it was only shock that had prevented him from doing the usual spiel when he had met Merlin. “Arthur Pendragon. It’s wonderful to meet you, Ms Martel.”

Gwen’s mouth formed in the shape of a circle, a light flush to her cheeks. “Please, call me Gwen, everyone else does. I’ve heard so much about you! Well, your father mostly, but still! It’s so nice that you’re going to be working with us. I always said that the center could use more publicity… Not that’s why I’m happy you’re here of course. I mean-”

Chuckling slightly at her distress, Arthur decided he liked Gwen well enough, even if she seemed to have the tendency to stammer; at least she recognized him (or at least his father) and could see how significant it was that he was there. “It’s okay, I understand. I’m happy to be here, and will help in any way I can.”

That was a lie of course, about being happy; he had been forced here against his will, and couldn’t wait for his three months of community service to be over. But… No one knew that, right? A pang of worry snaked through his stomach, and his gaze flickered anxiously over Gwen and Merlin, searching for some recognition in their faces that they were aware what he had done. That the only reason the golden son of the Pendragon family was volunteering at the center was because his father had managed to keep him out of jail.

But there was no such sense of the disgust he had expected in their expressions, causing him to believe they were unaware of the true nature of his arrangement, ever more evident by the dreamy gaze Gwen was giving him.

Merlin cleared his throat loudly, breaking the silence of the room. “We should probably see if Gaius is ready for you yet. We’ll talk to you later Gwen; don’t want to keep your appointment waiting.”

“Oh, right!” Gwen blushed again, moving out of the way automatically so Merlin could get by. “It was nice meeting you, Mr. Pendragon.”

Once they were down the hall and out of earshot, Arthur quipped airily. “Well, it’s nice to know some people here know how to show respect.”

Merlin let out a sarcastic snort. “You’ll get respect when you earn it, newbie. Gwen’s just too nice.” He was quiet for a moment, the only sound in the hall being his wheels whirling and Arthur’s footsteps. “Don’t flirt with her too much, okay? Her boyfriend probably wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he could kick your rich boy ass if he needed to. Hell, I could kick it if I needed to.”

“I seriously doubt that you could--” Arthur’s eyes widened with shock at what he started to say on instinct. “Shit, I didn’t mean it like that.”

A bark of laughter escaped Merlin’s lips, his eyes twinkling with mirth at Arthur‘s uneasiness. “Calm down, Arthur, you didn’t offend my ‘delicate sensibilities‘; maybe you’re right. But I bet I could at least run over your feet a couple times.”

Every now and then someone else would walk through the hall and cheerfully greet Merlin (who apparently knew everyone at the center), but for the past few minutes it had just been the two of them, and Arthur decided that this was his chance. “How long?”

It wasn’t a complete question, but Merlin seemed to know exactly what Arthur meant. “I was wondering when you would ask me.” At the expression on Arthur’s face, he smirked. “It’s all right, I don’t mind talking about it with people. It’s been about two years now.”

That accounted for Merlin’s seemingly natural ability to maneuver in his wheelchair, as if he was a fish swimming through water. Arthur hesitated, not sure he wanted to know the answer to his next question, but he could see Merlin was waiting for him to ask it all the same. “What happened?”

A flicker of pain quickly swept through Merlin‘s gaze, and he rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “Ah, that. Well, I was out riding my bike with my buddy Will, and all of a sudden this car comes out of nowhere and pops up on the curb. He grazes Will, but pins me against a tree. I don’t remember much after that, just waking up in the hospital a few days later with a punctured lung, two broken ribs, internal bleeding, and the realization that I have no feeling in my legs. My mom’s crying over me, saying they had almost lost me twice, once in the ambulance, and once when I first arrived in the ER, but all I could think about was why couldn’t I feel her hand on my knee.”

Bile rose in Arthur’s throat, and he swallowed deeply before he managed to ask, “And the driver?”

The muscle in Merlin‘s jaw tensed, and it was if the ocean in his eyes had become turbulent and stormy. “He died at the scene, because not only was he stupid enough to be behind a wheel after drinking, he didn’t have his seatbelt on; he ended up flying right through the windshield and slammed into the pavement head first. He didn‘t stand a chance.”

Arthur’s mouth went dry, and it felt like his own tongue was determined to choke him. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t do that,” Merlin let out a hollow chuckle, shaking his head to emphasize his point. “It doesn’t suit you to be all humble. Besides, I hate when people apologize to me about it, as I should be pitied or something. I know they probably don’t mean it, but… It’s not their fault it happened.”

It felt like the world was going to reach up and swallow him whole, and Arthur knew if he didn’t get away right then, Merlin would figure out exactly what he was thinking. “Dr. Norris’ office is straight down this hall, right? I think I can get there from here.”

“Yeah, but--” Merlin stopped, the concern in his gaze causing the knot in Arthur’s stomach to twist even tighter. “Listen, sorry if talking about this bothered you. I know it can seem pretty depressing to some people.”

“It’s fine,” Arthur lied with a clipped tone, really needing to get out of Merlin’s presence as soon as possible. “I know you have to get back to work. I’m sure I’ll see you later, and thanks for the tour.”

Not even waiting for Merlin’s response, Arthur made his way down the hall, struggling to keep his composure, feeling Merlin’s eyes bore into the back of him. It was only when he was a safe distance away that he quickly made his way into a nearby restroom, thankful it was empty (and trying not to notice how many of the stalls had bars on the partition walls) as he dry heaved into the first toilet.

--

It seemed like Gaius had hardly changed over the years, including that infamous arched eyebrow, which was in prime form as he stared at Arthur. “Is there a reason why you were three hours later than your father said you would be?”

Arthur resisted the urge to slide down in the chair like he always did when he was being scolded, determining that if Merlin had been able to see right through his lie, Gaius would be able to as well. “…I overslept and then had trouble finding a parking spot.”

“I see,” Gaius responded sternly, his lips pressing together to form a disappointed frown. “I suppose we better get you an employee parking pass; I don’t want a repeat of today where I had patients waiting on me because you didn’t show up on time.”

“I’m sorry Gaius,” Arthur replied with complete sincerity; while he had been used to such lectures from his father, Gaius seemed to do it in a more fatherly tone than what Uther could ever manage. Apology seemingly accepted, Gaius leaned back in his chair, jotting down notes on a clipboard before turning his attention back to Arthur. “Did you at least enjoy the tour Merlin gave you?”

Arthur tensed in his seat; he didn’t want to talk about Merlin, not right now. “It was very informative.”

“He probably knows the inner workings of the center as well as I do, so I’m not surprised. However, I am surprised you cut it so short.” Gaius shot Arthur a knowing look that went straight to his inner core. “I take it he told you about his accident?”

“Yes.” His answer was barely above a whisper, and Arthur was determining his prospects of using Gaius’ wastebasket if he needed a repeat performance of what occurred in the restroom.

“Don’t worry, he doesn’t know why you’re really here,” Gaius sighed as he put down the clipboard, rubbing his temples. “Your father asked me to keep quiet for propriety’s sake, and while I wish you had volunteered willingly, I am grateful for any support you provide. It’s your choice on whether you want to tell the others.”

Not knowing how to respond to that, Arthur just nodded dumbly, gazing down at the pattern of the carpet that lined the office. He told himself that he wasn’t a coward for not wanting to tell the others, just it would be easier to work with people who didn’t judge him for a single mistake he made.

“Go on and take the rest of the day off Arthur,” Gaius offered, gathering papers off his desk as he moved to stand up. “We’ll figure out where you’ll be working on Monday. Enjoy your weekend and say hello to Uther for me.”

His first response was to take Gaius’ offer, except to speed off and never return to the center, to somehow convince his father to let him do his community service somewhere else. But Arthur had never been a quitter, no matter how tough the situation became, and he wasn’t about to change that. “Thank you Gaius.”

Arthur rose to leave, but he wasn’t planning on heading home just yet. Not when he had another apology to make.

--

Merlin turned out to be a hard man to track down; Arthur had made his way back to the receptionist’s desk, only to be told that Merlin’s shift had ended ten minutes earlier, but if he hurried, he could probably catch him at the pool. Quickly giving his thanks, Arthur made his way back down the halls again, only to realize he had no idea where the pool was located, being one of the few locations Merlin hadn‘t shown on the tour. Too stubborn to backtrack for directions, he wandered around aimlessly before he finally managed to locate the swimming facility.

There was a sign on the wall that read, “No Outside Shoes Allowed“, so after Arthur removed his socks and sneakers, sticking them in a public locker, he rolled up the hems of his jeans and rinsed his feet before finally making his way to the pool edge. He felt a bit ridiculous, being the only one who is still fully clothed, but it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t magically know to bring his swimsuit with him that day. Hell, before he even came to the center, he wasn’t even aware that people with spinal cord injuries could even go swimming. He mentally added that to the list of his ignorances that secretly made him feel guilty.

At least now it was easy to spot Merlin; the pool was nearly empty, and besides the lifeguard, Merlin was the only one not in the water. He had his chair parked dangerously close to the edge though (at least in Arthur’s opinion), and was fiddling with a mat of some kind at his side. It seemed to distract him from Arthur’s presence at first, evident by the jolt in his shoulders when Arthur greeted him. “Hey.”

“God, newbie, you scared the living crap out of me,” Merlin responded with a shaky laugh as he gave Arthur a once over. “I thought you were supposed to be meeting with Gaius?”

Arthur didn’t even bother to object to the nickname this time, pegging it as a lost cause. “I did. He yelled at me for being late, and then said he would just deal with me on Monday.”

“It’s your first day here, and you already get to go home early?” Merlin asked with unbridled surprise, but before Arthur could explain, he continued. “So why are you here? I was worried I might have scared you off.”

“No, you didn’t.” At least not for the reasons you think, a scathing voice continued in Arthur’s head, but because the only reason I’m here is because I was also stupid enough to get behind the wheel after driving. But hey, at least I’m not dead and didn’t run into anyone, right? Yeah, Arthur was sure that would go over real well. “I just didn’t want to take up any more of your time.”

For a moment, it looked like Merlin was going to call Arthur out on his lies, but instead just shrugged nonchalantly as he slipped goggles on over his head, the band causing his ears to stick out even more than usual. “Fine, whatever. Listen, I only have twenty minutes before the pool closes, so…”

Before Arthur could even comprehend what was happening, Merlin pushed himself out his chair and landed in the water with a splash, completely submerged. Arthur felt panic set in his gut, and he was torn between yelling at the lifeguard to do something and jumping in himself, fully clothed or not, when Merlin rose back to the surface, exhaling loudly.

“You okay Merlin?” The lifeguard called out, and Arthur realized that while the man hadn’t moved to rescue Merlin, he had been watching the whole thing with a careful eye. “I think you probably should’ve warned your friend there before you did that.”

Throwing a cheeky smirk at Arthur over his shoulder, Merlin turned his attention to the lifeguard, constantly paddling with his arms to keep afloat. “Aww, but where’s the fun in that, Lance? Did he freak out like a baby?”

Not appreciating that he had been made the butt of a joke when he had been filled with genuine concern, Arthur couldn’t help but be a little sullen as he snapped, “You’re the one with a My Little Pony tattooed on your back, and you’re calling me a baby?”

“It’s a Ceffyl Dwr, and you’re an idiot,” Merlin countered before gesturing to the equipment behind Arthur. “Get me one of those pool noodles, will you?”

While it took Arthur a bit more time than he liked to figure out what exactly a pool noodle was, he tossed one to Merlin as he furrowed his brows in curiosity. “What the hell is a…”

Merlin tucked the noodle under his armpits to keep himself steady and to give his arms a break. “Ceffyl Dwr; don’t bother too much trying to pronounce it,” he teased with a roll of his eyes, turning to give a full view of his back, his fingers tapping the skin above the tattoo in question. “It’s a water horse from Welsh folklore, sort of a reminder of my family’s heritage.”

Having just caught a brief glance of the tattoo between Merlin’s shoulder blades before he had dove in the water, Arthur now took the opportunity to get a better look. Whoever the artist was, they had done a fantastic job; the top horse half was that of a gorgeous black stallion, appearing as if it would rear up and come to life at any moment, while the bottom fish half was covered in exquisite blue scales that looked like they shimmered in the light. For some reason, Arthur thought it suited Merlin, but he wasn’t about to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Still looks like something only a twelve-year old girl would love. And what’s that quote from, ‘Not all those who wander are lost’?”

Turning back around to face Arthur, Merlin raised a incredulous eyebrow before he sighed. “Okay, that one might be a little too geeky for you to get, but it’s a line from The Lord of the Rings.”

“You mean those movies that came out a few years back?” Arthur had remembering seeing them once in the theater, and while he thought there were beautifully filmed and well-acted, they had held no real appeal to him.

Judging by the expression Merlin was giving him, one might have thought that Arthur just kicked a bag of puppies. “…Oh my god, Arthur, please tell me you knew it was a novel before the movies came out. No, wait, just tell me that you know you’re supposed to actually read books instead of just using them to balance wobbly furniture.”

“Of course I do!” Arthur couldn’t really meet Merlin’s eyes though, considering he had stuffed a dictionary under to hold up a leg of the antique desk in his room just the other day. Merlin seemed to pick up on this hesitation, slapping a palm against his forehead in disbelief. “Seriously?! …That’s it, what are you doing tonight?”

Past Friday nights, Arthur had gone straight to a bar, drinking until the early hours of the morning before driving home to pass out in his bed. Shit, when he really thought about it, that sounded like the most depressing thing ever; it wasn’t like he had done it for fun (he always ignored the girls that tried to flirt with him, and hardly met up with friends), so why the hell had he kept on doing it until now? “Why?”

Merlin had made his way back to the pool edge, and with one hand had grabbed the ladder rail, the other gripping the mat he had placed down earlier, and hoisted himself up until he was belly down on the mat. Pushing up until he was in seated position, he twisted his body as he reached for his chair, moving his legs manually with his hands before lifting himself up onto it. “There’s a library across the street from here, so you will have no excuse on why you can’t educate yourself properly.”

The words didn’t register in Arthur’s head at first; he had been too impressed on how Merlin managed to get himself out of the pool. “…Why do you do it that way?” Arthur nodded towards one of the large machines on wheels; it was pretty obvious its function was to help swimmers in and out of the water. “Why not use of those, or use the ramp? Wouldn‘t it be easier?”

Rubbing his hair briskly with his towel, Merlin gave such a blinding smile that Arthur felt his heart skip a beat. “Of course it’s easier, but I do it my way, just because I can.”

--

 

“I don’t care what you say, Merlin, just because I’m not interested in elves, wizards, or midgets with hairy feet, it doesn’t mean I’m uncultured snob,” Arthur grunted, closing the book (the one Merlin had deemed a classic) he had been struggling to get through for the past hour. He tried to not let it bother him that during the whole time, the stack of books Merlin had placed next to himself on the library table had shrunk at a breathtaking speed.

“No, it totally does,” Merlin retorted quietly, not looking up from his current reading selection as he turned the page. “And they’re called ‘hobbits‘, Arthur. I’m also pretty sure you’re not supposed to use the word midget any more.”

Arthur winced inwardly at the slip of the tongue; yet another thing to add to the ‘Arthur-is-an-ignorant-ass’ list. “Shit, that’s right. What‘s the correct word, ‘little person‘?”

Merlin hummed in agreement, tapping his fingers lightly on the wood tabletop. “It depends I think, but I’ve heard ‘dwarf’ or ‘vertically challenged’ as well. Which reminds me, you probably shouldn’t use ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’ while you’re at the center; most people there prefer ‘differently-abled‘.”

Frantically, Arthur tried to remember if had used those words at some point during the day, and while he was almost positive he hadn’t, he was starting to have doubts. “You could have told me earlier so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. Why differently-abled anyways?”

Finally tearing his gaze away from his book, Merlin scoffed at Arthur with a cheeky grin. “You probably would have made a fool out of yourself no matter what I said.” He paused for a moment, biting his bottom lip thoughtfully as he explained, “And, well, when most people hear disabled, it can come out as negative, like there’s something wrong with it. Same thing with handicapped; a lot of people associate the term with someone who needs help and can‘t do anything on their own. But just because someone’s body works differently than others doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t do something, just they have to find another way of doing it.”

That actually made a lot of sense when Arthur really thought about it, and he couldn’t help but find the underlying resolve of the whole thing admirable.

“I think that’s why Gaius picked the name ‘Excalibur’ for the center,” Merlin continued with a shrug, encouraged by Arthur’s meditative silence, “because even though the original Excalibur had been encased in stone and couldn’t be used in a traditional sense, it served another purpose by being a beacon of what true royalty meant, waiting for the right person to utilize it’s untapped potential.”

Merlin stopped, noticing he might have been growing slightly carried away with telling the story, and gave Arthur a sideways glance. “I still can’t believe you haven’t heard about the ‘Sword in the Stone‘. Didn’t you at least watch the Disney cartoon version of it, or were you completely deprived as a child?”

“Something like that,” Arthur mumbled under his breath, and his tone must have been more venomous and self-deprecating than he realized, because instead of more teasing, Merlin placed a comforting hand on Arthur’s forearm, squeezing lightly. Instantly Arthur jerked away on reflex, trying not focus on Merlin’s blushing face as he cleared his throat. “How did you come to work at the center anyways?”

Seemingly grateful for the change of subject, though still a bit nervous about what had just occurred, Merlin rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Gaius is actually my godfather, though he’s been more of a real father than my biological one was. Turns out my mom’s high school sweetheart joined the military and left before my mom found out she was pregnant. She tried to track him down to let him know, because she figured with a name like ‘Balinor Emrys’, he wouldn’t be too hard to find. But then it turned out he died in action before even receiving one of her letters.”

Instinctively Arthur opened his mouth to issue an apology, like he had been taught to do in these situations. But remembering Merlin’s thoughts on the matter, he instead changed his response at the last minute. “That sucks.”

Letting out a little snort, Merlin nodded in agreement. “Yes Arthur, that does indeed suck. But like I said, at least I have Gaius; he’s the only reason I came to the center after the accident in the first place, and I ended up hanging around so much that he decided I might as well work there. Oh, by the way! I’m having a party at my apartment tomorrow night; a lot of people from work are going to be there, and even though you’re a newbie, you should come too. Here, let me write down the address and time for you.”

Taking the piece of scrap paper Merlin handed him without promising anything, Arthur sighed. “Look, I don’t appreciate it when you call me a newbie when we’re at the center, but you definitely shouldn’t call me it when we’re out in public.”

“Why not?” Merlin asked, his lips twitching with an insolent smirk. “You can be a newbie in life too, especially if you’re someone who hasn’t been in a library before.”

Arthur grimaced as he shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah, well, if all of them have chairs as hard as this one, I don’t think I’m missing much.”

“Don’t be such a baby.” The smirk on Merlin’s face grew wider, as if he delighted in Arthur’s discomfort. “If it's really that bad, we can switch seats for awhile.”

Eyes widening in surprise, Arthur shook his head rapidly. “No, no, that‘s okay.”

Misunderstanding Arthur’s response, Merlin rolled his eyes with a sigh. “…Oh, I get it, you don’t want to be seen in a wheelchair.”

“No!” Shit, that was a bit louder than Arthur intended. “I mean, yes, but I also don’t want people to think I forced you out of it or something.”

There was a awkward moment of silence, and then both of Merlin’s hands flew to his mouth as he (unsuccessfully) tried to contain his laughter. “Oh my God, you’re right! All they’re going to see is smug Arthur Pendragon, stealing some poor guy’s wheelchair, and I’ll just be on the floor, defenseless and crying for you to give it back.”

Merlin--”

“--But then we would have put on a show of you having a change of heart, like you giving one of those huge novelty checks to the center--”

“Shut up, Mer--”

“And then everything ends up being forgiven, and no doubt people will expect me to do my best Tiny Tim impression and go, ‘God Bless Us, every one!’”

“MERLIN!”

“If you two will not keep it down, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” interrupted the librarian, who looked about as old and dusty as some of the books. Shamefully ducking their heads down, Merlin softly giggled as he whispered, “I know you’re a newbie to this, Arthur, but you’re supposed to keep quiet in a library.”

Arthur groaned as he dropped his head to the table, trying to hide the fact that he was smiling as well. “Merlin, I swear to God, I’ll hit you if you don’t shut up, even if there are witnesses around.”

“Wait. Before you do, let me see if I can find a book on whittling so I can make a crutch out of one the chairs first.”

Though they were eventually forced to leave the library (largely in part because the bark of laughter Arthur had let out at Merlin’s last comment had been so loud, all eyes had turned to the two of them), in retrospect Arthur determined it was the most fun he had experienced on Friday night in a long time. Even if there was a parking ticket on his windshield when he got back to his car.

--

Although he had been unsure about attending the party filled with people he hardly knew, as time passed, Arthur didn’t think it was that bad of an idea after all. He found out that Gwen’s protective boyfriend was none other than Lance the Lifeguard (whose real last name was Dulac, but “Lance the Lifeguard” was just too damn catchy, so that‘s what everyone went with), and he understood why Merlin said it would be fruitless to flirt with her; the way the two gazed into each other’s eyes and clasped their hands together was sweet. Almost to the point of being sickening, but sweet all the same.

There were a couple of unfamiliar faces in the room as well, including Gwaine, a massage therapist employed at the center who wasted no time introducing himself; he slapped Arthur on the back with an unusual sense of informality. “I heard Merlin was giving you a tour of Excalibur yesterday, but you didn’t stop by to see the best part.”

“’The best part‘?” Arthur echoed curiously, and Gwaine gestured a thumb to himself with a smug grin. “Yours truly. Feel free to stop by any time if you want to release that tension in your shoulders; there’s a reason I’m so damn good at my job, right Elena?”

The blonde woman next to him jumped upon hearing her name, spluttering slightly in her drink. “What? Oh, right, it’s totally true, he’s the best. Though I might be a little biased.”

Gwaine threw his head back as he laughed, wrapping an arm around her as he gave a wet smooch to her cheek. “Probably, but that still doesn’t mean I don’t have ‘magic fingers’.”

“…I’ll have to get back to you on that,” Arthur responded civilly (which meant he never would), excusing himself as he continued to look around the apartment. He had sort of being interested in talking to Merlin, who was playing the role of the gracious host, flitting through the room greeting guests, but determined he could wait until the party died down. Instead, Arthur examined his surroundings a little more, one wall in particular absorbing all his focus.

There were framed newspaper clippings, and as Arthur moved closer, he realized they were about Merlin, having headlines such as ‘Ealdor High’s Men’s Swimming and Diving Team Wins Third Consecutive State Championship’, the accompanying picture of a younger Merlin in goggles and swim cap soaring through water. Something twisted deep inside Arthur, unable to turn his head away; photos of what looked like Merlin and the rest of his swim team, medals of assorted metal types, even a few trophies on a shelf with inscriptions like ’MERLIN EMERYS - 200M FREESTYLE - FIRST PLACE’ engraved on their bases.

“He was planning on going on to the Olympics, you know.”

Whirling around while trying not to act like he had just been caught red-handed, Arthur locked eyes with Will, Merlin’s childhood friend and roommate. Merlin had briefly introduced the two of them earlier, and Arthur had instantly felt the sneaking suspicion Will didn’t like him, but he wasn’t quite sure why. “That good?”

Will let out derisive snort, glaring at Arthur. “What do you think? He had sorts of recruiters beating down his doorstep, and trainers leaving messages on his voicemail every other day about wanting to work with him. He had actually accepted a full scholarship to the college he wanted a few days before, but then--BAM!” Will slammed the one hand holding his beer against his other palm, not noticing when Arthur flinched at the action, “Some fucking asshole with drinking problem decides to be a stupid bastard and take it all away from him. I swear to God, if the drunk son of a bitch hadn’t splattered his goddamn brains all over the pavement, I would have done the fucking job myself, just because he nearly killed Merlin.”

Clutching his soda can tightly (he had decided to play it safe and veer away from any alcohol), Arthur speculated if he was allowed to have the same dark thoughts against the driver that Will was currently sharing. “Merlin told me how badly he was injured.”

“Fuck that,” Will snapped, taking an angry swig of beer, “You might not see it, but Merlin’s tougher than he looks. It wasn’t the accident, it was the part afterwards that almost did him in.”

Arthur took a sip of his soda, needing an excuse to swallow deeply and calm his nerves. “What do you mean?”

Rolling his eyes, Will gestured blindly to the wall of Merlin’s achievements. “What the fuck do you think I mean? How would you feel if you had your entire life flipped upside down in one instant? If your only chance of going to college was snatched from you on no fault of your own? If most of your friends stopped calling or visiting you just because you couldn’t share your passions the same way as before? And to top it all off, if your body was suddenly working against you, and you felt fucking trapped inside of it?”

The filter Arthur had in the front of his brain for polite conversation quickly dropped. “I’d feel like shit.”

“Like fucking shit,” Will reiterated, drawing the words out to emphasize his point. “Don’t get me wrong, Merlin is usually the happiest person in the room, but even he can have his low points. But he was even lower than the low those first few months afterwards; if his godfather and the Excalibur Center hadn’t reached out to him…”

“Yeah,” Arthur responded softly, knowing what Will was hinting at and not wanting to think about it. Not wanting to think about Merlin being so depressed in his situation that he might have considered ending it all.

“So fucking forgive me if I can’t be a little suspicious of why you’d want to volunteer at the center, Mr. Pendragon.” Will spat out Arthur’s name as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. “Aren’t you people just supposed to write out checks and do ribbon-cutting ceremonies and that sort of shit, but god forbid you stick around and do the actual work?”

Not only did Arthur feel he didn’t have to answer to Will, he really didn’t have an answer at all, and the two ended up being involved in a impromptu staring contest until Merlin came by. “Will, we’re out of ice, and the ice maker is busted again. Can you walk down to the store on the corner and get more?”

“…Yeah, sure.” Will handed Merlin the rest of his beer, giving Arthur one last glare before grabbing his wallet and heading towards the front door. As soon as he left, Merlin let out a nervous laugh. “Sorry about him, I should have known he’d go after you eventually. I think he has a personal vendetta against me having other friends, since he always tries to scare the new ones away.”

Arthur wondered if that meant Merlin had already considered him a friend, and he didn’t know if he felt the same way. “Does it work?”

“Let me know if it does?” Merlin’s expression grew somber as his gaze flickered up towards the wall. “I think he’s just testing people, wanting to make sure they don’t leave like others have.”

“The rest of your team didn’t keep in contact?”

“At first they did; my hospital room was so full of flowers, balloons, and gifts the first month, I ended up donating most of it to the children’s ward. But after awhile, when it was obvious I wasn’t going to be coming back, we just sort of lost touch. I guess that’s what happens when you’re no longer involved in the same things.”

Talk about hitting the nail on the head; that was exactly why Arthur seriously doubted the two of them could be friends, considered their interests seemed to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Merlin fiddled with the beer bottle in his hands, a bittersweet smile on his face as he continued to look up at the memorabilia. “Will might say that I’m only here today because of Gaius and the center, but he had a lot to play in it too; he stood by me the entire time, not allowing me to feel sorry for myself for too long. He’s the one that convinced me to hang all this stuff up in the first place, instead of throwing it all out like I originally wanted.”

“It’s not too painful for you to think about?” Arthur asked incredulously, not understanding how someone could stand to be reminded of a life that had been taken from them. Merlin chewed on his bottom lip as he shrugged. “Every now and then it is; I used to think about how unfair it all was, and why did it have to happen to me? But I realized there was no real use complaining about it, and if I didn’t like the situation, I should do something about it already. Of course I’m not happy the accident happened, and sometimes I really hate that I have to use a wheelchair. But then I remember how lucky I am and how much worse off I could be, and for most part, I would say I‘m pretty content with my life right now.”

All the air in Arthur’s lungs was sucked out by Merlin’s admission; it couldn’t be possible, people like Merlin Emrys simply did not exist. He couldn’t help but stare at Merlin in disbelief, watching those long, dark eyelashes lower over sea blue eyes, the slight blush that formed over Merlin’s pale skin. Arthur blinked out his daze when it was Merlin who looked away first, sticking the beer bottle between his legs as his hands went to the wheels of his chair. “Umm, I should check on how everyone else is doing.”

Arthur made a noncommittal noise in reply before he went back to mingling with the rest of the party, the revelation that he had fought the urge to kiss Merlin at that brief moment stuck in the back of his head the entire time.

--

Determined to arrive early on Monday morning to make up for his tardiness on Friday, Arthur was surprised to see the front lot had already filled up. Thankful Gaius had given him a pass for the employee parking at the back of the building, he made his way through the auxiliary entrance, and instantly was suspicious by the weird looks the staff was giving him as he passed them. A sense of dread washed over him, but before he yielded to speculation, he briskly made his way to Gaius’ office, rapping smartly on the door before peeking his head in. “Gaius?”

“Arthur! I didn’t expect you to be here!” Gaius gawked at Arthur before gesturing wildly for him to enter. “Come in, and shut the door.”

“Gaius, what’s wrong--” Arthur had started to ask once he was sure the door was firmly closed, stopping in his tracks when Gaius held up the day’s newspaper, his own face looking back at him under the headline, “Pendragon ducks out on DWI charges“. “…Oh, fuck.”

Gaius raised an eyebrow at the expletive as he tossed the newspaper on his desk with a sigh. “Not exactly the language I’d use, but the sentiment is the same. Somehow, word got out that you were volunteering here, and now there’s a media frenzy outside the center. Also, Uther has being trying to get a hold of you, but you haven’t been answering your phone.”

Pulling out his cell, Arthur winced at the number of missed calls, wishing he had remembered to put his ringer back on after he had went to the movie theater last night. Moving to a window to get a better signal, he had started to dial his father back when the click of the door opening caused his head to snap up sharply.

“Gaius, security wants to know if we should start forcing the vultures to leave the property already,” A familiar voice announced, and Arthur gritted his teeth as he forced himself to glance at Merlin’s direction. Merlin’s complexion had an ashen hue to it, and red-rimmed eyes suggested he had been crying, though Arthur didn‘t want to assume. Merlin hadn’t noticed Arthur at first, but when he did, his cool expression sent such a “fuck off” vibe that it made Arthur‘s head spin.

“Merlin…” Arthur started weakly before he realized he didn’t really know what to say. “Merlin, I’m sorry.”

If anything, that just seemed to make things worse; Merlin’s lips pressed down into a thin line, and when he did speak again, his voice was harsh and devoid of its usual warmth. “I told you before, Arthur, I don’t want people to apologize to me just because they feel guilty.”

Nodding once to Gaius, Merlin left the room as quickly as he entered it, leaving an utterly numb Arthur behind, though he strained not to show it. He stared dumbly down at his phone, not even processing it being in his hands or remembering what he was supposed to be doing.

“Give him some time, Arthur,” Gaius interjected gently, sensing Arthur’s inner struggle. “Merlin’s not one to hold grudges, even with a situation like this.”

That seemed to snap Arthur into automatic mode as he selected his father from his contacts, bracing himself when Uther answered on the first ring. “Arthur, about damn time! I take it you saw today’s paper?”

“Yes, Father.” In the past, Arthur might have whined on how Uther should have warned him something like this would happen, but not now, not when he realized that this was his own fault in the first place. “Actions can have severe consequences“, indeed.

“Leon’s a good man, but I’ll slap a suit on him too if he doesn’t tell me which of his fellow officers I have to sue for their pension,” Uther snarled vehemently, and Arthur shuddered involuntarily for the poor sap who tried to make a quick buck by going against the Pendragon family. “Gaius suggested that maybe you should take some time off from the center until this whole thing blows over, and I’m inclined to agree.”

Arthur almost jumped at the chance at first, figuring there was no sense in staying some place where he wasn’t wanted, if Merlin’s reaction was any indication. But that would only provide more fuel to his detractors’ fire, just another example of needing his father to metaphorically hold his hand in order to deal with a situation. Mulling over his choices as he chewed the inside of his cheek, Arthur finally shook his head before remembering that Uther couldn’t see him. “No, running away would just make things worse, and we both know it. With Gaius’ permission, I’d like to hold a brief press conference, explain to the public that I am truly regretful for what I’ve done and plan on making penance the best way I can, because I truly believe in the contributions the Excalibur Center is providing to the community. And if they have any further questions, they would be answered at another time and place, not when the center is obstructed from its normal patrons.”

Glancing over at Gaius, Arthur was relieved to see that the suggestion sat well with him, and when Uther spoke again, Arthur could have sworn he heard a trace of admiration in his father’s voice. “Very well Arthur, I trust you to make me proud, but do try to not make this whole fiasco worse than it already is.”

--

It had quickly become an undesired habit of Arthur’s, the need to run off to the privacy of one of the center’s restrooms to expel the contents of his stomach. His jaw ached with a dull throb from when he had been clenching it during the entire meeting to the press, and his tongue felt like coarse sandpaper against the roof of his mouth from the multitude of questions he had answered. From an outsider’s view, it had gone very well; Arthur had appeared remorseful about his poor choices, and sung high praises of the Excalibur Center, noting that while nothing would excuse his transgression, he seriously wanted to make a positive difference.

Sure, some of his critics’ might suggest that it was all an act, a well-scripted and rehearsed performance, and he couldn’t deny that had been the case for his few public apologies in the past. But this was the first time Arthur had been wholly sincere and utterly exposed, baring so much of himself to strangers that it unnerved him deeply. So after the security finally escorted all members of the media off the property (with strict orders not to return on account of a possible breach of patient privacy), his composure finally slipped as he haphazardly rushed to the nearest toilet, reacquainting himself with that morning’s breakfast.

There was the sudden touch of something icy cold against the back of his neck, and Arthur yelped as he swiveled his head around to find the culprit. Merlin was the last person he expected to see there, holding out a water bottle while not looking directly at Arthur. “Someone told me you were puking your guts out in here. Nerves get to you?”

Hands shaking, Arthur gratefully took the water, gulping the cool liquid eagerly to soothe the sting of acid in his throat before he leaned back against the stall wall. “Something like that. What, did you come see for yourself and gloat on how the mighty have fallen?”

Merlin picked at an imaginary piece of lint on his shirt, trying to give off an air on nonchalance. “Maybe.” He paused before eventually turning towards Arthur, the makings of a wry smirk struggling to form on his lips. “But then I realized you would have to be mighty in the first place for that to be true.”

Arthur exhaled a shaky sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “No, I’m definitely not mighty, as my father would be sure to tell you multiple times. If anything, I’m--”

“A complete ass.”

“A complete ass,” Arthur agreed wholeheartedly, adding on a whim, “And an idiot. And a newbie, but if you tell anyone I said that, I’ll swear you’re lying to the day I die.”

The weak chuckle from Merlin gave Arthur a small glimmer of hope, and he played with the cap of his water bottle. “I’m also sorry,” he felt Merlin instantly tense by him, and hurried to explain, “About not telling you, I mean. I’m not proud of it, and I was worried on how people would treat me if they knew, but I should have told you just the same.”

Sniffing casually, Merlin shook his head with a grimace. “Arthur, I don’t want you think you should have told me out of some misplaced sense of pity.”

“Pity?” Arthur echoed disbelievingly, shock written over his features. “Merlin, I’m the one who makes stupid decisions, and then waits for my father to clean up my mess as I vomit from the stress I caused. If there’s anyone I pity, it’s myself.”

“…Yeah, well, you do have a bit of an ego,” Merlin retorted, a full blown grin on his face now. The two of them abruptly burst out into a fit of laughter, and then Merlin swatted at Arthur. “Stop that, I’m still mad at you. Gwen’s been so distraught when she heard the news; she thought you were someone who really cared, who really wanted to be here.”

Frowning, Arthur realized he didn’t think about how the others would react, and came to the conclusion that their opinion had meant a lot as well. How did he come to value the judgment of people he had just met so highly? “I do care, and I do want to be here.” Seeing the doubt clearly written in Merlin’s eyes, Arthur carried on with renewed vigor, “I mean, at first I didn’t want to be, but I’ve changed my mind; my father was even trying to convince me to take time off, but I told him no, I wanted to stay.”

He tried to swallow the lump in his throat as he paused, and Arthur wondered why he seemed to be able to admit information to Merlin so freely. “I meant everything I said when talking to the press, Merlin. I can’t change what I did, but I want to do something constructive for once. Please believe me.”

Very rarely did Arthur Pendragon use the word “please“, and he wondered if Merlin knew that, or even cared. Those first few moments of silence as he waited for a response probably added years onto Arthur’s life, but he determined it was all worth it when Merlin ultimately granted him one of those heart-stopping smiles. “Well, you can’t really help out when you have your head stuck down a toilet, can you newbie?”

--

Honestly, working at the Excalibur Center after Arthur’s incident with the law had been uncovered could have been a lot worse than it actually was. Not surprisingly, he had received the odd stare or overhead the hushed whisper by various staff members when he walked through the corridor, and gone was Gwen’s look of admiration whenever she greeted him, though she still always managed to grant him a small smile. Will even showed up one day, threatening to lay Arthur out, but it was only because Merlin went between the two of them that he didn’t get to throw a single punch.

(Arthur didn’t appreciate Merlin fighting his battles for him, but Merlin had insisted his intrusion was as much for Will’s benefit as it was Arthur’s.)

In reality, most of the problems that Arthur encountered from the center stemmed from the fact that, while he really was eager to help in any way he could, his possibilities to assist were limited. Without the proper training and certification, he couldn’t work hands-on with the patients, which was fine by him actually; he was secretly scared of having that much responsibility.

Which meant the only other option for Arthur at the moment was to help with assorted errands and janitorial work around the center, and whereas the average person would probably be able to complete menial labor without a hitch, Arthur had been forced to admit he had never really cleaned a single day in his life.

Of course, Merlin had a field day when he found that bit of information out. “What, do you have a maid that constantly picks up after you, and wipes your face after you’re done eating?”

“Shut up, Merlin.” Arthur hadn’t bothered telling him that there wasn’t just one maid, but an entire crew employed by his family, but he definitely did not have someone who wiped his face for him. Not since he was five, anyways.

Luckily, Arthur had always been a fast learner, and after a few mishaps (including one with a plunger, a toilet, and a clog “from the literal bowels of hell“, as Merlin had aptly put it), within the first week he considered himself at least somewhat competent at his assigned duties. It wasn’t glamorous, and sometimes he questioned whether he was really doing enough, but no one suggested otherwise.

Quickly Arthur had fallen into a routine, and at that moment on his daily agenda, he was wiping down the various exercise equipment with sanitizer, trying desperately not to ogle Merlin as he worked at one of the weight machines, as well as not notice how the personal trainer, Percy, had biceps nearly as big as Arthur’s head. He failed on both accounts, but especially the former.

“He’s not too bad on the eyes, is he?” A voice murmured next to his ear, and it was only because of Arthur stopped himself just in time that Gwaine did not end up with disinfectant sprayed in his face. “Don’t do that.”

Gwaine chuckled, his expression the picture of mock innocence. “Do what, interrupt you from your daydreaming about Merlin?”

Arthur gritted his teeth as he tried to keep his cool, rubbing the cleaning cloth on the same spot he had been working on for the past five minutes. Who the hell did Gwaine think he was? “I was not daydreaming about Merlin.”

“And why not? I wouldn’t blame you.” Gwaine threw an arm over Arthur’s shoulder, pulling him in close so their conversation wouldn’t be privy to anyone else. “Look at him; you’ve been doing it this entire time, so don’t you dare tell me you can’t. Look at him, and tell me you wouldn’t hit that.”

Even though he didn’t want to give in, Arthur couldn’t help himself as his gaze flickered over to Merlin, who was oblivious that he was the subject of their discussion. Merlin was on the thin side, but never could (or at least should) be mistaken for scrawny, especially now as the lean, taut muscles in his arms flexed and bulged, his sweaty slate blue t-shirt tightly clinging to him and emphasizing the lines of his abdomen. Arthur forced himself to tear his eyes away as heat curled in his belly, not saying anything because he figured Gwaine would come to his own conclusions no matter what.

“Hell, I would hit that,” Gwaine crooned softly, fanning himself for dramatic effect. “I even tried once, long before I met Elena.”

Debating if he really wanted to hear this, Arthur’s piqued curiosity eventually won out. “What happened?”

“Got shot down in no time flat.” From Gwaine’s tone, Arthur sensed rejection didn’t happen to him quite often, and it was quite easy to see why; with his long, wavy locks of hair, chocolate-colored eyes, and overall good looks, Gwaine was probably used to women (and men, apparently) throwing themselves down at his feet. “He was polite about it though; said he wasn’t interested in a relationship at the moment, especially with a co-worker. I told him that didn’t stop Gwen and Lance, but he just laughed at that.”

Why the notion that Merlin had turned away Gwaine’s advances actually pleased Arthur, he didn’t want to think about it, and instead he sent Gwaine a warning look to back off the subject. “I should get back to work.”

If Gwaine was intimated at all by Arthur’s rough manner, he hid it well, flashing a wide smile as he nodded. “Yeah, I have an appointment myself in a few minutes, so I’ll let you get back to swooning at Merlin like a princess.”

Before Arthur could decide whether to object to the “swooning” or “princess” part first, Gwaine had already left, and Merlin was suddenly staring in Arthur’s direction. Shit, shit, shit.

Pretending to be completely engrossed in his work, Arthur finally moved on to another piece of equipment to wipe down, his skin prickling with nervous energy at the thought of Merlin’s gaze upon him. When Arthur finally allowed himself to look up again, he recognized the teenage girl from the waiting room the first day had arrived. She was lying on one of the padded tables as Percy lifted her legs up, gently bending them as Merlin gave the girl’s shoulder a supportive squeeze.

“--and I know it seems pointless, but just because you can’t feel them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise them as well,” he was explaining in a soothing tone, reminding Arthur again how Merlin had a certain way with people, “You still might be able to use them for support, so you don’t want the muscles to atrophy.”

It was then that Arthur had to excuse himself, reasoning he was leaving because it would be easier to sterilize the room when it was unoccupied, and definitely not because cute men giving encouraging pep talks while looking way too attractive in workout clothes made him feel funny inside.

--

The feeling of not only being home early on a Friday night, but already in bed before the sun completely set was just too surreal for Arthur to comprehend. But the fact of the matter was, he felt too exhausted to do anything else; by no means was he out of shape, but working at the center had drained him, both physically and mentally.

Which was why, as he rolled to his side, his muscles protesting at the movement, he couldn’t understand how sleep continued to allude him. His body seemed to more than eager, but the thoughts racing through his mind prevented him from drifting off. Thoughts that seemed to be mostly of Merlin.

Maybe Gwaine had been on to something that one time in the exercise room (not that Arthur would ever let the other man have the satisfaction of knowing that--Gwaine would boast about it for weeks), maybe Arthur was attracted to Merlin in some form or another. It didn’t make the least bit of sense though; when he last checked, Arthur Pendragon definitely did not have a wheelchair fetish.

But perhaps that was the whole point. After all, when Arthur met Merlin, he didn’t register the wheelchair at first, and still had times where he completely forgot about it. Instead of focusing on the chair and then the person in it, he only saw Merlin, who just happened to be differently-abled.

Merlin, who teased Arthur mercilessly any chance he got, not caring about the prestige of the Pendragon name or the power Arthur‘s family held. Merlin, who was always the first to offer help to people, a soft, patient smile on his face. Merlin, who did things his way, even if they weren’t easy, just to prove that he could. Merlin, who had every right to hate Arthur for what he did, but instead had checked on him that moment in the restroom, water bottle in hand. Merlin, Merlin, Merlin.

Groaning in exasperation, Arthur threw off the bed covers as he moved to get dressed; he had been tossing and turning for what felt like hours with no success, and the sudden urge to get out and clear his head was overwhelming. Deciding that public bars would be a bad idea at the moment (it would just take one phone call to get a news van to show up and dog his every move), he put his rarely used personal pass to Uther’s private country club into play.

If the other patrons of the club had anything to say about Uther’s son being there, underdressed in jeans and a wrinkled polo shirt that looked slept in, they kept it to themselves. A lot of them were Uther’s clients, and they knew better than ostracize the Pendragon son lest they wanted a few of their own secrets to somehow get out.

Taking a stool at the bar, Arthur ordered his favorite imported beer before pondering his current dilemma. He was by no means a monk when it came to relationships, often approaching them like he did with everything else in his life. What he wanted, he usually got, or at least didn’t give up without a fight. Even three years after it happened, Arthur still winces when he thinks about Sophia, the lovely blonde girl that had enthralled him his freshman year of college. His father had nearly frothed at the mouth in rage when Arthur announced his plans to marry her. It was only after the “convenient” discovery on Uther’s part that Sophia’s father was being trailed by not only debt collectors but the FBI for embezzlement charges that Arthur decided to cancel the engagement in an attempt to save face. After that debacle, he had been involved with others, but nothing that amounted to anything serious.

That’s why it was so unusual for him to have a possible interest in someone and not know what to do about it. Hell, he didn’t even know if he even wanted to act on it; he had determined, despite Merlin’s best intentions, the two of them would probably be nothing more than good acquaintances. Besides, maybe this whole thing was an infatuation of some sort, just because Merlin was different than anyone else Arthur had ever met before. Not so much in a physical sense, but in terms of Merlin’s personality and character, and perhaps the appeal would fade over increased familiarity.

At least that’s what he told himself as he sipped his beer, grimacing at the acrid taste on his tongue. Through no fault of it’s own, it made his stomach turn, and he tried a few more times before ultimately giving up, forced to concede that maybe he should talk to someone about his problem instead of drinking it away.

The only problem was, Arthur didn’t exactly have a list of people he could confide in. Of course he had friends (he had been one of the ‘popular kids’ all his life), but while he could talk to them about college activities, the latest football game, or if they wanted to spend vacation in Hawaii or Bahamas this year, he didn’t know them well enough to talk about anything more personal. And obviously Merlin was out of the question; even if Arthur wanted to embarrass himself even more than he had already, he didn’t have Merlin’s phone number. True, he probably could have asked Gaius for it, but wouldn’t that just open up a can of worms.

Deciding he must be feeling really desperate, he dialed a number he hadn’t used in nearly a year, holding his phone away from his ear as his step-sister screeched, “Arthur, do you have any idea what time it is?!”

Arthur glanced down at his watch, and was surprised to see it was now nearly one in the morning. No wonder the bartender had kept asking if everything was okay with his drink. “It’s nice to hear from you too, Morgana. I was unaware of the time, and can call back when it’s more appropriate if you wish.”

“No, you just better have a good reason for calling at this hour,” Morgana seethed though clenched teeth, then laughed, a hollow, empty sound. “Please tell me it’s because the effects of ‘Daddy Dearest’s’ tyranny have finally come back to bite him.”

“Morgana,” Arthur warned quietly, just like he always did when she spoke ill of Uther. Arthur didn’t like most of the things his father did, but was always quick to defend him, a characteristic Morgana had once labeled ‘admirable, yet stupid’. The step-siblings had always butted heads with Uther (and occasionally, each other), but while Arthur eventually grew acquiescent and apologized for his behavior, Morgana had remained steadfast to her principles. Even though they had both struggled under Uther’s authoritarian rule, Arthur was his flesh and blood, and thus deemed to be the favorite of two children. Morgana had no such privilege, especially after her mother passed, and Arthur was just shocked it had taken her so long to leave the Pendragon household to live with the maternal side of her family. It had never been any of Arthur’s fault (or at least he didn’t think it was) on how Uther treated Morgana, but he had felt just as bad about it back then as he did now. “I’m sorry, Morgana. For how he hurt you.”

He had been apologizing a lot lately, and Arthur was starting to think that he shouldn’t bother. “…Fuck you, Arthur Pendragon,” Morgana hissed, her tone dripping with unbridled venom. “You haven’t spoken to me in months, and when you do, it’s to drunk dial me in the middle of the night?”

“Morgana, wait!” Arthur shouted unconsciously, lowering his voice when a few snooty glances were thrown his way. “I’m not drunk.”

“Even if you didn’t call me at an ungodly hour, it’s Friday night, Arthur. I’m not stupid.”

Had he really been that predictable? “Morgana, you can’t tell me you haven’t seen the news recently.”

“Oh, I heard, though I’m surprised it took so long for you to get caught. Did Uther bully poor Leon to let you off the hook?” There was a pause, and then Morgana added with an unusual sincerity, “I’m glad you’re okay though.”

Morgana was the first one to voice concern over him, and while Arthur felt like he didn’t deserve it, he was grateful for it all the same. “Thank you.”

“…Who is it, then?”

That abrupt question threw him for a loop. “Who is what?”

The sound of Morgana’s eye roll was nearly audible over the line. “Come on, Arthur, playing dumb doesn’t become you. You and I both know that your brush with the law wouldn’t be the only thing to stop you from having a good time. You’ve met someone.”

A vision of pale, alabaster skin, dark, unruly hair, and bright, ocean blue eyes sprung to the front of his mind, and Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose in an attempt to force it back out. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Please, I think I know you better than anyone, Arthur.”

This was true, and was also the reason the phone call was becoming more dangerous by the second. “Seriously, Morgana. Volunteering at the center… It’s been an experience. You should visit sometime; I’m sure Gaius would love to see you again.”

While Arthur had near impeccable health during childhood (except for in the fourth grade, when he broke his arm roughhousing with the neighborhood boys), Morgana had been plagued with constant night terrors that were especially troublesome in her teenage years. While Gaius hadn’t been her primary physician, he did what he could to console her through the ordeal, and the two had bonded because of it. So maybe it was a low trick to use Gaius to change the subject, but it had been all he could think of at the time.

There was a thoughtful hum on Morgana’s end. “I’ll have to look at my schedule, but send me the information? I wouldn’t want to miss what my dear brother’s been up to lately. And Arthur?”

“Yes, Morgana?”

“It was nice to talking to you, but if you ever call this late again, Morgause said she’ll personally rip your head off.”

Arthur winced, suppressing a shudder; as if Morgana wasn’t bad enough, her half-sister could be just as scary, if not more so. “Right. Good night, then.”

Hanging up the phone, he stared down at it for a few minutes, a soft expression forming on his face. He didn’t know why he had waited so long to contact Morgana again; perhaps he had thought that her loathing of Uther somehow extended to Arthur as well, and he was deeply relieved to find out that it apparently didn’t.

It was late enough that he could probably get some sleep now, so Arthur paid for his tab before sliding off his stool. And while he had been nursing the single beer the entire night (and hadn’t even finished it), he still sent for a driver to come take him home.

--

The realization that he had missed Morgana’s presence came as a complete shock to Arthur, considering the amount of bickering they had done as children. But while Arthur hardly ever agreed with her about Uther out loud, he secretly considered her a close companion when it came to dealing with his father, a position that had become depressingly empty once she left the Pendragon estate.

He couldn’t fault her for that, especially when he saw her again after all these months; gone was the girl that would lash out in anger and fright, guided by her heart and morals before thinking things through. In her place was a gorgeous young woman who exuded a sense of cool confidence and calculated passion. And while Arthur thought she looked better than she had ever before under Uther’s rule, he wondered if she was truly happy. “Morgana, glad you could make it.”

A brilliant smile, unlike any one Arthur had seen her give before, spread across Morgana’s features when she spotted him. She eagerly crossed the distance between them, her ridiculously high heels clicking on the linoleum floor. “Arthur, it’s good to see you!” She greeted him with a kiss to each cheek before stepping back and taking in his appearance with a critical eye. “…Just what are you wearing?”

“You’ve seen me in jeans and a t-shirt before,” Arthur replied dryly, though he understood what she meant. Not wanting to ruin his wardrobe, he had started wearing his dingiest clothes to work. The cuffs of his jeans were frayed, with random splotches from where bleach had splashed on the denim. His t-shirt was covered in various spots and smudges that refused to come out in the wash, and he was pretty sure there was a hole forming at the seam on the back of his collar. Morgana just looked at him like he had decided to pick out his outfit by rolling around in a dumpster. “Isn’t there some sort of dress code here?”

“Not if you’re volunteering for cleaning duty,” he answered with a shrug, preparing himself for his sister’s ridicule.

Morgana raised an eyebrow in disbelief, a trick she had no doubt picked up from Gaius over the years. “You can’t be serious.”

When Arthur didn’t move to refute her, Morgana snickered, covering her mouth in a half-attempt to be polite. “Arthur Pendragon, reduced to a lowly janitor… That is just too rich. Do you push a cart with a mop bucket around, or have a set of keys on a large ring?”

“Keep it up, and I’ll scrub your face with a toilet brush. After I dip it in a clogged bowl.”

“No need to be so repulsive, Arthur.” Morgana frowned, crinkling her nose in disgust before linking her arm with his. “Do you think you can take time out of your busy schedule to show your dear sister around?”

Although his tour probably wasn’t as nearly competent as Merlin’s (he swore the other man was a living and breathing wealth of knowledge sometimes), Arthur got the distinct notion that Morgana was impressed by the information he had retained in such a short time. She didn’t come out and say as much, but there seemed to be a glimmer of pride in her eyes when he talked passionately about the services offered at the center.

“I’ll take you to Gaius’ office next, but then I will probably have to get back to work,” Arthur apologetically explained, hating that time had seemingly slipped by so fast. “Maybe we can have lunch together sometime.”

“Of course we will. Thank you, Arthur, for the lovely tour.” Morgana’s gaze scanned his features, a thoughtful smile on her lips. “…This place really has changed you, hasn’t it?”

Feeling his cheeks flushing, Arthur quickly turned away. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Are you…are you blushing?!”

“No!”

Morgana clasped a hand to her chest, pointing to him with the other in disbelief. “Oh my God, you are! First there’s the sobriety on Friday nights, then the sincere interest in people other than yourself, and now Arthur Pendragon is blushing! Who are you, and what have you done with my brother?!”

Never mind, he took it back; time was now going by way too slowly for his liking. Gritting his teeth, Arthur kept his head down as he continued to stride blindly forward. “You know, I’m starting to regret inviting you--”

“Oh!”

Arthur had been so engrossed in what he was saying that he had bumped into Gwen, and instantly reached out in an effort to steady her. “I’m sorry, Gwen, are you all right?”

Gwen beamed sweetly, her gaze then flickering to Morgana behind him. “I’m fine, Arthur, thank you. I see that you have a visitor with you? I mean, you’re allowed visitors of course, just it surprised me.”

“Gwen, this is my step-sister, Morgana Le Fay,” Arthur gestured to his side, keeping his voice as civil as he could when referring to his sibling. “Morgana, this is Gwen Martel, one of the instructors here.”

It seemed that Gwen’s initial admiration of Arthur extended to the rest of his family as well. “Oh my goodness, Ms Le Fay, I’m so honored to meet you. I read about what you had to struggle with under your step-father, and I thought you were so brave.” Realizing Arthur was right there and heard every word, Gwen suddenly gasped in embarrassment. “Not that I’m trying to speak badly about your father, Arthur! I‘m sorry, I only meant--”

“…You are just too adorable,” Morgana nearly squealed, clutching a very befuddled Gwen close to her chest as she pouted at Arthur. “Please tell me we get to keep her.”

Massaging a hand against his temple, Arthur reminded himself to apologize to Gwen later for his sister’s eccentric behavior. “You can not ‘keep’ people, Morgana, they are not pets.”

Morgana scoffed while rolling her eyes, embracing Gwen tighter as she glanced down at the other woman. “Don’t be so rude, Arthur, you know I didn’t mean it like that. So, ‘Gwen’, is it? Are you the one then?”

The very personification of a skittish deer ready to bolt at any moment, Gwen tilted her head in confusion. “I’m sorry? I don’t know what you mean.”

If Gwen was the nervous prey, Morgana was the hungry predator, lurking in the shadows in preparation to strike. “The one that’s changed my dear brother for the best.”

“Morgana…” Arthur started with a scowl, sending out a clear warning not to talk about this with others. Which Morgana promptly ignored as she continued, “Because he keeps saying there’s no one, but I know that’s a lie; Arthur could never keep secrets from me. So, I figure it has to be someone he met here at the center.”

Since Gwen had lapsed into an awkward silence, Arthur decided to take it upon himself to control the situation. “While Ms Martel is quite lovely, I’ll have you know that she is already involved in a stable relationship that I have no intention of interfering with,” Arthur answered in a clipped tone, his glare towards Morgana telling her to back off. “I mean it, Morgana, when I say there’s no one.”

Fate seemingly had a strange sense of humor, because out of the corner of Arthur’s eye, he saw ‘no one’ at the end of the hall, talking animatedly with one of the staff members. Wondering if it would be okay to leave Gwen with his harpy of a sister, Arthur guided Morgana to the direction of Gaius’ office with a flourish. “Morgana, I really need to go, but Gaius’ office is the second door on the left; call me when you want to schedule lunch. Gwen, I’ll see you around.”

Not waiting for a response, Arthur turned and headed down the corridor, increasing his pace when he noticed Merlin was starting to leave. “Merlin, wait!”

Stopping his chair quickly, Merlin turned to look at him. “What is it, newbie?”

Arthur opened his mouth (probably to protest at ‘newbie’ for the umpteenth time), when his phone buzzed in his pocket. Excusing himself, he flipped it open, cursing when he saw the message was from Morgana: Really Arthur? I’m surprised, but happy for you.

He told himself that it he should just ignore it, but Arthur’s head unconsciously snapped back towards Morgana, who was waving with a sly smirk, winking at the two of them while Gwen giggled sheepishly. And Merlin, God help him, was waving back, slightly confused. “Who is that with Gwen?”

That would be my step-sister, Morgana, the most annoying person in the world.”

“’Annoying person in the world’, huh? I don’t know, have you met this guy named Arthur Pendr--”

“Hey!”

Grinning cheekily in response, Merlin studied Arthur carefully before asking, “So, why is she here? Did you just want to show off what a great job you’re doing?”

“Yes, I’m sure she’s as awed by my newfound cleaning abilities as much as you are,” Arthur sighed sarcastically before explaining, “I invited her because she was interested in the center, and because she’s a friend of Gaius.”

Not knowing when to let a subject drop, Merlin retorted, “Oh, here I thought you were trying to show how much of a self-sacrifice you were making.”

Arthur snorted, rolling his eyes as he crossed his arms. “Trust me, Merlin, the only self-sacrifice I’m making is having to deal with you.”

Shit, that came out a lot harsher than Arthur intended, and Merlin flinched as if he had been physically struck before placing his hands on his wheels, his voice lower than usual. “Well, I better let you get back to her, then.”

Why did it feel like half of the time he spoke to Merlin, Arthur wound up putting his foot in his mouth? “I didn’t mean it like that. Look, I came over to talk to you, because while I find your taste in books questionable, and I plan on never going back to a library thanks to you--”

“If this is your way of saying sorry, you‘re doing a horrible job, just so you know.”

“You hate apologies anyways, and you’re interrupting, so shut up. As I was saying, in spite of everything, I really had a good time that night, and was wondering if we could do it again. But maybe…go to the movies this time?”

Merlin blinked repeatedly, staring at Arthur in disbelief. “…Are you asking me if I want to hang out with you?”

Arthur could hardly believe it himself. “Yes, I think that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

At first, it looked like Merlin was going to agree to the offer, but then furrowed his brows in suspicion. “Why? You aren’t trying to make up for anything, are you?”

The urge to throttle Merlin until he saw sense was overwhelming as Arthur groaned. “Damn it, Merlin, can you stop thinking I have some sort of ulterior motive? The fact is, even though you can be completely infuriating sometimes, I’m starting to like having you around.”

Chewing on his bottom lip as if he was still didn‘t quite trust Arthur, Merlin slowly nodded with a small smile that was absolutely endearing. “Likewise, I guess. Okay, sure, when do you want to go?”

Exhaling a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, Arthur looked at the calendar on his phone, though he already knew by heart which days he had free. “How about Friday night again, after work? I’ll pick you up from here if you want.”

“Sounds good, except I’ll be the one doing the driving,” Merlin chuckled as he started to back his chair up. “I have to go back up front now, since Freya doesn’t like being left alone for too long, but we can work out the details some other time?”

Figuring Merlin had seemingly forgiven him enough for his quirky humor to return, Arthur instinctively stepped out of the way for Merlin to get by if he needed to. “Right. I’ll talk to you later then.”

Remaining in the same spot a few seconds after Merlin had left, Arthur was snapped out of his reverie when his phone buzzed again, and he didn’t even have to look to see who the sender was. He’s cute. You should have him join us at lunch so I can warn him about what he’s getting into.

Ignoring the fact that there was probably witnesses, Arthur made an obscene gesture in Morgana’s general direction, her cackling laughter bouncing of the walls as he walked away.

--

“You know, when you insisted on driving, I thought you were joking,” Arthur muttered under his breath, watching Merlin’s frown slightly in concentration as he began to back his car out of the parking space. Which, not surprisingly, wasn’t one of the specially designated spots up front, but situated a few rows back.

If he was insulted by Arthur’s ignorance rearing up again, Merlin didn’t show it, flashing Arthur a brief smirk before readjusting pressure on the trigger mechanism that allowed him to work the gas and brake pedals with his right hand. “What, you thought I would ride with you? I know what your driving record is like,” Merlin began to tease, but stopped immediately when he heard Arthur let out a pained hiss at the low blow, “But anyways, how else do you think I get to work, newbie?”

Public transportation, or maybe Will dropped Merlin off; truth be told, Arthur hadn’t really thought about it until now. But he would feel foolish if he admitted that out loud, so instead he made a non-committal sound in reply, trying not to focus on how Merlin’s presence seemed overwhelming in a confined space.

This is not a date, Arthur had told himself as he dressed into the khaki cargo shorts and crimson red henley shirt he had packed with him that day, not seeing the point of going home to change only for him to have to turn around and come back to the center. This is not a date, he reminded himself after he spent fifteen minutes fixing his hair in the mirror until he deemed it perfect. This is not a date; a slow mantra began to form in his head, quickening in pace when he noticed Merlin had changed too before they left, wearing dark wash straight leg jeans and a blue button-up plaid shirt that accentuated the color of his eyes. This is not a date, this is not a date, this is not a date, shit, shit, shit…

A part of him (a very miniscule, secret part he determined, not knowing who he was trying to convince) wished it was a date, just so Arthur wouldn’t feel so awkward on how he reacted to certain things. Like how he noticed Merlin’s hair was still damp, and figured he must have gone for a swim earlier, because under the aroma of Merlin’s ocean breeze scented shampoo, a remaining trace of pool chlorine lingered. Or how Merlin’s eyes tended to light up when they discussed different events that happened at the center over the course of that past week, periodically flashing that wonderful smile that always took Arthur’s breath away. Or even how they apparently shared similar tastes in music, and ended up belting out an 80s power pop song with the windows all the way down and stereo blasting.

But it didn’t really matter, because even if the fluttering in Arthur’s stomach suggested otherwise, they were friends, just friends. He didn’t know exactly when they had become more than acquaintances, but found the realization didn’t bother nor surprise him as much as he initially thought it would. They had fallen into a routine of easygoing banter that was reminded him of the relationship he had with his sister. Except, unlike Morgana, Arthur could stand being around Merlin for more than five minutes.

“Guess I should have asked if there was movie you wanted to see in particular,” Arthur sighed after they had arrived at the theater, glancing up at the marquee to look at the titles and show-times. Merlin looked as well, his lips twitching as he silently read them off before he responded dryly, “I kind of expected you to drag me off to one with lots of explosions and no real plot.”

“What, instead of one where you need a whole dictionary of made-up words about magic and dragons to understand what the hell is even going on?” Arthur retorted quickly, giving Merlin a sideways smirk. “We should go to a horror movie; that way you can prove how much of a girl you are by screaming every time something pops up on the screen.”

“Why would a horror movie scare me, when all I have to do is look at your face?”

As much as he tried to fight it, Arthur let out a bark of laughter at that, covering his mouth with a closed fist when he noticed it caught other people’s attention. “Seriously, how are old are you if you think that’s clever?”

Merlin was chuckling loudly as well. “You laughed at it, so what does that make you?”

That settled it; Arthur bought tickets for the god awful slasher movie he really had no interest in seeing, just on principle alone. “Just don’t ask to hold my hand if you get too frightened.”

“Ass,” Merlin snorted, no real heat to his words as he headed to the concession stand. Once Arthur paid for their food as well (with Merlin protesting he could, in fact, pay for his own things, and Arthur wondering how Merlin could stay so damn skinny when he ordered stuff like a hotdog, nachos, gummi bears, and a slush drink), they found their assigned theater, and Arthur decided he was going to enjoy himself, no matter what movie they watched.

Well, he had planned to, but not even halfway through the previews, Arthur felt something hit the back of his head. At first, he thought it was a fluke, but out of the corner of his eye he saw a piece of popcorn hit Merlin too, followed by a snigger behind them.

It made Arthur’s blood boil, and he gripped the armrest of his seat so tightly his fingers turned white. Merlin must have sensed his tension, because his own voice was stiff as he whispered, “Arthur, just ignore it.”

That lasted about five seconds, until another piece came flying down at Merlin, and Arthur whipped around, snarling, “What the hell do you think you are you doing?!”

Caught in mid-throw, the man seated in the row behind them just scowled back in return. “What?”

“Arthur…,” Merlin pleaded quietly, reaching out to grab his arm in an effort to calm him, but Arthur shook it off as he continued to glare at the man. “Don‘t even pretend you don‘t know what I‘m talking about; just stop it.”

“Yeah, sure.” The man sneered as his gaze went from Arthur to Merlin. “What, don’t want your cripple boyfriend to start cryin--”

Instinctively lunging forward, Arthur leapt over the seat partition, his fist connecting with the man’s jaw with a resounding crack. It soon all became a blur of movement, people shouting, and Merlin calling his name, until the next thing he knew, Arthur was holding a makeshift bag of ice to his swollen eye as he waited in the back room security had directed him to for the time being.

And Merlin was by his side, absolutely livid.

At first, Arthur had thought it was because of the things the man had said, but as soon as security left them alone for a minute (after explaining that the authorities had been called), Merlin exploded in anger. “What part of ‘ignore it’ don’t you understand, Arthur?!”

Arthur dropped the bag of ice in shock, hissing as it brushed against his bruised knuckles. Yeah, he’d probably have a black eye from a lucky shot, but Arthur was pretty sure the other guy wouldn’t be able to eat anything solid for awhile. “You’re mad at me?”

“Of course I’m mad at you!” Merlin shouted, staring with utter disbelief. “What were you thinking?”

God, his head really ached, and all this yelling was not helping. “I was thinking, Merlin, that the guy needed to shut up and stop being an asshole. He shouldn’t have said that about you.”

“He was an idiot, Arthur, but you think I haven’t dealt with this sort of thing before?” Merlin asked, his tone bordering on hysterical. “It doesn’t happen all the time, but I don’t need you to protect me.”

“He shouldn’t have said that about you,” Arthur repeated, hoping he got his message across before he adding, “It’s not right; you shouldn’t have to deal with that sort of thing. It’s not that I don’t think you can, but I don’t want you to be forced to.”

Any remaining protest Merlin had died on his lips, and he opened and closed his mouth like a goldfish a few times before he turned away, a slight blush on his cheeks.

There was a knock on the door, and Arthur inwardly cursed as he saw Uther enter. “Damn it, Arthur! Here I was hoping your run-ins with the law were behind you!”

Sensing Merlin start to rush to his defense, Arthur answered abruptly, “I’m sorry, Father. I accept any charges made against me.”

Uther blinked, as if viewing his son in a whole new light, before shaking his head. “…No need, all charges have been dropped,” he explained in a matter that suggested the situation was not as cut and dry as he made it seem. “Especially when the other party was reminded about the number of witnesses who saw him antagonize someone who is physically disabled--”

“Differently-abled.”

Both Uther and Merlin looked sharply in Arthur’s direction. “…Excuse me?” Uther finally responded, not used to being interrupted, especially by his own son.

“It’s not ‘physically disabled’, it’s ‘differently-abled’,” Arthur responded fiercely as he locked his gaze with his father’s, unwavering, even when he felt Merlin’s hand placed on his forearm. Uther appeared as if he was going to argue (or reprimand Arthur for speaking out of turn), but instead waved his hand in dismissal. “The fact of the matter is, the theater is going to send a bill for any property damage that might have occurred. We’ll discuss how we’re going to handle the situation if the media gets a hold of this once we’re in the car.”

Pausing, Uther then turned his attention towards Merlin for the first time. “Will you be needing a ride as well? I can arrange for someone to pick you up.”

“Oh!” Merlin squeaked, a bit meek under Uther’s sudden scrutiny. “No, I’m okay, thanks.”

Nodded once, Uther straightened his shoulders before heading back to the door. “Then let‘s go, Arthur.”

Standing to leave, Arthur hesitated as he glanced at Merlin, and then back at his father. “Can I have a moment?”

Apparently Uther was feeling unusually generous, because he looked down at his watch before replying, “You have five minutes, make it quick.”

There was the click of the door as Uther left, and then the room feel into an eerie silence with the exception of the clock ticking on the wall. Overwhelmed with a new sense of anxiousness, Arthur cleared his throat. “I shouldn’t have gotten you dragged into all of this.” I should have listened to you.

“It’s okay, that guy really deserved it anyways.” Merlin drawled, his lips twitching into a wry grin. “About what he said though…”

Did it really bother Merlin that much after all? The thought made Arthur’s teeth clench, and he wished he had hit the guy harder and in a more sensitive area. “Come on Merlin, you said yourself that he was an idiot.”

Fidgeting nervously, Merlin suddenly wasn’t able look Arthur in the eyes. “I know that, I just meant…the part where he called me your boyfriend...”

It felt like Arthur had taken a blow to the stomach as well as he gasped softly, blinking down at Merlin, who was growing redder by the second. His first instinct was to laugh it off, to reiterate the stupidity of what the man had said. But Arthur found that he couldn’t, and instead his focus zeroed in Merlin’s mouth, those white teeth pressing gently against his bottom lip.

The kiss was unexpected, sweet and chaste, and it was only until Arthur pulled away that he had realized what he had done. It was only until he saw that hazed and confused look in Merlin’s gaze that he recognized what line he had crossed.

For a minute, Arthur was starting to think that he had read the situation all wrong, that Merlin had found the idea of being more than friends impossible. All doubt went out the window however, when Merlin’s hand sprang out, grabbing Arthur’s shirt and tugging him down for another go. This time, the contact between them was forceful and needy, and Arthur found himself letting out a low moan when it was Merlin‘s turn to pull away. “I should let you go…your father kind of scares me…”

Grunting in agreement, Arthur placed his forehead against Merlin’s, his mind reeling from what exactly just happened, and why he wasn’t more freaked out by it. “Next time we do something, I promise it won’t end with us being kicked out of the building.”

“I don’t mind,” Merlin chuckled breathlessly, reluctantly relinquishing his grip on Arthur’s shirt. “Especially if it ends up with you apologizing like that.”

Arthur wanted to argue that it wasn‘t an apology, but was unable to, considering he wasn‘t really sure what it was just yet. “You sure you’ll be fine getting back?”

Merlin rolled his eyes as he ushered Arthur towards the door. “Yes, newbie, now go on before your father finds a reason to dump my body and make it look an ‘accident’.”

Maybe Arthur should have been more worried about what this change to their relationship meant, or if his head was going to stop throbbing any time soon, or how he was going to face the media once again once news of the fight broke out. But nothing seemed to detract from the bewildered grin that he wore on the way home, even if did cause Uther to ask if he was suffering from a concussion. Twice.

--

Gwen,” Merlin whined as he covered his flushed face with his hands, “You promised you wouldn’t tell anyone.”

It had just been another example of Arthur’s recent bad luck that the day after the movie theater incident was also the date of the Excalibur Center’s semi-annual barbecue and picnic. Patients, staff members, volunteers, and friends of the center alike were packed to the brim of the clinic‘s small courtyard, and with such a great number of people, it had only been a matter of time before someone mentioned the ugly purple discoloration around Arthur’s eye.

What Arthur hadn’t expected, however, was for most of the group to already know what had happened. Gwen’s look of admiration from when she first met Arthur had returned twice-fold, and she couldn’t stop beaming at him whenever they happened to exchange glances. Lance hadn’t said much to Arthur (always being a man of few words), his respect and gratitude instead coming through the quiet handshake he offered. Gwaine had let out a low whistle, saying at least there was a good reason for Arthur to mess up his pretty face, chuckling when Arthur sent him a glare in response. Even Will had made a brief appearance before he had to leave for his weekend job, loudly proclaiming he wished it had been him giving the punch. He hadn’t specified if he meant against Arthur or the man at the theater, but ended up muttering something like a thank you in Arthur’s direction.

Shaking her head, Gwen countered sympathetically, “No, Merlin, you asked me not to tell anyone, but I never agreed. You can‘t expect me to keep this sort of thing a secret.”

“I hate you so much right now,” Merlin mumbled angrily, crossing his arms over his chest, a slight pout on his lips.

“Oh, sweetie,” Gwen laughed softly, “You couldn’t hate anyone, even if you tried. I don‘t know why you‘re so bothered by this! Arthur is kind of like your knight in shining armor now.”

That’s exactly why it bothered him, Arthur suddenly realized; whether they meant it or not, the others were acting like he had ‘saved’ Merlin somehow, even though Merlin didn’t really need saving. If the media got wind of the incident (the news circuit had been suspiciously silent so far, but in his experience, all it took was one dark grainy photo taken by cell phone before the truth came out), the headlines would say something similar; something about Arthur protecting those who were helpless on their own. If the roles were reversed, Arthur would be reeling from the blow to his ego, so he could only imagine how Merlin felt. No wonder he had been so angry at Arthur; polite society had been coddling him because of his difference instead of respecting him for it, and Arthur’s action just probably enforced the notion. The thought made him slightly ill, and he did his best to rectify the situation he created by joking weakly, “It’s not that big of a deal. I’m sure Merlin could have kicked the guy’s ass if he needed to, or at least run over his feet a few times.”

The soda Merlin had been drinking at the time spurted out of his nose upon hearing his own words again, and as he coughed and sputtered, Arthur chuckled quietly while rubbing his back in apology. He wasn’t even thinking how intimate the motion might appear until he felt Merlin freeze underneath his touch like a deer caught in headlights, and Arthur drew his hand back sharply.

“…Oh! I’m not trying to say Merlin can’t take care of himself or anything like that!” Gwen exclaimed frantically, apparently becoming aware on how her words could be taken. “I just meant it’s nice to see someone stand up against people like that, and take an interest in what those who are differently-abled have to deal with it. Um, maybe it’s a bit presumptuous of me, but I overheard you talking to Gaius the other day, about pamphlets you can read about the subject, and I can recommend a few myself if you‘re interested?”

Before Arthur could answer, Merlin snorted, rolling his eyes as he continued to sop up the mess he had made from his soda. “Newbie, reading? Really, Gwen, next you’ll tell me that you still think Santa Claus is real.”

Gwen stuck out her tongue in response as Lance jumped to her defense with a good-natured grin. “I will tell you that Morded is right behind you, and probably overhead everything.”

“Oh shi--” Merlin spun around, spotting the young boy who was sitting at a nearby table. “Mordred, I didn’t mean it! What I meant was--”

Morded fixed Merlin with an unblinking stare, appearing older than his actual age. “I’ve known Santa Claus wasn’t real since I was four, Mr. Emrys,” he finally replied before rolling his wheelchair away, mumbling about how adults could be so weird sometimes.

With a groan, Merlin turned back and dropped his head on the table with a loud thunk, barely missing his plate. “Changed my mind, I hate all of you now.”

Amongst the laughter from the rest of the group, Gwen reached over and gave Merlin a pat on the head. “We love you too.”

Maybe Gwen wasn’t thinking about him when she used “we“, but Arthur felt included all the same, and surprisingly didn’t balk at the thought. That in itself worried him, for while had finally resigned to the fact he cared about Merlin, he still wondered if he was getting too involved too fast. He hadn’t really spoken to Merlin since the kiss, and felt more confused than ever on where the two of them stood. Deciding he needed to be alone at that very moment to think to himself, Arthur stood up and gathered discarded plates and napkins. “Does anyone need anything while I’m up?”

“Here, let me help,” Merlin offered a little too eagerly (or was that just Arthur projecting?), collecting his trash as well before heading with Arthur to where the refuse and recycling bins had temporarily been set up.

This was Arthur’s chance; there was no one currently around them to overhear their conversation, but before he could even open his mouth, Merlin beat him to it. “We haven’t really had the chance to talk much…since…”

“It wasn’t an apology,” Arthur blurted out, biting down on his tongue at his own stupidity. Inhaling sharply, Merlin looked up at him with widened eyes. “…What?”

“The kiss.” How Arthur managed to say that aloud without it catching in his throat, he didn’t know. “It wasn’t an apology. It was just a kiss.”

“…Oh.” Even if the disappointment in Merlin’s response wasn’t evident enough, the dejected slump of his shoulders was sending out a clear message. “Oh, I see.”

Damn, why was this so hard? “No! What I meant was, the only reason I kissed you was because I wanted to, though I don’t know why--”

“I get it, because I’m so un-kissable, right?” Merlin retorted, and while he probably meant it as a joke, the underlying pain in his tone chilled Arthur to the bone. It wasn’t like Merlin to come off so bitter, and while he had every right to be, Arthur didn’t like it at all. “I didn’t say that! If you would just let me explain--”

“Explain what, newbie?”

That was it; Arthur was so close to tearing his hair out in frustration. “That I like you, okay?!”

There was a moment of awkward silence, and Arthur groaned, his mind racing as he speculated how many people might have overheard him raise his voice, and how was Merlin going to respond, and oh God--

“…I like you too.”

The admission was so quiet, Arthur started to believe he had imagined it at first. But as he watched the tips of Merlin’s ears grow redder as the other man fidgeted while avoiding eye contact, Arthur felt his heart pound in his chest. “…Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Merlin’s gaze met Arthur’s again, his lips twitching in an attempt to form a grin. “I thought it would be pretty obvious when I had pulled you back down for a second kiss.”

If Arthur’s smile grew any wider, he was afraid his face might crack. “I didn’t mind. I don’t mind, if you want to…just…is this okay?” At the confusion in Merlin’s gaze, Arthur hastily explained, “Us working together. Gwaine told me that you said you didn’t date co-workers.”

Merlin’s sigh suggested he was hardly surprised. “Of course he did. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it before, just…” He paused, sneaking a glance back towards their table, his fingers flexing on his denim-covered knees. “They’re not only my friends, most of them were here when I first came to the center, so they’ve seen me during my good times and my bad. And I don’t want that; if I am with someone, I only want to show them my very best.”

While he could understand the sentiment, Arthur wanted to argue that it wasn’t fair. Merlin had seen him at what he considered his personal worst (he was never going to live the time in the restroom down, even if it was never mentioned again), and yet he still wanted to be with Merlin, only because he actually felt comfortable sharing those kind of moments. It was things like having his weaknesses exposed without being horribly judged for them (Merlin might tease, but never had any real malice) that made Arthur like Merlin in the first place.

But he felt like he couldn’t compare their situations, as if he would cheapen everything Merlin had gone through by comparing it to his own selfish problems, so instead Arthur simply asked, “So what, you’re only showing me your very best for me?”

“When you put it like that, it sounds like I’m trying to inflate your eg--”

Whatever Merlin was going to say was cut off as Arthur swooped down and pressed his lips hard against Merlin’s own. He wasn’t unsure of what he wanted like he had been at the theater, so gone was the chasteness of before, replaced by a yearning that probably shouldn’t have been expressed in a public setting. But at that moment, he didn’t care, his hands tangled in Merlin’s hair as he tried to adjust for the best angle, tried to take in as much as Merlin as he could.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t the best way to announce their relationship to Merlin’s friends (Their friends, Arthur mentally amended, for he now knew he belonged to the group as well), but judging by the cheers and whistles coming from their table, no one seemed to mind, especially with Gwaine shouting, “About damn time, we were about to start taking bets!”

--

Days turned to weeks, and weeks into months, and it seemed like Arthur had closed his eyes for a second, only to open them again and find his summer nearing its end. Yet, in what had felt like such a short time, he had learned so much, and had maybe grown a bit from his experiences.

Not that he would ever admit it though; even if Arthur didn’t how trite and sappy the revelation sounded, no doubt Merlin tease him for it, congratulating Arthur for becoming a “normal person“.

A normal person wouldn’t breathe an audible sigh of relief when time passed and there was no mention about the incident at the theater in the newspapers, thankful that paparazzi had decided to go after someone else who has earned and appreciated their celebrity status. A normal person wouldn’t feel self-conscious on how they mopped floors, scrubbed toilets, or washed windows, just because they had no prior experience to let them know they were even doing it correctly. A normal person wouldn’t be finding themselves making lasting friendships for the first time in their life, with people they previously wouldn’t spare a second glance on the street.

No, Arthur wasn’t a normal person, and probably would never be, but he was finding he was at least becoming a person he could at least feel proud of.

Uther seemed to be noticing the changes in Arthur as well; although he never directly stated his approval, the two had started to not clash as often, especially after Arthur stopped having issues with law enforcement. And when they spoke together, it tended to be a balanced conversation one would have with their peers, and not one a father would have while speaking patronizingly to his son. While it wasn’t perfect, the hope Arthur had once considered lost at having some sort of decent relationship with his father surged anew, and there was hardly any days he left the Pendragon household without a smile on his face.

And as cliché as it sounded, it was thanks to the Excalibur Center; while he wasn’t the usual patient that went there, he felt like it had helped him clear his personal hurdles all the same. While his self-confidence--his real one, not the poised manner that had been drilled into him as child on how Pendragons were supposed to carry themselves--still faltered every now and then, his self-worth increased by the day.

It was also in large part due to Merlin; despite the brief period they had officially been together, Arthur had never felt so strongly for anyone before. The notion made him wonder if he was stuck in one of those romantic-comedies Morgana had always forced him to watch with her when they were teens. The problem was, he didn’t know which role he was playing; the handsome love interest or the character that pines away the entire movie before finally confessing.

(To his dying breath, Arthur would insist that he definitely does not pine, but considering how the majority of his thoughts had been on Merlin recently, he wasn’t so sure.)

If anyone asked what he saw in Merlin in the first place, Arthur wouldn’t be able to give a straight answer, because he personally didn’t understand it. He never considered himself appreciative of the male form, and Merlin would hardly be considered a prime example anyways; he had ears that stuck out of his messy, dark hair, and was a little bit on the thin side. But he still appealed to Arthur for some reason.

Despite his constant teasing suggest the contrary, he knew it wasn’t because Merlin reminded him of a girl either, even if the man had the finest eyelashes ever over brilliant blue eyes and cheekbones that some models would kill for. Besides, last time Arthur had called him one, Morgana had overheard, and had spent the rest of the lunch the three were having together lecturing Arthur on his sexist language while Merlin struggled to contain his laughter.

So he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what drew him to Merlin, but frankly, Arthur was starting not to obsess over it any more, and instead focused what it meant for the two of them to be together.

At the time, it apparently meant that--besides seeing each other at work--every Friday night was slotted for them to do stuff together, and while Arthur kept true to his promise of not getting them barred from any more public places, he found he loved the nights they stayed in, watching television as they hung out on Merlin’s couch.

(After re-watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Arthur admitted he might have been too hasty to dismiss Tolkien’s literary genius, but found he was definitely more into sci-fi and action than Merlin’s preferred fantasy.

“I forgive you, I guess,” Merlin had sighed, moving closer to him during the middle of the original Star Trek marathon they had found while channel surfing, “but only because you’re a really good kisser. For a newbie.”)

Eventually they started sharing their weekends together as well, visiting sights of the city that Arthur always wanted to go, but never felt comfortable going without a companion. They spent a few hours at the new art gallery downtown before they realized they both weren’t really into it; Merlin would wonder aloud how a certain piece was considered art, and Arthur would struggle to explain that the spray-painted toaster nailed to a rusty car hood was supposed to represent the artist’s thoughts on greedy consumerism before Merlin found out that Arthur was just reciting from the brochure the tour guide gave them. They lounged in the public park when it wasn’t too humid, staying under the cool shade of the trees while eating the lunch Merlin had convinced Arthur to buy from a street vendor, no matter how much Arthur bemoaned how he was going to get food poisoning and it would be all Merlin’s fault. Of course, when he didn’t, and actually ended up liking the food, Merlin teased him about it for days.

But of all the places they went, Arthur’s favorite was probably the aquarium, just because it was obviously Merlin’s favorite as well. He had never seen such an unabashed expression of sheer joy on Merlin’s face before, and as they went through the exhibits--Merlin talking animatedly about the different types of animals--Arthur felt something gently tug at his heartstrings. It became a full on yank when they briefly discussed how Merlin had planned on taking classes at college to become a marine biologist on the side of his swimming career. Arthur snorted, saying that he could see Merlin being seasick on a boat for months at a time, just for a chance to study an elusive spine-backed sea slug or something like that. But really, Arthur was doing everything possible to not focus on the desperate longing hidden in Merlin’s eyes when he spoke about failed aspirations.

Most of the time they spent at the aquarium was actually in front of the main tank; Arthur would stay back in the shadows of the dark room as he watched Merlin place a hand against the cool, thick glass. His face awash with the blue glow of the water, Merlin tracked the movements of the different schools of fish with an earnest smile, and Arthur finally understood: it was if Merlin was secretly one of their kind, stuck on dry ground when he’d rather be swimming right along with them, free from all restrictions held over him.

It made Arthur wish he was an artist or photographer of some sort, that he could capture that image presented and preserve it for all time. Because at that moment, Merlin was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

(He didn’t say that of course, but instead teased Merlin for being as easily excitable as a five year-old. Merlin responded by sticking out his tongue, not realizing he was kind of proving Arthur’s point.)

Unable to deny it any longer, Arthur finally recognized the truth: he was falling in love with Merlin, if he hadn’t completely fallen already. He wanted to talk someone about it, if it was too soon or he was confusing his emotions with something else. But the mere idea of being so clueless when it came to the subject that he felt he had ask about it filled him with an overwhelming sense of mortification.

Besides, he was tired of having someone else tell him how he should act, how he should talk, how he should feel. Wasn’t it enough that he had a soft grin on his face every time Merlin sent him a text, even if the messages consisted of such gems like, Of course Gandalf is ten times cooler than Kirk, you ass! and OMFG newbie, if you leave another one of your stupid DVDs over here, I WILL MURDER YOU? Wasn’t it enough that Arthur’s skin tingled hours afterwards in memory of Merlin just nonchalantly brushing by his arm? Wasn’t it enough that the prospect of seeing Merlin’s face caused a bout of giddiness to well up inside Arthur’s system?

If that wasn’t at least some form of love, Arthur didn’t know what was, and wasn’t sure he cared.

It was that aforementioned giddiness the drove Arthur forward as he made his way to the center’s front desk. Immediately spotting Freya, he smiled in greeting, and was rewarded when she shyly returned it. For the first few weeks, the girl had been quiet and withdrawn in Arthur’s presence, and he was heartened to see she had begun to relax around him. It was just another example of how Arthur felt he was truly starting to belong somewhere. “Freya, how are you this morning?”

“Busier than usual, but okay, thank you,” Freya replied, her voice soft and mumbled. How she made a living answering phones and talking to patients, Arthur wasn’t sure.

“How come Merlin isn’t up here helping you?” Arthur asked with a quizzical frown, tapping his fingers against the counter as he looked around. It wasn’t like Merlin to leave the waiting room for too long, so maybe he was helping someone else, giving another tour, or--

“…You didn’t know?”

Whipping his head back towards Freya, Arthur saw the expression of alarm and confusion on her face, and his stomach automatically lurched. “Know what?”

“Well, while Merlin he insisted he was fine,” Freya began to explain, starting to babble as she watched Arthur’s features harden, “but Gaius ordered him to take the day off anyways, and I thought Merlin had told you--”

“Told me what, Freya?” Arthur snapped, instantly regretting it when he saw her flinch in response. It wasn’t Freya’s fault that she had to play the part of messenger, and Arthur started to apologize.

…Only for the words to get caught in throat as Freya blurted out, “Merlin had to go to the emergency room last night.”

--

“I am going to kill Gwen,” were the first words out of Merlin’s mouth as he opened the door of his apartment to find Arthur standing there, impatiently bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Freya told me actually,” Arthur answered through gritted teeth, pushing his way inside before Merlin had a chance to slam the door in his face. Not that there was any reason to, but it apparently wouldn’t be the first time that day that Merlin had shut Arthur out. “She said you were in the hospital last night?”

Sighing in defeat, Merlin closed the door before gesturing to the bandage above his right eyebrow. “It’s not that big of a deal; I took a spill on some loose gravel, and Will freaked out and drove me to the emergency room, even though I only ended up needing a few stitches. It took me forever to convince him that it was okay for him to still go away on the trip with his girlfriend this weekend. He was even trying to force me to go, which is all sorts of awkward, besides the fact that I don’t even like camping--”

“Why didn’t you call me?” This was not a conversation Arthur wanted to have; a part of him was resisting the urge to pull Merlin into his arms and embrace him tightly, but his anger at not knowing was bubbling inside him, eating away at any other emotions as it searched for a chance at release. “You should have told me.”

“…It’s not that bad, Arthur.” Merlin frowned in confusion, hissing in pain with the tug on his injured brow. “Okay, so, it hurts like hell, and I got a few other scrapes and bruises, but I’m more embarrassed than anything.”

Frankly, Arthur would be embarrassed as well, but he would have also let Merlin known as soon as he could, and it stung that Merlin apparently didn’t feel the same way. “It was bad enough for you to go to the emergency room, Merlin.”

“I told you, that was Will’s idea. All the blood on my face made it look like it was worse than it really was. Besides, we didn’t get out of there until after midnight, and I didn’t think you’d appreciate it if I called you then.” Merlin paused, giving Arthur a cautious but wry grin. “But next time I get so much as a paper cut, you’ll be the first person I call--”

“Don’t,” Arthur warned, in no mood for Merlin’s usual caustic brand of humor. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what, newbie?” There was that damn nickname again. Lately, Arthur had actually started to like it (it had become almost like a pet-name), but at the moment, it just served as another irritant. When he didn’t respond right away, not rising to the bait for once, Merlin huffed. “Arthur, why are you here?”

That threw Arthur for a loop; was that even a serious question? “What, it’s not obvious that I--”

“No,” Merlin interrupted, starting to look about as angry as Arthur felt, which didn’t seem fair at all. “I mean, why are you here, with me? Is this some sort of thing where I’m supposed to keep playing the ‘damsel-in-distress’ stereotype, and you’re just upset you couldn’t be the hero this time?”

….Oh. Oh, God, Merlin didn’t really think that, did he? That Arthur was only interested in having a relationship because he wanted someone to coddle and protect? Didn’t he know how Arthur felt; that if anything, it was Merlin that continuously saved him?

Arthur swallowed deeply, not willing to look directly into Merlin’s gaze and find the truth he didn’t want to know residing there. “No, that’s not it--”

“Then why are you are?”

“What, am I not supposed to worry about you at all?!” Arthur snarled, unable to hold back his full fury any longer. Something twisted deep inside him at the way Merlin flinched, but he was too worked up now to stop his tirade any time soon. “Do you know how many traffic laws I probably broke trying to get here? All I knew was that you had been hurt, and you didn’t tell me. You didn’t fucking tell me, not even you called the center this morning to let them know what happened. If it had been something serious, would you have let me know then, or would I still have to find out on my own?”

Merlin was quiet and withdrawn now, which was enough of an answer for Arthur. And that’s when he let loose the words he regretted as soon as they sprang from his mouth: “Do you even want to stay in this relationship any more now?”

Too far, Arthur had gone way too far, but there was no way he could take it back now, the question hanging like a swaying noose in the silence between them. He still wanted to try somehow, to grovel and apologize to make it better, but his curiosity on Merlin’s answer was pushing him along just as strongly, if not more so.

“…What?” Merlin finally asked, his voice rough and scratchy, as if he was on the verge of tears. Arthur took that as a sign that the relationship meant something to Merlin too, and chalked it up as a small victory. A hollow, painful one that made Arthur’s chest constrict tightly, but a victory nevertheless.

“It’s just,” Arthur began to explain, trying to keep emotion out of his tone and failing, “You said before that you only wanted to show the best part of you to me. So what does this mean for us now? What does it mean if you actually needed help?”

Merlin blinked owlishly, scowling. “I don’t need--”

“I know, you don’t need help, right?” Arthur snapped, vaguely realizing he was raising his voice once more, and was surprised the neighbors weren’t banging on the walls to complain. “You don’t need help, and you don’t need anyone, because you’re so damn determined to prove yourself. You make things harder than they need to be, just because you think the world is going to think less of you if you don’t.”

“You don’t know… You have no idea what it’s like…” Merlin started to protest, his hands gripping the wheels of his chair so tightly that the knuckles were turning white. He looked like he was about to dart any moment, and would disappear the moment Arthur let him go.

“No, I don’t know,” Arthur growled, standing in front of Merlin’s path just in case he tried to make a run for it. It was a cheap move, and Arthur hated himself for using it, but he wasn’t going to let Merlin leave just yet. “Because you don’t fucking tell me. Every time I ask about it, you change the discussion, or just joke about it. This is your life, Merlin, why won’t you let me in?”

There was a reason Arthur had asked for his pamphlets and information from Gaius; while Merlin had told him some things about what it meant to be differently-abled, Arthur wanted to know more, even the topics that were more uncomfortable to discuss. He wanted to understand what Merlin truly went through, to understand the man he loved just a little more.

“…What, so you can be disgusted out by my daily routines? So every time I have to really work at something everyone else has no problems with, I can see that little bit of pity in your face?” Tears were welling up in Merlin’s eyes now, and he angrily brushed them away with the back of his hands. “I don’t want that, Arthur. I just want you to treat me like a normal person.”

“No one’s completely normal, Merlin. I know I’m not, and you accept me just the same!“ Letting out a long sigh of exasperation, like steam releasing from a kettle, Arthur felt his heart ache at the sight of Merlin crying. Sinking to his knees, Arthur reached for Merlin’s wrists, rubbing the skin in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. “Look, if I treat you any differently than others, it’s because you are different to me. Not because of how you do things, or even because you’re in this chair, but because of who you are to me.” Because you’re the one I care about, more anything in the world.

Breath catching in his throat, Merlin stared at him with watery eyes before he pulled himself from Arthur’s grasp, hands falling limply to the side. “ …I can’t do this right now… I mean, I need to go...”

While that was the last thing he wanted, Arthur nodded once as he stepped out of the way, watching Merlin speed down the hallway towards his bedroom. At the sound of the door closing, Arthur crumpled into the cushions of the couch, wondering if he had just fucked up the greatest thing to happen in his life.

--

When it came down to it, Arthur couldn’t find it in himself to leave Merlin’s apartment.

He had been tempted a few times, just because he didn’t even know if he was still welcome to stay there. But every time he went to go, he thought about Merlin’s former teammates and friends, and wasn’t content with being yet another person who walked out of Merlin’s life.

However, Arthur did briefly run out to his car to grab the textbooks he had just bought earlier in the week in preparation for the approaching fall semester. And he did literally run, afraid that if Merlin came out of the bedroom to find him gone, he would lock Arthur out of the apartment and officially out of the relationship.

But apparently Arthur didn’t have to worry, because as time passed, Merlin didn’t come back out even once. Resisting the urge to check on him, Arthur instead tried to pour his focus on getting a head-start on his studies. It was oddly comforting to him, the language that governed society’s law and order; it was almost as if the knowledge was a sword one could wield while combating foes on the battlefield known as the modern courtroom. However, while his father used heavy-handed tactics to bully and demean his clients’ opposition, Arthur was interested in using legalities in a more just and righteous way, though he had yet to figure out how exactly.

That suddenly changed as an idea started to form and grow in his head as he remembered the pamphlets Gaius and others had given him. Soon Arthur was looking up different articles on his phone, tapping a pen against his teeth thoughtfully before jotting something down in the margin of one of his books. No matter what happened between him and Merlin now, Arthur thought he might have found the branch of law he would want to pursue, once he passed his bar exam and set up his own practice--

“You’re still here.”

Turning his head so fast he probably had whiplash, Arthur gaped at Merlin, who had appeared by the side of the couch seemingly out of mid-air.

Merlin had changed into plaid pajama bottoms and worn but well-cared t-shirt that read “Ealdor High Swim Team” (how could he so casually hold on to such a painful memento?), and his still damp hair suggested that he had just got of the shower.

How Arthur had missed the sound of water running, he had no clue, and after a moment of silence he finally pulled his gaze away, embarrassed by the scene he presented; he tended to spread out while he was working, and started to gather the papers and books strewn about him sheepishly. “I didn’t want you to think you were alone, but I can leave if you want--”

“…You’re still here,” Merlin repeated, his voice barely above a whisper as he placed a trembling hand to his mouth. “You’re still here, you haven’t left, and damn, Gwen wasn’t joking; you’re actually reading.”

“Told you I wasn’t completely illiterate.” Oh, it was so nice to hear Merlin make jokes again that Arthur had just reacted instinctively instead of trying to clear the awkward air between them. He didn’t care if they discussed books or even the damn weather; Merlin was talking to him and not making him leave, and that’s all that mattered at the moment.

“Not completely,” Merlin teasingly amended, pulling his hand away to reveal a weak grin. He picked up one of the books nearby, raising an eyebrow in surprise as he flipped through it. “’Introduction to the Law and the Legal System’? Following in your father’s footsteps, huh?”

The question was innocent enough (and one that had been asked many times before by others), but Arthur flinched nevertheless. It just reminded him that, while he eventually adapted and thrived in law school, it hadn’t been his choice. “…I didn’t want to at first. I wanted to do something that actually helped people.”

Humming noncommittally, Merlin cleared a spot on the couch next to Arthur before shifting to it from his chair, their hands just inches from touching each other. “I thought that’s what a defense attorney did. You know, defending people?”

“That’s what they’re supposed to do, but you know as well as I do that‘s not always true…” Arthur trailed off with a sigh as he closed his book; he couldn’t concentrate when Merlin was right there and all he wanted to do was to kiss him, hug him, or at least touch him in some way.

“…You were right,” Merlin abruptly murmured after a few uneasy seconds had passed, swallowing deeply before he spoke again. “I should’ve called you and let you know what was going on. But I was just scared, I guess. I didn’t want you to think I couldn’t take care of myself, that you had to worry about me.

Maybe he was overstepping his boundaries so soon after their fight, but Arthur couldn‘t resist any longer. He moved closer and grabbed Merlin’s hand, intertwining their fingers together. “There‘s a difference between not being able to take care of yourself and having someone care for you,” he explained, licking his lips before inhaling sharply. This was his chance, to let Merlin know the truth, so he would never have any doubts again. “I want to care and worry about you not because you need me to, but because… Because I think I love you.”

Stiffening at the admission, Merlin slowly raised his head towards Arthur, a look of shock plastered on his face. “You think?” he tried to joke, his voice coming out with an undignified squeak.

“I think I love you,” Arthur continued, “because of how you light up when you talk about your silly fantasy stories, even if I think they’re most pointless things ever. Because of how you constantly tease me for being a newbie, and yet are always there to help me when I need it. Because you can still smile, laugh, and live even after everything that‘s happened to you, becoming the strongest and most amazing person I have ever met. I…I love you, because you mean more to me than anyone else, and I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

Merlin was still staring at him with a mixture of disbelief and awe, causing Arthur’s face to flush as he added, “I want to know everything about you, Merlin, and I mean everything. I want to be there for you, no matter what, but only if you let me.”

If Morgana had overheard the conversation, she would probably crow with delight, labeling Arthur as a love-sick sap while insisting that he had to thank her watching those romantic movies after all. And maybe she’d be right, but it didn’t mean that Arthur liked feeling like a fool for laying his feelings out so openly.

“…You are such a newbie,” Merlin gently chuckled, the sound making the tension in Arthur’s body release instantaneously. Merlin then glanced down at their hands clasped together, running his thumb against Arthur’s. “When you first showed up at the Center, I thought, ‘Great, this guy is going to run away and get back into his car after five minutes.’”

Arthur snorted. “Great to see you had such an excellent judge of my character.”

“Okay, maybe fifteen minutes,” Merlin corrected dryly, shaking his head slightly with a roll of his eyes. “The point is, after I found out the truth of why you were there, I had every right to hate you. I probably did for a few minutes, but then when I found out you were puking your guts out in the bathroom, I couldn’t. Not when I saw how much it upset you, not just because of what the reporters and the public thought of you, but more because of what I thought about you. It was kind of adorable actually; I think that’s when I started to fall in love with you.”

Pausing for a moment, Merlin’s cheeks were tinged pink when he realized Arthur was watching him, enraptured by his every word. “You never gave up, even when you had to do things you never faced before; though I have never seen someone who had so much trouble learning to sweep properly before. And even though you can be an idiot, an ass, and a complete newbie at times, I love the way you tease me when everyone thinks I should be handled with kid gloves. How there’s a hidden look of admiration in your eyes every time you see me do something you don’t expect. And even how you want to know more about the actual me, not just the person in the wheelchair. I guess what I’m saying is that…I love you too, Arthur.”

That was enough for Arthur; turning his body sideways, he pulled Merlin halfway into his lap, wrapping his arm around for support. Letting out a yelp of surprise, Merlin prodded Arthur in the chest. “You’re not winning any brownie points by manhandling me, you know.”

“Stop complaining, I’m sure you love it,” Arthur teased, dropping his lips against the side of Merlin’s neck and sucking gently. “I think I should manhandle you more often.”

“Only you, Arthur, would confess you love me and then be an absolute a--Ah!”

Smiling against a now gasping Merlin, Arthur hummed as he continued to move up towards Merlin’s jaw, leaving a trail of kisses along the way. “You were saying something, Merlin?” he asked before pressing his mouth against Merlin’s own.

In turn, Merlin mumbled something that sounded an awful like “you ass”, but any remaining protest fell away as Merlin eagerly returned the kiss. A sense of urgency buzzed between them, and soon Arthur found he was gasping for air himself. To think he could have lost this, lost Merlin; that made him feel more needy than ever before. He ran his hands down Merlin’s sides and under his shirt, groaning at the contact between fingertips and bare skin. But Arthur wanted more, and reluctantly pulled away so he could ask: “Can I…?”

Nodding wordlessly, Merlin raised his arms as Arthur removed the shirt with one fluid motion. Knowing better than to just toss it to the side--it had special meaning after all--Arthur draped it over the couch arm before turning back to Merlin. “God, you’re beautiful,” He whispered as he ran his fingers over Merlin’s pale chest, circling one of the nipples.

“I am not,” Merlin muttered, blushing as he followed Arthur’s movements with his gaze. His own hands had returned to wrap around Arthur’s neck, drifting every now and then into the hairline.

Letting out a rumbling chuckle, Arthur lowered his head, blowing against Merlin’s heated skin. “You are too,” he reaffirmed, his lips taking over the spot where his fingers had been seconds before.

“A-Arthur!” Merlin cried out, unconsciously gripping a fistful of Arthur’s hair so tightly that black spots formed in from of Arthur’s eyes. However, it was a delicious kind of pain that spurred Arthur on as he alternated between sucking with his mouth, licking with his tongue, and scraping with his teeth.

There was yet another tug, a stronger one as Merlin pulled Arthur’s head back up to kiss him sloppily and open-mouthed. Somehow, Arthur managed to lose his shirt (though that one was definitely thrown off to a corner of the room somewhere), and Merlin was leaning against him, peppering his collarbones with caresses made from fingertips.

It was probably greedy of Arthur to want even more, but Merlin was a breath of fresh air he couldn’t get enough of in his lungs. And yet, he didn’t want to assume they could further without asking first. “I want you so badly,” he groaned, taking Merlin’s hand and placing it on the bulge in his jeans, “but can we do this somehow? Do you even want to do this?”

Fondling Arthur through the denim fabric (in a way that made Arthur weak), Merlin hesitated. “I don’t know, I’ve never tried before. I don’t feel anything below, but I could maybe…but I would have to use a…” Obviously flustered in trying to explain the mechanics, Merlin then covered his face in mortification. “Fuck, this is officially the least sexiest conversation ever.”

“It’s okay,” Arthur assured, peeling Merlin’s hands away in order to tenderly kiss his forehead, being mindful on the fresh bandage above his brow. “It doesn’t matter, we’ll figure it out together.”

Detangling himself from Merlin, Arthur slid off the couch, kneeling in between Merlin’s legs. Leaning forward to slide his hands under Merlin’s butt, Arthur lifted him up slightly before slowly pulling the pajama bottoms down. After every few inches of milky smooth skin that was exposed, Arthur would pause and place a kiss there, repeating the action once of twice in the same spot. He could hear Merlin’s hitched breathing and the confusion in the words when Merlin asked, “What are you doing? I don’t--I told you--”

“When I said I love you, I meant all of you,” Arthur replied with a smirk, as if his reason should’ve been obvious. “Besides, didn’t you say something once? About ‘it might seem pointless, but just because you can’t feel them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise them as well’?”

Merlin stared down in confusion before it dawned on him. “You were listening; that time you were in the gym with Gwaine.”

“So shouldn’t it apply the same way here? That you might not exactly feel this--” Arthur paused to leave another kiss against the inside of Merlin’s knee, “--you know it’s there, right?”

There might have been tears in Merlin’s eyes when Arthur looked up to gauge his expression, but there were quickly blinked away as Merlin teased, “Arthur, I’m starting to worry that you have some weird fetish for guys in wheelchairs.”

Arthur growled as he pushed the pajamas down farther to place his lips against Merlin’s shin. “Definitely not. If anything, I just have a fetish for you.”

A snicker escaped from Merlin, and then another, until he was laughing so hard that Arthur could feel the reverberations rolling through Merlin’s body. “Oh my God, you did not just say that.”

“It’s true though,” Arthur countered as he removed the pajamas completely, running his hands over the uncovered length of Merlin’s legs. “Don’t you know how excited I get when you so much as glance at me? Hell, I couldn’t be in the gym while you in there, because I couldn’t focus on cleaning when you looked so damn good.”

Planning on removing Merlin’s boxers next, Arthur’s hands were already sliding over the fabric front towards the waistband before Merlin stopped him with a knowing smile. “Arthur, come back up here.”

As soon as Arthur hopped back on the couch to his original position, Merlin’s mouth was on him as his hands fumbled with the zipper of Arthur’s jeans. Understanding, Arthur helped, wriggling his hips so he could shimmy out of the denim and boxers at the same time, his cock springing from a nest of dewy dirty blond curls. Murmuring in appreciation, Merlin licked a broad stripe down his palm before curling his fingers around the shaft, his thumb running along the underside of the tip.

Biting back a groan as he thrusted once into his Merlin’s hand, Arthur could’ve came right there and then, especially when Merlin tightened his grip as he moved it up and down with languid strokes. God, it felt so good that Arthur couldn’t see straight--he even tried to tell Merlin that, the syllables coming out as jumbled pants--and he clung to Merlin as he rocked their bodies together. It wasn’t fair; he wanted to something like this for Merlin, to drive him crazy with mere touch.

Slipping against the sheen of the sweat encasing Merlin’s skin, Arthur’s fingers started to dance along Merlin’s shoulder blades and down his spine. However, as soon as they brushed against the faded scars of Merlin’s lower back, there was a loud gasp from Merlin as he stopped mid-stroke, and Arthur pulled his hand back in alarm. “Does that hurt?”

“N-no, that’s not it,” Merlin answered, his voice faint and a bit sheepish. “Just the nerves there are kind of sensitive, so actually… It feels really good when you…touch it like that...”

“It does?’ Arthur asked incredulously as his fingers returned to rub at the area in question, rewarded when Merlin moaned slightly afterwards. An eager grin spread across Arthur’s features, his mind determining on what to do with the newfound knowledge. “Close your eyes. I want to try something.”

Tilting his head to the side curiously, Merlin nevertheless did as instructed, remarking dryly, “Should I be worried? Maybe you do have some sort of fetish after all.”

“Shut up, Merlin.” There was no heat to Arthur’s words, too excited about the possibility his hastily formed plan would work. He stroked, teased, and traced at the skin, forming invisible patterns and pathways only the two of them would know the location of.

“Listen to me,” Arthur commanded, even though it was clear he had Merlin’s attention, “I don’t want you to think about anything else but I’m what I’m doing to you right now. Feels good, yeah?”

“Y-yeah.” Merlin was breathing heavily through his mouth, chest starting to rise and fall in a manner that Arthur wonder if they should stop. But he had to trust that Merlin would say if things weren’t okay, just as much as Merlin was trusting him at that moment.

“Then focus on this--” Arthur leaned forward to suck at Merlin’s neck again, a surge of possessiveness curling through him when he knew it would leave a mark, “--and this--” his nails lightly grazed the skin of Merlin’s back, pressing in slightly every now and then, “--and what you do to me.” He wrapped his free hand on Merlin’s that was still on Arthur’s aching cock, moving them together as he thrusted his hips upwards once more.

Something incomprehensible spilled from Merlin’s mouth, the meaning lost in the series of pleasured whimpers and fervent whines that surrounded it. Licking lips that were so red, wet, and swollen that Arthur wanted to kiss the hell out of them yet again, Merlin managed to pant out, “…Arth--Arthur!”

“So beautiful,” Arthur whispered in Merlin’s ear, following the lines of the outer shell with his tongue. “So damn beautiful.”

“’m not--Ah!” Merlin cried out as Arthur nipped his earlobe, and that seemed to be the final push needed; tensing for one brief moment, Merlin’s head fell forward to rest against Arthur’s shoulder while his whole body shuddered. For a few seconds, the only sound was their labored breathing before Arthur nuzzled Merlin curiously. “You good?”

“Mhmm.” Humming against Arthur’s skin, Merlin lazily left a kiss there as he weakly lifted his head upwards. “How about I finish returning the favor?”

Before Arthur could even respond, Merlin increased the pace of his firm, sure strokes, causing Arthur’s eyes to roll to the back of his head. He had been so close to completion already, and soon he was letting out a low groan as he came in hot spurts over Merlin’s hand and himself.

“…You know, if Will ever found about this, he’d set the couch on fire,” Merlin giggled breathlessly as he wiped his hand off on the fabric of his boxers.

“I’d buy you a new one if that happened,” Arthur promised with his own muted chuckle. Shifting their positions so Merlin was laying back against his chest and wrapped in his arms, Arthur rested his chin in the crook of Merlin’s shoulder. “Besides, we have a whole weekend before he gets back, right?”

In case Merlin didn’t get the hidden meaning of his words, Arthur turned to bite at Merlin’s still flushed skin, smiling wickedly when Merlin keened in response.

--

“You nervous, newbie?” Merlin asked quietly as he reached up to help fix Arthur’s tie; they both knew Arthur could probably do it himself, considering it had been part of his near daily routine for years now. But Arthur still let Merlin do it as he sat on the edge of their bed, snorting as he adjusted his cufflinks. “When are you ever going to stop calling me that?”

“You know you love it,” Merlin teased with a click of his tongue, his eyes crinkling at the corners. Arthur pulled one of Merlin’s hands from his tie, pressing a kiss against those long, slender fingers before responding with a soft smile, “Yeah, I do.”

While Arthur was happier than ever, the past years hadn’t been easy. Just like any other couple, he and Merlin had squabbles now and then, both too stubborn and strong-willed for their own good sometimes. It took them awhile for them to realize they could turn to each other if need be.

In fact, the reluctance to rely on each other so heavily nearly tore them apart once. Fresh out of law school and passing his bar exam with flying colors, Arthur had started the extensive process of starting his own practice, despite Uther’s vehement protests that Arthur should stay with the family business. Arthur and his father had indeed grown closer over time, but he wanted to be his own man and not just the “Son” in “Pendragon & Son, Attorneys-in-Law”.

After much wheedling on Arthur’s part, Merlin had gone to college to get his degree in marine biology. He had been swamped for weeks working on his dissertation on how climate change affected the breeding habits of sea turtles, on top of trying to plan a field study to the Galapagos Islands later that year.

So tensions had already been high for both of them when it happened: something seemingly inconsequential (that neither of them could remember now if pressed) set it off. An innocent comment taken the wrong way, a complaint about something that wasn’t that big of an issue, an argument for the sake of arguing… It didn’t matter. Just the next thing they knew, there was shouting and yelling and flinging hurtful comments between them. Arthur did actually end up leaving that time, grabbing his keys in a huff and storming off to the nearest bar.

Only for him to call Merlin at two in the morning, desperately pleading for a ride because he was too scared to drive himself back.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur had drunkenly sobbed when he slid into the passenger seat, his words slurred by the alcohol and tears. He felt like an absolute failure, that he had let Merlin down. “I know you don’t like me saying it, but fuck, Merlin--”

“Shh, I know,” Merlin murmured soothingly in response, his eyes as red-rimmed and watery as Arthur’s.

Later that night, they had fallen into the bed together, whispering more apologies and promises against every inch of each other’s skin.

And Arthur hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol since.

However, it would be a lie to say that Arthur wasn’t craving a drink at the current moment, his stomach clenching into painful knots as the sight of the conference center came into view. So well-attuned to Arthur’s emotions after all this time, Merlin parked the car before placing a hand on Arthur’s knee. “You okay? You’re not going to throw up on me, are you?”

Despite the teasing, Arthur could hear the concern in Merlin’s voice, and clasped their hands together gratefully. “I’ll be fine.”

And it was the truth, because even as the waves of stress-induced nausea threatened to wear away the cool, confident façade Arthur wore while speaking to the public, the feeling of Merlin’s hand in his tingled against his skin long after they had pulled away, effectively calming him down.

Once inside the building, they were directed to one of the larger seminar rooms, their seats located in the front with the rest of the day’s speakers. Arthur barely had any time to prepare himself--and was glad he had his speech memorized by heart--before he was introduced and called to the podium. Giving Merlin’s hand one last squeeze, he made his way up to the lowered temporary stage, clearing his throat as he stepped up to the microphone.

“Dear ladies and gentlemen of this committee, I would like to first thank you for inviting me to speak to you all today. If you don’t know me, my name is Arthur Pendragon, and I’m a prosecuting attorney specializing in the rights of those who are differently-abled. I don’t say ‘disabled’ or ‘physically handicapped’, because as most of you are well aware, those who are differently-abled can function and live their own lives just as anybody else, perhaps even better. If you don’t believe me, you can ask my husband, Merlin. Who, among other things, has beat my time in the Excalibur Center’s annual ‘Race for Research’ for three years in a row now.” Arthur paused to let the information set in before adding with a grin, “Even though he swears he always gives me a head-start.”

Laughter erupted from the crowd at the joke, but all Arthur could focus on was how Merlin beamed at the word “husband” like had already in the past six weeks. To be honest, Arthur only got the idea to propose after seeing their friends become “Mr. and Mrs. Lance the Lifeguard” last year, but in retrospect, Arthur didn’t know why he had waited so long to pop the question.

Arthur and Merlin’s own ceremony had been a simple affair, held in the backyard of the Pendragon estate with only family and close friends invited. Thinking of the pure joy he experienced that day as they exchanged hand-written vows that contained words of love, admiration and personal jokes in the same line, Arthur unconsciously played with the ring on his finger, the comfort of knowing Merlin wore an identical one appeasing his heightened nerves.

“The reason I’ve come before you today is unfortunately a personal one, for I was once pulled over for driving under the influence of alcohol.” He winced in remembrance of how foolish he had been, and how lucky he was to be alive. How lucky he was to get help for his problems and find support along the way. “Thankfully, I was caught before there was an accident, but there’s no denying the growing number of people who aren’t.”

Shuddering at the thought, Arthur surveyed the multitude of faces in front of him. How many were affected by someone else’s mistake? Would he have ever been able to live with himself if he had been the cause of someone’s pain, or even death?

“The media often discusses deaths caused by drunk drivers, but hardly the ones that live and survive. The ones that have to change their lifestyle, have to attend years of therapy, have to heal with their families, all because someone decided to get behind the wheel of a vehicle while intoxicated.” Wiping his eyes quickly (and smiling sheepishly when the action drew a few murmurs of “Aww” from the audience), Arthur swallowed deeply as he continued, “The point is, with your help, we can enforce stricter laws that can not only prevent such causalities from occurring in the future, but give better penance to victims, both living and dead. Not because they need it, but because they deserve it. …I thank you for your time.”

Amidst the thunderous applause, he bowed graciously before taking his seat, and instantly Merlin had his arm draped around Arthur’s shoulders as he whispered, “You did good, newbie.”

Shit, Arthur hoped he didn’t have to stand back up any time soon, because what Merlin’s breath in his ear was doing to him wasn’t proper to showcase in public. “Oh yeah? Do I get some sort of reward then?”

“Maybe,” Merlin purred, biting gently at his bottom lip in a way that drove Arthur crazy. “I was thinking something of along the lines of you and me both in the chair…”

And as he hungrily captured Merlin’s mouth with his own, spectators be damned, it was one of those moments where Arthur felt like he had finally breached the ocean’s surface, gulping in the fresh, sea breeze that had been denied from him for so long.