Arthur takes a deep breath before striding into the lecture hall, letting the door slam closed behind him. Instantly all students shut up and hurry to their seats, sitting up straight. Arthur hates making such a spectacle, but he knows it's best to make a grand entrance right at the beginning of the term. At least now they'll listen to him.
Arthur drops the syllabi he printed out beforehand on the front of the desk before heading toward the whiteboard. His father loudly complained when the old blackboards were removed, insisting that you couldn't teach medieval warfare without the smell of chalk. Arthur carefully didn't say that he by far preferred the whiteboards. He also didn't tell Uther that Morgana keeps buying pink and purple markers for Arthur to use—"for the evil sorcerers when you explain battle tactics," she said with a smirk when she handed over the first one. Arthur's been cheerfully using them.
"Welcome to the first lesson of Medieval Warfare," Arthur says. "I'm Prof Pendragon. Please distribute these syllabi among you." He motions at the first row. "Come and pick up a pile and pass it along."
While the piles are passed around, Arthur sets up his laptop and lets down the projection wall. Even his father had to begrudgingly admit that using Powerpoint to animate particular battle manoeuvres was easier than having to draw the same thing five million times.
"Professor?" One of the students in the third row tentatively raises his arm.
Arthur's a tiny bit surprised. Normally it takes them longer to catch on. "Yes?"
"Uh, it says here that participation in at least one fight type is required."
Arthur looks at the student. He's small and dressed impeccably in a suit. Ah, one who thinks that this is just a history lesson. "Yes," Arthur says simply, watching the student fidget.
"Um, sir? What does that mean?"
Arthur suppresses the sigh that is threatening to escape him. "Exactly what it says on the sheet. You will have to attend one of the modules in sword fighting, fighting from horseback, crossbow or hand-to-hand combat. You can choose whichever suits your schedule best."
The student raises his hand again. This time Arthur does sigh. "If you have any detailed questions, please ask them immediately, so we can go on."
"There's no day listed with the times," the student says.
"Practise takes place Monday to Friday," Arthur says. "Now if that is all, I will go through the class schedule with you quickly and—"
"You mean we have to train every day?" It's another student saying that, but most of them look a bit intimidated.
"Of course," Arthur says. He can see the faces fall of all those students who thought this would be an easy credit and are now sorely disappointed. "I can hardly teach you about warfare if you don't know how to fight."
"You could try," someone from the back says. Some of the students titter, but Arthur glares at them.
"If you don't think that you'll be able to fulfil the requirements of this course, it's up to you to leave. If you decide to stay, I expect you to pick one of the fighting modules and turn up to practise tomorrow. I will do a role call on Thursday and exclude everyone who failed to show up to practise."
Arthur takes his copy of the syllabus. "You'll find more information about each fighting module after the class schedule," he says. "You have two weeks to acquire the gear you need. We have some armour in the school armoury, which can be borrowed for the entirety of the term."
There's a lot of noise as the students shuffle through the syllabus. "For now I only expect you to own some clothes you can work out in," Arthur says. "Since you are all beginners, we will start out slowly."
Arthur watches the students read for a moment. "And now let's start with the class schedule and—"
A student raises his hand. Arthur takes a deep breath. "Yes?"
"Is it correct that sword fighting starts at 6 o'clock in the morning, sir?"
"Yes," Arthur says. He doesn't add that it starts to early to make sure that there was at least one session all of them could attend. Nobody else is so committed (Uther's opinion) or stupid (Morgana's opinion) to have class at 6 a.m. After training for most of his life (curse of a father who's much too obsessed with the Middle Ages) Arthur can teach sword-fighting while being half-asleep.
The student draws his hand back. He's pretty pale and swallows heavily. Arthur almost wants to tell him to cheer up, it won't be that hard, but he knows that if he gives them an inch, they'll take a mile. While Arthur doesn't usually agree with Uther's methods of scaring the students too much so they will just do as asked without any questions, he's had to learn that he can't be too lenient in the first lecture.
"Any more questions?" Arthur asks. He gives them a few moments, but when no one reacts, he moves his presentation forward to the class schedule. "As you see, we will—"
There's a loud crash. For a moment, Arthur thinks the building is going to collapse.
"Look, the tower!" someone yells, and Arthur automatically looks out of the window. Dark, thick smoke is escaping from the windows of the tower that's been nicknamed "Avalon". There seems to be no outward structural damage and no one's fleeing the tower in abject fear, as Arthur thinks they would have good reason to—he's always distrusted the magic department. Whatever Morgana says it's not envy: whereas Arthur has to accept every student to his courses, as long as they fulfil the prerequisites, the magic department can turn people away if they have no magical abilities. Also their stupid theoretical lectures are so popular that they have a waiting list. Arthur doesn't get why someone would like to learn all about magic, especially if they can't do it any of it, when they could learn some practical hands-on knowledge in Arthur's lectures.
So perhaps Arthur is slightly bitter that he had to cancel his seminar on battle manoeuvres on horseback again because no one showed up. It's not his fault he can't produce some flashy, shiny lights to keep his students amused. It's not his job to keep them amused, he's supposed to teach them things.
"It's just the sorcerers again," Arthur says. "Let's now continue with—"
"Shouldn't we go and see that everyone's all right?"
Arthur looks again out of the window. There's less smoke now and still no one's running out of the tower. "Seems to me that they are all right," he says. "We will first start with an overview of which fighting techniques were available in the Middle Ages, and from there we will see how those techniques were applied. There's also a section about leisurely use, for example in tournaments. We will also learn about the moral codex that was followed at the time. And then..."
Morgana hasn't sent him an e-mail. His father has, but Arthur feels justified in ignoring that until after his hand-to-hand combat session. It's the second session of the term, he doesn't need to be extra angry, and his father's e-mails tend to have that effect on him.
When Arthur gets up to leave, Gaius knocks on his office door. "Arthur, son, do you have a moment?"
"A very short moment," Arthur says. "I have to get to my next training session. Does it take long?"
"Oh, no, it doesn't," Gaius says. "I'm merely here to inform you that Merlin will be moving into your office for a short while."
Arthur blinks. "Merlin?"
"Merlin Emrys?" As Arthur shrugs, Gaius sighs. "Surely you know our most esteemed member of the magic department."
Arthur dimly remembers a guy with dark hair and really gigantic ears from some faculty meeting or another. If he remembers correctly, the guy was sitting with Morgana, which firmly puts him in the magic department. He sits back down in the groan. "The guy who blew up the tower this morning?"
"One and the same," Gaius says. "Although I'm sure you won't hold it against him. Sometimes he can go a bit ... overboard with his demonstrations."
"What, the smoke and noise was on purpose?" Arthur frowns. "I'm not sure I feel okay with him invading my office."
"Well, that's too bad," Gaius says. "Because you don't exactly have a choice. You are the only one with sufficient free space."
Arthur doesn't look at the other desk in his office, piled high with old papers and whetting stones and broken arrows. He hasn't ever had to share this office because, well, there's nobody else teaching warfare.
"I promise you will hardly notice him," Gaius says.
"I hope so," Arthur says.
Then he just stares. And stares some more. The armoury is Arthur's pride—he keeps it tidy and clean, the armour in good condition, because this is his life. But now all his nice orderly arrangements have been pushed to one half of the room. The other's stuffed full with books and boxes. There's a cauldron piled up on a few boxes, teetering precariously to the edge. The books are piled up high.
Arthur's almost afraid to look into his office. He cautiously opens the door and takes a deep breath before stepping in.
There are even more books. Arthur didn't know you needed this many books to do magic. The pile of stuff previously on the other desk has been moved to the floor next to Arthur's desk, making him groan. He'll have to sort through everything again—he knew he shouldn't have let it pile up like that.
The desk is still untidy, though. Arthur's stuff has simply been replaced by a computer and other papers.
It's entirely possible that Arthur might not have noticed any of this—if he was blind. "Oh, Gaius," he says. "What kind of mess is this?"
It's a quarter to six, though, and Arthur has to prepare for his sword-fighting lesson, so he just drops his stuff on his desk and quickly changes into his training outfit. The familiar weight of the chain mail is comforting. He'll just deal with this chaos later. For now, he has to teach some idiots how to hold a sword.
He had to take Valiant aside to explain to him in short words that "showing the new students how to block hits" did not mean "hit the new students so hard they fall over", but that's par for the course for Valiant. How Valiant ever managed to pass the knight qualifications exam and actually be knighted, Arthur will never understand.
The turn-out for the session was as he expected quite high, and he's looking forward to the fighting on horseback. It requires more skills, such as the ability to stay on the horse's back to begin with, so it's usually his smallest class. He thinks that at most two or three of his new students will show up.
On his way to the stables, Arthur realises that he's forgotten the keys to the stables and doubles back to his office. He's halfway in his thoughts—Lancelot should be ready to sit his knight qualifications exam soon and then he needs to decide on a topic for his dissertation. He's already asked Arthur for an appointment to discuss exactly that, but between the start of term and someone invading Arthur's office, Arthur hasn't managed yet to reply to his e-mail. He needs to do that today.
The sight of the armoury makes Arthur grit his teeth. He picks his way carefully through the maze of boxes and other magic paraphernalia. His keys should be on his desk. He must have dropped them while he was surprised by the mayhem surrounding him.
Arthur doesn't pay his surroundings any attention as he pulls open the door to his office—and barrels straight into someone's chest. That someone squeaks and jumps back.
Arthur doesn't squeak. Instead he groans and curses loudly, as a stream of hot coffee pours over his chest. Thankfully, between the chain mail and the leather jerkin he wears underneath he doesn't get scalded.
"You sodding idiot!" Arthur yells. "What in the devil's name are you doing in my office?"
"Uh," the guy says and Arthur looks at him for the first time. He looks straight at bright blue eyes, which for a second take the wind out of his sails, but then Arthur takes hold of his righteous anger and ploughs forward.
"You could have seriously hurt me," Arthur says. "Are you just going to stand there like you're demented? Quick, get me that rag, I need to get this fucking coffee off my chain mail."
"I'm not your servant," the guy says, kind of indignantly. "And how is this any of my fault? You didn't watch where you were going!"
"Because this is my office, goddammit!" Arthur looks up to glare at the guy while he reaches for the rag himself.
The ears tip Arthur off. Right now they're red, the tips especially dark, and Arthur has a moment where he thinks that those blotches of red high on his cheeks really bring out his cheekbones, and then realisation sets in. "You're Emrys?"
"Damn right, I am. So this is also my office." Emrys glares right back at Arthur.
"Temporarily," Arthur says before he can stop himself.
"Thank heavens," Emrys says. "If I got myself stuck in an office with your for the rest of my life, I'd go bonkers."
"You mean you aren't yet?" Arthur says.
Emrys snorts. "You sure you aren't?" He picks up his bag, which he dropped when he tried to evade Arthur, and straightens up. "Excuse me, I have to go to class."
Arthur sees Emrys' eyes flicker down at his chest, but he resists the urge to check himself out. He must look ridiculous, dripping in coffee. He really should try and clean his chain mail right now, try to keep it from rusting, but he doesn't have time.
Emrys shoulders his bag. As he brushes past him, Arthur hears him mutter, Feormian.
The door falls closed behind Arthur and he chances a look down, trying to assess the damage.
His chain mail is perfectly clean—not quite blinking, but definitely as clean as it was this morning before his first training session. Arthur looks at the door. Emrys didn't—Arthur has no idea why Emrys did that.
He just stands there for a few more breaths, then he remembers the keys and the stables and his students probably already waiting for him. With a curse, Arthur grabs the keys and leaves. He'll deal with Emrys another time.
"Are you sure that this is the only training session you're able to attend?" Arthur asks Caspar. It's pretty obvious that he’s absolutely scared of the animal. Arthur was surprised when Caspar managed to mount Valour on the second try. So far he’s done well to keep himself on the horse and not lose any of his gear, but it's been close.
Caspar blushes. "I—no," he says quietly. Arthur can only hear him because he's standing right next to him, holding Valour's reins.
"Would you like to try the other session? I won't count it against you."
When Caspar doesn't say anything, Arthur looks up at him. Caspar is chewing his lip and looks even sadder now. Arthur figured he'd jump at the chance to get off his horse and back on firm ground.
"Caspar? What is it?"
"Sorry, sir," Caspar says. "It's just that—well—" He shifts slightly and speaks even more quietly. "I'm here on a scholarship, sir, and I—I can't afford—"
"Caspar," Arthur says sharply. "That's why we have armour you can lend. I said that in class, didn't I?"
"I know," Caspar says. "But—I'm not going to be much better at fighting then."
Arthur takes a deep breath. "Well, just come with me to my office after this session," he says. "And then we can figure out what to do with you."
"Thank you, sir," Caspar says. "It's just—I'd really like to attend your lecture. I just didn't know about this requirement..."
"We'll work it out," Arthur says. Then he steps away. "For the rest of the lesson, just please take care to not fall off your horse?"
"I'll do my best," Caspar says.
Uther Pendragon would've already kicked Caspar out, told him to take his well-worn training suit and get out of his eyesight. But Arthur has a sweet spot for the students who come to his training sessions and try, although they know they're going to be, well, bad. Uther keeps telling him to not be so lenient, that only the students who are fit and already trained deserve to be taught about the code of knights. Arthur feels that everyone who at least tries his best should get a chance. He's not sorry to see those students go who only think that medieval studies are easy credits.
Arthur finds his position justified when on the walk back to the armoury Caspar tells Arthur about his grandfather who, apparently, was a knight. Caspar knows quite a bit of the lore, although he's a bit shy about it. "My parents thought it was just a boy's infatuation," Caspar says. "I was supposed to get a degree in something 'real', so my major's in mathematics."
Arthur winces. He knows that the schedules of the science department are almost impossible to coordinate with the medieval studies department. "What required course are you skipping?"
Caspar only looks at Arthur and shrugs, smiling. "Nothing I can't take next term," he says. "I just wanted to see if I could do it. Camelot's the only university with a medieval studies department, and my grandpa gave me all his books and I've read them so many times I know them by heart already and I just—"
"It's easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission," Arthur says, quoting something Morgana's once told him.
They've reached the armoury, and the door's standing open. Arthur sighs. "Someone probably forgot to lock behind them," he says and thinks, Valiant. He's always forgetting little details like this, making Arthur reconsider his privileges as a PhD student.
But then they step inside. Arthur wouldn't have thought it possible, but the chaos is even bigger now. The papers seem to be multiplying.
Emrys is standing in a corner, riffling through a few books in absurd speed—he just opens one and the pages start turning automatically. Arthur has to admit that it's somewhat impressive, but right now he'd prefer if his armoury was put back to its clean and tidy state. He has no idea where the spare sets of armour are and he doesn't want to ask Emrys if he's seen them.
Arthur would prefer to quickly whisk Caspar off into his office before Emrys can engage with them, but then Caspar calls out, "Dr Emrys!"
Emrys visibly jerks and turns around, as if he hadn't heard them at all. When he sees Arthur, he frowns, but at Caspar's sight he brightens noticeable. "Oh, Caspar, fancy seeing you here!"
"I heard about the explosion," Caspar says. "I'm glad you're all right, sir."
Emrys waves that aside. "I'm indestructible," he says, winking at Caspar, his eyes glittering. They are very blue.
Arthur withstands the urge to roll his eyes. "Well, we have things to discuss," he says. "Caspar, follow me. Take care not to slip on anything."
Out of the corner of his eyes Arthur can see Caspar smile at Emrys, who rolls his eyes and shrugs.
Arthur points Caspar at the visitor's chair in front of his desk. "Sit down. So what other training session can you attend?"
"Sword-fighting," Caspar says. "But when I came by yesterday, a student told me that all the available armour was already spoken for, so..."
"Wait," Arthur says. "Who told you that?" He's already pulling up his spreadsheets, but he finds he's correct in his assumptions—except for the two sets of armour people signed up for today, all the sword-fighting sets are free. The students who had them last year by now have all acquired their own armour.
"Um," Caspar says. "It was an older student, he didn't tell me his name."
"What did he look like?" Arthur asks, but he already has a suspicion. He pulls up the departmental university site in his browser.
"Tall," Caspar says. "Built pretty well, dark hair..."
Arthur turns his monitor around so Caspar can glance at Valiant's profile.
"Yes, that's him," Caspar says.
Arthur will have to talk to Val in private, which he's not looking forward to. Val has some pretty strict views, which are very similar to Uther's actually. Arthur doesn't know quite what Val is thinking, though, trying his best to turn possible new students away from Arthur's courses.
"He was wrong," Arthur says calmly. "He must have forgotten to check the newest lists—I make second year students buy their own armour if they want to continue, so that we always have enough sets for new students. Come on, let me measure you and we'll find one for you."
Caspar positively beams at Arthur.
In the armoury Arthur faces a new problem. The corner where he kept the student armour is now occupied by a multitude of boxes. "Well, the sets of armours used to be there," he says, pointing. "But then someone moved them, so it might take me a minute to find them and—"
Emrys points to the opposite corner. "Gaius said to put all armour stuff over there," he says.
Arthur blinks. "Gaius said," he repeats.
"Yeah," Emrys says.
Arthur stalks off into the corner. And true to his words, there's an entire huge disorderly pile of chain mail and jerkins and hauberks and vambraces and gauntlets. Arthur wants to groan. It's going to take him ages to sort through all of them.
"Let's get you measured," he says to Caspar.
Caspar looks at the pile of armour and bites his lips. "What if none of them fit me?"
"Then we'll make you some," Arthur says gruffly. Caspar opens his mouth, but Arthur cuts him off—he already has an idea what Caspar wants to ask. "With no costs for you. I can't let you fight without armour. And now stand still."
Caspar is positively cheerful during measuring. Arthur could've done without Emrys watching. He has no idea what Emrys is even doing—he just seems to be shuffling through some books, but he's not putting them back in any order.
"I'm really looking forward to sword-fighting tomorrow," Caspar says.
"Are you?" Arthur asks amused.
"Yes, I'm so glad you're allowing me to change sessions," Caspar says. "Thank you, sir."
Arthur's weirdly aware that Emrys is looking at him. He shrugs. "I could hardly let you break your neck falling off a horse."
"No, sir, I really appreciate it."
Some students have called Arthur a cold-hearted, arrogant prick, but students like Caspar, earnest and truly grateful to be able to take part in Arthur's courses, make up for them a thousand times over.
"I know," Arthur says. He finds armour in the correct size for Caspar. "But I expect you to turn up at six o'clock sharp tomorrow morning and not to disappoint me. There'll be no further switching."
"Of course, sir. Thank you, sir," Caspar says brightly. "I really—but now I have to hurry on. See you tomorrow!"
Arthur looks after Caspar as he stumbles out of the armoury. The boy's enthusiasm is catching, he has to admit.
When he turns around, he finds Emrys looking at him. "What?"
"Six o'clock in the morning?" Emrys asks. "Who schedules a class that early?" He sounds amused, Arthur thinks, even jovial, like he's making a joke.
"I do," Arthur says curtly. He turns around and walks back into his office, but Emrys follows him. Arthur sits down at his desk and determinedly checks his e-mail. He very obviously ignores Emrys, which just has the effect that Emrys perches on Arthur's desk, on the side that hasn't been piled high with papers from the other desk.
All the disorder around him gives Arthur a nervous twitch. He eyes his inbox and decides that tonight he'll have to stay a bit later to try and clean up some.
"But why do you?" Emrys asks. "Isn't having to do your fighting enough of a punishment? Must it also happen at a ridiculous time of day?"
Arthur immediately bristles. "Fighting is not a punishment," he says. "It's an honour, and it used to be only the best of knights were allowed to be trained."
Emrys beams at Arthur, as if he hasn't realised that Arthur's angry. He must mentally ill, Arthur thinks. No one ever smiles at Arthur when he's angry. "A nice assortment of knights you must have," he says. "Are you their king?"
"I might as well be," Arthur says, as he stands up. "And now I must go."
"Don't let me hold you back, my sire!" Emrys calls after him.
Arthur's fought when he was upset, angry, sad or confused. It's easy, following the simple steps of block and parry and attack. He can do the drills he teaches his students in his sleep, knows when to step forward, hit high, block low, and repeat in the reverse. During those drills, he can let his mind wander, his arms and legs moving with years of muscle memory, endless hours of going through these exact motions.
It's too dangerous for his students, though, so the evening finds Arthur in front of the armoury with his practise dummy, each hit carefully placed.
There's something about Emrys that goes straight under Arthur's skin. He attacks the dummy viciously, ignoring all pretences of drills, just imagining it to be Emrys, with that stupid smile that makes him look demented.
Thankfully, the exercise does its part, and after a few minutes, when he's sweaty and panting, his limbs heavy with exertion, Arthur feels better.
That is, until he enters the armoury. "What is that smell?"
The stench is almost unbearable and it comes right from the other side of the armoury—Emrys's side. There's a cauldron sitting on a fire. Arthur takes a step closer to take a look at it, but the smell becomes worse, so he hastily beats a retreat.
"Oh, you're back," Emrys says from behind Arthur's back. "It'll be done in a minute."
"What is it?" Arthur asks. "If you're doing random experiments—"
Emrys walks past Arthur, their arms brushing, and the contact shuts Arthur up. "It's a potion," Emrys says as he starts calmly stirring the concoction.
"I figured," Arthur says. "But I won't have you blow up my armoury, too, because you can't be bothered to keep a tab on your experiments and—"
Emrys laughs. "This," he says, pointing at the potion, "is a swelling potion. It is entirely harmless." He turns back to his potion. "Besides," he throws at Arthur over his shoulder. "I didn't blow up my tower with a potion."
For a moment the question of exactly how Emrys managed to make his stupid tower uninhabitable for at least a month is on Arthur's tongue, but he swallows it down and flees to his office.
If anything, it's looking even worse. Arthur sits down heavily in his office chair and stares at the debris that used to be his tidy office, wondering how long he'll be able to take this before he cuts Emrys's head off with his sword.
The up: Caspar turns out to be a respectable swordsman. "I used to take fencing classes in public school," he tells Arthur after the first session. "Wielding a sword is different, but it's the same parry-feint-strike, kind of."
The down: When Arthur returns to his office, he finds a note from Alice, who works in administration, that his father called. It cannot be anything but an order to call back instantly. Arthur does and he's being summoned to have dinner with his father the Saturday after next.
Arthur feels a pang of shame and regret as he catches himself wishing that he could bow out of dinner. But it's been a few weeks since they spent any time together and now Arthur can't even push it off on Morgana, who's currently enjoying the mediterranean weather, as she's written in her last e-mail. She bragged of sunshine and indecent high temperatures.
Arthur didn't even deign to glance out of his window. English summer makes itself known by being only slightly less wet and cold than any other season—a blink and miss it season.
He's probably a bad son, but Arthur just types a quick reply to say that he'll come, and then he distracts himself with work.
"Why do you even need your schedule?" Arthur points to Emrys's computer. It's looking battered, but Arthur sneaked a peek and it does work.
"We changed rooms several times and I can never remember where we ended up," Emrys says. He picks up a thick pile of loose sheets and lets them fall on the floor.
Arthur grits his teeth. "Did you wreck that many rooms?"
"What?" Emrys turns to look at him, surprised. "Oh, no, they were just too small."
"Too small?" Arthur asks. The words leave a bitter taste in his mouth. He always gets the smallest lecture rooms.
"Yes, yes, just more students kept turning up and—ah!" Emrys brandishes the offending piece of paper. "Got it."
Arthur doesn't want to ask, but then he does it anyway. "So where are you?" He shrugs, pretending to be unaffected. "Just in case you forget again and I'll have to remind you."
"Room Darwin," Emrys says and sets forth to pack his bag.
Arthur bites his lip. Room Darwin is the biggest room of the science faculty and the second biggest room on campus. Arthur kind of hates Emrys even more right now.
"See you later," Emrys calls out.
Arthur picks up his armour and goes to teach his hand-to-hand combat session.
It's late, and Arthur still has to check his e-mail, reply to the most urgent ones and check his slides for tomorrow's seminar. But he can't ignore the mess on his desk. He should at least put away the papers—it's old paperwork, evaluation feedback and copies of administrative notes, that he never got around to filing properly. It serves him right, he thinks, as he bends down to pick up a pile of paper. If he hadn't let it slide for so long, he wouldn't have to do it now.
Three hours later, he's almost done. His paper bin is overflowing, stuffed with notes almost two years old, and the folder containing his evaluations is much thicker now. Of course, filing the evaluation feedback also meant reading it. After the fifth repetition of much too demanding; doesn't he know we also have other classes?, Arthur's, well, cranky.
Arthur wouldn't call himself difficult. He's picky, yes, and he has high standards, but he's learned that if he doesn't ask the most of his students, they tend to just do enough to get by. You can't just get by when you're wielding a sharp weapon—not that his students do, because they train only with blunted weapons, but it's the principle that counts. He wouldn't have such standards, if he himself weren't capable of fulfilling them.
Morgana thinks it's all Uther's doing, that he's unduly influenced Arthur's expectations. Arthur would try and defend his father—he never asked anything of Arthur that Arthur couldn't achieve, even if it meant long hours of training and studying—except for how Arthur thinks that Morgana's actually completely right. But he can't just go and willy-nilly lower his expectations. It's not what knighthood is about, and there's only one way to make the students see that: by making them do the work the hard way. If they can't see the advantages of that, well, that's not Arthur's problem.
He decides to ignore the fact that Gaius told him that if his evaluations stay so bad, he might never get tenure. He's already having enough of a bad day, and his father is sure to harp on about it on Saturday during dinner.
Arthur wishes Morgana were here. He hates having dinner alone with his father. Uther's going to point out every single thing that Arthur's doing wrong, and he's going to do it in such a way that Arthur won't be able to deny anything without sounding like a petulant child. At least Morgana will cheerfully pick a fight with their father.
But if he's entirely truthful, Arthur would've taken the offer to spend his sabbatical in sodding Spain, too. Morgana had been excited at the offer to teach in Barcelona, and Arthur can't begrudge it to her. Like Arthur, she's worked hard to get her doctorate in Medieval Studies. Her magic skills make her a great asset to any department and she could have her pick of where to go.
When he tries to leave, Arthur stumbles over one of Emrys's many boxes. It tips over and all its content falls out. Arthur is tempted for a moment to just leave it be. Chances are that Emrys won't even notice.
It's not in accord with the chivalric code, though, and so Arthur kneels down and stuffs the papers back into the box. The forms seems familiar, and only a moment later Arthur realises that he's holding some of Emrys's evaluation feedbacks.
Arthur knows he shouldn't read them, but he's curious what the students have to say about someone who manages to blow up his own tower and renders it in unliveable state for months.
Dr Emrys is one of the best professors I've ever had, one student writes. He's always willing to answer questions and can explain very well.
Well, it's not like there's much to explain about magic, Arthur thinks angrily, as he stuffs the evaluation forms back into the box. Magic just is, you either have the skills or you don't, and if you don't, you just have to believe that whatever you're told is true. Then he sees the feedback with the averaged scores and sees that all of Emrys's courses last semester received excellent ratings—the sort of ratings Arthur can only wish he'd get.
It's what he deserved for snooping, he supposes, as he puts the box down again, making sure to put it out of the way, though.
Morgana often groans and says it’s painful to read badly-phrased theses and poorly-executed arguments.
Arthur is reading an essay about the value of virtue in the knights' codex that does not mention either the codex nor any virtues. It's giving Arthur a headache which is only compounded by a student knocking on his office.
Arthur glares the girl, but Emrys is smiling at her. "Emily! Please come in."
"Your new office is great," Emily says. "I'm really happy I didn't have to walk up four flights of stairs."
She sits down and rummages around in her bag to withdraw a folder.
Arthur grits his teeth and concentrates on the atrocious writing in front of him. But every so often Emily will laugh and Emrys's voice will break through and Arthur forgets which sentence he's just read.
He hopes Emily's appointment won't take too long. He wants to have them graded by the weekend, but he's barely made it through a third of them.
When Emily finally leaves, Arthur can't suppress a smile. Thankfully there's no one waiting to come in right after her.
It's unfair that the blissful silence seems to ring in Arthur's ears even louder than the earlier conversation. He desperately wants this headache to go away.
Arthur rolls his shoulders, tries to dispel the tension settling there, and wills the headache to go away. As expected, it doesn't work.
Emrys then slams one of the drawers on his desk shut and Arthur's head snaps up. "Do you think," Arthur asks icily, "that you could have told me about your office hours?"
Emrys looks up and blinks at Arthur. "Oh, it's not my office hours."
Arthur frowns. He didn't really listen, but he gleaned from their conversation that Emily was merely a student attending one of Merlin's lectures—all of her questions could be answered by referring to the assigned reading, this chapter and that article, and none of it had gone into any detail that would bespoke of a grad student.
"I don't keep office hours," Emrys says. "I just tell my students to come see me whenever they have a problem."
Emrys is packing his bag again—another lecture, Arthur thinks, but he fails to think of the title. Then it sinks in what Emrys said.
"You just let them bother you all the time?" Arthur makes sure that all his students know about his office hours. Only his grad students get individual appointments, but he actually likes working with them, so it's not too much of a hassle.
"Sure, why not?" Emrys has the audacity to wink at Arthur. "It makes them much more agreeable."
Arthur says, "I don't need my students to be agreeable," but Emrys is already leaving.
Emrys, Arthur decides, is the strangest person he knows, and he's grown up with Morgana.
Arthur looks down at the essay, but he's still not taking in any of the words and it's almost time for his next training session, anyway.
Emrys is very unconcerned about the meeting, a feeling Arthur can't quite share. There've been whispers, quiet rumours that the university is thinking of closing the Medieval Studies department and consolidating them into other departments, as Medieval Studies is expensive and is garnering fewer and fewer students each year.
Of course, Emrys has the freedom to be utterly careless about what will happen to him, Arthur thinks bitterly. The magic professors are coveted, considered an asset to any department. Arthur saw it happen when Morgana finished her doctorate—some of the offers she received were outright indecent. "They will give you that much money for muttering a stupid spell?" Arthur had asked, and Morgana had just laughed loudly.
Arthur doesn't have any delusions about what's going to happen to him. He knows that he's considered a difficult professor. He's not trying to be, but given that he teaches his students to wield potentially lethal weapons, he has to uphold a certain standard.
But Arthur thinks that even if he were the most agreeable teacher, warm and open to any question, if he were, well, more like Emrys, even then his knights wouldn't stand a chance. They're an outdated relict of the olden times. Arthur would be lucky if any other department would take him on. Whereas there are many departments almost wooing the magic professors—linguistics, history, even the business department—it's the exact opposite for Arthur: everyone's trying to push him off to another department.
Arthur's glaring at the agenda as if it could tell him what's going on. The agenda looks normal, staff developments, students developments, blah, and there's no big item named "closing the department".
"Are you coming?" Emrys asks. "Or will you just to continue to glare at your monitor?"
Arthur startles as Emrys is talking from right behind him. He hadn't even heard him approach. He needs to start working on his reflexes—he's become used to Emrys' presence in his office, his constant coming and going.
"Coming," Arthur says, quickly putting his computer to sleep. The only way to know what's going on will be to actually be at the meeting.
Emrys is still in the office. He's talking loudly on the phone—he doesn't seem to quite understand that it's not necessary to yell into the phone. "Yes, a tenure position! Isn't that great?"
Arthur wants to plop into his chair, but Emrys looks up at him and keeps looking at Arthur as he walks to his desk, so Arthur sits down in a more dignified manner. He contemplates pulling up the next essay to grade, but he doesn't feel like doing any work.
"I guess they won't close the department now," Emrys says. "No, Will, that's a good thing. I like having our own department, instead of being sidekicks to the history department or whatever."
Arthur stares at his monitor, as if he's reading his e-mail. He wonders if he knows this Will person, if he studied with Emrys, if he's—Arthur shouldn't even wonder about these things.
"I don't know. There aren't that many eligible people for the position, though." Arthur glances at Emrys and sees him shrug carelessly. "My chances aren't bad, I guess."
Arthur can't quite suppress a snort. Emrys looks at him, but Arthur pretends to read an essay. Emrys getting the tenure position? The magic users already have tenured people whereas the knights have none—the last tenured professor was Uther and after his departure no one else was offered tenure.
Arthur's stomach churns. He wants that tenure position, considers it his due even, after all the work and effort he's put into teaching. If he doesn't get tenure, it'll be a judgment not only on Arthur himself, but the entire knighthood faculty.
He doesn't even notice Emrys ending his phone call and startles when Emrys suddenly stands behind him and starts talking to him. "So who do you think should get the tenure position?"
Arthur has to turn around in his chair to look at Emrys. "Professor Le Fay is already tenured," he says. "As is Gaius."
"So it's you," Emrys says with a smirk. "You think you should get tenured."
Arthur's been called lots of things by many people—entitled, arrogant, too full of himself. None of those sentiments has ever struck close. But the way Emrys looks at him, amused, makes his skin crawl. "Why shouldn't I?" Arthur manages to grit out.
"Because you're a prat," Emrys says cheerfully.
Arthur absolutely does not splutter at that. "You can't talk to me like that," he says. "It's not even a good reason why I shouldn't—you've met Morgana, haven't you? She's worse than I am." Morgana had this holier-than-thou or rather I-have-magic-stoop-before-me-fool sort of attitude that got on Arthur's nerves a lot.
Emrys, infuriatingly, mind-bogglingly, stupidly, laughs. "Morgana was right about you," he says. He picks up his bag and stands up. "For the record, being a prat will not endear you to the committee."
I don't need to endear myself to the committee, is already on Arthur's lips, but even he knows that it's not true. By the time he's come up with a reply, though, Emrys has packed his bag and is getting ready to leave.
"You know," Emrys says as he's standing at their office door. "You didn't actually deny being a prat."
He's gone before Arthur can reply.
Arthur's not in the best of moods today, to begin with, and he's not looking forward to spending a few tense hours with his father. He's worked on grading the essays all day, when he should've been preparing lectures and getting caught up on recent papers. He doesn't like being behind on his work. To boot, the little voice in his head heckling the bad phrasing and shoddy argumentation his students came up with sounded a lot like Emrys.
Uther, so it turns out, is in an excellent mood, though. "It's about bloody time they opened up that tenure position," he says. "They've waited for much too long."
Arthur sips his wine. He doesn't need to mention the rumours about closing their department entirely—they were part of the reason Uther left Avalon University.
"Of course, you will assume that position," Uther goes on. "Anything else would be a shame upon the university."
"Of course," Arthur repeats, ignoring the sour taste the words leave in his mouth. In his mind, he hears Emrys says you're a prat.
Uther stares at him. "Don't you think so, too?" There's a sharp edge to his voice, like a sword slicing through the air.
Arthur struggles to sit up straight. "There are also other candidates who—"
"Oh, you mean from the magic department?" Uther takes a long swallow from his wine, setting down the glass heavily. "I can't imagine that they need another tenured professor to perform magic tricks."
This is easy—Arthur knows this rant, word by word, and he knows exactly how to answer.
"I can't see how any other candidates should be more fit for the position than you are." Uther smirks. "I heard one managed to blow up his office."
"Yes," Arthur says. "I'm sharing my office with him right now. He's pretty useless, as far as I've seen."
"You? Sharing your office?" Uther sits up so straight Arthur's back aches in sympathy. "What madness is that?"
"There was nowhere else for him to go," Arthur says. "He's—he's absolutely infuriating. My productivity's suffered, he appears to not have any understanding of how to keep an office tidy or how to run your courses."
"Utterly worthless, those magic users," Uther says and viciously attacks his steak.
Arthur nods, but his throat is tight. Uther thinks the same of Morgana, his own daughter, and as annoying as Emrys is, he's also popular with the students. It feels wrong to dismiss them so easily and Arthur feels guilty complaining about Emrys.
"You are the only serious candidate for tenure," Uther says.
Arthur's not quite as convinced when he nods. Perhaps it's time to steer the conversation away from that particular topic. "Please tell me, Father," Arthur says, "how is that adaption of the new code coming along?"
The new code dominates the rest of the dinner, thankfully.
"Do you even understand the concept of office hours?" Arthur says when he comes in after his sword-fighting lesson and already finds Emrys with a student. "It's not a very difficult concept, I've been assured."
"I think it's outdated," Emrys says. "Why should I make my students wait for answers I can give them right now?"
Arthur opens his mouth to counter, but in that moment the student actually sobs. "I'm sorry to bother you so early," she says. "But this week's reading is really—"
Arthur rolls his eyes and tunes her out. Alice, the department's administration, has written to him about her printer. The thing is prone to get paper jams and Alice relies on Arthur to fix it. Seeing how Alice is the one who arranges for Arthur's class rooms, Arthur's trying to be on her good side.
Something hits Arthur on the cheek. He looks down and sees a balled up piece of paper. Then he slowly turns his head to stare at Emrys. "What the hell?"
"You really are a prat," Emrys says. "A royal pain in the ass, one could say, too."
Emrys gestures at the office door. "Did you have to be so, so mean in front of Jenna? She was already falling apart, and then you come in being grumpy about office hours!"
"Well, you and your everlasting office hours keep me from doing my work," Arthur says. "That's the point of office hours, so you're not interrupted every half an hour!"
"You're not even here most of the time," Emrys says.
"That should provide enough options for you to hold your office hours at a time when you don't bother me," Arthur says.
Emrys glares at him. "Excuse me, your royal highness," he says. "I wasn't aware that I was bothering you so much."
"Well, now you know," Arthur says and leaves for his horse-fighting session. He finds his concentration slipping, though, as he gets his horse ready. He finishes after the last of his students has already led their horse out of the stables.
When he comes out to the tournament stadium he's set up to practise in today, his students are standing there shuffling on their feet. They seem curiously nervous. When Arthur had said what they were going to be working on for the next few weeks, they'd all appeared very enthusiastic.
"Today we are going to practise fighting with the lance," Arthur says. "As you know, it's the first part of a tournament and—"
Arthur sees the reason for their nervousness. On the benches just outside the tournament area, Emrys is sitting and watching them attentively. When he notices Arthur looking at him, he grins and even gives him a little wave.
"The lance," Arthur forces himself to say, "is a very important weapon, but is often overlooked because in our modern society we have very little use for it outside of tournament situations."
"Hear, hear," Emrys says.
Arthur ignores him. "I want everyone to grab a lance and just try and assume the proper fighting position."
Arthur spends most of the first half of the lesson just adjusting the students' grips and positions.
"That's much too low, Norton," Arthur says.
"Yes, you wouldn't want to be disqualified by hitting your opponent's horse," Emrys calls from the other side of the stadium.
Arthur grits his teeth. He wishes Emrys would just shut the fuck up already, but he's not going to actually acknowledge his interruptions.
"Professor," Lance says. He seems amused more than anything else. "Do you want me to—?" He points at Emrys. In this moment Lance becomes Arthur's favourite graduate student.
"Please," Arthur says. "I have a class to teach."
Lance nods at him. The rest of class passes quietly. Arthur has the students work on their own, just practising the charge without an opponent, so he doesn't notice that Lance is still gone until class is over. When he turns around, he sees Lance sitting on the bench next to Emrys, laughing. Emrys seems to be enjoying himself, too, gesturing wildly and with that stupid smile on his face that makes him look deranged. He almost smacks Lance in the face as he seems to be illustrating an explanation or story, but Lance just laughs and ducks out of the way.
Arthur does not stalk over to them, as is his initial knee-jerk reaction. If anything, he strides purposefully until he reaches them, and it's only because he needs to discuss thesis topics with Lance, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the way Arthur's stomach turns when Lance looks at him and his smile immediately dims.
"Lance, if you have a moment, I have a few books for you," Arthur says, carefully calmly and neutrally.
"Oh, so that's what they're calling it now," Emrys says.
Arthur glares at him, but Lance just grins and elbows Emrys gently. "Prof Pendragon's my thesis supervisor."
"Poor you," Emrys says. "Can you still switch?"
Arthur bristles. Lance glances between them. "Professor, I'd like to take a look at those books."
"Follow me," Arthur says and turns around immediately.
In the stables, when they're taking care of the horses, Lance asks quietly, "Do you really have some books for me, sir?"
"Of course, I do," Arthur says angrily.
Emrys is thankfully absent from the office when Arthur and Lance get there. Arthur just hands Lance the books. "I think the top three will be useful, no matter which topic you choose, but since you seem to be leaning to the moral obligations, I added a very good book detailing the importance of valour."
Lance nods. "Thank you, sir."
He doesn't leave, though, and Arthur takes a deep breath and forces himself to stay calm as he asks, "What is it?"
"He's actually quite nice," Lance says. "Merl—Prof Emrys, I mean."
"I see," Arthur says. He hasn't missed Lance's mistake. Lance has known Emrys for all but half an hour and they've already progressed to first names? Arthur's never called any of his professors by their first name and he's not planning on letting any of his students ever do it, either. It's just not appropriate.
"I will see you next week then," Lance says. "I'll make sure to have looked at the books by then.
Arthur nods. When Lance is gone, he collapses on his office chair.
"God, what a mess," he says to himself. Then he notices the still only half-graded pile of essays and groans. He needs coffee for that, he thinks and decides to treat himself to one. By tomorrow he needs to be done. One of Gwen's amazing concoctions should help him to at least not despair over his work.
Gwen's is the sort of coffee shop Arthur would never admit to frequenting. Each drink is available also with skim or soy milk, the coffee and hot chocolate is fair trade, and there are vegan brownies.
Uther Pendragon drinks his coffee black—he looks down on coffee shops with disdain.
Morgana and Arthur, on the other side, obsessively love Gwen's coffee. Arthur actually proposed to Gwen once. Anybody who makes coffee this good must be kept close.
When Arthur walks into Gwen's shop, it's calm, a lull between lectures. The students in the cafe are studying, reading books and writing notes in the margins.
Gwen takes only one look at Arthur before she turns to her coffee machine and starts pulling on levers and pushing buttons. Arthur swears that the thing has more sodding buttons than his computer.
"Difficult day?" Gwen asks over her shoulder.
"Do you have some brownies left?" Arthur asks as he scans the display case. Vegan as they may be, the brownies are delicious. "I'd like two."
"That bad, really?" Gwen turns around, coffee in her hand. She's smiling, and Arthur wishes for a moment he'd been serious with his proposal, that he could love Gwen, but it's only gone in a wink of the eye.
"Just a lot to do," Arthur says. "And having to share my office doesn't help."
"Yeah, I heard. Merlin told me about it."
Arthur feels the sudden urge to bang his head against the counter. Does Emrys know everyone on campus? "So you know what I have to put up with," he says.
Gwen laughs. "Don't mind, Merlin, he's a bit clumsy, but he has a good heart." She pushes his coffee towards Arthur and, yes, a small bag hopefully containing his brownies.
"You're a godsend," Arthur says. "What do I owe you?"
Gwen shakes her head. "This one's on the house. You look like you're going to bite someone's head off soon, if you don't get your caffeine fix."
Arthur smiles. "Thank you," he says softly. "I look that bad, huh?"
Gwen bites her lip. "Oh, I didn't mean that you were looking—it's just—oh, never mind."
This is familiar ground, and Arthur grins.
"Oh, off you go, shoo!" Gwen waves her hand at Arthur, as if she could push him out of her shop, and Arthur leaves with a smile on his face.
The walk across campus also gives him enough time to calm down. He wonders what everyone sees in Emrys—in Merlin—and what it is about Arthur that makes Emrys dislike him so much. He seems to get along with everyone. Except for Arthur.
Emrys isn't in when Arthur returns. Arthur sits down heavily in his chair and stares at the pile of essays. He decides to forgo reading them to sip at his coffee. Gwen's made him his favourite drink—coffee with extra shots of espresso and syrup and whipped cream on top, a feast of dairy and sugar. It's also the best mood-lifter Arthur knows.
Arthur stares at Emrys's desk. Not that he minds being alone for once, but where is the guy? So far Arthur hasn't been able to figure out Emrys's schedule on his own.
It's not snooping when Arthur looks at the papers on Emrys's desk. He just wants to know for how long he'll have his peace, that is all. It takes Arthur five minutes and shuffling through three piles of papers to find a copy of Emrys's schedule. He automatically sorts them as he would do with his own—Emrys won't notice it, anyway.
Emrys is going to be gone for at least half an hour. Well, it could be worse. First, Arthur thinks, he'll eat a brownie, though.
Arthur hardly notices when Emrys comes back. He thinks he probably returned Emrys's quiet greeting, but he doesn't care. Now that he's decided to buckle down, he manages to get through an entire essay in record time. And then, because he's on a roll, he tackles the next one immediately.
The second brownie gets eaten between sips of his coffee, and then Arthur just reads and writes comments until the dreadful pile is finally shifted entirely to the left.
Arthur stretches and drinks his coffee. It's only when he has the cup at his mouth that he thinks that it's been at least an hour since he went to Gwen's, that his coffee is surely cold, but then the coffee flowing into his mouth is just as hot as it was when he got it.
Arthur stares at his cup before glancing at Emrys. No, it can't be—really, why should Emrys keep Arthur's coffee hot?
He has a good heart, Arthur hears Gwen saying. He weighs his cup in his hand, picks at the flimsy cardboard and the biologically decomposable lid. "Apology accepted," he says quietly.
"Did you eat all of the brownies?" Emrys answers. "Really?"
"I needed fortification for these," Arthur says.
Emrys glances at Arthur and smiles. "I figure the chain mail would be enough already," he says. "Don't you think your belt is a little tight?"
"My belt is not tight," Arthur says. "Look at you, you can't even use a normal belt without adding more holes!"
Emrys sits back in his chair and laughs. "I must thank you, too, by the ways," he says.
"For sorting my papers," Emrys says. "I've already been looking for this form."
"Oh." Arthur looks at his screen, pretending to read his e-mail. "I think," he says, "that I should apologise, too. For interrupting your ... meeting."
"Don't worry about it," Emrys says. He's smiling when Arthur dares to look over at him.
"Lancelot calls you Merlin," Arthur says and he wants to bite his tongue for letting that slip.
Emrys blinks and nods. "Yes, I—I find it more comfortable."
Arthur turns back to his screen. He ponders what that means. "Don't you like being a professor?"
"Oh no, I love it," Emrys says. "It's just—I remember what it was like to be a young student. I'm not that far removed from them."
Arthur, who's grown up with a professor as father, does not know what that means. He has no idea where to even start—in his house there's always been an 'us', the faculty, against 'them', the students. Even during his own studies, Arthur felt more connected to the lecturers than any of his fellow students.
"You can call me Merlin, if you'd like," Emrys says right then.
"I think I'd like," Arthur says. "I'm Arthur."
"I know." There's something shy about Emrys—about Merlin's smile, something that makes Arthur's stomach flutter.
"There's something strange about you," Arthur says.
"You don't know how many people have told me that in my lifetime." Merlin winks at him.
Arthur can't help himself—he has to laugh. "Dozens, I think," he replies. "And all of them were right."
Later, when they find themselves in Gwen's shop, eating carrot cake and drinking coffee involving more whipped cream and syrup, Arthur finds that Merlin's not that bad.
Merlin shrugs. "I would be if I couldn't find it—but as I know that the essays are here, somewhere, it's just a matter of time."
"Can't you just summon the essays? Like accio or whatever?"
"I'm not Harry Potter," Merlin says. "No wand required to do magic."
Arthur opens his mouth to reply—something about Merlin's wand—when a student knocks on their office door and the moment is lost.
The following Saturday Arthur has to go shopping for a birthday present. Morgana is horrible to find a present for, though, as Arthur's never been able to quite understand her taste. He's looked through the entire mall and nothing's caught his eye. A gift card will have to do, Arthur thinks. Then he wanders past a stationer's and a display catches his eye. There seems to be some merchandise for one movie or another. Arthur's pondering buying a calendar with motives from the Avengers for Morgana, when he catches sight of the other side of the display: binders, adorned with motives from—
Arthur grins widely and snatches a binder. This is going to be the perfect gift, he thinks.
"Thank you," Merlin says.
"You're welcome," Arthur says. If he's smiling more that afternoon during training session than he uses to, well, it's nothing but the sun shining, giving them a few nice autumn days and the satisfaction of a good training session.
"So what can you do?" Arthur asks. "Since you're so opposed to producing red sparks."
Merlin gives him a look. "You've seen me do magic."
"Yes, I mean—" Arthur waves his hand. "Morgana only used to be able to see the future and then she started studying and suddenly she could trip me while being on the other side of the room."
Merlin laughs. It figures he would find Morgana's antics funny. Arthur back then was very much not amused, especially when Morgana made him trip in front of the entire school. Now Arthur can see it for the sibling animosity that it was. Uther pretending that Morgana's tutoring consisted of learning the piano and working on her French pronunciation instead of learning how to control her gift (that one time she'd had a nightmare and accidentally set her curtains on fire had been downright scary) hadn't helped.
"I think you could call me very powerful," Merlin says. "I teach all of magic, as it stands."
Arthur looks out of the window. It's getting colder and the rain's been remorseless. "I suppose you couldn't magic away the clouds," he says. He doesn't look forward to spending another training session cold and wet. His leather doublet does only so much to keep the water away from his skin, and secretly Arthur's very happy that Merlin's been able to enchant their tea pot so that the tea keeps hot for hours, so that Arthur can at least warm up some when he comes inside between sessions.
Merlin's quiet—a rare enough occurrence that Arthur looks over. Merlin's looking really intently at his screen.
"Wait," Arthur says. "You—you could?"
Merlin gives a half-shrug. "Yes," he says. "But that doesn't mean I will."
"Yes, I know, consequences, the balance of life and death, don't fuck around with things you don't understand, et cetera." Arthur looks back out of the window.
Merlin chuckles. "What did you ask of Morgana?"
"I don't remember," Arthur says, but he remembers Morgana's chagrined face as she told him that it was too much to ask—that she couldn't bring his mother back, not even as shade or memory. All Arthur wanted was five minutes, but Morgana had shaken her head frantically, too worried about upsetting some delicate balance that meant nothing to a twenty year old Arthur. They hadn't spoken for weeks afterwards, and neither of them have mentioned the incident ever in the past years.
"But what I can do," Merlin says, "is to make your doublet water-resistant." He's speaking slowly, unsure of himself, not at all his usual demeanour.
Arthur makes sure to smile at him. "But that would be unfair to my students," he says. "This is, after all, the path I've chosen."
Merlin smiles at Arthur in return and lets it drop.
When Arthur comes back from his session, wet to the skin, his armour chafing through his clothes, boots squelching, Merlin's not there. But next to Arthur's mug sits a piece of carrot cake.
"To impress the ladies," Valiant says.
Arthur gives him a look. "To impress your liege," he says. "In times of war, he'll call upon you to lead his army, and it has always been the case that the most trustworthy and merited knights are advisors to the king."
"As were the court sorcerers," Merlin calls. When Arthur turns around, he sees Merlin leading a group of students toward the magic tower. Merlin's seminar on ethical magic use, Arthur thinks.
"Only because of their magic tricks," Arthur calls back.
Merlin's snort is audible all the way from the tower. To Arthur's surprise, Merlin changes course, though, and heads to the training ground. "Because they were indispensable."
"Because they kept the king entertained," Arthur says. "You know, shooting red sparks in the air and stuff like that."
"But wouldn't that be an unethical use of magic?" one of Merlin's students says. "Shouldn't magic always be used for, well, something useful?"
If that student is always so eloquent, Arthur's grateful that he does not have to grade his essays.
"It's entertainment," a girl says, "not pranks or something stupid and—"
Merlin holds up his hand. "Why shouldn't it be ethical? After all, the tournament is meant to be amusement, but the skills required by the knights are the same that they must use in an actual fight."
"See?" Arthur says. "Even the magicians have to acknowledge our skills. Now let's go through those moves again..."
Merlin stays right there at the edge of the training ground with his students, immersed in a discussion about ethics. Arthur doesn't envy him one bit. Ethical questions are always hard to pinpoint, and Arthur's happy that he can refer his students to the knights' code.
But just as Arthur demonstrates how draw your sword after you've pushed your opponent from their horse, something bright and hot explodes next to his head, making him jerk and lose his footing.
"For example, you could use sparks to disorient someone," Merlin says. He sounds much too amused for Arthur.
"I thought you weren't Harry Potter," Arthur says as he climbs back on his feet.
"Do you see me waving a wand foolishly around?" Merlin's grinning. "See, it depends on the situation what spell would prove most useful."
"But couldn't you just disarm him?" someone asks.
"But perhaps I only want to get away," Merlin says. "In a fair fight, I would of course be able to best him, but fighting's not—"
Arthur lifts his sword and points at Merlin. "You," he says, "would not best me."
Merlin looks at him and there's a gleam in his eyes. "Are you certain?"
Arthur grins at him. "Completely."
Merlin grins back. "Okay, then it is on."
It's taking all of Arthur's skills to not let Merlin catch him, but Merlin's only been able to get away in the last second a few times. Arthur's pretty sure that their students have set up a pool by now, and that the lines are not as clear cut as it might seem.
Arthur jumps out of the way of a well-aimed fireball, as he's approaching Merlin—who's also showing signs of getting tired. Soon, Arthur thinks, soon he'll be able to get the upper hand, when Merlin slows down in conjuring up spells.
Merlin's frowning, his lips moving, forming words—it's somewhat distracting, Arthur thinks, that mouth, but he trains his eyes on Merlin's hand, trying to gauge where Merlin will send his next spell. It's lightning and Arthur dodges it, breaking away, until he finds himself right next to Merlin.
Arthur quickly brings his sword up, lays the blade gently against Merlin's throat—only to have Merlin push his hand against Arthur's chest. Merlin's palm is burning hot, as if he could send another fireball right through Arthur with his next thought. They're both panting, and Merlin's hair is matted against his skull. His eyes, though, they are shining brightly and he's grinning, and Arthur thinks that Merlin's mirth is mirrored on his own face.
"I could kill you within seconds," Arthur says. It's only one tiny press of his sword.
"And I would send my last spell to kill you," Merlin says cheerfully.
Arthur grins. "Truce?"
"Truce." Merlin winks at him, but waits until Arthur withdraws his blade to lower his hand. "Well, that was fun."
Arthur laughs and gives Merlin a mock bow. "I must say, you were a worthy opponent."
Suddenly someone behind them—on the other side of the training ground, far away from where their students are clustered, apparently collecting their winnings from their betting pool—someone claps slowly.
Merlin and Arthur turn around as one to see Gaius standing there. "Professors Pendragon and Emrys," he says, nodding at them. He turns around without any further comments, but Arthur catches him smiling.
Merlin is still grinning. "Shall we meet at Gwen's later? I think all this exertion is a valid excuse to eat some of those brownies you favour."
"It's a date," Arthur says without thinking. It's only when Merlin's left with his students and after Arthur finishes the horse-fighting session that he realises that Merlin's ears had been bright red.
When Arthur does ask, the answer isn't very satisfying. "I have to prepare a lesson," Merlin says. "It's only this one lesson in the year where I have a guest coming in."
"Ah, I see," Arthur says. There's someone coming next month, an Irish scholar staying in Camelot for a few months during his sabbatical, and it's been hell trying to figure things out for him.
Merlin gives Arthur another of those heart-warming smiles. "I'll see you later." They by now have a standing appointment to meet at Gwen's for a hooray, we're done teaching for today coffee and some cake.
Gwen's taken to putting aside their favourite baked goods, so that they always have brownies or carrot cake when they drop by. Arthur tries not to think about it too much—about what it means that he's looking forward to those little meetings every day. He's just becoming friendly with a colleague, that's all.
He has no business being quite this disappointed that Merlin didn't show up. He tries to explain this to Gwen, who just gives him a look and, because it's a slow day, sits down in Merlin's usual chair and eats his half of the carrot cake.
"It is simply impolite not to cancel," Arthur tells Gwen.
Gwen hums. "It's perfectly all right to feel disappointed," she says. "You like him and—"
Arthur opens his mouth to protest—okay, he likes Merlin, but he doesn't like like him, but he's saved when Lancelot enters the coffee shop. Gwen gets up so quickly she trips over her own feet, only steadied by Arthur's hand on her arm. Lance smiles at her.
Watching Gwen and Lance has become something of a spectator sport for Merlin and Arthur. They're cute, Arthur had to admit, after much wheedling from Merlin. Today, however, he can't endure them making eyes at each other. Gwen's giggles, usually making Merlin giggle, too, just get on Arthur's nerves. He eats the rest of his cake and leaves without finishing his coffee.
"Oh!" Caspar steps forward. "Today's the dragon call ceremony!"
Arthur blinks at him. "The what?"
"Prof Emrys is going to call the dragon this morning," Caspar says excitedly. "Last year I couldn't go because—I couldn't." He looks longingly at the crowd setting up on the big commons area between the magic tower and the knights' building.
Arthur sees Merlin at the front of the crowd directing them to spread around the commons, leaving a wide area free in the middle. When Merlin sees Arthur looking, he waves. Arthur automatically waves back.
Of course, Arthur thinks, it's time for the dragon to come and dispense some of his wisdom. He knew that they had a dragonlord—he thinks Morgana must have told him about it, hears her voice saying, "It's wonderful that Emrys accepted the position at our department. The last dragonlords is such a big asset." But he never made the connection between the dragonlord Emrys and Merlin.
Caspar looks between Arthur and Merlin.
"If you want to watch," Arthur says, "then go."
"Really?" More of Arthur's students are glancing at the commons.
"Really," Arthur says dryly. "I don't imagine I will get much done with you when suddenly a dragon falls out of the sky."
Besides Caspar, five more students set off toward the commons. Arthur sends the rest of them home. For a moment he considers going back to his office, catching up on grading and e-mails, but then Merlin notices Caspar and the others, and he looks at Arthur, clearly waiting and Arthur finds him walking toward him without thinking about it. He stops at the far corner of the circle the students have formed.
Merlin nods at him, then turns around to face the wide open space. "Trahho, ih riof dih! Quimu hiar!," he calls.
For a few moments, it's dead silent, then Arthur can hear the sweeping sound of a pair of big wings in the calm morning air. Students gasp and then a large shadow descends from the air.
Arthur has to admit that watching the dragon land is impressive. "You have called for me, young warlock," it says, its voice deep and sonorous, permeating the air.
Merlin positively beams at the dragon before turning around to the assembled students. "Let me introduce you to Kilgharrah. He's one of the last dragons and he's an old friend of mine."
The dragon inclines his head at the students. Then he looks right at Arthur. He could have sworn that the beast smirked.
"Dragons are creatures of magic, and they're gifted with the ability to see the future. Hence there are many alliances between sorcerers and dragons. Although they often speak in riddles—telling us our destinies outright would be too boring, I guess, for a being that can live for thousands of years."
"Riddles, young warlock," Kilgharrah says, "are part of your destiny."
"See?" Arthur can't see Merlin's face in detail, but he imagines his eyes to be twinkling with mirth, the very same look Merlin has when he makes Arthur's weapons perform a merry dance in the armoury. Arthur ducks his head to hide his own smile.
A student raises their hand. "So do you know all of the future? Like, do you know who wins the next World Cup?"
The students titter, and Merlin rolls his eyes. Kilgharrah just snorts. "I do not care about the entertainment of men," he says.
"What do you care about?" a girl asks.
"Destiny." Kilgharrah seems to straighten up. "For destiny is what shapes this world—and right now I see that our young warlock's destiny has come to be."
"Oh, I thought I was supposed to always be your sidekick," Merlin says, causing his students to laugh.
"You were but one part of a shared destiny," Kilgharrah says. "Now that you've met your counterpart, you can fulfil your purpose. You are two halves of the same coin, and you will lead Albion into a new era."
Arthur shifts uneasily. So one of those students shares his destiny with Merlin? The thought seems ridiculous. It's almost as bad as the thread of misery and anger running through Arthur when he thinks of someone being that closely connected to Merlin.
Everyone's quiet. Merlin's staring up at Kilgharrah, obviously surprised and at a loss for words, whereas the students are dividing their attention between Kilgharrah and Merlin. Then Kilgharrah seems to smile—and looks straight at Arthur.
"Only together you can succeed—but I see that this won't be a problem."
Arthur flushes under Kilgharrah's calculating stare. It grows into a full-blown blush when some of the students turn around to unabashedly stare at Arthur.
Merlin, too, looks over and he seems to be as surprised as Arthur. He visibly shakes himself. "So, um, thanks for that, now let's talk about how the dragonlords came to be and—"
As soon as the attention is off Arthur, Arthur slips quietly away.
Arthur, who's looking at the veritable mess she made of her printer, doesn't understand it, either, but at least he knows how to fix it. He's not avoiding his office for fear of running into Merlin—okay, so perhaps, he was a tiny bit overenthusiastic when Alice asked him if he could help. It's also possible that Arthur's been taking his time in fixing the printer.
"You take your tea with a little bit of milk and one piece of sugar, don't you, my dear?"
Arthur smiles at Alice. "Yes. Sorry that this is taking so long."
Alice winks at him. "Oh, don't worry about it. I was only about to print the schedule of the dean's meeting for Gaius. He never looks at it anyway, he won't notice."
Arthur tugs here, removes some plastic covering there, and soon he has the offending piece of paper in his hand. "There," he says. "Back in working order."
"Excellent." Alice hands him his cup of tea and a cookie. "Now you can enjoy your well-earned tea."
Arthur drinks carefully, mindful of the hot tea, and almost chokes on it, when Alice suddenly says, "So I keep hearing things about you and Prof Emrys..."
Arthur forces a smile. "I can't imagine what those things are."
"Really?" Alice pats his hand. "I'm glad," she says. "You both deserve to be happy."
Arthur nods and then flees as soon as he can politely excuse himself.
His office is blissfully empty. Arthur sinks down on his chair and puts his face in his hands. There's nothing going on, he tells himself. They're just friends. Perhaps he'll even believe it himself if he repeats it often enough.
Arthur's startled by a quiet knock on the door. Merlin's leaning against the door jamb. "I'm sorry," Merlin says. "Normally Kilgharrah gives me some warning."
Merlin can't quite meet Arthur's eyes and it makes Arthur's chest hurt. "It's not your fault," he says. He adds, "Coffee at Gwen's?" as an afterthought, but it makes Merlin smile and the pain inside Arthur's chest fades.
Merlin looks at Arthur through his eyelashes. "I'd like that," he says.
Arthur thinks that it's the reason why having dinner with Uther feels stiflingly awkward. Uther doesn't notice Arthur's silence. Rumours are that the tenure position will not go to Arthur—and that it's because of Uther.
"How do they dare to say that it is my fault that the relationships between the knights and those magic users are strained!" Uther viciously cuts his meat.
Arthur bites his lip, so he won't say it's because they're right. During his tenure at Camelot, Uther argued about everything, from lectures' titles to exams. He'd wanted to make it a rule that each exam had to be supervised also by someone not from the magic department to make sure no one could cheat. On panel discussions at several conferences, Uther had belittled magic at every chance he got. When he didn't become dean of the faculty, he'd held the magic department at fault, although basically no one, not even the knights, had wanted to see Uther as dean.
"Are you sure that a glamour wasn't put on the committee members? Those magic users can't be trusted. They'll do anything to discredit you."
"I'm sure," Arthur says.
"It'll be a tragedy if one of them wins this position," Uther says. He takes a sip of his wine. Arthur concentrates on carefully squashing his potatoes. He should've realised it was an error.
"Don't you think so, too, Arthur?" Uther says in that deceitfully calm voice. Arthur knows that voice, has heard it the first time he dared to say that he wasn't interested in girls, whenever he failed an exam, be it important or not, in short: whenever Uther thinks that Arthur is failing to be a proper son.
Arthur closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He sees Merlin in his mind, chin resting on his hand, smiling at Arthur, saying, "Admit it, my students like me better. Your students like me better."
Arthur knows that he should agree with his father to keep the peace, but the words won't come over his lips. He can't say them as easily anymore as he would have done only a few weeks before, not when he still hears Merlin listing seriously all the ethical use cases of magic. Merlin is not a worse person simply for being born with magic, for having powers that he did not choose himself. Out of the two of them, Arthur is not the better person.
"I simply think that you should not dismiss the other candidates so carelessly," Arthur says. "The magic department has drawn in consistently high numbers of students, and Camelot's department is considered the best in the country."
"As are the knights," Uther says. "You seem to underestimate your own worth. You deserve tenure."
Arthur startles. It's not like his father to hand out approval. It worsens his inner turmoil—on the one hand, he's been trying to make his father proud for so long that it's become second nature to him. Too often he's had Uther accuse him of being not ambitious enough. Uther wants the name Pendragon to be revered and admired. To have his father admit that Arthur's doing well would have made Arthur happy only a few weeks ago.
But now he's also looking forward to seeing Merlin again on Monday, on sharing tea and cake with him, of talking to him about irritating students and the latest Doctor Who episode. ("I didn't think you'd like that sort of thing," Arthur had said. "Sonic screwdriver," Merlin had replied. "And the TARDIS! For all that I can stop time right now, I can't travel in it on purpose. Wouldn't you be interested in going to the end of the world? Or the beginning?" Arthur had laughed and then it had devolved into a discussion of which doctor was the best one which had turned almost into a fight until Gwen threatened to throw them out if they didn't behave themselves.) Arthur's insides feel like they're being squeezed when he finds himself replying automatically, "Thank you, Father."
Uther gives him a short nod and then, to Arthur's relief, starts to complain about the magic department at his own university. Here at least Arthur can claim plausible deniability when he nods and makes conversational noises.
He still feels like a tosser.
"And now let's go through the parry manoeuvre again," Arthur says. His shoulder still twinges, but he's had worse injuries. It'll wear off.
After horse-fighting Arthur has to admit defeat. His entire back's cramping up and it's an effort to lift up his sword. He decides to end the session early which makes his students stare for a second, but then they scamper away as quickly as they can. Arthur doesn't let go his class early—the last time it happened someone had actually been injured.
It seems fitting, Arthur thinks as he's going back to his office, that now it's his turn. He drops his sword on the floor with a clang, causing Merlin to look up.
"Arthur, are you all right?"
"Yeah, just a bit sore," Arthur says. He fiddles with the fastenings of his armour, but his fingers are tingling.
"Wait, let me," Merlin says from behind Arthur.
Arthur didn't even notice Merlin getting up, but now he's hyperaware of Merlin's presence behind him. Merlin opens the fastenings with deft fingers, taking them off with care.
"Chain mail, too," Merlin says and tugs on the metal shirt.
Arthur grabs the hem and tries to pull it off, but his shoulder burns and he has to drop his arms quickly. Merlin sighs and Arthur feels the puff of his exhalation on his neck.
"What exactly happened to you?" He sounds amused.
"Valiant happened to me," Arthur says. He hisses quietly when Merlin pulls the chain mail over his shoulder, wrenching it slightly.
"Sorry," Merlin says. Then the damn mail is gone and Arthur feels about ten stones lighter.
"Thank you for helping get it off," Arthur says.
"How bad is your shoulder?" Merlin prods Arthur's shoulder.
"It's not too bad." Arthur tries to roll it, but winces.
"Okay, go and sit down," Merlin says. "I'll be there in a sec."
Arthur snorts, but does as Merlin says. "I'm just a bit sore," he says. "I didn't injure myself. I have some hot patches here, I'll just slap one on and for my next session I'll be fine as rain."
He hears Merlin rummaging around. "I have something that is perfect for helping you."
"You're not a doctor, Merlin," Arthur says.
"No," Merlin says. He's holding a small jar in his hands. "But in the Middle Ages I would've been a physician."
Arthur shakes his head. "I tell you, all I need is a hot patch and—fuck."
Merlin grins and slides his hand over Arthur's shoulder, rubbing warmth into Arthur's abused muscles. "I think I'm better than a hot patch."
Arthur bites his lips to keep back the quiet groans and simply nods. The warmth spreads and slowly Arthur's muscles relax.
Merlin hums softly strokes his hands gently, but firmly over Arthur's shoulder and neck. He digs in his thumbs into the tight spots right next to Arthur's spine.
"God," Arthur murmurs. He lets his head drop.
"You're really tense," Merlin says. Arthur snorts.
"What's in that jar?" Arthur asks. Merlin pushes at one particularly tight muscles and Arthur has to close his eyes.
"A salve," Merlin says. "It'll keep your muscles warm."
"Sounds good." Arthur takes a deep breath and sighs.
"Feeling better?" Merlin sounds amused, but Arthur could swear that he also sounds a little bit ... flirtatious, he thinks, is a good word to describe it.
"Thanks to your skilled fingers," Arthur murmurs, and he attributes the hot flush that crawls over his skin to the fact that Merlin's still sending warmth through him.
Merlin laughs quietly. There's a hint of teasing, but also of something darker. "Well, I could—"
There's a knock on their door. "Sorry, am I, um, interrupting something?"
Arthur looks up blearily, but it's not one of his students standing at the door. He's still looking at Merlin and Arthur weirdly. "I can come back later."
"Oh, Brian, no, it's all right, I have the articles I wanted to show you right here."
Arthur feels bereft when Merlin moves away and stops touching him. He suppresses a sigh and straightens up again. His shoulder feels better, though. Cautiously he turns this way and that way, testing.
Merlin fetches his Hermione binder. "See, these relate to your thesis topic and should give you an alternate point of view that should fit quite nicely into the outline you've already sent me."
Brian nods. "Thank you, prof. Uh, sorry for interrupting your—" He waves his hand between Merlin and Arthur. "Your flirting. I'll be out of your hair in a sec."
Merlin blushes and it takes Arthur a moment to get over his impression of wow, Merlin looks pretty like this, it brings out his cheekbones before he processes what Brian said and almost chokes on thin air.
Brian just grins at them. "See you tomorrow, prof," he says to Merlin and then he's gone.
Merlin clears his throat. "Well," he says.
There's something in his voice that makes Arthur shiver. And then he panics because he can't believe they're being so obvious. If his father hears about this ...
That's the reason why Arthur blurts the first thing that comes to his mind, anything, just as long as it doesn't have anything to do with flirting. "Thank you for helping me with my shoulder," he says. "It was very kind and—"
"Don't worry about it," Merlin says. He walks toward Arthur, but stands off to his side. He taps the small jar still sitting on Arthur's desk. "You should put this onto your shoulder. Make sure to massage it in, it works best that way."
"Thank you," Arthur says softly.
Merlin smiles at him. "I have to go teach now," he says, although Arthur knows that his next lecture isn’t for another hour, but he lets Merlin leave anyway. Then he gives in to temptation and puts his head down on his desk, groaning.
"I'm so fucking stupid," he says to himself.
"I'm an idiot," he says. "Do you have any brownies left?"
"I'm not sure you really deserve to have any of them," Gwen says, but then she does give him some.
Thankfully she leaves him alone with his hot chocolate and brownies, only pats his hand and gives him a look.
Arthur settles into an empty corner and busies himself with stuffing himself with chocolate. It makes him feel better until he realises that it changes nothing about the mess that is his relationship with Merlin.
The problem is that Arthur has no idea what to do.
It figures that Morgana calls him right then. "My sources tell me," she says without any proper hello, "that you are being stupid."
Arthur sighs, closes his eyes and leans back. "I feel that right now I would have to agree with you."
Apparently Arthur's confession is enough to make Morgana speechless—after all, they've made sure for the past ten years to agree on as little as possible.
"Morgs?" Arthur asks carefully. "If I asked you for advice, could you give me some without laughing at me?"
"If this is about what—or whom, I should rather say—I think it is about, then yes," she says immediately.
Like this, eyes closed, the quiet conversations of other people in Gwen's shop, it's easy to just say it. "I like Merlin," Arthur says, so softly he's afraid Morgana might not be able to hear him. "I think I really, really like him."
His heart jumps at the admission, but it's also freeing. He's tried not to be attracted to Merlin, to the way he holds his head when he listens closely, the way he's adorably clumsy, the way his lips curve when he smiles, but if anything, it's made him notice more things. And now he has the memory of Merlin's fingers on his shoulder to add to that collection, of those long, nimble fingers on Arthur's neck.
"I think you should tell him," Morgana says.
"You say it like it's that easy."
Morgana sighs, a long drawn-out sound that seems to say, Why do I even put up with you? "What makes you think it's not?"
Arthur opens his mouth, but of all the reasons he wants to put forth—they're colleagues, Merlin's a sorcerer, his father, to only name some—there's only one that really counts. "I'm scared, Morgs," he says. "I—I like him that much, Morgs, what do I do if he doesn't like me back?" He feels foolish, like a teenager fretting over their first love. But then Arthur hasn't fallen for anyone this hard in a long time.
"Oh, Arthur," Morgana says. "I will not tell you the exact details, but I have seen you and Merlin. Believe me, he does."
"But you always say that your visions aren't infallible," Arthur says. "What if everything goes to pieces afterwards?"
"Well," Morgana says, "you need to figure out if that's a risk you're willing to take."
Except when it should end, after some impressive orgasms, Arthur keeps dreaming—of holding Merlin in his arms, kissing him softly and burying his nose in Merlin's hair.
Arthur wakes up smiling and it's this exact moment where he realises that he's fallen arse over tits for Merlin, so why not try it?
Merlin's in the office after Arthur's sword-fighting session. "Good morning," Arthur says cheerfully.
"Hi Arthur," Merlin says. "Did you see?"
"Did I see what?"
Merlin points to Arthur's computer. Arthur opens his e-mail inbox feeling more confused than worried. He has an e-mail from Alice—that afternoon they're going to announce who got the tenure position. Both Merlin and Arthur have individual appointments with Gaius.
"That was fast," Arthur says.
Merlin grins wryly. "Perhaps too fast," he says.
Arthur shrugs. "At least we'll know soon."
"Yes, there's that at least." Merlin smiles. He's glancing at Arthur, biting his lips as if he has a question on his mind he doesn't dare to ask—or maybe Arthur's projecting. He was quite distracted during his session, thinking about how exactly he should ask Merlin out. Which was a so very ridiculous because Arthur's never had any problems asking anyone out, but the thought of him bollocksing up this thing with Merlin has him more scared than Arthur is entirely comfortable with.
"I was wondering," Arthur starts at the same time as Merlin says, "I should—"
"You first," Arthur says, fully aware that he's being a coward.
"I have class soon," Merlin says. "I should—I should go."
"Of course," Arthur says.
And then Merlin's gone. Arthur doesn't seen him for the rest of the day, which is strange and makes Arthur a tad paranoid.
He realises it's probably because of the tenure position—they did a very good job of ignoring the giant elephant in the room, that they were rivals for a prestigious and well-paid position and that this conflict could very well destroy their budding friendship or relationship. But part of him worries that Merlin is backing away because Arthur was too obvious.
It helps that Lancelot comes by to discuss his thesis topic. After long discussions, Lancelot finally settled on the importance of valour.
"... and this paper gives a good overview of other related work," Arthur says. "I think you just need one more primary source and then you're all set."
Lancelot nods. "I thought also about examining some of the medieval love songs that have been recorded."
"That's a good idea." Arthur jots down a quick note for Lancelot. "This book has some good chapters about those."
Lancelot takes the post-it. "Thank you, sir."
When Lancelot packs his stuff up, Arthur watches him. "Lancelot," he says quietly, "could I ask you a question?"
Lancelot raises an eyebrow. "Of course, sir." He sits up straight and gives Arthur his full attention—exactly the way a knight should behave toward his liege.
Arthur smiles. "Do you enjoy being my student?"
"Pardon me, sir?" Lancelot seems taken aback.
Arthur leans back in his chair and stares at the ceiling. "I don't know—do you think I'm too strict? What do you think about my training sessions? Do I ask too much? Do I—" Arthur interrupts himself and shakes his head. "I'm just feeling introspective. Please ignore me."
"I heard that today there'd be news about the tenure position," Lancelot says. "Is ... it about that?"
Arthur takes a deep breath. "Perhaps," he says. "Perhaps I'd simply like to know what my students think of me."
Lancelot gives Arthur a contemplative stare. "I can only speak for myself," he says slowly. "But many of the grad students will agree with me. I admire your nobility and dedication. You are a great swordsman and warrior."
"So you say that I'm an excellent scholar," Arthur says. He bites his lips. This is the question he doesn't want to ask because he already knows the answer—and he doesn't like it. "What about me as a person?"
Lancelot falters, just as Arthur expected. "You are rather strict," he finally says.
"What you mean is that everyone thinks I'm an arse." Arthur rubs his eyes. "Thank you. I appreciate your answer."
"That's not—" Lancelot sighs. "You may not be as likeable as Merlin, but he also isn't without his faults."
Arthur doesn't even bother replying to Lancelot's comment.
"It's all right," Arthur says. "He deserves to get it—he's really good at his job, isn't he?"
Gaius smiles at Arthur. "I'm glad you understand."
Arthur sits quietly in his office. He pretends to work, but in truth his mind is far away from the task at hand. He wonders how Merlin feels in this very moment—if he's overjoyed, excited, if he gesticulates excessively, if he has that bright beaming smile on his face, the one makes him look a bit stupid.
There's a quiet knock on the door and Arthur looks up. Merlin's leaning against the door frame with a sheepish expression. "Hi," Merlin says, sounding strangely hesitant.
"Hi," Arthur says. "I think congratulations are in order."
Arthur gets up, and Merlin shuffles into the office. "You don't have to," Merlin says.
"It's a matter of honour," Arthur replies. "And as you may know, we knights are kind of hung up on that whole concept." He sticks out his hand.
Merlin smiles and accepts Arthur's handshake. "Thank you."
Arthur squeezes Merlin's hand tightly. He doesn't quite know what to say.
"It's so strange," Merlin says. "I'm both happy and feel sorry for you and—" He gestures with his free hand, doesn't even try to let go of Arthur's.
It's so Merlin that Arthur can't help the laughter bubbling up. He tugs Merlin closer and pulls him into a hug. "You don't have to be sorry for me," he says. "You were a good candidate for the job. I don't mind losing to you."
Merlin laughs and wraps his arm tightly around Arthur's shoulder. "Thank you," he whispers into Arthur's ear, with surprising force behind the words.
Arthur has to withstand the urge to press his nose into Merlin's hair. Their clasped hands are pressed between their chests and Arthur wants to hold on to Merlin, but he's all too aware that any moment a student could come into their office. With a pang of regret he lets go.
Merlin grins at him when they go to their respective desks.
"I think we should celebrate," Arthur says. Merlin's head whips up and Merlin blinks at him. Arthur suddenly wonders if Merlin already plans—with someone else. "I meant, are you going to celebrate? Because you should and—"
"Arthur," Merlin says softly. "Are you—do you want to ... celebrate with me?"
"I was going to invite you," Arthur says brazenly.
Merlin just looks at him for long enough that Arthur thinks he's overstepped some boundary, but then Merlin starts to laugh so hard that he gets out of air. "Only you," Merlin says. "Only you."
Arthur has no idea what Merlin means by that, and he's not sure he really wants to know. "There's this restaurant," Arthur says. "I usually take Morgana there, and it's simply that I'm tired of going there alone and—" He's trying to pretend to be very casual about dinner, but he feels he's failing a lot, going by Merlin's amused expression.
"Knowing you, this is probably a very exclusive restaurant," Merlin says. "Are you going to pay?"
"That's what the term 'inviting' usually means," Arthur says. "Merlin."
"Then I say yes." Merlin winks at Arthur. "But will I even get in looking like this?" He points at his clothes and for a moment Arthur doesn't understand what he means. For the occasion, Merlin even dressed up. His usual outfit often includes a pullover that has an odd mark on the sleeve, probably where he spilled one potion or another on himself, and many of his dress shirts have seen better days, and Merlin prefers trousers which are comfortable and somewhat old-fashioned. But today Merlin's wearing an actual suit with an apparently new shirt.
"No, you'll be fine," Arthur says. "It's not that sort of restaurant."
"Oh, what kind of restaurant is it then?"
"You'll see," Arthur says.
Merlin glances at him. "I'll have a glass," he says. "But only the one. I'm not very good at, uh—"
"You're a lightweight," Arthur says delighted. "You can't hold your liquor."
Merlin gives Arthur a look. "Well, it only leads to me singing very badly and very off-key, so most people try and prevent me from imbibing too much."
"It's a special occasion, though," Arthur says. "One glass?"
"One glass," Merlin says. When they toast each other, Merlin's smiling again.
"To your tenure," Arthur says. "May the students not be too difficult."
Merlin grins. "To tenure."
The wine's good—not too dry, just sweet enough to not be bitter. Arthur's fascinated by Merlin, though—after only two sips, there are already two red blotches high on his cheeks and his gestures while he talks become more and more expansive.
"I wouldn't have thought you'd come to a place like this," Merlin says.
Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Why?" He looks around. "It's cosy."
"Exactly because that," Merlin says. "Morgana only ever mentions high-class restaurants that you can't even get into without golden credit card, where you only get such minuscule portions that afterwards she has to get fish and chips. This seems—" Merlin only shakes his hand in a vague manner. "It reminds me of the Italian restaurant in Ealdor."
"Ealdor?" Arthur leans forward.
"It's where I grew up. My mum still lives there. And there's this Italian restaurant and it's been there for ages, and it's where the entire village goes for special occasions. It looks a lot like this place here."
Arthur follows Merlin's eyes. He's looking at some random piece of decoration. "My father," Arthur says softly, "he takes us to those high-class restaurants. Last time, just before Morgana left for Barcelona, he took us to—I can't even remember the name. We had five courses and I'm sure Father paid a four-digit figure. When I drove Morgana home, we stopped at the kebab shop a few streets away."
When Arthur turns back, he finds Merlin looking at him intently. "You miss her," Merlin says.
First Arthur scoffs. "Why would I? Have you met her? She ridicules me at every opportunity."
Merlin grins. "And you leave out no chance to pull her pigtails. Don't try to lie, she's come storming into my office to rant about your 'pig-headed and mulish' attempts to undermine her authority too many times."
"Morgana does think very highly of herself," Arthur says. "Even sorcery is not without fail."
Merlin laughs. "Magic is like your sword," he says. "It's up to the person who wields, how to use it."
"I know," Arthur says. "No weapon is inherently evil."
There it is, the big beaming smile that does funny things to Arthur's innards. "Yes," Merlin says, his eyes bright and twinkling. He seems genuinely happy to be here right now with Arthur, and Arthur's at a loss for words.
Thankfully the waitress comes by to take their orders. When she leaves, there's a lull in their conversation. Arthur drinks his wine—and despite his earlier misgivings, Merlin matches him glass for glass.
"Perhaps you should slow down a bit," Arthur says and busies himself with pouring them some water.
Merlin rests his chin on his hand and hums softly. It's distracting, just like the way Merlin drums his fingers on the tabletop. Arthur can't stop looking at his long and elegant fingers. "You always are so—"
He trails off without finishing. Arthur shakes his head at him. "You're already pissed, aren't you?"
Merlin smiles hugely. "Maybe," he says. He sounds so happy that Arthur has to laugh.
"I like you when you're like this," Merlin says. He reaches out and runs his fingers along Arthur's jaw. Arthur's breath catches.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Merlin starts to pull his hand back, but lets his fingers linger. "I get handsy when I'm pissed."
"It's all right." Arthur puts his hand over Merlin's. Merlin's fingers are cold and they send shivers over Arthur's skin.
Merlin looks at Arthur. "I wish I hadn't drunk so much," he says.
Arthur can only agree. He squeezes Merlin's hand. "Perhaps this isn't the right time, anyhow."
Merlin smiles. "Perhaps that is so," he says. He doesn't move his hand, though, not until their food arrives.
Somewhere in the last few months, being with Merlin became easy. Their banter's filled with a certain force, driven forward by the fact that neither of them is ever giving in easily.
Dinner only reinforces that, as they drift from one topic to another. They could be eating wood splinters for all that Arthur notices of his food. He knows how Merlin looks when he laughs, how elegant his fingers look wrapped around the stem of his wine glass, how full his lips are when he licks over them.
Arthur could look at Merlin all night and not tire of it. And Merlin looks right back at Arthur, smiling wickedly.
Later, much later, after another bottle of wine and when the waiting staff is giving them annoyed looks at how long they are taking to finish, Arthur carefully wraps Merlin's scarf around Merlin's neck and slowly buttons up Merlin's cloak. "Next time," he says quietly, "I'll make sure you won't drink at all."
Merlin's laughter is sweet in the clear nightly air. He leans in and pecks Arthur's cheek. "I'll look forward to it."
Arthur puts Merlin in a cab, not trusting himself to keep his hands to himself, alone with Merlin.
It's the best dinner Arthur's had in weeks.
"This is outrageous!"
Arthur sighs and leans back in his chair. His father is still pacing around the room. Arthur expected his father to not be very happy about the fact that Merlin got the position, so he suggested they have dinner at Uther's. It turned out that "not very happy" was an understatement.
He decides to just let his father rant. Uther doesn't seem inclined to listen any time soon. It's easier than trying to make him see reason.
So, of course, Uther is not content with letting Arthur sit by quietly.
"Have you protested this madness?" Uther's glaring at Arthur. "Surely you're not simply letting this be?"
Arthur takes a deep breath. "Of course, I will," he says. "There is nothing to contest and—"
"Nothing to contest?" Uther sounds like he's swallowed his tongue. "I heard that this Emrys person is a close friend of Gaius'. This is nepotism at its best! How can you take this defeat so calmly? You were cheated out of this position."
At Uther's words, Arthur's stomach starts to hurt. He still remembers Merlin's happiness clearly, the way his eyes shone when he talked about getting tenure. Merlin's the first of his family to go to university, and his voice turned quiet when he talked about how proud his mum had been when he graduated.
Arthur shakes his head. "Merlin deserved this position," he says.
"And you didn't?" Uther sounds incredulous.
"There are many things about being a professor that he's doing much better at," Arthur says. "His students love him, and he is a very gifted lecturer."
"It's not about pleasing your students," Uther starts, but Arthur interrupts him.
"But you can't do without them, either."
Uther frowns. "It's those damn student evaluations, isn't it?" he asks darkly. "They are simply—"
Arthur's somewhat relieved to find Uther starting to rant about students—apparently they're getting dumber and dumber, today's students not comparable to the people Uther taught thirty years ago.
It's much later when Uther asks again, "So you are fine with this decision?"
Arthur takes a deep breath. "Yes," he says. And he is.
"Good morning to you, too," Merlin says. "I've been informed that I can go back to my tower."
Merlin turns to face Arthur, all smiles and twinkling eyes. "I'm sure you'll be happy to get your own space back."
"It'll be delightful not to trip over your random magic books anymore," Arthur agrees. "The repairs went quite fast, didn't they?"
Merlin laughs. "I'm sorry to tell you that they were actually delayed for almost a full month," he says.
Arthur watches Merlin pack more books into a box. "I could—would you like some help?"
Merlin grins. "Can't wait to get rid of me, eh?"
Arthur startles. "Oh, no, I didn't mean—"
Suddenly Merlin's standing a lot closer than he used to. "I'm just kidding," he says quietly. He puts his hand on Arthur's arm. It's a warm and comforting gesture. "I know what you meant."
If Arthur leans a little bit forward, he could kiss Merlin. He wants to, wants to kiss that serious look on Merlin's face away, but he feels rooted to the spot. Instead it's Merlin who takes a deep breath and bridges the space between them.
Merlin's lips are soft and dry, a bit chapped from the cold winter air. He tastes like tea and lip balm, and Arthur has to smile against Merlin's mouth. The kiss only lasts a few moments, then Merlin smiles at Arthur. "I'd like it if you could spare a few moments to help me," he says. "I have a lot of books to pack."
Arthur only has a few minutes between his sessions, but he makes the most of them. "Can't you just magic your books to your tower?" he asks after he closes a box filled with scrolls in a foreign script.
"I like it better this way," Merlin says.
Arthur glances at him. "You just like to see me bend over," he says playfully accusing.
Merlin grins. "Guilty as charged," he says, and Arthur's heart jumps in his chest.
"I—" Arthur looks at his watch. "I have to go to training."
It's one of those days when Arthur's glad that his students are usually as dedicated as he is because he can't focus on the exercises. It takes him a full minute to realise that Gavin has been doing the parry wrong, and even longer to correct Gavin. All Arthur can think about are those precious moments of Merlin's lips against his own, the way Merlin's nose bumped against his.
Perhaps it's not bad that Merlin will go back to his own office soon.
"This did not happen when you moved in," Arthur says. Merlin's sitting at the stairs to his tower, drinking tea and directing people to "the fourth floor, you can't miss it, it's the top one". "I think I would have noticed this many people."
Arthur knows that smirk, from Morgana. It means I have magic, you idiot. "You did magic your stuff into my armoury, didn't you?" Arthur says accusingly, pointing his sword at Merlin.
Merlin just beams. "I had to move very quickly."
"But you don't want to move back?" Arthur's more amused than anything else, but Merlin bites his lip and shrugs awkwardly.
"Perhaps I got used to the company," Merlin says.
Arthur fights a blush. "I think that—that wouldn't be a bad thing," he says.
Merlin grins. "Is that so?"
"I have to go back to my session," Arthur says. "Before Kyle takes someone's head off."
Merlin sends Arthur off with a laugh.
Merlin's—the other desk is empty now, devoid of any paper and the computer. The students were diligent and nothing that would remind Arthur of Merlin has remained. Except that Merlin's in all the empty spaces. Gone is the sound of Merlin typing, riffling in papers or simply drinking tea.
Merlin, Arthur's decided, is by far the unintentionally loudest person he's ever met. At first Arthur felt bothered by Merlin even simply breathing. Now the silence rings loudly in his ears.
Arthur misses Merlin laughing quietly over checking his e-mails (it seems like the main mailing list for magic users includes some real gems like a certain Edwin Muirden—Morgana's shown Arthur some examples of his mails, among them a ten page essay about how Muirden knows the remedy to cure all ills, which involved letting a bug crawl into your ear and eat your brain. Arthur could understand why nobody seemed very enthusiastic about supporting Muirden's endeavours to get the method approved), stirring his tea, his spoon clinking against the mug repeatedly.
There are no scrolls spilled on the floor that Arthur could stumble over, either. As cluttered as the armoury seemed at first, Arthur's used now to following one small path through the chaos. The half of the room formerly occupied by Merlin's stuff feels like it belongs to a different room.
Arthur slowly migrates the sets of armour back to their original place. They look forlorn on the big table Arthur usually uses to repair the armour on. But for the last months Merlin had stored his potion ingredients there, countless empty tubes and little bags full of herbs, bundles of sprigs of something or another and berries in pots, cauldrons and stirring spoons. It's clean now, all traces of Merlin cleaned away, and Arthur feels strange putting the table back to its old use.
Arthur's infinitely grateful when Leon drops by the next afternoon after Arthur's last training session to help Arthur put everything back in order.
"You could have asked your students," Leon says while they inspect armour and weapons, deciding what needs to be repaired, sharped or simply polished.
"I'm in charge of the armoury." Arthur sets down a hauberk that's bent out of shape. "It would not feel right to ask them to sacrifice their leisure time."
Leon snorts. "It didn't seem like the magic department has similar qualms."
"They all offered," Arthur says and try as he might, he can't quite keep the jealousy out of his voice. "They came by and volunteered to help on their own—Merlin didn't ask anyone."
"Lucky bastard," Leon says. "The most my students have ever done voluntarily is to pass around the hand-outs without my explicitly asking them to."
"I don't know why Merlin accepted their help. I'm still convinced he could have moved his things with a spell and no manual labour at all."
"How's Merlin doing, anyway?" Leon asks. "Now that he's gone, I only have Alice left to make conversation at the vending machines with."
"I suppose he's doing well," Arthur says.
Leon stops mid-motion. "You suppose? You don't know? Have you not been over yet?"
Arthur shrugs. "He's been busy."
"Has he told you this or have you been assuming things again?" Leon drops the sword he's been examining on the table. "Like that time with—"
"It's not like that at all," Arthur protests. "There have been people going in and out of his tower all day."
"But you don't know that they've been to see him."
Most of the time Arthur's grateful for Leon's level-headedness. Leon's kept Arthur from doing some very rash things, and Arthur trusts his advice completely. It's why he supports Leon's cautious wooing of Morgana, because he's rock solid and would weather her imaginary and real storms.
Sometimes Arthur absolutely loathes Leon—usually when Leon's saying things Arthur does not like to hear and especially when they're things Arthur himself knows to be true. He should just gather his courage and venture over to Merlin's tower, climb those four floors and knock on Merlin's door. But he doesn't know what to expect, if Merlin will be waiting for him, impatient after nearly two days of silence, or if Merlin will be busy with something, with someone, else.
"Arthur," Leon says. "Remember what you told me about Morgana?"
Leon had doubted that any of his advances would be welcomed by Morgana, until Arthur had let slip that Morgana always made the time to go and see Leon at tournaments.
"That you should go for it," Arthur sighs.
"Take your own advice," Leon says. "This shield needs mending."
It's the last they talk of it, but when Arthur leaves that day, he feels Leon's words hanging over his head like a dangling sword. There is still light in the tower, the top floor bright in the surrounding darkness. If Arthur is looking for a chance to talk to Merlin uninterrupted, this is his best bet.
He almost turns away—he needs a plan, something to say to Merlin beyond "hello" that is not "I missed you". But he's afraid that he'll lose his courage, so he starts to walk across the training grounds, past the dummies they use for target practise, and then onto the well-tended lawn surrounding the tower.
The tower's unlocked, and the stairs are well-lit. After the second floor Arthur's glad that he's training so much because these stairs are high. After the third floor Arthur has developed a hatred for spiral staircases.
The fourth floor turns out to be of an open design, so when Arthur steps through the staircase doorway, he walks immediately into Merlin's office. There's a desk in the middle of the room, with some benches for potions and other things, books in shelves and stacked hip-high on the floor. It looks so similar to the sight Arthur's used to that his heart hurts for a moment. Then he realises that Merlin's sitting behind his desk, his head tilted and smiling at Arthur.
"Hi," Arthur says stupidly.
"Hello stranger," Merlin says. "I had almost convinced myself that fourth floors were too much of an obstacle for you to come and see me."
Arthur bits his lips. "I thought you were probably busy," he says. "I didn't want to intrude."
Merlin raises an eyebrow. "Even if I were busy," he says, "you'd never been intruding."
Arthur ducks his head and grins at the floor. "Your room looks ... nice."
Merlin laughs. "It looks almost exactly like it did before."
Arthur stares at a few scrolls which have rolled down from a pile and are now lying in the middle of the floor. "I can't believe I actually miss your mess."
"You do?" Merlin's suddenly a lot closer and then he's reaching for Arthur's hand. "Come on, let me give you the tour."
"I suddenly have so much space," Arthur says.
Merlin leads him to a table that is miraculously mostly empty. "Here is where I do my paperwork," he says.
"Oh, so that's why it's empty." Arthur knocks on the bench. "It sounds very sturdy."
"It is." Merlin leans against it and pulls Arthur closer. "And now tell me more about missing me."
"That was the tour?" Arthur says trying to distract Merlin.
"You know all the rest," Merlin says. "No secrets left."
Arthur's standing now in front of Merlin. With one little push, Merlin would be sitting on top of the bench, and Arthur could step between his legs and—
"You miss me," Merlin says, sounding both amused and excited.
"I said I missed your mess," Arthur tries, but then Merlin pouts at him, honest to god pouts, and it's this, talking to Merlin and seeing his face and simply being in and feeling his presence, that Arthur's been missing so much. "It is possible that I perhaps felt a bit lonely," he says.
Merlin's still holding Arthur's hand, squeezing his fingers tightly. "About ten dozen people came by today to visit me," he says. "And every single time I heard someone on the steps, I was hoping it was you."
"I'm sorry," Arthur says because he is.
"Then make it up to me," Merlin says.
"How would you feel about dinner?"
Merlin positively beams. "I am absolutely starving."
"Then I know just the place," Arthur says. He's pulling Merlin off the bench. "They have great dessert, too."
"I think I already something in mind for dessert," Merlin says. He's smiling and standing much too close. Arthur feels hot and shivery.
Merlin stays close to Arthur while they walk to Arthur's car. "You really want to leave your bike here?" Arthur asks.
"Yes," Merlin says simply. He winks at Arthur.
Arthur's car has never felt this small before. Arthur thinks that it's Merlin's sheer presence that fills out the space around him, no matter where he is. It's one of the things he likes about Merlin.
The restaurant is full, but the maître d' finds them a table anyway. "Sometimes it's useful to have an influential father," Merlin says. "I've only ever walked past this place."
"Their filet mignon is superb," Arthur says. "And you must try their chocolate cake."
Merlin grins. "Are you trying to ply me with food?"
"Perhaps," Arthur says. "But please tell me more about your new place. Do you enjoy walking up all those stairs?"
Merlin laughs. "And now you're trying to distract me."
"Is there anything to distract you from?" Arthur smiles at Merlin.
"You are supposed to make things up to me," Merlin says. Arthur doesn't know if the lewd nuance is really there in Merlin's voice or if he's simply imagining it. It goes straight to his cock, though, and he involuntarily shifts on his seat.
"I think we planned to come to that later," Arthur says. He can't help his voice sounding a bit husky.
It's of course that moment when their waiter comes to their table, so Arthur has to clear his voice before he can order. Merlin grins at him while he orders a bottle of water to share.
"My new office is all right, I suppose," Merlin says. "It feels a bit lonely, though."
"I don't think there's much difference between your own office and a shared one when the other person's never around," Arthur says softly. While Merlin was around most of the time when Arthur was also at his desk, the opposite is not true. His rigid training regimen has Arthur out for most of the day, so Merlin spent much of his time in the office by himself, which occasionally led to long conversations at the vending machine with Leon.
"Oh, there is," Merlin says. "Especially when Muirden and Osgar start to fight with each other and there's no one around to show the e-mails later."
"You just miss someone to heckle them with." Arthur takes a sip from his water.
"I miss you," Merlin says quietly.
Arthur swallows. "I'm right here."
"Are you going to stay?" Merlin asks. "I—it doesn't matter, for later, I mean. I'd just like to know."
Arthur looks up at Merlin and takes the time to really look. He sees Merlin's ridiculous haircut, his stupidly large ears, those eyes which always seem to be amused at Arthur, those lips he had an endless number of dreams about. He thinks about saying no, about turning this down and leaving, about what his father will think and say—Arthur had come out to him years ago, but in the meantime Arthur had never been in love, so his father had been able to ignore it. Arthur doesn't know what will happen if he brings Merlin home to dinner with his father—not simply a man, but also a sorcerer.
But mostly he looks at Merlin and sees them sharing cake because only one piece of carrot cake was left over, remembers Merlin bringing Arthur a hot chocolate last week, of Arthur sorting through Merlin's paperwork and clearing both their inboxes.
"I will," he says. "I want to."
Merlin stares at him, his eyes dark and full of emotion. "On the off-chance of being ridiculously naff, do you think they could pack this up for us so that we can leave right now?"
"Of course, they will," Arthur says and flags down the waiter.
"God, Merlin." Arthur puts his forehead against Merlin's. "Me too," he whispers.
Merlin kisses him first. Later Merlin will jokingly say that it's always been to him to make the first step, to pull Arthur over the precipice and let themselves fall. Arthur will reply that it only shows that Arthur's the sane one of them two, and Morgana will laugh at them both. Leon will not say anything,
Arthur sucks on Merlin's bottom lip, runs his tongue over it. Merlin whimpers and presses even closer. They snog right there, against the kitchen counter, like two sixth-formers.
"I have a bed," Arthur says when they break for air.
Merlin grins. "Good to know," he says before he bites down on Arthur's earlobe. Arthur tightens his hand on Merlin's hips, shuddering when Merlin starts to suck gently on his earlobe, soothing the hurt.
It takes them another five minutes before they actually make their way to Arthur's bedroom, losing their clothes on the way. By the time they fall down on Arthur's bed, they're both mostly naked. Arthur, for some reason, is still wearing his left sock, and Merlin's wearing an undershirt. Neither of them is wearing pants, though, and their cocks are rubbing together.
Arthur flips them so he's lying on top and kisses his way down Merlin's body, pushing up his undershirt until it's bunched up under Merlin's armpits. Merlin's stomach quivers when Arthur presses a kiss against Merlin's bellybutton.
"Come back here," Merlin says and pulls Arthur up again.
"But I was going to—" Merlin kisses Arthur, all tongue and wild energy.
"You were too far away," Merlin whispers against Arthur's skin.
Arthur's good at accommodating, though, and so he settles back against Merlin, his legs bracketing Merlin's. "All right," he says. "I'm right here now." It reminds him of their earlier conversation, so he adds, "And I'll stay here, for as long as you want me."
Merlin smiles. "I'm fine with that."
Arthur holds out his hand for Merlin to lick and then wraps it around both their cocks. "You're leaking already," he tells Merlin. "You're pretty excited, aren't you?"
"If you knew how many times I imagined this," Merlin says, "then you would not be mocking me."
Arthur leans down and kisses the mock-pout on Merlin's lips away. Merlin opens up for him easily and puts his hand around Arthur's.
"I dreamed of your hands," Merlin says. "Of them holding me and wanking me and stretching me until I was begging for your prick."
"God," Arthur says. "God, you're so—" He sucks on the side of Merlin's neck, grinding down hard on Merlin, needing to have as much physical contact as possible.
Merlin laughs and wraps his other hand around Arthur's neck, holding him close. "Tell me," he says. "Tell me what you thought about when you looked at me."
Arthur blushes hotly and presses his face against Merlin's neck, hiding himself. "Your lips," he says, almost inaudibly into the sheets. "I thought about your mouth, sucking me, sucking on my nipples—god, I thought about you licking me open, fingering me and licking me until I couldn't take it anymore and—"
"Arthur," Merlin moans. "Fuck, I will do all of those things to you, a thousand times over again. I want to make you thrash and lose control, take you apart until all you know is me and my body, and I want you to do the same to me, I want you."
Arthur feels it start at the base of his spine, his orgasm building up, and he bucks against Merlin, whimpering. "Merls, I'm close, I'm—"
"I want to feel you come," Merlin whispers and Arthur doesn't know why he can still speak, when Arthur's shaking apart on top of him, both their cocks leaking generously, coating their hands and their bellies where their cocks rub against each other.
Merlin kisses Arthur, swallowing his moaning and panting, kisses him deeply until Arthur feels surrounded by Merlin, like his entire being is wrapped up in them, and he comes. He chokes something out, half a word, half a simple sound. Merlin groans, his head falling sideways, and Arthur collapses down on Merlin, nuzzling Merlin's hair.
Merlin thrusts up once, twice into their still joined hands and then comes, too, his come mixing with Arthur's.
Arthur feels lead-heavy and sleepy, but he heaves himself up to at least grab a t-shirt out of his clothes basket to clean themselves up.
Afterward Merlin slides underneath the covers, stretching slowly like a big cat before he starts to wrap himself around Arthur.
Arthur presses a kiss against the top of Merlin's head and lets himself be arranged until Merlin's comfortable. "And now?" he asks softly.
"Now we go to sleep," Merlin says. "Regarding everything else—we'll deal with it tomorrow."
"I can agree to that plan," Arthur mumbles.
"Good morning," Arthur says and kisses Merlin's cheek. "I'll go and get the tea started."
Merlin blinks up at him. "You are not serious about getting up right now, are you?"
Arthur grins back. "I have a training session in one hour."
By the time tea's ready, Merlin's shuffled into the kitchen. Arthur decides that early morning Merlin is adorable: his hair's askew, there are red imprints from the pillow on his face, and he sniffles quietly and rubs his eyes, yawning.
"How can you be so awake?" Merlin asks accusingly. "It's 5 o'clock in the morning."
"I get up this early every day of the week," Arthur says.
Merlin grabs his mug of tea. "You're insane," he mumbles. "Please tell me that at least you get up at a reasonable time on the weekend."
"Depends on what keeps me in bed," Arthur says.
"This weekend it's going to be me," Merlin says. "I was planning on an early morning blow job, I will have you know."
"It is early morning," Arthur says hopefully.
"I was also planning on being awake at the time and not half-asleep," Merlin adds.
Arthur showers quickly while Merlin communes with his tea. While Merlin's in the bathroom, he catches up on his e-mail.
Morgana's written to him, at 2 o'clock in the morning, and Arthur wonders if she ever sleeps. She asks if he can come and pick her up from the airport, and Arthur writes her a quick reply. He only hesitates a moment before adding, "I'll bring Merlin along, he's missed you, too," before sending his message.
"But it makes you feel guilty so you pamper me," Merlin says back. Indeed Arthur felt the need to buy him a chocolate cookie additionally to their muffins.
"It's not even been a day and already you start the emotional blackmailing," Arthur says. "I see."
Merlin smiles and leans forward to press a quick kiss against Arthur's mouth. "You can also make it up to me later."
Arthur grins back, but then he finds Gwen and not a small number of students staring at them and blushes. "Perhaps," he says.
Merlin beams brightly at everyone and winks at Gwen. Arthur wishes for a moment that Merlin were just a little bit more reserved, but he immediately feels ashamed for the thought. Merlin's happy and not afraid to show everyone. It's something Arthur marvels at.
Arthur ducks his head and eats his cake quietly, not daring to look around much and see the students whisper. Gossip travels fast on campus, so by the next morning most people involved in their departments will know. He feels himself tense up at the thought of his father calling him to inquire. He clenches his jaw and suppresses a sigh. Everything at its own time, he supposes.
When Merlin presses his foot against Arthur's, though, Arthur's first startled, but then he wraps his around Merlin's ankle.
"We're all right, aren't we?" Merlin asks when they're back at the training court. Arthur's indulging Merlin and walking him to the door of the tower.
Arthur looks at Merlin. He seems a bit unsure and Arthur automatically reaches out. "Of course, we are."
Merlin scrutinises Arthur. "You're not mad at me. You seemed somewhat ... off."
Arthur shakes his head. "No, I'm simply getting ahead of myself," he says. "We'll work this out together, you said, right?"
Merlin smiles and pulls Arthur close. "We will," he says and then he sends Arthur off with a kiss. "Go and teach your students how to wield a sword."
Arthur grins as he crosses the courtyard. That, he thinks, he is absolutely capable of doing.