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My Density Has Brought Me To You

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It’s when his new roommate’s computer screen is keeping the entire room in a bright blue glow at 3 AM (and Merlin has class at arse o’clock) that the thought suddenly hits him with unnerving clarity:

His life has gone to shit.

That’s a depressing thought because, really, Merlin’s life had been rather perfect up until about a month ago. He’d gotten into the uni course of his dreams (history) and the first semester had been everything he’d ever wanted it to be. It had been the complete university experience in pretty much every way Merlin had been able to imagine.

The long list of ways in which his life had been awesome goes like this:

1) He had a fantastic roommate named Will who blurted out his entire life story the first time they met and got Merlin drunk on jägerbombs before they bonded over their secret fondness for musicals.
2) Will had thrown a party for the entire hall in their room during the first week and consequently, Merlin had ended up with a handful of new friends immediately.
3) History was definitely Merlin’s thing if the grades were anything to go by.
4) They started hanging out with Freya across the hall from them who had seemed incredibly shy at first glance, but ended up being incredibly smart and witty when Will finally got her to stop glaring at them over the broken mirror in the bathroom.
5) Through Freya, Merlin had met Gwen. Sweet, beautiful Gwen. She smelled nice and her curls bounced. What was there not to like, really? He’d spent all of last semester crushing on her, driving Will relatively insane.
6) At the ‘Fuck yes, exams are done’-party before Christmas, Gwen had finally kissed him. She’d been soft and warm, and yes, the kiss was a little sloppy and it felt like a lot of tongue, but honestly, why should Merlin be picky about this exactly?
7) There had definitely been some groping going on as well.

All in all, life had been pretty fantastic.

But all good things have to end. Merlin figures it’s a cliché for a reason. Pulling the cover over his head, he burrows into the bed, trying to shut out the blue tinted glow and his roommate’s insanely loud typing. It’s like a ridiculous reminder of everything that is so very, very wrong right now.

Somehow the wonderfully constructed university life he’d led seemed to unravel some time after they all got back for the second semester. Will had started dating Freya months ago and the two of them moved into a shared room at the start of this semester, leaving Merlin with someone new who Will swore would be totally brilliant.

Mordred really isn’t totally brilliant. Unless you really enjoy playing violent video games every night and think staring contests are good fun. In that case, he’s probably a pretty great deal. But, really, Merlin likes sleep. A lot. He likes sleep a lot.

And as if that’s not enough, there’s also Lancelot who is somehow the kindest person alive and incredibly fit at the same time. He’s tall and broad-shouldered with a wide, genuine smile. His voice is smooth and it does things to people.

Crushing on two people is incredibly impractical. Merlin never knew just how much it truly, really sucks to be attracted to two people at the same time. There’s this deep seated need to act on his feelings, except most of the time he doesn’t even know what he wants. There’s Gwen who’s been Gwen since September and who actually kissed him only a few weeks ago. But then there’s Lancelot being everything Merlin’s ever liked in a guy.

Merlin’s fucked.

But only metaphorically, because being physically fucked would have been fantastic and there’s evidently no room for good things in Merlin’s life at the moment. It’s like he’s accidentally stumbled head first through a portal to a dimension where everything blows.

*

Merlin wonders what starts a zombie apocalypse exactly. Obviously it spreads because people get bitten, but someone has to start it, right? Someone has to be the first zombie: the Zombie Mothership, if you will. Merlin thinks he might be it.

He slips lower and lower in his seat, his professor becoming a blurry mess as Merlin struggles to focus.

“- and this is really important for the end exams, don’t forget it. You’ll be sending me thank you notes for that explanation, believe me,” the professor says and there’s scattered laughter.

Merlin hates everything. But mostly Mordred.

And also everything.

He starts doodling in his notebook just to stay alert, using his neon-coloured markers to shock his eyes into staying open. He’s not sure if it’s working, but he’s a little desperate at this point. Not to mention that he’s got two more classes after this and he feels like he might be dying – or at least becoming undead.

I hate you, he texts to Will during break.

When class starts up again he gets a reply that reads :-(.

That about sums everything up, as far as Merlin’s concerned.

He can’t even muster up enough energy to get that excited flutter in his stomach when Gwen slips in opposite him for lunch. He hasn’t really seen her properly since they got back because she had a huge research paper due and he should probably feel a little awkward or excited (or anything, really) since he’s now intimately familiar with her tongue.

“I only have time for like a ten minute lunch, I swear,” she says, quickly tucking into her bowl of salad. “I don’t know where all of these assignments are coming from, it wasn’t like this before the holidays.”

Her hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail, one curl having slipped out of it. She looks relaxed even though he can tell she’s stressed, and he kind of wishes he could be her right now because it seems like her life may be overall decent. He watches her butter the piece of toast that came with her meal. The way she moves her hands has always fascinated him a little.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asks, halting her movements.

“Hrngh,” he says, barely resisting the urge to smack his forehead into the table between them.

“Sounds bad.”

He rests his head against his hand. “You have no idea.”

“Come on, don’t suffer in silence. Auntie Gwen is here to help.”

He makes a face involuntarily. Wow, calling herself Auntie Gwen really does nothing for the sexual fantasies. Maybe he’s better off with Lancelot after all.

“It’s just my new roommate,” he says, waving his hand as if it’s nothing. “That Mordred guy? He was up playing computer games until 4 AM. And it’s not even nice ones like Super Mario bros or something, it’s these shooting games where he ends up shouting ‘DIE MOTHERFUCKER’ at the screen. The first time it happened I thought a ninja had broken in to assassinate me.”

Merlin glares at Gwen who had rudely started laughing mid-way into his rant.

“Oh god, I’m sorry,” she says behind her hand, laughing helplessly. “That’s awful.”

“Yeah, you sound really sorry, Gwen. You’re a truly empathetic person. Mother Theresa is who you are.” He waves his arm in her general direction. “Mother Theresa right here in the flesh.”

“I’m really sorry. That’s absolutely terrible,” she repeats, fighting to keep a serious face. “You should go see your RA about it, you’re not supposed to live like that.”

“What if he ends up hating me, though, since I told on him? That’ll just be hell.”

“Can it get much worse?” Gwen asks, her eyebrow raised.

Merlin pauses, his mouth slightly open. “Uh, he could kill me in my sleep?”

“Are you entirely sure he’s not plotting that already?”

Merlin is about to answer, but stops, thinking back to Mordred’s unnerving, silent stare.

“Why would you say that?” Merlin asks as she takes a final bite of the salad before she gets up and pushes the strap of her bag over her shoulder.

She laughs. “Talk to your RA, for god’s sake. You can’t go sleepless.”

*

Having been taken under Will’s wings, Merlin has never really needed to talk to his RA. He knows of him, in a vague sort of way, because everyone knows Arthur Pendragon. He’s the sort of person who seems to be everywhere, somehow, and liked by everyone to some degree or another. Everyone knows of him, but at the same time Merlin doesn’t know if many people actually know him. Arthur had knocked and asked them to keep the music down one time, but Will had answered the door, so it isn’t like Merlin has even said two words to him, really.

Merlin had been by Arthur’s room yesterday, wondering if he could really just barge in and ask Arthur to fix his problems, only to find out that Arthur obviously has a poster with available hours on his door and a suggestion box on his wall. Other than that, there’s a phone number for emergencies, but Merlin’s pretty sure his lack of sleep never counted as that.

So here he is, at 5 PM on a Thursday, and Arthur’s door is open (as promised by the poster). Merlin feels like he’s intruding anyway as he hovers in the doorway, watching Arthur sit by his desk, leaning on one arm. He has one leg tucked under him as he studies a large sheet of paper with furrowed brows.

Merlin knocks on the doorframe and Arthur looks up immediately, his expression confused for a moment before he breaks into a crooked smile.

“Ah, I can tell you’ve come for my expertise,” Arthur says, swirling his chair to face Merlin.

“Well, expertise is taking it a bit far.” Merlin belatedly realises he’s about to ask this guy for help and it’s probably not a good thing to cut off the hand that feeds you. No wonder Merlin’s life is crumbling between his fingers.

Arthur doesn’t seem to take it to heart, though. “Ah, well, I am here to help the poor first year birdies stretch their wings and fly. I’m the wind beneath their wings, if you will.”

“I’m pretty sure the sign out there said RA, not cheesy songwriter.” Merlin points his thumb over his shoulder.

“Can’t a bloke have hobbies?”

Merlin’s pretty sure Arthur’s laughing at him and he can’t even be bothered to be offended by it, because really, Merlin has been laughing at himself in between all the moments where he’s wanted to cry.

The teasing grin finally seems to dissolve when Merlin doesn’t answer and Arthur sits straight in his chair, inclining his head a little as he asks, “How can I help you, then?”

“Right.” Merlin sighs a little and shuffles on the spot. “I have a new roommate. I’m Merlin, by the way, I live in 3H with this guy, Mordred. Which, I know, alliterating names, sounds really cute, right? No. Not cute.”

“Not cute?” Arthur’s lip quirks a little at the corner. “Well, that’s a wasted opportunity.”

“Definitely. He stares at me a lot. I wake up to him staring at me in the dark. I think his eyes reflect light, like cats, you know. And he keeps me up until 4 AM playing computer games where he very violently asks people to ‘DIE IN THE FIERY PITS OF HELL, ASSCRUMPETS’.”

Arthur’s eyebrows have climbed higher and higher as Merlin spoke until they have nowhere else to go. His shoulders shake a little with suppressed laughter.

“Not you too,” Merlin says, lolling his head back in frustration. “Everyone keeps laughing, but really, if I were a linguistics student I might’ve been able to use him as a test subject at least, but there’s really no use for asscrumpets and computer games in history class. I’m kind of fucked here.”

“My condolences,” Arthur says in a deep voice, his face schooled into a serious expression.

Merlin narrows his eyes, feeling his jaw tighten slightly. God, he knows it’s ridiculous, but he’s going legitimately insane over this. Legitimately, off the rails, crazy.

Maybe it shows on his face because Arthur purses his lips and gives him a deliberating look.

“Look, fine, you shouldn’t have to deal with that,” he says, leaning sideways onto his desk. “I’ll talk to Mordred and see how far I can get with him. And you can come tell me how it goes.”

Merlin lets out a long breath. “Thanks. You have no idea. So many, many thanks.”

“’s what I’m here for,” Arthur says with a shrug and turns back to his desk.

*

Merlin gets a good night’s sleep for once because Mordred doesn’t come back that night. He feels a little bad about it, but he can’t help but hope that Arthur might have scared him away entirely. He’s not even sure what Mordred’s doing at uni. Is he going to class at all? Merlin’s certainly never seen him go to one.

Speaking of classes: They are so much easier after you’ve slept for a good eight hours. It’s a bit like magic, actually. Merlin can even take notes properly and remember dates. He makes a timeline of events as the professor speaks and he feels more productive than he has in days, really.

Things are looking up.

… until they plummet back to the ground when he’s cornered in his room by Mordred and a very irate looking friend of his.

“What the fuck, man,” the other guy says, pointing his finger in Merlin’s general direction. “Why would you rat Mordred out to the RA?”

Merlin drops his bag to the floor. “Because he’s keeping me up at night and I have classes?”

“Mordred lives here just as much as you do; it’s not for you to decide what he does.”

“I’m sorry, but who are you?” Merlin asks, his voice rising as the simmering anger at Mordred is reaching almost unbearable levels.

“That’s Gilli,” Mordred supplies helpfully and Merlin notices that he’s retreated to his bed while Gilli is standing rather uncomfortably close.

“Well, Gilli, this isn’t your business so you can leave now.”

“The hell it’s none of my business. That’s my mate you’re bullying,” Gilli says forcefully, taking a step closer.

Merlin refuses to be threatened like that in his own room of all places and takes a step forward too, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m not bullying Mordred, I’m just telling him that since we’re in university there are these things called ‘classes’ that we need to attend and they’re often at eight in the morning which is probably a mythical number to you guys, but not for the rest of us.”

“It’s his room too. And I won’t let you bully my mate.”

“I know it’s his room too and he can play computer games all day if he wants to.” Merlin throws his arms out, fighting the impulse to roll his eyes so hard that it almost hurts. “But I live here too and I’m not going to fail my classes just because your mate apparently hasn’t understood the concept of a university.”

Gilli’s face twists into an angry grimace and Merlin really does know that he needs to work on thinking before he says things. God, why can’t he ever just shut up?

“Are you saying Mordred is stupid?” Gilli asks in a low voice. “Because I think you did.”

Merlin closes his eyes and sighs, because it’s clearly a lost battle here. He’s fucked.

His eyes open just in time to see Gilli move before he feels the hands connect to his chest and he stumbles backwards a little, his head bumping against the wall. His hand comes up to press against the back of his head as he stares at Gilli, unable to even understand how his bloody life got to this point.

“You need to calm the fuck down,” someone says from the door and Merlin turns to see Arthur looming in the entrance.

“Mordred lives here too,” Gilli says for what’s got to be the fifth time by now and Merlin wants to scream.

Arthur just looks at him, unimpressed. “Thanks, I’m well aware. You don’t, though, so I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

By some miracle, Gilli stops arguing and takes off without another word. Mordred just looks sullen and he never has seemed like the confrontational type, so Merlin can sort of understand why he’d need someone else to pick the fight.

“You okay?” Arthur nods towards the hand Merlin’s still got pressed to the back of his head.

“Oh, yeah, fine. I barely hit the wall.”

“Good, we’re at a record-breaking seventeen days without calling the medics.”

“I just really need a drink,” Merlin says, picking up his bag and tossing it onto the bed.

“I’ve got a few beers in my room if you want some.” Arthur shrugs. “Stocking up for a party this weekend, but I have way more than I need, anyway.”

Technically, Merlin should be reading, but Mordred is very demonstratively shooting people on the computer now so getting anything done seems like a doomed mission in any case.

“Sure,” he says, just as Mordred cries “Why won’t you fucking die?”

“Jesus,” Arthur says as he backs out of the room and Merlin follows him gladly.

*

“My best friend moved in with his girlfriend,” Merlin says, shrugging. “It’s not really any more dramatic than that. So I got Mordred instead. A bit of a rough deal there, really, I haven’t quite forgiven Will yet.”

They’re seated on opposite sides of Arthur’s bed, Arthur leaning back against the headboard and Merlin sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed with half a bottle of beer balancing in the space between his thighs.

Arthur snorts a little into his bottle. “I probably wouldn’t forgive him either. That Mordred is one strange bloke.”

“Most people don’t even believe me. They think I’m exaggerating.” Merlin flails his arm a little, grimacing. “And I get that, honestly, because I do kind of have a thing for exaggerating a little bit. At times. But, you know, I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.”

Arthur’s gaze follows his gestures as he speaks and his lips turn up into a little smile before he gives a short laugh and says, “You wouldn’t believe some of the complaints I’ve heard, though.”

“Yeah?”

“There was this girl whose roommate kept clipping her toe nails in the other girl’s bed.”

No.”

“Yeah.” Arthur nods with pursed lips. “It got pretty bad, they kept one-upping each other. Sometimes I wonder if people even go to classes in this place.”

“That’s what I’ve been wondering too.” Merlin rolls his eyes a little. “I don’t even know what Mordred’s here for and I’ve never seen him go to class.”

“I think he said agriculture.”

The sip of beer he just took goes down the wrong way and Merlin sputters, coughing into his hand as he hunches forwards.

“Agriculture?” he wheezes out through coughs.

Arthur doesn’t stop laughing for long enough to answer, so Merlin repeats his incredulous “Agriculture?” once the coughing has stopped.

“That’s what he said, I swear.” Arthur holds his hands up.

“He must’ve thought it meant something else, right?”

“Maybe the bloke has hidden talents, Merlin, you mustn’t be so judgemental,” Arthur says, smiling into his beer.

All Merlin does is shake his head. For the first time in a while he feels kind of relaxed – away from Mordred, yes, but also away from Gwen and from Lance, who take turns confusing him in increasingly exhausting ways. Whenever he thinks he might not like them as much as he thought, they do something that makes him want to drop his jeans to the floor in two seconds flat.

What is his life?

And the great thing is that later that night, Merlin can’t even remember what they talked about as they popped open another bottle of beer, but he knows that he felt oddly at ease for hanging out with someone he barely knows. It feels like one of those things he should cross off his ‘Things To Do at Uni’-list, because Merlin doesn’t think he’d be sitting on some random bloke’s bed drinking beer if he was anywhere else.

*

The more time passes between the whole making out with Gwen thing, the weirder it gets that it hasn’t been mentioned. And while Merlin has kind of been waiting on Gwen to bring it up, he knows he’s equally to blame for sweeping it under a rug. He just doesn’t know how to bring it up now. It’s been so long and they’ve met so many times without even getting close to the topic.

Merlin’s almost starting to wonder if he made the whole thing up in his head.

But no, he’s very sure he actually had Gwen’s lips on his lips at one point in time, and at times she looks at him strangely when she thinks he doesn’t notice. It’s there. He knows it is.

The unresolved thing they have and the need to find a way to broach the subject might be why he says yes to going to the gym with her. Which, if he’d been in his right mind, would be the last thing he’d want. He hates the gym. The machines are like IQ-tests for coordination of limbs. Merlin has dumb limbs.

But he’s there anyway, in old sweatpants and a t-shirt that used to say something before it went through the wash about five hundred times.

“You know, Freya insists that Will keeps doing all those things on purpose to drive her mad,” Gwen says, her long legs wrapped around some sort of contraption that Merlin is pretty sure used to be a medieval torture device. And he’d know.

“Doing what things?” Merlin asks, furrowing his brow as he pulls experimentally on two handles that look like they should be pulled and quickly discards the idea when the entire rig moves.

“Marathoning Buffy once a month, stocking the fridge full of beer and listening to Nickelback. Among other things, really, the list was so long, I’ve forgotten most of it.”

“Oh, so you mean being Will?” Merlin says, turning to look at her with a raised eyebrow. “Freya was friends with him before they got together, she knew what she was getting into.”

Gwen gives a short puff of laughter. “I guess it just gets amplified when you live together, yeah?”

“Well, if she wants, I’m still willing to switch.”

She gives him a look and he shrugs, muttering “Worth a try” under his breath before finally settling in the machine next to Gwen, deciding to mimic what she’s doing and hope that nothing goes to hell.

“Hey, Merlin?” she says after a while, pausing her movements. “About the –“

Merlin doesn’t hear the rest because it’s drowned out by his own high-pitched squeal as something cold and wet, oh god, runs down his back. He leaps from his seat only to come face to face with Arthur looking gleefully guilty while holding a half-empty bottle of water.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Arthur says as if he didn’t just dump a litre of water down Merlin’s shirt. “Making yourself pretty for Mordred?”

“No,” Merlin scoffs, grabbing at his shirt to keep it from sticking to his clammy skin. “I’m just here to show everyone else how it’s done, really.”

Arthur’s lips twitch.

“Very nice of you to grace us with your presence, Merlin.”

“Yes, well, I know it’s hard to deal with so much perfection at once, so I don’t think I’ll be coming back.”

“You’re a merciful man.” Arthur puts a hand over his heart in mock awe.

Merlin rolls his eyes at him and remembers Gwen when he catches her curious expression out of the corner of his eyes.

“This is my, uh, friend Gwen,” he says, stumbling a little over the words, really hoping that Gwen didn’t catch that. “And this is Arthur, my RA. You can blame all of this on her, Arthur, she told me to go to you.”

“I’ll be handing you my therapy bill,” Arthur says as he takes her hand and Gwen laughs just as Arthur’s name is called from across the room. He turns to Merlin and smirks. “Better get back to blinding everyone with your perfection.”

“I plan on it.”

*

Merlin has a hard time figuring Arthur out, in all honest truth. As an RA he’s immensely helpful and dutiful. As a friend/acquaintance/whatever he is, he’s a colossal dick at times, which Merlin keeps discovering in new and terrible ways like when Arthur and his mate Gwaine pour a bucket of cold water all over him in the shower.

Merlin gets him back by stuffing his suggestion box full of bullshit suggestions, but still.

It’s weird for Merlin to not be able to work Arthur out. Will’s so straight forward that there’s really no mistaking him in any way. And as confused as Merlin’s been about his standings with Gwen, he’s never been confused about what kind of person Gwen is because that’s always been abundantly clear.

It’s not that Arthur’s not charming or cheerful, because most of the time he seems to be, and at times he seems like he’s the one everyone looks up to around the building – like he’s their unofficial leader in some way. Merlin thinks Arthur might be very aware of this. He thinks Arthur knows that people look at him and see someone just a little bit more important than the rest of them for whatever reason.

So he’s polite, he’s charming, he’s helpful.

But sometimes when Arthur thinks no one is looking (however, Merlin is always looking), there’s a seriousness in the set of his jaw and a heaviness in his expression that is hard to reconcile with the Arthur that they usually see.

Maybe Merlin is a little twisted, really, but he feels more connected to Arthur when he sees those stolen, unguarded moments. As much as a joking, charming Arthur is good to have around the building, Merlin feels a personal kinship with the kind of sombre, maudlin Arthur that he only catches fleeting glimpses of.

And then he feels a little bad about that, because as much as misery loves company, it feels rather terrible to wish unhappiness on someone else purely because it makes him feel less alone.

*

Don’t fucking cry, Merlin. Don’t you fucking cry. No crying.

He presses the heel of hand against his eyes, forcing whatever tears that may be lurking in there to stay where they are. There’s no way he’s crying over this; there’s no point. What’s there to cry about when you’re an idiot, really? Even if your life kind of sucks, that’s no reason to cry when your own idiocy is half the reason you’re even in the situation.

He slumps against the wall, sitting on the hallway floor with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Maybe he should’ve seen it coming that the thing with Mordred and Gilli was far from over. Not that they’d been threatening or anything, really, but they’d definitely upped their warfare passive aggressively. There’s no way he’ll go back in there when Mordred and his agriculture friends are playing Dungeons & Dragons and smoking weed.

So he’d gone to Gwen’s, naturally, because where else would he go? Will and Freya live off campus and the busses don’t run this late, so of course he’d go to Gwen.

He feels like a massive pillock. All this time he’s spent agonising over his conflicting feelings about two people, all that time he’s spent trying to figure out what the kiss before the holidays actually meant and it doesn’t even matter.

Because it hardly matters which one of them he likes best when they’re fucking each other.

Yeah.

It’s kind of difficult to forget the image burned into his head, because if it wasn’t for the fact that it makes him feel like an idiot, the sight of Lancelot fucking her over the back of the couch would be all kinds of hot.

As it stands, it’s mostly mortifying.

Merlin doesn’t know how long he sits outside his own dorm room, but he does know that when Arthur stops and peers down at him, his arse is all kinds of numb. Which, you know, is just another one of those things in The Life and Times of Merlin.

“I’m afraid to ask,” Arthur says, looking a little exasperated.

“You should be.”

“Did he lock you out?”

“Not as such,” Merlin says, looking at the door. “They’re playing Dungeons & Dragons and smoking up.”

Arthur blinks, opens his mouth to speak and then shuts it again. “I’ve got nothing,” he says after a beat, throwing his hands out.

“Me neither.”

“Come on,” Arthur says as he holds out his hand to help Merlin up. “You can stay in my room tonight. Unless you’ve got somewhere else to go?”

Merlin hesitates, brushing his hands over his jeans. “I don’t, really, but I can’t just barge in and crash in your room like that.”

“Why not, I asked, didn’t I?” Arthur says, eyebrows raised. “I even have a shitty guest bed left over from when my sister visited. Just let me go inside and get the covers from your bed, yeah?”

Standing outside in the hall as Arthur moves into the dragon’s den, Merlin is fairly sure this is the height of embarrassment. If it gets worse than this, he might just have to go underground and become a comic book villain.

Arthur comes back holding his bag, but nothing else. “Sorry, your cover reeks. Got you this, though.”

“You gonna report them?” Merlin asks as Arthur lets him into his room, closing the door behind them.

“Usually I operate on a strike system.” Arthur bends down and pulls a guest bed out from underneath his own. “So I’d give them at least one warning before reporting them to the school, but I think I’ve given Mordred a few more chances than he deserves.” He looks up at Merlin and gestures at the bed. “Hold down that end, will you?”

“Is there a chance I could be rid of him?” Merlin asks as Arthur wrestles the bed into the position it’s supposed to be. “I mean, you know, I wouldn’t mind. Not that I want him to be expelled.”

The bed clicks into place and Arthur reaches up to push his hair away from his forehead. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem likely, but what we could do is fill out a form and ask if you could be moved, if you want that.”

Merlin sits down on the bed as Arthur moves over to the wardrobe, looking thoughtful as he peers into each shelf.

“I’d have to move buildings, though, wouldn’t I?”

There’s a low hum from Arthur as throws a very well-used pillow over to the bed. “Sorry, that’s all I have.”

“It’s alright,” Merlin says, taking the sheets Arthur holds out to him.

“But, yes, there aren’t any available rooms in the building right now.” Arthur grabs a book from his desk before he settles down cross-legged on his bed. “You’d have to move.”

It’s a shitty situation. Merlin frowns as he changes the sheets on the guest bed, putting a new cover on the limp pillow that is frankly well beyond its prime. There’s a headache coming on, rumbling somewhere behind his temples.

“Just... don’t report him,” Merlin says and Arthur looks up in surprise, his brow furrowed.

The question is clear – Arthur doesn’t have to say it – and Merlin shrugs. “It’ll just be more trouble than it’s worth.”

“That’s not a good idea. It’s actually one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. He’d be expelled, you know, for smoking up in your room.”

“I know.” Merlin avoids his eyes. “That’s the problem. He’s a pain in my arse, but I don’t want him expelled. He’s not a bad guy.”

“Merlin,” Arthur says forcefully. “It’s not your job to protect people from themselves.”

Merlin flops back on the bed and groans. It’s a little uncomfortable, but not bad, all things considered. “Just leave it?”

“Fine,” Arthur says after a moment’s hesitation. “But if it happens again or if it gets worse, you’re telling me immediately and I’m stepping in.” Merlin opens his mouth to argue but is cut off with a sharp, “No, Merlin, seriously.”

Merlin leaves it, but rolls his eyes at Arthur’s devotion to his RA-duties. It figures that Arthur would be all noble and dutiful about protecting the building from strange and unsettling roommates.

“You alright?” Arthur asks after a while, his gaze lifted from the book when Merlin looks up and shrugs.

“I’ve been better,” he says truthfully and rolls over to face Arthur. “It’s been a bit of a horrid term, to be honest.”

He feels the gaze on him, closing his eyes to the feeling of being studied. The weight of everything feels a little crushing right now. As if the whole Mordred thing wasn’t ridiculous enough, he’s now got the Gwen and Lancelot situation to deal with. Or he can just pretend it’s never been an issue and not deal with it at all. Yes, that does sound like a good plan.

Even if he can’t see Arthur, he can hear him preparing himself to speak even before he says “Want to talk about it?” in a perceptively light tone.

“Not really,” Merlin says, too quickly. “I mean, not all of it anyway. The Mordred stuff is pretty self-explanatory. And I really don’t want to switch buildings. It’s perfect because it’s close to all of my classes and, you know, I like this building.”

And the RA’s nice. He doesn’t say that, but he feels like it kind of hovers in the air a little and that’s really kind of awkward. Turning to look at Arthur, he looks at the book in his lap and scrambles for safer ground. “What do you study?”

Arthur holds up his book so Merlin can see the cover. “Architecture.”

“Really?” Merlin asks, eyebrows raised. “You don’t seem the type to want to sit still and draw buildings for hours on end.”

“Shut up,” Arthur shoots back, rolling his eyes. “Architecture is amazing, I’ll have you know. Way more interesting than history in any case, could it get more basic than that?”

“What?” Merlin throws his arms out and flails a little, words rushing out of him. “What’s architecture without history anyway? Do you really think you can take architectural trends out of their historical context? It wouldn’t even make sense. All of the things going on, all of the politics, everything, has an impact on what they build, you know. There are all of these...”

He trails off when he sees Arthur’s lips curl into a tiny smile. “You’re just riling me up, aren’t you?”

“Definitely,” Arthur says, giving him an amused look.

“Probably should’ve realised.”

“Probably,” Arthur agrees. “The history of buildings is partly why I like it so much in the first place, aside from all the technical aspects of what goes into making a building liveable at all.”

And then Arthur keeps talking, the words almost pouring out of him as if no one’s ever bothered to ask him what he likes about architecture – like this is the first time he gets to say any of these things out loud. Merlin watches him as he speaks, noting the way he gestures as he explains, taking in the way his face looks open and relaxed. The way Arthur speaks, with so much genuine interest, is another little thing that makes Merlin feel connected to him in some way. And it hits him that it feels like he’s seeing something private, something that Arthur doesn’t share with people all that often.

They end up not talking much after that. Arthur has to study and Merlin’s not about to disrupt him any more than he already has, so he curls up on the bed with a textbook of his own, reading about the middle ages until his eyes start drooping and he’s too tired to even think about everything that’s been going on.

It feels weird getting ready to sleep in a room that isn’t his own. Admittedly, Merlin’s never really spent a lot of time in rooms that aren’t his, as sad as that fact is. He tries to not walk in Arthur’s way, but Arthur keeps sending him exasperated looks as if Merlin’s being more annoying by trying to be inconspicuous.

When they’ve both settled down in the quiet darkness, the day catches up with Merlin a little, but he pushes it down, determined to put a lid on absolutely everything and not deal with any of it until he has to. He huddles down under the blanket that Arthur had lent him. It’s strange how comforting it can feel just to be enveloped by a piece of fabric, as if it’s a barrier between him and everything else.

Merlin’s balancing on the edge of sleep, almost unable to separate between reality and dream, which is why he spends a fair amount of time wondering if he’s actually awake when Arthur’s sheets rustle slightly. Pressing his eyes open as if testing his own state of awareness, Merlin is about to ask Arthur – a bit unnecessarily perhaps – if he’s still awake.

He stops himself before he can. The rustling of sheets in the near darkness continues. It doesn’t stop. Which means that, no, Arthur isn’t just turning around in his bed. Merlin racks his brain for a whole lot of explanations like ‘maybe he lost something in the sheets and is desperately looking for it’ or ‘maybe he’s a sleep-kicker’ and they all sound like very possible scenarios until there’s a muffled, but unmistakable moan.

Holy shit.

Merlin’s eyes widen as his hearing seems to heighten impossibly until all he can pick out is his own frighteningly loud breathing and what he now knows is the sound of Arthur’s hand wrapped around his own cock. The image explodes in his head until Merlin can’t figure out how he’s ever avoided thinking about Arthur naked and wanking. Because right now it’s a fantasy he’ll never, ever, ever get rid of.

He doesn’t even dare to breathe as he listens, trying to imagine how Arthur likes it – if he’s jerking himself slowly, if his fist is tight around himself as he pushes up into it or if he’s just stroking lazily. Merlin’s mouth goes dry as he closes his eyes, his own cock filling until it’s hard, tenting the blanket. If Arthur looks in his direction it won’t be much of a point trying to hide what’s going on. For some reason the thought of Arthur catching him awake and hard makes him curl his hands into fists by his side, scrambling for control.

He shouldn’t invade. He should try to sleep like Arthur seems to think he is and just ignore what’s going on in the bed above him. That’s what the logical part of his brain is saying, anyway, but then the other part of him has a rather good point too: Arthur apparently has no qualms about wanking in the bed next to him.

His dick throbs, heavy and hard on his stomach, and it’s almost, almost unbearable. He manages, because really, he doesn’t want to be arrested for lewd acts in someone else’s room. That’s a crime right? He’s not in law, so he can’t be entirely sure, but it seems like it should be.

But then he hears Arthur’s breath, laboured and loud, and Merlin just can’t deal anymore. He closes his eyes tightly, silently apologising to the Arthur inside his head as he slips his hand below the waistband of his boxers and grips the base. He almost groans in relief, his back arching just a little as he finally eases the pressure.

He can feel it the moment Arthur notices. His movements still completely and his breath comes out in ragged puffs of air as the tension in the room rises to an unbearable level. Merlin is half afraid that he’ll be thrown out of the room for being an invasive pervert, but for some reason not even that thought can overshadow the slightly embarrassing spike of arousal he feels at the thought that Arthur knows what he’s doing.

Pushing into the tight fist of his hand, he bites down on his lip to stop from groaning in what would be an embarrassing confirmation of what’s going on. Not that it’s not abundantly clear by now, but for some reason it seems worse if there’s noise. Plus, he’s still half-sure he’ll be thrown out on his arse.

He isn’t.

Instead, Arthur’s bed creaks and Merlin can see the shadow of him now, arching up into his hand. Jesus Christ. Arthur is basically fucking into his hand, hard and fast by the sounds of it, and he knows Merlin’s wanking next to him. Maybe it’s even because Merlin’s... Oh, fuck.

A groan slips out of him and he throws his free arm over his eyes, unable to keep his hips from hitching up into the pressure of his fingers.

“Fuck,” Arthur whispers and Merlin moans pitifully in reply.

Moments later he sees the shadow of Arthur’s body twisting in the sheets, his breath stopping for a moment before it rushes out unevenly, punctuated by a low, satisfied groan. Brief images of how it’d feel to have his mouth wrapped around Arthur when he comes flicker through his mind and that’s all it takes. Merlin turns his head into the pillow and breathes hard, coating his palm with his come as he shakes apart more violently than he ever has before.

Neither of them says anything and Merlin feels too awkward to get up and wipe his hand off. Instead, he ignores the mess and tries not to panic as he falls asleep.

*

Merlin’s pretty sure his life could qualify as one of those sitcoms at this point. The ones where so many awkward things happen that you have to pause because of the second-hand embarrassment and steel yourself before you can continue. Sadly, Merlin’s life has no pause button and the embarrassment is first-hand.

He’s been walking in huge circles around campus to avoid A) Arthur’s room, B) where Arthur’s classes usually are, C) any area where Arthur may be found and D) any area where Gwen or Lance may be frequenting. In other words: he hasn’t been out much. And somehow, Mordred is getting less annoying instead of more annoying the more he sees him.

Merlin suspects Stockholm syndrome. It’s getting out of hand.

Another thing that’s getting out of hand? His pile of laundry – and also his ability to avoid thinking about Arthur. Ever since he’d slipped out of the guest bed and paused over a sleeping Arthur thinking boy, that escalated quickly, he’d carefully put the memories into a heavily locked chest and moved on with life. Or, well, moved his life into his room, really, but that’s beside the point.

But all in all, Merlin doesn’t think he’s been that bad, at least not until his phone rings and he jumps a mile into the air, flailing his arms around, wondering if the world is about to end. Maybe it’s been a little while since someone called him or he even bothered to take out his phone to talk to anyone, now that he thinks about it.

But who has time for phones when life goes to hell in a hand basket?

“You’re so bloody dramatic,” is what Will says to that. “Just slap on a grin, get out there, and stop being a dick.”

In the background, Freya’s exasperated Will can be heard over the slight thud of a cupboard door. Merlin curls up in his bed, his gaze slightly hypnotised by the rapid shooting on Mordred’s screen.

“It’s not... Will, you don’t even know what’s going on,” Merlin says defensively.

“Yeah, I’m sorry I left you alone in the jungle and all, Merlin, but you can’t avoid this shit forever.”

Merlin peers over at Morded and lowers his voice a little. “Gwen hooked up with Lance.”

“Oh, fuck,” Will says with feeling and there’s slight ruffling at the other end. “I’m putting you on speaker phone; I don’t know how to have this conversation.”

“What, you don’t know how to talk to people? Also, no, Freya can’t know about this, come on.”

Freya’s short tinkling laughter can be heard clear as day. “It’s so cute that you think I don’t know.”

Fantastic.

“Merlin,” Will says, the tone significant. Merlin knows this is Will being serious. If he could see him, he’d be wearing his ‘I am so serious right now’-face. “This isn’t like you. I don’t know everything that’s going on, but come on, mate. It’s not like you to sit and sulk in your room and hide from everyone. We haven’t even seen you in over a week.”

“Gwen says she hasn’t seen you since you went to the gym with her,” Freya says.

He rests his forehead against his palm, crouched up on his bed with a mountain of laundry at the foot of it. They’re right and he knows it. What, exactly, is he doing?

“I’m really sorry that Gwen’s hooked up with Lance.” Will pauses, his voice a little unsure as he continues on. “But if you think you’re the only person whose life blows from time to time, you need to take a look around.”

It stings a little. He recognises the criticism for what it is. But Merlin thinks it might hurt the most because he sees the truth in it.

Freya gives a heavy sigh and from the muffled ‘ow’ it seems like she’s exerted some kind of bodily harm on Will. “What Will the insensitive git is trying to say is that we understand that everything’s kind of piled up on you right now, but you shouldn’t let it take over your life, yeah?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Merlin answers, embarrassed. “Thanks, mum and dad, I think I can handle it from here.”

“And eat your vitamins!” Will says, his voice mimicking an old man’s.

Freya laughs softly and Merlin rolls his eyes to no one in particular, his gaze settling on the pile of laundry.

“You’ll be pleased to know,” he says, holding the phone in place with his shoulder as he starts gathering the clothes, “that I’m off to do my laundry.”

“Praise Cthulhu,” Will says. “Bake him a cake, Freya. It should say Congrats on being a human being.”

“Fuck off.” Merlin hears Will laugh before he hangs up.

*

The door to Arthur’s room is open when Merlin walks past with his load of newly washed clothes. He walks right past, willing his feet to work and not become useless, limp noodles. It works to an extent, but his feet decide to move backwards instead until he’s standing in the doorway with his laundry in hand, looking at Arthur sitting by his desk again.

Arthur is leaning forwards, bracing himself on his elbows and cupping his chin with his hand. His brow is furrowed as he looks down at a sheet of paper. Merlin does not look at the shape of his arm, the curve of his shoulder or his jaw. And he definitely doesn’t look at the broadness of his back. Nope.

“Hey,” Merlin’s mouth says before his brain has allowed it.

Looking up, Arthur’s eyes widen for a moment as he sees him, but he recovers quickly and straightens up in his chair. “Hi.”

Now that Arthur is turned towards him and Merlin can see his face, all of Merlin’s thoughts disappear immediately. The never ending stream of don’t look at the bed, oh god don’t look, and don’t look at his hands or below his chest, or just don’t look anywhere just in case comes to a stuttering halt.

Arthur’s face is drawn and there are dark rings under his eyes that Merlin’s sure weren’t there before. Dropping his basket of laundry to the floor, Merlin kicks it inside and closes the door behind him.

“That’s supposed to be open for RA stuff.”

“They can knock,” Merlin says, feeling suddenly surer of himself in the face of meeting someone else’s problems rather than his own. “What’s wrong?”

The question distracts from the other question that’s constantly on the tip of his tongue (“Did we actually do that thing the other night? And how the fuck did it happen?”). ‘What’s wrong?’ is definitely the safest option right now.

“Christ, nothing’s wrong,” Arthur says, looking down at the pencil he’s twirling between his fingers. “Tired, is all.”

Merlin looks at him, inclining his head a little. “I’ve seen you before, when you think no one’s watching you. I don’t think everything’s fine.”

As if on cue, Arthur’s shoulders slump a little and he turns away, drawing the pencil idly across the paper in small, precise lines. Merlin watches the movement of his hand and the press of his finger, studying the deliberate flick of his wrist and the look of concentration on his face. It feels like a long time before Arthur bites his lip for a moment, his throat working. “It’s just my dad and my sister. Ever since I said I wouldn’t be working for my dad’s company, they’ve been arguing about it. I’ve told them to leave me out of it, but they both keep calling me about it all the time.”

“It’s not your fight,” Merlin says, forming the words carefully as if that’d somehow make them easier.

“I know.” Arthur’s hand stills for a moment. “They’re making it mine, though.”

“Don’t let them.”

Arthur shrugs. “It’s not that easy. Since I distanced myself from it, I took away their buffer. It’s my fault it’s like that to begin with.”

Shaking his head, Merlin is surprised by the force in his voice when he says, “No, it’s only their fault. They’re the ones who choose to argue.”

Arthur gives a slight smile, only a quirk of his lips, and it’s a pale imitation of his beaming grin, but it makes Merlin smile back, feeling just a little warmed.

“If it helps,” Merlin says, throwing his arms out, “I crushed on two people at once and they ended up hooking up with each other?”

Ouch.” Arthur turns towards him and makes a face. “That’s rough.”

Merlin shrugs. “Actually not as bad as it sounds. Gives me a good excuse to wallow in ice cream.”

Arthur is giving him a long look, his head cocked to the side. It feels like a somewhat uncomfortable form of scrutiny, but then Arthur just says, “Chocolate chip cookie dough?”

“Obviously.”

*

Sometimes Merlin questions his own intelligence. Not with theoretical things: he’s got a fantastic memory for dates and he can write one hell of an essay. But when it comes to making wise life decisions, he’s really not sure he should be trusted.

There doesn’t seem to be enough air in the universe to satisfy his lungs as he staggers into the building on shaky legs. Jogging? Really, Merlin? Well played, brain. Way to be horrible at life.

His mother always said you learn as long as you live and Merlin has learned two things today: Merlin’s brain when sexually frustrated = dumb; Jogging = evil.

The room’s empty when he gets back, but he expects that. He’d met Mordred standing in the middle of his group of friends right outside campus. It had taken a moment before they noticed him, but when they had, Merlin had been pretty relieved that looks can’t actually stab you through the head.

It confuses him. He doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve Death Glares of Doom. If anything, he’s done everything he can to work around Mordred’s unconventional habits. The other day he’d even tried talking to him, but that had gone over as well as one would expect.

Merlin gets out his shower supplies and his ridiculously huge Tardis beach towel, trying to forget the way he’d felt their glares burn into his back as he heads towards the showers down the hall, his hair sticking to his forehead in a way that drives him nuts. He’s drenched in sweat. It had seemed like a good idea at the time since he never did go to the gym again with Gwen for obvious reasons, but Merlin feels like exercise is vastly overrated at this point.

There are blissfully few people in the bathroom when he gets there. Two guys slip out just as he opens the door, nodding their head in greeting as they pass, and inside it seems to be nearly empty. He heads to the shower stall at the very end (he is a creature of habit, after all) and almost walks face first into the stall door that opens right in front of him.

Jesus,” he exclaims, bracing himself against it and looks up to tell whoever it is to watch their aggressive door-opening in the future.

The words die on his lips as his eyes find Arthur’s half-naked body standing two steps away from him. His towel is tied around his waist in a haphazard knot, hanging low over Arthur’s hips. The wheels in Merlin’s mind come to a squeaking halt. He forces himself to close his mouth, his jaw clenching almost painfully as he tries to get a grip on himself.

God, he’s angry, really. He’s angry with Arthur for even existing. Merlin’s been trying to ignore his everything since the incident, but Arthur is Arthur and he’s always around, forcing Merlin to open up those annoying boxes labelled ‘feelings’ and ‘attraction’ and ‘fuck, what is happening’.

“You know, Merlin,” Arthur says, turning towards the mirrors, “doors open.”

Level of attraction definitely lower now. Good development.

“I’m so lucky to know you,” Merlin says dryly, beginning to strip out of his clothes. The t-shirt sticks to his back. “Who else would tell me all of these fascinating things about life?”

“All of life’s mysteries would be lost on you.”

Merlin looks at him out of the corner of his eyes, gaze sweeping over his broad shoulders. His eyes follow the movements of Arthur’s back as Arthur reaches out for something on the shelf. God. Attraction back up. Terrible development.

Ridding himself clumsily of the rest of his clothes, Merlin feels stupidly aware of the fact that they’re both horribly naked. He escapes into the stall, desperate to get away from the ridiculously tempting expanse of Arthur’s back.

He braces himself against the wall, trying to focus on anything but Arthur’s fucking skin and muscles and hair and... fuck. Merlin clenches his fist as his cock stands half hard now, completely unwilling to do the sensible thing and ignore, ignore, ignore.

“Hey, Merlin,” Arthur says, his voice muffled by the sound of Merlin’s own pulse. “You forgot your shampoo.”

Merlin doesn’t realise that Arthur is dumb enough to actually open the stall door before he’s standing there, holding out the shampoo bottle like Merlin’s not standing in a shower stall and Arthur hadn’t even knocked. Doors are for knocking, god damn it.

“Jesus, why did you –“

“I don’t know,” Arthur says before Merlin can even finish.

Then he snaps his mouth shut, staring at Merlin so intensely that Merlin feels like he’s burning up from the inside out. Fucking hell, this is either about to be really hot or really embarrassing or possibly both.

The tension is unbearable as none of them know what to do, even as Arthur says “Shit, I’m sorry” but still doesn’t even move. Not even Merlin’s half-erection decides to go anywhere, but stays stubbornly where it is, feeling heavy and impossible to ignore.

“Um.” Merlin croaks, not even getting himself to ask Arthur to leave because he might not actually forgive himself if he did.

“Let me watch,” Arthur says so quickly that the words practically spill out of him. Merlin stares at him, eyes wide and then Arthur says, “Please let me watch” so intensely that Merlin’s hand wraps around himself of its own accord.

Closing his eyes because it’s just too much and oh my god, Merlin braces himself against the wall and spreads his legs a little, running his hand purposefully over his length as he thinks about the muscles of Arthur’s back and how they’d work if Arthur were fucking him. His head tips back a little and he bites his lip to muffle the moan that wants out.

Is this an actual thing that is happening? Because Merlin has a feeling he might have fallen asleep after an embarrassingly long porn-binge and stumbled into some sort of porn-driven fever dream. Things like these don’t actually happen to people, do they?

He almost forgets Arthur is there. Or well, he doesn’t forget, because this is hardly anything one would just let slip from memory, but he stops feeling self-conscious at some point. He gets comfortable, moving his hand with more purpose, jerking himself the way he likes it. The only evidence he has that Arthur is even there is the laboured breathing until he grows bold enough to open his eyes and meet the gaze that’s so intense it makes him shiver, his hand tugging hard on his cock in response.

He drinks in the sight of Arthur greedily, not bothering to hold back all the things he’s been pushing away – things like fantasies and feelings and want. All the things he wants to do to Arthur just tumbles out into his mind at once, flooding him in lust. He bucks into his own grip, gripping himself hard as he muffles a groan as well as he can.

There’s a dull thud as Arthur drops the shampoo bottle and it cracks against the tiles. His hand slips under the towel and it unravels, falling to the floor and just like that Arthur is entirely naked. Not only is he naked, but he’s also straining hard, his cock thick and gorgeous, the head glistening with pre-come. Merlin’s mind is entirely blank for a few seconds before his brain goes into complete overload.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he mutters, pressing his fingers hard around his cock, needing the pressure and the speed to take away the desperate edge.

Merlin nearly starts in surprise when Arthur speaks, his voice rough and low: “Come on me.” Arthur is closer now, looking wrecked with eyes wide and his lips parted. Merlin’s eyes roll into his head, then, the orgasm slamming into him so hard that he loses his breath. Trembling under the steady pulse of pleasure, he forces his eyes open to see his come on Arthur’s stomach and, oh god, on his cock.

Arthur’s hand is fisted around his dick, Merlin’s come under and on his fingers and it’s the most obscene thing he’s ever seen. At least Merlin’s life is no longer an embarrassing sitcom – it’s now, apparently, a porno. Not that he’s really complaining. Merlin swallows heavily, unable to tear his eyes away from the blissful expression on Arthur’s face as he pushes his head back against the wall and arches into his come-covered fingers.

When Arthur comes, teeth sinking into his bottom lip and his chest moving rapidly, Merlin realises he’s doomed to a life of perpetual hard-ons.

*

Merlin misses Gwen a lot. And not in the way he’d thought he would, but just as a friend. His head is kind of exploding with things that he’d like to talk about, and it’s not like he can talk to Will about them. There are many things he could tell Will about, but that doesn’t include this. And by extension Freya is definitely out because the two of them have a frankly terrifying policy about telling each other everything. They know things about each other that no two people should know, as far as Merlin’s concerned.

So, really, Gwen would be the person he’d most like to talk to about all of this, except he can’t.

At this point, it’s hard to blame Gwen for the way they’ve drifted apart, and he can’t blame himself either. He’s tried blaming them both in turns, but in the end it just doesn’t work that way. Gwen should’ve cleared the air between them before going off with Lancelot and he should’ve made an effort to reach out to Gwen himself. And he certainly shouldn’t have ignored her.

But he’d been embarrassed. He’d been really fucking embarrassed – maybe even more than he’d been hurt. He can recognise that now.

And the even more frightening thing he recognises is that the things he felt for Gwen and Lancelot? In the big picture, they may have been tiny things. The little flutter of excitement he got every time he had Gwen’s attention is really nothing to the way his gut twists when Arthur meets his eyes across the room and quirks his lip in a small acknowledgment.

It isn’t like he’d ever even proclaimed to be in love with Gwen or anything, either, but he had thought he’d been in pretty deep. Turns out Merlin hadn’t even known what deep means.

That’s a really weird feeling – knowing that he’s so far beyond anything familiar at this point that it’s pretty much fumbling darkness from here on out. He doesn’t have a map or a rulebook. He hasn’t levelled up in Relationship Skills, Flirting Skills or Communication Skills.

Even worse: Merlin had somehow always assumed that when this happened he’d be in a normal relationship – the ones that start with a chance meeting in the library, continue with a date and then another date until the feelings progress naturally. He didn’t think he’d be in a strange indefinable thing that started with a weird somewhat mutual wank and continued with a definitely mutual wank, all the while Merlin’s feelings crept up on him from behind, jumped on his back and pounded him on the head.

He barely resists the urge to bang his face onto the desk in frustration. The only reason he manages to not do it is because it’d be awkward if the entire class stared at him like he’s lost his mind. He has lost his mind (although he thinks he might’ve never actually had it in the first place), but that’s not the point.

His notebook is woefully empty, save for an abundance of doodles in the margins – spirals that move downwards on the page in increasingly growing swipes of ink. He might have to talk to someone before he fails out of uni.

Staring vacantly into the room, not paying attention to the professor droning on in the background, he weighs his options. He even contemplates actually telling Will. Hell, he even considers getting Mordred’s advice which is kind of ridiculous considering Mordred seems to be mutating into an evolved form now. Mordred might be a Pokémon. And in his newly evolved form, all his stuff is eating the entire room and trying to drown Merlin.

In the end, it’s all pretty clear, really. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but Merlin doesn’t think he’s willing to sacrifice his sanity for his pride.

He hides the phone under his desk, trying to look for the world as if he’s still paying attention as he presses his fingers swiftly across the screen.

I think we should talk, he settles on, swallowing with a little difficulty as he sends it.

A few minutes later (enough time for Merlin to regret it a lot), the screen lights up, announcing a text from Gwen.

I’d like that.

He lets out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding and shoots off The café at 3?

Right now the letter k might be his favourite one.

*

He leaves class that afternoon feeling like a complete slacker. Even after he’d sent the text to Gwen, he hadn’t been able to focus. His thoughts had slipped to Arthur instead, which was even more unsafe ground than Gwen at this point. It’s just hard to get over how backwards it all is right now.

Why isn’t there an app for figuring this shit out? He’d buy it.

Gwen’s sitting there when he enters the café, sitting perched on a chair in a decidedly uncertain way. She looks nervous, chewing at her lip and bouncing her leg a little. Oddly enough, her nerves kind of calm his and he walks over with a steady heartbeat, determined to not make this a terrible conversation. He really needs this to go right.

“Hey,” she says, a quick smile on her lips as he sits down across from her, setting his bag down.

Merlin leans forwards, giving a quick “Hey” back before asking “How have you been?” in the lightest tone he can manage.

“I’ve been good. It’s been okay,” Gwen says, folding her arms in front of her on the table, before exhaling softly. “Listen, Merlin. I really want to get this out of the way now that we’re here.”

He nods, kind of grateful that she brought it up first, in all honesty.

“I know that you know about me and Lance and I’m really sorry that I didn’t tell you. And that we never really talked after the whole thing, you know.” Gwen’s expression is slightly close to devastated and Merlin feels bad. “It’s terrible of me. To do that. And then to not even warn you about the Lance thing. I don’t even know, all of this, it’s just...”

“It’s okay,” Merlin says quickly, unable to deal with the way Gwen looks like she wants to cry. “Honestly, if you’d tried to talk to me sooner I might not have been ready for it. And I could’ve talked to you to after the thing, it’s a two-way thing. Like a telephone. Or one of those cans on a string.”

Gwen’s lips quiver and then she breaks into a reluctant smile, hiding it behind her hand for a moment.

“You’re one of my best friends, Merlin,” she says, looking up from having studied her fingernails intently. “I think that... at Christmas I wanted to see if we could have something, you know? Because we’d be good together and I wanted there to be something. And when there wasn’t really, I kind of panicked because I’d never thought that far.”

He takes the explanation gratefully, feeling like a missing piece of the puzzle that he’s needed for ages is finally there. It feels nice – like he needed it to make sense of everything.

“I really kind of had a thing for you,” he admits, feeling a little panicky as the words are out there and he doesn’t meet her eyes. “But I think maybe I panicked too because it wasn’t entirely what I thought and I don’t think I wanted to admit it.”

When he looks up, Gwen is giving him a warm look.

“We’re a pair, aren’t we,” she says.

“Oh, I definitely think we belong together in our insanity.”

“Friends bound together by mutual compulsions?”

Merlin laughs and he feels himself relaxing where he didn’t even know he was tensed.

“Now, I can tell you had ulterior motives for this. Don’t think I don’t know you.” Gwen waves a finger at him. “Tell Auntie Gwen all about it.”

Slipping onto the table, Merlin groans and he hears Gwen laugh softly. “Are you sure you want to know?”

“Absolutely,” she says. “Just let me buy us a cuppa, yeah?”

While she’s in line, he turns everything over in his head, feeling a headache looming in the distance after this whole emotional ‘figuring shit out’ day he’s having. It’s when he plays through everything that’s happened lately that he realises this is all Gwen’s fault.

She returns and he grabs her wrist as soon as she’s put their cups down. Looking up at him in surprise, eyes wide, her mouth falls open in question.

“It’s all your fault, oh my god.”

“What? No! I’ve barely been around,” she says defensively.

“You told me to go to my RA about Mordred,” he says, as if that’s an actual explanation for anything.

She scowls at him, grabbing the handle of her tea ball and swirling it in meticulous circles. “Merlin. Start the sense-making.”

“I may have gotten sort of... involved.”

Her eyes widen and her movements halt, until her mouth spreads into an unnerving grin. “With the fit guy from the gym?”

Merlin hides his face in his hands. “Yes?”

There’s a loud squeaking sound that makes everyone around them stare.

Ohmygod.”

“Gwen!”

“Well, oh my god!”

“Gwen, Jesus.” He flails his arms a little, trying his best not to attract any more attention. “I don’t know what to do! I thought these things kind of followed a form? Like, go on a date and then another date and then feelings. But no, no, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t. I feel like I’m Indiana Jones and there’s a room full of different coloured tiles in front of me.”

“That’s freakishly specific.”

“But what are the right coloured tiles, Gwen? I don’t even know! We started in the wrong end, it’s all weird. I mean, we did... things. And we haven’t talked about it.” Merlin pauses, making a face. “This seems to be a pattern with me, oh my god, what am I doing?”

Gwen raises her eyebrows at him. “Maybe you should learn from past mistakes. Just a suggestion.”

Giving a high-pitched whine, Merlin sinks onto the table again.

“And if it started in the wrong end, why don’t you search out the right end?”

He looks up at her from his folded arms and turns that over in his head. The proverbial wheels are turning.

“Gwen, I love you.”

She reaches over and ruffles his hair, her hand lingering a little. Her face goes soft. “Thank you for texting,” she says quietly. “It’s been all wrong without you.”

*

Merlin feels like a bit of an idiot for doing it, but at the same time, it’s the best idea he has at the moment. He wants to do this stuff right for once, but he doesn’t know how to have any kind of face to face communication with Arthur right now. A face to face confrontation would undoubtedly end in either A) not being able to form any coherent sentences to explain what he means or B) forgetting words all together to do something completely ridiculous/hot again or C) both.

That wouldn’t be good. Well, it could be good, but at this point Merlin really feels like he needs more than just shared wanks and tip-toeing around each other. Obviously, he has no idea what Arthur wants, but he’s going insane either way, so he might as well put himself out there for rejection.

So Merlin finds a pad of post-it notes in his drawer and starts writing notes. They’re not love notes because he’s not a crazy person or a Jane Austen character (although it kinda feels like it lately). All he puts on them are things about himself; things he feels like someone important should know about him – big or small.

The first time, he feels like an idiot when he slips a yellow note with I’m a cat person -m scribbled on it into Arthur’s suggestion box. Because, honestly, he might actually be legitimately out of his mind and Arthur is going to transfer universities cause of the crazy guy he had an ill-conceived wank with. But then Arthur never does seem to move away and Merlin starts getting a little thrill out of the whole thing.

It kind of becomes the highlight of his day. He spends every day at classes trying to find out what he’d want to tell Arthur about himself before he chooses a different coloured post-it and slips it in on the way back to his room. And focusing on the notes helps keep his thoughts away from things like finding Mordred’s underwear on his pillow and waking up to him playing air guitar to The Clash at 6 AM. Not that Merlin doesn’t appreciate The Clash, but 6 AM is a sacred time.

The first time he slips in a note with something truly personal on it, he feels the nervous jitters down to his toes and it’s all strangely intimate. Even if they haven’t actually talked in at least two weeks and Merlin is mostly just interacting with a box, it feels like a connection. He lets go of the note that says My father left when I was two. I used to sit outside in a tree in the garden and look for him. –m and is immediately very aware of his pulse, beating steadily under his skin. The excited thrill jolts through his stomach, making him grin kind of crazily.

That night he wonders if Arthur even checks his suggestion box that often and spends two hours staring at the ceiling.

The morning after, he’s reached the conclusion that Arthur takes his RA duties so seriously it’s almost ridiculous and there’s no way he doesn’t check his suggestion box regularly. He probably even checks it obsessively. So Merlin just continues.

As usual, all good things must end, and it only takes another week before the door bursts open just as Merlin’s about to put the day’s note into the box. His head whips up and he freezes in place, a little mortified at being caught red-handed even if it’s hardly a secret that the notes are his.

It doesn’t seem like Arthur had planned to surprise him in the act, because he looks about as stunned as Merlin, stopping in the doorway, his eyes wide.

“Merlin,” he says, almost as if the surprise forced it out of him.

“Err, hi,” Merlin answers sheepishly, still clutching the note in his hand.

Arthur looks at him for a moment and then smiles crookedly. “You know, my suggestion box is actually meant for suggestions.” And this would probably carry a lot more weight if Merlin couldn’t see all his post-its tacked to the wall above Arthur’s desk. He smiles, a little crazed with happiness.

This seems to confuse Arthur a great deal and his look of utter puzzlement just makes Merlin grin even wider.

“Well, if I have to play by the rules.” Merlin sighs dramatically as he opens his bag and takes out his stack of post-its and a pen.

He presses it against the wall above the box and scribbles on it, shielding it from Arthur’s view with his hand. Arthur is watching him carefully, apparently unsure about what to expect and frankly, Merlin’s not entirely sure what to expect either. His heart pounds when he clicks the top back on his pen and slips the note into the suggestion box, forcing himself to smile effortlessly at Arthur.

Arthur shakes his head and gives him a look of what Merlin can only describe as fond exasperation. He might be imagining the fond part, but the exasperation is definitely there.

Merlin bites his lip and pushes his hands into the pockets of his jeans as Arthur finds his keys and opens the suggestion box, taking out a handful of notes where Merlin’s lies on top.

Of course, since Arthur is a giant bag of dicks, he takes his time reading all the others before he even glances at Merlin’s. Merlin would roll his eyes, but he’s too busy being frozen in fear, to be honest. When his note is open in Arthur’s palm, Merlin looks away, not wanting to see Arthur’s face as he reads We should go to FilmSoc together on Tuesday.

He only dares to look when he feels Arthur’s eyes on him and he gives a shaky smile. “You did ask for a suggestion.”

Arthur moves over and presses the note on the wall below the rest. “Best suggestion I’ve had in a while.” His smile is soft and hits Merlin right in the chest like a punch.

“Great! Brilliant. Excellent. Fantastic, even,” Merlin babbles, desperately trying to get his mouth to shut up already.

“Magnificent?” Arthur says, his eyebrow raised in a perfect expression of amusement.

“Yes, that.”

Merlin watches, completely unable to decide what to do with himself, as Arthur locks the door to his room.

“See you Tuesday?” Arthur says as he backs away down the hall.

“Yeah.” Merlin sounds so breathless it’s barely audible.

Jesus.

*

Merlin’s a little nauseous, which is thoroughly pathetic, actually, but Merlin’s never dated anyone – not for real. He’s taken girl friends to school dances, but those had always ended up being out of convenience and they were never actual dates between two people who were genuinely attracted to each other. It’s not that he’s never done anything. He’s kissed people, but it’s never been attached to a date and has always been a somewhat spontaneous thing (and mostly ill-advised).

So the thing is that Merlin is infuriatingly inexperienced with all of this. No one’s ever told him the rules. He feels like there are definitely rules – at least unwritten ones, but no one’s ever bothered to let him in on them, so he’s kind of fumbling in the dark.

He has a frightening amount of questions (really stupid questions), but he doesn’t actually want to ask anyone. It feels like jinxing to even tell anyone it’s happening.

Because, oh god, it actually is.

Merlin changes his outfit four times, which is ridiculous because he just changes his pair of jeans into a darker pair and picks a t-shirt in a different shade of blue. He really doubts Arthur would’ve even noticed the difference.

When he thinks about changing for a fifth time, he has to admit to himself that he might be stalling.

Also, Mordred is looking at him like Merlin’s the one who’s going off the rails when Mordred’s started hoarding plants in their room. In the end, Mordred mutters something about not being able to look at Merlin’s pacing anymore and fucks off to hang out with Gilli.

Merlin holds an intervention for himself when that happens because he just scared off Mordred and that’s probably the surest sign that he might be driving himself insane. The intervention consists of staring at himself in the mirror and breathing calmly as he counts to 10 and then dancing around his room to Journey like a complete dork.

He’s a catch, really. Arthur should count himself lucky that Merlin wants to lick his jaw and gag on his cock.

Of course, as Merlin’s luck goes, Merlin’s brain is still stuck on the ‘gagging on Arthur’s cock’ part of his inner thought process when Arthur’s door opens. A look of surprise flits across Arthur’s face, probably because Merlin hadn’t gotten to the knocking on the door portion of the evening yet. He’d been lurking outside for five minutes trying to find out which knocking technique would sound least overeager.

Merlin blushes.

Of course he does.

He directs his eyes heavenward in a silent plea to whatever good karma he may have out there in the universe.

A quick “oh” escapes Arthur before he raises an eyebrow knowingly and says “hi” with as much smugness as the syllable will hold. Merlin narrows his eyes in return, struggling to avoid ogling Arthur. He’s seen enough to know that he looks disgustingly hot in black jeans and a red t-shirt.

They walk side by side down the hall and it takes a few moments before Merlin realises he’d been so focused on not giving Arthur any more reasons to be smug that he forgot to even answer him.

“Uh, hi,” he says and Arthur bursts out laughing, his head thrown back, and it’s such a genuine reaction that Merlin can’t even be indignant about it.

Merlin.” Arthur elbows him in the side. “Are you nervous?”

“No.”

It’s the least convincing ‘no’ in the history of verbal communication, accompanied by an involuntary scrunching grimace.

“Not that long ago you came on my dick and now you’re nervous about catching a film?” Arthur grins cheekily.

Merlin stares at him. Wow, so, they’re talking about that. Well, then. “You,” he says with force, “are a dick.”

Looking like Merlin just paid him the highest of compliments, Arthur bumps slightly against his shoulder. “You finally caught on!”

“No, trust me, it’s not that well hidden.”

They slip out of the building and into the chill, heading towards the Film Society’s room at the other side of campus.

Of course, Arthur is kind of right. Not that Merlin’s about to admit that out loud, but it is pretty ridiculous to be all nervous about going to a film together after they wanked in the shower. Several lines have already been crossed, so one would think sitting in the same room together would be fine.

It’s just that dates come with expectations and unwritten rules. They come with judgement and thoughts about what’s next. It’s messier. Figuratively.

Merlin is still a ball of nerves when they get to the FilmSoc locales. As usual, there’s a fairly good turnout. He’s been a member since it started, he knows Arthur’s been around too, and come to think of it Merlin should probably have checked that Will’s not going to be there. He grimaces slightly to himself, scanning the room for any trace of Will and Freya, but (thank god) he can’t see them.

Elena is there, though, beaming at him as she hands out bags of microwave popcorn.

“Merlin!” She throws a bag at him that he barely manages to catch with the tip of his fingers. “Where have you been? We’ve missed your rants about how we never show musicals.”

“Of course you’ve missed them,” Merlin says cheerfully, ignoring the way Arthur’s eyes seem to burn into his neck. “I make excellent arguments and I’m good at interpretive dance.”

Musicals?” Arthur’s voice has dropped to a horrified whisper.

When Merlin starts singing, Arthur pushes him and says “oh my god” with so much dread that Merlin can’t help but laugh. He shows enough mercy to stop torturing Arthur with his singing as they go to find seats. The room is furnished with comfortable chairs and sofas, which Merlin much prefers to the rows at the cinema and in a fit of luck they find an available two-seater

Arthur gives a long-suffering sigh. “I’m on a date with a dork.”

Merlin just rolls his eyes, noticing the complete lack of any real sting. “Yeah, mate, I saw your Star Wars DVDs on the shelf.”

“Shut up,” Arthur says and yanks the popcorn out of Merlin’s hands. “Those are a cultural institution. Not to mention ground breaking films. Musicals are just silly.”

“I’m pretty sure people found musicals pretty groundbreaking when they came around. You know, after the whole silent film thing.”

Arthur just grumbles into his popcorn at that, but is unable to stop a slight quirk of his lips when Merlin grins at him. That’s when Merlin figures he can do this thing, awkwardness and all. How bad can it be?

Answer: ...well.

“This film is really creepy; you can’t even argue that it’s not seriously weird.” Arthur gestures towards the screen while everyone within hearing distance glares at him.

Giving him a look out of the corner of his eyes, Merlin groans. “Oh god, you’re actually serious.” He licks his finger free of butter, trying to figure out how to get out of there before Arthur gets himself attacked by rabid fanboys.

Trust Arthur to have the most unpopular opinion of all unpopular opinions.

Merlin, it’s weird.”

Arthur,” Merlin says pointedly, “it’s Back to the Future. It’s perfect.”

There’s a loud “Listen to him!” from somewhere behind them and Merlin stifles a laugh.

“He’s two seconds from kissing his mother, Merlin. His mother.”

“What about Luke and Leia?”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “That’s different.”

“It’s so not.”

His mother.” Arthur says, staring at the screen. “He almost becomes his own dad. Seriously.”

Merlin opens his mouth to answer, but snaps his mouth shut and inclines his head. “Okay, that is actually fairly weird.”

“Right?” Arthur says, looking smug. “This is why I’ve never liked it.”

Staring at Arthur with wide eyes, Merlin opens his mouth a couple of times before he finally settles on a flat “We can’t be friends anymore.”

“You tell him,” someone from behind says and Arthur throws their empty popcorn bag over his shoulder in the hopes that it’ll hit the right person. Judging by the laughter it probably doesn’t.

Arthur miraculously manages to keep the rant going, finding new bits to fuel it whenever it fizzles out. At some point, Merlin stops being horrified at his clearly horrible taste accompanied by flawed reasoning and starts noticing embarrassingly sentimental things like how unguarded Arthur seems. His face is relaxed as he’s turned towards the screen, his eyes following the film avidly even as he talks. There’s no RA-Arthur or popular-Arthur or charming-Arthur, it’s just Arthur slumped back in his seat, giving voice to his shamefully misguided opinions.

Maybe Merlin is presumptuous to assume that he’s somehow getting the real Arthur, but it feels like it. It’s always felt like it, which is probably why he’s in this mess to begin with. Not that it’s not an enjoyable mess, but it’s a mess nonetheless.

He’d never been interested in Arthur when he was just the RA everyone knew and liked to varying degrees. Merlin’s not blind – he’s always known Arthur’s attractive, it just never seemed like there was that much more to him, which was probably a naive judgement on his part. There’s something about Arthur, though, when you peel away all the public appearances and the mask of perfection.

It’s the humanity of Arthur that gets to him and shit this just got deep even for him.

He suddenly feels like Arthur can hear his thoughts loud and clear as Arthur breaks off mid-rant and gives him a brief, questioning look. “What?” Arthur raises his eyebrow in question.

“Nothing.”

“For loving this film so much you sure aren’t paying attention.”

Merlin’s cheeks grow hot and he forces his attention back to the screen, trying to seem like he hadn’t just gone all schmoopy about Arthur. It had probably been written all over his face, for crying out loud. He wraps his arms around his bent knees and stares straight ahead as long as he can manage before curiosity takes over, giving Arthur a brief look out of the corner of his eye.

The expression on Arthur’s face is pinched into a look of discomfort that plainly reads something closely resembling ‘oh god, how am I such a dick?’

Clearing his throat in the strained silence, Arthur shifts a little next to Merlin. “So, the car’s pretty cool, I guess,” he says as if it pains him to admit. “I wouldn’t mind having a time-travelling car. Or a time-travelling anything, I guess.”

Merlin’s lips pull into a reluctant smile and he glances at Arthur, shaking his head a little. “So you’d go back and hit on your mum, yeah?”

“No.” Arthur looks down and pushes a stray piece of popcorn from his lap. “But I’d go back and see her again.”

There’s not a single thing Merlin can think of to answer that with the care it deserves. He swallows back half-formed sentences about his father and how life sucks. Instead of saying anything, he leans his back against the armrest and tucks his feet in under Arthur’s thigh. For a moment he feels self-conscious about it – about being the one to initiate contact, but then Arthur’s hand curls around his ankle.

Merlin tries to suppress the slight shiver that runs down his back at the pressure of Arthur’s fingers. It hits him that despite everything they’ve done, this is the first time they’ve really touched. It’s such an innocent contact too, but Merlin feels it deep in his gut anyway. He keeps his eyes glued to the screen, feeling strangely conscious about his own breathing, while Arthur’s hand is a warm weight that keeps his attention away from the film.

He glances quickly at Arthur – long enough to take in his profile in the glow from the screen, dwelling on the overwhelming urge to curl up against him and press kisses under his jaw. It’s hard to deal with the fondness that simmers pleasantly under his skin as he sees Arthur worry his lips slightly with his teeth. Merlin doesn’t know where that feeling came from. He likes to think everything has an origin, but this feeling – Merlin doesn’t even have anything to compare it to. So he just can’t find out where it came from or where it’s going.

It figures that he’d go and get indescribable feelings for someone with horrible taste and a bucketful of annoying personality traits.

When Arthur catches him looking and disguises a smile really badly, Merlin’s heart lets him know that any discussion on the matter is out of the question.

*

Arthur is sitting on a laundry machine, kicking his feet slightly as he bends over his phone when Merlin enters. Merlin’s arms circle his heavy basket of laundry and he can barely see over the top of it as he makes his way over. Two machines over from Arthur, there’s a free one and Merlin starts loading it up, throwing slightly amused glances at Arthur who’s still fumbling with his phone and completely oblivious to Merlin’s entrance.

When Merlin’s phone vibrates in his pockets, he gives a startled laugh and Arthur’s head snaps up, his expression confused at first before it splits into a smile.

“How nice of you to come when I beckon, Merlin.”

Merlin slams the lid down on the machine and rests his hip against it, crossing his arms over his chest. “Nice of you to care enough to beckon me.”

“Maybe I was just bored.”

“Sure. Were you just bored when you started wanking and I was lying right next to you?” Merlin shoots back, meaning for it to come out playfully until he realises that the question is way too earnest to be playful in the least.

Fuck his life.

He wants to slam his head repeatedly against the wall, but Arthur’s teasing smirk doesn’t even waver.

“No, that time it was mostly just the fact that you’re really fit.”

Merlin opens his mouth to speak and then closes it again, his throat going dry. Well, that’s... He rubs at the back of his neck, tries to find all the words that just leapt out of his head.

“You make cruel jokes, Pendragon,” Merlin forces a very cheerful smile.

“Who says I’m joking?” Arthur raises an eyebrow. “Never been more serious in my life, actually.”

Of course Merlin blushes so hard he can feel his face burning. He ducks his head, fumbling with the buttons on the machine without paying any attention to what he’s doing. He really did not expect Arthur to be quite that blunt about it, really.

“Wow, compliments really don’t seem to be good for your health. Maybe I shouldn’t point out how good your arse looks in those jeans.”

“Okay, change of topic!” Merlin flails his hands, pointedly ignoring Arthur’s shaking shoulders. “How’s classes?”

Arthur throws his head back and laughs at that. “Really, Merlin?”

Finally, Arthur seems to take pity on him, though. He falls quiet for a moment and the amused curl of his lips evens out before he says “Classes are good.”

“Good.” Merlin is grateful for the way out of the quicksand of a conversation he’d gotten himself into. “It would kind of suck if classes were bad. I mean, we do classes all the time right? So, good. My classes are good too. Everything’s good, really, except Mordred, but that’s nothing new.”

Arthur had started shaking his head with an amused smile on his lips mid-way through Merlin’s ramble, but he falls serious when Merlin mentions Mordred. His eyes narrow and he gives Merlin a deliberating look.

“He’s gotten worse,” Arthur says and it’s not a question. “And you didn’t tell me.”

Merlin looks away, folding his arms over across his stomach. “Look, it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“What’s he been doing?”

“Just glaring a lot.” Merlin shrugs. “Which I know sounds weird, but they’re seriously intense glares. And he has his whole gang of merry men standing around outside campus giving me Stare of Doom.”

“Damn it, Merlin.” The force in Arthur’s voice startles him. “You do realise I’m telling you to come to me because this can escalate, right? I know you don’t want to make it into a huge deal, but there’s a reason we try to solve issues and not ignore them.”

Merlin feels defensive. He’s not ignoring it, really, he’s just putting up with it because in the end it’s easier. It’s easier than living with the guilt of getting Mordred expelled when Mordred’s only crime has been to annoy Merlin on a daily basis.

“It’s just stupid things, though. What are you going to do; ask him to stop glaring at me?”

“I’m talking to him as soon as I have time,” Arthur says and Merlin recognises that tone by now. It’s his ‘I’m not discussing this’-tone. Merlin kind of hates it already. “And yeah, I will ask him to stop glaring at you, because this is university and we’re not in middle school anymore.”

“Yeah, fine, do what you like,” Merlin says, throwing his arms up. “I don’t care.”

“Well, it’s my job, Merlin.”

“Yeah. Your job.”

Arthur gives him a long look and for a moment it seems like he wants to answer, but he doesn’t. Instead he just starts complaining about Merlin’s lack of devotion to Star Wars, which Merlin resents him for because it’s really hard to stay mad at him when he’s such a dork.

*

It’s a tough pill to swallow that, in the end, Arthur is more right than Merlin is. Not that Merlin can blame himself for wanting to believe the best about Mordred, but it’s a bit of a shot to his pride anyway that he doesn’t see it coming.

At some point, Merlin had kind of started getting used to Mordred’s particular brand of special. The problem had never been that Mordred is a terrible person; it’s just that his habits are difficult to live with. Merlin had bought some noise-cancelling headphones, though, and managed to get some proper sleep back into his life. And in any case, the whole thing with Arthur had distracted him enough from their miserably messy room and Mordred’s plant-hoarding problem.

But the situation had been getting steadily worse and the shift in tension had been difficult to deal with. It feels like Mordred is angrier, somehow. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Mordred isn’t as innocently annoying as Merlin had assumed.

It all goes to an extra horrible level of hell when there’s a party in their hall. The corridors are cramped as Merlin slips between them all, looking around for any of his friends. Gwen had said she’d be there with Lance if they found the time, and he knows Gwaine and Percy are around somewhere.

He might also be keeping an eye out for Arthur.

What he’s definitely not looking out for is a drunk Mordred slamming into his side until Merlin’s pressed up against the wall with Mordred’s arm held tight against his throat. He’s surprisingly strong for someone so relatively humble in size. Not that Merlin himself is a formidable opponent, but he’s not weak either.

“Why won’t you just move out.” Mordred’s face is too close and the stink of alcohol on his breath makes Merlin smack his head back against the wall.

He’s not going to let himself get intimidated by Mordred of all people, though. No, Merlin has been endlessly patient with this kid and if there’s anyone between the two of them with the right to be angry, it’s Merlin.

He pushes back against Mordred, but he can’t quite get the arm pressed against the bottom of his throat to move.

“I lived here before you did. I’m not moving out.” The pressure on his throat makes his voice weird. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“No, what’s wrong with you,” Mordred says, his voice slurred from alcohol and Merlin tries to wrestle out of his grip again. Apparently alcohol gives Mordred superhuman strength.

Or maybe Merlin should start going to the gym with Gwen again.

“Been trying to get you to move out. Of course you’re a stubborn arsehole, though.” Mordred pushes against his throat. “Fuck you.”

Merlin can still breathe, but the pressure is uncomfortable. Not to mention the fact that Mordred is apparently a person with deeply seated issues.

“What, you’ve been trying to annoy me into moving out?” Merlin laughs humourlessly. “That’s fucking rich. Why don’t you move if you hate living with me so much?”

Mordred scoffs. “Don’t have anywhere else to go, do I? And Gilli doesn’t either. Been waiting for a spot for months, crashing at our mates’ place.”

“That sucks for Gilli, but I don’t have anywhere to go either. Do I look like I own a mansion somewhere that I can fuck off to?” Merlin curls his hand into a fist and manages to get a fairly good hit in against Mordred’s stomach. “And get off.”

The impact of his fist loosens Mordred’s grip slightly and Merlin manages to push him off just in time to see Arthur stepping towards them with a murderous look on his face. Merlin’s almost afraid. And a little turned on. It’s confusing.

Merlin rubs his throat, glaring at Mordred who’s hunched over, trying to get his breath back. He knows Mordred hasn’t seen Arthur yet or he surely would’ve bolted. But Mordred doesn’t notice him until Arthur grips him by the upper arm and tugs him closer.

“What the fuck are you doing,” Arthur says, his jaw set so tightly that the words barely make it out.

Mordred winces under the grip and his eyes widen as he stumbles a little.

“Arthur.” Merlin gives him a look that he hopes conveys his warning strongly enough. “It’s fine.”

Throwing a withering look in Merlin’s direction, Arthur doesn’t even relax even a little bit. “The hell it’s fine.”

Oh, Jesus.

There’s a crowd forming now, some people cheering for blood (as it were) and it’s about to become really, really public. And it’s in the middle of this that Merlin realises Arthur’s concern about this whole situation may not be entirely motivated by his position as an RA. He meets Arthur’s eyes, noticing the worry buried under Arthur’s anger, and he loses his breath just a little at the implication.

Merlin moves closer and tries to ignore the discomfort he feels at being too close to Mordred again. “Look, shouldn’t we do this a bit more privately?”

He holds Arthur’s gaze when the attention turns to him and he can visibly see Arthur’s shoulders relax.

“Fine,” Arthur says gruffly. “You go to my rooms and I’ll go talk to Mordred in yours.”

“But –“

The look Merlin gets is enough to shut him up, at least for long enough to let Arthur interrupt.

“No, I’m dealing with this now. It’s gone way too far.”

And, yeah, maybe Arthur is actually right about that.

If Merlin’s honest, he’s relieved when he gets to walk away from Mordred. He avoids everyone’s gaze as the crowd parts for him like the red sea and he slips down the hall. The music fades a little as he closes the door to Arthur’s room behind him and he stops right inside, moving his hand up to press at the dull ache in his throat.

It’s strange being in here alone. It feels a little intrusive, but familiar at the same time. All of the things feel like Arthur and it calms the jittery feeling in his chest. One of Arthur’s shirts is rumpled on the floor and Merlin picks it up, rubbing the fabric softly between his fingers and tries not to think about the fact that he might be a little creepy.

What the fuck just happened?

He sits down on Arthur’s bed, curling up against the wall and presses Arthur’s shirt to his face for a moment. It smells like him and Merlin finds himself breathing easier again.

He’d really thought Mordred was just strange. For all the weird stuff he’d done, he’d seemed mostly harmless and Merlin had never been afraid of him, just annoyed. It’s weird to think that Mordred had been trying to drive him out his own room.

When Arthur gets back over an hour later, Merlin’s nerves have flared up again, his brain unwilling to forget what Mordred’s arm felt like pressed tight against his throat.

Arthur’s expression is tense when Merlin looks up to meet his gaze, but it goes softer around the edges as he steps towards the bed. When Merlin realises he’s still clutching the shirt tightly, he lets go as if it burnt him, but Arthur doesn’t comment on it.

“How did it go?” Merlin says, wincing as his voice still comes out gravelly.

“It went all right. It’s not important.”

Merlin sets his eyes on him. “Yeah, it is. I want to know.”

Arthur looks at him and nods, climbing up next to him on the bed, close enough that his thigh is pressed against Merlin’s and their shoulders bump.

“Apparently he’s been having a tough time of it for a few years. Gilli too. They’ve both been in the system for a while and they don’t have much of a security net. He thought he’d have a place for them both if he scared you off.”

Merlin bows his head, his fingers tugging at the hem of his shirt.

“He could’ve just asked,” Merlin says, swallowing against the bile in his throat. “I wouldn’t have minded if Gilli stayed for a while.”

“Hey.” Arthur nudges him slightly. “I know you wouldn’t have. It’s not your fault, you know. The uni should’ve followed up on them. And Mordred shouldn’t have gone after you.”

Merlin shrugs. “He was drunk.”

“Yeah, he was definitely that.” Arthur looks thoughtful. “Not that that makes it okay.”

It’s quiet for a moment before Merlin straightens and squares his shoulders. “I’m fine.”

“You’re not.”

Merlin scowls, turning his head away from Arthur. It’s so stupid. Mordred had just been drunk and at worst a little pushy. It’s fine. He should be fine. His throat closes up a little and he swallows against it.

He closes his eyes and swallows again. Fuck this shit. He’s not scared of Mordred – he’s just a desperate kid with problems. And yet, it’s difficult to get rid of the phantom weight against his throat.

Merlin’s eyes snap open when there’s a slight brush of lips against his jaw and Arthur is pressed warm against his arm. He can’t help but lean into the touch and Arthur wraps an arm around him in response, nuzzling slightly against Merlin’s cheek.

“It’s okay to not be fine, you know.” Arthur’s breath is hot against his skin. “A drunk guy just pinned you against a wall by your throat. It’s definitely okay to be freaked.”

Maybe Arthur’s a little right, but he feels powerless anyway. He feels like he’s weak and he’s never been weak. “It’s stupid, I just...” He brings his hand up to rub at the bottom of his throat, his fingers splayed along his collarbone.

“Merlin?” Arthur says and Merlin hums. “Shut up.”

The snort of laughter he can’t keep back takes him by surprise. He feels Arthur’s smile stretch against his cheek.

Arthur’s hand covers his over his collarbone and for a while Arthur just holds it there before he lifts Merlin’s hand from his skin and threads their fingers together. Relaxing against the wall, Merlin feels some of the tension bleed out of him.

Leaning forwards, Arthur kisses softly down his neck and Merlin’s eyes close to the feeling of his lips, softly pressing down on his skin. Goosebumps erupt on his arms and he can’t help but incline his head to the side, baring more of his neck to Arthur’s trailing kisses. He feels Arthur smile against his skin and then he’s kissing the spot where Mordred’s arm had pushed him down, lips gentle and warm.

Merlin’s free hand slips into Arthur’s hair, tugging his head back until Arthur looks up at him with his eyebrows raised in question. His lips are slightly parted and this close Merlin notices the full lashes brushing against his skin with every blink. Merlin cups the side of his neck, his thumb brushing across his jaw.

Fuck, he’s so screwed. He has been since he saw Arthur try to hide his insecurities from the world and from then on it’s been a slippery slope. It’s gotten worse with every time Arthur’s face splits into a genuine smile; when Merlin sees that smug little look he gets when he thinks he’s one-upped Merlin; when Arthur’s lip curls slightly at the corner when their eyes meet as if there’s a secret that belongs to the two of them and no one else; when Arthur had saved all his post-its and put them up on his wall.

Merlin has a feeling that list is going to be difficult to end.

And he’s not sure he minds all that much. It’s not so bad spiralling into this swirling galaxy of newness when he’s not the only one.

Arthur is watching him intently, keeping still as Merlin just runs his fingers softly back and forth over his skin. There’s a slight drag of stubble under his thumb and Merlin leans in to feel it against his lips. It prickles a little as his mouth slides across Arthur’s jaw until he’s pressing a kiss to the corner of Arthur’s lips.

Suddenly the need to kiss Arthur properly becomes unmanageable and Merlin buries both hands in Arthur’s hair before he pushes him forwards, welcoming the kiss with lips already parted. Their first kiss isn’t chaste at all. It’s open and desperate with Arthur’s hands fisted into his shirt and the vibration of their moans making Merlin breathless.

It’s Arthur who brings it down, mouthing slowly into the kiss as he puts a soothing hand at the back of Merlin’s neck. Eventually it dissolves into heavy breathing and Merlin rests his cheek against Arthur’s, trying to get a grip on his spinning thoughts.

“What happens now?” he says, looping one arm around Arthur’s shoulders.

“Depends what you mean.”

Merlin laughs quietly against Arthur’s skin. “Enlighten me.”

“Well.” Arthur puts enough distance between them to meet his eyes. “If you mean with Mordred, I’ll bring it up with the administration and they’ll work something out for him and Gilli. There’ll be consequences for what happened tonight, obviously, but they’ll help him. In the meantime, you can stay here with me.”

Merlin doesn’t quite trust his voice and he nods, feeling annoyingly relieved at the thought of not going back to his room right now.

“And if you mean with us,” Arthur says, smiling crookedly. “Well, you’re staying here with me.”

*

Merlin falls asleep with Arthur’s lips pressed to the back of his neck.

He wakes up in the morning with a post-it stuck to his forehead that reads I like you –a.