When Arthur awoke, there was a cat staring him in the face.
“Gah!” he said, flailing, because the cat’s nose was about an inch and a half from his own, and this close it looked bloody terrifying. Heart galloping, he scrabbled backwards on the bed, stopping when his back hit the wall.
Wait. His bed wasn’t against a wall.
And come to think of it, he didn’t own a cat, either.
“Fuck,” Arthur groaned, passing a hand over his face. The cat offered a sympathetic mrrrow in response. Now that he was mostly awake, he could see that it was not the least bit terrifying. It was black with a white nose, was rather overweight, and had three legs. As Arthur watched, it eyed him for another few moments, then almost seemed to shrug before it skip-hopped away and out the door.
Arthur took in his surroundings. The walls were dark purple, and there was entirely too much crap on the floor – books and papers and clothes and the occasional empty crisp bag. But then, considering the only furniture in the room was the bed – mattress, actually – an overflowing bookshelf made of unfinished boards separated by cinder blocks, and a similarly overflowing wardrobe that looked as though it had been through every war since the Crimean, it wasn’t as though the stuff had anywhere else to go.
And – he looked down at himself – he appeared to be naked. Perfect.
Placing his head in his hands, he attempted to cast his mind back to the night before. He’d been at Lance and Gwen’s party, at which there had been a great deal of liquor and a great many bizarre people, all of whom were either penniless students, penniless artists, penniless activists, or some combination of the three. This was no help at all, because the room could have belonged to any of them. He tried to remember specific faces, specific events, but it was all rather blurry. There had been one ginger girl – no. She’d ended up throwing a drink in his face. And then there had been –
Oh, no, Arthur thought, as the memories came flooding back. There had been this – this boy, probably about nineteen or twenty, this skinny, dark-haired git who’d smirked at Arthur as he’d had cider dripping off his chin, and he’d taken a napkin and dried Arthur off, all the while wearing that same bloody smirk, until Arthur asked him who the hell he was, and the git had said –
– he’d said –
“Oh, good, you’re awake, then.”
“Gah!” Arthur yelled, head hitting the wall with a thunk as he jerked back again.
The boy – the one from last night, of course, because the world hated him – took a step forward. “Ouch,” he said, wincing. “Sorry.”
“Where the hell am I?” Arthur demanded, immediately regretting it when the volume made his head ache.
“You’re in my flat,” the boy said simply. “It wasn’t far from the party, and you weren’t in any condition to get home on your own.”
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. And who the hell are you? he wanted to ask, but that probably wouldn’t go over well. Generally, one was supposed to remember the names of people one had shagged: Arthur had always managed it before this. But then, he'd never shagged a man before, so he supposed there was a first time for everything.
“Would you like a paracetamol? Or two? I don’t use it much, though, so it might be a bit past its sell-by date. I also have this herbal remedy that’s fantastic for –”
“No. Thank you,” Arthur murmured.
“My name’s Merlin, by the way,” the boy supplied, and Arthur looked up to see that same smirk he’d seen last night. It was not the least bit attractive; in fact, it made his face look positively hideous.
“I knew that,” Arthur said, making what he hoped was a nonchalant move to cover up his exposed bits with the sheet. From the way Merlin’s smirk widened, he didn’t think he’d succeeded.
“And we didn’t shag last night,” Merlin added.
“I knew that – wait, what?” Arthur stammered. “But I’m – ”
“Starkers, yes, I know. You wanted to, but I didn’t. And then you passed out.”
Arthur bristled. “I hardly think it likely that I wanted you more than you wanted me,” he said coldly.
Merlin’s eyebrows rose. “Good to know your confidence hasn’t suffered. But I didn’t mean it like that. You were very drunk, and I wasn’t, and then at a certain point in the evening you passed out. Simple as that. I don’t sleep with people who are pissed or high, and I certainly don't assault them when they're unconscious.”
“Oh.” Arthur felt rather stupid; it wasn’t a feeling he was accustomed to.
Then Merlin’s gaze dipped in frank perusal, and Arthur felt his skin prickle with awareness.
“Well,” Arthur said. His cheeks seemed to be getting hot. He cleared his throat. “Erm, clothes?” he rasped.
Merlin blinked, then nodded at the foot of the bed, where his clothes lay on the floor in the only neatly folded pile in the room.
“Right, I’ll just leave you to it, then,” Merlin said, then left the room as though he were on fire.
After Arthur had taken a piss and splashed water on his face and stolen some of Merlin's mouthwash so that the inside of his mouth no longer tasted like a rotting hedgehog was sharing space with his tongue, he stared into the mirror and tried to think of some way to escape the flat unnoticed. Considering he was still not terribly steady on his feet, stealth was probably out of the question.
Arthur straightened and squared his shoulders. He regularly dealt with rooms full of executives twice his age; he could do this.
The smell of bacon hit him as soon as he opened the door, and Arthur couldn't help but inhale the delicious aroma. He'd hardly eaten anything last night, and his stomach was protesting Arthur's cavalier treatment.
“Thought you might fancy a little grease to counteract the hangover,” Merlin said cheerily from the small kitchen. Arthur noticed he was wearing an apron that was covered in an old World War II era advert for Guinness, with a Spitfire bearing down on a hapless ground crewman's pint.
“That's, erm, very kind of you, but I really should –”
“– be eating a delicious, hearty breakfast. You look pale, Arthur.”
Arthur stopped short, surprised at the way his name sounded on Merlin's tongue, as though it were a word he'd said a thousand times before. “I – well. I don't want to impose any more than I already have, but – I am rather hungry.”
Merlin broke into a grin so open and guileless that Arthur couldn't help smiling back. “How d'you like your eggs?”
“Any way you'd like to cook them,” Arthur answered, and Merlin's grin got impossibly wider.
They ate at Merlin's tiny dining table, which sat in front of a large open window through which the sunlight streamed. The three-legged cat sat on the sill, eyeing their plates with proprietary interest.
“Aren't you worried he's going to lose his balance?” Arthur asked, nodding at the cat.
Merlin smiled at the cat indulgently. “That's Mister Mephistopheles' favourite spot. He hasn't fallen yet.”
Mister Mephistopheles? “How did he, ah –” Arthur waved a hand “–lose the leg?”
“It’s a long story, and Mephie tells it a lot better than I do. You usually have to get him drunk first, though,” Merlin said with mock sincerity, and Arthur chuckled.
“Are you a history student, then?”
Merlin swallowed a forkful of eggs before replying. “You mean the apron? Only a hobby. I'm actually a junior doctor.”
Arthur frowned. “Really?”
“Really,” Merlin said, nodding. “I can even tell you how much damage you did to your liver last night.”
“No, it's only that – you look young.” Really, ridiculously young, Arthur thought. Also, male. Arthur kept reminding himself that he was straight, but his subconscious didn't seem inclined to listen. He couldn't stop stealing glances at Merlin's mouth, couldn't stop berating himself for being too bloody drunk to remember kissing it. He'd never kissed a man before, probably never would again. It was natural curiosity, he reasoned.
“How old are you, then?” Merlin asked.
“I'm only a year younger,” Merlin said.
“Bollocks. You look nineteen.”
Merlin bit his lower lip briefly before answering, his eyes dancing. “Are you disappointed now that you know I'm not a twink?”
Arthur took a sip of his coffee to cover his embarrassment.
“God, you're gorgeous when you blush,” Merlin said.
Arthur stared at him, and this time it was Merlin’s turn to blush, covering his face with his hands. “Oh Christ, I can’t believe I said that. I sound like Hugh sodding Grant in a bad romantic comedy. Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Merlin looked up again at that, and Arthur looked into eyes that were wary and hopeful all at once. He knew that he should open his mouth and simply tell Merlin the truth about himself, but he couldn't bear to watch that hope turn to disappointment. And at any rate, it wasn't going to come up again; after today, it was highly unlikely he'd ever see Merlin again. “Though if that was your Hugh Grant impersonation, I have to say you're rubbish at impressions.”
Merlin barked a laugh. “Cheers,” he said. “You're a real boost to my ego.”
“I try,” Arthur said, grinning back.
“Guess I'll have to keep on being myself, then,” Merlin said, smiling.
“You should do. You're perfectly fine as you are.” Arthur flushed as he realised what had just come out of his mouth bore a striking resemblance to flirting. Judging by the way Merlin's eyes widened, it – shit, it was definitely flirting.
And then Merlin let out a sharp laugh and ducked his head, and something went a bit funny in Arthur's stomach. “I feel like this is wrong,” Merlin said. “I mean, I had a duty of care last night, and now we're –” He waved a hand.
Arthur frowned. “It's not as though I'm one of your patients,” he said.
“You were in a way,” Merlin argued, “considering I was watching you for signs of alcohol poisoning.”
Arthur drew himself up. “You didn't have to –”
“I really did,” Merlin said softly. “Part of the job, isn't it?”
“I'm sorry I was such a burden,” Arthur snapped.
“Hardly that.” Merlin cocked his head. “You don't like relying on anyone, do you?” he asked, voice gentle.
Arthur stared at him. “No, I suppose I don't,” he said. He tried to think if he'd ever admitted that to anyone before.
“I'm much the same way, you know. You tell yourself it's important to keep your eyes on the goal, that you'll have time for a life when you graduate, but –” he smiled wryly “– then you meet someone and you wonder if you're only making excuses because you're scared to take a chance.”
Arthur's heart was now trying to somersault its way out of his chest. God, it was utterly bonkers to even be thinking about what he was thinking about, but right at that moment he didn't give a damn. “Merlin, I – ”
“Morning, lads.” Arthur jumped at the sound of a gravelly voice behind him, and spun in his chair to see a stupidly attractive man standing in the living room. He was clad in faded, battered jeans and nothing else, though considering his chest looked like it had been carved from warm marble, Arthur could understand why he wanted to walk around half-naked. He had long, dark hair that seemed tailor-made for shampoo adverts, but he was clearly more than a pretty face, for his dark eyes were sharp and assessing.
“So you finally dragged yourself out of bed, then,” Merlin said, grinning at the stranger.
The man ambled over to Merlin’s chair. “I didn’t sleep terribly well. Someone kept kneeing me in the cobblers.”
“Oi, shut it, you,” Merlin said, smiling. As Arthur was digesting the implications of the other man’s statement, the stranger leaned down and planted a kiss on Merlin’s temple. Arthur’s stomach flipped unpleasantly. “Arthur, this is Gwaine.”
“We met last night,” Gwaine said, extending a hand to Arthur, who took it. “But I don’t imagine you remember, being as rat-arsed as you were.”
Merlin elbowed him in the ribs. “Be nice. It’s not as though you haven’t been rat-arsed a time or two,” Merlin muttered.
“Tch, you’re more violent than I remember the last time we slept together,” Gwaine said, rubbing his side.
Arthur glanced at Merlin, who was blushing even harder than he had earlier, and bugger, it looked like he had his answer to that question. Trying not to look like he was desperate to escape, he finished the last couple of bites of his breakfast and laid down his knife and fork. “Well, that was delicious,” he said, as evenly as he could. “Thank you. I really must be going, though. I need to put in a few hours at the office.”
“On a Sunday morning?” Merlin asked, as Arthur stood.
“I have an important meeting first thing Monday, and I haven’t prepared yet,” Arthur lied, picking up his plate and taking it to the sink. This wasn't disappointment, he told himself. He was merely trying to extricate himself from an awkward situation. Doubtless Gwaine was just waiting for him to leave so that he could go on bonking Merlin senseless.
“Arthur,” Merlin began, rising to his feet. “I thought – that is, erm –”
Of course, because he had actually entered the ninth circle of Hell, Mister Mephistopheles chose that moment to leap down off the window sill and curl around Arthur’s legs. Arthur glared down at the cat, who gazed back up at him serenely and sat on his foot. He leaned down to stroke it, and it purred like an old Triumph motorbike. “Thanks again,” Arthur said, straightening. “I appreciate your – uh, putting me up.”
Merlin watched him for a long moment, then nodded, his expression shuttering. “No problem.”
With a perfunctory nod at Gwaine, Arthur gingerly disentangled himself from Mister Mephistopheles and let himself out.
“Did Arthur survive the night, then?” Gwen asked, taking a sip of her tea.
“Yes,” Merlin said, stabbing his lemon tart as though it had attacked him. “Not so sure he survived the morning, though.”
Gwen winced. “That bad, was it? I don't know him all that well myself, but Lance says he can take a bit of – getting used to.”
“It wasn't him. He was fine.” Merlin set down his fork. “I was a complete wanker.”
“Oh, Merlin, I'm sure you weren't.”
“I was,” Merlin said, nodding. “A drooling, leering, Hugh-Grantian wanker.”
“I don't think 'Hugh-Grantian' is an adjective. And leering? That doesn't sound like you.”
“Well, I did, because he was naked, and he's well fit. In fact, he's screamingly fit.”
Gwen arched an eyebrow at him. “Naked?”
Merlin clapped his hands over his mouth. “Oh god, you can't tell anyone that.”
“I won't. But how did he –“
“Nothing happened. He just – well, when we got back the flat – you promise you won't tell anyone? Not even Lance?”
Gwen crossed her heart with only a touch of an eye roll. “Not a soul, Merlin, I promise.”
Merlin blew out a breath. “When we got back to the flat, he – well. He kissed me. And I let him – for a minute.” He looked down at his abandoned tart. “Maybe two. Also, I might have kissed back. Then I pushed him away, and I tried to talk to him, but the next thing I knew he was – erm. Taking off all his clothes.”
Gwen bit her lip, clearly trying not to burst out laughing. “And what did you do then?”
“I – erm. I just kind of stood there?” Gwen did burst out laughing then. “It’s not funny! What are you supposed to do when a man is taking off all his clothes right in front of you?”
“I can think of at least fifteen answers to that one.” Merlin and Gwen looked up to see the waitress grinning at them. Gwen laughed even harder, and Merlin wished the floor would open up and swallow him. The waitress nodded at the table. “All done, then?”
“Yes, thanks,” Gwen said, and the waitress scooped up their plates and departed after exchanging a wink with Gwen.
“Oh my god,” Merlin said, burying his face in his hands.
“You haven't finished your story,” Gwen prompted, merciless.
Merlin took his hands away. “That was about it. He, erm, stood there for a minute, then I said I had to go to the bathroom, and when I came back he was out cold under the covers.”
“And where did you sleep?”
“With Gwaine.” At Gwen's widening eyes, Merlin held up a hand. “Not, you know, with him. Just in the same bed.”
“And in the morning?” Gwen persisted.
Merlin hesitated. How could he explain to Gwen that he had felt a startling, intense connection with Arthur as they tucked into bacon and eggs, in a way he hadn't felt with men he'd actually slept with?
“I cooked him breakfast, and then he left,” he said. “And that's the last I'll see of Arthur Pendragon.”
“Well, I'm sure you'll see him again,” Gwen said. “It's not as though Lance and I are never hosting another party.”
“Right,” Merlin said, his stomach lurching. “Looking forward to socialising with a man who thinks I'm a gigantic pervert.”
“I'm sure he doesn't think anything of the kind,” Gwen said. “And even if he did, it certainly wouldn't take you long to convince him otherwise.” Her eyes sparked with mischief. “Provided, of course, you can both keep your clothes on this time.”
Merlin buried his face in his hands again. It seemed to be the best response.
“You survived the night, then?” Lance asked, clapping Arthur on the shoulder as he sat down.
“Yes,” Arthur said, “thanks for asking.”
Lance winced. “Sorry about that. I don't know Merlin all that well myself, but Gwen's known him forever and says he's a lovely bloke. And he's a junior doctor, so we reckoned if anyone could – erm – help you, it would be him.”
“You mean in case I attempted to drown in my own vomit?” Arthur said sweetly. “Yes, I suppose a doctor would come in handy, even though he was a complete bloody stranger.”
Lance frowned. “Did something happen? Was Merlin –”
Arthur sighed. “It wasn't him. He was – fine. It was just humiliating.”
“Well, how about we start with the bit where I woke up naked, with no memory of how I'd achieved that state.”
Lance's eyes widened. “Naked?”
“I'm going to assume this conversation will go no further than this table,” Arthur said sternly.
“It won't. But how did you –“
Arthur narrowed his eyes at him. “You promise you won't tell anyone? Not even Guinevere?”
Arthur took a deep breath, let it out. “Apparently – and my memory of this is still rather fuzzy, so I'm taking it largely from Merlin's account – I propositioned him, then took off all my clothes before passing out in a drunken stupour.”
Lance frowned. “Do you believe him?”
Arthur passed a hand over his face. “Sadly, I do.” Even three days later, he was still berating himself for getting into the situation in the first place. He hadn't been that spectacularly drunk since uni, but after a week in which he'd been upbraided by his father no less than five times for failing to land an important client, he'd given in to the urge to get well and truly trollied. It wasn't an urge he intended to satisfy again, especially considering the painfully embarrassing way it had ended this time. “You needn't feel badly about it – Merlin was very kind; he let me sleep it off and even cooked me breakfast.”
“But, erm –” Lance trailed off.
“Yes?” Arthur said, impatiently.
“Well, it's only that – I always thought you were straight.”
Lance merely raised an eyebrow at him. Arthur waved a hand. “That was – I was drunk.” He didn't mention the events of the morning, the sense of – of rightness he'd felt when it had just been him and Merlin, sat together eating breakfast at Merlin's poky little table. He should have felt ill at ease, but Merlin had made him feel welcome, at home. It didn't make any sense, and yet it was true.
“Arthur, we've been friends for a long time. You know I'll support you no matter what.”
Arthur blinked at him. “No! I mean, thank you, but – no. I'm not gay.” Lance continued to stare at him evenly. “I'm not!”
“Did you explain that to Merlin?”
Arthur shook his head. “It doesn't matter, really. I imagine that's the last I'll see of him.”
“Well,” Lance said slowly, “you're probably going to run into him again at some point. He's one of Gwen's oldest friends. And I'm sure we'll be hosting other parties now that we're living together.”
“Right,” Arthur said, his stomach lurching. “Looking forward to socialising with a bloke who thinks I'm a drunken lech.”
“I'm sure he doesn't think anything of the kind,” Lance said. “And the next time you meet, you'll leave a very different impression.”
“Yes, perhaps I'll manage to cover him in sick. That'll leave an impression,” Arthur muttered into his lunch. When he glanced up, Lance was watching him with a far too knowing expression.
Arthur returned his attention to his plate; it seemed like the best option right now.
Actually, the next time they met, it was Merlin who did the vomiting.
He'd started feeling a bit off before arriving at Gwen and Lance's, but it had been weeks since he'd seen them – his schedule at A&E was, unsurprisingly, brutal – and he wanted to at least put in an appearance. And it was possible that part of him was hoping Arthur would be there, and that they'd be able to ease some of the awkwardness of their first meeting.
Arthur was indeed there, looking utterly gorgeous in a short-sleeved linen Oxford shirt and cotton shorts. The summer was finally beginning to heat up, and it was clear he'd been taking advantage of the sun. He wasn't overly tanned, though, just a lovely, golden shade that accentuated the fine hairs on his arms and legs. Considering he'd seen the man without a stitch on, he shouldn't have been so keen on a display of forearms and knees, but even seeing that much was ridiculously exciting.
All right, so it had been quite a while since Merlin had had anything resembling sex with another person, but that wasn't the only reason he was drawn to Arthur. Looking at him, Merlin felt as though he could take that chance he'd been dreading, that he could risk everything and it would be worth it.
When Merlin raised his gaze to meet Arthur's across the room, he realised two things in rapid succession: he'd been staring at Arthur's calves for probably far too long, and his stomach felt – well, at first he thought it was butterflies, and then it felt as though the Incredible Hulk had reached into his gut and started squeezing it in his huge green fist.
Definitely not butterflies, then, Merlin thought as he doubled over, gasping.
“Merlin!” Arthur shouted. Merlin was dimly aware of the other people around him turning towards him, of Gwen's worried voice, other murmurs he couldn't make out over the din of the background music. And then large, reassuring hands wrapped around his shoulders, and Arthur's face appeared in front of him, his expression concerned.
“Merlin, can you tell me what's wrong?” he asked, slowly and clearly.
“I think it's 'flu. Not sure yet.”
“Are you sure it's not more serious? Appendicitis?”
Merlin shook his head, and instantly regretted it. “No. Pain's in the wrong place.”
“Do we need to get you to A&E?”
Merlin clenched his teeth as another wave of pain swept through him. “No. I really need – to get to the loo, though.”
“Right,” Arthur said, and then a strong arm was wrapping around his shoulders and supporting him as he struggled to stand.
“Arthur, do you think Gwen or I should –” Lance's voice.
“It's fine, Lance. I'll take care of this,” Arthur said.
Merlin only had a hazy awareness of the next few minutes beyond the obvious. When the worst of the vomiting finally stopped, he pressed his forehead to cold porcelain and concentrated on breathing through his nose. “Oh, Christ,” he whined. “This is awful.”
“Here,” Arthur said, which made Merlin jump, because he'd not realised Arthur had stayed with him. Arthur pressed a glass of water into his shaking hand, and Merlin washed out his mouth, then spat it into the toilet.
“Thanks,” he murmured, wincing in embarrassment at the thought of what Arthur must have just seen. “You really don't have to be here, you know.”
“Nonsense. You can't simply lock yourself in the bog with severe abdominal pains and expect no one's going to want to keep an eye on you.”
“It's not serious,” Merlin said, rising shakily to his feet, “just a tummy bug.”
Arthur steadied him with a firm hand on his elbow. “Is that the official medical term?”
Merlin caught Arthur's gaze in the mirror; to his surprise, Arthur's expression wasn't disgusted or pitying, just faintly amused and a bit fond. “Yes. The Latin name for my condition is chunderus maximus.”
Arthur barked a laugh. “I'll remember that.”
Merlin opened the medicine cabinet, deciding Gwen and Lance probably wouldn't mind if he used some of their mouthwash. “Actually, now that I think of it, it may have been those bloody prawn sandwiches at lunch.”
“You of all people shouldn't need to be warned about dodgy hospital food.”
Merlin debated for a moment about gargling, then reasoned that Arthur had just seen much worse. “Dodgy catered food, actually. I was at a conference today and the lunch was quite posh. I thought I'd be safe, but evidently I was wrong.”
“That's horrid. You should complain.”
“Well, I imagine I'm not the only one affected; they'll receive plenty of complaints without my input, I reckon.” Merlin splashed cold water on his face, pleased that the shaking seemed to be subsiding.
“Feeling better?” Arthur asked, handing Merlin a towel.
“Much, thanks. I should get home.”
Arthur drew himself up. “I can take you.”
Merlin shook his head. “There's no need, really. I don't want to take you away from the party. I'll be fine to walk.”
An odd expression crossed Arthur's face, one Merlin couldn't identify. “Aren't you going to ring Gwaine to pick you up?”
Merlin frowned. “Erm, no. He's out of town – in Brighton, I think. And even if he were here, he doesn't own a car.”
Arthur's jaw clenched. “Then I'm driving you home.”
“No arguments,” Arthur decreed.
Normally, Arthur's imperious tone would set Merlin off, but there was a softness about Arthur's eyes that mitigated its effect. He supposed Arthur felt strangely responsible for him now; Merlin knew the feeling. “Yes, sire,” Merlin murmured, the smile breaking free.
Arthur watched him for a long moment, and Merlin felt the strange urge to hold his breath. And then he opened the door to the loo and was ushering Merlin through to make his apologies and hope the nausea didn't return on the way home. Arthur might be a knight in shining armour in some respects, but Merlin doubted he'd be so charitable if Merlin puked in his car.
Luckily, the ride home from Gwen and Lance's was mercifully short. Despite Merlin's protests, Arthur insisted on seeing Merlin up to his flat, and accompanied him inside. Once he was there, he walked to the kitchen, found the glasses straightaway, and poured Merlin some water. It took Merlin a moment to realise that Arthur remembered where the glasses were kept after two months and a very brief acquaintance with the flat. The thought warmed him in ways he didn't want to examine too closely.
“Thanks,” Merlin said, taking the glass and swallowing a couple of mouthfuls. And then, because his brain was still far too muddy, he added, “You're a sweet person, do you know that?”
Arthur shrugged. “Simply attempting to repay a favour,” he said quietly.
“Oh,” Merlin said, not sure whether he should be disappointed. “Well, I appreciate it.”
“Right, well,” Arthur said, “you must be knackered. Why don't you climb into bed and I'll – just tidy up these dishes here?” He nodded at the admittedly large pile that was now filling Merlin's sink and its environs; it had been a busy week – well, fortnight.
“Oh no, I can't ask you to –”
“You weren't asking, I was offering,” Arthur pointed out primly.
Merlin bit his lip. “Well, thank you. The thought of waking up to that mess does make me feel a little queasy.”
“We don't want that again,” Arthur said softly.
“No, we don't,” Merlin agreed. They stared at one another for a long moment, and then Merlin shook himself. “Erm, so, I'll just toddle off, then. Good night, and thanks again.”
“Good night,” Arthur echoed, and the warmth in his voice was something Merlin folded around himself as he drifted off to exhausted sleep a few minutes later.
When Arthur awoke, there was a cat staring him in the face.
It wasn't nearly as much of a shock as it was the first time, mainly because Mister Mephistopheles had been perched on his chest or his legs for most of the night. Arthur had set his phone's alarm to wake him every couple of hours so that he could check on Merlin, but he had a disturbing suspicion that had his alarm not gone off, the cat would have managed to get him up by sinking its claws into his groin. He was beginning to suspect that Mister Mephistopheles was much more intelligent than the average feline, though whether or not he was bent on world domination remained to be seen.
Arthur started when he heard a soft clinking sound from the direction of the kitchen. Lifting his head, he saw Merlin, looking tired but a good deal less ashen than last night, taking a couple of mugs out of the cupboard.
“Hello,” Merlin said, smiling at him. “Sorry, didn't mean to wake you.”
“'S'okay,” Arthur said, stretching. Mister Mephistopheles produced a low mrowrrr of protest and jumped down onto the floor.
“You seem to have acquired an admirer,” Merlin said. “Mephie doesn't usually take to people so quickly.”
“I think he was keeping an eye on me to make sure I didn't nick the silverware,” Arthur said, getting up awkwardly. He'd slept in his clothes, but there was still the small matter of what he was doing here. He'd intended to sneak out once he'd checked on Merlin one last time, but he hadn't counted on Merlin being an early riser. Junior doctor, Arthur reminded himself. Merlin was probably used to getting by on far less sleep than he'd had last night.
“Did you fall asleep after you did the dishes?” Merlin asked casually.
Arthur felt his heart leap. “Well, erm –”
Merlin chuckled. “It's all right, Arthur, I know you were checking on me during the night. You really didn't need to, but I think you were very sweet to do it.”
“That's the second time you've said that,” Arthur pointed out. It had occurred to him last night that no one had ever called him sweet in his life, not even when he'd been a small boy. Up until that moment, he'd been perversely proud of that.
“Sorry, does that muck about with your ideas of masculinity?” Merlin asked, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “I could switch to more butch adjectives.”
“Berk,” Arthur muttered, and Merlin laughed.
“If you like,” Merlin said. “It's quite a comedown from 'sweet', though.”
“I need to be kept in my place. Don't want to get a big head.”
“Heaven forbid,” Merlin said, raising his eyebrows as though Arthur had said something particularly revealing, which – buggering hell – perhaps he had.
“Look, now that I can see you're clearly not at death's door, I'll be on my way.”
“Wait!” Arthur started at Merlin's shout. “The least I can do to thank you is cook you breakfast,” Merlin finished, clearly embarrassed by his outburst.
“You cooked breakfast for me the last time, when our positions were reversed. I'd say we're even.”
Merlin leaned back against the counter. “Hm, I don't know if we're even. To make it fair, shouldn't you be cooking me breakfast this time?”
Arthur stared at him, gobsmacked, and then he burst out laughing. “That's a good point,” Arthur allowed. “The only thing I'm really good at making in the morning is crepes, though.”
Merlin opened a cupboard and pulled out a folded cloth. With an elaborate flourish, he shook it out, revealing it to be the apron he'd been wearing a few weeks ago. He held it up in front of him with a serious expression.
“Is this the official breakfast apron, then?” Arthur asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“It is,” Merlin confirmed with a solemn nod.
Arthur reached for it, but Merlin pulled back, shaking his head. Catching on immediately, Arthur bowed his head, allowing Merlin to slip the apron over it. He turned and felt Merlin's hands at his waist, tying the sash.
Arthur turned back to him, biting his lip to keep from grinning. “I shall try to do it justice,” he said, and began rolling up his sleeves to get to work.
“How did you know you were a lesbian?”
Morgana nearly choked on her gin and tonic. “Arthur, I am not going to help you pull some girl who's told you she's gay in order to get away from you.”
“Oh, for – contrary to popular belief, I do not force my attentions on people who want nothing to do with me.”
“Then why are you asking?” Morgana demanded.
“Never mind,” Arthur muttered, taking a sip of his pint.
“Don't pout. You know it doesn't affect me one way or the other, and you'll end up with terrible lines around your mouth when you're forty.”
“I'm asking because I thought it was something people always knew about themselves – whether you were gay or straight,” Arthur said. There, that was vague enough.
“Well, it certainly was for me – or at least it was since I had that crush on Ardith Harrington when I was six years old – but everyone's different. For some people, it takes a very long time to admit they have those feelings.”
“I'm not talking about admitting it,” Arthur gritted. “I'm talking about not realising you have those feelings in the first place.”
“I've heard of the odd person who considered themselves to be straight – or gay, for that matter – eventually realising that they're bi- or pansexual, but I don't know if that was something they just weren't coming to terms with, or if it was a genuine sur–” Morgana paused, a slight frown appearing between her brows, then set down her drink. “Arthur,” she said slowly, “are you telling me –”
“I'm telling you that I met a boy – well, a man, actually, Christ, he's only a year younger than I am – and he has me so confused I don't know what the hell's going on, only that I quite might like to take him to dinner, and kiss him, and beyond that it gets even more confusing, and did I happen to mention he has a very fit boyfriend, so all of this existential identity crisis is completely bloody useless –“ Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes.
His outburst was followed by complete silence from the other side of the table. “God, say something,” Arthur groaned, his eyes still closed. “This isn't real, right? Tell me this is just a phase, stress. It doesn't happen like this, does it?”
“You've never been attracted to blokes before?”
Arthur opened his eyes, shrugged. “Now and then. Not anything I've suppressed, just a fleeting aesthetic appreciation, a few seconds of passing someone in the street before moving on. Nothing that's ever made me want to stop and turn around. Nothing like – this.”
“Well, there's only one question. Do you want it to be real?”
Arthur thought about it, though it was hard considering his heart was hammering so hard in his chest he thought it might burst. “I'd, erm,” he rasped finally, “yeah, I'd like it to be real. It feels –” Arthur shook his head, barked a laugh “– it feels bloody amazing. When I forget he's already with someone, of course.”
“How do you know he has a boyfriend?”
“Because I have powers of observation?”
“Did he actually say to you, 'Arthur, this is my boyfriend, Mr. Fitty McFitterson'?”
Arthur waved a frustrated hand. “I really didn't have to when they were draped all over one another at the breakfast table.” At Morgana's raised eyebrow, he added, “It's his flatmate. They're very chummy.”
“And you know what they look like at the breakfast table because...”
“It's a long story,” Arthur grumbled.
Morgana studied him over the rim of her glass. “Well, if you ever want to tell it, I'd be happy to listen.”
Arthur smiled. “Thanks. You're a good elder sister.”
Morgana uttered a long-suffering sigh. “I do wish you'd stop calling me that.”
“I know you do,” Arthur said, grinning.
“Seriously, though, Arthur, whether this man you're interested in is in the picture or not, your sexual identity won't change. He might have made you aware of it in a way you hadn't been before, but it's still a part of you.”
“Right, yeah,” Arthur murmured, sobering. “I just need – erm. Time to – God, it sounds so stupid. I shouldn't need time to get over someone I barely know.”
“It doesn't sound stupid at all. But I'm not talking about shagging the first bloke you see. I'm talking about finding out who you really are.”
Arthur made a face. “I've never been a big fan of labels.”
“A label isn't necessary,” Morgana sighed, “but a little introspection might be. I know that's not your strong suit –”
“I'm perfectly capable of introspection, thank you,” Arthur muttered, stung.
“– but do give it a try, regardless,” Morgana continued on, ignoring him.
Arthur sighed. “So you were going to tell me about your trip to Rome,” he said pointedly. Morgana shot him a look to let him know she wasn't impressed, but allowed the conversation to drift away from his utterly fucked up life, for which he was immeasurably grateful.
Merlin's rotation at A&E soon got completely out of control, and he had no time to breathe, let alone sleep or eat. Socialising was sadly far down on the list of essentials, though he felt a pang of regret every time he had to turn down one of Gwen and Lance's events. He missed spending time with his friends, though he did keep in touch in other ways.
He found himself missing Arthur as well. And yes, he knew how ridiculous it was that he should miss a man he'd seen exactly twice, but that didn't make it any less true.
He'd cursed himself a hundred times for not asking Arthur for his mobile number or email address after their last breakfast together, but he'd felt a bit awkward considering Arthur had seen him literally at his worst. On the other hand, Arthur hadn't seemed the least bit revolted by it, and had even stayed to check on Merlin through the night. Merlin reasoned that a virtual stranger wouldn't do something like that if he weren't interested, but then maybe Arthur was just a masochist or exceptionally kindhearted. He'd asked Gwen about Arthur, but all she knew about him was that Lance had been friends with him since uni and he was stupidly rich and was an executive at Pendragon Security, whatever that was. She was sadly unable to answer any important questions, such as whether Arthur was seeing anyone right now, what kind of men he tended to like, or if he'd ever talked about Merlin to Lancelot.
On the last day of his hellish rotation, Gwen texted him: When can you start drinking?
Ten hours, forty-eight minutes.
Good. Meet us at Ministry of Sound.
Merlin didn't point out he'd be dead on his feet, because there would be no point, and because he did want to get out in spite of his exhaustion. There was something cathartic about waving your limbs about in an uncoordinated fashion to loud, repetitive music, and Merlin needed a bit of catharsis right now.
Twelve hours later, he wasn't so certain.
“So who's that, then?” Merlin asked.
“What?” Lance shouted. “Sorry, I didn't catch that.”
“The woman. With Arthur,” Merlin clarified, mouth near Lance's ear. “Who is she?”
“Oh, that's Vivian. She's an ex-girlfriend of his.”
“Doesn't look like she's all that 'ex',” Merlin said, a bit tartly. If the way the petite blonde woman was shimmying against Arthur as they danced was any indication, she definitely seemed to be more 'current'. Merlin turned away from the floor; the light show was hurting his head.
“Well, it was Arthur who ended things. Haven't seen her in ages; she was here when we arrived.”
“I think I need another drink,” Merlin said. He gestured at Lance and Gwen's drinks, and they both nodded.
As he was getting the round in – not easy to do amidst the press of bodies – Merlin nearly ran right into Gwaine. “You made it!” Merlin shouted, grinning.
“You know me. I never turn down an opportunity to get rat-arsed.” Gwaine nodded towards the dance floor. “Speaking of rat-arsed, isn't that the young squire who spent the night in your bed a while back?”
Merlin squinted in the direction of Gwaine's nod, as though he hadn't just spent several minutes staring at Arthur. “Looks like him, yeah.”
“Did you come here together?”
“No,” Merlin said. “It's not like we really know one another. We have mutual friends, 's'all.”
Gwaine raised an eyebrow at him. “Uh-huh. Who's that woman with him?”
Merlin shrugged. “Don't know. Never met her.”
“Merlin...” Gwaine began.
“I'm sorry, I was just getting drinks for Lance and Gwen. You want something?”
Gwaine held up his nearly-full glass, and Merlin nodded and headed for the bar. And because he clearly should have slouched home to bed instead of going dancing, when he finally had all the drinks assembled a few minutes later, he turned round and collided with someone, spilling beer and cider all over both of them.
“Oh my god, I'm so –”
He looked up to see Arthur, shirt soaked and clinging to his chest.
“– sorry,” Merlin finished.
Arthur blinked at Merlin for a moment. Then he looked down at himself. Merlin stared helplessly as the trails of liquid began making their way down to darken the denim of his jeans.
And then Arthur lifted his head and grinned.
“This is brilliant,” he exulted. “Now I have an excuse to leave.”
Merlin frowned; this wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting.
Arthur seemed to freeze for a long moment, then leaned in. “My flat's not far from here. Would you like to come with me? I mean, to get cleaned up, of course.”
Merlin looked down at his own shirt, which hadn't fared much better. “Erm. What about V – ” he trailed off abruptly when Arthur raised an eyebrow “ – that girl you were with earlier?”
Arthur shook his head. “I broke up with her a long time ago, and I'm not interested in getting back together.” He nodded towards the dance floor. “And it doesn't look like she's all that interested, either.”
Merlin craned his neck to see through the swaying mob, and spied Vivian dancing rather lewdly with Gwaine. When he turned back to Arthur, he saw that joyous grin had returned.
“He's not your boyfriend, is he?” Arthur yelled.
“What?” Merlin shouted back, even more confused.
Arthur gathered the now mostly-empty glasses from him and set them on the bar, then took Merlin's hands in his. “Come home with me. Please.”
Merlin felt a little hypnotised by that piercing gaze, by the warmth of Arthur's hands against the chill of his shirt. “Yeah,” he said, suddenly breathless. “Yeah, okay, yeah,” and then Arthur was tugging him forward, through the crowd, and Merlin was hanging on the whole way as they stumbled, laughing and dripping, towards the exit.
As he opened the door to his flat and ushered Merlin inside, it occurred to Arthur in a rush that he had absolutely no idea what the hell he was doing.
Considering he'd offered Merlin a place to get cleaned up, he couldn't exactly pounce on him the moment they –
Merlin whirled round to face him, and suddenly their faces were very close to one another. “How many drinks have you had?” he demanded.
Arthur frowned at the question. At this range, Merlin's mouth was ridiculously distracting. “Hm? Oh, two. How many have you had?”
“One, plus whatever may have been absorbed by my skin in the last twenty minutes.”
Arthur looked down to where Merlin's t-shirt was still hugging his slim frame. He had very prominent nipples. “Does alcohol work like that, then?” he murmured.
It was a good thing that Arthur didn't honestly care about the answer to his question, because Merlin closed the final few inches between them and kissed him.
Even after all these weeks, the memory of their first kiss hadn't returned to him, but it was hard to imagine how it would have been better than this one. Merlin's mouth was warm and alive against his, and the gentle splay of his fingers against Arthur's face was nothing like he'd expected.
“Sorry,” Merlin murmured when he pulled back. “I suppose you might have just invited me here to clean up.”
Arthur realised he'd put his hands on Merlin's hips at some point. “Well, I honestly didn't have any ulterior motives – I mean, if it turned out you weren't interested. If all you wanted was a shower and a change of clothes, that would have been fine.”
Merlin cocked his head in a parody of thought. “As it turns out, I am interested.”
Arthur chuckled. “Yeah, caught that. But you also need a shower, because you're shivering.”
“Yeah, I'm actually fucking freezing,” Merlin admitted, and they both burst into giggles. “So, do we flip a coin to see who gets it first?”
“I have two bathrooms,” Arthur said, shrugging.
Merlin bit his lip. “Or we might – erm. Share.”
Arthur blinked at him.
“You know. Saves energy and water. Good for the environment,” Merlin added, waggling his eyebrows.
“I've never done anything with a bloke before,” Arthur blurted.
“Oh,” Merlin said after a moment. “Erm.”
Arthur shut his eyes. “Christ, please kill me.”
“So you're saying that you – you're in the closet.”
Arthur took a deep breath. “Not exactly. I mean, I had a minor crisis over those David-Beckham-in-his-pants adverts when I was fifteen, but I've never really fancied any men in real life. Until – well – you.”
“Oh,” Merlin said again.
“Please say something else,” Arthur pleaded.
“Wow?” Merlin offered.
Arthur's gut churned. “Can we just forget the last few minutes ever happened?”
Merlin stepped closer. “I'd really rather not,” he murmured. “I wasn't expecting you to say that, that's all. And I'm functioning on an appalling lack of sleep, so I apologise for being even slower than usual.” Carefully, he took Arthur's hands in his. “I'm over the moon that you're attracted to me, regardless of how much experience you've had with men.”
“Not so much now that you reek of lager,” Arthur muttered, and Merlin barked out a laugh.
“Well, I'm hugely attracted to you, and the wet shirt is actually a bonus. But because of what you just told me, I'd like to withdraw the suggestion of a shared shower. I'd prefer to take it at your pace, and that means you make all the suggestions at the start, okay? I'm more than happy to follow your lead.”
“But I don't know what I'm doing,” Arthur protested, frustration edging his voice.
“Arthur, it's not all that different to what you're used to, I guarantee you. And I can help you through the tricky bits – you know, the whips, the parallel bars, the nutella –”
Arthur shoved him gently, and Merlin laughed again.
“– but you get to decide how much and when, okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” Arthur said, surprised at how relieved Merlin's words had made him feel. “That sounds – pretty great, actually.”
“Good,” Merlin said. “Now, where's that guest shower you promised me?”
Arthur inclined his head. “Through there. Can I kiss you again first?”
Merlin nodded, a smile tugging at his lips. “If you think you can stand the pong.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, but kissed Merlin anyway.
Merlin awoke just as the sun was rising – an unfortunate habit he was looking forward to breaking over the next fortnight's holiday – and carefully slid out of the bed he'd shared with Arthur the night before.
He hadn't been paying much attention to their destination during the cab ride, too busy texting Gwen to let her know he hadn't in fact been kidnapped and promising to buy the pints next time, but clearly Arthur's flat was a bit more posh than his own. The first thing Merlin saw when he looked out the living room window was the Thames, and the second thing was Tower Bridge glowing a pale orange, as though the sun had set it alight. He may have stared at the view for a minute or two, gobsmacked, before he shook himself and wandered to the surprisingly homely kitchen to see if there was any coffee.
A short time later, he was sat on the balcony enjoying his first hit of caffeine when the door opened and an endearingly bleary-eyed Arthur poked his head out.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought maybe you'd gone.”
Merlin swallowed around the lump in his throat before responding. They hadn't done more than snog lazily last night before Merlin had fallen into an exhausted sleep, but it had occurred to him that Arthur might worry he'd disappointed Merlin in some way.
“I can't go when you have coffee like this,” Merlin said, holding up his mug. “Does the boat come direct from Kenya and moor below you?”
“Guatemala, actually, smartarse,” Arthur muttered.
“Arthur, this flat is worth more than my entire life,” Merlin countered. “I'm not exactly sure if you're kidding.”
“No flat is worth more than your entire life,” Arthur said, leaning down to give Merlin a quick kiss. “Well, maybe if it's in Mayfair.”
“Now who's being a smartarse?”
Arthur only smirked, then slid into the seat opposite him at the small table and stared at him as though Merlin were the most interesting thing to look at. It was undeniably flattering, but Merlin found himself squirming under the attention.
“Sorry, I'm coming on too strong, aren't I?” Arthur murmured. “There, looking at the bridge now. I never knew it was this pretty at this ridiculous hour of the morning.”
“You have one of the best views in London. I'm surprised you haven't enjoyed it at every hour of the day.”
Arthur shrugged. “I'm within walking distance of the office, and I liked the way the conversion kept a lot of the warehouse's original features. I'm not much for sterile glass towers. Though my father keeps telling me that when the sea levels rise and the Barrier fails, this will be under water.”
“That's a cheerful thought,” Merlin ventured, sipping his coffee.
“He's a cheerful man,” Arthur said, in a way that clearly meant the opposite. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring up any of the million ways my dad drives me bonkers until at least our second date.”
“Fair enough,” Merlin said. “What else would you like to talk about, then?”
“I'd like to talk about taking you back to bed. If you're amenable, that is.”
Merlin pretended to think about it for a few seconds, while Arthur's cheeks got more and more pink. It was a good look on him.
“I would definitely be amenable,” Merlin said finally.
Beaming, Arthur bounded to his feet.
“As soon as I finish this amazing coffee.”
Arthur's face fell. “ Mer lin,” he growled.
“I suppose I could finish it on the way,” Merlin allowed, bursting into laughter as Arthur took him by the free hand and tugged him back into the flat.
When they arrived in the bedroom, Arthur took the cup from him gingerly and set it on the night table, then pushed him against the wall and kissed the hell out of him.
“I've figured out this part is pretty much the same,” Arthur murmured between kisses.
“Told you – so,” Merlin gasped, as Arthur slid his lips down Merlin's neck.
“You seem a little out of breath,” Arthur mused, deftly undoing Merlin's shirt buttons and leaning down to brush his mouth over a nipple. “Are you quite all right?”
“I'm brilliant, thanks,” Merlin managed, clenching his hands into fists to keep from grabbing two handfuls of Arthur's arse.
“You can touch me,” Arthur murmured, pushing his shirt from his shoulders and ghosting his fingertips the length of Merlin's spine. “I'd like you to touch me.”
“Christ,” Merlin breathed, sliding his hands up under Arthur's t-shirt and feeling his stomach muscles contract. “Okay?”
Arthur yanked his own shirt off and pulled Merlin closer. “Yeah. More.”
“Nrgh,” Merlin said, pulling Arthur in for another kiss, and another. The next thing he knew, he was being backed toward the bed. When the backs of his legs hit the mattress, he stumbled and flopped onto it rather gracelessly.
Merlin lay there, arms flung wide, while Arthur stood over him, clearly suppressing a laugh.
“Shut up,” Merlin said.
Arthur's eyebrows shot up. “I didn't say a thing.”
And then he slid to his knees and nuzzled Merlin through his jeans, and Merlin decided that he could stand a little mockery if it led to – oh, holy fuck –
“Did you like it, then?” Arthur asked a bit later.
Merlin shook his head as he stared up at the ceiling. “Nope, hated it. I always scream like a banshee and come buckets when I'm dissatisfied sexually.”
Arthur bit him gently on the earlobe. “Pillock.”
Merlin pulled away and mock-glared at him. “You seem to have an oral fixation.”
“Are you objecting?”
“God, no.” Rolling to his side, Merlin kissed Arthur soundly. Arthur thought about Merlin tasting himself on Arthur's tongue, and it made an unexpected shiver of lust run through him. “What about you?”
“I liked it a lot,” Arthur answered, sliding a hand down Merlin's ribs to palm his hip. “I'd like to do it again. Soon. And often. Do you have anywhere to go today?”
“No. As it happens, I'm off for the next fortnight.”
Something of Arthur's enthusiasm at hearing that bit of news must have shown on his face, because Merlin groaned and said, “I'm going to need vitamins. Or possibly a blood transfusion.”
“Relax, you're young. I have faith in your stamina,” Arthur said airily, unable to keep the smile off his face.
“I only have one question, then,” Merlin said, grinning back.
“Which one of us makes breakfast this time?”
Arthur nuzzled Merlin's cheek. “Why don't we make it together?”
“I like the way you think,” Merlin said, turning his head into another kiss.