If it were simply a matter of choice, Merlin reasoned, he probably wouldn't be in a damp boathouse on an unseasonably cold day in early October, wearing lycra and being shouted at.
Given a choice, in fact, he would probably be on a tropical beach, just off a plane and checking into the sort of hotel his mother used to cut out of magazines when Merlin was young, "in case" they won the lottery or discovered Great Uncle Gaius' shabby tweed jackets and ramshackle house were all a fabulous pretence, and he really was as rich as the presents he gave Merlin for Christmas hinted he might be.
(Gaius saved months for those gifts, though, and so Hunith's scrapbooks of getaways and resorts and spa retreats did nothing other than gather dust on the shelf below the coffee table.)
But if all it took were a choice, Merlin would be on just such a dream coffee-table getaway now, walking through an archway crawling with bougainvillea, sea-salt tickling the inside of his nostrils and the caw of unknown birds echoing in his ears. Someone would open a door for him, welcomingly, and Merlin would walk into a cool lobby with a view of a turquoise sea in a place a million miles away from the musty boathouse with its clatter of blades and smell of sweaty men. He'd turn towards the reception desk, and behind it would be a dangerously attractive man with pink lips, just the sort of man Merlin could see himself having a summer fling with if he were on a tropical island on a break from a gruelling job as a world-famous historian (earning the salary of a banker but sacrificing none of the soul). The man at reception would turn to him, his smile infinitely more intimate than the practiced politeness of the woman at the door, and Merlin would let his interest glint in his eyes for an instant before giving his name, softly.
The man would look a bit like the man talking to Lancelot now, golden-haired and broad-shouldered and graceful as he reached for a key (though perhaps without the braying laugh that Lancelot's companion was currently revealing himself to be in possession of) and Merlin's eyes would slide to his name-tag, a small plastic square pinned to a white polo shirt stretched tight over a muscular chest.
He would memorise the name for future reference.
"Arthur? Your name is fucking Arthur?" Merlin heard Lancelot say. "Did Evans put you up to this?"
Lancelot turned from the man whose body (sans laugh) Merlin had been appropriating for his tropical fantasy, and called to Merlin,
"Emrys! Are you hearing this? Come here! This punter says his name is Arthur!"
Merlin ambled over, trying his hardest to look less dwarfed by the rowers surrounding him than he evidently was, and--attempting to put a look on his face like he hadn't just been daydreaming about hot-weather summer sex with the man who said his name was Arthur-- called loudly across the room,
"Evans. I though we had a chat about this last year, when you kept referring to Lancelot's blade as 'Excalibur' for a month before he threatened to punch you in the face. It's really not that funny."
"What?" asked Evans, affronted, and when Merlin turned to guy-who-claimed-his-name-was-Arthur, he had a stormy look on his face. Merlin looked at Lancelot, who shrugged.
"Your name really is Arthur?" asked Merlin.
"Yes," apparently-actually-called-Arthur answered tightly. "Is that a problem?"
"Well, no," said Merlin, conciliatory, before Lancelot jumped in,
"Mate. Mate. Your name is Arthur? Jesus fucking Christ. I'm Lancelot," he said, holding his hand out.
Arthur shook it as Merlin barrelled on, irrationally impolite but not really caring, because it was cold and he'd been up ludicrously early that morning to do some last-minute revision for a collection,
"--and I'm Merlin," he said. "Welcome to training with what will no doubt be known for the next seven months as the Knights of the Round Table. Again. Thanks for that, really. We weren't doing fine on our own, Lancelot and I, what with the stupid names and the cruel parents and the odd serendipity of our making the Blue boat together last year."
Merlin liked to think that he'd normally have found the fact that they'd acquired an Arthur for a boat that already had a Lancelot and a Merlin in it hilarious (that was, after all, at least 90% of the reason why he had befriended Gwen to begin with, and why she had initially found Morgana), but there was something about this Arthur--the way he stood, shoulders thrown back, the way his eyes had swept over Merlin as he approached--that made Merlin reticent to laugh with him. He exuded physical confidence in a way that Merlin, who was awkward at the best of times, resented, and he radiated a sense of old money and breeding that would rankle anyone who had grown up as a child in a single-parent family that struggled to make ends meet sometimes, as Merlin's had.
It had taken Merlin long enough to get used to Lancelot, who had been born in a rough part of London but whose extraordinarily wonderful mother had married an exorbitantly rich man when Lancelot had been in primary school. (Lancelot had gone to Winchester after that, courtesy of his stepfather, and now he said terribly posh things at the most inappropriate times--If you'll excuse me, Merlin, I'm terribly afraid I'm about to vomit--as if he'd been born into practiced propriety.) As far as Merlin was concerned, this Arthur character--attractive or not--would have to earn the same sort of acceptance, if he wanted it at all.
Merlin let his eyes move over Arthur's frame quickly, aiming for the same quick dismissal that Arthur had communicated when he'd looked at Merlin, and then moved his eyes to Lancelot's face, about to ask him about his collections.
Arthur's face took on a displeased look again, his mouth set in a line, but before he could say anything to either Merlin or Lancelot, Petersen, who was OUBC President that year, said loudly,
"Everyone! Welcome to training. Kindly walk to the left of the boathouse if you did Blues training last year--whether you made the final boats or not--and to the right if this is your first time here. We'll split into two boats after that, and rotate new men in after each boat has done 10k. Bran and Tom, our coaches, will be watching from the launch.
Today is not like your first day at primary school. It is not okay to make mistakes, and we are not here to get to know each other before training begins. Training and selection begin today; you are on trial for a seat on the boat starting now. We have a lot of returning rowers, and some strong international talent arriving this year, as well as a good intake of new people. We are, needless to say, not letting fucking Cambridge take us by a length again, and I expect good things from all of you, and from this year. Good luck in the selection process, and I look forward to training with all of you." And then, because Petersen had a tendency to be a bit of a bully and he really couldn't help himself when it came to things like this,
"Train hard, good men of Camelot, and the rewards shall be plentiful. Split up then, please."
Lancelot and Merlin rolled their eyes and walked towards the left. When Merlin glanced over his shoulder at Arthur as he walked in the opposite direction, Arthur had a strange look in his eye, something like resignation and anger mingled with amusement and determination.
Merlin gave him a tiny upturning of the lips.
Lancelot patted Merlin on the back and glanced at Arthur appreciatively before smiling at him as well; Arthur smiled back and then wryly shot them two fingers as he walked away.
Not quite how Merlin would have put it--but he agreed with the general sentiment.
Merlin always forgot what it was like--the speed and the rhythm, the whoosh of blades through water and air, the blur as the trees sped by.
Merlin had coxed for the first time when he'd arrived at Oriel as a first-year. He'd coxed a boat full of people who had never rowed before for Christ Church novice regatta, and the experience had been not unlike sitting in a very wobbly blender at low setting. Every rower in the boat seemed to think that his blade should enter the water whenever he saw fit, and people fidgeted on their seats and tilted the boat violently in either direction as Merlin clung valiantly to the sides, glad all coxes were forced to wear a lifejacket. The whole term had been a character-building experience; Merlin had been proud of his boys when they'd rowed the entire course during the novice regatta without their boat causing anyone major bodily harm.
The captain of coxes at Oriel had noticed that Merlin had a knack for it, though--he was good at improvising calls, and he had quick reflexes for the rudder strings and a good eye for where the stream was running. She'd moved Merlin quickly through the ranks, and that summer, Merlin had coxed Oriel's first men's eight, because the cox from the year before had graduated and they needed someone entirely new. When Gwen had suggested that Merlin do Blues training the following year, Merlin had agreed, a little tentatively--but that April, he'd found himself coxing for Oxford during the Boat Race.
Merlin hadn't known what had hit him, when he'd first arrived. A boat full of Blues was a streamlined machine, twenty times as fast and thirty-seven times as balanced as his first boat, and as soon as Merlin felt the smooth rush of the river beneath him, and heard Lancelot's pleased, satisfied, laughter coming from the stern for the first time, he was hooked. It was why he'd returned this year, in the hopes of coxing the boat a second time. He loved it, but on top of that, Blues rowers and coxes who lost to Cambridge seemed to have a pathological inability to stay away, always wanting to stick around for a second go, for a win.
There were only two Blues in the boat that Merlin was coxing for this outing, but everyone in the boat was strong and competent. Arthur was at stroke because he was shorter than the others, and it was always a bad idea to stick the tall guys at the front on the first day, when the shorter men at the back would still be getting into the swing of things and might not be able to keep their spoons in the water for long enough, lengthening their strokes to match stern pair's.
Arthur's strokes were sure, though, and long--he reached forward with ease, back straight and head upright, before leaning back smoothly, powerfully, flexible like a gymnast. Merlin heard Lancelot's low chuckle from seven and knew straight away that Arthur had the technique and strength for the Blue boat; it only remained to be seen whether he would exhibit the endurance for the god-awful double outings in the freezing February cold.
Merlin felt a little resentful--because of course Arthur would be not only good-looking and rich, but also talented--but couldn't help but feel a sense of satisfaction at the smooth movement of the boat beneath him, and his pleasure as they flew over the water was enough to eclipse his irritation.
"On the legs, boys, smooth and easy. I want you to push us through the next bend, upping the rate two… In three … in two … in one. That looks good. Hold those finishes right in."
Merlin nodded approvingly, if a little grudgingly, to Arthur, who had led the change in rate easily. He loved outings like this, where the rowers moved seemingly without effort, when he and whoever was at stroke stayed on the same page throughout. It was surprising to have this first outing, usually a controlled disaster, go as if it the boat that was on the water had been training together for months instead of minutes.
He saw Bran and Tom nodding to each other on the launch, Bran pointing discreetly at Arthur, and Merlin knew that they were seeing what he was feeling: a rower who had the control and technique needed to stroke either the Blue boat or Isis, if he could stick out the training. Anything could happen between now and April, of course, but there were people who simply weren't meant to stroke a boat--ever--and Arthur was clearly not one of them.
Merlin gave Arthur a tiny, encouraging, smile, and Arthur raised his eyebrows in return, the muscles in his arms and legs flexing and his breath coming out in controlled pants. Merlin looked forward, his eyes focussing on the bridge ahead and on the small bead of sweat on Arthur's brow at once, as if he were seeing in double-focus.
"Okay, boys--wind it down. Right down, no pressure at all… and easy there. Hold it… and spinning the boat, starting with bow side--go!"
Merlin waited for the boat to be facing in the right direction before asking bow four to row on, angling the boat towards the raft so that the current rowers could switch with those who were still waiting to go out on the water. As Arthur and Lancelot stepped out of the boat, Arthur graceful and Lancelot quick, Merlin said, "Well done," to Arthur, words meant partly as an apology for his grumpiness earlier, but Arthur, head half-turned towards Lancelot and moving towards the boathouse already, did not hear.
That night, Merlin dreamt of the sea.
He tended to do that for the first few days, when he got back at the start of every term--the constant rocking of the boat under him as he coxed always made him feel as if he were still on the river when he got in bed, where the mattress seemed to slide under him rhythmically. He always dreamt of water in the first week.
This time he dreamt of the island that had burst into being in his mind earlier in the day; he dreamt that he sipped a bright drink with an umbrella in it as he watched the waves roll in from a deck chair, and in his dream he worked towards a tan and didn't burn to a crisp as he would have done in real life.
Merlin dreamt he rented a kayak--Merlin had never worked any piece of sports equipment other than a rowing boat's rudder strings successfully, but in the dream he was half-adept at paddling--and took it out to the sea, where couples drifted by on sea tricycles and parents called, "Jeremy! Not so far out!" to their children
Merlin bobbed for a while, thinking nothing of import, his arms lax and heavy with the muscle-memory of that day on the river. He turned his face up towards the sun, paddle resting on his lap and fingers drifting through the clear water on either side of the kayak, before taking the paddle up again and rowing back towards the shore.
When he got there, he dragged the plastic boat out of the water with the help of the man who had rented it to him, and said thank you before heading back towards his beach chair, his mind already on the colour of the next drink he would order. When he got back to his trashy airport novel and his blue hotel towel, however, it was only to discover the man from reception--Arthur--already there, fussing with the water bottle on the small plastic table and replacing the empty glass with its forlorn paper umbrella with a fresh drink.
"I thought you might want another drink when you came off the water," said Arthur, and Merlin could swear he heard, Would you like to go back to your room and have sex?
Long and humiliating experience had taught Merlin never to jump to conclusions when it came to attractive men onto whom he might be projecting, though, so he swallowed his 'Excuse me?' and simply said,
"Thank you. That's very thoughtful. I'm Merlin."
"I know," said Arthur, and Merlin heard, I know how attractive I am, and you do, too. What are you waiting for?
Merlin couldn't find it in himself to find Arthur's staggering self-assurance anything but attractive, but he was at a loss as to how to navigate smoothly through Arthur's proposition without looking like a tool.
"I'm from Ireland," continued Merlin, inanely, and Arthur replied, friendly,
"I'm from Buckinghamshire. What brings you to Nassau?" His tone was slower now, retreating and more careful but still interested; he wasted no time with excess words, as Merlin would have done.
"Holiday," said Merlin, trying to play it cool and failing. "I just finished--I was working on a book. It's finished now."
"What was the book about?" asked Arthur, his figure blocking out the sun as Merlin sat on his lounger and pointed to the wicker chair in front of it, motioning Arthur to sit with an easy movement executed by a trembling hand.
"Anne of Cleves. Henry VIII's wife?"
"Yes," said Arthur as he sat down, confirming that he knew whom Merlin was talking about with a quick nod. "What sort of book is it? A novel?"
"No," said Merlin. "A--a historical account. About her communications with her ambassador while she was still married to Henry." Merlin realised how dreadfully boring it sounded a minute before Arthur said,
"How interesting. Was their correspondence very … significant?"
At this point Merlin decided he probably wasn't imagining the undercurrent of invitation in Arthur's voice, if Arthur, who looked like the sort of man who had never been particularly inclined to read, was feigning interest in a book about a long-forgotten Tudor queen in order to keep the conversation going.
"Listen," said Merlin, clumsy but trying not to dwell on his awkwardness, because it was a holiday and what were holidays for if not this, "Do you want to go out for dinner tonight? With me? We could go somewhere else, not the hotel, if you're not allowed to see guests socially."
It took Merlin only a second to realise his knowledge of hotel worker-guest relationships came mostly from terrible films like the one where Kate Bosworth was a famous girl surfer, and he blushed before Arthur said, warmly,
"No--we can see guests. I mean, not officially, but as long as we're discreet. It would be nice to go somewhere else, though. The food here is--" Arthur's nose wrinkled in distaste, "not wonderful."
"Great," said Merlin, feigning confidence, because he'd never done this sort of thing with any finesse before, or executed the necessary negotiations in the light of day or without alcohol to smooth the way. "Where shall I meet you?"
"The gazebo out front," said Arthur, his tone full of an assuredness and confidence that could not be feigned even if one tried. "Eight p.m.?"
"Eight o'clock it is," said Merlin, before picking up his drink, gulping it down, standing up, collecting his book, and turning to walk away before he could ruin this by falling off the beach chair or spilling the drink down his front. "See you then."
When Merlin woke up, it was to an odd feeling of unfulfilled expectation, the sort one felt when a film cut to a shot of fluttering curtains right as the protagonists finally fell into bed.
A week and one guy from Magdalen fleeing the training regime later, Arthur and Merlin were still synchronising movement in the boat well. Bran and Tom moved everyone around, of course, so that Arthur sat at six and four and two as well as at eight, but when Merlin called a change in pace or pressure it was always Arthur's blade that flicked to attention the fastest, leading from the back of the boat, a stroke even when he was sitting elsewhere. It would have been unnoticeable if not for the fact that Merlin had begun to look for it.
Merlin didn't know quite what it was, but Arthur had fascinated him the moment Merlin had gotten over his initial grouchiness on the first day of training. Perhaps it was that he looked like the sort of man Merlin always fantasised about--was fantasising about now, dreaming about; Jesus--or that he had an odd, regal, quality to his bearing, chin always up and eyes always darting about, gaze a little imperious. It had been terribly unappealing at first, but it soon drew Merlin's eye as that level of confidence and assurance was bound to draw anyone. Merlin didn't know whether it was the evidently upper-class manner, or Arthur's muscled arms, or Arthur's barking laugh and willingness to quirk his lips in amusement, if not smile, but he found himself watching Arthur constantly, like a curious would-be friend but also like an eager lover.
Merlin's desire to engage in intense scrutiny wasn't helped by the fact that he and Arthur had hardly spoken since that first day two weeks ago, and so the Arthur in Merlin's life had melded somewhat with the Arthur in Merlin's stupid fantasies as a result: given no other information about the Arthur he spent time with on the river, his mind used images of beaches and kayaks to fill in the blanks. Merlin watched attentively for parallels, as well as for anything that might further delineate who the real Arthur was, not really sure if he was watching for similarities or differences between the two with a greater sense of expectation.
Meanwhile, Arthur and Lancelot were getting on like a house on fire, closer every day, bantering about everything and nothing while Merlin stood on the sidelines like the rejected warlock with a droopy hat that he had seen sketched on the cover of a children's book at Blackwell's last week. Arthur from afar seemed sharp-tongued and quick-witted, and Lancelot shot him flirtatious looks that Merlin was intimately familiar with with increasing frequency, as Merlin watched from a distance and felt a slow, irked, burn that he and Arthur had rubbed each other the wrong way when they had met and Merlin was stuck dreaming about the sea as a result.
So when Merlin came to their first truly frozen morning outing having barely slept after writing a crappy essay on Cicero that included the unforgivable word-count-increase line "Cicero's grasp of the language was evidently truly masterful", he was in no mood to see Lancelot and Arthur play footsie in the boat. He stalked onto the minibus and hunched his shoulders to his ears all the way to the river in Wallingford, and when they got there, he snapped his commands with no commentary--Hands on. Slide her out. To heads. Spin her down. Bow side in--and grasped the rudder strings in tense hands, wishing he could bring a duvet on board with him like some of the more undignified college coxes did.
Arthur was sitting at stroke again, dropping his blade into the water with perfect double splashes as he rowed, and Merlin glared at him balefully and possibly hissed when he heard him mutter to Lancelot, "Someone woke up on the wrong side of Roman literature this morning."
Then he actually processed what Arthur had said, and, realising Arthur had evidently been listening when Merlin had been ranting about Cicero on the minibus yesterday afternoon, took his hiss back with a crisp, "Nice, sharp catches, Arthur. Everyone else: catching there."
Afterwards, he made an effort to stand close to Arthur as the rowers put the boat back on the racks, so that Arthur wouldn't have a chance to run off with Lancelot to speak about hunting or whatever else it was that boys with lots of money and a carefully manicured sense of masculinity (which both Arthur and Lancelot definitely were) evidently found interesting. When Arthur moved to put his splash top and tracksuit bottoms on, Merlin stood over him like an attentive tailor and, when Arthur's head emerged from his jacket, said,
"I'm sorry about earlier. I didn't get that much sleep last night."
"It's perfectly alright," said Arthur, shrugging. "Your sleep-deprived, suffering sighs provided much entertainment for the rest of us on the way here."
"You're really a bit of a prat, aren't you?" asked Merlin, fondly, as if he had known Arthur for years and it was okay for him to say that sort of thing. He felt immensely awkward about it the minute after it had come out of his mouth, but covered it up with a quick, "What are you doing when we get back?"
"Trying to sort my thesis out," said Arthur. "My tutor keeps rabbitting on about how I need to have the idea clearly defined by the end of this week if I'm to have any hope of writing the bloody thing next term while 'dilly-dallying with my rowing friends'."
Merlin snorted, because it sounded like the sort of thing his own tutor might say. Then he registered what Arthur had said, as slow on the uptake as earlier--Merlin was the sort of individual that required seven hours of sleep a night, or caffeine shot directly into the vein, if he was to function successfully as the day progressed.
"Wait. Your thesis? Do you have Finals this year?"
"Yes," said Arthur, as if it made perfect sense.
"You have Finals this summer, and you're doing Blues training at the same time?"
Merlin couldn't imagine anything worse, but he also couldn't honestly say that he'd avoid putting himself in the same situation if they lost to Cambridge again this year, and he had a chance to try for a victory for a third and final time.
"Yes," confirmed Arthur, as if he'd had this conversation many times already. "Don't worry. I've been trained to be very productive since birth. My father insisted."
Merlin hmmhed, because 'my father insisted' sounded like the sort of thing only viscounts said, and he didn't want to get into an argument about upper-class indolence--he wasn't sure it would get much traction, anyway, as they were currently discussing Arthur working harder than most sane people would have considered doing. (The part of Merlin that was psychotically keeping tabs on both rowing-Arthur and fantasy-Arthur mentally gave real-life Arthur some points for determination.)
"When do you sleep?" asked Merlin, thinking fondly of his own bed and the desperation with which he would regard a situation where nerves about exams and nerves about coxing crowded sleep out entirely.
"I don't," said Arthur, deadpan, quirking an eyebrow as if willing Merlin to call him on it.
"Okay," said Merlin, anxious not to disagree when everything was going so well and tropical-beach Arthur appeared to be receding into a mental distance. "Well, after afternoon training, I'm going out to Noodle Bar with a friend of mine--the captain of coxes at Oriel. If you're done working on your thesis by then, maybe you could come."
"Who's captain of coxes at Oriel?" asked Arthur, before answering his own question and saying, "Oh--that girl. Gwen. Guinevere, right?"
Merlin nodded. "Do you know her?"
"She's really good friends with my stepsister--Morgana Lefay?" said Arthur.
"Morgana is your sister?" asked Merlin, incredulously, because Morgana was both intimidatingly beautiful and intimidatingly clever, and Merlin would have never thought to approach her if she hadn't made her own way into his life via Gwen. As a result of this, all things related to Morgana seemed surreal to him even now, after a year of knowing her had (mostly) suppressed Merlin's fear of her.
It was hard to imagine her and Arthur growing up in the same house.
"Stepsister," said Arthur, tersely, and Merlin suddenly remembered Morgana telling him and Gwen about an idiot brother who thinks he's god's gift to mankind, scrunching her nose up under her glasses and narrating a story about said brother's love of football and his inexcusably loutish ways and his laddish friends.
Morgana didn't take kindly to anyone else criticising her brother, though--she seemed to think that was a privilege reserved for family alone. Merlin had actually seen her growl at that Sophie girl who had hung out with them for two days (before Gwen and Morgana had decided she was 'weird Christian-Union headcase') when Sophie had said she thought Arthur was arrogant. Merlin had come to understand that though there was no real affinity of similarity between them, Morgana loved her stepbrother and was loyal to him, as Arthur appeared to grudgingly be to her, the wariness in his voice indicating a sort of reticent protectiveness.
"Oh--well, she might come too," said Merlin, not sure if that was an incentive or not.
"What about Lancelot?" asked Arthur as he climbed onto the minibus. "Is he coming?"
"Am I coming to what?" asked Lancelot as Merlin tried to disguise a sudden and unbecoming scowl.
"Noodle Bar, tonight, with Gwen and possibly Morgana," he answered.
"Oh--yeah, that sounds good," said Lancelot distractedly, the look in his eyes suggesting that he was already thinking about a number 29 noodle platter, which he ordered two of every time they went (three, last time), much to Merlin and Gwen's delighted horror.
"Great," said Merlin, because Lancelot was his closest friend at Oxford, really--it was just trying sometimes, watching him bed man after woman after man only to emerge carefree and (sensitively) triumphant every time. Merlin didn't think he'd particularly enjoy the experience of Lancelot telling him about having sex with Arthur, either--something which Lancelot would inevitably share, because Lancelot was paralytically unable to process life events without the aid of a second opinion.
"Great," echoed Arthur, raising his eyebrows at Merlin, his tone somehow friendly and mocking at once.
Merlin was not particularly well known for his outstanding verbal skills, and so it was no surprise that he spent a lot of time imagining how conversations might have gone, if he were articulate and debonair.
On the way back to Wallingford for the afternoon outing, his face pressed against the cold glass and his eyes following the treeline, Merlin thought about tropical islands and parakeets and twenty-eight degree weather.
On a tropical island, Merlin would slay Arthur with his eloquence, able to negotiate himself from a beach to dinner to bed in just a few hours, because on an island Merlin would have no fear of rejection, and no anxiety about what seeing Arthur the next day would mean.
Arthur at the beach would appear more attractive than he seemed intimidating on the river, and he would be pleasant and warm where real-life Arthur was reserved. On an island getaway, Merlin would be able to have fourteen nights of passionate sex with him without a thought spared for the consequences.
Arthur's stomach would be flat and muscled, the way that Merlin knew it was from looking directly through Arthur's one-piece as he called rate changes and as the boat tried out different sorts of racing starts, and as he'd glimpsed from the side when Arthur had been sitting in the second boat and Merlin's men had rowed him by.
The dusting of hair on his lip and his jaw would run into his neck and then his chest, and from there to his navel and below, and Merlin would trace the trail with his tongue and think only of staying in Nassau forever, with no fear that he would be stuck there in an awkward situation, if he desired to escape elsewhere.
On a tropical island, Arthur would be free with his interest and his affections as he was not under the Oxford rain, and Merlin would take him back to his hotel room because it would be clear that that's what Arthur wanted.
Lancelot wouldn't be around to distract Arthur into sex--because very few things distracted Lancelot from sex--and even if he were, even if Lancelot were the man at the kayak stand, Arthur would still choose to fuck Merlin, and not Lancelot, into expensive hotel bed linens every night.
Merlin started, his head banging the window as he looked up quickly to find Bran sticking his head through the minibus' door.
"Merlin, what the fuck? Get out here and get them to put the boat on the water. It'll be dark in an hour and a half."
Merlin scrambled to obey, pulling on thin gloves and a hat and pushing daydreams away from the surface of his mind even as he called, "Sorry, Bran. Alright, boys--slide her out, please."
There was a queue outside Noodle Bar when Lancelot, Merlin, and Arthur walked across Gloucester Green that evening, but Merlin slunk between two girls who were discussing Obama loudly and motioned for Arthur and Lancelot to follow. When they got inside, Gwen waved them over to a corner, where she had shamelessly sat with her back to the wall and her feet on the bench, saving space for their arrival. Morgana was sitting across from her, an intimidating fur-lined affair of a coat occupying the space to her left on the bench.
"Merlin!" said Gwen, happily, before waving to Lancelot with a sort of fond resignation and raising her eyebrows at Merlin, her chin jutting quickly towards Arthur.
"This is Arthur," said Merlin, widening his eyes at Gwen significantly. "Morgana's brother."
"Stepbrother," said Morgana and Arthur in unison.
"Sorry; stepbrother," corrected Merlin. Lancelot walked around the table and plopped down next to Gwen, wrenching his wooden chopsticks apart with a sort of feral anticipation, and Merlin stood behind Morgana's coat, unsure whether it would be appropriate to touch it and move it aside. Morgana was running a finger down the list of rice noodle dishes and seemed unaware of Merlin's plight, but Arthur scoffed disgustedly behind him before picking up the coat by its hood and dropping it unceremoniously on the floor behind Morgana's part of the bench.
"Well, that's ugly," said Arthur, gesturing to the coat.
"Yes; I heard you were coming, and coordinated my outfit to match your face," said Morgana, eyes on the menu.
Arthur's mouth opened as if he were about to say something, but in the end he seemed unable to think of a quick enough reply, and he sat down next to Morgana, eyebrows drawn together as if he were still trying to think of something scathing to say.
"So what's the thesis going to be about?" asked Morgana distractedly.
Morgana asked most things distractedly--she always gave the impression that her conversation with you was not the only thing occupying her brain at the time. She could be simultaneously focussed, though, making you feel as if she had nothing but time for you; like Arthur, she could seem proud and distant one moment and warm and friendly the next.
"Mythical-historical conceptions of kingly duty in early medieval England, as presented in the Historia Regum Britanniae and the Anglo-Saxon chronicles," said Arthur.
Morgana quirked an eyebrow.
"Well, your father will certainly approve."
"Needless to say, the opportunity to pander to my father's delusions of familial historical grandeur was my sole reason for picking this topic," said Arthur dryly.
"You want to please him really," said Morgana, her voice even.
"Yes," said Arthur, simply.
"Are you going to look at the poetry in the chronicles, or just the prose annals?" asked Morgana, who was reading Chemistry and had no business knowing anything about Arthur's History and English dissertation. Morgana was a Postmaster, though, which Merlin had originally thought--for an embarrassingly long time, actually--meant she worked for Royal Mail in the holidays. It turned out it was some awful pretentious name that Merton gave people who were very clever, cleverer than the exhibitioners and scholars that other colleges contented themselves with. In retrospect, Merlin wasn't really sure how he'd ever thought Morgana worked for Royal Mail, considering that he couldn't ever picture her dealing with fat beery men trying to post porn to their cousins in Northampton on a Tuesday afternoon, and also that her fur-inclusive wardrobe had always made it very clear that she didn't have to work part-time for anyone at all.
"I'm going to--I'm going to order food," said Arthur, seemingly unwilling to go head-to-head with his stepsister on a thesis topic she might, for all Merlin knew, turn out to know more about than Arthur.
At that precise moment--probably because Arthur had the sort of commanding intonation that travelled across a room and got people to do things when he wanted them to--a man appeared at their table and said, brightly,
"What can I get you?"
Gwen ordered tap water for everyone, because they were all--well, she and Merlin, anyway--starving students with student loans, and then she ordered noodles with prawns for herself. Morgana ordered rice, and Arthur ordered both; Lancelot, true to form, proceeded to say, voice indecisive,
"I will have a 29, please. And a 42. With some egg fried rice on the side. And some prawn crackers."
Gwen looked stricken, presumably at the thought of Lancelot's arteries, and Merlin rolled his eyes and ordered only the duck chow mein, because even though he was starving and A great cox was worth his weight in gold, at his height Merlin was already pushing that aphorism to the breaking point. He didn't relish the thought of Bran and Tom replacing him with Susannah--who had coxed Isis last year and whose 4'11" frame appeared to weigh approximately two stone--because Merlin hadn't been able to resist the spring rolls as a starter.
The waiter bounced away with more energy than anyone working in a Noodle Bar franchise ought to have, and Gwen said, her tone acquiring that motherly quality that it sometimes did,
"So… how's training going? Are you three getting enough sleep? Arthur, Merlin, are you eating enough?" She looked pointedly at Lancelot as she said this.
The waiter returned with the prawn crackers, and Merlin stuffed two in his mouth before replying,
"Yes. It's going pretty well. There's a massive Dutch rower at Linacre doing a Global Governance MSc; he's pretty good. First cuts in two weeks' time; Lancelot and Arthur will obviously stay. Bran and Tom will get rid of those two guys from Balliol, with the sloppy finishes."
Lancelot nodded in agreement, his mouth as full as Merlin's.
"Arthur," said Gwen, her eyes resting on Merlin's and Lancelot's puffed-out cheeks pointedly as she paused, "Where did you learn to row? And how come you hadn't done Blues training before now?"
"Eton," said Arthur. "I rowed throughout my time there, but when I came up to Oxford, I thought it'd be good to do something different. I've been playing Blues football for two years now, but I realised this summer that I missed rowing. So I went back."
Evidently Arthur would be the sort of person who played two different sports at university level and could pick between excelling at either, thought Merlin. When Merlin had first met Morgana, she had been on the Blues lacrosse team and had been contemplating doing Blues cross-country running as well. Both she and Arthur looked bred for movement, alike in the slope of their shoulders and the slim lines of their necks in a way that made them look like siblings despite the fact that Morgana's hair was the colour of her darkest coats and Arthur looked as if he'd come from a children's cartoon, his skin and his hair perfectly golden.
"Well, it was much to the benefit of the boat this year that you decided to take rowing up again," said Lancelot, and Merlin felt an irrational desire to flash him the wanker sign, even though he was telling the truth.
"There are lots of good people training this year," said Arthur, graciously. "And Susannah's coxing is excellent."
Merlin's eyes were halfway to narrow before he looked at Arthur, whose mouth was twitching uncomfortably and who was staring off into the distance, looking as if he'd never quite been taught to deliver a sincere compliment directly.
"Yes," Lancelot agreed, looking at Merlin before smiling at Arthur as if the two of them were in on a private joke that Merlin could never hope to understand. Merlin repressed a desire to write and pass Lancelot a napkin-note saying, Yes, Lancelot; believe it or not, I, too, understand this complex secret code of awkward reserve. Fuck off.
Merlin was glad for the arrival of the food, which stopped him from asking Lancelot at the dinner table whether a nonexistent bout of herpes had cleared up, and he shoved food unceremoniously into his mouth as Gwen chattered to Morgana about Chemistry problem sets and Lancelot inhaled his three dishes.
"How did you start coxing, then?" asked Arthur as he moved on from his noodles to his rice and fiddled with the salt cellar, and Merlin curbed a churlish desire to say, Oh wait--you mean me? before answering,
"I only started when I first came up to Oriel. I'd never done it before--I went to a comprehensive in Bradford, after my mum and I moved there from Dublin. My great-uncle lives there. Anyway, the sports programme at my school was mostly informal, and seemed to involve running away from men with fists bigger than yours more often than not."
Arthur laughed, eyes wide as if he were unsure whether that was the right response, and then asked, "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"No," answered Merlin, bemused at the question and Arthur's earnest tone. "It's just me and my mum; my father left before I was born. She doesn't particularly like to talk about it, and I don't have the heart to push it, because even though it's been twenty years, I think she still misses him. Maybe even loves him still. So I'm not really sure who he was, or even what he did or where he was from." Merlin was surprised to hear himself telling Arthur this, which he'd never told anyone but Gwen, and then only after Oxford had lost the Boat Race last year, and Merlin had gotten so drunk and depressed that he'd ended up crying the tears of the truly pissed in his room, clutching at his lumpy armchair and moaning, "My boat. My boat. Oh, my boat."
"That's… pretty awful," answered Arthur, with the hard and unflinching sympathy that the British upper class had perfected over centuries.
"Yes, well," said Merlin, "I don't particularly mind it. I never knew him, so it's not a loss like it would be if I had."
Arthur smiled at him before saying, "I don't think fathers are always all they're cracked up to be, though I'm not trying to suggest that growing up with a demanding father is somehow worse than growing up without one, obviously."
"No, I guess not. To the first, I mean," said Merlin, smiling back.
At that point, Lancelot pushed his three empty dishes away and got that look in his eye that meant he would steal your uneaten food at any moment, so Merlin looked away from Arthur and pushed both his and Arthur's plates out of reach, placing his left forearm protectively on the table in front of him before cramming food into his mouth with the fork he was holding in his right hand as quickly as he could.
Arthur looked at him oddly, the way he had when Merlin had told him his name wasn't Arthur when they'd met, before catching on and doing the same. Lancelot resorted to stabbing fruitlessly towards Gwen's plate, which she had shielded with the napkin holder and the water jug. He knew better than to try for Morgana's food at all.
"Well," said Lancelot, when it was clear that no-one else's food was forthcoming. "I guess I'll just have to ask our enthusiastic waiter for a tonne of fortune cookies, then."
"Don't call them fortune cookies," said Gwen. "The ones here always have that stupid advice inside them."
Lancelot nodded sagely before lifting his hand to get the waiter's attention; he proceeded to communicate a desire for advice cookies through a series of complicated hand gestures. The waiter shot him the pained look of all people who had ever seen a man as attractive as Lancelot eat in the manner in which he had just done, and came over with advice cookies cupped in his two hands. He put them on the table and the rest of them claimed a cookie each before Lancelot could eat them all.
When they were finished and the bill had come, Morgana picked up her coat from the floor and pinched Arthur on the arm, hard, before putting it on. Merlin contemplated the possibility of asking Arthur and Lancelot back to the Oriel bar for a drink they weren't supposed to have before tomorrow's outings, but Lancelot beat him to the punch and said,
"Arthur, want to come over and play on the Wii?" Arthur nodded and Lancelot wiggled his eyebrows comically at Merlin, as if expecting Merlin to share his joy at the imminent seduction of Arthur through the ages-old, losing-at-videogames trick. Said trick had worked shamefully well on Merlin, and Merlin gave Lancelot a wan smile as he and Arthur wrapped their scarves around their necks and the two of them departed.
Once they were gone, Merlin waited patiently as Guinevere fussed with her jacket, looking out Noodle Bar's front window and thinking maliciously, Dear Lancelot, I hope you get horrible diarrhoea from your beef noodles.
Merlin should know better than to wish anything maliciously, really, because his wishes had a strange tendency to manifest in reality as other people's errant, malicious thoughts did not. Merlin's mother called it his "special gift", and Great Uncle Gaius called it "a fascinating phenomenon"; Merlin called it "a fucking terrifying life-long encounter with what appeared to be, worries of madness aside, magic", and all three of them called it secret.
Merlin watched Lancelot stop in the square to rub his stomach distractedly before walking on as if nothing were wrong, and he had a moment to regret that he had not accounted for Lancelot's tin-bucket digestive tract when he was wishing diarrhoea on him, just before he saw Lancelot's hand come to rest on the small of Arthur's back as the two of them turned the corner onto George Street.
Merlin had always liked daydreaming.
It was why he was so attached to his iPod, and why he'd loved his 90s Discman even though kids at school had teased him about it: as long as he had daydream-soundtrack music, he was able to entertain himself for hours. It had come in very handy when he was growing up, when his mother had insisted on taking him on interminable coach rides to London to do edifying things like go to the British Library at half-term.
He daydreamed about the obvious--winning the Boat Race this year, predictably, and befriending the hot guy who worked at the Oriel bar and whom he'd never had enough gumption to approach (when Merlin daydreamed, words like 'gumption' made all-too-frequent appearances).
He also daydreamed about the ridiculous: having never desired a career in law, he had a recurring fantasy about defending Lancelot and Gwen in court. He was never sure what they were accused of, because he was so good that he got them acquitted even before the preliminaries. Merlin thought it was the Merlin-saves-the-day aspect of it that drew him back to something so patently bizarre.
The daydreaming was always particularly bad after he watched films or read books that lent themselves to it. After Lord of the Rings had come out when Merlin was doing his GCSEs, he'd spent weeks walking about town at uncourteously fast speeds, pushing people out of the way without realising it, because his mind kept drifting off to a place where he was Viggo Mortensen's brother from a different mother, who was excellent with a crossbow.
It didn't help that Merlin's daydreams were vivid--that they seemed vivid beyond the norm, but Merlin would never be able to tell if they were, because he had never been particularly good at the norm, and he didn't feel as if he could ask someone for clarification.
But the vivid daydreams had been coming thick and fast since Arthur had come into his life, arrogant but appealing, confident and talented but also, somehow, hesitant and insecure. Merlin seemed unable to stop pushing him into all sorts of fantasy scenarios--boat races and courtrooms and beaches and crossbow-battles all--and it seemed to him almost (though he knew, rationally, that the notion was ridiculous) as if Arthur was the sort of person who had been born into it, into being what people needed him to be.
After he said goodbye to Morgana and Gwen at Noodle Bar, he found himself, almost unconsciously, looping upwards towards the Woodstock Road and Summertown, where Lancelot lived in a massive house that his stepfather had bought "as an investment." (Lancelot shared it with two other second-year linguists from Queen's, who had spent their first week there walking around each of the huge rooms with looks on their faces that suggested they thought befriending Lancelot had been the best idea they'd ever had.)
He made it as far as the Lamb and Flag before thinking better of it.
It'd be a lie to say that he wasn't entertaining the notion of stalking Arthur and Lancelot up to Summertown and knocking on Lancelot's door, feigning complete incomprehension when Lancelot shot him the cockblockers-die-lonely-deaths look, but it would also be accurate to say that the thought of actually stalking them up there disturbed him somewhat. So he turned back towards town and ambled his way back to Oriel, walking slowly and telling himself he felt totally relaxed.
He let his mind drift, the place where it went familiar by now. Like Gwen's courtroom, Arthur's island now had props and features that effortlessly slotted into mental place as Merlin walked: soft winds scented with sea-water and a feeling of complete lack of care--the sense that he could do anything he wanted to, there.
He thought of Arthur asking, "Do you have any brothers and sisters?" earlier that evening, and of his embarrassed sympathy at the mention of Merlin's father. He imagined that Arthur on a tropical island would be just like that, but bolder: that a few drinks later in one of those beach-hut-family-restaurants one saw in films, he would say, "That's pretty awful," and lean forward to take Merlin's hand.
Arthur would be funny, too--he'd turn his sense of humour towards enticing smiles out of Merlin, rather than to making him look like a sleep-deprived idiot in front of the other rowers the way he'd done a couple of times now, though Merlin couldn't find it in himself to be truly annoyed about it. He would exhibit the same earnest regard for Merlin that he had in those few minutes at Noodle Bar, and he'd turn to him and say, "There's something about you, Merlin," and Merlin would duck his head and blush, denying it while thinking I'm so glad you've noticed, because really: didn't everybody want that?
The light coming from one of those glass lanterns that beach restaurants always seemed to have in books would be golden, and Merlin would glance at Arthur's eyes and hair glinting in the dim glow and look forward not only to the spectacular sex that he knew would come later, but also to getting to know Arthur better--to hearing him talk about his father and his sister, and to finding out why he'd moved to an island in the middle of nowhere from Buckinghamshire.
Eventually they'd go outside and Arthur would kiss him, softly but insistently, pressing Merlin up against the sort of wide pole that always propped beach huts up in paintings, and Merlin would moan into Arthur's mouth and crook his leg upwards, knee pressing against Arthur's cock through the fabric of both of their beach-appropriate trousers.
Later, Merlin would find some way to tell Arthur about his "special gift", even though he'd never been able to find the right words to tell anyone in real life. And Arthur would understand, and come up with some way to describe the indescribable that was better than Merlin's mum's and Merlin's great-uncle's. It would certainly be better than Will's, whose description had been a total and pervasive silence; Will hadn't spoken to Merlin since they'd both come up to Oxford.
And there, on holiday in a place thousands of miles from where he lived his day-to-day life, for the first time ever Merlin would feel as if he belonged. As if Arthur, for all his awkward, Eton-boarding-house-emotional fumbling, could see Merlin, see him for who and what he truly was.
On a tropical island, Arthur might one day say, "I love you," but in Oxford--where it had begun to rain, and where Merlin now stood in front of the Oriel gate--neither of them were women in a Mills and Boon novel, and really: this shit had to stop.
Fantasies about Arthur's neck were okay.
Fantasies about Arthur fulfilling Merlin's every repressed emotional need were not.
Merlin touched his fob to the gate, and when it swung open as he pressed his shoulder against it, he took away his mind's permission to wander island way--ever again.
Bran and Tom got rid of six guys on Wednesday afternoon, and on Thursday they took the rowers to the tank for the first time. Merlin saw Lancelot and Evans and Petersen and all the old hands firm their shoulders at the mention of this, and knew, as they did, that Bran and Tom had reached a stage where each remaining cut would be difficult to make. That was always the worst for the rowers--being cut later always felt like more of a failure than being cut early, when you could tell yourself it just wasn't meant to be.
The tank was the worst because it highlighted the things that were most difficult to improve on. Rowers could always train harder, could always gain more muscle; they might have a bad day on the river, but Bran and Tom might see something in them that indicated that they would come through on the day. Technique problems, though--the bad habits that each of them might have, picked up and entrenched during years of rowing--were always more difficult to fix. There came a point when Bran said, "Raise your hands, Lancelot," and he meant something that the rower in question simply did not understand, though evidently he was clear on what Raise your hands meant. And if he didn't manage to get it, to somehow raise his hands in a way that improved the sharpness of his catch, the thought that he might put the blade in at the wrong angle and catch a crab on the day was enough to get him cut. Merlin had seen Lancelot live in abject fear of this for three weeks last year, before he'd finally managed to do what the coaches had been asking him to, after a morning-outing epiphany.
Merlin followed the men down to the University playing fields, lagging behind a little as they chatted. He and Susannah were always the least use on tank days, and last year Merlin had used them mostly as an opportunity to look at Lancelot's arse with the aid of the tank room's many mirrors. He suspected Susannah did the same, but she was the sort of girl who wore cardigans buttoned up to the chin, and though Merlin--who had worn awful boho neckerchiefs in high school--hated to be one to make sartorial assumptions, it was also clear from their conversations that she would utterly lose her blob at the open mention of sex.
He looked ahead to the men laughing in front of him; Jakub Kymlicka was giving Evans a piggyback ride, and James Bennett was running along behind them, slapping Evans' arse.
How it was that straight men who rowed together in an eight could act so unselfconsciously gay, Merlin would never understand.
He shifted his eyes to Lancelot, who was walking along with a sort of gormless look on his face, gaze on James' batting hands, and then turned to look at Arthur, who was chatting quietly with Benjamin Eaker, whom Merlin liked because he spoke softly and shared a love of long coach rides with him.
For days now Merlin had been trying to figure out whether Lancelot and Arthur had ended up having post-Wii sex the week before. Lancelot had said nothing, but the chemistry between him and Arthur was even better now, if that was possible, and they moved around each other with an easy comfort that made Merlin sort of uneasy, though he tried not to dwell on it.
He was trying to determine whether Lancelot would actually be physically able to keep something like that private when Lancelot dropped back from the crowd to walk alongside Merlin with that odd sort of choppy, determined gait he had, and said to him quietly,
"I hate this from now on, I remember now."
Merlin laughed. "I think you got over your catch issues last year, Lancelot--I wouldn't worry. But I know what you mean. Just try to stay relaxed."
Lancelot nodded. Merlin opened his mouth, then closed it--when Lancelot turned inquisitively towards him, though, he couldn't help himself and blurted out,
"So. You and Arthur--last week?"
Lancelot looked at him oddly, perhaps thinking of the last fling he'd had with that girl from St. Peter's, when Merlin had finally snapped at the thought of so much sexual athleticism and had said: Lancelot, really. Whatever it is, and wherever it is that you did it, and however it is that you managed to balance on one foot while twirling a bowler hat from the end of a cane with your left hand, or whatever it is you were saying just now--unless your mental health truly depends on speaking about it, I don't want to know.
He was a good friend, though, and so he didn't call Merlin on his hypocritical, case-specific curiosity, and just said,
"Well, we got back to the house," Lancelot's tone took on a salacious glee that was disturbingly familiar to Merlin, "and we were playing House of the Dead--which is awful, by the way, don't ever be tempted by the picture on the cover--and then… well. I was thinking about making a move, but my stomach was feeling horrifically full--I mean, truly, as if I'd consumed a cow, or something equally large; I have no idea what was in that Noodle Bar food--and Arthur was sitting forward on my sofa with his back completely straight, even though we were supposed to be relaxing, so mostly I just sort of, you know--" Lancelot mimed a yawn-and-reach manouever, and Merlin widened his eyes in complete incredulity at Lancelot's utter lameness, because really, did anyone actually do that? "--and we just kept playing. Afterwards we watched Shawn of the Dead--in keeping with the 'dead' theme, of course--and then he stayed over and we went to training together the next day.
To tell you the truth, I don't think it's going to happen between Arthur and me, Merlin. I think we're actually becoming good friends. Not that we couldn't be good friends who had sex, of course--" Lancelot winked at Merlin-- "but I think he's going to be one of my special, extremely rare, no-sex-included friends. And oddly, I'm fairly certain I feel satisfied with this. So in conclusion, Emrys, he's really all yours."
"Oh, well, in that that case…" said Merlin dryly, trying hard not to sound like he meant it.
Lancelot just laughed and winked at him again, pointing at Merlin with a finger-gun gesture that Merlin was pretty sure had not been seen since March 1986, and even then only from individuals who had been characters in Top Gun.
Merlin rolled his eyes, letting Lancelot go through the door to the tank before him, and reminded himself sternly that he mustn't fall into the trap--for the hundredth time--of finding Lancelot's stupid, cheesy, antics sort of charming.
Bran pointed Merlin towards the bench at the front of the tank as Merlin came through the door, and he moved to sit next to Susannah as Tom arranged the rowers as he wanted them. He turned to Merlin and Susannah and said,
"You two watch for rhythm. Bran and I will move through and do corrections."
Merlin nodded, and as Tom stepped back and the last rower finished putting his feet into his footplate's shoes, Merlin said,
"All right Oxford; come to backstops. And rowing on gently, full slide: ready--go!"
They all drew forward together, their seats whirring on the slides as they followed Ben at stroke, and their blades plopped into the water in unison for the first stroke. Merlin watched for a minute or so, ensuring that no-one was out of time, and then he let his eyes drift from rower to rower, listening to the slap of the blades against the water to ensure they were all rowing as one.
Merlin let his mind drift into an imaginary conversation with Susannah about the virtues of the tank's many mirrors, and didn't look up from the water until he heard Bran say sharply, "No, Arthur--raise your arms into the catch." Lancelot smiled and shook his head ruefully, and Madsen shot Arthur a sympathetic look from where Tom had an iron grip on his left shoulder.
Arthur tried to shift his arms' position as he moved into the next stroke, but Bran just shook his head again, and again the stroke after that. Eventually he said,
"Okay--easy there, everybody." When the rowers stopped, he turned to Arthur and said, "Arthur, on your own for the moment. Rowing on: ready--go!"
Arthur moved forward, and though Merlin would have said his technique was practically flawless as he did so, Bran shook his head and said, "No--think about rolling your hands upwards into the catch. Lift your arms, but smoothly, in a single movement that starts the minute you begin moving forward but isn't sudden at any point. Try again."
"It may surprise you to learn this, Bran, but I am trying," said Arthur tightly.
Arthur moved forward again, and Tom called from the back of the tank,
"Arthur, relax. The more you tense up around the shoulders, the harder it is to get the natural movement of the stroke as you come forward. Just loosen the shoulders, and raise your arms naturally--let the blade fall into the water. Don't put any effort into dropping it in."
Merlin could see Arthur's face tightening further--no doubt he'd never had anyone tell him his catch wasn't smooth enough, just as Lancelot and Petersen and Evans hadn't either, last year, and Merlin could see him struggling to understand what "Raise your arms naturally" might mean, considering he no doubt thought he'd been doing just that for the past ten minutes.
Arthur also looked as if he wasn't particularly enjoying the scrutiny; he looked like the sort of person who'd never been singled out in class for anything negative, and a hot blush was making its way up his neck. Everyone else did their best to look elsewhere, but it was difficult when they were sitting next to him as Bran and Tom fussed, one from the front and one from behind.
"Arthur," said Lancelot, finally, "I had the same problem last year. Just think about--it's like a rolling pin, up a slope. Up a curved slope, like a skateboarder's U, but with a gentler gradient, obviously."
Arthur didn't look as if that helped. Merlin's experience was that coaches and rowers tended to have completely different, often illogical, descriptions for the same things, so that "reach around the drum, James" and "No--it's like Superman around a corner, Madsen," could mean the same thing.
Merlin watched Arthur's brow get more and more furrowed, his shoulders tighter and tighter as Bran's mouth got more and more pursed. Bran was patient, but when he felt he wasn't getting his point across, he had a tendency towards unproductive flashes of rage. Merlin could see one coming on now, and didn't think Arthur's hot gaze boded well for a quick resolution if a discussion got underway. He moved forward, sitting cross-legged on the floor directly in front of the tank, and said,
"Arthur. Easy there." Arthur stopped rowing, and the coaches looked at Merlin as he said, "Drop your blade, and just sit for a moment." When Arthur looked less like a man about to punch his fist through a wall, Merlin continued,
"Okay, Arthur. Close your eyes. Relax. Keep your shoulders and your legs loose; think about keeping your core nice and strong, but just let everything unwind. Move your arms around a bit--go on.
Now--think about feeling the river under you. You're a practical sort of rower; you're good at listening and feeling what's happening in the water as it rushes past the boat. So try to feel that now--that natural rhythm. Try to think about letting your blade drop into the stream without disrupting it: let the catch come naturally, as an afterthought, almost. Square your blade and think about easing into the water, rather than connecting with it, just as you would if you were on the river."
Merlin had come to this conclusion--that Arthur was a hands-on-learning sort of individual--on that first outing; he seemed to respond better to stimuli and prompts for action than he did to long technical explanations. He tried now to will Arthur to see the river, to make him feel as if he were on the water now, so that he could row with the same natural grace with which Merlin had seen him move on outings. Merlin pictured the river in Wallingford--the familiar bend before the OUBC boathouse, the grey water, the wind. He conjured the willows and the rushes in his mind and concentrated on getting Arthur to see what Merlin could see in his head by describing it to him.
"Feel the river under you, Arthur," said Merlin, one final time, and as he thought of the sound of the wind through the trees, he saw Arthur jerk sharply, once, his eyes snapping open and focussing on Merlin's face before they shut again and Arthur's shoulders rolled into a familiar easy posture.
"Okay, Arthur," finished Merlin. "When you're ready--row on."
Arthur came forward smoothly, his inside arm reaching perfectly between his knees, and his blade dropped into the water easily, again and again until Tom said,
"Okay--everybody else. Joining Arthur… in three… in two… in one. Go."
Tom and Bran kept them at it for an hour and a half, adjusting hand heights and postures in almost unnoticeable ways. When the training session finished, most of the men had switched in and out of the tank a couple of times, and everyone looked frustrated and tired. Susannah and Merlin traded off on giving directions as the coaches walked around, and by the end of it Merlin's arse was numb and his voice was gravelly from the slow, repetitive, technical calls. He sympathised with the men who stalked out as soon as Bran and Tom dismissed them, but also felt Lancelot's pain as he wearily picked up his bag and made his way home across the football pitches, head down.
Merlin walked away from the tank room slowly, musing deeply on the cup of tea and the custard cream he would have when he got home, and he jerked when Arthur materialised next to him and dug his nails into Merlin's upper arm before whispering urgently,
"Emrys. Kindly tell me how the fuck you did that."
"Excuse me?" asked Merlin, twisting away from Arthur's grasp.
"Don't play dumb, Merlin. You know perfectly well what I'm talking about. Earlier, when I was having trouble with the catches. You were telling me to imagine the river, and I was doing my best to listen to you and relax, and then all of a sudden, in the middle of me trying to imagine the water underneath the boat, you--you pushed an image into my head, Merlin. You--I don't know. Made me hallucinate. Performed hypnosis? How should I know? But I was there, listening to your voice and trying to form a picture in my head, and then all of a sudden I had a picture in my head that I am certain--absolutely certain, Merlin--was not my own. And I don't see how it could have been anyone else. I wasn't listening to anyone else; I wasn't looking at anyone else. So I don't know how you did it, but it must have been you."
Merlin looked at him, eyes wide, thinking to deny it--because though it was clear that it had probably been his doing, it had not been his intention (this was a horribly common occurrence when it came to his god-forsaken "gift")--but Arthur took one look at his terrified face and, taking it for the confirmation that it was, scoffed disgustedly,
"You know what? Don't tell me. I don't have any real interest in knowing about it, unless you've been drugging my water, or something. Otherwise, if it's some sort of hypnosis trick you learned from your strange great-uncle, who Lancelot says looks like he had his hair cut by a fourteenth-century barber and smells like mouldy spices, then just--don't do it again, Merlin. I didn't like it. And certainly don't do it without my permission."
"Arthur," Merlin forced himself to say through a dry throat, "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."
Arthur looked at him incredulously, and Merlin held up a hand and said, "What I mean is: I did not intentionally cause you to have a hallucination, as you put it, and neither am I drugging your water like the Black Widow, in expectation of your untimely and mysterious death. Now, I'm very good at what I do--it's not something I'd normally say, Arthur, but I am--and I'm glad the visualisation exercise worked for you. That's my job, as your cox."
Arthur grunted, and Merlin could see him struggling between pursuing what he thought he knew for sure and following the more rational impulse to let the inexplicable lie. He walked next to Merlin in silence until the Cowley roundabout, and then said, finally,
"Fine. How's your mother?"
Merlin, as delighted by Arthur's awkward and overly proper attempts at personal interaction this time as he had been at Noodle Bar, answered,
"Fine, thank you. And your father?"
After that, Merlin and Arthur made a habit of sneaking awkward and overly proper conversation in between doing other things.
With time, it just became conversation, neither overly proper nor overly awkward, though Merlin was beginning to wonder if the awkwardness that was the two of them interacting could ever be completely counteracted.
It wasn't always significant:
"I hate Earl Grey," Arthur said disgustedly one cold morning, peering around the kettle that someone had snuck into the boathouse, obviously trying to spot a bag of normal tea among the sugar-packet detritus that was piled precariously against the milk.
"What are you on about? Earl Grey is clearly the king of teas."
Merlin had sipped his tea, perched on an old rowing boat that was practically decomposing in the corner of the boathouse, trying to communicate that Arthur was missing out on something brilliant and exquisite by making pleased noises as he drank.
"Merlin," Arthur had said, faux-kindly, "I wouldn't trust you to identify anything of royal calibre if it pointed at you with a bejewelled sceptre, and I'll have you know that Earl Grey is the direct result of a bergamot-growers' conspiracy, designed to put all decent Englishmen off their morning cup of tea."
Arthur had marched off, ostensibly to examine the rigging on one of the boats, and Merlin had used the opportunity to find Arthur a normal teabag, his fingers carding through the paper mountain next to the kettle. He'd brewed a cup and handed it to Arthur as he passed, unable to resist a little teasing, because really, Arthur acted as if he were five, sometimes,
"Jesus, Arthur. Don't cut off your nose to spite your face."
Sometimes it was a little odd:
"I hear that custodian is having sex with that weird guy from Regent's Park, who spends time at the Union with that lecherous vicar, and who supposedly also dated a porter from Corpus," said Arthur the first time he took Merlin back to Christ Church, nodding imperiously at the man at the gate as they passed.
"Er--what?" Merlin was too busy marvelling at the fact that the man in the bowler hat had let him pass without protest--usually, the custodians kicked up a fuss when students at Oriel and Corpus and Merton tried to cut through Christ Church on the way back from Sainsbury's--to really listen to what Arthur was saying.
"You know," said Arthur, gesturing awkwardly, as if it would help to shed light on the matter. "That guy. Odd ginger hair, vaguely intoxicated look on his face, no matter what time of day it is. He supposedly dated a fifty-year old porter from Corpus last term, and now it appears that he's moved on to Tony--" Arthur flicked his thumb back towards the man in the bowler hat.
Merlin shook his head slowly, still completely at a loss as to whom Arthur was referring to, and Arthur blushed hotly before saying, "Oh, never mind," in a tone of voice that suggested Merlin would know exactly whom Arthur was speaking about if only he were a bit more socially adept.
"Jesus, Arthur," said Merlin, eyes fixed on Christ Church hall to stop Arthur from noticing how amused he was, because making fun of Arthur's propriety-breach moments of embarrassment was one of the most amazing things Oxford had to offer, "who the hell have you been hanging out with?"
Mostly, it was oddly personal:
"Every time my father calls, I feel guilty that I'm not doing enough to take advantage of my time here," Arthur said disgustedly as they all piled into the minibus one morning, Merlin still half-asleep and with half a biscuit stored in his left cheek.
"Oh--every time my mother calls, she warns me against that directly. Sometimes she cries and tells me she's proud. She's the master of guilt."
Lancelot, who was always listening in on other people's conversations, nodded at both of them.
"My mum and Rafael are the same. I don't think it's them, necessarily--this place just makes people feel guilty. And us, especially--here we are, faffing about in a boat twice a day while other people slave away at the Bod, blood coming out of their eyes from all the reading. As soon as anyone mentions guilt, my gut throbs in sympathy."
"Your gut throbs in sympathy at pretty much anything, Lancelot," said Arthur wearily.
"Well, yes," said Lancelot, picking at a rowing blister on his left hand. "But you get my point."
After, when Lancelot had fallen asleep with his head awkwardly twisted onto Arthur's shoulder, Arthur turned to Merlin and said, his voice almost anguished,
"What will it take to make him happy, Merlin?"
"Jesus, Arthur," said Merlin, sympathetic, trying to make his gaze warm and heavy, like touch. "I just don't know."
They settled into a bit of a pattern:
Arthur began coming back to Oriel after outings when he didn't have anything else to do, where Merlin served him normal tea and crap biscuits. They sat about in Merlin's shabby room, listening to music on the record player--an honest-to-god record player that Gaius had fixed up, somehow, not one of those retro-chic things--and Merlin taught Arthur washing-machine tricks to keep his lycra from taking on greyish hues if washed alongside any other clothes.
When Arthur called him fussy and odd--after noting his advice down on a piece of paper, of course--Merlin looked pointedly at Arthur's trainers, which Arthur had expressly admitted to Merlin he'd bought to coordinate with his Blues stash, and said nothing while Arthur blushed.
Arthur had a room at the back of Christ Church, overlooking the Meadows and with an actual balcony, and at the weekends the two of them would sit outside, looking out towards the river down the avenue of trees, while Merlin drank Earl Grey that Arthur had bought especially for the occasion.
Merlin kept Arthur's box of tea hidden, lest anyone else ask him to serve them normal tea at the sight of it, but Arthur displayed Merlin's box of tea prominently, as if trying to make a point about his carefully educated hospitality every time Merlin came in the room.
They were good at talking, and excellent at sitting about doing nothing much. They weren't particularly good--and by 'not particularly good', Merlin meant awful--at ending their conversations or saying goodbye.
Every time Merlin had to go back to his room to finish an essay, or Arthur had to go back to the Bod to work on his thesis, or go to a tutorial, they stood awkwardly about the door of whatever room they were in, Arthur saying, "Right. Well," and Merlin shuffling his feet gracelessly, wondering whether to hold out his hand for a manly shake.
(The few times they had met Lancelot in the street on their way somewhere, he always hugged both of them enthusiastically, which, in Merlin's considered opinion, he was doing on purpose to highlight Merlin's and Arthur's own inexplicable awkwardness.)
Arthur in private was different from Arthur in public, but though Merlin had originally dismissed Arthur's public persona as too arrogant and brutish to bother with, longer acquaintance had taught him that Arthur was capable of being gracious, and of showing humility or repentance, in front of others and despite his pride.
One day, after Merlin had walked past some blades stacked on the wall and knocked the entire lot over, Arthur had looked askance at the other rowers before saying, gleefully,
"Jesus, Merlin--" his impression of Merlin's bastardised Irishman-by-way-of-Bradford accent wasn't bad, Merlin would admit. "Walk around very often, do you?"
Merlin had laughed good-naturedly as the rowers helped him to gather the blades up, but afterwards, he had sidled up to Arthur and said,
"I'll have you know I get my abuse of 'Jesus' from my mother, who is a formidable woman, and I do not take kindly to anyone making fun of her, however indirectly."
Arthur had said nothing, but he had lowered his eyes, and later, when Jeremy Madsen had almost hit him in the face with a rigger as he swung a scull up to carry it to the river, Arthur had ducked to avoid being hit and said, "Jesus, Madsen. Watch out," with no irony in his voice.
He'd turned to Merlin and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, See what I did there?, and Merlin had rolled his eyes and thought, Jesus, Arthur. I'm sort of in love with your awkward ways.
Ever since they had begun spending time together, Merlin had made it common practice to concentrate hard on Arthur's face as Arthur spoke, disciplining himself into focussing on the matter at hand, not giving his mind permission to drift elsewhere, especially if 'elsewhere' was warmer and more palm-tree-inclusive.
With time, he came to the realisation that his mind didn't want to drift, anymore.
He stopped trying to concentrate, and just did.
It was Sunday of fifth week when Morgana called, right as Merlin was wandering about aimlessly in Blackwell's, contemplating whether to buy The Very Short Introduction to Classical Mythology or not.
"Morgana?" Merlin asked tentatively, pulling the phone away from his ear to look at the caller ID a second time. "Everything okay?"
"Merlin," she said crisply, "Yes, thank you. How about you?"
Merlin had meant, Has Gwen died in a lab explosion? Why are you calling me? but he chose to roll with Morgana's probably wilful misunderstanding and said,
"Yes, fine, thanks. How are you?"
Merlin had a second to think that he'd already asked that, and he was trying to come up with something else to say even as Morgana continued,
"Listen, Merlin. I'm calling to invite you to the Merton Time Ceremony. It's tonight. Can you come?"
Merlin had heard all about the legendary Time Ceremony when Morgana had snuck Gwen in the year before, and (as alarmed as he was at the thought of spending an evening with Morgana and trying to make non-terrified conversation with her for an entire night) he was intrigued enough by Gwen's stories of "a man in a floor-length hooded black robe, who looked like Death but was allegedly a Classics grad of exceeding cleverness" to say,
"Yes--I'd love to. When should I come over?"
"About five," said Morgana. Merlin looked at his watch. It was 4.30.
"I'm sorry about the short notice, Merlin, but I've just thought that if you don't get here early enough, the porters might not let you in--they might realise we're trying to sneak you in for tonight, and non-Mertonians aren't allowed in, technically. Best to come early and bring some work, or something, and we can eat something in my room before we go out in the evening. I think it's probably best if we bring you out when it's darker; the porters and the JCR people are less likely to ask questions then. But if they do ask, we'll just say you're a physicist who never leaves his room. I think that'd probably be fairly believable."
Merlin nodded, thinking, Especially at Merton, and then, realising Morgana couldn't see him, said, "Yes, okay--that's fine. I need to bring sub-fusc, right?"
"Right," said Morgana. "I'll see you in a bit, then?"
"Morgana--" said Merlin, before she could hang up, "is Gwen coming?"
"Oh, no," she answered. "Too difficult to sneak two people in. Just you."
"Oh--okay. Thanks for inviting me," answered Merlin, trying to sound nonchalant but failing when his voice crept embarrassingly towards an upper octave on the first syllable of the 'okay'.
Merlin loped past the Porters' lodge at Merton as quickly as possible, scanning the quad for Morgana and finding her leaning gracefully against the chapel. She motioned to him and he walked across to her, slouching and trying to look as much like an antisocial physicist as possible.
"Hello, Merlin," she said pleasantly, her voice warm, and Merlin smiled at her, equally pleasant, feeling much more at ease than he had a second ago.
"This way," she said, and led him through an archway and two corridors into another quadrangle, where she punched some numbers into a keypad by a door before leading him up the stairs to the second floor.
Morgana's room was colourful--full of flowers, which Merlin wouldn't have expected. It was a bit odd, considering he'd known Morgana for over a year, but Merlin had never been in here before; then again, before today, Merlin and Morgana had never really spent any time alone together. Merlin had always enjoyed Morgana's sharp wit, and he felt very affectionate towards her distracted, mad-Chemist ways, but he had tended to gravitate towards Gwen, in whose orbit Morgana always seemed to loop, rather than seek out Morgana herself.
"This is a nice room," he said, and Morgana motioned to him to have a seat before asking,
"Tea? I have Earl Grey, as per Arthur's suggestion." Merlin smiled at her and said,
He waited while Morgana fussed with her kettle, which was one of those classy 50s-replica kettles that Merlin had walked past in Debenham's, before cheaping out and going to Argos for a £4.95 job instead. (His tea tasted metallic more often than not, something that Arthur had never neglected to mention on his visits, not once.) She poured milk into his cup before handing it to him, and they sat in comfortable silence as they drank--tea-inclusive silence never felt as awkward as not speaking when there was no tea to be had. Finally, Morgana said,
"So--how is training going?"
"Oh, really well," said Merlin. "I think it's pretty likely that I'll get the Blue Boat again, though Susannah has improved a lot--we both have, I guess. I don't want to tempt fate, obviously, but I'm hoping for the best. And Arthur and Lancelot are both doing really well; I think that Tom and Bran--those are the coaches--might even be considering them for stern pair, though it's still early days, of course. It'd be amazing if that happened, though, the three of us together at the front of the boat."
Morgana smiled at him, only a tiny bit indulgent, and said, "You and Arthur and Lancelot are getting on well?"
"Oh, yeah," said Merlin. "You know Lancelot, it's impossible not to get on well with him, really--" Morgana quirked an eyebrow. She didn't particularly approve of Lancelot, because everyone who knew Gwen at all understood that she was waiting for him to grow up for her, and Morgana was of the opinion that he would not grow up in time to avoid breaking her heart.
"Well--within reason," amended Merlin, afraid of Morgana's perfect-eyebrow dissent. "And Arthur… well, he and I are getting on quite well, I think. In the past week, he's restrained himself to calling me incompetent without really meaning it only once a day, which is a definite improvement."
"Yes; there's always room for improvement, with Arthur," said Morgana, sipping her tea.
"It's not that bad, really," said Merlin, finding himself defending Arthur for a reason that wasn't entirely clear to him. "I think sometimes he just--doesn't quite know what to do with himself, I guess. He's already one of the best rowers in the boat, but I think it's important to him to stand out in some other way. So he laughs at my hair after I've fallen asleep on the bus and says scathing things when I knock the blades over from where they're leaning against the wall, like I did last week--not my finest moment, admittedly. And I think… well, it should be hateful, but oddly, it's sort of--admirable, almost? I'm not even sure what I mean. I guess… obviously the making fun of me isn't appealing--I don't understand why he can't restrain himself, when he's obviously nicer than that--but the rest of it. The trying to be better, more noticeable than other people--trying to give the impression that he's flawless. Not in an arrogant way, but as if he thinks that's what he should be doing. I always get the feeling he's trying to outdo himself, measuring himself against some standard the rest of us can't see, or don't understand."
"Yes, well," said Morgana slowly. "A life with Arthur's father will do that to you."
Merlin had figured that much out, from Arthur's muttered revelations. He felt as if Arthur bared himself in unexpected bursts, and Merlin wasn't always sure he was decoding the rushes of information the way he was meant to. Most of the time, Arthur and Merlin spoke about little things, enjoying each other's company but not really speaking as the friends Merlin knew they were. Other times, though, Arthur would say something brilliant and private--I wonder if I'll be any less afraid of failure, or of being alone, when I'm older; I don't think so, somehow--but he'd come onto those topics so suddenly that Merlin would sometimes find he'd missed half of the important things Arthur had shared, without realising it.
Merlin sipped his tea--as per Arthur's suggestion, Morgana had said. That had been a kind thing to do. Morgana watched him silently, as if sensing Merlin was struggling to find the right words.
"Lancelot said he was like that, before," said Merlin, finally. He wasn't sure what it was about that moment, he and Morgana ensconced in her flower-filled room drinking tea and speaking as if they'd always been close, but he didn't feel as intimidated by her beauty and intelligence, and most of all by her poise, as he usually did. He didn't even feel tempted to ask her inane questions about her Chemistry tutorials, which had always been his failsafe in the past, and he was thrilled to have something to share with her that didn't involve rowing. Even college rowers' minds got a bit one-trackish, and when you were doing Blues training, at Wallingford for most of the day six days a week, it was sometimes difficult to remember that there were other things in life.
"When his stepfather sent him to some sort of posh boarding school for the first time, that is," continued Merlin. "He once told me that he felt so pressured to live up to a standard that he hadn't been aware existed before that he spent all his time being horribly earnest, trying to get the best marks in every subject and be the best at every sport. He said that for the first few years, he had no sense of humour about anything--just a drive to be better than something, or someone; he didn't quite know what. He even ran away from school once, he said, in the early days, and wandered around Salisbury for an entire weekend, thinking that he couldn't possibly belong in a place that was so unfamiliar to him. And he said that when he discovered that he was good enough for himself, and that only that mattered, it was as if he had all of a sudden realised he had the freedom to do dozens of things--'worthwhile and stupid alike', he said. That's why he jokes about everything now, he said to me. Because he realised he could, and that was more important than any of the other stuff."
It was only when Merlin had finished speaking that he realised that this was something Lancelot had told him in confidence, one morning when Merlin had come in to charge a cox-box at the Oriel boathouse and had run into Lancelot on boathouse island, just coming off the river after a scull. It had been cold and a little misty as they'd walked back towards town through the Christ Church Meadows, and Merlin had said some things of his own that had only seemed appropriate to utter in the half-mist. He turned towards Morgana, eyes serious,
"I don't think he told me that so that I could tell anyone else about it, really," he said. "So it would be really great if you could pretend I never told you."
Morgana fussed around with some papers on her desk before saying, "Don't worry, Merlin. It can be our little secret." Her voice had that tone in it that meant she was thinking hard about something, her mind not entirely there.
"I don't think Arthur is all that different from that," she said, a minute later, eyes focussed on the view outside the window. "The performance anxiety, or whatever you want to call it. Whether he'll ever realise he doesn't have to be anything just because other people say he does is another question entirely. But perhaps you… and Lancelot"--she said this last a little grudgingly, but perhaps less grudgingly than she might have before--"can help."
Merlin smiled at her, and then, in unspoken agreement, the two of them opened books and settled down to work. Merlin unearthed a highlighter with a chewed cap from the bottom of his bag, and they both sat down to wait for nightfall.
It was about eight when Morgana asked him if he was hungry, and Merlin, not feeling particularly ravenous but feeling, as always, as if he could eat--why not?--said yes. Morgana stood up from her desk and walked into a tiny walk-in wardrobe area that had been cramped into the room behind the bed, with a sink sticking out at an awkward angle from one of its walls. She fumbled underneath a shelf before bringing out a bright purple plastic box, which she placed on the bed. As Merlin watched, she prised the lid off and brought out a microwave, which she put on the floor and plugged into the wall.
"That is ace," said Merlin, thinking back fondly to Gwen's contraband microwave in the first year, which had been confiscated because he and Gwen had never had the discipline to put it away safely after they'd microwaved soups in it at midday. "Gwen and I never thought about having an actual receptacle for hers. We probably would have evaded capture longer if that'd been the case."
Morgana smiled. "I have an arrangement, of sorts, with my Scout. She turns a blind eye--or nose, I suppose--to the smell of ready meals that lingers in the air in the mornings, and I turn a blind eye towards her complete disregard for actually cleaning the rooms in this staircase. I think she swept a cloth over my sink, once, but I can't be sure."
Morgana went to her fridge and pulled out a Marks & Spencer's "Indian Meal for Two," and set about microwaving the different pots as Merlin, who was a Sainsbury's Basics man by custom, if not necessity, watched in delight.
"I would have taken you to dinner in hall," she said, "but I didn't think we could get away with arguing you were a physicist who had never left his room but had chosen to make a one-night-only exception for a hall dinner. For the Time Ceremony, yes. For hall's suspect custard, probably not. Here," she added, reaching towards her desk and extracting a Bod card from a drawer, which she handed to Merlin. "In case anyone asks to see it."
"Peter Rice," read Merlin. "Undergraduate. Physics and Philosophy. Merton College. Morgana, who is this guy?"
"I don't really know," said Morgana. "Which is why he's perfect. I think he was a bit surprised when I went to knock on his door earlier today. I found him on the online directory. He said we could borrow his Bod card as long as we put it in his pidge before tomorrow, because he has to go to the library at 9." Morgana shrugged heavily and cast her eyes heavenward. "Anyway, the picture's a bit scratched, and his hair is dark, so you can probably pass for him, if someone looks at his picture in the dark."
"Uh, Morgana," said Merlin, beginning to get a bit nervous, "I'm not going to be asked for the secret password before I'm allowed to witness a ritual sacrifice, or something, am I? I mean, this all seems awfully elaborate."
"Oh, no--don't worry," she answered, spooning sag aloo onto two different plates and pushing the rice container into the microwave. "No-one ever asked about Gwen or Arthur--pathologically awkward mathematician and English student with an older girlfriend in London who was always coming to visit and kept him in his room, respectively. I just like to be prepared."
She smiled lightly, but something in her voice made Merlin have a sudden mental glimpse of Morgana as a young girl, carefully labelling the different bottles in a child's chemistry set and arranging them on a shelf in alphabetical order. Gwen had always tried to convince Merlin that Morgana was in need of affection and spoiling at heart, but he'd never understood what she'd meant until now.
He smiled back.
"You brought Arthur, too?"
"In our first year," said Morgana. "His father insisted we each try everything there was to try at our respective colleges, of course."
"His father insisted. Of course," said Merlin, bemused. As he was contemplating whether this was the sort of thing he'd ever be able to say without ironic intent, Morgana disappeared into her fridge again and emerged with three bottles of white wine. She then dug under her bed and slid out two bottles of Christ Church port.
"Courtesy of Arthur," she said, and Merlin chuckled uneasily as he thought that Morgana, with whom he had only drunk a few times, perhaps was not aware of what sort of shameless lightweight Merlin really was.
Lots of Indian food and two bottles of wine later, Merlin was doing his best to stay upright, happy for the support of the bed at his back. Morgana seemed almost unaffected, a healthy--and attractive; of course--rose blush tinting her cheeks. She continued to enunciate her words perfectly; Merlin, knowing this would not be the case with him, had been silent for the past few minutes.
"I don't know if getting hammered is really done, Merlin, and certainly we shouldn't be sick in Fellows' Quad, or anything--I haven't been sick on a night out since first year, god--but I've decided if we're going to keep the time-space continuum intact here, then by jove, we're going to do it in style."
Merlin nodded dizzily. By Jove?
"What," he said carefully, "happens during this thing again?"
"Well," said Morgana, her own intent and careful delivery giving Merlin hope that he was not alone in his off-his-face state, "I think some undergraduates came up with it in 1971. The idea was--I read about it once--to 'remedy the ill effects of man's abrupt interference with the diurnal cycle'. British Summer Time, that is. Essentially, most people in the college go into Fellows' Quad, and from 2am to 2am, you perambulate about the Quad backwards before turning your watch back for the winter."
"You have to walk for an hour?" asked Merlin uneasily, trying to think forward to how he was planning on standing up when the time came to leave Morgana's room.
"Oh, no," said Morgana. "Not continuously, anyway. We just have to be walking at the beginning, and then again at the end. There's a toast before it starts. With port, of course--but a lot of people drink beforehand, in Merton bar, except we can't take you there because someone might know the real Peter Rice--the real Peter Rice!" Morgana laughed delightedly. "And there are toasts by the stone table at the beginning, at about 1.45," she repeated.
Merlin nodded slowly.
"Now, opinion is divided on whether you should twirl at the corners as you walk, but I do not have this gown for nothing," at this Morgana crawled to her wardrobe and, with the aid of the bedpost, pulled herself upright to bring out her Postmasters' gown, "and we are going to twirl, Merlin, so try to keep your Indian down."
Merlin looked at his watch. It appeared to be--and Merlin really could only say what time it appeared to be, because his vision was not cooperating--11.30. He wasn't sure how it had gotten so late, but he rated his chances of staying up for two more hours as very slim indeed.
(Thank god he didn't have a morning outing tomorrow. He didn't fancy performing his own version of what he had seen that girl from Christ Church do in his first year--she'd gotten in the boat, leaned over the side, and, after some very unseemly activity, straightened up and called to the cox, "Right. I'm ready now!")
He would not be able to say, after, how they'd managed it, but come 12.45 both he and Morgana were still conscious, and the third bottle of wine was gone. Morgana went to open the first bottle of port, but Merlin held up a shaky hand from where he was sprawled on the floor and said,
"Morgana. Please. Far be it from me to deny--refuse--reject your generous offering, but if I drink any more I promise you I will not be able to answer for my actions. I may tell you about my childhood. I may ask you what Arthur looked like naked when you had baths together as children. I may begin shouting coxing calls out your window. I have been known to do the latter an embarrass-- a lot of times."
"Mer-lin," said Morgana, acquiring two port glasses from another shelf and tilting the bottle dangerously over the carpet, "Really. It'll be fine. Arthur gave us these bottles of fairly mediocre Christ Church port--£5 each if you're a member, I think, so a real investment, you'll understand--with the express thought of our drinking it in mind. So drink we must, if we are to fulfil the thought that Arthur had in his mind."
One part of Merlin was not sure Morgana's sentences were grammatically sound. The other part of him was entirely convinced by her argument, and so he held up a hand for a glass and said,
"If I did not like Arthur so much, Morgana, I would not do this. But like Arthur I do,"
"Oh, Merlin, I know," said Morgana. She spun her glass in her hand, the port sloshing over the sides, and drank it in one go before standing up and undoing the zip on the back of her skirt.
Merlin rushed to avert his eyes, spilling port down his t-shirt in the process, and said, "Morgana. What. Uh, I-- I mean--"
Morgana, who had her shirt off by this point, and who was wearing an intricate lace contraption that appeared to have been designed for some sort of medieval sexual torture, said lazily, "Well, Merlin, come on. Your sub-fusc won't put itself on, you know."
Sub-fusc. Merlin remembered suddenly that he was required to wear another set of clothes than the one he was currently wearing for this occasion--another set of clothes that required him to tie a fucking bow tie--and he jerked unsteadily to his feet, undoing his trousers and kicking ineffectually with one leg until they came off, because he wasn't about to be outdone in terms of undressing nonchalance by a girl. He rooted around in his bag and came up with a crumpled suit and a shirt, which he somehow managed to put on with only minimal difficulty. A cufflink went flying off and Merlin had to spend an embarrassingly long time looking for it under the bed while Morgana said, "Merlin really", in a way that was oddly reminiscent of Arthur, but that aside, he encountered no major issues.
When the time came for the bow tie, he looked unsteadily at Morgana--who was easing into some sensible but expensive-looking low heels--and held out his hand, waving his tie like a lasso.
"Morgana. Morgana," he said, weaving on his feet, "You know how to do a bow tie up, right?"
Morgana walked over to him, tying the knot quicker than Merlin could ever have done while sober, and gave him a pat on both shoulders, declaring, "There. Very good," before asking, "Where's your gown, Merlin?"
Merlin rooted around in his bag again, coming up with a gown that was more crumpled than the suit, and Morgana helped him ease into it even as she poured them another two glasses of port. Merlin drank with one hand while slipping Peter Rice's Bod card into his jacket inside pocket with the other, and held out an arm, elbow crooked, for Morgana to take. When she did, Merlin clung to her shamelessly, trying hard not to look as if he were depending on her for balance and probably failing.
Morgana brought the bottle of port along, and the two of them swerved violently down the stairs and then through the front quad. They ended up in St. Alban's Quad twice before Morgana managed to navigate them to Fellows' Quad, and from there to the Fellows' Garden, where a large group of people was gathered already. Merlin and Morgana swilled back the port like sailors, Merlin twirling his fingers through Morgana's hair and saying, "Oh; so pretty," while she giggled and made swishing motions with her gown.
Merlin laughed stupidly and didn't stop until the sight of a man walking up to the stone table shushed him. The man raised his glass of port very solemnly before intoning, "To a Good Old Time!" and Merlin sloshed port all over his sleeve when he thrust his own glass up, echoing him. They stood around for a few more minutes, continuing to drink with the complete disregard of the far-gone, and when the man raised his glass again and said, "Long live the Counter-revolution!" Morgana and Merlin mimicked him enthusiastically before following the crowd back to Fellows' Quad, where a queue of people walking unsteadily backwards had already materialised. Merlin and Morgana slotted in between two groups of five raucous girls, and they began as dignified a walk as they could, Morgana twirling elegantly at the corners while Merlin tried his hardest to stay on his feet.
At some point in the proceedings, Morgana had put their glasses and their bottle down on a ledge, and the combination of the sudden dearth of alcohol and the cool night air made Merlin start to sober up in tiny, miraculous, increments. He looked around and spotted Death, as Gwen had promised, and he turned to look at Morgana as the two of them continued to walk in small steps, the quad silent except for the shuffle of feet on stone, and said, "Morgana. Thank you. This is amazing."
She smiled, and the two of them sat down for a while, not getting up again until it was almost two o'clock again. Merlin heard the familiar toll of Oxford's bells in his head--they didn't play in the night, of course, but Merlin heard them nonetheless--and looked around the quad, trying to burn the sight of a hundred begowned people walking backwards carefully, the dark around them like a shroud, into his memory.
Afterwards, people broke up quickly, some couples that had been walking alone disappearing into the staircases above Fellows' Quad, and a group of rugby boys running loudly towards Front Quad, half-full port bottles clasped in each of their hands. Morgana and Merlin poured the last of their port into their glasses and toasted each other, clinking the crystal together, before making their way back to Morgana's room.
Morgana opened the second bottle on port upon their arrival--"On principle," she said, pouring them one last glass each--and Merlin undid his bow tie and shrugged his gown off, putting it back into his bag. He felt dreadfully sleepy, quiescent, and the thought of walking back to Oriel, four hundred yards away, seemed awful. Morgana batted his hands away from his bag as he moved to put his rumpled jeans in, and said,
"Merlin, don't be ridiculous. You'll be staying here, of course."
Merlin opened his mouth to disagree before ditching the pretence and settling further into the carpet. He drank slowly, his eyes wandering around the vases of flowers in Morgana's room, over the pictures she had pinned to the board above her bed. There was a family portrait, she and Arthur sitting stiffly by Arthur's father, the three of them dressed in pristine formal clothes, and a picture of Morgana as a young girl, wearing red trousers and sitting by a smiling woman who looked just like Morgana did, now.
In another she was sitting with Arthur on a lawn, the two of them laughing, a bottle of Pimms propped against Arthur's hip. They both looked beautiful, Arthur in a white open-collared shirt and Morgana in a green sundress.
"Do you like Arthur, Morgana?" he asked, and she answered,
"Yes. He was the only thing that made living in that house bearable, after my mother died and his father didn't quite know how to say that it was my house, too."
"Was it really that bad?" asked Merlin, trying to imagine what it would be like, having a father who wasn't the ideal companion, wasn't the sort of father Merlin had always imagined might turn up on his front door with a wonderful story, one day.
"No," said Morgana, sprawled on the carpet with her limbs flung out, looking straight towards the ceiling. "Not really. I think Arthur's father just feels as if the world might try to break his son, and he is so afraid of that happening before Arthur is ready for it, that he's tried to show him what a hard and demanding life is like, all his life, so it won't take him by surprise.
And as for me--I think he just wants me to be more like him, to want the same things he wants, because that's how he feels people show each other they love one another: by sharing a vision of the world. But I don't feel as he does, at all--and yet he's never made me feel unloved, or unwelcome. Arthur and I both turned out okay, I think, even though we didn't have the most adept of father-figures, growing up. We ended up shaping a lot of what the other is like. Yes; I like Arthur."
"I have to admit," said Merlin, slowly, drunk and honest, "I sort of like Arthur too."
He looked at Morgana.
"I mean, I have no idea why. He's awkward and he laughs at me and, to top it off, his laugh is really stupid-sounding, but he's charming, too, and he does ridiculous honourable things like refuse to go against someone on the erg if they're not feeling well, when really, he should just seize the chance to come out on top, the way everyone else does. And I want to get to know him better, Morgana, so badly. I've never felt that way about anyone in my life, let alone about someone who is so obviously arsey. I can't explain it."
"Sounds like you already know him quite well," she said simply, walking on her knees towards the walk-in wardrobe space and throwing him two duvets from inside--how big was that thing, anyway?--before she chucked off her gown, undid her skirt, and crawled into bed.
Merlin wrapped himself in the duvets, and was half-asleep when he said,
"I dream about Arthur sometimes. On a tropical island. I have very strange dreams."
"Me too," she said, and Merlin thought briefly about asking her something else, before the port won out and he fell into a death-like slumber.
That night Merlin dreamt he met Arthur's father, who was dressed not in a suit, as he was in every one of Morgana's pictures, but in a lurid Hawaiian shirt that hurt Merlin's eyes when he looked at it for too long.
Arthur's father appeared to be running some sort of beach-based pub decorated with old football posters, and he pulled Merlin a pint and shook his hand enthusiastically after greeting Arthur with a hug.
"So, what brings you to Nassau?" asked Arthur's father, his smile predatory, and Merlin said,
"Vacation," feeling relaxed with Arthur's hand in his.
"Wonderful, wonderful," said Arthur's father, and Merlin smiled at him before he woke up in Morgana's room, his sleep-filled eyes focussing on the picture of Arthur's family that he had seen the day before, just as bells went off all around Oxford, marking ten.
Arthur's father's eyes stared at him forbiddingly from the picture board, and Merlin turned decidedly back towards the duvet, hiding his face in the crook of his elbow and going back to sleep.
Merlin didn't have any more days off training after that fateful morning, on which he and Morgana had cemented their incipient friendship over a banana milkshake from Shakeaway, both trying to look as if they were enjoying it despite their hangovers.
All five of them had gone for dinner at Oriel a couple of days later, and Gwen had spent the entire time looking at them oddly. Morgana and Merlin had sat together and complained conspiratorially about the food, and Merlin's old Morgana-related nerves had been nowhere to be found; even Morgana's Lancelot-related disapproval had been less apparent than usual. When Gwen had pulled him aside after dinner to ask Merlin what the hell was going on, he hadn't known what to say.
We got drunk and I saw her half-naked as the clocks turned back didn't really do the bonding experience justice.
October rolled into November in a flurry of frozen outings, and before Merlin knew it, it was eighth week and the training had taken on the same crazed intensity that he remembered from the year before. All he ever seemed to do was cox and work, and the rides in the minibus got quieter and quieter as people focussed on the outing ahead, their minds in the boat already. They were out on the river at least eight times a week, and the rest of the time, Merlin sat by the ergs and encouraged people to pull harder as they tried to improve their 2k times, or crouched by the weight machines as Arthur and Lancelot tried to outdo each other, attempting to ensure neither of them got killed.
His work took on the same exceptional characteristics that it had exhibited for much of the year before--some version of Not particularly awe-inspiring, Merlin always seemed to be scrawled atop his essays--and he began cutting back on sleep and with it, on sanity.
When his phone rang on the way to Wallingford on Thursday, Mum flashing menacingly on its screen, he jerked his head around to look at Lancelot and said,
"Lancelot. Jesus. Fuckety fuck. My mother's in Oxford. She's come to visit. She's had this planned for ages--some sort of philosophical, new-agey society gathering at the Quakers' Meeting House, or something. Lancelot, shit. I was supposed to take her for an early dinner before she went back home this evening. She said she'd ring about an hour before she finished to let me know, but we won't be back for a couple of hours, at least. She's going to be furious. Fuck."
"Merlin," Lancelot answered sensibly, "I think she'll probably be more furious if you don't answer the phone."
Merlin agreed this made good sense, but by the time he thought to pick up the phone from where he'd dropped it on his lap like a hot coal, the ringing had died away with a couple of disconsolate beeps.
"Shit. I need to call her back. I'll need to get someone to go get her and take her to dinner; I'll join them as soon as we get back. She's not going to be happy, but she knows I'm hopeless, right? I mean--I'm her son. She knows better than anyone how useless I am."
Merlin tried Gwen, first, but her phone was off--it wasn't ever off unless she was in labs, and Merlin knew she probably wouldn't be out until evening. He tried Morgana, clinging to a vain hope that she might not be with Gwen, but this was immediately extinguished at the sound of her recorded voice: "You've reached Morgana Lefay…"
He tried Emma and Ben at Oriel, but Emma's phone rang and rang with no answer, and Ben picked up to say he was in London.
He turned to look at Lancelot, desperate, thinking fearfully of his mum's rising disapproval as she sat outside the Quaker Meeting House, and Lancelot shrugged sympathetically before saying, "What about that friend of yours? You know, the unpleasant one."
Merlin was frantic enough to listen to any suggestion, even one as stupid as that, and he scrolled down his list of contacts until he came to Will.
The phone rang five times before Will finally picked up, his voice wary.
"Will," he replied, serious. "You're going to think I'm mad. I'm very sorry for calling you like this, but something's happened--I've messed up--and if you could help me, I would be eternally grateful. I promise this is a one-off and that I have no intention of bothering you again in future."
"What is it, Merlin?" asked Will, inflecting his voice with a tone that suggested an age-old weariness, and Merlin stamped down the urge to derail the conversation--for crying out loud, Will; get over it, already. It's not as if I came to your house and maimed your mother in the night--in favour of remaining civil enough to convince Will to help him.
"It's my mother," said Merlin. "She's come to Oxford, and I'd completely forgotten she was coming, Will. Completely. And now she's there, at the Quaker House on the Woodstock Road, and she doesn't know where anything is. She'll be finished there in an hour or so, and I'll be back in Oxford in a couple of hours, at most, but if you could take her to dinner--I know it's a big ask, Will, but if you could--I could join you two afterwards and see her before she has to go. You could leave as soon as I got there, if you wanted--I just don't want her to feel as if I didn't care she was coming. I do care. I just forgot, with this stupid training schedule--"
"Merlin," interrupted Will. "I would be happy to help--"
"Oh, Jesus, Will, thank you. You've always liked my mother, right? She'll be happy to see you."
"Merlin," said Will, forcefully, "As I was saying, I would be happy to help, except for the fact that I have a tutorial at 4.30. There's no way I'll be able to make it in time."
It sounded perfectly reasonable, but Merlin had known Will for years and years, since they'd eaten a beetle together in the schoolyard once--an unfortunate occasion, it was agreed all-around--and he could tell from Will's voice that he was lying through his teeth.
He fought an urge to start the fight that Will had never allowed them to have, the conversation he'd never allowed Merlin to begin, and say: I made a mistake in front of you once, Will. Once. I didn't even do it on purpose--I just didn't think there was any good reason to let a perfectly good jar of your mum's jam go to waste. And the only reason I wasn't careful, the only reason I didn't let the stupid thing smash to the ground as I should have, was because I trusted you. I trusted you to understand. I even thought you might think it was cool. The really cool thing, though, is that you've treated me like a leper since, and I honestly can't believe that when my children ask I'll have to say my oldest friendship ended over a jar of fucking homemade apricot conserve.
Will was breathing evenly down the phone line, knowing, no doubt, that Merlin knew he was lying, and Merlin simply took two deep breaths of his own before saying,
"Oh. Well, never mind then. Sorry to have bothered you. I--" Merlin didn't know why he was doing it, but he continued-- "I'm sorry."
"Yeah," said Will, right before he ended the call. "Me too."
Merlin put the phone down between his legs, looking out the window and trying to rein in a pathetic wave of self-pity, and Lancelot put a gentle hand on his shoulder and said,
"No luck, mmh?"
"No," said Merlin.
"Well," said Lancelot brightly, "Not to worry. I've just discovered the answer to your problem. As you may or may not have noticed, some people have the day off from training today."
Merlin looked around the minibus quickly, and then smiled at Lancelot thankfully before picking up his phone again.
"My mother will have a fit if he calls her ma'am, or worse, Mrs. Emrys," he said.
"Probably," said Lancelot, leaning his head back against the seat as Merlin dialled.
One slightly awkward phone call and three 'Merlin, you idiots' later, Merlin put the phone down and texted his mother:
Mum. Am late coming back as stupid minibus broke down. A friend will meet you outside the Quaker place. I'll join you asap. His name is Arthur. Love you, & sorry!
Tom and Bran had evidently taken pity on Merlin's worry-contorted face, and possibly on the rest of the rowers' built-up exhaustion, and they'd done an hour-long outing at Wallingford, instead of an hour and a half. They got back to Oxford and Merlin jumped off on the High Street while the minibus was still moving, running to his room and from there to the shower, rubbing shampoo through his hair for exactly seven seconds before rushing upstairs, throwing some jeans on, and running back out through the college gate.
He stood on the High Street, breathing raggedly, and brought out his phone to call his mother.
"Mum?" he said, panting in an unseemly fashion and trying to keep the speaking to a minimum.
"Merlin!" she said, sounding absolutely delighted, and Merlin felt a small stone of dread drop into his stomach. His mother was a quiet and dignified woman by nature, and delight was hardly ever a good mood on her. It tended to indicate that something terrible, such as Merlin having to accompany his insufferable cousin Hilda to a school dance at a shabby hotel in Doncaster, was on the horizon.
"Hi, mum," he repeated. "Where are you?"
"Oh--" there was a brief conversation, Arthur's lower voice coming through the phone speaker, and then Merlin's mum said, "We're at… Quod, darling. I'm afraid the talk dragged on for a while, and I was late leaving--but Arthur waited for me; lovely boy. We've only just got here, maybe about twenty minutes ago? We've been waiting for you and having a chat. Lovely boy, your friend, really--well done, Merlin."
Merlin cringed, getting a sense of what the terrible thing on the horizon might be, and said,
"Uh--okay. Well, I'll be right there, mum. Could I speak to Arthur for a minute, do you think?"
"Of course, of course," said his mum, her voice understanding, and Merlin winced and waited for Arthur to come on the line.
"Merlin?" he asked, and Merlin replied,
"Arthur. I'm about two yards away, so I'll be right there, but--" he lowered his voice. "First of all: what the fuck--Quod? That's the most expensive restaurant in the whole of central Oxford, Arthur. Did something give you the impression that I'd suddenly come into a lot of money?"
"No, no, Merlin," said Arthur, jovially and somewhat artificially, "I was happy to. You know that ever since I found those vouchers for a dinner at Quod in the Oxford Mail, I've been waiting for a special occasion to use them."
"Vouchers for Quod in the Oxford Mail, Arthur?" hissed Merlin, aware that his mother must be listening intently if Arthur felt the need to speak with that sort of Willy Wonka-esque inflection, "What--did you find them next to the story about a massive pub brawl in Blackbird Leys? Next to the coupons for Lidl? Plus--no-one at Oxford reads the Oxford Mail, Arthur, and I'm pretty sure even my mother knows that."
"Ha!" said Arthur. "Precisely, precisely--a stroke of good luck that she was visiting the day before they expired."
"Well," whispered Merlin, "if this is your way of saying that you'll pay, you aristocratic pratface, that's very kind of you. But listen, Arthur, speaking of my mother…"
"Yes?" asked Arthur, and Merlin pictured him smiling winsomely at Merlin's mother as he pressed the phone more tightly to his ear,
"She just called you lovely twice. And said 'Well done' to me. That's my mother's subtle code for 'What a nice boy you've found yourself to date, Merlin'."
"Oh yes," said Arthur. "Yes, I'd gathered that much. Never mind, never mind--it's not a problem. See you in a couple of minutes then!"
Merlin heard a faint voice say, "Well, Hunith, as I was saying…" before Arthur disconnected the call. He squared his shoulders and waited a few seconds to make it look as if he hadn't been standing next to Quod the entire time, and then turned right and walked in the door, a huge smile on his face as his mother stood up to hug him.
Dinner turned out to be far more pleasant than Merlin had expected--Arthur's parent-meeting behaviour, so strange-sounding on the phone, was, unsurprisingly, very charming in person. Merlin's mum continued to seem delighted with him--every few minutes, she would shoot Merlin a significant look, and Merlin would smile and try to look less uncomfortable than he felt.
"Arthur," she said, looking disapprovingly at Merlin, "how long have you and Merlin known each other?"
"We met at the beginning of this year, Hunith," said Arthur, using his fish knife to pull back the skin of his haddock perfectly. Merlin had made a bit of a hash of it already and was certain he'd be choking on a fish bone sooner rather than later.
Arthur had done a brilliant job of deflecting each of Merlin's mother's difficult questions so far, saying things like, "Oh, yes--Merlin is a very good cox," to his mum's, "And are you happy, Arthur--together?"
Merlin's mother, who didn't have a single unhopeful bone in her body when it came to Merlin finding someone just like Arthur, bright and nice and handsome and kind, wilfully ignored all of Arthur's careful wordplay and smiled happily when Arthur pushed his side dish of creamed spinach towards Merlin after Merlin looked at it longingly. When she stood up to go to the toilet before dessert arrived, Arthur signalled to the waiter and paid the bill as Merlin slumped in his chair, exhausted by her misled enthusiasm.
"I didn't mean it, Arthur, about paying," he said softly.
"No, I know," said Arthur, with a stilted wave of his hand. I'm happy to, though."
Their old familiar awkwardness was making a reappearance, and Merlin said, quickly,
"Arthur. Thank you so much for doing this. I mean--all of it. I think she just worries that I'll be alone; she still thinks I can't really cope for myself. I was--a bit of a difficult kid growing up, and I never quite fit in with other children. I think she's thrilled at the thought that someone might be 'taking care of me', as she would put it."
"Well, yes--she said that, actually. In those exact words," said Arthur. He seemed distracted, concerned with something elsewhere. Merlin hoped he and his mother's strangely wide smiles weren't keeping Arthur from work, or from spending time with someone else.
"Don't worry about it, Merlin. It's nice, that she cares so much for you. It's very odd for me, watching this maternal over-protectiveness--Morgana's mother wasn't like this." He smiled, and then said, suddenly, "And really, Merlin--you had a boyfriend named William Williamson? Bold naming choice, there."
"Will wasn't my boyfriend," said Merlin. "Though my mother is convinced that he was. He's at Corpus, actually--he and I applied to Oxford together, to colleges down the street from each other. We both got in; we couldn't believe it when we heard back. We went out for dinner to celebrate, and didn't even get pissed--all very civilised; I felt very grown-up. But then we had a falling out, which my mother interpreted as the break-up of the ages, and... well, that was that."
"What did you disagree about?" asked Arthur, but at that moment Merlin's mother came back to the table and sat down to beam at Arthur once again, saving Merlin from having to answer.
The talk turned to the apple and blackberry crumble and from there to plans for the Christmas holidays--Arthur's family was skiing; Merlin and his mum would be at home watching the queen--and Merlin tried not to visibly tense when Arthur rested one hand on the back of Merlin's chair, evidently trying to elicit the sort of manic grin from Merlin's mother that she immediately delivered.
They ate in satisfied silence for a while, until Merlin's mother looked down at her watch and said, "Merlin, I don't think we'll make it to the station in time if we don't go now."
Merlin nodded, and Arthur stood up, presumably to pretend to hand Oxford Mail vouchers to someone at the bar, as Merlin helped his mother ease into her coat. When Arthur returned, he said formally,
"Hunith, it was truly a pleasure to meet you. I hope you have a safe journey home, and I look forward to seeing you again soon."
Merlin's mother hugged Arthur, and then fussed with his hair as Merlin stood about, uncomfortably wondering whether Arthur would ever let him live this down. She kissed Arthur's cheek and said,
"Thank you, Arthur. The pleasure was all mine. I'm so happy Merlin has you for a friend."
They walked outside and turned onto the High Street; when they reached Carfax, Arthur raised a hand in friendly farewell and began walking towards Christ Church, turning back after a few steps and saying,
"Merlin--come by on your way back from the station, if you'd like."
Merlin nodded in confirmation of his attendance, thinking he probably deserved whatever mockery Arthur had planned, and took his mother's arm as the two of them continued to walk towards the station.
"Merlin," she said, and her voice took on its subdued, more familiar tones. "Arthur is a very nice young man."
"Yes. Listen, mum, about that--"
He hadn't lied to her, exactly, Merlin reflected, but neither had he done anything to correct her assumptions, and he felt bad enough about co-opting Arthur's presence for the purpose of an emotional farce, and about misleading his mother generally, to confess the truth.
"I know, Merlin," she said, waving a hand dismissively and wrapping her scarf more tightly about her neck. "I sort of got the impression you weren't dating when he put his hand behind your neck and you looked as if you might be sick. But he's a very nice young man, nonetheless, and he appears to be a very good friend. He did, after all, come to get me after you forgot I was coming, and he did a very good job of making that fake voucher story convincing. Did you pay for our meals while I was gone?"
Merlin had wondered about her lengthy disappearance. He blushed, embarrassed, but she didn't rebuke him as she'd done when he was seven and kept borrowing money from Sian Richards for sweets after school without telling his mum about his rising levels of debt. She also chose not to call him on his minibus-breakdown lie, for which Merlin was thankful; then again, she really did understand his hopeless ways better than anyone else.
"See? A good friend." Merlin nodded, thinking that Arthur--for all his and Merlin's feet-shuffling ways and half-spoken declarations of friendship--really had become someone Merlin felt he could trust.
"I like him a lot, mum," admitted Merlin, in a rare moment of filial honesty on a topic he usually did his best to steer clear of, with his mother.
"I can tell," she said, simply. "And he likes you, too."
They reached the station, and she fumbled in her bag for her tickets and pressed his hand inside hers, warmly, before she hugged him, saying "I'm glad you're happy here, my darling." Then she turned to go through the ticket barriers, and was gone.
Merlin jogged back to Christ Church from the rail station, because the night sky was vaguely greenish-looking and it was freezing, a combination that he held particular hatred for. He slipped in behind someone else as they used their fob to open the door, and wound his way back towards the Meadows to Arthur's room.
"Merlin--" said Arthur, as soon as he opened the door, and Merlin barrelled past him towards the kettle and said,
"Arthur--really, truly, I am so sorry about all that. I told her we weren't dating, by the way, which she'd figured out, anyway; thank you so much, though, for going to get her and for--"
"No, no, I know, Arthur. She's not usually that… enthusiastic, but I think she really enjoyed meeting you, so thank you for being so nice to her. I swear if your father comes and you forget that you were supposed to meet him, I'll--"
"Merlin! Will you shut up?" asked Arthur, sharply, and Merlin reeled back a little, because Arthur hadn't spoken to him like that, impolite and dismissive, since the very early days.
"I'm sorry," said Arthur, quickly. "It's just--if you don't let me speak, I'll forget exactly what she said, Merlin, and I've been trying my best to keep it in my head all evening, so just--be quiet, will you?"
Merlin looked at him, and Arthur took a breath before continuing.
"She said, 'Merlin's father was brilliant--in the literal sense of the word, you understand. Everywhere we went, he turned people's heads, as if they couldn't help but look at him. He thought there was something good in everything, and when he laughed, other people laughed with him, because it was impossible not to. His laugh was like bells. He was handsome, and seemed so mysterious to me, when I first met him. His eyes were impossible to look away from--Merlin's look just the same'."
Merlin looked at Arthur, eyes wide, about to interrupt, but Arthur held up a hand and continued,
"'He swung into my life as if he'd just materialised from the forest behind our house, out of nowhere. When he appeared--on holiday from Wales for two months, he said--I felt as if I'd known him all my life. Everything we did seemed wonderful to me, almost impossibly so. I fell in love with him the moment I saw him.
He was there as long as he promised he would be, fifty-six days, and I knew--some part of me knew, anyway--that he would go back even if he loved me, because something about him made you realise that nothing would be enough to keep him in one place for very long. But when he left, I was heartbroken; I cried for days and days.
Bringing Merlin up on my own has been difficult--very difficult, sometimes--but I wouldn't change it, if I could. And I haven't ever regretted one moment of it. Not any of the days since Merlin was born, and none of the time I spent with his father.'"
Merlin, who had never heard anything about his father except, He was a good man, Merlin, looked at Arthur incredulously and said, voice a little strangled,
"She told you all that?"
Arthur shrugged, a little uncomfortably, and said,
"Yes. When we were on our way to the restaurant. When she came out of the Quaker place, she seemed a bit upset about something--so I tried to distract her, asking her how she was and how her trip had been. Then I asked her about you, and then somehow the conversation turned to me, and then to my father, and from there, somehow, to yours… and she said all that, right there in the street. I'm not even sure she meant to, but I suppose that happens sometimes, doesn't it? With strangers, that is, when you speak to them."
"Anyway. I've been trying to keep it straight in my head ever since, to say to you, because I knew you'd want to know exactly what she'd said, but it's been a little difficult, what with trying to pretend to be your boyfriend with a better name than William Williamson, and then trying to forestall your interruptions, Merlin, which really--you've made an art of interruptions. I'm not even sure how one person can--"
And Merlin, feeling horribly awkward about it but pushing the feeling down, because he wanted to do it more than he was afraid of looking stupid, took two steps forward and hugged Arthur, hard, to make him be quiet, already.
When Arthur hugged back, his arms strong around Merlin's shoulders, Merlin leaned in and whispered, "Arthur, god--thank you," against the crook of Arthur's neck.
The more it looked as if the coaches were considering Arthur for stroke, as Michaelmas slid into Hilary and the days turned even colder, the more Arthur settled into his seat at the front of the boat. He rowed as if he didn't have a care in the world, but if you looked twice--and Merlin did--there was a stiff curve to his spine that made it clear he felt he had a responsibility to fulfil. The determination in the set of his shoulders was completely at odds with the obvious pleasure that was always playing about his mouth, but Merlin forgave him his arrogance because his relaxed, languid strokes made the whole boat move as if everyone in it had just had particularly good, joint-easing sex.
The sex-rowing was the norm, anyway, but sometimes they had days like this--full of snags and out-of-time catches, with the rowers shifting in their seats with obvious restlessness. Arthur seemed to be in an awful mood, sitting awkwardly and providing absolutely no help as Merlin tried to get them all moving as if they had over 80 years of collective rowing experience between them, and not as if they'd just been introduced to the river as a theoretical notion. But every time he called the first draw, Arthur's out-of-sorts stance seemed to replicate all the way down the boat; at one point, Ben had even caught a crab, prompting an unnecessary 'What the fuck, Eaker!" from Arthur at the front.
"Arthur!" called Merlin, sharply, "You may have forgotten, but as long as I'm sitting at the front, I'm the only person who gets to talk in this boat. Shut it, and concentrate already."
Merlin thought he heard Arthur mutter "oh, fuck off," but it was quiet and out-of-character enough that he let it go. A good cox knew when rowers needed to let off steam, and when they needed to be told off, Gwen had told him once. He reminded himself of all the reasons why he'd come to the conclusion that Arthur was a good egg, really, and tried to think of Gwen's calm, even, breathing as she'd trained him from the riverbank during those first few weeks.
"Okay, everybody--easy there. We'll try this once more, I think. Heads in the boat, Oxford. Focus. Come forward to front stops."
He waited while they whirred forward in their seats, trying to think positively as Bran shook his head from the launch, and called it once more.
The boat lurched forward and Merlin jarred in his seat.
Arthur put his blade in too deep, and the boat swung slightly to Merlin's left.
"And wind one! Wind two! Race pace!" called Merlin, determined, but the boat was all over the place, sloppy, and he was calling them to wind it down even as Bran shouted from the launch,
"What in the world is going on with you lot today? Arthur--if you don't get it together we're switching you with Ben at six for the rest of the outing. Lancelot, your job is to help keep the rhythm even, not to help Arthur pass the rotten-mood jerk-along dance all the way down to the bow. You all need to drop whatever else it is you're thinking about and concentrate. And in case you're hoping to frustrate me into taking you back to Oxford, let me be clear: we're not leaving until we get it right."
Merlin sighed and prepared to call them forward again, but when he looked again he saw that Arthur was sitting stiffly in his seat, the handle in a death-grip in his hands and with his shoulders actually shaking with whatever it was he wasn't saying, whatever it was that had been tripping them up since they'd arrived that afternoon.
Stop it, you twat, Merlin thought, and Arthur narrowed his eyes, almost as if he'd heard, before dropping his gaze, then his shoulders, and finally loosening his posture.
"Oxford," said Merlin, "no-one has the patience to stay here for another hour, I think we'll all agree, so we're going to do this one more time, and you're going to get it right. Jakub, drop your hands. Jeremy, stop holding the blade as if it's going to float away. Relax. Everyone: back to basics. Look at the person in front of you. I want your head following his head, your arms following his arms, your back following his back. Moving together. Come to front stops, please."
Bran looked ready to call the start, but Merlin gave him a tiny shake of the head and waited for everyone to really concentrate before he started them rowing. He had a clear view over Arthur's head onto the river beyond, and he tried to give his rowers the focus they needed to move together, picturing a thread binding them all, neck to neck, extending from the line of their bodies to the water ahead.
"Oxford, I want you moving as one, do you understand?" he asked, quietly.
Arthur shifted uncomfortably, twisting his neck from left to right before glaring at Merlin, but Merlin glared back and thought: This is going to be good. You will all row, together, in time, nice and powerful. Lead them like you're supposed to, Arthur.
When he thought they were finally ready, he nodded at Bran, who called,
"Oxford. Attention. Go."
"Draw there! Draw there!" called Merlin, low in his throat, and the difference was immediately obvious. It was like being in a different boat, catches perfectly in time and the movement flawlessly smooth.
"And wind up! Right there!" said Merlin, before easing them into normal strokes, "Lengthening out. Long and strong. That's nice, Oxford." When they'd gone a few metres, Merlin called for them to easy, hearing Kymlicka call happily from the back of the boat,
"Yeah--that was much better!"
"Thank god for that," muttered Lancelot, brushing his hair back with one hand, and the men behind him gave a little laugh, the tension of the bad outing shattered instantly. Merlin began to smile, but his lips caught mid-lift as he saw the expression on Arthur's face.
Arthur's eyes were blazing, fixed on Merlin, his shoulders hunched in a gesture that was furious, but also defensive. Merlin quirked an eyebrow and gave a tiny inquisitive shrug--What's wrong?--but Arthur only glowered more intensely, his lips set in a line.
"Okay--you know what? That'll do," called Bran from the launch, evidently happy to stop on a good note, no matter how short-lived. "Bring them in, Merlin, and we'll debrief."
Merlin called for them to row on, trying to keep his eyes focussed on the river so that he could steer them onto the raft without crashing, but his attention was completely taken up by Arthur's furious stare, fixed unwaveringly on Merlin. He got them to jump out of the boat and led them as they carried it back to the raft, legs straining, and he listened with half an ear while Bran berated them all about wasting each other's time with their lack of focus. When Bran dismissed them, Merlin waited for most of the men to begin walking back to the minibus before sidling up to Arthur and asking, softly,
"You did it again," said Arthur, in an angry whisper that somehow managed to be high-pitched. "I told you not to fucking do it, and you did it again, Merlin."
"Arthur, I--" Merlin paused, genuinely confused. "What are you talking about?"
"That--the mind-meld thing, Merlin, the hypnotism, the thoughtfuckery, whatever you want to call it! You know perfectly well what I'm talking about," said Arthur, whirling right as they reached the boathouse door and pointing a finger at Merlin's face like an angry schoolteacher. "'I don't like it, Merlin', I told you, and even though you said you hadn't done it on purpose, I thought we were clear that you were not to do it again."
"Arthur," said Merlin, enunciating carefully, "I do not know what you are talking about."
Something in Merlin's voice must have caught Arthur's attention, because his shoulders dropped and some of the fight went out of his stance. He took a deep breath, then started again,
"Merlin. Just now, when we were in the boat--you were telling us all to concentrate, and then it was as if you were… I don't know, Emrys, for fuck's sake. In my head. I could hear you telling me to concentrate. Next thing I know, I can feel my head being pulled up, and I can feel the tug of the rest of the men at my neck, as if we were all being shoved into the right rhythm by someone pulling on strings attached to our limbs. It made my skin crawl, Merlin."
Merlin swallowed, once, trying to look less guilty than he felt, because he'd just been thinking, just trying to get the rhythm clear in his own head, not trying to behave like a sinister puppermaster.
"I know Lancelot felt it," Arthur was saying, and Merlin felt another stab of panic, because he'd thought, at worst, this would be Arthur-specific, "I felt him tense up behind me at the same time that I did. And it may be that he's used to it, that the other men in the boat are, or that they're happy to let you fuck about with their heads that way, but as I thought I made clear the other day, I do not like it."
Arthur stopped, cocking his head, and began walking back towards the minibus at a glacial pace, making time for the two of them to keep talking. He turned his head to face Merlin completely as Merlin locked up the boathouse, then asked, quietly,
"How do you do it, Merlin?"
I have no idea; that's the problem, thought Merlin desperately, but heard his mouth, traitorous, say,
"I have no idea what you are talking about, Arthur. How can I tell you how I do something when I don't know what that something is?"
It sounded pathetic even to him, and as the two of them began walking, lingering on each step as much as possible, Arthur turned to him, all of the anger gone now, and said,
"Merlin. You can tell me."
It was an opportunity--wide and gaping, the sort of thing that would allow Merlin to say, "You asked, Arthur," even if it all went horribly pear-shaped at some later date. Merlin looked between Arthur's face, earnest now, and the pointedly disinterested faces of the rowers in the minibus, who were evidently trying to give Arthur time to work out whatever had been bothering him in the boat. He began to say, Arthur, I don't know--really I don't. I'm not sure how this can ever have been meant for me; shouldn't these things come with some sort of instruction manual?
Then his mind flashed to the image of Will's wide eyes, Will's lips flecked with saliva from where his mouth had dropped open--dropped open in fright--and he lost what little courage Arthur's change in demeanour had given him and said,
"Look, Arthur, I know that this has been a tense day for you, but--" And just like that, as if the word 'tense' had had an immediate and permanent effect, Arthur's body straightened, all hard lines again, and he turned to Merlin with an ugly twist to his mouth and said,
"You know what, Merlin? Whatever," right as he climbed into the minibus, shutting the door and leaving Merlin to ride with Bran in the front.
Merlin spent so much of the ride home focussed on his Channel Five Shocking Real-World Discoveries About the Man With a Pony-Child And Other Freakish Individuals: Sure to Horrify and Astonish You! documentary pity-moment that he didn't stop to think that Arthur had been upset, angry and uptight, before he'd confronted Merlin about the one thing that Merlin refused to be confronted about. Something had been bothering him in the boat, had been throwing him off his stride the entire outing, and after Merlin finished dinner at Oriel, had a shower, and changed, he thought he'd better go ask what it was--that is, if Arthur wanted to say.
Merlin's reasoning was as follows: having given Arthur no confirmation, and with Arthur's facts about the situation as hazy as they were, it was impossible for Arthur to remain angry--over an unconfirmed, possibly nonexistent, thing--for long. As long as Merlin kept his head down and avoided magical-type stupidity in the future, Arthur's anger would thaw, and they would be fine.
Yes; this was his reasoning. It was, he told himself, highly sound.
He threw on a worn hoody and grabbed some Ginger Nuts--the sort of old-lady biscuit that Arthur really loved--off the shelf as a peace offering, then clattered down the stairs gracelessly and out into Oriel square, slipping into Christ Church via the back gate. He slipped around the stairs to the hall and into Meadows quad, the corridors of Arthur's college as familiar to him as Oriel's, and punched in the door code that Arthur had illicitly given to him at some point towards the end of last term.
He opened the door to go in, but was almost bowled over by an angry man in a charcoal suit, who walked away from the door in long, sharp, strides without sparing a second glance for Merlin's arm-wheeling form.
"Excuse me, too," Merlin muttered to himself, feeling stupid and not a little afraid for the structural integrity of his face a moment later as the man turned for a second and fixed his eyes on Merlin before continuing to stalk off. Merlin shrugged and leapt up the stairs, not thinking anything other than, "I swear, Arthur, I just ran into the biggest arsehole ever at the bottom of your staircase" in preparation for a dramatic delivery, but as soon as Arthur opened the door, mouth tight and unhappy and eyes strained and possibly a little red, Merlin's mind clicked immediately on the fact that the biggest arsehole ever at the bottom of the staircase had been Arthur's father.
"Hey," Merlin said, cautious. "Are you okay?"
Resentment flashed in Arthur's eyes for a second, and Merlin, who by now knew well how fully Arthur's pride could get in the way of everything, hoped he wasn't about to use their earlier disagreement as an excuse to blow this off. He put his hand out, carefully, and rested it briefly on Arthur's upper arm.
"No," said Arthur, finally, shaking his head and leading the way into the room. Merlin followed him and busied himself with moving things around on the desk, putting the Ginger Nuts down next to the stapler, knowing better than to push, and before long Arthur continued,
"I just want to be clear that this doesn't mean I've ceased to be annoyed about earlier, Merlin."
Merlin looked at him, saying nothing but acknowledging the point, and Arthur gave a tiny nod and said,
"He got me a job."
"Your father?" asked Merlin.
"Yes," said Arthur, and the fingers on his left hand twitched as if he were about to clench them into a fist. "He got me a job working as a management consultant, starting next year. At some city firm where an old friend of his is the head partner."
Merlin nodded, slightly confused.
"You don't want it?"
"No," said Arthur. "Or--maybe. I don't know what I want yet, Merlin. But it appears I'm not going to get a choice, because everything's been worked out already. I'm not even sure I'm going to get to sign my own contract; my father already told me what I'm going to be paid and when I'm supposed to start in September. It's a good job, and I don't want to be ungrateful, but why can't he just allow me to find my own way?" Arthur's voice had risen in pitch as he spoke, and both of his fists really were clenched now.
"You wish you'd gotten the job on your own merits?" asked Merlin, carefully, trying to get to the source of the issue.
"No!" said Arthur, throwing up his hands. "I mean yes, obviously, that would have been good--but it's not the nepotism that bothers me. I would have been happy to ask him to pull strings for me, if I knew that I wanted a job in consultancy and he could get me a good one. They'd fire me if I ended up being rubbish; he could get me there, but only my own work would keep me in. It would have been fine. It's not that--it's that he didn't even ask. That he didn't wait for me to come to him; that he doesn't trust me to make the right decisions, and that he makes it impossible to argue with him. 'They're going to pay you £40,000 a year, Arthur,' he tells me, and what am I supposed to say? It's a fantastic salary and if I refuse it because he got it for me I look petulant and childish, which is exactly what he's implying I am by getting me the job in the first place, as if I need to be looked after! It's impossible to win with him, for fuck's sake."
Arthur was pacing, breath coming in irritated huffs, and Merlin could see that his eyes were shining. He said nothing, turning away slightly to let Arthur get it together and waiting for him to finish.
"It's just--I'm an adult now, Merlin. I don't know everything, but I'm not helpless, and I should be allowed to make my own mistakes, and to suffer the consequences. He always makes it so that the only reasonable course of action is his. And every time I call him on it, he twists it to make it look as if I'm the one responsible for the problem--he makes me feel as if I'm failing him, or makes it seem as if I don't understand why his course of action is better, not because we have a difference of opinion and I don't see it his way, but because I'm somehow not ready to understand, and therefore I can't see what he's saying. I know I'm not wrong, but I care too much about what he thinks to not care about the fact that he thinks I'm wrong. Does that even make sense?"
"Yes," Merlin said, simply, lifting one shoulder, because though he understood what Arthur was saying, it was impossible for him to truly relate. Merlin didn't think anyone would fully understand--not even Morgana--because Arthur's father clearly saw a value in pushing his son forward, regardless of Arthur's preferences, that no-one else could really comprehend.
"I think," he continued, "that all parents are that way, to some extent. They want the best for you and go about it in the worst ways. Like that Larkin poem: They fuck you up, your mum and dad; they may not mean to, but they do. They give you all the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you. You know?"
Arthur shook his head, giving Merlin a strange look.
"Well--never mind, then," said Merlin. "What I mean is: you've got to stop measuring yourself by his standards. He, as your father, can be one of your standards, someone you want to please, but you can't adopt all of his measurements for success when at the heart of it, you reject the premise of his argument."
Arthur looked at him.
"I'm not sure that makes a lot of sense, Merlin," he said, finally. "Not that I've ever known you to make much sense, in the past. But it sounds good. So I'll think about it, anyway."
He gave a curt little laugh, the way Arthur did when he wanted to drop something, and disappeared quickly into his en-suite. Merlin heard the sink running as Arthur splashed water on his face. When he heard what sounded suspiciously like two frustrated, choked-off sobs, he put his palm on the door--as if it that'll help, you idiot, he thought to himself--and manoeuvred his phone out of his pocket.
When Arthur came back out, Merlin held out his coat to him, and studiously pretended not to notice the downward turn at the corners of Arthur's eyes.
"What's that for?" asked Arthur, and Merlin, trying not to let Arthur's dismissive tone make him feel like too much of a tool, said,
"We're going out. I've called Morgana and Gwen and Lancelot. They're meeting us at the Old Tom."
"We're not supposed to be drinking," said Arthur, but he was putting one arm through his coat as he said it.
"I know," said Merlin, "but if Bran and Tom ask, we can say it was either drinking or bad rhythm from you for the next week. I think they'll consider it a fair trade-off."
"The Old Tom is full of old men and strange women from that tanning shop," said Arthur, but he was opening the door and getting his keys as he complained.
"I know," said Merlin. "You'll be happy to know that's only the first stop."
Merlin had been hesitant when Morgana had texted: Pub crawl v. clearly only logical response to visit from Arthur's father, but three pubs later he was prepared to admit that she might not have been entirely wrong.
Arthur had seemed suprisingly eager to drink his frustration away through a succession of pints, especially after Morgana had pulled him in for a hug when he and Merlin had come in the door, and said,
"Remember what we always say, Arthur. It may not be possible to beat him at his own game, but really--is it even worth the effort to try?"
Arthur had looked at her strangely before saying, "We never say that."
"No," conceded Morgana, "but we could."
Arthur smiled, and Lancelot appeared from nowhere, laughing and with five pints in his hands, fingers knuckle-deep in the glasses so that he could carry them together.
"That is disgusting, Lancelot," said Gwen, as he put the glasses down on the table, but Lancelot only grinned unrepentantly and said,
"I washed my hands, Guinevere, I promise."
"Yes, well," said Gwen, eyes shifting to somewhere on Lancelot's right shoulder and face flushed, "it's--well, it's not very nice, anyway."
Lancelot laughed, pushing a glass towards her and saying,
"I apologise. Your pint, my lady."
Gwen rolled her eyes, but it was clear her heart wasn't in it; Morgana rolled her eyes with much more feeling and exhaled loudly, clearly put-upon, before reaching to pull a pint towards her end of the table.
Merlin originally had no intention of getting sloshed, so he nursed a pint at each pub while Lancelot replaced his and Arthur's and Morgana's glasses with alarming frequency. Lancelot could drink like a fish and had been designated pub-crawl director, which Merlin had thought was an iffy decision as soon as Morgana had announced it. Lancelot's choice of dodgy pubs had seemed to confirm this, at first, but now they were drinking next to Sainsbury's at a place that seemed to have its quiz machine set to 'Ludicrously Easy,' and Merlin had cheered up considerably after he consistently began winning £2 for every 50p he put in.
"Which of these fruits," read Merlin, loudly, as the rest of them sat at a nearby table and tried to ignore his obsessive small-time gambling exploits, "shares its name with something superior or desirable? Is it: a) apricot, b) mango, c) grapefruit, or d) plum?"
"Mango," said Arthur. "Clearly."
He gave an undignified braying laugh that was horrifically charming and Merlin tried his hardest not to make eyes at him.
He narrowed his eyes instead, trying to look like a serious contestant and jabbing at 'Plum' on the screen. As the next question came up on the screen, he took a deep breath and asked as loudly and obnoxiously as possible,
"The young of which creature is known as a squab? Is it a) octopus, b)--"
"It's pigeons," said Lancelot, from where he was sitting next to Gwen, and when Arthur asked,
"How did you know that?" Lancelot winked at Guinevere and said,
"Ah, young Arthur. I am a man of many talents."
"Who is the patron saint of--oh, forget it," said Merlin, morosely, poking at the screen blindly and losing immediately, yet somehow managing to collect £3, anyway.
The conversation had turned to Lancelot's year abroad when Merlin sat back down, and as Lancelot listed off increasingly distant places where he thought he could decamp for a year of practicing his French--Cameroon, Canada, Haiti--Gwen cleared her throat a little clumsily and said,
"What about Paris?"
The silence that followed was unnaturally heavy, and Merlin saw Morgana's wide eyes and could see she was struggling to come up with something--the patron saint of Spain, maybe; anything--to take the focus off Gwen, who was now fidgeting slightly in her seat.
"Well," said Lancelot seriously, looking directly at Gwen, "I'll admit I hadn't thought about it. But I do like Paris."
He smiled, his eyes warm, but he seemed to catch sight of the rest of them out of the corner of his eye, and his smile widened before he laughed a little and said,
"Then again, Guinevere--where's your sense of adventure? If I pick the right place, you could all come visit for an exotic holiday in the sun. The Seychelles, perhaps?"
Gwen smiled, shrugging, and said, "Sure. Maybe."
Merlin saw one of Morgana's fingers creep very gently to give Gwen's thigh a single, reassuring, press, and he cut in, awkward as fuck,
"Speaking of destinations: what's next?"
Arthur turned to look at him full-on and rolled his eyes heavenward with tremendous force, as if to say, Merlin, you insuperably unsubtle idiot, but he seemed in a much better mood than he had been immediately after his father's visit, and Merlin would take what he could get.
Lancelot wanted to go to Chequers, tucked into the alleyway between the High Street and Blue Boar Lane, but Merlin boycotted it on principle and suggested the Three Goats' Heads. They piled out of the Blenheim together, but once they were outside, Gwen said,
"Uh, you know what? I think I'm going to head home. I've got a tutorial really early tomorrow, and I didn't get much sleep last night. It's been a really lovely evening, though."
"No, Gwen--come!" said Merlin, but Morgana was already cinching her coat tighter about her waist and saying,
"I'll go with you, Gwen. I haven't quite finished a problem set that's due in tomorrow."
They both hugged Arthur before heading off, and Merlin gave them a sad little wave as he and Lancelot and Arthur headed upwards towards Cornmarket.
Merlin went to the toilet when they arrived at the Three Goats', and when he came back to the table, it was only to find that Lancelot and Arthur had moved on to shots of sambuca. He tried hard not to think about how near to death he would feel the next day before accepting one and tipping it back as quickly as he could after Lancelot counted down to nought, because sambuca, as far as he was concerned, tasted like arse.
"Jesus," he said. "That's horrible."
Arthur laughed and threw an arm around him, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, "Not as horrible as my father," and Merlin renewed his sense of commitment to the cause and went up to the bar to get more shots.
They wound their way up to the Lamb and Flag, and from there, somehow, to the Duke of Cambridge. Lancelot and Merlin objected, on the principle that it might jinx the entire seven-months-of-training-and-Boat-Race-really-quite-soon-now affair, but Arthur only said, "They have Scrabble; it'll be okay," and walked in, heading straight to the bar to get them more alcohol. Merlin resisted an urge to spit and turn around twice for luck, and Lancelot crossed himself theatrically before crossing the threshold.
The three of them drank--and played Scrabble, which they did indeed have--until last orders, point at which Arthur got up and ordered a round of shots for the three of them, with two extra shots for himself. Merlin drank his distractedly--"disombifubilated is not a word, Lancelot"; "It's a medical term, Merlin, I'm telling you"--and didn't look up in time to see Arthur miss his chair by an inch and fall on his arse on the floor.
"I'm okay! I'm okay!" said Arthur as he stood up, drawing more attention to himself than he would have otherwise, and Lancelot and Merlin laughed at him fondly. Merlin even allowed himself an absent pat on the hand that Arthur had resting on the tabletop, and when Arthur seemed to take it in stride, he kept his hand there while he put in "permutope" ("Obviously a chemical term, Lancelot; Morgana was explaining them to me only last week") for a triple-word score.
"Half of the words on this board are not words," declared Arthur solemnly, turning his palm so that his fingers were entwined with Merlin's, "so perhaps we should quit while we are ahead."
Merlin privately thought that they'd passed ahead two pubs ago, but he nodded in agreement and kept his hand in Arthur's as they stood up. Lancelot looked at their hands pointedly before waggling his eyebrows maniacally and giving Merlin a small thumbs-up, and Merlin narrowly restrained the urge to push Lancelot into the doorjamb as they walked out.
The cold air had the unfortunate sobriety-shattering effect that cold air tended to have, in the first instance, and Merlin fought to keep his balance as they walked out of the pub. Lancelot jerked his thumb towards Summertown and said,
"Well, gentlemen. You that way, me this way."
He gave Arthur a pat on the back and grinned at Merlin, before saying, "Keep your head up, Arthur; you'll find your own way."
Arthur smiled and said, "You too. And since we're discussing finding our ways, and since I'm horribly, earth-wobblingly drunk, I feel justified in telling you, Lancelot, that I hope you're aware she's not going to wait for you forever."
With that, he gave a sharp wave of his hand and twirled around, pulling Merlin along, and Merlin shot an apologetic glance over his shoulder as Lancelot stood there, looking discomfited, before turning towards his house.
"I want a kebab, Merlin," declared Arthur seriously, pulling him towards a vaguely dodgy white van on the side of the road that Merlin did not trust because it was not one of his usual drunken haunts, and he feared they might serve them side-of-the-road cat, as his mother had warned him all Oxford kebab vans probably did.
"No meat, Arthur," he said, voice wobbling a little as Arthur pulled him close, releasing his grip on Merlin's hand and draping a heavy arm over Merlin's shoulders.
"Okay," said Arthur, affably, turning to the unimpressed-looking kebab man and saying, "Cheesy chips, please. With garlic mayonnaise and lots of salt and vinegar."
Merlin thought about telling Arthur that in his experience, heavy amounts of mayonnaise did not bode well for the after-drink eater, but Arthur chose that moment to duck his head into the space behind Merlin's ear, breathing hotly on his neck, and Merlin went immediately quiet and allowed him to have whatever he wanted.
Arthur paid the man and began walking back towards Christ Church, letting go of Merlin only so that he could stab at his chips with the plastic fork, but he bumped elbows with Merlin's side as they walked, digging his bones into Merlin's already bony frame. Merlin found it appealing despite the occasional painful jab.
"You're a good friend, Merlin," he said, finally, voice serious. "Awkwardness and all, and though you're an idiot, sometimes. Even despite your thoughtfuckery. You're really good to me."
"Well, I like you even though you're arrogant and prattish, Arthur, so I guess our failings aren't a deal-breaker."
He tried to keep his voice light, but his heart was pounding in his throat and he had his hands buried in his hoodie so Arthur wouldn't see them shaking. Arthur dumped his chip carton into a nearby rubbish bin, evidently deciding a few chips were enough, and wound his arm around Merlin again. Merlin leaned into him, trying to keep his breathing even and not phone-sex deep, and confessed, stupidly, because he'd had too much to drink and couldn't think as clearly as he might have liked to,
"I dream about you, sometimes."
"Yeah?" said Arthur, all eyelashes and no distance, and Merlin nodded.
Arthur smiled, pushing the Christ Church gate open with one hand and pulling Merlin through with the other, and Merlin tried to relax and not dwell on the fact that he knew for a fact that Arthur's stomach was delineated and flawless, muscle fading into muscle, and Merlin hadn't done a sit-up since 1995.
He didn't do this with Lancelot, he told himself as they walked towards Arthur's room, so maybe he likes ears and thoughtfuckery better than perfect abs.
They half-walked, half-slid down the stone steps leading to Arthur's quad, and before they got to the staircase door, Arthur pushed him up against the wall by a giant rosemary bush, breathing deeply, twice, before whispering, "Merlin, Merlin, Merlin," and being sick on Merlin's shoes.
Merlin took Arthur upstairs and poured him into the bed, making him drink two glasses of water and giving him two pre-emptive paracetamol tablets. In Merlin's experience this served to either give you a symptom-less morning after or to give you a horrible paracetamol-induced hangover complete with violent heaving, but Arthur was young; his liver could handle it.
Merlin was not feeling particularly charitable.
He got Arthur's shoes off and turned off the light, still trying to get his heart beating at a normal rate.
"See you tomorrow, Arthur," he said as he got to the door, and was rewarded with a quiet,
"Yes; I will. Sorry about that, Merlin."
Merlin had never truly understood what people meant when they said, "Well, it was bound to happen sometime" about other people's relationships. In his considered view very few things were meant to happen, and even fewer things actually did, when you took into consideration how adept circumstance was at kicking destiny in the face.
For the first time in his life, though, he was finding that the words made a strange sort of sense.
Arthur had apologised at the outing the morning after the kebab-van incident, and Merlin had been ready to brush it off with a shrug and a smile, particularly if some new shoes were involved, which it emerged there were. He'd had hours to think to himself that he'd imagined the whole thing (surely he hadn't actually told Arthur he dreamt about him?), and to reason that, even if he hadn't imagined it, Arthur had been drunk enough to be sick on Merlin's shoes, which didn't say much for his mental faculties at the time. He'd been prepared to let it go, good-naturedly and without fuss, but then Arthur had said, "I really am sorry, Merlin," and leaned into him in a way that had brought the entire evening spinning back down Merlin's throat. He'd given a choked little breath and nodded, and Arthur had smiled at him before going to get his blade, the muscles in his legs flexing beneath the lycra.
It had been like that ever since--a week of Arthur always close, his breath a brush on Merlin's cheek, his arm always slung about Merlin's shoulders. He smiled all the time, too, which he'd never done before, and Merlin didn't need Lancelot's extremely indiscreet victory dances when Arthur wasn't looking to know that something good was in the works.
They were clearly bound to happen sometime--it was only a matter of when.
Merlin had begun having improbable sex dreams the minute that he'd met Arthur, but with the promise of real sex on the horizon, his dreams turned white-hot, full of panting, heaving, bodies and filthy language.
Merlin dreamt of Arthur spread out on a beach, limbs splayed everywhere as the sun shone down fiercely, sheening them both with a slight film of sweat. Merlin licked a trickle of sweat from Arthur's chest, following it into Arthur's collarbone as Arthur's hands gripped his hips, hands impossibly tight but oh-so-good, and Merlin moaned and leaned back to look at him, saying, "You're perfect" as Arthur arched into his touch.
Merlin curled his thumb into his forefinger, passing the head of Arthur's cock through the ring of his fingers and slicking his hand before sliding it down to rest at the base. Arthur moaned and lifted his hips, and Merlin smiled at him, lazy, as he pumped Arthur's cock, tightening his hand and twisting, just the way he liked it when he touched himself. Arthur said, "Merlin, Merlin, Merlin, Merlin," a low single-word thrum, and Merlin rubbed himself shamelessly against Arthur's knee, his cock leaking.
Merlin's mother had once told him that dreams were where men could test the limits of their endurance, but somehow Merlin did not think she'd meant this, these porn-inspired nights when he and Arthur did the impossible as Merlin slept, Arthur grabbing Merlin's leg and somehow twisting so that Merlin ended up with his cock in Arthur's hot, delicious, mouth as he pumped Arthur's cock in one hand.
The lead-up varied, and the dreams were always extremely hazy on the logistics, but inevitably Merlin would end up on his hands and knees on the sand, the sun warming his hands where they braced against Arthur's thrusts, sharp and jerky and hard, but magnificent.
Fifth week rolled into sixth week, without incident, but on Thursday evening snow began coming down heavily, refusing to stop and blanketing Oxford entirely. Merlin had looked out his window as he'd worked on an essay in the early morning, and Oriel square had been deserted, silent and white in the moonlight.
It was absolutely freezing when they went out for the morning outing the next day, and by that afternoon Bran had texted them all to say that the afternoon outing was off. The snow was still coming down, and they'd been supposed to have a day off on Sunday; Bran told them they'd make up the missed outing then.
It only gave them a few extra hours of free time, but Merlin immediately began making elaborate plans--dinner at Christ Church with Arthur, afternoon with Gwen, perhaps a film at some point--as if he'd been given a week-long holiday. It turned out Gwen felt pretty much the same, and she blew off some lab time to take Merlin to a snowball fight at Exeter, organised by an eccentric graduate who really seemed to be taking too much pleasure in the entire thing for it to be completely healthy.
"How's Arthur?" asked Gwen, as they were sipping tea in the Exeter middle common room in the aftermath of what had turned out to be a fairly epic battle. Merlin blushed hotly and glanced into his mug, trying hard not to look as excited as he felt.
"That good, mmh?" asked Gwen, smiling into her tea. She didn't say anything else--Gwen always knew when to push and when to let you be, which was part of what made her so wonderful to spend time with. Merlin had originally regaled her with many of Merlin and Arthur's Awkward Adventures, much to her delight, but now that they were poised on the edge of this--whatever this was--he was more hesitant to say anything.
They walked from Exeter to The Rose in order to have another cup of tea and some scones, because it was snowing, and why not. They kicked up snow with their wellies on the way and stayed until Gwen had to rush back to Oriel for a choir rehearsal; Merlin looked down and his watch and made his way down to Christ Church for the first sitting of dinner.
Arthur was waiting on the steps to the hall, wearing a red jumper and black trousers, and Merlin felt like an idiot in his jeans and wellies and a hoodie so ratty that it had finger holes all along the bottom of the sleeve. He gave Arthur a rueful little wave, but Arthur only smiled, and Merlin had one stomach-twisting moment to think, Jesus fuck, this is it before the doors to the hall opened and they tumbled in for dinner.
They sat together, knees brushing; Arthur had gotten a bottle of wine from the Buttery, but Merlin was too nervous to drink properly and sipped at it in tiny increments, trying to convince himself that eating was a good idea. He could feel the tension making its way from the tips of his toes to his hips to his shoulders, and he sat next to Arthur, muscles clenched, trying hard not to give the impression that he was nervous and failing utterly.
Arthur had now moved the same piece of broccoli around his plate four times, picking his fork up and putting it down, and the silence between them was heavy, not comfortably awkward as usual. They made small talk about the snow and about the portrait of John Locke that was hanging in front of them, which made Locke look like the ghost of a frail, big-nosed woman, and they laughed a little, uneasy, as pudding was served.
What the fuck are you doing, Emrys? thought Merlin, trying to school himself into less of a state than he'd worked himself up to, but it was no use. He thought about making his excuses and heading back to Oriel until he felt less nervous about the whole affair, but then he thought about the sick and his ruined shoes and was uncertain they would survive a second setback. When they'd both prodded at their brownies sufficiently to give the impression of eating, they scraped their chairs back and Arthur asked,
"Uh--you want to come back to my room for a while? We can watch Hustle on iPlayer."
Merlin nodded, plastering what he was sure looked like a demented smile on his face, and followed Arthur upstairs.
When they got to Arthur's room, Arthur turned his laptop around on the desk to face the bed and put the latest episode on; he and Merlin had been watching the second season together, and it felt like business as usual except for the stiff way in which they sat next to each other, Merlin shooting nervous glances at his dripping wellies, which he'd placed by the door.
Merlin wasn't able to say, in retrospect, who had moved first; it was clear that whoever it was had set off a similar jerky whip-around from the other, though, and their lips came together with a massive, painful, clacking of teeth. They shifted a little, Merlin's nose digging into Arthur's cheek, and Merlin tried to position his face in a way that meant he could kiss Arthur without feeling a painful twinge in his hip from where he was twisting around awkwardly.
He slid his tongue between Arthur's lips just as Arthur had the same idea, and the result was that Merlin licked a disgusting swipe across Arthur's lips and halfway down his cheek. It would have been funny in any other context, but Arthur didn't laugh and Merlin wasn't sure he had enough air to spare for it, either.
They wriggled down until they were lying on the bed, parallel to each other, and Merlin pulled at the bottom of Arthur's jumper, pulling it over his head. He tried to do the same with Arthur's polo shirt, but it was buttoned too high and caught on Arthur's nose, which prompted a pained sound and some very graceless fumbling as Merlin undid the button and eventually pulled the shirt free.
He sat back on his knees and just looked, because this was how he'd first seen Arthur in the boathouse two terms ago, laughing with Lancelot but half-undressed in Merlin's mind's eye. His skin was golden, turned even more so by the lamplight from Arthur's dusky-shaded bedside light, and Merlin said, before he could help himself,
Arthur brayed out a laugh that sounded half-derisive, and Merlin drew back, hurt.
"I'm just nervous," Arthur said, but he didn't apologise and somehow, Merlin wasn't able to say, Me too. Maybe we can just lie here for a minute.
They managed to get each other's trousers and underwear off, and Merlin ran a hand up Arthur's side, which was smooth and felt downy with soft hair. He tucked his nose into Arthur's neck and took a deep breath, almost unwilling to pull back and look at Arthur's face again; his cock was hard and he could feel Arthur hard and wet against his thigh, but Merlin felt none of the inhibition-loosening anticipation that he had been led to believe one felt at this point. Tropical-island Merlin, eager and smooth-moving, was unfortunately nowhere to be found.
He trailed his knuckles down Arthur's chest before wrapping his fingers around Arthur's cock; Arthur gasped sharply, his breaths loud in the silent room, and Merlin twisted his arm back and forth, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible but not quite able to get the right angle. He eventually settled on a position that allowed him to pump Arthur's cock rhythmically, if not gracefully, and he tightened his fingers, twisting his wrist and running one thumb over the head, trying to make the whole process slicker, better.
Arthur was breathing raggedly in his ear, and Merlin couldn't have touched him for more than a minute before he gasped, "Merlin," into Merlin's ear and came. Merlin stopped, unbelievably turned on but sticky and suddenly unsure of what the protocol was--did he wipe his hand on the duvet?--and Arthur lay there, panting, his face turned into Merlin's neck and his cheek hot where his skin touched Merlin's.
"Sorry," he said, once, and Merlin said,
"No, obviously--" but before he had the time to wonder if he had it in him to say it was a massive turn-on, Arthur said, sharply,
"Let me--" and Merlin, not knowing how to say, No, wait; I liked it without making it more awkward, flopped back on the bed while Arthur kissed him, slow and glorious but moving down his body too soon to Jesus Christ take Merlin's cock in his mouth.
Merlin's cock kept scraping against Arthur's teeth, and at one point Arthur made an unseemly choking noise that had Merlin scurrying up the bed and away before Arthur pulled him down again, but though it was as awkward as anything Merlin had ever done, it was hot and wet and wonderful, and Merlin tapped Arthur's shoulder jerkily to indicate that he was about to come in his mouth, then went ahead and did it before Arthur really had a chance to react.
Arthur pulled away, eyes wide, the same sort of expression Merlin had no doubt had on his face while he thought about how to deal with his sticky hand, and then he pursed his lips and swallowed, coughing twice and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
The mood didn't quite seem right for an "Arthur, that was brilliant," so Merlin waited in silence, until the quiet stretched for two minutes and Arthur got up, pulling his boxers on. Arthur sat at the edge of the bed, just breathing, and Merlin fought the urge to cover his cock with his hands nervously.
"Thanks," said Arthur. "I mean, thank you. That was very nice." But to Merlin it sounded a bit like, Let's never do that again, and despite the liquid feeling of his limbs, he was confused and hurt enough that no part of him could find it in itself to fully disagree.
"Yeah," he said, "You too."
He shimmied down the bed and put his own boxers on, and slowly they dressed, calmer now but no less self-conscious. When Arthur went to angle the computer again and return to where they'd been in the Hustle episode, Merlin said nothing, waiting for the programme to end so that he could make an exit without looking as if he were leaving.
When Merlin fell asleep that night, the ideal, athletic sex that he had come to expect was nowhere to be found. He dreamt only of inept, half-arsed, fumbling in the sand, but it was tender, and when Merlin was able to say how much he liked it, his mouth actually emitting sound as it hadn't, earlier, Arthur said, "Me, too," and it was perfect.
Merlin had thought he'd known the meaning of 'awkward', before, but the shuffling and mumbling that he and Arthur had had in Michaelmas was nothing compared to the dizzying heights of discomfort that they rose to in the days after the Hustle shuffle.
Arthur was stiff-backed, unerringly polite, and he continued to pick up Merlin's calls in the boat perfectly, his technique flawless but the connection between them gone. Merlin would have given even earth-shattering beach-sex up in return for the more relaxed place towards which their friendship had slowly been easing, and he tried hard not to mope every time Arthur gave him a sharp, professional, nod from stroke.
Lancelot had noticed something was wrong straight away, the following day--"Oh, dear, Emrys, is the spark fading?"--but he'd realised immediately, from the slump of Merlin's shoulders, that it didn't bear joking about, and had said nothing since. Merlin had overheard him talking to Arthur--"Mate, whatever it is, it can't be that bad"--but Arthur's silent confirmation that yes, it could, apparently, had put an end to that line of enquiry as well. He traded off between them, now, laughing with Merlin before going to put an arm around Arthur, and, slowly, Merlin began to resent Arthur not only for the unceremonious ending to the Hustle shuffle but also for messing things up with Lancelot.
It was clear that his resentment was returned, because as the term drew to a close and the final crews for the Boat Race were announced, Arthur went from polite to dismissive, from indifferent to belligerent. He didn't say much to Merlin, but began taunting him from stroke with great rhythm that bore no resemblance to Merlin's calls. At first the rest of the rowers had hesitated, thrown by the conflicting information, but in time they had all fallen in line with Arthur, and Merlin had adapted his calls to suit what was happening already, without any input from him, for fear of losing his seat in the boat.
He resented Arthur for that, too.
Bran and Tom put the crew lists up at the beginning of eighth week, and Merlin came into the boathouse to an ecstatically grinning Lancelot,
"We made it, Merlin, with Arthur at stroke, me at seven!"
Merlin flicked his eyes over the list--C: Merlin, S: Arthur, 7: Lancelot, 6: Ben, 5: Evans, 4: Jakub, 3: Petersen, 2: Jeremy, B: Bennett--and tried to conjure up the same, chest-bursting excitement he had felt when the same thing had happened the year before: Cox: Merlin Emrys. He was pleased that months of hard work had been rewarded, but it was a quiet, stoic, pleasure that felt nothing like last year's unbridled glee.
"What is it, Merlin?" asked Lancelot, honestly concerned, and Merlin almost told him--about the bad sex, about the fact that Merlin had liked it, uncoordinated as it had been; about the fact that Merlin missed Arthur and tortured himself every day wondering whether Arthur had been honestly put off by the experience and didn't want things to go back to the way they'd been or whether he was just embarrassed, avoiding Merlin because he thought Merlin had been put off. He knew Arthur well enough to consider the possibility that it might be the latter, and if it was, the injustice of how it had all fallen apart was compounded by the stupidity of Arthur's ridiculous pride and of Merlin's complete inability to take the risk and ask whether a misunderstanding was the driving force behind this, too afraid of the answer being 'no'.
"Don't worry about it, Lancelot," he said, shaking his head, and Lancelot smiled at him sympathetically and brushed his hand against Merlin's wrist.
They took the boat out and Merlin got them on the river, doing 6k sets in preparation for the actual race, now. As disheartened as Merlin felt, he couldn't help but feel a rush of adrenaline at the speed, at the smoothness of the catches. Arthur seemed less intent on fighting him, now, and as the boat sang under them Merlin allowed himself to think: We're going to win this thing.
After the debrief--Tom and Bran were pleased with them, too--Merlin watched the rowers pack up their things, and pulled on some tracksuit bottoms over his lycra. When they all made a move to go, he walked up to the coaches and said,
"Hey, Bran, Tom. I want to stay for a while, if that's okay. I'm going to look over the boats, make sure all the cox-boxes are charging. I just want to get my bearings before the term ends and we all move to London for training."
Bran and Tom smiled at him--Tom fond and Bran ruefully, as if to say, "Coxes; typical"--and Merlin said,
"I'll take the bus back, no problem."
"Yeah, fine, fine," said Tom. "Get back safely."
They both gave him a wave as they walked out the door, and Merlin sat on the floor, the stone cold but comforting under his hands.
This was going to work, he told himself: they were going to win; he was going to enjoy it. Things with Arthur would improve; it was inevitable that they would. Everything would be fine; only positive thinking was required.
He laughed, a little, and when he caught sight of a loose rigger bolt out of the corner of his eye, he pulled himself up and went to sit on one of the boat trolleys to look more carefully. It needed to be screwed in a little further, and Merlin, too lazy to get up and get the spanner, focussed as hard as he could on the shelf where they kept the tools, thinking: Spanner, come hither.
Completely unsurprisingly, it did not work, and Merlin braced his hands against his knees to stand up before stopping, thinking, No, fuck it. This has to be good for something, surely, and focussing all of his attention on the spanner, willing it to slide towards him.
Merlin could hardly believe his eyes when the shelf rattled and the spanner came shooting off the top of the toolbox, heading straight for Merlin's head but detouring towards his hand at the last minute.
He laughed, delightedly, but at that moment the door slammed and Arthur, who apparently had been standing in the shadows like a waiting axe murderer, stalked out, brows furrowed together and shouting,
"I knew it. I knew, it Merlin, you little lying shit. I knew it!"
Merlin panicked, flashing back to the last time someone had caught him doing this when he shouldn't have been, and he thought, Oh, god, please don't let this be happening. God was evidently in a listening, if misunderstanding, mood, because with a soft ripple of air, the spanner vanished entirely from Merlin's hand.
Arthur's eyes widened, angry and betrayed, and he looked so much like Will had, looking between the floor and the jar of jam in Merlin's hand, which had been heading towards the floor until Merlin had somehow conjured it back upwards, that Merlin drew back, a little.
"You rotten, lying, tosser," said Arthur, spitting the words out and looking, for a moment, angry enough to punch him. Merlin looked back as steadily as he could, unsure whether he would make it better or worse if he opened his mouth, but betting on worse, because he had never in his entire life been able to make the right words come when he needed them.
"I came back here to apologise to you, Merlin. I thought maybe we'd been misunderstanding each other for two weeks, and I wanted to wipe the slate clean before we went to London for training. And to think--" Arthur laughed, but the sound was ugly.
Merlin looked at him, expecting to see disgust twisting his features, and was surprised to see pain, instead.
"Arthur--" he said, wishing more than anything that he could make it better, and Arthur said,
"No, Merlin. To think--why spend time on misunderstandings when you can just cut to the outright lying?"
He spun on his heel, turning for a moment to look back at Merlin from the doorway, and was gone.
Merlin went home for two days between term and training in London, and thanked God for a mother who asked no questions and simply made lots of food. Merlin stuffed his face, eating three huge meals a day, and at the end of a superb roast dinner on the second day, he said,
"Arthur found out about--it."
Merlin's mother's hand tightened on the carving knife, knuckles white, and she said,
"Is he going to tell anyone?"
"I don't think so," said Merlin. "He mostly seemed concerned with the fact that I'd lied to him about it."
"Oh," said his mother, relaxing, "Well, if he feels angry about not being told, it's only because he cares. That's good. I'm sure the two of you will work it out, Merlin."
"Yeah," said Merlin, feeling wretched. "I'm sure."
Bran and Tom had arranged for them to stay at London Rowing Club in the last two weeks before the race, so that Merlin could practice coxing and the rowers could practice rowing on the tideway every day, two outings a day, without having to commute too far.
They woke up early every morning and carried the boat down to the river in hazy March light, all of them in matching navy wellies that looked stupid but allowed for an odd sort of bad-apparel bonding.
Arthur didn't speak a word to Merlin, but no-one seemed to notice much of a change from the preceding weeks; it was only Merlin who was able to catch on to the fact that Arthur was avoiding him at all costs, going as far as to twist his body away whenever Merlin had to move close to him for any reason.
Lancelot shot them odd looks, from time to time, but overall training was going well and everyone had their minds fixed firmly on the Boat Race in two weeks, leaving no space to wonder about anything else.
Merlin did his best to sit as far away from Arthur as possible during their nightly crew dinners, but his hyperawareness of everything Arthur was doing only served to turn what was already a tense meal into something nearing the unbearable. Merlin hardly ate, which no-one complained about, much, but Arthur's own shuffling of food back and forth across his plate had Lancelot passing his rolls onto Arthur's side plate and Jeremy piling on the potatoes when Arthur handed him his plate.
They were having their afternoon outing on the fifth day when the coaches caught on. The March sunlight was weak but beautiful, and Merlin turned his face up towards the sky as he drove them forward, resisting a desire to trail his fingers in the puddles that they made as they moved in the water.
"Come on, Oxford; keep it tight. As we come around the bend here, I want you to push for twenty. In two... in one... go. That's one, Oxford. Easy away, pushing on the legs. That's three: driving away from Cambridge. Own the water behind you: it's your territory. Move us away. Arthur, that looks great--"
"Don't fucking talk to me, Emrys," Arthur grated out, and Merlin was so surprised at his vehemence that he stuttered, unable to think of what to call next. Lancelot's blade, catching a second too early, jerked his attention back to the rowers on the boat, but his focus was shot.
"That's eight, Oxford; that's nice. That's nine. Ten. And ten more to go. Nine. Eight. Seven," Merlin counted inanely, darting his eyes about and trying to look anywhere but at Arthur's face.
"That's lovely; Lancelot, sharper catches. Jeremy, lead from the rear; Jakub, give bow four a rhythm to follow--work off Arthur."
Merlin's mouth continued to make the calls, but he could tell from the drop in speed and coordination that he was ruining the boat's stride, so he did his best to keep the talking to a minimum, encouraging the rowers to keep the boat moving smoothly until Bran and Tom called them in about half an hour later.
When the boat was racked and they were all back in their wellies, Bran and Tom gave them a quick debrief and pointed out technical issues to the rowers, dismissing them all for dinner but calling,
"Merlin. Arthur. You stay behind, please," before they all walked away.
Merlin propped a hip against the wall, trying to look nonchalant, and Arthur stood in front of the coaches, arms crossed, as Bran and Tom looked between the two of them, silent.
"What's going on here, guys?" asked Tom, and Merlin said,
"Nothing, Tom," just as Arthur said,
"Well, nothing, or nothing important, whatever it is," said Bran, mouth set in an angry line, "you two need to figure it out before we get on the river to race Cambridge and your shit dynamic trips us up. You're the stroke and the cox, for crying out loud. If you don't have the rhythm, no-one in that boat is going to have a hope in hell. So fucking sort it out before you cost everyone months of hard work."
Merlin nodded, chastised, and Arthur looked down, evidently embarrassed.
"These boats need the rigging adjusting," said Tom, his tone off-hand, and Merlin asked, looking around the boathouse with its dozens of boats,
"All of them," said Bran. "A quarter of an inch outwards. Don't come in until you've finished."
Tom tossed Merlin a tape measure, and handed Arthur two spanners.
"Good luck," they said, walking out of the boathouse and giving them a jaunty wave.
Merlin and Arthur stood about awkwardly, until Merlin said, eventually,
"I can measure while you loosen and tighten the bolts."
Arthur snorted, angry, "Or I can hold the tape measure while you do the work."
"Whatever," said Merlin, tired. "Let's just get started."
It took them half an hour to do three boats, and Merlin's hands began hurting about halfway through the seventh rigger, from having to twist his wrists awkwardly over the boat. Arthur held the tape measure silently, stopping only to complain.
"That's not tight enough," he said, for the tenth time, and Merlin snapped,
"I would be more than happy to pass on the job, Arthur."
Arthur said nothing, simply extending his hand for the spanner, and Merlin measured with steady hands, trying not to smack Arthur every time he said,
"Hold it steady, Emrys; what are you, brain-damaged?"
They were halfway through the sixth boat when Arthur sighed and said, "You know, I somehow don't think actually adjusting the rigging on all of these boats was what Bran and Tom had in mind for us."
"No," agreed Merlin. "I don't think so, either. I think we're supposed to be having a bonding epiphany, a connection-filled moment that will make all the grief we've been giving the rest of boat disappear in a flash."
"Mmh," said Arthur, hands twisting deftly. "I think it's supposed to be like that scene in Cool Runnings where he practices the turns in the bathtub. We're supposed to become one with the racing course, now."
Merlin nodded, then said, "Difficult when you don't want to be in a boat with me."
"Difficult when it turns out you're a lying bastard."
"Difficult when it's something I can't quite explain to myself, let alone explain to anyone else."
"Difficult when you don't trust me," Arthur bit out.
"Difficult when I've been told not to trust anyone, ever, with this," said Merlin.
They stared at each other silently, Merlin holding the tape measure and Arthur slapping the spanner against one hand, smack smack smack.
"You've never told anyone?" he asked, finally.
"No," said Merlin.
"Not Lancelot?" asked Arthur, eyes narrowed.
"Not anyone, Arthur," said Merlin. "I accidentally showed my best friend from childhood, once, before we came up to Oxford, and he told me to leave his house and never come back and to never speak to him again. I haven't seen him since."
"William Williamson," said Arthur. He twisted a bolt loose, then looked at Merlin. "I see. I asked you, though. I mean, asked outright."
"I know," said Merlin, wearily. "I'm not sure if pretending I had no idea what you were talking about was the right choice. I mean--obviously it wasn't. But it was the only thing I knew how to do; you caught me completely by surprise. I hadn't even done it on purpose, Arthur. Not that day in the boat and not the day in the tank. That spanner thing you saw--it's one of the only times in my life that I've been able to make it do what I wanted. The rest of the time it's just a nuisance, and a burden, and frightening."
"Really?" asked Arthur. "I thought it was kind of cool, to tell you the truth."
"Yeah?" said Merlin, ducking his head, absurdly pleased but wary of showing it.
Merlin sighed, relieved.
"I really am sorry, Arthur."
"Okay," he said, neither kind nor angry.
"Things--" Merlin stopped. "Things were bad before then, though."
"Yes," said Arthur tightly. "But that's maybe a nice chat for another time, Emrys."
"Fine," said Merlin. "But you should know that I--I really liked it, Arthur. It was horrible because I was almost sick from nerves, but I liked it. And I wanted to do it again."
Arthur looked at him, consideringly, as if gauging whether Merlin was telling the truth, and eventually he gave a tiny smile and said,
"Can't you use your incompetent powers of telepathy and telekinesis to adjust these riggers?"
Merlin concentrated for a moment, but the spanner and the tape measure did not jump out of their hands in a Sorcerer's Apprentice-type montage.
"No," he said. "Sorry."
"Well," said Arthur, shrugging, "maybe we can go back in anyway. Now that we've become one with the course."
"Yes," said Merlin, and when Arthur walked past him, he touched his shoulder, gently, just once.
The days that followed were like those early weeks, their interaction uncertain but not fraught, and, Merlin hoped, moving towards something better. Merlin took Arthur's porridge in the morning, and pushed his bananas and the cereal towards him, because at some point last term Arthur had told him he hated nothing more than he hated porridge. Arthur always got in the boat first, adjusting his feet and looking at Merlin expectantly, and when Merlin called for them to row on, Arthur's blade squared to attention first.
They spent their evenings together, Lancelot and Ben and the others obviously sitting easier now, joking about Tab failures and throwing popcorn at bad rowing films in a way that, Merlin realised now, they hadn't felt comfortable doing while the stroke and the cox were having it out.
Bran and Tom seemed pleased, and every day, Merlin felt as if the boat were moving more smoothly beneath him, faster; every other afternoon, he went out with Tom on the launch and ran through the course a couple of times, trying to memorise the twist of the banks and the places where there would be wind shadows, depending on the weather on the day.
Putney Bridge, Fulham, Mile Post. Harrods, Hammersmith, St. Paul's. Fuller's, Chiswick, the Crossing. The Bandstand, Barnes Bridge, Stag's: the finish.
Tom and Merlin discussed possible lines until they were blue in the face, but every day Merlin's grip on the rudder lines got a little tighter, his stomach knotting further at the thought that the rowers would be fast enough, but he wouldn't be able to take advantage of it because he'd somehow take them down the wrong course. He cut back on eating again, and began sleeping badly; one morning, when he looked in the mirror, he jerked back in surprise at the look of his own face.
When Arthur and Lancelot asked for the coaches' permission to take Merlin out a few days before the race, Merlin went along more out of an inability to make everyday decisions at that point than out of a desire to spend a day with Arthur, who was still cautious and sometimes sharp with him.
"Where are we going?" he asked, when Arthur put him on some obscure three-digit bus number of a route and told him to sit down at the top, as it would be a while.
"You'll see," said Lancelot, and the three of them sat in tense silence, hearing the pre-recorded woman call the stops as the bus moved forward.
"This is it," said Lancelot, eventually, and Arthur dragged Merlin out of the bus and down a side street, Merlin thinking, Putney bridge, Fulham, Mile Post even as they pulled up in front of a garish purple store front with, "Nimueh's Yoga and Meditation Centre" printed on the window.
"Lancelot, Arthur--what the hell?" asked Merlin, warily.
"For relaxation, mate," said Lancelot. "She's supposed to be the best in the business."
Merlin had done yoga once before, at some sort of Women's Institute-organised event that his mother had dragged him to when he was fifteen, but his experience with Mrs. Saunders from the corner shop's interpretation of the Downward Facing Dog had not in any way prepared him for the experience of seeing of twenty scantily-clad, young men and women perching on purple and blue foam mats, sitting silently in expectation of the instructor's arrival and not talking amongst themselves.
When she walked in, blue eyes huge in a pale face with dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, she drew every eye in the room to her, and Merlin whispered, urgently, "Are you sure we're allowed to be here?" while Arthur nodded and Lancelot shushed them both.
"Welcome, everybody," she said in a silky voice, and Merlin saw Lancelot sit up a little straighter. "Please sit back, legs crossed and back straight, and let's begin focussing in preparation for today's session. I see we have some new people joining us; I'll make sure to come back and work specifically with you if you're new here, today."
She sat in silence, for a moment, and Merlin closed his eyes and tried to breathe evenly when he saw that everyone else was doing the same.
"Look for your inner balance, now," she said, and Merlin tried not to giggle childishly from the back. She continued to speak softly, telling them to think about balance between positive and negative, activity and repose, and Merlin felt nervous laughter bubbling within him, breaking out in a sharp exhalation when she led them through a visualisation exercise that involved imagining a cup running over while thinking about the fluidity of life on earth.
Arthur looked at him sharply, smiling widely when he caught Merlin's mirth, and something loosened and gave way inside Merlin (Harrods, Hammersmith--oh, for crying out loud; who cares?) and refused to tighten back, no matter how many times Nimueh told them to twist uncomfortably from the hips outward, and no matter how often he pictured the river in his head as they stretched.
Last year's race day had dawned bright and cloudless, the sun high overhead after they'd eventually made their way outside after Bran and Tom's pep talk.
This year the weather was awful, the sky an angry blueish-grey and the rain so heavy that Merlin looked outside reluctantly, almost willing to put off for another day what he'd hoped for weeks now would come, already.
"Nice day for it," said Jakub as they met for breakfast, and Merlin nodded ruefully as Lancelot muttered about searching for one's core and going forth without fear, evidently still thinking about the ridiculous yoga class than neither Arthur nor Merlin, who had laughed the entire way home, had taken seriously.
"Yes," said Arthur, mock-solemnly. "The teachings of Madame Nimueh shall lead us forth."
They put on one set of lycra and went for a very short warm-up; they came back soaked, and showered and changed into the one-pieces they would race in before running out to the minibus, ready to be driven to Putney.
They rowers had had a huge breakfast, heavy on the easily digestible carbs, and Merlin had tried his hardest to drink all of the necessary water early on in the morning, so that he'd be as light as possible when the time to race came. Most people said those sort of weight shifts didn't matter, but everybody also agreed that you never knew what could make or break a Boat Race victory.
Merlin subscribed to a 'take no chances' sort of philosophy on the matter.
The rowers had weighed in two days ago, Petersen heaviest but still lighter than the heaviest guy on last's year's crew, and Merlin knew ITV would be playing those ridiculous spots that they were forced to record early on in March: Hello. I'm Merlin Emrys, and I'm coxing for Oxford. I began coxing when I arrived at Oriel in my first year… all set to ludicrous, beat-heavy inspirational sports music and with strangely angled shots of each of their faces as they spoke. Merlin had been miserable at the time, enough so that a voiceover that said, Hello. I'm Merlin Emrys, and my potential boyfriend just dumped me unceremoniously after a very bad, awkward, night. I may or may not jump out of the boat onto oncoming river traffic while you watch this programme would not have been out of place.
He tried his hardest not to think about his mother and Great Uncle Gaius and Gwen and Morgana on the riverbank as they played the videos on the screens, or about his other friends watching from home.
They sat in silence on the short ride to the appropriate part of the river, Lancelot muttering "Die Tabs die Tabs die Tabs" over and over, turning a water bottle in his hands while Merlin thought Yes but also Shut the fuck up.
They arrived in time to double-check the boat, and to sit eating small pieces of flapjack as the lightweights rowed off, Arthur giving a confident, "Come on, Isis," as the reserve boat rowed out to meet Goldie at the start line.
They didn't watch the race, sitting in the boathouse instead while Bran and Tom gave them last reassurances and pointers, things to remember. When someone shouted, "Isis's won!" from the boathouse entrance, they all gave a short cheer before returning to twisting their hands in their laps.
"It's time, Oxford," someone called, finally, and Merlin shot up from where he'd been sitting, nodding to each of the rowers before hugging Lancelot briefly and then, on impulse, Arthur too.
"Good luck," whispered Merlin against Arthur's ear, and Arthur nodded tersely, putting one hand on Merlin's shoulder and sliding it to rest, warm, on Merlin's neck before moving away to take his splash jacket and tracksuit bottoms off, leaving him in his lycra.
Merlin waited for all of them to get ready, double-checking the cox-box as the rain pelted outside, seemingly heavier now.
"Oxford," he called, finally. "When you are ready--slide her out."
Merlin tried his hardest to ignore the water sloshing into his boots as they put the boat on the water, the rain pelting into his face as he adjusted the cox-box. He rowed them out to the starting boats, Arthur's back straight and his neck curved proudly. They'd lost the toss; Cambridge had picked Surrey.
He rowed them towards the Middlesex station and had Jeremy and Bennett tap them backwards and forwards until he had the boat angled as he wanted it, and the man holding them at the start asked,
"Are you ready, son?"
The umpire had not yet called five minutes before the race, but already their boat was filling with water, their pumps doing their best to clear the rainwater, as well as the riverwater sloshing over the side, out. Merlin glanced at the Light Blues and thought about their start--two draws, two winds, two lengthens--but as another wave came over the side, drenching Arthur, he began to think that the deeper draws would catch on the choppy water, making them take in more water. He wasn't even sure they'd be able to get the blades out of the water quickly enough to do the winds, and he said softly, to Arthur,
"The water's really rough, especially for the start."
"Two minutes, Oxford!" called their boatman, as Arthur said,
"Really rough. I'm not sure how it's going to work; we just go, I guess."
Merlin's mind worked desperately--cut the winds? Only one draw?--before he heard Gwen's voice in his head, as if she were teaching him the basics in his first year: Sometimes, Merlin, the 'start' just means start rowing.
"One minute, Oxford," called the boatman, as Merlin, said, quick,
"Oxford: everybody listen. The water's incredibly rough and I don't think we're going to be able to push the draws through, let alone spin the wrists through the winds. But sometimes--sometimes the start just means start rowing. So when the gun goes, Oxford, just go. Arthur, back straight, nice first slide, movement as even as you can make it. Just a normal stroke, everybody, but make it as good a stroke as you can. Rating high, slides smooth. Is everybody clear?"
Arthur nodded, seemingly understanding straight away, and Merlin heard the other men agreeing, all the way down the boat.
"Okay, Oxford," he said, sparing one last glance at Cambridge to their left. "Heads in the boat. Sit up; cores strong. We have this, Oxford. Good luck."
"Coxes, are you ready?" called the umpire.
Merlin looked down the river, at where their bow was pointing, and nodded. The Cambridge cox had her hand raised, still adjusting, but she lowered it after only a moment.
"Oxford. Cambridge," called the umpire. "Come to front stops. Attention--"
The gun went off.
Arthur came forward, impossibly slow, as Merlin heard the Cambridge cox call the first draw to his left, saw the Light Blues shooting forward in their seats. Their blades were already in the water by the time Arthur caught, and Merlin had a second to think that he'd cost them the race at the starting line before the boat slid forward under him smoothly. The Cambridge rowers dug in for a second jerky draw, and Merlin called, as encouragingly as he could with his heart in his throat,
"That's it, Oxford," and then, "Race pace straight away. Nice and smooth. Driving us away."
The Light Blues were trying to get their blades out of the water after their second wind, and as Oxford picked up speed with their steady strokes Merlin thought yes, yes hysterically and pushed the rudder right, trying to get them behind the shelter of the river wall.
"Perfect, Oxford," he said, "We're leaving them behind right off the start. Make our advantage count, now, and give me a power twenty, Oxford, pushing away… in one… go!"
Arthur grit his teeth, and Merlin saw the muscles in his thighs working as he came forward, then drove back. Having the rudder on was costing them speed, but a stroke later they were sheltered by the wall and flying, the water suddenly still under the boat.
"We're pulling away, Oxford," said Merlin, with a manic sort of delight as he felt the wind on his face. "Easy away."
Merlin could see the river stretching in front of him, a single grey path snaking ahead with raindrops backsplashing from its surface. Out of the corner of his left eye he could see the light blue of Cambridge's blades as they came towards them, towards the wall. They're coming, he saw Arthur mouth, and he gave a jerky nod, acknowledging Arthur but keeping his eyes forward.
"That's perfect, Oxford. Long and strong--don't let them take this space back. Driving away from them, Oxford. Push off their boat."
Arthur was breathing hard, desperate huffs of breath on the exhale, and Merlin could practically hear Lancelot swear mentally on every stroke. This was the terrible thing about this race--a thousand metres in, once you'd gone half the distance of an Olympic rowing race and seemingly given everything you could, you knew there were another thousand metres to go, and then four thousand and change after that.
Thinking was half the battle in a race that could turn in a second, and Merlin tried not to let the feeling of being ahead run away from him. It wasn't entirely clear how they were doing it--Petersen and Lancelot had the memory of defeat to drive them, he supposed, and the rest of them could see their advantage, feel it, and they were pressing it. But the fact was that they were doing it, staying where they were, a canvas ahead, nosing in front of Cambridge past the mile post and racing towards Harrods.
There was a wind shadow behind the building, and Merlin could see it as clearly as he could taste the rainwater that was splashing on his lips, was sure they could break Cambridge there if they could get themselves across the river and make the most of it.
"All right, Oxford!" he called sharply, left hand ready on the rudder string. "I need you to give me space to get across. Get me across to the wind shadow, Oxford, and we'll leave them behind there. Give me a power twenty--in two. In one. Go!"
He could see on their faces that they felt it too: close Boat Race finishes weren't that common, and if they could be ahead by Hammersmith Bridge, they could probably stay there, make the most of the space and win by a couple of lengths.
"That's five, Oxford," he called; he could hear them all breathing together, Lancelot growling, Come the fuck on as he came forward.
It was working--they were pulling forward, and Merlin grinned, wide and happy and inappropriate, and said, "I'm on their seven, Oxford. Keep pushing. On their six man, Oxford. Bow four, driving us away. Arthur, Lancelot, Ben, Evans--together and through. On their three man, Oxford. Give me another five, long and strong. On their bow man, Oxford. On the legs, three more. That's it, Oxford."
Merlin saw them clear Cambridge's bow ball, and drove the boat left, crossing them over and ahead of Cambridge onto Surrey station. The river water was almost completely still behind the Harrods depository, and Merlin could see the exultant look in his rowers' eyes as their blades moved smoothly through the water and the calmer air, Cambridge completely behind them.
Merlin let go of the rudder, confident that they had it, letting them know that they were coming up on Hammersmith Bridge. They were catching as one, perfect, and Merlin could hear a rush of shouting in his ears as people cheered from the bank.
He didn't see the first wave, though he felt the boat jerk and heard Jeremy's Jesus Christ from the back. The next wave hit him full on the face, and Arthur sputtered as the boat took on water, shuddering almost to a halt as the rowers struggled to keep in time.
"Together, Oxford, as one," called Merlin, shaking water out of his hair. "Get us moving again--power twenty as we come up to two miles. Halfway there, Oxford."
They tried to get their rhythm back, but the boat was heavy--even Merlin could feel it--and Cambridge was coming, light blue blades catching on water that was suddenly less rough than when Oxford had rowed through the same stretch a second ago. Merlin saw Arthur's brow furrow, then Lancelot's, as the Cambridge cox called what Merlin had been calling a mile ago--"Our bow is on their four man, Cambridge … their three man, boys"--and Cambridge pulled even.
Merlin could feel everyone floundering, seeing what had looked like victory a few seconds ago slipping from their fingers, but with two miles to go, perseverance was everything, and he smiled grimly at them, calling,
"I know the boat is getting heavy, Oxford. We're taking on an awful lot of water. We're slowing down--I can feel it. I know it must be difficult to keep driving through."
Lancelot shot Merlin a desperate, confused look, as if to say, This really isn't helping, Merlin.
Merlin fought to keep his voice steady, his hands curling on the rudder strings. He could hear people cheering as they came up on the Chiswick steps, neck and neck with Cambridge. He swore he heard Morgana shout, "Come on, Oxford!" but that was ridiculous, because she and Gwen were waiting at the end. He took two deep breaths, then tried to keep his head as clear as possible, as empty of desire as he could, as he called, voice upbeat,
"Oxford. That's it. Feel it. You're getting it back. The pumps are working--the boat is getting lighter. You're moving together, Oxford. We are pulling away. They're cracking after putting that speed on to catch us up. Driving it forward--and easy away, Oxford."
The pumps were working--or the power of suggestion was enough to make them all feel reassured, at least--because as Merlin called, "Feel how light the boat is under you, Oxford," they suddenly burst ahead, gliding forward, their catches perfectly in time.
Merlin saw Arthur's eyes widen in satisfaction as they pulled ahead; they narrowed immediately afterwards, and as he came forward for his next catch, he hissed angrily, panting unevenly,
"Emrys"--he drove back--"if you're doing"--he pulled his blade free--"what I think you're doing"--one final drive--"Iwillneversuckyourcockagain, I swear."
Merlin huffed a shocked and panicked laugh, resisting the urge to put his hand up to his microphone, where his calls were being broadcast on fucking television, before calling, calmly,
"This is all you, Oxford. You've got them--they're blowing. You've broken them. That's three miles, Oxford. Pulling away. All you, Oxford, all you," Merlin repeated, looking firmly at Arthur, as Lancelot widened his nostrils delightedly and the boat pulled away, away, away.
By the time they went past The Ship, then the finish, Merlin was short of breath from calls and laughter, and as they went under Chiswick bridge, he half-stood, half-scrambled out of the coxing seat, and launched himself at Lancelot and Arthur, who caught him, laughing, while everyone else shouted incoherently. Petersen slammed his hands into the water on either side of the boat, splashing everyone around him.
Merlin wasn't entirely sure how they'd gotten there--literally found that now that it was over he couldn't remember anything other than the rushing sound of the wind and the uneven lapping of the water over the side of the boat--but he was more than happy to steer his boys home, dazed but triumphant.
They scrambled onto the raft and towards the dais, Cambridge coming in behind them as Morgana and Gwen and Merlin's mother and Uncle Gaius rushed towards them, and Merlin did something he'd thought he would never do, pumping both arms in the air and shouting, "Yes, yes, yes!"
He saw everything in flashes--Gaius coming forward for a hug, his mother hugging Arthur, the flash of Arthur's hand as he took Merlin's, Petersen spraying a jeroboam of champagne over everyone. Lancelot was smiling wide enough to shatter cheekbones, and Merlin recalled the bitterness with which he had watched Cambridge doing this same thing last year, remembered something someone had told him after his first race at Oxford--winners don't feel the cold.
He felt Arthur shift his grip from Merlin's hand to his wrist, and Lancelot came forward to grab one ankle as Jeremy grabbed his other arm, Jakub helping Lancelot with Merlin's right leg. He wriggled half-heartedly as they hoisted him up.
"On three, Oxford," Lancelot called, laughing, and they swung Merlin once, twice. The buildings on the bank spun sickeningly as they drew him back one last time, and then he was flying through the air and into the river, falling in with a breath-stealing, frozen splash.
Merlin jerked off his sodden clothes, dropping them on the floor as he changed into a fleece and some tracksuit bottoms that Bran had thrust at him when the coaches had dragged him from the water. He came back outside to find Arthur standing next to his father, who was clasping Arthur's shoulder and smiling as Morgana pulled a face from behind his left shoulder.
"Merlin," called Arthur, motioning with one hand, and Merlin walked towards them.
"This is my father, Merlin," said Arthur, before saying, "Father, this is Merlin, my--our cox."
Arthur's father held his hand out, and Merlin shook it, muttering about it being a pleasure and possibly calling him "Sir" in the process. Morgana's lips twitched in amusement, but before Merlin could blush, Petersen came forward, clapping one hand on Merlin's shoulder, and said,
"Bran and Tom need us for some photographs." He jerked his head towards the dais, "And then--"
"You proceed get spectacularly drunk," said Arthur's father, looking bizarrely pleased about it all.
Merlin wondered if he had rowed himself: he had the build for it, and it would be utterly like Arthur to have switched from doing Blues football to rowing in order to follow in his father's footsteps.
"Yes, sir," answered Petersen, and Morgana had to twist away to hide her smile. Merlin was happy to discover he wasn't alone in being intimidated by Arthur's father for no reason other than the fact that he was there.
"Come on then, you lot!" called Bran from somewhere to their left, and the three of them disentangled themselves to walk up to the stocky wooden platform where they'd have the picture taken with the trophy.
He could hear everyone cheering, could see the pleased flush of Bran's cheeks, caught the glint of the trophy as Petersen raised it above his head, the others coming forward to place their hands on it. He felt Jeremy's and Jakub's grasp on his thighs as they lifted him up alongside the trophy, heard Lancelot's laughter as Merlin almost fell over backwards after they'd lifted him.
Mostly, though, he could see Arthur, hair in disarray and lips turned up in a quiet, private smile--his face seemed almost suited to victory. When a woman from ITV dragged Arthur and Lancelot away for an interview, Merlin followed, staring at them from behind the camera with what he sincerely hoped was an unnerving and mocking stare. Of course they'd choose Lancelot and Arthur--stern pair and therefore athletically relevant, but with the added advantage of being as attractive a stern pair as the cameraman could possibly have hoped for.
"--was some brilliant coxing from Merlin Emrys," Arthur was saying, and Merlin smiled at him from behind the camera, wide and pleased.
"It absolutely was," Lancelot agreed. He pulled his hair back from his face with one hand, shaking his head to clear the water from his eyes, and Merlin could swear the woman interviewing them sighed a little.
Merlin looked straight at Arthur as he spoke and felt as if, after the race and after everything else that had happened, he could read a Maybe in his smile and his warm gaze, which was fixed steadily on Merlin's face.
He possibly sighed a little as well.
Merlin, who hadn't eaten anything all day, was tipsy half an hour into the celebrations.
They'd all been driven back to the club to change after the race, and had come out wearing a hodge-podge of black and white tie and summer suits. They'd broken out the finery with less excitement last year, but Merlin was happy to see that the evidence of everyone's panicked, thoughtless, pre-race packing had made a repeat appearance.
They'd gone to see the old boys, first, men in their thirties who remembered their own boat races with startling clarity and men in their eighties whose memories were sharper still.
"Oliver Clarke, '54," or "James Sutton, '71" they'd say as they clapped you heartily on the back, and Merlin wandered around, a bottle of champagne in hand, marveling at the array of men and women there.
He stuck close to Arthur, who kept a warm arm around his shoulders most of the time and saved him from falling on his face after some of the heartier back-slaps, and Lancelot never strayed far, either, keeping an eye on the two of them.
Lancelot led a cheer for the women Blues, who had won their own race a few weeks back, and then again for Isis and the lightweights. They did a couple more rounds of the room and then Lancelot quirked an eyebrow at them as if to say, Ready?
Merlin nodded, a little fuzzy around the edges, and Arthur rolled his eyes, clutching at Merlin's jacket and dragging him out.
"Come on, Emrys," he said, and Merlin tucked tightly against him as they wound out of the party and into the cold night.
They'd agreed to go back to Lancelot's house, where they'd be staying for the evening, to pick up Gwen and Morgana. When they arrived, Merlin's mother and uncle were talking animatedly to Rafael, Lancelot's stepfather, and Lancelot's beautiful mother was engaging an uncomfortable-looking Uther in conversation by the massive period fireplace.
"Hey!" said Gwen cheerfully when she spotted them, and the three of them ducked their heads when everyone cheered, half-mockingly but lovingly.
Gwen and Morgana went to fetch their coats so that they could head out to the party that had been organised in some club in the city, and Arthur's father and Merlin's family also picked up their things, beginning to head towards the door.
"We're very proud of you, Merlin, Lancelot, Arthur," said Uncle Gaius in his raspy voice, and Arthur ducked his head, mumbling something that sounded like, Thank you, sir. Merlin snorted.
"We rowed well, I think, but we were lucky, too," said Lancelot as Gwen and Morgana came down the stairs. He looped an arm around Merlin's neck. "And that line-- well, you know Merlin. His coxing's magic."
"Magic where the magician accidentally chops himself in half while performing, maybe," said Arthur loudly, and Morgana smacked the back of his head as everyone else laughed, Merlin's mum and uncle a little stiffly.
"Thank you," said Merlin's mum as Arthur helped her into her coat.
She pressed her hand into his and repeated it, and Arthur smiled, slightly uncertainly but warmly.
Rafael and Elaine waved the five of them off as they stumbled into a taxi after their families had gone. Morgana gave the driver the address for the party, efficient as always--Merlin hadn't really bothered to find out where it was, exactly.
He slouched low in his seat, Gwen and Arthur warm on either side of him, and watched the city light up as they drove from Richmond into London proper.
Cambridge was holding its own party next door, for some unfortunate reason, and when they tumbled out of the cab and onto the street, Merlin caught sight of a tall German who had raced against them both years. After the race the year before he had come up to Merlin and said sincerely, "I am sorry. You should be proud." It had been genuine enough that Merlin had appreciated it, and though it took some effort to push his way to him now, he found him on the kerb and clasped his forearm, repeating the sentiment.
"Thank you, Merlin," he said, and Merlin said, jovially,
"See you next year, maybe, Erni."
They might have chatted longer--found out what the other was doing over the summer, said something to each other as two students rather than as rowers in two different blue boats--but at that moment Arthur came up behind Merlin, hand bunching in Merlin's shirt as he pulled him backwards.
"We're going in," he said, and Merlin smiled apologetically at Erni and his friends as Arthur dragged him backwards through the crowd.
Inside, the air was hot and a little heavy. Merlin suspected a smoke machine might be at work; the organisers were clearly people after Lancelot's own cheesy heart. Merlin could feel the beat of the music moving upwards from the soles of his feet, and he tried hard to remember that he'd had a good time at this last year, despite the fact that he disliked clubbing and despite the fact that they had lost and had all been miserable. This year was bound to be better, just on baseline principle.
They found a small table, and Merlin sat and sipped contentedly at his drinks, watching as Morgana and Arthur danced, and trying not to stare too obviously at where Lancelot was running a thumb over Gwen's knuckles as they sat next to him.
"Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeerlin," an extremely drunk Petersen finally said, stumbling up to their table. "I know you're used to sitting pretty while the rest of us are working, but surely you're not going to not dance all night?"
Merlin's head spun at the double negative, but he understood enough to see a violent and losing battle on the horizon: last year, Petersen had thrown Merlin over his shoulder, the bone digging into Merlin's roiling stomach with each step, and walked him to the dance floor himself.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," he said, raising a hand and trying to save himself the manhandling.
"Excellent," said Petersen, seemingly forgetting him in the next instant and spinning away.
"God, please come with me," said Merlin to Gwen and Lancelot, voice a little pleading, and they stood up, Lancelot throwing an arm around each of their waists as he walked them towards Arthur and Morgana.
They danced together for a while, standing in a loose circle, until Morgana excused herself to go get a drink of water. There was a moment of awkwardness as the four of them stood there, Lancelot shaking his hips enthusiastically and Arthur shuffling awkwardly back and forth as Gwen and Merlin eyed each other uncertainly. Then Arthur drew Merlin in by his shirttails--his clothes would never be the same again after all the tugging--and Merlin spun to face him, moving against him as Gwen and Lancelot started dancing together, too.
"Arthur," he said, cupping a hand to Arthur's ear as he leaned in to speak to him.
"What?" asked Arthur, eyes slightly unfocussed, and Merlin tried to think of what to say. Can we try again? was probably at the top of the list, but Arthur was gripping his hips in a way that possibly suggested Yes, and Merlin fell silent straight away. Planning ahead had not exactly served them well in the past, after all.
Probably better just to dance.
They made their way home shortly after Morgana's reappearance. Merlin had thought she'd taken an extraordinarily long amount of time to find a glass of water, but when he'd swept his eyes over the crowd, she'd been talking to a tall man by the bar, dark-haired and as ridiculously attractive as she was. Merlin had slipped his fingers under the hem of Arthur's shirt, where his skin was damp and warm, and hadn't thought of it again until she'd come up to them, putting her phone away in her purse and saying, simply, "Shall we go?"
When they arrived, Lancelot pointed Merlin and Arthur towards one guest room, and Morgana and Gwen towards another, though he and Gwen seemed reluctant to let go of each other's hands. Merlin approved; from the look on Morgana's face, she was torn between doing the same and warning Lancelot off, complete with use of noxious chemicals.
"Good night, all!" Arthur called, far too loudly for the time, and Merlin shuffled them both into the room quickly, kicking off his shoes as he filled glasses of water for them by the sink.
They pulled off their trousers and sat side by side on the bed, sipping water slowly, and when they finished, Merlin put his glass on the bedside table and burrowed into the pillow. Arthur did the same, curling a leg over Merlin's, and Merlin nosed his way into the crook of Arthur's neck, breathing evenly against him.
They dozed, still drunk, loose-limbed and tired, and when Arthur pulled Merlin's shirt up and got it caught against Merlin's head, they both laughed, relaxed and comfortable and everything they hadn't been the last time.
"I really like it here--this," said Merlin, poking at Arthur's collarbone with one finger, and Arthur wriggled his hand into Merlin's waistband, breathing, Mmmh in sleepy assent.
They moved against each other slowly, stripping off their remaining clothes at an unhurried pace, and when Arthur came against Merlin's thigh, hot and unexpected, Merlin laughed,
"Jesus, Arthur, warn a man."
Arthur laughed with him, sounding as if he didn't have a care in the world right now except Merlin. He tightened his hand, and Merlin moved slowly against him, pleasure building in his spine and his belly with each movement of Arthur's arm, tongue wet where he was breathing open-mouthed into Arthur's neck.
Afterwards he wiped them both off with Arthur's boxers, dropped them over the side of the bed without thinking about it. Lancelot's house, with its flawless beige carpets and antique furniture, seemed, bizarrely, like a better place for messy sex than Arthur's untidy student room had been. Merlin wrapped himself around Arthur's warmth and drew the duvet over both of them.
"Merlin's coxing is like magic," said Arthur suddenly, voice high-pitched in an imitation of Lancelot's excited tone earlier.
Merlin laughed against Arthur's skin, unsure whether to be more shocked at the fact that Arthur was teasing him about his "gift" without the two of them having to navigate a painful maze of uneasiness to get there, or that someone was teasing him about it at all, that someone knew to tease.
"Oh, shut the fuck up," he murmured, and Arthur drew him against his chest and said,
As romantic as it would have been to believe that everything between them had changed in that one instant, the truth of it was that when they woke up the next day, Merlin from a dream about birds and walks on the beach and Arthur from a dream about who knew what, Arthur tensed beside him on the bed, their old awkwardness rushing back with their hangovers.
They headed back to Oxford on the train with the image of Arthur's soft, panting, mouth playing in technicolour in Merlin's head, and they sat on the train together with Arthur's fingers curled over Merlin's, his muscles tense but his hand there, at least.
The trick was, Merlin reasoned between daydreams about Arthur's easy smiles and their spelunking Bahamian adventures, to catch Arthur unaware. He really had learned his lesson about plotting--or even hoping--in advance, but though alcohol had gone a long way towards dispelling their discomfiture at Lancelot's, it wasn't as if they could stay drunk all the time.
Merlin learned what to watch for: the same soft smile that Arthur always had in his daydreams, open and relaxed. Sometimes it appeared late at night, after Arthur had been studying for hours, or sometimes in the mornings, when they ran by the river at dawn to avoid the rush. The skill was in not waiting for a moment--not even taking an instant to confirm that the expression had, indeed, crossed Arthur's features--before kissing him, turning their mutual desire into pliant satisfaction while neatly circumventing awkward uncertainty.
Merlin didn't know what his own giveaway expression was, but Arthur was clearly very adept at spotting it, too.
Merlin dreamt about telling Arthur everything--in his dreams he told Arthur about the time he'd set dinner on fire while helping his mother to cook, and about the strange longing in Uncle Gaius' eyes when they spoke about Merlin's magic. Slowly but surely, though, he found that he was telling Arthur everything, telling him stories about his life between walking and eating and reading books together in Oxford. Arthur told him his own stories in return.
And the look on Arthur's face when Merlin managed to open a window two inches without moving from the bed, in the middle of them discussing how useless Merlin's magic was or was not, was a thousand times better than his delighted eyes had been in Merlin's daydreams, when Merlin had managed to float them halfway across the Caribbean and back.
Arthur was, slowly but surely, turning into a cautionary tale. A million times they'd heard it--You can't row with the Blues and expect to do well in your Finals in the same year--but Merlin had seen more than a few rowers disregard the common wisdom, partly because they thought they'd be able to cope and partly because they didn't hugely care if they couldn't.
Rowing came first for a lot of people.
It had come first for Arthur, too, obviously--in the months leading up to the boat race, nothing deterred him from training, particularly once it became clear that he'd probably stroke the boat. But Arthur did care about his Finals, equally if not more, and he evidently wanted not only to pass but also to excel.
He and Merlin hadn't precisely been speaking on the week that he'd handed in his thesis, but Merlin had seen the dark, sunken craters of Arthur's eyes and the lines on his pale face and had not envied him his multitude of tasks one bit.
Arthur had set up a complex system of multi-coloured files in his room for exams, arranging them artfully over the desk and floor and propping them against the wall by the balcony. Merlin had learned his lesson about moving them the hard way. Now he navigated on tip-toes across the papers to Arthur's bed, and manoeuvred his way out in the mornings, eyes half-closed, by keeping his back pressed to the opposite wall.
Arthur asked to be quizzed, sometimes, on dates and authors--he had a series of notecards to rival the most meticulous librarian--and other times he demanded that Merlin listen to what sounded like rants about injustice or animal imports but apparently were answers to neutral questions like, Discuss the significance of changing settlement patterns in 8th century England.
Sometimes, when Arthur had spent six or so hours in the library, he would come home with the intent to work for longer, and Merlin would spread him out on the floor, careful to avoid his papers (mostly), and make him forget what it was he'd meant to do. Arthur inevitably complained that he had to revise for the first five minutes and began gearing up for further complaints very shortly after that, but Merlin was content to put the look on his face that meant he wasn't thinking of anything during that tiny window of time. They'd also finally cured each other of the habit of not knowing what to say after, which made everything better: two horrible Thank yous and one awkward back-pat in, they threw in the towel and went in for staying silent, or kissing a little. It was working brilliantly for them so far.
Merlin was training with Oriel for the university's summer rowing event--Oriel was fourth on the river and Merlin had every intention of bumping them up one or two places during Eights. At first he had insisted, half-heartedly, that he'd sleep in his own room after coming to see Arthur in the evenings so as not to wake Arthur up too early in the mornings, but Arthur had waved him off as Merlin knocked yet more files over--You're a nuisance whether you leave at nighttime or in the mornings, Merlin, so you might as well stay.
Arthur's English exams started in fourth week, and all of his History papers were early ones, too, so he'd be done by Saturday of fifth. Merlin was racing with Oriel every evening from Wednesday of the same week, and though it was nowhere near as nerve-wracking as their recent experiences, he still felt a lump of anxiety settle heavily in his stomach around third week, right as Arthur began to look as if he might jump off his balcony with a file in his hand.
On Monday of fourth week, Merlin came off the river after an unproductive outing with the horrible sensation that he'd cheated himself out of a victorious feeling at the end of the year by agreeing to do Eights after the Boat Race. He'd hardly had a choice, though--the men's captain at Oriel, who hated both Gwen and Merlin but had no choice but to pretend to like them because they were good at what they did--had cornered him in front of the entire squad and asked, "You'll be joining us for Eights after the Boat Race, right, Emrys?"
He kicked his way up the path leading to Christ Church--the Meadows gate was still locked, which meant going all the way up St. Aldates to get home, and Merlin threw a pleased glance at the treetops and a baleful look at the wooden gate and clomped towards the street.
His phone rang right as he was getting into a daydream about being a force for diplomacy in Major John Sheppard's life, and he glanced at the tiny clock in the right-hand corner--08:01--in surprise, then at the caller ID.
"Merlin, hello. I'm calling about carnations," she said, sounding as if she'd been up for hours doing terribly efficient things.
"Carnations?" asked Merlin. He was slowly inuring himself to the thought that he would always be slower than Morgana by at least a factor of five, particularly before his morning tea.
"For Arthur," she said, her breath coming quickly as if she were jogging to the Chemistry faculty, or maybe saving clutches of orphans from harm. Fast.
"For Ar--oh, carnations," said Merlin, finally cottoning on and glancing down at his hand, where a faded CARN was still visible from where he'd nearly washed off the biro. He'd meant to go to the covered market on Saturday, but had managed to forget because he'd been wearing a jumper all day that had sleeves that went down to his fingers, and today was his last chance to get the flowers before Arthur's exams.
"Yes," said Morgana. "I thought I'd go to the covered market this morning, but I wasn't sure what the protocol was--I bought Arthur's carnations in the first year, of course, but I wonder whether that's something you do for your slightly unpleasant stepsibling when said stepsibling has a-- Well. You know."
Merlin glanced down the alleyway leading towards Sainsbury's and wondered if they sold hot cross buns in May. He didn't quite know what to say, so he stood stupidly in the middle of the pavement as the rest of the Oriel rowers went past him.
"Oh," he said finally. "Yes. I mean. I'll get them."
"Excellent," she answered. "Listen, I have to go--"
"Morgana," Merlin began.
"Has Arthur--did he say…? I mean-- Did he say I was-- You know?"
There was a pause.
"Arthur and I don't really talk as much as exchange jabs that we each stay up to think of the night before, as you know," she said after a moment.
That wasn't precisely true, but whatever Morgana and Arthur talked about, they did privately and with the knowledge that neither would say anything to anyone else. Merlin understood that.
"Oh," he said, embarrassed, and Morgana gave an exasperated little sigh on the other end of the phone.
"Look. He's tactless and fairly unaware of the realities of world around him, and he's even worse when he's around you."
Merlin felt his face give a strange twist, half a smile and half a grimace. That wasn't precisely a compliment.
"And," Morgana said, "He introduced you to his father."
Merlin was silent.
"You'll get the carnations?" she asked again briskly.
"Yes," he said. "I will."
The phone gave a tiny click in his ear as Morgana disconnected the call, and Merlin glanced down towards Sainsbury's once again, then turned and walked straight into Christ Church, where a porter was just opening the gate.
Arthur needed to be at the library by nine, anyway. Might as well send him off in a good mood.
The next day, Merlin knocked on Arthur's door and had to wait five minutes before Arthur would let him in. Merlin had slept at Oriel the night before because the beds at Christ Church, narrow metal contraptions with sharp angles at mid-shin height, were tiny, and Arthur needed to rest. The shadows under and around his eyes suggested he hadn't, and after letting Merlin in the door, he disappeared into his toilet and didn't come out again for another fifteen minutes.
"I just came to say good luck," Merlin offered tentatively through the door. "I didn't mean to distract you, or anything. I'll leave your carnation on your desk, and--"
"Uh--okay. Maybe on the bookshelf, here, where you haven't put any papers…"
"No, I meant--" Arthur came out, wiping his damp face on a towel. "I meant you shouldn't. Well. Oriel is on the way to the exam schools."
"Do you want me to walk with you?" asked Merlin, quietly and a little carefully.
"No, Merlin," said Arthur, rolling his eyes.
"Oh. Well, then I'll--"
"Look, is your fucking college on the way to the fucking Exam Schools, or is your fucking college on the way to the--" asked Arthur, the pitch of his voice rising with each word.
Merlin held out his hands placatingly.
"Hey, okay. I only meant that--"
Arthur's phone rang.
"Hello?" asked Arthur tersely as he held it up to his ear.
Merlin could hear Lancelot's voice coming through the phone as clearly as if Lancelot had walked over from his house to see Arthur off in his room, which he had told Merlin he might do but evidently hadn't managed to wake up in time for. He sounded groggy.
"I just called to say good luck. Which you won't need. Oh, and try not to shit your pants."
"Lance. Elot," began Arthur in what he clearly thought of as his 'threatening' voice.
Merlin fiddled with his white carnation and tried not to smile. He didn't think he'd get away unscathed if he did, so he turned a little towards the wall.
"Merlin's there, right?" Lancelot interrupted.
"Yes," said Arthur.
"Good." There was something Merlin couldn't hear, and then, "--walk with you to the Exam Schools, okay?"
Arthur hung up on him. He began shoving pens and his exam timetable and his Bod card into his mortarboard with savage determination. Now that he thought of it, Merlin wasn't sure he'd ever seen anyone ever use those things for anything other than holding exam-related stationery.
"Here," he said finally, stepping forward gingerly. Arthur turned his head to look out the window as Merlin carefully pinned the carnation to his gown.
"Thank you," he said, formally.
"You're welcome," Merlin answered teasingly, but he cut off his speech about it being okay to be nervous when Arthur glared at him. "Er--let's go?"
They walked down Arthur's staircase and through Tom Quad. A small group of students, also dressed for exams, was headed towards the exit that led to the Exam Schools, but Arthur put his hand on Merlin's arm and slowed them down so they wouldn't catch up. When they walked out the door and onto Oriel Square, Merlin caught sight of Morgana and Gwen loitering by the bollards, trying to look like they were there by coincidence and failing.
"Good luck!" called Gwen, a little nervously, and when Arthur turned to look in their direction, Morgana gave him a single, assertive nod.
Arthur gave them a half-hearted wave, and when Morgana gave a sharp jerk of her head towards him--Is he okay?--Merlin nodded quickly--I've got it.
Merlin walked him all the way to the Exam Schools' entrance, where the sound of dozens of nervous students buzzed out lowly through a flap in the makeshift marquee that had been set up in the quad. Arthur stopped in front of it and fidgeted, and Merlin said nothing because it didn't look as if anything he said would fail to make it worse.
"Look--" said Arthur, and then he bunched his hand in Merlin's cheap H&M shirt and tugged him forward by the hole in the shoulder, kissing Merlin messily. Someone walking by gave a low whistle, sort of impressed and sort of disapproving, and Merlin grinned against Arthur's mouth, which he had never kissed in public before.
"You know all of this," he said, when Arthur pulled away. "And you'll do everyone proud."
Merlin would have liked to say, You only need to make yourself proud, Arthur, but if there was a time for life lessons, this very much wasn't it.
The speakers in the marquee crackled, and a man began to call, "Candidates for Final Honour Schools in English Language and Literature…" through the microphone.
Arthur gave him a clumsy half-hug, the sort of thing you might give your uncle's dentist's son who came out with you for a football match after it was all over.
Merlin looked uncomfortably up and down the street.
"Right," said Arthur.
"Right," said Merlin.
Arthur squeezed Merlin's shoulder sharply, brushed his lips brusquely against Merlin's cheek one final time, and went inside.
The last day of Eights was glorious, golden and warm and the complete opposite of their Boat Race day. Merlin sat in the relative darkness of the Oriel boathouse, trying to avoid the crowds drinking Pimm's by the barrel on boathouse island, and watched his rowers cram malt loaf into their mouths like starving men.
It was strange. Merlin loved his college--he always had, because when he'd walked in through its low entrance arch in his first year he'd felt immediately at home, something in the age of the stones feeling welcoming and oddly familiar in a way that his mother's cosy terraced house in Bradford, with its white plastic windowframes, never had.
He loved the people he was rowing with--except Edwin, but then again the men's captain was a bit of a tool--and he wanted to do his college proud. But he'd been away all year training with other people, some of who were now racing against him in other college boats. That felt odd. And then there was the cox who'd trained with the Oriel men's first boat all year, who had been shunted aside for Merlin's superior skills at the beginning of Trinity and kept smiling at him in a way that spoke of violent death.
"Hey," said Jeremy, perching next to him on the floor.
He looked the way Merlin felt.
They sat in silence, watching as everyone else scurried about. Merlin almost got smacked in the head with one of the college's turtle-patterned blades, and he tried visualising his line clearly in his head as he and Jeremy moved aside and towards their own boat. They'd bumped Pembroke on the first day, and they'd been chasing Christ Church ever since, but hadn't caught them yet. Merlin wanted them today, though he didn't know how Arthur would react to Merlin bumping his college boat, even if he wasn't rowing in it.
Arthur. He had probably come out of his last exam by now--Morgana and some of his other friends had been there to throw things at him and cheer, but Gwen and Lancelot and Merlin were all stuck at the river for the afternoon. Merlin hoped it had gone okay.
"Concentrate, you fuckface," he muttered lowly to himself. He only realised he'd spoken out loud when Jeremy snorted loudly beside him.
Merlin got his rowers in the boat in time to watch the top of the women's first division row past, neatly and with no bumps. He steered his boat out and warmed them up in front of boathouse island, hearing the excitement of the crowd as they rowed up and down. The men's first division was always full of Blues and good rowers, and it was a sharp contrast to the sluggish crashes that tended to dominate the earlier part of the day.
"Crisp, and sharp," he called rhythmically. "Crisp, and sharp."
Jeremy rolled his eyes at Merlin from stroke--at the rowing or at Merlin's calls, Merlin didn't know. When the call to head towards the bunglines came over the tannoy, Merlin rowed them up slowly but neatly. He spun the boat at their start line with only a minute to spare, and when the start gun sounded, he let go of the bungline and immediately adjusted the rudder, trying to get them tucked in to the bank as closely as possible.
This was their day--he felt it, and the look on the stroke in the Christ Church boat said they felt it, too. Oriel shot out of the gut and down the Green Bank, and Merlin called for a power twenty and felt them inch closer to Christ Church, increment by tiny, but steady, increment.
The Christ Church people were doing their stupid but conveniently monosyllabic chant from their boathouse--House. House. House. House, after the college's Latin name, of all pretentious things--and Merlin tried to drown them out and get close enough for the bump to the boat in front before the cheering gave the rowers a second wind. The Christ Church cox pulled close to the towpath bank, and as Merlin followed, he caught a glimpse of a blond head in sub fusc, streamers wrapped around the neck, and the bright red of Arthur's carnation registered in his mind in the instant before they sped past him.
"HOUSE!" Arthur was roaring, but then, just as loudly, "Come on, Merlin!"
Merlin grinned stupidly, raising his voice to call for the bump.
"It's over boys--just draw on in," he said, voice smooth and a little smug.
His rowers did what he asked, cutting through the water with clean, efficient strokes.
The Christ Church cox tried to run away across the river, tried to hold Oriel off--but the way Merlin was feeling, Christ Church didn't stand a chance.
Arthur was waiting when Merlin's men finished racking their boat. There was going to be a dinner in the Oriel hall to celebrate the end of Eights, and he didn't have much time to get there if he was going to shower and change beforehand. The sun was still fairly high in the sky, though, and Merlin didn't feel the need to rush.
"Hi," he said, smiling. "How did it go?"
"Well, I ran out of time, slightly, on the last question. But it's done. That's what matters."
Merlin nodded. Arthur looked wonderful--his hair was soft around his face and his shirt was sticky with cava and glitter from where Morgana had probably lobbed a bag of sparkles at his face. His eyes looked the colour of the light reflecting off the river.
Jesus Christ, Merlin thought, and made a show of rummaging for something in his pockets as he pulled himself together.
"Do you want to--?" Merlin asked, and when Arthur nodded the two of them began making their way back towards the Meadows, walking close enough for their hands to brush.
"My father sent me some pens," said Arthur, and Merlin squinted against the sun and laughed a little, unsure how Arthur wanted him to respond.
"Yes. For my new job, apparently. Now that I'm done with my current responsibilities."
Merlin curled his bottom lip into his teeth and nodded pensively.
The truth was that he wasn't particularly fond of thinking about Arthur's new job, somewhere near Holborn or Bank or god knew where, but very much not in Oxford. Merlin was willing to be self-critical: if there were fast bloomers and slow bloomers in this relationship thing, he and Arthur were very clearly the equivalent of one of those barren cherry trees that didn't yield fruit until forty-three years had passed. It had taken them months to do what other people did in days, and though things were moving forward, Merlin didn't kid himself into believing they didn't still need an awful lot of time.
"It's only an hour on the train," said Arthur, pitching his voice to apropos of nothing but somehow aware of what Merlin was thinking. Merlin loved it when that happened.
"Oh, sure," he said, dismissively. "Ben and Laura have done it for the past two years. And that friend of yours at Christ Church, her boyfriend's in Durham, right?"
Merlin fought the urge to duck into a hedge as they went over the humpback bridge. Boyfriend. This was not the sort of word he'd wanted to be the first to use.
Arthur didn't say anything, though, simply put his hand on Merlin's elbow and steered him towards the Cherwell side of the meadow, rather than the Isis side. They walked in silence for a few metres, the sunlight fading slightly as they walked deeper into the trees.
Merlin rather had the feeling he wasn't going to make it to his Eights dinner. It was far from ideal or sportsmanlike and Edwin would probably kick up a fuss, but Merlin could always claim illness after the fact. Arthur headed towards the water and sat down at the edge, his gown spread out behind him on the grass. Merlin sat down next to him.
An empty plastic bottle of lemonade was drifting lazily in the slow current, probably the remains of some punting party farther up the river.
"Think you can get it to the edge from here?" Arthur asked, a familiar challenge in his voice.
Merlin concentrated. He squared his shoulders and narrowed his eyes and even extended his fingers towards the bottle a little, thinking, Come on.
For a moment it seemed as if it were floating towards them, but it was only a small eddy in the water that had done it. After a second it just continued to float past, slowly enough that Merlin had to suffer through almost a full minute of failing to do anything about it.
"You're rubbish at this, Merlin," Arthur said with a laugh, flopping back towards the grass.
Merlin wanted to be insulted--truly, he did--but the thrill of Arthur asking to see some petty trick, which always made his heart speed up and the blood rush in his ears, far outweighed the annoyance he might have felt. He loved the knowledge of it thrumming between them, and Arthur always looked at him in a way that suggested he'd tease until Merlin managed it, and that he'd hoard the victory of it like some private treasure when Merlin did.
"I don't see you bending the laws of physics to your will," he said, petulant, and Arthur turned his head to look at him slothfully and said,
"No. You do not."
His eyes were brilliant to look at, full of wonder even at the small things Merlin couldn't do with his skill (such as it was).
Two mallards swam past, clearly aiming for the Cherwell's mouth into the Isis, and Merlin gestured at them and said,
"I'll race you."
Arthur lifted his head, nodded. "Fine. You can be the girl."
Merlin rolled his eyes, then focussed all his attention on the brown duck next to Arthur's green-necked one. He and Arthur had established--not scientifically, or anything, but it sort of seemed that way--that Merlin was much better with living things. He was just--better with suggestion, with subtlety, with choices, than he was with actively changing the course of things.
Quickly now, he thought at his duck, feeling like an idiot.
The duck did nothing.
He'll make fun of me for the rest of the night, begged Merlin, changing tactics. Please.
The duck turned and began going upriver again, completely in the opposite direction.
Oh, for fuck's sake though Merlin angrily, and the duck shot forward as if stung, paddling through the water at great haste.
Still in the wrong direction.
Arthur threw his head back and laughed: a low chuckle that seemed to rise from his belly into his chest, finally bursting out of his mouth in huge, delighted guffaws.
"Utter. Fucking. Rubbish," he said, between gulps of breath, as he gestured at where his duck had kept going towards the Isis with one hand and wiped tears from his eyes with the other. His smile looked like it might split his face in half.
Kiss me, Merlin thought impatiently, and Arthur's face twisted up in a funny little grimace. It was a familiar look, and it said, I'll do it because I want to, and not because you said; it was a welcome reminder of Merlin's incompetence when it came to making Arthur do anything at all. Arthur held his features like that for a second, and then he leaned in and did as Merlin asked.
Merlin handed in a few more shoddy essays and ran into a few more tutorials with five seconds to spare, and then it was ninth week and the term was over. He vowed to do better next year. He'd somehow managed to scrape a belly-flop first on his Mods despite them taking place a few days before the previous year's boat race, and he felt he might be able to cheat the system twice. If he actually made some time for work at some point, that is.
Lancelot had kicked his housemates out on the last day of eighth week, as inflexible as a bitter college house manager, most of who booted undergraduates out the minute they were allowed to do so. Merlin didn't feel particularly bad for Matt and Alastair. They'd lived in a great house all year, and when Merlin had asked Lancelot what he charged them once, he'd shrugged comically and said, "I don't know. They pay for beer. And milk. And I think they give me like, a hundred quid a month each, or something."
The five of them had originally thought they might go away somewhere, but with the Boat Race and Gwen and Morgana's interminable lab hours as they finished their final-year projects, they'd hardly had time to be in Oxford at all. And Lancelot had room for all of them to spend a few weeks in the city, doing nothing in the summer sun. So they packed everything into Lancelot's car and did a few runs back and forth between Oriel Square and Summertown, carting Morgana's and Arthur's things first--five carloads--and then Gwen and Merlin's together, which they would have managed in one crammed trip if they hadn't owned four unwieldy blades between them.
They were loading the last of Merlin's books into the boot when Merlin heard someone call his name quietly from behind him. He turned to find Will on the pavement, looking sheepish, hands shoved into his shorts and hair much longer than it'd been the last time Merlin had seen him.
"Hi, Will," he said quietly, and Arthur's arm flexed unnecessarily against the edge of the box he was putting in the car.
"Hey, Merlin. Can we talk?"
Merlin looked between Lancelot and Arthur and the wall against which Will was standing, hesitant. Finally he said,
"Sure." He turned to Arthur and said, "Can you and Lancelot take this up? I've got my bike down here--I'll cycle up when I'm done?"
"I don't know," said Arthur uneasily, and Merlin was surprised when Lancelot nodded in agreement.
"You don't owe him anything, Merlin," he said firmly, and he looked straight at Merlin's eyes, gaze unwavering.
For an instant Merlin had the ridiculous feeling that Lancelot knew exactly why Merlin and Will had fallen out in the first place. His heart clenched uncomfortably in his chest.
Lately Arthur had been making a case for telling Lancelot and Gwen everything, and, he'd said, Morgana too, but only if Merlin wanted. The revelation that you're no good at moving things with your mind is hardly going to be a shocking one, he'd said, jokingly, and then, quietly and more than a little awkwardly, Merlin--you need to be who you need to be. You know?
Merlin wondered if Arthur had gone ahead and said something without his permission, but Arthur shot him an exasperated Don't be an idiot look from under his eyelashes as he ducked into the boot once more.
Merlin nodded, and looked at Will again.
"Guys--it'll be fine. I'll see you at the house, okay?"
Arthur and Lancelot nodded, but Merlin didn't miss the way they both looked harshly at Will before moving into the car. Lancelot may have possibly put his index and middle fingers up to his eyes and then pointed them at Will, but Merlin had long practice ignoring Lancelot's ridiculous antics at their most embarrassing, so he just pretended not to see.
"So," he said brightly, once the car had driven off.
Will looked immensely uncomfortable and kind of at a loss, and Merlin, who had felt so betrayed a few months ago and who now felt as if maybe this one reaction didn't have to matter that much, said, charitably,
"Exams go well?"
This was Will's last year--he'd finished his Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree, and Merlin had heard from his mother than he was going to go work for some sort of development consultancy in Germany.
"Yeah," said Will quietly, nodding. He took a sharp breath and then said, all in a rush, "I just wanted to say that I was sorry."
Merlin had not expected it to be so direct, and so he floundered a little, finally settling on a noncommittal,
"It's not really though, is it?" asked Will, and Merlin thought of those miserable first few weeks in Oriel, when he'd been intimidated and uncertain and hadn't met Gwen yet. The knowledge that Will had been right down the street but might as well have been a world away had sat like a bitter knot in his throat.
"No," said Merlin. "But I've learned this year that maybe it isn't the easiest thing to understand. So I understand. I'm sorry if you were frightened."
Will looked affronted, but Merlin knew for a fact that that was what he had been, and if they were going to talk about it for the first time in three years, then they were damn well going to call a spade a spade.
"Okay," said Will, presumably conceding the point. Then, "He understands."
It wasn't a question, and Will's voice was a terrible combination of resentment and relief and challenge and regret.
Merlin wondered what had given them away--wondered if Will had watched him and Arthur in Oriel Square together, the way Merlin sometimes caught sight of Will and his friends ducking into Corpus.
"Yes," he said, simply. "But--he was older when he found out."
It was a terrible reason for it, but Will took it graciously, as Merlin meant it.
"Yeah, maybe," he said, smiling ruefully. "Anyway. I have to go--my mum will be here soon and I haven't packed anything. But I just wanted to say that maybe we could meet up when I come back, maybe if we're both home for Christmas?"
Merlin smiled at him, wide and happy.
"I'd like that."
"Right," said Will, scratching at the back of his neck with one hand. He motioned towards Corpus. "I should go. But--tell that poncey git to treat you well, okay?"
"Okay," said Merlin, laughing a little.
Will headed off towards his college, and Merlin unlocked his bike and climbed on it, turning to look at Will one final time. Will gave him a wave from the entrance to Corpus, and Merlin thought ahead to Christmas, and then about Arthur and Gwen and Morgana and Lancelot waiting for him in Summertown now, and he gave Will a huge grin, calling a cheerful "Bye, Williamson!" as he cycled off.
They went punting the next day. The sun beat down mercilessly all afternoon, making the strawberries seep juice into the boxes that they'd brought with them and making the Pimm's and lemonade go to their heads all the quicker.
Morgana was doing the punting, telling them about the research position she wanted to apply for in Michaelmas, and Merlin leaned back against the cushions, skin sweaty where it touched the plastic, and smiled blindly up at the sky.
They were all silent for a while after Morgana finished, and Merlin let spots dance in front of his eyes as he lowered his eyelids against the sun's glare, allowing himself to picture Arthur naked against the blue of the sea despite the inappropriate setting.
They were all happy--Merlin felt it all the way down to the tips of his toes. There was something else building there, too, and in his fingertips: a heavy, crackling force that felt like something he'd never allowed himself to let loose before. He didn't want to make any assumptions yet, but it made him feel settled, pleasantly at home in his own skin.
He trailed his fingers against the back of Arthur's hand, imagined the two of them doing the same thing in a boat somewhere else. Moonlight never flickered through the gauzy curtains in their room at Lancelot's house, and Merlin sometimes liked to think about them lying somewhere where it would, making Arthur's skin shine silver against the sheets.
If this year had been some ludicrous vacation in Nassau, they wouldn't all be heading their separate ways soon. Morgana would run the hotel that Merlin arrived at, probably, and Gwen would teach at a nearby school and make them all dinner when Lancelot invited them back to his after they returned their kayaks to his stand. Merlin would worry that he had to get back to London, sure, to his writing and to his insistent agent, the sort of sharp-tongued man he'd seen in romantic comedies, but they'd all say, Merlin, what's the hurry? and Merlin would have no real answer.
And then Merlin would learn to write in the muggy afternoons despite the sweltering heat of Arthur's house, with no air conditioning but charming local beads hanging over the windows, and Uther would pull him pints and tell him Rangers vs Celtics war stories in the balmy nights. Merlin would begin to consider writing a history of island football.
Stories like that always ended with a wedding, usually one that involved horses or yachts or some quirky gimmick, but Merlin didn't let himself go there--except for where he thought about not letting himself go there, that is.
The thing was--whether they ever learned to do the things that other people seemed to be able to do naturally or not, Merlin was sure he was always going to be in Arthur's life, and Arthur would always be in his, and the thought was like a comforting band across his chest, fixed and breath-shortening but reassuring.
So maybe it was okay to think about it, a little--
"He's doing that thing where he thinks about palm trees again," he heard suddenly, and
when he opened his eyes it was Arthur, looking at him fondly and, somehow, apparently, on to Merlin's bloody beach commitment ceremony fantasies. Fuck.
"Uh," Merlin said, eloquently.
He realised he'd dropped a strawberry on his stomach while he'd been distracted; the red stain of its juice was spreading outwards from where it had landed on his yellow t-shirt. His left leg felt uncomfortably sticky, and he suspected it might be the result of a precariously tilted glass of Pimm's.
"Anyway," said Arthur, shaking his head at Merlin fondly, "we'll do a barbecue at Port Meadow tomorrow?"
"Mmmh," said Lancelot, from where he had taken over the punting, and Morgana offered,
"Only if you get vegetarian things this time, Arthur. And no, pork and leek sausages do not count because they have 'vegetable bits' in them."
They drifted back towards the punt stand idly, and as they approached Merlin picked up the strawberry on his belly and ate it.
"Gross," said Gwen.
Merlin grinned at her.
"So, Lancelot," said Arthur as they were walking up the Woodstock Road and back towards the house afterwards. "Made any decisions about next year yet?"
Morgana tensed beside Merlin, bunching her hand in his shirt a little as she walked beside him. She shot a concerned look towards Gwen and then an angry one at Arthur.
"Réunion, maybe?" she asked, mildly. "Or Cameroon still?"
"Nice, actually," said Lancelot, and Merlin jerked his head up sharply, and saw the way Morgana and Arthur refrained from doing the same through discipline alone.
"Nice?" asked Arthur disbelievingly.
Out of the lot of them, he'd been asked to go to every travel agent in Oxford to look for deals with Lancelot the most times. Merlin, least consulted after Morgana, had been asked about five times in the last year alone.
It wasn't Lancelot who confirmed it--it was Guinevere, with a knowing and unsurprised smile on her face that suggested she'd already known, and Morgana made a surprised but happy fish face while Merlin shot Gwen a discreet thumbs-up. Lancelot clearly couldn't thumbs-up his own relationship, but he'd kind of set up a precedent for them as a group, so Merlin figured someone had better do it.
"Nice," said Arthur, one final time, and then he looked at Merlin, careful to make it look as if the announcement and his look weren't connected. London was much closer than Nice, after all, but whereas a move from potential Haiti to definite Nice was a considerable improvement, cohabiting in Oxford to commuting between Oxford and London was not.
Merlin wasn't worried, though. Lancelot had reached out to take Gwen's hand, as if he felt able to do it now that it had all been laid out in the open, and Morgana looked fiercely, happily relieved. The sun was golden through the trees but not too warm, and Merlin just couldn't find it in himself to be unhappy about anything. He inched towards Arthur, and tried not to smile too much when Arthur slipped an arm around his waist.
It was Lancelot who came up with it, of course, because the minute that man thought of anything silly he immediately became enamoured of it, and wouldn't let up until it had been seen through. This tenacity was what had led to the great Second-Year Banana Costume Incident at the Wadham bop, to which no-one made reference but which Merlin was fairly sure Morgana had documentation of, possibly in the form of sodding pictures that she probably kept in a bank safe in an underground lair.
Rowing had been a huge part of Merlin and Gwen's and Lancelot's lives throughout their time at Oxford, and it was how Merlin and Lancelot had met Arthur. Morgana had done nothing other than suffer their insanity quietly, but she'd hardly had a choice but to conform, surrounded by so many boatie friends. She could identify college blades more ably than the rest of them put together by now, and had always known a disturbing amount of information about rowing machines. Merlin had actually entertained a fantasy that she was a freelance erg saleswoman for a while (around the same time that he'd thought she worked in the post office, actually).
Lancelot convinced them all that if they took a boat out together and crashed it there probably wouldn't be too many problems. They were all insured by their respective colleges (well, all of them except Morgana, anyway), and some quick legal footwork would be enough to ensure that there would be no trouble in the event of a mishap. Lancelot maintained that he was almost sure of this, and though the 'almost' severely worried Merlin, he supposed Lancelot and Morgana and Arthur probably had enough money independently of their parents to pay for the boat, if worse came to worst. He therefore went along with only some token protests, even when Arthur and Lancelot decided they'd take an Oriel boat out, because "There are more of you in that college than in any of ours, so it makes sense."
Merlin suspected they just didn't want it to be their colleges, in case they sank a £25,000 boat and the shit hit the fan.
It was decided that Gwen would cox, because the rest of them were all about the same height and it made more sense that way. She was also more patient than Merlin by far. They were originally going to row up to the Victoria Arms, because Lancelot had heard from someone who had heard from someone that it was possible to do this by going round the river in a funny way. This plan quickly faded when it became clear that they could barely row three feet without running into extreme problems: Merlin had seen a lot of rowing, but that clearly hadn't improved his coordination, and Morgana--wonderful, rational Morgana--seemed to be battling an uncontrollable fear that they would flip over, despite everyone else's vehement assurances that this never happened.
Well, it had happened to Merlin once, actually--but that really had been an unfortunate confluence of events involving getting out of the boat wrong and Merlin being distracted by their boat mascot, a stuffed elephant that they'd gaffer-taped to the stern canvas.
They paddled around half-heartedly, Gwen laughing too hard to tell them what to do and Merlin wondering if he'd ever have sex again. He'd jabbed Arthur's back with the blade handle five times now, because he wasn't driving back when Arthur was, and Arthur had stopped speaking to him after the third go. The last time there had been a terrifying sound of bone grating on wood, and Merlin was honestly concerned for Arthur's (and his, when they got out of the boat) welfare by this point.
"Merlin, how have you not killed yourself yet despite the fact that you appear to have no control over any of your limbs?" screeched Arthur, deigning to break the silence after impact number six.
"No--god, sorry," said Merlin, letting go of his blade to rub at Arthur's spine as Morgana howled behind him,
"For fuck's sake, Merlin, we'll tip!"
"We won't tip!" the rest of them shouted together, and Gwen said, quietly,
"I'll just take us back to the boathouse, mmh?"
They racked the boat and Merlin and Gwen wiped it down--she still seemed inordinately amused by it all, but Merlin could see Lancelot and Arthur in a corner, patting each other's backs consolingly as Morgana stood off to the side, arms crossed angrily in front of her. Merlin could have sworn he heard Lancelot say, There, there, to Arthur at one point, and he finally shared a wide, amused smile with Guinevere, his face carefully turned away from the rest of them.
"I need a pint," said Lancelot, finally, and the haste with which they all made for the Head of the River would have been comical if Lancelot and Arthur were not still looking distrustfully at Merlin, as if he might trip and bring down the boathouse roof with him at any moment.
They ate greasy portions of fish and chips sitting next to the river, quiet and a little contemplative. Somehow Arthur's I really don't understand how a single man can embody so much menace slowly faded into a more serious, God, I have to fly to Nice in two weeks.
"Are you looking forward to starting your job?" Morgana asked Gwen, nudging her shoulder, and Gwen smiled and drank the head from her pint and said,
"Yes. I really like the team I'm supposed to be working with."
Gwen had a job at Pöyry, doing something that involved the environment, chemicals, and engineering, and which Merlin hoped never to understand well. It was only down the road, though, so Merlin would still see her all the time. He was sure Gwen would not be one of those people who came down to the river and college to relive her glory days at every opportunity, but it would be nice to go through next year, to sit and finish his exams, knowing that Gwen (and the river) would be waiting for him at the end.
He was feeling pleasantly tipsy, a little tired, and he slumped his shoulders and curled into Arthur on the bench. Arthur turned his head to brush his lips against Merlin's temple--definitely not a kiss, Merlin had been assured plenty of times--and settled an arm around his waist.
"God," said Lancelot, dropping his head onto the table. "My body hurts more than it ever did after Blues training."
"How can five intelligent people fail so spectacularly at something?" Morgana mused quietly, and Merlin sat up a little straighter when she looked straight at him and said, "Especially when--"
Something electric passed around everyone at the table. Arthur fidgeted and Lancelot took a deep breath, and Gwen reached one hand out abortively towards Lancelot, then drew it back. There was an odd, heavy silence, and Merlin laughed uncomfortably, evidently not in on whatever this was about.
"What?" he asked.
"Especially considering how good you are at making things go well when you try," said Lancelot, squaring his shoulders and fixing his eyes on Merlin's.
Merlin drew his fingers back from where they'd been touching Arthur's thigh, a hot flush of betrayal spearing down his spine, combined with a hesitant, but pervasive, relief. No-one was running yet; no-one was shouting. The people around them were still drinking and eating and talking and laughing, unaware of Merlin's panic two tables down.
"You told them," he said, low and angry.
"Merlin, we already knew, for mercy's sake--" Morgana began, but Arthur interrupted,
"Yes. Yes, I told them."
He looked straight at Merlin, and Morgana and Lancelot and Gwen averted their eyes politely.
"I was certain they all already knew--we're not stupid, Merlin; we all care about you, and watching you is part of that. But I said it out loud, yes. Because otherwise you might have waited years and years to tell them for fear of nothing important, and then it might have been them who felt angry, rather than you. And I can only do something about the latter."
Merlin breathed in and out evenly, saying nothing.
"We don't--it doesn't matter to us, Merlin," said Gwen from where she was sitting, and her voice was a little shaky, unsure.
Merlin hated to have put that there, and he reached out his hand and grabbed hers across the table instinctively.
"Do you know what the odds of coming across something this extraordinary are?" asked Morgana, her sharp eyes hooded. "If anything, we're fortunate."
"And you're still knobbly-kneed and awkward, Merlin, and you look terrified every time you kiss your boyfriend, and you watch the X-Files and take them to heart--actually take them seriously. How is this going to change any of those things--any of the good things about you that we know already?" said Lancelot.
His voice was uncharacteristically solemn. Lancelot didn't like to face serious conversations without appropriate musical accompaniment or props, which is why he'd dumped his last girlfriend at a Death Cab for Cutie concert and why Merlin still had a Valentine's Day card that said, I'm bananas about you!, with Sorry written inside in Lancelot's messy scrawl. It had been sent very shortly after the costume of which they did not speak had been worn.
Something hot and wet prickled at the corners of Merlin's eyes, and he felt the last kernel of something tight crumble inside his chest. As soon as Merlin felt it give way the fire in the column heater that was closest to their table flared up, a flaming snake's tongue that shot up three feet and looked, just for an instant, like a dragon with a curling tail.
"Holy shit!" one of the Americans sitting at the table next to them screamed, as he and his friends scrambled off their benches and away from the flames, which were already back to their normal intensity.
No-one at Merlin's table moved, though. They all just looked at him steadily, the firelight and the late afternoon sunlight glittering in their eyes, and Merlin looked down at the table and curled his lips, a small, private smile meant for himself.
When Arthur extended his fingers to reach for Merlin's hand again, Merlin gave Arthur's hand a tiny squeeze, and let himself be pulled against Arthur's side.
That night, Arthur apologised--said I'm sorry, sincerely and more than once. They would clearly have to have a lengthy conversation about what constituted proactive protective behaviour and what constituted fishwife meddling. But Merlin, who had walked home in a line of five people piled together, arms over shoulders and hands intertwined, really wasn't going to pick a fight with the man who had brought the gift horse home, about its mouth or otherwise.
Arthur opened him up carefully, running a strong hand down and around Merlin's ribs and kissing under his jaw, on his hipbone, on his inner thigh. They'd never done this before--Merlin had personally thought they were liable to make a French nuclear testing-type mess of it, and Arthur's hesitation to buy lube before now had suggested he felt the same. But it was easy, in the end--slippery and messy and too wet. Fumbling, nowhere near smooth, and amazing.
Merlin gasped under Arthur's hands and mouth, turned his head to the side and blinked to clear the glare of the bedside lamp from his eyes, which were stinging with a little sweat.
"Loveyou," he muttered, but only into Arthur's shoulder, where Merlin had pressed his mouth with the express purpose of not being heard too clearly. Arthur tensed above him, but in a good way, and though he said nothing, his fingers pressed more tightly, more intimately, into Merlin's hips and waist.
It went on for ages: half of it was nerves and half of it was the sheer pleasure of it. They were both stubborn men, and Merlin was no more willing to give up the long minutes of this than he was Arthur, which was to say not at all.
Merlin felt something hot building in his stomach, a pressure behind his eyes and the sting of burning air at his fingertips. He felt molten, taken apart and put together again in a better way. Not because of Arthur, or by him--but whatever had happened, it had happened while Arthur had been standing next to him. That mattered.
Arthur wrapped around him, after, and he burrowed his nose into the crook of Merlin's elbow and moved his lips very quickly, his words nothing but breath on Merlin's skin.
When Merlin woke up the next morning, there was nothing but an Arthur-shaped indentation on the bed. This was not unusual: Merlin could never be arsed to get up if he didn't have to, but Arthur had a tendency to start doing things before he even got out of bed. It was only ever sex that kept him in for lazy mornings, and Merlin was very rarely up to ensure this happened.
Merlin stretched. For the first time in ages, he had not dreamed of beaches, or of the smell of the sea.
He tumbled his way down the stairs, the arches of his feet resting on the edges of the steps, and avoided breaking his neck only by hanging onto the banister desperately. When he finally made it to the kitchen table, Morgana raised one hand in greeting from behind the Guardian, and Merlin grunted and went to make some toast.
He'd just got the right proportion of butter to apricot conserve on his bread--he was feeling nostalgic--when there was a massive BANG from the cupboard next to the kitchen. He and Morgana ran, with varying levels of coordination, to see what the matter was.
"It does that," Lancelot was saying, pointing at the boiler cheerily as if bangs near gas-run appliances were simply a quirky departure from the drab monotony of the everyday.
Arthur's eyebrows were practically arched into his hairline, and he was taking notes in an honest-to-god reporter's notebook, like a character out of an Enid Blyton book. Gwen was patting him consolingly on the shoulder, and Lancelot was shrugging.
"Look, it's a new boiler and we haven't done anything to it this year. If you really want to get someone in to see it, which--why am I asking?--of course you will, then do. But I really don't think it's going to cause you any problems, Arthur, and if it does, Gwen knows as much about practical things as you do about colour-coordinated trainer combinations, so you'll both be fine."
Arthur wrote something else down in his notebook, not looking convinced. Merlin looked between the three of them, confused and not quite awake yet.
"Well," Arthur said finally, seemingly content with his notes, "I think that's all settled, then. I won't hear any of this no-rent business, so I'll sort something out with Rafael, if you can't be bothered to--is that fine, Gwen?"
Lancelot shrugged theatrically and scratched at his belly through his threadbare t-shirt.
"Hey--it's your money, mate."
"Uh," Merlin said, and Gwen turned and beamed one of her gigantic smiles at him.
Arthur looked a bit like a deer caught in headlights, but he rallied admirably and said,
"Plenty of people commute, Merlin; don't look at me like that."
He was standing there in his boxers and one of his Blues training t-shirts, which Merlin had always imagined he'd wear in the cavernous apartment his father had in Sloane Square, once he was working at Monitor. Merlin had had half-formed plans to steal the t-shirt for his own use after it had stayed in Arthur's drawers long enough to smell right.
"You're… commuting from Oxford. To London," he said, struggling to process everything. "And … living here?"
"With me," said Gwen.
"With us, if I get that research fellowship in November," Morgana said.
She sounded resigned and put-upon, but Merlin could see a smile playing about her mouth.
"And you, of course--only if you're happy to live out of college during your Finals year," Gwen jumped in again.
"Obviously each of us would have his own room," said Arthur hastily, blushing as if someone had just accused him of besmirching Merlin's honour. Lancelot snorted.
"You all decided this… when?" asked Merlin, his brain still half-fixed on the apricot conserve. He suspected it might be doing this partly as a coping mechanism.
"Yesterday," chorused Lancelot, Morgana, and Gwen.
"We realised it didn't make any sense for Elaine and Rafael to look for other tenants, when they just want someone to look after the house until Lancelot comes back next year," said Gwen.
"We could all live here together then," said Lancelot, a little tentatively.
He was talking to Gwen but looking at Morgana. Out of the corner of his eye Merlin saw her give him a careless wave of her hand that was presumably meant to be a warning-inclusive blessing.
Merlin looked at Arthur suspiciously, trying to get back to the matter at hand.
"Er-- I. Just this morning," said Arthur, sheepishly.
Merlin pressed the heels of his hands hard against his eyes and muttered, "Right. Right."
He waited for everything to settle into place in his head, then took his hands away and blinked a few times, slowly.
As soon as he felt ready to, he moved quickly towards Arthur, originally intending to go for the restrained man-pat but changing his mind halfway there, shifting direction to go for a kiss.
If anything called for one of their spectacularly awkward shows of public affection, Merlin thought it was probably this.
He overbalanced and jerked oddly and almost hit Lancelot in the face as he twisted to stay upright, and Arthur reached out to balance him, hands warm against Merlin's waist.
"Steady on, Emrys," he whispered.
"Yeah, Merlin," said Lancelot. He had that elated look on his face that meant one of his many prayers for cheesy openings had been answered in the very recent past. "Easy, there."