“She's never going to go out with you,” Morgana said as they approached the front door, “so don't even think about asking her and making a bloody nuisance of yourself.”
“For the last time, I don't want to go out with Gwen Jones,” Arthur huffed, which was a blatant lie, of course. He'd had a silly crush on Gwen since fifth form, one he couldn't explain considering she was nothing like the girls he usually dated. To begin with, she was almost frighteningly sweet, she didn't spend fifteen hours a day on her hair, and she had ambitions that didn't involve getting on Britain's Got Talent. It made very little sense that he was fascinated by her. Perhaps it was the lure of the unattainable, or the fact that she had the loveliest smile he'd ever seen. It had to be one of those.
“Hm,” Morgana said, clearly unconvinced of Arthur's sincerity. “Just remember, you're a thick-necked footballer, and she's the future Prime Minister. It would never work.”
“Oi, I'm not that thick-necked,” Arthur said, bristling. After all, not everyone got into bloody Cambridge.
Morgana snorted. “As if you'd be going to Cambridge if Uther hadn't pulled every string he had.”
“That's – just –” Arthur spluttered.
“The truth?” Morgana said sweetly. “Knock on the door, there's a good lad. Use your hand, not your skull this time.”
“Why don't you just claw it down with your talons?” Arthur muttered, clenching his hand into a fist before raising it to the door.
“Yes, that's it! You did it perfectly!” Gwen said, beaming.
Arthur beamed back at her, basking in her joy at his accomplishment. She really did have a lovely smile. He'd actually done the chemistry problem she'd praised him on earlier at home without any help, but it was much more fun to pretend he was an idiot and have her teach him. Not even Morgana suspected he was pulling that, and it had been months. But then, she was always willing to believe he was an idiot, whether it was true or not.
Speaking of idiots, Gwen's friend Merlin had been there when they arrived, and was now off in a corner with Morgana discussing English literature of the Enlightenment or some bollocks like that. Alright, so maybe Merlin wasn't an idiot, but he was definitely – odd. He was always hanging round Gwen, as though they were joined at the hip or something. For a while Arthur had been convinced they were boyfriend and girlfriend, until Morgana had rolled her eyes at him and whispered in his ear and well, fine. Just for the record, Arthur didn't think Merlin was odd because he was queer, he thought he was odd because he was – well, Merlin. He was always wearing hi-top canvas trainers that looked like they'd been through the wars and black jeans worn through to show his skinny, ghost-pale knees and faded t-shirts from the Eighties with Madonna and George Michael and Rick Astley on them, as though that made him edgy. Truth be told, Arthur had no idea what Merlin thought of himself; he tried to avoid contact with him as much as possible, which you'd think would be difficult, only Merlin rarely said more than two words to him whenever the four of them got together. Occasionally, though, Arthur would catch Merlin looking at him, his gaze intent in a way that Arthur found profoundly unsettling, and that made his stomach clench and roil as though he'd had one too many vodka shots.
Like he said, odd.
Anyway, enough about Merlin. Gwen was the one who deserved his undivided attention, and so when she continued to smile at him, he reached up casually and carefully tucked a wayward tendril of hair behind her ear. He'd never done anything like that to her before, and it was marvelous to watch her eyes widen in surprise. “So, erm, listen,” Arthur said, as casually as he could considering his heart was trying to beat its way out of his chest, “I'd like to take you out to dinner sometime, just the two of us. To thank you for all this wonderful tutoring. What do you say?”
Gwen darted a nervous look sideways, toward the corner, and Arthur kept his expression neutral to hide his impatience. What, do you have to ask Merlin for permission? he thought.
“I, erm, that – I'm sorry, Arthur, that's lovely of you, really, but I can't,” she stammered, shooting to her feet. “I think it's time to order that pizza, what do you say?” And without waiting for an answer she fled, Morgana leaping up to follow her, though not before shooting Arthur her Patented Death Glare.
After the girls left, the room was strangely silent, though Arthur could practically hear Merlin staring at him. “Well, what?” he snapped, turning to him. “Haven't you ever seen someone crash and burn before?”
Merlin had the audacity to smirk at that. Well, his mouth twitched, anyway. “Never quite so spectacularly,” he murmured. Then, sobering, he said, “Why do you do that?”
“Do what?” Arthur asked, narrowing his eyes.
“Lie to her. You're not thick; I know you could do that chemistry perfectly well on your own.”
“How do you know that?” Arthur demanded.
Merlin shrugged. “I just do.”
“Have you been – spying on me?”
Merlin frowned, though twin spots of colour appeared on his prominent cheekbones. “Not exactly,” he hedged. “I'm just – observant.”
“An observant stalker,” Arthur spat.
Merlin's chin lifted. “You really are kind of a twat, you know that?” he said quietly. “I don't know why I –” He shook himself and stood.
In a moment, Arthur had crossed the room and had his hand wrapped around Merlin's arm. “Why you what?” he hissed, while some part of his brain asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. “Come on, Merlin, why you what?”
And then Merlin raised his gaze to Arthur's, and Arthur saw – he didn't know what he saw; it was though he were seeing himself, reflected in Merlin's eyes.
That's not me, he wanted to say, because Merlin was looking at him with such – such faith – it was ridiculous. Even more ridiculous was the warm feeling that washed over him as a result, and suddenly he was jerking away from Merlin, letting go of him as though he'd been burned.
Without knowing what he was doing, Arthur spun round, scooped up his books and shoved them in his bag, and then he was practically running for the front door.
Later, Morgana didn't berate him for abandoning her, merely shook her head sadly and sighed. “Oh, Arthur. You really are rather thick, aren't you?” she said, and Arthur hated her more in that moment than he had since – since the last time he'd hated her that much.
Seven Years Later
“She’s still not going to go out with you,” Morgana said pleasantly as they walked through the pub toward the back.
“Oh my God, will you shut up,” Arthur said, exasperated. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not teenagers any longer.”
“Please,” Morgana scoffed. “There’s very little difference between a boy of eighteen and a man of twenty-five, even if the man wears expensive suits and pretends to be a professional.”
“I am a professional, thank you,” Arthur sniffed, “which is apparently why Gwen wants to see me. I have acquired a reputation.”
“A reputation as a prat,” Morgana muttered. “Anyway, she’s with someone now and he’s perfect for her, so don’t spend the whole time mooning at her. It’s hopeless.” Finally, though not soon enough for Arthur, they reached the booth where Gwen was sitting. As soon as she saw them, she leapt up and hugged Morgana.
“Oh, it’s so wonderful to see you!” Gwen exclaimed, as Morgana hugged her back. While Gwen and Morgana still saw one another a couple of times a year, Arthur hadn’t seen her since public school. It was rather disconcerting to see she had, if anything, grown even more beautiful in the intervening time.
Releasing Morgana, Gwen next embraced Arthur with nearly all the enthusiasm she’d bestowed on Morgana. “Hello, Arthur,” she murmured, “it’s been far too long.”
“Agreed,” Arthur said, pulling back and taking her hands. “That’s my fault, I think.”
“No, we’re not assigning blame,” Gwen admonished, squeezing his hands and treating him to one of her gorgeous smiles. Arthur felt a twinge of something long forgotten, but he was pleased to note that it was only a twinge. He’d always felt he’d missed some important opportunity back in public school, but all at once he realised it hadn’t been meant to be. Not that Arthur had ever been a huge believer in fate, but it was good to be able to let go of any lingering regrets.
And then he turned and saw there was another person in the booth. He stared at the man for a couple of moments, stupidly, before it struck him like a speeding lorry.
Merlin. Only the man currently sat in front of him was so far from the boy he’d known as to be almost unrecognizable. This Merlin was impeccably dressed, though instead of a suit he was wearing a close-fitting navy turtleneck that hugged his slim frame. His shortish hair curled in waves which framed his face, and for a mad moment Arthur imagined plunging his hands into those locks to see if they were as soft as they looked.
“Merlin!” Morgana squealed, hugging him as soon as he was on his feet. “I haven’t seen you in ages. How are you?”
“Can’t complain,” Merlin answered, his gaze finally settling on Arthur over Morgana’s shoulder, and Arthur sucked in a breath at the power of it before it skittered away.
Arthur held out his hand to Merlin. “Merlin,” he said, “good to see you.” Merlin stared at Arthur’s hand for a long moment, as though he’d forgotten what hands were, before he took it. His grip was firm but not overly so, and he let go quickly. Arthur ignored the irrational stab of disappointment at that.
They settled into small talk for a while, though it was mainly the women who kept the conversation going. Merlin was so taciturn as to appear sullen, and Arthur couldn’t seem to stop looking at him, no matter how hard he tried to tear his gaze away. Morgana noticed, of course, and would occasionally flick him on the knee under the table to signal that Gwen had asked him a question. After a few minutes, Merlin finally met his gaze again, and started when he did, as though Arthur were making faces at him. Summoning all his will power, Arthur finally managed to wrench his attention away from the man across from him, and the rest of the dinner progressed more smoothly.
At least, that was, until they got down to business. “So, I understand you’re in need of an architect,” Arthur said, after they were finished their salads.
“Yes, we are,” Gwen said. “Or rather, Merlin is.”
“I didn’t –” Merlin began, then shook his head, cutting himself off.
“Merlin?” Arthur asked, looking at him again. Merlin cleared his throat, then straightened.
“It was Gwen’s idea,” he murmured, “I think she should explain.”
Gwen shot Merlin an odd look, then turned to Arthur. “Well, Merlin works for, and I volunteer with, a charity called Youth At Risk. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it –”
“I have, actually,” Arthur interrupted, earning a flicker of surprise from Merlin before he continued.
“Oh, well, that’s – good,” Gwen said. “Anyway, we’ve received a grant to build a drop-in centre on an abandoned lot in the East End, but we’ve had to scrape together a fair number of donations as well – construction tradespeople offering their time, shops offering building materials, that sort of thing. It would really help us if we didn’t have to hire an architect, or if we could get one for a good rate. The problem is, none of us knew any architects, and we weren’t sure where to start. Then I remembered you’d studied to be one, and I talked to Morgana, who said you might be interested.”
“And you’d like me to volunteer my services,” Arthur said, nodding. He was inordinately pleased that they’d have thought to ask him, and he was excited at the prospect of being involved in such a worthwhile project.
Merlin shifted in his seat. “I told you he wouldn’t go for it,” he snapped, and Arthur could feel his jaw drop open in shock.
“Oh, Merlin,” Gwen said, “he hasn’t said anything of the kind.”
“In fact,” Arthur said around the sudden, horrifying constriction in his throat, “I’d be thrilled to design your centre, at absolutely no cost.”
“Oh, Arthur!” Gwen said, reaching across the table to grab his hands, “you’re wonderful!”
“Excuse me,” Merlin said, eeling his way out of the booth as though his arse was on fire. Arthur took three deep breaths and waited just enough time for his vision to clear, and then he politely excused himself and followed Merlin to the loo. When he got there, Merlin was just washing up, his head down and his face flushed.
Arthur stomped up to him and grabbed him by the arms, perhaps a little too roughly, but he didn’t really give a fuck at this point.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” Merlin squeaked. The man standing at the sink beside them stared at them in avid interest.
“Sod off, would you please?” Arthur said casually to the man, and he started and fled, babbling an apology as he went.
“Arthur, you do realise you're getting a little mental here, right?” Merlin said. Arthur was near enough to feel the puff of his breath on his face. This close, he could detect no fear or anger in his expression, merely a weary indifference, and that infuriated Arthur.
“Why were you so quick to believe the worst
there?” Arthur demanded.
Merlin frowned. “I was too quick to judge and I'm sorry, alright? The truth is, I don't really know you at all.”
“You used to,” Arthur gritted. “You used to know all about me.”
“I don't know what you mean,” Merlin said coolly.
“God damn you,” Arthur growled, tightening his grip on Merlin's arms, “why did you make me think you did, then? You used to believe I could do anything, and I believed you.”
Merlin stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
“You know perfectly well what I'm talking about. That last night we studied at Gwen's, you looked at me as though I'd hung the moon and stars. Or that I could, if only I tried it instead of mucking about playing center forward. What did you – what did you think you were doing?”
Merlin lifted his chin, and there was absolutely no reason that Arthur's chest should tighten at that gesture, but it did. “Well, that's easy to explain. I was completely besotted with you.”
Arthur blinked, gobsmacked. “I – I didn’t know,” he murmured.
Merlin barked a mirthless laugh. “Well, you were the only one who didn’t. Apparently – though I only found it out later – it was rather obvious to everyone.” He looked away. “Much to my utter humiliation. But then teenagers always think they’re being subtle, don’t they?”
“You must have told Gwen.”
“No,” Merlin said, looking at him again, “not even her. Though of course she had it sussed out. That’s why she wouldn’t go out with you. Wenches before brethren and all that.”
Arthur frowned, and Merlin waved a hand. “The opposite of ‘bros before hos’.”
“Yeah, I got that, thanks,” Arthur huffed. “You used to give me more credit for brains.”
“Sorry,” Merlin murmured, looking away again.
Arthur bit his lip, feeling uncharacteristically uncertain. “D’you – what about now?”
“What about now?”
“I mean, do you still –”
Merlin’s gaze flicked to his face. “Arthur, it’s been seven years. If I wasn’t over you, I’d be a right pathetic git, wouldn’t I?”
Arthur felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach. “Yeah, I suppose you would.”
“I – look, could you let go of my arms? I’m starting to lose the feeling in my thumbs.”
“Right, sorry, sorry,” Arthur said, letting go of him, though he didn’t move back. Merlin glared at him, and Arthur ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve gone and bollixed this up, haven’t I?”
“Not much to bollix up, was there?” Merlin muttered.
Arthur pressed even closer, making Merlin jerk and stare at him, shocked, and it was all Arthur could do to keep from crowing in triumph at finally eliciting a reaction from him. Before he quite knew what he was planning, he had Merlin backed against the wall and his hands on either side of Merlin’s head. Merlin’s eyes grew even wider as Arthur leaned in.
“If that’s true,” Arthur murmured, “then there’s no harm in trying this.” And with that, his mouth settled over Merlin’s gently but firmly, exerting just enough pressure to let Merlin know he was serious without trying to force him. Merlin stood stiffly for all of three seconds – Arthur counted – before he groaned and tilted his head. His hands slid up under Arthur’s jacket, long fingers gliding up Arthur’s back, and Arthur shuddered and plunged his hands into Merlin’s hair and sucked on his sinful lower lip.
“So,” Arthur panted when they finally parted for air, “not so over me, then.”
“Shut up,” Merlin snapped, hauling him in. By the time they parted again, Arthur had forgotten what oxygen was.
“I was over you,” Merlin insisted in a tone that was close to a whine. “I was.”
“I’m tired of the past tense,” Arthur said, brushing his lips against Merlin’s, savouring the way they clung damply together, the way Merlin’s breath shivered against his oversensitised skin. “I’d like to see what we can do with the present, alright?”
“Yeah,” Merlin murmured, tipping his forehead against Arthur’s, “yeah, alright,” and Arthur’s heart leapt so violently at that he feared it might burst from his chest. As Merlin wound his arms round his neck and kissed him again, though, Arthur decided it was worth the risk.
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