Word Count: 5,736
Warnings: AU, language, innuendo, a great deal of implied sex
Summary: A sequel to Inevitability, and thus another American-college-roommates AU. The quest: to rope Lancelot into a threesome -- possibly literally.
Author's Note: Everything you see here exists because eltea is awesome. Including me. I exist. Whoa. o_o
Arthur was tossing balled-up Starburst wrappers into the trashcan by the door. He had made a good half-dozen three-pointers since taking up this game at about noon today.
“Have you met that kid Lancelot?” he asked Merlin, faux-absently.
Merlin licked his finger—utterly unnecessarily, Arthur suspected—and turned a page of Two Centuries of Sculpture.
“I have,” he answered. “I ran into him in the laundry room the other day.”
He and Merlin washed their sheets a lot more consistently these days.
“He’s really nice,” Merlin decided.
“And he’s really hot,” Arthur declared. “Which is why we should undertake to entice him into our bed of sin.”
Merlin looked pointedly at Arthur’s bed—the rumpled sheets of which could probably do with another spin cycle or five—and then at his own, which he was currently inhabiting.
“Our pair of beds of sin,” Arthur corrected. “Our collective bed of sin. Look, that’s not the point.”
Automatically Merlin pushed his glasses back up his nose as he leaned over the book again. “I don’t think three people would fit in a twin bed,” he remarked. “It would just come down to surface area, and I think it would end up being very uncomfortable.”
Arthur flicked his wrist, and another Starburst wrapper joined its elaborately-discarded brethren.
In the pause, Merlin returned his attention to Two Centuries—which was heinously unfair. With finals coming up, Merlin spent more time reading that thing than he did admiring Arthur when he thought his roommate wasn’t looking.
Damn that thing to Textbook Hell.
“What we should do,” he realized slowly, “is move the room around. We could put the desks against one wall and push the beds together—and then we’d basically have a queen bed. A queen bed of sin.”
Merlin frowned, but at least he was paying attention to Arthur now.
“But wouldn’t your father notice?” he asked. “Next time he decided to utilize his Dean Powers and wander the dorms waiting to mortify some freshmen?”
Arthur considered. “He would notice,” he admitted, “if we left it that way.”
“But we never know when he’s going to show up,” Merlin protested.
Arthur held a hand up for silence, earning himself an eye-roll. “We will proceed with our plan,” he explained, “immediately after he leaves the next time he drops by. Then we’ll know we have at least a few days, and we will enact Operation Lancelot Seduction, henceforth known as OLS, with all available speed.”
Merlin’s forehead was furrowed. “All right,” he conceded uncertainly, “but… are you sure Lancelot is going to agree to this?”
“How could he not?” Arthur demanded.
“For starters,” Merlin responded, “how do you know he’s gay?”
“Because,” Arthur scoffed, “every time I’ve seen him in his room, he has a new vase of flowers on his desk.”
Merlin toyed with his bandana, which was black with yellow smiley faces. Artists got away with such dubious style choices, and Arthur, for his part, was more interested in the less-conventional applications of the accessory than in its numerous crimes against fashion.
“Maybe he’s studying botany,” Merlin suggested.
“Vases with ribbons,” Arthur said. “Gay as a rainbow.”
Merlin made a face. “Why do rainbows have to be gay?” he wanted to know. “I mean, what’s so homosexual about a spectrum of colors?”
Arthur clicked his tongue. “No distractions from the mission, soldier,” he reproached. “Social philosophy can wait until after we’ve succeeded in OLS.”
Glasses slipping again, Merlin settled with his stupid textbook. “Then I guess we wait until the next time your dad drops in.”
Arthur threw a Starburst wrapper at Merlin’s forehead. “First,” he declared, “you have to get through basic training…” He smirked. “…soldier.”
Merlin might have a chance to talk Lancelot up in the laundry room very soon.
Uther Pendragon saw fit to visit his son just three days later.
Arthur still hadn’t learned how to lock the door, but Merlin tended to do it for him.
Which was very fortunate on this particular occasion, given that, when Uther chose to knock, his son was otherwise occupied.
Arthur had today’s bandana—which was checkered black and white—in a death grip, and his other hand was exploring Merlin’s ribs with interest.
When the knock sounded, Arthur cursed into Merlin’s neck, peeled himself off of the other boy’s chest, and stumbled to the door to peer through the peephole.
He only had to look at Merlin—no obvious mouthing of It’s my dad! required—for the little sprite to smooth his bandana and scramble for Two Centuries of Sculpture. Arthur straightened his own clothes, motioned to Merlin’s glasses, which were adorably askew, cleared his throat, and opened the door.
“Hi, Dad,” he managed cheerfully.
Merlin made a big show of looking up and waving. “Hello, Mr. Pendragon.”
“How are things?” Arthur persisted. “Get any extremely-pressing administrative responsibilities lately?”
Nodding a greeting to Merlin, Arthur’s father pushed past him and began one of his famous room inspections.
“Your laundry is on the floor,” he noted of the pile of clothing by the dresser.
“I was about to get to that,” Arthur invented.
An unconvinced Uther moved on to his desk, a Starburst wrapper graveyard where his stacked books teetered in tower-of-Pisa piles.
“I see you’re keeping organized,” he remarked.
“I know where everything is,” Arthur defended, sidling behind his father to the bed, where he did a bit of surreptitious sheet arrangement. “And I get all my work turned in, anyway, so…”
“The state of a man’s desk mirrors the state of his mind,” Uther countered, looking pointedly at a small cluster of candy wrappers that Merlin had folded into tiny origami cranes, which Arthur herded by his alarm clock.
The sad part was that the philosophy actually sounded pretty reasonable, given the bleakly spotless state of Uther’s desk and the multimedia explosion of creativity that covered Merlin’s.
“You have a habit of showing up the day before I get to cleaning,” Arthur maintained, which was, lamentably, actually true.
“Really, sir,” Merlin, bless his little heart, piped up at Uther’s dubious expression. “He was telling me earlier about how he was going to tidy up as soon as his midterm was over.”
Arthur meticulously un-blessed Merlin’s little heart again.
“Midterm?” Uther prompted. “What class? When is it? Are you prepared?”
“It’s for Polisci 112,” he sighed, “it’s on Friday, and I’ve already started studying.”
He’d estimated how long it would take him to read through his notes, anyway.
He liked to call that “pre-studying.”
“You’re keeping up?” Uther persisted. “I haven’t checked your GPA lately—how is it looking now?”
“It’s great, Dad,” Arthur improvised. “Everything’s great. You’re great. Life is one big party after another.”
Uther eyed him mistrustfully. “You’re not drinking too much, are y—”
“No, Dad,” Arthur sighed.
“He’s really careful,” Merlin put in brightly. “He likes to make sure I don’t get smashed. Because I’m terrible with alcohol, so it never works out for anybody, and we just look after each other that way.”
Merlin was so cute.
He was also ruining all of Arthur’s chances of shooing his father out and escaping unscathed.
“College is like that nowadays,” Arthur cut in before Uther could open his mouth. “Everybody just takes care of each other: it is a beautiful, beautiful world. Is that everything? I was about to get down to studying.”
“After you pick up your laundry,” Uther noted.
This was why Arthur hated smart people.
“After I fold my laundry and color-code it in my dresser,” he confirmed.
The scary part was that his father had inflicted such sartorial hegemony at home that he probably thought Arthur was serious.
As it was, Uther clapped him on the shoulder, because Real Men did not raise sons who would stand to be hugged, and concluded, “Good. Get to work. You’re doing well enough so far; don’t slip up now.”
This was about as encouraging as Uther Pendragon got.
“Thanks, Dad,” Arthur said.
Uther nodded once more, glanced at Merlin, and left.
Arthur took a deep breath.
“Okay,” he announced, rubbing his hands together, “go!”
Merlin tossed Two Centuries of Sculpture aside—take that, bitch!—leapt up, took the other end of Arthur’s desk, and lifted on cue. With some difficulty, they heaved the thing out of the way of the beds, and then Arthur set to pushing Merlin’s desk, since attempting to carry that thing would have resulted in nothing but an avalanche of art supplies. Merlin, for his part, was hauling at the headboard of his bed, which reluctantly shifted about an inch.
It was at that moment that the door opened, and Uther stepped back into the room.
Arthur and Merlin froze.
“I forgot to a—what the hell are you doing?”
Arthur’s father was looking at Merlin, who had subsequently been transformed into a deer in the headlights of a Hummer going eighty.
“F… feng shui?” Merlin managed, just as Arthur said loudly, “Musical chairs.”
There was a pause.
“Feng Shui Musical Chairs,” Arthur corrected, trying not to cringe. “It’s a new game they play at parties—you, um, try to rearrange the room with as much qi as possible… before the music stops.”
There was another pause.
“It’s really fun,” Merlin volunteered meekly.
“We’re practicing,” Arthur added. “So that we can win next time.”
Very, very slowly, Uther raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
“Morgana’s birthday is this weekend,” he declared, apparently giving explanations up for lost. “Please be presentable this year.”
“Look, it’s not my fault they pushed me into the pool!” Arthur protested.
“Not your fault?” Uther repeated. “You were standing at the edge and telling all and sundry that no one would be able to push you in!”
They’d only barely managed it anyway.
Arthur then realized he was pouting, massaged his temples, and sighed.
“I’ll be more careful this time,” he promised.
The pledge earned another peremptory Dad Nod, and then Uther gave the Feng Shui Musical Chairs practice board one last look before heading for the exit.
The door closed again, and Arthur looked to Merlin.
The little bastard was sitting on the floor shaking with laughter, biting down on his knuckles in an attempt to stay quiet.
Arthur descended on him, prodding gently at his ribs and pushing him against the partially-displaced bed.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded.
“Me lying never ends well,” Merlin replied.
Arthur kissed intently at his lovely-ludicrous ears.
“Ain’t over ’til it’s over,” he retorted.
“Well,” Merlin said.
Today Merlin’s bandana was white with one red heart in the corner. Arthur couldn’t think of a more obvious sign from the Universe that today was the day to proceed with Operation Lancelot Seduction, come hell, high water, or door slammed in their faces.
The thing was… Arthur wasn’t sure he wanted Operation Lancelot Seduction to succeed.
It was just that—Merlin was an artist. Merlin was color and light and a different bandana every single day. Merlin was a puppy, a comet, a cloudburst, a songbird, a live wire, just alive. He was reinvented daily, and it was downright depressing to think that he was now stuck with Arthur and nothing but.
Not that Arthur didn’t like himself—he did, a lot; he was conceited bordering on egomaniacal about seventy-five percent of the time, and he tended to feel entitled—but his consistency was indelible and undeniable. He wasn’t… exciting.
And Merlin couldn’t possibly be expected to settle with unexciting all the time.
So… Lancelot. Thus Lancelot. Throw in a monkey wrench and see what happens to the assembly line. It certainly wouldn’t be the same, and unpredictability was something Arthur couldn’t do all alone.
So he had decided to share. He had decided to release his hold a little, much as his hands protested the loss. He had decided to let Merlin have more than Arthur, unassisted, could give.
Damn it. Love made you amazingly dumb.
Merlin had gotten distracted from Two Centuries of Sculpture—a process Arthur fully and wholeheartedly condoned—and was gazing into space with an absent frown.
“You look perplexed,” Arthur observed.
“I’m trying to figure out something my art teacher said,” Merlin explained bemusedly. “He saw that I had—ah—” Merlin’s cheeks went pinkish. “—doodled you all over the margins of my sketchbook, and instead of marking me down, he started muttering something about ‘two ends of the same paintbrush.’”
Arthur blinked. This advent supported his theory that Merlin’s art teacher was, in a few words, totally fucking batshit crazy.
“I wouldn’t give it too much thought,” he commented. “That guy’s a couple colors short of a rainbow.”
“What is it with you and rainbows?” Merlin asked, grinning, and the room lit up with it.
“What’s wrong with rainbows?” Arthur shot back. “Am I not allowed to find rainbows aesthetically pleasing?”
He heaved himself out of his relocated desk chair, shoved his hands in his pockets, strolled over, and tugged at Merlin’s bandana.
“Ready for some lovin’, I see?” he prompted, fingering the heart.
Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Now? It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
“Catch ’em off-guard,” Arthur explained. “Keep ’em guessing. That’s how I snagged you, by the way—got you while you were sleeping; talked you into it before your brain woke up, while your standards were low.”
Merlin gave him the Innocent Look. “If I didn’t know better, Mr. Pendragon,” he said slowly, “I might think you were insecure.”
Arthur darted in to lay a kiss on his right cheekbone. “Nonsense,” he replied. “Now show me your Sex Face; we have some seducing to do.”
The expression Merlin offered was more of an Intense Bewilderment Face, but Arthur supposed it would have to do.
“On your feet, private,” he ordered, pointing to their joined beds for emphasis. “None can resist our artificially-sizeable bed of sin.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Merlin responded, less enthusiastically than Arthur would have liked.
It wasn’t far down the hall to Lancelot’s room. They paused before the designated door, and Arthur had the presence of mind to hope that their victim—target—seductee was actually in.
He knocked briskly before he—or Merlin—could change his mind, folded his hands behind his back, cleared his throat, and waited.
As the door opened, he positioned his pelvis slightly forward—it was actually better if Lancelot didn’t specifically notice, as Arthur was hoping that the intimation would invade his subconscious and breed baby innuendos.
Arthur wondered what exactly the boy had been doodling in that sketchbook.
Before he had time to do any purring in Merlin’s general direction, however, the door swung open inward to reveal a slightly startled Lancelot, whose dark hair was, per usual, even more disorderly than Merlin’s.
Arthur sometimes wondered who had instated the comb ban and what exactly they had against grooming.
Arthur moved his foot a half-step forward and shifted his weight to lean against the doorframe, such that it would be nearly impossible for Lancelot to get rid of him without attempting to crush him with the door—which he knew was much too rude altogether for Mr. Teddy Bear to go so far as to consider.
Arthur was, at a very basic level, a predator.
And he made it look damn sexy.
“Hey, Lancelot,” he remarked, leisurely and lilting, flashing just a hint of a slow-burning grin. “Merlin and I were won—”
“Gwen?” Merlin squeaked.
Wongwen. Yes, that was exactly what they were doing, Merli…
Arthur followed Merlin’s mortified line of sight and discovered a very cute girl with a round, currently extremely embarrassed face rimmed with loose dark curls. She was sitting on Lancelot’s bed, holding the latest vase of flowers, and she did not look likely to disappear in the next five seconds.
Time for Plan B.
Time to invent Plan B.
“…wondering,” he continued, “if you wanted to have dinner… with us… sometime. Because we—like—dinner. With friends. We like making friends over dinner.”
Dear God, Merlin was rubbing off on him. Any day now, he’d be proclaiming to his father that he had broken his mother’s vase when he was twelve, and an innocent gust of wind would be exonerated once and for all.
“Gwen works at the DC, too,” Merlin piped up, offering her a smile that seemed remarkably not-on-the-verge-of-insanity. “We could get both of you in for free.”
“Yes,” Arthur persisted, “that sounds excellent. What do you think? Friday, maybe?”
Lancelot beamed. “That sounds great,” he decided. “Does Friday work for you, Gwen?”
Gwen nodded emphatically, probably to give Arthur and Merlin an excuse to extricate themselves from this incredibly awkward situation.
Lancelot, of course, seemed to be completely oblivious to the whole thing, in the most charming manner possible.
“We’ll see you guys Friday, then,” he concluded cheerfully. “We’ll probably be here, studying for Econ, so just stop by whenever you like.”
“Righto,” Arthur acceded. “Come on, Merlin.”
As soon as they had regained the safety of their dorm room, Arthur howled his indignity to the skies.
He pitied the people on the floor above.
“I can’t believe he’s straight! He can’t possibly be straight! He’s too nice to be straight!”
“This,” Merlin reprimanded idly, “is why you shouldn’t make gross generalizations about men who keep flowers on their desks.”
Arthur looked at their rearranged furniture distastefully. “Now what are we supposed to do with our bed of sin?”
“It’s more comfortable for us regardless,” Merlin pointed out. He paused. “Not that our neighbors probably want us to be any more comfortable than we already are.”
“Well, they can go cry about it,” Arthur declared. He smirked viciously. “Not that we’ll hear them.”
Arthur tried to take the stairs whenever possible.
If you jogged, it was actually faster than waiting for the elevator, and they were only on the fourth floor anyway—though you had to factor in the lobby, which added another flight—so it made for a nice bit of cardio to jam unceremoniously into one’s schedule.
Adding in the dead weight of a backpack didn’t hurt either.
At this particular moment, Arthur was taking it easy, because he’d just busted his ass showing Brian Bedivere how real men played soccer, and that was why, over his own soft panting and deliberate steps, he heard voices echoing from around the switchback of the stairwell.
Familiar voices, one of which was doubly thick with tears and… alcohol?
“How could anyone get tired of you?” Gwen was demanding. “You’re the least boring person I know.”
“But I’m scrawny and clumsy and inexperienced and I don’t like parties and he wanted a threesome with Lancelot!”
There was a pause, and then what sounded like gulping followed by the lovechild of a hiccup and a sob.
“We din’t know… that you and he were… studying Econ.”
“It’s perfectly all right,” Gwen assured him. “Don’t wipe your nose on your ban—here, I have a tissue—!”
There were a few more hitching sobs, and Gwen did a lot of cooing.
“I mean,” Merlin took up, mostly-comprehensibly, “you must know—I mean, Lancelot’s gorgeous. And—and he plays lacrosse, and he’s got big brown doe eyes, and—and he doesn’t get paint on his face and ink on his hands, and he doesn’t smell like the deep-fryer in the DC—”
A pang of regret shot through Arthur for having made mocking commentary on the subject; he secretly loved that it made Merlin’s skin taste a little bit like French fries.
“—and his ears don’t stick out—Gwen, have you ever seen ‘Dumbo’? I cried the first time I saw that movie; my mom had to turn it off—”
“Everyone appreciates him in the end,” Gwen promised. “It’s like Rudolph the Red-Nosed—”
“My nose!” Merlin wailed.
“Give me the bottle, Merlin,” Gwen coaxed.
“I’m thirsty,” Merlin protested. “And—and—you’ve seen Arthur! Jesus! He’s like something out of a magazine, but you don’t even have to airbrush him first! He could point at anybody in a crowd, and they’d tear their clothes off and fall at his feet. He turns frat boys gay!”
“Well, that’s not always too diffic—”
“Why would he ever ask for something new if he wasn’t tired of what he had?”
“But—Merlin, come on. Give me that—Merlin, has he seemed unhappy at any other time? Does he act like he’s bored?”
“It’s o-o-over!” Merlin sobbed.
Arthur felt suddenly sick to his stomach, and his knees were weak. His heard was pounding like a piston on an assembly line gone precipitously haywire, and he had to get away, had to act like—like—
He slunk down the half-staircase to the third floor hall, checked for witnesses, and called the elevator.
The girl whose ride he had interrupted looked at him funny when he pressed the 4 button, but he plainly met her gaze until she noticed just how interesting the carpet was.
He had taken a shower and made some headway with his homework by the time the door opened, very quietly, to admit a red-eyed, pale-faced Merlin, unsteady on his feet, who immediately made for his relocated desk where it faced the wall.
“Are you all right?” Arthur prompted, his insides squirming.
“Fine,” Merlin answered, cheerful, breathless, and utterly unconvincing.
“You look like you’ve been crying,” Arthur said slowly.
“Oh,” Merlin responded. There was a pause. “I was watching a movie. With Gwen. A really sad movie. You wouldn’t like it. It was girly.”
Arthur opened his mouth, but the confession stuck.
“As long as you’re all right,” he decided feebly.
He wanted to fix things, wanted to mend them, Merlin most of all, but then he would have to explain why he hadn’t cut in before, would have to justify having frozen up and fled, and it was just so much easier to pretend that everything was okay.
This little stunt probably earned him at least a bronze in the Worst Boyfriend in the World Competition.
And it hurt, but he couldn’t—he didn’t want to make it worse, if that was even possible now. He cared so much that it was paralyzing.
That was terrifying in and of itself.
The question—or the quandary—was how to assuage the injury without actually acknowledging that it was there.
Which was, of course, completely impossible, because an apparent disconnect wouldn’t heal.
But he was trying. He was trying, and it was hard.
He slipped both arms around Merlin’s narrow shoulders, stroking the sharp collarbones, sliding the heel of his hand down the pale contours of the smooth skin, counting out the ribs. A smile flickered onto Merlin’s face, and he nestled closer without waking, dark eyelashes batting just faintly, settling his cheek on Arthur’s chest.
Sugar melted in the rain. Arthur wanted to cover him, hold him, hide him, but he couldn’t protect anyone from himself. He was the problem.
Fighting the urge to sigh, Arthur slid his palm over Merlin’s neck, along his jaw, up to one strangely lovely ear, fingering it gently. It was like velvet under his fingertips, and he traced the curve, following it to a vein where he felt a soft pulse beating, beating, beautiful.
Just then Merlin’s alarm clock blared, wordless, remorseless, and unrelenting, and its owner started properly awake and scrambled up to answer the summons, staggering and narrowly avoiding first clipping the corner of Arthur’s desk and then tripping over the trailing fabric of his low-slung pajama pants. Reaching the wretched machine without mishap, however, he shut it off and leaned on the desktop for leverage, rubbing his eyes.
Silently Arthur watched him, and, as if to reward his unabashed voyeurism, Merlin turned and gave him a radiant smile.
It was, really, the radiance that was the problem: it incinerated everything in the vicinity.
Arthur beckoned, putting on his Puppy Eyes, and Merlin shuffled over and bent near enough for Arthur to hook both hands around his neck and trap him in a glorious, morning-breathy kiss.
He half-hoped it would say everything, but Arthur was not quite naïve enough to believe in the restorative power of True Love’s Kiss these days.
Reluctantly he released his victim, ruffled his victim’s hair, and lolled around the bed as his victim donned glasses and commenced assembling things for class. His victim then checked his email, ate a banana, kissed his terrible, awful, inexcusable boyfriend once more, and departed momentarily to brush his teeth.
Arthur was considering cutting all of his classes today.
He considered it every morning, but this time he was serious.
As it turned out, he only skipped English 45, from which he could easily obtain a photocopied set of lecture notes, because Cadrogan owed him a favor anyway.
He looked up from his grueling internet cruising when Merlin returned.
“Do you see this?” Merlin asked, pointing at the doorknob. “It’s called a keyhole. People use it when they want to lock the door, so that other people won’t waltz in, steal their belongings, and violate them while they sleep.”
Arthur blinked. “What if they want to be violated?” he inquired.
“Then they should lock the door anyway,” Merlin announced, “to make sure that their unlucky roommates’ things don’t get stolen while they’re enjoying being deflowered. Honestly, Arthur, I wouldn’t like my computer half as much if it wasn’t in my possession anymore.”
“How about if I prohibit my violator from taking anything that isn’t mine?” Arthur proposed. “That way, you keep your computer, and I keep my blissful ignorance of keyholes.”
The terrible thing about blissful ignorance was that you didn’t know you had it until you lost it, at which point you could only appreciate it in retrospect.
Merlin threw his hands up and sat down to Two Centuries of Sculpture. “If I keep my stuff,” he decided, “you’re free to do what you like.”
Arthur sat contentedly back, but something felt wrong—off-kilter by an inch. They were playing and teasing in the usual style, but something was missing, something had been tainted, and it draped a dark shadow behind every bantering word. They were both faking, and each thought himself the only one, and each accordingly tried even harder to present a pretense of absolute normality.
It was horrible, and Arthur hated it.
Short of blurting out a full confession, there was nothing he could do.
And maybe this brittle, fake happiness was better than none at all.
The worst thing, a red flag bleeding into white, was that nowhere in his drunken, tear-soaked ravings had Merlin called Arthur an egotistical prick.
Or a coward.
Arthur was obscenely glad that he had convinced Merlin to come with him to Morgana’s birthday party. The rest of the company was the usual sort—ancient, teetering on the verge of senility; rich, wavering on the brink of profligacy; and so hideously boring as to foster suicidal urges in people like Arthur Pendragon.
Having Merlin around to trip over thresholds and spill soda on himself, however, made things much more entertaining altogether.
On the downside, Merlin and Morgana, lounging where the latter, decked in a nice sundress and rather sizeable sunglasses, had claimed the poolside for her territory, looked to be getting on famously.
Arthur had never been more terrified in his life.
Except for the time when Morgana was eighteen and had flirted with the tree-cutting crew until they let her try out the chainsaw.
Arthur had been unable to sleep for many nights.
At the moment, though, he was drowning his worries in expensive wine and watching vociferous children pummel each other with Styrofoam pool noodles.
Uther sat down in the deck chair next to Arthur’s, sighing contentedly.
“You both survived to twenty-one with all your limbs and major organs intact,” he noted mildly. “I have to admit to being slightly impressed.”
Arthur looked sidelong at his father, who must have been very drunk indeed to say anything so sentimental.
“And you’re both doing well in school…”
Morgana had elected to go to an all-girls university, which she claimed was because she didn’t want the distractions of coed drama, and which Arthur suspected was because she was a closeted lesbian.
Not that he could talk.
“…and you’re so happy all the time…”
Drunk Dad or not, that made Arthur sit up straight.
Uther made a lavish gesture with his empty glass. “The past few months,” he explained. “You’ve been happier. I know I’m not much of an advocate of levity—”
Arthur needed to call the Understatement of the Year Award Committee.
“—but I see it. You’ve settled in. And… I’m glad of that.”
Arthur wasn’t sure whether to be deeply touched or profoundly unsettled.
He compromised with a bit of both.
“Looks like Morgana approves of your roommate,” Uther remarked, motioning vaguely towards the pair of them. “He seems like a nice enough boy.”
Too nice. It made it all the easier to hurt him.
And people said Merlin was clumsy.
“Harmless,” Uther added.
“Mm,” Arthur mumbled, taking a long, long draught of his own drink.
“I’ve been thinking it over,” Uther informed him, “and I believe I know what it is that’s made the difference. It’s him, isn’t it—that Emrys boy?”
Arthur swallowed. “Well,” he choked out. “I. The truth is. Merlin. And I—”
“He’s a good influence on you,” Uther decided contentedly. “Gets you to do your homework. Keeps you away from parties. Makes you responsible, because you have to take care of him as well as yourself.”
Merlin had also taught Arthur where to position breakable objects in order to facilitate their continued wholeness.
And that remembering the thing you loved most in the world would light a warmth in your chest to put kerosene to shame, even on the wretchedest of days.
Mr. English Minor would have something to say about “wretchedest,” but that was a different problem.
Arthur fingered the button on the cuff of his sleeve. His father had embarked on a perilous tangent journey and was now battling manticore metaphors in an attempt to detail his own college experiences without giving Arthur any ideas.
He touched, briefly, on the chimera that was love and loss, something Uther Pendragon understood better than most—and even here, in the summer, in the sunlight, in the cups, a shadow crossed his face.
Arthur got an idea, all right.
“Dad,” he cut in when his father paused for breath, “sorry—can I go have a word with Merlin?”
Uther waved the wineglass in what Arthur took to be a permissive manner, so he gathered his courage and got to his feet.
Merlin and Morgana were animatedly gabbling about some book—Arthur was having trouble hearing over the sound of his heartbeat in his ears—and looked up expectantly when he arrived.
He pointed to his polo-shirted prize. “Can I borrow this for a minute?”
“You break it,” Morgana warned him cheerfully, “you buy it.”
The girl was psychic, and she didn’t even know.
Arthur dragged—well, led; he knew how to be subtle sometimes—Merlin towards the deep end of the pool, out of earshot of Morgana and away from the screeching children and their ineffectual noodly death-match. He drew a very deep breath.
“I… think I gave the wrong impression,” he managed to declare.
Merlin blinked at him.
“To you,” Arthur told him, “about us.”
Merlin’s eyes went very wide, and then very wet.
Shit. Double-shit. Triple-shit with whipped fucking cream.
“No!” Arthur corrected desperately. “Not—no, I—I mean—I love you!”
Some kid in the pool laughed hysterically, and it was challenging not to take it personally, whether he knew better or not.
“I just—” Arthur resisted the urge to search for an egress. “I never meant to make you feel like I didn’t, or didn’t anymore—that wasn’t why I brought up Lancelot, not at all. I thought you’d get bored, bored of me and tired of all my stupid shit, but I heard you and Gwen in the stairwell, and I realized—well, you said—that you’d interpreted it wrong, and…” There was a line between Merlin’s eyebrows, and he wanted to kiss it away.
But he couldn’t, not here, not yet, which left him with the next best thing.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I am.”
Merlin looked at him bewilderedly. “You… knew all along,” he summarized, “or at least since the eavesdropping, and you didn’t tell me the truth?”
Arthur cringed. “That… yes.”
Merlin considered him.
And then Merlin planted both hands on his chest and shoved him into the pool.
Enveloped by gleaming chlorinated turquoise on all sides, Arthur watched bubbles of his breath trace a quavering path to the surface, through which he could just barely make out Merlin looking mortified.
Two practiced strokes put Arthur’s head above the water, weighted clothes or no, where he sputtered and coughed and stared up at the guilty party.
Merlin had both hands over his mouth, and his knees appeared to be quaking.
Morgana, of course, was laughing so hard as to be in serious danger of suffocating.
Ten minutes later, Arthur was in his old bedroom, peeling off his sopping shirt and digging through his dresser for something suitable that he had left here at home.
In the meantime, Merlin was standing at the door and peeking through his fingers.
“It’s fine, Merlin,” Arthur insisted, tossing a decent shirt onto his bed and beginning the search for pants. “I probably deserved worse.”
“It was juvenile,” Merlin mumbled.
Arthur crossed the room, leaving a faint drip-trail on the good carpet, and took Merlin’s chin in his hand.
“It was your right,” Arthur repeated, “and I am the only one who should be apologizing here.”
To that effect, he slid a damp hand into Merlin’s hair and kissed him soundly.
When they parted, Merlin met his eyes, running both hands lightly up and down his bare chest.
“It doesn’t help that you’re absurdly gorgeous when you’re wet,” he noted.
Arthur grinned slowly. “How long do you think we would have before they’d notice we were still gone?” he asked.
Merlin blinked innocently. “Long enough,” he hazarded.
Arthur held out an expository arm. “Have I ever extolled to you,” he inquired, “the incredible comfort of the original bed of sin?”