Arthur rapped on Merlin’s door and, not for the first time, wondered if he should ask for a key.
It wouldn’t be very romantic to just ask for it. It lacked any nuance or subtlety; Arthur wasn’t exactly known for either of those things, but he still strived for them, especially with Merlin. What would be best is if Merlin gave him a key unprompted – with or without gift wrapping, Arthur didn’t really care – but Merlin had enough trouble keeping track of his own keys.
He probably wouldn’t think of it unless Arthur said anything.
Maybe Arthur should be like one of those annoying girlfriends with the bridal magazines and just subtly start mentioning keys whenever he could around Merlin to see if anything could permeate his thick head.
He really shouldn’t complain; Merlin was much more observant than he was, after all, and really all it would take is acting a little mopey so Merlin would ask him what was wrong, but Arthur didn’t really want to tell him, didn’t want to admit that weakness, that need to have Merlin near him, to have Merlin pay attention to him –
“Oh, hey, Lance,” Arthur said, a little surprised when Merlin’s roommate opened the door. He had texted Merlin to let him know that he was stopping, and though he hadn’t gotten a reply, he figured Merlin had just forgotten.
That was Merlin’s problem – forgetfulness, not a lack of observational skills. Forgetfulness combined with a general air of nonconformity was why Arthur didn’t have a key yet. Obviously.
“What are you doing here?” Lance furrowed his rather thick eyebrows.
“To…see Merlin?” Arthur said, a little put off by the question. It was like Lance had forgotten that he wasn’t here every other day. “I brought Thai food – you can have some if you want.”
“Not that I’m not pleased to see you,” Lance corrected himself quickly, ever the pinnacle of politeness. “And I’d definitely like some Thai food. But…Merlin’s not here. I thought he was with you.”
“No, I had dinner with my father last night, so we haven’t done anything yet this weekend,” Arthur said, deflating slightly. Not that he didn’t like spending time with Lance or anything – he was Merlin’s best mate, after all – but he had been planning on seeing his boyfriend, and wasn’t exactly pleased with him not being around. Merlin was the highlight of Arthur’s day – well, life. “Hence why I brought lunch over.”
“That’s weird,” Lance said, and finally beckoned Arthur inside so that they weren’t awkwardly standing in the doorway. Instead, they started awkwardly standing in Merlin’s kitchen, but thankfully Lance slid onto one of the barstool seats and Arthur could follow his lead. “He didn’t come home last night. So obviously, I thought he was at yours.”
“Oh,” Arthur said, an itchy feeling coming over him. He didn’t like not knowing where Merlin was. “I texted him to say I was coming over with food, but he didn’t reply.”
“Huh,” Lance clicked his fingernails on the granite countertop. “Well, it’s not like Merlin has any shortage of friends he could be with.”
Arthur snorted at the understatement. His boyfriend had the ability to charm anyone he met, and immediately make that person fall deeply in love with him at first sight. It was bloody annoying was what it was. Thankfully, Merlin had picked Arthur out of the crowd of his probable legions of admirers, but it was early enough for Merlin to find a way to renege Arthur’s rights to exclusivity.
And they had only just gotten exclusive, after Arthur had laid awake worrying about that for weeks on end.
“I suppose Gwaine’s the likeliest culprit,” Lance said conversationally, not realizing Arthur’s inner turmoil. “They could’ve gone drinking together. Or maybe he went to Gwen and Leon’s and then just stayed over? Or Tristan and Isolde – those are his work friends. Elyan and Percy were over here with me last night playing videogames, so it wasn’t them. Isn’t he good friends with your sister, too?”
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay. I’m gonna call Merlin, and then if I don’t hear from him, I’ll call all of those people. He probably forgot to charge his phone, especially if he was drinking.”
“It’s weird, he’ll usually tell me if he’s staying out,” Lance said concernedly, his lips pursed. Arthur wished he were less concerned, so this could be more easily brushed off as not a big deal. “But feel free to hang out, let me know if you hear from him.”
“Thai?” Arthur offered, gesturing toward the bag still in his hand. “Obviously Merlin won’t be here in time to enjoy it in its prime.”
“Sure,” Lance grinned as Arthur set the bag on the table. He started chowing down, but a question still nagged in the back of Arthur’s mind.
“Lance?” Arthur asked, the words like lead on his tongue. “Would Merlin ever…go hang out with someone he was seeing? Before me?”
Lance stopped short, food still in his mouth, and hurried to swallow it. “Don’t be crazy, Arthur, Merlin would never do something like that. He fucking…can’t shut up about you. I mean, sometimes it’s complaints, but that’s his love language. C’mon, Arthur, don’t have that face. I’ve known Merlin years and I’ve never seen him this crazy about anyone. Don’t be daft.”
“Right,” Arthur said, picking up his phone, emboldened by Lance’s encouragement. “Okay. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”
An hour and a dozen phone calls later – one of them made by Lance to Merlin’s mother, because Arthur wasn’t ready to make that call yet – and Arthur’s Worry Levels had risen from Merlin-is-cheating-on-me levels to Merlin-is-dead-in-a-ditch levels.
Arthur was not a fan of either option, but had come to the decision that cheating was highly, highly preferable.
“You could try Elyan or Percy, just in case,” Lance patted Arthur’s shoulder and placed a cup of tea in front of him, because Lance was a mother hen at heart.
Arthur couldn’t appreciate it, however, too busy staring at the series of text messages he’d sent Merlin.
Hey, I’m stopping by – brought you lunch.
Where are you? Lance said you haven’t been home since last night.
Are you with Gwaine? He said no but he doesn’t like me so I never know to trust him or not.
I’ve been calling everyone you know. Where the hell are you?
Answer me, idiot.
If this is a joke, it’s not funny.
He’d tried to call four times, and was debating a fifth, but he already sounded all kinds of desperate and pathetic.
He felt pretty desperate and pathetic.
“Yeah, I’ll try Elyan,” Arthur said belatedly, and started scrolling through his contacts when his phone buzzed and Merlin’s name flashed across the top of his screen.
Sweeping relief, the likes of which Arthur had never felt before, coursed through his system as he breathed for the first time in what felt like days. “I’ve got a message!”
OMG – paranoia much? Kidding, ofc. I’m so sorry! I’m at the Premier Inn on 41st st. Room 412. Will you come pick me up?
“He said he’s at a hotel,” Arthur furrowed his brow, lifting his phone up so that Lance could peer over his shoulder. “What the hell?”
Lance shrugged. “It’s Merlin. He’s the weirdest person I’ve ever met. I mean, the best person I’ve ever met, but still the weirdest.”
“I’ve gotta go,” Arthur said, barely caring about whatever the fuck Merlin was doing. That wasn’t important enough to question. Arthur just really needed to see him and confirm that he wasn’t actually dead in a ditch.
WTH?????? You confuse me SO MUCH. Be there soon.
The hotel that Merlin was apparently in was located in a run-down, seedy part of town that Arthur did not enjoy parking his Audi in. Though his worries were nowhere near the levels they’d been at when Arthur had no clue where his boyfriend was, they still remained at a steady thrum.
It all dissipated for exactly one second after Arthur knocked on the door to Room 412 and his utterly ridiculous boyfriend opened the door, his dark hair sticking up at odd angles and his smile apologetic.
“I didn’t mean to make you worry,” Merlin said, and Arthur really wanted to reach out to touch him, but settled for glaring instead. “I’m sorry, baby.”
Merlin only called him baby when he apologized for something, but Arthur let Merlin kiss him in the doorway anyway; mainly because it was touching that Arthur didn’t have to initiate, touching that Arthur desperately wanted but didn’t quite know how to ask for.
“What are you doing here?” Arthur shut the door behind him as he surveyed the tiny, dirty room in disgust. The floor was peeling linoleum, the beds looked like they hadn’t been touched since the late 80s; it was dingy and gross and Arthur didn’t like Merlin being here.
Merlin’s face turned a shade of pale pink, and he was sheepish as he scuffed a shoe against the linoleum. “Oh, I was. Um. Looking for Thai food last night, there’s this one place that Isolde recommended, but I couldn’t find it? And it was getting really late, and I didn’t want to take the Tube, so I ended up getting a room for the night. It was only thirty dollars, which I would’ve probably spent on food anyway…”
Arthur’s glare turned raised eyebrows that probably read as how stupid can you get but really meant you’re so weird and exciting and it kind of scares me.
“My phone died,” Merlin added quickly. “I didn’t think I had the charger, but then I found it and read your text messages. And Lance’s text messages. Um. He chewed me out for a while, mainly because he said that you thought I was….was with someone else. Arthur, I’d never do that. You know I’d never do that. Right?”
There was a heat on Arthur’s face that definitely wasn’t a blush. Definitely not.
“I jumped to conclusions,” Arthur huffed. “Well. I took a tiny step and conclusions were there. There aren’t a lot of places you can be that someone doesn’t know about, and nobody that lives in this reality stays at a shitty hotel because they wanted Thai food.”
Merlin’s brow furrowed, and he looked almost sad. Like a kicked puppy. When Arthur wanted sympathy, he tried to look like a kicked puppy so that Merlin would pay attention to him. Merlin didn’t even have to try. It was his natural state of being.
“I won’t do it again,” Merlin said quietly.
“You can do it again,” Arthur stared at his hands, fidgeting. “Just…take me with you next time. Or at least call me, yeah?”
Merlin’s face broke into an affectionate smile as he shook his head at Arthur. “Yeah, baby, I promise. You can come with me.”
Arthur figured it was safe to reach out now, and he pulled Merlin into a kiss, hands running up and down his hips, reminding himself that Merlin was there and not disappearing.
“I brought you Thai food, you know,” Arthur realized as they broke apart. “For lunch.”
Merlin’s slight smile turned into a laughing, delighted one. “Really?”
“I think Lance has probably eaten it all by now,” Arthur said grumpily, not happy at his plans being ruined. He was trying to be a good boyfriend, he really was, but Merlin had pushed his world off-kilter and sometimes it was hard to tell which way was up around him.
“It’s the thought that counts,” Merlin pecked his lips. “And I promise that if my phone dies again while I’m out scouting for Thai food, I’ll find a way to get this exact room in this exact hotel so you’ll always know where to find me.”
“Maybe I should get a key to this room instead of your apartment,” Arthur mumbled jokingly, not really meaning anything by it. Merlin, however, took his hand down from Arthur’s shoulder to rummage in his pocket for a moment before pulling something out with a shy grin on his face.
“Lance texted to say I should get you a key,” Merlin said as he held up a tiny piece of gold. Arthur gaped at it for a second, not quite believing it was there, “as an apology for this morning. But I had one made last week! I just kept forgetting to give it to you. You’re…well, I want you around all the time. So when I want to go on a crazy adventure, you’re right there next to me.”
“Thanks,” Arthur said, not being able to help the smile that lit up his face as he took the key reverently from Merlin’s hand. “I’ll…I’ll get you a key to my place, too. Because it’s…it’s…inconvenient when you’re not around.”
“Inconvenient?” A teasing smile danced on Merlin’s lips. “Is that your word for it?”
“Yeah,” Arthur couldn’t help but mimic his grin. “What’s your word?”
“Real fucking shit,” Merlin replied without missing a beat, and Arthur laughed. “Let’s go get Thai food, yeah? I’ll try not to get lost this time.”
“I don’t care if you get lost,” Arthur said, and was surprised to find that he really didn’t, not even slightly. Merlin’s world, while it was crazy, was a place Arthur desperately wanted to inhabit. He wanted to feel crazy and weird and scour the streets for Thai food and spend the night in shitty hotels, just as long as Merlin was along for the ride. “I’ll get lost with you.”