Merlin looked at his watch and almost groaned aloud. There was still half an hour to go and nothing Professor Gaius had said yet made any sort of sense in Merlin's mind. He didn't even want to take Art History but Professor Gaius had been Uncle Gaius for most of Merlin's childhood and his hand had basically been forced to take the class.
It wasn't that Gaius was a bad teacher, far from it in fact. He was actually brilliant and was the sole reason Merlin had ever passed Maths in school but the subject matter was so dull that Merlin wanted to gnaw his arm off just to feel something other than the mind-numbing emptiness of his brain.
He turned his gaze to the rest of the classroom and smiled in grim satisfaction.
Well, at least he wasn't the only disinterested student. Most of the class looked like they were dead on the inside and the bloke beside him was outright napping.
Merlin studied him curiously. He had a blank notebook and an uncapped pen in front of him as if that would hide the fact that he was lying unconscious during a lecture.
Merlin tried to remember his name from roll call. It was Arthur something. He had a complicated last name that Merlin didn't entirely get. Something to do with pencils and dinosaurs? Or was it dragons? Yeah, Merlin was pretty sure it was dragons –which didn't make it any less absurd.
From what Merlin could see of his partially visible face, he seemed rather cute with fine tousled blond hair and a strong jaw that was tempered by pretty pink lips and well, Merlin had a bit of a weakness for cute, sleepy boys.
Boredom was overtaking his generally dodgy decision-making abilities and before Merlin knew what he was doing, he had grabbed Arthur’s pen and started idly doodling in his open notebook. Arthur didn’t so much as stir, and Merlin vaguely wondered if this was the result of a hangover.
He sketched unthinkingly and drew the long body of a reptilian creature, with a barbed tail and large spiky wings. It was breathing fire from its fanged mouth, fierce and majestic.
He could feel Gaius shooting him disapproving looks from the front of the room but Merlin didn't really care, not when the dragon he was drawing was coming out so good. He wished he had coloured pens but he settled for a bit of shading and contrasting. He gave individual attention to each scale on the dragon’s body and it was turning out to be the most detailed drawing he had ever made.
Half an hour passed in no time and before long, Gaius was dismissing them. Merlin gave the dragon a finishing touch and signed his name at the bottom.
It was because he was an artist, Merlin told himself. It certainly wasn’t a sneaky ploy to let the cute boy know his name.
Arthur was still sleeping and Merlin nudged him awake. "Mate, the class is over."
Arthur blearily looked up from his arms and Merlin was met with a set of piercing blue eyes.
"Oh," he said, appearing a little like a lost puppy as he rubbed a hand across his face and looked around. "Thanks."
Merlin couldn't pretend that he wasn't disappointed when Arthur snapped his notebook shut without so much as a glance at it and Merlin's unacknowledged masterpiece was tossed haphazardly into his bag.
Merlin frowned. He should've just torn up the page and kept it for himself if the cute boy wasn't going to look at it. All that effort and he wouldn't even get an impressed look, much less a phone number out of it.
Unaware of Merlin’s misery, Arthur slung his bag over his shoulder and started to hurriedly leave when Merlin noticed he was still clutching his pen.
“Wait,” he called, and Arthur stopped in his tracks to look back at him.
Merlin silently walked up to him and handed him the pen. “You forgot this.”
Arthur’s eyebrows drew together as he took the offered pen and then looked up at Merlin. His eyes moved over Merlin’s face as though he was just registering it, then down the rest of his body. Merlin felt heat creep up his neck because Arthur’s gaze almost seemed appreciative.
“Thanks again, uh –” Arthur said with an enquiring tone.
“Merlin,” Merlin supplied with a small smile.
“Merlin,” Arthur repeated with a smile of his own. “See you around.”
Merlin swore his name had never sounded so good before.
The Sleepy Boy AKA Arthur Pendragon (Merlin had listened properly during roll call this time) was sleeping again and Merlin wondered what his schedule was like that he only got time to nap in Gaius' class. He felt he ought to be offended on his uncle's behalf but then again, Merlin was staring at Arthur when he was supposed to be paying attention to the lecture so he didn't really have much of a leg to stand on either.
The notebook was open in front of a dozing Arthur again and Merlin really wasn’t sure what he was trying to accomplish with that.
He directed his gaze to the teacher and tried to pay attention. He failed spectacularly within thirty seconds flat.
Merlin’s hands were itching from lack of movement and he sighed at the open notebook, already knowing what he was about to do. He took the pen that conveniently kept in the middle parting of the notebook and started sketching.
He continued with his theme of mythical creatures and decided on a unicorn this time, drawing practiced straight lines for the horn and repeated strokes for the silky mane and tail. Time slowed down and simultaneously flew past him, as it tended to do when Merlin got lost in his art.
With two minutes to spare, Merlin leaned back to assess the unicorn and he was pretty happy with the result. The thought of tearing the page out crossed his mind but one glance at Arthur’s sleeping face and Merlin decided against it. It wasn’t like he could add a torn notebook paper to his portfolio, so he just signed his name beneath the drawing and carefully closed the notebook.
While the thought of Arthur seeing the drawing had thrilled him the last time, it just made him nervous and jittery now. What would he think when he saw Merlin using his things without permission? What if he was angry and started to consciously sit on the other side of the classroom to avoid Merlin? What then?
Merlin liked sitting next to Arthur. He smelled nice and didn’t bother him (even if sometimes Merlin wished he would). It wasn’t worth the risk to accidentally chase Arthur away and have someone decidedly less pleasant take his place.
So Merlin adopted a face of perfect innocence and looked to the front as Gaius dismissed them.
This time, Arthur woke up on his own and Merlin had to hand it to him, the timing was impeccable. Arthur didn’t look nearly as drowsy as last time and his eyes were considerably sharp as he glanced at Merlin and then frowned at the notebook.
Merlin’s breath caught in his throat as Arthur’s fingers slipped beneath the pages to open it instead of packing it in his bag and Merlin didn’t know what to do other than quickly flee the classroom in panic without so much as a goodbye.
Arthur didn’t bring up anything about his sketch in the next class, mostly because he was sleeping once more but Merlin was still relieved. It also didn’t seem like he’d actually seen it either because the notebook was lying open on a blank page again and Merlin didn’t see any reason for Arthur to encourage his doodling.
The lecture began and Gaius’s dismal droning filled every crevice of the room, sucking out joy and enthusiasm from it.
Merlin’s eyes flicked to his right and he heaved a tired sigh.
Despite vowing not to indulge in it again, the temptation was proving to be too strong and Merlin helplessly felt his hand creeping towards the notebook on its own accord.
In his defence, it wasn’t his fault. Will had spent all night playing Legendary and Merlin had caught some interesting glimpses of a griffin that he was dying to try his hand at. It would also fit perfectly with the mythical creatures doodling theme he had going on in these Art History lectures. Besides, if Arthur hadn’t noticed it in the last two classes, what were the odds he would this time?
Convincing himself that his reasoning was ironclad and extremely sound, Merlin excitedly started sketching the eagle head of a griffin and was so engrossed in a few minutes that he was startled when Arthur’s hand brushed against his on the paper.
Heart quickening and cheeks flaming for no apparent reason, Merlin gently nudged it away and waited with bated breath for Arthur’s eyes to open. They didn’t however and Merlin exhaled silently and got back to his drawing when he was sure he hadn’t roused Arthur.
He was careful to close the notebook again when he was done and hoped Arthur wouldn’t remember that it had been open before he’d fallen asleep.
“Hi,” Arthur greeted him once he was awake, his voice sounding surprisingly crisp for someone who’d just woken up from a nap.
“Hi,” Merlin said, all air suddenly leaving his lungs as Arthur’s gaze settled on him.
“Anything interesting happen today?” Arthur asked with an amused quirk of his lips.
Merlin snorted. “Sure, you missed a scintillating discussion about Caravaggio and how much of a bore he was. You ought to feel jealous.”
Arthur laughed and Merlin felt warmth pooling in his belly at the sound.
“Of course. My bad,” Arthur said, not even the least bit repentantly. His hand twitched and he looked like he was about to say something more when Gwen, one of Merlin’s best friends, cleared her throat from the doorway.
“Merlin?” she called, grinning slyly at them. “Ready to go?”
“Yes!” Merlin exclaimed blushing and got to his feet. “Wait, I’m coming.”
He shot Arthur an apologetic smile as he gathered his things. “See you next class?”
“Yeah,” came Arthur’s hollow voice and Merlin barely had time to register the resigned quality of it before Gwen was clutching his arm tightly and leading them to Lance’s coffee shop.
Merlin drew a centaur the next time, a manticore the time after that, followed by a chimera, a sphinx, and a basilisk.
He let Arthur take all of them.
As Merlin was tracing the outline of the phoenix’s plume, a distant part of him felt that he ought to be suspicious about Arthur dutifully sleeping in every single lecture and how he woke up the exact second class ended but then he got too busy trying to complete his series and he didn’t want to push his luck before he finished it.
He was actually doing research about which mythical creature he would draw next and it was becoming a futile project of sorts. Futile because Arthur would likely throw the notebook away without ever seeing his art but at least Merlin was improving his skills. That was justification enough and if a voice in his head told him that he could just as easily do that in his own sketchbook, he pointedly ignored it.
Merlin paused for a moment to smiled at Arthur’s sleeping form –the golden hair falling on his forehead and catching the light, the long line of his nose, the curve of his jaw –and something fluttered helplessly in Merlin’s stomach. He vaguely thought of how lovely it would be to draw Arthur someday.
The day came sooner than Merlin had anticipated. He was running out of mythical creatures so he decided to draw a knight to slay all the beasts –or to pet and befriend them since it was the twenty-first century and Merlin wasn’t a barbarian.
Surprising absolutely no one, he fashioned the knight after Arthur and if anyone had been looking at Merlin, they would be alarmed at how close attention he was paying Arthur that day, carefully mapping out and recreating the lines of his face on paper. Merlin sketched out the elegant hand lying so close to his own and made it clutch a gleaming sword, imagining that the blade Sir Arthur would wield could defeat anyone in combat. The thought was unexpectedly thrilling.
Just as Merlin was studying his benchmate to draw the arch of his eyebrow, his eyes were suddenly drawn to a twitch of Arthur's lips, an irregularity in his not-nearly-deep-enough breathing and Merlin froze, a horrible moment of clarity slapping him across the face.
Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, fuck no.
Merlin wished the ground would swallow him whole.
His hand stilled on the paper and he exhaled a shaky breath, his cheeks colouring rapidly in embarrassment. "You're awake, aren't you?"
There was no movement but Merlin could see that Arthur was too rigid to be really asleep. He had been such an idiot.
“I know you are,” he tried again, wondering why he was throwing himself in the fire.
Then slowly, very slowly, Arthur’s eyes opened and he cracked a guilty smile as he sat up awkwardly.
Merlin glared at him, folding his arms defensively. “How long have you been awake?”
Arthur shrugged as if he had not just completely humiliated both of them. “I was never asleep in the first place, except for that class you drew in my notebook for the first time.”
Merlin’s eyes widened comically. "You knew this whole time?” he exclaimed, drawing a few curious glances from the surrounding benches. “Why didn't you say anything?"
Arthur huffed in disbelief. "You know Merlin, it's a little insulting that you thought I was actually sleeping through every single lecture."
"It’s not like I judged,” replied Merlin. “I sleep through all of my History of Ancient Mammals lectures."
Arthur’s mouth quirked up at the corners as he regarded Merlin with amusement. "Why are you taking a class in the History of Ancient Mammals?"
Merlin sighed. “For fun.”
Arthur continued to stare at him. "You take it....for fun?"
Merlin could feel his ears going red as he rushed to explain, "Yes, it's for an art project."
Arthur raised an eyebrow and bit into his lip to keep from smiling. Merlin wanted to bite into it instead.
"About ancient... mammals?" Arthur asked with an infuriating smirk.
"Yes, well –”
Arthur lifted a hand and interrupted him. "Can’t you just use Google?”
Merlin was getting increasingly flustered when he finally realised what the git was doing. "That's not –you haven't answered my question!" he accused heatedly.
"And what was the question?” Arthur had the nerve to ask.
Merlin rolled his eyes half-heartedly and mumbled, "Why didn’t you tell me you were awake?"
Arthur paused, his eyes moving over Merlin’s face. He leaned slightly closer and asked quietly. "Would you have doodled if you knew?"
"Of course not!" Merlin cried, loud enough for Gaius to clear his throat at them pointedly. Merlin flashed him a sheepish look and turned back towards Arthur.
Arthur was sitting back in his chair and winked at Merlin. "Well, there's your answer then," he whispered.
Merlin may or may not have melted into a puddle.
They didn’t dare risk Gaius’s ire for the rest of the lecture but that didn’t stop Merlin from practically swooning every time Arthur’s leg brushed against his under the table or when Arthur smiled at him warmly (and a little bit flirtatiously) whenever he caught Merlin’s eye.
Merlin decided that while a sleeping Arthur was cute in his own right, Merlin much preferred a conscious Arthur any day.
It was five minutes left before dismissal when Arthur silently pried his notebook from under Merlin’s fingers –something Merlin hadn’t even noticed he was still holding on to –and studied the knight he’d drawn.
Merlin wasn’t even going to pretend that it didn’t look exactly like Arthur. He waited nervously for his reaction, trying and failing to not stare at him.
He watched curiously as Arthur uncapped a pen and drew a speech bubble erupting from Sir Arthur’s mouth. He scribbled something inside it and then sketched an awful stick figure beside it with messy hair, wearing a jumper looking suspiciously like Merlin’s and holding a disproportionately large pencil and sketchbook in each hand. He graciously provided a speech bubble for the stick figure too but left it blank.
Satisfied with the outcome, he slid the notebook towards Merlin and Merlin’s heart nearly stuttered to a stop when he saw what Sir Arthur was saying.
Can I take you out on Saturday?
Merlin couldn’t stop the grin that threatened to split his face.
He raised an eyebrow at Arthur. “You’re horrible at this,” he informed him.
“Is that a yes?” Arthur asked, with a hint of uncertainty lacing his voice.
Merlin was sure the answer was written all over his face but he still grabbed the pen from Arthur’s hand, his touch a tad bit lingering, and scrawled his answer in stick figure Merlin’s speech bubble.
Arthur’s answering smile was more than worth it.
Three months later
Merlin sighed as he added the finishing touches to the portrait and then shortly put down his pencil to check his phone for any messages he might have missed.
Arthur should’ve been there twenty minutes ago. Merlin wondered if enough time had passed for his absence to be concluded as a successful abduction attempt by Morgana. Merlin was almost entirely sure that Morgana had been plotting it for at least a month and they’d even jokingly debated ransom prices to send Uther. Well, at least Merlin had been joking because honestly, he would never agree to pay ten thousand pounds for Arthur –he really wasn’t that good of a boyfriend.
In any case, the least Morgana could do was let Merlin know so he wouldn’t sit in Arthur’s dorm like an idiot and go do something productive.
Merlin jumped when his phone vibrated, causing his pencil to fall from his hand onto the floor and roll under the bed. He cursed and quickly checked his phone (A ‘Running late, be there soon’ message from Arthur, so that ruled out Morgana’s kidnapping), before he stretched his hand under the bed, grasping at the pencil in the dark. His fingers closed around it, and then bumped into something else.
Frowning, Merlin slid down to his knees and scanned the area below the bed with the torch on his phone. There, smack dab in the middle, was an old cardboard box. In Merlin’s opinion, it looked too ordinary and led him to think that it definitely wasn’t. He pulled it out and didn’t waste any time in opening the top, only to be greeted by sheets and sheets of paper.
Merlin was puzzled for a moment but then he saw what they actually were and his eyebrows climbed high.
It was every drawing Merlin had ever made in Arthur’s notebooks, his own rough pages and hell, even the tissues he had doodled on sometimes while waiting for their food to arrive. Merlin’s breath left his body in a rush as he stared at every small piece of art he’d created in Arthur’s presence preserved carefully in a shoebox under his bed. He didn’t know what to do with himself.
Merlin picked up the scrap of paper on the very top and recognised it as the one Arthur had sneaked into Merlin’s hand a week ago in Gaius’s lecture. It had contained a crude drawing of a kissy face and Merlin had rolled his eyes and shoved the paper back at him with a vulgar sketch refusing Arthur’s services, letting him know how truly horrendous of an artist he was and how Merlin wasn’t willing to tarnish his reputation by kissing him on campus. Obviously it had all been just pretense since Merlin had walked into the next class ten minutes later, sporting a flushed face and poorly concealed hickey but that was beside the point. Not that it had stopped Gwen from smirking at him all day.
Arthur chose that moment to walk into the room and Merlin turned to him probably beaming like a maniac. Arthur looked at him strangely for a second before his eyes fell on the box in Merlin’s lap and his jaw dropped open.
“Uhh –” he hesitated, licking his lips nervously. “That’s um –”
Merlin grinned at him wolfishly. “Well, well. Look what I found.”
Oh, he was going to enjoy this very much.
Arthur rubbed a hand across his face and closed the door behind him. “It’s nothing,” he stressed. “Don’t go thinking too much into it.”
“Into you hoarding all my drawings like some kind of goblin?” Merlin asked with raised eyebrows, the small smile on his lips refusing to leave.
Arthur scoffed and stepped forward to snatch the box from Merlin. “It’s not hoarding, it’s safekeeping. I didn’t know if you wanted to throw them away or not.”
“Even the flimsy tissue papers with chutney stains on them?” Merlin teased, taking the hand Arthur offered him to push himself to his feet.
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur groaned and deposited the box on the study table with care before collapsing on the bed.
Merlin lay down beside him with a laugh, propping himself on his elbow and looking down at Arthur with barely concealed glee. “I saw the dragon in the box too, the one I drew when we met for the first time?”
“And?” Arthur asked with a long-suffering exhale.
“And I’m just realising what a massive crush you had on me,” Merlin said, poking a finger into Arthur’s cheek.
Arthur batted his hand away and rolled his eyes. "Stop saying it like you made some big discovery, it’s not a secret. Besides, you didn’t hesitate to jump on me when the first opportunity presented itself.”
“Still,” Merlin insisted with a smile, something warm and blissful spreading through his chest. “You kept all my drawings, Arthur. All of them.”
No matter how many times Merlin said it, it still made him breathless.
“Well,” Arthur began defensively, avoiding Merlin’s eyes. “You kept the ticket stub from our second date.”
“And you made fun of me for it,” Merlin reminded him with a light shove on the arm. “Hypocrite.”
Arthur flushed at the accusation and it drove Merlin mad how badly he wanted to kiss him.
“Are you done yet?” Arthur asked in the most obnoxious tone possible, clearly flustered at being caught.
“No,” Merlin said, reaching over Arthur to grab his sketchbook from the other side of the bed. “I have one more thing for you to add to your collection.”
Arthur peered at him curiously as Merlin opened the book and flipped to the right page. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves and presented the page to Arthur, who took it from Merlin’s fingers and looked at it.
His lips parted in surprise as he took in the sight of his own portrait, drawn with painstaking detail over the course of three whole weeks.
“Merlin,” he breathed in wonder, his eyes going wide. “When –when did you draw this?”
Merlin shrugged and looked down, feeling slightly shy all of a sudden. “In the last few weeks,” he admitted. “I was working on it behind your back. I’ve wanted to draw you for a while.”
Arthur huffed out an astonished laugh, not taking his eyes off the portrait. “It’s incredible.” He turned his almost reverent gaze to Merlin, “You’re incredible.”
Merlin smiled bashfully and leaned closer. “It’s nothing,” he whispered. “Don’t go thinking too much into it.”
Arthur laughed again and dragged Merlin into a breathless kiss.
Merlin whined petulantly when Arthur pulled away a second later and got up from the bed.
“What are you doing?” Merlin complained.
Arthur grinned at him as he opened the shoebox and carefully placed the portrait inside it. “Nothing, just completing my collection. Don’t want your clumsy arse to accidentally tear the best piece of art you’ve ever made.”
Merlin scoffed. “Hardly. I could do much better,” he announced. “Now come back here.”
Arthur was in no position to deny him.
Merlin had been right though. Ten thousand quid was not a worthy ransom for him. Arthur Pendragon, Merlin realised, was rather priceless.