The hat drooped limply from Arthur’s hands as he stared at it, speechless. It was gaudy and completely vile, blue and green and orange in disorganized splashes of some tangled yarn that seemed both fluffy and itchy at the same time. It was abnormally large — no way he was getting it on his head, really, unless he wanted to stumble around blind — and to top it all off, there was a sparkly silver bauble at the top, made of what seemed to be tinsel or tinsel-adjacent.
“Wow,” Arthur said finally, when he had been silent for almost too long. “I love it.” In the corner, Gwaine snorted. Arthur ignored him.
“And now you have to guess who you think your Secret Santa was,” said Nimueh, whose own hat — just like a jester’s, with limblike extremities topped with jingle bells — was almost as ugly as Arthur’s. Unusual for a school principal, she deigned the common teachers and assistants deserving of her participation in the annual faculty Secret Santa; in typical Nimueh fashion, however, she had taken it upon herself to orchestrate the whole thing in an authoritarian regime of Christmas power.
“I’m going to guess…” Arthur trailed off as he caught Gwen’s eye. She was clearly trying not to laugh, covering her mouth with a hand and shaking with repressed giggles. Feeling spiteful, he jutted his chin out at her. “Guinevere.”
“Wrong!” trilled Catrina, the head office assistant who once tried to seduce Arthur in a Porta Potty when the school was under renovation. A Porta Potty.
“Oh,” Arthur said. “Well… thank you, Catrina. It’s wonderful.”
“For your handsome little head, love,” Catrina said in response, leaning over and patting Arthur’s knee. Gwaine winked at him, and Arthur internally groaned.
The rest of the teachers had managed pretty well in the Secret Santa exchange: Gwen received a signed copy of the book she had been vying to add to the reading curriculum, and Gwaine was gifted a new boombox for his infamous P.E. dance parties, which definitely went above the $20 cutoff (but from the way Freya was blushing as Gwaine thanked her, seemed to have been worth it).
The staff holiday party ended when they were all just tipsy enough to start complaining about the district superintendent. Arthur walked Gwen to the parking lot so she could drive home. He stuck his hands in his pockets.
“Don’t look so glum,” Gwen said to him. “We just finished our last week of classes, and now we’re off for the holidays and some relaxation, thank god.”
“Right as always, Guinevere,” he said in response, stepping in close and tousling Gwen’s curls. She laughed and stepped out of his reach, then ducked into the driver’s side of her car.
“See you on Monday.”
Arthur waited until she drove off, then strode towards the road himself. While he made ridiculously little money as a schoolteacher for second graders, he was lucky to be independently wealthy enough to afford a nice apartment walking distance from the school. Gwaine sometimes picked him up on his way when it was cold and dark in the dead of winter, but now was only the last week of autumn term, so while he was a bit nippy in just his jacket he could still enjoy the walk home.
Gwen was right — he should be looking forward to the winter break. The last two days of teaching had been enough for him to (briefly) consider switching professions: not one but two girls had peed their pants without asking to use the restroom, a boy had stapled a piece of paper to his own hand and bled all over the carpet, and he had received complaints from a girl’s parents after he told her that no, she couldn’t eat the glue from her art project.
But nevertheless, Arthur loved his job, no matter how challenging or frustrating it was. He always got maudlin this time of year. The ‘holiday spirit’ skipped right over him, and all December did was remind him of how lonely he was.
Not desperately lonely — he had his friends, and Morgana, who wasn’t a friend but wedged her way into his daily life nevertheless. And his students, of course. But he didn’t have someone he loved, or who loved him, in a… well, in a romantic way.
Or sexual, Arthur noted, but that was a whole other thing. Gwaine told him all the time he needed to get laid, and Arthur would have to remind him that his sex life wasn’t a good topic for side conversation during PTA meetings. Gwaine insisted there was no better time, because that’s where all the divorced moms spent their time, but Gwaine also once slept with a literal grandmother, so Arthur tried not to pay attention to his advice.
It was just that Arthur was, despite appearances, a complete romantic at heart. He wanted a meet cute, goddamnit, and a holiday romance, or at least someone to spend cuffing season with before they went their separate ways before Valentine’s.
Anyway, Arthur was thinking about all this, being a total Scrooge, when it started to snow.
The street lights flickered on as Arthur walked, illuminating small flurries that spiraled as they fell. It wasn’t the first snow of the season, but the air had that freshness to it where everything seemed more hopeful for a moment or two.
Arthur hesitated for one guilty second, then, after glancing around, pulled his Secret Santa gift out of his pocket. With a sigh, he pulled it onto his head, stretching the edges so the material covered his ears. He felt like a lump, but it kept his forehead warm, which Arthur counted as a small victory.
Arthur lengthened his stride. He was two, maybe three, minutes from his apartment, where a bowl of leftover butternut squash risotto and a beer were calling his name. He turned left at the last corner before his block and ran smack-dab into someone who was standing there.
“OUCH!” the person said, rebounding backwards and falling flat on the pavement. Arthur rubbed his head and squinted at the person. Who would be dumb enough to stand in the middle of the sidewalk without looking?
And because Arthur was already predisposed to be in a bad mood, he shot out, “Watch where you’re going!”
The person looked up. He was a man, probably around Arthur’s age, with prominent cheekbones and dark hair and blue eyes. Arthur already regretted going on the offense, so he opened his mouth for an apology, but the man beat him to it.
“You watch where you’re going, friend.” The sentence dripped with sardonic cheer.
Arthur blinked. “Do I know you?”
The man on the ground rolled his eyes and scrambled to his feet. Standing, he had maybe two inches on Arthur.
“No,” the man said.
“Okay,” Arthur said, more perplexed than ever. “You just called me ‘friend,’ though, weirdo.” Maybe the ‘weirdo’ was unnecessary, but Arthur tacked it on nonetheless. His toes were starting to freeze in their socks, and he was really done with this day. Also, he was still a bit tipsy.
The man crossed his arms. “That was my mistake,” he said.
“No harm done.”
“Yeah.” The man was quiet, but Arthur could almost see the gears whirring in his head before he spoke again. “I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass.”
Unlike the man, Arthur did not even spend one iota of a brain cell thinking up a response. His mouth was too busy doing it for him.
“Or I one who could be so stupid,” he sneered. Arthur was done with this conversation, and he shouldered past the man, towards the direction of his bright, cozy apartment.
“Prat,” the man muttered under his breath as Arthur passed. Then, once Arthur had almost made it out of sight, he heard the man yell at him: “Dumb hat, asshole!”
He couldn’t even fault the guy. The hat was dreadful and horrendous.
The holidays were less dreadful than the hat, thank god. Arthur spent most of the week leading up to Christmas lazing about his living room and watching reruns of whatever’s on television. On Christmas Eve, Arthur took the subway to his father’s house. He attended Catholic mass with Uther, who is stoic as ever, and they had an uncomfortable two-person dinner because Morgana’s in her ‘anti-family phase’ right now.
Morgana shows up Christmas morning though, because she can never resist a gift, and gives Arthur a very nice watch that he’ll probably never wear, because the kids at school would splatter paint or vomit on it in a millisecond.
And then Arthur shoves himself off his couch for the days between Christmas and the New Year. He goes ice skating with Gwen and her brother, and they go out for macaroni and cheese afterwards. Morgana forces him to attend her scary blowout New Year’s Eve party, where Arthur systematically gets drunker by the hour until he’s hammered enough to let Gwaine kiss him when the clock strikes midnight.
After all of it, the glitter and the tinsel and the friends and family, Arthur returns to his dingy classroom at the school and throws together a hungover lesson plan.
On the first Monday back, during recess, Gwen bursts into his empty classroom. “Great news!”
“What?” Arthur is crunching on an apple. Apparently, one of the kids has made it their New Year’s resolution to be a suckup to the teacher, and Arthur isn’t complaining.
“Geoffrey is retiring!” Gwen fluttered her hands like a Disney princess, then noticed what she said. “I mean, not that it’s good news that he’s leaving us. I just meant that… I mean, good news for him I guess! Retirement is always exciting! But a little sad, too, you know? And —”
Gwen got this way sometimes, apologizing in circles, and Arthur knew to cut her off quickly before she took up the whole break period. “Good riddance, I say. Did they replace him?”
Gwen shot him a grateful smile. “Yes,” she said. “The budget for this year is going to be tight, with hiring a new librarian and all, but I think it’ll be worth it. I ran into Nimueh this morning, she told me great things about the new guy. And I think we’re finally getting an IT guy too, which is more great news.”
The bell rang out on the playground, and Arthur tilted his chair back until he was balancing on two legs. “Catch up at lunch?”
“Sounds Gucci,” Gwen said, which meant she was picking up her students’ lingo — never a good sign. Arthur waved her off with an affectionate eyeroll, and then proceeded to try to explain black holes to a bunch of seven year olds.
When Arthur checked his phone in the teacher’s lunchroom, he saw that he had received an email from the new librarian. Merlin, as he introduced himself, was eager to start working, was fresh off a library science degree from the nearest state university program (which was a good one), and was wondering when Mr. Pendragon’s class would like to make their first visit for storytime and book exploring, please?
“Sounds like fun,” said Gwen, who was reading over his shoulder. Arthur agreed.
The library at Camelot Elementary School was located in what might have been a basement in earlier years. When Geoffrey ran it, the rows of shelves were neat and orderly, but the whole place had a slightly dingy air, like coffee spilled on paper and left out to dry.
When Arthur saw what Merlin had done to the space, he was, frankly, impressed. Gwen and Arthur had paired their classes together for the first library trip of the new year, and Gwen led the gaggle of students in first, with Arthur leading up the rear.
Arthur’s first impression was this: this Merlin guy must have spent all winter break in here, because it was like a new library. The shelves were still there and intact, but the walls had been painted with murals of dragons and flowers and misty mountains, and the carpet had been pulled up to reveal a hardwood floor. A stack of pillows leaned against the far wall, presumably to sit on, and the ceiling had tiny, glistening stars glued on. Arthur was picking up on some serious fantasyland vibes, and made a mental note to determine if Merlin was a Tolkien fan in the hopes that he would no longer need to geek out to an uninterested Gwen when bored at staff meetings.
Gwen was clapping her hands in the center of the room and arranging all the kids in a half circle, and Arthur helped out, setting up pillows and talking to some of the chatterboxes.
There was a man plugging in some cords behind the front desk, so Arthur made his way towards him. He was… hot. Arthur didn’t have any trouble admitting it.
“You must be Merlin,” he said, sticking his hand out. “I’m Arthur.”
The man looked up and grinned, making him even more handsome. “Wrong guy,” he said, but shook Arthur’s hand anyway. “I’m Lance. I.T. Merlin’s already starting the show.”
“The show?” Arthur started to ask, but the words got lost in his throat as the lights dimmed and he turned around to see Merlin, who was none other but the complete berk who rammed into him a few weeks prior.
And Merlin was wearing a Gandalf costume.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” Merlin began (which threw Arthur off almost immediately because how did that relate to
Lord of the Rings
?), “I had just returned to my secret lair.” Here, Merlin paused before speaking again. “Does anyone know what a lair is?”
A particularly well-read girl in the front row raised her hand. “A secret hideout!” Merlin gave her a thumbs up from under his cloak, and she beamed.
“Yes, I was in my lair, eating a dinner of spider stew…” The kids chanted ‘EWW’ until Merlin silenced them by holding his hand up. Weird, Arthur thought, but he supposed Merlin was kind of charismatic in his whole getup. “When all of a sudden I heard a knock at my door. In flew my friend, the bluebird. She fluttered around until I offered her a chair.”
“‘What is it, Bluebird?’ I asked her, and she replied, ‘I have discovered the source of all the kingdom’s magic!’”
The students were completely silent, watching Merlin in awe. Near the front of the room, Gwen turned around and gave Arthur a startled, soft smile.
Merlin continued. “I said to the bluebird, ‘The source of all the kingdom’s magic? Where is it?’ and the bluebird said, ‘Let me show you.’” Merlin paused for dramatic effect, and then, from hidden in his cloak, withdrew a small puppet of a bluebird. “Do you want to ask the bluebird where the kingdom’s magic is?”
The class was all sputters and excitement for a moment, and then finally a boy was selected to stand proudly next to Merlin.
“Bluebird, where is the kingdom’s magic?”
Merlin made the puppet look around, and then spoke in a strangely charming squeak, “The kingdom’s magic is in the library.”
And then, well, the whole class — Arthur included — was just wiped out.
“He seems fun,” Gwen whispered as they watched their students wander around the library, picking up books and tugging on Merlin’s sleeve. Arthur nodded.
“If he can get all the kids interested in reading, that would be a miracle,” he said. “Is this really his first job?”
“Yeah,” came an answer from behind them, and Lance pulled his hands out of his pockets to shake Gwen’s hand and introduce himself.
“So you came together, then?”
“We’re old friends,” Lance said. “He really is that good, by the way. He worked in the university library for a while and did all these seasonal displays.”
A loud crash sounded in the middle of the room, and Arthur broke away from Lance and Gwen to find one of his shyer students buried under a pile of books.
“Here,” Arthur said, clearing the books away and helping the boy, who looked on the verge of tears, up to standing. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” The boy was fine — not a scrape on him — but was inconsolable about the books. One of the pages in a paperback had crumpled when the boy tripped over the pile.
“Books are hardy things,” came a voice behind Arthur, and it was Merlin, squatting down to the boy’s eye level like Arthur was doing. “They’ve survived a lot of chaos with me around.”
The boy’s eyes darted between Merlin and the books, still scattered across the floor, and then nodded and scampered off to the picture book aisle. Arthur got on all fours and started piling the books back into a stack, and was surprised when Merlin stayed and helped him.
“Thanks,” Arthur said. “Mordred’s a bit of a weepy one.”
“No problem,” said Merlin. Arthur hazarded a glance and saw that Merlin was staunchly avoiding looking at Arthur.
“Listen,” Arthur started, in a lower voice, but then the bell rang and the kids were running around chaotically trying to get their books checked out and Merlin was helping them while shooting frantic, disappointed glances in Arthur’s direction.
Later on, Arthur dragged Gwen to a diner nearby for dinner. He had a coupon. They ordered greasy food and he let her eat some of his fries.
“I’m glad we broke up,” he said, some minutes into this. Gwen froze, fry halfway to her mouth. She looked like a deer in headlights.
“Sorry, you said it was okay…”
“No, silly.” Arthur pushed the whole plate of fries across the table, and was rewarded by a patently friendly Gwen smile. “But really, though. Thank god we broke up.”
“Why?” Gwen asked. “I mean, there’s a million reasons why, but what are you thinking about.”
“Not what,” Arthur said, tossing in a roguish wink because the pretty waitress was nearby. “ Who . I saw you and I.T. Lance making goo-goo eyes in the library today.”
“Oh, shut it,” Gwen said, but she was blushing, so Arthur knew he had gotten it right.
“He’s attractive,” Arthur continued, teasing. “And nice, and knows his way around a remote, if you know what I mean.”
Gwen interrupted him with a smirk of her own. “Speaking of goo-goo eyes…”
Arthur looked at her quizzically. “What?”
“Oh, don’t think I didn’t notice you doing your whole flirty laser-eye over there with Magic Merlin.”
“What are you talking about?” Arthur’s stomach did an anxious flip. At seeing Arthur’s reaction, Gwen faltered.
“Maybe I — maybe I misread. I just thought… well, you were really into his whole bit, you know, and, well, historically, your taste in guys has been… on the nerdier, twinkier side…”
Arthur gave a little half cough that he hoped could count as a laugh. “Don’t worry, Gwen,” he said, because she was furrowing her forehead in that concerned way of hers, “You’re right on the mark. He was… weirdly dazzling, in that whole spiel.” He took a moment for his fork to chase the last piece of chicken around his plate. “I got off on the wrong foot with him, though. Actually bumped into him, literally, before Christmas.”
Gwen’s concerned face turned into a pitying one, and Arthur changed the topic to her end-of-January curriculum before she could say anything else.
After three days of non-stop talking amongst his students about books and fairytales and far-off adventure stories, Arthur decided he would try to bring his kids back to the library every Monday. He sent off this information to Merlin in a perfunctory email, and was startled to receive Merlin’s request to talk in the library in his reply. So, Friday afternoon, after the kids left, he poked his head into the basement library and knocked on the door.
“Oh, good, Arthur.” Merlin was shelving books on the far end of the room, and so Arthur hesitantly walked over to join him.
“Do you need help?”
“Sure.” Merlin handed Arthur a stack of books. “Alphabetical, by author’s last name.”
The work was methodical enough that they shelved books for a while in silence. Arthur kept sneaking defensive glances at Merlin, who more often than not was caught out staring back at him. They settled into a slow rhythm, passing books to each other and sliding them in between the book spines which adorned the shelves in rainbow colors. After ten minutes of awkwardly not talking, they both suddenly broke the silence at the same time.
“I think we shou–”
Merlin grinned and gestured towards Arthur with a hand still holding a book. “Go ahead.”
“Thanks.” Arthur took a deep breath. Apologizing didn’t come easy to the Pendragons, unfortunately. “I just wanted to say… I’m sorry, for that day in December. I was in a rotten mood — well, I don’t really even have an excuse. But I was rude, and I am sorry.”
There was a beat where Merlin’s face didn’t change, and Arthur thought to himself,
balls, I’ve gone and mucked it up even more.
But then Merlin nodded and stuck a book in the display case in front of him.
“You were a real jerk,” Merlin said. “But I understand.”
Arthur cleared his throat and straightened up, shoving his hands deep in his pockets. “Do you think we can start over?” he asked.
“I’d like that.” Merlin grinned. “Kinda hoped we’d get to this point.”
“I’m Arthur,” Arthur said, pulling his hand out of his pocket to offer to Merlin. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, Arthur,” said Merlin, gamely shaking Arthur’s proffered hand. “I’m Merlin. No quips about my name, please.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. It suits you,” Arthur said, the sides of his mouth quirking upwards. They chatted for a while, making smalltalk about Arthur’s students, the other teachers, and which grade levels misbehaved the most.
Arthur upped his number of his class’s library visits to twice a week, and found that Merlin’s attention-grabbing antics did not diminish after his first activity. Each visit started with a bit of a skit crossed with storytime, as Merlin adopted the character of a powerful wizard with a thirst for literary knowledge and a penchant for adventures, hence the Gandalf costume. Arthur had asked about the Gandalf costume one Thursday afternoon, as his class was busy reading books out loud in pairs. Merlin had explained that no, the character he played for the kids was not based on Gandalf, but he had the costume lying around from a fantasy convention he went to in undergrad.
“Ha,” Arthur said dryly. “How shocking. A children’s librarian being a dork.”
“You’re the one who recognized the Gandalf costume, you big nerd,” Merlin shot back, but both of them were smiling.
Arthur and Merlin never saw each other outside of school hours, but Arthur thought they might have been on their way towards being friends until the Gwaine Incident.
The teachers, administrators, and staff all ate together in the lunchroom, a hexagonal space with big windows and a few comfortable chairs for the teachers who let their classes out to lunch early in order to snag a spot. Naturally, it was the main hub for any gossip, and on the day of the Gwaine Incident, Arthur had been lucky and snagged the prime gossip seat, a plush armchair in one of the obtuse angles at the edge of the hexagon.
Gwaine was doing squats next to him, because of course he was.
They were chatting idly about the weather, of all things, until the topic changed to Gwaine’s love life. Gwaine had launched into a whole long story about one of his recent sexcapades when he suddenly paused.
“Merlin’s hot,” he said. Arthur chewed his sandwich and swallowed.
“Merlin,” Gwaine said slowly, like Arthur had maybe misheard his words. “He’s hot. What, you don’t think so?”
“I can honestly say I’ve never thought about it,” Arthur said, lying.
“He is hot, in a dorky, lanky kind of way,” said Gwaine. “I’d like to take him out, actually.”
“Why would you want to do that?” Arthur asked. He had started to hear a pulse in his ears for some unknown reason.
Gwaine snorted. “Because he’s hot? And cute and funny to boot.”
“Merlin isn’t funny, he’s childish,” said Arthur suddenly, feeling much warmer than a minute ago. “He’s immature and he’s a librarian for elementary schoolers, and he runs around all day in ridiculous costumes making a fool of himself.”
This statement was met without a response. Gwaine was silent, his eyes hovering slightly above Arthur’s head. Arthur turned his head with a sinking feeling, like he knew even before he made eye contact with Merlin, who was standing behind him with a burrito in his hand, that Merlin had heard the string of insults he just said.
“Merlin, look–” Arthur started to say, but Merlin was already gone.
Things were right back to how they were on that awful December street corner. Arthur couldn’t stop bringing his class to the library — he wasn’t so evil to deprive his kids of the magic of reading just to avoid the librarian — but Merlin was no longer talking to him. After Merlin rebuffed his attempts several times, Arthur gave up on trying to apologize.
“Arthur, you’re being difficult,” Gwen told him eventually. “You both were getting along so well! Man up and tell him you’re sorry.”
“I’ve tried,” Arthur said through gritted teeth. “Plus, it’s not worth it.”
Gwen looked at him with big eyes. “Look, do you maybe think this is about something else?”
“Like…” Gwen drew a triangle in the condensation on her beer glass. They were out for drinks on a Friday night. “You only said those things because Gwaine was expressing interest in dating Merlin. Don’t you think that maybe you were jealous?”
Arthur stared at Gwen, then downed the rest of his drink and slammed the empty glass back on the table. “You’re wrong,” he said, pointing at her. “You always think I’m mean when I’m jealous. You want me to have a crush on half the town’s population for some reason.”
“Arthur.” Gwen’s voice was kind, but laced with a steely edge. “If you can’t see that you like Merlin, then you’re as dumb as bricks.”
“I don’t have a crush on Merlin!” Arthur’s voice rose in pitch. “Just because you’re happily dating Lance doesn’t mean I am even interested in going on a date with anyone, much less Merlin, no matter his cheekbones!”
Gwen raised her eyebrows.
Merlin and Arthur continued to stubbornly and stoically ignore each other until they both ended up reaching for the same bottle of Kahl úa liqueur at Morgana’s birthday party.
“Figures,” said Arthur, sliding the Kahl úa to Merlin and opting for a strawberry vodka bottle instead. “Morgana always liked her weird fancy alcohol.” And then he strode off to avoid confrontation.
Turns out Morgana and Merlin knew each other from college. Just Arthur’s luck. Morgana was wearing a green ensemble, sort of half pantsuit half ballgown, and was entertaining a crowd of students from her PhD cohort with stories, so Arthur ducked into the kitchen and took five shots of vodka in quick succession.
“Yuck,” he said out loud to nobody in particular, and someone snorted behind him. He whirled around, shot glass in one hand and bottle of vodka in the other, to see Merlin, propped up against a chair drunkenly and laughing at Arthur. “Fuck off, lightweight,” Arthur muttered, trying to shove past Merlin back into the crowd of people, but drunk Merlin was faster than he looked, and caught Arthur’s elbow with quick reflexes. Arthur skidded to a halt and sloshed vodka onto the floor. “Ugh, look what you made me do,” Arthur said thickly, the shots already catching up to his brain, and he put the bottle on the countertop and looked around for a dish towel to mop up the spill with.
Merlin poked Arthur’s hard chest with a finger. “You’re an asshole,” he said, slurring slightly. Arthur gave up on the towel search and faced Merlin head on.
“You’re the asshole,” Arthur said, which wasn’t a very good retort but he was definitely drunk by now. He had drank four beers before the shots because Morgana loved drinking games and Arthur was competitive by nature and nurture.
“You think you’re so poncy for teaching kids,” Merlin continued. “Like you’re the savior of the planet or something. But you’re a rotten person with a rotten soul! Like a year-round Grinch who stole Christmas.”
“Well, you’re a sophomoric clown!” said Arthur, gearing up for a fight and bringing out the real vocabulary guns. They were yelling now.
“You want everyone to worship the ground you walk on!” Merlin yelled. “But you’re a capital-A ASSHOLE!”
“You’re not as great as everyone thinks you are!” Arthur yelled back. “You’re not special!” Arthur yelled something even more aggressive back at him, something so full of swear words he couldn’t even keep track of what he was saying, then Merlin’s eyes flitted down to Arthur’s mouth and back up again so quickly Arthur could almost convince himself he imagined it, and it happened again, and Arthur stopped talking and started kissing Merlin.
To Merlin’s credit, he kissed Arthur back almost immediately, snaking an arm around Arthur’s shoulder and taking a fistful of Arthur’s shirt in his hand. Arthur moved forward and the two of them hit the wall hard. Arthur parted his lips and Merlin surged, his tongue entering Arthur’s mouth with reckless confidence. Seamlessly, without thinking, the two of them stumbled into the bathroom off the kitchen, alternating whose back was against the wall, rolling, clung together like two planets orbiting each other.
Once in the bathroom, Arthur kicked the door shut behind them. Merlin shot an arm out and locked the door, then groaned as Arthur rocked his hips into Merlin’s. Arthur grabbed Merlin’s sweater by the collar and pushed him against the sink. He moved his head to kiss Merlin’s neck, more like biting, and grinded against Merlin once more with the vague notion of ravishing him against the sink. But Merlin pushed back, and Arthur’s head collided solidly with the wall behind them, just narrowly avoiding the empty void of the shower curtain. Arthur kissed Merlin on the mouth again, but Merlin ducked away and then he’s on his knees, unzipping his pants and pulling them down.
Someone knocks on the bathroom door, and Arthur just manages to call out “occupied!” before Merlin’s mouth is around his cock and his mind turns to mush. Bleary-eyed, barely able to keep himself standing, he grabs wildly at the air for something to ground him to this plane of existence and settles for his hands tugging on Merlin’s raven-colored hair.
Arthur doesn’t last long, not when he’s this drunk, and an embarrassingly short time later he’s returning the favor, licking a stripe up Merlin’s dick and cupping his balls in his hands. He’s never given a blowjob before, but he’s always been a fast learner, and from the noises Merlin is making above him, he felt like he was managing okay.
The two of them staggered out a while later. Nothing was said between them, no apologies extended or feelings proclaimed. Instead, Merlin made his way back towards another college friend, and Arthur found Morgana again to wish her Happy Birthday before leaving. The next morning, he has a massive hangover and, against all odds, against his better judgment and all that, an even more massive crush.
They didn’t talk about it the day after — Arthur did not have Merlin’s phone number, and he was not about to go use his professional email address either. Then they didn’t acknowledge it when Monday came around and they were back in the library. Gwen noticed that something was up, but after Arthur glared at her, got the hint and backed off.
And then, after school on Monday, Merlin walked into Arthur’s classroom and made out with him, fast and hard, against the blackboard.
A few days later, they snuck off from a group of their coworkers at the local bar to fuck in the bathroom; Merlin did this thing with his fingers that made Arthur come twice.
It’s not an ideal situation. They aren’t talking when they’re hooking up, unless you count ‘yes’ and ‘please’ and ‘oh god’ and ‘ Arthur .’ They aren’t dating, or even pretending. But the sex is good, really, good, and after a while Arthur convinces Merlin to come over to his apartment on some Friday nights, where he can watch as Merlin’s face swims above his as he fucks Arthur deep and slow, and sometimes Merlin will even sleep over and they’ll wake up in a tangle of sheets and legs and arms.
The sex stopped being rough and angry pretty quickly, but there’s still a lack of tenderness that Arthur wants to add in, like a brush of a hand on Merlin’s cheek or an omelette in the morning. But that’s not for them, and Merlin normally is out the door before Arthur is awake enough to say anything.
“You’re an idiot,” Morgana said. Arthur squinted at her.
“What now?” he asked, languidly. Morgana reached out with a crooked finger and hooked the edge of Arthur’s collar. She pulled down and revealed a hickey that Merlin had given him earlier that day, when the morning light streamed into his bedroom, yellow and hazy. He slapped Morgana’s hand away at once.
“Just saying,” she shot back with a grin.
“You’re not saying anything,” Arthur said.
Morgana shifted on the couch with a hefty sigh. “You know, your whole self-punishment thing isn’t just hurting yourself.”
Arthur stared at her. “What are you saying,” he asked flatly, not even bothering to raise his voice at the end of the sentence to make it a question.
Morgana rolled her eyes. “Always making me explain it to you,” she said, but there was real affection in her voice. “I know you think it makes you edgy to hate yourself, or to think you’re not deserving of love, or whatever, but it’s tired and derivative, frankly.”
“Can you dial the literature grad student down a bit?” Arthur interjected, annoyed. Morgana rolled her eyes once more.
“Arthur. Seriously. Think about it. You push away everyone who could come close to loving you for no real reason except you’re scared of being loved.”
“I’m not scared!” Arthur said. “I’m… that’s bullshit , I… I want to be loved, damn it! I don’t… what are you…”
“I’m just saying,” Morgana said patiently, “that you’re a coward. You have feelings for Merlin. No–” she said, holding a hand up to preemptively stop Arthur’s retort. “Listen. You like Merlin. He likes you too. Why don’t you get off your ass and tell him? The power of communication, Arthur.”
Despite outward appearances, Arthur did trust his sister, but he also was a planner, and so he took his time thinking about what to say to Merlin, and when. He started slipping into a softer version of himself when Merlin was over, complimenting him in the lunchroom, and smiling at him when Merlin was performing for his class. He defended Merlin to a parent during the dreaded parent teacher conference week, and told Merlin the story over drinks. He started waking up earlier than Merlin so he could make scrambled eggs and convince Merlin to stay and eat them with him. But still, he was not the best at talking about his feelings, and so it was several weeks before he finally found himself in the library on a Friday evening, hair smoothed down anxiously. Merlin was nowhere to be found, but Freya the kindergarten teacher was wiping down a section of the hardwood floor.
“Pee accident,” she said, by means of explanation, and Arthur nodded.
“Is Merlin around?” he asked. His voice wavered a little, but Freya didn’t seem to notice, or at least had the good sense not to comment.
“He’s changing out of his costume.”
They waited together for a few moments. Freya tossed the Clorox wipe into the trash with a neat flick of her wrist, and Arthur complimented her form with a small smile, but otherwise they were silent. Not uncomfortably so, just quiet.
“Heya,” Merlin called from the back of the room, and both Freya and Arthur swiveled to face him. Merlin stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Arthur, but then gave his head a little shake and continued striding over. “Uh, Arthur, I don’t know if Freya told you, but I’m going to a movie with her tonight… did I forget we had plans, or something?”
The question was rhetorical, of course. Merlin and Arthur never had plans, just slightly sketched out calendar events for sex. But Merlin was looking at him curiously, almost hopefully, which in turn made Arthur feel like things weren’t as bleak as they might seem.
“No, I was just dropping by,” Arthur said. “What movie?”
“Harry Potter.” Freya spoke with a slight blush. Arthur smiled, indulging her.
“I don’t know how to tell you both this,” he said teasingly, “but I think those movies were released a while ago.”
“Shut up,” Merlin said, swatting at him, which made a lump form in Arthur’s throat as well as a seed of emotion — here Merlin was, flirting with him in front of a coworker. “They’re showing ‘Goblet of Fire’ at the old indie theater near Freya’s place as a throwback event.”
“Ah.” Arthur shifted uncomfortably, wanting to talk to Merlin alone before he left, and Freya got the hint.
“I’ll wait by my car,” she said, then nodded at Arthur. “Bye.”
Arthur tinkered with his jacket zipper until Freya left, then gave a sort of lopsided smile to Merlin, who looked bemused.
“Are you waiting for an invite, or something?” he asked. “Because I don’t know if Freya would want to play third wheel.”
“I–” Arthur started to talk, but then the words Merlin had just said caught up to him. “What?”
“You know,” Merlin said, passing Arthur to grab his coat and bag. “I wouldn’t want to make Freya uncomfortable.”
Arthur stared. “Why would she be uncomfortable?”
“I don’t know,” said Merlin, winding a red scarf around his neck. “I don’t think she’d like to tag along to a date, that’s all.”
“What do you mean,” Arthur said slowly, “by a date?”
This time Merlin was the one to stare. “Oh,” he said. “I’m… I’m sorry. I misread the situation.” And then he quickly walked towards the door.
“Wait!” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s wrist and Merlin stopped. “You’re not misreading anything.” He took a breath. “I want to date. I’m just not… I’m not good with words, the way you are.”
“You’re a teacher,” said Merlin dryly.
“That doesn’t mean anything!” Arthur waved his hands around wildly, Merlin’s wrist still in tow. “The kids I teach are eight, Merlin, I could speak gibberish to them and they would play along. What I’m trying to say is… when I’m difficult, with you, or… angry, or weird, it’s because I… like you. A lot. And I’d like to give us a try.” Merlin’s face was blank and impassive. Arthur tried again. “Well? What do you say?”
Then Merlin burst out laughing so hard that he had to hang onto Arthur’s arm to stay upright. “Oh my god,” he said, wheezing.
“I thought we were dating, you fool!” Merlin said. Arthur, aghast, sputtered for a moment.
“WHAT!” he yelled. “ Mer lin, I assure you, you would know if we were dating.” Merlin’s grin stayed fixed, but his eyes dropped to Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur took advantage and stepped forward, crowding Merlin’s space.
“Really,” said Merlin. His voice had dropped.
“Yes,” Arthur murmured, and then he cupped Merlin’s jaw with his hand and kissed him. Merlin responded immediately, opening his mouth and leaning into the kiss, and Arthur moved his hand back to the nape of Merlin’s neck, fingers trailing into his hair.
After a moment, Merlin pulled back just enough for their foreheads to stay touching. They were both breathing heavily. “Shit,” he said softly. “I have to go see Harry Potter.”
Arthur laughed and kissed Merlin again. “Come to mine after?”
Merlin showed up at Arthur’s apartment a little after midnight, and they had mindblowing sex followed by a two hour discussion of the definitive rankings of children’s fantasy literature. As a librarian, Merlin had more knowledge of genre and structure and worldbuilding mechanics, but Arthur argued that the best books were with magic and adventures and perfectly imperfect narratives with as much zest and zeal as he could muster
Two weeks later, Arthur was waiting for Merlin outside the school. They were going to dinner at a fancy restaurant, so he was dressed up a bit, but it was freezing out so he had opted for the horrible Secret Santa gift to keep his ears warm. Merlin had found it one day at Arthur’s place, and had laughed about it for so long that Arthur often found himself wearing it just for the memory. Plus, the color scheme had grown on him ever since he saw Merlin wearing it while napping on his couch.
Merlin was running late, and it really was fucking freezing out, so Arthur ducked inside the side door to see what was taking him so long.
“Merlin, we’re going to be late,” he called, entering, and was greeted with the sight of Merlin standing completely frozen in the center of the bookshelves with books flying around him and landing on the bookshelves. Arthur’s jaw dropped open.
“Look,” said Merlin hurriedly, still frozen. “I can explain. I can explain everything, I know it looks strange, but I can explain.”
“Fuck you,” Arthur said, but he was grinning. He strode over to Merlin, ducking to avoid the still flying books. “The Gandalf costume? Really? Dumbledore would’ve been too cliche?”
“I knew you were a big nerd,” Merlin retorted, pulling Arthur’s hat down so it covered his eyes. “But I love you anyway.”