Pendragon get ur arse here rn
Textspeak and lack of punctuation. Whatever it is, it’s bad. And Arthur should probably let his best mate suffer for a bit, since he can be a bit of a bastard sometimes, but to be fair to Merlin that’s mostly on accident and irrelevant anyway because Arthur’s hailing a cab the second he’s finished reading instead of taking the leisurely stroll to the pub that he was intending. Morgana accuses him of being a pushover where Merlin is concerned, and it’s certainly the truth.
On my way. Why are you early? he replies the second he gets into a cab and tells the cabbie to make it quick.
Fucking Gwaine is the answer less than a minute later, which explains more than it doesn’t. Gwaine’s got a bit of a habit of abducting Merlin early for pub nights and plying him with mixed drinks, which never ends well. It’s why Arthur tries not to work late on Fridays.
Don’t let him get you anything with tequila in it. The cab pulls up at the pub before Merlin answers, and Arthur pays the cabbie and goes inside to rescue Merlin from Gwaine, who might stop frolicking about like Peter Pan stuck as a uni student eventually but shows no signs of doing so yet.
He expects, based on past experience, to find Merlin sitting on a barstool (about half a pint from falling off it) giggling at pretty much everything, or getting maudlin if he’s tired, with Gwaine laughing his arse off somewhere nearby. Instead, he discovers that the pub has been overtaken by what looks like a hen party and that there are at least four women surrounding Merlin in a booth, touching his arm and giggling and tipsy. Merlin looks somewhere between confused and terrified, predictably. Gwaine, also predictably, is nowhere to be seen, though he’ll undoubtedly turn up when Arthur’s fixed this.
Merlin spots him almost immediately and his face lights up in the way that makes Arthur’s breath catch every time. His eyes are only a little glassy and when he jumps up to greet Arthur he’s actually steady, which leaves Arthur at a bit of a loss as to why Merlin can’t fend the ladies off for himself.
And then Merlin walks right up to him, right into his personal space, and plants a kiss on Arthur’s cheek, when they don’t even hug as a rule. Arthur freezes, and Merlin whispers in his ear. “I’m really sick of being hit on, so I’m going to pretend you’re my boyfriend for tonight, okay?”
This is a huge, huge mistake. It is going to end horribly, because of course Arthur is going to say yes, since Merlin is gay but far too nice to turn anyone down properly, and it’s Arthur’s job to rescue him. And because even though he’s gay and Arthur’s bi, this is a line they don’t cross, haven’t ever even discussed crossing. And it’s especially going to end badly because Arthur’s already madly in love with his best friend and if they do this right, oblivious as Merlin is, he’s going to figure it out.
“What else are best mates for?” he murmurs in Merlin’s ear, and wishes he could say he regrets it. Instead, he grabs Merlin’s arm and prepares to pretend that he’s pretending.
Most of the usual group is missing tonight, which makes it easier and harder at once. With Lancelot and Percival and Elyan and even Gwen around, there would be more of a buffer between he and Merlin and the rest of the world. Even Gwaine would be a help, but from the glimpses they’ve caught of him he’s flirting his way through the bridesmaids. Without that, and with damn Merlin and his friendliness, the hen party has adopted them, which means they’re playing the part all the time.
So Arthur plays the solicitous boyfriend while the girls coo at them. He fixes Merlin’s hair and keeps an arm around his shoulders and buys his drinks and defends his honor when the bride-to-be’s uni roommate tries to sit on his lap. Merlin’s usually got all his energy and focus when they’re together, so doing what he’s been thinking about for at least two years is easy, even if it’s odd. It’s Merlin’s reaction that throws him off.
Merlin is a terrible actor. He stammers and blushes and generally makes a complete idiot of himself whenever he tries to lie. And yes, he’s stammering and blushing whenever Arthur looks at him, but it doesn’t feel quite the same. Within half an hour he’s pressed all down Arthur’s side, throwing him sidelong, wide-eyed glances when he thinks Arthur isn’t looking.
“This okay?” Arthur asks under the guise of fixing Merlin’s collar during a rare moment when they’ve been left alone, because usually he can’t get Merlin to shut up at pub nights and the near-silence is starting to make him nervous. “I can back off.”
Merlin catches his hand and holds it for a long moment, expression for once unreadable. “No, it’s fine. You’re great. I owe you so much for this. Let me know if you want to get out of here?”
That right there is why Merlin’s a bit of a bastard sometimes. He’s looking up at Arthur through his lashes and so obviously worried that Arthur isn’t having fun that it makes his stomach twist uncomfortably, and he doesn’t even realize what he’s doing to Arthur, what he always does to Arthur. “I’m not up for one of our later nights, but I want to see which bridesmaid slaps Gwaine first when she realizes he’s been flirting with all of them.”
Apparently that’s the right thing to say, because it makes Merlin beam at him. “I’m betting on the blonde one.”
“More than half of them are blonde, Merlin, you’ll have to be more specific than that,” he says, just to make Merlin roll his eyes.
Merlin nudges him with his shoulder. “You know, the one who keeps knocking her drinks over? She’s a little less sweet than she looks.”
“She didn’t bother you before I came in, did she?” he asks, loud enough and apparently stern enough that a few girls nearby titter at them.
Merlin just smiles at him, though there’s something in his eyes still that Arthur doesn’t recognize. “Actually, she told a few of the others to back off a bit.”
“Then I’ll buy her a drink,” Arthur says firmly, and flees the booth, because that much close proximity to Merlin is starting to have an effect on his anatomy, which he would do a great deal to keep Merlin from finding out.
The girl, when he gets there, is tipsy but smiling. “You two are so in love it’s a little bit sickening,” she confides when he introduces himself and signals the bartender to give her another of whatever she’s drinking, which turns out to be rum and Coke. “He looked a bit terrified with Viv and Sophia earlier, and I guess you explain why.”
“Well, thank you for rescuing him. He’s never learned how to say ‘no.’” He looks over his shoulder to make sure nobody’s used his absence to bother Merlin and Merlin grins and waves, obviously guessing what the overly-casual glance was for. He turns back to the bridesmaid, who is still smiling at him like he’s a kitten with a ball of yarn. “Word of advice: if a bloke with shaggy dark hair starts hanging about around you, he is an arsehole and you should probably dump your drink on him.”
She shakes her head, but she’s smiling. “Good to know. Now go back to your boyfriend.”
“He’s not my--” Arthur starts automatically, after years of having to say it to everyone he’s ever mentioned Merlin to, but cuts himself off, because for once he gets to pretend.
She takes a sip of her drink. “Yeah, I figured. But you can work on that.”
Arthur considers that his dismissal and goes back to Merlin.
When Merlin is tired, he acts like most people do when they’re drunk; it’s half the reason Arthur always calls him a lightweight (the other half is the fact that Merlin gets tipsy on half a glass of wine, though he’s better with other sorts of liquor). So when they leave the pub a few minutes before midnight, it’s not unheard of for Merlin to be stumbling. It’s not even unheard of for Arthur to put an arm around his waist to make sure he doesn’t trip on cracks or stray animals or air.
It is, however, unheard of for Merlin to snuggle into that arm and keep looking at Arthur with the same weirdly solemn expression that’s been crossing his face periodically since the first time Arthur tousled his hair and kissed his temple. Arthur wonders if he perhaps took things too far--but no, then Merlin would be fidgeting and awkward, not almost-clinging to Arthur while they walk. “Thank you,” Merlin blurts just as the silence is growing unbearable. “That was--I know Morgana will give you a hard time about it, cause you know Gwaine will tell her, and I know you like to remind people that we can both like men and be friends and not date, so … thanks.”
“You’re staying the night at my place, no way you’ll make it back to yours in one piece,” says Arthur, which is as close as he’ll ever get to saying You’re welcome.
“You could have just flirted with the bridesmaids. You didn’t have to--I was sort of expecting …” Merlin’s slurring his words a bit with exhaustion. They should have started home an hour ago. Arthur tightens his arm and Merlin’s gaze goes sharp for a second.
“It’s pub night. Unlike Gwaine the Arsehole, I am not one to give up on my friends to flirt with every woman in the place. This was far preferable to dealing with any of those women. Except maybe what’s-her-name, with the rum and coke.” He pauses, and decides he has to ask. “If you thought that was going to happen, why did you ask me to do the boyfriend thing?”
Merlin shrugs and looks at the pavement instead of Arthur. “I wanted to see what it was like, I guess. Being your boyfriend. If you were always like you were with Gwen.”
He and Gwen were comfortable and safe and the thought of her being unhappy with him never made him do completely idiotic things, so he figures it’s safe to assume that he didn’t act like her like he does with Merlin. “And what did you find out?”
“It’s … nice, I guess.” Arthur has the sudden suspicion that Merlin is both less tired and less tipsy than he’s letting on, because this isn’t how he ever acts and even a night of all their unspoken barriers coming down isn’t going to change that. “You’re--shit, Arthur. Yes, it’s nice. You were nice. Not like you were with Gwen, though. But it was--”
“If you say ‘nice’ again, I am going to have to do something drastic,” says Arthur, just so he can say something.
“I liked it.” Merlin’s voice is quiet, and he still isn’t looking at Arthur. “So I’m sort of freaking out a little. Cause--” He stops. Definitely not as drunk or tired as he seems, then, because normally he’s all too honest when he’s either.
And that means that he’ll remember it all in the morning, and Arthur was hoping that his acting completely besotted would be lost a bit in the alcohol and groups of giggling girls. He should probably say something pompous about how nobody can resist his charms, even his best mate, but Arthur’s sort of a shit liar too, especially where Merlin’s concerned, so he lets them walk along in silence for a few minutes. “I knew I would like it,” he says at last. This is big. This is huge, actually, but Arthur can’t quite bring himself to care. “That’s why I didn’t take the flirting-with-the-bridesmaids route.”
“Okay.” There’s a pause. “What the fuck does that even mean?”
“It means I--” They go up the steps to his building and key in, and Arthur manhandles Merlin into the elevator even though Merlin is apparently more awake than he’s acting and perfectly capable of going himself. It’s just that now he’s started touching Merlin it’s got a bit difficult to stop. “I’ve sort of been in love with you for quite some time now,” he says when the doors close, because he’s not a coward, and Morgana’s been telling him to say it for years, and after tonight he thinks maybe it won’t fuck everything up with Merlin.
Merlin just sort of stares at him, which makes Arthur wonder if all that about liking it earlier was supposed to be an epiphany and not a confession. “You’re drunk,” he concludes right as the elevator dings.
“Actually, I’m not, you twat. You know what I act like when I’m drunk. Come on, get out, don’t just stand there.” He grabs Merlin’s hand--in for a penny--and tows him to his door, where he manages to key them in with a minimal amount of fumbling. “I’ll make the sofa up for you,” he says at last when neither of them says anything.
“Thanks.” Both of them fidget for a few seconds. “Are you--are we--shit, Arthur, I don’t know what to say.”
And it’s not like he does either. But Merlin’s still giving him that startled look he has been all night and he hasn’t let go of Arthur’s hand, so he thinks maybe they’re on the same page, and that’s all he can ask for. They can do the rest of it later, the details and the confessions and the adult conversations, when Merlin doesn’t look so fragile and Arthur isn’t worn out from a week at the office and the complete overthrow of his life that tonight seems to have brought on. “We’ll figure it out and talk in the morning, okay? Neither of us is in a fit state to do it tonight.”
“Tomorrow,” agrees Merlin, but he doesn’t let go of Arthur’s hand to let him go get the spare duvet for the sofa. They’ve shared beds before but he suspects they both need some time to think. “I--you shouldn’t worry, yeah?” Merlin adds when Arthur loosens his hold and prepares to step back. “You aren’t the only one who’s been thinking about this for a long time.”
That’s all he can ask for, and Arthur holds Merlin’s hand tighter again and lets himself be tugged in so Merlin can place a careful kiss on his mouth. “In the morning,” he repeats when he’s released, and Merlin’s smile is the same as always, and Arthur thinks this might just be okay.