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[personal profile] rosie_rues
Title: A New Low (2/2)
Words: 15000 total
Pairing: Arthur/ Merlin, background Gwen/Morgana
Disclaimer: This is written purely for entertainment, and I am aware that I do not own the BBC's version of these characters.
Summary: Written for this prompt at [ profile] kinkme_merlin, which asked for diabetic!Merlin stuck in a lift with Arthur. It grew from there.
Warnings: An odd bit of swearing. And, yes, this is me turning my soapbox issues into romantic comedy, just because.


Freya grabs him the next day, as soon as Arthur trails into a meeting with his father, and drags him round the corner to the coffee machine to hiss, "How was your date? Are you actually sleeping with the enemy?"

"It wasn't a date," Merlin protests. "It was just dinner. With his sister, who I know."

"He's introduced you to his family?"

"Not like that!"

"Merlin," she says, grasping his hands and lowering her voice. "You do know he's still a git, don't you?"

"He's not that bad."

"He makes girls burst into tears and run away to hide behind the photocopier."

"He always feels awful about it afterwards," Merlin says and Freya shakes her head dolefully and pats him on the shoulder.

At lunchtime, Morgana demands that he hand his phone over.

"Why?" Merlin asks. All this emotional crap is messing up his blood sugars, and he has pudding today, to Arthur's silent horror.

"Lancelot wants you to have his number."

He hands his phone over quickly, but Arthur snatches it out of Morgana's hand and starts prodding at it. "You can have mine instead."

"Maybe I want Lancelot's," Merlin points out. "You know I can just find him on facebook, don't you?"

"Not at work you can't."

"Oh, yeah?" Merlin asks, because he and Freya hacked their way past that filter months ago.

"That's abuse of your access privileges, isn't it, Morgana?"

She shrugs, yawning. "If you say so, Arthur."

Merlin decides not to tell Arthur that he's been playing Scrabble against her all morning.


Not long after that, the teachers start appearing out of the woodwork. Their division of Camelot University Press publishes language textbooks and, if Merlin had ever stopped to think about it, he might have guessed that there'd be a few ex-teachers working here.

All of a sudden, though, they're everywhere. They slip into the lift behind him, linger in wait at the coffee machine, lurk in the shadowy corners of the library until he comes in to reshelve the books. They gaze at him mournfully from shadowed eyes and whisper of stink bombs and spit balls, tactical farting, chair hurling and Year Eleven on Friday afternoon.

By the second week, Merlin is starting to get a little suspicious. It isn't until Tuesday lunchtime, however, that he really figures out what was going on.

"They smile behind their hands," the latest one is confiding, leaning her full weight on the table to regale him with her life story.

"Er," Merlin says, watching casserole slop off the side of his plate as it slides down the table. "That's nice."

"And, sometimes, sometimes they laugh and they whisper, and soon it's all of them. They all watch you as you walk past and they giggle. Oh, how they giggle. And that's the just the children," she confides as Arthur smothers laughter behind a serviette and Morgana looks on in disdain. "We don't mention the parents. Never mention the parents."

"Right, no parents," Merlin says, nodding and trying to kick Arthur under the table. "None whatsoever."

She seizes his arm, fingers digging in. "Don't do it, young Emrys. Your destiny lies elsewhere."

"Oh, look," Morgana says brightly. "Isn't that Jean Vivian from the Key Stage Three working group? She used to be a lead inspector for OFSTED, you know."

Merlin's never seen anyone run away that fast in his life. Arthur's almost turned purple beside him, and now he throws back his head and roars with laughter.

It doesn't matter how good he looks doing that, Merlin thinks. This is not on.

"You can't put me off that easily, you know," he says. "I want to teach."

"Oh, Arthur," Morgana says with a little moue of disappointment. "I'll find you some nice people to talk to, Merlin. Have you ever met Nimueh from the Vivateam? She loved teaching."

"She loved her Sixth Formers," Arthur says, still chortling. "Which, incidentally, is why she's no longer a teacher."

"Don't be vulgar," Morgana says, nibbling a lettuce leaf delicately, and then adds, "Or I'm telling Uther."

"She always told tales," Arthur tells Merlin and switches to a high-pitched whine. "Daddy, Arthur was mean to me. He dared to breathe near my special sparkly Barbies."

Morgana narrows her eyes. "You fed my one and only Barbie to the dog. Who died."

"Six months later," Arthur says as Merlin chokes.

"Pah," Morgana says. "You only stole it because you were jealous that you weren't allowed pretty glittery things."

"Oh, is that why you blew up my train set?" Arthur's voice is perhaps a little too loud for a crowded room, and several tables away Uther suddenly rises to his feet and glowers.

"Was your entire childhood like this?" Merlin asks as Freya slides in beside Morgana, eyes nervous.

"No other free seats," she squeaks at Merlin.

Morgana bestows a dazzling smile on her, and then says, "Arthur was just jealous because I'm the oldest."

"By three months!" Arthur hisses.

"Um, how-" Merlin starts before thinking better of it.

Morgana's snit dissolves into glee. "Oh, God, has no one ever told you about Uther's little naughty times?"

"Not in the canteen, please," Arthur groans, stabbing his fork down so hard that the piece of cauliflower he's aiming for just disintegrates.

"I really don't need to know," Merlin tries, but Morgana's already started.

"So," Morgana begins. "This was all back in the Pendragon and LeFay days - the company Uther and poor old Uncle Gorlois ran back then - Camelot bought them out years ago. So, there's Daddy Uther-"

"Who is sitting three tables away," Arthur hisses.

Morgana waves her hand lazily. "-who not only has a new young wife at home, but is shagging his business partner's wife on the side. The thing is, Uther's not quite as sterile as everyone-"

"Morgana, there are people listening!"

"Let them. Anyway, he knocked Mummy up, which was a bit of a shock to everyone, including poor Uncle Gorlois who was in Singapore at the time and the teensiest bit suspicious. So, months of accusation and counter-accusation later, Mummy turns up on Uther's doorstep with little me." She smirked. "I'm told that the resemblance to Uther was far stronger before my hair grew."

"Oh, God," Arthur mutters, slumping down behind Merlin. "Do you have to enjoy this so much every time?"

"And that's when Auntie Ygraine, who knew nothing of Uther's little side-venture, opens the door. She sees Mummy's tears and my no-doubt adorable little face, and promptly goes into labour. And, voilà, Arthur. My little brother." She reaches out and pats his cheek fondly.

"Er," Merlin says and eyes the back of Uther's head nervously. "That's- um- seriously?"

"Absolute truth," Morgana promises. "I'm surprised you didn't know already?"

"I knew," Freya says suddenly, and goes pink when they all stare at her. "I was warned about him on my first day - never bend over in a skirt where you can be seen from the corner office."

"That's-" Arthur starts, but Merlin elbows him before he can scare Freya.

She shoots him a grateful little smile and then says, biting her lip, "But, if you don't mind me asking, why didn't your mums just bring you up without him?"

Morgana's grin widens with a slow curl, and Arthur makes a wordless noise and actually leans his face against Merlin's back to complain into his shoulder, "Do you know how long it takes for people to stop giggling behind my back every time she does this? It's not like we can all just retreat to payroll and look scary."

"Arthur's embarrassed about our mothers," Morgana says, shaking her head.

He sits up fast, thumping his fist on the table so hard the plates jump on their trays. "I am not."

"It's because he drank too much at their wedding and threw up on a monkey."

"It was not a monkey! Not that I-"

Morgana lifted her voice over his. "You see, Mummy and Auntie Ygraine ran off to travel the world before we were six months old. Uther was rather awful about custody, but by the time we were school age it all worked."

"Term-time with Dad," Arthur explains gloomily. "Hols with Mum and Aunt Vivienne in Aruba."

"Did he just say Aruba as if it was a bad thing?" Freya whispers to Merlin.

"He's broken in the head," Merlin sighs back and oofs as Arthur knees him. "Hey, what's with all the violence?"

"Poor socialisation, obviously," Morgana says and gathers her tray. "Back to the grindstone. Merlin, Scrabble rematch later?"

"Sure," Merlin says and waves goodbye.

"She was socialised in exactly the same way as me," Arthur complains, but lets Merlin steer him back towards the office.


Arthur comes to Friday drinks again that week, although he suggests a different pub and manages not to do more than twitch when Merlin gets the first round. He comes the Friday after that as well, and the next. By then even Freya has warmed to him a little, possibly because he's the one who noticed when she got cornered at the bar by some drunk student and went to loom menacingly until the idiot ran away.

Then, the week after that, Merlin suddenly gets invited to an interview at his first choice uni. On Friday, and oh, could he spend two days observing in a local school beforehand.

"I don't know any local schools," he wails over lunch, waving his hands in the air. "I can't just phone up and say, 'Oy, I'm a random. Can I watch some French lessons?'"

"I'm sure they'd be helpful," Morgana says. “You do come across as mostly harmless.”

"Only if he found a special type of school," Arthur says. "Which is to say, a special school, where they're probably used to- that's my pudding!"

"Not any more," Merlin informs him, giving it to Freya. "You just relinquished all rights to pudding until you stop being a total prat."

Arthur scowls and crosses his arms. "I don't see why you even want to go back to school." Then, to Freya. "Go ahead. I'm not going to take it back. I didn't even want it in the first place."

"Then why did you take it?" she asks and then pulls the bowl of rhubarb crumble closer, eyes wide.

"Nobody respects me any more," Arthur complains. "Morgana, I want new temps. Get me some who still know how to cower."

"Where's the fun in that?" she asks.

"Excuse me," Merlin says, thumping the table. "I thought I was the one having a crisis."

"Your whole life is a crisis," Arthur says feebly, and then rolls his eyes. "Just worry about asking Dad for the time off. I'll sort the rest."

"What, you're going to bully a headteacher for me?" Merlin asks, and Arthur looks very wistful for a moment before he shakes his head.

"Trust me."

Merlin wants to, but that doesn't stop him from spending the afternoon worrying and looking up the phone numbers of local schools. There's an excruciating ten minutes in the middle where Uther stares at him as if he has no idea who Merlin is and then graciously grants him three days off at short notice, but most of his afternoon is spent panicking until his hands start shaking and he has to dip into his biscuit stash.

Just before the end of the day, Arthur appears behind him, hands shoved into his pockets and shoulders tight. He comments on Merlin's handwriting, typing speed and organisational skills for a few minutes before he shoves a printout of an email at him.

"What's this?" Merlin asks.

"Leon's school," Arthur says casually. "Expecting you at 8.20 on Wednesday morning. Now, for God's sake, Merlin, will you take that mug home and wash it."

Then he strides off, very purposefully and doesn't meet Merlin's eye again that day.


School is manic, exhilarating and exhausting. He's tumbled from Leon's rowdy, cheerful Year Eight form ("Sir, sir, who's that man? Sir!") to sulky GCSE students who groan at every instruction, flirting glances at each other to check reactions, and then light up with pride and ambition when they manage to curl out an A-grade conversation, to round-cheeked little Year Sevens, giggling over the simplest phrases, to a pre-lunch bottom set Year Nine, all spitting rage and swearing and barely contained rebellion. He watches a young teacher, Elena, dance through that one with precise grace, and wonders if he'll ever have the nerve to do that. And then, when one of the fuming boys finally crosses a line, Merlin's the one who takes him out of the room and sits with him until the deputy head comes to get him. The boy paces and scowls and seems constantly on the edge of bolting, but he stays and actually talks, struggling to find the English vocabulary to spit out why he hates languages so much, why they're so fucking hard and what's the fucking point and who does that bitch think she is, giving him detention for fucking nothing?

He barely has time to wolf down lunch; almost fails to find a quiet corner to do his insulin. He scrawls notes so fast he doesn't think he'll be able to read them; and sits with the kids and helps rather than just watching. Elena leaves him with her lower sixth for five minutes while she dashes off to make a sneaky cup of tea, and he just chats to them in French, surprised by how often they stumble and realising for the first time that he had it easy, that understanding doesn't come like a gift to everyone.

By the end of the day, he's wondering how the hell Leon manages to stay so calm in the face of all this, especially when afternoon registration features three sobbing girls, one tantrum over a detention and three boys crawling under the tables and trying to steal the girls' shoes off their feet. Leon casually redirects the crawlers towards the weepers, distracting them, sits the tantrum by his desk and gets him to do the register, initials thirty homework diaries, sends the crawlers back to their seats and talks to the no longer weeping trio, hands out letters, confiscated phones and reward stickers and somehow gets them all out of the room on time and with all their belongings.

In the sudden quiet, he says to Merlin, "Good day?"

"Brilliant!" Merlin tells him and can't keep the grin off his face.

Then, when he gets out of the school gates, Arthur's parked across the road, in the most ridiculously ostentatious sports car Merlin's ever seen, red and sleek and low.

"What are you compensating for?" he enquires, going to lean against the side.

Arthur shoots him a look. "If you don't want a lift home-"

"I never said that," Merlin protests and climbs in.

Across the road, someone shouts, "Sick car, sir!"

Arthur looks alarmed. "Is that good?"

"Dunno," Merlin says, sinking into his seat comfortably. He hadn't realised how tired he was until he sat down. "Seriously, where did you get this?"

"Graduation present," Arthur says and pats the dashboard fondly. "She goes through fuel like you do through tea, but I like to take her out now and then. I see you survived a day with the hellspawn."

Merlin takes that as a cue to start talking. He's so engrossed in his day that it's not until they reach the outskirts of Camelot that he realises Arthur isn't taking him home.

"Where are we going?"

Arthur grins and speeds up a little as fields open around them. "Dinner."

"What?" Merlin said. "Where?"

"Steeple Mordreth?" Arthur said, eyes fixed on the road. "I heard there might be a good pub to get food there."

Merlin was about to ask whether it had been Gwen or Morgana who recommended the place, where a horrible thought occurred to him. "You heard? Have you never been out there?"

"We can't all go tiptoeing around the countryside picking flowers, Merlin."

"How long have you lived in Camelot?"

Arthur went a little red and muttered something inaudible.

"I bet you've never been punting, either. Or done May Morning."

"Those things are for tourists."

"You're joking. You're just trying to wind me up, right?"

But Arthur is started to look irritable. Thinking again, Merlin shuts up until they're drawing up outside the Knight and Dragon in Steeple Mordreth. Arthur pushes him gently in the direction of the garden and Merlin ambles down to the riverbank, finding a table in the evening sun where he can look down on the ducks dabbling in the shallow stream below.

Arthur returns with a couple of drinks and settles in opposite him, his knees brushing Merlin's under the tiny table. They talk idly as the day fades over Summer Common and the river and the flat, quiet stretch of the countryside. In the distance, so far away that Merlin, who grew up among mountains, still feels a little thrown when he tries to find the horizon, long lines of trees stand out darkly against the dusk.

When it gets too cold to sit outside, they move into the pub, which is one of those over-polished, red-walled places that paints poetry on the walls, caters for weddings and office parties, and uses the phrase gourmet experience on its menu. Merlin finds himself peering at the menu wistfully, trying to find something he can afford.

"My treat," Arthur says stiffly, and follows up with, "Are you yawning already? That's pathetic."

"Tired," Merlin says. "It's exhausting, this teaching lark.”

"Well, if just watching wears you out-" Arthur starts, but Merlin just rolls his eyes.

"I liked it."

Arthur smiles at him then, one of those little, quick genuine grins which he tries to hide by ducking his head. "I noticed. Back tomorrow, yeah?"

"Yeah, and I've got a presentation to write as well. Need to show I've understood the methods behind two of the lessons."

"There are methods?" Arthur asks, and Merlin almost falls for it before he spots the grin.

"You probably weren't paying enough attention at school to notice."

He gets a haughty look. "I'll have you know that I was a straight A student."

"Is that A for arsehole, arrogant prat or-"

"I suppose you think you're funny."

"You think I'm funny," Merlin says and smiles at him. It's surprisingly easy to sit with Arthur like this, watching him across the table, his hair shining softly golden under the low lights and his tie loosened. The only challenge is resisting the urge to reach across that last inch and lace his fingers over Arthur's as he banters.

When Arthur goes to order the food, Merlin sits back and just watches him, the confidence he assumes as he leans against the bar, how his shoulders relax a little as he turns back towards their table, how preposterously gorgeous he is. When, he wonders, did he get this smitten with the interfering git? He just can't help himself from looking at Arthur any more, here, at work across the length of the office, in the pub on Fridays, walking down the stairs for lunch: Arthur always draws his gaze.

He knows Arthur has at least a little bit of a thing for him, but he isn't sure if Arthur himself recognises it for what it is. It's all wrapped up in banter and grumbling and pushing each other for independence, this not-quite-relationship of theirs.

He kind of likes it this way.

"They'll give us a nod when it's almost ready," Arthur says, sitting down again. "So you can go and do your insulin in time."

"I usually do it between courses when I'm out," Merlin says, shrugging. "Tell me something."

"What?" Arthur goes a little wild-eyed and edgy all of a sudden.

"This thing I'm doing. Everyone on a arts course at least thinks about it as a career. Did you?"

"God, no," Arthur says, relaxing. "I hate children."

"But you do research into how they learn."

"I like the research, idiot, not the snotty little brats."

"Why?" Merlin fiddles with the candle in the middle of the table, turning it round until Arthur reaches out to touch him, his fingers brushing the back of Merlin's hand like a shock. "Tell me about a bit of research you liked."

Arthur gives him a puzzled look, but starts to talk about a project Merlin did the filing for, a few weeks back, which got teachers around the world to film themselves teaching beginners' Spanish classes, and compared the methods used with students from different linguistic groups. He talks most about the organisation - the ways they set the project up, how they ensured that the groups were comparable, the logistics of getting digital video back to Camelot, the way they advertised the study and the shipment of new textbooks to some of the poorer participating schools.

"So what did you find out?" Merlin asks, thinking about his own teaching.

Arthur shrugs a little. "Still correlating findings."

"Sounds to me," Merlin says, as someone comes over from the bar with cutlery, "like it was the managing you liked."

"I do like research," Arthur snaps back, lifting his chin. Merlin lifts an eyebrow and waits, and after a moment, Arthur sags back down and says, "Yeah, okay, maybe."

"So why aren't you doing that?"

He gets a wry twist of Arthur's mouth. "My father thinks the family should diversify."

"But-" Merlin starts, but someone calls over to say it'll be out in a minute.

"Go and do your insulin, Merlin," Arthur says, and when Merlin comes back he changes the subject and they talk about teaching again. The food is good, and Arthur manages to get them to make a fruit salad for dessert, which isn't on any menu Merlin can see, and by the time they wander back out to the car, Merlin's full and happy and more relaxed than he thought he could be this week.

"So what was this in aid of?" he asks, as casually as he can, leaning against the side of the car.

Arthur doesn't meet his eye. "Traditional before an interview, isn't it? For luck."

"If it was Morgana who originally told you that, she probably had ulterior motives."

"She always does," Arthur says, with a hint of fondness.

They drive back quietly, across the soft shadows of the fens towards the lights of Camelot. It's been nice, Merlin thinks hazily, not just for the company, but to eat a meal with someone who doesn't need all the problems with food to be painstakingly and tactfully explained. He could get used to this.

When Arthur stops outside his house, they sit for a moment, and Merlin thinks, If this was a real date, I'd kiss him now.

But he doesn't quite have the nerve, so he just pats the side of the car vaguely and says, "Thank you, yeah. See you Monday?"

"Phone before then," Arthur commands. "Good luck."

"Thanks," Merlin mumbles and stumbles back into the house, where he crashes onto the sofa and spends the rest of the evening bemoaning his stupid heart, as Gwaine pretends not to be laughing at him too much.


The second day in school makes a little more sense, not least because he's started to recognise and like some of the students. There is no Arthur that afternoon, although he does get a text mid-evening that says, Wake up and write your presentation, moron.

He sends back, was planning 2 make it up as i went, and then turns his phone off so he can concentrate.

The interview itself is a mixture of anxiety and excitement - he likes the other two interviewing with him, and gets through his presentation with grace if not flair and then does his utmost not to blather in his interview. Then, set loose with nothing more than a kind smile, he goes home again. On the way back, he opens his phone to find fifteen text messages from Arthur, ranging from, You'd better not have overslept, you idiot to Hope they haven't run you out of town yet to Dinner with Gwen and Morgana at Vietnamese place on Fen Lane. I'll bring booze. 8pm.

He shakes his head at that, smiling a little too stupidly for a mid-afternoon bus. He has enough time for a shower and a change of clothes, and finds himself reaching for his date jacket and the jeans that flatter his arse. For a moment, he hesitates, calling himself an idiot, but then he shrugs and puts them on anyway, running his hands through his hair and grinning at the mirror.

Gwaine gives him a wolf-whistle as he rushs down the stairs, but Merlin just ignores him to pat Mabel on the head as he hurries out. It's a bright spring evening, just starting to turn cool, and he walks into town briskly, grinning at the clumps of daffodils growing in the gardens of the grey terraces of south Camelot, and the tubs of tulips in the marketplace. He cuts up through Jesus College and over the river and comes round into Fen Lane from the west, bumping into Gwen and Morgana at the corner. By the time they get to the restaurant, they're already plying him with questions, and Arthur seems thoroughly put out when he arrives last.

"When will you know?" he asks as they settle around a small table in the basement.

"Next week," Merlin says, shrugging.

Arthur fusses with the wine for a moment, before asking, "Think you got it?"

"I don't know. I didn't do anything too stupid, but I wasn't, y'know, dazzling."

"You're always dazzling," Morgana says. "Isn't he, Arthur?"

Arthur goes, "Er, quite, um. Are you all ready to order?" and Merlin feels oddly warmed.

Gwen gets the giggles for some reason, and ducks behind her menu for a few minutes, but soon they've all ordered and a waiter has opened their wine.

Morgana took a slow, appreciative sip, and then leaned forward. "So, Merlin, Arthur won't tell me which university this interview was even with?"

He stares at her, taken aback. "This one. Y'know, the one we all indirectly work for."

"Camelot has a education department?" Gwen asked, sounding surprised. "I didn't think they did anything vocational."

Arthur's eyes have widened and he's staring at Merlin with all his normal masks gone, startled and breathless and hopeful. Merlin's breath suddenly catches in his throat - Arthur hadn't known; Arthur had thought he was planning to leave.

Oh, God, he has to get this place now, he has to, because his second choice is bloody Oxford and it's too, too far away if Arthur's going to look at him like that.


It's Tuesday morning before they phone him, and he's busy composing a scathing email about Arthur's spelling when his phone goes.

He picks it up, reels off, "Camelot University Press, MFL publications, research and development division, how can I help?" which is a mouthful it took him weeks to remember.

"Is that Merlin?" a friendly, vaguely familiar voice says. "This is Guy Blaise from the School of Education."

"Um," Merlin says, "I mean, yes, it's me, Merlin, that is. Hi."

Freya suddenly appears over the top of the partition holding a piece of paper which reads, IS IT THEM??????

Merlin nods at her frantically and then tries to ignore her crazy semaphoring to Arthur as he talks. He really cannot let Dr Blaise think that he's a moron.

By the time he puts down the phone, Freya is hanging over the partition, hands clasped over her mouth, and Arthur is behind him, clutching the back of his chair tightly.

"Well?" Freya squeaks.

"I got in," Merlin tells her, grinning so wildly it hurts.

She squeals, and Arthur spins him round and drags him to his feet. For one insane moment, Merlin thinks that he's about to get kissed in the middle of the office, not three feet from Uther's door, but then Arthur shakes his hand so hard his fingers go numb. Freya dashes around to hug him and Linda, at the desk behind, is shaking his hand and telling him not to pay any attention to Arthur because her husband is a teacher and loves it. They make such a commotion that Uther actually comes out of his office to glare at them. He does grace Merlin with a nod and a handshake when told the news, though the way he stares, half hostile and half resigned, makes Merlin wonder if Uther actually does take an interest in his son's life (either that, or Morgana's been gossiping, which is more likely).

Uther's appearance sends everyone else slinking back to their seats, and Merlin sits down to email his mum. A few minutes later, Arthur emails to demand that they celebrate in the pub.

Merlin's tempted, because he'd love to spend another evening with Arthur, even if they're just going to sit there while Arthur stares at him and Merlin wonders if the idiot even knows that he wants to make a move. But Will's latest girlfriend has offered to cook them all dinner, and he's promised he'll be there, so he turns Arthur down reluctantly.

The problem with Arthur, he thinks as he fails to do any work for the rest of the day, is that he only sees what he wants to see. Everybody in the world seems to recognise his attitude to Merlin, but Arthur just thinks that he's being helpful and heroic, as far as Merlin can tell. He knows that Morgana managed to resist all Uther's efforts to turn his children into ambitious and well-mannered heterosexuals, but he's less sure about how Arthur sees himself. Arthur's open-mindedness tends to apply more to other people than to himself, Merlin's noticed.

The others do drag him to the pub for one drink, and he's startled at the number of people who come along - from his office and the canteen, people he knows but didn't think paid any attention to him; Morgana and her minions; Gwen, with her brother and Lancelot, who hugs him so long that Arthur goes pink and starts to bluster and Morgana stops laughing at them to frown. Arthur sits beside him, running down the entire teaching profession and beaming proudly every time someone comes over to offer congratulations.

Maybe, Merlin thinks as he fights the urge to just lean smugly against Arthur's shoulder, he should just tell everyone that he and Arthur are together. If the rumour spreads far enough, Arthur might be too embarrassed to deny it.

He doesn't want to go, but he has to, so he drags himself away later than he should, and walks home with a spring in his step. He's staying in Camelot, and he'll be damned if leaving the office means no more Arthur. He doesn't care how long it takes Arthur to work out what's going on. He'll wait.

Or, maybe, he thinks, turning into his own road and whistling cheerfully to himself, he'll just jump Arthur himself. All he really needs to do is pick the right moment.

When he gets home, both Will and Gwaine thump him on the shoulders and Will's latest, who is either called Eloise or Lisa (Merlin wasn't listening), flutters congratulations at him. Then she throws them all out of the kitchen with the faint flourish of a carving knife.

"What's she making?" Gwaine asks, retreating to the corner and scooping up his laptop.

"Dunno," Will says, sprawling out on the sofa. "She wants to surprise us. And you will appreciate her cooking, right?"

Gwaine rolls his eyes, but Merlin nods. Over the years he's eaten all sorts of things he hates to stave off hypos. He can cope with anything she's likely to throw at him, be in burnt, raw or soggy (she can't be any worse than Will's mum, who used to turn mashed potato pink). All the same, he points out, as lugubriously as he can, "I could have stayed in the pub."

"What's in the pub that's so special?" Will demands.

Gwaine sniggers as the faint sound of warfare starts to emit from his laptop. "Arthur's in the pub, right, Merlin?"

"Um, yeah, but that's not, er. Yeah, basically."

Will rolls his eyes and mutters. "What happened to thinking he was the gittiest git to walk the earth?"

"Oh, he is," Merlin said quickly. "Just, y'know, he means well."

"I suppose it's not like you're known for your good taste in men," Will allows.

"He slept with me," Gwaine points out, grinning savagely as a death-squelch and clash of swords sounds faintly.

"Once!" Merlin protests as Will sniffs.

"Proves my point," he says. "And will you leave off that bloody game for five minutes?"

"Got a raid this evening," Gwaine says. "With six rather lovely lady druids. Can't let the girls down now, can I? Is it his looks you're after then, Merlin?"

"No," Merlin says and sulks back into the corner of the sofa. "He's just Arthur."

"Looks it is," Will says with a sigh of relief. "Oy, pause that thing and let us have a look at his facebook page."

"He can't pause in the middle of-" Merlin starts but Gwaine just hums a bit and tabs out of his game. His fingers fly across the keyboard and then he lets out a low wolf-whistle. "Ooh, posh totty. Looks it is, mate."

"It's not," Merlin protests, but Will's gone over to have a look.

"Good God," he says. "Where do you find them? Seriously, mate, he went to fucking Charterhouse."

"You're studying at Camelot," Merlin tries, but Will's already in full flow. Gwaine shrugs at him and goes back to his game, and Merlin just settles down and mumbles.

By the time Elo-maybe-Lisa sticks her head out of the kitchen and says, "Five minutes, boys," Will's got most of it out of his system. Gwaine's making snide comments about luddite technophobes over the top of his screen as Will and Merlin shuffle cards. They don't play for money any more (he's learned his lesson about gambling against a mathmo, because Will can count cards when he's too pissed to sit upright) so Merlin is quite happy to mess about and try to remember the few tricks he once knew.

"Right," Will says as she disappears again. "Do us a favour, will you, and do your insulin now. Lou's scared of needles."

"Things I do for you," Merlin grumbles, but heaves himself up and goes to sit on the stairs for long enough to jab himself with just enough units to cover anything from curry to pasta.

He comes back into the room as she emerges from the kitchen, bearing plates. He takes one and thanks her, before looking down.

On his plate is a large lump of ham, six stalks of asparagus and a delicate pool of some creamy sauce.

"It's a no-carb meal," she says proudly and a little anxiously. "My flatmate and I started this diet last week - it's wonderful. Will said you couldn't have sugars, so I thought this was best for everyone."

"Er," Merlin says, feeling the insulin already pulling his blood sugars down. "Yeah, thanks."

The only bread in the fridge was mouldy (bloody grad students promising to go the supermarket and staying late in the library instead) but there is some only slightly off milk and a very old packet of instant porridge in the back of the cupboard. As soon as he's finished choking down chocolate digestives, he shoves it in the microwave with trembling hands, leaning against the side of the sink and listening to Elo-whatsit wail confusion in the main room. He hadn't meant to embarrass her, or spoil her evening, but he can't stop himself from resenting her and her stupid diet. Why couldn't people just think without always having to be told?

As the microwave hums, he fishes his phone out and texts clumsily should hat stayed in sub and sends it to Arthur.

By the time the microwave pings, the biscuits are starting to take effect. He stays in the kitchen and forces the porridge down his reluctant throat. It tastes slightly cheesy, and his stomach clenches against it, but he keeps at it. He's not ready to go back out there and reassure Elo-thingy, and smile at Will like it doesn't matter, and just play it down and play it down until everyone forgets that anything went wrong. It's all so endlessly awkward, and he's good at pretending to laugh about things afterwards, but he's not ready for it yet.

His phone beeps and he drops his spoon back into the porridge gratefully to read, Predictive text is not a new invention, Merlin. Learn to use it. Food not to your taste?

His fingers and brain are working properly again, so he sends back, no-carb diet. am eating old porridge. He hesitates to send it. Arthur will over-react, he knows, and maybe blame him for this, but he might get some sympathy too, and he wants that. It might ease the sting of yet another evening gone wrong because of something as fucking basic and straightforward as food.

He's pressed send before he thinks about it any further. Then, sighing, he goes back to his sour-tasting porridge.

Arthur doesn't text back, but Gwaine slides into the kitchen a few minutes later with an, "Alright, mate?"

"Grand," Merlin says, and scoops up another smelly chunk of porridge. He's pushing it now, and it really will wreck the whole evening if he doesn't go out and smooth things over soon, but this was supposed to be his night.

He gives up on the porridge after that, scraping it out into the bin and hoping it will be enough. There's enough digestives left that he can leave them on his bedside table tonight and fill up on them if he needs to. They're a little stale, too, but the chocolate's still good and they'll do. He's eaten worse, in an emergency.

Five minutes later, there's a thunderous pounding on the front door.

"I'll go," Merlin yells, because it'll give him a little longer before he has to go and be nice to people. Still feeling a little sick and fuzzy, he stomps down the hall and flings the front door open.

"Can't I trust you to look after yourself for one night?" Arthur demands, shoving his way in.

"Er," Merlin says, and feels the smile spread across his face.

Arthur stops dead just inside the doorway, halfway through shrugging his scarf off. Then he rolls his eyes and says, "I suppose that's Mabel?"

"Yeah," Merlin says, patting his dalek fondly to stop himself from leaping at Arthur.

"Typical," Arthur says, brushing past. "Do hurry up, Merlin, or your dinner will get cold."

"My what?" Merlin says and he can't really blame his blood sugars for making him stupid any more. This is all Arthur.

All Arthur, who reaches under his coat with an impatient sigh and produces a polystyrene box which he shoves at Merlin. Merlin opens it to see chips, greasy and golden and still steaming.

"Your dinner," Arthur says slowly. "Good God, how impaired are you this time?"

Arthur strides onwards into the living room without hesitation, and Merlin just follows, clutching the warm box of chips to his chest as his heart leaps. He should say something, he really should, because he shouldn't be encouraging Arthur in this habit of needless rescues, but Arthur's brought him dinner and Merlin just wants to grab him and kiss him senseless and then drag him home to meet his mum and he wouldn't even care if she got out the photo of him with his potty on his head, not if it was Arthur.

Then Arthur looks around the living room with a curl of his lip and remarks, "Must you live in squalor?"

Will, who Merlin knows actually vacuumed before Elo-thingy got here, tenses and glowers, but doesn't say a word. Good. He should feel guilty.

"You'd be Arthur, then," Gwaine says from behind the shield of his laptop. "Quite a knight in shining armour, isn't he?"

Merlin makes a little noise because he feels he ought to say something, and Gwaine snickers and waves at himself. "Gwaine. Will's on the sofa and, er, Lulu."

"Louisa," she says icily, and then clasps her hands together anxiously. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean-"

"Delighted," Arthur says, in a voice that's anything but. "You people don't eat off the floor, do you?"

"Dining room's through the back," Merlin says, not meeting Louisa's eyes as she stutters and goes red. "Don't use it much, though."

Arthur snorts and strides off towards the back of the house. Merlin shoots Gwaine and Will a smile which is probably too huge to be properly apologetic and follows. He's just in time to hear Arthur fall over Gwaine's collection of traffic cones in an attempt to find the light switch.

Merlin helps him up, hands tangling in Arthur's sleeve and then switches the light on himself. Arthur stares at the teetering piles of dissembled motorbike, scattered sheets of equations and dusty odd socks in horror.

"Um," Merlin says, and picks his way through the chaos to the patio doors. "Garden's tidier."

Their garden is ninety percent rabid clematis, but there's a bench against the back wall and a space heater he and Will cobbled together from the bits they didn't use for Mabel. Merlin switches it on and then settles beside Arthur on the bench, diving into the chips with relief.

Arthur's right beside him, warm and strong, and the chips taste better than anything he's ever eaten, hot and greasy on his fingers and tongue. He knows the actual process is slower, but every bite feels like it's mending him a little bit. He's eaten half of them before Arthur's silence registers.

Arthur's watching him, his eyes wide and intent and his mouth curled into a half-smile, impossibly fond. Merlin stares back at him, hand halfway to his mouth.

"You're not telling me off," he says stupidly, and nudges the box towards Arthur so he can share.

Arthur takes a chip, but doesn't eat it, just turns it in his fingers as if he needs something to fiddle with. "I was under the impression that you didn't care for my advice. Such ingratitude, Merlin."

"Yeah," Merlin says stupidly, dropping the chip he's holding back into the box. "No appreciation, me."

"None whatsoever," Arthur says, and he sounds a little breathless.

"Of course, if I did appreciate you properly, you know what I'd do?" Merlin asks, shoving the food aside. He's had enough now, and he's safe to do anything he wants.

"I dread to think," Arthur manages, but he's blushing and it's the most ridiculously charming thing Merlin's ever seen.

"This," he says, heart dancing in his throat, and leans forward.

On occasion, Merlin has brought Arthur surprise biscuits or cups of coffee, just to see him stutter and brace his shoulders in self-defence and then duck his head to hide the softening of his mouth and the warmth of his eyes. Kissing Arthur has the same effect a thousand times over - Arthur freezes and then kisses him back frantically, as if he thinks Merlin will run away if given the chance. His hands are shaking as his fingers curl into Merlin's jumper, knuckles clenching, and Merlin can't help the little noise he makes into Arthur's mouth.

Arthur hesitates then, and Merlin doesn't need to read his mind to know the idiot's suddenly decided that he's taking advantage of something, somehow (and only Arthur could possibly misinterpret this). Well, he's not having that.

"Merlin," Arthur breathes as he pulls away. His mouth is slick and his eyes are wild, and it takes all Merlin's willpower not to dive right back in. Instead he waits until Arthur untangles his hands and shuffles back, biting his lip and struggling to slow his breathing.

"I'm still showing my appreciation," Merlin tells him then, before he gets completely the wrong idea. This time he cups Arthur's face in his hands and swings himself onto Arthur's lap. "Unless you're feeling over-appreciated, of course. It would be awful if your ego grew any-"

This time Arthur kisses him, mouth hot and eager as his cold hands slide under Merlin's jumper. It's just as good as Merlin has been hoping, and he spares a moment to be grateful for broken lifts and medical emergencies (and this may be the first time in his life he's been glad of the stupid disease), before he forgets everything but the rough brush of Arthur's lips against his, the tender clutch of his hands and the hot clamp of Arthur's arms holding him close.

Then, with a very ominous creak, the bench shifts beneath them.

"Er," Arthur says, pulling away a little. "How strong is this thing?"

"It's been here since before we moved in," Merlin says, bracing himself against the ground. "Could be an antique."

"Being old doesn't make it an antique," Arthur says with a faint sneer.

"Actually," Merlin begins, but it creaks again. "Er, why don't we move inside? I mean, I have a room."

Arthur blinks at him as he stands up, face narrowing a little in disapproval. "Isn't that a little fast, Merlin?"

Merlin throws his arms out in dismay. "You bought me dinner! In fact, you took me out for dinner in a romantic country pub! I've met your sister! I've met your father! You've saved my life! What more could-"

"I mean," Arthur interrupts, hilarity brightening his face, "that twenty minutes ago you were in the middle of a hypo."

"Oh," Merlin says. "Right. Er, well, what with the chips and the biscuits and the porridge, my sugars are probably up far too high. I mean, I might need to burn some energy up."

"Well, seeing as it's a medical emergency," Arthur drawls and lets Merlin drag him upstairs.

Two years later

By the time Merlin gets to the pub that evening, everyone else is on their third drink. He's in time to hear Freya lean over to the latest temp, Owain, and say sorrowfully, "More than half of teachers drop out in the first five years, you know. You can do more long term good with us."

"Morgana!" Arthur complains. "Your minion is trying to steal my temps again."

"No one deserves to be your temp," Freya tells him with a sniff. "Not when there's a very nice vacancy in-"

"Don't listen to her," Arthur informs the temp grandly. "She's just bitter that there wasn't a permanent job going in research. Really, at least Morgana just intimidates people into long-term contracts."

"I heard that," Morgana calls from the next table. "And he's lying."

"I think I'll stick with teaching, thanks," the latest temp says calmly. Merlin thinks that's probably the best reaction - he should remember this one, because anyone who can cope with Arthur, Morgana and Freya when they're tipsy and competitive will be fine with OFSTED.

"Excellent," Arthur says. "Very noble profession, teaching. Giving back to the community and all that."

"Arthur hates children," Freya fake-whispers. "He even hides from the work-experience kids."

"A noble profession," Arthur repeats pointedly. Freya's doing a good job of keeping him in line, but Merlin thinks it might be time to go to the rescue before she goes too far. Then Arthur adds, smugly, "My boyfriend's a teacher."

"He used to have your job," Freya confides and shakes her head. "Then he got stuck in a lift with Arthur. Tragic."

Definitely time for a rescue. Merlin pays for his drinks and slides over to their table, squashing in between Freya and Arthur, who moves up automatically.

"PGCE next year, is it?" he says to the new temp, sliding Arthur's drink along and kicking Freya under the table.

Owain nods. "Got a place at Southampton. Primary."

"Brave man," Merlin says. "I'd rather have a whole day with Year Nine than half an hour watching Year Two eat glue."

"We're not supposed to let them do that any more," Owain says with a grin, and Arthur relaxes against Merlin's shoulder and mutters something rude about Merlin's sixth formers and glue-sniffing.

He ignores that to start his drink, which is very welcome after the day he's had (whatever the Daily Mail may imply, chairs don't get thrown across the room all that often in normal schools and that sort of incident always leaves him on edge).

Arthur is eyeing his beer critically, but he doesn't say anything. Merlin grins at him and says, "Shut up. It's Friday."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Arthur says. "I'm not going to get you biscuits at three am again, though."

"Yeah, you will," Merlin says, curling his fingers around Arthur's under the table.

"Well," Arthur huffs, but his eyes are happy. "I suppose if there's no other option, I will be forced to save your life yet again. Only for the sake of your poor students, however. It's not like I expect proper appreciation and gratitude."

"Bought you a drink, didn't I?" Merlin says and relaxes to the sound of Arthur's contented grumbling.

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