Erin (etmuse) wrote in etmuse_fics,

Maybe Love Is The Reason Why (1/2)

Title: Maybe Love Is The Reason Why
Fandom: Merlin
Pairings: Merlin/Will, Merlin/Arthur/Gwaine
Rating: R
Disclaimer: If I owned Merlin... well, let's just say a few things would be different.
Spoilers: None, modern AU
Summary: Will asks Merlin an important question. Merlin's struggle for an answer leads him on a journey of self-discovery that lands him somewhere he'd never have imagined.

Author's Note: Written for the Spring Fling fest on kinkme_merlin, for this prompt. It got such lovely comments there that I decided to de-anon.

Thanks to: pinkfairy727 who beta'd, and was also my head cheerleader while I battled through writing this.

Part One

“Move in with me.”

Merlin blinks, his body otherwise frozen. Will is looking at him earnestly from the other side of the table, a smile on his face.

“Wh-what?” he manages to stutter out.

“Move in with me,” Will repeats. “You know you hate having to get up early to go via your flat to change when you’ve stayed over. And I hate not having you there every night.”

Merlin opens his mouth to respond, but, for once, he doesn’t have the words.

“There’s plenty of room at my flat, you know there is, or we could look for someplace new together. I just…” Will shrugs self-depreciatingly. “Want to have you around.”

He is serious about this, Merlin realises. It’s not just an idle suggestion, a whim, something blurted in the spur of the moment. He’s clearly been thinking about this for a while.

For Merlin, it has come out of the blue, and he doesn’t know how to react.

“I…” Merlin starts, not quite sure what he wants to say. “I need to… Can I think about it? It’s a big step, you know, and I don’t want to just…”

“Of course,” Will interrupts. “I’m not trying to rush you into anything. I just… wanted you to know. That I wanted it.”

Merlin nods, fiddles with his napkin for something to keep his hands busy, tries to make some sense of the whirl of thoughts racing around his mind.

He suspects that he should be jumping at the idea, eager to move forwards with Will, but he’s not, and he can’t really pinpoint why.

It’s not that he has anything against the idea of living with Will, per se. He likes Will, he really likes Will. And they’ve been doing this complicated relationship dance for over a year now. It’s just the next logical step, right?

It’s what people do. Meet someone you like, get to know them, move in together, get married. Have a kid or two, and then almost inevitably decide you can’t actually stand each other after all and divorce, beginning the whole cycle again.

At least Merlin’s pretty sure that’s how it goes. He’s never watched the process up close – his mother had never really gotten over the death of his father, before he was even born, and of all his friends, only Gwen and Lancelot seem to be able to hold down anything like a lasting relationship.

So perhaps all this is is the fear of the unknown. He’s only lived with three people in his entire life. His mother, for the first 18 years, then Arthur. And for the last five years, Arthur and Gwaine.

Arthur and Gwaine, who he’ll have to leave if he moves in with Will. And it’s not like he’d never see them again, but…

Merlin drags himself out of thought, looks around. And realises that in the time he’s been lost going around in circles inside his own head, Will has already paid the bill and is putting his coat on.

He clambers to his feet, and ponders for a moment if he should make a fuss about the bill. Will paid last time, so technically, it is his turn, despite Will’s constant argument that he makes a better living than Merlin and can therefore afford it.

Will takes his hand, and Merlin lets himself be led out of the restaurant into the chilly November air. Will starts to head down the street to where they left his little Fiesta earlier, but Merlin stops; Will turns to look at him.

“You okay?”

Merlin nods, although he’s not entirely sure that he is. His brain is still whirring at a mile a minute. “Yeah. I just… I think maybe I should just go home, tonight. I…” He waves his free hand at the side of his head. “Need to think.”

For a split second, Merlin thinks he detects disappointment in Will’s expression, but then it is gone. Perhaps he imagined it.

“Sure,” Will nods. “I’ll give you a lift home.”

Merlin shakes his head. “There’s no need, really. It’s only 10 minutes’ walk, and you’ll have to go around the whole one way system. I’ll call you tomorrow, yeah?”

Will is clearly reluctant to acquiesce – he has always erred on the side of overprotective, and worries terribly that something will happen to Merlin alone at night, Merlin’s capability of defending himself notwithstanding – but nods slowly.

Merlin leans forward and lingers a chaste kiss on Will’s lips before pulling away, walking backwards for a few steps so he can wave a goodnight.

How he’s ever going to get to sleep tonight, he doesn’t know.

Arthur and Gwaine are still awake and up when he eases their front door open slowly, slumped on their sofa watching… something with explosions. Merlin isn’t sure what, and doesn’t really care.

He heads for his bedroom, not in the mood to watch aliens or soldiers or zombies - or whatever it is this week – being blown up, hoping that his flatmates are engrossed enough in their film that they haven’t noticed him coming in.

“Hey!” No such luck, it seems. “You’re back early!” Arthur calls, twisting on the sofa to face him.

“Yeah,” Gwaine adds. “We weren’t expecting to see you again until tomorrow.”

Merlin hovers at the door to the living room, not sure what to say. True, more often than not, he does go home with Will when they’ve been out, but he comes home often enough that it’s nothing to make note of, nothing he needs a reason for, doesn’t he?

“What’s wrong?” Arthur asks, a concerned frown writing itself across his face. “Did you and Will have a falling out?”

So maybe he doesn’t come back to the flat as often as he’d thought.

“You can talk to us about it if you want, you know,” Arthur continues. “You don’t have to keep it all bottled up in that head of yours.” He scrambles down the side of the sofa and produces the remote, muting the TV.

Gwaine shuffles along to the end of the sofa, making a space between himself and Arthur. “Come on, a problem shared, and all that…” he says, patting the cushions.

Merlin stays in the doorway; Arthur and Gwaine both seem rather too eager – and definitely too pleased – to listen to whatever problems they think he and Will are having. “You just want me to be fighting with Will because neither of you like him,” he blurts bluntly.

“That’s not true,” Gwaine rejoins immediately, an unconvincing insulted expression on his face.

“When have I ever said I didn’t like Will?” Arthur says, holding his hands up questioningly.

Apparently, his best friends think he’s oblivious – and yes, okay, they might have a point, sometimes he does miss things that are right in front of him – but he’d really have to be truly blind to have missed this.

“It’s not something you exactly have to say,” he points out. “It’s perfectly obvious whenever he’s around, or even when I just mention him. You don’t like him. And that’s okay. Really, it is. I don’t get what your problem with him is, but you don’t have to like him. I never said that you did. Just accept that I do, all right?”

Arthur and Gwaine are both staring at him, slightly gobsmacked at his slightly unintentional tirade. Merlin is a little surprised at his own vehemence, so he can’t blame them. Consciously relaxing his shoulders, he spins on his heel and takes a step back into the hallway, intent on actually making it to his room this time.

He pauses after a few steps, though, and turns back to poke his head back into the living room. Neither Arthur nor Gwaine have moved. “Will and I didn’t fight tonight, by the way,” he says off-handedly. “For your information, he actually asked me to move in with him.”

He turns back again quickly, before they can react. Whether they be good or bad, he’s not ready to face their reactions. He’s not sure he’s faced his own reactions yet.

He reaches his room, and nearly gets the door shut before a socked foot jams into the gap. There’s a yelp, and the door swings back open, slamming into the wall under the combined weights of Arthur and Gwaine.

“You can’t just drop something like that and then run off to hide in your room,” Gwaine declares. “Talk. Now.”

Arthur is hopping on one foot, glaring at Merlin balefully as he rubs at the other one. “And did you have to slam the door so bloody hard?” he complains. “I bet I’m going to have a bruise tomorrow.”

Merlin shrugs his coat off and drops it on his bed, giving himself time to think. “I didn’t ask you to follow me and jam my door open with your foot, Arthur, so you can’t blame me for that one,” he starts mildly. “And really,” he shrugs. “What is there to talk about?”

“Whether you’re going to do it, for a start,” Gwaine replies, sounding frustrated.

And that’s the crux of it, really. Merlin shakes his head, throws his hands in the air, and sinks onto the end of the bed, staring at his feet. “I don’t know,” he answers honestly. “I… It’s… That’s why I came home, instead of going home with Will tonight. I need to think it over. On my own.”

He looks up at his flatmates, his best friends. For once, he can’t read the expressions on their faces at all. “This is big,” he says quietly. “It’s the next step on the ladder, you know? I need to be sure.”

He doesn’t tell them just how unsure he is. How sitting here in this room, his room, even with Arthur and Gwaine in it, is bringing it home to him just exactly what he’d be giving up if he moved in with Will.

There’s a long silence, calculating glances are exchanged; it’s deafening.

“When were you going to tell us?” Gwaine says eventually. “If we hadn’t stopped you tonight?”

“Tomorrow?” Merlin shrugs one shoulder. “When I’d decided if I was going to do it or not? I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

There’s another silence, Gwaine and Arthur shifting awkwardly; Arthur is still favouring one foot slightly, and it could be that he’s right, and it’ll be bruised in the morning.

“Well… goodnight,” Arthur says, taking a step backwards. “We’ve all got work in the morning, so…”

“I don’t,” Gwaine interrupts, a smile making a faint appearance on his lips.

Arthur nudges him. “Ok, afternoon in your case, but Merlin and I actually have to be up early, so…” He trails off, indicating the door with a jerk of his head.

“Goodnight,” Merlin says gratefully, nodding at them.

A few jerky nods and smiles later, they’ve backed out of the room, leaving Merlin to the roar of his own thoughts.

Closing his eyes, he crashes back on top of the duvet, breathing out slowly.

This conversation really hasn’t helped at all. And he’s definitely not getting any sleep tonight.

Merlin glares at his alarm clock when it blares out at 7.15, batting at it grumpily. He’s not sure when exhaustion finally took over and let him drift into a restless sleep, but he knows it wasn’t long ago.

Hours of lying awake, staring at the ceiling in the dark, haven’t even helped him come to any sort of decision about what he’s going to do. His brain is cycling thoughts so quickly he hasn’t had a chance to actually examine any of them.

And worry over the fact that he’s so far been utterly incapable of making the decision isn’t exactly lowering the levels of anxiety.

He’s not usually this indecisive. Moving out of his mother’s home and travelling 200 miles away to live in a cramped flat with Arthur hadn’t seemed as tortuously difficult to decide on as this. Both of them moving in with Gwaine a couple of years later had almost been decided at the drop of a hat.

Something is holding him back this time, and he just wishes he knew what it was.

The snooze alarm goes off just as he hears the front door close. Arthur must be running late – he’s usually out of the door and on his way to the train station well before Merlin wakes up.

Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Merlin drags himself out of bed. If he doesn’t get going in the next twenty minutes he’ll miss the bus, and he’s pretty sure he has a full schedule of appointments for the morning, so he can’t afford to be late.

The kettle is still warm when, clothes haphazardly flung on, he stumbles to the kitchen. He grabs his travel mug from the drainer as it re-boils, sniffs the milk just to be sure. He can do this in his sleep, more or less, the routine honed after years of caffeine dependency. This morning, he’s not entirely sure he isn’t doing it in his sleep.

The bitingly cold wind that hits him in the face the second he steps out of their building’s front door shocks him into a temporary alertness; he’s glad of his warm mug as he walks the short distance down the street to the bus stop, ducks into the aging shelter, rests his head against the wall in the corner.

The bus is late, the bus is always late, and Merlin has almost dozed off on his feet when it rolls noisily up; he nearly misses his stop to get off, too, the coffee not kicking in quite yet, his head lolling against his chest.

He glances at the small mirror on the wall of the staff room when he gets to work, making a vague attempt at smoothing the windswept look as he changes, but knowing he isn’t particularly successful. How Nimueh, who sweeps into the room just as he’s heading out, manages to look so neat and composed he cannot fathom.

Some combination of sugary snacks from the vending machine and excessive caffeine keep him going for the rest of the day; he hopes that none of the patients he has seen could tell how utterly exhausted he is, but suspects it was rather obvious. Most of them have been seeing him at minimum once a week for some time now anyway, so they’re probably used to his ways by now.

The steady flow of appointments, each with a history to be recalled and progress to be checked, does at least for the most part distract him from his indecision.

If he can’t come to a resolution one way or the other soon, he thinks he might actually go mad.

The howling wind has been joined by a light spatter of rain by the time he leaves the hospital and trudges back to the bus stop. There isn’t a shelter, so he’s thoroughly wet, miserable, and wishing he’d brought a waterproof coat by the time the bus arrives.

By the time he turns the key in the flat door, all he wants to do is peel out of his sodden clothes, climb under his duvet and hope that his brain shuts up for long enough to let him pass the hell out.

He gets as far as the first two before the front door bangs open and then shut again, followed by the distinctive sound of Arthur’s briefcase being forcefully dropped on the laminate floor of the entryway.

The clattering a few moments later from the kitchen is more muffled but audible nonetheless. Rolling back out of bed and fumbling in his wardrobe for a few moments to dig out his ratty dressing gown for warmth, he pads tentatively out into the living area, wondering what has Arthur upset.

Arthur is still pulling things noisily out of kitchen cupboards when Merlin reaches the door. “What’s the matter? Bad day at work?”

“Nothing you need to worry about, Merlin,” Arthur grumps, banging a mug onto the counter and reaching for the jar of instant coffee.

Merlin darts a hand out, grabbing Arthur’s wrist before he can pick it up. “You know you’ll never sleep if you drink that now,” he says, pointing out a fact they’d discovered well before they’d even finished secondary school: Arthur + caffeine past lunchtime = Arthur still wired at 3am. “And then you’ll be even crankier tomorrow.”

“Who said I was cranky?” Arthur snaps, snatching his wrist away.

Merlin just looks at him. Even with his current level of sleep deprivation, he knows that one really doesn’t need an answer.

“I just feel like a cup of coffee, okay?” Arthur does not, however, make another move for the jar of coffee, or his mug, perhaps realising even through his bad mood that Merlin has a point; it’s really not a good idea at this time of day.

He folds his arms across his chest, leans against the worktop. Merlin can detect just the very beginnings of a pout in the curl of his lips.

They stand for a minute in silence, staring each other down. Merlin feels himself start to sway a little on his feet; utter exhaustion is really kicking in. He shakes his head, breaking the lock of gazes, and starts to turn away; bed is sounding like an even better idea than it did when he’d first arrived home.

“What in God’s name are you wearing?”

At the sound of Arthur’s voice, Merlin freezes. Dropping his head and sighing, he turns back around. “That would be my dressing gown,” he says flatly. “You’ve seen it before.”

“I thought you’d thrown that thing out years ago. Like you should have. It’s falling apart.”

Merlin curls his arms defensively around his middle, fingers clutching into the soft fabric. “It’s comfortable,” he retorts. “And warm. And I don’t see any point tossing it when it’s still perfectly usable.”

“Of course you don’t,” Arthur says, shaking his head. He starts mechanically putting the mug and spoon he’d taken out for his coffee back where they belong. “I’m not even going to ask why you’re in a bathrobe at half past six in the evening; I don’t want to know.”

Merlin opens his mouth to explain anyway, but Arthur is already brushing past him brusquely on his way out of the kitchen. Eyes beginning to close of their own accord, he stumbles back to his own room and collapses onto the mattress.

His mind too overtaxed to worry anymore, he falls asleep almost the moment his head hits the pillow.

Merlin’s stomach is rumbling when he wakes up the following morning, but plenty of solid sleep – when he glances at the alarm clock he realises he’s had nearly twelve hours – has done wonders for his mental state.

He knows he still has a decision to make, but it doesn’t seem like quite the dreadful ordeal it felt like yesterday. There’s a lot to think about, a lot of things to take into consideration, but he’ll get there. And whatever he decides, at least he won’t be diving into anything recklessly.

He rolls out of bed, stretching muscles cramped from his long sleep, and drifts out to the kitchen. He doesn’t usually eat breakfast during the week – unless you count crisps bought from the vending machine at work during his break – but he’s sure there’s a box of cereal still in the cupboard.

The kettle finishes boiling just as he gets to the kitchen door, and Arthur crashes bodily into his back just a fraction of a second later. Merlin manages to catch himself before he goes flying to the floor, but only just.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur pushes past him, pouring hot water into the waiting mug and stirring it absently.

Merlin rolls his shoulders, easing the crick the impact had induced. “Umm… I live here?” he replies, cocking his head. Although possibly not for very much longer, he realises, if he decides to accept Will’s offer.

“I know that, Merlin,” Arthur says, giving him his patented ‘you’re an idiot’ look. “But it’s 6.30 in the morning.” He starts to tie his tie as his coffee cools a little. “I have a routine, and you being all up and awake is just getting in the way.” He takes a cautious sip of his coffee, frowning.

Merlin blinks, a little taken aback at the bitter tone. “I fell asleep before dinner last night, and woke up early. And hungry,” he said mildly. “I thought I’d grab some breakfast before I get ready for work. If that’s not a problem with your highness.”

Arthur shrugs half-heartedly and walks out with his coffee. Merlin watches his back for a few seconds, confused and a bit bemused by Arthur’s mood.

If this is what he’s like in the mornings, he’s never getting up early and bumping into Arthur like this again.

He opens the cupboard, roots around; sure enough, in the back of the cupboard there’s a box of Frosties. He’s not sure how long they’ve been lurking in there, but they look okay when he pours them out so he doesn’t really care. He splashes in some milk and stands at the kitchen counter with his bowl, hoping to avoid getting in Arthur’s way any more than he has to.

Arthur breezes in about five minutes later, just as Merlin is finishing up the last of his cereal, rinses out his coffee mug and leaves again, without so much as a look at Merlin. Merlin is dismayed to discover just how much this upsets him – more than it should, he is sure. Arthur being grumpy isn’t exactly an unknown phenomena, after all.

The front door opens and closes a few seconds later.

It takes a moment for Merlin to pull himself out of contemplation and run his empty bowl under the hot tap. Glancing at the clock on the front of the microwave, he realises that for once, he can have a shower that is more than a cursory jump under some hot water for a few seconds with a bar of soap.

He is still wrapped in a towel, blinking water off his eyelashes as he tosses clean clothes on top of the duvet, when there is a low beep from the pile of clothes he’d stripped out of the evening before. Dropping the shirt in his hand onto the bed, he kneels down and rakes through them. He recognises the beep; it’s the one his mobile makes when it is just an hour or two from shutting itself off for low battery.

He’s never been particularly organised about remembering to charge his phone, so he hears that tone a lot. Finding it tucked in the pocket of the still-slightly-damp jeans he was wearing yesterday, he dismisses the low battery warning and peers around the room for the charger. It has to be here somewhere. He probably doesn’t have time for it to charge up fully, but hopefully he can give it enough of a boost that it won’t die until he gets home again for the day.

It isn’t until he’s located the charger and plugged it in that he notices there are still notifications on the screen.

3 missed calls
1 new message

He suspects he knows who all of them are from, and when he hits unlock and opens the missed call menu, he’s right. Will. Three calls, all while he’d been dead to the world yesterday evening, an hour or two between each one.

He navigates to the message inbox and opens the new text from Will, sent between calls 2 and 3.

Hey, M. Missed you last night. Hope everything ok, ur not answering calls? Any more thoughts about my q? Call me when you get this plz. Love xx

The clock in the corner of the screen says 7.02am. Merlin doubts very much that now is a good time for a call; Will will be scrambling around getting ready for work, if he hasn’t left already.

Instead, he presses ‘reply’ and taps out a quick message, just as reassurance.

Hey. Am okay, sorry missed your calls. Was knackered so conked out soon as I got home! xx

He carefully ignores the second part of Will’s message. He isn’t ready to answer, and letting the fact that Will must be anxiously waiting for an answer register in his mind will just get him panicking about the situation again.

Leaving his phone to charge, he finishes drying off and throws his clothes on. He’s in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to re-boil when he hears the message alert go off.

Relieved. Was getting worried. Hope u slept ok. ttyl. xx

Merlin disconnects the charger and pockets his phone; if he doesn’t do that now, he’ll forget it - and then where will he be if his bus home gets cancelled (which has happened more often than he’d like).

The water is ready when he gets back to the kitchen so he prepares his coffee, wraps up in his warm coat, and heads to work.

Freya is off sick, and as many of her appointments as possible have been rescheduled with one of the rest of them, so Merlin doesn’t really have any time during the day to think of anything but ranges of movement and muscle pain and how Mr. Ellis might nearly be ready to start trying to walk unaided soon. Even his lunch ‘break’ consists of nothing more than a canteen sandwich wolfed down on the walk back from the canteen; he’s glad that this hadn’t happened yesterday, as he’d never have survived the day.

As it is, even with twelve straight hours of sleep under his belt, he’s beginning to droop a little by the time the last patient leaves and he can change back into his street clothes and go home.

The TV is blaring when he gets in the door, from the sounds of it one of the ridiculous trashy magazine shows Gwaine always claims he’s not actually watching. (Merlin has witnessed Gwaine’s day-off TV schedule on one too many sick days to believe him. He’s still not quite sure what the point of ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ is.)

Hanging his coat up in the hallway, he drops onto the sofa next to Gwaine, dropping his head onto the back cushions for a second and closing his eyes. When he opens them again he’s confronted with some Z-list celebrity discussing gardening or some such topic. He really doesn’t see the show’s appeal.

“Isn’t there something better on?” he asks wearily, more out of habit than anything else. Despite the fact that he’s not really watching them, Gwaine routinely insists that these things are, in fact, the best thing on. One day, Merlin is determined to test this theory, but that day will not be today.

Gwaine says nothing. Merlin looks over at him, and he’s staring at the screen, looking miserable. “Gwaine?” he tries, getting no visible response. “This is where you’re supposed to say ‘I know it’s shit, but it’s actually the best thing on.’”

Gwaine shrugs a little.

Merlin frowns. It’s not like Gwaine to be this quiet. “Is something wrong?” he asks, concerned.

Gwaine shakes his head. “Nah. M’fine,” he mumbles unconvincingly.

The look on his face and the set of his shoulders tells Merlin a far more honest story than his words. He shifts a little closer to Gwaine on the sofa. “That might work on some people, but you’re forgetting that I live with you. You can’t get away with brushing me off as easily as that.”

“Honestly, Merlin, it’s nothing,” Gwaine insists, showing the first spark of life since Merlin got home, even if Merlin is still convinced he’s lying. “Just… tired or something, okay? Nothing to get your panties in a twist about.”

Merlin flops back to the sofa. Well, he tried. He can’t make Gwaine talk to him.

He doesn’t seem to be able to do anything right today, as far as his flatmates are concerned.

He half watches the excitable presenters on the TV discuss something for a few minutes before trying again. There must be some way to get through to his unusually sullen friend. “Fancy Chinese tonight?” he asks casually. “My shout.”

Gwaine lifts one shoulder minutely, his attention remaining fixed on the TV screen. “Sure.”

“I’ll see what Arthur thinks when he gets in,” Merlin says brightly, trying to make up for Gwaine’s utter lack of enthusiasm with his own.

Gwaine nods absently. Merlin clearly isn’t going to get anything out of him any time soon.

Turning his mind back to the other important thing he has to do, he fetches his laptop from his room and waits as it powers up and the Wi-Fi connects, blocking out the inane chatter on the TV. If he’s going to look at this properly, he needs to apply a little logic, and that means lists.

He does rather wish there was an easy step-by-step guide to this. One of those ridiculous flowcharts or questionnaires the girls at school used to read out loud to each other in the corridors at break.

A messenger notification pops up at the bottom of his screen. You have 36 new emails. He hasn’t checked them for 2 days, so he isn’t too horrified by the high number. Most of them probably aren’t important anyway.

He clicks on the message, and opens up a new Google tab while he waits for the email page to load.

There’s no harm in checking…

‘Should I move in with’ he types, the auto-complete filling in ‘my boyfriend’ before he even finishes the word ‘with’.

Nearly 15 million results. Well that’s helpful. The top few answers all look like they’re from advice columns and a few of those ‘ask the internet a question and see what the world thinks’ type sites. So they’re worth a shot.

He suspects most of them were probably posted by girls, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.

Within a few minutes, he’s even more confused than ever. Each piece of advice almost seems to contradict another; the only consistent message emerging as far as he can see is ‘only you can decide’. Which is very helpful.

Giving up on that line of inquiry, he closes the tab and skims through his new emails.

‘Latest offers’ from Amazon… a notification that Gwen had written on his Facebook wall… spam… and a couple of replies from the few old college buddies he still keeps in touch with.

He really must remind Gwen tomorrow night that he doesn’t actually use Facebook much anymore. (Whenever he gets used to a new setup, they change it again, and he’s given up attempting to keep up.)

Nothing of huge importance or urgency, though, so he closes it down and opens a new document. He’s gotten as far as splitting the page into two columns when the front door opens.

Arthur pokes his head in the door a few moments later.

“Hey,” Merlin says, looking up from his screen. “I was thinking Chinese takeaway tonight, my shout. What do you think?”

Arthur’s brow furrows. “Is there some special occasion or something I’ve forgotten about?”

Merlin shakes his head quickly. “No, no. I just… thought Chinese would be nice.” They’ve never needed an excuse for takeaway before.

“Okay,” Arthur shrugs. “Whatever’s fine.” He disappears from the doorway, his bedroom door opening and shutting a moment later.

It appears that whatever mood Arthur was in yesterday, he’s still in it today. Usually if something was bugging him at work, Merlin and Gwaine would be subjected to extended rants on the uselessness of Arthur’s co-workers, or the unreasonable expectations of his boss, so Merlin is in the dark as to quite what has him so snippy.

Twisting carefully so as not to topple the laptop off his lap, he reaches around the sofa arm and feels for the cordless handset that almost always lurks on the side table. He can’t find it at first, and wonders if for once it might actually be back on the base unit, but after scrabbling under the TV magazine his fingers finally wrap around it.

“Your usual, Gwaine?” he asks as he scrolls through the stored numbers to find their local Chinese.

Gwaine just nods, busy flicking through the channels to pick something to watch now the magazine show has come to an end.

Merlin phones in the order, reeling off his debit card details when given the option of paying over the phone rather than in cash on delivery – he has realised, belatedly, that he’s not sure he has enough cash in his wallet to cover it. A tip for the deliveryman he can probably stretch to, but the full order maybe not.

It will probably be about 20 to 30 minutes, the girl on the phone tells him in a voice filled with regret. They’re unexpectedly busy tonight.

That’s just fine with Merlin; he has a task he wants to get started on before they eat, and he wishes her a good evening before hanging up.

Arthur joins them a few seconds later, having changed out of his staid business suit into a more comfortable jeans and jumper, and settles down between Merlin and Gwaine. There’s a brief tussle over the remote control that Merlin tunes out as he returns to his document.

‘Pros’ he types at the top of the first column, highlighting the word so he can put it into bold font. ‘Cons’ is added to the top of the second column. He stares at the two words for a long minute, turning things over in his mind.

‘Get to see Will all the time’ is the first thing to appear in the Pros column. It’s the most obvious one, after all. It’s the main reason people do move in together, so they can spend time together.

After another moment’s thought, he adds ‘Have to see Will all the time’ to the Cons column. He likes Will a lot, he does. He’s smart, funny, cute… what’s not to like? But they’ve never actually spent more than about 20 hours together all in one stretch. And that generally includes at least a few hours spent asleep.

He doesn’t actually have a clue what Will would be like to live with, what they would be like spending that much time together on a permanent basis.

He tells himself he’s worrying too much; they get along brilliantly for the most part, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t continue just because they see more of each other. The words stay in the Cons column, though.

He taps out ‘More space’ and ‘Closer to work’ quickly in the Pros column, feeling just a tad guilty that considerations about the flat itself come to mind more readily than anything else that actually matters.

He blows out a breath and glances over at the other half of the sofa, where his flatmates have settled down with a repeat of Top Gear on Dave. ‘Won’t see Arthur and Gwaine all the time’ is added to the Cons column. That one is a biggie – they’ve lived together a long time now. Over a fifth of Merlin’s entire life.

He and Arthur even longer; they might as well have been living together even when they were still at school, they spent so much time together. Arthur’s dad had been gone a lot on business, and it had slowly become customary that Arthur just stayed with Merlin and his mum whenever he was gone. (Until they’d reached upper sixth, when staying at Arthur’s instead on weekends when his dad was away meant avoiding the attempting to be quiet and sober parental gauntlet.)

Gwaine had somehow just slotted perfectly into their duo, and very quickly it had been like he’d always been there.

Merlin isn’t sure he knows how to live without them anymore, either of them.

Even if occasionally they annoy, confuse and irritate the hell out of him, he adds mentally as Arthur shifts in his seat and his elbow jars into Merlin’s ribs.

The buzzer for the front door blares in the hallway. Quickly saving his document and shutting his laptop lid, Merlin jumps up to let the deliveryman in.

They eat their meal in front of the TV, the coffee table pulled over from the wall and cleared off so they can set takeaway containers, plates and glasses on it. It isn’t exactly what Merlin had planned, but considering how sullen his friends continue to be throughout, he’s glad that at least the television is there to provide background noise.

He grabs his laptop and makes his excuses shortly after they finish clearing everything into the kitchen; it really has been a tiring day, so he doesn’t feel guilty about stretching the truth slightly to give himself more time to work on his lists.

Crawling into the centre of his bed, he plus the power cable for his laptop in and hits the power button, waking it up from sleep mode. The lists of Pros and Cons comes up on the screen immediately.

He settles back against the headboard, arranging the laptop across his thighs, and stares at the two lists.

He’s sure there must be more positives than this. Or why would anyone ever move in with a lover? Especially when it carries so much risk.

The thought sparks another sentence for the lists, unfortunately for the Cons column. ‘Will either be stuck awkwardly in flat with him or homeless if things don’t work out’ he taps out.

In number, the lists are even. Three pros, three cons. But Merlin knows in his heart that despite this balance, the Cons column is far heavier.

Whether this means he shouldn’t do it, he’s not so sure. There’s an awful lot riding on it going well if he does do it. He just can’t decide if his inability to realise more of the positive aspects is purely down to the fear that that gamble inspires.

Whatever the answer, he realises that staring at a document isn’t going to get him any further in the decision making process. Not tonight, anyway.

He ponders shutting the machine down and going back out to join Arthur and Gwaine and whatever TV show they’ve decided upon, but he really doesn’t have the energy to deal with whatever is bothering them today.

He opens up a game of Minesweeper instead; just as much potential for frustration, but at least he can be reasonably sure to resolve it before bedtime.

Merlin wakes up the following morning with a single line from his Google searching the previous day circling in his mind. He reaches out and turns off the alarm, staring at the ceiling.

He hadn’t given it any more weight than anything else he’d read the day before, at the time, but on the back of a night’s sleep, it seems to have gained a certain credence.

If you have to ask, the answer is probably no.

The fact that even after two days thinking it over he still can’t confidently say he definitely does want to move in with Will is surely a sign. He’s just not ready. Maybe some day, down the line, but… not now.

He sighs, noticing the lack of tension in his shoulders for the first time since Tuesday. His mind feels lighter and, despite the awkward task that still awaits him, he feels at peace with himself.

He does have to find a way to break the news to Will, though. He doesn’t want to hurt him – the tired cliché ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ runs through his mind – but he doesn’t know if there’s a way of saying ‘I don’t want to move in with you’ that doesn’t sting at least a little.

It being Friday, he has the benefit of a little time to think it over. This is not a conversation to be had over the phone, and he almost never sees Will on a Friday. Will has a standing post-work-drinks appointment with his friends from the office, and he, Arthur and Gwaine have spent almost every Friday for over five years in The Peacock, whether Gwaine was rota’d to work that night or not.

Very, very rarely, Will and his friends will show up there, but it’s only happened twice in the year they’d been dating, so he feels fairly safe in assuming it won’t happen tonight.

Wriggling upright, he grabs his phone and scrolls through his contacts.

Free tomorrow? he texts to Will, dropping the phone on the bed while he stretches and stands up.

He’s still tossing clean clothes onto his bed ready for when he gets out of the shower when it trills at him.

Yes. What you thinking?

He thinks for a moment, settling on a small, quiet pub just around the corner from Will’s flat that they’ve been to in the past.

Lunch? At the Coach and Four?

He jumps into the shower, scrubbing down quickly and rubbing a cursory soapy hand through his hair. There’s another text waiting for him by the time he dries off and throws his clothes on.

Sounds great, see you at 1. xxx

A glance at his watch tells Merlin that he’s getting behind schedule, so he rushes through the rest of his morning routine, running out of the door with his coffee just in time for the bus to pull up at the stop.

He hopes that Freya is feeling better today – or at least that they’ve managed to get in some cover – or it could end up being another very long day. And he’s got planning to do.

Gwaine still has nearly a little over forty minutes left of his shift when Merlin arrives at the Peacock that evening, shattered from a second day in a row running ragged trying to see extra patients.

The place is busy, as it always is on a Friday evening, especially in this post-work period, but he manages to snag a stool at the bar and watches the bar staff scurry back and forth, not in any particular hurry to order himself. He’ll be happy to wait until Arthur shows up, which usually coincides pretty well with Gwaine getting off, when he’s working the early shift like today.

He nods genially at the girl behind the bar – he’s talked to her a few times before, but he can’t quite place her name. She plonks a glass of water in front of him ten minutes later, on her way back to the till. “You look lonely there without something to sip at,” she grins before whirling back to the mass of customers.

He turns the glass around and around between his hands, watching people flow around the bar, and lets his mind wander a little. It gets stuck on the conversation he knows he is going to have to have tomorrow afternoon.

It’s not going to be an easy conversation, and he’s not even 100% sure that they’ll make it out the other side of it intact. He knows that talking it over with someone would probably help, but no one he knows actually has experience of this sort of situation. And besides, in some weird way, he feels that Will should be the first one to know.

It involves his life, after all.

He’s almost at the bottom of his glass, and the rush at the bar has started to slow for the dinner period, when Arthur appears beside him.

“Our booth’s free,” he says near Merlin’s ear.

Merlin turns to reply but he’s already gone, swallowed up by the groups of people still milling about near the tall bar tables.

It’s a good thing Merlin knows exactly where he’s headed; a booth near the back of the pub that they claimed as their own years ago. It isn’t always free, but they’ve taken over that booth more Fridays than not in all the time they’ve been coming here.

Gwaine arrives at the table moments after Merlin, three pints already cradled between his palms. He’s barely finished setting them down and sliding onto the bench beside Arthur before two more arms appear, placing their own drinks on the table. Merlin smiles up at Gwen and Lance, who evidently both have tonight off, for once.

Merlin isn’t sure he remembers the last time that one or other (or both) of them wasn’t on the bar on a Friday night. He scoots up closer to the wall, to allow them to squash in together on his side of the booth.

“You’ve got a free Friday night together, and you’re choosing to spend it with us? Seriously?” he asks them jokily, taking a sip of his pint.

Gwen shrugs beside him. “I know, clearly we’re insane,” she grins. “Either that or it’s just a habit we can’t break. It’s not like we like you guys or anything.”

Merlin nods and nudges her. “That must be it.”

“To be honest,” Gwen concedes, “we did think about going out and doing something special, just us. But we’re both just too shattered. No point.”

“Long day?”

“Long week,” Lance replies.

Gwen nods. “If I never see another fluid tank experiment again, it’ll be too soon.”

“I thought you already had all the experimental data you needed for your thesis?” Merlin says, frowning in confusion.

“Oh, I do, mostly,” Gwen confirms. “But I’ve been supervising the undergrad labs all week. There’s only so many times you can explain the same simple set of experiments before you actually go crazy.”

“And even the first years should know by now that supervising doesn’t mean we’ll actually do the lab for them,” Lance adds.

Merlin reaches around Gwen’s back and pats Lancelot’s shoulder sympathetically. “I know the feeling. Freya’s been out ill for two days, so the rest of us have been trying to cover all of her patients as well as our own. If they haven’t found cover by Monday I think there might actually be bloodshed.”

Gwen shakes her head vehemently. “I don’t believe that. You don’t have it in you, Merlin.”

Merlin chuckles. “Maybe I don’t, but you haven’t met some of my co-workers. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Nimueh, trust me.”

Gwen holds her hands up, a throaty laugh bubbling up. “I’ll take your word for it.”

“How about you, Arthur?” Lance asks, leaning across the table a bit and waving his drink towards the so far silent side of the booth. “Had a good week being stuffy and important in the city?”

Arthur takes a slug of his beer, shrugs. “No worse than any other,” he mumbles into the glass.

“Then why…?” Merlin starts, wondering why Arthur has been so cranky all week if work has been fine. The thought that perhaps Arthur has only been bad-tempered with him is what silences the question – if he’s done something to upset his best friend, now probably isn’t the best time to talk about it. “Never mind.”

Gwen reaches across the table. “Arthur, are you…?”

“Fancy a game of pool, Gwaine?” Arthur interrupts, turning to the man sitting beside him, staring into his glass.

Gwaine lets his pint rest on the table and shrugs. “Sure, sounds good. You got change for the table?”

Arthur nods and shuffles along the bench, nudging Gwaine to stand up. “Should do.”

“Back in a bit,” Gwaine says as he does so, although Merlin cannot help but notice that it is directed firmly at Gwen and Lance, and not him.

The two men leave the table, drinks in hand, and disappear in the direction of the pool tables in the back corner of the pub.

Merlin watches them go, wondering why his best friends are so angry with him all of a sudden. He feels Gwen wriggle beside him, and from the corner of his eye he can see her elbow jabbing at Lancelot’s side.

Lance sighs. “I think I’ll just go and referee the game,” he announces in a tone that absolutely doesn’t give away that he’s being forced into it. “You know what those two can get like when there’s an opportunity for competition.”

Despite the fact that Gwen has clearly pushed him into it, Merlin can’t deny that the idea is actually a good one. He does, in fact, know what Arthur and Gwaine are like when they get competitive. And it’s never pretty.

Lancelot gets to his feet, picks up his drink and, with a quick kiss for Gwen, heads off in the same direction Gwaine and Arthur have just gone.

Merlin knows Gwen means business when she stands up and slides back into the booth opposite him. “So,” she starts, resting her elbows on the table. “Now that I’ve got you to myself… do you want to tell me what was just going on there?”

It’s pointless to pretend that he doesn’t know what she’s talking about; Gwen can always tell. “Gwaine and Arthur have been acting weird around me all week. I don’t know why, but apparently I’ve done something to upset them.”

Gwen raises one eyebrow in a manner that reminds Merlin almost painfully of his old neighbour growing up; that man could express more disappointment in a single eyebrow than most people could in a ten minute tirade. “And you have absolutely no idea what could have set them off?” she asks, although her tone definitely suggests that he should know.

He shakes his head. “I’ve hardly even seen them most of the week.”

“So you don’t think that telling them your boyfriend asked you to move in with him is something that would upset them?” Gwen says pointedly.

Merlin blinks. “How did you even know about that?”

“Gwaine told me on Wednesday,” Gwen shrugs. “But that’s beside the point. You don’t think it upset them to hear that you were considering moving out?”

Merlin lifts one shoulder uncertainly. “Well, maybe a little bit, but not like this. It’s not like I’d never see them again. And I hadn’t even decided whether I was going to do it or not when I talked to them.”

“And you have now?”

Merlin bites the inside of his cheek. Will really does deserve to be the first to hear his decision; a tiny white lie can’t hurt. “Not quite. I’m seeing Will tomorrow to talk about it, though. And I still don’t see why it would make Arthur and Gwaine so angry and upset with me.”

Gwen sits back and shakes her head slowly, wonderingly. “You really don’t know,” she says softly.

“Know what?” Merlin frowns. “Why I’ve apparently become the anti-christ in the minds of my best friends? No, I don’t.”

“Merlin,” Gwen starts, taking him by the hand. “How can you not know that they’re in love with you?”

Merlin just looks at her as if she’s insane. Which, judging by that last comment, he thinks she might be. “Yeah, okay. Sure. Both of them? Really?”

“Yes, really,” she replies intently. “It’s obvious whenever they look at you, how can…?”

“I think you need your head examining,” Merlin interrupts. “Or maybe your eyes. Because you’re seeing something that isn’t there.”

“Look, maybe you don’t see it,” Gwen says insistently. “But it’s there. And I’m not the only one to see it. They watch you when they think you’re not looking, both of them. They’re one step away from swooning like some heroine from a black and white film sometimes.”

Merlin doesn’t believe a word of it, he can’t. “Gwen, they’re my best friends. If they were, as you say they are, in love with me, I think they’d have, I don’t know… mentioned it by now?”

Gwen shrugs. “I don’t know if they’ve even realised it themselves. None of you are the most emotionally self-aware guys on the planet.”

Merlin opens his mouth to protest, but stops short of saying anything. It’s probably a fair cop.

“And even if either of them has figured it out,” Gwen continues, “you said it yourself. They’re your best friends. Neither of them would risk that. You’ve seen how they react at even the thought of you moving fifteen minutes away. They’re terrified of losing you.”

“While I’m sure that’d be true if they really were in love with me, I still think you’re talking crap,” Merlin says, shaking his head. Although a part of him is starting to wonder if she does actually have a point. It makes more sense than he’s ready to admit.

Gwen takes a long drink from her glass. “Think that if you want,” she shrugs. “But I know I’m right. And sooner or later you’ll see for yourself. Trust me.”

“I know my friends,” Merlin says, with a lot more confidence than he actually feels. The thought is in his head now, and the more he lets himself consider it, the more plausibility it gains. Not that it’s actually true, of course, he assures himself. But in an alternate reality, it could be.

But it’s not.


“If…” he starts uncertainly, swirling his pint and following the trail of tiny bubbles on the surface around the edge of the glass with his eyes. “If it was true… and you were me…”

“Yes?” Gwen prompts.

“I…” Merlin hesitates. “What would you do about it?” He risks looking up to meet Gwen’s eyes, and finds her looking thoughtful.

“I’m not sure,” she says slowly. “It would depend, I think.”

Merlin frowns at her. “On what?”

“How I felt about them in return. Where I wanted things to end up, if I wanted things to change.”

“Right.” Merlin really hopes, in this moment, that Gwen isn’t right, because he’s suddenly not entirely sure about the answers to any of those questions. “I still don’t think you’re right, by the way.”

Gwen sighs loudly. “Oh, for goodness sake. Seriously, just watch them. Ask them, even!”

Ask them?” Merlin looks at her incredulously. “That’s your suggestion? Ask them? That’s not going to be awkward or embarrassing for anyone at all.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Gwen says, flailing a little. “You’re their friend, you know them better than anyone. You figure it out. But trust me, I’m right. I see these things.”

“You’re insane.” Merlin tips his head back, drains his glass. “Another?” He gestures towards Gwen’s nearly empty glass.

“Please,” Gwen nods. “Two ticks.” She holds up a finger as she finishes her drink and hands him the empty glass.

Merlin grips both glasses and skirts his way around the slowly growing Friday night crowd back to the bar. After six years of close friendship with someone who worked in a pub, taking his own glasses back to the bar as a method of getting more cheerful (and often better) service from the harried bar staff has almost become a routine.

On occasion, Gwaine has been known to actually refuse to serve him a second drink until he’s brought back the empty glass from the first. Pavlovian conditioning at its finest, but Merlin can’t really bring himself to mind; he’s befriended a lot of bartenders in various bars because of it.

Part Two
Tags: fandom: merlin, fic: standalone, length: 15000-40000, merl: merlin/arthur/gwaine, merl: merlin/will, rating: r/nc-17

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