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12 August 2009 @ 12:06 am
Reversal of Fortune  
Title: Reversal of Fortune
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur
Rating: PG-13
Length: ~7300 words.
Summary: Wherein Arthur is not the rich boss, and Merlin is not the assistant. (Modern au.)
Notes: For a kink meme prompt. This is one of those that started out as a quick one-off response to the prompt, and then, er, grew.


When he was growing up, fiction and other people’s anecdotes always led Arthur to believe that uni was where you’d find yourself, where you’d make unlikely friends that would stay with you for the rest of your life, where everything would fall into place. That’s what he expected. So it’s rather disheartening when he wakes up one day to find himself with a BA in philosophy, no idea what to do with the rest of his life, and no friends that he’s going to miss in any but the most superficial way. He didn’t click with anyone on his first-year residence hall, and he would be more than happy to never see the football mates who shared his flat for the next two years ever again, and the group he went drinking with is nice enough but no one he’s going to be ringing when they don’t live in the same town any more.

He knows he ought to have some sort of ambition, but there isn’t much to be done with a BA in philosophy, and his plans for a postgraduate degree died along with his parents in the car crash during his second year at uni. Between various scholarships and savings and insurance money, he’s been able to finish the BA as they would have wanted, but after that finding work so he can move out of Uncle Gaius’s spare room is the obvious choice. Gaius would probably help him pay for postgrad if he really wanted it, but it’s not like he had any plans for what to do with the master’s degree, it was just something to do.

For the next three years, he bounces between various crummy flats and through a series of mind-numbing jobs in shops and barely sees anyone apart from co-workers, Gaius, and his stepsister and her girlfriend. (Morgana recovered from their parents’ deaths faster than he did, and now she tends to look at him with this sad, disappointed expression, like losing his parents at 20 is not a good enough excuse for being as pathetic as he is at 24. She’s probably right.) He never holds a job longer than nine months – his managers like him well enough, because he’s efficient and dedicated, but he has little patience for idiotic customers and he can only abide dishing out chips or refolding t-shirts or stocking groceries for so long before he needs a change of scenery in order to keep his sanity.

When he’s on the verge of quitting his Tesco job, Morgana takes him out to lunch and sighs at him, as is her habit.

“Has it ever occurred to you to try finding a job you don’t hate?” she asks. (Morgana is two years his senior and has been working for the same magazine since she finished school. Gwen, the girlfriend, is very happy as a professional welder, and gives Arthur the sad eyes even more than Morgana does.)

“What would you suggest, exactly? I don’t think anyone’s hiring freelance philosophers, and I’m hardly brimming over with other qualifications,” Arthur says grimly. He’s staring at the menu, trying to make a choice. Morgana’s paying, so he’s torn between ordering something cheap to be polite and ordering something expensive in retaliation for all the sighing.

“You’re literate and probably capable of operating a copy machine without making it explode; that already puts you head and shoulders above half the people in my office,” she tells him. “Perhaps Gaius could find you something at his company, isn’t he friends with the owner or something?”

“I don’t want to abuse his connections, and I don’t want to be given a job just because my uncle knows the boss.”

“Fine,” Morgana says, rolling her eyes. “I think the Chinese takeaway down the road from me is hiring.”

Arthur thinks of the ridiculous hats the employees there wear and cringes inwardly. He orders a salad, and phones Gaius the next day.

*

Gaius works as a researcher at some huge multinational corporation which is owned by some rich guy Gaius knows from uni. (They met on their first-year residence hall, and have been close friends ever since. Arthur is definitely not bitter.) And Gaius gets him a job. It’s nothing glamorous – the man in charge of the weird little office that does environmental impact assessment or something needs an assistant – but at least it isn’t retail.

*

There’s a coffee shop on the ground floor of the building Arthur’s to be working in. He’s early his first day, so he stops there, ostensibly to get some tea but mostly to revel in the fact that his new job is not here, but behind a desk twelve floors up.

Arthur sips his tea and watches people; he can’t remember the last time he had a drink with anyone other than Morgana, so silent observation is the norm. Most of the customers are dressed for business, as Arthur is himself, but there’s this one pale skinny guy in jeans and a worn t-shirt who sits down at the table next to Arthur’s. His ears are too big, his watch looks ten times more expensive than the entire rest of his wardrobe combined, and he’s got an open, earnest smile that makes Arthur want to smile back. Arthur’s curious about him, charmed – until the guy stands up with his cup, trips over the base of the table, and spills his coffee all over Arthur’s crisp white shirt.

The guy’s a whirlwind of babbled apologies and dabbing napkins -“Oh god, I’m so sorry, are you alright, it was still hot, I’m so-”

“I’m fine, stop it, you’re making it – just fuck off, alright, I’m fine,” Arthur hisses, angry and embarrassed and painfully aware of the eyes on them. A woman wearing deeply impractical heels is giggling over her frothy latte thing.

“Here, d’you want to come up to my office, I’ve got some spare shirts, I could have this cleaned for-”

“No, I can’t be late, it’s my first day at a new job, just-”

“Oh, god, I’m so sorry,” the guy repeats, and then he digs out his wallet – expensive, like the watch – and shoves a twenty-pound note into Arthur’s hands. (His fingers are long, Arthur notices, elegant.) “Here, for the cleaning.”

“It won’t be twenty pounds,” Arthur says, incredulous. The guy shrugs and gives him a dopey little smile that is – in spite of the giant stain he put down the front of Arthur’s shirt – really very charming.

“So have a drink as well,” he says, and “I really am sorry,” and then he’s gone. Arthur blinks after him, clutching the note in one hand and a bunch of napkins in the other, until he notices the time, and then he takes off too.

*

Arthur needn’t have rushed; the receptionist at the front desk glowers at him and leaves him sitting around for nearly half an hour. First his new boss is “running late this morning”, and then he’s “taking an important call” and then the receptionist spends ten minutes on the phone herself, trying to explain to someone called Nimueh that using abandoned pets as lab animals “does not qualify as recycling!”

Arthur sits and fidgets with his (cheap, old) watch, overly conscious of the damp brown mess all over his front. At least if he’d been working downstairs, he’d have had a bloody apron. His nerves, which had dissipated while he was watching the guy, are back in force, and he’s starting to regret ever having taken this job. Retail sucks, but he knows what he’s doing there, doesn’t have to deal with hostile receptionists and vague job descriptions and bosses who will probably take one look at his shirt and send him packing.

When he is finally admitted to the office in the corner, Arthur opens the door and finds – the bloke from the coffee shop. Only now he’s dressed in a tailored suit that makes his slender frame look more high-fashion-model than starving-student-artist, and he’s sitting behind the desk, leafing through what appears to be a personnel file.

“Sorry to’ve kept you waiting, Mr – Oh!”

“Um,” says Arthur, probably blushing, and wonders if the Chinese takeaway is still hiring.

*

As it turns out, though, Merlin – he insists on being called by his first name, saying “‘Mr. Emerson’ isn’t my father, but it’s still just weird” – doesn’t care that his new assistant recently told him to fuck off. Instead, he apologizes several more times and makes Arthur borrow one of his spare shirts. (He apparently keeps his entire business wardrobe at the office, because “the organic drycleaner’s just ‘round the corner, and it’s not as though I wear this stuff at home.”)

“Sorry if it’s a bit tight across the shoulders,” Merlin says, when Arthur comes back from the washroom and stands there, awkwardly clutching his stained clothing. Apparently Merlin isn’t quite as scrawny as he looks because Arthur did manage to do up the buttons, but the shirt is rather snug. And thin. The coffee soaked into Arthur’s vest, too, so he took it off because the stain shone through the fine material rather more than his nipples do now, but it’s cool in the office so they’re hard and poking out and a part of Arthur really just wants to run back to the stockroom at Tesco and never leave.

“It’s fine, thank you,” Arthur says. Merlin’s eyes are very blue, Arthur notices, and he doesn’t think it’s fair that this strange clumsy man gets to sit there all calm and composed while Arthur feels like a wreck, inside and out. Merlin proffers what looks like a credit card.

“Here, why don’t you nip out and get yourself something that fits better? You can drop yours off at the cleaner’s on the way, have them charge it to me. I don’t really have much for you to do today anyway.”

Arthur stares blankly at the credit card. “You don’t need to buy me a new shirt,” he says, at a loss. “Or pay for my cleaning, you already gave me twenty quid-”

“Don’t worry about it,” says Merlin, and Arthur’s half-convinced that those blue eyes are trained on his nipples. Which is mostly embarrassing, but – “Really, don’t,” Merlin repeats, waving the card at him and adopting that dopey grin again. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable all day on my account.”

Arthur takes the card, finally, and doesn’t say that accepting the unwarranted generosity of a man he just met an hour ago is considerably more disconcerting than wearing a stained shirt for a day.

*

That first day more or less sets the template for the next several weeks. Merlin mostly has him doing data entry and making copies, (Morgana was right; Arthur seems to have a knack for the copy machine,) and that’s normal enough, but he also has this bizarre propensity for throwing money and smiles in Arthur’s direction. When he sends Arthur out for lunch, he insists that Arthur place an order for himself too, and pays for everything. When Arthur brings the food in, he grins that dopey grin and thanks him, like it’s not Arthur’s job to do whatever the fuck Merlin asks him to. When Arthur gets into a row with the receptionist because she won’t tell him where the toner cartridges are kept, Merlin pokes his head of his office to investigate the disturbance, and Arthur is mortified. But Merlin just laughs – a warm sound that tickles down Arthur’s throat – and tells the receptionist to stop messing with the new guy.

It’s weird. Merlin is – Merlin is nice. He treats Arthur with respect, like he’s a human being, like his actions have a purpose. Arthur has a desk just outside Merlin’s door, and one day when Merlin comes back from a meeting, he pauses there and starts talking to Arthur about the matter at hand. About how a presentation Merlin gave last week – Arthur helped put together the power-point – prompted R&D to revise part of some production process and now it will result in 23% less plastic waste. Arthur doesn’t really understand half of what he’s on about, but he understands that Merlin cares about these things, and wants Arthur to understand and care too, and that’s – well. Not something Arthur’s used to.

Really, the data entry isn’t much more intellectually stimulating than any of Arthur’s other jobs have been, but he finds himself looking forward to work in a way he never has before. The receptionist stops harassing him, and he gets used to the fact that Merlin throws banknotes around like pence, and Morgana doesn’t even sigh at him so much any more. It’s … nice. Working for Merlin is nice.

*

Granted, Arthur’s still living in a crummy flat, and he still doesn’t have any sort of social life, or really any life at all outside of the office. This job pays rather better than retail, so he probably could afford to move, but he hasn’t gotten around to it, and even Merlin’s ever-willing credit card can’t buy him friends. Not that Merlin knows he lacks them; Arthur keeps quiet about his private life (or rather lack there-of) and finds ways to change the subject whenever Merlin tries to ask.

One Friday, when Morgana and Gwen are out of town and Gaius is busy, Arthur finds himself feeling raw and lonely. He’s barely seen Merlin this week; the man’s been busy on-site somewhere, giving Arthur tasks by phone and email instead of dawdling by his desk or calling him into the office and intermingling the instructions with conversation like he normally does. Arthur and the receptionist have a sort of mutual non-aggression pact going, and Merlin’s other employees ignore him unless they need something from him, so the result is that Arthur’s pretty much been on his own. Which is … fine, except the job’s a lot less nice when Merlin isn’t babbling and waving those elegant hands around and smiling at him. And how bloody pathetic is that, that Arthur misses his boss?

Come Friday afternoon, Arthur’s the last one in the office simply because he’s entirely unwilling to face the prospect of his lousy empty flat. It’s well after six, and he’s still typing away, doing work that isn’t urgent at all simply to delay the inevitable. And then he’s startled out of his reverie of numbers and moping by Merlin banging in from the hallway. There’s dust on his trousers and his hair’s a windswept mess and Arthur’s heart skips a little anyway.

“Arthur?” Merlin asks, clearly surprised to see him.

“Hi,” he says lamely. “How’s the-”

“It’s fine. What are you still doing here?”

“The figures for the Petersen project?”

Merlin stops by Arthur’s desk and tugs his tie – already loosened – off. “I really don’t need those until Wednesday,” Merlin says. He undoes the top few buttons of his shirt, and Arthur tries not to stare at the sharp lines of his collarbones.

“I know, just, trying to be efficient.”

“I appreciate the work ethic, but come on, it’s Friday night! Get out of here, that stuff can wait.”

Arthur shrugs. “I don’t mind finishing it.”

Merlin frowns at him. “Arthur, seriously, go to the pub with your mates or something. I hate the idea of you sitting here all by yourself like this.”

Arthur makes a non-committal noise and goes on typing. He’s not exactly keen on it either, but it’s better than sitting in his flat all by himself, or sitting in a pub being all by himself in a crowd. If he’s honest, he’s sort of forgotten how to meet people socially and make friends. Merlin frowns some more, then vanishes into his office. He emerges a few minutes later in jeans and a casual black button-down, and frowns at Arthur for a third time. Arthur doesn’t like the frown, doesn’t like the little crease between Merlin’s eyebrows, the way his eyes aren’t quite as bright as usual. It’s much better when Merlin’s happy.

“Arthur, are you alright?” Merlin asks, his voice soft with concern.

“Yes, of course, I’m fine, I just – I don’t have anything better to do, might as well be productive, yeah?” He can just feel Morgana’s disappointed eyes as he says it. Merlin studies him for a moment, a close scrutiny that makes Arthur’s collar feel too hot, and then seems to come to a decision.

“Right, if you haven’t got anything else planned, you can close that down and come have a drink with me.”

“What?”

“You heard me. You, me, bar across from the drycleaner, inadvisable cocktails with vaguely obscene names, I’ll do my best not to spill anything on either of us and you can laugh at me if I fail.”

Arthur really isn’t sure what to make of Merlin’s invitation, and he’s sort of afraid that he’ll give away exactly how pathetic he is if he gets pissed, but at the same time it’s Merlin. Merlin, who’s warmth and companionship, who he’s missed more in a week than he’s ever missed anyone from uni, whose smile does odd things to Arthur’s insides. So he saves what he’s working on, and says,

“You have yourself a deal.”

*

So Arthur finds himself in the bar across from the drycleaner, with Merlin and a collection of inadvisable cocktails. As usual, Merlin insists on paying for everything.

“Come on, let me get one round at least, you make me feel like such a deadbeat,” Arthur says at one point. The complaint is only half serious, but he feels bad when Merlin flushes. (Even if the pink cheeks are rather endearing.)

“Sorry, I just – I’ve got obscene amounts of money that I haven’t earned, so I like spending it on other people,” he says.

“You earn it,” Arthur protests. “You work so hard-”

Merlin laughs and shakes his head. “No, no, not my salary, although that’s rather inflated too. I’m talking about all the money my step-dad just throws at me. I end up giving most of it to charity and it’s still far too much, but I don’t have the heart to tell him to stop.”

Arthur’s curiosity must show on his face, because Merlin knocks back the remainder of his bright green drink and grimaces. “Ok, so my step-dad? Is Uther Ymbwyrm, who kind of has more money than God.” Uther is Gaius’s friend who owns the corporation. Arthur knows how rich Uther is, though he had no idea his boss had anything more than a business relationship with the man.

“His first wife died in childbirth along with their kid,” Merlin continues, “Some kind of awful complication, and he never got a chance to be a father. So after he married my mum, he really wanted to be a dad to me, only I was already at uni then and he doesn’t actually know how to be a dad anyway, so basically he just tells people he’s proud of me a lot, pays all my credit card bills, and drops a few grand in my bank account every week. It’s … a bit awkward, but it seems to make him happy.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. So really, don’t worry about it. One of us feeling weird about my money is more than enough,” Merlin says, doing that dopey grin that Arthur likes so much.

And Arthur means to say something casually witty, or else to change the subject to something that doesn’t make him think about his awful retail jobs and his awful little flat and the fact that the suit he’s wearing is from Oxfam. But he’s had several inadvisable cocktails at this juncture, and when he looks at Merlin’s long fingers wrapped around his glass Arthur gets this unsettled feeling in his stomach like he wants something he doesn’t understand, and he still doesn’t know why Merlin’s so nice to him. (No, that’s not true, Merlin’s nice to everyone, but he spends more time being nice to Arthur than he does being nice to the receptionist or his other employees.) As a result, what falls out of Arthur’s mouth is this:

“So how’d you get stuck with me, then?”

Merlin blinks at him. “How d’you mean?”

“My uncle Gaius is friends with Mr. Ymbwyrm, he got me the job, and I always assumed… I don’t know, that he foisted me off on some office he didn’t like much, you know?”

Merlin laughs, and the tips of his ears turn pink. “Ah, no. Uther’s been after me to hire an assistant for ages, so when Gaius said he had this nephew who needed a job…” He shrugs. “I figured I’d make Gaius happy, make Uther happy, and if you were really dreadful I could always find some excuse to shift you elsewhere and carry on as I had been. But you’re… sort of wonderful, actually.” And then the blush spreads to his face and neck, and he’s jumping up, flurry of motion, saying, “Right, next round, what are you having?”

Arthur picks out another vaguely obscene sounding drink and stares, bemused, while Merlin dashes off to the bar. Sort of wonderful, actually. The words make that flutter in his belly grow, make his chest feel a little tight. Other bosses have called him competent, efficient, professional. Lane at the chip shop called him a lifesaver when she got a boyfriend and he agreed to take over all the Friday and Saturday evening shifts. (It wasn’t as though he had anything else to do.) But no one’s called him anything like wonderful since … that girl who tried to pull him at the pub a few days after graduation, and she was so pissed she would’ve said the same thing to the quiz machine.

When Merlin returns, the conversation shifts to safer topics – politics, football, Merlin’s stories about Uther’s attempts at parenting. It’s nice, and Arthur’s startled to find that it’s after ten when Merlin groans and says,

“Alright, that’s me done. Any more and I’ll start singing, and then you’ll lose any respect you’ve ever had for me. How’re you getting home?”

“Tube,” Arthur says. He doesn’t want to go home, but he can hardly expect Merlin to entertain him all night, so he finishes his drink and reaches for his suit jacket.

“Um, no. We’ll take a cab, drop you off first. Uther keeps trying to get me a driver but that’d just make me feel like even more of a horrible rich person.”

Arthur doesn’t especially want Merlin to see the neighborhood he lives in, but on the other hand, it’s an excuse to spend another half hour with the man. So he agrees, and when Merlin stumbles and catches himself on Arthur’s shoulder, Arthur tries not to dwell on the shock of the contact or the way his skin tingles and wants more.

*

The following week, Merlin’s still mostly out of the office, and Arthur still misses him and feels like an idiot for it. Arthur wants to go out for drinks again, or for dinner, or anything, but Merlin remains his bloody boss and Arthur doesn’t know how to ask. So, when Friday rolls around, he stays late, again, and hopes that Merlin will come in to change, again. He isn’t disappointed.

“What did I tell you about working Friday evenings?” Merlin asks, shaking his head, but he’s smiling.

“I don’t know, I must have missed it in between all the cocktails,” Arthur retorts, returning the smile.

“Fair point. Want to get dinner?”

*

The week after that, Merlin’s back in the building, and the place seems much brighter for it. Arthur’s happiness must show; he has dinner at Morgana’s on Wednesday, and even Gwen doesn’t give him the sad eyes.

Just before five on Friday, Merlin comes out of his office and stands there with his hip canted against Arthur’s desk.

“Right, so you have a choice to make,” Merlin tells him seriously. “Either you close up and get out of here at five, or you wait while I change and come to the pub with me. There is no third option. Understood?”

“Understood,” Arthur says, fighting down a grin. Merlin nods and disappears back into his office. Arthur worries a bit that Merlin has worked out exactly how pathetic he is, but he doesn’t care. When Merlin reemerges in his casual clothes, Arthur’s ready to go.

*

Thereafter it becomes routine. Every Friday, they go to a bar or pub or restaurant, and talk like – like people who are friends. Arthur learns that Merlin did ecology at university, interned in R&D during his summer holidays, and basically started his department himself after finishing his master’s degree. He learns that Merlin retains and plays with an extensive lego collection, has three cats, all adopted from shelters, and can hold his inadvisable cocktails like a champ but starts giggling like a teenager after two glasses of wine. He learns that Merlin has so many free Friday nights because he grew up and did university in Wales, so none of his old friends are local, and all of his local so-called friends are “horrible rich people who think my name is ‘Uther Ymbwyrm’s step-kid.’”

And Arthur ends up telling Merlin about his family. How his biological mother died when he was very young, but his stepmother – Morgana’s mother – might as well have been his real mother. How he grew up with Morgana, how his parents died, how Gaius looked after him. He tells Merlin about his wretched retail jobs, about playing football at uni, about his love of tea and Greek food. (The next week, Merlin takes him to a Greek restaurant.)

Arthur doesn’t tell Merlin that he routinely falls asleep thinking about Merlin’s dopey grin, or that he finds it difficult to breathe when Merlin leans in close to look at something over his shoulder, or that these Friday nights are by far the best thing in his life. He doesn’t tell Merlin that he’s sorry for Merlin’s sake that his friends are so far away, but shamefully glad for his own. He doesn’t tell Merlin how his chest aches with want when Merlin, after too much wine at the Greek place, slumps against Arthur’s side in the cab going home.

There’s one week when Merlin can’t go out with Arthur because of an engagement with his mother and step-father. He apologizes excessively and touches Arthur’s arm and looks so genuinely regretful that Arthur doesn’t even sulk about it privately. …Much.

*

The following week, they go to the cinema and then to a pub afterwards. There’s some kind of big discount at the club across the road, so the pub isn’t very crowded, and Arthur isn’t especially worried about losing his seat at the bar when he goes to use the toilets. But when he comes out, he sees a pretty blonde woman sidling up to take his place at Merlin’s side, and Arthur’s heart drops into his shoes.

Merlin’s back is to Arthur, so he doesn’t know how the man’s reacting. Merlin’s not seeing anyone, Arthur knows this because he asked once and felt a little too relieved at the answer. In fact, Merlin’s never expressed much interest in sex, with women or with men, but the woman’s gorgeous and Merlin’s bound to be getting sick of Arthur by now and –

“-it is, actually,” he hears Merlin say. “I’m here with my – with my friend.”

“He as handsome as you are?” the woman asks. Merlin’s ears go pink, and Arthur holds his breath, wondering how Merlin will respond.

“He’s, er, rather good-looking, yes. Doesn’t look a thing like me, though. Should be back any minute-” he turns on his stool, glancing toward the toilets, and spots Arthur. Arthur plasters a smile on his face and forces himself to move forward.

“Hello, who’s your friend?” he asks Merlin, tone deliberately casual. Rather good-looking, yes. His chest feels tight again. The woman studies him for a moment, then sighs.

“Not getting anywhere with you two, clearly,” she says. “Have a nice night.” She walks away, and Arthur starts breathing again. Merlin looks at him too, frowning a little.

“Everything alright?” Merlin asks.

“Yeah, sure, fine,” Arthur says.

Merlin glances over at the departing woman and then back to Arthur, with dawning realization on his face. “Oh! I’m sorry, did you want to – with her? I’m shit at being a wing-man, sorry, I’m sure if you explain I’m just your boss she’ll-”

“No,” Arthur interrupts. “I didn’t want to.” And you aren’t just my boss.

“You sure? I don’t mind-”

“Really. I don’t. Did you-”

“No. I’m here with you, yeah? And I’m not much for bar pulls anyway. I prefer people I actually know, you know?”

“Yeah, same,” Arthur tells him. It’s true; it’s also the reason he hasn’t been laid since his brief and highly regrettable affair with Jesse, a co-worker from the first depressing retail job.

Merlin eyes him with an expression that seems almost speculative, and Arthur feels much too warm under the scrutiny, but then they fall back into their usual sort of conversation and everything’s fine.

*

During lunch the next Friday, Arthur says,

“Where do you want to go tonight? There’s a new Italian place near my sister’s flat-”

“Actually,” says Merlin, and stops, suddenly awkward. “Look, Arthur, you know you don’t have to keep coming out with me if you don’t want to? You are allowed to tell me no if I suggest something you don’t want to do?”

“I know…”

“Ok. Because I don’t much care to deal with crowds today, so I was thinking – how would you feel about just going back to mine? Order pizza, drink beer, whatever?”

“Sure,” Arthur says, “That would be great.”

Merlin’s smile is enormous.

Arthur gets basically nothing done that afternoon, because all he can think about is the prospect of being alone with Merlin in Merlin’s flat. Sitting on his sofa – the sofa he’s admitted he sometimes sleeps on, when it’s been a long day and he just nods off – and drinking his beer and seeing all the private details of his life laid out in his living space. He thinks about the sofa – Merlin’s never described it, but he imagines it big and black and soft, covered in (artificial) leather – and he thinks about sitting next to Merlin on it, about Merlin having a few beers, getting relaxed, maybe slouching down, maybe leaning toward Arthur as he slouches, maybe dozing a little on Arthur’s shoulder, his breath warm through Arthur’s shirt, his hair so close Arthur can smell it, his body all loose and pliant because he’s so comfortable at Arthur’s side…

Arthur gets nothing done all afternoon.

*

Merlin’s flat is more reasonably sized than Arthur expects. Spacious, but not extravagant. The furnishings are an eclectic mixture of new, expensive things and old, well-loved ones – a large flat-screen television beside a beat-up record player that’s more archaic than antique. (The sofa is large and soft, but it’s covered in canvas, with a muted blue and brown print.) One of the cats immediately rubs against Arthur’s legs, one watches him warily from a windowsill, and one fails to show herself.

“Vivian and Taliesin will probably ignore you, Nyneve might expect attention, just don’t try to rub her stomach, she hates that,” Merlin tells him. Merlin’s fidgety, full of the same nerves Arthur always used to experience back when people would come over to his flat; it’s reassuring, somehow.

“Beer’s in the fridge,” Merlin continues, “Help yourself, and I’ll phone for the pizza.”

“Are those solar panels?” Arthur asks, blinking at the flat black things protruding from the exterior windowsills.

“Er, yes. They get very good light in the morning, and I feel slightly less guilty about heating the place if it’s not all coming from oil. And, ok, while we’re discussing my hippie ways, there’s a little compost barrel under the sink, my bin bags are made of corn, and you can thank me when your grandkids aren’t living in a landfill. Ok?”

“Ok,” Arthur says. None of it’s a surprise, not given Merlin’s job and his organic drycleaning and the fact that all the copy paper in the office is recycled. It’s sort of charming, really, like a disproportionate amount of things about Merlin are. Like his dopey smile and big ears, his legos, his terrible attempts at karaoke, his generosity, his enthusiasm, even his clumsiness. If he’s honest with himself, there isn’t much about Merlin that Arthur doesn’t find endearing.

Arthur knows he’s been sad and lonely for a long time, he knows Merlin’s the first proper friend he’s made in years, and he knows he’d want to spend time with the man even if he had dozens of other friends. All of these things are easy to admit. What’s not so easy to admit is this: The way he thinks about Merlin sometimes, the way he collects little touches like treasures, the way he focuses too much on Merlin’s lips and hands and the lines of his body. The ache in Arthur’s chest and the flutter in his stomach and the tingle in his skin, and the way they all add up to a bone-deep, buried desire for this too-sweet man who hired him to make Uther and Gaius happy.

Merlin thinks he’s good-looking, and Merlin called him sort of wonderful, and – and Merlin is his boss, and he only started taking Arthur out because he pitied him, poor pathetic Arthur sitting alone in the office on a Friday night. Right.

*

For the first time ever, Merlin actually lets Arthur pay for something. Not willingly, mind, but the pizza boy comes and Merlin – still fidgety, still flustered – discovers he hasn’t got enough cash to cover the food and the tip, and Arthur reaches his own wallet before Merlin reaches his credit card.

“I’ll pay you back,” Merlin insists, after the guy’s gone. Arthur laughs.

“Forget it, Merlin. I know you have piles of money, but I’m not exactly broke these days myself.”

“Yes, but I mean – I invited you here, you shouldn’t have to-”

“I want to,” Arthur says, and that stops Merlin arguing.

“Well, ok. Thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Arthur says, grinning, and Merlin grins back.

While they’re eating, Merlin finishes one slice, takes another, but pauses thoughtfully before biting into it.

“What?” Arthur asks.

“I was just thinking… Should I be putting out feelers for a new assistant soon?”

What?”

“I have your CV, remember? Seven to nine months seems to be the longest anyone manages to keep you, and I’ve had you for nearly six already,” Merlin says, peering at him sideways. I’ve had you, Arthur’s brain repeats; he tries to ignore how it sounds.

“Oh. Well. No. Unless you want to be rid of me,” Merlin shakes his head vigorously, “I’m not planning on going anywhere. In stark contrast to my previous jobs, the work you give me isn’t soul-crushing, and your office isn’t full of people who drive me to contemplate murder and/or suicide.”

“Oh no?” Merlin asks, clearly amused.

“Well. Maybe the receptionist.”

Merlin laughs outright at that. “Willa is not that bad!”

“Willa is not that bad to you because she wants you to shag her.”

“She does not,” Merlin protests, but he’s blushing a bit.

“You do realize half your employees are in love with you?” Arthur says, and immediately regrets it when the amusement drops off Merlin’s face. He looks like he wants to ask Does that half include you? and Arthur can feel the panic welling up in his gut – but Merlin studies him carefully, and must recognize his distress, because all he says is,

“Well. I’m glad you’re not about to leave me,” and Arthur sags with relief.

*

As it turns out, it isn’t Merlin who falls asleep on the sofa, but Arthur. The pizza is gone, along with the ice cream they found in Merlin’s freezer and quite a lot of beer. It’s getting late but Arthur doesn’t want to go (Arthur never wants to go) and Merlin hasn’t given any indication that he wants him to, so they’re just sitting, watching the telly in companionable silence, when Arthur’s eyelids begin to droop. There’s a pleasant fuzz in his mind, beer and tiredness acting together, and it seems so simple to just … let his head loll back and …

And the next thing he’s aware of is the gradual return to consciousness. He’s … not in his bed, but he’s not upright on the sofa any more either, he’s … he’s still on the sofa, but curled on his side, with something solid beneath his head – Merlin. Merlin’s thigh. Merlin’s thigh beneath his head, one of Merlin’s hands resting on his bicep, Merlin’s fingers carding gently through his hair. The telly’s still on, he can hear the quiet lilt of sitcom conversation, but the volume’s been turned down, and there’s a blanket or something over his bare feet, and Merlin’s pillowing him, touching him - Arthur feels so cozy like this, so content and warm and comfortable that it makes his chest throb.

He should get up. Arthur knows he should get up, apologize for the imposition, find his shoes and phone for a cab and go home, to his empty dingy flat and his empty bed. (To spending the rest of the weekend looking forward to Monday, as always, just because it’s when he’ll see Merlin again.) He should. He doesn’t. Because he wants, so badly, to stay here like this, and it’s so easy to pretend that he’s still asleep, to hold onto this moment as long as possible.

They remain that way, Arthur trying to keep his breathing to the shallow even cadences of sleep, until Merlin carefully extricates himself. Arthur abandons the pretense, then, sits up and starts muttering an apology-

“Sorry, I must’ve-”

“No, it’s fine, go back to sleep,” Merlin tells him, whisper-soft, his lips curving in a half-shy little grin, “I just desperately need to take a piss, I’ll be right back.”

Merlin pads off to the toilet, and Arthur glances at his watch. Coming on to four. It couldn’t have been much past one when he nodded off, which means he’s been asleep more than two hours, and Merlin – Merlin’s been letting Arthur sleep in his lap. For more than two hours. Merlin’s glad Arthur isn’t about to leave him. Merlin played with his hair, and said go back to sleep, and there’s this odd sensation bubbling up between Arthur’s lungs, something curious and unfamiliar that he dimly recognizes as hope...

“Hey,” Merlin says when he returns.

“Hey,” Arthur says, and then, gathering his courage, looking Merlin in the eye, adds, “Should I go?”

Merlin meets his gaze, unflinching. “Do you want to?”

“Not really.”

“Then don’t.”

“Ok.”

Merlin sits down beside him on the sofa. One of the cats – Nyneve, the friendly one – wanders by and rubs against Merlin’s legs. Merlin reaches down, scratches the top of her head lightly, and then, when she’s wandered off again, he says,

“Arthur. What do you want?”

“I –”

“Because I have an idea, maybe, but I can’t – you work for me, yeah, I can’t just – it has to be you. I’m happy for things to remain as they are, I value you as an employee and a friend, but if anything is going to change – it has to be you. It has to be your choice.” He keeps his eyes trained on the floor as he speaks, on the empty spot where the cat was before, and Arthur realizes with a shock of clarity that right now Merlin must feel as raw and exposed and vulnerable as Arthur does.

“Merlin-”

Merlin looks at him then. It’s dark in the room, the telly providing the only illumination, but even in the weak light Arthur can see the guarded expression on Merlin’s face. It’s so familiar it hurts. And so, heart in his throat, Arthur leans forward and presses his mouth to Merlin’s and hopes with all his might.

And it’s worth it; Merlin’s response is immediate and incredible. His lips are soft, wet, and perfect moving against Arthur’s, and his hands are tender and careful at Arthur’s neck and jaw, and the heat of his body when Arthur pushes closer – god, it’s all so much better than even the most vivid of Arthur’s secret fantasies. He has a brief, half-hysterical notion that maybe he’s still asleep, maybe it’s just a dream, but then Merlin’s tongue traces along his lip and Arthur stops thinking about anything else.

Merlin kisses with the same enthusiasm and devotion as he does everything, and it leaves Arthur breathless. When Merlin breaks off to mouth across his cheek, his stubble coarse and tickling beautifully on Arthur’s skin, Arthur can barely gasp out,

“This – what I want – this, it’s this, you-” and Merlin makes a helpless little whimpering sound and Arthur wraps him in his arms, holds him close and tight like he’s longed to, and Merlin returns the embrace with equal ardor. For the first time in years, Arthur wants for nothing, because he has it all.

They stay like that, kissing and clinging to one another, until the heat and friction between them gets to be too much. Then Arthur falls back and Merlin tumbles down on top of him, hips rocking, and it’s been so long since anyone’s touched Arthur like this that he comes in his pants before Merlin can even get a hand between their bodies.

“Fuck, I – sorry,” Arthur groans, embarrassment warring with the euphoria of release. Merlin just smiles and kisses him.

“S’okay. Guess you’ll have to borrow my clothes again, though,” he says, laughter in his voice.

“Guess I will,” Arthur agrees, soaking up his amusement and mirroring it.

“Although…” Merlin gets this wicked gleam in his eye and sits back. He unbuttons Arthur’s shirt swiftly, shoves the vest up, and dips his head to lick Arthur’s nipple. “This time I can actually do that instead of just thinking about it.”

Arthur laughs, shuddering under the wet pressure of Merlin’s tongue. “That first day, you were…?”

“Mostly I was feeling like an idiot, but the thought did cross my mind.”

Arthur reaches out to cup Merlin’s face in his hands, feeling the scrape of stubble on his palms, and says, “You’re not an idiot. You’re – I –” He falters there, unsure of his words; Merlin smiles like he understands anyway, covers one of Arthur’s hands with his own, and rubs his thumb against the pulse point on Arthur’s wrist.

“Come to bed with me?” he asks, and Arthur nods.

*

In the morning – or early afternoon, more accurately, Arthur wakes again. This time he is in a bed, though not his own – this one is far too large and luxurious. He’s disoriented for the barest moment, and then Merlin settles, exhaling on Arthur’s neck and curling closer around Arthur’s back, and Arthur feels as though he could cry at the sheer wonder of it. He doesn’t, though, just turns in Merlin’s arms and breathes him in and revels in this heretofore unknown sense of peace and contentment.

*

Sixteen Fridays later, when the lease on Arthur’s lousy flat comes up for renewal, Merlin asks him to move in instead.

*

Twelve Fridays (and a weekend) after that, Arthur begins a part-time course for a master’s degree in philosophy. It’s safe to say that this time, his flat-mate (and boss, and drinking buddy, and lover) is a friend for life.

 
 
(Deleted comment)
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:37 am (UTC)
Thank you! It's always fun to change up the dynamic a bit. :D
epiphanyx7 on August 12th, 2009 06:34 am (UTC)
This was very sweet.
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:37 am (UTC)
Thank you!
dk323@LJ: Merlin Arthur [pink heart]dk323 on August 12th, 2009 06:39 am (UTC)
I like how you wrote the role reversal - I don't read many role reversal fics, but I'm glad I read this one. :) It worked out nicely. I like how the ending was tied to the beginning with Arthur's musings on not having success with roommates. But of course, with Merlin, that all changed. Everything came full circle. :)
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:39 am (UTC)
Thanks for giving it a shot, and I'm glad you enjoyed it! And it's lovely to hear that the full-circle aspect came though. Thank you!
Ximeriaximeria on August 12th, 2009 06:42 am (UTC)
This coupled with my morning coffee? Thank you for brightening up my morning XD - Cute and perfectly slow ^_^
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:39 am (UTC)
Aw, thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :D
Bess Farris: Smug arthurmeewunk on August 12th, 2009 06:43 am (UTC)
D'awww. That was adorable.
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:39 am (UTC)
:D Thank you!
FayJay: Merlin merlinpandarus on August 12th, 2009 06:50 am (UTC)
That was ADORABLE.
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:39 am (UTC)
Thank you! :D
espresso bandito: Merlin/Arthurfresica on August 12th, 2009 07:17 am (UTC)
That last line made me smile like a giddy, well, fangirl. :D

I still love how well you've managed to keep Arthur in character, and you did a fantastic job with Merlin, as well. I think the best part, though, was Arthur feeling so smitten and vulnerable. It was too adorable, especially when it became obvious that Merlin felt the same way and they were just dancing around each other.

Definitely one for the memories.
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:44 am (UTC)
\o/ I am always glad to hear of smiles!

And gah, thank you so much! (For commenting before, as well!) It's wonderful to hear that Arthur still felt like Arthur, and that their UST dance worked. Thanks! :D
Kathyh: Kathyh Merlin M&Akathyh on August 12th, 2009 09:08 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed that. It was very refreshing to see the roles reversed and for them still to be in character :)
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank you! So glad it worked for you. :D
FOR TRUTH, CONSISTENCY, AND THE EM DASH.: arthurvensre on August 12th, 2009 09:11 am (UTC)
::beams:: I might have known this was you! It's absolutely lovely. D'you know when you're reading a love story and it kind of makes your wrists ache with anticipation and bliss? That.
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:07 pm (UTC)
:D Oh, I do, and that's such a wonderful thing to hear, thank you so much!
Starrienitestarrienite on August 12th, 2009 09:49 am (UTC)
gaaaaaaah! *insert happy tears here*
That was just utterly gorgeous! and...oh boys! <3 They were perfect and even though they were switched around they still *acted* like they would (or how i think they would anyway) in those situations. Wonderful, utterly wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing ^_^ <3<3<3
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! I'm thrilled they both seemed like themselves in spite of the differing circumstances. :D
Angieancaangie on August 12th, 2009 09:51 am (UTC)
OMG!!!
That is so romantic!!!!!!!
Wonderful and so sweet :)
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much!
Michou: Merlin - Merlin - Friendvirginhuntress on August 12th, 2009 10:26 am (UTC)
Seriously TOO CUTE. I really love this, esp. since Merlin is exactly the type to do such things with loads of money, haha. :D
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you! He really does strike me as the incredibly generous type, regardless of the situation.
lupus_malus on August 12th, 2009 10:58 am (UTC)
Aaaaah! That was completely wonderful. I love what you have done with the characters and the journey you took them on. An absolute joy to read. Thank you.
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank you so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.
Maz: Dovethismaz on August 12th, 2009 11:03 am (UTC)
Congratulations on reversing the dynamic, but maintaining both the characters (albeit changed by circumstance) and the overall happy mood of the series. I *really* enjoyed that.
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)
Ahhh, thank you so much! That's absolutely wonderful to hear. Thank you.
frames_in_aria: Arthur - smileframes_in_aria on August 12th, 2009 11:13 am (UTC)
♥ ♥ ♥ Loved it; the pace was perfect and it sent warm tinglings to my tummy XD
Eliot Prufrock: Arthursrin on August 12th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Hooray warm tinglings. :D