(Chapter contains some violence.)
The first time could probably be considered the most dramatic.
Arthur pushed the door open. The sounds of the party on the floor above floated down to him. He wondered why the hell he had let Morgana talk him into coming to the damn thing. It hadn't taken long to work out why she had wanted him to come, once her blonde, buxom friend Sophia had pounced. After years of his boyfriends, Arthur would have thought Morgana had the idea by now. As he snarled that at her in a low tone the smirk on her face told him everything. She could be an evil-minded mare at times, he thought, pulling the cigarette packet out of his pocket.
At least that was one method of getting rid of them. A socially unacceptable habit. Sometimes they followed him out, but a minute or so of 'accidentally' blowing smoke on people usually got rid of them. Unless of course they smoked themselves, but that problem didn't seem to present itself very often. Arthur propped himself against a wall and flicked his lighter, inhaling heavily. There were probably healthier ways of getting rid of people, but this one he liked. It annoyed his father if nothing else. And Sophia thankfully hadn't followed.
The view he had wasn't inspiring as he looked around the car park that served the flats. There were a few feeble looking bushes planted around in an attempt to beautify the place. Arthur decided it didn't work. Taking another deep drag he considered just wandering off and leaving the party, and Morgana. Then again, she probably had no money for a taxi and he'd end up getting a four in the morning phone call and a demand to come and pick her up. He had better go and give her some money before he left.
It could have been a fairly good party if he had been able to pin down the dark-haired boy that had caught his eye. He had spotted him looking over a few times as well. Arthur had almost met him in the kitchen, brushing against him in the doorway. Before Arthur could say anything though, there had been a loud bellow from the hallway, by the lounge door.
"Merlin, come on with those drinks!"
At least Arthur had learnt his name, and an unusual one at that. He had also felt, thanks to the close contact of the doorway, Merlin tense, his entire body going rigid and there had been a dark flash in his eyes as his head had turned in the direction of the shout. He had recovered quickly, flashing Arthur an apologetic, and slightly cheeky, grin before easing past him. Arthur stood a little closer than necessary so Merlin had to push him aside.
"Sorry," Merlin had muttered.
"Don't be," Arthur had drawled and as his eyes followed Merlin, struggling along with two beer bottles in each hand Arthur had received a death glare from the person who had shouted at Merlin. Arthur looked back at him impassively, he looked vaguely familiar. Arthur watched as he snatched one of the beers from Merlin, and then as Merlin passed the other two out the man put an arm around him possessively. He had also by the look of it demanded to know what the incident was all about. Merlin had glanced back at Arthur, and then turned to his companion. Arthur saw the ripple of tension again, which was then masked by a casual shrug, and Arthur went into the kitchen for another strong drink as he spotted Sophia, and two of her friends, coming after him.
He'd almost got him again at the bathroom but Gwen, one of Morgana's friends whom he could actually stand, had come over to him, and the moment was lost. At least he had got some answers from her.
"Who's the dark-haired guy, Merlin is it?"
"Oh, he's really sweet," Gwen said, guessing Arthur's interest immediately. Arthur couldn't entirely work out why Gwen had ended up friends with Morgana. Gwen was nice. "He's started work at the book shop."
Arthur nodded. "Who's the guy he's with?"
Gwen's face fell. "Oh, Cain, yeah, they've been together a couple of years. Well, Merlin's with him, Cain's not always…" Gwen shrugged, tailing off and looking a little embarrassed. "You had a run in with him once."
"Did I? He does look familiar, but I don't remember that. I probably didn't like him I guess."
"That could be because you don't really like anyone," Gwen said grinning. Arthur had frowned at her.
"Are you trying to tell me I'm anti-social? And it's not true anyway, I like you."
"Thank you," Gwen said smiling a genuinely happy smile. Arthur grinned back, until Gwen peered around him and her eyes widened in mock drama. "Careful, blonde at two o'clock and closing!"
"Christ!" Arthur said in alarm. "Definitely time to be anti-social, I'm off for a smoke!"
He hadn't seen Merlin as he passed through the party, pondering Gwen's comments. It was probably true he didn't like many people. A good number didn't like him. His reputation probably didn't help. All of Morgana's friends heard about him, and it spread well enough after that.
Arthur now debated his options. Go back in and spend the rest of the night dodging Sophia and perhaps run into Merlin long enough to get more than one word out of him, go home and leave Morgana completely or risk going back in to tell her he was leaving and perhaps say goodbye to Gwen.
As that went through his mind Arthur looked up sharply as he heard sounds from outside on the street. The first one was clear enough, it was definitely the sound of a fist connecting. That was something he knew well enough, the scuffle that followed was whoever received the punch staggering or falling. With a frown Arthur wandered out to see what was going on in time to see Merlin take a second punch, a hard blow that caught his cheekbone and put him down on the floor.
"Cain, don't," Merlin said, bringing up his arms to protect his head. Cain stood over him, with his back to Arthur, fists clenched, planning to use them again Arthur assumed. He waited a moment.
"I saw you, flirting with that spoilt brat Arthur Pendragon!"
"I wasn't, I didn't even speak to him," Merlin said, staying very still. Arthur guessed it was probably his best defence most of the time. This time however was different.
"I do have to say, I get called a lot of things, but I haven't heard 'brat' in a long while, and certainly not from someone who is, I think, younger than me."
Cain spun round and Arthur flicked the cigarette at him, regretting it, since Cain didn't seem to notice, and Merlin, who had lifted his head, flinched a little.
"And I don't really think saying one word to me counts as flirting, and I think in all technicality, it was me attempting to flirt with him."
"Are you trying to be funny?" Cain snarled. Arthur raised his eyebrows.
"A lot of people will probably point out that comedy is not my best point, and those with a brain would have already been running by now."
Cain didn't reply, the front door to the flats burst open and Gwen, Morgana and Will, the owner of the bookstore where Arthur now knew Merlin worked, burst out. They looked at the scene including Merlin on the floor, and then Morgana yelped.
Cain's punch was swift, and he hadn't been paying attention, half thinking that they might accuse him of attacking Merlin and Cain just defending him. The punch however changed everything. Arthur felt the power of it, and Cain's fist was meaty enough but it would take more than that to get him down. The cold rush of anger swirled in his mind and as Cain's second punch was thrown Arthur deflected it and slammed one of his own into Cain's gut, doubling the man over. Arthur then stepped back and waited, eyes drifting to Gwen and Will who were picking Merlin up off the floor. Merlin was watching the scene with wide eyes, like a rabbit caught in headlights. Gwen's eyes flickered with contempt as she looked at Cain.
A second later the man recovered and went at Arthur again. Arthur almost looked bored as he sidestepped, smashed one fist into Cain's ribs and then shifted and punched him hard on his face, sending him reeling over. It also meant he was between Merlin and Cain as the second man stood up. He looked at Arthur and then glared past him to Merlin. Arthur side-stepped again so he had Cain's attention.
"I suggest you go away before I really lose my temper," Arthur announced. He heard the door shut behind him and guessed that everyone had disappeared inside, leaving them alone in the street. Cain's eyes flickered from Arthur to the door and eventually settled on Arthur.
"I won't forget this."
"Oh, am I terrified," Arthur said. Cain smirked.
"Not you I'm thinking of." His eyes flickered to the door once again, the hint obvious before he turned and started to walk away. Unless Arthur decided to pummel him senseless he didn't think there was much he could do, and as tempting as that was Arthur felt more inclined to go to Merlin. So he went back in.
The party had subdued completely and as Arthur pushed his way through the crowd in the living room, picking up a nearby ice bucket and a scarf he knew to be Morgana's as he went, he heard Gwen say.
"You shouldn't put up with it, Merlin."
At least no one was going to accuse him of anything, Arthur thought. He got his way to the sofa where Merlin was wedged between Gwen and Will. Will was trying to look at Merlin's face. People cleared the way as Arthur moved through, all except one and he got round Morgana by elbowing her firmly out of the way. Merlin looked up startled by Arthur's sudden appearance. He put the ice down and reached to take Merlin's chin so he could get a look at the damage.
"It's fine," Merlin said.
"I'll be the judge of that," Arthur told him, probing the area around Merlin's cheekbone.
"Well, you're an expert in fight injuries aren't you?" Morgana snapped at him. Arthur didn't reply, instead he concentrated on probing Merlin's cheekbone. He winced now and again, but didn't complain about the pain. Getting no response, Morgana carried on.
"I mean that brawl with Leon that time said it all."
"Shut up, Morgana," Arthur said, his voice ice cold. He didn't look away from Merlin, so he saw him tense at the tone of voice, even if it wasn't meant for him. Arthur let him go and straightened up.
"It's not broken."
Merlin looked up at him steadily. "I know." In a voice that said he really did know.
"Is there anything else?" Gwen asked. Merlin shook his head.
"No," Arthur said backing him up as he reached for some ice and got his own back on Morgana by wrapping her scarf around it.
"Hey, that's mine!" she snapped.
"And it's going to a good cause," Arthur said, and turned to address Gwen. "He only punched him twice, one I heard, and the second I saw. At least my anti-social habit is good for something. Keep that on there," he ordered Merlin, pressing the ice pack to his face. Merlin winced and did as he was told. Arthur picked up a few more ice cubes and rubbed them against the knuckles of his right hand.
"Are you all right?" Merlin suddenly asked him.
"Yeah, I'll be fine," Arthur said absently. As long as, of course, his father didn't spot the damage. Morgana raised her eyebrows, suddenly content to put aside the ongoing war she had with Arthur.
"I'll say you were drunk and crashed your hand into a wall while falling over, if daddy asks."
Arthur looked up and raised his eyebrows. They glared at each other for a moment before Merlin interrupted them in a gentle tone.
He turned to look, staring at Merlin's still wide eyes, one starting to swell slightly despite the ice-pack.
"Well, I honestly don't know what you thought you were doing, Arthur," Morgana snapped rudely. Arthur turned to glare at her. Most of the room stared at her in shock, anger or disbelief. Morgana, however, just had eyes for Arthur.
"I saw it. Why on earth did you pull that last punch?"