It was precisely 21:36, almost exactly 43 minutes since he'd first been dragged into the pub by his well-meaning but clueless friends, when Merlin first caught a glimpse of salvation.
He was alone at the bar, which wasn't always a good sign; in Merlin's experience, most people who came out to pubs or clubs alone were either depressing drunks just looking for the first sap to pour their depressing life stories to – really, Merlin could only listen to so many people wailing about how Auntie Maud didn't love them and their pet gerbil got eaten by the cat before he suggested they leave the pub together for a joint suicide – or unsuccessful lotharios, alone on the town so as not to have their pulling technique ridiculed by their friends. Luckily, this guy didn't seem to fit into either of these two categories. For a start, he wasn't crying to the bartender, which was definitely a mark in his favour. He also wasn't staring morosely into a pint glass while tracing the name of his lost love with his finger onto the scratched wooden surface of the bar, which was also a plus. He wasn't dressed like he was out on the pull either. He looked more like he'd just come from work, some boring office job in the city. If Merlin had to guess, he'd say he was probably a lawyer, or one of those men who seems to spend all day lounging in an office, ordering around blonde receptionists and exasperated brunette personal assistants without ever appearing to do any actual work themselves.
He didn't have any time to ponder. It was now or never. This was life or death, and Merlin wanted to live.
Crossing his fingers behind his back, he approached the man at the bar. He tapped him on the shoulder nervously, and the man turned around. He looked rather peeved and Merlin hoped he hadn't misjudged. There was always the third option; this man was some sort of Jeffrey Dahmer-esque serial killer, a lunatic who hunted for his victims in crowded, dilapidated English pubs.
Merlin realised that this was not likely.
"Excuse me, mate," he began, swallowing hard and nearly choking on a mouthful of saliva. The man raised an eyebrow, and Merlin realised that this was it; he was either going to get mugged and killed tonight after making a complete tit of himself in front of this man, or he was going to be forced to go home with an obese, depressive divorcee. He didn't know which option was less appealing.
"Yes?" the man said, and Merlin remembered that he hadn't actually said anything after 'excuse me'. Sometimes, it surprised even him that he managed to survive each 24 hour period.
"Oh, sorry. Words. Yeah. Well, this is going to sound a bit weird, and I'm sorry about that – "
"I've resigned myself to that," the man interrupted, and was that a smile? No time for that. Merlin pressed on.
"Yeah, well, I'm here with a few of my friends – "
In a stunning example of Merlin's friends' timing skills, a loud cheer was heard from the back of the pub. The man smirked, noting Merlin's horrified reaction to the noise, and pulled out the stool next to him.
"I see the problem," he said. "Your friends are crap at being human beings and you want to start afresh in society, with a new circle of friends, preferably ones whose parents can read and aren't first cousins. I can see that I would be the most attractive option in this pub. I am, after all, incredibly rich and handsome."
Well, it looked like this guy fell into category number four; suspiciously sober, arrogant prat. Unfortunately, he was also an incredibly rich and handsome prat, and Merlin had always been irritatingly partial to those. He resigned himself to his fate and pulled the stool out a little further.
"If you keep that up, I'll be sick all over your tie," Merlin muttered, sitting down. The man grinned and shrugged, picking up his almost empty pint glass and swilling the contents around.
"Go ahead. My sister bought it for me. You'd only be finishing what the pattern started," he replied. Merlin choked on thin air. Definitely a prat.
"I'll remember that," he managed to say. "Anyway, if I may finish. My friends seem to be under the impression that I… well, need a little help, and – "
"They want you to get laid, basically," the man interjected, and Merlin glared at him, meeting his eye for the first time. They were quite blue, and Merlin made a mental note to definitely not remember that.
"If you'll stop interrupting me, I think we'll get this sorted out quickly," he continued. The man looked incredibly amused, but shut up, much to Merlin's great relief. "Basically, yes. They've made it their mission impossible to find me some lonely bint to take home tonight, and they won't take no for an answer. Is there any way I can sit with you for a bit? Pretend that I know you, we're old friends or something, you know. Just until they get bored and stumble onwards to the next pub without me, and I can go home and eat takeaway in my pants until I fall asleep. Alone. Please. I will do anything. Well, not anything, but some things. I'll buy you a pint, if you want. Or I'll find you a random bint. I'm a great wingman, I've been told. Sorry. I'll be quiet now. But yeah. Help me. Please?"
Throughout Merlin's desperate plea, the grin on the man's face grew wider, and by the end he was trying unsuccessfully to hold back a laugh. Merlin sighed. He'd never get out of it at this rate. He'd wind up being dragged home with a 6ft tall woman with a beard – usually not a huge diversion from his type, apart from the downstairs area – and left alone with her outside his building, and have his wallet stolen and his groin bruised when he tried to explain the situation to her. He'd probably never have children. His friends would find that hilarious, no doubt.
"I'll do it."
It took a few seconds for that to register. Merlin looked up sharply from where he'd been scratching swearwords into the bar with his fingernail.
"I said I'll do it," the man repeated. "You look desperate. I give millions to charity every year, but I've fallen a bit short this month, for reasons completely out of my control. You can be my karmaic rescue. You can thank me by buying me a pint."
Merlin had to physically restrain himself in order to stop himself from grabbing the man and kissing him full on the mouth in gratitude.
"Thank you!" he beamed, and the man rolled his eyes.
"Jesus, you look like a puppy," he said. "An actual puppy. With fur and legs and a tail and everything."
"I do have legs," Merlin pointed out.
"I'm pleased for you," the man responded, smiling widely now. He didn't seem like such a prat after all, Merlin thought. He held his hand out and the man shook it.
"Merlin," said Merlin.
"No, Arthur," said Arthur.
"No, I'm Merlin," said Merlin.
"And I'm Arthur," said Arthur.
Merlin was about to question the IQ of this man when he noticed that Arthur was still grinning, positively manically by now, and he sighed.
"So I'm lumbered with a comedian for the foreseeable future," he said. "May God have mercy."
"There is no God," Arthur corrected. "And it's not for long. Your friend is here."
Merlin turned around to see a drunken Lancelot stumbling towards him, his arm around a pretty dark-haired girl, who actually seemed thrilled to be in the presence of such an attractive, charming drunkard.
"Merrrrrlin!" he slurred. "This is Gwen. I like her. She's nice. I like nice people. S'why I like you, you know."
"I like you for your marvellous way with words," said Merlin, and Arthur laughed. He had slipped easily into the role of Merlin's friend, and Merlin congratulated himself on choosing such a good actor for the part.
"Who's that?" Lance asked, furrowing his brow in confusion and gesticulating towards Arthur. Unfortunately, he chose to gesture with the arm that was currently wrapped around Gwen's waist, causing her to stumble forwards. Merlin grabbed her arm, steadying her. Lance didn't notice.
"I'm Arthur," said Arthur, apparently realising that Merlin was otherwise occupied. "Merlin's friend."
Lance narrowed his eyes, probably attempting to look mildly threatening but instead looking as though he needed to visit an optician urgently.
"Merlin's never mentioned an Arthur," he challenged. Arthur shrugged.
"Well, he wouldn't have," he said. "We haven't seen each other for… God, what is it Merlin? Five years, would you say?"
"About that," Merlin nodded. Lance looked satisfied, and made to walk away, probably to satisfy Gwen. Merlin expected that would be the end of it, but Arthur clearly had other plans.
"We haven't seen each other since that incident with my sister," he sighed. Lance turned around curiously. Merlin looked shocked. Gwen looked bored. Arthur looked tragic.
"Your sister?" Merlin choked out.
"Oh, come on, Merlin. It's been years. Surely you're ready to talk about it by now?" said Arthur. "Although God knows it's not easy for me either. You broke her heart, Merlin. You really did."
This was not exactly going to plan. Merlin could do nothing but sit there, mouth unattractively agape, while Arthur continued, staring forlornly at the ceiling of the pub. Lance's eyes widened. Even Gwen looked interested now.
"You broke her heart? I haven't heard any of this! What did you do?"
It was suspicious how Lance seemed sober as soon as there was the chance for gossip, Merlin thought bitterly.
"He tore her heart out of her chest, walked all over it, then buried it in the sand along with the dog shit," Arthur carried on, a note of despair creeping into his voice. Merlin felt his life expectancy shorten. Embarrassment could kill you, right? It certainly felt like it. He didn't think he'd have any objection to that. He rather wanted the ground to open up and swallow him.
"Merlin!" Lance exclaimed, surprised. He turned to Arthur. "Who's your sister?" he asked. "Did I know her?"
Arthur nodded glumly.
"Well, sort of. She's Morgana le Fay," he said, and if Merlin hadn't known better, he'd have thought that the note of sadness in the voice of his new 'friend' was genuine.
Lance's eyes were now so wide that Merlin feared he would have to make that visit to the optician after all.
"You're kidding!" he cried. Arthur shook his head. "No, but really, mate! You're actually joking! You're having me on! You have got to be pulling my leg!"
"I'm not," he said flatly. "Although sometimes it feels like life is pulling mine."
Lance shook his head slowly.
"Well, Merlin," he said. "I never knew you had it in you. Arthur, fairplay for still being his friend, mate, even after all that. You look like you genuinely like him, and all."
Merlin opened his mouth to protest, but Arthur glared at him and mouthed something that looked like 'fresh juice', but probably wasn't. Lance continued.
"Anyway, I'd love to stay and hear the whole sordid story, but Gwen and I have got… erm, a prior engagement. At – where was it?"
"The library," Gwen said, entirely unconvincingly.
"Yeah, we're getting some books out for my course. At the 24 hour library. Together."
Arthur raised an eyebrow again, and Merlin's stomach did a funny thing which generally meant something very bad and which he'd rather not think about.
"I'll tell you about it tomorrow," he promised, hoping beyond hope that Lance was too drunk to remember the conversation in the morning.
"You'd better. See you, Arthur," Lance said, tightening his hold on Gwen, giving some unco-ordinated sort of salute to Arthur and walking away from a very bewildered Merlin and his rather smug-looking new acquaintance.
Merlin turned to look at Arthur angrily.
"What was all that about?" he asked. "Now my friends will think I'm some sort of… I don't know. A love rat!"
Arthur actually threw back his head and laughed. Merlin hadn't known people really did that. Apparently, if they were blonde, arrogant and annoyingly attractive, they did.
"Merlin, my new oldest and dearest friend, I don't think they'll ever believe such a thing," he said. Merlin sighed. He'd forgotten that Arthur was also a huge, horrible bastard.
"Still," he said. "Where did that come from?"
Arthur drew a happy face in the condensation on his now empty pint glass.
"I was doing you a favour," he said. "You're gay, right?"
Merlin did that thing he did when he was surprised and accidentally inhaled far too much air. Arthur patted his back while he spluttered. Well, this was life-destroyingly humiliating.
"Why would you think that?" he eventually managed to splutter.
Arthur removed his hand from Merlin's person and drummed his fingers on the bar.
"Please," he said, sounding slightly offended. "You're a single male in a pub whose friends are trying to find him a girl to shag, and you're not happy about it. When looking for an escape route, you ignore the myriad of other singletons here and head straight for me, the undeniably gorgeous and evidently rich man at the bar. You also haven't heard of Morgana le Fay. You, my friend, are by all means a raving homosexual."
Merlin opened his mouth to protest the offensiveness of that remark, if not the validity of it – there wasn't much point in lying now, not when he'd already been so thoroughly sussed – but he was interrupted by Arthur for what seemed like the thousandth time.
"However," Arthur continued. "Your friends were looking for a female for you to lie with tonight, and presumably not for swapping secrets and eating Ben & Jerry's ice cream with a ladle on the sofa whilst talking about your feelings, so obviously you haven't told them that you're gay. Which is fine, don't look at me like I'm judging you or anything – I mean, I am, but it's for the haircut, not the sexuality crisis – but presumably you don't want me to out you to your clueless brethren, so I invented a desperate and doomed love affair with my sister, the world famous underwear model, to boost your reputation of rampant heterosexuality. You're welcome, by the way."
Merlin stared at him, wide-eyed and wordless. Arthur smirked.
"What… how?" he eventually asked.
"I'm just the world's best anti-wingman," Arthur responded. Merlin looked at him blankly. "I'm a lawyer, Merlin. I notice things. I usually get paid to do it, though, so I feel slightly used, if I'm honest."
Merlin ignored him.
"And you still don't mind sitting here with me?" he questioned. "Even though, as you so eloquently put it, you're the self-proclaimed Prince Charming at the bar and I'm the lonely queer?"
Arthur smiled, slightly sadly, Merlin thought.
"Despite popular opinion and initial appearances, I am not a massive douchebag," he replied. "Actually, I'm quite a nice bloke, albeit a nice bloke with abs of steel and a jawline you could use to cut glass."
Merlin rolled his eyes. Arthur beamed.
"You owe me a pint, by the way," he added.
They'd been drinking for just over an hour, although truthfully, not much alcohol had been consumed. It was hard to drink a lot when you were constantly talking. At least, that was the case with Merlin. Arthur hadn't said a lot. He'd listened patiently to Merlin's rant about his flatmate, Gwaine – 'too loud in the shower, and he only eats chips, which leaves a stain afterwards, if you get my drift' – and his lamenting over the end of the relationship with his last boyfriend – 'he wanted me to start wearing a suit when I went to visit him at work, can you imagine?' – but hadn't responded with any similar anecdotes about himself.
Eventually, Merlin had had enough. He was starting to worry that he sounded like one of those people who spoke so much about themselves that they actually melted the brains of all those within earshot.
"So, what about you? You mentioned you had a sister. What's she like?" he asked, and immediately regretted it as he saw Arthur stiffen, his hand curl around his glass more tightly.
"She's fine, I'm sure," he said curtly. "I wouldn't really know."
Merlin knew he shouldn't pry, but the beer wouldn't shut up.
"But she's your sister," he said. "You must know how she is!"
Arthur looked at him.
"Must I? I haven't spoken to her in over a year, Merlin. There's not really a 'must' about anything."
He traced the rim of his glass and remained silent.
"I'm sorry," Merlin mumbled, looking down at his pint glass, and Arthur sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
"No, it's OK," he sighed. "You didn't ask me anything you shouldn't expect someone to answer. She's fine. I saw her on a billboard in London last week – at least, I think it was her, I could only see her boobs and that's not the part of my sister I'm most familiar with – so I assume she's doing all right for herself. And of course, there was the tie. She sent me that for my birthday a few weeks ago, even though my birthday is in January. It's from Selfridges though, so I suppose she's paying the rent."
Merlin wasn't sure how to respond to that.
"Well," he said, and didn't say anything else.
Arthur looked at him.
"You know, I think that's the longest I've managed to get you to shut up for all night," he mused. "Maybe I should talk about my sister's poor life choices more often."
"Is it a poor life choice, though?" he asked. He knew he was treading on dangerous ground here, but he'd told Arthur about the time he tried to pick up a man at a bar by talking about the growth cycle of the tomato plant, so he figured he was owed something. "I mean, some women find it empowering."
"I don't," Arthur retorted. "And neither does my father, which, coincidentally, is why she does it. You know, I don't think I'd mind half as much if I knew she was doing it for the money, or because she enjoyed it somehow. Instead, I know she's doing it to spite our dear old dad, and that makes it rather hard to stomach somehow."
Merlin was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to hug his new friend, but he thought he might earn himself an odd look at the very least, and he rather liked how Arthur had been looking at him so far.
"I take it she doesn't get on with your dad, then."
Arthur laughed coldly at that.
"No-one does. Not even me."
Merlin nodded slowly. The desire to offer a hug was becoming almost too much to bear.
"I don't want to pry," he said. "But… why? I mean, blood is thicker than water, right? I can't imagine not getting on with my family."
"Then you're very lucky," Arthur responded bitterly. "If you met Uther, you'd understand. He's just one of those people who it would be easier to stab repeatedly in the face and bury in a shallow grave than be polite to. Even you'd have a hard time being nice to him."
"Well, you've done a pretty good job of not being an arsehole so far, and I've been informed that I'm more like my father than I'd care to admit."
Merlin had to grin at that, and resisted the impulse to say that if Arthur was anything like his father then his father couldn't be all that bad. If he'd been about to say it, he'd never have to admit it, because the bartender had other ideas.
After they'd been kicked out of the pub – had they really been there for that long? Closing time seemed to get earlier and earlier these days – things grew slightly awkward. They stood around the closed doors of the pub for a few moments, Merlin feeling stupidly cold in his long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans. Merlin felt bad leaving Arthur alone, especially as he'd been the one to drag him into all this. He presumed Arthur was worried Merlin might feel so lonely once he got home that he'd take a knife to his wrist or something. He shivered, and Arthur tutted.
"You're going to lose a finger to frostbite if you're not careful, you idiot," he sighed, shrugging off his coat and handing it to Merlin. Merlin started to refuse the offer, but Arthur shook his head. "In the great Rock, Paper, Scissors game of life, warm suit jacket beats thin cotton shirt," Arthur rationalised, and Merlin couldn't fault that logic, wrapping himself in the impossibly warm fabric. It smelt nice, too. Sort of like tealeaves and then Merlin realised he was essentially admiring Arthur's smell and that was creepy and he really ought to stop.
"So," Merlin said.
"Well, you paid me back," Arthur pointed out. "I believe the deal was a lifesaving sacrifice for a pint, and I think we both honoured our ends."
"I suppose we did," he said. He felt a bit odd, like he'd left something important inside the pub, but that was impossible because he was Merlin Emrys and the most valuable thing he carried around with him was a book of stamps in case he realised he had to send an impromptu postcard to his mother.
"You know, it feels a bit like the end of a date," Arthur said, amused. Merlin felt the blood rush to his head.
"Yes, all right, you spent a few hours drinking with a homosexual," he pouted. "I'm sure it felt exactly like a date. I'll be off now to find another straight man to project all my homoerotic fantasies onto. You know, I'm not so sad that I have to pretend to be on dates with everybody with a penis who happens to talk to me. I can find dates myself. I usually do, but obviously my friends don't know that, which is why they thought they needed to give me a helping hand. They didn't. Need to. Give me a helping hand, I mean. I give myself that. And not in THAT way, so stop looking at me like that."
Arthur raised his eyebrow, and Merlin really wished he'd stop doing that before he was forced to admit to himself that yes, it was actually quite nice to look at.
"That fortunate straight man would be the first you'd met this evening," Arthur said, and he looked like he was trying not to laugh. "Oh dear. I can see where I made my first mistake. It's the first mistake I've made in a few years, of course, so you can see why it wouldn't sink in straightaway. Merlin, I have never made a secret of the fact that I am an equal opportunist."
"You should never assume something like that about someone, Merlin," Arthur scolded, but he was smiling rather a lot and Merlin didn't think he was in trouble really so he didn't say anything. "I mean, obviously I assumed you were gay, but I'm allowed to assume things because I am always right. It's one of my few flaws. But you, Merlin, are many things, although psychic isn't one of them. I can forgive you for that, however, because one of the things you are is hilarious, and another thing that you are is good-looking, and I could list more things but we've already spent hours talking and I have work at 9am, which only gives me eight hours to do that, and I don't think that's enough time, really."
Merlin didn't understand, and presumably made this very obvious by his facial expression, because Arthur put his hands on Merlin's shoulders and looked right into his eyes and this was becoming quite awkward and lovely and surprising all at once.
"I am actually happy that your friends tried to get you laid tonight," Arthur said steadily. "And that they were ultimately unsuccessful, because I am going to kiss you now if that's OK, and even if it isn't, I'm going to anyway because you only live once, you know, unless you're Jack Harkness or – "
Merlin kissed him instead.
It was only a few hours later as Merlin sat in the kitchen, looking at the telephone number he'd pinned onto the noticeboard and smiling rather dreamily into space, that he realised he'd never given Arthur his coat back, and damnit, he'd have no other choice but to see him again as soon as possible in order to return it.