Merlin wanted very much to drink away his anxiety for the rest of the party; Arthur was getting more and more sloshed and seemed to be glaring daggers at him as each drink reached its end. And Mithian's mood was worsening as her boyfriend's belligerence intensified. Merlin had only seen him like this once before, and it was one of the most uncomfortable encounters he'd had with Arthur. And that said a lot.

In fact, if he remembered properly, that was the first and only "sort of" hug Arthur had ever given him: When the both of them were drunk. Arthur had said something particularly rude to Merlin, who, in a fit of anger, had swung at him. Arthur had easily dodged the punch, and grabbed his wrist, pulling Merlin to his chest. His arm was twisted upward uncomfortably, but Merlin didn't resist. He was, instead, frozen, surprised at their proximity. Arthur, then, gently let go and didn't move. Merlin had stepped away, an appropriate distance, and turned to face him. He was most surprised when Arthur wrapped one arm around him and pulled him close, saying "sorry… that was unfair." And that was that. Perhaps it was that moment that had etched Arthur's name into Merlin, a moment suspended, wherein Merlin could exactly pinpoint the second his simple crush turned into something more. Something worse.

Morgana remained by his side, placing a hand on Merlin's arm anytime she caught Arthur glaring at the two of them. Having sobered up mostly, Merlin could feel himself slipping into his previous mood of a couple months. The longing he felt for Arthur and the guilt (for some godforsaken reason) over semi-flirting with Percival perplexed him. Why should he feel guilty anyway? It's not like he and Arthur were together. They were barely even friends.

And yet, under the penetrative glare of Arthur, Merlin began to feel more and more uncomfortable, squirming as the glazed stare passed unprecedented judgement. Running a hand through his hair, Merlin excused himself from Morgana and retreated to his bedroom, hoping to find some sort of reprieve.

"I'll join you." Morgana said, determined.

"No." He replied, a little too forcefully. And while Morgana didn't look hurt from his tone, Merlin still took a moment to turn back and kiss her cheek. "No," he said, softer this time. "I just…" he heaved a sigh, "I want to be alone."

She knitted her eyebrows in sympathy and nodded in understanding. Squeezing his hand, Morgana offered a meek smile. "I'll be right out here when you're ready."

And how on earth could he ever be truly ready?

He nodded, expression wry, and headed to his room. He passed by Gwen, who reached out and placed her hand on his arm. "Are you —"

"Fine." Merlin shook her hand off, suddenly angry at how suffocated he felt. He made sure to give her a reassuring smile, but it slid off quickly as his eyes, yet again, met Arthur's. Something, Merlin wasn't sure what it was, but something was gnawing at his insides, rubbing him raw from that look. That look of contempt, or reprimand. And even though he had done nothing, Merlin still couldn't help but feel ashamed. It crept up on him and sat its unbearable weight on his shoulders as his mind raced about all the things Arthur was thinking about him.

"Just need a minute. I'm fine," he gritted out, and left before Gwen had a chance to say anything.

Fine. Again. Slippery slope, my friend. But he's fine.

Making sure to close the door quietly behind him, so as to not bring any attention to himself, Merlin turned to his room, feeling its size now more than ever. He fell onto his bed and buried his head under his pillow.

It's unclear how long he lay there, listening to the muffled party, the occasional shouts of laughter from Gwaine, or Mithian's ever annoying titter. He tightly squeezed his eyes shut, making absent notes of the dashes of colours that flitted across his vision. The shame in his gut hadn't left him; he couldn't even figure out why it was there. And he suddenly couldn't remember how he had felt before it appeared. Had he always felt this… heavy?

His phone rang, and all Merlin wanted to do was ignore it. Let it ring until it wouldn't, ever again. But he'd learned his lesson from Will and his mum, and knew that him ignoring them would not, in any possible way, help how he was feeling. The amount of energy it took to pick it up, press "Accept", and place it to his ear was draining.

"Hi, mum." His voice was gravel.

"Merlin,—" and he could hear the smile in her voice. The pride. It only made things worse. "— how are you?"

He rolled over onto his back while inhaling deeply. "M'fine."

The pause at the end of the line told him he wasn't as convincing as he'd hoped. "…are you sure? You don't sound fine."

Merlin faked a good-natured chuckle. "No, really. I'm just a bit tired. Mithian's party is a lot more trying than I thought it would be."

"Are people being nice?" And by "people", he knew she meant "Arthur". He stifled a groan of annoyance. Just stop! Everyone, just stop.

He hummed in feigned contentment, "yeah. It's really just my being tired. How are you?"

"I'm well." Her smile was detectable in her voice. Merlin's insides ached with envy. "I just wanted to call and check up."

Tears of frustration burned his eyes and he hastily swiped at them. He bit down on his lip to stave off the possible quiver in his voice. "I'm fine, mum. Thanks. But I should get back; don't want to be rude."

Hunith chuckled lightly. "You could never be that, dear."

They said their goodbyes, his mother saying she loved him, and Merlin only replying "you too". He wasn't sure what made him say that, but it felt dishonest to tell her how much he loved her when he was lying to her. It was easier when he was ignoring her; he didn't have to talk to her at all… didn't have to face her.

Covering his eyes with his hand, Merlin drew in a few shaky breaths until he felt his chest deflate to normal size. He swallowed thickly and gripped the phone in his other hand.

The door to his room opened, and Merlin sighed roughly. "Gwen, please just leave me alone."

She didn't reply. So he uncovered his eyes and leaned up on his forearms.


And there he was, swaying back and forth in his drunken haze. He was squinting at Merlin, almost looking morose.

"What, uh… What are you doing here?" And Merlin sat up straight, hoisting his legs over to the side of the bed to rest on the floor, to ground himself.

Arthur didn't answer. He just looked around. "V'never been in your room b'fore." He commented as he pushed the door closed. The alcohol and the slight tiredness that usually follows added a gruff quality to his voice, and Merlin felt heat pool in his groin.

Not wanting to make an ass of himself, Merlin shrugged. "S'nothing special." And he looked around, revaluing it as Arthur's eyes wandered over it: His desk, the blue accent wall against which his bed rested… and then they flitted to Merlin. Arthur squinted again.

"Why are you crying?"

Merlin's hand, which had been enclosed in the other on his lap, flew up and felt his cheeks, surprised. "Oh—" And they were, indeed, damp.

Unsure of how to answer, he just swiped at his eyes again, sniffled, and brought his hand back to the other, hoping that when Arthur woke up the next morning, he wouldn't remember this.

Please don't remember this.

It was silent as Arthur regarded him again, still looking troubled. The two didn't say anything as one looked at the other, tension thickening as each second passed. So Merlin tried again: "What are you doing here?"

Arthur shrugged, before procuring a bottle of beer that Merlin hadn't seen him holding and taking a sip. "Needed space."

Narrowing his eyes with confusion and skepticism, Merlin opened his mouth. "And why are you in my room?"

Pulling the bottle from his lips roughly, Arthur sneered, "what, am I not allowed to be here?" And a bit of beer dribbled down the side of his mouth.

Shocked, Merlin raised his hands in compliance. "Sorry," he said, suddenly even more upset. "I just thought you'd take refuge in your girlfriend's room."

He had meant it innocently enough, but immediately regretted it when Arthur's face twisted unpleasantly, obviously not happy with his comment. He felt like he'd been caught out by a school teacher, his stomach plummeting and his knees weakening.

"Fine, you wan' me to leave? I can fucking leave—" And Arthur turned around swiftly to fumble at the door. But his balance failed him and he fell against the wall.

Merlin was up in an instant, crossing the room and grabbing his forearms to steady him. The bottle of beer had fallen, its remaining contents spilt on the carpet. He made a mental note, along with a sigh, to clean that later.

Arthur, slumped against the wall, took a long time to recover. And when he did, he pushed himself closer to Merlin, breathing heavily. This was unfamiliar territory. And Merlin wasn't quite sure how to behave, what to do, what to say. A part of him, the self-preserving part of him, told him to find Morgana or Mithian. But he didn't want to. He just wanted this… this moment with Arthur. This moment where for once, Arthur was vulnerable, and Merlin had more clarity. Was that so wrong? Was that selfish?

After a moment, Arthur's hands, which had been against the wall, reached over to grip Merlin's upper arms. He lifted his head, eyes unfocused with inebriation, and stared at Merlin's face. Stomach dropping, Merlin could only look back, feeling his lungs constrict and his heart ache. He couldn't let go of him…he couldn't let go. He wouldn't be able to.

"Why…" Arthur's voice came out roughly, cracking with misuse. "Why do you like me?"

The room smothered him as shock took hold of him. He felt his mind obnubilate, slip into the surly bonds of dread as Arthur's words, as his true meaning scratched itself into his skin. He thought he'd bleed. Any semblance of control he'd had over his features abandoned him, and Merlin could feel the desperately stifled shame and embarrassment burst forth and flood his insides, a deluge suffocating him from the inside out. He swallowed nervously and looked away.

"I—" He took a shuddering breath and ignored the tear that fell. "I don't know," and Merlin looked back, willing himself to be brave and look into Arthur's eyes.

Both took a few moments, exchanging breaths; Arthur's laboured, Merlin's shaky.

When Arthur looked down between them, his hands clasped onto the other's upper arms, Merlin's on his forearms, he mumbled, as though he didn't want to say it: "V'not been a very good friend to you."

He was surprised to realize that, even though Arthur was admitting it, it didn't make him feel any better. He felt no relief. In fact, he felt worse, because that meant Arthur knew he was being unkind and still continued to do it. Still continued to spit cruel things at him, acid searing through his confidence. His being. At least with the thought that Arthur simply didn't know he was being mean, Merlin could hope that there was some sort of friendship between them.

But now their dynamic had shifted… a stranded man pining after the one who left him marooned.

He was so fucked up.

Afraid of breaking whatever the hell this was, Merlin closed his eyes and shook his head. "No, you haven't."

He felt more than heard Arthur take a deep breath, filling his chest. Almost as though he wasn't expecting Merlin's confirmation. Almost as though he'd hoped Merlin would deny it and shower him with good natured affection.

Normally, he would've. But Merlin couldn't give him that anymore. How could he, when he couldn't even give himself that?

"…m'sorry." Arthur spoke softly, sincerely, his grip on Merlin's arms tightening for a moment. Opening his eyes slowly, Merlin averted his gaze; he looked at Arthur's chest first, mustering the strength it took to finally lift his eyes to the other's again.

And he so badly wanted to say "I forgive you". So badly wanted to let it all be over, let Arthur stop knowing how he felt. Stop influencing how he felt. He wanted to just shrug it off and skip to the end where he wasn't an island, alone and desolate. But he couldn't. He couldn't give Arthur that. He couldn't give himself that. He deserved more.

So he lifted his shoulders helplessly, pausing for a second before dropping them, and didn't offer an acceptance or rejection. That's how it had to be. Neither "it's fine" or "it's not fine". Just… "fine".

And perhaps that was the only time "fine" was what Merlin meant.

Arthur's face had fallen, and he looked sad for himself, sad for Merlin. That clearly wasn't the reaction he'd hoped for. He'd hoped for more. So had Merlin.

When it seemed that all that could be said had been, Merlin looked away and released Arthur, safe in knowing they were both relatively steady on their feet. But Arthur didn't let go. Instead, he tightened his grip.

"Merlin," he said, giving his arms a shake.

Before he could look at him again, Arthur closed the distance between them, pressing his mouth against Merlin's.

Breath stolen from him, Merlin's eyes automatically fluttered shut. He felt his heart seize before breaking, instantly aware of the context surrounding them. He stepped back, burnt.

"What are you doing?!" He said, frantic.

Arthur looked at him belatedly, almost as though he, too, didn't know what he'd just done. "I—"

"Why did you do that?!" Merlin wiped at his mouth as the anxiety began to swell. His chest cracked open and spilled out, leaving himself smaller, lesser, a Matryoshka. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

Ripping his arms free, Merlin turned to the door and flung it open. In his aggression, the door thudded loudly against the wall.

"No, Merlin wait!"

The room was too small, his flat was too small… it was closing in on him. Too many walls, too many people, too hot. His head began to swim as he hurried to the front door.

He heard both Gwen and Morgana call his name, alarmed. Grabbing his coat, Merlin fumbled around, looking for his shoes. He couldn't find them. Where were his shoes? Why weren't they where he left them this afternoon? Where are his shoes why is there a pile of them there are too many shoes at this goddamn party where the fuck are his shoes?!

"What's happened?" Gwen asked loudly. She reached down and grabbed her own shoes before pulling her coat off the hanger.

"I can't—" the voice that escaped him sounded too loud, too foreign. It was high pitched, breathy. It didn't feel like he was doing any of these movements, any of these actions. "I can't find my shoes, Gwen!" He spoke at her before heaving in a desperate breath, trying to get as much air in his lungs as he could. Distantly, he noticed the noise of the party had lessened. "Where are—" But his breathing was coming out laboriously; he felt no air in his body, no knowledge of him being able to breathe. Scrambling, Merlin's hand skated over every pair he could find that was littering the foyer, but his panic made him overlook things, miss things. He needed to leave he had to leave get out it's too small in here — fuck fuck! "Where the fuck are my shoes?!"

Morgana's hand appeared in front of his eyes, then, holding his shoes. He ripped them from her grip and stumbled into the corridor, limbs a mess, hands shaking as he pulled his shoes on. He heard Morgana briskly order Gwen to go with him before she turned on her heels and stomped to Merlin's room.

The last thing he could hear before the door closed was Morgana's reverberant "What did you do to him!"

What did he do?

What did he do

"I can't—" His breathing caught in his throat, blocked the airway and wouldn't allow anything else to get through. His veins bulged, every single one too large for his skin, coursing through him, pushing his pulse into every corner of his body. "I can't breathe—"

Merlin knew they had made it out of the apartment; the noise had settled and it was cooler now. But he couldn't see anything other than the ground beneath him as he keeled over, trying to get his head between his legs.

He distantly heard Gwen hushing him, telling him to copy what she was doing, copy her breathing. "Watch, Merlin," And she inhaled loudly, straightening her back as Merlin stared ahead, and motioned for him to follow. He tried, stuttering through the blockage. She hunched as she exhaled, exaggerating every breath for Merlin to see. "Slow, Merlin. Sweetheart, you have to breathe."

No, he shook his head. Gwen, you don't understand he cannot breathe. Can you not see that? There's no air in here he can't he can't he can't

He felt himself shaking, every nerve ending trying to abandon the sinking ship that was Merlin. His pseudo inhales and exhales became rhonchi, almost like he were affected with bronchitis. A hand was pressed to his chest, trying feebly to force it to work.

His knees were bent slightly below him, feeling weightless and heavy at the same time as the blood roared through his body in violent rapidity.

Tears were being squeezed out of his eyes as he tried to push out air, allow some room in his lungs for oxygen to come in. Nausea bubbled at the top of his stomach, blotting over his esophagus, and suddenly every drink he'd had was vomited up on the streets. The force of his heaving paused his breathing, and the need to inhale after he was done allowed him the break necessary to draw in air, let it out.

Inout, Inout, Inout—

In out—

In, out—

"In… out"—

Gwen's voice registered in the deep confines of his mind, stretching to wherever he'd gone. And the cool, reassuring hand on his cheek guided him to her, arm stretched out in comforting help. They were out on the streets now, the cold air washing over him in soothing waves. The fog lifted, his eyesight sharpened, the roaring in his ears calmed.

His heart, though still racing, stopped raging in its cage, settled but alert.

He was leaning against the brick surface of his building, still doubled over. One hand was against his chest, the other had, at some point, gripped the building for security. After closing his eyes and giving himself a moment, he straightened and drew his hand away. And—

"Oh, Merlin, your hand."

In his frenzy, he'd gripped the stone so severely that the tips of his fingers, skin and nail, were shredded. Blood trickled lightly down his palm. He didn't know what to do.

Gwen dug into her pockets, took out a tissue and pressed it to his hand, telling him to keep it there until they could find a suitable alternative. Side stepping the vomit, she reached her arm around Merlin's torso and pulled him along. She ignored their usual café, determined to find a place for them to sit, undisturbed.

Merlin's arms, with one hand fisted, were wrapped around his stomach. He felt small as he hunched over, concaving his chest in until it hurt. Gwen's arm, supporting him, tightened and her other hand rested on his arms, lightly stroking them as they walked in silence.

After a time, they came across a coffee shop that was, thankfully, open 24 hours. Glancing at the clock above the cash register, Merlin was surprised to find it was only eleven in the evening. He'd thought he lost hours.

Gwen sat him at the booth furthest from the door before going up to the counter and ordering them both coffees. She came back, placed a steaming mug in front of him, and sat across from him.

She took a sip of her coffee. Two. Merlin stared at his, unmoving.

"Can you give me your hand?" She asked quietly. Robotically, Merlin stretched his arm out to her, offering his bloodied hand. As she pulled the tissue away from his fingers, it tore from the stickiness, leaving bits and pieces on his skin. She sighed. "We need to wash this."

Nodding, Merlin got up and went to the loo. He turned the tap water to hot, searing hot, and placed his fingers under the stream. It stung, from the exposure, but the heat didn't bother him. From the corner of his eye, Merlin could see his reflection moving in the mirror. But he didn't look at it. He couldn't look at himself.

When he returned, he noticed that Gwen had moved to his side of the booth, leaving room for him to sit beside her. He stiffly sat himself next to her and offered his hand again. She surveyed it and tutted softly.

"I don't have a plaster. I can ask the lady—"

"Leave it." Merlin ordered. He stared at the fraying material of the booth in front of him. "Doesn't matter."

Gwen frowned at him but didn't reply. She curled her fingers around his hand and lowered them to the table. She didn't ask any questions. She just ran her thumb over his palm gently and sipped from her mug.

After a few minutes of silence, Gwen pushed Merlin's coffee to him. "You should drink something. Get that nasty taste out of your mouth."

He didn't even realize how his mouth was coated with his bile until she said that. He gripped the handle of the mug in his uninjured hand and finally drank.

Merlin couldn't look at her. The memory of it all flashed guilt through him so violently he flinched. "He…" And he shifted uncomfortably, somehow trying to find a position that would make this easier. He tried again, but it bit through him like a parasite. "He kissed me."

There. He said it. It was out in the air, which meant there was no denying it. There was no pretending that it was all in his head. It was real. It happened.

The thumb stroking his palm stopped and Merlin finally stole a glance. Gwen's eyebrows were raised in surprise. Then, as she thought more about it, her eyebrows furrowed and she exhaled deeply. That's when he looked away.

"Merlin," she said gently. She tried coaxing him to look at her, but he closed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair, tugging.

Gwen wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pulling him to rest against her chest. Dropping a few kisses in his hair, she smoothed it over and quietly whispered, "I'm so sorry."

Merlin gripped her arm tightly. "I stopped it, I swear I didn't—"

"I know." Another kiss. "It's not your fault."

And he finally relaxed into her, relieved that he hadn't, somehow, brought this upon himself. Tears blurred his vision and Gwen stayed steady for him. He sniffled. Her grip tightened.

"What do I do?"

She rested her cheek on the top of his head. "I don't know," she mumbled. And then, fiercely, she added: "But you're not alone."

As the tears pushed their way through, as he turned his face closer to her chest, he allowed himself a brief moment of rest. His shoulders shook with bottled up emotion, his hands clung to the fabric of her jacket. And there Gwen stayed, as it should've been months ago, unflinchingly strong beside him to help ease the way. For the first time in a long time, Merlin felt her words ring true.

I'm so so so so so sorry. I'm not going to write a long paragraph of reasons for not updating, because I'm sure it's starting to get tiresome. I'm just going to apologize. Thank you to those who still read this despite my ridiculous hiatus. I appreciate you all so much.