It's going to come as no surprise to anyone, particularly not harborshore, that this is far too long for one, two, or even three comments, so here it is instead:
How Lonely People Make A Life | girl!Merlin+Arthur | PG | 2500 words
Arthur doesn’t get back to his room until five a.m. on the fourth night of Freshers’ week. University still feels strange, a little confusing, but his room is starting to look and smell familiar so he’s pleased to be back, undressing and preparing to climb into his single bed with its creaking springs and slightly wonky leg.
He isn’t expecting anyone to knock on his door, so he ignores it when they do. If it’s someone from the rugby club, they can go and sleep it off in their own room. Team initiations have barely started but he’s already seen more naked bollocks than he’s entirely comfortable with when they belong to almost-strangers.
The knocking comes again, louder this time, and then a female voice says, “I can see the lights on, so either you’ve died of alcohol poisoning or you’re ignoring me.” Another knock. “Which would be rude.”
Frowning, Arthur moves to the door and unlocks it. It’s a heavy door with an automatic lock and he nearly lets it fall shut again when he sees who’s standing there. He’s not sure of her name, but she’s another Fresher. They met on the compulsory tour around the city on their first morning in Durham, but he doesn’t think he’s ever spoken to her. (Not because he’s antisocial, whatever Morgana claims but because she’s always with her boyfriend, some mousy-haired bloke who appears out of nowhere to grin inanely at her side.)
“May I help you?” Arthur asks, leaning against the doorframe. He isn’t drunk but he is exhausted and he could do with a little help remaining on his feet.
Her lips quirk and he sees her mouth the word may. “Hi,” she says. “I’m Merlin. You probably don’t know that because you never talk to me, but I live down there in the shared room.” She points down the corridor at the double room at the end. Every floor in this building has two double rooms, one at the end of each corridor, and Arthur had been delighted to discover that he hadn’t been assigned to either.
I know, Arthur thinks but doesn’t say. “Arthur,” he says instead. “And again, may I help you?”
Merlin makes a face as though Arthur is being deliberately difficult. Which he is, slightly, but that’s no excuse for her face-pulling. “My roommate is having not-sex with her new boyfriend so I’m locked out. Can I sleep on your floor?”
“Not-sex?” Arthur asks, intrigued into not immediately saying no and slamming the door.
Merlin shrugs. Her t-shirt is too big for her and slides down her shoulder when she moves. It also says some people are gay, get over it which is confusing, considering the aforementioned boyfriend, but none of Arthur’s business.
“Apparently,” Merlin says, dragging the word out like she’s doubtful. “Apparently they’re soulmates and so don’t need to do anything more than stare into each other’s eyes.” She grins suddenly and it makes her blue eyes twinkle. “I think that means that Lance is a virgin and Gwen is too sweet to want to rush him.”
“Ah,” Arthur says because yes, he has noticed Lancelot from the rugby club hanging around their corridor with a dazed expression and permanent smile.
“Ah?” Merlin prompts. “Is that rugby boy speak for ‘in that case, Merlin, of course you can sleep on my floor’?”
Arthur rolls his eyes then sighs. He’s not sure what else he can do; he certainly can’t leave her to sleep in the corridor. Oswald House has a curious and pervasive smell of damp which is much stronger in the corridors; people already avoid them at the Student Union, if Merlin slept in the corridor all night, no one would be able to come within fifty feet of her for the rest of the week.
“In that case, Merlin,” he says, emphasising her name, because it’s ridiculous, as is she, “please feel free to invade the sanctity of my bedroom.”
“Sanctity,” Merlin scoffs, stepping past him and into the room. “If you’re anything like the other rugby boys, you’ve already had half a dozen girls in here.”
Arthur opens his mouth to assure her that he’s nothing like the promiscuous rugby boy stereotype, but then decides that, actually, he would rather she thinks he’s some kind of libertine than realise that there has never been a girl in his bed, at Durham or otherwise.
“Right,” Merlin says when he doesn’t answer. She’s looking at him curiously like he’s given something away, anyway. “Have you got a spare sheet or something?”
“Yes,” Arthur tells her, with one final, longing look at his bed. “But you should take the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“What? No.” She shakes her head. “That’s ridiculous, I can sleep on the floor.”
“I’m sure you can.” Arthur folds his arms. “But I can’t make you do that, you’re a – ”
“A what?” Merlin interrupts, narrowing her eyes. “If you say a girl, I will slap you.”
“A guest,” Arthur finishes, levelling her with his best unimpressed stare. He had actually been going to say that all along, but the fact that she apparently thinks he’s a chauvinist as well as a libertine makes him bristle.
Merlin doesn’t apologise, but she does shoot him a strange, half-quirk of a smile. “I’m still not sleeping in your bed,” she says. Then tips her head. “Well, unless you do too.”
Arthur tries not to stare at her and definitely tries not to blush but he knows he’s failing on both counts because she shakes her head quickly.
“In a totally and completely platonic way,” Merlin amends quickly. “I’m not hitting on you.”
Arthur clears his throat. “I never thought you were,” he says, hoping he sounds less awkward to her than he does to himself. It’s definitely a solution, one which means that he can sleep in his own bed tonight. It also has the potential to be very awkward and uncomfortable but, well, never let me said that Arthur Pendragon has backed down from a challenge. “All right, then. We’ll do that.”
Merlin raises her eyebrows. “Wow, I didn’t think you’d agree,” she says, sounding half impressed. She drops her hands to the flies of her jeans and starts to unbutton them.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asks quickly.
She looks at him as though he’s an idiot. “I’m not sleeping in my jeans.”
“Well, you’re not sleeping without them in my bed.” He tries to sound haughty rather than panicked.
Merlin bites her lip, which Arthur hopes means she’s thinking rather than trying not to laugh at him. “Okay, so lend me some pyjamas,” she says.
Arthur takes a breath. Right. That he can do. He quickly pulls some pyjama bottoms out of the draw below his wardrobe and passes them over to her, turning his back immediately.
There’s an inordinate amount of rustling and heavy-breathing – presumably because her jeans are ridiculously tight and it probably takes her an hour to get into them – before Merlin says, “You can turn around now.”
When he turns around, she’s definitely laughing at him. She’s also sitting up in his bed. He’s not sure why that makes him want to gulp – she isn’t pretty, her ears stick out and her dark hair is a wild, unstyled mess, but she’s also in his bed, wearing half a pair of his pyjamas and her own thin t-shirt. Apparently he finds that a little affecting.
Merlin grins at him and pats the tiny amount of space left on her right hand side. “Come on, dear, time for bed.”
Arthur can’t really do anything but scowl at her then, climbing into bed as pointedly as he can so she’ll know that she’s putting him out without him needed to be as impolite as to say so. “Could you move over just a little?” he asks, resisting the urge to elbow her.
Merlin scoots over about one centimetre and then flails and nearly falls out of bed. “Um, not really?” she says, hand tight around Arthur’s arm, which she grabbed to keep herself upright.
Arthur pays no attention to the warm press of her fingertips against his skin. “Well, it looks like we’re going to get a fantastic night’s sleep,” he mutters.
Merlin ignores him, rolling onto her side with her back to Arthur. “Just spoon around me a bit,” she says. “Not, um, not too much or anything. Just a bit.”
“Believe me,” Arthur says, doing as she suggests. “I have no desire to spoon with you too much, Merlin.”
The bed is still too small, even with them lying on their sides, but they just about fit. Arthur’s knees are jammed against Merlin’s calves, but there’s no where else for him to put them, so they’re both just going to have to deal with that.
Once they’re settled, Arthur reaches over Merlin and turns off the bedside light and then they’re in semi-darkness, dawn shining a shimmering green through the flimsy curtains. Arthur doesn’t know what to say now. Should he wish her goodnight? He feels awkward. He hates feeling awkward.
“Thanks for letting me stay,” Merlin says quietly before Arthur can think of any actual words that he’d like to put into a sentence.
Arthur shrugs, which is hard to do when lying down, especially when next to a girl who you’re trying desperately not to brush any part of yourself against. “I’m surprised you didn’t go to your boyfriend,” he says.
“My who?” Merlin asks, turning around quickly in a dangerous flail of limbs. “I don’t have a - . Oh, wait, do you mean Will?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur says, as though he also doesn’t care. “Some boy who’s always hanging around you.”
Merlin laughs, ducking her head. Maybe Arthur was wrong, maybe she is a little pretty. “That’s Will,” she confirms. “He’s my best friend, we’ve known each other since we were born, but we’re definitely not - . I mean, he’s gay for one thing.”
Oh, Arthur thinks, that explains the t-shirt. “Oh,” he says. Lamely.
“Yeah.” Merlin lies down again, facing Arthur this time, which, strangely enough, helps them to fit together better, her folded knees above his. “But I would have gone to stay with him, you’re right, except he’s one of the people who has to live out this year.” She makes a rude noise. “Which is stupid. I told him I could fix the, uh...” She trails off. “I mean, I told him that the draw was stupid and that he could definitely appeal but he didn’t get around to it in time.”
“Oh,” Arthur says again. He isn’t used to people just telling him things with no provocation. He does at least know what she’s talking about; Grey College was so oversubscribed this year that a good number of first years have been given rooms in houses around the city – usually, all first years are guaranteed a room in college and don’t have to move out until second year. “That must, um. I suppose you miss him.” There. That was almost like empathy. Arthur gives himself a pat on the back.
“Yeah,” Merlin says again, more a sigh this time. Her voice drops, quiet suddenly in the soft early morning. “Coming to uni together was the point, you know? It’s not exactly together when he’s living up in fucking Claypath.”
Arthur isn’t going to respond, he doesn’t want to invite more confidences; he’s barely parried the ones she’s already given him. “My sister is at Durham,” he says then thinks why, why, why? “She’s a second year at Hatfield College.”
“Morgana, right?” Merlin asks, sounding interested. Of course, she could just be being polite, but polite hasn’t exactly seemed to be her forte so far. “She introduced herself in the JCU the other day.”
“Did she?” Arthur doesn’t remember that. “Was I there?”
Merlin laughs. “No. You were on the phone or something, I think?”
Ah. Arthur knows when that was then. His father had called just as he and Morgana were settling down to a pint in the JCU bar. It had been a long and not very pleasant conversation, during which his father berated him once again for his voice of degree course, his choice of college, his choice of fucking breakfast cereal probably, while Arthur tried not to punch any walls.
“So I was,” he says shortly and silence falls again.
Merlin breaks the quiet by yawning, a loud gust of sound that blows warm air between them. “Sorry,” she says, covering her mouth belatedly. She curls in around her half of the pillow a little, which inevitably means that she curls in around Arthur a little. “It’s been a long day.”
“Yes,” Arthur agrees because every day of Freshers’ week so far has been long. He’s realised that he’s looking forward to lectures starting, just so that he doesn’t have to socialise so much.
Merlin smiles at him, a slit-eyed, wobbly sort of thing like she’s trying not to yawn again. “Thanks for letting me stay.”
“You’ve said that,” Arthur says, dropping his voice.
Merlin pats his arm. “Well, I’m saying it again.” She shifts closer once more, chin almost brushing Arthur’s shoulder. “Good night.”
Arthur is afraid to breathe out in case he nudges her all the way awake again. “Yes, good night,” he says in return.
Merlin mumbles something unintelligible then slumps, hair brushing Arthur’s jaw. Arthur lies still, eyes closed so that he isn’t tempted to watch her. It’s a strange feeling, sharing his bed with someone; he isn’t sure he likes it, but he definitely doesn’t loathe it, not even the way that the too-small bed is rapidly heating up, sweat beading along his hairline.
Half an hour later, when he still hasn’t fallen asleep but is definitely heading that way, his mobile phone pings where he's left it on the bedside table. Carefully, very carefully, Arthur leans over Merlin and picks it up.
How’s it going? Morgana has sent him, the sort of innocuous message that means she’s been worrying about him but doesn’t want to admit it.
Arthur thinks for a moment, conscious of the press of Merlin’s bare arm warm against Arthur’s. Strangely well he writes back, only a little surprised to find that he means it.
NB: some of this possibly makes no sense if you didn't actually go to Durham. And yes, Oswald House does genuinely smell that bad - or, at least, it did in 2003-4 when I was a Fresher there.
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