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[fic] like grabbing my heart and taking my breath 1/2
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pandatwirls
Title: Like Grabbing My Heart and Taking My Breath
Pairing: Arthur/Merlin
Rating: PG-13
Summary: The one where Arthur leaves Merlin breathless.
Notes: Written for kinkme_merlin for this prompt: Arthur/Merlin modern!au Merlin has severe asthma and always ends up with breathing difficulties when he looks at Arthur, is around Arthur, is kissing Arthur etc. Inhaler use a must. Also on DW if you prefer. Lovely podfic available here.


Keys. Wallet. Phone. Inhaler.

Each day before leaving his dorm, Merlin makes the check, pats down his pockets and makes sure that he has everything he needs. Keys are essential because Merlin's roommate is away for the break, and the last time they tried keeping a spare under the doormat, they woke up with their entire room tee peed with the toilet rolls from the boys' toilets in Q block in the morning.

(Q block has six floors. Each floor has toilets. Roughly five in each. It was a lot of toilet paper.)

Money is essential, especially that day because Merlin needs to buy a new textbook, Will had decided that revenge for Merlin's drunken puking on his shoes at his birthday bash was tantamount to graffiti of the meanest (and yet ridiculously witty) remarks and doodles in Merlin's chemistry book.

(Will has the crudest way with words and if he wasn't so charming, Merlin is positive his mother would never have approved of their friendship when they were kids.)

Merlin had made sure that his phone charged overnight because his mother had said she would call and tell him something important (what exactly, he wasn't so sure). Seeing the bar at one hundred percent, Merlin smiles and feels his inner battery charged somewhat, before slipping it in his back pocket.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important for Merlin, is his inhaler. For the severity of his condition, Merlin should have his reliever shackled around his neck at all times but people would ask questions and he'd have to explain, and it's all so very embarrassing that the slightest irritation to his nasal passages has him gasping for breath like he has just spent minutes underwater.

Merlin thinks his asthma should be downplayed somewhat, it's perfectly controlled (he has set alarms each morning and night to remind him to take his preventer inhaler) and it doesn't stop him doing normal, everyday things (if he's not too energetic or around irritants in the air). After years of his mother coddling him and being over protective about it, Merlin can't help but feel a little freer, fewer pity eyes looking at him when he's being held behind in the playground when the pollen levels are high.

Whatever, Merlin thinks, he'll like to be rebellious just this once.

It's a mistake, of course.

Queuing up at the bookshop goes well, Merlin locates his textbook and while he waits for his turn, he eyes some literature he reckons could pass the time before lectures start again, North and South sounds appealing if Gwen's enthusiastic retelling is anything to go by (though he suspects part of it is due to the TV adaptation and the guy who's in that other thing with arrows).

"Can you hurry up? I don't have the time to be standing around and looking like an idiot, unlike some."

So absorbed in looking at reading material, Merlin forgets the queue, and any normal person would simply apologise and hurry along but Merlin isn't exactly normal so naturally, things don't occur as such.

"'Course not," Merlin retorts, abandoning the call from the guy over the counter, shifting his mindset from 'absent thinking' to 'focussed dissing'. "You clearly spend your time going around and being a prat."

Merlin remembers Arthur from first day orientation, he was the only that sighed exasperatingly throughout the tour, muttering things of being 'above all this', and such posh utterances that made Merlin's chest burn. Besides, how could he forget? Arthur has that blond hair-blue eyes combo that Merlin can't help but like (he had a thing for Nick Carter when the Backstreet Boys were considered cool. Don't judge, okay?).

"A feisty one, aren't you?" Arthur grins and its all teeth, pearly white and slightly pointy.

"Can you not refer to me as if I'm some kind of animal you're contesting against?" Merlin retorts, hotly and annoyed, at Arthur and a little bit over how his breath catches towards the end.

His chest is heaving already and Merlin tries not to gulp air down by sticking with heavy breathing through his nose but it's reminiscent of an angry bull.

"Well, if I squint you could pass for Dumbo's cousin," Arthur muses, taking the situation with what looked like delight.

Merlin has the decency to gasp in shock but then it leads to more gasping, more rushes of air and pretty soon, words refuse to form, just breathy sounds and a tight sting in his chest. Like a habit, he rummages through his bag, searches for his inhaler, so bright and baby blue, keeping his breathing regulated.

Shit. Shittity shit.

Grasping at scruff of his jumper, like it'll do anything to relieve his breathing, Merlin turns to answer, utter a plea for assistance that's somewhat raspy and unfamiliar on his tongue.

And suddenly, Arthur has shifted expressions and though Merlin should be reaching for his phone to call for help, he watches Arthur – brow furrowed, mouth downturned in unease rather than annoyance – as though concern is something he motions through often.

"Panic attack?" Arthur asks. Merlin shakes his head. "Asthma?" Arthur tries again. Merlin nods.

Merlin knows full well he's making a scene, he doesn't need the part time worker on minimum wage telling him to quieten down as he waves his arms like he's herding cattle out of the book shop. Once Merlin finishes tumbling down onto the floor, sitting upright against the book shelves, he punches the worker hard in the shin (knowing full well that it kills, perhaps not as much as the bollocks but Merlin doesn't think hand-to-balls contact is appropriate right now).

The nerdy looking man leaves them alone and when Merlin looks to Arthur, who has decidedly squatted alongside him, he looks somewhat impressed.

"Just stay upright and breathe with me, okay?"

Merlin would love say that Arthur is helping but treating him like a pregnant woman having contractions is perhaps not the best course of action. He manages to rasp out 'reliever' to Arthur between breaths and thankfully he clocks on and yells out if anyone's got one.

It's saying something about book buyers who buy books before lunch when four of the seven people in their hand Arthur inhalers of various shades of blue. Merlin's not quite sure what, though.

"Which one?"

Merlin just grabs the one that looks like his and hopes that he doesn't have to try them all.

Too busy shaking inhalers, Merlin doesn't notice that Arthur's eyes haven't left him in the slightest; he looks on as Merlin uncaps and closes his eyes as he puffs and inhales in time. Merlin rarely has attacks like this (though to be fair, he's never gone anywhere without his inhaler before) and he mentally goes through the procedure his mother has drilled well into his brain. One puff for every minute, for five minutes.

With fifty seconds to spare, Merlin has nothing to do but sit and breathe and look around. He finds Arthur difficult to look at so goes back to closing his eyes and thinking of the air rushing down his passages.

When he goes for a second puff, Arthur is still beside him, looking indecisive but staying put and Merlin notices how Arthur's fingers are in danger of skimming against his palm.

"You're not going to hold my hand, are you? 'Cause that's a bit weird."

"You can have an asthma attack and still make comments?"

It does get weird.

Because Arthur pokes him on the cheek.

"You're practically wasting away," he notes. "No wonder you can barely hold up a conversation."

"You can't judge a person's health by one day."

"I think you'll find you can. Anyway, stop making chit-chat."

Merlin somehow knows that's code for 'take care of yourself first'; Arthur doesn't say it with a lick of demand.

*

If forgetting to buy his textbook and hyperventilating in front of Arthur-Prat doesn't make Merlin's day bad enough, he also gets sympathetic looks of everyone on campus who must have heard what happened and a distraught call from his mother.

By the time Gwen knocks for him in his room, Merlin's been lectured for fifteen solid minutes (and with no end in sight) after his mother tells him she has got him a job in a pharmacy when he's free, Merlin silently beckons Gwen in with a wave of his hand. "Yes, I understand. 'Course I'll be careful. No, you don't need to temporarily home school me… Again."

He mouths to Gwen that it's his mother and she nods understandingly.

"Yeah, Mum? I have to go. Gwen's here," Gwen looks somewhat scandalised that Merlin is using her as an excuse but Merlin dismisses it because Gwen can't hold 'scandalised' on her face for long. "Yes. Sending her your love. Love you, too. Bye."

"You could've kept talking, I wouldn't have minded."

"I'm pretty sure I got the message the first twenty times she said 'take your inhalers everywhere'," Merlin sighs, more at himself rather than exhaustion of concern from everyone. "It was my fault."

"I heard Arthur Pendragon saved your life," Gwen says pleasantly.

Merlin scrunches his face in disbelief, "Does everyone know? It's a total exaggeration, Gwen. The man's a dick and he just happened to be there when I happened to inhale some dust. All he did was ask for an inhaler. I could've done that."

Before he can say anything more, Merlin already knows that Gwen believes him as much as she did when they first met (which means not a lot); because obviously Merlin has skills in the field of guessing the number of sweets in a jar (you can tell just by looking at him, right?). For this, however, Merlin supposes that Gwen's roommate, Morgana, has already retold her stepbrother's version of the story and thus, Gwen will never believe whatever amendments he should make.

"You should thank him, Merlin," Gwen says, so polite and genuine Merlin doesn't have the heart to sarcastically comment. Yeah, I really should thank the bastard for inducing my asthma attack.

"I don't think so," Merlin shakes his head, more reluctance than sincerity in the statement and the shrug of his shoulders. "We really don't get on."

If anyone can put complete empathic persuasion in one look, it's Gwen, she has it mastered and perfected.

(Who else could get Merlin to actually climb a tree to get a stuck kitten down that time last month when they passed it in the local park?)

Gwen also seems to take 'I'll think about it' as 'Yes, I will thank Arthur' in a way nobody else should with the scowl Merlin had on.

Content with that, she suggests they go get coffee because she thinks the new barista in the student lounge is quite cute and ogling is best done in groups; Gwen blinds Merlin with statistics that it's thirty-seven percent less stalkerish.

*

Merlin should have caught on really.

Gwen is a shameless liar who can get away with sympathetic plights and incredible niceness that, in addition to her tendency to flail verbally, leaves Merlin wondering how he'd gotten here, sat opposite Morgana and Arthur discussing the merits of malted salt in hot chocolate.

"I like it," Gwen says to which Morgana scoffs.

"Salt? Salt. In hot chocolate. Are you serious, Gwen?" Morgana shakes her head as she swirls the chocolate powder on her mocha with a stirrer. "Tell me you're just saying that because you think the barista's cute. The next time you have pork scratchings, chuck a teaspoon of sugar in there. Same difference, Arthur."

"I didn't say anything," Arthur has been somewhat quiet throughout the conversation, only nodding and making non-committal noises.

(Merlin doesn't really know what 'non-committal noises' sound like, but he guesses they're somewhat like the strange sounds Arthur makes whenever there's a gap in the conversation.)

"You thought it."

Merlin catches Arthur's eye roll and can't help but smile a little.

Officially, this is the first time they've hung out together. Gwen and Morgana may spend a ridiculous amount of time together but Gwen spends the remaining with Merlin and Morgana with Arthur. With Morgana and Arthur being related and Merlin and Gwen having nearly every lecture together, they really should be more familiar with each other than they currently are.

Unofficially, they were all at Will's birthday party (what with Will infatuated with Morgana and him begging her to come – she'd brought Arthur for security (though she'd deny it to within an inch of her life)) and Merlin's eighty to ninety percent sure that they all witnessed him emptying his stomach on previously mentioned shoes.

"You're not going to get anything, Merlin?" Morgana turns to him so incredibly sultry that it catches him off guard.

"Uh, yeah, yeah. Just thinking of what would be nice."

"Go with him Arthur," Morgana elbows him into standing up. "Get me an espresso shot while you're there."

Which is how Merlin wound up in the line, his wallet in his hand and his eyes trailing the menu, weighing pros and cons of being seen with a frappuccino. It's quite girly, he thinks.

Merlin doesn't realise he's making thinking noises until Arthur points it out and he kicks himself for not having a witty comeback.

"If you want it, just get it," Arthur says, as though he's read Merlin's mind about getting the strawberries and cream one, his voice somewhat low and intimate. "No one will say anything."

Merlin takes that as 'I won't say anything to emasculate you in front of the entire student lounge, judging by your drink choice'; Arthur gives him a gentle curve of the lips without a wicked curl at the edge.

When it comes to their turn, Merlin gets as far as unzipping his wallet before it's snatched out of his hands by some kind of rascal (Merlin says 'rascal' but it's more like an average guy. Rascal comes about through the thievery).

It's instinct that makes him run after the thief, out of the student lounge and down the corridors. Merlin's vaguely aware that he's yelling out for someone to stop but air leaves him and his legs refuse to carry and he denies any allegation that he tripped and fell. He just needs to catch his breath and he manages it in an untimely manner.

Perhaps while lying down.

Whatever, Merlin heaves a sigh (and some more sighs to follow that), giving up and taking a puff of his inhaler.

Fuck. Fuckity fuck.

Today has been so awful he thinks he may cry.

And if he does that, then he grants himself permission to not give a fuck when he gets the strawberries and cream frappuccino.

Merlin hates that Arthur pops up out of nowhere, his precious wallet in his hand, and Merlin wonders how he's managed to run so far without a pant. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Merlin grumbles, taking his wallet and checking the contents as Arthur sits beside him, legs stretched out across the floor making passing people walk around them. "Cash is gone."

"I'm sorry I couldn't get back," Arthur says, explaining the scuffle and everything, how he wished he reached the rascal in time and it almost sounds like he means it. "Was it a lot?"

"Not really," Merlin puts his wallet away and takes another puff.

Arthur watches, tentative eyes minding every moment when Merlin's lips connect with the opening of his inhaler, the clack of his teeth when he underestimates how wide his mouth should be. Merlin hears Arthur's intake of air and looks at him, the question upon his face that he never gets to ask because Gwen and Morgana have finally caught up.

"Well done, Arthur," Morgana gives him a pat on the back.

"Thank him, Merlin," Gwen whispers not so inconspicuously, not even trying to hide how maternal that sounds. "You're lucky Arthur's been with you today."

Merlin just nods dumbly, expels an utterance of 'thanks' to his side before standing up, hating what a dashing knight he thinks Arthur would make.

*

Morgana takes Orange Wednesdays a bit too far.

In the name of group bonding, Morgana drags them out to a club and explicitly tells the bar staff to only let the Fantastic Four (as Merlin has dubbed them, including Arthur, but he thinks that since he's never said it out loud no one needs to know and besides, Arthur's totally The Thing) order drinks so long as they have orange in it.

Orange and vodka.

Orange and gin.

Orange Bacardi Breezer.

Orange and orange.

(The last one is what Gwen insists on drinking as they made her the designated driver.)

It's been an hour of bumping into scantily-clad strangers and getting his arse groped and Merlin knows he's on the wrong side of tipsy when he starts to likeit. He giggles at the thought.

"You okay?" Merlin finds Arthur tapping his shoulder and he sort of spins and flings his arms around to turn to him, splashing his orange (and other tropical fruits) cocktail over Arthur's ill-advised white shirt (seriously though, who wears white in a club with all that UV lighting going on?).

"My drink has orange juice in it, I promise!" Merlin tries to raise his voice above the music but the air is thick and humid and he winds up gulping to breathe.

To Arthur's credit, Merlin hasn't seen someone seamlessly change through so many facial expressions in succession before (a grin at his comment, a scowl at his stained shirt, worry over Merlin's apparent goldfish-like mouth). A laugh escapes Merlin with the remaining air in his lungs.

Arthur promptly drags Merlin outside by the wrist, pausing considerately when they get the stairs because they are damn hard to walk up properly when you see everything in double.

"Do you have your inhaler?" Arthur asks, so authoritatively Merlin thinks he may as well have asked with his hands on his hips.

Merlin takes it out of his pocket and shakes it proudly in Arthur's face (who doesn't even bad an eye of flinch, somewhat impressive when Merlin's got it within an inch of Arthur's nose). "See? It's… right here."

"Take it, then."

"I can-" Merlin tugs the cap off with a small grunt of effort. "-take care-" Teeth clack. "-of myself." He takes a puff, closes his eyes and draws a raspy breath. "'Been doing it alone for more than twenty years, I'll have you know."

"So you're saying your mother was absent throughout your childhood then?"

Merlin shuts up, never feeling so much like a child since that time in high school when they were watching Bambi for a Christmas treat and he shed (more than just) a tear, and everyone noticed; Merlin was so embarrassed his blushing crept up to the tips of his ears.

"I'm sorry about your shirt."

Arthur doesn't comment, just has his gaze set on Merlin in a way that's reminiscent of daydreaming, blank and thoughtful.

"Is it that bad?"

"Hmm?" Merlin cocks his head, innocent and intimate, because with him being intoxicated enough to think Arthur looks somewhat friendly (which is quite ridiculous because Merlin can't consider them friends), Merlin can't converse formally.

"Your asthma," Arthur says low and tilts his head forward, perhaps some demand but Merlin takes no notice.

"Maybe? No, not really. Well, yeah, it is, not a lot, but yes. I guess?"

Arthur says nothing.

He just stands and stares.

It's intimidating and embarrassing, this scrutiny over his being, and Merlin wishes that he could say something to make Arthur not look at him like that.

He does something instead.

Pukes on Arthur's shoes.

*

"You're buying me new shoes," Arthur sits his tray down opposite Merlin's as they enjoy the best bangers and mash the canteen has to offer.

"Consider it a privilege," Merlin chops and stabs at a bit of sausage. "I only throw up on the shoes of people I like."

Merlin immediately wishes to retract that statement (perhaps Arthur wishes that too, considering his left eyebrow's angled oddly on his face) and Arthur makes a face like he's holding his tongue and asks for the salt shaker.

It's a constipated sort of a look.

*

Merlin learns about the true nature of his inability to listen when he finds out that his roommate didn't, in fact, go home for break but actually left university (apparently, it was too much for him), leaving Merlin with a spare bed.

This empty bed brings Merlin company.

"Because you seem to be the kind of person who needs someone around," Morgana says as she snuggles down into her pillow (she'd brought her own).

Merlin tugs at his covers and heaves a sigh, not believing that his friends think him to be so lonely.

"Don't forget to take your preventer," Morgana whispers in the dark and Merlin can't help but think that maybe he is a little bit lost on his own.

*

Will tends to crash on the spare bed more than Gwen and Morgana whenever he's in town (he lives at home with his mother, at least seven postcodes away), and it's usually in the wee hours of the morn, dragging in the stale smell of beer and cigarettes and pubs. Merlin knows to kick the bin next to the bed for Will to throw up in the morning.

"I can smell Morgana," Will mutters, so drunk his words seem to overlap themselves.

Merlin doesn't like to think about where that will lead.

*

So there's this blonde bitch, Sophia, right? She's really stuck up for someone kinda plain-looking and she's totally up in Morgana's face trying to become her friend in order to get into Arthur's inner circle because she thinks he's fit. I heard it's 'cause her dad's got a dodgy ticker and wants to dig the Pendragon fortune, matching them up and that. Problem is, Morgana actually likes nice people and can't stand the tramp at all, not that she can even catch a hint, what with her having two faces and by some twist of physics they're both facing Arthur's arse and dick at the same time and it wouldn't be a total surprise if she sprouted another one that looked at his face. For politeness's sake, obviously. Talking to his bits in public would be weird.

Well, that's what Will surmises to Merlin when he's past getting rid of morning breath.

*

Arthur turns up at Merlin's dorm at seven in the evening (he knows because the The One Show has just started on TV), a duffle bag slung over a shoulder, and casual worn clothes, washed and faded, that Merlin thinks looks totally misplaced on him.

"I know it's Gwen's turn but can I crash here tonight?"

"You're dressed like the Littlest Hobo," Merlin slumps against the door, trying to fight of the tickle of coughing and temperature fluctuations.

"You do know that's a dog, right?"

"Well, a little hobo then."

"Right, well," Arthur tries suggesting the sleeping over thing again with his eyes and a nod of the head.

Eventually Merlin catches on, "Oh, right. Yeah."

He leans back and the door swings open with him, Arthur gives a curt nod of thanks, and slinks his way in.

"What brings you here?" Merlin croaks, his voice at least three tones lower than usual, as he slides back into bed and tries to find his hot water bottle down the side of his bed because his toes are freezing. "I'm totally ill, by the way."

"Sophia decided to camp out in my room."

"Oh, the blonde bitch, right?"

"So you've heard," Arthur says, somewhat bashfully, and Merlin can hear him shuffling around, bag unzipping and clothes taken out.

"Yeah, it's all everyone talks about these days."

Merlin coughs into his covers, sniffles ungracefully because the tissues are too far away, and groans in frustration when it does nothing for him. It doesn't go unnoticed by Arthur.

"That strangled sound of exasperation can't be good," Arthur tugs at Merlin's bedspread, tries to expose his forehead to check his temperature. "You're burning up."

"I know," Merlin turns away, huffing as best he can with a blocked nose.

"Are you taking anything?"

"All the medicine's next to the computer."

Arthur barely makes a sound as he crosses over, just the scrape of bottles against the table; Merlin makes worrying sounds with his coughing fit.

"Seriously, Merlin, why are all these for children? Under twelve, might I add?"

"I can't swallow tablets and pills and things. And those taste nicer."

"You're such a baby."

"That's why I have Calpol," Merlin says, quite cheery considering his congested nasal passages.

"Right," Arthur announces, like he's addressing the nation. "I shall be getting you proper medication immediately. Do you require anything else?"

"Yeah," Merlin croaks, cheery now seeming like a far away memory. "Orange Lucozade."

Arthur takes precisely twenty-seven minutes, give or take seventeen seconds, Merlin knows for sure because he watches the clock all the while Arthur's gone.

"I got you Nyquil, Lemsip, Strepsils, Tunes and Soothers, all in an array of flavours so you can see which ones you like best instead of sticking to kids meds. Oh, and your Lucozade."

Merlin stretches to tug at Arthur's anything (he settles for a sleeve), and Arthur looks down at him, somewhat concerned, when he mouths, "Inhaler."

It's somewhere on the desk, Merlin knows, next to the Mr Happy mouse mat, so Arthur finds it with no trouble. He gives it to Merlin who proceeds to use it while he watches, knelt to the bedside.

Merlin sees the look on Arthur's face, edges so long and wornfully relaxed. He takes another puff and a small cloud of white escapes his mouth when he says, "I'm okay."

"Take that one again," Arthur urges, nudges Merlin's arm a little to show he means it.

"Why?"

"Because you missed a bit."

"For goodness' sake, Arthur," Merlin reaches out and pushes Arthur's arm off the end (a little weakly to show he's not really upset).

He takes it again anyway.

Just for that last edge of breathlessness.

*

Arthur sticks around for a few days before lectures start again.

It's nice, Merlin thinks, they're almost like friends rather than friends by association (Gwen and Morgana are glad).

They do the things Merlin does with Will but with the distinct lack of expletives in their conversations and bodily odours that Merlin keeps the Febreeze around for. They lounge around one Sunday playing videogames and ordering Chinese for lunch in the middle of the afternoon, on a Friday they actually bother to go out and watch a film, getting back from the late screen viewing, stumbling around in the dark and not bothering with the light switch as Merlin's energy saving light bulbs take too long to turn on.

Merlin stubs a toe against wardrobe, gets his foot caught in some ill-advised slippers from Gwen, and in his gracefully lumbering way, he manages to swing an arm into a lamp, knocking it over, clumping Arthur on the head and half-landing on his bed, nose smushed up against the mattress.

"Ow," he groans because it's surprisingly hard.

"Sometimes, I hate your natural clumsiness," Arthur follows suit and lands somewhat like Merlin, Merlin can tell because he feels Arthur's breath, warm and ruffling the hair at the back of his head.

"When do you like it?"

Arthur doesn't say anything, an amused huff of air and Merlin giggles because that's getting tickly.

"All the other times," Arthur lifts himself off of Merlin and throws Merlin's legs on the bed and pushes the rest of Merlin on as well. "Go to sleep now, we have to get up early and even you can't be cheery on three hours kip."

"Mm, 'kay," Arthur senses Merlin go as his breathing evens, and he makes an effort in removing Merlin's trainers but doesn't even dare to touch his socks.

He does the same for himself, kicking them off and just steps at his toes and pulls a foot out of his socks before making his way back to the spare bed he's been accommodating with such frequency that it doesn't smell like anything.

Well, maybe there's a hint of Merlin but that's to be expected considering it's in his room.

Arthur gets as far as one big sigh and wriggling the aches out of his shoulders before he remembers that Merlin hasn't taken his preventer inhaler yet that day; they'd woken up late so Merlin missed the morning and now he's going to miss his evening puff. That's unsettling (even if Merlin has told him that he doesn't need it every day).

Getting as far as making a simmering groan, Arthur stops himself before he throws a pillow at Merlin (remembering the last time he did and something in the feathers setting off Merlin's asthma) and goes to the computer set against the wall and aligned between their beds. Arthur's slightly amused that Mr Happy glows in the dark as he grabs Merlin's brown inhaler.

He wonders how he's going to do this; from what little light they have filtering in from the nearby lamppost, Arthur can tell that Merlin's already fast asleep, not snoring in that little sniffly way that he usually does but with him mouth open with audible breathing.

Arthur stops himself.

(He doesn't even know the ways in which Morgana sleeps and they're related, so he quickly assesses how weird he should feel to know Merlin's sleeping habits.)

Sure in his knowledge of how to work an inhaler (after watching Merlin), Arthur decides that he'll just pop it between Merlin's lips and just time his presses whenever Merlin breathes in. He shakes it like a Polaroid picture and practices it in the air twice, just to see how hard he has to press the canister. He sits by Merlin's bed, squats and settles himself so he can carefully miss Merlin's teeth as he puts the mouthpiece in.

For some reason, Arthur struggles not to laugh at the unaware Merlin before him, and he stops to calm himself because his hands refuse to keep steady. He watches Merlin's breathing, chest slightly heaving, memorising the pattern of inhalation. Whatever tickled him seems to have gone and he puffs Merlin's inhaler for him while he sleeps, hoping he does it right.

The first one goes successfully and the second one results in Merlin coughing slightly, tongue out of his month, and Arthur quickly hushes apologies, and scarier than knowing how Merlin sleeps is how his hand automatically goes to pet his head like a child.

Merlin hums happily and settles back into sleep.

*

Merlin isn't known to be the brightest crayon in the box and all those other variations of that phrase put together. He's been told that his mental capabilities have always seemed to bypass normal thinking but this one thing he knows only he can justify.

Arthur is a big no-no for his asthma.

Merlin rephrases that.

(He's a uni student after all and there are better ways of putting that.)

Arthur appears to bring about an adverse reaction in Merlin for his asthma.

It's not a big revelation so it comes to him fairly easily when Arthur's elbow nudges him as they do the dishes in the shared kitchen and from that contact alone, Merlin feels the need to use his inhaler straight away, not caring that the Fairy Liquid bubbles on his hands get on his clothes.

Just when Merlin thinks he'll be okay, Arthur smiles at him, grins at the clump of foam hanging on Merlin's nose, and Arthur swipes it off with a delicate pinky like it's nothing and goes back to soaping a particular tomato-dirty plate. Merlin, on the other hand, has to scrap at his inhaler again because once is not enough anymore.

Merlin forgets that he doesn't use his inhaler all that often, not as often as around Arthur, until he marathons through three lectures and an hour of note revision (because he knows the original scrawls he made during them won't make sense in six months' time) and he doesn't even need it once.

Then Arthur drops by asking if he left the USB wire for his iPod in the computer and when he leans over Merlin's shoulder (probably surreptitiously trying to see if Merlin looking at anything scandalous), Merlin's breath doesn't seem to be enough and he reaches for his inhaler by Mr Happy. His peripheral vision lets him see Arthur's slight unease but neither of them say anything and they go back to their tasks (Merlin was Googling dogs with sunglasses if you were wondering).

*

Merlin chomps on the cafeteria's chunky chips, three types of condiments squirted on the plate.

"Dogs in shades?" Arthur raises a brow, judging Merlin's eating standards as he swirls a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise. "Really?"

"Entirely more entertaining than cats in shades but probably tied with hamsters that are given props," Merlin takes a bite with a smile while Arthur slightly recoils (for a moment but he can't help his frown from breaking).

*

Merlin doesn't think it's fair; it's not allowed to be stunningly attractive and a good person.

Not as often as Arthur is anyway.

He hides it very well through chides and teases, nothing truly meant, repetition of Merlin's big earedness, his lack of refinement, the way his jaw slacks so easily whenever something surprises him (regardless if it's good surprise or bad surprise).

Between all of that there are some moments of generosity, picking up the tab while under the pretence of going to the toilet towards the end of their meal in a restaurant, chucking a gifted bag of Skittles so Merlin can taste the rainbow (said bag has a fifty-fifty chance of being open but Merlin's lightning quick with the three second rule in effect), and is surprisingly thoughtful when Merlin comes to him with a problem. Mostly.

"Can't believe you caught a cold again," Arthur measures out the five millilitres of Calpol in the big side of the double ended spoon that came in the box. "You do this on purpose so I have to take care of you, don't you?"

"You think I just stand out in the rain for hours, saying 'bite me, bitch' to the cold?" Merlin does his best to sound stern and pissed off, really he does, but the effect doesn't quite hit Arthur, not with his voice breaking and cracking with his sore throat. "I know you do, Morgana told me."

"Shut up, Merlin," he says it mostly so Merlin can swallow the medicine; Arthur doesn't say anything about the age appropriateness for it since it actually worked on Merlin very well last time.

Merlin's frown quickly turns into a pout, the kind of petulant children (and Arthur on occasion, as he's be told by Morgana), and Arthur fights the urge to just ram the tiny plastic white spoon past the protruding lips. Perhaps sensing his intentions, Merlin leans forward and takes the spoon with his mouth himself, a sheepish duck of the head as he withdraws and settles back beneath the covers.

"Thanks."

Merlin's gratefulness is left open for Arthur to dissect what exactly it's for and this level of gravity isn't something they've encountered before (excluding that one time when they fell into a discussion about absent parents) so Arthur can only wonder.

*

When it finally clicks, locks into place in Merlin's mind that he can't ignore it because alarm bells are ringing and they suspiciously sound like complaints of Merlin's inadequacies, Merlin turns to Gwen as the person he trusts implicitly to have him in her best intentions whatever she may say.

(No way is he telling Will. Not when he's still so uneasy. Maybe later. When he has backup. Like Morgana.)

"You brought me flowers," Gwen's eyes go straight to the tulips Merlin thought would be a good present. "You're going to tell me you love someone?"

"I really like him. He leaves me breathless, Gwen."

At Gwen's silence, Merlin looks up at her and finds her standing there with her lips pursed tightly.

"Go on, I know you want to," Merlin sighs and Gwen shrills out an incredible 'aww'.

*

Gwen dubs it unrequited love. Morgana thinks it's half wonderful and half hilarious. Merlin calls it horrible.

They discuss it over tea of the normal kind (Gwen dismisses herbal and fruit teas, thinking them not as comforting) made with the kettle they keep in their room even though they're not supposed to, Merlin decides that he's deserving of two sugars in his tea instead of the usual one and disregards ruining the antioxidant qualities by putting in milk.

To say they discuss it would be somewhat inaccurate as Merlin just sips his cup of tea quietly as Gwen and Morgana write out a list of the possibilities for Merlin from here.

BEST CASE SCENARIOS
- Arthur and Merlin walk into the sunset hand in hand and live happily ever after in suburbia and they get a little puppy dog and call it Bruce.
- They go slow and steady.
- They get down and dirrty (with at least two 'r's) right away.
- Arthur makes the first move (which leads to any or all of the aforementioned).

NEUTRAL CASE SCENARIOS
- Everyone stays friends (with occasional UST moments but we can deal with it).

WORST CASE SCENARIOS
- Arthur says no.
- Arthur freaks out.
- Arthur never talks to Merlin ever again.
- Merlin dies from an asthma attack caused by any of the above.
Merlin takes the list (worries a little bit about Gwen and Morgana's sense of humour), promises them that he'll think things over some more and thanks them for the tea. He reads over the list as he makes his way back to him room and while half of it makes him laugh, the rest he just feels sick thinking about. His stomach curls and aches like the remnants of an illness whenever he thinks of Arthur and he can only clutch his stomach to stem his heart from confusion.

*

"Will, I'm lonely."

"You want me to start dorming with you?"

"Not really, you smell."

"Yeah, well, it's not like you smell of roses either, Merlin."

"I know. I smell like Lynx. You should try some."

"A girl stropped up to me in a club once and said, 'Don't you guys get it? We don't like Lynx'."

"Pretty sure girls don't like BO more."

"You little sod."

"I really am lonely though."

"Aw, Merlin, quit acting cute. I can hear your silent weeping over the line."

"I'm not crying the single emo tear."

"Never said you were, mate. Just insinuated that I could hear you sniffling."

"It's just a cold."

"You want me to bring you chicken soup? I know the Covent Garden ones are on sale, two for one in Tesco's."

"No, Arthur's made me some already."

"God, you two are so coupley."

"Do you think we'd make a good couple?"

"…"

"Will?"

"Right, I can't do this over the phone, I'm coming over."

*

Will arrives within the hour, panting and heaving when he bursts through the door. Merlin's just sat on the floor, clutching his pillow with a mouthful of popcorn, computer on and glaring in the dark.

"No. No, Merlin. You are not watching Brokeback Mountain again," Will immediately presses eject (well, he tries to but winds up pressing the off button).

"Will, what did you do that for? I can't see anything," Merlin crawls around, tries to make his way to the light switch (since his lamp is still out of commission).

"Well, if you didn't want to be a gay cowboy-"

"I don't want to be a gay cowboy!"

Will huffs incredulously and that's how Merlin knows he's being childish. When the light blinkers on, Merlin looks up at Will, still standing with his hand on the switch on the wall, looking as determined as he did when they were sixteen and Merlin wasn't sure if he wanted to sleep with Stacey, a girl in their class who had been making advances of the obvious kind, or any other girl for that matter.

"I'll make sure you're okay, Merlin."

Merlin nods feebly, not wanting to ruin the moment with coughing up a popcorn kernel, because Will's being serious now and that's rarer than Merlin throwing up on shoes.

*

Arthur learns that everybody loves Merlin.

(He's noticed that Sophia gives him evils whenever they're all in the same vicinity around campus but Merlin doesn't seem to notice yet alone mind it.)

But, where it matters, everybody who has an opinion Arthur cares about loves Merlin.

And that's great, really it is, it's nice to know that Merlin has such approval from his friends but it's not so great when they start becoming overprotective of Merlin, actively pointing out Arthur's 'failures' and 'meanness' and Merlin, idiot that he is, just sits and smiles like they're all speaking Swahili and he's just happy and ignorant.

Merlin chews solemnly on cheese and tomato pasta while the rest of Arthur's Economics class, obsessed with their BlackBerrys, check the investments that they've made and damn their ordinary shares being useless in the recession.

"Oh, Merlin, I wish I bought preference shares," one of Arthur's friends slings an arm around Merlin's shoulder, effectively tugging him sideways and away from his fork so he gets a tomato smear across his cheek.

"Stop groping him, Kay," Arthur says a thin layer of tension through his intended casualness. "He's trying to eat."

"You should know you're cute when you're accusing people of sex crimes, Arthur," Kay looks smug; he often looks smug but especially so in this case. "Isn't that right, Merlin?"

Merlin looks as though someone has turned on English subtitles amongst the Swahili and he finally gets what everyone is saying to him, "Um. Yes."

Is the tinting pink from embarrassment or from rubbing a rough napkin on his face? Arthur isn't sure.

*

Proximity with Merlin is becoming a problem.

For all the force of gravitation Merlin has on him, Arthur finds that too much and he starts to think of strange things.

As they sit side by side watching Monsters vs Aliens (they can't be watching stuff like Saw IV all the time, not at the rate Merlin has to use his inhaler the last time they did), Arthur feels as though Merlin's too far, that he's missing the sense of him pressed to his side, their knees bumping, toes overlapping, all of which is completely ridiculous as Arthur's never felt the need to be so tactile with a friend before.

He maintains that he still doesn't know why when they walk back to the dorm, night descending and gold flecks on rain covered concrete from lampposts, Merlin rambling on about some sort of foodstuffs or another, happily swinging his arms as he goes along, and all Arthur can think of is that they could be holding hands right now, they could link arms if Arthur timed it right.

But back to their movie watching.

"Are you sleeping?" Arthur asks when Merlin is suspiciously quiet and a particularly funny joke concerning jelly gets no laugh from him.

"Yeah," Merlin makes a naively beguiling groan as he stretches out and wriggles back in his seat, yawning and rubbing his eyes, and all other signs of tiredness. "Sleepy."

"Okay," Arthur says and he just lets Merlin rest his head where he chooses, and if that so happens to be his shoulder then- Fuck.

The worst thought that comes and flitters through his mind tends to be, I could just lean forward now and-. Fuck. Arthur shall say no more.

Proximity is definitely becoming a problem.

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