Leon dragged Arthur out of the bar around the fifth round.
“Le’n,” Arthur slurred into Leon’s shoulder, and judging by the sudden wetness, he drooled a little, too. Luckily, Leon had developed immunity to being grossed out after all of his years as the Designated Driver in every available situation, and just brushed it off with a grimace. “Why’d I drink all that whiskey?”
“You tell me,” Leon muttered halfheartedly as he deposited Arthur in the passenger seat of his hatchback.
Leon and Arthur had been coworkers for the past few months, but had been acquaintances long before that. They had both been brought up in the top floors of Pendragon Tech; Arthur was the CEO’s son and Leon’s father had been on his Board of Directors for years before he branched off into his own company.
They had never been friends, but merely contemporaries, the types of well-to-do young boys who would run in the same social circles as adults. Leon was four years Arthur’s senior, so they didn’t cross paths much in their youth.
Leon had gotten a job with Pendragon instead of with his father’s company to make his own name; Arthur, Leon was perfectly aware, was never given a choice of what company to work for when he graduated. Uther Pendragon was cold, ruthless, and terrifying in the workplace, and from what Leon gleaned from his father, he wasn’t much different in his home.
That was probably why Arthur was so desperate to prove himself. He overstressed himself, going above and beyond the call of his position.
It was also probably why Arthur had downed all of those shots tonight in front of the other executives – trying to prove he was manly enough, an instinct left over from what Leon knew was a childhood of masculinity being shoved down Arthur’s throat from the moment he was born.
Leon’s father talked about the Pendragons often.
He was not their biggest fan.
Though Leon found Pendragon Senior to be rather intimidating, there was nothing wrong with Arthur. He was just a kid fresh out of university trying to live up to his father’s impossible legacy and expectations.
It was why Leon took pity on him and got him out of the bar before he could make a fool of himself.
“What’s your address?” Leon asked an uncomfortably sprawled across the seat Arthur, drool still on one of his cheeks, his head slowly sliding lower and lower toward the dashboard.
“Four twelve….” Arthur scrunched up his face, making him look fifteen instead of twenty-four. It was a little endearing. “Four twelve Norton Street….sixth floor…”
Leon typed the address into his GPS before pulling away from the pub and into the moderately busy city streets. He thought Arthur had dozed off, but then a stream of giggles from the seat next to him alerted him to the fact that Arthur was very much awake.
“You have a beard,” Arthur gasped out a moment later, and sent him into hysterics, his usually carefully-crafted and poised features shaking with laughter, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. Leon couldn’t help but chuckle along with him.
“Apparently I should shave if I look that terrible,” Leon laughed, bemused, never having seen Arthur so clearly joyful or happy before, especially over something as mundane as Leon’s beard.
“A ginger beard,” Arthur declared with a delighted shout that had Leon snickering all over again. “Merlin’s thinking about growing a beard but I think it’ll make him look old.”
Merlin, Leon knew, was Arthur’s flat mate and friend from university, and one of the only points of contention that Arthur would stand up to Uther about.
Leon had actually been told by Arthur about this instead of by his father, but apparently Uther wanted his son to live alone in some fancy flat in the right part of town that screamed class and prestige, and was willing to pay for it, too, but instead Arthur had insisted upon living in an average flat in an average part of town with his best friend instead.
They’d gotten into a screaming match about it in the office one day. The walls had shook.
Arthur told Leon this later, when he was bursting with anger over his father’s inability to accept that the world didn’t comply with his every wish ,and Leon had been the most readily available recipient of his rant.
Uther hated Merlin, Leon had learned that day – he was a working-class scholarship student who majored in photography, the antithesis of everything Uther Pendragon was as a person.
“I’ve never met him, so I can’t say if a beard would suit him or not,” Leon said conversationally, trying to keep sanity within his and Arthur’s conversation, hoping it would keep Arthur from going too far off the rails into la la land. “Though I suppose I will tonight when I get you home. Good to know that someone can make sure you don’t have alcohol poisoning.”
At the mention of home, Arthur’s face split into a gigantic grin, the pearly whites of his teeth shining. “Merlin! Merlin’s at home! Merlin….I love seeing Merlin. Drive faster, Leon!”
Leon gently shoved Arthur’s hands away from his face as the other man gesticulated wildly with excitement. “Easy there, I can’t get you home if you make me crash the car.”
Arthur’s face turned serious in an instant. “Oh no. I have to get home. Merlin would be real cross with me if I got into a car wreck.”
“I’m sure he would,” Leon chuckled, but Arthur’s seriousness didn’t last long as his head lolled against the window, a dopey grin on his face.
“Merlin…Merlin, Merlin, Merlin,” Arthur sang under his breath. It was really quite cute, Leon thought, hiding a grin, that there was never a crack in Arthur’s carefully constructed propriety until you got a few drinks in him, and then he was singing the praises of his best mate. “I’m so excited to see Merlin.”
“It’s nice that you’re so close with your friend, Arthur,” Leon felt like he had to say, even if Arthur didn’t remember in the morning, because it was a certainty that his father would never say it to him.
Arthur, however, laughed as if Leon said something utterly ridiculous. “Not my friend – my boyfriend. My boyfriend. I like saying my boyfriend. I wanna say it all the time. Boyfriend.”
Leon turned to Arthur, who started singing the word boyfriend over and over again under his breath. Leon’s quiet amusement quickly faded into something more like unbearable pity mixed with a great deal of respect.
Arthur’s bravado and poise had always clearly masked his insecurities – Leon had known that from the time he was a teenager and he found a ten-year-old Arthur crying in the bathrooms at Pendragon Tech because he hadn’t made the football team and could never tell Uther as long as he lived.
But Leon had never known, not even suspected, that it had also masked a sexuality that Uther’s hand would surely strike down mightily upon. Of course, Leon had only just started spending time with Arthur again after years of little contact…
“Arthur?” Leon asked quietly after a moment of quiet contemplation. “Does…does your father know that Merlin is your boyfriend?”
Arthur, even in his giggly, sing-song state, started frowning at the mention of his father. “No. He…he doesn’t know anything. Everyone knows except him. My mates know….Merlin’s mates…Merlin’s mum…my sister, even….but not Uther. Never Uther. Wouldn’t have a job anymore, y’know?”
“I know,” Leon said, even though it felt like a physical wound to say so. A man like Uther Pendragon would never accept that his son, masculinity shoved down his throat from Day One, had a boyfriend. “But…you could’ve told me, yeah? I mean, you just did. But you’re not really in control right now. I….I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but I promise I won’t say anything to anyone at work, especially not Uther.”
“Thanks,” Arthur muttered under his breath, looking much more the maudlin drunk than the giggly one, and Leon felt an itching sense of regret at the dire turn of subject. Uther Pendragon was not a man to be discussed lightly in any circumstance.
“But….you’re about to see Merlin!” Leon pointed out, forcing enthusiasm back into his voice, trying to get Arthur back to happy, trying to make sure he knew that Leon wouldn’t think differently of him. “That’s exciting, right!”
“Yeah,” Arthur said, and though his singing didn’t reappear, a soft smile danced on his face. “Yeah, Merlin. Merlin’s my favorite person. He’s just…good. And he makes me good, too. Y’know?”
“I wish I did,” Leon gave Arthur a sidelong glance as the GPS alerted him that they’d reached their destination. “You’re really lucky to have him, Arthur.”
“I know,” Arthur said, the dopey grin pleasantly back on his face. “I should tell him that. I should tell him that a lot. I forget to sometimes. Remind me to tell him when we get home, yeah?”
“You are home,” Leon said, pointing up at the apartment complex he’d just pulled into, and Arthur’s face split into a grin. “Let’s just get you on upstairs so Merlin can take care of you.”
“He takes good care of me,” Arthur muttered into Leon’s sleeve as Leon pulled him out of the car, letting Arthur lean on him for support as they made their way to the front door. “Real good care. I’d ask him to marry me but he’d probably throw me out a window. Stronger than he looks, see…”
Arthur continued babbling on nonsensicalness about Merlin and his many virtues as Leon guided him to the elevator and toward the flat number he coerced out of Arthur while he waxed a drunk lyrical about Merlin’s ears.
Leon knocked on the door, not trusting Arthur to know where his key was, and it opened a moment later to a confused looking man in his early twenties, tall as a beanpole and as skinny as one, too, dark hair that curled around his rather overlarge ears, as Arthur had pointed out earlier, pale skin, day-old stubble on his cheeks and tired eyes, dressed in an overlarge sweatshirt Leon thought was probably Arthur’s.
“Merlin!” Arthur exclaimed in delight, and the drool on Leon’s shoulder was suddenly left there without warning as Arthur launched himself at Merlin, who caught him with a surprised laugh. Arthur wound his arms around Merlin’s neck and kissed him sloppily for a second.
Leon blushed a bit, and figured it was the safest to look at the floor.
“Arthur, stop,” Merlin pushed him away, a laugh in his voice but evidently concerned as he looked at Leon, eyes creased with worry. “I thought he said he was going out for a round with his coworkers.”
“That’s me,” Leon raised an awkward arm in the air. “One of the other young men, ah, challenged him to a drinking competition.”
“Fuck,” Merlin muttered under his breath. “He can’t say no to a competition.”
“Neither can you,” Arthur objected from where he had buried his face in Merlin’s neck after the kissing had stopped. Merlin had a secure arm around his waist to stop him from falling. “You’re worse.”
“Not what we’re talking about right now,” Merlin raised a somewhat challenging eyebrow in Arthur’s direction and Leon held in a laugh of his own. It was nice that Arthur, master of the ego, had someone who so clearly challenged him.
Merlin quickly returned his attention back to Leon, eyes serious again. “Thanks for bringing him home. Um, I’m Merlin.”
He held his free arm out to shake and Leon took it with a grin.
“Oh, I know. Arthur wouldn’t shut up about you all the way here. I’ve known him practically since birth and I doubt I’ve ever seen him so happy.”
Merlin’s cheeks colored slightly. “Well, that’s because he’s a ridiculous drunk. I suppose that makes you Leon, then. I’ve heard a bit about you, too. Nice to finally meet you.”
“You too,” Leon said, and meant it. “We should all get drinks sometime. I mean, fewer drinks than Arthur’s had tonight, but…”
“I am here,” Arthur muttered petulantly into Merlin’s collarbone. “M’drunk but not stupid.”
“Always debatable,” Merlin smiled down at Arthur before turning back to Leon with respect in his eyes. “Yeah, that would be great. Thanks for not being….I know you weren’t….um, aware of our…”
Leon held up a hand. “I just wish Arthur would’ve told me when he wasn’t plastered. I never would have…what I mean to say is…we’ve known each other forever, but we’ve never really been friends before. I’d really like to change that.”
“Aw, the Ginger Giant has feelings,” Arthur cooed in his direction, bringing up a childhood nickname that made Leon color just slightly in embarrassment.
“That’s Arthur-ese for he’d like to change that, too,” Merlin said, holding in a laugh. “And I wouldn’t mind being your friend, either. Text Arthur later, yeah? After he’s sober and I catch him up on all of the information he unwittingly divulged.”
“I’m here!” Arthur said sulkily again, causing them both to laugh at his childishly pouty expression. “M’gonna remember. I know I’m gonna remember. M’not that drunk.”
“Yes, you are,” Merlin said, leaning over to smooth down Arthur’s hair, which made Leon smile more than anything else tonight had. “I’d better get him to the toilet before the vomiting section of this evening begins and then has several encore performances. See you later, Leon.”
“Yeah,” Leon smiled, waving as he headed down the hallway. “Definitely.”
The pity Leon had felt for Arthur when he first realized Arthur’s predicament had almost entirely dissipated. Uther Pendragon, as cruel and crotchety as he was, would have to be a monster not to realize how happy Arthur was with Merlin.
Which, Leon remembered, Uther Pendragon might very well be a monster. But he had a feeling that Arthur would pull through no matter what – he had always been a better man than his father, anyway.