Title: Laws of the Game
Summary: The question “Shirts or Skins?” makes Merlin panic. Arthur helps.
Word Count: 910
A/N: Modern AU
“Shirts or Skins?”
All the boys crowded around Percy, the tallest and broadest of them, as he addressed Gwaine, the one who’d organized Saturday football on the community pitch.
Merlin couldn’t believe he’d been invited in the first place. But on his way home from college the day before, Arthur—the boy he’d fancied for ages—had asked him if he wanted to join them (Merlin’s heart had inflated like a balloon), since one of their regular players was out sick (Pop!). Still, he’d said yes. Arthur had smiled at him, clapped him on the back, and Merlin's heart had puffed up again, the bloody fickle thing.
He’d barely slept for his excitement. In truth, Merlin wasn’t a bad midfielder, though you’d never know it to look at him. He was extremely fast, adept at passing. Other lads tended to underestimate him, which he used to his advantage whenever he got the chance to play, which was seldom. Tomorrow he’d show them all, prove to Arthur he was more than just the nerdy kid no one gave a second glance.
So it wasn’t because of his lack of ability or the chill in the air that Merlin found himself shivering as Gwaine, his team captain, chose Skins.
The other boys on his team whooped and began whipping their shirts over their heads: Gwaine, Elyan . . . Arthur.
He was a golden, early morning sun god, blond hair falling messily over his brow as he tossed his shirt onto the pile, and then followed the other boys out onto the dew-wet field. Merlin’s body rioted with desire. Arthur’s skin seemed loved by sun, glowing tan and beautiful, kissed by it. They all shouted, laughed, jostled each other, each team forming a huddle on opposite ends of the pitch to strategize game-play. Merlin was the only one left on the sidelines.
Merlin gripped the hem of his shirt, panic setting in as his entire plan vanished, leaving nothing but the fear of inevitable humiliation.
He was too skinny. And he ate! He ate more than most boys twice his size, but he never gained any weight. The doctors attributed it to an unusually high metabolism, said it would settle down when he was older. At seventeen, Merlin hated his body, the knobbiness of his knees, his jutting collarbones. He hated the concavity of his ribs, the paleness of his skin, envied the boys in the huddle with their broad, muscular backs and strong arms.
No, he couldn’t do this. He couldn’t.
Swallowing deeply, overcome with despair, Merlin turned and began his silent retreat.
“Oi! Merlin! Mate, wait up!”
It was Arthur’s voice, and Merlin froze in his tracks, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling.
“Hey! I thought you were gonna play?”
Arthur gripped his arm, and Merlin glanced from the hand up to Arthur’s blue eyes, trying not to gawp at his chest along the way. Even though he was humiliated, he still wanted Arthur, and the hopelessness of it all washed over him in sickening waves.
“Yeah, well I changed my mind.”
“Why?” Arthur asked, brow furrowing. “You seemed keen yesterday, mate.”
“I’m not anymore. I’ve . . . gotta go.”
“We can’t play without you,” Arthur said, standing his ground. His hand was still on Merlin’s arm, skin on skin, pale against golden.
It was a simple, yet compelling argument, and Merlin was torn again. He bit his lip.
“Is it because of the Skins?” Arthur asked. Where Merlin had expected derision, irritation, Arthur’s voice was soft with understanding. “Maybe you could be on the other team? We could switch a player?”
“No.” Merlin shook his head, met Arthur’s kind gaze. “They’ll all know why.”
“Can’t you just . . . why don’t you want anyone to see you?” It was the kind of question only someone perfect could ask.
“I just . . .” All of a sudden it seemed so stupid, his anxiety. It wasn’t like Arthur would ever want him anyway, so seeing Merlin’s body wasn’t going to put him off. Arthur just thought of him as a mate, even worse, a substitute mate.
“Come on,” Arthur said, and Merlin’s stupid heart rattled in his ribs, out of control, because Arthur’s hands had slid to his waist. He held his breath while fingers tugged on his shirt, a quick look over Arthur’s shoulder ensuring him no one could see. If Arthur laughed at him, the other lads would never know. He could still escape with his dignity intact. Sort of. “Arms up,” Arthur said, already pulling.
Merlin held his arms up like an obedient child, a thrill of arousal shooting through him at the thought Arthur was undressing him.
He closed his eyes when he felt cool air on his skin, stood shirtless in front of Arthur. Waited for the laugh.
It was the shock of Arthur’s hands on his bare sides that made him open his eyes. Arthur Pendragon, sun god, was looking at him like Merlin might be something special. Like he didn’t hate what he saw.
“You’re so beautiful,” Arthur said, fingers tickling. The look in his eyes made Merlin feel completely naked. “Now can you play football?”
Merlin nodded, dizzy. “Yeah.”
Arthur grinned, squeezed Merlin’s side and leaned forward like he was whispering a secret. “Well, let’s go.”
They jogged back to the pitch and Arthur threw Merlin’s shirt onto the pile. The two of them ran in long strides toward their team, the lads greeting Merlin with back slaps and elbows to ribs, like nothing odd had happened. Like he was one of them.
That day, thanks to Merlin, Skins won.