So, that was Arthur Pendragon.
It wasn't as if Merlin wouldn't have recognised him. The man was plastered all over the papers on any given day of the week, all blond hair and usually a big smile for the camera though that had faded somewhat recently. But it was different, somehow, seeing him in the flesh.
The Avalon Bar and Grille had been Merlin's usual for months now. It was somewhere quiet to go, somewhere that was unlikely to tarnish his carefully cultivated public image. Somewhere the likes of Arthur Pendragon would never frequent. Until today. Today was the day Merlin was supposed to become Arthur's fake boyfriend, to give him a respectable front that would quell all the rumours.
It was, Merlin thought, possibly the worst idea Uncle Gaius had ever had. Perhaps idea wasn't the right word for it, because Merlin was fairly sure even his slightly eccentric old godfather couldn’t possibly have come up with this without some serious persuasion. Persuasion in the form of Pendragon Industries, the vast pharmaceuticals company that was funding his research. The company was owned by Arthur's father, with Arthur himself now running it.
Merlin's own rapidly expanding organic healthfood company was being built up on an advertising campaign promoting wholesome, honest values. He'd taken great pains to ensure that his own behaviour lived up to those ideals. Having Arthur Pendragon in tow was definitely not going to help Merlin's own reputation one iota. The man had been caught visiting a brothel of all things. Though why Arthur would need to do that when surely he could have his pick of lovers was another matter. But still, a brothel.
Merlin had been set against it at first. He had told his godfather that he wouldn't do it and wasn't going to budge. And then Gaius had raised an eyebrow, and reminded him of various scrapes he had helped Merlin out of in the past, when he was younger and more naive. Perhaps reminded was too generous a term? Merlin preferred 'guilt tripping'. Gaius was very, very good at it...
And so Merlin had waited in his favourite Thursday night haunt for Arthur's arrival, silently sulking and cursing himself for being too much of a pushover. And then Arthur had walked in, sat down at the bar and ordered himself a drink. He wasn't even looking around for Merlin, the arrogant prat, just waiting for Merlin to go over and introduce himself. Merlin was half-tempted to walk out there and then. But he didn't.
The trouble was, Arthur was bloody gorgeous.
No, the trouble was that Arthur knew he was bloody gorgeous. Everything about him exuded confidence, wealth and privilege. But that didn't take away the fact that he was a very attractive man, and that he was basically being handed to Merlin on a plate. Because who was to say that a fake relationship couldn't develop into a real one, given time and opportunity?
Merlin made his way over to the empty seat at Arthur's side, preparing his smile.
Arthur wasn't as poor company as Merlin had expected. In fact, he'd been interesting and fun, and then almost endearingly embarrassed when Merlin had asked him about the brothel. He didn't hold his drink well though, unless he'd already partaken of a little Dutch courage before arriving at the Avalon. Whatever it was, he was drunk. And Merlin wasn't the sort of person who let their friends (pretend or not) find their own way home in that sort of state.
George, Merlin's driver, raised an eyebrow when Arthur stumbled into the back of the car, but made no comment. It was, Merlin realised, the first time that he had been at any risk of having an unruly passenger in the car since coming into Merlin's employ. Not that Arthur was being unruly. Having managed to find his way onto the back seat, he was sitting there leaning against the inside of the door. Merlin heard the locks click into place. George wasn't taking any chances.
Merlin gave directions to Arthur's flat, then sat back.
"How do you know where I live?" Arthur asked suspiciously, and Merlin immediately wondered if he'd been a little over-familiar. He always preferred to do research before entering into any sort of work, and before he'd actually met Arthur that was what this had been - work. A way to hopefully promote his company in a good way and, given Arthur's reputation, he'd studied any information that he could get on the man. Arthur didn't need to know just how much depth Merlin had gone into.
"Our families are friends, it's not that hard to find out where you live," Merlin told him. At least that was, hopefully, believable.
Arthur was, it seemed, fairly drunk. It wasn't unsurprising, given the reports Merlin had read in the paper. He gave Merlin an appraising look... at least that's what Merlin thought it was supposed to be. It came over more as a drunken leer. Arthur was at that special place where you thought you were coming across as quite sensible and rational, but were in fact totally rat-arsed.
"You're an interesting bloke," Arthur told him. "I think it'll be good fun to pretend to be your boyfriend. I probably would have dated you if we didn't have to pretend. I mean... not that I..." Arthur straightened up. "I'm not pulling you."
Arthur looked so mortified at the realisation of what he'd said that Merlin couldn't help laughing, then agreeing with him. Arthur was more fun than he'd expected. He was also, it seemed, an affectionate drunk. Somehow he was leaning against Merlin instead of the door and it felt very, very warm in that car.
"You were right," Arthur told him, looking up at him seriously. "We are a very sexy couple."
That wasn’t quite what Merlin had said in the bar when he'd been trying to make the best of the situation. 'Handsome' had been the term he'd used. It was more reserved, sounded less as if he wanted to tear Arthur's clothes off with his teeth...
He wondered if he should push Arthur away. It was all supposed to be just a pretend relationship, after all. But the man did smell so very, very good despite the strong odour of alcohol now permeating everything. His soft hair was brushing against Merlin's cheek.
The car door suddenly opened. "We're here, Sir." George stood there politely, though with a mild air of disapproval, waiting for them to get out.
Merlin hadn't even noticed that the car had stopped.
"Sir?" George repeated.
Merlin gave Arthur a little nudge. "You're home," he whispered.
Arthur raised his head and looked around sleepily. His hair was slightly mussed where he had been leaning on Merlin's shoulder. It was far, far too endearing. Merlin had a horrible feeling this setup really wasn't going to work out well for him.
"Come on." He gave Arthur a gentle push towards the door. "Let's get you inside."
Telling George to wait, Merlin helped Arthur up to his flat. The combination of alcohol and tiredness had turned his supposed boyfriend from cocky to clingy, and Merlin hoped that the fact his driver was still sitting out there would be enough to stop him doing anything stupid.
Although it was a bit late for that. Just agreeing to the pretence was stupid enough. At least he hadn't drunk as much as Arthur.
Getting to the door had been... interesting. Arthur had stumbled getting into the lift, and used that as an excuse to drape himself over Merlin.
"You're a great fake boyfriend," he purred. "Even taking me home. Gonna stay?"
Merlin sighed, willing the doors to open.
"Fake boyfriend, remember? That doesn't involve staying. Where are your keys?"
Arthur smirked and patted his trouser pocket. "You'll have to get them out. I don't think I can." He looked terribly pleased with himself. But then, Merlin thought, from everything he'd ever read or heard about Arthur, that was a natural state for him.
"You'll have to sit outside your flat then," Merlin told him unsympathetically. It was the only way he could deal with Arthur whilst the man was being like that. Finally, mercifully the lift doors slid open. "Here we are. Well, it's been fun. Call me."
Arthur didn't move. In fact, he sat down on the floor of the lift, just in line with the doors so that they couldn't shut. He beamed up at Merlin happily, as if he had just done something extraordinarily clever.
It was adorable.
Or, it would have been if it wasn't for the fact that what Merlin assumed was one of Arthur's neighbours was standing there waiting to use the lift, and she didn't look particularly pleased or amused. So instead of taking a picture (because he had a feeling that in order to deal with Arthur on a regular basis he was going to need as much ammunition as possible) he hauled Arthur to his feet and out of the way of the lift doors.
"She hates me anyway," Arthur told him as the lift doors closed. "No reason, just what she's read in the papers. I'm a quiet... I'm quite... I'm never there."
Which reminded Merlin of where Arthur had been going when he was never there, and what the papers had said, and why it would be a really bad idea to go inside with him whilst he was so drunk.
Arthur, who, thankfully, had forgotten his earlier playfulness, retrieved his keys and after several attempts managed to get the key in the lock and open the door. Merlin followed him inside despite his misgivings. He wanted to get a feel for the way Arthur lived, to see something of the real man he was going to be spending a considerable amount of time with in the future.
No such luck. Arthur headed straight through the first door, which of course led to his bedroom, and flung himself down onto the bed with a contented sigh. Merlin followed him in, picked up the waste paper bin and put it down beside the bed. Arthur's flat was as pristine as he had expected, and he doubted any of the expensive-looking furnishings would benefit from being decorated by the contents of Arthur's stomach if it came to that.
"Stay with me tonight?" Arthur was gazing up at him hopefully.
Merlin wanted to, he really did. But Arthur was too drunk and probably wouldn't even remember this in the morning. It could ruin everything.
"Ask me again when you're sober," Merlin told him.
"I am sober!"
"Of course you are. I'll get you some water."
He went off in search of the kitchen, which was one of those spotlessly white showhome types where there was nothing as common or useful as a handle on any of the cupboard doors. You had to push the door just so to open it. It took Merlin a little while to find the secret panel that hid the glasses. When he went back to the bedroom Arthur was still sprawled across the bed, snoring happily.
Merlin sighed, looking around for a notepad or something. There was a post-it note pad on the bedside cabinet and he wrote a quick note, then left.
It was for the best. Next time Arthur hopefully wouldn't get drunk. Next time perhaps Merlin would stay.
There wasn't a next time.
Arthur didn't appear to remember any of the things he had said to Merlin that night. He was friendly enough, and their arrangement worked very well. It wasn't as if it were a hardship for Merlin to spend time with him.
And so he did, playing the part very well. Arthur was great company, and they found they had far more interests in common than either had expected. There were dinners, and shows, and Merlin found his picture appearing in society magazines far more than he would ever have expected. He was a source of fascination for the columnists, the quiet up and coming clean-living businessman who had turned the bad boy around.
But he hadn't.
Merlin didn't notice it at first, but it soon became apparent that Arthur hadn't given up his unsavoury habits at all. It was just going to be a matter of time before some intrepid journalist spotted it too and Merlin would have no choice but to very publicly end their relationship. That was the last thing Merlin wanted to do. If he was honest, he wanted more from Arthur, not less. Not to lose him.
It was always on a Friday. Arthur would make some excuse and vanish for a few hours. He was working late; he had to pop home to wait for a call; he had to visit a client; visit a friend... the list was endless. When he returned he would look tired, unsurprisingly, and tended to be quieter and more distracted than at any other time of the week. The whore was obviously very good at their job.
Once, just to be sure, Merlin had followed him. At least Arthur had the sense not to take his car, the BMW far too distinctive in that area of town. It was how the journalist had tracked him in the first place. Stupid, parking it just around the corner like that. Merlin hoped he was more careful in everything else he was doing.
With a sinking heart he'd watched Arthur walk up to the door, saw him look around to see if anyone was watching (and Merlin was watching, so Arthur was obviously hopeless at any kind of subterfuge because he didn't even notice him) and then went inside.
Arthur was in there for hours. Merlin didn't even want to consider what he would be up to, or who with. There was no indication from the outside as to who might work there. He didn't even know if Arthur was visiting a man or a woman, though given that he knew Arthur preferred men the other option seemed unlikely. Merlin waited, sheltering in the doorway of what looked like an empty house. Certainly from the lack of lights there was nobody home, and the endless rain meant that nobody was sparing him a second glance as they passed, all too eager to hurry home. Merlin knew he should join them instead of standing there torturing himself. But he had to know. Had to be sure.
When Arthur finally emerged he kept his head down, his shoulders slumped. If anything it looked as if the visit had depressed him as much as it had Merlin. Merlin watched as his sometimes boyfriend crossed the road, collar turned up against the rain. A taxi passed and Arthur looked towards it longingly but at least seemed to have learned that hailing one and being seen being picked up right outside the brothel wasn't a sensible idea. He glanced at his watch, then immediately started to walk faster, Merlin soon losing sight of him.
There was a temptation to walk across the road and see the place for himself, see who the man was that provided Arthur with such temptation that he wouldn't even consider Merlin. But Merlin knew his own luck and that it was almost certain he would get caught there and it would be Arthur dumping him that was all across the papers.
His phone bleeped for attention with an incoming text.
"Sorry, got caught in traffic. Be there in 15 minutes. A x"
Merlin stared at the text for a moment, swore, then broke into a run. He'd forgotten all about their dinner date.
In the end it was Merlin who turned up late, wet and dishevelled because there was never, ever a taxi when you needed one. Arthur sat there in his Armani suit, presumably freshly-showered because there was no sign of what Merlin knew he'd been up to, and looked faintly startled at Merlin's bedraggled appearance.
"Sorry I'm late. I got... caught in the rain," Merlin offered.
"So I see. You're soaked." Arthur glanced at the maître d' who was watching them from across the room. He didn't look overly impressed and Merlin hoped he wasn't about to be asked to leave. That wouldn't do their pristine reputations any good at all. And Arthur would probably never let him live it down.
"Give me a moment to go and clean up?"
"You're a hopeless boyfriend. It's lucky I'm so forgiving," Arthur told him, leaning across to give him a peck on the cheek. Cool, impersonal, like it always was. Merlin wanted more than that so very much. "Don't be long."
Merlin fled to the men's room, his heart breaking.
Three months had passed. Spring was in full bloom and the dark evenings were long gone.
It was a Friday, and Merlin was home in his flat, leaning against the living room window, looking out at the city far below. Somewhere down there was Arthur, no doubt disguised and being careful not to be followed because he couldn't afford another scandal, but there was no question of where he would be heading. Or, given the time, he would already have been there for some time.
"I wouldn't make you pay," he whispered softly out loud to the entire city, but nobody was close enough to hear. Arthur certainly wouldn't hear because he'd have other things to occupy him, other things being whispered to him. Things he preferred to do, things that were more satisfying than spending time with Merlin. It hurt, even though Merlin knew it shouldn't. It wasn't as if Arthur had ever promised him love and affection. That was just Merlin and his stupid feelings. It was a business arrangement, that was all.
Arthur liked every personal relationship to be a series of business arrangements, evidently.
In the morning they were going away, to Paris. It was supposed to be the city of romance, and in the springtime too. They would be there for the whole week. Saturday through to Friday. Of course, they had to return home on the Friday morning. Arthur wouldn't want to miss his regular appointment on the Friday night, Merlin thought, not without a little bitterness.
It was the first time they'd been away properly. Arthur had booked them a room. Just one room. Merlin tried not to let himself hope but he couldn't help it. There was the way that Arthur had smiled at him when he'd said that he would sort it out because Merlin had far too much to do with the launch of his first overseas branch, the way he'd taken Merlin's hand like he always did when they were in public. It might be taken as a tantalising promise of things to come, but Merlin had already learned the hard way that anything like that always led to nothing.
As soon as they were out of the public eye, safely hidden within the walls of Arthur's flat, or Merlin's, they became just friends again. Merlin knew the score, he was always careful to drop Arthur's hand, move a little away from him. Arthur never, ever made any move to stop him. If Arthur wanted him, if he were even remotely interested, he had so many opportunities to show it. He never had, not until the Paris holiday and the offer of a room.
And yet Arthur was still at his regular Friday night haunt, just a night before they were due to go away. Merlin's head was telling him not to get his hopes up and not to be so foolish. His heart was saying something else entirely.
It was a big promotion for his business. A chance to expand across the continent. Arthur already had several branches of his father's pharmaceuticals company operating in France, so having him there was going to be a huge help. And he had helped with the arrangements for the upcoming launch, had even let Merlin use the meeting rooms in his offices. He'd been enthusiastic and encouraging, and he was giving up a week of his life purely for Merlin. Almost a week, anyway. Friday nights excluded.
Merlin's mobile rang, pulling him away from the window. It might be business, as most of his calls were at the moment, though it was nearly time for the standard Friday night text or call from Arthur. Merlin wondered what lie he would cover his absence with this time. It was rarely anything creative.
"Hi, it's me. Sorry, I got caught at the office..."
Paris was stunning.
Merlin had spent the journey from the airport with his face pressed to the glass of the taxi window, gazing at the architecture as they raced past, trying not to panic at the terrifying drivers around the Arc D'Triomphe where there seemed to be no rules of the road at all. He glimpsed the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, beautiful churches and tree-lined avenues. All gone in the blink of an eye. All too soon they were in the lobby of the Paris branch of Pendragon Industries, the receptionist fawning over Monsieur Pendragon and various managers and aides shuffling around them nervously as they were ushered up to the top floor meeting rooms. The view from there was spectacular, the floor to ceiling windows looking right out over the city.
Merlin's offices weren't going to be as spectacular, but then he'd built up his own business rather than inherited it from his father. He didn't begrudge Arthur, who was more than generous with his time and property, but he couldn't help feeling keenly the difference between this room, where they were going to hold the launch on Monday night, and the far less grand surroundings of the small new office and adjoining warehouse in the western suburbs of the city. Still, it was an initial distribution point and they would build on it. Pure Magic, or Pur Magie as it was going to be called there, would do well. There was already a respectable amount of pre-ordering going on. Merlin tried not to worry. Everything was going to be fine.
Arthur was busy signing endless documents, so Merlin excused himself and took the opportunity to check in with his own staff. The small, hardworking team had been in Paris for weeks setting up the new workplace and getting everything ready for the launch.
Merlin had only been over twice before. On both occasions the trip was entirely spent at the new office, and then he'd had to fly back almost immediately. This would be the first time he had ever seen central Paris properly. As the Monday night launch was already arranged he was hoping that there would be some time to explore both before and after that took place. Arthur had mentioned a floating restaurant on the Seine, and promised a tour of the sights.
Truthfully, though, the only sight Merlin was thinking about was that hotel room. That one hotel room that they were going to share...
Merlin had expected to be the busy one, but apparently Arthur's visit to the Paris branch was quite a rare occurrence and he was swamped with requests. One of his people had already checked them into their hotel and dealt with their luggage, so for the final half hour or so Merlin was sitting in Arthur's office drinking coffee and looking out longingly over Paris.
"Nearly done," Arthur promised. The pile of papers in front of him didn't look any lower than it had an hour earlier, but Merlin took Arthur's word for it. "My PA has booked us a table for eight."
"The floating restaurant?" Merlin asked hopefully.
"Not on a Saturday. Too many tourists. This is a little bistro I found a few years back. You'll love it."
And Arthur was right. Arthur was always right. The bistro was small and just a little way off the tourist trail. Quiet, with top class cuisine, it was one of those hidden treasures the guide books never told you about. It had a gorgeous view of the river from the patio, and as dusk fell the river sparkled with lights. And Merlin's view included Arthur.
There had been a photographer when they'd left the bistro. Arthur had held Merlin close for the picture, and hadn't removed his arm from around Merlin's waist since. Apparently there might be more photographers. Merlin was hoping that might just be an excuse.
"I think I love Paris already," Merlin admitted as they walked back. The hotel was only a few streets away and it was a clear night.
"I can't believe you've never visited. It's the city of romance. Seriously, none of your boyfriends have ever taken you here?"
"Never," he admitted. He held up the rose Arthur had bought him from the seller who had turned up at their table. "Never had one of these either."
Arthur grinned at him. "I'm the best fake boyfriend ever, obviously."
And really, that should have been a warning. But Merlin was too warmed by the food and the wine and the location, and that arm holding him close. He didn't want a warning. He wanted Arthur.
The hotel, when they finally got there, was in one of the beautiful Haussmannian buildings. Inside it had been completely refurbished and was spacious and modern and central. Naturally Arthur would have gone for the best.
It was completely, absolutely perfect.
Until Arthur opened the door to their hotel room and Merlin followed him inside. That was when he saw what Arthur had actually booked for them.
There were two beds. Twin beds. Not the romantic double Merlin had been hoping for but just another stark reminder of the fact that Arthur just wasn't into him. He was a convenience, and that was all he was ever going to be to Arthur. It wasn't as if he'd know all the tricks the no-doubt accomplished whores he bought could service him with. He was just Merlin. Plain, boring, sensible, down-to-earth Merlin. It was why he had been chosen, it was why, when it was no longer a convenience, Arthur would cast him aside.
Arthur, of course, was totally oblivious.
"Do you like the room?"
Merlin just nodded, not quite trusting his voice.
"It's a great hotel. They do an amazing breakfast, you'll love it." Arthur threw his jacket over the back of a chair, and flopped down on one of the beds. "I'm shattered. Tomorrow I'll take you to the Louvre, you wanted to see the Mona Lisa, didn't you?"
"Yes," Merlin managed.
"Maybe that floating restaurant too?"
Somehow, Merlin's enthusiasm for Paris had evaporated. He sat down on the edge of his narrow, single bed with his back to Arthur. Suddenly he felt very tired too, though he doubted the fact would help him sleep.
Paris wasn't the only trip they took together, but Merlin didn't have high expectations for the others and so never felt that same crushing disappointment. They'd been together, as far as the world was concerned, for six months, and nothing had changed. Merlin had been nursing a king-sized crush... no, it was more than a crush... Merlin had been in love with Arthur for most of that time.
Arthur didn't return that love. It had been apparent in Paris, and ever since then Merlin had been sure to let Arthur know that it was just a business arrangement for him as well. He dropped any sign of closeness as soon as they were alone, never keeping hold of Arthur's hand if nobody else could see them, never staying inside the warm circle of his arm if he didn't have to. He could be just as professional as Arthur.
Except, Merlin didn't think that he could do it for much longer. The Friday night visits to the brothel hadn't stopped, and Merlin was tired of going to bed alone while Arthur did just what he liked. Six months celibate was a long time, particularly when there was no chance of meeting anyone else because everyone thought he was spoken for.
It was clear nothing more than friendship was ever going to come of their relationship and Merlin thought that if he didn't end things then even the friendship might not survive. Soon, Merlin knew, for his own sanity he was going to have to put a stop to it. He didn't want to, the thought of not having Arthur in his life every day was horrible, but he couldn't continue pining miserably.
First though, there was Arthur's birthday to deal with. He needed to stay around for that, at least.
Gwen, Arthur's friendly, bubbly PA had been planning it with Merlin for weeks. Merlin was supposed to take Arthur out for dinner, getting him out of the way whilst Gwen and Arthur's friends set up Arthur's flat for a surprise party. Merlin was looking forward to the quiet meal first a little more than he knew he should. He'd bought Arthur a gift, hand-crafted cufflinks in a stylised version of the dragon that made up the main part of the logo for Pendragon Industries. He had intended handing it over privately, during the meal.
Arthur, of course, had to ruin that idea by bringing Gwen along. And he was very late, even by his standards. Merlin had considered leaving, thinking that perhaps Arthur had got a better offer or gone off to that place again. It was a relief when he finally arrived, though when Merlin saw he had Gwen in tow he wished he hadn't bothered waiting.
It wasn't that Merlin didn't like Gwen, in fact she was probably his favourite of all Arthur's staff and was constantly encouraging the pair of them to spend as much time as possible together. In fact, she spent the entire dinner sitting there beaming fondly at the pair of them as if they were a cute pair of kittens or something. During the hours and hours they'd spent together organising the party she had hinted heavily that she thought Merlin should make a move. She was convinced that Arthur was interested too.
Gwen obviously had no idea that Arthur was still visiting the brothel on a weekly basis. Merlin envied her ignorance.
He decided to leave the gift until later, rather than risk the squeals of delight from Gwen that he felt would be inevitable if he did that in front of her. He tucked the small box back in his jacket pocket and wondered if it might even be better left to the next day, given that so many people were going to be at the party.
It was a pleasant enough meal, but Arthur kept glancing at his watch as if he were late for something. It told Merlin, if he really still needed telling, that his company really didn't mean that much to Arthur. And he had a horrible feeling that he knew exactly what Arthur was probably late for.
Soon enough Arthur got to his feet.
"It's been a great evening but I have to go. Would you mind giving Gwen a lift home, Merlin? I have to run an errand."
Errands were one of Arthur's favourite Friday excuses, and it wasn't even a Friday. Merlin frowned, then tried to hide it by nodding agreement. It was the man's birthday. Of course he was going to want a little 'relaxation', or whatever people called it these days. He glanced at Gwen worriedly. The surprise party wasn't going to be much of a success if the guest of honour didn't turn up.
"Perhaps you and Merlin could go for a drink," she attempted. "It's your birthday, you're supposed to be celebrating. I can run your errand."
"Why don't you two go for a drink instead?" Arthur suggested. "Have one for me. We've been so busy today, I'm really tired. I just need to do this one quick thing and then I'm heading for bed. See you both tomorrow."
And then he was gone.
"Well," Merlin said as soon as Arthur left. "At least we won't have to worry about him coming home early." He knew he sounded bitter as he said it. "He'll be at least an hour and a half, he always is."
"He just said it was an errand," Gwen pointed out. "He's been in the office all day, he probably just wants to go to the shops. He'll be home soon. Besides, I'm over an hour behind with setting things up, we need to get back to his flat quickly. People will start arriving soon. Let's just hope he doesn't arrive before we're ready."
Gwen, obviously, had no idea where Arthur had gone, or that there was any irony in his statement about heading for bed. She chattered happily about the party as they drove to Arthur's flat and Merlin let them in.
"Oh look, we both have a key!" Gwen pointed out happily. "I'm his PA, I need one when he's away, but he must really think a lot of you."
So much that he went off to visit a whore rather than spend his birthday with his supposed boyfriend, Merlin thought bitterly. He was right to bring the unhealthy relationship to an end, he knew. But that didn't stop him feeling slightly sick about doing so. He'd wait a few weeks, not do it straight after the birthday. Maybe a month...
Merlin was correct about Arthur's timing. It was an hour and a half after he left the restaurant that they heard his car drive up.
Gwen shushed them all. As several had already started on the wine it took several attempts to silence them all.
As always, Arthur looked tired and stressed after his visit, and in the brief unguarded moment when he was illuminated only by the light from the hallway he looked more drained than ever. Then everyone jumped out at him and shouted "Surprise!" and that moment was gone. Merlin wondered if anyone else had even noticed it.
Gwen had rushed up to Arthur excitedly, and Merlin could see how thrilled she was that they'd managed to pull off the surprise after all.
"Uther said his assistant will take care of the rest of the tax files, and that you can have tomorrow off," she told Arthur who still looked rather startled. He looked pleased as well though, and that was all they'd been aiming for.
"This is why you were spending so much time with me?" Arthur asked. Gwen nodded happily.
"And you!" Arthur turned to Merlin. "I had no bloody idea."
"I know, that was kind of the point," Merlin told him with a wry smile, then couldn't help a little gasp of surprise himself when Arthur pulled him in for a hug. It felt good. Better than good. Merlin knew he had to put a stop to this once and for all, because the longer he allowed himself to feel too much for Arthur, the more it was going to end up hurting when Arthur inevitably let him go.
Gwen beamed at him and none too discretely left them alone, chivvying a couple of Arthur's friends away at the same time. She meant well, very well, but Merlin could have done without it. Pulling away, he looked into Arthur's blue eyes. It was time to face up to him, to let him know that Merlin knew exactly what he was up to, that Merlin wasn't a fool.
"So," Merlin asked. "It was good?"
"What was good?" Arthur asked, frowning in confusion.
"Where you go every Friday night, where you went tonight. You were safe?"
Arthur stared at him, apparently unable to speak. "I..."
"I know it's not my business." Merlin forced a smile onto his face. "I just want to make sure you're happy."
He didn't wait for a response, just gently squeezed Arthur's shoulder, trying to convey so much feeling in that. Then Merlin turned away, heading towards the laughing, happy crowd of people in the next room and leaving Arthur standing there.
The last thing Merlin felt like doing was partying. Gwaine had taken charge of the bar and was insisting on making 'personalised' cocktails for everyone. Most likely that would result in a lot of sore heads in the morning. Merlin had got some dubious-looking blue concoction, and was just wondering whether Gwaine would notice if he sneaked out and tipped it down the toilet (because really, it was disgusting) when he found Cenred King suddenly standing right in front of him. Maybe standing a little bit too close.
Kingdom Industries was one of Arthur's firm's biggest rivals, and Merlin wasn't quite sure how Cenred had managed to wangle an invitation. He certainly hadn't told him about it and was fairly sure Gwen wouldn't have done either. The man had probably gatecrashed the event.
"Hello Merlin. Arthur left you all alone?"
Cenred's drink was a rather slimy green colour. As Gwaine was one of Arthur's most loyal friends, Merlin wondered what might be in it, then decided it was best not to know. Still, Cenred seemed to like it well enough.
"I'm supposed to be mingling," Merlin told him, then mentally kicked himself for that one because of course Cenred took it as the double entendre that it wasn't and moved a little closer.
"You can mingle with me then. I've been wanting to get you alone for a while."
"I'm with Arthur."
"Of course you are. But you know, there are other firms out there that could help your business just as much as Pendragon Industries can. I hear you're doing your next marketing event out in the Netherlands. Kingdom has several branches there, it's a lucrative market. Arthur won't be able to help you with it because Pendragon hasn't broken into the Dutch market yet."
Cenred was standing far too close. Somehow he had almost backed Merlin into a corner, literally.
"I could help you though," Cenred continued. "Here's my card, give me a call." He handed over a heavily embossed business card with a flamboyant logo emblazoned across it. Merlin took it politely, having no intention of actually using it, and slipped it in his pocket. Cenred's smile widened, growing almost predatory, and he leaned in even closer. Merlin could smell that green drink on his breath and wondered again just what Gwaine had put in it. He put his own drink down, using the excuse to turn away from Cenred's far too close proximity.
"You can call me any time, Merlin. Day or... night. I could..."
Suddenly Arthur was there, grabbing Merlin by the arm and pulling him away from Cenred.
"I have to talk to you!" he demanded.
Merlin nodded and turned to tell Cenred that he'd have one of his people call him, but Arthur didn't give him a chance.
"Now!" he insisted, and practically dragged Merlin away from Cenred, past all their friends and into his bedroom. He quickly shut the door, then turned to face Merlin.
"What are you doing?"
Merlin blinked in surprise. He'd considered asking the same question himself, given that he'd just been hauled halfway across Arthur's flat like a naughty schoolboy. But Arthur was obviously upset with him so he asked gently, "What's the matter, Arthur?"
"You're flirting with Cenred, at my party!"
Given what Merlin knew Arthur had been up to just a short while earlier, that was really quite annoying.
"We were just talking. He's got some connections in the Netherlands, and we were going to go there next to do a marketing event..."
Arthur snorted. "Right."
"What?" Merlin snapped.
"I'm sure he's going to take you to the Netherlands to market your product."
That was really too much for Merlin. His pretend boyfriend, who wasn't interested in ever becoming anything more, was acting as if he were jealous. "What is your fucking problem?"
"I don't have a fucking problem," Arthur snarled back. "I just don't appreciate that you... my supposed boyfriend... are flirting with someone outside the circle who doesn't know..."
"I wasn't flirting with him," Merlin pointed out. And then he added, because evidently Arthur needed a good reality check, "And, why do you care if I flirt with someone? We aren't really boyfriends, anyway. We're meant to break up eventually."
Arthur looked a little taken aback at that, but Merlin ploughed on. He definitely hadn't wanted to do this on Arthur's birthday, but it was too thoughtless of Arthur to continue his behaviour and not expect Merlin to mind.
"And I'm not the one who still goes to a fucking whorehouse every week. Instead of... Instead of..."
"Instead of what?" Arthur spat.
Merlin had never been able to stop himself running off at the mouth when he got angry. So he let rip with the thing that really, really bothered him about Arthur's behaviour.
"Instead of just asking me to fuck you. If you want to have sex, why don't you just ask me? I'm here, fucking day in and day out, with you. God, you don't even see it. How much I want you..."
After months of keeping it all bottled up, admitting the truth was all it took. Arthur silenced him with a deep, loving kiss that told Merlin more clearly than any words how much he was wanted too. And then he proceeded to show him.
It seemed to take an age for the party guests to leave.
Merlin hadn't left Arthur's side for even a moment since they'd emerged from Arthur's bedroom. There were a lot of knowing looks, and perhaps they hadn't been as quiet as they'd thought. Or perhaps they were just looking too contended, too post-coital. Merlin didn't really care. Even when Gwaine handed them a couple of creamy white concoctions and told them they obviously knew what those were called, they just looked at each other with a knowing smile. Gwaine rolled his eyes and moved off to presumably find more entertaining victims.
As the partygoers started to leave, Merlin felt a thrill of concern run through him. Soon he and Arthur would be alone, and whilst that meant he'd have everything he'd wanted for months now there was still the matter of Arthur's Friday appointments to deal with. Arthur hadn't offered him any kind of reassurance yet that those were going to stop. For all their new closeness, that worrying fact was still gnawing at the back of Merlin's mind.
Gwen swept out of the door with her boyfriend in a flurry of kisses and smiles, and an order that Arthur was to tell her everything in the morning, and then they were finally alone.
Arthur closed the door behind them with a weary sigh, and for good measure slid the bolt across.
"I thought they'd never go!"
Merlin raised an eyebrow. He wasn't as good at it as his uncle Gaius, nobody was, but he was well on the way. "Do you tell Gwen everything, then?"
Arthur laughed, grabbed his hand and led him back to the bedroom. "She thinks I do!"
He looked worn out, Merlin thought. Two sessions in one night was probably more than enough to cause that, even without a long day at work and then the party. Merlin climbed into bed, and pulled Arthur close to him. Arthur felt tense, even though he snuggled in closer to Merlin, stroking his back gently.
"I don't go to the whorehouse to have sex," Arthur whispered.
Merlin's heart sank. Another lie. Surely Arthur couldn't really think he was that stupid?
"Oh," was all he said. What else was there to say? It was hugely, crushingly disappointing. He knew he should just up and leave, but Arthur was there, holding him, and it felt so right.
"My sister..." Arthur began, then paused, obviously very hesitant about what he was going to say.
Merlin waited for him to continue. He'd never heard of a sister before. He didn't even know Arthur had one.
Arthur took a deep breath, then continued. "A while back she got into the wrong crowd, and started doing drugs and got arrested a few times. My father, he... he stopped supporting her. Cleaned out her bank account... he wanted nothing to do with her. So she resorted to prostitution. I found out where she was and I went to see her. Asked her, begged her to come back, but she's too stubborn. So I used to go visit her, then this reporter started following me and I didn't want my father to..."
He didn't want his father to know how low his sister had sunk, so he let himself take the rap.
"So you let everyone believe that you're some sort of a sex addict," Merlin sighed. Everyone, even Merlin.
"And you go to see your sister every Friday?" Merlin knew he did. After all, he'd followed him and hung around outside.
"Yeah, I give her money. She refuses to take it so I schedule an appointment with her and pay her two hours’ worth of...whatever. She's been trying to get clean, for me."
"Oh, Arthur," Merlin sighed. "I'm so sorry. I've been such an idiot!" But, if it was possible, he was now even more in love with the brave, noble kind-hearted man and loyal man than ever.
"No, you haven't." Merlin felt Arthur kiss the top of his head. "You've been pretty perfect, actually. You knew where I was going for six months and you didn't say anything."
Merlin shrugged, feeling a little guilty. "I just thought I wasn't your type."
"Merlin, you're a complete idiot. Do you know that?"
Yes, he did. But with Arthur holding him close like the most precious thing in the world, Merlin found he really didn't care.