Merlin shifts his weight from one foot to another and clasps his hands behind his back. Beyond the house, heavy, grey clouds gather and the tension of a late afternoon thunderstorm hangs in the air. Merlin shifts again and resists the urge to clear his throat; the warmth and anticipation of the storm seems to fill him, make him impatient and jittery.
The faint sound of carriage wheels mimics that of rolling thunder as they approach the house. Merlin cranes his neck to see around the line of servants and is rewarded a few moments later by the sight of the carriage approaching the estate.
Like the late afternoon sky, the carriage is draped in darker colors--the colors of full mourning, the colors only the upper classes have the luxury to cling to for so long after a loved one passes.
The man who steps out of the carriage is dressed in mourning, too, but there is a glimpse of light in his eyes when he meets Merlin. The sort of light that flickers brief and bright, then shutters itself away, but not before Merlin can smile.
"What happened to your last valet?"
Arthur half-turns, presents himself to Merlin in profile, and narrows his eyes. "I don't believe I need to answer that question."
Merlin shrugs and settles Arthur's coat on his shoulders. He leaves them there for a moment, until he can feel the warmth of Arthur's body through the heavy material, then for another moment, and then, he knows when he feels Arthur tense, for a moment too long. He slides his hands down to begin brushing off Arthur's sleeves. "You arrived with only a coachman. And a groom for your horses," he adds.
"Those are damned good horses. Of course I brought my own groom."
"Of course you did." Merlin smoothes his palms over the coat's lapels. "Of course you'd bring somebody to look after your horses."
Arthur dresses for dinner and plays whist and afterwards, he relates his victories at the card table to Merlin. There are long walks and hunting trips, afternoons in the library, and a rainy Tuesday morning spent writing an hours-long letter to his sister.
He's quite proper, and quite easy to look after. Perhaps a bit too easy, as if he's not used to being properly looked after.
"Did you dismiss him?"
Arthur ignores the question, pretending to read the letter in his right hand as Merlin fixes the ruffle at the cuff of his shirt over his left.
"Did he find a better position?"
Arthur continues to stare at the letter, though he does give a sniff to discard the notion of such a possibility.
"Did he decide to get married instead of stay in service?"
Ah. There. The brief flicker in Arthur's eyes again and an even more brief tremble of pages in his hand. He glances away from Merlin and tugs his hand away from Merlin's fingers.
Merlin moves away to fetch Arthur's waistcoat from the bed and in the pit of his stomach, in the very deepest part of his being, something becomes warmer, becomes more certain. He does the waistcoat up with nimble fingers and lingers over the last button, wanting to ask Arthur another question.
"There was a turnover of the household staff after my father passed away. I have not had time to hire a new valet," Arthur says before Merlin can say anything else. He, too, looks as if there is something more he wants to add, and his hand brushes Merlin's before he decides to simply step away to let Merlin tighten the back of the waistcoat. "I suspect I'll be up rather late tonight. Lay out my nightclothes and go to sleep yourself when you've finished with your duties."
Arthur was correct--dinner runs well into the evening, and the card tables stay full well into the night. When Merlin arrives the next morning, Arthur's still asleep. His clothes are cast aside and the bed curtains are open, sunlight spilling over the rumpled sheets.
Merlin takes one step into the room, then stops and watches the way Arthur sighs in his sleep through parted lips. Flushed with sleep, he looks young, almost boyish, as if he has suffered no great loss or disappointment.
It's too easy to take a few more steps into the room and use the tip of one finger to brush the hair away from Arthur's eyes. Merlin knows it's a liberty he ought not take, but he also knows that he is the only one who has the time or opportunity to take that chance. Arthur stirs and smiles, looks sleepily complacent, and smiles again when Merlin strokes the same fingertip over the side of his face.
A second later he claps his hand on Arthur's shoulder and gives him a shake. When Arthur protests with a groan, he tugs the blankets down.
"You're too early, Emrys."
"I let you sleep an hour later. I have tea," he adds, and the hand that looks as if it's ready to grasp his wrist only rests against his arm. "But you have to get out of bed to drink it."
Arthur falls against the pillows with another groan.
Frowning in concentration, Merlin slowly ties Arthur's cravat as he listens to Arthur run through the names and rank of all the guests who will be at the estate tonight for dinner.
"I'm sure you're fine," he comments when Arthur pauses to take a breath. If he raises his eyes, he'll meet Arthur's, and Merlin knows he'll smile at the look of serious concern on Arthur's face.
Arthur huffs, his breath a warm puff of air against Merlin's face. "It's been two months since ... I haven't attended a major social function --"
"Well, I hardly doubt two months is long enough to forget knowledge you were practically born with."
Arthur's laugh surprises Merlin into looking up. Their noses and lips nearly touch and Arthur's smile brings out the brightness in his eyes so greatly that Merlin nearly laughs, too. His breath catches when Arthur's hand reaches up to rest on his own.
"You should..." Arthur tongue wets his lips and, just as suddenly as it had come into his eyes, the light flickers away. "Do my tie over again. I want a different style for tonight."
It only takes a week for Merlin to learn the contours of Arthur's body. His hands memorize the breadth of his shoulders and the smooth plane of his chest and stomach; he already knows how to make Arthur's trousers and breeches fit snugly against his hips and how to arrange his collar and cravat to bring out the angle of his jawbone and aristocratic slope of his nose.
It only takes a week for Merlin to realize that his hands will never forget the way Arthur's body feels beneath them.
"You really don't need to wear breeches to dinner here, it doesn't matter who's been invited. Trousers are fine." Merlin nods at the clothes laid out on the bed with meaning.
"It's not dinner. It's an event. A social event. It's--it's--" Arthur crosses his arms over his chest and sets his jaw.
"It's not the ton and it's not the assembly rooms at Bath Spa. You really don't need breeches." Merlin walks over to Arthur and waits for him to put his arms down so he can start undressing Arthur from his day clothes. "Do you think I'm incompetent?
"I think you're ridiculous. I need to look interested. Your master is having his aunt and his cousins over to visit."
"Oh. You're not though, are you? You wouldn't be..." Merlin says, softly, and regrets it an instant later when he feels Arthur tense and draw away.
"I might be. I might very well be interested in not spending the rest of my life in an empty house, alone."
Arthur doesn't speak to him for a whole day after their disagreement.
When he does, it's with a mumbled apology before bed and a touch of his hand to Merlin's elbow.
"You don't have to be alone. And you don't have to marry."
Standing in his small clothes in the middle of the bedchamber, Arthur looks oddly vulnerable. He lowers his eyes in reply to Merlin's words and shakes his head. "I don't know. Perhaps not."
Merlin nods and turns to fetch Arthur's clothes for the day.
"He left," Arthur says when Merlin is across the room. "It was fine and good, he deserved to have his own life. He needn't have remained my servant his whole life."
The storm that Arthur brings crashes over the both of them one night when Merlin least expects it. He thought, maybe, there'd be some flicker between them, some fleeting touch and a tacit understanding, if not between gentlemen, then between two men.
There is, instead, Arthur, his eyes shining and his blood warm, determined to please Merlin and to be pleased. He's wild with drink and determination and when he pulls Merlin close to him, there is nothing inside Merlin that is able to resist him.
Not now, not when he's spent a fortnight tugging sheets off Arthur when he's barely awake and tugging clothes off him when he's ready to fall asleep. Not after he's committed Arthur's body and breath to memory, not when he's seen Arthur smile fully, and not after he's learned how desperately frightened he is of further loss.
And if Arthur says there can be no more than this between them, nothing more than secret pleasure and unvoiced desire, then Merlin understands that it is because there are no words to name what will exist between them.
Peering over Merlin's shoulder, Arthur watches him fold linens. "How long will it take you to do that? You're not very efficient."
"It's not particularly efficient to own this many sets of small clothes and shirts." Merlin pats the last shirt after folding it neatly. He turns to face Arthur, touches his ruffled hair and his chest. "You have an early morning tomorrow."
"And I think I shall have an early night tonight," Arthur says and there is more than candlelight flickering in his eyes.