Merlin fumbles for the cracked, red mug of tea with ink-stained fingers, rubbing at the corner of his eye. The page with a few haphazard lines (barely resembling a face with its mouth open in mid-speech) is frustrating him with its strange unwillingness to shape into anything familiar. It feels wrong. It might be the proportions, but, no, that’s not it. It’s something around the eyes – something. It’s just something.
He’s not used to this – being awake at god knows what time in the morning, struggling to get the lines right. It’s not that it’s always come easy, because it hasn’t, but it’s never felt quite this wrong.
Or maybe it’s not wrong; maybe it’s just different.
And fuck, he’s reduced to arguing semantics now.
Also, his tea is stone cold and he sputters into his mug just as the display on his phone lights up under a stack of papers.
Arthur. Of course it’s bloody Arthur, the bane of his very existence, except that’s a bit of an exaggeration these days because Arthur’s definitely the least terrible of the Mighty Douchelords.
Merlin groans, pushing his fingers too hard against the screen. “Why are you calling in the middle of the night?”
“It’s 7, Merlin. Christ!”
Merlin shuffles out into the living room with his mug in one hand, peering up at the clock on the second shelf of the giant bookcase.
“Are you really turning into one of those artist clichés?” Arthur sounds way too amused for Merlin’s liking. “Really, Merlin? Staying up all night bemoaning the pain of your deep, artistic soul?”
“The only pain in my artistic soul is you.” Merlin dumps the cold tea into the sink, refusing to consider the fact that Arthur would not at all have laughed at that three months ago.
“You wound me. And here I called to give you good news and everything.”
Merlin gives an exaggerated gasp and puts his hand over his heart even though Arthur can’t see him. “Good news? And you’re usually the devil’s messenger.”
“And by the devil you mean my father, I assume.”
Holding the phone in place with his shoulder, Merlin puts the kettle on, unwilling to start the rest of this day without tea. “And the rest of them.”
Arthur’s eye roll is almost audible. “Yeah, all of these evil people” – he draws out the ‘evil’, making Merlin bite his lip to avoid letting out a puff of laughter – “making you money, the bastards!”
Merlin valiantly ignores the point Arthur may have had, leaning back against the counter as he keeps an eye on the kettle. “You were talking about good news?”
It’s a strange world when Merlin is actually terrified of good news.
“We might’ve found your Aithusa,” Arthur says, his voice betraying his excitement and Merlin stands up straighter, his heart suddenly beating frantically in his chest. “Freya wants you to come in.”
Merlin gives a breathless “Yeah” and his fingers whiten around the phone. This is actually happening. He doesn’t know if he wants to run around screaming in excitement or barf in the rubbish bin.
“Stop hyperventilating and come down here,” Arthur says and Merlin can hear Freya speaking softly in the background.
“I’m not hyperventilating.”
“Right. You freak out every time something new happens. Oh, god, it’s happening, it’s happening.” Arthur’s voice goes high as he mimics Merlin. “Oh my god, the first letter of the script has been written.”
Merlin really wishes he could somehow throw things through the phone.
Since he can’t, Arthur just continues. “Oh, Jesus, it’s happening: Mithian picked out the shoes for the first scene!”
“I hate you so much.” Merlin even kind of means it. Almost. It’s a little bit complicated.
The only answer he gets is Freya’s melodic laughter.
“Your saviour has arrived,” she says, her voice soft and bright like sunshine. “No, Arthur, get off or I will break those toys on the shelf.” There’s a distant, indignant “They’re not toys, they’re models” in response, which Freya promptly brushes off.
Merlin shakes his head at the empty flat. “You really need to get a grip on your boss, Freya.”
“Don’t I know it. I’m considering one of those electric shock collars.”
Merlin laughs because, really, hearing those words from Freya is hilarious and it will never stop amazing him how deceiving first impressions are when it comes to her.
There’s a muffled “Bloody fucking hell” followed by a loud rustling sound over the phone and Arthur is back with a slightly breathless “Get down here or I’ll tell Percy to kill off all your characters and replace all of them with Edward Cullen.”
Merlin leaves the flat without his tea because there’s no such thing as an empty threat when it comes to Arthur Pendragon.
He’d been a bit naive, maybe, back when he signed his name above the dotted line. It’s only six months ago, but it still feels like a different time entirely: a different world and a different Merlin. Back then he’d been the creator of a fairly successful series of graphic novels, but he’d still felt like it was just a little corner of the world that belonged to him. When the offer from Pendragon Pictures came in through his agent (or Uncle Gaius as he’s known to most people in Merlin’s life), it had seemed like a world of possibilities. And it is, but it’s also a world of obstacles.
His first meeting with Arthur had been the first time he saw his own creation, a piece of his own mind and life and love, in the unforgiving light of the corporate mindset. He’d felt cheapened and open and raw, recoiling against the way Arthur sliced his living, breathing creation open and prodded at it, picking bits out of it as if pieces of it could function without the rest.
The first time Merlin met Arthur he had the only important part of his life (not counting his family) dissected as if it wasn’t the result of years worth of love and creativity and anguish, so really, they got off to as good a start as you’d expect.
The first thing Arthur said about Merlin’s entire life was “We’re going to make this something great” as if it wasn’t already something that mattered.
The first time Merlin met Freya she put a steaming mug of tea under his nose as he sat on the floor with his back to the wall, his knees pushed into his chest as he tried to breathe through the panic.
The first thing Freya said about Merlin’s entire life was “So what’s it called?”
“The Last Dragonlord,” he’d said, his voice almost stuck in his chest.
“That’s lovely.” She’d put a small hand on his shoulder. “Dragons are brilliant.”
“Yeah,” he’d said.
In the end, the words that’s lovely were what made him come back the next day and the day after that, because it was lovely and it was his and he wanted this. Since then, Merlin had made it abundantly clear that Arthur doesn’t pay Freya nearly enough.
So far it hasn’t.
When he sees Gwen, it clicks into place almost immediately. Just the way she stands with her back straight and her hands clutched in front of herself, a warm, but nervous smile on her lips. It’s there – that strength coupled with the vulnerability that has always been the core of Aithusa for Merlin.
He tries not to bounce in his seat, but he feels Arthur’s eyes on him and he knows he’s utterly failing at keeping his cool. When Merlin glances in his direction quickly, the corner of Arthur’s lip is twitching in the way that means he’s trying really, really hard to be the Big Bad Boss but failing quite spectacularly at it. Because the past few months have shown that Arthur fails at that quite a lot, even though he tries his damnedest to seem completely intimidating and authoritative.
Merlin’s never been less scared of anyone in his life, though. Even Freya is more frightening. There’s a lot of fire in that tiny body.
When Gwen starts speaking with a clear voice and an expressive face, Merlin is pretty sure he’s about to vibrate out his seat with excitement. He’s sitting at the edge of it, his fingers itching for a pen and paper, and he knows the lines would flow out of him like they decidedly hadn’t last night. Because creativity is a fickle bastard like that.
The moment she’s out of the door, he turns to the others, letting out the beaming smile that’s been threatening to burst out since Gwen stepped through the door.
It’s Alator who speaks first, effectively reinforcing Merlin’s seething dislike for the director Arthur had ended up hiring for the project. “She won’t work.” Alator looks down at his clipboard, lips pursed.
Merlin’s smile falters and he feels Freya’s eyes on him. When he turns, she’s peeking out from the other side of Arthur, her face worried as she seems to try to communicate with her eyebrows.
“She’s perfect,” Merlin says, forcing himself to not show any weakness. He’s been playing this game with them for far too long to make that mistake.
“She doesn’t fit the profile.” Alator looks at him and gives a small shrug.
Looking heavenward for strength, Merlin tries to trample down all the thoughts of mine, mine, mine. “What part of her, exactly, doesn’t fit the profile? They obviously brought me here because they think she does.” He waves a hand at Arthur and the casting director.
“She’s too immature. That girl last week was much better. She was a warrior. She was strong in the way she carried herself.”
Arthur hasn’t said anything; he’s merely watching the discussion with an unreadable expression, eyes flitting back and forth between them. Part of Merlin wants to kick him in the shins until he weighs in, but Merlin has managed to hold his ground in all of this before without Arthur’s help and he’ll manage it again.
“That’s not what Aithusa is about,” Merlin says, ignoring the way Alator narrows his eyes. “Aithusa’s not a warrior, she’s a girl who got a heavy burden thrown on her. She’s strong, but she’s vulnerable too. I want her to seem like a proper person, not an unbeatable gladiator.”
Alator heaves a heavy sigh as if dealing with Merlin is a terrible chore.
“You do realise you’ve been included in this project a whole lot more than strictly necessary, Mister Emrys?” He raises an eyebrow in Merlin’s direction. “Arthur has allowed your involvement to a much larger degree than he has to. You gave Pendragon Pictures the film rights to your work, and while it’s natural to consult with you, the director is the one with creative control.”
There are days when Merlin regrets signing his name on the contract. If only because he’d had a fairly glorified vision of seeing his work adapted to the screen. And maybe Alator is legally completely right about this, but Merlin is never going to stop fighting for what he created, because that’s about as close as he’d get to giving up. And he’d promised himself not to give up several months ago, back when he’d struggled with people steamrolling him because he wasn’t important enough and before he and Arthur came to some sort of unspoken truce.
“Well, I figured it would at least be mildly interesting to get some input from the guy who made the characters in the first place,” Merlin says, trying to keep the testiness to a minimum. “And I know how my fans see her too.”
The tiny scoff Alator lets out is enough to make Merlin’s blood boil.
“I’m afraid we’re not catering to your fans, Emrys. We need a bigger audience than that.”
“I think that’s quite enough, Alator.” Arthur had gotten out of his seat at one point and towers over them, his papers clutched in one hand.
There’s an almost imperceptible eye roll from Alator as he moves from the table too, drawing up to his full height in a way that is definitely supposed to be authoritative. Merlin isn’t impressed.
“I’ll call you to discuss this later, Arthur.” He nods at Merlin. “Emrys.”
There’s a heavy silence after he’s left as the casting director slips out too. Merlin doesn’t get out of his seat, crossing his arms over his chest as he tries to get his calm back.
“I don’t need you to fight my battles for me,” Merlin says, not affording Arthur a look.
“It’s cute that you think that’s what I’m doing.”
“Oh, right. What were you doing then, exactly? Getting all bossypants because you were bored?”
“Oh, here we go.” Freya flops back into her seat. “I’ll just be over here live-tweeting this. My followers are thirsty for updates.”
Arthur doesn’t acknowledge her, but instead rolls his eyes in Merlin’s direction. “Bossypants, really? That’s inspired.”
“Well, you do that, you know,” Merlin says, giving him a pointed look. “Whenever you think you haven’t been scary enough, you try to seem all intimidating in case people think you’re actually a decent person.”
Freya’s thumbs are moving rapidly across her screen. “Damn, you guys are going deep today. Hashtag: heart2heart.”
“Maybe I’m not in the mood for childish squabbling so that’s why I jumped in before you could make an arse of yourself.”
“If I want to make an arse of myself, I will.” Merlin doesn’t even care that Arthur is starting to look all kinds of angry. “I may have signed away the rights to my work, but as far as I know, I didn’t sign away the rights to my own personality.”
“Shame.” Arthur’s jaw clenches. “Could use some work.”
“Shut up,” Arthur says at the same time as Merlin says “Freya” in a long-suffering tone.
She just throws her head back and laughs, getting up from her seat as she pats Arthur on the arm.
“Oh, boys,” she says, leaning in to kiss Merlin’s cheek. “Go cool down and we’ll talk about this later.”
Besides, he does touch it up on the laptop – he’s not completely behind the times, no matter what Arthur says.
Rolling his chair back until he can see himself in the mirror, he snorts with laughter at the long swipe of black across his forehead and it’s not the only stain of ink either. There’s one on his chin and another on his nose, making an oddly symmetrical pattern.
He takes out his phone and makes a face at the camera, getting ink on the screen as he sends the picture to Arthur. When he gets the answer, he’s rubbing at the screen with a piece of paper.
You look like something out of Doctor Who
you questioning my styling choices?
no this might actually be an improvement
Merlin rolls his eyes at the screen, discarding it on the table as another thought hits him and he draws with rapid motions, the world falling away into a distant humming when he loses himself in a hilly landscape, fog creeping down the mountains and into the trees, the eyes of a dragon light and unnatural between the branches – not visible at first, but impossible to miss once they’ve been spotted.
When his phone rings he nearly jumps out of his skin, almost knocking it off the table when he fumbles for it.
“You need to stop ignoring my texts,” Arthur says, drowning out Merlin’s “hello?”
“I’m working.” Merlin puffs out his cheeks. “I have one of those jobs that everyone speaks of. It lets me pay for food and a roof over my head.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“What’s so important, then?” Merlin says, ignoring Arthur’s obvious attempts at needling him.
Arthur groans. “I’m bored. Freya went out for lunch.”
Slipping forwards onto his desk, Merlin props his head up with his hand, resisting the urge to press his forehead against the wall and repeatedly bang his head into it.
“You’re bored,” he says flatly. “So that’s why you’re interrupting my fight for bread and butter?”
“You’re a moderately successful comic book artist,” Arthur says, sounding not at all remorseful about his whole interrupting thing. “I don’t think you’re starving anytime soon.”
“Have you not heard about starving artists?”
“Merlin. Starving artists don’t have their stuff made into films. Trust me, I’d know. It kinda takes them out of the whole starving thing and into the whole ‘yay money’ thing.”
It’s really frustrating how Merlin’s lips pull into an indulgent smile at Arthur’s cheerful ‘yay.’ Merlin had long since stopped cataloguing the strange twists and turns in his ever-changing relationship with Arthur, but if he’d still been keeping track, this would be a really unsettling turn.
“Besides,” Arthur continues, “you texted me first.”
“I was on my break!”
“Oh, sorry, I assumed your lunch break lasted more than thirty seconds.”
“Creativity waits for no sandwich.”
Arthur bursts out laughing, which is a sound that Merlin has grown slowly used to over the past few months. The first time he’d heard it, it had seemed completely unnatural, even if he’s fairly sure the first time Arthur laughed in his presence it was with as much mocking derision as he could muster. Still, it was a bit like finding out that your teacher actually has a life outside school that doesn’t involve blackboards and math questions.
In all honesty, Merlin has to admit there’s a tentative friendship there. It’s a really strange one that has never been acknowledged beyond an awkward clap on the shoulder (and certainly never verbally), but it’s a friendship nonetheless – one that had seemed extremely unlikely back when Merlin thought he’d end up going to jail for assault at some point in his near future.
“My brain’s leaking out of my ears.” Arthur sounds so whiny that Merlin doesn’t know whether to roll his eyes or smile, so he ends up with a weird hybrid. “Just bring your things and come over here.”
“I can’t just up and leave.”
“Of course you can. Your job includes a piece of paper and a pen. You can literally fit your job in your pocket.”
Merlin slumps over on his side, resting his head against his arm. “So you’re saying I should pick up my stuff in the middle of my process to come keep you company?”
“See, I knew you’d understand.” Arthur goes quiet for a moment before he adds, “oh, and bring me one of those sandwiches you mentioned.”
“There’s no sandwich,” Merlin says loudly, as if yelling is going to make Arthur stay on the line. “It was a hypothetical sandwich!”
Arthur’s definitely no longer there, but that doesn’t stop Merlin from forlornly repeating “It was a hypothetical sandwich.”
When Merlin shows up in Arthur’s office the sandwich is no longer hypothetical and he spends the rest of the afternoon sitting curled up on the sofa with a book against his knees to serve as a solid surface. Arthur doesn’t say much, but as far as Merlin’s concerned, ‘silent’ is the best possible setting Arthur comes in anyway.
He smirks down at his piece of paper just thinking it and Arthur looks at him with suspicion, but thankfully for the both of them, Arthur has yet to develop mind-reading powers so the afternoon remains peaceful.
He still doesn’t know if Arthur was being sarcastic or not, but Merlin really kind of adores Elena so in either case, Arthur is off the hook for now.
She’s circling him in a way that might’ve seemed predatory if she wasn’t half smiling at him, her face relaxed as she looks him up and down, cocking her head to the side. It reminds him of an animal, albeit a harmless one.
He’d tried to ask about the whole ritual where she’s circling him on bare feet, but she’d just shushed him and told him it was all part of the creative process which Merlin can definitely relate to, even though he prefers his creativity to feature socks.
“Usually they call in composers after everything’s filmed,” she says from behind him and he has to stop himself from turning towards the sound. “I don’t really like working like that, though. It just doesn’t feel right, especially not when it’s based on someone else’s work.”
“I can get that.” He feels like he can, at the very least.
Suddenly Elena stops circling and she skips towards an available chair next to him, splaying out with her arms in either direction. “These chairs are terrible. Is there a rule that says you can’t be comfortable when you work? It seems so stupid to me. We spend so much time working and why should adequate cushioning under my bum make me unable to do my job?”
Merlin fights a smile, but doesn’t get the time to say anything to that before Elena straightens up a little and folds her hands over her stomach.
“Oh, enough nonsensical chit chat from me, it’s not like you’re here to hear me talk, are you?” She looks thoughtful for a moment. “Maybe I should branch out. Go into talk shows.”
“I think you could do well,” he says and he can’t help but wonder how a conversation between Elena and Arthur plays out. He can’t even begin to figure out how that’d work.
She smiles. “You’re sweet, Merlin. I’ll like working with you. I think everyone leaves so much of themselves in their work, you know? That’s why I like to meet the ones who’ve created the things I work with.”
“You can’t separate the creation from the person who made it.”
“Exactly.” Elena beams. “At the very least, there’ll always be something of you in what you’ve made.” Leaning forwards, she rests her elbows on her knees and supports her head in her hands. “Do you have something with you that I can look at?”
He’d come prepared because Arthur had told him she’d want a peek and he takes out the first ever printed copy of the first graphic novel in the series, the one that means the most to him out of all the copies. And now he’s glad that’s the one he chose to bring because he thinks Elena will be the right kind of person to appreciate it.
Elena opens the book gingerly and he can tell that she knows even if he hasn’t said anything. He watches her leaf through the pages slowly, her expression focused, eyebrows pulling together a little as she studies it.
“Tell me about it,” she says, not looking up.
“Oh, where should I start?”
She eyes him briefly and smiles. “Wherever you like.”
Well, that’s helpful. He fidgets a little. In a way he loves the opportunity to talk about it to someone who’s genuinely interested, but at the same time there’s so much to say that he doesn’t really know what to mention or in which order to put it in.
“I’ve always liked dragons,” he says, picking at the fabric on the armrest. He pauses a little. “Which I know isn’t exactly unique, but I used to love them as a kid. I got dragon pyjamas for Christmas one year and then it was a done deal, really.”
Elena hums, her pale pink nails running across the page.
“So that’s where it started. I’ve drawn dragons a lot and I’ve always had stories attached to them. Just little bits about them, how they react to things. And I figured if the dragons had personalities then they could have someone who bound them all together – someone to connect to.” He studies her, feeling oddly nervous about her reaction. “That’s when I came up with the story of Aithusa. Her father’s been missing from her life since she was very young, but then he comes back when he’s sick and about to die. He’s a dragonlord, which is passed onto her when he dies.”
He trails off, unsure of how to explain any of this. He’s not that good with words, sometimes, to be fair. There are words in his graphic novel, of course, but in the end he tells the most of it through art.
“She’s orange,” Elena says and he looks up, inclining his head in a silent question. “I see music in colours. To me, Aithusa is orange.”
“Does that mean you’ll make the music orange?” he asks, intrigued.
“In a sense. It means I’ll know what’s right for her when I hear it.”
A sound from the door stops Merlin from asking anything else and they both look up to find Arthur hovering in the doorway. Merlin startles a little when Elena jumps from her seat.
“Arthur,” she says brightly and it takes Merlin completely by surprise how she flings herself at him, but it surprises him even more how Arthur wraps his arms around her back and lifts her for a moment, her laughter nearly squeezed out her.
“You’re never going to stop lording it over me that you finally had that growth spurt,” Elena says, swatting at his arm.
“Don’t listen to her,” Arthur says to Merlin, shaking his head.
“He was shorter than me all through high school. It drove him to the brink of insanity and he’s stayed there ever since.”
Merlin laughs and it only escalates when Arthur looks horrified. “That explains a lot, actually.”
“I never should have introduced you two; it’s going to be a nightmare.”
“Don’t be so gloom and doom,” Elena says, disentangling herself from Arthur. “This is going perfectly.”
Arthur looks between them. “Yeah? It’s going okay, Merlin?”
“I think so.” Merlin can’t exactly be sure. He’s just going to have to trust that Elena actually got something out of this because it’s not like knows anything about composing music. “Right?”
“The colours have been leaping at me, don’t worry, Arthur.” She picks the book up and hands it to Merlin. “Both from the book and from Merlin.”
His head snaps up. “From me?”
“Oh, yeah, you’re pretty bright.”
“Don’t bother asking, she’ll only tell you when she feels like it,” Arthur says and he sounds a little sullen.
Elena laughs, patting his arm briefly. “I’ll tell you when I think you need to know.”
“Can I guess?” Merlin asks, grinning now and Arthur looks murderous when Elena nods. “I think he’s midnight black with hot pink polka dots.”
Elena doesn’t stop laughing until Arthur’s almost pouting and Merlin is biting in the inside of his cheek to not make the whole thing worse (or better, depending).
“I’ll see you around, Merlin,” she says as she heads out.
It’s quiet for a moment after she’s gone and it feels weird. Merlin likes quiet just fine, but not when it’s charged and a little uncomfortable.
“I don’t actually think you’re black with hot pink polka dots,” Merlin says generously.
Arthur rolls his eyes as he takes the seat Elena had been in, stretching his arms over his head, his shoulders moving alternately in slight circles. “I figured,” he says, his voice a little strained as he stretches. “I don’t think you should quit your day job.”
Shrugging, Merlin settles back and puts the novel Elena had used back in his pocket.
“I actually came to tell you that we offered Gwen the role.” Arthur’s tone is neutral – as if it’s no big deal and when Merlin stares at him, his gaze moves elsewhere.
“What? Really?” Merlin feels a little breathless all of a sudden. He’d all but given up on the prospect of having Gwen as Aithusa. “But what about Alator?”
“He changed his mind,” Arthur says, giving a slight shrug. “Probably just needed a little time.”
It hadn’t seemed like Alator was anywhere near wanting to hire Gwen, but Merlin isn’t about to argue. He tries not to beam, but he doesn’t think it’s working entirely and Arthur’s lips pull into an answering smile after a moment, his shoulders relaxing a little.
“What happens now?” Merlin asks.
Arthur straightens up, leaning over to find a piece of paper and a pen on a nearby desk. His expression turns focused, his angles sharp as they always seems to be when he narrows his eyes at whatever he’s doing.
“Now we figure out the last details and then we film,” Arthur says, looking up at him for a moment. “We need to cast a few more of the roles, we need to decide which of the CGI companies we should work with and Freya is booking a few more locations.”
“So, how long would that take?” Merlin feels a little jittery all of a sudden.
“A month, tops.” Arthur makes a list of the things left to do, his hand steady as he writes. “I’ll call in some more actors and I’ll ask Percy if there’s anything else he wants to do with the script at this point.”
“So, it’s happening.”
Merlin regrets saying that the moment Arthur snorts against the back of his hand.
“Oh god, Merlin, are you ever going to stop being surprised?”
“Probably not.” He smiles sheepishly.
Arthur just shakes his head, turning his attention back to the list.
Maybe if he and Arthur ever talked about anything that mattered, they would have avoided this, but they don’t. They never do. They don’t talk about fathers – absent or demanding, and they don’t talk about ghosts – literal or figurative.
Arthur doesn’t seem to notice that Merlin is about to lose it and he just keeps talking. He just keeps saying how much more streamlined it would be, how the storyline wouldn’t be so cluttered if only they removed this one character.
Maybe if it had been any other character, Merlin wouldn’t care so much. Maybe he’d be able to compromise or at least make a rational explanation. Unfortunately, anything rational has left Merlin’s head long ago.
“You can’t just remove him,” Merlin says, cutting Arthur off mid-sentence.
Arthur looks up, bewildered, and the genuine confusion makes Merlin feel a little guilty, but it’s not enough to really overpower the gaping wound that Arthur just poked a giant stick into.
“There’s just not room for everything, we have to limit the scope of it,” Arthur says. “You know that as well as I.”
“He’s not...” Merlin swallows. “It’s not a big role. He won’t hurt anything by being there.”
“That’s just it, though. It’s not a big role, so keeping that entire storyline in is a waste of time.”
A waste of time. Merlin’s fingers prickle and he’s split between feeling like he’s going to have a panic attack and feeling like he’s being completely ridiculous. Rationally, he knows it makes sense. It makes so much sense. But that character... it was his way of keeping Will alive in some small way. And this feels a little like killing him all over again, even though Merlin didn’t kill him in the first place either and you can’t actually kill someone who’s already dead.
“You can’t,” Merlin says because he can’t begin to explain. That’s the only thing he can say to put his feelings into words at the moment and he knows it’s inadequate, but it’s all he’s got.
He knows Arthur doesn’t understand, though, because Arthur’s shoulders tense and his face hardens, and Merlin knows it sounds like he’s telling Arthur what he can and can’t do. It doesn’t help that they argued about something else just last week – something completely insignificant. And maybe Merlin should’ve chosen his battles, because this isn’t the same thing and he doesn’t know how to explain that it isn’t.
“You know I want you to be involved, but in the end the decision lies with me and Alator, and I thought you respected me that much.”
“You don’t understand,” Merlin says and, god, why won’t the words just come out right?
“You know what, Merlin, you’re being completely unreasonable.” Arthur’s jaw is clenched so hard it almost looks painful. “You’re not even explaining anything properly, you’re just telling me what to do. Which, by the way, isn’t actually in your place to do and fuck, I expected more from you than this.”
Merlin’s fists clench in frustration as he notices the strained lines around Arthur’s mouth. Arthur no longer meets his eyes as he leans forwards, his knuckles white around the folder.
“I thought we were finally getting along just fine,” Arthur says, not looking up. “What the fuck is your problem, Merlin?”
Later, Merlin will feel bad about running from the situation, but he doesn’t want to have this conversation. He’ll have a million other conversations, but not this one. He doesn’t even talk to his mum about Will and most days he doesn’t think about it because it’s just easier that way. And he can’t handle all the thoughts that are spilling out into his mind like someone broke a dam.
Rising from the table on shaky legs, Merlin grabs blindly for his things and shoves them into his bag. “I can’t do this.” He hates how cowardly it sounds.
“Fine,” Arthur says, slamming something down on the table (Merlin won’t look back for anything). “Just piss off then.”
And Merlin does.
And then he'd cried. Not because of Arthur or for himself, but for Will. It wasn't his proudest moment: crying into his cup of tea. But he'd never really let himself cry over Will at all, and maybe that had been one of his worst mistakes.
Maybe it's the fact that he's pretty sure he's seen this episode twice in the past few days, but when Freya calls again he actually answers.
"Oh, Merlin, finally," she says, letting out a breath. "What did he do?"
He lets his head fall back against the wall, guilt welling up under everything else.
"It's not really…" He stops, still unable to really find the words. "It's not really Arthur's fault."
"Well, I doubt he handled it with any amount of sensitivity, whatever it was."
Merlin has to smile a little wryly at that. He doesn't know what to say to it, though. He's never known how to talk about Will, and especially not about the way Will sometimes turns everything inside him upside down like he's not even himself anymore.
Freya stays quiet for a while, just letting him think, maybe in the hopes that he'll say something.
"Look, I think you should know something," she says when it becomes apparent that he's not talking. "Whatever it was you two argued about you should know that Arthur is the one who fought for Gwen. He argued with Alator for hours about it."
Leaning forwards, Merlin rubs at his forehead and gives a long exhale.
Merlin fiddles with the hem of his shirt. "Thanks, Freya."
"You're welcome, you big idiot."
There used to be Arthur and Merlin, two separate things that happened to have paths that crossed, and now there's another thing: a shared one that moves forwards. It always moves.
"I didn't know how to explain," Merlin says, slipping into the available chair. "It's a sore spot, is all."
Arthur nods, halting his writing and putting the pen down, his attention focused on Merlin.
"I don't think I can explain it now, either."
"That's fine," Arthur says, and it really sounds like it is.
Merlin gives a weak smile, wishing himself far away from the conversation.
"I'm sorry, though. You just caught me off guard."
When Arthur doesn't answer, Merlin rolls his eyes. "You don't have anything you want to say?"
"I guess I can admit that I overreacted a little. Maybe."
"You're such an arsehole," Merlin says without heat.
Arthur laughs and the tension leaks out of the room as if someone popped a bubble. It's the curse and blessing of Arthur's stupid, boisterous laughter, really. Merlin honestly thinks that if Arthur had started laughing at him instead of arguing back, he might not have been able to hold onto his anger at all.
When Arthur's smile fades into something more serious, the gnawing feeling of discomfort in Merlin's stomach is all but gone.
"So, I have a feeling this character is really important to you," Arthur says.
Merlin lifts an eyebrow. "What clued you in?"
"I'm just that perceptive, Merlin." Arthur puts on a haughty look. "You have to stop underestimating me, it's embarrassing for you."
"Yes, it's clearly embarrassing for me."
Arthur smirks, looking down at his papers, catching his lip between his teeth for a moment. "We'll keep him in."
Snapping his head up, Merlin stares at him, completely caught off guard. "Really?" He feels like it might be slightly unhealthy how incredibly strong the happiness that burns in his chest is.
"I'll let Percy know."
Merlin falters for words, the "Thank you" getting stuck sideways in his throat because it seems so inadequate. By some miracle, Arthur seems to understand and just changes the topic immediately, lamenting the fact that Elena seems to have some sort of platonic crush on Merlin and won't shut up about him for five minutes.
The rant makes Merlin smile down at his hands, laughing awkwardly in the way he always does when he can't quite accept compliments for what they are.
"Get down here. I've been waiting outside for ten minutes."
Merlin stares blankly ahead, shaking his head at no one.
"Maybe you should've mentioned that you were, you know, coming around," Merlin says flatly.
There's a faint hum of music in the background and he thinks he can hear Arthur humming along for a second before he says, "We're checking out a location. Come on."
For reasons unknown, Merlin has taken to following Arthur's whims without much protest. He doesn't know if he kind of gave up protesting or if he might not mind as much as he feels like he should. But in either case, the result is that Merlin ends up about twice as spontaneous as usual, because that's one thing he's never truly been.
"Took you long enough," Arthur says when Merlin slips into the passenger seat.
"Yeah, I'm sorry." Merlin fumbles with the seat belt before it clicks into place. "I haven't been practicing my psychic abilities that much these days."
It takes Merlin a few moments to realise that Arthur looks different. And it's really only because there's no varying versions of suit on him. It's just jeans and a blue t-shirt with some pub name on it, and it makes Arthur strangely soft around the edges.
He wonders briefly if Arthur had ever wanted a life away from suits. It's not the type of thing they talk about, so instead he says, "Where are we going?" just as they swing out of Merlin's street.
"Well." Arthur pauses, shooting him a brief glance. "I think I'll just not tell you."
"Oh, come on!"
Arthur grins, obviously pleased with himself.
"Can you at least tell me if I should've packed an overnight bag?" Merlin sinks down into his seat, sulking.
"I'll buy you new clothes if it comes to that."
Giving him a withering look, Merlin falls silent, staring out the window. He ignores the amused glances Arthur keeps giving him out of the corner of his eyes.
"Aw, Merlin," Arthur says, so sickeningly pleased with himself. "Don't be so sulky."
"Shouldn't you have brought Freya for this?" Merlin says instead of acknowledging Arthur.
It seems like he actually catches Arthur by surprise and the teasing expression that had been permanently stuck to his face falters into something more serious.
"Why would I?"
Merlin shrugs. "Well, she does the locations, doesn't she?"
"She only researches them and contacts them for us," Arthur says. "The final decision is mine or Alator's, at least partly."
"So why aren't you taking Alator, then?"
"Because I don't want to go on a road trip with Alator?" Arthur says, looking at Merlin as if he's gone completely bonkers. "He's weird. Good at his job and all, but he's old. And weird. What the fuck, Merlin?"
"How was I to know this is some kind of holiday trip?" Merlin says defensively, crossing his arms over his chest. "It's not like you told me."
"Suck it up, buttercup. We're going."
Arthur has a point. Merlin is kind of shamelessly loving this. Outside the car, the hills are rolling past – lush, green and scenic. They’d stopped at a gas station thirty minutes ago to hoard up on supplies and Merlin’s got his lap full of sweets. Two hours ago, he’d found a mixed CD in the glove compartment that was a strange mix of 90s europop and other completely random songs. It made Arthur’s ears burn bright red and now Merlin’s bobbing his head to All That She Wants by Ace of Base and Arthur is trying to seem like he’s not horrifyingly embarrassed.
“I’ve never been on a road trip,” Merlin says, folding the wrapping paper from the Kit Kat into neat little squares.
“What, never?” Arthur’s eyebrows arch.
Looking out at the hilly landscape outside, he almost regrets saying it because this only leads back to the dreaded topic of conversation and it also sticks a lot deeper than what he thinks Arthur would want to talk about. But Arthur is silent, obviously waiting for something else to come and Merlin, unexpectedly, doesn’t feel the dreaded feeling of ‘oh god no’ in the pit of his stomach.
“It was just my mum and me growing up and we never really had any time to go on holidays, you know.” He shrugs a little half-heartedly. “She worked all summer. But she used to take me on these bike trips. She’d make these brilliant picnic baskets and we’d bike somewhere really nice.”
Arthur hums and Merlin is a little surprised to see him listening so attentively.
“I only had one proper friend back home. Will.” He trips a little over the name, his fingers digging into his thigh. “None of us had a car, though. I mean – Wait, is this Mmmbop?”
“Shut up, Merlin, I was drunk off my arse when I made this,” Arthur says, grimacing. “Trust you to find this bloody CD, I haven’t even seen it in years.”
“Mate, it really doesn’t matter which state you were in when you made this. It’s still forever amazing that you have any state where this CD seemed like a good idea.”
“Just eat your Kit Kats, Merlin. God.”
Merlin’s t-shirt makes for a makeshift bowl for the sweets and he holds it out, careful not to spill any. “Want any?”
Leaning over, Arthur peers into the pile and Merlin flails a little, pushing him back. “Eyes on the road! What the fuck?”
“Hey, how do you expect me to choose when I don’t know what’s available?”
“So, you’d pick death over the wrong sweets?”
“You say that as if it’s a bad thing,” Arthur says, flashing Merlin a crooked smile.
Looking around in the pile, Merlin makes an executive decision. “You’re getting Maltesers.”
When Arthur says something about their deep psychic connection, Merlin rolls his eyes, but there’s an odd sort of contentment settled deep in his bones and he wonders if maybe Arthur has been elbowing himself into Merlin’s life and made himself a pretty big space there. Merlin might even go so far as to call him a friend.
But not to his face.
“My dad used to take us on road trips,” Arthur says suddenly, his eyes firmly on the road. “Until he decided we were too old for it.”
On the tip of Merlin’s tongue are replies like ‘I hope you didn’t bring your mixed CDs’ and ‘Did he try to kill you over sweets,’ but then he realises that Arthur had just told him something personal and, really, he should either say something meaningful or just shut up.
Merlin doesn’t say anything as Spice Up Your Life starts and Arthur’s lips pull into a grim line.
As Arthur goes up to greet the woman who’s shown up to meet them, Merlin stands by the car, pulling his phone out to snap a quick picture. He can’t quite help but stare, merging what’s in front of him with the images in his head. His heart beats a little faster as scenes play out in his head – a dragon’s wings spread out across the sky over the castle, Gwen standing on the ground below with her face angled upwards.
“Merlin!” Arthur is holding the door open, giving him a questioning look.
Merlin jogs up the pathway, following the other two through the heavy wooden door. The woman, small and smiling, introduces herself as Sefa and guides them through the entrance hall. It’s a well-kept place. Part of Merlin had kind of thought it’d be dark and a little creepy, like these castles always are in murder mystery TV shows, but the rooms are light, airy and clean.
As Arthur talks to Sefa about technical things that mean absolutely nothing to him, Merlin follows a couple of step behind, craning his neck to get a good look at everything. Most of all, he loves the large paintings in nearly every room and as much as he wouldn’t even know what to do with a house this big, it’d be nice to have more wall space for amazing art.
Sefa leads them to a gigantic library where the windows stretch impossibly high, the light is flooding the room with a slightly eerie glow and Merlin is pretty sure he’d embed himself into the walls if he could. He must’ve let out a sigh because Sefa smiles indulgently at him and Arthur looks like he’s about to burst out laughing.
“I’ll just call Freya and say it’s a go, then,” Arthur says, moving out into the hallway outside.
Merlin moves along the wall, staring up at the books towering high above him. It makes him feel giddy. Fuck, he loves stories. He loves the way they just exist on a page, just waiting for someone to discover them and bring them out. He loves how the same story is never truly the same story because it always interacts with every unique person who reads it.
“Most of these books have been here for a long time,” Sefa says as she watches him. “We found some rare first editions here, though, and we donated them to museums because we wouldn’t truly be able to give them proper care.”
“It’s amazing. Do people come here a lot?”
“Not really,” she says, smiling. “Most people rent the dining area, but the library is rarely in use.”
Her phone rings and she starts a little, bringing her hand up to her forehead as she lets out a breath. “Oh, god.” She laughs. “Excuse me.”
Merlin walks back towards one of the large windows, looking out onto the grounds that spread out in either direction. It’s a simple, green park area trailing out into a forest where the sun hangs low over the treetops, bright against his eyes.
He hears footsteps and turns around, finding Arthur standing in the middle of the room, looking at him with strange intensity. Merlin stops in place, fighting the urge to wrap his arms over his chest. The phone is barely held in Arthur’s loose grip and for a moment Merlin is worried that something’s gone awry somewhere.
“What’s up?” he says, his pulse rising a little in worry.
Arthur gives a tiny shake of his head. “Nothing.”
“Oh, good. I thought something might be wrong.”
“No.” Arthur shifts in place, squaring his shoulders. “Freya says hi and that we should hurry back before it gets too dark.”
Merlin nods and moves from his spot, turning back to look at the room one more time.
Studying him, Arthur’s expression is still oddly intense. “You’re really happy with this place, aren’t you?”
Merlin beams in answer and Arthur smiles back, his eyes warm in a way that Merlin’s never seen before.
How’s the road trip? Arthur driving you insane yet? Elena writes and he types out a quick reply, hitting all the wrong buttons in his state of half-sleep.
How’d you know?
Pls. I follow Freya on Twitter.
Ofc you do.
How was the trip?
Good, castle looks brill.
Perfect. I’m painting the world orange.
He smiles at the screen.
Arthur takes it with raised eyebrows. “World’s best dalek? What on earth, Merlin.”
“I had a Doctor Who phase.”
“Yeah, a phase that’s stuck in a never-ending time loop.”
Chucking a teabag at Arthur, Merlin leans over to get the kettle. “Clever. Your hidden obsession is showing.”
Arthur just rolls his eyes and walks back towards the living room, giving Merlin plenty of time to consider how odd it is to have Arthur in his flat. Not that long ago there had been a clear threshold that they never crossed. They got along because they had to, but they were never friends. But Merlin knows he can no longer claim that because he’d spent several hours in a car with Arthur and not minded one bit. And Arthur is sitting on his sofa like he belongs, drinking tea out of his dalek mug.
Even if Arthur is here to discuss work, it’s weirdly domestic.
There’s also the fact that Arthur always just seems to fill every room he’s in. He just bends everything to his own will, sucking all the surroundings in and warping them until it’s all full of Arthur. Merlin’s own flat looks different like this when Arthur is sitting right there with his foot resting on the opposite knee, reading through something in his folder with his eyes narrowed in concentration.
It’s not like he’s even doing much, but just the fact that he’s there makes everything shift a little on its axis until it all seems just that little bit different – enough to be completely unrecognisable.
Merlin wonders for a moment if it’s like that for everyone or if it’s just him and that’s... that’s unsettling.
They manage to stay fairly focused for a couple of hours as they work, sitting on opposite sides of the sofa as they go through the list of things they’ve finished and the work still left to be done. Arthur compiles a list of locations booked, handing Merlin a stack of pictures to look through them, approving each one down the list.
Flipping through the different locations is definitely another one of those ‘oh my god, this is happening’ moments and Merlin finds himself freaking out a little bit on the inside. And probably a little bit on the outside because Arthur keeps giving him amused looks. Arthur just doesn’t get it, though. He doesn’t get how seeing something you’ve created in your head become real is both amazing and terrifying in turns.
Merlin tells him that and Arthur says, “No, I guess you’re right about that” and Merlin thinks he might have to mark this day on his calendar, because wow.
“You can get your jaw off the floor now, Merlin,” Arthur says, amused. “I’m actually capable of being wrong at times. Briefly. Stop laughing! Where did you put the list I emailed you?”
“It’s in my bedroom on the desk,” Merlin gets out between the laughter bubbling in his throat.
When Arthur is still in the bedroom when Merlin’s gone through another two locations on the list, he looks up and says, “Did you find it?”
There’s no answer and Merlin frowns, moving from the sofa and heading into the bedroom where he finds Arthur standing by his desk, head bent over something in his hands.
At first, Merlin can’t figure out what Arthur is studying so intently, but then he realises it’s the slightly rumpled pages that he’d drawn and written after their argument about Gwaine’s character. He gets an overwhelming urge to rip them out of Arthur’s hands and hide them away, but something about Arthur’s expression stops him and Merlin just stands there, uncertain.
“You never told me why this character means so much to you,” Arthur says, looking up.
Merlin sits down on the edge of his bed, rubbing his hands slowly back and forth over his jeans. This is the moment where he deflects, applying one of the many tactics he’s perfected over the years, so that he can keep the memories to himself somewhere where they can’t be poked at or discussed. But he surprises himself, saying “Will,” in a quiet gust of breath that might as well have been a sigh.
Arthur looks at him intently, his eyes alert and meeting Merlin’s without hesitation.
“My mate from home: Will. He died, a while ago.” Merlin can’t keep looking at Arthur, so he drops his gaze to his hands, swallowing. “I never talk about it. I don’t know how. But I wrote him into the book, because it was all I knew how to do.”
All the prying questions Merlin has always feared don’t come, nor do the awkward, overly sincere sympathies that he’s always hated so much. Instead, Arthur puts the pages gently back onto the desk and nods, leaving them to sit in silence until Merlin’s leg gets jittery with tension and he gets up from the bed, needing to do anything to move his mind onto something else.
The moment he’s about to leave the room, there’s a hand on his shoulder, turning him around.
“Hey,” Arthur says with a solemn expression. “It’s okay to grieve, no matter how long it’s been. People keep assuming you’ll just forget it after a while – that it won’t hurt, but it does.”
Merlin feels the pressure of his hand like a weight on his shoulder and for a moment he thinks his knees might buckle.
“I lost my mum when I was eight. Sometimes it’s easier, but sometimes it’s even harder than it used to be.”
There’s no time to respond before Arthur wraps his arms around his back and pulls him into a hug that takes Merlin completely by surprise. For a moment he forgets how arms work before he loops them around his waist, his chin resting on Arthur’s shoulder. The warm pressure of fingers splayed across his shoulder blades is foreign and comforting, and Merlin finds himself sinking into the embrace, turning his head slightly into the warmth of Arthur’s neck.
Arthur’s hands linger a little as he pulls away, taking a step back.
“I know it’s not my place to say, but I think you should give Gwaine a last storyline,” Arthur says. “Make it something happy and fulfilling. Maybe it’ll feel like a better end.”
Merlin’s eyes sting slightly when Arthur gives a half smile and leaves the room, the soft sound of his feet padding across the floor comforting in a way that Merlin really isn’t in the right mind to think about right now.
“You’re driving me crazy,” Elena says, putting a hand on his knee. “I’m going to have to move to the other side of the room if you don’t rein in the angst.”
He looks at her sheepishly, forcing himself to stop bouncing his leg. Elena has a pad of blank note sheets resting against her thigh, her eyes locked on Gwen. Yesterday, Elena had asked if she could join them at the studio and Merlin knows better than to argue with that even if he has no idea what she’s actually doing.
“Here.” She sticks a piece of paper at him, flipping it over with the blank side up, and hands him a pen. “Take your mind off things.”
“I’m fine,” he says, being met with a slightly incredulous look.
In the end, he somehow starts drawing anyway. It starts as a shapeless doodle, his attention mostly on what’s going on around him. Gwen is being moved around on the set as Arthur and Alator discuss intensely. They’re too far away for Merlin to make out anything, but Arthur’s face is focused as he listens to Alator, his hand resting absently against his chin before he reaches out and gestures towards Gwen.
Gwen smiles at that and the three of them laugh, suddenly. The lighting from overhead hits Arthur’s face with a soft glow, his head thrown back in laughter.
It’s not entirely accurate to claim that Merlin doesn’t know he’s doing it, but he’s not completely aware of the doodle turning into Arthur until there’s a definitely identifiably shape. By then, it’s too late to turn back from it because Merlin hates leaving anything unfinished. Anything incomplete always grates on him, nagging him to complete it until he has to get up at four in the morning just to get it out of his head.
“Did you know Alator didn’t really want Gwen?” Merlin says, his pen following the curve of Arthur’s neck.
“Really?” Elena sounds slightly distracted and he hears the faint scratch of her pencil. “She’s perfect. I mean, it just fits, you know.”
“Yeah. It really does.” He pauses, glancing up at Arthur for a moment. “Arthur persuaded him.”
He’s been thinking about that ever since Freya told him. It’s hard to know what to make of it, or if there’s really anything to make of it at all. Whether Arthur did it for him or for the good of the project, Merlin doesn’t know, but either of those reasons is enough to make a fondness for Arthur tingle in the tips of his fingers and through the pen.
Elena hums softly. “Arthur’s always fought for what he thinks is right. Once he thinks something is right, he’ll never let it go.”
Merlin pauses and looks at her, his head inclined slightly.
“And that’s good and bad, I guess.” She laughs, loud and quick. “It’s really admirable, but it can be well annoying when it’s directed at you. You try working with him on school projects.”
“School projects?” Merlin raises an eyebrow at her. “How about working with him on your life’s work.”
Her shoulders shake with silent laughter. “Fair enough.”
“It hasn’t been that bad,” he says because he feels like he might be a bit unfair.
“I know. Not like you’d go on a road trip with him if it was really that awful.”
“I’ll have you know that he kidnapped me.”
He’s pretty sure he can hear Elena rolling her eyes. “Sure, Merlin. Keep telling yourself that.”
Merlin doesn’t answer and they trail into silence, even as Elena seems to vibrate with energy next to him and Merlin’s hand moves swiftly across the page. It’s companionable, though, sitting next to her just feeling the way her creativity seems to trickle out of her and fill the air around her in a way that Merlin’s never experienced before.
He looks at the drawing as a swift flick of his wrist puts in place the last bit of shading and the back of his neck prickles strangely. There’s something uncanny about the drawing and he doesn’t know what it is. He regrets ever starting it in the first place. As he moves to put it away, Elena stops him with a hand on his arm.
“Wow.” She leans into him. “That’s amazing.”
Merlin forces himself to look at it again, following the lines of Arthur’s face and the silhouette of his shoulders.
“You just captured him, you know,” she says, leaning her head on his shoulder. “It’s like when I see him, if you know what I mean? Like I can see his colours from this drawing. And yours.”
He folds the paper up with shaking hands and mutters “Thank you,” unsure of what to do with what that might mean.
Arthur is already there, standing by her side, leaning onto the piano as he looks down at her. He says something and Elena smiles, but Merlin is too far away to hear. Dropping his bag to the floor right inside the door, Merlin steps inside the high-ceilinged room and he can already tell that the acoustics are made for this, even though Elena hasn’t even played anything yet.
“Merlin!” Elena beams when she sees him.
“You summoned me,” he says solemnly, fighting a smile, and his voice echoes ever so slightly through the room.
He had, quite literally, been summoned by Arthur who had been really stingy with the details as usual.
“Elena thinks she’s found your theme song.” Arthur’s arm rests against the top of the piano and he looks up at Merlin briefly before focusing on Elena’s fingers splayed out over the keys.
Merlin comes to stand next to her, opposite Arthur, and runs a finger over the nearest key, swallowing the urge to press it down.
“Ready?” Elena says and Merlin nods, even though he’s pretty sure he’s really not.
It’s only then he realises that he’s never seen Elena play and for a moment that overshadows everything. He doesn’t hear the music as much as he sees Elena sway slightly in place, her fingers running softly over the keys. Her face is open and lost in the music, her eyes closed as she leans forwards.
And then the music catches up with him, the notes skimming across his skin, humming in his chest. His fingers splay out over the side of the piano, the vibrations running up his arm. It opens something inside of him that feels almost unreal. It slots into place with his own creation, like the music is an extension of everything he’s ever made and he doesn’t know – he doesn’t understand – how Elena did this.
He looks up from where he’s been staring at the keys and finds Arthur’s eyes on him, wide and expressive. A slow smile spreads over Arthur’s lips, tugging at the corners until skin crinkles under his eyes. The bottom falls out of Merlin’s stomach. There’s an all-encompassing feeling of fear and happiness and belonging and something really unmanageable.
Merlin clutches the side of the piano and smiles back – he smiles so wide it’s bordering on manic and Arthur’s lips widen again in response. The music spills out into the room under the instruction of Elena’s steady hands, pulling at something in him and he feels as if he’s just been turned inside out for more than one reason.
When the last note fades into the room, Merlin just stands there, unable to say anything while Elena looks at him expectantly, her smile fading a little as the seconds pass. Finally, he launches forwards and hugs her, leaning one knee on the piano bench as he wraps his arms around her shoulders from the side.
She laughs, relieved and joyous, as he buries his face into her shoulder.
“You’re so easy to please,” she says, even though relief is etched into every part of her expression.
“You’re brilliant,” he says, because it’s true.
He looks up to meet Arthur’s eyes and half-formed words get stuck in his chest, prickling uncomfortably. You’re brilliant, he says in every way but with words, but Arthur looks oblivious to the unsaid.
What surprises him the most is that, as much as he’s been butting heads with Alator about the creative choices, Alator does do a great job directing. He supposes there’s a reason Arthur had hired him in the first place. He feels a begrudging sort of respect for the choices he’s making on set and he feels like Alator’s opinion about him might be changing a little as well, even if Merlin is hovering about during filming.
Merlin’s tried to stay away from the set – he really has – but whenever he tries, he ends up in his flat, alternating between staring at his blank pages, listening to his editor’s angry voicemails, and sneaking peeks at the drawing of Arthur in his desk drawer. It’s like a really sad playlist on repeat.
So he hangs around the studio, trying not to get in the way because at this point his role is pretty much over, and maybe that’s what bothers him the most. It’s all pretty much out of his hands now and what happens from here on out isn’t really anything he can influence. All he can do is observe from the sidelines while Freya plies him with huge mugs of tea and hair-ruffling.
Gwen does a great job, though, as he knew she would, and he tells her that, making her beam in response. And that’s about all the good he’s done for the past few weeks skulking around on set like the resident stalker.
“You look tired,” Arthur says from behind him and Merlin jumps, trying not to spill his tea all over himself.
The concerned looks Arthur has been sending him for a while have been unbearable.
“You look great too.” Merlin gives him a surly look and Arthur has the gall to laugh.
“Nothing against your dashing starving artist look.” Arthur sits down next to him, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees. “But I guess I’ll admit I’m a little concerned.”
Merlin stares into his tea, wrapping his fingers tighter around the mug. “It’s just that this is my life, you know? It feels a bit like someone else is raising my kid.”
Looking at him for a moment, Arthur purses his lips and clasps his hands together. “Do you trust me?” he says and Merlin is stunned into meeting his eyes.
For a brief moment Merlin thinks he might just lie because that’s the easiest thing to do, if not the most honourable one, and Merlin likes easy. Easy is good. But that’s not how he does things – he’s not a coward and he’s not going to lie to Arthur’s face about something like that.
The short moment where Arthur just holds his gaze seems longer than it actually is and Merlin fights the urge to fidget in place. The unfamiliar feelings he’s just become aware of feel heavy in his gut and he doesn’t know what to do with them.
“Good,” Arthur says intently. “Then you need to trust that I’m going to do everything I can to make this as good as it can be. All of us here want that. The idea, it’s yours, and the story is yours, and the novels are yours, but the film belongs to all of us.”
Merlin looks down at his hands, his shoulders relaxing a little. He knows it’s true, he does. But it feels weird to not be involved anymore, because he wants to be. Despite all the arguments and the stress and the frustration, he’s enjoyed this and being superfluous is... it’s bollocks, to be honest.
“How much have you drawn since filming started?” Arthur asks, eyebrow raised.
“You need to go home and focus on continuing the story and we’ll do our job here.” Arthur smiles slightly. “That’s the thing about creative projects. At some point you have to just let them go so that other people can pick them up and experience them for themselves.”
The truth of it makes Merlin’s chest burn with discomfort.
“Yes, thanks, Yoda,” he says, feeling bad about it until Arthur laughs.
Arthur’s hand presses against his knee for a fleeting moment before he gets up. “Go sleep, Merlin,” he says, walking back towards the set where Gwen is deep in conversation with Alator.
The crew has gone on location to film and Merlin’s stayed behind, because he needs to draw and he needs to sleep. He also needs to be less involved with things he can’t do anything for at the moment.
In a completely unsurprising turn of events, Merlin can’t figure out how to focus on his drawing and while he does sleep, he spends most of the time looking at Freya’s Twitter and wondering whether or not it’s too soon to text Arthur.
Merlin has come to the conclusion that he is well and truly fucked.
The feeble scribbles he manages to jot down on paper over the days the crew is at the castle shooting are unusable at best and pathetic at worst. He never ends up texting Arthur. Instead, he texts Freya while thinking about Arthur for an overwhelming amount of time. It comes to a point where he honestly doesn’t know if it’s worse being away from what’s happening with his film or just being away from Arthur.
The few days alone do bring clarity to a list of things, though: A) Merlin has forgotten that he doesn’t really have any friends in London aside from Arthur and the people he’s introduced him to, B) Merlin has forgotten how it was to be relatively friendless, C) It’s been so long since the last time he fancied someone that he didn’t see the signs until they punched him in the face and D) He really fucking fancies Arthur in such a variety of different ways that it needs its own list.
By the time Freya’s Twitter announces the crew’s return back to London, Merlin is pretty much split down the middle. One part of him is calm and sure, knowing what he wants and what he should do. The other is frazzled, confused and all but sure that he’s exaggerated his feelings for Arthur in his own head.
He makes an attempt to draw again, hunching over his desk, trying not to look expectantly at his phone. They’ve only just gotten back to London, so he doesn’t know why he expects Arthur to call, especially since they haven’t actually talked for almost a week. It hasn’t crossed Merlin’s mind before now that they haven’t gone long without talking to each other for the past few months.
The phone stays silent and Merlin presses his pen too hard against the paper.
Merlin’s fingers are aching from clutching the pen too tightly when his doorbell rings. For a moment he doesn’t even know what the sound is because no one’s rung it since his really weird neighbour stopped by the day after he moved in. He puts his dirty dishes in the sink on the way out, sweeping several stray things into the rubbish bin. No reason to show his sudden visitors that he’s a slob.
Before he makes it to the door, it opens and Merlin has just enough time to wonder why he’s hanging around with his door unlocked like a sitting duck before he sees Arthur and realises he’s not about to be robbed.
Never mind that a robber wouldn’t actually ring the doorbell first.
“Don’t you ever answer your door?” Arthur stands awkwardly in the hallway, tension sharp over his shoulders.
“Well, you know, I don’t have superhuman speed.”
Arthur buries his hands into the pockets of his jeans, looking somewhat pained and Merlin gets the irrational feeling that something bad has happened.
“Come back to the set, Merlin, for the love of God,” Arthur says finally just before Merlin is about to burst and it’s absolutely not what he was expecting.
“What?” Merlin leans his shoulder against the wall, frowning at Arthur. “You’re the one who told me to go home!”
Grimacing, Arthur looks down and huffs. “I know. It’s the worst idea I’ve ever had. And that probably says a lot, but if you tell Freya I said that, I’m hanging you up by your ears.”
“Come on, you guys don’t need me there anymore and I totally get that,” Merlin says, about to go on a rant about how he’s just in the way when Arthur looks up at him and the expression on his face makes the words die somewhere between Merlin’s brain and lips.
“I do,” Arthur says, voice low but steady. “I need you there.”
A distinct look of horror flickers across Arthur’s face as the words are out, and Merlin’s fingertips tingle with adrenaline as he meets his eyes without wavering. He doesn’t even break eye contact when Arthur moves forwards, expression intent and frighteningly close. Merlin jolts a little as Arthur’s hand cups his neck, making Arthur smile crookedly at him.
“It really was the absolute worst idea I’ve ever had,” he says, his thumb brushing over the curve of Merlin’s jaw.
“Are you sure?” Merlin’s voice is a little unsteady and he takes another breath. “I think I can list a really large number of appalling ideas.”
Gaze falling briefly to Merlin’s lips, Arthur shifts even closer. “Always here for me to point out my flaws.” He shakes his head with exaggerated exasperation. “What about this, then, Merlin?” Leaning closer, Arthur’s breath is warm on Merlin’s skin as he looks at him intently and says, “Is this a bad idea?”
And maybe it is, if Merlin starts looking for reasons for it to be, but he’s not going to do that. He’s not going to rationalise a way for the tiny grain of fear to grow – not when the rest of him is strung tightly in anticipation.
“No,” he says, his hand threading into the hair at the back of Arthur’s head, fingers curling into it. “This is definitely one of your finest moments of decision making. They should make a documentary about the best decisions ever made and this would definitely be a top contender. It’s the 1st prize of good decisions, is what...”
Arthur presses his lips to Merlin’s open mouth and ends up laughing into the kiss, his breath hot on Merlin’s tongue and Merlin tries to laugh back, but it ends up as a breathy sort of moan instead. A warm hand rests on Merlin’s hip, not pressing him closer or gripping at him: only pressing softly against his jeans.
The touch against his lips is slow and insistent as fingertips stroke across the nape of his neck. Merlin’s pulse flutters under the heel of Arthur’s hand, his head struggling to keep up with the rest of him as it seems to get stuck on Arthur’s name like a broken record. Merlin’s arm loops around his waist, pulling him closer until he can feel the solid warmth pressed up against him and he opens his mouth under Arthur’s, the tip of his tongue sweeping across the bottom lip.
Tension crackles under Merlin’s skin as Arthur kisses him gently, almost sweetly, and it’s great (fantastic), but he’s almost shaking with need for more. He cradles the back of Arthur’s head, licking at his upper lip just as he flips them around, pressing Arthur back against the wall, tilting his head until he can run the tip of his tongue along the roof of Arthur’s mouth.
The sweetness bleeds out of the kiss as Arthur’s lips open willingly and the feeling of his tongue makes Merlin too eager, their teeth clacking, and Arthur cups his cheek rubbing his thumb across the skin in a soothing motion, trying to take the kiss back down a little. It doesn’t work all that well, even if Merlin narrowly avoids the teeth again – it’s just that he’s fairly sure he could get completely addicted to Arthur’s tongue.
The only thing that ends up breaking the kiss is his sudden impulse to mouth his way across Arthur’s jaw, pressing kisses to his neck, the skin hot and perfect under his lips.
“Should’ve brought you to the castle,” Arthur says and Merlin can feel the vibrations in his throat. “Would’ve fucked you in that library.”
“Fuck me now instead.” Merlin noses at a spot under his ear, lips grazing skin. “Doesn’t matter where it is as long as you do it.”
Arthur groans, bringing both hands up to cup Merlin’s face between them, kissing him twice, three times, before pushing him in the direction of the bedroom.
“This is probably too soon,” he says against Merlin’s cheek.
His hand is hot under Merlin’s t-shirt, running smoothly across exposed skin. “Do you care?”
“I’ve never cared less about anything,” Merlin says against Arthur’s collarbone, nipping at it. “In my life.”
Arthur laughs, wrapping both arms around Merlin’s shoulder and pulling him into the room. They stumble a little, legs getting in the way of each other, and Merlin braces himself with a tight grip on Arthur’s arm.
In all honesty, it’s been a while since he had sex and he’s missed it. He hadn’t realised quite how much he’s missed it before Arthur is naked over him, hands bracketing his hips as his body drapes across Merlin in a heavy, solid weight and Merlin digs fingers into his back. Angling his hips up against Arthur, his teeth sink into his bottom lip with a strangled moan. He loves the way Arthur is heavy on him, sucking a bruise onto his neck that will be dark against his skin in the morning.
Arthur licks a stripe over his chest, making a pleased little noise as his tongue flicks over the nipple. It makes Merlin grin, stretching under the touches as Arthur nips at the skin. Looking up at Merlin with the corner of his eyes crinkled in amusement, Arthur lets out little teasing breaths, his lips parted in a way that makes Merlin reach out and run his thumb over the bottom lip. He pushes it into a pout, a smile spreading on his face before he leans down and takes the bottom lip between his teeth.
Merlin is almost giddy with the rush, laughter bubbling in his throat as Arthur’s hands skim over his sides. When Arthur settles properly between his legs, however, the laughter trails into a low groan, his cock throbbing. It’s definitely been too long because he’s pretty sure he could rub himself off against Arthur’s hipbone right now and be done in about three solid thrusts.
“Shit,” Merlin says, throwing an arm over his eyes. “This is going to be over so fast.”
He can feel Arthur’s smile against his collarbone as it turns into a soft kiss. “We need to work on your stamina.”
“Oh my god.” Merlin fumbles the drawer next to his bed open, trying to find the lube and the condoms he knows are back there somewhere. “You really need to shut up. You get exponentially less fit with every word that comes out of your mouth.”
Arthur shakes above him, the vibrations a pleasant hum. “Only you’d use the word exponentially in bed.”
“Yeah, well.” Merlin angles his head until he can catch Arthur’s lips in a swift kiss. “Only because it works on you.”
He finally manages to trap a condom between his fingers and he pushes it at Arthur. “Now fuck me.”
“Shameless,” Arthur says, grinning.
Merlin rolls his eyes. He knows what people expect him to be like in bed. Maybe it’s because he’s a little eccentric and he’s always the resident art geek wherever he goes, so people always tend to assume he’s as awkward in bed as he’s often perceived to be outside it. It’s not really the case. He loves sex – everything about it, even the really awkward parts of it, and he’s got no problem showing it.
“Yeah, yeah, astute observation. Just get on with it before I get myself off.”
Arthur takes the lube from him as well, pushing himself back onto his knees until he’s sitting between Merlin’s legs. His cock stands hard against his stomach and Merlin arches a little just at the sight, imagining the amazing way it’ll stretch him open.
“I will,” Arthur says, placing a soothing hand on Merlin’s hip. “And it’ll be exponentially hot.”
Merlin laughs, reaching down to hook his fingers around Arthur’s wrist, feeling his pulse under his fingertips. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Are you going to fact-check me while I fuck you?” The pad of Arthur’s thumb presses against the tight ring of muscle and Merlin hisses as it gives. “Is this some kind of strange kink I should know about?”
“Maybe.” Merlin pushes his head back against the bed, his lips parting as Arthur replaces his thumb with two fingers, stretching him open. “But you’re still here so I’m not worried.”
Arthur looks up and rolls his eyes, but his smile widens a little before he leans in and presses his tongue to the spot where Merlin’s skin clings to his fingers. His legs falling open, Merlin lets out a harsh breath, struggling a little to get it back.
“Yes.” Merlin pushes back onto Arthur’s hand, circling his hips slightly, his breath hitching when the fingers brush over the right spot.
His eyelids feel heavy when he looks down at Arthur and buries his hand in Arthur’s hair, running his fingers through it absently as his heartbeat stutters. It’s kind of strange how this – unbearable intimacy and all – is so much easier than things have been between them since... well, since ever, really. Merlin feels like it should be more difficult, like there should be more doubt and self-awareness.
But somehow it’s easy and right and a little weird, but only weird enough to make it good.
Arthur is a terrible tease, though, with that smug look all over his face as Merlin desperately tries to fuck himself on Arthur’s fingers and Arthur just stops him with a hand at the hip. Fuck that.
Catching Arthur off guard, Merlin flips himself over, pushing his knees into the mattress. He leans forward onto his elbows, spreading his knees wide on the covers. It’s not really a secret what Merlin wants, so he doesn’t care that he’s basically offering himself up with his cock hanging heavy between his legs. His heart is hammering too hard in his chest with the unreleased tension humming under his skin and he really wants... he wants.
“Maybe I should just call the next guy on my list,” Merlin says, moving one hand back to spread himself open. “He’d probably get here long before you manage to put that cock of yours to use.”
“Oh my god,” Arthur says, laughing. “I haven’t even gotten around to teasing you properly yet and you’re already out of your mind.”
“I’m not out of my mind.”
Except, yes, he kind of is, and when Arthur slides in too quickly the slight burn just makes it so much better because Merlin likes it like this: too fast, too much. His head drops to rest on his arm, his chest heaving as Arthur’s hand splays out between his shoulder blades, pushing him down just enough to make Merlin’s cock jerk in response.
“You’re the most impatient person I’ve ever had sex with,” Arthur says, a little breathless. He leans forwards and presses and open-mouthed kiss to the small of Merlin’s back, but Merlin whimpers at the lack of movement, pushing back until Arthur is filling him again. “Soon I’m going to teach you patience, Merlin.” Arthur smacks him, only hard enough to sting a little, but it breaks what little inhibition Merlin may have had left and he fucks himself on Arthur’s cock, his thighs shaking.
Finally, something seems to snap in Arthur too and his fingers are clutching Merlin’s hips tightly as he fucks him with more intent – steady and deep. Arthur tries to keep the rhythm, but Merlin meets his thrusts quickly until Arthur gives into the fast pace, letting go of a broken groan as he slams back in before Merlin can even get his breath back.
“Won’t call the next on the list,” Merlin says, breath heavy and cheek pressed into the sheets. “Gold star for you.”
“Oh god, shut up,” Arthur says, but leans down and nibbles at the closest bit of skin he can find. “If you call anyone I’ll...” A groan seems almost punched out of Arthur as Merlin circles his hips a little.
“What’s wrong; out of words, Arthur? Speechless perhaps?”
Arthur pulls at his thighs until Merlin loses his balance and pushes him forwards, draping himself across Merlin’s back, rocking into him with rolling hips. “Going to fuck the words right out of your mouth, Merlin.” His breath is hot on Merlin’s neck.
“Thank fuck,” Merlin barely manages to get out before Arthur hits a spot that makes him whine into the sheets.
Arthur feels like a crushing weight all along his back and it’s the best feeling. If he had much shame when it came to these things, he’d be more than a little embarrassed at the noises that slip from his lips, but as it is, he feels Arthur’s breath hitch close to his ear. Lips brush his earlobe. “Fuck, Merlin.”
Merlin makes more unintelligible sounds muffled into the bed and he forgets how to breathe when Arthur quickly pulls him back up to his knees. He doesn’t even have time to realise what’s happening before Arthur’s cock is buried so deep that Merlin comes with a surprised shout, his thighs shaking under him as he lets out little shaky moans.
He’s so focused on relearning how to breathe that he doesn’t realise Arthur is coming too until he’s collapsed over Merlin’s back, making these adorable little keening sounds that Merlin wants to bottle up and keep.
Later, when Arthur’s managed to roll over onto his back and Merlin has gotten his body to listen to commands again, he turns around and elbows Arthur in the ribs.
“I think you need to stay the night,” he says. “It’d be the safest for you.”
He’s answered by a questioning hm, Arthur barely lifting his head to look at him.
Merlin shrugs. “You’re grinning so maniacally you’ll scare everyone. You’ll scare tiny little children with that frightening row of teeth. I didn’t even know you had that many, to be honest.”
Two seconds later, Merlin finds himself in a headlock with Arthur’s knuckles against his scalp.
“Ow, Arthur.” Merlin laughs into his arm. “Fuck off.”
“Merlin?” Arthur had said the morning after he’d shown up at Merlin’s flat, the arm around Merlin’s stomach tightening. “Let’s not tell anyone just yet.”
“So there’s something to tell?”
Arthur had pressed his lips to the back of Merlin’s neck in reply and at that moment Merlin didn’t need an additional explanation because that was enough.
So Merlin had agreed to not tell anyone yet, because if anything it’d give them time to figure things out on their own. Of course, it only took a week before Arthur had completely blown their cover. That didn’t really buy them much time to figure anything out. In fact, the only thing they did end up finding out was that Arthur is a bossy bottom who turns sex into a wrestling match.
They also discover that Merlin doesn’t mind.
Their relationship was uncovered the moment Merlin started hanging around on set again – mostly because Arthur is as subtle as a ton of bricks. Merlin wonders how he ever failed to realise how Arthur feels because Arthur has always worn his heart on his sleeve if you know him well enough to look in the right place, even when he tries exceptionally hard to keep it all bottled up. And maybe all the lingering looks he sends Merlin’s way should’ve been what ultimately gave them away, but Merlin suspects it’s been that way for so long that no one was going to bat an eye at that.
In the end, it was a fight that unravelled the whole thing. Merlin prefers to call it a creative disagreement, really, but Freya’s informed him that it was definitely a fight. And really, Merlin had been as surprised as any that he was siding with Alator in an argument about Gwen’s portrayal of Aithusa (ever since then, Alator has taken to looking at him with something oddly akin to respect).
Arthur hadn’t taken that whole thing very well, though, and had spent most of the afternoon sulking in his office until Freya got fed up and prodded him until she found out that Merlin was the source of the issue. She’d locked them into the office together so they could clear the air, so it was all Freya’s fault when he really starts to think about it.
Merlin certainly can’t be blamed for having his lips attached to Arthur’s neck when Freya opened the door because the yelling had stopped and she was afraid they’d killed each other.
In any case, it was probably inevitable that everyone found out and ultimately it makes everything easier. It turns out that it’s a lot more comfortable to be in a kind-of-sort-of relationship when you don’t have to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
“I can’t move.”
“I know.” She smiles sweetly, keeping her arms wrapped around his shoulders in a sideways hug.
She even tightens her hold and he wiggles a little. His arms are trapped under hers and he can’t actually do anything at all, which is impractical considering the fact that he’s trying to work. He looks up, searching Arthur out and catches his attention, rolling his eyes until Arthur grins.
“You’re so cute together,” she says into his shoulder and Merlin groans.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“Will you let me compose your wedding song?”
“Elena, I swear to god.”
She shakes with laughter before she loosens her grip a little – just enough to free his arms so he can keep drawing. Looking down at the drawing he’s working on, she keeps her head on the shoulder that isn’t moving with the steady brushes of his pen.
“You make him happy,” she says and Merlin ducks his head in embarrassment. “No, Merlin, I mean it!”
“I know you do.” He keeps his voice quiet, his eyes darting up to check that Arthur is still working with the light crew. “Which is all the more reason for you to keep it down.”
She makes a face and releases him from her hug. “Fine, I won’t talk about feelings or anything. It might kill you!”
“Excessive feelings have been known to kill people,” Merlin says. “It’s a legitimate problem.”
When she punches him in the arm, he just smirks.
“You know...” She stops talking and when he looks up at her questioningly she’s smiling smugly. “No, I shouldn’t mention it, I think.”
Merlin sees it for what it is. It’s a ploy. She wants him to ask. So he keeps his head down, not acknowledging her at all until the curiosity starts driving him mad and he sighs loudly.
“You’ve been drawing a lot lately,” Elena says and he doesn’t know if it’s an answer or a deflection.
He shrugs. “Yeah, I’ve been inspired, I guess.”
She hums in that gleefully cryptic way of someone who knows something important.
“It’s very blue,” she says.
“You have great observational skills.” Merlin looks down at it, flicking through some of the pages.
They are all very blue, in a variety of hues. As much as he’s mocking Elena’s obvious observation, he hadn’t actually noticed it himself. He’s just been drawing what comes to him, and it’s been coming to him rather easily lately, especially when he’s hanging around on set.
“He’s blue,” she says, her grin so wide that Merlin feels a weird sense of dread.
“I see him as blue. Both of you, actually.”
Her grin widens even more at the prolonged stretch of silence.
“Oh, fuck,” he says, looking down at the paper with a strange flutter in his chest.
Elena laughs so loudly that Arthur looks over at them with his eyebrows raised and she covers her mouth with her hand, giggling helplessly into it. Merlin scoffs at her, but runs his finger swiftly over the clear, crisp blue of the sky.
“Well,” Arthur says. “I asked Freya about that weird guy that gets in the way on set all the time and this is where I ended up.”
Merlin narrowly manages to rescue the phone from sliding down his chest. “Should’ve known. She really needs to stop giving my number to all these random guys.”
Arthur snorts. “Ah, well, I figure I should get in line, then. Since she so kindly gave me your number, maybe you should just go out with me.”
There’s a slightly weird silence as Merlin pauses, frowning and staring at the cupboard as if it’ll explain everything.
“You’ve lost me.”
“Do I need to look up words in the dictionary for you?” Arthur sounds irritatingly amused.
“Well, last I checked we were already going out,” Merlin says, moving back into the living room to curl up into the corner of the sofa. “I mean, at least I hope so since I woke up with your drool on my chest.”
“I’m pretty sure we agreed to forget that incident.”
“No, you agreed.”
“No, I distinctly remember you saying ‘Yes, Arthur’!”
“That’s because you were fucking me. It’s not a blanket permission for the topic of your choosing.” Merlin rests his head against the back of the sofa, staring out into the room. “What were we talking about again?”
“Dating,” Arthur says.
“Yeah, that. What are you on about?”
It’s quiet for a moment and Merlin frowns, a little unsettled by Arthur’s hesitance.
Arthur coughs a little before he speaks, his words coming out faster than usual. “We’ve never been on one.”
Merlin sits up abruptly. “You’re asking me on a date?”
“Oh god, never mind.”
“No, no,” Merlin says, cutting him off. “Not never mind. It’s... good. Great.”
“Yeah?” Arthur sounds so insecure that Merlin almost wants to reach through the phone and shake him, because really, now?
“Come by the studio at 8?”
“The studio,” Merlin says, his voice flat. “Where we spend all day working anyway?”
“Good, you know the place. See you at 8!”
Merlin follows the lit hallways, looking for any sign of Arthur. Of course Arthur would ask him on a date and then leave Merlin to search him out like it’s a goddamn treasure hunt.
After a little while he finds Arthur in the editing room, his head bent over a remote with a deep furrow between his eyebrows.
“Did they let you loose on the equipment?” Merlin says, unable to hide the horror in his voice.
Arthur smiles sheepishly and holds up the remote. “I’ve been told to only touch this.” He moves from the chair by the editing board, pushing himself up to sit on a table in the middle of the room. Patting the open spot next to him, he says, “Come on, then.”
When Merlin pulls himself up next to Arthur, taking off his jacket, he notices a pizza box behind them on the table and he raises an eyebrow at him. “So we’re eating pizza and watching you play with the remote?”
“Mate, what have I told you about that patience problem?” Arthur says, grinning crookedly.
“That you’re going to spank it out of me?” Merlin grins.
“Jesus. Don’t mention that again until we get out of here or the guys will be seriously angry about the state of their equipment.”
Merlin just grins, studying Arthur intently as he bends over the remote again with that expression of complete focus that Merlin has to admit he finds ridiculously endearing. He snaps to attention again when Arthur points to a set of screens in front of them, one of them turned on and paused on a blurry image.
“Elena sent me a sample of one of the tracks for the score,” Arthur says, shifting a little to the side to move the pizza box in between them. “I had the guys put together a clip with the sample and some early footage from the castle.”
Merlin freezes, his eyes flickering from the screen to Arthur. “Really?”
“Seemed like the perfect first date to me.” Arthur smiles in such an unguarded way that Merlin forgets what he was thinking just for a second. “Elena says hi and something about writing a symphony of orange and blue.”
Before Merlin even has the time to pull himself together, Arthur has pressed play and the first few notes of the track appear before the footage follows, the song starting soft and barely there as Aithusa runs through the grounds outside the castle. The footage is rough, but it’s easy to see where it’s going and what it’s going to become.
Merlin’s hands shake and he swallows heavily several times. Above anything else, there’s an intense relief that it still feels like his. Even though it’s been in the hands of so many other people, there’s still the essence of his work there and he doesn’t know if he’s ever realised how scared he’s been that it would disappear. There’s a brief shot of Gwaine there too. He smiles a little at the sight of the character, and for a moment, at least, he doesn’t care if the film ends up being completely shit as long as it still feels like this – like his own.
The clip is short and over after a few moments, leaving Merlin to pull himself together enough to not embarrass himself completely. He knows that it’s completely obvious that his hands are still shaking.
Arthur’s hand reaches out and cups the side of his head, pushing him closer, until Arthur is close enough to press a kiss to his temple. Merlin leans into it, breathing deeply and he doesn’t realise he’s smiling until Arthur’s thumb touches the corner of his lips.