Arthur lives on a houseboat.
It’s been a year now since Arthur moved in, and it’s Gwaine who deserves all the credit and the blame. Arthur’s not entirely sure even now why he took Gwaine up on his offer to be his housemate in the first place, because really, who lives on a boat?
Arthur Pendragon does, that’s who.
He’s not on a boat at this particular moment, though, because the rain is pissing it down and the sea isn't a terribly hospitable place tonight. Gwaine had neglected to mention that particular downside of life on a boat, but then Gwaine never had been a man with a plan. To make up for it, he tended to deploy his friends to sort out the minor crises he invariably left in his wake.
Minor crises like the threat of your domicile and all you hold dear getting swallowed up by a wall of water, for example.
So tonight Arthur is with Gwaine’s friend (-his- friend, his oldest friend) Merlin, as Arthur usually is during storms now. While the old house and its strangely magnetic inhabitant are a welcome part of his (new) life, Arthur would prefer if they could both spend more time in the houseboat, curling themselves together and into its strange nooks and built-in cupboards.
Arthur really likes boats.
Arthur didn't even really know he had any particular and compelling feelings about boats at all until Gwaine mentioned needing a housemate. Boats are for when you are dead, he remembers thinking before he barely registered the question. For when you are dead and still and all is peaceful around you and smells like apples. But then Gwaine started talking about how fucking on a boat can really accentuate the mechanics of the deed (and I don’t mean with me, although I wouldn’t say no to that, mate) and by then Arthur felt too flustered to wonder how a dead man could smell apples on the air. Or why only a dead man would belong in a boat.
He and Gwaine worked out rent, and before Arthur knew it he was lugging his stuff –- clothes and electronics and football boots, plus a giant pair of antlers (don’t ask, Gwaine) -- down a dock and onto what could only be described as a shag palace of a houseboat. Gwaine certainly appreciated the slightly more obvious things in life, like the leopard print sofa and the framed prints from last year’s Dieux du Stade calendar (Arthur couldn't hate; that calendar made his fucking year). But obvious or not, Arthur loved every square metre of it. He loved how the rooms, impossibly tiny, still managed to hold more than they should. He loved how his bedroom was just a bed with walls and sliding wooden doors for his clothes, like a giant tent or a tiny citadel where he could shut out the world if he wanted. Most of all he loved the sea. The briny smell of it, the soft splashing of water against the hulls of their neighbours and the distant cries of seagulls – it was life, not death, in this boat and he wanted to consume it all, as if it had been centuries since he’d had any.
Arthur stayed up late into that first night on the houseboat, marvelling at the idea of living on the sea. He had no idea how much he wanted it until Gwaine appeared out of nowhere like he’d always been there. It wasn't nearly as confusing as it should have been, though, because it just felt right. It felt so right that Arthur stayed up half the night, revelling in it, while demolishing Gwaine’s supply of chocolate and pistachio ice cream straight from the tub. He fell asleep eventually, with sticky drips of ice cream dried on his hands.
As the floor of his tiny bedroom slowly rocked over the water’s current, Arthur dreamt of his mother.
She still stood at the railing of that hired boat she and Father had persuaded Arthur onto. Her blonde hair still curled around the scarf she used to try to protect it from the wind as she pointed out something to Arthur on the distant shore. As a child, he thought it seemed she pointed at a particularly impressive tree that seemed to command the shoreline, or perhaps to the strange little lighthouse not far from it.
In his dreams that night, though, no tree loomed, and no strange tower glowed white. Instead, she pointed to a spindly old man with a long, white beard. His hands lifted up to the sky.
Make it rain, Arthur thought to himself. Make it storm.
He woke up to the sound of his own voice, saying a word he forgot as soon as it left his lips. A name of some sort, maybe? It was raining, hard spatters that thundered on the metal roof while the houseboat bobbed up and down in a way that felt just this side of safe. Arthur lay in his tiny room, motionless, until the storm passed. He hadn't felt so peaceful in years. He wasn't sure how many of them.
His mother found him in his dreams almost every evening of that first week in the houseboat. And every night, she pointed. Some nights the old man was replaced by a young man with inky black hair, or an old crone cloaked in the colour of midnight.
What do you want me to do? he wanted to ask his mother. Tried to ask her. She couldn’t hear him, though, so after a few nights of increasingly frantic attempts, Arthur stopped trying. Just being able to see her again made him wish the dreams would come again and again.
In those early days of life on the houseboat, Arthur enjoyed the peace and quiet, and if he needed a break he need only head into the village for an impromptu five-a-side or a pint of lager. Gwaine didn't spend a lot of time on the houseboat himself, after it became apparent Arthur was good for a beer and a match, but not for giving the neighbors a show with messy blowjobs on the deck.
Come on, mate, just this once. You haven’t had anyone over since you moved in. You must be gagging for it!
It’s been four days, Gwaine, Arthur responded.
They’d both laughed, and then watched Match of the Day and took the piss out of each other’s favourite teams. Gwaine, as it happened, wasn't a half bad football player, but his taste in clubs to support was absolutely appalling. Arthur liked him, though, that much was clear underneath the jabs and banter and obnoxious nicknames they traded.
Princess? Where’d you come up with that one?
Dunno. You strike me as a princessy type, what can I say?
If Gwaine started staying away from the houseboat for a few nights in a row, well, Arthur didn't take offense. The man had needs, after all, and if Arthur wouldn't meet them then Gwaine had to go on the prowl. At least it meant Arthur could wank with significantly less restraint and significantly more elbow room than the tiny shower cubicle on the far end of the boat allowed for on a usual day.
Besides, Gwaine always came back after his wanderings, no matter how long he was gone. He was a loyal bloke, was Gwaine. When he couldn't around, he’d send friends by. Like he worried Arthur would be lonely, or couldn't fend for himself without assistance.
The tall one bounded right into the houseboat like he had known Arthur for years. Hiya, I'm Percy, the giant said while pumping Arthur's hand with undisguised glee. Percy, as it happened, taught at the village primary school and was singlehandedly responsible for the sport education of most children in the village and many of the adults, as well.
Gwaine tells me you can kick a football, he said to Arthur, and before he knew it, Arthur found himself coaching bunch of improbably tiny children through footwork drills on Wednesday afternoons.
Then there was Elyian, who came by to borrow a DVD once, and another time with his friend Leon to borrow Gwaine’s tennis racquet. The three of them had talked for hours about music one night, and the next, Elyian dragged Arthur and Leon to a pub to hear a mate of his sing.
Gwaine's friends seemed to form a circle around Arthur, somehow -- always finding things for him to do, always trying to involve him. They seemed to be checking up on Arthur, too, and Arthur supposed he should have been annoyed at the presumption, but he wasn't. He enjoyed their company, and they seemed strangely and quickly fond of him by the time they left. He found himself looking forward to seeing who Gwaine would send next.
One memorable night, Gwaine sent his strangest friend yet. His name: Merlin.
Gwaine was on a bender in Wales during the first truly bad storm after Arthur moved in, the kind of storm that meant danger and police-ordered evacuation. Arthur had set on the boat, feeling the floor weave and bob and knowing he should leave, but he couldn't. There was something so soothing about storms and boats and today that calm had a ripple of anticipation strumming beneath it. This storm was going to be amazing. He knew he couldn't miss it.
He must have dozed off while the boat tossed around on the waves, because he dreamed of his mother again. Arthur! Arthur! Arthur! she screamed, jabbing her finger toward something in the distance, trying to show him something…what was it? Oh. It was the man on the beach.
Arthur jolted awake in the dark swaying of his room. Had he imagined it, or had the man on the shoreline called his name?
Arthur Pendragon! A man’s voice was shouting, mixed with the liquid drumbeat of rain and the shivering of the sides of the boat and strange words like inbred clotpole and Avalon.
Arthur stumbled out of bed on the way to the door, tripping over his tracksuit bottoms and smacking his knee on the table tucked next to the door. He wrenched open the door, his mouth dropping open. Even in the fog of the storm, even with only the low battery lights of the houseboat, Arthur could tell it was him.
The young man from the shoreline, who called his name. He stood there, not a foot from Arthur, with raindrops streaming into his eyes like they were teardrops being unshed.
Arthur, what are you doing here? It’s not safe! the man shouted. He tried to pull Arthur out the door by the arm, paying no mind to Arthur's boxers, vest and bare feet.
Arthur wrenched his arm back, shocked. Do I know you?
The man took a long time to answer, so long Arthur nearly lost his patience and just slammed the door in the bloke’s angular face for the fun of it. I’m Merlin, the man said finally. He smiled slightly as he said it, like he had just shared some sort of joke with Arthur.
Arthur didn't get it.
Gwaine sent me, Merlin added. He wanted to make sure you weren’t stupid enough to try to ride out this storm on the houseboat. Merlin made an exaggerated show of looking around him. Apparently, you are.
It took Arthur a minute to recover his voice, after watching the water stream down the man’s —Merlin’s— chin and into the green scarf he wore looped around his neck. The colour was all wrong, and Arthur didn't know why that bothered him.
Blue. Had he said that aloud?
Blue, Merlin repeated, so yes, Arthur supposed he had. Ooooo-kay. Look, Arthur. Get your stuff, you can’t stay on this boat today.
Arthur knew he was right – the shaking and rocking were getting worse, and quick flashes of lightning were thundering closer and closer. But he didn’t want to leave this place – it felt safe. He could rest here, until...
Until you’re ready to come back, Merlin said.
What? Arthur whispered.
You can stay with me. Until you’re ready to come back, Merlin repeated, more slowly, and Arthur swayed with a particularly strong wave. Or maybe there was no wave at all, and the sway was just his entire world swinging on its axis.
Later, when Gwaine asked what Arthur thought of Merlin, Arthur would describe the meeting as memorable. That first meeting (the second first meeting) with Merlin was memorable indeed. It was full to bursting of memory. So much memory, in fact, that the force of it had Arthur swirling and churning as if he were a storm himself, until he blew over and stillness swallowed him up. Again.
The next time he blinked his eyes open, Merlin was still there. Was there again. Would always be there.
Not just on stormy nights, when Arthur needs somewhere to stay and someone to help him eat all the food he buys at Tesco, but every other night, too. Nights at Merlin’s funny old house with its old, crumbling papers and strange plants and bits and bobs of things that might be a little bit magical.
There are many nights on the houseboat, too, where Arthur wakes from a dream of Camelot (his mother’s not there, though. Camelot was defined by his mother’s absence more than anything) to find himself on his back, deathly still but for the bobbing of the boat, with his hands grasping the hilt of an imaginary sword and Merlin curled over him like a blanket. Like a shield.
Arthur sometimes jokes over breakfast that Merlin must be trying to shield him from the storm itself when he does that.
Maybe you’re the storm and I’m just trying to hang on for dear life, Merlin shoots back with a half-hearted smirk.
Arthur’s pretty sure it isn't his own dear life that Merlin is hanging onto in the storm. You don’t need to hang on to things that can’t be taken away from you, and he’s pretty sure he is right, though Merlin’s never said anything about it, not all this time they've been (back) together. But Arthur knows that the old man, the young man, the tree from his dreams are all Merlin, and that Merlin has been a storm himself, raging and constant, blowing everywhere and everywhen until he finally reclaimed familiar land in the creases of Arthur’s hands, in the hollow of his neck, in the undiscovered parts of Arthur’s heart and latched on twice as tightly as before.
Arthur loves storms. If storms are Merlin, then Arthur knows the storms will never end. They’ll always be there for him, for every first meeting that begins on a boat and every last meeting that ends on a boat; during the storms of the spaces between Merlin will be there to watch over him from the shoreline, constant and changing and always, always Arthur’s.
As Arthur falls asleep with Merlin pressed against him, warm and sparking with magic whilst they wait out another storm, he feels the joy in that repetition.