By the time the bus drops him off at some godforsaken place with the unlikely name of Inchnadamph, which in his head he’s renamed “Itchy-and-Damp”—an uncomfortable combination of sensations he’s almost certain will be accompanying him for the next 4 days—it’s been winding through an endless sea of swirly, white mist for hours, the journey enlivened only by the rhythmic “squeak” of the windscreen wipers, and rude horn-blasts to shift the stupid sheep. He’s stuck in the arse end of MacNowheresville, Scotland, he’s nauseous and thirsty, and he just wants to curl up in a warm comfortable hotel room. But no, his evil HR manager, Gwen, has other ideas.
She calls him over. She looks frighteningly keen and perky. She has a clipboard and propelling pencil, and her bag has neatly-sewn-on badges all over it. Bet she was a girl guide, he thinks morosely.
“Ah, Merlin!” she says, making a mark on her clipboard, flashing him what seems to be a genuine, delighted-looking smile.
Merlin makes a half-hearted effort to let one corner of his mouth pull up in return. He’s only been outside the coach for half a second and he’s cold, wet, and miserable, the jacket he borrowed from Will is two sizes too big, and rain is dribbling down his back.
“Put your bag over here in the dry for now. Is that all you’ve got? Gosh, you like to travel light, don’t you!” She fusses over him, securing a tab on his coat that stops the rain from getting in. “There. You haven’t done this before, have you? You’re going to have a wonderful time.”
Given the way that the rain is drilling out a wild rhythm of staccato demisemiquavers on the hood of his jacket, he very much doubts that.
“I don’t know why you’re trying to kill your entire IT support department off with pneumonia,” he says, with a gloomy sigh. “It’s not as if there are hundreds of mugs queuing up to rummage around under Poshpants Pendragon’s desk, reconnecting cables he’s managed to kick off in a fit of pique, for a pitiful wage.” On the very top of the things that Merlin doesn’t ever mention is the fact that he has frequent and explicit fantasies about the other things he could be doing under Poshpants Pendragon’s desk. While Poshpants is there. With his undoubtedly posh and very expensive underpants tangled round his ankles.
“Now, now, Merlin. Mustn’t badmouth your tent-mate. And stop looking at me like that!” she carries on, with a knowing smile. “Assynt is the most magical place, you’ll be dazzled by the scenery as soon as the cloud lifts.”
Huh. Not bloody likely. He’s still processing that thought when he realises what she’s just let slip. “Tent-mate?” He frowns.
“Ah, yes, you’ve been assigned to Arthur’s team.”
“Gwen!” But before he can protest further, she bustles off, rounding up the others with typical efficiency while he stands there, mouth agape. Just when he thought his expectations for retaining any shred of sanity or self respect out of this debacle couldn’t fall any lower, he gets cut down by this terrible blow.
“That’s it,” he says to himself. “I’m doomed.” On a list of things he’d like to do with his weekend, spending it in Itchy-And-Damp, in close proximity to that sarcastic, smart-mouthed arsehole, Mr. gorgeous, irritating, Poshpants Prick himself, is pretty much at the bottom, just below spending his days off with a red hot poker rammed up his bum, watching Jeremy Kyle repeats.
Lance jogs over. The expression on his face is eager, expectant, almost the complete opposite of how Merlin’s feeling. His heart sinks right to the toes of his boots.
“Isn’t it fabulous here?” Lance says, beaming, casting his arm out towards the omnipresent mist, the overgrown puddle on the other side of the road. “The loch, the fresh air, everything.” He takes in a huge breath, and lets it all out in a satisfied exhale. “Fab-u-lous!” he repeats.
Merlin’s surprised he doesn’t drown with the amount of water he must have inhaled from the damp, foggy, sodden atmosphere.
“Listen to those oystercatchers!” Lance continues. Merlin can hear a penetrating kind of racket, sounds like “prrrr pew pew pew pew,” away out over the loch. He hopes the blasted birds don’t go on yammering like that all night long. “We’re going to have such an amazing time. Such a fantastic idea of Gwen’s to bring us here. She’s so amazing, isn’t she?”
Merlin fights down his cynical urge to stick a finger down his throat, and sighs instead.
He really doesn’t see why he has to get dragged into this thing. It’s not as if he has a team to bond with, after all. Pendragon software isn’t a big company, and their London office is mainly a sales office anyway, so he’s the only IT support person. And, born and bred city boy that he is, four nights camping out, here in the wilds of north-west Scotland, is pretty much four nights more than he’s ever spent camping, anywhere.
“OK, people!” yells Gwen through a loudspeaker. “Listen, everyone. Here’s your itinerary for the next two days. It’s printed on waterproof paper.” Merlin can see an attentive-looking pouty face in the crowd. Tufts of damp-looking blond hair protrude from under an expensive, brand-new-looking, bright red, North Face puffa jacket. “We’ll spend tonight in the bunk house here at Inchnadamph, and then tomorrow you’ll need to rise early for your Highland Bingo team challenges. You’ll compete in pairs, and there will be brilliant prizes!”
Merlin stifles a groan and tunes out the rest of the instructions. Poshpants Pratface is bound to be one of those ultra-keen boy-scout types; let him work out what to do. He barely even notices when Gwen bounds over, thrusting a luminous yellow first-aid kit at him.
She waves her hand in front of his face. “Hello!” she says. “Anyone at home?”
He flashes her his best scowl, which deepens at her unfeeling laugh.
“Pack this,” she says, with a smirk. “It’s got everything you could possibly need in it. It’s reflective, so you’ll be able to find it easily in the dark.”
“Why would I need to get at it in the dark?”
“Be prepared, that’s my motto!” she says, grinning and giving the side of her nose a secretive tap.
Puzzled, he watches her retreating back as she dashes off to give a similar-looking kit to the next team. He glances at the accompanying description sheet, and blushes. At the bottom of the neatly typed inventory, someone has scrawled “condoms and lube!!!!” in sparkly purple ink, accompanied by a winking smiley face. He hastily scrunches up the list.
It seems that Poshpants, anticipating the fact that he’d be teamed up with someone who hovers towards the non-keen end of the keenness spectrum, has brought enough kit for five people, much of it still wrapped in cellophane after being hastily bought from an outdoors shop by his long-suffering PA. Trouble is that they need to walk for 4 hours, carrying said kit all the way, before setting up camp.
“For God’s sake, Poshpants,” Merlin grumbles, stumbling over a large boulder and nearly ending up flat on his by now thoroughly soaked arse, “what have you packed in here, anyway? Lead ingots?”
Face like thunder, Poshpants hauls him to his feet. “We are supposed to be a team, Marvin” he hisses. “God knows why Gwen had to lumber me with a lazy lummox like you.”
“Your face is a lazy lummox,” Merlin retorts, stung, “And anyway, I was perfectly all right until you added ten tons of bullion to my backpack, you posh git.” Frowning, he kicks at a large stone, which spirals off over the edge of the path into the gloomy depths of a muddy-looking stream.
They’ve only been walking for twenty minutes and he’s soaked to the skin, his backpack is chafing his shoulders, and to cap it all, his bloody iPod has packed in, so he’s forced to listen to the obnoxious drivel spewing forth from Poshpants’ mouth.
“You’ll thank me for it later, Marvin” says Poshpants, smug beneath his expensive and no doubt completely waterproof North Face kit. When he turns and sets off again, Merlin takes a short moment to appreciate the vision this affords him of Poshy’s pert arse, snugly clad in Gore-Tex, before sighing, adjusting his waist strap, and struggling on.
He can hear Poshpants muttering under his breath. “God. To think I’m missing the England match for this.”
“Yeah. I’m missing… oh, never mind.”
“Missing what, Marvin?” says Poshpants over his shoulder in a mock-sympathetic, sing-song voice. “Dungeons and Dragons? Sitting around with all your pathetic, nerdy little friends, pretending to be elves?”
Actually, he’s missing Queers and Deviants night at the Valhalla Club, and it only comes on once a month. He could be sitting at his workstation, at this very minute, exchanging costume plans with Will and Freya. But he’s not ready to reveal that side of himself to squeaky clean old Poshpants.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says, with a moody glare at Poshpants' uncaring rear. “Nothing you’d understand, anyway.”
His boots slip on a damp, slimy, lichen-covered rock, and he nearly overbalances, trying to compensate for the unfamiliar weight on his back. God, this place is wet. The path is almost impassable in places, and the streams, becks, burns whatever the benighted things are called here, have no discipline; they just tumble hither and thither without thought for hapless IT consultants or their irritating companions.
But they’ve only come another 500 yards or so when Poshpants stops, tugging something out of his backpack, and crowing in delight.
“Hey!” he says, pulling out a camera and pointing. “It’s a highland cow!”
“Your face is a highland cow.”
“Stop being such a moody twat, and go and stand next to it, Marvin, I need to take a picture.”
“Poshpants, I know you’re an arsehole at the best of times, but has the rain driven you barking mad?” says Merlin, eying up the stupendously sized creature. It stands in their path, chewing lugubriously. “It looks violent. Look at those horns! If you think I’m going anywhere near those, well… you had better have another think coming, all I can say! I’ll be on at my union before you can say Employment Tribunal. God!”
Arthur rolls his eyes in an exaggerated fashion. “No, you idiot, you don’t have to get that close, I just need a picture for the team challenge.”
The darkening expression on Poshpants’ face does not bode well for Merlin’s chances of a peaceful walk.
“Don’t tell me you weren’t listening.”
Merlin puts on his most innocent expression.
Poshpants looks deflated. His shoulders actually slump, as if he’s suddenly realised that he’s got a crap team-mate. “Of course you weren’t listening. You’re a complete imbecile.” He sighs and shakes his head. “We have to take pictures. Of things. It’s a game of Highland Bingo. You know? And the team with the most things from the list wins. One of the things on the list is a picture of a team member with a Highland cow.”
“Oh.” Feeling suddenly and inexplicably sad to be such a disappointment, he starts to sidle towards the cow. “All right, then.” Poshpants’s face brightens a little.
“That’s it! Go on, Marvin!” Poshpants waves vaguely towards the animal, which is actually drooling and waggling its enormous, shaggy head as its massive jaws work to chew something, probably a hapless IT executive it devoured earlier.
Merlin groans inwardly. Oh God. He inches towards the beast and looks back towards Poshpants.
“Closer than that, you idiot.”
“No. I know cows are herbivores, but I don’t want to risk getting eaten by the world’s first carnivorous one, and I think this might be it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Marvin. You need to be much closer or you won’t be in focus.”
Merlin shuffles another couple of feet towards it. “Ridiculous? Have you seen the way it’s looking at me? Like I’m its next meal?”
Poshpants grins at him and lifts the camera to his eye. “Say cheese!”
“Gorgonzola,” says Merlin, mournfully, accompanied by a guffaw and a click from Poshpants. There’s water cascading down Merlin’s face, and a fly the size of a Sherman Tank is settling on his chin. He cries out when the blasted thing chomps, and swats it so hard, it makes his face sting. Poshpants, the unfeeling bastard, just chortles and clicks the shutter on the camera.
“This is brilliant! OK, another one. Left a bit,” says Poshpants. “Now hold your hand out, as if you’re giving me something. Great! OK, turn a little bit towards your right. A tiny bit more…” Click. “Fantastic.”
With every change in pose, Merlin’s scowl gets darker and darker. Oh God. It looks like Poshpants fancies himself as a bit of a “David Bailey”. This weekend is going to be even rougher than he had originally thought.
“This is the spot,” Poshpants says, finally, coming to an abrupt halt. They’ve been walking for nearly five hours; Merlin has blisters where Will’s too-big boots have been rubbing at his ankle.
In that entire time, Merlin has seen three highland cattle, about a million sheep, enough of those little buggers that Gwen calls “cleggs” to feed an army of geckos, and not one mountain, because the so-called scenery in this stupid bloody place is very shy and likes to hide behind a shroud of swirling, dank fog.
He’s beginning to doubt that there is any scenery. It’s all an elaborate hoax. He’ll wake up in the morning, and the fog will lift, and he’ll find himself surrounded by burnt-out cars in a run-down council estate in Glasgow, with only a gorgeous git for company. Mind you, at least that way he’d be within spitting distance of a pub.
But now they have to raise the tent. Poshpants is fiddling around in his brand new backpack, and has extracted the large blue bag containing the edifice they’re meant to construct and sleep in.
“It shouldn’t take long for you to put this thing up, Marvin” says Poshpants, flashing him a hopeful smile that makes his heart drop to his boots. It’s the exact same expression that people have on their faces when they hand him a computer whose hard disk has been wiped by some virulent strain of malware, and say, “you can fix it, Merlin, can’t you?” He can’t bear the deflated expression that invariably follows when he explains the reality of the situation.
“Here.” Poshpants shoves a soggy sheet of instructions at Merlin. It starts to dissolve in the still-torrential rain.
“What? Wait. Hold on, a minute, Poshpants. Me? You’re expecting me to put this thing up?”
“You were listening, weren’t you? When Gwen was describing the challenge? One team member is the photographer.” He points to himself. “Me. The other one puts up the tent.” He points at Merlin. “You.”
Merlin is aghast. He doesn’t know one end of a tent from the other. He’s not even sure he’s ever seen a real one.
When Poshpants’ expectant face falls, it’s a bit like watching a puppy fall off a cliff. “You weren’t.”
Wincing to avoid the expected explosion of criticism, Merlin shakes his head. “No. I wasn’t.”
But instead of bellowing with rage, Poshpants just gives a sort of deflated sigh and falls silent so that all they can hear is the pitter-pat of the rain on their bags, and the gentle gurgling noise of a nearby stream. “Well, I suppose we’ll have to work it out together, then,” he says.
His reaction is so unexpected that Merlin lets out an exhausted chuckle. For the first time that day, he feels his face crack into a wide grin. Poshpants looks a bit taken aback at first, but his answering smile is so sweet that Merlin thinks his heart might stop.
“Yeah, okay,” says Merlin. Because what’s he got to lose by trying? And, to be honest, he’d do pretty much anything to be on the receiving end of one of those unexpected, soft smiles again.
But half an hour later, relations have cooled. The instructions say that the tent is simple to erect, which may be true in dry weather (although Merlin doubts it), but so far all they’ve managed to do is get the canvas thoroughly soaking wet, and Poshpants has returned to his normal, obnoxious, shouty self.
Not without reason.
“You complete buffoon!” Poshpant is knee deep in stream water, bent double, fishing around with his hands, and getting steadily more irate. “You ridiculous, clumsy, idiotic nincompoop. It really does take a special sort of a fuckwit to be this incompetent.”
“Well, thanks a lot, Poshpants. Well, at least I’m not an arrogant, supercilious, pedantic, posh pillock with no manners,” Merlin retorts, indignant. “I don’t see why you can blame me, when you were just standing there issuing orders like some kind of… of… camping commandant, when you obviously haven’t got a frigging clue what you’re doing.”
“You’re a fine one to talk about people not having a sodding clue, Marvin, when you can’t even open a bag without chucking the contents into a gaping chasm full of fucking filthy brown water.”
“There’s no need to be such a pig about it, Poshpants. It wasn’t my fault. It’s a manufacturing error, surely. I mean, what sort of an idiot packs the tent pegs in a bag with a hole in the bottom?”
“Got it.” Glaring, Poshpants brandishes the final tent peg and hurls it with astonishing speed and accuracy at Merlin’s head. Hastily ducking to avoid being brained by the sharp metal tip, Merlin retrieves it from the long, wet grass behind him and sighs.
“The only idiot, Marvin,” Poshpants goes on, holding out his hand with a withering look, “is the kind of pea-brained dimwit that holds the tent peg bag upside down over a fast-moving stream, gives it a shake, and stares open-mouthed while all the pegs enter the water with loud plopping noises.”
He waggles his hand imperiously. Realising what he wants, and resisting the urge to tell Poshpants that his face is a pea-brained dimwit, Merlin hurries over and helps to haul him out of the stream, wincing a little in sympathy as he touches the freezing cold hand Poshpants has been using to extract tent pegs from the muddy river.
“Now bloody well give me the sodding instructions,” growls Poshpants, “and don’t touch anything else.”
Feeling useless and dejected, and wincing a little in sympathy at the sight of Poshpants’s dripping wet over-trousers, Merlin hands over the tent-erection instructions with a sigh. “I’ll just. Erm.” He doesn’t know what to do. He really doesn’t.
Poshpants sighs. “C’mere” he says, beckoning. Merlin approaches him cautiously, expecting a cuff round the back of his head.
Bending to pick something up, Poshpants pulls a long, thin canvas bag out of his back pack. “Here,” he says. “You can put the flag up. For the challenge.”
“The Pendragon coat of arms. For the challenge. I’ll do the tent, you do the flag.” He pats Merlin on the upper arm. “One team, one dream, right Marvin?” Poshpants looks Merlin in the eye, and despite having spent ten minutes wading in a slimy, peaty, dark, no doubt shark-infested river, and being sopping wet and freezing cold, manages to raise an encouraging smile of such utter sweetness that it makes Merlin’s heart do flip flops.
Eyeing the flagpole dubiously, Merlin turns his back on the furious under-breath mutterings that accompany the tent-erection proceedings, and decides to give it his best shot, because, underneath all the bluster and sarcasm, old Poshy is really not all that bad a human being.
What’s more he seems to have some faith in Merlin’s abilities, and for some unaccountable reason Merlin wants to prove him right.
And that’s how he finds himself, twenty minutes later, proudly clipping the flag onto the rope and hauling it to the top of the pole.
It flutters into life just above his head. Hearing his joyful whoop, Poshpants looks up, and flashes him a delighted grin. He stops struggling with the tent poles and rushes over, pulling the little camera from his jacket pocket, and the two of them pose beneath the flag, beaming from ear to ear in a glorious, mist-enshrouded self-portrait. And who cares if the dragon is flying upside down anyway?
“He’s doing aerobatics,” says Merlin.
Poshpants nods. “Yep. He’s a very gymnastic dragon.”
They high-five one another happily and turn back to the small matter of constructing their shelter for the night.
Merlin nearly jumps out of his skin when there’s a loud “whoosh,” and two deafening bangs right above their heads. “What the fuck was that?”
He looks up, and through the fog, he can just make out two shapes hurtling past at supersonic speeds. RAF tornadoes, he thinks, playing around with their night-sights and radar. The sonic boom and deafening sound of the jet engines echo ominously, amplified by the mist-shrouded scenery.
Poshpants is also staring up to the heavens. “Dragons,” he says, clutching his head, ducking melodramatically. “Real dragons. Coming to kidnap me and ransom me for my Dad’s hoard of gold!” His hands drag round his face and his mouth hangs open, in imitation of Munch’s painting, “The Scream”.
“Don’t worry, Poshpants,” says Merlin, in mock concern. “I can command dragons. I won’t let them hurt you.”
Poshpants barks out a disbelieving laugh. “Commanding dragons? Really, Marvin.”
“Yeah. I have many secret talents,” says Merlin, nodding wisely, deadpanning until Poshpants flashes him a crooked smile, and they both double over, laughing.
By the time they have managed to adjust the final guy rope, it’s well after 2pm, seven hours since breakfast, and Merlin thinks he’s going to faint with hunger.
The tent is divided into two sections, and by some miracle they’ve managed to keep dry the inner “sleeping” area, where they’ve tossed their sleeping bags and bedrolls, and clean clothes. The outer area is another story. Sodden bags, boots, socks, unidentifiable camping equipment and waterproof outerclothes litter the floor in one corner. They’ve wiped down the groundsheet with a brand new, expensive-looking rag that Poshpants assures Merlin is actually a towel. Merlin breaks open the luminous-yellow first-aid kit, and they sit, barefoot, on the now only slightly-damp groundsheet, putting Compeed from the kit on their blisters and dabbing Savlon on their itchy insect bites.
Merlin’s just trying to massage some life into his bare toes, when, rummaging in his backpack, Poshpants triumphantly retrieves a large vacuum flask, two bowls and a Tupperware container. When Poshpants takes the lid off the flask, an enticing aroma fills the air and steam gently emanates from it.
“Vegetable soup,” he says smugly, slopping some into a plastic bowl, passing it to Merlin and repeating the exercise for himself.
They grab bread rolls from the container. Shovelling in a mouthful of soup, Merlin thinks he’s died and gone to heaven.
“Arthur,” he says, tears pricking his eyes, “Arthur, Arthur, Arthur. I take it all back. You are a wonderful human being.” He can feel the warmth of the soup spreading out through his tummy, thawing him from the inside out. “For this simple act of foresight, you are guaranteed a place in heaven with all the angels. Cherubic choruses will strum harps in your honour. Statues will be raised to you. You will be granted the Nobel Prize for Soup. If I was a girl, I would want your gorgeous, cute, blond, sarcastic little babies.”
“It’s soup,” Poshpants growls between mouthfuls, “not a cure for malaria. Don’t be such an idiot.”
But a faint blush stains his cheeks, which means he’s secretly pleased, and it makes Merlin feel on top of the world to think he’s made Poshpants feel like that, so he huffs out a chuckle, and flashes Poshpants a truly joyful smile.
“You should smile more often, Merlin,” Poshpants says, beaming back. “It suits you.”
Merlin’s a bit confused for a moment. He’s not sure why, until it clicks and he realises.
“You didn’t call me Marvin,” he says, cocking his head on one side, puzzled. “You always call me Marvin!”
Poshpants laughs. “Can’t call you Marvin if you smile at me like that,” he says, blowing on his hot soup to cool it down a little bit. “There is no way that kind of smile lives on a face that’s associated with a name like Marvin. And anyway. You called me Arthur, for a change, so I thought I’d return the favour.”
Blushing, Merlin shovels another spoonful into his mouth with a happy hum. “Why do you call me Marvin anyway? It’s not like you don’t know my name.”
“Because, Marvin, you have a brain the size of a planet, and you walk around the place glowering, as if there’s a permanent, personal, Marvin-sized thundercloud hovering over your head. You are the paranoid android made flesh.”
When Merlin continues to look puzzled, Arthur lets out an incredulous-sounding snort. “Don’t tell me you have never read The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? What sort of self-respecting IT nerd has not devoured the entirety of Douglas Adams's seminal work?”
Merlin shrugs. “We don’t all conform to stereotypes, you know.”
“I suppose not.” Arthur sounds almost sad. “Very few people do. I…” His voice tails off as Merlin turns back to him, and his eyes are dark, hooded, when he says in a deep, intent voice. “I know I don’t.”
Merlin feels his heart race and he doesn’t know why.
“So, what stereotypes do you fail at conforming to, then, Arthur?” he says, softly, gesturing at the tent. The sound of raindrops on canvas is, if anything, louder than ever. “You might as well tell me about it. I’m not going anywhere.”
Arthur leans back on his elbow, gazing for a moment at the raindrops merging on the outside of the canvas. Every so often, a massive drop glides down the surface of the tent.
“I don’t know. Sometimes people have expectations about me, based on my schooling, or the fact that I’m a bit of a football fan, and a Pendragon, and they jump to conclusions about other parts of my life. And then they're all surprised when I don’t act how they think I will.” He slurps soup off his spoon and dives in for some more.
Merlin’s mouth suddenly feels very dry and he moistens his lip with his tongue. “What. Erm.” His voice comes out all husky, so he clears his throat. “Other parts of your life?” Arthur’s eyes dip down to Merlin’s mouth and back up again.
“Now that would be telling.” His lip quirks up in a lopsided smile and he waves his spoon at Merlin’s half-full bowl. “Eat up! You don’t want it to get cold!”
“So what would you be doing tonight, then, if you weren’t here?” Merlin says. He’s finishing his soup now, and eyeing the contents of the Tupperware container. He fishes out a trailbar and opens it up, starts to chomp.
“Going to the gym, probably,” says Arthur. “Then out to the pub with a couple of mates. Maybe a club afterwards. You?”
“Much the same, without the gym,” admits Merlin. “Which clubs do you normally go to?”
“Depends what’s on, really. There are some quite fun theme nights out there. Places like Valhalla, Avalon, Nirvana…”
Whoa. Those are the same clubs Merlin goes to. His mind goes into overdrive, but then he remembers what Arthur said about jumping to conclusions. He opens his mouth to tell Arthur that he’d been planning to go to Valhalla tonight, before Gwen organised this ridiculous team-building fiasco, but closes it again. He’s actually feeling quite content at the moment, in a confined space with this rather unexpectedly intriguing and undoubtedly beautiful man, and he doesn’t want to make things feel awkward by revealing things about himself that might make Arthur feel uncomfortable, regardless of the hints Arthur’s been dropping. Shutting his mouth again, he realises that he’s being regarded with polite amusement.
“What?” he says.
“You. You look like a blowfish.” Arthur blows his cheeks out and makes comical “O” shapes with his mouth.
Merlin laughs and shakes his head. “I do not!”
“So what would you be doing, then, on a normal Friday night?”
Merlin lowers his gaze and smiles as he thinks about it. He and Freya would probably be choosing between leather and PVC. He purses his lips, considering some of the people that might be there, anonymous eyes, hands, mouths hot on his willing flesh. Freya would be dancing, teasing, look-but-don’t-touch; Will would be eyerolling and getting all protective.
He looks back up at Arthur, who’s staring at his mouth again. Arthur flushes and looks away. Merlin feels the way his pulse surges and races in response to Arthur’s expression, listens to the quickening of Arthur’s breath, and wonders.
“Nothing much,” he says softly, worried about spoiling the understanding that has been growing between them if he says anything. But he can feel a moment, feel it developing, knows it could become something.
Arthur leans over. “You have soup on your chin, Merlin,” he says, voice all soft, stroking along Merlin’s jaw to rub the soup off it with a cool fingertip, pressing his finger to Merlin’s lips until his mouth falls open, rubbing along the wet, hot flesh inside. The pad of Arthur’s finger, rough on his tongue, tastes of soup, but has a salty metallic tang all of his own. When Merlin closes his lips around it, his eyelids flutter shut and he sucks it further in.
He can hear Arthur’ uneven breathing catch as he swirls his tongue around the fingertip, worrying a rough nail. He hums and purses his lips, pushing the finger out again with a pop. Opening his eyes, his own breath coming fast, he flushes in the heat of Arthur’s heavy-lidded gaze, and swallows.
Arthur cups Merlin’s cheek with his palm and lets it linger when Merlin leans into it. “Your hands are freezing,” says Merlin.
A hint of a lopsided smile curls up the corner of Arthur’s mouth and he slides his hand down Merlin’s neck, under his collar, seeking heat.
Merlin yelps and arches when Arthur's fingers reach his upper back, but he doesn’t pull away. “You bastard! Bloody hell, stop it.”
But Arthur, laughing, pushes him over, pins him face down on the cold ground sheet, tugs his fleece out of his trousers, and lays both his freezing hands flat on Merlin’s bare back. The freezing sensation makes Merlin buck and twist under him.
“Get off me!” he yells, voice muffled where he’s pressed up against the ground sheet, trying to ignore the way that Arthur’s firm thighs straddle his waist, wondering whether Arthur really did just roll his hips into his back. When Arthur’s warm bulk lifts off him, he feels bereft. He wants to call him back, wants Arthur to carry on rocking into him.
Merlin sits back up again and shoves Arthur’s shoulder to cover his confusion. “Prick,” he says.
Arthur’s face is set, lips pursed together, frown lines appearing between his eyes, and Merlin feels suddenly deflated, as if he has missed an opportunity. “C’mon Merlin,” he says, not meeting Merlin’s eyes. “We’d better get this lot cleared up.”
Merlin tries to catch his attention but Arthur gets up, and in the confined space of the tent starts gathering the soup bowls, flask and spoons together. He rummages in his amply stocked backpack, pulling out what seems like a ton of camping equipment before finally alighting on a sachet of washing-up liquid. “Here,” he says. “You can wash up.”
Looking at the sachet, Merlin sighs. “Hot water? Washing-up bowl?”
“Stream,” says Arthur, finally meeting his gaze. “I’ve waded in it once already today. Now it’s your turn, Marvin.”
Oh. Marvin is back. A cold pang slices into Merlin’s gut. He didn’t realise how much he’d appreciated it when Arthur started treating him like a real person, not a fictional depressed robot.
“Thanks a bunch, Poshpants,” he says gloomily, and starts tugging on his wet socks and boots to brave the elements.
It must be past midnight, Merlin’s been in his sleeping bag for what seems like hours anyway, and he can’t get to sleep, not when tremors and judders wrack his frozen flesh. A pitiful moan escapes from his mouth and Arthur’s peaceful snores come to an abrupt halt.
“Merlin,” he says. “Merlin, you idiot. I can hear your teeth chattering from here.”
Merlin can’t answer, he’s shivering so violently. He’s surprised he’s not making the tent vibrate.
“Merlin. Bloody hell.” A hand snakes out and he can hear unzipping. Something hot worms into his sleeping bag and grabs his hand, something so hot that he almost snatches his hand away.
“Ow! Burns!” he hisses between his teeth, because Arthur’s hand is scorching him, and it hurts, sod it. That can’t be right; it must be Merlin’s hand that’s too cold, surely Arthur can’t be hotter than body temperature.
“Merlin you are a complete and utter idiot, what kind of a pillock comes to north-west Scotland in April with only a 3-season sleeping bag?”
While Arthur’s talking, Merlin hears all sorts of unzipping noises, and he’s feeling a bit dozy, actually, and wishes he’d shut up and let him go to sleep. But then something warm, and solid, lines itself up along his back, and wraps itself round him like some sort of furnace-like all-over body-cocoon, and all the air whooshes out of him in a big sigh when he realises it’s Arthur.
“You stupid, over-optimistic city boy, have you no idea about self-preservation?” Arthur says, his voice cracking a little.
He has zipped their sleeping bags together and is enfolding him in hot, hot muscular limbs. Gusts of Arthur’s breath fan down his neck and round his throat like kisses grazing his skin. Merlin shudders and trembles and he tries wriggle his body back further, deeper back into that glorious, infinite embrace.
“Sodding buggering fuck, Merlin. It’s like cuddling a bloody ice-block, for fuck’s sake. Were you ever going to say anything or were you just going to lie there quietly until you died of hypothermia? Thanks a bunch, mate. It would have been brilliant waking up next to a corpse. Remind me to thank Gwen for that when we get back to camp.”
“M’ fine,” stammers Merlin, his body wracked with judders, stung at Arthur’s criticism. There’s a hand clutching his, he realises, and his fingers start to throb as the feeling returns to them.
With a shock, he realises that Arthur’s trembling too. “You’re not fine, you stupid sod,” says Arthur, and Merlin swears he can feel lips ghosting across the line of his shoulder-blade.
The sensation makes him arch his back, and he turns round to face Arthur, wraps his cold, skinny limbs around that glorious, oven-like body. He buries his face in Arthur’s shoulder. A firm hand glides rapidly up and down his body, coaxing his skin to life through his thin undershirt, soothing the tightness and cramping, stilling the tremors.
“C’mon,” says Arthur, voice soothing. “C’mon, Merlin. S’ alright, mate.”
A sudden feeling of shame flushes Merlin’s skin when he realises that he’s crying. The tremors from the cold are turning into sobs, and he presses his lips to Arthur’s shoulder, pulls him in tighter.
The heat makes him feel like he’s melting, dissolving into Arthur, merging with him, their mingling sweat pooling between them, and he stays like that, gradually thawing, his fingers and toes stinging as the blood returns to them.
“Arthur,” he breathes, feeling the trembling abate a little.
There is no way that Arthur can’t feel how he’s reacting to him, because now he’s warm, and a little sweaty, his blood is moving into his extremities. He can feel one in particular paying Arthur attention, pressing with a sense of urgency into Arthur’s groin.
They are so close that he can feel Arthur’s nipples through their t-shirts. There’s something else, something that makes him think that his massive crush on Arthur might just be reciprocated after all, because, God, is that Arthur’s dick?
He turns his head and burrows down, curls his body deeper into the sleeping bag, so that he’s totally encased in it, just him and Arthur’s broad chest, tightly sheathed in the soft, constricting space. Splaying his fingers across Arthur’s sternum, Merlin can feel Arthur’s heart pounding, his ribs expanding with each breath. Inhaling Arthur’s heady scent makes him moan softly, because he suddenly wants more. He lets his hand inch down past the hard planes of Arthur’s tight abdominal muscles to the place where his t-shirt ends and those tantalisingly smooth underpants begin.
It’s really dark inside the cave of the sleeping bag, and stiflingly warm. Arthur’s posh silk pants slither and glide under his fingertips. He can feel the outline of that great cock straining at them, a single damp spot at its tip. Although he knows he shouldn’t, his brain is not really firing properly, he can’t help it. He rubs at it gently, revelling in its heft and the way it warms his hand.
Arthur doesn’t stop him. Instead, his hips flex gently, and he groans at the pressure, intent clear.
Tentatively, gently, Merlin eases Arthur’s pants down over the moist head, making Arthur’s breathing hitch, and feels, rather than sees, the warm fluid that emerges from the tip.
“Fuck!” says Arthur, hips flinching away. “Your hand, Merlin, it’s freezing.”
“Want me to replace it with something warmer?” Merlin’s horrified at himself, can’t believe he’s let the words through his lips like that.
But Arthur’s hoarse reply is “yeah, oh God, yeah, I do.”
The despairing way his voice wavers, as if he’s trying desperately to say no, to do the right thing, but is just too horny, too desperate, makes Merlin ache. So he buries himself deeper under the warm fabric, until there’s just him hunched over Arthur’s straining cock. Merlin’s head is wedged tightly between Arthur’s musky torso and the constraining fabric of the sleeping bag. Wrapping his cold hands round Arthur’s hard, round butt cheeks until Arthur gasps, and his hips shift to accommodate them, Merlin nuzzles at Arthur’s navel, drinks in his scent, and encases Arthur’s bobbing prick in his mouth, pulling a long, blissful groan from him.
His movements restricted by the sleeping bag, he pulls back. Softly he licks, smearing round the head, plunges Arthur’s cock back down into his mouth, licking it in great swirls, taking it deeper and deeper. Arthur moans his name, over and over again, his buttocks tensing in Merlin’s hands.
Merlin’s so hard he thinks he’s going to explode from the tension. Frantic for release, shoulders helplessly constricted, tightly encased, desperately turned on by the whimpers and grunts that he’s tugging from Arthur with every swirl of his tongue, he pulls one hand out from under Arthur, and pushes down his own boxers so that he can thrust into it.
“Stop, Merlin, stop, no, I want to, wait, I’m going to, wait, stop,” Arthur’s saying, although the subtle movement of his hips gives the lie to his words.
Merlin stops, eliciting a deep sigh from Arthur, and shuffles back up the sleeping bag to trade messy kisses, their pricks slithering against one another, spit-slick and hot. Arthur turns, pressing the full length and weight of his body onto Merlin’s, making Merlin exhale with a cry, and the sensation of heavy, wet heat and friction is nearly too much.
Arthur’s pleading with him. “God, let me, please,” he pants, and Merlin nods, heart hammering, breath coming in great spurts, feeling Arthur’s hot hand seeking between his legs, probing, searching out his secrets, pushing gently at his furl. Arthur’s still pleading, though, “Please, Merlin, please,” and Merlin realises he can’t see him nod, can’t see his assent.
“Yeah,” he croaks, then. “Yeah, Arthur. Yes, God, whatever you want.”
Arthur’s lets out a frustrated whimper. “But I haven’t…”
And Merlin grins, and sends a prayer of thanks to the Girl Guide movement, to Gwen, to the motto “Be Prepared,” because he has what they need. He can see the faint, glowing outline of the first aid kit in the corner of their tiny sleeping space. Gwen is sure to be elevated to sainthood for pointing out, in sparkly purple pen, before they left on their hike, that its inventory includes condoms and lube.
“Don’t worry, Arthur,” he whispers. “I’m on it.”
It’s no good, he can’t hold out any longer, not with Arthur smugly pressing his heavy hand on his bladder. He wriggles out of the sleeping bag, shivering as the cold dawn air hits his exposed flesh, and scowling at the extremely cosy-looking, posh, prattish vision afforded him.
“You’re an arrogant prick, with very posh pants, and I hate you, you bastard,” says Merlin.
He hastily tugs on a discarded pair of boxer shorts, which feel all silky and slithery on his naked bum, so they must be Arthur’s, and he thinks he understands now why Arthur enjoys wearing such posh ones. He sits straddling the partition between the sleeping area and the damp living area of the tent to pull on his cold, sopping wet walking boots, and wonders if he dares go and piss wearing only boxers, or whether he’ll die of hypothermia, all the while trying, and failing, to ignore the way Arthur’s sweaty blond hair is all rucked up around kiss-bruised, smirking lips and sleep-flushed cheekbones.
“I’ll have you know my parentage is not in question.” Arthur’s eyes are dark in the wan dawn light, and his mouth curves up in a wicked smile. “While you’re up, you might as well fill the jerry can from the stream, for a cuppa.”
“I’m not your slave you know, Poshpants! And just what the sodding fuck are you going to be doing while I risk life and limb out there?”
“I’ll be keeping this bed warm for you,” Arthur replies, and Merlin’s torn between the urge to kiss that evil smirk off his face or punch it. “Now hurry along, Marvin, there’s a good boy.”
And so it is that Merlin is totally unprepared for the panorama that greets him when he leaves the tent. He swallows, working his mouth to moisten it, and gazes around himself, thunderstruck. He forgets he is dying for a piss.
“Come out here.”
“Just stop being a stuck-up prick for one moment, if that’s possible, and come out here. Quickly.”
There’s a great deal of cursing and grumbling, but in a minute or two, a tousle-headed grumpy-faced prat joins him, speechless, clad only in boxers and boots, gazing round and about.
The newly-rising sun is still shy, behind the horizon, inland, but it stains puffs of cloud above their heads in dizzying shades of lurid orange and pink. Yesterday’s lowering clouds have lifted, and the shimmering loch echoes their display, so that it stretches in a line of fire towards the distant ocean. And all about them tower extraordinary shapes: the lonely mountains of Inverpolaidh, finally revealing themselves, loom and frown down on them like sentinels, while the loch sparkles in the dazzling pink light of the sun.
Merlin doesn’t know which mountain is which, and later he will check, poring over the Ordnance Survey map, pointing out the features and trying to pronounce their unfamiliar names: Stac Polaidh, Suilven, Cul Beag, Canisp, Quinag, Coigach. But for now he gazes at them, rapt: their dark, striated flanks, starkly rising from the plain below, the golden reflections of the sky in the loch at their feet, the gleaming white peaks, flushed pink with the dawn.
Hearing the haunting cry of an early-morning oyster-catcher, Merlin points when he sees it, skimming lightly across the loch, darting here and there, wing tips inches from the lapping ripples but never once dipping under.
Transfixed, they stare in awe, without speaking, until Merlin starts to shiver, and Arthur enfolds him once more in a protective embrace, nuzzling at his neck. Still silent, Merlin slides his hand down Arthur’s back, flattening the goose-bumps along Arthur’s nape, pulling him in to kiss, imagining how they look together, small and near-naked, pale and trembling in this ancient, vast, dawn landscape. Their breath coalesces in misty wraiths and then is gone, swallowed up by the air, a part of them that is forever joined together, here in this magical place.
That’s when Merlin remembers that he really has to piss.
While he relieves himself, he hears a “click” and turns to find Arthur, eyes dancing with devilment, snapping pictures of him in flagrante delicto behind the camp flag. He flashes Arthur a V-sign. Then, tucking himself back in to his boxers with a frown, he starts after Arthur, who runs off with the camera, crowing in delight.
“Give me that, Poshpants, you bastard, there’s no way you’re showing that picture to Gwen!” says Merlin, leaping over a guy rope and coming within a whisker of snatching the camera from Arthur before the posh git manages to evade him with a neat little dodge. Merlin trips on the untied lace of his walking boot and falls, landing with a squelch into a soft pile of freezing, boggy mud, and finds himself coated with dark sludge-brown, cold, wet peat.
“Buggering blast!” he howls, torn between laughter and chagrin, “holy shitting bastarding fuck, you absolute sod!”
Arthur just doubles over in laughter while he takes more shots of Merlin’s peat-stained torso.
They go back into the tent, and Merlin wipes himself down as best he can with his soiled pants, by which time they’re both freezing cold again. Laughing, they get back into the sleeping bag, flushed pink and exhilarated. This time it’s Arthur that breaks off their open-mouthed kiss to duck down inside the joined-together sleeping bags. It’s Arthur who sheaths Merlin’s half-hard prick with his mouth, so that Merlin moans and gasps with the heat of it, breathlessly murmuring Arthur’s name as he cards his hands through his hair and lets his legs fall wider open, as wide as he can in the restricted space.
Merlin can feel heat spreading across his skin, his hips wanting to rut against Arthur’s weight, but Arthur’s pinning him down against the bedroll. His tongue is working against Merlin’s glans, and Merlin’s so overwhelmed with the sensation, Arthur’s tongue rough on his smooth dick, that he feels his toes curl and he digs them hard into the soft fabric of the sleeping bag.
It’s Arthur who digs out a condom and lube from the first-aid kit. It's Arthur who places it between his teeth and unsheaths it slowly as his mouth glides down Merlin’s prick. It's Arthur who, holding Merlin’s gaze for a moment, reaches behind himself, lids flittering closed at the moment when he breaches himself with his lube-coated fingers. When he lowers himself down onto Merlin with a groan, it makes Merlin gasp out a breath, unaware until that moment that he’d been holding it.
And it’s all messy and frantic, and Arthur somehow manages to come first, which means Merlin has to pull out because he doesn’t want Arthur to get uncomfortable from the overstimulation. So Merlin tugs himself off and shoots in great spurts onto Arthur’s naked torso, and then, giggling like a loon, cleans it up with the by now utterly irretrievably filthy boxer shorts.
Laughing, Arthur tugs him down and buries them both in slightly damp sleeping bags. They agree that it’s ridiculous, unskilful and desperate, but it’s still sodding amazing, and Merlin feels more comfortable than he’d ever felt possible huddling under the covers waiting for the frost to melt outside.
Afterwards, Merlin ends up wearing a brand new pair of Arthur’s extremely posh, £60 silk boxers, emblazoned with the Pendragon logo, and, he thinks to himself as he feels the smooth way they glide across his skin, he’s not sure he ever wants to wear anything else.
It takes them about an hour and a half to sterilise and boil up enough water to make a cup of tea and some hot supernoodles that morning, mainly because Arthur keeps distracting Merlin with sneaky kisses and candid photographs while Merlin’s trying to work out how to operate the camp stove.
But when they sit there, now well dressed in warm kit from Arthur’s backpack, hands loosely entwined, gazing out across the loch, Merlin can’t help thinking that he feels more at peace than he has for many months. There’s a list of things they’ve got to try to photograph themselves doing, but, rather than explore the landscape, enticing though it is, Merlin’s quite happy to forgo these tasks in favour of some mutually satisfactory private exploration with Arthur in the tent.
Unfortunately old Poshpants, as well as having admittedly superb taste in underpants, is nothing if not competitive, and has already planned the whole day out, minute by minute, leaving precious little time aside for Merlin to investigate how that posh mouth looks and feel in a variety of interesting settings. It doesn’t stop him trying, though.
“We’ll set out from here at 7,” Arthur says, licking instant soup from his chapped lips. “We’ve got to climb up Stac Polaidh today.” He points to the nearest peak, which rises steeply from the loch. It has hunched shoulders, like Quasimodo, and jagged lumps of rock adorn its long, ridge-like top. “We’ll need a photo from the top. We can munch some bread and trailbars while we’re up there, and then we can come back down here and catch some fish for our supper.”
Merlin nods, and looks at his watch. Hmm. They’re leaving at 7am. It’s not even 6 yet. That gives them a whole hour to kill. He looks back at Arthur with a hopeful expression on his face, trails a fingernail along the inside of Arthur’s wrist. There’s not enough of Arthur’s skin on display out here; he needs to get him back into the tent.
Gwen’s tapping her clipboard and humming to herself when the final stragglers come in. She’s not surprised to see that the last two are Merlin and Arthur. She peeps at them from under her lashes, gratified to see that the permanent scowl that used to grace Merlin’s face has lifted and been replaced by an air of surprised contentment. She hides a smirk when she sees the back of Arthur’s hand graze nonchalantly against Merlin’s fingers while they walk.
You see, Gwen was not appointed HR director because of any lack at skills in reading people – quite the reverse.
The two of them are bickering amicably as they come up to her with their camera and kit bags.
“For heaven’s sake, stop moaning and take the damn thing off. It’s no good standing there like some kind of outward-bound mud turtle,” Arthur’s saying as he fusses round Merlin, adjusting straps until the heavy back pack falls to the ground with a thud.
“Your face is a mud turtle,” says Merlin, a faint grin tugging at his mouth, letting Arthur tug the end of his sleeve so he can wriggle out of his waterproof jacket.
Arthur punches him gently on the upper arm, and he mock-staggers backwards. “Oh ha bloody ha. Change the record, Merlin, this one is stuck.”
Aha. So he’s Merlin, now, not Marvin. Interesting.
Gwen hates to interrupt their flirting, but she’s dying to find out whether her scheme has worked or not. “How did you get on then?” she says. As if she couldn’t work it out, with the faintest hint of a suspicious-looking bruise blooming just above the scarf Merlin’s wearing, which, if she isn’t very much mistaken, is actually Arthur’s.
“Fine, thanks, Gwen,” says Arthur, grinning. “It turns out that Merlin’s here’s not completely incompetent after all. He has many hidden talents I didn’t previously appreciate.”
Arthur nudges Merlin, and it’s impossible to ignore the blush that spreads across Merlin’s features from his recently savaged neck to the tips of his ears, but Gwen does her very best to stifle her chuckle.
“Erm. Yeah. I was right about Arthur, though,” Merlin says.
Aha, aha, aha!
So it’s Arthur, now. Not Poshpants. She fights down her rising sense of triumph, and resists the urge to pump her fist and yell “YES!!!” to the heavens.
“Um. In what way?” says Gwen, voice squeaking a bit with the whole adorableness of it all.
Merlin flashes Arthur a wide-beam, mischievous smile that crinkles his eyes in a spectacular, sparkly blue supernova of happiness. Swallowing at this arresting sight, Arthur doesn’t look like he can actually speak at all. In fact Gwen thinks he staggers a bit under its force, and who can blame him. Being on the receiving name of such a powerful overdose of joy would be too much for anybody.
“His pants,” says Merlin, in an approving tone. “They are, as predicted, very, very posh.”
“They are.” Arthur nods. Their heads swivel towards one another and for a moment she thinks—hopes—they’re going to kiss, but instead they exchange conspiratorial grins, and bump shoulders.
Yes, the weekend has been a spectacular success, she thinks to herself.
The office atmosphere has been beyond tense for the last several months. Merlin has been flashing Arthur smouldering looks, when he thinks no-one's looking, as if he can burn Arthur’s trousers off with the power of his mind alone.
As for Arthur—well, it’s not like he’d put up with anyone else calling him Poshpants all the time. And if Arthur thinks she hasn't noticed that his ability to use a computer suddenly disappeared shortly after Merlin joined the company, and that his name has been permanently at the top of the daily queue for IT support ever since, well, he’s being a bit dense. It’s not like people can’t see the predatory way that Arthur’s watches Merlin’s arse bobbing up and down while he crawls around under Arthur’s desk reconnecting mysteriously loose power cables.
All that unresolved sexual tension has been driving her bonkers. Oh yes, it’s about time those two sorted it out.
Humming happily to herself, she flips the paper over on her clipboard with a flourish, and ticks the final box.
Job done, she thinks.
“All right, people, pipe down!” yells Gwen, “it’s time to look at the spectacular works of art you managed to create during your team-building this weekend.”
They’re back at the outdoor centre. Everyone has partaken liberally of the extremely well-stocked Single Malt Whiskey shelf at the Inchnadamph Hotel, and, thus refreshed, they examine the treasure-hunt photographs.
“First,” Gwen says, “The only team who managed to fill the whole bingo board, and bag two peaks rather than the required one. Congratulations to Elena and Percival, you win a bottle of 12-year old Glenmorangie!”
There are whoops and caterwauls as the presentation loops through all their photos. Elena and Percival managed to climb up both Stac Polaidh and Suilven, as well as completing every other task, and therefore thoroughly deserve the honour, although Arthur still scowls furiously and mutters darkly about people changing the goalposts.
“Second. The best wildlife photo. This one goes to Leon and Gwaine. God knows how you managed to find a sea-otter eating a fish. Leon, jolly well done. It looks amazing.”
“Gwaine can’t have had anything to do with it, his hair would scare the Loch Ness Monster away,” yells Percival.
“Your face would scare the Loch Ness Monster away,” Gwaine yells in response, and the room erupts in abusive heckling.
“Shhh!” Gwen rattles her glass with a spoon. “Shut up, you lot!”
Merlin can sense Arthur getting more and more irate as the prizewinners are announced, because his team are not among them. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew get increasingly jovial as the single malt whiskey gets passed around.
“And finally,” says Gwen, silencing them all with a look. “And finally, last but not least, the team with the best flag photo. This goes to Arthur and Merlin.” Arthur punches the air.
But instead of the picture of the two of them grinning through the mist under an upside-down Pendragon flag, Gwen reveals a rather more intriguing shot, taken in stunning dawn light from the rear, of Merlin, twixt flag and tent. He’s clad only in a pair of boxer shorts and a pair of walking boots. One hand is hidden, but it’s clear what he’s doing, because a golden, steaming arc of piss is not entirely concealed by his torso. His free arm extends behind him to flash a “V” sign at the photographer, while the lonely, pink-stained mountains of Assynt gaze almost fondly down upon him.
There’s a wolf-whistle that Merlin thinks might have come from Gwaine, and he blushes to his toenails, because when a voice pipes up “aren’t those Arthur’s pants?” the whole audience erupts in cheers and catcalls.
Sure enough, there’s a dragon emblazoned upon the arse of the very posh-looking scarlet silk pants that Merlin’s wearing in the picture, and from this angle it looks like it is grinning.