A lasagne and a pint down, Arthur sat waiting for what currently amounted to the only women in his life - his adopted sister, Morgana and her girlfriend, Gwen. He pulled off his tie, shoved it in his coat pocket and undid his top button. None of it relieved the chafe of being suited and booted in the midst of skinny jeans and tassled neck scarves.
The pub was sickeningly trendy: faux this, faux that, all tat and plastic. There was pop music blaring from a retro jukebox, and for some reason which belied the rest of the furnishing, two pool tables and a darts board at the far end of the bar. It wasn't the kind of place he'd choose to spend his Friday night but Morgana had insisted, "I have someone I want you to meet."
He'd complained, "If you're going to try to pair me up with someone completely unsuitable at least make sure she's going to look half-way decent with her lips wrapped round my cock."
Gwen had sniggered. Morgana had wrinkled up her face in disgust. Yet they were undeterred. Arthur would have point-blank refused to meet with them, but they hadn't explicitly said this was a blind date. They'd just said that they had a friend that they wanted to introduce to Arthur. She and Gwen had been trying to fix him up, ever since Sophia had screwed him over, torn out his heart and trampled on it for good measure. It was getting tiresome. Not content to poke their well-meaning noses into his love-life they now felt they had to take control of it, too.
"You'd be doing me a favour," Morgana had coaxed. The words had stuck, since he and Morgana didn't deal in favours, not with each other. They'd always looked out for one another, had always been there with tender care and brutal honesty, so the fact she was literally wooing him into this meeting was enough to peak his curiosity.
Oh and lo, there they were, Morgana and Gwen nudging their way past the crowd near the bar. Gwen looked pretty; her hair piled up high with lots of loose curls dropping down about her face. Morgana was wearing that hideous red velvet coat that she got from the Oxfam shop behind Oxford Street last month. She was striking, as always, with her new short bob and cherry lips: one of those women who could turn heads no matter what she wore.
As Arthur's eyes scanned past them, looking for whoever it was they'd brought, he noticed, right behind Morgana was a man: a skinny, pasty, mop-headed, jug-eared man. Well, at least this wasn't a fix up. Or had Morgana outdone herself this time?
"Hi, darling," she said, with a perfunctory kiss, kiss.
Gwen said, "Arthur, this is Merlin. He's renting out the spare room."
Time momentarily halted as the weight of the words sunk in. They'd rented out the spare room. Arthur choked back the urge to protest: you rented out my room? Right then and there, that was all he needed to hear to know that he did not like Merlin. That room-stealing scruff-bag had ruined everything.
He held out his hand and shook Merlin's very firmly. It was long and slender but his return was unexpectedly forthright for someone who looked so insipid. "What kind of a name is that?" Arthur said with a sneer. Merlin smiled at him, unguarded and luminous about the eyes and all Arthur could think was could he be any more annoying?
"Don't be so rude," Morgana snapped. "Don't mind him, Merlin - he's just being a sourpuss."
"It's alright. My mum was a bit of a hippy. It's a kind of bird." He spoke gently, smoothly, still smiling radiant and genuine. He didn't seem the slightest bit intimidated. Arthur could only conclude he must be a complete idiot.
Since Arthur's evening had clearly gone to shit he didn't see why he should let this Merlin person off the hook, considering it was his doing: him and his wretched sister. There was so much piss-taking fodder here he didn't know where to start. Merlin would succumb to it eventually. Arthur replied curtly, "That figures. It's still a ridiculous name."
Merlin raised his eyebrows, his eyes lit with mischief. "Morgana warned me about you. She said your bark's worse than your bite, but you know, looking at those teeth of yours, I'm not sure I agree."
Arthur felt the blush rise as his blood boiled up under his skin. He wanted to snap back with a retort about Merlin's ears but the moment passed too quickly. Realising that he was standing dumbstruck and gaping, Arthur abruptly sat down in an attempt at being aloof, because he really didn't care, and took a large mouthful of beer.
Morgana sucked in her cheeks and could barely stifle her amusement. "I love it. You've met your match, Arthur. This could be the start of something beautiful."
Gwen seemed to find this excessively hilarious, like it was a joke he wasn't in on, and as they sat down opposite Arthur around the table he wondered why on Earth Morgana had even asked him to be here.
The three of them chatted and laughed as if they'd known each other forever. A round of drinks later and Arthur was looking at his watch and feeling decidedly like an outsider. This wasn't a new feeling for him with other people but Morgana, and Gwen, were his family. They looked out for him, were there for him. They'd held his head over the toilet bowl when he drank too much, had covered for him when he'd failed to turn up to one of Uther's stupid luncheons. They were his, not Merlin's - that scraggy interloper.
But what hurt the most, watching them talking and laughing so easily with Merlin, was that it was no effort to see why they liked him. He listened intently and laughed in all the right places, his dress sense was as outrageous as Morgana's and he drank the same beer as Gwen. In all probability, Merlin liked curry and chick-flicks, and Saturday nights in with Morgana and Gwen were going to be exactly his cup of tea. Arthur tried not to dwell on it; after all there would still be room on the sofa for him. He'd just have to drive back to his flat afterwards. It wasn't a big deal.
After patiently waiting for all of twenty minutes or so and trying not to sound petulant, Arthur rolled his eyes as he butted into yet another of Merlin's enchanting stories about the piss-hole village where he grew up. "So remind me, Morgana, why am I here?"
She looked daggers. "Merlin's looking for a temporary job. He's just got back from travelling and I thought you might be able to put in a word with Uther at the firm?"
"We're not employing comedians right now, but you could always try out at The Comedy Store. That is, unless you have some other well-hidden talent that might make you marginally more employable." Normally by now, Arthur would just be getting warmed up. He'd have an armoury of questions, laced with subtle derision, all lined up like a quiver full of arrows ready to fire one after the other at his intended victim. It had got him a long way in business, especially in pricing negotiations. But it was Friday night, he was tired and if this Merlin character didn't show any signs of retaliation he was ready to grant him a temporary ceasefire.
Without a hint of irritation, Merlin replied, "I graduated in Mathematics and Computer Science. I'm applying to start a PhD in the autumn, but I need to earn some money over the next six months to tide me over. I was thinking about free-lancing but I don't really know where to begin."
"You … a geek? That says it all. I hope for your sake you're good."
"First class degree from Cambridge. I've already had an offer for a doctorate at Durham."
Arthur hadn't been caught off-guard, nor was he intrigued. It was, however, maybe time to slow down on the beer so he could keep his wit sharp. He sat forward and fixed Merlin with a serious glare, ready to strike his next blow. "So how do you think you could benefit Pendragon Industries?"
"Not fair, Arthur," Morgana interjected. "This is not an interview."
"Well, I assume they have computers at your firm?" Merlin was completely unruffled. "And an IT department? That's generally where they send the computer geeks."
Arthur had to give it to him: Merlin would not be baited, bullied or intimidated, even by the likes of Arthur Pendragon. He was either incapable of understanding the basics of body language and communication or … he had serious balls.
Arthur groaned, as if this was going to be an absolute chore. "Okay. I'll see what I can do."
They all thanked him. Gwen pulled him in for a hug and Morgana planted a kiss on his cheek. Only at that point was Merlin more hesitant. He started to stand up, whether to reach for Arthur's hand or offer him a hug, he couldn't be sure. In any case, he did neither. He sat back down nodding shyly, and offered to buy another round.
Gwen suggested they had a game of pool. "Girls against boys?"
Arthur eyed Merlin suspiciously. He'd almost tripped over twice on their way in, which Arthur put down to an untied shoelace, and had already spilt half a bag of salt and vinegar crisps over the table. He might be brain of Britain but he barely possessed the coordination to dress and feed himself.
"You any good?" Merlin asked. "You probably are, right?"
"Not bad," Arthur lied. He'd wasted many an afternoon playing pool when he should have been working out or studying and Morgana had often been his partner in crime. When he was a student they'd even had their own cues behind the bar at their local. Both of them were good and they knew it.
Morgana and Gwen always made a mean tag team. Arthur hated to lose, but he looked over at Merlin, who was in the midst of knocking over the entire rack of cue sticks, and resigned himself to the inevitable.
The boys won the toss and Arthur broke off. He got lucky and potted a stripe then he missed the next and handed over to Morgana who potted two spots before accidentally potting the white ball.
It was Merlin's turn. He had height and he was long and lean; he should have had some advantage playing the long shot down the table. There was a gift of an orange ball almost over the pocket; as long as he made contact, it should go down it easily. He crouched, lined up the white, grinned and said to Arthur, "It's all a matter of angles and physics. I'm good with those." Then he leaned in, pulled his elbow back and sharply pushed the cue forward with a noisy thwack. The white ball hurtled and stuttered along the table, bounced over the edge and off into the crowd, narrowly missing someone's head. "Oops." He stood up and chalked his cue nervously while Morgana went to retrieve the escaped cue ball. With a look of apology he said, "I was a bit nervous. But I get a second shot, right?"
Gwen was doubled over, laughing hysterically, but she managed to draw a breath long enough to speak and said, "No! You forfeited your right to that when your ball went AWOL."
Arthur slumped down on a stool. That was so resoundingly awful he should have found it funny, but he didn't feel much like laughing. He'd secretly been hoping they were going to go back to Morgana and Gwen's after this but that wasn't going to happen now. They hadn't even told him about Merlin before tonight. He fleetingly wondered what they'd done with the small pile of clothes he had stashed at their place.
Unsurprisingly, the girls wiped the floor with them, aided and abetted by Merlin's spectacular ineptitude. As Morgana potted black, Merlin piped up, "Anyone for darts?"
"No!" The response was unanimous.
The four of them were sitting, enjoying another round when Merlin said to Arthur, "Let me show you a trick?"
"Go on then," Arthur said tightly.
As he sat there, tense and crabby, watching Merlin, he was struck by how easy he seemed in his body. He was gangly and uncoordinated, no doubt about that, but as he leant back on the chair everything about him was open, unguarded: his posture, his face and the way he spoke. His manner was completely different to any of the men Arthur knew, and he found it unexpectedly welcome, like the first time he'd reluctantly tried iced coffee (coffee is meant to be hot, Morgana, and served in a tiny cup with an Amaretti biscuit).
No, it wasn't going to be easy disliking Merlin. He was about as unlikeable as a light summer breeze. If the truth be told, the only legitimate reason he had to dislike him was the fact he was now permanently resident with Morgana and Gwen, thus depriving Arthur of a place to stay on weekends when he was all alone and the walls of his luxury flat echoed around him, mocking his inability to fill it with anything that made him happy. The self-same flat he was now going to have to go back to tonight.
"You still with us, Arthur?" Merlin reached over and pushed at Arthur's arm.
"Yes, yes. That last beer's gone to my head, I think." He tried to smile through it - the bitter ache that had started to build in his chest.
"Okay, think of a number between one and twenty and write it down on this paper. I'll see if I can guess what you wrote."
"This is the level of skill required for a first from Cambridge?"
"No, this has nothing to do with Cambridge. This is telepathy ... or maybe it's magic ... or maybe I'm psychic!" Merlin looked and sounded quite cheerfully drunk, as he wobbled and leant over precariously close to Arthur from across the table.
"Oh for fuck's sakes; to think I could be home having a wank right now."
Merlin blushed. He blushed from his neck up to his cheeks and Arthur couldn't help but find that the funniest thing he'd seen all night, as he'd unsuccessfully tried to one-up Merlin and failed and all he'd had to do was mention wanking to get him flustered. Arthur could finally enjoy a glimmer of satisfaction, even if in his head he'd already declared a temporary truce with the room-stealer.
He wrote on his scrap of paper, folded it neatly and handed it to Gwen, who hid it dramatically inside her bra. That was unnecessary. Was there no limit to the amount of showing off these two would do for Merlin? "What do you think? What number?" Gwen said excitedly.
Merlin simply replied, "One."
Arthur was loathed to admit he had indeed written down 'one', especially since Gwen was theatrically removing the paper from her underwear and waving it around as if the whole pub wanted to see. "He's right, he's right!" she exclaimed.
Arthur watched him, embittered. Merlin seemed completely disinterested in Gwen fondling her own breast in public; he'd barely glanced at her. He stored that information in the neatly catalogued annals of his brain for later reference, despite having no idea what for. He was already resigned to defeat. "Okay, how did you do it?"
"It's the number of choice for today's young egotist. Of course you picked number one."
And there they were, all laughing at his expense again. If only they knew how alone he felt at that moment, that he always felt alone, even in a crowded room. He'd had enough. There wasn't going to be a movie night, not tomorrow tonight, not any night. And he'd be buggered if he was going to go over and help Gwen with the tiling over the weekend. Let the new man about the house do it.
"I'm going." Arthur drained his glass and cleared his throat. "I'll talk to Personnel on Monday; see if they can use you for anything, Merlin."
After that he didn't waste any time gathering up his coat and heading straight for the exit. As he got out into the chill of the night street, sucking in a sharp breath, he tried to decide on whether he would splash out on a taxi or get the tube. While he was vacillating, Gwen had followed him out and caught him by the elbow.
"Arthur, I'm sorry. I told Morgana we should have told you about Merlin before tonight, but she said she'd let you know we were looking for a lodger."
"You were under no obligation to tell me. Why should I care?"
"Because you've spent more weekends in our spare room, than you have in your own flat over the last six months." She stepped in close and put her arms about his waist, looking up at him tenderly. "You know what she's like Arthur. She's just worried you aren't trying to move on after Sophia."
The mere mention of her name made Arthur bristle. He had moved on. He didn't have any feelings for her except disdain, he had no desire to see her again and if he did bump into her he would be able to be civil and not give in to the urge to give her money-grabbing, deceitful little personage a piece of his mind. He had moved on. Now he was single and was quite happy to stay that way indefinitely. This wasn't about Sophia, it was about his flat and he didn't even know why he hated it. He'd hated it before Sophia; he just hated it even more now. It was pathetic. He knew it, but he hadn't expected to have to deal with it yet.
"I have to go," Arthur choked out. He kissed Gwen on the top of her head, just as Morgana and Merlin trailed out of the pub.
As he let Gwen go, Morgana stepped forward and hugged and kissed him before asking, "Are you still coming over tomorrow?" She squeezed him harder and added, "Please. We really need to get the bathroom finished and with you and Gwen tiling together you'll be done in a day."
"Alright," Arthur said resentfully. He was about to push off down the street when he noticed Merlin swaying in front of him awkwardly. Suddenly he bumped into Arthur, steadied himself by grabbing his shoulder and whispered softly in his ear, his breath thick with beer, "I didn't mean to piss you off. I think I overdid it when Morgana said 'don't let him intimidate you'. We're gonna be friends, right?"
Arthur snapped back, "Yeah, Merlin … whatever you say." Then he pushed him away and turned to walk towards the blur of the tube station without looking back.
Underground, under the allocated parking places for Arthur's block of flats, there was an entire floor of lock-ups for the residents. Arthur kept all his bigger tools down there. Unbeknownst to his father, Uther, who would probably have said Arthur's time would be more profitably spent on business, Arthur was skilled in all manner of construction work. If he'd had a choice, he would probably have chosen to work with his hands. There was money to be made in it and he'd been allowing the idea to settle and solidify that maybe, if he could find reliable and skilled craftsmen, he would someday set up his own construction company. In the meantime, he'd taught himself the basics by helping Morgana and Gwen and his friend Leon and taking on projects in his own flat.
There was something satisfying about being able to touch and see the fruits of your labour, to be able to say that's my work. It was easy to pick up the phone, give someone else instructions and pay them a cheque. It worked for most people. Arthur had that Pendragon pernickety streak though, and the few times he'd got someone in he'd been left wishing he'd done the job himself, because he would have done it properly.
He'd managed to load up the car, run to B&Q for some extra grout, grab some breakfast at a greasy spoon and park right outside Gwen and Morgana's before nine. He was hoping he would wake them all up.
Arthur had always had a key to Morgana's flat, in case of emergencies, just as she had keys to his flat. Nonetheless, they always knocked. Except today Arthur had a bagful of grout on his arm and didn't want to wait for someone to run down the stairs for him, so he let himself in. As he came up the stairs and onto the landing he could see no one was up. The curtains were drawn, casting a hazy burgundy glow through the hallway from the living room and the dust drifted lazily undisturbed in the still air of a sleepy Saturday morning.
"Hello. I'm here!" Arthur shouted, roughly dumping the grout down on the kitchen counter, sending an angry puff of grey powder up into the air. Then he put on the kettle and headed back out to the car for his tools, banging the door on his way out.
By the time Arthur came back up, only the door to his old room was open and Merlin was standing in the kitchen, pink and sleep-creased, his raven hair a skyward mess. He looked somewhat dazed as he looked up at Arthur through his heavy lashes and said amiably, "Oh, hi. Do you want tea or coffee?"
Arthur leaned back against the counter and tried to look relaxed. "Tea: strong, white, no sugar."
"That figures," Merlin smirked sleepily.
Arthur's eyes were drawn down to Merlin's t-shirt which said 'Hell Down South, 2008'. He had a couple of old college friends who used to do that run. It was ten miles of gruelling cross-country across the hills of the South Downs in the cold and wet of November. Merlin looked like he might pass out running for a bus; there was no way he was a distance runner, even built like he was.
"Did you do that run or did someone give you the t-shirt?"
"What's that matter; worried you might be not be able to outrun me?"
Arthur rolled his eyes. "No. It's just I can't imagine you being able to find your way from the car park to the start of the course, let alone finish it."
"Well, I did. Just. I'll never do it again, though, since it was, you know, hell."
He handed Arthur his tea, which was strong enough to stand a spoon in it. Arthur couldn't stop the beginnings of a smile. Merlin might be a clumsy urchin but he knew how to handle a tea-bag.
They stood quietly regarding each other for a long moment, holding their mugs like shields, until Merlin retired his to the counter. He yawned and stretched, revealing the slender expanse of his stomach and the dip and curve of his hip bones; his pyjama trousers slung too obscenely low. Arthur tried not to stare, but he couldn't help himself. The hot mug resting on his lip scalded. Still, he took a hasty sip before saying, "If you want to have a shower you ought to do it now. I want to get started on this tiling."
"Okay. Thanks. By the way, I left your clothes in the bottom of the chest of drawers. I haven't got much stuff, so there was plenty of room. Also, Gwen told me you used to stay over here quite a bit. If you ever want to, at the weekends, I'll take the sofa." Merlin drained his cup and looked at Arthur expectantly. The olive branch was practically growing out of his hand.
"I have a perfectly good bed of my own fifteen minutes drive from here. But I'll bear that in mind." He looked at the floor between them as he added quietly, "Thanks, though."
Merlin manoeuvred past Arthur to put his cup in the sink and Arthur could almost feel the just-from-sleep warmth of him. He looked less gangly and awkward and more pliant than last night and Arthur had to fight back the impulse to give him a push, just a small one, to see if he would crumple or fold, bounce back or stand his ground. It was a surprise then, just as he was resisting, that Merlin should squeeze his bicep as he went by and whisper playfully, "Strong, white, no sugar."
As Merlin disappeared into the bathroom Arthur's jaw dropped open, his lips still burning.
Morgana and Gwen emerged simultaneously, transforming the initial stillness of the flat into a breeze of scantily clad bodies, tea and toast. After that, there was setting up the tools, laying down dust sheets and finding a good radio station.
Merlin was being sent out by Morgana with a list of shopping and Arthur couldn't resist the opportunity to have a jab. He leaned out of the bathroom door and said, "She's a bit of a princess, Merlin. I'd watch it if I were you. Before you know it you'll end up being her personal manservant."
"Like you, you mean?" Merlin winked as he skipped out, orange-striped shopping bag slung shamelessly over his shoulder.
If he wasn't mistaken, Morgana and Gwen were giggling in the kitchen. Arthur shouted loud enough for them to hear, "Ha bloody ha. Where did you find him, Morgana?"
"Sale rail at Oxfam."
"Why am I not even the slightest bit surprised?" She came into the bathroom bearing tea. Arthur continued, "Come cheap, did he?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
"No, not really." Arthur turned to the wall and quickly set about tacking in plumb lines. He thought about opening the window. Tiling was hot work.
The day passed quickly with Gwen and Arthur cutting, snapping, lining up and sticking tile. Morgana supplied tea and squeals of encouragement.
Merlin was in and out, missing out on the pasties and cream cakes he'd brought them back for their lunch. But Arthur refrained from talking about him or asking where he was going or generally giving any indication he had even the remotest interest in his existence - because he didn't.
They were nearly done when Morgana came in and perched on the edge of the bath. "Thank you. It's going to look beautiful. You both make a great team."
"Once the grout goes in, you'll really see how nice it looks. It'll need to dry off, so no baths or showers until after tomorrow."
"That's all right. We won't die having a wash from the sink for one day." She paused then took a tentative pull at Arthur's t-shirt sleeve. "Which are you more upset about? That I rented out the spare room, or the possibility I was right and you need to start getting your life back?"
Arthur looked away. "I'm not upset."
"Then please stop taking it out on Merlin. He's paying us money we need for Gwen to go back to college and he's really very nice. I know deep down you like him, which is why you're acting like a prat around him."
"He's a big boy Morgana. If he can't take it then he can tell me himself. And I'd appreciate if you'd stop second-guessing the reason for everything I say and do. I'm perfectly fine and I don't need you deciding what I do and don't need."
"Darling, it's called tough love."
"Don't you dare lecture me about tough love!" That was a nerve she shouldn't have touched. Of all the things she could have said to him; she more than anyone knew Arthur was fully acquainted with the meaning of tough love. It was the one thing his father had had no compunction teaching him. He swallowed hard, forcing down painful memories of cold, hard stares and hugs not given. It didn't help. He threw down the dirty cloth he was holding, washed his hands in the sink, gathered up his tools and made to leave just as Gwen was coming back with mugs of tea. He pushed past her and grabbed his jacket from the back of the sofa.
"Oh Morgana, what have you said to him now?"
"What makes you think this is me?"
"Who else would it be? You're handling this with the sensitivity of a flying brick. Arthur, don't go. We were going to get a curry, watch a film. You know, the usual."
"Do it with Merlin. I doubt he's got anything better to do."
"We want you here; don't we, Morgana?"
He turned to see Morgana, chest and neck blotched pink. She set her jaw defiantly as she sniped, "Actually no, it's about time Arthur went out with his own friends and stopped using us as an emotional prop."
Arthur punched the living room door before making his descent. He had to grab a steadying hold of the banister as he stumbled and almost fell. Rubbing his forearm across his face, he cursed the tile adhesive for always fucking up his eyes. Their raised voices could be heard all the way down the stairs, and even as he slammed the front door. Now he'd caused a fight between them, too. Nice going.
Arthur sat in the car a minute, heaving in deep breaths until he was calm enough to drive. He hadn't been seeing much of his old friends since Sophia; that was true. It wasn't that they'd had anything to do with it, more that he didn't feel like being part of that scene anymore, that scene that she'd been a part of, too. Their weekends had been dominated by nightclubs where skinny women lived off a steady diet of coke and champagne. Most of them were (aspiring) models or actresses. As for the men - they flashed their platinum cards more often than their smiles, and got their dicks out in the toilets but not just to take a piss. If they didn't go out every Saturday night, if they weren't seen, Sophia would throw a fit, would sulk and pout and tell Arthur he was an old man, would cajole him with lewd offers that after a while he was reluctant to admit weren't half as enticing as she thought they were.
He wondered what was wrong with him. Did he even know how to be happy? It seemed happiness was the one club he'd never been able to get into, didn't even know how to find it. It had plagued him, these last six months, the things Sophia had said in anger as she scooped up the last of the few things she'd kept at his flat. "I thought you'd be more fun, but you're just a bore. Everything about you is boring. God knows I tried with you, Arthur … thought there must be some hidden depths just waiting to be coaxed out by the right person. But I was wrong. What you see is what you get, pretty packaging and that's all."
Arthur thought about phoning Leon, his mainstay, but now he was all loved up with Sarah, Arthur felt like he had to give him notice. Saturday was their night anyway.
Fuck it. He was going home for a shower then he'd give Perry a call. The guy was a party animal and while Arthur didn't really like the club scene, right now he had plenty of energy going spare. He was in the mood for getting wasted.
Monday morning Arthur went to Personnel with no success, so he decided to go directly to his father. Things didn't work out quite the way he'd planned though, as Uther saw it as an invitation for a liquid lunch and Arthur was still feeling delicate after his Saturday night binge. Worse still, the message from Uther was loud and clear. The economy was in downturn, they had to cut back: no hiring, even for friends.
Arthur was more rueful than he'd expected. He wasn't sure whether that was because he saw it as a failure on his part or whether he was worried Morgana or Merlin would think less of him. Neither made much sense. Why should he care at all? If Merlin couldn't pay Morgana rent, he'd have to move out and Arthur would get his crash-pad back. Things would go back to how they were before. Which was what he wanted, wasn't it? Except Morgana said they needed the money and she wouldn't take hand-outs and Merlin needed a job and a roof over his head and Arthur already had his own flat and didn't need to keep staying over at Morgana's. If he found Merlin a job everyone would be happy, right?
Arthur's head hurt. He slumped forward and tried massaging his temples. But the ache was everywhere, not just behind his eyes. The dull pounding robbed him of clear thought, and his throat was parched.
He reluctantly pushed himself up and headed for the door. It wasn't Lucy's job to make him tea, but she was willing and eager, possibly because she thought kowtowing to the boss' son might go in her favour or maybe she fancied him. Or it was a welcome break from typing or whatever it was she did. He didn't know, he didn't care - he just couldn't face walking down to the kitchen where he might have to be sociable.
She was on the phone and held up her hand with a cheery salmon pink smile. "Got to go, Mum. Speak to you later?"
"I didn't mean to interrupt."
"It's alright, she'll call me back in a couple of hours. You don't look well. Fancy a cuppa?"
"I wouldn't mind, if you're not too busy."
"I was just going to get one for myself." She stood up and smoothed out the pencil skirt that had risen and bunched at her hips. As she tottered down the corridor she turned round and shooed Arthur back to his office. Perhaps his judgement of her was too harsh. She was a nice person.
The afternoon was turning into a dreary exercise in trying to stay awake. He idly swirled a Rich Tea biscuit around in his tea, which Lucy had for once made the way he liked it (industrial strength). The wet half of his biscuit broke off and floated precariously for a few seconds before it started disintegrating. "Great." He tried chasing it, but the tea was too hot and all he got was burnt fingers. Within moments, most of the biscuit had sunk, so if he bothered to drink it now all that soggy mush would be at the bottom of the mug when he got there, taunting him. Typical: the one time she made him tea the way he liked it and he fucked it up.
He pushed the mug to the far side of the desk and opened his internet browser. He'd promised Leon he'd take a look at some kitchen taps. He wondered if Leon might be up for a game of pool this week, maybe even tonight. Then it came to him. Leon. Not that he was keeping a tally, but he was overdue a favour. Arthur was pretty much single-handedly rebuilding his kitchen for him in his spare time and more than once he'd got him prime seats at Twickenham for the Rugby Sevens.
Leon's father owned a number of businesses, always investing in this venture or that, and had his finger in more pies than Tom Horner. He might be able to help Merlin out.
Arthur used his desk phone so he could put it on speaker and talk with his head resting on the desk. He couldn't bear the thought of putting anything that made a noise next to his ear.
"Leon, it's Arthur."
"Arthur! How are you? Still alive? Perry called yesterday, said you were outrageous Saturday night. Coming from him, that's saying something."
Arthur regretfully thought back to The Mermaid, the vodka chasers and a girl called Bunny, who may or may not have been wearing any knickers, at least by the time she'd decided she was most at home on his lap. Arthur hadn't made it home until after four in the morning, a bundle of twenties lighter and drunker than he'd been in months. He'd painted his vomit all over the inside of the toilet bowl but without going over the edges, which was something. Finally, after falling asleep on the bathroom floor for a few hours, he'd crawled into bed and stayed there for the best part of the day.
"Let's just say I overdid it but paid for it Sunday."
"Ouch, hung over?"
"And what about Bunny?"
"What about her? Nothing happened, Leon. She was just one of Perry's friends."
"I know. I met her once. Perry told me she wasn't wearing any knickers. Is that true?"
"I don't know. What a thing to ask me. How on earth should I know?" Arthur was glad Leon couldn't see him blushing. He sat up and scrubbed at his face, which clearly wasn't going to help at all. Bunny may have made a big show of the fact she was open for business, as it were, but that didn't mean Arthur would automatically have partaken, no matter how sexy and beautiful she was, or wasn't, as happened to be the case.
Leon had the audacity to sound surprised. "So you didn't do the dirty?" What had Perry told him?
"No! God, Leon, I was shit-faced. I don't even remember how I got home."
"Well I must say that's a relief, although I didn't really think it was your style. You know Arthur, I'm all for you getting back out and socialising, but I thought you were over all that pretentious crap. I dread to think how much cash you must have parted with."
"It was one night. I just needed to blow off steam. You're beginning to sound like my sister."
"We care about you. You know, you'll meet someone, Arthur. But, please, not someone like Bunny."
"Well, halle-fucking-lujah to that. I'm not desperate and I do have standards, no matter what you or Morgana seem to think. Now, talking of Morgana, I've got a favour to ask you."
"She's gone and got herself a lodger. An unemployed lodger, no less."
Leon bellowed. "That follows." Arthur was glad of the distance between his head and the speaker-phone.
"Well, he's a Cambridge man, first in Maths. I wondered if your old man might have something for him. He only needs something temporary, until he starts a PhD in September."
"We might. You know, Dad's just bought into a joint venture in the City, a small consulting firm. They might need someone temporary until he can get a handle on who he's hiring and firing."
"Well that's more promising than anything I could offer him. Thanks. And listen, do you want me round Friday night? I thought we'd get the last of the cabinets in the kitchen."
"Yes. Please. Before Sarah stops bedroom privileges."
This time it was Arthur's turn to laugh. Poor Leon - Sarah well and truly had him by the balls. "Alright, well you tell her we'll have her kitchen done before Easter. That's a promise."
"Sure thing. Thanks. I'm on the road at the moment but I'll give the old man a buzz and see what he says. Day's end alright?"
"Perfect. I'll speak to you later."
It was barely an hour later when Leon returned Arthur's call to tell him his father would see Merlin Friday morning at the Albany Club. A Cambridge man himself, he was thoroughly impressed with anyone who graduated with a first, in Maths no less, he'd practically told Leon the terms of Merlin's employ.
Arthur was beside himself. He couldn't wait to tell Merlin. In fact, he'd practically forgotten he was trying to get rid of him.
Arthur phoned Merlin right away and tried not to go overboard with his enthusiasm, even if he was feeling rather pleased with himself. Merlin, however, showed no such restraint.
"Really? You did that for me? Thanks!" Arthur could literally feel the blaze of his smile beaming down the optical fibres of the phone line and shooting out the speaker at his end. He couldn't help grinning at the thought of it. Then there was a pause as Merlin added more cautiously, "Ummm, Arthur, I don't have a suit."
Arthur didn't even have to stop to think. "Meet me for lunch tomorrow and I'll take you to a good place in Covent Garden. It's not too expensive, but you'll get something decent that will last you." He cringed at how much he sounded like his father. But he also had to laugh at himself because Merlin was never going to need a suit that lasted. Merlin, the lucky bastard, was never going to have a career that required a suit.
"I can't really afford to go out for lunch, but can I meet you at the shop?"
"Merlin, I'll take you to lunch. After your first pay day you can return the favour."
"Um. Okay then. Are you sure you don't mind?"
"No, I don't mind." Arthur should have anticipated Merlin's suspicion, given the way he'd spoken to him thus far, but it was surprising how much a shitty weekend could change your perspective. Merlin was easy company and Arthur would take any excuse he could get to be able to leave the confines of the office for a couple of hours. "Meet me outside Covent Garden tube station at one."
And like that it was done. It seemed that not only had Arthur more or less secured Merlin a job, he was now taking him to lunch and then shopping, to seal the deal. Anyone would think he wanted him around. A small flutter rose in his stomach, and before he had a chance to process the thought he realised he was still smiling.
Ten minutes later Morgana called.
"You're having lunch with Merlin? That's great, Arthur. Thanks so much for doing this. I know he's a bit provincial but he's very sweet."
"Provincial? Morgana, you are a snob."
"Takes one to know one. And listen, about the weekend …"
"Don't worry about it."
"Come for Sunday lunch this weekend? I'll do roast beef."
"In that case, yes." Morgana's roasts were fit for kings and if ever there was a man who fit the old adage that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach, it was Arthur. "Did Gwen grout the tile?"
"Er, no. She's been over at her Dad's. She did call to say she'll do it after work tonight, though."
Arthur presumed their row must have been a humdinger, but the satisfaction he might have felt didn't materialise. Neither of them deserved any ill will. "Good. Make sure you give it enough time to dry before using the shower. Anyway, I've got to go and get some work done if I'm going to be spending the afternoon shopping tomorrow."
"Arthur, he doesn't have much money. Don't go taking him to Ted Baker or anything, will you? It will only embarrass him."
"No. I won't. You know I had already thought of that. I'm not a complete prat."
"No, not a complete one. Let me know how you get on?" Her voice had softened and like that it was over. No big apology, no big scene. Gwen couldn't stand the way they didn't pour their hearts out about everything.
"We're going shopping for a suit, Morgana. It's not a date."
"I know," she sang down the phone. "Just let me know anyway, alright?"
Morgana loved shopping for clothes. If she possessed any talent for it (she was the only one who truly believed she did) she would have got the job at Harvey Nichols as a personal shopper, instead of behind the Clinique counter. On the other hand, Arthur, while well able to clothe himself with a respectable level of savoir faire, found it tedious. It was therefore lucky for Merlin that Arthur was making this sacrifice for him. He typed into his Blackberry lunch with Merlin then shopping. He blocked out three hours, just to be on the safe side, then thought bugger it and blocked out the whole afternoon.
The next day it was bitterly cold. March was indeed coming in like a lion. Arthur had come from work, so over his suit he was wearing his long wool coat, a scarf and gloves. As he came out of the tube station, Merlin was already there; enveloped in a black parka with his scarf wrapped tightly about his neck. His cheeks were florid and as Arthur approached he could see him shivering. Seeing his sticking-out ears looking bright red, Arthur had the urge to pull up his hood for him. The idea was weirdly affectionate - actually just plain weird. He dismissed it with a shudder, as he touched his own ear. "Did you ever think of getting those pinned back?"
Merlin's smile fell away as fast as it had appeared. He quickly recovered and said, "No, not until now. But with all your money I'm surprised you never had your teeth fixed. You'd be a perfect candidate for Invisalign."
"Touché." Arthur tried laughing it off but unexpectedly found himself having to swallow the feeling he'd just been punched in the gut.
Instead, he sucked his mouth over his teeth and started walking towards the pub, with Merlin falling in step beside him. Before they headed in through the door Merlin caught his arm and said, "Do you mind if we stop this? Only I think I'm going to fare worse in the end."
"Stop what?" Arthur turned to see Merlin looking earnest and fearful.
"The snide digs. I know you're pissed off I'm lodging with your sister and if you've invited me here now to have a go all afternoon … I mean, this isn't all a big joke? There really is an interview, right?"
It was second nature to come back with a retort. He could have told Merlin not to be a girl or he could have made another cruel joke about his ears or how skinny he was. Yes, there were no end of possibilities, but Merlin had put his feelings out there. If Arthur said the wrong thing now he had no doubt in his mind Merlin would turn around and leave, and in that instant Arthur decided he didn't want him to leave. Not because of Morgana or some irrational need to help Merlin out in spite of himself, but because he liked him - skinny arms, big ears, radiant smile and all.
He breathed in sharply. "Alright, no more digs and yes, there is an interview. I promise. All you have to do is turn up and not make an idiot of yourself." Merlin blanched and before Arthur could stop himself he reached out and gave Merlin a nudge. "You'll be fine. Leon is the nicest bloke I know and his Dad's a pushover. Come on, it's freezing out here."
Merlin nodded, looking happier at once, the tension falling from his shoulders as he ducked his way past Arthur and said, "Mine's a pint of bitter."
The lighting inside was dim, the atmosphere cosy, the interior embellished only by a log fire blazing in the corner. After a hearty lunch, Merlin draped himself at the end of a sofa while Arthur buried himself opposite in an armchair. As they drank, Arthur listened to Merlin prattle on about Ealdor, where he grew up with his Mum (no Dad, but no explanation of why) and his best friend Will. Although Arthur was listening intently it was as effortless as breathing – like the soft, steady inhales and exhales that come before drifting off to sleep.
Usually for him, listening involved an active assimilation of facts that he absorbed, stored and organised for later reference. Even bawdy banter with the boys was a competition of wits that always involved thinking one step ahead ready to return fire with the next response. Most of the time, Arthur found it exhausting but it had always been that way - public school boys all vying for the position of top dog, trying desperately to emulate their successful fathers. Presumably, Merlin had never been under such pressure.
When Merlin spoke it was like diffusion. The stories, the facts, the fond remembrances just drifted into Arthur's consciousness like they belonged there. What made this different to when Arthur usually spent time with a new person was the certainty he felt that Merlin was simply sharing; giving something freely that didn't require his approval or reproof.
Every so often Arthur would interject, add a remark or ask a question, but it wasn't necessary or forced. He was more inclined to watch Merlin and take him in. Before now, he had never seen Merlin still, as if his limbs were at the mercy of some external agitation. Arthur considered that might have been because of him but there was no need to regret it, because right now Merlin was quite languid. His long legs were stretched out to the side, his expression soft despite the sharpness of his features. It suited him. So whatever Arthur was doing or not doing at this moment, for once, it was quite possibly right.
Their mood lightened further still during the second pint and Arthur found himself compelled to ask more about this Will character of whom Merlin spoke so fondly.
Leon was Arthur's closest friend and he had as many stories to tell of their escapades, but his feelings for Leon were sharply delineated by the boundaries of long-ingrained propriety. Merlin's boundaries seemed fuzzy at best.
Merlin hardly knew Arthur but he'd had no compunction touching him, talking about his feelings, exposing his vulnerabilities even though that could get him hurt. How could he go through his life like that? Wouldn't people see it as an opportunity to take advantage? Arthur now possessed enough ammunition to lay Merlin waste, but far from seizing the chance and trampling him into the ground he found himself in the unnerving position of feeling protective of him.
"So, Will; just a friend or boyfriend?"
Merlin sat forward and smiled. "Just a friend, and always has been - a very straight friend."
"What about you?"
"Me? I'm omnisexual." He looked pleased with himself, like he'd been waiting for the opportunity to say it.
"Like Captain Jack, from Torchwood."
Arthur had to admit he'd watched several episodes, but only because Gwen liked it so much. He knew enough about the charismatic Captain Jack to know exactly how Merlin was referring to himself. "So your door swings both ways?"
"My door doesn't swing. It's wide open … for anything." The tell-tale blush was creeping up his cheeks. He quickly added, "What about you?"
"It's one of those doors that only opens if you push the right buttons."
Arthur's response seemed to amuse Merlin greatly, which added to the relaxing lull of firelight and beer that had already made him melt boneless into his chair. It was covered in worn leather, ugly but inordinately comfortable. The kind of chair made for a long afternoon nap. Only Merlin had started fidgeting and looking at his watch.
Arthur was surprised when he instinctively did the same to discover they'd been in the pub two hours - he could have happily stayed where he was two hours more.
"Perhaps we ought to get going?" Merlin said. "I don't want to keep you from your job."
"It's alright. I've got the afternoon off. No hurry."
"Do you think it will take long? I hate clothes shopping. Nothing ever fits me properly."
"They'll have something at Brooks. And they'll be able to alter anything off the peg in a day or two. You'll be fine, you'll see."
They wrapped themselves up in their coats and headed back out into the stark brightness of the afternoon. This time though, as they stepped out, Arthur didn't feel nearly as cold as he had when he'd arrived.
Friday afternoon Arthur skipped out of work at five sharp to go straight to Leon's, his jeans and t-shirt and the tools he needed ensconced safely in the boot of his car. On the way he stopped off at Tesco's for beer and a bunch of flowers for Sarah, as an afterthought. It was probably Leon's remit, to be buying her flowers. But as he went through the entrance to the supermarket there were strategically placed pink and white lilies in magnificent bunches; their smell enticing him as he walked by. Arthur was no fool. Women loved flowers and Sarah hated dust and tonight they were going to be putting in the last of the wall cabinets and sanding off the rough spots on any remaining exposed plaster. Also, she'd have made him scones, like she always did.
He was floating on a cloud during the drive to Leon's. Merlin had called at lunchtime to tell him Leon's father had found him a position at the new IT consulting firm he'd just bought in the City. He wasn't exactly sure what they were going to have him do, but he'd got a meeting set up with a department manager the next week who said they were snowed under and would be able to find him something, even if it was mundane at first. Arthur had been sick with worry that he'd under-played the austerity of the Albany Club, which he'd done with the intention of saving Merlin any unnecessary apprehension. Only it had occurred to him afterwards that Merlin might have seen it as a deliberate attempt to throw him off-balance when he got there. In the end, whatever had ensued no longer mattered as Merlin had been ecstatic and said, "See you Sunday," like they were already old friends.
The Friday night traffic was unusually light and Arthur managed to park close to the little terrace Sarah and Leon had bought last year. It was smaller than either of them had been used to but it was their first house and even with a gift of a deposit it was expensive. As they kept saying, all that mattered was that it was all theirs. As Arthur headed up the front path and saw the terracotta pots filled with daffodils that Sarah had put out on the doorstep and the lavender already in bud, he felt a swell of pride that he'd helped get them their place the way they wanted.
They hadn't been able to afford to have a new kitchen professionally installed, with all the structural things they'd needed to get done. But Arthur had taken the time to draw up plans and a budget and he and Leon had talked Sarah round into letting him do it. Now she raved about him to all her friends and Arthur had found himself counselling half-strangers on such things as where to shop for tile and how to wire in a dimmer-switch. He loved it. He'd been looking forward to coming over all day, knowing they were on the home strait. Probably another weekend after this and they would be done.
Arthur rang the doorbell, still amused by the musical tone, even though he was the one that had hard-wired that in, too.
"Arthur!" Sarah pulled him into a rib-crushing hug. She was nearly as tall as him and he had a suspicion that with her swimmer's physique she was almost as strong. Leon joked with Arthur that he liked a woman who could give as good as she got. With being so tall and broad the last thing Leon wanted was a puny little woman that might get crushed in the heat of a passionate moment. Leon was a powerfully affectionate man.
"Here, these are for you." He handed her the lilies and beamed as she went all doe-eyed.
"They're lovely. They smell lovely!"
"Not as good as it smells in here. Been baking?" Arthur said boldly as he headed straight to the back of the house.
"Go on, they're on the counter. Jam's in the fridge. Do you want me to bring anything in from the car?"
"No, let Leon do it. Where is he anyway?"
"On his way. He tells me Morgana got a lodger, and that he's going to be working for his Dad. You and your old boy network - talk about keep it in the family." There was no malice in what she said, but not being part of what she called the 'posh lot' she liked to call them up on it every now and again.
"He's not an old boy."
"I know. Morgana would never let one of those in her flat," she said dryly.
Arthur went upstairs to get changed before heading back down to the kitchen. He was already stuffing his second scone in his mouth when Leon arrived home. He caught Arthur licking a blob of jam from the corner of his mouth as he polished it off in two mouthfuls.
"You are so easy to please, Pendragon. I don't understand why you can't find a woman who gets it."
"Believe me, nor do I. Good news about Merlin, though?"
"Dad's impressed. He thought he was going to be an old school friend of ours. When he found out he went to a tiny comprehensive in Kent and then got a place at Cambridge purely on grades he was gaga for him. Gave me a lecture over lunch about how lucky I am." Leon shook his head as he buttered a scone.
"Were you there?"
"Not for the meeting. But I got there as they were wrapping up. He's a nice bloke, isn't he? Looks sort of like one of those GQ models."
Arthur nearly choked on his tea.
"We are talking about a gangly bloke with big ears?"
"No, we're talking about one of those tall skinny guys, with the ruffled hair that probably took an hour to deliberately get it that way, that models designer jeans in glossy high-end magazines. Come on, I'm a straight guy but even I can admit he's ... I don't know ... attractive - in an androgynous sort of way ... for a man. He's got good bone structure."
Arthur glared incredulous, though not because he hadn't noticed it, too. The second Merlin had stepped out of the changing room at Brooks on Tuesday, in that self-same suit, even with it needing some taking in at the waist, he'd been struck at just how much more marketable he looked dressed up. No, Arthur was glaring because Leon had noticed and had said something. Leon never noticed stuff like that.
Merlin had been so nervous at first, his shoulders tensed, almost tripping over the trousers where they had still to be hemmed. However, when a random woman in the shop had come up to Arthur and said, "Wow! He looks stunning. Are you two tying the knot?" loud enough for Merlin to hear, there had been a fleeting and uncomfortable moment where absolutely no sound would come out of Arthur's mouth at all, as if there was a knot already tied around his windpipe. After which, Merlin's laughter rained down like confetti and Arthur had been able to resume breathing.
"Is this Sarah's doing, or are you willingly eyeing up the boys in fashion magazines?"
"GQ is a men's lifestyle magazine." Leon started fidgeting with the tape measure, pulling out the tape and letting it snap back in again. "Alright, I'm going to shut up now, before you think I fancy him or something, but I'm telling you, he had this black suit on and it looked sharp."
"I know. I helped him pick it out."
"Oh. So you do know what I mean? Just a bit nervous about being accused of finding another man attractive, are you?"
This was how the baiting usually started, although with Leon it was never aggressive, always playful. Men his size didn't need to throw their weight around. They just threw back their shoulders and stood at their full height. Yet Arthur was never able to let it go, even when he knew he should quietly retreat instead of allowing Leon the chance to back him into a corner ... and mock him mercilessly.
"Shut up, Leon. You're digging a hole, which you're attempting to drag me into, and I'm not going there. I will concede when he smiles he looks ... charming."
"When he smiles? Charming?" Leon crouched down and rifled around in the toolbox, pretending to look for something. It was so obvious it was a diversion tactic before his counter-attack. "And now you're blushing."
"I drank my tea too fast. That is all." Arthur glanced down to see Leon looking victorious. But all he could fire back with was, "Fuck off, and pass me that tape measure."
Sunday lunch was Arthur's favourite and no one cooked it better than Morgana. His mouth was watering before he even got out of the car. All the way over, he'd been envisaging a hearty fill then a lazy afternoon slouched in front of the television. There was a distinct possibility a nap might figure heavily into it, too, and leftovers at teatime before heading home.
Gwen answered the door. As they headed up the stairs, instead of domestic serenity Arthur was greeted with utter chaos. The place he fondly thought of as his weekend haven, that he floated into on a Friday night and often bobbed tranquilly along to Sunday if there was nothing else going on, had been transformed into what looked like the aftermath of a tsunami.
Merlin could be half seen moving amidst a pile of books, which were spilling from his room into the hallway. When Arthur poked his head through his door he noticed at once the bookshelf that he'd put up was half hanging off the wall, the bed seemed to have moved three feet from its usual position and Merlin's hair looked like he'd been electrocuted or was the victim of a cartoon explosion. He was shirtless, and marring the expanse of pale skin on one side of his back was a long, hot-red scrape.
Arthur came back into the hallway and looked at Gwen, who threw her hands up in the air and said, "Don't ask me, I only live here."
"I brought wine," he said with sympathy.
Arthur waved the Merlot at her and she immediately grabbed it and headed for the kitchen, carefully sidling around Morgana who was angrily syringing hot oil into the wells on a bun sheet. Arthur decided it would be prudent not to venture into the kitchen and stood anchored to the spot in the hallway, where he was perhaps unwisely at the epicentre of the storm.
Morgana leaned back towards the doorway and shouted, "If my Yorkshire puddings are flat I'm blaming you, Merlin."
Merlin poked his head out of his door and shouted, "Don't you worry, there's no chance anything you put your hand to could be flat, just ask my hair." He caught Arthur's eye and said, "What are you laughing at, you smug git?"
Merlin's chest was hairier than Arthur had expected, though not really hairy. Why he'd even had an expectation, he wasn't sure. Maybe Merlin's clean-shaven baby-face had prejudiced him, which this afternoon was also stubbly and not at all what Arthur had expected. He was in jeans that couldn't possibly be being held up by his non-existent arse, which only left some mysterious force which defied gravity; quite likely Merlin's unexpected bad mood.
"I see you're making yourself at home. What the hell happened here?"
He followed Merlin into his room.
"I was changing a light-bulb."
"Well, I had one foot on the bed and the other on the desk and I slipped, so I reached out for the shelf, but it didn't take my weight, and came out of the wall. As I fell everything kind of got trashed."
"Did you put your finger in a socket on the way down?"
"Oh you're feeling funny this afternoon, aren't you? No, that is your bloody sister's attempt at revamping my image - because, apparently, I dress geek not chic." His mocking tone was meant to be loud enough for her to hear.
There was a clatter in the kitchen from what sounded like saucepans being abused on the stove.
Arthur bit the inside of his mouth but it was futile. After this, Merlin officially and undoubtedly qualified as one of the family. He succumbed to the laughter until he noticed Merlin trying to rub at his back whilst simultaneously trying to straighten out the room.
"Here, let me take a look at that."
"It's just a scrape. I think I caught it on the edge of the desk. Is it bleeding?"
"No ..." Arthur approached and took a proper look at the abrasions that ran in inflamed tracks over his ribs, and noticed the skin was broken. "Actually, maybe just a bit. Come into the bathroom; I'll clean it up for you."
Merlin followed him and sat on the closed toilet seat while Arthur sponged down the offended area and sprayed it with Savlon. Merlin didn't wince despite the fact it must have hurt. Arthur could have played a tune on the bumps of his ribs; his slight frame had absolutely no spare padding to cushion his fall.
Arthur and his friends had had more than their fair share of scrapes over the years, from falls from bikes and skateboards when they were younger and onto drunken skirmishes and plain old inebriated collapse. Merlin's injury wasn't the worst he'd seen. His hair, though, looked like the end result of torture.
Arthur put the Savlon away as he said, "So Morgana thinks she's got a new toy?"
"What do you mean?"
"Dressing you up, doing your hair." Arthur now had to wonder if the garish shirt he'd been wearing the first night they met was Morgana's doing.
"She's only trying to help. I happened to mention I was worried about what to wear to work and that was it."
"Ah, I see. But I heard she did a nice job of turning you out on Friday. Seriously."
"Yeah, she did."
Arthur could see the back of Merlin's neck start to flush in pink blotches as he got up from the toilet and as he stood they were painted down his front, too. Morgana's skin did that. Their complexions were almost identical. Merlin was wiry though, nothing much soft, just skin, sinew and long muscles wrapped over a frame that looked delicate, bird-like but still strong. He squeezed Merlin's shoulder and said, "There, you'll live."
Merlin looked at him through his lashes, more intently than he had before, and the sudden surge of affection Arthur felt towards him was disconcerting. He scratched the back of his neck, not quite sure where to put his hands and quickly said, "I think they've got some filler somewhere. Let me fill in the holes in the wall and I'll see if I can put that shelf back up after lunch."
"Thanks. They must like having you around."
"They might have done once, but I think I out-stayed my welcome. In any case, Gwen can take care of most things."
Arthur knew he'd been staying over too often. It was hard not to when he liked being there more than at his own flat, though that wasn't saying much. He considered that with Merlin living there as well now, it was going to be even harder to stay away, when that was maybe the entire point of having him there in the first place.
Merlin must have sensed Arthur's reticence at his admission as he cautiously said, "If you ever want to go out, get a beer or go see a film, I don't know anyone in London. As much as I like Gwen and Morgana, I don't really want to be doing their curry and chick-flick every weekend. Not my thing."
"Oh." Oh. "Sure. I'll show you round."
Merlin looked delighted and the bathroom suddenly felt cramped. Arthur made a swift exit to the hallway to catch a breath and set about repairing the disaster Merlin had made of the wall.
Lunch turned out to be an extremely pleasant affair. Morgana seemed mollified, probably by the glasses of wine she'd imbibed before the food was ready. Plus, Merlin had made an extremely diplomatic (and in Arthur's opinion, quite daring) offer to have her help him pick out what to wear to his first day at work. Luckily, shopping wasn't an option and none of Arthur's clothes would have fit him, so she only had a limited number of choices and she promised faithfully she wouldn't use the super-hold hair mousse on him again.
Gwen and Arthur sat back, like a couple of old codgers, tucking into their roast beef, glad not to be the focus of Morgana's good intentions. A couple of times Gwen shot Arthur a knowing smirk and passed him the roast potatoes or the horseradish.
"How's work?" Gwen asked because she knew Arthur hated it and she sympathised. Gwen's mother had died when she was young, so when her father had needed long-term rehabilitation after major heart and lung surgery, she was forced to cut short her degree course to take care of him. Once he was sufficiently recovered she found a job as an accounts clerk, to help make ends meet. She did so well she ended up staying and somehow never managed to find the time to go back for her degree. Now she'd reached the ceiling of where she could go without one.
Arthur admired her; she always found a way to make everything work out in the end.
"You know; same old same old. I have to go to a training seminar in Wales in a week." He faked a big yawn. "The food's always good there, though. Oh, and I have to go to a hoity-toity fund-raiser at The Tate Modern on Thursday."
Morgana's ears pricked up. "Oooh, can I come?"
"Actually, I was wondering whether Merlin would like to come and keep me entertained. There'll be lots of really expensive pieces of art you can attempt not to destroy and women in designer dresses just begging to have red wine spilled over them."
"Very funny. What's got into you today?"
"Oh, this is completely selfish. Morgana loves these affairs and always leaves me languishing in the attentions of some artist or sponsor or someone who wants to rave on about plastic chairs arranged to look like dinosaur skeletons. I need to have someone there to fend them off. The drinks are free."
"I'd love to come," Merlin said immediately, "and defend you from art enthusiasts." Then he winked and Arthur felt the half a glass of red wine he'd drunk bubble up to his cheeks in a sudden flush. Merlin had already asked to go out some time, so Arthur shouldn't have been too surprised at his response. He just hadn't imagined Merlin would be quite this keen to go to something formal.
Morgana looked knowingly at Gwen and smiled, like she was so clever. "Now I think about it, Gwen and I have plans Thursday night. Merlin, I think it would perfect for you to accompany my philistine brother. I hope you have fun. Just be careful where you put your drink down." She raised her eyebrows and nodded in Arthur's direction.
Arthur remembered the Christmas fundraiser they went to a few months ago.
Merlin raised his eyebrows. "Continue?"
"Arthur put a glass of champagne on what he thought was a table but it was actually part of the exhibition. He got a dressing down from some surly little Italian woman who turned out to be the artist's agent, and there was this horrific moment where we thought he might have to buy it."
Arthur waved his fork in the air as he added, "The silly cow was checking for ring marks. Honestly, it looked like one of those little mosaic tables you put a plant pot on. It would have wiped clean."
Gwen chimed in, "Are you sure you can't bring us, too? The pair of you are going to be a disaster waiting to happen, and I for one would like to see it."
"I thought Morgana has plans for you."
Gwen didn't wait for her reply. "If she's talking about that new strap-on, it can wait until the weekend. My period started this morning."
Arthur gaped in horror for a split second while his fork dropped from his fingers. He clamped his hands over his ears. "Lalalala. Can't hear dirty lesbian time-of-the-month talk, will ask for extra tickets if you just shut up now. Nod your heads if you understand me."
Arthur's pulse rushed in his ears like stormy waves on a shore under his cupped palms, but he could see the three of them nodding and laughing.
Merlin got up from his seat and lightly took each of Arthur's wrists, lowering them. "Prude." He looked at Arthur fondly, taking long seconds to release him. "Thanks. You know how much fun we're going to have?"
"Especially if Morgana does your hair." Arthur hadn't lost his touch, not even when flustered.
Now it looked like all four of them would be going to The Tate and Arthur was looking forward to it. This was a first for one of these affairs and it had nothing to do with Gwen and Morgana - and everything to do with his new friend, Merlin.
The Tate Modern sat on the south side of the Thames, inside what used to be a disused power station. The conversion was only ten years old, such that the red-brick building, with its high chimney still intact, was pristine, smart and fashionable. Corporate sponsors literally lined up to advertise in its space. This event, though, was a fund-raiser with a floor show in the main atrium followed by dinner in the restaurant. There would be a raffle and items for silent auction in the East Room which was on the top floor, along with the restaurant.
Arthur liked the view and could appreciate the aesthetics of the decor, especially the mural in the restaurant and the clever lighting across the ceiling, but he found it too sharp and linear. The East Room, where the auction was likely to be, was even worse - devoid of colour with its plain white walls and flimsy black plastic chairs. He wished for once, if he had to go to a charity event at a museum, he'd get invited to something at the V&A or even The Tower of London. So far, no such luck.
The weather had taken an unexpected pleasant turn and Arthur had persuaded Merlin to meet him at Mansion House station so they could walk over Millennium Bridge and approach The Tate from across the river. That way he could show Merlin the view from the ground and walk around the exhibits outside before it got dark.
Morgana and Gwen were meeting them there later. He suspected that was because Morgana's heels weren't going to be up to the job of doing more than teeter across tile, let alone keep up with his military pace over concrete and cobble. He'd arranged for Merlin to meet him at six, just as the sun would be setting, hoping the sky would stay clear enough for it to be spectacular. He took the job of showing Merlin the best of London seriously.
Arthur wore his petrol-blue suit. It was a modern cut, reminiscent of the two-tone tonic suits worn by Mods in the sixties, had cost a fortune and did not make him look like a physics teacher (no matter what Morgana said). In the end, he'd decided not to wear a tie and left the collar of his crisp black shirt open. The station was busy inside. He positioned himself against the pink marble at the exit and didn't have to wait long before he saw Merlin, in his black suit, scanning the station for Arthur.
"Hey! Look at you!" Arthur called out.
Merlin looked shy, but pleased. He was wearing a burgundy shirt and wide tie that might have been fashionable in 1973. It looked like it might qualify for exhibit at The Tate Modern and was without a doubt one of Morgana's Oxfam purchases. At least it didn't have ancient egg on it.
"You don't think the tie's ridiculous?" Merlin pulled at it, frowning.
"I never said that."
"Then you do?"
"Morgana put you in it, didn't she?"
"How did you guess?"
They pushed off casually, dodging the traffic and commuters on Queen Victoria Street and finally turning the corner to Peter's Hill, which lead to Millennium Bridge.
Dusk was approaching fast and the sunset didn't disappoint. Arthur stepped to Merlin's right so that as they walked and talked he was able to glance across at Merlin; see his face bathed in the balmy pink of the setting sun. The fading daylight blurred the sharp lines of his features and accentuated them at the same time, in a rare mix of light and shadow. Dressed as he was, framed and luminous against the imposing backdrop of Tower Bridge in the distance, Merlin was breathtakingly beautiful and it was all Arthur could do to stop himself from staring. He picked up the pace, assuring Merlin he was just eager to get a drink before the rush of the rabble.
Arthur had no choice but to concede, as he surreptitiously glanced sideways at Merlin trying to keep up with him, there was something about him. There was something irresistible about the curve of his smile and the span of his fingers as they spoke more loudly than his words. Arthur forced his eyes forward and fixed his gaze on the other side of the river, glad the sun was going down so Merlin wouldn't be able to read the anxious shadows on his face and see something he wasn't ready to show him.
Arthur soon realised how much easier these events were when he wasn't constantly on edge. It seemed the usual City crowd he was expected to network with were more interested in talking to his guests. Merlin was a breath of fresh air, with his naive honesty. From a good position on a low sofa, like a king surveying his minions, Arthur had been watching him slowly attract a steady stream of men and women. Merlin was easy to talk to. Merlin put other people at ease, Arthur knew that, and it dawned on him then that not everyone here was as comfortable as he assumed.
Perhaps because Merlin was stood still, like a distant sun drawing in his audience like planets in orbit, some with more signs of life than others, Merlin had managed to stay on his feet and not destroy anything. Even the dinner in the restaurant had been without accident.
A waiter with a tray laden with glasses of white wine approached Arthur, who took a glass just as Merlin turned and gave him a wave. Arthur waved back. It looked like Merlin was making his excuses as he nodded and smiled to the cougars and the lecherous old men, and made his way across the room back to Arthur.
"Are you alright there?" Merlin looked genuinely concerned.
"Yes. Just watching you charm everyone."
"I know. People keep asking me for my card. Obviously, I don't have a card."
It was unbelievable that Merlin was not only enjoying the attention, but that he was managing it with so much aplomb. Arthur had been schooled in this nonsense and had never moved past the feeling his mouth was constantly stuffed full of cotton wool.
He couldn't help but tease. "They just want your phone number."
"I don't know. Did you talk about work?"
"No, not really." Merlin's mouth dropped open as he let out a light and electric peal of laughter that shot through Arthur until every hair on his body stood on end. "You can't be serious? Me, a toy boy?"
"What else? These people already have power and money."
Merlin gave Arthur a sidelong glance, as if he didn't dare believe it. "They're not all after my body. Someone did try to sell me a raffle ticket."
"You didn't buy one, did you?"
"At fifty quid each? No way."
"Don't worry; I bought four – one for each of us."
Their knees were almost touching; Merlin's back almost cradled by Arthur's reach across the back of the sofa. His hair curled naturally behind his ear and he looked alight as he smiled, his eyes crinkled with mischief as he took the wine glass from Arthur's hand and took a long sip.
Arthur gave it to him willingly, even though his mouth had gone dry. He watched Merlin's long fingers curl around the bowl of the glass, watched his chin lift and the rise and fall of his Adam's apple. He stared too long. Merlin passed the wine glass back as he caught a stray drop of wine with his forefinger and slowly sucked it into his mouth. Arthur coughed and tried not to squeak. "Where are Morgana and Gwen, actually?"
Merlin looked round, over his shoulder. "I think they're at the bar, fending off some old fart who thinks they might be up for a threesome."
"I guess when you're that age that's all you get to do - think about it, talk about it, try your luck, knowing full well you're not likely to get any real action."
"Except Sting," Merlin mused.
"Oh yeah. He'll still be at it when he's ninety." Arthur let his head fall back for a moment and wished they were having this conversation somewhere more private. It was easy, for sure, but he still felt on display and unable to completely relax. Not that the tiny flutter in his stomach had anything to do with Merlin's proximity or the way he was looking at Arthur like they were the only people in the room.
They passed the wine back and forth until the waiter spotted them and came over with the tray.
Merlin declined another glass. "Do you think we can go soon? I want to get into work early tomorrow."
"Yeah. They gave me my own project to work on, already, in my first week." Merlin's body tensed with excitement. "Just something small, but it's interesting, and using my programming skills. If I put my head down tomorrow I might have something I can show my manager by the end of the day."
"Well then we'd better get you home pronto. I probably better say hello to Percy French though. He's a friend of my father's – I spotted him over there somewhere. How about you and the girls meet me in half an hour at the cloakroom?"
If Arthur had been a gambling man he should have bet that just because the evening had thus far been without mishap, it was no guarantee that the last half an hour would pass without something happening.
Percy French was delighted to see Arthur, for the sole purpose of lamenting the fact his own offspring had chosen not to enter the family business and therefore how proud Uther must be of him and how proud he should be of himself. Arthur humoured him; it was the only thing to do. He was in the middle of extolling the importance of ethical business practice and its role in increasing consumer confidence and protecting brand value, when there was a scream and the unmistakable sound of Morgana's raised voice from somewhere across the room. Arthur's eyes darted over the people stood in the general direction of the noise, until he noticed a rush of service staff, one brandishing a cloth. At that point he was able to hone in on the commotion. Morgana was standing with her arms in the air in shock and Gwen was fussing over her, a sheepish look, no, she was definitely suppressing a grin, as she tried to mop Morgana down. She was making a big show of dabbing a rather flimsy napkin over the red wine spill that covered the top half of the light blue dress.
Arthur excused himself and crossed the room as fast as he could. By the time he got there, several staff were on hand with cloths and mineral water and useless advice. Gwen was definitely trying not to laugh, which was inexplicable since it appeared she was, in fact, the guilty party and would have to deal with Morgana's wrath the moment they were out of earshot of polite company.
Arthur thought it diplomatic, given Morgana's temper, to try to lighten the mood. "Nice one, Gwen."
"I can't believe it. The glass just slipped out of my fingers."
"We are leaving right now." Morgana spat the words out through her teeth. But there was a glint in her eye that belied the anger in her voice.
Arthur looked around. "Where's Merlin?"
"There," said Gwen, pointing in the direction of a row of plaster-cast torsos adorned with what looked like bits of recycled sweet wrappers. They were hideous.
Merlin was walking briskly towards them with a wide grin across his face, his phone in his hand ... and his tie was missing.
"Ready to go?" Arthur said as soon as he was close enough to be heard without having to shout.
As they all turned and headed for the cloakroom, Arthur was certain he saw Merlin smirk at Gwen. Next, he handed Morgana the phone he'd been holding. Arthur had the sneaking feeling there was something going on he wasn't party to. However, unlike the feeling of alienation he usually felt if something like that happened, he simply resolved to ask about it when they got outside. Merlin would tell him.
Arthur didn't get the chance to wait that long. No sooner had they left the East Room and were headed towards the stairs to the cloakroom, as Morgana, Gwen and Merlin were snorting and laughing and congratulating one another. He was about to complain, when Merlin turned to him and said, "Aren't you going to ask me what happened to my tie?"
Merlin's grin was infectious as he literally danced up and down on the spot.
"What happened to your tie, Merlin?"
"Morgana, show him."
They were away from prying eyes. Nonetheless, Morgana got out her phone and pulled them round in a tight huddle. On the screen was a picture of one of the ugly torso sculptures.
"Merlin, it said no photography."
Merlin said without malice, "Oh, shut up, Arthur. Now let's see the next one."
Morgana scrolled to the next picture, which was of the same sculpture. Only this time, draped about its neck, was a wide, patterned burgundy tie.
Arthur's jaw dropped. "Merlin, you didn't?"
"I did." His eyes darted from Arthur to Gwen to Morgana, then back to Arthur again. He couldn't keep still, clearly unable to contain the jubilant high from his escapade.
"What a team, eh?" Merlin said, as he wrapped his arms around Morgana and Gwen's shoulders.
"You were all in on this?" Arthur said.
Morgana feigned exasperation. "Duh, yes. We were the diversion."
"You mean you ruined a dress so Merlin could pull a prank?"
"I hate this dress, Arthur. I got it for three pounds at a jumble sale, for Gwen actually, but she won't wear it."
Gwen pulled away from Merlin, irritated. "You said yourself you don't like it, so why would you buy it for me?"
"It's your colour, not mine. It would suit you. So now the jumble dress has served its purpose and can go in the bin. No love lost." She moved round to pull Gwen into an embrace and kissed her softly on the lips. Gwen smiled against her mouth.
Arthur thought for a few moments. So they had planned this before tonight. He tried not to sound dejected as he said, "Why didn't you tell me?"
Morgana answered. "Because we didn't want you implicated if we got caught. You have much more to lose than we do. And you're a terrible liar."
"I am not."
"Come on, Arthur. We did it for you," Gwen said. "It was all Merlin's idea. He thought it would make this a night to remember."
"You're not annoyed, are you?" Merlin reached out and grasped Arthur's arm.
"No, of course I'm not." How could he be, with Merlin looking at him like that? "But I want a framed picture."
"Scroll to the next picture, Morgana." Merlin was literally swelling with pride.
And for Arthur, the next picture amounted to the clincher, the sealer of deals, the irrevocable point of no return or whatever he should call it. Merlin had managed to hold the phone out at arm's length and get a picture of himself next to the statue wearing the tie. He looked cheeky, irreverent and utterly endearing and before Arthur could think about how it might sound, he said, "I want a copy of that, Morgana."
She drawled sweetly, "Of course you do."
It was quite possible, at that moment, that Merlin blushed even harder than Arthur.
As he waved the three of them off in their taxi, Arthur decided to walk back across the river to the tube station. The cloudless sky had made for a cold night and Arthur hunched his shoulders into the waterside breeze as his footsteps echoed off the bridge. The steady rhythm, like he was marching, helped him think.
Gwen's words echoed round inside his head and refused to fade away to nothing – he wanted to make this a night to remember.
Arthur couldn't afford a crush on Merlin. Aside from the fact he'd never had any feelings like this for a man before and didn't know if he wanted a relationship, or indeed if Merlin wanted one either, Merlin was going to be leaving London in six months or maybe sooner. It was best they remained just friends, and best that Arthur keep his distance. That way, no one would get hurt.
When Arthur arrived at Leon's that Friday, the day after his night out at The Tate, he was surprised to find as he walked in the front door the house smelled of paint, not scones.
"Come and see, sweetheart," Sarah said with enthusiasm.
He could see from the hallway the kitchen had been painted a sunny shade of apple green and everything had been sponged down and wiped free of dust. On the counter Sarah had already put out her Denby jars for tea, coffee and sugar.
Arthur couldn't help a tinge of disappointment that they'd finished it without him. Even so, it did look beautiful.
"You should be so proud, Arthur. This is better than I could ever have hoped for." Sarah hugged him.
Leon added, "I know we probably didn't do it as well as you could have, but you've spent so much time over here already, and I know you're off to Wales Sunday night, so we thought do the painting ourselves. Sarah did most of it, actually. She took the day off yesterday." Leon shifted somewhat nervously, waiting for a reaction. He knew how fussy Arthur was.
"It looks great." Arthur forced a smile.
Sarah paused before saying, "There is one thing. I hate to ask."
"Well, some of the doors aren't level and now I'm looking around I think we could do with one of those rails to hang my utensils on."
Arthur knew it didn't look quite finished. He hadn't wanted to steal their thunder but this was all the go ahead he needed. "You know you can get them to go all the way round under the wall cabinets? They're not just for your utensils - you can get hooks to hang a roll of kitchen towel, a cookbook ... you can even get hanging spice racks."
"Yes! That's exactly what I want."
"Well how about I go over everything now, do the snagging? I think I need to re-do the sealant around the sink, anyway, then we can go to Ikea tomorrow and choose what you want."
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
"No. I want to do it. Really." There was nothing more satisfying than finishing the job. Arthur couldn't explain to them how much it meant to add the finishing touches, to make sure everything was square, in full working order and without flaws, as much as was humanly possible, anyway.
"I don't know what we'd have done without you, Arthur." Sarah might have had a tear in her eye, but she turned away quickly towards the fridge and pulled out a white cardboard box. "I didn't have time to bake, so Leon got some cream cakes from the bakers'. I'll make tea."
Arthur and Leon took the cakes outside and parked themselves on the cracked old wooden bench that was already there when Leon and Sarah bought the place.
As Arthur proceeded to lick the cream out of a chocolate éclair Leon said, "What are you going to do with all your spare time? Our kitchen's finished and Morgana's bathroom. I'd ask you to do our garden but if I keep eating cakes like this every week I'm going to outgrow the house before the end of the summer."
"Don't worry. I'm no gardener. Anyway, Merlin asked if I'd show him around London." Arthur said it as flatly as he could manage, like he was talking about someone who was no more to him than a passing acquaintance and not the object of a great big crush.
Leon didn't seem to pick up on anything as he replied, "You - doing culture?"
"Yes and no. I mean, we could go to a few museums and I was checking online for things to do and there are plenty of places to visit. Have you ever been to Highgate Cemetery?"
"No. Have you?"
"No, but did you know Karl Marx is buried there, and George Eliot and Michael Faraday?"
"I knew about Karl Marx. But they're dead. Under the ground. It's not like you're going to see them or anything."
Thinking about what Morgana would have to say to a response like that, which would have been Arthur's response not two weeks ago, Arthur snorted. "You're such a philistine. It's Grade I listed - the architecture is stunning, not to mention the tombstones and statues, and at this time of the year the wild flowers are beautiful."
"Did you memorise that off the website?"
Arthur set his jaw, still determined. "Maybe. Okay, what about the Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden?"
Leon perked up and grinned. "That place with the little moving models?"
"I haven't been there since I was a kid. With you actually. Do you remember, your Dad took us?"
Of course he did. It was a cherished memory. "Yes. And the pub is on the other side of the courtyard, just in case we get there and he thinks I'm a complete twat for taking him to something for kids."
"It's whimsical. Maybe he'll like that."
Arthur considered that maybe, hopefully, Merlin would love it. "And there's always the London Eye, or the London Dungeon."
"You know, I've never been there either. Let me know when you're going; perhaps Sarah and I could join you."
Looking out over the knee-high grass, Leon said, "Isn't it ridiculous; we've lived here all our lives and only now, twenty five years later, we decide to go and check out all these places? I bet the average American tourist has seen more of the sights in London than we have."
It was true, but American tourists weren't equipped with insider knowledge, built up over years of experience. "Probably. Although I doubt we'll see many tourists where I'm taking him first."
"And where, pray tell, would that be?"
Leon bellowed. "Inspired. Do you know whether he can use chopsticks?"
"If he can't before we go he will by the time we leave." Arthur was thoroughly satisfied with this decision and if possible, even more so now after Leon's reaction.
Ling Ho's was a small Chinese restaurant tucked in a back street away from the over-priced tourist fare around Gerrard Street. It was there the Chinese locals came to eat and where those in the know could get a belly-full for under five pounds. The only down side was the service. Aside from the fact, quite legitimately, there was no Western cutlery, the wait staff were notoriously rude. In fact, it seemed to have become something of a draw, which in turn had resulted in the service getting progressively worse, if you didn't behave yourself. It was all in good humour and Arthur had never had a bad night there, not even the time he and Leon were asked to hurry up and leave because someone wants your table. You've had enough to eat and if you want to talk, go and do it elsewhere. They recalled with mirth Leon arguing with the waiter to pick on someone his own size.
Agreeing Ling Ho's was the perfect place to take Merlin first, they went inside for their tea; the clouds were starting to look menacing.
Leon hung around for a few minutes, trying to be helpful, but by now he knew that when Arthur was doing his thing, when he got into his zone, that it was best to just leave him to it.
Arthur ran his fingers over the counter tops, thinking through all the finishing touches he could get done in the next hour or two. He crouched down so the cabinet doors were at eye level before using his spirit level and a screwdriver to adjust the levelling screws in the door hinges, so that they all hung perfectly aligned.
Next, he got the sealant gun and ran a neat line of clear sealant around the join between the counter tops and the wall tile and around the edges of the sink. He was careful to gently peel back the masking tape he'd used to make sure he got a straight edge.
Arthur liked company, for the most part, but when he needed to concentrate he liked uninterrupted peace and quiet. One of the downsides to working in an office was that interruptions were inevitable and constant. If it wasn't the phone ringing it was some person with nothing better to do than come by and chat ... and then there were emails. What utter crap people felt they needed to share by email. It was as if the invention had allowed people to by-pass all manner of self-control and dignity. Worst was Angie-fucking-Dalton in Accounts who had a habit of conveying urgency with overuse of her caps lock button, then, to try to counter it, because she really wasn't an annoying bitch, she'd sign off with stupid emoticons or highlighted pink font. Apart from being unprofessional it was just plain irritating.
Dismissing all further thoughts of his hated workplace Arthur cleared away the last of his tools and stood back for a moment to admire the finished room. He dimmed the spot-lighting and turned on the lights under the wall cabinets, so the small room was glowing warmly in soft light.
Finally, the very last thing Arthur did in the kitchen that evening was for himself. He opened the cabinet doors under the sink, then holding his small Maglite torch between his teeth, with a permanent felt tip he wrote on the inside of the cabinet, right up in the back corner so no one would see it when they opened the doors, Arthur Pendragon, March 2009.
For the next month Arthur saw Merlin at least once a week, at Morgana's flat and on their excursions around London.
Their first evening out was at Ling Ho's, as Arthur had planned.
Merlin looked excited. Not wanting to give him any preconceived notion of what to expect, Arthur hadn't mentioned anything about the restaurant's uncanny reputation.
The laminate on the menu was black and peeling at the corners, the red checked tablecloth was bobbled and worn, the threads so thin in places the red was more of a faded pink. It didn't seem to bother Merlin in the slightest. "Why don't you order for us? I've only ever eaten the things you can get at Tesco's. I'll try just about anything."
"Anything you don't like?"
"Nuts." Merlin withheld a smirk, but his eyes were a giveaway.
"The edible kind or the Amy Winehouse kind?"
"Both. Actually, I can tolerate a cashew, but not peanuts. As for Amy Winehouse, as long as she keeps her clothes on and her hair away from my food, and doesn't start singing in earshot I can probably tolerate her, too. I don't think she comes anywhere like this to eat, though."
Arthur settled back contentedly in his chair, letting Merlin go on talking, the way he did, with his natural ability to take a random word and exhaust every possible avenue he could take it, several times over, before having to stop for breath or beer. Arthur ordered with consideration: crispy duck, which they could eat with their fingers, soup and a dish with noodles, chicken and vegetables.
It was no big revelation to Arthur, having seen him play pool, that Merlin possessed not the slightest natural ability handling a pair of chopsticks. If he was left to his own devices he would starve and looking at him, that was not an option. Repositioning himself at his side, Arthur fruitlessly attempted to show him time and again how to pick up a few noodles, first by letting him look and copy and when that failed, by cradling his hand in his. He slid his fingers over Merlin's and guided them along the sticks of wood, capturing a piece of broccoli, lifting it up and watching it slide over his mouth as he ducked his head to catch it before it fell. The oil left his lips shining. Arthur was under no illusion how it must look, but that was the least of his concerns as his palms got sweatier and the heat under his collar threatened to flare up to his face.
As if he had read his mind, at that very moment, a waiter came by with a jug of water and accidentally-on-purpose splashed it over Arthur's wrist.
"Hey, careful there," Merlin said.
"It's alright. It's just water."
It was too late. The waiter seized his opportunity. "You be careful. Feed yourself."
"Excuse me?" Sitting so close, Arthur could feel Merlin tense.
The waiter snapped, "Are you deaf or stupid? A five year old can use chopsticks. What's wrong with you?"
It was all fantastically downhill from there. After threatening the waiter with shoving his chopsticks where the sun didn't shine, which resulted in much raucous laughter from the kitchen, Arthur decided they would definitely have to come again with Morgana and Gwen. And for that he would bring his camera. This time, though, Arthur was satisfied with dropping a twenty on the table as Merlin dragged him from his seat before he'd a chance to finish his crispy duck.
Arthur had to explain everything as they walked around Soho.
"Thanks for warning me."
"I would have, had you given me the chance. Feisty."
Merlin shook his head and smiled. "I'm still hungry, by the way." As they strolled along the narrow pavement Merlin moved close enough he could have linked his arm through Arthur's. He didn't.
Crossing between parked cars, they circled back towards Leicester Square. "Shall we find another restaurant?"
"No. I have a better idea."
They stopped outside Tottenham Court Road tube station and filled the unfinished dinner gap with a kebab. Arthur made the mistake of saying, "I'll have what you're having," whereby he discovered Merlin was partial to extra hot chilli sauce.
Merlin's revenge was going to last until well into the next day.
The next weekend they went to see a rerun of Quantum Of Solace at the Barbican Centre Cinema, of all places. (Merlin sighed with relief when Arthur told him it was a James Bond film, and not, as he'd imagined, something subtitled and heart-wrenching. In response, Arthur gave him a jovial shove although he did concede, after Merlin threatened to hold his old college rugby shirt to ransom, it was unusual for the artsy venue to be showing something so mainstream. Then Arthur resolved to rescue said shirt the next time he was at Morgana's.)
Even Daniel Craig as the chiselled secret agent, and a series of the most unrealistic fight scenes Arthur had ever seen on a Bond film, weren't enough to distract Arthur from the fact Merlin was less than a few inches away; close enough to smell his aftershave, to see his face softly lit in a constantly changing show of emotions as he absorbed himself in the action of the film. Arthur was sure he didn't imagine that Merlin's knee brushed against his a couple of times. Whether it was deliberate or not, he couldn't know for sure, but it was enough to send a spark of want through him that settled hotly on his face, making him glad of the darkness.
That night, Arthur said goodbye to Merlin at West Ham station, having taken the District Line so he could sit with him and dissect the awfulness of the film, instead of taking the Jubilee line home from Waterloo, which would have taken half the time. This way he had to get the Jubilee Line back three stops to get to Canary Wharf. Merlin didn't say anything, even though he must have known; he seemed to have memorised the whole London Underground map within his first week in London.
No sooner as Arthur had stepped off the train, he received a text from Merlin.
Thnx for tonight. Film was shit but company was excellent.
Arthur didn't erase it. Instead he read it twenty times over before finally trying to compose a witty yet composed response. He had to settle for:
After that, Arthur received a text from Merlin almost every day. Some days there were more. Mostly they were inconsequential titbits about his job, Morgana and Gwen, what he was having for lunch, and one to tell Arthur he thought he saw a mouse on the Underground tracks on his way to work. Arthur laughed long and hard at that one and texted Merlin back with:
10/10 for observation. Did you also notice the sky is blue yet?
In response, Merlin phoned him and they talked for half an hour about alligators in the sewers and other things of no particular consequence.
Sensing Merlin might have an interest in the macabre, Arthur went through the mental list he'd made of potential places to visit and was thoroughly satisfied to settle with the O2 Bubble to see Gunther Von Hagen's Body Worlds Exhibition. There was an exhibit on the human life-cycle, which meant there were going to be bodies displayed of everything from babies and children through to the elderly. Arthur found the concept alone hideously fascinating – that people would willingly give up their bodies to be preserved, plasticised no less. It was one way of sticking around forever, even if it meant complete strangers got to see parts of their anatomy that had never been exposed while they were alive, as well as parts that had.
As it turned out, it made Merlin queasy, seeing all those plastic shiny bodies and exposed organs, but he soldiered bravely through the whole exhibition without gagging. Arthur had never seen a person go that shade of grey before and guessed that Merlin would probably not be interested in zombie films.
Arthur took Merlin home in a taxi, with his head between his knees and Arthur rubbing his back.
Morgana and Gwen were home, and fussed over Merlin as if he was a sick puppy. Morgana went for tea and a blanket, but not before berating Arthur. "My God. Sometimes I have to wonder what's wrong with you."
She shoved the blanket forcefully under Merlin's legs, while he looked up at Arthur pleadingly.
"It's alright, honestly. I'll be fine in a minute."
Gwen switched on the television and hunted down a station with something innocuous on, to take Merlin's mind off the gore. She settled at a garden make-over show. Arthur watched Merlin groan, but there was little he could do, since Morgana was perched at his side plying him with tea and a plateful of digestives.
Arthur stayed for an hour then decided he would make an exit, as it looked like Merlin had recovered what little colour he normally possessed.
He couldn't help but see the look of disappointment on Merlin's face, as he said he was going home (without giving a reason) despite them all asking him to stay. The trouble was, seeing Merlin looking vulnerable mirrored and magnified his own feelings in a way that was simply too risky.
He left before he did something absurd, like wrapping Merlin tightly in his arms and smelling his hair.
Merlin agreed to go to the Mechanical Theatre with Arthur, even though he didn't text all week. They met at the only exit from Covent Garden tube station, as they had over a month before. With the weather being milder, Merlin was only wearing a dark green hooded sweatshirt, black jeans and a smile. The sun was there, after all, even if it couldn't be seen shining behind the clouds.
The complex models and their repetitive motion proved absorbing in a quite a different way to when Arthur was a child. Needless to say, Merlin did love it; his face pressed up to the glass, just quietly looking and looking.
It didn't take long to see every exhibit; the Mechanical Theatre was tiny as museums went. But instead of the pub, they ventured back up the stairs and bought ice-creams in giant waffle cones and took them out onto the cobbled courtyard to watch the street performers.
As they sat on the kerb a man in a sparkly red jester's suit attempted to woo the crowd by juggling flaming batons while simultaneously balanced atop a five foot unicycle. Once upon a time, maybe something in the region of a thousand years ago, an audience would have been awed by the juggling of the batons alone. Now this poor sod had to risk life and limb for a few dreary rounds of applause and the odd pound coin. The man must love his work.
Arthur's backside was numb, his hands were cold and he'd overdone it with the gelato, but he was having the time of his life. Why hadn't he done any of this before? It was right here on his doorstep. He glanced across at Merlin, the reason for his new joie de vivre and attempted to catch his face in a smile. But Merlin was looking far away, his ice-cream neglected and dripping over the edge of the cone. Seeing him looking so distracted, Arthur turned back to the juggler, reminded too suddenly of all the questions he had for Merlin; too afraid the answers weren't going to be the ones he wanted to hear.
In the end it was Merlin who interrupted their silence.
"I got asked out at work the other day."
Arthur's heart careered up to his throat; he had to swallow hard before he could attempt to sound upbeat. "Lucky you. So does that mean I'm going to have to play second fiddle now?"
"No. I said no to her." Merlin looked intently with piercing blue eyes, as if he was trying to make a point. He added, "It was Leon's sister, Lena."
"Little Lena? You're joking?" Arthur tried to smile and failed.
"Less of the little. She's almost as tall as me. And why wouldn't she ask me out? Not in my league?"
"No, didn't mean it like that, it's just I've known her since she was tiny and I still think of her as a little girl. I didn't know she's working at the same place as you."
"She's just temping during her gap year, filing and stuff. She's going to university in October."
"Leon wouldn't mind, if you went out with her, if that's what you're worried about."
"Leon?" There was a hint of derision, but immediately followed by a much softer, "She's not my type, that's all."
Arthur already knew it and he already knew who Merlin's type was, but he'd skilfully managed to divert all attention from talk of that, since their first talk in the pub the day they went to buy Merlin's suit. He could see the entrance to it from where they were sitting.
"It's probably for the best, anyway, since you're both going your separate ways in a few months. Durham's a long way from London." Arthur held his breath and his gaze, trying to read something in Merlin's face, something that might show he'd understood what Arthur was trying to say.
Instead, Merlin stood up and said, "I'm going to throw this away, I've had enough." He held up his half-eaten ice-cream out. "How about you?"
"You can throw mine away, too. Thanks." He passed Merlin the cone and watched him drag his feet over to the bin. He supposed that was answer enough. A drop of rain hit him squarely on the nose, a final sign today's excursion was over.
They strode down to the tube station but before Merlin turned to head in he said, "Do you want to come back with me? Morgana said she'll order Chinese tonight and we can pick the film."
There was a sadness in the way he said it that brought back that familiar tightening in Arthur's chest, squeezing him too hard. It had been happening a lot lately.
"Actually, I have plans tonight." He hoped Merlin didn't spot his lie.
"Oh. Alright." Merlin paused and Arthur hated himself, knowing full well exactly why Merlin looked so crushed. "Well, thanks for today. I really enjoyed it."
"It didn't make you feel like a kid again?"
"Actually, it did, but there's nothing wrong with that."
Arthur knew now was the time to walk away, to push off through the crowds to the tube station at Leicester Square, to not look back and watch Merlin leave. If he could do it now he could keep doing it and when the day came that Merlin left for good it wouldn't be so bad.
Merlin was fiddling in his pocket, until he pulled out his Oyster card. "I still owe you that lunch."
"No, you don't. It doesn't matter."
"It does to me. Next time we go out?"
"Alright. I was thinking about Highgate Cemetery."
"You're such a romantic." Merlin laughed half-heartedly and Arthur couldn't be sure whether he'd meant it to be sarcastic, or whether he meant it, or whether Merlin even knew himself. Whatever, it was awkward. Where the colour had drained from Merlin's face, Arthur felt flushed, trapped burning in his skin. But instead of backing away Merlin stepped in and gave Arthur a hug and said into his neck, "I just wanted to say thanks," before pulling his head back.
Arthur croaked out, "What for?" He felt Merlin breathing, smelt the sweet smell of strawberry ice-cream on his breath, close enough to taste.
The moment ended when Merlin stepped back. He looked at the ground, the space between their feet, as he murmured, "It would have been grim, without you showing me round. I appreciate it." As he looked up, looked Arthur in the eye for a fleeting moment, his eyes were glassy.
Arthur couldn't help the feeling that this was a good-bye of sorts and it twisted knots inside him. "I'm enjoying it, too. Honestly." He deliberately kept the tense in the present. But Merlin was already walking away.
He watched him disappear into the lift down to the trains. Turning his collar against the drizzle and shoving his hands in his pockets, Arthur blinked hard and walked wearily down Long Acre towards Leicester Square.
Arthur spent the evening alone, with beer and a rented film. He could have gone out, could have called Perry, who'd been calling him regularly since his last night out with him. But he didn't want to. He didn't want to do any of that anymore; didn't want the likes of Bunny or any of that crap.
He went to bed too early and lay awake thinking about Merlin, about what it would be like if they were together. He mouthed out loud, "Hi, this is my boyfriend, Merlin." He did it so many times that in the end the words wouldn't quiet; they forged tracks in his mind, deep furrows which settled on his brow. Arthur mulled, his mind wandering from here to there.
Then it occurred to him.
Arthur literally leapt out of bed. He pulled open his laptop, impatient for it to boot up. As soon as he got to his inbox, he filtered out all the emails from Merlin and started to go through them one by one. For the last few weeks Merlin had been sending him links to properties for sale. Every single one had said in the specifications that the houses were in need of modernisation or restoration. Arthur had never opened all the links, seeing it as something of a joke. Although Merlin had never been to Arthur's flat, he knew Arthur didn't care for it, and he expected Morgana had told him enough to know of its location and style.
Merlin was either very clever or was a lucky speculator. Every single house that Merlin had sent details for was for sale at roughly half the value of Arthur's flat, or thereabouts. There were dozens of them. Arthur went through them all, one by one, looking at the location, the size and trying to ascertain the state of repair or disrepair. Some of the houses were repossessions, some were up for auction, but all of them were in London.
Arthur berated himself. It was two o'clock in the morning and he was still awake, driving himself mad with irrational thoughts like a lovesick teenager. Why he'd ever got the notion any one of the properties Merlin sent him would be in Durham, he had no idea. Seriously, Merlin fancied him, but that didn't mean he had plans to set up house with Arthur; he wasn't going to pledge is his everlasting love and beg Arthur to come to Durham with him, and Arthur didn't want him to. Not really.
Merlin was just trying to be helpful. They'd briefly talked about Arthur maybe buying a property to renovate, one day, and Merlin had done some digging around. Once again, Arthur scrolled through the list of links, only this time he hooked up the laptop to the printer and printed out the details for each and every one of them. It took another hour and by now he was getting drowsy.
His thoughts were shifting more slowly, the edges of one bleeding into the edges of another, until Merlin and Durham and London and houses and flats churned into each other in a one big grey mess. Sleepily, Arthur started to gather up the scatter of papers from the floor. It was only as he started to put them neatly, one on top of another into an orderly pile that he noticed for the first time Merlin had sent him the details of the same house three times. None of the others were duplicated, only this one. Arthur set it to the top of the pile and decided to look it over in the morning.
Arthur didn't see Merlin for another two weeks. He told Arthur he was busy with work weekdays and in between he was going to Durham for the weekend. (Arthur may have choked a little when Merlin sent him a text to explain, because there was a part of him that refused to believe it was true.) He wanted to go over to Morgana's and spend the weekend, like he used to. Only if he did, he'd probably give himself away. He'd end up sleeping in the bed that Merlin slept in now and do something stupid like cry and Morgana would know and Gwen, too, and then it would just be all out of control and ... he decided to stay home.
He thought about whether his flat would look more appealing with some colour. He thought about going to B&Q and buying paint. Then he thought better of it as he remembered Gwen's drunken words one night when she was waxing lyrical about how beautiful she found Morgana. Arthur, she'd said in a slur, an unattractive woman with lipstick on is still an unattractive woman. Anyone can see that.
It didn't matter what colour he painted the walls, he'd still hate it.
The pile of house details sat mockingly on the coffee table, daring to be perused again. They were already sorted into order of preference. The four at the top were enticing enough that Arthur had driven past them after work to see what kind of streets they were on and what the houses around them were like. It was a fool's errand, but anything was better than coming home to bare white walls starkly reflecting a life he didn't like or want.
Before Arthur plucked up the courage to phone Merlin and remind him he was owed a lunch (it was the one and only pretext he could come up with), Merlin called him.
"Do you still want to do something Saturday? You were talking about a graveyard." He sounded animated. As he cradled his phone to his ear, Arthur pictured Merlin's face, his eyes gleaming and crinkled at the corners, his infectious smile. He imagined his long fingers rubbing back and forth across his forehead, worrying the spikes of his dark hair. It led him to wonder what had lightened Merlin's mood. Maybe he'd finalised his plans for Durham, maybe he was over Arthur and had already moved on. Arthur had to sit down. He stretched out and clamped his hand over his eyes while he tried to steady his breathing. Merlin said with more urgency, "Arthur? Did you hear me?"
"Um, yes. Highgate Cemetery. It's not going to be too creepy for you?"
"We're not going to see any actual dead bodies, are we?"
"I hope not."
"Then I'm looking forward to it." There was sincerity in his voice, but Arthur refused to read anything into it.
"Good. If you meet me at Stratford station we can go together."
The inescapable matter of Arthur's attraction to Merlin and, quite feasibly, Merlin's continuing attraction to Arthur, was no reason why they couldn't continue to enjoy each other's company. No reason at all, until Merlin left, at least.
Arthur had carefully chosen dark blues jeans and a semi-close fitting, short-sleeved red football top to wear. It said casual, but not too scruffy, like he'd made an effort but not because today was anything more than two mates hanging around with each other.
Merlin was already on the platform at Stratford, wearing his usual low-slung jeans and a long-sleeved grey fitted t-shirt with some indistinguishable black pattern on the front. It was a mild day and the first time Arthur had seen Merlin out in anything less than three layers. He was thin and must have felt the cold, but it suited him, and now Arthur knew him better (had scrutinised every long line of his body) he decided Merlin was lithe, although his arms and legs could truthfully only be described as skinny. Arthur tried not to deliberate on the warmth that spread through him when he saw Merlin turn and smile as he approached. It had been a long two weeks.
The train was busy enough that they could only find seats facing each other on opposite sides of the carriage. Arthur wanted to ask Merlin about Durham but didn't want to hear potentially bad news surrounded by strangers pretending they weren't listening. He stared at his reflection in the glass for a long while before he glanced over at Merlin, who caught his eye with a soft smile before looking away. Then he looked around the carriage and tapped his feet, willing the train to move faster.
When they changed at Bank it was no better; Merlin was no more talkative than he'd been on the last train. Arthur was supposed to be the quiet and broody one, not Merlin.
He waited until they were off the train and walking up Highgate Hill to ask, "How was Durham?"
"Cold. And wet."
"It's a long way north."
"Over two hundred miles from here."
"Had you been there before?"
"No. That's why I went – to check it out, check out the University, see how I liked it."
"Well ... it's a small city, but nice. I liked the campus and I got to meet the professor that would be my supervisor ..." Merlin didn't sound enthused. His face was serious – his brow furrowed even though the sun was behind them.
"They offered me a job, at DataServe, where I'm working now and I was accepted at Imperial."
"Bloody hell, Merlin. What are you going to do?" Arthur stopped mid-step.
"What do you think I should do?"
Merlin hadn't made up his mind to leave after all and now he was perhaps waiting for an answer Arthur knew he shouldn't give. He had no right. "That's not for me to say. You have to do what's right for you."
"And you would know all about doing that." The sarcasm twisted his face. It clearly wasn't the answer Merlin was hoping for. He started walking again, his face set stony and his hands thrust into his jeans pockets.
Arthur tried to stay calm. "No, not like me." It seemed, over this last month, Merlin had got to know him rather better than he realised. Still, the accusation furthered Arthur's point.
They crossed the park in silence, Arthur wishing he could be distracted by dog-walkers, joggers and birdsong. Up until this point, it had been prudent, if not easy, keeping Merlin at a distance because as far as Arthur was concerned Merlin was leaving. Now he might stay.
He glanced over at Merlin who chose that exact moment to turn and glance at him. He said, "I love my job, I'm good at it and if I stay on I'll be given more responsibility and more money ..."
"And you'll get your own business cards."
Merlin's expression rose and quickly fell again. "I know how lucky I am to get such prestigious academic offers and I shouldn't pass up the opportunity. But Durham is a long way from my Mum ... and everyone else I know. So, if I go to Imperial I get to stay in London, but Durham has a better research project ..." Merlin sighed, looking exasperated, frustrated and torn. "I don't know if I even want to go back to academia."
"You could always get a job after you get your doctorate."
They'd reached the other side of the park and the conversation halted while they crossed over the road and paid their entrance fee to the cemetery. The woman at the desk said they'd just missed the start of the guided tour.
"That's alright, we'll just walk around." Arthur looked over at Merlin who nodded. The conversation during the walk from the station had made Merlin look sad. He didn't even try to hide it.
Arthur had been wrong to think Merlin no longer had feelings for him and he'd been wrong to think he'd protected either Merlin or himself from heartache by hiding behind indifference and a fake smile.
The gravestones were impressive, but the angels and cherubs stared at them morosely as they walked by, pressing down a heavy silence, held in place by all the stone and the dead.
After they'd had the night out at The Tate Arthur had decided that he wasn't going to dwell on Merlin being a man. Gay or bisexual, it was irrelevant; he was simply and undeniably in love with him. He had been ever since. The main issue had never been about sexuality, even if he'd tried to convince himself otherwise. Arthur just couldn't bear the thought of being left. He was scared of risking his heart only to get hurt again. How ironic.
They walked through arches, round gravestones, occasionally pausing if they saw a name one of them recognised. It was bigger than Arthur had anticipated but his legs had been feeling heavy long before they'd made it up Highgate Hill.
After an hour or so, Merlin stopped and sat on a bench. He leant forward, resting his weight on his elbows. Squinting up at Arthur, he beckoned him to sit with a tilt of his head. Arthur watched him exhale a long sigh and scrub his knees and his face as he rested on his elbows again. His feet were jittering up and down and Arthur would have put his hands on him and said just be still, but how could he? Instead, he sat down, leaving too much space between them.
"I'm sorry." Merlin sighed again, as if it had replaced normal breathing.
"I've been shit company."
"You've got a lot on your mind. It's okay." Arthur hesitated before resting a hand gently on his back.
"Well, my head hurts and I have to tell you, I'm not really in the mood for a graveyard."
With his hand acting as a visor, Merlin looked at Arthur. "Okay, then that's enough culture for one day. Let's go and get something to eat and after that I want you to teach me how to play pool." He stood up and pulled Arthur to his feet.
"I'm a mere human, Merlin. Teaching you how to play pool would require the services of a magician. Why don't we start with the food and take it from there?"
"Food first, then pool." He was endearingly insistent and trying too hard to be cheerful.
"Alright, but the second you injure a member of the public, including me, we call it quits."
"I'm not that bad."
"Yes you are."
They shrugged off Highgate and got on the first bus that came by heading south.
Which was how they ended up at The Snooty Fox, hunger sated with a late lunch that Merlin paid for, slowly pickling themselves with lager and playing pool. Playing, of course, only loosely described what Merlin was doing. After several pints, more potted white balls than coloured and a broken cue, (Merlin insisted it wasn't his fault. He barely weighed a thing and it certainly looked strong enough to lean on it) Arthur got a call from Morgana.
"Hi, love. Where are you?"
"In a pub in town ... somewhere. Why?"
"Is Merlin still with you?"
"... Are you drunk?"
Arthur giggled ... laughed in a manly fashion. "I might be ... a bit." He added petulantly, "But so's Merlin."
"Well, of course he is." He could picture her rolling her eyes. "I was just calling to see if you two were coming back for dinner and a film, but I suppose not."
"Um, I suppose not either." Arthur held the phone away from his face and shouted across to Merlin, who was leaning across the pool table, just about to play his shot, "Merlin, will we be back for dinner and a film?"
"What time is it?" He stood up, wobbled a bit and looked like he was going to lean against his cue, but thought better of it before steadying himself by hanging onto the edge of the pool table.
"Just after six."
"Nah, not curry." Merlin screwed up his face. "Maybe the film, yeah? But tell her not to wait for us. I think if we have one more game I might just get the hang of this."
Arthur barked out a loud laugh which sent a twinge through his bladder. He had no plans to piss himself. "No, we won't be back. Got to go. Nature's calling. Save me a poppadum?"
"Alright. But make sure you get Merlin home in one piece. He can't hold his drink like you do."
Looking over at Merlin, who was jabbing his cue into thin air as he repeatedly failed to hit the white, Arthur had to agree with her.
When he came back from the toilets Merlin was sat on a stool looking solemn. "I'm no good at pool."
"No, you're not. Does it matter?"
"You'd like me better if I could play pool."
"No, we'd just spend more evenings in the pub. All this other stuff we've done, I wouldn't have even thought about if it wasn't for you ... and I've enjoyed doing all of it."
Merlin looked pleased. He smiled a crooked smile, sort of at Arthur, although he was swaying and his focus seemed to be shifting amiably from side to side in counterpoint to his head. Arthur was tipsy. Merlin was drunk. He thought they should maybe slow down.
"I'm starving. I want ships. Lot of ships."
Arthur snorted. "You mean chips?"
"That's what I said. Ships and lasagne."
The mere mention of food made Arthur hungry. He went to the bar, ordered them dinner and got Merlin a large glass of water.
Arthur had no idea what the time was when they finally left the pub, but Merlin was a sight to behold. There was a big smear of tomato sauce down the front of his t-shirt, his hair was sticking up on one side and his cheeks looked like someone had been mercilessly pinching them for the entire evening.
They were both drunk, although Arthur was certain that Merlin was much drunker than he was. They staggered out into the night air, not feeling the cold, and headed for the tube station which Arthur was convinced was only a short walk down the street. Eventually it felt like they'd been stumbling along for hours, bumping into each other more and more despite the streets getting emptier instead of fuller and laughing about nothing at all and not giving shit about any of it.
In the end, they wound up at Holborn, two stops further along the Central line than Oxford Street, where Arthur had planned for them to get on. No wonder there were less people about. Even so, the platform was busy enough with Saturday night revellers all waiting for the eastbound train. Merlin was leaning precariously against the curve of the wall as Arthur felt the rush of warm air and heard the familiar whipping sound of the wheels on the tracks before he saw the lights barrel ahead of the train as it came through the tunnel.
While it was coming to a halt, Arthur pulled Merlin from where he stood, so they could get close to an entrance before the doors slid open. There was a shove and rush into the already busy carriage and they had to stand. Merlin was unsteady even before the train pulled away so that Arthur dutifully warned him, "You'd better hang on."
Only, instead of reaching up for the rail Merlin took that as a cue to wrap his arm around Arthur's waist. The tube was packed and no one even batted an eyelid, but Arthur felt a warm flare which he did his best to quash by returning the gesture and casually putting his arm around Merlin - to steady him further. After all, he really was very drunk.
The train jerked into motion and they were momentarily thrown together, their warm bodies aligning, while Merlin's head bobbed lazily in time with the bump and rattle of the train. He seemed to have lost several inches in height over the course of the evening, Arthur presumed to the alcohol, which had dissolved his wiry frame so it was almost boneless. His head had found its way onto Arthur's chest, his cheek pressed heavily against the fabric of his shirt as if he were listening for his heartbeat. Even if Merlin couldn't hear it over the whine and clatter of the train, he surely could feel it pounding like the wheels on the rails, resonating into his skull with a constant rhythm - you do this to me, you do this to me, you do this to me.
Arthur looked down at him, at the back of his neck ... until his eyes were drawn down to Merlin's feet.
"Merlin, where's your shoe?"
He looked up at Arthur, confused, "Um, I think it came off as we were getting on the train. Someone caught the back of my heel."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
Merlin looked at Arthur as if the answer was so obvious he had no clue why he was even being asked such a stupid question. Then he slurred, as if speaking to a small child, "It fell under the train. Down the gap. That's why they say mind the gap. Shoes get swallowed down there."
"Oh my God, Merlin." Arthur could do nothing but hold him tighter as he looked at Merlin's socked foot, his toes wriggling as though they were glad to be free. Only Merlin could lose a shoe and act like this was a completely expected turn of events.
By the time they got back to Hackney, it had started to rain. There were no taxis lined up on the street as they headed out of the station, but it was only a ten-minute walk back - with shoes on. Despite this minor inconvenience Merlin was insistent they walk. "I have to show you the house on Castleview Road."
Luckily, even with the rain, it wasn't bitter, but they seemed to be making frustratingly slow progress to wherever it was Merlin appeared to be taking them. They were hindered mainly by his inability to walk in a straight line and the weight of the water no doubt dragging on his slight frame.
"How's your foot?"
"Okay. My sock isn't faring too well though," Merlin lamented, his toe poking through the end of the greyed and tattered fabric. He was drenched and had never looked so pathetic or so utterly appealing; his hair plastered to his face, his t-shirt clinging to his long, lean torso as he shivered.
"Merlin, you really are a piece of work. Do you want me to give you a piggy back?"
"No, I'm alright. Look, here it is."
"Here what is?"
"The house on Castleview Road."
Then Arthur remembered all the house details Merlin had emailed him, and in particular the one that he'd sent him three times. It had ended up near the bottom of Arthur's pile – too big and needing too much work, although the price was good for the location.
"So you like this one, do you?"
Now Arthur was stood in front of it, even in the dark and the rain, the pale brick and paint Victorian facade with its rows of long sash windows was impressive, and the pristine houses around a testament to its potential. It was a smaller version of the grandiose four and five story properties on the main road, most of which were now converted into flats. These smaller three-storey houses had mostly retained their original purpose, although the majority of the front gardens were now gravelled over for off-street parking.
He'd certainly be doing the neighbours a favour by taking it on, and as all good property investors knew, the worst house on the street was always the best one to buy.
"Yes, I do like it, from the outside. But it's a mess."
"You could turn that place around; restore it to its former glory." He clenched at Arthur's shoulder, his eyes wide and earnest despite how unsteady he looked.
"Yeah, I probably could," he said wistfully, "in another life."
"Why not in this life?"
"Merlin, sometimes ... come on, let's get out of this rain."
Arthur used his key – given that Merlin was in no fit state to find his, let alone get the thing in the lock. As they clambered up the stairs, (Arthur thought they'd tiptoed, but he would concede they were perhaps noisier than they thought they were) Gwen came out of the living room in her pyjamas, to see what was going on, presumably. She didn't appear to be going anywhere.
She stood gaping for a few seconds then howled. "Morgana, press pause and come and look at what the cat dragged in."
Morgana joined her, so that they stood side-by-side, hands on hips, like a couple of exasperated parents, woefully regarding their errant offspring coming home bedraggled and inebriated.
Morgana attempted to sound stern. "In the bathroom, both of you ... Merlin, where's your shoe?"
"He lost it."
"I lost it." By now Merlin's teeth were chattering and even with a belt on, he looked like he might lose his jeans.
"You know what, Gwen, get the camera. I want to preserve this moment."
They squelched into the bathroom where Morgana threw in towels and left strict instructions to put their wet clothes in the bath. They were both too cold to protest although Arthur was sober enough to just get on with peeling down to his boxers quickly. He still had some clothes in Merlin's room (as he'd finally accepted he had to call his old room). Trying not to look at Merlin fumbling with his button and zip as he stripped to his underwear, Arthur slid by him and went to fetch himself a t-shirt and a pair of old jeans.
He was dry and dressed by the time Merlin came into the room wearing just his boxers. Arthur looked away and was about to angle past him when Merlin caught his wrist with an urgent press of his chilly fingers and said, "You could stay. The bed's big enough for both of us." He frowned then chased it quickly with a smile. "I don't take up much room."
Arthur's heart was starting to race, pounding harder and harder against his chest. He stalled his answer to the suggestion by turning to the chest of drawers, pulling out one of his old t-shirts and saying to Merlin, "Here, put this on – you're shivering."
Merlin's hair was drying into buoyant curls that framed his slender face. His cheeks were flushed and he was almost impossible to resist – and so hopeful. Arthur's t-shirt hung loosely from the sharp jut of his shoulders, his skinny legs poking out beneath it looking pale and goose-bumped. Merlin had never been so insistent. "Come on. You may as well." He pulled Arthur towards the bed until they were stood at the foot of it, face to face.
Arthur's chest was so tight he could hardly draw in a breath. Lack of oxygen, too much alcohol, or a combination of both, was making his head spin and he looked at Merlin to focus, to steady himself. He didn't know what else to do.
Merlin's eyes, while somewhat watery, were completely fixed on Arthur. When he rocked forward and caught Arthur's mouth in a kiss, soft and chaste and only half landing on Arthur's mouth, it didn't really take Arthur by surprise at all, even if he did let out a gasp. Merlin rocked back, then like a wrecking ball came in again, his mouth landing squarely on Arthur's with more force; his hands planted on Arthur's chest where they bunched his t-shirt in his fists. This time Arthur clasped Merlin's elbows and pursed his lips. In all honesty, that meant he kissed Merlin back, although it was only a clumsy slip-slap of mouth against mouth.
The sudden jolt of adrenalin instantly sobered him.
"Oops." Merlin sniggered.
"Get into bed. I'm going to get you some water and a couple of paracetamol."
"Then you're coming back?"
"And you're going to stay?"
Arthur forced a smile and brushed the back of his fingers down Merlin's arm, the contact fleeting but the sensation lingering. It was the most intimate thing he'd ever done to him. "Just get into bed."
Arthur fled to the kitchen, leant over the sink and breathed deep. He didn't know what to do. Despite his crude talk, he'd never had a one-night-stand; he hadn't slept with any of his past three girlfriends until after weeks of courting and he'd never had sex with a man full-stop. Not that Merlin was in any fit state for sex anyway.
As Arthur crossed the hallway to the bathroom, he noticed the living room was quiet and dark. Morgana and Gwen must have gone to bed. He took the bottle of paracetamol from the medicine cabinet and as he tapped out a few tablets, he noticed his hands were shaking. Taking two with a mouthful of water, he put aside another two for Merlin, thinking he may as well make an attempt to avert his inevitable hangover.
There were a dozen reasons Arthur could conjure up why he should stay and as many as to why he should go. But there was only one that counted for anything.
He crept back out into the hallway and into Merlin's bedroom, resolving to kiss Merlin goodnight and tell him he was going home but that he would see him tomorrow. Merlin was worth more than a drunken grope and any lingering trace of doubt.
As he opened the door Arthur saw him curled on his side, half of his face buried in the white cotton pillow. He was fast asleep.
Putting the tablets and the water on the bedside cabinet, Arthur crept back over to the desk and on a post-it note wrote Call me as soon as you wake up, Arthur and stuck it next to the glass of water. Turning out the light, he tiptoed from the room, picking up his shoes at the top of the stairs, waiting until he was at the bottom to put them on his bare feet. They were cold, damp and uncomfortable.
Arthur went out into the miserable, dank night, hoping he had enough cash in his wallet for a taxi home. He needed to get a good night's sleep, because he had the feeling tomorrow was going to be a big day.
The next morning Arthur was awoken by his mobile phone. Only, it was Morgana, not Merlin ... and she was in a flap. "What happened last night?"
"What do you mean?"
"Merlin's left. He handed me a cheque for his rent for the next three months and said he was going to his mum's for a bit."
"But he's coming back?" Arthur tried to sound calm, as he sat bolt upright, suddenly wide awake.
"Aren't you listening? He gave me the next three month's rent, today, out of the blue, when he'd already paid me for the month last week. And he looked a mess, like he'd been up half the night crying. What if he's not coming back?"
"He was paralytic last night – you saw him. He looked a mess because he's hung over. Did he take all his stuff?" Arthur had broken out in a cold sweat. He was already out of bed and heading for the bathroom.
"He doesn't have any stuff. But his rucksack looked pretty full. He just didn't seem himself and I'm worried. Maybe he got bad news in the night or something. He wouldn't tell me anything."
"Do you want me to phone him?
"Yes. Then you'll phone me back?"
Arthur's heart was pounding. Had Merlin gone because he'd left last night? Or was it bad news from home? Why hadn't Merlin called him? His glanced at his watch. It was only eight-thirty.
Merlin's phone rang to voicemail. Arthur tried to sound calm and upbeat as he left him a message.
Hey, it's me, Arthur. Morgana said you're off to your mum's for the weekend. I was hoping you'd phone me before you left; I was hoping to see you today. Now I'm sort of worried. Phone me back and let me know everything's okay.
Arthur turned on the shower, leaving his phone on the back of the sink, so he could see if it rang.
He was clean and dressed and gulping down coffee and Merlin still hadn't returned his call. He looked at his watch - it was only just nine o'clock. Pacing the length of the room and back again, his mind racing through every conceivable scenario, Arthur decided to wait another five minutes before phoning him again.
It was the longest five minutes of his life, despite only being able to fill it with putting on his shoes and roughly making his bed.
Arthur phoned Merlin at nine o'clock and got his voicemail again. He tried for calm but urgent, only he ended up sounding frantic.
Merlin please. If I did something to upset you, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left last night, but you were so drunk and then you fell asleep and I was nervous ... and if you're going home for some other reason, if it's an emergency ... you should have phoned me. You know I'd drive you. Please phone me back as soon as you get this message and let me know what's going on.
Then Arthur texted him as well, telling him to listen to his voicemail and to please text or phone him back.
He couldn't sit around waiting. He would have to drive to the station and find out what was going on. If Merlin needed to go back to Ealdor, he would take him, and if they needed to talk then ... they would talk.
Arthur had to wrack his brain. All those conversations, all those neatly catalogued facts that he stored about everyone he knew - he never forgot a birthday, a favourite food, the things other sales people he knew kept on index cards so they could pretend they gave a shit when they tried to ingratiate themselves with customers. Arthur just remembered that stuff. Ealdor was in Kent. Merlin would have to get the train from Charing Cross.
Arthur switched on his laptop and pulled up British Rail, looking for trains to Ealdor from Charing Cross Station. Only he quickly discovered Ealdor didn't have a train station; it was too small.
Lots of places didn't have their own station. Arthur had to remind himself to breathe deep, stay calm and focus. He just needed to find the station nearest to Ealdor. He googled a map, found the station then traced the black line of its route with his finger west towards London, all the way back to Charing Cross Station.
Arthur grabbed his keys and headed out the door. He could feel the sweat prickling his neck as he jabbed at the buttons on the lift, hoping Merlin wouldn't try to phone him while he was in the underground car park, where there was never a signal.
He ran to the car and drove, sped, out to the open air, only pulling over when he saw the bars show up again on his phone, ready to receive a message. He typed his destination into his GPS; today he needed help, he needed to be able to avoid road-works and traffic-jams and he needed to get to Charing Cross before Merlin got on a train.
Arthur kept running things over in his mind - the events of last night, the kiss, him leaving. Had Merlin not seen the note? Did he think Arthur was regretting everything? Or was this something else entirely? Arthur didn't know, he just didn't know.
Merlin would have walked to the station and got the train to Stratford which was over land. He surely must have got Arthur's messages before he went underground? Why hadn't he called back? Why hadn't he even sent a text? Arthur gripped the steering wheel, trying to squeeze out the trembling in his fingers. Putting his foot down hard, he pulled away, tyres screeching against the tarmac.
On the way to Charing Cross, Arthur tried phoning Merlin again. This time he didn't even try to disguise his panic. In forty minutes he'd worked himself up into believing something terrible was going on; Merlin was leaving London because of him or someone had died.
I'm in the car. I'm driving to Charing Cross. Please don't get on a train until I get there. Phone me, text me, just let me know where you are.
It was nine-thirty. The traffic was too slow and every light seemed to change to red as he got to it. Arthur banged his steering wheel, shouted abuse at pedestrians and drivers through his closed windows (which, with any luck, meant no one actually heard him) and revved his engine until it growled, loudly echoing his frustration.
Arthur got the chance to text Merlin again when he was stuck in a queue of cars at right-turn traffic lights, half a mile from the station.
I'm almost here. Where are you?
It was ten minutes to ten o'clock and Merlin hadn't replied to a single one of his messages.
When he finally pulled up to the station, there was, of course, absolutely nowhere to park. Arthur cursed. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." He banged his steering wheel hard, slammed the gearstick into first and cursed again. As he scanned in desperation, he spotted a tiny gap between two bollards on the side of the street, which was absolutely not somewhere he could legally park, but he was all out of options. Parking half on the pavement, half on the road, he scribbled a note on the back of a crinkled receipt with a blunt pencil: back in five minutes, matter of extreme urgency. He was going to get towed, he knew it.
Without dwelling any further on the car, Arthur sprinted into the station.
Of course, it was heaving and massive; swells of people, one half drifting like plankton, idly waiting to find out what platform their train was leaving from, the other half hurrying, scurrying and bustling along. Arthur cut through the crowd like a shark to the departures board. He had no clue what destination he was looking for; he'd traced the line on the map back to Charing Cross but in his haste had failed to check where it terminated. Dover was the only coastal town he could think of in Kent. Those trains were down on the low platform numbers.
His phone beeped.
I'm at Victoria Station. Platform 9.
"Fuck. No. This can't be happening. I'm in the wrong fucking station." Arthur turned and ran, his arms swinging out wildly as he pushed past open-mouthed people, jumped over bags and swerved round pushchairs, until he arrived breathless and sweaty, back at his car and thank God, the five minutes he'd been in the station wasn't enough time for a ticket, let alone a clamp. Merlin hadn't specified a train, which Arthur presumed meant he was waiting for him. But he didn't allow himself a sigh of relief; wouldn't allow it until he had Merlin in his arms.
It was a Sunday morning, the roads busier with pedestrians than cars, but Arthur drove like his life depended on it. The first red light he came to he sent a text.
I'm coming. Be with you soon.
Moments later Arthur's phone rang. It was Morgana.
"What's going on? It's been over an hour." She was on the verge of tears.
"He's at Victoria. I'm on my way. I don't know what's going on, but I'll phone you later." He didn't wait for her reply.
His phone bleeped. It was from Merlin.
Arthur revved his engine until it snarled like a hungry dog, he banged his horn, and intimidated enough drivers to let him pass. In ten minutes he was lined up behind a bus waiting to get into the terminal. He swerved around it, taking a chance nothing would get in his way, heading for the slip road off the far lane.
At Victoria there was a small car park, but Arthur held out scant hope there would be a space. However, he had to try it or risk being clamped and towed. There were no queues at the entrance and no 'full' sign lit. Arthur was able to pull out a ticket and drive in without delay, although he had to drive around and around until he found what was probably the last space. It was barely wide enough for a Mini, let alone his Audi, but he had no choice. He parked tight on one side and slid out of his door, knowing full well if the owner of the car next to his was any bigger than a waif and returned before him, he'd probably end up with a dent in his passenger door. There was no time to worry about it. With any luck he'd be back first, with Merlin.
Feeling marginally calmer, now that he was finally here and legally parked, Arthur jogged to the station entrance. He was hot and breathless once more, the sweat breaking through the pores on his back, the station muggier and warmer than the air conditioning he'd had blasting through his car all the way here.
Victoria was busier and louder than Charing Cross, even though it was smaller, the crowds denser and possibly more aimless. Casting his glance around the station, sifting out the female, the short, the fat, the elderly and anyone who looked like they were rushing for a train, Arthur homed in on a break in the stream of people and made a dash through it, the mid-platforms just moments away.
And then he saw him.
From behind a pillar, a mop of dark hair emerged, dragging his backpack behind him.
"Merlin!" Arthur nearly knocked him over with the force he ran into him, pulling him into his arms and holding him tight.
Merlin threw his arms around Arthur's neck. His eyes were wide and wet as the words flooded out. "I'm sorry. I'm fine, everyone's fine; I didn't mean to worry you. My phone was off until I got here - there's no signal most of the way. I switched it on and you'd left me all those messages ..."
"No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have left last night, I should have stayed - I wanted to stay. I don't want you to leave, I don't want you to leave me, but if you do, if you go to Durham we'll work it out. I'll visit you, whatever it takes."
They stood and stared at each other for what felt like an age, soaking up the closeness that had been denied all this time. Everything about Merlin was raw and ragged, from the quickness of his breath to the sore-looking skin above his cheekbones. He'd been burned last night and the aftermath was still there in the anxious flitter of his eyes across Arthur's face as though they were searching for a way through this, to somewhere safer.
Arthur should have kept his eyes open, should have looked to see if Merlin's would flicker shut, as he'd longingly dreamed they would. But they fell closed of their own accord as he pressed forward and kissed him – kissed Merlin on his mouth, on his face. Between each pause, each stuttered catch of his breath, Merlin returned every kiss, his hands gripping and digging into the back of Arthur's head and neck.
Breathless and trembling they held onto each other. The rumble of trains shook the ground beneath their feet, the Tannoy announced the departure of the next train and as Arthur opened his eyes he saw people hurrying by, oblivious to them, not bothering to look up or around. He could scarcely look at Merlin, the intensity of having him so close, tasting him, breathing him in, so overwhelming, so dizzying, so terrifying and wonderful. He wanted this to feel right, tender; not awkward. He firmly kissed the end of Merlin's nose, maybe too hard, and had to close his eyes again, not sure if what he'd done was too sentimental and silly.
In response, Merlin brushed a thumb over Arthur's bottom lip and chased it with another kiss reassuring him he could look and see it was alright.
Standing still, pressed together, Arthur could feel Merlin was still shaky, and it came through in his voice. "I heard you leave last night, and I was so confused and humiliated. I thought I'd got it wrong; that you didn't want me after all. And I couldn't face seeing you after that, having you tell me you just wanted to be friends." By now his eyes were filled with tears. If he blinked they might fall. "All I think about is you. I thought if I went to Durham, got away for a weekend, I'd be able to think more clearly, more objectively, but it just made it worse. The whole time I was away, I was thinking about you. I missed you so much."
"I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I didn't know." He'd had no idea, no idea that Merlin had hurt that much; that he'd kept it all inside so that they could pretend to be just friends. Merlin who always wore his heart on his sleeve had done what Arthur always did and Arthur knew now, only too well, how miserable he must have been and he would never have wished it upon him, not ever.
Merlin half smiled as he blinked back the wetness in his eyes. He was tentative, the nervousness still flitting across his face. "I'm not your usual type, your usual sex even."
Arthur kissed him again, softly lingering on his lips, and for the first time he let his tongue venture over and inside Merlin's mouth, until the kiss was returned unwavering. He did it there, in the middle of Victoria Station, where anyone could see. When he pulled back he said, with absolute certainty, "I know it's all new for me. But I also know you push all the right buttons. It's just my door, it got stuck."
"But it's open now?"
"Can I come in?"
"If you do, you know I'm not letting you back out."
"That's okay. I've got a feeling I'm going to be right at home."
"Me, too." Arthur held Merlin close again and whispered into his neck, over and over again, "Me, too."
They drove back to Arthur's flat. He'd never taken Merlin there before. He hadn't wanted him to see it as if it might somehow give something of him away he didn't want Merlin to see.
The moment Merlin stepped through the door he said, "No wonder you were always at Morgana's. How can you live here?"
"What do you mean?" Arthur feigned his chagrin, for the most part. "This is sought-after property."
"Let me elaborate." Merlin walked around the open-plan floor space, running his fingers over the surfaces and sweeping his arm around in a wide arc. "Steel counter-tops, white furniture, and bloody hell, is this carpet white? Arthur, it looks like a hospital."
"That's harsh." The look was minimal, sleek, understated in an overstated way. "I'll have you know this flat was furnished by a highly recommended interior designer and I've been reliably informed this is what would give the biggest return on a sale. These flats are meant to be like this."
"And when are you planning on selling?"
"One day. Eventually."
"Good, but I'd say you should do it sooner rather than later." Merlin suddenly clamped his mouth shut. He added more gently, "I'm surprised Gwen didn't try to soften it with cushions."
"She did. They're in that cupboard. They make me itch."
The tension eased and Merlin crossed the room, pulling Arthur in for a kiss. "Why did you leave last night?" Their foreheads rested against each other, Merlin's hands soothing circles over Arthur's back.
"You were drunk, and I didn't want it to be like that, not the first time."
"I should have guessed, old-fashioned you. I'm sorry I bolted." Merlin paused then grinned, "But then you came after me like some knight in shining armour. God, Arthur, you drove a halfway across London like a lunatic and you ran through the station to find me. You did all that for me."
"Yes, I risked life and limb, a speeding ticket and getting my car towed. In future, don't switch off your phone."
"I was on the Tube. No signal."
Merlin was holding has hand, his thumb rubbing gently over his knuckles and it felt natural, so stupidly natural after all these weeks of thinking about it, but still so utterly terrifying. Arthur didn't even know what was going to be expected of him now and he certainly had no idea if he was going to be able to deliver. Merlin was kind and patient and that should have set him at ease but in a way it made it worse because he didn't want to be a disappointment.
"Yeah, just … you know?" He cupped Merlin's jaw and kissed him slowly, moving with soft presses along his jaw, so he wouldn't have to say anything.
"You don't need to worry. Come on; show me your bedroom."
"It's there. I just need to ..." he paused, not really knowing what he needed to do first, except breathe, "go in; make yourself comfortable."
Arthur escaped to the bathroom, splashed his face with cold water and had the sick feeling he was even more unprepared for this than he'd first thought. He tore open the medicine cabinet, pulled out the drawers in the vanity, even though he knew he wasn't going to find what he was looking for. Shit, shit. It had been so long. Sophia had been on the Pill and after her he hadn't wanted to and had deliberately not bought more condoms as a way of policing himself into seeing it through. As for lube: not a chance. He didn't even know if it was the same stuff for anal sex as it was for vaginal.
"Are you alright in there?"
"Um, yeah, I'm fine." There was nothing for it - he'd just have to tell him. He opened the door and said sheepishly, "I don't have anything: condoms or lube. I'm sorry – I just wasn't expecting this."
"Arthur, it's alright. We have everything we need. Now come on."
Merlin led Arthur back into the bedroom. He slowly peeled his clothes off to his boxers and Arthur could see he was maybe half hard; the tight lines of his body rippling and shifting as he clambered onto the bed and beckoned Arthur to join him.
Arthur opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it and instead roughly pulled off his shirt and undid his jeans before lying down beside him. Merlin sidled closer then draped his leg and his body half over Arthur's, looking down into his eyes with adoration.
Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin, running his hands the length of his back, mapping out the planes of muscle, the jut of his hip bones, the hair at the tops of his thighs. He kissed him with alternate soft pecks and intrigued swipes of his tongue, which were returned by the warm, soft press of Merlin's lips against his mouth, along his jaw, down his neck. This in itself was new, to feel a man's body, sinewy and hard, and he wanted more than anything to take a look at Merlin's cock to see if he was hard there yet, too. The head of his own cock was already chafing against the waistband of his boxers. As Merlin sucked into his neck he tried to push them down to release it.
Merlin said playfully into his ear, "Usually I have a rule, nothing below the waist on the first date, but for you I'll make an exception. Safe, though, right?"
Arthur nodded as Merlin pulled his jeans and boxers off in one movement and removed his own underwear before lying next to him again, leaning over him on his side.
He should have guessed Merlin would take it slow, each kiss and caress so fleeting at first, like a sonata in largo. When Arthur returned with a hitch in his breath or a gasp Merlin would continue more surely, his cadence speaking of waiting and longing. Without words, Arthur confessed his desire and begged Merlin for more.
It was taking so long, so deliciously, painfully long before Merlin moved downwards, only barely lingering at Arthur's nipples, before the backs of his fingers skated over the ridge on the underside of Arthur's cock, just acquainting himself with its feel, its presence. Arthur, who had thus far kept still but for his hands alternately clasping the sheets or Merlin's back, reached for Merlin's cock and did the same, eager to find out if he liked the feel of it, if it pleased Merlin to be touched by him.
Merlin's cock felt the same as his - dry, soft skin over hard flesh. But it was bigger than Arthur expected, longer than his if about the same thickness. He panicked.
He squeezed his eyes shut as if the darkness would bury away the dread of what Merlin might be thinking of him, to banish it from spoiling this. But in his head there were floodlights illuminating all his insecurities at once, all the times it had never quite been as good as he hoped. He had to wonder if it was an exaggeration: it was just porn fantasy that sex was ever that good.
"You still with me?" Merlin kissed him soft, open-mouthed on the cheek.
"Yeah." Arthur tried to laugh it off, but the moment he opened his eyes and looked at Merlin he knew he didn't want to mess this up. He turned his head in for a kiss, held Merlin close and rolled them so they were both on their sides, face to face. He wrapped his leg over Merlin's thigh and pulled him in closer, kissing him harder and pushing his hips forwards so their cocks rubbed together side by side. He could do this, he could.
That's when it happened. Merlin spread his hand over the rise of Arthur's arse cheek. He dug his fingers in, just in lightly turning circles until he worked his way towards the cleft, brushing his fingers over his hole. "You like that?"
Arthur pulled back from the kiss and nodded, surprised at the candour of his reaction, while Merlin continued to tease his finger around his entrance. He pressed and circled the skin, the sensation adding yet another layer to his building arousal.
"You know what. I have an idea." Merlin pulled back and got off the bed. "I've got some lube in my bag. Before you say anything it was for solo; I wasn't sure how long I'd be going home for."
"Got your priorities straight then?"
Merlin left the room and was back in moments. As he climbed on the bed he said matter-of-factly, "This just makes it feel better, back and front."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"I want you to lie on your side, away from me."
As Arthur did so, Merlin spooned himself behind him and smoothed the lube into his palm. He burrowed his other arm beneath Arthur and pulled him in close, splaying his fingers across Arthur's chest. He teased a nipple and Arthur shuddered, the ripples of pleasure racing through him. "Oh good, a nipples man," Merlin whispered as he did it some more. Then with his other, lubed hand he loosely took Arthur's cock and stroked up and down, slow and gentle, just ghosting his fingers over the head, rubbing with his thumb into the slit, under the ridge and then down and up again. Arthur had to focus on sucking in air and pushing it back out, the flush burning his cheeks. He fisted the sheet and the pillow and hung on, trying to simply enjoy the slow rub of Merlin's fist without coming too soon. It had been so long - it might have been forever since Arthur had been this turned on.
"You know what I find most attractive about you?" Merlin whispered into the shell of his ear, sending a shiver the length of his spine.
"Your forearms: I mean, Arthur, you're the best looking man I've ever met, but your arms. I really noticed it that day I knocked down the shelf. When you asked me to help you I was watching you - totally absorbed, lining up the shelf, marking it out with the spirit level. When you put the pencil between your teeth, God I wanted you so much, right then and there ..."
"I thought you didn't like my teeth."
"I never said that. I love your teeth, your mouth. Fuck Arthur ... your mouth. I've thought about that mouth of yours every night since I met you."
And so it went on, Merlin gently revealing all the things he loved about Arthur, while he gently stroked his cock; it seemed there were no end of things, things that Arthur had no idea anyone had ever noticed about him, let alone liked. He'd pause and kiss Arthur in the soft spot behind his ear, and stroke him again and Arthur could feel him hard behind him and wondered if he should be doing something. So he reached back, but Merlin said, "Not yet. Just relax, enjoy this. I like watching you; your cheeks flushed, your mouth open. I can feel your heart pounding against my arm. You have no idea how gorgeous you are."
Arthur though, could feel that familiar burn and he didn't want it, not yet. So he pulled Merlin's hand from his cock and whispered with shame, "Then you have to stop for a minute. I ... might come too soon." He buried his face in the pillow, the sting of humiliation flaring through his chest.
"Sensitive. It's okay. Trust me."
"It's not you I'm worried about," he muttered half into the pillow.
"Arthur, it's alright." With that, Merlin squeezed him tighter, kissed his neck and swept his fingers lightly over Arthur's cock as a gentle reassurance, as he moved his hand away and used a lubed finger to breach his hole. At first he fingered Arthur with one finger, just a tentative in and out until he found that spot inside and made Arthur's breath catch so that Merlin laughed into his ear and whispered sweet things about how tight he was and how good Arthur would feel around his cock. Like this, the burn was slower, a simmer that wouldn't take him to the edge, wouldn't send him over and crashing just yet.
They stayed close, Merlin's finger buried inside him, stroking him from the inside, whilst his other hand brushed over a nipple; gifted him with a caress. It seemed to go on and on, the rising warmth of arousal spreading over him, all over him, never quite reaching that place of no return. It was bliss and torment of the best and worst kind and Arthur didn't know whether to laugh, or throw his head back against Merlin's in frustration, or whether to finally give in to the urge to fist himself until he came.
Merlin must have sensed it, must have noticed how Arthur had moved his arm to gain meagre friction by rutting against his wrist. "Go on, touch yourself. Touch your cock for me." Merlin withdrew and the next time the stretch felt tighter – enough that Arthur gasped at the intrusion. "That's two fingers - that's all. Not much more but I can get inside you better. Feel that?"
"Yes, don't stop."
"Touch yourself. I want to feel it when you come."
Arthur needed no more encouragement and took his cock in his fist and pumped fast, like he always did. Only this time the sensation was intensified by the fullness inside his arse, and he couldn't hold back. "Now, now. Oh God, now."
Arthur felt the wave, the pulse of his orgasm through his balls and his cock as his come coated his fist and dripped and sputtered onto the sheet. But what he hadn't anticipated was the clamping of his arse so hard around Merlin's fingers. And Merlin kept his fingers in there, just stroking him until he couldn't take it anymore, only withdrawing when Arthur bucked his hips forward to pull away. He just held him close until his breathing slowed.
"Perfect. You were perfect. I don't know what you were worried about."
Merlin shifted so that Arthur could roll onto his back. Arthur reached down and touched Merlin, felt the damp warmth of the skin on his balls, the hardness of his cock as he rubbed experimentally over the silky skin. He thought about sucking it, what that would be like. Every man on the planet loved having his cock sucked, of that he was certain. He was as sure of that as the rising and setting of the sun. Merlin's breathing had already deepened, his mouth parted, as he looked at Arthur, intense and so aroused.
"Lie back," Arthur whispered, his voice more hoarse than he expected. "Open your legs."
With more determination than finesse, Arthur crawled between Merlin's legs and holding Merlin's cock in his fist, he licked and sucked the tip. He tasted salty and musky and it took Arthur a moment to get used to the scent of Merlin's sex, but breathing through his nose, he slid his mouth further down then sucked back up.
"Yes, that's it, just like that." Merlin gently fisted his hair and when Arthur looked up at him, Merlin's cock still in his mouth, he was looking down at him, completely debauched and beautiful.
Arthur couldn't take his full length, but he could pump his fist in time with his mouth and as he found his rhythm Merlin lifted his knees, spread his legs further and bucked up into Arthur's downward pushes. His jaw burned and ached but Merlin kept telling him how good it was and he didn't want to stop. But it was getting sloppier and harder and he thought he might get a cramp in his jaw for how much it hurt, until Merlin was pulling him up. "Look at you. If I didn't know better I'd say you were a pro."
Merlin rolled him over and took his own cock in his hand and rubbed himself fast. "Touch my balls. I'm really close."
"Like this?" Arthur palmed them gently, the same way he would his own. They were already swollen and tight against his body, and it seemed this was all Merlin needed because with a loud groan he came over Arthur's belly; long white ropes of his come, then small drops he squeezed from his spent cock. He collapsed on top of Arthur, sticking them together with come and sweat and saliva.
Arthur held him closer, the way he'd wanted to the night before. His fear shed like old skin.
It was early in June, after much discussion, research into the job market and visits to all the colleges he'd shortlisted, that Merlin finally decided he was going to keeping working permanently.
He'd virtually moved in with Arthur already, and though there wasn't much of him and he hardly had any possessions, he seemed to have filled all the empty spaces in Arthur's life - with a kiss, a caress, an abandoned sock and a pile of old novels left haphazardly across the cream marble hearth.
Arthur could have kept going like this, would have been satisfied that his luck couldn't get any better, but Merlin was never still. He had a tenacity Arthur hadn't appreciated until he settled himself alongside him and burrowed his way into all the places Arthur had kept hidden and secret.
"We should get up," Merlin murmured into Arthur's chest.
"We've got ages."
"We've got an hour."
"I thought we didn't have to be at Morgana's until one."
"We don't, but we're going somewhere else first."
"It's a surprise." Merlin kissed Arthur smartly on the mouth and sat up.
"Anything I should know beforehand?"
There wasn't much point in pressing the issue. Merlin wouldn't tell him anything more.
Arthur watched him moving slowly, stretching long and languid as he reached the door, knowing he would go into the kitchen, make him tea exactly the way he liked it and bring it back into the bedroom ready for when he came out of the shower.
Already they had a routine, a way of fitting together like two cogs sliding round and past each other. Maybe that was boring, domestic, but Arthur didn't care and nor, it seemed, did Merlin. And that was all that mattered.
They'd continued with their Saturday trips but since Highgate they'd taken it in turns to choose where to go. Merlin took great delight in surprising Arthur and he was good at it. They'd been to The Temple Church, headquarters of the Knights Templar, and eaten dinner at Archipelago, where Arthur had tried kangaroo and Merlin had insisted on trying the chocolate-covered scorpions. On reflection, they agreed that was one experience that needn't be repeated.
The fact that they were going somewhere on the way to Morgana's, and only for an hour or so, meant Merlin had probably found a hidden gem, a shop or a small gallery, that could be perused in a short time. The jeans and jumper he put on gave nothing away – they were typical of what he'd usually wear on the weekend. Arthur considered wrestling the answer out of him, then thought better of it, because the last thing he needed was Merlin grassing him up to Morgana and Gwen and having to deal with that all afternoon. He could be gracious, if he absolutely had to be.
Merlin gave Arthur directions as he drove and it wasn't long before he recognised the route up to Hackney. Only, instead of turning right onto Queensbridge Road they turned left and it was then Arthur remembered the tatty old house on Castleview Road.
"We're going to see a house, aren't we?"
"Clever clogs. Yes."
"I thought this place would have been snapped up by now."
"You'd think." Merlin had a smug look about him. Arthur had to be on his guard, because despite his sweet and innocent-looking exterior, Merlin could be unexpectedly sneaky when he had a mind for it.
"So what's wrong with it?"
Developers clambered for houses like this, even in a down market. It should have sold by now.
"There's a covenant in the deeds. The previous owner added one that stipulates the house can't be split into flats."
"Is that legal?"
"Apparently. My mum has a covenant on her house that stipulates she can't bake bricks in the garden."
"I still don't think that's reason enough for it not to have sold."
"It's harder for people to get loans? I don't know. The point is, it hasn't sold and maybe that's because we're meant to have it."
"You mean like fate?"
They parked on the gravel at the front of the house. There was a middle-aged man in a suit waiting for them on the doorstep, who Arthur presumed was the estate agent. He groaned. The last thing he wanted to do was listen to his hard sell.
"He's only here to let us in." Merlin squeezed Arthur's hand. "The place is empty. If they don't have a buyer by the end of this month, it's going up for auction."
Arthur looked at Merlin and shook his head. They'd been through it before about this house. It was more than Arthur could take on himself and it was really much bigger than they needed. But Merlin had it in his head that if only Arthur would take a look inside he'd change his mind. Given that weeks had gone by since they last discussed it, Arthur assumed the house must have sold and that was the end of the matter.
"Please. Just one walk through?" Merlin clasped his hands together and gave him a wide-eyed and pleading look. Arthur would never have believed that ever worked on anyone until Merlin came along. "If it's no good I won't mention it again."
Arthur sighed loudly. "Well, we're here now and we've got an hour to kill. Alright, let's go look at some rising damp and some dry rot. Just what I need before Sunday lunch."
Merlin's face lit up, just as Arthur knew it would. As the estate agent hurried back to his car, thankfully leaving them to it, he finally understood first-hand what Leon meant when he said Sarah could wrap him around her little finger.
The front door was painted dark red, with a small stained glass window near the top and in the hallway the floor had the original tiles, in a pattern of terracotta and black stars and squares. Although a few were cracked, none were missing, and preserved well enough they could be kept. Arthur brushed the toe of his boot over a section, imagining how stunning it would look repaired and resealed with a soft sheen.
The house smelt musty. It must have been empty for a while.
Following Merlin into the living room, Arthur's gaze was drawn up to the ceiling where he noticed the cornice and the ceiling rose, caked in layers of paint so that the floral pattern was a blur, a faint echo of the ornate original that lay buried beneath. He knew there were ways to peel the paint back to the plaster but it would be messy and pain-staking. It could take weeks to tackle that alone.
Merlin was leaning against the mantelpiece, for once silent. He knew only too well that Arthur liked to think without interruption. He smiled at him though, running his fingers sensually over the painted surround. Crossing the room to his side, Arthur ignored his not-so-subtle attempt to lure him over and crouched down to take a better look at the fireplace. The original front bars were still there and the cast iron shelf and back. It wouldn't take too much effort to get it cleaned up and running. Indeed, it looked like the previous owner had been using it, judging by the layer of ashes in the grate.
The matted red carpet with brown swirls on it, on the other hand, looked like it had been beyond salvation for the best part of a decade.
Standing back up, Arthur walked over to the near corner of the room and looked around for something sharp. He turned back to Merlin and said, "I wish I'd known we were coming here. I'd have brought a Stanley knife."
"If I told you we were coming here you'd have refused to come."
"I don't suppose you brought any tools with you?"
"No." Merlin frowned. "What do you want to do?"
"Get the carpet up. I want to see the floorboards."
"Oh, interested now, are we?"
"I've got an hour to kill. When I tell you all the reasons why we can't buy this house, I want to make sure I've been thorough."
"I'll go and look around. There might be something in the kitchen."
Arthur snorted and walked through the double doors to the dining room while Merlin went back out into the hallway. It was in much the same state as the living room, although maybe worse. The walls were covered in heavy damask wallpaper and either side of the chimney breast there were built-in melamine shelves that looked like they'd been made by a talentless amateur. Arthur wondered if Merlin's faith in him was a true reflection of his ability, or if his best effort would look like those shelves to an outsider. He could see already this house was no weekend project.
At the far end of the dining room there were French doors leading out onto an ugly concrete patio, and another door which went into the hallway. He was about to go through it to see whether Merlin had found anything remotely suitable in the kitchen, when the door opened from the other side.
"Will this do?" Merlin was waving around a long key, probably for the back door.
"I can try it."
Arthur went back to the same corner of the living room and scraped at the old carpet. The gripper rail was still sound, but the wool fibres gave easily and rather than being able to pull it back, the carpet more or less disintegrated. It was good news though. The floor beneath was the original oak.
"Is it good?"
"Yes." Arthur looked up at Merlin, trying to suppress a smile. He wasn't going to say anything but he guessed from the way Merlin was bobbing around on the spot he'd looked around before today and that Arthur probably hadn't seen the best of it yet.
"Come and see the kitchen?"
"Please tell me it doesn't have an Aga." Arthur had to look away so he wouldn't laugh.
"Umm, actually it does. But it's gas. You won't have to go out on a cold winter's night and chop wood."
"No, I wouldn't anyway. That would be your job."
With Merlin leading him by the hand, they went to see the kitchen. Its only saving grace was a walk-in pantry, and in Merlin's opinion the large green enamelled Aga. The rest was an affront to anyone with a modicum of respect for a house from this period.
The window over the beige plastic kitchen sink looked out over the long, narrow, overgrown back garden. There was an old swing hanging from a tree, a mallow laden with pink flowers and a stone bench. The rest was weeds.
Upstairs the rooms were in much the same state, but as Arthur walked around he could see that though everything was dated, it had been well-maintained, lived-in but loved. When they got up to the attic floor there were two rooms, one at the front of the house and one at the back, divided only by the landing at the top of the stairs. Merlin went into the front room and straight over to one of the dormer windows, sitting down in front of it on the floor. He looked out, eyes fixed over the black tile rooftops of the houses on the other side of the street and spoke, quiet and serious. "Tell me now ... all the reasons why we couldn't live here." The tendons in his jaw flexed, his arms clasped around his knees, like he was bracing himself for disappointment.
Arthur slotted himself behind him wrapping his arms around Merlin's chest and resting his chin on his shoulder. Merlin leaned back into his embrace, and placed his hands over Arthur's, lacing their fingers together with a strong and certain grasp. If Merlin was disappointed, it was entirely because he couldn't bear to see Arthur unhappy. He'd made that patently clear already. It was hard for Arthur, getting used to being with someone who cared for him so much, hard enough to believe it, let alone not be overwhelmed by it.
He pressed a kiss to Merlin's ear before saying, "We could live here, but you'd have to put up with that lemon yellow bathroom and the eighties kitchen and it would be dusty all the time and there'll be no more weekend trips for the next two years at least."
"Is that all?" Merlin squirmed around and looked at him excitedly as if he'd already said 'yes'.
"Then I have a proposition which will mean we don't give up our weekends."
Arthur had a feeling he knew what was coming and his gut clenched. "Please, think really hard before you say anything else."
Without pause Merlin said, "Give up working for your Dad, or at least ask him if you can stay on part-time."
They'd talked about it before. Merlin had even made spreadsheets and crunched numbers to prove to Arthur they could live on what he earned while Arthur worked on renovating full-time. Arthur would need to investigate more closely the cost of doing up this particular house, and whether it was a sound investment, but he'd been doing a rough tally even as he'd done the walk-through and the numbers didn't look at all bad.
His doubts were the same as they always were. "It's not fair to expect you to support us."
"It's not fair that I go to a salaried job so that you can build us a home? Then use what you've learned to set up your own business, which will benefit both of us? How many times do I have to keep telling you, I like my job? I wish you would stop this ..." He turned enough so he could cup Arthur's jaw in his hands. "Don't think for a second I gave up anything to be with you." His eyes were dark, intense. Arthur knew he meant every word he said but he was still astonished, in quiet disbelief.
"Will you show me your spreadsheet again, with the numbers in it for this house?"
"I'll show it to your Dad, if you like. The numbers are sound. And we can add any clause you like about ownership."
"That's none of his business. My mother left me the money I used to buy my flat. I'd just be showing him as a courtesy, so he doesn't think this whole idea is a folly when I tell him I'm becoming a builder."
"You mean I have to convince him in order to convince you?"
"I don't think I like the sound of it when you say it like that."
"Then make up your own mind." Merlin tweaked his nose and pushed him onto his back. Leaning over him he added, "There's room for a clawfoot bath and a double shower in the bathroom. And the kitchen's big enough for a refectory table so we could put a pool table in the dining room."
Arthur tried not to think about the mangy carpet he was lying on and focus on the fact he might have fallen in love for the second time this year. He rubbed his thumb along the rise of Merlin's cheekbone. "If the survey comes back good and we can get it for four-fifty then I'm sold."
Arthur replaced the kitchen first. He found a few local independent contractors to help him with wiring, plumbing and plastering, and between them they finished inside a month. Now oak cabinets and stone counters sat on a flagstone floor, with a reclaimed oak refectory table at one end. It was big enough for eight or ten people to sit close and share warm bread, wine and conversation. When it was just the two of them they sat at one end, Arthur at the head, Merlin at his side.
In a few short months, Arthur had managed to strip the house of all the old carpet and every last scrap of wallpaper, so he had a clean slate to work on. As he lay on the sofa, looking up at the cornicing, he thought about whether he should tackle that next, or wait until the spring when the weather was milder and he could work with the windows open. It would nice to replace the bathroom. He'd been dreaming of that double shower ever since Merlin had mentioned it, had sketched out the layout and started looking for bathroom suites.
"Do you want to put the star on the top?" Merlin waved the tacky silver tinsel decoration over his face.
"No, you can do it." He couldn't care less about having a Christmas tree but it made Merlin happy. He watched him pull the step-ladder apart ... "On second thoughts, maybe you should just hold the ladder and I'll do it."
"I won't fall."
"That's what you said last time." When they'd ended up at casualty with a tea-towel full of ice pressed to Merlin's bleeding head. Arthur rolled off the sofa, took charge of the ladder and positioned it to the side of the tree.
He was just about to climb up when the doorbell rang. Merlin shrugged. They weren't expecting their guests for another couple of hours. "Please don't tell me it's the Jehovah's."
"They're more afraid of you than you are of them," Merlin teased. "I'll get the door, you can put the star on."
Arthur scowled at the scrawny excuse for a celestial body as he decided next year he would get them an angel.
He heard the front door open and recognised his father's dulcet tones immediately.
Uther walked into the living room, still wearing his coat, just as Arthur was climbing down from the step-ladder. "Father." He tried not to sound surprised, but Uther never just popped round unannounced. "Can I take your coat?"
"No, I'm not staying. I was in the area and I thought I'd drop these around." He handed Arthur a large gift bag from Harrods and added, "I didn't get you a house-warming present, and here it is Christmas already. Anyway, a friend of mine suggested I get you both something for your first tree."
Both. It was the most assured affirmation of Arthur's relationship with Merlin his father had given him yet, and he wasn't expecting it. He sat down on the sofa and just stared the bag. Merlin took it from Arthur and lifted out a pale blue box with a 'W' on the side.
To Uther, Merlin said, "Thanks," firmly, but more gently to Arthur he said, "There are three more in there. Why don't you open one?"
Looking up at his father, who looked as awkward as Arthur felt, Arthur smiled, because he couldn't think of a single thing to say, except 'thank you', which somehow at that moment didn't seem like enough to express his gratitude.
Merlin prised off the lid of the box he was holding, to reveal a Wedgwood blue Jasper bauble, embossed with a white pattern of Victorian skaters. He held it out for Arthur. "Look at that. I've never seen ..."
"It's beautiful, perfect. Thank you. Thank you so much."
The tension fell from Uther's expression at once, as Arthur and Merlin opened the other three boxes to reveal three more: one embellished with a tree, one with a nativity scene and one with a snowman. They were classical and lovely. Slowly but surely, Arthur had to admit that perhaps this whole tree idea was growing on him, pine needle by pine needle. Perhaps next year he wouldn't leave Merlin to struggle home with it single-handed. Perhaps next year they would buy one with roots.
"Have you got time for a game of pool?" Merlin asked Uther. He'd been asking everyone that didn't know any better since they got it a few weeks back.
There was a glint in Uther's eye when he looked towards the dining room. "Sorry, not tonight, but I was pretty good in my time. I bet Arthur never told you that." Arthur didn't know that, but it seemed that there were a lot of things he'd found out about his father since he'd stopped working for him and started on his new venture. Like the fact he could turn a shovel. Their garden lost its jungle status sometime in September purely down to his elbow-grease.
"How about dinner?" Merlin added, "Morgana and Gwen and Leon and Sarah are coming over. They'll be here at seven."
"I would love to, honestly, but I have a date."
Arthur coughed. "Really?"
"Don't sound so surprised. She's a solicitor. I met her at a business conference last month. She suggested the tree ornaments. Goodness knows I'd never think of anything like that by myself."
"Then you must thank her, too."
"Going anywhere nice?" Merlin said.
Arthur knew he ought to be thankful Merlin had no compunction asking Uther every gory detail, but he couldn't help cringing.
Uther smiled warmly. "I'm not sure if nice covers it. We're going to a medieval banquet at Ivory House, near Tower Bridge."
"Ooh, we've been there. It's fun ... so long as you don't mind eating a dried up chicken leg with your fingers ... and watery beer and naff entertainment."
Arthur glared at Merlin, but Uther looked thoroughly amused as he said, "That sounds right up her alley."
Feeling the need to interject before Merlin revealed the entire disaster of their foray into Tudor dining, or whatever period the whole revolting evening was meant to encompass, Arthur said quickly, "It was an experience. I'm sure if you set your expectations low you'll have a great time."
Merlin butted in again. "We had this awful pea soup and Arthur asked for a spoon and the waitress, or perhaps I should call her a serving wench, said to him 'there are no spoons, because this is a medieval banquet'. But then, we had cheesecake for dessert and they gave us spoons for that." He paused for breath and added, "Do you want me to give you some cutlery, as back up?"
Uther roared with laughter, his face beet-red. It took a minute for him to compose himself and shake his head. "No thanks, I think we'll manage. Now I must be going. But have a good night, and give my love to Morgana and Gwen."
"Wait." Merlin held his hand up. "You should put one of these on the tree." He handed Uther a bauble and gave another to Arthur.
Arthur had to give it to him – Merlin was like glue, sticking everyone together, sealing up the cracks and generally making a mess everywhere. It was one of the things Arthur loved about him most, apart from his face, his hands and the way he sang...
They each hung the baubles on the tree and Uther looked like he was about to try to leave again when Merlin said, "One more thing, before you go." He got down on his hands and knees and plugged in the fairy lights. "Ta-da!"
Arthur looked at his father and for a moment there was a flash of sadness, there then gone, replaced with a smile, a warm heartfelt smile for Merlin. Arthur's chest tightened as he pulled Merlin towards him and wrapped his arm around his waist, his look of cheer more sparkling than the lights. Suddenly it felt like Christmas, the kind with the tree and the presents and midnight mass and turkey overload, and for the first time in forever Arthur was actually looking forward to it.
"Now I really must be going." Uther headed for the door.
"I'll see you out," Arthur said.
"Goodbye, Merlin. Oh, and thank you for the advance warning on the banquet."
Merlin nodded and busied himself tidying away the boxes that had held the tree ornaments while Arthur followed Uther into the hallway. Before he reached for the door, Uther turned and paused, his face falling to a frown. "You're alright for money?"
"Yes. Don't you remember Merlin's spreadsheet?" Bracing himself against the wall Arthur's fingertips wandered to a loose flake of paint. He picked at it as he took a deep breath.
"That thing. I only glanced over it."
"Well thanks for asking, but we really can manage."
Uther reached up for the latch, his other hand settling behind his neck. "Good. I'm glad it's working out." He was sincere.
"It's early days yet." Arthur pushed off from the wall, stood up straight. There was a silence, something weighty and tangible, something they needed to push past. Merlin had told Arthur that Uther would miss him. Maybe he was right. "Have you got time to meet me for lunch next week?"
"Yes. Yes I have." His eyes lit up.
"I'll call you Monday. You can tell me all about your date."
Uther opened the door and stepped out into the December darkness, tall and regal as always, but maybe no longer as hard at the edges. Slipping on his gloves he crunched over the gravel to his car, turned and waved. Arthur waved back, closing the door slowly enough to watch him drive away.
There was music coming from the living room. Christmas music.
Merlin had turned off the lamps, so that the room was bathed in the intermittent glow from the tree and the faint flicker of firelight. Nat King Cole was crooning deep and mellow.
"Nice. Now all you need is a jumper with a reindeer on it and this scene will be complete."
Pulling Arthur towards him by his belt buckle, Merlin lifted Arthur's fingers to his lips and kissed along his knuckles, turned over his palm and kissed along the calluses that had begun to form there. "Not quite. You've never asked me to dance."
Laughing into Merlin's neck, Arthur kissed along his jaw, feeling the faint scratch of his stubble leaving a sweet-hot sting on his lips. He wrapped an arm around Merlin's neck and hooked the hand of his other inside the waistband of his jeans. Merlin murmured his approval, sliding his hands firmly, gradually over Arthur's back, until he was enfolded in his embrace. He turned his face in, searching out Arthur's mouth with quiet kisses, warm and tasting of wine.
They moved gently against each other, Merlin's head relaxing onto Arthur's shoulder with a peaceful, contented sigh. Turning in adagio, Arthur gazed up at the top of the tree as it dawned on him he'd changed his mind. He didn't want an angel.
He already had exactly what he wanted, lopsided and glittering boldly against the darkness - Merlin's tinsel star.