- The process of experiencing a psychotic “breakdown” and subsequent, positive psychological re-building or “healing”
Arthur sat on the train and looked outside the window without seeing the landscape passing by. He had pictured himself being relieved and energetic at this point, but all he felt was numb and hollow. What had he been thinking? Nothing at all, obviously. How could he just have made this decision?
Even though he tried to convince himself that it had been brewing for a long time and that his father laughing openly at his project in the last board meeting had been the final affront, he felt a slight panic creeping up his spine.
Arthur remembered the moment like it had happened yesterday. Then again, it only happened the previous day, even though it felt like half a life away. He had stared at his father. Had he just insulted him in front of the whole board, again? Had he really just called his strategic idea ‘a figment of your imagination’ and ‘worth of a five year old, but not a Pendragon’? Arthur had worked on this for almost a year, had found locations and already contacted potential partners and now his father made him look like an utter fool in front of every single influential person in the room? Belittling him by smiling at him like he was a little child who didn’t know what it was talking about and then laughing that harsh humourless laugh of his?
That had been enough. Arthur had unplugged his laptop, gathered his papers and left the room. His office, the nice large one with the wonderful view over the skyline of London, suddenly felt too small, the walls seemingly coming closer. Arthur loosened his tie and pulled it off his neck before he sat down and opened the upper drawer of his desk. He stared at the folder for a moment and then pulled it out. He knew what was in it. He had typed it up himself, this was something nobody else could know about. Until now.
Opening the folder, Arthur reached for a pen, the very pen with the golden nib that father had given him the day he graduated from university with a degree in business in his pocket. The pen father wanted him to sign all the big deals with. This was a big deal, he would use this pen for the very last time. Taking a deep breath, Arthur put in the date on the letter and set his signature underneath. Then he put the keys of the company next to it and his company mobile on top.
He got up, took his backpack and without looking back, he went for the door.
“Elena.” Arthur nodded at his assistant. He had never been too fond of the blonde who asked too many questions and never seemed to do her job.
“Where are you going?” She looked confused.
“Something urgent came up.” He couldn’t waste more time here. The longer he stayed, the more likely it was that his father would seek him out and the mere thought suffocated Arthur. He swallowed hard.
“When will you be back?”
Arthur started for the elevator without answering. If he told her the truth, it would take her a few minutes to process it and then make a call, he probably would not even make it through the door before he was stopped by some minion of his father.
“Mr. Pendragon? Arthur?” Elena was close to shrieking when the elevator doors closed behind him.
The ride down to street level seemed endless but finally he made it, nodded at the security person and stepped through the automatic doors at the entrance. If anyone found it strange that he took this door and didn’t just go to his car in the parking garage, they would soon find out why.
Without taking another glance back, Arthur walked briskly until his feet started hurting in his Italian leather shoes and then stopped. For the first time in what felt like forever, he could breathe.
Blinking when the train came to a stop in yet another small station, Arthur blew out a breath. It probably looked like he was running away and he knew it was a cowardly thing to do not to confront his father and just leave a letter of resignation behind as he vanished. They had been through similar situations before, where Arthur was close to quitting and each time his father convinced him that it was a foolish thing to throw everything that the name held away and had made it perfectly clear that he would cut him off if he did such a thing, that he had a duty to fulfil and that he would do what he was told.
Every time he had caved, his sense of duty too strong, his obligation to everything his father had made possible for him too big, the fear of losing everything too overwhelming. Each time he had returned to his desk, he hated himself more up to the point where he couldn’t take it anymore.
That father had just humiliated him again was just the last drop. Arthur knew he hadn’t made this decision on an impulse, it had been coming for a long time. All those nights that he couldn’t sleep even though he was dead tired. The endless long hours that became more and more meaningless and harder to take since he couldn’t concentrate on anything at all. The weekends that he didn’t spend working were wasted aimlessly wandering his apartment, putting more pressure on himself since the weekend was for partying or at least doing things to relax but he couldn’t bring himself to do anything. He’d stopped going to footie practice and when his favourite team played, he couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. He didn’t care any longer. Arthur felt like he couldn’t care for anything anymore, nothing brought joy into his life and that high sound in his ear drove him crazy. Getting up in the morning became increasingly difficult and no amount of coffee could help him through the day, he felt constantly tired. And yet, he had worked on all the projects father had piled on him including that one, new thing that would mean he would finally break free. It would have given Arthur his own place in the complicated construct that was Pendragon Holding.
Somehow, Arthur had always known that father would react this way. No matter how good an idea was, no matter that the company would profit immensely from it, if it wasn’t Uther’s, it wouldn’t fly. It was time to leave.
Arthur knew he should feel relieved, but he felt nothing. Nothing at all as the train took him further away from London.
The mobile in the pocket of his jacket buzzed again, for the umpteenth time in the past 24 hours. Had it already been 24 hours since he had walked out of his life? Probably, it had taken him a while to walk all the way back to his place, to grab a few things and stuff them into the suitcase and the sports bag, to remove the few things that were important to him and stack the boxes into the car that was parked in the garage and leave them there.
Arthur knew exactly where he would go. He had found the little remote town when he scrolled through some photos on Pete’s Facebook account a year ago and then investigated the vacation spot. It offered all he would need now: A place so small that it was unlikely that someone like him would go there, lots of countryside to get away from the city, the solitude to think about what he would do from now on and yet there was enough touristy industry that he could go on day trips in the area, to learn about the local plants and animals on guided hiking tours or to take classes in things like pottery and painting. His father would laugh at that.
Slowly, Arthur pulled the mobile out of the pocket. He didn’t need to know who tried to reach him. The first ten or so calls were most likely from Uther’s secretary and then the man tried it himself, his messages probably getting sharper and sharper the more they piled up on the voicemail. Getting up, Arthur opened the window, took a deep breath and tossed the mobile out.
Arthur knew he probably didn’t look his best when he finally arrived at his destination, the overwhelmingly huge town of Ealdor – population 451. Or four hundred and fifty-two for the time being.
There were no other people on the small platform, so Arthur hoisted his backpack on, grabbed his suitcase and sports bag and tried to figure out where to go. He had made reservations before he had left but nobody was there to pick him up. There must be a shop or a pub or something where he could ask for directions, right? As he stepped from the platform onto the street – it wasn’t even a real station, just one of those pesky ticket vending machines which looked oddly out of place in this run-down environment – a dirty old car came to a halt right in the middle of a huge puddle at the curb, thereby throwing up the dirty water, splashing Arthur’s shoes and pants as he wasn’t fast enough to jump back.
A man about his age unravelled himself from the driver seat and grinned at him. “Hi! The train must have been on time for once.”
Arthur frowned. The correct sentence after ‘Hi!’ should have been ‘Forgive me for being late, I’m really sorry.’
The bloke opened the boot of the car and made a huge gesture. “Here you go. Not sure if all of this fits into the trunk, you can put that bag on the back seat.”
Frowning even harder, Arthur waited for a moment.
“You are Arthur, right? Arthur…” Reaching into the pocket of his baggy jeans, the man dug out a piece of paper and read. “Arthur Pendragon?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Great! So once you’re done putting the luggage into the car, we can go!”
Arthur realized that the guy would neither apologize for splashing him with dirty water nor help him with the luggage but he was too worn out to argue, so he put his luggage into the boot, tossed his backpack onto the back seat and climbed into the passengers’ seat.
“Welcome to beautiful Ealdor.”
“Thanks.” Arthur didn’t really listen to all the babbling. All he wanted was a nice long shower and to go to bed early.
Arthur perked up. “What?”
The man jumped out of the car and ran towards the house that had a ‘Hotel’ sign above the door and a fire engine parked in front of it. Slowly, Arthur got out of the car and didn’t know what to make of it. It felt as if he couldn’t make any decision for himself at the moment, as if his brain didn’t function. What did all of this mean?
As he neared the hotel, two blokes in fire fighter uniforms came out.
“You need to have this checked, Mithy. I’m sure Lance will not allow guests in there otherwise.”
A woman with long dark hair appeared in the doorway. “Thanks, lads. I’ll deal with Lance. I’m waiting for a guest today, he’ll need a place to stay and you said it’s not dangerous anymore.”
Dangerous? What the hell had happened here?
On cue, a police car arrived and another good-looking man got out. “Alright, Mithy, what is it now?” He smiled sadly. “You should probably just burn this place down and build it anew.”
“You know I can’t afford that and the town would lose one of its oldest buildings. Come on in, I’ll show you.”
“What is it, Merlin?” The woman looked at Arthur’s driver.
“This…” Merlin looked over to where Arthur stood rooted to the spot. “This is your customer. Mr. Pendragon.”
Oh. This was not really the welcome Arthur had thought he would get. “Is there a problem?”
The woman everyone called Mithy, so she must be Mithian Roads, the owner of the hotel, came closer.
“Err…to be honest…I’m not really sure, but I think Officer DuLac and I will find a solution, won’t we, Lance?” She beamed at the man who obviously was the policeman of the community.
He turned back from talking to the firefighters and made a face. “I don’t think so, Mithy. This is serious, nobody should stay at this place until the experts have checked it. You need to find a place for your guest and for yourself as well.”
“But…Lance! I…it will take days before anyone comes to check the gas pipes and this is the only place that’s open at this time of year!”
Arthur knew he should spring into action. Dealing with crisis situations was something he was good at and he usually would get an overview of what had happened and start planning and directing people right away. All that echoed through his brain now was one thought: I don’t have anywhere to stay.
He missed a good portion of the discussion and blinked when everyone stopped talking and seemed to look at him. “Sorry?”
“How does that sound for you? Do you think it’s acceptable? If not, we’ll have to get you to Darton. I’m so sorry, but this old place, you know…it’s cosy and I don’t think there is any real danger, but…”
“Mithy, you’re evacuating, too. No backtalk!” The policeman looked sternly at her and her shoulders slumped.
“I’m…” Arthur didn’t know what to say. This was not how he had pictured his first evening in liberty. “Oh well, alright.”
His driver clapped his hands together. “Great! It’s not much but the couch is comfy and you can have the guest house from tomorrow on. I’ll even help you get it ready!”
Arthur blinked again. What the hell had he just agreed to? It was a bit too late to ask about the details of the arrangement again, wasn’t it? The others were back to talking to each other, the policeman trying to convince the woman to come stay with him and someone called Gwen, his driver talking animatedly with the firefighters and if Arthur was not mistaken, he was even flirting with them.
It happened all a bit too quickly, but soon Arthur was back in the car and the dark-haired bloke next to him told him all kinds of stuff and it seemed as if he wasn’t worried at all about the fact that his friend’s hotel seemed to be a death trap and that he was stuck with a stranger now.
“I asked if you like clam chowder. Or are you one of those allergic types who swell up and choke when they have sea fruit?” The guy flashed him a wide smile.
“No, not allergic. Why?”
“I was about to prepare one when I had to get to the station to pick you up and since you’re staying with me for the night, you’re more than welcome to join me for dinner. If you help doing the dishes later, that is.” The man laughed.
“Wait? What?” Arthur turned his head and stared at the man.
“Oy, one of the posh blokes who are not used to doing dishes, I suppose.”
“That’s not…what did you just say? I’m staying with you for the night?”
The man threw him a confused look before he turned to concentrate on the road that didn’t even deserve the name again. “I don’t know what’s on your mind, man, but you seem to be a thousand miles away all the time. You haven’t heard a single word that’s been said, have you?”
“There was something about a leakage in a gas pipe…” Arthur slumped back into the seat.
The man nodded. “The place is wonderful but it’s old. It’s just that it needs a bit more than just fresh coat of paint and a few new wallpapers and carpets. Most of the tourists prefer the big hotels a few miles away, so business got slower and slower in the past years and Mithy just doesn’t get enough customers to do more than repairs that are the most necessary. Mind you, it’s not like it’s really run-down, but probably not really up-to-date either. So with this…oh, we’ll see what the experts say and then find out when you can move in there.” The bloke’s voice had sounded sad for the first part of his speech and the last sentence sounded a bit more forced than really cheery.
“So I’m staying with you?”
“Yes. I can only offer you the couch for tonight, but there’s a little guest house that I’ve been using to store stuff. We’ll get it nice and tidy tomorrow and you can stay there until you can move in at Mithy’s again.”
Or until I’ve decided if I want to stay at all. There was a faint little voice in Arthur’s head that screamed for him to get out of there, to get back to the station and stubbornly stay there waiting for the next train, even if it would take the whole night. That would mean going back into the life he so desperately tried to get away from, but where else did he have to go? Staying on a complete stranger’s couch for the night wasn’t how he had pictured his first night of his new life. The way everyone had acted, though, the way they had stood together and helped each other…Arthur couldn’t explain it, but a sense of safety and a feeling of security took over. There was something about these people and Arthur felt he could be a part of them.
Arthur didn’t contribute much to the conversation as they sat down for dinner but that didn’t matter. The man, whose name Arthur still hadn’t asked, babbled away happily about this and that and sometimes switched topics so quickly that Arthur couldn’t have followed even if he wanted to. He tried to reach a decision. He would stay for the night, he didn’t have another option but then he needed to find a place where he could do what he had intended to do.
“Wow, this is good!” For the first time in hours, Arthur snapped out of his lethargy after he tried the first spoonful of chowder. He couldn’t remember when he ate anything last that had tasted of anything at all. In the past weeks, everything had tasted like cardboard and he hadn’t felt like eating, but this was really good.
“Oh, it’s nothing special.” The man smiled and if Arthur was not mistaken, there was a little blush on his cheeks.
“It is. And I’m not the best company at the moment, I’m very sorry. Thank you for letting me stay. I will try to find accommodation tomorrow. Of course I’ll reimburse you for your troubles.”
The man laughed and his blue eyes crinkled up into half-moons. “Don’t worry. We take care of each other here. The place is too small for anyone to be left out.”
“It’s not like I live here.”
“Mithy said you’ve booked the room open end, so you planned to stay for more than just a couple of nights. That’s as good as living here.” Without asking, the man put another helping of chowder into Arthur’s bowl.
Chewing on the piece of baguette, Arthur managed a small smile. “Everybody knows everything about each other here.”
“Ealdor is too small to keep secrets. You’re from London, I bet you probably don’t even know your neighbours.”
Arthur opened his mouth to object but then closed it again and nodded. There were people in his building but he had never taken the time to get to know them and they hadn’t bothered either. The concept of having neighbours who knew more than the name on his doorbell was strange to him. He stifled a yawn.
“You must be tired after all that’s happened today.” The dark-haired man shoved his bowl away. “Let me get the couch ready for you. Bathroom is this way.” He pointed.
Together, they put the dishes into the sink and then Arthur grabbed his toothbrush, some sweatpants and a t-shirt from his bag and made his way to where the bloke had pointed. The house wasn’t that big, so it was hard to miss the bathroom and Arthur wondered what the guest house might look like. When he first heard about it, he’d imagined the main house to be a manor or something, huge enough to be entitled to a guest house. After seeing it, Arthur knew, he needed to get out of here, it couldn’t be much.
When he came back to the small living room, the couch had been pulled out and transformed into a bed, so the night wouldn’t be as horrible as he first feared.
“I hope that’s okay for you. If you need anything, just yell, I’m not that far away.”
Arthur nodded. “Thank you.” He felt even more tired when he saw the bed.
“And, by the way…” The man smiled. “Since you never asked…I’m Merlin. Get some rest, Arthur.”
When Arthur woke up, the sun was high up in the sky. Disoriented, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. Where was he? Slowly, the events of the days before came back to him and he blew out a breath. His plan before he finally fell asleep last night was to get up early and to find a way out of here and be gone quickly. Looking around, he saw a clock at a DVD player on a shelf next to a flatscreen TV, which happily announced that it was almost 11 am.
“Fuck.” Yawning again, Arthur swung his feet over the edge of the couch as the door flew open.
“You’re awake! Good morning, sleepyhead.”
“Mrng.” Arthur hung his head. He wasn’t much of a morning person on a good day and Merlin’s cheeriness was hard to take.
Laughing the laugh that he had laughed the night before, Merlin stepped in. “You need a strong tea and a good breakfast, I see.”
“Just coffee, please.” He rarely had time for breakfast.
Merlin was already rummaging in the kitchen. “Sorry, I don’t have any coffee here. I’ll put it on the shopping list.”
“No, that’s alright.” Arthur got up and ruffled his hair in an attempt to get a bit more awake. “I won’t stay long.”
“Rubbish!” Merlin’s head appeared in the doorway. “You planned to stay, you will stay, we’ll get coffee for you. How do you like your eggs?”
Arthur realized he was in no condition to argue with someone who had probably been awake for hours and who seemed to be a naturally cheery person. “Whatever’s easiest. Can I take a shower?”
“Sure, you know where the bathroom is. Breakfast will be ready when you are.”
When Arthur came back, dressed and with still wet hair, he found a full breakfast waiting for him but Merlin was nowhere to be found. Maybe he had understood that Arthur wasn’t to be talked to this early in the morning. Then again, it wasn’t really early and Arthur wondered how he could have overslept like this. He hadn’t slept more than three or four hours at a time for months and remembered that it was about 10:30 when he had climbed into the couch-bed, so he must have slept for more than twelve hours.
He looked at the chipped mug and then took a sip of the tea. He had never been a big fan of tea, feeling very un-English about it, but he couldn’t help preferring coffee. Still, the tea wasn’t bad and the breakfast smelled good. Eating slowly, Arthur saw the note leaning against the little salt shaker.
In the guest house, getting it ready for you. When you’re done, come on over. M
Arthur blinked. He thought he’d made it clear that he wouldn’t stay. This adventure here was just a little detour, he needed to find a place where he would have his peace and quiet, where he could think and find out what to do next. Leaving a life behind wasn’t as easy as he had thought. He, renowned for always knowing different ways for reaching a goal, didn’t have a plan B for the most important thing he had ever done in his life. But how could you make plans if you didn’t know the goal?
Quickly, Arthur finished his breakfast and put the dishes into the sink. Now he needed to find this ‘guest house’ Merlin had been talking about.
Stepping out of the door that led from the living room to the little porch, Arthur took a deep breath. There was something that looked more like a garden shed across the little clearing that could, with a lot of imagination might be called a garden. When he heard noise coming from the small building, he made his way over.
“Err…listen.” Arthur stepped inside and found Merlin in the small room that just held a bed, a table with two chairs that looked as if they had seen better times, a small closet and some shelves.
“Can you put that outside, please? This hasn’t been used in a while and unfortunately I started using it as a storage room, but we’ll have turned it into a cosy little place in no time.” With that, Merlin shoved a box into Arthur’s arms and already turned to do something else.
“Merlin.” Arthur just stood there with the box in his hands. “Would you please stop for a moment and listen?”
“I like the way you say my name.” Merlin turned to face Arthur. “What is it?”
“I…I appreciate all your efforts, but I can’t stay. If you had a hotel or a bed and breakfast…but this is…it’s your own home. I can’t intrude like this. I’m sure you know the nearest hotel or your friend, Miss Roads, knows someone…”
Merlin huffed. “Nonsense. You’re no intruder. Nobody uses this place anyway, you can stay. I don’t mind the company but if you want to be left alone, just close the door behind you. I’ve already cleaned the bathroom, it’s just a shower and a toilet, but it will do. You can make coffee back there,” he pointed, “and I can get you another chair if you want to sit outside and watch the waves. It’s really soothing to do that.”
Only then Arthur noticed the dirty window that faced towards the ocean. He had known that Ealdor was close to the Atlantic, but hadn’t realized that Merlin’s place was so much on the outskirts of town that his premises faced the sea.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Merlin pulled him out of his thoughts and Arthur nodded. “It is.”
“That’s settled then.” Merlin beamed. “Bring your stuff over here and move in. I’ll bring these things over to the house and then do some grocery shopping. Is there anything you like?”
“Is there a restaurant nearby? Or a pub?”
Merlin looked offended. “Was the chowder last night so bad that you don’t want me to cook?”
“No. No, it was great. I just don’t want to…you don’t have to…”
“But I want to.” Merlin nodded as if they had just agreed on something. “You know what? I’ll just do my grocery shopping and surprise you. Come over to the house whenever you feel like it. If you don’t, I’ll just yell when dinner is ready. There are enough things for sandwiches in the fridge, in case you get hungry while I’m gone.”
Before Arthur could argue, Merlin grabbed the box that he still had been holding and left.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur looked around. Even though the room was old and worn, it was clean and Merlin had managed to make it look cosy just like he had done with the couch-bed last night. Sitting down on the bed, Arthur heard Merlin’s old car rumple away and was alone.
There was a soft knock at the door and Arthur blinked. The sun was up and he didn’t remember having seen it set the night before.
“Are you alright?”
Was that Merlin? Of course it was Merlin, who else knew he was here? Arthur scrambled up and padded over to the door, rubbing at his eyes.
When he opened, Merlin stood there with a tray and a worried look on his face.
“Oh, good, you’re alive!” Merlin said instead of a greeting and shoved into the room. “When you didn’t show up for dinner, I thought you might have gone for a walk and forgot the time, but then there was no light in here and you didn’t come over for breakfast…”
Arthur just stood there and watched as Merlin shoved the tray onto the small table and poured him a tea.
“Come on, sit down, have some breakfast. It’s almost noon again but you’ve got to start somewhere.” Merlin beamed.
“I…I’m…” Arthur tried to get his thoughts together. “I appreciate the concern,” he said stiffly, “but…”
“Damn, I forgot, you want coffee for breakfast.” Merlin smiled apologetically. “Seems I forgot yesterday when I was at the supermarket. Tea will do, won’t it? Try this,” he pointed to the marmalade, “and give me your honest opinion.” He beamed widely.
“I will.” Arthur didn’t feel like having breakfast. He wanted to go to the bathroom and then curl up in bed again. He must have slept a lot more than twelve hours this time but he still felt worn out and tired.
It didn’t look like Merlin intended to leave, though. He just stood there, smiling at him as if it was the most natural thing to do to wake a stranger up, invade his space and force him to have breakfast.
Arthur gestured towards the bathroom. “I’ll be right back, okay?”
Splashing some water into his face, Arthur caught sight of himself in the small mirror. Was that really him? The dapper businessman who always looked like he had a bunch of stylists running after him to remove any small blemish that might dare to show up, where had he gone? A tired face with big circles underneath the eyes looked back at him, the skin pale, almost waxen. The stubble didn’t help. Who was that person? And why did he look so exhausted after having slept for so many hours?
Obviously he had slept in his clothes, his shirt was as rumpled as his hair and he tried to straighten both with his hands when he heard the careful call.
“Are you alright in there? Is there anything you need?”
Arthur swallowed. He couldn’t remember anyone being so concerned about his well-being. It was ridiculous, he knew, he was a stranger to Merlin. But the man not only had taken him in, he seemed to genuinely care, a rare trait these days.
He took a deep breath and stepped out of the small bathroom. “No, thanks, I’m fine.”
When he stepped into the room again, Merlin had poured himself a cup of tea as well, so he would have company for breakfast. Sinking onto the chair, he looked at the tray for the first time. “Where did you get all this?”
Merlin stopped sipping his tea and threw him a look. “Are you serious? I made it.”
“You don’t have to cook for me, you know.” Looking at the food, Arthur felt the first stirrings of an appetite in ages. For months, he had only forced himself to eat the most necessary, so he could function. But the breakfast was arranged so lovingly on plates and in bowls that seemed to be ancient and everything smelled so mouth-watering that he reached for the fork.
Chuckling, Merlin set his cup down and folded a foot underneath himself. “I know I don’t have to, I just want to.”
“That’s a weird hobby.” Arthur shoved the first forkful of the omelette into his mouth and moaned.
Grinning that eye-wrinkling grin of his, Merlin shook his head. “It was a hobby, then it became a job and now it’s a hobby again. Nothing weird about it.”
“This is wonderful.” Arthur chewed and closed his eyes for a moment as flavours exploded on his tongue.
“Thank you. Just a little trick I’ve learned.”
As Merlin elaborated on what exactly he did with the eggs and which ingredients went into it at what point – thereby using expressions Arthur had never heard before – Arthur didn’t really listen. He concentrated on his food and when he looked up, his eyes caught on Merlin’s lips and the way they moved. He had heard the accent in Merlin’s voice the moment they met and it was fascinating to see how Merlin’s lips moulded around the words.
“So…you turned a hobby into your job?” Arthur asked between two bites. He’d given anything if he could have done that. As a child, he was a talented football player but as a Pendragon, he had no choice in what to do with his future and father had laughed about his ambitions. Before he could reach a decision for himself, he had already been accepted into the best business school in the country.
Merlin nodded and his face turned sad for a moment. “My mam taught me. She was a fantastic cook and let me help all the time. I wanted to see the world and became a chef. Worked everywhere, France, Switzerland, Canada, Japan…”
Arthur finished his omelette and looked at Merlin with renewed respect. He had thought that Merlin was just a country boy who had never gotten further than the next larger town and there he was, travelling the world, doing his job in what Arthur figured where the most important countries for the profession. “But you live here now, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Merlin’s smile seemed a little forced. “Yes, I do. Now try the marmalade.”
Even Arthur understood when someone didn’t want to talk about a topic any further. His natural instinct was to press harder, that was how he got the upper hand in many meetings and negotiations. This wasn’t the time to bore into Merlin, though. Arthur was a guest in his house and his manners forbade him to do so. He reached for the toast and spread some of the marmalade on it before taking a bite.
“Wow!” That was all he could say. It wasn’t only the taste of oranges, there was something else and marmalade had never tasted so good.
The wide grin was back on Merlin’s face. “That’s what I wanted to hear, thanks. You’ve been a big help!”
“I didn’t do anything but eat!” Arthur protested.
Merlin finished his tea and got up. “But you’ve proven worthy as a taste-tester and you look like you haven’t had anything really tasty in way too long.”
“What does that mean?” Not being able to resist, Arthur took another bite out of the toast – this one bigger – and chewed.
“Prepare for three healthy meals a day!” With that, Merlin winked and left the room and Arthur could hear him humming as he made his way back to the house.
When Merlin was gone, Arthur finished breakfast and decided to take a shower. Maybe he would feel a bit more human and little less tired. He skipped shaving, though, it was after noon already, he might as well take care of the stubble the next day.
He took a deep breath when he was done getting dressed again and looked around. His hiking boots stood next to his suitcase but he didn’t feel like hiking. He didn’t know the area at all and it was probably not a good idea to get lost. Maybe he should find out who took tourists on guided tours, but that seemed like work and Arthur had sworn he wouldn’t work for at least a couple of days. He didn’t feel like working anyway, he was just tired.
The tray with the dishes from breakfast was still sitting on the little table, he could bring it over to the house and try to talk a bit more to Merlin. If Merlin was there at all, he was probably off to run some errand or other. Or to his job. Whatever that was.
Arthur put on his fleece jacket, grabbed the tray and opened the door. Even though the sun was hiding behind some clouds, it was a lot brighter than in his little cabin and Arthur squinted. He made his way over to the house, which – looked at in bright day light – was a lot smaller than Arthur’s apartment was and knocked on the back door. “Excuse me?”
Merlin appeared. “Arthur! You made it out of your room, nice! Come on in!” He wiped his hands on a dish towel-made-apron and held the door for Arthur. “I’m just about to make a cake.”
“Ah.” That was all Arthur could say. Why would anyone like to waste their afternoon making cake? Merlin had said he was a chef, that didn’t mean he liked to bake, did it? He set the tray down.
“Could you put your stuff in the dishwasher? I need the space over there!” Merlin smiled and had turned his attention back to the dough on the worktop of the kitchen.
Looking around, Arthur found the dishwasher and opened it. Never before had he put his own dishes into one of these devices, usually someone took the plates away as soon as he wasn’t interested in the food any longer. But he had seen people do it, so it couldn’t be too difficult. Carefully, he pulled one of the trays out. Luckily there already were dirty dishes in it, so he got a basic idea of what went where. A minute later, he closed the dishwasher and turned around, rather pleased by himself for having mastered the task.
“You’ve never loaded a dishwasher before, have you?” Merlin chuckled.
“I never had to.”
“Whoa.” Merlin looked surprised. “I thought you were posh, but never having to load a dishwasher? Are you some kind of royalty or something?”
Royalty of the business world, yes. That was true, he had played in the top ranks but that life was behind him, he would never go back. “No. No royalty, no titles. What are you making?”
Merlin smiled and Arthur knew he had successfully diverted the topic when Merlin started babbling about the cake he was making and what went in it and why it was kind of complicated. Arthur didn’t understand a word but since he had nothing better to do, he could as well lean against the counter and listen to the warm voice with the slight accent. It was soothing.
“I’m going to the pub tonight, are you coming?”
Arthur snapped out of his thoughts. “What?”
“Oh, probably not. You might want to relax from your hectic city life for a while before starting to socialize again.”
“I don’t know anyone here.” Arthur obediently held the baking pan Merlin shoved in his hands.
Merlin opened the oven, took the pan from Arthur and shoved it in. He adjusted a few settings, thereby allowing Arthur a good look at his backside. Then he straightened back up. “That’s not true, you already know Mithy, Lance, Gwaine and Percy.”
That Mithy was Mithian Roads was clear, Lance was the policeman, so Gwaine and Percy most likely were the firefighters, but Arthur didn’t feel like meeting any of them. “I think I’ll just read a bit tonight. So, how did things at the hotel go?”
Merlin frowned as he stuffed more things into the dishwasher as he cleaned up his work space. “I thought it was settled that you are staying here?”
“As long as I have no other place to stay. And speaking about this, I don’t feel comfortable that you feed me all the time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious, but let me pay you for it. If I stayed at a hotel and ate in restaurants, I’d be paying for my food, too. I can’t let you pay for all the groceries and let you do all the work.”
Crossing his arms in front of his chest, Merlin looked at him. “Okay.”
“Yes, okay. You can pay for half the groceries and I’ll show you how to cook, so we can do it together.”
“I have no intention…” What on earth was the bloke thinking? Arthur hadn’t come here to take a cooking class. Then again, he was here to do new things, stuff that he had never attempted to even try.
Merlin chuckled. “You already learned how to load a dishwasher today. By the end of the week, you’ll be able to make your own breakfast and probably even some edible sandwiches.”
Arthur couldn’t help but smile and it felt strange on his face after weeks and weeks of not smiling at all. Merlin just showed so much enthusiasm in everything he seemed to do that it was difficult not to be pulled along.
“I think I’ll go for a walk first. I don’t even know the surroundings.”
“If you walk down there,” Merlin pointed beyond the guest house with a kitchen utensil he was holding, “there’s a nice little path that leads you along the coast line to a lookout area. There’s a bench and if the wind isn’t too strong it’s nice sitting there, watching the ocean. If you take the path down here,” he gestured towards the other side of the house, “That’ll bring you into town. It’s about five kilometres, though and don’t forget you have to walk back, too.”
“The coast line sounds good, I think I’ll try that one first. How far is it to the outlook area?”
Merlin pondered. “Not as far as to town. Two kilometres probably? It’s a nice walk but take a rain coat, I’m not sure about those clouds out there.”
“And when you’re back, there’ll be something delicious waiting for you.” Merlin winked.
Was Merlin flirting with him? Gosh, nobody had flirted with him in so long that Arthur had forgotten how it worked. He smiled back. “I’m looking forward to it.”
After he found his hiking boots and rain coat, Arthur quickly found the path Merlin had indicated. Merlin. Had he really flirted with him? He was so out of practice that he probably wouldn’t notice if a flirt nipped him in the butt. Not that he would mind having his butt nipped by Merlin. He was tall, had broad shoulders and small hips, his dark pelt-like hair cried for a decent cut and the twinkling blue eyes that crinkled up into half-moons when Merlin found something funny were quite cute. He had long fingers and Arthur had noticed the wonderful voice before.
He wasn’t here to be flirted with, though. He needed to get some distance between himself and his former life and to figure out how to continue. Arthur’s only goal in life had been to take over the Pendragon Holding once father retired, it was what he had been told from an early age on and there were times he had believed it and worked hard for it. So hard, in fact, that he had never questioned if there was something else in life and found out what would make him truly happy.
If he were honest, he had no idea who he really was. With the businessman stripped away from him, he was just confused and felt like someone had taken a protective knight suit off of him. He felt vulnerable and disoriented. And endlessly tired.
When Arthur reached the bench at the lookout Merlin had talked about, he sat down. He had walked as quickly as the path had allowed, focussed on reaching his destination, so he was a bit out of breath and looked at his surroundings for the first time. The wind had picked up but the place was beautiful. You could look out over the ocean, on a clear day you could probably make out Ireland on the other side. Arthur reckoned that it probably wasn’t further than what? 40? 50 kilometres? He didn’t know, had never bothered with geography.
There were huge waves on the ocean and Arthur could hear them hit the craggy rocks far below him. It was very steep but how far down would it go? 100 metres? 200? Arthur didn’t care, he was just content watching the clouds race each other over the sky and to feel the wind blow right through him. Maybe it would clear out his head and make it easier to come to a conclusion.
He knew he had to do something with his life. He was only thirty-two and even though he had saved most of his income and was relatively wealthy, he needed something he could spend his time and talent on. Just…what other talents but leading a business did he have? Arthur honestly didn’t know, his former life had taken away so much time that he didn’t even have a circle of friends, he hadn’t done anything but occasionally playing footie with the blokes from the park and that had been it. Between meetings and late nights, business dinners and conferences, there hadn’t been much time for things he really loved. Or to find out what he really loved since he had always figured that he loved what he had been doing. Until now.
Arthur rubbed a hand over his eyes and got up. He would find something but now he needed to get back. The first drops were falling and it had gotten considerably darker. He wasn’t familiar with the area, so it was better to get back than getting caught in the rain and probably slipping and falling or simply getting lost.
The bench at the lookout became Arthur’s favourite place. When he stayed in the cabin, all he did was sleep, he was endlessly tired. Once in a while, though, he managed to pull up the energy to come here and look out over the water.
The sound of the ocean was soothing and Arthur liked the feeling of the wind trying to blow through him as if it tried to blow the thoughts of the past out of him.
More often than not, Arthur doubted his decision to leave. If he hadn’t, he would be sitting in yet another meeting, working on other ideas and seeing them being executed by others. Then again, hadn’t that been one of the reasons he had started to hate his job so much? That he never could go through with a project; that he had to leave things to others and never really saw what happened along the way? Sometimes he didn’t even see the finished product as he didn’t have time to be there when it was launched. A lot of times he didn’t even get notified that a project had been started.
He wanted to do something where he would have the idea and then experience all the little important details, make all the decisions - may they be big or little - and see a result in the end. Or maybe he just could do something without the burden of responsibility? Without the feeling that lots of people depended on him being successful? Just a little job in a company where nobody knew his background.
But Arthur couldn’t see himself stocking shelves on the late shift or delivering packages or anything like that. It felt like wasting his talents. Where they really talents, though? Or was it just something he was good at because he had been to the best schools and learned from the experts in their field without the chance of finding out if he would be better in something else?
Some days, Arthur just sat on the bench for hours, his self-doubts eating him up. Growing up, he had been told, he was special. He didn’t feel special now, he was a failure. A moron for giving up what he had. Without that, he was nobody, he was facing a stranger in the mirror each morning.
Other days, he made plans, one crazier than the other. He knew they wouldn’t go anywhere, but he didn’t know what else to do. To find out if he had talents other than business, he would have to go out and try new things. If only he weren’t so damn tired all the time.
There was a sharp knock against the door and Arthur blinked.
“Arthur! Arthur, I’m coming in now, this has got to end!”
He turned to the other side, maybe Merlin would go away if he didn’t react; it had worked before.
“Okay, that’s it!” The door opened and Merlin stomped into the room “Whoa!” He went over to the window and opened it.
“No, you’re not. Nobody can sleep for almost a week and since you used up all the air in here, it’s more likely that you fell into a coma than slumber.”
Arthur scrambled up. “A week?”
“Yes, a week. For days I’ve been trying to get you out of your prison cell. I do understand that you are tired, you’ve been working hard in the past months or even years, but enough is enough. You’re wasting your life! Get up and go do something!”
Blinking, Arthur glanced at Merlin. He didn’t remember how much time had passed since he had come back from his walk. It couldn’t have been more than a day or two, he was just so damn tired. And when he woke up and didn’t feel tired, he didn’t know what else to do, so he closed his eyes again and slept some more.
“We will develop a routine from now on. I know this is a vacation for you, but you’re sleeping your time off away and that doesn’t make sense.”
“I’m not.” Arthur rubbed at his eye.
Merlin, who had crossed his arms in front of his chest, still stood by the window. “Oh yes, mister, sleeping for almost a whole week is what I call a waste of time. You need to do something with your vacation, something you can tell you friends about and to think back to when your job gets tough again.”
“I’m not…on vacation.” It hit Arthur when he finally sat up and swung his feet in front of the bed. He wasn’t on vacation. It had felt like it in the beginning but the feeling had vanished.
“You’re not on vacation. What else is this there? Time off? In between jobs? Sabbatical?”
“Yes, kind of. No, not really.”
“Oh, that about settles it.” The edge was gone from Merlin’s voice. He just stood there and looked at Arthur questioningly.
Letting out a deep sigh, Arthur looked at his hands. “I don’t really know.”
“Tell you what.” There was a smile in Merlin’s voice. “I’ll go and make you breakfast and you go and take a shower, get rid of that fuzz on your face, really, man, you can’t call that a beard, can you?, and then you’ll come over to the house and try to make me understand what you were talking about, alright?”
Arthur nodded. Merlin was still a stranger to him but he had been nothing but friendly and helpful. Maybe it would all make sense once he told someone about his situation.
“You’ve got thirty minutes.” Merlin went to the door. “And leave that window open, it stinks pretty badly in here.”
Once again, there hadn’t been any coffee, but slowly Arthur was getting used to drinking tea and he reached for his cup – the yellow one with the white dots, the cup Merlin always gave him – and took a sip.
Merlin sat opposite of him and hadn’t said much so far after refusing to let Arthur distract him with small talk and gossip.
“And that’s about it. You know how I’ve landed in your guest house.”
“That’s quite the story.”
Arthur looked up from where he was plucking single grapes off the bunch. “It’s true. I’d appreciate if you kept it quiet, though. Nobody needs to know who I am and especially where to be found.”
“So you’re this big business number from London and you just ran away from your daddy and now you’re hiding in my house.”
“If you want to put it that way…and it’s only temporary until I found out what to do with myself from now on.”
Merlin started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“This…all of this…it sounds like some Hunith Barlin novel or more like the movies they made out of her books.”
“Only in them, I would find true love and have a happy ending where everybody lived happily ever after.”
Merlin gaped. “You know who she is?”
Arthur nodded. “My sister was addicted to her novels when she was…I don’t know, fourteen? Fifteen? So I had to sit and watch more of them than I ever wanted and she even read chapters to me. Oh, don’t tell me you’re a fan!” He laughed.
“Her biggest; she was my mother.”
“Oh.” The laugh fell off Arthur’s face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
“It’s okay, Arthur. You couldn’t have. She passed away two years ago and shortly after I came back here.”
“I’m sorry.” Arthur repeated and played with the single grape on his plate. This was awkward. “So that’s your story…”
Merlin took a deep breath and got up. “There’s more to my story than that, but it can wait for another day. I want you to come along for the grocery shop today and then for a drink in the pub.”
“Merlin…” Arthur looked up. “I’ve just told you I need to keep a low profile until I’ve decided what to do.”
“And I need help grocery shopping and the people at the pub have seen you anyway. This is a very small community, things like that can’t stay hidden. If you want them on your side, go out, mingle, make them your friends.”
“You make that sound like this is a Western or something. Make them your friends so when the cavalry comes looking for you, nobody will blab.”
Arthur smiled but Merlin didn’t. “That’s basically what I just said. If someone comes looking for you before you are ready, those people will protect you, they will not give you away. If you have done something for them.”
“You mean money? I don’t have that much money.” It was a lie, but as long as Arthur didn’t know what his future would hold, he wouldn’t let anyone know that he was well off.
“Not money, Arthur, friendship, that’s all that’s needed. If you want to be part of this community, do your part first. We’re going to the pub later and you will say hi. Or you can stay in the cabin over there and the first visitor who drops your name in town will be pointed your way.”
“I’m not saying you need to tell them your story. Just become one of them. That’s how it works here.”
Arthur pondered for a moment. What if his father’s minions already found out which way he went? If it was true what Merlin said, and Arthur didn’t doubt it, he’d been gone for more than a week already and it became more likely that someone would show up and ask questions. He would do anything he could to protect his solitude for a bit longer. “Alright.”
Merlin’s face lit up. “You coming?”
“Yes.” Arthur nodded.
A few hours later, Arthur just wanted to curl up and fall asleep again. The bit of grocery shopping Merlin had hinted at had turned into a huge shopping tour. Instead of going to the nearest big supermarket and just get everything there, Merlin had made what felt like a thousand stops at different small shops where he not only got the things he wanted but needed to chat with the owners or sales personnel, all of whom he seemed to be friends with.
In the beginning, Arthur had followed and stood about in the shops, looking around. This all felt very alien to him. Aside from the occasional sandwich or coffee, he had never bought groceries or ingredients for a meal. Since he was hardly ever at his apartment, he either ate in restaurants or had meals brought to the office. He knew all the best places that delivered but he only knew one supermarket because he had to pass it on his way to work and had no idea where all the little shops like these were. Surely they existed in London as well, didn’t they?
Merlin was done with yet another purchase and shoved the bag into Arthur’s arms. “We’ll add everything up when we’re back and then just split it, okay?”
“Sure.” Arthur looked at the bag. “What is this stuff?”
“Just a few things I need.” Merlin grinned. “You really have no idea what this is?”
“From the look of the shop…it’s either herbs or tea or something you smoke behind the shed.”
Merlin laughed. “That’s a start.”
Arthur stopped. “Wait a minute!” He held the bag further from his body. “You’re not telling me that you just bought weed? If that’s so, I don’t want anything to do with it and I’ll move out as soon as possible.”
“Calm down, they’re just herbs. I’m honestly surprised that you would know what weed looks like.” The grin got wider. “You probably aren’t the uptight business bloke you pretend to be after all.”
“I was in college, you know.” Arthur made a face.
“And you went through an experimental phase and drank and smoked and tried both sexes…I hear you my friend.” Merlin opened the car and grinned at Arthur over the roof of it. “Get in. I’m not judging you.”
“No to the drugs. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette in my whole life, I can’t stand it.” Arthur climbed onto the passengers’ seat.
Merlin got in as well and turned the key after fastening his seat belt. “So…,” he threw Arthur a playful look, “…yes to the other two?”
Arthur felt the colour rise in his cheeks and he looked out the side window.
Laughing, Merlin put the car in gear and they drove off.
A while later, Arthur didn’t even bother to enter the stores with Merlin. The first couple of times it had been exciting to look at all the things that seemed to be so alien to him and so familiar to Merlin but then it just got exhausting, so he stayed in the car. Usually, he would have used the time to check his mobile, but that lay shattered in a million pieces somewhere along the railway line.
“Bored already?” Merlin came back and put a little brown paper bag on top of the collection on the back seat.
“A bit, yes. Could I…I know it’s asked a lot but I have lost my mobile on my way here. Would it be okay if I borrowed yours to check some email?”
Merlin threw him a sideways look as he turned the car around and brought them back into the direction they came from. “I thought you had stopped working?”
“I have. It’s just…” Arthur didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t missed his mobile until now.
“You want to check if they’re already looking for you? Trust me, if a friend of mine did a vanishing act like you did, I’d move heaven and hell to get information. You might want to think about contacting someone you trust?” Merlin looked at him. “Just to let them know you haven’t done anything stupid?”
Arthur looked at his hands and sighed. “They will all think that I did something stupid the way it is.”
“Are your friends all like this?”
“Posh business people who don’t know that there’s a life outside of this all?”
Arthur had to think about that. If he were honest, he had to admit that he actually had no friends at all. Which was not true, there was Leon. He had known the man from early childhood. They had been close friends all through school and university and since Leon had gotten a job in their company, they had remained friends. Most likely, Leon wouldn’t understand his decision to leave everything behind and if he contacted Leon, he would go report it to father and that would be the end of his time here. Father would do anything to drag him back to London, he was sure of that and he knew that he wasn’t ready to fight yet. So, who else could he contact?
“Stop at the phone booth over there.”
Merlin did as he was told. “You’re lucky it’s still here, they wanted to tear it down a year ago, with everyone having mobiles and such.”
“Mobiles can be tracked.”
“So can this, if I’m informed correctly. They will know that you’ve called from here.”
Arthur looked at the phone booth. “How far are we away from Ealdor now?”
“It’s about forty-five minutes to Ealdor, another fifteen to my house.”
Taking a deep breath, Arthur opened the door. “That’ll have to do.” He stepped into the phone booth and typed in a number.
“Feeling better now?” Merlin asked when Arthur came back into the car.
“Not really, but I hope they will.”
When he didn’t say more, Merlin started the car again. “You look like you could use a drink. We’ll stop by the pub on our way home.”
“But the groceries!”
“We bought nothing that will go bad if it is left in the car for an hour or two.”
“I’m not going to step back into this car with a drunk driver.”
“Who said I’m going to drink? You’re the one who needs a beer.” Merlin smiled and drove them back to Ealdor.
Arthur didn’t know when he last felt so good. Here he was, in a little pub in a remote town, surrounded by people he had just met a week ago. They didn’t make him feel like a stranger, though. When they’d arrived, Merlin had greeted the girl behind the bar with a lengthy chat – of course; he seemed to know everybody – and then had ordered a beer for Arthur and a Coke for himself. They had found a table in the corner, which wasn’t too difficult, it was still early.
Sitting in silence for a while, something Arthur had thought Merlin wasn’t even capable of with his otherwise constant chattering, Arthur relaxed. He had never been in an establishment like this, not even in his days at university where fellow students had dragged him to quite a few questionable places. The pub here, felt almost cosy in its run-down state and Arthur let out a sigh.
“Are you alright?” Merlin threw him a questioning look.
“Yes, I think I am.”
“No regrets about being here? No regrets about calling someone?”
Arthur shook his head. “No. It was the right thing to do.”
“Okay.” Taking a sip from his drink, Merlin nodded.
“You’re not going to ask whom I’ve called?” Arthur looked up.
Merlin looked at him for a moment. “If you want to tell me, fine. If not, I’m sure you made the right decision.”
Arthur nodded and pondered to tell Merlin who he’d called but then Mithian Roads pulled up a chair.
Arthur got up. “Hello.” He waited until she sat down before doing the same again and she giggled.
“A man with manners, those are rare these days.”
He hadn’t even noticed what he’d done, it was something you just did, right?
Merlin smiled. “You’re right, Mithy, I haven’t seen manners like that since…” The smile fell off his face. “Nevermind.”
She squeezed Merlin’s hand and then turned to Arthur. “So, how are you? Is Merlin treating you right?”
“I’m fine, Miss Roads, thanks. I have no reason to complain.” Arthur smiled politely.
“Call me Mithy, everybody does.” She reached over and patted his hand. “You’re lucky, he doesn’t cook for just anyone, you know.”
Was that a wink? What did it mean? Why did she wink at him when she told him that Merlin didn’t like to make meals for just anyone? Arthur looked over at Merlin. Why did he cook up a storm for him, then?
“Any news on the pipes, Mithy?” Merlin changed the subject not so subtly.
Taking a deep breath that she blew out in a sigh, Mithian’s good mood vanished. “Unfortunately, yes.”
Nodding, Mithian sipped her beer. “Everything in that house is old. The gas pipes, the electrical lines, the plumbing…” She sighed again. “I’d be better off if the place just burnt down.”
“It’ll only mean more work for us.” One of the blokes Arthur had seen when he arrived, dropped into a chair. He tossed his longish hair back and grinned. “Don’t do anything drastic!”
Mithian laughed without humour. “I won’t, but it still would be easier. I don’t think I can get the funds to get everything done to open again.”
Arthur leaned back and listened. This wasn’t his discussion, he had enough issues of his own to solve. While the others talked, Arthur found out that the newcomer was Gwaine, Merlin had mentioned the name before and about twenty minutes later, the tall firefighter showed up as well. He was greeted as ‘Percy’, so the closest circle of Merlin’s friends was assembled, Arthur figured. It was interesting to see how they not only talked about Mithian’s hotel- and finance-issues but immediately offered to help in any way they could. There were offers of helping with putting new wall-paper in (Percy) and re-doing the floors (Gwaine) to doing the catering for everyone (Merlin, of course).
“That’s all very nice, lads,” Mithian sighed. “I just don’t have the money to get everything done, though. This is the end. No more ‘Ealdor Inn’ from now on. I have to close the place down and I’d be happy if someone gave me a few pounds for the ground it was built on.”
Arthur only had a quick look at the hotel when he first arrived and he hadn’t been in the right mind-set to get an impression other than it was dangerous to set foot into the building, but it had looked run-down and as if it needed a bit more than just a bit of paint.
The others were quiet.
“I can look into it.”
Arthur’s head snapped up when Merlin said that.
“No, Merlin, don’t. You need what you have and I couldn’t…no, just no, Merlin.” Mithian insisted.
He sighed. “Have you talked to your bank yet?”
“I don’t need to. The hotel has been on the verge of insolvency for months. Nobody will give me that much money. Maybe this is for the best.”
“Do you know exactly how much it will cost to redo all that stuff?” Percy finished his beer.
She shook her head. “I didn’t even dare to have them make an estimate. I just know this is the end. I’m out of a job, I need to find something new.”
“Maybe we can do a bake sale or something?”
Mithain smiled sadly. “And who will bake all this and who will pay so much money for the cakes to renew everything in that house that needs to be replaced, Gwaine?”
“It was just a thought.” Gwaine made a face.
Arthur got up to get them new drinks at the bar. It felt a bit weird that they just let him listen to this discussion and the least he could do was buy them drinks. The woman seemed to be in quite the predicament but the way she talked about it, she had seen it coming and it wasn’t too much of a surprise. Still, there had to be something they could do to save the hotel. He sat the drinks down on the table and sat down as everyone reached for theirs.
“How about we do a charity calendar?” Gwaine offered his newest idea.
“With who in it?” Percy asked.
“You and me, of course, Merlin, too. And maybe we can convince Arthur here to join in as well.” He winked at Arthur.
Arthur blinked. “I’m…I…err…”
Mithian laughed. “Gwaine! Stop flirting with the man! He’s had to listen to my problems all evening, he doesn’t need a come-on as well.”
Merlin threw Gwaine a dark look. “Yes, leave him alone.”
“So, Arthur,” Percy smiled widely, “what do you do for a living and what leads you to beautiful Ealdor?”
It didn’t escape Arthur’s attention that Gwaine reached for Percy’s hand. Those two were…? Why had Gwaine so shamelessly flirted with him, then? And why hadn’t Percy objected? And why would Gwaine flirt with him if he had someone like Percy?
“I…I was the…” Vice Chairman of Pendragon Holding he was about to say, the title so engraved in his brain that it came naturally, but he held it in at the last second. “I’ve been working for a huge company but I don’t feel like doing that anymore. I’ve taken some time off to find out what I want to do for the rest of my life.” It felt stiff and sounded weird in his own ears but at least it wasn’t a lie and it didn’t sound as if he was the failure that he was.
Percy looked at him. “Way cool.”
“It takes a lot of strength and self-confidence to leave something behind like that without knowing what comes next.” The tall man nodded appreciatively.
Arthur managed a forced smile. He wasn’t so sure about that anymore. Running away wasn’t a sign of strength and his self-confidence had suffered a lot.
“At least you made that decision for yourself and didn’t have to make one because your house basically collapses over your head.” Mithian was through her second beer and set the glass down.
“It doesn’t collapse, there’s still hope.”
“How can you always be so damn positive, Merlin?”
Merlin shrugged. “It’s just one of the many talents I was born with?” He winked.
“Since you’re now a citizen of Ealdor, even though it might be temporary…how do you feel about footie, Arthur?” Gwaine seemed to move closer.
“Footie? I’ve played in the park on the weekends, sometimes. Haven’t in a while, though. Why?”
“We have a team over in Middleston. If you have nothing better to do, you can come along to get some workout done?” Gwaine winked. “I know Merlin’s cooking, everyone needs a good workout after a while.”
Arthur had always been sensitive when it came to his weight and it had only gotten worse when someone he had thought he loved had called him fat. The way Gwaine looked at him and how he blamed Merlin’s good cooking for eventual issues was disarming, so Arthur smiled. “Gosh, I haven’t played in a while, but sure, I’d love to.”
“That’s settled then, we’ll pick you up tomorrow.” Percy nodded.
The conversation wandered here and there and Arthur didn’t even notice how much time had passed when Merlin hit a hand on the table. “Drink up, Arthur, we need to get home.”
Grinning when Merlin’s friends started to ‘ooooooh’ and whistle, Arthur noticed that Merlin’s ears turned a nice shade of red.
“We still need to unpack all the groceries and prepare dinner, too.”
Mithian beamed as she elbowed Merlin.
“Shush.” He frowned and then got up. “Gwaine, let’s get on the phone tomorrow to work out the details with the sport.”
“The details with the sport.” Percy laughed. “You know, Arthur, Merlin is into stuff like meditation and yoga but when it comes to real sport, he’s always a bit reluctant.”
“I’m not reluctant and yoga is a sport!” Merlin insisted as Arthur finished his beer.
“Thanks, everyone, it’s been a pleasure meeting you all.” He got up. “All done, lead the way.”
Everyone nodded, said ‘bye’ and Mithy waved after them as Arthur followed Merlin to the car.
They went back to Merlin’s house and Arthur didn’t even bother to go over to his little realm. He helped unload the car and then watched how Merlin put everything where it belonged and then started to make a meal. He ordered him to bring this and to cut that and even though Arthur had the feeling that he was more in the way than helping, he noticed he didn’t mind.
Preparing meals had never appealed to him. When he was hungry, he wanted to eat. He didn’t want to be bothered with the process of cooking and he didn’t care what happened when he was done eating. Watching Merlin wield knives and pans around was oddly soothing, though. It was interesting to see him work, it was obvious that he didn’t just do this as a hobby but knew exactly what he was doing. Then again, there might be people who cooked because they liked it who had a certain routine as well, but it looked so easy when Merlin did it.
Arthur handed Merlin the plates they had taken out of the cupboard before and watched as Merlin loaded pasta on them that he had tossed about in a sauce.
“Here you go.” He handed Arthur a plate and then turned to fill the other plate.
They enjoyed their meal in relative silence. Arthur had never given pasta much thought but now he was relaxed enough to enjoy the different flavours of the sauce and how well they went together. He had eaten in top notch restaurants around the world, but he would have sworn that he’d never had pasta this good.
“You were pretty quick to agree on footie practice.” Merlin smiled.
Arthur shrugged. “It’ll give my days a bit of structure. Since I still haven’t found out what I want to do, I can as well try to be part of this community here, can’t I? Isn’t that what you said?”
“I didn’t say that I didn’t like it.” Merlin looked at him and his blue eyes sparkled. “And you know what? I cooked, you can do the dishes.” The smile turned into a grin.
Groaning, Arthur reached for his water. “I’m not good with that, but alright, I can put the stuff into the dishwasher.”
“Alright, we’ll do it together.”
Arthur sighed in relief which drew a giggle out of Merlin.
When they were done – luckily Merlin hadn’t insisted on Arthur washing the dishes, just condemned him to dry them – Arthur took a deep breath. He had spent most of the day with Merlin and it almost felt too good.
“I should probably…” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb to the general direction of the cabin.
“I wondered if you’d…” Merlin started at the same moment.
Fidgeting a bit with the dish towel he had taken off Arthur, Merlin smiled wryly. “I was planning on watching a movie, I wondered if you’d like to join me?”
Merlin didn’t want the day to end just yet either and that somehow put a big smile on Arthur’s face. “Sure.”
Arthur woke up and stretched. Peeking at his watch, he smiled. It was early, he hadn’t slept in too long. It seemed he was over his sleeping phase. He got up and took a shower. That there were cleaning utensils on his desk the other day was obviously a hint from Merlin that he should clean the place himself. The last time he had to clean a bathroom had been at university and now it was only the mess he’d created himself, so how hard could it be?
A while later, Arthur wiped the sweat off his forehead and looked around the bathroom proudly. It might not have been what his cleaning staff had done, but it seemed a lot cleaner than before and he was proud. And he had to get out of the small room quickly. He’d used the different detergents generously and the vapours were probably not too healthy.
It was time for breakfast anyway, so he washed his hands again, grabbed his jacket and made his way over to the house. He knocked at the door and opened it slowly.
Merlin looked up from where he was on the phone and waved him in. He pointed to the fridge and to the pan that waited on the stove.
Carefully, Arthur opened the fridge. He wasn’t big on kitchens, but just taking stuff out of other people’s fridges – if they held more than just beer for a party – seemed like a very personal thing to do, like he was intruding in someone else’s personal space and this was Merlin’s fridge. Merlin, who knew so much about food and how to mix it into not only edible but delicious things. Arthur quickly took out the container with the eggs and a bit of bacon.
As he was about to close the fridge again, Merlin appeared next to him, the phone still at his ear, and reached for a few other things that he placed right next to the eggs. He gestured for Arthur to bring something over and Arthur turned to see green things growing in pots on the window sill. Herbs, they were most likely herbs, he figured. He looked at Merlin and mouthed ‘which one?’ and Merlin pointed to the one on the left. Since Arthur had no clue if he could just pluck some of the things off or if they needed to be cut or whatever, he took the whole pot and brought it over, which made Merlin chuckle.
“No, Mithy, not you, Arthur. Go on…Yes, he just came over for breakfast…no, that’s alright, he can wait a few more minutes…” Merlin looked up again. “Mithy says hi.”
“Hi Mithy” Arthur said obediently.
“Yes, he says hi back…no…no, that’s okay…I’ll be there, don’t worry…Okay…Laters.” Merlin hung up. “Morning.”
“Welcome to your first class.” Merlin smiled.
Arthur blinked. “Class?”
“Yes, you are about to embark on the journey into the wonderful world of omelettes.” The smile turned into a beam.
“You…you want me to…cook?” Arthur had been alright with watching Merlin doing it and he hadn’t minded cutting a few things, even though Merlin corrected him once in a while. But making something that actually required cooking?
Merlin chuckled. “I’m right here and I’ll show you how it’s done and if it doesn’t work out…we have a very good connection to the fire station, don’t we?” He switched the stove on. “On with the pan.”
Reluctantly, Arthur put the pan on the cooktop. “This one?”
Merlin instructed him all the way through and in the end they had a breakfast for two.
Arthur knew that it didn’t taste as if Merlin had made it, but it was edible and he felt strangely proud of his accomplishment.
“I’m going to help Mithy move some of her personal things out of the hotel today. Do you have any plans?”
“She lives at the hotel?”
“Yes, she had the room behind the office, but she can’t stay there anymore. For now she’s using the spare room at Lance and Gwen’s. We’ll take her stuff there.”
“Lance is the policeman, right?”
Merlin nodded. “Yes, and Gwen is his wife. I’m sure she’ll be there as well, you get to meet her, too.”
Arthur chuckled. “You’ve told them that I’d come, too, right?”
“Yup!” Merlin beamed widely. “You’ve managed to clean your bathroom, you learned how to make breakfast, now you’re ready for another adventure!”
Arthur looked around yet another room. First, he had thought that this was just an old shabby building that needed to be torn down to make space for something new but the longer they had carried stuff out, the more the charm of the hotel revealed itself to him. The whole thing wasn’t big, it had ten, maybe fifteen rooms but some nice bigger rooms downstairs and a kitchen that had seen better days and seemed overly huge for such a small hotel. It would be a shame if someone bought it just for the land it was built on.
He hadn’t seen too much of Ealdor yet and what he had seen wasn’t too impressive, but with the little hotel gone, lots of people wouldn’t have any reason to come to the community and that would probably hurt other businesses, too. Slowly, an idea formed in Arthur’s mind.
He heard the others downstairs and it sounded as if they were done loading Percy’s van with Mithian’s personal belongings and the business papers from the office.
“I knew the posh git would only pretend to help and then do a vanishing act. He seems to be rather good at them.” That was Gwaine.
“That’s not true,” Mithian opposed. “He carried most of my books out himself and you know that I have quite a lot of them.”
Percy chuckled. “Maybe you should arrive in the 21st century and switch to ebooks, they’re a lot easier to carry.”
“Nothing beats a real book, the smell, the feel…”
“Oh, listen to our old romantic here. Come on, Merlin, let’s find your boyfriend and get out of here.”
“He’s not my boyfriend and you know that, Gwaine!” Merlin was close to shrieking and his friends laughed.
Arthur opened the window and peeked his head out. “Would you have a moment, Mithian?”
The men frowned and Mithian shrugged before she entered the place again and made her way upstairs.
Merlin threw him a look when Arthur loaded two boxes of Mithian’s belongings into his car.
“Just something I need to take a look at.”
“Does Mithy know?”
Arthur nodded. “Yes, she does. Let’s get back, so I can take a shower and get started.”
Merlin started the car and said nothing.
“What’s for dinner tonight?” Arthur looked over. They only had some sandwiches as lunch, so he started to feel really hungry.
“Do you think you’ll have some energy left for cooking?”
“Me?” Arthur stared at Merlin. “I already learned how to make breakfast today, don’t you think that’s a bit too much for one day?”
Merlin chuckled. “Alright. I’m not in the mood for lessons anyway. It just hurts to see Mithy losing everything she’s worked so hard for.”
Arthur said nothing.
A while later – Merlin had whipped up a delicious pizza, apologizing the whole time for using pre-made dough – Arthur sat at the kitchen table, going through Mithian’s books. More than once he frowned or blinked at the way she’d kept them. If the repairs hadn’t been the end of her time as hotel-owner, the next inspection of the tax authorities sure would have been.
Arthur didn’t even notice that Merlin provided him with fresh tea once in a while and he had no idea how many hours he had worked so far.
“Don’t you think that’s enough for today?”
Looking up, Arthur rubbed at his eye. “What? No, I need to…”
“No.” Merlin shook his head. “It’s 9:30 already, it’s time to put these aside for now, you’ve worked enough for a day off.”
“What exactly are you doing there anyway?”
Arthur stretched. “I don’t really know. Just checking her books to save her the trouble of spending more money on having it done. It’s something I know, so…” He shrugged.
“She’s in deep shit, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is.”
“Not the answer I had hoped for.”
“I…no, it’s too early.”
“There might be a way to save all this. The hotel is just too…I don’t know…too nice to be torn down.”
A huge smile showed on Merlin’s face. “Can you save the world tomorrow? We wanted to finish the movie we’d started yesterday and I already made popcorn.”
Chuckling, Arthur got up and stretched again. “I can’t promise anything, but maybe…we’ll see.”
Two hours later, Arthur still looked at the TV screen. It had been a long day with lots of new things and it was late already. He didn’t dare to move, though, since in the last hour, Merlin’s head had sagged and now rested on his shoulder.
The man who had tumbled into his life because he wanted to do a friend a favour and pick him up at the station. He had taken him in, helped him when he was in need and was so different from all the men he knew. He was gorgeous in his own way with his funny sticking out ears, dark unruly hair that curled in the back of his neck and the cheekbones that could cut glass. The way Merlin’s muscles had moved underneath that tight t-shirt while moving boxes today was a sight to be seen and Arthur had never expected the thoughts that had run through his head then.
He had always been more interested in men than in women and after experimenting at university, Arthur knew for sure that he would never be with a woman again. His hectic life and especially his public exposure had prohibited him from living this part of his life. He had never really thought about it with being on trips and at functions all the time; there was just no space in his life for a partner. Not that father had allowed him to openly have one anyway. So he had sought out encounters in cities abroad or very rarely spent some money on a hotel room with someone.
Having a man this close made Arthur feel hollow. It was a part of his life he just had cut off and all of a sudden he felt what he had missed all those years. His heart was beating fast in his chest, he couldn’t remember ever having such an intimate moment with anyone.
What a trusting soul. He had just taken him in, not questioning who or what he was and now he even fell asleep on him while they were watching a movie. Arthur smiled.
He almost didn’t dare but couldn’t resist turning his head and breathing in the scent of Merlin’s shampoo and after a moment, nuzzled into the dark pelt.
“Hm?” Merlin turned his head and blinked at him sleepily.
Arthur jerked back. “Sorry. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me.” He felt the heat rise in his cheeks. Merlin would throw him out now for sure.
An adorable smile showed on Merlin’s face. “No, ‘s okay. I’m just not used to this anymore and I fell asleep on you, I should be the one apologizing.”
“Don’t.” Arthur stared. When Merlin was awake and babbling away he was beautiful, he was gorgeous when he laughed but he was irresistible when he blinked tiredly and looked confused. “I…it’s just something I didn’t even know I’ve missed.”
“Me too.” Merlin admitted, rubbed his eyes and sniffed.
“Someone like you doesn’t have a boyfriend?” Arthur couldn’t help but tease.
Shaking his head sadly, Merlin sat up a bit straighter, much to Arthur’s dismay as he pulled further away. “No. I don’t want one. Not after…”
Arthur just looked at him and waited. It wasn’t his place to demand an explanation, they hardly knew each other.
Merlin shook his head and looked at the TV again and Arthur knew he wouldn’t find out anything new about Merlin. Which was sad, a part of him wanted to know everything there was to know about him. Then again, he wouldn’t stay in Ealdor forever and they had only just met, so it was perfectly fine if Merlin kept his secrets.
Arthur woke up when the TV switched itself off. He was still on the couch with Merlin in his arm; he must have moved over in his sleep. He smiled as Merlin snored softly. Carefully, he disentangled himself and spread a blanket over Merlin, who didn’t notice that he got up.
Stretching, Arthur yawned again. He couldn’t have stayed on the couch any longer or else he’d be all stiff in the morning but he didn’t want to go back to his cabin either. It was nice and warm in here and the thought of having to wander through the night, even it if was just for fifteen or so meters, wasn’t very appealing. If he was really quiet, he could probably take another close look at Mithian’s books.
That was how Merlin found him in the morning.
“What…” Merlin yawned widely. “What are you doing?”
“Checking.” Scribbling some numbers on a sheet of paper and adding them quickly, Arthur tapped the end of the pen against his lips.
“What exactly are you checking?” Merlin scratched his belly through his t-shirt and then turned to make some tea.
“I think I’ve had an idea.”
“You said so last night.”
“It might even work.”
Setting a cup of tea on the only not-covered spot on the table, Merlin folded himself into the chair opposite to Arthur and tucked his feet underneath him as he yawned again. “It’s too early to have ideas.”
“Merlin, after all you’ve told me…”
Merlin slurped his tea. “What?”
“I need to talk to Mithian.”
“If she isn’t in, this will never work.” Arthur hadn’t felt so excited in ages.
Arthur reached for his tea and leaned back. “I’ll tell you when she agrees.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “You’re such a drama queen.”
“And a hungry one, too.” Arthur laughed when his belly rumbled. “Would you make me some breakfast while I put these books away?”
A mischievous little grin showed on Merlin’s face. “What will I get if I do?”
“Hmm…” Arthur pretended to think hard. “That I’ll tell you, too, when Mithian agreed. Can I borrow your car today?”
When Arthur stumbled back in late in the evening, he brought a bottle of champagne and a lot of papers.
“Even more books to check?” Merlin looked up from where he had been reading on the couch, then he spotted the bottle. “Oh, that’s a good one! What’s the occasion?”
Arthur set everything down on the kitchen table and then came over. “We need to celebrate.”
“What’s there to celebrate?” Merlin looked up at him.
“Mithian sold the hotel.” Beaming widely, Arthur waited for a reaction.
Merlin’s face fell and he blinked. “She did what?”
“She sold the hotel.”
“Why? What….why is that a reason to celebrate? What is she going to do now?”
Arthur sat down on the coffee table. “She’s going to work there once it reopens.”
Merlin finally set his book aside. “I don’t know what I’ve missed, so…could you rewind and start at the beginning?”
“You know how I’ve been going through her books, right? Right. I know she doesn’t have the money to do all the repairs but when we were there, I liked the place. I think it’s has too much atmosphere to be torn down.”
Blinking a few times, it took Merlin a moment. “You? You’ve bought the hotel from Mithy?”
“Yes! Isn’t it great?”
“I…I don’t know what to say.” Merlin got up and took the couple of steps towards the kitchen.
“I thought you would be happy.” Somehow Arthur had pictured this scene completely different. He had thought that Merlin would see the good news in it and be happy for everyone. He followed Merlin into the kitchen.
“It just comes so suddenly. Last night you told me that Mithy is in deep shit and now you’ve gone and bought the hotel off of her?”
“Well, nothing is official yet, she can still pull out, but I think we’ve agreed.”
“And she would work for you?”
“Yes. I need someone who knows a bit more about the hotel business than me. I mean, about the hotel part of the business. What?”
Merlin first looked at him and then started to laugh. “I just can’t picture you as someone who makes beds.”
“We will have to hire someone when it gets busy. Until then, Mithian will do it like she did it in the past three years.”
“You’ve talked everything through, haven’t you?” Merlin leaned against the counter, his arms crossed in front of his chest.
Arthur admitted, “Not everything. The project I’ve told you about? The one I walked out because of? I wanted the company to invest in a small chain of high quality hotels.” He looked at Merlin as if that explained everything.
“I might not be able to pull off the standard I had in mind here and I’m not really sure this is the right place for business travellers…no, I’m pretty sure it isn’t, so we have to adjust the concept, but I’m certain we will be able to make this hotel a success.”
“What do you mean by saying ‘we have to adjust the concept’?” Merlin still wasn’t convinced.
“I will have to talk to the contacts I’ve made. You know, about interior decoration and what ideas they might come up with for the kitchen. It’s really big for such a small hotel.” Arthur took a bottle of water out of the fridge, unscrewed it and sipped.
“Everything is really old there. It’s a great kitchen, but…” Merlin shook his head.
Arthur nodded. “Then we have to calculate the cost of renewing everything into the overall cost.”
“You want to renew the kitchen? You’ll need to know what to do with it before you buy all new things. If you just want it to prepare breakfast for the guests, it doesn’t need to be half as large, you could use the space for other things. If you decide to reopen the pub, it should be slightly larger.”
Biting back a smile since he got Merlin talking about things he knew, which was just what he had hoped for, he nodded. “Or a restaurant; but then, of course, we’d need a cook.”
Merlin, who had started to wander about the kitchen, stopped in his tracks, turned and looked at Arthur. “Are you…did you just offer me a job?”
“From what I’ve heard and experienced myself, you are a fantastic cook. I wouldn’t dare to offer you a job as a lowly pub-cook or breakfast-maker for holiday guests. But that doesn’t keep us from tossing ideas about, does it? If you want to be involved, that is.” Arthur held his breath. Merlin had mentioned that he liked to show people how to cook. But would he want to do it on a bigger scale than just supervising Arthur while he was tossing herbs into scrambled eggs?
“You know…” Merlin started after a long time of silence, “but no, that’s too fantastic.”
“Nothing is too fantastic, Merlin.” Arthur smiled widely. “We need big ideas, let your imagination run wild.”
Merlin threw him a sideways look. “Are you that rich?”
Shrugging, Arthur took another sip of his water. “Let’s just say I’ve saved my pennies. Working sixteen hours a day comes with the advantage of not having the time to spend the money you make.” He made a face. There was no need to tell Merlin about the money he had inherited from his mother as well. “The resources aren’t endless, but we need to start somewhere. So…we dream big and then figure out what’s realistic. You’ve had an idea, go ahead.”
Taking a deep breath, Merlin shook his head. “You’ve already mentioned the huge kitchen. It might be crazy but…I’ve always wanted…how about a cooking school? Where people can learn how to make fancy dishes and such?”
Arthur almost laughed out loud. That was exactly what he had hoped to hear from Merlin. “And who would teach them? Me? I can barely make breakfast following instructions.”
Merlin crossed his arms in front of his chest again and threw him a look.
“Oh, I forgot that I know the best chef on this coast of Britain!” Arthur grinned widely. “I have no idea if it can be done, but…are you in on the planning?”
It was nice to see the grin tugging at the corners of Merlin’s mouth.
Arthur threw his head back and laughed. He hadn’t felt so alive in years. He didn’t know if this project would fly but it felt worth working hard for. “There’s a bottle of champagne that needs to be opened.”
They spent most of the evening tossing ideas back and forth, taking notes so they wouldn’t forget anything important and Arthur enjoyed that finally someone was just as giddy as he was. He knew that most of the things they’d noted down would seem ridiculous in the bright light of day and that the craziest ideas were developed under the influence of the champagne but he hadn’t laughed that much in ages.
When they once again sipped at their glasses, Arthur looked at Merlin. Even though Merlin had been quite cheery since he knew him, he seemed to be a lot more relaxed than before. It was probably just the alcohol, but maybe it was also the fact that he saw a new perspective for his own future in these plans.
“Hm?” Oy, Merlin had caught him looking.
“Do I have anything on my face?”
“Freckles. I’ve never noticed them before.” Arthur smiled but Merlin’s face fell.
“Don’t mention them, they’re annoying enough.”
Shaking his head, Arthur chuckled. “I find them quite endearing.”
Merlin looked at him with that irritatingly blue eyes of his. “You do?”
Without even noticing, Arthur had scooted closer or was it that Merlin had closed the space between them but suddenly Merlin’s face was too close to see the freckles anymore. Arthur took a deep breath and nodded, never breaking eye contact. “Yes,” he whispered and then moved in a bit closer just as Merlin leaned in as well. He sighed when their lips brushed together.
They just kissed softly for a while before Arthur deepened the kiss. He had never kissed anyone like this before. If he had kissed at all, it had been hard demanding kisses and the men had tasted of beer and some of smoke. Merlin was different, he followed his lead but even when he started to kiss back, it was never a fight for dominance and Merlin tasted of champagne and almost sweet. Arthur was addicted right away, knowing he’d need these kisses for the rest of his life. Slowly, his eyes drifted shut.
Only to fly open again when Merlin pulled back violently.
“I’m…I’m sorry, Arthur. This shouldn’t…we shouldn’t…it’s…” Merlin got up. “I’m sorry.”
Arthur was confused. It had been wonderful and now Merlin didn’t want it, what had gone wrong? “Merlin…”
“No, Arthur. This isn’t a good idea, we shouldn’t do this. Not if we’re going to work together.” Merlin moved backwards, out of Arthur’s reach.
As much as Arthur ached to reach out and pull Merlin close again, he kind of understood. He found Merlin’s reaction a bit too strong, but Merlin was probably right. If they wanted this to work, they couldn’t mix business and private life. “Alright. I should probably…” He pointed to the general direction of the cabin.
Arthur gathered a few things and opened the door. “Night, Merlin.” With one last look at the man, he turned and left.
There was a strong breeze coming in from the ocean and the clouds looked darker than before. The weather seemed to have adjusted to Arthur’s mood as he reached the cabin.
After a night of tossing and turning, Arthur skipped breakfast and made his way into town. He had so much to do that he couldn’t waste time on pining over Merlin. He would anyway, he knew it. Merlin was the first man in forever that he had felt anything for. Maybe that was the exact reason why; he hadn’t had enough time to look for anyone and to spend time with someone, he didn’t even have friends that weren’t connected to work. The only one he had been around lately was Merlin, it was only natural that he had developed some kind of emotion for him, right? It would pass. Especially if he really concentrated on the project at hand.
He got a coffee at the little convenience store at the corner and made his way over to Mithian’s, or rather…Gwen and Lance’s.
“Morning.” Gwen opened the door. “What brings you here at this time of day?” She smiled and let him in without asking who he was. Obviously her husband had given her a good description.
“Couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d take a walk and ended up here.” Arthur hoped it didn’t sound as fake as it felt. “I hope it’s not too early?”
Lance came from the kitchen. “Arthur! Come on in! This saves me a trip to Hunith’s place.”
Arthur didn’t like the look on Lance’s face, but tried to not show it. “You wanted to visit Merlin?”
“No, I need to talk to you.” Lance, who already was in his uniform but still in socks, slipped on his shoes, grabbed some papers from the sideboard and followed his wife and Arthur into the kitchen.
Gwen immediately poured him a coffee while Lance put one of the papers in front of Arthur. “As a friend, it’s none of my business what you are doing here and why you came to Ealdor. As a police officer, I need to follow up on this.”
Arthur sighed as he looked at the sheet. His photo, taken from his company ID card, looked back at him. “As you can see, I’m not a missing person. I’m right here.”
“I see that.” Lance sat down and waited.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur looked up. “I just had to leave a life behind that I couldn’t bear anymore. I called my sister two days ago, left a message on her answering machine. She knows I’ve left on my own accord and that I’m fine.”
Gwen put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
He threw her a look. “Never been better.” Even though he still didn’t really know where his journey would take him, he meant it.
Lance got up to get himself another coffee. “The report came in last night. Which means that she most likely hasn’t informed anyone. Are you sure she got the message?”
This thought hadn’t even occurred to him. “Err…she’s usually pretty quick with checking her messages. But if she’s abroad at the moment…”
Lance nodded. “I understand. But…Arthur, in my function as police, I really need to…”
“Alright, alright.” Arthur interrupted him. “With everything that I have to do in the next couple of days, they will find out where I am anyway. I can call her again.”
“I tell you what I’m going to do.” Lance got up again. “I will forget that I ever saw this,” he pointed to the missing person report, “for the next twenty-four hours. If it is still up tomorrow morning, I have to call my higher headquarter and tell them that we found you.” He looked sternly at Arthur but then his face turned into a gentle smile. “Whatever’s haunting you, Arthur, - and that is none of our business – just let your people know that you’re alive and well, that’s all I’m asking.” He reached for his hat, leaned in to kiss Gwen bye and left.
Arthur toyed with the missing person report. Who was that man looking back at him? So much had changed in the past weeks. He didn’t know that slick business man anymore. It was an image that had protected his inner self; and almost choked it. He would not go back.
When he finally let go of the page and took another deep breath, he saw that Gwen had put their phone right next to him and then had gone to busy herself with putting the breakfast dishes away.
“Gwen…I can’t. I need to get a mobile anyway, the first thing I’ll do is call Morgana, I promise.” He got up.
She shook her head. “No. You will call her. Now. Please, Arthur.”
Looking into her gentle brown eyes, Arthur shook his head again. “They will track the number and it will lead back to you. I don’t want to get you in trouble. You and Lance. He’s a policeman after all. Thank you, but…”
As he turned to leave, Gwen reached for his wrist and just held him in place. “Arthur,” she said softly, “just imagine it was someone you loved. Imagine them vanishing without a word and you not knowing where they are. Wouldn’t you worry sick?”
“You don’t know my sister.” Arthur tried to joke.
“But you’d still worry if she just dropped off the face of the earth, right? The sooner she knows that you are okay, the sooner everyone can go back to the life they’ve chosen.”
She didn’t put any pressure on him and even let go of his wrist, but the way she looked at him let Arthur nod. “Alright. But I’m sure that it won’t take half a day for someone to show up here. I already apologize for that.” He took the phone Gwen offered and went into the direction she indicated until he found the living room where he could make the call in private.
The call hadn’t been easy. It had taken him all his negotiation skills, but he had been able to convince Morgana not to show up right away, to give him a bit of time. He assured her that he was alright and no, he wasn’t coming back. He tried to explain why and she told him that she understood. If she really did, he didn’t know, but his sister had always been a free spirit who couldn’t be tamed by their father’s rules and strictness. After initially being overjoyed that he was alive and kicking, she cussed him and called him names, but he heard that she was fighting the tears.
“I’m not going to explain this to Uther!” She still insisted on calling their father by his first name.
“Give me a bit of time. I have plans, I have a project I’m working on already; all I need is a bit of time. Please, Morgana, promise to keep him off my back until I’ve really settled in and got this thing rolling.”
There was a little silence.
“If there’s an emergency, you can even call this number. It belongs to a nice couple, so don’t you harass them! They’re just helping. I’m going to try to get a mobile today, I’ll send you the number as soon as I have it.”
“He will find out right away.”
“I know, but I need all this for my new business.”
“Brother of mine…Uther is angry and when I say angry, I mean thoroughly pissed off. He moved heaven and hell to try to find you. It didn’t take his blood hounds more than three days to find the remnants of your mobile and he feared the worst. The moment your name is on any contract, no matter what it is…he’ll be on your heels.”
Arthur nodded. “I’m fully aware of that but I need to do this. He made me feel useless, but I have a lot of skills that I can put to good use here and I fully intend to do that.”
“You still want to show him what’s in you. You’ll never be happy if you keep that up.” She sighed.
“I’m not doing it for him.” As a matter of fact, he hadn’t even thought about his father for quite a while.
“I’m not yet convinced. Listen, Arthur, whatever you do, I want you to be happy. I do understand why you left. I’m actually impressed that you could bear to work for him for so long. And I’m even more impressed about that stunt you pulled.” She giggled before she turned serious again. “I’ll do my very best to keep him away from wherever you are for as long as I can.”
“Under one condition.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. This was his sister, the way he knew her. If there wasn’t anything in it for her, she wouldn’t do it. “Yes?”
“Get that phone and text me right away. After that, I want regular updates and quick replies to my texts. If you fail to do that, I’ll tell him where you are.”
“He will have found out by then anyway. I should get going, I have a lot of work ahead of me.”
Arthur could practically see Morgana’s reproachful face as she said, “It sounds like you’re starting where you left off.”
“No, Gana, this time, I work for myself.”
“Whatever this mysterious project of yours is, I hope it will work out for you. You are aware of the fact that I will have to come look at it once you have something to show, right?”
Arthur laughed. “Of course. As soon as I’m able to show it off, I will.”
“Take care of yourself, Artie.”
He smiled. She was not only getting back at him for calling her by his childhood nickname for her, it was her way of saying what nobody in their family could tell the other easily: that she loved him.
Gwen smiled at him when he re-emerged from the living room. “Done?”
Arthur nodded. “Yes, thank you.”
She didn’t ask any questions and Arthur was thankful for that. “I’m going to pick Mithian up. She stayed at a friend’s place for the night and do some shopping. Would you like to come?”
“Is there a car sales place where you are going? I’ll need my own wheels.” Arthur gave her a crooked smile. Had he known that things would turn out this way, he might have taken his car. But when he left London, he couldn’t have known that he would decide to stay in Ealdor permanently or at least for a longer period of time. The thought of having his little red beamer here was so alien, though, that Arthur almost laughed. Just like the big cold apartment that looked like something from a designer furniture catalogue, the sports car seemed like something from another world. He needed a sturdy car that he could go to meetings with architects, handymen, lawyers and business partners alike.
The drive to the next bigger town went smoothly and Gwen had told him all he needed to know about the shops.
“Thanks, Gwen.” He got out and when she drove away, Arthur turned and entered the electronics store.
Not even forty-five minutes later, he left the place, a brand new mobile in his pocket. It had cost him quite some effort to give out his information and sign the contract. Never before had he hesitated to sign anything, especially not something as simple as a plan for a mobile. If he were honest, the company had done this for him, he didn’t even have to bother. Arthur was fully aware of the fact that the moment his name and credit card number showed up on any record, his father’s hounds were on his trail. Then again, he’d have to face the situation at some point anyway, so probably it was better to do it sooner than later.
Yet, he had something more important to do. Before he walked down the road in the direction Gwen had given him, he typed up a quick message to Morgana. Smiling, he saw the car place from afar. Once he got a car, he would be able to move about and he had a few other purchases on his list that he had to do before he wanted to go back.
Feeling very accomplished, Arthur made his way back to Ealdor a while later in his brand new Toyota RAV4. Alright, it wasn’t brand new, it was two years old already and the colour left a lot to desire. It was called something with ‘cappuccino’ as the salesman had assured him a couple of times, which didn’t make the light brownish any nicer. But it was a car, it was what he needed, it was reasonably priced and it was available.
In the spacey trunk there was a laptop with everything else he needed to set up a small office on the shaky little table in his cabin until the room he had in mind as an office at the hotel was fully functional.
When he saw the odd little shop Merlin had bought the herbs at, Arthur pulled over. As he entered the store, he noticed, he had no idea why he was here and what he should get. He didn’t have much time to think about Merlin all day. Which was a lie, he had thought about him all day long and felt the need to apologize. He hadn’t done anything wrong, he knew that. They both had felt it and so they had kissed and he knew he wanted to repeat that.
Part of him even understood why Merlin had reacted that way. He had some really bad experiences from what Arthur could tell and he was afraid that something similar might happen again. Did that mean, though, that Merlin had thought about them together for a longer time? They hadn’t known each other long enough to entertain thoughts like that but it put a huge smile on Arthur’s face and a funny feeling in his stomach. He knew he should take it slow and was probably even forced to do so, there was so much work waiting for him. But maybe, maybe, in all that they would find out if there was a bit more than just a basic attraction between them. So it couldn’t hurt if he brought Merlin some herbs, right?
“Hello, how are you today?”
The bloke behind the counter pulled Arthur out of his thoughts. “Err…thanks, fine, you?”
Smiling warmly, the man nodded. “What can I do for you this fine day?”
“I’m…I’m not even sure.” Herbs had been a stupid idea, he should have stuck to something he had a basic idea of. “I…I have been here before, but…”
“With Merlin, yes.” The man practically beamed.
“So you know him, good!” It escaped Arthur that the man obviously remembered his face. “Thing is…I’d like to get him something. I just don’t…”
“You can’t cook and have no idea what he might need, right?”
Arthur just nodded. To him, most of the things in the glass jars on the walls looked like dry leaves. He tried to keep an interested look on his face as the man went into a lengthy explanation about a few things. All he understood was ‘Merlin usually just gets the cheaper version.’
“No,” he went, “Go for the good stuff.” He grinned.
As he left the shop again, not without promising the man to tell Merlin that he said ‘hi’, he only had a rather small paper bag but it could as well be gold he was carrying to the car. He’d never thought that some herbs and spices could cost so much.
Pulling up by Merlin’s house, Arthur was in a good mood. The lights in the kitchen were on, so Merlin was home. Humming to himself, Arthur grabbed the little brown paper bag, locked the car and went to the back door.
He found Merlin in the kitchen, cooking something, but he didn’t turn to greet him.
Arthur had never heard Merlin like that. “What are you cooking?”
Merlin sniffed. “Where have you been?”
“I bought a car and a laptop and look, got something for you, too.” He stepped closer and put the paper bag next to Merlin.
Finally Merlin looked up. He didn’t look good.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“No, Arthur, I’m not okay.”
Arthur waited for a moment. “Is it about last night? Listen, I didn’t mean for that to happen but I thought you felt something, too. You made it clear that you don’t want it, so…”
Merlin swallowed. “I thought you had left.”
“Only to get things I need for the project.” What was Merlin’s problem? Last night he made it very clear that he didn’t want more than a professional relationship. Now he was acting like a jealous girlfriend PMSing.
“You didn’t even leave a note.”
“Merlin, what’s wrong? What is this about?”
Merlin switched the stove off, leaned against the counter and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “I…I don’t even know. It’s nothing, I’m being silly.”
Arthur stepped closer and tried to get Merlin to hold his gaze.
Taking a deep breath that he blew out in a sigh again, Merlin made a face. “I wasn’t honest last night, Arthur. I like you more than I want to admit. When I saw you at the station that first day…and then you decided to stay here and had this great idea about the hotel…it was too good to be true.”
“You’re afraid that it will end badly.” Arthur nodded.
“Of course I am! Who wouldn’t? You see this as a project, when you’ve finally seen it happen and it’s up and running, you will leave again.”
Arthur hadn’t even thought about that. Yes, he wanted to have a project that was his own, one where he could decide all the little things and see it grow. He hadn’t really thought about what he would do after the hotel was open. Merlin was right, maybe some other project had caught his attention by then and he was on his way out of Ealdor before he even knew if the hotel would be success or not. It was only normal that Merlin was careful now and if he were honest, Merlin was right. It made no sense to try to have something like a relationship as long as he hadn’t decided what would happen after the project was finished. Leaning against the kitchen table, Arthur mimicked Merlin’s stance. “I understand.”
“And then you show up and paint such a great picture of the future and even seem to like me and…I’m totally confused, Arthur. You’ve only been here a week or so and it’s not like we’ve even had time to get to know each other. And then…” Merlin looked up again. “I was afraid that you’d done a runner again after what I said last night.” He threw him a wry smile. “You’re pretty good with these vanishing acts, you know?”
He knew that Merlin was right. They both had their problems, him dealing with his past and Merlin battling demons of his own and the time they knew each other had been too short to make any decision. The fact that they wanted to work together complicated the situation further. A little stubborn part of him wasn’t ready to let go, though. He liked Merlin and he wanted to get to know him better. “Tell you what…how about…how about we’ll take it slow? If you want me to move out of the cabin, I will find something else tomorrow morning. We made some pretty great plans last night, we should work on them further. And if we find out we don’t hate each other completely, we can be friends.”
Merlin looked at him for a while with those trusting blue eyes of his and then he nodded once. “Alright.”
“Okay, then I’ll ask Gwen if she knows where I can stay.”
Arthur blinked. “You said ‘alright’.”
“I said that and I mean ‘alright, let’s take it slow’, you don’t have to move out.” A small smile tugged at the corners of Merlin’s mouth. “I actually like that someone’s here.” The smile turned into a grin. “And I need someone to try my recipes on.”
“Oy! You need a guinea pig for your experiments!” Arthur mock-frowned but the grin gave him away.
Merlin grinned even wider, if that was possible, and his eyes turned into crinkly half-moons, a look that Arthur found he rather liked on Merlin. “Yup!”
“Then I’m looking forward to whatever you magic up with the things I’ve brought. If you don’t like it, we can still smoke it, I think.”
Carefully, Merlin opened the paper bag and his eyes went wide. “Arthur…”
“What?” Uncertainty grabbed Arthur. Had the bloke at the shop given him crap stuff and Merlin hated it? “Are these the wrong things?”
“Not at all…” Merlin looked up, his eyes full of wonder, “it’s been a while since I could use ingredients like these. No.” He closed the bag and shoved it away from himself. “I can’t take this, I know that you’ve spent a fortune, you need to take them back. Jason might take them back.”
“Merlin.” Arthur tried to get Merlin’s attention again.
“No, Arthur! You need your money for the hotel, you can’t afford to waste it on this. I can easily replace the stuff in there by cheaper ingredients and nobody will notice.” He shoved the paper bag into Arthur’s hand.
“Merlin.” Arthur repeated. “Don’t worry about that. See it as an investment into the hotel kitchen. If we want to offer the best food, we need the best ingredients. What sense does it make if you do the test drive in a Vauxhall when you want to win a Formula One race?”
Merlin frowned and then chuckled. “Why does that even make sense?”
Laughing, Arthur set the little bag onto the counter again and then peeked to the pan Merlin had on the stove when he came in. “What’s this? Is that dinner? I’m starving.”
“Go, unload your car. When you’re done, dinner will be ready. After that, you’ve got to show me what kind of car you got.”
The days went by in a blur and even though he had a lot of work, Arthur had never had more fun in his life. His days were packed with planning and making calls and by the end of the week, he had finalized the acquisition, the hotel was his and Mithian had already signed her work contract as well.
Things with Merlin went well, even though Arthur had to hold back to not hug him or just put a kiss on his cheek when Merlin either had a great idea or cooked something especially delicious. They had fallen into a comfortable rhythm of spending the evenings together, either talking about their days, making more plans or just watching a movie or a show. A lot of nights, one of them just fell asleep on the other in front of TV and more than once Arthur just sat there with beating heart, trying not to wake Merlin up by nuzzling into his hair and inhaling his scent.
That he made it back to the cabin most of the nights was a good thing. He didn’t know what would happen if Merlin asked him to stay in the house.
During the days, he was busy with the hotel, getting the legalities done and starting to get people in for estimates on the work that had to be done. He had always hated that this was the point where he usually had to leave the projects to others. He had only been involved in planning on the big scale and left the details to others, which had always made him feel detached from what he was working for.
Now, that he stood in a room with Mithian and they worked to take the old wall-paper down after he met with the boss of the plumbing company in Bridgeton, he couldn’t help the giggles building up in his throat.
Mithian turned towards him, shreds of wallpaper in her hair and on her clothes. “What’s so funny?” She tried to shake the sticky wallpaper off her fingers. “Let me tell you this, you don’t look much better.”
Arthur shook his head. “It’s not that. It’s just…for the first time, I see how a project evolves, see the details, am involved in it. And it feels damn good.”
“It’s a good thing that I am here if you are feeling too good, little brother.” A voice came from the doorway.
“Gana!” Arthur turned and beamed at her but then the smile slid off his face. “You said you would leave me alone until I’ve got something to show. And I gave you regular updates!”
Morgana took a large step over a pile of old wallpaper and came closer. She looked oddly out of place in her black designer trousers, colourful silk blouse and high heels. “You did and you did well, little brother. I just wanted to see this with my own two eyes.”
“So…you didn’t bring anyone?” Like one of Uther’s minions?
“I’m fully capable of driving up here myself and as you see, I also found the place.” She looked around. “And you must be Mithian, the previous owner.”
“Yes, this is Mithian. Mithian, meet Morgana, my sister.”
“Your sister?” Mithy threw him a wide-eyed look.
“As I see, you’ve been talking about nobody but me around here.” Morgana laughed. “Give me a tour of your new castle and I’ll forgive you for this, Artie.”
“Take a break, Mithy. There’s no need to slave away when I am busy being a tour-guide.” Arthur wiped his hands on a cloth. “Come on, Gana, let’s start the tour.”
An hour later, Arthur ended the tour of the house in the kitchen. Morgana had looked at everything, listened to his explanations and made suggestions of her own. Arthur was relieved that she didn’t try to talk him out of this or shake her head at the condition the building was in. If he were honest, he knew that it was crazy to do what he was doing, but it was what he wanted to do at this point in his life.
Morgana nodded. “I can see why you fell in love with this place. It needs a lot of work but once it’s done, it’ll be a gem. But…” she looked at him. “Are you certain that this is what you want to do? To be honest, I don’t see you as an inn-keeper. You will need people for the operational tasks.”
“I know.” Arthur agreed. “Mithian will work for me and I also have a cook, so until business really picks up and I’ll have to hire more staff, I at least have two trustworthy people who know what they are doing.”
She didn’t say anything for a while before she spoke up again. “Do you have a plan in which direction you want to go with this place?”
“What do you mean?”
“Will this be a place for the posh business traveller or a family hotel?”
“Neither nor. It will be a place for people who need a bit of peace and quiet and for those who want to learn how to cook. Merlin always wanted to have a cooking school, so he can not only cook for the guests of the hotel, he can teach them how to do it, too.”
“Merlin.” Morgana leaned against the old counter and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“Yes, Merlin. The man who gave me shelter when I couldn’t stay in the place I’d booked turned out to be a world-class chef.”
“Speaking of which…what exactly are those living arrangements you have at the moment?” Morgana’s eyes twinkled and she didn’t even try to hide the smirk.
Arthur almost rolled his eyes. “I am living in Merlin’s guest house.” Deliberately, he didn’t mention that it was just a one-room cabin with a kitchenette and a small bathroom.
On cue, the door opened. “Don’t fear starvation, my friends, food is here!” Merlin carried a huge box in and hauled it onto one of the counters. “Oh, there you are.”
“So this is Merlin.” Morgana still leaned against the counter on the other side and looked the man up and down. “I see.”
“Yes, I am.” Merlin smiled one of his most disarming smiles, wiped his hand on his jeans and then held it out to her. “And you are our first guest? Why didn’t you tell me, Arthur, I would have made something special. The way it is, there are only sandwiches and some soup but there’s enough for everyone.”
Slowly, Morgana straightened up and came over. She took the offered hand. “I am Morgana Pendragon, Arthur’s sister.”
“Arthur’s sister? Welcome to Ealdor! I’m sure we’ll see more of you here from now on. Had I known that you were coming…”
“I didn’t know she would. She just showed up. She’s good at that.” Arthur didn’t feel too comfortable with the way Morgana looked at Merlin and he knew his sister too well to relax yet.
“Just like you are good at vanishing.” She shot him a look before she turned back to Merlin. “Don’t worry about me, I just wanted to see what Artie got himself into. He just told me that you are a wizard in the kitchen. Next time, I’ll give you a fair warning and I expect a three-course dinner.”
Merlin just laughed. “That’s fair.” He started to unpack the box he had brought. “For now, the broccoli cream soup, sandwiches and biscuits will have to do. There’s fruit salad as well and I made fresh mint tea with a little secret in it.”
“No alcohol while we’re working!” Mithian came to the kitchen and washed her hands at the sink.
“You know I wouldn’t put alcohol in this.” Merlin threw her a look and then busied himself with setting the old shaggy table in the corner with paper plates, little bowls and the things he brought. “There are some paper cups on the shelf right behind you, Morgana, would you be so kind to get them?”
When Morgana didn’t say a word but turned to get the cups, Arthur tried to relax. If Morgana didn’t like the place, she would have shredded him to pieces already, but now she sat down with them at the table and let herself be drawn into a conversation with Mithian and Merlin, whom she seemed to like as well.
“Are you alright?” Merlin put the dishes away while Arthur went over some papers again.
“What? Yes, why do you ask?” Arthur looked up in wonder. He wasn’t used to people asking if he were okay, it was something that had always been expected of him.
Merlin turned and leaned against the counter of his small kitchen. “Your sister shows up unannounced and then you have a long talk when you take her back to her car. You haven’t said a word since.”
“That’s not true and you know it.” He had been really surprised when Morgana suddenly stood there and he had feared that she would take his project apart or question the people he was working with. Somehow, he felt fiercely protective of them, even though he only knew them for a short while. On the other hand, he had waited for a message from father that she was here to deliver, but that never came. After a while he had relaxed a bit, especially when she seemed genuinely interested in the hotel and his plans with it.
He knew Morgana well enough to know when she was just playing nice but she had been relaxed and herself all through the snack, talking animatedly with Mithian and Merlin as well as Percy, who had come over a while later to help with the wallpapers after his shift. When he had taken her to her car since she wanted to go back to London, she had promised to contact one of her friends who was an interior designer for some help with the place, joking that Arthur wouldn’t know how to decorate a room and it would only end in disaster if he tried.
Once again, she had assured him that she wouldn’t tell Uther where to find him, but Arthur knew it was only a matter of days before he heard from the old man again.
“What are you thinking of?” Merlin set a cup of tea in front of him. “Did you miss her?”
Arthur looked up. “No, we’re not like that. We can go with a few calls and texts for months.” He smiled. “It was still good seeing her.”
“And she seems to support what you’re doing.” Merlin slid into the chair opposite to Arthur’s. “She seemed nice.”
“Oh, don’t underestimate her. She can be a harpy.”
“So this was just an act?” Merlin frowned.
Arthur shook his head. “No, I think she really likes you. And the place. And what I’m doing here.”
“That’s good, then. And she didn’t bring your father along right away.”
“I thought…maybe I should call him. To get it over with, you know?” Arthur didn’t even notice that he started to worry his lower lip with his teeth.
Merlin looked at the clock on the wall. “You might want to wait until tomorrow. It’s almost midnight and you’re exhausted. You should get some sleep.”
Stifling a yawn, Arthur put the papers into a neat stack, reached for the cup and nodded. “You’re right. Night, Merlin.” Yawning widely, he made his way to the back door and didn’t notice how Merlin looked after him as he left.
“I was dreaming of wallpaper last night.” Mithy made a face as she tied her hair up and looked around the room.
“I coughed up wallpaper last night.” Percy winked.
“You weren’t here long enough to do that! We’ve worked all day long and you only showed up in the evening!” She tossed the roll with the large plastic bags at him. “Let’s get started. The sooner we’re done, the sooner the plumbers can come in and fix the pipes.”
“They will actually come in on Monday.” Arthur entered the room. He had no idea if they could work around each other but the more they could do on their own, the better.
Percy turned. “Let’s see how far we’ll get today. Gwaine will be over soon, too. I’ll make a few calls, maybe the blokes from footie can come over and help on the weekend, too?”
Arthur had only been to the footie practice once but as with the people from Ealdor, he had been welcomed right away and felt like he made new friends. “That’d be perfect.” He accepted the hat Mithian had made out of yesterday’s paper and was about to put it on when they heard Gwaine’s voice from downstairs, a bit louder than usual.
“Who?...Pendragon? Nah, never heard of him.”
There was another voice but they couldn’t make out what the other person said.
“Arthur? I don’t know anyone by that name.”
Arthur held his breath. His father’s minions had found him, he could as well face them. So he set the paper hat aside, ignored the looks Percy and Mithian threw him and went downstairs.
“Arthur.” There seemed to be a small genuine smile on the man’s face who was tall enough to just look over Gwaine and see Arthur coming down the stairs.
“Leon. He sent you…”
When Gwaine tried to step between them, Arthur shook his head slightly. “The others are upstairs, Gwaine. Second room to the right.” Arthur sent a quick smile his way and he felt a bit weird. As Merlin had predicted, their friends tried to protect him, but he needed to stop running, so he looked at Leon.
Leon and him had been childhood friends and spent most of their time at university together, so he could read him rather well. In any other situation, Arthur would have laughed at the way Leon looked so out of place in his tailored suit and hand-made shoes. He could see that Leon didn’t feel comfortable.
“Arthur, I’m here to bring you this.” Leon reached into his briefcase and handed Arthur a letter.
“You should read it.”
Arthur scanned the first few paragraphs and paled. “He can’t mean that. He knows that he can’t get away with it.”
Leon looked even more uncomfortable and tugged at his collar. “I’ve tried to tell him. He doesn’t listen.”
It was suspiciously quiet from upstairs and Arthur didn’t need to look to know that Mithian, Percy and Gwaine were up there, holding their collective breaths, trying not to miss a word that was being said, but pretending not to listen at the same time. Arthur took a deep breath, then motioned for Leon to follow him. That Mithian worked for him and Percy and Gwaine were his friends now didn’t mean they needed to hear this. He stopped when he reached the kitchen, took two bottles of water out of the old fridge and handed Leon one.
“I knew he would react like that.”
Leon lost a bit of his professional stance and leaned against one of the counters before he took a sip from the bottle. “I’m sorry, Arthur. We all tried to talk him out of it. But he didn’t take it well that you…that you left.”
“That I ran. Just call it by its name. I’m a coward, I know. I just couldn’t bear it anymore. You were there in that meeting.” Arthur smiled without humour. “Enough is enough.”
Nodding, Leon sighed. “I fully understand why you did it, but…haven’t you punished him enough now? Isn’t it time to come back?”
Arthur’s head snapped up from where he had read a bit more of the letter. “Come back? Are you serious, Leon?”
“He’s really not taking it well. Most days he just sits in his office, staring out of the window. When he goes to meetings, he only yells at people.”
“If you say now that he’s missing me, I’ll have to show you the door, Leon.”
“That’s not it. It’s just…”
“It’s just what?” Arthur frowned when he read through a particularly nasty phrasing in the letter. “Do you really think there’s a way back? Not that I want to go back, I don’t. And no,” he stopped Leon who had opened his mouth to say something, “I’m not being stubborn. For once in my life, I know I’m working for myself and it feels good.”
“Soon you will have no money left to work with.” Leon pointed to the letter.
“He is cutting me off? Yes, please.” Arthur crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“Arthur!” The pleading tone in Leon’s voice didn’t escape him.
“Trust me, Leon, I won’t starve. You know that I still have my mother’s money and with the company paying for most everything, I never got much of a chance to spend my pay… Do you really think I would start a project like this here if I didn’t know how to finance it?”
“That’s not it, Arthur.” Leon looked around the kitchen and his face showed exactly what he thought. “But…this? Really?”
“Yes, this. Why not?”
“It’s really not like you.”
Arthur took a deep breath which he let out as a sigh. “Who am I, Leon? How will I even know who I am if I’m not finally doing things that are not ‘really like me’?”
Leon looked at him for a long time.
It had been a while since Leon had been there. Arthur knew that Leon couldn’t just go back pretending he hadn’t found him. Uther knew exactly where he was, the letter he had sent through the legal department had the address of the hotel on it. Leon had assured him that Morgana had only informed them that he was alive and well but never gave out his whereabouts. On Uther’s orders the company had pulled a few strings and – as Arthur had expected – found him as soon as he had signed a few contracts.
After Leon was gone, Arthur had worked himself into exhaustion, getting as much done alone as Mithian, Percy and Gwaine did together. He had stumbled back at night, too tired to even eat and fell asleep with a smile on his face. Uther Pendragon had threatened to sue him for everything he had but he felt he didn’t care. He knew that his father wouldn’t get anywhere with that. No judge would ever make him pay the sum Uther demanded. He had finished his projects, hadn’t taken anything from the company and hadn’t gone working for a competitor, taking his knowledge or clients with him. The funds he had were in his own name. So what if Uther took the posh apartment in London from him? He had never felt at home there anyway and had no intention of going back. That was behind him.
Morgana had called him the next day, furious about what Uther tried to do, offering to put some voodoo on him the next time she got to New Orleans. Leon had texted him from his private mobile, just asking if he remembered a former fellow student of theirs, who practiced law in a city next to Ealdor.
So he had contacted Val and met up with him just to be on the safe side. In all of the hassle, the interior designer Morgana had sent showed up and there were a lot of things to talk about while the plumbers and electricians crowding the place.
Merlin worked just as hard, planning courses and meals, meeting with kitchen outfitters, scanning the market to find out the niche they would fit in with their plans.
When Arthur locked the hotel, it was already dark and everybody had left hours before. On his way to the car, he turned the collar of his jacket up. A strong wind blew in from the ocean and brought dark clouds along, the first drops started to fall. Tossing his folders and tablet onto the passengers’ seat, Arthur just wanted to get back, take a hot shower and fall asleep. Merlin probably had fallen asleep in front of the TV and wouldn’t even notice if he made his way to the cabin right away.
The rain came down harder and when he finally reached the house, Arthur knew there was no way to get back to the cabin without being soaked, so he stuffed his things into his jacket, zipped it up all the way, got out of the car and ran.
When he entered the cabin, he didn’t notice that something was off straightaway. He dropped his things onto the table, making sure that his tablet was okay and the papers hadn’t suffered too much, shed his clothes and took a hot shower. He found some sweatpants and an old hoodie and just dropped onto the bed. The moment he closed his eyes, he heard a drip. Grumbling, he pulled the blanket up higher and turned to the other side. Eww. What was that? Arthur was fully awake now. His pillow was wet and it was dripping from the ceiling!
He jumped up, pulled the bed away from the corner and made sure that all electronic equipment and papers he still had in the cabin were safe. What now? His first impulse was to put the big cup on the floor where the water dripped down but that would have been ridiculous. Since he didn’t have a bucket, Arthur found his rain jacket and a baseball hat, slipped his runners on and made his way over to the house. “Merlin?”
Arthur knocked against the back door. “Merlin!” He found it open, as usual and entered the house, already dripping all over the place again, the storm hadn’t let off. “Merlin!”
Slowly, Merlin’s head appeared from the couch. “Huh?” His hair was totally ruffled and he blinked at Arthur with sleepy eyes.
“The roof is leaking.”
“What?” Merlin rubbed one of his eyes in a gesture he was definitely too old for but that was totally endearing.
“My bed is wet.”
Arthur blinked. “What do you mean ‘again’?”
“Sometimes, when there’s a huge storm and the rain is pouring down, the roof of the cabin lets the water through.”
“Thanks for the warning.” Arthur still stood there. “What am I going to do now? Do you have a bucket that I can put under it? Or something to seal it?”
Merlin yawned and moved in slow-motion. “Coming…”
It took him a while to put on shoes and a rain coat and find a few things before they both braved the storm again and made it over to the cabin. Arthur didn’t like the sounds Merlin made when he inspected the damage but together they managed to fix the worst.
At least Merlin was awake when they were done. He looked around. “Your bed is wet.”
“Yes, so I said.” Arthur sighed.
“You can’t stay here.”
“Come on.” Merlin pulled the hood of his rain coat up again and ran through the storm towards the house and Arthur couldn’t do anything but follow.
When they stood in the kitchen and shed their jackets, dripping everywhere, they both laughed.
“Not funny,” Arthur laughed anyway. “I could have drowned!”
“Didn’t they teach you to swim when you were little?” Merlin chuckled.
“Not while I’m asleep!” Arthur, like Merlin, toed his wet shoes off and still laughed. “I’m homeless once again.”
Merlin’s face grew serious as he stood in front of Arthur in his t-shirt that was wet where his jacket had let the rain through. “Then I will have to give you shelter once again.”
While Arthur’s brain was still busy thinking that he should get Merlin a new rain coat, he noticed that Merlin stood really close now. The giggles died in his throat. Had Merlin’s eyes always been so blue? While his throat worked to make a remark about Merlin’s pelt being plastered to his head, nothing came out and he just closed the space between them. “Thanks,” he whispered before he kissed Merlin.
Arthur was prepared for a rejection, to be shoved back or even slapped. To his surprise, Merlin leaned in, wrapped his arms around him and kissed back.
They stood like that for a while before their kiss deepened and got more intense.
Pulling at each other’s clothes, they made their way out of the kitchen, stumbling against a chair and down the corridor where they stopped several times. First, Arthur helped Merlin out of his wet t-shirt and then pressed him against the wall as he kissed him hungrily, the next time it was Merlin who made short process with Arthur’s shirt and held him against the door, his outstretched arm against his shoulder.
“What?” Arthur whispered hoarsely.
Merlin shook his head slightly. “Nothing…just need to look.”
Arthur closed his eyes and swallowed hard. This was the sexiest thing anyone had ever said to him. He didn’t have much time to elaborate on it, though, as Merlin opened the door which made him jerk when the wood he was leaning against swung open to the inside.
Stumbling backwards, Arthur pulled at his wet jeans and tried to get them off. It was probably not the most appealing sight, but he wanted to be with Merlin and he wanted it right now.
Merlin seemed to be in the same hurry as he pulled jeans and trousers down in one motion and then sat down in a chair to remove his socks.
Fighting with his own socks, Arthur almost fell on the bed, which earned him a giggle from Merlin.
“Not very sexy, eh?”
The expression on Merlin’s face grew serious again. No, not serious, hungry was the better description. “Haven’t seen anything sexier in my entire life.” With a growl, he flung himself on the bed where he started kissing Arthur again.
It was hard and demanding and everything it should be and Arthur stopped thinking altogether. He felt those long slender fingers on his skin and tried to learn every bit of Merlin with his own fingertips. Feeling Merlin’s hard-on against his hip, though, he knew this had to wait for another time. “Got something?” He panted out between kisses.
Merlin nodded and broke their kiss for a moment to rummage through the drawer of his nightstand. He found lube and a condom and Arthur leaned his head back into the pillow and tried not to laugh when Merlin checked the best-before-date.
“Don’t worry, I’m clean.”
Again, Merlin shook his head. “So am I, but you’re so fucking hot that I want to last as long as possible.”
Arthur groaned and his cock twitched. This was even better. He didn’t have much experience, but he knew he liked it both ways. That Merlin wanted to top and said it as if nobody ever doubted it, was fucking hot. He reached for the lube.
“No way.” Merlin grinned. “Let me.” He took the lube out of Arthur’s hand and scrambled around to look at Arthur.
“How…how do you want to…?”
Arthur couldn’t finish the question because Merlin leaned down and kissed him again. His cock, that had lost a bit of its rigidity while Merlin had been looking for the supplies, became all stiff again and Arthur ached to feel Merlin’s hand on it.
“Please,” he mumbled against Merlin’s lips.
Without a word, Merlin broke the kiss and scrambled around until he was kneeling between Arthur’s legs. He opened the tube and squirted some lube on his fingers.
Arthur watched with wide eyes as Merlin looked up and seemed to ask for permission. Nodding slightly, Arthur took a deep breath. It felt odd when the slick fingers touched him. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have any experience at all, but with the life he had been living until recently, there just hadn’t been too much opportunity and it had been a while.
The way Merlin touched him, though…Arthur would have sworn that he had never felt anything like this before. He seemed to know how to handle his body instinctively. Even though Arthur’s body tightened when he felt the tip of a finger intrude, Merlin managed to massage and tease him into relaxing.
Closing his eyes and pressing his head back into the pillow, Arthur was glad that Merlin didn’t mention his lack of experience. He grabbed the sheets around him when he felt more of the finger. He wanted to relax, he wanted this and he wanted it badly, but it started to feel like the very first time.
Arthur’s eyes flew open and he yelled out when he felt Merlin’s lips around the tip of his cock. “Fuck!” He panted and tried to see what Merlin was doing. When his gaze met blue twinkling eyes, he fell back into the pillow. Damn! This was almost too much.
As he tried not to come when Merlin flicked his tongue slightly against the head of his dick, Arthur didn’t even notice that he relaxed enough for more fingers. He just panted and moaned.
He had lost all concept of time and couldn’t tell if Merlin had prepared him for hours or if only ten minutes had passed, but a little disappointed sound escaped him when Merlin pulled his mouth and his fingers back. He had been so close to coming!
Trying not to tighten up again when he heard the condom wrapper being opened, Arthur didn’t dare to look. He would have come right away if he had watched Merlin rolling the rubber down his length. He was eager to feel this length in him, all the way and when Merlin positioned himself, he took another deep breath and tried to relax as much as possible.
It hurt anyway when Merlin pushed in and Arthur was very grateful that Merlin wasn’t one of these men who didn’t care and didn’t stop until they were in all the way.
Merlin was breathing just as hard and when Arthur threw him a look, he saw his face scrunched up in concentration and him biting his lip. Fuck, what had he done to deserve to end up with such a sexy bloke?
“Are you sure?” Merlin sounded just as breathless.
“Slow.” It stung and Arthur knew he would feel this for a few days, but he wouldn’t stop now. He felt Merlin stop each time he had shoved in a bit further and made a whiney sound when Merlin pulled back again. “No!”
“Just…” Merlin panted, “Need more lube. Fuck, you’re tight!”
It felt like it was almost too much lube and it still wasn’t enough, but Arthur desperate. “So…sorry…”
A breathless chuckle came from above him. “Are you…are you kidding me?...It’s fucking…amazing!”
Arthur groaned when Merlin started to move. He felt so big and so hot inside him and it made Arthur’s head spin. Without even noticing, he started moving against him and tightened around him once in a while.
Merlin growled and changed his position on the bed a bit, so he could pound into Arthur with more force and greater speed.
Yelling out when Merlin pushed into his spot again and again, Arthur felt the tingling in his lower back and knew it wouldn’t take long for him to come. His cock had gotten the right amount of friction to grow hard and he bit his lower lip to drag this moment out.
Merlin seemed to understand and slammed into him even faster.
“About to…close!” Arthur yelled out when his orgasm washed over him. His body tightened around Merlin and he felt him pulse out his load as he coated his belly with cum.
Closing his eyes, Arthur tried to get his breath back. He hardly registered Merlin pulling out and taking care of the condom and cleaning up the mess on his belly. He only faintly noticed that Merlin climbed back on the bed and curled up next to him, on his side, his arm around his middle.
Arthur was still breathing hard when he opened his eyes again and looked at the ceiling. He didn’t, couldn’t let go of Merlin, not knowing if this probably was just a one-time thing. They had been wet and tired and he obviously hadn’t been the only one who held back all the time. And if he were honest, it had been the best sex he’d ever had, not that he had too much experience.
Merlin stirred and lifted his head a bit.
Looking into the wonderful blue eyes that watched him, Arthur took a deep breath.
“Shhh.” Merlin shook his head slightly.
Arthur understood. Merlin didn’t want to talk and he didn’t know what to say anyway. Of course he’d have loved to know what Merlin was feeling and what had made him kiss back in the kitchen; if he only saw this as a slip in their agreement of taking it slow or if he was ready to take the next step. This had probably just been a way to get rid of the tension or to relax from working hard all the time. But what if Merlin was ready…was he ready? Arthur didn’t know, he had spent so much time deliberately not thinking about this, burying himself in work and making the hotel the only thing that counted. What if they didn’t work? What would that mean for their dream of the hotel and cooking school? And if they worked, would that mean he wouldn’t leave when the hotel was open and had to stay in Ealdor? His head was spinning but he couldn’t help pulling Merlin a bit closer when Merlin’s head sank against his shoulder again and he couldn’t stop his heart from beating quickly either.
When he woke up, Merlin was gone. Arthur grumbled and rubbed his eyes as he sat up, but the side of the bed where Merlin had slept in his arms was empty. A pang of disappointment hit him. So this hadn’t meant what he had hoped for, but part of him was relieved, too.
Arthur couldn’t help but smile, though, when he found his sweatpants over the heating, right next to his t-shirt. At least he wouldn’t have to put on still-wet things. Quickly, he got dressed. Carefully, he opened the door and listened into the house. It seemed as if Merlin was in the kitchen, so he padded over, not sure what to say.
Merlin was busy with something that emitted a mouth-watering smell in a pan. “Morning.”
It sounded rather neutral, so Arthur was at a loss of words. Should he just pretend that nothing had happened? He could, but did he really want to?
“Sit down, breakfast will to be ready in a minute.”
Arthur did as he was told and folded a leg underneath himself, keeping the bare foot warm, not even noticing that he imitated the pose he had seen Merlin sit in so often. He smiled carefully when Merlin sat a plate with a fancy looking omelette in front of him.
“Enjoy.” Merlin leaned in and pressed a kiss on Arthur’s hair, totally surprising Arthur, who stared when Merlin turned to get him a cup of tea. With his own plate and cup, Merlin sat down and started to eat.
Sipping his tea, his eyes never leaving Merlin’s face, Arthur didn’t know what to do. Merlin had obviously decided that there was nothing out of the ordinary. First, he had thought that Merlin wished the previous night had never happened, but that sweet kiss into his hair…Arthur almost blushed at the thought. That was such an intimate gesture that Arthur didn’t know how to deal with it.
Merlin looked up. “Something wrong with your omelette?”
“No,” Arthur was quick to say. “It smells delicious.”
“Then eat.” Merlin smiled encouragingly.
For the rest of the day, Arthur was totally confused and not really listening to what everyone was telling him. After breakfast, they had moved his stuff to the house and Merlin promised to take care of the hole in the roof of the cabin. Did that mean that he wanted Arthur to go back there that night? Oh well, maybe it was for the best. They needed to concentrate on the project, it was enough to think about and work on. And yet, he couldn’t think about anything else; the way Merlin had looked, the way he had smelled and the sensations Merlin had triggered.
Gwaine sat down next to him on the stairs and bit into one of the sandwiches Merlin had provided around noon. He threw Arthur a look. “Say something or you will explode.”
Arthur, who had hardly noticed that Gwaine had chosen this spot to have his break, startled. “What?”
Taking a long drag from his water bottle, Gwaine wiped a hand over his mouth and then laughed. “You’ve got it bad. Just tell him.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.” Arthur deliberately looked everywhere but at Gwaine as he felt the heat rising in his neck.
“The tension between the two of you was almost unbearable. This morning, you show up, all bedheaded and freshly-fucked-look on your face and you’re miles away all day long and jumpy and we can’t get a decent answer out of you. And Merlin’s no better.”
“He’s not here.”
“If that’s your problem, go, find him. We can battle the remaining wallpaper without you.” Gwaine bit off more of his sandwich.
“No, it’s just…” Arthur sighed deeply. “It’s complicated.”
“The sex wasn’t good?” Gwaine’s eyebrows went up.
Arthur huffed out a chuckle. It had been the best sex he’d ever had. It hadn’t been just to fuck or to relieve tension, it had been urgent at first, yes, but after a while it had been slow and gentle, it had been about exploring and getting to know and it had been fantastic.
“That good, eh?” Gwaine laughed and finished his sandwich. “You know, Percy had been reluctant, too. I wasn’t really known as a monk, so he feared he would be just one of my many conquests.” He got up. “Luckily, I could convince him that he was the one who counted. And you should do that with Merlin. If you’re serious.”
"What do you mean?” Arthur frowned. Gwaine ran a hand through is hair and blew out a breath. “He obviously didn’t tell you.”
“Tell me what?” What was wrong here?
“Well, you’ll hear about this sooner or later anyways. You know that Merlin’s a chef.”
What did that have to do with anything? Arthur was more confused by the moment. “It’s hard to miss.”
“He travelled the world and worked in all the countries that are important to have worked in. As a chef, I mean.”
Arthur nodded. He had figured that much.
“He met this stupid idiot. I disliked him the moment I first saw him, tried to warn him off of him, but Merlin didn’t listen. You know how he is.” Gwaine ran his hand underneath his nose.
Arthur just listened.
“He thought they wanted the same thing. Well, they probably did, in the beginning. He put all his savings into a little restaurant, up in Edinburgh. Bloke wanted to head the restaurant, Merlin wanted this cooking school thing.”
Arthur felt the colour drain from his face. This didn’t sound good. He knew that Merlin wanted to teach and pass on his knowledge. He had no idea that there were bad memories connected to it. “What happened?”
“The moron started to drink. Merlin desperately tried to hold it all together, didn’t want to see the truth, it was just a phase and all that. But one night the idiot was drunk again and set the place on fire. In the morning, there was nothing left. Arsehole had nothing more than a bad hangover.”
Arthur swallowed hard. So that was Merlin’s story. “That’s when he came back here?”
“Yes, to get away from it all, to lick his wounds, to find his feet again. Arsehole showed up a couple of times until we made it clear that he wasn’t welcome here anymore.”
Nodding, Arthur remembered how Gwaine had tried to not let Leon know that he was here and how Lance had given him some time before he would report him. They had protected him when he was just a stranger. He could imagine how fiercely they must have protected Merlin whom they had known all of their lives.
“You’re not that different. He was hiding in the cabin you are hiding in now, trying to figure out what he would do with his life.” Gwaine huffed and sent Arthur a wry smile. “Shortly after he came back, his mam fell ill. Never recovered…died about ten months after he came back, that was about two years ago.”
“And he never did anything since then? What has he been living off when he lost everything in the restaurant?” Arthur didn’t mean to be nosy, it was just interesting to finally get a glimpse of Merlin’s past, even though it wasn’t a nice one.
Gwaine shrugged. “Guess his mam’s books still make enough for him to live off. And he does the odd job for Mithian once in a while. And sells his marmalades at markets and to restaurants. But…that’s when you enter the picture. The knight in shining armour, good-looking, interested, buying the hotel and giving him a perspective, giving him his dream back.”
Arthur almost felt dizzy. “What are you trying to say?”
After wiping the crumbs off his t-shirt, Gwaine patted Arthur’s shoulder. “I’m just saying that he is still bruised, but he’s too far into this already to make a rational decision. You need to know what you want. If you still want to leave after the hotel opens…” Gwaine shook his head. “Don’t lead him on. Don’t pull him close only to push him away again later, it would break him. If you want this to work, go ahead.”
The grip on his shoulder tightened and got painful, so Arthur looked up at Gwaine.
“If you hurt him, though…” Gwaine let go and walked up the stairs. Arthur was still sitting on the stairs fifteen minutes later. He had always been known to be unreadable, a tough counterpart to negotiate with. What happened to him here? Everybody seemed to see right through him. And that Gwaine had told him Merlin’s story didn’t help either. He was totally confused. He liked Merlin, he really did. But he couldn’t spend the rest of his life in Ealdor. Or could he? Rubbing his shoulder, he knew that Gwaine meant it. Under no circumstances would he hurt Merlin, he needed to talk to him.
As he jumped out of his car, Arthur felt weird. He had taken a detour on his way back to get some flowers. He had pondered getting a bunch of roses but that would have been a bit too much. Now that he stood in front of the door, the nice arrangement of different colourful flowers seemed just as ridiculous.
Before he could decide to just toss them back into the car and get rid of them in the morning, the door opened.
“Arthur!” Merlin smiled. “Right on time, dinner’s about to be ready. I’ve tried something I want to teach people, I need your opinion.”
Smiling back a bit goofily, Arthur just stood there.
“What’s that? Flowers? Nice! The place needs a bit of a fresh touch.” Merlin just took the bunch out of Arthur’s hand and carried them inside, where he immediately filled a huge glass with water to put them in. “They’ll look fantastic over there.”
Arthur hadn’t said a word but followed Merlin inside and took off his jacket and shoes. He was obviously still welcome at the house, even though Merlin acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
“Go, wash up, when you’re done, food will be waiting for you.”
Staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, Arthur wondered what would happen next. If Merlin wanted to pretend last night hadn’t happened…Arthur didn’t know what to do. He wanted Merlin, wanted him like Merlin had wanted him right back the previous night and he didn’t know if he just could go back to ‘taking it slow’. Or should he talk to him right away? But what would he tell him? He didn’t really know what he wanted for himself!
“Did you fall asleep in there? Dinner’s getting cold!” Merlin yelled from the kitchen and Arthur took a deep breath and left the bathroom.
Merlin pushed him into his usual chair and served him what looked like a complicated structure made of rice and different kinds of seafood. “Enjoy.”
Arthur obeyed and even though he would much rather have gotten some clarity on the situation, he couldn’t help but close his eyes and moan. Once again, Merlin had managed to mix flavours in a way Arthur never experienced them before and it was perfect.
Merlin watched him with shiny eyes. “You like?”
Nodding, Arthur sipped the wine Merlin had poured him and just as he had expected, it completed the experience. “Gosh, Merlin…”
The wide smile that crinkled up Merlin’s eyes showed on his face. “Would you like to learn how to cook this?”
Arthur reached for the napkin before he answered. “I’m not sure if I’d be able to. When will you be meeting the kitchen people?” He had decided to give Merlin free range to outfit the kitchen. He knew what was needed, a lot more than Arthur could ever know.
Soon they were emerged in a discussion about what the kitchen needed, time-lines and probable issues. As Merlin talked about a test-run for cooking classes, they loaded the dishwasher and then took their wine glasses over to the living room area. Even though they switched the TV on, they didn’t pay attention as they tossed ideas about whom to invite for the test run and Merlin already had a plan for what he wanted to cook with his first class.
It got late and when they’d finished the wine, Merlin started to yawn. He stretched.
That pulled Arthur out of his happy bubble. He had enjoyed the evening to the fullest. Not only had he gotten a wonderful dinner, they had talked shop and it hadn’t even been boring. Time had gone by too fast and somehow he had missed the point where he could have had a serious talk with Merlin. It was too late for today to address the subject. “I…I’d better go…” He looked into the direction of the cabin, not even sure if Merlin had gotten around to fixing the roof or if his bed had dried again.
Merlin looked at him, a serious expression on his face, before he finally shook his head. “Don’t.”
“Unless you really want to.” Merlin got up and turned around, wrapping his arms around himself.
Arthur followed him and stood as close as he dared. “I don’t.”
Merlin leaned back into him, his eyes closed. “Then stay.”
“Are you sure?” Carefully, Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist. “I mean…absolutely sure? Things could get complicated.” He whispered and watched Merlin’s profile.
Worrying his lower lip for a short moment, Merlin nodded. “I’m...I don’t know.”
Arthur didn’t know if this was the answer he wanted to hear or if it would help him reach his own decision. He had nowhere else to be after the hotel would open, and Merlin… “For me…this feels right. I’m…you’re…I’m…”
Merlin chuckled and then turned in Arthur’s arms. “Not good with words?” He smiled softly. “Wonder how you negotiated all those big deals with all those tough business people.”
“That was easy. I didn’t like them as I like you.” Arthur held his breath. Aside from that time at university when he thought he had been dating a fellow student who hadn’t seen it that way, he had never told anyone that he liked him and his palms started sweating.
Smiling, Merlin leaned in for a soft kiss.
They hadn’t done more that night than just kiss until they both fell asleep in Merlin’s bed. Many nights like that had passed as the weeks went by. Arthur never moved back into the cabin and they fell into a comfortable rhythm, finding out each other’s quirks and just enjoying each other’s company and Arthur tried not to think past the point where they would officially open the hotel.
He had been nervous to tell Merlin that he didn’t really have much experience but Merlin had just kissed him and told him that they would work on that, with a wink and a twinkle in his eyes. They had practiced a lot and Arthur had never felt better.
The work at the hotel proceeded nicely, the pipes had been exchanged, the wiring brought up to date and the interior designer started bringing in people to touch the place up. Mithian worked with her, she had known the old rooms best, and together they picked out new wallpapers and flooring, tiles for the bathrooms and she talked about the way they managed to keep the flair of the past but bringing it into the now excitedly. Most of the time, Arthur just checked prices and did some calculations before he nodded when Mithian showed him different things or asked him for a decision. At least he didn’t have to worry about what would look good or if the colours matched.
Merlin had been just as excited when the kitchens were installed. They had divided the huge old kitchen into a smaller one that would be sufficient for providing the meals for the small restaurant and to cater for the hotel guests and a larger one where the classes would take place.
“Are you okay?” Arthur stepped close to Merlin, who had just opened a box that brought his new chef’s outfits.
Staring at the one he had pulled out, Merlin didn’t answer.
“Aren’t you going to model it for me?” Arthur knew that this was a huge thing for Merlin. For days, he had argued with himself about getting them, sometimes insisting that he needed them to look professional and respectable enough, other times saying that he could cook in a t-shirt and jeans just as well and that what he was wearing didn’t influence his abilities. In the end, he had given Arthur green light for ordering them. Now they lay in front of him, all black with a small red rim on the collar and down the front. Merlin’s name was embroidered on the pocket on the chest in bright red letters.
When Merlin didn’t react, Arthur took it, unbuttoned it and held it open for Merlin. “Chef.”
Merlin took a deep breath and let Arthur help him slip it on. He buttoned it up and turned again. “It feels weird. I thought I’d never wear one of these again.”
Arthur grinned. “And you look damn hot in it, too.”
That relieved a bit of the tension and Merlin chuckled. “You should go greet our guests, not flirt with me!”
“But I like flirting with you.” Arthur closed the distance between them and kissed Merlin deeply until someone cleared their throat.
“Yes, Arthur, you should.” Mithian giggled. “We’re here to learn something!”
Arthur turned and found their whole entourage of friends looking at them. “Well then…” Even though he tried not to blush, he knew he couldn’t do anything about it, so Arthur went into business mode. “Welcome to Camelot Inn here in beautiful Ealdor.” The name had started out as a joke based on their names, but it had stuck and they had decided that it sounded good and wanted to keep it.
”We know where we are.” Gwaine complained. “Ow!” He mock-glared at Gwen, who had pinched his upper arm and everybody laughed.
“Are you sure I can leave you guys alone in the kitchen where there’s sharp utensils and other deadly things?” Arthur grinned. “Anyway, I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Chef Emrys and hope you’ll have lots of fun.” Stepping aside, he made room for Merlin and smiled when he blushed as their friends clapped, whistled and made remarks about the chef jacket.
A few hours later they sat on plastic chairs around a large table in the yet unfinished restaurant area and enjoyed what they had prepared together.
All through the class, Arthur had peeked in once in a while and snapped a photo or two. For promotional purposes, as he claimed, but he loved the look on Merlin’s face. He was concentrating and seemed to have the time of his life as he explained about ingredients and what happened when you put things into a dish in the wrong order. He never scolded anyone when something went wrong, kept calm when things became a bit hectic and managed to take all of his pupils along on the cooking journey, even though they had different backgrounds from ‘I can burn water!’-Lance to ‘Oh, I just like to cook’-deeply blushing Percy.
Of course, they had taken a group photo and Arthur already planned to frame it and put it up somewhere. Either at the office or near the kitchen, he didn’t know yet.
“Come, eat with us, Arthur!” Lance waved him over.
“But that’s your food. You’ve been working hard to make it, I can’t just do nothing and then sit down and eat.”
The friends protested and they found him a chair that they squeezed in between Merlin and Gwen and a plate and pointed out who made what, everyone insisting that he needed to taste theirs first.
A while later, everyone was talking and laughing and having a good time. When he felt Merlin’s leg pressed against his underneath the table, Arthur leaned back and smiled at him. He knew Merlin’s cooking school would be a huge success.
“You were incredible today.” Arthur tossed a dish towel aside and pressed a kiss on Merlin’s cheek.
“I just showed them how to make that one simple dish.” Merlin blushed slightly.
Shaking his head, Arthur pulled Merlin close. “No. You didn’t ‘just’ show them how to make one dish. You encouraged, explained, helped, corrected…and all in a way that nobody really noticed. They had fun and they loved you.”
Merlin huffed. “They’re our friends, they’re supposed to like me.”
“They didn’t like it because they’re your friends, Merlin. They loved it because you are awesome.”
“Did you see how good Percy was?”
Arthur smiled and leaned in. “I don’t care about how good Percy was. I just want to kiss the best chef in all of Britain.”
Merlin didn’t fight and kissed back softly before he pulled back. “Can we go home? As much fun as it was, it was exhausting and I’m really tired.”
Nodding, Arthur let go, even though reluctantly. “I hope you’re not too tired for a little reward.” He threw Merlin a look.
Chuckling, Merlin pulled the dish towel off his shoulder and snapped it at Arthur playfully. “I really need a shower.”
“If you need help getting out of this sexy chef jacket, I’ll be happy to lend a hand.”
Merlin plucked at the jacket a bit nervously. “I didn’t think it would feel so good wearing it again.”
Arthur nodded, pressed another quick kiss on Merlin’s cheek and then looked around. “You are amazing.”
The look in Merlin’s eyes changed from wondrous to playful. “You said so. Let’s go.”
“Did we pack everything?”
Merlin grabbed a big basket with things he obviously wanted to take home and followed Arthur out, hitting the light switch on the way.
All the way back, Arthur smiled. He had seen Merlin cook before and he had always loved the way he was moving, his motions when he was cutting something up and the unique way he observed pots and pans, almost like he was watching something very beloved. When Merlin tasted something and liked it, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath and smiled and that one time, Arthur could have sworn he saw Merlin shudder.
Merlin was chatting excitedly and Arthur just hmm’d and uh huh’d sometimes and let Merlin’s words flow over him, more listening to the melody of Merlin’s sentences and the funny way he pronounced some of the words and he knew he never wanted to miss this. Arthur still hadn’t got used to that weird language the locals spoke that had nothing to do with English and each time Merlin used that language he threw him looks that were somewhere between confusion and admiration. Of course, Merlin spoke proper English when he was dealing with people who hadn’t grown up in the area and Arthur felt that weird tingle in his chest when he noticed that Merlin sometimes slipped back a bit more into the dialect of the area when he was around him and that he had started to understand it.
As Merlin had travelled the world, he had been confronted with lots of dialects and accents and he had entertained them one afternoon when they worked on something really boring by imitating them. The work had taken them much longer because they all had bent over laughing most of the time.
“Are you even listening?” Merlin threw him a look and smiled.
“What? Oh…sorry, no, I had to concentrate on the road.”
“Liar.” Reaching over, Merlin played with the hair in Arthur’s neck. It had gotten too long, Arthur knew he needed a haircut, but he loved Merlin’s fingers combing through the strands and rubbing the ends between them.
“I’ve been listening, just…I didn’t really hear what you were saying,” he admitted.
“Not important.” Merlin chuckled. “We’re here.”
Quickly, they grabbed the few things they had on the back seat and entered the house.
The moment Merlin set down the basket on the kitchen table, Arthur reached for him. He pushed him against the fridge and kissed him roughly. Then he pinned him against the large fridge door with his own weight, his hand in Merlin’s hair and pulled back slightly to look at him. “I’ve wanted to do this since you put on this damn jacket.”
“Arthur,” Merlin chuckled breathlessly. “It’s just a jacket.”
Shaking his head, Arthur looked into Merlin’s eyes. “It is not. It makes you whole.”
Now Merlin laughed, even though the blush on his cheeks was clearly visible. “Only you can be all hot and sexy and then say something so sweet.” He put a quick peck on the tip of Arthur’s nose and then wiggled out of the hold. “I really need to take a shower.”
“Mind if I join you?”
Still laughing, Merlin wiggled his butt on his way down the corridor and Arthur was already kicking his shoes aside. He followed, trying to get the tight t-shirt over his head and stumbling against the wall a few times as he wasn’t seeing where he was going.
When he reached the door to the bathroom, he had managed to get rid of it and found Merlin already in the shower, his jeans and chef jacket carelessly discarded on the floor. Looking up from the mess of different fabrics on the floor, Arthur’s breath hitched.
Merlin stood still, his head slowly rolling back, so he was facing the spray, the water making its way down his hair, dripping from the ends of it and running down his back. Once again, Arthur marvelled in the fact that Merlin seemed all tall and gangly but when the baggy clothes were removed, broad shoulders and defined muscles were revealed. The slim hips accentuated the wide shoulders and Arthur swallowed hard when his gaze dropped down to Merlin’s tight little butt.
A little noise, that had escaped his throat without him even hearing it, made Merlin open his eyes and turn his head slightly.
“I think I really need a hand here. I’m too tired to wash my back.” The smile tugging at the corners of Merlin’s mouth and the twinkle in his eyes gave him away, though.
Arthur hurried to scramble out of his jeans and boxers and was about to step into the shower stall when Merlin stopped him.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” He pointed to the bottom drawer of the little cabinet.
Frowning slightly, Arthur opened the drawer and swallowed hard again. There was a tube of lube and some condoms. Merlin wanted to take him in the shower? Fuck, the thought alone was so hot that it made his cock twitch.
“You mean these?” He tried to sound casual.
Merlin just gave him a wave with his hand to finally come into the shower with him and Arthur obeyed happily. He set the supplies down on the little shelf.
Since Merlin hadn’t turned around yet, Arthur admired his broad shoulders a bit more and then started kissing the wet skin. It felt weird, the water warm and yet cooling between them, Merlin’s hot skin against his lips…this was the most erotic thing Arthur had ever experienced.
Gently, he kissed down Merlin’s spine and finally he was kneeling in the shower and looked at Merlin’s arse. He leaned in and continued the kisses as he felt Merlin shiver. Immediately, he pulled back. “Cold?”
“No,” Merlin sounded hoarse. “So good, don’t stop!”
Letting out a breathless chuckle, Arthur picked up where he had left off.
Merlin panted, braced himself against the wall and spread his legs a bit wider to give Arthur better access.
Arthur groaned and dove in. He had never done this before, but Merlin was so hot and so responsive and he found so many spots that seemed to very sensitive. At first glance, it might have looked weird that Merlin, who had quite a bit of dark chest hair, shaved down here but Arthur appreciated it as his tongue lapped over smooth skin. He tried to get further between Merlin’s legs to suck at Merlin’s balls.
Above him, Merlin made noises that Arthur had never make him before and that turned him on so much that his own cock was so hard it almost hurt.
Stopping what he was doing for a moment, Arthur worried if he had done something wrong or that Merlin hated.
Blinking the water out of his eyes, Arthur scrambled up. “Huh?”
“Fuck me, Arthur, please! I need you.”
Kissing Merlin’s neck again, Arthur was confused. All the other times, Merlin had left no doubt that he wanted to top and Arthur didn’t mind at all. He thought that Merlin just didn’t like bottoming and that was fine by him. But now… “Are you sure?”
Without turning or looking at him, Merlin nodded and pushed his arse out further. “Yes! Do it!”
Arthur’s fingers trembled when he reached for the lube. The tube slipped out of his grip and he needed to retrieve it. As exciting as this was, here in the shower, the running water made it a lot more difficult. He squeezed some lube on his fingers and touched them to Merlin’s butt. He hadn’t done this to anyone in years and it was almost as if he was doing it for the first time, going very slowly and always afraid of hurting Merlin.
Merlin leaned his head against his arm on the tiles. He was breathing hard and shoving himself onto Arthur’s fingers. “Please, Arthur!”
His hands were shaking as Arthur tried to roll the condom down. His cock was so sensitive that he was afraid he would come just from putting the rubber on and he had to stop and bite his lip hard before he finally managed.
Positioning himself, Arthur shook the water out of his hair and then slowly pushed in. He shuddered as Merlin’s heat engulfed him and grabbed Merlin’s hips to have something to hold on to.
Merlin groaned loudly at the intrusion and tightened a bit but then breathed hard and allowed Arthur in further.
Arthur was panting now and slowly pushed into Merlin all the way. “Gosh…gosh, Merlin…” He stopped and just felt Merlin around him.
“I…need to…” Merlin made a strangled sound and started to move, which took Arthur by surprise.
It didn’t take long and he was slamming into Merlin, gripping his hips so hard that it most likely left marks. Arthur knew he wouldn’t last long like this. “Merl…Merlin…about to…going to…” His head thrown back in a silent cry, Arthur came.
After a moment, he reached around Merlin, ran his hand down his chest and wrapped his fingers around Merlin’s cock only to notice that Merlin had come without being touched.
They stood like that for a while, Merlin with his head hanging between his arms, Arthur with his forehead touching Merlin’s back, both trying to catch their breath, until Arthur finally slipped out. He hated to let go of Merlin, but he discarded the condom, reached over to turn off the water and got some towels out of the shelf.
Merlin had turned and grinned a very satisfied grin at him as he reached for the towel. “Thanks.”
“Want me to towel you dry?” Arthur smiled widely.
“I think I can manage on my own.”
Without saying much more, they both padded to the bedroom and got under the covers. Merlin moved around until he had his head against Arthur’s shoulder and got comfortable before he fell asleep quickly.
Things came together nicely but slowly, one could notice again that this was a hotel, not a construction site. Where pallets with tiles and packages with flooring had stood and wrapping material had lain about, you could see floors and corners now. The old windows had been replaced and it still smelled like the wallpapers were drying.
Arthur turned around and smiled at Percy. “Isn’t it? Once the cleaners are done, we’re ready for the furniture to be brought in.”
“Brought back.” Percy corrected. “Mithy said to tell you that Henry just called. He’s almost done and will start bringing the stuff back on Monday.”
Nodding, Arthur checked that call he wanted to make once he was downstairs again off the list mentally. Of course they’d had to throw out some of the old furniture that couldn’t be saved or just wasn’t worth it. Henry was one of the blokes of the footie team, who happened to be a carpenter and cabinet maker and he had been thrilled to see some of the pieces the hotel held. He had made a decent offer to refurbish the best things and had offered invaluable advice of what to keep and what had to go.
“The new stuff will arrive soon, too.”
“Then we’re ready for the grand opening.” Percy beamed. All of their friends had helped so much that they had adopted the hotel as their common project and second home. “I’m so glad you’ve decided to stay.”
The wide smile on Arthur’s face faltered. “What?”
“Gwaine told me that you had been unsure and that you were about to leave after the opening to find a new thing to work on. But with you and Merlin now…it’s so good to know that you will still be here for the footie tournament.”
Arthur had deliberately not thought about the time after the opening of the hotel. He had never planned to drop everything and leave immediately once the small festivities were over, this project needed a while to start running and to hire a business manager before the hotel was in full swing would only cost money that he didn’t have. It wasn’t that he was broke now, but most of his funds were built into or glued to this building and it felt good. For the first time in his life, his wealth wasn’t just numbers on an account, but something you could actually touch. Something that gave people shelter and a job, not just an accumulation of money.
He still hadn’t made an active decision on his future, though. When Morgana had first showed up, she had told him that she couldn’t picture him as an inn keeper. He had laughed back then but if he were honest, he couldn’t really see himself as one either. He liked the little town, the people, the environment, but was that enough to spend the rest of his life here? Wouldn’t there be a point at which he became utterly bored of all this? When the novelty wore off?
And then there was Merlin. Merlin who had trusted him and made him feel so at home. Not home as a place, but…Arthur couldn’t explain that kind of feeling he had never felt before. When Merlin was there, everything was alright. No matter how hard they had worked physically that day, no matter if he had negotiated all day long with contractors and suppliers, the moment he was with Merlin again, all the stress fell off of him and he was okay again.
If he left here, he would take Merlin with him. They could embark on a journey of opening hotels all across the country, building a chain of Merlin’s cooking schools which he supervised for a while and then found a capable chef or two to take over. Not that he had ever talked with Merlin about this; Arthur wasn’t even sure if Merlin would ever leave Ealdor. And Arthur wasn’t sure if he could leave, without Merlin.
“I…I don’t know.” He finally said.
Percy, who had been inspecting the new windows and then dealt with installing the smoke detector system on the ceiling, looked at him from where he had climbed the ladder. “Huh?”
“I don’t know if I will still be here for the footie tournament.” Arthur said quietly.
“Oh, come on!” Percy frowned and stopped what he was doing. “You can’t mean that! You are part of us now and you’re with Merlin, you can’t leave!”
Taking a deep breath, Arthur shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, turned towards the window and said nothing. This was all too complicated. He had come here to find something to do for the rest of his life but he wasn’t sure if this was it. The part with Merlin, yes, he could easily do that forever. Was he too much a child of the city to be stuck in a remote little community where WIFI was only available when the weather was good, though? He didn’t know.
The talk with Percy had left Arthur in deep thought for hours until Val showed up to go over some of the details for the upcoming trial. Somehow, Uther had managed to find a judge who had accepted the case and Val wanted to make sure Arthur was prepared and knew what to say and how not to react.
Things like these had been daily routine for Arthur, not so much in court rooms, but in conference rooms all around the globe, on the phone and in meetings, too. Now, it made Arthur nervous. He had shed most of the tough businessman image and even though he was still good at negotiating with all the contractors he needed to rebuild the hotel, he had learned to see the person opposite of him, too. Before, he had hardly registered names and couldn’t be bothered with the private details of co-workers and secretaries, Arthur now asked about the health of the plumber’s twins and wanted to know if the painter’s dog had given birth already, demanding to see photos of the puppies right away.
He had changed in his short time here, Arthur noticed when he found it a bit difficult to slip back into the role of the tough business person when he was talking to Val. Uther’s demands were brutal, they would strip Arthur of everything he ever owned, including his mother’s inheritance. It had surprised both of them that some judge was willing to take this into a court room, so Val tried to prepare him for every eventuality.
“You know…” Val looked up from the stack of papers they were working on. “Leon…”
“Oh no.” Arthur groaned and slumped back into his chair in the little office behind the front desk. “He’ll be the one to argue this? Not Leon! Please, anyone but Leon!” Arthur couldn’t imagine his old friend doing this. But it was just like Uther to use their friendship against him and Leon was just an employee.
“Leon quit.” Val took a sip from his water.
“What?” Arthur stared at Val.
“Leon quit. He left.”
“He did what? What’s he going to do now? I mean, it’s not right for father to use him but…”
A grin tugged at the corners of Val’s mouth. “How does ‘Black and Knight’ sound?”
Blinking, Arthur stared at Val, a slight frown on his face. “Huh? He’ll come to work for you?” It was difficult picturing Leon outside the big city.
Val shook his head. “He’s not working for me. He’s going to work with me. As a partner. I’ve been looking for someone for quite a while and when I heard that Leon threw in the towel over this, I knew he was the right person.”
“Good for you!” Arthur smiled. He could imagine his friends working together just fine. The smile slowly slid off Arthur’s face. “But you’ll be the one presenting this at court, right?” He gestured to the files on the desk.
“Of course. It wouldn’t go down well if the initial lawyer of the prosecution all of sudden argued the side of the defendant.” Val chuckled and shook his head. “It hasn’t been unheard of but it would be highly unprofessional as Leon knows all the details the case is built upon. So he will not officially be partner until this is over to avoid any doubts.”
Arthur nodded. He was happy that his old friend finally had seen what Uther could do to people and found a way out. If he had time, he would give him a call and find out about the details. Would Leon live nearby, too? Or would he stay in London so Val could get a foot into the market for lawyers there, too? He’d find out at some point but for now, he had to concentrate on his own case.
When Arthur came back to the house, it was dark. It was late already, but usually Merlin left a light on for him or at least one of his beloved flameless candles in the window. Tonight, there was no such thing. Not even the TV was on to give off some blue-ish light through the window. That was strange.
Running into a locked door was a surprise, too. Merlin never locked the place, no matter how often Arthur had reminded him that even in a place like Ealdor not everybody meant well. Merlin had insisted that there was nobody like that around and that he owned nothing that was worth stealing anyways. Maybe he had gotten wise?
Arthur tried the back door and found it unlocked. Carefully, he made his way in and tried not to make too much noise. Merlin was most likely asleep, so he would just get out of his clothes and slip into bed with him. That was just what he needed after a long, hard day of work.
His plan of being quiet was abruptly thrown over as Arthur ran into a big box in the dark. “Ouch!” He had stabbed a toe really bad and had some fierce words on the tip of his tongue. Why on earth would Merlin put a box in the middle of the way right when you entered the house?
The light in the corridor flickered to life and Merlin was standing there, looking all rumpled in some old sweatpants and a t-shirt that was a little bit too short.
“Merlin! Why did you…” Arthur stopped when he saw the look on Merlin’s face. “Merlin? What’s wrong?”
Merlin just glared at him for a moment. “That’s everything you had here at the house.”
“In the box. I’ve packed it so it’s easier to take it out.”
“Why would I…? Merlin?” Arthur was totally confused. Things had gone well, they both worked at the hotel really hard and enjoyed the little time they had together.
“You’re leaving anyways, so you might as well leave right now.” Merlin came closer, picked the box up, shoved it into Arthur’s arms, put the shoes Arthur had toed off just moments ago on top of the box and opened the door. “This way, please.”
Before Arthur knew what was happening, Merlin had shoved him out the back door, closed it behind him and locked it. Twice.
“Merlin?” Arthur was utterly confused. “What’s going on?”
Setting the box down, Arthur stepped into his shoes again as he knocked at the door. “Merlin? Can we talk? What happened? Tell me what’s going on!”
To his relief, Merlin was still behind the door. “You know what’s going on! Don’t pretend you don’t!”
Merlin didn’t sound good. He had looked a bit red-eyed in the dim light of the old lamp in the corridor, but now he sounded as he was holding back sobs.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What happened? Did something happen?”
It took a while in which Arthur thought he heard Merlin sniffling a few times. “Just go!”
Arthur didn’t understand. Why did Merlin do this? Why was he tossing him out? What had he done? Things were going so well between them and now this? For a long time, he tried to talk to Merlin, tried to make Merlin open up and tell him why he acted so strangely, but there was no use. Even though he knew that Merlin was sitting on the other side of the door, he took the box to his car and after another failed attempt of making contact, he got in the car.
After sitting there for at least another hour, Arthur finally started the motor. He couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. Where was Merlin coming from? And what had triggered this reaction all of a sudden? He arrived back at the hotel and tried to get comfy on the cot they had put up in the little office for those days when it was too late to go back to the house. But sleep wouldn’t come for a long time.
Arthur was woken up from a light slumber he had finally found after hours of tossing and turning when Mithian came in in the morning and noisily set her backpack and some small boxes down.
“Arthur! What are you doing here?”
His mouth felt like something had died in there and he was aching all over. Slowly sitting up, he rubbed his eyes and mumbled something unintelligible.
“Was it so late after your meeting with Val? Does Merlin know that you stayed here?”
Merlin. Arthur looked up at Mithian, who was puttering around, opening windows and making coffee.
“What’s wrong, Arthur?” She frowned.
“He threw me out last night.” Arthur said in wonder. His mind still hadn’t wrapped around the fact that Merlin had broken up with him.
Mithian giggled. “Yeah, right. As if Merlin would ever do that. He’s too much in love with you.” She poured Arthur a mug of coffee and handed it over. When she saw the look on his face, the giggles died in her throat. She slowly sank into a chair. “What happened?”
Arthur looked at his coffee unhappily. There, he said it, it seemed a lot more real after he’d spoken the words. “I don’t really know.”
Waiting, Mithian didn’t ask more and after a while Arthur told her what had happened. She might be his employee, but she was a friend, too, and she knew Merlin so much longer than he did, maybe she had an idea where things had gone wrong.
“What exactly did he mean by saying you’re leaving anyways?” She interrupted him as he recounted the events of the previous night.
Arthur looked at her and very slowly, he put two and two together. “Fuck.”
“Alright,” she crossed her arms in front of her chest and scrunched up her face. “What did you do?”
Letting his head hang for a moment, Arthur sighed deeply. “You know how I came here to find out what to do with my life, right?”
“We all know that, yes. And you found the hotel and you found Merlin. So?” She raised an eyebrow.
“The hotel was to have been a project. Something to work on, where I could see it all coming together and in the end…Mithy, I don’t know if I’m ready to spend the rest of my life in this little town.”
“You want to leave!” She jumped up. “But what about Merlin?”
“It’s not like I’d have left tomorrow or something!”
Mithian just stood there, staring at him open-mouthed. “I thought you knew what he has been through! And you’re putting him through the exact same thing again, you pillock!”
Arthur ducked the pillow she threw at him. “I wouldn’t leave without him!”
Slowly turning, Mithian still glared daggers at him. “Do you guys even do something else than fuck on any flat surface you find?”
Arthur’s eyes went wide. He had never heard her using such language before, but that she did could only mean one thing: He was in deep shit.
“Have you even talked to him about this? He obviously figured out that you’d do another runner after the opening! Does he know that you wanted him to run with you? Did you even bother with what he wants?”
Sighing, Mithian sank into the chair again. “You’re such a dumbass.”
Arthur knew Mithian was right. He should have talked to Merlin, told him about his doubts about the location, find out what Merlin wanted; there just never had been the time. Or rather, he had let himself get distracted, living in a happy bubble all the time. The bubble had burst and he would lose Merlin completely if he didn’t do something.
So he took a quick shower and pulled on one of the t-shirts he had stuffed into a shelf for emergencies and without even taking another sip of his coffee, he reached for the car keys. He had no idea what he would tell Merlin, but he needed to see him.
He saw him quicker than he had intended as Merlin entered the hotel the moment Arthur stepped out of the office.
“Merlin!” Fuck, Merlin looked bad. He had all red and swollen eyes with dark circles underneath and hadn’t bothered to shave or even run a hand through his hair.
“Alright, Arthur. This is how it’ll go. Selling the rights to my mam’s books will give me enough to buy the hotel from you. Or at least to make an appropriate deposit. I’ll find a manager and do everything to keep the place running. And you will have no obligation to stay any longer and can leave any time you like.”
Merlin wasn’t looking at him and worrying his lower lip with his teeth after he finished his little speech.
“Merlin,” Arthur wanted to go over and wrap his arms around him and kiss the stubborn pout on his lips until the world was right again. “You don’t have to do that. I’m not going anywhere.”
“For now.” Merlin insisted. “It’ll only hurt more when you leave later, so it’s better you go. Please remove your things from the cabin, too. I will be busy getting the last of the kitchen things in Waddleton today. I expect you’re done before I return?”
“Merlin, I don’t know where this comes from all of a sudden, but…can we talk?”
Shaking his head almost unnoticeably, Merlin looked at him for the first time. “You made it pretty clear when you were talking to Percy yesterday that you’re not going to stay, you won’t even be around for the stupid football thing. So…I don’t know what there is left to talk about.”
“Percy…” At least he knew now what had triggered Merlin’s reaction yesterday.
“He’s got nothing to do with it. I was here yesterday, going upstairs to tell you something. I heard you say it.” Merlin sniffed. “There’s nothing to talk about. I’ll get a lawyer who can work out the contracts.” With that, Merlin turned and left.
Things became very difficult and strained after that. Of course Arthur had no intention to sell the hotel, especially not to Merlin who would have to sell everything he owned to make a down payment. He didn’t want to sell at all, but even though he tried to talk to Merlin a few times and even used their friends as messengers more than once, Merlin couldn’t be moved. They had hardly spoken a word since that morning.
They only grudgingly gave messages to Merlin and let Arthur feel what they thought about the whole situation. His enthusiasm about the project was gone but Arthur couldn’t picture himself leaving it behind either.
He sat down heavily on a stack of plywood that was still sitting in the small garden behind the house and pulled his mobile out of his back pocket.
They had been on the phone for almost two hours and Arthur didn’t feel better. Morgana had shredded him to pieces for what he had said. He knew she was right. It just had never been the right time for a talk like that; if there ever was a right time. For once, he had allowed himself to be happy and thereby he had made the person he liked the most unhappy. Even though Morgana had said it a few times, he was still reluctant to talk about love. What did he know about love? Nothing, as he had impressively proved.
He knew he actually didn’t have time for this, but he needed to get his head clear, so he found his hiking boots in the back of his car and took the road to Merlin’s house. Only this time, he didn’t pull into the little path that lead to the house, he continued towards the tiny parking lot where hikers started their tours. He locked the car and took off towards the cliffs. This was the spot he could think at easiest.
What they were doing wasn’t healthy. Even though they had agreed on not doing anything that would only pull them in deeper, they crashed into each other whenever they had the chance. Just the other day he had caught Merlin staring at his butt when he tried to retrieve a pen that had rolled underneath the desk. The morning in the kitchen had been quite dangerous, too. Arthur had been in there to get a juice from the fridge and Merlin had carried in a crate of vegetables. When the crate had begun to slip out of his grip, Arthur had helped rescue it and all of a sudden they had been standing very close. If Lance hadn’t chosen that moment to come in, Arthur would bet everything he had that Merlin would have kissed him.
But maybe they were only attracted to each other because their time was limited? That was nonsense, Arthur knew it. They had wanted each other from the beginning. Merlin hadn’t known that he hadn’t planned on staying in Ealdor forever and Arthur hadn’t know that for himself either. There was something between them that couldn’t be ignored. They worked so perfectly. Even though now that they hardly spoke, they were still a good team.
The hotel was coming together nicely and they were within their schedule. The interior designer and Mithian had outdone themselves with little details and the rooms were cosy, yet modern and felt true to the history of the house. The bathrooms were up to date now and once the new mattresses had been delivered, the place would be ready for the first guests. They had decided against putting an embroidery on the towels for now. They could still upgrade once the place made some money. Merlin had had another group of students over for yet another test and was busy with the catering plans for the opening.
Everything started and ended with him. The funny chef who hadn’t asked who he was and taken him in. The first man in forever Arthur could imagine a future with. But would their lives allow it? By now Arthur knew that chefs who cooked at the level Merlin did, never stayed in one place for too long. Even though Merlin insisted he wouldn’t leave Ealdor, perhaps he might change his mind sometime in the future? That was unlikely, though, Arthur knew. Merlin had had his adventures around the globe, his roots lay here, in this little town where everybody knew each other and they were a close-knit bunch. He wanted to settle down.
Arthur had turned his world upside-down when he left a life in which he thought he was settled behind. He didn’t miss that life; he had been happier here in the past months than he had been in his entire life before. But sometimes, just sometimes, he missed the buzz of the city and that he couldn’t just send for something or go around the corner to buy it here. If he got sick of a crowd in London, he could chose a different pub but if he went out for a beer here, he would run into the same people for the rest of his life. Arthur wasn’t sure if he was ready for that.
He didn’t really intend to go back to the city, but if this little hotel took off and he could really go through with his plan of making them into a chain of hotels or B&Bs, he would be able to go to bigger cities as well and wouldn’t feel like being trapped in the middle of nowhere.
This place here, though, was where Merlin was. Arthur didn’t know if he could ever make this whole thing alright and if Merlin even would consider being with him after this, but Arthur knew he wouldn’t be able to be away from Merlin for too long. If they could at least be friends; that would be a good start. Maybe they started on the wrong foot anyways; they should have started as friends and slowly grow into a relationship, wasn’t that how it usually worked? They went from strangers to lovers and that was probably the reason why it didn’t work. They had slept with each other without knowing anything about the other.
Arthur didn’t know how long he had sat on the bench, facing the ocean without even seeing it, thinking in circles and not getting anywhere. Sighing he got up as it started to get dark. He still didn’t know what to do.
For once in his life, he would do what Morgana had suggested: Go to London a day early, stay at her place and be away from Ealdor for a while. She had even offered that he could stay with her as long as he wanted. He’d probably find a solution after the trial.
It felt rather strange to be back in London for the first time since he had left all those months ago. Arthur had always seen London as his home, had spoken about one of the greatest cities in the world with shining eyes and loved coming back when he had been on one of the extended business trips father had sent him on. Now he had looked out of the windows of his taxi as if he’d been a tourist, taking in the sights, but too tired from a long flight to feel anything. The additional day he had stayed at Morgana’s had been filled with preparations for the trial. He had been on the phone with Val a lot. More than once he complained how incredibly noisy the city was and told Morgana she needed to do something about the insulation of her place. Whenever an ambulance or police car had driven by in the distance, he had startled. Morgana hadn’t mentioned Merlin again and Arthur hadn’t touched the topic. He needed to concentrate on the day in court.
The night before the trial, Arthur sat on the little roof-top balcony, a cool drink in hand, looking out towards the skyline of the city. It was busy and loud, could be cruel and radiated the same disdain as a beautiful woman who wanted to let you know that she was out of your league. Morgana’s neighbours had given him confused looks and raised eyebrows when he had greeted them in the elevator and asked how they were. A teenage kid had pulled her tiny dog close and rushed the other way when he had smiled at her. Nobody stopped to talk and everybody always seemed to be in a rush. Only a few months ago, he had been one of them and this hadn’t bothered him at all. Now it did. The time in Ealdor had changed him. He didn’t belong here anymore.
How Morgana had managed to sneak a few of his suits out of his old apartment escaped Arthur, but now he was grateful for it. First, he had intended to just buy a cheap new suit to appear in court, but being faced with his father, the Armani suit felt a bit like wearing some kind of armour, even though it was a bit tight around his shoulders now. He hadn’t noticed it but hauling all the flooring, carpeting and furniture about was obviously better than any gym he could have ever used.
He had been in court rooms before but he had never been the accused and even though Val assured him that there was nothing Uther could do, Arthur had been nervous. He knew he needed to be focussed, but the work at the hotel was in its finishing stages and he really needed to be there and the situation with Merlin was not resolved. He had even pondered to not appear at all and let Val handle this, but even as he had said it, he knew that it was bad manners and that his chances of getting out of this unscathed were a lot better if he was there. And Val had been right, the judge had a hard time hiding his disgust that a father would even consider doing this to his son and had suggested they just talk to each other.
Now, they were standing in the corridor after the hearing and Arthur let out a breath he hadn’t noticed he was holding.
“Congratulations, little brother.” Morgana came over and kissed his cheek. “I’ve told you he didn’t stand a chance, but you know him. He’s still majorly pissed off and nobody could talk him out of dragging you here.”
Arthur threw her a wry smile. “If it hadn’t been for Val…”
“Nonsense.” Val shook his head. “He had nothing against you but empty threats and the judge saw that.”
Arthur shook his hand. “Thanks, man.”
His lawyer checked his watch. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to excuse myself now. I have another appointment here in London before I go back to the coast.” He smiled. “I’ll talk to you on Monday.”
Almost chuckling, Arthur grinned. Val played footie with them since he had been over at the hotel and Gwaine just recruited him for the team and he had started hanging out at the hotel since he liked the circle of friends.
When he turned back to Morgana, he saw her looking down the corridor and his eyes followed her gaze. Uther was standing by one of the window, his face red with anger. “We’ll appeal on that verdict!”
Uther’s lawyer, a young man Arthur had never seen before, tried to talk to him with carefully chosen words, but Uther didn’t have any of it and he sent the man away.
“Arthur.” Morgana put her hand on his arm. “Don’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know what you are about to do, just don’t.” She shook her head.
“I,” Arthur looked at her. “I have to try, Gana.” He shook her hand off, straightened his tie and made his way down the corridor, unsure of what to say.
When Uther didn’t seem to have noticed him, Arthur cleared his throat. “Father.”
Still looking out of the window, Uther didn’t show any signs of even having heard him before he spoke. “I don’t have a son anymore.”
“Yes, father, you do. That I have to go my own way doesn’t mean I’m not your son anymore. I didn’t mean for it to end like that but I was so unhappy, the company was suffocating me. You were suffocating me. I needed to find out who I am and need to live my own life. I hope one day you might understand.”
Uther finally turned towards him and Arthur almost pulled back when he saw the angry glare directed at him. “You had a wonderful life where you were. You threw it all away. I’ve worked so hard for you to have it better than me in your life and now you’re accusing me of suffocating you? Go, live your life.” Uther spat out the words. “But don’t you dare crawling back when you run out of money!”
Arthur felt like being slapped. He hadn’t expected his father to understand his decision. He hadn’t pictured them forgiving each other and embracing, that was just too far-fetched. He didn’t even know what he had thought would happen. The hateful way in which Uther almost barked the words at him stung anyway.
“Don’t worry, father,” he deliberately chose to address Uther as such, “That won’t happen.” He straightened his back and turned to go back to Morgana.
She didn’t say anything, linked her arm with his and led him out of the court building and to her car.
Arthur knew he should feel relieved that this court thing was over now but he was deep in thought. He knew it hadn’t been fair to just run away. He had tried to talk with his father so many times before and it never lead anywhere. He’d had to leave and knew it had been the right decision. He had hoped, though, that his father would understand. That at some point, he would see that he’d done the right thing. Probably in a not so elegant way, but something he had to do. Arthur almost felt sorry for his father who was so stuck in his way of thinking that he couldn’t accept that he wanted to make it in this world on his own. Who was so insulted by his actions that he didn’t have it in him to acknowledge that he had given him the right tools to live his own life.
After about an hour of silence, Arthur looked up and noticed his surroundings for the first time. “This is not the way to your apartment.”
Morgana threw him a smile. “I thought you might be better off in a certain someone’s arms tonight than in my guest room.” She winked.
“Gana.” Arthur sighed and sunk deeper into the passengers’ seat. “You know I’ll only end up on the cot in the office. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t want me anymore.”
“Merlin. His name is Merlin.” Morgana smiled. “And he wants you more than you can ever imagine. Don’t ask me, I don’t know why either, but he does.”
Arthur huffed. “How would you know?”
“Dear brother of mine, we’re not living in the middle ages. There are telephones now, even in the remote little towns and guess what? He knows how to use them.”
“He…he called you?” Arthur stared at Morgana in disbelief.
Shaking her head, she laughed. “No, he didn’t. He’s just as pigheaded as you are.”
“Yes, you are.” She cut him short. “I’ve called him. After I’ve spoken with Gwen and Mithian. And that flirty fellow you know by the name of Gwaine.”
“You…” Arthur couldn’t believe it. Morgana had been to Ealdor twice now and yet she had the numbers of everyone and just called them as if they were close friends?
“Yes, I did. Arthur,” Morgana turned serious again. “Merlin’s just as miserable as you are. Once again, he thought he had a future with someone he loves and once again that someone crashed all the plans.”
“We didn’t really make plans.”
“You two built up a hotel and cooking school. I would call that a plan.”
“But we didn’t…you know…speak about the future.”
“Then that’s what you are going to do now.” Morgana smiled, contend with herself, but Arthur wasn’t so sure that this night would take a turn into the right direction.
“We’ll never be done on time!” Mithian ran past him for the third time in the last couple of minutes as Arthur just stood in the entrance and took in his surroundings. Almost a year had passed since he first had set foot into Ealdor, alone and scared, totally confused and without a plan for the rest of his life. To make things worse, the place he wanted to stay in wasn’t safe to set foot in and he had never felt so lost before. But then he had met all these wonderful people, who didn’t care who he was, what baggage he carried and what he had done in the past and just welcomed him into their circle. It had taken him a while to find his footing again, to see reason to get up in the morning, to realize that he was worth more than the name he had and everything that came with it. And then he had done what he was good at, played his strengths and let his imagination run free, believed in his abilities and now it felt like he was able to breathe freely again.
There had been turns and bumps and that he had fallen in love and majorly screwed that up hadn’t helped but somehow Arthur was grateful that his father had dragged him to court. Those couple of days that he had spent at Morgana’s place in London had shown him how much his time in Ealdor had changed him. He didn’t belong into the city anymore and he didn’t want to go back. He had been overreacting when he messed this thing with Merlin up because he felt trapped in this remote little community when in fact, he had already been part of them.
When Morgana had taken him back that night, Merlin had already been waiting for them. Arthur would never forget how Merlin looked, all tired with dark circles underneath his eyes, anxious what the night would bring. They had talked until the morning and fallen asleep in each other’s arms. Merlin wouldn’t leave Ealdor and therefore, Arthur wouldn’t either and he knew one thing for sure: Never again would he make plans and not talk to Merlin about them.
“Arthur? When will the flowers be delivered?” Mithian ripped him out of his thoughts. She had been running about like a headless chicken all morning. “How can you be so relaxed?”
Chuckling, Arthur shook his head. “I’m far from being relaxed, but just take a moment.” He grabbed dark-haired woman by her shoulders and made her stand still. “Look at it.”
“What exactly am I supposed to look at?” She threw him an irritated sideways look.
“It’s the entrance of Camelot Inn, I’ve seen it before. Arthur, I picked out the wallpaper and the flooring for this!”
“I know and you did a great job. Mithian, we did this. We gave this old building its life and meaning back. Can’t you just feel it waiting for new guests?”
Frowning and looking at him as if he’d lost his mind, Mithian took a step to the side. “Sap,” she said, not without a very fond tone of voice. “Before we can let the guests in, there is a lot to be done! So, when will the flowers be delivered?”
Arthur laughed. “I have no idea, but I’m very sure the guests who come here for the opening won’t care if the flowers will be here now or only be delivered in two hours.”
Mithian sighed as if he was a hopeless case. “I’ll go check the rooms again and you might want to…”
“He might want to greet his first guest.”
Arthur turned at the familiar voice and threw her a surprised look.
“That is a very unfortunate look for a brand new hotel owner, little brother.” Morgana laughed.
“Gana…it’s good to see you, but you’re…I’m sorry, you don’t have a reservation. We’re basically booked out.” Arthur rushed towards the computer and frantically checked the bookings.
“Miranda Henrahan.” Morgana said as if that explained everything.
There was a booking for someone with that name, but…”That’s you?”
“I wanted to surprise you.” She grinned. “I pondered just sending a card, but then I decided to come in person.”
Arthur came back and hugged her. “Welcome to Camelot Inn, Miss Henrahan.” He laughed.
“You better give me that nice room at the end of the corridor.” She winked. “You know I’ve seen them all before and I am your sister, I deserve the very best.”
He was about to make a remark that she was just family and could have the cot in the office, but held it back. If it hadn’t been for her and her phone calls, he would most likely not be standing there, opening the place and welcoming people.
Mithian rushed in again. “Morgana! You’re here already!” She went to get Morgana her key cards.
“You were in on this!”
Before Morgana could answer, the door opened and Leon hauled his bag in.
“And she was in on this, too. Corbin Little at your service.” He laughed.
The stress fell off Arthur when he realized every single booking for that night was one of their friends who had booked the rooms under false names. He knew they would be critical and let him know if something wasn’t working but wouldn’t blurt it out to the world and give the hotel a bad reputation before they could even get started.
Even Mithian calmed down when the flowers were finally delivered.
The only one still frantically running about was Merlin. They had opened the large doors from the restaurant towards the patio and together with Mithian, he had decorated the garden with little paper lanterns and garlands, before Gwen arrived, who helped him prepare delicious finger food.
Arthur entered the kitchen, one of Merlin’s new chef jackets in his hand. “Merlin?”
It seemed that Merlin was counting the plates and put some garnish on those that without when Arthur wrapped his arms around him from behind.
“Arthur, I don’t have time for this now.”
Smiling as it didn’t sound half as annoyed as it should have, Arthur pressed a little kiss into Merlin’s neck. “You better get changed, our guests are waiting.” He had heard them talking in the garden, waiting for him and Merlin to appear and officially welcome them.
“I can’t get changed when you are clinging to me.” Merlin finally turned around.
“You never minded when I was clinging to you before.”
Smiling, Merlin leaned in for a quick kiss. “I don’t. But we don’t have time now. The guests…”
Leaning in, Arthur repeated the kiss. “They are already enjoying drinks and talk amongst themselves, they won’t mind waiting a bit longer.” He put another peck on Merlin’s lips.
Wrapping his arms around Arthur’s neck, Merlin deepened the kiss.