Merlin stood staring up at the theatre marquee, his heart pounding from a heady mixture of anxiety, terror and exhilaration.
My boy, you can do this. Remembering Gaius' words soothed him a little. Merlin had rung him last night because he'd managed to work himself up into a proper panic: what the hell had made him think he could do this, he was only twenty-four and twenty-four year olds were not qualified to work as head costume designer on a major West End theatrical production, for gods' sake. He was going to cock this up royally, and it made sense to whinge to Gaius about it since Merlin had only gotten this job on the strength of his recommendation.
Merlin, you are the best student I've had since – well, not to swell your head, but you are the best student I've had, full stop. You are destined for great things, and this will be the first of many successes. Now, stop moaning and let an old man get his rest.
Merlin was smiling by the time he entered the theatre.
The Avalon was an Edwardian-era theatre, not as pretty as some of the others in Covent Garden and sorely in need of renovation, but charming all the same. Merlin liked the sense of history he felt whenever he walked through its doors, as though the previous generations of performers, designers, stage hands and directors were all watching over them.
His space wasn't terribly large – none of the backstage rooms were – but it was larger than some, seeing as how he would have to help the ten performers into their costumes, sometimes on a very tight schedule. It wasn't a huge production, so some of the actors were playing multiple roles, and had to be in completely different costumes for different scenes. Working out how to do that with the minimum of fuss had been one of the things that had impressed the show's writer-director, Elyan Smithson.
This was the morning of the first dress rehearsal, and after three hours Merlin had fitted nearly all of the actors. Elyan's sister, Gwen Smithson, was the co-lead, playing a starship captain who finds the last survivor of a failed colony on a planet hundreds of light-years from Earth. Merlin had been apprehensive about working with such a well-known television star, but Gwen was incredibly sweet, easy to work with, and generous with her praise of Merlin's costumes. She had been interested in them from the first concept drawings and was enthusiastic about Merlin's ideas for her character.
“This fits perfectly, Merlin,” Gwen gushed, twisting this way and that to see different parts of her uniform in the mirror. “And it says so much about Colonel Terra.”
Merlin ducked his head. “Thanks,” he murmured. “I must have read the play fifty times before I came up with exactly what I wanted to do.” The setting was five centuries in the future, so trying to project what elements of modern dress would survive and how they would evolve was a daunting task. Merlin had been especially nervous about the military costumes, as they were meant to evoke several Earth cultures, without relying on traditional European styles. He'd done a great deal of research to arrive at the final design.
“Well, you've done a stunning job,” Gwen said. “Elyan's been singing your praises for weeks now.”
Merlin blushed. “Thanks.”
Gwen twirled in the mirror, laughing. “I may want to wear this home. Or out to a club.”
“Be my guest,” Merlin said, grinning. “Though you might make Elyan a little annoyed.”
Gwen winked at him. “Don't you worry about Elyan. He's got a soft spot for his little sister and her eccentricities.”
At that moment, they were startled by a loud crash. This was swifly followed by a loud stream of curses and another crash.
Gwen sighed. “That'll be His Nibs, I reckon. I recognise the braying.”
Merlin knew exactly who she was talking about, since the other actors had been grumbling about him all morning. Arthur Pendragon was the other co-lead of the play, and Merlin had yet to meet him. He'd been in America wrapping a film that was already touted to be the summer's big blockbuster when they'd done the initial fittings, and so all of his measurements had been emailed to Merlin by the film's costume department. He didn't like working that way – no designer did, because costumes were more than a matter of simple measurements – but he hadn't been given the choice.
“I'll give him this: he's brilliant,” Gwen continued. “Swanned in halfway through rehearsals and nailed the character from the first read-through. But he's also quite possibly the biggest cock on the planet. And I don't mean that in the flattering way.”
Merlin bit his tongue to keep from laughing. “How did he end up on this production?” he asked, then realised that might come across as an insult to her brother's work. “Not that the production isn't brilliant – it's just that I never thought I'd see Hollywood's hot shit action star in a futuristic anti-colonialist play.”
“He and Elyan went to RADA together. My understanding is that Elyan called in a few favours.” She wiggled her eyebrows meaningfully.
This time Merlin did laugh. “Elyan knows where the bodies are buried, does he?”
Gwen held a finger to her lips. “Get me drunk this weekend and I'll tell you all.”
“Will do,” Merlin said, saluting. “Colonel.”
Gwen returned the salute, then laughed. In the next moment, the door burst open, hitting the opposite wall with a bang.
“Oi!” Merlin said, turning around. “You can't just –”
Arthur Pendragon stood in the doorway, bare-chested and panting. He was clearly furious, if the look on his face was any indication, and he was sopping wet, his jeans moulded to his perfectly formed thighs, his golden hair plastered down against his skull. No man who resembled a homicidal drowned rat should have looked that good, and yet he pulled it off.
That is, until he opened his mouth.
“Did neither of you hear me out there?” he shouted, which Merlin thought to be a little excessive since the room wasn't that large. “I was calling for help.”
“We heard a terrific clatter and some bellowing,” Gwen said sweetly. “Was that you, then?”
Merlin sporfled at Gwen's cheek. Arthur glared at him for a moment and he swallowed; he should not be finding that so erotic. “Yes, that was me, Guinevere, ” Arthur snapped.
Merlin watched as Gwen drew herself up; there was one thing he'd learned she hated, and that was being called by her full name. “What happened?”
“A pipe burst in my dressing room!” Arthur spread his hands as if to highlight the magnitude of the disaster. “I had to use my shirt to try to stem the tide, since no one showed up for several minutes.”
“Ah,” Gwen said, nodding.
Arthur turned a little purple in the face. “Ah? Is that all you have to say?”
“I think so, yes,” Gwen said.
“I see what you mean,” Merlin murmured in Gwen's ear. Gwen grinned and Arthur's eyes narrowed.
“What did you say?” Arthur demanded darkly.
Merlin tried to act cool, but he imagined his blush was giving him away. He stood up and faced Arthur. “I said, you're going to catch your death. Why don't you peel out of those clothes and we can get your fitting done?”
Still glaring at Merlin, Arthur reached for the button on his jeans.
“And that's my cue,” Gwen said, springing to her feet. “See you later, Merlin.”
“See you,” Merlin said, waving. He watched Gwen stride out the door, her bearing and posture clearly showing she was transforming into her character. Merlin loved that aspect of his job – the idea that his designs could help actors envision their roles, or help the audience to see the world the writers and directors were hoping to create, was very rewarding. The collaborative process was one he'd always enjoyed, and now he was in charge of an entire production's costumes for the first time. It had been an exhausting three months, but it was all finally coming together. And in a little while they'd be doing a run-through with costume changes, and he'd be in his element, thriving on the hectic energy.
“Oi there, you – what's your name? Marvin?”
Merlin sighed. “Merlin,” he said, turning around to face –
– a completely naked Arthur Pendragon.
“Erm,” Merlin said. He tried mightily to keep his gaze fixed on Arthur's face, and he was managing just fine for about four seconds.
Holy shit, Arthur was – well. He was – yeah. Everything was disgustingly, horridly perfect on the wanker.
Arthur snapped his fingers in Merlin's face. “My eyes are up here, mate.”
Merlin met Arthur's gaze to find him smirking. The resulting fury snapped him out of his stupour. “Oh, well – look, I wouldn't worry about it.”
Arthur frowned, caught wrong-footed. “Worry about what?”
“I mean, it was probably the water. It was cold, yeah?”
“Freezing,” Arthur agreed. His frown deepened. “What are you –” He looked down. “That's not – there's nothing wrong with it!” he spluttered.
“Course not, course not,” Merlin agreed. “Warm it up a bit and it won't be so – erm – shy.”
“My –” Arthur gestured angrily at his nether regions “– is not shy.”
“You mean it's usually that size?”
“Yes!” Arthur shouted.
“No need to bite my head off. It's not my fault you're –” Merlin made an unmistakable gesture of his own.
“I've never received any complaints, thank you very much!”
Merlin screwed up his face. “Well, you wouldn't, would you? Being Hello's Most Eligible Bachelor does make it fairly easy to pull. You don't need – added incentives.”
Arthur's head was now a violent shade of purple. “I – you –”
Merlin clapped his hands. “That's enough chit chat. We need to get you into some warm clothes. Wouldn't want little Arthur to get frostbitten now, would we?” He spun on his heel so that Arthur wouldn't see the wide grin on his face.
There was a bit more incoherent spluttering, but by the time Merlin had flipped through the rack and found Arthur's costumes, the purple colour had subsided slightly. Deciding he'd taken the piss enough, he slipped into professional mode, helping Arthur don his first outfit, the ragged one-piece jumpsuit that would evoke the shattered lost colony.
“It's tight,” Arthur complained, when Merlin had done up the final fastenings.
“Well, it's meant to be tight, but –” Merlin stepped back and surveyed Arthur “– yeah, not that tight.”
“You got it wrong,” Arthur snapped.
“No, the production you were on got it wrong. They sent me the measurements.” Merlin folded his arms. “Have you gained any weight since March?”
“Are you calling me fat?” Arthur hissed.
Merlin frowned. “No, I wouldn't, because I'm not a dick. I'm saying that these are made to the exact measurements I was sent in March.”
Arthur shook his head. “I've put on over a stone since then – of muscle ,” he clarified. “All the action scenes were shot at the end of the film.”
“Well, that's bloody fantastic. They might have told me; I could have made alterations.”
“What do we do, then?” Arthur said, throwing up his hands.
Merlin closed his eyes briefly. Luckily, there were only two costumes for Arthur. “I don't suppose you'd like to lose a stone in a week?” Arthur scowled at him. “No. Right. Fair enough. Look, it's not the end of the world; I always build a couple of inches of room into my seams. For you, I built three.”
“I thought you didn't call people fat,” Arthur said icily.
“I did that because I hadn't taken your measurements myself,” Merlin snapped. “This wouldn't have been a problem if you could have been arsed to show up for a final fitting last month like the rest of the cast.”
“I was wrapping a multi-million dollar motion picture in Los Angeles. I could hardly have popped into your studio on a lark.”
“I hear they have these new inventions called airplanes that fly you all the way from Los Angeles in a matter of hours,” Merlin quipped.
“Oh, shut up and get me out of this thing, will you?” Arthur tried to twist his hands behind his back to undo some of the fastenings, but Merlin batted his hands away.
“Leave off, you'll rip the seams.”
“I thought that was the point,” Arthur said petulantly, though he complied with Merlin's orders. “You're going to take it apart anyway, right?”
“My god, you know absolutely nothing about clothes, do you?” Merlin said, shaking his head as he undid the fastenings down Arthur's spine.
“I leave that to the experts,” Arthur huffed. He turned his head to peer at Merlin out of the corner of one eye. “Not that I necessarily count you as one of those. How old are you, anyway? Nineteen?”
Merlin glared at him. “Hardly. I'm twenty-four.”
“Pretty young to be lead designer, aren't you?”
Merlin began rolling the material over Arthur's shoulders, easing his arms out of the sleeves. He ignored the nagging voice in his head that agreed with the berk in front of him. “Hm, what should I say to that? Oh, right, shut up.”
Arthur's eyes widened in shock. “You can't speak to me that way.”
“I think I just did,” Merlin said. When he'd bared Arthur to the waist, he gave him a gentle shove. “All right, I think you can manage the rest. Behind that screen you'll find a cupboard with some underwear and t-shirts. Come back when you're dressed and we'll take some accurate measurements.”
Arthur snorted, but to Merlin's relief, he made no other comment. When he had disappeared behind the screen, Merlin allowed himself a moment of childishness, aiming a flurry of vicious two-finger gestures at the partition.
Buggering fuck , he thought, passing a hand over his face. This is going to be a huge, bollocking disaster.
There followed four intensive days of dress rehearsals and technical run-throughs,which while not quite reaching the exalted status of 'disaster', nonetheless managed to come pretty damn close. Arthur's pipe mishap had led to a constant stream of plumbers backstage, muttering to themselves as they tested fittings and welded new stretches of copper to replace the obvious danger points. This led to Elyan doing some of his own muttering to the building owners about the week before opening night being a fine bloody time to start renos. When some of the lights kept blowing, they were forced to accommodate a horde of electricians as well. Elyan had nearly torn out his hair by the roots.
Merlin felt as though he lived at the theatre, which considering he'd actually fallen asleep at his worktable last night wasn't terribly far off the mark. The minor alterations for the rest of the crew weren't all that time-consuming, but the work involved in essentially remaking Arthur's costumes took a huge chunk of his already busy day, and he ended up working late into the night to finish them on time.
When they were a day away from opening, Merlin finished his final costume for Arthur. One would think that this would lead to a massive sense of relief and eupohria, but truth be told, there was a new terror – helping the actors with all the changes without buggering it up. They'd not yet had a run-through that hadn't been cocked up by some problem or other, though the glitch was rarely a costume change. And the few delays Merlin had caused were minor, getting down to a matter of a few seconds in the last couple of rehearsals. He was starting to acquire some confidence.
And then something happened with Arthur which threw him completely off-balance.
Arthur was one of these people who couldn't sit still to save their lives – a lot of actors were – and he was forever striding back and forth declaiming his lines in the corridors whenever he wasn't on stage. Merlin admitted to himself that he'd enjoyed these glimpses of Arthur actually acting. Since he was always so busy backstage, he rarely got to fully appreciate an entire performance, so this was a treat.
It occurred to him after a couple of days of watching that Arthur's energy level might have less to do with his personality and more to do with something else. Arthur's work ethic went above and beyond simple dedication and was venturing more into the territory of obsessive: he would curse himself every time he missed a word or phrase, and would sometimes throw himself down onto the bench across from Merlin's room and bury his head in his hands. Absently, Merlin had wondered why he should be so worked up about a fairly on-the-cheap West End play when he was regularly cast in mega-blockbusters that had to be far more stressful to make.
After the final run-through of the day, Merlin walked out of the costume shop, intending to pop over to the pub across the road for a quick bite, when he was nearly brained by a flying object.
“Oi!” he yelled, ducking just in time to avoid the object hitting the wall over his head.
“Fuck,” Arthur said, running over to him to retrieve his copy of the play. “Sorry.”
“What did I ever do to you?” Merlin demanded, glaring at him.
Arthur threw up his hands. “I didn't do it on purpose! You suddenly burst out of –”
“I didn't exactly burst,” Merlin countered, bristling.
“I said I was sorry, what more do you bloody want?”
Merlin folded his arms. “Well, since you put it so nicely, I'd like a pony, a bag of Quavers the size of Lincolnshire and world peace.”
Arthur stared at him, then snorted. “Is that all?”
“Give me some time. You put me on the spot.”
There was a long moment where they both looked at one another; Merlin was never sure which of them cracked up first.
“Tosser,” Arthur muttered.
Arthur's eyes widened. “Define dollophead.”
“In two words? Arthur Pendragon.” Merlin nodded at the stage door. “I was going across to the pub for supper. Want to join me?”
Arthur froze, and Merlin belatedly realised he'd just asked one of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors on what could be construed as a date. “Erm, I'd like to, but I can't.”
“Right, yeah,” Merlin said. “Never mind.”
“It's only that I need to keep rehearsing –”
Merlin raised his eyebrows at Arthur's battered script. “And how's that working out for you, then?”
Arthur winced. “You don't have to rub it in.”
“I don't mean to. Look, I've watched you the last few days –” Arthur looked up at him, frowning, and Merlin added, “I mean, when you've been back here, and I've been back – erm, here, and – oh, hell, my point is that every actor who's ever done any theatre worries about forgetting their lines, and very few of them do. So the odds are definitely in your favour, all right?”
“I'll be one of the exceptions, I'm sure,” Arthur muttered.
“Why don't you ask someone to run lines with you? It goes much easier, and you'll gain confidence.”
“Because no one wants to,” Arthur muttered.
While Merlin stared at him in shock, Arthur groaned and threw his head back. “God, I can't believe I just told you that.” When Merlin continued to stare, he looked at him again and snapped, “What?”
Merlin shook his head. “Nothing. Only, well, don't you have minions who can help you out?”
Arthur narrowed his eyes at him. “Contrary to popular belief, not everyone who works in Hollywood has an entourage of sycophants.”
“Don't worry. You're young yet; I'm certain you'll acquire one in time.” When Arthur responded with a stony glare, Merlin sighed. “Look, all I'm saying is, I know what it's like to be nervous before an opening. Why don't you come out and get a pint with me, and then we can run lines later if you like.”
Arthur blinked at him. “You're offering to run lines with me?”
“Pretty sure that's what I just said. Granted, I won't be as good as one of the actors, but I've read the play about a hundred times or so, and considering you've hacked everyone else off, you don't have much choice.”
“No, that'd be – thank you,” Arthur said, surprising the hell out of Merlin when his face acquired a small, shy smile. Sadly, the smile was short-lived. “Oh, bugger – I can't go out, though.”
Arthur's cheeks turned pink, surprising Merlin even more. “Erm – it must have got around that I was rehearsing in here – there have been fans camped out front since early this morning.”
Merlin shrugged; he'd spent the night here and hadn't been outside yet, but it didn't seem like such a problem. “So? You sign a couple of autographs, pose for a couple of photos, you're done.”
Arthur looked even more uncomfortable. “Sadly, that's not really how it works. Some of them are a little – enthusiastic.”
Merlin cocked his head. “You mean like rip-your-clothes-off-and-hump-your-leg sort of enthusiastic?”
Arthur scowled. “Shut up.”
Merlin nodded down the hall. “All right, come on, then, let's go to Freya.”
“The makeup artist?”
“Yes, Arthur,” Merlin explained patiently, “the makeup artist. Unless you've managed to convince her you're a bloody great wanker as well?”
“I've hardly spoken to her!” Arthur exclaimed.
Merlin only raised his eyebrows, and Arthur finally sighed as though Merlin were the most annoying person ever and said, “All right, fine.”
“You'll thank me,” Merlin said, as Arthur fell into step beside him, “the pub makes fucking delicious pies.”
“I hate you,” Arthur said.
“You wound me,” Merlin said, holding a hand over his heart. “Is this not the best pie you've ever tasted?”
Arthur only glared at him, but considering he was already chewing another mouthful of pie, Merlin considered it a victory.
“Quit whinging. No one recognised you. That was the goal, wasn't it?”
“That's because I'm wearing a wig that's been kicking around the theatre since it was built,” Arthur gritted, tugging at his manky grey locks, “and I look like I'm a hundred and two!”
“Look on the bright side. You got to do some method acting when that girl offered to help you across the street. You know, you didn't tell me your fans were so kind to the elderly.”
Arthur made a noise that was halfway between a groan and a growl.
“Eat your pie,” Merlin said, taking another sip of his pint. “It's good for you.”
“'Tisn't,” Arthur said. “It probably has about fifty thousand calories.”
“Oh god, you've not become one of those California health fanatics, have you?”
“When you have to put on a stone of muscle or more for every film you do, it's hard to avoid learning about how different foods affect you,” Arthur muttered.
“Why do you do those sorts of roles, anyway? I mean, I know they make you a fuckton of dosh, but they're not really –”
“What?” Arthur interrupted. “Go on, it's nothing I haven't heard before. They're not intellectual enough? They're not true art?”
Merlin frowned. “I was going to say they're not a match for your talent, but doubtless you've heard that before, too.”
Arthur gaped at him. “Erm, no. I can't say I've heard that.”
“Oh,” Merlin said, a little stupidly. “Well, they're not. I saw your last film and the writing was terrible. Elyan's play has given you a chance to spread your wings.”
“After which I'll doubtless plummet to earth and land flat on my gob,” Arthur said, viciously stabbing the remaining bite of pie.
“You won't, though. I've seen you work and you're damned good. Everyone says so.”
“They do?” Arthur asked.
“Yes. Sadly, they also say you're a massive, arrogant – oh!” Merlin exclaimed, revelation hitting him full in the face. “But you're not, though, are you? You act like you're up yourself, but really you're hiding a huge inferiority complex!”
Arthur downed the last of his beer. “Do I owe you anything for this psychoanalysis, Doctor Freud?”
Merlin subsided, contrite. “Sorry. I just – you're different to what I was expecting, that's all.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Arthur snapped.
“I'm not disappointed,” Merlin admitted quietly. Arthur's gaze rose to meet Merlin's, and Merlin sucked in a breath at the intensity of it. Those huge blue eyes that everyone swooned over – they really were rather swoon-worthy when they were focused on you, Merlin noted.
In the next breath, Merlin took in some much-needed oxygen and with it, a dose of reality. Fancying your coworkers – especially when your coworkers were hot shit Hollywood stars – was not terribly intelligent. It was a good rule of thumb for anyone, but costume designers also dealt with actors in various states of undress. They had to remain professional at all times, or the trust they built with the cast over the course of a production went right down the crapper.
Shaking himself, Merlin cleared his throat. “Erm, did you want anything else? Only I suppose we should head back and get started on running those lines.”
Arthur downed the last of his pint. “I thought we could just go back to mine, actually. Unless you had something else you needed to do at the theatre – then you could meet me later. I don't fancy running the gauntlet again if I don't have to.”
Merlin felt his heart do flips in his chest. “Oh. Well, I – no, that is, I don't have anything that won't wait 'til the morning. Where d'you live?”
“I'm letting a flat three streets from here,” Arthur said.
“Oh,” Merlin said again. He thought Arthur would have a penthouse in Knightsbridge or Mayfair – though Covent Garden was hardly much cheaper. “Well, that's – fine.”
“Come on,” Arthur said, getting up from the booth with great care, as though he'd suddenly aged several decades. “You can do your part for the elderly.”
“Ha bloody ha,” Merlin muttered, but he took Arthur's arm as Arthur hobbled towards the entrance.
“Are you of Albion?” Merlin asked.
Arthur didn't answer, merely stood staring at Merlin.
Merlin approached him slowly; Arthur recoiled, and Merlin held up a calming hand. “Can't you speak?”
Arthur struggled to make his voice work. “Caaa – caaaa –” he parroted. “Caaaan. Tuh.”
“By all the gods,” Merlin breathed.
“How – how long?” Arthur managed.
“How long since what?”
Arthur's mouth worked soundlessly for a few moments before continuing. “How long – alone?”
Merlin glanced down at Gwen's lines; he'd been distracted by the rawness of Arthur's performance. “I don't know. I don't know how long you've been alone, I'm sorry. But you're not alone any longer. You're not alone.” When he looked up again, he saw that Arthur was crying, tears running down his cheeks, and reached out a hand before he could remind himself this was only a performance.
“Did you want to go on to the next scene?” Merlin asked after Arthur blinked away his tears, breaking character and stretching his arms over his head. “Only, it's after midnight, and –”
Arthur pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Shit, sorry. I didn't realise the time. I suppose you want to get home.”
Merlin waved off his concern. “Don't worry about that. I'm only bringing it up because you have a long day tomorrow, and you need some sleep. And you know this play, Arthur.”
Arthur bit his lip. “I made mistakes.”
“Only on the first run. The second time was nearly flawless, and the third was perfect. We can keep at this all night, but you know what you're doing.”
Arthur flopped down on the couch. “Okay,” he said heavily.
Merlin couldn't help but smirk at Arthur's flounce. Sitting beside him, he said, “You don't sound entirely confident in my judgment.”
“My lack of confidence has nothing to do with my opinion of your judgment,” Arthur muttered. Turning to Merlin, he confessed, “I haven't done a play since RADA.”
“When was that? Five years ago?”
“Eight,” Arthur said. “I haven't had to memorise more than a handful of pages at a time since then.”
“Well, clearly it's like what they say about riding a bicycle,” Merlin said, “because you've picked it up again.”
Arthur propped his head up on a hand and regarded Merlin steadily. “Why are you so determined to build me up?”
Merlin lifted his chin. “Why are you so determined to tear yourself down?”
Arthur leaned closer. “That's not an answer.”
Merlin ignored the warm feeling he was getting from Arthur's proximity. “I suppose because I know what it's like to doubt yourself, to question whether you're good enough. To wonder if you should listen to the people who are telling you to do something sensible with your life.” Arthur snorted. “I've been lucky, though. I have lots of others who've encouraged me, told me I had talent.” He paused, then plunged ahead. “I get the feeling you haven't.”
Arthur frowned. “In America, there are scores of people telling you you're the greatest, you're hot, you're fabulous. And I don't believe any of them.”
“Well, that's for the best, really. I hate to break this to you, but you're rather plain-looking.”
“Shut up,” Arthur said, chuckling. “What I mean is – thank you. I don't know why I believe you when you say I can pull this off, but I do.”
“I'm glad,” Merlin murmured. “And you're welcome.” Arthur continued to look at him, still with that same intensity, and Merlin wondered for a breathless moment if Arthur was going to kiss him, or if maybe he was going to kiss Arthur, or hell, if they were going to kiss each other.
In the next moment he reminded himself that he was exhausted and probably hallucinating. Summoning the last of his energy, he shoved himself up off the couch and bounced to his feet. “I'd better, erm, let you rest, then.”
Arthur blinked up at him, brows drawing together. “Where do you live? I can drive you home.”
“Don't be silly. There's a night bus that drops me off round the corner from my place.”
Arthur scrunched up his face at the word 'bus', which Merlin tried not to find cute. “You're sure?”
“Yeah, really. It's fine.”
“All right. I'll see you at the theatre tomorrow, then.”
“Yeah,” Merlin said. Alone on the couch, Arthur looked strangely small and lost, and Merlin had a nearly overpowering urge to hug him. “Good night,” he said weakly, and turned to let himself out. When he was safely on the other side of the door, he leaned against it and breathed for a few seconds before heading down the stairs.
“So what's it like to measure the inseam of the Backlot's Sexiest Straight Boy of 2013?”
Merlin groaned and let his head thunk against the back of the couch. “Gwaine, you're such a pain in the arse sometimes, you know that?”
“Only sometimes?” Gwaine asked, flopping down beside him. “I must be slipping.”
Merlin raised his head and tried to glare, but Gwaine was grinning one of his most winning grins, the one Merlin had no defense against, even after a year of being housemates with the prick. “Wanker.”
“Only when I don't have someone to do it for me,” Gwaine retorted. Gwaine was an architect, and a highly paid one, but he spent far too much time drinking and clubbing to save a great deal. Still, he covered far more than his fair share of the house they lived in, which was about a hundred times nicer than anything Merlin would have been able to afford. Gwaine reasoned that since Merlin did ninety percent of the cleaning (which was true), watched over the place while he was away for business or on holiday, and was essentially helping him pay down his mortgage, he believed that what Merlin was giving him was perfectly acceptable. In exchange, Merlin got to live in a funky, professionally designed three bedroom terraced house within spitting distance of Camden Market. He thought it was a damned fine arrangement.
For the past two months, Gwaine had been away on an extended trip to Tokyo to supervise the construction of a new office complex, but he'd returned a few days ago and had been pestering Merlin about Arthur ever since. “Seriously,” Merlin said, “and this is my final word on the subject: I am a professional. I don't perv over actors.” Which was mostly true. Merlin had ridiculously soppy thoughts about Arthur, but he managed to keep 98 percent of the truly carnal ones at bay, and considering the other two percent were only allowed to see the light of day when he was well away from the theatre, he thought he could still count himself a professional. He'd managed to maintain his professional demeanour when he was working, despite fancying Arthur Pendragon something rotten.
“You're a rock, Merlin,” Gwaine said. “Or a pillock – I always get those mixed up.”
“Oi,” Merlin said, cuffing Gwaine gently about the ear and rising to his feet. “Just for that, I won't give you the comps I scored for this weekend.”
“You most certainly will give them to me, because I'm your best friend in all the world,” Gwaine said, blowing Merlin a kiss as Merlin headed to the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. “How did you get more, though? I thought you already gave yours to your mum and Gaius.”
“I did. But, erm, one of the crew is from Australia and didn't have anyone to give them to,” Merlin lied. In truth, they had come from Arthur, who had given them to him without a word of explanation. Merlin couldn't imagine Arthur's father not wanting to see his son's first West End performance – but then, when you were Uther Pendragon, one of the premier stage actors of your generation, Merlin supposed comp tickets were a little outré.
“I'll take them,” Gwaine said. “It'll impress the hell out of this woman I've been dating. Lilith's a fan of the theah-tah, and yours is the hottest ticket in town.”
“Yeah,” Merlin said ruefully. “It's hot, all right.” He was pleased for Elyan, of course, and for the rest of the actors, but Arthur hadn't been terribly buoyed by the play's success. The reviews had been generally good, with most of the papers and blogs citing the originality of the writing and the production, including Merlin's costumes, as points in its favour. They'd praised Gwen's acting, which was top-notch, and that of some of the supporting players, but there had been little love for Arthur's performance, which annoyed Merlin no end. It wasn't the first time he'd noticed the hypocritical way British theatre critics fell all over Americans who graced London stages while giving the cold shoulder to those native sons and daughters who'd 'gone Hollywood.' He'd tried to explain the bias to Arthur, but he could tell Arthur hadn't believed him.
In the meantime, a combination of positive overall reviews and the strength of Gwen's and Arthur's celebrity had brought the audiences out in droves, and the show had sold out quickly. With a week left to go, it had clearly become one of the surprise hits of the season. But knowing that Arthur was so glum about the whole thing made it impossible for Merlin to fully enjoy its success. He wished – well, he wished a lot of things, none of which was likely to come true.
“All right, I'll stop pestering you,” Gwaine said, following Merlin into the kitchen and digging out a lemon for the tea. “It's only that whenever you talk about him – which is a lot, by the way – you get that light in your eyes.”
“What light?” Merlin said, frowning.
“The light that you get when you're talking about something you're really keen on,” he said, taking a couple of mugs down from the shelf. “It took me a while to recognise it, because it usually only happens when you're prattling on about fabric.”
“Ha ha,” Merlin said, but he was blushing.
“You're blushing,” Gwaine told him. “Hm.”
“There is no 'hm.' Arthur doesn't fancy me.” Gwaine blinked at him. “And – and I don't fancy him!” he added hastily.
“Yeah, you probably should have said that first.”
“Right,” Merlin said, hanging his head. “Just go away and let me die of embarassment in peace.”
“Not a chance,” Gwaine said, slinging an arm around his shoulders. “I'm here for you, mate. We're going to drink tea and eat too many Hobnobs like old ladies, and you are going to tell me all about it.”
“There's nothing to tell,” Merlin protested, but Gwaine only smiled at him, and Merlin knew he was buggered, because Gwaine might be an arsehole but he meant well. And Merlin had been bottling all of this up since that night, and – shit.
“Yeah, I believe you. Now start at the beginning. Don't leave out a single detail.”
“I hate you,” Merlin muttered, but he reached in the cupboard for the Hobnobs anyway.
Closing night came more quickly that Merlin was expecting, or would have liked. It had been a demanding but exhilarating production, and Merlin felt that he'd proven his worth. He knew that tomorrow, he'd probably hit his bed and sleep for a week, but tonight he'd give everything he had to this final performance.
And then he'd drink his face off at the wrap party, where he could get in his last bit of mooning over Arthur.
Talking to Gwaine the other night had been a blessing and a curse. Arthur had been nothing more than friendly for the entire run of the play, but after hearing the account of their night running lines, Gwaine was convinced Arthur was interested and believed that Merlin should immediately test the theory by 'snogging Arthur's face off.' Merlin had, of course, dismissed this out of hand, but the idea of doing just that had haunted Merlin's dreams for days. At least in dreams, he could imagine that Arthur wasn't in fact straight, and was harbouring an enormous crush on Merlin that inevitably led to declarations of undying love and nakedness. It was just his luck that he always woke up before things got really fun, because nothing was ever going to happen between them in reality.
On closing night, Merlin climbed the stairs to Arthur's dressing room to wish him the best with his performance, as he had every night of the play's run. He was nearly at the half-open door when he heard voices – one Arthur's, one belonging to another man.
“I don't understand why you didn't want me to come,” the man was saying, agitated.
“Morgana is misquoting me,” Arthur said, more calmly. “I told her I didn't expect you'd come.”
There was a pause. “Why would you think that?”
“I really don't have time to get into all the reasons. The fact that we've barely spoken in three years stands out, though –”
“And whose fault is that?” the man said, his voice rising.
“Perhaps we could take up the usual harangue a bit later on?” Arthur said wearily. “I need to get ready for this performance. It's my last one, and I want to do the best I can.”
“If you'd bothered to spend more time on the stage before going off to America to film mindless pap, you'd have learned your first performance should be as good as your last. That's why your reviews were so poor.”
And at that, Merlin had heard just about enough. Without bothering to knock, he pushed the door open wider and entered the room. “Now, wait a bloody minute –”
He stopped dead at the sight of Uther Pendragon standing before him, arms folded.
Well, that explains a lot right there, Merlin thought.
“Yes?” Uther drawled, eyebrows raised in a combination of surprise and disdain.
Merlin drew himself up. “Do you have a ticket for tonight's performance, sir?”
Uther frowned. “I do.”
Merlin jerked his head towards the door. “Then the seats are that way, mate.”
“Merlin...” Arthur began.
“I don't think you realise who I am,” Uther said, so coldly that Merlin could feel the chill in the air.
“Oh, I know who you are. You're Arthur's father, and you're a professional actor. And right now, you're looking pretty shit at both jobs, in my opinion.”
Uther opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He was beginning to turn a familiar shade of purple, though. Merlin folded his own arms. “My mum's always supported everything I've done, unconditionally. That's the way parents are supposed to be. And I've never seen an actor come backstage before a performance and insult a colleague the way you just have. For that reason, Mr. Pendragon, I'd like to invite you to take your place in the audience, where you'll soon see how brilliant Arthur is in this role – and yes, he's been brilliant since the first night, as you were obviously misinformed about that.”
Uther glared at him for a long, tense moment, and then shoved past him and out the door. Merlin winced and closed his eyes, anticipating a bollocking from Arthur, which was nothing less than he deserved for barging in on such a personal conversation.
“I'm sorry,” Merlin said fervently. “I don't know what came over–”
Merlin heard the sound of the door slamming closed, and in the next moment Arthur had pushed him back against it. Merlin's eyes flew open, but Arthur didn't look angry. Or, at least, Merlin didn't think so, because he only got a split second's glimpse of Arthur's expression before Arthur leaned in and kissed him.
Okay, so that was better than any of the dreams he'd been having, though like the dreams, it was over too quickly. Merlin had just enough time to slide his hands halfway up Arthur's chest before Arthur pulled back and murmured, “Sorry, I'm sorry.”
It took Merlin a second to get his mouth to work properly. “No, that's – erm – perfectly all right. I didn't mind at all.”
The corner of Arthur's mouth twitched. “You really didn't need to do that, but – thanks.”
“You're welcome,” Merlin said, searching Arthur's face. “Are you going to be all right?”
“With him in the audience judging me?” Arthur barked a harsh laugh and ran a hand through his hair. “Probably not.”
“I probably pissed him off so much he won't be there.”
“Oh, he'll be there. My father's picture is in the dictionary next to the definition of 'bloody-minded.'”
Merlin realised then that his hands were still on Arthur's chest, so he reckoned he might as well put them to good use. Clenching his fingers in Arthur's shirt, he tugged him closer until they were nearly nose to nose. “Well, just remember I'll be cheering you on from the wings, all right? Because you are brilliant, and you –”
“Merlin?” Arthur murmured, lips brushing Merlin's chin.
“Shut up for a minute.”
“Oi, that's not very n –” But Merlin was smiling as Arthur cut him off again.
The last night went fairly smoothly, though one of the supporting actors fumbled his lines a couple of times, and had to be saved by Gwen and Arthur by turns, and one of the lighting changes came too soon, leaving everyone in the dark and prompting some laughter from the audience. A typical performance, in other words. In the last act, Merlin watched Arthur's dying speech, and this time he let the tears he'd held in over the last few weeks fall freely.
“He is good, isn't he?”
Merlin turned to see Elyan standing just behind him in the wings. While the director's role on the production was over once the performances started, they rarely missed the final show. Quickly, Merlin wiped at his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, he is.”
“He didn't get the credit he should have had for this part. I was hoping this would make a change for him, but –” Elyan shrugged. “I reckon it's back to Hollywood for now.”
“I wish he believed in himself more,” Merlin said, earning him a raised eyebrow from Elyan. He blushed, thankful for the darkness of the wings.
“You already understand him better than I did after a year of drama school,” Elyan said. “Most people think he's an arrogant prat.”
“Yeah, well, he's a bit of that, too,” Merlin said, and Elyan chuckled.
“Do you have anything lined up next?” Elyan asked.
“Not yet,” Merlin admitted. “I've been sending my portfolio round, but haven't heard anything.”
“I hear Dominic is looking for someone new at the Globe. You think you might be interested?”
“Christ, do chickens lay eggs? Of course!”
Elyan smiled. “I'll ring him tomorrow, okay? I can't promise he'll give it to you, but –”
“No, I understand. Wow. Thank you.”
“No worries,” Elyan said, clapping Merlin on the shoulder. “See you at the party later?”
“Yeah, yeah, definitely.”
When the last curtain call was over, Merlin got a hug from Gwen as she was coming off, and handshakes and smiles from the rest. Arthur came up to him after the others had departed to their various dressing rooms, his body so close Merlin could feel the energy radiating off him.
Without hesitation, Merlin threw his arms around him and held him tightly. “You were amazing,” he murmured in his ear.
Arthur's hands settled at Merlin's waist. “You're ridiculous.”
“M'not,” Merlin insisted, squeezing more tightly before letting Arthur go.
“Thank you,” Arthur said. “It helped to know there was someone out there who thought I knew what I was doing.”
“It wasn't only me, Arthur. And if your dad didn't see how fantastic you were tonight, he's a complete wanker.”
Arthur's eyes widened, his smile disappearing. His hands dropped away as he focused on a point over Merlin's shoulder.
Merlin shut his eyes. “He's standing right behind me, isn't he?”
“Right, well, I suddenly remembered I have a great deal of work to do with the costumes. I'll see you later at the party?” Arthur nodded tightly, and Merlin wisely fled.
Arthur arrived at the wrap party over two hours late, but considering most of the cast was only half as pissed as they planned to get, the night was still young.
Merlin was not pissed – in fact, he'd been nursing the same can of tepid cider for the last hour. He still wasn't sure what the hell had happened before the show, but he was determined to be in command of his faculties when he next saw Arthur. If there was to be more snogging – or more likely, a talk about why there couldn't be any more snogging because Arthur was most definitely straight – then he wanted to be sober for it.
Unfortunately, he hadn't counted on Arthur himself showing up to the party completely trollied.
Well, to be fair, he wasn't quite incapacitated – he was still upright, mostly – but when he saw Merlin, he shouted, “Merlin! My father loves me!” and the whole room stopped dead and turned to look at him.
Arthur, seemingly oblivious to the attention, staggered across the room on legs as wobbly as a newborn giraffe's and nearly tackled Merlin to the ground. Merlin only remained on his feet with the greatest of effort. The can of cider, sadly, was an inevitable casualty, tumbling to the floor and spilling its remaining contents all over the floor.
“Oops,” Arthur said, frowning over Merlin's shoulder. “Was that mine?”
“No,” Merlin said, trying not to be distracted by the way Arthur was snaking his hands around his waist.
“'S'alright then,” Arthur sighed, burying his nose in Merlin's neck.
“Arthur,” Merlin began. He looked up to see Gwen with a hand over her face, clearly trying to keep from laughing her arse off.
“You smell nice,” Arthur said. “I always thought you smelled nice. When you were – when you were measuring me. Th'first time. You smelled nice.”
“Right, I think we've established that.” He looked around. Bloody open plan Shoreditch warehouse conversions and their bloody lack of privacy. “What do you say we, erm –” Awkwardly, he pulled out of Arthur's hold and led him over to a relatively quiet corner. As he did, he glanced around the room and saw that everyone was slowly returning to their regularly scheduled drinking – or at least pretending to.
“So is there a reason you felt the need to get rat-arsed before arriving at the party?” Merlin asked.
Arthur wobbled a bit; Merlin turned him so that he could lean against the wall. “I had a talk with my dad. It was – it was good.”
“You got drunk – with your dad?”
Arthur waved a hand. “S'only way we can talk about feelings.”
“So you cleared some things up over several rounds of...”
Merlin winced. “Oh, god, Arthur.”
Arthur blinked at him. “Yeah. Best switch to vodka.”
“Or you could just bash your head in with a hammer right now and be done with it.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, straightening and taking Merlin's hands in his. “Merlin, I – I like you.”
Merlin smiled. “Are you sure that's not the gin talking?”
“It's not the gin. I liked you long before the gin.” He took a step closer, and Merlin felt his heart race at the look in his eyes. “Do you like me?”
Merlin bit his lip. “Erm. Yeah, I do.”
Arthur grinned at him happily, then blushed before leaning in and confessing, “I'd like to take you home, but I – I've never done anything with a man before.”
Hastily, Merlin looked around. “I don't know if this is a conversation we should be having here.”
Arthur frowned. “I don't care.”
“Maybe you will in the morning.”
“I won't,” Arthur insisted stubbornly. “I liked kissing you, and I want to do it again. I'd like to do more than kissing.”
Merlin groaned and rested his forehead against Arthur's shoulder. “God, I really wish you were sober.”
“Come home with me,” Arthur murmured, lips brushing against Merlin's hair.
“What about the party?” Merlin asked, lifting his head.
“Sod the party. The only person here other than you who likes me is Elyan, and he'll understand.”
“I'm sure many of the people here like you,” Merlin countered.
“Merlin,” Arthur whined, reaching for his hips and tugging him closer. “Please.”
“Oi,” Merlin said, taking Arthur's face in his hands and willing him to pay attention. “You're drunk. Switch to water or juice instead of vodka, and we'll talk, okay?”
Arthur nodded solemnly. “I can do that.”
“Good,” Merlin said, smiling. “Now, let's get you socialising with some of these lovely people, all right? I think you'll find you got on better than you thought.”
Arthur breathed a heavy, put-upon sigh, but he followed when Merlin tugged on his hand and led him back into the thick of the party.
The first thing Merlin noticed when he woke up was that he was not in his bedroom: the window was in the wrong place, and the matching ultra-modern furnishings looked nothing like his jumble sale acquisitions. The second thing he noticed was that there was a ridiculously good-looking man in bed with him, smiling at him with fond indulgence.
“How can you be awake before I am?” Merlin demanded. “In fact, how are you not dead?”
“I come from four generations of actors,” Arthur said, shrugging. “Gin practically runs in my veins.”
“You're such a wanker,” Merlin said, stretching lazily.
Smile turning wicked, Arthur nuzzled at Merlin's ear. “I have to be. Out of some misplaced – yet nonetheless endearing – sense of chivalry, someone refused to get naked with me last night.”
Merlin squirmed as Arthur's tongue darted out to tickle his earlobe. “I needed to know you were completely sure.”
Arthur's teeth closed over the sensitive flesh, biting gently. “I told you, I've been sure for a while now.”
“O – okay,” Merlin gasped, coherent thought beginning to elude him, “but I – didn't want you to have any regrets.”
“I won't have any regrets,” Arthur assured him, lifting his head to look into Merlin's eyes. “You might, though.”
Merlin's heart lurched at that; it wasn't as though the thought hadn't occurred to him, but he didn't want to deal with it now. “Arthur,” he whispered, hand rising to stroke Arthur's cheek.
Arthur let out a strangled groan and kissed him, hard. Merlin dimly noticed that Arthur's mouth tasted of mint while his probably tasted quite a bit less pleasant, but since Arthur didn't seem to mind, neither did he.
Arthur's hand snaked up under Merlin's shirt – actually Arthur's shirt, since Merlin had borrowed one of his t-shirts last night to sleep in. When he brushed a nipple, Merlin groaned and clutched at his back. Arthur stopped kissing Merlin's neck and raised his head.
“You like that?”
“Yeah,” Merlin panted. God, he was ridiculously turned on and they'd barely started. “They're – erm – quite sensitive.”
“I didn't know they could be on men.”
Merlin smiled. “And how many male nipples have you tested?”
Arthur grinned back. “Three.” His hand moved to Merlin's other nipple and pinched it; Merlin writhed under him. “Four. Oooh, that was a good one. Think I'll do that again.”
“Berk,” Merlin gasped.
Arthur bent his head and breathed over the cotton covering the now-erect nub. “I'm sorry, what was that?”
Merlin's only answer was a whimper. Slowly, Arthur brushed his lips over the cotton.
“Much as I like seeing you in my shirt,” he murmured, “I think I'd like to be able to do this without anything in the way.”
“I don't think I can handle not having something in the way,” Merlin gritted.
“Really?” Arthur asked, looking up. “Has anyone ever made you come from sucking your nipples?”
Merlin squeezed his eyes shut. “Fuck, Arthur.”
“One thing at a time,” Arthur murmured, hands insistent as they pushed the shirt up over his belly.
Two Years Later
When Merlin heard the news that Leon Knight had been in an accident, he reckoned that his first film project was going down the crapper. With shooting due to start in three days, there was no way that the director could pull a miracle out of her arse at the last moment.
However, when Morgana swept in to the creative team meeting on Monday with a shit-eating grin on her face, Merlin knew she'd managed just such a miracle. “As you know, our fuckwit of a leading man went to St. Moritz at the weekend and literally broke a leg. No permanent injuries, I'm told, which is a shame because that means the next time I see him I'll have to do it myself.” She paused dramatically; Merlin had learned she tended to do that a lot. “Since I do not have the luxury of waiting several weeks for him to be fixed, and he did sign a 'do not do anything bloody stupid on holiday' clause, I have terminated his contract.”
Several people exchanged glances around the table, but there was nothing more than shocked silence as Morgana continued. “Luckily, I knew someone who was between pictures, and he agreed to get up off his lazy arse and save the day. I think he'll do quite nicely, but then you never know with these Hollywood pillocks.”
“All right, I'm not going to stand out there any longer, you harpy,” a startlingly familiar voice said as the door opened, “because I know you're just making me wait so that you can get in another five minutes of insults.”
Oh, god. It was Arthur.
Morgana heaved a sigh. “That's right, spoil all my fun. Arthur Pendragon, this is everyone. Everyone, Arthur Pendragon. I've set up individual meetings with each of you throughout the day and tomorrow so that he can get sorted, but I wanted him to say hello to all of you. Smile and wave, Arthur, and you'll get to chat with these lovely people later.”
Arthur flashed his most winning smile and nodded a greeting at the table. When his gaze lighted on Merlin, though, his smile faded and he froze, staring. Some inquisitive heads began to turn his way. Merlin wanted tthe floor to open up and swallow him.
It had been nearly two years since Merlin had heard from Arthur. After the play had wrapped, they'd been together for a week, most of it spent shagging one another stupid in Arthur's flat. Then Arthur had been summoned back to Los Angeles for a meeting about a possible film role. Arthur had promised to return as soon as he could, but after about a month, the frequent calls had dwindled to sporadic texts and emails, and then they'd finally stopped. Merlin tried to tell himself he'd seen it coming, but it had still been painful, more painful than he'd wanted to admit to anyone. He'd long since decided he was over Arthur, but seeing him like this was nevertheless a bit of a shock.
“Arthur, darling, are you having a seizure?” Morgana enquired sweetly.
Arthur blinked out of his stupour. “I'm fine,” he grunted.
“Good, because I haven't had time to take out an insurance policy on you yet,” she said, causing a wave of titters around the table.
Arthur sighed and finally turned away from Merlin. “Your concern for my welfare is touching,” he snapped, before heading out the door without another word.
“All right, then,” Morgana said crisply, treating Merlin to a speculatively curved eyebrow, “let's start with set design. Mordred?”
“So that was Arthur Pendragon,” Percival, the cinematographer, said as they sat together in the pub at lunchtime. “I wondered if she might be able to get him.”
“Are they friends, then?” Merlin asked, unsure if he wanted to know the answer.
Percival raised an eyebrow at him. “When you said you didn't know much about celebrities, you really meant that, didn't you?”
Merlin shrugged. Of course, he knew quite a few actors and creative people in film and stage through his work, but he didn't bother learning the sordid details of their personal lives that were splashed about in the tabloids. With Arthur, he'd done all he could to avoid news of him, though that was difficult considering his visibility. Merlin had heard he'd dated an Australian actress named Mithian last year, but that was all. He had no idea if they were still together, and had himself half-convinced he didn't care.
“Arthur is Morgana's brother,” Percy explained. “Or half-brother, I suppose. The whole thing came out a few years back – they'd known one another since they were kids, but Uther hadn't admitted he was actually her father until her father – I mean Geraint du Bois, the film director, the man she always thought was her father – had died."
“This is already too complicated,” Merlin huffed, taking a sip of his pint.
“Did you meet with Arthur this morning?” Percival asked, watching him carefully.
“Nope,” Merlin said. “I'm seeing him right after lunch. Which is why I'm getting pissed.”
Percival frowned at him. “Do you know him?”
“I know he's a gigantic arsehole.”
“I'd heard that,” Percy said. “Still, you don't want to stick him with pins accidentally.”
Merlin took another swig, then burped. “Who said anything about accidentally?”
“Merlin...” Percival began. Merlin and Percy had known one another for a little over a year, since they'd worked on Merlin's first film job together, a short directed by one of Percy's mates. He and Percy had dated for a while before they'd decided they were better off as friends. While he'd told Percy nearly everything about his life, he'd never mentioned Arthur. But then, he never mentioned Arthur to anyone.
And then Percy's eyes widened. “No. It can't be.”
Merlin's heart flipped. “What?”
“Last month, when we got drunk and I told you I had a crush on Gwaine. You said that it never paid to mess with straight boys, and that you'd been involved with one and it hadn't gone well.”
Merlin passed a hand over his face. “I vaguely remember that,” he said.
“At the time I thought you meant that you and Gwaine had tried it on, and you didn't want to tell me because it would hurt my feelings. But it wasn't him, was it? Bloody hell, it was Pendragon.”
Merlin glanced around them. “A little louder, Perce, I don't think they heard you in Bristol. And no, it wasn't him.”
“The tips of your ears always go pink when you lie,” Percy said smugly, leaning back and crossing his tree-trunk arms.
Before he could stop himself, Merlin reached up and touched his ears, earning him a smirk from Percy. “Shut up,” Merlin said.
“So,” Percival said slowly, “still not over him, then?”
Merlin glared at him for a moment, then sighed. “I thought I was. I reckon the overwhelming desire to stick pins in him probably means I need to rethink that, though.”
“Well, I'm the last person to give you advice, mate, but I'd say you need to talk about this with him. Find a way to get past it, you know?”
“Yeah,” Merlin said heavily. “I know.”
“I'm not talking about this,” Merlin said.
Arthur's eyebrows climbed for his hairline. “Erm. We...weren't talking about anything. Because I just walked in the door.”
“I'm only trying to forestall any potentially awkward conversations,” Merlin said, drawing himself up.
“Right, this isn't awkward at all,” Arthur muttered under his breath.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” Arthur said.
Merlin frowned. “Look, I'm only saying that our interaction needs to be kept strictly professional.”
“If that's what you want, that's what we'll do. Strictly professional.”
Merlin blinked, nonplussed. “You're agreeing with me?”
Arthur's expression shuttered. “I have no right to offer an opinion one way or the other,” he said quietly. “But if it's any consolation, Merlin, I had no idea that you were working on this film. The last thing I would ever want to do is to cause you more pain than I already have.”
Annoyingly, Merlin's mouth refused to form words for several seconds. “Yeah, well,” he finally managed, “don't worry about it. After all, it's not like I've been sitting around for the last two years waiting for you to come riding up on your white horse.”
“No, of course not,” Arthur said hollowly.
“Okay, so,” Merlin said with false brightness, “here's the thing. We have a bit of a problem because Morgana's told me principal shooting begins in two days and I literally have nothing for you to wear. At least Leon is bigger than you are, though, so I should be able to cut some of the period clothes down. I'm going to have to change some of the jackets, though, because your colouring is quite different to his. Unless hair is making you a ginger?”
Arthur shuddered. “Not unless they want me to shave it all off.”
“Right, well,” Merlin spun towards his copious rack of fabrics, thankful for the opportunity to have a respite from that piercing blue gaze and the thought that even if Arthur were bald, Merlin would still be fucked, “let's begin, shall we?”
Considering that Merlin had decided against drinking more than a pint with lunch, and had even managed to resist the urge to stick Arthur with pins, he reckoned that once he was done for the day, he deserved to get completely rat-arsed.
“I am a professional!” he shouted at the top of his lungs to the mostly empty street.
“That's brilliant, mate,” Percy said. “I'm sure everyone's glad to hear it. Now, step – that's it – one more – one more. There.”
Merlin blinked when he reached the top of the steps; this door looked familiar, he thought. “This door looks familiar. Have I been here before?”
“Once or twice,” Percy answered, fishing Merlin's keys from his pocket with one hand while holding Merlin upright with the other. “And we're in. Careful, there's a bit of a – lift your foot, there's a good lad.”
“I know how to walk,” Merlin protested, even as he wobbled dangerously. “I am a professional!”
“Go out on Camden High Street and shout that for a few minutes,” a whisky-soaked voice offered. “You'll soon have enough to pay for your next piss-up.”
Merlin looked up to see Gwaine smiling indulgently down at him from the top of the stairs, the way one might at a small child who'd learned how to finger paint.
“Gwaine!” Merlin shouted. “I didn't stick Arthur with pins! Because I am a mature professional adult!”
“That's – good?” Gwaine said, aiming a puzzled look at Percy.
“Arthur Pendragon replaced Leon on the film,” Percy said.
“Oh, shit,” Gwaine said.
“Yeah,” Percy agreed. “He's not taken it well.”
“Oi!” Merlin said, flapping his arms. “I am taking it very well, thank you. I am a –”
“Professional,” Percy and Gwaine chimed in unison, then smirked at one another, biting their lips.
“You are both gits,” Merlin opined, with all the dignity he could muster.
“We know,” Percy said. “Would you like some help up to bed now, Mister Professional?”
Merlin trailed his gaze up the flight of stairs. Gwaine did seem a long way away. “Yes, please,” he sighed, slumping.
Percy smiled down at him as he put an arm around him to steady him. “No worries, mate,” he said softly, pressing a kiss to Merlin's hair. “That's what friends are for.”
When Merlin staggered out of his room, the first thing he noticed – apart from the fact that his legs didn't appear to be working properly – was the smell of a fry-up cooking downstairs. The second thing he noticed was that Gwaine's bed, while empty of Gwaine, was not empty of Percival. A very naked, shagged-out-looking Percival.
After he'd hastily splashed water on his face and unloaded the rest of the beer – thankfully in the traditional way – he descended the stairs with care and shuffled to the kitchen, where he glared at Gwaine's back while he flipped bacon and poured hot water for tea.
“You do that much longer, you're going to burn a hole in it, mate,” Gwaine said, unperturbed. “Before you get up on your high horse, I'd like to remind you that Percy and I are both consenting adults.”
“Percy doesn't deserve to be your experiment,” Merlin snapped.
Gwaine turned at that, eyebrow raised. “I think you're confusing me with someone else, Merlin.”
Merlin ignored the chill that struck him at those words. “You're straight.”
Gwaine stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Jesus, is that what you think?”
“I tend to date women,” Gwaine allowed, “but I'm far from a hundred percent heterosexual, believe me. And Percy – well.” Gwaine spread his hands. “There's something about him.”
“He's besotted with you,” Merlin said. “If you're just going to fuck him and dump him...”
Gwaine frowned. “Either you have a surprisingly low opinion of me, or you're still confusing me with someone else. I'm going to be the bigger man and assume it's the second option.”
Merlin sighed and collapsed into a chair. “Sorry. I know it's none of my business.”
“You're concerned about a friend,” Gwaine said, waving it off. “I understand. But I'm not in the habit of leaving people worse off than I find them, all right? I know I'm a little more – well-traveled – than some, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in committing to the right person. Percy might be that person, he might not. You don't know until you try.”
“Yeah,” Merlin said hollowly. “Don't mind me. I'm just being a hung over arsehole.”
Gwaine poured him a cup of coffee and plunked it down in front of him. “No worries, mate. What's on for today, then?”
Merlin scrubbed at his face. “My assistant will be working feverishly to alter Arthur's historical costumes, while I hit the shops to buy his modern-day wardrobe and find some damn suit fabric that will complement his colouring. And then he shoots his first scenes tomorrow.”
“Ouch. But hang on, why does he have historical costumes and a modern wardrobe?”
“The story is that he's a twenty-first century actor doing a West End adaptation of Jane Eyre. When he gets a conk on the head at the theatre, he wakes up thinking he's Mr. Rochester.”
Gwaine groaned. “And let me guess – there's a spunky lass who wins his heart.”
“Sort of?” Merlin said, making a face. “It's not quite as facile as I'm making it sound – Morgana's written a very clever script that critiques gender roles and expectations.”
“But that doesn't change the fact he needs two wardrobes, which means twice as much time with Arthur.”
“Yeah,” Merlin sighed, staring at his coffee cup.
“Did he at least apologise for being a prick?”
“No,” Merlin said, “but then I told him I didn't want to talk about it, so I reckon I didn't give him much of a chance to.”
“Why'd you do that?” Gwaine said. “He's one rich bastard. You get him groveling, and the next thing you know you're driving a Ferrari.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “I don't want anything from him. And besides, you know I don't drive.”
“All right, the next thing you know I'm driving a Ferrari,” Gwaine said, winking.
Merlin chuckled. “You're such a berk.”
“So you say,” Gwaine said cheerfully, plunking down three plates. “I think I'm brilliant.” Turning his head, he shouted towards the stairs, “Oi, Percy! Get your arse down here and come take a bite of my hot sausage!”
Merlin put his hand over his face to try to stifle his laughter. It didn't work.
Over the first week of the production, Merlin thought he was doing very well. He hadn't gotten drunk again, and he'd maintained a cool detachment whenever he'd dealt with Arthur. Oh, he'd been courteous, but there was no hint of familiarity: he and Arthur were colleagues, nothing more.
Which is why he was quite shocked when Morgana came to him in the second week and asked, “Do you have a problem with Arthur?”
Merlin frowned. “No, of course not. Why would I have a problem with him?”
“I'm sure I don't know,” Morgana said; the unspoken and I don't care was obvious. “All I know is that whenever he spends more than a few minutes with you in wardrobe, it takes him twice as long to get into character. And this morning he snapped at Elena.”
Merlin's eyes widened. The thought of anyone saying a harsh word to the film's lead actress was horrifying. She was possibly the nicest person on the planet. “Erm,” Merlin said. “I don't know how I could have had anything to do with that.”
“Was there something about your interaction with him today that was different? He was in costume for a long time.”
Merlin thought back. This morning, he'd spent half an hour making the final adjustments on Arthur's Regency costume. He'd been addressing minor issues with the fit of Arthur's trousers, and had been on his knees in front of him at one point. When he'd finished, Arthur had bolted like a wild animal running from a fire.
Well. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility to imagine those two events were related. Still, even if Arthur had been feeling uncomfortable and guilty and took it out on Elena, that wasn't Merlin's fault. “Not that I can recall.”
“Hm,” Morgana grunted, clearly unconvinced. “Merlin, as you can imagine I know Arthur fairly well, and while his behaviour over the last week would have been par for the course a couple of years ago, he's grown up quite a bit since then. He no longer throws tantrums like some Hollywood diva, nor does he act like a bell end without provocation.”
“I've been nothing but professional with Arthur,” Merlin insisted, crossing his arms. “Ask him yourself.”
“Oh, I have, and he's said exactly that. In nearly an echo of those words, interestingly enough. The problem is, Merlin, you're not 'nothing but professional' with everyone else. You know your job, certainly, and you are extremely talented, but I've noticed that you always take time to engage everyone in conversation, share a laugh or a smile with them. You're friendly without being overly familiar, which is a wonderful quality in a costume designer. But with Arthur, you're merely cordial. And for you, that's practically a slap in the face.”
Merlin stiffened. “You're a very keen observer of human nature.”
Morgana laughed. “Darling, I've been writing and directing my own films since I was twenty. I'd be in the wrong line of work if I wasn't.” Sobering, she said, “No production has unlimited funds, and this one is extremely limited considering the scope and quality of what we're trying to do. This problem with Arthur is costing me time, and that costs money, and the result is that I have to compromise in some other area of the shoot. I don't like compromising.”
“I'm sorry if anything I've done has been inadvertently affecting the production,” Merlin said solemnly, aware that his future career was possibly on the line and hating Arthur a little for forcing him into this position. “I'll speak to Arthur and see if we can clear up any misunderstandings he may have.”
“That's good to hear,” Morgana said, smiling thinly. “If you could manage it sooner rather than later, I'd appreciate it.”
“Right, yeah,” Merlin murmured, resisting the urge to flip her off as she marched out the door. The crew were convinced she had eyes in the back of her head; best not to test their theory.
Instead, he pulled out his phone and texted Gwaine. fancy being my pretend bf tonight?
The response was swift. does it involve whipped cream & nudity?
long story. arthur coming over tonight. need to look not pathetic.
oh what a tangled web.
Merlin scowled at the screen. yes or no?
wouldn't miss it for anything.
Merlin sighed. It was going to be a long night.
When Merlin opened the door, Arthur was standing on the front step looking as though he were facing a firing squad.
“Hello, Arthur,” Merlin said, trying to infuse his tone with some warmth. “Please come in.”
“I, erm,” Arthur began, “I wasn't sure if this was the right occasion to – well, my father taught me never to arrive anywhere empty-handed.” With that, he thrust a bottle of wine at Merlin like a small child offering his mother a bouquet of hand-picked flowers. “And, erm, here,” he added, producing a bright yellow bag.
“Quavers?” Merlin asked, frowning at the bag. “How did you know I liked Quavers?”
“When we first met, you said that you'd like a bag the size of Lincolnshire,” Arthur said, turning a bit pink in the face. “Sorry, that's the biggest one I could find on short notice.”
“Thanks,” Merlin said weakly. As he took the gifts, their fingers brushed, and Arthur froze, staring at him.
“Erm, I've got it, I think,” Merlin said,when Arthur continued to hold the bottle. Arthur started and let go abruptly.
“Thanks for inviting me to talk,” Arthur said, as Merlin led him into the house. “I really appreciate it. I know you don't owe me anything, so I appre- I mean, thank you.”
“It's not a big deal,” Merlin insisted, motioning Arthur to a seat.
“It is to me,” Arthur murmured, hands resting on his knees as he leaned forwards. “Merlin, I –”
“Oh, sorry, would you like a drink or something? Maybe that wine you brought?”
Arthur leaned back. “I think I'd better keep a clear head tonight,” he said.
Merlin stood up. “Well, I'd like a drink. What about tea? I think I might have some mango juice.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, his voice strained, “if this isn't a good night...”
“No, it's fine,” Merlin said, collapsing back into the chair. “I'm just –” he waved a hand.
“Yeah.” Arthur looked at his hands. “That's down to me, and I'm –” He broke off into a harsh laugh, ran a hand through his hair. “God, I had this all planned out, and now it sounds so pathetic.” He met Merlin's gaze. “'I'm sorry' isn't enough. It isn't nearly enough, considering what I did. But I am sorry. You have no idea how much.”
Merlin tried to shrug, but it probably looked like a nervous twitch. “You changed your mind,” he said, as nonchalantly as he could. “It's not a crime. It might've been nice to get an email or a text telling me to sod off, but I got the message soon enough.”
Arthur winced. “I didn't change my mind,” he said.
Merlin's brain ground to a screeching halt. “What?”
“I – I was a coward. When I got back to LA, I began to think that what I felt for you was an infatuation, that it would pass. At the time it was easy to believe.”
“Thanks a fuck of a lot,” Merlin muttered, stung.
“It is a compliment, oddly enough. I'd never – I'd never felt that way before. I couldn't believe that it was real.”
Merlin felt his heart begin to pound against his ribcage. “That what was real?”
“That I was hopelessly in love with someone I'd only known a few weeks,” Arthur murmured.
“You –” Merlin began, then cut himself off when he realised he had no bloody idea what to say.
Holding his gaze, Arthur said, “From the moment I saw you again last week, Merlin, I realised what a fool I'd been, because everything I'd felt came flooding back as though those two years had never passed. I know you have every right to tell me to fuck off – god knows I don't deserve anything more – but do you think that in time you might...” Arthur trailed off, frowning, his gaze fixed on a point over Merlin's right shoulder.
Merlin turned quickly to see Gwaine descending the stairs. He was wrapped only in a towel, a few water droplets still clinging to his perfect torso.
Oh, shit, Merlin thought. He'd completely forgotten about sodding Gwaine.
“Ah, he's arrived then, has he?” Gwaine said, ambling towards them like an astonishingly pretty train wreck. “Arthur, lovely to meet you. I'm Gwaine.”
“Gwaine is my flatmate,” Merlin said, putting what he hoped was enough emphasis on the last word to give Gwaine the hint that things had changed.
Unfortunately, Gwaine clearly figured it was part of the game, because after shaking Arthur's hand, he sat down beside Merlin and put a possessive arm around him. “Yes, we're only flatmates,” Gwaine said, “or at least that's what Merlin tells any of the homophobic pricks and closet cases he has to work with.”
“Gwaine!” Merlin exclaimed.
Gwaine smiled humourlessly at Arthur. “You know how it is when you're starting out, especially in a business that's as incestuous as the film industry. I'm lucky enough to be in a business where I can tell people to go fuck themselves if they don't like who I am or what I do.”
“That must be very nice for you,” Arthur said coolly. He sprang to his feet. “I really should be going.”
Merlin followed him to the door, gut churning. “Arthur, please, I want to explain –”
“It's okay,” Arthur said. “It was silly of me to come here thinking that there might be a –” He trailed off, shook his head. For a moment, he looked completely lost.
“Listen, Gwaine, he's –”
“You don't have to explain. He doesn't hate me any more than I've hated myself for the past week. I'm glad you've found someone who fights for you, Merlin. You deserve that.” And with a final nod, he opened the door and escaped before Merlin could think of something clever to keep him from going.
“He's worse,” Morgana said without preamble as soon as Merlin walked into her office.
“Maybe you should just sack me now,” Merlin said, partly meaning it. He'd spent a sleepless night replaying Arthur's disastrous visit in his head, and the only conclusion that made sense was that he'd fucked up in a truly spectacular fashion. Well, that and he was now completely confused about his feelings for Arthur. They needed to talk again, but Arthur had been avoiding him all day.
“Not an option,” Morgana replied. “Arthur told me the other day that if I fired you, he'd walk off the picture.”
“Oh.” Merlin made a face. “I could quit?”
“He'd think I had something to do with it,” Morgana said. “And the bottom line is, you're an excellent costume designer. I don't sack people who do their jobs well.” She waved at a chair. “Sit down, will you? You're standing at attention like you're in the army. Surely I'm not that frightening.”
“You are, a little,” Merlin said as he sat, earning him a chuckle from Morgana.
“Well, I am a bit out of sorts today, I'll admit, but then I didn't get much sleep. Arthur's manager rang me at arse o'clock and screeched in my ear for far too long. Though it was a very enlightening screech,” she added, leaning forwards and regarding Merlin as though he were a fascinating new species of bug.
“Erm,” Merlin said. “That's – good?”
“It's very good. You see, Arthur's manager happens to be his uncle, Agravaine. We've never got on – fundamental differences: he's a weasel, I'm a human – but Arthur could never see his faults. To be fair, Agravaine was extremely good at what he did, which was helping to propel Arthur to Hollywood stardom in a string of insipid but highly profitable films. But apparently, Arthur sacked him last night.”
Merlin wasn't sure what the appropriate reaction was to that, or indeed what any of this had to do with him, so he merely nodded.
“Since he'd advised Arthur not to take this role, as he opined, and I quote, 'it's a pissant British production that all of five people will see,' I wasn't terribly broken up about it. I may have told him so. He then asked me if that little – well, I won't use his word, but let's just say it started with 'f' – had had anything to do with it.
“I had no idea what he was talking about, so I played along, and soon enough he was foaming about all of his hard work being destroyed, and that he'd put a great deal of effort into 'curing' Arthur of his obsession two years ago when he'd done that play in the West End, which Agravaine had also advised against. Fuck Neil Patrick Harris, he said, he doesn't play bloody action heroes, does he? I let him rant on about career suicide and the homosexual agenda for a little while longer, and then I told him he was a gigantic, steaming turd and hung up on him.”
Merlin's head was reeling. Arthur hadn't decided on his own that he didn't love Merlin: his uncle had convinced him that what he felt for Merlin wasn't real. And now Arthur had sacked him, probably not long after he'd left Merlin's convinced there was no chance for them. God, Arthur.
“It's you, isn't it?”
Merlin blinked, stared at her. “Wh-why would you think that?”
“Hm, let me see, because I'm not stupid? Also, I rang Elyan – you were the costume designer on that play.”
Merlin straightened. “Fine. It was me. I fell for your wanker of a brother two years ago, and I thought I was over him, only I really, really wasn't. Are you happy?”
“I will be when you tell him that. Why haven't you told him that?”
“Because I'm finally admitting it to myself now!” Merlin shouted, exasperated. “God, is your whole family this annoying?”
“Oh, easily,” Morgana said, unperturbed. “Have you met our father?”
“I have, actually. I told him to sling his hook.”
Morgana burst out laughing. “I'm going to like having you for a brother-in-law.”
“Hang on a minute,” Merlin protested, “we're far from being married. We're not even –” he made a helpless hand gesture that might have unintentionally looked a bit crude.
Morgana raised an eyebrow at him. “Listen, Merlin, one of Arthur's biggest failings – and I like to remind him he has quite a few – has always been that he worries too much about what other people think of him. By contrast, one of his greatest strengths – and I will make your life miserable if you tell him I said this – is that he has a good heart. Maybe firing Agravaine means he's finally beginning to trust it. But I don't know the whole story of what happened with you two, or whether or not you feel you can trust him. Ultimately, it's your decision whether you choose to forgive him for being a complete knob.”
“So my job is no longer contingent on making your brother happy, then?” Merlin asked, rising to his feet.
“I thought it was a simple personality conflict,” Morgana said. “I didn't realise that you had –” she copied Merlin's hand gesture “– history.”
Merlin snorted in spite of himself. Suddenly, he was beginning to feel as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders – one he was just now realising he'd been carrying a long time. “Where is he staying? I'll try to see him tonight.”
“I'll text you the address. Perhaps you could send me a quick reply when you do talk to him, hm? Let me know what I can expect in the morning?”
“Will do,” Merlin said. “And Morgana? Thanks.”
Morgana waved a hand. “Don't thank me unless you actually do get married one day. Then I expect to be mentioned in each of your speeches.”
“Okay, so first of all, Gwaine is not my boyfriend,” Merlin said, when Arthur opened the door to his flat.
“This is a portered building,” Arthur said, clearly a bit behind the curve.
“Morgana,” Merlin said, because that should be all the explanation necessary. “If she wanted to, she could have a team of assassins let up here. Don't piss her off.”
“Right,” Arthur said, still nonplussed.
“Look, I didn't really come here to talk about your terrifying sister. Can I come in?”
Arthur stepped back silently, and Merlin took that as an invitation, stepping inside and taking quick stock of his surroundings. The building was a typical Mayfair pile on the outside, but was surprisingly modern on the inside, with a dark red wall on one side of the living room covered in classic film posters.
“Wait, did you say that Gwaine isn't your boyfriend?” Arthur asked, approaching him cautiously.
“Yeah,” Merlin said. “Sorry. He really is my flatmate – and a good friend. I needed some moral support, I suppose. And I didn't want to look like some sad anorak who'd been pining for you all this time. Which, you know, I haven't been. It's only that I'm not in a relationship right now, and I –”
“Merlin,” Arthur said softly, “breathe.”
“Morgana said you sacked your manager.”
Arthur's eyes widened. “How did she –”
“Agravaine rang her last night. In the course of their conversation, he let some things – slip.”
Arthur froze. “Oh.”
“Why didn't you tell me it was his fault? That he'd made you doubt yourself?”
Arthur's jaw twitched. “Because it wasn't his fault. It was mine. I'm an adult, for Christ's sake; the choices I make are my responsibility.”
“He's your uncle,” Merlin said gently. “You trusted him.”
“You trusted me,” Arthur said fervently. “And I betrayed you.”
“Look,” Merlin said, taking Arthur's hands in his, “we'd known one another a few weeks, we hadn't made any serious commitments to one another, and I went into it with my eyes open. I knew there was a pretty big risk, that there were a hundred reasons it might not last. You didn't ruin my life.”
“Well,” Arthur said roughly, “that's good. There's only one problem left, then.”
“And what's that?”
Arthur looked down at their joined hands. “I, erm, I seem to be just as besotted with you as I was two years ago.” He looked up, his expression apologetic. “Not that I expect you to feel the same way. I completely understand that you've moved on with your life, and I –”
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered, “breathe.”
Arthur shut his eyes and obeyed. Merlin gazed at him for a long moment, studied his silly, perfect face and noted the fine tremble in his hands that belied how nervous he was , then leaned in carefully and kissed him. Arthur whimpered, responding slowly, following Merlin's lead, and Merlin decided to keep kissing him for a bit.
“Oh, god,” Arthur gasped when they parted. “Merlin.”
“Let's take it one day at a time, yeah?” Merlin said. “But just between you and me, your chances are pretty good.”
Arthur's answer was such a ridiculously happy grin that Merlin had no choice but to kiss him again.
Three Years Later
Merlin's fingers were cold and clumsy as he fumbled with the fastenings on Arthur's armour. “There,” he said finally, stepping back to observe his handiwork.
“How do I look?” Arthur asked.
“Ready for the battle, sire,” Merlin said, without thinking.
Arthur laughed. “You're taking this a bit seriously, aren't you? I'm the one who's supposed to be getting into character.”
Merlin blinked away the strange afterimage dancing before his eyes; for a few seconds, he'd felt as though he were in two places at once. “Erm. Don't mind me. I always find night shoots a bit weird.”
Arthur gripped his hand. “Your fingers are like ice,” he said, frowning.
“That's because it's March and we're in Wales,” Merlin pointed out, as Arthur wrapped his hands around Merlin's and brought them to his mouth for a kiss.
“First thing tomorrow, I'm buying you gloves.”
“I have gloves, I just forgot that it was bloody freezing in these trailers.”
“You don't like your gloves. You think they're boring. I'll buy you some bright multi-coloured ones next weekend at the market.”
“How about we leave the fashion decisions to me?” Merlin said, smiling fondly as Arthur's hands moved to his waist and tugged him closer. “And hang on, this isn't terribly professional, is it? Someone might walk in and see us like this.”
“Everyone knows you're my boyfriend, Merlin,” Arthur said. “We're such old news that the Sun doesn't even publish our photos any more when we snog in public.”
Relenting, Merlin reached up and locked his hands behind Arthur's neck. “You'll just have to do something else to get yourself into the papers. Win a BAFTA for this film, maybe.”
Arthur shrugged. “Or we could get married.”
Merlin blinked. “We – what?”
Arthur's mouth twisted. “I suppose it's a bit ridiculous, isn't it? Never mind.”
“You – you really want to get back in the Sun that badly?” Merlin asked, frowning.
“What? No, of course not!” Arthur exclaimed.
“Then why on earth are you talking about getting married?”
“Because I've been thinking about it for months and haven't been able to work out how to ask you!” Arthur blurted. “And that was possibly the most crap proposal in the history of the world so could we please forget the last two minutes ever happened?”
Merlin stared at him for a few moments while his brain reeled like a drunken man trying to tap-dance during an earthquake. “So you're, erm, serious.”
Groaning, Arthur let his head drop with a soft thud against Merlin's shoulder. “Please kill me now.”
Merlin felt a slow smile spread across his face. “You want to marry me.”
“No, I don't, actually,” Arthur said, voice muffled against Merlin's jumper. “You were hallucinating.”
“That's too bad. I was going to say yes.”
Arthur lifted his head slowly. “Yes?”
Merlin nodded. “Still want me to forget it?”
Arthur took Merlin's face in his hands and kissed him, hard. “I love you, you pillock. I always have and I always will.”
Merlin smiled against his mouth. “You too, dollophead.”
Which of course was the moment that Morgana poked her head into the wardrobe trailer. “Well, now,” she said. “This is all quite adorable, but it's not getting my film made. Arthur, I want you on your mark in thirty seconds.”
“Go away,” Arthur muttered, gaze fixed on Merlin. “Merlin's said yes.”
“In that case, take two minutes.” Nodding at Merlin, she said, “Remember what I said about the speeches,” and then she was gone again.
Arthur cocked his head. “Did you –”
“Long story,” Merlin sighed. “I'll fill you in later. For now, I only have a minute and a half left to snog you in, so let's crack on, shall we?”
“Now is that any way to speak to your King?” Arthur drawled, leaning in.
“It's the only way I know how,” Merlin murmured against his mouth. “You know what they say about old habits.”
“Well then,” Arthur breathed, “it wouldn't do to interfere with tradition, would it?”
Merlin's answer was to take ten minutes, plus another three spent frantically readjusting Arthur's armour. He knew Morgana would make him pay later, but he decided it was worth it.