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Lonely Rivers Flow to the Sea

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“There is one final matter, M’lord.” Monmouth straightened his already stiff back, and his mouth took on that slight downturn it always had when he needed to discuss something he found unpleasant. “It is regarding Mrs Emrys.”

Arthur looked up from the papers spread before him on his writing desk, idly tracing the chinoiserie marquetry with the tip of one finger. The ornate pattern that adorned the glossy wood was smooth and familiar, if rather fussy for his taste. “Yes, Monmouth. Do go on.”

“Her eyesight has been failing for some time, M’lord, and it has begun to affect her work. You will recall the incident at dinner the night before last?”

Arthur grimaced. He’d eaten worse fare in the trenches, but hadn’t expected to be served an inedible dinner at his own table. Mrs Emrys had a flawless reputation for sending up consistently excellent meals and had done so even in the lean wartime years when supplies had been hard to come by. That she had sent up improperly seasoned food and a pudding that tasted more of salt than sugar the other night was not only uncharacteristic, but perhaps even mildly shocking.

“Yes, quite. Has she consulted Dr Gaius?”

“She has, M’lord. She is afflicted with cataracts, I’m told.”

“Is there anything to be done?”

Monmouth frowned. “Dr Gaius has informed Mrs Emrys of a colleague of his at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. He believes she may benefit from a surgical procedure there. But the cost-”

“Is no matter, Monmouth. I will cover all her expenses. Have Mrs DuLac inform her, if you please.”

Monmouth stiffened impossibly further. “I must apologize, M'lord. It was not my intent to solicit you in this manner. I meant only to inform you that I should like to begin seeking her replacement, if it pleases your lordship.”

“Certainly not, Monmouth.” Arthur said firmly. “We take care of our own here. Mrs Emrys shall have a place at Pendragon Hall for as long as she wishes. It is not her intent to leave, is it?”

“No, M'lord.” Arthur suppressed a smile at the sour expression on Monmouth’s face. While Monmouth was the very picture of a proper butler, he’d never been able to hide his disdain for staff he perceived as stepping out of place. Mrs Emrys’ kind attention to a young, motherless Arthur had always met with Monmouth’s disapproval.

“Then it is settled. I shall expect to hear that Mrs Emrys will be leaving for London as soon as it may be arranged.”

“And will M'lord approve the hiring of another cook to cover Mrs Emrys’ duties while she is recovering?”

“Did I not just recently authorize a pay rise for a kitchen maid to become Mrs Emrys’ assistant? Can she not handle the work?”

Monmouth’s lips thinned. “I will have Mrs DuLac discuss it with Mrs Emrys, to see if she thinks young Freya is up to the task.”

“Very well, Monmouth. And if Mrs DuLac has any concerns, I’d be amenable to discussing them with her.”

With a brief “M'lord” and a nod of his head, Monmouth exited Arthur’s study, closing the door behind him.

Arthur leaned back in his chair, letting his eyes drift to the window and out to the immaculately manicured garden. There was a point -- albeit a very small one -- in favor of marrying, he supposed. With a wife to handle the minutiae of running the household, Arthur could turn his attention solely to the management of the estate. It was an idle thought and one he knew he would never act upon for reasons that, while very good, were also best left unexamined. Despite those reasons, the thought did cross his mind at times like these, after yet another interminable meeting with Monmouth about the staff.

In the absence of a Lady Winchester, management of the household had quite correctly fallen to the housekeeper. While Monmouth retained the traditional duties of a butler in a great house, Mrs DuLac took on many of the tasks that his wife might otherwise have been responsible for, had he married. This seemed to disgruntle Monmouth for reasons Arthur did not fully understand, and resulted in these unnecessary weekly reports. To Arthur’s recollection, Monmouth had never chafed quite so much at working in partnership with the former housekeeper, Mrs Heller, to keep the household running, so perhaps it was simply a matter of Mrs DuLac’s youth and perceived inexperience that vexed the stodgy old butler so. It could also be Mrs DuLac’s former position as his sister’s lady’s maid -- there was a hierarchy among servants, after all -- but ultimately it was immaterial. While Monmouth’s efforts to catch Mrs DuLac out were a hassle Arthur would rather not endure, he found it at least marginally preferable to finding a new butler.

Cafall whined from his position at his master’s feet, and quickly thrust his broad, square head under Arthur’s lifted hand to receive a pat and a scratch behind the ears.

“If only everyone were as agreeable as you, old boy.” Arthur said fondly. “Shall we take a walk? Get some air?”

The mastiff gave a short, gruff bark in seeming agreement, and Arthur laughed.

“Let’s go then.”

A week later, Arthur found himself seated at the antique writing desk in the Small Library once more, awaiting Monmouth and his regular report. A soft knock came at the door, different from Monmouth’s brisk rap. He called out a curt “enter,” and was surprised to see Mrs DuLac and Mrs Emrys, the latter smoothing her pristine white apron with nervous hands.

“Mr. Monmouth sends his apologies, M’lord.” Mrs DuLac said. “He’s been a bit delayed dealing with an issue with the upholsterer, but will be along momentarily to make his report to you.”

Untroubled, Arthur acknowledged her words with a brief nod. Monmouth would surely tell him of the problem with the upholsterer in exhaustive detail -- likely some folderol about the workmen not respecting the dignified history of the furnishings or some such. There was no need to question Mrs DuLac on the subject.

“What may I do for you then, Mrs DuLac?”

“Mrs Emrys wished to speak to you, M’lord.” Mrs DuLac stepped back respectfully, hands clasped in front of her.

Arthur looked to Mrs Emrys, whose hands had moved from smoothing her apron to twisting the fabric around her fingers. He’d never known her to be nervous around him before, and wondered what had her in such a state. “Yes, Mrs Emrys?”

She took a breath, and looked up at him, her eyes warm and kind as they always were. Arthur was reminded of afternoons spent perched on a stool in the corner of the kitchen, watching her work and inhaling the warm scent of baking bread. She’d said little, but always had a gentle smile and his favorite chocolate biscuits for him. The recollection was so vivid he could almost taste the cocoa and ginger on his tongue, and he smiled in spite of himself.

“I wanted to thank you, M’lord. I’m to travel to London next week for the surgery.”

“I’m pleased that it has all been arranged so quickly, Mrs Emrys. And there is no need to thank me...it is the least I can do in recognition of your excellent service.”

“Oh, M’lord, not many employers would be so generous,” she said, smiling softly. “I am so very grateful, and truly sorry for the trouble.”

“Think nothing of it,” he said kindly. “I confess I do have one concern, however.”

“What is that, M’lord?”

“I hate to think of you traveling by yourself to London and enduring the recovery alone. I am told it is rather unpleasant for this type of procedure. Have you anyone who might accompany you? I could perhaps give Mrs DuLac a few days leave…?”

Mrs Emrys shook her head. “It is so kind of you to concern yourself, M’lord. My son will be coming to escort me, and then he’ll come ‘round to see me when he can while I’m in hospital. He works in London now, M’lord.”

At the mention of her son, Arthur’s stomach fell somewhere to the vicinity of his feet -- or at least it felt that way. Mrs Emrys would have no way to know that her seemingly innocuous words had affected him so, and Arthur thought it best she didn’t under the circumstances. He fumbled for a reply, working to keep his expression calmly attentive and his tone pleasant even as he held his troubling thoughts at bay.

“Does he now?”

“Yes, he’s taken a position with a firm there. He’s a solicitor now, you know.”

Arthur felt a momentary pang, seeing the maternal pride shining in her eyes. While he knew his father had been proud of him in his own quiet, reserved and mostly unspoken way, there was something about a mother’s caring...something he still felt the lack of, even after all this time. Mrs Emrys had done her best to show him some of that, in her own way, and he owed it to her not to begrudge her the obvious joy she felt at her son’s success.

“That’s wonderful to hear, Mrs Emrys. You must be very proud.”

“Yes, M’lord. Thank you.”

“You are quite welcome. Is there anything else I might do for you?”

Mrs Emrys resumed twisting the cloth of her apron and bit her lip. “M’lord, I feel terrible to ask anything further after you’ve been so very kind, but…”

“Go on, Mrs Emrys,” Arthur said gently.

“I was wondering if it would be all right for Merlin to arrive a day or so ahead of when we’re to depart for London? I’ve not seen him in nearly two years now, and it would be nice to have an opportunity to visit with him a bit before the procedure. I know I’ll be feeling poorly for some time after, and then there’s the possibility of complications…”

With that, Arthur knew the source of Mrs Emrys’ nerves. He couldn’t blame her for it, not really, knowing that he would share her apprehension were he to be the one going under the knife. The thought of having his eyes cut into was exceedingly unpleasant and privately he thought her rather brave to do it.

“Of course, Mrs Emrys. Your son is always welcome here.”

Mrs Emrys’ face lit up. “Oh, thank you M’Lord. Thank you ever so much.”

“You are quite welcome, Mrs Emrys.” Arthur smiled at her, and nodded to Mrs DuLac as well. The women backed out of his study with smiles and quickly bobbed heads, and Arthur was left alone with his thoughts.

Merlin…

It had been more than ten years since Arthur had last seen Merlin Emrys. So much had happened -- the very world had changed, ravaged by war, death and pain, and yet Arthur could still see Merlin’s face in his mind as if it were yesterday... could still see the way his face had contorted with pain as tears had welled up in blue eyes gone wide with shock. Tears that Merlin had tried to hide, that he’d dashed away with quick, jerky motions of his hands before turning to leave, his voice deep and even and somehow dead as he’d bid Arthur goodbye.

It had broken Arthur’s heart; torn it asunder, wounding him in a way that had never healed.

Ten years earlier…

Spring sunshine filtered through the leaves, dappling Merlin’s pale skin with leaf-shaped shadows. His shirt was half-unbuttoned and his sleeves were rolled up, exposing milky-white skin dusted with coarse dark hair. His eyes were closed, his long eyelashes stark black against his face and his cheeks were lightly flushed. Arthur thought the sight of Merlin’s face in repose as his head rested in Arthur’s lap might be the most beautiful sight he’d ever beheld. He was more than a little besotted, he knew, but couldn’t find it in himself to care.

It wasn’t often that they could relax like this and simply enjoy each others’ company. From the time that Arthur had returned to Pendragon Hall from his post-university tour of Europe and met the new Merlin Emrys, so different from the spindly, bookish youth he’d been when Arthur had last seen him four years prior, they’d been forced to skulk about, stealing moments in cupboards and vacant rooms. There had been one memorable night they’d taken the risk of having Merlin sneak into Arthur’s bedroom but they hadn’t dared try it again.

It was only in this clearing, hidden deep within his family’s lands that they could spend a few precious hours together with little fear of discovery. In the place where Arthur had once snuck away from his tutors to slay imaginary dragons and indulge in other flights of fancy, he now met Merlin for secret trysts. Only here could they while away a spring afternoon indulging in slow, languorous kisses or urgent lovemaking atop a purloined quilt, safe from the prying eyes of the staff and his father’s stern gaze. The clearing was accessible by an obscure footpath known only to Arthur, and with Llamrei sitting watchfully on the path ready to bark if anyone approached Arthur could let his guard down for a little while.

He threaded his fingers through Merlin’s softly tousled hair, feeling thoroughly content.

“Arthur?”

“Hm?”

“Your father summoned me to the library today.”

Arthur jerked with alarm. “He doesn’t…”

Arthur knew that if his father even suspected that his son and heir had fallen in love with the cook’s son and had been conducting an illicit, passionate and unfortunately illegal affair with him for months he wouldn’t have bothered to summon Merlin to the library...unless he intended to pay him off?

“No, no,” Merlin said reassuringly. “It wasn’t about this. Us.” He blushed.

“What was it about, then?” Arthur settled, resting his palm the nape of Merlin’s neck.

“He asked if I knew how my father died.”

“In the war, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. I told him that my mum said my father was a brave man who died serving his country. She never speaks of the details; it is still too painful for her, even after all these years. Your father,” and Merlin paused, looking up at Arthur with the light of remembered surprise in his eyes, “he seemed understanding about that.”

“Yes, I suppose he would be,” Arthur murmured, thinking of how little he knew about his mother. His father’s reticence on the subject of Ygraine DuBois was legendary, as was his temper when anyone dared to speak of her in his presence. The fact that Morgana’s deceased mother was not afforded the same treatment was a source of friction between his half-sister and his father, one that Arthur could not understand. He would give anything to know more of his mother than her name and the fact that he shared her blue eyes and blond hair.

Merlin nuzzled into Arthur’s lap, offering wordless comfort that Arthur accepted gratefully, running his fingers through Merlin’s soft hair as he spoke again.

“Why did he want to speak with you about your father, then?”

“He said my father served under him in the second Boer war...that he saved his life, and the lives of several of his men. He didn’t say how. I got the impression it was painful for him, too.”

Arthur thought about his stern, unyielding father. He imagined it would be difficult for him to admit that he owed his life to anyone, and especially one of his own men... a soldier in his charge.

“Your father said he owed my father a debt of honor, one he’d thought he had discharged by offering my mother a place. But her service has been so exemplary, he said, that his honor dictated that he take further action.” Merlin toyed with a blade of grass, seemingly reluctant to continue.

“And…?” Arthur prompted.

“He said he was pleased with my marks, and with the extra study I’ve been doing with Dr Gaius. Dr Gaius told him he thought I could be accepted at university.” Merlin took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, as if steeling himself for something unpleasant. “Your father has offered to send me.”

“To university! Merlin, that’s brilliant!”

Merlin’s smile seemed forced. “It is something I’ve always wanted but never thought possible…”

“And yet you don’t seem very happy about it,” Arthur observed.

Merlin just shook his head. “Six months ago, I would have been.”

Six months ago, Arthur had followed the sounds of Chopin into the conservatory, not sure who he was expecting to find -- after all, Morgana had abandoned her piano lessons years ago. He’d been so caught off guard by the beautiful young man seated at the grand piano, his long fingers stroking the keys with familiarity and expertise, that he’d hardly known what to say or do.

Merlin looked up at Arthur, smiling fondly. It was as if he could follow Arthur’s train of thought; see him recalling that fateful day in the conservatory.

“You really were unbearably rude that day.” Merlin said teasingly.

Arthur huffed. “Well how was I to know you’d been given permission to play the piano?”

“The fact that I was there, playing it? Do strange young men often sneak into Pendragon Hall to play your piano?”

“For all I knew, you were a footman skiving off from your duties.”

“A footman!” Merlin said with a laugh, his eyes alight with mirth.

“And what is so humorous about that, dare I ask?”

“To hear Mr Monmouth tell it, footmen are meant to show the status of a great house. They’re meant to be fine, upstanding young men of a certain appearance. Or ‘tall, fit and handsome’ as Mrs Heller would say.”

“And you think you are not?” Arthur asked curiously. “Or is this merely a ruse to induce me to show you just how appealing you are to me?” He ran his hand slowly along Merlin’s jaw, cupping it and gently tugging him up as he leant down to press his lips to Merlin’s. They’d pleasured each other only a scant half hour past but Arthur could feel hot arousal building in him once more, simply from the feel of Merlin’s lips and the slick slide of his tongue. It was so perfect, more than anything he’d ever known.

Merlin broke the kiss with obvious reluctance, yielding to Arthur’s attempts to capture his mouth once, twice, thrice before pulling back and looking at him soberly.

“Arthur...what if I didn’t go? Not right now, anyway…?”

“Not go? To university? Whyever not?”

Merlin blushed and looked down. “Well, there’s you. I mean to say…I could continue my studies via correspondence, perhaps, and enrol in university later. I’m not sure I’m ready to leave.”

Arthur heard the unspoken “you” at the end of that sentence.

The moment hung between them, silent and still. A small, secret part of Arthur thrilled to hear that Merlin’s feelings were apparently as strong as his own. But Arthur was a practical sort, and he knew that as much as he loved Merlin, there was no future for them. His father wouldn’t be put off on the subject of marriage forever. He’d hoped to have more time with Merlin before facing the inevitable, but it seemed that now would have to be it if he was to save Merlin from jeopardizing his future.

“Merlin,” Arthur said sternly. “You should go. You are very fortunate to have been offered this opportunity; one which is not often afforded to someone of your station. Besides, it is best that you leave here soon. It wouldn’t do to have you going about like a jilted lover when I marry.”

“My station? Jilted lover? Arthur, what is all this? You aren’t making any sense.” Merlin looked both confused and hurt, and his betrayed expression broke Arthur’s heart.

“On the contrary, I’m making perfect sense. As pleasantly diverting as this has been, surely you must know there is no future in this.”

“No future? But Arthur, you said…”

“I said what I needed to say to have my way with you. You can think me the worst sort of scoundrel if you wish, but I won’t regret it. It was worth it to have a go at that sweet virginal arse.” It was all Arthur could do to say such a thing, to affect this careless drawl and speak in such a crude and contemptible fashion to someone he loved.

Merlin stood, and Arthur quickly got to his feet as well, looking down his nose superciliously at Merlin, who seemed unable to do anything but stare back at him with a broken expression.

“I spoke sweet words to woo you, Merlin, but I made no promises. Remember that. It’s best that you go,” he said firmly. “I wouldn’t want Mrs Heller to have to go to the trouble of hiring a new cook, after all.”

“You...you wouldn’t.”

Arthur affected the iciest tone he could muster. “If I must.”

Arthur,” Merlin said pleadingly. “If you are doing this to get me to agree to go to university…”

“I assure you I am not. I’d meant to do this sooner, but I couldn’t resist taking my pleasure of you just a little longer. You leaving for university puts a nice ending to things, do you not agree? One which allows this to conclude with...dignity.”

“There is no dignity in this cruelty, Arthur.” Merlin said. His voice was deadly calm, and he turned away briefly, his shoulders jerking. When he met Arthur’s eyes again, his own were red-rimmed and there was wetness on his cheeks. Arthur’s heart felt torn in two, and he longed to go to his knees before Merlin, to press his cheek to the broadcloth shirt he wore and beg forgiveness until the hard line of Merlin’s mouth softened and his body pressed warmly against Arthur’s.

“I was wrong about you, Arthur. I see that now. I thought you weren’t like them, but I was wrong. I have only myself to blame. Give me your word that my mother’s job is safe, and I’ll go quietly.”

“You have my word as a gentleman,” Arthur replied with a smirk. In truth he felt like an utter wretch, but he had committed himself to this course of action and was resolved to seeing it through despite the pain.

“Goodbye, Arthur.”

Merlin turned and walked away. Arthur heard Llamrei’s happy yip of greeting and the sound of Merlin’s shoes crunching over twigs and dead foliage, and then all was silent but for the sound of the wind rustling the leaves. It suddenly felt much colder, for all that the sun still shone warmly on Arthur’s shoulders.

Arthur sank to his knees, a sick, desolate feeling in his chest. For the first time since he was a young boy, he felt hot tears stinging his eyes.

Memories of Merlin still fresh in his mind, Arthur slumped back in his chair. He’d been so damned foolish back then, to end things so cruelly, so quickly. Merlin’s fancy over not leaving for university right away might have passed, or Arthur might even have brought him around without resorting to the tactics he’d so ruthlessly employed. It filled him with shame to know that he’d burned that bridge so thoroughly and completely out of youthful arrogance. The very thought of seeing Merlin again filled Arthur with dread.

After their argument in the clearing, Arthur had departed for London the following day to meet with his solicitor about some investments, and to contrive a socially acceptable meeting with Lady Vivian as his father wished. That had been easily managed and he’d found himself dining at Lord Odin’s London townhouse shortly thereafter. From there, it was a simple matter to extend his stay in London under the pretense of courting Vivian. His intent had been to carry on the ruse until he was sure Merlin was safely ensconced at university, but then the war had broken out…

And that brought a surfeit of bad memories Arthur was not prepared to deal with at this time, not when he felt so raw after recalling that last painful encounter with Merlin. The fact that he might be seeing Merlin soon...it wasn’t to be borne.

Of course, Merlin wouldn’t expect to be entertained at the Hall as a guest, would he? Doubtlessly he would come and go via the servant’s entrance. It was unlikely that Arthur would see him at all, he decided.

Entirely unlikely.

Over the next several days, Arthur found himself to be irritable, easily distracted and, if the poorly hidden expression on his estate manager’s face was anything to go by, thoroughly unpleasant to be around. It wasn’t Bedivere’s fault that Arthur felt a cold knot of dread in his stomach whenever he thought of Merlin coming to the Hall, but he bore the brunt of it, as Arthur stepped up his campaign to overhaul and modernize the management of the estate. Great houses across England were failing in the post-war economy, and Arthur had no intention of allowing the Hall to suffer the same fate. Bedivere was competent enough, but he was Arthur’s father’s man through and through, and had proved resistant to change.

It had been another frustrating afternoon sitting in Bedivere’s cramped office reviewing his proposed plans for some land that had recently reverted back to the family after the tenant’s death. Bedivere may have been his employee, but the old man was remarkably stubborn. As much as Arthur hated to do it, he suspected he would have to find a land agent who would be more amenable to running the estate like a business -- the only way Arthur could see to sustain the great house and fulfil his responsibility to the tenants. After that meeting, he hadn’t had the stomach for anything but a glass of scotch taken in front of the fire in the library.

The gong sounded, shaking Arthur from his brooding. The fire was warm and soothing, chasing away the early spring chill he’d acquired making one last visit to a tenant’s farm after his meeting with Bedivere. He wanted to linger, drowsing in the warmth with the weight of a cut-crystal tumbler in his hand, but he knew well that a house such as his ran on a schedule and it wouldn’t do for him to be late for dinner. His valet was doubtlessly already enroute to Arthur’s dressing room, ready to make Arthur presentable. He rose and strode out of the room and through the hall toward the staircase, stopping abruptly at the sound of the door opening and his sister’s voice ringing out as she greeted Monmouth with improper enthusiasm, as she liked to do simply to ruffle his feathers. Arthur’s lips quirked at the thought, and he took a detour toward the entrance hall, looking forward to seeing Morgana and the distraction she would bring.

She looked as impeccable as ever, stylish in a bottle-green dress, her shiny black hair swinging around her face in that new, short style Arthur didn’t think much of, but had to admit suited Morgana perfectly. Beside her was her husband, Gwaine, who always managed to look perfectly put together even with hair that was a little longer than was strictly proper for a man, scruff on his cheeks and a devil-may-care smile.

Arthur knew some might think that he ought not be so welcoming of Morgana -- at least not with Gwaine in tow, not when they’d so scandalously eloped less than a year after Uther’s passing. For all that his father must surely be rolling over in his grave at the thought of his only daughter marrying the family chauffeur and decamping to Ireland without so much as a by-your-leave, Arthur couldn’t find it in himself to object when his sister was so obviously happy and in love. Gwaine was not a rich man, and he had a tendency to be thoroughly unsuitable for polite company with his impassioned socialist rhetoric and utter disregard for tradition. Perhaps his only redeeming feature was that he was completely devoted to Morgana. Arthur thought that was really all that any brother could reasonably ask.

Behind Morgana was her cousin Morgause, cold, blond, and thoroughly unimpressed with Arthur -- and the feeling was mutual. And behind Morgause…

No…

His back was turned as he awkwardly handed his overcoat and hat to the waiting footman under Monmouth’s gimlet eye, whose expression had reached heretofore unknown levels of disapproval. He was tall, taller than the ladies and Gwaine, perhaps even a little bit taller than Arthur and definitely both taller and broader of shoulder than he was the last time Arthur had seen him. Coat handed off, he turned, and Arthur’s heart stopped when his eyes met Merlin’s for the first time in ten years.

At seventeen, Merlin had been beautiful in the way that those on the cusp of manhood so often are, young and fresh with soft skin Arthur had never tired of touching, a sweet mouth he’d never tired of kissing. At twenty-seven, he’d grown into his body and that strange, fey beauty had morphed into a deeply masculine allure that sent little thrills of excitement running through Arthur’s body despite himself. As a boy Merlin had been beautiful. As a man, he was utterly stunning.

His silky, once-tousled hair was cut short and side-parted, slicked down and tamed but for a single dark lock that fell forward onto Merlin’s forehead, tempting Arthur to reach out and brush it away. Broad shoulders filled out an olive-drab suit that could have come from any Savile Row tailor, and combined with his shiny wingtips and the fine leather valise at his feet it was clear that Merlin had done quite well for himself. Arthur felt almost underdressed in his tweed and wellies, which were all well and good for tromping around inspecting a tenant’s land but felt rather shabby by comparison.

Arthur’s appraisal of Merlin was cut short by Morgana’s cheerful greeting and fond embrace, and it was with effort that he turned his eyes to hers, so green and prone to seeing more than they ought.

“Arthur! You look well! You’ve been out seeing to the tenants again, I take it?”

“Yes, I was just on my way to change.”

Morgana smiled, tucking her arm through his and turning him to face Merlin.

“Arthur, you remember Mr Emrys, don’t you? When we encountered him at the train station I insisted he ride with us to the house. Did you know he was coming?”

“I did, although I hadn’t expected to see him.” Arthur said stiffly.

“And I suppose you expected him to go straight downstairs, did you? There’s no need to be such a snob.” Morgana said, her mouth set disapprovingly.

In truth, that was exactly what Arthur had expected, although not out of concern for class distinction as Morgana obviously thought.

“I expected he’d want to see his mother, Morgana. Of course Mr Emrys is welcome.” Arthur thrust out his hand and clasped Merlin’s firmly when he took it, forcing himself to meet his eyes.

“Lord Winchester,” Merlin said evenly, pulling his hand back as soon as it was polite to do so.

The feeling of Merlin’s warm palm brushing against his own was a source of pleasure and pain to Arthur. To touch him again after all this time was sheer bliss, and yet to have Merlin pull back so quickly...he found that the dread he’d felt over the prospect of seeing Merlin again faded away in the face of the intense craving to feel Merlin’s skin against his own once more. He might’ve made a fool of himself staring at Merlin had Morgana not taken his arm again, looking toward Merlin with her lips curved in a smile.

“Mr Emrys, you must join us for dinner! I simply won’t take no for an answer; I must know all that you’ve been doing these many years.”

Merlin smiled at Morgana, carefully angling his body toward her as he answered. “It’s kind of you to ask, Lady Morgana, but I couldn’t possibly impose...not to mention that I’ve not brought a dinner jacket.”

“Nonsense! It’s no imposition at all. And a dinner jacket is hardly required. We shall manage just fine. It is the twenties, after all. Isn’t that right, Arthur?”

With Morgana’s fingers pressing firmly into his bicep and everyone looking at him expectantly, Arthur could do nothing but acquiesce.

If DuLac was surprised when Arthur waved away his tuxedo in favor of a standard black suit, he didn’t show it.

“We’ve a guest tonight who hasn’t brought a dinner jacket. I’d thought to be a bit less formal this evening out of consideration.”

“Very good, m’lord,” DuLac said with a smile. Only moments later DuLac’s hand was smoothing the shoulders of his jacket and Arthur could do nothing but take a deep breath and go down to face his fate.

Upon entering the drawing room to await Monmouth’s call to dinner, he saw that Morgana and Gwaine had apparently had the same idea, forgoing their most formal dinner attire, leaving only Morgause in a burgundy gown dripping with jewels and a disapproving expression pinching her face. It reminded Arthur a bit of his late father’s favorite companion, the Duchess of Tregor, whom he’d thankfully never married -- surely fine society would turn their noses up at their informal attire, but seeing the look of relief that flitted across Merlin’s expressive face when he entered the room in a charcoal suit and a blue silk tie that matched his eyes. It was completely inappropriate for a formal dinner, of course, but Arthur couldn’t tear his eyes away from the way the well-tailored suit emphasized the lines of Merlin’s body from his broad shoulders to his long legs. Legs that Arthur suddenly, desperately wanted to feel wrapped around his waist.

He circulated through the room, making polite small talk with Gwaine, giving Morgana a long-suffering half-smile that she saw through anyway, and nodding coolly at Morgause. Merlin stood by, an odd mixture of awkwardness and ease. It was obvious that he had some level of comfort with gatherings such as this, and equally clear that he didn’t particularly want to be there.

Arthur felt a pang of regret. He knew that Merlin would probably rather be downstairs with his mother right now, and while he knew that Morgana meant well, it was his own weakness and desire to see Merlin that had kept him from intervening, even if he had been put on the spot. He’d dreaded seeing Merlin again, thought it would hurt too much to bear, but now that he was faced with him all he could think about was how much he wished he could walk over to him, cup his elbow and guide him to another room. Once he had him alone…

It was foolish, perhaps, to think of this. Arthur had no reason to believe Merlin would welcome his touch and every reason to think he wouldn’t, especially given how short Merlin had been since arriving. Their affair had been brief, but intense, and while Arthur had come to know Merlin well enough to believe that he wasn’t the type to hold grudges, he also knew that his behavior had been reprehensible and unforgivable.

His thoughts were interrupted by Monmouth opening the doors to the drawing room and intoning, “Dinner is served,” in his most officious voice, face carefully blank. Arthur offered his arm to Morgause and she took it reluctantly – while it was likely that she considered him the only appropriate escort she’d never bothered to hide her disdain for him. Arthur was not entirely sure why she deigned to step foot in the Hall at all save to please Morgana, who seemed to be the only recipient of whatever kindness or softness resided beneath the brittle exterior of a woman embittered by spinsterhood.

Morgause pulled away quickly when they reached her seat, and he moved on to his place at the head of the table, Morgana to his right with Gwaine across from her, leaving Merlin to sit across from Morgause, who gave him one brief, cool gaze before turning away haughtily. Arthur suppressed a sigh; it was clear that this dinner was well on its way to being painfully awkward.

At least if we are to be miserable, it will be in the finest setting possible.

The staff had gone above and beyond their already exemplary work, no doubt to impress Morgana who had always been well-loved by the servants…unlike Arthur, who had always been “the young master” to everyone except Mrs Emrys. Succeeding his father had only widened the gulf between Arthur and those who worked for him, and while he supposed it was right and proper to observe the differences in station he nevertheless found it just a little bit lonely to live in a house full of people and yet always be held apart from those surrounding him. Arthur shook his head almost imperceptibly, dismissing these thoughts as unworthy. He watched as Morgana smiled warmly in the soft glow of the slim white tapers anchored in the antique silver candelabra and ran a delicate finger over the velvety petals of a dusky pink rose. Arthur knew it was no coincidence that her favorite flowers had made their way from the garden to adorn his table.

Bowls of creamy watercress soup appeared, and for a moment there was no sound but the clink of silver against fine porcelain and the quiet, unobtrusive movements of the footmen as they served under Monmouth’s watchful eye. Arthur turned to Morgana, clearing his throat to inquire about her activities in Dublin, when Morgause’s voice cut through the silence with false warmth.

“I hope it isn’t too awkward for you, Mr Emrys, to be served by your colleagues below stairs?”

Merlin’s lips parted, but before he could reply Morgana said sweetly, “Dear Cousin Morgause...have you already forgotten our meeting with Mr Emrys at the platform? He is a solicitor in London.”

“Oh, how silly of me to forget. Former colleagues, then.” Morgause said coolly. “But still,” and she returned her gaze to Merlin, looking at him with the eyes of a raptor staring at its prey, “you’re managing quite well with all this for it not to be your background. You are to be commended.”

“Thank you, Miss Orcades.” Merlin said calmly, and only the slight redness along the outer curves of his ears betrayed the embarrassment he must’ve felt, being singled out so.

“Merlin...may I call you Merlin? I know it’s rather improper, only it feels so silly to call you Mr Emrys when we’ve known each other so long.” Morgana said warmly. “It seems only yesterday I was dragging you about the Hall, taking you to my lessons.”

Merlin truly blushed this time, two spots of color staining his sharp cheekbones, but his smile was genuine when he looked at Morgana. “Whatever you wish, Lady Morgana.”

“My piano teacher despaired of me,” Morgana said with a laugh. “I could hardly play a scale, and yet when I sat you on the bench beside me you took to it so easily! Do you still play?”

“Not since the War, Lady Morgana.”

“That’s a shame. You always played so beautifully. The war took many things from us, it seems.”

“So it did,” Merlin said quietly.

“Oh...that was insensitive of me. I’m so terribly sorry. I know you lost a very dear friend.”

“It’s quite all right, Lady Morgana.”

“I am pleased to see that you emerged unscathed. So many young men lost. Such a tragedy.”

“No man emerges from war unscathed, Morgana,” Arthur said quietly.

“It was mentioned that you served as a pilot during the war, Mr Emrys,” Morgause said, her voice deceptively neutral. “How did one of your station have the means to learn to fly an aeroplane, I wonder?”

“Cousin!” Morgana said sharply, and her perfect society smile was distinctly icy.

Before he could think better of it, or think of it at all, Arthur’s palm hit the white tablecloth firmly, rattling the silverware.

“Miss Orcades. I cannot fathom why you find it necessary to needle Mr Emrys so when he’s done nothing to you. It’s quite unlike you to be so impolite,” and that was not entirely true, but Arthur knew that Morgause was perfectly capable of the flawless manners expected of their social class, “and I must ask you to desist at once. Mr Emrys is distinguished veteran, friend of the Pendragon family, and a guest in this house.”

“I apologize, Lord Winchester.” Morgause said stiffly.

Arthur chanced a brief look at Merlin. He looked supremely uncomfortable, but he gave Arthur the briefest of nods before turning his attention back to the bowl in front of him.

“So, a pilot!” Morgana said brightly, obviously determined to turn things around. “Tell me how that came about.”

“There is not much to tell, Lady Morgana. I left university to enlist and served in the 4th for nearly a year, and then was seconded to the flying corps as an observer. Eventually I was selected for flight training.”

“It must have been terribly difficult for you to leave university,” Morgana said sympathetically.

“It was. But I felt strongly that I must do my duty. And your father was very kind about it, in his way.”

“Father? Really?”

“Yes. I wrote to him, you see. I felt I owed him an explanation for my departure from university after he’d gone to the trouble of sending me, so I wrote to inform him that I was enlisting and thank him for the opportunity. He wrote back and said that under no circumstances was I to get myself killed, and that he expected me to report back to university as soon as the war ended. I expect he thought it would end much sooner than it did, unfortunately.”

“That sounds like him,” Morgana said fondly. “And flying missions...very dangerous, wasn’t it?”

“Many good men were lost,” Merlin agreed.

“What Mr Emrys here won’t say,” Arthur cut in, “was that he was actually quite a good pilot. A flying ace, even.”

“You don’t say,” Morgana said thoughtfully.

“Or so Father said,” Arthur added quickly. “You know he kept up with the military careers of everyone associated with our family.”

“Ah yes, I suppose he did.”

The silence extended just long enough to become awkward, and while Morgause sat stiff and silent in her seat, Arthur nevertheless felt it prudent to find something, anything to say that might turn the conversation away from Merlin, who looked as uncomfortable as Arthur had ever seen him.

“Gwaine,” he began with forced joviality, “I understand you’ve begun writing for a newspaper in Dublin. How do you find it?”

Gwaine raised an eyebrow, his expression just short of incredulous. “You are interested in my work? My socialist writings? I didn’t know you cared, princess.”

“Gwaine,” Morgana admonished, although the subtle curve of her lips belied her stern tone. “You mustn’t tweak poor Arthur’s nose. He’s not nearly as hidebound as our father was.”

“Then when shall I expect you to join our efforts to throw off the English yoke?”

“You’ll find I have an interest in any number of things,” Arthur said, heartened by the faintly amused smile Merlin was endeavoring to conceal. “And as it happens, I supported the Act.”

Gwaine snorted. “Yes, and having your lot divide our country up is so much better.”

Before Arthur could reply, Morgana turned to Merlin with a smile. “You must excuse my husband, Merlin. He’s political.”

“As are you, my darling,” Gwaine said, flashing a grin at his wife.

“I am,” she agreed. “But not at the dinner table.”

The rest of the meal passed in strained silence, punctuated by the passing of the courses and a handful of attempts at polite conversation, each of which fell to nothing in the air of discomfort that permeated the dining room. When at long last it was time for the ladies to withdraw, Morgause stood abruptly and left, murmuring that she was going up for the night before Arthur and the other men had even gotten fully to their feet. Morgana looked after her with a disappointed expression, and then turned to Arthur with a sigh.

“I’m feeling a bit under the weather, so I think I shall retire early as well.”

“Should I call for Dr Gaius?”

“Oh no, no need to trouble him. It’s quite natural, and will pass in time,” she said with a cryptic smile.

Morgana rose slowly, touching one hand to her temple. Gwaine started toward her, placing a steadying hand under her elbow.

“Do you want me to come up with you, darling?”

“Oh no, stay and have a drink with the gentlemen and enjoy yourself.”

Gwaine shook his head. “No, I’ll be right along.”

She nodded, and with a warm smile for Arthur and Merlin she left. Gwaine followed, pausing long enough to stand at Merlin’s shoulder and speak quietly.

“Don’t mind Miss Orcades, Mr Emrys. From what I gather she’s always been a bit of a snob, and Morgana’s choice of husband seems to have exacerbated it. She won’t risk quarrelling with Morgana over me, so I’m afraid you were the unlucky recipient of her vitriol.”

“It’s fine,” Merlin said, taking Gwaine’s proffered hand and shaking it firmly.

With a nod at Arthur, Gwaine took his leave, and at last Arthur had Merlin alone...but Monmouth still stood by.

Merlin turned to him, and Arthur knew that if he didn’t act quickly Merlin would excuse himself, and it was highly unlikely Arthur would catch him upstairs again, much less get him alone.

“Mr Emrys,” Arthur began quickly, “I wonder if I might take advantage of your legal expertise. I’ve a letter that I’d meant to send to my solicitor in London to review, but he’s been called away to Yorkshire on family business and won’t be available for at least a fortnight.”

Merlin looked surprised, but nodded. “Certainly. It’s the least I can do.”

“Monmouth, we’ll take our brandy in the library. See that we aren’t disturbed.”

With his usual efficiency, Monmouth had sent someone to build up the fire in the library, and within moments it was crackling merrily, casting a golden glow over the room. Merlin stood stiffly, expectantly, as Arthur pressed a glass of brandy into his hand and gestured toward the settees arranged perpendicularly to the hearth. Merlin sat down, cradling the brandy snifter in his palm and gazing pensively at the amber liquid within.

“There’s no letter, is there?”

Arthur seated himself opposite Merlin, studying the planes of his face in the firelight. He hadn’t bothered to switch on any of the lamps in the room, and only the fire and a lone, thin beam of moonlight piercing the heavy velvet drapes illuminated the aubusson rug, book-lined walls and antique furnishings.

“There is, but it’s not so pressing that it cannot wait until Pellinor returns from Yorkshire.”

“John Pellinor?”

“You know him?”

“Not directly, but Mr Taliesin speaks highly of him.” Merlin fell silent, shuffling his feet and sipping his brandy without looking at Arthur.

“I suppose you are wondering what motivated this little subterfuge…” Arthur trailed off, placing his brandy on the table to his right. “I must apologize to you.”

“That isn’t necessary, Lord Winchester.” Merlin’s voice was neutral, and he didn’t look up from the fire.

Arthur looked down at his hands. “Could we simply be Arthur and Merlin, just for a little while?”

Merlin looked up at that, a fleeting smile crossing his lips so briefly Arthur half-fancied he’d merely imagined it.

“Very well. It isn’t necessary that you apologize, Arthur.”

“But it is,” Arthur said earnestly. “Not just for Miss Orcades’ rude treatment of you -- although I am sorry you were subjected to that -- but for what happened the last time we spoke.”

Merlin stiffened, then stood abruptly, and for one heart-stopping moment Arthur feared he would turn around and stalk out of the room, ending their conversation and his hopes for reconciliation in one abrupt exit. But he didn’t leave, just approached the fireplace and placed his left forearm on the mantel above, dropping his forehead to rest there. His other arm hung limp at his side, the glass of brandy still cupped in his hand. Merlin looked down at it as if he’d forgotten it was there, and then placed it on the mantel, pushing it back against the gilt-framed portrait hanging large above the ornate fireplace.

“I hadn’t thought…I didn’t think there would ever be occasion to discuss that again,” Merlin started, and then he was silent for a long moment as if gathering his thoughts. “It’s not that I didn’t have an idea as to what you were doing, or at least what I hoped it was.”

“What you hoped?”

“Almost anything was preferable to the thought that you would just use and discard me, Arthur. You have to know that.”

Arthur winced. “I know you have no reason to think better of me, Merlin, but you must know-”

“All I knew, Arthur,” Merlin cut in sharply, “was that someone I trusted hurt me more than anyone ever has before or since. And even after what you did, there was a part of me that wanted to think the best of you, that I’d been foolish, and in a terrible, stupidly noble way you were just trying to do what you thought best for me. But in such a cruel way…what was I to think?”

“You had – and still have – every right to think I was an absolutely vile human being,” Arthur said with a sigh, rubbing the back of his neck and gazing into the fire as if the key to Merlin’s forgiveness was contained in the depths of the flames. “But I want you to know that I’ve never forgiven myself for what I did. I regretted it the moment you walked away and have every moment since.”

“Then why didn’t you do something about it? You never wrote, you never…”

“I didn’t think you’d want to see me, Merlin. Not after I behaved so abominably toward you.”

“At first I wouldn’t have,” Merlin admitted quietly. “But war has a way of changing things…forcing you to grow up. It was always in the back of my mind that maybe…just maybe you didn’t really mean what you said. But with no evidence to the contrary… And the part about you having to marry; I was sure that was true. Once the war was over I kept expecting to hear that you’d married and when I never did, I thought…maybe you really did mean it after all.”

It was the first show of true vulnerability Arthur had seen in Merlin since his arrival. From the moment he’d greeted Merlin in the entrance hall he had been calm and composed, even in the face of Morgause’s taunts and what had surely been a supremely uncomfortable evening. It made Arthur wonder if he had a chance, if perhaps gaining Merlin’s forgiveness wasn’t as much of a lost cause as he’d feared.

Arthur stood and moved to Merlin’s side, close but not touching. He could feel the warmth of the fire through his trousers, could breathe in Merlin’s scent, pomade, after-shave lotion and something uniquely Merlin, sweet, spicy, and achingly familiar. He chanced to place his hand on Merlin’s right arm just below the shoulder, and he felt muscles tensing beneath his fingers, but Merlin made no move to shrug him off. Taking that as license to continue, he took a deep breath and spoke.

“You did your time in the trenches before you took to the air. You know what it was like.”

Merlin turned to look at him, his brow furrowed in confusion.

“I do…” He said slowly.

“Crouched down in the mud and the cold, huddled with the other men -- in my case, my men, men whose lives for which I was responsible -- wet through to the skin. The rat-a-tat of machine guns, shells exploding, men dying. The filth, the stench... it was hell.”

Merlin only nodded, wordlessly.

“Several of the men had sweethearts waiting for them. They had pictures, letters...tokens and locks of hair. They’d talk about their girls back home. It was how they kept their spirits up. I didn’t have any of that,” and Arthur paused. “But one night we were under heavy mortar fire and all I could think about was you. How much I regretted driving you away as I did, how...if I got out of there alive...it was you I wanted to come home to.”

Merlin regarded him soberly. “And yet you didn’t.”

“I should have done. To my very great shame, I didn’t. Is there any possibility that you might allow me to rectify that?” He watched Merlin carefully. There was a tension in his body that spoke of some inner conflict, perhaps, and Arthur knew that time had come to act. He would not have another opportunity like this.

Quickly, before he could change his mind or think better of it, Arthur stepped closer to Merlin, dragging his hand down Merlin’s arm to clasp his fingers and tug gently. Merlin came toward him slowly, meeting Arthur’s gaze with eyes so dark as to be almost black in the dimness of the room. Arthur wrapped his free hand around Merlin’s waist, pulling him closer. Their bodies aligned perfectly, as if they’d never separated, as if they hadn’t spent the last ten years apart.

They stood for a moment, chest-to-chest, hearts pounding in time, and at length Arthur brushed his lips over Merlin’s in a feather-light caress, unsure of his welcome.

Merlin’s free hand came up to Arthur’s shoulder; he tilted his head and fitted his mouth to Arthur’s gently, his lips moving slowly as if relearning the feel of Arthur’s. Arthur groaned, pulling Merlin even closer, his tongue tracing Merlin’s lips seeking, asking, begging. Merlin’s lips parted against his, and he was suddenly inundated with the wet heat of Merlin’s mouth and his exquisite taste, sweetly tinged with just a hint of brandy. Merlin gasped, and pressing firmly against Arthur, kissed him deeply and fervently.

Despite the fact that Arthur had given the order that they were not to be disturbed, he knew he was taking a risk, kissing Merlin in the library when anyone could walk in -- but he found that he didn’t care in the slightest. After all these years, he had Merlin in his arms again. If he had his way, Arthur would never let him go again.

The kiss seemed to go on for an eternity, and yet ended all too soon with Merlin’s forehead resting on Arthur’s shoulder, his breathing shallow.

Arthur rested his free hand on the back of Merlin’s neck, pressing his lips against his temple and speaking against his warm skin, “I should have done this long ago. Can you ever forgive me?”

“Forgiveness is the easy part,” Merlin said quietly.

Arthur pulled back, but did not relinquish his hold on the nape of Merlin’s neck. He looked into Merlin’s eyes, still dark with arousal, his lips wet and swollen from kissing. He was altogether too tempting, and if Arthur had been sure of Merlin’s consent, he would have dropped to his knees and opened Merlin’s flies right there in the library, risk be damned.

“If you’ve forgiven me, Merlin, nothing can be too difficult to overcome. All this time I’ve been yours. Are you still mine?”

For a moment there was no response but Merlin’s swiftly indrawn breath. Merlin looked down, and Arthur braced himself for rejection. He’d thought nothing could hurt more than the heartbreak of that long-ago day in their clearing, but perhaps he’d been wrong.

“This is...unexpected. After all this time, I never thought…”

“There is someone else?” Arthur asked miserably.

“No, no…” Merlin said hurriedly, tightening his grip on Arthur’s fingers in reassurance. “It’s not that. Arthur, after the way we left things I didn’t dare approach you myself, and when you never - After awhile I came to believe it was that there was something lacking in me. To find that was not the case...I need some time. My mother is not well, and I just...need some time to think.”

“Of course,” Arthur said dully. It wasn’t an outright rejection, and he was thankful for that...but the bliss of kissing Merlin again receded slightly in the face of the truth that it was by no means guaranteed that Merlin would be his again. He gathered himself. “Take all the time you need. Of course you are concerned about your mother...I shouldn’t have-”

Merlin leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss on Arthur’s lips, “I’m glad you did. Never think otherwise. Just...let me get my mother through the surgery and settled. Then we can talk again.”

Weeks passed, and as spring spun slowly into summer Arthur buried himself in his work. Bedivere was kindly sent off into retirement with a generous pension, and while Arthur had not yet made a final decision concerning his new land agent, there were promising prospects and he felt cautiously encouraged. The business plan he’d recently implemented, while new, was showing well and even the death duties didn’t seem so dire with the increased income he’d projected.

There was only one thing troubling him, and that was the silence from London. He knew that Mrs Emrys had come through the surgery -- Mrs DuLac had been kind enough to tell him that. He hadn’t dared inquire further and risk showing an unseemly interest in his cook or her son. He’d been told to expect Mrs Emrys back in approximately eight weeks, and it had now been eight weeks and two days.

Not that he was counting.

Arthur reached up to pull the brim of his cap down, adjusting it to better shade his eyes from the rays of the late-afternoon sun as he surveyed the improvised cricket pitch taking shape on the lawn. The house staff took immeasurable pride in the annual friendly cricket match between the Hall and the village, and while Arthur’s heart wasn’t quite in it this year, his competitive spirit was such that he couldn’t forego his “unofficial” inspection. Monmouth trailed after him, staring repressively at the junior household servants roughhousing and joking as they worked.

He walked along, lost in his thoughts, only to be interrupted by the arrival of one of the footmen, Daegal, who ran up to Arthur breathing hard as if he’d just completed a race. Daegal bent over, bracing his hands on his knees, his skin flushed from a combination of exertion and Monmouth’s disapproving frown.

“M’lord,” Daegal huffed, “there is a telephone call for you. A Mr Emrys.”

Arthur walked back up to the house buzzing with anticipation. Surely there must be some significance in Merlin calling for him. Surely...

The telephone awaited, and it was with no small amount of trepidation that he placed the receiver against his ear and spoke into the mouthpiece.

“Winchester here,” he said gruffly.

“Arthur,” Merlin said warmly, and just the timbre of his voice was enough to send frissons of pleasure through Arthur’s body.

Glancing around and seeing that he was alone, Arthur allowed a smile to show and answered just as warmly, “Merlin. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“My mother has just been discharged. She’s rather tired, but insistent upon sleeping in her own bed tonight. I expect we’ll arrive somewhat late, if that’s all right?”

“Quite all right,” Arthur said, running a hand through his hair and fighting to keep his small smile from breaking out into a full-brown undignified grin. “Perhaps you could see fit to bring a dinner jacket this time, and dine with me?”

Merlin laughed. “As delightful as it would be to dine with you under Mr. Monmouth’s gimlet eye, I think it best that I decline. But I would like to speak with you,” and Merlin’s voice quieted, becoming more intimate. “Could you perhaps contrive some way that we might speak privately?”

Arthur’s mind raced through the possibilities; some more plausible than others. But there was only one which truly appealed to him.

“If I were to go up after dinner and dismiss DuLac early, do you suppose you could find your way to my room without being seen?”

Merlin’s voice dropped, rich, deep and promising. “I think I can manage it.”

“I’ll expect you then.” Arthur said quietly, already feeling the thrill of anticipation running through him.

“Until then,” Merlin said warmly.

Merlin rang off, and Arthur fancied he could almost see his grin as he replaced the receiver in the fork of the switch hook with a definitive click.

It had been a simple matter to retire after dinner and dismiss DuLac early, citing a headache. So simple, in fact, that Arthur was left standing in the middle of his bedroom in his pyjamas and dressing gown feeling oddly vulnerable at the thought of meeting Merlin so attired. He’d half a mind to change into a pair of trousers and a shirt, but he wasn’t sure it was worth the risk of arousing suspicion, should DuLac or another servant notice the extra discarded clothing.

And Arthur rather hoped he would be discarding his clothing.

He glanced at the gold armoire table clock resting on the bedside table. It was only half-nine, and he had no idea how long it might take Merlin to get away without being seen. As was his habit when there were no guests with whom to share his repast, he’d foregone the formal dinner in favor of a simpler meal. This should, in theory, have led to the staff downstairs finishing their duties earlier than they might otherwise have done. How this would impact Merlin’s discreet departure from the servants’ quarters he did not know.

Arthur paced. He stoked the fire; savored the plush carpet beneath his bare feet; rubbed his fingers over his slightly stubbled cheeks and contemplated shaving. He started toward the mahogany chiffonier that housed a small lockbox hidden beneath a layer of detritus from his days at Oxford, kept less for any real nostalgia than to obscure certain texts he’d acquired there. His father had sent him to obtain a gentleman's education and that he’d done, but he’d learned other things, as well...knowledge that he’d put to good use upon meeting Merlin.

The thought of touching Merlin again held even more appeal than his old, well-loved Teleny, and with regret he closed the drawer and resumed his pacing. While Merlin’s voice had certainly seemed to hold a certain...promise...when they’d spoken, in truth he could not be sure if this evening would yield all that he hoped.

But he hoped nonetheless.

Arthur resigned himself to sitting quietly in the Louis XV fauteuil à la reine that sat at an angle to the open fireplace. As chairs went, it was fairly hideous. The ornate wooden frame with its gold-leafed scrollwork paired with the gaudy floral-patterned silk clashed horribly with the dark woods, blues, and neutral tones of his suite, but the cushions were fortunately significantly more comfortable than they were attractive, and more importantly, it had been his mother’s favorite chair. Like all of Ygraine’s things, it had been banished to the attic after she’d succumbed to consumption when Arthur was barely two. Only after his father’s passing had there been any opportunity for Arthur to claim some memento of Ygraine, and he supposed the servants probably thought him mad for choosing this rather garish chair of all things, but there was something oddly appealing about it despite the way it looked. Arthur leaned back, resting his head against the high, square back, gazing at the fire through half-lidded eyes. Despite the anticipation humming through his body, he felt himself dozing and jerked when a quiet, subtle knock came at the door.

Merlin slipped through the door with gratifying speed nearly the moment Arthur turned the handle and pulled, and it felt as though from one moment to the next Arthur had gone from waiting impatiently to having Merlin standing before him in black trousers and a white shirt, his hair damp and softly tousled, his cheeks smooth. The scents of soap and aftershave clung to Merlin’s body, mingling with his natural scent, sweet and heady to Arthur’s senses. Merlin looked younger with his hair free and tousled, and his smile was wide and genuine, as if seeing Arthur was the best thing that had happened to him all day. If that were so, Arthur tended to agree.

Merlin’s eyes moved downward, taking in Arthur’s striped pyjamas and his dressing gown of smooth burgundy wool, and his grin widened.

“Sure of yourself, are you?” He asked cheekily, running one long finger down Arthur’s arm from shoulder to elbow as if sampling the fabric.

“Is there any reason I shouldn’t be, Merlin?” Arthur asked, stepping into Merlin’s space and sliding one hand into his cool, damp hair until the back of his head was cradled in Arthur’s palm. He brushed his lips across Merlin’s with a gentle pressure that belied the tension in his body. Arthur was filled with need, hot and knife-sharp, honed over long years of waiting and wanting.

“I find that I’m unable to think of one,” Merlin murmured, bracing his hands on Arthur’s waist and tugging him close. His lips were warm and dry against Arthur’s, and impossibly soft. They parted, Merlin’s breath puffing out softly, damp and subtly minty. With a low groan Arthur plunged his tongue into Merlin’s mouth, pouring ten years of desperate longing into the kiss.

Merlin’s hands tensed on Arthur’s sides, and the space between them diminished until their chests were almost touching. When Arthur had kissed Merlin in the library all those weeks ago, the first kiss after their long separation — he’d been so overcome by the sensation of kissing Merlin again that he’d hardly registered what was now so apparent. Merlin’s increased height changed the angle of their kiss, making it no less pleasurable but different nonetheless; his grip on Arthur’s sides was firm and sure, without hesitation, and while the solid press of his body against Arthur’s was no less ardent, it lacked the wild eagerness of the untried youth he’d once been. So much of their time together had consisted of stolen moments, so desperate for one another that there always seemed to be a raw edge, a tension of sorts, to their lovemaking. Even in “their” clearing, the risk of getting caught was always hanging over their heads.

He might’ve stood there for hours, kissing Merlin, reclaiming him with the slick press of lips and tongues that felt like nothing so much as a homecoming. But while Merlin’s presence here seemed to be an answer in of itself, Arthur was nonetheless seized with the intense need to know.

Arthur pulled back ever so slightly, breaking the kiss but not allowing even a sliver of space to come between their bodies. Merlin’s eyes were heavy-lidded and his lips were wet and swollen, the angles of his face sharp in the low light and his cheeks abraded by whisker burn. He leaned in again, angling his head so that his lips just barely brushed the shell of Merlin’s ear as he murmured,

“You never did answer my question, Merlin.”

“And what question was that?” There was the slightest hitch in Merlin’s breath as he answered. It was deeply satisfying that he could still affect Merlin so.

Arthur slid one hand down to grip Merlin’s hip firmly, whilst the other tightened around his back, pulling him impossibly closer...as close as their bodies could be without being joined. His cock twitched at that; half-hard at the mere thought of making love to Merlin again. He lowered his head so that he could press his lips against Merlin’s throat, punctuating his reply with slow open-mouthed kisses. “Are you still mine?”

Merlin lifted one hand from Arthur’s side and buried it in Arthur’s hair, pulling back just enough to lock eyes with him.

“I can be.”

The silence was broken only by the crackle and pop of the fire burning in the hearth and the ticking of the clock. The moment stretched; the stillness was filled with harsh breaths and the rising tide of arousal. Merlin’s words were a tease, a dare; they were meant to invoke Arthur’s lust, his urge to possess. The deep, primal part of him that wanted nothing more than to take, to have, to claim Merlin as his own for all time surged to the forefront. He let slip the beast. Sealing their mouths together, tongue seeking and hips canting forward, Arthur could feel his cock swell to fullness as he ground against Merlin. He muffled a groan as he felt an answering hardness through their trousers. They were both frantic; hands everywhere, pulling and tugging at clothing --buttons popping as they struggled to undress without breaking the contact between their mouths.

Arthur pushed forward, angling Merlin’s body toward the bed. They moved together, unwilling to separate, and Arthur fell to the bed, catching himself on outstretched arms so as not to crush Merlin. He lowered himself until he was propped up on his elbows, gazing into deep blue eyes nearly eclipsed with black. A wicked grin pulled at Merlin’s soft, full lips as he arched up, his cock hard and hot as it rubbed against Arthur’s. Merlin was beautifully wanton like this, his fair skin flushed with arousal and so pale it almost seemed to glow in contrast to the navy duvet beneath him. It was intoxicating to feel the lean lines of Merlin’s body beneath him, to inhale his scent, bask in his warmth and revel in the press of his bare skin against Arthur’s own. Some small part of him half-feared that this was all a dream, and that at any moment he would awaken alone in his bed with naught but his memories for company.

Perhaps Merlin saw something of this in Arthur’s eyes, because his expression softened, and he pulled Arthur’s head down, cupping the nape of his neck as he kissed him deeply. Arthur groaned into Merlin’s mouth, reaching for his free hand and clasping it tightly in possession, fingers twined together. The hand on Arthur’s neck fell away and drifted down, sliding between their bodies to wrap around their cocks, squeezing gently and sending jolts of pleasure through Arthur’s body as Merlin undulated his hips. With only the wetness seeping from their cocks to ease the way, the friction was intense. While Arthur knew he could come this way, he also knew that it would be a hollow pleasure; a purely physical relief that would not satisfy his need to spend his seed deep within Merlin’s body, to fill his lover with tangible proof of his claim.

Arthur broke for air and buried his face against Merlin’s neck, panting against soft skin made damp by perspiration and salty to the taste. He should make love to Merlin slowly, lavish every inch of his gorgeous body with his care and attention, lick and suck and kiss until Merlin came undone. He should get down on his knees and show just how much it meant to him that Merlin had chosen to forgive him.

He should do that, and he would…later. He fully intended to spend the rest of his life making up to Merlin for his past mistakes…if Merlin would allow it. But right Now he had other plans.

And apparently so did Merlin.

There was strength in Merlin’s body, lean and whipcord thin as it was, and when he pushed up, found himself being rolled onto his back, allowing Merlin to settle astride his thighs. He made an entrancing sight; his broad chest was covered with a smattering of dark hair that trailed down to his groin, where his cock jutted forth, the sheath drawn back and the head slick and red.

“I need you, Arthur,” Merlin said, his voice deep and rough with lust. “I can’t wait...anymore...”

Anticipation surged through Arthur’s body. “Yours, Merlin...all yours…”

“As you should be,” Merlin murmured with a satisfied smile. He leaned over Arthur and reached for the glass jar of petroleum jelly barely visible under the pillow where Arthur had placed it earlier that evening. He delved long fingers into the thick substance and sat back on his heels, still straddling Arthur’s legs. Cupping his heavy balls and watching Arthur intently, Merlin reached back with thickly coated fingers to open himself, biting his lip -- whether in pleasure or pain, Arthur couldn’t tell. Perhaps it was a bit of both. He moved confidently; he was comfortable with his body and what he was doing in a way that he hadn’t been years ago, when Arthur had been the worldly one teaching his inexperienced paramour the pleasures of the flesh. He felt a stab of jealousy at the thought of Merlin with other men, although he knew he had no right to feel that way.

Moments later, Merlin withdrew his fingers from his body and wrapped them around Arthur’s cock, using the excess to slick it before shifting his weight and angling the head toward his loosened hole. Arthur placed a hand on Merlin’s hip, holding him in place as he looked up uncertainly.

“Are you sure? I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Very sure. I know what I’m doing,” Merlin said as he lowered himself slowly onto Arthur’s cock. It had been a very long time since Arthur had last felt the exquisite sensation of pushing into the tight heat of a man’s body, and longer still since the man had been Merlin. For a moment all he could do was feel and exert every scrap of self-control he had not to come before he was even fully seated.

...know what I’m doing…

“How long?” Arthur asked just as Merlin sank all the way down, head thrown back, arms tense by his sides.

“I haven’t been a monk, if that’s what you’re asking,” Merlin gasped out.

“Never again, Merlin. Never anyone but me,” Arthur grasped Merlin’s hips firmly, his fingers sinking into the soft skin of his cheeks. He knew it would leave marks and felt oddly satisfied by the knowledge. Merlin only let out a soft, low moan of pleasure as his thighs tensed and flexed.

They fell into a fevered haze, Merlin’s body rising and falling, the tight clench of his hole around Arthur’s cock hot and grasping as he moved. It was the purest kind of bliss, and Arthur could do nothing but grip Merlin’s hips tightly and arch up to meet him as he came down. Merlin gasped and bit his lip, muttering, “so good, Arthur, so good...missed you…needed you...”

“You have me, Merlin. You have me,” Arthur breathed out, loosening his hold on Merlin’s hips and sliding one hand up his back to cup the nape of his neck and pull him down in an unconscious echo of Merlin’s earlier maneuver. “You will always have me.”

Merlin moaned softly, panting against Arthur’s lips and kissing him wetly before pulling back and shifting his hips. Straightening his body, he changed the angle of penetration, seeking...and then he found it, letting out a pleased, hoarse grunt as he braced one hand on Arthur’s shoulder while the other stripped his cock furiously in time with his increased pace. His eyes locked with Arthur’s and it was intense, so intense to look into them, glazed as they were with mounting pleasure as Merlin fucked himself on Arthur’s cock.

His balls were hot and tight and Arthur felt trapped on the edge of a precipice. He wanted release; he burned for it, yearned for it in every inch of muscle and sinew. He was trembling with the effort of holding it back, and then Merlin tightened around him, shouting as he painted Arthur’s belly with come, and Arthur let himself go, spilling deep inside Merlin in a burst of hot, sweet ecstasy.

Dizzy and half-dazed, he barely registered Merlin slumping by his side heedless of the cooling mess on his stomach. He could do nothing but turn to Merlin and gather him close, breathing in his scent and listening to the pounding of his heart and their panting breaths.

The fire had burned low as they made love, and now only softly glowing embers remained. Light from the single lamp spilled golden from the corner, leaving the bed shrouded in darkness. The room had cooled as the flames burned low on the hearth, but the duvet was a soft cocoon around their tangled limbs and Arthur couldn’t think of a time he’d felt more relaxed or comfortable. He pulled Merlin closer, splaying one hand in the center of his chest with a gentle pressure, as if by this gesture alone he could keep Merlin with him always, in his bed, their bodies aligned and legs slotted together as if they were made to fit. Like two halves of the same whole.

He pressed his mouth to Merlin’s neck, less a kiss than simple contact between lips and warm skin. He felt Merlin sigh inaudibly, shifting his hips back and tilting his face into the pillow. Time had ceased to hold any meaning. There was only the warmth, the languor of bodies well-loved and the smell of sex.

It was Arthur who broke the spell.

“Will you stay?” He asked quietly. It was a question with more than one meaning, and he couldn’t help tensing as he waited for Merlin’s reply.

“As long as I can. The maids start early,” Merlin yawned.

It was quiet for a moment, and then Merlin spoke again. “Of course, you weren’t referring to tonight.”

“Not only, no.”

Merlin turned in his arms, still close, his spent cock soft against Arthur’s, one hand resting on Arthur’s side. In the dark, Arthur could just make out the sharp lines of his cheekbones and the curve of his lips.

“You are probably wondering why I waited so long to call. I could have telephoned or written to you earlier than I did.” He paused, inhaling and holding his breath briefly before exhaling slowly. “If I had, I don’t think I could have stopped myself from asking you to come to London.”

“You know I would have,” Arthur said quietly.

“Yes, I know you would. And I would have fallen into bed with you at the first opportunity.”

“Now I really wish you’d called earlier,” Arthur said wryly.

Merlin’s lips quirked. “And as pleasurable as that would have been, I wouldn’t have had time to think everything through.”

Arthur tightened his grip on Merlin. “What was there to think about? You know how I feel. You know my regrets...and you know that you are, and will always be, the only one for me.”

Merlin smiled. “I admit I’d thought as much, after the last time we spoke...but it’s nice to hear you say it.” He leaned in close, and Arthur felt the warmth of Merlin’s breath against his cheek. “Mr. Taliesin is originally from Catraeth. A stroke of luck, that.”

“That’s a bit of a non-sequitur, Merlin.”

“It isn’t, really.” Merlin pulled back, still smiling. “He inherited his father’s practice there, has been running it from London but he’d like to have someone he trusts practicing there full time. When I mentioned wanting to be closer to my mother, he offered it to me on the spot. If I accept, I could move to Catraeth within the month.”

“Being that close, a dutiful son would look in on his mother from time to time, I suppose?”

“As long as he was welcome.”

“And if his mother’s employer needed legal advice, from time to time?”

“I expect that could be arranged,” Merlin said wryly, “but I seem to recall that the Earl of Winchester has a very qualified solicitor in London?”

“I do, but surely no one would think it odd if I engaged the services of a more conveniently located individual for a particular project?”

“I suppose they wouldn’t,” Merlin agreed. “And having two very proper, very legitimate reasons to come to the Hall is all well and good. But if you’re serious about this...I want more than a few stolen hours with the spectre of discovery always hanging over our heads.”

“As you should,” Arthur said quietly. “And I mean for you to have it.” He reached out to trace the curve of Merlin’s lip gently, and leaned in to kiss him softly.

“What did you have in mind, then?”

“You know I have a responsibility to the tenants, the staff and the village of Carlisle to keep this place going. But that doesn’t mean I’ll always have to be here. Since I’m not able to marry the person I would wish to, if I were to marry…I don’t plan to.”

Merlin let out a soft sigh. “I must admit I’m relieved to hear that, selfish as it sounds. But what will you do about an heir?”

“Thanks to the entail, the Hall and my title must go to my nearest male relative...my cousin Mordred. He will be entering university in the Fall, and when he finishes I intend to invite him here to learn the way of managing everything. I expect it will take some time, but once I’m satisfied that he will care for this place and the people as he ought, I’ll be free to let him take on the bulk of the day-to-day work and spend a good portion of my time elsewhere...perhaps on the Continent? Or London...”

“Will you truly be able to step away and leave the management of the estate in the hands of this Mordred? You, the man who has been known to wax eloquently at length regarding the importance of relationship between the tenants and the Pendragon family, dating back to the reign of Edward II?” There was a glint in Merlin’s eye, and a teasing note to his voice, but Arthur sensed the doubt in his words all the same.

“Mordred’s a good lad, and I will have to trust him sooner or later; he is the only heir I will have.” Arthur said firmly.

“But not right away.”

“Not right away, no. I will need time to ensure that he is ready; that I am leaving my people in good hands. I know I’ve no right to ask you this, considering my previous actions...but can you find it in you to wait until my obligations have been fulfilled? We will go wherever you wish, then. You have my word.”

“I will, on one condition…” And Merlin paused thoughtfully, with a wicked little grin curving his lips. “Perhaps two.”

“Oh? And what might those be?”

“First, that you let the past lie. I wouldn’t be here tonight if I weren’t well past it and ready to move on with you. And second...that we sneak away for some time alone when we can. Surely you have some properties without so many eyes and ears about, where we could go to be alone.”

Arthur tightened his arms around Merlin, and murmured into his hair. “I find that I am quite prepared to agree. To both.”