The cottage had an air of dampness about it, the kind that came from being empty for a long time. Arthur dropped his bags by the door and opened the shutters before throwing open the windows to let the air in. Sunlight streamed in and the dust motes danced merrily at the disruption. Arthur sighed and allowed himself a moment to drink in the view: just the mountains, the sky and the trees. Yes, this was just what he needed. It's the perfect place to hide away following a broken relationship and a huge fight with his father.
He was about to enjoy a long sabbatical in Italy, in one of his family's holiday homes; this one he hasn't been to since his father allowed him to bring his girlfriend Vivian after passing his A-Levels, what – over ten years ago?
How to make yourself feel old, Arthur.
He just needed to unpack and then drive down to the village to get some supplies in. He knew he should have called ahead to say he was coming so that Gia could have had the house ready for his arrival, but in his haste to get here or rather his haste to get away he forgot about all that. No matter, he could call her now and arrange for her or someone from the village to come in every day and help him out with the cooking and cleaning. Not that he can't do it himself; he isn't one of those useless blokes who are incapable of doing chores and looking after themselves, far from it; but this is a long awaited holiday for him, even if he did intend to work the whole time. These three months are really an amalgamation of all the holiday he hasn't taken over the last few years – and as such he has every intention of getting someone in to do the boring things so that he can concentrate on writing and keep his time free.
He might never get the time again and he wanted to find out one way or the other if he can write, because it was something he always wanted to try but somehow, with family obligations, work and, well, more work, he never had the time to really spend on it.
He unpacked his clothes into the wardrobe in the cottage's only bedroom and wiped the dust off the old desk by the window in the main living area to place his laptop there, new and shiny and free from distracting work emails. This house didn't even have internet and he promised himself he would only check his BlackBerry once a day in case of an emergency, after all, Morgana was nearly six months pregnant and he'd hate it if something happened and he couldn't be there for her.
Morgana had said she was glad to see the back of him because apparently he was being a mother hen around her – which was nonsense of course – he'd just been worried about her being on her own with Percy away so much, but Percy was back now so Arthur could relax and know she was in safe hands.
He sat at the desk and ran a reverent hand over the cover of the laptop, really feeling as though he could do this; he only hoped that three months was enough.
When there was a knock at the door Arthur almost jumped out of his chair, realising he'd been staring out of the window at the clouds chasing across the pale blue sky, his mind wandering- Lance, Gwen, Morgana, his father – the people he loved yet felt so distant from at the moment.
It was Gia, ten years older and at least ten inches wider with a megawatt smile that hadn't faded over the years. "Arthur!"
Arthur found himself pulled into her enthusiastic and unexpected embrace; he'd only met her that one time before after all. "Hello, Gia," he said. "How have you been? How did you know I was here?"
"Morgana call me of course," Gia said as though Arthur was a child asking a stupid question. Arthur had forgotten that Morgana visited the cottage at least annually, claiming this was the most beautiful place on earth. "I not work for you; my daughter, she has children and I help."
"You're a grandmother?" Arthur smiled, wondering how old she was because he'd had her pegged for over sixty ten years ago. "Congratulations."
Gia wasn't listening though she had turned and was beckoning towards the beat up old car that she'd parked under the trees in the shade. "I brought someone who helps you while you here; three months, yes?"
Arthur nodded, watching curiously as the front passenger door opened and a dark haired skinny young man of about eighteen unfolded long limbs and hovered nervously by the car.
"This is Merlin," said Gia, beckoning him over. "He can help you, he come every day to cook and clean for you."
Merlin approached, shading the sun from his eyes with one hand and thus covering his face. When he reached them and the sun was out of his eyes he lowered his hand and looked over shyly at Arthur from under dark sooty lashes. Arthur noticed his eyes were as blue as the sky, and mentally cursed himself for such a pointless observation. What the hell did the kid's eye colour have to do with anything? He was also taller than he had seemed on first sight, maybe even taller than Arthur.
"Merlin, questo è Arthur."
Merlin smiled then, and let loose a torrent of Italian that Arthur did not understand one word of; he knew the odd word and a couple of useful business phrases and that was his limit. He frowned and said, "Do you speak English? I'm afraid my Italian doesn't stretch much past 'please' and 'thank you'."
Merlin shrugged and glanced hopefully at Gia.
"No he doesn't speak any English."
"Oh," Arthur said, wondering how this arrangement was going to work. He dragged up a greeting from a business meeting with the people from Ferrari a few years ago, "Um, Piacere di con…serti, Merlin."
Merlin's face split in two with a huge grin at Arthur's effort to speak Italian. Unfortunately that was all the Italian Arthur knew. "Felice di conoscerti, Arthur." Merlin's cheeks flushed pink and he stared down at the floor, scuffing the toe of his Converse into the dust. Arthur was oddly mesmerised.
"Merlin doesn't have car," Gia said, glancing between the two of them and rolling her eyes. "I drop him here in morning, he work, he study and you take him home, yes?"
Arthur blinked. "Yes?"
"Good. I go now – Merlin stay and help." She kissed Arthur once on each cheek and did the same with Merlin before turning on her heel.
Arthur and Merlin both stared after her until she got into her car and disappeared in a trail of dust. When Merlin turned back to face him with an expectant look on his face, Arthur swallowed thickly. "Right then," he gestured with his head towards the front door of the cottage. "Let's get started."
Merlin seemed to understand that because he smiled and walked past Arthur through the door. Arthur followed. The next three months stretched out before him, and even though they didn't speak the same language, Arthur felt cheered by the knowledge that Merlin would be here in the daytime to keep him company.
Merlin didn't have to be an English speaker to see the sadness in Arthur. It radiated from him with every breath he took. Merlin had wanted to pull him into a hug almost the moment he'd been introduced to him. If that meeting hadn't been awkward enough already; it was a good thing Merlin had some restraint!
Arthur clearly hadn't been expecting to land a twenty-two year old male as his – whatever it was that this sort of a job was called - but he hadn't complained, and now, a week later, Merlin had to admire his work ethic. Arthur was up and writing when Merlin arrived in the morning and he had no doubt that he returned to it after he'd dropped him back home in the evening.
Merlin enjoyed coming to work for Arthur much more than he had thought he would – when Gia had first suggested it to him he'd worried that he wouldn't be able to get the study time in – he was on the final leg now and he couldn't afford to lose any time - but Arthur was really low maintenance, he just didn't want to be bothered with the day to day chores himself, so Merlin would spend a couple of hours in the mornings poring over his books and more in the afternoon. He just wished Arthur were a little less…pleasant to look at.
Yes, Arthur was lonely, and Merlin would venture as far as to say that he was more than just lonely – and he wanted to say 'lost' but he wasn't even sure that was it. Whatever it was, it made Merlin want to be there to keep him company, even if conversation between them consisted of manic gestures and Merlin drawing symbols in the air and talking, incessantly sometimes, knowing Arthur didn't know what he was saying but not wanting him to look so haunted, wanting to keep him company.
He'd talk to him about his studies, about how he was working two jobs to save money for his tuition fees so he could start to pay his way through five years of post-graduate study at the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro in Rome. Art was his passion and he intended to make its restoration his life; if he had to work as a servant to a rich Englishman and wait tables in the evenings, then that was what he had to do to achieve his ambition.
He couldn't wait to embark on the restoration course; he could feel the strokes of the original artists through his magic, could probably – no, he could – do a restorer's job without the training, but he wanted to learn how to do it from scratch, get the qualifications he needed to get a job. His magic was just an added bonus.
Sometimes Merlin's chatter deviated from ambition and studies, where he would ask Arthur about his life. Arthur Pendragon intrigued him. What do you like to do? Who loves you? Who do you love? Is there someone in your life? Cosa ti tormenta?
Of course, Arthur never answered; at least not that last question. He would talk back to Merlin though, he'd laugh at his never-ending chatter, comment back at him in an amused tone, sweeping his hand over the top of his head in a gesture that Merlin had come to realise meant, 'that just went right over my head'.
It was Arthur's eyes that nearly killed Merlin though, when they stared at Merlin when Arthur was trying to convey a message to him, even if it was just asking Merlin for a cup of tea. Deep blue eyes that showed Merlin the kind of person Arthur was without needing to understand a single word when he spoke.
The first couple of weeks flew by. Merlin would show up around eight o'clock and make him breakfast, clean up a bit and make the bed; he would then retreat into the garden under the willow tree and lose himself in his studies for a couple of hours before returning and making them both lunch, which they had taken to eating together after the second week – the first being taken up awkwardness between them and Arthur trying to get his head around the plot of his story - when Merlin had placed the cheese sandwich in front of Arthur on the second Saturday and Arthur had said, "Join me?" Merlin hadn't understood, so Arthur had walked into the kitchen, fetched Merlin's lunch and placed it opposite to his on the patio table, gesturing for Merlin to sit.
Merlin had sat down and taken a bite of his sandwich and that had been that.
In the afternoons, Merlin would study some more if all the chores were completed, prepare Arthur's evening meal and then Arthur would drive him home, usually with Merlin talking incessantly all the way. It hadn't taken him very long to get over his shyness around Arthur.
Merlin loved to talk, and Arthur felt as though he could close his eyes and let the melody of his voice flow over him. Italian was a beautiful language, and Merlin's voice was the perfect timbre for it. Arthur could barely understand a word and he didn't care. When Arthur wasn't driving Merlin would gesture, and try to make words with his hands, occasionally throwing in the odd English word he had picked up and Arthur would nod, and say something back in English – and Merlin's smile – wow, Merlin's smile. Arthur had sussed out that he was twenty-two (okay, yes, he'd asked Gia that one) and that he was studying art history out there under the tree.
Arthur realised before the first week was out that Merlin was kind of beautiful too. His ears were a little too big, but they were hidden under his unruly dark hair, and his eyes always shone with joy, like nothing could ever get him down; and those cheekbones – Merlin could easily be a model and Arthur found himself wondering why he wasn't.
"Have you thought about modelling?" he asked at the end of the second week, the Saturday. He was driving Merlin back to the village, a couple of miles of narrow road that required the utmost concentration due to the speed of occasional oncoming cars. "I could hook you up with an agency if you were interested?" Hook him up? Well, Dragon Models belonged to his father, and Arthur knew they would see Merlin if he asked.
"Non ho idea di cosa tu abbia appena detto," Merlin said, his voice sad for the first time since they had met.
"Sorry," Arthur replied, getting the gist and feeling annoyed with himself. "Sometimes I forget, you know?"
They lapsed into silence, Merlin only breaking it when Arthur pulled up at the drop-off point and he got out saying, "Buona notte, Arthur. Sogni d'oro."
Merlin's favourite part of the day was lunch time. They'd started eating together, a half an hour or so of the day where they would enjoy one another's company, both of them relaxing without thinking about their work. One Friday lunch time a few weeks into their 'friendship', Merlin bought cake and Arthur beamed joyfully and helped himself to a large slice. "Don't eat it all, you're getting chubbier," Merlin teased, resisting the urge to reach over and pat Arthur's stomach. He knew Arthur had no idea what he had just said, but it didn't matter. Seeing Arthur smile, the light in his eyes brighter than it had been this time the previous week, made it all worthwhile.
"I'm one of those people who can eat anything and not put on weight," Arthur said with smug amusement, taking another slice of cake and a healthy bite of it. He had a crumb on the corner of his mouth and Merlin had to look away; stupid pointless crush.
Arthur lay awake at night trying to get to sleep wondering what was happening back home. Were Lance and Gwen still feeling guilty about him? He didn't want that, part of the reason he'd come to Italy was to give them both some time and space, and if that meant he had time to spend writing for the first time then that was a happy by-product of a miserable situation.
His best friend and his girlfriend had fallen in love right under his nose whilst Arthur worked late nights and weekends. What was he supposed to do after that? How was he supposed to feel?
Did anyone miss him? He had regular baby updates from Morgana, and Percy liked to bombard his phone with annoying texts that would come through one after the other when Arthur switched his phone on at night. Leon too, would send texts, deliberately crafted not to mention work, Gwen or Lance. Arthur appreciated the effort.
He'd expected to feel more isolated than he did. He'd wanted the isolation, yes, but he hadn't been sure of how he might handle three months of it. He was only a few weeks in, but he didn't feel alone. He had Merlin; the oddly beautiful Italian young man who seemed to understand him even if they didn't speak the same language.
His mind drifted from the people he'd left behind to Merlin; again. Merlin had some tattoos, one on his wrist, on his upper arm and one on his hipbone that Arthur had noticed when Merlin was reaching up to a cupboard for something earlier that day. He was dying for a closer look but something was stopping him from asking.
He had always wanted a tattoo and had been thinking about getting one for his thirtieth birthday, but Gwen had had abhorrence for them so Arthur had put the urge on the back burner. He wasn't with Gwen now, and his thirtieth was looming fast.
When he finally fell asleep he dreamt of sharp hipbones, tattoos and birthday balloons with '30' printed on them in huge letters.
When Merlin got the call a few weeks later from the Istituto Superiore asking him to attend an interview there was no way he couldn't go. His name had been chosen from a long list of applicants and this was his chance.
As Merlin washed up after lunch, Arthur leaning lazily against the counter watching him, he tried to tell him he was going away for a few days and that Gia had said she would cover for him. "Arthur, I-" he began, and that was the easy part as he pointed to his chest as if Arthur would have trouble understanding that one word. "-go to Rome, tomorrow."
"Oh," Arthur said, the smile falling off his face as understanding dawned. "You will be coming back though, won't you?"
Merlin raised an eyebrow and Arthur said, "Um, how long for? How many… giorni?" He stared over Merlin's shoulder as he spoke, not meeting his eye and Merlin felt Arthur's old sadness wash over him; the emotion that had been incredibly raw in him when they'd first met and Merlin had thought was buried now as he'd seemed so much happier in recent weeks; apparently he had been wrong about that.
Suddenly he didn't want to leave. " Tre, forse quattro giorni," He held up three fingers and waved his hand before holding up four, his eyes locked on Arthur the whole time as he followed his movements and then fixed his unblinking gaze on Merlin.
Arthur's mouth turned down slightly. "It'll be quiet without you."
Merlin shrugged slightly and shook his head in the gesture that had come to represent: I don't understand.
Arthur grinned then, his face lighting up. He then attempted to convey to Merlin using a series of ridiculous gestures that there would be less chatter without Merlin present.
Merlin laughed and flicked Arthur with the tea towel. Arthur shot out a fast hand and grabbed the other end of the towel, yanking Merlin forward, but his laughter died as Merlin tripped and barrelled into Arthur's chest. Merlin steadied himself with a hand on Arthur's arm, and the laughter died on his face as their eyes locked.
All of the air left Merlin's lungs. God, Arthur was- No, he couldn't go down that route. He stepped back, breaking eye contact and turning to wipe down the work surface.
"I'm sure you'll be fine without me."
Arthur was making progress with his writing, his characters were behaving, the plot was all slotting into place and he felt confident that this book was something good. Hell, if it wasn't, if no one wanted it then it wasn't the end of the world, he had a career to go back to. Uther, despite his anger at Arthur for taking all this time off, was still planning to hand the reins of the company over to Arthur when he turned fifty-five to retire to a life of golf and skiing. Family always came first, regardless of how pissed off they might get.
So no, the world did not hinge on this book. If it worked out, then Leon would make a fantastic CEO of The Pendragon Group whilst Arthur continued to write. If it didn't, Arthur would live with it. He'd have to.
So it was going well, but, Arthur had been finding Merlin to be quite distracting and the more so the more time that passed. It became that their lunches and the fifteen minute drive to the village to take Merlin home were the highlights of his day. That, and watching Merlin work; watching him clean, make the bed, hoover, cook Arthur's dinner… watching him study. Not that Arthur spent all of his time watching Merlin do the chores, but it wasn't sunny outside every day, and he couldn't help it.
Now Merlin had gone to Rome for a few days, and Arthur hadn't really ascertained why, but the place felt cold and empty without his daily presence; and it wasn't that having Gia come in twice a day in Merlin's stead wasn't company; at least he could talk to her and hold a conversation that didn't involve waving his hands in the air. He missed that though. He missed watching Merlin's lips as they formed the Italian words that Arthur did not understand more than one in ten words of – and only then because of their basis in Latin. God help him, he missed Merlin; which was utterly ridiculous when they couldn't even have real conversation!
Yet, when he closed his eyes at night, at the end of another day without Merlin being there and lay on his back staring blankly at the ceiling he realised that not once since Merlin left had he even thought about Gwen. He missed his Italian companion more than he missed his ex-girlfriend.
He had a horrible feeling he was screwed.
Merlin stared out the window watching the countryside blur as the train sped past taking him back towards home: and Arthur. He should have enjoyed Rome, and he had, but the whole time he'd felt as though something was missing.
Sighing, he turned his attention away from the landscape and pulled a book from his bag, ' Impara l'inglese'. He'd never before wanted to speak another language as much as he did now. They hadn't taught English at his school because it was so small; if students wanted to take it then they had to get a bus into the nearest big town and his Mum hadn't wanted him to go so far on his own – he'd never missed it – until now.
He opened the book, flicking through a few pages to the first chapter. " Mi chiamo Merlin," he read and repeated in English. "My name is Merlin."
When he arrived at the station it was another hour's drive home. He'd expected Gwaine to pick him up, but when he found Arthur there instead he stopped dead and watched him unobserved for a minute as Arthur checked his watch and jigged his leg, looking towards the station entrance – the one Merlin had not exited through, using instead the little known side door.
His blond hair shone bright in the mid-afternoon sun making him seem otherworldly. Which he was, really, wasn't he? Arthur was from a whole different world to Merlin's.
When Merlin approached, saying, "Arthur?" and Arthur turned towards him, and for a moment, before he shut it away again, the look on his face when he looked at Merlin was raw joy.
Merlin forced a smile; swallowing, nervous again like this was their first meeting all over again. What the hell was wrong with him?
"Gwaine?" he asked.
"Gwaine has a bug. Um-" Arthur said. He mimed vomiting. "Gia asked me to pick you up."
"Okay," Merlin said with a small smile, still feeling awkward. He reached into his backpack, trying to distract himself from the urge to hug Arthur senseless and produced a small gift bag which he handed to him.
Arthur stared at it for a moment before peering inside and lifting out the contents.
It was a snow globe of the Colosseum.
"I love it." Their eyes met for the first time and Merlin suppressed as gasp at the shockwave that shot through him. "I…amo?"
Merlin laughed and shook his head. "Lo adoro."
Merlin didn't have time to let the butterfly sensation register before Arthur had pulled him into a hug.
"I missed you."
Merlin sank into the embrace and tried to remember the words 'I missed you' to look up in his English book later.
Arthur settled back down into contentedness after Merlin returned from Rome. The snow globe at on his desk next to his laptop and the loneliness only really bothered him in the evenings when Merlin had gone home when he would spend long minutes gazing into space and wondering what Merlin was doing.
He realised he didn't know where Merlin lived exactly as he always dropped him near the market square, and he certainly didn't know what Merlin did in the evenings. Didn't know if he had someone to go home to, even; didn't know how to ask; was scared of the answer.
He dropped Merlin off one evening over two months after arriving in Italy and stared at his own hands on the steering wheel for a full fifteen minutes after Merlin had turned around the corner out of sight. "Fuck," he muttered, and for the first time since he'd arrived in Italy, he switched on his BlackBerry – still ever present in his pocket even if it wasn't active – and called Morgana.
Just hearing her voice was soothing; the baby was doing fine, Percy was being attentive, their father was being unusually fatherly, she missed Arthur, the baby was due in four weeks and would he be home before that?
Arthur wanted to be there but he wasn't sure he was ready to go home. He wasn't sure he ever wanted to leave here.
When his call ended with Morgana he called Leon. There must've been something in the tone of his voice because Leon suddenly said, "I'm owed a few days holiday, why don't I come out for a long weekend?" and Arthur almost bit his hand off. He needed some company that wasn't Merlin to put some perspective onto these feelings he had around him. It wasn't healthy; some kind of rebound obsession that was pointless because soon, Arthur would be back in England.
He eventually drove back to the cottage and ate the meal Merlin had left for him. Leon text half an hour later to say he would be arriving the following evening. He wrote like a demon that night, buoyed by Leon's impending visit as though it was going to be the cure for this knot that had settled beneath his rib cage and was refusing to go away.
Merlin went to the deli before Gia picked him up to take him to Arthur's, as he often did, to get Arthur's groceries. He bought some fresh bread and a few things Arthur's fridge was lacking, and after dithering for a few minutes he chose a bottle of wine. He had a rare night off tonight and- He wanted to spend it with Arthur.
He'd looked up the phrase 'I missed you'. Mi sei mancato. Those three words summed up exactly how Merlin had been feeling the whole time he was in Rome and away from Arthur. He didn't know what to make of that, which was why over the last couple of weeks he'd waited for something but that never came. Maybe it never would, maybe it was all in his head. Still – he slipped the bottle of wine into the shopping bag with optimism and waited on the corner for Gia to pick him up.
He couldn't recall a time he'd ever felt so nervous, as though suggesting to Arthur that he might stay for dinner was tantamount to propositioning him. Merlin had a few English words and phrases he'd learned that he wanted to practice on Arthur and he couldn't wait to see the look on Arthur's face when he did.
He hadn't had a lot of time to study English as he had an essay due in soon for his correspondence course but he'd been taking the book to bed with him and falling asleep with English words whizzing around inside his head.
"'Giorno, Arthur!" he called as he let himself in, his usual smile in place as he balanced the shopping and headed straight for the pantry to store the food.
He stopped dead when he saw that Arthur wasn't alone, that there was a shaggy haired blond man sitting at the table opposite Arthur and they were laughing companionably. Merlin dropped the bag he was carrying and the bottle of wine smashed on the stone tiled floor; unsaved by his magic – Arthur didn't know about that part of him yet. Maybe never would.
Merlin cursed, tearing his eyes away from the two men at the table to the shatter remnants of his hope on the floor.
Arthur jumped to his feet. "Merlin, are you alright?"
Merlin bent and picked up the bag, rescuing the other contents which were thankfully dry due to the bottle falling out before smashing to the ground. He swiftly walked to the kitchen counter and stowed the contents there, grabbing a cloth and a broom, ignoring Arthur as he set about clearing it up.
"Sorry," he said as he gingerly picked up the large pieces of glass from the floor and threw them into a bin liner.
He heard the alien voice of the other man talking to Arthur: "I can see why you have a problem," and the tone set his teeth on edge. It was the affection in his voice, borne of an old friendship or an intimate relationship; Merlin hadn't been this jealous since Luigi Bianchi had stolen Merlin's girlfriend from him when he'd been eleven years old, and even then that was because Ilaria had a trampoline in her back garden rather than any genuine affection for the girl.
Arthur must have sensed Merlin's mood because he had retreated back to the table again. Merlin finished clearing up and went to put some coffee on before he started making Arthur's breakfast. Damn, that was breakfast for two. He stopped what he was doing, both hands flat on the work surface as he took a deep breath and tried to compose himself; hearts on sleeves were unflattering accessories for an Italian man, even one as unfashionable as he was.
His mind had emptied of most of the English words he had picked up. He stuck his head around the kitchen door and two expectant faces; one curious, the other concerned looked back at him. "Colazione per due?" he said, forcing a smile.
Arthur nodded with a friendly smile. "This is Leon," he said. "He's staying for the weekend." He held up four fingers. "Four days."
Merlin nodded, flicked his eyes to Leon, his name being the only thing he had picked up from Arthur's words other than the duration of his stay and he forced a sunny smile. He couldn't find his English words.
He returned to the kitchen and tuned out their talking. He served coffee and breakfast, and then set about his morning chores, expecting to find a sleeping bag on the sofa that would need folding up and putting away for the day. When he didn't find it, he went to make Arthur's bed, suddenly needing to know – and sure enough, there was a suitcase on the left hand side of the bed and both of the pillows had dents in them.
He blinked back the unexpected tears and set about swiftly straightening the sheets and leaving the room as soon as he could.
That morning he got no studying done whatsoever. He was reading the same sentence over and over, his concentration shot. He made lunch and joined them both, not wanting to look as though he was sulking. He picked at his sandwich and listened to them talk, neither one talking to him, after all – when they had each other what was the point? No one wanted to waste time gesturing and drawing circles in the air when they could use actual words with one another.
Arthur drove him home that evening leaving Leon back at the house. "You're quiet today, Merlin," he said.
Merlin stared out of the window with a frown. He didn't really feel like responding to whatever it was Arthur had just said.
"Merlin?" Arthur spoke as he pulled over to drop Merlin off.
Merlin turned towards Arthur, two pairs of blue eyes searching the other. He shook his head slightly. I don't want to talk about it. "Buona notte, Arthur," he whispered and let himself out of the car.
He didn't bother going home. Instead he almost ran to Gwaine's house. "Do you feel like getting drunk?" he asked the moment Gwaine opened the door.
Gwaine grinned, reaching behind him for his jacket. "When have I ever said no to that question?"
That had been what Merlin was relying on.
"As lovely as Merlin's cooking is," Leon said on Saturday, Leon's third night there. "I fancy going out – is there anywhere to eat locally?"
Arthur had no idea. He hadn't been out at all at night; not much point going on your own and the only people he knew locally were Merlin and Gia. "We could drive down to the village, there's bound to be somewhere."
It was good to have Leon here, it really was, but something was wrong with Merlin and Arthur was feeling decidedly unsettled. Arthur thought maybe he didn't feel comfortable with someone else there as it was difficult to communicate with a third person who wasn't used to their methods. Merlin had sat with them for lunch yesterday, but today he had done his morning chores, been picked up afterwards by a friend and had only returned in the later afternoon to prepare dinner; a dinner that he and Leon were no longer going to consume.
"Hopefully getting out might cheer you up, Arthur. Don't go blaming my snoring again for your lack of sleep last night either – I offered to sleep on the sofa and you offered to share your bed with me. Anyway it's not like my snoring is news to you, we did room together for three years."
Arthur sighed. Leon's snoring had not been what had kept him awake.
"It’s not that. I don't know- Come on then, let's head out. I'm starving."
They drove to the village, which was actually more of a small town in size, and parked up near the square. There were a couple of restaurants there, and Leon nodded at one said, "Let's try that one." It looked to be 'traditional' Italian fare.
They were given a table near the front window. Their waitress introduced herself as Freya; Arthur could understand that much before Leon asked, "Do you speak English?"
Freya nodded, "A little." She poised her pad ready. "You like drinks?"
Arthur ordered a soft drink, he wasn't much of a drinker, and certainly not when he was driving, and Leon ordered some wine. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd had an alcoholic drink. In fact-
Why had Merlin been bringing wine yesterday? Arthur's shopping did not usually include wine!
He furrowed his brow, wondering if he had missed something. He certainly almost missed Leon saying, "Isn't that Merlin over there?"
Arthur turned rapidly, spotting Merlin towards the back of the small restaurant, standing next to a table of four, smiling as he took their order. "I didn't know Merlin had another job," he said, feeling horribly small all of a sudden. What else didn't he know?
"Well I hardly think your attraction to him is due to his conversational skills do you?" Leon remarked with amusement, but Arthur didn't find it funny, because he was wrong.
Arthur was still looking at Merlin when he finished taking the order and turned away, his eyes finally meeting Arthur's. Glancing from Arthur to Leon and back again, his smile faded. He nodded in acknowledgement and ripped the order off his pad heading to the kitchen at the back.
Arthur's appetite vanished.
"He's kind of miserable isn't he, your Merlin?" Leon observed dryly. "Why do you think that might be?"
Arthur turned back to his friend just as Freya arrived back with their drinks. "I don't know Leon, I really don't, he's not normally like that."
"Interesting," Leon said, "Very interesting."
Arthur ignored him and stared at the menu looking for something familiar. "The Penne Arrabiata looks good. What do you think?"
Leon returned back to England, but Merlin's joy at going to do his day's work at Arthur's didn't return. It was awkward. All he could think about was Leon sharing Arthur's bed, and how he'd wanted to squeeze the life out of Leon with his magic like he was Darth Vader. It hurt so bloody much and he couldn't understand it.
Seeing them both dining together had almost killed him. He'd been a mess after that, dropping things all over the place, having to give a free meal to a customer after spilling sauce onto them; luckily they were regulars and have laughed it off, but the cost of the meal had come out of Merlin's wages.
Damn them both.
Three days after Leon left when Merlin didn't join Arthur for lunch again, Arthur followed him outside where he was studying under the shade of his favourite tree, cross legged on the floor, trying to stop the words from blurring; he'd barely read a word since last week. "Merlin, have I done something wrong?"
Merlin had to look up as Arthur addressed him. He flapped his hands to indicate he didn't understand and Arthur sighed, flopping down beside him. He pointed to his chest. "I'm, um, me, dispiace."
Arthur's blue eyes shone with sincerity, but Merlin knew he didn't know what he was apologising for, and really, what had he actually done wrong other than discard Merlin's cooking for one night and go to eat out? Merlin was clinging onto something that could never be.
He shook his head and made an 'OK' sign. They sat in silence for a while, Arthur lying back on the grass and resting his head on his arms, closing his eyes. Merlin took the opportunity to study him for a long moment, blond eyelashes fanned against lightly tanned cheeks, his golden hair over long and in need of a haircut. He supposed he was committing this to memory. Arthur was leaving in a couple of weeks and Merlin would be unlikely to see him again.
The thought brought tears to his eyes. He blinked them back, desperately trying to lighten the heavy weight that settled inside him.
When he saw the jug of water he had brought out on a tray for his use whilst studying he didn't think twice before scooping out an ice cube and quickly leaning over Arthur to shove it under his t-shirt, getting to his feet in an instant, laughing at Arthur's surprised, "Hey!" Merlin scrabbled to his feet and ran out of range as Arthur floundered. "You sod!"
Merlin was talking to him again. After his apology and the ice cube, it seemed that things were back to normal, and in many respects they were, but something had changed. There was an unspoken tension between them that Arthur hated. He was more than aware that his time with Merlin was coming to a close. He would be going back to England in just less than three weeks.
He'd already nearly finished his first draft of his book. It had a beginning, middle and an end. He needed to go back through the whole thing and edit, checking for plot holes and repetition and making sure it made sense. He could start that now and finish it off back at home. He'd made some decisions about home too; he didn't want to go back to the way his life had been before, always at work, never having any fun.
It really was no wonder Gwen had fallen for Lancelot; they'd probably seen more of each other as they waited around for Arthur to finish work than Arthur had seen of either of them. He felt ready to see them again now. The feelings of hurt and betrayal he had felt initially, when he'd realised how much they'd been fighting their feelings for his sake, had faded and now he felt detached from it all. He'd thought he loved Gwen, but that old feeling paled in comparison-
He didn't want to think about that.
He spent the morning spell checking his work and tidying it up. Once that was done and before he would start the editing he typed, 'The End' at the bottom and changed its font to Lucida Handwriting because that made it seem more complete somehow. He sat back, satisfied. He could take the rest of the day off. Perhaps Merlin would like to go on a boat trip on the lake. Arthur remembered doing that from his last stay here, and he loved the water. It was the perfect treat to celebrate this landmark. He'd done it. Okay, so there was still tidying up to but that was it. It was in the hands of the Gods now.
"Merlin?" he called out, knowing he was in the kitchen preparing lunch.
Merlin's head popped around the door jamb. "Un minuto," he said and ducked back into the kitchen, emerging a minute later with the coffee pot and two mugs. He placed them on the table besides Arthur, and then what happened next seemed to be in slow motion.
Merlin poured Arthur his usual strong black coffee and handed it to him, their fingers touched and Arthur's grip faltered. The mug tipped and the hot coffee poured from the mug and onto his laptop, which immediately made a horrendous whirring sound and cut out. "Fuck!" Arthur shouted, leaping to his feet. "My book! It’s all in there!" He hadn't backed up. Why the hell hadn't he backed it up?
Merlin, wide-eyed and clearly understanding the reasons for Arthur's panic yanked his t-shirt over his head and began to dab at the keyboard, mopping up the spilled coffee. "Quale cretino non fa il back up del proprio lavoro?"
Arthur began to hyperventilate, closing his eyes in his panic. "Oh God, oh God," he muttered, gripping the edge of the desk tightly. "God, God, God."
"Arthur, calmati," Merlin said gently, diverting his attention from the laptop to Arthur. He placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed and seemed to search his mind for the right words, eventually saying, "I…help, yes?"
Arthur opened his eyes, exhaling as he did so. Merlin was toe to toe with him, half-naked and Arthur's head swam with confusion and a fierce desire to reach out and touch. He couldn't help trailing his eyes down – never too confused for that – along a lean pale chest and stomach, with dark hair leading down in to his jeans- Arthur forced his eyes away, noting Merlin's sharp hipbones and that the tattoo was a spiral; a triskle…
He swallowed his throat dry. Oh God, his book. Merlin was reaching into his jeans pocket, pulling out a mobile phone. "Gwaine?" he said when the person answered. He launched into a stream of urgent sounding Italian, meeting Arthur's eyes as he spoke, Arthur unable to look away. He finished the call and said. "Me amico help." He held up his hands, his fingers splayed. Ah, Merlin's friend would be here in ten minutes. Hopefully he was some kind of computer expert.
Merlin returned a hand to Arthur's shoulder and pushed him back down into his chair and returned to mopping up coffee. The mug lay forgotten on the floor, a sad reminder of the brief contact that had caused the accident in the first place.
When the knock on the door came Merlin answered and came in back into the room with a dark haired man, presumably Gwaine. He carried a laptop case and a rucksack. He put the rucksack on the floor and the laptop case on the table where Merlin had cleared away the jug of coffee and the other mug. "I'm Gwaine," he said to Arthur in a thick Italian accent, holding out his hand.
Arthur responded automatically. "Arthur." He forced a smile. "Do you speak English?"
Gwaine shrugged. "Yes, enough," he said. He picked up Arthur's dead laptop. "I see what I do with this. You and Merlin – leave please, go out maybe?"
This wasn't how Arthur had envisaged that afternoon's boat trip to come about; he hadn't even had to suggest it, Merlin had pulled him outside, climbed into the passenger seat of Arthur's car and waited for Arthur to get into the driver's side. He'd directed Arthur to the village and once he'd parked, Merlin had led the way to the port where they had boarded a boat with a sign boasting a two hour tour of the lake. Merlin had paid and herded Arthur on board. He was starting to feel like a child.
They found seats on the top deck and Arthur leaned over the edge of the boat staring at the overcast sky, trying not to think about what he would do if Gwaine couldn't recover his book. Exactly how stupid was he, not backing up his work? He was a fucking moron who didn't deserve to have anything come of the damned thing even if it was recovered.
Merlin's hand crept over his and squeezed reassuringly. Arthur turned his hand and linked his fingers into Merlin's and they stayed like that for the whole two hours, their backs to the few other passengers with the wind in their hair in silence.
When they arrived back at the cottage Gwaine was sitting at the kitchen table with his own laptop in front of him reading a Word file that Arthur hoped was his book. Gwaine held up a USB stick and waved it. "All good," he announced. "You are very lucky man!"
"Thank you so much!" Arthur exclaimed. "What can I give you for your trouble? How much-?"
"Keep your money," Gwaine said, holding up a staying hand. He glanced towards the kitchen where Merlin had disappeared into as soon as they'd got back. "Just…look after Merlin."
He began to pack his things away, and before Arthur could ask what he meant by that, Merlin had re-appeared and Gwaine addressed him in Italian. They conversed for a minute or so as Gwaine packed. He was gone a minute later.
Arthur looked over to where Merlin was hovering nervously by the kitchen door watching him, a thank you on his lips for him as well. It died on his lips when his BlackBerry roared to life from inside his bedroom where he had left it charging. With an apologetic glance at Merlin he went to see who it was. When he saw Percy's name he answered immediately.
"Morgana's had a fall and gone into early labour!" were the words he was greeted with, followed by, "Can you come home?"
Arthur's immediate response was, "I'll be on the next plane." He quizzed Percy for details of where he could find them and once he'd hung up he hauled his suitcase out from under the bed and began to open drawers and throw clothes inside. He'd just go straight to the airport and get the next flight to London; no point ringing ahead, he'd wait until there was a seat free.
"Arthur?" Merlin's voice came from the doorway. Shit. He was leaving now. These were his last minutes with Merlin. The emotion that rose in his chest at that realisation stymied his worry over Morgana. He stopped his packing and turned to face him.
"I have to go home," he said. "My… sorella is pregnant and the bambino is coming." He made a pregnant belly with his hands and Merlin paled as he nodded.
Merlin stepped into the room and began to open Arthur's drawers, putting clothing into his suitcase for him. They packed in silence. All Arthur needed to do then was lock up and make sure Merlin emptied the fridge – he could ring Gia about that later – he had to drop Merlin home on his way to the airport now. He checked his pocket for the USB stick Gwaine had given him, curling his fingers around it to confirm it was still there.
They got into the car in silence, Arthur's suitcase on the backseat reminding them that this was the last time they would ever make this journey.
Merlin was struggling to breathe. This was it. It was too soon. Arthur didn't even know about his magic; he'd not found the chance to show him yet and now it was too late. He wasn't ready to let go. He searched for the words now, the little English he had learned spinning around in his head in confusion. "I…miss you," he managed just as Arthur pulled the car over in their usual drop-off spot.
Arthur didn't smile. Instead he took Merlin's hand and said, "It's always been the saddest part of my day, leaving you." They sat there, staring at one another until Arthur eventually said, "I have to-" he nodded at the road ahead.
Merlin sighed pulled his hand out of Arthur's grasp. It was now or never. He mentally counted to five, unable to tear his eyes off Arthur's, and leant in to place a kiss on Arthur's lips. He half missed, hitting the corner, causing Arthur to gasp in shock.
"Goodbye, Arthur," he whispered and opened the car door, running as fast as he could until he knew Arthur couldn't see him. He leant back against a wall and sank to a crouch, his head in his hands, finally letting out the sob that had been building when he'd realised Arthur was leaving.
What was he supposed to do now? How was he supposed to survive without that wonderful, wonderful man in his life?
Two months later
Arthur hovered nervously outside the restaurant, running a shaking hand through his already dishevelled hair for the fiftieth time as he contemplated the door.
What if it had all been in his head? What if it had all been just a rebound thing with Merlin the only person around to latch his attentions onto? What if-
People didn't miss other people like he had missed Merlin when it was just a rebound crush; they didn't ache like he did, feeling as though they had lost the other half of themselves. They didn't go to bed at night with that person's name on their lips and awake the next day with the same.
He had to know.
He'd made his peace with seeing Gwen and Lance together; he was a proud uncle to a beautiful baby girl named Kathryn, he'd submitted his manuscript under a pen name to the publishers his father owned and had been invited in to 'talk' in a week's time. That had to be good news. Now he needed to do this, before he drove himself mad wondering 'what if'?
Yet he couldn't go inside. He'd never been so scared in his whole life!
"Arthur?" said a vaguely familiar voice from a few feet away. Gwaine stepped into view. "It is you. Good. Eventually you come. How they say it? Is better late than never?"
Gwaine was holding hands with the girl Arthur remembered as the waitress from the one time he had eaten here – what was her name? Freya, yes; at least that resolved one of Arthur's many concerns about the nature of Gwaine's relationship with Merlin.
"What do you mean?" he asked. This was the second time Gwaine had alluded to there being something between him and Merlin.
Gwaine shrugged. "Merlin miss you. He think you go home and forget; go to Lee?"
Who? What? Leon? Oh God, that explained so much!
Well, that was something positive if Merlin was jealous of Leon, right?
"I'd better go inside then?"
Gwaine nodded, and bolstered by his audience, Arthur took a step forward, then another and another until he was pushing open the door and stepping inside. Gwaine and Freya followed him.
He immediately stalled at the packed restaurant and the distinct lack of any sign of Merlin.
"Posso aiutarla?" asked the man Arthur recognised as the proprietor from his last visit.
"Cerca Merlin," Gwaine said from behind him, just as Merlin appeared from the kitchen door at the back, saw Arthur standing there and stopped dead, a flush creeping up his pale neck.
Arthur drank him in, his shaggy dark hair, the wide blue eyes, his perfect red lips… Merlin gathered himself and stepped forward, ignoring the summons of an oblivious customer as he was drawn towards Arthur. He stopped at the end of the bar, chewing his lower lip nervously.
"Buona sera, Merlin," Arthur began tentatively, still unsure of his Italian despite two months of private lessons four days a week.
"Good evening, Arthur," Merlin replied.
Arthur was horribly conscious that most of the patrons of the small restaurant had turned their attention to the exchange.
"Merlin," Arthur began in stilted Italian. "I've come here to tell you that since I left here without you that you are all I have thought about - and I know it seems insane because I hardly know you, but – I-" He stopped, his heart pounding in his chest so loudly that he could barely hear his own voice.
Merlin stepped closer. The air around them felt thick with suspense.
"You- what?" Merlin repeated, in English. Arthur felt dizzy with the joy of that.
"You learnt English?" Arthur said.
"Just in case," Merlin replied. Another step closer. "Hai imparato l'italiano."
"Nel caso che..." Arthur replied. Another step.
"What were you say?" Merlin asked and closed the final gap so that they were almost toe to toe.
"That I don't want to be apart from you. Leon is just a friend. That I want to be where you are. Che ti amo."
The patrons of the restaurant took a collective gasp. Merlin stared into Arthur's eyes and he could swear they flashed gold before he said in perfect English, "I love you too."
Arthur wasn't sure who leant in first or whose hand wrapped around the other's neck first; but he was soon lost in a kiss that he never wanted to end. Around him he was vaguely aware that golden glitter was falling over their heads and he heard cheering, but it sounded far away as the blood pounded in his head.
Merlin loved him back and nothing else mattered.