The day is spectacular for early September. It’s sunny and mild, wrapped in soft tendrils of haze that are invisible to the eye but make the angles smoother and expressions – calmer. It’s a gorgeous day, and this is the first Arthur has seen of it, gazing out the upper floor window of the Queen’s Trust Headquarters at four in the afternoon. He’s been sequestered in meeting after meeting all day and can’t help a twinge of wistfulness as he stares outside.
Someone clears a throat delicately behind him, and Arthur flinches, turning away from the window and looking at the screen again.
“Are you certain you want me to make the final choice?” he asks Gwen dubiously for the third time. “I mean, it’s a children’s hospital. Despite what Morgana’s been telling you, I’m not actually a child.”
Gwen tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and gives him a tight smile. It tells him, wordlessly, that she’d be much happier to laugh at his joke if him sitting here making jokes wasn’t keeping her from hurrying home to curl up on a couch with her boyfriend in front of the telly or whatever it is she’d rather be doing on a Friday night.
“Your Highness, this is your charity,” Gwen says patiently. “You’ll be overseeing the hospital during its construction and after it’s been built. It will have a plate with your name on it.”
Arthur sighs. “Does it have to? Can’t it have yours?”
Gwen purses her lips. “In any case,” she says a bit testily, “all three projects have been vetted by the experts for functionality and security. You just need to choose what the building will look like.”
Of course, Arthur thinks grimly. No one considers him an expert on anything, his degree from St. Andrews notwithstanding. Granted, it’s in history, but he’s not a complete imbecile. Essentially, he’s a judge at a beauty contest. Charming.
Honestly, he’s used to all kinds of decisions being made for him by other people, but some days the reminder is more painful than others. The hospital will be built with the money he managed to raise, but God forbid he’d be consulted about anything but pure aesthetics. But Arthur only smiles at Gwen. “All right, then; let’s have a look.”
She seems relieved as she sits down beside him, opening presentation files on her laptop and sending them to the big plasma screen. Arthur feels mildly curious, because making the new children’s hospital a project for the young architects’ contest instead of hiring some big name had been his idea. He’s about to see if it’s paid off.
The first project Gwen shows him looks like oversized Lego cubes stuck together in an odd way. While it’s bright and apparently cheerful, Arthur finds that he can’t really get on with the idea.
The second one is highly reminiscent of a wedding cake, with numerous buildings and platforms adorned in greenery. Most of all it reminds Arthur of the Hanging Gardens, and, while it does look impressive, Arthur isn’t convinced that London can quite live up to the climate conditions of Mesopotamia. And spending money on glorified smoking rooms for the staff isn’t exactly what he has in mind.
The third project is a bloody castle.
Arthur stares at it in suspended disbelief for a few moments, catching himself before he starts poking at the screen. He clears his throat. “Is this a joke?”
Gwen giggles. “Actually, you’ll find that this project scored the highest in both functionality and comfort, as well as security.”
“Really,” Arthur intones, enthralled.
Gwen keeps explaining about internal design and easy access to the elevators, but Arthur zones out. He watches the presentation unfold and bites his lip viciously not to squeal in glee, because there’s an honest to God drawbridge, and wings and wards named after mythical creatures and styled to match.
On the whole, the building looks a bit like Hogwarts, but less fancy somehow – more like a real castle. Arthur can just see it domineering over the neighbourhood, standing in the middle of a magnificent park, also sketched meticulously by this unknown young talent.
“You’re in love with it, aren’t you?” Gwen teases him gently.
Arthur grins. “Well, you have to admit, it’s original. And much more fitting with the city landscape than those Lego things.”
She rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. “So we have a winner, then?” At Arthur’s nod, she stands up. “In that case, I’ll go tell him.”
“Wait, you mean whoever made this is here?” Arthur stares at her. “Now?”
Gwen nods. “He was late in submitting his paperwork; he’s waiting out there for me now.”
“Fetch him, please,” Arthur says, grinning. “I want to meet this person.”
Gwen dimples with pleasure. “Of course, Your Highness.”
Arthur stands up, walking toward the screen where a three-dimensional model is still rotating, showing off its nooks and crannies. From the half-opened door, Arthur can hear Gwen’s calm tones as she asks someone to step inside.
Arthur winces and glances at the door incredulously. People are usually tripping over their feet to meet him, but the voice sounds torn between terrified and angry.
“No, Gwen, no bloody way! You said it was all anonymous. You said I’d never have to meet him!”
Arthur’s eyebrows climb higher into his hairline, his curiosity piqued. As a rule, people seem to like him.
“Don’t be stupid!” Gwen snaps, her voice coming closer.
The door flies open and she comes stomping in, dragging someone tall and incredibly reluctant in by the hand. Arthur looks into the man’s face and feels all air leave his lungs in a rush, even as Gwen propels the man forward none too gently.
“Your Highness, this is Merlin Emrys.”
At which point Merlin’s eyes finally meet his, and his lips thin into a stubborn, angry line.
“Hello, Arthur,” Merlin says quietly, with the air of a man who’s about to be executed. “It’s been a long time.”
For the longest, most torturous moment, Arthur can do nothing but stare at the man he thought he would never see again.
This isn’t happening.
Merlin grits his teeth and tries not to howl at the sheer unfairness of it all. What deities could he possibly have offended in his past life to this extent?
He should have said no. When Lance had told him about the contest, he should have bloody said no. But it was anonymous – completely anonymous, Gwen had assured him, and he’d loved working on his project. It was only the second time after uni that he’d gotten to work on something real, and Merlin had loved every minute of it. He’d been thrilled when Gwen came out of the room, eyes bright, and told him his project had won.
This right here, though? This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Gwen’s gasp at Merlin’s brazen familiarity while addressing the crown prince is drowned out when Arthur speaks, breathless and stunned.
He looks so appalled and shaken that Merlin prays for the ground to swallow him. The last time he had seen Arthur was eight years ago, and back then he’d looked like any other regular seventeen-year-old, with his hair bleached to platinum by the luscious Mediterranean sun and his skin an alarming shade of roasted tangerine. He was attractive back then, with his blazing smile and clear eyes, shocked and adorable as they’d looked at Merlin and had prompted him to do truly outrageous things just to see that look one more time. Now, though...
Now, Arthur is perfect.
Merlin has seen pictures in the media, of course; he isn’t a hermit. But the photos couldn’t have prepared him for the way Arthur fills the room, every last corner of it; the lines of his body strong and clean, his face classically beautiful like that of a black-and-white movie star, and yet so very tangible, so full of colour. He’s wearing black slacks that sit snugly on his hips and a white button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up and exposing finely shaped arms. His waistcoat and shirt collar are undone; his hair is tousled as though he’s been running his fingers through it.
This is what royal casual must look like. Merlin swallows and tries not to squirm in his cheap, ill-fitting suit from Tesco that he hasn’t worn since graduation. He overslept this morning and spent even less time than usual trying to make himself presentable, his hurried attempts pitiable at best.
He fantasised sometimes about meeting Arthur again, years in the future, when Merlin is no longer a nobody. This isn’t at all what he had in mind. Judging by the way Arthur is looking him over up and down, Merlin looks every bit as pathetic as he feels.
“You two know each other?” Gwen asks, stepping into Merlin’s line of sight, eyeing them curiously.
“We’ve met,” Arthur says. He glances over at the screen and lets out an incredulous chuckle. “I should have known.”
Merlin shifts from foot to foot awkwardly, frowning. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he grumbles. “It was an anonymous contest.” He shoots a dark glance at a thoroughly confused Gwen. “At least it was supposed to be.”
Arthur glances at him, lifting an eyebrow. “It was anonymous up until the winner was chosen, Merlin. It can no longer stay that way, seeing as we have to contract you as a consultant for the construction.”
“But you don’t have to do that, do you?” Merlin huffs. “I mean, now that you know it was my project?”
Arthur’s eyes narrow. “Let’s make something absolutely clear, shall we, Mister Emrys? Your project was chosen based purely on its advantages before all the other submitted works, and I would have contracted its architect regardless of who he or she was.”
“Really.” Merlin tilts his chin up stubbornly. “And if you’d known it was mine before you’d chosen it, you’d have gone for it anyway?”
Arthur gazes at him coolly, one eyebrow raised. “I suppose we’ll never know.”
Merlin seethes quietly, unable to come up with a retort.
“You can consult, can’t you?” Arthur leans a little closer to him. His tone is perfectly neutral and pleasant – a little on the soothing side, as if he’s talking to a skittish horse. “It’s a two-year contract with steady pay. Probably not as glorious as something else out there, but—”
“I’m not in this for the money,” Merlin snaps.
Gwen seems scandalized that anyone would dare talk to the Prince of Wales in that tone, but Arthur just smiles softly. Merlin hates him a little bit for the way that smile makes him feel.
“I know you’re not doing this for the money, Merlin,” Arthur says quietly. “But if we are to hire you – and we really want to – you’re to be paid, just like everyone else. Except me, of course.” Arthur’s eyes skim over him yet again. “But I don’t think you can afford to volunteer.”
Blood rushes to Merlin’s cheeks, his whole face growing hot. “You haven’t become any less of a prat in eight years.”
Gwen chokes, horrified, but Arthur just shakes his head, eyes bright with laughter. “Nor have you lost any of your spunk,” he parries. “Comfort to know.”
“As if you care,” Merlin mutters under his breath.
He doesn’t mean for anyone to hear, the words just slip out. Arthur’s mirth evaporates and he straightens up, every bit the aloof and polite heir to the British throne.
“So, will you be willing to work for us?”
“It’s a great opportunity for you, Merlin,” Gwen says, trying to catch his eye.
Merlin suppresses a sigh. He knows this. On the screen to his left, his beloved Camelot castle is still whirling around, demonstrating all its advantages, and Merlin knows he can’t walk away from this. He loved working on this project; he’d love to see it through.
Besides, the worst thing that could have happened to him here has already happened.
He very carefully doesn’t look at Arthur as he says, “Yes. I’d be – I’d be happy to.”
“Excellent,” Arthur says. He offers Merlin his hand. Merlin takes it in a daze, feeling Arthur’s palm engulfing his own, clasping briefly, warm and tight, before letting go. “Then I’m pretty sure Gwen has more paperwork for you to file.”
“Right.” Merlin nods numbly. “Sure.”
Obviously realising that Merlin isn’t going to start moving under his own power any time soon, Gwen begins to steer him out of the room with a firm hand on his elbow.
Merlin turns around in the doorway. Arthur is staring at the screen. “I really like your castle.”
Me too, Merlin thinks miserably, and follows Gwen out.
The moment the door closes, Arthur slumps against the desk, leaning on his hands. The strange buzzing in his ears that had started the moment Merlin was dragged into the room is only just beginning to recede. Arthur takes deep breaths, trying to convince his lungs they aren’t actually starving for air.
Eight years ago, Merlin was a skinny, peculiar-looking sixteen-year-old. He wasn’t ugly by any means, just coltish and awkward, his body shimmering on the verge of transforming into something else. Something that had only one word for it, now that the metamorphosis is, evidently, complete.
He isn’t just gorgeous, though, Arthur thinks with a strange pull of desperation. He’s gorgeous of the worst possible kind – the kind who doesn’t know it.
Arthur knows only too well how to deal with intentional seduction. People have been coming on to him left, right, and centre ever since he turned fourteen, and twice as much since he came out as Britain’s first openly bisexual royal five years later. He knows how to tactfully diffuse unwanted advances, perhaps even better than he knows the alphabet – considering that, with him, it’s always less of a matter of drunken groping and more of a matter of state.
But he’s helpless before someone who doesn’t realise his own charm, and Merlin is as clueless and alluring as Arthur remembers, only more, so much more so now.
Merlin had grown up tall, though he remained slim as ever. He filled out his body nicely, Arthur thinks, picturing broad shoulders and strong arms, emphasized by a suit that was a little too tight. Small waist, slender hips, long legs – and Arthur can’t help but remember... Merlin’s hair was short then, which made him look adorable. Now it’s curling in soft locks around his ears, grazing his collar, making Arthur’s hands itch to grab it.
His tie was askew, the upper button on his shirt undone. He looked like someone had grabbed him, pushed against the nearest vertical surface, and thoroughly debauched him before throwing him back into the room.
And Arthur doesn’t want to remember what Merlin really looks like, kissed breathless and panting with want, but Arthur’s brain has never sworn any kind of fealty to him.
He stares at the plasma screen unseeingly, and remembers.
When the Italian Prime Minister first offered the use of one of his villas to Uther, Arthur didn’t think highly of his chances. To his surprise, however, his father chose to recognise that Arthur was staggering under the weight of his coursework (exemplary, of course) and could really use a summer break before continuing to be a model student. This was how Arthur was dispatched to Italy on his own, with vague promises of Morgana and Uther joining him at some point.
At first, it was pure bliss. The villa was luxurious and empty, save for the staff of incredibly discreet servants. The town of Manfredonia was charming and welcoming, and Arthur enjoyed his relative anonymity. He knew that the agreement that Uther had with the press about leaving Arthur alone until he became of age in exchange for regular progress reports and photo shoots would probably expire soon, but, for now, it was freedom, and it felt wonderful.
Except it was June, and the season hadn’t started yet. No people who Arthur was allowed to socialise with were around, and by day three, he felt bored out of his mind.
He thought about exploring the town a little, but wandering off aimlessly had never made any sense to him. Besides, if Morgana ever found out he hadn’t even tried to familiarize himself with the local culture, she would nag him into eternity. (They had had an extremely enlightening argument once, in which Arthur had pointed out that he visited enough museums and galleries as it was for official functions and blasted photo ops, and Morgana, in return, had read him the riot act, the gist of which amounted to Arthur being a simpleminded barbarian.)
Having done a quick Google search, Arthur grabbed an English-Italian phrasebook and valiantly set off into the town, Leon trailing discreetly behind.
The fact that he got lost fairly quickly in the labyrinth of cheerful streets and sun-faded blinds on the windows was surprising only to Arthur himself. He could have done the smart thing and asked Leon, but Arthur preferred not to take that option unless absolutely necessary. Leon had been put in charge of his security detail and was actually a grown-up, but Arthur knew that neither of those things would stop him from mocking Arthur’s navigational skills mercilessly.
Arthur decided to do the next best thing and ask for directions. The moment the thought occurred to him, he spotted a perfect target: there was a boy around his age, leaning casually against a wall of what looked like a bakery, hiding under the shade of a balcony from the omnipresent sun.
Later, Arthur would ask himself how he could possibly have thought the boy was a local, considering that, even in the oppressing heat, he was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. At the time, however, all Arthur had seen were intense blue eyes and the most amazing cheekbones.
He smiled as he walked toward the boy, his butchered Italian at the ready. The boy noticed his approach and grinned, eyebrows pitched slightly in curiosity.
“Buongiorno,” Arthur said, stumbling over the word. “Sto cercando, um, il museo di olio?”
The boy grinned wider, but said nothing in response. Arthur frowned, glancing at his phrasebook uncertainly. He might not have been fluent in five languages like Morgana, but he was fairly sure he’d gotten it right.
“Mi scusi,” he said. “Sono – oh, Christ – sto cercando—”
The boy laughed and lifted a hand. “Yeah, I got you the first time around, mate,” he said, chuckling. “But your Italian is so completely horrible, I just had to hear it one more time.”
“You—” Arthur sputtered.
He didn’t know where to begin – the boy simply fazed him. For starters, no one had ever called Arthur ‘mate,’ not even his classmates at Eton. No less shocking was that the boy clearly didn’t know who Arthur was. And finally, he let Arthur make a complete fool of himself tripping all over his tongue when—
The boy mock-scowled at him. “Welsh, actually, thank you very much.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Figures.”
The boy laughed again, throwing his hands up. “Hey, I could have made you suffer for much longer. And your pronunciation really is terrible. I didn’t even know you could do that to Italian.”
Arthur wasn’t too keen on accepting criticism at the best of times and frowned. “I don’t see you doing any better, Mister Language Expert.”
“Oh, I’m no expert.” The boy dismissed easily, paying no heed to Arthur’s tone. “But my Italian is better than yours, that’s for certain. I’m Merlin, by the way.” And he guilelessly stuck out his hand.
Arthur took it on the long-ingrained instinct that made him feel like a well-trained dog most days. “Arthur.”
He watched Merlin for any signs of recognition – he was Welsh, for God’s sake – but Merlin just smirked.
“Posh. I bet your middle name is something really horrible, like Bartholomew.”
Arthur coloured slightly. His full name was actually Arthur Henry Edward Philip Louis, but he wasn’t about to give Merlin more food for mockery.
“I really don’t see how anyone called Merlin has any place criticizing other people’s names.”
Merlin laughed. He seemed to do that a lot. “Touché. Look, so – I could walk you to your museum, if you want?” Arthur’s eyebrow shot up of its own volition, and Merlin blushed, adding hastily, “I mean, I could explain where it is, but you’d probably just get lost again.”
It was a marker of how completely bewitched Arthur was by that point that he had actually let the insult slide in favour of keeping the weird boy’s company for a while longer. Arthur had the strangest urge to poke and prod at him until he could understand what made him tick. From his battered canvas shoes to the tips of his funny ears, everything about Merlin was so utterly odd that the combination proved strangely compelling, in an unfamiliar way.
“Will I not deprive you of something?” Arthur asked, nodding uncertainly at the house behind Merlin.
“Nah.” Merlin shook his head and grabbed Arthur’s wrist. “Let’s go.”
Arthur was a little concerned with this eagerness, but it was hard to dwell on it with Merlin’s long fingers wrapped around his wrist as they dove into the crowd.
Arthur felt a little claustrophobic in the midst of it. There were too many people in too short a proximity to him, talking loudly – too loudly, really, – laughing, constantly moving around him. Personal space seemed like a non-existent concept here, and Arthur was trying not to hyperventilate.
But Merlin steered him ahead, chattering animatedly, and it was easy to focus on him, tuning out everything else. When Arthur told him where he was staying at ‘a family friend’s invitation,’ Merlin just rolled his eyes, which meant Arthur’s anonymity was safe as long as this boy was concerned.
Merlin was here as an exchange student, he told Arthur gamely, studying architecture and art. From the number of scholarships he mentioned casually, Arthur realised that Merlin must be quite a good student, but he didn’t give it much thought.
It was far more interesting to watch Merlin smile and wave at people he either knew or liked; all of them smiled and waved back. Merlin’s Italian seemed indeed superior, and Arthur listened to him engage in a rapid exchange with an elderly woman at a stand. She patted his cheek and tugged at his ear and made some complicated hand gesture that made Merlin turn red and laugh as he stole a glance back at Arthur. He came back with two roll-like things that smelled delicious and gave one to Arthur with a lopsided grin.
Merlin was obviously in love with both architecture and Italy. He was constantly pointing out things to Arthur, delighting in a crumbling façade of an old house or a miniscule, strange-looking symbol carved under some roof. Merlin was like an over-exuberant tour guide, talking Arthur’s ear off. Surprisingly, Arthur found that he didn’t mind one bit.
Until Merlin grabbed his arm and pulled him into a poorly lit shop of some kind, backing Arthur into a corner.
“I don’t mean to alarm you,” Merlin said, leaning in closer. “But there’s a bloke following us – or rather following you. Don’t look now,” he whispered. “He stopped at the postcard stand over there. Big bloke, blond hair, though he’s probably trying to hide that he’s ginger.”
Arthur nearly gave the game away, looking across the street over Merlin’s shoulder to where Leon had indeed stopped beside a souvenir shop with an ever-patient look upon his face.
“Do you see him?” Merlin hissed urgently.
“Yes, I see him,” Arthur said, swallowing a grin. “A rather sinister character. Looks like a pervert.”
“Gingers can’t be trusted,” Merlin said with conviction. “Come on, we’ll shake him off.”
“What? Merlin, wait—”
But Merlin was already pushing him out the back door into a narrow, shadowy street that coiled between houses chaotically, making Arthur’s head spin. Merlin caught Arthur’s wrist again and they ran, starting to laugh halfway through it. The street ended abruptly with a fence, but Merlin had clearly anticipated that, because he turned to Arthur, breathless and grinning, and demanded, “Boost me up.”
Faltering momentarily, Arthur quickly recovered, grabbing Merlin by the waist.
“What are you doing?” Merlin laughed, half-turning in Arthur’s hold.
Arthur blinked. “You said—”
“You make a hand lock like this.” Merlin demonstrated, eyes dancing. “So that I can step on it. Then you push me up.”
“Oh.” Arthur said, letting go of Merlin with reluctance. “Of course.”
Merlin was laughing. “Didn’t you ever climb any fences? God, you posh types are weird.”
Arthur scowled, but then Merlin’s hands were on his shoulders, his foot secured on Arthur’s interlocked hands, and Arthur was distracted.
“Ready?” Merlin grinned. “On three.”
Even with Arthur’s help, Merlin had some trouble securing himself on top of the wide stone ledge. He wriggled and squirmed, and Arthur laughed so hard at the picture he made, it was possible he pulled a muscle.
Merlin turned back toward him finally, red-faced, but grinning. “Prat. See if I give you a hand up or just leave you here for that ginger pervert to find.”
Arthur looked the fence over sceptically and rolled his eyes. “As if I need your help, Merlin.”
He took a couple of steps back to gather momentum and jumped up on the run, high enough to plant his hands on the top, and then pulled his body up, his arms straining, until he could swing a leg over the fence and sit, facing Merlin.
Who was gaping.
“Wow,” Merlin breathed at last, staring at Arthur’s arms, eyes slightly glazed over. “Wow.”
“You said that already,” Arthur pointed out helpfully, not gloating at all. But then Merlin’s fingers reached out to touch his biceps, tracing the outline of the muscles wonderingly, and Arthur’s smugness promptly yielded place to something entirely different.
“Are you an athlete?” Merlin asked, still rubbing Arthur’s arms as if he forgot he was doing it.
To Arthur’s utter horror, he could feel himself becoming hard. It was probably only natural, given the combination of the morning’s excitement, the run, physical exertion that made Arthur’s heart pump blood at double speed, and, most of all, the awestruck expression splashing in Merlin’s bright blue eyes unchecked.
“Not all of us are such pathetic wimps like you, Merlin,” Arthur drawled, pulling away, and swinging his leg to the other side of the fence so that he was no longer straddling it.
He hopped down then, knees bent to absorb the impact, and straightened up, surreptitiously adjusting himself in his shorts.
“Show off,” Merlin grumbled, and jumped off the fence, too. He didn’t have the first idea of coordination and would have ended with his face smashed into the ground, had Arthur not caught him.
“Dear God, you really are something else,” Arthur muttered, acutely aware that Merlin was standing too close. “How you haven’t broken your neck yet, I’ve no idea.”
Merlin grinned at him ruefully, panting against Arthur’s neck and making him shiver. He smelled of clean sweat and midday sun, a little bit of drafting ink, and a lot of something nameless, unidentifiable and delicious that was making Arthur’s mouth water. He felt dizzy. He was still bracing Merlin, one hand cradling his shoulder, the other pressing against the sharp outline of his hipbone, shockingly tangible under the worn denim.
Merlin’s eyes zeroed in on Arthur’s lips, and he blushed, stepping back hurriedly and looking anywhere but at Arthur.
“Well, come on then. The museum’s that way.”
“Merlin, wait,” Arthur called, walking quickly to catch up. “I don’t really want to go to that museum.”
Merlin grinned. “Honestly? I was surprised you wanted to in the first place. It’s really boring.”
“You wouldn’t mind, um.” Arthur trailed off, glancing around the busy square. “That is, if you could show me around, maybe?”
When he finally did look up, Merlin was beaming. “I thought you’d never ask.”
It took Leon two and a half hours to find them, by which time Arthur had managed to be dropped in a fountain, shouted at for walking shirtless (it was still drying, okay?) into a church by some angry women, took about a dozen photographs of pigeons and children (and one, rather blurry, of Merlin), and was generally having the time of his life. When Leon walked into the shadow of an ice cream parlour and headed straight for where Arthur and Merlin were having an ice cream feast all to themselves, Arthur felt a pang of guilt.
“Wow, you sure are persistent,” Merlin said as he looked up and spotted Leon looming over them.
Leon’s face was ostensibly calm, but Arthur knew a storm when he saw one.
“Your Highness, if you are quite finished.”
In the ensuing flood of explanations, Merlin went from disbelief to amusement to utter horror in the span of five short minutes and was finally left gaping at Arthur, terrified.
“Oh my God. I kidnapped the Prince of Wales. Oh my God.” He looked up at Leon. “What are they going to do to me?”
“Drag you to the Tower,” said Leon, who wasn’t in a charitable mood after chasing after them for the better part of the day. “If you cooperate, they’ll chop your head off real quick – you won’t feel a thing.”
“Oh God,” Merlin groaned again and glared at Arthur, who was laughing. “You’re such a prat, you know that?”
“Careful, Merlin.” Arthur smirked. “You’re talking to royalty.”
“I’m talking to an arsehole!” Merlin snapped. “And don’t give me that look – they can only kill me once, and I’m pretty sure I’m doomed already.” Arthur snorted. Merlin narrowed his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were, you utter pillock?”
Leon tutted, but said nothing. Arthur threw his hands up, grinning. “How was I supposed to know you’re the only Brit alive who didn’t know what his prince looked like?”
“I don’t watch much telly,” Merlin grumbled. “Some of us have to actually work and study, Sire.”
“Well, there you go, Merlin. It’s not my fault you’re some kind of anti-social hermit.”
“I’m not anti-social!” Merlin protested. Suddenly, catching Arthur completely by surprise, he resolved into giggles. “Oh my God,” Merlin wheezed. “I’m Gregory Peck.”
“What?” Arthur blinked, confused.
Merlin laughed harder, pointing an unsteady finger at him. “And you’re – you’re Audrey Hepburn. Oh my God, this is too good.”
“What the hell are you babbling about?” Arthur demanded, and then saw Leon’s lips twitching.
“I believe Mister Emrys is referring to Roman Holiday,” Leon said, smiling pleasantly at Arthur all of a sudden. Merlin dropped his head into his hands on the table, shaking with laughter. “It is a film about a certain princess—”
“We’re in Italy!” Merlin managed, breathless, clutching at the table. “We’re in bloody Italy!”
Arthur glanced from one to the other and groaned. “I hate you both.”
Leon’s eyebrows furrowed. “On that note, Your Highness, we really have to go.”
Arthur nodded, the plastic spoon he’d been toying with snapping in his hand. He winced.
Merlin’s laughter faded slowly as he peered into Arthur’s face. “So I guess that’s it, then?” he asked, his voice quiet by the last word, eyes startlingly sober.
Something clenched tightly in Arthur’s chest at the thought. “No, of course not, Merlin, don’t be an idiot. This isn’t the Middle Ages. I have to go now, but if you want to – hang out? You could maybe come to the villa tomorrow?” Merlin didn’t say anything, and Arthur pressed on. “There’s a swimming pool up there, you know. Pretty impressive. And the playroom is stocked with videogames. And there’s a tennis court, though I don’t suppose you play? But I could teach you? If you want? Or we could just chill and—”
“I have class in the morning,” Merlin said, a small smile hiding in the corners of his mouth. “But I could stop by afterwards? It’s up there on the mountain, right? Where that single road leads?”
“Yep.” Arthur shot to his feet, as if afraid that, if he lingered, Merlin would change his mind. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
Merlin gave him a rueful grin and an awkward wave.
On their way back, Leon was mostly silent, if still disapproving. When they reached the car, he said only, “I don’t condone what you did, Your Highness.”
“Look, Leon, I’m really—”
Leon held up a hand. “Arthur. Having met your friend, I – understand.”
“Oh.” Arthur swallowed and blushed for some reason. “Right.”
Leon’s expression was not unkind. “You’ll have to be very careful, Arthur.”
Arthur spent the short ride up trying desperately not to think about what Leon had meant.
Merlin did indeed drop by the next day, extremely shy and jumpy, when Leon greeted him at the gates. Arthur poked fun at him mercilessly and pushed him into the pool in his clothes, though he thoughtfully snatched the folder with sketches from Merlin’s hands first. Merlin didn’t think much of Arthur’s consideration and retaliated by dropping ice cream down the back of Arthur’s shirt later, making him jump and scream in a manner that no one would have called particularly manly. Leon gazed up at the sky a lot that afternoon, probably praying, which, in light of his atheism, was especially ominous.
Hours trickled into a steady stream of days. Arthur had various engagements every other day and Merlin went to classes, but they spent as much time together as they could in between.
Merlin was hopeless at tennis and not particularly fond of rock climbing, but he could walk all day long without tiring. He dragged Arthur along as he explored the old castle, the basilica, and the port and bargained at the marketplace for some weird-looking trinkets he didn’t really need, as well as a watch that Merlin liked because it was on a thick black leather bracelet and was supposedly waterproof and not because it was a fake Patek Philippe. When Arthur pointed that out, Merlin just blinked at him and asked if it meant it was Japanese.
He tried to teach Arthur some proper Italian, laughing when Arthur complained that his tongue simply didn’t curl that way. Merlin chatted away happily most of the time. He was like a walking encyclopaedia of city planning and art history; and Arthur no longer wondered how it was possible that Merlin had no idea who he was. Clearly, the only time when Merlin’s nose wasn’t buried in a book was when his head was high up in the clouds.
Arthur had no idea why the thought of it awoke such unbearable, inexplicable fondness in him. He had never been accused of being soft in his life – he played rugby, for God’s sake. But Merlin was like a clumsy, blue-eyed kitten who had claws, all right, but no clue as to how to use them. Except for playing, obviously.
Arthur might have considered himself to be as tough as they came, but he’d have to be a stone cold mass murderer not to melt at the sight of Merlin, just a little.
He compensated by being as much of a prat to Merlin as the boy believed him to be, and pulling all the pigtails Merlin didn’t have almost religiously. He valiantly ignored Leon’s smirks and instead threatened to fire him five times a day.
Leon took them out into the sea, much to Merlin’s delight. He teased Arthur for being too delicate when Arthur refused to join him for a swim in the open water. Arthur scowled, but the Adriatic was bloody cold in June, and he could feel his toes freezing when he so much as tried the water. Merlin just laughed, swimming around the boat in circles, fearless and unexpectedly graceful in the water, as he scared away the seagulls. He never stopped with the taunting, but Arthur couldn’t find it in him to complain when he got to pull Merlin back onboard, wet and shivering and laughing and letting Arthur rub his arms and back until he was warm again.
June melted into July, and both Merlin and Arthur became more busy: Merlin, with the additional seminars and classes that started with the arrival of the two long-expected professors; and Arthur, with all the obligatory socializing he was expected to do, now that the season had started and people of import began trickling into the seaside.
Inviting Merlin along was an exercise in futility. Merlin’s eyes would go wide with panic, and Arthur wouldn’t see him at all for three days afterwards, until Merlin could be sure that Arthur had changed his mind. Arthur didn’t understand how meeting his friends, most of whom were children of the European political and business elite, could possibly be any more intimidating than being on speaking terms with the Prince of Wales, and Merlin seemed to have no problem with that – but Merlin wouldn’t relent.
When he finally did say yes, Arthur suspected it was only because the party in question was to be held on a yacht, and Merlin was as fascinated by ships of all kinds almost as much as he was by old buildings.
Arthur didn’t know what he expected when he told Merlin to clean up a bit, but it definitely wasn’t the sight that greeted him at the villa’s gates where Merlin was waiting for him. He wore a pair of really nice black jeans, only kept on his hips by virtue of a leather belt that looked suspiciously like the real deal, and a tight-fitting, navy blue button-down, open at the collar, the thin material accentuating all of his angles, the colour bringing out his eyes. Even his hair was styled in something close to fashionable, and Arthur couldn’t help but stare.
Merlin was blushing, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot.
“You, um—” Arthur started, pointing vaguely. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I mean, you look really… How did you—?”
Merlin chuckled nervously. “I told the guys at camp I had to attend some really posh party. They, um, pulled resources.”
It was Arthur’s turn to blush. All this time he’d been nagging Merlin to come along, he hadn’t realised that just dressing appropriately might be outside of someone’s price range.
“Yes, well.” Arthur swallowed. “That’ll do.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Leon wouldn’t let me drive; I hope you don’t mind.”
Merlin glanced over Arthur’s shoulder, smiled shyly, and waved. “Hi, Leon.”
“Good evening, Mister Emrys,” came an amused reply. “If you gentlemen are quite ready, the car is waiting.”
In the car, Merlin sat so stiff and unusually quiet that Arthur had to suppress a groan.
“Hey.” He reached out and squeezed Merlin’s knee. Merlin jumped and looked at him, startled. “You realise they’re just people, right? You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“I hope they don’t all have your charming personality,” Merlin shot back. “Then I’d be in real trouble.”
Arthur just grinned.
Valiant’s yacht was beautiful and luxurious Arthur wasn’t particularly fond of its owner, ever since they first met in Nice two years ago. Valiant tried to win Morgana’s favour and, when that failed, got drunk and tumbling Gwen would make a great consolation prize. The resulting scandal was quickly hushed up in order not to cripple the relationship with the remaining Bourbons that had been problematic for some time already. The incident had left Arthur with a sour taste of French aristocracy in general and a strong dislike of Valiant in particular.
Arthur couldn’t fault him for taste, though. Merlin was whirling his head around, wide-eyed with delight and fear, and Arthur had to sink his nails hard into his own palm to rein in the urge to reach out and grab Merlin’s hand.
“Just be yourself,” he murmured, his hand on the small of Merlin’s back as he went through the first round of introductions.
As it turned out, Arthur needn’t have worried. Merlin only had to shyly compliment Vivian’s earrings, mumbling something about classicism in jewellery design and Troy, to be promptly kidnapped by the nearest assortment of young women, who only surrendered him to the next group after a barely civil verbal catfight. Amused, Arthur watched from across the room as they cooed at Merlin, petting his hair and plying him with drinks, ignoring his embarrassed objections.
Satisfied that Merlin was having a good time, Arthur went about finding his own entertainment, reconnecting with old friends and enjoying the fact that alcohol was flowing freely. He even let Owain and Pellinore drag him out to the dance floor, which Arthur normally tried to avoid at all costs. He just didn’t have what it took to just shake and gyrate to whatever horrible excuse was passing as music and ended up shifting his weight back and forth, rigid and out of rhythm. He was buzzed just enough for it not to bother him tonight, though, so he laughed and allowed himself to be swayed, a beer bottle in his hand, girls in daring outfits surrounding him in a hot, tight slide of bodies.
Arthur didn’t know how much time he spent there before drifting back to the bar, his whole body tingling with energy. At some point it occurred to him to check up on Merlin, who seemed to be nowhere in sight. Arthur frowned slightly, pushed off the teenage dream of a very underage and very pissed Lady something-or-other, and went in search of his friend.
He passed Vivian, who just smiled at him dopily, barely emerging for a handful of seconds from a drunken snog fest she was having with a rather dazed-looking waiter. Arthur left her alone, knowing there’d be no use. Bella only shrugged and laughed at Arthur in response to his question, and Beth looked like she couldn’t remember her own name, never mind Merlin’s.
It was one of the impeccably trained and habitually blank-faced catering staff who finally pointed Arthur in the direction of the upper deck, mentioning something about Valiant as well. Arthur thanked the man with a nod and rushed up the narrow stairs, now deeply concerned.
The lights were out up here; Arthur’s eyes took a moment to adjust. Then he spotted two figures in the far end of the deck, and felt his stomach drop.
Valiant had Merlin pressed up against a bulkhead, one hand under Merlin’s shirt, the other clutching his nape in an unforgiving grip. Merlin was smiling, but it was a tight, pained kind of grimace, as if he was still trying to make nice. His hands were pressed against Valiant’s chest, pushing ineffectually as he tried to weasel out of Valiant’s grip.
Arthur was moving before he knew it. “There you are, Merlin,” he said in a tone that was anything but casual. “It’s time we headed back.”
If Arthur had any doubts about his reading of the situation, the unabashed, naked relief in Merlin’s eyes as he looked at him was more than enough of a reassurance.
Valiant was clearly pissed and not as easily dissuaded. “Fuck off, Arthur,” he snapped without looking at him, making no move to release Merlin. “We’re a little busy here, so if you don’t mind—”
“I think you’ll find that Merlin minds,” Arthur said, his tone freezing. “Let him go, Valiant. Now.”
“Why the hell would I want to do that?” Valiant asked, but he did push himself off of Merlin, turning to glare at Arthur.
“Because I told you to,” Arthur snapped.
Valiant’s expression morphed into a leer. “Oh, my mistake, Your Highness. I thought he was just a piece of fresh meat. But if he’s your personal fucktoy, you should either learn to share or stop flaunting him in people’s faces.”
Merlin, who seemed to have finally recovered from shock, emitted some kind of indignant exclamation, but Arthur barely heard him.
He had no idea how it happened. He wasn’t even that drunk, and he’d never had such poor impulse control in his life. But the next thing he knew was his fist connecting with Valiant’s jaw with a satisfying crack, and then Valiant was stumbling backward, his knees catching the low railing, and he was flying overboard and out of Arthur’s view.
“Fuck,” Merlin gasped and dashed forward to look.
Arthur joined him, drawn by some kind of morbid curiosity. If Valiant had hit his head on something; if he so much as grazed the board...
“Arthur, you could have killed him,” Merlin stammered breathlessly.
But there were ripples on the surface of the water, and a moment later, Valiant emerged, glaring up and shouting, “You’re a dead man, Pendragon! You’re fucking dead!”
“Right,” Arthur drawled, dark satisfaction coiling low in his belly. “That’s our cue.” He grabbed Merlin’s wrist and dragged him downstairs and off the yacht while Leon fished an enraged and still very much drunk Valiant out of the water.
Arthur shoved Merlin into somebody’s Porsche, the keys conveniently in the ignition, and jumped in after him, driving off faster than the indignant shouts behind them registered.
Merlin maintained some kind of stunned, dead silence as Arthur carelessly curbed the twists and turns of the serpentine road leading up to the villa, barely pausing to wave at the security guards at the gates. The flourish of gravel that Arthur raised as he stopped abruptly in front of the house had barely hit the ground when Merlin was out of the car, running unsteadily into the relative darkness of the garden.
“Merlin, wait!” Arthur yelled after him, hastily killing the engine. “Shit.”
He sprinted after Merlin, who hadn’t made it very far after all. He’d stopped with his hands braced on his knees, leaning forward and panting as though he’d just discovered oxygen.
“Merlin,” Arthur called uncertainly, coming to a halt beside him, reaching out tentatively. “Hey, are you okay?”
“Don’t touch me.” Merlin flinched away. “Don’t – don’t come near me.”
Heart sinking, Arthur lifted his hands up. “Calm down. Just talk to me, Merlin, please. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” Merlin repeated incredulously, straightening up and staring at Arthur. “I should never have come to that party. I should never have tried to make friends with people who – who treat others like – like – I’m not your bloody fucktoy!”
“Merlin!” Blood rushed to Arthur’s face. “I would never—”
“Well, maybe not that part,” Merlin snapped. “But I am just a toy for you, aren’t I? A fucking plaything? God, I was so stupid – what was I thinking? And what happens when you get bored of me, when this ‘fresh meat’ isn’t so fresh anymore? Am I to entertain your pals next?”
“God, would you just SHUT UP?” Arthur snarled. “I’m sorry I took you to that party, Merlin, and I’m sorry you had to hear that, but if you stopped being such a delicate bloody flower for one second and think, you’d see that I’m nothing like Valiant and you’re being horribly unfair!”
“Fuck off, Arthur,” Merlin bit out, but his lips were trembling and his eyes darted away. “Just – just leave me alone.”
He turned his back, and Arthur could do nothing but stare at him, helpless and frightened – really frightened, for the first time in his life. Which, of course, made him lash out.
“Honestly, Merlin, I know that Val got a little too handsy for comfort, but he was drunk – it happens. You’re acting like no one has ever tried to pull you before!”
Merlin whirled around, fists clenched. “‘It happens’?” he repeated, incensed.
Arthur bit his lip hard. “Fuck – That’s not what I meant.”
Merlin stepped forward, advancing on him angrily. “Has it occurred to you, you selfish, self-centred pillock, that not all of us have been fit for magazine covers since childhood? That maybe tonight was the first time that anyone has even looked at me like that – and that I wasn’t ready for some bloke I don’t even know to grope my arse and shove his dick between my legs like he had the right?”
Flushed with humiliation, Merlin stood tall, his whole body ringing with indignation. “You’ll have to excuse me, Your Highness, for nursing my delicate sensibilities. I’m a chav; you can’t expect more from me.”
That was too much, way too much for Arthur, who growled in frustration at his own inability to communicate what he wanted to with his words, and he couldn’t stand to watch Merlin hurting one second longer.
Not pausing to think, he grabbed Merlin by the back of his neck, jerked him forward, and kissed him.
Merlin gasped and tried to pull away, but Arthur held him fast. “Please,” he muttered. “Please let me. Please, Merlin, just – just let me do this. I won’t hurt you. I could never hurt you.”
Merlin stilled in his arms, wary, waiting. Arthur sent silent grace to whatever gods watched over them, because Merlin still had enough trust in him to allow this, to let Arthur hold him. Arthur snaked an arm around his waist and leaned into Merlin slowly, carefully, pressing silent apologies and endearments to his mouth, tiny affectionate nips and kisses that melted on Merlin’s lips, sweet and gentle, until Merlin sighed quietly and sagged a little, the fight draining out of him.
“Not a toy, not anyone’s toy,” Arthur murmured, cradling his face. “Wanted to rip his fucking arms off. Should never have made you go, but you were avoiding me and I wanted to see you. I missed you so fucking much, Merlin.”
Merlin’s hands came to rest on Arthur’s hips as he let out a shuddering breath. “Prat,” he whispered resignedly. “Kiss me already.”
And Arthur only meant to offer comfort, but he couldn’t turn that down, either. It was glorious, if a little awkward. Merlin’s inexperience showed in every stuttering slide of his lips, in every surprised gasp that he made, and Arthur cursed himself mentally a dozen times over for having been so completely thoughtless. He licked Merlin’s mouth open as gently as he could, but it was hard to restrain himself with Merlin making impatient, downright sinful noises and pulling him closer, opening up eagerly as if he couldn’t get enough of Arthur, as if however long it lasted would never be enough.
“Okay?” Arthur asked when they parted for air, Merlin’s arms wrapped around him tightly, like Arthur was the only thing keeping him upright.
“Yeah,” Merlin breathed, moaning when Arthur bent to lick at his throat, teeth worrying the pulse point.
Merlin dropped his head back, his hips slamming into Arthur’s as he arched in a beautiful, seamless line, leaving the pale expanse of his throat open and defenceless. Arthur breathed him in deeply, blindsided by want, kissing and nibbling mindlessly, until Merlin’s whole body began to hum with pleasure in his arms. Merlin’s fingers tangled in Arthur’s hair as he caught his mouth in another kiss, laughing into it when they swayed, nearly losing their balance, and Arthur grinned and dipped him just for the hell of it.
Arthur was so caught up in the moment that he didn’t register another presence at first, completely missing a startled, shocked gasp and a muffled curse. It wasn’t until the harsh white light flooded the shadowy lawn that he looked up, blinking blearily, arms still wrapped around Merlin.
On the front steps of the house, Morgana was standing with her hand clasped over her mouth, staring at them agape.
Behind her, in the doorway, was King Uther.
Arthur remembers only too well the ugly showdown that followed. He remembers how Merlin sat, stiff and pale, on the couch in the corner of the library, while Uther yelled at Arthur in a tone Arthur had never heard before. There were words about insult to the whole royal family, about responsibility and stupid whims, about Arthur being a lousy son and a disgrace to the throne and to his father, about him being a selfish, spoiled brat who always had it easy and had no idea of what serving his people really meant. There were oceans and oceans of angry words pouring down until Arthur couldn’t take it anymore, until he jumped to his feet and yelled:
‘It was just a bit of fun, Father! I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!’
Uther sent him packing to be whisked away from Italy that same night. Arthur turned and walked out of the room, feeling Merlin’s eyes on him. He hadn’t even turned and looked at him – just walked out as if Merlin wasn’t there.
The resonance of that night had followed Arthur home and stayed with him for a long, long time. Morgana had flown in a week after him, bitching about how Arthur’s escapades had rid them all of a holiday. Then she’d looked at his face and promptly went quiet.
It wasn’t his fault, she’d said. He was just a confused little boy who grew up without his mother and came to rely too heavily on the fact that his father was infallible. Arthur yelled at her, angry. And then Morgana told him that Uther offered Merlin the hush money.
And Merlin, all of sixteen and out of nowhere and still reeling from everything that had happened to him that night, told the King of England to go to hell and was escorted out of the building by Leon.
It took nearly three months for Leon to start talking to Arthur again outside of duty. It took his father six month to start talking to Arthur again, period.
But it was only when Arthur’s heart jumped into his throat, during his first day at St. Andrews, at the sight of a skinny, dark-haired boy who looked a little bit like Merlin that it had finally sunk in.
Uther had been wrong, and Arthur had made the biggest mistake of his life by bowing to his will.
The knowledge churned within him for a year, punctuated by new arguments and more ugly rows. For the better part of Arthur’s freshman year, he hadn’t been on speaking terms with his immediate family. It was painful, but it couldn’t have been avoided.
Next fall, after celebrating his nineteenth birthday, Arthur came out on national television, telling the country that he was bisexual and if they had a problem with that, they should advise the king to appoint another heir.
The fallout had been spectacular, but Arthur suffered through it, secure in the knowledge that it had been worth it. The proud smile curving Morgana’s lips; the quiet approval in Leon’s eyes. And Arthur knew that somewhere, surrounded by his precious books and sketches, Merlin was watching, and it made the weight of Arthur’s guilt a little lighter, even if it never really did go away.
And now Merlin is here, back in Arthur’s life, no longer a boy but a man, impossible to ignore despite all the years that had passed, all the people Arthur had dated. Except Merlin clearly still hates him, and Arthur hasn’t got the first idea of how to make it right.
He glances over at Merlin’s castle again and sighs. Talk about escaping fate.
“Let me get this straight,” Gwaine says, staring at the still mildly shell-shocked Merlin across the booth. “You’re quitting your job with Nimueh, who, granted, is a bitch, but also hired you straight out of uni with no experience—”
“Yeah, to do her math and groundwork,” Merlin grumbles, sullen. “It’s not like she was going to give me my own project in the next fifty years or so. And did you miss the part where I won a national contest?”
Gwaine rolls his eyes. “Look, I’m not saying working for Nim was fun, and I know you’re way too talented to slave in her dungeon your whole life, but is working for Arthur bloody Pendragon really the best you could come up with?”
Merlin winces. “Keep your voice down.”
“Gwaine has a point, though,” Elena says softly, looping her arm through Merlin’s and looking up at him with big, concerned eyes. “I don’t care that he’s a prince – he broke your heart, darling.”
“Yes, Merlin,” Gwaine drawls, considerably less sympathetic. “Remember how you didn’t go out on a date for three years after that arsehole threw you out?”
“He didn’t – give it a rest, Gwaine. He is an heir to the throne. He couldn’t just—”
“What, come out? Remember how he did exactly that when it suited him?”
Merlin closes his eyes. He knows his friends mean well, but Gwaine is right, and Arthur’s rejection – or worse, blunt disregard of him – still smarts after all these years.
“If he stayed in the closet, I would have understood,” Gwaine keeps raving. “Not approved, mind, but well, royals and all that. But he came out. And that makes what he did to you doubly inexcusable. He dated that golfer bloke, Ralph something, didn’t he? What, he couldn’t have done you the simple courtesy of looking you up and—”
“Maybe I wasn’t worth it,” Merlin says quietly.
Gwaine snorts, but Elena stares at Merlin, wide-eyed. “You’re actually serious,” she breathes out in amazement, which brings Gwaine’s mirth to an abrupt end.
“What?” he blurts out. “Merlin, do you want me to smack you?”
“Look” – Merlin sits up straighter, extricating himself from Elena’s hold – “so not everyone likes me as much as you do. It’s not a crime, okay? I’m not saying he couldn’t have handled it better, but it’s not Arthur’s fault he’s got more... refined tastes.”
Gwaine claps a hand over his forehead in despair. Elena frowns. “You’re talking rubbish, Merlin, honestly.”
“It doesn’t get more refined than you, mate.” Gwaine pins him down with an intense, heated gaze. “Trust me.”
“Gwaine!” Merlin hisses, blushing. “Your girlfriend is right here.”
“She doesn’t mind,” Elena says, smirking, and tweaks Merlin’s ear. “I could lend him to you, provided there’ll be video footage.”
Merlin buries his face in his hands, hot all over. “You are both horrible, horrible people. I have no idea why I’m friends with either of you.”
“Let’s see,” Elena says, amused. “You had that embarrassing crush on Gwaine since middle school, which he exploited to pass languages, and I broke your arm your first year at uni.”
Merlin stares at Gwaine dumbly. “You—”
Gwaine lifts up his hands. “Hey, it’s not that I didn’t want to bang you, Merlin; it’s just that you were so damn sweet and innocent—”
“I would have helped you with languages anyway, you arse. You didn’t have to be a tease about it.”
Gwaine smirks. “Aw, but Merlin, sweetheart. You’re so much fun to tease.”
Merlin turns to Elena, affronted, but she just grins. “It’s not like he’s wrong about that,” she tells him almost apologetically and ruffles his hair.
“Dear God,” Merlin says and stands up. “I need more alcohol.”
“You need to get laid,” Gwaine says, trailing after him to the bar.
“Right.” Merlin rolls his eyes. “Because that’s your solution for everything.”
“I’m just saying, Merlin – with Prince Charming constantly around, you need to take preemptive measures before you fall for him again like a ton of bloody bricks.”
“I won’t fall for him again.” Merlin scowls. “I’m not that stupid.”
Gwaine wraps an arm around Merlin’s shoulder, giving him a regretful look. “Actually, my big-hearted friend, you kind of are.”
Merlin shakes his arm off and glares at him. “Look, Gwaine, I appreciate your and Elena’s concern, I really do, but I can take care of myself, okay? Just because Arthur’s around doesn’t mean I’m sixteen again. I sincerely doubt he’d want to spend time with me, and I sure as hell don’t plan on stalking him, so that’s it. I’m working for him – and that’s all there is or ever will be. And I don’t want to talk about it again.”
He stalks over toward the bar, hoping against hope that it was Gwaine he was trying to convince and not himself.
Except, of course, Gwaine was right. Merlin is exactly that stupid.
He doesn’t feel sixteen anymore, but, within two weeks of working for the Trust, he feels as defenceless before this new, adult version of Arthur as he once had been. The new Arthur is rather a lot to take.
There is, for instance, Arthur’s insisting on being called Arthur by everyone who works in the building (and Clarence House as well, if rumours are to be trusted).
“He likes to keep things a bit more casual,” Gwen enlightens Merlin on his second day. “His Majesty wouldn’t approve, of course, but this fund is Arthur’s baby.”
“You call him Your Highness, though,” Merlin points out.
Gwen smiles. “I do. I grew up in the Pendragon household. There are certain things you can’t just dismiss, no matter what Arthur – His Highness – says.”
“Do people always fall over their feet to please him?” Merlin asks with a frown, remembering a scene from just that morning. One of the girls from the website developing team nearly took a dive off the stairs, trying to be the one to bring Arthur his coffee.
Gwen’s expression becomes a little closed off and she glances at Merlin unhappily. “You haven’t been here long enough to understand,” she says. “Everyone who works for Arthur is extremely loyal.”
Merlin watches her go and thinks, reluctantly, that he can actually see how that could be true.
According to Gwen, who Merlin only knows through Lancelot but whom he has no reason not to trust, when Arthur took over the Queen’s Trust management, he turned a mediocre charity organisation that hadn’t done anything noteworthy since Queen Ygraine’s death, into a force to be reckoned with. He wrote marketing strategies and developed fundraising campaigns; hired and personally trained the staff; made the fund take a proactive position on every major issue the country was facing; organised a call-centre and was known to personally man the hotline when someone needed a day off. Whenever state business wasn’t demanding his presence, Arthur was here, working twice as hard as any other person in the building.
Merlin realises it’s selfish of him, but he can’t help but feel sadder with every new scrap of information. On top of being gorgeous and a prince, Arthur seems to be a genuinely good guy all the way around. A little spoiled, a little privileged, but good. It would have been easier to face his rejection if he was just another entitled rich kid without a care in the world.
So when Arthur manifests in the doorway of Merlin’s office (Merlin still can’t quite get over the fact that he has his own space – and with a view, too), and asks if Merlin would like to have a drink with him, all Merlin can do is stare at him with a horrible, sinking feeling in his stomach.
Whenever they ran into each other during the last two weeks, they exchanged a cool greeting, trying to maintain a complete strangers act. But apparently Arthur has never been so cold with any new member of his team, and people began to shoot them progressively weirder looks.
“Um,” Merlin says.
He knows it’s not a date. Arthur is wearing the universal ‘We need to talk’ face, and Merlin knows that they probably do. He doesn’t think he can stand to exist in this kind of cold war neutrality for the next two years. With an internal wail of regret, Merlin realises that he might not be too eager to break his neck to bring Arthur his coffee, but he’s been quietly envious of the easy rapport his co-workers have with Arthur. It feels wrong to be excluded, even if it means Merlin has no pride.
“Okay,” he sighs at long last.
Arthur rolls his eyes. “Well, try not to sound so excited – it’s embarrassing.”
Despite himself, Merlin grins. He shuts down his computer, grabs his jacket, and follows Arthur out, throwing one last longing glance at his draft table. Work always does bring him peace, and he’s never happier than when he’s ‘in the zone.’
Outside, the evening rush hour is abating. Merlin turns his head, wondering vaguely when it became his habit to stay this late.
“Anytime today, Merlin?” Arthur’s voice brings him back to reality.
Merlin scowls, walking toward a midnight blue monster of a Jaguar that’s casually presiding over the kerb.
“I suppose you driving a Mini Cooper was too much to hope for?” Merlin grumbles.
Arthur looks mildly embarrassed. “I like cars.”
“Well, it’s not like His Highness has to worry about finding a parking space,” a new voice cuts in from behind, and Merlin whirls around to find a familiar face smiling at him.
Leon chuckles and shakes Merlin’s hand. “Mister Emrys. You’ve grown up tall.”
Merlin laughs. “And you look better with your hair long. And a beard. It’s quite fetching.” He shakes his head. “Damn, it’s good to see you.”
“And you.” Leon nods. “I understand that your project has won the contest? Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” Merlin blushes.
“Don’t you have a job to do?” Arthur asks, and Merlin winces before realising Arthur is talking to Leon. “Like keeping me alive or something?”
“My apologies.” Leon’s expression sobers, and he finally lets go of Merlin’s hand. “We’ll be trailing you as always, Your Highness. Please do not try to shake us and kindly obey the speed limit.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “I know, Leon; I’m not five. Merlin, get in.”
Merlin throws an apologetic glance at Leon before sliding into the passenger seat.
“You didn’t have to be quite so rude,” he tells Arthur gruffly. “He was only doing his job.”
Arthur lifts an eyebrow, his eyes on the traffic. “By flirting with you? I don’t remember that being in his job description.”
Merlin gives him an incredulous look. “We were just talking, you enormous arse.”
“He’s on duty. He isn’t supposed to be ‘just talking.’” Arthur makes a face and glances sideways at Merlin. “Put your seatbelt on.”
Merlin sighs, sinking into the seat. There’s no point in arguing. “Do they always follow you?” he asks instead.
Arthur looks grim. “Yes. But it’s a relief that I’m allowed to drive at all. I hadn’t been able to for a while, after Belfast.”
“Oh.” Merlin swallows. “Were you scared?”
“Was I scared when a raging homophobe threw a makeshift grenade at me and landed me in a hospital?” Arthur huffs impatiently. “I live for those kinds of moments, Merlin. What do you think?”
“Sorry. Stupid question.” Merlin presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “I had a long day.”
Arthur is silent for a while. Merlin stares out the window.
“There wasn’t any time to become scared,” Arthur says quietly at long last. “It happened too quickly. One moment I was standing next to the mayor, the next I was lying down on the ground and my head was killing me. There just wasn’t any time.”
Merlin looks at him. The plastic surgeons had obviously done a superb job, but he can still see a pale, thin line of a scar that grazes Arthur’s temple, disappearing into his hairline. Merlin remembers the days spent in front of the telly, waiting for news. He wants to say something, maybe tell Arthur how he waited, but he doesn’t. It’s not his place.
He is reminded all over again why he should never have presumed to think of becoming Arthur’s… something. Arthur is a man of action. He saves the world as best he can, leads his people into the new era of acceptance and tolerance by example, gets nearly killed for his trouble, and continues anyway.
Merlin is – Merlin is a dreamer who happens to be good at manipulating maths and shapes. He builds air castles in his head and very rarely, when he’s lucky, he gets to build something on real ground. He’s no match for Arthur, who’s already under fire for his choice of a no-name as the hospital architect. Arthur remained pretty much unflappable about the whole affair, but Merlin still feels his cheeks burn at some of the questions thrown his way.
He’s so fully consumed by his unhappy musings that he barely registers when they arrive at their destination. But in no time at all, he’s standing beside Arthur in the restaurant lobby and being looked over up and down by an elderly maître d’, who seems utterly unimpressed.
Merlin blushes but refuses to cower before him. So maybe he isn’t dressed as smartly, but he didn’t know Arthur would take him out tonight. The fact that Merlin probably doesn’t own any clothes that would be acceptable in this place is beside the point.
“This is like a scene from Pretty Woman,” Merlin mutters under his breath as they are shown to a table.
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Arthur smirking. “Don’t flatter yourself, Merlin. You’re not that pretty.”
Merlin elbows him. “Shut up, Audrey.”
Arthur snorts, surprised. Merlin can feel his gaze – assessing, and maybe a little hopeful – but doesn’t turn to meet his eyes. It’s easy to fall into this pattern with Arthur; easier than Merlin thought it would be. He has to constantly remind himself why this would be a spectacularly bad idea.
Out of the sheer spirit of defiance, Merlin flashes the waiter a blinding grin and orders a pint. Arthur looks at him with a shrewd kind of speculation in his eyes and says, “Make that two.”
The waiter doesn’t bat an eyelash, and the drinks appear fast enough to suspect magic.
Merlin looks over at Arthur, who seems to be riveted by the moist droplets on his glass. “So. Is there a reason for this outing?”
Arthur starts slightly, but then his jaw sets in silent expression of determination and he meets Merlin’s gaze steadily.
“Merlin, I wanted to talk to you,” he starts slowly, “about what happened in Italy. I realise that you have every right to be angry with me. I wanted to—”
“Don’t,” Merlin interrupts, surprising them both.
For years, he had longed to see remorse on Arthur’s face. To hear the words ‘I’m sorry’ spilling from his lips over and over again. To see him grovelling and begging for forgiveness.
But, now that Arthur is seemingly prepared to do all these things, Merlin suddenly finds that he no longer wants it. Arthur can only say he’s sorry about the way things ended, not for the fact that they had ended. That’s something he can never give, and Merlin doesn’t want to punish him for it.
Arthur looks confused. “Merlin, I was going to—”
“Apologise.” Merlin nods. “I know. You don’t have to, Arthur. I understand.”
“Look, you were seventeen; not exactly the age of wisdom.” Merlin allows himself a small grin. “You are the crown prince, and things really are different for you. I get that.”
“Still, I should have—”
“I was there, Arthur,” Merlin reminds him, picking at the beer mat. “Your father certainly doesn’t hold back his punches.”
Arthur flinches, pursing his lips, but remains silent.
“Look, Arthur.” Merlin sighs. “I just want to move on from it, yeah? I mean, sure, you were a right prat, but it was just one drunken snog – basically nothing.”
Very quietly, Arthur says, “It wasn’t ‘nothing’ to me.”
“Well, obviously, it wasn’t too much of a something,” Merlin snaps before he can stop himself. “Seeing as how you just left me there and never contacted me again.”
“I couldn’t, at first. And later, I didn’t think you’d want to talk to me.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur repeats and reaches to take hold of Merlin’s wrist. Merlin tries to pull it away childishly, but Arthur doesn’t let him. “I’m really sorry, Merlin. I never wanted to hurt you. That night was such a mess.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
“You keep saying that, but it’s clear that I do.”
“No, you don’t.” Merlin jerks his wrist free. “We’re different people now, Arthur. Just because I was stupid enough to fall in love with you at sixteen doesn’t mean you owe me anything!”
Arthur’s jaw drops. “You what?”
Shit. Merlin winces. “… Can we forget I said that? It’s all in the past anyway, and everyone has teen crushes – you can’t blame me for that. It’s not like they were even real feelings, just hormones and stuff, and you weren’t half-bad looking. I mean, for a prat.”
Arthur’s lips curve into a delighted smirk. “You’re babbling.”
“Sorry.” Merlin winces again. “Just – we’re good now, okay? You can stop walking on eggshells around me. It’s really annoying.”
Arthur stares at him for the longest time ever in a way that Merlin can’t read. He tries not to squirm under the scrutiny.
“Would you like another beer?” Arthur asks at last, a small smile lurking in the corner of his mouth.
Merlin sags in his seat. “Yes, please.”
He doesn’t drink enough that night to burst spontaneously into song, but he does curse Gwaine profusely in the morning.
After that, it’s easy. Merlin often thinks that it shouldn’t be this easy, but it is. It’s disgustingly simple to smile every time Arthur smirks at him, to go insult for insult with him during staff meetings to the quiet horror (and amusement) of everyone present, to stomp on a flutter in his chest when Arthur asks to join him and Gwen for lunch. Arthur treats him like an old friend, and Merlin tells himself repeatedly that it’s a very bad idea to continue as they are, but he has no heart to stop it.
The lunches become something of a tradition whenever Arthur is in the building and Merlin isn’t away at the construction site. (He has developed some kind of love-hate relationship with the head of the construction team, and every time Merlin comes back moody and covered in white lime, Arthur makes a point of laughing at him.)
Arthur starts texting Merlin and not Gwen when he’s running late. The first time it happens, Merlin orders for Arthur – a cold pasta salad that he picks over Gwen’s objections. (‘His Highness doesn’t seem to like pasta.’) When Arthur does arrive, he glances at his plate and goes still for a moment. Then he gives Merlin a warm, if slightly pained, look and nods before picking up his fork. Merlin nods and thinks that they’re all right, mostly.
“You’re setting yourself up for a disaster,” Elena tuts at him, scattering crisps all over Merlin’s couch on a rare stay-at-home Saturday.
Merlin shrugs, but he doesn’t look at her when he says, “I like that we’re friends again, that’s all. I missed him. He’s… he’s really – really something, El.”
She shakes her head and sighs. “You’re letting him off too easily, Merlin.”
And Merlin sort of knows that, but also can’t help but think that it wouldn’t be right to hold a grudge. It took seeing Arthur again to understand that he can’t, in good conscience, blame Arthur for not wanting him back as much as Merlin had wanted him. Merlin wishes he could, but it’s simply not happening. Not when he’s confronted with Arthur’s kind smile and not when he’s watching him pull one all-nighter after another so that he could both be on The Sun’s front page playing polo and really help people, away from the paparazzi and camera flashes.
Arthur Pendragon at the peak of his game is hard to resist.
Merlin can’t really complain though. His job is draining and stressful, considering he has no experience with a project this size, but it’s also making him happier than he’s ever remembered being. He concentrates on that, and if there’s also Arthur – well.
There’s also Arthur.
Merlin is rapidly going cross-eyed, staring at the calculations that simply don’t want to fit, when a cup of coffee suddenly appears in front of him. He blinks. It’s a sign of how exhausted and exasperated Merlin is feeling that he takes a sip before he actually looks up to find Arthur smiling at him, bemused.
“Are you a delivery boy now?” Merlin quips, grinning.
“You looked like you would keel over any second,” Arthur says, shoving his hands in his pockets and shrugging.
Merlin finds himself staring at the firm line of Arthur’s shoulders, stretching his white shirt with every little motion. Arthur seems to have some undue fondness for white shirts – much to Merlin’s chagrin, because he looks illegally good in them, especially in his ‘end of the day, rolled up sleeves, undone collar’ mode. Merlin only manages to look away when a sip of coffee he’s carelessly taking goes down the wrong way.
Arthur laughs, pounding his back. “Honestly, Merlin. How you managed to stay alive for so long is a mystery to all.”
“Wanker,” Merlin says without heat, wishing Arthur would take his hand off his shoulder; it’s distracting. Merlin looks up, his head dropping back, to meet Arthur’s eyes. “Do you have a reason for being here, other than disrupting my work?”
Arthur stares down at him for a long moment with a strangely arrested expression on his face.
“I didn’t know you wore glasses,” he says softly.
Merlin swallows, his throat feeling suddenly as if it’s filled with sandpaper. “Um, yeah, I – I use them for reading. Sometimes at the end of the day, the strain is just – and I, um…”
“I like them,” Arthur says, still in that quiet, gentle tone. “They make you look smart.”
His thumb grazes the skin of Merlin’s neck above his collar, and then Arthur steps back, the touch gone as suddenly as it appeared, leaving Merlin bereft.
“What are these?” Arthur asks, standing in front of the drawing board Merlin had installed that morning.
“Ah, yes.” Merlin pulls himself out of the chair awkwardly and joins Arthur. “Bors and I were having a bit of an argument about the wiring. I did a similar project in my third year, and I thought I’d take a look. Maybe pull a few things.”
Arthur turns page after page carefully, studying the blueprints and sketches. “All these are yours?” he asks, sounding awed. “Merlin... these are incredible.”
Merlin chuckles, trying not to blush. “No offence, but you’re hardly an expert.”
“Oh, I’ve probably seen more blueprints than you, trust me,” Arthur says absently, still intent on the board. “People send us all kinds of stuff for our projects, but we’ve never had anything this good.” He looks at Merlin sharply. “Have you shown them to anyone?”
“Well.” Merlin pushes the glasses up his nose, glancing down for a moment. “Nimueh, my former boss, she wasn’t really interested, and, um… yours was the first contest thingy I entered, apart from those at uni, I mean. These might need some work, depending on where they’d be built, but it’s not like I can actually sell them to anyone, so it’s kind of a moot point. I mean. Right?”
Arthur stares at him blankly for so long that Merlin begins to shift from foot to foot awkwardly and fiddle with his glasses again.
“What?” he blurts out at last.
“Merlin,” Arthur says slowly, “exactly how daft are you?”
Merlin scowls, but Arthur grabs his shoulder and turns him around, almost pushing him nose-first into the blueprints.
“These could bring you a fortune and make you the most sought-after architect this side of the Pond.”
Merlin snorts. “Yeah, right.”
Arthur actually groans, his fingers digging into Merlin’s shoulder. “Merlin, listen carefully, because I’m only going to say this once. You’re bloody brilliant, okay? Do you think you just happened to pick a lucky number when you won this contest? Do you know how many experts were on the technical board for it? You didn’t get the highest scores by accident, you dimwit. And these – these are awesome, and I’m taking them.”
“What?” Merlin jerks up, extremely confused and blushing furiously. “Where?”
Arthur is already gathering the sheets into a neat roll. “To Morgana. She’ll know the right people to show them to.”
“I’ve just found you an agent, Merlin. Thank me later.”
“You can’t just—”
“Oh, yes, I can. Somebody has to, and you’re too bloody stupid to do it yourself.”
“You just said I was brilliant.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “In architecture. The rest of the time, you’re a complete idiot.”
“You really think they’re good?” Merlin asks quietly. “You’re not just… being nice or something?”
Arthur gives him a long-suffering look. “Let me put it another way, Merlin. If I don’t bring those to Morgana, and she finds out later that I could have and didn’t, she’s going to cut my balls off. Since I happen to like them where they are, I want to make it very clear that I’m not doing this for you. Is that clear?”
Merlin s grinning. “Crystal.”
“Good.” Arthur nods. “I’m glad we had this little talk. Don’t stay up too late or I’ll send Leon to drag you out of here.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Your Highness. It’s not like you’re setting an example or anything.”
Arthur shakes his head, but his lips are twitching. “You and your bloody cheek, Merlin, I swear to God.”
“Arthur,” Merlin calls after him. “Thanks for the coffee.”
Arthur doesn’t turn around. “You’re welcome.”
“Well,” Morgana intones, bemused, stretching on the sofa like a cat once she’s done flicking through the sketches. “Looks like our baby boy is all grown up. These are really good, Arthur.”
“I know,” Arthur says, stopping for a moment in his pacing. “That idiot, though. He hasn’t got a clue about their worth.”
Morgana shrugs one shoulder delicately. “Merlin probably knows that academic praise doesn’t count for much in the real world. And Nimueh Blake isn’t exactly known for honing young talent.”
“Can you do something?” Arthur asks, trying to curb his impatience.
“Hardly more than you’ve already done, brother dear.” Morgana smiles at him sweetly.
Arthur rolls his eyes. “I mean, show them to the right people?”
“Of course.” Morgana nods regally. “You should make some introductions yourself, though. Why don’t you take him to the charity ball in December? Everyone he needs to know will be there, and I can spread these out by then. Prepare the turf, so to speak.”
Arthur stops to stare at her. “That’s a brilliant idea, Morgana. I was going to invite him anyway, but—”
“As your date?” she asks slyly.
“No,” Arthur says, fighting down a blush. “Yes. Maybe?”
She laughs. “My, my, Arthur. So decisive.”
“It’s just that—” Arthur throws his hands up in surrender. “It’s Merlin. And I’ve no idea if this is – what this is.”
Morgana purses her lips, obviously enjoying his struggle, but she eventually takes pity on him.
“You’re asking yourself if you only like him because you had already liked him once before, is that it?”
Arthur looks at her helplessly. “Er… something like that?”
“Okay. Then imagine that you and Merlin have no history. Imagine the first time you’ve met him was when he actually won that contest of yours. Do it and see if you’d done anything differently.”
Arthur closes his eyes and tries.
He sees Merlin walking into that conference room for the first time – not being dragged in by Gwen, but just stepping in, smiling shyly, a look of disbelief on his face. Arthur would shake his hand and probably let it linger too long in his, because Merlin’s eyes would be right there, hopeful and brimming with excitement. His skin is warm and smooth to the touch, he’s got long fingers – artist’s hands – and Arthur would only let go when Gwen clears her throat.
He sees Merlin as he is every day – storming into the headquarters late, barely awake, tripping over the steps and his own feet, desperately craving coffee. He’s rescued by the girls from the website team, who ply him with coffee while trying to do something about his hair. It gives him that delicious ‘just shagged’ look, and the girls coo at him and tease him while he smiles guilelessly and draws quick sketches for their new banners. They give him biscuits and more coffee before they send him off.
He sees Merlin going blow for blow with Bors as the giant of a man tries to get him to change his design to make it more comfortable for the construction team. But Merlin holds his own. He spent months, he snaps, creating the most cost-effective, eco-friendly, aesthetically pleasing design, and he would not be swayed just because someone wants an extra smoking break. Bors tries to ambush him with figures, but Merlin has everything backed up, including extensive ground research and a full list of materials with suppliers’ addresses and bargain prices on top. No one should look so hot while going on a tangent about white clay or bricks, but watching Merlin trounce Bors always makes Arthur hot under the collar.
He sees Merlin in his small office during the quiet, late evenings as he constantly moves around between his laptop, the draft table, and the drawing board. Merlin owns exactly two suits, which makes Arthur sad, but he rarely wears them to work. Merlin says that it’s too much to ask of someone to look like a ‘bloody Esquire cover’ when they have to spend half their day in a hard cap and up to their knees in cement. So Merlin wears skinny jeans and wrinkled jumpers that look like he’d bought them back at uni. And of course, late at night, there’ll be glasses – those goddamn glasses that drive Arthur absolutely mad, and he didn’t even know it was a thing before.
Merlin would look at him helplessly and ask, his voice rough with fatigue, if Arthur thinks Bors was right and Merlin should stop yelling at people who, unlike him, have done this before. Arthur would talk to him quietly about working with people, not lecturing but advising, and Merlin would listen silently, absorbing it all, and he wouldn’t mind or even notice Arthur’s hand resting on his back all the while, rubbing little circles unconsciously, daringly venturing into his hair a few times under the guise of ruffling it.
Merlin would smile then and ask, ‘So I’m not fired yet?’ Arthur would cuff him on the head lightly, and pull his glasses off, and drag him into the empty staff room. They’d order takeaway, and watch some telly, flicking mindlessly through the channels, too tired yet to stand up and go home. If Arthur is lucky, Merlin would doze off slumped against his shoulder (that had happened twice), and Arthur would let him be until Leon comes to drive them both to their respective homes. (The second time, Arthur fell asleep, too, and was woken up by a flash to find a grinning Leon stuffing his mobile into his pocket.)
Once, when Merlin was very tired and little bit tipsy from a single glass of champagne (they’d been celebrating the foundation being finally in place), he went as far as kiss Arthur sloppily on the cheek when Arthur dropped him off at his flat.
Arthur opens his eyes and stares at Morgana. She lifts an eyebrow, and Arthur groans and falls into an armchair.
“Tea?” Morgana says innocently.
“Please,” Arthur moans, rubbing his face.
“Would have treated him differently then, I take it?”
“Yeah.” Arthur pulls the cup closer. “I’d have asked him out ages ago.”
Morgana laughs. “You boys and your big, scary, manly feelings. Did it hurt much – working that out?”
“You know, you don’t get to be so smug after that story with Tristan,” Arthur grumbles.
Morgana shoots him a dark look. “I thought we were never speaking of it again,” she hisses. “You, Arthur Pendragon, are no gentleman.”
The mention of his family name makes Arthur wince. “Shit. Father will go ballistic.”
Morgana shrugs, pouring so much milk into her tea that Arthur cringes. “It’s your life, Arthur, not Uther’s. Besides” – she smirks – “you can always abdicate.”
Arthur stares at her for a moment before bursting out laughing. “You witch! You’re always after my crown.”
Morgana smiles at him sweetly. “I just think it’d look better on me, that’s all.”
Arthur smirks and drinks his tea and tries not to think about how, if it actually comes to that, the choice might be easier to make than anyone, even Morgana, suspects.
Arthur walks into Uther’s study, trying not to flinch. The room has always felt a bit oppressive to him, with its abundance of dark wood and red drapes.
“You wanted to see me, Father,” Arthur says, coming to a halt before Uther’s desk.
It was a sad day in Arthur’s life when he realised that his relationship with his father was not irreparable and would mutate, in time, into one of mutual respect, but it would never again be cordial. It was several years past, but the reminder still stings and will probably never cease.
“Yes.” Uther looks up from whatever paper he’s been studying and gestures with his hand. “Sit down, Arthur.”
Arthur obeys, watching as Uther reaches into his drawer to pull a medium-size yellow envelope.
“The press doesn’t have these yet,” Uther says, handing the envelope over to Arthur.
Curious and mildly concerned, Arthur opens it.
Photos. About a dozen of them, with a kind of black-and-white high-grained quality only produced by professionals who don’t care about the art, but do care about snatching every detail.
Arthur and Merlin at the construction site with Bors. Bors is clearly displeased with something and is glaring at Merlin. Arthur stands close at Merlin’s side, hand wrapped around his forearm, holding him back and instinctively shielding him.
Arthur and Merlin at the construction site alone. Merlin is pointing at something, excited; Arthur is just staring at him with a soft smile.
Arthur and Merlin at the HQ entrance. Merlin is trying not to spill his coffee while pulling out his mobile. Arthur’s hand is at the small of his back, the other one holding the door open for him.
Arthur and Merlin by Arthur’s car, bickering.
Arthur, Merlin and Leon at the small café across the street from HQ.
Arthur and Merlin at the same café alone, Merlin snagging cheese off Arthur’s plate and smirking.
There are quite a few more, none incriminating in any way but all painfully obvious. Arthur realises suddenly that he’s smiling, being drawn into the captured moments, forgetting where they came from. He looks up to find Uther staring at him.
Arthur lifts an eyebrow; Uther sighs.
“I suppose,” the king intones in a flat, disinterested tone, “it would be unviable to assume that Merlin Emrys has suddenly become a common name?”
Arthur purses his lips. “I imagine so.” At Uther’s continuing scrutiny, Arthur frowns. “I didn’t go looking for him, if that’s what you’re implying, although I probably should have. This was chance. But I don’t intend to let him go again.”
Uther contemplates him silently. Arthur shrugs. “You can always make Morgana the first in line.”
Uther lifts his eyebrows. “I’m not that keen on resurrecting the Third Reich.”
Arthur smothers a snort. At least their opinion of Morgana is something they still have in common.
At long last, Uther says, “At some point, an introduction would be in order. Preferably before you take this to another TV show.”
Arthur scoffs. “You’ve met him.”
Uther’s glance is steely, but something softens in his expression. “A proper introduction, Arthur, if you are serious about this.”
Arthur bites his lip to keep from responding at once. He knows Uther will never apologise – his father doesn’t apologise to anyone for anything. But this is as much of an equivalent as Arthur is ever going to get.
“I am serious,” he says. “And I will introduce him when we figure things out.”
If we figure things out, he thinks, but doesn’t say. Because, while Arthur looks unquestionably smitten in the photos, Merlin can’t, strictly speaking, be called anything of the sort. He seems friendly and perhaps a little bit flirtatious, but that’s all.
Uther seems satisfied with Arthur’s response and changes the subject, talking about Arthur’s planned royal appearances for the next month.
When Arthur leaves, he takes the photos with him.
“You cook?” Merlin stares incredulously as Arthur selects ingredients from his fridge before laying them out on the worktable.
Arthur shoots him a narrow-eyed look. “Don’t look so surprised, Merlin. It’s insulting.”
Merlin lifts his hands up, grinning. “It’s just that I never pictured you, of all people, bent over a cooker. Don’t you have, like, an army of servants to wait on you?”
“Not here, I don’t.” Arthur shakes his head, gesturing vaguely at the flat. “This is just me, mostly. I mean, someone comes to clean and stock the groceries, obviously.”
“Obviously.” Merlin is grinning.
Arthur glares at him. “Stop that.”
“I’m sorry, but you – you have an apron.”
Arthur’s cheeks colour slightly as he begins to deftly chop the vegetables. “Irene gave me the apron, if you must know.”
“Your housekeeper from Clarence House?”
“Yes. She likes me; I’m good with my employees. I’m also good with animals, if horses and dogs are any indication. And I sign photographs for little children.”
Merlin opens the fridge, hoping for some ice cream. “And you’re telling me this why?”
“I just thought I’d point that out in case you haven’t noticed. You’re not very bright, Merlin – what are you doing?”
“Augh, let go,” Merlin grunts when Arthur hooks a finger through his belt loop and tugs him back.
“No sweets before dinner, Merlin.” Arthur snatches the box from his hands and shoves it back into the fridge unceremoniously. “Honestly, it’s like you’re five.”
“You promised me to feed me when you dragged me here.” Merlin pouts. “I’ll starve before you’re done with your three-course meal of doom over there.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “It’s just an omelette, Merlin, it won’t take that long.”
“An omelette? You’re making me an omelette?”
“Is there some significance to that action that I’m not aware of?”
“No, it’s just – it’s night!”
“So? You said yourself you were hungry. And anyway, it’s not just any omelette, and I happen to like them.” Arthur finally looks up and catches his expression. “Oh, for God’s sake, Merlin. Open some wine and shut up.”
Except of course the bottle opener is an instrument of evil, and Arthur doubles over laughing as he watches Merlin struggle to pull the cork free.
“You could have helped, you prat,” Merlin complains, red-faced with effort. But he can’t help grinning at the sight of Arthur’s infectious mirth.
“And rid myself of such a spectacle? Not on your life.” Arthur pants with laughter. He scrutinizes the bottle and his eyes go wide. “Merlin. Am I to understand that the cork is now inside?”
Merlin bites his lip. “Um. You can still pour that way.”
He reaches to demonstrate, but Arthur grabs him in a headlock, hand diving into Merlin’s hair, ruffling it mercilessly. “You” – tug – “are” – tug – “unbelievable.”
He pushes Merlin off, but his palm remains pressed against the nape of Merlin’s neck for a moment longer. Merlin swallows.
Arthur shakes his head, grinning. “Just sit down, Merlin, before you ruin something else, I swear to God. How are you still alive?”
“No one really knows.” Merlin shrugs, watching as Arthur pours him a glass of wine, still snickering at the drowned cork.
Arthur slides the glass over to him; their fingers brush. Merlin looks down, nodding his thanks. Arthur turns back to the cooker and clears his throat.
Merlin traces the rim of the glass with his finger, trying to make a sound. It stays silent. He sighs.
“Not that I don’t appreciate all this, but, um... can I ask what brought this on?”
Arthur glances at him over his shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you never brought me here before, for one. I didn’t even know you kept a city flat.”
Arthur shrugs. “Clarence House can get a bit much.” He upends the bowl into the saucepan with a certain hand. “Despite appearances, I don’t really enjoy living in the same building as my office.”
“Okay,” Merlin concedes. “But still. I mean—”
“Are you worried that this is a date?” Arthur asks, his attention on the softly sizzling pan. “It’s not a date, Merlin, you can relax.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Merlin protests, but it’s a bit hard to swallow his disappointment. He doesn’t know if a date with Arthur is a good thing, but, now that he knows this isn’t one, he feels strangely down all of a sudden.
“Of course you were, Merlin, because you’re a girl,” Arthur says, but it sounds automatic. He glances over his shoulder with a wry grin. “Can’t I enjoy a quiet meal with a friend?”
Merlin smiles and lets it go.
The meal is quiet and pleasant. Arthur talks about the upcoming visit of the King of Spain, and how, the last time he was in London, he forgot he was the guest of honour and kept everyone up till sunrise. They talk and laugh, and Arthur caves in the end and gives Merlin his ice cream, watching him with fond exasperation.
Merlin is relaxed and slightly buzzed and isn’t expecting it when Arthur suddenly asks, “But what if this was a date?”
Merlin blinks, startled. “Wha-what do you mean? You just said—”
“Yeah, I know.” Arthur sighs. “Just forget it, okay? No need to look so scared.”
“I’m not scared,” Merlin says, trying to sit up a little straighter. “It’s just that... Arthur, back in Italy, I thought the problem was that you couldn’t be gay, being prince and all. But then you came out, and – and so the problem was me, wasn’t it? You didn’t like me.”
“I didn’t like you?” Arthur stares. “Merlin” – his eyebrows pinch painfully – “I came out because of you.”
“But—” Merlin slides to his feet, lost and restless. “But that doesn’t even make sense.”
“Yes, it does. Merlin – what I put you through – I never wanted to treat anyone else like that ever again. I wanted to be honest. And it was all because of you.”
“Oh,” Merlin says, and suddenly, it all slots into place. He thought he was being careful, but it’s obvious he has misjudged his own emotions, because it’s all he can do not to sway at the staggering force of his disappointment. “Right. Of course. How very – very noble of you.”
Arthur walks toward him carefully, a soft, gentle expression on his face. “Merlin.” Arthur speaks quietly as his fingers skim lightly over Merlin’s cheekbone. “If I hadn’t met you, my life would have been all lies and pretence. I’d never have gotten to be myself, to be happy. I owe it all to you.”
Merlin tries desperately not to tremble, but he knows he can’t take much more of this. Arthur is grateful, and Merlin should be pleased about it, but he just can’t.
Arthur is right in front of him, touching him, speaking so softly. He’s so close – Merlin can feel the residual scent of his aftershave, and his head is spinning. He shouldn’t have been drinking.
“Right,” he blurts out hurriedly, trying to take his voice under control. “You’re welcome and all that. I’ll – I’ll just be going now, yeah?”
“What?” Arthur looks taken aback. “Going where?”
“Home.” Merlin shrugs, stretching his lips forcibly into a pained grin. “Leon promised to take me.”
“Leon?” Arthur steps back and his face becomes suddenly blank. “Right. Yes. Of course. Don’t let me keep you then.”
“Yeah.” Merlin nods, not really sure about what he’s saying. “Thank you for the – the omelette, and um. It was lovely. Thanks.” He picks up his jacket with numb hands.
“My pleasure,” Arthur’s response sounds wooden. He keeps looking at Merlin as if fearing for his sanity.
Merlin wants nothing better than to flee, but he can’t just leave it like that. He turns around in the doorway. “You know, you’re wrong.”
Arthur crosses his arms over his chest. “How so?”
“You’re your own man, Arthur. I might have – that is, meeting me might have given you a push in the right direction, but you did what you did because of who you are. I was just a random factor, and if it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else. What you did – only you could do that.”
Merlin bites his lip and makes himself finish. “You don’t owe me anything. But for what it’s worth, I’m glad it was me.”
He walks out without giving Arthur time to respond, stumbling down the steps in a daze.
Leon takes one look at his face, and says, “Let me get the car.”
Merlin grabs his sleeve. “I don’t want to go home.”
Leon studies him for a moment, then nods. “You don’t have to.”
He wakes up the next morning on Leon’s lumpy couch and prays for a hangover, but he feels disgustingly sober, every minute of the previous evening bright and clear in stark detail. He borrows a change of clothes and goes to work, and tries not to think about Arthur at all.
“I need to get laid.”
Gwaine looks up from a board filled with a seemingly chaotic assortment of white and black stones. “Well, hello to you, too, Merlin. How lovely to see you.”
He moves a stone and Merlin stares at the board. “What the hell is this?”
“Go,” Elena says.
Merlin blinks. “I’m sorry?”
Gwaine laughs. “She doesn’t mean you should go. She means this” – he points at the board – “is Go. We’re playing Strip Go.”
“Come again?” Gwaine opens his mouth, and Merlin hastily holds up a hand. “Actually, no, I don’t want to know.”
“Your loss.” Gwaine smirks.
Merlin turns to Elena. “El, I need you to help me buy a tux.”
She arches her eyebrows, still staring at the board. “Sure. But why?”
Merlin sighs. “Arthur is dragging me to that stupid charity ball at Christmas. He said they wouldn’t let me in otherwise.”
Gwaine and Elena look up simultaneously and stare at him. Merlin squirms. “What?”
“So, just to recap,” Gwaine says. “You’re going to a ball—”
“A Christmas ball,” Elena interjects helpfully.
“—with the Prince of Wales?”
“As his plus one?”
Merlin looks from one to the other warily and finally ventures, “Yes?”
“Elena,” Gwaine drawls in that dangerous tone of his that Merlin has been conditioned to fear. “Sweetheart, go get us some crazy glue while I dismantle the lamp from the sitting room. Merlin will be needing some crystal slippers.”
“Oh, very funny.” Merlin huffs. “You’re both hilarious. It’s not like that, okay? It’s all business, and it was Morgana’s idea.”
Which is the truth, as far as he knows. Arthur has been nothing but politely cool with him for the last two weeks. Clearly, refusing to accept a royal IOU was some kind of unforgivable insult.
“Morgana – as in, Her Royal Highness Morgana, Princess of York?” Gwaine asks casually. “And she’s just Morgana to you?”
Elena sighs. “It’s like we don’t even know him.”
“You’ll wave at us from the balcony, won’t you, Merlin? Hey, do you think they’d allow two guys to kiss, or will they just be holding hands?”
“Oh God, shut up!” Merlin springs to his feet, fists clenched. “Just shut up for once in your life, Gwaine!”
He storms out into the garden, catching Gwaine’s confused ‘What did I say?’ before he slams the door shut.
When Elena steps out a few moments later, Merlin has mostly calmed down.
“I’m sorry,” he says and tugs on the coat she brought him gratefully. “It’s been a long few days. You guys can go back to teasing me about my non-existent romance with Prince Arthur in a couple of weeks, yeah? Just not right now. Please.”
“Non-existent romance?” Elena repeats and then her features soften. “Oh, Merlin. What happened?”
Merlin looks at her, and, to his horror, feels his lips tremble. He bites down viciously, stifling it. Two weeks of near-silent treatment from Arthur on top of his ‘you’re my friend’ speech have been too much.
“I didn’t listen to you,” Merlin says, shivering at a gust of icy wind. “I didn’t listen to you, El, and I should have. I really, really should have.”
She walks over to him and hugs him, and Merlin can do little but wrap his arms around her and allow himself to be held.
Later, the two of them are curled on the couch, watching Blackadder. Gwaine barges in from the kitchen and pretends to scowl.
“All right, I did the dishes. I even cleaned the bloody oven. I want in on the cuddle fest,” he declares and sprawls on the other side of Merlin, shoving him over unceremoniously.
Merlin moves agreeably. “Sorry I yelled,” he offers.
Gwaine pokes him in the ribs. “Yeah.”
Elena shifts slightly, her head making Merlin’s arm go to sleep, but he’s too warm and relaxed to be complaining.
“So about earlier,” Gwaine says. “About you getting laid? I have this footie mate who’s really fond of dark-haired twinks.”
Merlin elbows him softly. “I’m not a twink.”
“How would you define yourself?”
“I don’t know. Just a regular… guy… person.”
“Hey,” Merlin protests.
She pats his knee. “It’s not you, it’s Rowan Atkinson.”
“He’s not even in this scene.”
“I’m remembering the last one.”
“You’re a lying liar who lies. Anyway” – Merlin turns to Gwaine – “raincheck on your friend, okay? I need to sort myself out first. I think.”
Gwaine grins. “Good idea.”
He turns on his side and drapes an arm around Merlin’s waist, his hand resting on Elena’s hip. She covers it with her own.
Merlin purrs with contentment. “You’re good people.”
They both go suspiciously quiet, and a moment later Merlin’s regretting his careless words, trying to escape as they launch a merciless tickle attack. They torture him until he can’t form words and is simply lying there, breathless with laughter, twitching helplessly and trying to grab their hands.
“Leon?” Morgana’s voice rings with glee. “Leon, Arthur? Leon Knightly? You’re jealous of your bodyguard?”
“It’s not funny, Morgana!” Arthur snaps, fighting with his bowtie in front of the mirror.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I think it’s hilarious.”
Arthur looks up in time to see Morgana actually walking into his bedroom in her lingerie.
“Dammit!” He claps a hand over his eyes. “Morgana, do you mind?”
She scoffs, rummaging in his wardrobe. “Oh, come on, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.”
“Yes, and I have no desire to see it again, so could you please cover yourself?”
Morgana tuts. “Such a prude. Really, the title of Britain’s most scandalous royal is wasted on you.”
“For God’s sake, woman, you’re my sister!”
“Half-sister. It’s only half-incest.”
Arthur sputters. “You know, the sheer amount of horrible things that come out of your mouth on a regular basis is appalling, Morgana.”
She laughs. “Why, thank you, Arthur. You’re so sweet.”
Something occurs to him, and Arthur turns to give her a look, keeping his eyes pointedly on her face. “Why are you getting ready here? Don’t you have your own palace wing or a dark realm or something?”
“I do, but it’s more fun this way. Besides, I thought you could use some time with Marie.”
“My hair and make-up girl. Those bags under your eyes really aren’t as attractive as you think.” She pats him on the cheek and mercifully steps out of the room, if only just.
Arthur looks at his reflection and winces. “I haven’t been sleeping.”
“Imagining Leon and Merlin in the throes of passion, no doubt,” Morgana quips from outside the room. “Really, Arthur, Leon’s too old for this.”
“He’s thirty-three! That’s hardly too old for sex.”
“I meant for this kind of stupidity. A blind man can see the way you look at Merlin, and Leon has known you since you were six. Do you really think he’d do that to you?”
“Yeah, right. And Merlin just happened to wear his clothes for the hell of it.”
“You don’t know what happened.” Morgana’s finger appears in the doorway, jabbing at Arthur imperiously. “Don’t jump to conclusions, Arthur. It never ends well.”
“But don’t you see? It makes perfect sense. Leon always liked Merlin, even back in Italy.”
“Oh my God, are you seriously this delusional? Arthur, for God’s sake – Leon has a girlfriend.”
Arthur whirls around. “He what?”
Morgana appears in the doorway, neatly encased in a flow of sleek magenta that twirls around her ankles and showcases her cleavage to the point that it makes Arthur vaguely uncomfortable. She looks at him, amused but also uncharacteristically sympathetic.
“Oh, Arthur.” She sighs. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
He gulps in a breath. “And Leon—”
“Swings both ways and has been dating Jenny Watkins for about four months now. They’re pretty serious.”
Arthur stares at her, a weird buzz in his ears. “I really should have known that, shouldn’t I?”
Morgana lifts her eyebrows. “Yes,” she says in that ‘it wouldn’t hurt you to take an interest every once in a while’ tone.
Arthur shifts uncomfortably. “Leon and I had a bit of a falling out after Italy. After that, it was just – I didn’t feel like I could pry.”
Morgana smirks. “I guess he really did like Merlin, then, didn’t he?”
Arthur glares at her, and she laughs and reaches out for his arm. “Be my escort?”
Arthur snorts involuntarily. “Only to the car. I still remember the last time I escorted you all too well.”
The debutantes’ ball that season was going to remain the stuff of legends forever, mostly thanks to Morgana, who arrived in a very stunning and very black dress, effectively making everyone else’s debuts a mere background for her show. Uther very nearly disowned them both, even though Arthur swore he had no idea she was planning it.
Morgana smiles at him beatifically and links her arm with his. “Let’s go be a scandal.”
Arthur can only hope she doesn’t mean it, but past experience tells him that yes, she probably does.
Morgana ditches him in the driveway. Morgause, the Duchess of Kent, has the audacity to arrive at the exact same time, and Morgana practically teleports to her side, posing for the photographers and providing wank material for generations of impressionable young Brits. Arthur rolls his eyes and goes inside.
The lobby is huge and filled with people. Arthur squints and even stands on his toes at one point, looking for Merlin, who’s supposed to be meeting him here. When he finally spots him standing in front of a big mirror, fiddling with his sleeve nervously, Arthur’s mouth goes dry.
Someone must have helped Merlin pick the outfit, because in all the time Arthur has known him, Merlin has never once worn anything that actually fit, but his tux seems perfect. It’s on the humble side, looking closer to a regular suit than a tailcoat. Arthur can’t pull off this design, but he has always liked the way it looks on those who can. Merlin opted for a simple black tie, skinny but not too skinny; and his hair looks moderately tamed for once. He seems composed and almost aloof.
Up close, though, it’s another story. There are two spots of colour high on Merlin’s cheekbones. His lips are gleaming red, as though Merlin has been biting them for the better part of the day. His eyes are bright with nervous anticipation, and he seems tense like a bowstring, ready to bolt.
“Looking good,” Arthur murmurs in Merlin’s ear, stepping up behind him.
Merlin jumps. “Arthur! Fuck, you scared me.”
“Language, Merlin.” Arthur smirks, resting a hand on Merlin’s waist to steady him. He can feel the nervous rhythm of his body under his palm. “Are you ready?”
Merlin half turns toward him, biting his lip again. “I can’t – this thing just – keeps unclasping.”
Arthur looks down to where Merlin is fighting a losing battle with a cufflink. Arthur makes a point to sigh in exasperation, trying to conceal a pang of sympathy at the same time. Merlin’s fingers are ringing with tension like the rest of him; it’s no wonder he can’t manage.
Arthur tuts, covering Merlin’s hand with his own gently. “Let me.”
Merlin stills, looking into space and not blinking, while Arthur deftly snaps the cufflink closed.
“Here,” he says. “All done.”
“Nice job dressing yourself, by the way.”
Merlin sighs, but there’s a smile there, too. “I had help,” he admits, staring at his feet.
Arthur chuckles. “I figured. Come on. Time to go make small talk.”
“Arthur.” Merlin stops him with a fleeting touch to his arm.
Arthur turns back to him. “What is it?”
“I, um.” Merlin shifts from foot to foot restlessly, before finally looking up at Arthur with a strange kind of determination. “Look, you know I don’t do too well with posh parties. I mean, the last one I attended definitely wasn’t a hit, despite you making people fly and everything.”
“I’m just saying. I tend to screw up with these things.”
“You won’t,” Arthur says, stepping closer to him and holding his eyes. “Merlin, it’s going to be fine. Most of the people here” – Arthur tilts his chin up to indicate the ballroom – “spend copious amounts of money on charity and support the arts. It’s going to be your crowd, I promise. And if you run into any trouble, just find Morgana or me. Actually, scratch that, go straight to Morgana – I might well be the only person in the country who isn’t scared of her.”
Merlin snorts. “Fine, then. As long as I warned you.”
Arthur rolls his eyes and steers him up the stairs.
Merlin doesn’t screw up.
It’s not as if Arthur has actually expected him to, but Merlin did have a tendency to be awkward, and more so than usual when he was nervous. Besides, Arthur knows that Merlin, unlike him, isn’t used to being in the spotlight.
Which is why Arthur is taken completely by surprise when he sees how well Merlin does.
Arthur knew people would be clamouring for his attention, so he tries to make the most important introductions first. Except, when he steers Merlin along to meet Gaius Duke of Essex, he pretty much loses him immediately, because Gaius, as it turns out, used to dabble in architecture before he married. He takes to Merlin like a duck to water.
Arthur watches them for as long as he can, but he’s soon distracted with the necessity to charm and disarm. He greets everyone he’s supposed to; he smiles at young women (and quite a few men) who are clearly on a mission to win his favour, though most of them as interested in the proceedings and as bound by duty as Arthur is; he dances and pretends to drink.
In-between, he manages to insert quite a few conversations that are actually useful. Arthur is quite shameless and uses every opportunity to raise money for the Trust. He learned it from Morgana.
Every now and then, he catches glimpses of Merlin and is constantly amazed – and somewhat disgruntled – as he watches Merlin’s progress.
Gone is the awkward boy who didn’t quite know what to do with his hands. Merlin smiles and laughs and talks animatedly and with casual ease. He touches people when socially acceptable, and blushes sweetly when they touch him.
Arthur had always thought that Merlin was pretty much oblivious to the effect he has on people, but here he is, playing up to the adorable-innocent-genius act expertly. Maybe because it isn’t actually an act, and Arthur knows this. He’s just never seen Merlin acting so open, so at home in his own skin around strangers before.
He’s not working the crowd, not exactly, but it looks like he does to Arthur, and he feels oddly out of sorts. He always thought Merlin would need his protection – that he would, in fact, rely on it. And it’s selfish to see how very much Merlin doesn’t need assistance, now that he’s here, but Arthur can’t help a twinge of regret laced with fear. If Merlin doesn’t need him for that, what use is Arthur to him?
People ask him about Merlin, too, and Arthur is trying to be careful. He knows that excessive praise will do him a disservice, but it’s difficult to mince words when he’s so utterly in love with Merlin’s work.
It’s difficult when Arthur dreams of actually building that little chalet he spied in Merlin’s portfolio. Trying because Merlin might yell at Bors until his throat is sore, but he’ll spend night after night redoing entire levels at the off chance that it might actually send people home earlier. It’s fucking hard to pretend because Merlin comes in on Sundays to help with the website or at the call-centre when no one even asked him to. Because he lives in a crappy flat with failing heating but tells Gwen she can cut his pay in half when it looks like some of the projects are in danger.
Arthur smiles politely and speaks neutrally of Merlin – if anything, downplaying him a little and making sure he’s obvious about it. By the end of the night, Merlin’s pockets might actually give, stretched to the limits with all the cards he’s collecting.
Arthur should be happy – this was the point of this exercise, after all. But the sinking feeling in his gut only grows with every brilliant smile Merlin shoots at someone, with every person preventing Arthur from joining him.
“Someone’s doing well,” Morgana purrs in his ear.
Arthur glances at the champagne flute in her hand and frowns. “How many did you have?”
She smirks, tipping the glass at him. “You’re not my keeper, brother dear. And I was talking about your little friend over there.”
Arthur follows her gaze and his stomach drops.
Merlin is talking to James Ector, CEO of one of the top-ten construction companies. It would be all fine and dandy, except he isn’t just talking. Ector is flirting with him; he couldn’t be more obvious if he started taking his clothes off, and Merlin – Merlin is smiling slyly, and looking from under his lashes, and nodding encouragingly at whatever it is Ector is saying.
“I thought he was this sweet, shy country boy,” Morgana drawls, clearly enjoying this. “Didn’t you tell him not to mix business and pleasure?”
“Excuse me,” Arthur growls and starts walking.
He knows he shouldn’t. He knows it’s a knee-jerk reaction and he should be better than this. He spent a lifetime learning to disregard his instincts, but deep down inside, he’s still a nine-year-old boy who doesn’t like when Morgana plays with his dog.
“Merlin, there you are at last,” Arthur says with a smile so tight it hurts his jaw. Ignoring Merlin’s surprise, Arthur swings an arm around his shoulders and offers his free hand to Ector. “It’s been a long time, Mister Ector.”
“Your Highness.” Ector seems confused for a moment, but then his eyes slide over the tight grip of Arthur’s fingers on Merlin’s shoulder and his expression closes off as comprehension dawns. “Always a pleasure.”
Merlin looks at him, eyebrows pinched. “Arthur, what—?”
He cuts himself off, but not soon enough. Ector’s eyes widen slightly at the casual address, and he smirks. Arthur responds with a smirk of his own, making it as nasty as he can manage. Merlin looks from one to the other and blushes furiously, but his mastery of the social norms has obviously grown at some point, because he doesn’t push Arthur away until Ector has made his excuses.
“Why the hell did you do that?” Merlin hisses the moment they’re on their own. He shakes Arthur’s arm off angrily.
“Well, someone should have stopped you from making a complete fool of yourself,” Arthur snaps quietly.
“How exactly was I making a fool of myself? By talking to people?”
“Is that what you call it?” He grabs Merlin’s elbow. “Come on. We’re leaving.”
“Because I’m the prince and I can’t stay too long or no one will have any fun.” He begins making his way toward the exit, dragging a very reluctant Merlin with him.
“Why should I leave?” Merlin asks, annoyed. “I’m not the guest of honour.”
Arthur stops and turns around, speaking low in Merlin’s ear, tone laced with anger. “You came here with me, Merlin. And you bloody well won’t leave with anyone else.”
Ignoring Merlin’s indignant sputtering, Arthur firmly pulls him out of the ballroom and down the stairs to be met with a slightly put-upon-looking Leon.
“Get the car,” Arthur says. “We’re leaving.”
Merlin picks that moment to finally jerk his arm free and storms out of the tall doors and into the crisp December night. Arthur sends a ‘don’t ask’ look at Leon and follows.
“Merlin, come back inside,” Arthur says, not holding out much hope. He glances around. The paps aren’t allowed onto the premises, but some of the drivers and valets are around, as well as his own security detail.
It’s not the best place to have this conversation, but Merlin’s understanding of social protocol, apparently, only goes so far.
“Why the fuck did you do that, Arthur?” Merlin rounds on him, fists clenched. “Do you even realise what you’ve implied? He’s going to think – he’s going to think—”
“That we’re sleeping together. Yes.” Arthur meets his eyes head on. “I’m not seeing the problem.”
“You’re not—” Merlin chokes. “You’re not seeing the problem? Are you out of your mind?”
“Are you out of yours?” Arthur snaps. “James Ector, Merlin? What were you thinking? The man makes Caligula look like an Easter bunny.”
Merlin presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “He’s a businessman, Arthur, not a monster. I don’t think he eats babies for breakfast.”
“With the rate at which he fires people? He might as well.”
“So you decided a caveman act was in order? Jesus, Arthur. I’m a grown man, for God’s sake. I can defend myself.”
“Not from these people, you can’t – you don’t even know them!”
“You wanted me to get to know them!”
“Not in the biblical sense, I didn’t!”
Merlin gapes at him. Arthur swallows, slowly drifting back to his senses. His chest is heaving, he realises; he’s breathing too fast. He becomes aware – for the first time? Again? – of the distant sounds of the traffic, of the coolness of the air around him. He shivers.
“Arthur.” Merlin speaks quietly. “Were you jealous?”
Arthur closes his eyes. “Yeah.”
He hopes Merlin will let it be. Except, Merlin hasn’t ever been one for doing what is expected of him, so of course he keeps on it, relentless like a dog with a chewtoy.
“Because I work for you and you don’t want me to jump ship?” Merlin’s tone is wary, as though he’s feeling his way across a minefield. “Or because—”
Arthur shakes his head and looks up at him, too tired to keep fighting. “Because you push the bloody cork inside the bottle when you’re trying to open it. Because you wear those damn glasses. Because you make that stupid noise when you laugh that makes me want to laugh with you.” He takes in Merlin’s expression and sighs. “Because it looks like I’m in love with a bloody idiot.”
Merlin lets out a choked laugh – half-surprised, half-incredulous, and purely instinctive. His mouth works, but no sound comes out.
“This is the part where you say something,” Arthur tells him, his voice faltering a little, to his own horror. “Like ‘Go to hell’ or ‘I quit’ or ‘I wish I never met you’ or even—”
A small, crooked smile curves Merlin’s lips. “Will ‘Shut up’ do?”
Arthur blinks, his head spinning. “Depends. If you—”
Merlin steps in closer, and kisses him.
He’s bold and nervous at the same time. If Arthur had so much as a tiny scrap of emotion to spare, he’d sympathise, but he’s all out, completely bankrupt as of a minute ago, so he just pulls Merlin flush against him by the waist and gives him whatever he wants to take.
Merlin tastes like the summer – the playful tease of sunlight on the back of his eyelids; the swift, heady intoxication of young wine; the sharp smell of ozone before a storm; the stinging taste of adrenaline, spiking as Arthur is pushed off a cliff and into the scathing embrace of emerald green sea water.
He grips Merlin tighter and lets himself fall, his fingers digging into Merlin’s back, Merlin’s hip pressed into him right where it matters, uncomfortable and solid, as their tongues slide together, too greedy for elegance or refinement of any sort, but so, so good. Arthur’s teeth flirt with Merlin’s lower lip in a manner that’s probably illegal in several countries, and Merlin makes a strangled kind of noise that shoots through Arthur like a shockwave, making him tremble with want.
How could he have forgotten what it feels like to hold Merlin like this? How could he have convinced himself that he could live without it? Clearly, Merlin was right – Arthur was out of his bloody mind when he—
They pull apart slowly, and Arthur blinks in a daze. It takes a moment for Leon’s voice to penetrate, and, when it does, Arthur blushes scarlet. Beside him, Merlin isn’t faring any better, his cheeks a flaming shade of red and his hands still tangled in Arthur’s jacket.
Leon doesn’t bother hiding his amusement. “I apologise for the interruption, but I thought you might like to know that the car is waiting.”
Arthur clears his throat. “Of course. Thank you, Leon.”
Merlin shifts uncomfortably, stepping away and seemingly not knowing where to look. Arthur is aware of people watching, but he doesn’t really care. He catches Merlin’s hand and squeezes it, prompting him to look up.
“Come home with me?”
Merlin glances down at their hands, then gives Arthur a long, questioning look. At long last, he smiles softly and nods. “Yeah.”
They start down the steps, and Arthur elbows Leon as he passes him. “Get that smug look off your face.”
“As you wish, Your Highness.” Leon’s tone is openly gloating. “Only I won a bet with the Lady Morgana—”
Arthur is pretty certain there’s at least one camera flash as he tugs Merlin toward the car by the hand. Hell is about to break loose, and his father will probably want to kill him, but Arthur can’t bring himself to care.
Inside, Merlin grins at him and laces their fingers together, and Arthur is pretty sure that he can deal with the rest of his life in the morning.
When the news of Arthur Pendragon, heir to the British throne, proposing to Merlin Emrys, his boyfriend of four years, breaks, and Clarence House issues an appropriate statement, no one in Britain is shocked. While it’s true that Prince Arthur and Mister Emrys had their ups and downs – religiously followed by the press, of course – leading even to a few weeks of separation at one point, they have remained one of the most stable and devoted celebrity couples in Europe.
Buckingham Palace issues no official statement, which is scandalous in itself. (According to rumours, the relationship between the King and Emrys doesn’t go past common civility.) However, a rather adventurous source close to His Majesty has made a small fortune by selling an unauthorised recording of the King’s reaction to the news.
Uther said: ‘The Prince of Spain married some reality show TV star; the Princess of Sweden married her fitness instructor, for God’s sake. My son might be a poof, but at least he picked someone who’s not illiterate.’
While the media is having a ball with it, Uther calmly announces that he is going on a three-month vacation and leaves Arthur to deal as best he can with the deeply affronted reactions of the Spanish and Swedish courts and a fiancé who is unable to contain fits of hysterical laughter at the mentioning of Uther’s name.
According to Morgana, they do pretty well, and it’s not like Arthur enjoyed going to Sweden anyway.
Merlin will never accept any professional awards, despite being frequently nominated for them. He will remain, however, one of the most successful architects in the Commonwealth. In a few years, his earnings will allow him to open an art school for underprivileged children and he will remain its curator for many years, in addition to his volunteer work with Arthur.
Two years into their marriage, after a state visit to Italy, Arthur and Merlin will not, in fact return to London as reported, but instead will mysteriously disappear, to a surprising lack of reaction from their staff. When they do resurface two days later, mildly sunburned and unable to stop smiling, Leon will roll his eyes and grin ruefully, but will say nothing at all.