Merlin sees him across a crowded living room and promptly spills his beer down the back of the couch and over some hapless stranger’s neck. “Sorry – sorry!” First he mops ineffectually at the bloke’s collar, then raises his hands slowly and backs away, reading the body language quite clearly. “Really sorry.” The guy rises from the couch, shakes his head in irritation and turns away, headed for the bathroom.
“Right,” Merlin says to himself and retires to a dimly lit corner. “Just the usual, then.” One disaster to another.
He sneaks another glimpse at The Guy and swallows.
Bloody gorgeous. Aloof. And alone. How is that happening?
And then he watches. A tiny brunette trips over to him, captivating dimples appearing as she speaks. Introducing herself, looks like. The Guy leans in, listening politely, lets a small curve appear at the corner of his luscious mouth.
Hi, Merlin fills in the blanks for himself, instantly depressed. I’m adorable, funny and extremely talented in bed. You’re clearly the hottest piece of arse in this room, possibly in all of London. How about you and I do all the ordinary bastards a favour and remove ourselves from the dating pool?
The Guy makes a brief reply. Probably, Yes, I can see the logic of your argument. It would be wrong of me to remain single too long. Or, Merlin tries to be fair, possibly it’s his name.
The dimples deepen and she slants a glance up into his face. Your parents would love me, and I am absolutely up for a threesome at some point in the future when we’ve established enough trust.
Fatalistic, Merlin waits to see The Guy snap her up. Instead he gives a kind of one-shoulder shrug and speaks for a little longer this time. He’s drunk enough that for one minute he imagines it’s Listen, I should tell you, while I absolutely have a thing for willowy brunettes, what I’m actually after is a pale, clumsy type with a penis.
But probably not. Still, whatever it is, it’s a good brush-off. The brunette makes a kind of oh-well sad face and shrugs, then goes on her merry way.
Merlin blinks. Okay. There’s only two brush-offs that work that neatly. One is the I’m married and she’s standing right behind you type, and the other is, I play for the other team.
Oh man, like that was what he needed - faint hope.
“Who are you stalking now, Emrys?”
He turns swiftly. “Nobody. Just watching the world go by, you know.” He meets Will’s amused eyes and painstakingly does not glance over to The Guy.
“So where’s Edwin?”
“Finishing up his last-minute shite at the office.”
Merlin doesn’t grimace. He’s a supportive friend. Gah.
Will, of course, sees right through him. “I know you don’t get it,” he says, soft and serious. “But I’ve honestly never been this happy.”
He relents immediately. “I know that. I do.” It was the only consolation he had in the middle of the whole mess. Will was… centred now. More confident. Whatever the hell it was Edwin had, it was exactly what Will had needed all these years. It was just a little disconcerting to see your childhood friend – your best friend - fall head over heels for a buttoned-down risk management specialist. Whatever the hell that was.
“So how are things with the new flatmate? I was tempted to drop over and give him some clues on surviving the Emrys experience, then I decided some things only made sense after actual, bitter experience.”
Merlin grimaced before he could catch himself. “Um.”
“What.” Will is already bracing himself for drama.
“Yeah. Um. Broke both his wrists falling out of a cab, apparently. Can’t play guitar, no money, so... He had to go back to Glasgow and move in with his parents.”
“So- what are you doing, then?” Will face was full of concern. He knew Merlin couldn’t make the full rent much longer… “Listen, why don’t you let me-”
“No,” he says firmly. “You’re not paying for a room you no longer live in.”
“Merlin, it wouldn’t-”
“Don’t be stupid. We both know Edwin doesn’t need any contributions from me, and I moved out with almost no notice, so-”
“And you paid the next two weeks anyway. We’ve been over this. You’re not going to bloody pay rent for a place in London when you’re living in Zurich. No.”
Will sighs, clearly recognizing the stubborn note in Merlin’s voice. Sometimes there were advantages to being friends your whole life. There’s a kind of shorthand, I mean it like I meant it about the boat when we were ten.
“So what’s the plan, then?”
Merlin shrugs. He really doesn’t want to go into this. He glances across the room just in time to see The Guy fend off another advance. This time it’s Terence, the concierge from Gwen’s hotel. Again, he gets the hapless wooer to back off, though this time Terence lingers and tries a few more lines, then gives a little shrug that says maybe next time. Or possibly, I’ll try again when you’ve had some tequila shots and your guard is down.
A warm hand cups his shoulder. “Merlin.”
He sighs and glances back at Will. A rueful smile tugs at his mouth. “I’ll figure something out,” he says, answering the worry on his face rather than the question.
Will’s frown deepens, and he feels a sudden rush of love and affection. He sets his beer down on the telephone table without looking and Will nudges it back from the edge without missing a beat, saving both their jeans from a dunking.
Merlin reaches up to cup Will’s face in his hands. “I love you, you prat,” he says, and he can feel the movement under his fingers as Will swallows. “And I will be fine without you watching over me. All right?”
For a moment neither of them moves. Will is fighting back tears, but he manages a smile. “All right,” he says simply, and the hug is long, heartfelt, and silent.
“I’m glad you found your Edwin,” Merlin eventually whispers in his ear, and for once he’s not rolling his eyes at all. “Even if he is going to turn you into yuppie Eurotrash.”
“Fuck you,” Will snorts, arms tight.
“Matching chocolate Labradors,” Merlin adds, fingers gripping tight for a second, “a subscription to Gourmet Traveller.”
The laugh bubbles out of Will and he straightens. “We’ll always be us, Merlin,” he whispers. “Whatever happens, you and me will always be.”
“I know,” he says, and he’s blinking back tears too because a few years ago, it hadn’t looked like that would ever be true again. His hand has trailed down to rest at Will’s hip, and they both feel the vibration of his phone at the same time. He manages a wobbly smile. “Edwin?”
Will tilts the screen up and nods, his smile a little shaky too. “He’s picking me up. Straight to the airport from here.” He inclines his head toward the window and they both glance out at the Jag as it pulls up.
“You all packed?” He feels Will nod but doesn’t glance away from the car. Erik gets out and rounds the car, then hesitates, obviously catching a glimpse of them through the window. In his peripheral vision he sees Will raise a hand in a wave, and Edwin pauses, then leans back against the car, hands sinking into his coat pockets, waiting.
“Okay,” Merlin says. He swallows hard and draws a long breath, preparing.
This time when he turns back he’s really smiling. Not going to send Will away with a big scene. It’s not easy, especially when Will cups his face in his hands and kisses him once, firm and loving and all the years behind them filling up the spaces. But something in Merlin’s chest unfurls at the realization that Will can still love him like this, even with Edwin looking on.
It’s going to be okay. Distance will be a new thing, but they’ll adjust.
“You already said goodbye to Gwen?” Will nods, stubble scratching against his cheek. “All right,” he finally says, squeezing Will’s arm. “Go on then.”
Will just nods, lips pressed tightly together. Their eyes meet one more time, and then he’s gone. Merlin doesn’t watch him make his way to the front door, instead he turns and stares out through the window.
Edwin meets his eyes, steady and calm, then his attention flicks to the front door and his face changes, like someone turned on the Christmas lights. Watching him watch Will, Merlin takes a deep, satisfying breath.
They meet by the car, a sweet, casual touch of hands, and both glance his way. He raises his own hand, feeling oddly like he’s blessing them, like some ancient pagan priest, yeah, presiding over their gay druid wedding and the thought makes him laugh to himself. And he sees the tension go out of Will, at that.
The Jag pulls away and it’s a wrench, but when he steps away from the window he’s feeling oddly light.
He drifts to the edges of a group and chats lightly, and when he glances over to the corner The Guy is gone. Right. Not like he had any kind of shot. But, you know. Would’ve been nice to hear his voice.
He lopes into the kitchen a few minutes later, seeking food, and he’s scooping unidentified dip onto a corn chip when he spots The Guy, clearly trying to say his farewells to Gwen.
She’s shaking her head, implacable, and the gentle hint of a smile on his face as he stares down at her is lovely. On a long breath in, Merlin focuses on The Guy’s wrist, a narrow line of skin visible beside one of those wide leather cuffs that also forms the band of his watch. Damn. Even his wrists are hot.
Merlin shifts to make room for someone bearing a bottle of scotch and four glasses, and it brings him within hearing range, though he carefully turns a shoulder so as not to be caught watching. Gwen’s far too observant.
“…just for a few minutes. There’s someone I wanted you to meet.”
“Gwen, honestly-” he says, and Merlin takes a slow breath. Nice voice. Calm and low. Accent in the upper-crusty range.
“There – Merlin.”
He blinks. Then he turns slowly on the spot toward Gwen. “Um?” he says, eyes wide.
“Come here,” she gestures. “I wanted to introduce you to an old friend of mine.”
He takes two short steps forward, feeling like he’s about to fall down the rabbit hole. He can’t even begin to guess why Gwen would want to introduce him to- “Um.”
“This is Arthur Fitzroy. Arthur, this is Merlin Emrys.”
“Merlin,” the golden god says, and offers a hand to shake.
Merlin almost hands him his beer, then catches himself in time to switch the bottle to his left hand and shakes like a fricking grown-up. He catches Gwen’s half-suppressed grin from the corner of one eye. “Lovely to meet you,” he says helplessly, and watches those blue eyes widen.
Oh bollocks. Arthur is still gorgeous, even up close. Was it too much to hope for that he’d have at least one flaw? Horrible acne scars, anyone? Perhaps he sounds like a donkey when he laughs.
There’s a momentary pause, and he glances over at Gwen, suddenly realizing why she’s doing this. She knows Will just left, and wants to distract him. He grins at her in sudden, warm affection.
Arthur shifts at his side and opts for a conventional opener. A reluctant party guest, but not rude. “So how do you two know each other?”
“Oh, Merlin and his boss are regulars at the auctions,” Gwen provides carelessly, squeezing Merlin’s hand for just a moment, a wordless you okay?
“Yes,” Merlin says, squeezing back fine so far, “and Gwen terrifies all of us into submission with her clipboard. It’s not easy getting the antiquary nuts and the investors to all assemble in one spot without bloodshed. Last week there were very nearly fisticuffs over the provenance of a Toby jug.”
“So… which are you?”
Merlin raises his brows in enquiry, then backtracks through his own sentences. “Oh. Nutter. Definitely.”
Gwen laughs. “Merlin works for one of the smaller, independent valuers. But he’s got an amazing eye, according to, well, everyone, actually.”
“Gaius talks me up,” Merlin says, flushing a little and taking a deep drink of his beer. “It makes the firm look good.”
Gwen shakes her head at him and then catches sight of something just past his shoulder. “Oh crap. I told them not to- here.” She shoves her drink into Merlin’s hand and snatches away his now-empty beer before charging past, off to fight dragons in her living room.
“So… how did you get started in antiques?” Arthur asks. He’s no longer trying to edge toward the door, his manners are truly excellent, and Merlin gives him a lot of credit for not just bailing the minute he was out of Gwen’s line of sight. Not that he needs any extra credit.
“Mm,” he shrugs, “Well, I did a lot of extremely impractical classes like Art History at uni and, sadly enough, I ghost around antique shops in my spare time. I’ve always liked old things.” It’s almost as though they talk to me, he doesn’t say. He’s well aware he comes off as gawky and weird without helping things along.
He glances up, checking for boredom-glazed eyes, but Arthur looks genuinely interested so he kept going. “One day I was at a car boot sale and I spotted something – well, I thought looked like something special. I took it to a dealer - actually, this was about the ninth time I’d done that, and it turned out I was usually right. The guy, I dunno, took a shine to me and introduced me to a friend of his who ran an auction house. Rest is history, really.”
Arthur is smiling now, like there’s a joke Merlin missed. “What?” he says, curious.
“I’m a car boot sale addict,” he admits. “Not for antiques, though. You just…”
“…never know what you’re going to find,” Merlin finishes for him, and now they’re smiling at each other.
“So you spend your days among priceless works of beauty. I suppose your home is full of the same stuff?”
Merlin snorts. His home is full of unfolded laundry and stale take-away containers. Then he sobers, reality slapping him in the face again. “Actually,” he says, “I’m on the verge of being homeless.”
Arthur pauses with his beer pressed to his lips, lowers it. “Homeless.”
He shrugs and leans back against the table. “Well, on paper anyway. My flatmate moved out and the replacement guy I lined up has bailed too.” He catches the speculative glance and snaps, “And no, there’s nothing weird going on. I am not driving them away. Will is moving to Switzerland with his boyfriend and the new guy had an accident and had to move back home so his family could care for him.”
Those beautiful lips twitch. “Oh, I never doubted it. Why not just get another flatmate, though?”
Merlin sighs. “Because I’ve been paying double rent for longer than I can afford and I don’t want to sign a new lease without knowing I can honour it. Better to bunk on people’s couches for a while until I can figure something else out.”
“That’s your plan? It’s a bit inconvenient, isn’t it, dragging all your stuff around?”
“Yeah. I dunno,” Merlin says, hopeless and helpless as usual. “Something will come up, I guess. It always does.”
Something might be a shitty bedsit in a street that makes him feel like he’s living in 28 Days Later, but something always comes up for Merlin. Usually at the last minute. He shrugs, philosophical and glances over at Arthur who is still exuding a charm that appears to be innate.
“No-one else you could stay with long-term?” There’s something in Arthur’s tone that he can’t quite place.
Merlin thinks it over. Gwen’s the only one besides Will he’d want to live with long-term, but the flat they’re all crammed into for tonight’s party is only just big enough for one. He shakes his head. “Nope.”
And then Arthur glances down and to the side, a strange, rueful smile touching his lips just before he says, “I have a spare room at my place. Actually.”
There’s a beat of silence.
“You’re shitting me,” Merlin finally says, drink frozen halfway to his lips. “You are shitting me.”
And Arthur shakes his head, wry, shooting a glance across the flat at Gwen that says I’ll get you for this.
“Nope,” he says, then shrugs. “But it’s pretty bad. I mean, seriously. I’m- it’s a wreck. I’m renovating the entire place. There’s no working bathroom at the moment, I have to clean my teeth in the kitchen sink. Most of the rooms have no carpet or doors.”
He looks over and blinks, probably because Merlin is seriously gaping at him like a mentally-challenged yokel. Something will come up… something always does.
“Uh.” He swallows. This cannot be happening. This ridiculous… luck of his cannot be giving him the chance to live under the same roof as this golden, glowing creature. “Where is it?”
Now he shakes his head, still waiting for the down side. “Um. Good pub there.” And brilliant location for Merlin’s commute.
“I know,” Arthur says, wry.
But how the hell does someone Arthur’s age afford a place in Muswell Hill? He glances over again and adds up the incredibly posh accent, impeccable manners and extremely well-cut jeans, and thinks, old money. “Are you- seriously, you’re offering me your spare room? You just met me.”
He shrugs with one shoulder, eyes remote as they focus on the other side of the room. “I trust Gwen’s judgment. Besides, it’s not a long-term commitment. If it isn’t working out for either of us, at least it gives you time to find a better place.”
Merlin nods on automatic. He can’t really imagine it not working out. He’d probably agree to live at the bottom of a lake if there was a guaranteed glimpse of Arthur amongst the reeds each morning.
“But you might want to see it before you get too excited. I’m not kidding when I say it’s a wreck. The reason no-one but me is living there is because it’s barely fit for habitation. I’m in the middle of sorting out the heating, which is getting kind of urgent. There’s constant noise and dust from sanding and construction, water and power go on and off constantly while I sort out the plumbing and wiring and there’s a very pervasive smell of paint stripper and turpentine most days.”
“Wait – you’re actually doing the work?” Oh shit, like he needed more fantasy material. Arthur with tools in his hands, faint sheen of sweat on that skin and fierce concentration… Merlin tosses back his drink and promptly chokes, since Gwen is drinking strong vodka tonics, not beer.
“It’s what I do,” Arthur says, “This is the third property I’ve renovated. So if you’re considering it, you should really check it out first. Not many people want to live that way, and it’ll be like that for months.”
“Right.” Down, boy. “Well, um, I’m interested.” A small grin escapes him. “Definitely interested.”