Chapter 1: Your Secrets and Mine
“Seriously, Merlin,” Arthur grits out as he backhands another nameless thug across his jaw, wincing only slightly as the unfortunate man receiving a Pendragon Special crumples to the floor before advancing on the other menacing-looking hires around them. “Only you would set off the warnings for a warehouse that was otherwise really easy to infiltrate!”
Merlin ducks a thrust of a knife that would’ve ripped him something bloody if it’d slid home, curses and trips his assailant, setting off a domino effect behind him, a good four or five of their opponents crashing into some concrete blocks and getting thoroughly floored. “This time, it really wasn’t my fault,” he begins cheerfully, expression twisted into something not unlike manic glee as he fells another two men with a kick and a well-aimed punch. “Just lost my balance around the corner and ran smack into one of them, all pre-ordained and a matter of bad timing—”
Viciously elbowing the last thug standing in the face and getting a nasty splatter of blood across the back of his shirt, Arthur snorts and throws the groaning man to the ground, dusting all the debris off his shirt. “Like the other ten thousand times you slipped up with our operations, you mean?”
“That incident with the cacky was just unfortunate, Arthur, you know that—”
“And what of the time you accidentally opened the wrong inn door and stumbled upon a shrieking couple mid-coitus who raised hell and very conveniently informed our suspects we were in the immediate vicinity—”
Merlin lets out an undignified squawking noise as he stops inspecting the fallen, moaning thugs on the floor and stands up abruptly to glare at Arthur. “How dare you,” he cries dramatically, pointing an accusing finger in Arthur’s direction. Arthur ignores him. “I did eventually calm down and apprehend the suspects. You don’t give me enough credit at all!”
Cricking his neck and thumbing his gun, Arthur sighs and glares back, raising an eyebrow. “You were scrambling to fix something you had completely cocked up, Merlin, it really doesn’t count the way you think it does.” He chuckles a little as Merlin just continues to stare at him, mouth open and seething. “Now, come on, we’ve got to see if they’re really selling the illegal substances Henry asked us to investigate.”
Arthur crooks a finger and smirks, disappearing behind the corner of the narrow corridor. “You’re a prat, you know that?” Merlin grumbles, his long and lean frame drawn and tight against Arthur’s as he slides behind him, and Arthur suppresses an involuntary shiver, wondering why he feels a little strange when Merlin does that.
“So you tell me,” he whispers back, turning to grin at Merlin, who is pouting now and generally the absolute picture of amusement. “Now hush, incompetent assistant mine, and watch my back as I take point.” He gives Merlin a light punch on the arm for emphasis.
He hears another muffled grumble or two, but Merlin’s warmth is comforting as they advance to examine the other crates, a steady presence behind him in the gritty situation they’ve found themselves in. Things are never really bad, not if Merlin is around, even if his clumsiness has warranted more than just a few emergency rescues and aborted missions in the past.
Arthur wouldn’t trade his bumbling assistant for anything in the world.
It didn’t feel like a long time, not really, if you weren’t really thinking hard about it.
Merlin hasn’t changed, not in the least. He still looks as deceptively scrawny as the day he first walked brazenly to apply as Arthur’s assistant in response to his advertising for one, commenting loudly on the decor of Arthur’s makeshift agency to himself before he’d realised Arthur had been listening to him all along with a quirked eyebrow from the very beginning (Arthur has never let him live that down).
Arthur thinks deceptively scrawny, because Merlin is actually all lean, whipcord muscle and lines that can disable opponents in seconds, even if Merlin seems to have a thing against using guns.
His assistant is quite the unique specimen, all things considered, but Arthur can’t really imagine his office without Merlin now. Not without all the little touches Merlin’s added to it over time: the sad-looking flowerpot that usually contains yet another wilting blossom the scatterbrain that is Merlin has forgotten all about, a small wooden dragon, some really tasteless-looking wine glasses, and the gramophone he’d bought for Arthur’s birthday once when Arthur had mentioned he liked records, smiling when he told Arthur about this one favorite singer of his, a woman with a lovely voice, ignoring how stricken Arthur had looked when he’d fished out the—
—Arthur isn’t going to think about that, now. Merlin had meant well, in the end, and he had apologised profusely for unintentionally ripping into that still-bleeding emotional wound of Arthur’s; he hadn’t known anything. Couldn’t have known how much Arthur was affected by it, still, how the nightmares haunted him, night after night.
Merlin, Merlin, Merlin.
He always meant well, even if he didn’t know the full story. Always. Merlin with his awkward gait, his fascinating ears, and his cheerfulness that could fill a room with warmth.
Arthur looks at the empty vase on his desk.
Two years since Merlin, and three years since the horrific incident that’d taken Guinevere from him, taken his job; all but taken his life.
It is the anniversary of her death today. Not many know that. Just those who’d loved her, loved her singing. Him, Lancelot, the coppers who’d been there. Those who knew what happened.
Lancelot still hasn’t forgiven him.
Breathing in the scent of tea from his mug, Arthur leans back and shakes his head, clearing the haze of nostalgia as he tries to think of the present. Except for that little hiccup where Merlin roused hell with the warehouse security (“I still insist it wasn’t my fault!” Merlin had said, pouting, as they walked away from the warehouse, and Arthur had just shrugged and roughly yanked him close in a headlock in answer), they had obtained the results of their investigation with relatively little fuss and passed on the information in exchange for a hefty sum.
He thumbs the envelope with the cold greens in them with a thoughtful expression. Perhaps they could eat out tonight, or something. Merlin is quite fond of Chinese, has been delighted ever since more restaurants popped up around the city, and Arthur’s feeling like some Peking duck.
“Wotcher!” Merlin calls from the door, swinging in with some boxes and nearly trips over some other stacks of documents Arthur’s arranged very carefully on the floor. He sometimes wonders why he bothers, given how Merlin messes them up on a regular basis. “Here, the papers you requested.”
Arthur’s out of his chair and steadying Merlin before he can think about it, and blinks. He’s too used to it by now. Merlin doesn’t move from where he’s holding him, tensing a little under Arthur’s grip of his arm, and his mouth open in a small ‘o’. Then, Arthur pulls away, and feels like he’s missed something. “That’s smashing,” he remembers to reply a little awkwardly, a little too late, and Merlin shuffles away with the tip of his ears just the lightest shade of pink.
Clearing his throat, Merlin sits lightly on the edge of Arthur’s table, ignoring his half-hearted groan of “Mahogany, Merlin,” as he always does, and thumbs through Arthur’s paperwork. “Any new cases for the week?”
Sighing, Arthur grins and rests his chin on the back of his hands as he leans forward on his desk. “Am I contagious?” He drawls, quirking an eyebrow up at his assistant. “Merlin, really. I distinctly remember you complaining about how you wish we didn’t get so many cases, sometimes, and that I work you too hard.”
“You do—” Merlin begins, but Arthur waves him off, pretends to segue into a state of being very deep in thought.
“What was it you called me, now? A tyrannical slave-driver with a black hole where a heart is supposed to be?”
“Rather.” Merlin scoffs. “But I do have to pay rent for my flat and pay my bills, you know, sir.”
And there’s something about the way he always says that, like it’s a mockery of the title. Merlin has a way of injecting lethal amounts of sarcasm and insubordination into his tone of voice that Arthur’s gotten used to despite his initial bristling, but it never sits all that well with potential clients.
At least, at first. They eventually take to Merlin like they’re partial to him and his acerbic wit, later, and then they start bringing him cupcakes and used books and all that nonsense which Merlin will accept with a wide smile and— Arthur doesn’t get it, though he vaguely suspects it has to do with Merlin being kind of wonderful sometimes, always to do with that underlying sense of enigma, and definitely to do with Merlin’s cheekiness and odd kindness.
Merlin, breaking the hearts of little old ladies everywhere and the occasional tough lout? What an image.
“Your tone, you defiant sod,” Arthur says. “You do recall I’m your boss.”
“You adore me, really,” Merlin replies absently, without missing a beat, and smiles.
Arthur coughs. “Is that your delusional ego talking?”
As Arthur watches Merlin set about tidying Arthur’s desk, he notes that he has to give Merlin credit in this department — for all that Merlin is a hazard when it comes to field work (to himself or others!), he’s rather talented when it comes to filing and finding documents Arthur could never place, even if his cleaning skills do leave much to be desired.
He shuffles out of his chair and throws the envelope up, catching it in one smooth motion. “Shall we go get something to eat?”
He’d have to remember to get some flowers for the vase, later.
“Whoever invented shrimp dumplings should be awarded a medal,” Merlin enthuses, swooping in and polishing off the last one on Arthur’s plate before Arthur can so much as object. He beams winningly in response to Arthur’s narrowing his eyes. It’s not like Arthur particularly likes them, after all.
“That’s what you said about pavlova and lasagna the last time.” Arthur just gives a long-suffering sigh and gestures at a waitress for the bill. She turns a brilliant red and promptly trips over nothing in her rush to get things cashed up for Arthur, and Merlin just tilts his head, waggles his eyebrows. “What, Merlin?”
Merlin only laughs. “The ladies do love you.”
Leaning over, Arthur looks seriously into Merlin’s eyes for all of three seconds before he docks him one upside the head.
“What on earth was that for?” Merlin sputters, fixing the most forlorn look he can muster on Arthur, but he gathers from Arthur’s smirk that he probably looks, oh, about as fiercely intimidating as a sodden puppy. “You abusive pillock!”
The waitress leaves with their payment and Arthur’s generous tip, and Arthur pushes in his chair and pulls Merlin to his feet, hooks an arm around Merlin’s shoulder and ruffles the already unruly black hair. Merlin makes a noise of mock despair.
“Because,” Arthur says loftily.
Merlin scowls. “Bully.”
“And yet you stay with me, still.” Arthur’s voice is knowing as he laughs, his eyes bright, probably unaware of the implications of his words. He looks glorious, like a figure swathed in the muted gold of the street lights. Merlin feels something warm unfurl in him at the sight.
Untangling himself, Merlin just wraps an arm around Arthur’s shoulder as they walk down the street, the few inches he has on Arthur barely noticeable as they fall into a rhythm. “Maybe I’m just masochistic like that.” He keeps his voice cheerful, but there’re layers of wonder in it.
“Hmm. A particularly strong streak of that, then.” Arthur doesn’t notice it, not at all.
“Maybe.” Merlin sighs, closes his eyes as they keep walking. “Does that make you a sadist?”
“I’d never have taken you for being such a kinky bastard, Merlin.”
“Oh, never assume things. For all that you think you know about me, I might just be an accomplished ninja or am secretly in Her Majesty’s Secret Service!”
Arthur actually stops and has to lean against a nearby pole to support himself as he wheezes, face red from laughing. “You? That’s gold, it really is.”
Merlin stands in front of him as Arthur tries to rein in his strangled chuckling, arms akimbo. “I could too be some kind of secret agent!”
“You couldn’t possibly keep any secrets, Merlin,” Arthur straightens himself again. “You’d get caught as a spy your first day on the job. Everything shows on your face.”
Alarm slices through Merlin’s vexation for just the flicker of a moment, and he hopes he doesn’t look too strained when he says, casually, “Maybe that’s true.”
“I know it is.” Arthur sounds so sure of it, so confident.
As always, Merlin thinks: if he only knew.
They continue walking in silence for a while, Arthur dropping by a florist’s to grab a bouquet of lilies right before closing time. Eventually, they see Arthur’s office around the corner, the imposing sign that reads A. Pendragon Private Investigations emblazoned on his glass windows.
Merlin’s about to say how he’s going to go home and turn in for the night, but because the universe has always been a little bit cruel, Arthur chooses that very moment to bring up a case that has been weighing on Merlin’s mind for a while. “That monst— magic user we apprehended that other day,” Arthur begins contemplatively, and Merlin tenses, hoping Arthur can’t see it. “What do you make of her motivations?”
Treading carefully, Merlin spins and turns the question back on Arthur. “And what do you mean by that?”
“She hurt a lot of innocent people in her quest for revenge,” Arthur says quietly. “From figures alone, quite a significant rising number of magic users committing malicious and savage crimes have accounted for some of the most horrific years London has seen in a while.”
Merlin doesn’t say anything for a while as he recalls the sorceress’ desperation, the tears staining her face as her eyes flashed fury and grief, a peculiar mix of anger and empathy rising in him. “I’m not justifying her actions, but both magic users and non-magic users have had their reasons, usually none of them excusable, when it comes to hurting others or—”
Arthur turns away, shrugs off Merlin’s questioning hand on his arm. Merlin imagines he’s reimagining the sorceress’ morphing into that feral wolf, ripping through the denizens in the building until she reached her chosen victim, the man who’d killed her child when he discovered both her and the babe had magic. “They’re the ones who give in to their demons. True demons, Merlin. They spiral completely out of control, and the destruction they are capable of… it’s horrifying.”
“I don’t think it’s them, I’m not blaming them as people. I just believe that anyone with that kind of power should be regulated, or at least monitored. The kinds of cases we’ve looked at, the —” Arthur stumbles a little here, his face unreadable but white with something not unlike tightly suppressed anger, “The atrocities. What these people can do. They destroy themselves, and then they bring others down with them.”
He tries not to think about what his face is revealing about him right now. For all Arthur believes he can read everything in the line of Merlin’s smile, the tight hollows of his cheeks and the curves of his eyes, he’s never been able to discover Merlin’s magic, one of his most fiercely guarded secrets. And then there’s that other thing he’ll never tell anyone, not as long as he lives.
Merlin remembers the screams, still.
It makes his skin crawl.
“They harness incredible power, it’s true,” Merlin tries. “But not everyone uses magic for evil, to harm others, surely. It’s a weapon unlike any other. Others with guns, they kill too, but some use them solely to poach game, don’t you see? Or knives, even.”
“Power tempts,” Arthur says hoarsely, and they’ve shifted completely away from their casual camaraderie at dinner to this uneasy, brimming tension. It’s an old argument between them, but it’s never quite escalated to this level of emotion. Suddenly, Merlin isn’t sure how to handle this. “Surely you agree with that at least, Merlin.”
He wonders if he should just give in with this conversation as he always does, when people fire discriminatory and derogatory statements towards magic users simply because of the few terrifying psychopaths they’ve encountered, but Merlin knows on a more intimate level how it is really just a vicious cycle.
Sure, there are those who use their magic for less-than-savoury purposes, but as he was telling Arthur — there’re criminals of all sorts, and what sets them apart from one another is often their intentions, their tools of choice, among other things.
Really, the fear of magic and magic users perpetuates the endless pattern; fear blazes into anger which manifests in violence and so-called witch hunts, leading to magic users defending themselves and the embittered few who rise up against the injustice of it all, who seek to revolt. Then there are those who just go completely mad from it, who lash out at anything and everything around them like glass, taking a few lives with them, or hundreds.
But Merlin is rather tired of giving in, of acquiescing and nodding along to the hateful and hurtful statements that surface around him, the whispers and exaggerated lies. He turns around to look at Arthur. Arthur who, for all his brilliance, has this oddly bigoted stance against sorcerers when it comes to the topic of magic, one that Merlin has never understood. He’s asked Arthur before, but Arthur simply shuts himself off when faced with the question, his mouth thinning as he tells Merlin coldly to not speak any more of it.
It does not make sense, this unreasonable and misplaced ire Arthur feels about magic, and Merlin would very much like to put his foot down.
So, he does.
“No.” He says, firmly, and tells himself he shouldn’t be feeling bad at how lost Arthur seems to be looking at his response, how uncertain. “I do not agree. They are people too. There are criminals among them, just like there are criminals among — us,” he trips over that small lie, but really, as far he’s concerned, magic users and non-magic users are both human. “There are those who will abuse that kind of power they have, but look at some dictators, those who would reign with violence.”
Merlin makes a sweeping motion with his hand. “We’re recovering from the war ourselves, Arthur. That kind of horror and atrocity — you don’t need magic to inflict terror upon the masses. You just need power, so much power you can get drunk on it, and authority that will help you realise your goals, however misdirected and cruel.”
Disappointment cloaks him when Arthur’s expression remains stubborn, his eyes still fixed on Merlin’s. It’s the look that he adopts when he gets quietly furious with a client, the one that Arthur always wears when he’s about to win an argument. Not this time, though.
“Why are you defending them?” Arthur says finally, moving out of the light into the shadows of the street, just outside the entrance to his office-flat (there isn’t much of a difference, given how he spends most of his hours in his office no matter the time of day or week). It’s dark, and Merlin can’t quite make out his face. Arthur looks stubborn, yes, prideful as he always does. But there’s something about the teeth digging into his lips, the furrowed brows that suggest there’s more to what Arthur is feeling now than what meets the eye.
He looks distraught, almost torn.
“They are people too,” Merlin repeats resolutely, feels Arthur’s gaze on him growing to become increasingly betrayed, feels the hurt burning him like flames dancing on his skin. “Some people steal bread for their families. Some are blinded by lust and violence and commit unimaginable crimes. Some are wired differently, and choose to wreak havoc upon the world, because they can.”
Arthur’s silence is stormy, but Merlin ploughs on, feeling reckless. “These things happen, and will continue to happen, regardless of whether they’re carried out by magic users or not, Arthur. You cannot judge all magic users, surely, from the actions of a few.”
“Not a few, from the number I’ve arrested when I was— that I’ve arrested. So you’re for them, Merlin.” Arthur cuts in, bitterly, his body looking like he’s poised to strike Merlin where he stands. Merlin knows he won’t hit him, though, unless they are sparring or some such, but Arthur is not being very predictable right now. “You were always very diplomatic before, dancing around this topic. Perhaps I should’ve seen this coming. Why would you side with them? Nothing good comes out of magic.”
“I can’t tell if this is you or your father talking, Arthur.” Uther Pendragon, Chief Constable, was legendary when it came to his unabashed hatred of magic users, but Merlin thinks Arthur is better than that, that Arthur would at least have some semblance of rational reason for his hatred, this side he’s never really seen in Arthur until tonight.
Arthur pummels the wall next to Merlin, and Merlin pulls back almost instantly in shock, taking in the dark and dangerous fire of Arthur’s eyes. Arthur bites out, moving in close, so close that Merlin can almost feel the heat from his breath on Merlin’s cheek. “Don’t talk to me about my father. This isn’t about him, never was. I’ve seen the work of a sorcerer firsthand, the things he did, the things these people can do—”
He inhales, visibly shuddering — from revulsion or anger, or both. “They should not be forgiven.”
It’s astonishing, but Merlin isn’t afraid of Arthur, never really has been, and that isn’t going to change now. He is angry, though, and feels empty, somehow. Disillusioned.
“Fine, Arthur,” he manages, just this side of proud at how his voice doesn’t shake. Reaching out a thin hand, he pushes at Arthur’s considerable bulk and sidesteps him to move away. “If that’s how you feel about it. Good night to you.”
He turns to shoot one last hurt look at Arthur, who is just leaning against the door to his flat now, looking down at his palms and the bouquet of lilies he’d purchased earlier, confused and miserable. The anger he’d displayed earlier seems to have dissipated into the air, almost visible in the way he slumps at Merlin’s departure, as if he’s suddenly overcome by weariness.
Merlin almost feels compelled to return and apologise (but it was Arthur’s fault, he insists viciously to himself) if it would at least take that expression off Arthur’s face.
The night is surprisingly cold for the warmest spring they’ve had in a while, and the shades of frigidity slink into his bones, a little at a time. Merlin tucks his hands into his dusty pockets, looks up at the black sky. He stops once, at a corner, and nearly makes the impulsive decision to go back to Arthur, to ask him what’s wrong, to make things all right, but he steels himself and continues walking.
Arthur is being a prat, and Merlin won’t stand for it.
That’s what he chants to himself anyway as he turns into the dingy street he lives on, as he sidles into his cramped flat, as he takes off his coat and sits down on a chair to stare into space.
Two hours later, Merlin is back in front of Arthur’s door, cursing his lack of self-restraint and blaming his fidgety conscience for having hauled him all the way back to his clearly devastated boss.
He bemoans having a heart of gold, too, for he clearly just couldn’t possibly leave Arthur alone. An upset Arthur like the one he’d witnessed earlier was somewhat like a brave and wounded puppy; Arthur was intimidating in his own right, yes, and a terrible force to be reckoned with. But when you knew him like Merlin did, you felt awfully fond of him, and even if you were angry at Arthur for snapping at you, you just wanted to forgive him and make him a cup of tea to make it all better.
That stupid, oddly lovely git.
Turning his key for the office door with a barely audible click, Merlin inches in on tiptoe and winces at the long creak the door makes when he enters.
(Arthur always barks at him to never quite oil the hinges too effectively, to leave the barest hint of a sound in case anyone were to attempt to break in to steal something or make an attempt on their lives. He had occasionally ignored that order when he’d first started, liberally pouring oil on it and everything, and they’d almost paid for that mistake of Merlin’s when a disgruntled someone they had been investigating had sent an assassin over with some very sharp knives to slice the hell out of them when they’d both completely passed out in the office from exhaustion.
Suffice to say, Merlin has never slacked with the oiling since.)
Arthur is asleep at his desk, his right arm tucked under his chin like a bulky pillow, and Merlin thinks he can actually feel how painful that position he’s fallen asleep in from where he’s standing at the door. His boss is going to have a crick in his neck something wicked when he wakes up. Sighing, Merlin shuts the door gently behind him, strides over to the sofa to dust it off, and picks up a lone blanket hanging off a chair before he heads over to where Arthur is, footfalls silent on the worn carpet.
“Arthur?” He slides a hand down Arthur’s back, feels Arthur stir beneath him. He takes in the messy state of Arthur’s desk, the half-empty bottle of scotch and the lonely glass beside it, and how some of the papers he’d organised earlier are now completely askew on the floor. Merlin doesn’t really have it in his heart to be angry at Arthur now, though, seeing him so thoroughly knackered and apparently so dejected by whatever was plaguing him he’d had to resort to alcohol to flush it out of his system.
The lilies in the vase catch his eye. Subtle pink florals, with white edges. They were the ones Arthur had bought earlier, before he’d launched into his small diatribe—
Guinevere’s favourite flowers, which Arthur only buys this time of year.
Guilt stabs him; so it’s really Merlin who was being the complete, inconsiderate prat, then. If it would make things better, he’d be sorely tempted to smack or punch himself in the eye for his tactlessness, but he suspects it wouldn’t change a thing.
No wonder Arthur had been so deep in thought, so angry.
So very lost.
Merlin doesn’t notice how he’s dug the grip of his fingers into Arthur’s arm, and Arthur jerks a little at the force of it, shifting to look up at Merlin through heavy-lidded eyes. “Merlin?” He murmurs, almost incredulously. “What are you doing here?”
“I…” Merlin shakes his head, helplessly, feels like he’s unable to tear his eyes away from the sight of a sleepy, vulnerable Arthur in front of him. It’s not the first time he’s woken Arthur up like this, not by a long shot, but there’s his guilt and remorse mingling like a particularly potent cocktail for self-loathing; he feels frozen to the spot, the regret he feels regarding his words earlier eating away at him. “I came back. To apologise.”
“What for?” Arthur seems genuinely bewildered now, and even sounds alert, despite the sleep-rumpled state he’s in as he stretches languorously. “I was. Just now. I was an arse to you, with what happened earlier. I mean.”
Arthur, bless him, must have downed all that scotch like a sailor right after Merlin left. He never stumbles over his words so much, otherwise. “Oh, Arthur.”
Shaking his head, Arthur pulls at Merlin’s wrist, pulls him closer to the desk, and looks up at him. “Really, after dinner, I…” he trails off, and it’s quiet but for the crackling of the fireplace, the spit and sizzle of the flames and wood teasing against the dark backdrop of the office walls.
“What’s on your mind?” Merlin asks lightly, after a fashion, and Arthur looks surprised that he asked. His eyes meet Merlin’s, and Merlin’s gaze flicks to the fresh lilies in the vase on his desk, knows Arthur never gets flowers at any other time of the year, if at all, even if he doesn’t know what they’re for.
He feels absolutely wretched now, for not remembering; Arthur always shuts off from the world when it nears the end of April, and it’s been two years now. He thinks he should’ve known better, especially when Arthur bought the flowers in front of him. Merlin didn’t really think much of it when they were walking, had assumed…
Well, he shouldn’t have.
Arthur brushes the back of his knuckles against the soft petals, and Merlin can almost feel the whispers of leaves against his skin, too.
“Reminiscing. Thinking of better times.” Arthur pauses. “Moments long gone.”
Merlin smiles, feels his heart break a little for Arthur, and tries not to let his heartache show in the turn of his lips.
“Arthur,” he says softly, like a caress. Delicate and uncertain. “I’m sorry.”
He’s not sure what is appropriate to say at a time like this, in a hanging moment of reverence and reflection and promise; words have never really been his forte. He turns instead to shuffle through Arthur’s messy heap of stationery, comes up with a pin.
The look Arthur shoots him is questioning, but Merlin just pries the blossom he’s been fiddling with from his fingers, makes a crude lapel pin out of the lily and fixes it slowly, solemnly on Arthur’s outer jacket, his palms firm and sure against the fabric.
“Are we good?” Merlin asks quietly as he draws Arthur’s coat over him, his hand lingering in hesitation. It’s a warm and comforting presence on Arthur’s shoulder, and Arthur moves unconsciously into it.
Arthur nods, drowsily, and Merlin brushes gold hair away from his eyes, thanks the gods that Arthur probably won’t remember that little gesture when he wakes in the morning. “We’re good, Merlin. And… I’m sorry, for shouting at you, earlier. I still don’t agree with what you said about magic users, but I should never have taken it out on you.”
“You’re never sorry for shouting at me,” Merlin jokes, albeit weakly.
“I was out of line.” Arthur bites down on his yawn, his eyes closing.
“Maybe you were.” Merlin pulls a chair over, sits down and watches Arthur intently, pulls the coat up a little more over Arthur’s form. “But I forgive you, anyway,” he adds, even if he thinks Arthur can’t quite hear him anymore.
Arthur’s already settling into a deep sleep, his body relaxing into the curvature of the sofa. Merlin smiles at how completely unguarded Arthur can be around him, at how much Arthur must trust him.
It’s very moving, and a great honour, Merlin thinks.
“Sleep well, Arthur.”
Chapter 2: The Art of Dodging
Sunlight teases mercilessly at Arthur’s eyelids, the slow trickle of warmth rousing him. He stirs, feels the tweed coat fall from his shoulders, takes in the sight of his office around him. It’s golden from the morning light, an impossibly organised mess with books and papers strewn around him.
He doesn’t remember moving to the sofa, though. They’d gone for dinner, Arthur and Merlin; he’d bought the flowers and headed home for a drink when he’d felt the memories begin to suffocate him, and then...
Arthur groans at the recollection of how he’d acted towards a bewildered Merlin yesterday, the flaring of his ridiculous temper and how his words had been completely uncalled for. Merlin was right, Arthur could be a complete plonker at times. And yet, Merlin had returned to the office to check if Arthur was all right, despite it all, helping his drunken self over to the sofa and tucking him in and all that nonsense. He didn’t have to, but Merlin was... well, Merlin.
He cricks his neck experimentally from side to side, wincing at the little snaps as the light pain of sleeping in an awkward position bites at his bones. Rubbing gingerly at the tense spots, Arthur swings himself to properly sit upright and shuffles over to his table. Sighing, he picks up the now empty bottle of his best scotch and shakes his head at himself. “Good job, Arthur,” he remarks to himself, a touch sardonically.
Guinevere’s flowers are lovely in the sweet orange of the morning, the stargazer lilies that have always been her favourite flowers. He thumbs one, feeling the soft and already wilting petals between his fingers, overcome by a pang of sadness.
It gets easier every year to take a deep breath and try and forget, but it also becomes increasingly painful. The awareness grows with every anniversary of her death that Guinevere and her darling smile are gone for good.
Arthur buys the flowers every year as his own way of saying he is sorry for everything, his own way of saying goodbye.
Sometimes, he thinks that he can hear Guinevere whispering back between the dark spaces of his dreams and his waking reality, but he can never hear the words no matter how much he tries.
He turns away from the lilies and runs his hand through his hair. A to-do list is already forming at the forefront of his mind: contact that new client, ring Mr. Anderson for his cheque, get errands sorted out, et cetera.
Arthur sighs. A new day.
Smoothing over the papers on his table, he places a hand on his chair and turns it around slowly, all but ready to collapse onto it and start his work when he notices Merlin is sitting on it, eyes softly closed and nodding. Arthur almost laughs, but something about seeing Merlin like that, sleeping and vulnerable under an outrageously-patterned throw, prevents him.
“You stayed here all night after coming back to check on me?” He scoffs under his breath, almost to himself. “You can be such a sentimental fool, Merlin.”
He pulls the throw up anyway and tucks it gently around Merlin’s knobby shoulders. Merlin shifts against him, smiling a small smile as he mumbles something that sounds suspiciously like, “No, no, Arthur has no taste, you can’t get him those curtains, trust me.”
Just for that, Arthur flicks a finger at one of Merlin’s ears, and grins when Merlin makes a little grimace in his sleep. “No disrespecting your boss even outside of business hours.”
Arthur hums to himself as he emerges from the kitchen, some charred toast and a mug of coffee in his hands. He had his substantial income to thank for his being able to consume that on a regular basis; coffee tins were hard to come by in London but Arthur had his sources.
He smiles and leans against the wall to look at Merlin, whose sleeping posture is faintly amusing. Merlin paints a funny but endearing picture in the light, mouth slightly open in that stupid smile and his hair all over the place.
“Come on, Merlin, we don’t have all day.”
That’s what Merlin wakes to, blinking blearily at Arthur being his typical bossy self grumbling at him from across the table.
“What,” Merlin mutters intelligently. He yawns, and then the next thing he knows, there’s coffee and burnt toast shoved hastily under his nose.
Arthur snorts and munches on his own toast. “Eat up, we’ve got a long day to sort through all this paperwork.”
Taking a bite out of the blackened abomination Arthur has the gall to call toast well-done, Merlin sighs, trying to sound as put-upon as possible. “A man never gets a moment’s rest, does he?”
“A man named Merlin certainly did,” is the dry reply. “I even let you doze in my chair until it was well past eight.”
Merlin jumps off the chair so fast, it might as well have been on fire. “I, what?” He sputters, face flushing as he looks at it disbelievingly, realisation hitting him like cold water to the face. Arthur grins, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t want to wake the sleeping beauty deep in her slumber and everything,” he mocks, but gently. “And you looked like you could use the rest, anyway.”
Still a spectacular shade of scarlet, Merlin coughs. “Well. Thank you, I suppose?”
“No,” Arthur says, and places a hand on his arm. It’s warm, casul, but it makes Merlin shiver just a little. “Thank you,” Arthur continues quietly, so quiet that Merlin almost misses it.
He stares at Arthur in surprise, takes in Arthur’s solemn expression and furrowed eyebrows, and feels something clench inside him. “It was nothing,” he starts, looking at the flowers from the corner of his eye. “I’m sorry that I didn’t remember it was... that it’s been three years since.” Arthur’s heartbreaking stricken, lost expression on his face is an image that will stay with Merlin for many years to come.
The temperature in the room seems to drop by several degrees with the sudden wave of somberness, but it’s not exactly uncomfortable. Arthur sighs and ruffles Merlin’s hair, ignoring the way Merlin makes a face at him half-heartedly when he does. “I didn’t expect you to. Nobody really remembers or keeps track of what happened except me, my father, a few of the others in the department... and Lancelot, of course.”
Merlin nods in grim understanding. He had met Lancelot before and noted the force of the tension between him and Arthur. Lancelot was nice enough to Merlin, with a serious and determined look about him, but he tensed up around Arthur like a bowstring, taut and stretched tightly to the point of snapping.
Merlin has never really understood why that tension exists, or what Lancelot’s connection is to Gwen’s death and Arthur’s thoughts on it; Arthur can be remarkably secretive when he wants to be.
“How are things with you and Lancelot?” he asks quietly, tentatively. “Any improvement at all?”
Arthur’s face darkens, like a shadow on a cloud. Then the moment passes, and Arthur rubs at his forehead, sighing. “Not really, and I wouldn’t call it that. An improvement, I mean.” His brow furrows. “It never gets easier. You think it does. People tell you it will; that time heals, time solves everything. Time, time, time.” Arthur waves a hand dismissively, just this side of disdainful. Mostly, he just looks skeptical. Tired. “I know it might, to an extent, but time can only do so much. If Lancelot still feels bitter about it after, who am I to begrudge him that...?”
Putting his coffee down, Merlin brushes a thumb absently over the rim, wiping away the traces of coffee on the pristine white mug. “Do you want to talk about it?” He tries to read Arthur’s closed off expression, shuttered like drawn blinds.
Grunting a non-committal noise, Arthur sweeps a hand over his documents on the table, smoothing them out before he rests his elbows sharply against the edge, leans forward with his forehead against his hands, hair falling gently in front of his face. Arthur closes his eyes. “I... well. I do, rather, but I’m not ready. I don’t think I’m ready.” He looks up at Merlin, apologetic and imploring. “I’m sorry.”
Merlin manages a weak smile. Why would Arthur be sorry? “It’s all good. I just.” The vivid-sharp memory of Arthur bent over his desk, cheeks flushed and looking so lost, so caught in his own despair is fresh and painful in his mind. Would that he could do something, anything...
“Arthur,” he murmurs, quiet and serious. Arthur’s eyes meet his own, soft surprise etched onto his features. “I’m here for you.” Merlin pauses, and amends, “If you’ll have me.”
His loyalty burns in him like a brand, fierce and unyielding. The darker secret that is his deeper affection for Arthur he will never reveal, but otherwise — Merlin is set in declaring, with or without words, that he is prepared to do anything, everything for Arthur.
“Thank you,” Arthur says quietly, after a fashion, eyes still on Merlin’s. There’s an expression that Merlin cannot decipher on his face, but it makes him feel warm inside. It’s something powerfully like trust — absolute trust — and more intense, besides.
Arthur is beautiful like this, he thinks suddenly, a pang of wistfulness enveloping his heart. Angles sharp and soft bleeding into the morning light, a mix of vulnerability and quiet strength.
The most precious things are the ones you can never have.
Merlin swallows, folds away the ache in his heart and turns his eyes away from Arthur’s too-curious, too-penetrating gaze. “You’re welcome.”
They sit in companionable if slightly heavy silence for a while, finishing off their breakfast. Arthur eventually diffuses the sheen of tension by stealing some toast from Merlin’s plate, which leads to Merlin’s teasing him about his waistline and a lot of papers fluttering about and flying into the air as Arthur growls and tackles Merlin to the ground.
“You take that back,” Arthur says, laughing, right hand pinning Merlin’s arms above him, their coffee forgotten. “I am entirely aware just how ticklish you are, Merlin.”
Merlin’s eyes widen, and he makes an outraged, betrayed noise. “You wouldn’t,” he begins, wary and squirming under Arthur, grinning uncontrollably despite it all. “You have honour,” Merlin says, mimicking an older accent. “Come on, Arthur, surely you wouldn’t —”
“Try. Me.” Arthur’s smirk is calculating, and then his fingers are scraping against Merlin’s sides through his shirt, sending Merlin into shocked peals of laughter. “Yield,” Arthur says breathlessly, eyes alight with mirth.
“Never!” Merlin howls, scrunching his eyes tight through the onslaught between his choked giggles.
“We’ll see about that,” Arthur bites out like a vow, and Merlin arches back helplessly as Arthur works his scrabbling touches up against the line of Merlin’s ribs, merciless. “Ha! Not so high-and-mighty now.”
“You,” Merlin gasps, grasping for purchase as he pulls Arthur down by his shirt in a futile attempt to headbutt him. “You are such a fucking bastard, Pendragon, has anyone ever told you that? Stop it!”
“So I’ve been told, Emrys,” Arthur says cheerfully, leaning in with his triumphant smile all up in Merlin’s space. “I’ll stop if you do.”
Merlin stops struggling in his attempt to catch his breath, hands still fisted in the front of Arthur’s sleep-rumpled shirt. “Arse,” he grits out, dizzy, but his answering smile betrays him.
“Prat,” Arthur replies easily.
Their laughter recedes and they stay like that for a bit, Arthur’s grip loosening against Merlin’s hands.
Merlin strikes then, sensing the opportunity, twists his palm to lock around Arthur’s like a vice. He grins at Arthur’s startled, indignant cry when he flips him over, quickly nailing him down against the carpeted floor with his weight, legs locking Arthur into helplessness on either side of him while he straddles him with purpose.
“I win,” Merlin whispers, heart thudding.
Arthur leans back and snorts, loosens one of his hands to flick at Merlin’s forehead. “Fine. Even I have to admit you bested me at the end, there. A bit competitive, aren’t you?”
“Learned from the best,” Merlin snipes, eyes drawn unwillingly to the curve of Arthur’s throat this close to him. He belatedly registers the ridiculously compromising position they’re in, him straddling Arthur, all heat and delicious warmth; Merlin fights to keep from blushing.
Arthur, damn him, picks up on it. “Why, Merlin,” he says jokingly, raising an eyebrow so high it all but disappears into his hair. “Should’ve known you’d like it rough.”
Seconds to think, seconds to deflect Arthur, seconds to react and laugh it all off like it didn’t mean anything. Merlin dons a smile that feels cracked, dipped in plastic, raises his own eyebrow in an imitation of Arthur’s and plays along. Panic roars in his chest. “Only because that’s how you like me, master,” he retorts recklessly, completely on a whim; his voice comes out a shade huskier than he’d intended.
For a surreal moment, Merlin thinks he sees Arthur’s eyes briefly glaze over. Just the one flicker of a second. But no, surely...
The moment is broken shortly then when Arthur chuckles, shoving at him gently. Those blue eyes are just amused now, nothing more. “Regular heartbreaker, Merlin? The girls must be distraught if this is how you string every single one of them along like how you’re playing me.” His voice hitches into a high falsetto at that.
Merlin can’t help himself; he laughs. Torn between relief that Arthur is still blissfully unaware of Merlin’s attraction to him and wanting to smack Arthur for his obliviousness, he settles for huffing out an exasperated breath instead, staying his hand.
No, he fights to keep from saying. No girls, and there haven’t been any for a long time. Just you. Just my one idiot of a boss whom I can’t stop thinking about.
Arthur drives him crazy.
Affecting a plaintive tone, he says instead, “Wow, I’m wounded, Arthur. You think I love them and then leave them?”
Arthur shakes with laughter beneath him, comfortable and looking for all the world like being straddled in such a way by your scrawny male aid is something that happens to him everyday in his office. “I wouldn’t put it past you, Merlin, but you do have a point.” A beat. “That’s giving you too much credit.”
Scowling, Merlin braces his hands on either side of Arthur’s ribs, threatening and poised to tickle. Arthur’s nervous glance down to Merlin’s long fingers shows that he’s noticed the movement. “Say that again?” Merlin enunciates deliberately, a tone of warning bleeding from every syllable.
Arthur meets his gaze head-on again, stubborn as is his wont, lips curling. “You don’t have it in you,” he teases. Merlin’s eyes narrow as he prepares for a comeback—
Too late, they hear footsteps, and they freeze.
“Sorry,” Lancelot begins carefully, stepping around the door with his head bowed. “I knocked, but no one answered. I thought I heard Merlin’s voice—”
Recovering their wits, they try to shove at each other, but Merlin’s legs get tangled with Arthur’s and the next thing they know, Merlin’s landed on him with a muffled “Oomph!” and Arthur groans, “Bloody hell, Merlin!”
Lancelot’s steps come to an abrupt halt, and they can see his shiny, polished shoes from the carpet as they look up at him. Merlin winces and looks askance at Arthur, who just looks vaguely ill.
“Um.” Merlin tries. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
Folding his arms, Lancelot just raises an eyebrow before bringing his palm up to his forehead, adopting a long-suffering expression. “Do I want to know?”
“No, honest.” He pulls a leg over Arthur’s, shoving a palm against Arthur’s chest to push himself up. Merlin doesn’t remember being this embarrassed in his life. “So, how can we help you today?” He ventures, a feeble attempt to change the subject that he hopes Lancelot will go along with.
Lancelot’s eyes crinkle and soften. Merlin’s never been more grateful for Lancelot’s having a soft spot for him, even though things between Lancelot and Arthur have never been easy as far as he’s seen. “I came here to ask for your assistance,” Lancelot begins, and then his entire body stiffens as he turns to Arthur, who’s pulling himself up from the floor and dusting himself off. It's even more apparent on his face; his gaze sharpens, turning cold. The change in his demeanour is extraordinary, and Merlin feels a little sad; they must have been great friends, once, in the force.
His expression is grim when he next speaks to the two of them. “There’ve been some terrible murders, the likes of which I have never seen.”