Once upon a time, on the beautiful country roads of North Hertfordshire, some thirty miles from London, there lived a young boy on a large estate.
This estate had many servants; there were gardeners to take care of the gardens and grooms to look after the stables. There were specialists to take care of the grounds, the outdoor tennis court and the indoor tennis court, the outdoor swimming pool and the indoor swimming pool.
And a man of no particular title took care of a small pool in the garden for a goldfish named George.
There was also a chef by the name of Hunith. She was a fine cook, who took proper care to ensure that every guest of the Pendragon household was suitably impressed. Hunith also had a son, who lived with her in the servants’ house beside the garage.
This boy’s name was Merlin.
It was the eve of the annual Hertfordshire County Regatta and, as had been tradition for the past years, the Pendragons were hosting a party.
It never rained on the night of the Pendragon party. Uther Pendragon wouldn't have stood for it.
There were three Pendragons in all -- the father, the son and a cousin who lived with them.
Uther Pendragon had been a widower since his son Arthur’s birth. He had cold eyes and a stern glare. They said many a grown man had wept sitting across the negotiation table from him.
Arthur Pendragon, his only son, had graduated from Oxford and was well on his way to surpassing his father in his success.
The cousin was not actually a Pendragon at all but a Debois. Gwaine Debois was the son of Uther’s wife’s brother and was the Pendragons’ only living relative. He had lived with the Pendragons since his parents died when he was a boy, and Uther ensured he was well taken care of. He had attended several of the best schools England had to offer, for short periods of time, and had enjoyed relationships with the daughters of England’s richest men, for even shorter periods of time.
He was now a successful six-goal polo player and was listed on Arthur’s tax return as a hundred thousand pound deduction.
Life was pleasant among the Pendragons, for this was as close to heaven as one could get in Hertfordshire.
Hunith rapped Merlin’s knuckles with a smack that was easily heard over the chaos of the kitchen. “Don’t you dare eat a single prawn!”
Across the table, Freya looked up and gave Merlin a wink before going back to wrapping basil leaves around mini bocconcini.
“There’s leftover sausages in the fridge if you’re so hungry. I won’t have you eating my £20 a kilo prawns like they’re crisps.”
Merlin huffed but knew better than to argue. The guests’ food was always off limits. The staff was well fed; Hunith made sure no one went hungry at any time of the day, but she was strict on which food went into which belly.
He took his pout over to the window. The view wasn’t great, just the corner of the patio where the party was filling in. He saw James with a full tray of champagne flutes weave his way through the crowd like a fish slicing through water. The tray emptied after a small circle of the patio and James expertly made his way back to the bar, holding his tray just so, as an offer for anyone who wanted to rid themselves of their empty glasses.
And so went Pendragon parties, smooth like clockwork, an endless supply of drinks, smiles and charming conversations.
Merlin’s heart ached to just once listen in and catch the laughter and the thrill of such a magical evening. He eyed the table beside him, laden with trays ready for distribution. Hunith was across the room, showing Freya how to drizzle balsamic so that it would give a hint of flavour to the basil but not drip on the ladies’ fine dresses.
He might have just enough time...
Determined, he grabbed the tray of shrimp and lemons and made for the door.
He stopped in his tracks, head bent in shame.
“You know better than that.” Hunith’s lips pursed as she lifted the tray from his fingers and handed it off to one of the night-hires they used for parties. “You’ll trip over your own feet and send my canapés flying into the ice sculpture.”
“Just once. Just once before I go?” Merlin pleaded. “I just want to know what it’s like.”
Her face turned sad and she tapped his cheek. Her hands were cold, rough from years of peeling and dishwashing. “You want it too badly, Merlin. It’s not healthy. It’ll be better with some time away.”
“I’ll be careful!”
“You’ll be in your room, packing, like you should have been an hour ago.”
“I just want to know if he’s there yet.”
“Merlin. He’s there. He’s never missed a party, though Lord knows he doesn’t stay long.”
Merlin blushed at the hint of disapproval in Hunith’s voice. He knew exactly what she meant.
“I want to say goodbye,” Merlin blurted out, the thought popping into his head and instantly becoming the most important task he’d considered all month.
Hunith shook her head. “You’d do well to remember which side of that door we belong to, Merlin.” She took him by the shoulders and directed him to the other door that lead to the servants’ house and away from everything Merlin wanted most in the world.
Freya shot him a pitying look but did nothing else to come to his defense, the traitor.
“Your flight leaves at eight. I want to see your suitcase packed and at the door by the time I’m finished up here.”
The sounds of the orchestra filled the room as the door to the kitchen swung open and another night-hire serving girl came back with an empty tray.
“Yes, Mum,” Merlin said, his eyes on the glimpse afforded by the flapping door: sequins and black ties. There was no sign of shoulder-length brown hair, week-old stubble and a disarming smile that melted any woman’s heart.
“Head always in the clouds,” he heard Hunith mutter as he was shoved out of the kitchen and into the back stairwell.
He looked around, his slouch suddenly straightening as he realised his mother wouldn’t be following him to their rooms. She was way too busy with the party, and the servants’ stairs led, well, everywhere.
He crept up the darkened stairwell to the balcony that overlooked the patio. It was deserted. He crawled on his hands and knees until he had a perfect view, with his nose peeking through the banisters like he had always done as a child. The crowd was thick, but it was easy enough to distinguish familiar faces. Merlin was well practiced at this.
Arthur Pendragon was always the easiest, his hair a golden halo in the overhead spotlights. He stood away from the crowd, his silver phone at his ear.
And that, Merlin thought, defined everything anyone needed to know about Arthur. Even at a party with exquisite food, the most expensive champagne and the prettiest people, Arthur Pendragon would rather spend his time on the phone with Japan or Indonesia or Australia... wherever it was in the world that had employees awake and willing to talk to their Chief Operating Officer (which his mother insisted was never pronounced ‘coo’).
Uther was not far off. He was surrounded by white-haired, large-moustached men with cigars in one hand and scotch in the other. They stood there agreeing with each other with deep nods and self-congratulatory smiles. They’d retire soon, find some leather chairs to sink into while the younger generation of rich danced and drank the night away.
Merlin had watched every party the Pendragons hosted for as far back as he could remember. It was always the same.
So despite the crowd, he knew he’d find exactly who he was looking for. At the end of the bar, Merlin caught a swish of dark hair and his heart skipped a beat.
At New Year's, it had been a daughter of an Earl. Last summer’s cotillion, a young actress (who caused quite the sensation with the press). Two weeks ago, at Uther’s fiftieth birthday party, it had been a stunning, long-legged model. Merlin had seen her slip into her Rolls at dawn, with a wrinkled dress and a smile Merlin wouldn’t soon forget.
Tonight, Gwaine’s focus was not on a woman at all, but a massive bloke, who towered over him like a mountain as they talked. Merlin had heard rumours that Gwaine's preferences were rather flexible when it came to who shared his bed. But God, Merlin had barely allowed himself to imagine it was true.
Now, seeing the way Gwaine's eyes lit like a firecracker as he gawked at the man’s arms, which looked like they might burst from the suit jacket, Merlin knew at least some of those rumours were true. And his blood ran south at the thought: Gwaine Debois liked men. From the look of it, big beautiful men, with broad shoulders and kind eyes, and not spotty sixteen year olds who’d yet to hit a good growth spurt. But still… men. It was more than he’d ever dared hope for.
He watched them, his cheeks burning hot as they flirted, lingering touches and secret smiles. Then Merlin’s heart raced as he saw Gwaine rise to his tiptoes to whisper into the man’s ear. He pulled back, raising an eyebrow and nodding his head towards the indoor pool.
Merlin ignored the voice in his head that sounded very much like his mother, which said being a Peeping Tom was a creepy sort of habit, and he slipped from the balcony. He went the long way around, through the back of the house, slinking out the rarely used stairs by the atrium and fumbling through the moonlit garden until he came to the little orchard outside the pool. The spotlights were on inside already, making the water an unearthly blue and lighting the ceiling with dancing reflections.
Merlin grabbed the trunk of an old apricot tree and craned his neck to see inside. A row of hydrangeas lined the winding path through the garden, which led to the open doors of the pool. He stepped closer, finding his footing among the little white rockcress, which covered the orchard floor.
At the sound of a familiar whistle, Merlin’s neck prickled in panic. He leapt behind a small bush, barely large enough to cover him, and held his breath as Gwaine stopped not a metre from him. If Gwaine hadn’t been clearly focused on other things, he surely would have been seen.
In one hand, Gwaine held the neck of a champagne bottle, and with the other he reached out and plucked a small white flower from where Merlin had been standing only a moment before. Gwaine moved on, putting the flower between his lips like a cigarette as he reached the door.
“Hello, Percival,” he said as he kicked the door shut behind him. Anything else he might have said was cut off as the door shut tight.
The pool was surrounded by wall-to-wall glass, but it was the height of summer and the hydrangeas were thick and full. Once Gwaine passed the doorway, he stepped out of view. No matter how Merlin stretched his neck, or pulled at branches, he couldn’t see anything but leaves.
His conscience told him to walk away. It was none of his business and he’d win no points with Gwaine spying, but he was also sixteen and gay, and had yet to ever see two men kiss outside of his secretly downloaded episodes of Queer as Folk. His conscience didn’t stand a chance, really. He wrapped his fingers around a low branch of the apricot tree and began to climb.
He hadn’t missed much, it seemed. By the time he was balanced precariously on a sturdy enough branch, he could see Gwaine standing by Percival. Gwaine bent, set the champagne bottle down on the marble pool deck and pulled a champagne flute from each of the back pockets of his suit trousers. He presented the glasses with a flourish, Gwaine’s special combination of ridiculous and charming that made Merlin’s heart skip a beat.
Percival seemed pleased with it too, chuckling behind his hand and stepping closer to take the empty glasses while Gwaine popped the champagne.
They toasted with a wink. Merlin’s tongue tingled with the memory of his first stolen sip of champagne earlier that summer when James had left a tray unattended and too close to the kitchen door. It had been crisp and sharp, unexpectedly taking his breath away. He imagined that would be what Gwaine’s lips would taste like – as illicit and intoxicating as stolen champagne.
He cursed not being able to hear their conversation. They were standing so close, closer than they had at the party, touches lingering longer, smiles little more sly. Merlin’s palm went to his crotch and he pressed his open hand over the hard line of his cock as he watched, fascinated.
Then they were kissing, a few tentative pecks at first, and in a blink it was so much more. Fuck, Merlin could see their tongues, see the glisten of their lips, wet with spit. Percival’s huge hands tangled in Gwaine’s hair in a way that would fuel Merlin’s fantasies for months. His hand closed over his denim covered cock, and he wondered if he should be ashamed that he was about to come in his pants while sitting in a tree, spying on two guys snogging. He doubted anything in the world could even stop that from happening now. Gwaine’s hands were at Percival’s waist, his hips swaying like they were dancing. They rocked together to their own urgent rhythm.
“You there! You in the tree.” A shout came from below him. “Get down from there this instant.”
Merlin jumped, his hand flying from his crotch. He flailed, trying to turn to see who was shouting. He lost his grip of the branch and tumbled backwards. His fall was broken by an ‘oof’ that wasn’t his own, and warm hands were suddenly around his waist.
“Merlin! What on earth?” Arthur Pendragon stared at him, shock morphing his usual stoic expression. As though coming back to himself, he let Merlin go, keeping his hand out until he saw Merlin could stand on his own.
“I – I” Merlin scrambled for an explanation that was the least bit plausible. He looked up at the tree. “I was bird watching.”
Arthur’s eyes widened, looking between Merlin and the pool. “I don’t imagine there are any birds in the pool tonight,” he said, his tone dry.
He bent and picked up the phone he must have dropped when he’d caught Merlin. “Hello. Hello?” He cursed and flipped it closed.
“Go find your mother, Merlin. She’s likely to be worried.” He gave Merlin a pointed look and Merlin’s breath hitched. He hadn’t realised before quite how intense Arthur’s eyes were. “You’ve better things to do than watching what Gwaine gets up to.”
The disgust in Arthur’s voice made Merlin’s hackles rise, and he replied hotly before he could check himself. “There’s nothing wrong with what Gwaine does.”
Arthur’s expression darkened. “Isn’t there?” he said, his eyebrows raised, daring Merlin to say otherwise. Before Merlin could manage anything more than silent outrage, Arthur had his phone out and was walking away.
Merlin stood listening to the muffled sounds of Arthur’s ‘sorry about that – now where were we.’
He looked up at the tree again, but a twist in his gut forced him to step away, and, shoulders slumped, he headed to his room to pack for the trip he didn’t want to go on.
His mother found him hours later, sitting on his bed, a pair of socks in one hand and an empty suitcase by his feet.
Merlin looked up to see her in the doorway. Her hair was pulling free from its bun and the circles around her eyes told him she was feeling every bit of the back-aching work she’d been doing since dawn. She had the next day off though, to be spent taking him to the airport. A familiar wrinkle marred her brow as she looked at the messy piles of clothes littering everywhere but his suitcase.
“Rome will be good for you, Merlin.”
“Will it?” he said, not meeting her eye as he tossed the socks into his luggage.
“Being away from here will be good for you.”
“I like it here.”
“Too much, Merlin.” Her lips pressed tight as though they were holding back the well-worn lecture. “You like it here too much.”
“He’ll forget me.”
Hunith sighed, crossing the room and pressing her forehead to his. “Merlin.”
“I know! How can he miss what he doesn’t even know exists?” Merlin hastily tossed every stack of clothing he could manage into the luggage, needing it to be over, like pulling off a plaster. “I know you think I’m not worthy.”
“Never, Merlin,” she said, suddenly fierce. “I would never think you are not worthy of Gwaine Debois.”
“He’s gay.” Merlin flopped back onto the bed; the news that had elated him earlier was now unbearable.
“Oh, honey.” She sat beside him and pulled him into a hug.
Despite how angry he was about being sent away, he couldn’t resist the warmth of her arms and he took the comfort she was offering.
“Go to Rome, Merlin. Find yourself and you’ll understand that you deserve better.”
Gaius was an old friend of Merlin’s mother. He’d once been employed by Uther Pendragon as his personal tailor, but he’d found work in Italy when the damp weather of England became too much for his old bones. He had a small studio in the centre of Rome and, at Hunith’s begging, had agreed to take Merlin as an apprentice. He’d cleared out a storage cupboard, crammed in a mattress and bedside table, and called it Merlin’s bedroom. It was a far cry from the luxury of the Head Cook’s suite of rooms at Pendragon house.
It’s sunny and hot, as it was yesterday and the day before. I think I started sweating in May and now, mid-July, I have yet to stop. Gaius warned me that by August, I’ll have melted into a puddle. He says the locals close up shop for lunch and open again at four. Only the tourists ever see August in mid-day; everyone else sleeps it through.
I can’t say I don’t appreciate the Italian way of life sometimes.
Gaius let me sit at Kilgharrah yesterday. Don’t laugh -- it’s what he calls his sewing machine. I know it’s his livelihood, but the way he treats that beast... anyway. He had me hem a pair of trousers.
It took me half an hour to do one hem! Then he ripped it free and showed me how to do it properly.
I think I prefer the Chemistry correspondence course to trying to sew up to Gaius’ standards. Don't even get me started on pressing seams open with the steamer.
Has Gwaine been travelling? I swear I saw him the other day. Then again, the streets here are filled with fit men -- until they turn and face me and I can’t help but be disappointed.
Don’t worry. I’m behaving -- even if I wasn’t already emotionally attached, Gaius has been running me all over the city. He says I’d be faster at it if I didn’t get lost at every turn, but his deliveries seem endless. Merlin
Sorry it’s been a couple weeks since I wrote. Gaius says that around Christmas is busy season. Lots of parties and masses. Or something. It feels off not being Catholic in Rome.
I swear Gaius is going to smack me over the head with his espresso pot each time I come back to the studio with a parcel still in hand. But it’s impossible to remember the difference between ‘via Giovanni Battista Martini’ and ‘via Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’.
I have to go. Gaius said he might let me thread the machine and bobbin. Apparently, I should be honoured.
Has Gwaine noticed I’ve left?
Buon Natale, as they say here. I miss you. I miss Gwaine.
I want to come home.
Eventually though, the names of the streets stopped sounding all the same and the customers stopped being quite so cross all the time (now that Merlin wasn’t hours late).
He learned that if he could figure out his directions well enough not to get lost, he’d have time to sit in a bar and have a caffe e cornetto and let Rome bustle around him while he watched with eager eyes. Cornettos -- particularly the chocolate filled ones -- were inspiration enough for Merlin to get very good at navigating the streets of Rome at breakneck speed.
“Tu sei Americano?”
Merlin looked up, startled. “Who me?”
Leaning over the back of his chair was a bloke not much older than Merlin. Merlin blinked up, slack-jawed at the dark rugged face with startlingly pale blue eyes.
The man’s amused smile shook him from his fog. “American? No, I’m British.”
“Ah, England.” His thick accent stretched out the word to become In-ga-land and the sound curled warmly in Merlin’s ear. “I follow Chelsea.”
“Yes.” His eyes twinkled, moving forward to press up against the edge of Merlin’s table. “Fernando Torres. How do you say it? Brilliant arse.”
Merlin laughed for the first time in months.
That was the day Merlin discovered Italian men have beautiful smiles. And things got a little easier from there.
Thanks for the cufflinks! I’ll wear them with the suit Gaius made for me as a gift for graduating. I’m thrilled to be finished with those annoying correspondence courses. Gaius told me today that I could spend my new ‘free time’ earning money doing small jobs for him -- actual tailoring, mind, not just deliveries or the odd simple hem. (I think he’s afraid I’ll spend all my time with Franco, terrorizing the old men who throw bread to the pigeons at the Trevi Fountain.)
He says I’m ready to do my first alteration on my own. I’m not convinced he won’t rip it out and re-do it, but I’ll see if I can get Kilgharrah working some magic for me.
I saw Gwaine in an Italian gossip mag today -- the blurry pic had him running naked through a park with some Countess. Sounds like Gwaine.
Arthur circled the edge of the dinner party with a phone to his ear. The on-hold music played endlessly as he waited while some poor receptionist tried to find the Director of Operations of his Singapore branch. Arthur had a feeling that he stepped out for a moment translated to it’s Friday, you don’t expect him to be in the office, do you?
Arthur had been just cruel enough to say, “That’s fine. I’ll wait while you go fetch him.”
The instrumental of Britany’s Oops, I did it again was karma biting his arse, he was sure.
The host of the dinner party, Edmund Godwyn was engaged in a conversation a polite distance away on Arthur's left. Uther and Godwyn were old friends from Oxford, who’d remained close all these years. Arthur had always kept a close eye on Godwyn Corp as his father had been mentioning the potential of a merger of their companies for years, though the two had never pursued it.
Arthur held the phone at his neck, far enough to ease his headache and close enough he’d hear when she came back on the line.
Godwyn stepped to the side to allow a waiter to pass and Arthur got a good look at his companion. His jaw clenched at the sight of Bayard. Arthur stepped closer instinctively, assessing the situation. Bayard would not be moving in, yet again, on Arthur’s territory. He moved his phone back to his ear, nodding his head as though the music was worth agreeing with, and moved close enough to overhear Godwyn’s speech about his newest product’s breakthrough technology. Arthur’s curiosity piqued. He wasn’t ashamed to admit Bayard being Godwyn’s interested companion helped that interest along nicely but the product itself was worth his attention. Catching Arthur’s gaze on them, Bayard led Godwyn towards the bar and out of earshot. Arthur scowled, flipped his phone shut, and went off to find Uther.
He found Uther standing alone, which was rare in itself. Even rarer was the pleased smile on his face while his attention was devoted wholly to Gwaine.
“Arthur,” he said, not taking his eyes away from Gwaine and the pretty blonde girl he’d chosen to entertain him that evening. “Do you know who that is?”
On second glance, the woman was not the elegant debutante type who usually found their way onto Gwaine’s arm. Her laughter, as Gwaine hand-waved dramatically while recounting some tale, contained a rather undignified snort. At the sound, Gwaine seemed completely enchanted; his head was thrown back in laughter.
“That,” said Uther, “is Lady Elena Godwyn.”
Arthur watched in stunned silence as a tray passed with canapés and Elena nearly tackled the waiter before snatching a handful. One dropped to the floor, and she bumped heads with the waiter as they bent in unison to pick up the fallen mushroom cap.
Gwaine grabbed her arm to steady her. With a fond smile, he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and whispered something. Biting her lip, she nodded. Gwaine leaned forward to press a fleeting kiss to the reddening mark on her forehead.
When he pulled away, she looked up at him with wide, smitten eyes.
Arthur tore his eyes from the couple to look at Uther’s satisfied smile. “Make it happen, Arthur.”
It looked like it was going to happen without much help on his part. The question was how to make it last.
“Oh, and Arthur?” Uther said, as he stepped away. “She’s fond of horses.”
Across the room Godwyn was making his rounds through the spacious sitting room, moving from group to group, playing the proper host to his guests. Bayard, it seemed, hadn’t managed to get very far in his wooing.
Arthur took his chance and manoeuvred his way towards him.
“Lovely party, Godwyn,” he said, shaking his host’s hand.
“Arthur!” Godwyn grinned, wide and sincere. “Glad you could make it. It’s been too long.”
“It has,” Arthur said, relaxing into Godwyn’s easy welcome. It was all he could hope for. “Listen, my father and I are having a few friends to Cambridge House next weekend.” He made a mental note to send off an email to Nancy immediately following dinner to make that true. “How about you and Elena come up. The trout should be biting and the horses need a good run.”
Godwyn’s eyes brightened. “That sounds perfect.” He looked over at Gwaine and Elena, his face mirroring Uther’s earlier delight. “Yes, that might be just the thing.”
Arthur grabbed a glass of wine from a passing waiter and raised it to Godwyn. “It’s like you’ve read my mind.”
“So, Arthur,” Godwyn said, directing Arthur towards his private office. “Have I told you about the Insul-Tech 342 yet?”
Arthur returned the smile on Godwyn’s face. “No, you haven’t. I’m all ears.”
Merlin had been out with Franco all afternoon. They’d zipped through the streets of Rome on Franco’s Vespa, almost catching the heels of tourists just to give them a story to take back with them. He walked into Gaius’s studio, wind-swept and still laughing when he saw the envelope. Five minutes later his world fell apart.
The letter from his mother contained only a few words and a newspaper clipping:
I thought you should know.
Lord Uther Pendragon and Lord Edmund Godwyn are pleased to announce the engagement of Gwaine Debois and Lady Elena Godwyn. The date for the wedding has not been set, but Lady Elena was quoted yesterday saying she loved the spring.
Gaius frowned but said nothing as Merlin walked right back out the door.
He let Franco fuck him that night. They’d flirted and kissed in the months following their first meeting, but, while Merlin wasn’t looking, they’d grown into being friends and had never moved onto more. But that day when Franco opened his door and Merlin fell into his arms, he didn’t ask what had changed, just knew Merlin needed something to make him forget.
Franco had gone slow until Merlin swore and begged him to stop teasing. He didn’t want the time to think or the time to fantasise about someone else.
He hadn’t saved himself for Gwaine, except maybe he had without meaning to. And the thought of being a virgin for another second was mortifying.
They spent three blissful days despoiling every available surface of Franco’s flat before Merlin finally turned his phone back on. He deleted all forty-four messages without listening to them.
He kissed Franco, whispering a thank you into his mouth, and went back to Gaius.
After that, things with Franco were a bit more interesting. They still snuck off to the beach on weekends, but more often than not the day ended behind a rock, away from the crowds, with their hands down each other's swim trunks.
Franco never took anything seriously, and Merlin returned the favour.
He wasn’t quite whole yet. Some days he’d catch Franco looking at him instead of out at the Mediterranean, and he’d wonder if Franco saw the bits that were missing and knew he couldn’t fill them.
“I can’t believe I go back tomorrow.”
“You’ve been packing for a month now, caro. I can’t believe you haven’t left yet.”
Merlin huffed and pushed Franco out of the way to stuff a stack of D&G boxer briefs into his suitcase. (“Italians make the best underwear,” Franco had said, handing Merlin his going away present. “You can’t go back to those ugly things you used to wear.”)
“You’ll miss me.”
Franco looked at the open door to Merlin’s room to check that Gaius wasn’t hovering about, and caught Merlin in a sloppy wet kiss. “I’ll miss that mouth, caro.” He tangled his fingers in the untamable mess of Merlin’s hair. “And the way you scream as I take my Vespa on a sharp corner.”
“You nearly killed us that day!”
“Ma quanto sei stronzo! I did not.”
“I needed stitches.”
“Only three.” Franco laughed and tugged at Merlin’s locks. “Let me cut your hair.”
Merlin blinked at the unexpected offer. When Merlin had left England, his hair had been cut too short and cropped in a severe line across his forehead. He’d only cut it twice since being in Italy and it was now a bush of black on the top of his head, flaring out over his ears.
“I’ll make you look irresistible, Merlin. That man, the one who broke your heart. He won’t know what hit him.”
Merlin walked over to the mirror, Franco behind him. He was taller now; in Italy at least, he felt above average in height. His shoulders had filled out well thanks to the summer days spent frolicking on the beaches of Lido di Ostia. He looked at the picture he kept on his dresser, of his mum and himself at Christmas before he’d left, and found that boy nothing like the man in the mirror.
“Alright.” Merlin plucked the picture off the mirror and turned around in Franco’s arms. “Just don’t make it look like this.”
Franco looked at the picture and scrunched up his nose. “You will be drop dead gorgeous.”
Merlin watched through the windows of the taxi as the scenery around him grew familiar. He closed his eyes and listened to the soft grind of rocks beneath the tires as they pulled off the main road into the winding driveway. Something he hadn’t heard in two years. His eyes opened in time to see the sprawling green of the Pendragon grounds and the white latticework of the gazebo he’d pretended was a pirate ship as a child. The tennis court was empty, as was the outdoor pool. Old man Michaels was pruning the cedars by the pond, and Merlin lowered the window to catch the fresh scent on the breeze.
He was home.
Beaming, he paid the driver and climbed out, letting the sight, sounds and smell of his childhood flood back to him. Delighted laughter bubbled up in his chest as he looked up to see Gwaine walking down the front steps, dressed in Polo uniform as if appearing straight from Merlin’s fantasy.
“Hello, Gwaine,” Merlin said, unable to be shy with the thrill of being home making his face split into a grin.
Gwaine stopped short on his jog past. He cocked his head and watched the driver set the bags at Merlin’s feet.
“Hello,” he said, cautiously as though not entirely sure how friendly to be. His eyes showed no sign of recognition. “Can I help you?”
“No,” Merlin said, coy. “I think I can find my way.”
Gwaine frowned, looking around for someone who might be waiting to greet Merlin.
“Oh,” Merlin said as Gwaine turned around and the rip in Gwaine’s shirt came into view. He approached, feeling the rush of self-confidence as he stepped into Gwaine’s personal space and saw Gwaine’s flirty smile. Merlin touched the seam of Gwaine’s polo shirt at the back of the shoulder. “You have a tear.”
“What?” Gwaine twisted to see where Merlin was pointing. “Ah, just brilliant! I have a championship match in, fuck--” He checked his watch. “I’m late. The ref will have my arse if the shirt isn’t regulation.”
“I could mend it?” Merlin offered, already digging in his bag before his brain caught up to his mouth. “It’ll be quick and dirty, but it’ll last you through the game.”
“Quick and dirty?” Gwaine’s eyebrows waggled. “I like that.”
Merlin’s cheeks heated, and he could tell by Gwaine’s smirk that he’d noticed. Merlin fought to keep his hands steady as he threaded the needle. He mentally thanked Gaius for the endless practice when he managed it on the first try. He stood behind Gwaine, lining up the seam and trying not to think of the heat of Gwaine’s skin just below the material of the jersey.
Gwaine turned to look over his shoulder. “My knight in shining armour,” he said, his voice low and teasing. “Where have you been all my life?”
“Maybe I’ve been right here,” Merlin said as calmly as he could manage, adding silently, waiting for you to look my way. The early spring sun shone hot on his neck.
“That would be impossible. I can’t imagine anyone not noticing a gorgeous thing like you.”
Merlin’s world tilted, and he focused on the stitches, trying not to stab himself.
“Almost done,” Merlin managed to say.
“And talented hands too.” Gwaine all but purred.
Merlin’s fingers trembled through the last stitches. Gaius would have his hide if he could see him now. The stitches were wide and sloppy. The little girl who sold flowers at the beach could do better.
Gwaine was still looking at him, his eyes a little dazed. “We are having a party tonight. You should come.”
Merlin tried think up with a clever reply, but it caught in his throat. He snapped the thread with his teeth and fumbled a knot.
“Aren’t you amazing?” Gwaine turned to look at him face on.
They were almost nose to nose, though Merlin had a couple inches on him now. He could smell the faint hint of Gwaine’s cologne, see the individual bristle of his beard. Merlin wet his lips and watched Gwaine’s eyes catch the movement. He forgot how to breathe.
“Hello, Merlin.” A voice came from behind them, breaking the moment. “Nice to see you with your feet back on the ground.”
Merlin blushed, jumping back as if he’d been caught up in a tree once again. While he knelt, shoving his needle and thread back in his case, he snuck a peek at Gwaine, who was staring at him, wide-eyed.
He straightened and exhaled sharply. “Hello, Arthur.”
“How was Rome?” Arthur stood at the bottom of the steps, briefcase in hand, looking exactly as he had when Merlin left, if a little older and a little more tired.
“It was brilliant.” Merlin ran his hands through his hair, self-consciously messing with the ‘perfectly fucked-out’ look, just as Franco had told him not to.
Arthur looked him up and down. “It seems you came back all grown up.”
“Did he ever,” Gwaine said with a low whistle that made heat creep up Merlin’s neck.
“Yes, well. I’m sure Gaius was sorry to have you leave, but Hunith will be pleased to see you.” Arthur eyed Gwaine and cleared his throat. “Gwaine, don’t you have a match?”
“Oh, dammit.” Gwaine looked at his watch again. “Merlin, I can’t… wow... Little Merlin.” His gaze roamed over Merlin, head to toe. “I will definitely be seeing you again.”
“So am I still invited, then? Tonight?”
“Oh, yes.” Gwaine grinned, his tone rich and sultry. “I most definitely want to catch up.”
“The match, Gwaine,” Arthur snapped.
“Right!” With a flash of teeth to Merlin, he hopped in the convertible parked outside the garage and waved. “Until tonight then.”
Arthur looked like he might say something, stepping toward Merlin with a serious expression, but Freya cut him off, rushing out the door and shouting Merlin’s name.
She threw her arms around him. “Merlin, look at you.”
It was a whirlwind of excitement after that. His mother cried and asked what on earth he’d done to his hair and exactly how tight did jeans need to be? Then she cried some more when he hugged her and she had to lift to her tiptoes to kiss his forehead.
He’d emptied his suitcase of all his gifts right there in the kitchen: a silk scarf for Freya, a barista’s apron for James, a seashell with a castle painted onto it for Abigail, the downstairs maid. Until his mother finally asked if he’d done anything but shop in the last two years.
“All right, best be clearing this out. I’ll need my kitchen back,” she said at last. Her face went carefully blank as she explained to Merlin, “There’s a party tonight.”
“I know,” he said, then quickly added, “I’ve been invited,” before he lost his nerve
Her knuckles whitened on the tray she was holding. “Pardon?”
“Gwaine.” Merlin couldn’t contain his smile any longer. “He invited me to attend. Me!”
“You can’t be seriously thinking of...”
“Mum.” He looked at her, smile disappearing at the concern in her face. “I’m going. I’ve wanted this all my life.”
“He’s engaged, Merlin.”
“I know,” he said; though, for the past hour he’d been pretending he didn’t. She had him there, he knew. His mother hadn’t raised him to be a home-wrecker. “I know. I’m not expecting...” He looked out the window where he could see the roof of the indoor pool. “It’s not even about that. For once, Mum, just once, I want to be a guest at a Pendragon party. I can’t turn this down.”
“What will you even wear?” She shook her head, not backing down but knowing she’d already lost the argument. “Merlin, you are an eighteen year old boy. You can’t show up to this in a pair of jeans.”
“Oh, Mum. I lived in Italy for two years as a tailor.” Merlin grinned. “I have clothes.”
Merlin picked a shirt he’d made himself. Franco had told him the sapphire blue cotton set off his eyes when Merlin had chosen the material. It had turned out well, and there was a flare of pride buttoning it up and knowing it was his. It also popped nicely beneath the darker blue of the suit coat Gaius had given to him for his graduation.
He stood before the mirror and took a deep breath to quell the butterflies.
“Engaged, but not married,” Freya whispered to him as he stopped by the kitchen for a last minute word of encouragement. He squeezed her shoulder in thanks. He’d missed her more than he’d realised. She was the closest to him in age of all the servants and had acted the part of an older sister: a mixture of partner in crime, confidant and often a mediator during family squabbles. He was proud to see the silk scarf he’d bought in Florence tied around her neck.
His mother’s tight-lipped disapproval softened as she spotted him. “Merlin, you look wonderful.”
“Thanks, Mum.” He wrapped his arms around her. And if he held her a little longer than usual, neither of them said anything.
The patio was already filling. Merlin brushed past a few groups of people, all prettier and richer than he ever dreamed he could be. He kept his head down as he made his way across the room, listening with an amused grin to snippets of conversations about yachting and scandals and weekend trips to Greece. This wasn’t his world; he didn’t need his mother to tell him that. But mingling with these people and hearing of their charmed lives had been a fantasy he’d fallen asleep to as a child while the sound of the band playing drifted into his bedroom window like a promise of someday.
Tonight, the music was just as enchanting. He drifted to stand by the stage. The rich thrum of the cello took him back to a night in Rome when he and Franco had sat on a rooftop and listened to a far away orchestra as the sunset made Rome glow red.
“Champagne, sir?” James was suddenly at his elbow, tray outstretched to Merlin.
The glint in James’s eye made Merlin wonder if a few of the staff weren’t, even just a little, living vicariously through him tonight. He grabbed a flute; it was ice-cold beneath his fingertips.
“Keep them coming, James,” he drawled in his best posh accent.
James winked and disappeared into the crowd. A moment later, a warm hand slid along the small of his back and Gwaine was before him, standing far too close for Merlin to get his bearings.
“Merlin, you’re a vision.” Gwaine shook his head as though he was in awe. “An absolute vision.”
Merlin laughed, ducking his head in a complete loss for words.
“And to think,” Gwaine said, voice soft, “all this time you were right here.”
Merlin stepped back, needing space to catch his breath and find his thoughts. It was all happening too fast, Gwaine’s words too perfect. The entire evening had an edge of surrealism that made Merlin need grounding. His eyes went to the balcony, remembering how many times he’d dreamt of exactly this. “That’s where I was.”
Gwaine followed his line of sight and chuckled softly. “I can just imagine. Little Merlin in his pyjamas, pressing his cheeks between the banisters, watching us all get sloshed.” Gwaine’s hands tightened on Merlin’s hips. “I like you better down here.”
Merlin, his head already a little fuzzy from the champagne, couldn’t even begin to process the idea of Gwaine -- Gwaine -- holding him like this, swaying their hips to the music in a crowded party, unashamed. His chest went tight, like maybe this was all a dream and, when he woke and had to face a world where Gwaine didn’t even know his name, it would all be too much to bear.
He tried to refocus.
“This song.” Merlin closed his eyes. “An old man on an accordion played it one night in Rome. It was a feast.” He laughed. “There was always a feast of one saint or another to celebrate in Rome. That night the piazza near Gaius’s studio was filled with people dancing and eating and laughing.” He let his mind wander, recapturing the memory. “That old man sat on a dirty wooden barrel and played well into the night.”
When he opened his eyes, Gwaine was staring at him, eyes half-lidded like he too was under the spell of that night.
“It was the best night of my life,” Merlin said. “Until now.” He cleared his throat, embarrassed at his own admission. “My friend and I, we danced until we couldn’t stand anymore.”
Gwaine pulled him in closer, close enough for Merlin to feel trapped against Gwaine’s broad chest. “Hmm... and what did you and your friend do then?”
Merlin choked on a laugh and fought his blush.
Gwaine leaned in so his breath tickled Merlin's ear as he whispered, “I’ll admit, Merlin, I’m jealous.”
“Arthur,” Uther said, jaw clenched. “Who is that?”
Arthur saved a draft of the email he’d been typing and slipped his phone into his pocket. He followed Uther’s gaze across the patio to the edge of the dance floor. Gwaine stood, moving softly to the music with his hands on Merlin’s hips. There was no mistaking the intimacy of it, or the love-struck glaze to Merlin’s eyes.
“That’s Merlin,” Arthur said, cursing Elena for having gone to the French countryside for the weekend. “He’s just back from Rome. He was studying under Gaius for a couple years, I believe.”
“That’s Hunith’s son? He’s how old now?”
“Old enough to make Gwaine lose his head,” Arthur muttered as he watched Merlin slip through the back gate of the patio and head down the well-worn path to the indoor pool. Gwaine was already at the bar, asking for a bottle of Dom Perignon while slipping champagne flutes into his backpockets.
“Well make it stop,” Uther said. “Do what you have to but do it fast. Godwyn’s not blind or stupid.”
Sure enough, Godwyn was watching Gwaine with narrowed eyes as Gwaine took the champagne from the bartender.
Gwaine was just stepping off the patio when Arthur caught up to him. “Gwaine, we need to talk,” he said, swinging his arm around Gwaine’s shoulder and directing him towards the house.
“Arthur, not now.” Gwaine tried to shrug off Arthur’s hand. “I’m in the middle of something.”
“I think we all know what you’re in the middle of, Gwaine,” Arthur said, his tone dry. “I’m afraid this can’t wait.”
He led Gwaine back through the party and into his father’s study. Uther stood by his desk, and the fury in his face made Gwaine try to turn back around.
“Of all the irresponsible...” Uther’s voice boomed and Arthur wisely shut the door. “The cook’s son, for god’s sake!”
“Don’t you dare speak of Merlin like that! You don’t even know him!”
“Gwaine, you didn’t even know his name a few hours ago,” Arthur felt the need to point out. “Did you even notice he’d been gone?”
“Arthur, you have to believe me. I’ve never felt like this before.”
“Not with the countess when you were twenty? Or that actress in London two years ago when you almost eloped?” Uther snapped. “Those both cost me thousands of pounds to keep out of the papers.”
“Merlin is different! Have you even talked to him? Ever?”
“Have you?” Arthur muttered.
“What about Elena? For God’s sake, man! You are engaged!” Uther slammed his fist against his desk, knocking over a crystal paperweight. “Don’t think for one second that Bayard didn’t tell Godwyn about your reputation the minute you started dating his daughter. He’s only permitting the marriage because he honestly believed you’d changed.”
“Elena’s a peach. I love her, honestly.” Gwaine began pacing. With every length of the room, his suit jacket gaped over the obvious bulge of his trouser back pockets from the champagne flutes. “But Merlin...”
“Is the son of our cook! After all I’ve done --”
Arthur, his voice soft and calming, cut off his father’s inevitable speech, knowing Gwaine would stop listening if they went down that path. “Gwaine, we know Merlin is special. But we do have this issue of your engagement to deal with before you can start this thing with Merlin.” He walked forward, backing Gwaine up as he spoke. “How about we all sit down so we can discuss this rationally.” With one last step forward, the back of Gwaine’s legs hit the plush leather chair in front of Uther’s desk. Arthur smiled. “I’m sure we can figure this all out.”
Gwaine exhaled. “Thank you, Arthur,” he said, and then dropped dramatically into the chair.
Arthur was grateful the band was loud enough to drown out the worst of Gwaine’s curses as the champagne glasses shattered.
Arthur found Merlin sitting on the pool deck, his arms wrapped around his knees and a funny look on his face, like he’d just been kicked in the gut.
At the sound of Arthur’s footsteps he looked up, brightening for an instant before recognition hit and his face fell. “Oh.”
Arthur debated lying -- Gwaine bumped into someone more to his tastes was on the tip of his tongue -- but the downwards curl of Merlin’s lips stopped him. Ignoring the voice that said this was a terrible idea, Arthur threw out his practiced speech and said, “There was an accident.”
Merlin sat up. “An accident?” His expression was so innocent in his concern that he barely looked old enough for the champagne Arthur had brought along to smooth things over.
Arthur nodded. “Gwaine has been rushed to A&E.”
Merlin stood, brow furrowed. “What happened?”
“He was on his way here to meet you and there was an unfortunate incident. Somehow Gwaine managed to sit down on a pair of champagne flutes.”
“Sat on a...” Merlin’s eyes widened.
“No one’s quite sure why he’d have put glasses in his back pocket.”
Merlin slapped his hand over his mouth to stifle what might have been a laugh. At that moment, Merlin rose in Arthur’s estimation.
“Look, Merlin, you’re a smart boy.” He winced as he heard his tone mirroring the one his father used during tough negotiations. He fingered the chequebook he’d slipped into his jacket pocket before heading down here, and he hesitated.
“Oh my God, you are going to offer me money, aren’t you?” Merlin laughed, incredulous.
Arthur pushed away the guilt creeping into his conscience and focused on the task at hand. He had to deal with this delicate situation. If he pushed too hard, the whole thing might backfire. He had to somehow convince Merlin he doesn’t belong here, and remind Gwaine that he loved Elena and did want to marry her, all while keeping the entire mess under wraps until Elena returned.
Arthur watched Merlin continue to laugh, somewhat hysterically at the idea of being paid off. He might be young and foolish enough to end up smitten with Gwaine, but Arthur didn’t doubt he was sincere in that affection and that made him a pretty dangerous wildcard. And the Godwyn merger was worth more than Merlin’s throbbing heart -- if that was indeed what he was currently thinking with. He opted for a change in direction.
“I’m here to make Gwaine’s apologies, Merlin.” Arthur lifted his left hand to show off a bottle of champagne and two flutes tangled artfully in his fingers. He sat down beside Merlin and poured them each a glass. “With compliments, from my dear cousin.”
Merlin eyed him suspiciously but took the offered glass.
Arthur lifted his glass to Merlin. “To old acquaintances, come new again.”
Merlin ducked his head in a charming, shy smile before clinking their glasses together. And in the pale lighting of the pool deck, Arthur could see exactly what had Gwaine falling over himself.
They fell silent, sipping their champagne.
Arthur’s phone vibrated in his pocket and he had to clench his fist not to answer it, but some things were more important. Without a doubt, making sure that Gwaine kept his head on his shoulders -- and his dick in his pants -- until Elena returned was Arthur’s current priority.
Arthur watched Merlin’s long fingers draw meaningless shapes in the condensation on his glass and a plan began to form in his head, complicated and messy, but it could be just the thing.
The first thing he needed to do was fire his tailor. And the second was to send Nancy shopping.
Merlin stared out the water, sipping his champagne, oblivious to it all.
Merlin woke the next morning with a belly full of nerves and a pounding headache. He lay in bed, staring out his open window at the cloudy sky, listening to the quiet sounds of the Pendragon Estate slowly waking up. Chairs were being stacked, tents taken down, all with a hushed murmur of servants, who knew well enough not to make much noise at this hour but still needed to clear the grounds before the inevitable rain hit.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, trying to make sense of all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. Gwaine had invited him to the party, then to the pool. Merlin couldn’t even begin to tackle that unexpected turn of events. A trace of chlorine still clung to his skin and his hair after sitting by the pool for so long, first waiting with his stomach tight with anticipation, and then later as he nursed his disappointment, drinking champagne with Arthur Pendragon, of all people.
Arthur was no less of a puzzle. He’d always appeared standoffish and gruff, but he’d been kind as he’d delivered the news of Gwaine’s accident. Merlin would have thought he’d have been delighted that Gwaine’s plans with Merlin were waylaid. He’d made no secret of his disapproval of Gwaine’s activities or Merlin’s shared interest in said activities.
Not to mention the pending fairytale wedding, which Merlin had no doubt both Arthur and Uther fully supported if it put an end to Gwaine’s unnatural inclinations.
Yet Arthur had made no threats, no bribes. He’d sat with Merlin in an awkward silence until they’d each finished a glass. Then he’d bid Merlin a goodnight and invited him to check on Gwaine in the morning.
Scrubbing his face, Merlin stumbled off to find some coffee. What he wouldn’t do for an espresso right now.
He grinned as he found his mother sitting in the little kitchen that joined the suite of rooms allotted to the head cook. When Merlin had been a child, mornings after big parties were his favourite. The Pendragon household would rise late, allowing his mother the rare luxury of a few quiet hours to enjoy the morning with her son before heading to the kitchens for the day.
“Hello, Mum.” Merlin kissed her forehead and took his seat at their little breakfast nook.
“Good morning, Merlin,” she said, making no effort to hide the way her eyes traced his face.
Her gaze made him feel like a child again, caught making mischief with Old Man Michaels' pruning shears. Merlin ducked his head and poured himself a coffee. “Nothing happened last night. Trust me.”
“I heard there was an accident.”
Merlin hummed as he sipped his coffee, hoping that was vague enough to pass as either assent or general interest.
“Gwaine Debois apparently was rushed to A&E after sitting on a pair of wine glasses.”
He said nothing, adding a splash of cream to his coffee, not looking up.
His mother’s fingertips grazed his knuckles until he met her eyes. “Merlin?”
“What?” He lifted his hands, trying for his most innocent expression. “I wasn’t even there at the time.”
“And where were you?”
Merlin shrugged and hoped for the best. “I’d left.”
“Merlin,” she said, voice soft but stern. “Everyone knows what happens when Gwaine has his eyes on someone at a party. Don’t you think for one second that you are the only one paying attention. For goodness' sake, James says the bartender always sets aside a particular bottle of champagne, just for the occasion.”
He picked at the callous on the pad of his thumb, the mark of Gaius’ relentless tutelage. He didn’t want to think of the long line of Gwaine’s lovers that had come before him, or the inevitable broken heart that waited as the line moved forward. They hadn’t even kissed. Yet.
“You should have more self-respect than to wait by that pool,” she said, a rare flash of true anger in her voice. “Not the least of which because Lady Elena is a charming girl, who doesn’t deserve this.”
Merlin wrapped his hands around his cup, trying to get some comfort from the heat. There was none to be found. “He makes me feel special.”
She pressed her hand to his cheek and he looked up to see tears in her eyes. “You are special and certainly not because Gwaine Debois thinks so.”
He shrugged away from her touch, not wanting to hear any more, not when he was so close to finally having what he most wanted. He poured his nearly untouched coffee down the sink -- it wasn’t helping his headache anyway -- and he went off to shower.
When he emerged, pink-skinned and ready to face the day, his mother had already left for the Pendragon kitchens.
Merlin darted across the grounds, eyeing the dark clouds above, a reminder that he was indeed back in England where the sun was a precious commodity. He tugged his thin jacket against the wind, and for the first time in his life he walked past the servants' entrance and marched up the massive stone stairs to the front door of the Pendragon Estate. The door was opened wide and Merlin stepped through the threshold, looking around for a maid to announce himself.
“Merlin,” James greeted him with his arms full of trays. “Just cleaning up from last night. Can I get you anything?”
“I was wondering if Gwaine was out of the hospital.”
“He arrived first thing,” James said, his grin as broad and knowing as it had been the night before. “Rumour has it he was asking for you.”
Merlin cheeks went hot. “Was he?”
James laughed and Merlin could imagine how obvious he looked right now. “Just let me set these things down and I’ll pass the word that you’re here.”
James disappeared and Merlin was left to wander about the massive foyer while he waited. The foyer was cool and shadowed, the sun not likely to be seen today, and no one had yet turned on the lights. He ran a finger along the painted wood of the banister of the main staircase, which curved up to the second floor. His eyes rose towards the top where it disappeared into a mysterious part of the house that Merlin had never dared explore.
He shook his head. It was odd that he’d lived most of his life on this property and had never been through the front door, never walked these steps. He craned his neck and took in the full effect of the grand foyer. Front and centre, greeting every guest who entered, was a portrait. In it, Uther sat in an ornately carved, high-back chair that looked almost like a throne. His scowl was fierce, as if the artist himself had deeply insulted Uther by his existence. Arthur stood behind the chair, looking a bit younger than he had last night. His hand was on Uther’s shoulder, and his face was completely devoid of emotion.
“I hate that ugly thing,” came a voice directly behind Merlin.
He turned to see Arthur, whose face was lit bright with a smile. He couldn’t even pass as the same man as in the portrait.
“I was hoping I’d be seeing you.”
“Good morning,” Merlin said, wrong-footed at the sincerity in Arthur’s warm welcome. “I’m here to see Gwaine.”
Arthur’s grin turned a bit lopsided. “Yes, I assumed. Unfortunately, Gwaine’s under some pretty heavy medication right now and I’m afraid it looks like he’ll be sleeping through most of the next few days.”
“Oh.” Merlin’s good mood faded.
“I promise to send word when he wakes, of course.”
“Right. Yes, please.” Merlin stumbled over his words. “Thank you.” The realisation that he had no right to be there washed over him. He darted out the door, escaping before he encountered the limit of Arthur’s kindness. Arthur’s voice stopped him as he reached the top step.
“Merlin, did I understand correctly that you worked under my father’s old tailor while you were away?”
Merlin turned slowly, shocked that Arthur would know such a detail. He hadn’t even got that far catching up with Gwaine to tell him what he’d been doing in Rome. Nor had Gwaine asked, he realised.
“Yes, I lived with Gaius.” Merlin raised his chin, determined to be proud of his trade. “I was his apprentice for the last two years.”
“So you’re trained, then? A proper tailor now?”
Merlin parsed the sentence, looking for condescension but finding only curiosity. “I suppose you could say that. Gaius suggested I find a shop in London with a good reputation and try to make a name for myself.”
“Solid plan.” Arthur nodded. He stepped forward, leaning in towards Merlin like he was imparting a secret. “I’ll be honest with you, Merlin. I’m asking for selfish reasons. I’m hoping you can help me out of a fix.”
“What...” Merlin tried to find the words but his mind was stuttering on Arthur Pendragon asking him for help.
“Since Gwaine won’t be awake until tonight and maybe you have some time on your hands, I could use some help. I have this interview and I can’t be seen on the cover of Fortune in the same suits I’ve been wearing to every formal event in the last year.”
At that, Merlin’s confidence slid into place. This, at least, was his element. “What do you need?”
His feet on English soil for less than a full day, Merlin somehow ended up in the back of a limousine, heading to the Pendragon Industries London office. He stared out the rain-streaked window, trying not to fidget in the soft leather seats.
“Do you always go to work on Sundays?”
Arthur opened the briefcase on his lap and pulled out a tablet. “Only for a few hours,” he said, as though it were nothing.
“Oh.” He thought of the indoor pool, the indoor tennis court, the library, the atrium and wondered why Arthur would leave the comforts of his home when he didn’t have to.
“The interview is on Friday,” he said, not looking up as he dragged his finger along the screen.
“Cutting it a bit close, aren’t you?” Merlin asked. Arthur didn’t seem the sort to ever leave something like this to the last minute.
Arthur’s face pinched like he agreed with Merlin’s unvoiced thoughts.
“My usual tailor quit.” He cleared his throat. “Rather unexpectedly.”
“I see.” Merlin side-eyed Arthur, wondering what exactly he’d done to make his tailor quit. He could only assume the infamous Pendragon temper had something to do with it. “Will his work be there for me to finish at least?”
“To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what we’ll find. He had Gwaine’s office to work in since it’s empty year round.” Arthur looked out the window at the traffic, his fingers tapping the back of the tablet in his lap, his blunt nails clicking against the plastic. When he turned, his smile looked odd. “So tell me about Italy.”
“Er.” Merlin looked to Fairchild, Arthur’s driver, as though he might help in this unexpected attempt of Arthur’s to make small talk. Fairchild was ever the professional and kept his eyes on the road. “Have you been?”
Merlin gained a bit of confidence in Arthur’s awkwardness, focusing instead on trying to put him at ease. “It’s wonderful. You really should.”
“Work keeps me busy.” Arthur’s tone was short, as though he wished he’d picked a different topic to fill the silence. “I couldn’t get away.”
“But you take holidays, right?”
Arthur gave him a strange look, and in an obvious attempt to end the conversation he swiped his finger down the black screen. It flickered back to life.
Merlin thought back to the portrait he’d seen that morning, and the cold, blank stare of Arthur, the businessman. “You should make time. The dolce vita might do you some good.”
Arthur met Merlin’s eye and for a moment there was a flicker of longing there, but Arthur shook his head. “It’s really impossible for me to get away.”
A high-pitched trill filled the back of the car and Arthur pulled out his phone. When he flipped it open, Merlin went back to watching the raindrops race each other down his window.
Arthur’s former tailor was useless. Honestly, whoever he was, Merlin wondered how he’d ever managed to get a client like Arthur Pendragon. Maybe he’d quit because he was overwhelmed by his own incompetence. The room he’d set up -- Gwaine’s unused office, apparently -- was filled with tailoring supplies. Rolls of fabric and spools of thread, scissors and measuring tape were strewn all over the room, still in packages.
In the corner of the room was the unopened box of a new sewing machine.
“This is a mess.”
“Yes.” Arthur looked around the room, his cheeks gone pink. “He was... an alcoholic. I didn’t realise.”
“Was he colour blind, too?” Merlin lifted a heavy roll of thick, lime green cotton. “There is no way this is your colour. How did he even dress himself in the morning?”
Someone cleared their throat, and Arthur and Merlin turned in unison. The woman who stood at the threshold looked a bit older than Merlin’s mother. Her greying hair was pulled back in a tight bun, accentuating her high cheekbones. The fitted cut of her black suit and calf-length pencil skirt gave her a severe sort of look.
“Ah, Nancy.” Arthur greeted the woman warmly, pulling her into the room. “Merlin, please meet the lovely Nancy. She’s my personal assistant.”
Nancy nodded stiffly and turned back to Arthur, scowl on her face. “Will there be anything else, sir? I’m afraid I didn’t get much sleep last night after being woken at 2 a.m. by the phone.”
Arthur laughed, though Merlin didn’t think Nancy had been joking. “That will be all, Nancy. I appreciate you coming into the office on a Sunday to get me those... papers.”
Nancy’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, sir.” Her voice was oddly flat. “They are on your desk, sir.”
“Thank you,” he whispered. “I owe you one for... coming in on a Sunday.”
Merlin wandered through the room and stopped at the sewing machine, his eyes stuttering for a moment as the logo caught his eye.
“This is a Juki Pro!” he said, adrenaline making his voice louder than he’d intended. “Do you have any idea how much these cost?”
“I -- no?” Arthur stared back, comically wide-eyed. “Good, then?”
“Yeah, it’s a beautiful machine.” Merlin knelt by the box, skimming the list of functions that Kilgharrah could never manage. “I cannot wait to sew on this.”
Nancy cleared her throat. “Mr. Pendragon, about that week off in June that I wanted for my niece's wedding?”
“Right,” Arthur said, a bit less jovial than he’d been a minute before. “Yes. It’s yours. Of course. Now off you go. You deserve some rest after a job well done.”
“Of course, sir.” Her tone was still borderline mocking, though her smile said she was genuinely pleased about the holidays.
Merlin ran his hand over a roll of charcoal grey wool. It had a fine weave with tiny specks of purple and blue throughout that would really set off Arthur’s eyes and hair with a classic white shirt. But should Merlin go double breasted or single? A waistcoat? Merlin’s mind began to spiral with all the possibilities. Thick tie or thin? How many buttons...
“Oh my God!” Merlin collapsed into a chair. His hands over his face, he muttered, “Where do I even begin?”
Arthur gave his shoulder a squeeze. “I have no doubt you’re up for the challenge.”
Through his fingers, Merlin shot Arthur an incredulous look.
“I have reports to review.” Arthur pointed to the door that joined this office to another. “My office is through there. Take your time, get your head around this and figure out if there’s anything you’re missing.”
Merlin looked around the room. “Friday?”
“You can do it, Merlin.” Arthur smiled at him in a way Merlin was sure those employed at Pendragon Industries had seen many times before; it fell somewhere between ‘I have faith in you’ and ‘don’t disappoint me.’
Merlin shook his head. “You’d better hope so or you’ll have to do your photoshoot starkers.”
Arthur stopped and turned, giving Merlin a wry smile. “Would that sell more or less magazines do you think?”
Merlin laughed, letting out a bit of stress. “More, definitely,” he said, adding a bit of leer. He blinked at Arthur, who was staring at him with his mouth open, and realised what he’d just said. Merlin scratched the back of his neck, as if he could wipe away the prickle of embarrassment. “Sorry.”
Arthur gave him an indecipherable look, then ducked into his office without a word.
“Merlin, you are such an idiot,” he whispered to himself, banging his head on the table in front of him. He’d been flirting with Arthur, of all people. Arthur, who never looked at anyone except to show off his good manners or to get something done for him. Not to mention he was straight and Gwaine’s cousin. Merlin’s heart lightened a bit at the thought of Gwaine. It was still too early to believe what Arthur had implied, that Gwaine really did want to see Merlin again. Merlin would have to talk to Gwaine properly before he’d allow himself to hope.
He did give himself a few minutes’ fantasy of what it would be like if he were designing a suit for Gwaine instead. Taking measurement and doing fittings would involve a lot more touching than what was strictly professional.
His eyes darted to the open door to Arthur’s office, and he stopped that train of thought before he got too distracted.
He stood and walked the length of the room and back, taking a mental inventory of all the items he’d been given. He stared at the contents of the room for what felt like forever. He’d done every facet of creating a suit before, hemmed cuffs, sewn in the lining, added the shoulder pads and created the perfect lines for the lapels. Gaius had ensured he’d mastered each aspect before moving on to the next, but creating a suit from beginning to end without Gaius’ guidance was terrifying.
But if Arthur Pendragon was foolish enough to think he could do this, then he might as well give it his best shot. He grabbed his pencil and sketchpad, and began to scribble the basic outline of few classic suit jacket cuts. His thoughts kept returning to Cary Grant’s suit in North by North-West. It seemed to fit Arthur’s conservative, stoic persona. Maybe if he widened the lapels to give it a more modern look and...
An hour later, a far more confident Merlin knocked on Arthur’s open door.
“I need measurements.”
“I’ll have to measure you. Bespoke suit and all that.” Merlin lifted his hand and let the measuring tape uncoil to the floor.
“Oh, right.” Arthur tapped his keyboard a few more times and pushed away from his desk. “What do you need?”
“Um... no shoes.” Merlin’s mind blanked for a moment.
The people who’d come to Gaius’ studio had been rich -- maybe even important -- but Merlin hadn’t known who they were. They’d been Gaius’ clients, faceless people he took the measurements of and only worried about Gaius having his hide if he bolloxed the numbers. He never worried about the strangeness of ordering around one of the most influential men in the country.
Merlin had known Arthur Pendragon his whole life, and the only person more intimidating than Arthur was his father. So it felt completely wrong, looking at Arthur in his posh office, stocking feet sinking into the thick carpet, and saying, “You’ll need to take off your jumper, too.”
He removed a Post-it from the stack in his back pocket and stuck it to his thigh. Gaius would be rolling his eyes if he were here, but Arthur was peeling off his jumper to reveal a very soft-looking, threadbare undershirt that stretched tightly across his shoulders. Merlin didn’t trust himself to memorise the numbers properly under these conditions.
He moved behind Arthur, pressed the end of the tape to the edge of one shoulder and stretched it out to the second. Pulling a pen from behind his ear, he jotted down the number on the Post-it. Then he measured from each shoulder down to the knuckle.
“Arms up,” he said, face flushing hot as he practically hugged Arthur’s torso to wrap the tape around his chest, making sure the tape was directly over the peaks of both partially visible nipples beneath the thin t-shirt.
He stepped away, trying to cool his blush and scribble down more numbers before they disappeared from his brain. His thoughts were getting muddled, lost in how soft and warm Arthur’s undershirt had been against his cheek, how good Arthur had smelled. Which in the long history of Merlin’s ridiculous thoughts ranked pretty high.
When he measured Arthur’s neck, he spotted a small patch on the Adam’s apple that Arthur had missed while shaving. The stubble brushed against Merlin’s knuckle as Arthur swallowed. It made him look vulnerable. Like a botched shave was a secret bit of humanity in Arthur and only a select few would ever see it.
The next part gave him pause. “I just need to...” he explained uselessly, then he huffed, rolled his eyes at himself and fell to his knees.
He didn’t look up to check Arthur’s reaction. He just let himself believe there wouldn’t be one because Arthur was a professional who had been fitted for a hundred suits in his day. He managed the outer seam without incident. But as he prepared to take the inseam, his hand shook as it had when he was just sixteen and Gaius had told him what was required. Not every tailor insisted on inseam measurements but Gaius did, and he’d told Merlin to just ‘damn well get used to it because it was part of making a good pair of trousers.’ Merlin had practised on Franco until he was no longer hit with a trembling hand and a fit of awkward giggles as he knelt before a client and put his hand near their bits.
“Almost done,” he said, counting to ten under his breath before lifting the tape to hover just below Arthur’s crotch and quickly noted the measurement at the hem of the trousers Arthur was wearing.
Merlin stood, marking the number, then wiped his palms on his jeans.
“Anything else?” Arthur said, his voice weird. Merlin chalked it up to Arthur feeding off Merlin’s own nerves.
“No.” He looked at the hastily scribbled numbers on his Post-it. He’d got everything he needed. “I’ll just...” He looked at the door. When Arthur didn’t seem to expect Merlin to be capable of complete sentences, he darted back into the relative safety of Gwaine’s office-cum-sewing room.
It was hours later when Arthur popped his head through the doorway. “Are you hungry?”
Merlin paused. His chalk was poised above the green cotton he’d decided to use for his toile -- the charcoal grey wool which had caught his eye earlier would be for the final product but he didn't dare start cutting fabric of that quality before creating a test jacket for the first fitting. He looked up, surprised to see the shadows in the room already grown long. He’d completely lost track of time. “I guess.”
“Um.” Merlin straightened and stretched the ache from his back before saying, “Curry and chips would be brilliant right now.”
Arthur’s face went so curiously blank Merlin almost laughed.
“Or, you know, whatever you usually eat. Escargots? Russian Caviar?”
“What? No.” Arthur shook his head, oddly defensive. “Curry. Chips. Exactly what I’m in the mood for too.”
Merlin did laugh then as Arthur raced out the door, phone in hand. Merlin’s gut told him that Nancy was on speed dial for emergencies like where on earth do I get curry take-way around here?
They ate in an empty boardroom.
“This is good,” Arthur said, trying to fork an extraordinarily long chip without using the knife gripped in his left hand. Merlin just smiled, pleased Arthur was making an effort to make him feel comfortable, even if he couldn’t understand why he was bothering.
“The food in Italy was great, don’t get me wrong, but nowhere in Rome could you get take-away like this.” Merlin moaned around a mouthful of spicy curried chicken. “I kept telling Franco that he had to come to England just for our chips.”
“Is that your boyfriend?”
“Franco? We were never... he knew I...” Merlin cleared his throat. Arthur’s expression told him how much he’d revealed without even finishing a sentence. He clarified, “He’s a good friend. But just a friend.”
Merlin looked around the room, avoiding Arthur’s eye. A large poster caught his notice. The Future, it said, Godwyn Corp and Pendragon Industries building it together.
Something about that name, Godwyn, triggered Merlin’s memory, but he couldn’t place it.
“That’s the reason for the Fortune magazine cover, actually.” Arthur wiped his mouth with a napkin and stood. He grabbed a remote from the centre of the boardroom table. The blinds at each window lowered, and in the next moment a massive screen covering the far wall flickered to life.
“This is Insul-Tech 342.” Arthur’s recorded voice filled the air and the screen flashed dozens of images of buildings mid-construction. “High-rises, recreation complexes, hospitals, indoor sports arenas, luxury homes – all now able to be built better, cheaper, faster. Pendragon Industries, the largest international distributor of construction materials has partnered with innovation giant, Godwyn Corporation.
“Godwyn Corporation’s revolutionary technology in insulation has resulted in the creation of a dense, light-weight compound that has an R-value of 15 per inch, nearly double that found in most insulation, with no significant deterioration to the R-value over time.”
The Arthur on the screen paused, mouth open, arm half-raised.
“R-value,” Arthur said and he pulled up a chair next to Merlin, “such a technical term! The R-value is how well your insulation protects your building from the elements. The higher the R-value the better it is at keeping a building cool in the summer, warm in the winter.”
“Oh,” Merlin said, trying to sound remotely interested.
“Fascinating, isn’t it?” Arthur winked, stole a chip from Merlin’s curry and started the video again.
Arthur’s recorded voice continued, gushing about the product that will change the construction world as we know it, showing graphs and charts of how high rises built with the product will save thousands every year, lowering rents, increasing profit margins.
“It all sounds... great.”
If Arthur heard the uncertainty in Merlin’s voice, he ignored it. “I’ve been working on this project non-stop for over a year. And we’re signing the papers with Godwyn on Friday morning... immediately following that is the Fortune interview about the deal.”
“Okay.” Merlin nodded, starting to understand why Arthur might think he was interested. “Congratulations, then.”
“Thank you.” Arthur grinned, a glimpse of true pride in his eyes. “It’s incredibly important to me. I’m not sure Pendragon Industries could handle the blow of a competitor offering this.”
“Okay. Well, good thing you’ve got it and not someone else then.”
“Yes, exactly.” Arthur looked away, tossing his remaining curry in the trash. And seemingly out of nowhere he added, “I think you should move into Gaius’ old workroom on the estate. While the room you are in now is officially Gwaine’s office, and therefore unoccupied as he hasn’t actually been in this building in about six months, it's regularly used for staff meetings and I won’t hear the end of it if they don’t get their space back. No one’s been living in Gaius’ flat since he left and I’m sure the setup will meet your needs.”
“That’d be perfect.”
Merlin spent the rest of the afternoon humming quietly to himself, wishing he had his iPod with him while he made the chalk markings on the material. Finally he packed and labelled everything he needed moved.
As he ducked into the back of the limo once again, he greeted Fairchild and spotted a book lying on the passenger’s seat and the four more half-hidden on the floor. He didn’t need to ask Fairchild what he did all day while he was sitting around waiting for Arthur to be taken from place to place. He remembered the one and only time he’d been to Fairchild’s flat above the garage and his mother had called him a bull in a china shop as he’d tripped over the stacks of books covering every inch of the floor.
Fairchild glanced up and caught Merlin’s eye in the rear-view mirror. He could see the concern in his eyes, not unlike what he’d seen in his mother’s this morning. He hadn’t even told her yet about this, he realised. It had all happened so fast.
Arthur put his phone to his neck, interrupting his conversation to say, “Straight home, Fairchild.”
“Of course, sir.”
Arthur remained on his phone for the rest of the drive.
“I’d like to see Gwaine,” Merlin blurted out as the car rolled into the Pendragon Estate. He caught a flicker of disappointment in Arthur’s face.
It was gone in an instant, and Arthur smiled like Merlin’s request was entirely expected. “Of course. We’ll go right now and check if he’s up.”
Merlin paused, taking in the moment before he followed Arthur up the grand staircase to the second floor. Gwaine’s rooms were in the south wing, not far from the main entrance. In the hallway, a nurse sat knitting something in a tacky green, but dropped the needles immediately on seeing them approach.
“Mr Pendragon,” she said as she rose from her chair. “He’s asleep, I believe.”
“Thank you, Hilda.” Arthur nodded and walked past to an ornately carved set of double doors. Merlin only hesitated a moment before following Arthur through.
Gwaine was on his stomach, a pillow hugged into his chest and his hair covering his face as he snored softly. Merlin stayed by the door, not feeling right about being in Gwaine’s room while he was sleeping.
Arthur picked up a clipboard by the bed and flipped through the pages, nodding. “He’s just been given his meds. He’ll be out until morning.”
“Okay,” Merlin said, regretting having missed the chance to talk to Gwaine. While Arthur scribbled what Merlin assumed must be a note for Gwaine’s nurse, Merlin took the opportunity to look around the room -- how many times had he fantasised of seeing Gwaine’s bedroom?
On Gwaine’s bedside table sat a picture of Gwaine and a lovely blonde girl. Merlin was taken aback immediately. Elena wasn’t at all what he’d imagined in his head: tall and model-thin, false smile to go with her fake breasts. Instead she looked completely charming, falling into Gwaine with her hand half-covering her mouth, mid-laugh. At her side, Gwaine was holding her upright while looking at her with a smitten grin.
“She’ll be back in a couple of days,” Arthur said, straightening the frame. “Gwaine should be awake and off his meds enough by then to let her know in person about the... change of plans.”
Change of plans. Right. Merlin looked away from the picture of the happy couple. Arthur talking of the broken engagement like it was a fait accompli made this all even harder. He’d almost rather see some rage on Arthur’s side, just to give Merlin the right to feel indignant.
Arthur ushered them out as Hilda entered to check Gwaine’s vitals. Or something.
“Everything from the office will be moved into Gaius’ old workroom tonight.” Arthur stopped at the top of the stairs. “And, you know, there’s a full flat attached. Why don’t you move in there for the week? I’m sure you’d appreciate your own space.”
“There’s no need for that, really.”
“Nonsense. I’ll have it prepared immediately. I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it sooner. I’ll have the key sent to the kitchens. I’m sure you’ll want to update your mother.”
Merlin went straight to the kitchens, which had always been the gathering place for the household servants to gossip around an early evening pot of tea. As expected, he found his mother, Freya, James and few other servants sitting about a plate of biscuits, already discussing Gaius’s old workroom being loaded with boxes.
Merlin slunk in and put some water on the hob for a fresh pot of tea, listening quietly to the upstairs maid telling everyone that she’d spent the last hour preparing Gaius’s flat. The chatter filled with theories about who’d been hired. Fairchild, he noticed, sat in the corner not uttering a word.
“Merlin,” his mother said once she’d spotted him, “do you know anything about this?”
“Maybe?” He tried to shrug but his smile gave him away.
While he told them the whole story, Freya turned positively giddy. “Oh, Merlin!” She hugged him fiercely. “This is it! Your big chance! You must be thrilled.”
“I don’t know.” Merlin laughed, a little overwhelmed. “It’s all happened so fast I hardly know what to think.”
Each servant weighed in their opinion on the topic, from the lovely sunrise Gaius’ rooms afforded to the pressure Merlin was being put under. His mother said nothing. Later she followed Merlin up the stairs to the rooms they’d shared since he was born. He’d not yet even had time to unpack properly; he was left with little to do besides gather a few items and buckle his suitcase.
“It’ll be fine, Mum,” Merlin said, sitting down on the bed he’d only slept in once since in two years now. How many times had he lain awake in Rome, wishing he could be right here?
“It’s just happening so fast. You said so yourself. You just got home and now you are leaving again.”
“I thought you were afraid of me staying and being with Gwaine?”
“I still am! And now this...” She sat beside him, clasping his hands. “Merlin, just guard your heart carefully. Leprechaun's gold vanishes in the morning.”
Merlin huffed. “If we’re dishing out platitudes, how about don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?”
She frowned. “Because that worked so well for the Trojans.”
Merlin rolled his eyes and grabbed a few things off his bedside table to toss into his bag. “Arthur said Elena will be back in a few days. Gwaine is planning on telling her then that he’s breaking off the wedding.”
“Oh, Merlin.” She shook her head. His heart ached at the disappointment in her eyes.
“It’s what I always wanted,” he tried to explain. “Even Arthur is supporting us and now with this job... my life is finally coming together.”
His mother didn’t share his tentative smile. Her frown only deepened. “I hope so.”
Gaius had been given a little flat attached to the servants' quarters, which had allowed Uther access to a tailor at any time as well as giving Gaius enough independence to find work outside of Uther’s patronage. Merlin had been nine when Gaius had moved to the Continent. He still remembered playing in the workroom as a child, being fascinated by the rack of thread spools that hung beside Kilgharrah. He’d stare at the dozens of shades lined like soldiers, meticulously organized from lightest to darkest. Naturally, Merlin would switch a few up when Gaius wasn’t looking, just to see if the old man would notice. Which might explain the month Gaius had him spend doing nothing but sewing linings.
It felt right to be in the flat, filling Gaius’s shoes, even if only for a week. The flat’s layout was very similar to his mother’s rooms, but rather than two bedrooms and a kitchenette it had a small single bedroom and a massive workroom taking up the rest of the space. Still too restless from the day to sleep, he spent the next couple of hours unpacking and organizing the boxes and rolls of fabric piled high on the main worktable.
When Merlin woke the next morning, he stumbled out of the bedroom and surveyed what was now his own workroom. With its stretch of east-facing windows, the room was filled with the pink hue of sunrise. He kept the drapes open, letting the heat coming through the panes remind him of Italy.
He had set it up instinctively like Gaius had years ago. The Juki sewing machine was out of the box and waiting for him in Kilgharrah's old place on the table in the corner. He had no rack, so the spools of thread were simply lined up next to the machine.
On the wall above the machine was Merlin’s only attempt to personalize the place. It was his favourite picture of Franco. He was standing behind Merlin, his arms wrapped around Merlin’s waist, as some girl on the beach took a picture of their laughing, sun-bright faces. It would only be a week, he knew, but it felt too right in here.
He looked at the time on his phone; it was too early to get breakfast or visit Gwaine. He ran a finger along the white gleam of the Juki Pro and he knew it was the first thing he needed to tackle. He plugged in the kettle to make himself some tea, pulled out the machine’s instruction manual and began to read.
An hour later, while watching the machine destroy the tenth test swatch, he finally broke down and called Gaius.
“You have to name it.”
Merlin scowled at the phone, knowing the exact expression on Gaius’s face at the moment: raised eyebrow and a smirk tugging on his lips. “Be serious,” Merlin said.
“Believe me, my boy, it helps.” He laughed. “If that doesn’t work, also check the thread tension.”
After he thanked Gaius and poured himself a second cup of tea, Merlin sat back down and fiddled a bit with the tension knob.
“You won’t get the best of me,” Merlin said and added a whispered name before pressing his foot to the pedal. A grin spread across his face at the gentle che-che-che of the needle slipping in and out of the fabric as he fed the swatch through. He looked at the tight, perfect stitches. “Aithusa, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
He played a bit more, getting the feel of the machine before hopping into the shower. The late morning sun heated the flat to sweltering; he was sweating before he’d even dressed. Instead of closing the drapes, though, he welcomed the heat. He stayed in only the boxers Franco had bought him, put on his iPod and made the first cut of the ugly green cotton he’d decided to use for his toile.
His earbuds were in, the sun was hot on his skin -- if he closed his eyes, he could almost be back in Italy, dancing around the studio while Gaius was out for the day.
The material was ugly, but it cut well. And just like that, he knew he had his touch back. Some irrational part of him had been afraid it wouldn’t feel this easy once he stepped out of Gaius’ studio. But his lines were as straight and true as they had been that moment when everything had just clicked after nearly a year under Gaius and he’d finally done something that hadn’t resulted in Gaius’ raised eyebrow and a request to do it over.
Merlin got the whole toile cut, laughing all the while at the horrendous colour that Arthur would need to try on in a few hours.
“You don’t have to be rich to be my girl. You don’t have to be cool to rule my world.” Merlin sang along to Prince’s Kiss, as it blasted through his earbuds. He matched the pieces, lining them up so they were ready to be sewn. It was all coming together. “All I want is your extra time and your...”
Merlin twirled, making loud kissing noises, arms raised with long strips of bright green flapping in air like ribbons.
He froze mid-pucker.
His heart stuttered in his chest at the sight of Arthur standing in the doorway.
Merlin wasn’t sure how long Arthur had been watching; he was lit pink with laughter. He looked very young with the late morning sun glinting off his hair.
Pulling out his earbuds, Merlin said, “I didn’t see you there.” It came out as a high-pitched squeak.
Arthur walked in, looking Merlin over, head to toe. “Obviously.”
Merlin choked on his own spit as he realised he’d not yet put on his jeans. “It was hot in here.”
“Yes, well.” Arthur tugged at his tie, his cheeks as red as Merlin’s had to be. “These windows open, surely.”
“I got used to the heat in Italy,” Merlin said, looking back over his shoulder as he ducked into his room to find some clothes. He decided on a tee and a pair of skinny jeans. Running his hands through his hair, he looked in the mirror and wished Arthur didn’t have the knack for catching him at his worst.
When he came back out, Arthur had the green cotton strips of fabric in his hand. He raised his eyebrows at Merlin.
Merlin snorted. “It’s to test the fit. I used the fabric you were least likely to ever want a suit made from.” He flashed a cheeky grin. “But if you like it...”
“Not exactly my style.” Arthur scratched the back of his neck, and Merlin found himself searching to see if Arthur had missed that spot shaving again. “I’m a bit too old and stuffy for that, don’t you think?”
Before Merlin could arrange his thoughts enough to reply properly, Arthur was talking again.
“I was just about to check in on Gwaine, if you’d like to join me.”
Merlin blinked, almost having forgotten that seeing Gwaine post-breakfast had been his plan all along. “Yeah, that’d be great.”
“Merlin!” Gwaine’s face split in a broad grin that spoke of being heavily medicated. “It’s Merlin!”
“Gwaine.” Merlin sat on the chair by the bed, truly glad to see Gwaine awake, finally. He couldn’t believe after all that had happened in the last couple of days, he’d still barely spoken more than an hour total to Gwaine. “It’s wonderful to see you.”
Gwaine wasted no time pulling him closer, and Merlin was forced to sit on the bed to avoid falling onto Gwaine’s chest. “Missed you,” Gwaine slurred.
Merlin’s eyes flickered up to Arthur, who hovered by the door, looking unimpressed.
“Is he okay?” Merlin asked. It didn’t feel right being there with Gwaine not himself, not really in control of what he was saying.
“I’m fine.” Gwaine laughed. “Almost healed, the doc says.” He lifted Merlin’s shirt enough to sneak a hand beneath, and gripped Merlin’s hip. “Maybe if the old wet blanket over there left us alone, you could make me feel ever more fine.” He waggled his eyebrows at Merlin.
A nervous giggle bubbled up in Merlin’s chest. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Your stitches.” He tried to inch away, uncomfortable at how forward Gwaine was being, especially since they weren’t alone.
“You worry too much.” He yanked Merlin up so Merlin was lying on top of him, and wrapped his arms around Merlin’s shoulders. “Where have you been all my life, baby?”
Merlin struggled to lift off, unsure why this felt so wrong, but he figured it had to be because Gwaine was too drugged and they really had so much to talk about before things got any more serious. Not to mention the photo of Elena still holding the place of honour on Gwaine’s bedside table.
“He was right here, Gwaine,” Arthur said, still at the doorway, and Merlin blushed at the reminder that he was awkwardly sprawled on Gwaine’s bed in front of Arthur. “Don’t you remember? That little head poking over the balcony, trying to catch a glimpse at our parties? The little hand sneaking crackers from the platters as they left the kitchen. Merlin here grew up right under our very noses.”
Merlin’s throat went dry; that Arthur would have ever noticed...
Gwaine kissed his forehead. “Ah, little Merlin, did you do that? Sneaky little bugger. No more sneaking for you, though. You’ll be the centre of attention at every party. Everyone will want to know who’s that gorgeous young lad,” Gwaine said, and Merlin’s stomach clenched at the thought.
His mouth dropped open in surprise as Gwaine’s hand slipped down the back of Merlin’s jeans and cupped his arse. Merlin shot up and Gwaine hissed in pain at the shift in position.
“Sorry. I --” Merlin stammered.
They all looked at each other in a strained silence while Merlin tried to catch his breath and figure out what just happened.
The nurse entered, breaking the moment. “Time to change the dressing, sir.”
“Of course.” Arthur grabbed Merlin’s arm and directed him out the door. “We’ll be going now.”
Merlin turned back to Gwaine. “I’ll... I’ll come back soon.”
“That’d be great,” Gwaine said, still smiling in drug-induced oblivion.
All Merlin wanted was to be alone with his thoughts, but Arthur stayed with him as he made his way back to Gaius’ workroom. At least he made no attempt to draw Merlin into conversation. Merlin couldn’t handle any questions about what had just happened; his thoughts were a jumbled mess. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. In his fairytale happily ever after, Gwaine had no fiancée, had no glass imbedded in his arse, and he actually remembered Merlin from before, had seen him hiding in the shadows as a child. That he’d truly never even noticed Merlin before two days ago was a crushing reality.
“I think I’ll be ready for your first fitting by the end of the day,” Merlin said, stopping at Gaius’ door, not inviting Arthur in.
The now familiar ring of Arthur’s phone sounded from his pocket. Arthur pulled it out and glanced at the number. “I need to get this, but that’s wonderful! Here,” he said, pulling a business card from his pocket. “My number’s on that. Just let me know when you are ready.”
Merlin breathed a sigh of relief as Arthur flipped open his phone and walked away.
The interfacing in the lapels gave him a bit of trouble but otherwise the afternoon flew by. At one point Freya popped in with a platter of sandwiches and a bowl of fruit from his mother.
“She says you need to remember to eat,” Freya said as she set down the tray. “Do I need to sit and watch, or will you promise to eat?”
He snorted, reached for a sandwich and stuffed his face with an undignified bite. “It’s good to be home.” He grinned around the mouthful. And laughed when Freya wrinkled her nose at his manners.
Twilight was falling as Merlin hung the finished toile on an old mannequin Gaius had left behind. After he texted Arthur to say it was ready, he paced, itching with restless energy until he grabbed a broom and began to clean the threads and scraps of fabric that scattered the worktable and floor. His eye caught the garish green and he began to second guess his choice of fabric; it was difficult to feel pride in the meticulous putting together of the suit jacket when it was actually painful to look at. Still, it was a little funny.
Arthur arrived wearing the same black suit he’d had on that morning. It was well made but entirely unremarkable; the sort of suit that faded into the background as an unimportant detail and left the man to do all the work at making an impression -- though Merlin doubted Arthur ever struggled to make the right impression.
“It’s ready.” Merlin motioned for Arthur to stand by the two full-length mirrors in the corner of the workroom.
Arthur removed his jacket and hung it on the back of chair before walking to the mirrors. He eyed the toile with a grimace.
“You’ll only be wearing it for five minutes,” Merlin assured him, slipping the lime green cotton jacket over Arthur’s shoulders and smoothing it down. Merlin couldn’t hide his smile at the look of horror on Arthur’s face and the way he instantly transformed into some kind of eighties one-hit-wonder looking to do a revival concert.
“You’re enjoying this too much.”
Merlin’s eyes caught Arthur’s in the mirror. “I have no idea what you mean.” He cleared his throat, swallowing back the laughter in his chest, and focused.
He circled Arthur, immediately switched to a critical assessment of the fit, forgetting entirely the oddness of the colour. The fit was sharp, with straight, thin edges. His curves were smooth and the seams didn’t pucker. It was nearly exactly what he was looking to achieve. He pinned a few spots where a little tuck would help make the fit striking. But otherwise, he was on the right path and in the smoky grey wool he’d chosen --
“Here.” Merlin took the green jacket off Arthur, having had enough of the sight of it. “Hold still for just another minute.” Merlin grabbed the grey wool and draped the fabric over Arthur’s shoulder. The effect was immediate.
Adrenaline rushed through his veins at the way the fabric worked with Arthur’s colouring. The simple white cotton shirt was perfect, but the red tie Arthur was wearing was completely wrong.
“Just another second...” He darted into his bedroom and dug through his luggage until he found what he was looking for. It was a gift he’d purchased for himself last Christmas. Extravagant, but he’d hoped to wear it to interviews once he was back in England.
He presented it to Arthur, beaming, then tugged off Arthur’s red tie and replaced it with his own: a deep blue silk, with thin black stripes and a hint of gold. Merlin stepped back. It set off the specks of purple in the wool, the blond of Arthur’s hair and the blue of his eyes in a way that made Merlin catch his breath. They won’t need to photoshop him any prettier, popped into Merlin’s head and he bit his tongue on the inappropriate complement. “That’s brilliant,” he said instead.
“You want me to wear your tie?” Arthur’s eyebrows had disappeared into his fringe.
“I -- no, of course not.” Merlin cringed, only now realising how unprofessional it was to offer someone like Arthur Pendragon something out of his own meagre wardrobe. He hadn’t thought it through, really. He’d just wanted to test the colour, but it had worked so nicely. And if they spent the next two days trawling every shop in London, they’d likely end up settling for something not as nice. But it didn’t make his offer any less improper. His face grew hot; Merlin felt every bit as young and inexperienced as he was. “I’m sure you have a lot better ties. I don’t know what I was thinking.” He reached for it, flustered.
Arthur held Merlin’s hand as he tried to pull the knot free and he looked in the mirror. “No. You’re right. It’s perfect. I’d be honoured to wear it.”
Merlin backed away, pulling his hand free from Arthur’s grip and not quite meeting Arthur’s eyes.
“Why don’t you join me for dinner?” Arthur said, taking the fabric from his shoulders and placing it on the table. “My father’s out of town and with Gwaine indisposed... Well, I hate to eat alone. It’s pathetic how often I do.”
Merlin’s eyes swept the Pendragon dining room. It had been painted since he’d last seen it. The light tan colour was far less intimidating than the old burgundy walls. But the chairs still gleamed with polish, the immense table looked wrong with only two place settings -- though the amount of cutlery seem to be trying to compensate for the lack of other guests. He heard a clatter behind the kitchen door and wondered what was happening in there. Did his mother know who she was preparing the meal for? She had to, and the thought made Merlin slink down in his chair.
Across from him, Arthur fiddled with his phone, his thumbs flying over the tiny keyboard. He hadn’t bothered to put back on his jacket and tie after the fitting, and a small tuft of chest hair peeked through his open collar. Merlin tried not to stare.
Merlin breathed a sigh of relief when Freya entered through the kitchen door, grateful for her sweet smile. She held a bowl of soup in each hand, and placed the first in front of Merlin, and the second in front of Arthur. Serve from the left, clear from the right. Women before men; guests first, host last.. Merlin smiled to himself at the memory of Freya repeating that mantra to him day in and day out in hopes he might remember in case one day he might be asked to help out.
Merlin looked suspiciously at the bowl of soup; roasted butternut squash was a favourite of his mother’s dishes.
“Something wrong?” Arthur was looking at him, a worried furrow to his brow.
“Yes. No. It looks fine.” He dipped his head towards the bowl to smell the rich sweetness of the caramelised onions she used to give it depth. “It’s just... I’m afraid my mother might have done something to mine. She’s not happy about which side of the door I’m sitting on at the moment.” He aimed for it to be a joke, but his laughter died in his throat.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Arthur said, smiling, and he took a careful spoonful. “Your mother is an excellent cook.”
Merlin blew on his spoonful before tasting it. He had to close his eyes at the childhood memories flooding back to him: memories of warmth and comfort. It was funny that the soup tasted no different eating from fine bone china as it did in a plain dish, sitting on a stool next to the kitchen counter; he’d always wondered.
They ate in silence for a while, Arthur’s phone going off every few minutes.
“That was the confirmation about the interview time on Friday,” he said, flipping his phone shut. “You know, Merlin, when I drop your name during that Fortune interview, your life will change dramatically. Tailors around the city will be knocking on your door for you to come work for them.”
Merlin felt the tug of a headache pulling at the base of his neck. Stress always got the best of him at times like this. “That’s not why I’m doing this.”
“Come on, Merlin.” Arthur smiled, a condescending drawl to his name. “It’s a foot in the door. Anyone in your position would kill for a glowing recommendation in an international magazine.”
“I --” The thrum of pain at his nape made him dizzy. The rollercoaster he’d been on since arriving did its first sudden drop and Merlin’s stomach lurched. “I have to go. I don’t...”
He pushed away from the table, almost toppling his chair in his hurry, and stumbled out the door in the search of fresh air.
Merlin found himself wandering through the winding garden path. He found the old apricot tree, the branches decorated for spring with delicate pink flowers. He took a deep breath, letting the sweet scent calm his thundering headache. He slumped against the trunk, sinking until his arse hit the ground. He’d taken this job because it was an excellent opportunity, he couldn’t deny that. If Arthur was trying to hand him gift-wrapped celebrity, it was no better than writing him a cheque. Merlin wanted to earn people's respect not be respected because Arthur gave him a recommendation that had nothing to do with his work. But why Arthur was offering this, Merlin couldn’t fathom. Arthur had been nothing but supportive of him and Gwaine, despite the disapproval Merlin saw in his eyes.
“Not climbing the tree today?”
Merlin sighed. Of course Arthur would know just where to find him. It appeared Arthur noticed everything. “I think I’m a little old for that.” Merlin winced at the edge of bitterness to his own voice.
To Merlin’s surprise, Arthur knelt down on one knee so they were at eye level. “Don’t grow up too fast, Merlin.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, hoping the shadows would hide the brightness in them. “I thought you’d want me to grow up. To drop my schoolboy fantasies.” He figured he didn’t need to name Gwaine; they both knew who starred in Merlin’s fantasies.
With a grunt, Arthur shifted so he was sitting back on his heels. “When you grow up, you take all those fantasies and you figure out if they are dreams worth keeping.” Merlin stared at Arthur’s knees pressing down into the wet, muddy grass. That suit was going to be ruined.
Merlin shook his head, not in any mood to be preached to and itching for a fight. “I’ve already figured out what dreams I’m holding onto.” Though Merlin wasn’t even sure if he believed his own words after the chaos of emotions he’d felt in Gwaine’s room tonight.
"Have you? And if you're wrong?"
"Then I'm wrong. How else am I supposed to figure out which dreams are worth keeping? Should I let you decide? Is that what you did? Let others decide for you? Haven’t you ever just gone for it, Arthur?”
Arthur’s face hardened. “We’re not talking about me.”
“Maybe we should." This was getting them nowhere; he had to ask. "Why did you say you would give me a glowing review? You haven’t even seen the suit yet. That’s more than just a thank you for a last minute favour.”
Arthur stared at him. “All right, then. No glowing review, if it bothers you.”
“God!” Merlin shook his head in disbelief. “You’re really a prat.”
“Occupational hazard." Arthur smiled a little. "Do you always talk to your elders like this?” It didn't sound like a reproach, though Arthur had grown serious. He moved to sit up and was close enough for Merlin to see the flicker of emotion in his eyes despite the low light of the half-moon. His voice was rough when he said, "You'll earn that review. I told you I have faith in you."
That could have been a lie, but it didn't feel like one. Merlin studied Arthur’s face; if he planned to finish Arthur’s suit, he needed to know. Maybe it was just a trick of the dim light, but Arthur's eyes looked sad.
“Don’t lose yourself in this, Merlin,” he whispered, and Merlin was too confused by the cryptic words to register Arthur leaning forward until their lips pressed together.
Merlin inhaled sharply, not quite kissing back, but not moving away either. A panicked whine slipped from his lips and Arthur pulled back.
“That was...” Merlin stared at him, feeling the stretch and dryness of his wide, unblinking eyes. “Really... unexpected.”
Arthur scrambled to his feet, head turned away. “Goodnight, Merlin,” he said.
He walked away, his shoulders slumped and his hands tucked in his pockets. He didn’t turn back.
Pressing his finger to his lips, Merlin watched Arthur until he was out of sight.
“Put that down. We’re leaving.”
The needle slipped in and out of the fine grey wool Merlin was feeding through the sewing machine in a perfect stitch. He refused to look up at Arthur who’d burst in a moment before. He kept a constant pressure on the pedal beneath his foot. Only when he reached the end of the seam did he look up.
Arthur was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, dangling keys from his fingers, saying, “Don’t just sit there, Merlin!”
Merlin flipped the backstitch lever to finish the seam. With a backward step on the pedal, the thread cut. “I’m not done.”
Arthur stepped in further, eyeing the pieces Merlin had already finished that morning. Merlin had woken early again, unable to sleep, his mind swirling with blue eyes instead of brown for the first time in as long as he could remember.
“That can wait,” Arthur said, now standing by Aithusa. “The car’s already packed.”
Merlin rolled his eyes and positioned the sleeve in his hands to start on the cuff. “I’m not... what?” Merlin’s foot hovered over the pedal as he eyed Arthur, looking for signs of a three-martini breakfast.
“You need a break.”
“I really don’t.” It was Wednesday and Merlin had started to think maybe he’d be finished early if he kept his pace. He could sleep when he was dead, right?
“You do. And so do I, so you’re coming.”
“Well, you’ll wait until this sleeve is done”
“Fine. But you don’t make anything easy, do you?”
Arthur didn’t go away as Merlin had hoped. Instead he hovered, arms crossed, just within Merlin’s peripheral vision as Merlin finished the sleeve. His neck prickled under the scrutiny. He figured it would be Arthur’s own fault if Merlin botched the job because he was distracted.
Sleeve done to his liking a moment later, Merlin took the time to survey the piles of sewn fabrics on the table. He had only an hour left with the main part of the jacket then he had only the sewing of the liner and buttons. It wouldn’t be hard to finish the suit tomorrow with plenty of time for a final fitting before Friday.
Arthur jingled his keys. He had such a playful look in his eyes.
Merlin smiled and let himself be dragged out the door.
“Where are we going?” Merlin asked. Laughter stole his breath away as Arthur’s Lexus took a corner at a speed that had Merlin gripping his seat. The top was down and the wind was blowing in his hair; his cheeks ached from the smile he couldn’t drop.
“Does it matter?” Arthur asked with a glint in his eye that made Merlin think of Franco. His heart skipped a beat.
“Who are you, and what have you done with Arthur Pendragon?”
“What’s with all the questions, Merlin?” Arthur’s eyes flickered to him, smirk on his face. The speedometer inched upward.
Merlin shook his head and looked out at the hills of the English countryside. It was nothing like the view of Italy’s stunning shores, but at the moment there was no place he’d rather be. Head spinning with the flood of adrenaline in his veins, he realised there was no one he’d rather be with.
Eventually, Arthur slowed as the road’s curves made it impossible to continue at the same reckless pace. Merlin was lulled into a sleepy, happy daze by the time the car pulled into a drive of a small summer cottage. The cottage was weatherworn with one of the shutters hanging off its hinge and the windows boarded up.
Merlin slipped from the car and looked out at the water; the sun shone hot on his face, but the wind off the sea was biting enough to remind him it was still only April. The beach stretching out behind the cottage was barren and rocky, nothing around for as far as Merlin could see. The air was filled with the sound of crashing waves and squawking gulls.
“This is the first beach I’ve been to in Britain,” he said as the thought suddenly occurred to him.
“Really?” Arthur grinned like he was pleased with himself. He popped the boot and pulled out a basket. “I thought we’d be too late for dinner back at the house.”
“We’re having a... picnic?” Merlin stared at the basket. "But—" He cringed at the thought of his mother reluctantly preparing another meal for the two of them.
When he looked up, Arthur smiled at him. “I got Freya to pack this.”
Merlin coughed, embarrassed that he was so transparent. “Thank you.” He took the basket, and Arthur grabbed a few more things before heading towards the beach.
Merlin peeked under the wicker top. Freya had packed his favourite fruit and pastries, the ones he loved to steal from the kitchens when his mother wasn’t paying close attention to which fridge he was taking from. Suddenly starving, he snatched a strawberry while they walked. The ripe fruit burst sweetly on his tongue. It was his first of the season. Every spring it was like he’d forgotten what fresh strawberries tasted like.
“These are really spectacular,” Merlin said, grabbing another berry as Arthur flashed him a smile.
Arthur set down a pile of blankets and jogged back to the car. He returned with a box and set it by the firepit.
“Campfires for Dummies?” Merlin asked, eyeing the shredded paper, kindling and wood blocks.
“I’m not about to bring an axe and chop down a tree, Merlin.”
Merlin barked a laugh at the thought of Arthur with an axe when today might be the first time he’d seen Arthur without a tie. “Did Old man Michaels give you an instruction guide with this too?”
“Do shut up, Merlin,” Arthur said, throwing the biggest log in the centre of the pit.
Merlin took that as a ‘no’. He spread out the blankets and the food, watching Arthur empty the box’s contents into a random pile. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I have a lighter. It’s not like I’ll be rubbing sticks together.”
Twenty minutes later, Merlin was wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes as Arthur swore with a vocabulary Merlin would never have guessed he possessed.
“Do you want some help?” Merlin offered, not for the first time.
Arthur huffed but waved his hand at the high stack of wood.
“Less stuff, I think,” Merlin said, and he set about deconstructing Arthur’s pile. “Stand over there and block the wind.”
“You’re the expert, are you?”
“All those seasons of Survivor have to teach you something besides trust no one, right?”
“Watching reality shows? Really, Merlin?”
“Piss off.” Merlin grabbed the lighter and held the flame to a strip of paper, then cursed as the wind whipped it from his hand as he tried to drop it on the pile.
Arthur sniggered, peeking over Merlin’s shoulder as Merlin made a few more attempts with no success. Much later -- after they argued the entire time about the correct ratio of shredded paper to kindling to logs -- they finally had a nice fire going.
The sun was dipping low in the horizon and Merlin was grateful for the warmth of the blaze as they sprawled on a pair of blankets with the picnic contents scattered between them.
“This is your beach, isn’t it?”
Arthur popped a grape in his mouth and looked back at the decrepit little cottage. “We aren’t trespassing, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“You come here often?” He looked out at the crashing waves, tinted pink in the late day sun. “It’s beautiful.”
The answer made Merlin pause the sandwich he was about to shove into his mouth. “You should,” he said, his tone stronger than he’d intended. “Mum always said you’d gotten old before your time.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean --”
“It’s fine.” Arthur jabbed at the fire with a stick, knocking a log over in a cascade of sparks. “I’m sure people say many things about me. Just not to my face.”
“But you’re not old. I mean... today, you’re different. You should do this more often.”
They picked away at the food in silence; Merlin was acutely aware of the insult still floating in the air between them.
“Thank you for taking me here,” Merlin said. “This is really nice.”
“I wanted to apologize for... last night.” Arthur stared at the flames. The flicker reflected in his eyes. “I know your feelings for Gwaine and I shouldn’t have.”
Merlin picked crumbs from his blanket. The memory of the kiss and the slump of Arthur’s shoulders as he walked away were still clear in his head. It seemed Merlin had completely misunderstood Arthur’s reaction to Gwaine’s bisexuality. Was Arthur simply jealous of Gwaine's openness? “Do you do that often? Kiss men?”
“God, no.” Arthur’s eyes widened as he looked at Merlin. “I mean. I’ve never -- I got caught up in the moment, I guess.” Arthur turned his attention back to the fire, poking at it randomly with his stick.
“Maybe you should do that more often too.”
Arthur snorted. “Kiss men who are in love with my cousin?” he replied without meeting Merlin’s eye.
“Get caught up in the moment, I meant.” Merlin sat up, and after a moment’s hesitation he touched Arthur’s wrist. “Stop denying yourself everything.” Merlin’s thumb grazed the skin over Arthur’s pulse point, trying to soften the words.
Arthur looked up, eyes dark in the shadows, but intense, as though he were deeply considering Merlin’s words. He was sure Arthur was going to kiss him again and realised he wouldn’t mind at all.
Thunder rolled in the distance and Arthur turned his head, breaking the moment.
When they finally packed up the car, the moon was high and the storm clouds that had threatened earlier had passed on without incident. It was cold with the top down, but Merlin didn’t care. There was a grin on his face that didn’t seem to want to disappear no matter how numb his ears had become.
“I can’t believe you pruned Old man Michaels’ favourite hydrangea into the shape of a penis.” Arthur burst out laughing, as if he’d been storing it up and the hilarity of the conversation they’d had ten minutes before could no longer be contained.
“Well, I was only eleven.” When Arthur shot him a look, Merlin ducked his head and gave what he knew was a sheepish smile.
“I’m still surprised he didn’t skin you.”
“I’m a bit surprised too. I’m sure he wanted to, but Mum had me offer to sand down and repaint the entire gazebo and with his bad back... he took it all in stride, I guess.”
“And my father never discovered that for a week there was a giant leafy cock greeting all who entered the estate.”
Merlin coughed, cheeks heating at the way Arthur’s posh voice curled around the word ‘cock’. Arthur looked over then, laughing loudly, his whole body trembling with it. He looked so young and carefree; the sight tugged at Merlin’s chest.
When they pulled onto the stone drive of the Pendragon Estate, Merlin found he was sorry to see the day end.
“Looks like you have a welcoming committee,” Arthur said, nodding towards the steps leading to the house, where Gwaine sat, cane in hand and scowl on his face.
A quiet ‘oh’ slipped from Merlin’s lips.
Gwaine’s look was thunderous. Arthur stopped the car and Merlin stepped out, combing his hands through his hair nervously.
“He’s all yours, Gwaine,” Arthur muttered as he walked past without a look back at Merlin or a word of goodbye.
“You’re out of bed. That’s great.” Merlin stepped closer to Gwaine, smiling. The pull at his lips felt forced. A sharp cramp in his side made him wince; his stomach always handled confrontation poorly.
“I got my stitches out.” Gwaine stood, leaning heavily on his cane. “I’ve been waiting for hours, Merlin. I wanted to spend some time with you.”
“I didn’t think you’d be in any condition to see me today,” Merlin said. Though if he were honest, he hadn’t been ready to see Gwaine quite yet after the disaster of his last visit. “Arthur took me to a beach.”
Gwaine’s eyes narrowed. “At night?”
“Oh, it was afternoon when we left.” Merlin’s voice was stiff, not appreciating the look Gwaine was giving him. “We just had a little picnic. He said he needed a break.”
“Do you mean to tell me that Arthur Pendragon took a day off work for a picnic? A picnic,” Gwaine said, as though he needed to hear the words repeated just to believe them. “Do you have any idea when was the last time Arthur took a day off work?”
“He just wanted to apologize.” Merlin watched Gwaine’s expression morph from surprise to suspicion and knew he was headed down the wrong path. “It’s just... I’m making a suit for him for his interview on Friday.”
It worked. Gwaine’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Why on earth would Arthur have you make him a suit? You’re not his servant!”
Merlin stepped back, stung. “I’m a tailor.”
“Oh.” Gwaine’s voice was soft. He looked at Merlin strangely, like only now realising he was talking to a stranger. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, well, I am.” Merlin ducked his head. There was sand still coating his trainers from the beach. Part of him wished he’d never left that pocket of time.
“And he’s apologising for... asking you to make him a suit? Arthur usually apologises with his chequebook.”
Merlin studied Gwaine’s face, not sure how much to say, how much to keep. But in the end, he had nothing to hide. “He kissed me.”
“Oh.” Gwaine’s jaw hung open for a minute.
The silence was painful. Merlin looked around, hoping they’d be interrupted, and was disappointed to find himself very much alone with Gwaine.
“I... Look, Merlin. We need to talk. But not like this.” He stepped forward and winced. “I’m overdue for my meds and I don’t deal well with pain. I don’t want to fuck this up because I’m an arsehole when I’m hurting.”
“Fine,” Merlin snapped, frustrated with the whole situation and angry at both men for making his life so complicated.
Gwaine sighed. His eyes were tired and his lips pressed into a thin line. Merlin wondered when he’d stopped looking at Gwaine like he could lasso the moon. It was a little crushing to realise that bit of innocence was gone from him forever.
Gwaine turned to walk away, but stopped and, without looking back, said, “I wouldn’t trust my cousin as far as I could throw him. Be careful, Merlin.”
It took most of the morning for Merlin to finish the remainder of the jacket, and until midday for the trousers.
With a frisson of nervous energy he tapped suit is done into his phone and sent the text off to Arthur. An excruciating quarter of an hour later he got a reply.
Do you know where my bedroom is?
Merlin stopped for a moment, read the text again and laughed at himself for thinking thoughts he was sure Arthur hadn’t intended. Stomach squirrelly, Merlin typed back, No.
Come to the South Wing entrance; I’ll meet you there.
Merlin grabbed his tailoring kit and the suit, grateful it wasn’t raining because he didn’t even own a garment bag. When he worked for Gaius everything had been just there. Here it seemed Merlin was being constantly reminded how ill prepared he was to working on his own.
All that flew out his head as Arthur greeted him with the broad grin that Merlin had come to know so well yesterday.
“I’m just up these steps,” Arthur said, grabbing the suit from Merlin’s hands. He ran his eyes over it, nodding his approval. “Looks sharp.”
“Thanks.” Merlin stood a little taller as he walked through the door Arthur held open for him.
“You’ve really never been up here?”
“The upper floors were always off limits.” Their voices echoed in the narrow stairwell.
“And you listened?” Arthur eyed Merlin, doubtful look in his eye.
Merlin laughed. “About that, I did. There was something about the way Mum said that rule; I didn’t dare.”
“I’m impressed to hear you had some level of restraint as a child,” Arthur said, pausing on a landing before heading up the next flight. The floorboards creaked with every step.
It was hardly a surprise that Arthur’s bedroom was spotless. Merlin might have died of shock if the floor had been littered with dirty socks. The colours were all soft blues and greys, the furniture was classic white-painted wood. The lack of personal touches gave it a hollow, unlived in feel until he spotted a painting across the room.
He went over to it as Arthur took the suit behind a screen. The cottage in the painting was newer, surrounded by well-kept flowerbeds. The shutters looked freshly painted and smoke rose from the stubby, stone chimney. But there was no question it was the same place they’d visited the day before. The artist had two empty beach chairs set out by the firepit. They gave the entire painting an expectant look, like the chairs themselves were anxiously awaiting the owners’ return.
Merlin couldn’t take his eyes from it.
“It was my mother’s. My father passed the ownership to me on her death,” Arthur said from behind Merlin.
“It’s a beautiful little summer cottage,” Merlin said, his eyes still on the painting.
“It was.” Arthur’s voice was filled with regret. “I’ve let it go.”
“It’s not too late. You can make it look like this again.”
“Maybe I will.” His tone sounded a bit lighter.
Merlin turned then and his breath caught. Arthur was directly behind him just doing up the last button of the suit jacket.
Merlin tried to take it all in at once: the line of the shoulders, the tapering at the waist, the way the wide lapels made Arthur’s chest look even broader.
“It looks... It’s perfect.”
Beneath the jacket, the crisp white shirt and the splash of colour of Merlin’s blue tie was just as Merlin had pictured. And best of all, the suit looked like it belonged on Arthur. Merlin’s chest warmed with pride.
At a loss for words, he asked, “What do you think?”
Arthur moved to the full-length mirror by his change screen and turned this way and that, his face smug. “I knew it’d be stunning.”
Merlin laughed, giddy from the high, and tried to focus on the details. He circled Arthur, noting the alteration he’d made since the toile. The hang of the suit was immaculate.
“Can you take the jacket off? I need to check the trousers.”
While Arthur hung the jacket on the back of chair, Merlin let himself appreciate the truly lovely swell of Arthur’s arse in well-fitted wool trousers. He knew Arthur wasn’t missing a thing as he watched Merlin’s appraisal in the mirror.
“Very nice,” Merlin said, feeling cheeky with the thrill of success.
“Thank you.” Arthur met his gaze and winked.
“I was referring to the cut of the trousers.”
Arthur smirked. “Of course you were.”
Merlin cleared his throat and circled again. Gaius would have approved. He knelt and checked the trouser hem. It had a clean, even line, draping nicely at the ankle, almost brushing the floor at the heel.
Satisfied, he stood. He paused for a moment, not sure what to do next. The suit was finished and Merlin was technically free to go, but he found himself wanting to linger.
“So, that’s it, then. Unless there’s anything else,” he said, watching Arthur who walked over to his dresser and stared at an envelope there, as if lost in thought. Merlin added, “Good luck tomorrow,” when Arthur didn’t respond.
“I bought these,” Arthur said finally, picking up the envelope and thrusting it towards Merlin with an uncharacteristic lack of grace.
Merlin frowned, confused at Arthur’s sudden abruptness then confused even more when he looked at the airline ticket in the envelope. “You’re going to Italy tomorrow?”
“I need a time away.” Arthur’s voice was strained. “I know it’s so last minute,” he said, leaning against the dresser with his head bent. A blotchy red blush crept up from his collar. “I have the signing of the Godwyn merger and the Fortune interview Friday morning. I’ll have a car waiting to take to the airport right after.”
“That’s wonderful, Arthur,” Merlin stammered, still stunned. “I’m happy for you.”
“There’s more in the envelope.”
“Alright.” Stomach clenched with nerves, Merlin pulled out a second ticket. He stared at it a long time, not quite able to understand what this all meant.
“It’s for you.” Arthur moved beside him and grabbed Merlin’s wrist.
“I see that.” The words came out, but had no meaning. The ticket before him blurred; Arthur still hadn’t let go of his wrist and Merlin's head was spinning. “I just... I don’t understand.”
“I want you waiting for me at the airport. I want you to come with me.” Arthur stepped closer. “It’ll be three weeks, Merlin. You can show me the Dolce Vita.”
Arthur leaned forward and, quick as a wink, kissed Merlin. Merlin blinked and almost laughed; it had been such a timid kiss -- like a little boy stealing a kiss from his crush and running away before he could get socked in the jaw.
Only Arthur wasn’t running. He was frozen in place. Merlin’s heart beat frantic in his chest. He thought of Gwaine’s warning, but Merlin trusted Arthur instinctively. The way he looked at Merlin sometimes; the intensity of it made him blush. He wasn’t sure what was happening here but it felt warmer than Gwaine’s flattery and more real than Franco’s playful touches.
They stared at each other and Merlin held his breath, unwilling to push away but not ready to make the next move, like moving might shatter everything. He reached out to straighten Arthur’s tie -- Merlin’s tie. It didn’t need fixing, but he had to do something with his hands to calm their shaking.
Finally Arthur reached up, his fingers warm and strong as they curled at Merlin’s nape and tugged him forward. Their second kiss started out slow. Their lips barely grazed; Merlin suspected they were both too nervous for more. Trembling, Merlin shifted closer, hovering a moment to feel Arthur’s breath before kissing him. He pressed in further, soft and gentle, his lips partially open. Arthur whined and angled for more. Merlin’s eyes fluttered shut as Arthur’s hand tangled in his hair, holding him close, and the kiss deepened.
Arthur tasted like tea and cinnamon buns and Merlin sucked Arthur’s bottom lip as though a trace of sugar could still be found there.
They parted, gasping for breath. Arthur was clinging to him, eyes wide like he was more surprised than Merlin at the kiss. He let go of Arthur’s shirt where he’d crushed the cotton into sweaty, wrinkled mess.
“Well now, isn’t this interesting?” came a voice from behind them and they jumped apart to see Gwaine standing in the doorway.
Merlin willed away the tightness of his jeans, guilt a heavy weight in his stomach at the bitter curl of Gwaine’s lips.
“Oh, Arthur.” Gwaine stalked forward, ignoring Merlin entirely. “I knew you were ruthless. I knew the Godwyn deal meant a lot to you. But this? This is beneath you.”
Merlin looked between them. He barely recognised Arthur, not with the blank, emotionless expression he held at the moment. That was the Arthur from Merlin’s childhood memories, the one captured in the portrait in the foyer. It wasn’t the Arthur of this past week.
Arthur wouldn’t meet his eye. Merlin shivered with the chill that ran down his spine.
“Ah, Merlin.” Gwaine turned to him, shaking his head. “You should be honoured. I don’t think Arthur’s ever gone to quite this length to make sure I didn’t fuck up.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Merlin’s voice came out weak; the flush of his skin morphed into a cold sweat.
Arthur stood tight-lipped, not denying anything, and Merlin felt his eyes prickle.
“Just what lengths did you go to, Arthur?” Gwaine stepped forward as Merlin backed away, stomach churning. “Was kissing a man easy? How much further were you willing to go with this ruse?”
“That’s enough, Gwaine,” Arthur said, his tone laced with cold fury.
“I still don’t understand,” Merlin muttered, mostly to himself, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the truth.
Gwaine answered anyway. “You were inconvenient.” His eyes were sad looking at Merlin, pitying him. “The Godwyn deal Arthur is signing tomorrow is conditional on my marriage to Elena. My interest in you put that in jeopardy, didn’t it, Arthur?”
Godwyn. Elena Godwyn. The name on the engagement announcement his mother had sent him to break to the news. The memory clicked into place, all too late.
Arthur met his eyes for the first time, but there was nothing there, like he’d shut himself off completely from Merlin.
“You were to be on a plane back to Italy by the time you figured it out,” Arthur said, his voice flat. “There’s a studio waiting for you.”
Merlin could guess the rest. “And a full bank account to ease the sting that you were never planning on coming with me?”
Arthur nodded, eyes downcast. “And a glowing mention in Fortune.”
“Naturally!” Gwaine laughed.
Merlin ignored him. “Are you even gay?” It felt unbelievable asking that with his lips still tingling with their kisses.
Arthur turned his head away.
Gwaine barked a laugh. “You are such a bastard, Arthur.”
Merlin bit the inside of his cheek to stop the burning in his eyes. He stepped closer to Arthur, not ready to just walk out. “All this... all this week... it was to get rid of me? For a business deal?”
When Arthur looked at him finally, his eyes were red, but the hard line of his lips stole any hope Merlin might have had; Arthur wasn't ashamed.
“It wasn’t personal,” Arthur said to him.
The words cut Merlin deeper than any other. That Arthur could play him so well and be so completely detached. He balled his fist and in the next second felt the crack of his knuckles as they hit Arthur’s jaw. He had never punched anyone before. It hurt surprisingly a lot, and he was glad for the excuse to wipe at his eyes.
Arthur didn’t go down; Merlin didn’t have that kind of strength. But when Arthur took his hand from his mouth, it was covered in blood from a split lip.
Gwaine was laughing. “That will look great in your photoshoot tomorrow.”
Arthur’s eyes went fierce. His jaw twitched as Gwaine continued to laugh.
At the moment, Merlin wasn’t sure who he hated more: Arthur for what he’d done, or Gwaine for finding it all perversely amusing. He swallowed past the tightening of his throat. In his left hand, he was still holding the envelope with the tickets. He was ready to throw it in Arthur’s face. But right now he needed to be anywhere but here.
He pulled out the one with his name on it and placed the other on the dresser.
“I’m taking this,” he said simply and walked out, head held high.
Merlin was sitting on the bed in his old room when his mother found him. He’d already packed his things from Gaius’ flat. He’d left everything that hadn’t belonged to him. Before shutting off the lights though, he’d let his finger trace Aithusa’s still spotless top. Then he’d chastised himself for being sentimental and an utter fool, and turned on his heel without a backwards glance.
“Arthur Pendragon’s personal assistant just hand-delivered this to the kitchen,” his mother said. She held out a folded slip of paper, with a look that said she knew something was seriously wrong but was doing her best not to pry. “She said no one would answer the door here.”
Well that explained the knocking Merlin had been ignoring for the last twenty minutes. “I thought it was Gwaine.”
Her eyebrows rose, but Merlin just shrugged. He glared at the paper in her hand until curiosity got the better of him.
He skimmed it, his heart in his throat. “It’s a receipt for the payment of Arthur’s suit,” he explained and quoted, “Ten thousand pounds have been deposited into an account in your name.”
His mother gasped.
Merlin winced at the hastily scrawled: Take it. I know you likely won’t take anything else from me, but this is for the suit. Be proud of that, even if you wish to forget the rest of this week. Arthur. “Bastard,” he whispered and ripped up the paper.
“I’m glad it’s not a cheque for you to toss away that kind of money in a fit of stupidity.” She bent to gather the scattered pieces, fussing with the pile in her hands as she tried to find the words. “I don’t know what happened. I know you’re hurt. But you did the work and you deserve to be paid for it.”
“Is that what I got paid for?” He looked up, his cheeks flashing hot.
“Merlin, give it a few days,” she said, her voice as familiar and comforting as a favourite jumper. “You will get over your bruised ego.”
“I’m leaving,” he told her, waving the plane ticket in the air. “You’re right. I’m better than this.”
Arthur couldn’t remember the last time he’d walked the grounds of the Estate. Tonight he let himself get lost in the rocky hills of Hertfordshire where as a boy he’d once spent hours wandering alone, or sometimes with Gwaine -- long before the expectations of being heir to Pendragon Industries had stolen away his free time, long before his mobile had taken the place of Gwaine’s nattering.
Everything had gone exactly how he’d planned with Merlin, except that he’d been there to see Merlin’s face as he’d sussed out the ruse. That bit he’d expected to happen while Merlin was at the airport, being rushed on board, alone and confused. Maybe then Merlin would meet up with that fit Italian and they’d laugh at Merlin’s luck, landing a flat and a full bank account after only a week in England.
It was supposed to be over now. Merlin would leave and Arthur’s world would be set to rights. Only that didn’t seem to be happening at all. His life felt more upside down than it ever had.
The look of betrayal in Merlin’s eyes had hurt far more than the fist to his jaw. Arthur had never felt shame as deep as he had in that moment.
The first kiss had been a mistake. He hadn’t lied when he said he’d been caught up in the moment. Merlin sitting beneath that apricot tree, flushed with righteous indignation; it had been too easy to tell himself it was part of the plan. The second kiss though, Arthur had no excuse for. He’d been so tangled in his own deception that every word he’d said to try to convince Merlin to go with him to Italy had sunk into his own ears, warming his chest until the lines between honesty and manipulation had blurred and he’d lost the plot. He couldn’t forgive himself for that kiss. He doubted either Merlin or Gwaine would forgive him either.
It was well into the evening when he found himself in front of Gwaine’s bedroom door.
He knocked and, after a moment’s commotion, Gwaine pulled open the door. The exertion of walking across the room while still injured was plain on his face. As was the amusement as he looked Arthur up and down; he’d always had a perverse love of seeing Arthur at his worst.
“I know you’d rather see anyone but me right now.”
“I don’t know, Arthur. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing you with the split lip Merlin gave you.” Making his point, Gwaine took out his phone and snapped a picture. After pressing a few buttons, he said, “There, now for the first time in five years I’ll be happy to get your calls.”
Gwaine held up the phone to show off the picture and Arthur winced at his dishevelled appearance. The light drizzle that had fallen in the last hour of his walk had matted his hair; his eyes were sunken and flakes of dried blood still clung to his chin.
Arthur swiped his tongue along his swollen bottom lip. “Yes, well, I deserved that.”
“Yes, you did.” Gwaine's smile disappeared.
Arthur took a deep breath and told himself yet again that this was the right decision. He pulled the airline ticket from his jacket pocket and handed it to Gwaine.
“I came here to give you this. I’ll have Nancy switch it to your name in the morning.” Arthur looked away. Gwaine, when he managed to be sober, always saw right through him.
“What are you up to now, Arthur?” Gwaine tapped the ticket against his palm, not even looking at it. “Haven’t you manipulated people’s lives enough for today?”
“I’m telling you to go,” Arthur said, his eyes on the muddy hem of his trousers. He was thankful that at least he’d switched from Merlin’s suit before trudging through the grounds. “Merlin will be leaving on this flight. Make sure he’s not alone.” Something lightened in Arthur as he spoke the words. As long as Merlin wasn’t getting on that plane alone, Arthur could make this right.
Gwaine looked between him and the ticket suspiciously. “I don’t understand. You won, remember? You convinced Merlin quite thoroughly to have nothing to do with us.”
“Nothing to do with me, you mean. He’s in love with you.” Though it stung to say the words aloud, Arthur knew it was true. He’d confused Merlin, yes -- seduced him, even. But Gwaine would always be who Merlin wanted. The kid had loved Gwaine since his thirteenth birthday when Gwaine had handed Merlin a pastry he’d nicked from breakfast and no longer wanted. Arthur had watched Merlin’s eyes light up as Gwaine ruffled his hair. Gwaine had walked off, oblivious, as Merlin slumped against the wall, completely smitten.
Now Merlin could get what he desired the most. Wasn’t this how fairytales were supposed to end?
Gwaine crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the closed door to the loo. “And what about Elena?”
“You’ll have to talk to her before you leave. I’ll tell Godwyn,” Arthur said, pacing the room. “It’ll... well, don’t worry about it.”
Gwaine was looking at him like he didn’t know him at all.
“You were right.” Arthur lifted his hands in defeat. “This was beneath me. You deserved to be treated better and Merlin certainly deserved better.”
Gwaine ran his finger along his jaw. “So, what now? You’re throwing away the company’s future -- a five billion pound merger -- for the eighteen year old son of our cook?”
“You were certainly ready to do that not twenty-four hours ago!” Arthur’s teeth clenched. He was furious at Gwaine for being difficult even in this. “They’ll be other ventures. Nothing this big, but it’s not the nail in our coffin just yet. All I ask is that when you tell Elena you ask her to let me make the announcement at the meeting in the morning. This was my fuck up. All of it. Your engagement, my deal with Godwyn, and well... what I did to Merlin... Just tell her before you get on that plane, and I’ll deal with her father.”
Gwaine hobbled over towards him, shaking his head. “You’ve got it all figured out, don’t you?”
“Merlin’s a good person. Far better than either of us.” Arthur ran his hand through his already messy hair. “If I find out you've fucked him over in any way, you are cut-off completely. Understood? Not a penny.”
Gwaine’s eyes widened. “You’ve got your head so far up your own arse, Arthur Pendragon, you can’t even--“
“Save it.” Arthur really didn’t need to hear it. “You’re who he wants. So for once in your life, Gwaine, see this through. Do you understand?”
“For the first time in my life, dear cousin,” Gwaine said, “I understand you perfectly.” He grinned like he was holding back a laugh and the look of it put Arthur on edge. “The question is, do you understand yourself?”
“I know exactly what I am.”
“I wonder.” Gwaine looked at the ticket, pensive.
“Get packing. You will not miss that flight,” Arthur said, poking Gwaine in the chest to make his point.
Eyes twinkling, Gwaine pushed Arthur out the door. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, his eyes not on Arthur but strangely on the door to his bathroom. “I need to have a long, honest talk with my fiancée.”
Arthur woke Friday morning with a piercing ache at the base of his skull. He decided to blame it on stress -- he was after all about to make the largest, most important business deal of his career. It was natural that his mood was off. It was to be expected that the buttons of his shirt seemed to not want to find the right holes and that his tie wouldn’t sit flat. Though it wasn’t his tie, was it?
And wasn’t that a kick in the balls? He looked through his wardrobe for another tie, but nothing was quite the right shade of blue, or the lack of gold made them dull in comparison. It felt like more of an insult to not wear Merlin’s tie and settle on something which complemented the suit less, than it was to take what was possibly Merlin’s only tie.
He would send the tie back to Merlin after this; he’d call Gwaine tonight for an address of where they were staying. Images of Gwaine and Merlin in a luxurious hotel room sprung to mind: standing on the balcony, taking in the Eternal City at night; planning their days, what glorious sights they’d visit; sharing their nights tangled together beneath the sheets.
He decided to forgo breakfast; he’d lost his appetite.
On the way downstairs, Freya passed him without meeting his eye. He didn’t think much of it until he got out the door and saw Fairchild’s usually impeccable professionalism crack. It was impossible not to notice the stiffness of his stance and the purse of his lips as he held open the door to Arthur’s limo.
The ache in Arthur’s head throbbed. “Good morning, Fairchild,” he said, keeping his tone light.
Fairchild’s Sir dropped like a stone.
It was going to be a long day.
Arthur spent the entire drive rehearsing what he was going to tell Godwyn and his father. Gwaine would already be at the airport by the time the deal officially fell through, so there really wasn’t much they could do about it besides yell at Arthur. He should stop by his desk and grab some Paracetamol.
Arthur stared at his phone as if it were possessed. For the first time in the six and half years that Nancy had been his personal assistant, she was not picking up her phone. He cursed, wondering what else could possibly go wrong today.
She still wasn’t answering as Arthur entered the boardroom. Most of the attendees had already arrived and were gathered around the conference table, Uther at one end, a spot for Arthur next to him, Godwyn across from them, and a line of black-suited lawyers on each side.
“That issue with Hunith’s son has been settled, then?” Uther whispered to Arthur while Godwyn was engaged in a discussion with his lawyer.
“Good, and I trust it didn’t cost us more than keeping that actress quiet a few years ago?”
Arthur’s gut twisted with guilt. “No,” he said, “hardly cost us anything at all.”
A few more lawyers entered. They took their seats, their briefcases lined up like weapons on the table in front of them. Panic prickled at Arthur’s nape. The words he’d rehearsed flitted around his brain in a jumbled mess.
He cleared his throat and said, “I think we are ready to begin.” Though ready couldn’t be farther from what he felt.
Godwyn looked around the room. “Surely we’ll wait for Gwaine and Elena?”
“I don’t think we will,” Arthur said, squaring his shoulders as he’d been trained. A business meeting is like a battlefield; never show weakness, Arthur. His father had told him that on his first day of Pendragon Industries, at age fifteen. With a sharp inhale, Arthur drew his sword (figuratively).
“I’m afraid, gentlemen, there has been a change in plan,” he began.
“Arthur—” Uther stretched out his name like a low warning. His father never liked last minute changes to an agenda.
“Yes, there has been a change in plans,” Gwaine shouted from the doorway. He burst in, smiling and waving, tugging along Elena with a firm grip of her hand. “Sorry we’re late. Elena just got back, as you know, and we were up all night catching up.” Gwaine leered at her and her laughter filled the silent room.
“Gwaine, what are you doing here?” Arthur was standing, barely holding himself back from lunging across the table. “Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere else?”
“Somewhere else!” Godwyn gasped. “What is the meaning of this?”
Gwaine held out a seat for Elena then took his own. “You see,” he said, looking around the room to make sure he had everyone’s attention, “there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding this week. Arthur thought I was going to leave my dear Elena for a twink that had caught my eye at a party the other day.”
“Twink!” Arthur’s voice came out a squeak.
“I’ll admit to being a little tempted.” He squeezed Elena hand and kissed her cheek, whispering sorry. She nodded and patted his hand. To the rest of the room, he said, “But luckily Arthur showed me the way to treat a gold-digger like that.”
Arthur raw red. “Merlin is no gold-digger!”
“Arthur!” His father’s hand was on his shoulder, pushing him to retake his seat. “This is not place for... these types of discussions. With Gwaine and Elena here, we will proceed as planned.”
Arthur shrugged him off, trying to keep his voice level, his fury contained. “You said you would get on the plane. We agreed on this. Merlin was not to go back to Italy alone.”
“Run off to Italy with the cook’s son? How pathetic do you think I am, Arthur? Maybe he's tempting enough for an afternoon tumble...”
Arthur wasn’t sure when he’d crossed the room but there he was, swivelling Gwaine’s chair around.
It had been years since he’d hit someone, since back in his Oxford days when boxing had been a healthy diversion from his studies, but when his fist connected with Gwaine’s jaw it felt glorious.
Gwaine toppled backwards, out of his chair. The room erupted around them. Elena swore and rushed to Gwaine's side, Godwyn was shouting and the lawyers seemed to fill the space up with black.
When Gwaine stood, Arthur had his fists up, ready to defend himself or attack again.
What he didn’t expect was laughter. Gwaine cradled his jaw, his eyes on Elena. “What did I tell you? Arthur Pendragon is in love. Finally.”
Elena beamed at Arthur, reaching out to touch his arm. “Oh, Arthur. I’m happy for you, really.”
Arthur panted still buzzing with adrenaline and need to punch that smirk off Gwaine’s stupid face. “What?”
“You’re in love with Merlin," Gwaine said, poking gingerly at his jaw. "And God help him, I think he loves you back.”
“Have you both lost your mind?”
Elena stepped forward. “I was in Gwaine’s room last night, hiding in the loo when you came in,” she said. “He’d already told me about Merlin, and the mess he’d made... and the bigger mess you’d made trying to clean it up.”
“She forgave me, of course, because she’s amazing and I don’t deserve her.”
“Well, that we’ll all agree on,” Godwyn muttered, head in his hands at the chaos before him.
“I reminded him who he really wants.” Elena winked, twisting her hand in Gwaine’s.
“And now we’re going to do this merger. Together,” Gwaine announced.
Elena looked at him, beaming with pride, and Gwaine seemed to stand a little taller.
There was not enough Paracetamol in the world that would make sense of all this. Arthur’s head was spinning. Everyone was talking at once. All he could think of was Merlin sitting in the airport alone, hating Arthur. It struck Arthur how unbearable that thought was. He hadn't been willing to give up the Godwyn deal for Gwaine's happiness or because it was the right thing to do. He simply hadn't been able to abide Merlin being hurt. He'd been willing to throw away a five billion pound business deal, not to mention seriously fuck up his own career to spare Merlin's feelings.
It was so painfully obvious that even Gwaine understood what that meant. Arthur, unused to having such emotions, was only catching on now.
He was in love.
He buried his face in his hands and sputtered, “Oh my God.”
“Indeed,” his father agreed. Having found the bar across the room, he was pouring himself a large martini.
“We decided, Elena and I, that you are so clever at deciding what’s best for other people it was time for us to return the favour.” Gwaine looked up towards the door. “Ah, Nancy. You’re a doll.”
Arthur blinked as Nancy entered and dropped his luggage at his feet.
“You are not going to fire me for this,” she told him as she handed him a ticket, his passport and folder.
“But...” It was the same ticket he’d handed to Gwaine the night before, still crinkled from all the time he’d spent pondering what to do with it. “I told you to switch it.”
“And I told her not to.” Gwaine stepped up beside Nancy, broad grin on his face. “Instead I told her to go to the Estate after you’d left for work this morning and pack enough for a three week trip to Italy.”
“Three weeks?” Arthur gasped. The very thought sent his heart into palpitations. “I can’t possibly... the interview...”
“Fortune has been notified they will be interviewing the reason for the merger.” Gwaine pulled Elena to his side and kissed her cheek. “Us.”
“We’ll do you proud, Arthur,” Elena said, smacking Gwaine’s hand that had begun to wander. “I know my father’s company. And well, you’d be surprised at how much Gwaine knows about yours and why Insul-Tech 342 is important.”
“An R-value of 15 per inch!” Gwaine gave him a thumbs up.
Arthur’s eyebrows rose.
Gwaine shrugged, his cheeks going red. “I might have picked up a thing or two during our endless, one-sided conversations every night at dinner.”
“Now,” Elena said, picking up the luggage and thrusting it at Arthur. “You need to go to the airport and grovel.”
“Go, you giant prat!” Gwaine shoved him towards the door. “He’s waiting for you, even if he doesn’t know it yet.”
Arthur dashed to the lift, checking his watch. He should make it, if traffic was good and Fairchild pushed it. As he pressed the lift button for the third time he wondered what Merlin was thinking right now and if he would accept Arthur after everything. It seemed very likely that he was about to make a fool out of himself, begging for forgiveness in the middle of crowded airport. For some incomprehensible reason, that thought made Arthur smile. The lift door opened and he stepped in, feeling lighter than he had in days.
Merlin wondered if he hated Heathrow any more this time around than he did last time he’d flown to Rome. It was oddly reminiscent: his mother shooting him worried glances once again, the same bag at his feet filled with more regrets than hopes, and the same ache in his gut like he’d been kicked by a horse.
The bustle of people in front of him all seemed to be happier than he was; it was like the last two years had never happened.
Merlin double-checked his carry-on bag, making sure his passport and ticket were handy. They’d arrived early enough to stop at a little café before Merlin had to pass through security.
“I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but I’m glad whatever happened took you by surprise,” his mother said, handing Merlin a styrofoam cup. “I’m glad you’re the type of person that would never expect anyone to be so deceitful.”
Merlin snorted. “Even when I make a fool of myself you’re proud of me.”
His mother just smiled, and Merlin had to roll his eyes.
While he sipped the truly terrible coffee, the headlines on the television screen in the café caught his attention, and his stomach lurched.
“You shouldn’t watch that, Merlin.”
Merlin knew she was right, but he couldn’t look away from the screen. The sound was off but the headlines read: Pendragon Industries signs skyscraper-sized deal with Godwyn Corp.
Despite the prickle of humiliation, he was surprised to find himself happy for Arthur. Pendragon Industries meant everything to him, more than his own cousin and certainly more than Merlin. He couldn’t fault Arthur for that; he could only pity him.
Flexing his bruised knuckles, he winced at the ache. Merlin did pity Arthur, but he didn’t regret splitting his lip.
He watched the screen change to a shot of Gwaine and a smiling blonde who Merlin recognised as Elena. When Merlin felt nothing -- except a little disappointment there wasn’t a single sighting of Arthur in his suit -- he knew his crush on Gwaine was over. It would have been a disaster for everyone if Gwaine had broken things off with Elena for Merlin. He supposed he should be grateful to Arthur for that, at least.
“Doesn’t look like there are any delays,” his mother said, dragging his attention away from the screen. “You’ll need to go through security soon.”
He checked his phone. They’d start boarding in forty-five minutes. Less than two hours later, they’d touchdown in Rome. Then he’d have to decide what to do. He could stop by Gaius’ studio, or give Franco a call. Neither of them were expecting him, and he didn’t feel like talking to anyone just yet and having to explain what he was doing back.
His backpocket contained another option. Nancy had stopped them just as they were pulling out of the Estate on the way to the airport and had shoved an itinerary in Merlin’s face. Confused, he’d taken it without question and, on the drive down to Heathrow, Merlin and his mother had looked it over. The entire three weeks were filled with pre-booked activities and hotels, day trips to Venice and Florence, a bus tour of Southern Italy.
He wasn’t entirely sure if the schedule was an apology from Arthur, who guessed that Merlin would benefit from the distraction, or if it had been set up as part of the original ruse. Everything was booked for two, but the name of the travel partner was undisclosed.
Maybe it meant he should find someone?
A shout from outside the café caught Merlin’s attention. The first person he saw was Fairchild, puffing as he jogged along, dragging luggage. Before Merlin could register anything more than mild surprise at the unexpectedly familiar face, the crowd separated and Arthur pushed through.
The suit looked spectacular, Merlin thought, even with the tie flapping over Arthur’s shoulder as he dashed down the hallway. Then his mind went abruptly blank as each of these details sunk in.
Merlin stood on instinct, stepping into their path. Fairchild came to an abrupt stop on spotting him.
“Merlin!” Arthur huffed, breathless from the run.
“Arthur?” Merlin said, overwhelmed at the brightness of Arthur’s eyes as he stepped right into Merlin’s personal space. Merlin took a step backwards. “What -- What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to say I’m sorry,” he said, still gasping a little. “To tell you I’m an arse.”
“I already knew that.” Merlin looked down at the luggage Fairchild set to rest by Arthur’s feet. He stared at it as if luggage in an airport was an alien concept. “Aren’t you supposed to be in an interview?”
Arthur looked at his watch. “Gwaine and Elena should be dazzling Fortune right about now.” He set his tie to rights. “Though Gwaine’s suit doesn't hold a candle to mine.”
Merlin frowned at Arthur’s compliment, wondering for a moment if Arthur was actually flirting with him, after everything. Then his mind caught up with what Arthur’s actually said. “Gwaine and Elena? What happened to this being the most important day of your career?”
“Yes, well.” Arthur inhaled, smoothing down his lapels. He got an odd look on his face and said, “It’s been decided that I’m in love with you.”
Merlin blinked, then wrinkled his nose at the wording. “Was there a vote by the Board of Directors?”
Arthur smiled. “Something like that.”
“And you are just” --Merlin waved his hands-- “going with that?”
“I did vote in favour of it.”
Merlin groaned, too tired to play word games. “What are you trying to say, Arthur?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not good at this. I’m trying to say that I wasn’t acting.” Arthur bit his lip, looking more nervous and sincere than Merlin had ever seen him. “I wasn’t pretending to enjoy your company. I wanted to spend time with you... to kiss you. I let myself believe I was doing it all just to distract you from Gwaine.”
Merlin wanted to believe him. Of course he did. But Arthur had looked so sincere the past few days even when his motives were tainted. “You are the most confusing man I have ever met, Arthur Pendragon.”
“I know.” Arthur groaned, running his hand through his hair until it stood up at odd angles. “I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Merlin shook his head, because he frankly wasn’t sure either. His stomach twisted. Arthur was pale, like he was just as lost as Merlin. He realised that Arthur was a bit of a mess, his lip was still swollen and bruised and he looked like he hadn’t slept a wink.
“You’re crap at apologising,” Merlin said at last, adding a small grin at the end like a peace offering.
Arthur smiled back, looking a little less broken. “I know.” A light seemed to brighten inside him then, a bit of hope shining through. Arthur held up a folder and opened it to reveal an itinerary identical to the one in Merlin’s backpocket. “I think Nancy planned out a pretty jam-packed Italian holiday here, but if you’d join me… I’d like to try again. I’d be happy for the company.”
Giving Arthur a sceptical look, Merlin asked, “And how will I know when you are being honest with me this time?”
Arthur sighed, suddenly studying his cuff. “I think you’ll find I was mostly honest with you.”
Mostly honest wasn't enough. “Your tailor?”
“Fired.” Arthur’s face scrunched up in a wince. He peeked one eye open to look at Merlin and he admitted, “The morning after the party, Nancy informed him his services were no longer required.”
“Not an alcoholic, then?”
“Ah, no. Nancy’s still a little sore about you snarking on her crack of dawn purchases.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly know that, did I?” The sheer amount of effort that had gone into the deception was staggering. “Maybe a picture of you in that toile will help endear me to her?”
Arthur laughed. “You are never going to stop making my life interesting, are you?”
Arthur looked at him then, his eyes crinkling with his smile, his expression soft. Merlin could see their future in the tease of Arthur’s lips and the quirk of his eyebrow, daring Merlin to try it. A tingle of warmth spread across his chest as he realised this could work. That forgiving wasn’t hard to manage and the falling in love had already happened while he wasn’t looking.
They must have been staring at each other for a while because only Fairchild’s cough snapped them out of it.
“With your permission, Sir,” Fairchild said, “we’ll be heading back now.”
“Of course,” Arthur said, barely taking his eyes off Merlin.
Merlin stumbled as his mother pulled him into a fierce hug.
“Enjoy your trip,” she said. “You’d best get going. The plane won’t wait for you, even if you’re in love.”
Before she left she turned to Arthur. “Take good care of him,” she said, touching his arm as she spoke.
“I will.” He nodded, saying it like it was a vow.
Fairchild’s arm snuck around Merlin’s mother’s shoulder as they walked away. Merlin blinked. “What -- no -- what?”
Arthur sniggered. “You didn’t know?” His laughter was cut off by a trill from his pocket. He took it out of his pocket and stared at the screen for a moment, only to shake his head and turn it off entirely. “I’ll answer that in three weeks.”
Merlin felt a thrill of excitement chase down his spine, like he was standing on a precipice, ready to leap hand in hand with this man he knew so well, yet barely knew at all. Not caring where they were, Merlin touched his hand to Arthur’s cheek and kissed him.
Arthur stiffened for a moment. But Merlin felt him relax as warm, strong fingers curled at his hips, and their heads tilted in unison to deepen the kiss.
Merlin stepped back, breathless and a little overwhelmed. “We are really doing this?”
“I can’t think of anything in the world I want to do more,” Arthur said, his face too bright and happy for a place as dull as an airport café. He belonged on a boat, floating in the azure waters of the Mediterranean. Merlin wanted to be there to see it.
“Me, too,” Merlin said, laughter bubbling up in his chest. “Let’s see what dear old Nancy thinks is romantic.” He pulled Arthur into another kiss.
It took three tries for Arthur to finally pull himself away long enough to say, “We are going to miss our flight, Merlin, if you keep distracting me.”
Merlin grinned, taking Arthur’s hand as they grabbed their luggage and raced towards security. The sense of adventure mixed with a brilliant warmth of belonging wrapped around him as he left England once again.
Chapter 15: Epilogue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
April tumbled into May while Arthur and Merlin’s noses pinked in the Italian sun. The time passed by in a dizzying blur of churches and frescos, aqueducts and callused feet. It was magical, romantic and... painfully chaste. Other than snogs in the hidden alleyways of Venice and gentle brushes of their hands while they climbed the Spanish steps, they kept their distance.
Arthur said he wanted to take things slow, start properly this time. Separate hotel rooms, early morning wake up calls and busy days meant Merlin hardly noticed. But by the second week, Merlin began to wonder if -- though they got along smashingly otherwise -- they’d lost the spark somewhere back in Heathrow. That thought nagged at the back of Merlin’s mind as the days remaining in their trip began to dwindle.
On the day before their flight home, they found themselves back in Rome with a day free from any booked events. They decided to stop in to see Gaius -- if only to see how far his eyebrows could rise when they appeared at his doorstep, arms linked. With a bit of pleading, Merlin convinced Arthur they should meet up with Franco for the afternoon.
Why he’d thought it was a good idea for Arthur and Franco to meet, he couldn’t fathom. The testosterone and posturing as the three of them crowded into Franco’s little flat was nearly suffocating. Franco’s rooms were scattered with photos of Merlin: on the fridge, randomly placed on the tables, stuck between the cushions of the couch. It was as though he’d emptied his photo albums before they’d arrived and hidden shots of Merlin like they were Easter eggs.
Merlin smacked Franco across the chest. “You’re such an arse.”
“Mi dispiace,” Franco said, with a smirk that showed he wasn’t sorry at all. He hadn’t spoken a word of English since they’d arrived. Merlin had no trouble sussing out the reason as Arthur’s lips twisted in annoyance at every word.
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Stop it, please?”
“Non capisco, caro.” Franco’s eyes widened with false innocence as he shrugged.
Arthur grabbed a picture that had been sticking out of a novel as if it were a bookmark. It had Merlin looking rather debauched, in nothing but boxers, lying on the same couch Arthur currently sat on.
Merlin just shook his head, and with a ‘sorry’ to Arthur he went to the toilet to splash water on his heated cheeks.
When he returned, Franco was whispering furiously at Arthur. It was all in Italian but, based on Arthur’s stony expression, Merlin was pretty sure Arthur understood every word of the threats.
Arthur was red-faced and silent as they walked out the door almost immediately after. Franco looked far too pleased with himself.
They walked the streets of Rome, stopping at a street vendor to buy pizza to eat by the Trevi fountain. Arthur was quiet, letting Merlin ramble excitedly about which streets he’d been lost on and where to buy the best cornettos you’d ever eat. After they tossed their three coins into the fountain -- with Merlin explaining the last wish was always supposed to be to return to Rome -- they made their way back to the hotel. Arthur held Merlin’s wrist, tight and possessive, as they meandered through the crowded streets.
That night, Arthur’s kisses were wild as he pinned Merlin to the wall of his hotel room with his hands at Merlin’s hips, not stopping until they were both breathless and trembling with it.
“I won’t give you any reason to doubt me.” He panted heavily on Merlin’s cheek, curling his fingers along Merlin’s hipbone. “I’m not going to just walk away from this when we get back.”
Merlin wasn’t sure what Franco had said, or what Arthur felt he had to prove, but the words were welcome anyway. The lack of intimacy between them was starting to weigh on their relationship and Merlin’s doubts had been lingering under the surface.
“Stay here tonight.” Merlin kissed the words into Arthur’s shoulder, finishing the sentence with a small nip at Arthur’s neck. The mark would fade by morning, but he didn’t dare make it darker.
Arthur pressed his forehead to Merlin’s, waiting there, gathering his thoughts or his courage before he began, “I’m not very experienced.” Arthur sighed. “Only a handful of nameless hookups after nights out in cities where no one knew me, where there were never any expectations of seeing each other again. And always -- always -- in a hotel room. I don’t want our first time to be...” He looked around. “Here.”
Merlin didn’t want to think of Arthur on business trips, lonely and drunk, fucking a stranger. He didn’t want this tainted with those memories, the same way his time with Franco was tainted with failed attempts at forgetting Gwaine. “We can wait.”
Arthur pulled back so he could meet Merlin’s eye. “Just a little longer?”
Merlin nodded and they kissed again, groaning as they rocked together in a teasing rhythm that said everything about how little either of them wanted to wait.
Arthur tore himself away with a look of regret. He valiantly said goodnight. As he ducked in for a quick final kiss, he whispered, “Soon.”
Not three minutes after Arthur left, Merlin came all over his own chest. Waiting sucked.
“It’s not quite Italy,” Arthur said, staring out at the waves crashing onto the rocky beach.
The wind off the sea was brisk, salty and damp, and Merlin was grateful for the fire to cut the chill as the sun began to drop. He looked back at the summer cottage with its new paint and freshly installed windows. He and Arthur had spent the morning digging up the flowerbeds and following Old man Michaels’ instructions devotedly as they’d planted a few dozen of the prettiest little flowers Merlin had ever seen.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” Merlin grinned, wiping a smudge of dirt from Arthur’s nose. “I’m so happy you’re fixing this place.” They’d been back only a week, with Arthur already back at work and Merlin filling his time doing a few odd jobs around the Estate, happy to get his hands on Aithusa again.
Arthur tossed another log on the fire, smiling. “My father even said to me this morning that he was pleased I’m finally taking an interest in this place.”
“He’s talking to you, then? After everything?”
Arthur laughed, moving so he was covering Merlin’s body with his own. The warmth of it made Merlin curl closer. “I’m back at work, fixing a few things Gwaine over-promised and smoothing over the any ruffled feathers my vacation caused. Nancy is finally looking at me without scowling, Gwaine is actually showing up for work almost every day and we’re poised to revolutionise the world of construction.” Arthur bent to kiss Merlin’s jaw. “The only people who have reason to complain about the turn of events in the last month are the staff who lost their favourite meeting room with Gwaine’s return.”
Merlin ducked his head to chuckle into the crook of Arthur’s neck. “And here I thought we’d be scandalous.”
Arthur hummed. “I don’t think anyone worth caring about is offended that I’ve taken up with the cook’s son.”
Merlin looked up, eyebrow raised. “We’ll have to try harder, I guess.” He kissed Arthur, open-mouthed and sloppy, letting his tongue tease along Arthur’s bottom lip but going no deeper. “Maybe getting caught with me bent over your desk?”
Arthur blinked, jaw going slack for a moment. He curled his arms around Merlin’s shoulder, holding him close. Squeezing his eyes shut, he groaned. “Fuck, Merlin.”
The telltale hardness at Merlin’s thigh left no question to how Arthur felt about that image.
“Well, well. Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin teased, “I had no idea.”
Arthur chuckled darkly, biting at Merlin’s neck. “You don’t think I thought of it when you were taking my measurements that first day? Dropping to your knees on my carpet like you belonged there?” Arthur rolled his hips so Merlin’s erection slid along Arthur’s hipbone.
Merlin reached up, tangling his fingers in Arthur’s hair until their mouths connected again and they kissed, desperate and wet with need.
“Tell me you’re ready.” If they had to wait any longer, Merlin would resort to begging.
“I’m better than ready.” Arthur shifted to kneel between Merlin’s knees. He dug into his jeans’ pocket. “I came prepared.” He dropped condoms and a small tube on their blanket.
“Thank fuck.” Merlin ignored Arthur’s laughter as he scrambled out of his jeans.
It wasn’t perfect. Arthur got sand in the lube as he tried to slick his fingers and had to scramble over some rocks to wash his hands in the water and begin again. Overeager, Merlin rushed Arthur to ‘put it in already’ then Arthur panicked when Merlin’s erection flagged from the insufficient prep. It was clumsy and a little frustrating and, in the end, over too quickly. They were both too pumped on adrenaline and impatience to take things slow. But they kissed through it all, whispering curses into each other’s mouths, wondering why they had waited when they could’ve been doing this for weeks.
Later that night, with the moon shining in through the little cottage window framed by the curtains Merlin had sewn, they tried again. Arthur was on his back, Merlin riding high above him. Merlin found a slow rhythm that had them both teetering on the edge for ages. Arthur, sweaty and breathless, finally pinned Merlin and pounded him into the mattress until they were both crying out.
Sometime before dawn they collapsed, exhausted, into each other’s arms and talked of the future. Of Gwaine and Elena’s wedding that both Arthur and Merlin needed new suits for. Of Merlin continuing to use Gaius’ flat but also finding a job in the city. Arthur agreed, reluctantly, that the world would not stop turning if he flipped off his phone every Saturday while they spent time at the cottage. And Merlin accepted that Sunday afternoons at the office kept Arthur sane and were non-negotiable.
Then Arthur asked if Merlin had ever tied anyone up with his measuring tape and all plans for the future and relationship compromises were put on hold while they searched the floor for Arthur’s jeans (which held the remainder of the condoms) and Merlin’s rucksack (which had the measuring tape).
It wasn’t quite a fairytale, but it was as close as one might get in the gently rolling hills of North Hertfordshire.