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Go n-eírí an bóthar leat. ~ Old Irish Blessing
May the road rise with you. ~ John Lydon

Merlin closes his eyes and lets the rhythm of the music thrum through him. The bass beat makes his belly feel hollow. He taps his fingers on the table top, fights off the sleep that tries to lay claim to his gritty eyes and travel-weary back.

“I’ll meet you back at the room,” Arthur’s voice hiccoughs into Merlin’s ear.

Surprised that Arthur has the stamina to keep partying after the long day, Merlin leans closer.

“What?” Merlin asks. He jams one hand to his other ear, trying to block the noise of the band so he can hear what Arthur says.

“Later,” Arthur says, breath laced with whisky shots and Guinness.

He doesn’t know how Arthur keeps up. Merlin checks the time on his mobile, surprised that he’s only been awake for a dozen hours. It feels like midnight. After the graduation ceremony, easyJet dropped the three of them in Belfast--Arthur, Merlin, and Merlin’s mum, Hunith, who urged the newly-minted graduates to take her car on a sightseeing trip.

It turns out that the island isn’t as small as Merlin always thought.

“Arthur will only be here for a week and he’ll want to have a look around. I’ll just take the bus to work,” Hunith assured them, the way only a selfless parent could.

Arthur hugged her and accepted the keys.

Merlin always makes a conscious effort to appreciate his mum. He remembers that all boys aren’t as fortunate as him, when it comes to single parents. Uther Pendragon wouldn’t even leave work for long enough to attend his son’s graduation ceremony.

“I’m stepping out for a bit,” Arthur says, louder.

Merlin wants to tell Arthur that he’ll come with, but he knows better. He’ll stay behind, like he always does. He wants to protect his heart from getting hurt on this final trip. But despite his best intentions, his goal slips out of his grasp like a dry sheet on a windy clothesline. Not even one day has passed, and there’s still six more to endure after tonight.

It’s torture.

The bodies in front of the stage move as a single mass of flailing limbs and bouncing heads. Teenaged girls with fake IDs slosh their pint glasses with unpractised skill.

Merlin’s eyes narrow in the smoky pub while the band grinds out the last chords of Blitzkrieg Bop. The cheers of the Dublin pub folks can’t compete with the amplifiers and the sound of wrecked strings. A residual buzz drones in Merlin’s head when the music ends. When the cheers stop, he feels like he can hear again.

“I’ll meet you back in the room,” Arthur says, the only words that matter. “Later.”

Merlin becomes all too aware of the pair of hands that snake around Arthur’s torso from behind. The foreign fingers knead the front of Arthur’s faded crimson tee. They tease at Arthur’s nipples. A head of dark curly hair belongs to the man with the fingers. Arthur gasps and squirms.

Arthur’s blond hair makes him stand out in the sea of dark-haired natives. The golden strands beckon a ruffle of fingers from men and women alike. Drunkenness gives Merlin a plausible excuse for their intrusion.

“Yeah, mate,” Merlin says. “I’ll see you then.”

Arthur takes the pair of stray hands in his and stops their motion mid-stroke.

Merlin swallows and looks away.

Although he’s seen Arthur’s naked chest plenty of times in their four years of rooming together, Merlin finds it the most tantalising when the bare skin is covered with a layer of fabric. The hint of what lays underneath fuels his fantasies.

The tight fabric entices Merlin more than the sight of Arthur shirtless as he brushed his teeth in their bathroom mirror. And more than the glimpse Merlin once got of tanned skin and flecks of light chest hair hidden beneath a beach towel on the coldest Brighton day of last year’s Spring Holiday.

The thought of Arthur’s spandex bike shirt stretched over taut pecs fuels Merlin’s wanks. The pebbled nipples first instigated Merlin’s dreams on a chilly day of winter finals when Arthur forgot his hoodie to wear over his cotton tee.

The elusive smatter of chest hair has escaped into Merlin’s line of sight a hundred times. Most often, it peeked from between the vee of Arthur’s unbuttoned polo while he dipped his head to take a bite of microwaved breakfast porridge from his spoon.

Just this afternoon, the fine golden strands escaped the collar of Arthur’s button-down when he consulted the map for the best way from Dublin to the Blarney Castle.

Merlin shakes himself free of his obsession. He watches Arthur take the curly-headed man’s hands from his chest. He lets them rest on his hips instead.

Merlin licks his lips. He fights against the need to possess what the dark-haired man has taken from him. He wants to count Arthur’s abs, to trace them with reverent fingers. He wants to kiss and lick at the dip of his navel, to suck his beautiful cock. To give Arthur pleasure and watch him come apart, so much more familiar than the friends they have become over the years in uni. Instead, he nods dumbly and watches Arthur follow the stranger to the exit.

Merlin touches his fingers to the condensation on his mug, the third pint he downs in as many pubs that evening.

~

Merlin wakes. The burn from too many pints rises in his throat. He exhales into the mattress, the rumpled sheets catching his feet as he gets to his hands and knees.

He coughs. His breath smells like garbage, making him remember what a lightweight he is when it comes to alcohol.

Across the room, the hazy light filters through the window. Merlin groans and rocks back onto his heels, wondering when he became naked.

In the other bed, Arthur lies beneath the duvet. Soft snores rise from the pile of pillows and tangle of sheets.

Merlin collapses to the mattress and waits, his cock hard and disobedient.

He watches Arthur, like he always does. The familiar rise and fall of his chest, the rhythm of his breathing has lulled Merlin to sleep nearly every night for the past four years. Merlin’s chest aches, knowing he won’t have the opportunity to observe for many more days.

For four long years, Merlin silently praised whatever gods paired the son of business mogul, Uther Pendragon, with a naturopathy student from the tiny village of Ealdor. For four years, Merlin watched Arthur learn what he needed to become a CEO, while Merlin studied Reiki, healing massage, and herbalism. Surely this was a trick of Karma that Merlin was permitted to bask in Arthur’s golden presence while they shared a tiny flat on campus. They became the best of friends, confidants, but never lovers, although it was Merlin’s secret dream since they first met during a hot August day at orientation.

Merlin presses his palm against his cock, willing it to stop thinking on its own when he doesn’t have the bravery to act.

He wonders how much courage it would take for him to tiptoe across the non-descript B&B rug and slip into bed beside Arthur.

The thought that Arthur might murmur sweet words into Merlin’s hair, or wrap him in the strength of his arms is almost too much to bear. Merlin feels his cock leaking with slick anticipation. Arthur’s back, his chest, the power of his muscle would protect Merlin more than any chakra alignment or prayer circle, more than any Druid amulet or sorcerer’s spell.

Relieved that he hasn’t lost Arthur on their first night in Ireland, Merlin swings his legs over the side of the bed. He stands and fights to get his balance, dizzy from last night’s drunkenness. He stumbles across the room to the loo, snatching his discarded boxers from where they lie on the carpet.

Outside their door, Merlin hears the other B&B guests stirring. The red numbers glow from the digital clock, switching in a flash to 9:00.

Merlin stands in front of the toilet. For a minute, he worries that he might fall to his knees and puke his guts out. When the feeling passes, he points his half-hard cock to the bowl and pisses.

In the bedroom of the B&B, Arthur groans as he awakens.

“Is it time for breakfast?” Arthur asks.

“What time did you get in?” Merlin says over the sound of the flushing toilet. “I didn’t hear you,” he adds when he re-enters the bedroom.

“I don’t suppose you did,” Arthur says. “Not when half of Dublin got to hear you sing You’re the voice when that guitarist handed you the microphone last night.”

“I didn’t,” Merlin says leaning against the doorframe, remembering the second pub stop all too well.

“You did,” Arthur says with a grin. “Although you couldn’t help it when he shoved it right in your face like that. You were a good sport.”

Merlin was always a good sport. He has never wanted to rock the boat when it meant that he might lose his oars over the side. Still, the tips of his ears turn red at the thought of Arthur hearing him sing.

“Don’t remind me of this night ever again,” Merlin says. Then he adds, “What time was it anyway when you got in?” as if the missing number will help him discern whether Arthur pulled the bloke with the pretty blue eyes and curly dark hair.

Arthur doesn’t answer.

“You know what your problem is?” Arthur asks, getting out of bed, his black boxer briefs still in place on his hips.

Merlin can’t decide whether the question is rhetorical.

The pinch of Arthur’s warm fingers on Merlin’s chilled collarbone makes his blood sing. He has paused for too long.

“You think too much,” Arthur says with a laugh, removing his pinching fingers and playfully slapping Merlin’s bare shoulder. He pulls a clean tee from his travel bag and slips it on.

“Yeah?” Merlin asks, wishing he never started wondering so earnestly about the time Arthur got back to the room.

“I’m going down to breakfast,” Arthur says, zipping his faded jeans. “I’m starving.”

“I’m going to shower first,” Merlin says, hoping he’ll be hungry by the time the host prepares a full Irish for his guests. “Go without me, and I’ll catch up with you downstairs.”

If there’s one thing Merlin doesn’t want to do on this trip, it’s to leave Arthur with a bad memory of their last week together. He hopes his jealousy dissipates before Arthur notices that it exists.

~

Fifteen minutes later, with his hair still damp, Merlin descends the stairs to join Arthur for breakfast. The scent of bacon wafts from the kitchen and spills into the hallway of the old house. An unexpected surprise greets Merlin when he passes the window to the dining room. There, seated at the table with Arthur, sits… Morgan? …Mordred? …Martin…? Merlin forgets his name, but he can remember the way Arthur looked when he drunkenly fell into those foreign arms. Through the window, Merlin could swear he sees Arthur’s fingers caress the stranger’s neck. Jealously flares in Merlin’s gut.

When he rounds the corner and enters the dining room, Merlin tenses and schools his expression so he gives nothing away. “You’re the bloke from last night,” he says as he pulls up a chair across from the pair. “What are you two up to?” He hopes he doesn’t sound like a mother hen who’s just had her chick stolen by a fox.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Arthur says.

It takes everything Merlin has to keep himself from lunging across the table and screaming at Mordred, telling him that Arthur is his alone and he refuses to share him. His knee vibrates up and down with nerves before he remembers to breathe properly. Calmed again, Merlin hopes that this trip will be remembered for the moments he and Arthur would share together, not as a reminder of the time Merlin loved and lost without even putting up a fight.

Duncan, the B&B host, interrupts Merlin’s thoughts when he places a teacup by Merlin’s right hand.

“Good to see you lads this morning,” Duncan says, pouring. “I bet the missus a fiver that we wouldn’t see hide nor hair of you until noon.”

“Breakfast is ready,” Maeve calls from the kitchen door. She hands the plates over to Duncan. He balances them on one arm before setting them in front of Arthur and Merlin.

The steam rises off the scrambled eggs. Merlin smiles, knowing Arthur told Duncan that he prefers them that way.

“You ordering?” Duncan asks Mordred.

“Not me,” Mordred says, slapping his hands on the gingham tablecloth. “I’ll be on my way.”

“Suit yourself,” Duncan says. He takes a bottle of HP sauce from the table by the door and leaves it beside Merlin’s teacup.

Merlin stabs a potato chunk with his fork, ignoring the gazes exchanged between the men sitting across the table.

“Good to meet you,” Mordred says to Arthur, making a fist.

Arthur drops his fork and lightly punches Mordred’s fist with his own.

“Thanks for last night,” Arthur says, and Merlin nearly chokes on his tea.

Merlin keeps his eyes wide open, afraid of what he’ll imagine if he closes them and lets his thoughts wander. Better to see the dingy wallpaper and the scuff mark that a boot has left near the bottom of the door frame, than the passionate scene of last night’s escapades he might imagine.

“You too, mate,” Mordred says, jutting his chin toward Merlin.

Merlin can only nod, his mouth full of toast and regret.

~

“All this for love,” Arthur says as he strides away, his arms open wide.

“Love?” Merlin asks.

At first, Merlin thinks he didn’t hear right, but then he notices what Arthur is talking about. The arch of the bridge rises like a drumlin above the water. The white rails are dotted with colour. A river of tourists flows across the span, pausing to take photographs before moving along again from south to north. When space opens up along the side rails, Merlin notices the locks.

He and Arthur have decided to take a look around the city before they head further south into Ireland’s wilder countryside. The Ha’penny Bridge across the Liffey River is a five minute walk from the B&B, and that’s including the side trip to ogle Molly Malone’s breasts.

“I never knew they came in so many colours,” Merlin says, gently lifting a red padlock from where it dangles, its key lost somewhere in the depths beneath the bridge deck.

“Love comes in every colour of the rainbow,” Arthur says with a grin. “You, of all people, should know that.”

Merlin tries to disregard the barb about his homosexuality. He’s never known Arthur to be homophobic, but one never knows what lies beneath the surface of a perceived ally. But this is Arthur, and Merlin refuses to let it worry him. Merlin shakes his head. “I’ve never known you to be so romantic,” he quips.

“Who? Me?” Arthur asks as if it is the most absurd notion Merlin has ever voiced. “I’m as sappy as they get. You’ve just never paid any attention.”

Merlin wonders if Arthur’s new profession of romance has anything to do with Mordred. Perhaps the one-night stand has fuelled Arthur’s passions so he’ll want to stay in Dublin another night. Maybe he’ll try to ditch Merlin. The fleeting thought passes when Arthur tugs on his arm.

“Hey, check it out,” Arthur says. He drags Merlin to the opposite side of the bridge. The red padlock slips out of Merlin’s fingers and rests against the rail where he found it.

Following Arthur’s gaze, Merlin sees the ginger-haired girl with tears running down her cheeks. He stays with Arthur, keeping his blue hoodie in sight through the maze of oblivious tourists. When they get closer to the girl, Merlin sees him—the man on one knee. He holds a box in his outstretched hand.

Merlin stops beside Arthur as the man rises from the pavement. The ginger girl embraces him to the sound of cameras as the more observant tourists click away at the couple’s special moment.

Beneath the cloudy sky, Arthur brings his hands together and leads the applause. Other tourists join in the cheers. Arthur thrusts two fingers into his mouth and wolf whistles as if he’s watching a footie game, rather than a pair of lovers agreeing to commit to each other for the rest of their lives.

Merlin blinks back tears. It’s one of his most embarrassing traits. Movies, funerals, weddings, a proposal on the Ha’penny Bridge—Merlin can cry at the drop of a hat.

As he watches the couple, he feels a pang of sadness mix with the joy over what he has witnessed.

The couple’s utter happiness seems alien to Merlin. He wonders what combination of planetary alignment and spiritual enlightenment would have to occur before he might find himself experiencing the bliss of the newly-engaged couple. With his oversized ears and scrawny frame, Merlin laments that love always escaped his grasp, especially after he started at uni.

Except for their rogue friend Gwaine, who intrigued Merlin on principle, but not for the amount of STD testing Merlin feared he’d have to undergo if he dabbled with him, no one found Merlin interesting enough to claim. But then there was Arthur, sleeping in their shared flat, showering in their bathroom, scratching his balls when he thought Merlin wasn’t looking.

Merlin doesn’t regret that he didn’t have time for a boyfriend while he was in school. Too many late nights of studying got in the way of socialising. Except for the occasional gay soc event, he kept to himself. Fantasising about his toned and outgoing flatmate seemed to suffice.

Now, with school behind him, he finally understands that the opportunity to meet somebody new at school has passed. There won’t be another experience like uni. His chance slipped away like a retreating tide, only noticeable if he had been paying close attention.

Arthur pulled now and again, Merlin was sure of it. He hides a secret smile of schadenfreude when he remembers that Mordred had a long line of others who came before him. At least that is what Merlin suspects. Although it seems that Arthur never dared to get serious with a lover—his father was too overbearing, always checking to make sure Arthur kept up with his studies. He even hired a tutor when Arthur was failing his statistics class. Arthur had to know what he was doing before Uther handed over the reins to the family business that he had promised. Merlin was grateful for Uther’s interventions that made Merlin feel like he had Arthur all to himself.

“What do you say, Merlin?” Arthur says, punching Merlin lightly on the arm, breaking the spell of reminiscence.

“Yeah, we should head back,” Merlin says, forgetting his sadness along with the locks that signified some other lucky couple’s love.

They walk the five minutes back to the B&B where Hunith’s car awaits them. The Liffey continues to flow to the sea.

~

Riding shotgun, Merlin fiddles with the radio as they zoom down the E01. They’ve opted for some sightseeing along the coastal route and Merlin takes care to find the right station. He’s only graduated from uni yesterday, but he knows he’ll have to hold onto the memories the songs of this summer will evoke for the rest of his life.

“How far until we see something interesting?” Arthur asks.

In addition to the music, Merlin is in charge of the navigation. He switches stations every ten minutes as they travel through the mossy dips and craggy valleys on the coast. When the signal fades to zero bars on his mobile, he pulls out the map his mum keeps in the glove box. Unfortunately, he sucks at reading maps.

“You’ve got it upside down, mate,” Arthur says for the third time since they left Belfast the day before.

“If you’re going to continue whinging about it, you can read the map and I’ll drive,” Merlin says.

Arthur throws back his head and laughs while Merlin tries to hide a smile.

Merlin never bothered to learn to drive. City life provided convenient modes of transportation for him. Aside from vacation trips to the countryside with his mum long before uni, he’s never travelled far from the bustling city centres of Europe. He anticipates that will change soon.

“I suppose I’ll have to get my license in California,” Merlin says, and it makes him sad, like losing his innocence in cloud of exhaust and petrol.

Arthur smoothly shifts gears, making it look easy.

“It’s not like you don’t know how to drive, right?” Arthur asks.

“No, I know how, I just never took the test,” Merlin says, although it’s a lie.

A couple years have passed since Gwaine coaxed Merlin into the driver’s seat of his rusty Astra.

Merlin remembers how keen he was to finally be at uni. Everything was so new to him, and although he loved his mum, he longed to stretch his wings and learn more about the world outside Ealdor. When Gwaine approached him after class with the offer of driving lessons, Merlin couldn’t resist. He followed Gwaine like an eager puppy, anxious to learn how to run with the big dogs.

They drove out to the parking lot behind the science buildings. It didn’t take long for Gwaine to familiarise Merlin with his gear stick. However, it was too soon for Merlin. He laughed off Gwaine’s advances and rebuffed him gently. Flattered though he was, Merlin couldn’t imagine baring his pale skinny body for this virtual stranger, no matter how much the thought of it excited him.

Fortunately, Gwaine took it in stride with a toss of his luxuriant hair.

Merlin was glad when Gwaine pursued Percival for the rest of the semester. Merlin and Percival couldn’t have been more different, proving, not for the first time, that Gwaine would try to pull anything that moved.

Thinking back on the experience, Merlin realizes that he was already a little in love with his flatmate when Gwaine tried to get into Merlin’s pants.

He turns his head to look at Arthur and smiles.

“I’ve seen pictures of California, you know,” Arthur says. “The roads are wider than they are here, and easier to travel, unless they’re covered in snow.”

“I’m looking forward to that,” Merlin says, although his heart breaks when he considers that going to California means leaving Arthur on this continent. “I’d probably have a hard time if I had to drive in a city like London or Belfast. The mountain roads should be all right for someone as out of practise as me.”

“We should practise a bit this week while we’re away from the city,” Arthur says, “if you’re concerned about driving in the states.” He takes his eyes off the road long enough to give Merlin a sincere look.

“I don’t think so,” Merlin says with a laugh. “I want to return my mum’s car to her in one piece.”

An hour away from Dublin, Merlin directs Arthur to stop at Kilmichael Point.

“Everyone else must be at church,” Merlin says, gesturing to the empty car park.

“Lucky for us,” Arthur says, closing the car door behind him. He stuffs Hunith’s keys into the pocket of his jeans.

Merlin wanders past the rocks at the edge of the car park. The wind off the water is strong enough to take his breath away. He hunkers down low, making his lanky body smaller against the salty breeze.

Arthur joins him at the edge of the promontory that rises above the sea. He sits on the cold granite beneath an overcast sky. The waves crash, sending a spray into the air.

Merlin sits beside Arthur. The rocks poke his skinny arse that doesn’t have enough padding. Still, it feels good to stretch his legs after riding in the cramped car. He doesn’t speak. The sound of the surf would drown his words even if he could voice them.

Arthur lies back so he’s sprawled on the rock like a starfish.

Merlin leans over, propped up on one elbow. Above him, the warmth of the sun tries to bake its way through the grey sky. Merlin can almost feel the heat as he imagines the clouds parting to give him a peek of the blue behind them. The moments pass in silent repose. Merlin wishes he could ruffle Arthur’s hair as he lies there close-eyed above the angry sea.

~

They stop to eat at an inn where the worn shingle advertises Sunday Roast. The host takes them for tourists and asks if they’ve been to Ferns Castle.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a castle,” Arthur says between bites of his Yorkshire Pudding. He dredges a slice of buttered bread through the gravy that pools on his plate.

It’s so perfectly domestic that it makes Merlin want to weep.

“We’ll go then,” Merlin says, despite wanting to get to the Blarney Castle by mid-afternoon. He’d rather change plans than disappoint Arthur. He agreed to stop for Sunday Roast, although his Nut Roast is nothing more than a flavourless slab of mashed beans in a congealed sauce.

The host directs them to the castle before they leave the inn. After a two-minute walk, Merlin stares at the ruin in the middle of a housing development.

“This was not what I imagined,” Merlin says with a laugh.

“I don’t know,” Arthur says. “This is pretty class. I can imagine the knights jousting over there by the community building.”

“And the king holding court from atop these stones,” Merlin says.

“Within view of the school playground, of course,” Arthur says.

Merlin scans the castle grounds which are bordered by a chain-link fence separating a primary school from the ancient ruin. The swings of the playground sway gently back and forth in the breeze to the memory of the children who once sat in the rubber slings and pumped their feet to go higher. They monkey bars are silent. Merlin remembers what it was like to come across such an oasis of delight when he was a child and could reach from bar to bar, his grip solid and sure.

How simple it was then, to know only the joy of what the next day held, instead of the worry over driving on icy roads and the fear that no one will be able to understand his funny accent—instead of the sadness at losing his best friend.

“Of course,” Merlin agrees, turning his attention back to Arthur.

He’s climbed up the crumbing castle steps, carrying a length of discarded metal pipe he picked up from the litter in the adjacent construction site. The sun has managed to break the clouds apart, at least temporarily. At the top of the weathered stairs, Arthur turns and raises the makeshift sword high with an outstretched arm.

Merlin’s mouth opens in awe when Arthur’s golden hair catches the sun, the brightness shining like a halo encircling his head.

“For the love of Ferns,” Arthur shouts.

Merlin can almost imagine Arthur in his splendid velvet cloak and his mantle of plush ermine, the chainmail glinting out from beneath his kingly wrappings. He’d lead his army of men to conquer new lands far and wide. They’d follow him of the ends of the earth. Of course everyone would love him as much as Merlin did. How could they not?

“For the love of Ferns,” Merlin agrees, pumping his fist. “And feverfew, and tansy, and hyssop, and all the other medicinal plants I studied about these past four years.”

Arthur collapses in laughter and drops his play sword. He runs down the steps, nearly slipping as the gravel makes for a dangerous footway. At the bottom of the steps, he pulls Merlin into his arms and exclaims, “I can’t believe we’ve really done it—we’ve graduated.”

Merlin’s arms wrap around Arthur. His cheek presses against the zip on Arthur’s hoodie. Merlin makes sure to memorise the feel of Arthur’s arms around him, squeezing tight, the smell of his laundry soap faint on his clothes even though it’s the same brand that Merlin uses in the campus laundry.

By the time they arrive at the Blarney Castle, it has closed for the day.

~

Finding a B&B in Cork proved easy. Finding one with two beds available was more difficult.

“I’ll take the floor, mate,” Arthur says as they check in.

“It’s a king,” the landlord says. “You could sleep top-to-tail. That is, if you’re going to sleep at all. This is Cork—you realize. It might get loud.”

“We’ll see who passes out first, then,” Merlin says with a laugh, snagging the key off the counter.

Arthur offers to get the bags from the boot while Merlin checks out the room, not that they’ll have any recourse if the room is infested with vermin or if there’s a creeper in the shared bath. Before they left Belfast, Merlin threw a pair of old sleeping bags and a tent into Hunith’s car, just in case they were caught without accommodations. But Cork is a crowded city without much green space where Merlin and Arthur could pitch a tent in stealth. They’d have better luck finding free camping if they had stayed near the coast with its rocky enclaves and shady glens. Tonight, it’s a manky B&B.

Fortunately, the room passes the smell test, but after living in a cramped flat with Arthur’s dirty socks and sweaty running shorts, Merlin has grown more tolerant. He opens the window to let in some fresh air. Outside, tourists wander along the street below. It’s not yet half six, but Merlin looks forward to visiting the pubs tonight, although he worries about losing Arthur to a dark-haired native again. He plans to keep Arthur close. Maybe he’ll drink so much that he overcomes his fear of being rejected by the only man he has had eyes for in all these years. He tries to imagine how such a scene would play out… a few awkward words, a sultry gaze, and then his lips on Arthur’s, the taste of his lip balm on Merlin’s tongue.

Merlin jumps out of his fantasy when Arthur bursts into the room with their bags.

They spend the evening on Oliver Plunkett Street, moving from pub to pub, never staying in one place for longer than it took to drink a pint of Murphy’s. Merlin thinks that if he can keep Arthur moving, there’ll be less chance of a dark-haired Irishman laying claim to Arthur’s beautiful lips tonight. His eyes mist with sadness when he thinks that Arthur chose Mordred over him, although Merlin stood right in front of Arthur, available and eager to please.

“On to the next,” Merlin says slamming his empty glass on the bar. He shoves Arthur along before anyone can hit on him.

Focussing on the pub crawl keeps Merlin sane.

“Just one more stop,” Arthur says after another pub is visited. He stumbles off the curb and nearly gets run over by a taxi.

Merlin pulls him back onto the pavement before he gets himself killed.

“Get back inside,” the cabbie shouts. “You’re bloody langers.”

Merlin waves him off and sends Arthur on his way down the sidewalk.

“You’re going to get us beaten up,” Merlin says. He claps his hands to Arthur’s shoulders and tries to calm himself.

“Bloody cars shouldn’t be in the street this late at night,” Arthur says.

Merlin pats down Arthur’s arms with his palms. “You shouldn’t be out drinking this late,” he says. He wants to take Arthur by the hand. He wants to feel the warmth of Arthur’s fingers as they curl against his own. But like always, Merlin wants and he wants and he wants.

“We’ll go home after one more,” Arthur says, his words slurred. “How about this one?”

Merlin’s gaze follows Arthur’s pointing finger.

“How do you say it?” Arthur asks.

“An Bodhrán,” Merlin says. A group of revellers push past them and spill into the pub’s entryway.

“What’s a bodhrán? Some kind of microbrew?” Arthur asks.

“No, it’s a drum,” Merlin says. “I used to play one a bit before I started uni.”

“You did not!” Arthur says, throwing his head back with a laugh.

“I did,” Merlin says, and he can’t stop laughing at the drunken mess Arthur has made of himself. “I’ll show you some day.”

Merlin guides Arthur back to the B&B, sorry that the day when he plays a bodhrán for Arthur may never come. Perhaps if Hunith hasn’t donated his old drum to a charity collection, she still has it saved away somewhere in the attic in Ealdor. Merlin makes Arthur promise to remind him when they get back to Belfast later in the week, although he’s so drunk, Merlin doubts he’ll remember any such thing. Merlin’s heart aches when mentioning the return to Belfast. It makes it seem like their trip is almost over.

Somehow they find their way back to the B&B where they crash for the night. They both land two feet apart atop the quilted coverlet, too weary to get under the sheets.

The next morning, Merlin watches Arthur bend over backwards to kiss the Blarney stone. The front of his shirt rides up and Merlin stands mesmerized by the taut abs and by the trail of hair that leads from Arthur’s navel to dip beneath the waistband of his jeans. He licks his lips and averts his eyes away when the castle tour guide proclaims Arthur in possession of the gift of gab. Outside the tower, a teenaged girl notices Arthur taking photos of the castle grounds. She offers to photograph Arthur and Merlin together. Merlin closes his eyes, wishing he could speak his mind.

~

Arthur turns south on N71, reaching the coast at Clonakilty. From here, Merlin can rest his eyes, the smell of sea salt from the crashing waves making him drowsy. Since the only road leads west along the southwest shore of the emerald isle, there’s nothing to see but the rocky shore and the occasional sheep that ventures across the road to graze on the ocean’s side.

Arthur loves to drive, so Merlin lets him zig and zag down every peninsular side road that offers something new. They’re never more than a quarter mile from the sea. The inlets reach toward the highway and Hunith’s car rolls over bridges and through narrow passageways of stone that border the ancient roads.

Although he’s sleepy, Merlin stays awake, ready to agree with Arthur whenever he points out a stunning view or a shaggy sheep that escaped its summer shearing. The roads turn so jaggedly that Arthur rests his hand on the stick, ready to shift in an instant.

Merlin likes the way Arthur’s fingers wrap around the faux leather knob. His silver ring gleams when it catches the sun just right as they round a corner and Arthur has to shift from high to low. His bicep bulges nicely when he puts effort into moving the gear stick. The curve of muscle dips inward where Arthur’s sleeve ends. Settling deeper into the passenger’s seat, Merlin imagines what it would be like to feel his hands gliding across Arthur’s skin, to feel the muscle beneath.

Fighting back a smile, Merlin secretly hopes that Arthur will strain his back or wrench his neck one day on their road trip so he can offer assistance. He closes his eyes, regretting the one time he had the best opportunity to touch Arthur. Like every other time, Merlin skittered away, afraid of what he might awaken.

Healing massage 401—advanced level finals assignment: Find a student and bring them to class for your evaluation. But when it came time to perform a healing massage on one of his classmates, Merlin chose Gwaine for practise and to be his example because he was too shy to ask Arthur to be his guinea pig. Instead of skimming his hands over Arthur’s golden skin, it was Gwaine on the massage table while Merlin kneaded and rubbed, teasing each knot until it flattened beneath his palms.

Perhaps it was just as well, Merlin thinks. At least he passed his coursework using Gwaine as his client.

Merlin lets one hand slip to his thigh. He moves his palm back and forth along the fabric of his jeans, wishing that he could reach across the Styrofoam cups of tea that litter the console to where Arthur sits. He wishes he could feel Arthur’s skin, warm beneath his hands like Gwaine was that day.

Merlin dreams his way through the Ring of Kerry, past Bantry and Kenmare, to Waterville and Dunquin, imagining that his hands could travel the same path as Mordred’s. He can’t erase the memory from a few nights’ past, Mordred’s blue eyes roving over Arthur, his hands touching the places that Merlin never allowed himself to try to touch.

Through the day, they snack on a bag of crisps, a tin of roasted almonds, and a block of cheese. Arthur steers Hunith’s car among the seaside village shops and along the windswept shores of the rocky coast. Using his fingers, Merlin breaks off bits of cheese and passes them to Arthur. They wash it all down with tea and when that runs out, a Thermos of chilled water they filled in a coffee shop back in Cork. It doesn’t matter that their lips touch the edge of the same container. In a tiny uni flat, they’ve shared such intimacies for the past four years.

Arthur pulls Hunith’s car into the car park at Slea Head Farm. Merlin unfolds himself from the seat and yawns when he stands on the gravel. Together they walk across the green velvet path to where the land drops over crags to the sea.

“Take a good look,” Arthur says. He stands behind Merlin and squeezes his shoulders, pointing him toward the open sea.

“I see it,” Merlin says, knowing what Arthur is getting at.

“Across those waves, lies America. That’s where you’ll be a week from now,” Arthur says.

Merlin can’t decide whether there is a touch of sadness in Arthur’s voice.

“A few thousand miles from here,” Merlin says, and he can hardly believe it’s true that he’ll be separated from Arthur.

“You’ll text me,” Arthur says, “to let me know how it’s going?”

“Of course,” Merlin says, his heart breaking when he decides that Arthur is more excited than Merlin is about moving thousands of miles across an ocean to start a new job.

The waves crash as the tide comes in, leaving a mist hanging in the air. Merlin wipes his eyes, blaming his tears on the salty spray.

~

By the time they get to Tralee, Merlin has called ahead to reserve a twin room above the pub. Sean Og is a typical Irish bar with a cheap B&B upstairs. The pub boasts live music seven nights of the week, so tonight is no exception, despite it being a work night for most of the locals.

Arthur and Merlin stow their gear in the room and grab some pub fish and chips just as the music begins, some loud percussion band with an anti-synthetic philosophy. The bartender pulls two-minute pint after pint of Guinness as the crowd sings along to the songs that are familiar only to the people who live in this corner of the island.

The words may be strange, but music is a native language to most and the band encourages participation. During their set, the singer hauls a few unsuspecting pub-goers onto the stage. A pair of girls, drunk on gin, hang onto the nearest band member. They giggle and flirt, their fingernails plucking the strings of the dulcimer, their palms skimming over the skin of the bodhrán.

“Take me!” a blue-eyed lass calls to the bandmates. But they have other ideas as they scan the crowd for attractive folks who will bring the audience to its feet.

“Right here!” Arthur yells, shoving Merlin forward.

Merlin’s feet stutter on the sticky wooden floor.

Before Merlin can protest, the burly drummer locks Merlin’s hand in his grip and yanks him onto the stage. The chanting of the crowd suddenly seems louder as Merlin shields his eyes from the lights that illuminate the band. Above the noise, he hears Arthur’s unmistakable wolf whistle urging him on.

The blokes in the band seem nice enough. They get the newcomers started, familiarising them with the instruments with a thirty-second crash course in music theory. Merlin couldn’t care less, as he’s already drunk his fill. Besides, unbeknownst to most people, he took bodhrán lessons from the time he was in primary school until his sixth form.

The drummer starts off with a steady beat. Merlin’s head swims with the Guinness and he praises God that he already checked in with Hunith before he and Arthur ate their pub fare. The audience begins to clap in rhythm with the drum.

It’s easy for Merlin to be a showman when he’s drunk. His heritage demands it. He finds a bench on the stage and holds the tipper high over his head. Up until now, the girls have attracted more attention, but at six feet tall, Merlin waves the tipper and all eyes turn to him. At the drummer’s downbeat, Merlin plants his arse on the bench. Without letting a split second pass, he begins to play.

A scream goes up in the audience when someone recognizes that Merlin actually knows what he’s doing. The tipper moves smoothly between his fingers, although years have passed since he’s had a lesson or picked up the instrument that is buried somewhere in his childhood home. He taps his foot to the beat and tries to keep up with the rhythm set by the drummer. The girls join in on the strings and the rest of the band urge the audience on with their clapping.

When the song mercifully ends, Merlin feels his head spinning from the rush of alcohol and the thrill of satisfying his adoring fans. Somehow, he gets the bodhrán back to its owner. He sits on the edge of the stage, blinded by the spotlight. Squinting against the glare, he feels hands tugging at him. He slides off the stage and falls into welcoming arms.

Arthur pulls him close and whispers into his ear, “You were amazing.”

Merlin hangs onto him, memorising the satisfaction he gets from being held against Arthur’s warm chest, the thrill of Arthur being pleased with something he’s done.

Everyone wants to buy Merlin a pint. So, he lets them, hoping it makes him shine still brighter in Arthur’s eyes.

~

They finally stumble up the stairs while the band still plays.

Merlin’s head spins. He retches over the toilet, embarrassed at the sounds he makes, although it’s not like Arthur has never heard them before. As flatmates, they have spent the past four years taking care of each other when one sickness or another befell them.

Merlin flushes his sick down with a push of the toilet handle. He hears Arthur running the water in the sink. Sitting back on his heels, he feels Arthur press the damp cloth to his forehead.

“Here you go,” Arthur says. His voice soothes Merlin.

“That’s better,” Merlin says, trying to smile.

“So, it’s not true—what they say about Irishmen and their liquor?” Arthur asks.

Merlin ignores him as his stomach roils.

They linger in the loo, Merlin on his knees. The cool press of the cloth reminds Merlin of how much Arthur cares for him. Moments pass in silence.

“To bed with you,” Arthur finally whispers, easing Merlin onto his feet.

Merlin leans back and Arthur catches his weight. Arthur feels warm and inviting with his arms wrapped around him. The room spins and Merlin reaches for Arthur’s comforting arms with both hands.

“But first,” Arthur says, freeing a hand to rummage through Merlin’s kit for his toothbrush, “this will make you feel better.”

Merlin splays his hands on top of the vanity, steadying himself while Arthur fetches the toothpaste. The experience in the pub has put some of Merlin’s sadness to rest, although he wishes his stomach didn’t feel like a food processer is carving his insides into pulp.

Arthur squeezes out some toothpaste and hands Merlin his toothbrush. Merlin obediently turns on the water and brushes, the mint filling his nostrils and masking the scent of his sickness.

“All done,” Merlin says when he finishes. He giggles because he realizes that he sounds like little boy.

Arthur tosses the toothbrush aside and guides Merlin to the bed that he claimed by leaving his bag on it earlier. Arthur pushes the bag off the edge of the bed and turns down the sheets before lowering Merlin to the bed.

Merlin growls and shoves the remaining covers aside haphazardly. Downstairs, the beat of the music permeates through the pub’s ceiling and into the rooms of the B&B. Merlin’s head hits the pillow and the room spins.

Arthur finds the bin and makes a point of making sure Merlin knows that he has set it beside Merlin’s bed, standing ready should Merlin need it again.

“I see it,” Merlin says, his eyes half-shut.

“I’m just making sure,” Arthur says.

Arthur sits on the twin bed beside Merlin. He turns and leans toward the foot of the bed to tug at the laces of Merlin’s trainers. Merlin cooperates by kicking them off when Arthur finishes untying. They land on the floor with a thud. Arthur strips off Merlin’s socks and Merlin stretches his toes. When Arthur makes to stand, Merlin stops him.

“Come here,” Merlin says, catching Arthur’s hand.

Merlin feels the bed dip again when Arthur sits back down, his eyes on Merlin’s drunken smile.

“Thanks,” Merlin says as his eyes close. “Thanks for taking care of me.”

Merlin memorizes the way the pads of his fingers feel against Arthur’s warm skin in the cool night air of their suite. They’ve touched like this before, in school, once when Merlin was stressed out over his chemistry final. Arthur squeezed Merlin’s shoulders when he sat slumped over his desk, sure that he had failed.

They nearly kissed in another moment when Arthur had a monstrous zit on his cheek. He begged Merlin to look closely at it, making sure the job he had done hiding it with some of Morgana’s makeup had done the trick. Merlin had leaned over Arthur and adjusted his desk lamp to get a better look. With Merlin’s fingers touching Arthur’s jawline, a thumb sweeping the corner of his mouth, Merlin had whispered, “You’re perfect.”

The moment passed like the flick of a light switch. That time, like every other time, Arthur broke the spell by taunting Merlin with a noogie, capturing him in a headlock and mussing his hair with bony knuckles.

Merlin always took it well when Arthur was jovial about it. It allowed Merlin to keep his secret without revealing himself too deeply. Amid their peals of laughter, it was enough for Merlin to know he made Arthur smile.

It would have to be enough to last a lifetime.

Arthur’s hand clasps Merlin’s. In his drunken sleepiness, Merlin smiles and remembers the times they touched like this. As he drifts off to sleep, he could swear he feels Arthur press his lips to his forehead.

Merlin smiles, unwilling to let go of his bliss, even in sleep. He drifts off to dreamland relieved that he has no thoughts of Mordred to fight off tonight.

~

“I promise it’ll be a short drive today,” Arthur says from across the room.

Merlin wakes abruptly, surprised that he slept through until morning, the bin untouched.

“You must be getting tired of driving,” Merlin says.

“And your little bottom must be getting sore,” Arthur says with a grin.

“We should do more touring, anyway. We’re near the Cliffs of Moher,” Merlin says. This will be his last chance to see this part of Ireland for a long while, maybe forever, so he wants to enjoy one last look while he can.

“What? And do something besides drinking?” Arthur asks in disbelief. “What kind of Irishman are you?”

Merlin ducks when Arthur hurls a pillow from his bed. Instinctively, his arm shoots out, deflecting the pillow so it lands on the floor between the two beds. He laughs. “You can’t tell me that you’re not enjoying the pubs.”

“That’s true. How about stopping for the day in Galway?” Arthur asks.

Merlin rubs his eyes and when he opens them he notices Arthur has dug out the map from his bag.

“Galway’s not too much farther,” Merlin says, his voice gravelly from the alcohol he consumed the night before. “And we could stop in Limerick on the way. You should see the castle there.”

“Is it anything like Ferns Castle?” Arthur asks.

Merlin laughs. “It’s much more impressive than that, from what I remember,” he says.

“Well, if you feel like getting out of bed, we can go for breakfast,” Arthur says. “Or, if we’re stopping for the night in Galway, you can have a lie-in. It’s up to you.”

Merlin groans, his belly rumbling from last night’s escapades. He doesn’t feel hungry, but it wouldn’t hurt to eat a piece of toast with tea to settle his stomach.

“No, we should get moving. Do you want the shower first?” Merlin asks.

“I may as well,” Arthur says. “Besides, you look like you could use a bit more beauty sleep.”

“That bad?” Merlin asks with a frown.

He watches Arthur disappear into the loo without replying.

They drive to Limerick and eat breakfast in a small café. Merlin washes down some paracetamol for his headache with his tea. The buttered toast makes him feel right again. Across the table, Arthur slathers clotted cream over his scones and Merlin knows they’ll both be hungry for something more substantial by lunchtime.

They don’t linger long in Limerick, but Arthur slows the car so Merlin can photograph King John’s Castle as they pass it on their way to the M18.

Merlin dozes as Arthur drives, the morning sun streaming through the car windows, making Arthur’s hair shine like spun gold.

An hour passes before Arthur asks, “Fancy a stretch?”

Merlin opens his eyes to see that Arthur is following the signs that lead to the Cliffs of Moher.

“All the tourism experts say this is a must-see,” Merlin says with a nod.

They park the car and wander down the path to the viewpoint.

Merlin remembers the time, years ago, when Hunith shouted at him to not stand so close to the edge of the cliffs. He was only a child then, but he had never been back to the cliffs again, until now. The proximity of the site to his childhood home made it seem less exciting to visit than places like metropolitan London or exotic California.

And surely he would have remembered the gift shops that were half-buried in the ground like a Teletubbie shopping centre.

Merlin zips up his hoodie and gazes over the cliffs. The sea churns hundreds of feet below.

Arthur takes his mobile from his pocket and snaps pictures of Merlin as he stands above the cliffs, his hair ruffling in the wind.

Merlin wonders if Arthur took pictures of Mordred to remember him by. The night that they spent gallivanting all over Dublin has left a bad taste in Merlin’s mouth that no cuppa from the Cliffs of Moher snack shop can wash away.

~

In Galway, they park the car and roam the streets, visiting the numerous shops. The walking helps Merlin to clear his head. The scent of spicy kebabs and Nutella crepes fills the air. They pause to listen to the music as a street performer plays harmonica.

“Hostel tonight?” Arthur asks, tilting his head toward a building that looks like a castle.

Merlin does a double-take and sees the castle entrance has been painted a funky orange. A mural of huge multi-coloured tulips surrounds the doorway.

“Galway City Hostel,” Merlin reads. “Looks good.”

“I wasn’t coddin’ ye when I said we weren’t going far today,” Arthur says, playfully punching Merlin in the arm.

They pay for a double room and drop off their bags. Resuming their tour of the city, they wander from shop to shop, stopping when something catches their eye.

On the main road, Merlin notices a pair of girls who seem to be following him and Arthur.

“There they are again,” Merlin says, when the pair appears in the tobacco shop.

“They’re not following us,” Arthur says with a laugh. “Have you always been this suspicious?”

“They were right next to us in the gourmet shop. They followed us to the bakery and now they’re with us again,” Merlin whispers.

“You’re sure you’re not just imagining it?” Arthur asks.

“I’m not!” Merlin insists.

Before Merlin can stop him, Arthur calls to the girls. “Hey, you two! Are you following us?” he asks.

The girls giggle and head for the exit, but Arthur follows them outside. The crowd of tourists is as thick as chocolate pudding, so the girls don’t get very far.

Merlin joins them on the pavement.

“What’s the craic?” Arthur asks the girls, his head titled to the side, his smile bright.

“It’s not my idea,” the girl with the straight blonde hair says. “Gwen is trying to make her boyfriend jealous.”

“Stop it Elena,” Gwen, the girl with the dark ringlets, says. “You’re embarrassing me.”

“Her crush wouldn’t go shopping with her today, so she told him she’d find another bloke to go with,” Elena explains. “Only there really is no one, besides me.”

“So, we were wondering…” Gwen says. She bites her lip nervously.

“We were wondering if you’d have your picture taken with Gwen, so she can show it to Lance to make him jealous?” Elena says.

“What? And be a part of your nefarious plan?” Arthur asks, his head thrown back with laughter. “What do you take me for?”

The girls dissolve in a fit of giggles.

“That’s savage,” Merlin says.

“You’re the most handsome tourists we’ve seen all day,” Elena says. “Please say you’ll do it?”

“With two ladies as lovely as you, how can I refuse?” Arthur says, his arms open wide.

“Does this mean you’ll stop following him, so we can get on with touring?” Merlin asks.

“We promise, we will,” Elena says. She takes Merlin’s hand and leads him a few steps away from Arthur and Gwen.

“I can’t understand why this Lance wouldn’t want to spend the day with you,” Arthur says. He wraps an arm around Gwen’s shoulders and gently pulls her in for a hug.

“Okay, smile, you two,” Elena says, snapping pictures with her mobile.

When the photo-session ends, the girls thank Arthur and Merlin for being good sports. Merlin even manages to get a hug from the pair before they walk away. He watches Arthur’s eyes follow the girls down the block and into the crowd. Deep inside his heart, he aches for Arthur to flirt with him, instead of the pretty girls he encounters every day.

In Standun’s, Arthur tries on an Aran sweater. He poses in the mirror, inspecting the fit.

“Ireland agrees with you,” Merlin says, letting his fingers graze the front of the cabled knit, across Arthur’s chest. He doesn’t say the word mine but he wishes that he could convey it with his touch.

Arthur grins. “I’ll take it,” he says, taking his credit card out of his wallet.

As they browse the shop-lined streets, Merlin’s heart fills because of his fantasy. He imagines they are a couple on holliers like all the other couples he sees—maybe even a married couple, now that Ireland has legalised marriage equality. When their fingers brush as they walk beside each other, Merlin dreams that Arthur wants to hold his hand. But it’s only because of the narrowing of the passageway caused by tourists who crowd a storefront. They take up too much of the pavement, driving Merlin and Arthur closer, although not close enough for Merlin’s liking.

“Take a look at this,” Arthur says. He ushers Merlin toward a storefront window. “People have to be insane to pay that kind of price for a ring.”

Merlin looks into the window to see what Arthur is talking about. The shiny golden Claddagh rings do seem overpriced.

“That’s why our business courses were so important,” Arthur says, catching Merlin’s eye. “You have to know the cost of goods and the margin that will make you successful.”

“They wouldn’t be getting these prices anywhere but Galway,” Merlin says. “Obviously the tourists keep them in business when they don’t mind spending so much for the perfect souvenir.”

“Sometimes, it’s worth it. They’re paying for the experience of being here,” Arthur says.

“They’ll never be in Galway, in this place, or at this time,” Merlin says, acknowledging what Arthur seems to be getting at.

“Or with the person they want to be with,” Arthur says.

Merlin nods in silent agreement.

Later that night, Arthur pokes his head out from behind the curtain that blocks the light from his top bunk. “Let’s go camping tomorrow,” he says. “Connemara?”

Merlin peers out from his bunk and looks up at Arthur, swathed in bed-curtains fit for a king’s bedchamber in days of old. “I’d like that,” Merlin says.

He falls asleep to thoughts of sharing a tent with Arthur.

~

“Yes, father,” Arthur speaks into his mobile. “I can’t hear you very well. It’s windy here.”

Standing on a bluff above the sea, Merlin hears the sharp tone of Uther’s voice, despite the wind.

“Yes, on Friday,” Arthur says, walking around in a circle, hoping for a better signal on his mobile. “I’ll probably be getting in late.”

Merlin has never had much use for Uther Pendragon. The first time they met, Uther had the audacity to ask Merlin why he was studying such ridiculous subjects at uni.

Apparently the man saw no correlation between Merlin’s studies and a weekly appointment with his masseuse, nor from the promising pharmaceutical windfall he was poised to enjoy, thanks to herbal medicine going mainstream.

“Good luck finding a job,” Uther had said, adding a sarcastic, “you’ll need it, with those qualifications.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Arthur said, after Uther had left their flat. “You’re going to be a wonderful naturopath. Think of all the people you’re going to help.”

“I’m sorry your father has such a low opinion about those who try to improve people’s quality of life,” Merlin said.

“He’d think differently if he knew your Uncle Gaius owned Avalon Ranch,” Arthur said. “I wish you’d let me tell him.”

Merlin didn’t like to brag that his uncle owned a chain of prestigious spas with a half dozen locations worldwide. The centres for healing and relaxation were visited by celebrities from every genre of society’s upper class. Socialites, sports figures, billionaires, the Ranch had no ordinary clientele. Running the spa in the mountains of California would be a dream come true for a boy from Ealdor. Thanks to his uncle, Merlin welcomed the opportunity to practise what he had learned in uni.

“I’m sorry, he’s so exasperating,” Arthur says, pocketing his mobile. “Shall we head back to the tent?”

“He’s angry that you went away for the week?” Merlin asks as they make their way out of the wind.

“One of his top execs gave notice that he’s retiring. My father will get over it. He always does,” Arthur says.

They walk along the edge of the bluff. The mountains and moors on their right explode with every shade of green, the placid ocean swells gently on their left. Their small tent lies in a sheltered vale far enough from the water’s edge to avoid the rising tide. Hunith’s car sits in the car park, a half mile from where the rocky path leads to the water.

In their private hideaway, they eat the sandwiches that bought in town, washing it all down with the bottled ale that they carried down the hill to the tent.

At sunset, they watch the sky change from blue to golden red from their sleeping bags. The tent will keep the morning dew off their heads, but the night promises to be mild so they leave the door unzipped.

Merlin loves the feel of Arthur’s body stretched out beside his. Although they are swathed in their sleeping bags, Merlin memorizes the jut of Arthur’s hip, his scent, the way his hair changes colour in the setting sun. He never wants to forget his time with Arthur.

When the sky becomes a black canvas studded with twinkling stars, they sleep.

Merlin tries to forget that only one night remains of their time together. Instead, he reminds himself to savour each minute. He doubts that Mordred could ever crave Arthur as much as he does, even after their night together. He could never know Arthur the way that Merlin does. Mordred could never feel the ache that Merlin feels, knowing they will soon part forever, his love a secret as endless as the evening sky.

~

The next morning, they break camp and head toward Belfast. When they cross the border into Northern Ireland at Coshquin, Merlin feels the familiar sense of coming home, but it doesn’t warm him. There is no joy for him in the feeling that their trip is nearly over.

They could make it to Hunith’s by lunch if they tried. But Merlin wants to hug the coast, to make the day last longer. Besides, there’s a place he wants Arthur to see before he leaves the island. And if Merlin gets his wish, they’ll spend another night stretched out beside each other in the rough before they make it to Belfast.

A dozen tourists clamber over the rocks when Arthur pulls into the car park at Giant’s Causeway. The afternoon sun burns through the haze, but a light wind has made hoodies and jackets necessary. The squeals of children playing in the tidal pools carry over the rocky steps from the sea.

Shore birds squeak to one another as they dive for a dropped piece of popcorn or a peanut that escaped from someone’s bag of snacks. Eider ducks bob up and down at the water’s edge. Redshanks soar over the water, searching for a meal.

Merlin makes a game of stepping from one hexagon to another. The rocks are slippery and trainers aren’t the best footwear for roaming the rocks. Arthur catches him by the arm when he skids across a slick stone. Merlin glances at Arthur’s hand, warm even through his clothes, before meeting his eyes.

“Thanks,” Merlin says. The word is so quiet that the wind whisks it away.

Nearer to the water, the stones are covered with a layer of barnacles. Arthur lifts a hunk of wet green seaweed from the rocks and threatens to chase Merlin with it. Merlin laughs and ducks out of the way at the last moment before the slimy mess can touch his hair.

“I’ll stop,” Arthur says. “I need to remember that I’ll be sleeping beside you tonight.”

A tingle rushes through Merlin and makes his cock swell. He doesn’t question Arthur about whether they’ll get a B&B for their last night on the road. For the rest of the afternoon, he keeps his eyes open for an intimate place to camp instead, his wish fulfilled.

~

They settle on a secluded patch of grass just above the Port Moon Bothy. If they stand close to the edge of the cliff, they can see the shelter for kayakers a hundred feet below. The red roof stands out among the craggy shore and the lush green of the northern coast. Port Moon Bothy is only accessible by sea, but Merlin and Arthur have this clifftop above it all to themselves, except for an occasional shorebird.

Arthur tosses his travel bag into the tent. Their sleeping bags lie on Hunith’s old foam camping pads that provide some insulation from the cold ground.

Merlin takes one more look around to ensure their camp is well-hidden from anyone who might drive by on the road. He doubts many vehicles will make this winding journey after dark. Even the shelter below stands empty tonight. Merlin would have seen the paddlers coming ashore long before sunset if they had reservations.

The last vestiges of light begin to fade from the sky. The overcast of grey makes the night seem brighter. Merlin is glad for it. He wants to watch Arthur sleep for the last time. He wants to imprint the memory of this trip as deeply as he can on his heart.

He crawls into the tent beside Arthur and stretches out languidly on top of his sleeping bag. Quiet, he listens to the crash of the waves below.

“It’s been a long day,” Arthur says with a yawn.

“Our last night on the road,” Merlin says, although he needs no reminder. He has been dreading this final night that will mark an end to their journey.

Arthur rolls to his side and faces Merlin. “It’s gone by fast,” he says.

“We’ve seen a lot of things in a week,” Merlin says, and a part of him wishes he could relive the week—minus their first night when Arthur met Mordred. Perhaps if things had been different, if Merlin had been more forthcoming, their time together could have ended differently.

“What was your favourite thing?” Arthur asks, his voice soft.

“Hmmm?” Merlin asks, buying time to think, lest he give an answer he’ll regret.

“Your favourite part of the whole trip?” Arthur asks, his breath soft on Merlin’s face.

Merlin thinks of an acceptable answer. “The look on your face when you realized I really could play a bodhrán,” he says with a laugh.

Merlin feels Arthur’s smile, hears the amusement in the huff of his breath.

“How about you,” Merlin asks. “What was your favourite part?” He hopes Arthur enjoyed himself on their trip around his homeland, but he’s distracted by the brush of Arthur’s knuckles soft against his cheek.

“My favourite part,” Arthur says, his voice wavering, “is that I got to see it all with you.”

At first, Merlin thinks he is mistaken, but he has only to look into Arthur’s eyes as he lies beside him.

“Arthur?” he asks, his voice only a breath. He raises his hand and finds Arthur’s fingers where they touch his cheek. He almost can’t believe that Arthur is touching him, but his hand tells him the truth.

Merlin moans low and then he is gone, lost in the sensation of Arthur’s lips on his. He can’t breathe, but he needs to pull away, he needs to know that this is not some mistake. He turns his face, only to feel Arthur’s lips pressing against his jaw, leaving a trail of kisses down his neck. Merlin can hear the crash of the waves on the shore below.

“Arthur,” Merlin whispers a plea, but he is unsure whether it is a plea to continue or a plea to stop this agony of not knowing what this means between them.

“Kiss me,” Arthur breathes, his thumb caressing Merlin’s cheek, his fingers speared through his hair.

“I can’t,” Merlin says, his eyes falling closed. He knows he will regret pushing Arthur away, when this very act was what he craved so much, and for so long.

Arthur stills his hands. Merlin can feel the shift in the air as Arthur collects himself, crestfallen. It breaks Merlin’s heart to turn his affection away. He tries to explain, as if that will make their trip end with their friendship intact.

“I don’t…” Merlin says, and for a moment he is gripped with fear that Arthur thinks he doesn’t want him. He hurries to get his thoughts out. “I don’t want to be a one-night stand…”

Outside the ocean has quieted and the waves reach the shore in an almost soundless splash.

“I don’t want to be like Mordred,” Merlin whispers.

Merlin mourns the loss of Arthur’s kisses, but he is grateful that he spoke out. He wants to mean something to Arthur, something more than a random pull after a night of pubbing.

The silence is broken by Arthur’s laughter.

Merlin looks up at Arthur, their bodies still pressed tight in an embrace.

“It’s not funny,” Merlin says, his feelings crushed.

“Oh, Merlin,” Arthur says, “if you only knew.”

“Knew what?” Merlin asks, pushing away from Arthur’s warmth, his body shimmying across the sleeping bag toward the wall of the tent.

“You’ve no need to be jealous of Mordred,” Arthur says.

“I’m not jealous,” Merlin says, defiant.

“Yes, you are,” Arthur says, the laughter in his voice making Merlin want to fling himself off the cliff and onto the roof of the Port Moon Bothy.

“I’ve got nothing to be jealous about,” Merlin says.

Arthur gets to his knees and crawls to the bottom of the tent. Merlin can hear him find his bag and open two, maybe three of the zippered compartments as he hunts for something.

“No. You don’t,” Arthur says when he shifts back onto his sleeping bag.

Even with his tear-filled eyes, Merlin can see that Arthur clutches something in his hand.

“I paid Mordred good money,” Arthur says.

And for an instant Merlin tries to wrap his head around the idea of Arthur paying Mordred for sex.

“To make this for you,” Arthur says.

Arthur opens his hand to reveal a silver amulet with a beautiful triskelion carved into its surface.

“What is it?” Merlin asks, taking the pendant in his hand. The leather thong slips through Arthur’s hands.

“Mordred is a silversmith,” Arthur says. “He’s based in Dublin. I found him on Etsy and commissioned him to make this for you. I wanted it to be special.”

“Oh,” Merlin chokes out, examining the design. He knows it to be a symbol of mind, body, and spirit. “It’s beautiful.” He turns the amulet back and forth in his hands.

“He didn’t have it ready in time to ship it to uni, so I arranged to pick it up at his studio. That’s where I went when we left the pub together,” Arthur says.

Merlin can’t manage to speak. The thoughts he has had all week long about Arthur and Mordred flash through his mind. He’s more than a little embarrassed, but beyond that, he’s relieved.

“So, you’re not the slag I thought you were?” Merlin asks.

Arthur laughs. “I’ll let you be the judge of that,” Arthur says.

Merlin lets himself settle back toward the centre of his sleeping bag.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin says. “I really thought you… and Mordred…”

Arthur reaches across the tent and traces a finger along Merlin’s cheek.

“I should have told you,” Arthur says. “I had no idea that you thought Mordred and I had been together.”

“It’s my fault,” Merlin says. “I should have said something sooner.”

“If I knew you were jealous,” Arthur says. “I would have done something sooner to put you at ease.”

“Something?” Merlin asks slyly, hoping that it means what he thinks it means.

“Merlin, don’t you know what you do to me?” Arthur asks. He slides his hand down Merlin’s arm and lets it rest on Merlin’s hip.

“You didn’t know how much I’ve always wanted to make love to you?” Merlin asks. His heart is beating so loudly, he can no longer hear the waves below.

“Why did you never tell me?” Arthur asks.

It hurts Merlin’s heart to think that he has kept his secret for so long. He should have acted on it when they had a chance to spend more time together. But he resolves that he won’t have any more regrets.

“I’m telling you now,” Merlin says. He pushes himself up onto one elbow and leans closer to Arthur.

“We’re a fine pair, aren’t we?” Arthur asks with a laugh.

After first taking a deep breath to steady himself, Merlin presses his lips to Arthur’s, hoping that he will reciprocate. The amulet is still clutched in his palm, protecting him, giving him strength as Arthur undoubtedly intended.

Merlin is rewarded by a sweep of Arthur’s tongue against his lips. He opens his mouth, deepening the kiss as his hand roams across Arthur’s back, pulling him closer.

Arthur rolls over so he straddles Merlin, his head brushing the roof of the nylon tent. The amulet falls out of Merlin’s grasp. Arthur finds it in the rumpled sleeping bag and places it beside the spare hoodie Merlin uses as a pillow. Settling back on his heels, Arthur strips off his shirt and tosses it to the corner of the tent.

Merlin gasps when he feels Arthur’s cock pressed against him through his jeans. He smiles, pleased that Arthur’s cock is as hard as his own. He lets his fingers trace the lines of muscle on Arthur’s chest. His chest feels every bit as strong and toned as Merlin has dreamed it would be beneath his fingers.

Merlin gives a lascivious cant of his hips and Arthur falls aside, landing on his sleeping bag. He wraps Merlin in his arms and kisses him again, pressing his lips to Merlin’s neck, his chin, his cheeks. Merlin finds Arthur’s lips again and kisses him until he feels like he is floating.

Arthur moans when Merlin shoves his knee between his legs. Gently, Arthur slides his hand beneath the bottom hem of Merlin’s T-shirt.

Merlin feels Arthur’s hard cock that shows sign of getting even harder. Arthur’s fingers tickle when he finds the trail of dark wispy hairs that lead below Merlin’s waistband.

“Can I touch you?” Arthur asks.

Arthur’s hand on his belly drives Merlin insane with desire. He wishes so badly that he told Arthur how he felt about him earlier. He’ll never be able to recover the time they could have spent making love to each other. Four lost years… can it be enough that they spend this one night together? For Merlin, it will have to be enough.

“Yes,” Merlin says, not wanting to waste any more time, “please.”

Merlin reaches down to undo the button at his waist. Arthur fumbles with the zipper, each movement of Arthur’s fingers sending shocks of arousal to Merlin’s cock.

Merlin lifts his arse and wriggles out of his jeans, kicking them into a ball at the bottom of the tent. He gasps when Arthur touches him more intimately than he ever has before. Arthur’s hand is warm as he palms Merlin’s cock, although his boxers block the contact of skin on skin.

“Let’s get these out of the way,” Arthur says as he manoeuvers himself between Merlin’s legs.

Outside, the moon rises above the sea. It illuminates the stray clouds and makes the sky seem bright. Arthur is even more beautiful in this light, the pale moonlight making his features seem something out of Merlin’s best dreams.

Merlin holds his breath while Arthur slides his boxers down, freeing his cock. He can feel his heart pounding when Arthur settles between his legs. He trembles when Arthur takes a long lick of his cock’s length.

Arthur makes a humming sound as he tastes the fluid that beads from Merlin’s cock. His fingers stroke the insides of Merlin’s thighs, the touch to the pale smooth skin making Merlin moan with pleasure.

Merlin’s hips involuntarily hitch when Arthur takes his cock deep into his impossibly warm mouth. He presses his head down into the hoodie-pillow as hard as he can when Arthur’s thumbs smooth his balls and dip down to explore the cleft between his arse cheeks. A groan escapes him when Arthur finds his hole and teases the furl with a gentle press of tiny unrelenting circles.

Merlin digs his fingers into the sleeping bag to keep from coming so soon. But it’s too late. His body grows taut before he shakes with pleasure as Arthur’s glorious mouth milks the seed from him.

Arthur does his best to swallow all of Merlin that he can, but he loses some of his reward as it drips onto Merlin’s belly. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and crawls over Merlin’s limbs toward the door of the tent. His shuddering subsiding, Merlin tugs on Arthur’s arms, bringing him up to his level.

In the dim light, Arthur grins down at Merlin. Merlin can only sigh, any silly retort is lost in the salty ocean air.

“I’ve been waiting so long for that,” Arthur says. His cock is rock hard as it presses into Merlin’s thigh.

“Sorry,” Merlin mouths the word, knowing that Arthur can see his lips in the moonlight.

Merlin pulls Arthur down to him. Their lips brush together. Merlin thinks he has never felt such utter bliss before in his life. It’s better than the best massage, more freeing than crystal healing.

Arthur kisses Merlin hard, making him groan as he ruts against him. Sliding his hands over Arthur’s back and arse, Merlin urges Arthur to move faster and faster. Arthur’s cock slides through Merlin’s sticky come that Arthur couldn’t catch with his mouth.

Merlin’s fingers dig into Arthur’s hips as he meets him thrust for thrust, his spent and sensitive cock beginning to harden again. Merlin kisses Arthur as they moan together. He plunges his tongue into Arthur’s mouth, tasting what he has longed for every day for four long years. He opens his eyes, wanting to watch Arthur as he comes apart, although the tent is dim now and Merlin’s head swims with the echoes of their lust.

Arthur ruts harder and suddenly stills. His ragged breath groans into Merlin’s ear. Merlin feels him spend in the space between their heated bodies. Arthur collapses on top of Merlin and they lie there, simply breathing each other’s breath, until a dozen waves roll in to touch the shore below their camp.

Merlin’s heartbeat slowly returns to normal. He kisses the top of Arthur’s head. He cannot hide his smile, nor does he want to.

Arthur shifts to his side and reaches for his discarded shirt. The white long-sleeved one has always been one of Merlin’s favourites. Arthur uses it to gently wipe the sticky mess from Merlin’s belly.

Merlin pants with every stroke of Arthur’s shirt against his ticklish skin. When Arthur finishes, he casts the shirt aside. It lands somewhere in the heap of clothing they have shucked in the corner of the tent.

Merlin spreads his hand wide across the small of Arthur’s bare back and pulls him close. Arthur lies beside him, his face buried in Merlin’s neck. The scent of each other’s spunk swirls around the cramped tent’s interior. Merlin takes a breath, determined to savour the memory of sex and Arthur and sea for as long as he can. He rests his chin on Arthur’s head and lets himself be soothed by the embrace of Arthur’s strong arms.

Moments later, Merlin dozes, but not deeply enough to ignore when Arthur reaches behind his back to grasp an edge of a sleeping bag. Arthur shifts closer to Merlin and tucks the unzipped bag around them while they fall asleep.

~

“Hey, you!” a voice rings out, waking Merlin from his sleep. “You can’t camp there—it’s private property.”

The rays of morning sunshine break through the low clouds, illuminating the tent’s interior with a sunny glow. Arthur jolts awake from where he lies beside Merlin, still tangled in a knot of naked arms and legs.

“Sorry,” Merlin calls out, trying to stifle an embarrassed laugh. He scrambles to reach for a suitable piece of clothing from the articles that are strewn around the tent.

“We didn’t know,” Arthur adds. He pulls a face at Merlin who cannot contain his laughter.

Arthur grins as he finds his shirt, the same one that he used to wipe Merlin clean the night before.

“Oh my God,” Merlin says, laughing. “We’re in so much trouble.” He manages to find his jeans and he puts them on without bothering to locate his boxers.

“This isn’t a bloody caravan park,” the voice outside calls.

“We’ll be on our way,” Merlin says, unzipping the tent door. “Sorry to bother you, sir.”

When Merlin steps outside, he is greeted by a farmer carrying a pitchfork.

“Get off of my property before I call the police,” the farmer shouts.

“We’re leaving,” Merlin says. He grabs his shirt from inside the tent entrance and pulls it on.

The tent sways and the nylon walls bulge from Arthur’s struggle to dress himself.

“See that you do,” the farmer says, not moving from his position a dozen yards away.

Arthur pokes his head from the tent. “I wrapped up the sleeping bags,” he says as he drops them on the grass outside.

Merlin proceeds to unfasten the poles from the grommets that held the tent erect while Arthur tosses the rest of their belongings from the tent. When everything is wrapped up, they carry the whole lot across the high meadow to where Hunith’s car awaits them. The wet grass feels nice between Merlin’s toes. He can’t contain his laughter about the farmer threatening to call the police, about Arthur finally confessing his feelings to him, about the irony of Arthur’s flight back to London this evening.

They kiss outside of Hunith’s car after they fill the boot with their camping supplies. Merlin finds his trainers bursting from Arthur’s travel bag. He slips them onto his cold feet without tying them.

In the car, they can’t keep their hands off each other. Merlin reaches across the console to squeeze Arthur’s thigh. When the gear stick doesn’t require his attention, Arthur slips his hand beneath Merlin’s shirt and lets his fingers play with the soft skin where his love handles should be, if he had them.

Just down the road, in Armoy, they stop for tea in a small café. Arthur checks his voicemail to listen to his father’s distress about problems he’s having with the family business. He turns his phone off and stashes it in his pocket.

Merlin relishes being the centre of Arthur’s focus. People pass the café window, but Arthur and Merlin spend the rest of the morning simply looking at each other, exchanged words of endearment in hushed whispers.

Pure adoration shines in Arthur’s eyes. Merlin touches the amulet that hangs around his neck. He tries to enjoy these last hours. He knows he’ll be a sobbing mess when Arthur says goodbye.

“Don’t fill up on scones,” Merlin says. “My mum only works a half-day on Friday and she’s got her famous shepherd’s pie in the crock pot for us.”

“Sounds homey, but not exactly vegetarian,” Arthur says. He kicks Merlin foot beneath the table.

“It’s made with lentils, Clotpoll,” Merlin says. He kicks Arthur back and they both burst out with laughter.

They arrive in Belfast too soon for Merlin’s liking. He worries that his mum will be able to read the tales of sex and wanton lust on their faces. Merlin makes Arthur drive the length of the Falls Road so he can show him his favourite murals while he tries to get hold of himself. Merlin doesn’t know how he’s going to survive with Arthur gone, not now that they’ve admitted their love for each other. Time, his mother will say, just give it time.

By the time they pull into the driveway, Hunith has arrived home and set the table for the three of them.

Merlin hugs his mum and thanks her for letting Arthur drive her car for the week. He’ll be sorry to leave her when he starts his new job, but at least it will be easy for her to visit him and Uncle Gaius when she gets holidays off from work.

“Get upstairs, you,” Hunith says, turning her nose up at Merlin. “You smell positively manky.”

“We were camped by the sea these last two nights,” Arthur says. “We could both do with a wash.” He glances to Merlin, who nods in agreement.

“What’s this?” Hunith asks after she releases Merlin from her embrace. Her fingers find the amulet around Merlin’s neck. She turns it in her hand, examining the workmanship.

“Arthur gave it to me,” Merlin says proudly. “It’s sort of a going away present.”

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Hunith says, admiring the piece. “You have very good taste, Arthur.”

“Thanks, I think the amulet suits Merlin perfectly,” Arthur says.

Merlin tries to ignore the sadness in Arthur’s voice. If he thinks any more about how Arthur’s absence will affect him, he’ll break down and cry.

“You know him very well,” Hunith says with a smile.

Merlin wonders how much his mother can tell from the silent gazes that pass between Arthur and himself. They eat Hunith’s cooking and reminisce about their past together—the four year flatmate relationship and the weeklong friendship of the past seven days. Merlin leaves out the part about them becoming lovers the night before.

When they finish dinner, Arthur is a perfect gentleman. He won’t trouble Hunith for a ride to the airport. He calls for a taxi to George Best after stuffing his travel bag with his belongings and helping Merlin to sort the camping gear in Hunith’s garage.

“I’ll leave you two, then,” Hunith says when it becomes clear that Merlin wants to spend these last few minutes alone with Arthur. “Besides, I’ve got some knitting to catch up on.”

She takes Arthur in her arms and hugs him tight.

All at once, Merlin feels sad that Arthur never knew his own mother’s love. Merlin hadn’t known Arthur for very long before he discovered that his mother had died shortly after his birth. He can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up without his mum in his family.

Merlin knows he’ll have to rely on Hunith’s strength in the days that are to come. And Hunith will need comfort as she anticipates the loss of her only child as he prepares to leave for far-off California.

“May the road rise up to meet you, sweet summer child,” Hunith says.

“May the wind be always at your back,” Merlin says, thumping a hand on Arthur’s shoulder.

“May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rains fall soft upon your fields,” Hunith says wiping a tear, “and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

And then, Hunith slips back inside the house, leaving Arthur and Merlin together, with a taxi on the way.

“Hey,” Arthur says, wrapping Merlin in his arms. They stand between the garage and the hedge that blocks the neighbour’s view.

“You’re not going to say goodbye,” Merlin says, breathing into Arthur’s neck.

“Not unless you want me to,” Arthur says.

Merlin lets his hands roam from Arthur’s back to his face. He pulls him in for a kiss.

Arthur opens to him and Merlin plunges forward with his tongue against Arthur’s teeth. He breathes in, trying to memorize the taste of Arthur’s mouth, the scent of Arthur’s hair masked with Merlin’s shampoo, and the sounds that Arthur makes when their kissing makes his cock harden.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Merlin asks, whispering, when he pulls away for air..

“My father texted me while you were in the shower. It seems I’ve got a problem with a job offer,” Arthur says.

Merlin truly couldn’t care less about Arthur’s job prospects. He knows Arthur will succeed at whatever position he accepts. He’s too busy dreading the moment when Arthur’s taxi arrives. He winces at the sound of every car that turns onto his street or passes his driveway.

“You remember I told you that one of my father’s top execs plans to retire before the end of the year?” Arthur asks. His fingers stroke Merlin’s cheeks, waiting for a response.

Merlin sniffs, blinking back tears. “Yes… is that the job your father’s offering you?”

“My father isn’t sure what to do,” Arthur says. “He could send his untried son to manage the business overseas. And I could probably learn a lot from his top man before he retires. Plus, I’ve just graduated from uni, so it’s not like I’m completely unqualified.”

“It sounds great,” Merlin says, impatient to get on with the kissing. “Do you think you’ll accept it?”

Arthur purses his lips, his fingers still on Merlin’s face. “See, that’s the problem,” he says.

Merlin looks at him quizzically.

“I could accept it” Arthur says, “but it’s quite far from home.”

Merlin’s stomach drops. “How far?” he asks.

“Well,” Arthur says, leaning forward to touch his forehead to Merlin’s. “The LA office is about an hour from Avalon Ranch.”

Merlin’s brain freezes for a moment while he tries to remember where, exactly, LA is on a map.

“You’re joking!” Merlin screams. He leaps into Arthur’s arms and wraps his legs around his waist.

Arthur squeezes him tight and spins around in a circle. “I wasn’t sure what you would think,” he says. “I don’t want it to seem like I’m stalking you and following you to your new job.”

Merlin laughs and drops his legs so his feet touch the ground. “Of course I want you to follow me,” he says, pulling Arthur to him. “But only if you’re sure that you want to.”

“Idiot!” Arthur says. “I’ve travelled all the way around this island this week just to get to spend more time with you.”

Arthur’s taxi pulls to a stop in front of the house. Music blares from the radio as it plays some song from the 80s.

“I love you,” Arthur says, before cupping Merlin’s jaw in one hand and kissing him deeply.

The driver catches a glimpse of Arthur and Merlin “Are you ready, lads?” he shouts. “Meter’s running.”

“I didn’t know!” Merlin says.

“You know now,” Arthur says, touching Merlin’s amulet.

The taxi driver blows his horn. The sound penetrates the summer afternoon.

“I love you, too,” Merlin says.

Arthur shoulders his travel bag and kisses Merlin once more, softly on his lips. “I’ll see you in a few weeks then,” he says.

“Fuck that,” Merlin says. “I’m Skyping you tonight.”

Arthur climbs into the taxi and the driver pulls away, taking him to the airport, London, and beyond.

Merlin can still hear the beat of the taxi’s radio long after it leaves his street. He closes his eyes and lets the rhythm of the music thrum through him. The bass beat makes his belly feel hollow while his head swims with euphoria. He and Arthur are going to be together in California.

~ The end ~