“Oooh, yes, lovely,” Morgana cooed, looking Percival up and down as though he were a particularly well-formed horse. “I can get five hundred pounds for you easily.”
Merlin's eyes widened. “Now, just a –”
“Perhaps a good deal more if you'd be willing to take off your shirt,” she added, entirely ignoring Merlin.
Merlin stepped forward to protest sexual objectification at a children's charity event, but before he could manage it, Percival grinned, pushed his braces off his shoulders, and stripped off his t-shirt, leaving him resplendent in his fireman's trousers and boots.
“I don't – oh, wow,” Merlin managed.
The gleam in Morgana's eye turned positively predatory. “If I get less than eight hundred for you, I don't know my audience.” Taking a gaping Gwen by the arm, she said, “Gwen, where's your brother? The thing is, I have this policeman's costume, and it should fit him much better than his regular one...” There was an indistinguishable murmur from Gwen as they retreated down the hall, and Merlin was left staring at Percy, the argument stuck in his throat.
Percival's only response was to grin even more widely and clap him on the back. “It's for a good cause, mate.”
Merlin waved a hand in the general direction of Percy's – everything. “You don't have to –”
“I know I don't. But if showing off my nipples raises a few more quid, I'm all for it.”
“Thanks, Percy,” Merlin breathed.
“How much do you need to raise tonight, then?” Percy asked.
“All told? We need to replace what the Tories cut from us – sixty thousand quid.”
Percival let out a low whistle, and Merlin nodded in agreement of his unspoken comment. The amount was equal to what they usually raised in a year through donations, a full quarter of Creative Youth's annual budget, and they'd had very little luck finding other benefactors in these difficult economic times. When Morgana had come to them with the idea of a bachelor auction, it had seemed too far-fetched a scheme to Merlin, but the others had been willing to give anything a try. “I know. I don't see how we'll manage it, either.”
“Buck up, lads.” Both Gwen and Merlin turned to see Lancelot walking towards them with a grin on his face. “It's always darkest before the dawn.”
“Lancelot DuLac,” Merlin said, “is that you?” Besides being a good friend of Merlin's, Gwen's boyfriend and his flatmate, Lance was one of their best volunteers, teaching students of all ages the techniques of sculpture. Merlin had known him for years, and he'd rarely seen him wear anything more formal than a threadbare t-shirt and jeans that were so old they could've been handed down from van Gogh. Now he was standing before them in a crisp white collarless shirt and a black jacket and trousers that were perfectly tailored to show off all of his considerable – ah, assets.
“Nice outfit,” Percy said. “Oxfam selling suits now, is it?”
Still grinning, Lance ran his palms down the lapels. “Eight quid,” he said. “'Course, it's not a patch on your stunning ensemble.” Percy's response was to duck his head and twirl as though he were a bashful fourteen-year-old girl showing off her first grown-up frock, rather than a great hulking moose with biceps as big around as bloody tree trunks.
“This is so odd,” Merlin groaned, passing a hand over his eyes. Over the last two weeks, Gwen and Morgana had pressed every eligible male of their acquaintance into service, and it was starting to wear on him. He'd never quite realised they had so many ridiculously attractive friends; it was disconcerting, to say the least, that he hadn't noticed. Clearly he'd been working far too hard.
Right at that moment, Gwen's brother Elyan stomped past them, wearing a policeman's uniform that looked anything but regulation. Or rather, it would have been regulation if Elyan had been a male stripper rather than a PC with the Met.
“If any pictures from this event end up on the internet...” Elyan began.
“They won't!” Merlin assured him, raising his hands in a placating gesture.
Elyan drew himself up. “Gwen is going to owe me so much for this,” he muttered, storming off towards the bog.
Lance, Merlin and Percy exchanged glances for a long moment.
Percy slung an arm over Merlin's shoulders, and Merlin's knees nearly buckled under the strain. “Don't worry, mate,” he said consolingly, “it's going to be fine.”
“This is going to be a disaster!” Arthur shouted.
Morgana leaned against the counter of the dressing room, her arms crossed and her expression distinctly unsympathetic. “On the contrary, this event was planned by me, organised by me, and I will be conducting the auction. Therefore, it is going to be extremely successful.”
“And I suppose you arranged for that mob out there, then,” Arthur said, waving a hand in the general direction of the stage.
“Hardly a mob,” Morgana scoffed. “You know at least nine-tenths of them.”
“That's exactly my point! It's as though all my exes are lined up in one room, waiting eagerly for the pleasure of buying me so that they can drag me off somewhere, murder me and bury the body.”
Morgana smirked. “I can't help your questionable taste, Arthur. But even so, I hardly think all of them want to murder you. I'm sure some of them only want to bruise you a little.”
“Tell me you didn't invite them specifically,” Arthur said.
Morgana rolled her eyes. “Dear lord, your ego. In case you hadn't noticed, you tend to date young men and women with far too much money – which is exactly what this event requires to raise the needed dosh for Creative Youth. It's a coincidence, no more.”
Arthur sagged. “All right, then.”
Morgana made a show of inspecting her perfectly manicured nails. “And I may have mentioned to a couple of friends that your overlarge arse would be up for sale tonight.”
“I can't help it if word gets around,” Morgana sniffed, as Arthur advanced on her.
“I'm not going to do it,” Arthur growled. “I'm simply not.”
Morgana's chin lifted in unmistakable challenge. “I can't believe you'd be so selfish. I need every man we've got to make our target, and you're going to drop out on me at the last minute?”
“I'll be happy to write you a cheque to make up whatever you think I would have fetched on the –” he made a face “– auction block.”
Morgana's eyebrow lifted, and Arthur tried not to react. When Morgana deployed the eyebrow, it never boded well. “I knew you wouldn't go through with it,” she said, nodding.
“I had every intention –”
“Oh, come off it, Arthur. You've been against this from the beginning, and not because you don't like to support charity – I know you do – but because ever since we've been children, your greatest fear has been looking silly.”
Arthur drew himself up. “There's nothing wrong with wanting to preserve your dignity.”
“There is when it means you never take a chance.”
“When you said you'd do it, I couldn't quite believe it, you know. I thought you were actually starting to –” She trailed off, shaking her head.
“Nothing,” Morgana said softly, shoving herself off the counter. “Do what you like, Arthur. As you say, it's the money that counts.”
After she was gone, Arthur ground his teeth together for a minute. He knew full well he was being manipulated, that she was only trying to get him to go up on that stage.
“Fuck,” he breathed, scrubbing his face with his hands. He couldn't do it. Why couldn't Morgana understand –
A soft knock sounded on the door, and Arthur smoothed down his suit jacket. “Yes?”
“Arthur? It's me, Merlin. Are you ready? We're about to start, and Gwen said you had told her you wanted to go on first.”
It took a split second for Arthur to remember who Merlin was, and then it came to him. Merlin was one of Morgana's friends, and co-director of the charity that was currently making his life a living hell. Morgana was constantly prattling on about his artistic genius and trying to get him to put together a show for her gallery. The only time Arthur had ever met him had been at one of her parties, and while he hadn't seen any evidence of Merlin's artistic talent, he had to admit Merlin had a singular gift for spilling drinks on people. Arthur never had been able to get the wine stain out of that shirt.
Quite suddenly, a desperate plan sprang fully formed into Arthur's head. After all, Merlin owed him, and there was no one else, and Morgana would be impossible if he dropped out now. Somewhere in the back of his brain, a voice was screaming about a distinct flaw in his logic, but that didn't stop him from yanking the door open and saying to a startled-looking Merlin:
Merlin stared at Arthur; it seemed to be the only possible response.
“Well, did you hear me?” Arthur snapped.
“I heard you,” Merlin said.
“I think you're very funny,” Merlin said, with no trace of a smile. “You're on in five minutes.” He turned to go, but before he could, a large hand clamped around his wrist and tugged him backwards into the room.
Stumbling, he struggled to regain his footing as Arthur shut the door behind them. “Now look,” Merlin began, trying not to let his anger get the best of him and failing miserably, “if you think you can –”
“Please,” Arthur said, and the word brought Merlin up short. “I know this sounds odd, but I need you to buy me.”
Merlin crossed his arms against his chest. “At the risk of swelling your head, you know you're going to go for hundreds of pounds, perhaps more. Even if I wanted to buy you, I don't have that kind of money.”
“Well, yes, of course I know that,” Arthur said, and Merlin bristled. “That's why you'd be bidding with my money.”
Merlin shook his head. “I don't understand. You want me to buy you – for you? That's got to be crossing the line from narcissistic to – blimey, what's worse than narcissistic?”
“Now you're trying to be funny, I suppose,” Arthur gritted. “Okay, listen. There are a couple of people out there in the audience – all right, perhaps more than a couple – who would like nothing better than to have me as their personal human sacrifice, and they'll be willing to pay top price. If I don't want to end up on the front page of tomorrow's Mail, I need to either drop out now or you need to help me.”
Christ. Merlin swiped a hand over his face; some days he really did believe in karma, and this was definitely one of them. He must have been someone utterly horrible in a past life. “All right, fine. This whole bachelor auction is unorthodox anyway; if you want to be a little more unorthodox about it, it's none of my business.”
“Brilliant,” Arthur said bracingly, reaching out to grip Merlin's bicep firmly. “I appreciate it. Thank you.”
Merlin ignored the distinctly pleasant tingling in his arm after Arthur released him. Nodding, he said, “Yeah. Well, I'll just – leave you to it, then.”
“I'll be ready,” Arthur assured him, and the look he levelled at Merlin – an odd mixture of brash confidence and disarming sincerity – nearly made him shiver. All right, fine, it did make him shiver, but only a little.
Don't do this to yourself again, he told himself, clenching his fists.
“Good,” Merlin said, and he turned to go without a backwards glance.
Arthur was going to kill Merlin.
Unfortunately, it was unlikely he’d get the chance considering he’d probably be dead himself in the next few minutes. The only question remaining was which of the four people currently engaged in a bidding war would win the right to take him home and eviscerate him.
All right, so perhaps only one of the four was likely to eviscerate him. His breakup with Sophia had been messy, to say the least, but she definitely wanted him alive, and breathing – at least until she could figure out some way to get her hands on his money, his name, or both. That gave him a bit of time.
Myror was equally unlikely to want to harm him – he would probably just follow through on his promise to keep Arthur chained to his bed for the rest of his natural life. Not that Arthur had any problem with bondage – he generally considered himself to be quite kink-friendly, in fact – but the whole business with the nutella was simply not on. He'd smelt of it for a week after they'd gone their separate ways.
Neither Myror nor Sophia, however, were a patch on Vivian, who was arrogant and materialistic and gorgeous and terrific in bed. Usually, the third and fourth things were sufficient to cancel out the effect of the first two, but, well, after a few weeks Arthur had come to the unpleasant realisation that he was actually dating a female version of himself (and yes, he'd reached that conclusion before Morgana had pointed it out to him, thank you very much.) Unfortunately, this fact had only convinced Vivian their love was written in the stars, or destined by the gods, or something similar but equally ridiculous. While Sophia's motives for pursuing him were entirely mercenary, and Myror's entirely carnal, Vivian wanted him because she could never love anyone as well as she loved herself.
The fourth person bidding on Arthur was the most terrifying of all. When Arthur had ended things with Vivian, this man had promised Arthur he would break every bone in his body if he ever came near her again. Somehow, Arthur didn't think protesting that Vivian was the one coming near him would make a difference, mainly because once Olaf outbid all the others (and Arthur didn't doubt he would), Arthur wouldn't last long enough to make any kind of protest.
It was odd, because usually Arthur got on famously with other people's parents.
“Two thousand, two hundred!” Vivian exclaimed, waving her paddle as though she were at a World Cup match. Myror scowled and folded his arms, and Arthur knew that was him out of the running. Too bad, really, because the prospect of being slathered in nutella until he broke out in a rash was looking more and more appealing.
“Two thousand, two hundred and fifty,” Olaf said, with deadly calm. Bloody marvelous, Arthur thought – Olaf was an evil bastard, but a cheap one, which meant the agony of anticipating his demise would go on for some time. Of course, it also meant that there was still a chance Merlin would show up before the auction was over.
Arthur's eyes scanned the room again, but saw no sign of the skinny git. He wanted to be angry, but supposed it had been his fault; after all, the man was basically a stranger. He must have been truly desperate to think Merlin would be the one to save him.
“Two thousand five hundred!” Vivian squealed. Sophia stood up and stormed out of the room.
Arthur hung his head. “Bollocks,” he muttered.
Merlin stood in the darkened corridor to the left of the stage, watching the bidding war. From his vantage point, he could see the audience, but not Arthur, nor could Arthur see him. He'd tried to walk away six different times, but had failed utterly. Now he just stood rooted to the spot, his arms folded to keep himself from fidgeting.
Why the hell had Arthur asked him to do this? Merlin knew better than to read anything into it; Arthur had been up against it, and Merlin had been convenient. He would have asked Gwen, or Lance, or whoever had knocked on the door.
And yet, a small voice in his head kept saying maybe it does mean something. Maybe –
Merlin clenched his hands into fists at his sides. Stop it. Just stop it. You're wrong.
Tipping his head back against the wall, he closed his eyes briefly, letting his mind drift and shut out the sounds from the hall.
It had happened three months ago. He'd finally attended one of Morgana's parties, or rather been dragged to one by Gwen. He appreciated Morgana's interest in his work, but he hated these gatherings of London's self-appointed celebrities, rich toffs and quasi-intelligentsia; he always felt like some exotic zoo animal being stared at by tourists.
“You are such a drama queen,” Gwen had told him, utterly unsympathetic. “Like it or not, getting your name out there means actually socialising with other humans.”
“My work should speak for itself,” Merlin muttered.
Gwen shot him a raised eyebrow. “You do realise that in your effort to avoid pretension, you've managed to sound even more pretentious?”
“What can I say? I'm a pretentious berk,” Merlin said, spreading his arms.
“No, you're not at all,” Gwen told him firmly. “You're my best friend and an absolutely lovely bloke, and you are much too insecure about your own work, which is brilliant. You know you've been neglecting your career since the news about the cuts, putting in all that extra time at the charity.”
“You've been doing the same.”
“But I've still found time to promote myself, put a show together,” Gwen said gently. “Let Morgana crow about you for an evening, love; it's the best opportunity you've had, and it might be your last one for a while, if Cameron gets his way and manages to kill the arts in this country.”
And so Merlin had relented and gone with her, and truth be told, it hadn't been as bad as he'd been expecting; there were a few privileged wankers, but also many people that Morgana had met through her charity work, and so there was a bit of variety, nurses and teachers and social workers mixing with actors and musicians and peers of the realm. After about an hour, Merlin even stopped following Gwen around as though his life depended on it.
It was when he was sipping on a glass of disgustingly good red wine that he saw the man across the room. He'd just come in, his cheeks pink from the spring cold, and he was scanning the crowd with a faint frown on his face, as though looking for someone.
And Merlin fell in love with him right then and there.
It was ridiculous – he knew that of course it was ridiculous. The man was attractive, certainly, with shining blond hair, a gorgeous jawline and enormous blue eyes, but it wasn't only attraction Merlin felt in that moment. No, Merlin – who had never been particularly quick to give away his heart – was arse over tit for a perfect stranger. He was absolutely sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life with that man.
Then the stranger's roaming gaze locked with Merlin's, and god, oh god, he was looking at Merlin, really looking at him, the frown easing slightly, and Merlin took a deep breath and prepared to step forward into his future –
“There you are!” Gwen exclaimed right behind him, making him jump. “I haven't seen you for ages. Are you having a good time, then?”
Merlin reluctantly tore his gaze away from the stranger's. “Yes, I – I'm having a fantastic time.”
“I heard from Morgana that Annis wants to see your work.”
“Yeah, she, erm – mentioned something about that,” Merlin said distractedly. He glanced back at the place where the man had been, but he was gone. Shit.
“What is wrong with you? That's terrific news!”
“Yeah, well, doesn't mean she's going to like it,” Merlin said, turning back to Gwen.
“Stop that,” Gwen said, smacking him lightly on the arm not holding the glass of wine. “She's going to love it, and you're going to have a show at her gallery, and be hugely famous.”
Merlin couldn't help but laugh at that. “Nice to know my future's preordained.” He smiled. “I appreciate your confidence in me, love.”
Gwen kissed him on the cheek. “I just want to be able to say I knew you when.”
“Well, I –”
“Excuse me,” said a deep voice behind Merlin, just before there was a touch to his shoulder. Merlin spun round, startled, and as he did the wine glass connected with a solid surface and spilled its contents. Unfortunately, the solid surface happened to be the broad chest and white shirt of the love of Merlin's life.
“Oh, god,” Merlin gasped. “I –”
“You – you clumsy oaf!” the man exclaimed.
“I'm so sorry,” Merlin spluttered. “I didn't mean to –”
“And you think that makes it all better, do you?” the man snapped. “Look at my shirt! It's ruined.”
Merlin raised a tentative hand, but hastily pulled it back at the murderous look in the man's eyes. “Yes, I'm so sorry,” Merlin repeated. “I'll be happy to replace it.”
The man rolled his eyes. “Right,” he drawled. “Don't bother, thanks.”
Merlin stiffened. “What do you mean by that?”
The other man leaned in then, and Merlin's heart couldn't help but skip a beat at his proximity. God, he smelled absolutely terrific. “It's only that I doubt you could afford to replace it,” he murmured, too low for anyone but Merlin to hear, “considering yours looks like it came from a charity shop.”
Merlin could feel his face heating with a mixture of anger, embarrassment and crushing disappointment. “You are – you are the biggest prat I've ever had the misfortune to meet,” he said, horrified when his voice cracked.
“Arthur!” Morgana came striding up to them, in a room that Merlin belatedly realised had grown as silent as a graveyard. “Always the life of the party.”
“Hello, Morgana,” Arthur murmured, kissing her on the cheek.
“Nice to see you making friends. Now stop making a spectacle of yourself and go put on a fresh shirt.”
“What, one of Leon's? It'll be huge on me.”
“Yes, well, you're in luck, as I hear they're being worn under the jacket this year. I daresay you'll survive.”
Muttering to himself, Arthur stormed off without so much as another glance at Merlin. Merlin watched his retreating back, feeling like the biggest fool who'd ever lived.
“I must apologise for Arthur,” Morgana said smoothly, smiling at Merlin and Gwen in turn. “He actually lived the first ten years of his life with wolves, and he's never become completely accustomed to human society.”
“I'm sorry, I – I have to go,” Merlin said, bolting for the door before Morgana or Gwen could react.
Shaking himself from his unpleasant reverie, Merlin realised the bidding was up over three thousand now. The four contestants had dwindled to two, a stunningly pretty blond girl and an older man. Merlin didn't know the story there, and didn't want to. But it was clear that they were both very, very rich, and unlikely to stop anytime soon. Merlin didn't see how joining them in their bidding war was going to help Arthur much, not when they both seemed so determined.
He briefly considered pulling the fire alarm, but ruining the auction wasn't an option either. There had to be some way to convince them that he was determined to win at all costs.
Yes. At all costs.
Merlin took a deep breath, steeling himself, then walked out into the audience.
Oh, thank fuck.
Arthur's knees turned to jelly with relief at the sight of Merlin. Had he been lurking in the shadows the whole time, just to make him sweat? What the bloody hell could the man possibly have against him? They barely knew one another. He'd met Merlin once before, when the man had spilled a drink on him at one of Morgana's parties, which had been perfect timing considering he'd had another row with his father over the direction of the business that afternoon and had passed the rest of the day in a rage-filled haze. He supposed he shouldn't have gone to the party at all; he'd left just after Merlin had drenched him in red wine.
At any rate, there was never an excuse to fail to follow through on a promise. Arthur didn't allow emotions to get in the way of business, and neither should Merlin; after all, Arthur was offering to help support his little art project.
“Three thousand, six hundred pounds!” Vivian's enthusiasm had not flagged one iota since she'd started. It was terrifying.
“Thirty-six fifty,” Olaf returned, unblinking gaze fixed on Arthur. That was even more terrifying.
“Ten thousand pounds.”
The audience collectively gasped. Arthur watched as all heads turn to Merlin.
There was a pregnant pause as everyone, including Arthur, stared at Merlin, and then he heard Morgana say, “No other takers? None? Then I declare –”
Vivian opened her mouth, her paddle rising, but before she could utter a sound or motion another bid, her father had her by the wrist and was tugging it back down again. Vivian's eyes flashed at him.
“Don't bother, dearie,” Merlin murmured, leaning in. “This one's mine.”
There was a wave of titters from the audience, and then Morgana yelled, “Sold!”
Arthur stumbled on wobbly legs towards the edge of the stage to find Merlin there waiting for him at the foot of the steps. An unidentifiable sensation tickled in his chest at the sight of Merlin’s upturned face, his not unattractive blue eyes locking with Arthur’s.
“Are you all right?” Merlin asked, a small frown appearing between his brows.
“Fine,” Arthur said, shaking himself from his reverie and forcing his feet to move forward. He descended the stairs to stand level with Merlin, and noticed they were nearly the same height. Clearing his throat, he shifted from foot to foot. What did one say to the person who’d just bought you? It wasn’t a conversational gambit Arthur had ever been prepared for. “Erm. Thank you.” There, that sounded completely bizarre, but then Arthur supposed it was a bizarre situation.
Merlin’s face grew closed off and distant. “You’re welcome.”
Merlin inclined his head in the direction of the back of the stage. “Shall we?” At Arthur’s nod, Merlin led him out of the auditorium and down the hall towards a tiny office with floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with all manner of art supplies, books, papers and the most godawful collection of sculpture, pottery and mixed media art Arthur had ever laid eyes on. On the shelf directly above Merlin's head stood a particularly hideous example, a papier-m â ch é dragon that looked like it had started life as a sheep and changed its mind halfway through.
Merlin must have seen the direction of Arthur's gaze, because he said, “The girl who made that is now studying at the Sorbonne on a full scholarship.”
“Incredible,” Arthur murmured, still staring at the dragon. Shaking himself after a moment, he lowered his gaze to Merlin to see him glaring daggers. Arthur cleared his throat. “So what do I owe you? Ten thousand, was it?”
“Of course not,” Merlin said, reaching in a drawer to take out a battered-looking receipt book. “The last bid was thirty-six fifty; call it thirty-seven hundred and we're done.”
“Well, that hardly seems –”
“If it's too much, we can leave it alone entirely,” Merlin said, cutting him off. “It's pretty clear Morgana dragged you here against your will; you're under no obligation to support a cause you couldn't care less about.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Arthur said. He was surprised – shocked, even – at the level of Merlin's vehemence. Arthur had only met him the once, but he honestly hadn't made much of an impression. Mind you, it followed that the reverse was also true, so Arthur made a point of taking a deep breath before speaking. “Look, we don't know anything about each other, but believe me when I tell you that I'm a man of my word. I told you that I would contribute to your auction, and that's what I intend to do. And I can also tell you that ten thousand quid is a small price to pay to escape the fate that awaited me tonight.”
Merlin shook his head, still looking unhappy. “That wasn't my intent at all.”
“I know,” Arthur said, more gently. “But I want to give you the full amount. Besides, someone was probably keeping a tally. Can't have the books out of balance – people would ask questions.”
“They're going to ask questions anyway,” Merlin said, running a hand through his dark hair. “Everyone knows I don't have anything like ten thousand quid. And my bidding on you is probably some sort of conflict of interest.”
Arthur bit his lip. “I hadn't thought of that.”
Merlin shrugged. “Neither did I.”
“Well...” Suddenly, inspiration struck. “You could tell them that you received an anonymous bid.”
“From who?” Merlin demanded.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Did you miss learning the meaning of 'anonymous' at art college, Merlin?”
Merlin sighed. “Yes, of course I know what it means, but I can't simply say some bloke came up to me in an alley and gave me ten thousand quid for you! That's ridiculous.”
“Oh, for heaven's sake. Of course you would know who it was – if they were real, that is. You simply wouldn't reveal their identity to anyone else.”
“Right, yeah,” Merlin muttered, looking down as a faint flush appeared on his cheeks. “Fine. Well, then.” He held up the book. “I'll write you a receipt, shall I?”
“Cheers,” Arthur said, reaching into his jacket for his wallet. “Personal cheque all right?”
“I suppose you're good for it,” Merlin said.
“I won't let you down.” Merlin's head snapped up at that, and Arthur realised it had been an odd thing to say. What had possessed him to phrase it in exactly that way?
And then Merlin’s expression changed to something so inexpressibly sad it felt like a punch to the gut. Arthur frowned at the sensation, and set his jaw against the desire to ask Merlin what was wrong.
Just another person you’ve managed to disappoint somehow , Arthur thought. Par for the course.
Merlin began writing out Arthur’s name in bold block print on the receipt, and Arthur shook himself from his reverie and dug out the cheque and the biro he always kept handy, a gift from his father on making vice-president last year. Finding a small clear spot on the crowded desk, he set to filling out the cheque, the soft scratch of biro tip against paper the only sound in the room.
“And the stunning Percival of the London Fire Brigade is sold to Ms. Bobbie Wickham for two thousand pounds! And that is the last auction of the night, ladies and gentlemen! Thank you all so much for your patronage and your support. Creative Youth will live another day because of you and our lovely crop of bachelors!”
Gwen sagged against the wall at the back of the auditorium. “Oh my God, she did it,” she breathed. “She actually did it.”
“Wow,” Merlin breathed, impressed in spite of himself. “That's five pounds sterling per pound of Percival, isn't it?”
Gwen smacked him on the arm. “You can't say this was a bad idea now! We're going to make up all the money the Tories took from us in one night. One night, I can’t believe it.”
“I can’t believe I ever doubted you. Apparently some people in this country still have money.”
Gwen shushed him, pointing to the last row of the audience, who were sitting not far from where they were standing.
Merlin only shrugged. “What? They know they have money. It’s not a secret.”
Tugging him by the arm, Gwen led him away from the crowd until they were in the quiet corridor near the offices. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” Merlin said. “Why should anything be wrong? We just let a bunch of rich, privileged gits save our arses. Everything’s ace.”
Gwen frowned. “Percy and Lance and Elyan and all the others saved our arses, as you put it. Not to mention Morgana, who organised the whole thing. They’re the real heroes tonight. As for where the money came from – some of those people genuinely want to help.”
“And some of them are looking for something pretty to sha–”
“Do not say it,” Gwen hissed. “That’s not what this was about and you know it.”
Merlin ran a hand over his face. “I’m sorry. I’m being a complete tit, I know. This is – it’s wonderful.”
Gwen cocked her head at him. “Is this about Arthur?”
Merlin bristled. “No! Why would it be about him?”
“Something funny went on there, don't try to deny it. There's no way on earth that you could come up with that kind of money.”
“It was an anonymous donation,” Merlin blurted. “I can’t tell you who gave it to us.” He supposed that technically it was the truth, but it was upsetting to think he had to lie to Gwen. Still, a promise was a promise.
“Merlin, I'm co-founder of the charity. You can tell me.”
“I really can't,” Merlin said, shaking his head. Gwen's eyes widened, and Merlin hastened to add, “I'm so sorry, Gwen, but I swore I'd keep it a secret from everyone. I know it's awful –”
But Gwen was already holding up a hand. “No, no, it's fine. Goodness knows we've run into enough eccentric donors in funding this place–”
“You're telling me,” Merlin muttered under his breath.
“–so if that's what this person needs you to do in order to give us ten thousand quid, I'm perfectly willing to accommodate them.” She frowned. “You're sure they don't have any – erm, nefarious plans for Arthur? I know he's not your favourite person, but I don't want any actual harm to come to him.”
Merlin looked away. “I don't care about Arthur one way or the other,” he muttered. “But I can assure you that the person who won him has no designs on him – nefarious or otherwise.”
“Oh,” Gwen said; when Merlin glanced back at her she was eyeing him with a disturbingly speculative air. “Well, then, as long as he won't end up going on a date with a serial killer.”
Merlin barked a laugh at the thought of Arthur Pendragon going on a bachelor auction date with himself. At Gwen's odd look, he sobered. “No, we – yeah, we wouldn't want that.”
“Are you okay?” Gwen asked, peering into his face as though she were looking for signs he was either stoned or headed for a breakdown.
“Fine,” Merlin said, smiling. “Creative Youth is back in business. That's all that matters.”
“So what are your plans?” Morgana asked, after sweeping into Arthur's office at the end of the day.
“Do come in, Morgana. Goodness knows we don't see enough of each other. What has it been, a whole half hour?”
Morgana leaned a hip on the corner of his desk. “Oh, it's been at least an hour. I was missing you terribly.” Arthur treated her to a saccharine smirk. “So?” She tapped a black glossy fingernail on the desk like a dominatrix headmistress. “Out with it.”
“Out with what?” Arthur demanded peevishly.
“Your plans for Merlin! God, you are so thick sometimes, I swear –”
Arthur blinked at her. Merlin? What the hell was she on about? “What the hell are you on about?”
“I know it was a whole week ago, but see if you can cast your feeble mind back that far. The auction? Merlin bid on you, and won? So where are you taking him for your big date?”
“I'm not taking him anywhere,” Arthur muttered, returning his attention to the report on his laptop. For heaven's sake, was he ever going to hear the end of this? He was never going to see Merlin again and that was that. Which was fine. It wasn't as though Merlin was – well, Arthur wouldn't go so far as to say he had a type, because if it came right down to it, he'd bonk pretty much anything that was attractive, but if he did have a type, Merlin wouldn't be it. Not because Merlin wasn't attractive, because he was, in a bohemian, artsy, unkempt sort of way. If you liked that sort of thing, which Arthur didn't.
Arthur scowled at his monitor. Perhaps all this time spent in front of a computer was starting to affect his brain. Didn't they give off microwaves or tachyons or some other form of radiation?
Morgana bristled. “What are you talking about? Of course you are! I can't have my own brother go back on the terms of the auction! I'll be the laughingstock –”
“Calm. Down. Morgana,” Arthur bit out, emphasising each word carefully. “I'm not taking him out because he's not the one who won me.” At Morgana's small frown, Arthur added, “He was bidding on behalf of an anonymous donor.”
“Oh,” Morgana said, momentarily taken aback. “That explains a lot. I did wonder how Merlin had come up with that kind of money, to tell you the truth. And if by some miracle he had, why in God's name he would want to spend it on you.”
“Thanks a bloody lot,” Arthur muttered.
“All right then,” Morgana said, clapping her hands, “tell me what you have planned for your anonymous donor.”
“They don't want anything in return. They just wanted to contribute to a good cause, and that was a way to do it.” He cleared his throat at Morgana's raised eyebrow. “At least that's what I heard from Merlin.”
“Hm,” Morgana said. “That's a shocking coincidence, isn't it?”
“I can't say I see what's so shocking about it,” Arthur sniffed, returning his attention to his computer monitor.
“I mean, that some mysterious benefactor just happened to pop up out of the blue when you were desperately in need of someone to save your arse from the flames.”
“I suppose it was destiny,” Arthur said, baring his teeth at Morgana.
“You don't believe in destiny.”
“I do now.”
“Look, I know it's hard for you to believe, never having experienced the state yourself, but I actually am busy with work,” Arthur snapped.
Morgana's expression went perfectly still. “Arthur,” she said again, quietly and calmly, but with an edge of steel in it that made Arthur wince internally, “just so that we're perfectly clear on where we stand, I do not for one minute believe in the existence of an anonymous donor. I believe that you paid to get out of this, just as you said you would. And if you think you're going to use your money to weasel out of a promise, you're sadly mistaken.”
Arthur threw up his hands. “I promised to raise money for your charity, and I did! What difference does it make where the money came from?”
“You promised to participate in a bachelor auction,” Morgana said, folding her arms. “When you've fulfilled the terms of the auction, I will cease to annoy you about it.”
“What do you propose I do? Take myself out for dinner and a show?”
“Of course not. Take Merlin.”
“Merlin? He didn't actually win me.”
“He saved you from your bevy of admirers. It's the least you can do.” Straightening, arms still crossed menacingly, Morgana glared at him.
“All right, but I need more incentive than that. If I take Merlin out, you have to promise to cease and desist from trying to involve me in any more of your hare-brained charity work.” He held up a hand as the outrage flashed in her eyes. “I'll still support anything you want – but on my own terms. I'll write you a cheque, no more.”
“Just keep your bloody promise on this and you can complete your quest to become just like dear old Dad,” Morgana gritted.
“Now, hang on a min –”
“I have to go,” Morgana said abruptly. “Don't think I won't follow up to make sure you've done it.”
“Yes, fine,” Arthur muttered, but she was already gone.
If someone had told Merlin he'd see Arthur again after the bachelor auction, he would have thought it was about as unlikely to happen as a rain of frogs. But there he was, unfolding himself from his ridiculously posh Aston across the road from the building where Merlin and his advanced secondary school crew were working on their latest mural. Merlin watched him take in the artwork for a few moments before his gaze drifted to Merlin. Descending the ladder, Merlin folded his arms as Arthur crossed the road and jogged up to him.
“Hello there,” Arthur said. He was wearing trousers that probably cost more than the sum total of every painting Merlin had ever sold, and a light blue shirt unbuttoned at the collar that brought out his eyes. Merlin kept his gaze straight and level as Arthur ventured, “They said down at the Centre that I'd find you here.”
“I gathered,” Merlin said evenly. “This isn't your regular neighbourhood, I'd wager.”
Arthur held his gaze for a moment, then nodded at the mural. “This is quite good,” he said. “Some kind of beautification project?”
Merlin shook his head. “It's our first commission, but we're hoping it will lead to more. The money we make is going into a fund for each student to help pay for university, now that the posh gits running this country have made it impossible for working class kids to obtain a decent higher education.”
Arthur winced at that, but Merlin couldn't find it in him to summon much regret for his barb. “Is it your work?”
“No. The design and execution is the result of a collaboration among the students. I merely help facilitate and offer suggestions.”
“Well, it's – very nice,” Arthur said. Merlin was startled to see him look a bit sheepish. “Sorry, I don't know much about art.”
“You just know what you like,” Merlin said. Arthur stared at him. “Paraphrasing Monty Python, sorry.”
“No, no, I know – the Last Supper skit, right?”
“Right. How did you –”
“Strange as it may seem, I've watched telly, too,” Arthur said, smirking.
Merlin rolled his eyes; Arthur wasn't amusing, he told himself, not at all. “So, what are you doing here?” Merlin asked. “Did you rethink your donation? If you have, I'm perfectly willing to –”
“No, I didn't rethink my donation, Merlin,” Arthur said. “I told you, I keep my promises.”
Merlin lifted his chin, and Arthur shifted, clearly uncomfortable again. Merlin wouldn't have thought Arthur Pendragon could look uncertain about anything, and it had happened twice in as many minutes.
“Well, the thing is,” Arthur said, clearing his throat, “I'd like to take you out for dinner.”
Merlin blinked at him. Of all the reasons he thought Arthur might be standing in front of him, that would have been dead last on the list. “You want to – take me out,” he repeated, as though Arthur had spoken in an unfamiliar language.
“To thank you for helping me the other night,” Arthur elaborated.
That took a little of the wind out of Merlin's sails. “Oh. Well, that's really not necessary. Not to be rude, but I did it for Creative Youth.”
“Right, yeah, that's not rude at all,” Arthur muttered. “Look, whatever your reasons, you helped me, and I want to say thank you.”
For a moment, part of Merlin screamed at him to say yes, yes, of course I'll go out to dinner with you, because fate had thrown them back together, and that had to mean something, didn't it? Maybe Arthur wasn't such an entitled prat after all, and they'd end up hitting it off despite their differences and there would be terrific sex and true love and happy endings all round.
And then the part of Merlin that was actually rational reasserted itself, and firmly smacked the other side of him and told it to grow the hell up, because fairy tales were not real life, and first impressions were almost always right, and Arthur had been, was now, and always would be an arsehole.
Merlin folded his arms. “I'm sorry, but while I do appreciate the gesture, I'm going to have to say no.”
Arthur straightened – obviously, very few people in his life said 'no' to him – and his face clouded over. “Okay, listen,” Arthur said, “the truth is, you'd be doing me a very great favour if you did this for me. However, since that obviously isn't likely to motivate you, I'd be willing to make an additional contribution to your charity in exchange.”
Merlin stared at him. “You – you want to buy a date with me?”
Arthur remained expressionless. “Yes. Ironic, isn't it?”
“Why?” Merlin croaked. Why is this so important to you?
Arthur sighed. “Because Morgana is a witch, and she figured out what I'd done and is now telling me I have to follow through by fulfilling the terms of the auction or it doesn't count.”
Merlin was proud of the fact he was able to get his voice to work, considering his heart had just plummeted for his shoes. “I'll be happy to tell her we went out,” he managed. Anything to make you go away at this point, he barely restrained himself from saying aloud.
“You don't know Morgana. She's going to want receipts, I know it.”
Merlin glanced over at his students, a couple of whom were beginning to take notice of their conversation. He breathed in through his nose, then out; it didn't do as much to calm him as he would have hoped. Leaning in, he murmured, “Arthur, I know that you're not accustomed to rejection – doubtless you're spent your whole privileged life having people falling over themselves to do your bidding – but I am not going to go out with you. Not now, not ever. Not if you were the last man on earth.”
Arthur, who had also leaned closer to hear him, reared back as though Merlin had struck him. “Right,” he rasped. “Well, you've made your point very clear, I believe. I won't trouble you any longer.” And with that, he turned on his heel and marched to his car. Merlin had already returned to his students before he heard the engine roar to life and speed away.
“Oi, Merlin,” Sabrina, who was working on the outline of a tree at the far end of the mural, called out. “Is that your boyfriend?”
“No,” Merlin said, flushing when he realised every pair of eyes was on him now.
“Too bad,” mused Roderick, “he looks well fit.” One of the other boys, Keith, hooted with laughter, and Roderick said, “what? He was, wasn't he?”
“Oh yeah,” Sabrina said, “he was.”
“Well, then,” Roderick shot back at Keith, “shut your gob.”
“All right, let's concentrate on the art, shall we?” Merlin snapped, and as though by unspoken agreement, the students all turned back to their work, though not before exchanging looks with one another that clearly said, What's crawled up his arse, then?
Merlin waited a minute before attempting the climb back up the ladder, until his knees stopped wobbling. Christ, he was never cross with his kids. Good thing, then, that that was probably the last time he'd ever see Arthur Pendragon.
He only wished he could be as happy about that prospect as he told himself he should be.
It took Gwaine a full five minutes to stop laughing after Arthur told him the story.
“I don't know why I rang you,” Arthur said, downing his MacAllan and signaling the barman for another.
“Because all the other people who usually put up with your shit were busy,” Gwaine said, still chuckling. “If you're looking for sympathy, Princess, you rang the wrong mate.”
“M'not looking for sympathy,” Arthur said. “I just want to know what to do about it. God knows you've been shot down more times than I have. I was hoping for some advice from the master of rejection.”
“Nothing you can do,” Gwaine said, taking a long sip of his pint. “No means no.”
“But I can't understand why he hates me so much,” Arthur protested. Was this his third drink or his fourth?
“It's not necessarily anything you've done. Maybe his ex-boyfriend looks like you. Maybe he hates posh gits on principle.”
Arthur snorted. “You hate posh gits on principle and you'd go out with me.”
“Only because you pay me,” Gwaine said.
“Is that true?” Arthur asked, turning to him.
Gwaine eyed him for a long moment. “You know, it always amazes me that nobody else sees how spectacularly insecure you are,” he mused.
“I am not insecure,” Arthur grumbled. He studied his glass. Perhaps it was his fifth.
“When I said 'nobody else', I was including you.”
Arthur sighed. “You're a pain in the arse.” Gwaine raised his pint in acknowledgement. “Anyway, I know why he hates me.”
“Oh? And why is that?”
“I said something to him the first time we met.” Arthur shook his head slowly and the room wobbled a little. Definitely his fifth. “And – I mean, we'd just met, he didn't know me. What I said shouldn't have mattered to him.” He'd managed to block out the memory, but seeing Merlin today had brought it back full force: Merlin had looked like – like his world was ending, and all because of some throwaway comment that Arthur had reckoned no one would give a damn about. There was no good reason that look should have been on Merlin's face, but it had been.
And Arthur had made Merlin feel that way again today. He'd seen that same gutted expression, and it had made him angry. Merlin had no right to expect anything of him, for Christ's sake. Arthur had plenty of people expecting things from him already, thank you very much: his sister, his father, the various men and women who had flitted through his life. Every one of them wanted Arthur to be someone different, and being a perpetual disappointment to them was beginning to grate on him. No, it had been grating on him for some time, actually, but Merlin's reaction was a tipping point. He was so bloody tired of not ever being enough, of contorting himself like a circus performer to be his father's son and Morgana's hero and his bedmates' ideal man. Why was he so unlovable as he was?
“Bugger,” Arthur gusted, burying his face in his hands, “I am spectacularly insecure.”
He felt a hand patting his back. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a breakthrough.”
Arthur raised his head, the whiskey fueling a burgeoning determination. “I'm going to show him,” he said.
“Show who what?” Gwaine asked.
“I'm going to show Merlin the real me.”
“And who's that, then?” Gwaine drawled, leaning an elbow on the bar.
“Fucked if I know,” Arthur said, downing his fifth whiskey in one smooth gulp.
Of all the sights Merlin did not want to see at the end of a long and upsetting day, Gwen standing in the doorway of his office with her hands on her hips was top of the list. “You haven't rung Annis back, have you?”
“How do you know I haven't?”
“Because her office called again today and left another message. I have a suspicion they're not going to call again.”
Under his desk, Merlin's hands gripped his knees. “I'm not ready for my own show.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Gwen said, coming over to perch on the edge of his desk. “You're ready. You've never been more ready.” When Merlin didn't say anything, she added, “What's the real reason you don't want to do this?”
“What if this is the only chance I get?” Merlin blurted. “What if this is my chance, and I stuff it up somehow, and I never get another chance like it again?”
Gwen smiled. “Even if you did stuff it up – which you won't – you're hardly going to be banished from the kingdom. Besides, in the infinitely unlikely event you did manage to alienate the whole of the London art community, I'm sure you could always start again in New York or Berlin. After you'd changed your name and grown a moustache, of course.”
Merlin snorted. “Stop trying to introduce logic into my life. You know I've never gotten the hang of logic.”
“Merlin,” Gwen began.
“I'll ring her, I promise,” Merlin said, holding up his hands in defeat.
“Yes, all right, Mum,” Merlin said, grinning. “Today.”
Gwen sighed. “You already have a perfectly good mum. Why she puts up with you, I'll never know.” In spite of her words, she leaned in to kiss his forehead before she pushed herself off his desk. When she reached the door, she turned back. “I heard from the kids that Arthur Pendragon stopped by to see you the other day. What did he want?”
Merlin's smile disappeared. “He, erm – he was talking about making another – I mean, a donation to Creative Youth.”
“Oh, that's wonderful!” Gwen exclaimed. “And very kind of him.”
“I – erm. Yeah, yeah, I suppose it was.” Merlin bit his lip, thinking you hopeless git. Of course he couldn't explain to Gwen that he'd turned down a donation – in fact, now that he thought about it himself, he felt badly for letting his own emotions get in the way of helping the foundation. Money was money, after all, and if he had to endure a date with Arthur to help keep Creative Youth going, then he had to do it.
A date that wouldn't mean a damn thing to Arthur, and might end up meaning far too much to Merlin.
When the doorbell rang at a quarter to eight, Arthur briefly considered pretending he wasn't at home. Then he remembered the person on the other side of the door had a key, and would most likely use it to barge in if she wasn't swiftly obeyed. “All right, keep your bloody shirt on,” Arthur snapped, heading to the door and pulling it open.
Morgana stood on the other side with a grim expression and four-inch stilettos. “You are spectacularly annoying,” she said without preamble, stalking past him without so much as a wobble.
“And it's always a treat to see your smiling face, sister dear,” Arthur said brightly.
“You haven't answered any of my texts, or calls, or emails for a day and a half,” Morgana said, rounding on him. “I thought you were going to be found washed up on the foreshore.”
“Oh, for heaven's sake, don't be so melodramatic. I could have turned off my phone, you know.”
“No, you couldn't. Your phone is an integral part of your being. I think it derives its battery charge directly from your own body, like a tick draws blood from a dog.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, though privately he admitted to himself that she did have a point. “I'm sorry. I was busy. And I did see your messages. Unfortunately, I have somewhere to go tonight, so I won't be able to make it to dinner.”
Morgana brightened. “Did you arrange the date with Merlin, then?”
Arthur shifted on the balls of his feet. “Not exactly. He turned me down.”
“You heard me,” Arthur muttered.
“Well, well,” Morgana said, smiling crookedly. “I believe that's a first for you, isn't it?”
“Don't worry, he'll say yes eventually.”
“Oh God, no. When I told you to take him out, I didn't say you had to become one of those creepy stalkers to do it.”
“I'm not –”
“No means no, Arthur.”
“I'm not going to become a creepy stalker,” Arthur snapped. “I'm going to – well, never mind.”
Morgana was beginning to look worried. “Why? What have you got planned?”
“I don't exactly know, to be perfectly honest. But I don't have time to get into it right now. I have to go to a lecture.”
“You what? A lecture by whom?”
Arthur shrugged into his casual jacket and grabbed his keys. “I don't know the name of the presenter. It's being put on by the City of London Archaeological Society, about an excavation in Greenwich.”
“Since when do you go to lectures?” Morgana demanded as Arthur headed for the door.
“Since half an hour from now,” Arthur said. “Do lock the door behind you when you leave, won't you?”
“Wait! I'm coming with you,” Morgana said.
“I didn't know you were interested in mediaeval fishing villages,” Arthur said dryly.
“Not to the lecture,” Morgana huffed as they waited for the lift. “Archaeology – you read that at Cambridge, didn't you?”
“Yeah,” Arthur said. “I took a few courses. Enjoyed them a lot.” He shrugged. “Thought I'd dip my toe back in. Maybe take some time off next summer to join a dig.”
Morgana was silent, and Arthur schooled his features to imperturbability. A silent Morgana was always dangerous. “What?” he said, finally.
“Nothing,” Morgana said. “It's only that I've never known you to cultivate hobbies. At least since you started at the company. It's – odd, but encouraging. We might make a human of you yet.”
The lift arrived, and Arthur briefly wondered if he could leap out at the last second and take the stairs. “You make me sound like some sort of robot,” he muttered, the words coming out sounding much more wounded than he'd intended.
“Not a robot, no. At the very least an android,” Morgana said, but she softened her reply with a gentle elbow to Arthur's side. Arthur offered her a small smile as a peace offering.
When the doors opened on the lobby, Morgana stepped out, then surprised him by turning around and giving him a peck on the cheek. “Let's go to lunch tomorrow, hm? You can tell me all about your discoveries,” she said, and before he could reply, she winked and clicked away on her ridiculous shoes.
Arthur smiled as the doors shut again, taking him down to the car park.
It was another week before Merlin rang Annis and arranged a meeting about a possible show, and a week after that before he summoned the bottle to deal with Arthur.
It didn't surprise him that Arthur's company, Pendragon Publishing, was located in one of the newest and most avant-garde buildings in Canary Wharf, and that the security guard looked at him oddly before he ducked into one of the lifts. On the way up to the twentieth floor, he rolled his shoulders and shook himself – hey, he'd taken a drama class once – and went over his story in his head.
His 'Arthur’s old mate from uni' routine worked fine with the receptionist, but he met a brick wall when he encountered Arthur's assistant, a stone-faced, weedy bloke who looked like he hadn't cracked a proper smile since childhood, and maybe not even then.
“I could have sworn I had met all of Mr. Pendragon's university friends,” the man said coolly, gaze assessing, “and forgive me, but you are a deviation from the normal pattern.”
Merlin was a bit taken aback at being labeled a deviation by a cold fish in a grey corporate suit. A sudden and overwhelming desire to take the piss got the better of him. “Listen, mate,” he said, leaning in, “you're right about me.” The man frowned, obviously confused by Merlin's admission. “The thing is, I know Arthur, but, erm – the true circumstances in which we know one another isn't something he'd like to get spread around, yeah?”
“Erm,” the man said. Merlin glanced down at his nameplate.
“Mr. Sinclair,” Merlin purred, smiling, “or may I call you George? George, we’re both men of the world, am I right?” To emphasise his point, he cocked a hip and perched on the edge of George’s desk.
George’s eyes widened as he stared at Merlin’s thigh splayed in front of him, and he flushed. “Yes, I – I suppose you could say that,” he allowed.
“Then I’m sure I don’t need to get into specifics, do I? That wouldn’t be – discreet. And if there’s one thing Mister Pendragon likes, it’s discretion.” He leaned in and murmured, “Can I trust you to be discreet, George?”
George was so red he looked as though he were about to pop a blood vessel. “I – erm, that is –”
Merlin raised his head to see Arthur standing in his doorway, a confused expression on his face.
“Oh, hello,” Merlin said, grinning. “How are you?”
“Fine,” Arthur said, drawing out the word into a question.
Merlin shoved himself off the desk and nodded at George, placing a finger over his lips. George gulped and nodded back.
“What have you done to George?” Arthur asked as he closed his office door behind them.
“Taught him not to judge people by their looks.” Merlin frowned. “Or confirmed his prejudices. I’m not sure.” He waved a hand. “Anyway, he probably thinks I’m either your rent boy or your drug connection. Or both.”
Arthur folded his arms. “Did you just come here to muck about with my staff, or did this unexpected visit actually have another purpose?”
Merlin blew out a breath; working himself up to this had seemed much easier when he hadn't been standing in front of Arthur. He was wearing his usual impeccably tailored business wear, but his jacket had been discarded and his shirt sleeves were rolled up. Arthur’s forearms were as attractive as the rest of him, damn them. Furthermore, Merlin was depressingly certain that were other parts of Arthur bared for scrutiny, they would be just as – oh, fuck, he really had to stop this line of thought immediately.
“Yes, it did,” Merlin said. “I wanted to accept your offer of a date.”
Arthur stared at him for a long moment. “You turned me down,” he said finally.
“And now I'm changing my mind.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “You said you wouldn't go out with me if I were the last man on earth.”
“I changed my mind quite radically.”
“Listen, I'm – sorry,” Merlin said. Arthur's eyes widened in apparent surprise, though Merlin reckoned he was even more surprised than Arthur. “I shouldn't have said those things. You were offering a very generous gift, and I was extremely ungenerous, and for that I apologise.”
As Arthur continued to stare at him silently, Merlin’s heart sank. It hadn’t occurred to him that Arthur would reject him. While he couldn’t quite believe he’d managed to hurt Arthur’s feelings, he had probably pissed him off. Merlin had let his own emotions get the better of him, and he’d probably bollixed up any chance for an important donation for Creative Youth.
“I accept your apology,” Arthur murmured. Still lost in his own head as he was, it took Merlin a couple of seconds to process what he’d said.
“Oh. Oh! Thank you! I mean, that’s – yeah. So, does that mean you want to –”
Arthur drew himself up, though his arms relaxed to his sides. “I still need to placate Morgana, so I suppose so.”
Merlin nodded, swallowing around the lump in his throat. Well, he hadn't exactly expected Arthur to leap into his arms and declare his undying love, had he? “Right, yeah, so – I suppose you'll ring me?” Suddenly, he needed to get out of there as soon as possible.
Arthur opened his mouth, then closed it. “What about Saturday?” he said. “Will that work for you?”
Merlin nodded. “I'll be at the Centre until about five, so I could meet you somewhere after that?”
Arthur shook his head. “Why don't I just pick you up there?”
Merlin's eyebrows shot up, and the words emerged before he could think better of them. “That's two trips to Finchley in as many weeks. Are you sure?”
Arthur responded with an eyebrow of his own. “You'd be surprised at how much I get around, Mer lin. Once, I even drove through Hackney.”
“You were lost, of course.”
“Of course,” Arthur said, and suddenly they both broke into matching grins. Merlin had never seen Arthur with a genuine smile on his face; bloody hell, it was literally breathtaking.
“Well,” Merlin said, sobering after a moment, “I'll see you Saturday, then.”
“Saturday,” Arthur echoed, his gaze still glued to Merlin's face. Merlin stared at him, gormless, for another few seconds, then turned and left, feeling the weight of that gaze on him the whole way.
By Saturday afternoon, Arthur had thought up seventy-three different places to take Merlin for their date, and had rejected each and every one as complete bollocks. Anything arty that Arthur could think of was immediately out of the question; doubtless Merlin had already been to all of those and a hundred others besides. Likewise something blatantly posh, like a private cruise on the Thames or any of Arthur's favourite restaurants; he was certain Merlin would consider it a waste of money. The only options that remained were romantic ones, and those were definitely out. Despite Merlin's change of heart, Arthur was certain that 'last man on earth' line had been completely accurate: there was no way that Merlin would ever be interested in him romantically.
Therefore, when four o'clock came, he was lying sprawled on his couch, watching a repeat of an old episode of The Voice and powering through a package of custard creams. And that was how Morgana found him when she decided to skip knocking and let herself in.
“If you're wanking, you have five seconds to put it away!” she announced in stentorian tones, as Arthur sat up hastily, stuffed the package of biscuits under a pillow and brushed the crumbs off himself. They tumbled onto the chocolate rug and lay scattered about like dandruff on a bear.
“Why are you scowling at your rug?” Morgana demanded. Arthur looked up to see her standing in the doorway to his living room with her hands on her hips.
“I'm not – never mind,” Arthur huffed, getting to his feet. “What do you want, Morgana? I'm very busy.”
Morgana raised an eyebrow at the TV screen, where a girl who looked about fifteen was belting out a One Direction song with tears in her eyes. “Yes, you look it.”
“Oh, for –” Arthur gritted, reaching for the remote control and mashing the power button, “I wasn't watching it.”
“Mm-hmm,” Morgana said, unruffled. “Well, first of all,” she said, “I wanted to see if you'd read that latest manuscript I emailed you.”
“I haven't, no. I'll read it by the end of next week.”
“Arthur – ”
Arthur sighed. “What difference does it make? You know he's going to say no. He always says no.”
“I live in hope.”
“I'm glad to hear one of us still does.”
Morgana's gaze softened for a moment, and then her smile turned evil again. “Second, a little bird told me you're taking Merlin out tonight.”
“What bird?” Oh, right, Morgana was good friends with that woman who ran the charity with Merlin – what was her name? Gwyneth?
“That's not important. The important thing is, what are your plans?”
Arthur flopped back onto the couch. “I'm not telling you.”
“That's because you don't have any,” Morgana said, with a level of smugness that Arthur had never been able to match, no matter how hard he tried.
Arthur thought about denying her charge, then decided it was a lost cause. “All right. Why don't you get your gloating over with. I have no clue what working-class artsy sorts like; I admit it. It's a terrible character flaw, I know.”
“Oh for heaven's sake, it's not as though Merlin belongs to an alien species,” Morgana huffed. “I'm fairly certain he eats just like the rest of humanity.”
“Yes, but where? He’d judge me if I spent three hundred quid on a meal, and I've never set foot in a Nando's in my life.”
“You do know that London is well-equipped with restaurants that fall somewhere between a chicken chain and Le Gavroche? Find one of those.”
Arthur folded his arms and sank more deeply into the couch. “I can't just take him out for dinner. I wanted to do something –” Thankfully, he bit his tongue before he added the word 'special' to that sentence; Morgana did not need any more ammunition than he'd given her already. “Something he'd enjoy.” There, that was safe. Considerate, even.
Morgana smiled; it was the smile with the small, triumphant curl at the left side of her mouth. Arthur hated that one. “Well, as it happens, you're in luck.” She fished in her purse and brandished a small envelope. “I have saved your arse again, as usual.”
“What are you talking about, you always let me fall squarely on my arse,” Arthur snapped. “What is it?”
“It's an envelope containing two tickets to an artist-led dinner at the Tate Modern tonight, which is being held in conjunction with the Contemporary African Art exhibition. So I have your dinner and event plans sewn up.”
Arthur frowned. “That’s – erm. Brilliant, actually.” He looked up at Morgana. “Thanks.”
Morgana clutched at her chest. “Be still my heart. That’s the first time you’ve complimented my intelligence in years.”
“Well, it’s so rarely displayed,” Arthur said, snatching the envelope from her before she could react.
“See if I ever do anything nice for you again,” Morgana said. “Now hand over that package of custard creams and go clean yourself up for your date.”
“Am I getting them back?” Arthur said warily, as he passed her the package.
“Certainly not,” she said. “Do you think I work for free?” To prove her point, she promptly dug out a biscuit and shoved it into her mouth whole before waving at him and heading for the door.
Merlin didn't know quite what to think of – well, anything, really.
Arthur had arrived at five on the dot and whisked Merlin off to a dinner and personal tour of Merlin's favourite exhibition at the Tate Modern. He'd taken the kids to it – during the day, of course – and had been fascinated by the use of the space to evoke emotion and associations. While he had seen this event advertised, even the thirty-five quid had been out of his price range at the time. Having the chance to ask the artist directly about his work was thrilling, especially with his own show looming in his mind.
What he couldn't understand was how Arthur had managed to pick something so – appropriate. Merlin tried to remember if he'd talked about the exhibit with Gwen or anyone else, but he didn't think he had, and at any rate, he doubted Arthur would have asked her about Merlin's preferences. That meant Arthur had actually put a fair amount of effort into this evening, and Merlin couldn't for the life of him understand why. He'd expected a typical posh dinner at a French restaurant, perhaps the latest rip-off of a seventy-year-old movie masquerading as theatre, and that would be it. Instead, it was as though Arthur had read his mind, and that had him feeling off-balance in a not entirely unpleasant way.
For his part, Arthur hadn't looked bored or distracted; he'd kept up his end of a lively conversation over dinner, and during the tour he'd stayed close to Merlin, listening to his questions for the artist, and even contributing a couple of his own along the themes of history and heritage. After his first question, Merlin may have stared at him in a rather stunned way, because Arthur met his gaze and smiled, blushing a little. It was – endearing, damn it. Arthur was not supposed to be considerate, or interested in art, or endearing, or, or – fuck.
Merlin didn't want to like Arthur, but at the same time he couldn't seem to help himself. It was a colossal pain in the arse.
Afterwards, Arthur took him to a small pub in Camberwell, one Merlin was surprised Arthur would set foot in, let alone be familiar with. Arthur smiled when Merlin said as much. “I used to come here when I was in uni,” Arthur explained.
“I thought you went to Cambridge,” Merlin said.
“I did, for my undergrad. This was at LSE. I lived around the corner from here.”
“Bit far from LSE.”
“True. But Gwaine – that was my flatmate – he was going to UAL, taking courses here and in Chelsea. And his cousin owned the building. Got a good deal.”
Merlin leaned forwards, suddenly intrigued. “You needed a good deal on a flat?”
Arthur stared at him for a moment, then frowned down at his beer, as though he'd suddenly realised he'd revealed too much. “My father wanted me to move back in with him. I didn't.”
Merlin could fill in the blanks for himself: his father hadn't supported him financially. Of course, toffs like Arthur probably had trust funds, but still, his rebellion made him a little more interesting. Merlin also didn't fail to note Arthur hadn't mentioned his mother, but that was a conversation for another time.
Right, except there wouldn't be another time. “I'm sorry,” Merlin said. “I didn't mean to bring up – bad memories.”
Arthur shrugged. “It was years ago. And anyway, I work for him now, so he has nothing to complain about.”
Merlin couldn't think of anything to say to that, so he took a sip of his beer. “I'm a little stunned to hear a friend of yours went to art college. I thought you said you didn't know anything about art.”
Arthur shook his head. “I don't. And Gwaine is a graphic designer in our advertising department; he's nothing like you.”
Merlin drew himself up at that. “I'm not sure if that's meant to be an insult to me or Gwaine.”
Arthur frowned. “I didn't mean – I mean, he works with computers, and he's pretty much the opposite of non-profit.”
“Artists are artists,” Merlin said. “It doesn't matter which medium they work in. And it goes further than that – everyone is born with the impulse to create.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows. “So everyone's an artist?”
Merlin lifted his chin. “In a manner of speaking. At least, they have the potential. Creating things isn't just putting paint on a canvas or carving a block of marble. It's a thousand other things, a million.”
Arthur regarded him steadily, as though Merlin were the only thing in the room. It was a little breathtaking. “I've never thought of it that way.”
Merlin licked his suddenly dry lips. “I'm surprised. I mean, there's a huge amount of creativity in publishing.”
“Publishing is first and foremost a business like any other,” Arthur said, as though he were reciting a line from memory. Shaking his head, he said, “Anyway, my end of it isn't particularly creative.”
“What's your end of it, then?”
Arthur snorted. “Basically? I find out what's making millions of pounds and find authors who will write more of it quickly, before people's taste changes. Vampires, werewolves, bondage, terrorism.”
“Oh,” Merlin said. “Well, that's –”
“Horrible? I know. Lately, Morgana and I have been suggesting that we consider being trend-setters rather than simply trend-followers. She's constantly finding new, young authors who will never get a second look from any major publisher, and she leaves manuscripts on my desk. The ones I think have promise, I pass on to my father.” He looked down at his drink. “It hasn't been well-received.”
“I'm sorry,” Merlin said. “I know that's a completely useless thing to say.”
“No, it isn't,” Arthur said softly. He looked down at his empty glass. “I'd better quit if I want to drive you home.”
“Don't worry about it. The tube's three minutes from here.”
Arthur frowned. “You can't take the tube.”
Merlin shifted, bristling. “I certainly can. And I will.”
Arthur sighed and waved a hand. “Look, that wasn't – I'm not trying to order you about. I invited you out, so it's only right that I drive you home. That's all.”
Merlin's heart rate slowed a little. “So this is you – being chivalrous?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Arthur barked out a short, harsh laugh. “Hardly. I don't do chivalrous.”
“Polite, then, if you have to be self-deprecating.”
Arthur met his gaze. “All right,” he said softly.
No, Merlin mused, watching Arthur flush slightly under his scrutiny before downing the last of his beer, Arthur wasn't the arrogant prick Merlin had thought he was at all. In fact, if anything, the bluster was a smokescreen, a diversion to distract from the real Arthur. Merlin could admit to himself that he was more than a little curious as to who the real Arthur was, though he also knew there was no future in it.
“So you'll let me drive you, then?”
“Yeah,” Merlin said. “Thanks.”
Arthur nodded, a small smile playing about his lips. It might have seemed smug to Merlin a day ago, but now it seemed genuine and warm and just a little bit shy.
Merlin's heart raced as he realised he was likely in a considerable amount of trouble.
Arthur spent most of the time on the drive back to Finchley feeling a jumble of elation, excitement and gnawing, soul-crushing guilt. He'd had more fun tonight than he had – well, come to think of it, he couldn't remember a better first date. Which was odd, because it wasn't an activity he would have thought he'd be interested in. But Merlin's enthusiasm had been infectious, and he'd found himself actually becoming engaged in the artwork, even to the point of asking his own questions.
As for Merlin himself – tonight, he'd helped Arthur to realise that the adage beauty is more than skin deep wasn't just a load of old bollocks. Because Merlin was attractive, but when he was lit up with passion about art and creativity, talking with his fellow artists or telling stories about the kids he worked with, he was positively stunning. Arthur had actually felt a bit light-headed at a couple of points, and it hadn't been from the beer. He had no idea how this would ever work, but he knew he didn't want to stop seeing Merlin, and he certainly didn't want to go back to his usual search for vapid, meaningless surface beauty.
Which sadly led him to the soul-crushing guilt, because the whole wonderful night was a complete sham. Merlin thought the dinner had been Arthur's idea, when in truth he'd merely stolen it from Morgana. If he wanted this to continue, he had to be honest with Merlin, but if he was honest with Merlin, he'd never get to a second date. The paradox whirled around in his brain as they got in the car for the long drive north.
Luckily, Arthur could claim the need to concentrate on driving – despite the fact that he was completely accustomed to London traffic – so their conversation was minimal. Merlin seemed happy enough to look out the window and watch the parade of night life beyond the glass, still going strong well after midnight.
Merlin's flat was in a nondescript terraced house on a nondescript street, not far from the Creative Youth premises. “I'd invite you up, but Lance has been working on a commission for about a month, and it takes up a good part of the living room.”
“A sculpture.” Merlin peered out the window, looking up. “Hmmm, the light's still on. It's not been going well, I'm afraid. They keep changing their minds about what they want.” Merlin snorted. “It keeps getting smaller with every change.”
“Maybe in another week or two, it'll be small enough that there'll be room for me.”
Merlin turned quickly towards him. “You want to –” He cut himself off abruptly, shaking his head. “Oh. You're being polite again, aren't you?” His tone was surprisingly hollow, and there was a shadow of that gutted look Arthur remembered. He hated that look.
“No, I'm not,” Arthur said. “I had a marvellous time tonight, and I'd like to see you again. If that's something you want too, of course.”
Merlin's eyes widened. “You – erm. You want to go on another date?”
“Yeah,” Arthur murmured, heart hammering wildly. “A real one this time.”
“That – yeah, that would be – okay.”
Arthur smiled. “Well, I suppose that's an improvement over 'not if you were the last man on earth.' D'you think next time I might make it all the way to 'brilliant'?”
“Not bloody likely,” Merlin told him, an evil twinkle in his eye. “At most, you might manage 'acceptable.'”
“Oh, thanks a lot, Merlin,” Arthur said, mock-scowling. Merlin smirked at him for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing.
“Seriously, I want to,” Merlin said, sobering. “Tonight was – well, it was really thoughtful of you,” he added, and Arthur's heart plummeted to the ground. “It's like you read my mind.”
“About that,” Arthur began, “Merlin –”
“Hush for a minute, all right? I'm trying to decide whether to do something I probably shouldn't,” Merlin said, and before Arthur could ask what that was, Merlin leaned forward and kissed him softly. Arthur felt his heart pick itself out of the dust and start beating again, then reached trembling fingers to cup Merlin's jaw and kiss him back.
“Well?” Merlin murmured when they finally pulled away. “Bad idea?”
“Didn't seem like one to me,” Arthur replied. His hand was still on Merlin's face, and he swiped his thumb over Merlin's lips, making him close his eyes.
“Christ, Arthur,” Merlin groaned. “I have to go.”
“Right, yeah,” Arthur said, taking his hand away. “I –”
Merlin kissed him again, hard, and then he was gone.
Arthur leaned forward until his forehead was touching the steering wheel.
“You. Utter. Prick,” he said feelingly.
“I am an utter prick,” Arthur said, five seconds after he'd barrelled into Merlin's office the next afternoon.
“And hello to you, too,” Merlin said, frowning slightly. “Erm, did you happen to see if there were any small children in the corridor?”
Arthur stopped, turned round and poked his head out the door, then turned back. “No.”
“Well, that's a relief,” Merlin said brightly. “Why don't you close the door just in case one wanders by, alright?”
Arthur had the good grace to look sheepish as he followed Merlin's instruction. “Sorry,” he said.
“No harm done. Now, you were saying?”
“I –” Arthur trailed off, shoulders slumping.
“What is it?”
“I've rather lost my momentum. It took me twenty minutes in the car to get worked up to this.”
Merlin stared at him, nonplussed. “Would you like to go back out there for a while?”
Arthur took a deep breath, then spoke in a rush. “Morgana suggested the museum event.”
“Oh,” Merlin said. That honestly hadn't been what he'd been expecting. “All right.”
“All right? Aren't you furious?”
“Should I be?” He supposed he should be a little angry, but then again, he knew full well that Arthur had only asked him out because Morgana had forced him into it.
“I misled you.”
Merlin thought about it. “You never did tell me it was your idea. I assumed.”
“I did spend quite a bit of time trying to think of an evening you'd enjoy, but I was completely stymied. And then Morgana showed up with the tickets, and – anyway, I couldn't in good conscience take the credit.”
Merlin frowned as something occurred to him. “Is this your way of saying you don't want to go out again after all?”
“No! Why would you say that?”
“Because you seem to be pushing me to fly into a rage and tell you I never want to see you again. Which, you know, would pretty much put paid to that second date we'd talked about.”
“No, I –” Arthur shook his head slowly. “You agreed to go on another date with me because you thought I'd come up with the idea for the first one.”
Slowly, Merlin rose to his feet and stepped around the desk until he was perched on the edge facing Arthur. “That was part of the reason, yeah. But not all of it.”
“What was the other part?” Arthur asked, voice nearly inaudible, and if you'd asked Merlin yesterday if Arthur Pendragon could be bashful, he'd never have believed it.
“The other part is that you're really quite a lovely bloke when you let yourself be,” Merlin said, almost as quietly. “You listen, and you're thoughtful, and a little old-fashioned, in a sweet way. You're also not nearly as much of a berk as you seem at first look.”
“Cheers,” Arthur said, biting his lip.
Merlin pushed himself off the desk and was gratified when Arthur's eyes widened as he approached. “And I'd like to get to know you better,” Merlin murmured, gaze dipping to Arthur's mouth. When Arthur took the hint and leaned in slightly, Merlin met him halfway, taking him by the hips to tug him in closer.
Merlin was contemplating sliding his hands a bit farther back when the door burst open. “Merlin, are you – oh, fuck, sorry!” The door promptly slammed shut again.
Arthur leapt away from Merlin as though he'd been scalded. For his part, Merlin merely let his hands drop to his sides and sighed.
A knock sounded on the door.
“Come in,” Merlin said calmly.
Roderick opened the door with less haste this time. “Erm,” he said, hesitating on the threshold. “Yeah, I should have done” – he gestured vaguely at the door – “that.”
“Roderick, this is Arthur. Arthur, Roderick.”
“Pleasure,” Arthur said. Roderick turned red and nodded stiffly.
“We were heading off to the DIY shop for some paint for our next mural,” Merlin said.
“Right,” Arthur said, and wonderful, now he was turning a similar shade.
“We could do with an extra pair of hands,” some devil in Merlin said to Arthur. “If you're free, that is.”
Arthur and Roderick eyed one another nervously. Merlin cast his own eyes heavenward.
“What? Oh, yes, of course. We could take my car.”
“What's your car?” Roderick asked.
Arthur paused. Merlin wondered if he had more than one car and had to think about which one he'd brought. “An Alfa 4C.”
“Fuck right off! No way.”
“Well, there are ten of us, so that wouldn't exactly work,” Merlin said. Really, he should just let Arthur off the hook right now, but some sense of mischief – or perhaps impending doom – spurred him on.
Roderick looked crestfallen, then brightened. “Me 'n' Arthur could take the Alfa and catch you up when you get there.”
“Right, so I'll just tell the rest to start hating you now, yeah?” Merlin asked.
Roderick deflated again. “OK, OK. It's only – I've never ridden in a sports car.”
“Well, Arthur's never taken the Tube before, so don't feel too badly.”
“I have taken the Tube!” Arthur protested.
Merlin and Roderick looked at him.
“Lots of times!” he added.
Roderick made a noise that wasn't entirely complimentary, then headed off to join the others.
Arthur's mouth opened, closed again. “I don't suppose I could just meet you there –”
“No,” Merlin said.
“Right,” Arthur said, nodding. “Only I don't actually have an Oyster card, you see, and –”
Merlin shut him up with a glare.
“Right,” Arthur said again. Merlin's mouth twitched, and he jerked his head toward the door. Arthur followed with only a moment's hesitation, but he was smiling by the time he crossed the threshold.
“So are you Merlin's boyfriend, then?” Roderick asked.
Arthur froze. Merlin's students had feigned complete disinterest in him during the tube ride, though he had sensed several pairs of eyes boring into his back. However, now that Merlin had sent him off to help select brushes and other supplies with two of them while the rest of the bunch contemplated colour swatches, he supposed they felt emboldened to ambush him without fear of reprisal.
“We've been on one date,” Arthur said. And this one, which he didn't think counted as a date, but it was definitely a challenge of sorts, and Arthur was damned if he was going to prove unequal to it.
“Have you shagged yet?” Roderick persisted.
Arthur snorted. “The last thing I'm sharing with you is the details of my sex life.”
Roderick grinned and held up his hands. “All right, bruv, all right, no need to get all posh.”
“It's hardly posh to – oh, never mind,” Arthur sighed. Desperately, he scanned the shelves. “All right, what do we think of these brushes here?”
“Gwen told us you was one of the bachelors at that auction,” said the girl – Sandra, Arthur believed she was called. “How come a nob like you turned up?”
“I'm always happy to support local charities,” Arthur answered, which wasn't really an answer.
“Mmm-hmmm,” Sandra said, folding her arms to show she had figured that out.
Arthur drew himself up. “Also, my sister was running the auction and she asked me to help.”
“Morgana? Oh, wow, she's well fit, isn't she?”
Both Sandra and Arthur swiveled slowly to look at him, but Roderick only shrugged.
“What? She is. And I've called both of you fit at one time or another.”
Arthur's eyebrows rose, but before he could think of an answer to that, Sandra said, “That's only 'cuz you'd fuck everyone if they'd let ya.”
“Not everyone,” Roderick muttered, clearly stung. “I've got standards, me.”
Sandra let out a loud whipcrack of a laugh that was as much a comment as a few sentences of conversation.
“I'm thinking these brushes will be marvelous,” Arthur said, plucking a package off the shelf, and this time Roderick was more than happy to change the subject.
“Well, here we are again,” Merlin said brightly, as Arthur brought the car to a stop outside his flat.
“Here we are,” Arthur agreed, turning to him, and Merlin promptly got lost in that damnably steady blue gaze.
Merlin didn't know what he'd been thinking tonight, introducing Arthur to nine of his kids and dragging him to a B&Q to carry paint and pick out rollers. All he knew was that if Arthur reckoned this was his idea of a date, it would probably be the last time Merlin saw him. Not that it hadn't gone well: against all odds, some of the kids had taken to Arthur immediately, and the rest were won over by his surprising charm and self-deprecating humour. It was reassuring, because he trusted their judgement, but also terrifying, because all the reasons he'd constructed for keeping Arthur at arm's length were being knocked down one by one.
“Listen,” Arthur said softly, jerking Merlin from his reverie, “I know today was some kind of – test.”
Merlin flushed. “It started out as an impulse, actually. But I can see how it would have come across that way.”
“Whatever it was, I understand. Well, I don't, not completely, but – I know that when we first met I disappointed you somehow. Perhaps even hurt you.”
Merlin sucked in a breath. He hadn't been expecting that.
“I know I was an arsehole. I'd had an absolute shit day, but that's no excuse. I took it out on you, and that was wrong. At the time, I couldn't understand why you'd be bothered by what I said, but now I know it doesn't matter why – only that you were bothered. And all I can say is that I'm truly sorry.”
“Thanks,” Merlin managed, after a moment. “It, erm, it does matter why, actually – but I don't want to talk about it – yet.” He met Arthur's gaze. “Maybe someday.”
“That sounds like I'm going to be around for a while,” Arthur murmured, gaze darting to Merlin's mouth, then back.
“Well, the kids like you. As he was leaving, Roderick slapped me on the shoulder and said, 'You could do a lot worse, mate.'” Which was mortifying, no question, but still oddly sweet.
“That's better than what I got from him.”
“What'd you get?”
“'You're a lucky prick.' And the slap was more of a punch, but I'm letting that go.”
Merlin's eyes widened. “Arthur, I –”
“I told him he was right,” Arthur said softly.
“Maybe we both are,” Merlin whispered, leaning in.
Arthur was smiling when Merlin finally pulled back, and Merlin's heart decided right there that it was time to leave his common sense behind.
“Want to come up? Lance is at Gwen's tonight.”
Arthur's eyebrows rose. “I thought the sculpture was too big to allow for entertaining.”
“It is. But it's not in my bedroom.”
Arthur's gaze sought his. “Are you sure?”
“No,” Merlin admitted, and Arthur frowned. “But I don't want to let that stop me.”
“Merlin –” Arthur began, but Merlin kissed him again, and by the time they broke apart, panting, Arthur was nodding. “Yeah, okay, okay, that's – I can see your point,” he rasped, and then they were stumbling from the car and through the door and up the seemingly endless steps until Merlin was practically giddy with how much he wanted Arthur's skin touching his now.
“Do you have, erm,” Arthur managed, as they pressed together on the bed. Merlin shook his head and wet his dry lips, barely able to move through the heavy curtain of lust that was weighing down his limbs.
“It's been – a while. You don't have anything?”
Arthur pressed his forehead to Merlin's bare shoulder. “A few hours ago I came to your office thinking you were going to kick me out of your life forever. Oddly enough, I didn't think of bringing condoms.”
Merlin chuckled. “Yeah, okay, so we – there are lots of other – oh, Christ, yeah, that's one of them –”
Arthur scraped his teeth over the thin skin covering Merlin's hip. “Merlin?”
“Yeah?” Merlin breathed.
“Hold on to something,” Arthur murmured, and Merlin's hands clutched at the edges of the mattress, hoping it would be enough.
Ten months later
“This is going to be a disaster,” Arthur muttered under his breath.
Of course, Merlin's bat ears picked it up as he was passing. “No, it isn't,” he assured Arthur, giving him a peck on the cheek. “The mural is going to turn out wonderfully.”
Arthur gestured at the wall, where Roderick and Sondra (with an 'o', Arthur had learned some time ago) and about a half dozen of Merlin's other students were hard at work on the two-storey artwork that would form the backdrop for Avalon Books' reception area. “I wasn't talking about the mural. That's going to be fantastic. I'm panicking about everything else.”
“I know,” Merlin said cheerfully. “I overheard your call to Morgana at two in the morning. She's rather cross with you for interrupting her beauty sleep.”
Arthur sighed. One of the banes of his existence was how well his sister – now his business partner, god – got on with Merlin. They discussed – well, Arthur wasn't entirely certain what they discussed, but he suspected it was more than he ever wanted his sister to know about. “Fine, I'm overreacting, I'm neurotic, yes, thanks.”
“You're not either of those things. It's natural to be nervous. I was a wreck the week leading up to my show, even with you and Gwen and everybody else helping me through it. And you have even more reason to be worried. Setting up a new publishing company that takes chances on untried authors from diverse backgrounds is a huge risk –”
“Oh, Christ,” Arthur gasped, heart leaping into his mouth.
“– but sometimes huge risks are worth it. My show was a success, and this will be, too. You need to trust your and Morgana's skill – and your instincts.”
“And why should I do that?”
Merlin smiled softly. “Because it's the right thing to do. For you and what the two of you are trying to create.”
Arthur stared at him. “How the hell do you do that?” he demanded, turning to take Merlin by the hips and pull him closer. “Be all sunny and idealistic. It's bloody annoying.”
“You adore it.”
“I do,” Arthur allowed, kissing him on the neck, then burying his head in Merlin's shoulder as Merlin stroked his hair. Arthur's fingers traced idle patterns on Merlin's hips, over his t-shirt.
“Anyway, I know what I'm talking about. I trusted my instincts, and it worked out pretty well.”
“When did you do that?” Arthur said.
There was a pause, and Arthur could feel Merlin's shoulder rise as he took a deep breath before speaking. “When I fell in love with you the moment I saw you.”
Arthur's fingers stilled at Merlin's waist. Slowly, he raised his head to meet Merlin's gaze. There was a pink tinge to Merlin's cheeks, and Arthur suddenly couldn't breathe.
“Ridiculous, isn't it?” Merlin said, attempting a smile.
Arthur shook his head slowly. “It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard,” he murmured, framing Merlin's lovely, lovely face with shaking hands as he tried to put everything he wanted to say into this one kiss.
They were interrupted by a wolf-whistle from – who else – Roderick.
“Oi, there are impressionable young minds present!” he shouted. “Keep it above the waist, lads.”
“Why don't you –” Arthur began.
“– take a fifteen-minute break,” Merlin finished for him. There was a short burst of cheers and laughter, and then the building was mercifully clear of everyone but a few disinterested tradespeople, who were installing the electrical fixtures and laying the tile.
“I love you,” Arthur said. “I don't say that enough.”
“Arthur, you're doing just fine,” Merlin said, taking him by the shoulders.
Arthur couldn't think of anything to do but kiss Merlin again. It was perfection for all of three seconds, until a voice behind him said, “I reckon you don't care, but you're distracting the woman trying to hang the track lighting.”
“Bloody hell, Gwaine,” Merlin groaned, stepping away from Arthur.
Gwaine grinned and continued, unperturbed. “Also, Morgana texted me to tell me that if Arthur was here when she arrived, she'd boot him in the cobblers for keeping her up half the night. Better get him out of here, Merlin.”
“The kids –” Merlin began.
“I'll keep an eye on them. Take a day off, will you? Arthur's practically been living here for weeks. It's clear you're both gagging for it.”
“God, all right, we're going,” Arthur said, taking Merlin by the hand and leading him out into the bright spring sunshine.
As they passed Roderick and the crew, Merlin pointed a finger at them. “Not a word.”
Roderick mimed zipping his lips. “Not to your face,” he assured Merlin.
“Come on,” Arthur said, laughing at Merlin's stern expression as he tugged him forward, because Gwaine was right, it felt as though he hadn't seen the sun in months, and it was a beautiful day, and against all odds, Merlin loved him far more than he deserved. Not that he'd say that aloud, because Merlin would only tell him he was being too hard on himself again, and Arthur would only love him more.
If this was to be his fate, Arthur thought, he'd take it.