Arthur sighed as he dressed himself in one of his finest shirts. He’d decided on a high collared shirt, paired with a dark silk tie and his burgundy waistcoat. He had already selected a pair of grey pinstripe trousers along with a suspenders which he already wore as he fastened his cuffs with links and pinned his collar before tying the tie. It was at times like this, when formalities needed to be observed, that he regretted letting George go. With George’s assistance, he would have been ready in half the time.
He pulled his suspenders up over broad shoulders and slipped on the waistcoat, then he buttoned it and attached his pocket watch. He wondered why Gwaine had sent him a formal invitation to tea, rather than a hastily scrawled message with a servant asking him ‘Do come and play billiards, good chap. Lest I die of boredom now that I am to be a married man!’. Perhaps it was because he had been blowing off these requests, in an attempt to avoid encountering Merlin again.
Besides, he knew that they weren’t a real summons. Not like this.
Arthur was determined to stay away from temptation, determined not to give in to his carnal lust again. He could not risk it. As such, he no longer trusted himself around Merlin.
Besides, he was not sure how Merlin felt about him now. He had left abruptly when Merlin was sleeping, the morning after Merlin had buggered him. Arthur had not awoken him, fearing that Merlin would have persuaded him to stay. So given his lack of faith in his own will-power and the uncertainty of Merlin's feelings on the matter, Arthur had concluded that the best course of action was to avoid Gwaine’s house at all costs until he was sure that Merlin was gone. Then it would be safe to return with no one to tempt him.
But this time the Earl had sent a formal invitation that his father would not allow him to decline.
Gwaine was a wiley one.
Arthur sincerely hoped that Merlin had finished Gwaine’s mothers portrait and moved on. But it did not seem likely as it had been less than a month since his last visit. Still, he endeavoured that he would do all that he could to avoid encountering Merlin and get this tea over and done with as swiftly as possible.
Arthur sat to pull on woollen socks and smartly shined black boots, which he laced as his thoughts filled with Merlin. Then he stood, pulled on his jacket and top hat, and ensured that he had his good gloves to hand. A quick glance in the mirror assured him he was ready to leave.
After dismounting from his horse and passing her over to the stable hand, Arthur walked up the grand driveway of the Orkney estate to knock at the front door. He had been invited over formally for tea after all, and that meant going to the front door of the grand estate, rather than slipping in through the side door he usually used to gain entry when responding to an informal request to play an afternoon game of billiards.
The door was opened by a servant who swiftly whisked Arthur into the house and took him through to the solarium. Arthur started to take in the room, but his eyes were immediately drawn to the happy, pretty young girl with curly blonde hair sitting next to Gwaine, with a table in front of them set for tea.
Ah, that must be Elena.
Gwaine stood and rushed over to him, his eyes shining and sporting a wide grin. He shook Arthur's hand heartily.
“Ah, so you are still alive then, Arthur,” he said, a sly glint in his eye. “I thought our celebrations might have knocked you off your mortal coil, it's been so long. Come, let me introduce you!”
He led Arthur over to Elena who had stood to meet them.
“Elena, may I present my good friend, Mister Arthur Pendragon. Arthur, meet my betrothed, Miss Elena Gawant.” Gwaine grinned as he took Elena’s hand in his. He looked up at her as he bent his head and placed a kiss on the back of her hand. Elena blushed prettily at the gesture.
Arthur smiled at them, though his heart lurched at the thought that he would never be able to do that with his chosen.
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Gawant. The Earl has told me all about you.”
Elena beamed at him. “Only good things, I hope!” she exclaimed as they all sat.
Gwaine shrugged at her. “As if there is anything bad to say about you, darling!”
Arthur left them to their sickening love-gazing and looked down at his plate. It was then that he felt a gaze upon him. He looked up towards the back of the solarium where he spotted an easel with a young man sat behind it.
Merlin was watching him carefully with his dark hair falling across his forehead, and his hands and cheeks streaked with dark paint. Their eyes met instantly and Arthur faltered for a moment before returning his attention to the tea that the servants were bringing out to the table.
“Arthur?” asked Gwaine, who frowned and looked over his shoulder. “Oh, that’s Merlin! He’s painting Mother’s portrait for her birthday. He likes to paint in here because of the good lighting. I’ll call him over and introduce him, shall I?”
Arthur suddenly felt panic-stricken. He couldn’t have Merlin over here with Gwaine, it was too much. He might have been able to handle longing glances across the room, but having him so close and knowing they could never be... It felt like more than Arthur could bear. “Oh, no it’s...”
“HEY MERLIN!” yelled Gwaine. “Come over here, please!”
Merlin looked like a startled animal as he jumped and dropped his palette and brush with a clatter. He wiped his hands on an old paint-splattered rag before he reluctantly walked over.
“Merlin,” said Gwaine, leaning back in his chair. “Let me introduce you to our guest. Merlin, this is Arthur Pendragon, Arthur, this is Merlin Emrys.”
"Mister Emrys," greeted Arthur as they both nodded at each other and cordially shook hands. Arthur shivered as his mind flashed back to how perfectly those fingers had opened him just a few weeks previous.
“Now Arthur, I particularly wanted to introduce you to Merlin because Morgana has been hinting to me about how she would also like to get her portrait painted. In fact, she said to me that it would be the perfect gift for her birthday. I just thought, what a lovely a coincidence!” He winked at Arthur. “What with the fact that Merlin is due to finish Mother’s portrait next week. That would leave him free to work on Morgana’s portrait soon after and give plenty of time for him to finish by her birthday. Perfect timing, wouldn’t you say?”
Merlin looked back and forth between Gwaine and Arthur with surprise.
Arthur grit his teeth. He was going to kill Morgana when he got home. He calmed himself with a deep breath and cleared his throat.
“Yes. Perfect timing as you say,” he replied smoothly. “However...”
Elena interjected. “Oh Arthur. You must! Merlin’s paintings are simply devine. Morgana be thrilled, I just know it!” she clapped her hands together excitedly. “I would just have you know that we will have Merlin back afterwards to paint our portrait. Won’t we, my love?”
Gwaine smiled down at her. “We will indeed.” He looked over at Arthur with an evil, knowing glint in his eye and Arthur was hit with a sudden realisation. Gwaine, the crafty bugger, somehow knew about he and Merlin. Arthur would bet his fortune on. “What do you say, Arthur, will you take Merlin?”
Arthur just wanted to bury his face in his hands, that or he wished the ground would inexplicably open up and swallow him whole. He would make Gwaine pay for this little manipulation, if it was the last thing that he did.
Merlin turned on Gwaine and shook his finger at him angrily. “Gwaine! You can’t just go around forcing people to get portraits painted. I’m sure Mister Pendragon is not interested in--”
“Yes,” Arthur heard himself say abruptly. “Yes, I’ll take him.”
Merlin stood between them both looking indignant. “You can’t both barter over me like I'm a piece of meat at market! Surely I have a say!”
Gwaine grinned at him. “’Course you do, Merlin. What say you? Will you paint the beautiful Morgana to save Arthur’s neck, or won’t you? He can’t give her another writing set, she’ll have his guts for garters!”
Merlin appeared to be thinking, then he turned and nodded at Gwaine.
“Fine, I’ll do it,” he said before he stalked back towards the easel his head held high.
Arthur, Gwaine and Elena continued their afternoon tea, Elena completely oblivious to his discomfort whilst Gwaine watched Arthur closely with a look of pure glee. Arthur finally dared to take a quick glance at Merlin working across the room, only to find Merlin suddenly looking away and instead appearing to intently focused on his painting. When Arthur returned his attention to their conversation he saw Gwaine looking at him with a knowing smirk. The smug bastard.
Finally, the tea was declared finished and Elena excused herself from the table.
Gwaine leant across and whispered to Arthur with a grin. “Well, well, well Arthur. You know, I had my suspicions about you. I mean you’ve never been one to chase the girls, which seemed strange for a chap as handsome as you. But when I went to fetch you for breakfast the other week and I realised your bed had not been slept in, and so I wondered just where had you slept? Then when you thundered off on Damocles like a demon was chasing you, and Merlin spent the best part of a next week moping, things started to click into place.”
Gwaine sat back in his chair then and twisted around to look over at Merlin. “Merlin, I think Arthur should stay for dinner, don’t you? Then you can hash out the finer details of your arrangement.”
“Gwaine!” whispered Arthur sharply.
Merlin frowned at Gwaine. “Well, I think that it’s probably...”
“Grand! That’s settled then. Arthur, you can use your room to freshen up, shall we all meet back at the dinner hour?”
With that Gwaine stood up and left the room, leaving Merlin and Arthur staring flabbergasted at each other.