Breathing a sigh of relief, Arthur closed the door behind him. As soon as Gwaine and Elena had left, leaving him alone with Merlin—thank you for that, Gwaine—Arthur had fled to the safety of his room to contemplate the matter. Or rather, the room that was designated as his when Arthur happened to stay the night at Gwaine’s home. The room he should have gone to that drunken night almost a month ago. If he had, then this whole awkward situation could have been avoided completely.
He crossed over to the washbasin and poured water into the porcelain bowl. He would have to make do with cold, because there was no way he was going to leave his room in search of a servant to get him a pitcher of hot water, not when it would mean risking bumping into Merlin again.
The infuriating man with his starling blue eyes, sharp cheekbones, and rumpled dark hair had haunted his thoughts and dreams for weeks, and just when Arthur had begun to push Merlin from his mind, Gwaine had shoved him to the front and center of his life again.
After splashing water on his face, Arthur reached for the towel and dried his face. His back stiffened when he heard the click of the door opening and closing. And he was unsurprised when he looked up into the mirror to see Merlin’s hesitant face staring back at him.
“You left without saying anything,” Merlin whispered, as he slowly starting to crowd Arthur from behind and spooned him.
“I know,” said Arthur, still holding himself stiffly in Merlin’s embrace. He could tell from the look on Merlin’s face that the word ‘why’ was on the tip of his tongue and so he intercepted him. “We both knew when it happened that it could not go anywhere. There is no future. Not for people like us. What we did was a mistake. Now, I apologise that Gwaine has engaged you in my service without consulting you. If it makes you feel any better, I was not consulted either.”
Merlin’s face was awash with feelings as it suddenly dawned on him that his advances were not being welcomed. Arthur could tell he was trying, and failing, to conceal his hurt. Merlin pulled away and took a step backwards to get closer to the door and further away Arthur.
“If you wish, I can withdraw from the arrangement. Gwaine need not know why. I can find plenty of work elsewhere.”
Turning, Arthur caught Merlin’s arm, afraid he might bolt like a rabbit. “And have Morgana murder me for ruining her birthday surprise? Not likely.”
A small triangular-shaped frown creased Merlin’s forehead. “But she does not know about—”
Scoffing, Arthur turned back to the mirror pretending to straighten his tie.
“Oh, she knows all right,” he told Merlin. “I know my sister. She and Gwaine are in cahoots. We’ve both been set up.”
Merlin chewed on his lip. “Your sister knows? How? Surely you didn’t—”
“Of course, I didn’t. I’m not mad.” Arthur paused. “Apparently we were seen. The first night that we met. Which is yet another reason nothing more can come of this matter.”
“Arthur, I’m so sorry.” Merlin’s face was the picture of misery. Such a polar opposite to their night together. “I never meant to cause you such strife. Let me finish the Countesses portrait, and then I will move on. I’ll find another city, and other patrons. I have enough talent to earn my way elsewhere. I will put some space between us and such rumours.”
“But it’s not a rumour now, is it? And no. I won’t let you suffer for my own weakness, Merlin. You will come to Pendragon Manor, and you will paint my sister. But what happened between us—it cannot happen again. I hope that you understand that.”
Merlin’s reflection stared back at him, he looked at Arthur disbelievingly before swallowing and smoothing out his face. Merlin's eyes shuttered against him and he nodded formally. “Of course, Mr Pendragon, sir. I’m sorry for disturbing you. I’ll leave you in peace.”
“Merlin—” Arthur protested aghast at Merlin’s horribly proper demeanor all of a sudden.
“Don’t,” Merlin whispered. “Just—don’t.”
And before Arthur could say anything else, Merlin had turned and slipped from the room.
With a grimace Arthur slid his hands back into the water and bathed his face with the icy water. His thoughts were swimming with Merlin. He knew he had done the right thing. Merlin needed to understand that they couldn’t carry on with… whatever it was they’d started. It was too dangerous. Too risky. As it was, they would have to be careful not to fuel anymore speculation. Hopefully Morgana’s “spy” could be relied upon to keep her silence, for the time being. Damn Morgana. If she wasn’t defying their father, then she was tormenting him. And this time she had Arthur over a barrel. Just she wait until he got home. He would give her a piece of her mind.
Talking to Gwaine behind his back like that! How dare she. Arthur was angry. Angrier than he’d been in a long while. It was all that he could do not to go storming out to the stables, helping himself to one of Gwaine’s stallions whom were faster than his own mare, and tearing off home.
Except, of course he couldn’t do that. His father would never let him hear the end of it, causing such scandal when he’d been invited to tea at an Earl’s house. Even if that Earl was Gwaine.
Arthur dried his face once more and as he looked up he spied the writing desk in the corner. That would do nicely. He strode over, still in a fine mood and swiped at the quill. A stable boy would be happy for a pretty penny to deliver this to the Pendragon house, a herald to Morgana that he would not settle for her antics.
After he had poured out his displeasure onto the parchment, Arthur pulled out his sealing wax, melted it over a candle and pressed the Pendragon seal to it. Then he slipped off to the stables to ensure it's safe delivery.