Truth was that Arthur was more than exhausted, and he would have dearly loved to just go straight home and skip the whole opening night thing, but he knew very well that if he missed the event, he’d be doing so at his own peril. His sister was sure to skin him alive while screaming about Uther and him never being supportive of her on anything and while Lance & Leon were his good friends, they would not get in the line of fire for him if it came from Morgana. Gwen might even help her with the skinning and sharpen the knives. She had no time for sweetness when her girlfriend was slighted.
He rubbed his eyes, feeling them ache from the dryness caused by the air-conditioner. He pressed the heels of his hands against the orbs until he saw stars and couldn’t see anything as he opened them again. It was better like this, so the other part of his brain, the Head of Technology rather than the brother part, wouldn’t feel guilty for stopping the work at such a point. He switched the computer straight off at the power button and closed the lid. He could see that the floor was almost empty through the glass walls of his office. Arthur stretched, feeling his shoulders pop into place before the suit’s jacket pulled them back.
Normally, he wouldn’t wear anything so formal, but the morning meeting with investors had demanded a bit more formality. He would probably be incredibly out of place in Morgana’s new Book-slash-Coffeeshop, especially considering that she had asked people to come and do live poetry performances. Arthur had never particularly got on well with the artsy types his sister usually befriended (even more so after his short-lived and rather tragic relationship with future-actress-Vivian back when they had been at Uni and he was still trying to talk himself into dating women. He should’ve known the girl was trouble when she was so spoilt that even Morgana couldn’t stand her), so it would be foolish to worry about what they might think or not of his looks. Leon, at least, would probably be similarly attired, coming from the bank and Uther wouldn’t be caught dead wearing anything less than a full formal, so at least he wouldn’t stand out alone.
Without allowing himself time for second-guessing, turned off his mouse switch and slid it into his leather messenger bag, following the laptop. His fingers quickly found the zip, closing it and putting the whole thing over his shoulder. Arthur stopped by the loo before leaving and took the opportunity to put in some eye drops, dreaming about the moment he’d be able to take out his contacts.
He greeted the doorman on his way out and was slapped by the cool wind outside the building. His nostrils greeted the smell of rain with pure joy, the wet quality of the London evening being everything he could ask for. Not for the first time Arthur felt sad that the tube was so close as to prevent him to enjoy it more. As he descended the steps towards the station, he might as well be the only one who thought so. All around people seemed sullen and uncomfortable as they closed their umbrellas and pulled down their beanies. On the other hand, it may only be the falsely-grumpy nature of Brits in general.
Arthur ignored them all, focusing instead on the music pumping through his headphones. Highs and lows, it was in its own way as invigorating as the rain had been. Some of his exhaustion fell away as the notes sounded, feel-good energy pooling and making him long to move his body to the beat. Maybe Gwaine was right, maybe he was working too much and needed to relax. He pulled his mobile out, noting on his calendar “clubbing” during the Friday night evening hours. With a pleased nod, he slotted it back in his pocket, wishing once more his sister wasn’t doing her opening night in the middle of the work week.
Arthur almost missed his stop, and the doors were already closing as he squeezed himself out of the train, earning himself some dark looks from his fellow passengers. He straightened himself up, cleaning his suit of imaginary dust and adjusting his tie and bag before taking the escalator out of the platform. Outside, the rainy weather had given way to the cutting cold that preceded snow.
Just great. If it snowed, the Uber fares would go through the roof. He might have to just settle for a black cab. Once again, he thanked the technology gods for the existence of smartphones as he checked GoogleMaps to figure out the directions towards Morgana’s newest business.
He was not at all ashamed to say he had no clue where it was -- it was hardly the first store she was opening. In spite of the changing times, Morgana had been quite successful with her bookstore chain, who would see the same best sellers as any other on and offline store, but focused on art and poetry books, aiming at a public who loved nothing more than to get together with their priceless volumes to practice some mental masturbation on their own grand intellectuality.The only difference this time was that she had co-owned this space with some guy that owned an upcoming organic-centred coffeeshop chain. From the little he had understood when her or one of his three in-laws talked about it (because he was also not ashamed to admit to tuning out at points), it was a match made in indie heaven.
It wasn’t a question of pride - he was proud of Morgana and her achievements, he honestly hoped that she would do great with the new shop, it just wasn’t his cup of tea. Too much drama, if anyone asked him, though they likely wouldn’t. Arthur walked faster, hoping that reaching the party soon would lessen his misery, much like ripping a plaster off at once. The app warned him that the place was rapidly approaching, and he rose his head to study the façade. It looked like a turn-of-the-century, late Victorian house that had been redesigned into the double shop with professional offices upstairs that could be accessed through a secondary door behind black iron gates, naturally locked at this time. Just as well, he wouldn’t put past one of the artists or poets to get drunk on the wine that was being served in the opening and throwing up all over their immaculate front stairs.
A banner above the high arched windows announced that Avalon Books & Kilgharrah’s Organic Coffee were proud to present their first joint saloon; the fake metal engraved business plaque named the whole venture The Disir. Inside, he could see a mix of the warm, yellow light that generally graced Morgana’s shops through one window while the other one let out a blue glow that was enhanced by the red and blue club lights inside, near what seemed to be a permanent performing stage.
There were a number of young, alternative looking people loitering in the shop’s grass-only garden, sucking on their cigarettes (Arthur could only hope none of them were shameless enough to be smoking something else right at the party’s door), He received some curious looks as he walked inside, but dismissed them as not important. The sound of electronic music in the room hurt his ears, even more so once someone started to wail along with it repetitively. Bewildered, Arthur looked from one side to the other, and he found Leon and Lance together in the corner further away from the stage.
As expected, Leon was sporting a navy suit, making clear he had come straight from work. His reddish-blond curls and beard, on the other hand, looked quite wild, in sharp contrast to his clothes. There was a beer bottle in his hand, as if he couldn’t be bothered with something as sophisticated as wine for the night. Lance, right next to him, looked way more relaxed in khaki trousers and a shirt; some might look careless in it, but his latin supermodel looks gave him a mysterious sexy appearance instead, and he was cradling one of Kilgharrah’s commemorative cups. Next to the two of them, his father stood, an intense scowl at his face.
It relaxed an infinitesimal bit as he caught Arthur’s eye. He offered his only son a perfunctory nod before starting with his latest tirade.
“So good of you to join us, Arthur. I was just waiting for you to arrive so I can leave - don’t say it, I know you hate these too, but at least you’ll have Leon and Lance to keep you company. Not that it’s not a pleasure,” he added, as if to apologise to the two men, “but I’m far too old to deal with this sort of nonsense. Now, if you excuse me -- I’ll see you soon.”
“Goodbye, father,” was all he managed to say before the old man had clapped his arm on his way out. “What was the issue this time?”
Lance had the grace of looking embarrassed, and Leon fought to keep his composure before answering.
“One of Morgana’s friends may have been way too direct in referring to our relationship,” and it was a testament to how much easier things were getting that he didn’t become one great red blob. “It may be a bit too much for Old Uther.”
“Oh,” Arthur answered, torn between a chuckle and a small measure of concern. “Well, if you let him, he’ll spend our whole lives acting as if you alone are Morgana’s boyfriend and that you two are just very generous in allowing Gwen and Lance to share a house with you.”
Leon snorted, and Lance did nothing more than shrug, as if the idea didn’t really bother him -- and perhaps it didn’t. It was a conversation they had had before, but that Arthur mostly avoided because he really didn’t want to picture his sister sleeping with anyone, let alone multiple someones, all of whom had been his friend first. Well, apart from Gwen, Morgana had claimed Gwen first.
Shaking his head to disperse the images, he turned to the stage, where the poet kept howling his love under so much makeup he might have been a member of KISS. Arthur could only hope it wouldn’t last long, and his eyes roamed through the crowd (the usual), the decoration of the place (rustic, filled with earthy tones, it would’ve been cozy without the extra lights on the stage), and the food that was being served (it didn’t tempt his appetite). He felt tempted to get some wine to drink, or to ask the boys where they had gotten their beers from, but a dull ache in his head wouldn’t be calmed by either, there was only one thing that his body craved.
With a gesture to his brothers-in-law, Arthur dove in the middle of the crowd, negotiating a path towards the place where coffee was being served. There was no-one behind the counter, even the till lay abandoned with the drawer open. He would have to have a word with Morgana about how careless her partner’s employees were. Frustrated, he looked around, but everyone seemed engrossed with the newest person presenting their verses on the stage, a pretty but mousy looking girl, wearing an apron with a golden dragon logo against dark green. With a quick look to the side, he noticed that it was the exact same from the coffee shop. Well, at least he had solved the mystery of the missing barista.
Now that Arthur had paid attention to the logo, he noticed a guy right in front of him had a towel thrown over his shoulder bearing the same image.
He felt it was only fair that he used his fingers to nudge the man into doing his job.
“I want a Cinnamon Dolce Latte,” he informed the man, who barely turned towards him.
“Not a barista, mate.”
“Not your mate,” Arthur replied, more than a bit annoyed. “Did you steal the towel?”
This made the man turn towards him, and Arthur wouldn’t admit in a million years that he had felt the impact of those huge, blue, staring eyes and the outraged expression in them.
“If you’re not a barista, you must have stolen the towel,” Arthur replied, the headache and the frustration making him grumpy enough as to enunciate the words slowly, as if the other man wasn’t smart enough to understand normal speech. “Since it clearly is one of theirs,” he gestured the coffeeshop with his head.
“I didn’t steal it!” Arthur was inclined to believe the man from the sheer outrage in his voice, but it was as if his mouth had gotten a will of it’s own.
“The get back in there and make me coffee!”
Having grown up with Morgana, he had long learnt to appreciate the fact that looks couldn’t kill, and while it was still the opening night, it seemed this guy had little to learn from his sister in that regard. The man opened up his mouth, lips moving without a sound coming out, too angry to verbalise whatever he was thinking. The effect was far more alluring than it had any right to be when doing something that would make anyone look like a gaping fish, Arthur chalked it up to the lack of caffeine damaging his brain.
“I’ve told you, I’m not a barista,” the man insisted, and Arthur’s hands came to his hips, at the same time as his eyes went straight to the towel again. “I haven’t stole it, it’s mine.”
That made Arthur frown, it was not what he was expecting as an answer.
“Quite an odd souvenir for a coffee shop,” he commented, and the man rolled his eyes.
“I meant the coffee shop.”
Now, that was a surprise; he hadn’t expected Morgana’s new partner to look quite so young. What he had gleaned from the few comments he did pay attention to, her partner was supposed to have been all over, while this man looked as if he had hardly had the opportunity to move out of his mother’s house.
“That’s great,” Arthur said, eventually. “I’m in dire need of coffee. More specific a Cinnamon Dolce Latte.”
“Look, I’ve told you, I’m not…” a round of applause announced that the barista had finished with her poetry, and the coffee shop owned looked at the same time guilty and annoyed that he had been arguing with Arthur instead of paying attention to his employee’s many talents. He shook his head, as if dismissing whatever he was thinking, turned on his heels to observe the girl climbing down from the stage. A good looking guy stopped her, seeming intent on praising her verses, and she shot her boss a nervous look but he only gave the girl the thumbs up and a manic grin before looking back to Arthur. “Okay. I don’t want Freya’s night to be ruined, so I might as well make you your coffee.”
He ducked under the balcony to get inside of his shop’s space, though it was clear that the top part could be moved -- if someone pushed the box filled with china from the top of it. From the fact that the man managed to stumble from doing something so simple, Arthur concluded that it was in his best financial interest to stay away from breakable things. The machines were still gleaming, displays shining, the sink was clean and apart from the china box, all seemed to be in place. The man closed the till’s drawer, before facing him again.
“What did you say you wanted again?”
“I’ve told you twice before,” Arthur whined, because he really had no better defense against the sharpness of his cheekbones or the darkness of his hair than finding fault with everything the guy did. “One would think those big ears you have were meant to better hear the clients with!”
The way his left eyebrow rose made it clear that his fairy tale reference hadn’t won him any charm points -- not that he wanted any.
“How… Original,” sarcasm dripped from his voice before he inclined his head to the side. “The order?”
“A Cinnamon Dolce Latte,” Arthur repeated, without bothering to check if they had something like it in the menu. If they didn’t, it’d be a good time to start having it. “But no milk.”
If possible, the man looked even less impressed.
“It’s a silly order.”
“Do you always judge your clients orders? Because, let me tell you, it doesn’t seem like a good way to be successful.”
“Just when they’re entitled prats with absurd requests,” there was something in his eye now, almost defiance. “You do realise there’s no way this is a latte,” he continued, pouring down the coffee in one of the special hard-plastic cups they were using to celebrate the occasion.
“Of course it’s a latte,” Arthur scoffed, and the man shook his head.
“Latte actually means milk,” he explained, adding the vanilla and nutmeg to the order. “So, you’re not having a latte, just over-sweetened coffee.”
“It’s not that sweet,” he protested.
“It really, really is,” was the answer, as he finished up the drink, “This is, like, fast track to diabetes with a side of hypertension. If you had loved ones, they’d tell you this is a death wish in a plastic cup -- but each to their own poison, huh?”
He closed the cup with the dragon sculpted lid, and the effect of the steam coming out of the mouth was eerie. Arthur curled his fingers around the hot plastic, his eyes still glued to the man in front of him, but the shop owner batted his hand away, picking from behind the counter a red pen and writing something in the cup with a flourish.
“Now that it’s properly labeled and that everyone knows it was made for you and no one else, you can go.”
Arthur barely looked at the cup.
“You didn’t ask my name,” he said, and the man’s smile was enigmatic.
“I didn’t need to.”
Throwing the towel that had started the whole conversation over the sink, the man walked inside the place’s kitchen, leaving Arthur alone, wondering just how he could have known his name. He took a sip of the sweet beverage, feeling warmth spreading through him slowly. He’d never admit it to the annoying guy, but it was good enough to warrant the fame it had gotten. He walked out, back to where his friends were, and only when they gave him odd looks, did he think to look at the other side of the cup, where his name should be.
It had the word “Prat” written instead.
Merlin was in his element inside the small kitchen that they had set up for the cafe’s use. The shiny appliances were completely different from what he had had in his childhood, but the smell of the ground beans made him think of his mother. She would have liked this place, the mix of drinks and books. Hunith used to love curling on the sofa with a romance and some hot tea, or to make them cocoa and read him a book.
He sighed, trying to move his mind away from sentimentalities. Unfortunately, the next thing it latched onto was the annoying, handsome customer he had just dispatched. It never ceased to amaze him how full of themselves people could be just because they had classical looks (an issue Merlin himself never had, with his rather large ears, too full lips and rather skinny body). The man had acted as it he was entitled to special treatment just because he had graced the coffeeshop with his presence.
It was nothing new, he had met many like him before. Probably another financial market asshole, coming around to attend a request from some more sensitive girl he found on Tinder and decided that was worth the effort -- at least one time. Those types didn’t tend to come back for seconds. He knew that well enough, having been through it a number of times. Still, better to leave at once than to string people along like Cenred had done to him, using his rather considerable funds to buy gifts instead of offering apologies and winking and smirking his way through Merlin’s customers’ pants.
His newest business partner burst through the kitchen door, excited energy spilling out of her as she favoured him with a large grin. They had known each other for years and he still found her beauty breathtaking -- even if he didn’t fancy women that way -- which was even truer when she had gotten something she wanted. Merlin did his best to answer in kind, but something gave him away for his friend immediately crossed her arms.
“Nu-uh. This is not the time to wallow in whatever pit of self-pity you’re swimming in now. We did it -- people can’t stop talking about how they love the place, everyone that had some coffee can’t stop singing praises about it, and even my father was complimentary. Well, until the lesbian poetry segment started, but, small victories.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at her assessment, which really should be good enough reason to stop being so maudlin. Still, he couldn’t quite shake off the impression the guy had left, the intense, heavy way they had talked, as close to flirting as he had done in the months since the break-up. Along with the heady feeling of attraction was the bitter knowledge that he’d be nothing but a diversion to a man like that.
“I can’t promise anything,” he warned her, but Morgana had already pulled him by his arm and locked with her own as if they were two maids gossiping on court two centuries before.
“Nonsense,” she replied. “You’ll celebrate, that’s what you’ll do. I won’t do the whole celebrating alone while you lurk.”
The bookshop was almost completely empty now. Freya had already finished up with setting things up for their real opening tomorrow and was chatting with Gwen near the door. He had but a second to wave towards them, and Gwen positively beamed at them and Freya looked completely comfortable for once. Morgana, however, barely acknowledge her girlfriend in her rush to continue speaking.
“You know, not only my father showed up, but my brother did too. You know I’ve been meaning to introduce you two for ages -- so there’s no excuse you can come up that will be good enough to get you out of coming to the pub and having a pint with us.”
Just as she finished, they came around one of the massive shelves that covered the columns sustained the room, bringing them face to face with a group of four men -- Merlin had known Lance for ages, and Leon had been Morgana’s date when they first met. One of the other two was incredibly tall, with a few good inches on Leon that was already quite tall, he was also built like a tree, one Merlin wouldn’t mind climbing, ‘specially if he was as sweet as his expression promised -- and the other guy…
The other guy was the very same guy that had demanded coffee from him.
“Arthur, this is my partner, Merlin,” the man’s smirk made it clear that there was no surprise in it for him but, of course, Merlin had told him that he was the owner. “Merlin, this is my annoying little brother.”
“I’ll agree with the annoying part,” he huffed, his mouth getting the best of him. Lance flinched, and Leon looked between them as if he could smell trouble. For a second, Merlin wondered just how much he had screwed up, considering that he was now working with Morgana and it wouldn’t do to have her annoyed at him. His friend, however, rounded up to her brother, her eyes shining dangerously.
“What have you done?”
Arthur shrugged, but there was an undeniable shit-eating quality to his grin.
“I merely ordered some coffee.”
“Like an arse,” Merlin completed, and he didn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
“Well, it’s the only way to get an idiot to listen.”
Merlin felt his face burning with something that wasn’t quite anger, but the tall man interrupted their conversation.
“I’m Percy,” he said, thrusting his hand for Merlin to shake, “I’m just here hoping to impress you all so you’ll put in the good word for me with your barista.”
He was so refreshingly honest that Merlin couldn’t help but laugh, the tension immediately dissipating. Still, from the corner of his eye, he could see Arthur’s calculating look. He tried to ignore how Morgana poked her brother, whispering furiously, and focused back at Percy.
“I can try, but I should warn you -- she’s rather shy. Also, if you try and play her, I’ll personally hunt you and skin you alive.”
Of course, it was not the most effective threat; it was evident that Percy could throw him on the other side of the street easily; not to mention that he only way he’d want to skin the man alive was with his own teeth, but that seemed to be completely out of the realm of possibility, even more so than before. He just didn’t have any luck in such things.
“We are planning on going to The Rising Sun,” Lance told him, his arm brushing easily against Leon’s. “Morgana says you can leave after one drink, but not before. And, you know that she’s the boss.”
“I’m the boss now too,” he grumbled as the siblings continued to argue in whispers one step away from their little circle. That made Leon laugh, shaking his head, as if he couldn’t believe how naive Merlin could be.
“You may work for yourself,” he started, sharing an amused look with Lance, “but Morgana is the boss. We don’t get to deny her.”
And that, he thought, definitely explained rather a lot about their relationship. With a tired sigh, he could do nothing but nod and accept.
Arthur would be lying if he said that he was sorry about the whole “being an ass” thing; it didn’t matter how much Morgana complained, he couldn’t believe that Merlin had really been that mad. No, there had definitely been something there, an energy that grew between them, making his stomach curl in knots that weren’t at all unpleasant. The very fact that Merlin had decided to use the cup to taunt him was proof that while he may have been annoyed, he didn’t really hate Arthur.
It was not that he thought himself irresistible, whatever Morgana might think. Arthur was well aware that he was very flawed and that he could rub people the wrong way, but he didn’t think it was really the case here. “Prat” was not an attempt at offense, more like teasing. If a person was truly angry about something, they’d use choice terms such as “arsehole” or something in that vein. He had found the whole thing funny and, though he would rather not tell Morgana that, asked Gwen to find him a plastic bag so he could carry it home as a keepsake of the opening night.
Still, he thought it wise to keep his distance as they walked towards the pub; it would be better not to provoke Morgana. If he ruined her expansive mood, not only he’d regret it, but also he’d have to later deal with Lance, Leon and worse of all, Gwen’s annoyance. They’d punish him as much as her, because they’d be the ones dealing with her temper at home.
Once again he was happy to feel the night’s fresh air on his face, and he took his place next to Gwen, asking her about her job and truly enjoying hearing her talk about the mice in her lab. The enthusiasm made her eyes brighter, and, along with the soft flush that came from the air, and he couldn’t help but smile at her. Lance looked back from where he was walking with Merlin upon hearing the animated tilt in her voice and threw her a look sweet enough to produce immediate cavities. Not for anything would Arthur admit to being jealous that he didn’t have anyone to look at him like that.
The front of the group was led by Morgana and Leon, and they had all silently agreed on letting Percy stay in the back to talk to Freya. Arthur wasn’t sure he was being very successful at his attempts, but at least someone was trying. He couldn’t remember the last time he had even tried flirting. Not only he was a natural disaster at it, but also he seemed to have the worst possible taste in such things. It didn’t even bear thinking about it.
The pub was pretty much ordinary, except for the fact that it seemed to be completely populated by the same sort of people that frequented Morgana’s shops. He saw his sister waving at one or two people that were regulars, and someone pulled Merlin right out of their little group, squeeing about the coffee. Arthur rolled his eyes -- it really wasn’t that good. He had to tilt backward to allow the guy space to pull the shop owner away from Lance, and Gwen took the opportunity to get her arm around her boyfriend’s arm. Behind him, Arthur caught the movement as Percy shielded Freya from the crowd, and it suddenly made him feel even more lonely. He did not wait for them to get a booth to start drinking.
Gwaine would’ve been proud of him, really.
It took them less time to get seats than one would have expected. It was clear that Lance was very well liked (then again, he did work quite close), and seats came seemingly from nowhere to the eight of them, although Merlin still hadn’t returned from talking to the guy that had pulled him away. As Freya began to actively talk to Percy, Arthur decided that one single tequila shot would not do. He stood up and walked right to the counter, ordering more. He knew he would regret it in the morning, but he didn’t really care.
By the time their first round of pints came along, Arthur was on his fourth shot. Their barmaid was a shy, curvy red-haired girl that went by the unfortunate name of Sefa and couldn’t stop blushing when Arthur ordered a Sex on the Beach. It was sort of adorable, and he couldn’t stop himself smirking at her, enjoying the effect of his actions.
Of course, the moment she stepped away, Gwen slapped him.
“Don’t be mean,” she ordered, her voice tilting from sweet to impatient, always something to watch out for.
“I didn’t do anything!”
Her expression showed exactly what she thought of that -- her huge, doe eyes squeezing as she tilted her head to the side, a frown wrinkling her nose. Morgana laughed, leaning forward and kissing her soundly. Arthur hoped that this would be enough to distract Gwen, but he had no such luck as his sister inclined herself backwards to her seat and Lance’s arm around it.
“You’re giving the girl hope when there’s none,” she said, unnecessarily, and he merely raised his eyebrow at it.
“Who’s to say that there’s none?” It was nothing but his own stubbornness speaking and they all knew it, but Leon’s loud snort took the fight away from him. “Okay, i’ll stop. I swear I just meant to order a drink!”
“You’ve been spending far too much time with Gwaine,” Morgana ruled, decisively, placing her handbag on the table with some force. “Talking of which, you really should warn him that he’s now living on borrowed time.”
Arthur just nodded, knowing that their friend would end up coming with some outrageous excuse for his absence that would, probably, be entertaining enough to mollify Morgana and make her commute her execution sentence into a mere kick in the balls. As the alcohol started to give him a pleasant buzz, he managed to completely ignore Freya and Percy’s shy flirting on the opposite side of the table and make some small talk with the other four without feeling like his love life was a complete failure.
(That is, he meant to stop thinking that he was so bad at it that he couldn’t get a single date while his sister managed to carry own a four-people-relationship herself. Then again, clearly she had her own way of working with the commitment issues Uther had left them with).
He had even managed to forget about Morgana’s previous complaints about his behaviour by the time Sefa returned with their drinks. She made use of the empty space next to him to serve the drinks, and she was just about to lower Arthur’s when Merlin returned in a flurry of limbs that crashed into the tray, and causing the sweet liquid to splash on the table, covering Arthur in syrup.
“You idiot!” He shouted before he could stop himself. The tip of Merlin’s ears was red, and he was apologising profusely -- to Sefa, who was trying to do the same to both of them. At the sound of his voice, they flinched.
“Arthur!” Morgana’s tone was like a whip, stinging even though he tried to ignore it.
“It’s not your fault,” he reassured Sefa, and the girl blushed once again. “Some people just can’t even put one foot in front of the other.”
“Nothing would have happened if your big head wasn’t in the way,” Merlin answered, the heat in his voice and colour in his cheeks making clear how he felt, while his lack of balance made it clear that he had been drinking as quickly as Arthur.
“Oh, I’ll show you the big head,” Arthur was spoiling for a drink, for a fuck, for a fight, for anything that would help him release the pent out adrenaline in his body.
“Boys!” Gwen called, but they ignored her.
“I doubt it,” was Merlin’s cocky reply, tilting his head just so.
It was so incredibly incongruous that a guy built like a stick was trying to stand up physically to him -- that he had started it, that he couldn’t help but let out a loud chuckle, ignoring his friend’s disapproving faces and Sefa’s wide open eyes.
“I could take you apart with one blow,” he dismissed Merlin, but the other man’s eyebrow rose in a challenge that was intoxicating in itself.
“I could take you apart with less than that.”
Arthur thought he could hear Sefa’s intake of air, he certainly felt his stomach grow cold while his lower belly grew hot at the implied threat -- or was it a promise? He stood up, even eye to eye, he did not back down or seemed cowed by the fact that Arthur was twice as large as he was. He got so close to Merlin that his breath had to be physically touching his face.
“I’ll have you walking on your knees,”
“Or maybe I’ll have you down on the floor,”
There was a glint in Merlin’s eyes that was irresistible. Arthur rose his arm, unsure if he meant to hit or to grasp, but was stopped by a security guard he hadn’t even seen approaching.
“Really -- not in the bar!.”
Arthur’s eyes flicked between Merlin, the angry man that was as tall as Percy and whose hands were curled around both of theirs clothes and his sister, who looked positively furious. Bracing himself, he took a step back, escaping the grip and moving to unwrinkle his suit, though it was still sticky with juice. He hadn’t want to stay either way.
“No need for that, I’ll leave by myself.”
“Yeah, you both will,” the man emphasized, shaking Merlin a bit. Arthur fancied he could hear his bones rattling, and, even though he had been just about ready to hit Merlin himself, he felt outraged at the man’s behaviour.
“Let him go,” Percy’s voice was a growl, and the bouncer looked at the three of them as if accessing his chances.
He must have decided that he rather not face all of them at once as Lance and Leon rose as well. However, it was clear that he didn’t like their behaviour either. He shoved Merlin away, tumbling into Arthur’s arms that automatically tried to help him to stand up straight.
“I’m okay,” he reassured them all just as the other man barked.
“Out! Both of you!”
“You stay,” Arthur’s voice left no room for questioning as he looked at his standing friends. “I’ll take care of him.”
None of them even considered the weirdness of it, moving from being intent on murder to protector at once. Arthur might be a bit of a bully, but he never could resist an underdog.
“I’m not a fainting lady,” Merlin ruffed. “But -- yes, stay. I’ve already had more than enough to drink.”
They had become the focal point of the whole pub, and the crowd parted to let them pass. Arthur didn’t need to look behind to see if Merlin was following, he could feel his steps through the rumble of the people, just as he could feel Morgana’s burning stare on his back.
Merlin had thought the cold street air would make him feel sober, but it made him dizzy instead. His heart was beating quickly, and he couldn’t stop thinking about the many layers on his argument with Arthur. The guy was an asshole, it was undeniable, but he was also impossibly alluring in his own way. The conversation had made him equal parts angry and aroused, and a part of his brain wondered how much of it was because he was past tipsy.
“What’s your address?”
Arthur’s voice broke his revery, the question turning his blood into liquid fire. The blond was standing at the street kerb, staring at his mobile, and Merlin was having a hard time trying to figure out what he was doing, as his mind kept coming up with increasingly unlikely scenarios as to where this question would lead. He must have taken too long daydreaming of licking the vodka out of the golden skin, because Arthur felt the need to explain.
“I’m ordering us an Uber.”
“Us?” Merlin asked, a bit breathless, but as Arthur didn’t stop staring, he just gave the address.
“Us,” Arthur repeated, with a nod. “I’m taking you home before going to mine.”
“Ah,” Merlin could only sigh in disappointment, but, really, it was one less thing for him to regret in the morning.
“Morgana wouldn’t forgive me if I made you leave the bar and didn’t make sure you got home in one piece after it,” the blond man continued, stepping closer.
“I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side,” Merlin mumbled, his knees turning to jelly.
“No, I wouldn’t either,” Arthur agreed, but his eyes were clearly on Merlin’s lips, staring with such an intensity that left them tingling. His eyes ended up finding Arthur’s mouth, and the thought of it was tantalizing, of sinking his teeth and making it bleed. As his eyes rose back to meet Arthur’s, he felt stuck.
For an unending moment, all he could do was stare into the depths of those baby blue eyes; Merlin felt more than saw as Arthur’s lips opened slightly, his own mouth throbbing under the pressure of his own lust. The seconds seemed eternal as he tried to sooth his mouth with his tongue, then Arthur groaned and leaned forward, their noses crashing against each other, but it didn’t matter -- the strength was such that still their mouths collided, and he was well and truly lost. Time lost all meaning as he kept kissing, his lips opening wide to accept Arthur’s intrusion, his fingers pulling at Arthur’s shirt as if he was indeed a fainting maid.
It wasn’t that Merlin’s anger at his rudeness had completely evaporated, truly, but it seemed to him that vengence could be better achieved through biting than slapping. Really, he was fuming, and what best way to prove his superiority than to make Arthur give in, fall to his knees, plead for more -- admit that the insults were born out of a desperate, undeniable desire. He might even be merciful if it came to that and…
The sound of the car stopping next to them broke the moment, and Merlin felt his face burning as he realised just where his thoughts had gone. God, he was stupid - as if someone like Arthur would ever go for someone like him, even less admitting him to be irresistible. He lowered his head and climbed into the car, leaving Arthur to follow.
He had no idea of what to say, but he didn’t seem to mind it. As soon as the door was closed, his lips were back on Merlin’s, not even bothering with confirming the address with the driver or any other nicety. This was fine by Merlin, who could barely believe that it was happening - but Arthur did not give him too much time to second-guess himself, pulling him closer, hands grasping at Merlin’s hips and manhandling him until he found himself at Arthur’s lap.
This had to be against some traffic law.
Still, Merlin couldn’t find it in him to care or even consider the man that was awkwardly trying to drive and watch the traffic through their desperate snogging. His hands were cradling Arthur’s face, eyes shut against the rapid moving street outside, their mouths glued together. The car’s movement kept on making him bounce on top of Arthur’s lap, and he couldn’t help but moan as he felt the undeniable hardness beneath him. It took away the last of his self-control as he leaned forward, rubbing himself shamelessly against Arthur’s belly while the blond kissed down his neck.
Probably the car stopped as smoothly as possible, but in the haze that seemed to take hold of him, it felt too rash, too sudden, and certainly too soon. He did not want the moment to end, even if he suspected it would be for the best, even if a part of him was reminding him that Arthur was an arse and that he’d regret it once he was not drowning in loneliness, alcohol and lust. All of those were reasonable thoughts, and we wanted nothing more than to throw reasonable far away and just dive into this.
“Can I come up?” Arthur’s voice was husky, making it clear that at least Merlin wasn’t alone in his desperation. It was something.
“Yes,” he answered, eager. He caught the driver’s unimpressed expression through the rear mirror as he tried and failed to extrincate himself from Arthur, and he felt himself flush. After a few seconds of useless flailing, Arthur sniggered and held him through his hips again, helping them to untangle.
He fished his keys from his front pocket, fighting his erection to do so. Part of him was completely focused on getting them in the bedroom as quickly as possible, handling the keys with care, while the more neurotical bit of his head couldn’t stop wondering if the return of fresh air had cleared Arthur’s mind enough for him to regret it. He had just managed to insert the key into the hole when he felt hands splaying against his waist and Arthur’s hot breath against his ear. Goosebumps spread through all of his skin even before the other man decided to drag his lower lip through his earlobe, and he could no longer suppress a moan once the left hand dropped down to grab his cock over his trousers.
The click of the lock came almost as a surprise, he could barely remember what he had been doing. Still, he lost no time in opening the door to his building. Arthur stepped inside right along with him, crowding into his personal space, but any space separating them seemed to be too much for both. Merlin used Arthur’s body weight to shut the door, kissing him madly while he locked it back -- moving from mouth to cheek, to ear and neck, licking him down until he could suck the hollow between his neck and shoulderblades. The blond moaned, and the shiver that came down Merlin’s spine had more to do with victory than with anything else.
Waiting wasn’t, clearly, one of Arthur’s talents. He turned Merlin around, pressing him against the hallway’s wall, hands exploring his belt and trousers, opening them. Every movement reeked of desperation, and it made Merlin heady. He didn’t know if he had ever been wanted quite that much, if he had ever wanted that much as he carelessly did the same, opening Arthur’s zip. His hands moved up, pulling down the still damp suit jacket, fingers negotiating the first few buttons of the shirt before losing patience and merely forcing them open with a stronger pull. For a moment he worried about the tie before remembering that Arthur no longer had it by the time they reached the bar. He ran his hands through Arthur’s chest, feeling the silky skin and rough chest hair as his mouth continued to explore the man’s neck.
Arthur’s fingers were doing much the same, probing at his body, feeling up every inch as he pulled Merlin’s pants down. His cock bobbed out only to be caught by Arthur’s hand, deliciously rough and warm against the sensitive skin. He couldn’t stop himself, he threw his head back and moaned loudly, completely ignoring that they were still in public somewhat. It didn’t matter, nothing did, only the feeling of their bodies pressing against each other.
Merlin kicked at his own clothes, pulling them further down to give Arthur better access, and the blond didn’t lose any time in enjoying the opportunity. There was a distinct burn as his finger circled the sensitive bit around Merlin’s hole, at once awful and delicious, before he pushed his body against Arthur’s hand, grabbing a fistful of hair and smashing their mouths together once again.
It was not nearly enough, it could never be enough. Luckily, it seemed Arthur was one of those guys to whom sex was so easy that the always ready routine made sense, for he picked up two envelopes from his back pocket. The lube was cold and wet against his skin, it’s smell fading next to the orange and vodka stench coming from Arthur’s clothes on the floor, and Merlin loved every second of it as Arthur worked him open in the hallway. It wasn’t a long distance to his apartment -- Merlin was on the second floor -- but it felt like it was an impossible distance to cross just at that moment.
As nice as the continuous movements to ease his muscles were, it also felt a whole lot like teasing, and certainly not enough. He took the matter in his own hands, picking the second package from Arthur’s pocket and opening it, pushing him away and grabbing his dick, ready to roll down the condom. Arthur groaned and Merlin smirked, finishing the process with a squeeze and a wink.
It seemed to be as much as Arthur could take - seized Merlin by the hand, whirling him around and pressing him against the wall. The dark marble felt incredibly cold against his naked skin, but Arthur burnt like a furnace behind him, angling himself before pushing ahead, stretching Merlin from the inside, making his throat open up along in a loud moan as their hips joined. Arthur’s breath hitched over his ear, completely still for a moment before he started moving against Merlin.
It was almost too much -- the pressure, the burn, the movement, the angle. It all seemed studied in order to make him come apart, and if before he had been intent on claiming the victory, now he could think about nothing but abandoning himself to it. He let his control go, his voice getting stronger as he sobbed in desperation, being pushed against the wall and pushing back, giving as good as he was getting, his moans rising until he was sure his neighbours would be able to hear -- but it didn’t matter and might even be part of the thrill.
Too soon, Arthur was joining him in making noises, losing his tempo and his breath as he came close. Closing his fist around Merlin’s cock, he pumped it until there was no way he could hold it anymore, feeling Arthur around and inside him, and he came blindingly hard in the hallway, spurting come onto the wall. Arthur followed almost immediately, his fingers digging deep where he was holding Merlin’s body.
The two of them stood still for a few moments, just trying to regain their balance. Suddenly, as they untangled, Merlin felt incredibly conscious of the liquid sliding down the wall and onto the floor. He couldn’t begin to explain what had gotten into him, and he had no idea how they should act.
“Are you going…?” He started.
“I still haven’t gone up,” Arthur answered, an earnest smile on his face that that made Merlin’s heartbeat accelerate again upon realising this was to be just round one.
Which, really, made it all the worst when he woke up alone the next morning at the sound of the door clicking shut after Arthur.
When Arthur woke up, he couldn’t quite place where he was. The early morning light was filtering through open curtains, and the walls were a horrid shade of greenish-blue that made him think of a hospital. A sound caught his attention, and he noticed that someone was breathing next to him. He carefully moved to check his bedmate, all lovely dark hair and long limbs, just to have it all come back to him. His cheeks burnt as he remembered just the terrible desperation that had made him claim Merlin before they had even reached the apartment. His cock twitched upon remembering the previous night’s activities, but Arthur just mentally told it to shut it.
He got out of the bed, only to realise he was still a bit dizzy. Trying to make as little noise as possible, he went to the bathroom, washing his face with cold november water. Naturally, he had a head splitting headache, not to mention that his eyes were incredibly dry and irritated by the continuous usage of the contact lenses. Arthur rubbed his eyes, trying to ease some of the discomfort and thinking it really was lucky that he always carried solution in his bag…
He opened up his eyes with a jolt, panic mounting inside him. He didn’t have his bag. He hadn’t had it with him when he got out of Uber, come to think of it, he hadn’t brought it with him when he left the pub. The whole altercation had made him completely forget about his bag.
Oh, he was so screwed.
It was not only a matter of his personal possessions, his work laptop was inside, and in it was the only way to access many terabytes of sensitive data. If he had lost it, the time and work that would go into getting it all back might cost his company thousands of pounds -- and his head.
Arthur dashed out of the bathroom, picking up his clothing and ordering himself a car as he dressed, texting Morgana to check if, by some miracle, they had remembered his bag and taken it home. He glanced towards Merlin’s sleeping form and considered leaving a note, but he couldn’t see any sort of stationery. Considering just how hungover he was, he didn’t think it’d be fair to wake Merlin up just to say bye, specially not after Morgana’s affirmative answer -- by the way of taking a picture of the bag hanging outside their balcony, a hostage to his good behaviour in showing up at the bookstore to pick it up and apologise about the previous night. They’d see each other soon enough, and he still needed to go home and get himself ready to work, because there was no way he was showing up in a dirty, sugar-crusted, smelly, wrinkled used suit.
He rushed downstairs as his mobile vibrated warning him that the car he had ordered was arriving. Arthur ran down the steps, jumping the last five and landing with his hand already moving towards the white button that would let him out at the street. The daylight hurt his eyes even more, and even in the open he could still smell the vodka Merlin had dropped on him and started this whole chain of events. Never before he had felt so much like he was doing the walk of shame, and the look that the driver gave him showed that he thought the same.
Arthur felt like he was trying to follow his morning routine twice as fast as he usually did, but truth was that he had arrived home just ten minutes earlier than the hour he left every morning. He slipped the suit on a plastic bag and jumped straight into a cold shower, which was never good for his humour. It would also help his mind to stay far away from what had happened last night. He did not have the time to linger on the admittedly spotty memories from his little encounter with Merlin, nor to consider that he was exactly the sort Arthur loved -- full of attitude, pushy even when he was supposed to be submitting, turning things over in their heads, coming out on top even bottoming. Arthur knew he was bossy himself, and between them things had become a push and pull that…
It was a testament to how good it had been that he got an erection under the cold spray of water, though it may also just be another way of showing him just how small his willpower was this morning. With a shake of his head, he turned off the water, picking up the towel and back to the knowledge that he was later than a pregnant lady’s period.
All things said, he managed to be on his way just half an hour later than usual. Ignoring the drizzle that kept coming down and prickling his face and arms, Arthur ran to the tube. In spite of the low temperatures, he was sweating when he arrived. His body was still hot when the train stopped, and people were giving him weird looks for not wearing his jumper, that was tied to the suit’s bag.
He jumped at the station nearest to the shop at the last minute, the morning browsing of his email and Slack had made him distracted to the point he almost forgot about this morning’s detour. He still stopped at the dry laundry place on the corner of the shop to drop off his suit before arriving and finding Morgana sitting with her legs crossed in the front area of the shop, looking as if he absolutely wasn’t impressed with him.
Arthur didn’t know if he was more annoyed that she was right about being mad at him or at the fact that even this early she looked completely put together, the hair pulled back in a tight bun and wearing a trouser-suit and stilettos. Her perfectly designed eyebrow rose upon checking his state, lingering on the dark rimmed glasses that he was wearing to give his eyes a rest.
“I’m guessing you forgot to take out the contacts,” she said, her voice chilly.
“No need to start, Morgana,” he replied, tiredly. “Can’t we just skip the part where you say I ruined your night, that you should’ve known better, that next time I shouldn’t bother showing up and that you should have just left my things behind so I would finally learn to not be so prickly and go straight to the part where you give me my bag and I go to work? I am late after all.”
Arthur had spent the whole walk rehearsing the words in his head, hoping that in coming around and straight up owning to the shit he had done, she’d cut him enough slack as to let be on his way. Of course, it was a stupid thing to hope for. His sister didn’t look like she was about to grant him his wish.
“A good scolding from someone who’s not from your blood may be a good way of reminding you that people shouldn’t need to deal with your crap,” was her answer, and she finally pushed herself up from the sofa and faced him. “I thought you had gone as far as you could when you came around and mistreated Merlin for some coffee, I wouldn’t dream that you’d make such a fool of yourself as to get plastered and try to pick a fight with him.”
“I didn’t try to pick a fight with him,” he started, but he knew it was a complete lie. Something had made him act up, but he didn’t think it was the alcohol.
“Spare me from the details on your motivations and your bruised ego,” she made a sharp dismissal gesture with her hand before crossing her arms again. “Fascinating as it can be watching your inability to maneuver yourself into appropriate and human mating rituals instead of preening like some peacock, you took it too far yesterday. Do you realise that they’re Lance’s clients? Your behaviour could have truly endangered his job, did you even think…”
“I clearly wasn’t thinking,” he shot back, not in the mood for a lecture, even one he knew he deserved. “Look, I’m sorry, Morgana, I’ve already told you I’m sorry, what else could I…”
His sister rolled her eyes and turned her back on him, walking through the book aisles as if he wasn’t there.
“Get yourself some coffee at least,” she told him while she walked, her shoes echoing as they tapped against the wood and making his head pound. “You still look like you’re drunk.”
Arthur sighed, knowing she was right about that too. He tried to get himself ready to meet Merlin, but he was nowhere to be seen. Freya was manning the counter alone, and he smiled at her warmly before ordering. She seemed torn between smiling back and being weary of him after the previous night’s events.
By the time Morgana returned with his bag, he had a hot cup of coffee cradled between his hands, made to go. He slid the leather strap against his chest and was debating whether he could leave Merlin a note without his sister snooping around it when the shop’s door rang with someone entering and a voice he had last heard teasing him rang through the air.
“You won’t believe how much of a clotpole your brother was…”
Merlin was clearly surprised to turn around the column and find Arthur standing in front of the register, and for a moment none of them spoke.
“Is clotpole even a word? One would expect a more well-developed vocabulary in a bookshop.”
Arthur would never be able to fully express how much his mouth had a power of its own. It was not what he had meant to say -- maybe “I’m sorry I didn’t leave a note” or “Good morning”, but his brain had to short-circuit and make him vomit a sentence like that, in his best haughty tone. Morgana was looking at him as if she couldn’t believe he was about to start it all over again, and Freya seemed to become smaller, but Merlin didn’t answer at first, opening and closing his mouth repeatedly in offence.
“That’s rich from someone who can’t even say goodbye,” he spit, finally, and walked past them, throwing his backpack over the counter and swinging to face Arthur again with his eyes bright with anger. “But maybe you’re just too used to empty-headed tinder booty calls that you can just walk out on and forgot people can speak.”
It wasn’t the way Arthur had hoped it’d go -- no, he had hoped that he would be able to talk to Merlin, apologise about how he had left, maybe manage some flirting, the chance of a repeat. But it seemed that whatever happened the previous night, Merlin’s opinion of him was unchanged, he had already made up his mind about what sort of man Arthur was and what kind of things to expect from him -- namely, the worst -- and crowned his low opinion with spreading his point of view to their friends in common. Arthur had already been judged and found wanting enough for a single morning, and had never had the best impulse control. His blood was boiling, wanting to defend himself -- and Uther had taught all his children too well that the best defense was attacking.
“Oh, I haven’t forgotten that you can speak,” he answered, as cocky as he could. “Neither has God, I suspect, with all the calling him you did last night.”
“Oh, you!” Merlin leaned forwards, as if he was ready to launch himself at Arthur physically and tackle him down -- or at least try.
“That’s enough!” Morgana’s voice cut through the moment, but neither man looked at her. Their eyes were locked in each other, bright with animosity, and the outside world seemed faded when compared to the resentment beam that connected both. “Arthur, weren’t you late for work?”
“I am,” he agreed, eyes still in Merlin’s.
“And Merlin, why don’t you pick up the papers with last night’s numbers so we can discuss it after badmouthing my brother and with him out of the way?”
“I will,” Merlin said, but he made no movement to change the situation.
“Honestly!” Morgana huffed, grabbing Arthur’s arm with her perfectly manicured black nails and pulling him backwards. “Go!”
Arthur forced himself to look away from Merlin, to let go of his righteous indignation and walk away with his sister. Being outside did help him breathing more normally, but Morgana clearly had lost all the little patience she had with him at any given time.
“If you end up screwing with this business for need of a shag, I’ll never forgive you.”
Well, maybe it was time to do exactly as Merlin imagined he already did and download some app for a quick one-night stand. Once he had cleansed his palate, surely, the guy wouldn’t be able to get to him like that.
After getting it all off of his chest, Merlin tried to let go of his annoyance with Arthur. It was no good to keep thinking about it, it would only make him bitter. Had anyone asked, he would have simply reaffirmed that he really did hate the guy, no one needed to know that when he jerked off, he had to keep his eyes wide open to avoid images of his golden skin and to bite his fingers to stop himself from calling his name. It was nothing -- hot he may be, but he was also an asshole, and there was no doubt that the whole thing had been a drunken mistake.
His decision to remain indifferent was tested when Arthur showed up again at the shop. He wore a dark grey jumper that looked impossibly soft, and his dark jeans hugged his legs in ways that made Merlin’s mouth water. He tried to ignore him completely and continue working on the spreadsheets he had told Morgana he’d figure out before their bank meeting on Monday; he was sitting at one of the group tables in the back of the shop, it shouldn’t be too hard. Still, he couldn’t control his eyes as they followed him approaching Freya with a gentler smile than Merlin would’ve expected and order something to drink.
It may be that his staring was intense enough to be felt, and as Arthur started turning towards him, Merlin ducked his head, trying to hide behind the laptop’s screen and staring at Excel as if it had the answers to his life problems. Well, it kinda did,at least for some of them. Still, it felt really hard to focus while knowing that the man was there. With a sigh, he gave up pretending as he saw the shadow of Arthur’s body approaching him, and rose his head to face him. He would not be cowered by his mere presence.
“Don’t you have a job to be at?” he asked, uncaring if he sounded rude. Arthur seemed amused by it.
“Does having a job stop me from having some coffee?”
The dark haired man tilted his head, squeezing his eyes.
“It’s a bit too far for you to come just for coffee.”
“And how would you know that?”
Merlin bit his lower lip and shook his head. Nothing would make him admit to some light Facebook stalking and knowing that Arthur’s office was at least four tube stops past the shop. He wouldn’t give the man the satisfaction of knowing he cared enough, so he had to come up with a good retort quickly.
“The blessing of you not being around every day, for starters,” was his first flippant response, before continuing. “Let’s not pretend that if you worked close enough Morgana wouldn’t make you stop by three times a week. Also, you’re wearing your badge.”
That made Arthur stop and look down, taking notice of the object still hanging from his neck. Considering just how popular the App he worked on had gotten, it wasn’t all that surprising if someone knew where they were headquartered. Arthur merely smirked at it.
“So you’ve been counting the days since I last came?” He asked, and Merlin hated the posh accent he had, the inflection he gave to the words, turning them into something filthy and how it went straight to his cock. He could only hope that looking back down to the laptop would be enough to hide the colour in his cheeks.
“More like wondering why I’m having to deal with you right now when I have more important things to do - like finishing this. Whatever reason you had for coming here, I couldn’t care less, apart from you leaving me alone.”
“As if I would come around to talk to you,” Arthur scoffed, and Merlin looked back up, his eyebrow raised in disbelief.
“Well, you were the one that came here to talk to me. In fact, I have been checking the other branches the whole week and just came here today. I does seem that rather than me counting the days, you were stalking me.”
“Stalking!” Arthur guffawed, but Merlin didn’t let it get to him. “Wait, you’re serious?”
“I’m just pointing out that you chose today to come around and you chose to speak to me while I was merely trying to focus on my job.”
“You do give yourself a lot of credit, don’t you?” Arthur asked, and it was Merlin’s turn to give him a smug look.
“You are at my shop, on a Thursday, three in the afternoon. What else should I think?”
“You’re not the only owner of the shop,” he tried to retort but his grin just got bigger,
“Morgana’s out and I bet you know it. So…”
“It’s here, Arthur,” said Mordred, the undermanager for Morgana’s part of the business venture. Although he generally resembled a puppy, all perky and eager to please, he was now turned up to eleven, and it showed in the tone of voice he used to talk to Arthur.
The younger man was carrying a bag with a suit -- probably the same one he had been using when they first met. The note attached to it had the name of the dry cleaning place at the corner, and damn if he didn’t have a somewhat legitimate reason to come around.
“So good of you to pick it up for me, Mordred,” Arthur said, and his voice was silken. Mordred answered it with a small, shy smile and bright eyes. For a second, Merlin could only observe the younger man, envying his lush dark curls, incredibly clear blue eyes and clean rounded cheeks above a sculpted jawline. There was a translucence to his face, as if he had never grown a beard, as if he was something of a fairy. It was easy to see the appeal, and it was obvious both that Arthur did and that Mordred was deliriously happy about it.
Not that Merlin cared. He didn’t.
Bracing himself against whatever it was, he looked back down and ignored the two men as they talked softly. He couldn’t care less if Arthur was sleeping with the whole of London, as long as he wasn’t getting in Merlin’s way.
But the thing was, as much as Merlin tried to just ignore what had happened between them, Arthur kept popping up in his dreams. Sometimes, it was just a flash of gold, or the planes of his back, or the lines of his hands. Other days, there was so much of Arthur all around that Merlin wouldn’t be surprised if he had woken up next to him again. Whenever he seemed about to slip away from his mind, they’d bump into each other.
Not that Merlin particularly came around the shop he shared with Morgana often. He really tried to resist the pull of it and of Arthur and spend time on his other four shops. Still, it seemed that every time he did go over, the blond was around -- chatting with Freya, helping Morgana’s team out, just sitting at one of the tables and working or reading. And, really, that was the reason they were there in the first place, so it wasn’t as if he could complain about it.
Slowly, he started feeling bad about completely shutting the other man out. Arthur could be nice, he knew from glimpsing (he absolutely wasn’t watching, of course he wouldn’t watch Arthur) his interactions with the other people around. That he seemed to never bother with Merlin might be related to Merlin never giving him a chance to be anything but a prat.
It ended up being absolutely natural. Arthur just wished him good afternoon and he answered instead of ignoring. The next time, they exchanged meaningless pleasantries. Their meeting after that lead to an intense discussion of the weather. Morgana had caught them at it and gave both a knowing smile, but, really, Merlin was just trying for her sake.
In the end, by the time the crowds grew thicker with people doing last minute Christmas Shopping, it had become a part of his routine. Every Monday and Thursday Merlin would be around the shop and Arthur would come to work from there after lunch. Slowly, the anger that had marked their first interactions seemed to dissipate, and, finally, disappear. Arthur was terrible with people, but he was not a completely awful bloke.
He was still a clotpole, though.
Arthur and Merlin had been sitting in their favourite spot -- a group table across the coffeshop’s counter, near the shop windows, where they could enjoy the sunlight without being overwhelmed by it. It was a slow Monday morning, and they had moved from their usual game (what is this client buying) to a whole new level of weird and stalkerish as they debated the people who were in line to the lottery opposite to the shop, trying to guess just what they would do with the money in case they won.
“He would buy a sports car,” Merlin declared, staring at a mid-twenties brown-haired man across the street. “He always had self-confidence issues, and he thinks the car would help him score chicks.”
“No way it would,” Arthur snorted, shaking his head. The man’s brown clothes had the overall effect of making him look rather like a turd. “Besides, he’s not even that into women. What he really wants is a long, black feathered coat and matching boots. He’d probably also drop his day job and make a living solely from his stage persona. Clearly enjoys some drama, so, maybe he’d name her Cornelia or something.”
“Do you know him?” Merlin asked, surprised at the amount of details that had been offered.
“Of course not,” Arthur dismissed easily. “But I know men like him.”
“Don’t we all?” the other man asked under his breath, before aiming at the girl behind him. She couldn’t be more than twenty, dirty blond hair in a messy bun. “What about her?”
“Well, I think she’d invest in a female football team.”
“Football? I don’t know -- she looks a bit too posh for it, underneath all that “I don’t care about my looks” behaviour she has. Maybe something more traditional - say, horses.”
“I could see it,” Arthur agreed. “She would buy a stud farm. Maybe go into horse riding. And the woman behind her?”
Merlin had to look only a moment before he came up with an answer.
“If she wins, she’ll get a divorce,” he said, filled with dark certainty.
Arthur frowned, wondering just where it had come from. He looked again at the woman, probably in her early forties, the promise of beauty that had come more from the freshness of youth than from her face itself fading, the eyes weary and the hair looking in need of some treatment or another. She did not look like a happy woman, but there were many other reasons for it besides a bad marriage.
“How would you know?”
“She looks like someone looking for a way out,” Merlin offered, tilting his head just so. “And, of course, she has a wedding band mark on her finger.”
“So she must have already divorced,” Arthur countered, but the other man shook his head.
“No -- that’s not the sad and hopeless look of someone who was left; she looks as if she knows that she can still have it all, if only she has the guts to do something.”
“Why would she be without her wedding ring?”
“It doesn’t fit her anymore,” Merlin offered, a faraway look in his eyes. “Much like her marriage.”
Arthur couldn’t help but frowning at the words.
“You seem very knowledgeable on the subject.”
“I’ve been there,” was the dark answer, but then he shook his head and smiled, as if his pain was smoke that he could easily dissipate. “What about him?”
Arthur took one good look before starting.
“Oh, he’d use to fund his own freedom-fighting group.”
“Freedom fighting?” Merlin asked, raising his eyebrow, a smirk in the corner of his face.
“Oh, you know the type -- against the establishment, ready to fight his way to anarchy.”
“You’re just saying that because he’s bald.”
“Also, he has his manic focus in his eyes,” Arthur added, and Merlin leaned to get a better look.
“Well, I think you have a point there. He’s either a fanatic or an assassin, so, I’ll hope, for all our sakes that he won’t win.”
“What?” Arthur was all false shock. “Don’t you support some good Anarchy in the UK?”
“Far from me to dissuade them,” he answered, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “But this guy? He’d be trouble. He’s the sort that would kidnap the Queen’s guards and brainwash them into giving him enough information for an assassination attempt. Then, he’d go full on V on the Prime Minister. And, of course, it could be even worse -- he might end up answering to Morgana.”
Merlin pretended a full-body shiver at that, and Arthur laughed out loud. There was no one that knew Morgana that didn’t think that she’d easily gain control of whatever revolutionary group she got herself involved with. Arthur couldn’t even count the amount of times it had happened under his watch, and it was clear that Merlin was well aware of her bossy tendencies. He definitely didn’t envy the position of being his sister’s business partner.
Naturally, this was the exact moment that she chose to walk inside, giving her brother a knowing glance that he did not care to analyse. It was better to not try and figure out what the harpy was coconnoting in her head this time around. Instead, Arthur took another sip of his drink, noting that it was just lukewarm now. Merlin, on the other hand, favoured her with a smile that was so innocent that couldn’t help but raise suspicion.
“What sort of awful things is my brother saying about me now?”
“Arthur did not say a single thing against you,” he answered, truthfully enough, and the two of them exchanged an amused look before laughter took over them.
“Ah, I see how it is,” she replied, smirking. “You’ve teamed up against me. I see.”
“Not against you,” Arthur pacified her, a warm smile in his face. “We were merely admiring your leadership skills.”
“My leadership skills?” She repeated, not looking even a little bit convinced by his words.
“Look at that guy,” Merlin gestured to the bald man with weird head tattoos that they had been talking about. Around fifty years old, his mouth set in a grim line, wearing nondescript dark clothes and eyeing the line ahead as if doing it with enough intensity would cause it to disappear completely. “Now, tell me, doesn’t he look like the type of man you’d recruit to work under you in a rebellion?”
“Oh yes,” she agreed with a nod. “He’d be head of assassination, for sure.”
“He looks like he has the skills for it,” Merlin agreed. “Just as you look like the wise sort of leader that would employ him.”
Morgana chuckled at his sentence, because Merlin was the sort of person that would endear himself enough as to say such things without giving offense -- that is, Arthur knew he could do it, for he did it to others, to Arthur himself Merlin continued to simply not filter or not care about just how caustic he was. Arthur wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad thing.
“You know, your brother is very creative. Not too much of the repetitive IT guy you accused him of being.”
“Was that a compliment?” he asked, and Merlin shook his head, denying it.
“I wouldn’t be so foolish as to compliment you. Your head is already quite big as it is.”
“Arthur’s head was always in danger of blowing out of proportion,” Morgana agreed, because she was incapable of saying something good about him. “But he can come up with something not incredibly repetitive once in a while.”
“The warmth of your praise touches me,” he answered, sardonically, and she bowed with her head, accepting the false compliment. “We can’t all be head-in-clouds, everything is a big story like you two.”
“It’s a Literature Graduate thing,” Merlin confided, and Arthur looked between them, a bit confused until Morgana decided to explain.
“Do you remember my Uni tutor?” She asked, as if someone could not remember Doctor Nimueh Lake, specially when their father hated her guts and had been sure that Nimueh had chosen Morgana solely to get to him and seduce her away from business school. Still, he nodded, and she continued. “Do you remember that she had an archnemesis?”
“The guy that said something against Austen?” He asked, because years later, the details were a bit fuzzy.
“Jane Austen is only considered a classic because she did not sign her name, for women writing about women and marriages is only a classic in the sense that it’s mediocre,” the two of them intoned at once, the way people who have heard the same sentence far too many times do. It was clear that it made an impression on them, and as the two laughed at the end Arthur was struck by how much they looked alike, porcelain skinned, raven-haired, tall and slim, looking delicate and yet sharp as a sword.
Maybe they were wrong about his nature. Just because he normally composed in numbers and strings, it didn’t mean his soul lacked poetry.
“A bit rude, wasn’t he?” Arthur offered, finally, and Merlin shrugged.
“Gaius was never one to mince his words.”
“Was that the guy’s name? I didn’t remember - just that father used to be his friend too.”
“He was Merlin’s tutor,” Morgana continued with a grin. “That’s how we first met, really, in an academic conference, each with our tutor, and the two of them trying to kill each other.”
That meant they had known each other for the best part of a decade, and all this time, Arthur had never met Merlin. Though, of course, that did not mean that they had become friends or been close all that time. Still, it was not the only thing that felt weird to him.
“Literature, huh?” he asked, looking at the other man. “I would never have guessed.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Lit,” Morgana said, her voice a warning that wasn’t quite necessary.
“No, I didn’t mean that but -- coffee? I thought you had done other things and not a doctorate in English Literature.”
“Well, a man can have more than one passion in life,” Merlin answered with a smile that was so careful that it looked false. “I spent some time studying and researching in Latin America -- Brazil, too. So much of their literature refers to their Imperial Era, the height of their coffee exportation. One thing led to another and… Here I am.”
It was not something that Arthur could picture, when thinking of Brazil his mind offered images of beaches, scantily clad ladies and carnival. He just couldn’t place Merlin with his pale skin in such a climate, but stranger things had happened. Also, if he was researching, it was likely he spent a lot of time inside libraries rather than at the beach.
Still, a part of him envied Merlin. It was clear that he had travelled, seen places, gotten to know people from different cultures, lived another routine. Arthur had always wanted to -- longed to -- do just that when he was younger, but all that Uther’s short leash had allowed him was a semester in France. Which, really, barely counted. Morgana knew it, of course, and a better sister might have decided to speak of something that wouldn’t make him regret his choices, but Morgana had never bothered with being particularly good.
“So, don’t you have to be at the office?”
She didn’t ask Merlin about his own work, first because spreadsheets were neatly stacked and ticked off on the top of the table and secondly because she could never let go of her big sister instincts to Arthur.
“I can work just as well from here,” he answered, ignoring the fact that his text editor had been blinking on the end of the same command for half an hour. “As long as I have this,” he tapped the very same laptop she had saved from disappearing forever in the pub, “I can work anywhere. They don’t really care.”
Merlin looked impressed at it, though Arthur could not understand why.
“Oh, that is the dream… Just imagine -- you could be anywhere right now. You could be working from the beach…”
“... It’s December,” Arthur interrupted, but Merlin didn’t seem to mind.
“In Melbourne. You could sit in and watch Rome’s sunset without missing a single day. You could be in a chalet in the Alps, or a monastery in India, or in Ibiza -- and you chose to be in London?”
“London is a perfectly respectable place!” Arthur defended, needlessly. “Do you know how many people dream of coming to London every year?”
Merlin gestured to dismiss it, it was not the same and Arthur knew it. The difference, of course, was being born and bred there. If Arthur hadn’t been thinking along the same lines, it wouldn’t have bothered him quite so much. Still, he had never learnt how to just let the matter drop.
“You know, it may sound great, but it’s not really all that simple. I’m not sure what’s the use of being at any of those places if I won’t have time to enjoy, if I’ll just need to stay online all the time and when I finally unplug in the end of the day, I’d be alone. Now, I love my own company, but it does get lonely, and I don’t suppose you mean for me to develop roots somewhere else just for the sake of it. I’m not like you, I don’t just turn around and make friend with everyone I see. So I’d rather to just stay in London - safe, dependable, trustworthy London where I have actual friends and family I can see outside of Skype calling.”
He was not given to speeches, for it took a lot of him to just simply start speaking and go with it, but it seemed like the best way to make them shut up. Morgana was looking at him as if she was ready to point out that is lack of social abilities was the problem, but Merlin did not give her the chance to start, once again, her “The Reason You Suck” speech.
“London has its charms,” he agreed, his voice mellow as he looked away and blushed softly. Arthur couldn’t help but hope that Merlin included him on those charms.
A hope, of course, that had to be smothered. It was never going to go anywhere near it again. They had already proved that they were better kept apart, specially if Arthur didn’t want to lose the friend he was starting to make.
It was Christmas Eve and Merlin was focused on the latest spreadsheet with the selling percentages from the vendors during the last few days. They had hired three new salespeople to help with the higher influx nearing the holidays, and their agreement was that the one with the worst performance wouldn’t remain on the team after it. It was not an easy decision to make, and Merlin really hated firing people, so the numbers were supposed to make it easier on them. Fact was, though, that he couldn’t just look at it objectively.
The first of them, Kara, was Mordred’s childhood friend and the two of them got along fabulously, and she had the right drive for sales -- except, she wasn’t known for her fair play. She could probably sell sand in the desert, but she was given to cutthroat tendencies. In the end of her first day, he had walked on Enmyria yelling at her that she should stop pretending that she was anything that not a shark -- which really meant something coming from her because Em was not a nice girl in the first place. Kara’s numbers were the highest of the three, but it didn’t mean she was a good fit for the place.
The middle one, Daegal, was almost too shy to work in a shop, but he wasn’t doing all that bad. His biggest issue was that he never seemed ready to admit whenever he made a mistake, blaming absolutely everything and everyone but himself. It was annoying. On the other hand, Merlin knew his mother was very sick and that he had been looking for a job to be able to help at home, his little sister still quite young, and he left being the only person to care for both at not yet twenty. It sort of melted Merlin’s heart in a way, because even with everything, he was one of the good guys. He deserved to get a chance at something more permanent, his family deserved the chance. It was a good thing he wasn’t the bottom one, because Merlin couldn’t see himself sending him away and he really didn’t want to have to discuss it with Morgana or ending up being unfair to one of the others for the sake of what was, in the end, favouritism.
The third kid they had hired was called Gilli. In many ways, Gilli reminded Merlin of his younger self -- ears included, and clumsiness as well. Gilli could be well-mannered and polite, the issue was…
“Less than 10% of his clients end up buying,” said a voice next to his ear, and Merlin started to turn around at a low whistle. “The guy is pretty much a goner, huh?”
He was faced with a devilishly handsome man, hair like some sort of shampoo commercial, falling like silk from his ponytail and hiding part of his face. He also had an artfully crafted beard covering the lower part of his face and emouldurating his smiling mouth. His eyes were brown like his hair and exuded warmth, which really shouldn’t affect Merlin as much as it did.
“Sensitivity,” he answered with a grin of his own. “I like it in a stranger.”
The other man chuckled and nodded.
“I didn’t mean to pry, I’m just -- Well. It speaks for itself, doesn’t it?”
In a quick sweep, he noticed the guy was holding a large box under his arm, which made sense when they were receiving some books today and there were four or five guys bringing in the product stock. He hadn’t noticed him before (and one had to wonder how he hadn’t), but that did not mean anything.
“Are you new here?” Merlin asked, and the man grinned.
“Visiting. All the walking - in this weather,too. It’s not the best weather for it,” he gestured to the freezing temperatures outside, though there seemed to be no chance for a white christmas. “Makes me want to stay in bed all day.”
The man rose his eyebrow in a most suggestive manner, and Merlin couldn’t help but giggle at his over the top flirting. It didn’t seem to bother the guy in the slightest, smiling back and leaning closer, the warmth of his body radiating towards him.
“We’ve just met, and you’re already talking about bed,” he said, trying and failing to sound like he didn’t enjoy the attention. “Not very subtle, are you?”
“I’ve never even tried subtle,” agreed the man, putting down the box that he had been carrying in the middle of the shop. Merlin didn’t think to lecture him just yet. “It seems to me like a waste of time.” And, true to his words, he didn’t take much more than a second to continue. “So, do you ever go out with coworkers?”
Merlin couldn’t help but think of the disaster that had been him falling into bed with Arthur -- and the guy wasn’t even his coworker, just his partner’s brother. How much worse could it be, he wondered, if he was silly enough as to date, say, Mordred? Honestly, it was not to be even considered, and he shook his head in vehement denial.
“Definitely not. Not even those that just work here on occasion.”
“I’m so glad I don’t work here,” the man answered, his grin going wider, and Merlin just shook his head fondly. For all that they had just met, the man had a way to charm everyone around and in truth Merlin wouldn’t have minded to have him around more often.
“Are you hitting on me?” he asked, though the answer was obvious.
“Is it really that hard to believe?” was the immediate reply, Merlin couldn’t stop smiling.
“I’m Merlin,” he said, offering his hand.
The guy came closer, capturing Merlin’s hand in his, enveloping it in warmth and in a skin far too soft for someone who carried boxes for a living. He leaned forward, as if his name was a secret to be whispered, and Merlin’s spreadsheets were long forgotten in the table he was now resting against. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of gold and red, but his brain seemed a bit fuzzy with the scent of the man’s cologne and all the many nights he had woken up frustrated after dreaming of Arthur, and just there wasn’t enough time for him to process it before a fist cut through his field of vision and hit the other man straight in the cheekbones, throwing him over the table where Merlin and Arthur usually sit and making it slide until it crashed against the shopping window that, luckily, held against the shock.
It took Merlin almost a whole minute to figure out the fist was Arthur’s, who was now shaking his hand as if he had hurt himself in the sudden violence. Morgana’s voice cut through the air calling her brother’s name in a threatening manner, and he couldn’t stop looking at the man who he had attacked, splattered against wood and glass, hand on his cheek and laughing.
“What was that?” he asked Arthur, because, really, he just couldn’t make sense of what was going on.
“That,” Arthur spat, gesturing with his head towards the fallen man. “Is Gwaine.”
“Hello, princess,” Gwaine replied, sitting back on the top of the table and winking at Merlin. “You see, Merlin, how he treats his best friend.”
“You’re not my best friend,” Arthur answered, and it felt like a token denial, a conversation that they regularly had, and the other guy nodded, accepting it.
“True, more like your only friend.”
Morgana’s arrival put a stop to their strained conversation, and Merlin was still trying to figure out just what had happened when she approached, hands on her hips as if she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Did you have to?” she asked, but it was aimed at Gwaine instead of her brother, as if he was somehow to blame for the sudden violence.
“He’s just so fun to taunt!” The man’s arm pulled Morgana into a familiar hug and smackered her cheek with a kiss, before eyeing Merlin once again as if he were made of chocolate. “And it’s not as if I didn’t mean it…”
Morgana slapped him, and Arthur looked still quite angry, and Merlin couldn’t begin to phantom what was going on there. It was as if he had missed a whole chapter in a novel and came back to find all the characters rearranged in patterns he couldn’t really understand. It was not a feeling he enjoyed, and it was time to make it clear.
“Will anyone care to explain exactly what you’re on about?”
Finally Arthur seemed to take a deep breath, still shaking his hand as if trying to make it cooler. Merlin did not feel sorry for him, it was his own damn fault he was hurting. He turned towards his attacked friend, whose arm was still loosely around Morgana and gestured.
“That's Gwaine. We've been friends, if it can be called that, since Uni.He was coming around to meet us for lunch.”
“You have a weird way to greet your friends,” Merlin pointed out.
“Princess is special like that,” volunteered Gwaine, smiling. “He just can't resist.”
“I have enough energy for one more,” Arthur threatened, and Gwaine chuckled.
“Don't be an idiot, little brother,” Morgana warned, moving away from Gwaine, that had been left bleeding after the encounter between his face and Arthur's ring, but the gash increased rather than hindered his rakish good looks. “I'm going to take a look at this cut in the office. Merlin, can you get Arthur some ice?”
She did not wait for his response (when did she? Everyone knew Morgana’s requests were merely for form’s sake and the always expected to be obeyed), turning around and pulling Gwaine by his arm. The man looked back at them and gave an exaggerated wink before speaking to Morgana.
“Alone with you in the office? Am I finally getting lucky?”
“Really? Are you going to push it with everyone?”
Merlin couldn't stop staring at the retreating couple, their voices ringing through the almost empty shop (they wouldn't open for another hour).
“Oh, you know I'd love nothing more than to take them to bed, too -- Leon, specially…”
Arthur snapped his fingers in front of Merlin's face, catching his attention. He turned towards his friend, who was scowling. It still seemed like he was missing a piece of information, but it was clear that, whatever it was, Morgana and Arthur did not see eye to eye about it or she wouldn't have sided with Gwaine over her brother.
Or maybe she would. As a single child, Merlin wasn't familiar with the ins and outs of sibling rivalry.
He shook his head, dismissing considerations about Morgana's opinions and the easiness which Gwaine had infiltrated their closed shop and the likelihood of them being robbed, and walked up to his counter, where Freya had already procured some ice and put in a towel for Arthur’s use. It was more than clear that Arthur had grown on her in spite of his initial treatment of Merlin. He would feel offended if the same didn't hold true for him as well.
“So,” he started when it became clear that Arthur wasn't going to volunteer any more information. “Are you going to tell me what this was all about?”
Arthur was not known for being the easiest person to talk to. He was prone to brooding and tended to dismiss anything that could be understood as feelings -- unlike his sister who was always ready to coldly analyse what was going on in her heart and head. Merlin had seen many of his dark moods, but there was something different this time around.
“He was hitting on you,” Arthur mumbled finally, leaving Merlin even more startled than he had considered possible.
“I thought I had made myself clear when we met,” Merlin answered, trying not to think about where that night had led. “I'm not a maid in distress. I don't need you to come around protecting my virtue.”
“What virtue?” Arthur retorted with a smirk, the closest they had ever came to refer to what had gone on between the two of them, but the smile was gone almost instantly. “He's a player, Gwaine. He loves them and leaves them and never looks back. I have lost count of the amount of times I had to stay behind and help pick up the pieces of the hearts he had has broken,” he stopped, giving Merlin such an earnest look that it made him feel completely bare in a way he hadn't felt when they had been naked together. “You're my friend. I didn't want him playing his games on you.”
Merlin was speechless. From all things he could have imagined, including unreasonable jealousy that had seemed to be the case just a second before, actual caring hadn't crossed his mind. It was true that they had gotten to know each other rather well in the last couple of months, that they had spent a lot of time together. Merlin did feel that they were friends, but not to the extent that such a declaration meant.
The real problem was, of course, that friends was not all that his traitorous heart wanted to be and it picked up against his better judgment.
“You could have just told me,” he reasoned, his voice low to match Arthur's.
“Would you have believed me?” He asked, looking away. “Or would you insist on letting him wine and dine find you just to prove me wrong?”
Of course, the pest had a point, as much as wished to contradict him. In fact, that Merlin wanted to prove him wrong was part of the reason why Arthur believed his warnings would be useless.
“So, are you saying that you thought I wouldn't listen to you and then the reasonable thing to do was to just jump in and punch him?”
Arthur had the grace to blush at the question, and shrugged, a movement that was made awkward by the fact that he was still icing his hand.
“It made sense at the time,” he muttered and Merlin couldn't help but snigger at it.
“Somehow I doubt that.”
Still, he couldn't completely hate that Arthur had done it, if only because it forced him to admit that he cared. A thrill ran through his body at the thought that it might be more, but he was not sure it was the case and was too scared to try and find out. In case he was wrong, he would risk losing even what they had built from the embers of their anger-fuelled passion night.
And, part of his problem was that he wasn’t willing to risk losing any part of him at all, whatever the prize.
He was so completely screwed.
To say that Arthur wasn’t feeling very festive on New Year’s Eve was an understatement. In fact, he wished little more than to skip the party altogether, but Morgana had been very clear on how she’d disembowel him alive and boil it on a cauldron in front of him if he missed. Arthur was not all that sure that she was just teasing about the royal style punishment either, she had a pewter cauldron at home, a relic from her wiccan days.
At least, his sister had decided to keep it low-key for once. They’d have less than a dozen friends around, and Arthur might even get away with sulking in the balcony for much of the night. Still, he couldn’t help but taking care with his looks -- he wouldn’t want Gwaine upstaging him.
The penthouse that his sister shared with Gwen, Leon and Lance was well-lit when he arrived, and fully decorated for the holidays (Gwen loved to turn the place into Santa’s village, and none of them could tell her no when she smiled at them oh-so-sweetly). It was more than clear that Gwaine had bargained for an endless supply of drinks, and almost everyone was on their way to be completely sloshed before midnight arrived, to the point that Gwen was snoring lightly on Morgana’s lap, both sprawled on the sofa and claiming it as their territory. Arthur gauged just how much she had drunk by the fact that she barely squirmed when he walked in and Morgana yelled his name.
“Arthur! I was almost ready to go and pick you up myself - with a winch.”
He gave her a tight smile, leaning to kiss her cheek and ruffling Gwen’s curls.
“You don’t sound like someone who should be driving,” he answered mildly, and she shook her hand as if to dismiss it.
“Oh, I’d have one of the boys drive.”
Arthur looked around, trying to access the chances of it happening. Gwaine and Elyan were doing a shot-contest on the table that spread from the living room to the kitchen, a stupid idea if anyone asked Arthur. It was obvious that it’d end in Gwaine winning and Elyan vomiting the whole bathroom and facing Morgana’s wrath if he didn’t clean it spotless. Leon was positively red in the face after too much mead, talking to Elena and Mithian. Lance and Percival were debating football, as they often did together, even if they never saw eye to eye about it.
And then, there was Merlin, looking like he’d love to just sink into the floor and disappear.
It took all of Arthur’s self-control not to go straight to him and make sure he was alright. He tried to Simply ignore and continue going around the room. He congratulated Gwaine on winning and, commiserated with Elyan that he should never have bet against an Irishman. He talked to Percy and Lance, giving some of his own views on football and let Elena and Mithian know that they looked lovely. Leon promised to get him a drink, but he wasn't feeling like getting drunk, which was the first for New Year's Eve.
When he finally got to Merlin, it was to find him talking to Gwaine, whose arm was neatly thrown around his shoulders. It took any more effort just stop himself from telling Gwaine off. Arthur thought that irrationally when should have stopped himself from flirting because of how Arthur felt even though he had never admitted to feeling anything. Well, they had known each other for over a decade, Gwaine shouldn't need someone to explain to him that when Arthur was acting like an ass it was because he actually cared. Then again, it might be exactly why Gwaine was so intent on flirting. Not that he wouldn't anyway, but there was a finesse to it that was completely lacking when it came to Merlin.
“Oh Arthur! I was just telling our Merlin here that he should give me a call if he ever finds himself in Dublin.”
“Are you planning on moving back home?” Arthur asked, because he hadn't heard anything about it.
“Oh no,” Gwaine shook his head in a vehement denial. “But I would make a point of going over if Merlin was there,” he said, leering as usual.
Merlin rolled his eyes at Gwaine’s antics. Arthur felt encouraged by the fact that he didn't seem to fall for Gwaine's moves. At least someone didn't.
“I'm not sure you would make a good guide,” Arthur pointed out with a small frown.“Everything you seem to know are pubs and bars.”
“Well, I can give him the private tour.” Gwaine winked and Arthur couldn't help but scowl, but it didn't bother Gwaine at all. It hadn't even back in school when it made younger children cry, it wouldn't bother him now does he had had almost 15 years to become immune to it.
“You are incorrigible,” Arthur said before leaving and going to the balcony where he could sulk by himself.
Leon did show up to give him the promised beer, and he stayed there looking outside, to where young people were walking, coming and going to the parties in all the flats around them. Arthur wondered just when he became an old man before his thirties, bitter about other people's fun but it might have been just that he couldn't stop thinking about Merlin and how prettily he had blushed while being the focus of Gwaine’s attentions back at the shop. It seemed that only yesterday it had been him provoking these reactions, but it was clear that he was old news, that he'd never be more than a one-night stand and that they were better off as friends.
Knowing that he was fooling himself about his chances did not stop his heart from beating faster when Merlin walked outside to join him, some half an hour later. Arthur forced himself to act nonchalant in spite of his body’s reaction, and Merlin frowned.
“Are you upset with me?”
The question caught Arthur off-guard. He might have overdone the whole “I don’t care” posture he had going on if his friend now thought that there was a problem. On the other hand, he was upset, but it was about Merlin rather than with Merlin. It was not like either of them could force feelings into being convenient -- make them appear or disappear to avoid awkward conversations. Still, there was no escaping it now.
“Not at all,” he answered, still looking away.
From the corner of his eye, he saw how Merlin readjusted himself, as if trying to force Arthur to look at him. That just made him all the more determined not to do it. He would not spend the last hours of the year staring at all he couldn’t have, all he kept on dreaming about.
“Could’ve fooled me,” Merlin’s voice had a hint of humour in it. “Is this about Gwaine?”
Arthur scoffed, even if he had hit close to home. It would be so much easier if he could just blame it all on his friend and avoid his part in the responsibility, but truth was that he hadn’t needed help in screwing up all his chances -- as his sister certainly wouldn’t mind telling him again and again. It was just something he was going to have to deal with.
“Look, I don’t want him to screw you over, but I’m not losing any sleep over it either,” Arthur offered, and, for a moment, he could almost believe his own words. “If you want to bed him, go ahead and do it. It’s no skin off my nose.”
He could almost hear the way Merlin’s eyebrow rose in his face, disbelieving his every word. Down in the street, a group of kids started to clap their hands and yell at two members of their little group about kissing and marrying. It made Arthur snort bitterly, because, wouldn’t all be easier if children’s songs were true? Instead, in real life, adult life, everything was more complicated.
“I’m in no danger of doing that,” Merlin guaranteed, and, before Arthur could say anything, he continued. “I’ve committed enough folies to know that man like him are far more trouble than they’re worth.”
“I bet,” Arthur muttered, but the other man clearly heard it.
“Which was why I thought you were trying to run away that day.”
That made Arthur look at him, a frown marring his forehead because that sentence was not one that made any inch of sense to him. He could see that his friends were all working on some decorations inside, and he was grateful that none of them would interrupt him and Merlin.
“What are you talking about?” He asked, thinking hard on when he could have done something to make Merlin think that he would just disappear.
“When we first…” Merlin’s voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat before he continued. “The day after we met. You left in a rush and I thought… But now I know you’re not like that.”
Arthur couldn’t help but stare at Merlin’s face, looking for any signs on how he should interpret this sentence, but it only served to further ensnare him. Everything about Merlin was inciting, the way his dark hair was tousled, the wrinkles on his forehead as he waited for an answer, the question mark hovering in the back of his blue eyes, the straight outline of his nose and the high edges of his cheekbones. Each part could take a hold of him and keep him forever, even the red-tipped ears, the stubble covered jawline, the long lines of his neck underneath the scarf, the deceptive thinness of his limbs that made one thing him skinny when in reality, underneath all those layers of clothing that were meant to protect him from December chill, he was really wiry -- then again, so many parts of his personality spoke of hidden strength, it shouldn’t be a surprise that his body followed the same logic -- and the tantalizing wetness of his lips that were just oh-so-kissable.
It was almost more than he could handle, and Arthur knew he needed a way out or he would end up pouring it all out -- all his pent-up desire, all his feelings, the way his skin was left tingling whenever they touched, the quickness of his heart when he heard Merlin’s voice, the stillness of his soul that Merlin managed to give with a look alone, the one where it seemed that the dark-haired man was pouring all his faith, all his warmth, all his trust into him. It was too much to be asked to deal with it all, and turning on his heels, Arthur shoved the door open to get out of the balcony.
“Arthur!” Merlin called behind him, and the tips of his fingers caught the edges of his sleeve, not enough to force him to stop, but enough to make him wish he could stay simply because that was what Merlin wanted.
He had meant to escape into the living room, to look for some measure of anonymity in between their friends, but they all seemed to be turned towards them, as if they had heard and knew exactly what he was running away from. Yet, if they had, their faces wouldn’t be so pleased as they yelled at him.
At first, Arthur could not understand what they meant, but then the realised the berry neatly hanging in front of the door to the balcony and that Merlin, too, was standing under it, having followed him out. He needed but to glance once at his sister to realise that they had planned it.
Screw it, he thought.
If that was what they wanted, he’d give them the show they deserved.
Turning back towards Merlin, he gripped him by the pointy elbow and pulled him closer, using his other hand to craddle his head as he pushed their mouths together. It was intoxicating, being this close again, even more than it had been the first time because there was now so much more than mere lust guiding his movements. Arthur gave up, completely, in any semblance of control -- let him have it all, he thought to himself, and poured all of his desperate, frustrate, unrequited feelings into that kiss.
It was a kiss to answer Merlin’s question, the one about the kind of man he was, one to make it clear just how deeply he cared, just how there was nowhere he could run because Merlin had gotten under his skin, not unlike some drunken-made tattoo but one he would never wish he didn’t have. It was a kiss to bare his soul, to expose his feelings, to set fire to his body while lips and tongues met and dances, teeth catching skin and pulling because there was never too much to have of him -- it was all and not enough. It was a kiss to forget that this was not something he could have, his arm moving to circle Merlin’s waist and being barely aware that Merlin’s arms were thrown around his neck, clinging as if it were some romantic movie climax instead of a forced confession that preceded heartbreak.
Arthur had expected catcalls, but their friends seemed stunned speechless by the passionate nature of their kissing, and as he let go of Merlin and looked towards them, he could see they all had their eyes on them, that they all knew how he felt. In Morgana’s eyes there was a mix of pity and understanding that wounded Arthur to the core. They all knew, now. There was no mistaking what he had just done, how he had done it, and it clearly was more than they had bargained for.
He couldn’t face them when they had all seen how he had humiliated himself.
Arthur just walked straight out of the door, climbing down the steps two by two, trying to put as much distance as he could between him and them. Soon enough they would get back to normal -- soon enough one of them would make it clear to Merlin just how damning it had all been, how Arthur did not do the PDA thing, how never before they had managed to make him go along with the mistletoe game. Soon enough it would be all out in the open.
The echoes of his own steps seemed to haunt him as he left the building, the old fashioned door shutting closed behind him. Arthur tried to avoid the memory that not so long ago that he had been in similar, if poorer, building, using that door as leverage as he sank into oblivion under Merlin’s touch. It was too late for that.
His fingertips fumbled for his keys into his jeans pockets, and his skin bristled under the cold in a protest against his abandoned overcoat. Nothing would make him go back into Morgana’s flat, and he could live with the cold for the short time it was needed until he reached his car. He didn’t wait until he was close to press the button and open it, the lights shining for a second along with the sound of the alarm unlocking, he just wanted the whole night to be over already.
It was almost inevitable for him to stop dead at the sound of Merlin’s voice, but then he steeled himself and continued walking across the street to the vehicle. He did not want to see the pity in Merlin’s eyes, Morgana’s had been hard enough to face already. Silly though it was, he kept his head down as he walked towards the driver’s seat, hoping to escape before it was too late. He opened the door to his side and his traitorous eyes roamed just enough for him to catch a glimpse of Merlin jogging towards him, closer than he had expected. Arthur tried to hurry, throwing his body inside carelessly and closing the door with a bang. He rushed to put the keys into the keyhole, his foot pressing the pedal as it turned to make the car come to life, and it roared as the sleeping dragon that it was.
He just wasn’t quick enough to avoid Merlin reaching the front of the car before Arthur had managed to move.
Arthur covered his face with his hands and sighed into it, wishing the whole thing away, but it was obvious that his wishes were not to be granted when he heard the sound of Merlin’s hands splaying themselves against the car bonnet. He saw Merlin’s lips moving to form his name, even if he couldn’t hear it from inside and with the heater blasting warm air in his face. Arthur shook his head, unable to believe just what he had gotten himself into, and opened up his window.
“Get out of the way, Merlin.”
It was obvious that the man didn’t mean to give him an easy time of it, and he was almost amused by it, such a tiny body next to the bulk of his Land Rover.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he said, and Merlin smirked.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” he shot back.
“I just want to go home,” he explained, closing his eyes against the sight of Merlin straightening himself up, though it made no sense, a part of him had hoped to be held back.
The sound of the door being opened made him open them back up.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked, bewildered.
“If you insist on going home, I’ll just have to go with you.”
“What?” Arthur scoffed. “You’re not coming.”
“I am coming.”
“You’re drunk,” Arthur told him, his patience running thin.
“I haven’t been drinking,” Merlin replied with a smirk. “And if you’re going, I am going too.”
“I don’t want you to come,” Arthur lied, even while his whole body seemed to tremble hoping for just the opposite.
“Really?” Merlin asked, his eyebrow raised, “You didn’t seem like you’d object under that mistletoe.”
Arthur felt his cheeks burning, it was not fair that Merlin would use his weakness against him. He was ready to tell him in no uncertain terms how he had messed with the wrong person when Merlin’s eyes moved from challenging to something softer and unsure.
“Unless… Did I get it wrong?”
“Merlin…” Arthur moaned, shaking his head again. “Please…”
“Did I, Arthur?” he repeated, refusing to let go of it. “Did I get it wrong today and last week at the shop? Did I get it all wrong? Do you not want me?”
His voice grew so small and uncertain by the end of it that it gave Arthur a pause. For the first time since they had gotten out of the flat, Arthur looked at Merlin -- really looked -- and he was not ready for what he could see in them. He had been so worried about what he believed was an unavoidable rejection that he had never considered that it might now happen and the reflection of his own emotions in Merlin’s face swept him right off his feet.
“How could I not?” he whispered, his body leaning automatically towards Merlin and capturing his lips again.
“Easily,” Merlin answered in between kisses, his voice trembling under his breath. “Blokes like you don’t fall for… blokes like me.”
Arthur’s hands caressed the side of his face, tenderness, understanding and desire mingling into one.
“Nonsense,” he answered, exploring the cheeks with his lower lip and coming closer to the man’s ear. “Any man would be lucky to have you like this.”
He felt Merlin shivering under his hands, and he couldn’t stop himself from kissing Merlin again and again like some sort of addict, as if Merlin’s lips were capable of robbing him of his thoughts, as if his life depended on it. Merlin gave as good as he got, kissing Arthur back until he was dizzy, until Arthur couldn’t say a word of protest even if he wanted to as Merlin moved from the passenger's seat and climbed onto his lap.
“I spent months dreaming of this,” Merlin confessed, both his hands around Arthur’s face before, and the power of these words were like liquid fire going down over Arthur’s spine, Merlin’s hands chasing the sensation as he ran them down the sides of his body and brought them back pulling up Arthur’s jumper. He could barely breathe as the other man kissed his face and licked his earlobe. “Waking up to thoughts of you…”
Merlin lowered his face to kiss Arthur’s neck, but something inside him was yelling an alert and from the fog of his thoughts he managed to understand what was his problem and stop Merlin midway through his throat.
“This isn’t about me wanting to bed you,” Arthur said, his voice hoarse, half-wondering if he was insane to stop it when he had Merlin on top of him and ready for more, his pouty lips red and swollen from their kissing. “Or, rather, not just about that.”
“No,” Merlin agreed, his eyes guileless. “No, I don’t think it is.”
He offered Arthur a small, almost shy smile before getting out of Arthur’s grip and back to where he had been kissing down Arthur’s throat.
“It’s about how you drive me crazy,” he whispered before licking his way down and opening the first button of Arthur’s shirt. “It’s about how we can read each other’s mind,” Merlin’s hands were chilly against his skin, but it didn’t matter as they explored his torso. “It’s about the fact that you’re both the best and worst person I know,” Merlin moved his hands down, over his belly, tangling his thumbs on Arthur’s trousers’ loops, and using his fingertips to caress the smooth skin over his hips. “It’s about the fact that I stupidly fell in love with you even knowing I shouldn’t.”
Merlin’s lips were hovering just above his, and Arthur didn’t waste any time in capturing them and kissing him roughly, trying to expose just how much he wanted Merlin right now, how he was vibrating with the need of touching him.
“Why shouldn’t you?” He asked when he finally let go of him, and Merlin’s smile had a dreaming quality over it.
“Because when you tire of me and move on, I’ll be left broken in a million pieces and yet I’ll be thinking myself lucky that I had even this little time with you.”
Arthur chuckled, moving his hands up and down Merlin’s back before pulling him down again.
“Not gonna happen,” he promised, and sealed it with a kiss.
The two of them kissed non-stop for a few moments before Arthur let his fingers get under Merlin’s shirt. He felt with his lips how Merlin’s skin quivered under his touch, a request for more in itself, and Arthur couldn’t say no to Merlin if he tried. Soon, he had both palms well under his clothes, against the warm skin of his back, and Merlin was mewling under his kisses. Arthur moved backwards to take a breath and Merlin used the opportunity to take off his own shirt, flushing his naked skin against Arthur’s as he got closer to another kiss.
Time and space were irrelevant considerations when their bodies were so close. Arthur didn’t know what he wanted to reach -- which part should be kissed, where to caresse, what sounds he wanted to make Merlin repeat. He wanted it all and he wanted nothing as he moved to cup his buttcheeks, bringing them closer together and rubbing their erections deliciously against each other. Arthur could swear he was seeing stars, pain and pleasure mixing as his jeans constrained his cock, and Merlin was quick enough to relieve him of that particular pain, hands running to open his trousers and wouldn’t it be rude if Arthur didn’t do the same?
It was reckless, but Arthur was tired of being cautious, there was no time for discretion when he was so close to having Merlin again. Merlin seemed to be thinking much along the same lines as he kissed down Arthur’s torso, folding himself to fit under the wheel, his hands gone from Arthur’s body and moving somewhere under the seat until it slided backwards, giving him more space. Merlin’s face was at his crotch, and he couldn’t think anymore, he could just comply as Merlin started to pull down his trousers and pants, holding his body away to allow his bum to be uncovered, letting it come down to his knees, his cock bobbing against the warmed air.
Merlin was quick to pull him down through his hips until he was sitting again and he could follow through with his plans, opening his mouth slowly and licking the head of Arthur’s cock before glancing upwards and giving him a dirty smile. Arthur almost came from the sight alone, but the shudder that ran through his body was just shy of it. Merlin lost no time in getting back to it, lips and tongue enveloping Arthur’s body, sinking into it until he felt like he was lost to the moist warmth of Merlin’s mouth.
The sight it itself was a sin, even moreso with the wheel right above Merlin’s back, a faint reminder that they shouldn’t be going quite so far where they were. It was hard to care while he felt Merlin slurping around his cock, licking up and down, sucking with a desperation that was only matched by Arthur’s own need of it. He could have cried when Merlin stopped and moved upwards, kissing his way up until his mouth met Arthur’s, the taste of his body seasoning their kiss.
Before he could complain of his loss, he felt something wet and slippery against his skin. He rose his face in a question, but Merlin wasn’t about to give him any verbal answers. Instead, he picked up Arthur’s hand and slid them down his own body, and he finally noticed that the trousers were gone -- Merlin was even more naked than he was -- though he couldn’t imagine how he had managed to take it off in such a cramped space.
“Bendy,” he murmured against Merlin’s lips, because he couldn’t avoid it and Merlin let out a giggle against his mouth.
“You’re just about to see how much,” was the answer and, as promised, he showed Arthur.
Skinny legs wrapped against his hips and, after a short moment to negotiate the rolling down of a condom, Merlin sank on his cock once again. It was clear that he had taken the time to prepare himself while crouched in front of Arthur, and the thought alone aroused Arthur more than he had considered possible. He hadn’t gone in more than a couple inches with that first thrust, and it was just as well or he wouldn’t have been able to control himself.
Merlin moved down once again, licking Arthur’s face and panting for more. Arthur gave him some time to adjust before moving upwards to meet him, the two of them working together until he was fully seated. For a few moments, they just breathed, their foreheads against each other, and then it was impossible to stop.
Arthur couldn’t have timed his thrusts if his life depended on it, he didn’t have any focus, just one aim -- seeing Merlin melt in his arms. He rested one of his hands against Merlin’s face, and the other man sucked his thumb, making Arthur moan. He made sure that his other hand was wrapped around Merlin’s cock even in the awkward angle, and just let go of any conscious thought, just allowing himself to feel it all.
Merlin’s moans were the loudest sound in the world, deafening to everything else. His face contorted in pleasure was the only thing Arthur could see. His body all around him was all he could touch, all he cared about, and he lost himself to it, letting the tempo of Merlin’s sobs dictate his rhythm. He could not look away from Merlin’s face, his eyes, wanting to see when he carefully came apart, ready to hold it all together, their eyes locked in a universe of their own.
He didn’t even notice when the fireworks exploded announcing the arrival of the New Year. They were too busy creating fireworks of their own.
Arthur would have liked to just go straight home after their intense encounter in the car, but Merlin wasn’t about to leave without picking up his mobile and his wallet. One never knew what could happen in the way, specially in a night when so many drunk people were walking around.
So they could do nothing but get themselves decent enough to go back upstairs. They used Arthur’s button-down to clean themselves and hastened out of the car. They had no idea how long it had been since they had come down, but it was clear that the party was still going from the sound of Lady Gaga’s voice blasting out of the stereo.
When they walked inside, the music was the only sound in the room -- and there were more people than before. It felt awkward to just stand there with all of them staring at the two of them, and Merlin was the first to move.
“Erm, hey! I stopped him from escaping.”
He offered what was his dopest grin, hoping that they would just go with it, and he was surprised when it was Freya’s voice that broke the standstill.
“Oh -- Mordred’s gonna be heartbroken.”
“What?” he asked, unsure how where it had come from and when she had arrived there -- she certainly hadn’t been there when he went downstairs, though it was clear why she had come from where she was, wrapped in Percy’s strong arms that made her look even smaller.
“Now that you two are together,” she explained, and Merlin could do nothing but splutter, unsure if he should deny it or not, and settling on addressing the Mordred part of the equation.
“Because he has such a crush on Arthur,” he agreed with a nod.
“On Arthur?” Freya asked, leaning her head to the side. “I always thought he had a big crush on you!”
Once again, Merlin couldn’t react in any way but gape at them like a fish, and Arthur chuckled, putting his arm around Merlin’s hips and wasn’t that the most delicious thing?
“Yeah, well, you can let him know that Merlin’s spoken for now,” Arthur declared, bold as you please, even if they hadn’t had a talk about what exactly they were doing or whatever. There had been very little talking, in fact, and not a word about being exclusive.
… Not that Merlin really cared. It was obvious that he was more than glad to concede Arthur’s point when it came to that.
“He will not be happy for you,” predicted Freya with a small shrug.
“Oh, my sweet summer child,” Morgana’s voice interrupted their exchange, and there was a wicked glee in it that Merlin had long learnt to fear. “Do you think he cares that they’re together? It just makes things easier from his perspective…”
She sent Gwaine a knowing glance, and her girlfriend could just giggle while Merlin felt his face burn in embarrassment.
“Maybe it’s still a bit too soon for that,” Arthur interrupted his sister, and smiled at their friends as if they were clients he had to charm at work. “Now, if you excuse us, we have to retrieve my boyfriend’s things so we can go home and celebrate privately.”
Arthur had managed to make the word filthy, and Merlin felt himself blushing once again, but accepted the nudges and walked inside, picking up his things in a hush and coming out to find Arthur still smiling maniacally at them all. The music had stopped, but no one said anything as he got next to Arthur again and poked at his rib.
“So,” he said, grin still on. “This was a lovely evening. Happy New Year everyone.”
“Happy New Year,” Lance answered, clearly trying to suppress his laughter.
“Erm, right, happy new year folks!” Merlin added, closing the door behind them, the silence heavy around them. Arthur slid his hand against Merlin’s, their fingers interlacing, and just about now, Merlin felt ready to face anything.
“So,” Elena’s voice rang through the walls. “We’re not telling them that they were pressing the horn the whole time?”
“Naaaah,” was the immediate reply from the group as a whole.
Next to him, Arthur was frozen on the spot, and Merlin couldn’t blame him.
Maybe they weren’t ready to face quite anything.
(They would get there, though. Merlin could feel it in his bones).