Arthur winced as yet another person – the thirty-eighth so far, and yes, he was bloody well counting – bumped into him as the doors opened and the next tidal wave of passengers flowed out, then in. God, he hated the fucking Tube with a passion, which was why he travelled by it as little as possible. In this case, he'd played a football match in West Kensington with Leon and Gawain, and after they'd stopped in the local pub for a couple of pints, it had been pissing down rain. Of course, this meant that every cab in London seemed to be occupied or elsewhere, and so Arthur had headed to the nearest Tube station for the commute back to Canary Wharf.
The doors slid shut and the carriage lurched forward; Arthur was relieved that for the first time in four stops, no one stumbled into him or trod on his foot. And of course, this happy thought was immediately followed by a man barreling into him, nearly knocking him over.
“Ow!” Arthur exclaimed, livid. “Why don't you watch where you're going, for – ”
“Sorry, sorry,” the man babbled, “I was just –”
They looked up at one another in the same instant and Arthur actually sucked in a breath in surprise. The man who'd run into him – and who in fact was still pressed against him – was about Arthur's age, perhaps a little younger, with ridiculous ears and an unruly mop of dark hair. He also had the most extraordinary blue eyes Arthur had ever seen, prominent cheekbones that fashion models would gladly have killed for and a mouth that looked like sin itself. In turn, the stranger was staring back at him, a somewhat gobsmacked expression on his face.
Shaking his head, the man took a step back so that their bodies no longer touched; Arthur felt bizarrely chilled by the loss. “Sorry,” the stranger said again, hooking a thumb over his shoulder, “I was just trying to get away from that berk over there.”
Arthur frowned, looking in the direction he'd indicated. The only likely candidate was a man in a tailored, pinstriped suit, much like the Armani Arthur had bought last week. “The man in the suit?”
“Yeah,” the stranger said. “Pinched my arse. Posh gits like that think they own anything that strikes their fancy, you know?”
Arthur opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Yeah,” he finally agreed. “Well, some do, anyway.”
“They all do,” the man said darkly. “I can’t stand rich, privileged arseholes.”
Arthur shifted uncomfortably. “You’re quite – erm, passionate about that, I can tell.”
The stranger blinked at him, then laughed. “I reckon I am.” He stuck out a hand. “My name's Merlin, by the way.”
Arthur wobbled a little as the car rattled over a rough spot in the track. “Arthur,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
Merlin bit his lip, then blurted, “What are you doing now?”
“Well, I feel like I should buy you a pint to apologise for nearly flattening you.”
“It really wasn't that bad,” Arthur said.
Merlin nudged him with his shoulder, and Arthur felt that odd warmth again. “Seemed that way at first,” he said, still smiling. “I thought you were going to take my head off.”
“Well, I'm sorry for that,” Arthur heard himself say, a smile tugging at his own lips. “Perhaps we should each buy one another a pint.”
“Deal,” Merlin said. “Where are you getting off?”
“Erm,” Arthur said, suddenly not wanting to reveal his destination and thus give away the fact he was, as it were, one of those posh gits Merlin clearly despised, “Where are you going?”
“Hackney,” Merlin said. “S'where I live, and work.”
Arthur pursed his lips. Hackney, for God’s sake. He supposed he could ask Merlin to stop with him at Westminster, where he was changing lines, but the spots where he usually drank – like The Red Lion and the St. Stephen's Club – were places he might be recognised, even on a Saturday.
“There's a good pub only a few minutes' walk from Dalston Kingsland station,” Merlin blurted. “I mean, if it's not too far out of your way.”
Arthur glanced at the Tube map on the wall of the train car. It was a good deal out of his way, in fact, but when he looked into those blue eyes again, he found he didn't much care.
“No,” Arthur said, smiling at Merlin and feeling a thrill at watching his face light up at the news, “it's not too far at all.”
Merlin, it turned out, was passionate about quite a few things. As they sat in the pub, Arthur learned that he was a computer programmer and digital artist who worked for a small firm that developed educational programmes for children and teenagers. “And then one day I was sent out to a secondary school in Finchley to work with the students who were going to be using my latest project, and they were – well, out of control was a kind description. But when I talked to them, they listened. The teacher said later it was as though I had a magic touch. I kept going back, volunteering with them, and the next thing I knew I'd decided to go back to University to earn my teaching degree.”
Arthur took a sip of his pint, a surprisingly good Yorkshire bitter, and tried to imagine giving up a decently paying job to work with teenaged hooligans. “That's – very noble.”
Merlin waved a hand. “I don't think of it as that; it's just something I have to do.” He sighed. “Of course, now that the coalition is buggering up the education system, I may be in debt up to my eyeballs before I earn my degree, but it'll be worth it.”
Arthur fought to keep his expression neutral, silently congratulating himself on not revealing his family name. Somehow Arthur thought that Merlin might not take too kindly to the news that Arthur's father was Uther Pendragon, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. His father had delivered a lecture at their last Sunday dinner together about bloody ridiculous Labour pie-in-the-sky programmes, graduating a lot of half-literate peasants with English degrees when what the country needed was more plumbers.
“But I've prattled on enough about me,” Merlin said. “What do you do?”
Arthur stiffened as he considered what to answer; he had been feeling quite proud of himself for not having tipped his hand before this. Of course, it helped that he’d forgotten to do laundry last week and was wearing his most battered pair of old jeans and a Kinks t-shirt he’d had since uni. An old girlfriend had bought it for him, hoping it would transform him into something closer to what she wanted. It hadn’t.
“I, erm,” Arthur said, “I work in hotel management.” He didn’t add that he owned two of London’s most prestigious independent boutique hotels and was currently working on acquiring a third in Edinburgh. He decided it wasn’t exactly a lie, and if Merlin was such a Marxist that he objected even to that much, it wasn’t worth pursuing this any further.
Merlin stared at him for a moment. “Oh,” he said. “I wouldn’t have guessed that.”
“Not working class enough?” Arthur asked, trying a smile.
“Oh, no, no,” Merlin answered, “after all, most of you poor bastards are ‘managers’ in name only, right? I mean, you have no power to hire and fire, you’re working all hours –”
“Are you sure you’re not a Communist?” Arthur asked, raising an eyebrow, and Merlin laughed again.
“No, but out of curiosity, are you a member of a union? Because I know a bloke who’s with the Hotel Workers’ Union, and I’m pretty sure they have open meetings, I think it’s the first Monday of every month.”
“You know, funnily enough,” Arthur said, leaning forward and looking into Merlin's eyes, “I didn't come all the way to Hackney to talk about work.”
Merlin didn't quite blush, but the pale skin over his cheekbones did acquire a distinctly pinkish tinge. “You didn't?” he asked, faking wide-eyed innocence. “Right, you came here for the excellent beer and the ambiance of a world-class drinking establishment.”
Arthur tore his gaze from Merlin's to cast a baleful glance over the pub, which looked as though its last redecoration had been circa 1975. “The beer is excellent,” Arthur conceded, “and I have to admit I have a secret, shameful love of orange velvet wallpaper, but again: no.”
“Hm,” Merlin said, resting his chin in his hand, “it's a mystery, then.”
“Suppose so,” Arthur said casually, downing the last of his pint. He glanced at Merlin, and they both broke down in laughter at the same time.
“Come on,” Merlin said, cocking his head toward the exit, and Arthur followed without question.
As soon as they were inside the door of Merlin's flat, Arthur backed him gently against it and kissed him. Merlin returned it enthusiastically, his fingers burying themselves in Arthur's hair, his tongue tracing the seam of Arthur's lips.
“I don't usually do this,” Merlin said between kisses.
“Put out on the first date?” Arthur kissed him again. “At least I hope?”
Merlin chuckled. “That, too. But I meant inviting men I've just met on the Tube over to my flat.”
“I can understand your trepidation,” Arthur agreed, planting a sucking kiss on Merlin's neck. “I could be an axe murderer.”
“Or worse, you could like Strictly Come Dancing.”
Arthur nipped at Merlin's jaw line. “God, horror of horrors.”
“I know.” Merlin's hands slid down Arthur's back, coming to rest just above his waistband. “Being carved up and stuffed in a fridge pales in comparison.”
Arthur pulled back to peer at him. “You're an odd duck, Merlin,” he said. “But there's something about you.”
“Hm,” Merlin said, pulling Arthur in closer until they were pressed firmly together from thighs to chests. “Something good, I hope.”
“Too soon to tell,” Arthur said, which earned him a playful swat on the arse and a shove. Arthur stumbled backward and Merlin launched himself off the door, taking Arthur's hand and tugging him forward.
“Someone's looking especially pleased with themselves today,” Gwen said, her lips curled in amusement.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “You're hallucinating.”
She stepped closer to him and pointed at his neck. “And you have a love bite.”
“Cut myself shaving,” Arthur said, clapping his hand over the spot she'd indicated.
“If you say so,” she said, eyebrows raised in the way that meant you are full of shit but I will indulge you because you pay my wages.
“I should never have promoted you,” Arthur hissed.
“Yes, yes,” Gwen said, totally unperturbed. “Now, would you like to meet my new catering manager? She has some excellent contacts in Edinburgh; might be a help to you on your crusade beyond the northern borders.”
“Yes, fine,” Arthur sighed. “How are the numbers for September?”
“Best September yet,” Gwen said, with immense satisfaction. “We even pulled ahead of Avalon for the first time.”
Arthur nodded, impressed. He had to admit he played to the rivalry that had arisen between his two hotel managers, mainly because it was good for business. It was fairly clear to everyone at both Avalon and the Smithfield that their two executives were mad for each other, but had no idea how to express it outside of pulling one another's pigtails in the boardroom. Personally, Arthur thought it was hilarious, but he wasn't entirely sure if he wanted them to become a couple. Work relationships could get messy.
Of course, he was hardly one to be doling out relationship advice, considering he'd spent an extremely enjoyable weekend with a thoroughly lovely man who thought he was another person entirely.
“Well done,” Arthur said to Gwen, smiling. “I know you've been eager to top Lancelot for some time now.”
Gwen's eyes widened almost comically, and Arthur flushed as he realised exactly what he'd said. “Erm. That is, I meant to say –”
“Gwen!” a woman's voice called out, and Arthur looked up to see an unfamiliar woman in a smartly tailored suit striding toward them, doubtless Gwen's new catering manager.
Oh, thank Christ, Arthur offered up silently, eyes lifting briefly toward heaven.
hey! Want 2 eat some thai tonight?
Arthur frowned at his phone. Who the hell was theoriginalsorcerer?
Who is this? Arthur texted back.
i'll give you a hint, the response read. this time four days ago you had my cock in your mouth.
Arthur blushed and looked around, but none of the executives sat around the hotel bar were at all interested in him. Right, he'd let Merlin program his number into Arthur's phone; leave it to him to pick some ridiculous name. Oh, hello Oliver, Arthur returned.
cheeky , Merlin answered. so, thai?
Not unless you know a good restaurant in Edinburgh.
youre in edinburgh? what are you doing there?
Arthur hesitated. He couldn't exactly say looking at spending ten million quid on a new hotel, but he couldn't lie outright, so he texted back, bloody work thing. As soon as he'd sent it, he felt a small but unmistakable twinge of guilt.
hope youre getting double time, Merlin responded.
Afraid not. This weekend?
hm, i suppose i can wait that long, Merlin said, though if you have this oliver blokes number i might give him a ring to tide me over.
you think i'm adorable, Merlin shot back.
Arthur grinned. And delusional.
whatever. see you at the weekend, Merlin replied. Arthur was still grinning like an idiot when Fitzgerald, his solicitor, tapped him on the shoulder.
“Arthur, I have the draft contract for you, if you'd like to go over it.”
Sobering hastily, Arthur cleared his throat and nodded. “Yes, thank you.”
“So how'd you get to calling yourself 'the original sorcerer'?”
Merlin lifted his head from Arthur's chest, momentarily puzzled. “Oh, right, the texts. It, erm, started at secondary school. I played a lot of RPGs – silly knights and wizards fantasy stuff.”
“RPGs?” Arthur asked, mystified.
“Role-playing games?” Merlin frowned. “You've never heard of those?”
“No,” Arthur said loftily. “I played real sports at school.”
“Oi!” Merlin exclaimed, flicking Arthur's right nipple with a fingernail.
“Ouch!” Arthur pushed Merlin off him, rolled him over onto his back in one smooth move, then took hold of his hands and pinned them to the mattress above his head. Merlin made a noise of protest and wriggled like a landed fish. “You're pretty violent for someone who used to spend his days in his bedroom, wanking in front of a computer.”
“Git,” Merlin said darkly, struggling to free himself from Arthur's grip. “I suppose you were one of those footy types who dunked our kind in loos.”
“'Our kind'?” Arthur repeated, scoffing. “What are you, an endangered species? And I never dunked anyone's head in a loo.”
Arthur shook his head. “I believe in protecting the weak and helpless.”
With a growl, Merlin freed himself from Arthur's grip and began tickling Arthur in the ribs. Laughing, Arthur squirmed away from him until they were lying side by side.
“Not so helpless,” Merlin panted, grinning, his hands gentling over Arthur's skin.
“No,” Arthur said, leaning in for a brief kiss. Merlin sucked on his lower lip, and Arthur lingered, letting the kiss turn deeper, hotter.
“Mmmm,” Merlin said, running his hand up Arthur's arm, “so, d'you still play football?”
“Yeah. I was coming home from a match the day we met.”
Merlin moved to straddle him, and Arthur's fingers splayed over his belly. “I'd like to see you play sometime,” Merlin said, as Arthur's hand moved lower.
Arthur froze. There was no way he could let Merlin meet his footy mates, most of whom were from the same class as Arthur and would give him away in a moment. Of course, there were Lance and Gawain, but they would hardly take kindly to Arthur's deceiving someone to get laid, which was – alright, yes, that was exactly what he was doing, and –
Arthur met Merlin's gaze. “Yes?”
Merlin's expression was puzzled. “You okay?”
Arthur shook his head to clear it, ignoring the voice that said tell him now, you arse. “Yes, yes, of course. Where were we?”
Merlin's mouth curved. “Well, I think you were moving in this general direction,” he said, guiding Arthur's hand to his cock.
Arthur grinned. “Right. Thanks,” he said, and gave Merlin a firm stroke.
“Any – nnnnnggghh – anything to oblige,” Merlin groaned, and Arthur pushed aside his conscience for another night.
Another night turned into another month, then two, during which he saw Merlin more and more often. It became harder to keep up the pretense as time wore on, but it also became harder to figure out a way to tell Merlin the truth. What had begun as a bit of fun had turned into something more, with Arthur staying the night at the weekends. Waking up to Merlin sleep-rumpled, endearingly grumpy and desperate for a strong cup of tea made him even more guilt-ridden, but that was nothing compared to the day Merlin asked him to meet his students.
“They're having a career day next Friday, and I'm already dragging everyone I know to it, but none of my other friends are in the hospitality industry,” Merlin had explained, his gaze open and eager in a way that made Arthur's heart twist.
“I'm not much for speaking to – erm, teenagers,” Arthur said, fumbling with his knife as he spread raspberry jam on his toast.
“I promise they won't bite,” Merlin wheedled. “Please?”
And that was how Arthur ended up postponing a very important meeting with his linen supplier about the new hotel's requirements so that he could go to a comprehensive in Finchley and talk to a roomful of delinquents. Worse, just before he was about to go on, Merlin pulled him aside in the hallway and murmured, “It's mad, but I don't know your last name.”
Arthur's palms broke out in a sweat and his heart nearly leapt from his chest. “I – oh.”
Merlin chuckled. “It's rather funny, actually. I mean, you'd think we'd have exchanged last names by now. You know, considering.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“And you're asking me now because...” Arthur prompted.
“Well, the school's formal that way; they insist that adults be addressed with respect. I think it's a bit old-fashioned, but I'm not officially a teacher yet, so I can't really –”
“Right, yeah, right,” Arthur said, trying not to let the panic show on his face. “Well. Erm. It's –” Arthur's mind was a complete blank. “LeFay,” he said hastily. “It's LeFay.”
Merlin nodded. “Pleased to meet you, Mister LeFay,” he said, holding out a hand.
“Oh God, please don't do that,” Arthur blurted, closing his eyes.
“Erm, sorry. Why?”
Arthur's eyes flew open. “No, it's only – I was teased at school over it. I don't like it much.”
“Oh, sorry,” Merlin said again. “Look, hang the rules, I'll just introduce you as Arthur, alright?”
“Sure, that's – good,” Arthur managed, resisting the urge to bolt down the hallway. He'd gone and bloody done it now; he'd outright lied to Merlin, and there was no way around it.
“Hey, don't be nervous,” Merlin soothed, misreading the source of his tension. He squeezed Arthur's arm reassuringly. “They're a great bunch of kids.”
“Right, yeah, marvelous,” Arthur said.
As it turned out, the students weren't half so annoying as he'd thought they'd be, and some of them asked decent questions. And through it all, Merlin beamed encouragement at him from the back of the classroom.
Arthur felt like an utter shit.
Arthur was putting on his socks when Merlin stirred, waking with a startled-sounding snort and a flailing of limbs.
“Whazza – Arthur?” Merlin's hand found Arthur's back and slid down his spine, and Arthur fought to avoid stiffening at the gesture. “You leaving?”
“Afraid I have to,” Arthur managed. “Sorry.”
There was a pause, and Arthur wondered for a moment if Merlin had fallen asleep again, but then the mattress jiggled as Merlin sat up. “What time is it?”
“About four,” Arthur said. “I, erm, I have to go to work quite early. Need to get back to my flat to clean up.” That at least was a partial truth: Arthur did need to work early, but there was a perfectly serviceable bathroom with a shower cubicle and a change of clothes back at the office. He could easily have slept on for another couple of hours as he had many times before this, but instead he'd chosen to sneak out of Merlin's flat in the middle of the night like a burglar. Too bad he'd forgotten Merlin was such a light sleeper that the sound of a vole breaking wind would probably bring him to screaming wakefulness.
Merlin hooked his chin over Arthur's shoulder. “That's been on my mind a lot, actually,” he murmured.
“What has? Cleaning up?”
“No, the going back to yours part.” Merlin took a deep breath, then delivered the rest of his speech in a rush. “There's – erm – there's a flat on the third floor that's nearly twice the size of this one, but it's only two hundred quid more per month. The people renting it now are moving out in three weeks, and I thought – well. That you might want to think about it. I mean, going in on it. With me.”
Arthur turned on the lamp, then twisted round to face him. “You want me to move in with you.”
“Well, there is a practical consideration. I mean, it's pretty obvious you hate where you live. I've never seen it, and you spend all your spare time over here. And this new place is probably cheaper than your flat.”
Arthur bit his tongue. “Yes, it certainly is.” Reaching up, he pushed back a lock of Merlin's hair that had fallen in his face. “But – you know very little about me.”
“I know you're not an axe murderer,” Merlin murmured, leaning into the touch as Arthur's fingers trailed over his cheek.
“I could just be buttering you up.”
“You could,” Merlin said, brushing his lips against Arthur's. “If you are, it's been a very enjoyable buttering.”
“I've never lived with anyone before,” Arthur blurted, and Merlin pulled back, expression curious. “Well, apart from my father, and he was...”
“Barely there?” Merlin murmured.
Arthur jerked back, shocked. “I never told you that.”
Merlin smiled softly and smoothed back Arthur's fringe in return. “Perhaps I know more about you than you think. And I'd like to know more, if you'll let me.”
Arthur fought not to tense up, but obviously he wasn't entirely successful, because Merlin took hold of Arthur's hand and murmured, “I'm not usually impulsive like this, you know.”
“Oh, no?” Arthur rasped, his heart pounding.
“No, but sometimes I'm just – sure of things. Like I was about teaching. Suddenly I knew it was the right decision.”
“H-how can you be so sure of me?” Arthur whispered.
“If I knew that, I could write a book and sell millions of copies,” Merlin murmured, smiling. He squeezed Arthur's hands briefly. “But I do know I've never felt this way about anyone.”
“Merlin, I –” Arthur began. He knew his palms sweating, knew Merlin would feel it. “Can I think about it?” he blurted. “I mean, the flat?” Fucking coward, his mind screamed at him. Tell him now. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't force himself to say the words, to tell Merlin the truth and see the inevitable betrayal in his eyes. After Merlin had all but told him he loved him, he couldn't bear to repay him with that.
There was a flicker of what might have been disappointment in Merlin's eyes, but it was soon gone. “Sure,” Merlin said.
“I'll, erm, call you tomorrow,” Arthur said. “I mean, later today.”
Merlin searched his face, then let go of his hands, and it was all Arthur could do to keep from leaping off the bed. Five minutes later, he was out on the street, sucking in lungfuls of cold predawn air.
As he walked toward the main road to find a taxi, he tried not to think that the time for telling Merlin the truth and hoping to be forgiven had just passed him by.
Blearily, Arthur stared at the envelope that had just landed on his desk. “What's this?” he demanded.
“It's an invitation,” Morgana said, smiling down at him indulgently. “You'll need it on Saturday night. Wear something that doesn't make you look like a Tory and pick me up at seven thirty.”
Arthur rubbed a hand over his eyes and sighed. “Have you fallen out with Leon again, or is this something designed to piss off Dad?”
Morgana drew herself up, which was a sign the answer was likely both. “It's a good cause, Arthur. Some of the most promising fine arts students in the city will be giving a concert to raise awareness for the decimation of our university system –”
“I'm well aware of that already,” Arthur retorted. “Father preached a sermon about it over dinner last Sunday. He was in favour of it, by the way.”
“Considering he's the one who engineered it, I should think he would be,” Morgana said heatedly. “Look, will you come?”
“I don't think – all right, fine,” Arthur said wearily. He didn't know what made him give in so easily, except that it would give him an excuse not to see Merlin. It had been over a week since the visit to Merlin's school, and he'd managed to fend off every one of Merlin's overtures since then with claims he had to work. If he used that excuse for a second weekend in a row, Merlin would be likely to call the Hotel Workers' Union to stage an intervention on Arthur's behalf.
Merlin hadn't asked about the flat again, for which Arthur felt both absurdly grateful and horridly guilty.
“Thank you,” Morgana said. “I know you don't believe in anything so foolish as educating the proletariat, but –”
“There's a great deal you don't know about me, Morgana,” Arthur said quietly, and Morgana's head snapped up.
“I'm certain there is,” she said slowly, her expression softening. “Why don't I treat you to lunch today – to thank you for saying yes?”
“That's very kind of you, but I have a mountain of paperwork to sort out with the Edinburgh hotel,” he lied. He wasn't in the mood for Morgana's well-meaning but relentless prying, especially where Merlin was concerned. No doubt it would take her less than five minutes to wrest a full confession from him, and then she'd probably refuse to speak to him for at least a week – no, a month – for being such an utter bastard. Not that she wouldn't be right, but he still wasn't eager to proclaim it to the world.
“Some other time, then,” Morgana said, still eying him with far too much interest. Arthur nodded, and she walked round his desk and leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. “Get some rest before Saturday, will you? Can't have you looking all baggy-eyed when you're escorting me.”
Arthur smiled; that was as close to an expression of concern as he'd ever get from his stepsister. “Yes, ma'am,” he said, and she glared at him briefly before delivering a final pat to his shoulder and letting herself out.
hey. dust off your top hat and tails.
Arthur downed the glass of whiskey he'd just poured for himself and reluctantly picked up his mobile from where he'd dropped it on the coffee table. Don't have any, he texted back, which was a lie – another one to add to the pile. He reached for the snifter to pour himself another drink.
alright then, your sexiest suit.
? Arthur returned.
There was a pause. cant tell you. surprise. i need a plus one and you came to mind, funnily enough.
Arthur smiled in spite of himself. I'm flattered. When?
Arthur was more than a little ashamed at the relief that washed over him, but then at least he wouldn't have to lie this time. Can't, sorry. My sister has informed me I'm escorting her to something.
Another pause, longer this time. Arthur's heart tripped in his chest.
okay, Merlin answered, as though he were agreeing to something. sure, your sister.
Merlin, Arthur began to type, but Merlin responded before he could hit send.
if i moved too fast, let me know alright? we can take it slower. or just not take it at all. but it would be nice if you could have the decency to tell me one way or another.
“Shit, bugger, shit,” Arthur said.
got 2 go, Merlin texted, and then he was gone.
Arthur rang Merlin's number half a dozen times, and gave up when Merlin didn't pick up. Afterward, it occurred to him that the one time he'd been honest with Merlin was the one time Merlin had believed him to be lying.
He laughed himself half sick over that one, and then poured another shot of whiskey.
The benefit, as he suspected, was a disaster.
Well, not precisely; the students were indeed the cream of the crop, and it showed in the caliber of their performances. However, the crowd of art patrons who were attending the benefit reeked of hypocrisy in their flawless jewelry and expensive suits and frocks. Doubtless their accountants were doing all they possibly could at this very moment to ensure they paid as little in taxes as possible, and they would be the first to howl if their lifestyle was compromised by an increase. It was enough to turn Arthur's stomach – especially since he had far more in common with these people than he did with the students on the stage.
Morgana glided up behind him, startling him so much that he nearly lost his grip on his drink. “Arthur, darling,” she purred, “the reception's only started and you're already on number three.”
“Four,” Arthur said, lifting his glass in a mockery of a toast.
Morgana pursed her lips. “This isn't like you.”
“On the contrary, it's exactly like me.” He waved his glass at the crowd. “I mean they're exactly like me. Rich, poncy arseholes, the lot of them.”
Morgana smiled thinly. “All right, I'm taking you home.”
Arthur sighed, feeling a pang of remorse even through the haze of alcohol. “No, I'm sorry. I'll stop, I promise.” To prove his point, he deposited his half-full glass on the tray of a passing waiter.
Morgana pursed her lips. “It really would be best if I stuck around for a bit. But tomorrow, you and I are going out for lunch, and you will tell me what's the matter with you.”
Arthur hung his head. “Couldn't you just kick me in the testicles now and be done with it?”
“Oh, no, I think not. I'm seeing a whole other side of you, Arthur. It's positively fascinating.” As she said the last word, she cocked her head at him as though she were an entomologist studying a new species of insect. Arthur barely suppressed a shudder.
Oh, Christ, Arthur thought, closing his eyes. It couldn't be. He turned slowly in the direction of the voice, and when he opened his eyes, he saw that of course, yes, it was, because the universe hated him.
Merlin was standing before him in a cheap, ill-fitting and clearly hired tuxedo. He couldn't have looked more out of place at an event like this one if he'd been standing there naked, and yet he was still the most beautiful thing Arthur had ever seen in his life.
Merlin's brow furrowed. “What are you doing here?” His gaze roamed over Arthur, and Arthur knew exactly what he was seeing – a perfectly tailored formal ensemble that was doubtless worth more than Merlin's entire wardrobe.
“Erm,” Arthur said intelligently, and could not think of a single thing to say after that.
Which naturally meant that Morgana had to stick her oar in. “Hello,” she said, extending a hand, “I'm Morgana, Arthur's sister.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Merlin said. “I'm Merlin.” His gaze flicked briefly to Arthur, a sheepish expression on his face. “And I clearly owe him an apology.”
Arthur's heart seized. “Merlin, I –” he began, but Morgana was already speaking again.
“So what brings you to the benefit? Are you performing tonight?”
Merlin chuckled. “Don't exactly look like I belong, do I?”
“Oh, no, no,” Morgana said quickly, waving a hand at the crowd, “it's only that the same people always show up to these arts events, and I'm at nearly every one. You're a fresh face, so I thought you might be one of the students.”
“Well, I am a student, but I'm studying to be a teacher. One of my students performed earlier – her name is Sarojini Chatterjee.”
“Was she the multimedia artist?”
“Yes, yes, she was,” Merlin said, beaming at Morgana's obvious excitement.
“She was marvelous! Her work is really innovative.”
“She is very promising, isn't she?” Merlin sobered a little. “Of course, she's madly scrambling to find the money for tuition right now. Scholarships and grants for artists, even brilliant ones, are few and far between these days – but then, of course you know that.”
“I do,” Morgana said. “I only hope this benefit can help in some small way.”
Arthur was beginning to contemplate how easy it might be to slip away into the crowd unnoticed when Morgana turned back to him. “Arthur, you didn't tell me you knew any of the performers.”
“I don't, really,” Arthur rasped, throat suddenly dry. He must have met Sarojini along with the others on career day, but he hadn't committed names – or even most of the faces – to memory. She'd simply been another of Merlin's students, and he had no idea why the thought made him feel ashamed.
“Well, how did you meet Merlin, then? Come on, tell all.”
“I nearly tackled him flat on the Tube one day,” Merlin murmured, when Arthur didn't answer. Morgana stared at him in utter shock, then turned her keen green gaze on Arthur.
“Since when does Arthur Pendragon take the Tube?” she demanded.
Arthur shut his eyes again.
“Pendragon,” Merlin said slowly.
Arthur felt a touch to his arm, and opened his eyes to see Morgana leaning in conspiratorially. “I'm sorry, I forgot I'm not supposed to say that too loudly.” Turning to Merlin, she added, “If some of the people in attendance were to find out Arthur's father is Chancellor of the Exchequer, they'd tear him limb from limb.”
Arthur risked a brief glance at Merlin. His eyes were averted, and his expression was as blank as Arthur had ever seen it.
“Yes,” Merlin said softly, voice barely audible above the din of the reception room, “I can see how it would be useful for him to pretend to be someone he's not.” He took a deep breath. “Look, I'm terribly sorry, but I have to find Sarojini and her parents. Would you excuse me?” And before Arthur could react, Merlin had nodded at Morgana and melted into the crowd.
Morgana turned to Arthur. “Now what was –”
“Not now, I'm sorry, I can't –” Arthur rasped, and then he too was moving, blundering toward the toilet, stumbling into people as he went.
In the toilets, Arthur pressed his palms to the cool marble countertop and stared down at the sink as though it contained all the secrets of life. When he could trust himself to stay upright, he turned on the tap and splashed cold water on his face. It helped a bit to calm the nausea, but did absolutely nothing for his racing heart.
Looking up, he studied his reflection in the mirror. He wouldn't say he had an inflated opinion of his own looks, but he certainly knew that people tended to find him attractive. Right at the moment, though, he could barely stand to look at himself.
“Trying to decide what to call yourself next?”
Arthur froze, then shifted his focus – it was harder than usual after four drinks – to see Merlin standing in the doorway of the toilet cubicle behind him. As he watched, he saw Merlin's reflection turn and head toward the doors.
“Merlin, please,” Arthur managed. Merlin slowed to a stop, but it was an agonizing few seconds before he finally turned around. They stared at one another for another several moments, and Arthur felt his heart constrict in his chest.
Oh, god, he thought, I'm in love with you, aren't I?
“Merlin, I – I'm so sorry,” he said aloud, realising the words sounded pathetic. “I never meant to –”
Merlin took a step forward, eyes blazing. “Who are you?” he hissed.
“I'm Arthur Pendragon,” Arthur said, raggedly, "I own three hotels, two in London and one in Edinburgh. I've been voted London's Young Entrepreneur of the Year two years in a row. I have a flat in Canary Wharf that I hardly ever see because I'm always at the office. Every now and then I play footy with my mates on Saturdays.” He took a deep breath. “Lately I've been seeing this bloke who's become – very special to me.”
Merlin folded his arms. “If he's so bloody special, why have you been lying to him since the moment you met him?”
“Because most of the time, I look just like that bloke in the suit you were trying to get away from on the Tube,” Arthur said. “You wouldn't have given me the time of day, and I – I wanted you to. And then afterwards, it became harder and harder to tell you the truth.”
Merlin crossed his arms over his chest, clearly unmoved. “Right, yeah – and what you lot want, you get. So you lied to me so that you could get your leg over.”
“That wasn't –” Arthur swallowed, shook his head “– that wasn't all it was, even from the start. And now –” He swallowed down the words before they could escape.
“And now – what?”
Arthur shook his head, ran a hand over his still-damp hair. “I don't know how to make you believe me.”
Merlin barked a harsh laugh, then blinked rapidly. “Well, that makes two of us. Goodbye, Arthur.”
“Merlin, please,” Arthur began, but this time, Merlin didn't turn.
“Arthur? Arthur, oh my god, are you – wake up!”
“Mmmmph,” Arthur said. The world was shaking; did London get earthquakes? He sucked in a breath and realised his face appeared to be stuck to something. Gingerly, he lifted his head and felt the skin on his cheek pull free of whatever he'd been lying on.
Oh. It was the leather couch in his office. With a groan, he rolled over and saw Gwen peering down at him, her hand still on his shoulder.
“You're the earthquake,” he said. Gwen frowned at him and let go of his shoulder, and he slowly sat up. The room spun rather alarmingly as he swung his legs over the edge of the couch, but after gripping his skull for a few seconds the sensation faded.
“Don't take this the wrong way,” Gwen said, “but you look like a cow pat. One that's been run over a few times by a lorry.”
“Perfect. I look exactly the way I feel, then.” Arthur passed a hand over his face; stubble prickled his fingers. He looked down and found his tuxedo was still on – well, mostly. “I don't suppose that buried in that judgment somewhere there'd be a cup of coffee and a packet of paracetamol, would there?”
Gwen turned and picked up a disposable cup from his desk, then handed it to him. “My god, I'm promoting you. You can make coffee appear out of thin air,” Arthur breathed, clutching the cup as though it were the Holy Grail.
“Not deserved, I'm afraid. It's mine.”
Arthur eyed the cup suspiciously. He knew the kinds of drinks Gwen liked.
“You'd better drink that,” she warned, as though reading his mind. “I wouldn't sacrifice my pumpkin spice macchiato for just anyone.” Reaching into her handbag, she produced a small packet from which she popped a couple of tablets. “Take these.”
“Yes, mum,” Arthur muttered, swallowing the pills in one gulp, then washing them down with the surprisingly not horrible drink.
“Oh, Arthur,” Gwen said, perching on the coffee table across from him, “what's wrong? Has something happened with the business?”
“No, it’s nothing to do with the business,” Arthur murmured, taking another sip of the drink. “You needn’t worry.”
“But I do worry,” Gwen said gently. “You should know by now that you’re not only my boss, but my friend.”
Arthur sighed and scrubbed at his face. “If you knew what an arsehole I’ve been, you might not say that.”
“Being someone’s friend means that you put up with the odd arseholeish moment,” Gwen said, smiling. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Erm,” Arthur said. “Not just yet. But – thank you for the offer.”
Still smiling, Gwen squeezed his hand, then let him go. “Alright. But do me a favour and go home, would you? Take the day off. I’ll have Kay reschedule the appointments I’m not able to handle for you.”
“I have appointments on Sunday?”
Gwen stared at him for a moment. “Arthur, it's Monday.”
“Oh, Christ,” Arthur moaned, putting his head in his hands. “I've lost an entire day.”
“Please,” Gwen said. “You need to take care of yourself.”
Arthur stopped himself from uttering the knee-jerk protest and actually gave it some thought before replying. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Gwen; it was that he’d never allowed his personal life to interfere with his work life. His first impulse was to deny himself the help she was offering, even though he knew she’d do a perfectly good job of filling in for him. He wasn’t used to admitting to that kind of weakness.
Well, sod that, Arthur said to himself. You’re a mess, and you both know it. Besides, a day off would give him the chance to try to figure out how to win back Merlin.
And so, he opened his mouth and heard himself say, “That would be brilliant. Thanks so much.”
“No thanks necessary,” Gwen said kindly. With a final pat to his shoulder, she stood and headed out to talk to Kay. Arthur made a mental note to give her a pay rise at the first opportunity.
The idea hit him in the next moment, and he reeled at its simplicity. Why the hell hadn’t he thought of that before? Oh, right, he’d been pissed out of his mind, then unconscious and stuck to his sofa.
Whatever the timing, there was no doubt his idea was brilliant. Merlin would have to know how he felt. His fragile head forgotten, he sprang to his feet and strode to the wardrobe for the change of clothes he always kept on hand for emergencies, feeling hopeful about his future with Merlin for the first time in weeks.
Sure enough, less than forty-eight hours, Merlin was standing at Arthur's front door. However, the furious look on his face as Arthur opened the door wasn't precisely what Arthur had been hoping for.
“You're an idiot,” Merlin snapped, stomping past Arthur into his flat.
“How did you find out where I lived?” Arthur asked, surprised.
Merlin pointed to himself. “Computers expert, remember? And don't change the bloody subject.”
“What have I done now?” Arthur asked, swiftly changing to adapt to new circumstances.
“Do you think I'm an idiot as well?” Merlin growled, rounding on him, and Arthur did his best not to find that hot as fuck. “Today, the organisers of the benefit called to tell the school there was an anonymous donation made in Sarojini's name. Enough to cover her entire tuition. Anonymous, my arse. It was you.”
Arthur frowned. “I thought you'd be pleased.”
“I'm ecstatic for Sarojini,” Merlin said, “and she couldn't be happier. But you didn't do it for her. You think you can just buy everything, don't you? Well, I'm not for sale.”
“For Christ's sake,” Arthur said, running a frustrated hand through his hair. “I'll never be able to get past that with you, will I? I'll always be one of those bastards on the Tube who tries to grope you.”
Merlin scowled at him. “It's not that simple.”
“It is! I was fine when I was your poor, downtrodden, overworked boyfriend, but now that being with me would make you a class traitor, you treat me like you – like –”
“Like I what?” Merlin demanded.
“Like you never cared for me at all,” Arthur said, hating the way his voice roughened on the words. He looked away, blinking furiously.
“That's not true,” Merlin murmured.
Arthur took a deep breath and let it out, desperately trying not to let himself hope. “Isn't it?”
Merlin hesitated, his expression clearing a little. “I wanted to watch you play football,” he said finally. “And I hate football.”
Arthur snorted. “And you think our class differences are an insurmountable gap.”
Merlin stared at him for a moment, and Arthur stared back. He wasn't entirely sure his heart was still beating.
And then Merlin chuckled, and Arthur could breathe again.
“I can't believe I texted you the link for the Hotel Workers' Union.”
“I know all about it, Merlin,” Arthur said, taking a tentative step closer. “Most of my employees are members. I encourage them to, and give them space for meetings.”
“Since last week?”
“I always have.” Another step. Merlin stiffened a little but didn't step back. Slowly, Arthur closed the gap between them. “I voted Labour in the last election.”
“You did not.”
“Ask my father. He was livid.”
Merlin's brow furrowed. “Yeah, about your father –”
“Can we not talk about him right this minute? I already get enough of him at Sunday supper. And I'm not my father,” he added softly.
“No,” Merlin said, equally as soft, “you're not.” He raised his hand slowly, then laid it lightly on Arthur's chest, directly over his heart.
Arthur expelled a breath he didn't realise he'd been holding. “Oh, god, Merlin,” he rasped, voice shaking, his hand reaching up to cover Merlin's. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry –”
“Shhhh,” Merlin whispered, cupping Arthur's cheek with his free hand.
“I'm absolutely mad about you,” Arthur blurted. “You and your pale, pale skin that never sees the sun.”
“You make me sound like a bat,” Merlin said, leaning in, nose brushing Arthur's.
“A lovely, lovely bat,” Arthur said, just before Merlin's mouth closed over his.
Two Months Later
Arthur booked it toward the goal, his heart racing to match his strides. Catching a glimpse of Lance out of the corner of his eye, he kicked the ball to the spot he was headed for. Lance caught up to it at exactly the right moment, and shot it toward the goal. Arthur grinned as it sailed over Cendred's head and struck the back of the net.
Sprinting over to Lance, he clapped him on the back. “Nice work, mate,” he said, waving at the small but dedicated cadre of fans cheering their approval from the sidelines.
Lance's cheekbones seemed flushed with more than his exertions as he too waved at Merlin and Gwen. “You deserve most of the credit for setting me up like that. You'd almost think you were trying to make me look good.”
“I'm doing nothing of the kind,” Arthur said, assuming his most innocent expression. Lance only stared back at him placidly. “All right,” Arthur huffed, “though you'd think you'd be thanking me.”
Lance grinned. “Well, thank you, but you needn't try so hard. Gwen and I went out the night before last.”
“You – for heaven's sake,” Arthur huffed. “Gwen didn't tell Merlin anything about it, and they've been thick as thieves since I introduced them.”
Lance rubbed the back of his neck ruefully. “We weren't sure what you'd think,” he said. “Considering we both work for you, and we've always been – competitive.”
“I'm confident you'll keep trying to beat one another's brains out in the boardroom,” Arthur said, jogging with Lance as the referee blew the whistle to restart the match.
Lance cleared his throat. “Yes, well, we might have – done other things in the boardroom the other night.”
Arthur stumbled a little and stared at him. “Ah,” he said, “quite. Well, erm, well done you. Both – of you.”
The game ended shortly thereafter, and Merlin and Gwen walked over to join them on the pitch. “You were wonderful!” Gwen exclaimed to Arthur and Lance. “I would never have guessed you could play so well.”
“Not bad for posh gits in suits, hm?” Arthur said, as Merlin leaned in to kiss him.
“Not bad,” Merlin agreed, grinning against Arthur's mouth.
Arthur pulled back and nodded at Lance and Gwen, who were talking together in hushed tones a few feet away. “Did you know about them?”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “She told me just now. About bloody time.”
“Not everyone's as confident as you are, Merlin,” Arthur murmured, “but if we're lucky, we get round to it eventually.” Taking a deep breath, he reached into his pocket, then dropped to one knee.
Merlin turned to stare at him. “What are you –” he began, and then his gaze alighted on the ring Arthur was holding out to him and his eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Arthur, god.”
Arthur had planned a whole speech, but he suddenly realised that it wouldn't make a bit of difference one way or the other, so he cut right to the heart of it. “I love you,” he said. “Do you suppose you might be able to put up with me for the next, oh, fifty or sixty years?”
“You're proposing to me on a football pitch?” Merlin managed, expression bemused and – Arthur hoped – a bit fond.
“You met me when I was coming from a match,” Arthur said. “I thought it might help to inject a bit of nostalgia into the occasion.”
“You're an odd duck, Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin murmured, “but there's something about you.”
“God, please say that's a yes,” Arthur breathed.
Merlin raised an eyebrow at him, and Arthur held his breath. And then Merlin nodded, and held out his hand.
Arthur's hand shook only slightly as he slid the thick silver band onto Merlin's finger.
“Oh my god, that was the most romantic thing I've ever seen,” Gwen breathed.
Arthur laughed and let Merlin haul him to his feet, then wrapped his arms around him as tightly as he could. Merlin hugged him back just as tightly, burying his face in Arthur's neck.
“Yes, Arthur,” Merlin murmured against his ear, “yes,” and Arthur closed his eyes and hung on for all he was worth.