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Now I Will Unsettle the Ground Beneath You

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Merlin dreams in vivid colour. He has since he was a child. His mother would always ask him what he dreamed about and his reply was always the same: red, orange, gold and blue. Sometimes it was one colour, sometimes a combination. But it was the constant dreams about them that led towards his first set of crayons, then pastels, then paints. Hunith always jokes that he was born with a paintbrush in his hand, but the thing is? He can't ever remember not drawing. It was always in the drawing that the colours took shape: orange became flame, blue became sky, the gold and red some sort of emblem and Merlin's dream-world turned from a shade into actual, tangible things.

Painting is what makes Merlin feel like he's alive. He's always had a sense of foreboding, a sense that he's displaced. The dreams, the paintings, they've always felt like pieces of a puzzle he hasn't quite managed to make fit. He's always felt like something’s missing, something big that he’ll know as soon as he finds it, but until then he’ll never feel comfortable or settled. He thought coming out would fix it, but it didn't at all. It’s part of why he loves painting so much, his own space where he can pour all that ill-feeling into his work.

He wonders what could possibly be going through his head lately, because he's painting dragons with alarming regularity, and not the cuddly type of dragons from that ridiculously cute movie that Gwen dragged him to with all the Vikings with Scottish accents, either. No, these are the big, nasty, not at all cute, fire breathing types of dragons with razor-sharp claws and destruction in their eyes. Merlin wonders what a psychologist would make of it, what deep-seated reason there is for Merlin painting canvas after canvas of death and destruction and carnage.

Gwen thinks he just needs a break. Thinks that being cooped up in a musty, dirty studio all day is probably warping his mind.

"And anyway," she says over coffee and croissants that she drops off for him before her shift at the Women's Centre, "you haven't had sex in ages, Merlin, and you normally have a lot of sex. Not that I'm trying to say you're a slut or anything, because I swear you're not, but—"

"Gwen—" Merlin says around a mouthful of flaky, buttery croissant.

"Sorry, sorry. Just ignore me, I'm an idiot." She looks so concerned that she's offended him that it's impossible to be annoyed. Anyway, she's right, as much as he hates to admit it. There has been somewhat of a drought lately.

Merlin doesn’t normally do the whole ‘scene’ thing. It’s not that he’s one of those self-hating, wants-to-appear-straight poofs. It’s just that it’s not his thing, usually. He’s just as happy having a beer down the Admiral Duncan or The White Swan, and copping off with some bloke who isn't dressed head to toe in glitter and leather and doesn't look like he's spent every waking hour of his life at the gym.

Lately though, he's hardly left his studio long enough to cop off with anyone, a fact that obviously hasn't slipped his best friend's attention.

Gwen tilts her head to the side like she always does when she's thinking. "Oh! I know! You can come with me to this dinner thing I have on Friday. It'll get you out, and I won't have to worry about dodgy old men spiking my drinks with Rohypnol, or anything. Perfect!"

She kisses him on the cheek, and before he can even ask, "What dinner thing?" she's yelling, "I'll pick you up at 7!" and she's out the door.

Merlin sits for a minute, mouth wide open, still not really sure what just happened. He wonders if this is what it feels like to be hit by a very sweet, very well-meaning whirlwind.

***

Dinner, as it turns out, is one of those ghastly Table for Six things, where three single men and women turn up with the hope of hooking up with each other. Merlin thinks even if he was straight, he'd find the concept utterly horrifying. He keeps repeating, “here for Gwen, here for Gwen, here for Gwen,” to himself, like a mantra.

He feels restless. Itchy in his skin. He wants— something. He doesn't know what, but a shag would be a great start. He wishes he could meet a nice bloke. Or a not-nice bloke. He'd settle for one with the personality of a mungbean right now, as long as he has a cock.

"I can't believe you talked me into this," he hisses at his former-best-friend. "The blonde one just tried to grab my arse while I was bending over to pick up my serviette!"

"I'm sorry, Merlin, but given the other two men haven't turned up, you're the only shot she thinks she has."

"Well, that's unfortunate given I'm gay!" Merlin stage-whispers, but unfortunately it coincides with a lull in the conversation, and it sounds like the entire restaurant drops their cutlery all at the same time.

"Ah, I can see how that might be a problem—" The voice is deep and accented, and when Merlin looks up he sees it belongs to a bloke who wouldn't be out of place walking the runway at Fashion Week. The guy next to him is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous too, all big brown eyes and perfect bone structure.

"Is this a dream?" he whispers to Gwen. "Am I dreaming?"

She laughs. It turns out Gwaine and Lance, the two visions who sit down on either side of Merlin, are the other two singles. And also friends. Merlin is tempted to ask if their friendship comes with benefits, and if so, can he watch, but he decides to try and maintain some semblance of dignity.

Merlin is halfway through his third glass of cheap red wine when Gwaine leans over and says, "I hadn't finished what I was going to say, you know."

"Oh?"

"Yes, I was going to say, that I can see how that might be a problem for the girl throwing herself at you. But it works just nicely for me."

Merlin swallows, hard. He doesn't dare to get his hopes up at Gwaine's easy flirting, he's probably like that with everyone he meets. He turns his head to compose himself and sees Gwen, happily chatting with Lance. They seem to have hit it off in a remarkable way for one of these blind date type situations. It's like they've known each other forever, judging by the easy way they've come together. The blonde girl looks like she might stab Gwen with her fork. The ginger is too busy scarfing down the complimentary breadsticks to even notice.

"You mean, uh, more girls for you?" Merlin asks, turning back to look at Gwaine, who is sprawled in his chair, staring at Merlin with a very smug grin on his face.

"Not exactly. No."

Merlin swallows a mouthful of wine down the wrong way and coughs violently. Gwaine thumps him on the back, but his hand lingers there. Okay, so Gwaine is cruising him. Hard. And Merlin thinks maybe he really is dreaming after all, because while he doesn't tend to cop off with mingers, he's never had someone as stunning as Gwaine try it on with him, either.

"Your friend?" Gwaine asks, gesturing to Gwen.

"Best friend," Merlin says, once he's taken a huge sip of water. He's deliberately looking at Gwen when he says it, and not at Gwaine, because he really doesn't want him to see just how much Merlin is blushing right now.

"You ever—?"

"Once," Merlin admits, and he turns back to see Gwaine grinning like mad. "Back when I still referred to myself as 'questioning', which was ridiculous really, I'd been blowing boys in toilet cubicles back as far as Year Eleven."

Gwaine laughs and says, "Would it be wrong if I told you that makes me kind of hot?"

"Pervert." Merlin grins, and he can't help noticing that Gwaine is staring at his mouth. "Anyway, it was horrible, really. Both of us promised never to go there again. And yeah, that was my one and only foray on the other side of the fence."

"And you've been mates, since?" Gwaine takes a sip from his wineglass, and Merlin nods.

“You know," Merlin says, "your name means Little Hawk in Welsh."

"And you know that, because?"

"My mother's Welsh. She named me after a bird, and she had this book of Medieval Names and what they meant. I don't know why, I've just always remembered it."

Merlin really doesn't know how or why that particular memory had stuck with him, but as soon as Gwaine had introduced himself, he'd had that image in his head, the hawk circling.

"It's interesting," Gwaine says, his mouth very close to Merlin's ear, "that we're both named after birds, given as how neither of us are particularly partial to them." He laughs, throwing his head back, and that gives Merlin a great view of his throat, which is lovely and long and really needs to be bitten quite a lot.

Gwaine is so unlike Merlin’s usual type; he obviously uses his gym membership more than once a year, and he’s got that whole male model thing going on. And he looks like he’d be utterly bloody filthy in bed from the look of those eyes of his and those lips and the way he’s leaning in to whisper against Merlin’s neck. Yes. Good god. Really filthy. And not at all subtle. Oh well, subtlety is grossly overrated, anyway.

“I’m really bored,” he says. “I only came because the git's normally too shy to even speak to a girl he doesn't know, but looks like your mate is the exception to the rule. I’ve got a nice bottle of scotch back in my flat that I’ve been dying to open. We could go back there if you want?”

“Uh,” Merlin chokes out. “Well, maybe I should just check with Gwen first." And anyway, he wants to say, are you really hitting on me or is it just my hopeful imagination? Because I don’t normally get offers from blokes like you, and if you do want to shag me, you’ll be the hottest man I’ve copped off with that isn't y'know, in my dreams.

Gwaine presses his lips against the shell of Merlin’s ear, and Merlin can feel warm breath on his skin and it’s almost too much, too hot. His trousers are so incredibly tight right now and he’s really surprised he hasn’t burst out of them.

Gwaine sighs and Merlin struggles not to whimper when he growls, “I want to take you back to my place and shag your brains out, Merlin, I’m sure Gwen will understand.”

So. Not his imagination then.

“I.” Merlin swallows. Hard. “Okay then. But don’t be, y’know, disappointed that I don’t have abs like you, or anything.”

“First thing, Merlin. I get the feeling that nothing about you could ever disappoint me.” He looks directly at Merlin’s mouth as he says it, and Merlin suddenly feels naked.

“And the second thing? Nobody has abs like mine.” Gwaine, the arrogant prick, pulls back and honest to god winks at him.

“Okay then,” Merlin says, folding his arms in front of his chest. “Let’s go, you fucking egomaniac.”

Gwaine throws his head back and laughs, full and open-mouthed, and it’s the most gorgeous thing Merlin thinks he’s ever seen.

***

Gwaine, in addition to being gorgeous and fuckable, is also, Merlin discovers, rather rich.

His ‘flat’ as he referred to it, is actually a gorgeous two bedroom house in Knightsbridge that looks like it would cost more in monthly rent than Merlin would make in six months of selling paintings. He feels decidedly out of his element, and could do with that drink anytime now thank you.

“Here.” Gwaine comes back from the bar holding two tumblers with two fingers of amber-coloured liquid in each. Merlin can just about guarantee that the scotch is incredibly expensive. He looks down at his worn boots and his clean but very faded jeans and at the threadbare Daft Punk t-shirt he’s wearing, and he feels awkward.

“You’re nervous,” Gwaine comments, and lets his finger brush Merlin’s as he passes him the glass. Merlin blushes and Gwaine just raises an eyebrow as if to say: See? Told you.

“Not nervous,” Merlin says around a mouthful of liquor. It’s so smooth and he can feel it spreading warmth through his body, making his chest and throat burn a little. “It’s just that. I’m not really used to being around—”

“Money?” Gwaine asks, but it’s not really a question.

Merlin nods, “I’m not exactly flush, y’know? And my mum and dad, well, I grew up in a pretty rough area. I guess I’m lucky enough to have gotten the opportunities I did with Arts College and all that. But this,” he waves his hand, gesturing around the room, “is just another world. I just feel a bit— out of place. Is that weird?”

Gwaine laughs, “Not at all. And I’m not laughing at you, just. Wondering what your reaction’ll be when you meet my other friends.”

Merlin stares at Gwaine. Friends. Meet my other friends. He’s only known this guy for how long, and he’s already planning future meetings with his friends? Merlin’s surprised though when it doesn’t bother him at all. It’s strange, this warm, familiar feeling he gets when he looks at Gwaine. Like it isn’t out of the ordinary at all for this man he’s just met to be so familiar with him.

“Your other friends,” he repeats, out loud this time. “Um, well, that’s nice and all, Gwaine, but wouldn’t you like to shag first before you decide this is worth more than one go?” Merlin pauses and polishes off his drink. He hangs onto the empty tumbler; he feels so unsure of himself and his surroundings, but it gives him something to concentrate on. Something tangible that isn’t strangely familiar feelings about this incredibly hot, rich bloke that he’s only just met.

Gwaine downs his drink in one hit, grabs Merlin’s glass from him and deposits both empty tumblers on the coffee table nearby. Merlin stares at his empty hand for a minute, before Gwaine leans in and brushes his lips over Merlin’s jaw line. Merlin shivers at the barely-there touch and it’s so much softer than he was expecting, it feels like a tease, and he wants more.

Merlin gets his hands in Gwaine’s unruly curls. So soft and lush that he just wants to bury his fingers in them and play for hours. But Merlin doesn’t want that now. Right now he wants that mouth on his, wants that stubble scraping against his skin. Gwaine groans and looks up at Merlin, his eyes dark and full of want.

Merlin kisses him then. Harder than he means to, his lips pressing firmly against Gwaine’s and opening his mouth on a sigh to let Gwaine kiss Merlin back the way he wants, wet and open. Gwaine tastes of expensive alcohol, and he smells musky and smoky. Merlin thinks to himself that it’s been a very long time since he’s gotten off with anyone real, and it shows from the way he’s getting so turned on just from a kiss. He pauses and steps back a little, panting.

“Take off your clothes,” Gwaine growls, “want to see you.”

“You first.” Merlin smiles wide as Gwaine shrugs his shoulders and slowly, teasingly slowly, pulls his shirt over his head.

***

He is the most beautiful thing Merlin's ever seen when he's like this. Strong and powerful, all golden hair and blue eyes and swathed in red. His hands are strong and they grip his hips so hard that Merlin knows there will be bruises later, in the shape of those knowing fingers.

Their bodies slide together, miles of skin slick with sweat, and Merlin wants to say, "Take me, all of me, anything. I'm yours, my lord."

Long, sword-callused fingers push into him and Merlin spreads his legs, wanting and wanton and never wanting it to end.

When Merlin jerks awake, it takes him a moment to realise he is not in his own bed. His forehead is soaked with sweat and he's achingly hard. He's had this dream, or variations of it for years now. Always the same man: blond and blue-eyed. Regal.

Gwaine is fast asleep, one arm thrown over Merlin, and he can't help but wonder why, when he's in bed with such a gorgeous bloke, he's dreaming about someone else. Someone who isn't even real.

***

Merlin doesn't do boyfriends, but within a week of dinners and movie outings and lots and lots of sex, he decides that Gwaine is definitely his boyfriend, and he's quite happy with that fact.

It's bizarre really. He's never felt quite as at ease with anyone as he does with Gwaine— well, except Gwen, but she doesn't count because he's known her nearly his whole life. Gwaine— he's— well it's been a week and Merlin feels like he's known Gwaine almost as long as he has Gwen.

It's the same, oddly enough, with Gwen and Lancelot. More so, actually. In less than a month, Gwen's chucked in her own flat and has moved in with him. Everyone thinks she's mad, but Merlin understands. It's like she and Lance are soulmates or something. He'd always thought that Gwen had been waiting her entire life for the right man to come along, and Lance was clearly him.

Merlin doesn't feel like Gwaine's his soulmate by any means, and he's not moving in with him any time soon, but he's more than happy to be in a relationship with him. And that in and of itself is a remarkable change. Yes, he tells anyone who'll listen, I do have a boyfriend, actually. A sexy, gorgeous, rich boyfriend who makes me feel like I'm the luckiest bloke in the world.

Gwaine seems to think the same about Merlin, too. After they've been together a month, he tells Merlin about Hamish. He'd been in Gwaine's class at Eton, though not one of his circle of friends. Gwaine had come out of the closet for him, come out to his mum and his friends and they'd been happy for years. Or so he'd thought.

"I'd been in Cardiff for Easter," he says. They're on the settee, with Gwaine stretched out, his head resting on his hands as Merlin sketches him. He'd make a gorgeous sculpture, all hard lines and muscle and bone structure. Makes Merlin wish he'd paid more attention in sculpting class.

"Go on."

"Came home a day early, didn't I?" He looks wistful, an expression that Merlin's never seen on him before. "Bedroom fucking reeked of sex, and they were at it. Him and fucking Oswald, the wanker. I'd known him my whole life, Merlin, he was like a brother to me: him and Lance and Arthur and Leon, it'd always been the five of us."

"That's— fuck Gwaine, that's just fucking horrible. They both deserve each other, by the sounds."

He drops his sketchpad and climbs into Gwaine's lap, kisses him softly. Merlin feels like a hand is clenching his heart and squeezing when he looks down at him. He's used to Gwaine laughing and joking and flirting, and this hurt version of him is just a little heartbreaking.

"They do at that, Merlin. They do at that." Gwaine grins and wraps a leg around Merlin's holding him in place and they make out slowly, lazily, for hours.

***

I will kill you, Emrys. But first I will make you regret ever being born. I will take him from you.

Merlin wakes, breathless and panting, cold sweat clinging to his skin. He can still see the child's face, those huge eyes full of hate and anger,and it makes his skin crawl just thinking about it.

Emrys. Why does that name sound so familiar?

He paints him, this boy who spoke to him without speaking. And he can't help but feel his blood run cold when the child stares back at him from the canvas.

***

If I ever start doing things like that for you," Gwaine whispers, "please just kill me. Put me out of my misery, okay?"

They're out at dinner with Gwen and Lance and the sight he's so agitated over is Lance pulling out Gwen's chair for her to sit down in, waiting till she's seated before he sits down himself, basically acting like some sort of Victorian gentleman with the way he's treating her like a porcelain doll.

Merlin whispers, "Don't worry, I think Lance is the only man in the world who doesn't realise that chivalry is dead. As long as you're as happy sucking my cock as I am yours I think we're good."

Gwaine's hand slides up Merlin's thigh under the table and Merlin realises he probably shouldn't have mentioned cocks at all.

It is strange though, looking at Gwen and Lance, the way they are together. They've known each other for such a short time, yet he's never seen her more comfortable with any man and he's certainly never seen her allow herself to be handled with kid gloves.

What he said was true, though. Lance seems like he belongs in another age.

***

After they've been dating for four months, and with excessive hounding from Gwaine, Merlin finally relents and agrees to meet his ridiculously wealthy, horribly posh friends. It's insane that he's been putting it off for so long, really, given they're friends with Gwaine, and Gwaine is someone that Merlin finds it very easy to talk to and spend time with, and really, what harm could it do?

But Merlin still has a tendril of doubt in his stomach. There's no guarantee that he won't dislike Gwaine's mates: they could just as easily look down on him as a complete and utter pleb, throwing their upper class weight around and making him feel completely inferior. Merlin doesn't think that Gwaine would intentionally keep company with people who exhibit that sort of behaviour, but there's no way of knowing beforehand.

Regardless of the doubts he's having, Merlin decides it's time, and Gwaine invites him to a dinner party at his friend Leon’s house in the country.

Not exactly the gentle, non-threatening meeting that Merlin had in mind. Country house. Dinner party. All words that incite a sort of dread in Merlin's mind.

Gwaine tells Merlin that Leon’s parents come from old money, and when they died in a car accident, he inherited the lot including the summer house in Santorini, the apartment in New York, and the aforementioned country house in Buckinghamshire. Merlin doesn’t even own his own flat, so he finds the concept of all this wealth and worldwide property utterly surreal.

"See now I'm just not sure," he says, picking idly at a thread on the bedspread, "it'll be a bunch of you rich wankers and me. You'll probably do nothing but talk about the economy and fine wines and it'll be so boring I'll want to top myself. The phrase 'dinner party' doesn't exactly fill me with excitement, you know."

Gwaine cuts him off with a kiss. "Merlin, have you ever known me to talk about the economy? And it won't be some stuffy old dinner party; we'll probably be barbecuing sausages, or what have you. When I say 'dinner party' it generally means beer and vodka and shots and whatever horrendous concoction Arthur decides will get everyone drunk the fastest and a bit of food if you're lucky."

"Arthur?" Merlin asks, blinking.

"Oh yeah," Gwaine throws it away just like it's an afterthought, "Leon isn't really my richest friend," he reaches over to the bedside table and hands over a framed photo. It's weird, he's looked at all the photos there, but he really doesn't recall this one. Merlin guesses he must just not have paid close enough attention to it.

The photo is of Gwaine, Lance and two other boys in Polo uniforms, laughing. It's a few years old and both Gwaine and Lance look a lot less hairy, and a lot younger.

"That's Leon," he says, pointing to the gangly bloke trying to pull Gwaine up. He's attractive, in a normal-looking sort of way, and really tall. Taller than Merlin. But it isn’t him that Merlin's eyes fix on. It's the one on the other side of Lance: blond and lean, his mouth wide open and his head thrown back, laughing like his life depended on it. Merlin knows that face. Arthur Pendragon. Heir to the Pendragon fortune and title, and It Boy extraordinaire.

"You," he struggles to speak, "know Arthur Pendragon?"

Gwaine shrugs. "He's nothing special, you know. Just another spoiled rich brat who drinks too much and does too much coke and dates too many models. But I swear he's the most fun to be around and a great bloke to have on your team. You'll love him. Well, as much as anyone can love a complete ass, of course."

By the way Gwaine is grinning affectionately, Merlin guesses that he doesn't really think Arthur is an ass at all.

He keeps staring at the picture, at Arthur's full-throated laugh, the gaudy ring he wears on his left hand. He has a brief, oddly vivid image of that ring: smooth and cold against his skin, as Arthur strokes his hand over Merlin's cheek. He leans in and bites at Gwaine's jaw to distract himself, scraping teeth over stubble, but he can't unsee the image and it feels like a punch of lust to his gut.

It wouldn't be the first time his cock had shown an interest in Arthur Pendragon. Merlin, for all his insecurities about the rich, had always had this rich boy kink. He'd never acted on it, never had the opportunity to, but there was something about the twist of Arthur's arrogant mouth, and it had featured in many a fantasy when Merlin was a teenager, watching footage of him drunk and coked-up outside Runway or Tramp, hanging off whichever scantily-clad model or actress was his girlfriend du jour.

And well, yes, maybe Merlin had bought that copy of Flaunt that had that insanely raunchy photo shoot he did; lying on a picnic table wearing an Armani suit with no shirt, cigarette in between his lips, and a hand on his crotch, looking like every fantasy Merlin had ever had. But that doesn't explain why he's thinking about it right now, or why his cock has taken a sudden interest in a man he hasn't thought about in at least a year, or—

"Merlin?" Gwaine shoulder taps him, shocking him out of his train of thought. "Where did you go?"

"Sorry," Merlin kisses his neck, banishing thoughts of spoiled brats with blond hair from his mind, "Thinking about my next painting. What were you saying?"

Gwaine rolls his eyes and repeats, "Arthur. Decent bloke once you get to know him. Well. Sort of. Anyway, you'll see."

"I haven't said I'll go yet." Merlin closes his eyes as Gwaine rubs a hipbone with his thumb, then traces the crease from hipbone to cock. It's a cheap trick, trying to get Merlin to change his mind whilst distracting him like this.

It wouldn't be so bad if Lance was coming, Merlin adores him after all, but just his luck, Lance is taking Gwen to meet his parents in Manchester that weekend. Merlin's very happy for them of course, ecstatic for Gwen that things are going so well, but why couldn't it have been another damn weekend?

Gwaine sucks at the base of his neck. Bastard. He knows that's a sensitive spot for him and Merlin inhales quickly, trying to ignore Gwaine's smug grin. He's starting to run out of excuses in his own head as to why he doesn't want to go. And part of him really does want to go: to meet Gwaine's friends, to have a weekend away in the country, it's been a lifetime since Merlin spent any time in the country. There are many reasons that Merlin can think of and none of them should have anything to do with Arthur Pendragon, but Merlin's hit with a sudden need to know what Arthur looks like when he's with his friends, relaxed. When he isn't playing billionaire playboy, just eating and drinking and having a good time without the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Merlin can't understand why he suddenly cares so much about someone he's never met.

And anyway, who needs Arthur when he has his own rich, completely fit and utterly filthy boyfriend in his bed? Gwaine is a wank fantasy in his own right, and Merlin lets his eyes travel slowly over Gwaine's body, taking in every inch of skin, every perfect muscle.

Merlin pushes Gwaine back into the pillows and straddles him, pushing his wrists above his head, breathing, "Make as much noise as you want, Gwaine, I dare you," before going down on him and not thinking about Arthur Pendragon even for a second.

***

The field is dry, desolate, charred and covered in blood, and the bodies of the fallen.

Merlin cradles the man's head in his lap. He knows this man, his king, is dead. But he can't let him go. Not yet.

Merlin kisses him once. A gentle, chaste kiss, so unlike the others they've shared, and he weeps as the soldiers take his love's body away.

Merlin wakes and raises his hands to his face to rub his eyes. They come away wet.

He paints until daylight starts to stream through the windows.

***

There are, Merlin thinks, advantages to having a disgustingly rich boyfriend. It's hard not to be impressed when Gwaine shows up at Merlin's apartment in his Saab convertible, designer sunglasses framing his face and the wind blowing through his hair. It has the combined effect of looking like Derek Zoolander filming a Pantene commercial. It's a little ridiculous and incredibly ostentatious, but it makes Merlin smile.

"Nice to see you packed light," he says, eyebrow cocked, pointing to the large suitcase Gwaine has in the back. It's Louis Vuitton, and god only knows how expensive. Merlin throws his own generic duffle bag in to share its very expensive air.

"A man never knows how many pairs of shoes he's going to need," Gwaine replies and it makes Merlin laugh.

He gets in and kisses Gwaine, soft and wet before pulling back, whispering, "You are the biggest queen I have ever shagged in my life."

Gwaine blows him a kiss, and once Merlin has buckled his seatbelt, they take off. Merlin texts Gwen to let her know he's gone, and gets an enjoy :) back from her.

Merlin has, for his sniping, packed more for himself than he ever would have had he not been sharing living space with some of the richest men in the country. He even splurged and bought himself some new jeans and a couple of clean t-shirts, and he has boots and trainers for good measure. If his mother could see him, she'd probably keel over from shock. It's been a long time since she's seen him wearing anything that isn't covered in paint, but he figures that it'd be poor form not to at least make a little effort. After all, it's not like he's label bashing or trying to pretend he's something he's not. It's just— Gwaine kind of makes him want to make the effort.

"You know," Merlin shouts over the Queens Of The Stone Age blaring over the speakers, "I have actually seen the size of your penis, you didn't necessarily have to show up in a car that screams compensation."

"Ah, you love it." Gwaine flashes him one of those filthydirty and charmingasallhell smiles that are just not fucking fair. "You know Old Mrs Jones from number 12 is right now calling everyone she knows to tell them that lovely Merlin from next door's taken up with some mysterious, rich man with truly devastating good looks."

Gwaine is too bloody charming for his own good, and Merlin can't help himself from smiling fondly and shaking his head at the playful arrogance of the man as they head down the A10.

They stop in Lambeth for a bottle of water and to fill the car up. It may be a gorgeous car (which Merlin would never admit out loud) but it also guzzles petrol at a great rate.

Merlin rubs his eyes, trying not to doze off. It's been a long time since he's had a decent night's sleep, and it always seems to catch up with him mid-afternoon. The dreams are becoming more regular, and they're much more vivid than they've ever been before. Less muted and abstract. He's starting to see faces where there used to be only shadow, and he feels like if he tried hard enough, he could almost touch—

"You know," Gwaine says, interrupting his train of thought, "there's someone coming who you should talk to about your paintings."

He yawns. "Paintings?"

"Yeah." Gwaine reaches out and lays a hand on the back of Merlin's neck, pulling him in for a kiss. Gwaine never cares about propriety, or homophobic aggression, or pissing people off. That's what you get when you're privileged and built like a brick shithouse, Merlin supposes. "Morgana, Arthur's half-sister'll be there. She's very keen on art; you should let her see some of your stuff."

Merlin tries not to bristle. He knows Gwaine is only being his normal, friendly self, but Merlin wants to just throw a hissy fit, tell him he doesn't need some rich patron, especially not some society princess, and by the way he was doing fine before he met Gwaine anyhow, so what business is it of his? But that would probably be a lie, since Merlin hasn't sold a painting in months, and he wouldn't be working part-time in a bloody arts bookshop if he was doing that well.

So he bites down the inflated sense of pride that seems to be attacking him, and grits his teeth, remarking, "That'd be great."

"You know me," Gwaine says, "I know nothing about art. I can barely tell a Van Gogh from a Paint By Numbers. Morgana does, she's been treating artists as her pet projects since she was a teenager."

"But," Merlin says, looking out the window as they drive off, "I mean— you say you don't know anything about art, so how do you know I'm any good? You might be wasting your friend's time, you know."

Gwaine shrugs, "I could be, sure. But I do know what your painting means to you, that it's the most important thing in your life. That's good enough for me, Merlin. "

Merlin thinks, and not for the first time, that he really doesn't know what he did to deserve Gwaine coming into his life.

***

Leon's place has very little in common with the word 'house', and more in common with words like 'mansion' and 'palace', Merlin thinks. He spends long minutes in awe, a smile plastered on his face as he gazes around the grounds taking in the amazing gardens, the pool, and the lake.

It has its own lake. Of course.

"Gwaine, you bloody poofter!"

The only times that anyone has called Merlin a poofter, he's ended up getting a fist in the face. But this time, the affection behind the word is obvious, so Merlin doesn't flinch. Much.

The owner of the voice is tall and athletic and when he gets closer, Merlin recognises him from the Polo picture. Gwaine launches himself at Leon and the two end up on the ground, enacting some public schoolboy bonding ritual that looks like either wrestling or dry-humping.

"Ignore them," a distinctly feminine voice remarks from beside him, "it's all very manly and extremely tedious."

Merlin turns around to see an obscenely beautiful woman, dressed in your typical new Sloane Ranger uniform: black leggings, ballet flats and a boho-print shirt. If it was colder, he's certain she'd be wearing one of those Stella McCartney wrap cardies. Morgana LeFay is even more stunning in person (because Merlin's seen her in a hundred different articles, and his mum reads 'Hello!' religiously), her black hair swept into a ponytail and her porcelain-white skin completely free of make-up.

"You must be Merlin," she says, and he puts his hand out to shake hers, but instead she pulls him into a hug. "Nice to finally meet the boy who's been keeping Gwaine away from us."

Merlin grins and maybe blushes a little and that makes her clap her hands gleefully, "Oh you are precious!" She stands back with her arms folded, looking him up and down. "You look like an artist, too. I should like to see your paintings, I think."

She links arms with him, and they walk over to where Gwaine and Leon are lying, panting on the grass.

"Gwaine, he is adorable," she says, grinning wide. "I can see why you've been keeping him all to yourself, but I think we're going to be great friends and maybe I'll steal him away from you for a bit, hmmm?"

Merlin adores Morgana on sight. She's beautiful, regal and yet completely down-to-earth and welcoming. And again, he's hit with this feeling, that he knows her. But it must be because he's seen her grow up, her whole childhood on display, just as Arthur's was. The scandal that rocked the family of the 7th Duke of Westminster, Uther Pendragon, two years ago, when the young socialite was discovered to be his daughter, and not the daughter of his long-time business partner and friend Gorlois, the 18th Duke of Norfolk.

"As long as you give him back, Morgs," Leon says, breathless, and strides over to Merlin, shaking his hand vigorously, "it's great you could make it, Merlin. And don't worry; if you can survive more than a week with this Welsh git, you can certainly survive a weekend with all of us."

"It's— uh— great to meet you both," Merlin stammers. He does feel overwhelmed, and while Leon is incredibly friendly, he is also incredibly posh, and Merlin still doesn't quite know how to relate to someone who owns property all over the world and calls the incredible house they're standing in the grounds of, "a place to get away for the weekend." He isn't intimidated, it's just — so bizarre to him. And Morgana, well, he doesn't even know where to start with her: it's difficult to make smalltalk with someone who he's seen growing up in magazines and newspapers and is pretty damn near royalty.

He feels much happier when Gwaine, who is rich, but not at all posh, comes up close and puts an arm around him. He feels grounded.

"Such a shame DuLac couldn't be here, he's been a monk lately, I hear."

Gwaine laughs. "Well, you haven't met the lovely Gwen. He's ridiculously smitten. It's really quite revolting."

"I shouldn't have minded meeting her. Bit more oestrogen around here might be nice for a change."

Merlin smiles at that. It does feel a little testosterone heavy.

"Where's that good-for-nothing brother of yours?" Gwaine asks, his nose pressed into Merlin's neck. Merlin feels his stomach coil around itself.

"Half-brother, thank you very much," Morgana spits, her eyes narrowed, "and he's having a sleep. It's hard being him, you know."

"Oh yes," Merlin says before he can catch himself, "the endless feasts, the servants picking up after him, the models, all that running around the countryside dodging paparazzi. So very hard being— Oh God, ugh, I mean. Oh God, please forget I said that, I'm really sorry!"

Morgana roars with laughter, "No, you're right, Merlin, and bless you for having the bollocks to say it. Oh I am keeping you!" She pauses. "Though I would probably have used the word party, rather than feast, but I guess those are feasts of a sort, aren't they?"

Merlin's still a little shell-shocked, and he turns around to Gwaine and mouths, "Sorry."

"Merlin," Gwaine half-whispers, "she's right, you know. Arthur may be our friend, but he is probably the most privileged wanker in the world. For what it's worth, we all blame his father for that, he's really a decent bloke once you get to know him. But regardless, Morgana's already made it clear you're one of us. That means you get free reign to abuse Her Royal Highness as you see fit."

"I am," Leon remarks, "revoltingly sober. Let's get you two settled and get to the boozing, shall we?"

Merlin thinks alcohol is a fantastic idea. At least if he puts his bloody foot in his mouth then, he'll be in less cognisant company. And maybe alcohol will relax him enough to not be obvious about the fact that Arthur Pendragon makes him completely, irrationally nervous.

***

Leon's house has nine bedrooms. Nine. Bedrooms. Merlin wants to comment about why on earth a man would need a country house with nine bedrooms, but he's distracted by how insanely comfortable the bed he and Gwaine have is. It's like sleeping on pockets of air, encased in a perfectly firm outer mattress.

"I'm not moving," Merlin says, his head pushed into the mattress. Gwaine is hanging things in the wardrobe, but Merlin just stays there, looking back over one shoulder. "I mean it. You're going to have to carry me forcibly to get me to move."

"That can be arranged," Gwaine grins, and Merlin feels his stomach flip. He knows that grin.

"Nope," he flips over on the bed and leans back, elbows crossed behind his head, "there will be no sex. I'm saving myself for marriage, you know."

Gwaine nods mock-seriously, "Of course, and here was me thinking you were a complete and utter cockslut who only needs the hint of an excuse to roll over for me."

"Nooooo," Merlin teases, shaking his head, "that is my evil twin who comes out to play when we are not in a lovely house, with very posh people who don't need an excuse to disapprove of your bit of rough trade. I am very pure and very chaste and not at all interested in your washboard abs, your perfect bum, or your gorgeous, gorgeous cock."

Gwaine laughs very loudly and there's a thump on the wall.

"Oh great," Gwaine sighs. "The Princess is next door. I'd recognise that thump anywhere."

"About time you got up, your highness," he yells, "quick, before someone drinks all the booze!"

"And that someone would be you, of course." Merlin pulls Gwaine in for a kiss, biting his bottom lip when he pulls away, and trying to ignore the horrible, gnawing fear in the pit of his stomach.

"Come on." Gwaine gets up and pulls a protesting Merlin up with him. "You'll have plenty of opportunities to get acquainted with this lovely bed, later." He grabs Merlin's arse in both hands and rubs their crotches together, before grinning wickedly and backing away.

"I hate you," Merlin groans, because he is completely horny now, and it's all Gwaine's fault. He hopes he can will away the erection he's sporting, but with Gwaine acting like a raging nympho every time he comes anywhere near him, Merlin doesn't fancy his chances.

They make their way down to the kitchen, which is bigger than Merlin's kitchen, living room and bedroom put together. Morgana is preparing a batch of what looks like Cosmopolitans and there's a giant aluminium tub full of beer and ice on the bar.

"Cocktail, Merlin?"

Gwaine grabs two and knocks them back, wipes his hand across his mouth and grabs another one, then gestures to Merlin that he's going outside for a smoke.

"No manners," Merlin sighs, "but what can you do?"

"Put him out of his misery," comes a voice from behind him: deep and resonant, and Merlin knows very well who it is before he even turns around. Arthur.

"Oh, it lives!" Morgana exclaims, "Merlin, this is Arthur. He's harmless really as long as you don't get too close."

She picks up her cocktail and goes outside to join Gwaine and Leon, ignoring Arthur's two-fingered salute.

Merlin turns to face him, and feels his stomach completely drop to the floor. Arthur is, as Merlin already knew, beautiful. Incredible eyes and mouth and the kind of jaw line that screams "breeding". He looks like he's been sleeping: hair rumpled and face unshaven and Merlin can't stop staring. Seeing him on telly or in magazines is nothing like seeing him in person. He's absolutely fucking perfect.

"So. You're the painter?" Arthur asks, condescending tone in his voice. Merlin can't help but feel that "the painter" should be capitalised, like The Gardener or The Servant. What a surprise that Arthur Pendragon, future Duke of Westminster, is a complete and utter prick.

"My name," he snaps at him, reaching for a beer and uncapping it, "is Merlin."

"I know," Arthur says, softer, less arrogant. His eyes trail down Merlin's body and up again. It makes Merlin feel completely exposed. "Arthur Pendragon."

Merlin rolls his eyes, "Yeah, well. I wish I could say it was a pleasure."

He wants to apologise as soon as he says it: nerves making him defensive and snapping at Arthur like they're going into battle: lower middle class against upper class. But all Arthur does is smirk, and it makes Merlin not want to apologise at all.

"It's not then?" Arthur asks, one eyebrow cocked, mouth curled into a smirk. "So we're not going to be best friends, Merlin?"

Condescending bastard.

"Not likely," Merlin bites out, "I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass."

He's so pretty. Shame he's such an arsehole.

"— come on."

Merlin lunges for him, but he doesn't stand a chance. He’s too quick for Merlin, and he twists Merlin's arm behind his back. Merlin can feel him right there, and he hates that he's helpless under this man's hands. If he was allowed to, if it wasn't so dangerous, he could crush this beautiful, smug arsehole with just a wave of his wrist.

"I'm going to have to throw you in jail for that."

"Why? Who are you, the king?"

"No. I'm his son. Arthur."

Of course. He'd have to be the prince, wouldn't he? Because Merlin's life isn't complicated enough. Arthur holds him there; arm held tight, twisted. Merlin can feel Arthur's breath on his face, and he hates him. Hates that he can't do anything but take whatever Arthur gives him.

Merlin has to hold onto the bench so he doesn't fall over.

He's never had a waking dream like this, and it was more real than anything he's ever dreamed before. It felt like— Like he knew Arthur. Knows him. It's not possible.

Arthur clicks his fingers in front of Merlin's face, "Uh, am I boring you?"

"No more than usual," Merlin replies, but he's not really listening. He's trying to just hold on to what he thinks are probably his last threads of sanity.

"Than usual?" Arthur looks about as confused as Merlin is at having made the comment.

"Well, I've known you less than five minutes and I'm already bored," Merlin says, taking a sip of his beer, "so it's probably a sign of things to come, don't you think?"

Arthur laughs, his head thrown back. "You're really kind of a wanker, aren't you?"

"That's funny, I was about to say the same thing to you," Merlin retorts.

"Oh for— let's start again, shall we? Gwaine'd never forgive me if I didn't at least make an effort."

Arthur puts his hand out to Merlin, and when their hands touch it feels like a current through his whole body. Merlin whispers, "your highness," and it makes Arthur jump back as if he's been burned. It feels so shockingly familiar, the warmth of Arthur's skin against his, the uttering of the honorific. It doesn't feel wrong, and yet Merlin doesn't know why he said it at all.

"Did you? Was that?" Merlin doesn't actually mean to say it out loud, but he does and Arthur's skin looks ashen and pale.

"I." Arthur stammers, "that was. We'd. Uh. The others." He grabs a beer and makes for the door, wiping his brow, not looking back. Merlin rubs at the palm of his right hand, he can still feel Arthur's touch and it feels like electricity. He wishes he knew what the hell was going on. It's too strange and not strange at all.

He grabs a beer, and takes a few deep breaths, before following Arthur outside.

***

When Merlin reaches the pool, he can smell it: the gorgeous smell of freshly charred meat. Leon is standing by a huge barbecue grilling sausages, steak and chicken pieces. He announces that he's very proud he's managing to do the cooking all on his own, and that he's given Cook the night off.

Merlin still can't believe he's staying in a house that has servants. Servants, for god's sake! Why can't rich people just learn to pick up after themselves and do their own cooking? It's not like their lives are that busy and important. Look at Arthur. He's probably never worked a day in his life. He's had people do everything for him since the day he was born. It's no wonder he has such an inflated sense of self-worth.

Merlin loses count of how many beers they all drink waiting for dinner, but the more he drinks the more pliant he feels, and he can't help climbing into Gwaine's lap, mindless of how it looks to anyone else. He's not usually this comfortable and uninhibited in front of people he's just met and he figures it must be the alcohol.

He's grateful for the way the beer is making him loose and warm when Arthur starts ranting about how misunderstood the upper class is.

"All I'm saying is, I just think life would be much less complicated if one were poor." Arthur drains yet another beer, and Merlin tries very hard not to look at the long, elegant line of his throat as he tips it back to swallow. "I mean, just think how easy it would be, just having to worry about having food on the table."

Merlin coughs on his beer. "Excuse me?"

"Oh. Sorry. I forgot that we had a tortured, starving artist in our presence." Arthur is slurring terribly, and so fucking condescending that Merlin wants to hit him.

"You're being rude, Arthur," Gwaine says, lighting another cigarette and leaning back in his chair, "can we have a break from your epically stupid, oh excuse me, Uther's epically stupid rhetoric on the class system for one night?"

Arthur lights a cigarette and Merlin doesn't mean to look, but he does, and he can't help but notice the way Arthur stares back: focused and intense. It makes his skin prickle.

"Something wrong, Merlin?" He asks, taking a drag, and making smokerings, and Merlin has to look away rather than fixate on the way Arthur's mouth forms the 'O' and the way he tilts his head back, baring his throat as he exhales.

"Not at all," Merlin replies, finishing his beer in one swallow. "Just thought someone as superior as yourself wouldn't indulge in such a filthy habit."

Morgana pours them all another shot. Merlin's lost count and he's getting very, very drunk. He wants to say about a million more things to Arthur right now, but he's too busy staring at the way he wipes the back of his hand over his wet, full mouth as he finishes the shot.

Arthur's skin, his body, feel so good under Merlin's hands. Smooth and hard and it takes all of Merlin's willpower not to linger, not to enjoy. He needs to be good, needs to be skillful and focused, because if Arthur really feels that Merlin isn't doing a good job? Well. Merlin couldn't bear the thought of not being Arthur's servant, his protector.

It's funny how quickly Arthur has become the centre of Merlin's universe.

Thanks to Gwen, he gets it right this time. Hauberk, Gorget, Pauldron, all the way down to the Vambraces. Arthur gives him a nod of approval, and it makes Merlin feel elated.

He looks magnificent. Noble. Royal. Like he could take someone apart just by looking at them.

Merlin wants.

He shivers. He tries to cover it up, but it's a split-second too late, and Arthur catches Merlin.
The look that flashes across Arthur's face is dark. Possessive. Predatory. His hands grip the edge of the table, and it's lucky that the others are busy, because they miss all of it.

Merlin doesn't miss it. He knows. He really doesn't know why he does, but it seems as inevitable to him as breathing.

The man he's been seeing in his dreams for years. The one he sees every time he closes his eyes; whose hands feel perfect on his skin, whose mouth he prays he'll dream of every night.

Arthur.