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here is a brighter garden

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There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;

 

Arthur walked quickly down the stone path from his front steps to the postbox, instantly regretting not putting a jacket on as his t-shirt was soaked within seconds. He paused only long enough to get a good grip on the contents of the box and tried to shield it from the rain. A gust of wind sent a spray of water across his back just before he made it inside.

He threw his post onto the single table in the living room and peeled out of the shirt he’d just put on. Picking up the magazine at the bottom of the pile, he stared at it in complete confusion. He turned it over and over in his hands.

Morgana’s work, no doubt. Only she would find it funny to send him a Home & Garden magazine from a competing publisher as a housewarming gift.

“Ha-ha,” he said drily by way of greeting when she picked up the phone. “Your sense of humour knows no bounds, truly.”

“Thought you could need some inspiration.”

“Is this your way of telling me that you’ve run the magazine into the ground in my absence?”

“Maybe. Would that make you come back sooner?”

Arthur slid into his armchair and tucked one foot in under his thigh. “I don’t believe for a second that you don’t love being editor-in-chief. Bossing people around is your specialty.”

“Yeah, well. I don’t know.” Something clattered to the floor on Morgana’s end and she muttered under her breath.

Frowning, Arthur passed the phone to his other hand. “Things are going fine, right?”

“I mean, we’re still in publication if that’s what you’re worried about.”

For the first time, he felt guilty about leaving the magazine in Morgana’s hands. He’d assumed she’d take to it like she seemed to conquer everything else put in front of her. And she probably was, but he didn’t like how distant she sounded.

“Are you sleeping, Morgs?”

She hummed. “Not that well.”

“Morgs,” he said.

“The dreams have been worse ever since he died.” He heard her shuffling around on the other end of the line. “It’s like I’ve been subconsciously holding them back because I knew he didn’t approve. Or, I don’t know. They’re worse at any rate.”

“Worse, how?”

“They’re stronger, but they make less sense.” She paused. “You’re in them a lot. But I can’t get a good read on what they mean.”

“If they’re not outright bad, I’m sure it’s fine.”

“I can’t even get an emotional read on them. Usually, they’re so clear, but half the time I’m just dreaming colours. You’re always wrapped in green, for some reason.”

“Maybe you should talk to Gaius.”

“Oh god, I don’t want any more of his brews. It’s like having a constant hangover.”

“He might be able to help you figure out what’s up with the dreams. Just skip the brews.”

“Maybe,” she said. “Hey, tomorrow’s pub night. You’re coming.”

He groaned, and looked out at the pouring rain. “It’s far.”

“Not our fault you moved and have to walk half a day to reach the underground, you absolute bellend.”

“We’ll see.”

“Everyone’s asking about you and I’m tired of trying to convince them you haven’t lost it.”

He fiddled with a loose thread in the fabric of his armrest. “Maybe.”

“I’m giving you the look right now.”

“Oh, I can feel it from here.“

“Good. See you tomorrow, you stubborn ass.”

He dropped his head back against the chair and puffed his cheeks out. His lounge was still relatively empty. Or, well, the whole house was empty. Aside from the absolute necessities, like a bed and a chair to sit in, and a few kitchen appliances there wasn’t much to write home about. If Morgana knew he had no idea what to do with the house, she’d have a fit.

They all would, probably.

When he’d looked at the house, he hadn’t really had any grand visions for the place. It had just felt right, and the oppressive walls of his clean studio flat had driven him to the brink. At one point, all the space and the clean lines had made him feel calm, but somewhere along the line it’d changed.

He picked up the magazine and flipped it open, mindlessly flicking through the pages.

It was stupid to be the editor-in-chief for a magazine about home décor, interior design and landscaping, and not have any ideas or even much of a will to do anything about your new house.

Your gorgeous, Victorian terraced house.

His father would’ve chewed him out. Which hardly mattered since his father was stone cold in the ground.

*

When Arthur arrived at the pub, there was already a round of uncollected empties at their table and the conversation was loud. It trickled to a stop when Elena jumped from her seat and shouted his name before she rushed forwards and wrapped her arms around him in a crushing hug. He had to take a step back to steady himself before he laughed and hugged her back.

“I can’t believe you left us,” she said, poking him in the ribs as she let go. “And made Morgana the boss.”

Morgana gave her a flat look. “You’re fired.”

“You wish,” Elena said and stepped aside as Lance came up to give him a one-armed hug, slapping his back in greeting.

Arthur took the round, feeling both strange, because he hadn’t seen them in three weeks, and embarrassingly pleased at the greeting. When Gwaine pushed a pint into his hand, he didn’t even regret coming there half as much as he thought he would.

“So, what have I missed, then?” He asked, slipping back in his seat.

“Not much,” Leon said. “Mordred quit again.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “When are you going to stop hiring him back?”

“It’s impossible to find good secretaries,” Morgana said.

“It’s really not.”

“I hate that period where they don’t know anything about your routines and you have to train them, like… I don’t know. It’s like potty training dogs. It’s the puppy stage. It’s the worst.”

Gwaine winced. “Really didn’t need the mental image of you potty training Mordred.”

“And Mordred’s magic makes it easier too, especially because it’s just less complicated when you get each other on that level. Why am I even explaining myself to you morons, anyway?”

“Beats me,” said Vivian over the rim of her glass.

“All the good things about Mordred has to be cancelled out by the fact that he quits on you every two months,” Gwaine said.

She rolled her eyes. “You and your irrational Mordred hate-boner. When did he piss in your cereal, anyway?”

Waving his hand in disinterest, Gwaine shrugged. “Listen, I’m not the only one. We all know Mordred is ridiculous. I request a formal vote, who’s with me?”

The rest groaned, and several looked away, avoiding Gwaine’s eyes. Arthur was fairly certain most of them didn’t mind Mordred (he was fun drama, after all), but Gwaine seemed to dislike him to an almost absurd extent. When Gwaine was about to speak again Lance silenced him with a final, “No vote. Hard veto.”

“Oh, come o—”

“So, you’re formally challenging my decision as peace-keeper?”

Gwaine glared at him as he flopped back into his seat. “Whose stupid idea was it to give him veto rights, anyway?”

“Mine,” Arthur said and fist-bumped Lance to laughter from the others. “How’s Operation Unicorn coming?”

Elena sighed. “Ugh. Going nowhere.”

“Gwaine got too aggressive a couple of weeks ago, so now she won’t even let us bring it up.”

“If it had worked, you guys would be thanking me right now.”

“It was definitely worth a shot,” Leon said. “But it set us back at least three steps.”

Gwen worked at a competing magazine. They’d all met her at a conference four months ago, and they were basically all collectively in love with her and wanted her to break up with her current magazine and switch to theirs.

“Has anyone actually offered her money?” Arthur asked.

“Oh, you know she wouldn’t take that. She doesn’t care about the money. We need to get her another way.”

“And don’t you say anything, Lance.” Morgana gave him a threatening look.

Lance held his hands up in defeat. “Not a word.” He shared a long-suffering look with Vivian who was the only other one who hadn’t met Gwen at the conference. Neither of them quite got the obsession with stealing Gwen from Stylish Homes.

“The worst is she’s so good,” Elena said holding her hands out in frustration. “She’s the only good part of that whole mag.”

“We’ll find a way.” Morgana’s face was set.

As the night continued, it was almost like old times. Like Arthur was still their editor-in-chief. It only lasted until they started talking about the recent project and what happened in the office yesterday at lunch, and it became too clear that life went on without him at Albion Homes.

It was his fault entirely, considering he was the one who’d taken a break to renovate a whole house. Besides, the thought of going back made his hands clammy, even if he couldn’t explain why. He didn’t have any right to feel out of place.

He was still thinking about this when he turned onto his own street. It was past midnight, the streetlights lighting the way past the row of Victorian houses. A few windows were still lit and Arthur couldn’t avoid looking in as he passed. He’d always liked sneaking glances into people’s homes, seeing people going about their lives in the space that was theirs.

There was a buzz in the air and he stopped. It was barely there, probably only noticeable if one knew what it was. Arthur had always been sensitive to magic. It always seemed to reach for some small part of him that only felt right when there was magic near.

He moved towards the feeling, unthinking. It was even more tempting than usual, like a hook in his gut reeling him in. He wanted to be close to it, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to walk away from it even if he wanted to. Something in him reached out to it.

He ended up next to someone’s small garden terrace. Most of the neighbours on his street didn’t make much of the small front yard, so there was usually always an open space behind the fence. One neighbour had a bench, and he was pretty sure someone was trying to keep a tomato plant alive, but he didn’t know how well that was going.

This one didn’t seem much different, except someone had definitely been doing something in there, and the low hum of magic was everywhere. It made Arthur feel warmed from the inside out. When he was a kid, he’d thought everyone felt the same way. He’d drawn the feeling in kindergarten, using all yellow and golden colours to light him up inside.

His father had been furious.

It was the first time he’d seen his father truly, completely angry. It wouldn’t be the last time, but there was nothing that made him angrier than Arthur’s sensitivity to magic. He’d ordered teachers to keep him away from kids with magic, even though that was difficult to do in the long run. Not even Morgana having magic seemed to rile him up quite as much.

Once Gaius came around to help Morgana, Arthur had realised there was a whole world out there his father was trying to shield him from. His father’s obvious anger made him assume the connection was wrong. Maybe even dangerous. At the age of 10, he’d timidly asked Gaius if he would die because of it.

This, though. This was the most calmed he’d ever felt by magic.

Touching a hand to the fence, he stood still as soft whispers brushed up his arm. He had to tear himself away, looking back several times before he made it back home.

*

Arthur was staring at the horrid baby blue walls of his empty dining room when Morgana texted him.

dreamt about you again.

Pressing his back against the wall, he slid down onto the floor. He tucked his legs up against himself, back supported against the wall.

My condolences

Well, yeah. i’m trying to have fun, sexy dreams, not dreams infested by you

ew

The sun was out for the first time in days, slanting in through the high windows of the dining room. It made golden rectangles on the floor and glinted in the dust particles that hovered around. He really needed to do something with this, but he didn’t know what. Before he’d been given editor-in-chief, he’d spent hours decorating flats and houses with the team. Ideas seemed to come out of nowhere as soon as he saw an empty space to fill.

Maybe he was out of practice.

I walked past some magic on my way back from the pub the other day

what?? don’t tell me you interacted with it

Arthur looked up and bit his lip. Apparently, his hesitant silence was answer enough.

Arthur, are you kidding me

It felt really soothing. It wasn’t bad.

you can’t know that. could’ve been a trap, you know

I’m really sure it wasn’t

so what was it, then?

Don’t know, honestly.

maybe don’t interact with strange magic in the future, ok

fine, ma’am

you’re the worst. B Y E

Arthur smiled into the empty room and dropped his phone onto the floor.

This was the third room he’d stared at today, willing something to come to him. And arguably, this room and the lounge were the ones he was most desperate to start with. The wall colour was dreadful in here, and the wallpaper and the carpet in the lounge were hideous, but both rooms could look fantastic with their large windows giving a well of natural light.

He just had absolutely no idea what to do with them, and the longer he thought about it, the more frustrated he got.

He left the house and took the shortcut across the park nearby to find his favourite street. The park itself was a small rectangle with entries at each corner, winding paths and towering trees, and a gazebo in the middle. He passed three people walking their dogs and was outrun by a couple of joggers before he made it to the other side. His favourite street looked not unlike his own, but there was just something about it. Every house had charming little gardens outside. Plants that climbed along columns, trees that seemed almost an unnatural shade of green, flowers that smelled unlike anything he’d ever smelled before.

It wasn’t until he was halfway down the street that he recognised the feeling. He slowed his step, pausing at a bright purple flower that seemed to glow in the sunlight and pressed a petal softly between his fingers. The feeling was faint, but it was the same magic. The same someone or something had made these.

He took the long way back, circling around to pass his neighbour’s garden again. Where there had been nothing, plants were stretching upwards, little flower buds popping up here and there. There was even a sound of trickling water that seemed to have no source. The magic was much stronger here. Fresher and more overwhelming, rather than a faded, pleasant hum.

Tearing himself away from the budding garden once again, he made it back to his house, taking the stairs two steps at a time. Inside his tired dining room, he found his empty sketchbook, sat down cross-legged on the floor and started drawing.

*

“Hello, dear.” An older woman with a round, friendly face smiled at him. She carried a shopping bag in each hand and stopped to put them down in front of the gate. “May I help you?”

Arthur felt his cheeks go hot. Of course he’d be caught creeping outside a neighbour’s house. He brushed his palms against his jeans as discreetly as possible.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m Arthur. I live in number 16.”

“Oh, yes, that did sell not long ago, didn’t it? How have you been settling in?” She pushed the gate open. “I’m Ruth. Very nice to meet you.”

Her handshake was surprisingly firm.

“It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it.” He paused. “I was just admiring your garden.”

Ruth lit up. “Isn’t it just marvellous? I can’t believe how well it’s coming along.” She bent down to pick up the bags and Arthur stepped closer.

“Can I help you with those?”

“Thank you, dear.” Ruth led him towards her front door, massaging her hands lightly as she went. A shiver of magic ran down Arthur’s back as he passed a twining branch of ivy.

Inside was a cosy house with several variations of floral wallpaper. It was surprisingly nice, even as different parts of it clashed. Every room had bits and bobs that seemed to have accumulated over decades: Christmas gifts, souvenirs, second hand shop finds, impulse bought trinkets. Arthur liked it.

“Let me get you a cuppa for your trouble,” Ruth said as he left the bags on her kitchen counter per instructions.

Arthur sat down at the small kitchen table beneath the window and watched as she moved about the kitchen. She hummed to herself for a little while before she asked him about his house, how he liked the neighbourhood, what his job was. In turn, Ruth explained that she had lived here over 40 years, ever since she and her husband had been newlyweds. Now she was a widow, wondering if the house was too large for her, but still not willing to leave it just yet. She made the best cup of tea Arthur’d been given in a long time.

“You’d love Merlin.”

“Mmm?” Arthur said into his tea.

“The boy who did my garden.” She paused, teacup almost to her lips. “Does most of the gardens around here these days. Haven’t seen anyone with green magic like that in years. It’s quite extraordinary. His mother works with my friend. She’s so proud of him, naturally. Though it’s a pity he doesn’t get enough work to make a living at the moment.”

“Does he really not?”

“He seems to be a well-kept secret. He’s done many of the streets around here, and they’re all so pleasant. I had to have him come in and do mine. It makes such a difference, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely.” Arthur drank the last of his tea. “Could we force the whole street?”

Ruth laughed. “Oh, I wish.” She winked at him. “Maybe if you help me start the trend.”

*

“Hello! Hold on a moment, will y—oh, for—“ A loud clatter drowned out the voice at the other end. Arthur held his phone at a distance, looking at it as if it could give him any answers.

He fumbled for the note with the number written in Ruth’s neat handwriting. He could’ve gotten the number wrong, though he wasn’t sure. Maybe the 7 was supposed to be a 1, or his fat thumb had missed a button.

A series of swear words followed another loud clatter. The person at the other end breathed heavily into his ear.

“Right. Sorry. What was I saying? Or you saying? Were we saying anything?”

“Uhm.” Arthur fought the urge to hang up. “Is this Merlin?”

“Yes, absolutely. I should probably start introducing myself when I pick up, shouldn’t I?”

“Only if you want people to not hang up on you when you’re… falling down the stairs?”

Merlin laughed. It was a bright, bubbly sound that came and left so fast it seemed punched out of him.

“Breaking a window,” Arthur suggested. “Alien invasion?”

“Cat pushed over all my boss’ equipment.” Merlin muttered something Arthur didn’t catch, followed by another loud clang. “Kilgharrah, I swear I will murder you. One day. When you’re not looking.”

“Maybe this is a bad time?”

“No, no, no. Not gonna let him take charge. I’m here. Full, undivided attention.”

Arthur couldn’t help but smile. “Well, it’s about your gardening. I got your number from Ruth. I just bought a house on her street and I was told you did her garden, and others that I really like. I was wondering whether you’d have time to work on my front garden?”

“Oh!” Merlin’s voice brightened. “I definitely have time on the weekend, if that works for you?”

“That works perfectly.”

“When are you free? I can come over on Friday maybe, and we can talk about what you want.”

“I’m free all Friday so whenever works for you.”

“I finish work at 7, so 8?”

“Yeah, perfect. I’ll text you my address.”

*

To say that he expected Morgana to be on his doorstep Thursday at 11 AM would be a lie. They usually talked on the phone or texted these days since he’d given her all the responsibility at the magazine, in addition to the fact that he was currently a recluse.

“Hey, stranger,” she said and pushed past him into the house. “Good to see you. I’d almost forgotten what your face looks like.”

“I’ll send you a daily picture from now on.”

Morgana slid into the single arm chair and studied him, her elbows resting on the armrests. “The magazine’s good, thanks for asking. I’m fine. Your friends are also good, I’ll tell them you said hi, even though I don’t necessarily like to lie.”

“Hi.”

She rolled her eyes. “How are you?”

He shrugged and smiled. “You know.”

“I don’t. That’s why I asked.”

Arthur fought the urge to push her out the door. “I’m—I, fine.” Jesus Christ. It shouldn’t be that hard to say the words ‘I’m fine’. The way Morgana’s expression softened made him want to die.

“Look, Arthur. I’m here about the dreams.” She looked away for a moment. “I know it’s weird, but I keep dreaming about you and I can’t figure out what it means. And I’m worried.”

Arthur wanted to say it didn’t worry him, that it was fine. But he also knew that Morgana’s dreams were nothing to trifle with. She’d had dreams about Uther before he died.

“I don’t know what to do about it if they’re not telling you anything. You know, what can I do?”

“I know, I—“ She rubbed her temple. “I wish I could get a better read. But it worries me that… They feel very strong. Very intense. But your presence feels strange, and I can’t put my finger on what it is.”

“I’ll be careful.”

She gave him a look. “How can you be careful when you don’t know what it is?”

Arthur threw his arms out. “What do you want me to do?”

“Did you leave the strange magic alone?”

It was immediately apparent that Arthur hadn’t been able to keep the guilt off his face, as Morgana threw her head back with a strangled sound.

“Arthur, come on.”

“It’s fine,” he snapped. “It was just a garden. He does magical gardens. It’s nothing bad.”

“You don’t know that.”

“It feels… good. Soothing.”

“Dangerous things can hide in beauty.”

Shrugging, Arthur looked down at the floor. He didn’t know how to explain that it just felt right. The gardens just made him feel somewhat OK, which was a novel feeling.

“I called him. He’s doing my front garden.”

Morgana rested her forehead against her hand, looking defeated. “When he’s been here, you’ll call me. I’ll come here, and if it’s all wrong, you can’t call him again.”

Taking a deep breath, Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. “Fine.”

“When’s he coming?”

“Monday,” Arthur lied.

“Then I’ll be here Monday night after work.”

“Well, you know where I’ll be.”

*

On his doorstep stood a young guy clutching a wooden box, looking down at Arthur’s little garden patch with intense focus. A bright smile lit up his face as he turned to find Arthur in the doorway.

“Arthur?”

“Yeah, Arthur Pendragon.” Arthur held his arm out and realised too late that Merlin’s arms were both occupied holding a giant box. He dropped his arm awkwardly.

Merlin laughed and put the box down before he came forward and shook Arthur’s hand. “Merlin. Nice to meet you!”

“Would you like to come in? I have tea.”

“Bless you.”

For the first time, Arthur felt truly self-conscious about how empty the house was. Merlin didn’t comment on anything as Arthur led him into the kitchen where there was, if possible, even less furniture. In fact, there was nothing.

“Sorry,” Arthur said. “There’s not really a lot here yet.”

“Hey, I still have boxes left over from when I moved in a year ago.”

“But you probably have chairs to sit on.”

Arthur put the kettle on as Merlin leaned against the counter nearby. He was close enough for Arthur to sneak glances his way. Merlin was about as tall as Arthur, lean and long-limbed, but with sturdy shoulders. He had sharply cut cheekbones and a strong jawline and startlingly blue eyes. Merlin was all contrast. Strong and lithe at the same time; a sharp face but with a disarming expressiveness that softened its angles; laugh lines at the corner of his eyes that softened the piercing quality of them.

“When did you move in?” Merlin asked.

“Couple of months ago.”

If Merlin was surprised that it was still this empty, he didn’t comment on it. He pushed himself up to sit on the counter, watching Arthur’s desperate search for mugs.

“I’ve been really jealous of people who can buy one of these. It’s secretly why I’ve wormed my way into doing the gardens here.” Merlin laughed. “So I can just quietly take over and maybe persuade someone to let me move in.”

“Where do you live now?”

“With my uncle, above his shop. Working at his shop is my day job and the gardening is my project on the side. Neither of them really pay well enough to buy anything of my own or anything.”

“You should be able to live from the gardening.”

Before Merlin could say anything, Arthur added quickly, “I just mean that more people should know about you. And when they do, you should be able to make a living from it.”

Merlin shrugged awkwardly. “Yeah, well. I appreciate that, but you’re unfortunately the one and only person who seems to think that.”

“Sometimes one person is all you need.” Arthur grinned and handed him his mug of tea. “Milk?”

“Yes, please.” He held out his mug. “I’m alright keeping it as a little side business as well. I just enjoy doing it, so I don’t necessarily need it to pay the bills.”

“Do you want it to?”

“Yeah, I guess it would be nice.” Merlin closed both hands around his mug. He took a sip and smacked his lips. “This is very good tea.”

“I’ve worked hard to hone the perfect cuppa.”

“Time well spent, I’d say.” Merlin put the mug down and reached for the notepad he’d brought in. “So, tell me what you want for the garden.”

“I’m open to what you think the space should be. I realise that might be the last thing you want to hear.”

“Any water features?”

“I don’t need that. Lights would be nice, though.”

“Any particular plants or flowers or colours?”

“Am I really difficult if I say that I want you to do what you think works?”

Merlin smiled. “Not by my definition of difficult.”

“I just want it to be…” Arthur paused. “Relaxing.”

Chewing at the top of his pen, Merlin nodded absent-mindedly. He began making notes and little illustrations in his notebook seemingly disappearing into his own head. Arthur wasn’t sure whether to stay in the kitchen or leave Merlin to his own devices. He ended up watching Merlin sip his tea while never taking his eyes off the notes. His hair was long enough to fall into his eyes as he bent forwards, and he chewed absently on his bottom lip from time to time.

Arthur had to quickly avert his eyes when Merlin suddenly lifted his head and closed his book. “I’ll get started right now doing some of the basics, then I’ll be back tomorrow and Sunday to finish it up. It’ll probably take a week or so before it takes shape.”

He threw back the last of his tea and then disappeared out towards the front of the house.

“I’ll be in the living room,” Arthur called after him. “If you need anything.”

Arthur hovered in the kitchen for a moment before he sat down in his single chair and opened his notebook. It was a mess of disjointed notes and ideas he wasn’t sure he liked. They were too much like the magazine, but this was his house, and he just couldn’t strike that balance.

Merlin had left the front door open, which meant Arthur could watch him working outside. He allowed himself to sink back into the chair as he flicked through his notes.

Minutes later, he fell asleep, and when he woke, Merlin was gone and the door was closed.

*

Arthur stood in kitchen doorway as the evening light slanted in through the tall windows. Their used coffee mugs were on the counter in the otherwise bare kitchen. Arthur rested his forearm against the doorjamb, peering around. An image slowly formed in his mind of green plants, blue kitchen cabinets, a wooden table and chairs for four near the window with a hanging light above it. Instead of sitting on the counter, he and Merlin were having coffee by the table, looking out into the backyard. Arthur looked down into his notebook and ripped out the page of the sleek kitchen with the breakfast bar.

*

“I’m so sorry,” Arthur said when he opened the door on Saturday. “I have no idea what came over me.”

Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Hi, Arthur. Err, what are you sorry about, exactly?”

“Falling asleep yesterday. It was extremely rude. I can only apologise.”

“Oh stop. You probably needed it, and it was in no way rude. I mean, we’re in your house.”

Arthur was mortified regardless. He’d probably been snoring. And drooling. And a whole host of other embarrassing things.

“I’ve made lunch today to apologise. Just let me know whenever you need a break.”

“You made lunch? You don’t even have kitchen utensils.”

“I went out shopping for kitchen utensils, which I hope says a lot about how sorry I am.”

“Please stop being sorry for falling asleep in your own home,” Merlin said. “Relax.”

Arthur rubbed at the back of his neck. “Let me know when you want to eat.”

“I will,” Merlin said. “Thank you.” When he turned, ready to get back to work, he mouthed, “Relax.”

In the kitchen, Arthur spent the morning taking down the cabinets and ordered a truck to pick them up. It left the room bare aside from his second-hand fridge and the box he’d dumped his new kitchen utensils into.

He began sanding the walls, evening out the surface of the old walls. A calm descended on him as he methodically scrubbed, his thoughts skipping from one thing to the next without truly dwelling anywhere. His arm was already aching dully by the time he’d finished the first wall and Merlin knocked.

Arthur turned and saw him leaning against the doorjamb. Merlin’s hair was standing up in the front, and his skin was flushed, but the most remarkable were his eyes: they seemed to have gone from bright blue to a faint gold.

“You said something about lunch,” Merlin said.

Arthur stepped towards the fridge and opened the door, resting his weight against it.

“Where do you want to eat? I can offer you the floor of the dining room? Or the single chair in the lounge.”

Merlin smiled, his eyes crinkling. “Let’s eat outside. It’s surprisingly nice.”

They sat on Arthur’s front steps with the plate of egg mayo sandwiches between them.The magic was thick in the air around them, like honey trickling over Arthur’s skin. He’d never felt anything like it. It was loosening every muscle he hadn’t realised was clenched tightly, relaxing them to the point where Arthur struggled to not lay back and just sink into the stone below.

“It’s weird,” Merlin said. “London didn’t really turn out the way I expected it to. I left Wales because I just always felt like there had to be something more out there. A community of people like me, you know? But London is big, and not in the way I thought before I left.”

“How did you picture it?”

“Like no matter what kind of person you are there are people there for you. And there probably is, but I always pictured it like… these people were just waiting for you, when the reality is that finding them is when you really realise how big London is.”

“You found them yet?”

“Not really.” Merlin’s eyes followed a bird as it took off from the fence across the road. “I thought I did, at first, but it wasn’t what I needed. So what about you? Did you move here with big dreams of finding your people?”

“Grew up here,” Arthur said. “I think it’s still difficult to find out where you feel at home, regardless.”

He took a bite of his sandwich, tasting the magic with it. It tasted of summer fruits and freshly cut grass.

“I think I’ve found my people,” he said, and was surprised to feel himself smile. “I haven’t been very good to them lately, though.” Merlin watched him, his attention focused. Rarely had Arthur been in a conversation where he felt so intensely listened to.

“My father died a few months ago,” he found himself saying. “I’ve been…”

His voice trailed off into silence. What had he been doing? His grief was complicated. As complicated as his relationship with Uther had been in life. It was hard to say he’d been grieving or wallowing or remembering. He hadn’t really done any of that, or maybe he’d done all of it.

“Processing,” Merlin said.

“Yes.” The moment he said it, he knew it was true. It was the word he’d been looking for.

He was processing.

His skin broke out in goosebumps when Merlin put a hand on his back. Some unidentifiable feeling bloomed in his stomach, and he looked up, squinting against the sun. With the magic surrounding him and the lingering feeling of Merlin’s hand, he felt unlike himself and entirely himself at the same time.

They went back to their work, Merlin in the garden and Arthur in the kitchen. They didn’t take any more breaks, but Merlin’s presence outside was still company.

Merlin left at 6 with a wide smile and an insistence that he’d bring the lunch tomorrow.

**

“This is definitely not what I expected,” Merlin said, and Arthur whirled around, the words I bless the rains down in Africa dying on his lips.

Merlin was laughing, his eyes lit up with mirth. Arthur looked down at his paint-splattered white t-shirt and smiled sheepishly as Africa continued to blast into the kitchen. He reached over and turned down the volume, putting his paint roller down as he went.

“Hi. I didn’t hear you.” Arthur rubbed at the back of his neck, suddenly aware that his forearm was full of paint.

“Over that performance? Who would?”

Arthur rolled his eyes and pushed Merlin back out into the lounge. “Alright.”

“Do you take requests?”

“Do you take requests to shut up?”

“Do Free Fallin’.”

Arthur pushed Merlin out the door and said, “Actually, I was in a band in college and we always closed with Free Fallin’” before closing the door in Merlin’s face.

“No!” Merlin’s barely audible voice said through the door. “You were not.”

Unable to stay serious any longer, Arthur laughed when Merlin yanked the door open again. “I was.”

“Don’t tell me, you were definitely lead vocalist.”

Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. “Lead guitarist.”

“But your hair is perfect for that lean against the microphone with your sexy, dishevelled look.”

“You should see Gwaine. And he can actually sing, although I think there were mostly other reasons Gwaine wanted lead vocal.”

Merlin scoffed and threw his hands up. “Of course you were in a band. Look at you! I bet you were swimming in girls.”

“Oh, for sure, but that was unfortunately also the point where I had my big Gay Panic.” Arthur tried to look casual, his shoulder propped up against the wall. “Worst timing, actually.”

Merlin’s eyes drifted down to his chest for a brief moment before meeting his again, his face neutral. “Gay blokes also like hot guys in bands.”

“It’s the true tragedy of my life. Trying to be straight and failing at it while at my absolute peak.”

Shaking his head sadly, Merlin said, “So much wasted youth” before cracking up again.

*

“Hey,” Merlin said, several hours later. “Do you want a break?”

Arthur’s shoulders were aching and he rolled them as he stepped back from the wall. “Yeah, perfect timing.”

The tinge of gold was back in Merlin’s eyes and his skin was flushed—glowing. “Would you show me around the house?”

“Absolutely.” Arthur put his roller down and followed Merlin into the lounge. “It’s very empty, but I’ll give you the tour.”

“It’s not empty,” Merlin said, turning to him as he walked sideways up the stairs to the next floor. “It has potential. It’s an unchartered territory. A book waiting to be read.”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“A symphony not yet written.” Merlin threw his arm out with an exaggerated flourish.

“Alright, Mozart,” Arthur said, laughter barely contained.

Arthur led Merlin from room to room. He surprised himself by telling Merlin some of the plans he’d barely made, and Merlin took in every empty room with genuine interest. He even added his own ideas (“This is the perfect reading nook, Arthur. You can’t have a Victorian house without a library!”). The rooms seemed to take shape as they moved through them, discussing details Arthur didn’t even know he’d thought about yet.

They took their lunch in what would eventually be the dining room, sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing each other. Merlin was backlit by the midday sun spilling in through the windows.

“Have you always had magic?” Arthur asked and took a sip from his tea.

Merlin nodded. “My mum had her work cut out for her trying to reign me in as a kid.” He smiled crookedly. “She gave up, eventually. Our garden at home is a wild nest of plants. You could barely see the house at one point.”

“You’ve always had your magic tied to plants?”

“I’ve learned other types of magic, but the gardening is what comes innately to me. To the point where I couldn’t control it and the garden became a maze of overgrown shrubbery.”

Arthur smiled into his cup. “Your poor mum.”

“She’s a saint.” Merlin laughed. “I did do a fair bit to it before I left home. Cleaned it up and got rid of the most tangled and overgrown bits. The worst is my mum likes it, so she wouldn’t even allow me to fix as much as I wanted to.”

Arthur stretched one leg out, his calf grazing Merlin’s knee.

“My dad hated magic.” He ducked his head, but not fast enough to miss Merlin’s smile dimming. “I’ve always been able to feel it. I can feel it in me, on my skin, affecting my mood. He’s always tried to keep me away from it. I used to think he was protecting me, but eventually I realised he just hated it.”

“How does it feel?”

Arthur looked up, confused. “What?”

“Magic.”

He paused, running a hand through his hair. “Warm. If that makes any sense at all. But magic feels different. Sometimes, it’s like it doesn’t belong. It’s uncomfortable. But my sister’s feels like an ocean breeze.” He leaned back with his palms against the floor. “The reason I called you about the garden is that yours makes me feel relaxed.”

Merlin’s face lit up. “Oh good. What if it smelled like… I don’t know. Rotten eggs? Can you imagine.”

“I’d rather not.”

*

Sunday evening, Arthur was done painting the kitchen, and Merlin had finished up the garden. He lingered on the doorstep for a moment before he said goodbye.

The house was quiet.

*

Morgana stood in the middle of the garden, her arms crossed over her chest. Around her, plants were stirring, buds springing out of nothing, and the air was heavy with the rich energy of Merlin’s magic.

“You lied to me.”

She looked up at him where he stood at the top of the stairs in his paint-splattered jeans.

“I’m sorry, I misunderstood him. I thought he was going to be here today, but he came on Friday.”

She gave him a look of murder. “Stop lying.”

“Alright.” He threw his hands up. “I didn’t want you to interfere.”

“Instead, you’re just letting random magic users into your home even though I’ve warned you so many t—”

“Morgana?”

She’d gone pale as the dead, her eyes glazing over. He rushed down the stairs to hold her as she swayed, trying to steady herself on her stilettos. He tried to get her to sit down on his steps, but she wouldn’t yield. Instead, he just held her upright until the moment passed and she blinked, her eyes coming into focus again.

“Are you alright?” he said, brushing his hand across her forehead and over her hair.

She looked at him dazedly for a few moments and then broke into a wild smile. “Perfect.”

He furrowed his brows in confusion as she pushed gently out of his grip and beamed at him.

“Carry on!” she said, backing up on slightly wobbly legs.

Arthur stared at her as she walked out onto the street outside his house. “What do you mean ‘carry on’?”

She turned to look at him as she pushed the straps of her bag up on her shoulder. Instead of replying, she just smiled at him, her eyes bright and warm.

*

“It’s Heathers.” Elena jabbed her fingers on the paper Morgana was writing on and repeated Heathers three times when Morgana didn’t show any signs of writing it down.

“No, it can’t be, can it?”

“Yes, it is,” Elena said and tried to grab the paper from Morgana’s hands.

“Hey, hey, hey.” Morgana swatted her hands away. “I’m your boss!”

“You’re not my boss in the pub.”

“I’m your boss everywhere.”

“Technically, Arthur—”

“If you finish that sentence, Elena, I will—”

“You guys realise the quiz guy is staring at us,” Gwaine said. Morgana and Elena looked up, sheepish, and Elena started laughing into her hand as Morgana finally scribbled the answer down.

“I clearly chose the wrong team.” Arthur stared longingly over at the other table where Leon, Lance, Vivian and Gwen were co-operating harmoniously.

“Pft.” Elena waved her hand at him. “You do not know of which you speak.”

“Were you like this before I left or did Morgana ruin you?”

“Hey, Morgana, I take back what I said, you’re definitely my boss.”

Morgana smiled sweetly at her and petted her hand.

“She was always like this,” Gwaine said and hid his grin behind his glass as Elena glared at him.

Propping himself up on his elbow, Arthur watched them bicker for a moment, and peered over at the other team huddled together over their paper. “Hey guys, I think we’re missing the question.”

Elena whipped around. “Ah, fiddlesticks.”

Gwaine and Arthur laughed as their eyes met.

They somehow made it to the end of the round without breaking out into fisticuffs. Gwaine went to get them another round of beer and Elena bounded over to Gwen like an excited puppy.

“So, Gwen’s here,” Arthur said.

“Elena finally wore her down.”

“Lance seems happy about it.”

Morgana hummed as they shared a look, eyebrows raised.

When Gwaine returned, the conversation settled into work-talk, and Arthur kept watching Morgana. She didn’t look nearly as tired as she had in the past few months. Maybe things were settling in at work, or maybe time was just slowly righting the spiral that had been their lives ever since the funeral. Whatever it was, she looked different.

When a pair of arms circled his neck from behind he looked up into Elena’s face. She smiled down at him and moved her hands to his shoulders, resting them there.

“You know we don’t need your house to be perfect to come for a housewarming, right?” She dug her thumb into his tense muscles. “We’d sit on the floor and drink champagne. Bring our own glasses.”

Arthur couldn’t quite find the words to answer, but Elena didn’t seem to want one. When the next round began she slid back into her seat, ready to pounce. After the quizmaster asked the first question, Arthur looked around at his friends bickering and smiled to himself.

*

There was rain in the air when Arthur turned onto his street on his way home from spectacularly losing the pub quiz. The houses on either side were lit up inside, one neighbour moving about with a mug in her hand near the window. He passed Ruth’s house and lingered by her window for a moment.

He slowed his steps as he reached his house. Already from afar, he could tell that the garden had changed since he left.

Green plants filled the space, making it feel like a mature and seasoned garden. Ivy climbed up the columns by his door, and flowers, impossibly blue, lined the stone path leading to the stairs. To the right, a bench stood under the window, cocooned in a nest of plants and lights that needed no electricity.

Arthur stepped onto the stone path, letting the magic trickle over him as he moved. He sat down onto the bench, more comfortable than it should have been, and he took a deep breath. The garden seemed to embrace him in its warm, soft comfort. Arthur couldn’t even hear noise from the street. Nothing except faint rustling in the leaves around him.

*

“’Ello!”

Arthur smiled at the sound of something crashing in the background. “Still not introducing yourself, I hear.”

“Arthur!” Merlin’s voice was bright. “Let me just… Oh. Let me get away from the chaos for a moment.”

“Are you busy?”

“Not more than usual,” Merlin said. “I’ll head upstairs to the loft, give me a second.”

Arthur could hear stairs creaking on the other end and then Merlin said, “alright, here we go. How’s the garden?”

“It’s really great, Merlin. Absolutely perfect.”

“I’m glad.” It sounded like he was smiling. “I was nervous you wouldn’t like it, but since I didn’t hear anything right away I assumed it was alright.”

“There’s no way I couldn’t like it.”

“Well, you can’t know that.”

“Yes, I can.”

Merlin hummed. It was quiet for a moment and then they both started speaking at the same time, sending them both into a fit of laughter.

“You go first,” Merlin said. “Please.”

“Right. I never told you this, but normally I work for Albion Homes. I’m the editor-in-chief. Right now I’m on leave because of my father, but my sister is the one running the operation. I want someone to interview you. Give you a spotlight in the magazine. It’d give you the recognition you deserve.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, and then it became quiet at the other end. “Yeah, great. That’s, yeah. Great. Wow.”

Arthur hesitated. “Do you want to?”

“Yeah, of course. It’s a huge opportunity. I’d be stupid to say no!”

“I didn’t mean to keep it from you. What I do, I mean.”

“No, of course, that’s… it’s fine.”

“I’ll have Morgana call you and set it up with one of our teams? They can do a feature of some of your favourites, maybe.”

“Yeah, perfect. Great!” A moment of silence followed. “Have a good day, Arthur. Thanks.”

Arthur looked at his phone, confused. That went nothing like he expected it to go, and he didn’t know why. He chewed on his bottom lip, looking out the window.

He called Morgana right away and told her about the interview.

It wasn’t until he was seconds away from sleep that he realised he never found out what Merlin had wanted to say.

*

Arthur worked on the kitchen from morning to night in the days that followed, and nothing else occupied his head but which sink would look better with his countertops and whether he should keep or remove the open shelving.

When all except buying kitchenware was done, he moved on to the lounge.

*

Arthur found Morgana lingering in his garden as he opened his front door. She was moving in a slow circle, taking it in. For a moment, she didn’t even notice him.

“What do you think?” he asked, and she turned to him, a smile spreading across her face.

“It’s lovely.”

“No lectures about strange magic?”

“Oh, no.” She smiled wider. “Going to invite me in?”

“Absolutely, but the lounge is a bit of a mess right now. Maybe we can sit in the kitchen?”

Arthur led her past the mess and into the bright, newly renovated kitchen and watched as Morgana’s eyes went wide. He felt unbearably smug as he watched her struggle to keep her surprise in check.

She took in the wooden table by the patio-doors onto the back garden and the dusky blue kitchen cabinets, the open shelving and the white tiles.

“I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of saying I’m speechless,” she said and moved to sit at the kitchen table. “So why don’t you give me a cup of tea instead?”

He rolled his eyes, found his new, olive coloured kettle and put it on.

“Look,” she said, when he sat down across from her. “The interview will go out in the next edition, but I thought maybe you’d like to see it first.”

She pushed the pages across the table and Arthur pulled them close and leaned in.

“There’s the interview and here are the pictures we’re using. One of him, and a few of his favourite projects.”

Elena had done the interview, which made Arthur happy because she was great. It started with Merlin’s childhood in Wales, his talent for plants, his mother’s garden, and then it circled to his projects, how it had started and how it spread through word of mouth. Throughout, Elena slipped in little unexpected bits and pieces, fleshing out the portrait of Merlin into something beyond just the expected. The familiar warmth and liveliness he’d come to associate with Merlin were there on the page.

“Gwen took the pictures,” Morgana said.

“Wow, you finally convinced her?”

“Oh, you know.” Morgana grinned. “Nobody considered that all we needed all along was to introduce her to Lance.”

Arthur flicked through the pictures and paused as he found one of Merlin sitting on a bench. He was looking to the side, his eyes dancing with laughter, the camera catching both the stark angles of his handsome face and the unbearable liveliness in his eyes.

“That’s my bench,” Arthur said.

“He said this was his favourite project.”

Arthur looked up at that, meeting Morgana’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what to say.

“From what Merlin told me, he hasn’t talked to you in a while. Please don’t tell me you called him and only asked him to do the interview”

“Of course I did,” Arthur said, and Morgana groaned. “What else should I do?”

“Christ alive.” She placed her hands against her forehead. “Why don’t you think about it a bit more?”

He was annoyed at how cryptic she was, but that was nothing new. She always spoke in riddles. He got up to pour them a cup of tea, taking his time, and when he set the cup in front of her, he said, “Why don’t you just tell me things plainly for once?”

Taking a sip of tea, Morgana said nothing. Then she took his hands into hers and looked into his eyes.

“I’ve been dreaming of you. Because of what happened with Uther, I thought it was bad. I dreamt of you wrapped in green, all the time. I couldn’t sleep because I would worry, over and over, about what it could possibly mean. I tried to find out what it was trying to tell me so that I could save you.” She smiled. “But it’s not bad. You, wrapped in green. The dreams, they’re not bad omens.”

 

*

Arthur walked from his nearly finished kitchen, to his mess of a lounge, and into all his empty rooms. He had plans for all of them.

In the library, he would have a chair that Merlin could curl up into on rainy afternoons.

In the lounge, they would drink cups of steaming cocoa in front of the fireplace.

In the bedroom, Merlin would lean back against his chest, Arthur’s lips at his neck, in the middle of the large bed.

*

“’lo,” Merlin said, as someone in the background yelled his name, and his voice was muffled as he said, “Just wait a second, I’m on a call!”

“Hello, you,” Arthur said. He was sitting on the bench, one foot tucked under the other as the sun warmed his face.

“Arthur! My fairy godmother.”

“Is that what I’ve been promoted to?”

“I’ve suspected my carriage is about to turn into a pumpkin any minute now, but it doesn’t seem to happen.”

“The interview is great,” Arthur said. “Soon you’ll be too busy to make jokes.”

“I’ll never be too busy to make jokes.”

“What a blessing.”

Merlin laughed, making Arthur smile softly. “To what do I owe the honour?”

“I was actually thinking I’d book you before you got too famous and no longer had time for me. You know, I have a whole garden out back that I’d love for you to do.”

“Absolutely. I’m free this weekend, so I can get started then if you’re ready.”

“I am. Friday?”

“Right after work.”

“See you then.”

*

Merlin stood in the middle of Arthur’s garden, his hands moving in slow patterns, when Arthur opened the door. Ribbons of magic waved through the air around them and Arthur’s fingers twitched in an effort to stop himself from reaching out to run his hands through it.

“Hi,” Arthur said, his stomach fluttering nervously.

Merlin looked up. “Hey.” His eyes had a faint trim of gold around the edge that bled into the blue. “Just added a few flourishes here and there.”

A faint smell of summer fields settled over the garden.

“Impressive,” Arthur said.

“Oh, believe me. It’s nothing.”

“You should accept compliments more often.”

Merlin grinned as he stepped up the stone path. “My uncle would disagree. He says my ego is way too large as it is.”

“So, I—” Arthur said at the same time as Merlin said, “I never—”

They both stopped and Arthur gave an awkward laugh.

“I never thanked you properly for the interview,” Merlin said. “It’s a massive opportunity for me, and I’m grateful for it.”

Arthur opened the door and stepped aside to let Merlin through. “You don’t need to thank me for that. You deserve it. You should be doing this full time, if that’s what you want.”

“I do need to. And I should’ve done that from the beginning.” Merlin stepped over materials slung here and there in the lounge. “I was just caught off guard. It wasn’t what I thought you’d… or, well. Yeah.”

“What did you think?” Arthur asked, but received no answer. Merlin stood in the doorway to the kitchen, looking around.

“This is gorgeous. You did all this alone?”

Arthur shrugged, leaning against the doorway. “Most of it.” He watched as Merlin ambled around the kitchen, looking into every cupboard as if it’d suddenly reveal something entirely unexpected. Arthur’s heart did a weird flutter as Merlin sat down by the table, peering out into the back garden.

Merlin turned to him, arm slung over the back of the chair. “So, show me the back garden.”

The doors opened onto a small garden out back with old, mossy stone tiles and a few overgrown bushes along the fence. It had nothing much except potential. Merlin stepped out and walked slowly around the space, running an open palm over a bush that seemed to barely cling onto life. It immediately became greener, stretching up towards Merlin’s touch. A fond, little smile tugged at Merlin’s lips as he watched it strengthen.

The truth was that the house, the gardens, all of it, felt incomplete without Merlin. The feel of his magic had pulled Arthur in from the first time he’d been close to it, but the magic was only an imprint of what Merlin’s presence felt like.

It felt like home, in a way nothing had ever felt like home.

Arthur closed the door behind him and Merlin turned to him, expression bright and excited.

“Can I fill it with trees?” he asked as Arthur came to stand with him. “Fruit trees, maybe. I can usually make lemon trees thrive with some work, and I think that would be—”

His voice died as Arthur ran his hand down Merlin’s arm, touch light and careful. Their eyes met, hands fitting into each other’s, and the moment seemed to still. Just barely, Arthur leaned in, and Merlin’s eyes fluttered closed, the grip on his hand tightening. The first brush of their lips was soft but sure. Inevitable. Merlin leaned into him, his free hand gripping Arthur’s t-shirt at his waist, as Arthur ran his thumb across his cheek. The kiss turned more insistent, lips hurriedly seeking each other.

Breathless, Merlin muttered, “Finally” and chased after Arthur’s mouth as he moved back to answer. “No, no. Kiss me.”

Arthur smiled and wrapped his arms around Merlin. Soft lips pressed against his and the air filled with the scent of grass and flowers, of bright, luscious, green summer days.