Yellow car, Arthur thought compulsively, and immediately wanted to take it back. He pushed the plexiglass aside and leaned out of the window. “Seven pound ten, please.”
“Seven pound!—hello,” said the driver, then, “bugger,” as he dropped all his change into the footwell. “Give me a sec—”
“No rush.” Arthur looked down at his textbook again. He was on Chapter 3, Bricklaying, and it was going slowly. The longer this guy took with his money, the more time Arthur had to read, and then he’d be one page closer to Chapter 4, Bricklaying.
“Sorry about this,” came the voice, a bit muffled since it was coming from the bottom of the car. “Butterfingers, me. I thought it was going to be—” and then his voice went too quiet for Arthur to hear for a second; he leaned out over his book to hear better—“never expected it’d be more than a fiver, hope I’m not late, do you know what the time—”
“Three o’clock,” Arthur said, checking his phone to be sure. He also noted that he had three texts and four emails in two different accounts. Arthur’s fingers twitched. “On the dot.”
The man’s head popped back up. He had a lot of dark hair and very unfortunate ears and a dismayed sort of look on his face. “Noooo. You couldn’t—I’m supposed to be in an interview right now, maybe I could pay on my way out—okay, never mind,” he said, apparently picking up on whatever Arthur’s face was telling him. “Here’s a pound—okay, and here’s another one, and twenty pence, and—" he searched around his pockets a bit more, “here’s a fiver, that’s highway robbery, that is—no, you keep the change, you obviously need it—”
“Thank you,” said Arthur in his blandest possible voice, and handed over the ticket with one hand at the same time as pushing the button to make the lever go up.
“Thank you ever so,” said the man, putting his car in gear. “Nothing like a bit of community spirit—hey, do you know where room 312—”
Arthur was already back in his textbook.
“Right,” muttered the man, and put his foot down.
“Right,” Arthur mimicked to himself in a stupid high-pitched voice over the screech of the tyres, and a similarly stupid head motion for effect. He picked up his phone to read his texts, because it wasn’t like he could ignore them now he knew about them, and besides, it could be important.
Fourteen minutes later, he dragged himself out of his phone to find the same scratched yellow car pulling up on the other side this time. He put the plexiglass down on the other side. “Ticket please.”
The guy handed it over without looking at Arthur.
Arthur stuck the ticket into the validating machine. It took a long time, just like normal, and the driver glared at him while he was waiting. Just like normal. Well, Arthur assumed the guy was glaring. The yellow car was at least six inches lower than most newer cars, and not in an expensive way. This meant all Arthur could see was a scowl around his mouth and a mutinous sort of nose. He decided to take pity on him and leaned out of his window a bit to point at the sign on the side. “You know you can—”
“I didn’t get it,” the man interrupted. He was indeed glaring at Arthur. “The job.”
“Oh,” said Arthur politely. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Mmhmm,” said the man. “Of course you are.”
Arthur blew his cheeks out at the same time as the machine shot the ticket back. Now that was synchronicity for you!—he leaned out to hand the ticket back, and then punched the lever button. “Have a good day.”
“Have a good day,” said the guy in a voice alarmingly similar to the one Arthur had put on a little bit ago. Then he drove away.
Arthur shook his head and put his phone face down. Chapter 3. Bricklaying.
One week later, Arthur was at the very start of his shift when another yellow car drove up. Actually—he tried not to look too conspicuous, neatly stamping the monthly pass of the person in the Astra Estate in front while he stared at the car behind—the yellow car probably belonged to the same person as the last yellow car. Which meant it was probably the same yellow car.
He pushed the lever to let the Astra go through and the yellow car drove on up.
The driver was on the phone. Very illegally, Arthur couldn’t help but notice, he was shouting, “Mum—Mum?” and it wasn’t even on speaker.
“Mum,” the driver shouted over him, one hand on the wheel, one at his ear, “it’s Merlin, there’s no signal—no it’s Merlin—Mum?”
The man took his phone away from his ear and threw it into the passenger seat before he turned to look at Arthur. “Jesus Christ. How’d you cope with the signal down here?”
“Get better phone service and you’ll be fine,” said Arthur, whose phone was at four bars, thank you very much. He raised his eyebrows despite himself, and despite the car that had just pulled behind this “Merlin” into the multi-storey. “Your name can’t really be—”
“And you can’t possibly have a joke about my name that I haven’t heard before,” said Apparently-Merlin. He poked around in his door and then looked up at Arthur with a white envelope in hand. “Seven pound ten, yes? I came prepared this time.”
He handed up the envelope. It was the size and quality of an envelope that usually had electric bills inside, except it had the words seven pound ten written across the front followed by a string of smiley faces, and it was clearly full to bursting with coins. Small coins. “And an extra ten pence in there, like before.”
Arthur frowned. “I can’t accept bribes.”
“Not a bribe,” said Merlin, and waited.
Arthur looked at the envelope. “I’m going to have to count this.”
“That’s fine. I’ve got time.”
Arthur tipped the envelope out on his desk. It was, not entirely to his surprise, made up entirely of five and ten pence pieces. He looked at Merlin again. “You didn’t have to do this, you know.”
“Oh, I did,” came the reply. “That’s what it costs. Besides, it was a point of pride.”
Arthur considered this. Then he shrugged. Not his problem. He started separating the ten pences from the five pences, thinking from experience that he was probably supposed to say something about needing change. Arthur hadn’t really paid much attention to the change situation today though, and he really didn’t want to initiate conversation. He still had all of Chapter 4, Bricklaying to get through and even though his phone was face down, it looked like the counter was reflecting the yellow text message alert. And as soon as he got to Chapter 5, he was going to go and get himself a Twix from the vending machine.
“My new manager is going to love me,” Merlin said, even though Arthur hadn’t asked. He said it like Arthur was challenging him. “You watch.”
Arthur had just got to six pounds exactly, so he paused and gave him a look. “I thought you said you didn’t get the job?”
“Yeah, the last one,” said Merlin. He leaned down in the car so that Arthur could see him making eyebrows at him. “I was ten minutes late for the interview.”
“Sounds like you need a lesson in timekeeping,” said Arthur. He started shuffling five pences from one side of the desk to the other and refrained from glancing at the ticket board opposite. Or the now two cars waiting. “Or literacy.”
“Hilarious,” said Merlin. He rested his arm on the window. “Have you finished yet? It’s all there. I counted twice.”
Arthur made himself slow down. Had that been a five or a ten pence--? “Nope, hold on.” He had almost exactly eight hours left of his shift. It wouldn’t do to start by short-changing himself. “Got to start again, sorry.”
“For goodness—yes, fine. No rush,” said Merlin.
Arthur gave him a look.
Merlin looked back. Then he said, “You know, I’ve never seen someone here at the front before. I’ve always just paid at the machine.”
“Have you?” Arthur tried to sound interested. He turned back to all Merlin’s change.
Actually he was a bit interested, because until he started working here he had also always paid at the machine. Frankly it didn’t make any sense that the council would pay a human to stamp tickets when they could just pay for machine upkeep, but at this point it seemed counterintuitive to ask.
Merlin drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Are you nearly done?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, and swept all the money into the drawer. Close enough, anyway, because now there were three cars waiting behind Merlin. He put his chin in his hand and pressed the button for the lever. “It’s a minute to three. The lift over there,” he pointed to Merlin’s left on the very far side of the car park, “is the only one that’s working.”
“Thanks,” said Merlin, beaming at Arthur, and drove off to the left at speed.
Forty minutes later, one of Arthur’s specially laminated out of order—please use lifts on ground floor signs sailed through the gap in the plexiglass, landing neatly on top of the tenth page of Chapter 4, Bricklaying. Arthur looked up in surprise.
“Bastard,” Merlin hissed. He was still very low down so he wasn’t actually visible, but Arthur didn’t feel overly concerned at having got the wrong person.
He ducked to look below the rim of the car door and grinned at Merlin. “How’d it go?”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed. He was still looking a bit sweaty around the collar, Arthur couldn’t help but notice, and he grinned wider. “Good interview, was it?”
“I’m going to remember this,” Merlin said, ignoring his questions completely. “You see if I let you catch me out again.” Though he rather spoiled the effect by doing the snake eyes thing, two fingers wide. “Watch yourself.”
Arthur held his eye for a moment. Then he pushed the button for the lever to let Merlin out.
Merlin jabbed his fingers a bit. “I’ll be back,” he said. Then he drove away.
Arthur returned to his textbook.
The next morning, Arthur woke up to two texts: the first from Morgana, asking if he was on his way (he wasn’t) and the other one from his boss asking if he was okay with switching his shifts to nights up until Christmas (he was). He sent a text back, dropped his phone and put his head back under the pillow, and before he knew it it was noon and he still hadn’t got dressed. Or out of bed.
“Morgana,” he said as he was rushing down the stairs, pulling his coat on with one hand and holding the phone to his ear with the other. “I’m on my way, got a bit too into my reading. Sorry. Tell Dad—”
“And what reading would that be? The one about mixing cement and, like, chimneys or garden walls or—”
The front door slammed behind Arthur and he was halfway along the pavement before he realised he’d left his umbrella behind. “Shit.” He glanced up at the heavy sky and then to the end of the road, where he’d at least be able to see if his bus got to the stop before he did. Morgana was asking a question. “Hmm?”
“What are you learning about this week?” asked Morgana. She sounded like she could be on a leisurely Sunday afternoon stroll along the riverwalk. “I ran out of made-up construction words.”
“Breezeblocks,” said Arthur, and hurdled the fountain of spurting water from the drain in front of his building in one leap. “Not the fun kind mind, the ones you use for insulation.”
Morgana made a suitably impressed noise. “There's a fun kind? Mind-blowing,” she said, and Arthur heard the ding of the bell at DeMille’s in the background of the call. He picked up the pace, skidding past a gaggle of mums on their way out of baby-and-me yoga just before the end of the road, heart lifting and then plunging as the number 21 shot past.
DeMille’s was on the corner on the other side of town. It had lots of bench tables and lots of plants obscuring all the tables from view of the other customers, and they were generous with their cheese and garlic. They also had a very nice house red wine.
“How good of you to join us,” said Uther when Arthur finally made it, although he had a bit of a smile lurking around his mouth so Arthur just gestured apologetically.
Morgana looked up at Arthur’s dripping hair and poured him a glass of wine. “We ordered for you.”
Uther watched Arthur make his way around the table. “Morgana was just telling me about helping a client out of a sticky situation last week.”
“And Father was sharing some ideas for the direction I could take next time,” Morgana said, smiling at Uther and catching Arthur’s eye at the same time to agree with …. whatever look was on Arthur’s face.
“You can laugh at me all you like, Morgana,” said Uther genially, swirling his wine in his glass. “One day you will be my age and you’ll be grateful for the benefit of years of life and business experience in resolving issues with clients, and between them.”
“And I’ll be sure to let you say I told you so,” said Morgana. She looked at Arthur, now relaxed in his chair and enjoying the pizza-and-wine smell wafting by. “Better?”
“Much,” said Arthur. “Sorry I was late. Missed the bus by a hair.”
Uther scoffed. “I understood you were working today. Or did you finally leave that job,” he said with a sneer. “Something in customer service, perhaps?”
“No.” Arthur thought about getting moved to the night shift. “In fact, I got promoted.”
That made it sound nice. Uther had already moved on to his chips.
Working the night shift was actually very similar to working the day shift, the main difference being that now he sometimes started at four in the afternoon and sometimes at midnight. And that more people left than arrived, meaning Arthur didn’t have to spend as much time counting money so he got more reading done.
Not that he usually spent much time counting money. Most people paid with credit cards instead of ten pences.
He was quite surprised when Merlin appeared a week and a half in. He didn’t seem to be in a rush either. The line of cars exiting wound its way up an entire level, but the garage would quickly empty until it was just Arthur and the echoed drip of a far-off pipe. Merlin’s car was the only one on the in side of the vestibule.
“Hello,” he said cheerfully, putting his textbook face down on the desk as Merlin’s car pulled up and waited as Merlin painstakingly wound his window down to repeat his greeting. “You’re normally on your way out by now.” He nodded at the long line of cars on the out side and waggled his eyebrows a bit. “Eager to join them, are you?”
“Nope,” Merlin said. “I’m here for a trial shift.”
Arthur frowned, noting suddenly that Merlin was all dressed up in a suit and tie. He picked up his phone. “It’s six o’clock.”
“Yes,” said Merlin. He was a bit sniffy about it actually, which Arthur thought was uncalled for. “I do have a watch, you know.”
He handed up another envelope, just like before, although Arthur noted that this one was much lighter than the last. “Got yourself a—”
“No time to chat,” said Merlin over the top of him, primly. “My manager’s expecting me.”
He turned his own expectant look on the barrier in front of him.
“Right you are, sir,” Arthur muttered, and pressed the button to let Merlin drive on through without bothering to check the contents of the envelope. “I’ll just do that.”
He counted Merlin’s money into the till and returned his attention to the exiting cars, then back to the diagram that introduced Chapter 5, Bricklaying. However he found himself having trouble concentrating, and picked up his phone. He was used to seeing Merlin leaving fifteen minutes after entering the garage with a glower on, but fifteen minutes passed, then half an hour, and Merlin still didn’t reappear, so Arthur forced himself back into the diagram of proper corner construction.
It was cold in the vestibule and he was glad of all the extra layers he’d brought with him, just in case, but his feet were icy and the cord for the little portable radiator only got it within eighteen inches of the chair. Arthur tried to ignore the cold steadily climbing up his legs and down his fingertips.
At midnight, most of the way through his shift, Arthur peered up the length of the road to the outside world and then left the vestibule to stomp around a bit. Actually, he thought he might take himself on a walk around the whole L-shaped lower floor, reasonably sure that he could run from anywhere to the vestibule in time for any rogue car appearing at the entrance to the car park. He would hear the echo of the wheels bumping over the speed humps on the way in.
He set off at a healthy pace, keeping to the walls to give himself the most walking, and carefully avoiding the vending machine so he didn’t lose his incentive to finish Chapter 5, Bricklaying.
Halfway around, in the part of the L that he couldn’t see from his vestibule, Arthur discovered Merlin’s car. God, it was even more hideously yellow parked there under the fluorescent lighting by the stairs.
Arthur got a couple of steps closer so he could casually peer in. There were at least two half-empty coke bottles in every single one of the footwells and a pile of notebooks and accordion folders in the passenger seat, plus a few ragged textbooks and a surprising number of hammers loose in the footwell. There was what had to be the majority of Merlin’s wardrobe piled up on the back seats—Arthur blinked and wondered: was Merlin living in his car? Surely not—and in the bottom right corner of the back window was a Baby on Board! sticker.
Arthur’s jaw dropped. That was a turn up for the books. Although perhaps it explained why Merlin was always in such a rush? Arthur looked again at all the university textbooks in the front seat, impressed in spite of himself.
On second glance though, the sticker was rough at the edges, as if Merlin had tried to peel it off from a previous owner. Probably with the clear shatterproof ruler that Arthur could see in two pieces below the back window. Arthur smirked.
Realising he was now definitely snooping, he gave himself a shake and stepped away guiltily. He abandoned the rest of his turn around the car park in favour of a speedy diagonal across the middle of the floor to his vestibule. Which was still cold.
“You left before I could tell you,” said Merlin accusatorily, two nights later. He handed up his envelope of money. “I got the job!”
“Oh,” said Arthur, and endeavoured to appear happy for him. “Um. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said, looking altogether too pleased with himself. “So many interviews, something had to stick. Of course, it didn’t help that I was late to the interview at the bowling alley and the one at Topshop, but these things are sent to try us.” He gave Arthur a severe look. “I wanted this one more anyway.”
“Don’t you mean Topman?”
“No, did I say Topman? I meant Topshop. Aren’t you going to ask what the job is?”
Arthur turned the envelope upside down and made a face at the mess of 5ps and 10ps now sheeting his desk. “You’re not really expecting me to count this?”
“It’s right, I promise.”
“You managed to find notes last time,” Arthur grumbled. “What’s the job?” It was already a few hours into his shift—he checked: 10 o’clock, he had no text messages and two emails—and raised his eyebrows. “Are you one of the Samaritans lot? Or night shift at Tesco?” He lowered his voice. “Are you on the self-checkout machines?”
“Security guard,” said Merlin without missing a beat. He raised his arm and flexed through the car window. “Obviously. Give me a shout if you need protecting from local louts, yobs, troublemakers. That sort of thing.”
“I know this car park attracts a dangerous lot and you’re clearly at risk.” He eyed Arthur’s arms, the only part of him visible in the vestibule. “And the self-checkouts close at night, everyone knows that.”
Arthur rolled his eyes and pressed the button for the lever. “You didn’t have to tell me if you didn’t want to.” Then, completely by accident, he said, “See you later.”
“If I make it through the night,” said Merlin ominously, and put his foot down.
Arthur shook his head, turning back to Chapter 6, Bricklaying again. He was intelligent enough but even for him some things needing explaining twice before they went in.
His shift passed as it always did: quiet, mostly uneventful, dripping pipe. The night got darker as dawn approached, and as the cars of other, luckier nightshift workers than Arthur began trickling out and home. Arthur yawned into his sleeve. He really needed to stock his vestibule with snacks, he was getting peckish and needed something to tide him over before he got home for dinner or breakfast or whatever. The dayshift guy had left two empty boxes of mince pies in the bin and Arthur had been hard-put not to run to the 24-hour Tesco and buy a box for himself on his break.
He was just thinking about ducking out twenty minutes early and setting the lever to auto-lift whenever cars drove up, when to his surprise his boss emerged out of the one working lift. He strode Arthur’s way with a paper cup of coffee in his hand. And he wasn’t alone.
“Morning, Arthur,” said Elyan when he got to Arthur’s vestibule. “Quiet night?”
“Very,” said Arthur, ignoring Merlin’s thoroughly shit-eating grin beside him. “New record, actually. Less than ten people in all night. There were a few more who left, though.”
“Tuesdays,” Elyan said with a shrug, and looked apologetically at Merlin. “They’re not all like that, but you’ll want to bring a book for when you’re not rescuing Arthur here from wayward grandmas with the boxed wine they’ve liberated from the Tesco on the corner, and what have you.”
“Right you are,” said Merlin. “Are there many of those?”
“There’s enough,” Elyan said. “Isn’t that right, Arthur?”
“I’ll oil up the old joints before my shifts start, then,” said Merlin seriously. “Wouldn’t want to let these ladies get to Arthur before I do.”
Elyan laughed and said to Arthur, “Merlin’s the new security guard. He told me you’ve met before, I just wanted to let you know Percival’s still off for the time being. Merlin’s the same number on the radio if you need him, obviously.”
“Obviously,” said Arthur, standing up and sliding the window with him so he could reach out and shake Merlin’s hand. Then, looking Merlin up and down before catching Elyan’s eye again, he said, “Percy’s still got his leg in plaster, has he, then?”
“Both legs,” said Elyan, and made a face. “Doctors thought it’d come off the left one this week but there’s a problem with his meta—I don’t know, metasomething-or-other. Something that shouldn’t have a problem.”
“Hence, me,” said Merlin, squeezing Arthur’s hand quickly before dropping it and standing up straighter next to Elyan. He waggled his eyebrows at Arthur. “Won’t you feel safer with me around?”
“Much,” said Arthur. He was, he thought, probably twice the size of Merlin. Merlin’s arms were roughly the size of lollipop sticks and he wasn’t exactly what you’d call intimidating. To be honest Arthur thought he’d rather take his chances with Percival on crutches.
“We don’t see much trouble here,” Elyan said. “Or well—ever. No reports from the last year and a half. But if we don’t use our budget, we lose it—”
Arthur mouthed it along with him from behind his hand.
“—so it’s Merlin’s good luck that Percy needs cover and ours that he’s available right now.”
“And I will live up to his reputation to the best of my ability,” said Merlin.
Elyan gave him a pat on the back. “That’s the spirit,” he said. “Now. Arthur. Since you two know each other already, can you talk Merlin through parking? I’ve got a 5 a.m. meeting with the lower floor night shift managers,” his face showed what he thought of that, “but I trust you to show him all the ins and outs. And tell him about the Christmas party, and where to get his badge for the—"
“Yes, I’ve got it,” said Arthur over the top of him, and waved Elyan away. “Go to your meeting, lucky you. Take notes so I can read them later.”
“Thanks mate,” Elyan said over his shoulder, ignoring the rest, already halfway across the car park when Arthur shut his textbook for good and turned to look at Merlin. It was truly strange to see him outside a car. He was thin—scrawny, actually, and not the type of person Arthur could imagine hiring for anything other than the IT department. Or maybe a surprising sort of surgeon or accountant or something. But Arthur had spent nearly twice as long in this job as a car park attendant as in any other job of his life, so who was he to talk?
He met Merlin’s eye as he clambered out of the vestibule. “You know I would’ve believed you if you’d told me you really were the security guard,” he said. He gestured up and down Merlin’s body. “Despite … appearances.”
“I begged Elyan not to tell you,” said Merlin, grinning. “Asked to leave out the back and everything, told him I was in a rush to get back and drive my mum to the train station. He knew what I was doing immediately though, told me you’d make life difficult for me every day I was here if I didn’t own up to it straight away.”
“Elyan doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Arthur muttered. “I’m never difficult.”
Merlin’s grin widened. “Speaking of. What’s this about parking? There’s got to be some sort of an employee discount, seven pounds ten is—”
“You think you’ve heard all the jokes about your name, I’ve heard it all about the cost of parking here,” Arthur said firmly. “Don’t like it, the bike rack’s free. It’s around the other side by M&S.”
Merlin spluttered. “I am not leaving my bike—”
“Also,” said Arthur loudly over him, “it’s free to park between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.” He pointed at the sign opposite. “As is clearly indicated in large, red, capital letters.” The sign Merlin had now driven past seven times read clearly OVERNIGHT PARKING FREE, underlined twice.
“Oh,” said Merlin. “So do I need to be already out by six? Or is there a five minute grace period while I get in my car, or—"
Arthur handed Merlin his envelope of money back. “Come on, let’s give you the tour.”
He indicated Merlin to follow him around the lower floor. “There is, surprisingly enough, not a lot to tell. Toilets are upstairs by the library, they stay open all night although you’ll want to avoid them after midnight.” He looked at Merlin, thinking of his very full car. “Maybe you already know that, though?”
“That is a very weird way to ask if I grew up here,” said Merlin after a moment. “At least, I think that’s what you’re asking. In which case, yes, living with my mum on Greenway Road.” He gave Arthur a significant look. “Nothing goes on outside the library that hasn’t already happened more violently on Greenway Road.”
“Ah,” said Arthur knowingly, who did not himself grow up here and thus did not know the first thing about Greenway Road. “Well, yes. That’s what I was asking, sorry.”
Merlin cleared his throat. “So, Elyan mentioned a Christmas party?” he said, in tones of someone trying very hard to get the conversation back on track.
“It’s two weeks today, December fourth. Starts at seven.”
“On a Tuesday?”
“Quietest night of the week,” Arthur explained. “Pizza Hut courtesy of the boss, followed by a drink or two or three at the Three Lions. And everyone will probably go to Blitz! afterwards.”
“Didn’t know there was call for Blitz! to be open on a Tuesday,” Merlin mused, a sentiment with which Arthur heartily agreed. “Suppose it’s never a bad time to get absolutely hammered on bottom shelf vodka.”
“Which Elyan will not be paying for,” Arthur confirmed. They rounded the corner of the L. “And here’s the vending machine. Keep your hands off the Twixes if you know what’s good for you.”
“More of a Yorkie man myself,” said Merlin. He looked around. “Well. It’s a car park. Anything more exciting upstairs I should know about?”
“If you want exciting, you’re going to have to make it,” said Arthur and cast around for something else to say. If Percival was anything to judge by, Merlin was going to be working the regular ten til six in the morning shift. “When are you on, then?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Merlin. “I’ll find out whenever they post the schedule. Wherever that is.” He waited expectantly.
Arthur shook his head. “Staff room?”
“Which is where?”
“Elyan didn’t tell you?”
“No,” said Merlin patiently, “he said you’d tell me, which is why I’m asking you, you’re the one showing me around. Although I now see that that was a mistake. Just curious, have you actually met anyone else you work with?”
“Of course,” said Arthur, because everyone on the night shift had to park somewhere and he was the only person who staffed the way in and out after dark. He had to have met them some time. He checked the time again: eleven minutes til the end of his shift. “Anyway. Are you staying or leaving? I’ve got to count up, that sort of thing.” He gestured at the vestibule, and thankfully Merlin took the hint.
“See you in a sec,” he said, and took off at a surprising pace towards his car in the same spot as last time.
Arthur spent some time counting up his takings for the night—six people in and nine people out made it very easy—and he was completing all the right forms to hand over to the dayshift guy when Merlin zoomed up in his yellow car with four minutes to spare.
Arthur pushed down his little plexiglass window and leaned down. “Got your ticket, then?”
Merlin handed it up. He was still too far down in his car to make out his face but Arthur had a fairly good idea that he was smirking at him. Or, worse, smiling.
He pre-empted whatever ridiculous comment Merlin was going to make with: “Right. See you next time.”
Merlin didn’t even say anything in response. Just wound up his window and zoomed away, like that.
Unfortunately Merlin was there the next night, and the next night too, and then it was Friday and Arthur was dealing with lawyers and office managers on one side and the best serving staff of the highstreet restaurants and a local Wetherspoons franchise on the other, when he saw Merlin swing into the multi-storey and pull up short behind a long line of ten-year-old Peugeots at quarter to six.
“No,” he was saying to the teenager in a Pizza Express uniform, “if I give you a free pass then I have to give all your little friends—”
“But—” said the kid, desperately searching through his glove compartment for the remaining sixty pence he owed. “My boss is going to kill me if I’m late again. I’ll make it back in tips, I’ll owe you.”
“You already do,” muttered Arthur, who had stopped counting a few weeks back.
“I literally don’t have it.”
Arthur looked at the long line of cars waiting. There was no way for the guy to reverse. He sighed and dug into his jeans pocket, because at some point it was just easier to make do instead of putting up with all the complaints that followed. When his till didn’t come up even, the paperwork was intense. “Leave it with whoever’s here when you leave, okay?”
The kid practically fell over in gratitude. Or he would have, Arthur thought, if he wasn’t in such a tearing hurry to not be even later to work. “Thank you so much.”
Arthur pressed the button for the lever and waved the kid inside, took the ticket through the opposite window from a well-dressed woman on her way out, clearly ready to enjoy her weekend if her deep cut dress and sparkly earrings were anything to go by, and repeated the back-and-forth process until Merlin pulled up to the window.
“Looks like it’s going to be a busy one,” said Merlin brightly, after he had spent 20 seconds winding down his window as usual, apparently just to say hello. “Fridays, eh!”
“Just like Fridays everywhere,” said Arthur.
“I’ve got a feeling tonight’s the night I catch someone in the act,” said Merlin.
“Yeah, you know. Crime.” Merlin took his hands off the steering wheel to grind a fist into his palm. “Now that’s what I call Friday night. I put my trainers on and everything so I’m ready for the chase. ”
Arthur shook his head. “Go on, you’re holding everyone else up. Thought it was your job to stop that sort of thing from happening.”
“I’m not holding anyone up, you’re holding everyone up. Wait.” Merlin’s eyes widened. “Was that a joke?”
“If it was, it won’t be for much longer,” Arthur said, which didn’t really make sense, so he waved Merlin through before he could notice.
From the grand heights of significantly older than 22, Arthur generally felt himself a bit past spending Friday nights on the lash. Still, there was something depressing about seeing an endless stream of cars here to park for a night out at the pub while Arthur was spending his Friday night counting change and reading his course books.
He picked up his phone as Merlin drove away to text Morgana and their dad about weekly lunch—tomorrow it was at Zizi’s—and set an extra alarm, just in case. Then he was besieged by a group of rowdy teenage girls and before he knew it Merlin was out of sight, starting on his rounds of the ground through second floors, torch in hand.
He didn’t emerge again until the night was halfway done and none of Arthur’s reading was. He could make out the lights of the busy pub across the road reflecting on the entry ramp into the car park, the music echoing faintly down.
“All right?” came Merlin’s voice from the exit side of the vestibule. Arthur jumped and turned in his seat. “Need me to scare off any of those old ladies Elyan was talking about yet?”
“Nope,” said Arthur, though he wasn’t not glad to have Merlin hovering. He eyed Merlin up and down. “Thankfully.”
Merlin slipped his hands into his pocket and leaned up against the side of the vestibule next to the window. He cleared his throat significantly and when Arthur deigned to give him his due attention, said, “I’ve decided to forgive you for all the interview mishaps.”
“‘All,’” said Arthur. “All two?”
Merlin frowned at him. “I now forgive you on a trial basis for all two interview mishaps.”
“I’m honoured,” said Arthur, sitting back. “And grateful. Wow. I won’t let you down, Merlin. Did I mention honoured?”
Merlin’s mouth curved. “So. Now we’re friends.”
“Yes, provisionally. Who’s the real Arthur the Car Park Attendant when he’s not a car park attendant? Because I’ve got to say, you are not what I think of when I think of car park attendants.”
“Is that so?”
“You’re about forty years too young, for one thing. Got to be a story there.”
Merlin was annoying. Arthur had noticed this very quickly. And he wasn’t especially inclined to go into the whys and wherefores of his job with Merlin right now, even if they did share an employer.
On the other hand, it wasn’t like he had anything else to do right now. Or anyone else to talk to about his life, for that matter. And he supposed he couldn’t really blame Merlin for being interested in talking to his new colleague even if it was hovering around the depressing side of 2 a.m. And Merlin wasn’t so bad, really.
“I’m doing a building and construction course at the college,” he said instead of waving Merlin off. “My dad kicked me out and revoked my trust fund when I dropped out of university a few years ago. I’ve got to pay the bills somehow and when I’m here I can do all my reading. Well, when it’s not Friday night.”
Merlin’s eyes had grown wider at every word. Not even by a fraction, his face went properly Disney wide-eyed. “An actual trust fund?” he breathed.
“Yep.” Arthur was usually a bit more discreet about it but he had an inkling that wouldn’t last very long with Merlin. He didn’t seem to do tact, or getting to know each other before they talked about money. Their entire working relationship had started with a conversation about money. Arthur said, “Ex-trust fund,” just to make sure Merlin got it.
“I’ve never met anyone with a trust fund before. Or anyone who used to have one.” He considered this more. “Don’t you have lots of rich friends who could split their trust funds with you? Or an inheritance you’ll get when you’re 30, or when you get married or something?” said Merlin, who had obviously watched too much TV.
“Not as far as I know,” said Arthur. “And I stopped having rich friends when I stopped being rich.” He looked at Merlin. “Unless you’re a secret millionaire, that is.”
“You’ve seen my car, what do you think?” said Merlin, although he looked surprised and a little pleased.
“I think you and I work the night shift for minimum wage.”
Merlin nodded. Then he reached up to stretch, long arms and long body. He looked like a twig in a uniform, Arthur thought.
“So,” said Arthur, deciding it was time to move on. “Have you caught any criminals yet?”
Merlin shook his head. “Not even one. Not a whiff of a balaclava, or a sack of money. Really it’s making me feel like I’m doing something wrong.”
“Or right,” Arthur suggested. “Maybe you just look that terrifying. One look at you and they’re out of here.”
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility,” said Merlin thoughtfully. “But you’d think I’d manage to get a look at them before they scarpered. Or during.”
“You understand I won’t be helping you give chase, right?”
“Like I’d need your help,” Merlin scoffed. “Didn’t Elyan tell you I’m quick on my feet? I could give Usain Bolt a run for his money. Good luck getting away from me, all you petty thieves and criminals.”
“You do have the skinny, wretched look of a runner.”
“Just because you grew up playing rugby doesn’t make you a better athlete than me,” Merlin said, which indicated nothing more than that he knew rugby was a sport that rich boys played at school. Apparently Arthur didn’t do a good job of keeping his surprise off his face though because Merlin ducked a bit to look at him closer through the vestibule window and smirked. “Got you.”
“Clearly,” said Arthur.
Merlin glanced up the access road to the pub opposite, the warm light pooling onto the road replaced with crowds of people returning to their cars in groups. “Must be chucking out time,” he reported.
“Yep,” said Arthur, shifting to try to get comfortable in his seat again. This was the most eventful time of the evening and he’d be damned if he let Merlin ruin it. “Don’t you have a job to do?” he said, and made a shooing motion. “Get along with you.”
“Get along with you,” repeated Merlin slowly, shaking his head as he walked away.
“So tell us about this promotion, then,” said Uther at Saturday lunch a few days later. It was raining again, but this time Arthur had remembered to bring an umbrella and was sitting warm and dry by the window, watching everyone who’d been less careful when they left the house.
Arthur blew his cheeks out as he decided how to approach this one. “I’m training a colleague,” he said eventually. He had, after all, told Merlin where the schedule might be found as he was leaving the night before. “He’s new and enthusiastic. I think our boss was glad that I was around to handle him.”
“Is that so?” said Uther. He had that unimpressed and disinterested tone of voice of one who had the power to free Arthur from working for minimum wage ever again but chose not to. “And what sort of training could you provide working in a car park, hmm?”
“Obviously they talk about how to tell the difference between different types of cars, Father,” said Morgana, rolling her eyes at Arthur under cover of helping herself to a buttered asparagus stick. “This one has leather seats and that one drives very fast, and so on. All the fascinating car things like that. All very important questions, I’m sure.”
“I suppose you’re right, Morgana,” said Uther. “Arthur must now spend a lot of time around people whose cars can be differentiated in such a way.”
“Yep,” said Arthur calmly. He also helped himself to an asparagus. “Haven’t seen a limousine or properly tinted windows in weeks.”
Uther’s lips thinned. “I would imagine not.”
Arthur clinked his glass to Morgana’s. “Saturday,” they said together, and Arthur was totally ready to get well and truly sloshed courtesy of his father when he looked out of the window again and saw—
“Yellow car,” said Morgana promptly, and then smirked at Arthur, wine still in hand. “Down it.”
Arthur ignored her, which he often found was the right approach. He turned to Uther, already halfway to his feet. “You know,” he said before he could think better of it, “I could have my colleague explain to you exactly what it is I’ve been training him on, just a sec.”
He was out of the restaurant and into the rain in a moment. Merlin was feeding coins into the parking meter—apparently he didn’t lay his wealth of silver only on Arthur—and he jumped a full inch and a half when Arthur approached with a menu held over his head (having forgotten the umbrella in his haste) and said, “Fancy meeting you here.”
Merlin blinked at him against the weather. “Hello!”
“Hello,” said Arthur. He gestured at Zizi’s. “Want to come inside? There’s pizza.”
“Pizza!” Merlin’s eyes brightened then narrowed. “…and?”
“And my father and Morgana, my sister.” Arthur shrugged a bit. “He’s paying.”
Merlin considered this for a moment. Then he shrugged a bit back at Arthur. “Can’t say no to that.”
Arthur made a run for the door and held it open, beckoning Merlin inside. This was an utterly foolish thing to do, there was no reason to inflict Merlin on his father or vice versa, and he was sure to never hear the end of this from Morgana—who was only now putting her phone away in her handbag, like this was the most interesting thing to happen all day—but for some reason he felt absolutely sure that he had done the right thing.
For one thing, Uther was staring at Merlin now instead of half an inch to the side of Arthur. That was an improvement.
“Hello,” said Merlin uncertainly, and stuck out his hand, still wet with the rain. “I’m Merlin.”
“Uther Pendragon,” said Uther, rising to his feet after a barely imperceptible pause. “I am Arthur’s father. And this is my daughter—”
“Morgana,” said Morgana smoothly. She didn’t stand up but she did give Merlin a long, appraising look from her seat. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Merlin.”
Merlin, Arthur noted, was now standing a little straighter under her gaze. He rolled his eyes and sat back down. “Do you want some wine?”
“Yes please,” said Merlin, and sat himself down in the chair next to Arthur. He looked around them at the interior, although Arthur had the odd sort of feeling that that wasn’t what he was examining at all. “This is nice, eh? I’ve never actually been inside here before. I remember when it opened though, my ex was all excited about taking me here for our anniversary. Then it took an extra six months for the restaurant to be done and well, let’s just say the relationship didn’t make it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Uther politely after a pause. “I hope it didn’t end badly.”
“Oh, fine, the police were barely involved,” said Merlin absently. He eyed the plate of asparagus and reached for the garlic bread instead with one hand, and for Arthur’s wine with the other. “We’re still friends. Well, mostly. There’s a small claims issue that we’re working out, but what’s some time in court between exes really these days, eh?”
“How frustrating,” said Morgana in that sweet voice and leant forwards, all grace and sincerity and innocence. “I hope you aren’t finding it too traumatic. It can be such a lot when the courts are involved. Wouldn’t you agree, Father?”
“Indeed,” said Uther after a moment.
“Thank you. Of course we’re lucky that there aren’t any children involved, making it more complicated. Well,” Merlin laughed in a tinkling sort of way, “I say we’re lucky, but if there had been accidental children—”
Uther gave Merlin a horrified sort of look that Arthur suspected was really intended for him. He interrupted Merlin, in all likelihood just to stop him from continuing, Arthur thought. “The Pendragon family retains an excellent lawyer. If you find yourself in need of further assistance, please do not hesitate to tell Arthur. We would be glad to assist you in any way that we can.”
“Thank you,” said Merlin again. He took another enormous bite of his garlic bread and beamed through it. “I appreciate that. But it’s okay, I'm representing myself. This way I think we’ve got a good chance of getting on the morning shows and making a bit of dosh out of it. We’ll split it fifty-fifty and well, fair’s fair, eh?”
His accent was getting closer and closer to one of the daytime TV programs that aired on Channel 4. Actually Arthur rather suspected that if Merlin felt he could have got away with it, he’d have been putting on his very best generic American accent, rolling it around his mouth like whatever it was Uther thought Merlin was getting from the government at the same time. Arthur was actually quite surprised Merlin had stopped himself at the morning shows.
“Indeed,” said Uther again, topping up his own wine glass and signalling for another bottle.
“Sorry about my father,” was the first thing Arthur said when they got in Merlin’s car by unspoken and mutual agreement for purposes of a quick getaway. The rain was lashing sideways now, and when Merlin set off out of the parking space and in the direction Arthur gestured toward his flat he was driving only a little over walking pace. “I thought he’d ignore you, not interrogate you.”
“Oh, that’s all right. I don’t ever consider my day to have really started until I’ve rehashed my schooling, housing, career goals, and family circumstances. Did I pass?”
“By whose metric?”
“Your sister’s, obviously.”
Arthur smiled to hide a sudden, unexpected feeling of consternation in his stomach. “No one passes with Morgana. You just … spend a lot of time trying desperately to gain her approval before giving up.”
Arthur looked out of his window as they passed by his bus stop home. “What are you doing up at this time anyway? It’s hardly the middle of the afternoon.”
“Felt like eating lunch at lunchtime for once,” said Merlin. “I was going to buy a salad from Marks and Spencer. Breakfast at dinnertime doesn’t always cut it.”
Arthur entirely understood.
Merlin took the long way to Arthur’s flat—which was to say, he refused to drive through any puddles more than half an inch deep, because, “that’s how cars get ruined, Arthur.”
“No they don’t,” said Arthur. “They’re cars and this is England. They’re built to withstand trifling matters like heavy rain and steep hills and what have you. That’s why they’ve got wheels. And doors.”
“This car doesn’t withstand a gentle breeze,” said Merlin firmly. “Flooding the engine—literally flooding it I mean—would probably kill the both of us.”
Arthur, who had had a personal driver until very recently and himself didn’t drive, gave up on that line of discussion before Merlin started making him explain his reasoning. Instead he directed Merlin in a long circuitous route that avoided anything likely to kill them, and had him stop the car right outside the new tandoori restaurant that had opened up a week or two before.
It was a bit stupid really, but Arthur realised he was feeling embarrassed about letting Merlin see where he lived. He gave himself a shake. “Thanks for the lift.”
Merlin ignored this. He left the windscreen wipers going against the gentle downpour but unplugged his seat belt, and leant past Arthur to look at the restaurant with the OPEN - UNDER NEW OWNERSHIP—2 for 1 ENTREES! banner strung along the top of the window. “A man after my own heart. Still hungry after three loaves of garlic bread and a giant great pizza. You know I wouldn’t mind a naan right now.” He waggled his eyebrows, far too close to Arthur what with practically leaning over him.
Arthur didn’t completely know what to do with that, whether Merlin was inviting himself along or asking for an invitation or what. It didn’t matter though, letting Merlin set foot in the restaurant would have been dangerously close to letting him set foot in Arthur’s flat, because: “I live upstairs, actually,” he said, pointing through the windscreen and up at his window. “Come by in a week or two and I’ll have managed to get the same discount at the restaurant worked out as I had with the old owner.”
“I should hope so,” said Merlin, apparently unfazed. “Upstairs neighbour’s got to be worth at least half price. A samosa would go down well, too. ”
“See you tomorrow?”
“You are a cold man, Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin told him, smiling in a way that Arthur didn’t care to interpret. “I will remember you refusing to buy me delicious Indian food every time I think about your dad buying me delicious Italian food.”
“Well no one ever accused us of being alike,” said Arthur. “I’m sure he will be gratified to learn that he made such a strong impression on you.”
“You only ever have one first person offer you the use of the family lawyer for your non-custody dispute with your ex,” Merlin said seriously. He plugged his seatbelt back in as Arthur opened his door to the rain. “It’s a memory I will treasure forever.”
The next day, Merlin drove up in his truly mustard-coloured car, cranked down his window, and Arthur reached into the pile of his warm outerwear on the desk and handed a paper bag down to him instead of the other way around. Not that Merlin needed to be giving Arthur money anymore. They had established that.
“… thank you?” said Merlin, looking uncertain. He held the bag in front of him and shook it. “It doesn’t sound dangerous—it’s warm though, not sure if I trust it—” He gave it a sniff and his face changed. “Arthur. You didn’t.”
“Got my discount back,” said Arthur casually, or as casually as he could manage, anyway. The discount was forthcoming, he was sure.
He pressed the button for the lever to go up and reached for his own bag of samosas to wave vaguely at Merlin. It didn’t need to be a big deal or anything. “They were practically giving them away.”
Of course Merlin didn’t leave him alone all night after that. He came to idle by the booth as if crime only came in through the front door rather than from the shops open to the street above, or perhaps walking through the side footpaths. It was a quiet day of the week and Arthur wasn’t really feeling either of Chapters 7 or 8, Bricklaying, anyway.
“There’s just an awful lot about different types of trowels and carpenter pencils to read in both of them,” said Arthur. “And that isn’t really what I had in mind when I decided to do this particular course. Also, why would you save the bit about all the tools you’re supposed to use til halfway through the book? Surely that’s a start or end type of chapter.”
“Mmmhm,” said Merlin, and scratched his ear. “I’ve changed my mind, I think I have to go check the second floor for burglars.”
“I suppose I’ll have to learn it eventually.” Arthur sighed heavily. “Trowels aren’t really my forte and never will be and I’ll have to accept that. You know what they say. There’s a metaphorical trowel in every course.”
“Do they?” Merlin asked, looking like he actually regretted coming up to speak with him. As if the empty second floor was more interesting, Arthur thought.
“No, of course not,” he said, shaking his head. “So sorry for boring you here at two in the morning.”
“You’re not boring me,” said Merlin, who was already walking backwards towards the stairs. “It’s just that I remembered a car I didn’t crawl around under to check for bombs.”
Arthur gaped at him. “Is that what you do when you’re not down here bothering me?”
“I suppose I could do my reading, not going to get my degree very quickly if I don’t crack open a book occasionally—”
“Oh, yes, books about rocks and crystals and things.”
“Geology,” Merlin said. “But then I wouldn’t have time to do the bomb checks. So, you know.”
“Sounds like you need an assistant.”
“I have one, he just refuses to get off his arse and out of his nice, warm parking booth.” Merlin sighed heavily. “Can’t get the staff these days.”
“Make sure to tell my dad that next time you see him, would you? It’s been a bit since the last time he got a chance to criticise my life choices.”
“You’ll have to let me know where we’re going for lunch this week then, won’t you,” said Merlin, waggling his eyebrows at him as he receded around the corner.
Arthur, savouring the last bite of his Twix-reward for finishing Chapter 8, Bricklaying, raised his eyebrows at Merlin when he drove up to the vestibule on his way out later that morning. Instead of driving through, Merlin painstakingly wound down his window. Arthur crumpled the wrapper into the bin as he waited.
“You know you don’t need to give me anything anymore,” Arthur told him. When Merlin looked confused, he clarified by pointing at the sign with its large, red, capital letters, and said, “Money, I mean. Do you need help with reading? I understand if you do. I won’t judge.” He lowered his voice. “I’ve seen the OFSTED reports for the schools around here. I know standards are dropping all over the country but I have to say that this area in particular is really—”
Merlin scoffed. “If you think I won’t check the OFSTED reports just to prove you haven’t read them, you’re wrong.”
“Ah, so you can read.”
Merlin threw one of his endless ten pences at him and said, “Are you going to the Christmas party next week?”
Arthur thought about this. Was he? “Maybe."
Merlin opened his mouth in outrage.
"My course sometimes runs a bit late on Tuesdays.”
“It can’t run that late, you’ve never missed a shift here, have you?”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything.”
Merlin leaned onto his steering wheel to meet Arthur’s eye. “If you come, I’ll introduce you to some of the people you work with.”
Arthur pressed the button for the lever so that Merlin would leave. “That’s so generous of you. ”
“You wouldn’t make me go alone,” said Merlin, ignoring the way out free and clear ahead of him. “You’re not that kind of man.”
“And you aren’t the kind of man who struggles with not knowing anyone in the pub,” said Arthur. He pressed the button again to stop the lever going down. “Actually, you strike me as the type of man who leaves with more friends than he came with.”
“I am extremely likeable and popular, everyone says so.”
Arthur stretched his arms above his head in an exaggerated yawn, fingers brushing the ceiling of the booth. He glanced at his phone. “Good grief, is that the time?”
“I’ll pick you up if you want,” said Merlin, undeterred. “Save you a walk from one side of town to the other side of town. That way you won’t scuff your shoes.”
“My shoes are already scuffed.” Arthur hit the button for the lever a third time. “Good night, Merlin.”
“Good morning, Arthur,” said Merlin, and finally sped away.
Arthur had actually been doing quite well before Merlin showed up: he got his weekly reading done for his course and kept up with his text correspondence with various acquaintances and Morgana, and even occasionally the news.
Now that Merlin had taken over for Percival, however, Arthur found himself waiting for the ugly yellow car to show up at ten o’clock, or idly watching out for Merlin to amble over from the stairs by the broken lift and report back on news from the people who congregated by the toilets behind the library at all hours, or update him on the latest rock gossip.
Anyway chitchatting with Merlin had had an immediate and deleterious effect on Arthur's progress reading the chapters on trowels and now, after a night off and two hours before the day’s lesson and four before he started work, he was behind in his reading. That hadn’t happened all year.
Arthur resolved to ignore Merlin more resolutely in future, and picked up his phone to turn it off while he got caught up. But first:
Coffee? read a text from Morgana.
Tea? she responded immediately.
Arthur raised his eyebrows and typed: Two in a year would be excessive, don’t you think?
Arthur rolled his eyes. She’d added the accent and everything.
He put his phone down again. If he was going to go around failing construction theory tests, he might as well have stayed at Cambridge.
Arthur dragged his textbook towards him again. Chapter 9 wasn’t just about trowels, it also talked about rulers and spirit levels. It seemed possible to get interested in spirit levels.
His phone chimed again. Sorry Arthur texted Morgana without reading what she’d said. I’ll make it up to you. Then turned his phone off.
He was staring out of his bedroom window at his bus stop at the end of the road and all the people bustling around with Primark bags when he saw Merlin battling his way through them, talking animatedly on the phone as he did so. He was wearing a bobble hat and a red and purple striped scarf, and he had an armful of Tesco bags and another from Subway that had to have at least two footlongs inside, if Arthur was any judge of size and heft.
Arthur drummed his fingers on his desk then stood to push the top window open and shout outside, “Merlin!”
Merlin looked around wildly, phone still held to his ear. Arthur shouted again, pleased to see him and not really sure why, hoping he got his attention all the same.
Merlin stopped walking, an old lady nearly crashing into him from behind, and he turned to look at the Indian restaurant that resided below Arthur, and apparently used it as a guide to find Arthur’s window. Merlin looked surprised.
Arthur hesitated and then waved.
Merlin said something to whoever he was talking to and then stuck his phone back in his pocket, and started towards Arthur’s door.
It was still mid-afternoon but it was cold and drizzling, so Arthur shut his window again. He caught sight of his face in the mirror that hung on the back of his door: he looked tired and bored, like anyone else who’d spent the day inside watching Netflix instead of catching up on the various means of fastening prefab masonry panel curtain walls to steel frame structures. It wasn’t especially the look he wanted to go with but then, Arthur thought, he wasn’t trying to impress anyone. It was just Merlin. He saw Merlin most nights at work, when he was also tired and bored.
He tugged a jumper on over his head as he was running downstairs and remembered to grab a coat on the way out, finding Merlin right outside his door and peering up at his window again, squinting against the mist of rain.
“Oh, hello,” he said when Arthur cleared his throat from the door onto the street. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“I live here,” Arthur said. He was leaning towards Merlin, he realised, and made himself stand up straight. “You had to know I’d be here.”
“Mmm, but I didn’t expect to see you until work. Just thought I’d get in some Christmas shopping, actually. Obviously I should have come and said hello.”
“Obviously,” said Arthur, oddly pleased by this. He looked at Merlin’s Tesco bags. “Those aren’t Christmas presents, are they?”
“Course not. I’m doing an initial Christmas lunch run-through at the weekend though. My uncle’s coming too.” Merlin got a bit closer, seeking shelter from the rain under the awning on the Indian restaurant. The bobble on his hat was actually dripping a bit.
Arthur shook his head. “An initial Christmas lunch? Isn’t that just Sunday roast? It’s not even December yet.”
“No such thing as just a Sunday roast,” said Merlin. “Especially in winter. Do you want to come?”
He said it so easily. Arthur blinked. “Ah—thanks, that’s nice of you, but I’m. Busy with Morgana.”
Merlin didn't seem too troubled. “Okay. Let me know if you change your mind, I’m making loads of food. And Mum’s making the Yorkshire puddings.”
Arthur wondered if Merlin often invited his co-workers to Sunday dinner with his family. Or if actually he maybe didn’t.
He tried to put the thought out of his head. He stood aside to let a group of people inside the restaurant beside him and scrambled for a change of subject. “No caving this weekend, then?” He imagined geologists in training went for that sort of thing.
“Too rainy,” Merlin said sadly. “Serious risk of drowning instead of completing my degree, which would be a real shame five years in.”
“Do you really need the degree when you’re five years in?” Arthur raised his eyebrows. “Don’t you already know everything there is to know about rocks?”
“Obviously,” said Merlin. “At this point I’m just throwing money at the OU for the fun of it. I’ll probably pay them a bit longer after I’ve graduated, too.”
“But only if you survive this weekend.”
“Precisely,” said Merlin. “That’s why I’m staying here instead of risking death by potholing at the coast.”
Arthur swallowed a smile. “I’ve got to keep working,” he said to Merlin. “Got to catch up.”
Merlin looked a little taken by surprise but he lifted the hand with the fewest bags in a half-wave, and took a half-step back into the drizzle. “So diligent. So dedicated.”
“So behind,” Arthur corrected. He waved back at Merlin and went inside, stopping halfway up the stairs so he didn’t get back to his desk too soon.
He rolled his eyes at himself, telling himself that Merlin was just an interesting distraction, the only thing of note lately in a life that mainly consisted of keeping his head down and his hopes moderate--and he got out his phone to text Elyan and ask for the night off.
never took you for a skiver!!! !
Arthur frowned at the unknown number. Who is this?
“food poisoning” said the text, followed by a string of squares with Xs through them, and a magic wand emoji at the end. one of those sudden-onset things, is it?
Arthur’s heart skipped a beat. Using your phone at work is highly frowned upon, you know. He earnestly hoped this wasn’t Elyan on his work phone.
since you’ve still got your job probably-Merlin said. i'’ll take my chances.
Arthur snickered to himself.
anyway, you never mentioned before that they sprang for a nice back-supported chair for you to use in here Merlin (definitely Merlin) continued. very nice too.
Arthur revised his image of Merlin doing the rounds to an image of Merlin swinging around in the spinny chair, giving the parking vestibule a bad name. Can’t talk he texted back. I’m catching up on all the reading you’ve been distracting me from. He paused and then added: When I’m not throwing up. Just in case.
Merlin sent back another collection of squares with Xs in them, which Arthur interpreted as suitably sympathetic in nature. Then Merlin said: and so alone i patrol.
Arthur shook his head and put down his phone face up, and picked up his book again.
The phone pinged. just me and the lonely hours
When Arthur doesn't respond, it pinged again. in the chilly light of the um
PING. well, not the moon
PING. in the chilly fluorescent lights
PING. which are flickering enough to give me a headache
PING. very unpleasant
PING. i’ve never noticed this before actually
Arthur picked up his phone. Oh, no he said. So sad. Have you mentioned this to Human Resources?
nope said Merlin, and Arthur could hear the smirk through the text message. my good for nothing co-worker won’t tell me where to find them. i’m going to complain about him too. just for that. actually not just for that.
Have to find out where they work first, won’t you.
i’m going to go and get a twix.
Don’t you dare. The vending machine was only refilled once a month and Arthur knew there was only one Twix left. Merlin?
Somewhat perturbed, but hearing no more, he eventually went back to reading.
whoops, coffee fell off the desk and then i fell over with it. Merlin texted a minute later. are there paper towels anywhere?
Arthur shook his head and turned his phone over again.
The next night, Friday night, Arthur approached his vestibule to find it positively dripping in Christmas decorations.
He stopped in his tracks, taking it in. Red and silver tinsel hung down the outside of the plexiglass like curtains, and a long string of twinkly fairy lights trailed up the corners. When he looked into the window he saw Christmas tree baubles were stapled everywhere on the corkboard walls inside. It was like looking into the soul of a pinball machine.
Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock sang the little radio on the desk as he went inside and sat in his spinny chair which now smelled like coffee—since when was there a radio?—and two sachets of something that called itself Instant Peppermint Mocha were leant up against the till. A Twix wrapper lay crumpled in the bin but it was his own from two days before.
Arthur looked closer: behind the radio was tucked another Twix. This one was unopened though, and wrapped in red ribbon with his name written all over the wrapping in black marker. He experienced a near-overwhelming feeling of goodwill in his chest.
“Yep, firm believer in leaving the decorations til December,” he was saying to an already merry passenger in someone’s car when he first spotted Merlin’s car joining the line two hours later. “Then it’s all or nothing. I’ll be leading a bit of a singalong later, all the best carols right here in the car park. Best acoustics in town. Hope to see you there.”
The yellow car crawled along with the rest of the cars going in, and when it was finally Merlin’s turn he had for once already cranked his window down to display a thoroughly self-satisfied grin. “Lots of tinsel you’ve got here, mister car park attendant,” he said in an unnecessarily loud voice. “Is it the season?”
“Someone came and vandalised my workplace in the night,” said Arthur, smirking back.
Merlin ducked lower so he could catch Arthur’s eye as usual. “I knew you’d love it,” he said. “I saw those fairy lights in your window last week. Did you see what else I left for you?”
Arthur twirled the Twix around a bit so Merlin could see. “This is very nice of you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Merlin, and looked expectant. “And …?”
“These?” Arthur picked up the Instant Peppermint Mochas and waved them Merlin’s way.
“Yep,” said Merlin. He eyed Arthur with sudden suspicion. “Only one’s for you though. I left the other one there for safekeeping--of course the Twix is all yours. The vending machine has a hot water option, did you know that?”
“Yes. It’s lucky the bloke who does days didn’t finish them both off, isn’t it,” said Arthur, and hit the button to let Merlin in. “You let me know when you’re ready to share.”
With twenty minutes left of both their shifts, Merlin was telling Arthur about a certain type of rock he was learning about that showed up along the Cornish coastline, a subject for which Arthur would not have previously imagined he could feel any enthusiasm, while they finished off their Instant Peppermint Mochas.
“The point is,” Merlin was saying patiently, “Queen Victoria liked serpentine. It turns a vibrant green, usually, when you work it.”
“When you spend night after night polishing it with sand and oil,” said Merlin. “Or an electric lathe if you live in the 21st century. In the late 1800s, there were more than twenty independent serpentine workers turning stone out of their homes as well as through the day to make souvenirs because Queen Victoria made a bit of a deal out of it, and today’s workers use the same techniques as their grandfathers before them. You’re holding a bit of history right there.”
Arthur eyed the rough fragment of rock Merlin had handed him to look at that he had pulled from his pocket. “Good to know that electricity turned up eventually.”
“Yep. Polishing is hard work when you can only use a rag to do it,” Merlin said. “It’s cool though, today’s serpentine workers can identify the geographic and historical source of any piece, because the depth of colour and design varies. There are only two or three people left who work serpentine in the traditional way.”
Arthur opened his mouth to continue, but stopped as someone driving a Citroen with very shiny alloys skidded down the ramp from the high street, headlights and dubstep FM blaring.
Arthur pressed the button to raise the lever. The Citroen sailed through without slowing, and zoomed up the ramp to the upper floors.
“And what was that!” Merlin said indignantly. He plonked his empty cup on the edge of the window ledge. “The red car discount?”
“No…” said Arthur after a pause. “The it’s-before-6am discount. You might be familiar with it, you enjoy the same discount.”
“I don’t enjoy it, I’m entitled to it,” said Merlin. “If they were also employees of the car park—are they employees of the car park?”
“I don’t think we’re employees of the car park,” said Arthur. “We don’t do its dark bidding, it’s not some sentient overlord. Just a car park. We’re car park staff.”
“And you are the most pedantic car park staff member I have ever had the misfortune to spend these long nights with.”
“No,” said Arthur, once it was clear Merlin was finished. “They don’t work here.”
“Luckily for them,” said Merlin. “Because it’s absolutely outrageous that employees don’t get a discount.”
“But they do,” said Arthur.
Merlin stared at him.
“They get half-price parking,” said Arthur, pointing to the sign, which mentioned that fact quite clearly. In fact, all the information one might need to know was listed clearly on the sign.
Merlin opened his mouth to be further outraged, but then cut off. “Do you hear that?”
Arthur listened. There was the sound of the motorway in the distance, louder now that normal work hours loomed. The pedestrian crossing at the end of the ramp off the high street was starting to beep with more frequency. Someone was walking along the pavement by the shops upstairs and scuffing their feet as they went. All of these early morning sounds echoed down into the cavernous depths of the multi-storey.
Then he heard it. A distant banging. Coming from within the car park.
Arthur felt around under his book and picked up the walkie-talkie as a car alarm started going off on one of the upper floors. He switched it on and hit *67 and held it up to his mouth, pressing down the panel on the side to speak. “Merlin. Merlin do you copy? Over.”
Merlin jumped at the sudden static at his hip. “What are you--?” He fumbled his walkie, which he was always supposed to have at the ready, per company guidelines. It was also on the sign.
“Come in, Merlin. Do you copy? Crime ongoing on the second floor.” Arthur said this into the walkie-talkie in a low, urgent voice. When Merlin stared at him, Arthur nodded to him and let go of the button. “You have to investigate,” he said in a normal voice, then said into the walkie, “Over.”
“You’re not funny,” Merlin told him into his own walkie. He shook his head when Arthur looked pointedly at him again. “Over.”
“It’s a relief to hear from you. I repeat, possible car theft on the second or third floor. The assailant is possibly armed and dangerous. Maybe two assailants. Thank god you’re here, I’m going to need you to—”
“Fine,” Merlin sighed, without bothering to say it into the walkie-talkie, and set off for the stairwell marked FIRE ESCAPE, which they had propped open with a rubbish bin. Merlin turned just as he was disappearing inside and pointed the walkie-talkie at Arthur, antenna end first. “This may be goodbye,” he said with a hint of Sean Connery. Arthur felt his heart pick up. This was all very exciting.
Merlin spun on his heel and disappeared up the stairs.
The walkie-talkie staticked and then Merlin’s voice came tinny down the line again. “If they’re really stealing a car, I’m not doing anything about it. Over.”
“What if it’s your car? Over.”
“My car isn’t on the second floor,” said Merlin, suddenly whispering. He must be on the approach. “Over.”
This was the most action Arthur had seen here, ever. He found himself very into it. Too into it. “What if it’s mine? Over.”
“You don’t have a car, you have a bus pass and a two-minute walk from your flat, over,” whispered Merlin, although he obviously didn’t get it because he didn’t depress the panel to let Arthur respond. The car alarm was still going, only now it was coming sooner and louder from the speaker. “I’m going to see if I can see any crowbar action from around the—oh my god—”
There was an exclamation, then a thud, and the walkie-talkie went silent. Arthur grabbed it and pressed the panel to talk. “Merlin? Merlin, what happened. Are you there?” He stared blindly into the middle distance, holding his breath.
The car alarm abruptly ceased upstairs, plunging the car park into silence. Arthur pushed the plexiglass further aside and leaned out of the window to listen. Hearing nothing, he shouted, “Merlin?”
He hesitated, caught in a limbo feeling where every second ticked by inexorably as Merlin might be in danger or worse. Arthur should do something. He knew he should. He was the only other person here, a sort-of witness to this crime, and also possibly Merlin’s supervisor. He couldn’t let one of his employees be killed on the job. Could he? No.
It had now been one long minute. He shook his head and shoved the vestibule door open, grabbed hold of his walkie-talkie, and, cursing the still-broken lift, took off at speed. He was halfway up the first round of stairs when he heard stomping coming down from the floors above.
“Merlin?” Arthur stopped where he was in the stairwell, uncertain whether he was about to be murdered too.
“Arthur.” Merlin popped his head over the railing above, apparently unscathed.
“Oh thank god.”
A surprised look flickering over Merlin’s face. He made it down the rest of the stairs and stopped next to him. “Were you coming to rescue me?”
“No,” said Arthur. “I was stretching my legs. You get to keep moving for your whole shift while I have to sit in one pokey little—”
“Aww,” said Merlin, looking dangerously close to saying something reassuring.
Arthur shook his head, heart finally returning to its normal rhythm. “Shut up. I was going to recover your body, that’s all. Are they actually stealing a car?”
“If they were, don’t you think they’d have beaten me down here?” said Merlin. He shooed Arthur back through the fire escape and moved the rubbish bin aside, shutting the door carefully behind them. “Would you wait around in the car park you’d just stolen a car from?”
“No, but I wouldn’t steal a car,” Arthur said. “What were they doing then?”
“Having sex,” said Merlin, walking alongside him. “In their car. Loudly. And er, athletically.”
“Oh.” Arthur had been quite looking forward to seeing Merlin’s take on enforcing car park security. He swung himself back inside the vestibule. “That’s disappointing.”
“Not for either of them, by the looks of it,” Merlin said looking somewhat gleeful. “I just picked up and ran. Quietly.”
“Well it’s almost 6,” said Arthur, then gave Merlin a significant look and cracked his knuckles. “We’ll see if it’s going to cost them.”
The rough bit of serpentine was still sitting on top of the building plans Arthur had been working on. He picked it up and offered it to Merlin. “Here you go.”
Merlin thought about this and then waved a hand at Arthur. “Keep it,” he said. “In your pocket, I mean. It takes lots of polishing for serpentine to look really nice and green and I don’t have a lathe on hand. You’d be doing me a favour.”
On the morning of the Christmas party—at Arthur’s breakfast time anyway, which was some time around 4 in the afternoon—Arthur decided that maybe he would show up after all. But only because Merlin was new and clearly needed him there. Arthur was thoughtful like that.
This meant he only had two hours, though, so he dashed out quickly after his meal of sausage and eggs, making the most of the dry afternoon and the prospect of a night off to take his time picking out a shirt from the pre-Christmas sales at Marks and Spencer. It was just a work thing, and he didn’t want to give Elyan the impression that he was paid enough to spend a lot of money on nice clothes. There was always the chance of a pay rise, while he was still waiting for a new and improved discount from the restaurant downstairs.
Arthur’s phone rang while he was in the changing rooms. He wiggled it out of his jeans pocket and swiped without looking at who was calling. “Hello?”
“Didn’t think you were usually awake at this hour.”
“Hello, Morgana.” Arthur eyeballed the two shirts he’d narrowed it down to, wedging his phone up against his ear and holding one then the other up to his chest in the mirror. “What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing. I just thought I’d say hello, see how my big brother was doing.”
“That so,” murmured Arthur. He threw one shirt to the side and yanked his hoodie off over his head, then did an awkward one-armed shuffle to get the button-up shirt on over his t-shirt. “What else?”
“I saw Gwen today.”
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment. “Did you?”
“Mmm. It’s been a while, it was nice to have a chat and a cup of tea. I wasn’t sure how she was doing.”
Gwen was awesome. If someone else had broken her heart like Arthur had, he would have punched them. “And? How is she doing?”
Morgana was shuffling things around in the background, wherever that was. It was stupid really, she didn’t have to pretend. Arthur took a deep breath.
“She’s okay,” said Morgana eventually. “She’s good. Funny coincidence, but she’s going to your work thing tonight.”
It wasn’t really a coincidence, seeing as the general manager of the car park was her brother. Arthur pulled the shirt off and reached for the other one. “Really? Because, Morgana—”
“Of course really,” said Morgana. “Are you going?”
“I’m trying new shirts on right now.”
Morgana paused and Arthur instantly realised he had made a mistake. He sighed and pulled the red shirt on anyway, then tipped his head and tugged it tighter. “Don’t start.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Morgana. “Who else is going?”
“Lots of 19-year-olds paying for their gap year,” said Arthur. “And me and Elyan. And Gwen, apparently. And some other employees.”
“I liked Merlin, by the way.”
“I think the feeling was mutual,” said Arthur, smiling a bit.
Morgana snorted. Really Arthur had no idea why the newspapers thought she was elegant. Incredible the lies that having nice skin and a rich parent could tell for a person.
“You know Father is going to kill you? I really thought the hard-hat career was going to do it, but having survived that he will actually—”
“Did you have something useful to say?” Arthur said over her. “Because so far, you’ve just made it difficult for me to choose between clothes.”
“No, I haven’t. Pick the red one.” She almost sounded affectionate. For a harpy of a sister with no idea of boundaries, or complicated ideas about things like dating or not dating someone. “You’re good at clothes. Even if you’re not good at everything else.”
Arthur shook his head in the mirror. He hung the first shirt neatly on its hanger and did up the buttons, then repeated it for the red shirt. That one he hung carefully over his arm. “And?”
“And I might come tonight,” said Morgana. “So I might see you. I’ll be there for Gwen, mind, so no need to pay much attention to me if you do see me. I won’t be paying much attention to you. But I’d like to say hi to Merlin.”
“You have my blessing.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “Goodbye, Morgana.”
“Bye, darling,” said Morgana, and hung up the phone.
Later in the evening than he’d really planned—later than pizza, although feeling a bit pizza-d out lately that part had been intentional—Arthur made his way into the Three Lions, which was bedecked with mistletoe and fairy lights and an oversized and heavily bedazzled Christmas tree in the corner. He ducked out of the way of the mistletoe and headed for the tables at the back where the guys—oops, no, Gwen was over there, laughing and joyful as she always was. He about-faced before she could catch sight of him and made for the bar instead.
“I’ll have a pint of Wild Goose Chase, please,” he said, casting a brief eye over the blackboard over the till, and before he could talk himself out of it, “and a shot of tequila.” Beer and tequila – if that didn’t say bravery he didn’t know what did.
“Right you are, sir,” said the bartender, who was wearing a Santa hat and who was at least five years younger than Arthur, much too young to be saying things like right you are, sir. “Anything to eat? Tonight’s special’s wings. Barbecue or hot sauce.”
“Just the pint and the tequila, please,” said Arthur, and sat back to wait, trying not to look too conspicuous. “Ah. I’m with Elyan for the Christmas party.”
“Got it, sir,” said the extremely young man, and slid the ale over the counter to Arthur, then the tequila. Arthur downed the shot in one and slid the glass back.
He was leaning on the bar, just making a start on his pint when someone very familiar dragged a bar stool sideways—very sideways—and said, “Thought you weren’t coming.”
“I wasn’t,” said Arthur. He turned and caught Merlin’s eye, partly to avoid looking at the hideous snowflake-patterned waistcoat he was wearing. “But then it felt mean to abandon you when you don’t know anyone else. You were probably going to spend all night being awkward in a corner. Or insulting people by accident.”
“As previously discussed, I am very popular in pubs. You’ve totally insulted more people by not recognising people who patronise your parking booth on the daily. I bet I know more people here than you do.”
“Probably,” Arthur agreed. He shuffled up to give Merlin room and picked up a drinks menu for him to peruse. “So with all these people to talk to, what are you doing over here, then?”
Merlin kept his eyes trained on the menu. “Avoiding my ex.”
Arthur blinked. “Oh?”
“And you looked like you needed a friend.”
Arthur looked around the bar as surreptitiously as he could manage. “Is it Gwen?” Honestly, what were the chances—
“Percival,” Merlin replied calmly.
Arthur choked on his drink and dropped his glass. He caught it as it rolled off the edge of the bar and set it upright, but empty, on the bar top.
“Very smooth,” Merlin said, handing him a handful of napkins from the little basket. He nodded at the glass. “Reflexes like that, you should be a fighter pilot, or a race car driver or something.”
“I just didn’t know you were into, um—”
“Blonds,” Merlin said, nodding like it was a tragedy he had come to accept. “At least it makes it difficult to lose track of someone when you can just look for the light reflecting off the top of their head.”
Arthur tried to sop up the rather large puddle on the counter with the thin napkins. “That’s what my mum used to say.” He moved to squeezing beer out of his shirt.
“Easier just to take it off,” Merlin suggested.
Arthur eyed him suspiciously.
“I’m only trying to help,” said Merlin. “For instance.” He caught the bartender’s eye and pointed at the empty glass. “Can he have another one?”
Arthur waited. Then he said, “Remind me to thank Elyan later.” He peeled himself out of the brand new and now broken-in overshirt, revealing the tight black CAMBRIDGE POLO t-shirt underneath. He hung the red shirt over the back of his chair.
“Thank you, Elyan,” said Merlin with feeling.
Arthur accepted his new beer from the bartender and took a hefty sip, hoping he wasn’t blushing.
Just then, a man wearing reindeer antlers on a headband appeared on Arthur’s other side, sliding a tray of empty drinks onto the bar and inching a replacement tray closer to him. “All right, mate?” he said to Arthur, and nodded genially over him at Merlin, antlers swaying. “Good night, eh?”
“Yeah, gonna be massive,” said Arthur in reply. “Not looking forward to the morning, haha.”
“Just hoping it doesn’t end like the last one,” said the man, and somehow winked and waggled his eyebrows at the same time. He selected a shot from his tray and chinked it against Arthur’s beer. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas!” Arthur replied, lifting his beer again to take another sip or two.
When he emerged from the beer, Merlin was smirking at him. “You really don’t know anyone here, do you?”
“I do so,” Arthur protested. He’d thought he’d carried it off well, considering. He took a surreptitious look: the man with the antlers was now being loud over at the Christmas tree side of the bar. He turned back to Merlin. “I know you.”
“Elyan.” Arthur cast around. There were a few people leaning on the bar that looked sort of familiar, and the guy he’d just cheersed with was in the corner, and at the table next to them was—never mind. Arthur looked the other way. “Your– Percival. And, um, Gwen.”
“She’s Elyan’s sister,” Arthur mumbled. “The one sitting next to my sister. We used to go out. She got me this job and then I dumped her.” This version of the story skipped a step or two but it covered the important parts.
Merlin looked over at Gwen’s table, then back to Arthur, doing a very bad job of trying to hide his surprise.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes?”
“Nothing,” said Merlin. He was now the colour of a tomato. “Well, not nothing. It’s just I thought you were gay.”
“Did you?” Arthur returned to his drink.
Merlin fixed a look on him. “Was I wrong?”
This wasn’t a subject Arthur wanted to get into around everyone he apparently worked with. And definitely not with Gwen right over there, still beautiful, still hurt, and likely talking to Morgana about it. Arthur chewed on his lip. And it wasn’t even like Merlin had told him anything about himself. All Arthur really knew about Merlin was that he was really annoying and drove a stupid car and liked rocks. And now, that he was gay.
Still. Merlin wasn’t wrong.
“Correct,” he said, and traced his finger idly over the bar top. “Well-spotted.”
Merlin waited until Arthur let him catch his eye. “I know. Don’t look so worried. Me too, obviously.”
Arthur refrained from looking back at Percival. “Yes,” he said. “Obviously.” He finished his drink and waved down the bartender.
There was a wretched sort of silence.
“Right,” Merlin said, and seemed to come to some sort of decision. He dragged his stool closer, so his whole thigh was pressed against Arthur’s. Quite cheeky. “Let’s talk about all the boys you’ve got with then. Or wanted to get with. This party can get better with some sharing of war stories over drinks, is all I’m saying.”
“Let’s not,” Arthur suggested. Just because he didn’t know anyone else there didn’t mean they didn’t know him, and this conversation had the potential to be very embarrassing really.
“Get your mind out of the gutter, get with just means kissed. Or wanted to. Who’ve you got your eye right now? Because—”
“How about you tell me about the boys you’ve kissed, if you want, and I’ll pretend to be interested while I look at my phone.”
“Percy, Gwaine, Lancelot, Elyan,” Merlin listed immediately. “And if you don’t recognise all those names, you should be ashamed of yourself. Now, my turn again. If you could get with anyone in this whole pub, who would it be?”
Arthur was still catching up, and finding himself more intrigued than he wanted to be. “You’ve made out with Elyan? Really?” Elyan, who was over by the Christmas tree shaking staff gifts with a guy in a Santa costume to find out the contents.
“Elyan has a soft and yet somehow assertive kiss that makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world,” said Merlin, as if Arthur had asked or had the slightest interest in knowing. Arthur, horrifyingly, felt himself blushing at this sort of PG-rated filth coming from Merlin’s mouth. Merlin waved his hand around a bit. “It was at a birthday party years ago where we were definitely not too old to still be playing spin the bottle. Now, answer the question. It’s the same question as before, you can’t have forgotten it already.”
“Merlin, do you really think we’re that kind of friends?”
“I’m that kind of friends with everyone,” said Merlin, eyes crinkling.
“Is gossip the basis for most of your friendships, then?”
Arthur shut his eyes briefly. “In that case, please don’t tell anyone that I’m—”
Merlin gave Arthur a friendly sort of elbow. “No, of course not.” He shuffled closer again. “I meant the fun kind. Who got with someone they shouldn’t have last night and stumbled out in the morning still wearing her stilettos, that sort of thing. Nothing that gets people disowned. Or, ah, re-disinherited.”
“You’d be surprised how many times and in how many ways a person can be disinherited,” said Arthur, who was still finding them all out. “My dad said to tell you hello, by the way.”
“Of course not.” Arthur outright laughed at Merlin’s crestfallen look. “Why do you care, anyway? You didn’t even like him.”
“Doesn’t mean I didn’t want him to like me,” said Merlin. He considered. “Maybe I can be a thorn in his side instead.”
“Should be simple, really. You’re already a thorn in mine.”
“Yes, but you’re no fun as an enemy,” Merlin said. “For instance, you haven’t disinherited your firstborn child over something inconceivably stupid like not wanting to be a corporate lawyer or politician or write for the Guardian or something. I don’t even like the Guardian.”
It occurred to Arthur that Merlin might also have had a drink or two before Arthur got there. He drank more of his own pint to catch up.
Merlin toyed thoughtfully with the buttons on his waistcoat. “I don’t know, what do real life rich people do for jobs? You just overcharge me for parking while you do the reading for your eminently sensible college course. That’s boring.”
“I’m still young, there’s time,” murmured Arthur, taking another drink of his beer—none left of it now; he signalled for another for himself and Merlin—and hid in his glass while Merlin bellowed laughing. This was the best work party he had ever been at.
A little later, or maybe a lot later, Arthur was deep in conversation with the bartender—his name was Eddie, and he’d finished his shift in the middle of the evening but his mum was visiting for a few days and it wasn’t that Eddie wasn’t really happy to see her but she did watch a lot of Grey’s and Eddie’s internet wasn’t really good enough to keep up with two streaming services at the same time, so he was hanging out for a bit here—when Arthur noticed that the music had changed and the company too.
“Hold on,” he said, interrupting Eddie’s story about Hestercombe Gardens, or another National Trust property nearby—come to think of it, was Hestercombe Gardens National Trust? Or was it just one of those houses owned by a wealthy family?—his father would know, Arthur thought, and shut his eyes for a second.
Over on the other side of the bar, Merlin was deep in conversation with Percival. Percival! Arthur realised this suddenly. He had one leg still in plaster and the other in a heavy-duty brace.
He shoved his drink at Eddie and made a brb gesture at him, then hopped off his bar stool to go and clap Percival on the back. “Good to see you mate,” he said, looking the man up and down. “How’re the legs?”
“Still broken,” said Percival cheerfully. His crutches were leant up against the bar beside him. “Extremely broken, doctor’s going to be pissed at me when I tell her I came out tonight. But I couldn’t miss this, peak Christmas party right here.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows. “Careful. Elyan hears you saying that and he’ll cut the budget in half next Christmas.”
“Elyan isn’t going to remember a word of a single conversation in the morning,” said Percival. “Come to think of it, now’s the time to ask him for a pay rise.”
“It won’t go anywhere, you know he’s wised up to ‘shenanigans’ in the last couple of years” —here Arthur put on an Elyan-shaped accent—“But I’d like to see you try.”
“It is very entertaining to mess with him when he’s drunk,” mused Percival. “He might promise to split his salary with you actually, Gwaine got him to do that once—of course, Gwaine was a special case.”
Merlin laughed and gave Percival’s arm a thwack. He was actually standing very close to Percival, Arthur realised, and he’d been doing quite a lot of throwing his head back and laughing. It was a shame really, Arthur had used to like Percival.
He shook his head against the sudden feeling of his chest clenching. “I’m going to get another drink,” he said abruptly. After all, it seemed he might not be invited to this particular conversation between Merlin and his ex, um, ex-boyfriend. “Either of you want one? Percival?” Maybe buying him a drink would make up for his petty and sudden-onset dislike of the generally kind and unassuming fellow.
Percival beamed. “I’ll have what you’re having. And it's Percy, you’ve known me long enough.”
“Got it. Merlin?”
“Same,” said Merlin. “Actually I’ll have two. And let’s do more shots. What are you having, and will I like it?”
Arthur had a suspicion that Merlin wasn’t very good at drinking, actually. He was being very exuberant. Of course he might just still be in love with Percival and trying to win him back. It would probably work, Arthur thought morosely.
Maybe it was him who was drunk. He didn’t normally spend time thinking about who other people were trying to get with. He wasn’t Morgana.
“Shots,” he said at last. “It’s, uh, Wednesday. Half price.”
“Thursday, I think,” Merlin corrected.
“It’s Tuesday,” said Percival, amused. “Sorry about your days tomorrow. Remember to take a paracetamol or two before you go to sleep.”
Arthur glanced at Merlin then back at Percival. “Got all day to sleep it off,” he said. “Best reason to work nights.”
Percival chortled and didn’t say anything, although he looked between them a lot, and loudly, for someone who wasn’t saying anything. It occurred to Arthur that Percival could also be annoying when he wanted to be. He and Merlin were possibly perfect for one another.
Knowing when to give up, Arthur turned on his heel and aimed for the bar again.
He was still waiting for drinks, being jostled by loud maybe-coworkers, when Merlin reappeared, wedging himself in at his side. No Percival though, Arthur noted, and then made himself take a deep breath, because now he was embarrassing himself.
Merlin leaned back. “You’re being weird. Why are you being weird?”
“No, I’m not,” said Arthur automatically. “You’re being weird.”
“No, I’m being jovial,” Merlin corrected. He narrowed his eyes at Arthur and jabbed at him vaguely. “You’re being strange at me. And Percy. You’re being all…reserved.”
“Just because you overshare, doesn’t mean we all do.” Arthur made himself stand up straighter. “That is a hideous waistcoat, you know.”
“Yes,” said Merlin, and patted Arthur’s arm. “You don’t have to defend my honour, you know. I was only avoiding him because I owe him a fiver. Well, owed. I’m getting him a drink from that guy who won’t stop looking at you—it’s very sweet actually, and quite sad to be honest. You can be very dense—you don’t have to end a relationship on bad terms, you know.”
Arthur blinked, taking it all in. The wending nature of Merlin’s sentences were like obscure poetry when under the influence. He very deliberately didn’t look at Gwen on the far side of the room, with whom it was impossible to forget that he was decidedly not on good terms. “I know.”
“Sometimes you can just … stop going out.”
“I know that too.”
“He’s the one who broke up with me,” Merlin said, as if pivoting the conversation to something like the weather.
Arthur made no attempt at hiding his surprise, thinking it probably better not to try and fail to dissemble. “Oh?”
“Yes, oh,” said Merlin. “Anyway, he sent me over here to see what was taking so long. Because the drink you are paying for is the one I’m getting him to make up for the fiver I just mentioned.”
“Shocking,” Arthur murmured, although he found that he was not, in actual fact, so very shocked.
Somewhat impressively for a man with two broken legs, Percival had vanished by the time they were given their drinks, so they stayed where they were at the bar, each with a shoulder against the bar and talking close in that way you can pull off when you have an excuse.
“Want me to tell you another rock fact?” said Merlin after a moment.
“Finally, a subject I can contribute to.”
“Have you ever heard of erratics?”
“Well, there’s you. You're what I'd call the definition of erratic.”
Merlin ignored this and leaned closer to talk. “Erratics are stones of any size that are foreign to the area they’re found in. They’re all over the place, including all around the Cornish coast. Sometimes they’re easily identifiable as rocks that were used as ballast on ships and fishing boats wrecked along the coast more than a century ago."
Arthur thought about this. “Easily identifiable because they’re found at the bottom of the sea?”
“Exactly, on shipwrecks, very handy—but there are erratics all around the world that geologists still can’t determine the source of. Some of them got carried around by glacial ice during the glacial periods of the earth’s timeline, some of them over hundreds of miles—but even knowing that, some can’t be identified at all. There’s one on the south coast of Cornwall called Giant’s Rock.” Merlin looked thoughtfully at his hands. “Which means there are all these bits of history floating around which sometimes touch our lives and those of people who were here before us.”
“Especially when you’re a geologist,” Arthur murmured, although he didn’t really want to interrupt Merlin looking like that.
“Yes, thank you, especially when you’re a geologist. But usually that rock just keeps existing on a hill or half a mile out to sea or something, not mattering to anyone except when you’re, I dunno—"
“A surfer,” Arthur suggested, trying to demonstrate that he was listening.
“Yes, precisely,” said Merlin, looking gratified. “A surfer trying not to crash into it. She’ll either fail and her life will change, or pass this one bit of history by and never think of it again.”
Arthur wasn’t sure that he had the same level of appreciation for rocks and their historical import as Merlin did, even after Merlin’s explanation. But he liked how much Merlin liked them, and he liked that they were talking about something Merlin clearly felt strongly about. And what he liked most of all was how Merlin was looking at him right now. He really, really liked that.
A woman dressed entirely in sequins squeezed into the empty half an inch between Arthur and the bar patron previously stood next to him and waved for the bartender, her platform heels a few scant, safe inches from Arthur’s feet. Arthur shuffled closer to Merlin to give her space, narrowly avoiding what in the past had been a very painful experience.
“So …” said Merlin, not moving back any comparable distance. “Any interesting brick facts?”
Arthur gave him a look. “What do you think?”
“Dunno, that’s why I’m asking you. Keystones exist in Roman architecture, don’t they?”
“Dunno,” said Arthur. He shook his head at himself. “I mean, yes. But you’re the historian. Sort of. You like old things. Anyway keystones are in bridges and arches. I’m still on straight-up, straight-down walls and corners. Mostly.”
“You haven’t skimmed ahead?”
“No.” There was no point in rushing things, Arthur felt. Better to do the thing properly.
“I’m not a historian, it just so happens that rocks are old,” said Merlin. “What’s so good about bricklaying, if not for the interesting brick facts?”
“Got to make a living somehow.”
Merlin shook his head. “You are way too emo to not have a reason for—well, literally anything you do.” He fixed a look on Arthur. “And even if you weren’t, bricklaying is too hands-on to just … do it without a reason.”
Arthur blew out his cheeks. This was all getting very personal really.
He shuffled so the sequined woman had more room, bringing him even closer to Merlin, and said, “I like making things. And building things. Things that might last.”
Merlin didn’t reply. He kept looking at Arthur though, all warm and smiley and crinkly-eyed from so close up.
Arthur felt himself turn red. “It’s not that exciting,” he mumbled. “It’s just bricklaying. I’m not saving lives or anything. And I’ll probably just end up building garden walls or fixing village halls or something else square and uneventful.” Which actually described his life up to this point pretty accurately. And also incidentally, rather nicely described his expectations for the following morning at college.
Merlin made a dismissive motion. “I like village halls. You get to meet all sorts of people in village halls that you wouldn’t otherwise. I think that’s nice. People should spend more time in village halls, it builds community.”
Arthur couldn’t actually disagree with that, although Merlin was starting to sound like an old man. He rubbed his hand over his neck. “We’re starting new subjects next term though. So I might end up being a plumber or something instead. Who knows.”
Merlin snorted and shook his head. “Not a chance.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Plumbers wear overalls,” said Merlin. “Half of the appeal of doing construction work is lots of attractive men with nice arms on display.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“You are incorrigible,” said Arthur. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Yup,” said Merlin. “I have learned to live with it. Also, I notice that you haven’t denied it.”
Arthur took a healthy sip of his pint. “Of course not,” he said. “I’ve got eyes.” He leaned his arm on the bar, and propped his chin up on his fist. He flexed his arm, keeping both eyes on Merlin as he did. “It helps that I fit the part.”
Merlin, he noticed, did not deny it either.
It could be said that Arthur was a risk-taker. After all, he had thrown away a considerable--considerable--fortune when he dropped out of university to live life as a minimum wage, gay construction worker in training. But no one could be brave all the time.
This found him an hour later, still stood by the bar. Nothing had really changed. He was still working on the same pint and yet decidedly merry. Merlin was still leaning on the bar beside him, making no move to leave. And all of that was fine because any moment now everyone was going to head for Blitz! and Arthur could go home and go to bed without having embarrassed himself.
Over by the Christmas tree, Elyan had his arm wrapped around Gwen on one side and Gwaine the lift technician on the other, a pint of Guinness in either hand. He was swaying from one foot to the other, getting beer all over all three of them and failing to notice them laughing at him.
Arthur looked at Merlin again. “So did Percival—Percy get you the job, then?”
“Arthur,” said Merlin. “Have you looked at me? I’m a security guard. I’m half the size of you and about a third of the size of Percival. Obviously he got me the job. For a passably intelligent person you are—”
“Just wanted you to admit it,” said Arthur. He picked out a peanut from the bowl nearest him and tossed it into his mouth, eyeing Merlin up and down. “Have you ever even been in a fight?”
“Again,” said Merlin, gesturing up and down his own body. “Half the size of you--a good three inches taller, mind--and, I am reliably informed, occasionally too clever for my own good.”
“It’s one inch, most, and that doesn’t sound like you. For one thing—”
“Whatever you’re about to say,” Merlin said, suddenly six inches closer and murmuring it right in Arthur’s ear, “it’s more than you’ve said to anyone else all night.”
“Well—ah,” managed Arthur, with indeed no idea what he was going to say next.
He looked up meaning to catch Merlin’s eye, and somehow caught Gwen’s instead just past Merlin’s shoulder. She was on the far side of the room still, beer splotches clearly visible all over her blue dress from Elyan’s exuberant dancing, and now and then Morgana appeared to sling an arm around her.
Gwen looked momentarily vulnerable, eyes flickering in a direction Arthur couldn’t discern from his side of the room.
Heart aching just a bit, Arthur sat up straighter and smiled tentatively across at her.
After a moment, Gwen smiled back. Arthur hadn’t seen the blue dress before but she had done her hair in just the pretty sort of twist that Arthur had liked. She looked as beautiful as ever, Guinness and all.
“Mmhmm,” said Merlin, eyes fixed on him over his drink like just because Arthur wasn’t looking back, didn’t mean Merlin had to stop looking.
Gwen turned deliberately in the other direction, smile still bright, beckoning for Morgana to follow as she vanished in the crowd.
Arthur turned back to the bar.
“You know it’s not too late to slip away before anyone notices,” Merlin said, apparently giving up on pretending he hadn’t been watching. “I’ll tell anyone who asks that you had emergency coursework. They’re all basically still in sixth form, they’ll understand. Well they won’t understand you leaving the free alcohol behind, but they’ll understand avoidance.”
“Who doesn’t?” Arthur asked, still without looking. “Or are you being insightful about human nature and I’m ruining it?”
“I was trying to bait you into agreeing to stay,” said Merlin, much too obviously amused at himself. “While I do know everyone’s name, I don’t actually know anyone else here personally. I’m still a temp, I’ll be gone as soon as Percy can walk around the car park without tripping over his crutches. But you can leave if you want to.”
Arthur drummed his fingers against the sticky bar top as he thought about this. On the one hand, he didn’t much care to share his personal life with all the people he worked with. And definitely not where Gwen had to watch. Also, this party probably counted as day-drinking for him, and Arthur generally tried not to make important choices while still in the process of making bad choices.
On the other hand, Gwen was elsewhere, and it was Christmas, and what were the endless repeats of Love Actually for if not to persuade you to take the shot with your co-worker. Especially if you actually liked him rather a lot.
“Why would I do that?” said Arthur, turning to smile at Merlin. “I like it right here where I—Merlin?”
Merlin was gone. He’d left his beer glass where it was on the coaster next to Arthur’s, but he’d taken everything else with him, scarf and woolly hat and everything.
Arthur’s heart sank. Well all right then. Apparently he was leaving after all.
He grabbed his coat and his red overshirt from the back of his bar stool, paid for the rest of his and Merlin’s drinks, and stepped out of the back door to the cobbled pathway, trying to ignore the bitter taste in his mouth.
He was about to head through the gate that led to the high street and his flat, when he saw a familiar red scarf. Merlin was sitting outside at a wet picnic bench under an umbrella, phone to his ear, in the smoking area. Or the beer garden, or whatever it was when it was both of those things at once and no one else was there because there was an icy cold wind and it was trying to rain again. There were Christmas decorations draped off every surface, sadly drooping in the drizzle.
Arthur’s heart tripped in his chest. He shook his head and headed on over to the table Merlin was sitting at, and drummed his fingers on the table while he waited for him to be done. It felt a bit stupid to be sitting there, except that Merlin had his own hand flat on the table too and Arthur found he couldn’t pull himself away.
It was getting colder with every moment, and the picnic bench was getting damper. The table umbrella wasn’t actually really doing very much other than hosting a sprig of mistletoe and persuading people that there was outside space to be used. And frankly Arthur didn’t think that part was really true.
When Merlin eventually hung up the phone Arthur put his elbow on the picnic bench between them and pointed at Merlin and said, “You left.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Should’ve left my phone at home.” Merlin smiled warmly at him. “I’m glad you came to find me.”
“Yes,” said Arthur. He kept his eyes on Merlin. “Good thing no one more interesting was around.”
“Good thing,” Merlin agreed. He tipped his head a little. “You’d have come looking anyway.”
Arthur’s heart was racing. He flicked a look up at the mistletoe hanging in the umbrella so that Merlin couldn’t possibly miss it, or miss his chance to do something like laugh cheerfully and pull away. Or anything like that.
When Merlin didn’t do any of those things, Arthur didn’t give himself time to think. He leaned across the picnic bench, slid his hand around the back of Merlin’s neck, pulled him forwards and pressed a kiss to his mouth. He made it firm and brief, mouth closed until he felt Merlin relax and smile a bit. Only then did Arthur allow himself to enjoy it, his eyes falling closed as the sounds of the pub behind them faded into the background.
Merlin slid his hand up to Arthur’s wrist after a second and pulled back a little. But he stayed close enough that Arthur could still feel his breath on his face in the cold. His expression was flush and pleased, and he was looking at Arthur’s mouth still.
“Daring of you,” said Merlin.
Arthur dropped his other hand to Merlin’s on his wrist, rubbing his thumb against Merlin’s own. “Well, there’s mistletoe,” he said, looking vaguely up above them. The mistletoe was nestled among a few lines of plastic gold bells with a cluster of fairy lights in the apex. “It’s a rule. So I’m told. And I’m a firm believer in rules. Besides, it’s nicer here than at work.”
“Is it?” Merlin quirked his head. “You know there are Christmas decorations at work too.”
“Yep,” said Arthur. “I noticed.”
“You know decorating your stupid booth with the baubles and the fairy lights and all that tinsel took me two trips to town.”
Merlin was swaying a bit in his seat. Probably not because of the cold, Arthur thought, and said, “I believe you. It looks like you emptied out most of the decorations aisle.” He was just taking nonsense, waiting for what came next.
“Well, that’s what I did, really.” Merlin hesitated. Then he leaned forwards again and pulled Arthur in, drawing him into another kiss. He was warming up, his mouth hot against Arthur’s even though his fingers were cold around Arthur’s neck and on his hand. Arthur didn’t feel drunk and he didn’t think Merlin was either and he couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the feel of Merlin’s mouth on his own.
He pulled back when he started to run out of breath in the cold air, noticing that Merlin’s cheeks were very flushed. He kept looking at Arthur’s mouth.
“Shame you didn’t hang any mistletoe,” said Arthur, trying to keep a smile down. “You might have, um. Had another name on that list of yours.”
“Worth the wait,” said Merlin. His fingers twitched in Arthur’s. “I have spent literally every hour at work batting my eyelashes at you, and have come to your home twice, not to mention attended excruciatingly painful lunch with your father, and you still did not pick up on … anything. I honestly don’t believe that mistletoe would have changed anything.”
Arthur summoned his courage. “Do you want to come—"
“Ah, crap.” Merlin put a hand to his coat pocket.
“That’s fine,” said Arthur quickly. “I just thought—"
“No, it’s just. That was my friend Will,” Merlin interrupted, catching Arthur’s eye with a vaguely dismayed look. “On the phone just now. He’s coming back from uni, that was him, he’s staying at mine tonight.”
“Oh,” said Arthur after a second to parse this new information. “Right. Ah, okay.”
“Just for tonight,” Merlin said again, like he was trying to be urgent and casual at the same time, and chewed on his lip in an exasperated sort of way. “He really. Well.”
Arthur tried to get over the prickle of jealousy, or disappointment, or whatever it was he was feeling. “Totally understand,” he said, trying for breezy and from the look on Merlin’s face, failing miserably. “I mean—of course. It would be weird if you, um. That’s fine, totally get it.”
“Totally,” said Merlin. He looked at his hand flat on the bench then back at Arthur. “If I could—"
Arthur had to leave before suggesting something stupid and unappealing. “I’m going to go,” he said, giving Merlin an approximation of a smile. “See you at work?”
The only heartening thing was that Merlin looked just as glum about the situation as Arthur did. “Yeah. Tomorrow. Well, tonight, I suppose.” It was already past midnight, after all.
Arthur stood, pulling his coat closer and digging his woolly hat out of one of the pockets. Something occurred to him. “Just checking. Will isn’t a current contender for The List, is he?”
Merlin’s eyes widened and he eyeballed Arthur again. “Oh. God, no. Trust me. In fact, we don’t need to talk about Will.”
Arthur hesitated where he was stood. He wanted to kiss Merlin again. But also he wanted to kiss him again when he had somewhere else to go after that. Somewhere private. “Right. Good night, then.”
Merlin looked up at him. “Good night,” he said and Arthur walked away.
As it happened, Arthur’s final practical was that next morning. He woke up from his handful of hours' rest slightly hungover and just as alone as when he’d gone to bed, stumbled around trying not to think too hard about what it would have been like to wake up not alone, and made it to college without forgetting to bring his plans for today’s wall.
“All right lads,” said Leon, surveying his class of teenagers and Arthur. “Last day. As you know, your written assessments are due to me by the end of the week. But since it’s a nice day I thought we’d do something different than planned. No point in having you build a wall inside and then break it down again if you don’t have to.” He looked around at them. “Defeats the purpose, if you ask me.”
He bade them follow him outside and into the sunshine with their tools, and led the class past the rest of the construction classrooms and out to the shared recreation area that separated the college from the primary school next door. The chain link fence had been taken down and in its place, a long line of 4 by 4 squares had been dug out of the ground, each laid with a cement foundation around the outside of the square. Arthur squinted at the array of tarps and mortar mixes heaped up with piles of loose bricks close by.
“The school wants garden beds for the Reception kids to grow flowers in,” Leon explained. “And since you’re all going to be working in squares anyway, I thought, why not have you do it out here, where the kids can admire them too. You’ll follow the same plans as you already prepared for today; if you were planning a cavity wall then you can go ahead with it or amend your plans as you wish. Just try to keep your structure below 2 foot tall if you can. No point building something a six year old can’t climb over.”
Arthur picked his spot and set to with his tarp and tape measure. It was a nice, crisp December day, perfect for bricklaying. Arthur wasn’t sure he could point to the last time he’d spent a morning outside in the sunshine, and he closed his eyes and breathed it all in. Just because he could.
The wall he'd planned was, he thought as he got started with the mortar, good and straightforward, nothing fancy except for the corner pillars. And while he couldn’t honestly say he had strong feelings one way or another about making garden beds for school children, he found himself pleased to know it was going to be useful. Which after all had been the point of this whole endeavour.
He sat back on his heels for a second to think about this, wiping what was either mud or mortar off his forehead. It might have been a new feeling. Arthur hadn’t got to do anything that felt important, in the last little while.
Leon came ambling by after a while to see how he was getting on. “Looking good,” he said, eyeing the row Arthur had finished laying and nodding approvingly. “As usual.”
“Thanks,” said Arthur, sitting back on his heels again to look up at him. “I didn’t want the kids growing up confused about what proper grouting looks like, or doesn’t look like.”
“Of course not.” Leon nodded at him as he walked on to talk to the next builder in line, who was doing something complicated and not entirely uniform with arches. “I’m glad you’re staying on next term, Arthur.”
“Me too,” said Arthur truthfully, and picked up another brick to lay as Leon continued away.
At the end of the morning, modest planter complete, corner pillars successful, full of cheer and goodwill towards his fellow bricklayers (even the one with the broken arches), Arthur was picking his way through the campus when he noticed someone familiar sitting on the wall near his bus stop.
Arthur squinted, then sped up, slipping between a crowd of gossiping students from the hair and beauty department to avoid getting stuck behind them.
He slowed as he approached the bus stop. “Merlin?”
Merlin turned, his whole face lighting up when he saw Arthur. “Arthur! Right on time.” He did a slow, obvious look at the piece of paper still in Arthur’s hand. “Is that your bricklaying certificate? Congratulations!”
“It is. Lucky for you,” said Arthur, grinning back, and stuffed the certificate in his coat pocket. “What are you doing here?” He peered closer at whatever was glinting at Merlin’s feet and then looked up in surprise. “Is that champagne?”
Merlin laughed. “No. It is the £9 an hour equivalent to champagne. Almost as good. It’s for you, congratulations,” he said again and held the bottle out.
Arthur felt a little bit overcome. “I can’t believe you remembered. Thank you, Merlin.”
“Well, of course,” said Merlin good-naturedly. “I do see quite a lot of you.”
Arthur held the bottle still cold from Tesco. “So … how’s Will?”
“Enough of that,” said Merlin as he stood up, and knocked Arthur’s side with his elbow. “What are you doing today? Bet you’re exhausted, this is like the middle of the night for you. And for me, but I didn’t have a big test this morning. I only just woke up, in fact.”
“I’ll get through it,” said Arthur.
He thought about Merlin waking up and showing up to meet him right there and then. It was really very nice of him. Even his family hadn’t done that.
Because he wanted to, and no one was standing that close, and before he could talk himself out of it, he said, “Do you want to come home with me?”
Merlin’s eyes widened. “Now?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, laughing a bit. “Now. Unless you’re busy. Or er, not interested. No pressure.”
“I—yes,” replied Merlin. “I mean, no I’m not busy, I am very interested. Yes to going home with you. Just, I thought you’d want to take it slow, or something. Not that I think you’re trying to, ah, get me into bed or anything. Just, you know.”
“Getting you into bed is exactly what I’m trying to do,” Arthur said. “I thought that was obvious from do you want to come home with me. And kissing you last night. I think I asked you to come home with me then, too. Sort of.” He gestured with the bottle in a homewards direction, feeling somehow emboldened now that it was daylight and Merlin had come all this way for him. “Of course, if you want to sit and hold hands and watch a film instead, that’s fine too.”
“I thought that was liquid courage,” mumbled Merlin, which wasn’t exactly wrong but certainly wasn’t right, either.
“Well I’m not drinking now.”
They both jumped and turned as Arthur’s bus pulled up, brakes shrieking. A large group of students jostled themselves into a line in front of the doors.
Arthur turned back. “We could walk,” he suggested. “If you like. It’s not that far.”
“Okay,” said Merlin, so Arthur put the bottle in his bag and led them back through the campus, walking against the majority of students making their way to the buses. Merlin seemed happy to follow him through the tide, and then they made it back to the field Arthur had just left.
Arthur gave it another moment’s thought then kept walking them around the path instead of cutting across the grass. They had nothing but time. Arthur kind of wanted to savour it.
Besides, it was important that Merlin knew what he was getting himself into. In a roundabout way.
“Isn’t town that way?” said Merlin, and pointed.
“Yep,” said Arthur, and continued taking the long way around. “Don’t worry, it’s worth it.”
“I have no doubt,” said Merlin, doubtfully. He looked at Arthur as they came to a stop at the edge of the field. “Ah.”
“I know,” said Arthur. “You’re speechless. Hard not to be, honestly.”
Merlin looked around them. Then his gaze landed on the new flower beds they were coming up on and Arthur saw him work it out. “One of these boxes is yours!”
“Correct,” said Arthur, and walked Merlin down the line.
"What am I looking at.”
“I don’t want to spoil you,” said Arthur, and grinned when Merlin drew a deep, audible breath to give himself patience. He stopped at the last one. “Here’s mine. Isn’t she a beauty?” he said, in tones that sounded far too much like his father showing off his favourite sports car.
“Well,” said Merlin, and walked up to give it a good examination. Arthur was pleased to note that nothing had changed in the half hour since getting his certificate and returning to the site of the wall, except that the mortar was, he decided without any evidence to the contrary, curing nicely.
“Nice corners,” said Merlin approvingly. “It all looks straight and even. Definitely straight up, straight down.”
“Perfectly so,” said Arthur, who had of course checked as he went. “And how about the neatness of that pattern along the top?”
“Incredible. Flawless. Also, understated and unobtrusive.”
“Well, it is a garden wall,” said Arthur. “You wouldn’t want it getting ideas above its station.”
“Of course not.” Merlin stared at it more. Then he looked at Arthur. “I’m going to need some help here.”
“The grout,” said Arthur, pointing at the mortar between the brick rows.
“Arthur,” Merlin groaned, then said, “I mean, yes. That is some … grout. It looks like grout. That you grouted.”
“It is,” said Arthur happily. “Not too thick, not too thin. This wall is going to stay up forever.”
“Unlike your friend’s,” said Merlin, nodding at the neighbouring flower bed. “Which looks like it’s already having trouble.”
“He aimed too high,” said Arthur, making a what-can-you-do face. He pulled Merlin back up to his feet, fingers lingering before he let go and buried both his hands in his coat pockets.
They ambled along the path around the field. Arthur wondered if this was how it was going to be now, Merlin showing up after his classes were finished to walk home with him, and probably tell him rock facts. Happiness flared in his chest.
They reached the end of the field and crossed the viaduct across the canal, then turned onto the long road that led towards the middle of town and Arthur’s flat. Arthur could feel the prickle of lost sleep at the edge of his consciousness, although he thought he could probably find it in himself to ignore it, in light of everything.
Merlin seemed to catch his mood because he finished his story about agatized coral with, “And this is now a moot point, but I just mention that when I tried to get you to invite me in last week, you threw me back into the rain.”
That was certainly one way of interpreting things. Arthur shook his head. “Last week I thought the only one of the two of us interested was me. For some reason today I’m less worried about whether or not you want to have sex with me.”
“Can’t imagine why,” said Merlin, although he did manage to look faintly mollified, and knocked the back of his hand against Arthur’s as they walked.
They had made it nearly the whole way to Arthur's flat, in fact were just passing the front of the Indian restaurant, when Arthur’s phone chimed in his pocket. He grabbed it as he was fumbling around for his keys.
Are you done yet? Morgana had written. Dad made reservations at Razzle. Tell me when you’re on your way!!!
“Shit,” said Arthur. He looked to Merlin, wishing more than anything that he’d turned his damn phone off for once. “Fuck." At Merlin's patient eyebrows Arthur groaned, "I forgot. Morgana and my dad are taking me for a celebration lunch.”
Merlin looked surprised. Which was very astute of him. "Well. That's nice." He eyed Arthur’s window above them then seemed to realize it was lunchtime and put the pieces together. “Ah. Right now?”
“Morgana must have reminded him,” Arthur said glumly. “I can’t not go now. They’re probably already on their way. We're going to Razzle."
Merlin's expression changed to one of alarm. "The posh place across from the church? The one with the chandeliers?"
Arthur rubbed a hand over his face. "She’s probably already giving him a lecture about not being dismissive of my choices. Or at least about not bringing it up to my face.”
Merlin smiled. “I like that Morgana.”
To his own surprise, Arthur laughed. “You would.”
They stared at each other.
“I mean I also like Razzle,” Merlin said at last. “When someone else is paying.”
Arthur frowned at him. “You want to have lunch with my family? One interrogation wasn’t enough for you?”
“Nope, once was plenty,” said Merlin. “I want to go upstairs and have sex with you. Like, for the rest of the afternoon. But going to lunch with you and your dad and your sister sounds like a … really close second best.”
Arthur’s heart was beating quick. “Not that close, I hope.”
Merlin grinned at Arthur and Arthur smiled helplessly back. Good grief.
He got his key in the lock at last and jerked his head at the stairs. “Come on,” he said. “You can come inside, at least.”
Arthur’s flat wasn’t anything fancy or anything, and it could generously be described as the size of a matchbox, but he tried to keep it nice for situations like this. Finally that was paying off. Merlin wandered along the hall looking at the books stacked up by colour underneath the radiator, and took off his coat and hat and scarf while he turned in a circle on the living room side of the kitchen-diner, then appeared to remember the plan and picked them back up again.
Arthur saw his gaze falling on the little pot plants that were somehow still alive on the windowsill and the string of bells trailing behind them, the same bells as those Merlin had hung all over the parking vestibule. A smile flashed across his face.
Arthur put down his bag and unwrapped all his layers of warm clothes, deciding that since he was here, he might as well put on clothes that weren’t covered in mortar dust. Then he realised he hadn’t actually replied to Morgana and took out his phone again to find a message containing just a string of question marks.
Sounds good Arthur wrote. Can’t wait.
You’re cheerful came her reply at once.
Merlin looked up from the window. “You’re sure your family won’t find it weird that I’m there? Like, again?”
“I’m sure Morgana would be more surprised if you weren’t,” Arthur told him. “Because she is a smart girl and also because there is a very good chance she saw us last night.”
Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Is that okay?”
Arthur didn’t think that Merlin was going to change his mind about anything, or anyone. But he said this in a way that sounded like the answer was important. Which was probably fair.
Arthur shrugged. “She was always going to see us some time,” he said, opening the fridge and sticking the bottle inside. “She is not only smart, she is also nosy.”
Merlin nodded, pleased and casual at the same time. He turned to look out of the window. “I like your view," he said. "This is some good people-watching.”
Merlin's breath fogged the glass. "Mostly ravenous Indian-food orderers, obviously."
Arthur hesitated, looking back down at his dusty overalls and wondering how nonchalant he needed to be about changing clothes when the person he’d been hoping to have sex with up until a minute ago was still in his flat with him. “Just a moment,” he said. Then he dashed into his bedroom, tossed his overalls into the corner and got into jeans and a plain white t-shirt at lightspeed, and emerged scant seconds later into the living room.
Merlin turned around from the window and said, “This is nice. It’s good.” He didn’t seem to be talking about the decor though, or the view of the trees through the window. Actually there was a good chance he hadn’t even noticed that Arthur had changed clothes. He was just looking at Arthur, mouth curving up in the corners, as still and calm as Arthur had ever seen him.
Arthur took a breath. He nodded, or shrugged, or something, then strode the three feet between them and met Merlin in the middle of the room, and kissed him full on the mouth.
Merlin didn’t hesitate. He got his hands on Arthur's biceps, returning the kiss for all he was worth. His hands went to Arthur’s hair and on his chest, then around the back of his neck and shoulders, pulling him close.
Arthur spun them so he could walk them backwards, landing with his back against the empty wall behind them. He didn’t want to think about staying upright, he wanted to touch Merlin everywhere and kiss him until they ran out of breath. And a lot of other things that didn’t include leaving, honestly.
Merlin’s hands were quickly at Arthur’s waist, tugging his t-shirt out of his jeans with his thigh between both of Arthur’s as he kissed him. Arthur was hard, he realised, and so was Merlin. His cool hands seemed to soothe the heat of Arthur’s skin.
To hell with lunch, he thought distantly, and helped Merlin yank his shirt up and over his head. “God,” he breathed as Merlin pressed closer to bite lightly at the base of his neck, making some sort of noise of appreciation as his hands roamed over Arthur’s chest.
“This isn’t what we’re supposed to be doing,” Merlin murmured, which didn’t change the fact that he was kissing Arthur’s neck. “You’re going to be late.”
"We’re going to be late," Arthur corrected, getting a hand in Merlin's waistband, and kissing his mouth again. He slid his hands under Merlin’s t-shirt and around to the small of his back as they kissed. “I’m always late,” he said against Merlin’s mouth. “They’d suspect something if I was early. You’d better keep going.”
Merlin laughed into his collarbone. “You don’t need to use a line on me, I am literally taking your clothes off you." He proved this, fingers working at the buttons of Arthur's jeans. "I’m a sure thing.”
“Hmm,” said Arthur, finding it impossible to think of anything coherent to say with that happening.
He jumped when someone hammered on the door downstairs.
Merlin laughed at him again. “Don’t worry,” he said, leaning in to kiss him again, long and slow. When he pulled away he said, “I’ll protect you.”
The person hammered on the door again and then started leaning on the buzzer.
“Oh my god,” Arthur muttered. He could put up with a lot when Merlin was holding him up against a wall and showing signs of doing quite a lot more than that against the very same wall. But it would be nice if he didn’t have to.
“You’re not expecting someone else to come in and feel you up?” said Merlin, continuing to do so himself despite the very obvious risk that he had guessed correctly. Then he paused and leaned back. “Er. Or that your family hasn’t come to find you? Just how nosy are we talking, here?”
Arthur shut his eyes against the thought and let his head fall back against the wall. “If that’s Morgana, I’m going to kill her.”
“Delivery!” hollered whoever it was downstairs, in a deep, gruff voice that definitely did not belong to Morgana. “Door’s stuck, need someone to come and—”
The shouting stopped suddenly and Arthur heard the ding of the bell that hung above the door to the restaurant.
“Wonderful,” Arthur sighed, feeling that the mood had been somewhat flattened, and opened his eyes again. "Right, it's Wednesday. Weekly restaurant delivery."
Merlin stared at him.
Merlin looked like he felt. Only a bit more scarecrow-like, probably. A partially-ravished, really attractive scarecrow.
Arthur ran his tongue over his lips, desperately wanting to keep going and also finding it hard to put the thought of his father showing up at his door out of his head.
“We should go.”
Merlin nodded, and cleared his throat and reached up with both his hands to try to fix Arthur’s hair for him. “I have no regrets,” he said, voice a little rough. “Actually I was hoping we’d get as far as this. Like, really turned on, and then stop.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Merlin stepped back and tried to fix his own hair. It was a losing battle, he was going to have to wear a hat while they walked to lunch to disguise what Arthur had just been doing to it.
Arthur took a deep breath or two of his own and made himself stand up straight, looking at the ceiling with his hands on his hips, trying to get himself under control. He risked another glance at Merlin.
Merlin was watching him. “You’re going to want to put a shirt on,” he said, in a way that made it sound like he had no idea what he was saying but had to say something. “You’re all—” he waved a vague hand at Arthur’s chest and turned away, cheeks pink.
“Right,” said Arthur. He abandoned the t-shirt that Merlin had pulled off him and dropped to the floor, clearly not the right choice for this particular lunch, and dashed into his room to snag a different one from off the end of the bed.
He made himself take a breath before he went back out into the living room, giving it a second to get himself under control. Merlin looked a bit more put together, less like he was ready to get down on his knees and damn the consequences. And he’d found one of Arthur’s woolly hats to wear.
“All right,” said Arthur, now feeling more prepared himself. He gave Merlin a look. “The sooner we get there, the sooner we’re back.”
Merlin’s gaze travelled slowly down Arthur’s body. He rolled his lip under his teeth as he did, and then looked up and caught Arthur’s eye.
Arthur held his breath.
“Can’t wait,” Merlin said.
Morgana jumped to her feet as soon as Arthur walked inside the restaurant.
“Congratulations, darling,” she said as she gave him a most unprecedented hug, and hissed, “you could have warned me,” in his ear. Then she turned to Merlin and did the same thing, although evidently not as a subterfuge, because Merlin just beamed and hugged her back.
Arthur looked at the table, avoided looking at his father, and grabbed a spare menu from the table beside him to give to Merlin. Then he sat down and said, “Hello, Father. You remember my friend Merlin.”
“How could I forget?” said Uther, looking between them with all the warmth of a February morning. “It’s good of you to join us, Merlin. Again.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it,” said Merlin cheerfully. He took the empty seat between Arthur and Uther and pressed his leg up against Arthur’s. “You know how Arthur is. So modest about his achievements. Sorry for barging in on your family dinner, I had to come just to make sure he didn’t undersell anything he’s done today. Or this term.”
Uther’s eyebrow twitched. “Any friend of Arthur’s is always welcome to share our table.”
“Yes, that’s what he told me,” said Merlin. “So generous of you. I enjoyed meeting you last time.”
“Likewise,” said Uther, picking up his menu pointedly.
Arthur cleared his throat. “Good night last night?” he asked Morgana while Uther was still processing the prospect of another hour or so spent with Merlin. “You looked like you were having fun.”
“Mmm, I was,” said Morgana. She had a sip of her wine. “So did you. Last time I saw you, I was buying the entire pub a round, but you were too busy taking the air to enjoy the benefits.”
“Oh,” Arthur croaked.
“Morgana, I certainly hope—”
“Artichoke hearts to start?” said Arthur loudly, because the long night—morning—was starting to catch up with him and he really didn’t want to spend all day at lunch with his father.
“Not the artichokes,” said Uther over his menu. “You know I don’t care for it, Arthur. Vitello tonnato, I think.”
“Then the ricotta gnocchi, I like that too,” said Arthur, flipping through the menu. “Or the bruschetta.”
“Perfect,” said Morgana. “Whatever you fancy, Arthur. I’m going to get the clams, I think.”
Merlin hooked his foot around Arthur’s under the table. Arthur closed his eyes, wanting.
“You are a menace,” Arthur breathed when they got back to his flat a long two hours later. The sentiment may have been undermined as he was in the middle of dragging Merlin’s shirt over his head when he said it, with Merlin flat on his back in Arthur’s bed, one hand held over his head on the mattress, the other fumbling at Arthur’s jeans again. Arthur was sitting over him, one leg on either side of Merlin’s hips—Merlin was shirtless and he really was wastrel-thin—and rocking slowly against him. But it was the principle of the thing, as Merlin had said once.
“Whatever you want to call me works,” Merlin said, and yanked another button on Arthur’s jeans. “God. Why are you still wearing these?”
“Because you’re taking your time taking them off me,” said Arthur. He lowered himself down so he was level with Merlin’s chest again, making it easy to kiss him long and deep and slow. “Hurry up,” he said against Merlin’s mouth.
“I don’t think you have any right to say that,” said Merlin, working another button open. “If it was up to me we’d have been doing this weeks ago.”
“If you’d been paying attention, we would have been.”
“Couldn’t have thought about it more if I’d tried,” Merlin said, and worked his hand inside Arthur’s jeans to rub the heel of his hand against Arthur’s erection. “You have a look about you, did you know that? Very ... interesting. Interested. Hard to ignore.”
Arthur closed his eyes, mouth falling open.
“Actually,” said Merlin, working his hand in closer until he could wrap his fingers tighter around Arthur. “Once or twice, I thought I might just leave my car in a parking spot nearby and tell you on that stupid radio that there was a problem, come and find me. And you’d come and find me and let me do whatever I wanted to you, right there.”
“That’s what you thought about?” Arthur took the hand that wasn’t holding Merlin’s other wrist over his head and pressed it down on Merlin’s on his cock. “You wouldn’t have got very far. Sorry to say it.”
“But I thought about it,” murmured Merlin. “A lot.”
Arthur took a breath and opened his eyes again. Merlin was looking at him with a lot of emotion on his face, which was a lot, under the circumstances. Arthur leaned down to kiss him again, just for a moment.
Merlin’s expression changed. He slowed his grip on Arthur’s cock and smiled up at him. “Did you change your mind in the last ten seconds?”
“No,” said Arthur, licking his lips. A wave of anticipation rushed over him. Not nervousness, or anything. This part was something Arthur thought he would be able to manage without too much difficulty. After all, he’d spent the last while thinking about this. And he had done a fair bit of research in preparation.
“Have you done this before?”
“Yeah,” said Arthur. He hadn’t especially enjoyed it the first time, or even the second, but that didn’t matter. He wanted Merlin to kiss him and he wanted them to fuck in his bed right now, and he was looking forward to doing it again in the morning. Or sooner.
Still though, he supposed this might be something Merlin would want to know, so he cleared his throat and said, “I wasn’t completely sure then. I am now. Very. I’ve been thinking about you a lot too actually. Hard not to, have I mentioned how annoying you are? Just couldn’t get you out of my head.”
Merlin’s expression went complicated. Arthur put a finger over his mouth before he could say anything and shook his head. “Don’t try to defend yourself,” he said firmly. “You gave me literally hundreds of five and ten pence pieces to count at rush hour. That’s the definition of annoying.”
“You asked for it,” Merlin said, against the pads of Arthur’s fingers.
“You kept looking at me.” It wouldn’t have made sense to anyone else and didn’t really to himself either. He pushed himself up onto his knees so he could roll his hips down against Merlin’s. “God. Will you please just take the rest of your clothes off?”
“Okay,” Merlin breathed, and arched to get out of his jeans. Then his boxers, and shoved Arthur’s down at the same time.
“Thank you,” said Arthur. He fumbled around with the lube on the bedside table then wrapped his hand around both of their cocks, jerking them together. He took a deep breath as he did and said, “How do you want--?”
“This is good,” said Merlin, still arching into the bed with his eyes closed. Arthur couldn't have wanted him more. “Or if you want, you can turn me over.”
Arthur stuttered. "I--"
“Okay,” said Merlin, and didn’t give Arthur the time to do anything before rolling over from where he lay between Arthur's legs, getting up on his knees and displaying himself for Arthur like it was nothing. He bent down onto his elbows in the bed, pressing his head into the pillow. He got his hand on his cock, replacing Arthur's, jerking himself slow and intent. Still he was breathless when he said, “You want to fuck me like this?”
Arthur didn’t wait. He kept one hand on his cock, but took the other off the mattress, squirted lube everywhere, and pushed two slicked fingers straight into Merlin’s hole, bending over Merlin’s back to listen to him groan as he did. He thrust carefully inside, taking a deep breath as he did, and said, “I was going to ask you to fuck me like this, actually.”
“Bit late for that now,” mumbled Merlin, burying his head deeper in the pillows. He bent his back, forcing Arthur deeper. “I’m not that flexible.”
“Mmhmm,” said Arthur, who had changed his mind anyway. This was exactly what he wanted. He pushed his fingers back in and added a third. “You can fuck me next time if you like, though.”
“I don’t usually top,” said Merlin. He looked under his arm at Arthur, mouth hanging open, and finally said, “I could make an exception for you, though.”
“I think I’m flattered,” Arthur murmured, his cock twitching at the look on Merlin’s face, although somehow he wanted to laugh at the same time. Or like, kiss him, or something.
He pulled his fingers out and grabbed a condom from the bedside table beside him, ripped it open and rolled it down his cock. He adjusted his weight and pressed the head up to Merlin’s hole. He didn't push in; he held it loosely in his hand and pushed his hips slowly forwards so his cock was sliding easily along Merlin's crack. “I like this, though.”
“Do you?” Merlin's eyes fluttered shut.
“Yeah,” said Arthur, sliding his cock along Merlin's arse again and dragging it back. "You look just as good in my bed as I thought you would."
"Come on, Arthur," Merlin groaned. "You want to talk, talk. Tell me how big your dick is and how well I'm going to take it. Just like, give it to me."
Arthur grinned and took his cock in hand again. He pushed it slowly inside Merlin, taking his time, just watching it sink in. "Okay," he breathed. "You're gonna take my enormous dick and you're going to love it."
Merlin bit back a noise. "Yeah," he said, low. "I'm gonna fucking love it."
Arthur mouth was hanging open, he realised, and he caught his breath as Merlin rocked back against him.
“God,” Merlin said through a moan, and rocked back against him. “This is what I wanted.”
Arthur thrust in once or twice, taking it slow, wanting to enjoy it. Of course if they were lucky they’d be doing this a lot more in future.
Merlin made another noise, a rough, scratchy moan. Arthur was realising, perhaps a bit slower than he should have, that he was going to be vocal in bed. Which made sense. He was vocal everywhere else.
He thrust in all the way, biting on his lip as he bottomed out. He rocked in place, trying to get used to the feeling, trying not to come. “Is this--?”
“Move,” said Merlin, his voice rough. “Give it to me. I want your dick. Fuck me.”
Arthur, never one to ignore an instruction, pulled out and then thrust back in. Then again. “I’m just gonna,” he said, and didn’t wait for Merlin to reply before speeding up. “You feel really good,” he said, “I’m—”
“Yeah,” said Merlin low, “keep going. Keep doing that. Harder.”
Arthur went harder. “God, Merlin.”
“Yes,” said Merlin, arching, head tipping back. Arthur just went for it, grabbing Merlin’s shoulder and fucking him, other hand pulling Merlin’s hip to bring him back onto Arthur’s cock over and over. Odd words fell from Merlin’s mouth as Arthur fucked him harder, and Merlin was—Arthur slapped his hand off his cock and replaced it with his own, fucking him slower and harder so he could wrap his fingers around Merlin’s cock and jerk him at the same time.
Merlin was swearing, leaning further and further forward until his face was pushed all the way down in the bed, god, it felt amazing. Arthur gripped his cock and pulled harder and then Merlin swore again and came, tightening around Arthur’s cock as Arthur drove inside him.
“Yes, god, keep going—” Merlin groaned, the words barely comprehensible, and reached back to get his hand somewhere on Arthur’s thigh before Arthur came, desperate and loud and overcome.
Some long seconds later, when Arthur could think again, he pulled carefully out of Merlin, tied off the condom and dropped it in the wastepaper bin beside him. Then he lay back down on his stomach next to Merlin, dragging the quilt up and over their backs as he did so.
Merlin turned his head to look at Arthur, radiating satisfaction, if Arthur did say so himself.
He smiled at Arthur, slow and eyes heavy-lidded. Arthur caught his breath. Then he leaned in to kiss Merlin, lingering on his mouth. Merlin made a soft noise in his throat.
“So,” Arthur said when he pulled away again. He brushed the hair off his forehead with the back of his hand. “What now?”
Merlin shrugged a bit. “It’s getting late,” he said. “By which I of course mean, nearly time for work. Do you want me to go?”
“Only if you meet me there looking like this,” said Arthur idly. He threw his arm over Merlin’s back. “Let’s not.”
He fumbled around for his phone on the bedside table, and found his texts with Elyan. Not going to make it tonight, sorry he typed. Car broke down, stuck in London.
London???? came Elyan’s immediate reply.
Yeah, don’t ask said Arthur, hoping he sounded pissed off at his non-existent car instead of anything else. He dropped his phone back down on the floor.
Merlin looked at him, sleepy but alert. His gaze travelled down the length of Arthur’s body; the blanket had fallen off.
Arthur took a long breath. “Hold on,” he said, and dove for his phone again. Merlin’s here too, fyi. He’ll be there tomorrow though. He says he’s sorry too.
Elyan took a while to write back, which was weird because there were three dots on Arthur’s screen for quite some time. Okay is what came through eventually, in an unnecessarily judgmental tone of voice. See you both tomorrow. Then: No need to rent a car to sell the story.
Arthur turned off his phone.
“Now,” he said to Merlin. “You were saying?”
He woke up later with absolutely no idea what day it was, or even what time of day--it was breakfast technically, but also after dinner time, the clouds barely light anymore--to the sound of a fleet of fire engines driving through town with their sirens blaring. He lay where he woke for a moment without moving, just enjoying lying there under the quilt with frost crawling up the windowpane.
The mattress dipped and Merlin mumbled from the other side of him, “Noisy here, isn’t it?”
“That’s what you get when you stay over with someone who lives in the middle of town,” said Arthur, and rolled over to look at Merlin. There was that tremulous feeling again. He raised his eyebrows. “You could have left if you wanted a good night’s sleep.”
Merlin was suddenly a lot closer. “You’re right, I could have,” he murmured, suddenly sounding a lot less asleep. Arthur decided to roll with it. But Merlin just blinked slowly at him and shut his eyes again, falling back asleep in an instant.
It had to be evening. By the sound of it everyone else in a five mile radius was leaving work and heading out into town to watch the Christmas lights get turned on and do a bit of late-night shopping. Arthur slid out of bed and padded out of the room, snagging his dressing gown on the way out. It was another blustery day, and the trees that hid Arthur’s bedroom from view of the people who lived above the Oxfam opposite were bending wildly in the wind.
Arthur had a vague and entirely unverified idea that Merlin would sleep as long as he was allowed to before leaping out of bed, so he turned on the heating as high as it would go before filling up the kettle to make a cup of tea and locating the box of cornflakes from the top of his fridge. He was tired, but it was the good sort of tired. The sort where he thought they’d probably do that again a lot.
There was a noise in the bedroom and Merlin appeared in the door wrapped up in the quilt. He stopped where he was standing and smiled sleepily at Arthur. “Hello.”
“Hi,” said Arthur. He pulled out the chair next to him and pushed his cup of tea over invitingly.
Merlin shuffled over to sit down, took a sip of tea and then looked sideways. His gaze dipped down to Arthur’s mouth and back up. Then he said, “Not too late to go to work.”
Arthur put his considering face on, calling his bluff. “Mmm. Door’s right over there.”
Merlin looked affronted. “Lazy, lazy.”
“That’s not what you were saying last night--I mean, this morning.” He trailed off, getting distracted by the smirk on Merlin’s full mouth. “Or whatever.”
Merlin put a hand on his knee, hand warm through Arthur’s ratty pyjama bottoms. “It sounds like it’s too early for you to be out of bed,” he said. “Let’s fix that.”
They found other things to do on Wednesday night. And all of Thursday. The empty takeaway boxes from downstairs piled high in Arthur’s recycling bin.
Arthur was still disinherited though, and probably about to be even moreso, and the bills wouldn’t pay themselves, so he managed to drag himself out of bed and down the road to work. It was icy cold again, and the pavement was slippery as he walked. For once he didn’t have to carry his Bricklaying textbook with him. It was a whole six weeks until next term, and he wasn’t completely sure how he would fill his time through the shift.
Well. He had some idea.
“How’s the car?” asked Elyan when Arthur walked up, all wrapped up in coat and scarf and woolly hat, and found him inside the vestibule.
“Ah. Fine, now, thanks,” said Arthur as he climbed inside. It was even more hideously Christmassy than he remembered. “Sorry about that.”
“I didn’t know you had one, to be honest.”
“The things you learn about a person,” Arthur agreed.
“And how’s London?”
“Still there, last time I checked,” Arthur mumbled.
Elyan nodded, and waited for more, waiting for Arthur who was not going to break. Elyan raised his eyebrows. “And Merlin...?”
Arthur looked at the top of the road that led to his flat, then out back into the car park, and then at his phone for the time. Then he turned back to Elyan and smiled at him. “Merlin will be here soon,” he said. Heart full.