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Skin Deep

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Merlin has controlling his condition down to a fine art. A lifetime of hyper-sensitive skin and crippling bouts of eczema have taught him to be ever mindful, ever vigilant. Danger lurks in unexpected places. He can’t ever let down his guard.

As a child, his mother did the best she could. She slathered him in hydrocortisone and bandaged his cracked and weeping fingers. At night he slept wearing cotton mittens, to stop him scratching open the broken skin in the creases behind his knees and elbows.

The doctors said he might grow out of it. Well, Merlin grew and grew, tall and slender, and still, in times of stress his skin flares up. Finally, he resigns himself to the certain knowledge he’s stuck with this for life.

By the time Merlin is into his twenties, he’s developed a strategy. With the help of a herbalist, he’s weaned himself off the steroids that never really helped. He washes his clothes and all his linen in non-biological washing powder, and only wears natural, breathable fibres. He doesn’t drink alcohol or caffeine to excess—both are dehydrating and leave his skin irritated. When the time of year dictates he needs to put on the central heating, Merlin also puts on a humidifier. He washes himself with the mildest, moisturising soap, bathes in oats when he has a break-out, and every night, without fail, covers every inch of skin that he can reach with a dense emollient.

Most people Merlin knows have no idea that almost every waking moment of his life is dictated by the demands of his skin. They don’t need to know. He has it all under control, after all.

When Merlin starts seeing Arthur, the damp autumn is making way for what promises to be the coldest winter on record. Merlin feels the cold. And no matter how hard he tries, his skin always rebels in dry, flaming protest.

Merlin is prepared for the onslaught of the season. He always wears a scarf, to wrap around his face and protect his lips from chapping and cracking. He has gloves and hats, dozens of them—in his jacket pockets, in his car, in the hallway, in his desk at work. And tucked amongst the things that keep him warm are small tubes of E45 hand cream, lip balms and Vaseline to stop his skin from drying out.

Merlin is not prepared for being swept off his feet. But he might muse over his chamomile tea that’s the way love goes. It creeps up and grabs you from behind and tips you off balance. Mostly he just thinks Arthur is a regular prince charming.

At twenty-four, Merlin’s never seen The Nutcracker. He’s never been to any ballet. When Arthur buys Saturday night tickets, it doesn’t matter one bit that half the audience are parents with their children, because Merlin is enchanted—by all of it. He glances over at Arthur. Arthur turns back and smiles. Then he takes Merlin’s hand in his and laces his fingers through Merlin’s. Arthur’s hands are bigger, stronger and it makes Merlin feel safe. Not that he ever feels unsafe. He simply hasn’t felt quite this secure with someone new before.

The curtain falls for the last time, and Arthur leans close and whispers in Merlin’s ear, “I want to make love with you.”

Merlin blushes. He knows he does because he can feel the heat pulsing off his face and his ears. It’s their first proper date. Merlin didn’t think it would happen this soon, and not like this. “All right,” he says, unable to stop himself.

Arthur laughs and pulls him to his feet. “I only said I want to. It doesn’t have to be tonight. Just, when you’re ready.”

Of course, Arthur had to be so perfectly decent. Merlin hasn’t been with anyone in nearly a year. He wants Arthur. He wants him so fucking much his cock goes hard when Arthur puts his hand to the small of his back and urges him forward, with the rest of the crowd, out into the December night.

Arthur drove them to the ballet. He offers Merlin a lift home. Merlin’s mouth is dry, but he says loud and clear over the Christmas song that’s filling the space between them from the radio, “We could go back to yours.” He’s sure everything will be fine. It’s only one night.

Unsurprisingly, Merlin’s entire studio flat would fit in Arthur’s living room. The ceilings are high and everything is tasteful—expensively decorated in that quiet, understated but confident way that reeks of old money. Merlin is a little overwhelmed.

“Do you want a drink?” Arthur pours himself something amber-coloured that Merlin thinks is brandy.

“Just water.” It part of his ritual, to drink a large glassful every night before bed, otherwise Merlin would have gone against his better judgement and had the brandy. Not that he needs it. He’s warm enough, and dizzy from the speed he arrived here, at this place, with his perfect, golden man. It’s like a dream. It’s like every unanswered Christmas wish come true all rolled into one.

“Whatever you want,” Arthur says as Merlin gulps back his drink. His words caress the skin on Merlin’s neck and he follows them with breathy kisses.

In Arthur’s bedroom, the main light has a dimmer switch and they’re illuminated in nothing more than a soft glow. Merlin doesn’t think twice once he steps through the door. He lies down on the bed; he kisses and touches and licks and bites.

Arthur pulls and yanks off his clothes and doesn’t ask Merlin about topping or bottoming. Merlin smiles inside, curious to know whether posh people find that coarse, uncouth, to be direct. He waits to see where Arthur’s fingers go.

Arthur kisses Merlin from his neck to his navel and sucks his cock into his mouth. He looks up at Merlin through heavy lashes and reaches upwards, his fingers sliding between Merlin’s parted lips. Merlin comes in Arthur’s mouth and Arthur swallows, like the perfect gentleman he is.

Merlin would gladly reciprocate, once he gets back his breath, but Arthur takes Merlin’s hand in his and puts it around his erection. The angle is all wrong and Merlin wriggles down, between Arthur’s thighs, until Arthur’s cock is butting up to his chin. Arthur lets go of Merlin’s hands and plants his own firmly on the bed.

With a mouthful of spit on his palm, and Arthur on all fours, taut and trembling over his chest, Merlin fists Arthur’s cock. He listens to his quick breathing, and smells the musk of his engorged cock. “That’s it. Come on my face, come all over me—”

Arthur groans and jerks forward and ejaculates before Merlin can finish his filthy tirade. There’s semen everywhere. Merlin feels a globule of come trickle into his ear.

They laugh and kiss and Arthur asks Merlin to stay. He points Merlin in the direction of the bathroom so he can pee, and rinse the come from his hair and ear.

Merlin ambles to the bathroom, as happy and sated as he’s ever been. When he switches on the bathroom light, it’s like waking from a pleasant dream to a blasting alarm. His chest is blotchy and red. It’s sex flush, Merlin tells himself. But there’s no hiding his scars. They’re more of a discolouration really, in the crease of his elbows and under his arms. If Arthur noticed, he didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t notice in the soft light of the bedroom. In any case, Merlin resolves he’ll talk to him about it in the morning.

Splashing his face, and towelling over his clammy skin, Merlin takes a quick glance around Arthur’s immaculate bathroom. He doesn’t recognise the brand of soap or shampoo in the shower. Venturing a look in the medicine cabinet, with a weighty sense of guilt, Merlin sees the shaving cream is perfumed and the moisturiser (Arthur uses moisturiser) is something that looks expensive and probably laden with all the things that make Merlin’s skin flare up. He daren’t risk touching anything in here. The mere thought makes him itch.

Merlin comes back to the bedroom to find Arthur under the covers, watching and waiting. Merlin wanted to put on his t-shirt but he’s already taken too long, and he can’t see it amongst their discarded clothes strewn over the floor. Arthur is eagerly pulling him beneath the covers—crisp cotton sheets that feel soothing and cool. He puts his arm around Merlin and pulls him close. Everything will be all right, is all right, and Merlin is very tired.

In the night, Merlin feels hot. He feels like he’s being roasted on hot coals. He tosses and turns and tries to shrug the feeling from his skin. Arthur must have his heating up high. Merlin might have mentioned in passing that he feels the cold, what with being on the skinny side.

Merlin is woken up by scratching. He realises, as the stark light of Sunday forces open his eyelids, that it’s him—he’s the one scratching. And Arthur is on his side, head propped on his arm, watching him.

“You okay?”

Merlin nods though he feels like he’s burning from the stabbing of a thousand needles all over his body—and shame. “I’m really thirsty,” he mumbles.

“I’ll get you a glass of water.”

When Arthur leaves the bedroom, Merlin ventures a look, even though he knows what he’s going to find. There’s no hiding it. He sits up and looks at the scratches on his arms and belly. Luckily he hasn’t bled all over Arthur’s expensive sheets, but—

“Crap. Look at your arms.” Arthur doesn’t look disgusted, only concerned, which is scant consolation.

Right about now, Merlin wishes the ground would swallow him up. “I think I’m allergic to your washing powder.”

“I don’t launder the sheets. They go out to a service. I think they put starch in them.” Arthur looks apologetic as he adds, “Perhaps you should take a shower.” He turns away as Merlin slinks out from between the covers.

Merlin feels grotesque. He hates his ugly, traitorous skin.

The shower is big enough for two. Merlin showers in it alone, staying under the flow of cool water for a long time. He can’t use Arthur’s soap, or towels. He dries himself with his pants and goes commando. He swallows down the lump in his throat; he’s sure Arthur is never going to want him now.

The water is trickling like tears from Merlin’s hair, and soaking into the neck of his t-shirt when he comes out of the bathroom and ventures into the kitchen. Arthur has made him tea.

“You must be in a lot of pain,” Arthur says, with a sorry look that starts at Merlin’s face and drops quickly to the floor. “Drink up and I’ll get you home.”

So that’s it then—a gentle and swift rejection. Arthur has no idea about Merlin’s pain, not this kind.

Merlin can’t say anything, because if he does he’ll cry.

They don’t really talk on the way back and Merlin is for once grateful for the Christmas songs on the radio. After he pulls over, Arthur jumps out of the car and opens Merlin’s door. Merlin wishes Arthur wasn’t kind now, because it would make walking away easier. He takes a deep breath, looks Arthur in the eye and says, “Thanks. For everything.”

“Sure.” Arthur looks sheepish, unsure. “I’ll call you. Later.”

Merlin nods. He won’t be holding his breath, except for now at this very moment, until Arthur drives away.

Stripping off yesterday’s clothes, Merlin gets into his own shower and lets it wash away his anger and sorrow. He pats his skin dry and then slaps on his cream, rubbing it over his sore skin like salt rubbing into old, old wounds. He hates this, this curse.

It’s not lunchtime, but Merlin didn’t eat breakfast. Despite everything he’s hungry. He eats toast, lying on the sofa.

Not an hour later, his phone rings. It’s Arthur.

“Hi. I was just checking you were okay.”

“Yeah, I’m fine now.”

“I’m so sorry. That’s never happened before. I mean, not that I’ve had a lot of people back.”

“It’s all right,” Merlin sighs. “I should have thought about it before I came home with you. I should have told you, about my skin.”

His skin—his wretched skin that ruins every spontaneous moment, every unexpected joy.

After a short pause Arthur says, “Have you eaten?”

Merlin can’t believe his ears. He brushes the crumbs off his lap. “No,” he lies, without a hint of guilt.

“There’s a fantastic deli round the corner from me. I could pick us up sandwiches and bring them over?”

Merlin smiles, and says, “Of course,” and forgets to even worry that his teeny, tiny humble flat is a mess.

When Arthur arrives, he marches right in and kisses Merlin, again and again. He’s ever so gentle, touching Merlin’s face and shoulders with his fingertips. Merlin wraps his arms around Arthur’s waist saying, “It’s all right. It doesn’t hurt.”

“Merlin, sweet, you should have seen your back.”

Arthur looks terribly upset. Merlin recalls he didn’t even look at his back. If he can, he avoids looking in the mirror when he’s naked. He flexes his shoulders. The skin is tight.

Merlin screws up his face. “That bad?”

“It looked like hives.”

Merlin hangs his head, and sighs out loud. “It usually looks worse than it feels.”

Arthur puts his finger under Merlin’s chin and tilts up his face. “I’m still here, you know … if you need someone … I could put cream, or something, on your back.”

Merlin swallows thickly. No one has ever been this close, this intimately acquainted with his secret. He never thought of it as a secret until this very moment, but as he leads Arthur to the bathroom he realises that’s exactly what it’s been. He’s never let anyone see all his lotions and potions: his hated E45 dermatological range.

The cream is on the back of the sink. Arthur reaches around him and takes it before Merlin gets the chance. He says, “Hold up your shirt.”

Merlin closes his eyes. He doesn’t know why. It might stop him seeing his reflection, but it won’t mean it isn’t there: his exposed and blemished body. He only wishes the shame—the itching, flaking shame that’s an integral part of his skin—would disappear. And that’s never going to happen.

Arthur’s hand is gentle and sure. He’s done in no time, pulling down Merlin’s shirt and kissing Merlin on the back of the ear as he says, “It looked better already. Better than it did this morning.”

The rest of the day they hardly get up from the couch, except to pee, and get the door when the Chinese takeaway arrives. Arthur likes to kiss. Merlin wonders if everyone will know, when he goes to work tomorrow, lips kissed raw, that all he did Sunday was kiss and grind and come twice—once in Arthur’s fist and for the second time in his mouth.

Sometime in the evening, Arthur says with some uncertainty, “I thought you might be embarrassed, this morning.”

Merlin confesses, “I was.”

“I didn’t handle it very well.”

“Nor did I.”

Merlin slides his hand inside Arthur’s t-shirt and revels in the silk-smooth feel of his warm skin. Arthur kisses, kisses, kisses Merlin along his jaw and over his cheeks. He pauses to say, “You’re going to have to tell me what to wash everything in—the sheets, the towels. And what soap I need to get for you.”

Merlin doesn’t mean to cry, but his face crumples and his trembling heart betrays him now, when he all he had to do at this particular moment was be happy.

Arthur threads his fingers through Merlin’s hair and kisses the tears away as fast as they fall.

***

It was no miscalculation, about the winter.

Merlin fingers the key in his pocket as he waits for the lift. He runs the tip of his finger over its jagged edge. It’s unfamiliar and sharp, shining and bright, just like this new love.

He has to wiggle the key in the lock to make it turn. “Hi! It’s me,” he calls, hanging his scarf over the stand in the hall. His words echo—which is a novelty in itself. It’s a big space and he has to raise his voice. In his flat he’s nervous speaking much above a whisper for fear of the whole block hearing him. Arthur calls back his hello, at once skidding into the hallway with socked feet to squeeze the breath out of Merlin and kiss his chilly nose.

It’s been a long day and Merlin’s weary. He showers, dries himself and wraps the towel around his waist. Arthur comes into the bathroom and the steam billows out the door. “Come here,” he says, pulling Merlin by his fingers.

Merlin lies face down on the bed while Arthur unscrews the lid on the tub of emollient. Arthur’s got his own method going. He blobs the cream in a line that follows the bumps of Merlin’s spine, then smoothes it outwards in long, firm sweeps over Merlin’s shoulders and flanks. When he’s done, Arthur slaps Merlin on the backside and gets off the bed. He’s out the door and doing something in the kitchen before Merlin has his t-shirt pulled over his head.

This is their routine. Sometimes it’s punctuated with sex—sometimes before, sometimes after. Sometimes, if Arthur’s out or Merlin is, or if their paths don’t cross, the moisturising gets missed. Those are the times, if he can, that Arthur will capture Merlin before he falls asleep. Sometimes he doesn’t even turn on the light. He just sneaks his hand under Merlin’s t-shirt, rubbing in the lotion that will keep his skin from drying and chafing.

Looking after Merlin’s skin becomes as undeserving of comment as brushing their teeth.

Merlin’s teeth are straight and shining-white. Arthur’s are clean and bright, but a little crooked. He’s lamented that his father never thought to get him braces. Merlin tells Arthur he thinks he’s perfect as he is.

And now, when Arthur says the same to Merlin, for the first time in his life he believes it’s true.