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Every Story is a Love Story

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Camelot Publishing is run out of a large, sleek building, the sort that looks as if it’s meant to house a law firm or the international headquarters for a business. The lobby is carpeted in lush red, with a receptionist’s desk straight out of an antique shop and a smartly-dressed security guard standing by the door. It’s quite often assumed, by anyone who passes by and hasn’t ever looked at a bookshelf in the romance section of a shop, that it must publish great literature, or perhaps that it’s the home of academic journals.

Nearly everyone, however, just snickers a bit, because they’ve all seen the racks of Camelot books on the shelves and they know that no matter how impressive the building is, what comes out of it are titles like The RAF Officer’s Secret Baby and A Passionate Affair. Some of it’s good, of course, most aren’t afraid to admit that, better than those American Harlequins, but in the end, it’s all the same sort of thing, and the building’s a bit of a joke to those in the neighborhood.

It’s Arthur Pendragon’s favorite building in the world.

He was practically brought up there, after all, in the hours he wasn’t at school, by his father behind the chief editor’s desk, by Alice, the receptionist who read him Dostoevsky while she minded him as a child, by Nimueh, the author who dared write about vampires and werewolves long before Buffy and who had a pact of mutual cordial hatred with his father, and by all the rest of the editors and authors who worked there or stopped by. Most of them cooed over him for being without a mother, and he got the sort of education that none of his peers did—he will never forget his father’s expression when his school called when Arthur, aged five, was caught explaining French kissing to his enthralled classmates. He loves what they do, and he’s never once regretted joining the family business, nor taking it over when his father died.

He’s giving that serious reconsideration this morning, however, because he’s walking in half an hour late and he knows that what he plans to do today would have his father rolling in his grave (well, it would if he hadn’t been tastefully cremated). Still, he greets the security guard—Percival, who by virtue of his physique looks as if he should be on one of the covers of their romances—and the receptionist—Elena, typing at her laptop behind the desk, who always grins and waves when he goes by—just as cheerfully as normal and catches the elevator to his floor.

“Morning, Mr. Pendragon. I have messages for you,” says Freya the second he gets out, in a tone that would sound respectful to anyone who didn’t know her as well as Arthur does after two years.

“I’m sorry, I forgot to charge my phone and my alarm didn’t go off,” he offers, since unlike his father he is perfectly willing to acknowledge that his PA runs his life and deserves explanations for these sorts of things. “What have you got for me?”

She gives him a tiny smile, which means that if he grabs her a coffee when he goes out for his noontime sandwich he’ll be forgiven, and picks up the pad of paper she keeps next to her keyboard. “Your sister wants to talk to you, monthly sales report is in and looking good though I imagine you’ll want to look it over yourself, Leon has the covers for five more books ready for approval, Mithian’s been giggling over something in the slush room all morning so you’ll probably want to ask her about that, and Merlin says the edits you asked for on A Remedy for Love are finished and this had better be the last round.”

“His titles are terrible, why must I always fix his titles? They look tawdry.”

Freya sighs. “We publish romance and erotica, Arthur, and Gwaine’s chest is on half of what we sell, including Merlin’s novels. How are you worried about tawdry?”

“Fine, they’re just awful, I thought ‘tawdry’ might be a bit kinder.” He goes into his office and puts his briefcase down. Freya trails after him, still holding her pad and looking vaguely disapproving. “I’ll deal with Mithian later. As long as she’s giggling it’s fine, unless she’s snapped from all the horror that goes through that room, and the sales reports can wait until afternoon. What did Morgana want?”

“She says, and I quote, that she wishes you luck today and that if you aren’t calling Merlin in on the project it’s a waste and she’s going to tempt him into writing about faeries so she can steal him from you. I can only assume this has to do with all the market research you’ve been pretending not to do over the last few months.”

Freya’s probably the person who knows the most about what’s going on in the office, but she’s wonderfully discreet when she needs to be, so he won’t bother being disconcerted that she’s figured it out. She’ll let him tell Merlin, at least, which is the important part. “Her concern is appreciated and unnecessary, you may tell her so when she continues to badger us with calls. I have some things to finalize on the project before I reveal it, and I don’t want her bothering me.”

She eyes him for a few moments before finally letting a proper smile free. “If it is what I think it is, it’s going to mean a lot to many of our readers, and many people in this office as well.”

“Myself included,” he assures her, though of course she knows. “That’s part of the reason I’m doing it, on top of the massive profit we stand to make. Now, go guard me from Morgana for a few hours while I write a release, tell Merlin the title on his latest needs to be changed, and look over these sales figures so they don’t get buried in the rush.”

“Yes, Mr. Pendragon. And I’ll let Mithian know to disturb you only if it’s important.”

“Good. Now shoo.”

Freya rolls her eyes, but she goes back to her desk nonetheless and leaves him in peace to start his computer and open up a message to Merlin.

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: “Remedy” edits and a question

Freya tells me you’ve got the edits for “Remedy” finished, so you can send that to me whenever. It might take me a little while longer than usual to finish up for approval, but this is what you get for sticking with me when I had to foist most of my authors off to run the company. We need to talk about the title, by the way. I’m thinking A Remedy to Cure All Ills, maybe.

As for the question: I’m planning on launching a new imprint, and I want you writing for it. Market research has been showing that readers are looking for gay romance, especially historical, and since I know you’ve got some of that hidden in your files somewhere, I was hoping you’d be willing to be one of the debut authors. You could stay with the Ygraine imprint as well, or move over to the new one entirely, but either way unless you object I’ll continue editing your work. The announcement of the new line is going out later today and I’d love to be able to attach your name to it.

I would say “no pressure” but we both know that’s not true. Even Morgana wants you to do it!

Please let me know at your earliest convenience.

*

The slush pile at Camelot Publishing has its own legend, and it’s the legend of Camelot Publishing itself.

The story of how his parents met is the first story Arthur remembers hearing as a child, actually, aside from carefully-censored snippets from Nimueh’s books while she was babysitting him. It goes like this: once, a lowly intern named Uther Pendragon was assigned the job of going through the slush pile at the publishing house where he was working, and somewhere in the pile he ran across a romance novel, one so gorgeously written he knew it had to be published and that, more importantly, he had to edit it. He bypassed all known procedure, called the author, met Ygraine Dubois, emptied his trust fund on printing and advertising, and married her three days after her first romance hit bookstores and started flying off the shelves.

After that, after Camelot Publishing got offices and more offers and got bigger and bigger, every new editor that was hired on had to spend a while with the sole duty of going through the slush room, until they found a book they had to be involved with, at which point they were moved into general editing and given that author to edit. It’s one of his father’s traditions that Arthur is more than happy to uphold. Some spend a week in there—Morgana, always lucky, discovered Morgause on day six in the slush room and promptly went off to found the Avalon imprint and give paranormal romance its own instead of shoving it in with everything else. Some spend a month, or two. Most manage it within six months.

Arthur took a year. It wasn’t that he didn’t run across any books worth publishing—he sent a few off to Morgana, some to Gaius running the historical imprint, a few to the general collection, but he’d been brought up on the story of his father reading his mother’s work and knowing, instantly, that they had to work together. He didn’t expect to meet the love of his life that way, but he was waiting for a certain spark. By the year mark, even his father was suggesting that Arthur take on a few of the authors he’d sent on to other people, but then Arthur discovered Merlin. He almost tossed the manuscript aside without reading it—written by a man, titled A Moment of Truth of all the idiot things—but he read the first few pages to be fair, and an hour later he put down the first half of the manuscript and knew that he’d found his ticket out of the slush room, and a new author for the Ygraine imprint as well, the crème de la crème of Camelot Publishing’s selection.

Years later, Merlin is still his in a way that his other authors aren’t, not that he has many now that he’s busy with the administrative details of running Camelot Publishing, and his best mate as well. They argue and snipe, just like they did from the first e-mail, but they also go out for drinks and Merlin got him to hire Freya when he found out Arthur was looking for a PA. He knows that A Moment of Truth (the one book Arthur never convinced him to change the title of) is the highly-fictionalized version of his parents’ love story and that he never expected to be published but took to it like a duck to water. And Merlin listens to him complain about not getting to work with authors as much as he’d like these days and drags him out of the office when he’s been pushing too hard. As far as Arthur’s concerned, there really isn’t much they don’t tell each other, these days, though they don’t talk much about their love lives considering it always leads back to talking about work.

He hasn’t mentioned the soon-to-be-launched Tintagel Imprint to Merlin, though, even though he’s known all along that he wants Merlin writing for it. At first, it was because he didn’t know if it would happen at all and didn’t want Merlin’s disappointment if it didn’t happen. After, it became more of a surprise—Merlin’s admitted, before, that he writes gay romance when he isn’t writing for Arthur, and that he’s published a few short pieces on the internet to supplement his income, and Arthur can’t imagine he’d turn down a chance to publish some of his longer work.

He’s expecting enthusiasm, though, which is why it’s a bit of a surprise when Merlin’s return e-mail takes quite a while to arrive. Merlin is an early riser and tends to sit at his laptop until dragged away (which is why he still lives with Gwen even though both of them could afford to be on their own at this point), but it’s nearly lunch by the time he gets a message, when he’s already finished going through sales reports and finances and okaying what seem like a hundred things.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Re: “Remedy” edits and a question

Need to get the draft into a format you won’t object to, so you should get it by tonight at the latest, and fine, you tyrant, my titles really aren’t as bad as you make them out to be, you actually published a book called The Frenchman’s Tempestuous Mistress last month so you really haven’t got a leg to stand on.

About your question: I’m honored, I guess, and I won’t ask if you’re sure about doing the imprint because you’re you and you probably researched every possible statistic before agreeing to it. I’ve got some stuff, yeah, but I don’t know if it’s very good, you probably don’t want it, I could probably recommend some other writers to you, though?

And whatever happens, of course you’re still editing my work, don’t be stupid. I’ve only just got you trained.

Arthur rolls his eyes and tries not to sound as relieved as he feels when he sends an e-mail back telling Merlin not to be an idiot, of course Arthur wants his work, pick out the best rough draft and send it his way, and that if Merlin ever abandons him for another editor Arthur will have to commit homicide, though he’s unsure if it will be of Merlin or the new editor. Merlin is his Ygraine, after all, even if they aren’t in love.

Once he’s had a more reassuring e-mail from Merlin saying that yes, fine, he’ll dig something up but it’s Arthur’s own fault if he hates it, Arthur sends out the e-mail that he’s drafted to send to the company.

From: Arthur
To: Camelot Publishing Mailing List
Subject: Announcing a new imprint!

Camelot Publishing will be debuting a new imprint in a few months. The Tintagel Imprint will be focused on gay romance, primarily historical but with some others, and our very own Merlin Emerson will be one of the debut authors for the line. If anyone knows any good writers or agents marketing quality romances, or if any editors wish to try this imprint, please get in contact with me.

It takes Freya all of two minutes to buzz him. “Your sister wants to talk to you. Do you want to let her gloat now or later?”

“Later, there will be alcohol later and I can drag Merlin with us to deflect. In fact, I’m off to see Mithian in the slush room, maybe go over a few manuscripts myself for old times’ sake. Tell Morgana I’m far too busy to chat.”

“Coward,” Freya comments when he passes by her desk a few seconds later, but she’s smiling at her computer screen, typing out an e-mail, most likely to someone asking if Arthur is serious. His father was famous for being adamant about not publishing gay romance, after all, and people are still used to Arthur being his father’s son.

Mithian, when he gets to the slush room, is sitting with her hand over her mouth and her eyes crinkled up in a smile while she looks at the manuscript in front of her. “What have you got there?” he asks.

“You’ve had a busy day,” she observes, switching to e-mail on her screen. “And I think I might have my ticket out of the slush room.”

“Oh?”

“It’s about a Greek business tycoon whose childhood sweetheart was kidnapped into a harem and who he saves and then makes into his virgin mistress,” says Mithian, in all seriousness. Arthur blinks at her. “No, you don’t understand. Whoever she is—and it’s terribly obvious that it’s a pen name, nobody is actually named Elaine Fay—it’s quite obvious that she wrote this as some sort of dare or just to make fun of it all so it comes out rather screamingly funny.”

Arthur raises his eyebrows. “Our consumers don’t appreciate being made fun of, and to be frank I’m more than a bit dubious.”

“Really, Arthur, it’s like you don’t trust me. I’m going to finish this, and then you’re going to read it, and you will eat your words. The plot may be a ridiculous satire, but the writing is funny and the sex is frankly better than nearly anything we’ve got except Merlin, so we’d better do it, especially if we’re losing Merlin to your new imprint.”

“I don’t know if he’ll stay in it, he seems oddly reluctant.” Arthur shrugs. “Anyway, I’ll take a look at that once you’ve finished, if you’re so certain.”

Mithian snorts. “Of course. Reluctant. Now, go away, you’re the boss and you aren’t allowed to hide in here after you make big announcements. Exactly how long do you think it will take for someone to let the publishing blogs know what we’re doing? You’ll have interviews to do.”

“I should have let Morgana take the company over,” he grumbles, but he lets her get back to work and goes back to his own desk, ignoring the way Freya shakes her head and smiles as he passes.

*

The Rising Sun, around the corner from Camelot Publishing, does a brisk trade in horribly pink cocktails. Back in the early days, when Camelot was just beginning to set up shop in its current location, it was a little down-scale bar, more beer sold than anything else and most of their furniture broken and repaired a hundred times, the kind of place that had been there for ages and let the city grow up around it. It’s the only place in the neighborhood besides a little coffee shop and bakery that provides food and drink, though, so it didn’t take long for it to become the unofficial bar for the staff and authors of Camelot Publishing. The owners, smarter than they previously let on, figured out where the new clientele was from and trained their bartenders to make lethal cocktails, which got them the money to replace their furniture and make their name as a trendy bar.

It’s where everyone from Camelot tends to go in the evenings, editors and authors and graphic designers and sometimes former employees, to talk about work and anything but. This particular Monday, by the time Arthur walks in the place is full nearly to bursting, and they don’t even do him the favor of pretending that they’re there for any reason besides getting the gossip about Tintagel, since they all go silent the second he walks in.

“What a remarkably coincidental gathering,” he remarks as dryly as he can, and goes to the corner table that Merlin and Morgana seem to have staked out.

“You can’t blame them for being curious,” says Morgana as he sits down, and shoves a cocktail in his direction. “You did cause a sensation, you know.”

“I figured it out. Evening, Merlin, I got your file but I haven’t had time to go through it yet, for obvious reasons, but if you fixed everything I mentioned it’ll only take a skim before we send it off to be copy-edited.”

Merlin is watching him with a brow-furrowed suspicious expression that Arthur hasn’t seen since he tried to throw a surprise party for him when his first book made the bestseller lists. “You were sort of busy. You couldn’t have warned a few people? I think Lancelot was crying earlier, and none of the rest of the marketing department looks happy either.”

Arthur disregards that, since Lancelot may be the sensitive sort but he looks perfectly pleased to be flirting outrageously with Merlin’s roommate over by the bar. “I didn’t announce that I want the line to debut next week, for God’s sake. And they do their own market research, they ought to have been prepared for the possibility, especially when I told them to hire on someone new last month. That historically implies expansion.”

Morgana raises on perfectly-groomed eyebrow, but Merlin just gapes at him. “Last month? You’ve been planning this that long and didn’t warn me?”

“Oh, no, I just decided last night that gee, I’ve not read enough gay porn lately and thought I would finance it through my company.” Arthur rolls his eyes. “Of course I’ve been planning it that long, Merlin, you idiot. Longer, even. You of all people know I’m not rash with my business decisions.”

Merlin, apparently deciding that he isn’t going to get anything useful out of Arthur, turns to Morgana. “Did you know about this?”

“Oh, poppet.” She takes a long pull off her pint, because she has powers the rest of them know not of and can get proper drinks out of Mary behind the bar. “Of course I did. Not that Arthur told me, but he’s remarkably transparent sometimes.”

“Am not,” Arthur mutters, though it’s mostly for form’s sake.

Merlin makes a despairing noise into his drink, which is a distressing shade of magenta. “Seriously, warning would have been nice.”

“Hey.” Arthur reaches across the table to prod him gently in the arm and waits until Merlin is looking at him to continue. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to, but we’ve talked about it, how much you always wished there’d been romance you could see yourself in, and I thought it would be a good surprise. The line isn’t debuting until you’re ready, so don’t feel as if you have to hurry.”

Merlin swallows and drops his gaze. “Wow, great,” he mutters. “That’s not intimidating at all, a whole imprint waiting on me.”

Morgana raps Merin’s knuckles with a pen and both of them jump. “The pair of you are ridiculous. Say thank you nicely to Arthur for risking his company on you.”

“Thank you,” says Merlin, ears gone red, under Arthur’s objection that he’s doing no such thing, which gets interrupted by his own rap on the knuckles, a good deal harder than the one Merlin got.

“And you,” she says with a terrifying smile, “thank Merlin for agreeing to debut this line for you even though he had no warning whatsoever.”

“Do you ever feel like she’s the schoolmarm and we’ve been called in to her office to be reprimanded? I have the sudden terror that I’m going to be caned.” Arthur asks, and gets a quick flash of Merlin’s grin before Morgana kicks him under the table. “Ouch, fine, thank you, Merlin, for so graciously agreeing to do this for me.”

“That’s better.” She grabs her glass and stands up. “Now, you boys behave, Gwaine is sexually harassing someone again and Mary says she’s going to make us clean up the next time someone dumps a drink on him.”

Merlin waits until she’s buried in the noisy hum of the chatter of the bar before he speaks again, finally grinning at Arthur. “Have I mentioned lately that your sister is terrifying?”

“Not this week.” He takes a drink of his cocktail. A bit sweet for his taste, but other than when he was at university this is the bar he’s been to for most of his life, so he’s inured to the ridiculous cocktails by this point. “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to. I figured you would want to—I am actually aware that most of what you write for us is simply to pay the bills, and I thought this might be a way for you to get a message out.”

After a second, Merlin laughs a bit and shakes his head. “My God, you’re ridiculous. We’re ridiculous, trying to change the world with romance novels, but I’ll give it a shot, as long as you promise not to blame me when people start protesting on the streets.”

“Honestly, Merlin, it’s not as if we’re in America.” He holds up his glass to toast. “To the Tintagel Imprint, then, and our continued successful partnership.”

Merlin clinks their drinks together, of course managing to spill a bit of his down his hand. “To Tintagel and us, then, you great idiot.”

Arthur almost chokes on his drink when someone claps a hand on his shoulder before he’s swallowed. Of course, when he turns around, it’s Gwaine. “Come on, princess, you and Merlin can’t monopolize each other all night, you’re the stars of the show and we’ve got porn to celebrate!”

“You’re incredibly inappropriate,” Arthur grouses, but he lets Gwaine pull them up and out into the crowd to talk about the new imprint and what he plans to do with it and what Merlin plans to write for it.

He doesn’t get Merlin alone again that night, but they’ll have plenty of time to hash out the details later.

*

Three days after Arthur sends A Remedy to Cure All Ills off to be copy-edited and prepared for publication, Merlin e-mails him a file entitled The Hunter’s Heart, God help them all, with only If you hate it, it’s your own fault in the body of the e-mail it’s attached to.

Considering Arthur has spent the last several days being inundated by calls from agents representing LGBT romances since he’s still the only editor officially on the imprint (and he’s going to kill someone in the office for gossiping, since the information isn’t meant to go public until there are actual titles), he gives serious thought to printing it out just so he can chuck it out a window. It’s Merlin’s, so of course it’s going to be several cuts above anything else he’s going to get, but Merlin’s usually quite a good gauge of his own talents and his less-than-optimistic e-mail has Arthur concerned.

Nonetheless, he opens up the document and wanders out of his office to speak to Freya. “Screen my calls, would you? I’ve got Merlin’s first Tintagel manuscript and I want to give it a start. I haven’t got any urgent business that overrides it for the moment, and since Vivian says she’s got an author who has a few Tintagel-ready MSes you can transfer calls from agents to her, as she’s the only other editor technically working it at the moment.”

Freya smiles at her computer screen before turning to look up at him. “Are you putting Vivian in charge of Tintagel once it’s launched?”

Arthur winces. “We’ll consider that as the time gets closer. For now, I’m asking any editors with space on their author lists to reserve a spot for a Tintagel author, but I don’t know if we’ll use that many, and then when the time comes I’ll figure out if anyone should be transferred to it fulltime. Eventually I suppose someone will have to be to manage to imprint, but it’s early for that.”

Freya, since she isn’t stupid and knows that Arthur mostly doesn’t want to deal with Vivian at imprint managers’ meetings when he already spends most of them sparring with Morgana, smiles. “As far as everyone is concerned, Mr. Pendragon, you’re out of the office for the morning.”

“You’re my favorite employee, and don’t worry, I’ll send you Merlin’s book once I’m finished in reward.”

That gets her properly grinning. “We’ve moved past paper manuscripts, you know. You could always e-mail it to me so I would have something to keep me occupied in between fobbing everyone off for you.”

Arthur grins back and rolls his eyes. “Yes, but that means I wouldn’t get to read it first.”

She gives him a pitying look, but with the way she’s still smiling he doesn’t take it seriously for a second. “It’s like you’re a child with a teddy bear you don’t want to share, which is ridiculous, since I knew him first.”

“In a moment, you’re going to remember that we sell porn here, and you’re going to regret the teddy bear metaphor.”

Freya makes a face and flaps a hand at him. “Go read the book. I need something to unwind with this evening so you need to read it quickly.”

“Yes, ma’am,” says Arthur, and goes back into his office, locking the door as he goes in case Morgana decides she’s on a mission and breezes past Freya despite his door being closed, which is almost universally recognized as his version of a do-not-disturb sign. He checks his e-mail once more, fobs most of the work off on other people, and gets to reading Merlin’s document.

The main character is, Arthur discovers within a page, a knight errant of sorts sometime after the Crusades, doing good deeds and occasionally winning tournament purses. He is also something of a bastard, judging by the way he acts with the farmer whose home he stops to stay in, and Arthur spends most of the chapter with eyebrows raised because Merlin generally makes a point of making his heroes nice people. At the end of the chapter, the love interest comes in, a peasant boy Sir Roland finds poaching in the forest (oh, the hunter’s heart, and God, Arthur will someday train Merlin to use titles that aren’t terrible). They’re awful to each other at first, Roland threatening to turn the boy in to the king’s justice and Alan calling him awful things, but when a boar attacks, it’s Alan’s arrows that save Roland’s life. Somehow, of course, this leads to Roland taking him on as a squire.

If this were anyone else’s writing, Arthur would be looking away to massage his temples, because he can’t see this going anywhere he’s comfortable with. At this point he’s expecting Roland to hate-shag Alan across the country until they inexplicably fall in love and that’s not what he’s come to expect from Merlin. Merlin’s straight romances tend to be completely, almost naively, sweet, the characters shy and tender with each other and the conflict mainly external, this amount of animosity is entirely unheard of.

Still, it is Merlin, and he owes him to keep trying, so he reads another scene, and another, and another, until he realizes that it’s Merlin, of course he isn’t doing what anyone else would with such a set-up. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see that Alan is besotted with Roland and willing to do anything for him and that Roland feels the same but won’t even say it to himself. What follows is chapter upon chapter of near-painful pining from both sides, chaste except for when one of them is in danger or injured, when they can’t seem to keep their hands off each other.

By the time the first sex scene rolls around, Arthur’s ready to shake the screen so one of them will do something, and he’s rewarded when Alan almost gets captured for poaching by someone much less forgiving than Roland and Roland kisses him, which leads to one of the most desperate, explicit scenes he’s ever had from Merlin.

Arthur was brought up around sex, and his father never tried to shelter him from it, though he did keep him from reading anything too explicit until puberty. He’s read so many romances over the years that the sex has gone from laughably formulaic to boring. Summers spent doing copyediting when he was in secondary school meant that he’d mostly stopped being turned on by the porn he was editing by the time he was seventeen, and it’s a rare scene that makes him so much as fidget. Merlin’s are better than most, but he can still keep his objectivity.

This one, however, has him squirming. It’s not as if they’re doing anything scandalous—certainly nothing Arthur hasn’t done with a partner or two, they aren’t even fucking—but the amount they want each other is almost painful, especially when they still don’t acknowledge how much they want each other. At the end of it, he pauses for a few moments to drink half a bottle of water, and it’s nearly a full minute before he realizes exactly how much money this book is going to make him, and then he can’t stop smiling.

He ignores the rest of his work to finish reading, only looking up when Freya brings him a sandwich sometime in the early afternoon. Roland and Alan spend half the remaining chapters completely misunderstanding each other and worrying that they’ve ruined everything, and when they finally sort it all out in the wake of a tournament where Roland almost gets killed, Arthur’s shocked to find that after the inevitable declarations of love Alan is the one to fuck Roland, in a scene that has him buzzing Freya to get more water (and her smirking at him). It’s quite obvious that Merlin is far more interested in this than he has been in his straight romances.

When he finishes, he e-mails the file to Freya with a reminder (which she’ll ignore) that she isn’t to read it at work and opens up a message to Merlin.

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: The Hunter’s Heart

You are an insecure idiot, and this book is going to make us both a mint. I mean it, some of your best work, although the beginning’s a bit shaky. I was worried for a while that you were going to take it in a dangerous direction. A bit of pacing I want to work with you on, and the usual tightening up, but for the most part, remind me to smack you the next time I see you for not showing me before. Got anything else in your files?

Arthur breezes through the rest of his workday with the good mood he always gets when he knows he’s struck gold, ignoring Morgana and Gaius when they both stop by to raise their eyebrows in person and quite likely worrying Mithian with his joviality when he swings by the slush room to promise her that yes, he does intend to read her theoretical ticket out soon. He spends his evening reading Rushdie as a palate cleanser, as he likes to do when the romances get to be too much, and goes to bed early, somewhat surprised at not having a call or e-mail from Merlin.

When he gets to his office in the morning, Freya catches him immediately. “I read Merlin’s latest,” she says in a leading tone.

“Brilliant, isn’t it? Good enough that I might have created the imprint just to publish it if I’d seen it sooner.”

She hesitates. “And you didn’t think there was anything odd about it?”

He stares at her. “No, no more than Merlin’s usual pre-edit oddness, and I’m going to take him to task for the title again.”

“I actually like the title, but I meant … no, never mind, it’s no one’s business anyway. Mithian wants to meet with you about her book, I’ve set her up for ten o’clock, and other than that your schedule hasn’t changed since yesterday.”

Arthur decides not to ask any more questions for the sake of his own sanity, and goes into his office.

*

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Re: The Hunter’s Heart

I’m going to start titling books after respected literary works and laugh every time you tell me on reflex that they’re awful, for the record. What about The Catcher in the Rye? Works for the new line, even if it’s a bit agrarian.

I’ve got three or four others that have gone through enough edits from me to send on to you, I think—a pirate one (shut up, I know), two contemporaries, and possibly a Regency, though it’s been a while since I had a look at that one. I’ll give them a look in between edits on HH, if you like, but you should probably debut authors who aren’t me as well or people are going to think you’re playing favorites.

And just … you’re going to call me a girl again, or something, but thanks. For taking a chance on all of this, and letting me be a part of it. It means a hell of a lot.

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: Re: Re: The Hunter’s Heart

Don’t you dare sully Salinger in such a fashion, Merlin, we may sell erotica but that’s no reason to be crass. And I criticize your titles because they are stupid; I am offended that you say otherwise.

My God, couldn’t you pick a subgenre? You’re impossible to market, you ridiculous creature. Fine, send them to me once you’ve looked them over and we’ll see what we can do with them. At this rate you’re going to be the only author I work with, you keep me so busy.

And of course I’m playing favorites, don’t be stupid. You’re my first, so of course you’re my favorite.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Re: Re: Re: The Hunter’s Heart
Attached: prideandprejudice.rtf, swordinthestone.rtf, greatexpectations.rtf, warandpeace.rtf

I think I like this new titling scheme!

And of course I can’t pick a subgenre, you like me because I appeal to lots of markets and get readers reading across their chosen romance genre, I have heard you sell this to advertising whenever they cry.

Speaking of advertising, Gwen wants Lancelot’s number, this is going to end with picket fences and adorable puppies.

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: Very funny

I am not going to deign to open those, because they are undoubtedly just a hundred pages of Wingdings each. I know you well enough to know you’ll want to give all those books a proper reread and polish before you send them to me.

Re: Gwen and Lancelot—saw them flirting at the Rising Sun a few times, hadn’t realized it was going past that. Good on them, I suppose, although their domestic bliss is undoubtedly going to be sickening to look upon.

“Talking to Merlin?” Mithian asks from his office door.

Arthur doesn’t jump, but it’s a near thing. Instead, he hits send on his message before looking up, since he hadn’t realized it was ten and that Mithian will probably want to talk about The Greek Tycoon’s Virgin Harem Girl Mistress or whatever this book is called, which she keeps insisting belongs in the Ygraine line, not just the general collection. However much he wants an author to fill up some of the gaps Merlin’s possibly-temporary move over to Tintagel will leave, he’s still dubious about Mithian’s pet project. “Just sending him an e-mail, yes, did Freya say we were chatting?”

She smiles. “No, you’re grinning in that way that means you think you’ve got one over on someone, and ninety percent of the time that means Merlin. Free for our meeting?”

He shoves his laptop off to one side. “Of course, I’ll always make time for you. Anything else interesting from the slush room? Sorry about not getting around to you about the Fay manuscript sooner, but I’ve been a bit busy.”

She sits down in his extra chair and shrugs. “I actually like the slush room, it’s nice. If you need me to stay in there a while longer, I’ll stay, I just want to edit this book too.”

“With the new imprint I’ll likely need to be hiring another editor, but I may need to shut down the slush room for a while and just let it backlog, though I hate to do it, just for a few months until we get things worked out, but I’ll consider your author. Elaine Fay is the pen name, right? And she does realize that we do need a real name from her, unless she wishes to donate her work for us to publish?”

“She does, and was a bit adorable when she’d realized that of course we would need it to pay her.” Mithian pauses. “I think I would rather you read the book before we went into that, though.”

Arthur groans. “Oh God, it’s not Morgana, is it?”

“It’s not Morgana, I promise.” She pulls a stack of paper out of her bag. “I could e-mail you the file, but I know sometimes you like having a paper copy, especially when you have three different versions of Merlin’s work open. Look, it’s good, and it’s funny, and the sex didn’t make me cringe, and if it’s a parody at least it’s an affectionate one. Promise to give it a chance?”

“Do I ever not give things a chance?”

“Am I going to get fired if I answer that honestly?” She hands the manuscript across his desk. “Our spring lineup for the Ygraine imprint is all quite serious. This will do well to even it out, some.”

He looks at the title. Unchanging, which at least has the benefit of being brief, so there’s less space to cringe. “So you think it’s not just publishing-worthy, but Ygraine-worthy?”

“I’ve told you that already, and it’s really sweet that you try to be intimidating like your father when you’re giving people their slush room exit interviews, but you’re going to like it, I promise, and it’ll be a bit of a palate cleanser, Freya says Merlin’s latest is quite … intense.”

Arthur sighs. “By which you mean she’s e-mailing it to anyone within the company that begs the right way, I assume?”

“No, she’s holding it over all of our heads, though I would like to read it.”

“Maybe if you’re very good and this book turns out to be as well.” He makes a face at the cover page. “I need to talk to graphic design about covers for the Tintagel line, whether we’ve got stock or good models for it. Obviously Gwaine will pose with whoever, but not all of our heroes will look like him.”

Mithian pats his hand gently. “Breathe, Arthur, you’re giving me a headache just looking at you. Nobody is asking you to launch Tintagel before you’re ready. Now, go back to e-mailing Merlin, read Unchanging when you can so I can call her up and give her the good news, and don’t let this all stress you out too much. It’ll work out.”

“Says the woman who’s never had to run a company,” he shouts after her when she slips out of his office before he can muster a proper response, and refreshes his e-mail.

There’s a return message from Merlin, and Arthur debates saving it for his lunch break and getting down to reading Mithian’s pet manuscript, but he allows himself one last look instead.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Re: Very funny

It was Wingdings 2, actually. Prat.

Get to work. I’m going to.

*

To Arthur’s surprise, when he finally gets through the manuscript, Unchanging is every bit as charming as Mithian promised. It’s not up to Merlin’s standards, not that he would expect it to be, but it’s funny and sharp and just tongue-in-cheek enough to appeal without condescending to its readers. He’ll need good authors to pick up the slack Merlin is leaving, since Merlin seems more enthused with every editing discussion with Arthur and Arthur doubts he’ll have the heart to move him off Tintagel in the end. If Elaine Fay keeps up writing books as good as her first, she’s a godsend.

Of course, first he has to tell Mithian all of this after a week of teasing skepticism, and all the comfort he has is knowing that if it were Morgana she would be much more smug than Mithian. With that firmly in mind, Arthur knocks on the slush room door, manuscript tucked under his arm, the next time he finds a free few minutes. She looks up from a file on her computer that’s making her make faces and smiles. “Arthur, what can I help you with?”

“You win,” he says, slipping inside and handing the manuscript over to her. “Train her to take her writing more seriously, some of the language is over the top and her tendency towards excess verbiage and haring off into side plots should be curbed before it becomes a problem.”

Mithian grins. “It’s a yes, then?”

“Congratulations and welcome to full editor status, Mithian, you know who to talk to from here, I don’t have the time to micromanage this one. Check in with one of the more experienced editors frequently, but I’m sure you knew that already.” He looks at her expectantly, and she nods, still grinning, obviously itching to start e-mailing everyone, probably starting with the author. “Now, however, you’re going to tell me who wrote it, before it becomes office gossip.”

“You’re going to love this, it’s a good story to tell at press events,” she assures him, and he just crosses his arms and waits for her to get on with it. “So, Elaine Fay.”

“Yes, I know that much.”

“You do realize the receptionist’s name is Elena O’Shea, don’t you?”

Well, that certainly explains what she’s doing with her laptop every morning when he comes in. Arthur can’t help laughing at himself for not figuring it out before. “Well, at least it will be easy for her to make it up for editorial meetings, won’t it? I wonder how long it’ll take before I have to hunt up a new receptionist, she’s far and away the best candidate we had when we hired her.”

“Far as I know, she wasn’t expecting a yes on this, it was some sort of dare or bet with a friend, but I’m betting she’ll have something else ready for us soon enough.” Mithian stands up and brushes herself off. “May I run down to reception and tell her in person? She’ll be so excited.”

“Fine, go with my blessing, get the paperwork filed by lunch if you can, will you? And then take her out for lunch somewhere at our expense, God knows she deserves it.”

Mithian kisses him on the cheek. “Don’t even pretend you aren’t pleased, we all know you adore Elena.”

“Yes, I do, which is precisely why I don’t want to hire a new receptionist,” he says, but he has to raise his voice by the end of it because she’s grabbed her purse and run off in the direction of the elevators. He leaves her manuscript on her desk and goes back to his own office, since there are phone calls that need to be made. “It’s a wonder I even pretend to have authority,” he says on his way by Freya.

“It really is,” she says, and stops him before he can keep going. “Copy-editing is through with A Remedy to Cure All Ills, just to keep you updated, and Leon says they’re working on the cover and cover copy in his department, it’ll definitely be ready for release on time, so you just worry about Tintagel.”

“Right.” Arthur sighs. “I think it’s nearly time for me to call my other authors and ask if they mind being temporarily fobbed off onto someone else and dump them onto Mithian for a bit while Tintagel gets its feet under it.”

“I’ll put it on your schedule.”

He eyes her. “Are you writing a romance novel too? I really don’t want to have to hire a new receptionist and a new PA.”

“No, I’m just waiting to get on the editing roster,” she says cheerfully, and sends him into his office.

“Nobody would ever mutiny this much if Father had left Camelot in Morgana’s hands,” he mutters, and goes to check his e-mail for anything urgent he’s missed in the last ten minutes.

There’s nothing urgent, but there is a message from Merlin.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Edits etc.

Working through the introduction issues on Hunter’s Heart, might have a reworked opening for you that makes Roland look like less of a git, as requested, even though I hold that he is in fact a git and we needn’t sugar-coat that for the readers. Also trying to figure out how to introduce antagonist sooner, thinking perhaps he could be the one that sent the attack in chap. 3? Let me know what you think.

Also, drinks tonight?

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: Re: Edits etc.

He may very well be a git, and if you’d chosen to write from Alan’s POV (still feel like we should put in a bit of his perspective, you obviously know what’s going on in his head, but the readers don’t and God only knows why he’s attracted to Roland) it would make sense, but if we’re in his head we’ve got to be sympathetic to him, and his introduction was no help at all with that. Re: chapter 3, will have to do a reread of that section but it looks like it could make sense as long as we could come up with a reason for he and Roland to be mortal enemies that early. No one likes a senseless villain.

God yes on the drinks. Have just discovered that Mithian’s new pet author is my receptionist, suspect whole office is plotting against me. Morgana is going to be patronizing again. Perhaps drinks not at the Rising Sun?

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Coward

Okay, fair enough on the Roland-being-a-git thing. I’m not sure about Alan’s POV, I think a lot of the charm of the book is the reader not getting both thought processes, and frankly I found it more interesting to write from Roland’s. I’ve been in Alan’s shoes too many times. Hell, everyone who’s going to read this book has probably been in those shoes too many times, pining after the probably-straight guy, so this is something new (and God only knows why he falls for Roland, sometimes it’s a mystery to me too but it did seem to work). We can talk over villain motivations too, I agree it needs some adjustment if he comes in earlier. Maybe they’ve faced off in tournaments in the past?

Your office is not plotting against you, Arthur, seriously, do you not know that they call you King Arthur in correspondence? Half these people could have jobs editing the next Great British Novel and believe me, they aren’t staying for the sex.

And sure, we can go elsewhere—pub near my flat, maybe? Gwen’s out on a date with Lancelot tonight (finally) so half your office won’t crash the party.

Although have I told you lately that I think it’s adorable how terrified of your sister you are?

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: Lies and slander

I hadn’t thought of it that way, although I do think a key scene or two—when Roland is feverish with infection, for instance, Alan’s POV would be of use—might need to be changed. However, if you do have reason I trust it. (Even if not knowing why Alan loves him sounds like a mystery. Unlike you to be coy.)

Pub near your flat sounds fine, I’ll be there sevenish, unless you need me to come drag you out of your writing stupor.

I refuse to respond to your outrageous allegations about my staff calling me anything of the sort, it would only encourage your delusions.

And I am many things, Merlin, like manly and charming and intelligent, but adorable certainly isn’t one of them.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Re: Lies and slander

You just keep telling yourself that.

*

“My God, you’re such a cheap date.”

“I am,” Arthur says with as much dignity as he can muster while leaning most of his weight on Merlin’s shoulder, “no such thing.”

“You can spend a whole night drinking violently pink cocktails,” Merlin continues, unimpaired, “but put a pint and a few shots in front of you and you’re stumbling. And you call me the girl?”

“You’re the one who got so drunk at his signing party that he … you, you ended up singing because you decided you were in a musical, so you’re the lightweight. Also, I had more than you.” Arthur is proud of the amount of that he gets out without slurring.

“Indeed you did, and you should be grateful that I still remember the way back to my flat. Not to mention grateful that the couch is comfortable.”

Arthur blinks at him. “Gwen, though.”

“She won’t bring Lancelot back to the flat, and it’s not as if you’ve never slept there before. Whoops, don’t step in that, Arthur, I really don’t think that’s water,” says Merlin, steering him around something mysterious on the pavement. “I think I’ve still got a pair of your trackpants and Gwen’s got a t-shirt or two from an old boyfriend so you don’t have to sleep in your suit.”

“There’s a reason you’re my favorite,” Arthur announces with an expansive gesture, and Merlin props him up a bit more since that nearly overbalanced them. He hasn’t been this drunk in quite some time, it would be rather embarrassing if it were anyone but Merlin taking care of him.

“Author?” inquires Merlin.

“Person.”

He doesn’t need to look at Merlin to know he’s rolling his eyes. “Of course, Arthur. Come on, here’s my building, up the steps, you’re so heavy and you’d better be so nice to me in your e-mails tomorrow, who thought a piss-up was a good idea on a weeknight?”

Arthur winces, since that was all him. “I’ll go in late, I haven’t got any meetings in the morning and Freya will only judge me a little bit.”

“Shut up, Freya adores you as much as everyone else does, she just doesn’t like to pander to your ego. Hold yourself up for a minute, I need to get us through the door.” Arthur obediently leans against the side of the building, since his legs are getting a bit wobbly in the wake of the Scotch. And the beer. And the other sort of beer. And the shots of whatever that was Merlin got them.

“Nobody panders to my ego, Morgana sets a horrible example,” he manages to mutter belatedly when Merlin finally drags him through the door and prods him in the general direction of the stairs, because of course he hasn’t got an elevator in his building. At least he only lives on the second floor.

“Yes, your life as the chief editor and CEO of the ever-so-successful Camelot Publishing is a terribly difficult—watch your step, I can’t take you anywhere.” Merlin lags behind him and half-pushes him up the steps, even though Arthur’s mostly got his feet under him now and could probably do more of the work if he cared to. It’s nice, though, feeling taken care of; he doesn’t really have anyone to do it outside the office, and inside the office Freya runs his life efficiently but doesn’t fuss over him.

By the time they make it to Merlin’s door, after much more exasperated pushing from Merlin and Arthur insisting for no reason beyond annoying him that his life is indeed terribly dull, they’re both laughing, muffling it into their hands so Merlin’s neighbors don’t come out to scold them. The door opens before Merlin can finish unlocking it, and there’s Gwen, hands on her hips and a smile twitching at her mouth. “I could hear the two of you coming from the street. Hello, Arthur.”

“You are meant to be on a date,” he reminds her.

“I got in half an hour ago, because Lancelot is a gentleman. Are you sleeping here? Merlin, is he sleeping here?”

Merlin gently pushes Arthur through the door and into the cozy little flat he and Gwen have lived in since Arthur’s known him. “Yes, I wasn’t going to send him halfway across town when he’s this drunk and knackered, even if it is a work night. I texted Freya an hour ago to say he’ll be late, at least.”

Arthur frowns at him. “I’m quite certain that I didn’t tell you to do that.”

Gwen looks between them, lips pursed, and then shrugs. “Just don’t keep me up all night, I have to work in the morning. Arthur, want me to wake you up when I get up?”

“Apparently my office has been informed that I’ll be late.”

“Whatever you say, then,” she says, and kisses Merlin on the cheek before wandering into her bedroom and shutting the door.

Arthur manages to shake off some of his fogginess, now that he’s in the quiet and the dark, and he goes to the kitchen for a glass of water while Merlin goes into his room for an extra blanket or two for the couch. They get ready for bed in near-silence after that, since Arthur’s never quite gotten over being unnerved by Gwen, mostly because she always looks at him as if she’s terribly disappointed in him and waiting for him to break her heart. Merlin gives him blankets and pajamas and finds him painkillers, takes some himself, and goes to bed without further ado, all the amusement from earlier gone so he just looks worn out.

Exhausted though he may be, Arthur can’t get to sleep right away. His flat is little more than a place to crash at night, one he chose when he insisted Morgana take their father’s house after he died since he got the company, but it’s still odd being out of his own bed. The bookshelves are beside the couch, so he idly scans the titles while he waits to sleep—he’s too drunk to concentrate on reading anything, but it’s something to do. He’s been shown the bottom shelf before, stuffed full of all of Merlin’s copies of his own books. Most of them from Camelot Publishing, of course, under his pseudonym, and a few copies of short story anthologies that he’s published erotica in, as well as the one odd mathematics periodical that sticks out like a sore thumb (where Merlin co-authored an article in his last year of university since apparently he was some sort of maths prodigy before the romance novels, and Arthur’s never got an explanation out of him about that).

“Can’t sleep?” asks Gwen, and Arthur nearly jumps out of his skin. “Sorry, I thought you would have heard my door opening, I wanted a glass of water.”

“Guess I wasn’t paying attention.” He’s only slurring a little now, alcohol mostly wearing off and headache starting in to take its place despite the painkillers. “Was just looking at Merlin’s books. I always forget how many he’s got even though I’ve edited them all.”

“You two have known each other for years now, and he’s a fast writer,” she says, and there’s that disappointment like always, or something close to it. “You both probably made a joke of it, but you should have seen his face when he got that e-mail about the new imprint. It means a lot, that you’re doing this for him.”

With him,” Arthur corrects, since that’s the operative word that everybody seems to miss, even Merlin. “It means something to more than just the two of us.”

Gwen softens at that, though he couldn’t say why, and relaxes her posture. “With him, then. It still means a great deal, to the two of you and everyone else. Now go to sleep, would you, or no amount of coffee will make you presentable for work and Morgana will call me to complain.”

As if that’s some sort of permission, Arthur drifts off before she’s even finished getting her glass of water. In the morning, when he wakes up when she starts getting ready for work despite himself, everything after Merlin’s pub is a bit foggy, but he remembers chatting with Gwen and she’s smiling at him this morning, not looking disappointed. He’s not sure why, but he figures she has her own reasons, and he doesn’t need to pry.

*

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Whoops

So, I was expecting Freya to answer when I called so I just said that you forgot your tie at my place last night and then it was Morgana. Incoming?

Sorry.

“Merlin has your tie,” Morgana drawls from Arthur’s office doorway.

Arthur has a hangover and wants to do anything but deal with this, but it’s too late to hide and Freya’s off running something down to graphics, where she undoubtedly got distracted leaning over Leon’s shoulder to see what he’s got for searching for stock for the Tintagel covers so far. He makes a mental note to fire her later and gives Morgana an insincere smile. “Yes, I’ve just been informed by e-mail, which he ought to have done straight away instead of giving us over to the gossips. I was drunk, I slept on his couch, as I have done quite a few times before.”

“Yes, but you haven’t done it since Tintagel.”

He stares at her. “I fail to see the significance.”

“Of course you do, sweetie. Since you read The Hunter’s Heart, maybe?” He stares some more, and she sighs. “Since you read his gay porn for the first time and—” She breaks off to make a wanking motion explicit enough that he almost hisses at her to shut the door. “Oh, don’t tell me you didn’t.”

“First off, it wasn’t the first time I’d read his porn, gay or straight, by any means. He’s published in anthologies and online, remember? And second, of course I didn’t. It’s hard to get turned on when you’re taking a red pen to something, you of all people should know that.”

“It’s not like I haven’t finished a day of work and gone home to make very good friends with my vibrator before,” she says breezily, and lovely, he’s going to have to spend the next five years of his life trying to erase that from his memory.

“Thank you, that was an image I wanted to have. Now, were you visiting to do anything besides play secretary for me and make erroneous assumptions about my love life? Merlin is my best friend, has been for quite some time, it doesn’t matter what sort of romance novel he’s writing this week.”

Morgana rolls her eyes and tilts her head to the side. “Does he know you’re bisexual?”

That trips him up, mostly because it seems to come out of nowhere. “I would assume so. I don’t think I’ve said it outright, but I’m not shy about appreciating either gender while we’re out and I’m certain I’ve been on a date or two with men since I’ve known him.”

It’s Morgana’s turn to stare at him, and then she grins, the exact way she always does when something is going to go horribly wrong. “You know, I would explain all the ways that this is going to turn into a disaster just because you and Merlin are both so hopelessly stupid, but I think I’ll enjoy it more this way. One of my authors has a gay romance with werewolves, by the way, that’s the real reason I came to see you. Tintagel or Avalon?”

“Perhaps we can put the logos for both on it, show that it’s supported by the whole company. Your author, your edit, though, I don’t have the patience to work out consistency of werewolf soulbonds or whatever the fuck it is you get up to at your desk.”

She leans closer, hisses “Knotting” in his ear, and laughs at the resulting expression on his face. Arthur throws the closest writing utensil at her. “Yes, definitely your edit, now out, you’ve exceeded the amount of times per week that you’re allowed to traumatize me, thank you.”

“Like children,” says Morgana, and swans out, stopping to chat with Freya for a few minutes as she returns just in time to miss the whole awkward interlude.

Arthur indulges himself in resting his forehead on his desk for a moment before straightening up and opening a return message to Merlin.

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: Re: Whoops

You could have just e-mailed me in the first place, and then I would have been spared Morgana chatting about vibrators and whether you know I’m bisexual and werewolf porn and for the record, Merlin, there is very little that could make me pawn you off on another editor, but werewolves might be in that category.

I am traumatized and going to be unable to think of anything pleasantly sexual all day, which is a bit of a problem in my profession, as you might guess. I suppose that means it’s a good day for paperwork.

He’s expecting a quick response mocking him for being traumatized by his sister, but he doesn’t get anything until midafternoon.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Re: Re: Whoops

Thank you for sharing your trauma, Arthur, it’s really big of you. I’m guessing that means I’m not getting any editing notes today, in which case I’ll have more chance to look over the other Tintagel possibles, two are almost ready for you and the other two need a bit more brushing up before I send them your way, they’re a bit … well, they need some pre-you editing, let’s say that.

And I … didn’t. Know that you’re bisexual, I mean. Suppose I ought to have guessed, or something? One would think a writer would be more observant, I guess.

“You look confused,” says Freya from the doorway. “Belated hangover?”

“No, I’ve been over that for hours. Just an odd e-mail.”

She squints at him for a moment, then steps fully into his office. “From Merlin?”

“Yes, actually.” It isn’t even Merlin’s awkwardness about not knowing Arthur’s bisexual that confuses him—Arthur doesn’t make a point of telling people, mostly because it’s irrelevant. After reading flowery porn all day, he rarely wants to have sex, and when he does he generally doesn’t have the energy to pick up men. If he got into a relationship it would be one thing, but running the company doesn’t give him the time to build the relationships with people that would necessitate telling Merlin, and he doesn’t expect Merlin to pay attention to everyone he checks out at the bars. He’s mostly wondering about the first paragraph. It’s not the first time Merlin’s sent him a message saying he’s got a bit more editing to do before his next book comes to Arthur, but usually he’s both more flippant and more specific, talking about grammar or an overblown scene that Arthur would mock. This time, there’s just that odd awkwardness, the lack of specificity. He doesn’t know how to explain it to Freya, though, even though she knows both of them well. “Just talking about Morgana, and his next MSes.”

Freya nods slowly. “He e-mailed me over lunch, seemed a bit … of.” She hesitates. “Is everything okay?”

“I’m fine, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t know about Merlin, we haven’t e-mailed much today.” And that’s still more food for thought, exactly how often they spend most of Arthur’s workday exchanging periodic e-mails and how odd it feels when Merlin takes a while to respond. “It could be I said something while I was drunk last night, though I don’t remember saying anything awful and I wasn’t quite blackout drunk.”

She bites her lip, and it’s obvious there’s something she could say, but she shakes her head instead. “If he were annoyed with you, he would tell you, just like he has a hundred times before. I’m sure that whatever it is, it will blow over. I just … thought I would ask. Maybe I’ll take him out to dinner later, see if there’s anything he wants to get off his chest. Could be boy troubles, I know you two don’t really talk about that.”

Arthur opens his mouth to say that he always knows when Merlin has a boyfriend and when they break up, but then again, that really is all he knows. One week it’s Sorry, can’t do dinner, I’m out with Gilli—yeah, he’s the new boyfriend or Thursday night is date night with this one, Edwin is big on routine and eventually it’s Oh, no, I’m not busy, we ended it a few days ago, nothing traumatic and Men are all such fuckers, why can’t I just marry Freya. “Yes, by all means,” he says after a few too many seconds. “I won’t even pry afterwards, just make sure he’s okay.”

Freya nods. “I will. And now, I mostly came in to say you’ve got an agent who’s left a message asking if lesbian romance is going to be part of Tintagel as well.”

“Doesn’t sell as well, but I don’t want to discriminate, I just haven’t had time to go actively recruiting yet and nobody seems to have manuscripts for it they’re jumping on me with, forward me the contact info and I’ll get in touch in the morning, I’ve got too much to wrap up this afternoon for that discussion.”

“Right, I’ll get on that. Thanks, Arthur.” She pauses in the doorway. “Are you sure you’re okay? Merlin may be a bit odd, but this isn’t exactly normal post-hangover behavior from you, either.”

“I’m fine,” he says, and waves her out.

*

From: Merlin
To: Freya
Subject: ???

Are you on your lunch break yet? Please tell me you’re on your lunch break, Gwen is having lunch with Lance or I wouldn’t bother you but I need to talk to someone or I will quite possibly do something really stupid.

From: Freya
To: Merlin
Subject: Re: ???

Yes, sorry for the wait, I was just finishing up a phone call. What’s the matter? Need me to call?

From: Merlin
To: Freya
Subject: Re: Re: ???

No, probably won’t make much sense that way, it’s probably best for me to do this over e-mail. Having minor Arthur-related freakout. Are you free to instant message for a bit? Faster than e-mail, won’t take up as much of your lunch break.

Freya: Here I am, Arthur isn’t paying very close attention and I’m technically on break anyway, what’s the problem?
Merlin: Has it somehow magically escaped my notice for the past several years that Arthur is bisexual, or is he having a sexuality crisis brought on by Tintagel?
Freya: Oh, Christ.
Freya: Yes, I’ve known for ages, after he sent a disgruntled one night stand flowers because he’s Arthur.
Merlin: And you didn’t tell me???
Freya: I have been to the pub with you two when you were both a bit buzzed, do you really not notice him checking out other blokes’ arses?
Merlin: … No?
Freya: Probably because you’re too busy staring at him like a character in one of your novels. Look, maybe I should have told you, but does it make that much of a difference in the end?
Merlin: YES because now I am getting my hopes up because I can’t quit replaying all the times he’s told me I’m his favorite person and last night he was drunk and all over me and he’s even starting to win Gwen over and this really wasn’t supposed to happen, I am the stupidest gay cliché known to mankind.
Freya: You should seduce him.
Merlin: what
Freya: Find out one way or the other.
Freya: Look, Arthur is wonderful, but he’s terribly oblivious—would have to be, not to figure out that Roland and Alan are the two of you with your hair colors switched.
Freya: He’s spent his whole life around romance novels and he still doesn’t get that you’re in love with him.
Merlin: Or he’s just NOT INTERESTED.
Freya: He’s so determined not to be his father, is it any wonder he doesn’t realize he’s in his own version of his parents’ love story? But he cares about you more than anyone, and he thinks your porn is hot, and that’s a better beginning than most would get. It doesn’t take a genius to know Arthur’s a bit jaded by written sex.
Merlin: You’ve been talking to Morgana too much.
Merlin: And how could you possibly know that, I refuse to believe that you and Arthur discuss my porn, because that would mean I have to spend the next ten years hiding under my bed.
Freya: It became rather obvious when he drank most of a bottle of water and started fiddling with his tie halfway into the first reading session he had for HH, and then when I had to bring him another before the end.
Merlin: DON’T TELL ME THESE THINGS. I am already having to edit the book with the pirates and one of my contemporaries because now I’m horribly afraid that he’s just going to /know/ somehow.
Freya: Would it be so bad if he figured it out?
Merlin: … Not if he said yes.
Merlin: I’ve got to go. Have a good afternoon. Thanks.
Freya: You do not have to go!
Message not sent.
Freya: MERLIN.
Message not sent.

From: Freya
To: Morgana
Subject: Arthur and Merlin

Don’t know what happened this morning, but I think you might have done more harm than good. Both sounding a little lost, and not in the hungover sense.

From: Morgana
To: Freya
Subject: Re: Arthur and Merlin

Someone’s got to do something.

Have a little faith. They’ll have to figure themselves out sooner or later.

*

It was easy to forget that they were friends, that they were each other’s fallbacks, that once in secondary school they’d promised each other that if neither had anyone by age thirty they would give it a try, with the lights so low and the music was loud. “We should—dance with other people, maybe,” said Elliot, because he was starting to think that Lucas’s hands at his hips and the way his eyes almost never left the love bite on Elliot’s neck meant something, and there was nothing more foolish than that.

“Do you think so?”

Elliot swallowed, watched the way Lucas’s eyes followed the bob of his Adam’s apple. “I do.”

Lucas pressed even closer, until Elliot could feel him hard against his hip and had to arch into it, unthinking. “I don’t,” he breathed right in his ear, and when he pulled back it was just far enough to trail kisses across his jaw. “You’re my favorite person, God, why wouldn’t I want to?”

“Then why didn’t you before?”

Lucas pressed his lips right over the love bite but didn’t suck to overlay it with his own. “I didn’t figure it out until you were with Sam, and I didn’t want to break you up. And then when you did, God, I thought it was my chance, and I wanted to wait until it wouldn’t be a rebound but when you went and got off with that bloke last night, I wanted so badly for it to be me …”

“Arthur!” says Freya, in the tone that means she’s definitely said it more than once.

“Reading,” he replies without looking up from his screen, because she knows he got the first of Merlin’s contemporary manuscripts in his e-mail this morning after weeks of Merlin barely being in contact aside from sending him edits and that he isn’t to be interrupted unless the building starts burning down.

“I know, but you’ve got to listen for a minute. I need to leave for the day so you won’t have me guarding the door. I’ve forwarded all your calls to Elena.”

Arthur blinks up at her, tearing his eyes away from what he’s willing to bet is going to be the book’s first sex scene, since the buildup is already half-killing him in unedited form. “Wait, leaving? Why are you leaving? Are you ill?”

“No, Merlin just called to say he’s in A&E and needs someone to pick him up, he got in a bit of an accident on his bicycle and Gwen’s out of town for the day so she can’t.”

“God, why didn’t you tell me?” Arthur slams his laptop shut and stuffs it in his briefcase without bothering to shut it down properly. “I’ll go with you, if you’re forwarding my calls and everyone’s expecting me to be reading, there’s nothing that won’t keep until we’ve made sure he’s okay. Did he sound okay?”

Freya smiles at him and doesn’t try to talk him out of going, much to his surprise. “He sounded a bit frayed, so I didn’t get many details, but I think he might have broken his arm. He swerved to miss someone’s dog that ran right into his way and a car didn’t swerve quite enough to miss him.”

Arthur grabs his jacket and ushers her out of the office. “Of course he got in a car accident trying to rescue a dog. Only Merlin.”

She gets her purse as they pass her desk and grabs her phone out as they go, sending off a text, presumably to let someone know that the CEO and his assistant will be out of the office for the rest of the afternoon. Arthur resists the urge to text Merlin incessantly to make sure he’s conscious and not off doing anything else foolish, since he most likely won’t answer if his arm is broken and he’s been sporadic at answering texts since that last piss-up anyway. Freya mutters something that he pretends not to hear on the grounds of not wanting to fire her today as they get into the first taxi that pulls over, and then gives the driver the name of the hospital Merlin’s in.

It’s not a long drive, but Arthur fidgets the whole way, still not completely in reality after getting pulled from his reading so suddenly and only getting more worried the more he comes aware because Merlin’s a bit accident prone, yes, but he’s not landed in the hospital since Arthur’s known him.

“How’s the latest book?” Freya inquires when he finally manages to look at her instead of staring out the window and willing the traffic to move faster.

“Good. Really good work, actually, I didn’t even start off worried like I did with Hunter’s Heart. Best-friends-get-together kind of story, that’s one of his favorite ideas to play with.”

She looks at her lap. “Yes, I’ve noticed that. What’s the title?”

Arthur neglects to mention that he had to send back the file entitled Lolita with the message I shan’t read it until you’re serious, since even when Merlin is being inexplicably uncommunicative he’s still a bit of a git. “Sweet Dreams, which I suppose I can’t fault.”

“No, it’s not half bad for him.”

They chat about the book the rest of the way to the hospital, where Arthur pays the cabbie and lets Freya direct him since he has no idea where to go once they’re inside. She talks with a nurse and gets them led to Merlin, who’s dozing in a chair with his left arm in a cast and a sling. Freya rushes forward to coo while Arthur stands awkwardly back, finally connecting that he just left his office two hours early when Freya could easily have hauled Merlin back to his flat and looked after him until Gwen got him.

Eventually, Merlin looks up from blearily assuring Freya that he’s fine and his arm isn’t going to suddenly fall off and blinks at Arthur. “Wait, you’re here. What are you doing here? Don’t you have a job?”

I have a job,” says Freya, but she’s smiling and turns around to talk to the nurse again a second later about how many painkillers Merlin’s allowed to have and when he needs to make an appointment for a checkup.

Since she’s left him at sea and Merlin is still staring at him wide-eyed and more confused than can really be good for him, Arthur casts about for something to say. It’s never this awkward between them, but a few weeks of silence and the hospital have made everything far too strange. “I suppose I ought to have left you in Freya’s capable hands, but I was … worried,” he manages, since Morgana frequently reminds him that it doesn’t kill him to admit he has feelings.

Merlin makes a face at his arm. “This is going to be hell to type with, edits might slow down some.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Arthur assures him instantly. “We’re ahead of schedule on Hunter’s Heart anyway, and now I’ve got Sweet Dreams to go through as well, and it’s not as though I lack for work, so take as much time as you need to recover.”

“Shouldn’t take me too long to recover enough to work, I can type one-handed when I need to.” Merlin yawns. “I hate painkillers, I feel all fuzzy.”

“Fuzzy is better than whining,” says Freya, finishing with the nurse and pulling Merlin gently to his feet. Arthur grabs Merlin’s little bag of belongings. “They’re releasing you as long as someone watches you for the next twenty-four hours, that bump on your head is nasty enough to keep an eye on. I’ve got a date tonight, when’s Gwen meant to be home?”

Merlin stumbles along until Arthur comes up to his other side and takes a bit of his weight, doing his best not to jostle his arm. “Not until midnight, probably, but I’ll be okay for a few hours, not the first time I’ve had a concussion.”

Freya sighs. “It’s not a problem, I’ll just cancel the date, it’s nobody special—”

“You’ll do no such thing,” says Arthur. “I’ll stay with him. If you don’t mind, Merlin?”

“You’ve got things to do, you should be at work now,” says Merlin as they steer him towards the door.

“I can read your book just as easily while you’re snoring in your flat as I can in my office. Better, perhaps, Morgana is less likely to poke her nose in and cause trouble.”

Merlin doesn’t look very happy. “If you’re sure.”

“I am.”

“Good, then,” says Freya, pushing open the door to let them out. “I wasn’t relishing the thought of canceling, I admit. Let’s get a cab, shall we?”

Merlin sleeps the entire cab ride to his flat, and he’s grouchy and groggy when they wake him to get out and up the stairs. Arthur gives serious thought to just picking him up and carrying him, but that would do his arm no favors and he’s not about to make things worse, so he just returns the favor that Merlin did for him when he was drunk and pushes him gently up the stairs from behind while Freya coaxes him up from the front. They get inside with a minimum of fuss and bother and Arthur is left to get Merlin in his pajamas and into bed while Freya gets water and pills and whatever else they might need.

“My bike is ruined,” says Merlin while Arthur averts his eyes to let him get changed.

“Lucky you’re a well-to-do author who can afford a new one, then,” Arthur returns, and reaches out to grab him and keep him from falling when he miscalculates his ability to put on trousers with only one arm. “Try again, I really have no desire to dress you while you’re in this state.”

“Do you have a desire to dress me while I’m in any state?”

“One would hope you’ve been able to dress yourself since you were a child, Merlin, though given some of your outfits that is debatable, I’ll admit.”

“Stop making fun of him, he’s injured and he can’t keep up,” Freya calls from the other side of the door. “Is he decent?”

Merlin hops a bit and finally makes it into the remainder of his clothes. “Yes, I’m fine, and I’m not six years old, both of you have seen me practically naked before.”

Freya comes in and sits him down on the bed, leaving him a glass of water and two pills on the way. “You can have the water now, but the pills need to wait a few hours. Are you hungry?” Merlin shakes his head, and Arthur pulls the covers up even though he gets a glare. “Nothing too heavy when he is hungry, Arthur, but other than that it’s just common sense. Are you two going to be okay if I leave you? If I leave now I have time for a bit of a shop before my date.”

“Go ahead,” says Merlin, and she kisses him on the forehead and gives Arthur a little smile before she leaves. “Am I allowed to sleep, oh mighty doctor? I’m sort of knackered.”

“Yes, I just have to wake you up periodically and make sure you make as much sense as you ever do.”

Merlin bites his lip. “You don’t have to stay, you know. I wasn’t kidding when I said I would be okay on my own.”

Arthur sighs and tries not to look at the bandage farther up on Merlin’s arm than the cast, where the pavement rubbed his skin raw. “Indulge me, Merlin. Freya nearly gave me a heart attack earlier when she said you were at A&E, and I can read your book just as easily here as I can there. Just go to sleep.” The way Merlin looks at him, glassy-eyed with pain and drugs but still a bit wary, makes him blurt out a question he’s been avoiding. “Have I done anything wrong?”

“No, no, God, of course not,” says Merlin, sounding surprised enough that it’s a comfort.

He can’t help pressing, just a bit. “It’s only that you’ve been a bit quiet, lately.”

It takes Merlin long enough to answer that Arthur wonders if he’s fallen asleep. “I’ve been editing. And I’ve had some things to think about. It’s fine. We’re fine. I promise.”

After that, Merlin settles in to sleep and Arthur plugs his laptop in and goes to the other side of the bed to sit and read.

“We’ve always said the friendship is more important,” said Elliot, but it was hard to put any conviction behind it.

“Just because I want you doesn’t mean we have to stop being friends.” Lucas kissed him, swift and sure. “I know I should wait, but if you have time to think, you’ll have time to say no, and you can’t tell me you’ve never thought about it.”

Elliot hadn’t, honestly, years of being friends and knowing they were both gay nonetheless. There’d been the odd fantasy, but he’d never really thought about what it would be like, if hugs at the door turned into kisses, if they went out to the clubs and always left together at the end instead of having one dance at the beginning of the night and maybe another later if the pickings were scarce. With Lucas’s hands hot through his clothes, though, it was hard not to think about it. “I suppose … I suppose all we can do is try.”

Arthur wakes up at one in the morning, hours after making Merlin cheese on toast for dinner and letting him have his painkillers before coaxing him back to sleep, with his laptop shut on his lap and his hand tangled in Merlin’s hair, Merlin sprawled across his leg. It takes him a second to figure out what woke him until he looks up to find Gwen in the doorway, standing and watching them with an expression he can’t quite decipher. A second later, she nods, a smile forming, and Arthur barely has time to nod and smile in return before she shuts the door. He turns to check on Merlin one last time and falls back asleep before he can do more than put his laptop off to the side.

*

“That is yesterday’s suit, your shirt doesn’t fit properly, and you’re wearing a plaid tie,” says Morgana gleefully when she walks into his office five minutes after he gets there. “The rumor mill is all abuzz about you and Freya leaving for some Merlin-related reason yesterday, so I can only assume that you vigorously shagged him all night and had to steal his clothes this morning.”

Arthur rubs his temples and wonders what the chances are that if he pretends he can’t hear her she’ll go away. Probably quite low, since that didn’t even work when they were children. “And in what way would Freya be involved in that?”

Morgana leers. “You tell me.”

“Merlin broke his arm, I stayed the night at his flat and woke up too late to go back to mine for a fresh shirt. Thank you as ever for your concern about my nonexistent sex life.”

“Is he all right?”

“Well enough to be complaining this morning about how slow this is going to make typing for the next few weeks, at least. I’ve told him not to worry about it, two manuscripts to edit is certainly enough to be going on with for the moment.”

Morgana hums quietly, and when he looks up at her again she’s looking at him speculatively. “You must have been worried, to leave the office.”

“Of course I was, is there any particular reason that I shouldn’t have been? He’s my best friend, after all.”

That answer obviously doesn’t give her what she wants, because she switches tacks. “And how is the newer one? Everyone’s waiting to see if it’s as good as The Hunter’s Heart.”

“Possibly better, though Hunter’s Heart is coming on by leaps and bounds as we edit, might even get it down to copy-editing soon, although Merlin’s injury might slow us down some. He’s always done well with the contemporaries, more chance to pull from reality.”

Morgana blinks at him like he’s surprised her. “What on earth do you mean by that?”

“Oh, you know, the little things all authors do. Like how the heroine from his last contemporary always forgot her reading glasses on her head like Gwen does when she’s tired, and how one of his heroes had a fondness for pet names about the same time that Gwaine went around calling everyone ‘darling.’”

“I can honestly say I’d never noticed.”

“You don’t edit him, so I wouldn’t expect you to.”

For a second, she just watches him, eyes a bit narrowed, and then she hums thoughtfully. “What sort of things are showing up in his Tintagel romances, out of curiosity?”

“Nothing much ever shows up in his historicals—Roland’s got a ring he wears like I wear my mother’s, but I don’t recall anything else much. Sweet Dreams seems to be rife with it, though, even down to one of the characters calling the other his favorite person when he’s being affectionate.”

She raises her eyebrows. “As Merlin does to you?”

“As I do to Merlin, not that it’s any of your business.” She starts laughing, hand over her mouth. “For God’s sake, Morgana, what?”

“It’s like you’re being willfully ignorant, I really can’t talk to you when you’re being like this,” she announces, and barely manages to get her face straight before striding right out of his office.

It takes less than a minute for Freya to appear at the door. “That was certainly an interesting conversation.”

“Oh good, so we’re dispensing with the fallacy that I have any privacy whatsoever, then,” Arthur says into his hands. “Are you here to tell me I’m being an idiot as well?”

“Actually, I’m here to ask if you’ll e-mail Sweet Dreams to me, since you’ve apparently finished your first read-through.” He looks up, but Freya looks sincere, although her brows are knit in a way that spells trouble for someone.

“Yes, fine, shouldn’t be a problem. I have business matters to take care of this morning so I can’t get around to doing editing quite yet, but I’ll get the file to you before I get a start.”

“That’s fine. Mithian wants to see you, by the way, she’s down seeing Elena right now but she’ll be up again within an hour. They’ve decided it’s the most efficient use of both of their time to have their editing meetings down at the reception desk.”

“Good for them. They’re getting on well, then?”

Freya smiles. “Yes, they were friendly before but this seems to be a whole new level. You know how your editors get with their pet writers.”

“I suppose I do.” She starts back out of his office, apparently satisfied with whatever they’ve said, but he interrupts her before she can leave. “I forgot to ask when I came in, but how was the date last night?”

“Better than I was expecting, actually, I’m glad I didn’t have to cancel. Thanks for watching out for Merlin, he probably appreciated you being there more than he would have appreciated me.” He raises an eyebrow. “I tend to fuss,” she explains. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make a few phone calls, and if Sweet Dreams were to show up in my inbox while I did I certainly wouldn’t object.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Arthur says, and manages a smile while she walks out.

From there, the day goes downhill. Arthur spends the morning mired down in paperwork and phone calls that he’d really rather not have to make while Freya reads outside his door. Mithian’s check-in is a bright spot, but she’s twenty minutes later than she’d thought she would be since she was off giggling with Elena and he has to interrupt it and send her apologetically away when he gets a phone call from one of their lawyers about an author needing to be let out of her contract and has to take care of it. Morgana shakes her head sadly at him whenever he sees her, Freya’s got something on her mind, he runs into Gwaine when he stops by graphics and gets laughed at for no reason he can discern, Leon’s behind with covers for the Avalon Imprint, and all he really wants to do is shut himself in his office and start preparing some preliminary editing suggestions for Merlin.

Sometime around two, he catches a few minutes to send an e-mail to him, even if it can’t be about editing.

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: How are you?

Tell me how awful it is to have a broken arm so I can feel a bit less shitty about how my day is going.

It takes another hour to get around to his e-mail again, between soothing a disgruntled author who doesn’t want her book pushed back to spring even though it will likely sell better then and going over financial reports from his various departments. By that time, he’s nearly ready to strangle someone, so he’s glad when the only e-mail that pops up and doesn’t seem to be part of a chain that he’s only included in on a courtesy is from Merlin.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Re: How are you?

Sorry to disappoint, but aside from some pain today isn’t awful at all. Gwen stayed home from work to coddle me and I’ve been getting some edits done even if it’s slow going. Definitely glad I’ve been working myself so hard recently, I don’t feel too behind. Sounds like you’re having a bad one, though, what’s up?

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: Re: How are you?

Just one of those days. Not enough time, half the people I need to do business with are grouchy and the other half, led by Morgana, are giving me pitying looks for no reason I can fathom. Also she gave me a hard time of it this morning for stealing your tie and shirt (which is so uncomfortable, I cannot tell you, if I’m going to keep falling asleep at your flat I am going to start storing clothing there). Nothing too terrible, so I haven’t got any stories to entertain you with.

Although if Morgana asks you about a threesome with Freya and me you should feel free to strenuously deny, or not if you want a better story for your broken arm.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: Re: How are you?

… I’m not going to ask why you think threesomes lead to broken arms, as I suspect the answer may be kinky enough to change my perceptions of you quite a lot. But, um, thanks for the offer, I suppose?

Sorry your day is shit, wish I could help. Can’t even offer a drink tonight, that’s frowned upon while I’m on painkillers. Maybe we could have lunch tomorrow, or something? Should be feeling with it enough to leave the flat by then.

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: Re: How are you?

Oh, so you didn’t want me telling Morgana about how Freya tied you up and spanked you until you writhed so hard you actually fractured your arm trying to get free?

Lunch would be good, I would come over tonight but I’m going to be way too exhausted by then.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: JESUS CHRIST

GWEN WAS READING THAT OVER MY SHOULDER, YOU ABSOLUTE PILLOCK.

Offer of lunch rescinded, she knows it didn’t actually happen and she’s still looking at me like she doesn’t quite know what to do with me.

Also, give Freya a bit of credit, she’d be a better dominatrix than to tie me up in any position that would cause enough pressure to break an arm. Though I wouldn’t put it past you, we would have to teach you how to do bondage.

And you’re underestimating my ability to take it.

“Arthur? Are you okay?”

Arthur manages to tear his gaze away from his screen, even if he can’t quite get his mind off the image of Merlin, tied up and being spanked and liking it, which is more compelling than ninety percent of the porn he sees on a daily basis even if it’s not at all what generally interests him. Freya’s standing at his door again, looking concerned. “Yes, I’m fine, sorry, did you need something?”

“You just look a bit flushed,” she says slowly. “And you don’t usually when you’re going over financials, and you’ve been quite involved in your screen … oh, sorry, did I interrupt you finally getting back to the Sweet Dreams notes? I can leave you alone if so. I’ve been enjoying it, and I know how you hate to be torn from his books.”

“No, I’m just a bit warm, is all, thank you. The financials are finished with, though, if you want to run them over to Geoffrey.”

“I’ll do that, then.” She gives him another worried look. “And then maybe get you some water. Why don’t you take a ten-minute break before your next call? There’s nothing concrete on the schedule right now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says as dryly as he can manage, and waves her off once she’s got the papers.

And then he’s stuck trying not to think about Merlin, again, the way he drew unconsciously closer in his sleep, the way his ears still turn red whenever Arthur tries to talk about editing his sex scenes in public, the way anyone who’s ever read romance novels knows that at least some of the sex scenes are based off what the author enjoys and how Arthur’s never found an author whose sex he likes as well as Merlin’s, and the fact that his “favorite person” comments always come out far more earnest than he means them to, and he still can’t stop thinking about tying Merlin up and spanking him.

Shit.

Shit.

*

“Have you finished being an idiot?” Morgana inquires when she picks up the phone that night.

“It took me ages to figure out with Sophia, and she was trying to get me to fall in love with her, in my defense.”

There’s a pause on the line. “Wait, what?”

“So obviously I wouldn’t notice about Merlin.” Arthur sighs. “Honestly, Morgana, you know better than anyone that I don’t always notice this sort of thing, one gets inured to it after a while. I’m not the only editor with a tragic love life.”

“Yes, but other editors don’t have Merlin practically—what exactly made you realize?”

Arthur sits back on his couch and opens his laptop up. Revelations or no, he’s behind on work and he still wants to get some notes to Merlin as soon as possible. “It’s a long story that ends in me imagining spanking him,” he says, mostly as revenge for her frequent attempts to send him to therapy.

Of course, she never minds as much as he does, but it still takes a second for her to answer. “Why didn’t it end in you actually spanking him?”

He massages his temple. “Gee, Morgana, I’m not sure. Why didn’t I just show up on his doorstep while he’s stoned on painkillers and say ‘Hello, how’s the arm, I’ve just realized that I’d rather our lunch tomorrow was in an entirely non-platonic capacity and also, would you mind terribly if I spanked you?’ It’s Merlin, he deserves at least a modicum of wooing.”

This time, she’s silent for long enough for him to wonder if his phone has dropped the call. He’s about to ask when she bursts out laughing. “Oh dear God, Arthur, really? You edit romance novels for a living, for fuck’s sake, and you can’t even have the decency to figure out when you’re pining for someone? It’s a classic situation! Uther went through it, we’ve all known about you since you decided he’s your romance novel soulmate, figured it was just in the Pendragon blood! I assumed you thought it was none of our business, but this is precious. That’s what you figured out today, that you’re in love with him?”

Arthur actually lifts the phone away from his ear to stare at it for a moment, because Morgana is making less sense than usual. “Well, if it were in the Pendragon blood you’d be in love with Morgause, which is beyond thinking of,” he manages after a second. “And I don’t notice these things precisely because I edit romance novels, you can’t tell me you aren’t a bit jaded about things like meet-cutes by now.”

“You have had years to figure it out, I can’t believe this is your big exciting revelation.”

“If you’re so disappointed, what were you expecting me to figure out?”

Morgana makes a sharp, annoyed sound. “Just … do me a favor, would you? Reread Hunter’s Heart tonight, and think really hard about Merlin.”

Arthur just barely manages to bite down the horrified urge to ask her if she’s got cameras in his flat and wants to catch him wanking or something. “I want to get him editing notes on Sweet Dreams,” he says instead.

She hums. “No, that won’t work, it’s too much like work still, you’ve edited the other enough that you won’t have the urge to take a red pen to it every few seconds. Just … read it, would you? Read it, and forget you’ve got to edit it, and just think about Merlin.”

“Or you could just tell me whatever it is.”

“Don’t be silly,” she scoffs. “Where’s the fun in that?”

“And am I to call you when I figure out whatever it is that I’m missing?”

“I have faith in you, sweetie, don’t worry, you may be thick but given this much direction you aren’t quite thick enough to miss it,” she says pityingly. Before he can muster an objection, which given his mental state would mostly consist of indignant stuttering, she speaks again. “Now, I’ve got plans tonight, and they involve wine and Ovid and not dealing with your shambles of a love life. Spanking indeed,” she adds for good measure, and hangs up the phone.

Arthur considers calling her back to find something to needle her about since he doesn’t relish being made to feel about five years old, but apparently he’s managed to miss a massive blind spot where Merlin is concerned and now she has him paranoid that he’s missing something else as well. Perhaps he’s also managed to miss that Merlin’s madly in love with Freya or something equally inconvenient. He pulls open his current file for The Hunter’s Heart and vows not to tell Morgana anything he figures out from it out of spite.

He likes the beginning much better now—Roland comes across as blustering and a bit pompous, but not cruel, much closer to who he is for the rest of the book. Arthur does his best to set aside thoughts of what to fix in the next sweep through and instead tries to obey and put Merlin in Roland’s shoes, since Morgana told him to think of Merlin and it’s his book and his point-of-view character, after all. It’s next to impossible, and within a page he’s given it up, but then Alan comes into the scene, and Arthur tries again, and it works. They aren’t exactly the same person, Merlin’s too good a writer for that, but it’s certainly more of himself than Merlin usually puts into his characters.

And then, well, it’s a bit too easy to put himself in Roland’s shoes, and imagine the two of them fighting their way through the Medieval forests, and it’s almost distracting how easy it is. If there’s more than usual of Merlin in Alan, Arthur’s finding Roland more like himself than he’d realized on that first read-through, too involved in considering future edits.

When he gets to the first scene he had Merlin re-write from Alan’s point of view, Arthur has to stop, because Morgana’s right, he’s the biggest idiot in the world. All he can think of is Merlin’s e-mail saying we’ve all been in that position, pining after a probably-straight guy, and his surprise at Arthur’s bisexuality, and a hundred pitying looks from Morgana and Freya and Gwen and Mithian and everyone else who’s read the damn book.

I think, he thinks past the shock, that I’ve rather managed to miss the forest for the trees.

He doesn’t bother finishing his reread, just closes the document and opens up Sweet Dreams and skims through. There it is again, recognition that he didn’t notice because he was already thinking of the scenes and pacing he would have to point out to Merlin, while he totally missed the fact that it’s him and Merlin again, from the way they talk to each other to the way their friends all smile at them indulgently and call them married from the very first page. Clearly, if Arthur’s been oblivious, Merlin’s known how he feels for ages—long enough to write two books about it, maybe more if the others are anything like the first ones.

The thing is that Merlin, who sometimes asks what’s the matter before Arthur even realizes he’s upset about something, seems not to have realized that Arthur returns his feelings. Arthur is irrationally miffed, since the one time when it would benefit them both Merlin is apparently unable to read his mind on the matter. He suspects all of this would have been solved much more easily if Merlin had just kissed him a year or so ago.

Arthur spends a panicky minute wanting to call Morgana for confirmation, or even Freya or Gwen, but really, for all he hasn’t seen it before it is painfully, horrifyingly obvious, and nobody he knows is ever going to let him forget about it.

That means that the only thing to do is to figure out what to do about it.

*

Life, unfortunately, has a bad habit of barreling on even in the face of epiphanies, which has been a source of displeasure for Arthur throughout his life, but which has never quite galled him as much as it is doing now. If this were a movie or one of the novels he edits, he would go directly to Merlin’s even though it would be nearly midnight by the time he made it over there, there would be a soppy scene, they would have terribly flowery sex, and then they’d move on to the epilogue. However, it’s a Thursday night and while Camelot Publishing of all workplaces would probably forgive its CEO for skipping work for a confession of love and a shag, it’s still not exactly good form. Besides, if he goes Friday night, he’ll have the whole weekend to get things straightened out between them.

As if to reward his virtue, Merlin e-mails his next Tintagel manuscript right as Arthur is getting ready to go to bed.

From: Merlin
To: Arthur
Subject: The pirate book
Attachment: thedarkesthour.rtf

Managed to spend the whole evening editing, this needed less brushing up than I’d thought it did, or at least I hope so. I might be stoned out of my mind and very very wrong. In which case you should feel free to delete the document from your hard drive and pretend this never happened.

Fair warning, it’s a bit raunchier than some of my stuff. Not, like, creepy and sexual-assaulty like you’re always complaining pirate books are, you would beat me if I did that and that is not romantic anyway, but … lots of sex, basically. Consider yourself warned.

And that, more than anything else could be, is a sign that Arthur’s on the right track. Clearly the universe is rewarding him for getting a clue.

Probably he ought to go to bed and save reading the newest (The Darkest Hour, really? It’s like he’s trying to write a horror novel) until work, so he’ll have an excuse to avoid meetings and Morgana and plan out how to sweep Merlin off his feet. Instead, he opens it up, since if that’s true he can also pretend to read it for the first time at work tomorrow and get some editing done and still avoid Morgana.

From the blurb Merlin’s so helpfully provided at the beginning, Arthur smugly assumes that he’s to be the dashing gentleman explorer who tips occasionally towards piracy and Merlin is to be the man with a past they rescue from a rowboat far from any shore. This is, he discovers within five pages, an erroneous assumption. It isn’t quite so clearly them as Sweet Dreams or even The Hunter’s Heart, but Captain William is almost certainly Merlin, with his quick humor and his way with words and his habit of climbing about the ship’s ropes like a monkey (Merlin’s anything but the most graceful person Arthur knows, but he’s the one who introduced Arthur to rock climbing and he’s shockingly good at it). The stray they pick up is Arthur, a man named Anthony who’s clearly got a secret and who has Arthur’s habit of clenching his jaw when he doesn’t want to answer a question and, he discovers when the book switches points of view, Arthur’s habit of letting his lies get ahead of him and having to scramble to make everything fit and Arthur’s way of skirting around his father in his head.

Physically, they’re nothing alike to either of them, which makes it a bit easier to sink into the story and not wonder if Merlin’s doing it all on purpose and if this is some sort of master plan to either woo Arthur or drive him mad, and other than a few similarities they aren’t that different in other ways. It still nearly makes him squirm, though, the way they so obviously care about one another once they’re no longer at each other’s throats, and how one can’t get up the courage to say and one has no idea at all; it certainly makes him angry with himself for taking so long to figure it out, if Merlin feels at all like Captain William does on a regular basis.

And then there’s the sex. Merlin is right, it’s far more than the requisite two or three scenes that are the stereotype of a romance novel. Anthony and William start getting off together quite early in the book, while they still dislike each other, and it starts rough and ends up almost embarrassingly tender by the time they’ve started to figure themselves out. If even half of it is what Merlin’s fantasized about doing with him they’re never going to be bored in bed, and he feels like he spends half his read-through with his hand pressed to his erection.

It’s nearly four in the morning by the time he gets to sleep (after an embarrassingly short wank that he can’t resist), and he’s exhausted and rethinking his decision to stay up late and read when his alarm goes at seven thirty. At this rate he’s going to be too tired to woo Merlin properly when he gets off work, but at least he can spend most of the day shut away in his office. Marketing has taken much of the load of Tintagel off his hands, since they have a few books getting ready for release, the whole thing moving quicker than Arthur could have imagined, so at least that’s off his plate for the day.

Freya takes one look at him and her eyes go wide. “Are you okay?”

“Didn’t sleep well. I’ll be needing coffee. And I’ve got another new file from Merlin so I’m to be disturbed as little as possible today, please. As I recall my schedule for today is quite clear.”

She looks at him suspiciously for a moment. “It is. Should I be sending you home?”

If Morgana knows, he’s willing to bet any money that Freya knows, and quite likely the rest of the office has their suspicions. He’s not quite ready to face telling anyone yet, though, so he just shakes his head. “No, it’s my own fault for forgetting I’m not in university anymore. It’s Friday, I’ll soldier on.”

“If you say so.” She eyes him again. “Your sister wants to see you, but I think it’s best if we pretend you’ve got some urgent paperwork to take care of in your office, though you’re on your own after closing time.”

“You’re a saint, and you’re getting a massive end-of-year bonus.”

“Exactly,” says Freya, and wisely leaves him be aside from bringing him a thermos of coffee and a mug a few minutes later.

Arthur spends his morning making editing notes for both Sweet Dreams and The Darkest Hour, intermittently interrupted by attempting to figure out what the hell to do with Merlin. He suspects the direct approach will probably be best, just going in and kissing him, but he feels as if he owes Merlin an apology for waiting this long for all of it, even if he hadn’t known before. Merlin won’t expect one, but that’s what makes the thought appealing.

Of course, all his plans are sent straight to hell when Freya knocks on his door around noon with an apologetic look on her face. “Merlin is here.”

“He’s what?” Arthur manages, voice embarrassingly high.

“Here. For lunch, he says. He looks far less stoned than he did the other night.”

“I’m off the worst of the painkillers,” Merlin calls from behind her, and she steps aside to let him into Arthur’s office. “Elena and Mithian are giggling about something behind the reception desk, their editing meetings sound more fun than ours,” he observes, looking around the office and adjusting his sling.

“Elena isn’t a constant trial to Mithian,” he says, mouth on autopilot. “Not that this isn’t a nice surprise, but what are you doing here?”

Merlin peers at him. “Jesus Christ, are you on drugs? You look awful.”

“Oh, thank you—”

“And I’m here because when we were e-mailing yesterday I said I could do lunch today and you agreed, so here I am.” He uses his free hand to make a little ‘tah-dah’ motion. Freya, standing behind him and looking between them with an all-too-knowing expression on her face, hides a smile behind her hand. “Now I’m thinking I should make you take a nap or something.”

Arthur’s running on three and a half hours of sleep and an epiphany and it’s all he can do to stare in panic for a few seconds and scramble for something to say that isn’t oh God, I really do love you, don’t I, since he’d really rather not do that in front of Freya, lovely as she is. “Um, no, that’s fine, lunch is good, we can do lunch.”

Merlin’s looking more concerned by the second. “Or not, not is okay if you forgot or you’re really busy or something, seriously, you look like a crazy person right now, are you okay?”

“I’m—yes. You just surprised me. We should go for lunch.” Arthur shuts his laptop and stands, grabbing his jacket and making sure he has his wallet as he goes. This is throwing his timetable off more than a bit, because he’s a shit liar and if he goes to lunch with Merlin it’s increasingly obvious that he’s going to say something incriminating.

Freya looks between them some more, lips pursed. “Let me know if you can’t make it back in, Arthur, there’s nothing that won’t wait for Monday. I’ll hold Morgana off as long as I can.”

“Thank you,” he says, refrains from offering her yet another theoretical raise or bonus because if she ever cashes in on all of them she’ll be making more money than anyone else in the company, and follows Merlin out his office door.

Merlin fidgets in the elevator the whole way down, not speaking but hovering close like he’s expecting Arthur to collapse any second, as if he could catch him with a broken arm. “You’re really sure you’re okay? Because honestly, I’m pretty sure you look worse right now than I did the other night, and you don’t even have the benefit of an accident.”

“Really, just tired. Was just thinking about you, actually, even though I forgot about lunch, so I’m glad to see you, I promise.”

Merlin stares a bit. “Okay, now I’m really worried. You never tell me you’re glad to see me unless you’re drunk.”

“That is not true.” Except he has a sinking feeling that it is. He rubs a hand across his eyes. “Well, it shouldn’t be. I generally am.” God, he’s going to feel like an idiot forever.

“You’re dying, aren’t you,” Merlin concludes as they step out of the elevator. “Morgana’s been using a slow-acting poison and you just found out last night and you’re giving everyone your last words just in case.”

“You’ve found me out,” Arthur says as dryly as he can through a yawn, and waves at Mithian and Elena, who are indeed giggling at the reception desk, and Percival at the door, who just nods and raises his eyebrows and winks when Merlin isn’t looking, probably assuming Arthur was up late shagging Merlin instead of just thinking about it. “I’ll pass you off to Mithian to edit.”

“Oh, no, if you aren’t my editor I’ll go back to school, I’m used to you now,” says Merlin with a shrug, and starts walking towards the nearest deli.

“Do you want to go back to school?” Arthur winces at how stricken he sounds and continues hastily before Merlin can react. “I mean, I’ll stop harassing you for books if you’d rather go back to mathematics, though God knows why you’d want to.”

Merlin stops walking and stares at him. “Okay, I’m seriously concerned now, what is the matter with you today? If I didn’t want to write for you I wouldn’t write for you, Arthur. I may enjoy maths but I enjoy writing love stories just as much and I’m making a good living of it, so I’m not planning on stopping any time soon.”

“Well, good. You’re … I would miss you. Come on, keep walking, you’ll hold up foot traffic.”

“Three tourists and a pensioner,” Merlin mutters, but he walks alongside Arthur and doesn’t say anything else until they sit down with their sandwiches. “You’re going to tell me what’s wrong now. And bullshit if you say there isn’t, there’s exhausted and then there’s strung out.”

He’s going to confess his love over roast beef sandwiches in a tiny deli with a grumpy old man at the counter and a group of loud university students sitting far too close. This is not a story out of one of his novels. “I was up late reading The Darkest Hour,” he says, starting on the safe ground.

“I sent it at midnight!”

“Yes, ‘late’ might be more accurately termed ‘early.’ I was up late anyway, I was … I’d had an interesting conversation with Morgana.”

“About the poison,” Merlin hazards.

“About the fact that I’m in love with you,” Arthur blurts, and shit, shit, that’s not at all how he meant that to come out, that was not suave at all.

Merlin rolls his eyes. “They’ll get over joking about it eventually,” he says, missing the way Arthur’s staring wide-eyed and stuffed his mouth with a bite of his sandwich before he says anything else awful. Apparently they’re both oblivious, then.

“No,” he says once he’s swallowed. “No, this time it was me bringing it up. Because I, um, am.” Merlin stares at him, mouth hanging a bit open. Arthur uses Merlin’s ridiculous little ‘tah-dah’ gesture from earlier. It doesn’t get a response, as well it shouldn’t, because it was stupid enough when Merlin did it. “Fuck, I really should have got some sleep, but I’d just reread bits of the first two and figured out that you reciprocate, and then I sort of wanted confirmation, and—”

“What,” Merlin interrupts, voice cracking, “what exactly gave you this idea?”

“Well, mostly it was the wanting to spank you, and then Morgana told me to think, and it sort of all happened at once.” Arthur wisely takes another bite of his sandwich, because the spanking is really more of a third-date kind of conversation. When he thinks he’s got the word vomit somewhat under control, he looks back at Merlin, who’s still frozen with his sandwich halfway to his mouth. “This is not at all how I wanted to say this. I was going to come to your flat after work and bring you roses or something equally romantic, not sexually harass you over subpar sandwiches after making you think I’m on drugs. But. The take-away message here is that I love you.”

Merlin closes his eyes, and puts his sandwich down, and Arthur doesn’t know quite what he’s thinking, but he’s smiling a bit to himself, so he thinks it’s all going to end well. “Okay,” says Merlin at last, softly. “Okay. Just—hold on, okay? I need to make a phone call.”

“I confess my love and he makes a phone call,” Arthur says to nobody in particular, but he doesn’t object when Merlin fumbles his phone out of his pocket and dials a few numbers, just goes back to eating his sandwich.

“Freya?” says Merlin when the phone is answered, and Arthur looks sharply up. “Look, Arthur’s knackered, I’m taking him back to his after lunch.” He pauses. “Yeah, everything’s okay. Everything’s great, actually. I’ll call you soon, but we’re still at lunch, so I’ve got to go.”

As soon as he hangs up, Arthur starts speaking. “If you think I just said that because I’m tired—”

“I know you too well for that by now,” says Merlin, and the smile breaks out across his face. “I can’t believe it took you this long to figure out I’m in love with you.”

Even if he’s known it since last night, hearing it out loud still makes Arthur catch his breath. “I’m clearly a bit slow.”

“Well, I’ve known that for ages.” Merlin starts laughing. “Oh God, nobody is ever going to let us forget this. I’ve been trying to convince everyone you’re not interested despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you’ve just had no clue at all … for people in the profession we’re in, I’d call that more than a bit ridiculous.”

Arthur laughs too, mostly out of the sheer relief of it, even though it gets them some funny looks from the other patrons. “We’ll have to make up for lost time, then.”

Merlin puts his sandwich down. “I don’t really think I’m hungry anymore, and you seem to have the afternoon unexpectedly off work, and I don’t think this is exactly the place to have the rest of this conversation. Shall we go?”

“My flat’s empty,” Arthur offers, stupidly because of course it is, he lives alone.

Merlin grins at him and stands up. “Of course it is, idiot. Let’s go, then.”

Arthur still is rather hungry, actually, since he didn’t have time for breakfast and coffee isn’t a good meal replacement, but the moment is a good deal more important than the food, so he stands up as well, wrapping his sandwich up and then Merlin’s, since he’s having trouble with it one-handed. When that’s done, he wonders if he ought to go back to his office for his laptop and briefcase, but he can survive a weekend without work so he just picks up the sandwiches in one hand and reaches for Merlin’s free hand with the other.

They don’t talk much on the walk back to Arthur’s flat, but neither of them can stop grinning, and Merlin’s hand doesn’t move from his the whole way.

*

“Go on, into the bedroom,” says Merlin when they get there. “You’re too knackered to walk straight, I have zero faith in your ability to make out while standing up.”

“God, this is unromantic,” Arthur complains, but he obeys when Merlin disentangles their fingers and shoves him gently forward. “Aren’t you coming?”

“I’ll be there in a minute, I’m going to stick our food in the fridge and make sure nothing’s going to explode because you left the gas on this morning or something. Go on, get your kit off, and I’ll be in as soon as may be.”

Arthur goes, because he’s been yawning every few seconds for the last ten minutes at least and bed sounds appealing for a multitude of reasons at the moment. He struggles out of his suit and down to his boxers and a t-shirt before he realizes that Merlin should be coming after him by now. “Did you get lost in my kitchen?” he yells, turning down the covers.

“Things are slow one-armed, just get in the bed and I’ll be right along,” Merlin calls back.

For a second, Arthur thinks about arguing, and then he decides that first of all, he hasn’t got the energy, and second of all, he wouldn’t put it past Merlin to withhold sex before they’ve even had it if Arthur gets stubborn. Instead, he gets on the back and reclines against the pillows and lets his eyes close for just a second …

It’s dark, and there’s music playing softly close by—not his own music, he’s relatively certain he doesn’t have any Katy Perry on his computer, which means there’s someone else here. Someone else humming quietly along to “Teenage Dream,” no less, and resting a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, and the day’s events slam into his memory.

Not a dream, then, no matter how the memories have the foggy, sleep-deprived quality he hasn’t dealt with since university. He took Merlin out for sandwiches and told him he loves him and then got tricked into taking a nap before they could even kiss, for fuck’s sake.

Merlin’s still here, though, and sounds happy enough, judging by the humming, so Arthur opens his eyes and squints to see what’s going on. It’s evening, judging by how dark it is, since Merlin hasn’t bothered closing the blinds, and Merlin is listening to music on his phone and leafing his way through one of Arthur’s books, as if he’s been waiting for him to come around for hours. This is undoubtedly the worst-planned seduction in history.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles. Merlin starts, swiveling to look at him, humming cut abruptly off. “You must’ve been bored.”

His eyes are adjusted enough to the dark that he can see when Merlin breaks out into a grin, just before he turns away to turn off the music and toss his book off the bed. “You needed sleep, no way you could ravish me while you were that exhausted, and besides.” He turns back to Arthur, slides over him in some movement Arthur isn’t quite awake enough to track yet. “This way I’ve had time to plan.” He settles into a straddle over Arthur’s hips, barely brushing his half-hard erection. Arthur lifts his hands and settles them at Merlin’s waist, since he’s not quite sure what else to do and suspects that at this point he’s just going to be along for the ride. “You see,” Merlin continues, unperturbed, “there’s a lot we can’t do, with my arm in a cast—really, you couldn’t figure it out a week sooner or six weeks later? This is going to be awful—but we can certainly do some things.”

“Did you have any particular ideas in mind?” he manages.

“Well, blowjobs, obviously, and handjobs if you don’t mind me using my off hand for it.” The implications of dating an erotica writer begin to dawn on Arthur, and it’s all he can do to flex his hands on Merlin’s waist to encourage him to continue. “If we get there I’m pretty sure we can figure out ways of fucking one another without putting weight on my arm, though we’ll have to shelve the tying me up and spanking me part for later.” Arthur chokes and tries not to buck his hips. “Remind me to make fun of you for deciding you love me because of an e-mail chain about Freya tying me up.”

Arthur stops him before all his blood runs south, because he’s relatively certain that he needs to say a few things now that he isn’t half-asleep and completely without a brain-to-mouth filter. “It wasn’t deciding.”

Merlin stops with his mouth open, expression gone quizzical. “What was it, then?”

“Figuring it out, after far too long, apparently. This isn’t …” He searches around for the proper word. “It isn’t new,” he settles on. He hasn’t had the time to figure out when it did start, exactly—not at the very beginning, they were too busy fighting for that, but sometime between the day Merlin first made the romance bestsellers’ list and the day Arthur decided to found Tintagel, he settled into it without realizing. “I wouldn’t have said it if it were that new, Merlin.”

Merlin bends down, leans on his good elbow so he can breathe in Arthur’s ear. “Said what?” he breathes, and Arthur shivers.

“That I love you.” It’s Merlin’s turn to shiver. “I do, and I’m sorry I didn’t say it better earlier. You caught me by surprise.”

After a second, Merlin levers himself up again. “I wouldn’t want it any other way. In case you hadn’t figured it out, Arthur, we’re not in one of our novels. I don’t need rose petals or moonlight or anything stupid like that.”

“Pity, I was planning on a redo of all of this tomorrow night, with French wine and two dozen red roses and some specially hired moonlight.”

“God, I love you,” says Merlin, and kisses him. Arthur kisses back, he can’t not, and it takes them both a few seconds to catch up to the fact that this is their first. It shouldn’t feel as thoughtless and natural as it does already, but they fall into it as easily as they fell into fighting and editing, the same way they’ve always been able to bounce off each other. He coaxes Merlin’s mouth open and slips his tongue inside, listens with delight to the distracted little noises Merlin makes at that, and only pulls away when he’s so hard it’s starting to ache.

Merlin makes a sound of wordless objection, and Arthur nudges his nose with his own to shut him up. “If we keep at this, I’m going to come in my pants, and while we needn’t do anything fancy I think I would like to be naked the first time we get off, if you have no objections.”

“None at all,” says Merlin, rough and low and Jesus, Arthur feels like a teenager again just from the sound of his voice. “Hold on a minute.”

They’ve both argued over far too many sex scenes to think trying to stay tangled together while they strip is a good plan (Merlin always holds that the hardest part of sex scenes is figuring out how to get the clothes off, everything is a breeze after that). Merlin rolls off him and Arthur gets off his shirt and boxers in short order, tossing them off the edge of the bed. Merlin wiggles out of his trousers and pants easily, gets his socks off, but he gets stuck in his shirt. “I’ll help,” says Arthur.

Gently tugging Merlin’s loose t-shirt off over his cast somehow feels even more intimate than kissing him, both of them a breath apart, Merlin practically in Arthur’s lap. “Once I get over the shock,” Merlin says quietly, muffled by the cloth as Arthur pulls it over his head, “I’m probably going to say it all the time, just to warn you. You’re going to call me a girl a lot, I’ve been saving it all up.”

“I won’t mind. We can say it together.”

“God, you’re ridiculous.” They get Merlin free of the last of his shirt and Merlin nuzzles at Arthur’s face in a way he can’t bring himself to mock him for. “Come on, what do you want to do?” Arthur manhandles him over onto his back, and Merlin goes with an amused quirk of his eyebrows, putting the arm with the cast on it carefully out of the way as Arthur climbs to straddle him. “I should have known you’d want to be on top.”

“I’m being careful of your arm,” Arthur objects. “If you’re bouncing up and down you’re sure to jostle it and I don’t want to have to take a break for painkillers.”

Merlin laughs a bit and runs his good hand over Arthur’s face. “You’re sort of lovely, you know. It’s a bit surprising. I’d figured you would be trying to fuck me like a porn star by now, by how much of a prat you are normally.”

Arthur shifts enough to kiss Merlin’s wrist before he drops his arm. “And I assume that’s why you have so many fantasies about fucking me?” Merlin’s face goes red. “I don’t have anything against fucking you through the mattress, or the opposite, for that matter, but not tonight.”

“Okay, then.” Merlin squirms, and his cock brushes against Arthur’s. “As long as you do something before we both die of frustration.”

In answer, Arthur starts rocking his hips, little motions that Merlin soon starts to join in on, nothing fast, nothing hard. He kisses Merlin to keep him from commenting and lingers, eyes closed, while Merlin uses his one good hand to skate over Arthur’s skin wherever he can reach, legs parted so Arthur can get to him more easily. It’s nothing like the sex in Merlin’s books, they both laugh a bit too much and Arthur can’t quite turn off the part of his brain going god god oh god this is Merlin how are we doing with this Merlin god finally and Merlin’s shoulder cramps at one point, but it’s electric and Arthur also can’t stop himself giddily thinking that they get to do it again and Merlin gasps out syllables like “Arthur” and “love” in between kisses.

By the time Arthur comes, he can’t seem to stop smiling, and he laughs half-drunkenly while he finally reaches down between them to jack Merlin to his finish. After, he tugs them hazily closer even if it means they’ll stick together later and arranges Merlin in his arms properly. “What was so funny?” Merlin asks into his neck later.

“I don’t know.” There’s silence, for a while, Arthur on the edge of dozing but a bit too awake for it after his long nap and Merlin absently starting to hum again as his breathing goes back to normal, like he does when he’s thinking hard about a scene he wants to write. “Are you staying here tonight? Should you call Gwen so she doesn’t worry that you aren’t home?”

“Yes, I’m staying.” He can feel Merlin smile. “And I don’t need to call Gwen. Did you think I kept vigil at your bedside all afternoon? I made sure you were asleep and called her to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. So, fair warning, Freya and Morgana probably know by now as well, which means the whole office knows.”

“I don’t care. From what I can tell they’ve been waiting on us for ages, they might as well get a vicarious thrill out of it.”

“I’ve read that book from Elena, the one Mithian picked out of the slush room. Our whole story seems like the sort of plot she would write, we should keep an eye on her and make sure her second book has nothing to do with the publishing industry.” Arthur laughs, and Merlin lifts his head. “I’m serious, you know. It seems the sort of thing they would try.”

“We’ll keep an eye on them,” Arthur assures him, and Merlin settles back in a little farther away so they can look at each other, eyes soft. “What time is it?”

“Not time for bed yet, it’s only eight. My master plan is not to leave the bed until morning except to piss and possibly eat the rest of our sandwiches, but I think I might need a bit of recovery time after that round.”

Arthur grins at him. “I could always give you some editing notes, get some useful work out of you now that I’ve got you at my mercy.”

“Like hell you will,” says Merlin, tumbling him over onto his back and kissing the smile off his face.

“I love you,” Arthur says, because he can, and because he suspects it’s going to be his get-out-of-jail-free card with Merlin for a while. “You know that, right?”

“I’m getting the picture.” Merlin smiles, but softer, a little more restrained. “I’d almost given up, you know. Decided I was pathetic and then after I found out you’re bi and you’d never made a move I tried really hard to be over you.”

God, Arthur could kick himself a hundred times and never stop calling himself an idiot. He half sits up and kisses Merlin swiftly. “You’re not ever to try again, do you hear me? Never.”

In answer, Merlin presses him back into the bed and starts round two a little earlier than planned.

*

From: Arthur
To: Merlin
Subject: Pick up your phone!

First gay romance to make it onto the general romance bestseller list, still climbing the ranks!

If this is because you’ve forgotten to charge your phone I’m firing you.

“He isn’t picking up his phone?” Freya asks from the doorway of his office, over the noise of everybody chattering out in the main office. Someone’s broken out a bottle of champagne, though he has no idea where they got it from, and he suspects not a bit more work is going to get done today, but he doesn’t much mind.

He does, however, mind the fact that he’s been trying to call his boyfriend for ten minutes to give him the news about Sweet Dreams and still can’t get hold of him. “Probably he forgot it somewhere, or didn’t charge it, and I’m going to have to shout at him. Trust the man of the hour to be unavailable.”

She smiles. “I’ll keep trying to call, if you like. You’re the other man of the hour, after all, since you edited the books and you’ve been the one throwing the whole weight of the company behind it.”

“No, I’d like to tell him.” Freya ducks her head and Arthur rolls his eyes. “You go back to the celebrations, and perhaps to answering the phones and e-mail if you really have such a thirst for productivity, the blogosphere is bound to start calling soon.” He glances out of his door just in time to see Vivian climb onto a desk to start making a speech that nobody is going to listen to. This is going to turn into an afternoon of sloppy debauchery, but he doesn’t much mind.

“And they’ll want to talk to you, they’ve been cooing over that dedication ever since the book came out and now they won’t be able to resist.” Outside, Vivian nearly falls off the desk mid-gesture and Percival calmly lifts her one-armed and puts her gently on the floor.

“I’m sure everyone here will be happy to give them quotes about the book or about our relationship, as if anyone cares about the sex lives of romance novelists.” His phone goes before she can get out whatever she’s gearing up to say, and he turns away immediately to check the display and answer the phone when Merlin’s name turns up. “Where were you?”

“Hello to you too, and I was on the Tube. Has the world exploded? I have twelve missed calls from you, three from Freya, four from Gwen, and another three from my mum.”

Arthur grins. He gets to tell him after all, then. “Well, we all wanted to congratulate you, obviously.”

“Congratulate me on what?”

“On being the first author to get a gay romance on the romance bestsellers list—you’re at 92 as of noon, and still climbing.” Arthur grins at the noise Merlin makes on the line. “There’s a party going on in your honor here, everyone’s using it as an excuse to skive off.”

“Do I have to come?”

Arthur blinks and shuts his office door. “Well, not if you don’t want to, though I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to see a bunch of romance editors letting their hair down.”

“Because Morgana will start speculating on our sex life again,” Merlin answer immediately, and then there’s a pause because Arthur can’t respond to that beyond wrinkling his nose, because Morgana seems to think she’s entitled to do that since she takes some of the credit for getting them together. “And because I was on my way to your flat with a surprise anyway, and maybe you’d like to come a few hours early and make it a celebration?”

“What kind of a surprise?” he asks, and he hopes Freya’s out of earshot of the door by now because he can’t help the way his voice goes low, months of Merlin’s periodic “surprises” having conditioned him very well to this sort of thing. “I’ve hours yet before I would normally leave the office, what takes that much preparation?”

“Well, not this, actually, I was just really bored at my place, it’s getting depressing there now that all of Gwen’s things are migrating over to Lancelot’s.” Merlin pauses, then adds brightly, “I could be very thorough about fingering myself? That way I’d be all nice and sensitive for when you come back and I show you what I bought last week.”

Arthur coughs and tries not to think about the fact that Merlin is saying this all on the street because that way lies madness. “Well, you know, nothing’s going to get done this afternoon and all the bloggers can wait a day or two for quotes, they generally have quite enough to say on their own anyway.”

“That’s what I was hoping you’d say,” says Merlin. “I’m going to hang up now, because it’ll make you get out of the office faster. Love you.”

“I love you. Congratulations.”

He’s barely hung up before Morgana interrupts him with a laugh. “You two are precious. Off to shag him in congratulations? You should ask him to move in, too, go for the double.”

“As ever, Morgana, it remains none of your business. But yes, I’m off for the day. Don’t traumatize anyone from the press, don’t let anyone drunk answer the phones, don’t let Vivian stand on any more tables.” With that, Arthur proceeds to ignore her and packs up his briefcase, grabbing his jacket on his way out the door. “Don’t get the police called on us for sponsoring an orgy, either,” he adds as he passes her.

“We’ll just invite them to join us,” she calls, not bothering to follow (or leave his office. She’s convinced that he keeps pornographic pictures of Merlin in his desk and she’s probably going to continue her fruitless search for them. It’s like she doesn’t live in the digital age, where people keep things like that on their phones and laptops in locked files).

Gwaine wolf-whistles as Arthur goes by, waving at people as he passes, and Arthur decides not to stop and ask what the hell he’s doing at Camelot, since he’s only a contract employee and has some deal modeling for an underwear line at the moment. Freya grins and gives him the signal that she’ll keep an eye on everyone, and almost everyone else raises their coffee mugs full of champagne when he says hello.

Arthur ignores all of it and gets out as quickly as he can, because Merlin will be waiting for him, probably with whatever new toy he’s bought recently, and they’ve got the whole rest of the day to celebrate in between fielding phone calls from their nearest and dearest, and maybe Arthur will take Morgana’s advice for once and bring up the fact that while Gwen’s things have been slowly transferring to Lancelot’s flat Merlin’s have been moving to Arthur’s. Or perhaps he won’t, because there’s a chance that Merlin already knows, and there are some things he’s discovered over the last few months that he doesn’t need to say for Merlin to understand them.

It’s not a particularly glorious profession, publishing romance novels. Camelot Publishing is lucky that way—it’s got enough mythology built up around it that it doesn’t get as boring for its employees as people outside might assume. From the beginning with Ygraine and Uther to now, more of its employees date each other or their authors than is reasonable (or possibly sane), or otherwise end up in the sort of disgustingly sappy stories that they ought to be publishing, not living. People keep finding each other, though, like Elena and Mithian (and nobody knows quite what’s going on there, but judging by how much of the acknowledgments in Elaine Fay’s latest book are gushing about her editor, there’s something) and like Arthur and Merlin. Really, if the general public cared about the love lives of romance novelists they’d never make it out of the gossip papers just for how hideously unlikely it all is.

Arthur likes having it just known to the employees, though, for the way that Morgana makes jokes about matchmaking services and the way Merlin and Elena had an hour-long debate once about which one of them was allowed to write the fictionalized account of the loves and lives of the employees of Camelot Publishing (ended only at the intervention of their respective editors and with the aid of some of the Rising Sun’s lethal cocktails). And besides, it means that when they hire on someone new, they never suspect it’s going to happen to them, as it inevitably will.

After all, if Arthur had to figure it out himself, it’s only fair that they should as well.