"Shit. The PR department warned us that it was going to be big this year, but they didn't say it would be this big," Owain signed, his hands moving in big, jerky gestures. He almost hit a passing server when he signed big.
Arthur rubbed his face with his hands, trying to wipe away his growing anxiety. It wasn't working. There were so many people that the building was going to burst at the seams, he was sure of it. Or there might be a stampede, and he'd get trampled, but he knew that was ridiculous. Arthur shouldn't be surprised; the show had grown every year since its first year, but where previously the increase in attendees had been additive, this year, it was exponential.
If this happened again next year, they would have to start looking for a larger venue to host the show. Arthur idly wondered if the Maple Leaf Gardens were available.
Owain caught his attention with a wave of his hand, and signed, "Are you all right? You look a little pale."
Arthur didn't trust his voice to be audible in the visible chaos, and he tapped his thumb against his chest, the fingers of his hand splayed out. "I'm fine."
Owain pursed his lips together and signed, "Bullshit you're fine. You look like you're going to pass out --"
Abruptly, Owain turned around, his face splitting into a broad smile. He shook hands with the newcomer, and the two burst into animated conversation.
Arthur didn't bother trying to join in -- he was too on-edge to read lips right now. As soon as he was sure that Owain's attention was diverted, he made good on his escape. They wouldn't need him for a while yet. He could get lost in the crowd -- as much as he could get lost in the crowd, considering that everyone knew who he was.
Arthur mumbled an apology under his breath as he broke a path through the groups of business suits and tuxedoes and evening gowns milling around the diamond-shaped bar in the middle of the concourse. He stumbled to a helpless stop once he was on the other side, momentarily paralyzed when he recognized a few people. He immediately turned away, hands in his trouser pockets, shoulders brushing his ears as he ducked his head and looked for another route to freedom.
He didn't want to talk to anyone he knew. He didn't want to see anyone he knew -- already a difficult task. He was nervous enough as it was without being cornered for curious questions and awkward conversations.
Almost as if the Fates had read his mind and were laughing at him, one of the show organizers appeared and signed carefully, with the uncertainty of someone who had just finished the first level of American Sign Language, fingerspelling the words she didn't know, "Gwen's backstage, looking for you."
Arthur ran a hand through his hair and came in close, hoping that she would hear him. A crowd this big had to be loud. "Does she need me right now?"
And, of course, he had to repeat himself because he wasn't loud enough, and he flushed with embarrassment. He felt like he was practically shouting in her ear.
"No, it's all right. She wants you to know you still have an hour and a half," the woman signed, but her fingers were so clumsy that Arthur read her lips instead. It was just easier.
He checked his watch and nodded. The woman smiled nervously, waved a hand, and stood there as if she meant to say something else. Arthur waited, but she bit her lip, hugged her clipboard to her chest more tightly, and was jostled into the crowd.
Arthur exhaled a sigh. If there was anything that he could count on, it was that it always took time for people to warm up to him. He didn't understand. He didn't think he was that unapproachable.
The Pendragon Diamond Show was one of the premier, highly-acclaimed events of the year, and, as usual, it had been planned to precede the large and well-known Prospectors and Developers Association Convention where Pendragon Incorporated was also hosting a booth. When Arthur had been growing up, he thought that the timing was happy coincidence. As he grew older, he learned that there was no such thing as coincidences -- good or bad -- in business. His parents had taken great pains to bookend the show not only with the PDAC on one side, but with the Brilliant Earth Jewellery Show on the other. It was a stroke of business genius -- the world's best designers would drift from the BEJ to the Pendragon Diamond Show, while early arrivals and serious investors in the mining industries attended to see what they would be getting if they pursued contracts with the exploration branch of Pendragon Incorporated.
This was the first time that Arthur would be not be watching from the sidelines anymore.
Originally, Uther Pendragon was meant to be giving his usual keynote speech, followed by Ygraine Dubois-Pendragon walking the runway with other fashion models to show off her latest diamond designs, but three months ago, all that changed, and it was down to Arthur.
The plane crash that took Uther and Ygraine had been a shock to the mining and jewellery industries, but business was business, and money marched on. It seemed sometimes that Arthur was the only one who remembered them. Some days, not even the pervasive hollow in his heart could dull the pain of knowing he would never see them again.
One of the show's organizers had prepared a memorial in their honour to be shown at the start of the show. Arthur had approved the idea -- but he wouldn't have if he'd known that the vultures would be circling. Now that he saw them, he wished that he could get out of giving the keynote speech. The temptation to throw himself off the upper balcony of the conference center was overwhelming.
According to the preliminary numbers that the head of Public Relations had helpfully given him -- the same ones that made Owain purse his lips in an impressed whistle earlier -- the Pendragon Diamond Show was receiving unprecedented attention this year. The organizers had presented Gwen with a long list of requests for a chance to kowtow to the new head of the company. These people were investors who usually sent underlings, mining partners and prospectors and explorers who had hoped to talk to Uther Pendragon at the PDAC, and the heads of large diamond companies who had always seen Pendragon Incorporated as their largest rival -- and who would continue to see Pendragon Incorporated as their largest rival for many, many years to come, if Arthur had anything to say about it.
Young artists and jewellers hoping to break into the big leagues were here, too, because Ygraine DuBois-Pendragon's death had left a void in the fashion world, and there were plenty of hungry piranhas eager to fill her shoes. Arthur had deferred all those appointments to the head of the artistic department, his stomach turning to know that his mother's future designs were gone from the world, forever.
Worst of all were the members of the press, here in hungry, maniacal droves, and Arthur hated every single one of them. It was the press who had dubbed Uther and Ygraine's marriage as the dawn of a new dynasty in the diamond industry, who had hyped up Arthur first as the golden child, then as the most eligible bachelor on the face of the planet, and who were now milking the plane crash for headlines and by-lines until the next big scoop -- a scoop they hoped to find at the show.
There were very, very few people in the crowd that Arthur could stand to be around, and he didn't see any of them right now. The businessmen had been quick to move to secure their own assets. The fashion industry was already looking for the next passing craze. The reporters didn't care whose lives they were destroying as long their stories made the front page of their newspapers. None of them were here because they cared about Uther and Ygraine.
They'd bow their heads politely at the memorial, they'd clap their hands at the recounting of Uther's and Ygraine's achievements, but what they really wanted was to secure their own assets and positions in their respective professions.
When the tables turned, they turned quickly. There was a time when all these high-powered businessmen and self-absorbed artists and bloodthirsty reporters had smiled and patted Arthur on the head and pinched his cheeks while Uther and Ygraine looked on fondly. The instant Uther and Ygraine's backs were turned, Arthur had been unceremoniously shoved out of the way so that these people could simper and fawn, hoping for attention of their own.
Arthur had been underestimated before; he would be underestimated again, and no matter how many times he proved himself, he doubted that it would ever change. The only difference was that, now, these people couldn't turn to his parents anymore. They had no choice. They had to talk to Arthur, whether or not they wanted to.
Arthur understood. Or he tried. Some people were just too hard to figure out. They made appointments with him, but once they were face-to-face, they barely spoke. More than one person had smiled at him before detouring to converse with another representative of the company. They were keen to establish themselves, but not sure how to interact with him. They were either afraid, or they were intimidated, or they were uncertain and shy and awkward. Arthur tried to make them as comfortable as he could, but there was only so much that he could do.
Those people, unfortunately, were the well-meaning ones. There were others -- nasty, prejudiced bastards -- that Arthur wished he never had to deal with. If he was in the room, they dismissed him and continued to talk as if he wasn't there. Arthur had eyes. He wasn't stupid. He could see what was going on. He could lip-read even from across a room. He knew there were doubts, that there was a lack of confidence in his abilities. They would never say it to his face because they were cowards. People were never half as sincere as they pretended to be.
A path cleared up in front of him. Arthur took it, moving quickly, letting the ebb and flow of the crowd shuffle him along.
The opening night party was in the massive main hall of the Crowne Convention Centre, but a few attendees had escaped the main area to the relatively wide open space of the exhibition floor. Arthur stopped for a moment on the inside of the curtains, taking a deep breath and forcing himself to relax.
He had a speech to give. He didn't know why he had thought it would be a good idea to give the keynote speech himself. Plenty of the board members had offered to speak in his stead, including his uncle. He shouldn't have let pride get in the way -- he should have said, yes, please, if you wouldn't mind, breathed a sigh of relief, and washed his hands of this whole mess.
Arthur wiped his sweaty palms on his thighs and tried to remember that he wasn't new at his job. He'd been working at Pendragon Industries in one capacity or another since he was a teenager, and he'd grown up with it in his blood.
For the last three months, he'd had to meet with the board of directors, with the northern diamond mining councils, with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, with different departments of Pendragon Incorporated, not only in Toronto where Pendragon's main offices were located, but at each of the international offices -- London, Johannesburg, New York, Antwerp -- where he had introduced himself, allayed fears for the company's leadership, and set them firmly on the same mandate that Uther had established at the start of the quarter.
This evening's speech wouldn't be the first that he'd ever given. He thought that the others had gone over fairly well. This one would, too.
It was just so hard to believe that everything would be fine -- for both the speech and for the company. He wished that he had a moment's peace, that he could find his footing. The last three months had been a nonstop whirlwind of necessary action to prevent takeovers, to stabilize the company, to secure himself and Pendragon Incorporated on the world stage.
In all this, Arthur had barely had the time to grieve. Maybe burying himself in work was best. He missed his parents, but the ache was easing every day.
Arthur stopped in front of a large display. It was smaller than most, but whoever had decorated it had managed a careful balance of eye-catching without drowning out the centrepieces. There were rich purples and lavenders, slivers of gold mixed with heavy silvers. The glass cases were polished, the mirrors shined, and although there were no major pieces of jewellery just yet, there were enough examples of hand-made rings and earrings with semi-precious stones for Arthur to get an idea of the artist's style.
It was very different from his own. Very different from his mother's. It was raw and vibrant, full of subdued flash and fire, a coiled wilderness captive by chains of silver and gold and the perfect facet cut.
Arthur didn't know how long he stood staring at an absurd necklace that was a cascade of solid turquoise strips -- he didn't know who would wear this monstrosity, and he wondered why it was even on display when it didn't fit in with the rest of the artist's designs -- when there was a shift of movement in the mirror. He looked at the reflection and whirled around abruptly when he saw that someone was standing behind him.
She was pretty in a sweet girl-next-door sort of way, with a shy smile and big, guileless blue eyes. Her hair framed her round face in multi-coloured brown-and-white-and-blue wisps from a bad dye job by a hack of a hairdresser, her makeup was light and understated, and her dress was halfway between a two-piece business cut and club wear. The only thing about her appearance that really stood out to Arthur were the big dangly earrings that were the little sisters to the ugly turquoise necklace in the cabinet. She was looking at him expectantly.
As expectantly as if she'd asked a question and was waiting for an answer. Unfortunately, it was practically empty in the exhibition hall, and he didn't have an obvious excuse for not having noticed her earlier.
"I'm sorry. What did you say?" He glanced down at her name tag -- he could kiss the genius who had thought up the idea of having name tags at conventions. The woman's name was Elena Goodwin.
He wasn't the only one checking the ID cards. The woman's eyes drifted down to the clip around Arthur's neck and widened. Her lips spread in a big smile, and there was a nervous giggle as her shoulders raised and lowered and she tried not to gush.
But she did gush, talking a mile a minute, and Arthur didn't understand a thing. Christ. He tried, he really did, but the most he could pick up were random words.
Tomorrow. More. You have to. Opening. New. Other. Artist. Even better --
Arthur's hands balled into fists. Why couldn't people talk normally? Hell, he'd even settle for simply enunciating their words every now and then. It would be a miracle if maybe they would slow down. Was that too much to ask for? Just because he could lip read -- and he could lip read better than most deaf people -- didn't mean that he could understand everyone on the planet, and right now, this woman, whoever she was and whatever she was, scored very low on his understandable scale.
"That's." He paused, trying to come up with a word that was a little more diplomatic than the one he wanted to use, and which hopefully was an appropriate response. "Interesting."
"It is, isn't it?" Elena said. She took a step forward; Arthur took a step back. She didn't notice that she was in his personal space and far too close for him to read her lips properly. It wasn't until he felt the table's edge on the back of his thighs that he cleared his throat, interrupting her ongoing babble, and glanced at his watch.
"Excuse me. I have to be somewhere else," Arthur said. He very carefully extricated himself from the other woman -- she's a human octopus, he thought, when her fingers found his arms and tugged, pulling him to a different section of the exhibit -- and worked his way back to the party as quickly as he could. He lost her somewhere around the corner from the sprawling Tacori display, ducked past the Simon G, and made a beeline for the exhibition hall exit.
Before he walked through the curtains, he pulled his name tag from around his neck and tucked it in the inner pocket of his tuxedo. There were people who would recognize him on sight, but he didn't need to exacerbate the situation by wearing an advertising billboard around his neck. He might be well-known, but sometimes people forgot that he couldn't hear, if they even knew about it in the first place. And when they did find out, they never, ever caught on fast enough to the fact that that Arthur couldn't hear them no matter how loudly they spoke, and that raising their voices was not going to help.
Arthur took a steadying breath. He was sure that the woman had meant well, and under any other circumstances, he knew he would have handled the encounter better than he had. He felt a pang of guilt at having been rude -- his parents had taught him better than that.
Still, conversations with virtual strangers didn't go much better when he had an interpreter. At least six times that Arthur remembered, a different person would mock the sign language and promptly dismiss Arthur. Or, worse, they would end up talking to the interpreter, as if they were in charge of the company.
Arthur did not like being ignored.
Arthur heaved a sigh. He snatched a champagne flute from a passing server's tray in a smooth motion that he'd perfected over years, and downed half of it in one gulp. The alcohol was vile and didn't do anything to drown the butterflies in his stomach.
He nodded to a few people he recognized as he walked past and made no effort to slow down. He knew that if he did, he would get sucked into discussions he couldn't follow, be introduced to people whose names he wouldn't be able to catch -- names were the absolute hardest to lip read except when he lucked out and there were name tags that weren't obscured -- and end up staring and nodding and occasionally making the right sound to indicate that he was paying attention. Arthur couldn't deal with it tonight.
There was a tap on his arm, and Arthur turned around to see one of the art assistants.
The man was repulsive, but at least Edwin treated Arthur no differently than any other department head, sucking up by sharing watercooler gossip, the rumours that were spreading throughout the business units, the politics that were being played, who was stealing what paper supplies.
"Edwin," Arthur said, forcing a smile.
"Arthur," Edwin said with a grin that pinched his features. Arthur had never really learned how Edwin had gotten the scars on his face -- something about a fire when he was young -- and although plastic surgery had smoothed out most of them, but the skin still tugged in the wrong places, making it difficult for Arthur to interpret Edwin's expression sometimes. Lip-reading was a challenge, but he could manage. "Aren't you giving a speech tonight?"
Arthur glanced at his watch again. "Not for another hour and a half."
"So, it's really you who's going to give the speech? I mean, it's going to be you and not someone else?"
"Of course it will be me. Why wouldn't it be?"
Edwin shrugged his shoulders. "Oh. I don't know. I heard a rumour that Mr. DuBois would be giving the talk. I guess I heard wrong."
"You did," Arthur said. His guts twisted into different kinds of knots that had nothing to do with being nervous about standing on the stage in front of everyone and everything to do with how warmly he regarded his uncle -- which was to say, not at all.
"I suppose I have at that," Edwin said pleasantly. He changed the subject by gesturing at the group of young people behind him. "Can I introduce you to a few people?"
"Maybe later," Arthur said. "I should get backstage."
"Surely you could stay for a few minutes," Edwin said. He raised a brow at the same time as he tilted his head in invitation. Arthur caved in to curiosity and followed Edwin. "I heard more rumours."
"You're in the wrong line of business if all you do is gossip," Arthur said dryly, stopping dead. "I don't have time for this, Edwin."
"Not even the rumour that the Diamond Council is investigating allegations that the company has been issuing questionable authenticity certificates?"
Arthur must have been dumbstruck, but Edwin interpreted his expression as sorry, I didn't catch that, say it again and repeated himself. Arthur covered his surprise with a frown and asked, "Where did you hear that?"
"Is it true, then?"
"Certainly not," Arthur lied.
"I heard that it's been going on for years. Forgeries -- and good ones," Edwin said.
"Edwin," Arthur said, and Edwin must have heard something in Arthur's tone because he shut up. "I heard a rumour recently."
"In fact, I'm not even sure it's a rumour. It might even be fact," Arthur said.
"You have my complete attention," Edwin said. He leaned in and lowered his head.
"Apparently, the new head of the company has a very low tolerance for people rumormongering, especially when they're unfounded and bordering on slander. He'll fire you without batting an eyelash." Arthur patted Edwin's arm, raising both brows as he gave Edwin a yes, I'm serious nod. "If you'll excuse me."
Arthur left without another word, leaving his champagne flute on a table covered with canapés and fresh fruit. His heart pounded so hard that it felt like it would knock its way through his ribcage. How had Edwin heard that? Who was talking behind Arthur's back? His associates at the IDC had spoken to him in confidence, preferring not to bring the investigation to light just yet. Their consideration was out of respect for the work Arthur's father had done in shutting down the illegal trade of conflict diamonds -- they didn't want to besmirch his good name and reputation. They were giving Arthur a chance to track down the forgeries, to make reparations, but Arthur couldn't do that if he was busy chasing gossip and stomping it out. The board of directors would start breathing down his neck, asking questions that Arthur wasn't prepared to answer --
Especially then. He didn't know who he could trust.
And now with Edwin's big mouth blabbing it around the company -- Arthur wondered how long it would be before the board started asking uncomfortable questions and for those questions to get back to the company's investors. Arthur needed time. Leon had told him that it would be a while before he could scour through all the paperwork that Arthur had gotten hold of thus far and tracked down the people they really needed to be talking to about the situation.
Arthur went find his uncle. What was this story that Agravaine would be giving the speech and not Arthur? And, barring that -- maybe Arthur should find his interpreter.
Where the fuck was Cedric? Arthur hated the necessity of Cedric's services in the first place, but he couldn't afford not to have an interpreter. Although his parents had done everything to ensure that Arthur would be independent -- the finest speech therapists; the best tutors; large endowments on institutes and academies and universities. not to merely pass Arthur through his classes, but to ensure that someone was available to take notes for him, that he would receive timely transcribed copies of the lectures, and had alternate accommodations when it came to the oral requirements -- Arthur wasn't under any delusions. He knew his limitations.
He never had any issues with doing the work. He just couldn't hear.
Arthur had proven that he could memorize ten pages of speech and be able to repeat it word for word. He had stood on a little platform in front of a small group of students at the University of Toronto without the slightest bit of trepidation to teach classes while a grad student himself. He could handle delicate one-on-one negotiations. What he couldn't do was speak clearly when he needed to be understood.
Even when he wasn't nervous, Arthur's voice was heavily accented, his words sometimes rushed and mangled together, his volume wrong. He mispronounced words entirely, he would stumble and stammer and sound like a monotonous idiot. Whenever he opened his mouth to speak to new people, they backed away, giving him pitying looks, and promptly went to someone who sounded competent enough to address their needs.
Arthur only used an interpreter to translate what people said to him; he preferred to handle his own end of the conversation, even if it meant repeating himself several times. But tonight, while he planned on giving the speech, it would be Cedric's voice that the crowd would hear.
And Cedric, who should have been by Arthur's side at the opening of the show, wasn’t. In fact, Arthur hadn't seen him at all tonight.
Arthur checked the usual spots. The food spread -- where Cedric was probably embarrassing himself by shoving shrimp down his throat without chewing. The bar -- where Cedric was nearly guaranteed to be snivelling his way into someone's good graces. The bathrooms -- and only because Arthur had noticed the white powder on Cedric's suit, once, weeks ago. Cedric might have a drug problem, but as long as he showed up on time and did his job, however mediocre…
There was no sign of him.
A man like Cedric shouldn't be difficult to find. He stood out because he didn't fit in. He was shorter than Arthur, skinny and sunken-chested, with mousy brown hair and brown eyes and a hooked nose and hollow cheeks and an annoying drowned-rat type of moustache that Arthur really wished he would shave off. Cedric was so ordinary and average that, in a group of beautiful people like those who had come to this evening's party, Cedric would stand out like a sore thumb.
Arthur headed for the concourse where the show's organizers had raised a stage for the speakers and a runway for the models who would be dazzling the crowds with this year's Pendragon line. A line that was also his mother's last collection.
Arthur felt a dull ache. A part of him didn't want to show the designs because he knew they would be snapped up by those vultures out in the crowd trying to get a piece of the DuBois-Pendragon legacy.
He had to fish out his photo badge to get behind the scenes. The security guards mouthed apologies and let him through. He spotted Gwen with the show organizers, her iPad close to her chest, waving a finger here and there as she gave final instructions. She was gorgeous as always in a strapless evening gown that set her light brown skin aglow, her long wavy hair half pinned up and falling down around her shoulders, a monstrous gold lamé bag on her shoulder filled full of file folders and papers and organizers. It always amused Arthur to think that Gwen probably could run every branch of Pendragon Inc., worldwide, solely from the contents of that purse.
She saw him approach and smiled one of her small, sweet, reassuring everything is under control smiles, and waved off the harried attendants.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, watching them scurry off at a sprint.
Gwen, patient as always, waited until Arthur was looking at her before signing, "There's a problem with the sound system. They think they'll have it fixed in time for the beginning of the show."
"They think?" Arthur asked, raising a brow.
"They're trying to find a sound engineer. They think he might have left for the night. Murphy's law," Gwen said. She signed, too, but her gestures were distracted.
"It feels as if we're far beyond Murphy's law at this point," Arthur corrected. He shared a small smile with his personal assistant. He'd known Gwen for years, ever since she joined Pendragon Incorporated as a business administrator, but when the company's reins fell so suddenly into Arthur's hands, he'd found himself in desperate need for someone who could handle not only his suddenly overwhelming schedule, but all the other demands for his time.
The board of directors had offered to loan him their assistants -- his uncle Agravaine had shoved three different people at Arthur -- but Arthur had never been comfortable with any of them. After one particularly harrowing visit with an investor -- who had apparently conducted the meeting with Arthur at the top of his lungs, audible nearly three floors up and four down -- Arthur asked Gwen for help.
She had moved so smoothly into her role over the last three months that Arthur wondered how he had ever done without her. He wasn't one to depend on other people, but Gwen was a godsend -- on top of her usual duties, she had also arranged for a notetaker to be present at every international committee videoconference and had worked out an agreement with the Canadian Hearing Society for a semi-permanent interpreter to be present at nearly every meeting or occasion that Arthur had when he was in Canada. He had different interpreters for overseas trips -- talented men and women who could sign in either the French langue signée Québequoise or the English American Sign Language, and translate Arthur's words in the other party's native tongue.
Those were the little touches that he appreciated.
"Have you seen Cedric?" he asked.
"He's not here?" Gwen signed, her eyes alarmed, her brows pinching in the middle of her forehead.
"I haven't seen him."
"You should have told me earlier," Gwen scowled. She whipped out her phone and dialled a number.
Gwen's hands were too full for her to sign the conversation -- something for which Arthur was grateful, because Gwen was something of a sloppy signer. He eavesdropped by reading her lips. "It's ringing. Cedric. Hello, Cedric, this is Gwen Leondegrace. Are you at the show? What do you mean, I gave you the night off? I did no such thing."
She gave Arthur her iPad to hold, and flipped through several screens before she had her email open to the Sent Items folder. "I'm looking at my email right now. I sent you the schedule a week ago. You confirmed your availability. I sent you a reminder this morning, and you confirmed again. What do you mean -- no, I most assuredly did not call you earlier this evening to cancel. No, that wasn't me. What time was this? It doesn't matter. You have time to come to the Crowne --"
Gwen shot an alarmed, angry look at Arthur.
"No. Never mind. Enjoy your evening. We'll see you tomorrow at the meeting. Yes, it's still at four o'clock." Gwen hung up. Her everything is fine smile vanished. "He went to see his mother. In Peterborough. There's no way that he'll be here in time."
Arthur's mouth went dry. The butterflies in his stomach didn't so much fade as die all at once under a shockwave of panic, landing in his guts with a heavy ten-tonne thump. He glanced at his watch for the third time that evening and knew without looking that it was too late get someone else -- even if they could find an interpreter who was willing to work overtime, after hours, and who could keep up with Arthur.
On the eve of the biggest night of Pendragon Incorporated's existence -- the most important night of the rest of Arthur's life, he was well and truly fucked.
It must have shown on his face, because Gwen said, "I know. You don't have to tell me. This is a disaster. I'll call -- let me call a few people. I have the coordinator's phone number -- I think he gave me his private number, too, for emergencies. Maybe he'll be able to help us --"
Arthur stopped paying attention. His heart was beating so loudly that it either would burst from his chest, and he found it hard to breathe. His vision darkened around the edges, and the logical part of Arthur's mind remarked, this is what panic must feel like.
"I'll call him. As soon as I find his number," Gwen said, scrolling through her contacts list.
Arthur watched Gwen's eyes dart up to glance behind him in a meaningful look. He turned around and grimaced. "Hello, uncle."
"Is there a problem?" Agravaine asked.
There were times when Arthur's uncle irritated him, and this was one of those times. The way Agravaine's eyes crinkled up in an almost perpetual expression of sheer amusement, no matter how dire the situation. The smug, self-assured smirk that was on Agravaine's face all hours of the day, except when he was particularly unhappy. Sometimes, Agravaine's smile was laced with schadenfreude, because the man delighted in the misery of others. The way he talked at Arthur instead of with Arthur, and when there was someone else in the room, how he would ignore Arthur to speak with them instead -- it got under Arthur's skin.
The man was family. He shouldn't be treating Arthur as a non-person, but he did. Most of the time, Arthur could ignore it, but not now.
Not now! Arthur willed Agravaine to go away.
"Arthur's interpreter isn't here," Gwen said, signing at the same time.
Agravaine affected a concerned look, but to Arthur, it seemed as if Agravaine was pleased by this turn of events. Then again, Agravaine always seemed pleased, whether it was the news of finding a new diamond or whispers of a stock market crash on the horizon.
Arthur had never really understood why his father had hired Agravaine to work at the company in the first place. Uther had never hidden his emotions well, and it had been obvious to everyone how much he had loathed his brother-in-law. Agravaine's background wasn't in diamonds. It wasn't even in precious metals mining. It was in petroleum, whose only similarity with the diamond business was that they were both made out of carbon. Even Arthur's mother had nearly fired Agravaine on more than one occasion.
The only fathomable reason that made sense to Arthur why Uther and Ygraine would have kept Agravaine on the books after all these years despite the games Agravaine played and the drama he caused had to do with Agravaine's business tactics. Alternate acquisition venues that had saved company millions; diversionary tactics to avoid hostile takeovers; underhanded information to throw negotiations in their favour -- Agravaine had done these things and more. It was for that reason, and that reason alone, that Arthur kept him around instead of handing him that signed pink slip that Uther had kept in his desk for over twenty years. For all that Agravaine's personality was at times loathsome, he still had good advice for Arthur.
Although, lately, Arthur had to admit that Agravaine's advice wasn't up to the usual standards.
"That's a shame," Agravaine said, barely glancing in Arthur's direction. "Does this mean that Arthur will not be giving his speech?"
"Arthur is right here, uncle. You can ask me," Arthur said. Between his nerves, being accosted at the booths by a lovely young lady who had practically assaulted him, the rumours that Edwin was spreading, and Agravaine's dismissive behaviour, he was raw and snappish.
"Yes, of course you are," Agravaine said, giving him a jovial Santa-Claus grin. Arthur was already stressed enough with the evening's presentation -- everyone was waiting to meet the new head of Pendragon Incorporated -- without his uncle being the same prick that he always was. "Does your interpreter's absence mean that you will not be giving the speech?"
"I'm giving the speech," Arthur said. He hoped he sounded more resolute than he felt.
"Oh, Arthur," Agravaine said. His shoulders slumped, his chin tilted down, and he shook his head in an expression that Arthur recognized as disappointment.
Arthur hated that look. That horrible feeling he got whenever he saw it, that he had disappointed someone, made his stomach twist and his skin flush. His father, his mother. Even Agravaine.
Agravaine placed a hand on Arthur's shoulder and led him away from Gwen. "I don't think you should, not without an interpreter. Is that really the first impression you want to give to the public?"
"What impression is that?" Arthur asked.
Agravaine waved a hand over Arthur. "Honestly, Arthur? Do you really think you're ready to be the public face, the voice of the company? Our investors, our partners, they're expecting someone older, more established, someone respectable. They'll see you on the stage, stammering and stumbling through your speech like a doddering fool -- that's not how you want them to think of the company, is it, Arthur?"
Arthur clenched his jaw. Agravaine was touching on Arthur's private nightmare. "You know it's not."
"We have to think about the public. There will be criticism. First that we're allowing someone as young as you are to take charge of an old, well-established company. The investors will be worried, of course, because the last thing they want is to suspect that you are leading the company in a non-traditional route. There's also the matter of..." Agravaine gestured to his ears. "You can't hear, Arthur. People will think that we can't do any better than to allow a cripple to lead the company."
Arthur stared at him, stunned. He hadn't even realized that there had been a knife in his heart until Agravaine twisted it again and again. Arthur tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come.
"Well. I only see one solution to this dilemma," Agravaine said, taking Arthur's arm and walking him further away from Gwen, who was looking on, head tilted, eyebrow raised in concern. "You need to find someone else to give the speech."
Arthur swallowed hard. He tried to find his mental footing, but it kept slipping out from under him. So this was the rumour that Edwin had heard -- it was coming straight from Agravaine himself. Arthur should have known that his uncle would want to be the centre of attention after chasing the limelight for two decades. "No. No. This is my company. They'll be expecting me, not someone else."
"It'll be a simple matter of making your excuses. We will tell them that you've fallen ill or some such. It's done all the time. Surely you have to agree that we're better served by having someone competent address this crowd. You do know how many important people are here? How many members of the press? What do you think they'll write when you hem and haw through your speech?" Agravaine smiled one of his slimy little smiles and said, "I'm sorry to tell you this, Arthur, but there are times when I can barely understand you."
Arthur looked away. He hated -- he hated it when he was reminded of the things that he couldn't do. He would always be different, less than anyone else. Never good enough.
"I should --" Arthur pressed his lips together. He wavered between the relief of knowing that he had a way out of this, that he wouldn't have to speak in his awkward, clumsy way, that he could pass on this task to someone else, and with the knowledge that this was his duty to attend to, his responsibility, his birthright. This was just another one of Agravaine's games, just more of his drama. Uther had reminded Arthur again and again to ignore Agravaine and to not let the man get under Arthur's skin the way that he was doing now. "You want to give this speech, uncle?"
"I would be honoured to," Agravaine said.
"What a surprise."
"Perhaps if you gave me a copy of your speech to read through beforehand?" Agravaine asked.
Arthur worked the knot in his jaw loose. "You misunderstood me. I'm still giving the speech, uncle."
"Oh." Agravaine smiled another one of his plastic smiles. "Perhaps I should have a copy regardless. On the off chance that you change your mind?"
"I don't have one on me," Arthur said, and that was a blatant lie. He had it on his iPhone, and he knew that Gwen had both electronic and paper copies with her. He was not letting Agravaine give the keynote speech. He needed to buy time to find a replacement for Cedric. "I'll have one made."
"As quickly as possible, so that I can prepare," Agravaine said. He gave Arthur a curt nod before walking away.
Gwen was next to Arthur the instant Agravaine left. She was usually too kind-hearted to glare at anyone, but she was glaring at Agravaine's retreating form as if she wished the ground would open up under his feet and swallow him whole. Her lips tightened, her brows pulled down, and she looked as if she wanted to give Arthur's uncle a good slap across the face. "You don't have to give him your speech. In fact, don't. I could interpret for you."
"Oh, dear Gwen. I know you would do it in an instant if you could, but the last time you tried, you were absolutely horrible."
Gwen swatted his arm. "I wasn't horrible," she said. "It was your fault anyway. You sign too fast."
Arthur managed a smile. "I appreciate it, but, you're forgetting one important detail."
"When I give my speech, I don't want to sound like a girl."
Gwen hit him on the shoulder hard enough to sting. "If your mother heard you say that --"
Arthur flinched, and so did Gwen.
"Oh, God. Arthur. I'm sorry --"
"No, you're right," Arthur said with a sigh. He rubbed his chest unconsciously. "I should apologize, yeah? After all, I don't know what a girl sounds like. For all I know, you sound just fine…"
Gwen's expression shifted from terribly embarrassed to narrow-eyed annoyance. She wagged her phone at him before unlocking it. "If you keep this up, I'm not going to call Lance for you."
Big neon signs. Flashing signs. Twisted-tube halogen lighting. Two big spinning records in fiery red. The slick-black of asphalt, the honking horns, the screeching rubber of quick stop-starts, the rumbling engines. Street merchants spreading their wares on the sidewalk for unsuspecting tourists. Leatherneck toughs in subtle gang colours on the corners, paying no attention to anything but the music blasting from an old relic of a boom box and cassette tracks that went out of style almost two decades ago.
It was a garish strip of the longest street in Ontario, smack dab in the province's capital, and it was no different from the other asphalt scratches all over the world. In New York. In London. Belgium, Amsterdam, Sidney, Auckland. Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong.
Maybe if Merlin had started off his international circuit with a debut in Toronto, he would've been awed by the hustle and bustle on this road. As it was, Merlin could barely find the motivation to raise his head and look around.
He was numb. He had been numb for a long time.
Nothing impressed him anymore. Nothing touched him. He felt nothing -- not amusement or joy, only sadness and pain.
He barely noticed the overdressed woman in a long fur coat who trotted along the sidewalk, trying to get the attention of a taxi driver without getting her five-inch spike heel caught in a venting grate. He didn't see the teenagers who'd mastered the 1980s Wall of Hair look that had come and gone before they had even been born. He didn't hear the huskers and buskers performing their hearts out to masses of people who didn't so much as glance in their direction while dropping a few coins in their hats or cups. He didn't care about the cello player who had a prime spot outside the Eaton Centre exit, playing Bach through portable speakers powered by a miniature generator in a battle to be heard over the traffic.
Merlin rounded a corner -- the same corner he'd been rounding for nearly a year. He went up the alley, stepped over spilled garbage cans, and ducked under the streetlight that had been flickering for the better part of a month. The shortcut took him to the other side of the block and he crossed the street. He turned right, left, and up scuffed cement stairs. He punched the entrance code to the apartment building, shut the security door behind him, took out a mailbox's worth of junk mail from his slot, ignored the box elevator that had a perpetual OUT OF ORDER sign taped to the stuck-open doors, and climbed the steps, two at a time, all the way to the seventh floor.
There had been a time when he thought that he would die from the boredom of a structured routine, when he craved uncertainty, never knowing what the next day would bring. The only constant in his life had been the packed bags left near the door of his hotel room, the front zippers open and waiting for him to add toiletries and other knickknacks in before he rushed off to his next destination, to the next show. Sometimes he arrived at the airport without knowing where he was headed, and caught his breath while they processed his ticket at the counter.
Sometimes, he would look at the name of the city in confusion, the letters and numbers of the flight blurring together, the airport code new and strange, and he would have to ask his seatmate, the flight attendant, or some other complete stranger, "What country are we --?"
Now, Merlin found comfort in knowing that everything was exactly the same, day in and day out. Every morning he would wake up at seven o'clock. He would take a shower and eat a bowl of raisin bran. He would put together a cold lunch that he shoved into his backpack. He would walk to either the St Michael's Choir School or the Royal Conservatory of Music and run through his vocal exercises before his first job at the market. Once he clocked out, he'd head to the record store for the afternoon, listening to bad music piped through the staticky PA system while he filled in the day's orders made through eBay, packing obscure and rare records for shipping to a collector. For dinner, he'd stop at the Subway on the corner, buy his usual six-inch club sandwich with a bottle of water and two macadamia nut cookies. Right after, he would go to either the inventory job, or the janitor job, depending on which night it was.
He would come home, make a second dinner -- whatever didn't require much thought or effort, like a pre-packed salad or a supermarket container of sushi or a tuna sandwich -- and eat it on the futon in front of the TV stand that displayed a potted plant, but no TV. He'd read a book in the silence of his apartment for an hour before turning everything off and checking that the apartment was locked up before going to bed.
Tonight, the inventory job had only lasted an hour. Merlin's supervisor had clapped a hand to his shoulder and sent him home early because the only other job was across town, and Merlin never went out that way. He would have gone by the conservatory instead for the second time that day, but it was early enough that there would still be a troupe practicing for a show, and Merlin didn't feel like having company or an audience.
It was going to be an early night, with leftover frozen lasagne that he'd brought from the bulk frozen foods store for dinner, with a trashy romance novel about a girl who met a guy, fell in love and fucked for entertainment, because he could use some happily-ever-after right now.
He was yawning when he reached his floor.
Merlin stood in front of his apartment door, shrugged his bag from one shoulder to the other.
He fumbled through his jeans pockets, then his coat pockets, then through his backpack.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Merlin muttered. He cast his eyes heavenward. This made, what? The third or fourth time this week that he forgot his keys in his apartment.
He went through the routine again -- jeans pockets, coat pockets, backpack. Heaving a sigh of defeat, he mentally composed an apology and an excuse for his rampant absentmindedness and turned around to knock on his neighbour's door.
Except Lance was already there, leaning a shoulder against the open doorway, his arms crossed, a bemused smile on his lips. He was gorgeous as usual -- short curly brown hair brushed back, chocolate-brown bedroom eyes, a two-day scruff on his jaw. He was slim, trim, and fit, the way underwear models were slim, trim, and fit, which was just not fair at all, because Lance was very, very straight.
It was hard not to take in the view when Lance was wearing a tight cotton Moosehead beer shirt and low-on-the-hips grey sweatpants. Lance had to jangle the keys he was holding up in the air before Merlin noticed them.
Apartment keys, storage locker keys, bicycle lock key -- though someone had stolen his bike a long time ago, and Merlin had never replaced it -- the keys to a flat in London, a bedsit in Christchurch, a lovely two-bedroom that he had barely slept in while he was in Zurich. Random keys to places he couldn't remember and wouldn't know how to return, but kept anyway because it was sentimental, because the weight of the keys on the ring made him feel as if he mattered.
Then it sank in that those were his keys, not the spare set to the apartment.
"Did I drop them?"
"Left them in your lock," Lance said. "Saw them when I left for work, figured I'd catch you when you got home."
"Oh. Thanks," Merlin said. He reached for the keys, but Lance plucked them away from his fingertips. "Please don't give me a lecture about getting robbed --"
"I've been to your place. You don't have anything worth stealing."
"Sad, but true," Merlin said, managing a small, tired smile. Most of his belongings were down in the storage space that came with the apartment. He'd been on the move for so long that there really wasn't anything that he couldn't leave behind in a hurry if he had to pack up and leave again. He hadn't quite gotten out of the habit of living as if he would have to drop everything and be on a plane before the sun rose.
It had only been a year.
Merlin made a small wriggling gesture with his fingers. "I got to take a leak, so, you know, if you don't want me to piss in your doorway --"
"I'm worried about you," Lance said. His brows furrowed. "You're always working. You never go out."
Merlin remembered when his mother used to tell him something along the same lines. "I'm worried about you, Merlin. You're always on the go. You never call."
He'd give anything to hear her nagging again.
Merlin's eyes stung. He'd been on a stage on the other side of the planet when his mother passed away at the Mont Royal hospital in Montréal. A heart attack, the doctors had said. They hadn't been able to resuscitate her. Close friends of the family and the parish had made the funeral arrangements, but Merlin's agent had never told him any of this until a week after the services and the internment, because she hadn't wanted Merlin to be distracted from his performance in Hong Kong.
How much of his life had he missed out on because of that bitch of an agent? How much of his life was he missing out on now because he didn't have anything else to give?
There was a light, warm weight at his shoulder. Merlin blinked the tears away but it was too late; Lance had seen them. Instead of asking what was wrong -- because Lance was the noble, caring, considerate sort who would never ask -- Lance tilted his head in invitation. "Hey. Look. I've got the first season of Red Dwarf. That girl, the one I told you about? Gwen? She told me I should watch it. I was going to make some popcorn to throw at the screen if it ends up being bad, but that's more fun when someone else's around. Do you want --"
I want you to stop being so damn nice to me, Merlin wanted to say, but he was done in by Lance's earnest expression. He sighed.
He didn't understand why people were so compassionate with him. He didn't deserve it. The girl at Subway who was always on shift when Merlin came in, who put extra cheese on his vegie subs or who gave him another cookie without charging him. His boss on the inventory job, who let Merlin work alone when he was having a particularly bad day and who would send him home early with full pay when they ran out of things to do. Lance, who watched out for Merlin when Merlin couldn't concentrate, when his head was in a big grey fog of obliviousness, when he was hurting and needed to be reminded that there really were good things out in the world if he would only just look.
He could barely muster up a simple thank you on some days, and people continued to be nice to him. It didn't make sense.
Merlin swallowed hard, sucking salty spit from his teeth where he could taste swallowed tears, and nodded. He used every bit of theatre training that he had to make sure that his voice didn't waver, didn't wobble, didn't betray anything when he said, "Yeah, sure. Why not. Let me just..."
He paused, shrugging his backpack, tugging at his jacket. "I'll have something to eat and wash up. Give me an hour?"
"An hour," Lance said, smiling big and wide and dreamy and why couldn't he like blokes, handing Merlin the keys. He pointed a warning finger at Merlin. "An hour and five minutes, I'm coming to get you."
Merlin chuckled humourlessly. He knew it was no idle threat. He unlocked the deadbolt and the doorknob and went into his apartment, conscious of Lance watching him. He shut the door behind him, leaned against it, and banged his head back, shutting his eyes.
He'd met Lance over a year ago when he was looking for a job. He hadn't even had an apartment at the time -- he'd been living out of his suitcase again for what he had hoped was the last time. Merlin had seen the ad in The Toronto Star -- Sign Language Interpreters Required -- and something about it had triggered a good memory from a time in his life before things had spiralled out of control. He had no certifications whatsoever, but he had grown up using sign language just to be able to talk to his best friend. Lance had pushed him through the certification test, found him an apartment in his building, and lined up all of his jobs --
And within the first few weeks, Merlin had had to quit.
He didn't know why Lance still spoke to him. He'd been there at the disaster -- a disaster that had pushed Merlin even deeper into his own despair, because no matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't do anything right. He'd meant well, he had --
Merlin banged his head against the door. One. Two. Three.
He didn't want to think about it. There were a lot of things he didn't want to think about -- this one most of all.
It was almost a year ago, and he still felt horrible. Lance had brought Merlin along to interpret for some young children at a show -- Merlin's assignment had been a young girl with shiny red hair and big blue eyes and a giant smile that brightened the whole room. She had been so excited that day, and she kept signing, over and over, what are they doing now?, what do they sound like. Merlin answered back, they're playing music, or they're singing, and had done his best to interpret the music and the songs with hand gestures and motion and movement.
She had wanted to know so badly what it had sounded like and Merlin had been so tired. He'd invited her to put her hand on his throat, on his chest, so that she could feel the vibrations for herself. He still didn't know why his magic reared up at that moment when it had lain dormant for so long. But it had wafted out of his control, wrapping her up in sound.
Like Will had been able to do a long time ago because of Merlin's magic, for a brief, brief moment, this little girl could hear.
Her screaming and crying had stopped the concert. Her parents had been called in to calm her distress, but Merlin would never forget how she had wailed, "I want to hear it again, mommy. I want to hear it so bad," over and over again.
Merlin closed his eyes at the memory.
The worst of it -- the absolute worst -- was learning that his magic hadn't affected only the little girl.
Everyone at the concert had heard Merlin sing. Everyone in the building had heard Merlin sing. His voice had been magnified and enhanced, and three hundred people had heard him sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
It had been explained away as a glitch in the building speakers, caused by some sort of incompatibility with the concert's equipment and the school's announcement system, a preposterous explanation of crossed wires and radio waves and frequencies coming together to mimic baby monitors capable of monitoring police CB bands, and no one had questioned it.
The word "magic" never even came up in the conversation.
Until Lance said it. Lance believed in magic. He was the saintly sort of person who still thought that unicorns and leprechauns existed somewhere on earth. He had taken Merlin aside, and Merlin had been exhausted and heart-sick and so, so lonely, that he poured his heart out to someone who didn't know him from Adam.
And that someone had listened quietly, had believed him, and had told him to go sit down while he went to settle things with the little girl's parents.
All Merlin could think of were the many, many times that his mother had warned him, be careful, and how he'd failed her.
Lance was one of a kind. Anyone else would have... oh, Merlin didn't know what they would've done. Turned him in to the authorities who would have locked him up in psychiatric detention somewhere, he supposed, if not outright killed him on the pretence that he was a dangerous person who shouldn't be allowed near normal people. Scientific experiments might even be involved.
After everything Lance had done for him, Merlin was still a rotten friend. He'd rather stay in his apartment in a silence compounded by the low background hum of city noise and lose himself in novels with happier stories than his own, than to spend time with the man who had done more for him in one tumultuous year than the rest of the human race over the last ten years, combined.
Merlin dumped his backpack on the floor next to the door, right where he used to put his suitcase back when he'd always been on the go. He stared at it for far too long before abruptly kicking it so hard that it slid down the narrow hallway and into his cramped living room.
His foot throbbed.
"Fuck," Merlin said, rubbing his face. He needed to snap out of this funk. The truth was, it had been a long time since he had had a friend that he was terrified of losing the only one he had -- even if Lance was so perfect, so nice, and so saccharine sweet, that his teeth hurt to be in his presence. It had taken Merlin a long time before he let his guard down around Lance, but Lance's sheer, absolute, unselfish goodness still unsettled Merlin, because he knew that he was lacking.
Merlin shrugged out of his coat and hung it in the closet. He tore his ratty grey beanie from his head and left it on the table next to his keys. He kicked off his Converses and left them in a tumbled heap next to his sandals -- sandals that he hadn't worn since last summer. He ran a hand through hat-flattened hair and went into the kitchen.
There wasn't much in the refrigerator. A carton of milk on its last dregs. A quarter-loaf of marbled rye bread. A bag of tomatoes. A package of pre-sliced Swiss cheese. A bowl of tuna salad from the night before that he had been too tired to eat. The long-anticipated lasagne.
Merlin took out the Tupperware container with the lasagne, cracked the lid, and tossed it in the microwave. He poured himself a glass of water from the Brita pitcher, found one last clean fork in the utensils drawer, and ate his supper. He squirted liquid detergent in the container when he was done, turned on the hot water, and added it to the pile of dishes he was going to deal with in the morning.
He pushed the blinking red light on his hard line and listened to the messages as he puttered around the apartment, flipping through the mail, tossing most of it in the recycle bin.
"You have one message. Message one," it began, only to rattle off in Mandarin a second later, "Mister Emrys, this is Gail Xu. I'm afraid that I am going to have to cut your hours again this week. We don't have enough shifts to accommodate all the staff --"
Merlin tilted his head and muttered under his breath, mentally transposing the rest of Gail's message with what she really meant to say: "Because I've just hired my three pretty nieces, who are Chinese, and even though you speak Mandarin better than they ever will, you don't look Asian at all, and it puts our customers off. Hopefully by the end of the month you'll finally realize that I'm trying to get you to quit --"
Merlin deleted the message. He would see how long Gail would play this game of hers before she fired him over something as inconsequential as a missing penny in the till. Maybe at some point he would take pity on her and let her figure out that he didn't need to work, that he'd made enough in the last ten years to sustain him for a while. He really was only doing the menial stuff until he figured out what he wanted to do with his life. It was just that he needed to do something --
And maybe it was about time that he did something more meaningful than stocking grocery shelves. Maybe he could branch out into his field. Surely there were positions for someone with his experience. He could teach young children at a school choir. Maybe he could pick up a few classes for the university's theatre program. Maybe he could even try auditioning for a role.
Auditioning for a role meant the possibility of more roles, and if that happened he'd need to get an agent, but the only agent he knew was Nimueh Blake, and --
His innards clenched so tightly that he ran to the bathroom and threw up.
Merlin gasped into the toilet bowl, coughing and spitting out the last of the barely-digested lasagne. Of anything he could've preferred to throw up, pasta was way, way down on his list. He had learned from hard experience that acidic tomato sauces always burned his throat and made him taste tomatoes for days.
Merlin gargled with a saltwater rinse to get the worst of it out of his mouth, but he ended up brushing his teeth anyway. He washed his face, avoided looking at himself in the mirror, and went to the narrow bedroom, tossing his stained shirt into the laundry basket and finding a fresh Tee to wear.
It hadn't been an hour yet, but Merlin padded in his socks across the hall to Lance's apartment. He knocked.
"Come in! It's open!"
Merlin entered and shut the door behind him. Lance's apartment was the mirror image of Merlin's, except it was a wider and longer and generally bigger. His kitchen had room for more than one person; his living room could accommodate more than a student-sized futon. Lance had decorated his place the way an apartment should be decorated. There was grown-up pine furniture in a dark stain, bookshelves in the corner, a plasmascreen TV mounted to the wall, and a filing-cabinet style DVD storage unit right beneath. Everything matched. Everything was neat and clean and perfect.
Just like Lance. Of course.
Merlin sighed inwardly. He could do this too, he knew. He could throw out all the old furniture that had come with the apartment and paint the walls something better than a dull off-white and put things on the shelves that he liked to look at, except he didn't really know what he liked anymore. He wasn't sure if he had ever really known.
"Almost done," Lance said, glancing at Merlin before having a double-take. "Are you all right? You look a little pale."
"Lasagne was off," Merlin lied. "Had to toss it. Is that popcorn ready? I'm kind of hungry."
"If you're hungry, you can help me make room in the fridge," Lance said. He opened the refrigerator and took out a few containers, scraping the contents out onto a plate before Merlin could protest. "Made too much for dinner, and I've barely got space for the groceries I got on the way home."
Merlin caught a glimpse of mashed potatoes, sliced carrots, and something that might be breaded meat before it went into the microwave, and his stomach growled hungrily. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten an actual home-cooked meal -- the frozen dinners and sandwiches that he scraped together for himself didn't count. He decided, for once, not to argue.
Lance gave him the plate and a fork, shooed him toward the living room, and went back to the popcorn maker. Merlin sat on the couch, balanced the plate on his knees, and used the fork's edge to slice through what turned out to be chicken, marinated in a Dijon-yogurt sauce and liberally coated with garlic breadcrumbs.
"Jesus. I need to learn how to cook," Merlin said. He was sick of tuna sandwiches. He looked up when Lance put down two bottles of beer on the coffee table and sat down next to Merlin with the biggest bowl of popcorn he'd ever seen. "So, this girl Gwen?"
"Oh, my God. You would love her," Lance said. "I can't get her out of my head. I've met her the one time --"
"Just once?" Merlin asked, raising a brow. Lance met a lot of people in his job, and he wasn't prone to falling head over heels over just anyone. The girl must be special.
"You had to be there. Walks into the office, all business-proper, a little black dress under her jacket, hair loose around her shoulders, and the most beautiful smile I've ever seen. If you'd been there you wouldn't blame me --"
"Maybe if I were straight --"
"No, believe me, you'd have fallen in love with her right then and there, too. She's the kindest, sweetest --"
Merlin let his head loll down and snored a little. Maybe it was mean, but he really wasn't interested in hearing about Lance's love life when he hadn't had one in... well, ever. He'd rushed through his teenage years and didn't get his first kiss until he was twenty, and he didn't think the string of one-night stands over the last ten years counted as a relationship, not even cumulatively.
Lance shoved at Merlin. "Anyway, she's been booking an interpreter for her boss almost every day for the last three months, sometimes arranging weeks in advance, and when I have her on the line, we talk --"
Lance had a blissed-out look to him again. Merlin stabbed at the carrots and flattened the garlic mashed potatoes.
"When are you going to ask her out?" Merlin asked.
"I don't know. Soon, I think. It's just, she only ever calls me at work --"
"So give her your number," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. The obvious seemed to escape Lance sometimes. "Or ask her for hers."
"I already did," Lance said, his cheeks colouring. "But, you know, it's a little weird, though. She's almost a client, it would be unethical --"
"She's not a client, so it wouldn't be --" Merlin put his plate down on the coffee table and picked up the DVD box, flipping it over to read the series summary. He had no idea what it was about or even if it was any good. Except for when he was over at Lance's, Merlin hadn't watched television in more than a decade, and he wasn't up to date on the current pop culture. "And obviously it isn't, if you're watching this crap --"
"It's not crap," Lance said, pulling the box out of Merlin's hands.
"How would you know? You're taking a complete stranger's word for it --"
"Well, I'm about to, and if Gwen recommended it, it's not crap." Lance's phone rang. He put the popcorn bowl aside and went after his cell phone, glancing at the call display. The phone slipped out of his hand -- and it was only by the grace of Merlin's unreliable magic and Lance's hasty, frantic grasp that it didn't crash on the floor -- at least not right away.
An instant later, the plastic clattered on the floor. They both stared at it.
Instead of commenting on the fact that this was the most magic either of them had seen Merlin manage, consciously or otherwise, since they'd met, Lance said, "It's Gwen!"
"What are you waiting for? Answer it!"
Lance held out his arm, put the other one on his chest, and took a deep breath before answering. "Hello, Lance Dulac speaking."
Merlin smothered his chuckle behind a bitter mouthful of beer.
"Gwen! Hi Gwen. How are you? I'm at home actually. I'm about to watch that series you told me about? Yeah. Oh, yeah, I'm really looking forward to it. I'll make sure to skip that episode -- wait. Would you like to come over to my place to watch it with me?" Lance's expression went from schoolboy excited to crestfallen in a nanosecond, and he started to pace.
"What do you mean, Cedric didn't show up? No, I didn't call him to cancel. I wouldn't do that without your say so. When did he say he got the call? Wait, late this afternoon? No, that's impossible, he called me to confirm that he would be there. He knows to call me if he gets a cancellation from a client directly, and he didn't --"
Lance fell silent again. Merlin reached for the popcorn -- with real butter, he noted, and wondered yet once again why fate couldn't have been nice to him for a change and made Lance gay, because things might turn out for the better if Merlin had someone like Lance to come home to. Lance's gaze went to the wall clock, and he went to the kitchen, pulling his laptop out of his briefcase.
"I'm checking right now."
Merlin glanced from the television -- Lance had left it on the hockey game -- at the laptop on the coffee table. Lance navigated through the menus, opening an electronic appointment book, and scrolled through several tabs.
"I'm. I'm really sorry, Gwen. There isn't anyone available. Everyone's been working full days, and even if I called them now, they'd hang up on me." Lance's shoulders slumped, and Merlin knew it was because he hated disappointing people. "I suppose I could do it, but, you know, Arthur blows me out of the water when he signs. Cedric was maybe one of two people --"
Lance trailed off and turned to look at Merlin, raising a brow. "Three people that I know who can keep up with him. Cedric's out, obviously -- I can't believe he didn't call me before he went to P'bo -- and Elaine quit last month. You know, hold on a second --"
Merlin waited until Lance covered the sound pickup of his cell phone before saying, "No. Absolutely not."
"You don't even know --"
Merlin made the mistake of looking at Lance. The desperation in his friend's face was unmistakeable. "You want me to stand in as an interpreter for one of your clients tonight because you don't have anyone else. We talked about this. Don't you remember the kids' concert? I don't want that to happen again --"
"It won't," Lance promised, but before Merlin could ask how can you be so sure, Lance added, "It's different now, isn't it? You were in a really bad place then. You're better now, aren't you? I know you are. Please, Merlin. I wouldn't ask if it weren't important --"
Merlin rolled his eyes. "How important? It's Saturday night. What, Gwen's got a friend who wants to go on a date and he needs some help telling the girl how to, you know --"
Merlin made a rude sign.
"He's giving a speech at the Diamond Show," Lance said. "It's a big thing. A really big thing. He needs someone to voice the speech, then stay with him afterward to interpret conversations."
Merlin raised a brow. Normally, it was the other way around -- when he'd worked for Lance, Merlin usually interpreted for the person, not voicing for the crowd. "Well, that's different."
Lance grinned. He brought the phone to his ear. "He's thinking about it --"
"I'm not thinking about it --"
Lance shoved the phone into Merlin's hand. "She wants to talk to you."
Merlin put the phone against his ear cautiously. "Um. Hello?"
"Do you own a tuxedo? Or at least a really nice suit? If you don't, I can get you one --"
"Um. Yes. Yes, I own a tux. Um. I'm sorry, Gwen, is it?" Merlin leaned forward and put the beer on the coffee table. "I don't know what Lance told you, but I'm --"
"We'll pay triple the going rate --"
"It's not about money, Gwen, it's that -- OW!" Merlin dropped the phone and wrenched his foot away from under Lance's heel. Lance recovered the phone and kept it out of Merlin's reach.
"He'll do it," Lance said cheerfully. "Yes, that's fine. I'll bring him there myself. We're not far. We can be there in twenty minutes, a half an hour, tops."
Merlin groaned loudly, slumping back against the couch. He wished that he'd told Lance that he hadn't been up to getting together to watch TV or that he had to go back to work or... He didn't hear the rest of the conversation between Lance and Gwen and didn't realize that Lance had hung up until Lance yanked him off the couch and walked him out of the apartment.
"Hurry up and get dressed."
"Why are you making me do this?"
"Because you're my friend, you need to meet people, and you want me to be happy with the girl of my dreams."
Merlin gave Lance a long, long look he sincerely hoped conveyed exactly how wrong Lance was, but Lance shoved him into the hall.
"Tuxedo! Ten minutes!"
Merlin suspected that, deep -- deep, deep, very deep -- down, he was a closet romantic, and somewhere in the dark recesses of his cold heart, he wanted to believe that the out-of-the-blue, love-at-first-sight romance-novel bullshit actually happened. He wanted to witness it for himself -- that was the only explanation he had for why he agreed to do the job.
The evidence so far was the way that Lance was beaming, completely besotted, at Gwen, and the way that Gwen was smiling shyly at Lance. It had been cute for the first five minutes, and it was definitely fodder for endless teasing for the next six months -- at least -- but it had been going on for ten minutes, and they hadn't even kissed yet.
Maybe it was the cynic in him, but for all that Merlin had played romantic roles, and watched romance blossom, similar scenes of love and courtship did not happen off the stage. If anything, when the curtain fell, the fantasy fairy-tale love fizzled out spectacularly. Merlin had learned to duck and cover to avoid the fallout of those botched relationships, glad that he had never gotten embroiled in one himself.
But now, instead of feeling sullen and angry at watching Gwen and Lance together, Merlin felt better, somehow. Maybe the two of them wouldn't last. Maybe they would have kids and a messy divorce and cat-fights for the rest of their lives, but at this moment, this perfect moment, Merlin saw something real. He felt a flutter in his belly, an ache in his heart -- the emotions were fleeting, but they reminded him that he had wanted this, once, before he'd given up any chance of it happening altogether and satisfied his romantic cravings by living vicariously through cheap paperback romance novels with bare-chested men with rippling, muscular torsos and long hair flowing in the wind on the front covers.
Merlin waited patiently. He flipped through the show's schedule and paid attention to the evening's events. He walked around in a small circle, nodding at the people behind the registration desk who were packing up for the night so that they could close the doors and join the rest of the festivities. Lance and Merlin had been given freshly-printed all-access passes to the Pendragon Diamond Show. Merlin hadn't paid attention when Lance gave him the highlights of the yearly exhibition conference, but he had gathered that the reason the event was important was because Arthur, the man he was going to be interpreting for, was the new young CEO of the company and this was his first appearance in public.
At the very least, the job would be interesting. It was already unlike anything he'd ever done in his brief career as an interpreter -- as anything that Lance himself had ever done. Most interpreting jobs were at schools helping kids of any age, at occasional staff meetings, at presentation events and conferences, on training courses, for doctor appointments, emergency room visits, or the rare court appearance.
Merlin tried not to have preconceptions about people, but he couldn't help wonder about this CEO whom he would be interpreting for. Lance had kept Gwen as the topic of conversation on the drive over -- Gwen this, Gwen that -- and there hadn't been any opportunity to ask about Arthur Pendragon. But he did wonder if the client in question was deaf or just hard of hearing, if he really needed Merlin there, if he was shy and subdued or loud and brash, or anything in between.
He couldn't help thinking about Will -- how he used to interpret for him, too -- and wonder how his friend was doing. It had been years since they'd last seen each other, but he was sure that Will was still the same old Will, cocky and arrogant and headstrong.
Merlin wondered if Will would ever speak to him again.
Merlin fidgeted, checked his watch, and glanced over to see if Lance and Gwen were done being smitten. They weren't.
He wandered around, stopping short when he caught a glimpse inside. It was a good thing that he was inured to public appearances, because the crowd through the fire safety doors was immense. Hundreds of people -- the numbers likely crested close to a thousand, if not more -- were milling around in their Sunday best. The women were dressed in resplendent ball gowns, and the men were in what appeared to be mandatory black tie, but there were a few who had opted for their flashiest business suits.
Merlin was glad that he hadn't thrown his tuxedo in a fire when he'd fled show business, otherwise he wouldn't fit in at the show. On the other hand, maybe he should have burned it -- then he would have the perfect excuse not to be there now.
He wondered when Lance and Gwen would finish gazing at each other as if they were the only two people left on the planet. He wanted to get this over with.
Merlin hoped that he would at least get to talk with Arthur before he took his position to translate the speech for the audience, but if Arthur was nervous, he probably was in the middle of reviewing his speech and wouldn't be up to meeting new people at the moment. Merlin knew he should be preparing himself -- this would go more smoothly if he knew what he was going to be telling the crowd.
Merlin looked over his shoulder again and groaned inwardly. Lance and Gwen were still making goo-goo eyes at each other, and quite frankly, at this point, it was enough to drown his inner romantic. He was tempted to find a priest and marry the two so that they would skip the whole pretence of dating in the first place. Merlin didn't look forward to having to listen to Lance alternate between gushing about Gwen's sparkling qualities and crying into his cups that he didn't think he was good enough for her.
He was saved from having to interrupt their silent declarations of love by one of the show's organizers, who came up to Gwen and reminded her that "We really should be backstage."
"Oh, yes!" Gwen exclaimed, looking around until she spotted Merlin. She twined her arm through his in a possessive, you're not getting away hold, and said, "We're very grateful that you agreed to do this at the last minute. Arthur really doesn't want his uncle give the speech for him. I didn't want him to, myself, but if I hadn't found you --"
"Disaster?" Merlin suggested. He looked between Gwen and Lance and back again.
"You have no idea."
Merlin thought that maybe he did know. A long time ago, the first time he had a lead role, Merlin had been so sick from nerves that he had grudgingly stepped aside for an understudy who had massacred the part. The reviews had been horrible, the cast and crew had blamed Merlin, and the show had closed within the next week when there had been a rush at the box office to return the tickets. After spending months rehearsing, the cast was out of a job -- everyone but Merlin, who had been sixteen at the time. It hadn't taken long before he had been quickly snapped up by a rival opera house while the others were out of work for months.
Merlin let Gwen lead him through the crowd. He leaned close so that he could be heard over the noise and asked, "Will I meet Arthur beforehand? I have to talk to him, find out what he prefers, review his speech --"
"Oh, yes, absolutely. I have a copy of the speech with me, but I'll take you to Arthur first," Gwen said. She paused, and gave him a small, apologetic smile. "I should probably warn you. He's a bit nervous right now, he's not going to be very..."
"Personable?" Merlin suggested.
Gwen snapped her fingers and gave him a yes, that's it smile. "Personable. Yes. That is a good word. I'm going to apologize for him in advance. He really is a sweet person once you get to know him."
"I'll take your word for it," Merlin assured her.
"Shall we?" Gwen asked, and before either Merlin or Lance could respond, Gwen brought them into the crowd, where she gracefully dodged every attempt to slow them down until they had made it to the stage in a whirlwind rush. Merlin was grateful that Lance was right behind them. Merlin might not get the same sort of paralyzing stage fright that he used to get when he had been new to the theatre anymore, but between Gwen's determination and the very scary security guards blocking their way, he was starting to feel uneasy.
They let Gwen pass through unhindered, but they stopped to make note of Merlin and Lance's badges, copying their names down on a clipboard, before letting them through.
The backstage at a conference wasn't that much different to the backstage at a theatre right before a show. There was the sound technician, the stage manager, the coordinator, the lighting engineers. There were people moving equipment around or just waiting for their cues. It was easy to spot the few people who would be speaking and Merlin could tell from the way that the coordinator was fretting that not everyone had shown up yet. If Merlin remembered correctly from the schedule, Arthur would be the first one up after some sort of memorial.
Further backstage, surrounded by sheer, draping curtains that guarded them from the crowd's purview, were pretty, stick-thin women whom Merlin assumed would be walking up and down the runway later on. There was a large enclosure midway between the models' dressing rooms and the curtain that was completely surrounded by armed security guards.
Gwen pulled him toward the front of the stage, and she pointed. "Arthur is going to be standing right there, in the middle. We've put a microphone on the runway where you can see him. During the memorial, the lights are going to be off -- please don't trip over the microphone -- and that's when you should go and take your place. The light is only going to turn on Arthur after the memorial presentation is finished. Are you all right with that? You don't get stage fright, do you? Oh, no, please tell me you don't, I forgot to ask --"
"He'll be fine," Lance snorted, raising a meaningful brow at Merlin.
"I'll be fine," Merlin said, giving Gwen as reassuring a smile as possible while wishing that Lance didn't know so much about his background, because this -- among others -- would have been the perfect excuse to bow out.
Why hadn't he thought of any of those perfect excuses when he'd needed them?
Merlin leaned out a bit, mentally counting the steps in one direction, then another, that would get him to the runway. He made a special note of the microphone's position -- Gwen was right. If he tripped, it would be his neck, cracked on the edge of the runway. There would be blood everywhere, people screaming. It would be very bad.
Merlin idly considered doing just that -- it would be another excuse to get out of doing this job.
He had a healthy respect for the drop-off at the end of a stage; a runway was worse, because a step in any wrong direction could spell doom. Years of practice had honed his counting skills down -- he had been able to hit his mark ninety-nine percent of the time. Or at least, he could have a year ago. Hopefully he wasn't too rusty now.
It was strange, to be standing on a stage, and to not be nervous. The anxiety that he felt in his chest at the concerts toward the end of his career -- the tight grip of a ghostly hand around his heart squeezing ever tighter -- wasn't present, and he supposed it was because he knew he wouldn't be in the limelight this time.
That knowledge was strangely comforting.
"I'm all right with that," Merlin said again, more to reassure himself than Gwen. He looked around, looking for his client.
His eye was caught first by a man of average height with short black hair greying at the temples, his mouth cut into a permanent smirk, his small round eyes neatly shadowed by arched brows. He was standing in front of a full-length mirror -- a mirror that was probably intended as a final check for the models before they stomped down the runway. He adjusted his tie, straightened his long, tailed jacket, smoothing down the fabric. His lips were moving, repeating a memorized speech to himself.
Merlin had the impression of a crow swooping down to salvage whatever shiny trinket had been left behind, flapping off to add it to his hoard.
Gwen's fingers were light on his arm. "That's Arthur."
Merlin followed Gwen's gesture to a man who was about his age -- maybe a little older. He stood off to the side by the curtains at an angle that hid him from the crowd but still afforded him a good view of the people milling about, drinking champagne, savouring the appetizers, chatting up old friends and networking with strangers.
Well, Merlin had been around handsome people most of his life. It was a hazard of the trade -- his old trade, he reminded himself sternly. Tall men reminiscent of Cary Grant. Slim, curvy women who were a cross between Marilyn Monroe and a young Elizabeth Taylor. Broad-shouldered men with a rugby-player’s build.
He'd met all the acclaimed beautiful people whose names were always on the matinee signs, lit up by large Hollywood spotlights. He'd stood on the red carpet with them. He'd avoided bloodthirsty paparazzi and crazed fans alongside them, running down the city street of whatever city Merlin happened to have been in at the time.
He'd dated them, if rubbing each other off backstage right after a successful show could be called dating. He had anonymous one-night stands with young up-and-comers that he'd never seen again outside of the silver screen. He'd shared smiles with famous-on-Broadway stars, answered the wordless question they asked with tilted heads with a brief nod. He had hotel keycards pressed into his hand accompanied by a deep, husky voice whispering the room number. He'd never knocked on the women's doors -- he'd slip their keys under the door instead. But the men --
Merlin had seen all sorts of beautiful, male and female, from ethereal to surreal. They had caught his eye briefly, and once they were gone, that was it. There had been no appeal to them.
But Arthur was...
His wheat-gold hair was styled in a roguish cut. His jaw was clean-shaven and strong. His face was chiselled out of stone by a Renaissance master, his cheekbones sculpted, his nose Romanesque, his brow without a worried crease. From where Merlin was standing, he couldn't tell the colour of Arthur's eyes, but he could see how they were half-hooded in thought. His lips were a dark pink, set in a determined line.
He didn't fidget. He didn't sway. He didn't move.
Arthur stood out from the other speakers not because he was wearing a white tuxedo jacket over black trousers, a black vest, cummerbund and tie. He stood out because he was settled, without trace of the same anxious energy that had the other speakers bustling about, trying to work it off before it was their turn to walk onto the stage.
Merlin reached for a word to describe Arthur Pendragon, but the only one that he could come up with was... different.
It wasn't different in a bad way. Hardly. Arthur was calm, serene, composed. He was an ocean of stillness under the blazing heat of the sun, the quiet that kept the rambling chaos at bay, the eye of the hurricane that blew and raged all about.
The tension in Merlin's shoulders inexplicably eased. For a moment, a brief moment, the incessant chatter in his head ebbed to silence. For a moment, a brief moment, the fog lifted and Merlin was afforded a clarity that he hadn't had in years. For a moment, a brief moment, Merlin felt his guard come down.
It was bliss.
And it didn't last. Of course it didn't. Merlin would never be so blessed.
The slightest touch on his arm slammed the portcullis shut. The archers raced to the murder holes in the fortress walls. The army gathered and braced against an onslaught from the enemy. Merlin wrenched himself away, startled.
But it was only Gwen, giving him a small, encouraging smile. "Let's go meet him."
Merlin took a deep breath. He took Arthur in again, wanting to memorize the image of a man who could ease his unsettled soul merely by being there. He resisted Gwen's gentle pull. He wanted to turn around and walk away before he met the man and found him no different than anyone else. He wanted to keep intact the memory of someone who could care for nothing and care about everything in the same instant. He wanted to take that fleeting sensation of calm and lock it away where he wouldn't lose it.
But when he set his eyes on Arthur again, something had changed. It was the lock of his jaw, the clench of his teeth, a muscle popping, the narrow of his eyes.
He was a lone soldier in a battle against unfathomable odds, with no one by his side.
Merlin swallowed hard, trying to ignore the swell of emotion that he couldn't identify.
He followed Gwen.
Arthur remembered standing on a stage similar to this one, hiding behind the heavy curtains as a child. His father had patted Arthur on the shoulder on his way to the microphone and made his yearly show-opening speech. Uther would come backstage afterward, heft Arthur into his arms, and give Arthur's mother a kiss before letting her pass. The two of them would stand right there, Uther beaming at Ygraine, Arthur in awe of his mother, as she gave a much shorter speech and took a step aside, allowing her artistry to speak for itself in a glittering array of jewels on the models of the show.
In those days, the crowd had been a source of much amusement for Arthur. Children weren't usually brought to the Diamond Show, but everyone quickly learned that Arthur had a reason to be there. The designers and artisans and investors and Important People all knew him; they'd watched him grow up. They could recognize him on sight.
"I remember you when you were this tall."
"You look so much like your mother."
They would pinch his cheeks if they dared; they would smile pleasantly at him as he walked past. They would offer him candy from the bowls at their booths, or they would try to sneak brochures and pamphlets in his pockets, hoping his mother would find them before his clothes went into the wash.
He'd caught on to their games very early on. They wanted him to do something for them? They could do something for him in return. Suddenly, he didn't only look like his mother, he had his father's shrewd cunning and brilliant mind.
But that had been a long time ago. As a teenager, he caught the eye of a fair few of the young men and women who worked the conference behind the scenes -- he'd been made to work, then, too, and sometimes he would make friends, but those friendships never lasted beyond the week when the exhibits were torn down.
He knew everything about this show. Its heartbeat. The ebbs and flows. He knew everything about the business -- from the source of the diamonds to their recovery to their cuts and polish. He knew about the creation process behind the designs that heralded the artistry of the Pendragon line. He knew these things because he had learned them from his parents.
They were gone now, and it was down to Arthur.
To Arthur. Not Agravaine. Not any of the members of the board. This was his company now and his alone. He had the final vote. He made the decisions.
He had to remember that. He couldn't forget. He refused to let his uncle get to him. Arthur was Pendragon Incorporated, not Agravaine.
And tonight, these people at the show would know it. They would. They would remember the child who had run amok through the booths, hiding under the curtained tables, using the fold-out photo displays as his personal jungle gym. They would remember the teenager who helped them unload their wares, who could answer their questions and direct them with the assurance of any of the event coordinators, who made certain that they had spare sockets for their lights and extra security when they fretted.
All these people would know Arthur again, the adult, the man who had worked at Pendragon Incorporated in one capacity or another since he came of age, who took over one of the senior positions while still in his teens, who had shouldered his father's responsibilities and contributed to his mother's designs.
Now, he was the one at the helm.
Arthur warred with himself for what had felt like hours before coming to the decision that even if they couldn't find an interpreter in time, he could not let Agravaine deliver his speech. What did it matter if the audience couldn't understand him, if his voice was too low or too high? What did it matter if he spoke too quickly, if, in the end, Arthur left them with the impression that he was too afraid to step into the limelight? Arthur had decided that the only fate worse than allowing the audience to see his weaknesses would be to let them see his fear.
While he waited to see if Gwen could find someone to interpret for him, Arthur had worked himself up to the idea of stepping out onto the stage, to gesture for a microphone, to give his speech himself, with his voice, and he would do his best. If his uncle believed that he would be an embarrassment to the company -- well, then, that was his problem, because his parents certainly had not thought so. He'd pumped himself up, remembering all the times and all the people who seemed to have no problem understanding him when he spoke. If it hadn't been an issue before, it certainly wouldn't be an issue now.
Despite the surge of self-confidence, Arthur had been nearly washed off the stage by the strength of his relief when Gwen told him that she had found an interpreter and that he was on the way.
All at once, his anxiety and nerves were replaced by humiliation and wounded pride. Arthur hated to rely on other people. He had been raised to be independent, to adapt to any given situation, to find a way to make things work. But he couldn't compromise for other people all the time -- and he would never be without the need for an interpreter at fast-paced business meetings or at chaotic public events.
Arthur had nodded through Gwen's pleased descriptions of the man who was coming. He was a friend of Lance's. He was certified, even though he'd quit some time ago. He was fluent in both ASL and LSQ -- the American Sign Language and the Langue Signée Québecois, which was ideal, because Arthur understood and used both. He was one of those rare people who actually owned a tuxedo. And, most importantly, he was on the way, and Arthur wouldn't have had to desperately ask Gwen at the last minute to act as his interpreter if he lost the courage to give his speech himself.
That was all that he cared about. Beyond that, he'd stopped listening. It didn't mean he stopped fretting, though.
Arthur caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned in time to see Gwen's approach. She was with two men. Arthur recognized Lance, who was handsome in a black tuxedo, looking as fit as he had been the first time that Arthur had met him.
Arthur decided that it really was a shame that all of the best-looking men were straight. If circumstances were different -- if it hadn't been for the turmoil of his parents' sudden death, the long days and late nights of trying to keep the company from falling apart, the upheaval of his new position, the stressful rush of the Diamond Show, and, most importantly, for the way that Gwen lit up from the inside out whenever she spoke to Lance on the phone, Arthur might have been tempted to try.
Just for one night. Just to -- just to be with someone who had an idea of what it was like not to be able to hear. Who would pay attention to him and not make him feel as if he was less.
But that wouldn't be fair. Not to Gwen, who adored Lance. Not to Lance, who was heads-over-heels over Gwen. And least of all to Arthur himself, but only because he knew he would always demand more -- he would always need more from a one night stand than a single night.
And, if Arthur were honest, Lance wasn't Arthur's type.
Arthur spared a glance for the man following behind Gwen, but barely took in the details before Gwen started signing.
"He's perfect. He has a gorgeous voice."
Arthur released a breath that he hadn't realized he had been holding all along, giving Gwen a small little nod of thanks at the confirmation. He wanted this speech, this evening, to go without a hitch, and if he could do it by without sounding like a complete idiot, so much the better.
Gwen shifted to the side and signed and spoke, "You remember Lance?"
"I remember Lance," Arthur said. He didn't bother to sign and held out his hand instead. "I'm glad that you could make it. Thank you for finding someone on such short notice."
"I didn't have to look far," Lance said, but his hands echoed his words. He was a small, precise signer, almost self-conscious of attracting attention. "He's my next-door neighbour."
"Well, that's lucky," Arthur said, his eyes lingering on Lance in case Lance was going to add anything more. Instead, Arthur caught the exact moment Lance happened to glance at Gwen and couldn't look away, giving her a completely besotted smile. With an inward sigh, Arthur looked at the newcomer.
The first thing he noticed was that the man's tuxedo was tailored and that it fit him with the snug comfort of a second skin. It was of a finer material than most on the conference floor, but not so fine that it eclipsed Arthur's own suit.
The interpreter -- Arthur realized with some embarrassment that he hadn't been paying attention when Gwen told him the man's name -- wore it with the ease of someone who had worn it many, many times, with a casual grace and complete lack of self-consciousness. For all that the interpreter had an air of professionalism, there was something more to him.
He was guarded, but friendly; careful but aware; cautious with a willingness to be kind. Arthur was reminded of a dog he'd seen on the streets, once, teased and tormented by teenagers throwing things at it. Terrified, beaten, with no reason to trust anyone, the dog had still come to Arthur, its tail wagging between its legs, and allowed itself to be petted and fed and taken to someone where he would be cared for and loved.
Arthur didn't understand the feeling of wanting to take care of this man, but it was strong and overwhelming and suffocating. Arthur looked away, but he couldn't tear his gaze away for long, and he met the interpreter's eyes. They were a soft blue-grey, with a twinkle of gold around the rims, made bright and startling by the sharp contrast of black eyelashes and the glimpse of a promise of untold emotion hidden behind them.
His lips were -- they weren't too wide. They weren't too thin. They were just perfect, with a subtle curve of the crown of his upper lip, a slightly fuller lower lip worried at the corner. Arthur wanted him to speak, wondering if he would be the type to mumble, or if he would enunciate his words, or if Arthur would be able to understand him at all when he wasn't making an effort to be understood. It didn't seem to matter to Arthur, because he thought he should like to look at those lips anytime that he had the chance.
His cheekbones were startling -- high and cut so sharp it was almost as if a feather would be rendered in twain to fall upon them. His jaw was an angular set covered in the scruff of a long day. His ears stuck out a little, with curls of black hair half-hiding the lobes. He wore his hair short, stylishly ruffled.
Before Arthur could take a mental step back and take in the whole picture, he was distracted by the man's hands.
He had strong hands and long, thin fingers. The fingernails were cut short, the knuckles were rough and raw. It was the quick, graceful movement of hands and fingers that captivated Arthur.
"You must be Arthur. My name's Merlin. It's a pleasure to meet you."
The fingerspelling of their names was like a butterfly's wings fluttering in the air. The gestures of the signs were crisp and clear, with a flourish of personal style hinting of a lifetime of signing, with not a single ounce of self-consciousness. It was a relief to see next to Gwen's sloppy, hasty, always busy hands, even after Lance's subtle, muted signs.
"It's nice to meet you too," Arthur said, shaking the hand that Merlin offered. It was a firm grip, warm, reassuring. Arthur didn't want to let go. He ignored the nervous clench of his stomach, because now that his interpreter -- that Merlin -- was here, there would be no getting out of giving his speech.
Merlin must have picked up on Arthur's sudden apprehension, because he gave Arthur a small smile. He signed and spoke at the same time. "I understand that we're short on time. Why don't we get ready?"
Arthur was gratified to see that lip-reading Merlin was just as easy as it was to understand his precise signs. "That's a good idea. Gwen told you the arrangements?"
"She did," Merlin signed and said. "Do you have a copy of the speech? I'd like to familiarize myself with it -- I only need the context --"
"I have it here," Gwen signed with one hand, digging in her purse. She came up for air with several folded sheets, handing them to Merlin.
Merlin barely blinked at the length. "Long speech."
"If it's too long for you," Arthur began, but Merlin waved him off.
"Not at all. I can prompt you if I need to," Merlin signed.
Arthur's eyes narrowed in an emotion that tripped and stumbled when Merlin did the unexpected. He winked -- he winked -- at Arthur and smiled so brightly that Arthur was blinded. In that instant, he saw a glimpse of the Merlin behind the mask, vibrant and alive -- and Arthur was too stunned to be angry that Merlin had dared to talk to him like that.
The flare of anger dissipated so quickly that Arthur barely registered being angry in the first place. He was amused in a way that he couldn't explain. He opened his mouth for a rejoinder, but before the words could come out of his mouth, the walls came up around Merlin, and his smile faded to professional neutrality. He gestured at a spot behind Gwen and signed, "Is that the speech?"
Arthur turned and saw his uncle approach. Merlin shifted, moving so that he stayed in Arthur's line of sight, and gestured to Gwen before signing her words. "I just had it printed out at the business centre."
No one but Arthur and Gwen needed to know that Gwen was lying.
Merlin pointed at Agravaine. "And not a moment too soon. I'll read it over, but I don't think I'll have the time to memorize it before we begin. I'm going to have to ad lib as best I can --"
"Actually," Gwen said, and Merlin deftly dodged Agravaine's attempt to yank the printout from where it was tucked under Merlin's arm. "We found an interpreter for Arthur. This is --"
"I thought we agreed that I would give the speech," Agravaine said, rounding on Arthur, moving to block Arthur's line of sight to Merlin.
"I said that I would think about it, uncle," Arthur said firmly, glancing at Merlin over Agravaine's shoulder, and feeling warmed to see that Merlin's full attention was on him. A calm settled Arthur's nerves; Merlin's raised brows and encouraging nod gave Arthur a confidence hadn't known he had been missing. He looked at Agravaine, and said, "You said it yourself. You won't have time to learn the speech. I may as well do it myself."
"I thought you understood why this was a bad idea," Agravaine said, frowning faintly.
A small tinge of doubt stabbed at his heart. Arthur ducked his head down, and when he raised his eyes again, it was to see that Merlin had moved to the side, no longer blocked by Agravaine, his eyes locked on Arthur. It was disconcerting and frighteningly reassuring all at the same time. Merlin was watching Arthur as if he were important. As if he mattered. Arthur didn't know why a complete stranger -- this complete stranger -- could make him feel that way, but it was a feeling he didn't want to lose.
"I'm giving the speech, uncle," Arthur said, turning away. He gave Merlin a meaningful nod. "And if you don't mind, Merlin and I have a few things to go over before I open the show."
It took a minute to get used to the pitch black, and the darkness gave way to the faint overhead lights.
The only illumination came from the projectors running a film clip on the raised screen behind the stage. Merlin stood on the runway in front of the microphone; Arthur was some distance away in the centre of the stage, so still that Merlin almost couldn't see him.
There had been a time when Merlin suffered from show jitters so bad that he'd lunged for a bucket before he threw up his nerves over someone's costume. He was relieved that he wasn't feeling them now.
Experience told him that the presentation could go one of two ways for Arthur -- the first few minutes might be a tangled mess of signs before he eased into his speech, or the entire speech might be a stuttering mess that would stop halfway through because Arthur fainted dead away.
He thought at first that it was nerves that kept Arthur so calm on the stage, but it hadn't been until the show's organizers played the memorial with recorded background music that Merlin understood why Arthur was frozen where he stood. The audience had been so respectfully silent that Merlin could hear the quiet sobs of the people nearest the stage -- the Pendragons had friends in the audience, but even to those who hadn't known them personally, Ygraine and Uther had been important.
The memorial made Merlin miss his mother. Merlin's throat tightened with emotion that he hadn't let himself feel in a long time. Merlin let his gaze drift to the featureless floor of the platform rather than to watch the memorial -- a series of photographs of the Pendragons from the time they met, all the way through their marriage, mixed in with a selection of images from far-flung lands, to the pair of them as an elegantly dressed couple at one fundraiser or another. Merlin couldn't quite tune out the music in the background, poignant and heartfelt, and he swallowed hard several times to clear his throat.
Merlin hadn't so much read Arthur's speech as he'd become completely engrossed in it, looking up to glance at Gwen to wordlessly ask if Arthur had written it. She'd given him a quick, confirming nod, before Arthur had turned to him to ask what he thought.
This is an amazing speech, Merlin had wanted to say, but he'd caught himself. There had been a crackle in Arthur's voice, a hint of self-doubt, a chink of insecurity in otherwise perfect armour.
"I suppose it will have to do," Merlin signed. He didn't know what prompted him to react the way he did, to poke and prod at the other man in an attempt to make him relax, but he could tell from the quick change in Arthur's stance that the distraction was helping.
Arthur raised a brow, and his tone was halfway between insulted and indignant. "You suppose?"
"This isn't by far the worst speech I've ever read," Merlin signed, ignoring Gwen's wide eyes and Lance's open mouth.
"Don't you dare blame the speech if you fuck up," Arthur shot back.
"I wouldn't dream of it," Merlin signed. "I was thinking of blaming you."
"Don't be an idiot," Arthur said before turning away, ending the conversation. Gwen's eyes had gone bigger, if that was humanely possible, and Lance shot Merlin a warning look that said they'd have words about his behaviour later, but Arthur wasn't fooling Merlin. The man was confident in his speech -- it was just a matter of making him see that. And the teasing worked; there was a small smile on his lips, and the tension that had bunched at his shoulders while talking to his uncle had eased.
Maybe it was Arthur's quietness, maybe it was his intensity, but whatever it was, Merlin was comfortable with Arthur in a way that he hadn't been with anyone else in years. Merlin's only regret was that once the job was over with, he'd never see Arthur again.
The lights dimmed as the memorial came to an end. The music's last few notes lingered, cloying in the air. The stage remained dark for some moments longer -- someone's idea of a dramatic pause, but the audience was taking advantage of it to dab their faces of tears and to collect themselves before the opening speech.
The darkness didn't lift when Merlin expected it to -- Arthur's otherwise calm decorum shifted and he glanced behind him to find out what was taking so long. He waited patiently, but Merlin saw traces of uncertainty in his stance until the lighting finally changed, casting a spotlight over him.
The audience broke into light applause.
There was a ripple in the curtains near the backstage. Merlin saw Gwen waving a hand for his attention. His heart sank when he saw her desperately sign -- "There's no sound. Stall him."
There's no sound was code for "You're fucked." Merlin had been in shows where the sound system had burned down moments before the curtains raised, and the audience had been treated to a shouting match instead of a world-class opera.
Merlin started to raise his hands to warn Arthur, to tell him to stretch out the pause, to wait or to go backstage and to send in someone else instead for a shorter speech. But when he looked at the man, all Merlin could see was how fragile the moment was. This was important to Arthur. Arthur needed for the night, for his speech, to go well.
Merlin wasn't certain what prompted him to reach up to touch the microphone to ensure that it was off when Arthur looked at him and gave him a small are you ready nod, but for the first time in over a year, Merlin closed his eyes and deliberately reached for his magic.
Please, please, please. Be there. Please.
His magic hadn't worked the way it was supposed to -- when it responded at all -- for such a long time. He crossed his fingers behind his back and prayed.
Merlin just wanted a little bit of magic. Enough for a small, minuscule spell. Was that too much to ask? It was magic that he had used, sometimes, when he was too tired from too many shows in a row and not enough rest in between and needed that extra volume to sing at the top of his range. It was magic that he hadn't been able to reach, not for ages, not since his magic flickered and faded weakly away, until he didn't even have that to rely on toward the end of his career.
He hadn't reached for his magic on purpose since then. It never seemed half as important to try as it was now.
When Merlin reached for his magic, he expected the familiar hollow feeling, the emptiness. He expected his magic to withdraw from his grasp and cower into a shell where he couldn't hold it. But his magic came to him in a rush of eager strength that nearly made him gasp in surprise, and Merlin shivered with relief and joy as he felt the tingle on his skin.
He returned Arthur's nod. I'm ready, he signed.
Arthur uncrossed his arms, letting them fall to his sides. After a long, measuring glance around the conference floor, Arthur raised his arms and began to sign.
His hands moved with precision and grace and emotion, and Merlin stared, enthralled. He marvelled at how easily he could pick out what Arthur was feeling in only a few signs. Merlin wanted to sink in those gestures, he wanted to lose himself in them.
Instead, he took a deep, deep breath, his magic welling in his chest, and spoke as clearly as he could, his voice magically-magnified to fill the conference hall.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Arthur Pendragon."
Arthur lowered his hands and waited. There was a short silence as the crowd turned to the stage. With the innate talent of an experienced toastmaster, Arthur choose exactly the moment when everyone had leaned closer to gesture again, his signing larger than the world.
Merlin shifted his voice to match, as deep a rumble as he could manage, and said, "Allow me to welcome you to the twenty-fifth annual Pendragon Diamond Show."
There was a soft, giggling gasp nearby, a murmur of delight. Merlin thought he heard a showman like his dad.
Arthur was patient, because he watched the audience intently and waited until the applause died down. He unbuttoned his jacket, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and gave the audience an indulging smile.
When he finally raised his hands again, it was to sign in a different tone. He was subdued now, his expression serious.
"Ten years ago, I went to South Africa with my family. My father took me to one of our stakeholder mines. He gave me a shovel and a bucket and put me to work alongside the men without whom we would not have our livelihood. They were tall men, short men, young men, old men. They were members of several different tribes and they spoke every language from Tsonga to Sotho to Zulu. I was bewildered and lost, because I was a young, white boy who couldn't understand a word.
"It was a miracle to me that these men found a way to work together, that they could make themselves understood, and that despite my own shortcomings, they welcomed me with open arms, if only because I was there to shoulder the load, sparing their backs for a while."
There was a short pause as Arthur allowed that to sink in. No one could miss the implication of his words. Here he was in front of a crowd, giving a speech with nothing but his hands. He had found a way to make himself understood now; he had done the same thing ten years ago with people who spoke a foreign language, and surely if he could do it, anyone could do it too.
Merlin couldn't help but smile, even though no one could see him in the dark. It had been one thing to read the speech and to be impressed by Arthur's writing skills, but it was something else entirely to listen to Arthur, to see his cadences, his quiet pauses, the stresses and the emphasis.
It was a challenge to Merlin, to try to match the emotion in Arthur's signs with his voice.
"I didn't work there for only a few hours or even only one day. Oh, no. My father had something else in mind. He had meant for me to work at the mines all summer long. I was a teenager. You can imagine how well that went over.
"At the end of the first day, I whined that my shoulders ached and my arms were sore and my hands were covered by blisters and that I'd break my spine if I had to carry another sixty pound bucket up the muddy, slippery slope. I thought if I complained enough, my father would have mercy on me, and let me have a cushy office job instead of this back-breaking labour that was sure to kill me before the week was out. My father gave me a long, long look, and told me to get some rest, because I was going back to the mines first thing in the morning."
Arthur's recounting was done with a dramatic delivery, his expression twisting with complaint as he gestured to his shoulders and let his arms hang loose at his sides and stared at his hands as if they were covered in something monstrous and painful.
"I did the only thing I could. I went to my mother and pleaded with her to talk some sense into my father."
There was disdain in Arthur's signs, the confidence of someone who knew that the other parent would save him from his misery. The crowd chuckled.
"My mother, bless her, told me to get some rest, because I was going back to the mines first thing in the morning."
Arthur rolled his eyes. A collective, spontaneous laugh rippled through the crowd. Arthur shoved his hands in his pockets again, giving a Parents. What can you do? shrug that was right out of the Petulant Teenager handbook.
Arthur paced in place, walking a few steps that way, a few more in the other, before returning to his spot in the middle of the stage. He ran a hand through his hair and gave the audience a small, rueful smile. There was something so honest about his expression, his gestures, that scattered applause broke through the audience.
Merlin raised his hands in the air and shook them to indicate the reception Arthur was receiving. Arthur must have seen his gestures, because he checked himself, his chin ducking down, eyes fixing to the ground, and his cheeks coloured.
The embarrassed shyness only increased the applause.
Merlin smiled in delight. He had known actors who couldn't elicit half of the response that Arthur was giving with his speech.
The clapping eased. Merlin lowered his hands. Arthur gave him a slight, subtle nod, giving the audience a long look before continuing.
"Many of the men at the mines became my friends. An old man named Yerome, who was half my size but so strong and determined, he could wrestle a stampeding water buffalo into submission. Another man named Neidi, who had hands the size of shovels, but who could pry out the tiniest raw diamond out of a stubborn piece of granite with just his fingertips. And there was Einoch, a boy who took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He taught me how to walk through the mines in the dark. He showed me how to identify the different minerals, to be able to taste the ores in them, to let the veins guide me to the stone where diamonds have been trapped for millions and millions of years. He pointed out the spots in the tunnels where the rocks were coming loose and made sure I knew how to watch for a cave-in and what to do if I was ever trapped.
"It was dangerous work.
"Einoch was sixteen years old. A year older than I was at the time, but he already walked and talked as if he were a mining veteran with years of experience. He had a nose for diamonds -- he said it ran in his blood, because his blood was the blood of Kings. The way he helped people, the way the others came to him for advice -- even my father, if you can imagine Uther Pendragon seeking out the counsel of a sixteen year old boy -- I believed him.
"He was -- he still is -- a King."
Arthur's stance straightened even more, if such a thing was even possible, and Arthur was a King himself in that moment, regal and courteous and graceful, presiding over his court. Merlin was grateful for the pause; the sight of Arthur stole his breath away.
Merlin shook himself, forcing himself to concentrate.
"Einoch, Neidi, Yerome. They are the men who work our mines. They are the men who run our mines. They write to me every year and tell me about their families. Yerome's granddaughter just had a baby boy. Neidi's oldest son graduated with honours in mining engineering from the University of Johannesburg. Einoch writes one full page in his perfect block handwriting to tell me about the mine that he's operating for us, then spends the next four pages gushing about his young bride and her big round belly. He's expecting twins any day now."
The applause was light, but louder were the feminine Aww's. Arthur's pause was short this time.
"Maybe my father made me work the mines because he wanted me to know good, honest, hard labour.
"Maybe he thought I was a bit of a brat and that the mines would set me straight. I might even have needed that.
Arthur lowered his hand -- the one making the a bit gesture, with finger and thumb spread a bare centimetre apart -- and made a resigned, distasteful face. The crowd laughed.
Arthur's expression changed then, polished and professional, and his signs had a precision and seriousness to them, emphasizing the weight of his next words.
"Whatever my father's reasoning, I learned several important things from the experience.
"One, that there is nothing more satisfying than getting down into the dirt to work, and coming home at the end of the day, feeling as if your arms are going to fall off your body, because there's that moment when you close your eyes at night right before you fall asleep that you know that nothing could be more perfect.
"Two, that nothing in life comes free, and that it's too easy to forget that. If I want to remember, all I will have to do is visit my old friends, and they'll happily send me back to the mines to teach it to me all over again."
An amused murmur rolled through the crowd. There was a strategic pause, heightening the anticipation as the audience waited for the next item on the list.
"And three. There is no richer resource than man himself, and that you can only accumulate true wealth through compassion and fellowship."
Arthur's signs were heartfelt and poignant, his expression open and without guile. Merlin did his best to match Arthur's mood with his voice, deepening it, intoning each word with softness and meaning.
Arthur lowered his hands to his sides. He didn't sign. He didn't need to, because the room broke into long, enduring applause.
Merlin's arms ached from holding them up as he indicated just how long the clapping lasted. It was strange, because Merlin didn't see the least bit of smug self-satisfaction in Arthur's eyes that he would see in a fellow actor who had just delivered a rousing soliloquy. Arthur was glad; he was pleased, but there was sorrow in his gaze.
It was a long time before the clapping died down.
"Seven years ago, my parents and I established the World Blood Diamond Relief Fund. The money that is raised through the charity is distributed with one specific goal in mind: to help those who have escaped the areas of war and conflict in Africa by helping them relocate, by giving them a bursary for training and education, and by building hospitals and hospices for their medical health and care.
"My mother and I managed this fund, and I will continue to do so with the assistance of Elyan Leondegrace, who will be speaking to you later this evening. Elyan has been with Pendragon Incorporated for the last four years, but before he joined us, he was one of the lead relief coordinators with the World Health Organization. He's not just another pretty face or a financial wizard or someone to lighten your pocketbook, although I will warn you now that he is all three of these things.
"I have great faith in Elyan's ability to direct this large charity because Elyan has been there, in the dirt up to his elbows, and he brings to the World Blood Diamond Relief Fund a passion that we should all have for helping our fellow man."
There was more applause. Again, Arthur's pause was brief.
"My father was one of the most vocal proponents behind the passing of the Kimberley Process Certification. It's thanks to this certification that the distribution and sale of conflict diamonds was diminished in the late 1990s and that, for a while, conflict diamonds ceased to be the major source of finance for the perpetuation of criminal activities in war-torn nations. Unfortunately, not every country in the world has adopted the Process, and there are those at every level of worldwide governments who succumbed to corruption, or who engage in blatant non-compliance."
Merlin had read those words in Arthur's speech, but seeing them signed and giving them voice sent a chill down Merlin's spine. They were grave declarations made shocking and blunt by Arthur's refusal to mince or soften his words.
The crowd had fallen utterly silent, and that must have been Arthur's intention all along, because when he continued, his signs, although as precise as ever, came with calming, soothing motions.
"My father believed that any country who would illegally support the trade of conflict diamonds was guilty by association of violations against basic human rights. He served as a diplomat for the International Diamond Council and both educated and persuaded governments worldwide to accept the certification process and to take measures to curtail the fraudulent practice of distributing forged paperwork that allows the continued flow of conflict diamonds into the world market.
"The International Diamond Council has approached me to continue in this role, and I have accepted on the condition that it is a permanent position that I will co-chair with Bohrs De Ganis. Bohrs is the gentleman behind the Canadian Certificate and is the one who established a pilot program in the Northwest Territories that includes the certification inscription on each and every diamond by a novel new laser technology.
"As a result of Bohrs' efforts in Canada and my request to position him as my co-chair, the International Diamond Council is looking into adopting a similar process as part of the worldwide Kimberley Process Certification. This Process will allow us to accurately identify non-conflict diamonds and sequester the conflict diamonds that have entered the marketplace. We will be able to once again curtail their distribution and sale, and restrict the financial resources of those who would perpetuate warfare and terrorism."
Merlin raised his hands again to indicate the crowd's applause, watching as Arthur pressed his lips together, steeling himself for the next part. The clapping died down, and the silence trailed on for some time.
Arthur signed again, his hands moving with a fluidity that belied the strict precision of his earlier speech.
"If my parents were here, they would be pleased to see all their friends and acquaintances gathered at the Crowne Convention Centre tonight to continue the celebration of the diamond industry's long history, its rich present and its promising and enduring future. I would hope that they would be happy to see me here tonight, on this stage, speaking to all of you as the new head of Pendragon Incorporated."
Arthur paused. Merlin did not miss -- he doubted anyone could miss -- the wet glisten of his eyes, the way he took a shaky breath, the falter of his hands as he signed Pendragon.
Merlin's eyes burned, and he swallowed hard, struggling to detach himself from the emotion that was weighing on Arthur's shoulders.
It hurt to feel.
After years of pretending to be someone else upon a stage, of contriving false emotions and ignoring his own, of cutting himself off from reality -- Merlin was suffering under the onslaught of heartache. Once, to save his sanity, Merlin had laid a tourniquet on a perfectly healthy limb until he hadn't been able to feel it anymore, and until now had thought would never be able to use it again.
All because of this man's speech. A speech Merlin had read before taking the stage, that he had prepared against, and yet, Merlin's walls were crumbling, the dust was settling around him, and he had his first free breath of fresh air.
And it burned.
Merlin shut his eyes so tightly that he saw bright lights. He opened them again to find himself momentarily blinded, the rest of the world dark while he stared at the sun in front of him. He waited until Arthur was looking away before reaching up with his hands to wipe the tears that had streamed down his cheeks, unbidden.
He took a deep breath, and another, and another. He calmed himself and forced his attention on Arthur, only on Arthur, even though Arthur was the one bringing about Merlin's ruin.
Arthur turned to the crowd again, his signs strong and full of determination and reassurance.
"My family's legacy is a long and enduring one and it will continue with me."
He paused again, looking on both sides of the runway, his eyes hooded as he looked over the crowd.
"I see many familiar faces. I've spoken to some of you already. I also see many new people, and I hope to make an acquaintance with you this week. If you see me wandering around the booths, don't be shy. Please come up and say hello. Don't let the fancy clothes fool you -- deep down, I'm still the same person who was badly sunburned by the strong African sun and who peeled out of his skin for weeks afterward. I'm still the same person who lost his footing climbing up a steep hill with one of those sixty pound buckets of rock and who swallowed a metric tonne of mud on the way down. I'm still the same person who sat around the bonfire with Einoch, Neidi and Yerome, giving names to all the stars in the night sky, and who listened to the dreams of the strong men and women who are the very foundations of our companies.
"We are all of us diamonds. Some of us are rougher than others, but we're diamonds all the same, waiting to be found, cut, and polished. Some of us don't need any cut or polish at all.
"Enjoy the show."
The applause grew until it reached that perfect unity where the members of the audience all clapped at the same time, their appreciation of Arthur's performance breaking in one thunderous crack. Arthur must have felt it, because he blinked in flushed surprise. He offered the crowd a small smile that Merlin swore had the power to melt even the hardest heart -- including his own, if he let it -- and gave the crowd a stiff nod and a Boy Scout salute.
The lights dimmed slowly, and Arthur dropped his hand, remaining where he was until the platform had gone completely dark. He waited a moment longer and turned and walked backstage.
Merlin wavered in place, reaching up to grasp the microphone to steady himself. His mouth was dry. His heart pounded madly. His stomach fluttered, but it wasn't nerves or butterflies.
He had only felt like this once before, the first time he had ever stepped on a stage as a young, awkward teenager, overly conscious of the fact that even though his voice had broken, he could still out-sing a woman in the upper registers. Still, he'd decided, damn them all, but he was going to make his mother proud of him.
That had been the day that Merlin realized how much he loved to sing.
And now, it was love all over again, because he'd gone and fallen in love with this man.
Merlin shook himself, letting his hand drop from the microphone, dissipating his magic. He shivered as the spell faded. He very nearly tripped over the microphone before walking up the catwalk, across the stage, and caught up with Arthur.
The curtains hid the paralyzed chaos of the backstage. Everyone had stopped what they had been doing to listen to Arthur's speech, and a fair few of them were showering him in awe. Arthur was surrounded by people lavishing him with praise by way of clumsy and sloppy signing and clasped hands and pats on his back, and his cheeks were high with colour. Merlin stayed off to the side, letting Arthur have his moment, because it genuinely was his moment, and he deserved it.
He was a star.
Slowly, slowly, Arthur's sudden entourage drifted away, because they still had a show to put on. They had smiles on their faces as they walked away in twos and threes, murmuring wasn't that amazing? to each other before darting to their respective positions. Merlin watched as they moved away, and his eye was caught by the black-haired man in the dark suit that he had seen earlier, the one that he had initially thought to have been Arthur.
He was glowering unhappily in Arthur's direction.
He was the only one who was.
Merlin frowned, glancing between the two. Arthur was oblivious to his uncle's animosity, but it seemed to Merlin that surely a family member would have been pleased by Arthur's performance.
As if sensing Merlin's scrutiny, Arthur's uncle turned to glare at Merlin, hard and critical.
It reminded him of a time, years ago, when Merlin had used crutches to get to the theatre in time for dress rehearsal. He'd nearly crashed into Mordred, who had been wearing Merlin's costume, and they looked at each other, dumbstruck, for what seemed like ages until Mordred's expression soured, staring at Merlin like this, just like Arthur's uncle was staring at him now. There was unbridled rage in Agravaine's dark eyes. The disapproving downturn of his mouth was the only thing holding back the roar of outrage that was making his lips quiver. Merlin had foiled this man's plans to usurp Arthur's place on the stage, just like Merlin had foiled Mordred's attempt to rise from understudy to primary role.
Merlin felt -- it was a range of emotion he couldn't fully describe, never mind fully understand, and it skirted the edge of possessiveness and protectiveness. Before he knew what he was doing, Merlin let his lips curl into a smirk and brought two fingers to his brow, flinging them outward in mock salute. Nice try.
The man's lips pressed so tightly that they vanished from his face. Abruptly, Arthur's uncle turned and stalked off.
Merlin stayed on guard a moment longer, the tension in his shoulders relaxing only slowly, and he wondered what had come over him.
The crowd around Arthur had scattered, leaving only a few stragglers behind. Gwen was looking on like a proud mother, while Lance stood next to her, grinning broadly. Arthur shook someone's hand, nodding at whatever the person had said, and Merlin thought he should come closer and do his job. As he approached, Arthur made eye contact, his expression inscrutable, and an unexpected jolt of electricity made Merlin start.
The man whose hand Arthur was shaking finally moved away, revealing a gorgeous brunette with sharp features and piercing green eyes. Her brows were pinched in a frown, her hands were on her hips.
Arthur stared at this woman, his expression apprehensive.
"What the hell was that?" the woman signed. "You know that you're not allowed to do beautiful things."
Without hesitation, she took a step closer and threw her arms around Arthur's neck. Arthur caught her with a laugh.
Merlin's heart did something he thought it could only do once in a lifetime. It broke into a million pieces.
"I thought you were forbidden from leaving your troll's den," Arthur said, finally letting Morgana go. He knew that if he wanted to breathe, he had to push her away, so he did. She dabbed at her eyes with her fingertips. "Was I really that bad?"
Gwen pulled Lance aside and wandered a few feet away. Merlin was nearby, his hands in his pockets, his eyes averted, but he was aware, in a state of readiness that Arthur often let himself slip into when he was expecting someone to need him at any moment. Arthur resisted the urge to stare at Merlin now that Merlin was distracted.
"You were awful. I've never seen anything more terrible. Look what it's done to me -- it's turned me into a weeping mess," Morgana signed, throwing up a hand with the natural flair of a drama queen. She walked to one of the mirrors and pressed the back of her knuckles against her cheeks. She took a deep breath, fluffed her hair, and straightened her dress.
Morgana was a knockout -- as usual. Arthur had never seen his cousin anything less than spectacular. It was as if someone had passed a law that Morgana LeFay could never leave the privacy of her home unless she was the embodiment of perfection, and that if there was a single thing on her person that was marred, the universe would implode.
Arthur didn't know a whole lot about fashion when it didn't involve jewellery, and he didn't much care, but he knew that Morgana would never be caught dead in anything other than one of her own, unique creations. The lavender dress had silver highlights and the faintest trace of bright blood red to capture and tease the eye. This particular dress could only be a deliberate choice because it flattered her curves and guaranteed that she would be the only person in the entire galaxy wearing this particular masterpiece.
Because, apparently, it was some sort of disastrous fashion paradox if someone else wore the same dress as Morgana at the same event. Someone might actually be forced to go naked, and God forbid it would be Morgana.
The multi-stone diamond necklace -- not one of Pendragon's designs -- was set in white gold and a bezel blaze that didn't do enough to bring out the threatening sparkle in Morgana's eyes. Arthur thought that was a shame; the hapless and idiotic who dared approach her wouldn't have the warning they needed to get clear in time.
Arthur moved away from the curtains -- the lights were changing again, and another speaker was walking out. If it was anyone but the stern-faced George Montcalm, Arthur might be interested in knowing what was said, but Montcalm always read the same speech year in and year out, and by now, the audience could probably recite it by rote.
He walked up behind Morgana, watching her eyes in the mirror. He tapped his own neck to indicate the necklace and raised a mocking eyebrow. "Really, Morgana? You'd shun your own kin by wearing Jaes Spence?"
Morgana's mouth dropped in mock indignation, and she signed, "It is not Jaes Spence!"
Arthur leaned in for a closer look. "Oh. Silly me. Spence would never be caught dead with lab-grown zirconium. Did someone win this for you at a carnival? Are you taken with the poor fool?"
Morgana gave him a look. Arthur grinned.
"Don't be mean," Morgana signed, turning around. She poked her French manicure into Arthur's chest. "It's your fault that I'm relegated to wearing second-rate cuts. You'd let my models wear your diamonds, but not me?"
Arthur chuckled humourlessly. He might have teased Morgana endlessly about her self-named "sparkle extravaganza", but she had done a fantastic job combining the latest designs from the Pendragon Rare Earth jewellery division with her own fashion line to put on a scintillating display. It might be to her advantage, having her name attached to Pendragon Rare Earth, but Morgana was already a renowned designer in her own right; she didn't need any additional acclaim lavished on her creations.
She was, however, something of an attention whore.
"The models know they have no choice but to return the diamonds. The security guards will shoot them otherwise," Arthur said seriously. "However, you frighten them more than they frighten you, and I know you, Morgana. You won't give them back."
Morgana's mouth opened in a gasp. She spoke and signed at the same time. "How dare you, you selfish bastard!"
"You overdone circus clown," Arthur smirked.
"You slimy snake-oil salesman," Morgana said, smiling.
"Tawdry back-alley two-dollar whore," Arthur said, grinning when he saw Morgana's eyes widen. He'd been holding onto that particular insult for a while.
Morgana laughed. Then, in an uncharacteristic show of weakness, Morgana looked at him with a fond look in her eyes, taking his hand. "Aunt Ygraine and Uncle Uther would've been so proud of you."
Arthur blinked away the sting in his eyes and ducked his head. His mother had always been liberal with her affections and praise, but Arthur had always thought that she was a bit biased toward her only child. His father had been far less demonstrative, but he had surprised Arthur more than once by clapping a hand on Arthur's shoulder and giving him an approving nod. And here was Morgana, probably surprising even herself, because Morgana never gave anyone any sort of compliment if she could help it.
It was awkward and unexpectedly difficult to swallow.
"It was really all right?" Arthur asked, and he knew his voice was soft -- nearly too soft to be heard -- by the way Morgana took a step closer, tilting her head and raising her eyebrows the way she did when she hadn't heard him the first time. He tried again. "It sounded okay?"
Arthur had heard people describe Cedric's voice as nasal, but otherwise all right, no different than the average man. It was reassuring for Arthur to know that his interpreter would at least not embarrass him by giggling in a high pitch or stuttering. But he hadn't had any time to learn anything about Merlin's voice -- or even his ability to recite a speech properly -- beyond Gwen's affirmation that he sounded nice.
"There's no doubt that you write the most beautiful speeches," Morgana signed. "And don't deny that you've written Uther's speeches for the last four shows. If you're fishing for compliments, you're not getting any more from me."
"That's not what I meant," Arthur said, glancing over his shoulder. He could see Montcalm on the stage through a cut in the curtains and guessed, from the way the coordinator was mouthing parts of the speech from memory and rolling her eyes, that Montcalm was still going strong.
"I know what you meant," Morgana signed, her smirk teasing. She raised a brow and signed, "I know that wasn't Cedric, because your interpreter sounded wonderful, and recited it exactly the way you write. You absolute tyrant. How long did you make him practice it before he had it down perfectly?"
Arthur's retort died on his lips. Merlin had had even less time to review his notes than Arthur had to evaluate him. There had been pages and pages to his speech and too much for Merlin to remember after a cursory read. Arthur had given Cedric a copy to memorize a week ago, because he hadn't wanted any mistakes, but --
"Where is this mystery interpreter?" Morgana asked. "You've been hogging all the attention, but he deserves some of it, too --"
Arthur grimaced. Morgana was right. He'd been so caught up in himself, in the praises, that he'd forgotten the most important aspect of his success. It might have been his speech, but it had been Merlin's voice that everyone had heard, and from the way everyone had reacted, Merlin's voice and his delivery had been perfect. Arthur glanced around the stage, panicking a little when he didn't see Merlin -- what sort of interpreter was Merlin if he'd disappear when Arthur still needed him -- but there he was, at the rear of the stage, out of the way of the hustle and bustle.
Merlin's body was angled away from Arthur and his eyes were averted. He held himself stiffly, his hands clasped behind his back, his expression flat and bland and detached, as if he were only part of the backdrop.
Arthur frowned. He didn't know this man, but he could tell that there was something wrong. Whatever it was, it wasn't any of his business. Arthur gestured in his direction. "He's over there."
Morgana dragged him over, and it was some sort of signal, because Gwen and Lance joined them. Merlin shifted his stance to face Arthur, unclasped his arms from behind his back, and as far as Arthur could tell, the man was ready to interpret the conversation, not engage in one.
"And what's your name?" Morgana asked and signed at the same time, tilting her body so that Arthur could see her. Her eyes might have been on Merlin, but she hadn't forgotten to include Arthur in the conversation like so many people did.
"Merlin," he answered, and Arthur was once again treated to two beautiful visions -- the quick, feather-soft fingerspelling of the man's name and the clear enunciation as he spoke. Merlin glanced at Arthur, his brows quirking in a familiar question.
"It's all right, I can follow," Arthur signed, because he knew better than to get in the way of a conversation when Morgana was on a mission.
"Has anyone told you what a fantastic job you did breathing life into Arthur's sorry excuse for a speech?" Morgana asked, her hands gesturing in signs that were as sharp and cutting as her personality.
Merlin blushed, and Arthur didn't like how Merlin lowered his head, hiding the sight from him. He glanced at Arthur in consternation, and offered Morgana a small smile. "Arthur's speech was amazing. I'm happy that you think I did it justice."
"You did more than did it justice," Morgana said, frowning. "Arthur's other interpreter would have massacred it, I'm sure --"
"You give me too much credit," Merlin signed and said.
"He would have," Gwen said darkly. She turned to narrow her eyes at Merlin. "That was a near thing, though. The sound system --"
Arthur glanced at Merlin, who immediately translated the parts that Arthur hadn't understood. "The sound system died. Didn't you see me trying to warn you?"
Arthur's eyes rounded. "What do you mean, the sound system died?"
"Sounded fine to me," Lance said. He was looking intently at Merlin, who, for some inexplicable reason, was blushing again. "Must have fixed itself just in time."
"Must have," Merlin agreed. Arthur looked between the two men, and decided that Merlin looked awfully guilty -- but guilty of what?
Morgana took advantage of the uncomfortable pause and asked, "So, Merlin. How did you learn to speak so well?"
"Um." Merlin said with a wince. Arthur didn't miss the sidelong glance he shot in Lance's direction, almost in warning. "I've had some voice training."
Morgana's eyes narrowed the way they did when she knew someone was lying to her, and Arthur noticed that Lance choked on his own spit. "That's some education, I must say. Where did you train?"
"Oh, um." Merlin waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Here and there. Nowhere important."
"Halfway through the speech, I realized that you sound familiar. Have you presented before?" When Morgana was on a mission, she was as deadly as a heat-seeking missile. She could smell weakness, and when Merlin's shoulders bowed defensively, Arthur knew that she would see it as a sign of submission, while Arthur only saw self-effacement and discomfort. Whatever was muddying the waters, Arthur could tell that Merlin didn't want to talk about it, and he felt an urge to protect him.
"Um." Merlin glanced at Arthur. Help.
Maybe Arthur wasn't supposed to see that faint, tiny whisper on his lips, but he had, and he stepped in.
"Morgana. Don't you have a show to supervise?" Arthur asked, coming to Merlin's rescue. He raised a brow at Morgana when it looked as if she were about to ignore him and begin another volley of attack aimed at Merlin.
"You're right, I do," Morgana said. She favoured Arthur with a long we're going to talk about this later look that would have given him chills. Except Merlin shot him a grateful smile that warmed him.
Gwen glanced around the four of them, observant enough to know that something was up, but discreet enough to raise a questioning brow at Arthur before giving him a reassuring I will find out what's going on if I have to resort to waterboarding someone smile that she promptly turned to Lance. The smile spoke volumes of you will tell me all your secrets whether you like it or not.
Arthur felt sorry for Lance.
Lance grimaced faintly and glanced at Merlin; Merlin flinched and looked away. It was all very stiff and stuffy for several more minutes until Montcalm stepped from the stage, his chest puffed out like a peacock's. He even had the iridescent tie to match.
Arthur turned back to Merlin and Lance, sure that he'd missed something, and was about to ask when Gwen spoke.
"There's only two more speakers before Morgana's show, and they're not long-winded," Gwen said, saving them any additional awkwardness. "Why don't we head down to the VIP area to watch?"
Arthur found their seats in the dark easily -- the VIP seats were in the same spot every year. The only difference now was that Arthur was seated in his father's spot. Gwen took the seat next to him. Lance settled beside her, but Merlin went to stand some distance away in Arthur's line of sight, somehow finding a stray beam of light that illuminated him enough for Arthur.
"Can you see me?" Merlin signed. Arthur answered with a nod. It was too dark to lip-read; he would have to rely on sign.
He struggled to contain a quiet, nervous excitement. Rare was the opportunity to sit through the show, to listen to the speeches and the presentations, but rarer still was to actually understand what was being said. Too often, Arthur didn't have an interpreter for these occasions, and he would spend the entire time staring at a random spot, pretending to be interested. He wasn't sure if it was this particular night or if it was Merlin, but he was conscious of being involved in the proceedings, somehow, in a way he had never been before. For once, he could understand not just the words, the content, or the implications, but the nuances of the speaker's voice, his body language, his intent.
The speeches ended, but before the lights darkened fully, Arthur gestured for Merlin to sit down in the empty seat next to him. When he felt Merlin's arm brush against his, he leaned over and said, "Take a break. I know Morgana's show backward and forward. She made me write the descriptions for every jewel and every outfit."
It was too dark to see Merlin's answer, but Merlin took Arthur's hand without the least bit of self-consciousness and put it over Merlin's own; Arthur felt Merlin's fingers curl into the letters O and K. A moment later, Merlin covered his other hand over Arthur's, and guided both toward his face, and Arthur felt the gesture thank you.
Merlin let go of his hand, and Arthur was suddenly bereft of warmth and comfort, because there had been comfort in Merlin's touch. He couldn't remember the last time that someone had found a way to talk to him despite the dark, who had even made the effort. When the lights went out, Arthur was always left in solitude and silence, but Merlin's gesture had chased the chill of loneliness away.
The lights came on in a slow twist of the dimmer switch. The announcer wasn't on the stage, but Arthur recited the descriptions in his head.
The last designs that his mother had done -- that she would ever do -- were on the stage right now. The collection, altogether, had been named Avalon, and it seemed oddly fitting, somehow, in a way that made Arthur's heart hitch. The first model came out; she was a waif-like brunette wearing The Tears of the Sidhe and a glamorous midnight-blue strapless ball gown with a long trail of sheer silky fabric billowing out behind her. Arthur closed his eyes and tried to remember the words he had written to go with the necklace.
What came to mind were his mother's hands sketching out the design on paper, smeared with charcoal as she highlighted the backdrop. Her smile when she caught him watching her, the warmth of her touch when her fingers touched his to gesture how she wanted him to draw the image to go with the necklace.
He'd laughed at her and said that it was silly to use fairies to represent the diamonds, but she'd insisted.
There had been times when Arthur had felt that he was being torn between his parents -- some days spent with his mother in her studio, working on the designs around the selected gems that she had plucked from the Pendragon vaults, other days in business attire at the round conference room table, watching and learning as his father negotiated yet another agreement with recalcitrant investors who didn't see the merit in the high operating costs of an old mine that only sporadically yielded diamonds -- but, oh, what diamonds they were.
This last collection wasn't the only thing that he had left of his mother, but it held a special meaning for Arthur. Her graceful, artistic fingers had last touched these jewels before Uther had whisked her away for their fateful flight. The papers for their release for public sale were still on his desk, unsigned, because he didn't want to see them go to someone who would never know the stories that went behind each design.
When he opened his eyes again, it was to realize he had missed nearly all of the show, because the last model, a curvaceous brunette wearing a sheer, ephemeral baby blue dress with the waterfall cascade of The Lady of the Lake, was standing in the middle of the stage by herself, and people were standing up and clapping. One by one, the other models emerged from behind the curtains and took up a pose in the centre of the stage, leaving the masterpiece alone on the runway.
Arthur half-expected that Morgana would come out on the stage to accept the applause that was her due. He wondered how she would feel walking out alone. At previous shows, Morgana had walked out arm-in-arm with Ygraine, both sharing the praise, but then... Arthur felt a shift next to him, and startled when Merlin walked away. Morgana took the vacated seat, wrapping her arm around Arthur's, and squeezed.
Arthur's heart hurt a little less.
The models left the stage, the lights shifted and turned low and brightened again, there were a few more short speeches that Merlin translated with his deft, unhurried signs, and Arthur could feel Morgana beside him, as tense as if she were a huntress who had found her next victim. Arthur wanted to chide her, to tell her to leave Merlin alone, that if Morgana truly wanted to tear someone apart, it should be Cedric.
It wasn't only that Cedric hadn't come to the show. It was every other time that he hadn't come. Arthur was tired of the excuses -- a miscommunication here, a message not received there. Surely it was bad luck, but there wasn't enough bad luck in the universe to explain the ridiculous frequency.
He knew he should fire Cedric, but he also knew that there were too few interpreters meeting Arthur's criteria and who were available. Still, Arthur watched Merlin speculatively, wondering at the coincidence. Gwen called Lance, who just happened to have a qualified interpreter nearby. His eyes narrowed in suspicion, and he made a mental note to ask Leon to look into Merlin's background.
It wasn't as if he wasn't already paying Leon a small fortune already. Arthur might as well get some worth out of his money.
If everything checked out, well, Arthur would know for certain that the coincidence was only a coincidence, and that it had nothing to do with some sort of elaborate plot against him. But he did need a new interpreter -- someone competent and useful.
Like Merlin. Arthur liked Merlin. He was good.
It helped that he wasn't hard on the eyes.
Once the main event was over, the crowd scattered slowly. Morgana stayed with Arthur, looping her arm around his, and they wandered the concourse, stopping to chat with a few people they knew. Each time, Merlin moved to interpret, quiet, subtle, self-effacing -- he was smooth and efficient, barely garnering anyone's notice.
Arthur wondered how someone as attractive as Merlin managed not to get so much as a second look from the crowd around them. If not for the interpreting, Arthur would have no reasonable excuse to be staring at him -- thank God for that, because Arthur really was staring. It wasn't just the good looks, either. Merlin understood him. Merlin figured out that Arthur preferred to speak for himself, and gave Arthur subtle signals to speak up in order to be heard over the noise. Merlin understood that Arthur relied more on lip-reading, using sign language to fill in the gaps when Arthur wasn't sure of the context, or couldn't understand a word or a name.
Merlin was good, very good, Arthur realized. There were hints that he had lived with sign language his entire life. He was comfortable with signing, not at all self-conscious about gesticulating in public, not at all afraid to use facial expressions or body language to indicate tone and demeanour.
Arthur was better than most at lip reading. He could figure out someone's mood and demeanour from their body language. But there were subtle nuances -- missed words and concepts, tones of voices and random sounds -- that Arthur missed.
When Merlin interpreted the droning monotone of a short, rotund man by letting his body droop and his face go slack, his eyes rounding, twitching here and there in an expression that Arthur could only identify as the sort of boredom where the speaker devoutly wished to be somewhere else, Arthur realized just how much that Arthur missed from a conversation.
Listening to Merlin was, Arthur decided, very near to being able to hear.
There were so many differences between Merlin's and Cedric's styles of interpreting: Merlin's was far more natural, with casual gestures and the occasional tendency to slip into slang, while Cedric stuck primly to book-perfect signs, his face giving away no hint of the speaker's emotional state. But the biggest difference of all was how Arthur didn't have a headache when he listened to Merlin. He didn't feel tired. If anything, he felt energized.
It was exhausting having to pay attention all the time, to concentrate on lip-reading, to try and anticipate the twists and turns of a conversation in order not to be left behind, to scramble to catch up when he was. Watching Cedric interpret was to witness the mastery of concise point-form that told Arthur nothing at all, and he always spent most conversations trying to keep Cedric's signing in the corner of his eye while he lip-read the speaker instead.
He always walked way with a throbbing headache. Gwen told him that he would end up with an ulcer if he kept popping painkillers the way he did.
But with Merlin? With Merlin, everything was easy.
Arthur glanced around them. There was a lull of people milling around, and Arthur smiled when he saw a familiar face.
"You did a fantastic job," Leon signed.
Arthur broke free of Morgana's arm to return Leon's hug. "Now you're just trying to flatter me into a raise."
"I prefer to think that you like my work so much, you'll give me spontaneous bonuses," Leon said with a grin. Arthur could tell from the way Leon's mouth formed the words that he was whispering, careful not to be overheard and knew without asking that Leon had something serious to discuss with him.
They'd known each other since their fathers had prospected unclaimed mines together in Australia, becoming fast friends and staying that way despite distance and erratic schedules. Leon's family business -- mining precious metals -- had been folded into Pendragon Incorporated years prior and was one of the profitable branches of the business, but it was Leon's younger brother, Owain, who sat on the board of directors. Leon had, in a fit of rebellion that wasn't out of character given his father's adventurous streak, taken his inheritance and joined the RCMP. He took his retirement -- his very early retirement following a suicide-by-cop incident that ended with the suspect alive and well but Leon injured -- and opened up his own private investigator's office in Toronto.
"There's mysteries, and then there's mysteries," Leon had told him the night of his retirement party, six years ago. "There's only so much I can do while I'm an officer, and even less when I'm a detective. I could join CSIS, but sitting behind a desk analyzing data for years before I get assigned to fieldwork is going to bore me to tears. I figured this was the next best option. Plus, it's not like I'm hurting for money, not as long as dad's mines keep producing, yeah?"
In many ways, Arthur envied Leon his liberty. Leon hadn't been expected to fall back into the family business, although the doors to do so were wide open for him. Leon had gone from his first passion -- law enforcement -- to an even greater passion -- solving mysteries, and he was good at it. He was his own boss, with no one to report to but the client, for good or for bad, and his business' success ensured that he was never lacking for work.
Thinking about work reminded Arthur that Leon was on his payroll -- his, and not the company's -- for a reason. "Spontaneous bonuses don't come free. How was your trip to Johannesburg?"
"Warm," Leon said, smiling broadly.
"I was hoping you would say something along the lines of profitable," Arthur said with something of a grimace. "Or even illuminating."
"It was both those things too," Leon said with a reassuring nod. He ran his hand down his silk tie. "Picked this up there at that shop you mentioned. Do you like it?"
"Did you expense that?"
"Of course I did."
"Then, no, I don't particularly fancy it. It's not your colour. Doesn't suit you at all," Arthur said. "It's more my shade. You should hand it over right now."
"Very funny. I'll have you know that I looked spectacular in it. So spectacular that it dazzled my contact, and he might have a lead for us." Leon raised a meaningful brow.
Arthur raised a startled brow. "Really? That's good news. Does he have --"
Leon put a hand on Arthur's shoulder and continued to smile. "Not here. Why don't we go for lunch at the usual place? I want to let you know what I've found out so far."
Arthur grimaced. He wanted to know now, but he knew he needed to be patient. "When?"
"As soon as possible, I think. It's important, Arthur."
Arthur nodded, feeling his smile fading. "As soon as possible, then. Is it more of the same?"
"Worse," Leon said. He shrugged. "Anyway, where's your usual crap interpreter?"
Arthur followed Leon's casual glance in Merlin's direction. Morgana had curled a proprietary hand around his arm, and if Arthur wasn't mistaken, her claws were digging into the fabric of Merlin's tuxedo. He didn't look half as terrified as most men were when they were alone with Morgana, but his brows were pinched in concern, and Arthur decided that Merlin was calculating the odds that he'd escape Morgana's clutches with his arm intact.
Merlin gave him a hopeful smile. "Do you need me?" he signed.
Arthur shook his head and gestured for Merlin to stay where he was. Merlin nodded, hiding his dismay with aplomb, and turned to Morgana to answer her question as if she had had his attention all along. The man was smooth, and he was definitely heads and shoulders above Cedric when it came to social skills.
"Cedric bailed," Arthur said. "Never showed. Claimed that Gwen called him to cancel. Gwen doesn't know anything about it, and neither does Lance."
Leon raised a brow. "What a coincidence. You have a major event, and he's conveniently unavailable at the last minute."
"Shocking," Arthur said with a nod. "Appallingly so. The Fates must be against me or some such. It's getting to be a habit."
"How many times does that make now?"
"I've lost count," Arthur said sourly.
"That many. Shall I look into Cedric? Find out if he's really that flaky?" Leon asked, with the tone of a man who most likely already was.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. "You just want to pad your bill."
Leon snorted. "What makes you think I'm not already? Consider it a freebie. Cedric's given me a bad feeling ever since I saw his piss-poor translating job last month."
Leon had popped into the offices under the pretence of seeing his brother and taking him out for lunch; since he was still a major shareholder in the precious metals division, Owain had dragged him into the meeting, loudly proclaiming that he wasn't going to suffer through yet another boring accounts rendering by himself.
Owain was nothing if not subtle, but it was Leon who had confirmed that Cedric wasn't interpreting everything that Arthur needed to know, including important details that prompted him to request a written review on the accounts afterward.
Arthur gave Leon a small nod. "Yes. Look into it, if you could."
"With my usual discretion," Leon said. He tilted his head toward Merlin. "And him? Where did you find him?"
"Gwen found him on Lance's couch," Arthur said. "I suppose he's not half-bad."
"Not half-bad at all." Leon gave a quick nod of approval, but his eyes narrowed. "With everything that's been going on... Arthur, do you trust him?"
"Are you sure you shouldn't have joined CSIS? You're suspicious of everything," Arthur said.
"I get that from you," Leon said with a wink. He fell silent with raised brows that Arthur easily recognized as a question. A very patient, indulgent question, because Leon knew the answer anyway.
Arthur snorted. "Of course I don't trust him. He's only on the job for tonight."
Leon waited patiently.
"Yes, fine. Go to town. Check him out," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. There were times that he wondered whose brother Leon really was, because he was as protective of Arthur as he was of Owain, if not more.
Arthur would never admit it, but he was grateful for everything that Leon did.
Leon was all innocently-raised brows, lightly reproachful that Arthur would even request such a thing (even though they both knew Leon would have investigated Merlin anyway), and smiling haplessly, because he did like mysteries. The more complicated, the better. "His name?"
Arthur sighed. He glanced over his shoulder to make certain that Merlin was still otherwise occupied by his devil of a cousin, and turned away. He'd learned from horrible experience that most sign language interpreters -- the good ones anyway -- could lip read, too. "Merlin Emrys. E-M-R-Y-S. Lives next door to Lance. And I don't believe that Lance is involved in anything nasty, just so you know."
"Neither do I, but as nice as Lance is, I wouldn't put it past someone to use him anyway," Leon said, fishing his phone out of his pocket. His thumbs flew over the keyboard, and he showed the message to Arthur before sending it.
Cedrc mssng 2nite. Find out why. Strt bg ck on MERLIN EMRYS.
"I'll text you when I have something," Leon said. He nodded over Arthur's shoulder at Merlin. "Well, if he hasn't cracked under pressure yet, he might actually be innocent."
Arthur glanced at Merlin again.
Morgana had somehow acquired herself a small retinue of people who were hanging onto her every word, but she had an iron grasp on Merlin's arm. He looked a little pale, but resolute and brave, and when he caught Arthur's eyes, he offered an apologetic smile. Merlin was drawing on some sort of unheard-of font of strength, putting on a stoic face that was a telling I'm used to this and God, do I ever hate this that pulled a small smirk to Arthur's lips. Arthur shouldn't be enjoying Merlin's misery, but there was such an animation to it that Arthur was impossibly drawn to the man.
Leon touched his arm. "Do you want me to distract Morgana so that you can have your interpreter back?"
"If you wouldn't mind?"
Reporters. Merlin couldn't believe that the only reason that he managed to deflect Morgana's questions was thanks to his past experience with reporters. Granted, he didn't run away from her though he couldn't promise that it wouldn't happen next time she grabbed his arm and dug her nails in, but her persistent interrogation bordered somewhere between a police Noir dark-room-hot-lights scene and a horde of frothing-at-the-mouth-for-a-headline paparazzi, so it was a near thing.
"So, how long have you known my cousin?"
"Your cousin?" Merlin glanced over to where Arthur was speaking with another man, trying to see the family resemblance between the scruffy strawberry-blond and Morgana. Or maybe she was talking about Lance? He knew Lance had a big family --
"Arthur," Morgana said.
Merlin nearly gave himself whiplash -- he'd turned around so fast that he could smell the brakes burning. "Sorry. What? Arthur's your cousin? He's not --"
Merlin pointed a finger at Morgana and thumbed over his shoulder toward Arthur, aborting the gesture when Morgana raised an eyebrow and her lips pulled in a smirk.
"Right, not your -- never mind." Merlin hoped she couldn't tell how relieved that he was. If Arthur wasn't Morgana's boyfriend, then there was still a chance for Merlin -- unless the man who had traded a hug with Arthur was...
Merlin resolutely stopped himself from going down that road.
"No, ma'am. This is the first time I've met him," Merlin said.
Morgana's eyes narrowed, but she tilted her head and gave a smile to someone walking by. "Then, you must spend a lot of time with people who can't hear."
"You could say that, I suppose," Merlin said, ducking his head. A few weeks interpreting for the Canadian Hearing Society's clients counted, he supposed, but his thoughts went to Will.
His best friend. The only one who had stayed with him when all the garbage with his agent began. The first one whom Merlin turned his back on when it came down to a choice between his career and his friends.
"You don't get it, Merlin," Will signed, his hands a flurry in the air. He was not -- he had never been -- a graceful signer; his hands beat the words in the air like a sledgehammer. "I'm not telling you to quit. I'm telling you -- she's fucking with your head. She's killing you. Do you even like to sing anymore?"
Merlin hadn't spoken to Will since then. Not in years.
"I'm still curious about your voice training," Morgana said, her elbow sharp in his ribs. Merlin's head jerked up. He'd forgotten where he was for a second, and he used all of his theatre training to cover for his slip.
Fucking pit bull. How does Arthur stand her? Why can't she let it go?
Merlin glanced around in the vain hope that someone would come by to distract Morgana, because right now would be perfect. Instead, there was a lull with the crowd drifting in and out, everyone content to chat with whoever was nearest instead of moving on to find someone more interesting. Merlin scratched the side of his neck, and looked over to Arthur, hoping that Arthur would need him.
Arthur was standing several feet away, fucking gorgeous in that tuxedo now that Merlin had a chance to properly appreciate how fit he was, from the broad, strong shoulders to the tapered waist and the solid legs --
Can't think like that. Just. Can't --
-- and the man Arthur was talking to was just as attractive, with short, dirty blond hair, several-days’ worth of scruff, and an almost eerie brightness that made the man shine every time he smiled. They were friends, Arthur and this man, the two of them at ease with each other in a way that couldn't be explained otherwise. The other man knew how to sign, but he wasn't using it now, and Arthur seemed content to read his lips instead.
Morgana was watching Merlin with a placid but predatory there will be no escape stare, and Merlin ducked his head, offering her the same vague smile he would give his agent when his agent had demanded to know where he'd spent the night before, only to suffer a barrage of who did you fuck, so that I can yell at you for ruining your career before I leave to do some damage control.
"Sorry?" he asked, leaning in, pretending he hadn't heard the question in the first place.
"Voice training," Morgana said, and Merlin could hear the way that she underlined both words. She wasn't fooled, not in the least. He thought she would make a good police officer. "We were talking about your voice training."
Forget police officer. Morgana would make a great torturer.
"What about it?" Merlin asked. It was easy to play dumb with people who didn't recognize him, too easy to fall back in the old patterns of lying and duping people simply because it amused him, because it was the only thing that had made him feel anything. The feelings were a mixture of intense guilt and pretentious arrogance and false superiority all rolled up into one, and it made him vaguely ill.
He knew this game of push and pull, of false flattery and backhanded compliments, of snipe and stab. It was just like he remembered. He tasted bile at the back of his throat and swallowed hard.
Morgana raised a delicately arched brow. "Where did you train?"
Merlin shrugged. "It was a long time ago."
Avoidance and deflection was the order of the evening. Merlin wondered yet once again why he had agreed to do this job after he'd already put in a full day at work, but all he needed was a glimpse of the way Lance and Gwen were standing close to each other, gazing into each other's eyes like their lives were clean out of a sappy chick flick to remind him of the reason. That reason had everything to do with him wanting them to end up together so that he wouldn't have to deal with Lance forcing Merlin to live his life, and nothing at all to do with wanting to be in their shoes.
He'd never have that fairy tale romance, he knew. He glanced at Arthur. Even if someone could overlook all of his flaws, it would never last. He hid everything that he was from other people -- his singing, his career. It was best to keep that part of his life in the past, forgotten, and he knew that he kept it secret only because acknowledging it would come chasing after him like a tidal wave and wreck him upon the shoals. Again. And again.
Merlin was already wrecked. He didn't need any more battering and breaking. He didn't know who would want him, anyway.
He glanced in Arthur's direction and caught Arthur's eye. "Do you need me?" Merlin signed.
"No, I'll be a minute longer," Arthur signed back.
"Why?" Morgana's full attention was on him, and Merlin couldn't help feeling that his value was being weighed the way he'd always been weighed by men and women who thought themselves his betters, somehow qualified to judge him, to decide if he was good enough for admittance into an exclusive music program, if he was good enough for the opera troupe, if he was good enough to stand on his own.
He had always hated that feeling.
"Why what?" Merlin paused. He waved a hand around them. "I'm sorry. It's really loud in here."
It was loud in the convention hall. The acoustics were terrible. Merlin wouldn't even think of singing in here if he had to -- he needed a proper theatre --
Nearly as soon as the thought came to mind, Merlin squashed it. If he felt sick playing games with Morgana -- even if it was out of a warped sense of self-preservation, he would be sick if he let himself think about the theatre, about singing, about the opera.
Morgana gave him a small, thin smile. It was the I like you dearly, Merlin, but you're not going to like what I have to say smile, and Merlin sighed in resignation. There was a predatory flash in Morgana's green eyes, a shark smelling blood in the water, but before she could strike, a group of people came up to them and plied her with praise and attention.
Merlin breathed in relief. He was free --
Morgana's hand was still around his arm, locked as surely as an iron shackle, but Merlin sighed. Not as free as he'd hoped.
He was content to act as eye candy -- as ridiculous a concept as that was when he stood next to a knockout like Morgana -- and nod here and there in answer to comments thrown in his general direction, but he didn't pay any real mind to the conversation. He was here on a job -- a job that was a one-off, he firmly reminded himself, and he wouldn't be doing this again no matter what it would do for Lance's romantic aspirations. He returned his attention to Arthur.
Arthur had his back to Merlin, and the glimpse of his friend's expression told Merlin all that he needed to know. It was a serious conversation, the sort best kept to the privacy of quiet words and whispers and lip reading, because the odds of someone being able to understand sign language in a crowd this large were actually quite good. Merlin didn't try to eavesdrop on the conversation and instead stood as docilely as a well-trained dog next to Morgana.
Every now and then, a member of Morgana's adoring public gave Merlin a long, lingering look that made his insides clench. Had he been recognized?
His appearances might have been mostly in Europe and Asia, in full costume and under heavy makeup, but this group of exceedingly well-dressed fashionistas looked to be the well-travelled kind, and there was a possibility, however rare, that this vapid bunch might have attended an opera, and might have even paid attention to the people on the stage. They could have been at one of Merlin's performances, and there was a chance that they could recognize him now, despite the lack of distance and theatrical lighting and heavy makeup.
Merlin glanced around for the nearest emergency exit.
"You're not a model, are you?" one of the men in Morgana's entourage asked, reaching over to put a proprietary hand on Merlin's free arm.
"Um. No," Merlin said.
"Would you consider --"
Morgana, beside him, made an indignant squawk. It was only distantly that Merlin heard her say, "Hands off. I saw him first --"
"You don't even design men's clothing, sweetheart," the man reminded her.
"I would do a far better job than those horrible togas you make those poor pseudo-Roman gladiators wear on the runway," Morgana retorted. A hard yank in one direction pulled Merlin toward Morgana; another made him stumble toward the man.
How the fuck did I get in the middle of a catfight? Merlin didn't know if he should feel flattered, embarrassed, or outraged.
The situation had every sign escalating into hissing and spitting and clawing. Arthur's friend appeared at Merlin's side, forcing the fashion designer to let Merlin go; the newcomer took a step into the group with deliberate obliviousness and kissed Morgana on both cheeks. "Morgana, you're as beautiful as always."
"Leon!" For an instant, a brief instant, everything that was gorgeous and evil and deadly about Morgana melted away into fondness and adoration -- emotions that more properly belonged on Gwen and Lance. The brief glimpse of vulnerability withered away a second later behind Morgana's otherwise intractable mask. "Of course I am, and it's about time that you noticed."
There was a flirtatious twinkle in her gaze, a come-hither tone to her voice, but either Leon missed it entirely or he was playing hard to get.
Poor bastard, Merlin thought. He suppressed a smile. After only ten minutes in Morgana's delightful company, Merlin was ready to run away and never repeat the experience. Considering the people he had worked with in the theatre, that was saying something about Morgana.
Arthur was at Merlin's other side, an overwhelming presence that attracted the notice of Morgana's entourage. Merlin didn't miss the way Arthur raised his eyebrows in expressive question, and immediately broke free of Morgana's grasp.
It wasn't easy.
"He asked me if I'd ever done any modelling," Merlin signed -- and for the benefit of the group, also spoke out loud. He gestured toward the fashion designer before pointing at Morgana. "And Morgana said that she had dibs."
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Arthur said, and in that moment, his voice was exactly as loud as it needed to be to be heard by the small group over the din, pitched in exactly the perfect way to show just how disdainful he was of the idea. "If anything, I have dibs."
The way Arthur eyed Merlin up and down wasn't quite like the practiced eye of a fashion designer trying to estimate his measurements, but more as if he were imagining Merlin naked. Merlin shivered unexpectedly.
Merlin blushed. He'd been on the receiving end of so many suggestive looks and outright invitations that he thought he had been rendered immune to them, but Arthur's look --
Merlin swallowed hard. It was his imagination. Wishful thinking.
Wishful thinking leads to dashed hopes, his bitch of an agent used to say. Besides, a man like Arthur probably already had someone -- someone better than Merlin. Merlin shook his head and tried not to think about it.
"That's quite unfair," Merlin translated for the fashion designer. "Why do you get all the pretty things?"
Without missing a beat, Arthur said, "Because all the pretty things are mine."
"We'll see about that," Merlin translated, putting some haughtiness in his expression to match the tone he heard in the man's voice. "What do you say -- would you like a job --"
"He's not interested," Arthur said flatly, but there was an edge to his voice, like a sharpened scythe sweeping across the field in one smooth, quick movement, cutting the other man at the knees. Arthur turned to Merlin and tilted his head. "Shall we? I should mingle."
Merlin smirked and stepped aside, making a quick at your service, Sire sign that pulled a quirk of a smile to Arthur's mouth. There were quick good-byes, with Morgana looking put out as Merlin followed Arthur.
Merlin breathed another sigh of relief. Arthur had saved him twice -- first from Morgana, again from that pack of piranhas.
"I am sorry for my cousin," Arthur said, once they had gone past the buffet table.
"She seemed nice enough," Merlin signed, unconsciously mouthing his words silently as he did. He watched as Arthur's eyes drifted to his hands, but noticed how Arthur's attention was mostly on his lips.
"Morgana? Are you having me on? Nice isn't even anywhere near the mark. Overbearing, maybe. Or pushy, conniving, or just plain nosy -- those are much closer to the truth," Arthur said.
Merlin forced a smile. "Oh. The interrogation, you mean? It's fine. I think she's just being protective of you. I understand."
Arthur was distracted by someone catching his attention with a wave of their hand. Arthur smiled and nodded but didn't stop walking, content to wander for a while longer.
Merlin let the silence stretch before signing. "You never did say what you prefer."
At Arthur's odd look, Merlin hastily added, "For interpreting?"
"What you're doing now is fine. The oral and the sign," Arthur said. He paused, then added, "Actually, all of it is fine. Telling me when it's too loud so that I can speak up, letting me know when it's quieter so that I'm not making an ass out of myself. I don't think anyone's ever done that before."
"Force of habit," Merlin admitted, but before Arthur could ask -- and he knew that look -- Merlin asked, "You mostly lip read, right?"
"Yes," Arthur said. He shrugged faintly, as if perfectly aware that he was an outlier -- most hard-of-hearing, deafened or Deaf people that Merlin had ever met growing up preferred to use sign, but that could just have been the circumstances of his friendship with Will. "But it gets tiring after a while, always having to concentrate on understanding someone. It's worse when it's in a place like this, when there's more people I have to try to understand. Even if I can figure them out, I don't always know what they're talking about in the first place, so I lose a lot of information. Using the signs to get the context helps."
Merlin nodded, filing the information away for later, though he didn't know why he bothered, really. He wasn't going to be doing this again.
"You're easy to lip-read, by the way," Arthur said suddenly. "Really easy."
"Good. I'm glad," Merlin signed. He gave Arthur a small smile.
"And your signs --" Arthur paused, and there was a slight pinch to his expression. His tone shifted, and the words came out in a rush of difficulty. "You're very clear."
"Practice," Merlin signed. He moved out of the way of a large woman with an enormous feather hat that nearly took out his eye. "Lots of practice."
"Was it someone in your family?"
"Who?" Merlin asked, too surprised to sign.
"The practicing. I can tell when someone's taken a class and when someone grew up with it. There's a difference in the way people sign."
"How's that?" Merlin asked.
Arthur didn't answer right away; Merlin shifted to interpreter mode as a middle-aged couple came up to Arthur and spoke a mile a minute, praising his speech and telling him stories about his parents and Arthur when he was young. Arthur was polite and charming and pained, as if it hurt a little to hear the story, but he hid it well. Eventually, they broke free, and Arthur guided Merlin through the open curtains leading to the exhibition booths, where it was quieter and there were fewer people.
"I need a break," Arthur explained. They walked for a while before Arthur gestured to Merlin's hands. "Tone. I can tell inflections when you sign. Also, it flows. You're not precise, not exactly, but it's like I can hear you."
Merlin froze. A quick sidelong glance at Arthur didn't reveal anything telling, and maybe, just maybe, Merlin's magic hadn't done something without his knowledge. Again. Merlin laughed awkwardly and shook his head. "Well, if only I had that power," he said, throwing on a smile that felt like a grimace.
Even as he spoke, it felt wrong. He didn't want to lie to Arthur. Merlin glanced away.
"I'm not sure I'd want to hear again, to be honest," Arthur said, and Merlin looked over to see him looking thoughtful, as if it had crossed his mind more than once. Again, Arthur had said, implying he had been able to hear before, and Merlin raised a brow in question. "It's not as if I remember what it's like."
Merlin nodded, because what did someone say to that?
Arthur touched his arm. It was a light gesture, smooth and fleeting, but it sent an electric shock through Merlin's limb, startling him even as the magic flared out uncontrollably and made a few objects on a nearby display tip over unnoticed. The way that Arthur drew his hand back, shaking out his finger, and frowned down at the carpet.
Static charge. Fuck. That stung.
Merlin glanced at Arthur again, suddenly very, very unsure.
Arthur must have interpreted his glance as interest, maybe even permission, because he cleared his throat and said, "You're also very good at avoiding questions. You never did answer. Was it someone in your family? That you learned to sign for, I mean."
"No, it wasn't," Merlin signed. Arthur's eyes on him were so intense, so clear, so curious, so -- so blue, that Merlin found himself adding, "My best friend, Will. We grew up together. Did everything together. I learned by default."
Arthur's smile was small, but it was there. Tiny, almost too easy to miss, and guarded. "Are you still friends?"
Merlin should've kept his mouth shut. A so-called professional distance. He knew that volunteering more information only brought more questions, and this was one of the many questions he didn't want to answer. That he didn't even want to think about why he had that particular answer. Merlin avoided the question with a simple, evasive, "We've lost touch."
"That's too bad," Arthur said.
Merlin ignored the gutted feeling in his stomach and nodded. He followed Arthur, the conversation withering to silence. He was content to listen to the background buzz of ambient noise, doing nothing else but wander around. A few sparkles in the displays caught his eye, but he stayed with Arthur. He caught the moment when Arthur tensed and traced Arthur's gaze to a young woman standing beside a booth. The two people she had been talking to wandered off, and she turned around, staring at Arthur.
"You know her?" Merlin asked.
For an instant, he thought Arthur would stop in his tracks and turn around. It seemed as if the blond woman was about to do the same thing herself. Her cheeks were pink with embarrassment, and she wrung her hands together in indecision.
"I may have..." Arthur trailed off, and Merlin heard a tiny, suppressed sigh. "I may have been somewhat rude to her earlier. Before my speech. She came up behind me, and by the time I realized that she was there... She must have been talking to me for a while. I just. Didn't know what to say. I walked away."
"Could've told her that you couldn't hear," Merlin signed.
Arthur snorted. "Yes, thank you, Merlin, for that illuminative advice. I couldn't have thought of that without you."
Merlin smirked despite himself. "So why didn't you?"
Arthur didn't answer for a long moment. "I don't like to. I hate it when..."
He stopped himself and took a deep breath before stopping, turning to look at Merlin.
"When people find out I can't hear, they say, I'm so sorry. Sometimes it's because they didn't know. Sometimes it's because they're embarrassed and don't know what to say. As soon as I hear I'm sorry, it's almost a guarantee that I'm never going to hear from them again," Arthur said, his volume dipping so low that Merlin had to strain to hear.
"Well, after your speech, she knows now," Merlin pointed out.
"Outed myself, didn't I?" Arthur said ruefully. "Wasn't much of a closet."
"And it looks to me as if she still wants to talk to you," Merlin signed.
Arthur scratched the back of his head, the gesture softening the somewhat cynical frown and accompanying tightening of his lips.
"Do you want to talk to her?" Merlin asked. He was careful not to point in the woman's direction, in case she was watching.
Arthur exhaled a soft breath and nodded curtly. He turned away and continued his unhurried walk, and the poor woman, Merlin noted, was having something of a meltdown, torn between running away and standing her ground.
"I'm sorry about earlier," Arthur told her, smooth, suave, charming. "My head was in a different place, and you caught me off guard."
Merlin subtly moved to stand off to the side, where Arthur could look at him and the other woman at the same time, and interpreted for her.
"Oh, God. I'm a bit of an idiot. I'm so sorry about that," the woman blurted out, glancing between Arthur and Merlin uncertainly. Merlin didn't miss Arthur's resigned sigh.
"It's all right," Arthur said, obviously trying He held out his hand. "Why don't we try this again? I'm Arthur Pendragon."
"Elena Goodwin." The woman jumped on Arthur's hand and shook it with something close to desperation. Nearly as quickly, she let go and turned wildly to Merlin, covering her mouth with both hands, one over the other, her eyes big and round. She said something muffled and muted that Merlin didn't hear.
"I'm sorry, what?" he asked.
"I don't know how to do this," she said desperately. "Do I talk to you? Do I talk to him? What do I do?"
A quick glance in Arthur's direction was enough for Merlin to see his pain -- or maybe it was regret that he had come over to try, to make the effort in the first place. Arthur raised his hand to scratch at his forehead, and Merlin knew that gesture, too, and it was familiar because he'd seen it on Will too many times.
Will had gotten tired of explaining to people too.
This once, Merlin broke the rules and spoke instead, when he really should be a neutral party. He didn't think Arthur would mind.
"You look at Mr. Pendragon," Merlin said and signed at the same time, pausing to gently turn Elena around until she faced Arthur. "You speak to him as if he were anyone else that you know. Don't pay attention to me. I'm not even here."
"Um," Elena said. After a moment of silence, Merlin elbowed her. "Um! Um. I guess you didn't hear anything that I told you earlier."
Her voice faded out toward the end, and she hit herself on the forehead. "Right. You didn't. That was a dumb thing to say. I mean. Oh, God. Please, let's start over. Um."
Merlin could see that Arthur was trying to be patient, so he prompted Elena. "Why don't you tell him what you were trying to tell him before?"
Arthur nodded faintly, almost in thanks.
"Oh! Yes. I was trying to tell him -- you, I mean," Elena said, catching herself, "To please don't look at the ugly necklace, it's mine, that since Sophia wanted me to watch her booth tonight that I thought I'd sneak my stuff in, and please, please don't judge her on that one. She really is a talented artist. Her best pieces aren't even here, and she was hoping to catch you tonight, maybe ask if she could make an appointment. She's been trying for one for months. She would be here now, but her mom's in the hospital, and --"
Elena trailed off again when she saw that Arthur's attention drifted back to the booth, his expression thoughtful. "Which pieces are yours?"
"This one, and these two," Elena said, pointing them out. Arthur nodded, then moved to look over the other pieces in the cabinet.
Next to him, Elena was biting her fingernails.
"You said that her best pieces aren't here?" Arthur asked, his eyes still glued to the cabinet.
"No, no, she wanted to show them to her mom, so she took them out. That's why I put those in there, really, to fill the spaces," Elena said hurriedly. Merlin waited until Arthur turned around before repeating what Elena said.
"Is her mother all right?" Arthur asked.
"She had surgery last night, but she's doing really well. She's going to stay with Soph's sister when she's discharged, so Soph can totally come to the show this week, any time," Elena said, and Merlin watched as Arthur's expression softened. It wasn't so much hearing that someone's relative was doing well, or even learning that Soph would be coming to the show after all. Someone was telling him things, however useless and trivial, and Merlin realized with a start that Arthur liked that.
Will had liked that, too. He said it made him feel included.
Merlin thought of all the little questions that Arthur had asked him, how he'd dodged answering them, and he felt guilty.
Arthur picked up one of the business cards from the table. "Sophia's card?"
"Yes," Merlin signed needlessly; Elena was bobbing her head up and down excitedly.
Arthur looked at Elena. "I'm afraid that I'm booked very full and can't meet with her personally, but I will strongly recommend to my head designer that she make time to meet with Sophia. If I get a chance, I'll call her, see if I can meet with her on the floor. It would be very brief, unfortunately, but I'd like to express my appreciation of her work in person."
"You will! Oh my God, Soph will shit," Elena shrieked, attracting attention and bursting Merlin's eardrum. Abruptly, she struggled to compose herself, and didn't do a half-bad job of it. "I mean, of course you will, and thank you so, so much --"
The gushing went on for a few minutes, and Merlin had never signed please and thank you so much in a short time span in his entire life. Arthur's serious expression soften into a tiny little smile of pleasure at making someone happy, but just as quickly, it changed to a look of embarrassment at the effusive gushing.
His hands continued to translate Elena's words, but he mouthed, I think she's winding down, she hasn't taken a breath, she'll stop when she faints and gave Arthur a playful wink.
Arthur blinked at him, and Merlin was suddenly self-conscious that Arthur was watching him, not really listening to Elena anymore, and that Arthur kept watching until Elena finally let them go.
"Wait," Elena said, grabbing Merlin's arm as they walked away. "When he comes by, you'll be here then, too, won't you? Soph is really shy, but when she talks about her jewellery, she talks even faster than I do, and --"
"I'm sure there will be someone with Mr. Pendragon," Merlin said, signing for Arthur's benefit, but pointedly didn't look at Arthur. This was a one-night emergency, as-a-favour-to-Lance-so-that-he-had-an-excuse-to-see-Gwen sort of thing, and he hoped everyone understood that.
Apparently they did, because Arthur made no attempt to correct him.
They drifted again through the crowds, away from Elena's booth. Merlin glanced over his shoulder and spotted Elena chatting animatedly into her cell phone, and smiled.
"That was nice of you," Merlin signed. "Are you really going to call her?"
"No," Arthur said.
"What?" Merlin glanced over his shoulder. A rush of disappointed anger rushed through him. "You're an arrogant, pompous ass after all. I mean, I knew you were an arrogant, pompous ass when I met you on the stage, and after that speech I thought you were actually a decent human being, and you were nice to that woman, but it's all an act, isn't it? You have everyone fooled, don't you --"
"Merlin," Arthur said, and there was a laugh in his voice that made Merlin stop signing and look, really look at Arthur.
"I hate phones," Arthur said. "I hate having to deal with relay operators, and Sophia's card doesn't have a cell phone number or I'd text her. So I’ll have Gwen call her."
"Oh." A sheepish flush came over him. "Right. Sorry."
Arthur nodded curtly, and they continued to walk. "Although. You're not wrong. I suppose I am an arrogant, pompous ass."
"As long as you know that," Merlin said. His face hurt from grinning, and he was aware that he'd smiled more in the last half hour than he had in a long time.
More people caught Arthur's attention at that point, wanting to show their wares or talk to him or get his opinion. Arthur helped himself to a champagne flute; he tried to offer one to Merlin, but Merlin shook his head with an apologetic I don't drink and an inexplicable guilty pang reminding him that that was a half-truth. The full truth was that he'd been sober for a year and wasn't about to fall off the wagon now.
Arthur spoke to the server; the server nodded, and disappeared, coming back several minutes later with a bottled water that Arthur held onto until Merlin had a chance for a break here and there. For the next few hours, Merlin interpreted for Arthur, learning more about the diamond industry than he'd ever wanted to know, quietly struggling against a growing fond feeling that warmed him every time he listened to Arthur be cutthroat with a businessman wanting a meeting right this instant one moment, but sweet to a server who had dropped the crudités on her tray by accident in the next.
The crowds thinned and drifted away and too quickly it was past midnight with only a handful of stragglers left. Merlin was flagging; Arthur looked tired but determined to persevere until the very end, and thank God that was Gwen and Lance coming toward them, holding hands, because that meant Merlin's sacrifice for the evening had been worth it.
He glanced at Arthur.
Well worth it.
"I'm ready to call it a night," Arthur said, raising a brow meaningfully at Gwen. "But if you're not, I can see myself home."
"I can get a cab home," Merlin offered, looking at Lance.
"No, no, I drove you here, I'll drive you back," Lance said, and Merlin translated for Arthur. Arthur waved his hand and shook his head and signed a tired It's all right, you're off the clock now.
Gwen flushed, turned and smiled at Lance, and let go of his hand to reach into her purse. She pulled out a tablet, made a few notations, and said, "You'll send me the bill for Merlin's time?"
"First thing on Monday morning," Lance said. The two looked at each other again, and there was a moment between them that stretched out into an eternity that had Merlin rolling his eyes. He caught Arthur doing the same and chuckled.
"I appreciate your help tonight. Thank you," Arthur signed.
"You're welcome," Merlin signed back wordlessly. "It was a pleasure."
There was an awkward moment when Merlin thought Arthur was about to ask if Merlin was available to work again, but the opportunity came and went. Instead, Arthur caught Lance's attention, signed "Good night", and dragged Gwen away with him.
It wasn't as if Merlin would've said yes even if Arthur had asked, but for some reason, the cold, casual dismissal hurt.