Part I: The Call
The moon was so bright, Merlin kept getting distracted, unable to follow the conversation until he was pulled out of the way of a bin. “Merlin, are you listening?”
Merlin looked away from the moon and turned to Gwen, nodding, quickly searching his ears for words that might have lodged in there. “She's going to ask out that bloke, and doesn't even care if he says no or thinks she's a bit of a tit.”
Gwen stared at him before narrowing warm brown eyes that always failed to look stern. “How do you do that?”
“I was listening. It's what good friends do,” Merlin said with a sweet smile.
Gwen smiled, prodding him. “Shut up.”
“You shut up,” Merlin said, prodding her right back.
“Both of yous shut up, please,” Gwaine said, shoving in between them to walk on ahead, cigarette hanging from disgruntled mouth. “I told you before, Gwen, all men are bollocks. Some of them are suave bastards, and some are just plain bastards, but the fact remains, we are all a bunch of bastards. I doubt this bastard's any different from the rest of us. So your friend should stop titting around and ask him out and get on with it. Jesus.”
Gwen and Merlin watched Gwaine stumble on ahead, leaving behind a stench of wine and smoke. Merlin waved the smoke away and told Gwen, “He is a bit right though. She has been titting about for a while.”
Gwen stuck her arm through the crook of Merlin's elbow as they resumed their course. She shrugged, mouth tipping up into a small smile. “You don't understand. This one's different. He's nothing like Gwaine.”
“No one's like Gwaine,” Merlin pointed out.
Gwen laughed. Patting Merlin's arm, she asked, “What about you? Are you even looking?”
“You know how busy I am with the shop,” Merlin said with a shrug, sounding unconvincing even to his own ears.
“You have an assistant,” Gwen pointed out.
“Well,” Merlin said, “watching over Gwaine is a whole job of its own.”
Merlin looked over to where Gwaine had entered his drunken singing phase, telling the street baby just you shut your mouth.
“Come on,” Merlin said, dragging Gwen along until they were with Gwaine, grabbing an arm each, singing, “She says, shhhhhh.”
Merlin was still humming after Gwaine had been safely deposited home and Gwen had gone on ahead in a taxi. It was well after midnight, and the street was empty, the shops shut, their mock Tudor façades looking eerie and out of time in the moonlight. Merlin stopped and looked up at the sky, quietly singing under his breath, stopping to mutter, “Wow.”
“Beautiful. Isn't it?” Merlin spun about towards the direction of the voice. A man was standing across the street, smoking a cigarette under the lamplight. He was skinny, fragile looking, his face weathered by time. And probably smoking. His mouth was half tilted up in a smile, almost reptilian. “The moon.”
Merlin nodded. “Um...yeah. It's...it is.”
The man said no more, smiling enigmatically. It was just like Merlin to get hit on by guys three times his age. He was definitely not going to share this story with Gwaine who took too much pleasure in Merlin's disastrous love life.
“It's like one of those super moons,” Merlin said, looking back up. “I thought it had already hap-”
The man was gone, leaving behind a whiff of smoke that had managed to travel across the street. Merlin looked around, calling out, “Bye then.” No answer. He muttered, “Not weird at all.”
He hurried down the street towards Lord's Books, shop and flat combined, both his for the foreseeable future, stopping in his tracks when he saw the lights on in the shop across the street. The window had temporary paint swirls obscuring the view inside, but he could still make out someone moving around inside the shop which had been empty for a good few months now. To Merlin's shame, he was slightly disappointed it wasn't a new coffee shop, the shiny new sign above declaring the presence of Albion Antiques.
Peering around a lamppost, Merlin saw what looked like a blond head floating around inside the shop, its owner holding up a wooden block. Merlin groaned. “Brilliant. Expensive old wood.”
He turned towards the entrance to his flat, texting Gwen: You're wrong. It's not another coffee shop. Antiques.
Gwen replied seconds later: But we can't drink antiques :(
Merlin laughed quietly, still smiling as he shut the door and jogged up the stairs. Inside his flat, he didn't bother turning the lights on, tripping over furniture and book piles on his way to the bedroom. As he stripped down, his eyes were drawn to the window from where he could see Albion Antiques across the road. He couldn’t help but snort at the idea of paying good money for historical tat. The past, in his opinion, was not worth hanging onto in any shape or form.
Two months ago, Arthur had awoken in his Thameside apartment with the sun in his eyes, the rays so bright they felt like fingers prying open his eyelids, so bright that for a ludicrous moment he felt as if the sun was in fact pouring out of his eyes. He had stood in front of a window large enough to be a wall, looking at the river curving its way to Tower Bridge, the sun beckoning Arthur close. Everything seemed beautiful, the sky devoid of smog or clouds, the river shimmering peacefully.
But things only seemed beautiful, the beauty not quite penetrating his chest. It was as if someone had wrapped it in a bubble and was holding it up in front of him, teasing him. He put a hand up against the glass, spreading his fingers apart, watching how the sun's rays spilled through them, but still didn't reach him. An hour later, thinking about how a man could supposedly have everything and feel hollow, he had stood in an office at the top of a shining London building, watching the same sun, the same sky, and made a proposal.
"What do you mean?" The question was less of a question and more of a demand for less stupidity. "Why would you suddenly decide to sell up your stake? What happened to honouring our father's memory?"
Arthur pursed his mouth in thought, looking out of another big window, down into the City of London, metal and glass next to stone and history. There was money out there, and more of it to be made. More to add to his coffers, but never enough to fill those empty spaces.
"I mean, Morgana," he said thoughtfully. "If I have to look at one more growth projection, I may actually jump from the roof of this building. You? You actually like all this."
"Father made you CEO,” she said, her tone definitely accusatory. When he turned to look at Morgana, she was peering at him with suspicion, laced with a little of the annoyance his father would have felt in the same situation. All that was missing was the disappointment.
"Which I recall you objected to strongly. This is what you've always wanted, isn't it?” Arthur asked. “To be sole heir to his empire? Well, here's your opportunity. Take it, it's yours. I'm giving it you. By which I mean selling it of course, for a generous sum of money and a tidy sum of stock."
"The catch?" Morgana asked.
"The catch is," he said, noting Morgana's amused smile at his proving her right somehow, "I stop pissing my life away bickering with my sister over a company that in the end didn't even make our father happy."
"Half-sister. And what about after?" Morgana asked. "Once you've sold your share, that's it? No more involvement?"
"If that's what you want," Arthur replied with a shrug.
Morgana nodded exactly the way she used to when they were children, that same adamant and stubborn expression. "That's what I want."
"Fine. In that case I will stay out of your ridiculously expensive hair,” Arthur told her, “if you stop contesting Father's will over the house."
Morgana visibly tensed at the suggestion, but then her lip curled up in both humour and disdain. Another look she had inherited from their father. “In exchange for that pretty little apartment you have sitting on the Thames. If that decrepit old mausoleum really means that much to you that is.”
Arthur thought about it. The flat was expensive and terribly convenient. The house. The house was problematic, and out in druid country. But. It was important. “I'll need time to move out.”
“Three months,” Morgana said, smiling victoriously when he held his hand out and cemented their deal. Looking ridiculously innocent, she said, “I suppose that means you won't be needing that pretty office of yours either.”
He hadn't. He had mentally moved out the moment he had walked into Morgana's office to make his proposal. A week later he had moved out of the building, and now two months later he was on his way to his newest venture. Despite the fact that Arthur had slept for no more than three hours, he felt awake and full of energy as he made his way down the street. He didn't expect there to be a long queue outside the shop, not unless his antiques came with the latest iPhones, but he also didn't expect to see a rather disgruntled looking ex-colleague. Arthur stopped, sighed, and then went ahead and opened shop, nodding to the waiting man to enter.
“Leon. I trust this isn't a social call,” Arthur said, taking off his coat and dumping it on a particularly ugly Victorian armchair with green upholstery. He'd never had a lack of money, and even he thought £1200 for the eyesore was asking a bit much. “What do you think about this chair?”
“This is ridiculous,” Leon said.
Arthur scowled at the chair. “It's not that bad. I mean the flowers might be a bit much, but the frame's quite nice.”
“Not the chair,” Leon said impatiently.
“Oh, good,” Arthur said. “It does grow on you.”
“Can we forget the chair for a second?” Leon said in his calm and reasonable way. “Why didn't you say something? You couldn't have waited for me to come back? For god's sake, man, you could have phoned me at least and let me know what you were thinking. Look, maybe it's not too late. We can say you were under stress when you made the decision-”
“Leon,” Arthur said, matching calm for calm. “I wanted to keep it quiet until it was done and dusted, which it is. I can't spend another day trying to be my father, not when Morgana is so much better at it. Life is frankly too short.”
Leon nodded. “You sound like a privileged idiot. Only someone with more money than sense talks that kind of nonsense. There's an estate not far from here. You ask anyone there what kind of life they'd like. A CEO with a ton of cash-”
“Or an antiques dealer with a ton of cash?” Arthur arched a brow at Leon. “Look, I know I'm a lucky man. I get to have a choice where some people have nothing. I get it. It's why I'm choosing. Because the choice is there.”
Leon seemed to deflate when it became clear that Arthur's choice was resolute. He nodded to the chair. “Good luck selling that hideous thing.”
Arthur grinned, patting Leon on the arm. “Never seen this side of you before. I like it. Make sure Morgana gets to see it.”
“If she keeps me around,” Leon said.
“She will,” Arthur said. “You're the only one who knows what they're doing in that place.”
Leon looked at his watch. “Yeah, well, we'll see. I should be on my way. Meeting at ten on-”
“Nope,” Arthur held up a hand. “Don't want to know. Literally no longer my business. But I will buy you a coffee before sending you back into the lion's den.”
Leon shook his head. “Had an espresso on the way here.”
“Okay, in that case I will buy myself a coffee,” Arthur said, picking up his coat and slipping it on. Leon looked so disheartened Arthur couldn't help but shake his head. “Albion executives do not sulk, Leon.”
“You'll be bored within two months,” Leon said.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Mate, I've been bored for the last two years.”
“Fine,” Leon said, walking off towards where his car was parked on a double yellow line. Leon pulled the ticket from the windscreen and shoved it into his pocket, before getting in the car and driving it a few metres to bring it in front of Arthur. “Give me a call when you're ready to have someone talk a bit of sense into you.”
Arthur snorted, shaking his head as Leon drove off. He watched the car speed away as he made his way to the coffee shop a few doors down. Despite three coffee franchises on the street, this little independent place seemed to be doing okay. Arthur guessed it was frequented by the local crowd, the pamphleteers, the town hall placard holders, so busy protecting their enclaves they always failed to notice that business meant work, work meant money, money meant life. Lentil-based diets, Arthur thought, exactly as the man in front of him turned and proceeded to walk right into him, somehow managing to splash Arthur's black coat with what seemed like a solid blob of milk. Arthur looked down at the too white stain on his beyond black, blacker than black coat.
“I am so sorry,” the coffee wielding buffoon told Arthur, using a tissue napkin to rub the coffee into Arthur's coat, rather than soaking up the splash. “Shit.”
“Just...stop. It's fine, really. Please,” Arthur said holding up his hands to avoid the urge to shove away or grab the stranger's hands, his eyes still trained on the ruin of his coat. When the napkin came dangerously close again, Arthur had to grab the knobbly wrist attached to it. “No, that's fine-”
He looked into surprised blue eyes, and for a moment it felt as if he was looking through a telescope zooming out and in again until a larger picture came into view and focus, showing him features so ridiculously elfin, no man should have been able to carry them off. He looked almost unearthly, with a mop of beyond black, blacker than black hair, and pale skin, the pallor accentuated by a lazy growth of dark stubble. He was dressed in ridiculously skinny black jeans, and black sweater with holes that allowed glimpses of a dark mossy t-shirt underneath, with matching green Converse trainers. Everything behind him had just faded, becoming obscured by steam and the too loud sound of music on the radio, a thick heavy buzz too intimate for this time of morning.
Arthur frowned and let go of the man's wrist. “It's fine. I...I shouldn't have been standing so close.”
“No. No,” Skinny Jeans said. “I should have been paying attention. Look, my shop is just across the road. Let me see if I can...get that out, or, I don't know, sell my organs to buy you a new coat.”
Arthur would have ordinarily huffed have said, “No thanks, you idiot. Why would I let you take up more of my precious time with your idiocy?”
What he did was laugh in surprise. “Um...yeah. All right.”
Skinny Jeans smiled brightly, all the way to his eyes. It seemed to have the effect of short-circuiting Arthur's brain, the buzz of the music on the radio seeping into him again. For a moment, the coat, the coffee, and everything current seemed to evaporate. A truck outside the shop moved, allowing sunlight to stream into the shop in a burst of light and warmth. Arthur looked out of the window, above him the buzz of the song changing to excited piano keys.
“Here, let me get you a coffee first,” Skinny Jeans said, making Arthur turn back to him. Arthur was going to say it really wasn't necessary, but his mouth was dry, and all he managed was a grateful nod.
Guy With Coat More Expensive Than Everything I Own was sitting on Merlin's sofa, gently pressing a damp cloth to his coat, completely focused on the task. Merlin looked from him to his modest little living room and kitchen. There were books on the coffee table, by the side of the sofa, on the kitchen counter, on the kitchen table, under the phone, on the shelf, in front of the shelf, in front of the window. When he looked down, he realised he was in fact holding a book too. He really needed to think about organising his flat for future attendances of men in expensive attire, with expensive haircuts and the kind of bone structure Michaelangelo would have immortalised in marble.
“So, you own the shop downstairs, and you live up here. That's a good idea. I almost got stabbed by an umbrella on the Tube this morning,” Merlin's guest said, holding up his coat to check for optimum blackness, and grimacing. “How long have you lived here?”
“Technically? About five years. Non-technically, all my life. My grandfather owned the place, so I practically grew up here. When he died, he left the whole thing to me. Since I've never been good at getting to work on time, I decided to move into the flat and, well, here I am.”
“Indeed.” Coat Guy was smiling, and the simple change in expression lit up his whole face, maybe even the whole flat. He was standing up, folding the coat lengthwise and draping it over his arm. “I can't help but notice it's nine in the morning, and you're not at work. I hope I haven't gotten you into trouble with your boss.”
Merlin grinned, his face warming a little. “I told my boss I'm stuck in traffic. He said I could take my time.”
Coat Guy glanced around the flat, nodding. “Sounds like a nice a bloke.”
“He's brilliant. When he's not tipping coffee over strangers,” Merlin said with a grimace.
This earned Merlin a short bubble of laughter, a glint of a bright smile. Merlin couldn't remember the last time making someone smile had felt so good. Down boy, he told himself.
“It really is okay,” Coat Guy said. “Anyway, I've taken up enough of your time. Should let you get to work before you get the sack.”
Merlin scrunched up his face. “Don't worry. I'm sleeping with the boss. He'll be fine.”
Coat Guy grinned, brow climbing in surprise. His cheeks were pink when he looked at Merlin and said, “Well...he's a lucky guy. You know, to have such kind and considerate staff.”
Merlin nodded, clamping his mouth shut over his smile. He finally answered with a grin, before rubbing a hand over his face and groaning. “Sorry. I'm not usually so-”
“Outrageously flirty?” he was asked. Merlin let his hand fall to his side, blinking at his guest. “I hope not. I'd like to think this is a special case.”
Merlin evaded the other man's too open gaze. He poked the book in his hand, before looking up in at him in realisation. “I don't even know your name.”
Merlin's guest made his way from the sofa to the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen and held out his hand. “Arthur. Arthur King.”
Merlin shook it, electricity tingling all the way up his arm from the centre of the firm and warm grip. “Merlin Lord.”
While Merlin noted that he didn't quite want to let that hand go, Arthur said. “Merlin. Lord.”
Merlin grinned. “What? Is the name not to His Majesty's liking?”
“On the contrary, my lord.” Arthur's grin was exploding-star bright. He was shaking his head, eyes drifting from and back to Merlin. He held up his coat in a definitive gesture. “Thanks for letting me use your place.”
“Thanks for pretending you were able to make a difference to your coat with my wet tea towel,” Merlin said.
Arthur's mouth quirked up in a smile as he walked out of the flat, Merlin following him down the narrow staircase. Outside, it seemed all the shops were now open for business, with the exception of the antiques place across the road, and Merlin's shop. Merlin locked the door for the stairs up to the flat, turning around to see Arthur's attention land on him at the same time.
“So, how's about a drink sometime, my lord?” Arthur said as he dug around the pocket of his coat, which was still draped over his arm. Merlin heard the jangle of keys and Arthur's hand came out holding a bunch. “I mean, if your boss doesn't mind, considering you're both rather close.”
Merlin grinned, scratching the stubble on his cheek which he now wished he'd shaved. “I think he'll just be glad I have plans outside of work for a change.”
Arthur nodded, smiling. “All right. How about tomorrow? That pub down the road, The Dragon's Head? I'll come by around closing time.”
“Yeah, okay. You know, if my boss lets me leave on time.” Arthur smiled, turning towards the road. He had one foot off the curb. “You want my number, in case you have to cancel or anything?”
Arthur looked back over his shoulder, stopping by the curb. “Not going to cancel.”
“Yeah, but what if you have to?” Merlin asked.
Arthur turned around and sprinted across the road, proceeding to unlock the door to the antiques shop, before yelling, “I'll just shout.”
He lifted his hand in a still wave before winking and disappearing inside, whilst Merlin stared at the shop. He nodded and muttered, “Brilliant. Someone who literally works on your doorstep and you'll see every day after he decides you're a prat.”
“What's this you're doing now?” Gwaine asked as he sidled up to Merlin, smelling like coffee and cigarettes.
Merlin sighed. “About to add to a long line of mistakes.”
It was precisely three in the afternoon when Morgana swept into the shop looking like Cruella de Ville at Tiffany's, wearing a large pair of sunglasses to block out all that January sun, and a combination of black and white in both her dress and coat. She took off the glasses to glance down at the ugly Victorian chair no one was ever going to buy. Arthur was glad for the distraction, as he'd spent the last two hours rolling the sleeves of his shirt up and down, unable to decide which style looked the best.
Business was slow. Incredibly slow.
“So this is it,” Morgana said, turning her nose up at the chair. “This is what you're doing now.”
“In all fairness, I've only been doing it a day,” Arthur said, deciding on rolled up sleeves and turning away from a very large and expensive mirror. Rather cruelly, he wondered if Morgana spoke to it, might it talk back? “So, any particular reason you're here, or has pouring scorn via text, email and phone lost its novelty?”
“Checking up on you, of course,” Morgana said with a sweet smile. “Right now, you're being the spoilt little boy you've always been, doing whatever you think makes you happy. Who knows, in a week you might be camped out in my lovely new office with your legal team trying to weasel your way back into the business.”
“Such is the lure of the steel industry,” Arthur said blandly, falling into a swivel chair behind the desk he'd tucked into the corner of the room. He glanced at his laptop, eyeing an eBay bid as it counted down into the last hour. “Tell me, why is it that even when I've promised to not darken your doorstep with my shadow, you insist on standing in it anyway?”
“Don't flatter yourself. I'm here to remind you that I need a certain apartment vacated soon. Your three months are almost up. Also, trading insults with Leon isn't quite the same. He's so...polite,” Morgana said, looking so disgruntled Arthur couldn't help but laugh. It seemed the humour of the situation wasn't lost on her either, her mouth twitching towards a smile. She sniffed and put her sunglasses back on. “I better let you get on with your work. I can see you're rushed off your feet. I'll just try to squeeze past the customers.”
The bell above the door dinged as she opened it, dinging again when it closed, plunging the shop into blissful silence. Through the door, on the other side of the road, Arthur could see the door to Merlin's shop, opening and closing as shoppers went in and out. Often, someone would walk past and then double back, as if unable to resist the temptation of a good story. Arthur got up and walked up to the ugly chair, patting its back. Maybe he needed to move it away from the window so people couldn't spot it from the street. He dragged it out of sight, dropping back on to it when he was done. Predictably, it was just as comfortable as it was hideous.
It would be a lie to say that Merlin hadn't spent much of the day spying on the shop across the street from the window. A shameless, shameless lie. If he wasn't mistaken, there hadn't been much of a rush of customers and Arthur seemed to drink far too much coffee.
“Excuse me, do you have any cookery books?” someone asked Merlin, as he scowled, unable to locate Arthur in his shop.
“Yeah, in that corner,” Merlin said, pointing without looking. The customer huffed and stomped away, allowing Merlin to peer harder.
Arthur seemed to be looking at a wooden box which after one prod too many popped apart and fell to pieces. Arthur stared down at the floor. His shuffling suggested that he may have discretely hidden the antique debris. Merlin grinned, watching Arthur coping with what definitely looked like boredom. Arthur scratched his chin, frowned and then turned towards the window and the display behind which Merlin was hiding. Merlin lunged for the floor and hid, right by a pair of very sensible black shoes. He looked at them and then up at the owner, a mildly irritated lady who held up a book.
“Would it be too much trouble if I pay for this?” she asked. Merlin smiled sheepishly and got up.
He spent the rest of the day avoiding the urge to spy, paying a little more attention to his own business, assigning categories to corners of the shop like bollocks, and nonsense, and I can't believe I sell these. He closed at six without a problem, no late loiterers this Monday. It was too cold and wet, even Merlin didn't want to be anywhere other than slumped in front of the telly. He looked up quickly, grimacing under icy cold rain. It wasn't heavy, but the hit and miss spittle somehow seemed worse. As he turned to the door to his flat, he saw Arthur outside his shop, turning up the collars of his coat.
Arthur made a face that indicated the weather was typically shit, pointing up at the sky. Merlin grimaced and nodded. He yelled across the street, “Off home?”
“Yeah,” Arthur called back. He nodded towards the first floor of Merlin's building. “You?”
“Want to miss the traffic,” Merlin said with a nod. Arthur's grin was brilliant in the cold and dark January night, a beacon of warmth. Though it was in danger of reeking of desperation, Merlin couldn't help but ask, “Want to come up for a bite?”
Arthur's eyes were searching for an answer somewhere left of the street, while Merlin told himself it wasn't desperation. There was just...something about Arthur that made Merlin crave. Merlin's reflections on his craving were interrupted by a beastly rumble in the sky, the darkness creating an illusion of something hanging heavy, promising to breathe lightning as it floated above them.
Arthur jogged across the road and stopped in front of Merlin, squinting up at the spitting sky, before aiming the squint at Merlin. “You know what, I think I will come up for a bite If it’s not too much trouble.”
“Not at all,” Merlin said, smiling and turning to unlock the door. Arthur stepped in side, waiting for Merlin to lock the door, making it a tight squeeze for a moment. Merlin concentrated hard on locking the door to ignore the fact that Arthur was a column of warmth by his side, close enough to smell fading cologne, hear quiet breathing. Merlin dropped the keys, cursing.
Of course Arthur went to pick them up at the same time as Merlin, bringing them closer still. Merlin straightened up when he saw Arthur's fingers close around the keys. Arthur handed them over, nodding to the stairs. “You can't get into the flat from your shop?”
"Thanks," Merlin said, taking the keys and squeezing past Arthur, taking the steps two at a time. “Used to be able to, but my grandfather had the place converted to rent the flat out.”
Arthur nodded. “Good idea. Otherwise your daily commute might look a little silly.”
Merlin shoved the key into the lock, opening the door with a roll of his eyes, though he couldn’t but help grin too, watching Arthur walk in with a pleased smile on his face. Arthur went right through, as if he made a daily habit of coming home with Merlin, taking off his coat and hanging it up in the narrow hallway. He followed Merlin into the kitchen, taking a seat on the other side of the counter as Merlin went to the fridge, opening it to find eggs, sad wilted lettuce, ham, and as luck would have it, two bottles of beer. He turned to Arthur and held up a bottle. “Beer?”
“Thanks,” Arthur nodded. He was sitting with arms folded on the counter top, leaning forward, the soft lights in the kitchen making it look as though the blues of his eyes were aglow.
“Glass?” Merlin asked as he turned around to grab a bottle.
“Bottle's fine,” Arthur said. Merlin handed him the beer with a smile, before turning back to the fridge, scowling. The fearlessness that had encouraged Merlin's flirtation in the morning seemed to have evaporated, replacing it with something skittering nervously in Merlin's chest.
“Late Knight Worm Catcher,” Arthur said slowly. Merlin smiled, turning from the fridge to see Arthur peering at the label on the beer bottle. “Should I be worried?”
“No real worms went into the making of this beer, I promise,” Merlin said, taking out a handful of eggs and showing them to Arthur with a sheepish look. “Omelette okay?”
Arthur looked at the eggs and then at Merlin, smiling. “Anything. Really. I'm just glad to be here and not out there.”
He said that just as the sky rumbled with thunder and the rain began to fall in earnest. Merlin smiled, nodding. He set about cooking as Arthur slowly drank his beer. “So, how was the first day of business?”
“Slow,” Arthur said. “It's to be expected though. Pretty sure people would much prefer another coffee shop.”
“Well, there are only four on this street. So that's understandable,” Merlin said, chopping up some ham and throwing it into the egg mixture. He stilled for a second, looking at Arthur. “You don't mind ham, do you?”
“No, perfect,” Arthur said with a nod. “You're doing good business. Seemed quite busy for a Monday.”
“Yeah, you know, commuters. It's always been a good spot, people passing in and out of the city,” Merlin said. “Plus. Everyone loves books.”
“Oh?” Arthur asked with amusement.
“Yes,” Merlin said, most emphatically. “Everyone.”
Arthur's laugh was warm, bubbling out of him, rich and deep. It suited him, that relaxed momentary happiness that hung around his mouth and eyes. It was hard to look away, but Merlin still managed to make quick work of the omelettes, plating up and taking them into the living room. He put the plates on the coffee table, picked up the remote and turned the telly on before slumping on the couch with a sigh. Arthur remained standing, watching him with an arched brow.
“Oh,” Merlin said sitting up. “We can sit at the table if you want.”
Arthur placed his bottle on the coffee table before nudging Merlin's calf with his toe. “Budge up.”
They both ended up sitting side by side, plates on laps, watching a movie Merlin had queued for a while. A thundery night seemed the right time for horror and monsters. Until he found himself jerking against the sofa with a, “What the fuck?”
Arthur laughed, shaking his head as he reached for his phone. “Bloody hell. It's late. I should get going.”
“You can crash here if you want. Still pissing down outside,” Merlin said as rain pounded the windows.
Arthur gave him a long look before saying, “You're not scared because of that terrible film, are you?”
“Please,” Merlin said with a roll of his eyes. Giving Arthur a sheepish look, he added, “Seriously though, you didn't think that was terrifying?”
Arthur laughed, his grin huge, cheeks pinking.
“Shut up,” Merlin said, elbowing Arthur.
Arthur let out a huff of surprise and gave Merlin a light shove, before breaking into a grin. Merlin couldn't help but stare at Arthur, his own laughter falling silent. Arthur noticed, features softening. He straightened up slightly, stretching his arm out along the backrest of the sofa. Merlin felt the gentle scrape of fingers and nails on the side of his neck, as soft as an idle thought. Arthur’s eyes were on the actions of his hand. His fingers curled away then, a small smile on his face. From the tentative look on his face, he was about to say something.
Merlin swiftly leaned in, taking Arthur's face in his hands, pressing a firm kiss to his mouth. Arthur lurched forward too, arm moving from the backrest to curl around Merlin, fingers digging into Merlin's sweater. His other hand cupped the back of Merlin's head, drawing him back for a second kiss when they parted. Before Merlin knew it, he was being hauled up to his feet, Arthur's fingers on the hem of his sweater, pulling it up. Merlin allowed the sweater and the shirt underneath to be pulled off, before helping Arthur to unbutton his shirt.
Somehow he managed to guide Arthur to the bedroom, his shirt landing in the hallway, their shoes toed off near the threshold. Arthur kissed Merlin with a smile before shoving him back on the bed. He rid himself of his trousers first, before spending the next two minutes trying to peel off Merlin's skinny jeans.
“How the hell,” Arthur asked getting one leg free, “can you walk around in something that's trying to strangle your testicles?”
Merlin grinned, watching the other leg become free. He toed his socks off as Arthur climbed into bed with him, propped up on one side, contorting himself to take of his own socks and throw them across the room. The bed seemed to be the only part of the room which was illuminated by the street lights outside and the full moon. Arthur looked like marble come to life in the silver light, completely mesmerising. He was up on his knees, having hooked his thumbs into the waistband of Merlin's black briefs, before slowly sliding them down, Merlin propped up on his elbows and watching.
When the briefs were gone, thrown away into some dark corner of the bedroom, Arthur slid back up Merlin's body with a playful smile. Merlin pushed up against him, kissing him, sliding a hand down Arthur's chest and stomach, all the way into his boxers, gently exploring. In the rough and tumble travel from sofa to bed, Merlin hadn't exactly missed the fact that Arthur was turned on, but now he felt the evidence, hard and heavy in his hand. Arthur gasped quietly into Merlin's mouth, and the silver ring on his thumb, cool against Merlin's heated skin, dug in a little deeper.
Arthur moved Merlin's hand out of his boxers, shoving the bothersome article of clothing down before rolling Merlin onto his back. He reached down to hook Merlin's leg around his hip, positioning himself in the cradle of Merlin's hips so they could press against each other, tight and close, trapped in exquisite friction. Merlin grinned up at Arthur, who grinned right back, laughing when Merlin let out a long moan, a mixture of surprise and want.
“Fuck,” Merlin groaned. “This could be over embarrassingly quick.”
His hand strayed between them but Arthur grabbed it, before grabbing the other one too, leaving Arthur lying atop Merlin, their fingers twined together with Merlin's hands above his head, slowly being crushed into the pillow. Arthur stroked Merlin's face with his unmoving lips, across his panting mouth, along his eyelashes, below his ear and down his neck, all the while slowly thrusting, rutting hard, hot and wet against Merlin, rock hard and ridiculously ready to come. Merlin drew his knees in tighter around Arthur's hips, hearing Arthur inhale sharply, and then breathe hotly against Merlin's shoulder. He responded by snapping his hips harder.
Merlin threw his head back, panting out a low and deep sound which Arthur cut off by kissing him messy and open mouthed. Merlin made a sound of protest, wanting control of his hands so he could put his fingers in Arthur's hair. One hand was released and his fingers instantly combed through soft hair before curling tight and holding Arthur close and in place for another kiss. Merlin knew Arthur was close when his whole body tensed, jaw clenching, his forehead pressed hard against Merlin's, eyes closed. He let out a sound like a sob, a broken breath, when he came against Merlin, hips shuddering and stuttering.
Merlin used his hold on Arthur's hair to tip his head forward, stealing a kiss from Arthur's uncoordinated mouth. He was easy to roll onto his back, pliable and soft, mouth slack and open to kisses as Merlin moved against him, erratic and greedy, frantic until he came with a low drawn out moan. He slipped to Arthur's side, half draped over him, both of them sweaty and shiny, the sound of their heavy breathing somehow loud even with the patter of rain outside. One each of their hands was still uncomfortably twined above Arthur's head, but Merlin couldn't find the strength to let go.
Arthur was watching him through half-lidded eyes, mouth shut in a strange serious line. Merlin drew his free hand up Arthur's arm, across his chest, before lightly stroking his fingers across Arthur's unmoving lips. Blinking slowly, he pressed a kiss to Arthur's chest, leaving his face pressed there. Moments later his eyelids began to droop and he couldn't help but gratefully sink into the waters of sleep. He awoke momentarily, aware that Arthur was moving around. Merlin tried to force his eyes open to tell Arthur he didn't have to leave, but Arthur was wiping Merlin clean with a towel.
“Sleep,” Arthur said quietly, thunder rumbling somewhere behind him, the rain falling harder. Merlin blinked, opening his mouth to speak. Arthur poked Merlin's bottom lip. “Don't worry, I checked the place for monsters.”
Merlin responded by closing his eyes, listening to the sound of Arthur moving around in the bathroom, relieving himself, flushing, washing his hands, turning off the light, padding down the hallway back to the bedroom before sliding into bed to lie next to Merlin. Once he had pulled up the blankets over both of them, he settled next to Merlin with sigh. Merlin turned his head to find Arthur on his side, facing Merlin. He reached out to stroke Merlin's neck, his thumb against Merlin's pulse, before his hand slid down to rest on Merlin's chest. Merlin covered Arthur’s hand with his own, sinking into sleep.
Arthur spent most of the night wide awake. He was not so much unable to sleep as he was unwilling. Merlin's flat was smaller than Arthur's apartment, but it was warm with clutter and sentiment. There was no view of the river, of Tower Bridge, or the London Eye, but this small bedroom was filled with the bright glow of the moon, only falling across the bed, leaving everything outside blanketed in dark. Arthur propped himself up on an elbow and looked down at Merlin. His dark hair was limp against his forehead, stubble making his skin look even paler than it was. His mouth was slightly open, made of delicate curves, in contrast to the sharp structure of his face, beautiful angles, somehow both feminine and masculine at once. Dark shadows fell into the valleys of his body where muscle curled over bone, revealing a sinewy strong form that Arthur hadn’t expected, too taken in by those feline features.
Arthur frowned, tilting his head as he looked at Merlin. This was by no means the quickest he had fallen into bed with someone. It just seemed to be the quickest...someone had taken up a place in his thoughts. The morning seemed years ago, some place in the past where they had briefly been strangers. The sky gurgled, pulling away Arthur's attention. He watched the rain beat against the window for a while, watching the night as he often did. Really, he should have been getting up now, getting dressed and going back to his apartment. But the expensive sheets of his bed never seemed to warm up. His apartment never quite felt dark enough to sleep peacefully. Here, he found himself sliding back down, resting his head on the same pillow as Merlin's with a sigh, and closing his eyes for however long he could achieve sleep.
Merlin knew he must have been having a bad dream because he awoke with a start, heart beating a little too fast, breath thin in his lungs. It seemed he had been gently coaxed from the dream by light fingers in his hair. He swallowed, blinking against the pillow, frowning as he got his bearings.
“Come on, my lord,” Arthur was saying quietly. “Time to wake up.”
Merlin scowled, turning onto his back to see Arthur perched on the edge of the bed. It took a moment to register the fact that Arthur was wearing an old red sweater that had been too broad in the shoulders, and been relegated to the back of Merlin's drawers. Arthur had also found a pair of blue jeans Merlin couldn't actually remember buying.
Arthur followed Merlin's gaze and then pointed down at his legs. “Still in their bag, complete with receipt. You can forget about returning these, you've exceeded the twenty-eight day policy. By about eight months.”
Merlin blinked at the jeans. “They didn't fit because my bottom wasn't big enough.”
Arthur's head jerked back, eyes widening in surprise. Merlin couldn't help but grin at the scandalised question that followed. “Did you just call me fat?”
“I think I just complimented you on the quality of your rear,” Merlin said, bringing his hands up in case of attack, precisely a second before Arthur made a grab for him. It was an uncoordinated attempt to pin Merlin's wrists down, which ended with them both laughing, Arthur lightly holding Merlin's wrists against his chest, before angling his head and moving forward for a slow kiss. They pulled apart gently, blinking at each other in silence.
“Last night was really good. But...” Arthur murmured into the quiet of the room.
“But?” Merlin asked, not falling for the misdirect for one second. The blue of Arthur's eyes was so warm with affection, Merlin knew whatever he was about hear next was likely to make him groan or laugh.
“You really need to not watch horror movies before bed,” Arthur said with a grin. “I have a bruise from where you kicked my leg. Like being kicked by a mule.”
“Should have woken me up,” Merlin said, his eyes drawn to Arthur's smiling mouth. “I would have kissed it better.”
Arthur arched a brow. “Yeah?”
Merlin nodded, eyes drifting shut as Arthur neared for a kiss. “Yeah.”
This time they parted from the languid kiss with Arthur sighing. He sat up, letting go of Merlin's wrists. “I have to get going.”
“What time is it?” Merlin asked, looking at the window. It was light. That meant the warmth of his bed was soon to become a recent memory.
“Just gone seven,” Arthur said, getting up.
He looked good in the sweater and jeans. But then he had looked good in his expensive shirt and trousers too. Looked great out of them. “Red suits you. You should keep that sweater.”
“Yeah? Maybe I will. Thanks. You getting up?” Arthur asked, looking down at the sweater thoughtfully, before eyeing Merlin. Merlin pulled the blankets up to his chin, sighed and curled up until optimum comfort was achieved. “I'll take that as a no.”
Arthur picked up his phone from the bedside table, shoving it into the pocket of his borrowed jeans, before picking up his clothes which it seemed he had already neatly folded for transit. He had a wry smile on his face, as he hovered between the door and bed.
“You off then?” Merlin asked. Arthur nodded. “Still on for drinks?”
“Nah,”Arthur said, turning his nose up at the suggestion. Merlin smiled and waited. “How about dinner, and a wander if the weather holds up?”
“Sounds good,” Merlin said. Arthur smiled, took a few steps towards the bed and landed a quick kiss on the corner of Merlin's mouth before backing away, bowing, turning in the doorway and making his way out, leaving Merlin grinning.
Merlin was still grinning well into the afternoon as he sat at the far end of the shop, leaning on the counter and staring at the window, even though half of it was obscured by a book display. Gwen arrived at two, wrapped up in a thick coat and carrying a Marks & Spencer bag. Between the door and the counter, her smile grew three times in size. She plopped the bag down, taking out two plastic containers and handing Merlin one, before walking around the counter to perch herself on a stool.
“What have you been up to?” she asked. Merlin waggled his eyebrows. She blinked at him. “No, seriously. What?”
“That guy I texted you about yesterday morning?” he said, earning a nod. “Sexed him last night.”
Gwen's mouth fell open. “Well, obviously I don't have to ask how things went. It's written all over your face.”
“I can confirm things were more than satisfactory,” Merlin said, poking at his salad, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Boyfriend material?” Gwen asked with a cheeky smile.
“Guy who owns the shop across the street and looks good naked material,” Merlin told her, looking up from his salad to find a customer next to a bookshelf, staring at him with a slightly appalled look. Merlin smiled at him before turning completely around and whispering to Gwen, “We've had good sex and bad omelettes. That's all. Also, his name is Arthur King and if we have the fairytale wedding I planned in my head when it was really quiet in here, I'd end up being Merlin Lord-King, or Merlin King-Lord or if I'm an idiot, Merlin King. I have enough problems with my name as it is.”
“Arthur King. Like the steel guy!” Gwen pointed at him with the tomato stuck on the end of her plastic fork.
“What steel guy?” Merlin asked, stabbing at his resistant chicken.
“You know the one. He went out with this model who fell off a catwalk. They were in the sidebar of shame because he smacked a paparazzi.”
“The sidebar of shame,” Merlin said. “Really, Gwen?”
“It was one time. I have no idea how I ended up there,” Gwen said, looking bemused enough to be believed. “Anyway, if your Arthur King looks anything like Mr Albion Steel...yummy.”
Merlin blinked, shaking his head. “Wait. What? Albion? Gwen...”
Gwen blinked at Merlin. They both looked towards the window display before darting across the shop floor to peer out into the street. Gwen looked back at Merlin. “Albion Antiques.”
They both darted straight back to the counter where Merlin tapped his password into the PC. A few taps and clicks later, they were both looking at a very fetching picture of Arthur looking incredibly businesslike and stern. Merlin stared at it and then at Gwen. “That's Arthur.”
“Wow. His own Wiki page.” Gwen was nodding, impressed. “Arthur Cameron King. God, I hope he's not a Tory. Please tell me you didn't have sex with a Tory. It'll put me right off my lunch.”
Merlin looked at Gwen, pointing at the screen. “That's him.”
“You already said that,” Gwen said gently, squeezing his hand. “You're sleeping with a steel magnate. One who has graced the sidebar of shame.”
Merlin sat down on the stool behind the counter. “He went out with models.”
“A model,” Gwen said, reaching for the keyboard. “And pop stars too, probably.”
Merlin slapped his hand down on Gwen's. “I don't need to know. I don't need to know about all the rich and famous people he's slept with who aren't me.”
“If it's any consolation, I always said you've got the bone structure of a model,” Gwen said. “So, he definitely has a type.”
“Don't you have a job to get back to?” Merlin asked. “And a non-wedding to plan?”
“It's a non-wedding, not much to plan.” Gwen said. “And I was hoping to catch Gwaine to nag him about his deadline in person. But, I see he's not here.”
“Called in sick. Says he has ennui,” Merlin said slowly, scratching his chin as he stared at the screen. Gwen sighed and slumped, whilst Merlin nodded and said, “No, I mean, as excuses go, that's a pretty good one.”
“You need to fire him. He's got a book contract, I don't understand why he's still working here,” Gwen said giving the shop an unimpressed once-over before smiling sheepishly. “No offence.”
“Taken. Definitely taken. Also, I need Gwaine so when he gets really famous I can say he worked here when he was a struggling smut peddler,” Merlin said.
“He phoned in sick with ennui. That's not much of a struggle,” Gwen said. “Sack him so he can finish my book.”
“I'm not going to sack him. I promised my grandfather,” Merlin said. “Besides, he's my friend. I like having him here. He brings me cupcakes and swears at the books, what's not to love?”
“Does he know you're giving it away to the Tories?” Gwen asked.
“He is not a Tory,” Merlin said, laughing. “I mean, he's clearly loaded. A big business man. Can you imagine the amount of tax someone like him...shit.”
Arthur watched the woman outside the shop. She was peering at his wares through the window, eyes focused on a lamp at the front of the store. When it seemed as though she was bored and about to leave, he moved to the back of the store, finishing his move of the ugly but comfortable chair, placing it behind his attractive but boring desk. He was eyeing the combination of the two when the bell over the door announced the arrival of a customer. It was her, the woman from outside, bringing in a burst of sunshine with her.
She was wearing a knee length purple frock coat, revealing no more than sheer tights and a pair of black boots. Her hair was perfectly coiffed in gentle curls around her pretty face, a black scarf loosely wrapped around her neck. She held herself elegantly, almost regal, but there was humour perched on her lips and in her eyes, pristine make-up complimenting her warm brown skin. Everything about her exuded warmth, making Arthur smile.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” she replied with a smile. For a moment Arthur wondered if they had met before, and the way her forehead dented for a mere second made him wonder if that was exactly what she was thinking.
She looked away, breaking the spell. “Just noticed your shop. Couldn't help but come in.”
“Must be doing something right,” Arthur said, watching her as she drifted towards a glass case holding a number of swords, her eyes sliding down the length of the blades. He reached past her to point at the one in her line of sight, prompting her to look at him instead. “That's one of my favourites. Would have been used by one of Napoleon’s lancers. It's not in bad shape, actually. The gilt's faded, but there's not a spot of rust on this thing.”
She turned her gaze back to the blade. “It's beautiful. You wouldn't think that objects of war could be beautiful.”
Arthur made a noncommittal sound. “A sword is just a sword. It gets turned into something ugly after it's used for ugliness.”
The woman grinned, so unimpressed it made Arthur want to laugh. She was now looking him up and down, smiling at his sweater, before looking away and casting an eye over the rest of the shop. “So, have you been in antiques long? You look a little too young to be surrounded by old things.”
“I've been around antiques since I was a child,” Arthur said, following the woman as she walked around the shop, stopping to glance at objects that took her fancy. “But that's no way to talk about one's family.”
She turned and stared at him, looking momentarily surprised before her mouth broke into a grin. Arthur shook his head, frowning. “I'm sorry, but have we met before? I feel like we know each other.”
The woman held up her hand to show him a shiny diamond encrusted ring. “You're incredibly charming, but I'm engaged.”
Arthur laughed, nodding. He tilted his head at her hand, arching a brow at the expensive ring. “He's quite the catch. And a lucky man, I'm sure.”
The woman smiled. “Yes. He is. Well, thank you for your time-”
“Arthur,” he replied at her pause. “Arthur King.”
She held out her hand, which he took in his, holding it rather than shaking it. “Gwen McQueen. You actually know a friend of mine. Merlin.”
“Ah.” Arthur smiled, watching her smile as she gently withdrew her hand from his grasp. “You're not here to protect his virtue, are you?”
“I gather it's a little too late for that,” she said with a wry smile.“Besides, Merlin's a big boy who can look after himself. I was just curious.”
“And has your curiosity been satisfied?” Arthur asked.
She grinned and replied. “Piqued, I'd say.”
“Piqued.” He grinned, nodding. “Should I be worried?”
Gwen seemed to think it over before replying, “We'll see, Mr King. Nice place.”
“Ms McQueen.” Arthur gave her a small bow of the head, watching her as she strode out of the shop, glancing his way as she walked past the window, leaving him with a smile on his face.
It shouldn't have really mattered, not made an iota of difference at all, but all Merlin could think of was Arthur's face splashed across some trash-mongering website. He wasn't exactly getting noticed by every person in the street, but Merlin had caught a few glances here and there, people doubling back as if they weren't sure about something. Merlin could have kicked himself, really. There had been things about Arthur that had given him food for thought, a strange familiarity, and now he knew why. Amongst those countless newspaper and magazine articles, all those websites, of course Merlin had seen that face before.
"All right," Arthur said with a sigh, putting his beer down. "What is it?"
"Sorry, what?" Merlin tried to look as though he didn't have a clue, but Arthur didn't buy it.
"Something is clearly bothering you. You've been distracted all evening," Arthur said. He was sitting there watching Merlin calmly, all...steel magnate-y.
Merlin looked around the restaurant, people eating and chatting, London lights twinkling outside in the street. Looking at Arthur, he said, “So...you're...like famous or something.”
Arthur made a show of looking around at other diners who were absorbed in each other and their meals. “I wouldn't really go that far.”
“You have a page on Wikipedia,” Merlin said flatly.
Arthur nodded. “Probably written up by someone in PR.”
“You have PR,” Merlin said.
Arthur grinned. “I did have PR. I don't anymore. Now I'm just a simple man with a small business. And a tank load of cash from selling out my portion of my old business. Is that a problem?”
Merlin sat back, folding his arms across his chest. He wasn't quite sure why it was a problem, he just couldn't help fixating. Shrugging, he pointed at his food. “Tank load of cash, and you bring me to Pizza Express.”
“Not only that,” Arthur said, lifting his beer. “I intend to split the bill too.”
Merlin, despite trying to retain some sense of annoyance, felt his face cracking into a smile, and couldn't help but go with it. He leaned back and said, “I saw Gwen go into your shop this afternoon.”
“Yes. Gwen.” Arthur smiled. “She seems very nice.”
“She's engaged,” Merlin pointed out.
Arthur narrowed his eyes, looking a little confused. “She said that too.”
“Anyway,” Merlin said, aware he was segueing in the worst way possible. “Been watching the news lately? This government, what a total mess. What do you think?”
“Not...much?” Arthur's eyes remained narrowed. Merlin nodded slowly at the non-answer, silently waiting for more, until Arthur somewhat awkwardly said, “I mean, I kind of think most politicians are self-serving tossers.”
Merlin smiled. “You do?”
Arthur nodded thoughtfully, before holding up a finger and scowling. “You know, actually, the whole system is incredibly flawed and in need of reform, and I think-”
“You're very attractive right now,” Merlin said, stopping Arthur in his tracks. He pointed at Arthur, telling him, “Dessert's on me.”
In the end, Merlin paid for dinner too, impressing upon Arthur that he was now indebted to a poor man. Afterwards they walked through Trafalgar Square, and when Arthur's fingers touched Merlin's by accident, he took them, slotting them together. Arthur looked down at their joined hands, walking by Merlin's side, before leaning across and bumping a kiss against the corner of Merlin's mouth.
“So,” he said stretching the word out, “What now? Station and then home?”
Merlin nodded. “Probably. You heading back to yours?”
Arthur turned his nose up, answering, “I should.”
“You don't have to,” Merlin said, looking down at their hands, and back up at Arthur.
“No?” Arthur asked quietly. Merlin shook his head. Arthur smiled and said, “Well. Neither do you. You could come with me.”
Merlin grinned, nodding. “I could.”
“You should, then,” Arthur said, pressing a kiss to his lips before pulling Merlin to the side of the road and hailing a cab.
It was a quick ride to Arthur's flat, the cab driven by a jovial man who bid them goodbye with, “You fellas have a good one.”
They stopped near a large curved building, all metal and glass, the bottom units rented out to the usual businesses, coffee and food places. Arthur guided Merlin into the building, down a sparkling clean corridor and into a ridiculously roomy lift which was possibly bigger than Merlin's bathroom. They rode to the top floor, eight stories up, each level increasing Arthur's steely magnateness on the way. It was when they finally walked into the darkened apartment that Merlin realised the extent of Arthur's wealth. The lights didn't need to be on. All of London shone for Arthur, the only decoration he needed, the only painting. The night, the Thames as dark as ink, city lights twinkling instead of stars. To be wealthy was to see this from amongst the stars, and not from riverside footpaths.
When the lights came on Merlin turned away from the window to look at the rest of the apartment. The furniture was expensive, the arrangement neat, the clutter non-existent. There was a showroom kitchen to Merlin's left, clean and perfect. Between it and the living room area was a square dining table, with chunky chairs. In front of Merlin there were three sofas, like pieces of white Lego, one facing the wall, two either side of it facing each other, a low white coffee table in the middle. The wall was graced with a large flat screen TV. The floors were white tile with thick creamy rugs. It was an achingly empty space.
Merlin looked across at Arthur, politely smiling. “It's nice.”
Arthur stared at him in silence, and Merlin opened his mouth to amend his statement. Only Arthur was laughing, his facing turning pink. “The guy who designed all this? He's an award winner or something. And all you have to say is nice?”
Merlin grimaced, his face warming. “Sorry, I wasn't being rude. It's just...you know...sad.”
Arthur stared at Merlin, before pulling up a smile that was as fabricated and hollow as the apartment they were standing in. He turned away, nodding to the view. “The view's good though. Especially in the morning.”
Merlin went to Arthur's side. “Makes you feel so small.”
Arthur turned to look at Merlin with a worryingly serious expression. “Great cities don't build themselves, Merlin. They're usually built on small backs.”
Merlin frowned at Arthur, shaking his head, not quite able to phrase his question: how did someone like Arthur, a modern day prince, know about the burdens carried on small backs? “That's scary socialist talk, you know.”
Arthur snorted. “You sound like my father.”
“No, please, say more romantic things like that,” Merlin said, slipping behind Arthur, putting him between Merlin and the river, taking Arthur's arms by the elbows and lifting them up.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked, scowling at his arms being stretched out.
Merlin hooked his chin over Arthur's shoulder, and said very theatrically, voice dropping low, “King. Of the world.”
Arthur laughed, turning in Merlin's hold and grabbing him by his hips, pulling him close. They fell into a lazy kiss, Merlin happily allowing Arthur to guide him across the room, his Converse squeaking against the tiles as he almost lost his footing. They went through an open doorway, from light to dark, though it wasn't really dark at all because Arthur's bedroom window was free of blinds or curtains, one large glass wall looking onto the city. As breathtaking a view as it was, the black shine of the water still made Merlin's heart trip nervously. He concentrated on Arthur frantically shedding his own clothes and pulling at Merlin's, the eye of the yellow moon peering at them brightly.
They landed on the too soft bed in an uncoordinated pile of limbs, Merlin's knee knocking Arthur's, Arthur's elbow in Merlin's ribs, both of them laughing at their own urgency, before letting greedy kisses take over again. Merlin was overcome completely by his need for Arthur, fingers caressing skin, squeezing muscle. He climbed over Arthur, curled around him, all the while kissing. They were both hard, Arthur thrusting his hips up against Merlin, making little gasping noises. Merlin kissed him slow and sweet before he scrambled down Arthur's body, kissing a trail down his stomach, nibbling at his hip, before he unceremoniously took Arthur's cock into his mouth.
“God,” Arthur cried out, the word blasphemously split into two jagged sounds.
His fingers were in Merlin's hair, and Merlin fully expected a guiding hand, blind insistence, but Arthur's grip were loose in Merlin's hair, fingers opening and curling. Merlin reached up and held Arthur's hand, letting his fingers be crushed in a tense grip, all the while keeping Arthur in his mouth, sucking, licking.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, a weak warning. “Merlin, I'm going to-”
The warning was a little too late, because Arthur cried out, pained surprise mixed with pleasured relief, and came. Merlin had moved, but not enough, catching come on his cheek and shoulder. Not that it seemed to matter as he flopped forward, nuzzling Arthur's thigh, rubbing his painted cheek into Arthur's skin.
Arthur reached for Merlin with a drunken sort of determination, low on energy, but high on intent, pulling him up into slow kisses, pushing him onto his back, taking his cock in hand, and working it until Merlin was gasping and moaning into Arthur's mouth. He came hard and messy over Arthur's fist, falling into complete stillness, like a snapped rubber band.
Above him, Arthur seemed frozen too, opening and closing his hand, before reaching down to wipe it on the sheets. After that he toppled down on the mattress, flat on his back, he and Merlin both side by side, staring at the ceiling.
Merlin had just about enough energy to mumble, “I think you came in my ear.”
Arthur's sleep was watery thin as usual, the smallest ripple in danger of nudging him from dream to reality. He lay drifting in the grey, sinking and rising, giving in when sleep popped like a bubble. Arthur turned his head to the side where Merlin was out like a light, sleeping deep and exhausted. His arms were wrapped around his pillow in a loose embrace, features relaxed, lips shut in a sulk. The sheets, nowhere as warm as the layers of blankets on Merlin’s bed, were pooled around his waist. It would be easy to spend his sleepless nights like this, watching Merlin get his rest. There was something deeply satisfying about it. Arthur rolled over onto his stomach and pillowed his head on his folded arms, blinking at Merlin, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Any other lover and right now Arthur would be creeping away to sleep on the sofa, or leaving altogether before they woke up. But Merlin was different. Arthur looked at him and it made something warm open up inside his chest, the tendrils of it reaching into a landscape that had always seemed hidden in the shade. Merlin's presence added colour, it made everything golden warm. Arthur sighed and reached out to touch, but the moonlight hit the silver of his ring, making it shine bright. Arthur's fingers curled away and he set his hand down close to Merlin. Sleep, he thought, get your rest.
Arthur slowly rolled onto his back, hooking his arm behind his head, closing his eyes, listening to the sound of Merlin's breathing. Somehow he drifted under and sank back into sleep, but as ever it was somewhere in the shallow from where he could wake easily. He managed a peaceful stillness of five hours that carried him upstream towards dawn. When he opened his eyes, the sky had a bruised look about it, like it was waiting for the healing rays of the sun. He propped himself up on his elbow, looking past Merlin at the window, before turning his gaze to Merlin.
Merlin had shifted in his sleep, his back turned towards Arthur and face buried in his pillow. Arthur frowned at the taut muscles of Merlin's body, realising his hand was fisted tight against the mattress. Leaning over Merlin, he saw Merlin's scruffy jaw was clenched, a paragraph of distress written across his forehead. Arthur leaned close, carefully placing his hand on Merlin's shoulder, stroking his thumb across warm skin. Merlin let out a quiet wounded sound of objection, prompting Arthur to lean down and press a kiss to Merlin’s shoulder.
“Merlin. Wake up,” he said, keeping his tone quiet. Merlin's head jerked towards Arthur's voice, frown lines easing slightly. Arthur reached out to cup the back of Merlin's head, letting his hand gently slide to the nape of his neck. “Hello. You awake?”
Merlin licked dry lips, swallowing, squeezing his eyes tight, before slowly blinking them open. He propped himself up on his elbows and froze when he looked at the window, eyes on the flowing water of the Thames. He jerked his head away, looking at the bed, before finally turning his gaze on Arthur. Mouth clamped shut, his nostrils flared when he took a deep waking breath, and slowly stretched his arms out.
“What time is it?” he asked, voice constricted by the slowly releasing grip of sleep, “Is it early? Feels early.”
Arthur reaching over Merlin to grab his phone from the bedside table, putting it back down to look down at Merlin. “Six-thirty.”
Merlin fell back against the pillows, groaning pitifully. “I hate you.”
“Do you?” Arthur asked, dipping his head to press his mouth against Merlin's. He pulled back to find Merlin half-smiling, staring at Arthur's mouth. “How about I take a shower and make some coffee. You, in the meantime, can sleep for another hour. Or...”
“Or...” Merlin whispered.
“It's a pretty big shower,” Arthur murmured.
Merlin nodded thoughtfully. “I think I'll take that extra hour of sleep.”
“Seriously?” Arthur jerked his head back, scowling. Merlin's reply was a big grin. Arthur nodded. “No coffee or shower for you.”
Only, Arthur was pressing Merlin against the tiles of the shower minutes later. They went quickly from indulgent lazy kisses to something much hungrier. Their eyes had locked, and desire flooded Arthur in a wave of heat. Arthur's greedy mouth kissed and sucked a trail down Merlin's body as he sank to his knees and took Merlin's cock into his mouth. Merlin grunted, his hips bucking. Arthur gripped them tight to hold Merlin firm against the wall, and Merlin moaned, low and long, throwing his head back.
Arthur looked up to find Merlin's mouth was hanging open, the shower spray hitting his face, sending rivulets of water over his lips and down his chin, cascading down his chest and stomach. His muscles were taut as he spread his arms out, palms flattened against tiles to find purchase against the wall. He gasped, making a noise half-lost in his throat, jerking and coming in Arthur's mouth. The sight of him so flushed, shuddering and shaking, it was enough to make Arthur come without a single touch.
Arthur spat to the side, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, remaining where he knelt as his heart calmed down, and his head stopped spinning. He was shaking when Merlin hoisted him up on his feet, grabbing at his arms, pulling him into a tight embrace and a clumsy breathless kiss. Merlin reached between them, murmuring, “Let me...”
Arthur shook his head, grabbing his hand. “It's okay, you don't have to.”
“I want to,” Merlin insisted.
“No,” Arthur said, stroking Merlin's sides and kissing the corner of his mouth. “You don't. I came.”
Merlin pulled back and blinked at him owlishly. “What? Just by...”
Arthur gave him a shaky smile, shrugging. “Yeah.”
Merlin stared, water rolling down his face. “Coffee's on me.”
Arthur threw his empty Starbucks coffee cup into a nearby bin with a grimace as Merlin took another bite of his McMuffin and moaned indecently loud. Arthur hummed as they walked side by side, rounding the corner onto their street. “That's a familiar noise. Feeling a bit concerned that you get about the same pleasure from sex as you do from a McMuffin.”
Merlin looked at Arthur, shaking his head with half-closed eyes, holding up the almost-eaten McMuffin. “It's so good.
Arthur eyed Merlin, looking amused. “I'll take your word for it.”
“Can I ask you something?” Merlin said around a mouthful of McMuffin. Arthur nodded with a little shrug. “Do you actually really live in that apartment?”
Arthur's smile spread slow, and he seemed quietly pleased about something. “Yes, Merlin, I actually really live in that apartment. Why?”
“Doesn't feel very lived in. I mean, it has your clothes, and your very, by the look of it, expensive grooming products. But doesn't really feel like anyone lives there,” Merlin said. “Which leads me to my next question. Are you a spy?”
Arthur snorted, rolling his eyes. “No. I am not a spy. The apartment is more for convenience than anything else. Good for throwing a party, a place to invite people, a place to keep a few things, spend the night. It's a place to live. Just not-”
“A home?” Merlin asked. Arthur shrugged. “So what is home then?”
“It's a big old draughty house in the middle of druid country,” Arthur said.
“It is?” Merlin asked with a grin, Arthur giving him a nod. “What do you mean, druid country?”
“You know, people turning up to worship the sun and wrapping themselves around trees,” Arthur said, pulling a face, before grinning and poking Merlin's arm. “Once, I came home from university, and a group of druids were actually camped out in the forest on our doorstep to celebrate the summer solstice. Father was livid. Threatened to get his hunting rifle.”
Merlin blinked in surprise. “Wow.”
Arthur nodded. “I told him I'd take care of it. Went out there, spent the night with them, smoked some pot, went back home and told Father I had refused to move until they left, which they did because they were going to anyway.”
“Did he believe you?”
“I don't know,” Arthur said. “He told me 'well done' and then went off with this funny little look on his face. Maybe he suspected.”
Merlin smiled. “I bet he did.”
Arthur smiled at Merlin. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Merlin said, scrunching up the grease paper of his finished breakfast and depositing it into a bin. When he turned from the bin, Arthur had a tentative look about him.
"So. Last night..." Merlin grimaced. Arthur narrowed his eyes at him. "What?"
"Last night was great, but I just want a little fun and nothing too serious. And that's fine. Just...don't do the talk." Merlin finished for him with a wave of his hand. Arthur looked less than pleased. "That's...what you were about to say?"
"That...is not what I was about say," Arthur said thoughtfully. "Is that what you were hoping to hear?"
"No." Merlin squeezed his eyes shut, willing time to turn back. "I was...anticipating you might think this is all-"
"Moving ridiculously fast," Arthur said. Merlin opened an eye to see Arthur looking at his coat where the coffee stain was gone from reality, but not from memory. Looking back at Merlin, he said, "It is. But...I did just buy you a McMuffin."
Merlin grinned at Arthur, feeling a soft bloom of affection in his chest. "You did."
"Well, if you play your cards right, maybe there's a Happy Meal somewhere in your future,” Arthur said very seriously. Merlin laughed, shaking his head. “You're laughing now, but you wait. Dreams can come true.”
Merlin grabbed Arthur by the front of his coat, pulling him close for a kiss, before telling him, “You're a prat.”
“Well, you thought I was going to run off after two nights of very enthusiastic sex. What does that make you?” Arthur asked.
Merlin nodded, putting on the pretence of shame. “An idiot. I hope you'll forgive me, Your Majesty.”
Arthur reached around Merlin to grab his bottom, pulling him close. “Well, don't let it happen again. Or it'll be the stocks for you, Lord.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, but accepted a kiss with enthusiasm, right up until the moment someone walked past them on the street with a huff of annoyance. They parted, Merlin looking sheepish, Arthur rolling his eyes at the man stalking down the road. “Better let you go get changed and open up. Though I don't understand why you couldn't have just borrowed something of mine.”
“Because one of your shirts looked more expensive than my shop. You know, with all the books included. And me. Me included,” Merlin said.
“Very funny,” Arthur said, lifting his hand and pointing a finger across the road. “Don't give up your day job.”
Merlin nodded seriously, grabbing Arthur's finger and shaking it. “Majesty.”
He turned on his heel and jogged across the road, grinning, the sound of Arthur's laughter staying with him through the day. In fact, it was virtually impossible to stop thinking about him. Merlin's mind kept recycling moments from the morning, and the night before, painting thick the layers of memory as he recalled the sound of laughter, the touch of skin, the taste of lips.
“What's happening here right now?” Merlin's elbow slipped from the counter edge as he turned to see Gwaine who had a pile of books in his hand and a quizzical look on his face. “This morning you were walking around like someone put a coat hanger in your mouth, and now you're sighing and shit.”
Merlin tried to look affronted. “I am not sighing and shit.”
“I heard you,” Gwaine said. “It was a proper fucking sigh.”
Merlin cast an eye on the few customers in the shop, before leaning in towards Gwaine. “You know that bloke across the street?”
“Yeah, I've seen Mr. Darcy around,” Gwaine said. “Don't tell me you're in love or something. It's bad enough Gwen's getting married. I can't be dealing with two weddings in one year.”
Merlin scowled, shaking his head. “What? I'm not getting married! I just met him!”
“That's what she said six months ago,” Gwaine pointed out. “Now look at them. Finishing each other's stupid sentences and sending out homemade wedding invites made out of hemp or some shit.”
“What is wrong with you?” Merlin asked. Gwaine glared instead of answering. “I'm not marrying anyone. He just...he seems nice. That's all.”
“Exactly what Gwen said when she met that Lance,” Gwaine said, nodding. “Now they're getting married and about to become the kind of people who talk about cheese and couscous and watch Scandinavian dramas with subtitles. Together. At the same time. In the same room.”
Merlin was quiet for a moment, unable to find a response. Finally, he said, “It's probably not even going anywhere. I mean, he's right across the street. We're probably going to get bored of each other really quickly. He took me to Pizza Express. I mean, come on.”
Gwaine eyed Merlin suspiciously. “Really?”
Merlin nodded. “Really. I don't think the next date will go anywhere. Probably a boring glass of wine in his boring apartment talking about his boring antiques.”
Gwaine was nodding thoughtfully. He patted Merlin on the arm. “Too bad, mate, I was rooting for you both.”
“Ow,” Merlin croaked, blinking at the ceiling, his whole body buzzing. Next to him, Arthur was catching his breath, his skin hot and sweaty where their arms pressed together. Merlin grimaced, a twang of pain bringing him back to earth. “Fuck.”
Arthur turned his head towards Merlin, breathlessly asking, “Does it hurt?”
Merlin made a face. “A bit.”
Arthur began to sit up, eyes panning down Merlin's body. “Let me see.“
“No,” Merlin said, scrunching up his face as he grinned at the offer of an examination.
Arthur propped himself up on an elbow and frowned at Merlin. “What do you mean, no? What? Are you...you're not embarrassed are you?”
“Maybe?” Merlin answered, still grinning, a little at himself, a little at Arthur who was smiling too now.
“Seriously?” Arthur asked. “Considering where my cock's just been, you're feeling shy about me looking at your leg?”
“It was just a cramp. It's gone now.” Merlin gave Arthur a light kick in the shin before stretching and emitting a much happier groan. Arthur smiled, getting out of bed and pulling on his black boxers. He was by the door when Merlin called out, “Going to the kitchen?”
Arthur pointed out into the hall. “Bathroom. Why? Did you want something?”
“Water?” Merlin asked with what was hopefully a very alluring and sexy grin, but probably not. Arthur pursed his mouth and pointed at Merlin. As he turned to go, Merlin added, “And a sandwich maybe? Or toast. Food...would be good.”
This time Arthur aimed a narrow-eyed look at him. “Anything else, my lord?”
“No. That will be all. Thank you,” Merlin said, clamping his mouth shut as Arthur backed out of the bedroom, failing terribly at delivering a threatening look.
He was gone about ten minutes when Merlin found himself rolling out of bed, pulling on his jeans and padding down the hall. He stood on the threshold of the living room for a second, watching Arthur potter around the kitchen at the far end of the flat. Arthur was dropping a teabag each into two cups, the kettle beginning its quiet bubbling. He reached out and jabbed the toaster, and four pieces of toast were ejected half way, a perfect golden brown. Merlin smiled as Arthur carefully extracted them and piled them on a plate, before taking great care to butter them. Merlin made his approach after the water had been poured and Arthur was getting the milk out of the fridge.
Arthur eyed him, his half-smile probably the reason for the melting butter on the toast. “All right?”
“Yeah,” Merlin said with a nod, receiving the full smile.
“Toast okay?” Arthur asked, pouring a few drops of milk into each cup.
“One second,” Merlin said, opening a cupboard and extracting a half-finished jar of jam. He held it up. “Better than okay.”
“Go for it,” Arthur said, putting the milk away and taking care of the teabags and crumbs as Merlin spread a generous amount of jam onto each slice of toast. “So, I was thinking of asking you something.”
Arthur watched the spreading of jam, holding up his hand when Merlin moved to the third and fourth slices, settling for a less generous spread. “Go on.”
“I was wondering. If. You might want to come with me to Gwen's wedding.”
Arthur's mouth turned down in exaggerated consideration as he nodded. “Church? Reception? Inconvenient location? Uncomfortable suit and tie?”
Merlin grinned. “Garden. Party. Thirty minutes by taxi. Smart casual.”
“I would like very much to accompany you to this important occasion,” Arthur said with a very serious nod.
Merlin leaned back, giving Arthur a suspicious look. “Really? Because this wedding sounds so hipster even I tried to get out of it.”
“I'm far too monied to understand what that means,” Arthur replied. “I will be there.”
“Monied,” Merlin said with a grin, putting down the knife and picking up the plate of toast. He walked on ahead to the bedroom, Arthur behind him with the tea. “You'll like her fiancé Lance. Really nice bloke, though Gwaine doesn't trust him. He doesn't believe anyone can be that nice.”
“She's marrying someone called Lance?” Arthur asked with a laugh.
Merlin climbed onto the bed, sitting down cross-legged with the plate of toast in front of him. Arthur looked ridiculous, and gorgeous, standing there holding two cups of tea, like a tea model from a calendar of very attractive tea models.
“Merlin? Are you listening?” Arthur asked.
“No,” Merlin said seriously. “I'm busy being offended that you find the name Lance hilarious.”
Arthur's forehead dented with suspicion. “I didn't say it was hilarious. I said it was quite uncommon.”
“Oh,” Merlin said. “I stopped listening because I was downloading you into my wank bank.”
Arthur's mouth twisted into a tilde of agreement. “Thank you. You flatter me.”
He put the mugs of tea down on top of the bedside table, before taking up a spot at the end of the bed, lying down on his stomach and biting off a corner of the toast Merlin held up by his mouth.
“So what's this Lance like then?” he said.
Merlin licked some jam off his thumb, replying, “Good guy. Totally mad about Gwen.”
“Tall, dark and handsome too, I bet,” Arthur said, reaching for a slice of toast and taking a large bite. “Hung like a horse.”
“Disney prince,” Merlin said.
Arthur nodded. “I hate him already.”
“Impossible,” Merlin said with a shake of his head. “Everyone loves Lance. He's basically perfect.”
“I just gave you a mind-blowing orgasm and made you toast and tea,” Arthur said, pointing at Merlin with an L shaped crust.
“He's really not that special,” Merlin said, slowly nodding. Arthur gave a single nod of thanks. “He is hung like a horse though. I don't know how Gwen is even able to walk.”
Arthur dropped his toast, and gave Merlin the filthiest look he might have received in his whole life. Merlin clamped his mouth shut, trying not to smile.
“You're just a twat with cheekbones, aren't you?” Arthur asked.
Merlin grinned. “If it's any consolation, Gwen thinks you have a nicer bum.”
Arthur nodded slowly. “Yeah. That doesn't help.”
“Gwaine said that too, actually,” Merlin added.
“Oh, well, that changes everything,” Arthur said, unable to maintain his façade of irritation and breaking into an amused smile. He rolled off the bed and landed on his feet, padding over to the bedside table to pick up his mug of tea, whilst Merlin watched him quietly. Arthur looked up, blinking at the wall. “Merlin. Are you leering at my bottom?”
Merlin nodded. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
Gwen and Lance were ensconced in a quiet suburban street in North London, their small block of a white house twinkling with warm little Christmas lights decorating the front. Arthur walked alongside Merlin as they made their way up the gravel path to the open front door, spotting guests milling about in the hallway.
Arthur made them a focal point in an attempt to stop staring at Merlin. Earlier in the day, he had been left with his mouth hanging open when Merlin opened the door and revealed a freshly shaven face. Arthur could feel heat rushing to his face as he stared, whilst Merlin narrowed his eyes and asked, “What?”
Arthur's fingers had reached out before he could even think about it, stroking freshly moisturised skin, soft to the touch. “Bloody hell. You look about ten years younger.”
Merlin had laughed, pulling a face that indicated he didn't much like that idea. Glancing at him now, Arthur could still feel the touch of soft skin on his fingers. Pushing the thought aside, he said, “We're going to freeze to death in a marquee, aren't we?”
Merlin shoved his hands into his pockets, nodding. “I told her, January is the worst time for a wedding. But, you know, whirlwind romance and all that.”
“Whirlwind romance,” Arthur echoed quietly, the thought tugging his mouth into a smile. He looked across at Merlin who was partially hidden behind the upturned collars of his navy blue greatcoat. “Do you think that's what we're having? A whirlwind romance?”
Arthur saw part of a smile poke beyond the collar. “Dunno. Are we?”
Arthur blew out a breath, shaking his head. “You know what? I think we might be.”
Merlin grinned. “You're not going ask me to marry you are you?”
Arthur opened his mouth to respond flippantly, but the words caught when he realised there was nothing at all preposterous about the idea of being with Merlin and Merlin alone from this point onwards.
“I was joking,” Merlin said. “Don't panic.”
“Well, even though I was rather hoping we could continue on in sin for a while, I don't particularly find the idea of marriage that frightening, Merlin,” Arthur said, smiling. There was a shift across Merlin's partially hidden face, something that lit up his eyes. Arthur grabbed his arm and pulled him close. “Come on.”
Inside, everyone filled into the heated and modestly decorated marquee in the long garden. The bride and groom walked in arm in arm to a recording of Here Comes the Bride, the piece stripped down to the sound of a single piano, and stopped before a jovial woman who would perform the service. Whilst Merlin watched the proceedings closely, Arthur found his attention drifting, his eyes tracing Merlin's profile, lingering on the curve of Merlin's mouth. Without the messy stubble that usually adorned Merlin's face, he looked jarringly different, almost unearthly. No one really looks unearthly, Arthur told himself, that was something inside his head, glowing insanely around Merlin.
The guests had started clapping, and Arthur turned his head to find the bride and groom kissing, surprised that he'd missed a rather crucial part of the nuptials. He clapped, looking at Merlin who was beaming, whole face lit up with joy. Arthur couldn't remember the last time he'd seen someone look so happy for another person. There was sheer delight in Merlin's smile, and then he shared that delight by turning to grin at Arthur. It was infectious, making Arthur grin back. They stood together as the bride and groom disappeared back into the house, the marquee beginning a slow transformation from makeshift church to twinkling ballroom, bright lights switching off, dim sparkling lights switching on.
“Can't believe they're married,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “It's insane.”
“It is?” Arthur asked, jostled by movement behind him, happy to be pushed closer to Merlin.
“Just a bit.” Merlin's eyes were tracking movement past Arthur, before they both locked eyes and Arthur was completely caught out staring. Merlin smiled at him. “You know what, I'm never shaving again.”
Arthur reached out to tap Merlin's smooth cheek. “I can't handle this. It's freaking me out.”
Merlin laughed, grabbing Arthur's hand and pulling him along. “Come on, let's get a drink.”
It took a while before Arthur and Merlin were able to see the happy couple who emerged to applause about ten minutes later. Gwen was glowing in her white dress which had a 1940s sensibility, sweet and elegant, whilst her groom was in a slim black suit with a thin black tie and white shirt. Arthur wasn't surprised at all when they took to the floor and performed an unpolished, but joyful swing dance, both Lance and Gwen in their little bubble of happiness. When they had finished dancing, cut the cake and downed a few drinks, Merlin pulled Arthur along and Arthur finally saw Gwen's Disney prince up close.
“Arthur, you know Gwen. Lance, Arthur. Arthur, Lance,” Merlin said as Lance smiled at him.
“Gwen,” Arthur said with a smile, taking her hand and kissing it.
“Arthur,” Gwen said nodding. The corner of her mouth tilted mischievously.
“Congratulations to you both,” Arthur said. He turned to Lance and offered a hand. Lance shook Arthur's hand, smiling at him. “You're a very lucky man, I'm sure.”
“Oh, I know,” Lance said, without a hint of pride, beaming at Gwen who beamed right back at him. When Lance looked at Merlin, his eyes seemed a little bright. He slung an arm around Merlin's shoulders and pulled him in close, grinning at him. “Feels like we all are today.”
Arthur nodded, watching as Merlin patted the front of Lance's chest and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Gwen smiled at that, grabbing Merlin's hand and stealing him away, telling Lance she would be right back. Arthur watched as Merlin turned to wave at Arthur. Arthur held up a hand in a still wave, and then turned to Lance with a polite smile.
“I'm not much for weddings, but this was all very nicely done,” Arthur said after a pause for thought.
Lance was looking at Arthur with unnervingly complete attention. “Thank you. I'm glad you could be here. Gwen's told me a lot about you.”
Arthur looked in Gwen's direction. She was talking to someone Arthur didn't recognise, while she hung onto Merlin's arm. Arthur smiled at the sight. “All good I hope.”
“She says you're a good man,” Lance said. Arthur blinked, turning to Lance. “You seem surprised.”
“She couldn’t possibly know that,” Arthur said. “I'd hazard a guess that Gwaine probably has a better impression of my character.”
Lance grinned brightly. “Gwaine is a hard man to please. But, he does care for his friends a great deal. Especially Merlin.”
Arthur nodded. “I'm glad. Good friends are hard to find.”
Lance smiled warmly, opening his mouth to say something just as Gwen called out for him. He looked in her direction, waved and then turned back to Arthur, patting him on the arm with an apologetic smile. “Best go. Can't make the wife angry on day one.”
Arthur smiled, nodding. “Absolutely not.”
Lance was barely out of earshot when Arthur heard a positively bored voice behind him groan, “Ugh.”
Arthur frowned and turned around to find Gwaine with drink in one hand, and something half-nibbled in the other. “What is it?”
“No one is that perfect. Look at him, with the raven hair and the matinee idol smile, pores oozing with goodness,” Gwaine said, nose turned up. “How is that even possible?”
“No idea,” Arthur said with a knowing nod. “But...oddly enough, I find myself believing it.”
“He's a beautiful man,” Gwaine said, giving Arthur a sullen look.
Arthur laughed. “If it helps, I understand your dilemma.”
“Yeah?” Gwaine said. “Good. I'd think there was something wrong with you otherwise.”
“From what I understand, you think that anyway,” Arthur said.
“Merlin's my best friend,” Gwaine said with a shrug. “Got to look out for him. Don't want him ending up with some total bastard.”
Arthur nodded, his eyes zeroing in on Merlin who was smiling brightly, flashing his grin at Lance, looking happy and at ease in his black velvet blazer and faded grey jeans, terribly ironed white shirt safely out of sight, top two buttons open. Something about how carefree he looked warmed Arthur all the way from the smile on his face to his chest.
“Well, fuck me.” Arthur looked at Gwaine who looked thoroughly amused. “Aren't you just the smitten kitten.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes at Gwaine. “Not that this isn't lovely, but I think I might I go spend some quality time with my boyfriend.”
“You're boyfriends now? When did this momentous event happen?” Gwaine asked, brows climbing. Arthur blinked at Gwaine, realising that up until this moment, he and Merlin hadn't really set anything in stone. Merlin had just been his...well, Merlin. Gwaine shook his head. “This is why I hate weddings. One minute you're shagging, the next minute you're calling people your boyfriend, and then, guess what, home-made papier mâché wedding invites.”
Arthur rubbed both his hands across his face, before looking at Gwaine. “No one's getting married, Gwaine.”
“We're at a wedding,” Gwaine said flatly. “Someone literally just got married.”
“I mean, Merlin and I are not getting married,” Arthur explained slowly. “Besides, if such a thing was ever going to happen, rest assured, I'm not a total bastard.”
Gwaine had narrowed his eyes at Arthur. “So. No wedding bells just yet?”
“No. No wedding bells,” Arthur said, Gwaine appraising him for a few silent moments.
“Too bad, mate. I was getting used to the idea,” Gwaine finally said with a smile before nodding at someone and walking off in their direction, leaving Arthur rooted to the spot and frowning.
It was late when Merlin and Arthur said their goodbyes to a happily drunk bride and groom. They walked along huddled together, the night chill especially biting. Merlin glanced at Arthur as they walked down the street to his flat. Arthur had his long black coat pulled tight, and the cold air made him look strange and ghostly, his hair unnaturally bright under the yellow glow of lamppost lights. Dressed casually, he had drawn appreciative glances at the party in a fashionable dark blue blazer, a shirt so pale blue Merlin wasn't sure it wasn't white, worn with dark sand coloured trousers that should have looked idiotic, but somehow by the power of having Arthur in them had managed to avoid all idiocy.
“You didn't tell me your boyfriend was coming dressed as Jay Gatsby,” Gwaine had remarked, Merlin only hearing one word.
“Boyfriend?” Merlin had repeated, laughing at Gwaine.
“Mmmm,” Gwaine had grumbled around a cigarette. “Well, that's what he's calling you, Daisy.”
Merlin hadn't given this thing a name, let alone himself, but apparently he was now Whirlwind Boyfriend.
“So,” Merlin quietly drew out the word. Arthur glanced across at Merlin, arching a brow. There was a slight flush high on his cheeks, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Boyfriend.”
Arthur looked at the street, nodding. “A friend. Who is a boy. I take it Gwaine voiced his displeasure?”
“He said he's disappointed I'm wasting my whoring years away. He’s not coming in on Monday in protest,” Merlin replied. Arthur let out a quiet laugh, his smile catching the light of the moon. Merlin watched his profile in silence for a moment; he looked like something out of a book, a knight – shining. It almost hurt to look at him. “Are we? Boyfriends?”
Arthur didn't answer immediately, their footsteps deafening on the pavement. When he answered, it was with a shake of the head, a frown disturbing his features. “I don't think we are.”
Merlin nodded, without disappointment. Boyfriend didn't seem right to him either. “Right.”
Arthur stopped and turned to look at Merlin, biting his lip. His eyes were searching the space around Merlin before settling on him. “I kind of feel like it's a bit...more.”
“Right,” Merlin said, nodding. Arthur was watching him, waiting. Merlin licked his bottom lip, still nodding, cleverly replying. “That sounds about right.”
“Yeah,” Arthur said with a nod. “I thought...I thought you might think that. Hoped, actually.”
“I do,” Merlin said. “Bit bigger than a whirlwind.”
“Right,” Arthur said quietly. He tentatively asked, “Is that okay?”
The question pulled at Merlin from right between his lungs. Arthur always seemed so impenetrable, as if he walked around wearing invisible armour, and hearing him sound almost afraid, it shook Merlin a little. Merlin stepped forward and kissed him. Arthur curled an arm around Merlin's back.
“Definitely okay.” Merlin nodded at him, eyes prickling for some unknown reason, grin growing across his face. “Gwaine's going to be a nightmare, but I can live with that.”
Arthur grinned, his smile brighter than the shine of the full moon. He wrapped his arm around Merlin's shoulders as they carried on making their way towards Merlin's flat. Minutes later they walked through the door kissing, stumbling haphazardly from the hallway to the bedroom, pulling at each other’s clothes until they were off and lay forgotten on the floor. They tumbled into bed breathless and frantic, Merlin making a frustrated noise when Arthur rolled him onto his back, twining their hands together above Merlin's head. Their kisses slowed down, the sense of urgency suddenly dissipating, leaving behind what felt like the syrup slow passage of time.
“What?” Arthur whispered, and Merlin realised he had gasped, opening his mouth to say something, words evaporating before they arrived at his lips. He slowly shook his head, staring up at Arthur whose body had stolen all the light that had filtered past half-closed curtains, making him seem like the ghost of a tragic hero in some sad poem.
Merlin swallowed. “Don't stop.”
Arthur nodded, pressing his lips to Merlin's.
"So you and Gwaine." Arthur said quietly as Merlin shifted to lay his head on Arthur's arm which was stretched out across his pillow. "I do believe I have sensed some frisson on occasion, you know."
Merlin laughed, a lazy half-asleep sound. “What?”
"You're both fairly cosy with each other," Arthur said, his shrug about as nonchalant as a taser.
Merlin turned his head, eyes sparkling in the dark, along with his grin. "Are you jealous? That's adorable."
Arthur narrowed his eyes as he shook his head. "You're asking for a smack."
"You like me," Merlin said slowly, dropping his voice slightly.
Arthur spluttered out a laugh. He looked at Merlin, who lay illuminated by the moonlight insinuating itself into the darkened bedroom. He whispered quietly, "That's not totally awful is it?"
Merlin offered a tilted smile. "No. Not even a tiny bit awful."
Arthur leaned towards Merlin, placing a quick, light kiss on his lips. Merlin shifted, and it seemed he was ready to fall asleep. Arthur grimaced up at the ceiling and said, "Gwaine."
Merlin laughed. "Is a really good mate."
"The thing that has me intrigued is the fact that the man has published a book, with a contract to publish another and he's still loitering in your bookshop," Arthur said with a frown.
"Apparently smut doesn't pay as well as you might think," Merlin said so seriously that Arthur couldn't help bursting into laughter. "What? I'm serious."
"I think he just likes being around you," Arthur said.
"I am delightful," Merlin said, prompting another laugh out of Arthur. "Look, we're good mates. Nothing more. Plus, he's not my type."
"What is your type?" Arthur asked, expecting no serious answer.
"Well, you know blond, blue eyes. Nice mouth. Big bum."
"I do not have a big bum," Arthur said.
"No one's perfect," Merlin teased.
Arthur glared at the ceiling before he turned and made a grab for Merlin, both of them laughing, Arthur trying to wrestle Merlin into submission. It ended in slow sleepy kisses, both of them falling asleep tangled with each other and the sheets. Hours later, Arthur awoke with the sun softly peering through the curtains, gentle and unobtrusive. Arthur pulled at the blankets, nestling back under into the warmth, Merlin asleep at his side, his face burrowed into the pillow, brow dented with irritation. Arthur wanted to reach out and smooth away whatever it was that disrupted Merlin's dreams on a regular basis, but sleeping next to Merlin had taught him that the best he could do was to stay close for when he would wake. Arthur considered rousing Merlin from his uneasy sleep, but his phone interrupted the thought with a shrill ring that did it for him.
“What?” Merlin said, blinking furiously as he pushed himself up.
“It's just my phone,” Arthur said, picking it up from the bedside table as he slipped out of bed. Merlin watched him, half awake. “Go back to sleep.”
Merlin scowled at him as he left the bedroom and headed down the hall into the living room. The name of the caller stopped him in his tracks.
“Morgana,” he said, answering.
“It's all yours, no contest,” she said, in her usual tone that suggested both boredom and disinterest. “I got the papers for the apartment yesterday, and signed off the estate. By all means, go be lord of the manor.”
“Right,” Arthur said, suddenly unsure of what he was meant to do with a sprawling country mansion. “Thanks.”
Morgana was quiet for a while, tone softer when she spoke. “It's not going to make you happy, you know. No one was ever happy there, Arthur. Not you. Not me. Our parents, definitely not. If you have any sense, you'll sell it off and be rid of it.”
“And here I was thinking we might spend next Christmas there together,” Arthur said.
Arthur expected Morgana to hang up, but instead he heard a soft chuckle. “You sold that chair yet?”
“No,” Arthur said, smiling. “It's absolutely hideous.”
Morgana laughed. Silence. And then, “Right. Bye then.”
“Talk to you soon,” Arthur challenged.
More silence. And then, “Yeah. Bye.”
“Bye,” Arthur said, listening until she hung up. He looked at the phone for a moment before slowly heading back into the bedroom. Merlin was awake, blinking blearily. “Sorry, that was Morgana.”
“Everything okay?” Merlin asked.
Arthur nodded, thinking about what Morgana had said. Maybe the house would never be happy, but that was mostly because the happy memories made there were so few. So maybe it was time to make some new ones.
“Merlin, how do you feel about a long weekend away?”
“A romantic weekend away,” Gwen said slowly. “Looks like Prince Charming wants some alone alone time.”
Her laugh vibrated in the earbud of Merlin's hands-free kit, as he sat slumped against the sofa cushions, gaze shifting between the muted television, and his phone which sat perched on the armrest of the sofa.
“You and Gwaine should form a double-act,” Merlin said.
“I think it sounds lovely.” Merlin could almost see the little defiant jerk of Gwen's head, and the half-pout it definitely would have come with. Merlin hummed, pulling a face that Gwen couldn't see, but knowing her, most likely could hear. “Don't you want to go?”
“I don't know,” Merlin muttered. “In London...it's different. In London we're just two guys who work on the opposite sides of the street. Away from all this, he has a family estate, and I'm the bloke with no background and a borrowed last name.”
“I dare you to tell your mum that,” Gwen said. “See if you don't get a smack.”
“I don't mean...” Merlin grimaced, squeezing his eyes shut. When he opened them, he did so with a defeated sigh. “I don't know what I mean.”
“You mean that the moment you're standing in his expensive house, he's going to feel completely different about you, what with his brain suddenly turning into a flan.” Gwen sounded annoyed, and though that could be scary, it made Merlin smile. “Merlin, enjoy it for what it is. You're over-thinking this.”
“Right.” Merlin blew out a breath, which did nothing to ease the flutter of anxiety he had been feeling since Arthur proposed the getaway.
“Lance is asking, how is Arthur?”
Merlin smiled, having heard a distant shout. “He's good. He just sold his apartment, so like most normal people he's moved into a hotel room while he's looking for a new place.”
“Hotel room?” Gwen asked. “You have a spare bedroom.”
“I do, but I'm getting quite used to sleeping over in the lap of luxury,” Merlin said, grinning when he heard what bordered on a giggle. He hummed thoughtfully. “Actually, he's spent more time here than his hotel room.”
“No offence, but wow.”
Merlin nodded. “Offence taken, totally taken. It's...a bit...nice?”
Gwen burst out laughing. “A bit nice.”
Merlin groaned. “Don't make me say things.”
“Things like what, Merlin?” Gwen coaxed.
“Things like,” he murmured, unsure of what he meant when he said, “how it all feels weirdly right. Like he's always meant to have been...Like I've always known him.”
Gwen was deathly quiet for a moment. “Merlin...are you in-”
“Nope!” Merlin cut her off, sounding loud even to his own ears. “I'm not in anything. Besides lust. Just lust.”
“And trouble,” Gwen suggested. “Sounds like you have it bad to me.”
As if the cosmos was in cahoots with Gwen, that was the moment Arthur walked into the living room, scowling at a folded magazine. Shaking his head, he dumped it on the kitchen counter and looked in Merlin's direction, mouthing, 'tea?'. Merlin gave him the thumbs up, getting one in return, and watched Arthur take off his coat, disappear into the hallway to hang it up, before reappearing and walking into the kitchen, rolling up his shirt sleeves. Merlin blew out a breath, feeling an onslaught of mixed up waves of emotion that seemed to uncomfortably roll in and out of his lungs.
“Is he there?” Gwen whispered.
“Yeah,” Merlin said slowly.
“What's he doing?”
“Making tea and re-evaluating his life choices,” Merlin said, spotting Arthur retrieve a red mug from one of the cupboards, a mug he always used. It made another bubble of anxiety pop right in the middle of Merlin's chest.
“Are you freaking out?” Gwen asked, and somehow Merlin heard the roll of her eyes.
“Yep,” Merlin said.
“Stop it,” Gwen ordered.
Marlin rolled his eyes. “Okay.”
“Merlin?” Gwen said quietly. “Can you promise me something?”
“What?” Merlin asked, heart skipping a beat.
“Please let me break the news to Gwaine when you decide to get married.”
“Goodbye, Gwen,” he said, hearing a splutter of a laugh.
He smiled, but his heart was still skipping strangely after he ended the call and looked at Arthur, especially when Arthur caught his gaze and smiled back brightly, looking like he belonged where Merlin could always see him.
Merlin had been subdued for a few days now. Arthur wondered if it had to do with their conversation following Gwen's wedding, or the fact that Arthur was now more often than not spending the night in Merlin's flat. It was one thing to make declarations of being more-than-a-boyfriend, but Arthur practically moving in was probably not what Merlin had been expecting.
Arthur cast an eye over Merlin's bedroom. There wasn't really much of his stuff here, save a few necessary things in the bathroom, and some general belongings that went with him on a day-to-day basis. Merlin's bedroom was still very much his, dark woods and textures, comfortably untidy, and quick to warm up. Arthur's presence was in the form of his now shed attire hung on a hook on the back of the door, his shoes under the window and radiator, his phone on the bedside table, and of course, him in Merlin's bed, iPad forgotten in hand.
He was an easily removable presence. The thought, at first, was a relief. Being easily removable meant that it was easy to walk away without looking back. But the relief abated to something grey and uneasy. Merlin had somehow become very difficult to walk away from. He was lying in bed with Arthur, silent and focused on the television up against the opposite wall, hand resting on his stomach, holding the remote. Even silent and lost in his own thoughts, Merlin's presence seemed to fill a million hollow spaces Arthur hadn't even realised existed.
Arthur clenched down on an uneasy feeling and swiped the screen of his iPad, only to hear Merlin ask, “What?”
“I didn't say anything,” Arthur said, scowling at Merlin.
Merlin's mouth spread into an easy smile. “You started to, and then you changed your mind.”
Arthur stared at him for a moment, and then just smiled, shaking his head. “I was going to embarrass you by thanking you for not throwing me out, seeing as I've all but moved in.”
Merlin's smile had faded, leaving him unreadable for the moment. He shrugged, eyes still on the television. “It's not exactly a hardship having you around.”
Arthur looked at Merlin, not doubting Merlin, but perhaps too pessimistic to be convinced. “Really?”
Merlin's head flopped to the side, eyes rolling towards Arthur, one corner of his mouth tilting up. His grin was more than convincing when he said, “Really.”
Arthur smiled. “Well, if you're able to find the time to come with me to Somerset, I'll be sure to repay the hospitality.”
Merlin nodded, pointing the remote at the television. “Tempting.”
“The drive up is fantastic, you know,” Arthur said, “especially if you're a bookish sort who turns everything into a theatrical production.”
Merlin dropped the remote control, rolling onto his side and blinking up at Arthur. “I'm listening.”
Arthur put aside his iPad, attention completely on Merlin. “Well, once out of the city, for a long time it's just fields, and trees, different kinds of greens, long stretches of road and sky. The odd bale of hay. Sheep. Incredibly dramatic scenes.”
“Sheep drama?” Merlin asked, dropping his voice, deep and serious.
Arthur nodded seriously, somehow. “Oh, that's nothing. There's this one stretch of road, I believe it's called...a motor way? It just seems to go on forever and ever. When it gets stormy, the rain creates an almost blinding mist. Sometimes...you start to see things.”
Merlin laughed. “You're a ridiculous person.”
Arthur shifted to lie down, propping himself up on an elbow. “The souls of travellers past, they say.”
“They do, do they?” Merlin asked, laughing quietly.
Arthur nodded seriously. “They do. If you're lucky and pass through the mist, you get to a long, winding, narrow country lane, with an exceptionally atrocious lack of lighting, pitch black if you're stupid enough to drive at night. In daylight, you can see the tall overhanging trees that line it on both sides, all the way to the gates, which open onto a smaller lane that takes you into Kingbury, the most miserable looking fuck of a country estate you're ever likely to see. How's that for drama?”
Merlin closed his eyes, a grin breaking out across his face before he laughed, his body shaking. Arthur smiled, until he felt heat fill his face, cheeks burning as he watched, feeling oddly breathless at the messy unfurling feeling in his chest. Shit, he thought as he stared at Merlin, shit.
“You decided about the romantic getaway to Brideshead yet?” Gwaine asked. Merlin gave Gwaine a stern look. “Fine. Looking forward to shagging outside of London?”
“You're a twat,” Merlin said, jabbing the keyboard before him. The shop was quiet. Gwaine sat behind the counter not-reading, and Merlin was next to him at the computer, not-ordering books.
“He's probably planning on eating you,” Gwaine said.
Merlin slowly turned his gaze away from the monitor to stare at Gwaine. “What?”
“That's what country life is all about. Weird shit. Sheep shagging. Six fingers. Eating people,” Gwaine answered.
“Gwaine,” Merlin said softly, “I'm beginning to worry about you, mate.”
“Fine. He probably doesn't want to eat you. Not in the literal sense anyway,” Gwaine said, eyebrows bouncing up and down suggestively. Merlin pulled a face. “I'm not joking. He probably wants to whisk you away for a long weekend of dirty filthy sex in his creaky old house.”
Merlin chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. “You know, it...seems a bit big. We've only been together like a month. That's not long. Well, for normal people. It's long for you.”
“A month was how long it took for Gwen to start throwing around words like soul mate and meant to be. Now look at her.”
“That's different,” Merlin said. “Her and Lance...there really is something very meant to be about them. They're going to last. You can see it.”
“What about you and antique-features?” Gwaine asked, looking genuinely curious. “You don't think it's going to last?”
“Arthur is...great,” Merlin said, thinking over Gwaine's question. “But doesn't mean he can't get bored of all this.”
Gwaine grimaced. “Mate, you're not talking about Arthur.”
“This isn't about my dad,” Merlin said with a shake of his head.
“Everything we do is about where we come from. But you can't spend your whole life waiting for people to abandon you just because-”
“My real parents did? The guy who was supposed to become my dad walked out?” Merlin asked with a weak grin. He shook his head. “Some people are meant to be alone, Gwaine. It's not a big deal.”
“You're not alone, you idiot. You've got me. You've got Gwen. I'm pretty sure Lance is looking into adopting you. And I think Gatsby's got it fairly bad for you. I don't think he's going anywhere soon,” Gwaine said grudgingly. “So stop being so fucking melodramatic, and...go have sex in his big creepy mansion. I'll even look after this place while you're gone.”
Merlin smiled at Gwaine. “Look at you. Being all nice and understanding. It's freaking me out.”
“Go tell it to your cannibal boyfriend,” Gwaine said, walking off in a strop as Merlin grinned.
Arthur straightened the throw over his chair and stepped back to look at it. The ugliness of the chair was hidden from view, but sadly, not from mind. Arthur turned and sat down, leaning back with a sigh. Still sinfully comfortable, so much so that he almost nodded off, jerking awake when the bell dinged. Merlin walked in with two cups of coffee, no coat, and a scarf wrapped around his neck and half his face.
Arthur blinked sleepily. “Cold?”
Merlin wriggled his chin over his scarf. “Freezing. Slow day?”
Arthur yawned, rubbing his eyes. “Blissfully.”
Merlin walked around Arthur's desk, perching himself on the edge so his shin was pressed against Arthur's outstretched leg. Arthur nudged Merlin's leg playfully, a lazy smile on his face.
Merlin handed him one of the coffees. “Don't you get bored?”
Arthur looked around around the shop, and thought back to meetings, phone conferences, business trips, boring cocktail parties and boring dinners. With a shake of his head, he replied, “Nope. What about you? You can't be busy all day long. I saw you and Gwaine playing with a balloon the other day.”
“You just answered your own question. I have Gwaine. And a balloon.”
Arthur laughed, feeling a sudden urge to pull that scarf from around Merlin's neck, maybe pulling him along, all the way down.
“I came to talk to you about something,” Merlin said.
“Uh oh?” Arthur asked, raising a brow
Merlin smiled. “I would...very much like to accompany you to your draughty home in the country.”
Arthur blinked up at Merlin, eyes widening. “Really? I didn't think you were particularly keen on the idea.”
“Well, I was worried that after the first 24 hours, you might have enough of me,” Merlin said with a tilted self-deprecating smile.
Arthur grinned, shaking his head. “Impossible.”
Merlin pointed at Arthur. “Challenge accepted.”
Arthur put his coffee aside and stood up, leaning in and bumping a kiss against Merlin's mouth. “You don't have to if you don't want to. Really. I just...feel greedy.”
Merlin tilted his head at Arthur. “Greedy?”
“Everything I...like...in one place,” Arthur said quietly. “The house. You. My grandfather's outrageously self-indulgent library stacked to the rafters with rare and special collections.”
Merlin shook his head, blinking. “I'm sorry what?”
“Oh. Did I not mention the library?” Arthur asked innocently.
“You did not. I would have remembered,” Merlin said slowly.
“Hmm, funny, thought I had,” Arthur said with a grin. He looked past Merlin, out of the window onto the dismal grey street. “Not in a rush to get back, are you?”
“No,” Merlin replied, frowning. Arthur pulled away from him and crossed the shop floor to lock the door, turning the sign to 'Closed'. “Ummm, what are you doing?”
Arthur strode back a little more manfully than he had on the way to the door, watching Merlin get up to face him with a gloriously amused look. Arthur reached out and took Merlin's hand, pulling him around and dragging him to the cluttered back room, pushing Merlin gently up against the wall.
“What?” Merlin whispered, a soft look on his face.
Arthur smiled, his fingers finding the hem of Merlin's sweater and creeping under, stroking warm skin. He pressed a soft kiss to Merlin's mouth. “Just feeling greedy.”
“Tell me again,” Merlin whispered that night, blinking at the moon which hung low on the other side of the window. “About the drive to Kingbury.”
Arthur spooned up a little closer behind Merlin, his mouth grazing the back of Merlin's shoulder. He sounded sleepy when he murmured, “The drive...is like going back in time. First you leave the concrete of the city, then you pass the fields, and then you drive down the long winding road up to the iron gates, behind which is Kingbury.”
“The most miserable looking fuck of a country estate you're ever likely to see,” Merlin said with a grin. Arthur laughed, his breath warm on the back of Merlin's neck, sending an unexpected shiver down his spine. “Are you tired?”
“Why?” Arthur asked. Merlin turned over to face Arthur, leaning forward and kissing him soft and slow, his fingers curling around the back of Arthur's neck, his leg hooking over Arthur's. He pulled back momentarily, long enough to hear Arthur whisper, “No. Not tired at all.”
“Good,” Merlin said, drawing Arthur into another kiss.
~ end of Part I ~
Part II: The Castle
The road to Kingbury might have been a scenic one during the day, but not when it was taken during a dark winter evening. It was a long stretch of black, which then turned to a long stretch of black interspersed with flashes of lightning in the distance, bony bright fingers that beckoned them towards Arthur’s childhood home. Merlin couldn’t help but grin, telling Arthur in a high and wavering voice, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Arthur laughed, making something warm and soft fill Merlin’s chest cavity. If someone had asked him to describe what he felt when he saw Arthur laugh or smile, he’d say it was like wearing a woolly sweater on the inside rather than the out – or something equally too embarrassing to repeat. It was a strange and oddly safe feeling, filling his mind with happy colours, reds and golds, warm greens and earthy browns. It was a frighteningly happy feeling.
Merlin sat back in his seat, beyond comfortable in Arthur’s roomy Jeep, so much so, he would have happily spent the next four days in it, as long as Arthur was with him. He sleepily watched other cars on the motorway, rushing onwards to their own destinations. The moon was full and high up in the sky, looking down on them all, a beacon to all travellers. Merlin looked back up it, imagining it to be an all seeing eye, watching over everyone throughout the ages. He looked away when thunder cracked hard overhead, making him jump in his seat.
“What the fuck,” he whispered, sitting forward and peering out of the window.
“So, the weather’s a bit worse than I expected it to be,” Arthur said, shrugging. Merlin stared at him. Arthur quickly glanced at Merlin before looking back at the road. “Merlin, this Jeep is practically a tank. Just relax, we’re not far off now.”
“We almost got hit by lightning,” Merlin said, very seriously.
“We did not,” Arthur said with a laugh, before quietly muttering, “just felt that way.”
The rain continued to fall, thunder alternating between striking and irritably grumbling over them the whole way. Just when Merlin thought the drive couldn’t get more worrying, they turned off the motorway and into country country. It meant long winding narrow lanes between fields and only enough lighting to catch sight of the grim reaper, presumably when he would come hurtling around a blind corner at an insane speed.
“Anyone ever think of putting a few more lights up here?” Merlin asked, squinting at the dark lane, the ground lit by the Jeep’s headlights, illuminating only the immediate path ahead.
“Anyone who’s ever wrapped their car around an old creaky gate,” Arthur said. “However, that would mean ruining the natural beauty of the countryside.”
“What? The corpses of city drivers?” Merlin asked.
Arthur grinned. “It’s not that bad, is it? Do you know, if we stopped and got out right now, even with the rain you’d be able to see all the stars. Out here, the night sky is really is a night sky, without all the light pollution.”
Merlin smiled, glancing at the rain-speckled window, seeing only dark, but happy enough to imagine Arthur’s stars. “You’ll have to show me.”
“Yeah,” Merlin said with a nod. “You know, I mean, prove it.”
“Ah,” Arthur said. “Here I was thinking you just wanted a cuddle under the stars.”
Merlin laughed, pulling a face. “Shut up.”
“Just a thought I had,” Arthur said, grinning. He turned onto another death trap lane, telling Merlin, “Here we go. Almost there.”
Almost there rung a bell. This was the long winding road Arthur had mentioned, lined by tall trees on both sides. The moonlight hit them just right, making them seem like looming giants that peered at passing visitors, some of them with branches that waved like limbs flailing in warning. Merlin watched them as Arthur drove slower, trees bowing on both sides of the long road.
“A long, winding, narrow country lane,” Merlin murmured with a smile. Arthur glanced at him, smiling too. “With tall overhanging trees, all the way to the gates.”
Merlin pointed ahead as the gates came into view, looking like a mixture of black blocks and straight-lined shadows. They were tall and regal, between a high wall, over which Merlin could only see more trees, Kingbury hidden safely behind their coverage. As they neared, lights in the ground revealed the shapes adorning the gates, two strong dragons, one on each gate, both facing each other, their wings spread behind them.
“And then,” Merlin said quietly, as Arthur stopped the Jeep, winding down the window to talk to someone through an intercom. The gates began to open slowly, Arthur winding up his window. Merlin held out his hand, as if he had magically pushed the gates open, whispering theatrically, “Kingbury.”
“You know, Merlin, there is something very wrong with you,” Arthur said, looking far too amused to believe what he was saying.
Merlin laughed, until thunder struck resoundingly loud over their heads. Rain was hitting the car windows hard and lightning was streaking across the sky like uneven fork prongs scratching at the black, the moon keeping quiet watch as Arthur drove down the narrow lane. In the distance, Kingbury rose up like a lost city from the sea, complete with towers and turrets, severe rigid lines, more shadows against the dark of the night.
“Oh my god,” Merlin whispered. “Is that a castle?”
Arthur snorted. “It’s not a castle.”
“It has turrets,” Merlin responded incredulously.
“Merlin, if you’d been around in the eighteen-hundreds, they would have stuck a turret on you too,” Arthur said.
“An actual castle,” Merlin murmured.
“Stop. Saying. That,” Arthur said slowly, the definitely a castle now getting closer and bigger as they turned onto a gravel drive.
Merlin opened his window half-way, even though it meant he got a face full of rain. It felt less like the Jeep was driving towards Kingbury and more like the house was somehow stalking slowly towards Merlin and Arthur, its long dark windows giving off the illusion of an angry scowl on the weathered face of the brown brick structure. The lights in the ground were beaming upwards, creating glowing arcs up the sides, whilst lightning crackled overhead, the building long, cross shaped, Merlin guessed from the large structure jutting out near the front, a tower on top, and shielding an entrance to the house below, the gravel road running right under it.
Merlin felt his stomach flip. This house looming over him belonged to Arthur, it was a world away from Merlin’s existence. If anything spelled out the difference between him and Arthur, it had to be a country estate, even if he could ignore for the moment that Arthur had been the sole heir of a fortune. When Merlin looked at the house again, those long windows seemed to arch at the top in disdain now rather than architectural fashion.
Arthur brought the Jeep to a stop and unbuckled his seatbelt, telling Merlin, “We’ll have to make a run for it. Come on.”
Merlin nodded, Arthur already climbing out of the car and opening one of the passenger doors to grab his own holdall and Merlin’s hefty rucksack. Merlin followed, holding out his hand for one of the bags. Arthur slung the rucksack over a shoulder, held onto the bag with one hand and took Merlin’s hand, pulling him along to the short end of the house. They sprinted through the rain together, all the way around the house to the other side, where Arthur let them in through a side door into a dark and warm room.
When the lights came on, Merlin saw they were in a spacious kitchen, the centrepiece a long wooden table, the essentials lining the outer edges of the kitchen, which was fairly modern, reined in through rustic colours. Merlin could see a door to the side, perched atop three steps, opening into a dark hallway. Merlin was still trying to peer into it when Arthur came up behind him, pulling him close in a hug from behind.
“So, what do you think?” Arthur asked as Merlin turned to face him.
“I like your castle very much,” Merlin said with a nod, grinning when Arthur rolled his eyes. “Don’t suppose there’s a pizza place nearby is there?”
Arthur narrowed his eyes, letting go of Merlin and backing away to the corner of the kitchen, where he opened the fridge and pulled out a large pizza, bringing it to Merlin, as he tipped his chin at something over Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin turned to look at the Aga which seemed to take pride of place in the kitchen. Behind him, Arthur put the pizza on the table before hooking his chin over Merlin’s shoulder.
“How about you stick that in the oven and I’ll go put our bags away?” Merlin turned around and aimed a narrow-eyed look at Arthur, receiving a grin in return, Arthur picking up their bags and walking out into the hallway. Merlin sighed and looked back at the Aga. “Okay. Stick in oven. I’m sure that’s simple enough.”
Merlin took off his parka, hanging it over a chair, before taking up a spot in front of the Aga. After a few minutes, he came to the conclusion he wasn’t really hungry enough to accidentally blow up Kingbury. He was reaching out to experimentally prod when an unfamiliar voice startled him by remarking, “Ah. There you...oh.”
Merlin turned around to see a surprised expression on the weathered face of a man who was possibly a butler called Alfred. He looked around seventy, a weathered face under a full head of white hair sprinkled with some grey. A good few inches shorter than Merlin, he had a frame that looked slight in his smart tweedy suit. But the brown of his eyes had a fierce amber tint to them, which made him seem slight only in the way an elegant sword might not look dangerous immediately.
“Hi,” Merlin said with a smile. The man gave him a single nod, his gaze flicking up and down Merlin in quiet assessment. Merlin opened his mouth to introduce himself, the other man still silently watching him.
“Emerson!” Arthur said, bounding back into the kitchen, having lost both his jacket and his shoes. He had a warm smile on his face as he went to Emerson, giving him a hearty embrace. Emerson gave Arthur a pat on the back, smiling warmly. Arthur pulled away partially, keeping one arm around Emerson’s shoulders. “Merlin? Emerson Drake. Emerson, Merlin Lord.”
Merlin smiled politely, stepping forward and holding out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Emerson said, taking Merlin’s hand in a surprisingly strong grip, his sharp gaze a little too unsettling for Merlin’s liking. He held onto Merlin’s hand a little too long for comfort, time in which Merlin felt his smile falter.
Arthur clapped a hand on Emerson’s back. “Emerson looks after about everything here. By which I mean he makes long lists of things to do just to make me want to kill myself.”
“Talking of lists, Wart,” Emerson said, turning to Arthur.
Merlin looked at Arthur, his mouth forming around the name Wart. Arthur looked at him and shook his head, pointing at Merlin. “No. And, no to whatever lists you have waiting for me, Emerson.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Emerson’s mouth as he nodded. “Very well. I’ll just inform you when the east wing collapses completely.”
“Appreciate it,” Arthur said shamelessly, making Merlin clamp down on a smile.
Emerson nodded to the forgotten pizza on the kitchen table. “Would you like me to put that in the oven for you?”
“No, we’ll take care of it. It’s way past your bedtime,” Arthur said.
“Indeed,” Emerson said with a smile. He looked at Merlin, paused long enough to make him want to fidget, before telling him, “Goodnight.”
“Night,” Merlin said, watching Emerson leave as quietly as he had appeared. As soon as he was out of earshot, Merlin looked at Arthur and said, “Wart?”
“Don’t. You. Dare,” Arthur said, opening the pizza box.
“What? It’s adorable,” Merlin said with a grin.
“Merlin, unless you want to end up sleeping outside under a tree, I’d stop where there is going,” Arthur said, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He picked up the pizza and walked over to the Aga, pouting at it in thought. “Bugger.”
Merlin nodded. “You don’t know how it works, do you?”
Arthur looked towards the door and yelled, “Emerson!”
For all the fuss, the pizza turned out to be fairly uneventful. Arthur and Merlin had eaten before setting out, and they weren’t exactly hungry. What Arthur really had been craving was a good glass of wine, and unsurprisingly, Merlin had fully supported drinks to wash down the pizza.
“What do you want?” Arthur asked him.
“What have you got?” Merlin replied with a waggle of his eyebrows, pizza poised near mouth. Arthur took a moment to appreciate what looked more edible in the moment.
He then proceeded to reel off a list of all the drink, which included a wine cellar full of old wines, the kitchen with a supply of fresh plonk, the drawing room with a sideboard of hard booze, and the fridge stocked with reliable old beer. Merlin’s eyes had lit up slightly.
“What?” Arthur asked with narrowed eyes.
“Pub crawl,” Merlin said. “Only...not.”
Arthur’s eyes slid from Merlin to the fridge in thought. Emerson was in bed, doing things old people did in bed, like praying, Arthur hoped. It was late, the beginning of their long weekend, and he and Merlin were in the flush of saucy youth. Arthur pointed at Merlin and nodded, silent approval of a fine idea, and then proceeded to the fridge.
They started with the booze at hand and pizza, Merlin still fixated on Arthur’s nickname, before he dropped that subject to grin at Arthur and ask him, “So...is Emerson your butler?”
“You’re an idiot,” Arthur said, shaking his head, which sent Merlin into a fit of laughter, which made Arthur turn red like a smitten school boy. As useless as it was, he hid his blush behind a glass of wine.
From the kitchen they progressed to the wine cellar, Merlin a little more tipsy, having somehow managed to trick Arthur into eating most of the awful pizza. Arthur led them down steep stairs that went down under the house into the stone wine cellar lined with wooden shelves and racks, Merlin following close behind. Arthur looked back at him on the narrow staircase, smiling at him for no reason he could of other than the feeling of having Merlin there was...right. It felt so right that Arthur wondered if he’d downed more wine and beer than he’d realised.
“Which end do you want to start on?” Arthur asked, as they walked up to the shelves.
Merlin laughed. “Which end?”
Arthur shrugged. “Pick a bottle.”
“What? Just any bottle?” Merlin asked, with a tone of daring.
“Yes, Merlin, any bottle,” Arthur said. “Can’t quite see the point of a collection that no one’s enjoyed in a while.”
Merlin gave Arthur a look before covering his own eyes and reaching out towards the stacks, pulling free a bottle. He turned and handed it to Arthur who took a good look at the label.
“Hmm,” he said, “you have impeccable taste Mr Lord. A 1921 Château d'Yquem Sauternes.”
“That sounds expensive,” Merlin said, pulling a face.
“Just think of it as out of date grape juice,” Arthur said, fishing out a corkscrew from his pocket and proceeding to uncork. “Old. Expensive. Grape Juice.”
He took the cork out and gave it a little sniff before pocketing it, noting that Merlin made a face as if he was sniffing something quite objectionable. Arthur took a swig from the bottle, which made Merlin grin and shake his head. How his father would have frowned upon all this, Arthur thought, a little to satisfied by the notion.
“Oh, yeah. That’s good,” Arthur said with a nod. “Fruity. You’ll like it.”
Merlin took the bottle and gave it a sniff before cautiously drinking. He took a few generous gulps before pulling the bottle away and looking at it as the flavours registered.
He then gave Arthur a sheepish look and said, “Yeah. Yep. Definitely tastes like wine.”
Arthur grinned, nodding. “Brilliant. Onwards then.”
They took turns drinking from the bottle as they made their way back slowly through the dimly lit hallways of the house. Taking a swig from the bottle, Arthur felt like he was a teenager having just sneaked into his father’s endless array of alcohols, and now sneaking back. Only, Merlin was by his side this time, and it didn’t feel anywhere near as lonely.
“You have butler, and a castle, and a bloody wine cellar,” Merlin said, enjoying the wine and now swiftly jogging past the tipsy marker, whereas Arthur could feel the heat and fuzziness of alcohol just beginning to seep into him from the face down.
“It’s not a castle, Merlin, it’s just a bloody old house,” Arthur said, watching Merlin gulp from the bottle, his Adam’s Apple bobbing up and down as he drank. “Emerson is an estate manager. He manages. He doesn’t...buttle. A wine cellar? That’s just a big space with wine. Like...Gwaine’s flat for instance.”
Merlin laughed, giving Arthur a look that suggested his explanation was possibly a stretch. Lifting the bottle up for another swig, he asked, “Now what?”
“To the Fabergé egg room,” Arthur said, making Merlin spit and cough, whilst Arthur laughed, throwing an arm around Merlin.
They ended up in the drawing room. Arthur turned on a single lamp which cast a warm glow throughout the room, brightening just the corner near the sofa, where they lined up some liquor and two shot glasses. Twenty minutes later, everything suddenly seemed much funnier and ridiculous.
“Wart,” Merlin breathed hotly against Arthur’s throat. “So sweet.”
Arthur looked down hazily at Merlin who was lying on top of him, heavy and hot like a furnace. “Is it?”
“Yeah,” Merlin said quietly. “But I like Arthur. I really like Arthur.”
“You do?” Arthur closed his eyes, smiling. Merlin didn’t reply, having gone completely still. “Merlin? Merlin. I’m not carrying you, Merlin.”
Five minutes later, with a lot of effort in coordination, Arthur somehow managed to carry Merlin up the stairs, thrown over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. It was of course this state in which Emerson had to find them both.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, in his ridiculously coordinated beige ensemble of nightgown, pyjamas and slippers.
“Fine. Just a little too much to drink,” Arthur said, his tongue not exactly finding it easy to form words without also sounding drunk.
“I see,” Emerson said, walking on ahead and opening the bedroom door when Arthur got there. Emerson switched on the light and stood aside as Arthur carried Merlin in before dumping him on the bed as gently as possible. He clumsily started to take off Merlin’s shoes, followed by his far too tight jeans, noticing that Emerson was watching him closely. He gave Emerson a look. “What?”
Looking amused, Emerson said, “Nothing.”
“Good,” Arthur said more belligerently than intended, draping Merlin’s jeans over the back of an armchair. He pulled off his shirt and added it to the pile a second later. “Was there something else?”
“Would you like me to make anything specific for breakfast?” Emerson asked. Arthur chuckled, shaking his head. “Your friend?”
“Boyfriend,” Arthur corrected Emerson, earning a smile. “Merlin’s happy as long as there’s tea. You don’t need to worry.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Emerson said, before turning. “Well, I shall let you sleep then. Goodnight.”
“You could do one thing, actually,” Arthur said, scowling at Emerson’s retreating back. Emerson turned to arch a questioning brow at Arthur. “You could maybe be nice to Merlin.
“Nice,” Emerson echoed, as if he was talking about something foul on his shoe.
“Yes, you know, the opposite of that thing you do when I usually bring over boyfriends or girlfriends,” Arthur said a with nod.
Emerson smiled widely at that, nodding. “Ah. Well, if your boyfriend is the opposite of the company you’ve kept in the past, I’m sure you’ll have nothing to worry about. Sleep well.”
Emerson left, closing the door behind him. Arthur finished undressing and turned the light off, climbing into bed. He lay back with a sigh and glanced at the curtains which weren’t closed completely, the moon peeking in through the slit between. The rain was heavy and loud outside, pleasantly comforting, mingling with the warm buzz Arthur was already feeling. Next to him, Merlin sighed and shifted, instinctively moving towards Arthur, snaking an arm over his stomach.
“Such a lightweight,” Arthur whispered. Merlin murmured something back, too incoherent to be understood. Arthur smiled, tangling his fingers in Merlin’s generous mop of hair, slowly falling asleep more content than he’d been a long time.
Merlin’s eyes snapped open because of a strange warbling sound right near his ear. He sat up slowly and looked around the room, blinking until the darkness took on shadows and depth. There it was again, a strange putt putt bubbling close by, something rising in the air around him. Finding nothing, his gaze settled on a pool of silver cast over the bed. Merlin looked at the window from where the light was being cast, the curtains flapping to the sides to reveal the moon looking large and imposing, as if having moved close enough to climb right through the window.
Its reflection rippled in front of Merlin, turning watery. Merlin scrabbled away from the pool which was slowly beginning to spread. Stumbling out of bed, he watched the water spill over the sides of the empty bed, backing away until he was pressed up against the wall, light catching on the surface of the water rising in the darkened room. He turned towards the door, jumping back when he caught sight of pale flesh in the darkened corner of the room.
As cold water began to climb past Merlin’s ankles, an arm reached out towards Merlin from its dark corner, palm turned upwards, its pallor the same as the blue-tinged moonlight. Merlin shook his head, frozen on the spot, water climbing higher and higher, past his knees. He moved along the wall, one step, two steps, and then no more, something grabbing him around his ankle and tugging him into the deep, the floor disappearing from under him.
Merlin flailed, hitting at the water, gasping for air. Above him, the pale hand continued to reach towards him, whilst something else continued to drag him under. In desperation, he finally reached out to grab at the hand. Arms enclosed all the way around him, holding him tight. He screamed.
“Merlin. Merlin. It’s a dream!” Merlin tried to pull away.
There in the corner of the room, a pale shadow was retreating back into the dark, the ripples of water in the room sinking into the floor.
“Merlin?” It was Arthur’s voice, so solid that the world around Merlin seemed to become less and less wispy, more and more tangible. Merlin looked around, finding himself sitting in the middle of the bed, Arthur’s arms around him. He frowned at Arthur. “Hey. You all right?”
Merlin shook his head, slumping against Arthur, breathless and shaking. After a moment, Arthur coaxed Merlin to lie back down, quietly asking him if he wanted to talk about it. Merlin shook his head, murmuring that he was fine, turning onto his side and feigning sleep. Arthur threw an arm around Merlin, falling back to sleep soon after. Merlin remained awake until the early hours of the morning, watching the dark of the room, lying between Arthur and whatever was in the water.
Light flooded the room, shocking Merlin awake. He craned his neck towards the source, feeling somewhat dazed as he slowly pushed himself up on his elbows, and blinked blearily at the room. Its deep blue walls and few shades lighter carpet did nothing to protect his eyeballs from the sunlight streaming through the windows. He felt like hiding in the inky blue of the pillows and bedsheets, and snuffling his face into the Victorian print duvet with its creamy silk cover, just lying there limply for the whole day.
Squinting, Merlin looked away from the window, eyes drawn to the comforting dark chocolate brown wood furnishings. His clothes had been neatly draped over the back of a squat square leather chair to the right of the bed, his rucksack sitting behind it on top of a writing desk which seemed for décor rather than purpose, a wooden chair neatly tucked underneath. Turning his head towards the partially open door on the other side of the room, he spotted a gleaming white bathtub, but no Arthur in sight.
The full length mirror in front of the large wardrobe in one corner of the room showed only Merlin, his reflection pale, eyes looking a little bruised, hair a dark mess. He scowled at himself and looked away, gaze roaming across the line of old tomes that decorated the sideboard up against the wall in front of the bed, their bindings piquing his interest. A discreet cough made him look back at the large bay window where Emerson stood in front of the inky blue drapes, watching Merlin with complete stillness.
He took a step towards the bed. “Good afternoon.”
Merlin opened his mouth, taking a moment to register the fact that he had slept all day. He cleared his throat and sat up. “Afternoon?”
“Wart said to let you sleep,” Emerson said. “But, since it’s well past noon, I thought it best to wake you. I brought some tea and fruit.”
Emerson nodded to the bedside table. There was a small silver tray on top with a glass of water, a white cup filled with tea on a white saucer, and a white bowl of various fruit cut into neat chunks. Merlin’s stomach rebelled at the thought of everything on the tray.
“Thank you,” Merlin told Emerson, a little hoarsely.
Emerson approached the bedside table and picked up the glass of water, handing it to Merlin, before reaching into his pocket for a slim plastic packet of pills, from which he popped out two. He held them out in the palm of his hand.
“Paracetamol. For your head. Wart said you may need them.”
Merlin eyed the pills, slightly annoyed by the presumptive gesture, but his aching head overruled his pride, and he reached out and took the Paracetamol. “Thanks. Again.”
“You're most welcome,” Emerson said, waiting patiently as Merlin swallowed the pills and drank the water. Taking the empty glass, he asked Merlin, “Would you like me to make you some lunch?”
Merlin looked at the fruit bowl, stomach turning a little. He shook his head and smiled. “No, this is fine. Thanks.”
Emerson gave a nod. “Wart may not be back until much later. He instructed me that I should look after you until he returns. Show you around the house perhaps.”
Merlin wanted to fall back on the bed and smother himself with a pillow. Yet, he found himself politely replying, “That...that sounds good.”
“I’ll let you get dressed then,” Emerson said, turning to go. He stopped and turned back. “Are you sure you won’t have lunch?”
“Positive,” Merlin replied with a smile, keeping it plastered in place until Emerson left.
As soon as Emerson was gone, Merlin fell back against the pillows, quietly annoyed at Arthur for having abandoned him. He lay in bed with his hand covering his eyes, willing the painkillers to do their work quickly. After a while, the silence of the room made him sit up. He stared at the corner of the room next to the wall with the window. No one was there. No one was reaching out for him. Still, Merlin shivered, feeling fear skitter like tiny insects down his spine.
His head was still tight and heavy, but he got up all the same and took a quick shower, putting on some clean clothes and feeling a little more human. Picking up the tray with half-finished tea and barely touched fruit, he walked out into the corridor, which was lit softly by sunlight that had crept in through tall windows, spreading itself thinly through the dark halls. Merlin felt like a child out of bed at midnight, certain that someone was walking close behind, about to tap him on his shoulder.
Shrugging off the nonsensical fear, he walked quickly down to the landing, coming to a standstill when he saw the large portrait at the top of the stairs. He knew the subjects of the painting instantly. Seated and smiling warmly, her blue eyes sparkling happily, blonde hair moulded elegantly about her head, the woman in the painting had Arthur’s smile and his kind eyes. Behind her was a handsome brown-haired man with a hard set to his jaw, calculating cool eyes, and a certain determined demeanour that Merlin had seen in Arthur too. You’re like her though, he thought, more than like him.
“Wart's parents.” Merlin almost jumped, cursing under his breath as the dishes rattled on the tray. Emerson was walking up the stairs when Merlin turned around. He came to a stop in front of the portrait, taking the tray from Merlin’s hands. “Lord and Lady King.”
“Lord...Lord and Lady?” Merlin stared at Emerson, the titles making his brain stutter to a stop. “Don't tell me. Arthur's also next in line to the throne.”
“Not at all,” Emerson said quite seriously. “A substantial number of the royals would have to perish before Wart could take the throne.”
“Sub...stantial.” Merlin nodded. “Right.”
Emerson had a small smile on his face. “I am surprised you're not already aware of your friend's royal connections.”
Merlin tried not to bristle at the comment. “We don't spend a lot of time talking about that kind of stuff.”
“I see,” Emerson said, forehead denting slightly. “Merlin. That's a rather unique name. Passed down generations, I suspect.”
Merlin smiled tightly. “I wouldn't know. I was a baby when I was adopted. The name came with me.”
Emerson nodded slowly. “I see.”
Merlin watched Emerson for a moment, trying to peer under that bland unruffled look of his. “I've seen you before, haven't I?”
Emerson tilted his head, narrowing his eyes in a sleepy fashion. “Have you?”
“The night before Arthur opened his shop. I saw you on the street,” Merlin said.
Emerson smiled, nodding slightly. “I don't recall, but it's quite possible. I'm rather old, young man. The memory is not what it once was. Why don’t I put these away and show you around? Whilst I still remember where everything is.”
Merlin nodded, polite smile back in place, but patience fraying a little. “After you.”
Emerson didn’t linger too much during the grand tour, showing Merlin around the thirty room house. Bedrooms were opened, but not entered, each one richly decorated, the halls outside covered in artwork, carpeted in red. The staircase opened outwards down into the Great Hall, Arthur’s parents looking out from their portrait down into a long room with dark woods, stone cladding, and plush carpeting leading to the main entrance. Looking upwards, what light there was bounced off the walls of the gallery, diffusing some of the dark wooden gloom below.
Downstairs, they visited the conservatory, the thick forest at the back of the house visible through its large window, something called a morning room with expensive and delicate looking furnishings, a ballroom that even Emerson seemed to raise a brow at, an honest-to-god billiards room which made Merlin wish that Arthur was around so he could make a joke about playing with balls, and two galleries filled with art and sculpture, which finally stopped Merlin in his tracks.
There were canvases on the walls, classic to modern, sculptures on plinths, artefacts in glass cases, a red carpet running like a deep blood line all the way through the centre of both dimly lit halls which ran parallel to each other, separated by two short linking corridors. Merlin looked at everything around him, feeling like a complete imposter. One day Arthur would realise that Merlin and he were just a flash in the pan, their acquaintance destined to be short-lived, their worlds too far apart.
Emerson was behind him, talking about the illustrious history of the King art collection, but Merlin had stopped listening, staring at one canvas after another. He stopped in front of a painting inside a gilded frame, the scene showing a heroic character in bright silver armour, his horse rearing up as he held the reins with one hand, a lance in the other, aiming it at an earthy coloured dragon which was breathing yellow fire, the face of the dragon slaying knight hidden behind a helmet.
“St. George slaying the dragon.” Emerson said, his gravelly voice echoing as if they were stood inside a cavern. Merlin angled his head towards Emerson, but didn’t turn around. “Wart’s father had a fondness for all things mythological. He was especially fond of dragon lore.”
The amber-eyed dragon stood snarling as it expelled fire, its short limbs thick and sharp taloned, its wings wide and webbed, each scale on its body rendered so vividly Merlin could feel the curl and edge on his fingertips. Merlin turned away from it, continuing to slowly move from painting to painting, spotting one painted in dusty warm colours that made it look like a memory, a disappearing wisp of something may or may not have been real. Merlin stopped in front of it.
There were two men in the middle of the dusty heat of the paint. One man was on his knees, a delicate band of gold leaves crowning his thick black hair, his head hanging down, back bowed. A blue toga covered his torso, but not the tense, sinewy muscles of the leg folded painfully beneath him, or the anguished chords of his long neck. His pale skin showed tiny green tributaries flowing almost angrily dark, a deep red cape flowing behind him like a smear of blood on the canvas. In his lap was a deathly pale man, his body limp and lifeless, eyes vacant and gazing upwards, yellow hair fanning softly across his forehead.
The man kneeling was cradling the dead man's head with one hand, his other hand spread across the chest of the fallen, fingers rigid. Merlin stepped a little closer. He could see the whites of the dead man's eyes, a smudge of blood on the fingers that were clamped to his chest. He had been rendered beautiful, lying in the lap of the grieving man, a blood red cloak covering him only to protect his modesty, long limbs on display, along with broad shoulders and chest, the deadly wound hidden from view. He could have been sleeping if not for the poison blue tinge of his pale skin.
“Are you familiar at all with the Greek myths?” Emerson asked. Merlin nodded slowly, his eyes locked on the blue-tinged face of the dead man. “Then you know of Achilles and Patroclus.”
The gallery was beginning to feel too warm, his mouth feeling dry, the ache in his head re-emerging. “Yes.”
“This is Patroclus here, killed by the Trojans. That is Achilles, holding him and grieving. He will return to the war, not to win glory for his people, but to avenge his friend, doing things that do not befit a hero,” Emerson said. “Such was their bond. Such was his devotion. A devotion that may have spelled his ruin.”
Merlin tore his eyes away from the painting, turning to find Emerson watching him ever so closely. “Grief seems like a pretty selfish reason to do terrible things.”
“I am inclined to agree.” Merlin looked away from Emerson, deciding he was ready to leave, but a painting behind Emerson jumped out at him. Emerson noticed Merlin’s locked gaze and followed it, turning around. “Ah. Yes. That one is Wart’s favourite.”
The painting was layers of cold blue that seeped into green and rose up to meet a grey/white mist behind which there was a shadow which could have been a man, a tree, a tower – or perhaps, just a shadow. Merlin felt himself go cold as he looked at it, a wet chill climbing his body from his feet, last night’s dream suddenly fresh in his mind. The colours of the canvas seemed to bleach until they looked grey in his blurred vision. His legs began to shake, his calf muscles twitching painfully.
“I’m just going to-” Merlin mumbled, before nausea made him clench his jaw. Emerson responded with a quizzical arch of his brow. Merlin pointed towards the doors. “It’s a bit stuffy, sorry. Do you mind if I-?”
“Of course not,” Emerson said. “Are you feeling unwell?”
“I just need some air.”
Merlin didn’t wait for Emerson’s answer, beelining for the doors and running down a long corridor that brought him back into the main part of the house and into a dimly lit corridor that took him all the way back into the Great Hall and its yawning staircase. He blew out a few breaths and calmed his breathing, gripping the bannister. It took a moment before his leaden legs felt strong enough to walk up the stairs. Merlin heavily made his way back towards Arthur’s room, catching sight of the portrait where Arthur’s father seemed to smirk down at him as if in some quiet triumph.
Arthur hurried into the house, grimacing as he stepped into the empty kitchen. Any second now the numerous clocks around the house would chime to yell at him that it was four in the afternoon and he had wasted the first day of his and Merlin’s weekend break.
“Hello! Emerson?” Arthur called out, throwing his jacket on the back of a chair and walking out into the corridor. “Merlin?”
Arthur poked his head through a few doors when no one answered, before heading up to his bedroom, where he found Merlin lying on top of the covers, his hood pulled over his head and down past his eyes. He was dressed, so he must have been up and about, one of his shoes lying upside down near the bed, the other one out of sight. Arthur chewed on his bottom lip for a moment before quietly closing the bedroom door. He crawled on to the bed, propping himself up next to Merlin before gently pulling the hood away from Merlin’s eyes.
Merlin blinked at him blearily, cheeks slightly pinked by the warmth of sleep. He was half-squinting and frowning at Arthur. Arthur smiled somewhat apologetically and said, “Hello.”
“Where the fuck have you been?” Merlin croaked quietly, rubbing one eye and sighing.
“Just taking care of a list of one million things Emerson had ready for me this morning,” Arthur said. “If it means anything, I would have rather spent my time with you. The good news is, I’m all yours now.”
“Not sure I can get much for an unreliable boyfriend on eBay,” Merlin said, the corners of his mouth pointing up despite the pout.
“Harsh, but fair,” Arthur conceded with a nod.
Merlin gave him a cut-eyed look, taking the edge off with a lazy smile. “So. You’re related to the royal family.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “No, the family has some ties that go back is all. If you dig deep enough, you’re probably related to the royal family too.”
“I’m adopted,” Merlin said with a shrug. “Nowhere to dig.”
“Oh. Right.” Arthur stared at Merlin. Merlin nodded slowly, his eyes focusing on his own hands as they smoothed down the front of his hoodie. “Merlin-”
“Thanks for letting me sleep all day,” Merlin said, arching a brow at Arthur. “Emerson totally thinks I’m some layabout with designs on your wealth.”
“No he doesn’t,” Arthur said. “I told him you slept like shit last night.”
“Is that why Emerson calls you Wart? Short for worry-wart.”
Arthur clamped a hand over Merlin's mouth, which made him laugh. Merlin pulled the hand away, keeping it held to his chest. “You all right then?”
Merlin nodded. “Yeah. Just a bit hungover.”
“You up to a little tour of the house? A little hanky panky in the library?” Arthur asked, smiling when Merlin grinned up at him.
“Wouldn’t mind seeing the library tomorrow. Kind of toured out thanks to Emerson.”
“He showed you around?” Arthur frowned. Merlin nodded, looking a little curious. “Well, good. He’s been all right with you, has he?”
Merlin scrunched up his face, opening his mouth to speak, and taking the world’s longest pause before he said, “Pretty sure he doesn’t trust me as far as he can throw me.”
“Emerson’s like that with everyone. He’s a bit of an old hen. Worries about me and all that. Has taken it upon himself to make sure all my suitors are to his ridiculously high standards,” Arthur said, pulling a face. Merlin grinned. “It's not funny. I've known people to escape in the middle of the night because of him.”
“So why do you put up with it, Wart?” Merlin asked with a smile.
Arthur's mouth opened to explain, and then shifted into a grin. “I put up with him, because he, in fact, has done all the actual putting up. After my mother died, he was the one who helped my father raise me, when my father wasn’t completely absorbed in his work. Emerson was, for all intents and purposes, both my mother and father for a time.”
Merlin’s face seemed to fall a little. “Didn't know about your mum.”
Arthur frowned. “I would have thought it was on Googlepedia.”
“You know it's not called that,” Merlin said, rolling his eyes. “Also, I pretty much never went back to Googlepedia after seeing your picture and freaking out.”
“The intelligent actions of an attractive man. I approve,” Arthur said with a nod. “Anyway, Emerson is incredibly grumpy. But, he is a good man, and as yet has not told me that he thinks you're after the family jewels.”
Merlin smiled, but his eyes indicated that his mind was elsewhere. Arthur waited. “Your mother...what happened?”
It wasn’t the first time Arthur had been asked, but he realised it was the first time he wasn’t worried about someone trying to dissect his answer. “My parents were driving up to Kingbury when their car went off the road. My mother went into premature labour. Lost too much blood by the time they made it to the hospital. That’s about it really.”
Merlin was watching him quietly. Arthur looked back, relieved that Merlin hadn’t issued a useless apology for Arthur’s misfortune. He smiled and said, “You look like her. When I saw her in the painting, I knew who she was straight away.”
“Why? Were you looking at her bottom?” Arthur asked. Merlin grinned, arching back to laugh, eyes closed. Arthur put an arm around Merlin, pulling him into a long lazy kiss. Merlin’s laugh tapered off into a quiet happy sound, his body rolling close and pressing up against Arthur’s. Arthur stroked his hand down Merlin’s side, over his hip, sliding it down towards Merlin’s zipper when Merlin’s hand blocked his attempt. Arthur pulled back and scowled, arching a brow.
“I think I’d quite like to go for a walk,” Merlin said with a sweet smile, gently shoving Arthur back and rolling out of bed.
“What?” Arthur lay there staring at Merlin who had disappeared under the bed, reappearing a moment later, holding up a shoe. “Walk?”
“Yeah,” Merlin said with a gormless nod, before frowning and pointing at Arthur. “Sorry, did you have other plans?”
Arthur tried not to sulk, especially since Merlin’s self-satisfied smile seemed to light up the whole room. He did however lob a pillow at the back of Merlin’s head as soon as he had turned his back.
When they arrived the night before, the forest had just been a shadow. Now as they walked hand in hand across the grounds, it looked magical in the fading light of the evening, the sun beginning to set and filling it with a cocktail of warm colours.
Merlin was bundled up in his parka, still feeling the chill of the air. Next to him, Arthur looked ridiculously handsome wrapped up in his long black coat, the wind ruffling his almost gold hair, pinking his cheeks. It was enough to warm him from his heart to the tips of his toes.
“Is that your druid forest?” Merlin asked, tilting up his chin in the direction of trees with knobbly branches and winter leaves.
“Yup. Morgana and I spent a lot of time hiding and seeking in there. She did most of the hiding. I'd go find her, alerting her to my presence by putting a bug down her clothes or something.”
“That is nasty,” Merlin said grinning. “That's just mean.”
Arthur shrugged, smirking at Merlin. “Winner’s perogative.”
Merlin shook his head and stood back, folding his arms across his chest. “Go on. I'll give you a head start.”
Arthur laughed, the sound rich, from the depth of his chest. “I’m sorry?”
“It's time someone taught you a little humility, King,” Merlin said, angling his head towards the forest.
Arthur stopped laughing, looking interested. “You're serious.”
“Deadly,” Merlin said.
“You'll regret it,” Arthur said, smooth enough that Merlin was possibly already regretting it.
Merlin stood straight, holding his head up. “We'll see.”
“You’re on.” Arthur pointed at Merlin. “Turn and count to a hundred, my lord.”
Merlin turned towards the house, his smile fading when he looked up and saw a shadow in one of the windows, the moving of a curtain, the shifting of a shape, grey and pale from this distance. Gone within a blink of an eye. Merlin stared for a moment, wondering if he’d imagined it, attributing it to the paranoia of a sleep-deprived mind. He wasn’t sure how long he wasted watching the house, but he only counted up to fifty, and then turned and ran.
Where the grounds gave way to the boundary of the forest, Merlin found Arthur's black coat hanging off a branch. Smiling, he pulled it off the branch, and stepped forward into the forest. Merlin felt as if his lungs had unfurled like petals. The trees stood like dark columns, like ancient beings looking down at Merlin in quiet curiosity, their branches like arms holding up the canopy of the sky, through which the setting sun’s light filtered through, creating mists and sparkles. For a long time, Merlin just stood looking upwards, his hand pressed against a tree.
Merlin spun around and grinned as he heard the leaf-rustle soft whisper.
Movement caught his eye, someone running and ducking, and Merlin turned towards it, his steps soft and quiet as he climbed upwards over knobbly tree roots that ran across the ground.
Merlin turned again, the whisper sounding close enough to startle him. He frowned and kept moving forward, his ears picking up a fire-crackling sound of twigs breaking. Merlin sprinted in the direction of the sound, caught a glimpse of more movement and gave chase, finding nothing but a small clearing and more looming trees. Smiling, Merlin shook his head, turning on the spot. He saw nothing of course, just trees extending in every direction, bumpy ground, grass and earth, and fallen leaves. Merlin closed his eyes and listened, feeling a tug of intuition which turned him around and pulled at his feet.
Opening his eyes, he looked ahead. There was mist that shrouded the view in the distance, the ground rising upwards. He walked on, his eyes on a wide tree. Alas, when he reached it he found nothing. Merlin stood there frowning, not expecting someone to grab him by his ankle and pull. Merlin flailed and fell into a pile of leaves, panic freezing the breath in his body, his limbs lashing out automatically before Arthur grabbed his wrists and straddled him, looked flushed and pleased with himself.
Merlin just stared, before yelling, “You...shit! You're such a prat.”
“Sore loser,” Arthur accused with a lopsided grin.
Merlin shifted and winced. “Ow. Yeah, sore is about right.”
Arthur smiled and slipped off to the side, falling on his back, and landing on the coat Merlin had dropped. Merlin looked across at Arthur to find he was serenely blinking up at the trees, looking entirely at peace.
“You love this place, don't you?” Merlin asked.
Arthur's mouth twitched in a smile. “Morgana and I spent our childhoods running through these trees, playing make believe. One of those places where time just seems to stop, all the bullshit just fading into the background.”
“In that case,” Merlin said, joining Arthur in staring up at the towering trees, “this library gets my approval.”
Arthur turned his head and Merlin saw he was grinning. “Library. I like that.”
Merlin took in the sight of Arthur, pink-cheeked, bits of leaf in his hair, and happiness bright in his eyes. “I like you.”
Arthur rolled onto his side, leaning towards Merlin. “Do you?”
Merlin nodded. “Yeah.”
“I like you,” Arthur said quietly.
Merlin shifted forward, pushing himself up until he could press his lips against Arthur's. Arthur pushed back, deepening their kiss and pressing Merlin down onto the earth. The air was chilly, the wind beginning to blow, even so, Merlin felt a flush of heat, the next kiss making him pull Arthur closer, so they could be pressed together from head to toe.
Merlin combed his fingers through Arthur's hair, feeling Arthur's hand parting his parka before slipping low to palm his cock through his jeans, the pressure of his hand just right, making Merlin groan into Arthur's mouth.
“What is,” Arthur murmured breathlessly, having mouthed his way from Merlin’s lips to his ear, “your opinion on lube?”
“Lube is good,” Merlin breathed. “It's brilliant. I'll scream my face off you go anywhere near me without it.”
Arthur was nodding, his breath hot on Merlin's face. “Right, right, sorry. Silly question. A wank in the woods it is then.”
“What? The house is less than a minute from here,” Merlin said, grunting at the feel of Arthur's hand, persistent and greedy between his legs.
“Yeah, this can't wait,” Arthur said, pulling away slightly to peer between them, opening up Merlin's jeans with surprising efficiency. It was fiddly, but Merlin grabbed a hold of Arthur's waistband too, tugging at him before opening his belt, button and zipper, slipping his hand into the black boxer briefs. “Fuck, your hands are like ice.”
“Ah! You're not exactly warm yourself,” Merlin said, jerking at cool fingers that shoved down his boxers before wrapping around his dick. He shuddered with chills, but Arthur's hand was warming up quick, just as his cock was becoming firmer in Merlin's hand.
“God,” Arthur said, all breath and barely any sound, huffing hotly into Merlin's neck. Merlin bit his lip, arching back, nowhere as focused on his actions. “What are you doing down there?”
Merlin grinned, groaning as he wheezed, “Keeping my hand warm?”
Arthur laughed, sliding his hips away from Merlin's hand, covering his mouth with an indecently greedy kiss, his hand moving fast and hard around Merlin's cock. Merlin let his own hands fall back onto the ground, fingers closing around and crushing crispy leaves as he bucked hard and came. Arthur's hand kept moving, wringing him dry and leaving him spasming, until the sensation started to turn away from pleasure.
“Ah! Don't, don't,” Merlin murmured, shoving at Arthur's hand, tilting his face towards Arthur's for another kiss, sloppy and lazy, keenly aware of Arthur's cock hard against his hip. He murmured against Arthur's mouth, “My turn.”
Rolling Arthur onto his back, he straddled Arthur's thighs, yanking his jeans and boxers down, releasing his flushed erection. Merlin made himself comfortable between Arthur's legs, propped himself up on his elbows, lips closing around Arthur's cock and sliding slow. Arthur made a pained and impatient noise, muttering curses. Merlin sucked him off, firm rather than fast, his hands sliding upwards, pushing Arthur's shirt and sweater so he could touch bare skin
“Merlin,” Arthur gasped.
Fluttering wings of birds shook the tree branches with their abandoning, the whole forest ringing clear in Merlin's ears as Arthur tensed with a loud gasp, becoming still and spilling onto Merlin tongue, warm and salty. Merlin pulled off, spitting to the side with a grimace, coughing as cool air hit his lungs. Above him, Arthur lay breathing hard, his hands on his face, palms against his eyes.
Merlin tipped over to the side and collapsed onto his back, letting his arm flop on Arthur's thigh, moving to stroke his knee. He felt pleasantly boneless and peaceful, blinking slowly at the dark knotted branches above, and the sky beyond. A moment later, he felt fingers in his hair, moving without intent. Merlin smiled and closed his eyes for a moment.
“I think we just scared off all the wildlife,” Arthur said flatly.
Merlin grinned, reaching down and pulling his boxers and jeans back up. Arthur lifted his hips off the ground and did a better job, buttoning and zipping himself before he sat up, Merlin continuing to lie where he was, lazily zipping up his jeans. Arthur was looking down at him with a tilted and fond smile.
“Thank you for coming here,” he said quietly. Merlin arched a brow. Arthur laughed and clarified, “I meant, to Kingbury, you idiot.”
“Oh. Well, it's a pleasure. On both counts,” Merlin said, watching Arthur get to his feet and hold up a hand. Merlin let himself be hauled up, before he bent down and picked up Arthur's crushed coat. He grimaced as he handed it to Arthur.
“Think you're coat's definitely ruined this time.”
They returned to the house looking a mess, passing Emerson in the hall. He had quietly eyed the state of their attire, staring at Arthur's head until Merlin had awkwardly reached up and extracted a tiny twig.
Emerson held out his hand and said, “I'll dispose of that for you.”
After he'd gone, Merlin had said, “That's the politest anyone's ever called me a fucking idiot.”
“He did not,” Arthur said with a tut. “He called us both fucking idiots.”
Merlin had smiled, but it seemed a tolerant one. Arthur wasn't completely unaware of the effect this house had on people. Morgana had refused to set foot in it the moment she was old enough to make the decision. His father thought nothing of taking long business trips, looking put upon the moment he set foot in the house. Arthur's previous boyfriends and girlfriends had either been in excited awe, or had declared the whole place too creepy. If Merlin was a little overwhelmed, Arthur couldn't blame him. Climbing the stairs under the stern eye of his father, he knew full well what it was to exist in the long shadows of this house.
“See? She looks just like you,” Merlin said, as they passed the picture.
Arthur looked back, but kept moving. “Yeah. So I'm told.”
“Only, you know, nicer,” Merlin said with a grin.
“Cheeky shit,” Arthur said, accosted so hard with a bloom of warmth, it felt more like a punch to the chest. He settled for smacking Merlin's behind, making him jump, both of them laughing on their way to the bedroom.
They took an indulgently long shower together, not doing more than sharing a few long kisses, drinking in the pleasure of touch without purpose, touch just for the sake of touch. Merlin had jumped out before Arthur, towelling himself dry and getting dressed by the time Arthur stepped into the bedroom. He sat preoccupied on the bed, checking his phone as Arthur began to dress. As Arthur reached for his shirt, Merlin jumped up and grabbed it, holding it up with a grin.
Arthur grinned back, letting Merlin slide the shirt on and smooth it down. After a moment, Arthur's grin faded as he silently watched Merlin standing before him, buttoning up the shirt with a look of pure concentration. It felt as if even all the objects in the room had stopped their inanimateness to watch as Merlin buttoned the cuff of one sleeve, and then the other.
Merlin finished, letting his hands drop to his side. He looked up at Arthur and frowned. “What?”
“Dunno,” Arthur murmured quietly. “Can't quite put my finger on it.”
Merlin smiled slightly, drifting away, not quite looking at Arthur. Arthur let him go, feeling a sudden swell of shyness himself. He continued to dress, Merlin standing by the window, looking out at the evening sky.
Everything felt terrifyingly perfect.
Emerson had cooked roasted salmon, marinated in honey and mustard, making Merlin want to not only lick the plate, but possibly also eat it. He wasn't surprised at all when he looked up to find both Arthur and Emerson hadn't finished their meals, while he had inhaled his. Emerson had a brow arched at Merlin, whilst Arthur looked all too pleased opposite him, clamping his mouth around an obvious smile.
“Um...that was really good,” Merlin told Emerson.
Emerson blinked at him, and for a moment the hardness in his eyes seemed to soften, the corner of his mouth lifting a little. “Thank you. Would you like some more?”
Merlin shook his head, holding up a hand. “No, I think I should probably let my brain catch up with my stomach.”
“Indeed,” Emerson said with a nod. Turning his attention to Arthur, he said, “I've unlocked the library, Wart, and had the guest house taken care of as you wanted.”
Arthur nodded. “Right. Brilliant.”
“The guest house?” Merlin asked.
“Yep,” Arthur said with a nod. “It’s been recently renovated. I thought it might be nice for us to spend a day there, relaxing maybe.”
Merlin was aware that Arthur had pointedly avoided eye contact with Emerson as he spoke. When Emerson got up to clear away the plates, Merlin leaned over to Arthur and said, “Gwaine was right, wasn’t he? Your plan really is just to shag all over this place.”
Arthur leaned in and said, “We’re attractive men in our prime. What did you think we were going to do up here?”
Merlin thought about it, nodded and held out his hand which Arthur shook with a nod of his own.
“Yes,” Emerson said quietly, as he stood at the sink, sounding thoughtful. “I recall your father was also incredibly fond of the guest house. Your grandfather said he spent whole summers there with...friends.”
Arthur blinked at Emerson’s back and then turned to Merlin, whispering. “We can never be naked in that place.”
After dinner, Arthur steered Merlin into the overstuffed drawing room, with its large blazing fireplace. Arthur opened a cabinet to reveal a television, turning it on before flopping back on the sofa. After a while, they shifted so Arthur ended up lying on the sofa, his socked feet in Merlin's lap, his arms wrapped around a deep red cushion, the other two cushions between his head and the armrest.
Merlin watched him silently for a while before he drifted off in the low murmur of the news on the television. He was brought back when Arthur's socked toe came up against his cheek, giving his face a gentle shove. Merlin pushed the foot down and gave Arthur a look that should have expressed irritation, but was spoiled by a laugh. Arthur smiled back at him, looking golden and bright with his hair mussed, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, denim clad legs now crossed at the ankles in Merlin's lap.
"I'm baffled," Arthur said. Merlin knew it was going to be something lacking any seriousness from the way the corner of Arthur's mouth was tilted up, pointing towards a sparkle in his eyes. "Here we are, two young men in the flush of youth, and instead of lying in a pool of our own debauchery, we're watching the news."
"My head hurts," Merlin said flatly.
"The polite thing to say is you've been worn out by my exceptional manhood."
Merlin pointed at Arthur. "Yeah, that too. It really is quite exceptional."
Arthur laughed, looking ridiculously content. Merlin wondered how much of that had to do with being home, feeling something shake nervously in his chest. Arthur nudged his thigh with the heel of his foot. "What? What are you thinking?"
Merlin let his brow climb as he looked at Arthur. "I...am...thinking. That you look really happy."
Arthur pulled a face. "Sounds about right."
"Because you're home?" Merlin asked.
Arthur opened his mouth to answer, and then seemed to become stuck. After a moment, he quietly said. "Yes and no."
"Yes and no?"
"No, not because I'm home. Yes...because I feel like I'm home," Arthur said thoughtfully. Merlin stared at Arthur, before letting out a little groan, grinning. Arthur sighed, shaking his head. "And here I thought I was being rather profound."
"You were," Merlin said quietly, looking down at Arthur's feet as he smoothed sock fabric over an ankle. "It's just...you say it so easily."
"Life's too short not to," Arthur said.
Merlin looked at him, wanting to tell him that some days he thought about the future and it seemed to feel as if it might stretch forever. Instead, he got up and held out his hand with a smile. Arthur arched his brow at the hand, pursing his mouth.
Merlin shrugged. “Apparently orgasms are amazing for headaches.”
Arthur tossed his cushion over his shoulder and jumped to his feet, grabbing Merlin’s hand and yanking him close. “I like the way you think, my lord.”
In the bedroom, they shed their clothes as quick as possible. The fact that they managed to slow down for condoms and lube felt like a miracle. It took incredible restraint as he slid in and out of Merlin, to not ram his hips the way his body greedily wanted to, answering each of Merlin's gasps and moans with a measured thrust, pressed up tight behind Merlin, his palms sliding across hot skin. They came almost at the same time, Merlin's drawn out moan shooting straight to Arthur's cock, his last thrust forcing a breathless cry from Merlin. A moment later, the only thing Arthur could hear was the hammering of his own heart and the sounds of his and Merlin’s breathing.
Arthur watched Merlin’s fist slowly closing around the corner of the pillow his face was pressed against, green veins stark against pinked pale skin which shone with sweat. He stayed put for a while, nuzzling Merlin’s damp shoulder. The thought of moving was torturous, but somehow Arthur managed to move and dispose of the condom, Merlin lazily hanging off the edge of the bed to pick up his t-shirt and wipe the mess he had made, before flopping onto his back, his hand landing loose around Arthur’s wrist.
Arthur brought his hand up, catching Merlin’s fingers along the way, looking at both their intertwined hands. He quietly asked, “You ever going to tell me what your dreams are about?”
“Yeah,” Merlin said slowly, letting his hand drop.
“Okay.” Arthur nodded. He gave Merlin’s ankle a light kick. “They about me? You’re dreaming about me, aren’t you? Admit it.”
“Shut up.” A quiet laugh sputtered out of Merlin, but his hand was back in Arthur’s hand.
Merlin didn’t wake up terrified this time. He woke up with a start and alarming clarity. The screaming silence had woken him up. The window was open, but he couldn’t hear those sounds that even isolated nature could make. No rustle of leaves, no winter winds, no chirping wildlife. The bedroom was devoid of the sounds that buildings made. Creaking pipes, contracting materials that went pop in the night for no discernible reason. All he could hear was a slow thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
“Arthur?” he whispered, taking forever to remember that Arthur was supposed to be at his side. He looked down at the space next to him, dark even under moonlight, and empty. Merlin stared at the space. “Arthur?”
Empty spaces seldom responded to questions so Merlin climbed out of bed, taking the top blanket with him, wrapping it around his shoulders as he moved towards the window, coaxed by the moonlight. He looked at the moon for a while, finding it hard to look away, confused by how it seemed to be looking right back at him. Maybe it caught Merlin’s thoughts, because it flashed bright and Merlin had to cover his eyes for a moment, realising when he brought his hand down that the flash of silver had come from somewhere else.
He looked away from the moon, following the flashes that followed, seeing a figure darting into the dark undergrowth of the forest. Before he knew it, he was racing down the stairs and towards the kitchen, pulling open the door and running out onto the gravel path that curled around the house and towards the grounds at the back. He stopped as he saw a figure in the distance, obscured by the dark shadows of the forest. There was a glint of silver again, when a hand reached out in his direction, beckoning him to follow. Merlin swallowed, his heart skittering in his chest as he shook his head and took a step back.
Merlin blinked, looking up into the air which had whispered his name so loudly. The silver tinted hand continued to beckon, the stranger continuing to wait. Merlin took a wavering step forward, only to be stopped by a death grip on his wrist. He turned to look at the fingers holding onto him, following the arm until he saw Arthur standing at his side, paper white with poison blue lips, his visage sending an icy chill across Merlin’s skin, freezing the breath in his lungs.
Arthur woke with a start, scowling when he realised that the weight he'd fallen asleep with on his arm was missing. He looked at the empty spot next to him, rubbing his eyes as he sat up slowly.
“Merlin,” he called out, looking towards the bathroom. “Merlin?”
Arthur threw back the covers, sleepily stumbling towards the bathroom. Switching on the light, he cursed quietly as sudden brightness seared into his tender eyeballs. The bathroom was empty, and so was the bedroom. Arthur rubbed the rest of his sleep from his eyes, blinking himself awake. Merlin’s clothes were still dumped on the chair, and one of the blankets appeared to be missing from the bed. Arthur stared at the room, before looking at the bedroom door which was slightly ajar.
He threw on a pair of pyjama bottoms, moving quick, the kitchen being his first guess as to where he might find Merlin. Half way across the landing, he almost lurched to a stop, slowly spinning on one heel to look at the looming portrait of his parents. All the light in the painting came from her, Arthur thought, his father almost looming like a dark shadow. Arthur straightened up, as if even now he might have to defend himself against one of his father’s speeches. I miss him, he thought, at least I got to know him.
Arthur turned around, jumping out of his skin when he saw Emerson at the bottom of the stairs, gazing up at him, looking grey in the partially lit hall. “Fuck’s sake. Jesus. What are you doing? You just scared the shit out of me.”
“That wasn’t my intention.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Arthur said irritably as he padded down the stairs.
Emerson gave him a rather pointed smile. “I must say, you’re becoming more and more like your father every day.”
Arthur arched a brow at Emerson. “Really? Well, I’m beginning to see why he was crotchety all the time. What are you doing up?”
“I thought I heard a noise,” Emerson replied. “Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“No. Merlin’s gone walkabout,” Arthur said, moving past Emerson.
Emerson caught him by the elbow. “Why don’t I look down here? He might still be upstairs.”
Arthur nodded, turning back towards the stairs, but there was a chill in the air, fresh and damp, as if a door was open somewhere. He looked over Emerson’s shoulder, peering down the dark corridor towards the kitchen.
“Shit,” he muttered, darting past Emerson and into the kitchen. The door was shut, but not locked. He flung it open, looking around him before he ran in the first direction that occurred to him, following the moon’s light towards the back of the house.
Arthur came to an abrupt stop when he saw Merlin, bathed in moonlight, naked with a blanket pooled at his feet. He seemed to be staring off into the distance, so still he could have been a marble sculpture. Arthur swallowed, approaching him slowly.
He took a step forward, reaching out for Merlin’s wrist. “Merlin.”
Merlin turned his head to look at Arthur’s hand, staring at it for a moment, before his gaze slowly lifted to meet Arthur’s eyes. Arthur frowned, waiting, unwilling to let go. Merlin let out a constricted gasp, his body losing its stiff composure, as if it might buckle completely. He pulled away from Arthur, holding his wrist to his chest as if it had been burnt by Arthur’s touch.
Arthur held his hands up in surrender, keeping one outstretched as he crouched, reaching for the blanket on the floor. “It’s all right. I’m just here to help. It’s okay.”
Merlin frowned at him, as if Arthur was talking pure nonsense, before looking in the direction of the forest, stumbling closer to Arthur as he did so. It gave Arthur the opportunity to wrap the blanket around Merlin, after which he tentatively put an arm around shivering shoulders. Merlin didn’t react for a while, still busy staring, until he seemed to jerk in Arthur’s hold.
Merlin’s head snapped towards Arthur, a frightened look on his face. “What’s going on?”
“You were sleep walking,” Arthur said, tension leaving his body. Merlin opened his mouth to say more, but Arthur was officially frozen from head to toes, and Merlin had to be feeling worse. “Look, we’ll talk inside. I don’t know how long you’ve been standing out here, but don’t be surprised if anything turns to an icicle and falls off.”
“What?” Merlin croaked, sounding confused as Arthur shepherded him towards the house, turning and finding Emerson.
Emerson looked at Merlin. “Are you all right, young man?”
“He’s fine,” Arthur said. “Just needs to warm up. Merlin?”
“I don’t remember,” Merlin murmured.
“It’s all right, you don’t need to worry about that right now.” Arthur guided Merlin back inside, Emerson close behind. As they headed up the stairs, he looked over his shoulder and told Emerson, “A stiff drink might be in order.”
“Yes, quite,” Emerson said, nodding in agreement and turning around, heading off across the hall.
In the bedroom, Arthur sat Merlin down on the edge of the bed, crouching down before him. Merlin was holding the blanket tight around himself, looking pale and cold to the touch, still shivering.
“You okay?” Arthur put a hand on his knee, giving it a little shake. Merlin’s mouth worked but didn’t open. He shut his eyes, shaking his head. Arthur patted his knee. “All right. We don’t need to think about it, okay?”
Merlin opened his eyes, mouth clamped shut. He swallowed, nodding. Arthur nodded back. Standing, he went into the bathroom, quickly grabbing a towel and returning to the bedroom. It hadn’t been raining, but the ground had been damp, and Merlin had been standing on the grass. Kneeling on the floor, he took one of Merlin’s feet, placing it in his lap. There were no cuts or mud, just the shadow of dirt. Arthur wiped all the same. He reached for the other foot, but Merlin drew back.
Arthur frowned up at him in question, finding Merlin staring at him owlishly. “You shouldn’t be doing that.”
Arthur pulled a face, grabbing the foot and wiping. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
The second time Merlin pulled away, Arthur was already done. He looked up at Merlin to find his attention elsewhere. Emerson was in the doorway, frowning at Arthur.
“Excellent,” Arthur said, ignoring the quizzical expression and getting up, taking both decanter and glass from Emerson’s hands. He tipped an inch into the glass, going back to Merlin and handing it to him.
“Get that down you,” he said, before taking a swig himself, realising that his nerves felt shot. He looked at the decanter and nodded with approval. “About time father’s cognac was used for something other than getting heroically sloshed every time someone displayed an emotion.”
Merlin took a sip from his glass, made a face, and spluttered most of the brandy back out. “Ugh. That’s disgusting.”
Arthur took the glass that was shoved back in his direction. He gladly polished off the rest of the drink and returned both decanter and glass to Emerson. He gave Emerson a long look, nodding, hoping to convey some gratitude for his assistance.
Emerson nodded back, message received it seemed. “You may want to lock the door.”
Arthur arched a brow at him. “Goodnight, Emerson.”
Door locked and Emerson gone, Arthur turned to look at Merlin who was watching him, looking a little pinker in the cheeks, clearer in the eyes, and a little sheepish.
Arthur gave him a nod. “Well, you just scared the shit out of me.”
Merlin grimaced, hiding his face in the palm of his hand. “Sorry.”
Arthur joined Merlin at his side. “Don’t be. Just glad you’re all right and didn’t get eaten by a werewolf or something.”
Merlin gave him a bland look. “Werewolf.”
“There’s so much you don’t know about the country,” Arthur said. When Merlin refused to smile, Arthur bumped his shoulder hard against Merlin’s, reaching for that smile himself and receiving it. “That’s better.”
Merlin’s eyes seemed to be scanning him, peering as he quietly calculated something Arthur wasn’t privy to. Then he frowned and said, “Did Emerson see me naked?”
“I can’t be sure, so I’m going with, yes.” Arthur grinned. Merlin buried his face in both hands, Arthur curling his arm around Merlin’s neck and pulling him close. “He definitely saw a full moon tonight.”
Merlin groaned. “Kill me.”
They had gotten back into bed, but Merlin knew he wasn’t going to fall asleep. He lay quietly for as long as possible, an hour or two passing agonisingly slow. When Arthur shifted and sighed in his sleep, Merlin plastered himself against Arthur’s back, pressing light kisses to his bare shoulder.
“You still awake?” Arthur murmured. Merlin hummed in reply, nodding his head. “Bloody hell, Merlin.”
Arthur turned over to face Merlin with a sigh. Merlin leaned forward and gave him a light kiss. “It’s okay. Go to sleep.”
“Up now,” Arthur said, sleepily chasing Merlin’s mouth for another kiss. The third kiss was greedy, awake, causing their limbs to slowly tangle with each other.
A few heated kisses later, Arthur's hand snaked down between Merlin’s legs, idly handling him without real intent or purpose – just feeling. It seemed to harden Merlin quicker than usual. He arched up and let out a small gasp, feeling heat bloom across his cheeks, as he hooked an arm around Arthur’s neck. When Arthur's hand did move, it was to probe a little further. Arthur whispered a breathless question into Merlin's ear and Merlin agreed with a frantic nod.
Arthur turned on the bedside lamp and reached for the bedside drawer, noisily grabbing lube and condoms. Merlin watched as Arthur proceeded to quickly climb out of his pyjamas before straddling Merlin’s thighs. He wasn't quite hard enough yet, and gave himself a few strokes, watching Merlin the whole time. It made Merlin's own cock swell with a burst of arousal. He reached out and stroked Arthur’s knee, murmuring, “You’re beautiful.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you could see yourself right now.” Arthur, sheathed in golden light, panted a little.
Merlin bit down on his bottom lip, watching Arthur roll on the condom, and squirt lube onto his hands. He gave Merlin a dark-eyed look, lubing his cock, before moving up Merlin's body, lying between his legs and reaching between them with his slicked fingers. He was looking into Merlin’s eyes so intently it made Merlin frown back at him.
Arthur slowly dipped his head and pressed his unmoving mouth to Merlin’s, lips slightly open and just pressing without movement. His fingers were moving, gently rubbing, breaching, slowly pressing into Merlin. Merlin flinched at the intrusion, gasping and lurching up into a kiss, Arthur’s lips moving slow against his.
Arthur's fingers continued to delve, open and entice until Merlin was panting and thrusting up into Arthur's touch, sweat stinging his eyes, his hair damp and itchy against his forehead. When Arthur asked if he was okay, he nodded. Arthur reached down between them, shifting, was pushing into Merlin, filling him up slowly.
“Fuck,” Merlin gasped, voice cracking as his whole body tensed, his hand clasping around Arthur’s shoulder. “Wait. Wait.”
Arthur nodded, watching him closely, his body only moving to take in deep breaths, shuddering when he let them out. Merlin shifted his hips a little, and nodded. Arthur pushed in with a series of small gentle thrusts, his head resting on Merlin's shoulder, mouth pressing small kisses into his skin. And then he was there, inside Merlin, nowhere further to go. Arthur stilled, moving only his legs, drawing one knee slightly up, pushing up behind one of Merlin’s thighs. Merlin’s cock had wilted slightly, but rubbing against Arthur’s stomach, it began to harden.
“Jesus,” Merlin panted. He felt like he was on fire, Arthur’s body a furnace that was pinning him to the bed. “Arthur-”
Arthur kissed him, moving his hips to draw back and thrust back, Merlin gripping Arthur tight around the shoulders. When Arthur chased Merlin’s mouth for another kiss, he pulled away to draw in a breath. Arthur pressed his forehead to Merlin’s, his thrusts turning from slow to steady. Merlin squeezed his eyes shut, a thrust too far on the side of pain, bringing tears to his eyes.
Arthur shifted slightly, his hand on Merlin’s thigh, pulling him close. When he thrust back in, Merlin saw stars, hearing a wrecked noise that might have been him. Arthur was pressed against him tight, cheek to cheek, as he thrust in easy fluid motions, hitting the same spot over and over, threatening to melt Merlin's spine. A few more fast snaps of Arthur's hips and Merlin bucked hard, coming all over his stomach, and up across Arthur.
Arthur let out a little gasp of surprise, and then sped up, panting into Merlin's ear, before his hips came to a stuttering stop and he made a noise low in his throat, his body tensing all over Merlin, before he slumped in a shaking pile. Arthur's limbs continued to shift around Merlin, his fingers curling into Merlin's hair.
Merlin lay absolutely still, inside and out, mind and body, eyes slowly blinking up at the barely lit ceiling. Arthur shifted, lifting his head to look at Merlin, smoothing Merlin's damp hair back. The lamplight was low, but enough to see the colour high on Arthur's cheeks, the way even his lips seemed filled with colour. Merlin placed shaking hands on Arthur's hips, silently blinking up at him.
Arthur kissed him softly, before slowly pulling out of his body and snapping off the condom. Merlin watched silently as Arthur disappeared momentarily, returning with a damp towel, wiping Merlin down before he settled back in bed. He stretched out his arm and Merlin rested his head on it, turning into Arthur’s open embrace, pressing his face to Arthur’s chest, his body feeling heavy, a pleasant buzz under his skin.
“Try to sleep?” Arthur whispered, reaching out to switch off the beside lamp.
Merlin hummed sleepily in answer, though still didn’t fall back to sleep. He lay in bed patiently waiting for the sun to rise. He spent the first moments of morning watching Arthur sleep, the shifting dawn stroking his body with soft light. After a while, Merlin carefully climbed out of bed, letting Arthur sleep in peace to take a hot shower, washing away some of the night’s remembered chill. Like most dreams, all that remained were snatches of his nightmare, not as frightening in daylight, but unsettling all the same.
He turned off the shower, patting himself down with a towel, catching sight of himself in the mirror. For a moment it felt as if he was staring into a pool of water reflecting back at him. He looked away quickly, leaving the bathroom. Arthur slept on as Merlin dressed quietly, throwing on jeans, t-shirt and jumper. He picked up his Converses and padded out of the room, the sound of his footsteps dulled by thick socks. Merlin sat on the stairs facing the Great Hall, putting on his shoes and lacing them up before heading to the kitchen.
He walked out of the house just as the sun was preparing to wipe the sight of the moon from the sky. He stopped behind the line where gravel met grass, looking across the neatly kept grounds and the forest at the end. This was where he had been standing the night before, and there between the trees, he’d seen something, someone. But dreams were not real. They were just fears made manifest. There was nothing to fear in the forest, Merlin thought, stepping onto the grass.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Merlin jumped back, turning to see Arthur. His hair was a mess, and he’d clearly thrown on the jeans and black hoodie in a hurry, his boots partially and messily laced. He was stalking towards Merlin, one hand held out. “Come on.”
Merlin smiled a little sheepishly and put his hand in Arthur’s, allowing himself to be pulled back towards the house. “I was just watching the sunrise.”
“Irrelevant. I’m not letting you out of my sight now I know you sleep walk,” Arthur said. “I’m not going to have to start tying you up, am I?”
“Dunno,” Merlin said as he stepped into the kitchen, Arthur leaning past him to shut the door. “Depends on how interesting you make it.”
Arthur raised his brows at Merlin, tilting his head a little. “Interesting. Oh, I can make it interesting.”
Merlin grinned as Arthur leaned in very slowly, before kissing him soft and not quite long enough. When Arthur pulled away, Merlin looked down at their hands, Arthur’s grip still warm and firm around Merlin’s fingers. He looked up to find a patient and warm look on Arthur’s face. “I’m sorry-”
“Don’t be,” Arthur said firmly. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. Come on. Sit down. I’m making breakfast.”
Arthur began to pull away, but Merlin yanked him back around, letting go of his hand to take a hold of his face, stepping in close for deeper kiss. Arthur went very still for a moment, before his hands floated up to lightly rest on Merlin’s sides, thumbs idly stroking up and down.
“What was that for?” Arthur murmured when Merlin pulled back, taking Merlin’s hands and gently holding them. Merlin shrugged and shook his head. He couldn’t tell the truth, that Arthur’s mere presence seemed to make everything better, warmed Merlin’s heart, brightened the dark corners of his mind. He couldn’t possibly say that. “Merlin?”
“Fry up?” Merlin said with a small smile.
Arthur grinned. “Fry up it is.”
Arthur tilted his head and bumped a kiss against Merlin’s mouth before pulling away and heading for the fridge. Merlin pulled up a chair at the kitchen table and sat down, watching Arthur move about the kitchen. Merlin didn’t feel much like talking, but Arthur seemed to just naturally fill that void by keeping up an ongoing commentary on the food, on bad breakfasts, on the pub grub in the village, stopping only when he turned and must have caught something in Merlin’s expression which had to have given away what was in his heart.
Emerson walked in with both of them silently staring at each other, smoke rising from the bacon in the pan. Emerson put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, startling him, before moving to the stove with a confident, “Allow me.”
Arthur turned towards Emerson. “No no, allow me.”
“Well, at least let me get the tea,” Emerson said, moving towards the kettle, Arthur not objecting. Emerson looked in Merlin’s direction. “And how are you this morning, young man?”
Merlin offered up a small smile. “Good, thanks. Sorry about last night.”
“Stop apologising. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Arthur said, loading up a plate.
“Wart’s right,” Emerson said, glancing at Merlin. “The things that come at us from the depths of our own mind, I fear are quite out of our control.”
Merlin looked away, further even than the recesses of his own mind. He didn’t want to think about it. Arthur inserted himself into Merlin’s line of sight, planting in front of Merlin a plate loaded with eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes and mushrooms. “Eat. I have an itinerary.”
“Sounds painful,” Merlin said, receiving an arched brow, followed by a smile which predictably unclasped all his anxieties.
Arthur didn’t press Merlin for answers about his latest sleepless night. He wanted the day to be easy and light. If Merlin wanted to talk, he would have to decide it himself. Arthur had no desire to add to anyone’s nightmares. After breakfast, he grabbed Merlin around the waist and took him through the house, towards the library. They passed his father’s locked office, less of an office these days, and more of a pristine memorial. Merlin didn’t seem to notice, and Arthur didn’t particularly feel like pointing it out.
They came to a stop in front of a set of double doors, Arthur angling his head and telling Merlin, “Go for it.”
Merlin shook his head, but grinned all the same, pushing open one door. Arthur followed him in, watching him the whole time. Merlin was staring up at the second level of the library, a gallery that ran all the way around the room, accessed by a small black spiral staircase.
“It’s massive,” Merlin said quietly, walking past the thick couches, towards a large desk at the end of the room, placed in front of a dormant fireplace.
He was looking up at the portrait above it, its faded colours making all the green and blue hues almost mix together, making it hard to distinguish the lake from the trees. Arthur frowned, noting Merlin had gone as still as he had been the night before, almost stuck in place.
“It’s, um...it’s the same size as the ballroom on the other side of the house. Probably looks a little smaller because of the shelving,” Arthur said, joining Merlin at his side. “Merlin?”
Merlin turned to Arthur with a shaky looking smile. “Hmm?”
“I was thinking we could go back to London tonight,” Arthur said.
Merlin’s eyes went soft, his smile not wide enough “And what about our four day weekend?”
“Well, I was hoping we could blockade ourselves in your bedroom for the remainder of the time and spend it there,” Arthur answered.
“We don’t have to do that,” Merlin said quietly, walking towards Arthur.
“We don’t?” Merlin shook his head, smiling. “Well...right then.”
“Right,” Merlin said with a nod. “Besides, I want to see what’s so great about your guest house.”
Arthur thought about it, realising that just the image of it in his mind seemed to fill his lungs with extra air. “Well, it’s surrounded by nature, hidden away from everyone and everything, and at night, you can sit outside, light up a little fire, and have a few beers, looking at the starry sky. Forget about everything.”
“What do you want to forget about?” Merlin asked quietly.
Arthur shrugged. “It used to be all the expectations that came with being a part of this family, being an heir to a legacy. People waiting to see me fall flat on my face.”
“You don’t worry about anything anymore?” Merlin asked.
Arthur looked at Merlin, smiling. “No. No, I don’t.”
Merlin smiled back, but there was something brittle and fearful about it. “How did you go from worrying to not?”
Arthur opened his mouth, waiting for words to magically appear as his brain seemed to shut down. After a moment he said, “I...woke up one morning and thought, what I really need in my life is a bloke who sells books for a living.”
Merlin looked unimpressed with the answer. “Funny.”
He turned away, floating towards one of the shelves. Arthur followed, ducking under Merlin’s raised arm to lean against the shelves in front of Merlin. He scowled at Merlin. “I wrapped my car around a tree and woke up in a hospital, realising that had I died, Albion would carry on without me, just like everything else. Yet, despite never wanting to follow in my father’s footsteps, here I was keeping myself shackled to his company, when I had the luxury of setting myself free. So that’s what I did. I set myself free.”
“And started selling antiques instead,” Merlin said with a grin.
“As Emerson tactfully pointed out, I’ve always been happy around old tat,” Arthur said with a nod. “Actually, he helped me find the shop across the road from you. Imagine, if it wasn’t for him we might never have met. Crotchety old fart and accidental matchmaker.”
Arthur ducked back out from under Merlin’s arm, slipping behind him to grab him around the waist, giving him a tug before letting go and heading towards the doors. “Come on. The guest house and its numerous sturdy surfaces await. Maybe we can go down to The Tavern later. It’s a really nice little pub, you’ll like it.”
“You’re wrong, you know,” Merlin said.
Arthur turned, hand still reaching for the doorknob. He was smiling, but that disappeared when he saw the look on Merlin’s face. His eyes seemed bright, and the sight of him seemed to vibrate strangely in Arthur’s mind.
“Things wouldn’t just carry on without you,” Merlin said, frowning slightly. “I think you’re wrong about that.”
Arthur walked back to Merlin, half-smiling. The brightness in Merlin’s eyes was weighing down into a heavy droplet in danger of falling. Arthur reached out, slowly swiping his thumb under the rim of Merlin’s right eye, catching wetness before it could fall. He looked at the shine of it on his thumb, and back at Merlin.
“Emerson would miss you,” Merlin said with a forced smile, pushing Arthur’s hand down.
Arthur smiled, wanting to joke, but his voice sounded unsure when he said, “I suppose I’m lucky to have him then.”
Merlin smiled and tilted his head towards the door. Arthur, smiled back, taking Merlin by the hand and pulling him along.
Merlin was still pulling on his parka as they walked out to see a seaweed green Range Rover drive up the gravel drive, coming to an abrupt halt. Out stepped a rather robust looking man who seemed attired for a pheasant shoot, missing only something with which to shoot. Dark haired, and a just a few inches taller than Arthur, he had a severe look on his face. Merlin looked at Arthur who scowled, his lip curling up slightly and revealing that uneven tooth which still didn't manage to ruin his looks.
He lifted his hands at his side in question. "Uncle. This...is a pleasant surprise. Um, Merlin, meet my uncle, Alain Grey."
"When exactly were you going to tell me that you've signed away your birthright to an outsider?" Arthur’s uncle asked heatedly. Gravel crunched under footsteps and Merlin turned to find Emerson had joined them, directing a very still and steely look at Alain.
"I wasn't. I haven't." Arthur stiffened, squaring his shoulders.
"So it's not true that Morgana is now the CEO of Albion Steel?"
"It's absolutely true. But she's not an outsider. She’s my sister."
"That girl is the the result of an affair your father had whilst married to my sister, born as your mother agonised over whether she would ever be able to have a child of her own." Alain’s voice shook as he spoke.
Merlin looked at Arthur, awkwardly suggesting, "Why don’t I go wait-”
"Stay," Arthur said quietly. "My uncle clearly has no problem airing the dirty family laundry in front of strangers."
Alain opened his mouth and then stopped, looking suddenly aware of his surroundings. He let out a shaky breath, jaw walking as he calmed himself in silence. Looking at Merlin, he offered a tight smile. "My apologies. That was rude of me."
Merlin gave him an awkward smile and shook his head. Next to him, Arthur wearily combed his fingers through his hair. "Look...we can talk about this later."
Merlin suggested, “Why don’t you talk about it now? I’ll just hang out for a bit.”
Arthur looked reluctant, but Emerson suggested, “Or I can show Merlin to the guest house? You can join him when you’re ready.”
Merlin’s heart sank. He would have much preferred to be alone. But then Arthur gave him a guilty look, and Merlin smiled, nodding in agreement. "Sounds like a good idea. I'll go on ahead. Chill out. You can catch up."
Arthur nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, all right then. I won’t be long.”
Merlin turned to Alain and held out his hand. "Nice meeting you, Mr. Grey."
Alain shook his hand, looking apologetic. "Please, it’s Alain. Again, sorry for the amateur dramatics."
"It's okay," Merlin said. "I imagine it's not easy being his uncle."
"Merlin," Arthur said, looking both amused and a little scandalised. Alain smiled, a fond look on his face. He smiled at Arthur and said, "Your friend's smart."
Arthur winked at Merlin, before ushering Alain into the house. Merlin turned to Emerson who smiled and said, "I'll just fetch my coat, shall I?"
"Sure," Merlin said, really hoping Arthur might return before Emerson.
Arthur closed the door to the drawing room, reluctant to have whatever conversation this was going to be, but shoving his hands into his pockets and waiting for it all the same.
Alain was looking around the room as if searching for something, before finally speaking. “Your mother wanted the best for you. You'll forgive me if the only way I can seem to keep her memory alive is through wanting to honour her wishes."
Arthur prodded at the pattern on the rug, the toe of his boot pushing at the thorny swirls of blood red. "I know. That you care. But, you have to ask yourself, is the best for me what makes me happy? Or makes me richer?"
Alain smiled indulgently. "Some might argue that both are the same."
"They're not," Arthur said. "I'm not a business man. I'm not...my father. I don't want the things he wanted. In fact, maybe I don't even know what I want. But even so, I'm happier now than I've been in a while."
Alain frowned, his eyes sliding to the window for a second. "Does it have something to do with that young man I just met, does it?"
Arthur felt his insides lurch for a moment. He hadn't thought of this. He knew that he was happier, and he knew that Merlin made him happy. He hadn't though the two might be connected in a bigger way. "Maybe. I don’t know."
Alain walked over and gave Arthur a pat on the shoulder. With a sigh, he said, “I do hope you know what you’re doing, Arthur.”
“I don’t,” Arthur said with a nod. “But that’s all right. In fact, it’s much better than when I thought I knew what I was doing.”
Alain nodded, pulling away, going back to surveying the room. He walked over to the window and looked outside. “Emerson’s still going then. You’d think he might want to retire by now.”
“God, I hope not,” Arthur said. Alain arched a brow. “I don’t know what I’d do without him managing this place.”
“Yes, well, I’ve never really liked how keen he is to help with everything,” Alain said. “I don’t trust it. No one is that helpful without reason.”
Arthur snorted. “Most people play their cards before they become old age pensioners.”
“If you say so.” Alain turned from the window and smiled. “The guest house. All fixed up, then?”
“Yup,” Arthur said with a nod. “All fixed up.”
“I don’t suppose you ever found out the cause of the fire,” Alain said.
“No. I’m just glad Morgana got out alive,” Arthur said.
Alain clearly had something on his mind, but seemed to cast it aside, smiling at Arthur. “And am I likely to be invited to see the result of the resurrection?”
Arthur smiled. “You can see it right now. Merlin and I were on our way there just before you arrived. Thought he might enjoy the scenery. He hasn’t been doing so great.”
“Oh?” Alain asked.
Arthur pulled a face. “Nightmares. Sleepwalking. I don’t know if he has something on his mind, or it’s just this place. I thought a bit of time by the lake might be nice.”
Alain nodded thoughtfully, looking a little distracted. “I suspect he’s not the first to have had nightmares here. Kingbury can be rather imposing. Not to mention, it has a fine history of wrongdoing. Your mother was fascinated by the stories of witch trials carried out right in this very place.”
“What? This room?” Arthur asked. His uncle rolled his eyes. Arthur grinned and said, “That’s a fairly harsh way to describe my father’s relationship with his staff.”
Alain snorted, arching a brow. “All jokes aside? Harsh, but apt.”
This time it was Arthur who rolled his eyes. Smirking, he turned to the door. “You coming?”
“As long as there aren’t any dunking stools down there, yes I think I might,” Alain said, with a little smirk of his own.
Merlin pulled his parka around him, the chill cutting right through him today. He couldn’t see the sun beyond the branches of the trees, but the dark in the middle of the day indicated it was hiding behind thunderous clouds. The branches of the trees shivered right alongside Merlin, Emerson keeping up a quiet conversation about all things Kingbury.
“These woods, they are the real Kingbury,” he said. “Everything else has grown around them through the ages.
“You know a lot about this place,” Merlin commented.
“I’ve spent a lifetime here,” Emerson said. “It is to be expected. Have you found Kingbury to your liking?”
“Um, yeah, great.” Merlin batted a low hanging branch out of the way. Emerson was silent, clearly waiting for more of an answer. “I mean, it’s a little overwhelming, but it’s...definitely interesting.”
“Overwhelming. Yes, I can see how one might find it that way. Perhaps the cause of your disrupted sleep?” Merlin’s mouth worked around words he wasn’t quite able to muster up. “I’m sorry. I’m prying.”
“No, it’s fine,” Merlin said. “Not exactly a secret.”
Emerson was quiet for a moment, and Merlin could almost hear the weighing of words. “What did you see last night? You were looking into the woods so intently.”
Merlin shook his head. “Can’t remember.”
“Wart said you had bad dreams the night before too,” Emerson said. Merlin scowled, and Emerson immediately sighed and said, “My apologies. I’m being rather insensitive. I suppose I just wish I could be of some help.”
Merlin stopped walking, turning on Emerson with a tight smile. “Why do you call him that? Why do you call him Wart?”
Emerson looked a little surprised, his eyes scanning the forest for a moment. “Morgana. The first time she saw him, she was almost two years old, she couldn’t quite pronounce his name. Sounded as if she was saying Wart. Wart’s father took to the name. It stuck.”
“Right.” Merlin nodded thoughtfully. He mustered another smile. “Nice story.”
Emerson tilted his head at Merlin, frowning. “If I pry, it is because I care for your friend. I know Wart. He will be taking the blame for your discomfort. Thinking that he is the cause of your nightmares.”
“He’s not,” Merlin said, a pang of guilt twisting inside his chest. “It’s not him.”
Emerson nodded, smiling and patting Merlin on the arm. “I’m glad to hear it. Now come...”
But Emerson took one step and stopped, scowling as he patted down the pockets of his coat. “Something wrong?”
Emerson sighed, shaking his head. “I forgot to take the keys from Wart.”
“We can just go back,” Merlin suggested.
Emerson nodded in agreement but then stopped Merlin with a hand on his arm. “No, you go on ahead. Just follow this dirt path, it leads right to the back of the house. I’ll let Wart know what’s happened and he can bring the keys himself. Besides, I think you’ve tolerated my company for long enough.”
Merlin opened his mouth to object, but the objection didn’t come quite quick enough. After a moment, he said, “I could go back for the keys.”
Emerson chuckled. “Ah yes, but it’s not me your friend wants to spend time with there. Go on, go.”
Emerson ambled off back towards the house, leaving Merlin frowning at him. A gust of wind blew against Merlin, and he turned away from its chill, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his parka. He turned and continued on the narrow path, already enjoying the tranquillity of not being interrogated by Emerson. The wind was shaking the branches, making trees whisper amongst themselves as Merlin walked between them. The breeze seemed circular, ruffling his hair, pulling at his parka, playful around his ankles. The forest made him breathe easy, its magic opening up his lungs. Up ahead, there was a comforting fluttering of wings. Merlin walked on, following the path, his eyes seeking out the source of the sound.
He stopped and scowled when he thought he saw a dash of red up in the trees, which shot away as soon as it was spotted. Merlin followed the blur of movement, stopping when he caught sight of the bird again. Not just red, but yellow feathers too. Merlin stared at the odd looking bird with its golden plume of feathers, long neck and large wings, and long tail feathers. When it blinked, its eyes were a striking yellow amber. As it flew away, Merlin thought it looked like a flame jumping from tree to tree. The bird seemed in no hurry to disappear. Merlin laughed quietly, watching its little head twitching in Merlin’s direction every time it took flight and then landed again.
“Hello. Are you trying to make friends?”
The bird made a little cooing sound, before fluttering away again. Merlin craned his neck, looking up at the direction the bird had flown in, grinning the whole time. A flutter of wings, and the bird had flown back, flapping its wings at its side. Merlin frowned, half a smile hanging on his face. He tentatively walked towards the tree where the bird was perched on a branch. Merlin carefully reached out is hand, crooking his finger in invitation. Predictably, the bird fluttered away.
Merlin jogged after it, reaching into his pocket at the same time to find his phone, maybe take a picture. He stopped only when he realised that he was still following the dirt path. He looked down at, his eyes following the trail until up ahead he saw the bird had settled on another tree, its little head pointed in Merlin’s direction.
“What,” Merlin whispered, lifting his phone and getting the bird in into frame, “are you?”
The bird flew just as he pressed down to take the picture, ending up with a blurred image of yellow and red, surrounded by the green and brown of the forest. Merlin zoomed in and out of the picture, which made absolutely no difference at all. Pocketing the phone, he walked down the path, keeping his eyes peeled to spot the strange bird, which now seemed to have disappeared. Merlin whistled a few times, to attract its attention, but his feathered friend had fled. It didn’t matter as something was emerging beyond the path, the shadow of a building, and not looming like the Kingbury mansion either, but an actual house sized house.
Being a part of Kingbury, Merlin guessed it was still probably going to be on the luxurious side, and make his flat look like a hovel. He came out behind the house, just like Emerson said he would. It was two storeys high and a timber and stone structure that looked brand new. He backed away from it to get a good look at the whole, putting some distance between the building and himself. It had a balcony at the top storey, and a porch down below, the foundations made of stone. Merlin could imagine Arthur sitting on the porch with a beer, just looking out at the forest.
He was reaching into his pocket when he heard a familiar cooing. After a moment, the bird swooped out from behind the roof of the house, flying in a circle above Merlin. He slowly reaching into his pocket again, pulling out his phone and holding it up, focusing on the bird for a crisp as possible image. But off it went again, flapping its oddly large wings, swooping up into the air, and then diving down and over Merlin’s head. He turned his back on the house as he followed the bird’s flight, his phone tilted up at the sky. It was when he brought his phone down that he froze, the phone slipping from his hand.
From where he stood, the ground sloped down towards the wide open mouth of a lake that sat about fifteen feet away. The ground and trees partially enclosed it like a ring, the mist in the distance like a giant jewel that hid the end of the lake from view. Merlin stood frozen, staring at the too still water, feeling its cold in his bones. The bird he had followed seemed suspended in time over the lake, flapping its wings as if through molasses.
The yellow and red of its feathers blurred, turning wings into flames. A gust of wind blew ice across Merlin’s face, his eyes tearing up where they were frozen in their sockets. He could hear a loud thumping sound, too slow to be the beat of a heart, matching every flap of the bird’s wings. The clouds seemed to darken above, or perhaps inside his head, everything covered by an aura of dark. Except for the bird, which very slowly became consumed by fire, Merlin unable to do anything but watch.
“So, do you think you might come to London?” Arthur asked, tossing up the keys to the guest house and catching them.
Alain nodded, smiling. “Of course. I’m interested in all your endeavours, you know that.”
Arthur smiled. “Well...I appreciate that. Without Dad around...”
He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, and left the sentiment unfinished. Alain seemed to understand anyway, reaching out to pat Arthur on the back. “I know.”
Arthur nodded silently, jangling the keys in his hand. They walked in silence until Alain said, “You must bring Merlin to the farm sometime. For lunch perhaps.”
Arthur blinked at Alain. “Really?”
Alain nodded. “Absolutely. If only so I can look at him and imagine your father’s face.”
Arthur laughed, shaking his head. “You do realise that Dad was well aware of my previous boyfriends?”
“Oh yes,” Alain said. “Well aware of how many he managed to bribe away from your side.”
Arthur’s looked ahead, stung. “I’m not going to hate him for that. If someone’s that easy to buy off, I’m not sure I want them around.”
“And this boy?” Alain asked.
Arthur smiled absently. “I’m fairly certain he can’t stand this place. You should have seen his face when he saw the London apartment. He doesn’t give a shit about any of this.”
Alain stopped walking, fixing his gaze on Arthur. He nodded at Arthur and said, “Then keep him close.”
Arthur nodded, giving Alain a pat on the arm. They walked on, Arthur calling out for Merlin as soon as the house came into view. There was no answer, so Arthur called out again. He frowned, walking towards the front of the house, finally seeing Merlin standing stock still with his back to the woods.
“Merlin?” Arthur went to him, stopping when he found Merlin blankly staring ahead with watery eyes. His fingers twitched by his sides, but he was otherwise still. “Merlin? Can you hear me?”
“What’s the matter?” Alain asked, frowning at Merlin. “Sleepwalking?”
Arthur peered at Merlin’s face. He seemed as if someone had pressed a pause button, freeze framed him where he stood. Arthur shook his head. “I’m not sure-”
Merlin slowly tilted to the side, his eyes rolling into the back of his head. Arthur quickly caught him, lowering him to the ground with a curse, Merlin’s body convulsing in his arms. His body began to violently spasm, face contorted into a painful grimace.
“He’s having a fit,” Arthur said shakily. “Please tell me you have your phone.”
“I do,” Alain said, already fishing it out.
“Call Guy. Tell him it looks like an epileptic fit. We need to make sure we don’t hurt him,” Arthur said, watching Merlin spasm and grunt. He tentatively reached out, covering Merlin’s fingers. “It’s okay, Merlin. You’re going to be okay.”
Merlin woke up feeling as if his whole body was made of twisted and heavy metal, his head stuffed with air and inflating still. He blinked dully at the white ceiling, feeling as if time had slowed down and he couldn’t make it catch up if he tried. He flinched when he saw a face come into view above him, an elderly man with thinning, almost creamy white hair. He was smiling kindly at Merlin, patting his hand in a comforting manner which reminded Merlin of his grandfather.
“Back with us?” he asked. Merlin blinked, mulling over the question. “Not quite, I see.”
“What happened?” Merlin murmured, closing his eyes against the ache in his head.
“What do you remember happening?”
Merlin frowned, thinking back to the house and the arrival of Arthur’s uncle. After that...Merlin stared blankly ahead, realisation setting in heavy and hard right in the middle of his head. He knew exactly what had happened. His chest immediately filled with a watery fear coupled with crushing disappointment, bringing tears to his eyes.
“Merlin?” the man asked softly.
“It’s not supposed to happen anymore.” Merlin covered his face with his hand, taking a shaky breath.
“Now...you mustn’t upset yourself.”
Merlin took a shuddering breath, before he pushed himself up, looking around the unfamiliar white bedroom. “I’m going to be sick.”
The man nodded, turning towards the other side of the bed. Arthur must have been standing there, because he was moving quickly without asking questions, by Merlin’s side in a second, helping him to the bathroom where he proceeded to throw up his breakfast. Once he had emptied his guts, he sat leaning on the edge of the toilet, getting his breath back. He looked down to see that he was in his jeans and t-shirt, both items of clothing feeling as clean as when he had put them on. At least he hadn’t completely humiliated himself. No, that would probably be next time.
“Still feel sick?” Arthur asked quietly.
Merlin shook his head, letting Arthur help him up, hovering close as Merlin washed his mouth out. The man who had been by his bed was gone when they returned. Merlin heavily sat down on the edge of the bed, blankly staring ahead at the window, which thankfully showed only sky. Merlin kept his gaze trained ahead, aware that Arthur was watching him closely, too closely. Merlin swatted away a tear, his eyes watery, though he felt no real impulse to cry.
“Guy says you had a fit. We’re lucky we found you when we did,” Arthur said quietly, sitting down next to Merlin. “Merlin-”
“It’s a long story,” Merlin said, rubbing at the corner of his eye.
“I’ve got time. We both do.” Merlin clamped his mouth shut. “Okay. All right. Fine.”
Arthur didn’t leave like Merlin expected him to. He just sat there quietly, looking burdened, but not so much that he was going to abandon Merlin. Merlin quietly told him, “I almost drowned when I was eight. It’s not really a big deal, I don’t actually remember it happening. But...I went fishing with my grandfather and he ended up having to fish me out.”
Merlin looked at Arthur to see him opening his mouth to speak, having already jumped ahead to make two plus two into four. “You’re-”
“Fucking petrified of water,” Merlin said with a nervous laugh.
Arthur shook his head, running his fingers through his hair. “Fuck.”
Merlin looked down at his hands which felt as if they might begin to tremble. “I was fine after it happened. Until I started having bad dreams. I’d wake up screaming the house down because I thought I was...drowning again. Then the sleep walking started. So I’d try to avoid sleeping altogether. Mum says I started to see things, hallucinate. Blank out. I don’t remember any of it. All I remember is losing time. And then...one day I had a fully fledged fit in the middle of a maths lesson at school.”
“Merlin-” Arthur said softly, sounding so pained it made Merlin smile.
“It’s okay. I don’t remember that either. I don’t remember any of them. I just remember waking up, scared and confused. Embarrassed.”
“You have nothing to be emba-”
Merlin let out a bitter laugh. “Oh, trust me, it was embarrassing.”
He closed his eyes, grimacing. His whole body felt wrung out, tilting with tiredness. Arthur reached out to cup the back of Merlin’s neck, firm and warm, fingers rubbing comfortingly. Merlin felt a trickle of calm and reached up to put his hand around Arthur’s wrist.
“Mum had to take me out of school the fits got so bad. It made things a little better being home, not being anxious all the time that I might start having a fit any second in the middle of a lesson,” Merlin said, remembering above everything the relief of knowing he didn’t have to go back to school. “But...I just wanted them to go away for good. I spent most of my time wishing it all away.”
Merlin took a shuddering breath, all the misery of childhood fears flooding back too easily. Arthur moved closer, a wall of warmth against Merlin’s side, his arm closing closing around Merlin’s shoulders.
Merlin swallowed. “It went on like that for three years and...just like that, it all stopped. I had my last fit just before my eleventh birthday. I still have bad dreams, but I never really remember them, so it’s okay.”
Arthur drew back slowly, frowning at Merlin. “Until...now.”
“It’s not your fault,” Merlin said, but Arthur’s eyes were moving to the corners of his memory, piecing things together. He closed his eyes for a moment, mouth slightly open as he slumped a little. “Arthur-”
“My flat. That’s when your dreams started getting worse. After you saw the river,” he said quietly, standing up and turning towards the window, pacing for a moment before he looked at Merlin. “And then I brought you here and made it worse.”
Merlin got up, shaking his head. “That’s not how it works.”
“Dreams where you thought you were drowning? The other night, you woke up gasping for air,” Merlin looked away, his head aching and insides churning again. “I wish you’d told me.”
Merlin gave Arthur a look. “It’s not exactly the easiest thing to talk about.”
“Merlin. The last time this happened, you were eleven. Eleven. And I’m the reason it’s happened again,” Arthur said, his face twisted with frustration. “The reason it could happen again and again.”
Merlin smiled, nodding. “Well, don’t worry. I don’t expect you to play nursemaid.”
Hurt flickered across Arthur’s features, bright in his eyes and taut across his mouth. He came towards Merlin so quick, Merlin stumbled back. “If you’d cracked your skull open, or choked on your tongue before we found you, you have any idea what that would do to...”
Arthur’s jaw clenched, biting back the rest of his words. He started to turn away and Merlin grabbed his hand, pulling him back around, feeling a little desperate, a little afraid. Arthur was scowling somewhere past him, refusing to meet his eyes. Merlin obstinately moved into his line of sight, until their eyes had to meet.
“Stop,” Merlin said hoarsely, “being such a prat.”
“Well, you’re a bloody idiot,” Arthur said shakily, allowing Merlin to take his hands and pull him closer. A second later, Arthur pulled his hands away and wrapped his arms around Merlin, pulling him in tight. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Merlin whispered.
Arthur pulled back, his eyes looking a little pink. He nodded and told Merlin, “How do you feel? Think you’ve got enough energy to get back to the house?”
Merlin wasn’t too sure, but he knew the lake was on the other side of the guest house, on the other side of the wall right next to him, and he wanted to be far from it. He nodded. “Yeah.”
“Good. We’re going back to London. Tonight,” Arthur said, already moving around the room, retrieving Merlin’s shoes and his jumper.
“We don’t have to-”
“Yes, we do,” Arthur said. Merlin opened his mouth to argue, but Arthur shook his head. “Merlin. I want to go. Let’s just go home, okay?”
Merlin took a moment to get his bearings, rocked by Arthur’s unexpected insistence. He nodded, feeling a little relief as he said, ”Yeah. Okay. Let’s go home.”
Arthur’s chest felt very much like a glass jar filled with trapped moths fluttering around a bright white bulb of anxiety. The image of Merlin in the grip of a seizure was etched into his mind. He could only begin to imagine what Merlin was going through. He glanced at Merlin as they descended the stairs between the living room and kitchen.
Arthur was at fault for re-introducing Merlin to his fears. Had they been in London right now, Merlin would be idling around his flat, laughing about something Arthur didn't quite understand, but laughed at anyway because of how much he loved the smile on Merlin’s face. Arthur wanted to go back to that, and though Merlin looked dead on his feet with exhaustion, Arthur didn't want to wait another second before going.
Arthur looked at the windows as the sky gurgled, hoping the rain would hold off for a bit, but sure he’d drive through hail and snow if he had to. Alain and Guy were taking up a plush couch each, both of them flinching at the streak of lightning that momentarily lit up the dark, the strike of thunder that followed nowhere as frightening.
It was Alain who noticed Arthur and Merlin, polishing off the rest of his drink as he got up, setting the empty glass down. Guy was slower to rise, placing his drink on the coffee table, before he joined Alain at his side, looking at Merlin with clear concern.
"Merlin. How you are you feeling?" he asked.
Merlin's smile was brittle as he answered, "Better."
"Are you quite sure?" Guy asked, looking at Arthur and back at Merlin again. "My boy, I really think you ought to be resting right now."
Arthur looked at Merlin, asking, "You sure you're okay? It’s not a short drive."
Merlin nodded, little too eager. "Yeah. Absolutely."
"Drive?" Alain asked. “You off somewhere?”
"We're heading back to London," Arthur told his uncle. "I don't think Kingbury is the place to be right now."
"I would advise you at least get a night's sleep before leaving," Guy said to Merlin, not looking too pleased with Arthur.
Merlin's smile was taut when he spoke to Guy. "It's not the first time this has happened. I'm fine. I really am."
"Well, can't say I blame you for wanting to leave." Alain said. "It's not a place that really inspires good cheer."
“I’m sorry, wait just a moment.” Guy held up a hand, giving Arthur a firm look before turning his gaze on Merlin. “Merlin, you said this wasn’t supposed to happen anymore. I take it it’s been a while since you’ve had one of these seizures.”
Merlin nodded stiffly. “Yeah.”
“I’m not saying you’re likely to have another tonight, but…what if you do on the drive back to London?”
Merlin’s expression went from disappointment to blankness. “I...I didn’t think of that.”
“It wasn’t your idea,” Arthur said with a sigh, turning to Guy. “It was mine.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your idea, Wart. Just the timing,” Guy said gently, as if Arthur was still a little boy who needed comforting. He spoke to Merlin in a similar way. “Merlin. Rest. If you don’t feel quite right, we’re all here. After a good night’s sleep, by all means, leave for London.”
The bulb in Arthur’s chest felt brighter, wings of panic flapping a little harder. He looked to Merlin, quietly telling him, “Guy’s right. You should be resting. In bed, not in car on the motorway.”
Merlin nodded, not looking at Arthur, Guy already manoeuvring him back towards the stairs. “Come on. You’ll feel brand new after a good night’s sleep.”
Arthur watched them leave, blowing out a breath that did nothing to lessen his anxiety. Outside, thunder cracked loudly, almost making him jump. Arthur turned towards the windows, Alain coming to his side and offering a pat on the back.
“You all right?” Alain asked.
“Fine,” Arthur said, unable to keep the irritability out of his tone.
Alain gave him a patient look. “Listen, why don’t you and Merlin come stay a night or two at the farm? You always loved it there when you were a boy, remember?”
Arthur mustered a smile. “I did. It’s just not the right time. I think Merlin should be at home where he feels comfortable, in his flat, near his friends. His shop.”
“The next time you’re up then. Come on, let me pour you a drink,” Alain said. Arthur let himself be pulled along, eyeing the stairs up which Merlin and Guy and disappeared. “Stop worrying. He’s in good hands.”
Alain was right. Merlin was in good hands. However, knowing it didn’t ease Arthur’s worry at all.
Merlin told Guy much of what he had told Arthur, though it was somewhat easier, Guy anticipating some answers, responding knowingly, keeping Merlin’s panic at bay.
“And any new medication that could have triggered it?” Guy asked.
Merlin shook his head, slumped against the pillows Guy had stuffed behind his back. “No.”
Guy nodded sympathetically, patting Merlin’s knee. “Let’s not dwell on it for now. Try to relax. If you start feeling off, let someone know straight away.”
Merlin nodded, though he was far from relaxed. A childhood ghost had come back to haunt him, changing everything in a single moment. He was petrified.
“Merlin,” Guy said, so gently Merlin felt the sting of tears. “I know you’d rather pretend it hasn’t happened, but it has. You mustn’t let your fear stop you from managing your condition.”
“I know,” Merlin said quietly. “You’re right.”
“It’s not about who’s right,” Guy said firmly. “It’s about taking care of yourself. I know it must have been a shock after all that time, but pretending it won’t happen again won’t stop it from happening again.”
Merlin sunk further back, bone tired, listening to the sky continue its argument with the earth. “I should’ve known. The signs were there. I just ignored them.”
“Maybe,” Guy said with a nod. “But you can’t fix things travelling backwards. You can only manage them going forward.”
Merlin just nodded, exhausted and fearing if he closed his eyes now, he would instantly fall sleep, where who knew what watery dreams lay in wait. Yet he couldn’t stop them when they started to drift shut.
“Merlin?” Guy asked softly. Merlin blinked at him, nodding. Guy gave him a sympathetic look as he stood up. “Rest. We’re all here if you need us.”
Merlin nodded, letting Guy rearrange the pillows so he could lie down. When walked away, pausing by the door to switch the light off, Merlin told him, “Leave it on. Please.”
Guy nodded, leaving Merlin alone with his sludgy thoughts. Merlin curled onto his side, blinking tiredly at the window. It was pitch black outside, with the exception of the intrusive moon looking right back at Merlin. Somewhere underneath it was the lake. Merlin squeezed his eyes shut, clenching his jaw, trying to shake the feeling of an imagined watery touch on the back of his neck.
Sleep came eventually, Merlin unable to fight it off, and when he awoke, it still felt as if he hadn’t slept at all. He jerked awake feeling as if his eyes had only just closed. The bed dipped, and Merlin peered over his shoulder to find Arthur looking a little sheepish, before he let himself fall the rest of the way down, landing behind Merlin.
“Sorry. Tried not to wake you,” he said.
“S’all right,” Merlin said, turning onto his back with a sigh, blinking tiredly at Arthur. He wanted to tell Arthur he was sorry for this mess of a weekend, but his throat felt tight, his chest crushed under the weight of disappointment and humiliation.
“You okay?” Arthur asked quietly. Merlin swallowed, shaking his head, smiling because his eyes were welling up, preparing to betray his emotions. Arthur cupped the side of Merlin’s face, leaning in and quietly telling him, “Everything is going to be okay. I promise.”
Merlin stared up at Arthur. A ribbon that had been wrapped around his terror seemed to have been swiftly and easily pulled, releasing a knot in the middle of his chest. It was almost too easy to believe in Arthur. Merlin blinked, murmuring, “Is it?”
Arthur nodded. “Yes.”
Merlin nodded and they exchanged soft unhurried kisses, craving closeness more than anything else. When Merlin couldn’t look into Arthur’s gaze, too openly filled with concern and affection, Merlin turned back to face the moon, Arthur spooned up behind him, holding him close.
“What happened? After your uncle arrived?” Merlin asked quietly. “I don’t remember.”
Arthur was quiet for a moment. “I had to talk some things over with Alain, so Emerson brought you up here. Alain and I were on our way up here when we met him half-way. He’d forgotten to take my keys. Said you’d gone on ahead alone. You remember any of that?”
“I remember the lake,” Merlin said. “At least I think I do. I can...I can see it in my mind.”
He was quiet after that, shivering slightly in Arthur’s hold, feeling that wet creeping cold again. “You all right?”
"For what," Merlin murmured with a quiet laugh. "Putting up with all this. Me."
"It's not a hardship," Arthur said, "putting up with you."
A smile tugged at the corner of Merlin’s mouth. He turned around in Arthur’s hold, slotting his head under Arthur’s chin and closing his eyes, his arm loose around Arthur’s waist.
“You know what we need?” Arthur whispered. Merlin shook his head. “A four day weekend, holed up in your flat. Crap films. Junk food. Clothing optional.”
Merlin grinned, laughing quietly into Arthur’s chest. “Like the sound of that.”
“Yeah? Good. It’s a plan then,” Arthur said. “I’d propose making use of the other two bedrooms here, but Alain and Guy have invited themselves to stay the night.”
“Gwain was so right about your intentions,” Merlin said sleepily.
“He is a wise man. A strange man, but a wise one,” Arthur said, shifting against Merlin, somehow bringing him even closer. He sighed and whispered, “I can’t wait to get back to London.”
Merlin smiled, words too heavy to navigate as he burrowed closer, finally allowing himself to sink into a less miserable sleep. Nightmares didn’t come, though bright sparks seemed to dance at the corners of his dreams, sounding like the fluttering of wings, his sleep filled with a golden yellow, and bright victorious red. When it all seemed to flutter too close to him, he awoke with a start, overheated and sweating. Arthur was lying on his back, fast asleep, one arm under Merlin, his other hand loose on top of Merlin’s hand which was curled atop Arthur’s stomach.
Merlin pushed himself up just so he could look at Arthur for a moment. The lighting in the room was soft, picking up the gold of his hair, and the heating was generous, pinking Arthur’s cheeks. Merlin had tasted the bitter tang of alcohol in their kisses earlier, and he wondered how much of Arthur’s deep sleep was due to that. Merlin had an overwhelming urge to wake Arthur, see the blues of his eyes, the glint of a grin, but somehow he pulled away, sitting up.
He got out of bed and ended up standing in front of the window. The lake was hard to see in the dark, but the moon’s reflection on its surface was not. The light that shone off the ridges of ripples made the water seem like an inky eye lazily blinking at Merlin, colluding with the sneer of the moon. Merlin stepped up to the window and watched them both, before a tremor of fear made him step away.
He glanced at Arthur, quietly padding out of the room and down the stairs. The lights had been left on and Merlin went directly for the fridge at the end of the kitchen. It was generously stocked, in anticipation for usage over a day or two, Merlin thought with a smile. He took out a can of Coke, opening it and downing half in a couple of gulps. The sudden sweetness, chill and sparkle of the drink made him feel a little more steadier than he’d felt for the last few hours. Despite strange dreams, sleep seemed to have settled his nerves too, emotions no longer dangerously close to the surface.
It was why the flapping noise confused him. He thought he had heard it in his sleep, but here he as awake, and hearing it again. Merlin frowned, slowly turning. He was looking for the source of the feathery flapping sound. The length of the kitchen, and the living room ahead of it, had nothing flying around flapping its wings. Merlin put the Coke down and walked up to dividing line between kitchen and living room, turning in a circle to seek out the sound. He saw it as the bird revealed itself by flying past him, almost as if it was aiming at Merlin’s face.
Merlin jumped back, bringing up his arms to protect himself. The bird frantically moved along the large window that looked out onto the porch, it’s strangely coloured feathers making it seem golden, copper, yellow and red, depending on where the light fell as it flapped its long wings. It was an ugly bird, Merlin thought, something chaotic in its appearance, a long tail of feathers looking nowhere near majestic as it battled with the window. Merlin went to the door and opened it out wide, pointedly not looking at the lake outside, the knowledge of it being there enough to make his heart pick up its pace.
Merlin stepped back, making a few shushing noises to lure the bird to its freedom. Instead, the fiery little creature swooped away into the living room, flying a complete circuit before swooping towards Merlin. He stumbled backwards, trying to move out of its way, only succeeding to move out onto the porch and tripping down the stairs. He fell hard and in a heap, his arm bending beneath him to take his weight. Merlin pressed his forehead against damp ground, groaning and cursing under the rain that was now drenching him.
He slowly got up with a sigh, the lake looming into his vision. Merlin wiped the back of his hand across his face, looking across the spread of inky black water. The thought of it had terrified him. Would seeing it again trigger another seizure? Would it loosen a memory best forgotten? Afraid, he kept looking, standing firm, until he realised that water was seeping into his Converses.
He looked down the find that he was closer to the lake than he had realised. He was in fact ankle deep. Merlin lurched back in shock, slipping in the sodden ground and landing hard on his back. He shuffled back a bit more, up the shallow bank and towards the house. Only, the water ahead of him seemed to be doing something strange. It looked as if it was rising, breathing perhaps. It looked as if it was moving towards Merlin, dark shapes rising out of it, reaching for him. Merlin shook his head and pulled himself up to his feet, grimacing at the scene in front of him, backing away from it.
The rising and shifting shapes followed, coming out of the water, facing him no matter what direction he turned in. Merlin backed away as far as he could, before breaking into a run, away from the water and into pitch black forest, illuminated in part by beams of moonlight that gave it an eerie glow. Merlin ignored the slap and scratch of branches and leaves as he ran, his whole body driven by panic.
He ignored the shout, not looking back, not stopping.
The shout seemed to be closer, causing Merlin’s heart to smash against the inside of his ribcage in terror.
The command was gentle, soft in his ear, accompanied by a presence that lightly ghosted down his back, striking terror through his heart as if pinned to the end of a sharp blade that had been thrust into his chest.
Merlin whipped around, every muscle in his body rigid as he flung out his hand in protest and yelled, “No!”
Fire erupted in front of his face, spreading in elegant trickles, like lines on a map, travelling and growing, before coming together to form an image of a galloping horse, a man hunched forward on top, holding a long spear, both in swift movement, made of fire and light. Merlin’s hand remained stretched out before him, words tumbling from his mouth as the vision moved, the spear striking into view a second beast made of fire, which screeched before coming apart, tearing apart the whole scene, becoming orange embers that disappeared into the night.
Merlin dropped to the ground. The sounds of the forest became silent. The rain, the wind, the shaking of branches and leaves all come to a stop. All Merlin could hear was his own stuttered breathing. His body hurt where he sat awkwardly, legs folded beneath him, one hand braced against the ground, the other still held out, fingers slowly curling away from the dark. Moonbeams seemed suspended in the air, the forest looking almost as if it was underwater, moonlight casting strangely twisting shadows.
One shadow was darker than dark, a broad shouldered shape, outlined in moonlight silver, walking slowly. Merlin shifted backwards, watching with caution. The line between reality and dream had blurred and he had no idea what he was seeing. Grimacing, he moved further away as the figure moved closer, a shadow within shadows, moonlight illuminating lines and angles. Merlin gasped and leaned away as it stopped above him and crouched down.
“It’s all right,” Arthur said, moving into the moonlight’s caress, looking ghostly pale, his hand closing around the one Merlin had lifted to ward him off. Merlin shook his head. “Merlin, it’s all right.”
Merlin froze, staring at Arthur in confusion, absently moving into his embrace as he tried to believe Arthur when he said that everything would be okay.
Merlin was shaking in Arthur’s hold and Arthur wasn’t quite sure how he was supposed to offer any comfort when his own body felt about as steady as a sandcastle on the verge of collapsing.
“Merlin?” Arthur whispered.
“This isn’t real,” Merlin gasped wetly against Arthur’s throat.
Arthur swallowed, leaning back, not having to seek out Merlin’s gaze because the sheen of tears was catching all the moonlight. “Merlin, it’s me. You’re not dreaming.”
Merlin slumped against Arthur, letting out a frustrated sound. Trembling as he gritted out, “I can’t...”
“Merlin. Merlin, it’s okay. You’re okay,” Arthur tried to convince him as Merlin kept shaking his head.
“No, it’s not,” Merlin replied. “I’m seeing things. I can’t...can’t tell what’s real anymore. I...I thought I saw something in the water, I thought it was coming after me. I was-”
Two bright beams of light shone in their direction, silencing Merlin. Arthur turned his head to find Alain and Guy, both of them looking at Merlin. Before anyone could ask, Arthur said, “He was sleepwalking.”
Guy and Alain shared a look, before Guy came to Merlin’s side, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Let’s get you back inside.”
Merlin shook his head, almost frantic. Arthur took Merlin’s face in his hands and looked into frightened blue eyes. “Hey, hey. Away from the lake. Back to the house. Okay?”
Merlin blinked, frozen for a moment before he nodded mutely, Guy standing over him and watching with worry. Arthur let one hand slide from Merlin’s cheek, squeezing his shoulder.
“Well...why don’t you all go ahead?” Alain said when the silence had stretched too long. “I’ll lock up.”
Arthur helped Merlin up, wanting him out of the forest and away from the lake as soon as possible. Merlin was unsteady on his feet for a moment, swaying, but Arthur held tight around his waist, keeping him pressed close. They walked back to the house at a fast as possible pace, even if Guy kept falling behind. To his credit, Guy still did most of the talking, Merlin quiet by Arthur’s side.
They trudged into the house, partially dampened, Arthur switching on lights as they made their up to the bedroom. Now that Arthur could see him properly, Merlin looked haunted and exhausted, pale and cold, making Arthur’s insides twist with guilt. In their bedroom, Arthur stood silent as Guy quickly looked Merlin over, gently asking questions. Merlin answered quietly, eyes vacant and fixed head, still trapped in his nightmare.
When Guy was done, Merlin disappeared into the bathroom, leaving Arthur to stare at the shut door for a while before finally sighing and sinking down into the nearest armchair, feeling the last ounce of energy leave him. He rubbed his face with both hands, mind crammed with more than he could handle. Guy too seemed preoccupied, frowning at the bathroom door.
“What is it?” Arthur asked.
“I was just thinking,” Guy said, turning towards Arthur. “About the summers Morgana’s mother allowed her to spend here. She suffered from night terrors and sleepwalking too, you know. Almost nightly. Only when she was here though, according to her mother.”
“Did she?” Arthur said absently, gaze drawn to the door again when he heard the noise of the shower.
“One night she awoke screaming about something in the water. The day after, your father called to me to the house for advice.” Guy was looking at Arthur, waiting for confirmation, whilst Arthur just sat looking back blankly. “That is what Merlin said, isn’t it? About something in the water.”
“You were there,” Arthur replied flatly.
“Yes. I was. I was there too one morning when Morgana woke screaming from her sleep. I asked your father then if something might have happened to trigger these nightmares. He said he didn’t know, and that Emerson had given her some remedies for sleep, the kind of herbal concoctions that worked wonders with your mother’s sleeping difficulties.”
“Guy. Please.” Arthur closed his eyes, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “This has nothing to do with Emerson.”
“I’m not accusing-”
“Yes you are. And you’re wrong,” Arthur said.
“How can you be so sure?” Guy asked with a frown.
Arthur swallowed, his eyes stinging, an ever expanding ball of emotion in his chest threatening to explode any moment. He let out a watery laugh and said, “It’s this place. It’s always been this place.”
Guy opened his mouth to speak, and then seemed to change is mind, rubbing at his forehead. After a moment, he said, “I think...perhaps this is not the right time to discuss such things. I’ll go and see if Alain is back.”
Arthur nodded as Guy gave him a pat on the shoulder and headed to the door, stopping abruptly when Emerson appeared, in his dressing gown, pyjamas and slippers.
“Doctor,” he said with a nod. Guy nodded irritably, and slipped past, leaving Emerson with a quizzical expression on his face. He looked to Arthur. “Was it something I said?”
“No,” Arthur replied. “It’s just been a long night.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Emerson asked. Arthur shook his head, looking at the bathroom door, Merlin still in there, the shower still running. “Is Merlin all right?”
“Kingbury doesn’t quite agree with him,” Arthur said after mulling the question for a while. “You know, Morgana is of the opinion I should just be rid of this place. That no one is destined to be happy here. She’s right.”
“Perhaps it is more the case that Morgana was never destined to be happy here,” Emerson said coolly.
Arthur stared at Emerson. “That’s a rather cruel observation.”
“Such is destiny,” Emerson said, looking old and haggard, more so than Arthur could ever remember. “Cruel.”
“Destiny.” Arthur smiled unhappily. “Do you believe in destiny, Emerson?”
“Very much so, young man,” Emerson said.
Arthur swallowed, clamping his jaw tight, keeping to himself what he thought of destiny. “You should go back to bed. It’s late. There’s been enough commotion for one night”
“Are you sure I can’t get you anything?” Emerson asked.
“Quite sure, thank you,” Arthur said. Emerson frowned at him, but nodded and left as quietly as he had arrived, closing the door behind him.
Arthur moved to sit down on the edge of the bed, looking at the bathroom door which remained shut, the shower still running on the other side. Arthur thought back to the look of fear in Merlin’s eyes and it made panic bubble anew in Arthur’s chest. He leaned forward, burying his face in his hands, trying to breathe. It was the click of the door unlocking which made him spring to his feet.
Merlin walked out with a towel wrapped around his waist, skin pinked, hair damp. They caught each other’s gaze, unable to hold it and looking away. Arthur gave himself the task of finding and handing Merlin some clean clothes, before giving him space to dress, busying himself with closing the curtains and tidying away their things. When he turned back, Merlin was dressed in his black t-shirt and jogging bottoms, slowly sitting down on the edge of the bed with a sigh.
Arthur cautiously crossed the room and sat down next to him. “You okay?”
Merlin shook his head, eyes fixed ahead. Arthur watched him in silence for a moment, before reaching out tentatively, unsure of where to touch Merlin, settling on placing his hand on Merlin’s back.
“Get some rest. You look exhausted.” Merlin didn’t react beyond a tired blink. “You don’t have to sleep. Just…try to relax or something.”
Merlin nodded heavily, letting Arthur help him to lie down. Arthur took up a spot next to Merlin, bringing his iPad with him, putting on something to distract them both. When Merlin drifted off to sleep, Arthur let the iPad slip from his hand, his gaze settling on Merlin, who had dark circles under his eyes from nights of troubled sleep. My fault, he thought, all my fault.
Arthur got up carefully and began to pack their two bags. The night was still far away from the borderline of day yet, and Arthur couldn’t wait for the sun to light their way. Jacket on and keys in hand, he knelt on the bed and gently shook Merlin awake. Merlin awoke with a start, blinking up at Arthur, eyes stained with panic. He opened his mouth to speak, but Arthur gently covered Merlin’s mouth with his hand.
“Shhh,” he whispered. “We’re leaving. Best not to wake anyone up.”
Arthur pulled his hand away as Merlin frowned, slowly nodding. He got up and pulled on his Converses and a hoodie handed to him by Arthur. Arthur took both their bags, pulling Merlin out of the bedroom, all the way down the stairs, through the kitchen and to the Jeep, where he threw the bags into the back before Merlin climbed in. Shutting the door to the passenger side, he walked around the Jeep, watching the house as if it might come to life and block his path. Climbing into the driver’s side, he slammed the door shut, swiftly put on his seatbelt and started the engine.
“Arthur,” Merlin said quietly, “we don’t have to-”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, looking him in the eyes. “Yes we do.”
Arthur put his foot down and turned the steering wheel, moving away from the house and towards the dark route that would take them away from Kingbury. Arthur drove fast, as if Kingbury was a sharp-clawed beast on their trail, following them in the sky above, the gurgles of thunder made by its gallops. Go ahead and follow me, he thought fearlessly, driving towards London.
Merlin slept most of the way, dreamless and blissfully blank. He awoke when the Jeep stopped, Arthur braking a little. Merlin blinked and looked at the street, the iron grip around his heart falling away with an almost audible clang that echoed in his head. Arthur’s shop was on the other side of the street, and just a few feet from the car was the door to Merlin’s building. Home he thought, as he closed his eyes and let out a breath.
“You awake?” Arthur asked, turning the engine off. Merlin nodded, receiving a squeeze of the knee. “Come on then.”
They got out of the Jeep as slow and tired as each other, Arthur looking completely drained of energy as they ascended the stairs to the flat. Inside, Arthur dropped the bags in the hall, locking the door and placing the keys on the nearby shelf. He looked a little caught out when he looked up to realise Merlin was watching him.
“You want a cup of tea or something?” Arthur asked.
Arthur was all serious angles and bruised eyes in the dim morning light that was beginning to diffuse the night time dark. He looked like a dream rising from a mist, something unreal. Merlin walked up to him, wrapping his arms around Arthur, wanting to make sure he was real, wanting to...to just hold him.
Arthur was still for a moment, before his arms came up slowly, one hand firm on Merlin’s back. “Merlin-”
“Thank you,” Merlin said, blinking away the sting in his eyes.
Arthur pulled back and frowned. “Merlin. You don’t have to thank me for anything. Not ever.”
Merlin pressed his mouth against Arthur’s suprised lips. When he pulled back, Arthur looked strange, his eyes bright. Merlin took his hand and said, “Come on. You need to sleep. You look shattered.”
Arthur swallowed, nodding, letting Merlin take him to the bedroom. They both kicked off their shoes, Merlin helping Arthur out of his jacket before hanging it up on the back of the door, once again turning around to find Arthur just watching him, as if he’d never seen Merlin before. Merlin took his hand, guiding him into bed where they lay down facing each other. Even so, Arthur seemed miles away, drifting further still when his eyes closed and he fell asleep.
Merlin fought off sleep as long as possible before he too sunk into dreamless black, surfacing briefly, looking around until he found Arthur sitting on the edge of the bed, back turned to Merlin, staring at the curtained window. Merlin wondered if he was dreaming, wanting to call out to Arthur, bring him back to bed, but before he knew, he was falling back to sleep, staying there until he woke again to find Arthur gone.
Merlin sat up slowly, listening for any movement around the flat. When heard nothing, he got up and pulled on his shoes, casting around an eye for notes or messages, finding none. He couldn’t think of what Arthur might be doing locked up in his shop this early, but then, he couldn’t think of where else he might be. He ran down the stairs from his flat and stepped out onto the street just as Gwaine had finished putting down a advertising board. He turned around, grinning when he saw Merlin.
“What’s this? You’re not supposed to be back until Tuesday,” he said, punching Merlin lightly on the arm.
“Let’s just say country life doesn’t agree with me,” Merlin said.
“Where’s Gatsby?” Gwaine asked. “All shagged out?”
“Um, no,” Merlin said, definitely catching a shadow behind the windows of Arthur’s store. “He’s back at work. Like you should be.”
“Oh, nice. That’s all the thanks I get for keeping this place going. Very nice,” Gwaine complained.
Merlin patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll buy you lunch.”
As he crossed the road, Gwaine yelled at his back, “Well, don’t go breaking the bank there.”
Merlin grinned, feeling lighter than he had for days. What a difference a night made. Only yesterday his mind had felt as if it was coming apart at the seams, and now it was as though a huge weight had been lifted, nightmares and hallucinations banished to the countryside.
He was still smiling as he pushed against the door of Arthur’s shop, finding it locked. He peered through the window, catching sight of Arthur on the phone, who looked up when Merlin knocked on the glass, and waved at him. Arthur unlocked the door, letting Merlin in as he carried on his conversation on the phone, sounding grim.
“I need you to take care of it as soon as possible,” he told someone.
Merlin went and perched himself on the edge of Arthur’s desk, picking up an ornate letter opener, turning it over in his hands to at least give Arthur the illusion of privacy, while glancing at him discreetly.
“Look...I’ll discuss this with you later,” Arthur said impatiently. “Just...do what I asked.”
Merlin put the letter opener down as Arthur ended the call, looking up to find he was facing Arthur’s taut back and tense shoulders. Frowning, Merlin asked, “Everything all right?”
Arthur was quiet for a moment. When he turned around, Merlin thought he saw an Arthur he didn’t quite know: closed off, cool, and distant. He was looking at Merlin, parsing thoughts that Merlin wasn’t privy to yet.
Merlin got up, feeling awkward about his own casual occupation of Arthur’s space. He smiled through the fearful tension pulling down on his mouth. “Okay, you’re beginning to scare me now.”
Arthur nodded. “I, um, I have to fly out to New York. A friend’s made an offer I can’t really refuse.”
“Oh,” Merlin said. “For how long?”
“I’m not sure. Long enough to shut up shop here,” Arthur said. “I...kind of owe him.”
Merlin blinked, turning the information over in his head. He smiled nervously. “So, we’re not talking a few days.”
“No,” Arthur said. “I could be out there a year.”
“Okay.” Merlin nodded, the smile a little harder to keep in place. “Well...it’s not like we can’t-”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, closing his eyes for a second and shaking his head, muttering to himself, “Damn it.”
Merlin stared at him as the reality of the situation became clear. “Oh. It’s not just the shop you’re leaving. It’s me.”
Arthur had the audacity to look wounded when he met Merlin’s gaze, but he recovered quick, his expression schooling itself. “I’m sorry.”
Merlin swallowed, hurt and humiliation rising to the surface of his skin, making his face burn. He headed for the door, shoving past Arthur, stopping half way when an ugly realisation struck. He turned and stared at Arthur. “You know...I’d have so much more respect for you if you just told me you can’t cope with...with me, rather than making up some shitty excuse.”
“It’s not an excuse-”
“Liar,” Merlin said, unable to inject into the word the harshness he had intended, his voice breaking instead. “You’re a liar.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said quietly. “I’m sorry if I made you think there was more to this.”
Merlin blinked the sting from his eyes, holding back the wall of tears that was threatening to spill. “Enjoy New York.”
He turned and headed towards the door, angrily swatting away tears that could fall freely now they were out of sight.
“Merlin,” Arthur called out.
Merlin turned and looked him in the eyes, daring him to tell more lies. Arthur stood speechless. Merlin smiled bitterly, walking out without another word, almost blindly crossing the road, ignoring the screech of tyres and an angered yell, walking until he was standing in his shop, breathing hard and staring ahead, counting all the things that had led to this moment of ruin.
“That was quick. Lord Poncepants not around?” Gwaine asked, stepping out from the back room, before stopping and staring at Merlin.
Merlin quietly asked him, “I need to take care of some stuff. Can you manage down here?”
“Yeah, of course,” Gwaine said. Merlin turned away before Gwaine could prod at him. Only, Gwaine ran past him and blocked the door. “Whoa, wait a second. What’s wrong?”
Merlin shook his head looking past Gwaine, afraid to blink. Gwaine seemed to realise without words though, whispering, “Mate.”
“It’s fine.” Merlin said quietly. “It’s fine.”
“Gwaine,” Merlin said. “Just...I need to go, okay?”
“Yeah. All right.” Gwaine nodded, quietly telling Merlin, “Whatever you want.”
Gwaine moved out of his way, pulling the door open. Merlin walked out and unlocked the entrance to his flat, looking back once at Albion Antiques, before stepping inside and shutting the door on Arthur.
The light outside had shifted, sending in long streaks of mid-day gold, alerting Arthur to the fact that he had spent a whole morning sitting in the same spot. It seemed appropriate that none of the light fell anywhere near Arthur, in the shadowed corner, where he sat with his mouth pressed against the back of his knuckles, elbow resting on the edge of the desk. He shifted his hand to rub a finger against the irritated corners of his itching eyes, when someone knocked on the glass of the door. Arthur looked up, staring at Lance for a moment, before getting up heavily to unlock the door. Lance gave him a sympathetic look as he walked in, waiting as Arthur shut the door, leaving it unlocked.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” Arthur asked.
Lance pointed to across the street. “Gwen and I were just visiting. Gwaine told us what happened.”
“Right,” Arthur said, heading back to his desk, sinking down in his chair with a weary sigh. Lance followed, eyeing the objects surrounding them. “Still doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
“I wanted to see if you were okay,” Lance said, stopping in front of the desk.
The sun outside seemed to practically shine a halo around Lance’s head, making Arthur want to both laugh and weep. “Why do you care? We barely know each other.”
“I know Merlin,” Lance said after a prolonged silence. “I know what he thinks of you.”
Arthur sighed, closing his eyes. He felt more tired than he had his entire life. He felt a thousands years old. “You should go back.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, why-”
“I do,” Arthur said curtly. Lance nodded, frustratingly untouched by Arthur’s anger.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Lance said. “I just can’t understand how you’ve gone from the way you two were at the wedding to this.”
“I took him to my home, where everything became a nightmare for him.” Arthur looked at Lance through blurred vision. “Who I am is not good for Merlin.”
“So you’re sending him away. To keep him safe.” Arthur blinked at Lance, who looked away, gaze roaming around the shop, from one piece of discarded history, to another. “It’s not your choice to make, you know.”
“And what if it was Gwen?” Arthur asked. “What if you knew your selfish wishes could end in causing her pain? What would you do?”
Lance’s smile was small, laced with something painful. They held each other’s gaze for a moment, and Arthur thought his heartbeats sounded as heavy as the hooves of a galloping horse. Lance looked away in the direction of the street for a moment, before turning back to Arthur.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have bothered you. I just thought someone should see if you’re okay. I’ll get out of your hair.”
He backed away with a slight nod, turning to leave as Arthur watched him. “When you saw Gwen for the first time, what did it feel like?”
Lance’s arm was outstretched, a breath away from opening the door when it slowly lowered. He turned slowly, looking somewhere into the recesses of his mind. “Everything just seemed to slow down and stop. I couldn’t stop looking at her, trying to place her, feeling as if-”
“You’d met before,” Arthur said. Lance stared at him, something fearful rising to the surface of his eyes. Arthur got up, walking around the desk and in Lance’s direction. He quietly asked, “What do you think? Is it possible you’ve met before?”
“Maybe a lifetime ago,” Lance said, holding Arthur’s gaze. “I should go.”
He started to turn, but Arthur reached out, grabbing his arm. “Last night. I was running through the forest, looking for Merlin, and when I found him, he was saying words I couldn’t understand, and he was looking at you. I saw what he was seeing, and it was a different time, but it was you. And then I remembered. I remembered everything, Lancelot. Everything.”
Lance stared at the hand on his arm, slowly covering it with his own, before he pulled Arthur into an embrace, letting go of a shuddering breath, whilst Arthur stood unmoving, staring at the shop across the street, which seemed even further away than that place called Camelot.
~ end of Part II ~
Part III: The Close
Merlin stood by the bedroom window, gaze fixed on the street below.
It made a change from the hour he’d spent in bed just staring at the ceiling until he’d discovered a hairline crack to focus on. He wondered if it was just the paint. Maybe the plaster. Maybe worse. Maybe the ceiling was just waiting to crack open and dump more chaos into his life. The thought made him sit up abruptly, forcing him into mechanical motion, until he came to stop in front of the bathroom mirror, towelling his hair after a quick shower. He stared at himself, for a second unable to recognise his own face.
In that empty moment he couldn’t think of anything but Arthur. It seemed unfair that few senses could capture so much. When he touched his mouth, he could taste the last kiss. He didn’t have to think hard to bring up a memory of a blindingly bright smile, bright blue eyes under sunlit hair. He could feel Arthur’s arms around him, feel the touch of his hand on his face. He could hear Arthur’s laugh in his ear, his hot breath on his skin. He could hear Arthur saying his name.
Police sirens in the distance snapped him out of his waking dream, making him flinch. His skin was covered in goose pimples, a wide-eyed look on his face as his reflection stared back at him in some silent horror he didn’t seem privy to. Merlin turned away from the mirror, going back to the bedroom. Even getting dressed felt like a chore. By the time he opened the curtains, he was already too tired for the day. Then he saw the two removal vans outside on the street.
Arthur’s shop hadn’t opened since they returned from Kingbury almost a week ago, and now there were men loading up the contents of his shop into the two parked vans. Merlin stared, his insides feeling heavy like stone. It seemed Arthur couldn’t even tolerate being on the other side of the street where Merlin was concerned. Merlin watched unblinkingly, as the shop was slowly but surely being emptied out.
A week ago, he had walked away from Arthur, expecting to fall apart. He had stormed into his flat, panting angrily, kicked aside the coffee table, swept books off the dining table, threw a chair across the room, and anything else that came into his hand. He wanted to throw away anything he could find of Arthur’s, but there was nothing. Arthur had left Merlin much earlier than he realised. Merlin fell to his knees, and even as he wanted to weep, tears didn’t come.
Seeing Arthur removing himself even further away should have hurt, but as Merlin looked at the activities across the street, the emotions buried somewhere inside him held fast. His eyes burned, but remained dry. Merlin turned away from the window, stalking through his flat. He ran down the stairs, stepping out and locking up in half the time it usually took, before walking into his shop with purpose, ignoring Albion Antiques altogether. He halted half way into the shop when he saw Gwen and Gwaine stop mid conversation to look at him guiltily.
Merlin gave Gwen a look as he approached the counter. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Gwen pointed at Gwaine. “He happens to be work, actually.”
Sliding a small stack of books on the counter towards himself, Merlin nodded and said, “Right. I’ll leave you to it then.”
Gwen’s arm shot out before he could move. She looked only as heartbroken as she could for the demise of someone else’s romance. Her fingers curled into the fabric of Merlin’s sleeve as she quietly said, “Merlin...”
“So he’s leaving,” Merlin said. He shrugged. “It’s his life. He can do what he wants.”
“Is he there right now?” Gwaine stomped out from around the counter. “I’m going to smack the bollocks out of him.”
“Gwaine.” Merlin pulled him back. “He’s not there. And...I don’t want you smacking the bollocks out of anyone.”
Gwaine ran his fingers through his hair, huffing out an agitated breath before turning on Gwen. “Didn’t that little shit have anything to say to Lance?”
Gwen looked guilty, unfairly so. She gave Merlin an apologetic look. “I already told you what Lance said. Arthur told him about Merlin getting sick, that we should look after him, and said there was nothing else to discuss.”
Merlin laughed, quiet and bitter at the thought of Arthur telling someone to take care of him. He picked up the books from the counter and shrugged. “You know what, I don’t actually blame him. No one needs this in their life.”
“What the fuck are you talking about, man?” Gwaine asked quietly. “Are you serious? No one needs this? We fucking need you, me and her. Just because some jumped up posh fuck decides he doesn’t want to hang about, you think nobody needs you? You’re such an idiot, man, I want to smack you so hard.”
Merlin mustered up a smile, moving towards Gwaine, to give him a placating pat on the arm. Gwen however, shoved past him and threw her arms around Gwaine, as Gwaine sighed and put an arm around her shoulders. Merlin grinned at Gwaine, though his face felt strange and watery, a mask dangerously close to slipping.
Gwaine waved a hand at Merlin, beckoning him over. “Come on. Might as well get some while you can.”
Merlin stepped into Gwaine’s open arm, putting his own around Gwen, the three of them holding each other. Gwen laughed at Gwaine who was complaining about being held too tight, as Merlin looked over his shoulder at the window, through which he could see the removal vans, looming like moored ships eager to lift anchor. Once they would be filled, they would sail away taking the last of Arthur from Merlin’s life, and the knowledge of it seemed to take everything in Merlin’s power to not double over in grief.
“Merlin?” Gwen said softly, reaching for his hand.
Merlin swallowed, pushing up a smile. “I’m fine. Really. I have you two. I don’t need anyone else.”
Gwaine and Gwen didn’t believe him, that much was clear. But then he wasn’t really lying to them.
The phone was ringing again.
Arthur sluggishly turned his head and looked at the phone perched on the bedside table. He had no intention of answering it. In fact, he had no intention of leaving the hotel room he had been holed up in for days. In here, everything was just a bad dream that might break. Out there, were faces of men and women he had once known. People who, like him, were supposed to be dead and buried. But no, they were all around him. The people he had loved, were right here, within his grasp. He wanted to hold them exactly how Lance had held him, with desperation and disbelief. But he also wanted to run as far away as possible.
“What do I do?” Arthur had whispered nonsensically. “What do I do with this?”
Lance had pulled back, still holding on to Arthur, looking him in the eyes. “Don’t throw it away. You have a second chance.”
“To do what?” Arthur grated out, an ugly fear curling up in his stomach.
“To be happy,” Lance replied with a smile, foolish enough to believe the possibility existed.
“Merlin had nightmares in Kingbury. He dreamed of the past. Deep in his heart, he knows exactly what that place is,” Arthur said quietly, too numb to be shocked by what he was saying. “He rejected that place body and soul. So how can we be happy, with my knowing the past, and him running from it?”
Lance had no answers, other than waiting and seeing how things played out. But Arthur had already seen that. He had seen Merlin’s body thrashing on the floor left like a broken doll, the very air of Kingbury having proved toxic. Lance could live with knowing, because Gwen was happy, ignorant of the past. Merlin...was different.
I have magic
Arthur took a swig from his bottle of vodka, sitting on the floor with his back against the bed, legs stretched out in front. He closed his eyes for only a moment, giving into tiredness, and his mind was flooded with memories he was trying to keep at arm’s length: the sound of horses galloping, their hooves creating thunder on the ground, the sound of metal on metal, swords clashing as if right in front of his face, the smell of wood smoke, the taste of the air.
I have magic
Arthur’s eyes snapped open, his breath catching as he stared ahead. His heart filled with a surge of emotions. Anger. Hurt. Betrayal. Sorrow.
With bulbous tears obscuring his vision, he wondered how someone went about repaying a debt from another lifetime. Not just for the times his life was saved, but for that time he was held on the loneliest of quests, the moment of dying. Arthur lurched up from the floor, stumbling towards the bathroom where he just about made it to the toilet, throwing up until his empty stomach was shuddering and sending up only bile. He sat kneeling over the toilet, the sound of rushing blood in his ears.
It took a moment for him to realise the phone had begun ringing again. He squeezed his eyes shut, breathing deep, ordering his stomach to stop rebelling. He didn’t want to talk to Lance, his voice too easily stirring memories not in Arthur’s control. He didn’t want to think of Gwen, or Merlin, or his knights, or Camelot. But the phone just kept ringing.
Somehow he got up and stumbled back into the bedroom. He picked up the phone, prepared to smash it to pieces, but the name of the caller brought no memory to his mind. He stared it at it for a moment, waiting for his mind to throw up a memory that lived with all those other memories of Camelot. But nothing. He felt an almost delirious relief that the whole world around him wasn’t built on the ashes of Camelot.
He pressed the screen to answer, his voice trembling as he murmured, “Marian.”
“Arthur,” came a relieved breathy reply. “For God’s sake! Do you have any idea how many people are worried about you? Morgana’s been on the phone, so has Leon. Your uncle’s worried sick. Emerson’s about as helpful as a brick wall. Where the bloody hell are you?”
Arthur shook his head, his face feeling as if it might cave in on itself under the pressure of misery. He couldn’t formulate words, letting out a desperate sound as he covered his face with a trembling hand.
“Arthur?” Marian asked softly, after a long thoughtful silence. “Arthur, where are you? Look, whatever it is, it’s going to be okay. Just...please tell me where you are.”
“Hotel,” he said thickly, wiping at his damp face. “I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine,” she said. He could hear a commotion in the background, movement and rustling. “Right, I’m coming. Which hotel?”
“Marian, I don’t-”
“Arthur,” she said firmly. “Which hotel?”
Merlin leaned against the side of the window, watching the shop across the road. Under the light of the street lamp, it just looked as if it was closed for the night, but the trucks had left at noon, and tomorrow morning, its emptiness would become unbearably apparent. This was what it meant to be wealthy, Merlin thought. You could just cut yourself out of someone’s life, like you were never there.
There was an uncanny emptiness that concentrated itself in Merlin’s core, stretched out thinly across his chest and forever reaching outwards. Merlin wrapped his arms around himself, shivering slightly, clenching his jaw as he watched a man walk past Albion Antiques. Merlin was so fixated on the building, he didn’t even hear the door to his flat open and close, only noticing Gwaine’s presence when he called out insistently probably not for the first time.
Merlin flinched, turning to find Gwaine watching him with too much sympathy in his eyes. “You all done?”
Gwaine nodded, his eyes flicking to the window. “Yeah. Just shut up shop.”
“Thanks for filling in. Again. I owe you. Why don’t you come in late tomorrow?” Merlin said. “Or, just take the morning off or something.”
Gwaine seemed to think it over. “Actually, if you really want to pay me back, you could do me a favour.”
“Yeah, of course,” Merlin said, desperate to be anything other than pathetic.
“I’ve got to go pick up a bookshelf. I got it from this swap-shop forum, but they don’t deliver. It’s one of these take-it-for-free-if-you-can-collect it deals. Couldn’t give me a hand could you?” Gwaine asked.
“Yeah, just say when,” Merlin said readily.
“Brilliant,” Gwaine said, pointing in the general direction of the door. “How about now?”
Merlin looked at the hallway. Getting back to non-pathetic normality was fine, but at the same time, he really didn’t want to leave his flat ever again. Not that it would ever matter to Arthur.
Merlin forced a smile and said, “I’ll get my coat.”
Arthur was packed and half-way to the door when he heard the insistent knock. He’d looked at the door and sighed, but then resolved to keep moving. Marian had her hand raised for another knock when he opened the door, surprise on her soft-featured face. Her dark hair was messily pinned back, and her pale skin looked paler still, cheeks pinked by the cold, despite being wrapped up in a long black coat.
She looked at the bag in Arthur’s hand and asked, “Going somewhere?”
Arthur stepped out into the corridor and shut the door. “Checking out.”
“And then?” she asked, following him as he closed the door and walked to the lift. “Another hotel?”
Arthur stabbed the button on the wall with his finger, watching the numbers above the lift. “Look. You’ve seen me. I’m fine. You can tell Morgana I’m not hiding somewhere planning a coup.”
With that, Arthur stepped into the lift, the matter was laid to rest. Marian stepped in after him, a frown etched on her face. “A week ago you left Kingbury and no one’s heard from you since. Leon went to see you only to find you’ve closed up shop. Morgana’s been calling you all week. Clearly...you are not fine.”
Arthur stared past her, tight lipped.
“Then you leave me no choice,” she said, reaching for the emergency stop.
“Fine!” Arthur snapped, grabbing her hand, grating out, once again, “Fine.”
“Good,” she said. “You can buy me a drink and tell me what the hell is going on.”
They took up a spot in a pub round the corner from the hotel, where the lighting was blissfully dim, the furniture dark, all wooden hues. Sitting by the window, Arthur watched the activity on the street outside. Another wet and freezing cold London evening. Everyone was going about their business huddled into their winter coats, jostling each other with too big umbrellas. It made his mind shake. He felt as if he was somehow occupying two points in time. Some place long ago, and this moment in time now. The world was never going to be perfect, he thought, not even with infinity at its disposal.
“You know, it’s not a conversation if it’s just me,” Marian said quietly, tilting her head to get into his line of sight. Arthur looked at her blankly. She returned him a pained look and said, “You look terrible. When did you sleep last?”
Arthur laughed. He’d been asleep this whole time hadn’t he? The dream had broken, and now he was awake, in some kind of nightmare. He leaned back, shaking his head. Marion reached out and took his hand, squeezing it tight. She looked as if she was the one hurting. He stared at her, almost disappointed that her face hadn’t brought forward a rush of memories, wishing suddenly to have known her in another time and place.
Tears stung his eyes, a grimace twisting his mouth. “Do you believe in destiny, Marian?”
“I think destiny is whatever you want to make it,” Marian replied, so sure of her answer Arthur almost believed her.
“You’re wrong,” he said, pulling his hand away and picking up his glass, finishing the rest of his beer. Holding up his glass, he said, “Destiny is what makes you.”
“I don’t believe that,” she said stubbornly. “Even if there is such a thing as destiny guiding us in our lives, you are what makes you. The people who love you are what makes you, as well as the people who loathe you.”
Arthur swallowed, mustering a bitter smile. “Sometimes they might even be the same person.”
Marian sat back, looking thoughtful. “Does he or she have a name?”
Arthur let out a shaky laugh, tears accompanying it. “Only the worst name you’re ever likely to hear. Merlin. Merlin. What kind of name is Merlin?”
It was a name, he realised, that ignited something in the middle of his chest, flushing the very core of him with a thick spread of warmth. Arthur looked away from Marian, covering his eyes under the pretence of rubbing at the corners. When tears fell, his brought his hand down with them, hiding them in those lines of destiny drawn across his palm, in the tender skin of his face, sniffing back the rest.
“I just want to stop thinking,” Arthur said, his throat feeling twisted and aching. He looked out onto the street where people were carrying on, unaware of destiny’s hands shoving at their shoulders. “I just want it all to stop.”
“What does that mean?” Marian asked softly. “Arthur?”
Arthur closed his eyes, hoping for a moment of nothingness, but the space filled again with moments that belonged to another time, almost all of them with Merlin at their centre.
Merlin should have known what Gwaine was up to when they were only ten minutes away from their destination, but right up to the moment they turned down the familiar London street, Merlin had hoped Gwaine wouldn’t really be such a scheming twat. He stared at Gwaine as he parked the car, glaring daggers.
Gwaine kept his eyes focused ahead and said, “I know you’re probably trying to kill me with your mind right now, but Gwen told Hannah everything, and Hannah told me to bring you here, by hook or by crook.”
“I’m not going in,” Merlin said.
“Too late, she’s opening the door, she’s seen us,” Gwaine said, already opening the door.
Merlin sat gathering his wits for a moment, before he took a deep breath and released it, slowly getting out of the car. It was funny how all the way up to the front door of the house he mostly felt annoyance at Gwaine, but then he saw his mother waiting for him, watching him with concern in her warm eyes, and before he knew it he was in her arms, face buried against her shoulder as tears somehow forced their way out.
“Oh, darling,” she whispered, holding him tight. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Gwaine discreetly slipped into the living room, as Hannah ushered Merlin into the warm kitchen, sitting him down at the kitchen table, and holding his hand. He wouldn’t look at her, clenching his jaw and holding it all back, angry at those few tears that had betrayed his emotions. But slowly, the smell of familiar food already cooking, his mother’s patience, it turned his defences into paper thin walls that remained standing, but were likely to tear at the merest breeze.
“Gwen told me,” Hannah said softly. He blinked at her numbly, looking down when she squeezed his hand again. “You don’t need someone like that, Merlin. Someone who runs at the first sign of trouble.”
Merlin looked at her, frowning in confusion at himself. “I thought...I felt like I knew him. Like I could trust him with my life. How stupid was that?”
“That’s love, darling. It’s the stupidest thing there is.” His mother sighed, patting his hand. “Listen. You have plenty of people who love you. We’re all here. Okay?”
Merlin mustered a smile, nodding. “I know.”
“Good. Now, tell me, have you seen the doctor yet?” Merlin shook his head. “Merlin, don’t make me go down there with you. Promise me you’re going to make an appointment.”
“Promise,” Merlin said half-heartedly. Hannah frowned at him, before getting up and pulling him along out of the kitchen and into the living room.
Gwaine was comfortably sat on the couch, his feet propped on the edges of the coffee table, a large book open in his lap, the television on in the corner, a quiet and comforting sound. Gwaine dropped his feet on the ground as soon as he saw Hannah.
“Gwaine, I need you to make sure Merlin makes an appointment to see the doctor,” Hannah said. Merlin gave her look, though he felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth.
Gwaine saluted. “Whatever you say.”
“You’re a good boy, Gwaine,” Hannah said, patting the cushion on a nearby armchair and manoeuvring Merlin to sit down. “You two sit. Dinner’s going to be a while yet.”
“Fantastic,” Gwaine said, before holding up the big book in his lap, turning it around for Hannah to see. “That you?”
Merlin leaned forward to see the book was a hefty photo album, and Gwaine was pointing out an old picture of Hannah, young and grinning, dark brown hair framing her face.
Hannah smiled at the picture and then at Merlin. “I was about twenty there, and up to no good.”
“You were smoking,” Gwaine said with an appreciative nod, replacing the album in his lap and continuing to turn the pages. Merlin threw a cushion at his head. He turned another page and said, “What? She was. You’re a very pretty lady. Bill’s a lucky man.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him the next time I see him,” Hannah said, before sighing as she tilted her head and looked at Gwaine. “Are you positive you’re not even a little bit gay?”
“Mum,” Merlin said with a tone of warning.
Gwaine grinned at Merlin and then at Hannah. “I’d say about eight per cent. If it was more like eighty, I’d totally go for Merlin, I swear. What am I saying, eighty. Fifty. Forty, even.”
Hannah laughed, stroking Merlin’s cheek as she walked out of the room. Merlin got up, moving to sit next to Gwaine, watching the album pages being turned one after the other. Gwaine took great pleasure in pointing out photographs of Merlin as a child. It took a few of them before Merlin could finally muster a genuine smile. It didn’t go unnoticed by Gwaine, who gave him a pat on the knee.
“Cheer up, will you? He wasn’t that special,” Gwaine said. “Bottle blond probably.”
Merlin smiled, not looking at Gwaine, giving the album in Gwaine’s lap a prod until he started turning the pages again.
“Wait, go back,” Merlin said, a few photos later. Gwaine turned back a page and Merlin pointed to a small sepia photograph. “That’s Gramps.”
Gwaine peered closer. “That’s Marty? Bloody hell, I had no idea he was such a looker. Regular Peter O’Toole. Who's the bloke next to him?”
Merlin slipped the photo out from under its plastic film, bringing it closer. Next to the blond and shyly smiling figure of his grandfather was a younger man, about five inches shorter, with a mop of dark hair, narrowed squinting eyes and a swollen looking pout. Merlin frowned at the face, imagining the hair tamed and cut, time having reduced the softness of that face, replacing it with lines. He imagined a certain fire in those eyes, glinting yellow.
Merlin lurched up from the sofa, darting towards the kitchen, Gwaine following close behind and calling out, “Merlin!”
Hannah looked up from where she was closing the oven door, surprised as Merlin abruptly stopped in front of her and said, “Mum, who’s the man in this picture?”
She tilted her head at the picture and smiled. “You know who that is, don’t be silly.”
“No, Mum. Not Gramps. The man next to him,” Merlin said, pointing at the man in question. “Look. Him. Who is that?”
Hannah took the photograph, looking at it and shrugging. “I think it was a friend of Dad’s. Kingsley, or something. I’m not sure.”
“Kingsley?” Merlin asked, scowling at her.
“What’s the big deal?” Gwaine asked, looking at the picture in Hannah’s hand.
Hannah turned the photograph over and showed Merlin a faded brown scribble. “There. Kingsley. I can’t make out the date, but Dad would have been in his early twenties there.”
Merlin shook his head, taking the photograph back. “That doesn’t say Kingsley.”
“Mate, it’s right there.” Gwaine pointed at the scrawl.
“I know him, and his name is not Kingsley,” Merlin said, looking at the belligerent expression on the young man’s face as he seemed to stare right back at Merlin. “His name’s Emerson Drake, and I’m pretty sure that says Kingbury.”
Lightning flashed overhead, making the black sky look like a waving cape, filled with dark rolls and ripples and chalky smudges where clouds were hit by light. Under this flickering and rumbling canopy, Arthur chased after Merlin, following him into the forest, coming to a stop so abrupt it sent a jolt through his whole body. Merlin was up ahead, kneeling on the ground, face frozen in terror, his hand raised up before him, as strange words flowed from his mouth.
A fiery light erupted in front of Arthur from nothingness and trickled into the air like molten gold, thin lines joining together, the spaces between misting until Arthur saw a man on a galloping horse, armed with a lance and riding towards a braying beast. Behind them, Merlin continued to whisper old words that echoed loud in Arthur’s mind, turning locks, opening doors, letting out a rush of something that made Arthur’s breath catch.
Memories rushed forward like a river bursting through a dam.
They flowed from him like music that moved to the beat of his heart, backed by the chorus of wind blowing hard in his ears. I know this, Arthur thought, staring at the scenes rising all the way around him, climbing upwards to build a castle, sideways as corridors stretched outwards like the branches of trees, filling with people. He saw his father standing up high and looking down, commanding and firm. He saw Morgana lifting up her chin, standing tall under a cool blue sky, he saw Gwen walking through the market, slowly turning to smile at him. He saw his knights, their laughter, their war games, their battling.
He saw Merlin, boyish and then sharp, the softness of his eyes giving way to something hard and steely, the grin on his face dimming, his smiles becoming tight. He saw heartbreak written across Merlin’s face, and he felt heat fill his own. He saw up close, Merlin’s eyes willing him to live, bright with tears, and flecks of gold.
He saw black.
The chorus stopped its singing. The drum in his chest stopped beating. Everything sunk into quiet. In that silence, Arthur heard loud and clear words that had been fading into the background for what seemed like an eternity:
I have magic
Arthur awoke sucking in a deep breath and sitting up ramrod straight. He remained frozen for a while, staring ahead at the clean white wall of Marian’s bedroom, listening to the beating of his terrified heart. After a moment, he fell back against the pillows and blinked slowly until his mind registered the elegant iron light fixture above him, the dream fading fast. Looking down at himself, he found that other than his missing shoes, he was still fully dressed under two blankets, out of which he had partially fought his way out. His phone was ringing again, the sound burrowing sharply through his skull.
“You going to answer that?” Morgana said, startling Arthur. He turned his head and silently scowled at her.
She was sitting back in a dark wood chair, wearing an elegant black trouser suit with a deep purple silk blouse. Her hair was arranged neatly, pinned into place, jet black against her pale skin. In her hand was her ever present phone, held by long and slim fingers with nails painted a deep red. She looked like someone who belonged in a fashion magazine.
Yet, Arthur couldn’t quite focus on her, seeing her instead in a long deep red gown, her hair cascading down over her shoulders in waves, a dark look in her bright determined eyes. She had hated him once, hadn’t she? Yet here they were again, bound together by fate, brother and sister all over again. The phone stopped ringing, breaking his trance.
“Are you okay?” she asked, looking concerned, her eyes flicking across his body. Arthur followed her gaze and realised his hand was pressed over his side. He thought he had felt pain, but wasn’t so sure anymore, letting his hand fall to the side.
Arthur slowly sat up, looking away from her. “How long did Marian wait before calling you?”
“As soon as you passed out,” Morgana said. “You look terrible.”
Arthur looked up, locking his gaze with hers. “Why are you here?”
Morgana scowled, looking annoyed by the question. “Because you’ve been hiding away for a week. Because, according to Marian, you’re drinking yourself into a stupor over someone called Merlin. And...despite what you think, I do care about you.”
“Do you?” Arthur asked her quietly, thinking back to all those squabbles over family fortune.
She looked offended. “Yes. God. What’s wrong with you?”
“If I decide I wanted to come back to Albion Steel, reclaim my stake, would you still care about me?” Arthur asked her.
Her gaze turned hard, the corner of her mouth lifting a little. “Why? Bored of the antiques game?”
Arthur sighed, feeling at least a thousand years old. He fell back and closed his eyes. Quietly, he asked her, “Could you go please?”
Morgana was quiet for a long time. When it seemed she might actually leave, she asked him, “He must be special. This Merlin. I’ve never seen you like this.”
Arthur swallowed, opening his eyes and blinking up at the almost medieval looking light fixture overhead. Morgana continued waiting for an answer. “Just one more in a long line of stupid mistakes.”
Morgana was quiet for a while, presumably making her own mind about the results of this mistake. “Sorry.”
He turned his head to look at her, seeking out whether the sympathy was real, and then instantly felt guilty. Was she to be judged on the half-remembered memories of a dead man?
“I know what it’s like,” she said, breaking the too long silence. “You care about someone, think you know them, end up getting hurt. I’ve made that mistake.”
She held out her hand. Arthur looked at it for a moment, actively trying to find her in that whirlwind of old memories, seeing only that wide grin, hearing a musical laugh. They had loved each other once, for a while at least. And they loved each other now, didn’t they? Arthur swallowed, tentatively reaching out, letting his arm hang off the bed, fingers reaching out where she took them in her own, squeezing them tight.
Don’t remember, he thought, please don’t remember how much you hated me once.
Morgana gave him a small sweet smile that took him back to their childhoods, those few moments they got to be a family. Still holding his fingers, she said, “What can I do? How can I make this better?”
“You don’t have to make it better,” Arthur answered.
“I want to,” she said softly.
Arthur swallowed, thinking that at this moment in time, all he wanted was to be as far away as possible from here, where almost everyone he knew dredged up memories belonging to a dead man.
“I’m thinking of going to New York,” Arthur said. “Think you can find me something to do over there?”
“New York?” Morgana looked surprised. He nodded at her. She smiled again, but this time he thought he saw a flicker of relief. He just couldn’t tell if it was a shadow of the past, or occurring presently. It made his head hurt. Morgana nodded and told him, “If that’s what you want.”
Arthur thought about leaving Kingbury and England, but his gut twisted with shame. He wasn’t supposed to leave. He was supposed to...Arthur frowned. He wasn’t a king. He was just a man. He wasn’t supposed to anything. In fact, he could right now drive up to the front of Merlin’s shop, walk in, reach out and pull Merlin close, instead of pushing him away.
“Yes,” Arthur said quietly. “It’s what I want.”
“Okay,” she said softly. The phone started off another round of ringing, making Arthur grimace. “Looks like someone’s eager to talk to you. You going to get that?”
Arthur looked at the phone on the bedside table with a sigh and decided Lance could wait a little longer.
The click of the door locking was loud in the silence of the flat, loud enough to wake Merlin from his shallow slumber. His neck was stiff and his head thumping from not enough sleep. He kept his face shoved into the sofa cushion, closing his eyes and trying not to groan as he heard too loud footsteps making their way down the hall and into the living room. When they came to a stop, Merlin lifted his head and sighed, before turning partially to see Gwaine standing by the kitchen counter, raising a hand in greeting.
Merlin sat up slowly, rubbing at his eyes. “I really need to change the lock on that door. Who’s looking after the shop?”
“Rob. He came in looking for a book, so I stuck him behind the counter.” Gwaine scowled at the mess on the coffee table. “He’s shut up his place for the day, it’s not a problem.”
Merlin sighed, nodding. “Sorry. I meant to come down.”
Gwaine gave Merlin a very pointed look. “Mate, look, I know this thing with Arthur is hitting you hard, but you can’t hide up here forever.”
“I know,” Merlin said, picking up a discarded beer bottle, before getting up and heading to dispose of it in the kitchen, passing Gwaine on the way.
“Hannah called. Said you weren’t picking up. Gwen called about five minutes ago,” Gwaine said, turning around from his spot. “They’re both worried about you. Lance too.”
“Well, they should stop being worried. I’m fine. Or I would be, if everyone would just leave me alone for five minutes,” Merlin said, picking up forgotten detritus from around the kitchen, shoving it all into the bin.
“Merlin,” Gwaine said, too soft, too careful. “We’re worried because we care-”
“You’re not the ones I-” Merlin stopped, breath catching as he knocked a cup off the counter, watching it smash across the floor.
“What?” Gwaine asked softly. “We’re not the ones you what?”
Merlin blinked at Gwaine with stinging eyes, feeling a tremor run across his face, stopping words from taking shape in his mouth, tongue left prodding the insides of his teeth. He looked down at the broken ceramic pieces, unable to remember what the cup had looked like before it smashed.
Gwaine walked around Merlin and into the kitchen. “I’ll get that.”
Merlin watched Gwaine, sinking into a numb stupor, not for the first time. Life seemed to swing between the intense desire to move on, and being struck by a feeling of loss so immense Merlin couldn’t see how he could possibly ever move on from this moment, not without emptying out his memories of Arthur and throwing them away.
“I can’t get him out of my head,” Merlin said quietly, confused by his own admission. Gwaine turned away from emptying the remnants of the broken cup into the bin, staring at Merlin. “I feel so...desperate.”
“Mate,” Gwaine said, looking away and shaking his head.
“You know, Gwen once asked me if I believed in love and first sight. I told her I could believe in hate at first sight, but not love,” Merlin said, gaze turned inwards, sifting through his memories, frowning. “When I saw Arthur for the first time, I just kept staring at him, thinking, it’s you.”
Merlin sniffed, swiping away a wet trail of tears that against his best efforts had appeared on his face.
“That’s it, isn’t it? That’s love at first sight, when you see someone and you feel like you’ve just found...Gwen said that meeting Lance was like finding a missing piece she didn’t even realise was missing until she met him.”
“Merlin...” Gwaine trailed off, a pained look in his eyes, frustration writ across his brow.
Merlin shook his head, turning and heading back to the sofa. He sat down, picking up the photograph he’d brought with him from his mother’s house. Gwaine followed, sitting down next to him with a long sigh.
“Decided what you’re going to do with that yet?” Gwaine asked softly.
Merlin let go of the photograph, letting it drift down to the coffee table, replying thickly, “Nothing.”
“You don’t want to know how this Drake bloke knew Martin?” Gwaine asked.
Merlin shook his head. “If he was anyone important, my grandfather would have mentioned him. To Mum at the very least.”
“You don’t think it’s a little weird that Alfred the butler here didn’t mention Martin to you or Arthur?” Gwaine asked.
“Maybe he didn’t realise the connection,” Merlin said.
“Whilst standing outside Lord Books? Formerly owned by Martin Lord? He didn’t realise.”
“Gwaine,” Merlin said pinning him with a firm look. “I’m done.”
Gwaine opened his mouth to argue, but stopped when his phone started to ring. He answered with a sigh, “Yeah, sorry, mate. Be down in a second. Yeah. See you in a bit.”
“Rob?” Merlin said as Gwaine put his phone away.
“Rob,” Gwaine said getting up. “Look, feel free to come back up, but can you at least cover so I can go get a sandwich or something? Don’t make me shut up shop in the middle of the day and have your grandfather rolling in his grave.”
Merlin managed a smile and got up, combing his fingers through his hair and throwing on a hoodie and Converses over his rumpled t-shirt and jeans. As they stepped out onto the road, Gwaine pointed in the direction of the coffee shop before sprinting off. Merlin turned to his shop, but the breeze at his back seemed to prod him on the shoulder until he turned around to see the shut shop across the street. There it was again, that feeling of being robbed, as if Arthur hadn’t left, but had been stolen from him.
Merlin clenched his jaw and swiftly turned around, stepping into his own shop. He spotted Rob first, inches taller at six feet than the woman in front of him. Her back was turned to Merlin, her black hair up in a complicated bun. She wore a perfectly tailored black suit with a certain expensive sheen to the fabric, perfectly countering her high-heeled black shoes.
Rob was asking her, “So, you looking for anything in particular?”
“Just browsing,” she answered, her voice echoing deep in the chambers of Merlin’s mind. He frowned trying to place it. “It’s a nice place you have here.”
“Actually, mine is the one next door,” Rob said. “I’m just minding this place for a second.”
“The Gadget Shack?” she said. Rob gave her a little bow of the head, before flashing a smile that twinkled in his pale blue eyes. “Suits you. You must know the owner of this place well if he’s left you here.”
“What? With all his precious books?” Rob asked. “Yeah. He’s a nice bloke.”
“Good to know,” she said.
“Why? You don’t buy books from bad people?” Rob grinned, his Mancunian charm seeming to do its trick on the woman before him.
She laughed, the sound musical. “You can never be too careful.”
“Well, you can trust this one,” Rob said as Merlin drifted closer to the conversation. “In fact, why don’t you see for yourself? Merlin? This is um...sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“Morgana, I believe your friend knows my brother actually,” she said, turning around with a smile on her face, which faded as soon as she saw Merlin, a frown denting her brow. Her pale face flickered in Merlin’s mind and he stared at her while her hard blue eyes assessed him. Her mouth was a deep red slash of suspicion across her face under a canopy of jet black hair. He blinked, hearing the anxious flutter of wings close by, echoing through his mind, his heart stuttering nervously.
Her name had reverberated through his mind. Did her neatly combed hair really whip out like raven wings for a moment? Did he really see rings of gold in her eyes? She was frowning at him, watching him closely, and then it seemed she’d had enough, her hand tightening around the strap of her handbag as she stepped in the direction of the door.
“I think I’m done actually,” she said, her eyes locked with Merlin’s as she passed him.
“Is Arthur okay?” Merlin asked, his voice sounding weak to his own ears.
“If you consider a drunken mess okay, then yes,” she said, stopping in front of the door, hand poised over the door handle. “Do me a favour, will you? Stay away from him. You’ve done enough.”
She walked out, leaving Merlin stunned and momentarily mute. The shop felt oddly empty, as if the air had lost its charge, as if something immense had been removed. It made Merlin feel both afraid and relieved. But most of all, he just felt confused. He was still looking at the door when Rob sidled up next to him and slapped a hand on his shoulder.
“Sorry, mate. Didn’t know she had anything to do with your ex. You all right?”
“I’m fine. Thanks,” Merlin said. “Thanks for covering.”
“Not a problem. I should get a move on though. Need to get a few things sorted before tomorrow.”
“What’s tomorrow?” Merlin asked absently.
“Off to Taunton. Army mate of mine, Miller, moved there some weeks ago,” Rob said. “He’s had a rough few months. Thought I’d see what he’s up to.”
“Taunton,” Merlin murmured. He looked back at the door, as if Morgana was still standing there sizing him up, having accused Merlin of turning Arthur into a drunken mess. Merlin turned to Rob. “You couldn’t drop me off somewhere on the way could you? It’s not far from Taunton.”
“Yeah, of course.” Rob nodded, accommodating as ever. As he departed, he pointed at Merlin and said, “More the merrier. I’ll come by around ten, yeah?”
Merlin was sure he wasn’t going to be any kind of merry company, not with where he was headed. Even the thought of returning to Kingbury made his bones feel old and tired.
“I got two sausage rolls while I was there,” Gwaine said, as he returned ten minutes later with two coffees in one hand, and a grease paper bag in the other. He put down both coffees and the bag containing two greasy rolls. “Heart attack in a pastry, but I’m willing to accept that as a cause of death.”
“Thanks.” Merlin took a cup of coffee, cautiously sipping.
“What?” Gwaine said. Merlin looked at him and Gwaine wagged a finger in the general direction of his face. “That look.”
Merlin let the bitter taste of the coffee settle on his tongue before he spoke. “I’m thinking of going to Kingbury tomorrow. Rob’s going to Taunton and said he could give me a lift. I was...I was hoping you might come with me. You don’t have to-”
“Merlin. Mate, of course I’ll come with you,” Gwaine said earnestly.
Merlin smiled. “Thanks.”
“No need to thank me,” Gwaine told him with a nod. “I am getting paid leave though, aren’t I?”
Merlin laughed at that, and Gwaine seemed pleased. Merlin gave him a nod. “I think you’re probably due some paid leave.”
“Nice one.” Gwaine picked up his coffee and took a thoughtful sip before asking, “So, you going to talk to Drake about the photo?”
Merlin nodded. “Yeah. I...I think I should.”
“What changed your mind?”
I need to know he’s okay, Merlin thought, I need to know he’s safe.
I can’t lose him, the words echoed desperately somewhere in the recesses of his mind.
But what he said was, “I just want some answers.”