Arthur dumped the last pile of texts on the counter. He’d come in now because he thought it would be quiet. Nine thirty on a Friday night, half an hour before closing, anyone with a life would be at the bar if they hadn’t left campus for good already.
It was quiet all right. So quiet there was no one behind the counter to check in his books. He couldn’t leave them. He had to get that stupid bloody letter to prove he didn’t owe the library any books or fines. In this day and age, of computer records, the University of Camelot still held on to its archaic traditions. If Arthur had his way, he’d move everything online and do away with the library altogether. Or maybe not. That was a bit extreme. He’d do something better than this, at any rate.
Arthur looked about, trying to see if one of library staff was skulking about between the bookshelves or tucked behind the counter. They had a smell, those people. And a look. Too much time spent with books: it made them musty and owlish. Not the kind of people someone like Arthur would voluntarily spend any time with usually, but right this moment what he wouldn’t give for thirty seconds.
Good grief. How long had he been here? Two minutes? His life was eroding away!
Someone was meant to be here all the time. Especially at this time of year, when the term was about to finish and people with better things to do than stand around watching the rain lash at the windows wanted to return their pissing library books.
Arthur could feel the vein pulsing in his neck. He was about ready to give someone a piece of his first class mind when he noticed a foot, in a worn out ankle boot, poking out from beneath one of the study desks past the end of the counter. The owner of the boot was wearing… No. It couldn’t be. Pastel blue legwarmers?
Arthur moved along to the end of the counter. It wasn’t like he was going to lose his place in the non-existent queue. From the size of the person’s feet and the generous fuzz of dark hair on his lily white legs, Arthur assumed the owner of the boots and legwarmers was a man. If it was a woman… He shuddered.
Subtlety wasn’t Arthur’s strong suit, he knew that, but he’d spent enough dismal hours at charity dinners with his father to know how to give someone the once over without them noticing. It was a necessary skill in the circles Arthur was about to move in, when he took up his place in the family business. He didn’t care to think on that. He had the summer to himself and he was going to make the most of it. If he didn’t end up spending the whole time waiting for a librarian.
Pretending to peruse the pile of leaflets at the end of the counter, Arthur snuck a look at the disco boy at the reading desk.
The disco boy shifted position. He sat up straighter and tucked his legs under his seat. Immediately, Arthur recognised him and all at the same time his blood boiled, his cheeks flushed and his neck broke out in a sweat.
They weren’t legwarmers, they were thick socks. And they belonged to one of the librarians. Arthur had seen him once or twice. He wasn’t like the usual bunch that worked here. For a start, he was young, about Arthur’s age from the looks of him. Also, as the socks would attest, his dress sense, while eclectic, had a certain savoir faire. Bohemian, as his sister would say. She would know, Morgana, the princess of fashion.
What he did share with his fellow librarians, however, was a complete lack of urgency about anything and an irritating obliviousness to when persons with places to go were waiting at the desk to check in their bloody pissing library books. Seriously? He had a giant old book open on the desk in front of him and he was staring out the window. Not to mention, he looked like he was mumbling something under his breath. Talking to himself!
Arthur was fit to burst.
The librarian man jumped, then turned to look at Arthur, all wide-eyed and surprised. Arthur did not let himself get distracted by those big baby blues, with their dark lashes, or the innocent expression on the man’s rather adorable face. No siree. He did not.
“Are you talking to me?”
He sounded surprised. Surprised!
“I want to check in my books.” Arthur stood up straighter, copying that stance his father used when he wanted to appear authoritative. The old man did it as a matter of course. Arthur was still learning but he’d practiced in front of the mirror and found if he kept his expression stern, he was quite convincing, if he didn’t say so himself.
“Oh.” The man looked around, like he was confused. “Um. I could do that for you, I suppose.”
I suppose? At least the man had the good grace to blush. Arthur’s intimidation tactics were working, even if he didn’t feel a hundred percent comfortable using them.
Arthur looked for the man’s name badge, because by rights he ought to put in a complaint. Unsurprisingly, the man wasn’t wearing one. Which was in some ways a relief, because Arthur was leaving and wouldn’t have to deal with this shoddiness again and therefore didn’t really need to complain.
With more grace than Arthur had expected, the librarian man got up from the desk. He stretched languidly, lacing his fingers up over his head and arching his back.
By this time, Arthur was torn between saying something very, very terse indeed and trying to swallow against a dry mouth.
The blue cardigan and checked shirt that the librarian wore had risen up and Arthur got an eyeful not just of his taut, slender waist, but the elastic of his pants peeking out from under his jeans. By the time the librarian had slipped behind the counter and fired up the scanner, Arthur was positively twitching.
Arthur’s father would be sorely disappointed, that Arthur would fall for such a tactic. And fall, Arthur did, like a precariously stacked pile of books.
“Could I have your library card?”
“Oh. Yes.” Arthur handed it over, hoping the sweat from his palms hadn’t made it slippery.
“Yes?” The librarian could read. Hallelujah. He could also light up a very dim and dusty library with half a smile. It was the dimples. Arthur was a sucker for dimples and those were beauties.
A shrill voice broke whatever spell was being cast, spearing through the moment like a flying dagger. It emanated from a shrew-like woman with a grey bob in a pink tweed skirt suit. She needed an eye-brow wax. Ugh.
“Marlon! What are you doing?” she exclaimed.
The librarian man dropped the scanner, stepped back, knocked over a pile of DVD’s on the shelf beside him and let out a squeal.
“He’s checking in my library books,” Arthur said authoritatively.
The woman, her name badge said Gaia (though she certainly didn’t look like no Earth mother), ignored Arthur and proceeded to snatch up the scanner as she said, more kindly, “You know you’re not supposed to come behind here when you’re not working.”
“Sorry. He was in a hurry and I know how snowed under you are with the new collection.” Marlon looked at the floor, then glanced at Arthur, through the shield of his lashes. “Sorry,” he said again.
Ah bloody hell’s bells. This was not how things were supposed to happen. Arthur hated apologising. Hate, hate, hate, hate, hated it. “No, I’m the one who should be sorry. I’d seen you here before—”
“Yes, and I just assumed you were working.”
“Not working. Just reading.”
Arthur would have called work and reading one and the same thing. Marlon. What a stupid, disappointing name. It didn’t fit the ethereal beauty before him. “You don’t look like a Marlon.”
Marlon smiled again and Arthur was smitten. Not only was it his blue eyes and the dimples, he had the fullest, lushest, kissiest lips and this wild sweep of dark wavy hair. Everything about him was … magical.
Marlon said softly, “More like a Merlin?”
Arthur’s knees wobbled but he felt strangely at ease. “Oh, so now you’re just flirting with me.”
“No. I… that’s actually my name.”
Arthur would have whooped with joy, if he was inclined to such ostentatious behaviour, which he wasn’t, particularly not in a library. He also had a feeling it might give Merlin a heart attack. Even the sudden surge of rain against the windows seem to put him on edge. He’d worried the threads from the end of the sleeves of his cardigan, and right now he was worrying his bottom lip with his teeth.
“So why did she call you Marlon?”
Gaia had moved down to the far end of the counter, to print out Arthur’s letter and snip the side of his library card. She raised her bushy eyebrows, to let him know she could hear their conversation, and quite probably Arthur’s thoughts, but carried on with what she was doing.
“Can you imagine how much stick I’d get if my name badge said Merlin? In a university library that specialises in medieval folklore?”
It was Arthur’s turn to flash a smile. “Actually, yes. Arthur Pendragon, remember?”
“Yes. I remember.”
Merlin said it… Arthur wasn’t sure. There was something. Like maybe, Merlin already knew who he was, which wouldn’t have been much of a surprise given Arthur’s family. But it was more than that. Arthur didn’t want to say it felt like longing. He wasn’t that conceited.
Gaia came over and killed the moment, stone dead. "There. All done. Now you can leave."
Feeling unsettled, which wasn’t how he’d expected this exchange to leave him, Arthur shoved his letter into his pocket without checking it.
“Thanks for doing my books.”
“No problem. Any time.”
“Actually, there won’t…”
“No. I know.” Marlon… Merlin, folded his hands under his armpits and it looked like he shivered. “Bye then. Good luck, by the way.”
“Graduation, life. The usual.”
“Yeah. You, too,” Arthur said automatically for no good reason, before he turned to leave the library slowly and reluctantly, for the last time.
At least, that had been his plan fifteen minutes earlier, to never set foot in that musty repository ever again. Now, he couldn’t shrug off the feeling he might quite like, of his own free will, to go back there again.
Merlin left the library at ten, in plenty of time to catch the bus at the turnaround, as he did almost every Friday night. The rain had stopped. With midsummer only days past, the sun hadn’t long set. The sky was striped with indigo, pin-pricked with the first stars.
Trust it to be tonight, that Arthur Pendragon noticed Merlin. Three years of silent yearning, of Merlin watching Arthur rushing, always rushing, his light and his life blazing all about him, the most wondrous star in the universe. And all Merlin got was one brief exchange, which he almost ruined, and now it was over. No more Arthur, ever.
A silly part of Merlin had hoped that the kind way Arthur spoke to him, before he left, was more than a reflection of his good manners and breeding. More foolish than that, rather than hurrying to his bus through the campus grounds with his head down, Merlin dawdled, looking around, on the off chance Arthur wasn’t really as busy as he appeared: Wishing and praying Arthur was still about, somewhere: Indulging yet another useless fantasy that Arthur might have been waiting for him.
What possible reason would Arthur have for waiting for Merlin, when a dozen other friends awaited him? Friends with loud laughter, stylish clothes and magazine good looks.
Merlin knew, because Merlin had seen them. Arthur and his crowd, they were as recognisable, and as impenetrable as constellations. Merlin had more chance of creating a storm with his fingertips than he did of breaking into Arthur’s inner circle.
Ten thousand imaginings, a thousand nights, all of them filled with a man who, until tonight didn’t even know his name. Merlin was pathetic. Worse. Because he knew damned well if, by some miracle, Arthur had been waiting for him, he’d have hidden in terror, or tripped over his feet.
It would have been better if Merlin had only ever interacted with Arthur in the confines of his head, where everything was always perfect and beautiful, than to have come so close to him and have to watch him walk away.
But this was the way of the world, always flaunting what was out of reach, mocking the shy and the lonely.
For June, it was cold. Merlin didn’t have his coat. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his cardigan and stamped his feet on the ground until the bus showed. Taking a seat near the front, by the year-round heater, Merlin pressed his cheek to the window and sucked in the rumbling in his stomach. There was leftover pasta waiting for him at home, and a can of beer. Not much to look forward to, but enough to keep him going.
The bus driver, an old dragon of a bloke who regularly took the night shift, eyed Merlin in his rear view mirror. Merlin had been trying to ignore him, but all his attempts were thwarted when the driver said, “You all right, son?”
Merlin was the only person on the bus, and he already had a sense he was the target of the old chatterbox.
“Yes, thank you. Just a bit tired.”
“You look like a dog who’s had his bone taken away.”
Merlin didn’t know what to say to that, so he pulled his emergency paperback out of his rucksack and started reading.
The driver didn’t bother Merlin again until he reached his stop. “You’re a lanky piece of piss, but you look like you’ve got some fight in you. I say, if you want something, you’ve got to fight for it. Nothing in life that’s worth having comes easy.”
Merlin couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag. He nodded at the driver, thanked him, and shuffled off home to his bedsit, and his rubbery pasta.
Lying in bed that night, Merlin dreamed of Arthur. He liked to imagine him dressed as the Arthur of legend: a knight, a brave hero. Merlin liked to imagine himself riding on a white charger alongside him, not so much as a knight, but as a trusted advisor, where his brains and wit were of more advantage than his might.
It got sillier. Merlin also fantasised that they slept out, just the two of them, under the stars. Together, like under a blanket together, with their clothes off.
Arthur was gay in these nocturnal fancies, and Merlin was the love of his life. Merlin sucked Arthur off, now and again, and didn’t choke or gag or graze him with his teeth. Sometimes they even went all the way, with Merlin topping: Merlin—who’d never even been kissed, let alone had sex with anyone.
There was no limit to the outlandishness of his imagination. It was, after all, just fantasy. A place where Merlin could do whatever he liked. Could be who he wanted to be. And best of all, in his dreams, Arthur wanted Merlin. In his dreams, Merlin was handsome and desirable. He was loved and he never felt alone.
Hugging his extra pillow, Merlin pulled back the curtain and gazed up at the stars. He was tired. So tired he couldn’t fight the pull of sleep.
Merlin was no fighter. He couldn’t even defend his own name, the one his parents had bestowed him with such high hopes. At least they weren’t around to see him now. If they could, how disappointed they would be.
Monday, the last week of summer term, Merlin was up early. He had to be in before the library opened at eight. Everyone was in, stocktaking, cataloguing the new collection, checking in returned books and periodicals.
Since Merlin was a junior member of staff, he spent the bulk of his time at the main desk. He didn’t mind shelving, or checking in or out. He didn’t even mind the enquiries. It was nice, helping people. Better still when they were openly grateful, when they praised his uncanny ability to track down mis-shelved volumes, like he had some special librarian book radar.
Working in the library was a great job. Sometimes it was boring. Sometimes it was physically hard: being the youngest member of staff, Merlin was often tasked with lugging trolleys and the like, here, there and everywhere. But most of the time, even when it was busy it was quiet, which suited Merlin very well. Also, the library was full of books. The most valuable of them were under restricted access and these were the books Merlin loved the most. The name alone, restricted access, gave him goosebumps and made him smile, quietly to himself.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and in the flowerbeds either side of the entrance to the library, the flowers were in full bloom. Not the kind of day for moping, Merlin decided, as he shed his cardi, bearing his skinny arms to the sparkling azure.
Inside, where the air existed in a permanent state of October, Merlin immediately put it back on again.
Gwen was leaning over a copy of Library Review, the swot, and sipping coffee from one of those ‘Keep Calm and Masturbate’ mugs. Actually, it didn’t say ‘masturbate’; Merlin didn’t know what it did say. Something much less entertaining, no doubt.
“Salut, Marlon,” she said, with a fake French accent.
“Hi, Gwen. Learnt any real French lately?”
“None that I can use in public. Lance only uses la langue d’amour when he’s—”
“All right, I get the picture.”
Merlin felt his ears go up in flames. He was about to make a dash for the kitchen when Gwen lifted up a sapphire blue glossy paper bag. With a curly ribbon attached to one of the handles.
“This was left here for you yesterday, just before closing.”
“It’s got your name on it. Merlin. See, on this little card on the side.”
“Who?” Merlin’s cheeks were burning now. “Who left it here?”
“I don’t know. I was upstairs. Gregory took it.” Gwen slipped off her stool and handed Merlin the bag. “You have an admirer, mon petit chou fleur.”
It had to be a mistake. Or a joke. Or it was Alice, who retired last year, bringing him in that vanilla shortbread he liked so much. Only, the bag was much too light to contain biscuits. And it smelled of expensive perfume. Something masculine, though. Not like the floral scent Gwen wore, or the cloying perfume that Gaia was partial to.
The card on the side gave nothing away, neither did the bag itself.
There might not have been food inside, but Merlin’s mouth watered. He stared at the shadows in the black tissue paper scrunched into the top, hiding its mysterious contents. His hand was shaking, making the tissue whisper…
“For God’s sake, Merlin, will you open it? I’ve got to be up in fiction in five minutes.”
“Sorry. I …”
Merlin couldn’t breathe. Somehow, he didn’t want to know what was in the bag. He wanted to know who left it for him. One name, just one name; that was all Merlin cared about.
Gwen placed her hand over Merlin’s. “Don’t be sorry. I’m being nosy. Open it in private if you like.”
“No. It’s fine.”
Before he could chicken out, Merlin pulled the tissue paper out of the bag. Inside, the first thing that registered was the colour. In his mind, he called it cerulean, though he’d never say a word like that out loud. The scarf—pulling it out of the bag it became obvious that’s what it was—was a fine fabric and was extraordinarily soft.
“Nice.” Gwen gently touched a corner. “It’s cashmere. And, oh my God, look at the tag.”
Merlin didn’t recognise the brand, but he guessed it was expensive. Which could only mean… But it couldn’t be. Why would Arthur…? Who knew why?
“It’s from Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin said, hardly able to get the words out.
“Are you sure?”
“Not a hundred percent, but he was here on Friday. I checked in his books.”
Merlin was no stranger to flights of fancy, to wild imaginings. This, however, was real and frightening and thrilling, all at once. Merlin couldn’t take his eyes off the scarf, draped over his fingers, warming him through in places he had no business being warm this particular moment.
It was Arthur, he knew it. He didn’t know why, only that he was about to pass out if he didn’t sit down. Only Gwen was still hovering.
“Look in the bottom of the bag,” she said. “Maybe there’s a note.”
Indeed, there was. So, it was lucky Gwen was there, then, because Merlin wouldn’t have thought of that. Not in the state he was in.
On a folded piece of scrap paper, like the stuff kept in a basket on the front desk, was a neatly penned message.
I wanted to thank you for helping me on Friday. You looked cold. Perhaps this will help to keep you warm. If not, perhaps I can buy you coffee?
He’d put his mobile number at the bottom, and his email. Merlin sighed with relief. He didn’t do well on the phone. Then, when it finally sunk in, that Arthur Pendragon had bought him a scarf and was asking him out for coffee, he reeled. And panicked.
“What do I do? I don’t like coffee. Is it all right to suggest tea, or is that not the done thing?”
“Just email him, Merlin. He doesn’t care what you like to drink. A scarf like that has serious feels written all over it.”
“Yes, love. It does. And don’t look so surprised.”
Gwen took the scarf from Merlin’s trembling fingers and wrapped it around his neck. It was so soft, Merlin thought he might never take it off again.
“Well look at that. It’s the exact same colour as your eyes.”
Merlin thought Gwen was being over the top. This is what happened when you got a French boyfriend. Or one that spoke French, at any rate. Still, he allowed himself a small smile. The thrill erupting inside of him wouldn’t be held back and that small smile, it grew, into a wide grin.
Merlin had another ten minutes before the library opened. Time enough to send an email.
“How many is that?” Morgana puffed, as she turned at the end of the pool.
“Twenty eight.” Or possibly twenty six. Arthur rounded up the lengths when he lost count.
“You should get in here. Work off some of that nosh from the weekend.”
Arthur flicked his wrist at her and checked his phone again. For the six hundredth time. Because, of course, Merlin was bound to get to the library half an hour before it opened.
The regatta that Arthur had planned to attend over the whole, entire weekend had seemed like such a splendid idea. Until he met Merlin. After that, it turned out to be an exercise in finger-tapping misery. (Except the scarf. What a lucky find that was, thanks to Morgana and her superlative nose for boutiquery.)
Sunday afternoon had come around slower than treacle and to top it all off, when Arthur completed his dash to the library minutes before closing, Merlin wasn’t there. Arthur had to leave, content with the assurances of the man at the desk, that Merlin would be at work first thing the next day, Monday. Which was today. Right about now.
It was by no means a given that Merlin would be interested in seeing Arthur again. His taste in clothes and books, from what Arthur had seen, were, to say the least, far from the ordinary. Arthur was many things. Far from the ordinary wasn’t one of them. And Merlin didn’t look like the kind of man to be impressed by wealth or social standing. Arthur would have to rely on more erudite qualities to impress a man like him.
Fourteen lengths later, at ten to eight, Morgana got out of the pool and Arthur’s phone pinged.
An email! From Merlin!
Arthur hadn’t been confident of a reply to his note. Thank goodness Morgana (courtesy of her psychology degree) had suggested someone very shy, like Merlin, might not be comfortable sending a text, let alone picking up the phone; that email might suit him better.
Arthur blinked at the screen and read Merlin’s email a dozen times, over and over, before he typed his reply.
Not to say he was feeling smug, after the fact, but Arthur should have trusted his instincts. Deep down, he knew it. He bloody well knew it. That smile Merlin had given him on Friday night; that delicate way he’d given Arthur the tiniest glimpse of his inner magic, it hadn’t been Arthur’s stunted imagination. Merlin liked him. Merlin loved the scarf and would love to go for a drink. (Is tea all right?)
Is tea all right? Water and a cracker would be divine, if it meant Arthur got to see Merlin swipe his tongue over his lips.
The forecast was for fine weather. Merlin finished work at four. Arthur had a plan and only eight hours to prepare.
At three thirty on the nose, Arthur parked, then double and triple checked inside the boot of his little MG, making sure everything was precisely as it should be. Next, he checked his hair in the wing mirror, untucked his shirt then tucked it back in again and finally, when he realised it was too late to make any further adjustments to any part of his personage, he made his way towards the campus coffee shop. Somewhere safe and public.
Living with Morgana had taught Arthur to be mindful when he arranged to meet someone for the first time. She’d reminded him prior to every one of his handful of first dates that not all men had his physical prowess and confidence; that the threat of sexual assault was a consideration for men, too.
Despite her warning, Arthur was hoping his family’s éclat would in this instance reassure Merlin he needn’t feel cautious. His plan depended on it.
Then, standing outside the coffee shop, it looked to Arthur like the date might be a failure before it even started. When he spotted Merlin, walking across the campus green a few minutes before four, he was accompanied … by a woman.
Arthur waved and smiled, and hid his disappointment in the way all the Pendragon children had been taught to do, even before they were toilet trained. Merlin saw him at once, returned the smile then dipped his head, lifting his gaze only when he and his friend were an arm reach away.
“Hello,” he said. “This is my friend, Gwen. She works with me at the library.”
Cordial greetings were exchanged, in that awkward way new meetings always seemed to go for Arthur. It hadn’t been his plan that they go into the coffee shop, any more than it had it been his plan that he and Merlin should be joined by a third party. A bitter bubble of resentment that their date and Arthur’s carefully organised plans were going to be ruined rose up and broke the surface.
“I know I suggested the coffee shop,” he said, addressing Merlin, not Gwen, “but the weather is so nice today, I had hoped to take you on a picnic to Castlemoat.”
“Really? I’ve always wanted to go there.” Merlin looked at Arthur, his eyes bright, then to Gwen, not like he was asking her permission exactly, but possibly her approval.
Arthur bristled. “The thing is, my car only has two seats.” It took the strength of Titans to bite out, “So, if you’d prefer, we could just have the picnic here.”
Again, looking from Gwen to Arthur and then to the floor, Merlin opened his mouth to say something, but Gwen got there first. “Nonsense. Text me later, Merlin? Let me know how it was.” Her smile, directed at Arthur, was strikingly similar to Morgana’s smirk of evil. “You didn’t think I was planning on joining you?”
“No, no, of course not,” Arthur said, perhaps a little brusquely.
“Because that would be weird, right? I only walked over with Merlin in case you weren’t here yet.” She kissed Merlin on the cheek and said, “Have fun,” before heading back across the green.
When she was out of earshot, Merlin said, “You thought I meant for Gwen to join us, didn’t you?”
Asking the question seemed to pain him, as if Arthur would think less of him if he had wanted, or perhaps needed Gwen to be there, for moral support, maybe. Shit. Arthur hadn’t thought of that. Maybe Merlin was that shy, that nervous.
Arthur didn’t know what to say now. If he said, ‘No, I didn’t think you meant for Gwen to join us,’ and Merlin had wanted her there, that would imply Arthur didn’t empathise with his anxiety. But if Arthur said, ‘Yes, I did think you wanted her here’, Merlin might take that to mean Arthur thought he was incapable of doing anything by himself and be offended.
Any answer Arthur gave would be the wrong one.
Merlin’s composure faltered. Arthur was out of time. He settled with, “No, I didn’t think you had plans for Gwen to join us. If you had, you’d have mentioned it in your email.”
Merlin’s eyebrows lifted, and it felt like he was looking directly into Arthur’s soul.
Arthur knew then and there, he would never, ever be able to tell Merlin a lie. Unexpectedly, it filled him with relief. “Okay, I admit it. I wasn’t sure. Maybe I thought she was staying. Was it that obvious?”
“What vibe was I giving off?”
To the floor, though he was smiling, Merlin said, “Pissed off.”
“Shit. Look, if I was, it was only because… You know this is a date, right? I mean, it is a date, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I know it’s a date. Although I didn’t realise you were gay until this morning.”
Merlin’s confession made Arthur laugh. All the awkwardness between them vanished and that was when Arthur noticed Merlin was wearing the scarf, somewhat like a cravat, tucked neatly inside the collar of his shirt. He would never have thought of sporting it in that way, but it was perfect.
“You didn’t know I was gay? That’s incredible. I thought everyone knew. It made the newspapers. Heir to Pendragon Industries comes out on eighteenth birthday, blah, blah, blah.”
“I don’t read the papers. Or, I should say, I don’t believe everything I read in the papers.”
Merlin shuffled around on the spot, his nose crinkling up in a way that sent Arthur’s stomach fluttering. Every word he said seemed to cost him so much effort, which made no sense. Did he have no idea how utterly charming he was? How his very presence made Arthur feel at once like he could never be enough yet at the same time made him yearn to be everything?
Trying for something that would put Merlin at ease, Arthur said, “Smart. But then I never doubted that about you. Come on, let’s go, before the ice-cream melts.”
“You brought ice-cream?”
“I love ice-cream!”
Arthur wanted to reach out and link Merlin’s arm through his. He wanted to tell him how well the scarf suited him; that the colour of his eyes was as vivid to him with his eyes closed as it was when he was looking at them. But it sounded cliché. Too much and yet not enough.
Instead, Arthur shrugged off, hoping it looked more like a saunter, and they walked companionably, side by side to his car. At which point, Merlin gasped, out loud, before clamping his hand over his mouth and going scarlet.
If Merlin’s reaction to ice-cream had endeared him to Arthur, his reaction to the MG sent Arthur spinning irreversibly, head over heels. It would be a wonder if his feet ever hit the ground again.
As Arthur started the car, as Merlin ran his fingers along the dash, Arthur said, “Shall I put the top down?”
Merlin’s eyes went wide, like Arthur had just offered to fly him to the moon. Erudite, Arthur’s arse. Ice-cream and an aged two seater with an open top—that was all had taken to impress dear, adorable, gorgeous Merlin!
That was it. No refund, no return. No going back.
In Merlin, Arthur had found his heart and soul.
It was a dream. That was the only viable explanation. Somehow, Merlin had constructed a fantasy so watertight, it had solidified and taken on a life of its own.
How else could he explain sitting in the passenger seat of a classic sports car, flying through country lanes to Castlemoat, Camelot (rumoured to be one of the most beautiful and romantic spots in the whole of Albion) with the man of his dreams?
Arthur’s hair was a spray of gold against an azure sky. He drove with his right forearm resting on the top edge of the driver door, his fingertips coaxing the steering wheel around every curve and bend. Every now and again, he glanced over at Merlin and smiled, and every time, Merlin’s heart skipped a beat.
A gorgeous blue scarf, followed by a day full of nervous anticipation, where his whole body had trembled like he was filled from head to toe with butterflies, and all that worry for nothing. Because here he was, Merlin, stupidly shy and awkward librarian, speeding along, with the world in his wake on a late summer afternoon, beside Arthur Pendragon (Arthur Pendragon!). It was nothing short of heavenly. Merlin couldn’t remember a time he’d been this happy.
The car was a huge surprise. If he’d had to make a prediction, Merlin would have guessed Arthur’s car as something flashier. Not that an MG wasn’t flashy, but it wasn’t new. This model was very old, probably a classic, and it was clearly well loved.
Arthur loved his car, which was old but beautiful, a bit like the way Merlin loved his old books. Merlin never would have imagined he and Arthur would share a trait that was so important to him, so close to his heart.
It was one thing to love an image of a person, but to begin to know them, if only by the smallest degree, and to discover that made you like them more?
The wind whipped about Merlin’s hair and took his breath away. The world of fantasy was all well and good, but in his fantasies, Merlin couldn’t lift up his arms and catch the warm wind in his fingers.
In his imagination everything that happened was by his design. There were no surprises: no cashmere scarf warming his neck, no glancing smile piercing his heart, no ice-cream picnic. In short, fantasies were a small comfort in the loneliness of night, but in the stark light of day, they were no more than wisp of cloud in a bright blue sky.
Arthur parked the car in a rough clearing that passed for a car park. He took out a green canvas picnic bag and gave Merlin a blanket to carry. They walked along a wooded trail and came out at a sloping green which ended beneath the castle walls. It was a quiet spot, dotted with sweeping trees.
“Here?” Arthur asked, squinting against the sun.
It was a lovely spot, close to some dappled shade should the sun prove too bright. Merlin didn’t mind where they sat, not since Arthur had done the choosing. He opened out the picnic blanket and spread it on the ground in answer.
While Arthur began to unload the picnic blanket, Merlin began to relax. When he wasn’t under scrutiny, he felt more able to talk, or not to talk. He was able to watch Arthur, without inhibition or guilt, or look up at the clouds drifting across the sky.
When Merlin stretched out his legs, leaned back on his elbows and let the breeze brush over him, he closed his eyes and took in this moment. The air was fragrant, with the smell of freshly prepared food: fruit and a garlicky meat, maybe salami. Merlin’s mouth watered and he opened his eyes again, to see the feast spread out before him.
“I hope there are some things here you like,” Arthur said, extracting two plates and two sets of cutlery. (Cutlery, on a picnic!) “You’re not a vegetarian by any chance?”
“No. I eat pretty much anything. But, oh!” Merlin spied the miniature pork pies. “These are the best. Did you bring any pickled onions?”
“Yes. But not the little silver skins. The big ones—”
“That feel like they’re taking off the skin in the roof of your mouth!”
“Yes!” Arthur roared with laughter. “My sister said they were a mistake. Those and the salami. Stinky breath and all that.”
“Not a problem if we both eat them.”
Merlin blushed hard, at what he’d implied—presumed—but Arthur didn’t seem to notice. In fact, Arthur looked delighted and began dishing up and tucking in.
Merlin had imagined how it would feel to have that effect on another person. To do or say something that would garner respect, delight or (he couldn’t help it) arousal. Nothing in what was rapidly beginning to feel like his tiny mind could compare to the real thing. Merlin reminded himself that was a good thing, the way it should be. If not, there would be no point in being here. And here he was, with Arthur Pendragon (he could tell himself a thousand times and it wouldn’t get old) and everything was right. So right.
“How long have you worked at the library?”
“Four years. Since I was eighteen. I’ve been training on the job.”
“You must like it.”
Arthur spoke softly and when he listened it was like his whole body was tuning in. He ate slowly, and moved with gentle consideration, refilling Merlin’s glass, offering him a slice of melon. This was nothing like the Arthur that Merlin had seen tearing about campus or fidgeting in his seat amidst a pile of books. He asked Merlin about the library, about his job. The new collection.
“It was bequeathed by the late Duchess of Annis. Mostly it’s books but there is some documentation, letters, photographs and the like. Some will go to the Arts Centre for display, some will go into restricted access. I haven’t seen all of it, but some of the books date back to medieval times.”
“That’s amazing. And you get to see all that stuff, before anyone else.”
“Yes.” Merlin beamed, he really did. He was low down on the library ladder, but still, he did get to see almost everything before the public. He treasured that privilege, regardless, but it was uplifting (to the moon and back) to have it acknowledged by another person. Especially someone who was likely no stranger to the rare and expensive.
When Arthur drove Merlin home, the magic of the day lingered. At the turn into his street, the colours seemed more vibrant than they had when Merlin left for work that morning.
“You can drop me here,” he said, as Arthur approached the bus stop before the junction.
“I should take you to your door. It’s no trouble.”
“It’s a nightmare to turn round. Honestly, here is good.” Also, I don’t want you to see where I live. So stupid, if Merlin was going to see Arthur again. He wanted to see him again, (he’d been thinking about it throughout the drive back) and that wasn’t going to happen if he ran from everything that scared him, if he didn’t man up and take a chance and ask. Ask, ask, ask! “But, um, I was wondering. I have two tickets to see Harley Barclay at The Griffin on Friday night. Would you by any chance be interested in coming with me?”
Merlin always had two tickets, at the end of a row. He sat on the end, tucked up to the wall, and left the seat next to him empty. He wouldn’t sit that close to a stranger in any other situation, and he preferred not to do it when he was trying to enjoy a lecture or a concert or a film. But if it was Arthur next to him…
Arthur pulled into the bus stop. “Harley Barclay, the guy with the big glasses that’s on that quiz show?”
“Yes, although you know he started out as a columnist?”
Arthur’s reply couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. “I think I did. He’s hilarious. I’d love to come. We could go out for dinner first, if you like? I could pick you up, or meet you somewhere.”
Merlin took a chance. He had four days. A lot could be accomplished in that time. “Sure, come and pick me up. It’s down there, number twelve, flat 1.”
Then Merlin did something that he’d never done to anyone before, except his mum. He leaned across and kissed Arthur on the cheek before he opened the car door. It took a special amount of energy reserve to be so bold, so when Arthur said, “Hey, hang on a sec,” while Merlin had one leg out of the car, he involuntarily flopped back into his seat.
At which point, Arthur leaned over to Merlin, put his hand on his jaw—oh, oh, oh electricity!—and kissed Merlin softly on the lips.
Merlin didn’t really remember the walk up the road to his bedsit. He sat on the edge of his battered armchair, his fingertips touching his lower lip where Arthur’s mouth had grazed his, until it got dark outside.
That night, Merlin didn’t look at the stars. When he couldn’t sleep, he got out a notebook and pencil and began to make a list of all the things that needed to be done before Friday.
As the days went by, every minute that Merlin wasn’t at work, he worked through his list.
1. Buy new duvet, a double, and new cover and sheets. Nothing flowery.
The single bed, Merlin could do nothing about, but if (he squealed with terror and excitement) Arthur were to come over, and stay, a single duvet would never cover them both.
2. Wash new bedding and make up bed Friday morning, before work.
3. Clean and tidy bedsit.
4. Buy some grown-up drinks. Wine? And glasses.
5. Get hair cut. Go somewhere nice. Help needed with styling mop.
6. Buy Arthur a gift? Do I need to do that? Ask Gwen.
By Friday morning, Merlin had succeeded in addressing all his plans for his bedsit. The hair cut didn’t materialise, mainly because had Gwen insisted his hair was part of his draw. Usually Merlin didn’t defer to her unique kind of wisdom, but in this instance he was desperate. She also said a gift wasn’t necessary, but to make sure his lube and condoms hadn’t gone past their expiry date.
Merlin hadn’t said, ‘what lube and condoms?’ He had, however, visited a distant chemist’s, one he’d never been to before on the other side of town where he wouldn’t see anyone he knew. He hovered in there for a full fifteen minutes, before leaving with a box of plasters and a new deodorant. If there was a sexual fantasy that could be fulfilled with either or both of those items, Merlin had no idea what it was.
What did it matter? He and Arthur weren’t going to have sex after their second date.
Unless, that’s what would be expected if Merlin invited him up, ‘for tea or coffee’.
Merlin began to worry.
He wanted to be able to invite Arthur up. He’d gone to so much trouble to make his bedsit welcoming, suitable for bringing home a love interest. But, perhaps, he was being naïve, thinking that even if Arthur stayed over, they wouldn’t get much past kissing and perhaps using their hands on each other.
Good grief, Merlin couldn’t even say it in his own head, after all the lewd and wild things he’d indulged in his fantasies, after what he’d said in his head about Gwen’s mug.
Merlin worried all day.
By Friday afternoon, he wondered if he shouldn’t just feign illness and cancel the date. His fingers shook over his phone as his heart raced, as his mind went back and forth, a dizzying rollercoaster of what might or might not happen and whether he was equipped to deal with it. By the time Merlin got home, he felt sick and wrung out. The pinks he’d put in a vase on the windowsill were already wilting, mirroring his mood.
Then Arthur sent a text. We’re still on for tonight? See you in a couple of hours.
Merlin laid down on his bed and tried to breathe, in and out, slow and calm, before he realised he’d crumpled the cover of his lovely new duvet! He jumped up, smoothed it out, and ran for the shower. A shower would calm him.
A shower didn’t calm him.
Merlin dressed in the clothes he’d hung on the back of the door, though he didn’t know why he was bothering. He slumped down in his armchair (he should have bought a new cushion!) and put his head in his hands. Who was he kidding? When Arthur saw where he lived, he wasn’t going to feel anything but pity. Possibly disdain.
No way would he want to sleep like a sardine in a single bed with a twenty two year old virgin after nothing but a fumbled round of heavy petting.
Merlin looked around the single room, with his single bed, his single table and chair, his portable cooker and rattling fridge. He didn’t need to stretch his overactive imagination to see how it would look.
What an idiot. What a stupid, stupid idiot.
Before Merlin realised the doorbell was buzzing, his face was wet with tears.
Arthur wondered if Merlin wasn’t home or hadn’t heard him. He rang again, and just when he thought about trying his phone, footsteps sounded down the stairs. Merlin opened the door, looking a bit red and puffy around the eyes and across the tops of his lovely cheekbones.
“Hi. Sorry. I was…” Merlin faltered.
His unease pulsed off him. Arthur would have pulled him into a hug only he was worried that might break him. “No problem. I’m a bit early. Is that all right?”
“Yes. Yes.” Merlin clung onto the door like it was holding him up.
“Do you want to head off now, or should I come in?”
Merlin took a step back and mumbled to the floor. “Um, we can go. Or you could come up. I don’t mind.”
“Well,” Arthur said lightly, “you’ll need to put on some shoes, I guess,” which was rewarded with a shy smile.
“Oh. Yes. I forgot.”
Arthur shook off his own nerves, stepped over the threshold, took Merlin by the elbows and kissed him on the lips. “You look good enough to eat.”
“Thanks,” Merlin said, withdrawing, though it was with reassuring slowness. “I’m up here.”
He led the way. At the top of the stairs, they turned on the landing and Merlin’s door was at the end, at the back of the converted house.
Arthur inhaled before he was through the door. Merlin’s home smelled of flowers, fresh linen … and Merlin.
When Arthur stepped inside, Merlin said, in that self-effacing way he did, “Sorry. This is it.”
“Don’t be sorry!” Arthur couldn’t think why he would be. Not everyone he knew was wealthy and it wasn’t like he couldn’t guess from the address that Merlin’s means were modest. “It reminds me of this old croft we used to stay in when I was a child, up in Scotland. It was a tiny two-bedroomed place. My dad got the big bedroom, to himself, and Morgana, my sister, and I used to have to sleep top-to-tail in the single bed next door.”
Merlin retrieved his boots from under his bed. “That sounds terrible.”
“No! It was brilliant, until we got too big and I used to wake up with Morgana’s foot in my face. Downstairs there was an Aga. Dad used to chop the wood for it and the whole house had this smoky smell, and, yeah, it was so homely. Like this. Oh, and look at that chair! Is it an Ercol?”
“Ercol. It’s a brand of furniture. Very distinctive.” Arthur examined the armchair, though he had no idea what he was looking for.
“I don’t think so. The old man downstairs gave it to me, before he went into a home. He said it wasn’t worth anything.”
“Hmm. Morgana would know. If it’s an Ercol it’s worth at least a few hundred pounds. But if it isn’t, it’s still lovely.”
Merlin sat in the curved, wood-framed chair and tied his laces. He had elegant fingers, long slender hands and a long slender back. Arthur would have liked to run his fingers over the bumps of Merlin’s spine. He eyed the single bed and got a warm tingle down his own back. Arthur’s top and tail days were long gone, but he didn’t mind a bit of spooning.
“Ready,” Merlin said.
Arthur took his hand, kissed his knuckles, and basked in Merlin’s blush.
The Griffin was a small Arts Centre in a quiet but wealthy part of town. Its café was informal but, according to Merlin, the food was delicious. Since they only had an hour to spare before Harley Barclay’s talk, it seemed the perfect choice… Until they got there and discovered half the audience must have had the same idea.
Five minutes into queuing and Arthur began to regret the gallon of herbal tea he’d drunk before collecting Merlin. “I’m really sorry, but I have to go to loo. Will you be all right here in the queue for a minute?”
Merlin seemed more relaxed than he had when Arthur first arrived at his bedsit, but just to be sure of his ease, Arthur squeezed his hand and planted a quick peck on his cheek before he left him.
Eyeing the queue to the ‘Ladies’ with pity as he passed, Arthur was in and out of the ‘Gents’ in a jiff. On his return, he angled past the other patrons on the way to the café area, training his eyes to the place where he thought he’d find Merlin in the queue.
Weirdly, Merlin didn’t seem to have moved from the spot in which Arthur had left him. And the men that Arthur could have sworn were in the queue behind them not three minutes ago were now two places ahead.
Merlin was looking at the floor. His ears, God love them, were flaming. As were his cheeks.
Arthur rushed over, and Merlin flinched away. Okay. Arthur didn’t touch him, as much as he wanted to. He bit back the urge to ask what he already knew; that the men in front had pushed in. Merlin looked like he was on the verge of tears and it seemed like, if Arthur remembered correctly, he’d already shed some earlier. If Arthur made a scene, Merlin might flee.
Like a bass drum, Arthur’s heart pounded in his chest. He waited beside Merlin with his fists clenched. He dared any one of the men ahead to turn around. Just look at me wrong and you’re going to know about it.
Arthur knew, because it had happened so many times before, what was going on. He didn’t need confirmation, but before the gang got to the food counter, he got it. The biggest of them shot Arthur a glance, pursed his lips into a gruesome kiss, and, lifting his arm let his wrist go limp in a cruel mockery of an effeminate man.
Arthur tensed. He couldn’t help himself. Then a soft voice beside him pleaded, “Don’t. Please.”
Arthur wanted to say something. Goodness knows he had enough invectives poised and ready go on the tip of his very sharp tongue. But Merlin. He was shaking so hard it was reverberating through the floor and sending Arthur’s heart quivering. Arthur slid his arm around Merlin’s waist, against his protest, and said, “I’m in the mood for some wine. A nice bottle of red. What do you think?”
“If you like. I mean, yes. I like Merlot.”
Being close to Merlin, feeling his slender warmth beside him, Arthur calmed. Merlin did too. By the time they were able to choose their dishes, his blush had subsided to a rosy pink and his shoulders seemed to fall back a notch.
There was time enough to eat their pasta and down a large glass of wine. Arthur urged Merlin to linger, despite his protests, until the bulk of the audience were inside the auditorium. He watched, from the corner of his eye, as the group of men who’d barged past Merlin in the queue swaggered in through the single pair of doors. He had to let it go. He had to let it go. Merlin was all that mattered. He’d been shaken but he hadn’t been hurt; he was safe and from now on, that was the way it was going to stay. Arthur would make sure of it.
“We can’t take the bottle in with us,” Arthur pointed out, topping up their glasses to near the rims with the remainder of the wine.
“Are you trying to get me drunk?” Merlin smiled, lopsided and decidedly happier than earlier. It looked like he was already halfway there. Given his state after a glass and a half, Arthur had to wonder if ordinarily Merlin drank at all.
“I think you’re doing splendidly all by yourself.”
Merlin laughed. Actually, he sniggered into his hand and it was just… Arthur wanted to put his hands on him; to touch him all over and feel Merlin’s laughter shaking through his own body. He wanted to make sure Merlin laughed loudly, with no inhibitions, every day, without the aid of wine.
Arthur contented himself with a touch to Merlin’s hand. “Come on. I think we’re going to have to tread on toes to get to our seats as it is.”
When they got into the auditorium it took a moment for Arthur’s eyes to adjust to the lower light. He scanned the rows. Each one was short, and it was easy to see the row taken up by the queue-jumping louts. Fortunately, they were two rows ahead and on the other side of the aisle.
Merlin glanced in their direction then hurried on to his seat. The men were oblivious. They’d probably forgotten what they’d done. It wouldn’t have occurred to them how much hurt a crude and callous gesture could inflict. Arthur felt a resurgence of his earlier anger. Before he changed his mind, went over to them and emptied his wine over the biggest one’s head, he quickly followed Merlin to his seat.
Harley Barclay entered stage left and took a seat on the couch in the centre of the stage. He wasn’t wearing his trademark glasses. Arthur was dumbstruck. How could he not have realised before. He knew that man! Not as Harley Barclay but as Harry Beaufort. Six or seven years ago he’d gone out with Morgana, when she was in her first year at university and he was… Arthur couldn’t remember. He’d only been fifteen at the time. Something to do with media. They’d parted on good enough terms and Arthur had a feeling they’d kept in touch.
If only he’d told Morgana where he was going this evening. Still… it might not be too late. This was, after all, an opportunity not to be missed.
At the interval, Merlin wanted to go to the toilet. Arthur went with him and stood outside the door, making sure none of the ugly crew was in there. He used the time to send a quick text to Morgana.
Merlin was washing his hands when Arthur got her reply. He said sure. Ask Hettie on the door to show you to his dressing room after the show.
“What?” Merlin asked, his brow furrowing with unnecessary worry.
“Nothing. Just had some good news.”
During the beginning of the second half, Arthur noticed ‘Harley Barclay’ looking around, though he didn’t manage to catch Arthur’s eye. Undeterred, Harley continued, the consummate professional, with his social commentary, his jokes and some reading from his latest book.
At the end of the show, when the house lights came up, Arthur stood and gave him a quick wave. It was returned, and then he was gone.
Merlin, for the first time of his own volition, grabbed Arthur’s arm. “Did he just wave at you?”
“Yes. He used to go out with my sister. Years back.”
“Do you know everyone?”
“No. Only the important people.”
At that, Merlin gave Arthur a nudge that gave him warm feeling where he shouldn’t be having them in a public place.
They exited the auditorium behind the crowd. Looking around for staff, Arthur spotted an older lady who on closer inspection wore a name badge identifying her as Hettie, standing at the entrance to a side corridor. Arthur put his hand to the small of Merlin’s back and steered him in her direction.
“Where are we going?”
“Surprise! We’re going to say ‘hi’ to Harley Barclay.”
Merlin stopped dead and all the colour drained from his face. “No. I couldn’t. Please, I don’t want to.”
Arthur took a step closer to Merlin, rubbed his hand up and down his arm. “But I thought you liked him.”
“I do. But that doesn’t mean I want to talk to him. I’ll just clam up.”
“I’ll be with you. You don’t have to say anything. Just ‘hello’. We won’t stay long.”
“I’d rather not. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right. Never mind then.” Arthur didn’t know what else to do.
He must have looked irked. He hadn’t meant to, but his face did have this habit of giving him away, because Merlin’s face crumpled. “Oh no. You made arrangements especially?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Arthur could see how upset Merlin had become, and he got it, he did. This was what it was like, being shy. Yet at the same he was irritated, with himself more than Merlin, that it bothered him. Every time he was with Merlin, it was like he had to walk on eggshells. He’d been kind and patient and he was cross that that wasn’t enough; crosser still that he was being a dick about it.
It’s just that Arthur didn’t like to back down or back out…
But there was a compromise! It wasn’t like Arthur cared either way, whether he got to see Harley. It was Merlin that really liked him. “Okay. Why don’t you wait here? I’ll be two minutes. I’ll just pop my head in and say hello, and that I can’t stay, then I’ll be back.”
“All right.” Merlin nodded. He seemed okay. The venue was emptying, there were seats near the end of the corridor, close to the box office.
“I’ll be two minutes. I promise.”
Clutching his programme, Arthur followed Hettie down the corridor to the green room backstage.
There was raucous laughter coming from its open door, and when Arthur poked his head around, he saw half a dozen people sipping champagne.
Loud enough to cut over their chatter, Arthur said, “So what’s a big hotshot like you doing in a little place like this?”
“Arthur! Good to see you, all grown up! This is the warm-up. Like a preview. Do a few small gigs in places with good audiences to iron out the rough spots in preparation for the big tour at the end of the year.”
They were caught up in a minute. Arthur refused the bubbly, but asked a small favour of Harry, with which he was happy to oblige. Then Arthur was out of there. Two minutes, like he’d promised.
Only when Arthur got back to where he’d left him, Merlin was gone.
Merlin didn’t really believe that Arthur had abandoned him. He only felt abandoned. He also felt as if he deserved it. Arthur had, once again, swept in with a spectacular gesture and Merlin had rejected it. Perhaps Arthur had seen it as a rejection of him.
Merlin wouldn’t believe that, no matter what that horrid voice in his head kept saying. Arthur had said two minutes and Merlin had to believe him.
Merlin sidled back into the foyer, intending to take a seat where Arthur would see him upon his return. However, the same blood-curdling voice that had whispered into his ear, ‘pillow-biter’, amongst other viler things, sounded from the direction of the bar.
“Taxi will be here in five minutes. Drink up, lads.”
Merlin whipped his head around in time to see movement in the bar area: the flash of a shirt, a watch. The men from earlier were about to leave and their exit was going to take them directly past Merlin.
He panicked. Leaping to his feet, Merlin looked for a place to hide.
The only places still lit were the foyer and the bar; The Griffin was preparing to close for the night. Momentarily, Merlin considered making his way back in the direction of the green room, but he didn’t know where the light switch was nor what direction Arthur had gone once he was through the doors at the end of the corridor.
In the opposite direction to the bar, a small area for children, sectioned off by bookcases looked like the only place Merlin could reach in time. He checked again, and seeing the men hadn’t yet left the bar, Merlin slipped behind the bookcase, taking one of the small seats where he could wait for Arthur unseen.
Merlin was only just in time. He watched, holding his breath as the group, six of them, swaggered out of the bar. There was a heart-stopping moment where Merlin was sure one of them saw him, his eyes slicing through the space between two books. Merlin looked away, convinced the whites of his eyes would reflect the lights in the foyer and mark him out like a target.
The noise reached a dreadful crescendo above the pounding of his frantic heartbeat, but then it subsided. They had left the building, though they weren’t gone. Their raucous tones drifted in and out of earshot from outside.
Merlin dared to check his phone. Arthur had been gone five minutes. He’d promised two.
There was probably a party going on in the green room. Harley and his crew would be drinking and laughing, everyone would be having a whale of a time. Why would Arthur hurry back?
With a mounting feeling of sick dread, Merlin envisaged The Griffin closing and him having to go outside, where the dickheads were, to call his own taxi.
Arthur’s going to come back for me. The men outside will be gone in a minute. Everything will be fine.
Merlin checked his phone again. Six minutes. That felt like six hours. He closed his eyes, hugged his knees and decided he would give Arthur until the men outside were gone.
He began counting the agonising seconds away—one, two, three … twenty four—when a light came on. Merlin blinked and rubbed his eyes, in time to see Arthur belting out of the main doors before he could get to him. In his haste, Arthur had dropped … Merlin stood up to get a better look. Arthur had dropped his programme.
The window in the children’s area looked out onto a paved courtyard containing benches and an assortment of sculptures. Like he was being pulled by an invisible cord, Merlin scrambled over giant cushions and boxes of books, to see...
He looked on in horror. Framed under lamplight, his back to Merlin, Arthur stood stock still, faced off with the gang of six. His body was tense, like a bow, and he bounced from one foot to the other like he was ready to pounce should any one of them dare to challenge him.
“Did your boyfriend run out on you?” one of the gang sing-songed.
Arthur’s reply was too quiet for Merlin to hear.
Merlin prayed for the taxis to turn up, or at least for some other patrons of The Griffin to leave the building. Then again, Merlin recalled with a shudder how the couple behind the gang in the café, who must have seen and heard everything, had pushed by him as eagerly as they had. People didn’t like to get involved.
That’s right, Merlin, you just hide here and leave Arthur to defend your honour all by himself. You’re a coward. Always have been, always will be. But that’s all right. Better to be a coward than to risk getting hurt.
If Merlin didn’t go out there now, if he waited until the gang were gone, he would never be able to shrug off the shame. If that voice in his head came a-calling, the one that kept saying he didn’t deserve Arthur, he’d be unable to silence it, to face it and say, ‘you’re wrong’.
Legs shaking, Merlin moved through thick air out of the children’s section, towards the exit doors. He idly noticed the programme Arthur had dropped, still on the floor, but he didn’t stop to pick it up.
Two of the men outside had cigarettes and were stubbing them out under their shoes. It looked like they were getting ready to move. It felt like something was about to happen.
Merlin’s blood thundered in his ears so loudly he didn’t hear his own voice when he pushed open the exit door and croaked, “Arthur. I’m here.”
Arthur spun around and Merlin couldn’t believe the look in his eyes. He was terrified. That frightened Merlin more than the stupid dicks strutting about, posturing like a pack of hungry animals.
Merlin ignored the catcalls and their disgusting gestures and held out his hand. Arthur reached out and took it, letting Merlin pull him back into The Griffin’s foyer. Then he wrapped his arms around Arthur, firmly around his waist and pressed his face into Arthur’s neck. He couldn’t look at him. If he did, he might cry.
Arthur held Merlin around his shoulders, too tightly, as he said, “Are you all right? I shouldn’t have left you. I’m sorry. Please give me another chance.”
“I’m fine. They’re going now. Look.”
The gang’s taxis had arrived.
Still, Arthur didn’t let Merlin go, not entirely. He moved one arm, tugged at Merlin’s hair then touched his neck and his face. He looked stricken. Merlin felt the tremble in his hand, in his breath.
“I’m fine,” Merlin said again, and kissed Arthur on the lips, as if kisses could take the terror away.
Perhaps they could. Arthur sucked in a deep breath and released Merlin. He bent down, and picked up the programme he’d dropped minutes before.
“I got you this,” he said and he seemed shy, almost embarrassed.
Merlin took the programme, and only now noticed the felt-tipped scrawl over Harley Barclay’s photograph: Dear Merlin, Hope you enjoyed the evening, Harley Barclay xxx
“You got me his autograph?”
It was stating the obvious, but Merlin was at a loss for any other words.
“I know. It’s silly. I don’t know why people bother, either.”
“No! It’s brilliant… Thanks. You’ve really… all this stuff, Arthur. You… you’re…”
Merlin didn’t know what to else to say. It didn’t matter because Arthur kissed him.
Merlin could have stayed there, like that, in Arthur’s arms, lips locked. Except someone coughed, close by, and one of the staff said, “We’re about to close.”
They stepped out into the indigo night, hand in hand, and Arthur said, “Can I take you home?”
Merlin replied, certain and strong, “Yes.”
After he led Arthur up to his bedsit, Merlin put on the small spotlight over the kitchenette, drew the curtains and studiously concentrated on slowing his racing heart. The terror from earlier had been replaced by a new excitement; Merlin was having a running commentary with his inner self as to how to deal with it, while meanwhile trying to maintain a reasonable exterior.
“I expect you could do with a drink,” Merlin said, reaching for the wineglasses he’d bought especially.
Arthur had slumped down in the armchair, his head resting on the back. When he spoke, with his head lolled on one side, his voice was weary.
Merlin nodded, instantly forgetting his anxieties, filled a tumbler and took it to Arthur in the hopes it would revive him. Arthur’s fingers brushed over Merlin’s and he smiled before he took a slow sip. When he was done, Merlin took the glass and set it on the low table at its side, then he knelt down, as naturally as if he did this thing all the time, slid his arms around Arthur’s waist and placed his head in his lap.
Arthur sighed, but it was a contented noise. He put his hands first on Merlin’s back, rubbing circles over his shirt, then (when Merlin made a noise that might embarrassingly be called purring) he combed his fingers through Merlin’s hair.
Merlin’s worries were soothed away. The curtain swished lazily against the open window, in the distance a baby’s cries were hushed and Arthur’s fingers gradually slowed and stilled.
About the time Merlin’s knees started going numb, Arthur jerked and stirred.
“You fell asleep,” Merlin said. Sometimes his powers of observation were as good as his conversation.
“God, I’m sorry.” Arthur looked dazed, as he blinked and stretched. “I should go.”
Merlin found his courage in the tender blue of Arthur’s eyes, in the warmth of his thighs beneath his arms and the soft curl of his smile. Merlin’s feelings, for the most part, up to this moment had been the product of fantasy and infatuation. What he felt now was the stirring of something much more magical. Love. And strangely, that didn’t frighten him at all.
“You could stay. It’s a small bed but I don’t take up much room.”
Arthur frowned and his eyes, they shone with breath-stealing fondness. “Merlin…”
“We don’t have to do anything. In fact, I’d sort of prefer it if we don’t. Not yet. I mean, I want to, eventually, but we—”
Arthur put his fingertips to Merlin’s lips. “That was what I was hoping you’d say. I just didn’t like to presume.”
And like that, the deal was sealed, with a kiss to Arthur’s knuckle.
Arthur didn’t get much sleep, his first night in Merlin’s bed. He didn’t mind. Merlin spooned around Arthur’s back, his steady breath tickled the back of his neck and he talked more in his sleep than he did when he was awake.
The morning involved a series of tangling and untangling of limbs, lazy kisses and bacon sandwiches. Arthur didn’t want to leave. Merlin didn’t want him to go. In the end, Arthur prised himself away at lunchtime, only to return that evening with a Chinese takeaway.
They ate from their laps, Arthur on the armchair, Merlin perched on the end of the bed. They drank shandy and left the dishes in the sink.
“So, uh, do you want a coffee or tea?” Merlin offered, shoving his hands in the back pockets of his jeans.
“Nope.” Arthur eyed Merlin top to bottom with a long, lingering look. He had a thirst but not for a hot beverage. A rather hot librarian, on the other hand…
Merlin took his hands out of his pockets, busied himself with the corner of the tea towel then rearranged the plates in the sink before finally saying, “Okay. Well, I don’t have anything for dessert.”
“Oh, I think you do,” Arthur said. It was pure wickedness watching Merlin squirm, but more delicious for Arthur to have him in his arms. “Come here.”
He held out his hand from where he sat, as if he’d claimed the armchair as his throne. And like a subject obeying his king, Merlin did as he was bidden, with his head dipped not in deference but in shyness.
Arthur settled him on his lap, laced their fingers together and asked, very sweetly, if he might have a kiss.
He’d had his suspicions, that Merlin didn’t have much experience. He didn’t want to push him or rush him, but he was also aware that perhaps Merlin needed him to take the lead.
The pressure to get it right had been with Arthur this last week and had come to a head not twenty four hours ago. His charming response after a near gay-bashing, had been to fall asleep. A nap this afternoon ensured there would not be a repeat this evening. Arthur was alert, and ready for anything.
The biggest surprise (the good sort, the best sort) was that Merlin kissed with an ardour and confidence that belied his shyness. He held Arthur firmly, and opened up to let him in. The curl of his fingers over Arthur’s collar, the promise of skin on skin, made Arthur swell. Merlin must have felt it against his thigh.
There was no doubt of that when, seconds later, he moved his hand down, feeling Arthur’s chest, his stomach and then, after a pause, the rigid line of his cock.
Arthur gasped as Merlin squeezed and stroked over the denim of his jeans. He also took it as permission to extend his over-the-clothes exploration from Merlin’s torso to his crotch. The reward—which struck like lightning through his veins—was Merlin’s gasp and murmur of, “The bed.”
They shed their tops, pulled their zips and, chest to chest, bared erection to bared erection, Merlin and Arthur rubbed and pressed together, first standing then prone upon the bed. Neither of them lasted, and Arthur didn’t much care. When Merlin came, with his eyes wide open, looking at Arthur in wonder and surprise, it was like all the hidden parts of him were revealed. Arthur had seen the sun and stars and moon, simultaneously, and he was in part blinded, in part awed.
Afterwards, they nuzzled in Merlin’s bed, entwined beneath the covers something like the night before. This time, however, when Merlin turned off the light he pulled back the curtain to reveal the clear night sky. He settled back, his head on Arthur’s shoulder, teasing his fingers through the soft hair that covered Arthur’s chest. Not long after that, Merlin began to talk, slow and soft but without hesitation.
“The first time I noticed you was not long after you started at the university. You were with that tall, sandy haired guy with the scruff.”
“Yes.” Merlin smiled: Arthur could feel the pull of his face on his skin and in the way his voice lifted. As if the memory made him happy. “You were holding a piece of paper, a book list or a reading list I suppose, and your face was all screwed up in concentration.”
“That must have looked attractive,” Arthur huffed.
“I thought you were beautiful. I had no idea, not that time, how it was nothing compared to your smile.” This, Merlin said more seriously, almost sadly.
It dawned on Arthur then, “That was almost three years ago. So last week, you already knew who I was?”
“Yes. When you asked me to check in your books I almost had a heart attack.”
Merlin laughed, in that shy way he did; buried his face in Arthur’s neck even though Arthur couldn’t see his face. And then, the revelation hit Arthur. When it came to Merlin, every word counted. After all, he didn’t say much, although Arthur got the feeling that as they got to know each other better that would change. But more than the things Merlin did say, were the things he didn’t.
Listen carefully, Arthur. Think about what he said. Think about what he didn’t say. Think about what that means.
Arthur wouldn’t have Merlin shy or embarrassed about his feelings, especially about him. So, Merlin had liked him a while. He’d been nervous as hell, because his crush had spoken to him. And yet, despite all that, he’d handled himself. He might think he hadn’t but he’d be wrong. Arthur had come away from that night in the library feeling like Merlin was the one with the upper hand.
“Since we’re talking about how much we like each other, you should know, I was all ready to bite some heads off last Friday in the library. Then you did that smile thing you do, with your eyes.”
Merlin pushed up and Arthur could see his face lit like alabaster in moonlight. “Like this?”
“That’s the one. Totally hooked me.”
They kissed again, different from the few times before: longer and less hurried. Slow burning caresses that left Arthur with a warmth in his chest he now believed with all his heart might never cool. Not so long as he lived.
Later, when Arthur was on the cusp of drowsing, Merlin asked, “When did you first notice me?”
A simple question, maybe. The answer not so simple when the person in love with you had been in love with you for a long time; for longer than you’d known they existed.
Arthur wouldn’t lie—he couldn’t and didn’t want to. But he knew that this was important to Merlin. It was a good thing his honest answer wasn’t such a bad one. Arthur was pretty sure of it.
“I first noticed you about a year ago, maybe a bit longer. I mean, not really noticed. Not like I did last week. I didn’t like going in the library and I suppose, while I was in there, I got into this mood—like I wasn’t going to like anything about it. It’s hard to notice gorgeous librarians when you’ve convinced yourself you’ll find nothing you like in there. And,” Arthur paused, “you did have a habit of keeping that pretty face hidden from view.”
Merlin squeezed Arthur tight and kissed his neck. He was being positively chatty and Arthur loved it, lying in the moonlight, listening to Merlin’s ramble. Which was lucky, because Merlin continued, “I used to think the stars were the only thing that lasted forever. Then, one night, when I was a kid, my mum and I were out camping up in the hills and it was clear, the clearest night I’d ever seen. You could see the Milky Way spanning across the sky. And that was the first time I saw a shooting star. It streaked for a few seconds then it was gone, burned out to nothing. Nothing lasts forever, not even the stars.”
“It sounds like that makes you sad.”
“It does. I’m not a pessimist, not all the time, but sometimes I can’t stop myself. I just see things, notice things. Sometimes really good things, that should make me happy, just make me sad.”
“There’s no single or right way to feel about stuff, Merlin.You can see the sadness in a shooting star, or you can see the beauty. You can say that part of what makes something beautiful is the very transient nature of that beauty. Life can’t be one long orgasm. That would be exhausting.”
“And just when I thought I’d be able to tell people I was with you primarily for your brilliant mind…”
They laughed, tussled and kissed, before they fell asleep. Arthur awoke in the middle of the night to see Merlin, awake, his eyes wide open. The light from the full moon cast soft grey shadows across his face.
Arthur shifted, onto his side and pressed his nose to Merlin’s warm skin, breathing him in. “Star-gazing again?”
“No,” Merlin said. “I was looking at you.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Merlin smiled then and touched Arthur’s face, kissed the tip of his nose.
Arthur tucked the duvet around them and waited for Merlin to fall asleep, before he closed his eyes for the last time that night and drifted off himself.