The line, it inks across the freshly fallen snow,
Where only those embracing coldness would go
It whistles and it whispers, and sometimes it howls,
It sings to me sweetly from the trees and in vowels
-- "Pulling On A Line" Great Lake Swimmers
"I thought you hated fishing."
Arthur sighs. He hadn't planned on telling anyone about his vacation plans, let alone Morgana. But after dealing with a long and lonely two hour drive, he couldn't ignore his sister's calls any longer. "It's ice fishing. There's a difference."
"You hate fishing and winter," Morgana says, her voice sounding tinny over the mobile connection the farther Arthur heads into the outskirts of Ontario. "I can't see how this won't end without you coming back with a case of hypothermia or frostbite."
"Be careful, Morgana," Arthur says, smiling softly to himself. "Someone might overhear and might think you actually care about me."
Morgana snorts. "Me? Never. Personally, I hope you're mauled by bears."
Arthur laughs, and god, it feels nice to do that again. Heaven knows he hasn't had a reason to lately.
The moment is burst a second later when Morgana speaks again, her tone lowered and uncharacteristically apologetic. "Seriously though, are you going to be okay by yourself? The memorial service was only a few weeks ago, and I... Well, Uther and I never got along, but I know how much he meant to you."
Luckily, there's a shoulder on the side of the road so Arthur can pull over quickly before he causes an accident. He grips the steering wheel and closes his eyes, inhaling deeply. He tells himself he's not going to get emotional, not when the whole point of this trip was to get away from the world of last will and testament readings for a man Arthur once thought invincible.
"...Yeah, I'm here," Arthur says, a bit shaky. "Don't worry, Morgana, I just need to be by myself for a bit, eh?"
Morgana clucks her tongue in disapproval, and Arthur wonders when she's become such a mother hen. She's probably been spending too much time around Gwen. "Alright, but just call me when you arrive. Do you know how much farther do you have to go, or have you gotten yourself completely lost out there?"
"Actually, my turn should be coming up shortly," Arthur says, ignoring the comment against his sense of direction as he pulls back onto the road. He follows the directions the travel company gave him, going down a single lane gravel road until he arrives at what he believes to be his destination. The cottage looks just like the one in the brochure: small, with only one room, but enough for a single person to stay comfortably. It’s promised to be stocked with all the modern necessities without losing its rustic charm. In the background is Albion Lake, its surface a solid sheet of pure white ice, marred only by a series of ice fishing huts. Arthur's breath is taken away by the idyllic beauty of the scene before him.
The only problem is, the place already seems to be occupied.
Arthur double checks to make sure that, yes, he indeed has the address written down correctly. It's there, plain to see on his rental paperwork, along with the dates he's supposed to be staying. So he knows he hasn't made a mistake, yet the cottage's windows are aglow with the light, smoke puffing out of its miniscule chimney. There's a car parked in front, a beat up clunker that's seen better days, its hatchback open with various pieces of luggage laying on the ground around it.
"...Morgana, I'm here, but I have to go," Arthur says. He ignores her protests and hangs up just as the lanky figure of a man comes outside, shuffling down the path towards the car.
Arthur parks his own car and hops out, slamming the door behind him. "What do you think you're doing?" he shouts. "This is private property, and you're trespassing, you know!"
The man freezes, and Arthur gets a chance to actually look him over. He looks young, accentuated by the fact that he's wearing ripped-up skinny jeans and a dingy t-shirt over what looks like thermal underwear. There's a mop of messy black hair upon his head, curling over the tops of his ears, a stark contrast against his pale skin. Shock fills his deep blue eyes until he blinks, and then offers Arthur a tentative grin. "Erm, I'm sorry, but I think you might be at the wrong place there, buddy."
Great, Arthur is dealing with an idiot. He stomps back to his car, grabbing the paperwork and shoving it into the stranger's face. "Look, I've rented this cottage for the next two weeks. You can see this is the right address, and the date the agreement starts is today. Do you believe me now, or do I need to direct you towards a calendar as well?"
The man frowns and reaches into his back pocket--Arthur pointedly ignores how tight those jeans are--and pulls out a wrinkled piece of paper of his own. "But I was supposed to have this place for two weeks to shoot my documentary footage."
"Give me that," Arthur says, snatching the paper out the man's hands. He scans the lines of text and finds the man's telling the truth. They both have documentation showing they're renting the same place, at the same time, even from the same travel agency. It looks like they even had the same travel agent, the name "Killian Garrah" scribbled at the bottom, followed by the job title of "Head Agent, 'Two Sides' Travel Co."
Arthur groans. It seems what is supposed to be his relaxing vacation is doomed from the start. He whips out his phone and dials the agency, cursing when he hears a recorded message pleasantly informing him that the office is closed for the long holiday weekend. Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose and counts to ten under his breath, all while the man looks on, amused.
"...Okay, listen--" Arthur looks over the paperwork until he finds the name "Emerson, Merlin" in the "Renter" box. "--Merlin, there's obviously been some sort of mix-up. I'm sure if you call them and explain what's happened, they can schedule you for another week and you can come back another time."
"Why can't you come back another time?"
Arthur stares in disbelief. "...Excuse me?"
Merlin shrugs, idly scratching his arm. "It's just that, most of my stuff is unloaded already, and my director is counting on me to get this footage. Seems to me it'd be a lot easier for you to come back later if you think about it."
"I--I--" Arthur splutters. Okay, so maybe Merlin has a point, but still. "I didn't take two weeks off my busy schedule and drive out here just to turn back around again! Besides, are you even old enough to be out here by yourself? You look like you're still in high school."
"I'm twenty-two, thanks," Merlin says sardonically, glaring at Arthur. "And if this going to be such a big deal, why don't we just both stay, eh? The place is big enough for the two of us."
"What? If you think that I'm going share this cottage with you, then--"
"Do whatever you want," Merlin says, grabbing one of his suitcases and heading back inside. "But I'm staying."
For a brief moment, Arthur actually contemplates the idea of leaving. The nearest town is only a couple kilometers away, and he's sure if he flashed enough money, he'd have no problem getting a reservation at one of the inns there. He could salvage his vacation as best as he could, maybe spend the time off by visiting the privately owned shops and sampling the locals' idea of cuisine.
But Arthur detests the idea of shopping, thinks dining out alone screams "pathetic," and most importantly, doesn't give up that easily.
"Damn it," he mutters, pulling his luggage out of his vehicle. This surely is going to be the longest two weeks of his life.
"How come you get the bed?"
"Because, Merlin," Arthur grits out as he unpacks his clothes into the dresser provided, "I didn’t pay as much as I did, just to sleep on a lumpy hide-a-bed. And before you ask, no, I will not share the regular bed with you."
A blush spreads across Merlin's cheeks. "I wasn't going to say that! Just it's not fair that I've paid just as much as you have, yet I'm the one getting stuck with the sofa."
"You said your production company was paying for your trip, didn't you?" Arthur asks, barely managing to squeeze the drawer shut. There's only one dresser between them, and Merlin has taken up three drawers already with his collection of eye-blinding plaid shirts and faded denim jeans. "So technically, you're not paying anything."
"Erm, I guess that's true." Merlin fidgets, chewing on his bottom lip. "Maybe we can take turns? Or flip a coin?"
Arthur sighs. "Look, we can discuss this later, eh? Shouldn't you be out filming geese or something?"
"I told you, it's the Snowy Owl," Merlin says, growing animated, his hands gesturing about wildly. "I wanted to film the Common Goldeneye, but around this time of the year, they're closer to the coast and--"
"The point is," Arthur says, effectively cutting Merlin off before he rambles more about the migratory patterns of birds, "that just because we're sharing a cottage together doesn't mean we actually have to talk with one another."
It isn't until the words are completely out of Arthur's mouth that he realizes how harsh they sound. He goes to take them back, but is stunned silent by the hurt look upon Merlin's face.
"...Oh," Merlin says, turning his back on Arthur. "I guess I'll leave you alone then."
Arthur couldn't feel any worse if he kicked a puppy. Down a flight of stairs. Into a burning building. "Merlin, wait."
"I'm..." Arthur starts to say, and then finds he can't get an apology out. It's not his fault Merlin's apparently sensitive, it's not.
"...You can take the bed tonight," he grumbles out instead.
Merlin smiles brightly, causing the corners of his eyes to crinkle up. "Thanks Arthur. I'll make us dinner then, eh?"
"Dinner sounds great," Arthur says, and is surprised to find that he means it.
Apparently, Merlin's idea of making dinner is to heat up a can of baked beans. Which he promptly manages to burn.
"Let me guess: you live off delivery and tv dinners, don't you?" Arthur asks, scraping the blackened remains out of the saucepan and into the trash.
"I said I was sorry, alright?" Merlin replies glumly, leaning against the kitchenette counter. "I'm not used to a gas stove. I've got an electric one back home."
"Good," Arthur says, "because I shudder to think of you being allowed near open flames."
Merlin rolls his eyes. "Ha ha, very funny. At least rest of the food turned out okay."
"Yeah, that's because, if you remember, I’m the one who made it." Arthur puts the pan in the sink and fills it with soapy water to soak overnight. "You can do the dishes tomorrow, since I had to come to the rescue and cook us something actually edible to eat."
"My hero," Merlin says sarcastically, complete with a mock swoon. "Whatever would I do without you?"
"The idea of you being alone to your own devices is terrifying," Arthur says, going over to the fireplace to stoke the flames and add another log. "I can't believe your production company sent you out here by yourself."
"I can take care of myself, you know." Merlin says, sprawling out on the couch, and Arthur tries not to stare at the sliver of skin that peeks out when his shirt shifts up.
"Somehow I doubt that," Arthur says, shoving Merlin to the side to make room on the couch. Arthur's quickly learned two things about Merlin in the short timespan they've spent together: one, he appears to be an extremely tactile person, even with strangers, and two, his body always seems to be in a constant state of freezing, and will instinctively zero in on the closest source of heat. As soon as Arthur sits down, he immediately has Merlin's feet tucked underneath his legs. Funny enough, he doesn't really mind. "But really, aren't there usually crews of people working on these type of things?"
"I'm just doing some preliminary research right now, stock footage, that sort of thing," Merlin says, waving his hand nonchalantly. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"How come you're on vacation by yourself? And why here, of all places?" Merlin pokes under Arthur's ribs using his toes. Which is kind of disgusting actually, but also slightly endearing. "I kind of pegged you as a warm, sunny beaches kind of guy."
Arthur struggles to swallow around the lump that's suddenly lodged in his throat. "My uh... my father passed away recently."
"Oh." Merlin sits upright and places a hand on Arthur’s knee. "I'm sorry."
While he knows they mean well, Arthur is tired of people apologizing for something that isn't their fault. "He was a complete workaholic," he murmurs. "He had a major heart attack while working late one night at the office, and was dead from cardiac arrest before the paramedics even got there. I was away at a three day conference in Vancouver at the time, and..." He pauses, his hands balling into fists on top of his thighs. "We said we always were going to go on one of these trips when we had the time, and I guess this is just my way of...letting go."
The silence that follows is stifling. Arthur wonders why he's told someone he's just met more than he's told his friends and family in the past couple of weeks, and he clears his throat. "...So," he says, quickly wiping his eyes, "you mentioned something earlier about wanting to film a different bird, right? Goldeneye, like the movie?"
It's a horribly awkward attempt to change the subject, but thankfully Merlin doesn't call him out on it. "Not exactly," he says, chuckling. "But I'm guessing that you're a James Bond fan, eh?"
"Spies, cars, gadgets, and big explosions," Arthur says with a shrug. "What's not to like?"
"Hmm, I admit, I think Pierce Brosnan was pretty hot in that movie," Merlin says, reclining against the cushions. "But if I had to pick the sexiest Bond, it has to be Sean Connery, hands down."
Arthur stiffens. He's had an inkling about Merlin since they first met, but didn't expect it to be confirmed so readily. Merlin must have felt him tense, because he suddenly says, "Oh my god, sorry! Just, please don't tell me I'm bunking with a homophobe for the next two weeks, because that would seriously be just my luck."
"No, not at all," Arthur chokes out. The memory of him arguing with his father springs to mind, about how Arthur's a thirty-seven year old bachelor not because he hasn't found the right woman to settle down with yet, but because he still has one foot firmly in the closet. In the end, Arthur had stormed off to his conference, and that was the last conversation he ever had with his father; by the time he returned, Uther was already gone. "I mean, I'm..."
"Hey, it's okay," Merlin says, squeezing Arthur's shoulder as he stands up. "You don't have to explain anything if you’re not comfortable about it. As long as you're not spitting in my Shreddies in the morning because of who I choose to be with is all that matters to me. ...Anyway, I should get some sleep. I got a long day ahead of me tomorrow, and you probably have to wake up early yourself. Gotta catch those fish off-guard, eh?"
"Yeah," Arthur says, staring at the flickering flames of the fire. "...Good night, Merlin."
Merlin nods, stretching his arms above his head as he yawns. "Night Arthur. Sleep well."
And somehow Arthur manages to do just that. Lumpy hide-a-bed and all.
It turns out Morgana was right. Arthur hates ice fishing.
He doesn't get why sitting on a frozen lake, huddled around a hole drilled into the ice, is supposed to be fun and exciting. Maybe he would be having a better time if he actually caught something, but so far he hasn't had a single nibble and it's been hours. It’s a typical cold and blustery Canadian winter day, and he has to wriggle his toes his boots and flex his fingers every now and then so he doesn't lose feeling in them.
He doesn't understand what he's doing wrong. When he purchased all his fishing gear, he spared no expense. All of his equipment is brand new and top of the line, and he even purchased one of those fish radar detectors. The damn thing beeps and blares red at him time and time again, so he knows the fish are down there. It’s just that he’s being outsmarted by something whose brain is the size of a pea, and it's infuriating.
"Knock knock." Merlin pokes his head inside the temporary shelter Arthur has set up. His cheeks are flushed pink from the cold, and a bright red knitted toque is pulled down over his ears. "How's it going?"
"Terrible," Arthur says, leaning back against his folding chair, arms crossed over his chest. "So far I haven't--Wait, are you recording this?"
The camera perched on Merlin's shoulder is huge, and looks like it weighs almost as much as he does. "I thought you might want to document your first ice fishing trip," he says cheerfully. "To capture the moment, eh?"
Arthur groans, putting a hand in front of the camera lens. "Don't waste your film on this, it's just a bunch of nothing. I've been sitting out here forever and haven’t caught anything yet."
"Are you thirsty?" Merlin asks, shifting the camera off his shoulder so he can dig through his backpack. He pulls out a Thermos canister, shaking it once before handing it over. "There’s not much left, but I made hot chocolate earlier if you want any?"
"You used the stove without catching anything on fire? I’m impressed," Arthur says, unscrewing the cap. He takes a swig and is surprised to find that it’s actually pretty good. Much better than the powdered mix stuff he uses whenever he’s in the mood for something sweet. "Did you make this from scratch?"
Merlin nods, beaming. "With real chocolate and everything. I went into town and picked up bags of milk and a couple of chocolate bars this morning."
"Not too bad," Arthur says, taking another sip before handing it back over. "I guess you’re not totally useless when it comes to cooking."
Merlin frowns and snatches the Thermos away, stuffing it back into his bag. "It wouldn’t kill you to say ‘thank you,’ you know."
"Probably not," Arthur says with a smug grin. "But why chance it?"
"Ass," Merlin grumbles as he crouches next to the hole in the ice. He examines the fishing pole Arthur has set up, testing the strength of the rod before he begins to rapidly jerk on the line.
"What are you doing?" Arthur protests, jumping to his feet. "You’re going to scare all the fish away!"
"Nah, I’m getting their attention," Merlin says, explaining as he tests the tension in the line. "Fish are dumb, but not so much that they’ll just bite on anything that you throw in their faces. You got to make the bait dance for them so they realize it’s something they want to try and eat."
Arthur watches Merlin work, slightly fascinated. "I take it you’ve done this before?"
"My dad and I used to go fishing like this all the time when I was kid," Merlin says, a wistful smile on his face. "We didn’t have any shelters like this though, and definitely not one of those fancy fish detectors."
"Must be nice," Arthur says, his tone sour. "To have someone who could teach you this sort of thing, I mean."
Merlin shrugs. "It was, until he left my mom and me when I was ten. I haven’t heard from him since."
Shit. Arthur should just keep his mouth shut to save himself from further embarrassment. "...Merlin, I’m--"
"It’s fine," Merlin says, cutting Arthur off before he can bungle through an apology. "Oop! Here, I think I got one hooked for you! Go ahead and reel ‘er in!"
"What, already?" Arthur exclaims. He takes the fishing pole into his hands and pulls back on it, reeling the line in as fast as he can. A few seconds later, a fish pops out of the hole, spraying icy water everywhere as it wriggles about.
"Good job! It’s a Walleye I think," Merlin announces proudly, back behind his camera. "It looks a bit small, but I think it's big enough for you to keep. Want me to unhook it for you?"
Arthur rolls his eyes, not willing to admit how excited he is now that he's finally caught something. "I think I can manage it on my own, Merlin."
He almost gets it too. But just as he finishes freeing the fish, it slips off his lap, flopping across the ice and outside the shelter. "Shit!"
"I got it!" Merlin shouts, lunging for the fish at the same time Arthur does. They collide instantly, falling down on top of one another.
"Damn it Merlin!' Arthur yells, winded from having Merlin's elbow jabbed into his solar plexus. "I could've had it!"
"Sorry!" Merlin tries to get up, but ends up accidentally kneeing Arthur in the groin. Arthur howls in pain, clutching at his injured pride as he bellows, "Merlin!"
"I’m sorry!" Merlin says again, scrambling up to his feet without causing Arthur any more bodily harm. "I didn't mean to--Oh, look, there it is!"
Arthur blinks the tears out his eyes and looks in the direction that Merlin is pointing. His fish is only about a meter away, still flopping wildly on the ice. But just as he goes to reach for it, there's a loud hoot, followed by a blur of white swooping down, and suddenly Arthur's fish is snatched up in the talons of an owl to be carried off, far, far away.
"...Oh my god," Merlin says, "I'm so glad I had my camera rolling for that."
Arthur responds by pulling Merlin back down onto the ice and throwing snow in his face.
"You're joking, right?" Arthur asks around a mouthful of fried fish. Even after the kerfuffle with the first one, he had managed to catch enough afterwards to make a somewhat decent dinner. "How can you hate hockey?"
"I don't hate it, I just..." Merlin trails off, shrugging as he pops a fry into his mouth. "...I don't get into as much as others, I guess."
"What's your favorite team then?"
"Erm." Merlin fidgets for a bit, tilting his head to the side thoughtfully. "...Toronto?"
Arthur sniggers into his bottle of beer. "Really? Of all teams, you're going to pick one that hasn't won in forever? That's it, let's just go down the list: you don't care about hockey, can't stand the taste of poutine--"
"Hey, if you ate it all the time as a kid, you'd grow sick of it too!" Merlin protests. "The only time I have it is when I visit my mom and I don’t have the heart to tell her that I don’t like it any more."
"--and," Arthur continues, counting off his fingers, "and you’re allergic to maple syrup. Face it, Merlin, you might as well turn over your citizenship now and move across the border."
Merlin wrinkles his nose. "I'll pass. I’d go crazy every time someone commented about how I say 'sorry' or 'about.' You know, last time I visited the States, I even had this lady ask me who was watching my pet moose back home while I was away?"
Arthur chokes, coughing and spluttering up his drink. "You're not serious!"
"Oh yeah, for sure." Merlin chuckles, shaking his head. "You know what I don't get though? The joke about us being their country's hat or whatever. Why can't it be the other way around, like they're supposed to be our underwear?"
Arthur throws back his head and laughs. "You're right! It's even in the shape of it too! What would Central and South America be then?"
"That's obvious," Merlin says, his sides shaking with laughter. "They make one mangled leg, and all together we're a limping, hat-wearing freak who likes to wear his underwear up to his chin."
"There is something seriously wrong with how your mind works," Arthur says, even as he takes in gulps of air from laughing so hard. "I don't even want to know how much thought you've put into this."
"Probably too much," Merlin admits as he begins to gather up his empty dishes. "But my ideas on what Europe and Asia look like will have to wait until some other time. I have to review the footage from today and write a basic script for when they hire someone to do the voiceover."
"You know, I always wondered about that," Arthur says, filling the tiny kitchenette sink with hot water from the tap. Even though he's made most of their meals, he's fallen into a pattern of washing the dishes side by side with Merlin. Arthur scrubs and rinses the plates while Merlin dries them off with a tea towel before putting them away in the nearby cupboard. "I thought the people hosting those things were actually there, watching as it happened."
"Sometimes they are, especially if you see their faces on screen." Merlin says. "But most of the time, the production companies hire someone long after the filming is done, have them record their lines in a studio, and then the editors will add them in later."
"Great," Arthur says, bumping shoulders with Merlin playfully. "Way to ruin the magic of Hollywood for me forever, Merlin."
Merlin lets out a snort. "More like the magic of the CBC. This isn't going to be another 'March of the Penguins' or anything like that." He pauses, and then nudges Arthur back. "But hey! On the plus side, at least you won't have Morgan Freeman narrating how you were bested from your first catch by an owl."
"If you use that footage, I swear to god--"
"Calm down, Arthur, I won't let people know it's you," Merlin says, ducking out of the way when Arthur tries to swat him with the tea towel. He then jumps over the back of the couch, trying to shield himself using a cushion. "Though it would be kind of funny if people narrated your life, wouldn't it? 'Here, we see the mighty Arthur Penn. While the Penn is usually considered an handsome and intelligent creature, he can be aggressive and territorial at times.'"
Arthur feels his cheeks heat when he hears Merlin call him 'handsome' and 'intelligent.' 'You should do the voiceover," he blurts out.
"What, me?" Merlin squawks, flailing so hard he falls off the couch. "Ow!"
"Yes, you idiot," Arthur says, rolling his eyes at Merlin's lack of balance. He tugs on Merlin's hand and brings him back to his feet. "You have a nice voice. I think you'd be good at it."
"I-I don't know about that," Merlin says, flustered, the tips of ears turning a bright pink. Arthur stares, resisting the sudden urge to trace the curve of Merlin's ear with his finger, followed by his mouth and tongue, until he would nibble his way down Merlin's jawline.
Whoah, where the hell did that thought come from? Yes, Arthur has to admit Merlin is attractive, in an awkward and unorthodox sort of way. And it's only been two days, yet they've already managed to click together better than anyone Arthur has ever met. But Arthur didn't come out here looking for companionship.
He tells himself this, but he has yet to let go of Merlin's hand. Instead, his thumb rubs itself over Merlin's knuckles, bringing warmth to fingers that are still freezing, even though they’re inside the well-heated cottage. Merlin gasps softly at the touch, and Arthur can see his pupils grow wider. Instinctively Arthur leans forward, focusing on Merlin's pink lips, and...
Panic and doubt erupt in his chest, and Arthur jerks his head back, immediately pulling away. "I...I should let you get to work," he says, rushed and unable to look Merlin in the eye. "I'll see you in the morning."
But Arthur ignores Merlin's protest, pushing him aside while heading to the washroom. Arthur quickly locks the door behind him before bracing himself against it, holding his head in his hands.
What is wrong with him? He was nearly about to kiss Merlin, for god's sake! It's not that there's something wrong with Merlin, it's just that, well, they barely know each other, come from different backgrounds, have clashing personalities, and--
Arthur hasn't even considered the thought of being with anyone, ever since his father died.
He closes his eyes as he exhales sharply, letting the back of his head hit against the door with a soft thunk. He knows that he has nothing to be ashamed of, that his father was a raging homophobe who should've been supportive of his son, no matter who he brought home to attend the weekly family dinners. But there's still the festering guilt at the bottom of Arthur's belly, gnawing away at him. What if their last argument had been the cause of his father's condition? If Arthur had kept silent and gone through with his father's wishes, would Uther be alive today?
Arthur brushes the dampness from his stinging eyes, his jaw clenching in anger. He splashes cool water on his heated cheeks and stares at the mirror, hoping to find answers in his reflection.
He knows he'll eventually move on and find someone. But not right now. Not on a trip that's supposed to be his penance, his apology towards his father. Even if he really doesn’t know what he should be apologizing for.
When Arthur finally comes out of the washroom, the lights to the main room are already turned off. But even in the darkness, Arthur can make out Merlin's form on the couch, a tuft of hair sticking out from the multitude of blankets he's wrapped himself in. There's notebooks, field guides, and camera equipment scattered on the ground all around him, the flat screen television on the wall paused on a shot of an owl mid-flight.
Arthur reaches down and picks up the glasses Merlin uses when he's working before they get stepped on, setting them on the coffee table with a gentle click. He watches Merlin sleep for a few seconds, oddly comforted by the rise and fall of Merlin's chest, before he turns towards the bedroom area.
It's Arthur's turn for the bed, but now it seems much too big big and foreboding. He unbuckles his belt and strips down to his boxers, foregoing pyjamas for the night. As soon as he slips between the sheets, he muffles a moan; the bed, the pillows, the duvet--everything smells faintly of Merlin. Arthur turns his face towards the fabric and inhales deeply, taking in the aroma of pine needles and freshly fallen snow, the fresh clean scent of organic shampoo, even the underlying muskiness that is pure Merlin.
It causes Arthur’s cock to swell and harden between his legs, his hips rutting once against the mattress for the friction. He stops for a moment, quickly glancing over to make sure Merlin is still asleep before he shimmies out of his boxers to give himself a tentative stroke. The touch is dry and rough, but it feels so good that he has to bite his bottom lip from crying out. He licks a broad stripe across his palm before he tries again, unable to remember the last time he touched himself so freely.
Usually he'd think of someone generic for his wanking fantasies, but now his mind automatically goes to Merlin. Arthur imagines what would have happened if they had kissed earlier, if he had been able to trail down Merlin's neck, sucking the skin so hard he'd leave marks behind. Merlin would let out one of those soft gasps again, breath hitching in his chest as Arthur sank to his knees. Arthur wonders what other kind of noises Merlin could make as he’d take Merlin's cock in his mouth, his tongue rolling over the tip at first before taking as much as he could down his throat.
Arthur strokes faster, harder, and he sticks two fingers from his other hand into his mouth, sloppily covering them with spit. He then reaches back between the cleft of his ass, circling his hole with one finger before pushing the tip in. He hisses in pain, the burn too great to go in any farther.
Merlin would be able to open him up properly, he thinks. Maybe by lubing up his fingers, or even using his own tongue, licking and sucking until Arthur broke down into sobs. Merlin would take his time before pushing himself in, taking it slow and letting Arthur get accustomed to the stretch before he'd thrust in, slamming over and over against Arthur's prostate until they came messily together.
Arthur can't stifle the needy whine that escapes him at the thought. He suddenly realizes that the rustling sound isn't coming from just him any more, and he risks sneaking a glance over towards the couch. Merlin's eyes are still closed, but his mouth is hanging open loosely, and there's rapid fluttering underneath his blankets. His head tilts back, and the moonlight filtering from the windows catches the curve of his pale neck.
Arthur knows he shouldn't watch, knows he should be horrified that he was caught. But he's too far gone already to stop. He tries, really he does, clamping down on his cock and squeezing tightly, pre-come dribbling down his fingers.
But then Merlin arches his back, his feet scrambling for traction against the cushions of the couch, keening loudly.
"A-ah!" he cries out, "Fuck...Arthur!"
Arthur comes so hard he sees white bursts of light exploding in front of his vision. The bed sheets are soaked in a matter of seconds, and he continues to stroke himself to completion until his cock grows oversensitive to the touch. He barely hears Merlin shout out his climax a moment later, mostly due to the ringing in his ears and heart pounding in his chest.
It's only after he gets his breathing under control does Arthur fully realize what's just happened. Shame burns inside his gut, and he doesn’t dare look in the direction of the couch to see how Merlin is reacting.
How can Arthur ever meet Merlin in the eye again? What will happen between them now because of the line they’ve crossed together? Why, after all this, is Arthur still not sure of what he exactly wants?
Arthur has all the questions but none of the answers, and it frightens him.
"...Arthur?" Merlin whispers, his voice low and husky, and Arthur tenses at the sound. He knows it’s the cowardly thing to do, but he doesn’t answer. Instead he rolls to the side and tugs the covers over his head, pretending to be already asleep.
Merlin’s resounding sigh echoes damningly in the room. But after what seems like ages, it’s eventually followed by light snoring, suggesting that Merlin’s managed to drift off.
Arthur stares at the fabric of the duvet, wishing he could be so lucky.
They don’t talk about it the next morning.
In fact, by the time Arthur drags himself out of bed, Merlin is already gone. There’s a note on the dining table, explaining that Merlin left early to make best use of the morning light, and there’s a Thermos of hot chocolate near the stove if Arthur wants it. There’s no mention about last night, and Arthur reads the note three times before he determines there’s no secret meaning behind the words. Merlin seems to recognize that he needs space, and is helpfully giving it to him.
Arthur feels relieved at first. All night long, he had been dreading having a discussion with Merlin concerning what the two of them should do. But anxiety creeps in when he realizes they’ll need to talk about it at some point in time; avoiding someone only works so well when you’re sharing a single room cottage with the person.
He takes one look at his fishing gear by the door and decides to pass on going to the lake today. For one, he’s much too drained to deal with the hassle of carrying everything out there again, and two, fishing only seemed to be fun once Merlin was there with him.
The problem is, he really has nothing else to keep himself occupied. He didn't pack anything to read, and he flips through satellite channels aimlessly until he determines there's nothing worth watching. He turns the television off with a sigh, flopping back against the couch. It hits him how much of a rut he's been stuck in for the past few weeks; back home, his routine consists of work, food, and sleep. Rinse and repeat, ad nauseam. When has his life become so damn boring?
Fatigue must overtake him at some point, because the next thing he knows, he's sprawled out horizontally on the couch, and he's no longer alone. His eyes remain closed, but he can tell that his head is resting in someone's lap, slim fingers carding through his hair. The sensation is comforting, and he determines to stay still and enjoy it as long as he can.
"The Canadian winters can be long and harsh for many of its inhabitants, " he hears Merlin say, and Arthur cracks one eye open to look. Merlin doesn't seem to notice, too engrossed in reading aloud from his notebook, an electronic voice recorder blinking nearby. "But this isn't necessarily the case for the Snowy Owl. One of the largest owls in North America, this fierce and resourceful creature will take down prey nearly its own size in order to survive. While its main meal source tends to be ptarmigans, the Snowy Owl is an opportunistic hunter, and will frequently follow traplines in order to find food."
The pitch and timbre of Merlin's voice, rumbling deep inside his chest, sets Arthur's mind into such an incredible state of peace that he ends up drifting back to sleep.
When he wakes up again, it's grown dark outside, and Merlin is gone. Arthur panics at first and wonders if it has all been just a dream. But then there's the clanging of pots and pans behind him, followed by Merlin humming a familiar ditty that Arthur can't seem to name.
He sits up quickly, and then curses as the room spins and his stomach rebels. It's like someone's wrapped his head with cotton fibers in a failed attempt to stop the pounding in his temples, his entire body sore as if he's just run a three day marathon.
"Hey, how are you feeling?"
Arthur blinks blearily in Merlin's direction, and then swallows. His tongue feels like its been replaced with coarse sandpaper. "What time is it?" he rasps out.
"Erm, about 7," Merlin says, checking his watch. "You must've been really tired, eh? Have you been sleeping all day?"
"...Yeah," Arthur says, trying to shake the fog from his mind. He wants to ask about earlier, and whether or not Merlin was really there. But judging by the nervous glances Merlin keeps giving him and the couch, Arthur thinks he may already have his answer.
"Sorry if I woke you. I made some Kraft Dinner if you're hungry," Merlin says as he rubs his palms against the denim of his jeans. "And I promise I didn't burn it this time."
Arthur chuckles weakly and lumbers over to the dining table, plopping himself down in a chair. He feels like he's still half-asleep, his movements sluggish, answers monosyllabic. But Merlin doesn't seem to mind; he chats animatedly enough for the two of them, piling their plates high with food, still hot from the stove. Arthur goes to get himself a beer, but Merlin slides one over with a knowing smile, not even pausing in his rambling about the great footage he caught earlier.
Eventually Arthur regains enough consciousness to actually participate in the conversation. Any fear he's had about their fledgling relationship being ruined by last night's events quickly dissipates as they fall into what has become their usual bantering. But now Arthur finds himself noticing the little things that he hasn't before, like how Merlin's eyes light up whenever he's talking about something he's passionate about, whether it's his work, family, or friends--even his favorite kind of music. Or how he can somehow know what is Arthur is thinking but not saying, and makes him say it anyway. Or how natural it feels for them to rest their hands on the table, fingertips barely brushing over one another, but enough of a reminder that they're there.
The picture they make is so incredibly domestic. If this happened a few months ago, Arthur would've gagged at the sappiness of the scene. But now, he's wondering if this is really what he's wanted all along. He wants someone to talk to, wants someone to be with, wants someone so he no longer feels so damn alone in this world.
He wants Merlin.
"...Arthur? Earth to Arthur," Merlin says, waving a hand in front of Arthur's face. "You know, you can just tell me if I'm boring you."
"No, no," Arthur says, shaking his head with a slight smile. "I'm just thinking."
"Well then, don't think too hard," Merlin teases, grinning widely. "You might strain something."
Arthur lets out a loud guffaw, and then punches Merlin in the shoulder fondly. "Very funny."
Merlin makes a big show of rubbing his shoulder with a grimace, even though Arthur knows he's barely tapped him. "So, are you going to tell me what you're thinking about, or are you going to have me guess?"
"I was just thinking, Merlin," Arthur says, "of how I'm having a better time on this trip that I thought. That even though I never wanted to be stuck with you--"
"--that now I wouldn't want it any other way," Arthur finishes, interlocking Merlin's hand with his. "I'm glad you're here."
"...Arthur?" Merlin murmurs, and that's all Arthur needs.
Later, they'll disagree on what exactly happens next. Arthur will swear he definitely did not knock everything off the table in his haste to pull Merlin into his arms, and Merlin will insist he was finding bits and pieces of macaroni in the rug for days afterwards.
All that matters now is that Arthur suddenly has a lapful of very eager Merlin. They kiss frantically at first, messy and desperate, like they're a bunch of hormonal teenagers looking for a quick pull. Their teeth clack together, noses smushed, and their fingers scramble to grab and tug at each other's clothes.
But Arthur decides he wants to savor this as much as he can. He forces himself to slow down, and he grips the nape of Merlin's neck so he can kiss him properly. He peppers a series of kisses against Merlin's lips, short and sweet, until they stretch out into one long sensuous kiss that never wants to end. Merlin wraps his arms around Arthur's neck, his hands once again running through Arthur's hair, blunt fingernails tracing patterns against the scalp.
Arthur finally manages to tear his mouth away, only to trail it down Merlin's neck like he did in his fantasy, lightly nipping at the skin. Merlin's corresponding moan is so filthy and gorgeous that it goes straight to Arthur's hardening cock. He bites again, sucks, licks--anything he can to see what other delicious noises he can get Merlin to make.
One of his hands goes to the small of Merlin's back, holding him upright, while the other snakes up underneath the front Merlin's shirt. Arthur runs his fingers over the lean musculature of Merlin's chest, his thumb catching on the ridge of a hardened nipple.
Merlin must be sensitive, because he gasps at the touch, eyelids fluttering shut, and then moans as Arthur does it again. In retaliation, Merlin arches his back, placing his body flush against Arthur's, and grinds down his hips until Arthur sees stars.
"Fuck," Arthur hisses, panting against Merlin's neck. "Take this to the bed?"
"Oh god yes," Merlin breathes out.
Crossing the room to the bed turns out to be harder than it sounds, because they can't seem to keep their hands off each other. But they manage to fumble their way over, stripping their clothes as they go. Merlin falls back onto the bed, already shirtless, his jeans unzipped and gathered around his hips. He does an awkward shuffle across the mattress until he's propped up against the pillows, and then coyly beckons Arthur forward.
Arthur chuckles at Merlin's attempt to be seductive, but has to admit his dick twitches with interest. He shoves down his own jeans, followed by his boxers, kicking the fabric to the side after it pools around his ankles. He gives his cock a quick tug to take off some of the edge, watching with hooded eyes as Merlin wriggles out of the rest of his clothes.
Once they're both completely naked, Arthur props himself on top of Merlin, aligning their bodies so their cocks brush up against one another, their tips already moist with pre-come. Arthur starts to lick his hand to get it slick, but Merlin stops him, running his own tongue over Arthur's palm until it's nice and wet.
Arthur shudders. He's in danger of coming already, just at the sight of Merlin sucking on his knuckles alone. He wrenches his hand away, sliding it down in between their bodies to wrap firmly around their cocks.
Merlin immediately thrusts upwards, whimpering softly. His cock is longer than Arthur's, but slimmer, its pale and smooth form jutting out from a thatch of wiry dark hair. Arthur gives a tentative stroke, and then another, relishing in the feeling of their cocks sliding together in his palm. He learns from trial and error of what Merlin seems to like: doing a little twist at the end of each pass makes him whine, reaching to fondle his balls makes him squirm, and shifting their hips together for extra friction makes both of them moan loudly for more.
"F-fuck, Arthur," Merlin whispers, his hands clinging desperately to Arthur's shoulders. "That feels...ahh, fuck!"
"I should have known you'd talkative during something like this," Arthur teases, jerking his hand faster with sure, even pumps. "And that it would be mostly you babbling, like usual."
Merlin mumbles something incomprehensible back, and then keens, his fingers scrambling across Arthur's sweat-slicked skin. Arthur grunts in response, leaning his head forward to smash his mouth against Merlin's, prying lips open with his tongue. He sucks and he licks and he thrusts until his mouth is aching and sore, and then he does it some more, mingling pain with pleasure.
The whole bed shakes with the force of their bodies rocking together, and Arthur can feel Merlin's toes curling against his legs, the tremble in their muscles signaling they're close. Still, it comes as a surprise when Merlin suddenly tenses up, a muffled cry in his throat, and then a hot stickiness coats their stomachs. Arthur is so taken back he comes a few seconds later, even though he had been hoping to last a bit longer. He bites into the crook of Merlin's shoulder as he comes, pumping out every last drop until they're covered in it.
He collapses on top of Merlin, who makes a soft noise of discomfort. "...Wow," Merlin says shakily, "that was..."
"Amazing," Arthur finishes, rolling off to the side so Merlin can breathe. "I know."
"I was going to say unexpected, but yes it was amazing too. Like you needed an even bigger ego, eh?" Merlin chuckles, and then wrinkles his nose. "Ugh, but now we're both disgusting."
"Don't be such a baby, Merlin," Arthur says, even as he swings his legs off the bed to get up. "I'll get us a washcloth if it bothers you so much."
"Arthur, wait!" Merlin reaches out and grabs Arthur's hand, closing his eyes as he licks the drying come off of Arthur's fingers. Arthur stands still and stares, entranced by the sight of Merlin hollowing his cheeks as he sucks, his lips red, swollen, and positively wrecked. Fuck, Arthur knows he’s screwed if he’s just come but already feels renewed stirrings of desire spring up inside him.
Once Merlin is done, he grins so earnestly that Arthur can't resist bending down and kissing Merlin one more time. He tastes their combined saltiness on Merlin's tongue, bitter and tangy, and chases it until he has to force himself to pull away.
Arthur goes to get a washcloth, wetting it and returning to the bed in record time. He wipes off Merlin's body and then his own, throwing the washcloth off to the side when he's done. "Better?"
"Much," Merlin says, snuggling up with a pillow. "Now if you excuse me, not all of us got to sleep the entire day and are a bit worn out now."
Arthur snorts and pulls the duvet over their rapidly cooling bodies. "I don't know why you're tired when I'm prety sure I did all the work."
Merlin hums noncommittally, his body growing lax. Before long, he's completely asleep, a dreamy smile plastered on his face.
Arthur feels himself smile in return, and as he settles down into the sheets, he wonders if he could remain this content forever.
It doesn't even last through the night.
Arthur wakes up in a panic, covered in cold sweat, heart pounding. At first he's confused about his surroundings, and then memories of last night come slamming into the forefront of his mind. He knows--he knows--that he doesn't regret it at all, and as Merlin shifts in his arms, still asleep, Arthur debates on staying, at least until morning. He could be happy, goddamn it, if the sharp guilt in his gut would just let him be.
But his body moves without thinking, and soon he finds himself gathering his clothes and packing his things, trying to move as silently as possible. He winces when the dresser makes a loud squeak when he opens the drawers, and he hears the covers rustle behind him, followed by a mumbled, "A'th'r?"
"Go back to sleep, Merlin," Arthur says, praying that he'll listen and Arthur can make this a clean break. It’s the coward’s way, but maybe it’s for the best.
But of course, things don't go that way. "...You're leaving?"
There's so much pain in that question that Arthur is tempted to disguise the whole thing as a joke. "I can't stay here, Merlin," he says as neutral as possible, throwing his things in his suitcase. "You can have the place for the rest of the two weeks. I can come back another time."
He makes the mistake of turning to face the bed, and quickly wishes he hasn't. Merlin is sitting up, naked and skin covered in love marks, staring at Arthur with pure hurt and disbelief. "But why?" he asks, his voice thick and rough. "I thought that..."
"I told you, I can't stay here," Arthur snaps, hating himself even more when Merlin flinches like he's been physically struck. "I just can't."
Arthur storms out of the cottage, slamming the door behind him. He doesn't let himself look in the rearview mirror as he speeds away, too afraid that he'll change his mind and turn back.
How he manages to avoid getting into an accident is nothing short of a miracle. After driving mindlessly for over an hour, he forces himself to stop and get something to eat, even if he's anything but hungry.
What he really needs right now if a familiar voice, and thankfully, Morgana answers on the first ring. "Arthur, what the hell, do you know how early it is?' I thought you were supposed to be gone for two weeks anyway, or did big tough city boy get his ass handed back to him by a couple of fish?"
Arthur's reserve finally cracks, and he breaks down and spills everything. He tells her about coming out to Uther and the downfall afterwards, the guilt that lingers like a security blanket. He talks about the mixup with the cottage, and the horrors of ice fishing and the outdoors, and Merlin, damn annoying but lovable Merlin. He leaves out the sordid details, and instead focuses on how well they got together and how happy he actually was, all until this morning when it blew up in his face.
"I fucked up, Morgana," Arthur says when he's done explaining everything. "I really fucked up."
If he's expecting sympathy, it quickly becomes clear he should have called someone else. "Yeah you did," Morgana says, humming in agreement. "But are you going to do something besides sulk about it?"
"I am not sulking," Arthur scoffs, bristling defensively.
"Oh please." Morgana sighs, and Arthur swears her eyeroll is audible over the line. "You're probably wallowing in your Timbits as we speak."
"How did you know--"
"Because, yes, you really are that predictable," Morgana says, effectively cutting him off before he can question her creepy powers of deduction. "Look, I don't know this Merlin guy, but I kind of want to meet him. He sounds like he might be good for you."
Arthur frowns, confused. "How can you say that? I've only known him for--" Oh god, he's only known Merlin for three days. Three days. So why the hell does he feel like it's been forever? When did he become such a lovestruck sap?
"Sorry to interrupt any existential crisis you're having," Morgana says, "but do you realize this is the most you've spoken to me in a month? A whole month, Arthur. Ever since Uther passed away, you've been withdrawn from everyone. Even I was starting to get worried about you."
Looking at from an outsider's point of view, Arthur can see why his family and friends might be concerned. It's just that, years of living with a father like Uther has probably left Arthur more than a little bit stunted in the emotional department. He's always been too proud to admit when he needs help, even if the one he’s hurting the most is himself. "I'm okay, Morgana, really."
"No you're not, and that's my point. I'm not saying you should get down on one knee and propose, but if Merlin is the reason you've opened up like this, it won't hurt to see where the relationship goes, right? Have some fun and enjoy yourself for once." Morgana pauses, and then adds quietly, "Just because your father is dead doesn't mean you have to stop living as well."
"...Wow Morgana," Arthur says, his lips curving into a weak smile. "How did you come up with that dredge?"
"Ugh, I know, I kind of even hate myself right now. I blame reading too many of Gwen's self-help books," Morgana says, snorting in disgust. "But you get what I'm saying."
"Yeah, I do," Arthur says, packing his food up in a box to take with him as he heads out to his car. "And damn it, I hate when you're right."
"Go get him before it's too late, dear brother. I want to shake his hand someday, and thank him for making you less of a twat," Morgana says before she hangs up, leaving Arthur alone on the long drive ahead.
The cottage is empty by the time he comes back.
Arthur freaks out before he realizes that all of Merlin's stuff is still there. Which means Merlin himself can't be too far away, and probably has gone off to film somewhere. Arthur debates waiting until Merlin returns, but he knows if he doesn't act now, his conviction might desert him later.
Besides, it's easy to see what direction Merlin has headed in. There are footprints leading away from the cottage and into the nearby woods, left behind by those ridiculous snowshoes Merlin always insists on wearing. Arthur follows the path they make without a second thought, and instantly sinks down into a snowbank, soaking the cuffs of his pant legs within seconds.
Okay, so maybe Merlin's snowshoes aren't so ridiculous after all.
Still, Arthur trudges his way along, glad he at least had the foresight to wear boots today. It's hard work just to take a couple steps, and the freezing weather nips its way through his multiple layers of clothing. All the while, the logical side of his mind helpfully informs him that traipsing off alone into the Canadian wilderness during wintertime is definitely not one of his better ideas.
But this whole thing with Merlin isn’t exactly logical, so maybe that’s the point.
Before Arthur can wonder if he has any shred of sanity left, he hears the sound of snow crunching underfoot close by. He whirls around, a relieved smile spreading across his face when sees Merlin pop out from behind a tree. "Merlin!"
"...Arthur?" Merlin lowers the camera from his shoulder and eyes Arthur suspiciously. "What are you doing out here? I thought you said you couldn't stay here any more."
Ouch. Arthur grimaces, but he supposes he deserves that. "Look, Merlin, about last night--"
"If this is the part where you tell me that it was a mistake, don't bother," Merlin says, shaking his head. "It's not the first time I've been someone's 'experiment.'"
"'Experiment'?" Arthur asks before he understands what Merlin is trying to say. "...No! God no! Merlin, I'm not--"
"Gay?" Merlin offers. "I get it, Arthur. I told you before, you don't have to have explain anything to me. Just..." He trails off, his voice cracking for a moment, and he hides his face back behind the safety of his camera. "Just let me get back to shooting, eh? That is if you haven't scared everything in the vicinity off already."
"Merlin, wait!" Arthur reaches out to grab Merlin's wrist when he tries to push by. "Merlin, please."
"What Arthur?" Merlin asks, and now that he's closer, Arthur can see the red puffiness under his eyes, the dried tear streaks on his cheeks. "What do you want?"
You, Arthur thinks. I want you.
But he doesn't say anything at first, and instead stares down at his hand on Merlin's wrist, his thumb rubbing over the pulse point. Merlin sighs, and whether it's in pleasure or aggravation, Arthur can't tell. But he doesn't let go, and Merlin doesn't pull away. So they stand there, frozen like statues in the snow, for who knows how long, until the words come falling out of Arthur's mouth: "I came out to my father."
Merlin tenses, and then whispers, "Wh-what?"
"Before my trip to Vancouver," Arthur says quietly. He doesn't look up, his gaze still locked downwards. "I had been keeping it a secret from him for years, but I guess I just snapped and told him I wasn't going to marry any of the women he was trying to foist off on me. He responded by throwing me off his office and saying he never wanted to see me again." He chuckles humorlessly. "I guess he got his wish, eh?"
He hears Merlin swear under his breath. "Jesus, Arthur..."
"I know he was a bigot, but he still was--is my father," Arthur says, his body shaking. "And I thought, if I had been different, if I had been the son he wanted, would he still be here?" He chokes back a sob, wiping his blurring eyes with his other hand. "Did I kill my father?"
"No," Merlin says firmly, wrapping an arm around Arthur's neck and pulling him forward, leaning their foreheads together. "It's not your fault. It's nobody's fault, so don't blame yourself. Not for this." He pauses. "The reason you came out here in the first place...?"
Arthur nods slightly. "I don't even like fishing," he says, scoffing, "but he wanted to do it someday, so I thought..."
"But Arthur," Merlin says, lifting Arthur's head up by his chin so their gazes meet, "what do you want?"
It's the same question as before, but it seems to carry so much more weight now. Arthur debates, contemplates, mulling it over in his mind, until the answer seems like it's the simplest one in the world. "I just want to be happy with my life for once," he says after clearing his throat and wiping his eyes again. "Like I was in the short time with you."
Merlin's eyes widen, but he remains silent. So Arthur presses on. "Merlin, I don't know what's going to happen between us, and I'm sorry for how I acted this morning. I was confused about what I should do," he says, finally letting go of Merlin's wrist so he can put his arms around Merlin, drawing him close. "But I really want to give this--us--a try. If you let me."
"'Okay'?" Arthur repeats, blinking. “What do you mean, ‘okay’?”
"Okay, I guess I can try to forgive you," Merlin says, smiling softly. He then jabs Arthur fondly in the chest. "But you get the hide-a-bed for the rest of the trip, unless you can convince me otherwise."
The weight from Arthur's shoulders suddenly disappears, the knot in his stomach gone. He throws back his head and lets out a laugh, breathless and carefree. "I think I can handle that. Um, I..." He awkwardly gestures back towards the direction of the cottage. "I have a box of Timbits back in my car if you want any?"
"Well then," Merlin says, his eyes twinkling as he pulls Arthur along through the snow, "that's certainly a good start."