Sometimes it only took a moment for your life to go to shit, Arthur thought as he ate another bon-bon with a dreary flourish. It was two o'clock in the afternoon, and Arthur was lying in a dejected heap on the floor of Gwen and Morgana's flat, wrapped up in Gwen's nicest housecoat with his glasses askew and strewing papers from his box of chocolates all across the carpet.
This time last month, everything had been just perfect. Arthur had been serving immaculate sections of his award-winning lemon drizzle cake to his husband's parents, his hair had been consistently fabulous, and his new novel had been becoming more and more of a certain thing.
Now he was dedicating his days to irritating Morgana, to making Gwen shake her head in despair, and to rolling behind the loveseat to hide from the homophobic landlord who still believed everyone in the flat was a maiden aunt. And all it had taken was a moment, arriving home just the tiniest bit early and catching Edwin with Arthur's personal assistant (and really, Edwin could have at least had an affair with a baron or something, if he was going to go with such a cliché). Arthur and Edwin had been together for nearly five years. Arthur could've worked through it, would have, except in that moment he looked into Edwin's eyes and saw nothing there at all, nothing but annoyance at being interrupted; then Edwin said, "I want the house."
All of Arthur's prized possessions were in that house. He had memories of almost everything in the place, having decorated it with years of favorite acquisitions from everywhere he'd ever been. There were even bits and pieces from his childhood room, tucked in amongst the tasteful vases and piles of well-worn books. Arthur loved it all, even the places where the paint was flaking away, the burns behind the oven cooling rack, the scarred wood where Arthur had tried to scrub off a fountain pen leak and the cleaning solution had eaten right through the windowsill. But he couldn't take these things with him, so in the end he hardly took anything at all, just a box of his favorite books, a few changes of clothes, and his laptop.
"You can't stay here forever," Morgana told him that night.
"I know," Arthur said sullenly, and stirred his chicken soup a bit harder than necessary, causing it to spiral dangerously in the bowl.
Gwen swooped in, looking concerned. "Darling, would you empty the rubbish bins?" she asked, deftly cutting through the mounting tension.
"Course," Morgana said, predictably melting at Gwen's pleading expression.
"Don't be hard on her," Gwen said, when they were alone. "She only means that with Mr. Fitch so suspicious already, we 're worried about being tossed out. And look, I'm not supposed to tell you this, yet, but-" she leaned in closer, grinning conspiratorially. "Remember we found a donor over the winter?"
Arthur nodded slowly, watching as Gwen filled the sink with water for the dishes.
"Well," Gwen said. "It worked! She's pregnant! It's been a few months, but we had two false starts before it, so we wanted to be sure before we said anything out loud!"
Arthur's spoon fell into his bowl in a rather impressive clatter of chicken and tiny pasta stars, but he was too busy leaping up to dance Gwen in a giddy circle to pay it any mind. "Oh darling," he whispered, close enough to smell the pleasant, faint hint of her lavender shampoo. "This is wonderful."
It really was, but it was also sad, seeing Gwen and Morgana so terribly happy while Arthur's life sat in broken pieces around him. He didn't say this, though, not being entirely self-centered. He instead chose to reflect upon names and future professions while helping Gwen with the dishes.
"Anyway," Gwen said, when Morgana was back, the dishes were finished, and they were sprawled on the couch watching Gordon Ramsey. "We were about to have a mini-break in Italy, but now that Morgana's gotten herself knocked up, we've got to start scheduling fits of anxiety and inadequacy as soon as possible, so we're calling it off. We can't refund the trip, so we thought we'd shove it off on you and sort out finding you a new flat when you get back."
"So what you really mean is you want to have loads of celebratory sex all over the house, and I'm in the way," Arthur said. Honestly, he was quite grateful and not very good at hiding it.
"See, I told you it'd work," Morgana said. Gwen swatted her with a tasseled throw pillow.
"I've a few Italian phrasebooks from when I took classes at Uni," Gwen said. "I haven't spoken it in some time, but I was fluent back then, so you can always call if you have problems. I don't think you'll end up anywhere without a guide, though."
"Okay," Arthur said, and bumped shoulders with Gwen. "Just, I don't want to deal with men yet," he admitted quietly. "It's too soon."
"Oh, you needn't worry over that," Morgana said mysteriously, but after that, neither she nor Gwen would say anything more about it.
It was a lesbian tour of Tuscany.
The tour-guide was a jovial woman who went by Gerdy and called everyone ladies, no matter the context. She wore shorts in all weather, hanging nearly to the knee with the pockets bulging full of plasters, chewing gum, and all sorts of other useful things. She also wouldn't say a word about how much Morgana had to bribe her in order to let Arthur on the tour. Gerdy just smiled mysteriously and said, "Come on ladies, this is Florence! Time for the Duomo!" Arthur was clearly included in this number.
He'd mostly found the idea of going away to heal rather silly. However, as Gerdy bellowed out instructions for how to buy a gelato and pacing oneself on the Duomo stairs, Arthur realized that somehow, inexplicably, he was happy for the first time in perhaps months, and maybe even longer. It wasn't the joyful feeling of writing something he knew was good, of first kisses or perfect cheesecake or holding a puppy, but it was good all the same.
Around him, the piazza was thronged with tourists, people squawking over the exchange rate and stopping to flick through post card racks teeming with Botticellis and churches, bright with Byzantine gold ground and funny, long-faced Christs. Cameras chirped and taxis rattled over the cobblestones at an alarming pace, and all the noises wove together around him, loud but somehow intertwining into a sinuously smooth medley.
Arthur's only real exposure to the Italian language had been through Puccini, with Gwen being somewhat of an opera enthusiast. That was soft, sweet, all blending together and sliding over his ears. This Italian, though, was different. It was rapid and rich, and a shocking combination of thick and sharp, deep like a heavy wine. He couldn't understand a word of it, despite the phrasebook he'd attempted to study during the trip from Cardiff. He didn't mind, though, in fact he liked that he could watch everything going on around him without having to carry on a polite conversation, or to make excuses for an absentee husband. Never again, he thought, and couldn't decide if it was a happy or sad thought. Both, probably.
Arthur stopped for an espresso at a nearby bar, small and close with several people jammed up against the counter. "Un caffé," he said, trying out the words on his tongue.
The boy behind the counter grinned and said something that sounded like 'en oiro,' but probably apparently meant a euro. Arthur tried mouthing those words, too, under his breath between sips of dark, rich espresso. He liked the sound of it, the way it felt to speak Italian even for a moment.
Later, still panting from the long, steep climb up the steep Duomo stairs, the sudden magnificence of the painted ceiling, Arthur looked out at the city. It was a trail of tiny cars and vespas, neat lines of buildings and the occasional jut of a church. Off in the distance, the city faded off into trees and the occasional orangey earth-colored building. He liked it here.
On the following morning it was off to the little hill-town of Montepulciano, with everyone spilling their complimentary tea thanks to the steep, constantly tilting bus ride. The weather was heavy, thick and slightly humid, but the heat receded somewhat as the bus swerved up higher above Florence.
They pulled over outside the town, stopping at a sandy, pale church that stood silhouetted by the mountains.
"Madonna di San Biagio," Gerdy pronounced, and they all scattered to peer at the walls, the light-dappled nave, and the rolling hills stretching back beyond a low stone wall. It felt curiously separate from anything else Arthur had seen on the trip, peaceful and solid amidst its bed of trees. Something about it made his breath catch, and again it was a shock to realize he was happy.
"Over there's our next stop," Gerdy said, pointing. Arthur followed the line of her arm, absently squinting in the bright, late-morning sun.
"What's that?" he asked idly, pointing at a building half hidden by the trees. Something bright was twisting restlessly beside it, some sort of plastic-y banner in lollipop red.
"One of those old villas," Gerdy said dismissively. "Looks like it's for sale. We'll pass it on our way into town."
"Oh," Arthur said drowsily. He'd already half-forgotten why it'd caught his eye in the first place. "Thanks."
Back in the bus, they rumbled along ponderously, completing the steep climb up the mountain. The red flag came into focus, flapping gently in the breeze. Arthur glanced over at it, following the line of smooth, creamy stone to which it was tied. The building was pleasantly weathered, perhaps crumbling a bit around the edges. Vast, leafy trees surrounded it, dipping to brush the dark wooden door. Encompassing it, an overgrown field stretched out both up and down the hill, pleasantly bright and heavily blanketed with thick underbrush. It looked quiet, peaceful, and for a moment Arthur was struck with a desire to leap out of the tour bus and explore it straight away. He didn't, of course.
The town of Montepulciano was charming, but Arthur barely noticed. Sitting on the broad steps of a whitewashed church, he ate a ridiculously cheap end of fresh bread stuffed with prosciutto and pecorino, thinking of mornings spent sipping espresso and writing in a sunny yard. While wandering around the spice shop, he thought of pale curtains swaying in the breeze against smooth stone walls. He didn't notice the coffee bar at all, having instead gone off to seek out a view that'd tell him if the villa was within walking distance of the town. It looked as though it was, and at that point Arthur thought he really ought to find out for certain, although why this was so important he couldn't say.
Gerdy was somewhat taken aback, but when Arthur assured her that yes, he was perfectly stable, and also perfectly capable of calling a cab, she patted him cheerfully on the shoulder and told him to have a grand adventure. He could catch up to the tour back in Florence that night, or on the following day in Siena. Arthur thanked her, collected his suitcase, and went on his way.
It was a villa in Tuscany, so Arthur probably should have been prepared for immediately falling in love with it. Somehow, it was still a shock. It started slowly, creeping into his thoughts as he rolled his suitcase along the earthen path, occasionally tripping over roots and stones but not caring, too busy being entranced by the view. The path was lined with old, gnarled trees, all twisting together over his head and gently ushering him in toward the house. The feeling increased by the time Arthur stepped out into the clearing that seemed to mark the beginning of the property, wandering past an overgrown sprawl of weeds that looked as though it might once have been a garden. It had grown into a tight feeling in his chest by the time he was standing before the villa, looking up at the heavy, weather-beaten wood of the front door and running a hand over the slight grit of the wall. That was when he realized exactly what it was that he was experiencing. He hadn't even seen the inside yet, but he already knew he was in love with the villa. There was just something about the house, its age, its weight, the funny sort of presence it had, and in that moment Arthur knew that he had to have it.
Next to the gently listing flag was some sort of sign that Arthur couldn't read, but it also had that day's date on it, so Arthur felt reasonably sure that he wasn't trespassing when he stepped up and pulled open the door. Inside, he wandered around the rooms, which were occupied by a few other people who seemed to confirm that some sort of open house was occurring. The others were all dark hair and local accents, layered over leather coats and dark trousers.
The homeowner was evidently present, a wizened old woman with a wreath of snowy hair braided and wrapped about her head who was perched on a divan, surveying it all with a bright, sharp eye. Beside her there stood a man who must have been the realtor, half slouching against the arm of the settee and watching everyone with a practiced gaze. He was handsome, dark hair swept back from a fine, aristocratic brow, white shirt crisp against closely cut trousers. He looked entirely Italian, so Arthur was surprised when the other man greeted him with a pristine British accent.
"Hello," Arthur said politely, and then made up his mind. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. "I'm in love with this place," he said, and it felt strangely personal, as though he was admitting to a secret crush.
The realtor leaned in too, grinning. "Gorgeous, isn't it? Awful shame if it goes to a vacation rental company or an investor. This place deserves to be lived in by someone who cares for it."
"I know," Arthur said reverently, and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "I completely agree."
"So it strikes your fancy?" the realtor asked.
Arthur nodded, passing a hand through his hair. "So help me God. I didn't come here to buy a house, but I just-" he faltered. "I don't really want to go home." He couldn't help but cringe at the way he was blurting all of this out to a stranger, but it was all true, once he stopped to consider it. "Home's sad right now, and this place makes me the happiest I've felt in ages."
The realtor smiled again, and this time his look was measured, considering. "I've got to speak to the Contessa," he said, "But stay here for a moment, yeah?" He reached for Arthur's hand and shook it, his fingers strong and cool against Arthur's palm. "I'm Lance."
"Arthur," he replied. Lance slipped over to where the old women was furiously gesturing for him to come near, grasping him by the arm and pulling him down close enough that she could murmur into his ear.
Lance returned a moment later. "What's your full name?" he asked, and it seemed like a very weighty question.
Arthur shot him a confused glance, but answered, "Pendragon, Arthur Pendragon. Why?"
Lance sucked in a breath. "Please come meet the Contessa."
"Er, Okay?" Arthur said, and followed Lance over to the settee where the old woman was perched.
She was seated in a careful, upright manner, and for such an old woman her gaze was remarkably clear and level. Arthur felt a strange, overwhelming urge to kneel down in front of her, and he half gave in, crouching before her and murmuring "Buon Giorno," in what he hoped was a convincing accent.
The woman stared at him, a long, slow look, and then reached out for his hand. Her fingers were tiny, wrinkled and twisted with age, but as she turned his hand over to gaze at his palm, her grip was strong and sure. "Arthur Pendragon," the woman said, and her voice made his name sound wild and old, her accent pulling the sounds heavy and dark and falling roughly on each syllable. She gestured at herself. "Nimueh." After that she let loose a stream of Italian, a collection of what sounded at once like total gibberish and something desperately important. Arthur stayed where he was, his heels pressing up against his thighs, his hand outstretched, and tried desperately to understand.
The realtor nodded along with her torrent of words, adding in the occasional grunt but mostly staying silent. He didn't translate anything she was saying until the woman seemed to have finished speaking altogether. "She says she knew your family once," Lance said, and gave him a strange look, almost a frown. "She did them a disservice, and she says she owes them a great debt. She believes she nearly destroyed your family's home."
"That's, um," Arthur said slowly. "Bizarre? I've no idea what she means." It was true, but for some reason the words still set something alight within him, a strange feeling of déjà vu, of pieces falling into place that he hadn't known were missing at all.
"Nor I," said Lance, and he looked similarly perplexed. "But that's not even the strangest part. She says you've got to take the place so she can relieve herself of her debt to you. I've no idea how she knew who you were before you said it, but she says you're destined to have this place. So, er…Congratulations?"
It came off sounding almost more like a question, but Arthur was too dazed to pay Lance's tone much heed. "I- thank you," he managed, and toward the woman, repeated it. "Grazie."
She responded, more Italian, and Arthur nodded, as though there was any chance in hell that he knew what she was saying. "Look," he said then, turning back to Lance. "I'm awfully flattered, but I suppose I ought to mention that I don't have unlimited funds. How much is this place?"
"Oh," Lance said, and chuckled shakily. "You misunderstand. She's giving it to you. Won't cost anything except the repairs."
"Oh," Arthur said faintly, and that was how he acquired a villa.
After that, things were somewhat of a blur of clearing out the belongings that the Contessa was particularly fond of, as well as trying to navigate the murky waters of bank transfers and purchasing property in a place where one didn't speak the native language. Arthur spent most of this time becoming quite overwhelmed with caffeine and conferring with the very helpful Lance. He was kind, always having a moment to spare for Arthur's various helpless questions, and it was nice to have someone else around who spoke English before they spoke anything else. Besides, he was incredibly handsome, and from the way his gaze often lingered on Arthur, the feeling was at least somewhat mutual.
"Erm, I bought a villa," Arthur said, when Morgana picked up the telephone after the first night.
Morgana's shout was probably audible in the next county over, and promptly resulted in Gwen snatching the phone away(Arthur could hear them wrestling over it). "What? Are you hurt? Has there been an accident? Who the hell is this?" Gwen fired rapidly.
"Arthur," Arthur said, rather sheepishly. "None of the above. I just sort of, er…" He drew in a quick breath. "Bought a villa?"
"WHAT?" Somehow Gwen's shout managed to be even louder than Morgana's and also served to distract her long enough for Morgana to take control of the phone. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she asked. "We sent you there to unwind, not to go insane!"
"But I like it," Arthur said, painfully aware of how petulant he sounded. "Look," he added, sighing. "Everything at home reminds me of him. I built my life around him. I need something new, something that's just for me." He cleared his throat, glancing around. He was standing in the kitchen, looking out the window at the tangled weeds on the lawn. "And I like this place."
Morgana sighed, an echo of his own voice. "That does make sense," she admitted softly. "You'll call if you need anything, won't you? And we'll see you lots?"
"You can come here whenever you like, and stay as long as you please," Arthur said. "And yes, I'll tell you if I'm not doing well. But I am, honestly."
"Okay," Morgana said, and it was almost a whisper. "Gwen sends her love, and I love you too. Call us soon."
"I will," Arthur promised, and hung up the phone.
A week later, Arthur was signing off on the final papers in Lance's comfortably cluttered office, a mess of tiny espresso cups and haphazard piles of papers, and a somewhat wilted begonia in a painted pot on the windowsill. Arthur was sitting on top of a pile of crumpled periodicals displaying sunny properties in various Tuscan locales, his hand poised over the final paper he needed to sign off on in order to become the owner of his very own villa.
"Lance," he said, staring down at it. "I need to know something before I do this."
"Go on," Lance said lazily, knocking back what had to be his fourth shot of espresso since Arthur had arrived an hour ago. He never seemed to get jittery from it, even though a single cup made Arthur's hands shake.
"It's just that," Arthur said, searching for the right words, "I just got out of a bad relationship, so I won't be looking for anything soon, but I am gay and I don't intend to hide it, and I need to know that it isn't going to be hell for me here. I know this isn't a big city."
Lance looked up, still stretched lazily out. His legs were crossed at the ankle, propped up on his desk precariously close to a stack of what appeared to be sample floor tiles, but he seemed entirely unconcerned by it. "Well, it's no San Francisco," he said, turning his face up into the afternoon sun streaming in through the window. "But we're close to Siena, Florence, even Rome's not so far. There's loads of people living in Montepulciano who're in from the bigger places, and they're a great deal more liberal about it. I know plenty of people who're queer, and that's not even counting myself."
Arthur sucked in a breath. "I didn't know!" he said. "I wasn't trying to make you out yourself!"
Lance chuckled, a low, rich sound that was entirely Italian. "I didn't think you were. I'll introduce you to some of my friends, though. One of my mates owns a construction company, I could put you in contact. You'll need someone, anyway, and she's quite trustworthy. English, to boot, so you'll be able to shout at each other over the cornices and whatnot without a translator. Anyway, she's quite gay too, and between the two of us we'll help you." He hesitated, a minute gesture that soon faded into his usual, more laconic stance. "I ought to warn you, I think." He sighed. "The Italians aren't like Brits, Arthur. They flirt with everyone. Don't be sure someone's interested, just because they're being a bit too nice. It's just a way of life."
"Oh," Arthur said, feeling unaccountably crestfallen. "Okay, thanks."
"Course," Lance said. "Now here's that number, I'll let Morgause know you'll be calling."
Arthur had noticed that his new home was somewhat weathered, but it was only when Morgause began pointing things out that he realized it was somewhat closer to dilapidated. The realization had a funny feel to it, like the sort of awareness that a loved one had endearing flaws like a tendency to answer questions directed at other people or an inability to whistle. He felt rather the same way about Morgause, who was always brisk, almost to the point of surliness. There was no malice behind it, though, just a general impatience with humanity that Arthur could somewhat relate to. In fact he quite liked her, with the way she wore her tool belt low on her hips and the incredulous look she directed at him whenever he tried to pretend he knew something about construction, the small smile she sometimes couldn't quite hide.
She had a team of locals, including a woman named Francesca who wore her long hair in a thick plait when she worked with the circuits, and a man named Lorenzo who grunted a lot about what was probably structural integrity but could also have been anything from the weather to feelings on Lance's hairstyle, since he spoke little to no English.
Morgause did a smattering of everything, sometimes hauling stones around, sometimes frantically scribbling complicated-looking designs. They were fixing up the bedrooms, enlarging the sitting room, and doing some work on the older fixtures and pipes, as well. A bit of everything. There was one thing none of them could do, though, and that was tame the garden. Morgause pulled him aside a week after they'd begun working and said she was bringing in someone else for that.
"Emrys, he's called," she said. "Welshman, good lad. Starting on the first bedroom next," she added in her usual abrupt way, and left.
On the following morning, Arthur went into Montepulciano to see about having his car brought over, and about editing the plan for his mobile so he could call Gwen and Morgana without outrageous fees. This done, he made an appointment to get his house outfitted with Internet access, then wandered about the town buying groceries. He lingered over the packets of herbs and spices, tasting everything before deciding what could wait and what he absolutely had to have right away. The kitchen was one of the few rooms in the house that didn't need much remodeling, and Arthur was happy to be able to buy plenty of food with which to fill it.
Cooking had always relaxed Arthur. So much of writing was the indecision, the frustration of having a story but not being able to capture it in text. Cooking was a welcome relief from this. Put in the right numbers, follow a combination of directions and intuition, and then there was tangible proof of the successful endeavor. Plus, Arthur's father, Uther, loved to cook, and so it reminded him of his childhood, of helping his da stir the pasta or knead out the bread dough. Sometimes he called Uther to ask for recipes, and it always spawned a long discussion on the merits of one marinade over another, or different ways to spice a game hen.
At home, Arthur had cooked for parties, for family dinners, and sometimes for colleagues. He'd rarely cooked things solely for himself, though, and this new experience was startlingly liberating.
He began with easy things, learning about what sorts of tomatoes and cheeses and wines he liked best. The market was so close that he could trot over every morning, allowing him to cook based on that day's whim. He began with pasta sauces, slicing tomatoes into juicy segments and drizzling olive oil over them in the pot, crushing the garlic with the flat of a knife before dropping it all in. Though he could've just bought the pasta in a box, he preferred the long strands of linguine that were made right there in town. The woman who owned the little shop where it was sold wrapped it up in brown paper and tied it with a bit of twine. She was brisk, but always had a smile for him, and didn't laugh too much at Arthur's fairly butchered attempt at "Quanta Costa?"
Arthur quickly graduated from cooking just for himself to thrusting food upon Morgause and her workers. They took it in fairly good humor, although Morgause seemed to feel obligated to grumble about everything. Arthur would bring plates out to the overgrown, faded wooden bench in the yard, and everyone would sit around in the grass and eat. The kitchen table was being re-sanded, but after that was done he had plans to invite everyone inside.
On the morning when the last member of Morgause's team arrived, Arthur was elbow deep in flour, having decided to spend the day baking bread. He'd somehow managed to splatter tomato paste over his apron at an earlier point in the day, and the edges of his shirt too. He was certain there was something sticky on his nose as well. He hadn't noticed any of this at all, really, until Morgause tromped into the kitchen with Merlin Emrys in tow. "Hello," she said shortly, and Arthur turned around.
Emrys was certainly a surprise. He was, in fact, unlike anyone Arthur had encountered in Italy, or maybe anywhere. He was pale and slender, all long neck and elegant hands. His hair was dark and soft, just brushing the tips of his ears, and he stood a little awkwardly, tucked into a tattered woolen jumper and paint-splattered denims, a day or two of stubble on his cheeks. There was something almost otherworldly about him, Arthur thought, and then realized that he looked an awful state, and also that he hadn't said hello.
He tried to remedy that, wiping his hand on his apron and glancing down at himself with a grimace. "Terribly sorry, I'm just cooking," he said, and put out his hand.
Merlin shook it firmly, and gave a little chuckle. "Obviously," he said, and Arthur flushed, realizing that he probably hadn't needed to explain that. "Merlin Emrys," he continued, and smiled, a warm, honest expression that Arthur couldn't help returning.
"Arthur Pendragon," he said. "And I hear you'll be taming the garden?"
Merlin nodded. "I do love a challenge."
"Wasting the day," Morgause said, turning to leave. She stopped in the doorway, glancing back at Arthur. "Table'll be done tomorrow, got the chairs ready too."
"Brilliant," Arthur replied, pleased. The kitchen floor had been refinished as well, and the walls had been patched and painted, so he could safely put the furniture back in. "We shall have to have a little dinner in honor of it. You're both invited. Say Friday?"
Morgause just nodded, but Merlin smiled radiantly. "What a lovely offer," he said. "I'd be delighted."
Bemused, Arthur watched them leave, absently kneading at the bread dough. They were so different, and yet as they picked their way out to the worst of the wreckage of the yard, he saw them elbowing each other companionably, a dog who must have been Merlin's weaving around their legs. For a moment, Morgause even tossed her pale hair back in what might have been a laugh. Leave it to Arthur to move to Italy, only to befriend the oddest British people he'd ever met.
In honor of his first get-together in his new home, Arthur outdid himself on the dinner. It was a small gathering, just Lance, Morgause and her workers, as well as Lorenzo's wife and mother. Merlin had asked quite shyly if he could bring his dog, a boxer with a glossy chestnut coat who always joyously leapt at everything she saw, and who was still small enough to be carried around if she got too giddy. She was friendly to everyone, but her allegiance was clearly to Merlin, who always had a hand out to pat her head and murmur cariad while leaning down close to her floppy ears. If she had another name, Arthur never heard it.
"Of course," Arthur had said, because he had an enormous soft spot for canines, and later that afternoon he quietly looked up a recipe for homemade dog treats.
The meal was pleasantly loud, everyone clamoring over the risotto and shouting when Francesca swung her arms too wide and nearly spilled her wine. Lorenzo's mother was just as loud as the rest of them, and she was fond of constantly saying "Mio dio" in a very drawn out way, and following that up with some of the foulest phrases Arthur had ever heard, without batting an eye.
Lance was even more handsome than usual, dressed in a black jumper that hugged his body beautifully. He sat to Arthur's right, lounging in his chair and leaning close to murmur little comments about everyone else, about Italianisms and the cooking and the way the house was coming along. He even fed Arthur a bit of bread soaked in olive oil, which Arthur accepted with an embarrassing stammer.
Lorenzo's mother looked as though she was about to say something very mocking about the situation. Thankfully Merlin headed her off with a change of subject, and Arthur sent him a grateful look. Merlin just smiled back, soft and perhaps a bit self-effacingly, and then said something about crop cycles.
At the end of the night, everyone said goodbye with the customary kiss on both cheeks. Arthur thought that Lance might have done so a bit more lingeringly than everyone else.
Over the next few days, Merlin proved himself a welcome addition to the construction team. His voice had a lovely, ringing lilt to it, and he laughed often, a sound that always made Arthur want to join in. He spent his days out in the garden, carefully separating weeds from the plants that he wanted to nourish, trimming trees up on precarious ladders and mixing mortar to fix the garden wall.
Arthur began to spend his mornings outside when he wasn't cooking, watching Merlin curse over the creeping ivy that somebody had seen fit to introduce to the garden, and listening to the distant sound of Morgause delegating in her terribly efficient way. It had been just over a month since he'd bought the villa, and the weather was beginning to cool, as September waned into October.
Arthur bought a little phrasebook and started trying to teach himself useful things, and Merlin took occasional breaks to lean over his shoulder and point at things in the book, and to gently correct Arthur's pronunciation. He could now say such useful things as 'Where is the lavatory? (Dov'è il bagno?)' and 'Yes, I am a homosexual (Sì, sono un omosessuale).' He called Morgana gleefully, after that, and made her learn it too.
Today was one of those outside mornings. Arthur was stretched out on a blanket on his newly trimmed lawn, drinking a cup of tea and idly notating bits and pieces of story ideas in a spiral bound notebook. Slowly but surely, he was starting to feel the urge to write again. It was frightening, something that he'd once taken for granted but now felt the need to coddle. Something about this place did wonders for his anxieties, though, and Arthur was starting to think that maybe soon he'd be ready to write again. He didn't know if he'd ever return to the novel he'd been planning before the divorce, but anything was better than the crippling void of writing inclinations he'd felt as the divorce was going through. Now there was a wealth of new possibilities, sunny churches and miles of vineyards, even old temples if Arthur felt like the trip to Rome. Yes, when he was ready to write, it would be different than anything he'd ever done before.
Merlin settled down beside him on the blanket, startling him out of his reverie. "You look as though your head's full of big thoughts," he said, sounding lazily amused. "Care to tell me what's so engaging?"
"I've got to keep some mystery about me, haven't I?" Arthur said. "Don't want you to get bored with me."
Merlin laughed, easy and full. "I don't think that'll ever be a problem, Arthur," he said, and his smile was warm. Anyway, I don't know if you've got plans tonight, but I thought perhaps we-"
-Arthur's phone rang, a harsh chirping sound that cut Merlin off completely. He glanced down at the display. Lance.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said, "I've got to take this."
"Of course," Merlin said, and he sounded strangely crestfallen.
"Hello darling," Lance said, in his usual loud, slightly suggestive tone. It echoed tinnily from the mobile. "Morgause and I are taking you out, tonight, no excuses. Wear something hot, and go talk to her about the details." It was all one stream of information, with no time for Arthur to cut in. "Got to go now, but see you tonight! Ciao!" Lance said, and ended the call.
Arthur glanced back at Merlin, who'd clearly heard everything, if the bemused expression he was wearing meant anything.
"Sorry," Arthur said lamely. "Going somewhere with Lance tonight, apparently. What were you going to say?"
"Nothing," Merlin said quietly, and shot him a tiny smile. "Got to get back to work, unlike some other lazy sods." he hauled himself up, shooting Arthur one last glance before heading back out to the edge of the lawn.
"Oy, I'm working quite hard!" Arthur shouted after him indignantly, and that was that.
"Tonight, Lance and I'll have you out to a club," Morgause said later. Arthur found her perched in the sitting room on a rickety ladder. "Every other week it's mostly our sorts who go there." This was far more words than Morgause usually said at once, so Arthur immediately agreed on both counts.
The club was in Siena, which meant a forty-five minute drive crammed in Morgause's beaten-up truck with Lance pressed against Arthur's side. Lance looked good, as always, and he smelled like coffee and some sort of faintly spicy cologne. Arthur felt somewhat flustered around him, an increasingly common occurrence, but Lance didn't seem to notice. Morgause blasted the Sex Pistols from the truck's tape deck and didn't say a word.
At the club, Morgause ordered a lager. Lance brought back a virulently colored cocktail for himself, and another for Arthur, picking a cherry off his garnish and sucking it into his mouth with an unsettlingly sexual noise. Lance continued to bite down on a wedge of orange, white teeth pressing neatly through the soft slice. Arthur took a hurried swig of his drink and glanced around the club with what he hoped was a casual, interested air. The club was well populated, and most of the people dancing or paired off by the bar seemed to be unconcerned with hiding their queerness, which Arthur found quite heartening. He was mostly content to watch, which also seemed true for Lance. Morgause stalked off within a few minutes, and Arthur spied her not long after, leaning over to order a drink for a woman whose long, wavy hair reminded him a bit of Francesca.
"Do you dance?" Lance asked, several drinks later. Arthur was fuzzy with alcohol, and far more relaxed.
"Sometimes," he said. "Although I daresay I'm not very good at it. It's been ages."
"Come on," Lance said, and wrapped a hand around his wrist. "We'll muddle through it together."
Arthur was drunk enough to agree, and before long he found himself laughing against the faintly stubbled line of Lance's jaw as the crowd pushed them together under the dim lights of the dance floor. Lance chuckled, and Arthur was close enough to feel it rumble in his chest.
"These men want you," he murmured, his voice a raw rub against Arthur's ear that echoed somewhere deeper inside him. "You look so different from everyone else, so striking."
Arthur snuck a glance at the people around them. It was true, he stood out, blond against the dark tans and darker hair. It sent a strange, shivery feeling through him, to know that people were watching him. "I don't think you're ready for them yet," Lance continued, and he was close enough now that his lips were brushing Arthur's ear. "But we'll still have fun, I think." Then they were dancing again, and Arthur couldn't catch his breath.
The rest of the night was a blur of bright cocktails and dancing, bodies pressing up against Arthur's and the solid weight of Lance's hand wrapped around his wrist, gently pulling him out of the way of drunken flails and dangerously teetering drinks. Lance's smile was wide and bright, and occasionally he threw his head back and laughed, exposing the long column of his throat. He could've been a fashion model, Arthur thought, and gulped, hoping it wasn't too audible.
"Come here, Arthur," Lance said in a thick whisper. Soon they were kissing, close and sweaty under the swirling lights of the club.
They left at half past one, Morgause dragging them out to the truck and turning up the music to drown out their drunken laughter. The night air was chill, and with the cab windows down Arthur was glad to be pressed so close to Lance, who was warm and pliant against him. Lance spent the entirety of the ride pressing teasing kisses along the length of Arthur's jaw. Morgause kept up a quietly disapproving look until they arrived at Lance's flat.
"Come in with me," Lance said, breath warm against Arthur's ear, and Arthur couldn't do anything except say yes. Lance set off toward the door of his flat, but Morgause called out, "Arthur," sharply, and reached to grasp his arm before he could step out of the truck.
"Yeah?" he said.
Morgause reached to thumb down the volume on the music, still gazing steadily at him. "Be careful," she said abruptly. "He loves the idea of loving, but he's not very good at the real thing. He likes the thrill of it, but he'll wander off to the next bloke the moment you say it's something real."
"I didn't-" Arthur started embarrassedly, but Morgause cut him off.
"I know he's charming," she said quietly, and she sounded almost apologetic. "I think you'll find somebody, someone who wants the same things you do," she said.
"Um, thanks?" Arthur said. "It's just, Lance is waiting, so I've got to follow him, really."
Morgause's hair caught in the night breeze, tangling around her face, and for a moment she looked almost frightening. Then it was gone, though, and Arthur was telling her goodnight.
"I will be okay, really," he said reassuring.
"Night," Morgause said curtly. Arthur had scarcely jumped out of the truck before she was pulling out of the lot.
Lance had a lovely flat, all tasteful colors and well-chosen modernist furniture. He poured Arthur another drink inside, but only let him get down a sip of it before he was pushing Arthur down onto the couch and clambering onto his lap.
The sex was good, Arthur thought afterwards, certainly very nice. He'd only had sex with one person over the past five years, perhaps even longer. So he didn't have so much to compare it to, but he thought it was a fairly successful endeavor. Lance pulled him down on the bed, after, and mumbled something about driving him home in the morning. Arthur wanted a shower badly, after the club and the sex and all. At some point someone had spilled a drink on his arm, and it still felt sticky against Lance's pristine white duvet. But he was terrified of destroying whatever fragile thing had now come to pass, so he stayed still beneath the covers, waiting for sleep to claim him.
Arthur woke up quite early to the unpleasant shock of not knowing where he was. It took a moment, but then it all came back to him, and he rolled over to see Lance still asleep beside him. The sun caught his face, highlighting his cheekbones and tingeing the ends of his hair almost golden. Arthur considered leaning over to say good morning, but it seemed impolite to wake him. Instead, he laid staring up at the ceiling for a while, before getting up and wandering out to find some toothpaste and splash some water upon his face.
He looked a fright. Gazing at his reflection in the mirror over the medicine cupboard, Arthur tried his best to rearrange his hair into something that didn't look like it was about to attack the rest of his face. That only seemed to make things worse. He was rumpled, his t-shirt wrinkled and his face was faintly imprinted with the pillow he'd fallen asleep against. It was strange to feel this way again, almost like being a teenager and feeling as though if this didn't work, nobody would ever want to sleep with him again. Arthur willfully quieted his fears and wandered back into the bedroom.
"Oh, morning," Lance said from the bed. He was sitting up, now, and disheveled worked much better on him than Arthur felt it did on himself. He looked a bit rakish, his hair all pointy and the blankets falling low over his hips. "I've got to meet a client in an hour," Lance said briskly. "I'll take you home in a moment."
"Oh," Arthur said. "Okay." He watched as Lance stood and drew on a pair of trousers, unsure of what to do with himself. He finally settled for perching on his side of the bed, while Lance drew on a shirt, then a charcoal colored sweater.
The ride home was equally awkward. Lance listened to the morning news in Italian, occasionally grunting over something but otherwise not translating at all. Arthur recognized a few words from Merlin's teachings, but for the most part had no idea what he was hearing. By the time Lance pulled up at the villa, he was nearly ready to do something unforgivably dramatic, like burst into tears or ask what he'd done wrong to make things so stilted.
Merlin was already outside, pulling weeds with great gusto. He glanced up when Arthur opened his car door, and did a swift double take when Lance got out of the driver's door. Lance raised an eyebrow in Merlin's direction and dragged Arthur in for a swift kiss.
"I had a nice time," he said, and dropped a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Look, I've got an awful dinner party I've got to attend next week. It'll be a bore, but I'd love if you could go with me. It'd be much more fun, and everyone would whisper about how jealous they are of us. What d'you say?"
"I," Arthur said, a little breathlessly. "Of course."
Lance leaned in and kissed him, the sort of smooth, calculated kiss that Arthur imagined when reading romance novels. "I'll pick you up next Friday. I'll ring with the details."
"Okay," Arthur said, and watched Lance stride back over to his car. "Goodbye." He turned back to the garden. "Oh, good morning Merlin," he said dazedly.
"Yeah," Merlin said quietly, and went back to pulling weeds with, if possible, even more vigor. Merlin's dog barked sharply, a noise that repeated in Arthur's ears all through his bath and morning tea.
Things were strangely stilted at the house, after that. Morgause was even more bad-tempered than usual, which transferred onto her workers. Merlin was strangely quiet, almost sad. He wouldn't say what was upsetting him though, and Arthur didn't feel it was his place to ask. Yet after a few days of tension, Merlin let himself into the kitchen, where Arthur was chopping up the garlic for some lovely fresh spinach he was planning to cook in olive oil.
"So," Merlin said quietly. "I've been thinking."
"Yes?" Arthur said carefully, in a slow, drawn-out tone. It seemed like lately everyone he interacted with was set off by the smallest, strangest things.
"Yeah," Merlin said, sounding uncomfortable. "You have this great lovely wall, here in the kitchen." He pointed at the back wall, opposite the windows. It was blank, unoccupied but for the table in front of it, and free from cabinets or other hanging furniture. "I thought you might like if I painted something on it. Some of the old villas were painted to look like windows to the outside, you know, and I thought you might like something like that." It all came out in a rush, as though Merlin was nervous about how Arthur might react.
"I think that'd be lovely," Arthur said. "But do you know how to paint?"
"Oh," Merlin chuckled. "Actually that's my real job. You know, when I'm not tending to gardens. I teach painting classes at the university in Siena. That's why I'm not around some afternoons."
It had never actually occurred to Arthur that this wasn't Merlin's only job, given how good he was at it. This made sense, though, the clothes splattered with paint, the lingering, searching way in which he gazed at everything around him, even the delicacy with which he held a tea cup. Of course Merlin was an artist.
"I'd love that," Arthur said firmly. "Start as soon as you like."
After that, things were a bit less tense. Morgause was still sullenly quiet, but everyone else talked more to fill in her void, and Merlin told quiet stories as he sketched his ideas onto the wall in light pencil-lines. His touch was fine and sure, and his gaze was softly intent as the picture took shape. He asked Arthur all about himself, too, his family, his childhood. He asked about his books, and about his life in England, and little by little, Arthur told him the slow, painful story of his marriage falling apart. He talked about things that he'd never said aloud even to Gwen or Morgana, how he'd always been afraid that Edwin would leave him, because he wasn't exciting enough, because he was too obsessed with order but still strewed cheap paperback novels around the house, and because he was sometimes somewhat prickly. Merlin just listened and smiled warmly, and sometimes laughed, but never at Arthur, not exactly.
Arthur continued to see Lance, going to parties and sometimes restaurants in Florence, and then back to Lance's flat. He didn't like Arthur's house, saying it was too full of rubble and that the dust made him cough. Yet he showered Arthur with compliments, and introduced him to stylish Italians during the intermission of operas that Gwen would never have sat through. Arthur didn't mind so much, because Lance bought him champagne and told him he was ravishing, and later helped him out of his tux and onto the bed.
They were out late in Montepulciano one night. It was one of the rare occasions upon which Arthur had convinced Lance to do what Arthur wanted to, which was to have a few drinks at the bar and wander back to the villa on foot. He'd been trying to get Lance to join him on the walk for weeks, now, but Lance was unimpressed with nature.
They were stumbling along, a little drunk. Arthur was feeling very pleased, for once getting to stay the night in his own bed. Perhaps it was a bit rickety, but he liked that about it, no matter what Lance said. The path was lit only by the moon, and they stumbled along over tree roots, cursing more or less good naturedly. But when they neared the house, Arthur saw a lump silhouetted upon his front step, something large and dark. "What in the world?" Arthur said, and Lance just shrugged.
As they approached the house, Arthur was able to make out two forms, sitting hunched over on his front step. They were female, and one had an arm around the other, and good lord, it was Gwen and a very pregnant Morgana.
Lance seemed to notice the pregnant woman at about the same time Arthur did, and he said, "I think I'll just be going now, and shot off toward his car.
"Okay," Arthur said weakly, and walked over to the step. "No offense," he said, kneeling to hug them both, "But what the hell are you doing here?"
Gwen opened her mouth to speak, but Morgana beat her to it. "It's our landlord," she said bitterly. "He found out, and hen he tossed us out, that homophobic bastard. We didn't know where else to go."
"Oh lord," Arthur said. "Well of course you came to the right place. Come on, I'll find some linens for the spare room."
He led them both inside through the dark house, fumbling until he found the stairway light. The spare bedrooms were fairly clean, still partially furnished with the Contessa's old, unwanted belongings. The beds weren't quite as large as his, but there was a queen-sized one in the second bedroom, and Arthur chose that room, leaving them to drop down onto the bed as he searched for sheets and blankets.
"Were you about to come back here with a man?" Morgana asked sleepily.
Arthur set down the linens and smiled at her. "Don't trouble yourselves over that. Have a good night, and we can figure everything else out tomorrow."
"Okay," Morgana replied, and was interrupted halfway through by a yawn. "Night."
The following morning Arthur shuffled blearily down the stairs to the kitchen, only to find that Morgana was already there, sipping tea and chatting with Merlin, who was mixing up paints for the wall. He looked fresh and bright, as he always did in the morning, skin almost luminescent in the early morning light. Morgana threw back her head and laughed at something Merlin had just muttered, and Arthur felt himself smiling rather against his will. They couldn't have met more than an hour ago, since Merlin never arrived before eight, and yet they were already behaving like old friends.
Morgana glanced up, noticing Arthur. "Morning," she called, then looked back up and shuddered. "Do you always look like this in the morning? You're horrifying."
Arthur lunged for the teapot. He needed caffeine before any sort of human communication occurred. Cup in hand, he turned back to her. "You saw me all the time in your flat. This shouldn't be a surprise. Besides, I don't look so bad." He leaned over to smell the rich aroma of the tea, adjusting his glasses as they slipped down his nose.
"I was always gone by the time you got your sorry arse up," Morgana said primly. "Merlin, tell him he ought to go shower immediately."
Arthur groaned. "I should've known you'd immediately co-opt all my friends into bullying me."
Merlin looked up, his cheeks slightly pink. "I think you look, er, fine," he offered, and looked swiftly back down at his paints.
"Very disappointing," Morgana replied. "Not to worry, we'll soon have you insulting Arthur with the best of us."
Merlin flushed an even deeper red, but his voice was steady when he replied, "What an honor."
"I need allies," Arthur said, trying to will himself to move. "I'm going to wake up Gwen."
"Do that and she'll never be on your side," Morgana said.
Arthur slumped over against the kitchen counter, defeated. "Go on," he said. "Just finish me off."
"So," Morgana said, later that morning. "Merlin's a very nice boy." They were wandering aimlessly along the walking path, and waiting for Gwen to get back from town. She was attempting to find out where the nearest hospital was, in the hopes of working there, and as usual, Gwen had wasted no time in getting started with such practicalities.
"He's not a boy at all," Arthur said testily. "He's an adult, just like me and possibly you."
"You're avoiding the point," Morgana replied. "Oh, I see why you like this path, very pretty. It'll soon be cold for walking to town, but I suppose you've got a car if you need to use it."
"Theoretically," Arthur said. "Although it still hasn't been shipped here. I've got to speak to the movers again. But you're right, I shan't need that until winter, and Lance has a car as well."
"Oh," Morgana said, and as usual made it sound like she had just realized something very important. "Lance. Is that the bloke who turned tail and ran when he saw evidence of feminine fertility?" Her tone was suspiciously innocent. "Who's he?"
Arthur kicked at a pebble on the walking path. "He's, er, he's just someone," he said.
"Arthur," Morgana said. "Do you have a young man?"
"Must you be so Victorian about it?" Arthur asked petulantly. "Yes, I've been seeing someone, but I don't know if he's my boyfriend or whatever else you want to call it. We haven't exactly talked about it."
"Hmm," said Morgana significantly. "But you have sex?"
"Yeah," Arthur said, going unpleasantly red. "We do that."
"And is it good?" Morgana asked.
"It's fine," Arthur said, with as much finality as he could muster. "And it's also none of your business. Now tell me all the awful things about being pregnant so I can feel superior to you."
"It's actually quite lovely, now that the morning sickness has gone," Morgana said, and leapt nimbly away from Arthur's halfhearted swat. "I feel the best I have in ages. Anyway, I just wanted to say that Merlin was very nice, and that he jumped around making me tea and getting me pillows this morning. It was perfectly lovely of him, and he wasn't obligated to do any of it."
"Yeah," Arthur said quietly. "He's nice." He stared down at the path, and they continued walking.
It was late October, and the path was covered over with falling leaves. Everything felt quiet and steady, just as it had in the summer, but now there was a sort of anticipation of the winter everywhere. People were starting to board up their summerhouses for the season, and those who lived in the town year-round were covering over their windows with heavy shutters, and putting up thick drapes to keep in the heat. The market products had given way to autumnal goods, with people setting up stalls of fruit and vegetables imported from the south. The cobbler put out displays of fine leather boots, treated to keep out the damp, and the postcard racks and ceramic plates displaying pictures of the local churches were put away in favor of anoraks and bottles of spiced wine.
Arthur led Morgana around the village, pointing out all the things he'd learned about the town's history, and plying her with fresh bread, prosciutto, and rounds of cheese from Pienza. They took their time, ambling up and down the cobbled streets and adding purchases to Arthur's knapsack.
"I want you to know," Arthur said, over lunch at a quiet bistro, "You two can stay as long as you like. I've missed you terribly, and the house is so big to be all alone in. I'd be perfectly happy if you never left, to be honest."
"Oh, Arthur," Morgana said, and squeezed his hand over the table. "Oh, don't knock over the oil, you oaf." Her smile was genuine, though, and Arthur returned it. "I can see why you love it here," she said softly. "It's so peaceful. I'd love for the baby to be born here."
"Then you'll have to stay," Arthur said firmly, "And that's the end of it. We can go into Siena to look for baby supplies tomorrow."
By the time they returned to the villa, Gwen was awake and prowling around the place, looking at the work that had been accomplished. "Show me what's been done here," she said interestedly, leaning to kiss Morgana. "Hello beautiful," she said, and Morgana smiled softly at her. Arthur grinned, and led them through the house without comment. After, he introduced them to Morgause and her team. They were all crouched around the outside of the sitting room wall, muttering in Italian and shooting dark looks at one another.
"Er, everything all right?" Arthur asked, and Morgause glared at him and muttered something to Lorenzo, who squeaked in dismay and reached for his measuring tape. "Need to work on the supports here, possibly an issue," she translated briskly, then turned back to her team.
"She's been more unpleasant than usual, lately," Arthur whispered. "I'm not sure why."
Lance phoned around teatime, asking Arthur if he wanted to have dinner. "I've got friends here now," Arthur said. "They're the ones who came in last night. My closest friends in the entire world, actually, I'd love for you to meet them. Perhaps they could come along?" He reached for the flour, glancing over at the stained cookbook he had propped open on the kitchen counter. He was working on gingerbread dough, which he'd leave to set overnight. He liked the way it made the whole kitchen smell warm and spicy, and Merlin kept creeping over to see if it was something he could steal, then slinking away when Arthur caught him. He was keeping his distance now, though, out of probably deference to Arthur being on the phone.
"Course," Lance said. "Suppose that means you won't be coming home with me?"
"Well," Arthur fumbled, "No I suppose not. But you could always stay over here."
"I have an early meeting," Lance said. "But dinner is fine. La Grotta at eight?"
"Sounds perfect." Arthur said, and tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice. "Oh, I was hoping to take Morgana to Siena tomorrow afternoon. Do you think perhaps you could drive us? If you don't have any clients of course."
"Tomorrow?" Lance said. "No, I can't manage that. Perhaps some time next week if I'm not too strapped for time."
"Oh," Arthur said. "Yeah okay, some time next week, maybe. See you tonight, though."
"Yeah," Lance said, and hung up the phone with a brisk, "Ciao."
Arthur stared down at his mobile for a moment, before setting it out of range of the flour with his clean hand. He reached for the cinnamon with a sigh, glancing back over at the book.
"You need to go to Siena tomorrow?" Merlin asked quietly. "I could take you."
"Oh, I wouldn't want to impose," Arthur said.
"No, really," Merlin said. "I'd love to get some more paints from my studio, anyway. And you'll need a guide if you want to find anything there. I'm excellent at navigation." He smiled. "Really, let me take you."
"Morgana and Gwen, too?" Arthur asked.
"Of course," Merlin said, and now his grin was widening. "I adore them already."
"Thanks," Arthur said. He felt a curious weight lift off his chest as he added, "I'd really like that."
La Grotta was Lance's favorite restaurant in Montepulciano. It had a lovely garden, and Lance had reserved a table there, even though it was a bit chilly for that at this time of year. Morgana shivered and buttoned up her coat, and Gwen leaned worriedly closer. "Will you be all right?" She asked, in somewhat of a loud whisper. "I don't want you catching chill."
"I'm fine," Morgana said, and waved away Lance with the wine. "Can't, not chancing anything with the baby."
"I really think one glass would be fine," Lance said, but passed over her glass to Gwen.
"None for me either," Gwen said apologetically. "I'm not having anything Morgana can't."
"Fair enough," Lance said, shrugging, and topped off his own glass.
The meal was terribly awkward. From the start, Morgana and Lance didn't get along well at all, and Gwen and Arthur spent the whole evening trying to mediate things. Finally, halfway through dessert, Morgana set down her spoon with great force and said, "I just want to know your designs on my best mate, here." Her voice was carefully measured, as though she was very close to losing her temper.
"I don't have to put up with this," Lance said coldly, and stood, throwing a few bills down on the table. "Arthur, call me later, if you can keep your friend in check."
"Yes Arthur," Morgana said bitterly. "If you can keep me in check. Honestly, I just want you to be happy, and I don't see how you could possibly be happy with him.
"Come on please," Arthur hissed desperately. "You're making a scene." He half stood, hoping to reach out after Lance, but he'd already made it to the door. Arthur slumped back down into his seat.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I don't know why he was behaving like that."
"I do," Morgana said darkly. "Nobody ever disagrees with him, obviously. Do you always let him do whatever he wants?"
Arthur looked down at his half-eaten torte. It'd tasted so good a moment ago, but now it looked entirely unappealing. "I don't even know where we stand," he said finally. "I don't want to cause a fight when I don't even know if there's anything to fight over."
"Talk to him," Morgana shot at Gwen, and Gwen sighed, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Look," She said carefully. "It's been what, four, five months since you came here? You were in a relationship for five years, Arthur, it's no wonder you liked the idea of someone else finding you attractive. But that man, I don't think he really appreciates you the way he ought to. I'm not saying it's anything awful about him personally, he just doesn't seem to want the same things you do. And I think if you weren't rebounding just a tiny bit, you might see that about him. I think he likes to be seen with you, but do you really make each other happy in more than an aesthetic sense?"
Arthur opened his mouth, unsure of what to say but knowing he had to say something, but Gwen cut him off with a gentle hand. "Don't say anything yet. Just think about it, yeah? We want you to be happy, and if Lance truly makes you happy, Morgana will shut up and deal with it. If he doesn't though, then please know that you will find someone who does." She smiled gently, unfolding her arms to lay a hand over Arthur's. "We love you," she said softly. "We want you to be happy."
"Yeah," Arthur said quietly, wilting. "Of course. I understand."
Morgana snorted, but held in any snide remarks she desperately wanted to make, so Arthur let it go for the cold walk home, and by the time they were saying goodnight it was with some semblance of normalcy.
Merlin picked them up in the morning, sounding an out of tune honk from his battered yellow Citroen. It was as pleasantly dilapidated as his clothes usually were, and his dog was sprawled in the backseat, gnawing happily on a milk bone. "Morning," Merlin said cheerfully, as they all piled into the car. Arthur ended up in the backseat with Gwen, insisting that Morgana take the front.
"Oh, lovely dog," Gwen said, leaning over Arthur to pat her head. "What's your name?"
Merlin glanced back at them in the rear view mirror, and his smile was as genuine as Arthur had seen it be in weeks. "Violet," he said, and reached back to scratch behind her ears. "My sweet darling." Violet made a low, cheerful sound and licked at his hand, then dropped her head into Arthur's lap and stared hopefully at him with her big doe eyes until Arthur petted her belly.
"She likes you," Merlin said, and when Arthur looked up his Merlin was flushing red again, which seemed to be a growing problem for him. "Anyway," Merlin said, clearing his throat, "Off to Siena, yeah?"
"Yeah," Morgana repeated, and turned back to shoot a long look at Gwen. Arthur didn't know what it was supposed to mean, but he didn't think he liked it.
Siena already felt like a big city, compared to Montepulciano. Arthur had never particularly cared for largely populated places, and he'd thought he'd probably move away from Cardiff if he and Edwin decided to adopt children. So, it didn't bother him to live in such a remote area. Still, it was rather exciting to be surrounded by the bustle of Siena, all fancy clothing shops and people shouting to one another, and Violet making cheerful noises at all the other dogs.
Merlin showed them around with an easy confidence, insisting on treating them all to espresso at a bar that he said was the best in Siena. Arthur liked the casual bustle of the place, and after coffee and a bit of pan forte, he spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around shops and tasting produce with Merlin, Violet trailing along behind them and occasionally whuffling at some interesting scent. It was pleasant to spend time with Merlin, who was just the right combination of talkative and quiet. Whenever he chose to speak, he said something interesting, but he was also quite aware of when it was nicer to be companionably silent.
"I've got to stop off at my studio," Merlin said, after they'd traversed the racetrack piazza. "But then we can come back here and have a gelato, yeah? Soon it'll be too cold to enjoy it."
Arthur wasn't sure whether he was talking about the piazza or the gelato, but since he was agreed on both points, he just nodded and let Merlin lead him back through the town.
"Here," Merlin said a few minutes later. It was a corner building, constructed of stone and neatly painted in white. The door was tiny and old, made of pitted wood, and it swung inward with a heavy sound when Merlin turned his key in the lock and pushed.
Inside, the space was brighter than expected, filled with sunny windows and skylights set into the ceiling. Merlin moved swiftly through the hallway and into a cluttered sitting room, filled to the bursting with neat stacks of books. There was an overstuffed sofa placed in the center of the room with a faded quilt laid over the top. Next to it on either side, a pair of end tables overflowed with more books, saucers and teacups stacked precariously on top of those.
"I don't use this space so much," Merlin said apologetically. "So I haven't put away all my books in some time. Not like I have so many people over to visit it. It's just the studio I spend my time in," he continued, and opened the door opposite the sitting room, ushering Arthur in ahead of him.
The studio was as bright and airy as the rest of the place, but this room had the appearance of being much more regularly disturbed. There were pictures tacked up on all the walls, sketches and paintings on various mediums and in various states of completion. A few canvases were propped up against the far wall, already stretched onto boards, and a pair of easels sat at rakish angles in front of the largest window, displaying dark, wavering scenes that could have come from a fantastical children's book. Arthur came closer, leaning over to look at them. They had a strange presence that perfectly matched everything he'd come to think about Merlin, delicate, but imbued with a strange power. He could see the lines of Merlin's brushstrokes, and they bespoke precision and confidence, tendered by a dreamy imagination.
"I'll just grab the things I need, then," Merlin said, and opened up a door leading to a walk-in cupboard, rummaging through a few boxes as Arthur wandered around the room, looking at portraits and mystical creatures and strange, dark landscapes. There was a pile of bedding in the corner, and Arthur gestured curiously at it.
"Oh," Merlin shrugged, looking embarrassed. "My bedroom's not so inviting, and it's always cold. I fall asleep here most nights, just work until I drop, yeah?" He cleared his throat. "Right, that's all sorted," he said, a clear change of subject, and closed the cupboard door with a crisp click. He had a satchel tucked under his arm, sagging under the weight of whatever he'd put in it, and he shifted it onto his shoulders and smiled at Arthur, waving him along. "So that's my work," he said, before closing the door. "Good lord, I hope you like it, otherwise I shall have to do something about your wall."
"No", Arthur said, and was surprised at the force of it. "I loved your work, I'm more than happy I'll get to see it every day."
"Oh," Merlin said awkwardly, "Right, thanks." He was blushing again, which was getting to be an almost daily occurrence. "Shall we go find your friends?"
"I believe it would already be safe to call them your friends, too," Arthur said dryly, and smiled back when it made Merlin grin.
They stopped for gelato, first, as promised. The flavors were all in Italian, and Arthur gestured helplessly at them, his outstretched arm brushing the soft sleeve of Merlin's jumper. Merlin glanced over at him and smiled, leaning fractionally closer. "Doesn't matter what they are," he said. "It only matters what the best one is."
Arthur leaned closer too, unable to hold in his smile at Merlin's conspiratorial tone. "And I suppose you know which one is the best," he said, gesturing for Merlin to continue.
"Indeed," Merlin said seriously, but his eyes were crinkled up at the corners from his smile. "Bacio."
"Like the chocolates?" Arthur asked. It made Merlin's grin grow, and Arthur found that he liked that rather more than he'd expected.
"Baci?" Merlin said. "Almost. Same premise, though, chocolate and hazelnut." He leaned in, knocking his shoulder against Arthur's. "No pressure, but if you say you don't like it, I'm leaving you here to rot."
Arthur chuckled, surprised by how nice he found the brush of Merlin's arm. The day was crisply cool, and Merlin felt pleasantly warm and looked it too, his sweater a deep, rich shade of green that made his skin look milky pale. "You'd leave a pregnant woman?" he asked, trying to sound as horrified as possible. It was difficult, when he couldn't keep a straight face.
Merlin smirked. "I didn't say I'd leave anyone here except you. I think Gwen and Morgana are lovely. Excellent taste in desserts, I'm sure."
"And you don't think I do?" Arthur asked. "Go on then, order it for both of us. We'll just see about your snobbish proclivities."
"Ooh," Merlin said, smirking. "Breaking out the big words are we? Here, hold Violet's lead, will you?" He stepped up to the gelato counter and ordered in a smooth stream of Italian, illustrating whatever he was saying with a graceful wave of his arms. Arthur couldn't help half closing his eyes, listening to the soft, sweet way in which Merlin formed all the words. It sounded delicate and soft coming from him, and somehow strangely intimate, not knowing the words, but knowing the person who was saying them, the inflections, the little pauses, even the way his lips parted as he spoke. He could hear the places where Merlin's tongue thudded up against the consonants, and for some reason, it sent a shudder through him.
"You understand, don't you?" Arthur muttered at Violet, and she made an impatient noise and shoved her head up under his hand to be petted. Arthur distractedly complied.
Merlin returned with the gelato, and they took it back out to the Piazza, Merlin dropping bits of a crumpled pizzelle he'd produced from his pocket for Violet. The cobblestones were cold, but Merlin didn't seem bothered by it, sprawling out onto the ground and watching crowds of pigeons bother the tourists as he licked delicately at his spoon in a strangely catlike manner.
"Well?" he said finally, and Arthur realized that he'd been so distracted by Merlin that he hadn't tried his own gelato yet. "I was just joking about you liking it," Merlin said. "If you don't like it I'll buy you another."
"Don't be silly," Arthur said. "And how much do I owe you for this one?"
Merlin raised an eyebrow at him. "Don't be ridiculous," he said. "Just try it."
Arthur took a small spoonful, raising it to his lips and slowly tasting it. Merlin's gaze was heavy upon him as he silently watched, and Arthur squeezed his eyes closed for a moment, overwhelmed. "You win," he said, after a long pause. "This is delicious."
He opened his eyes to find Merlin biting his lip, head cocked slightly as he gazed down at Arthur's mouth. He licked his lips, shook his head, then turned abruptly away. "Shall we find Gwen and Morgana?"
"Yeah," Arthur said, and for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why his voice came out sounding almost shaky.
Gwen and Morgana had found a magnificent crib, carved of dark, glossy mahogany, and a matching chest of drawers. They'd no doubt paid a fortune for it, although Arthur assumed that, Gwen being a doctor, they were probably allowed to do things like that. They also had purchased an armload of local quilts and rugs, enough to cover all of the four upstairs bedrooms, whether Arthur ever had any need to or not. He'd assured them that the two rooms on the end were theirs for as long as they liked, for forever if they felt like it, and they had apparent designs to use the second room as a nursery. Merlin smiled and said something about painting the room a nice baby color, which made Gwen smile, and Morgana scoff and say something about it never being too old to teach someone maturity. She spoiled it by laughing in the middle of her monologue, though, and admitted that she was quite partial to yellow.
The ride home was quiet, and Arthur spent it scratching behind Violet's ears and thinking much too hard about Merlin eating his gelato, his lips slick and pink, his gaze strangely considering.
It helped having Gwen and Morgana around, more than Arthur had realized he'd needed it. He continued his usual routine of cooking and wandering the garden and the paths, but now there were people to taste his food, and people to fill up the house with laughter and big, bright plans. Morgause had nearly completed the interior, but for some places that needed painting or plastering, and was working to make sure all the outside walls were sound before the winter weather really set in.
November arrived, and brought with it cold, endless rainstorms. Arthur didn't mind terribly, because he had a kitchen kept warm by the oven, and the endless stream of cookies and pastries he baked to combat the chill. He handed them off to Gwen and Morgana, stuffed them in Merlin's mouth as he painted, and forced them upon Morgause and her crew, who shuffled their feet and said gruff things that he mostly couldn't understand, although his Italian was continuing to improve as Merlin taught him offhand things while painting smooth, sleek lines onto the kitchen wall. He was trying not to look too hard at what was forming, although he could see that there was a building, perhaps a castle, and some sort of landscape leading up to it.
Arthur didn't hear as much from Lance. He said it was a busy season, closing up all the houses that people had rented for the summer, but Arthur suspected, too, that it was the result of his confrontation with Morgana. He seemed displeased with Merlin, too, which Arthur didn't pretend to understand. It made things tense, since he had very little else to talk about. Their dates had grown fewer and shorter, ending at Lance's house much less frequently. Arthur suspected Lance would soon move onto someone new, but the thought didn't pain him as much as it might once have done. He had a family here now, and he wasn't by himself. He'd suspected Lance of being flighty and quick to move on, Morgause having said so fairly explicitly, so as the days went on and Morgana's belly grew, his life became more and more about waiting for everything to change.
In a way, he was more correct than he'd expected, because when it happened, it all happened at once. It was a Saturday in mid-November, just as wet and gloomy as the last few weeks had been. Arthur was lying half-awake but still in bed, trying to will himself to get up and leap into the bath. This wasn't a very good plan, because it took ages for the water to heat up. However the other option was to go downstairs and start the tea while he waited for his bathwater to heat, and that was also unacceptable. Faced with this insurmountable obstacle, Arthur burrowed deeper into his blankets and frowned at the unfairness of the universe.
He was abruptly driven completely awake by a shout from the other end of the hall, followed by a few quick, pattering footsteps and a swift knock on his door. Gwen threw it open before he had a chance to respond, her hair in disarray and her expression terrified.
"Get up!" she shouted. "It's happening, she's contracting and whatnot, we've got to get to the hospital!"
"Has her water broken?" Arthur asked blearily, fumbling around for his glasses.
"Yes," Gwen said in an unusually scathing tone. "Now come on, the welfare of your future niece or nephew is at stake."
"I'll call Lance for a ride," Arthur said, and reached for his mobile to do just that.
Lance answered on the fourth ring, sounding disoriented and a bit annoyed. "Yeah?" he asked.
"It's me," Arthur said, "Arthur."
"Yeah I know," Lance said, "What d'you want? It's arse o'clock in the morning."
"Oh," Arthur said, cringing a little. "Sorry, it's just, Morgana's gone into labor, and when I mentioned it a few weeks ago you said it'd be fine to ring you for a ride to the hospital."
Lance sighed, sounding very put-upon. "Look, find someone else, will you? I don't have time to taxi you all the way to Florence this morning."
"Are you actually serious?" Arthur said quietly, and suddenly it was all building up inside of him, Lance's flightiness, and the way he didn't like Arthur's bed and didn't care for cooking, or animals, or really any of Arthur's friends. "Look, thanks so much for the house and everything, but I don't think I'd like to see you again," Arthur said firmly. "This is really not so much to ask from someone, you know. So perhaps I'll see you again, but probably not. Goodbye Lance," he added, and ended the call before Lance could edge in a word. Perhaps he'd call back, but probably not.
This done, Arthur felt himself beginning to shake. He'd never been the sort to leave someone, always being the dedicated partner who was waiting at home for his husband to arrive. He squeezed his eyes shut, rubbing a hand over his face. This felt new and strange, though not necessarily bad, however now didn't seem like a particularly good time to be dealing with personal revelations. He needed to get Morgana to a hospital, and the nearest cab company was terribly far away. Arthur should have perhaps been quite nervous, but somehow, he felt strangely calm, and without even stopping to consider it, he picked up his phone again and called Merlin. A strange confidence was blooming in his chest, tinged with the excitement of behaving in a way that was entirely different from his usual manner.
"I need help," he said, in response to Merlin's " 'lo?"
"Of course," Merlin replied, already sounding more awake. "What do you need? I can be there in half an hour."
"It's time for the baby, but don't kill yourself speeding," Arthur said, and as he shut his mobile with a definitive click, he felt his grin widening uncontrollably.
Merlin arrived at the house in record time, without Violet for the first time Arthur could remember. He ushered them all into the car, fussing over whether or not everyone had changes of clothes and cameras and other things that they probably didn't need at all, then set off for Florence at a brisk clip. Morgana's contractions were still far enough apart as to not be cause for concern, and she was still making faces and mocking Arthur's ridiculous hair and Merlin's worrying. Gwen was silent in the backseat, twisting the hem of her jumper between her hands, and Arthur gently wrested it from her grasp, lacing his own fingers into hers. "It'll be fine," he murmured, and Gwen nodded and made a visible attempt to relax.
At the hospital, Gwen stormed around informing everyone that she was a doctor in both English and questionable Italian, finally being allowed to join Morgana in her room. Arthur recorded the whole exchange with his camera, smirking at Gwen's growing hysteria. Morgana seemed perfectly fine. Merlin disappeared from the waiting room, returning a moment later with paper cups tea for both of them. "Could be all day," he said quietly, and smiled. "It's very exciting, isn't it? Do you know what names they have in mind?"
"They can't agree on anything," Arthur replied. "But I believe they're thinking of Elayne."
"And if it's a boy?" Merlin asked.
"Oh, I think they'll end up with Leon," Arthur said, and quietly sipped at his tea. An idea was slowly forming, something which was frightening but also terribly exciting. He bit down on his lip, considering, then glanced over at where Merlin was curled into a chair. He'd put down his tea on the table beside him, and his eyes were already fluttering closed, a reminder that Arthur had woken him up at a very early hour. Arthur smiled at how soft and young Merlin looked, and settled back into his own chair. It could wait a few hours.
Arthur managed to doze off, too, for long enough that when he woke up, it was already early afternoon. He glanced over at Merlin, who had a magazine in his lap but seemed to be at least half dozing. "Hey," Arthur said groggily, then before he could lose his nerve, he added, "Look, there's something I wanted to tell you."
"Go ahead," Merlin said. "What is it?" He straightened up in his chair, rubbing his eyes then dropping his hands into his lap.
Arthur glanced down at Merlin's hands, long and slender, pale against the dark wash of his denims. He looked as ethereal and strange as always, even under the harsh glare of the waiting room lights, against the background of the stark walls and ugly furniture. He certainly wasn't handsome in the same way that Lance was, but he was something else, something greater, and Arthur felt that same strange excitement filling up his chest, making him dizzily, shakily happy. It was like putting his glasses on in the morning, his incomprehensible surroundings gently morphing into something pleasantly familiar, something that had always been there whether Arthur could see it or not.
"Well," Arthur started. He could feel his cheeks flushing, and it almost made him laugh, recalling how often he had that effect on Merlin. "I broke up with Lance," he said in a rush. He wasn't entirely certain why this was so important, although things were rapidly becoming clearer.
"Oh," Merlin said slowly. "Really?"
"Really," Arthur said firmly. "I can't believe I let that continue on as long as I did. It was mostly awful."
Merlin's eyes were very wide, and his hands were suddenly clenched tightly together in his lap.
"So," Arthur continued, fumbling for the right words. "What I'm trying to say is, well,
I-" he took a shaky breath. "I'm really nervous about this," he admitted.
"Oh sod it," Merlin interrupted, and leaning forward, put his hands on Arthur's face. "I'm completely in love with you, so unless you ask me not to, I'm going to kiss you right now, and to hell with anyone who doesn't like it."
Arthur made an embarrassing choking noise and nearly snapped his neck nodding, but Merlin didn't stop to comment on it, busy launching himself into Arthur's lap on the uncomfortable plastic waiting-room chair. He felt lithe and warm, even more slender than he appeared, and Arthur was amazed yet again at Merlin's strange grace, as he tucked his knees on either side of Arthur's thighs and leaned in to cup his face again before ducking his head and kissing Arthur. It was a slow, sweet kiss, almost chaste, but Arthur's eyes still fluttered shut, shocked by the power of it. Merlin leaned back just a little, sounding a bit short of breath, and laughed shakily.
"That was- wow," he said faintly, and Arthur couldn't resist leaning forward to kiss him again.
"Yes it was," he murmured. "I'm such an idiot."
"Yes," Merlin said fondly. "Yes you are."
Arthur shifted in his seat, bringing his arms up around the gentle curve of Merlin's waist. "I really want to run off and find us a broom closet to snog in," he admitted, "but I don't think it's the done thing when Morgana could have the baby at any moment."
"No," Merlin agreed, chuckling. "We're grown men, we really ought to be able to wait a day or two."
"Days?" Arthur said in his most outraged voice. "I was thinking hours at most."
Merlin shifted closer, pressing his forehead against Arthur's. "Well, just trot into the delivery room and tell them to hurry up so we can snog." He pressed a kiss to Arthur's forehead before pulling reluctantly away and flopping back into his own chair. "I definitely look like a trollop," he stage-whispered, and Arthur stifled a laugh and reached for his hand. Merlin glanced down at their interlaced fingers and grinned.
"I'm madly in love with you too, you know," Arthur said quietly. He could feel a flush staining his cheeks, and he rubbed a hand over his face, embarrassed. "I'm so thick, it took me forever to understand. I think even Lance knew before I did." He shifted guiltily, glancing over to see how Merlin would take the mention of Lance.
Merlin just chuckled, a low, warm sound. "I know," he said, grinning. "I thought he was going to try and duel me or something. "Not that I wouldn't" he added. "I would duel for your honor, of course. I just think I'd probably lose."
"I think you're probably stronger than you know," Arthur said, and found that he rather liked putting that tiny, warm smile on Merlin's face.
It was lucky that the nurse came out at that point, because their heads were already drifting closer, propriety be damned. "Siete qui con le donne con la bambina?" she asked, and her tone was brisk but not unpleasant. Arthur was very proud that he could make out every word of it, although he wasn't entirely sure what any of it meant.
"She asked if we're here with the ladies with the-" Merlin's breath caught, and he turned to Arthur, his smile threatening to take over his face entirely. "-Baby girl, she said baby girl!" He turned to the nurse and shot of a quick query, and she nodded and waved an arm, and said, "Andiamo," which even Arthur understood.
In the hospital room, Gwen was curled up on the bed, an arm around Morgana's neck and another around the tiny, wrinkly baby in her arms. She and Morgana wore matching tired, happy expressions, and when Merlin glanced over at him, his expression was nearly identical. Arthur, predictably, was gruff in the face of so much joy. He was unspeakably happy that Morgana had had an easy labor, and didn't know how to begin to process his delight over Merlin. The day was starting to feel almost endless, though, and his body felt weighted down by all the actions and changes that had occurred in such a short period of time. It was so much tension, so much relief, and so little sleep, all at once.
Luckily, Arthur didn't have to make any proclamations or explanations. Morgana waved them in imperiously, took one look at the way they were standing, so close that their bodies were brushing from shoulder to wrist, and said, "Finally," with an air of great import.
"I should say the same for you," Merlin said, arching a brow, and Arthur blushed horribly but reached to hold Merlin's hand properly.
"It's like you think you're the only human who's ever achieved the miracle of giving birth," Arthur said dryly.
"No," Morgana said magnanimously. "I'm just the best at it. Come meet her."
Arthur and Merlin stepped forward in tandem, suitably reverent. The whole thing felt rather like an important ceremony, complete with their miniature processional, and Arthur couldn't help but smile.
"What's her name?" Merlin asked, leaning close.
Gwen lifted her head, a gesture that conveyed all the weariness she was clearly attempting to hide from Morgana. "We don't exactly know yet," she said. "We had Elayne picked out, but then we saw her and now neither of us thinks she looks like an Elayne at all, so we're at a total loss."
"Hmm," Merlin said. "May I hold her?"
Morgana nodded, carefully helping him support the tiny bundle. "No," Merlin said thoughtfully. "Elayne isn't right at all. Sounds too proper, not wild or important enough for her." He turned to Arthur, looking up at him with a curiously fervent expression. "What do you think she should be called?"
Arthur looked down at her, tiny and charmingly funny looking, with a fuzz of black hair and huge brown eyes. She seemed to cock her head at him just slightly, meeting his curious gaze with one of her own, and Arthur spoke without hesitation.
"Nimueh." It was much firmer than he'd intended it, and Arthur bit his lip and shrank back a step, embarrassed. "I mean," he muttered, "It's just a thought."
Gwen looked curiously at him, trying out the name in a slow, considering voice. "Why Nimueh?"
"It was the name of the woman who gave me the villa," Arthur said. "So it's thanks to her that we're all here together." He gazed down at the baby again, hesitating a moment before adding, "She said she did something bad a long time ago. I think she was still waiting to be forgiven."
Morgana put out her arms, and Merlin gave the baby back. He was quiet, but there was a strange intensity to his gaze. "Well," Morgana said. "That is important. Nice to have a little story when she asks why we gave her her name. Nimueh," she said decisively. "I love it." She turned toward Gwen. "You?"
Gwen stroked a slow, gentle hand over the baby's brow. "I love it too," she said softly, and Merlin looked at Arthur for a moment, his features caught in some strange, fiercely approving expression. It hit somewhere deep within Arthur's chest, a feeling of absolute rightness, of having done something very important, even though he didn't know how or why. For a moment, Merlin's eyes were so bright, they almost looked molten, gold as hearthside embers. It passed as quickly as it came, though, so swiftly that Arthur thought he must have imagined it, and when he looked back at Merlin that fierce wildness was gone, leaving just tired, happy Merlin with dark circles under his eyes and dark stubble upon his cheeks.
Arthur stepped closer, fitting his palms over Merlin's hips, and Merlin exhaled gratefully and leaned back against him. "I'll start giving her painting lessons as soon as she can hold a brush," Merlin said, and craned his neck around to brush a kiss over Arthur's cheek.
"And I'll read her stories when you two need a night to be wildly inappropriate together," Arthur said gruffly. He seemed to have caught Merlin's perpetual blushing affliction, a fact that wasn't lost on anyone in the room. "Right, time to see about rescuing you from this terrible room," Arthur said, and promptly fled.
They were allowed to take Morgana and Nimueh home that evening, so they all piled exhaustedly into the car, Gwen and Morgana and the baby in the backseat. The Citroen rumbled along at a rather more modest gait than that of the morning's travels. The ride was quiet, everyone in the car being either asleep or at least terribly worn out.
Back at home, Merlin bustled everyone and everything upstairs, Arthur collapsing into the first kitchen chair he saw. He heard Merlin close Gwen and Morgana's bedroom door with a quiet click and make his way back down the stairs, careful of the squeaky floorboards.
"I could sleep for a week," Arthur said.
"Lord, yes." Merlin agreed, but for some reason he was heading not back up to the bedroom, but to the door.
Arthur felt something drop in the pit of his stomach, heavy and unpleasant. "I meant," he said uncomfortably, "you could stay here if you like."
"Oh, Arthur," Merlin said warmly. "Of course I want to. It's just, do you mind if I bring Violet over? She gets so anxious when I'm gone.
"Oh," Arthur said, and couldn't help but laugh. "Yes of course, she's lovely."
"Thanks," Merlin said, and leaned in to kiss Arthur on the tip of his nose. "Go to bed. I'll join you as soon as I get back." He dipped his chin and leaned in for a real kiss, pulling away with a gentle drag of his teeth against Arthur's lower lip.
"Okay," Arthur said thickly, and watched Merlin slip out the door.
Arthur had intended to spend the time while Merlin was gone quietly having a nervous breakdown, but he was just too bloody tired. He was in bed for barely five minutes before his eyelids began to grow unbearably heavy, and then the next thing he knew, an indeterminate time later, there was a warm body tucked in beside him, slotted warmly into place along the length of Arthur's body, and in the midst of trying to manhandle Arthur's arms around him.
"I can help, you know," Arthur said, and dragged Merlin closer, arranging his limbs in some semblance of what Merlin appeared to have been attempting. It was nice, one arm under the gentle curve of Merlin's hip, the other wrapped around him, palm flat on his chest.
Merlin huffed a warm, amused breath and turned wriggle just a bit closer, pressing his cold toes against Arthur's ankles and twisting his hands up in the hem of Arthur's ratty old t-shirt. He made a happy sound against Arthur's chest and said, "Mmm, you're warm."
"And you're freezing," Arthur said reproachfully but it probably didn't faze Merlin since Arthur was still pulling him closer, pressing a sleepy kiss to the top of his head.
"Sleep," Merlin ordered cheerfully, and Arthur couldn't help but obey.
He awoke to the feel of Merlin's mouth, hot and slick on his collarbone. It was probably the nicest wakeup call he'd ever received, but it was tempting to pretend he was still asleep and see where Merlin was going with this. Active participation sounded even better, though, and Merlin was already apparently aware that Arthur was awake, unimpressed by his fantastic acting skills. "Hey," Arthur said, twisting a little deeper into the warmth of the blankets. He'd lost his shirt sometime in the night, which was usual for him even when there wasn't another warm body beside him, but the morning air felt chill where it hit his shoulders.
"Hey," Merlin said, and slid down Arthur's chest, leaving a path of kisses in his wake. "This okay?" he asked, somewhere in the vicinity of Arthur's bellybutton. "I've been wanting to do this for ages."
Arthur had to take a moment to breathe. "Yeah," he managed finally, wincing at how strangled it came out. Merlin didn't seem to mind, though. He slid his hands under the band of Arthur's boxer briefs and dragged them down in one swift, sure motion, Arthur lifting his hips to accommodate him. He didn't even give Arthur any time to stutter or say awkward things like you don't have to do this, just saying, "Oh yes," in a very pleased voice, and leaning down to gently lick around the head of Arthur's cock. Arthur made one aborted attempt at speech then gave up, letting his head fall back upon his pillow and clapping his hands over his eyes.
Merlin sucked him off quick and messy, then, his hand wrapped around the base of Arthur's dick. He was unbelievably good at it, firm and unhesitant, easily working Arthur to the point of incoherence.
He pulled off with a wet pop far too soon, and Arthur groaned at the loss, his hips twitching. "Why're you covering your eyes?" Merlin asked, and his voice was a little deeper than usual, and just the slightest bit raspy.
Arthur sighed, biting down hard on his lip before saying, "Not gonna last if I'm watching."
Merlin chuckled. "Don't worry about that, okay?" Arthur felt the brush of Merlin's t-shirt as he leaned over Arthur, then delicate fingers wrapped around his hands, pulling them away from his face. He opened his eyes slowly, carefully, as though he was about to gaze into a very bright light.
"Much better," Merlin said. "God, the way you look." He slid back down Arthur's body and glanced up at him, keeping the eye contact as he wrapped a hand around his own dick and slowly slid Arthur's cock back into his mouth.
The morning light brushed soft over Merlin's features, making his skin look milky pale and catching bright against his sleek, dark hair. His slender shoulders worked up and down, collarbones shifting in and out of prominence as he rapidly fucked into his hand, his lips wet and pink around Arthur's cock. It was strange, but somehow it wasn't the sensations that pushed him over the edge, but the way Merlin gazed up at him, warm and secretive. It was a look that he'd never seen Merlin give anyone else, before, and Arthur thought, how incredible to have such a magical person in his life, and came with a whisper of a sigh.
He was still shaking with aftershocks as he dragged Merlin up to kiss him, batting Merlin's hand away from his dick and replacing it with his own. Merlin was unquestionably close, slick and hot and leaning into each stroke with a harsh groan. Arthur wrapped his other hand around Merlin's nape and drew him in, sucking at the smooth expanse of his neck and whispering, "yes," in a shocked, worshipful tone that he didn't regret at all. It took only a dozen strokes before Merlin came too, dropping bonelessly onto Arthur's chest with a shuddery sigh.
"Mmm," Arthur said finally, when he felt he might possibly be capable of speech.
"Agreed," Merlin said, and kissed him slowly and far too dirtily for just having come. Arthur laughed and shifted them both so that they were on their sides, still tucked closely together. They were sweaty and messy with come, but he couldn't bring himself to leave and get cleaned up. Merlin didn't seem to mind it either, so Arthur just dragged the sheets back over them and mouthed a few kisses against his forehead.
"Sleep more," Merlin said lazily, and Arthur chuckled.
"If you insist."
"I do," Merlin said happily, and since Arthur was already smitten with him, they did.
"And we need more fairy lights," Arthur said. "Oh fuck," he panted, "Yeah, right there."
Merlin twisted his slick fingers in that way that always made Arthur crazy, grinning as he pushed in a little farther. Arthur reached out, fumbling to wrap his hand around Merlin's dick. He was already hard, slick with precome, and Arthur stroked the length of him, making a pleased sound when Merlin's cock bucked in his hand.
"It should not turn me on when you moan your list of holiday plans," Merlin said, running his free hand through his messy hair. "What the hell have you done to me?" It was half lost in a laugh, as Arthur forced himself forward onto Merlin's fingers and gasped at the slippery pressure, shifting his hips to force them deeper.
"Yeah well," he said, between swift, harsh breaths. "I can make anything sound hot."
Merlin stifled a laugh against his chest. "You ready?"
"God, yes," Arthur said, and reached for the lube, slicking Merlin up. They'd both been tested just over a week ago, and the idea of not having to reach for a condom (or run out to buy condoms, which had happened more than once) was delightfully novel.
Merlin lined up their bodies, his fingers warm against Arthur's side, then shifted onto one arm, guiding himself toward Arthur's body with a quiet sigh. He let out a soft mmph sound as he pushed slowly into Arthur, and Arthur shivered, pushing forward to make Merlin sink into him more quickly.
"Will you make the gingerbread again?" Merlin asked and leaned forward to drop a kiss on the point of Arthur's collarbone.
"Fuck," Arthur breathed. "I do anything you want if you just shut up and move." He reached up, tangling his fingers in Merlin's hair and urging him to move more quickly, watching through half-slitted eyes as Merlin breathed heavily through slackened lips. Arthur liked him like this, all carefree morning wantonness, completely unconcerned with anything that wasn't Arthur, or more specifically, sex with Arthur.
"So that's a yes?" Merlin asked innocently, and Arthur growled, somehow managing to flip them both over without causing any injuries, sighing as he sank down all the way onto Merlin's dick.
"That's a yes," he said, then, and Merlin snapped his hips upward in earnest, just the way Arthur liked it.
Later that morning, tucked into warm jumpers and woolen socks, they made the gingerbread together, which mostly meant that Merlin tried to steal tastes of it, and Arthur distracted him with what Morgana described as revolting displays of nauseating affection when she wandered downstairs to collect tea for Gwen. "If you shape them like hearts I'll probably commit a Christmas murder," she said with absolutely no heat, and then proved herself just as bad by setting up a tea tray of breakfast for Gwen. Merlin just grinned pleasantly in reply, and dropped a sprig of the mistletoe that'd been appearing all over the house onto the tray.
"Some for you too," he told Arthur, once Morgana had gone, and wasted no time backing him up against the table.
Arthur grinned against his mouth, feeling up his arse while sneaking another kiss. Merlin tasted of pilfered gingerbread, warm and spicy, and his lips were soft and smooth, just as appealing as he always was. Arthur felt that by all rights he should have gotten over this silly, infatuated phase by now, but he hadn't. He was still amazed, so far beyond thankful, every time Merlin kissed him, every time he shot a raised brow or a tiny smile that was meant just for Arthur, a look that only he could interpret. In the mornings, leaning out against the cold headboard to see if they'd had any snow, he could take Merlin's hand and lace their fingers together, and Merlin would lean to press a kiss against his shoulder, then drag Arthur back in to wrap warmly around him.
The best part, though, was that Arthur's creativity had returned. He was writing furiously, while he waited for the bread dough to set, while he sat in a tepid bath, sometimes even as he was eating lunch and dropping bits of food all over the pages of his crisp new bound journal. It worked out nicely, because Merlin felt just the same way about his art. The third bedroom had turned out to be just the right size for a studio, and Merlin often dragged Arthur in to lounge in an armchair and write as he painted, stopping periodically for food or snogging. There was no need to say anything, really. Arthur could just glance over, see Merlin's face light up when he noticed, and know just what he was thinking.
There was one project, though, about which Merlin had not been forthcoming. There was a sheet draped across the kitchen wall, one which Arthur had been entirely unable to peer beneath. Merlin had exacted a promise from him, while Arthur had been in a completely compromised situation. He was terribly curious, though, and he murmured as much, following the words with a light drag of teeth over the lobe of Merlin's ear.
"Terribly, yeah?" Merlin laughed, shivering into Arthur's touch. "Well, it'd be nice to have your wall uncovered for the holidays, since you're having Morgause and the lot over for meals and such. I suppose, if you ask very nicely, I could show you early."
Arthur reached out, running a slow hand over Merlin's features, cupping his jaw and angling their mouths together. "I'd be delighted," he breathed, and then kissed him gently. It was more affection than intent, he was sated from the morning, and too warmly content to move much at all.
"Mmm," Merlin said, smiling against Arthur's mouth, and moved past him to pull out first one then the other of the tacks that were holding up the sheet. He pulled it carefully away. "Then you shall have it."
Arthur turned to face the wall. "Oh," he whispered, slow and drawn out.
There really wasn't any better thing to say, as the painting was frankly overwhelming. It covered the whole wall in rich, dark colors. The scene was a landscape, brilliant stars against a warm night sky. There was a twisted, curling path woven into the intricate scene, starry flowers growing at the sides of the earthen trail. It led to a crystalline castle, a strange combination of strong and delicately beautiful, almost ethereal where it stood, at the top of a mountain. The painting was full of details, a glassy lake, half covered over with algae, another peak overshadowing it. There was a beach, too, ruins half buried beneath the breakers.
"It's stories from my home," Merlin said, "And yours too. All the old legends." He pointed. "There's where King Arthur defeated the Afanc. His horse was supposed to have left a mark in the stone." His finger moved, tracing the delicate brushmarks. "That's Cader Idris, where the Grey King lives. Spend the night there and you end up either mad or a poet. And there, that's the Lowland Hundred, in Borth you know."
Arthur grinned. "My Da used to tell me those stories, when I was young." He gestured at the castle. "And what is that?"
Merlin turned to face him, and his smile was bright as the full moon in the painting. "That's Camelot," he said softly, and touched Arthur's wrist. "You know, where King Arthur lived. And his Merlin."
Arthur reached out, lacing Merlin's fingers into his own. "They don't seem so different than us," he said, and felt his own smile growing to match Merlin's.
"Not so different at all," Merlin said, and again he smiled that small, secret smile that was made for Arthur alone.
"Happy ending this time, though," Arthur said, and turned back to the stove. "Shall we finish the cookies?"
Merlin kissed him once more, long and lingering and sweet. "Yes we shall," he said happily, and that is just what they did.