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Clouds and Silverlinings

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Arthur Pendragon would be considered lucky by most others, graced with good-looks, a well-to-do family, and enough wealth to never do a true days work; he was the envy of many in London high society. Though it was true, just last year he had been jilted by the Lady Guinevere Leodegrance, which was a huge dishonour by any standards. But when it was discovered that she had left him for a lowly French writer by the name of Lancelot du Lac, well, it had made it the scandal of the season. Nonetheless, he was still considered fortunate by many for the privileged life he led.

Arthur however, had had enough of high society. He had grown tired and bored of people’s sympathetic looks and the simpering girls who vied for his attention at any event he attended. He was listless and drifted about like a rudderless ship. He no longer wished to frequent social events, and given Morgana’s tendency to cause outrage when she was forced to attend events, he knew father would not force him to go to this season’s endless parade of balls and dances if he expressed a wish not to. Anything not to bring more disgrace and scandal on the family. Arthur would go to one last ball though, held by the Earl of Orkney; as both Father and Gwaine, would give him no end of grief if he missed it. His father felt it was of utmost importance that they associate themselves as much as possible with nobility in order to make a good match. He never missed an opportunity to remind Arthur of this.

He dressed spiritlessly, but reminded himself that if this was to be his last outing of the rest of the season and he at least ought to look his best for it. He may be fed up of society, but that did not mean he lacked pride in his appearance. He was a Pendragon after all. He slipped on his shirt and his valet, George, fastened his collar and cuff-links. They were simply decorated with the Pendragon family crest. Anything else would be far too ostentatious and ill-bred. Then George tied his white neck-tie and helped him slip on his waistcoat. After which, he then buttoned Arthur's gloves; all in a silence that Arthur was rather thankful for. He felt rather awkward knowing that soon he would be likely to no longer require George's services, leaving him to search for a new master to serve.

Making sure his shoes were well-polished, George knelt and put them on him before rushing to get his mourning coat. He glanced Arthur up and down.

“Spotless and impeccable, Sir,” he said proudly, passing him his hat. “Shall I ready the carriage?”

“Yes,” Arthur replied. “That would be splendid. And George -?”

George poked his head around the door and stood at the entrance of the room. “Yes, Sir?”

“Take the rest of the night off. Heavens knows when I’ll return from a party hosted by the Earl. I can ready myself for bed.”

George nodded. “Yes, Sir. Indeed, Sir.”

***

Arthur sighed into his glass. It could be worse, he supposed. At least this wasn’t a dinner party. On the other hand, he had been inundated with requests from young ladies to dance all night long, his dance card had been full, and frankly, he was sick and tired of it. Eventually, he feigned a sprained ankle to avoid any more dancing. There was only so many times you could dance the Viennese Waltz or the German Polka before one wearied of it. It was not that the young ladies weren’t nice or well-bred, it was that well... quite frankly, that ladies did not really seem to do a thing for him.

He heard Gwaine talking about them as if they were the most wondrous thing, even being so vulgar as to describe some of the more sordid details of how soft, yet full, their breasts were and how velvety, warm and wet they felt inside if you were able to get a lady who was up for a bit of fun and would allow you to put your fingers inside her. It simply did not interest him. In fact, a part of him shuddered at the thought. He would rather simply deal with his morning (and sometimes evening) problems with his hand rather than getting married!

When he thought it safe to do so, he slipped out of the ballroom and made his way to one of the rarely used drawing rooms in the old house. He sighed with relief as he closed the door and the noise of the ball quietened behind him. He startled when he spotted a young man with dark hair looking at a book in the armchair nearest the fire.

“Oh. I’m so sorry,” he apologised. “I did not realise this room was occupied. Please, excuse me for the interruption.” He turned and went to open the door but paused halfway through turning the knob.

“No, no. Please,” said the man. “You’re not interrupting. It is I who should be sorry. I didn't mean to disturb any guests.”

He gathered the book together with some charcoal and other materials. He was an artist, Arthur realised, and he winced as watched the man put them in the pocket of his jacket. Though perhaps that might improve the ensemble somewhat, Arthur thought rather cruelly. The clothes were old and well worn, and obviously Ill-fitted. He was very much of lower standing, which made Arthur wonder why he might be here in the first place.

“Why are you here?" he asked curiously, it came out sharper and curter than he would have liked it to. "I wasn't aware that the Earl had visitors."

The man cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable, scrubbing the expensive carpet with the toe of a scuffed boot. “Well, I’m not as such. Gwaine asked me to paint his mothers portrait, as a surprise. I didn’t—well, that is to say—I don’t really have a place to stay. I only arrived two days ago in London...”

Arthur raised a curious eyebrow. “And yet the Earl has already commissioned you for a portrait! You landed on your feet there. How on Earth did you manage such a feat?”

The artist burst out laughing. “Helped in a bar brawl, if you’d believe it?”

Arthur threw back his head and laughed. “Oh yes. I certainly can. After all, I have met the Earl.”

The man grinned at him and Arthur noted how his eyes crinkled at the corners and his cheeks dimpled. His heart thumped in his chest and he pulled his collar away from his neck with a finger, suddenly finding it difficult to breathe, as he recognised his sinful desires pushing to the fore. He noticed the man watching him, looking similarly aroused. The man licked his lusciously full lips.

Suddenly his hands were on Arthur’s face and he gazed at him intensely before placing his lips on Arthur’s and he kissed him cautiously. Arthur brought his hands up to the man’s hair, tangling his fingers in his dark locks as he parted his lips with his tongue and slid his tongue deep inside.

They finally parted, breathless. Arthur cleared his throat. “I – I ought to – I need to get back. You’ll be here later?”

“Yes, of course,” the man said, running a hand through his rumpled hair. “Merlin.” he blurted out. “My name. Merlin. Yours?”

Arthur grinned at him as he opened the door. “Arthur,” he said.

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As the night went on and Arthur skulked around in the refreshment room. He started to fret. What on Earth had he been thinking? How could he have given into such perverse urges? With such a man too! It was unnatural, he knew this. Merlin did not even have the redeeming factor of being a man of society - which was on occasion, was overlooked - rather than permitted. His father would be horrified that he had even associated himself with such a man, let alone kissed him.

‘We are Pendragons, Arthur. We do not associate with the working class. Do you wish to ruin this family and have us cast out from society? Your poor sainted Mother! I am glad she is not here to see you sully the family name in such a fashion.’

He could all too well imagine his fathers displeasure. And if he knew Arthur’s darkest secret, that he often entertained such unnatural desires in the privacy of his own room; well that would be the end of him. In his fathers eyes he would cease to exist.

"So Arthur," came a voice, interrupting his thoughts. "Why the long face? You look like Mothers latest prize horse!"

Arthur glanced over at Gwaine and hastily straightened out his face to his usual haughty put-upon sneer, silently cursing himself for wearing his emotions so plainly.

"Hello, Gwaine."

Gwaine grinned at him, in his usual carefree way. “If you’ve had enough of the lemonade, come along with me to the drawing room and have a port and cigar with the other chaps,” he said trying to tempt him.

Arthur looked down at his long since empty glass. Perhaps Port would be just the thing to make him forget the combination of soft, glossy black hair, plump, reddened lips and startlingly blue eyes.

“If I must,” he proclaimed with a sigh.

“Oh you must, Arthur. Come, I can tell you all about Miss Gawant! I met her some weeks ago and I really do think that she might be the one. Mother does keep worrying me so about settling down and taking a wife.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow with surprise. He had honestly thought that Gwaine was going end up a life-long bachelor. In fact, given the fact that he himself never intended to marry and keep a woman, he had been depending on Gwaine to keep him company as one by one the rest of the men their age dropped out of fashionable society. Perhaps one day, he might have even confessed his penchant for men to him. This 'Miss Gawant' had certainly piqued his interest.

He placed the glass down and smiled at him. “Yes, you must tell me all about the lady who has finally tamed the wild, raucous, fun-loving Earl of Orkney.”

Gwaine merely bellowed with laughter and patted him on the shoulder as he lead Arthur off to the drawing room.

***

After many hours of conversation, good cigars and glasses of Port later, the ball was finally over and the house became quiet. Arthur finally took his leave. Gwaine had offered him use of a bedroom over in the mostly disused south wing of the house, in order to avoid a carriage ride home in the cold and wet. He stumbled down the corridor and placed his hand against the wall for a moment to steady himself. Perhaps that last glass of wine had been a mistake. A step too far. He could not remember ever having been as inebriated as this before. Staying for the night had definitely been the right choice.

He snickered to himself as he felt for the handle of the door next to him and let himself in. A lone candle still burned and the fire was banked behind the grate. Arthur grinned inanely and let his coat fall from his arms. He clumsily undid the buttons of his waistcoat and shirt, one by one, also abandoning them to the floor. He frowned as he tried to focus on his hands and wondered where he might have left his gloves. His trousers fell to the floor when he undid them and he stumbled as he pulled off his shoes and socks. The room was cosy and warm, despite the weather outside, and so he unbuttoned his drawers and discarded them too.

Now completely nude, he stretched and yawned before crawling under the bedclothes. Unbeknownst to him, a dark haired head lay on the pillow next to him, dead to the world and Arthur found himself drifting rapidly off to a pleasant sleep.

Chapter Text

Arthur awoke in a sea of warmth and smiled to himself, his head ached a little when he moved it, but that was to be expected. He could always remain sleeping in this bed at Gwaine’s home, unlike in his own house until the worst passed. He pulled the warm body closer towards himself and thrusted his morning erection against a rather nice warm, soft arse. Arthur startled out of his sleep-warmed stupor when the body moaned and snuggled into his arms, grinding back against him.

Suddenly the body shot up and he was pushed onto his back. A gorgeous, sleep-tousled, Merlin squinted down at him.

“Arthur?” he asked, his voice rough with sleep.

Arthur propped himself up. “Merlin! Wh-what are you doing here?!”

Merlin raised an eyebrow at him. “I could ask you the same thing, this is my room.”

Raking his eyes over Merlin’s bare chest Arthur bit back a grin. “Merlin, why are you naked?”

Blushing a delightful shade of red that rushed from his face down to his chest, Merlin clutched the sheet to his chest as if in an effort to preserve his modesty.

“It’s my room!” he exclaimed, his voice raised an octave or two.

“You’re delicious when you blush, you know,” said Arthur.

Merlin huffed and turned his back to Arthur, swinging his legs off the bed.

“I didn’t think you were interested. You never came back.”

He proceeded to grab his shirt and stood to pull on some trousers.

Merlin, I’m sorry. I wanted to. But… well… I can’t see how this is going to work out for us, can you?” Arthur tried to explain. “My father. He would never allow it. If he… if he ever even suspected that I…”

Merlin turned to him, his expression sombre. “I understand. After all, it’s not even as if I have a penny to my name. But I hope to, one day.”

Arthur pulled Merlin back onto the bed they had unwittingly shared. He held Merlin’s face and looked at him, rubbing a thumb against the corner of his plush lips. He wanted Merlin so badly, he ached for him. But how could he? It was one thing to think such thoughts of loving another man. To have vivid dreams of what he would so dearly like to do, but quite another to actually enact them.

Merlin darted forward and pressed his lips to Arthur’s. “Stop thinking, Arthur. Let it happen.”

Arthur paused, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against Merlin’s. He could either do this and at least have the memories to feast on for the rest of his life, or he could leave and wonder if he had let happiness slip through his fingers forever. His hands trembled as he cradled Merlin’s face and kissed his nose and his cheeks before kissing his lips gently, prising Merlin's lips apart with his tongue. Merlin opened up to him willingly and Arthur felt as though their whole beings were merging into one.

Merlin pressed him into the covers and covered Arthur’s body with his, undulating fluidly above him as their kisses grew deeper and more desperate. Arthur clutched at the back of Merlin’s head and at his hip as Merlin kissed his way down Arthur's neck and chest, all the way to his navel, mapping him. Merlin sat up, straddling him and smiled down at Arthur.

“You are even more handsome and dashing than I dared imagine, Arthur,” he breathed, smoothing his thumbs over Arthur’s hip bones. He smoothed his hands up along the planes of his abdomen and back down to his groin and Arthur gasped and bucked up wildly. Merlin laughed delightedly and bent down to kiss his neck and spoke with a deep voice into his ear, “And so wanton and wicked. A harlot, just for me.”

Arthur scrabbled to push up Merlin’s shirt and grasped his bared flesh, pulling him down to thrust against him, skin-to-skin. Merlin lunged against him and moaned as their arousals rubbed against each other. “Off,” Arthur said, tugging Merlin’s shirt up and taking advantage of his momentary helplessness to bite at a nipple, leaving Merlin squirming and struggling to get the shirt over his head.

The shirt off, Merlin took Arthur and his erections in one hand and Arthur fell back to the bed. “Oh my.. Merlin!”

Merlin let go of their lengths in order to press himself against Arthur and kiss him with lips, teeth and tongue. He snaked his hand down between Arthur’s legs. Arthur swallowed and shuddered as Merlin’s clever fingers traced around his rim.

“Is this okay?” he asked.

Arthur nodded. “Yes, but I don’t know… I’ve never-”

Merlin quietened him with a kiss. “It’s okay. Me either. Turn over.” Arthur rolled himself over onto his front. “Let me take care of you,” Merlin whispered, pressing a kiss to each bump of his spine, pulling him onto his knees.

He parted Arthur’s cheeks with hands that weren’t entirely steady and cautiously gave his hole a quick lick. Arthur bucked in surprise, a sudden flare of heat shooting down his spine, straight to his cock. Merlin continued, lathing his rim with his tongue, he spat and worked his tongue inside him along with a long, slender finger, as Arthur moaned and shook, not sure his legs would hold him up. Merlin worked in another finger and spat several more times on Arthur's hole. He pulled both fingers out and Arthur whimpered at the loss. He heard Merlin spitting again and then felt a large blunt pressure at his hole. Arthur hung his head between his arms and pressed his forehead to the sheets. It hurt. He felt as though he was being slowly split in two as Merlin slowly pressed forward.

Finally he was all the way in and thrust back and forth experimentally, before hitting a spot that made Arthur forget the pain and thrash his head. “More,” he gasped. Merlin complied.

They didn’t last long before Arthur came over the sheets in pearly strings, pulling Merlin into orgasm with him.

Merlin collapsed on top of him and kissed the back of his ear and they drifted off to sleep together.

Chapter Text

Arthur awoke a few hours later, Merlin curled up around him, with a sinking feeling in his stomach.

What on Earth had he done?

He had given in to his desires and carnal lust.

A part of him felt disgusted with himself for being so weak. But the other part wondered, was it really so terrible to like another man? To sleep with one? He couldn’t help but think perhaps it was not. After all, were we all not all made in God’s image? If so, perhaps God had these urges too? He thought back to all the bible verses he had learned, read and been taught about over the years and couldn’t remember there ever being anything explicitly mentioned about Uranian relationships. They we alluded to perhaps. But mostly they were heavily preached against from the pulpit, along with abstinence and how the sin of masturbation would cause you to become ill (If that were the case, Arthur would have been long dead before he had ever come of age).

Despite these thoughts, Arthur knew that it would be a mistake to get caught, so he gently slid out from Merlin’s arms and started to dress. He was missing gloves and his neck-tie. But no matter, those could be replaced. He would go and ask John, the Orkney’s stable hand, for the loan of a horse so that he could avoid taking breakfast with Gwaine and his mother. Then he would send George later with a note of apology.

The important thing was to leave, as soon as possible. The longer he was awake, the more desperate he was to leave, as he recalled all the cases in the papers he’d read about men being imprisoned for sodomy in recent years.

Finally dressed and reasonably presentable, Arthur set off to the stables, leaving Merlin behind with a heavy heart. He daren’t wake him, lest Merlin managed to change his mind, nor did he dare leave a note in case Merlin did not destroy it.

***

Merlin woke late in the morning, his hand caressed the dip in the bed beside him and he stretched. He noticed with a start that the space next to him was empty. He sat up, bleary-eyed and looked around the darkened room, to confirm that yes, Arthur was really gone.

He should have known, he supposed. A rich, handsome, gorgeous man like Arthur was probably only after one thing. After all, he hadn’t promised Merlin anything. In fact, he had insisted that they couldn’t work. But Merlin had still hoped for more. There had just been something about Arthur and his standoffish, stiff-laced demeanour which had appealed to Merlin. Knowing that Arthur had taken that barrier down and let him in, let him kiss, caress and tup him...

Merlin sighed. He should have known better than to expect that this would end any other way. He would have to be satisfied with having had this one unexpected night with Arthur, and prepare himself for the inevitable snubbing from him if they should meet again. Finally resigned to the fact, Merlin dressed and took himself off to the kitchen to see if he could wheedle a late breakfast out of Mary the cook.

***

As Arthur rinsed his face in the sink in his room and dried it with the towel around his neck, the door opened and a set of clicking heels came waltzing into the room. Arthur rolled his eyes. He had not had enough rest this morning to be dealing with Morgana.

“What is it, Morgana?” he asked. “Nice of you to knock.”

“Now, now. Is that anyway to greet your dearly beloved sister?” she called.

He turned around and saw her settling down into a plush leather armchair by the fireplace. He schooled his face and suppressed a sigh. Over the years he had learned not to give Morgana any more ammunition than she already came to the table with.

He snorted in response to her and strode to his wardrobe, selecting a shirt.

“Not that one,” said Morgana. “Wear the red one, it suits you better.”

Arthur rolled his eyes and proceeded to pull on the shirt that he planned, smoothing it around the back of his neck before buttoning it. He crossed to his bureau to put on a pair of cufflinks, waiting for Morgana to show her hand.

“A good one last night?” she asked a little too innocently.

“It was a perfectly adequate night, yes.” he replied smoothly, tucking in his shirt and then fastening on his collar. He pulled on a comfortable jacket and then took the chair opposite Morgana, just as George came bustling in with tea on a tray. Ever the dutiful valet.

“Tea, Sir, Ma’am.”

He poured the tea and passed a cup first to Morgana and then to Arthur, who then dismissed him with a wave of his hand. George slipped away seamlessly.

“Cut to it, Morgana,” said Arthur once they had finished their tea.

Morgana smiled predatorily at him. “I’m just wondering what kept you from coming home last night. I was worried about you. A sister is allowed to worry about her brother isn’t she?”

Arthur laughed. “Most sisters, yes. But I hardly doubt you were worried. If you were, perhaps you should participate in society as Father has requested.”

Morgana’s face became fierce. “Over my dead body. I will not be a pawn for Uther’s games. Even if you gladly allow yourself to be.”

Arthur smiled to himself, congratulating himself on distracting his sister from her mission.

“Anyway,” Morgana flipped her hair, “why were you gone all night?”

Crossing his legs casually, Arthur gave her a smile. “The Earl is to be engaged to Elena Gawant. I felt it only appropriate to celebrate. By the time we were done it was late and given the awful weather, as a good host, he impressed upon me to stay. As simple as that Morgana, despite what you might think.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “If that were true, you would have been home before the noon meal and with a carriage, not tearing in on one of Gwaine’s prize stallions.”

Rising from his seat, Arthur went to take a seat at his writing desk near the window and appeared to busy himself with a quill and ink. “The Earl can afford the loan of a horse, Morgana. I’ll send Tyr back with him later.”

“That’s not what I’m on about. Just tell me what happened, Arthur,” she insisted.

“Morgana. I just needed to get home.”

Morgana finally played her trump card. “I won’t tell Father about that boy you kissed.”

Arthur’s head shot up as he looked at her with shock.

“Oh Arthur, I know you all too well. And you should know by now, I have spies everywhere...” and with that she swanned out of his rooms.

Chapter Text

Arthur sighed as he dressed himself in one of his finest shirts. He’d decided on a high collared shirt, paired with a dark silk tie and his burgundy waistcoat. He had already selected a pair of grey pinstripe trousers along with a suspenders which he already wore as he fastened his cuffs with links and pinned his collar before tying the tie. It was at times like this, when formalities needed to be observed, that he regretted letting George go. With George’s assistance, he would have been ready in half the time.

He pulled his suspenders up over broad shoulders and slipped on the waistcoat, then he buttoned it and attached his pocket watch. He wondered why Gwaine had sent him a formal invitation to tea, rather than a hastily scrawled message with a servant asking him ‘Do come and play billiards, good chap. Lest I die of boredom now that I am to be a married man!’. Perhaps it was because he had been blowing off these requests, in an attempt to avoid encountering Merlin again.

Besides, he knew that they weren’t a real summons. Not like this.

Arthur was determined to stay away from temptation, determined not to give in to his carnal lust again. He could not risk it. As such, he no longer trusted himself around Merlin.

Besides, he was not sure how Merlin felt about him now. He had left abruptly when Merlin was sleeping, the morning after Merlin had buggered him. Arthur had not awoken him, fearing that Merlin would have persuaded him to stay. So given his lack of faith in his own will-power and the uncertainty of Merlin's feelings on the matter, Arthur had concluded that the best course of action was to avoid Gwaine’s house at all costs until he was sure that Merlin was gone. Then it would be safe to return with no one to tempt him.

But this time the Earl had sent a formal invitation that his father would not allow him to decline.

Gwaine was a wiley one.

Arthur sincerely hoped that Merlin had finished Gwaine’s mothers portrait and moved on. But it did not seem likely as it had been less than a month since his last visit. Still, he endeavoured that he would do all that he could to avoid encountering Merlin and get this tea over and done with as swiftly as possible.

Arthur sat to pull on woollen socks and smartly shined black boots, which he laced as his thoughts filled with Merlin. Then he stood, pulled on his jacket and top hat, and ensured that he had his good gloves to hand. A quick glance in the mirror assured him he was ready to leave.

***

After dismounting from his horse and passing her over to the stable hand, Arthur walked up the grand driveway of the Orkney estate to knock at the front door. He had been invited over formally for tea after all, and that meant going to the front door of the grand estate, rather than slipping in through the side door he usually used to gain entry when responding to an informal request to play an afternoon game of billiards.

The door was opened by a servant who swiftly whisked Arthur into the house and took him through to the solarium. Arthur started to take in the room, but his eyes were immediately drawn to the happy, pretty young girl with curly blonde hair sitting next to Gwaine, with a table in front of them set for tea.

Ah, that must be Elena.

Gwaine stood and rushed over to him, his eyes shining and sporting a wide grin. He shook Arthur's hand heartily.

“Ah, so you are still alive then, Arthur,” he said, a sly glint in his eye. “I thought our celebrations might have knocked you off your mortal coil, it's been so long. Come, let me introduce you!”

He led Arthur over to Elena who had stood to meet them.

“Elena, may I present my good friend, Mister Arthur Pendragon. Arthur, meet my betrothed, Miss Elena Gawant.” Gwaine grinned as he took Elena’s hand in his. He looked up at her as he bent his head and placed a kiss on the back of her hand. Elena blushed prettily at the gesture.

Arthur smiled at them, though his heart lurched at the thought that he would never be able to do that with his chosen.

“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Gawant. The Earl has told me all about you.”

Elena beamed at him. “Only good things, I hope!” she exclaimed as they all sat.

Gwaine shrugged at her. “As if there is anything bad to say about you, darling!”

Arthur left them to their sickening love-gazing and looked down at his plate. It was then that he felt a gaze upon him. He looked up towards the back of the solarium where he spotted an easel with a young man sat behind it.

Merlin was watching him carefully with his dark hair falling across his forehead, and his hands and cheeks streaked with dark paint. Their eyes met instantly and Arthur faltered for a moment before returning his attention to the tea that the servants were bringing out to the table.

“Arthur?” asked Gwaine, who frowned and looked over his shoulder. “Oh, that’s Merlin! He’s painting Mother’s portrait for her birthday. He likes to paint in here because of the good lighting. I’ll call him over and introduce him, shall I?”

Arthur suddenly felt panic-stricken. He couldn’t have Merlin over here with Gwaine, it was too much. He might have been able to handle longing glances across the room, but having him so close and knowing they could never be... It felt like more than Arthur could bear. “Oh, no it’s...”

“HEY MERLIN!” yelled Gwaine. “Come over here, please!”

Merlin looked like a startled animal as he jumped and dropped his palette and brush with a clatter. He wiped his hands on an old paint-splattered rag before he reluctantly walked over.

“Merlin,” said Gwaine, leaning back in his chair. “Let me introduce you to our guest. Merlin, this is Arthur Pendragon, Arthur, this is Merlin Emrys.”

"Mister Emrys," greeted Arthur as they both nodded at each other and cordially shook hands. Arthur shivered as his mind flashed back to how perfectly those fingers had opened him just a few weeks previous.

“Now Arthur, I particularly wanted to introduce you to Merlin because Morgana has been hinting to me about how she would also like to get her portrait painted. In fact, she said to me that it would be the perfect gift for her birthday. I just thought, what a lovely a coincidence!” He winked at Arthur. “What with the fact that Merlin is due to finish Mother’s portrait next week. That would leave him free to work on Morgana’s portrait soon after and give plenty of time for him to finish by her birthday. Perfect timing, wouldn’t you say?”

Merlin looked back and forth between Gwaine and Arthur with surprise.

Arthur grit his teeth. He was going to kill Morgana when he got home. He calmed himself with a deep breath and cleared his throat.

“Yes. Perfect timing as you say,” he replied smoothly. “However...”

Elena interjected. “Oh Arthur. You must! Merlin’s paintings are simply devine. Morgana be thrilled, I just know it!” she clapped her hands together excitedly. “I would just have you know that we will have Merlin back afterwards to paint our portrait. Won’t we, my love?”

Gwaine smiled down at her. “We will indeed.” He looked over at Arthur with an evil, knowing glint in his eye and Arthur was hit with a sudden realisation. Gwaine, the crafty bugger, somehow knew about he and Merlin. Arthur would bet his fortune on. “What do you say, Arthur, will you take Merlin?”

Arthur just wanted to bury his face in his hands, that or he wished the ground would inexplicably open up and swallow him whole. He would make Gwaine pay for this little manipulation, if it was the last thing that he did.

Merlin turned on Gwaine and shook his finger at him angrily. “Gwaine! You can’t just go around forcing people to get portraits painted. I’m sure Mister Pendragon is not interested in--”

“Yes,” Arthur heard himself say abruptly. “Yes, I’ll take him.”

Merlin stood between them both looking indignant. “You can’t both barter over me like I'm a piece of meat at market! Surely I have a say!”

Gwaine grinned at him. “’Course you do, Merlin. What say you? Will you paint the beautiful Morgana to save Arthur’s neck, or won’t you? He can’t give her another writing set, she’ll have his guts for garters!”

Merlin appeared to be thinking, then he turned and nodded at Gwaine.

“Fine, I’ll do it,” he said before he stalked back towards the easel his head held high.

Arthur, Gwaine and Elena continued their afternoon tea, Elena completely oblivious to his discomfort whilst Gwaine watched Arthur closely with a look of pure glee. Arthur finally dared to take a quick glance at Merlin working across the room, only to find Merlin suddenly looking away and instead appearing to intently focused on his painting. When Arthur returned his attention to their conversation he saw Gwaine looking at him with a knowing smirk. The smug bastard.

Finally, the tea was declared finished and Elena excused herself from the table.

Gwaine leant across and whispered to Arthur with a grin. “Well, well, well Arthur. You know, I had my suspicions about you. I mean you’ve never been one to chase the girls, which seemed strange for a chap as handsome as you. But when I went to fetch you for breakfast the other week and I realised your bed had not been slept in, and so I wondered just where had you slept? Then when you thundered off on Damocles like a demon was chasing you, and Merlin spent the best part of a next week moping, things started to click into place.”

Gwaine sat back in his chair then and twisted around to look over at Merlin. “Merlin, I think Arthur should stay for dinner, don’t you? Then you can hash out the finer details of your arrangement.”

“Gwaine!” whispered Arthur sharply.

Merlin frowned at Gwaine. “Well, I think that it’s probably...”

“Grand! That’s settled then. Arthur, you can use your room to freshen up, shall we all meet back at the dinner hour?”

With that Gwaine stood up and left the room, leaving Merlin and Arthur staring flabbergasted at each other.

Chapter Text

Breathing a sigh of relief, Arthur closed the door behind him. As soon as Gwaine and Elena had left, leaving him alone with Merlin—thank you for that, Gwaine—Arthur had fled to the safety of his room to contemplate the matter. Or rather, the room that was designated as his when Arthur happened to stay the night at Gwaine’s home. The room he should have gone to that drunken night almost a month ago. If he had, then this whole awkward situation could have been avoided completely.

He crossed over to the washbasin and poured water into the porcelain bowl. He would have to make do with cold, because there was no way he was going to leave his room in search of a servant to get him a pitcher of hot water, not when it would mean risking bumping into Merlin again.

The infuriating man with his starling blue eyes, sharp cheekbones, and rumpled dark hair had haunted his thoughts and dreams for weeks, and just when Arthur had begun to push Merlin from his mind, Gwaine had shoved him to the front and center of his life again.

After splashing water on his face, Arthur reached for the towel and dried his face. His back stiffened when he heard the click of the door opening and closing. And he was unsurprised when he looked up into the mirror to see Merlin’s hesitant face staring back at him.

“You left without saying anything,” Merlin whispered, as he slowly starting to crowd Arthur from behind and spooned him.

“I know,” said Arthur, still holding himself stiffly in Merlin’s embrace. He could tell from the look on Merlin’s face that the word ‘why’ was on the tip of his tongue and so he intercepted him. “We both knew when it happened that it could not go anywhere. There is no future. Not for people like us. What we did was a mistake. Now, I apologise that Gwaine has engaged you in my service without consulting you. If it makes you feel any better, I was not consulted either.”

“Arthur...”

Merlin’s face was awash with feelings as it suddenly dawned on him that his advances were not being welcomed. Arthur could tell he was trying, and failing, to conceal his hurt. Merlin pulled away and took a step backwards to get closer to the door and further away Arthur.

“If you wish, I can withdraw from the arrangement. Gwaine need not know why. I can find plenty of work elsewhere.”

Turning, Arthur caught Merlin’s arm, afraid he might bolt like a rabbit. “And have Morgana murder me for ruining her birthday surprise? Not likely.”

A small triangular-shaped frown creased Merlin’s forehead. “But she does not know about—”

Scoffing, Arthur turned back to the mirror pretending to straighten his tie.

“Oh, she knows all right,” he told Merlin. “I know my sister. She and Gwaine are in cahoots. We’ve both been set up.”

Merlin chewed on his lip. “Your sister knows? How? Surely you didn’t—”

“Of course, I didn’t. I’m not mad.” Arthur paused. “Apparently we were seen. The first night that we met. Which is yet another reason nothing more can come of this matter.”

“Arthur, I’m so sorry.” Merlin’s face was the picture of misery. Such a polar opposite to their night together. “I never meant to cause you such strife. Let me finish the Countesses portrait, and then I will move on. I’ll find another city, and other patrons. I have enough talent to earn my way elsewhere. I will put some space between us and such rumours.”

Arthur sighed.

“But it’s not a rumour now, is it? And no. I won’t let you suffer for my own weakness, Merlin. You will come to Pendragon Manor, and you will paint my sister. But what happened between us—it cannot happen again. I hope that you understand that.”

Merlin’s reflection stared back at him, he looked at Arthur disbelievingly before swallowing and smoothing out his face. Merlin's eyes shuttered against him and he nodded formally. “Of course, Mr Pendragon, sir. I’m sorry for disturbing you. I’ll leave you in peace.”

“Merlin—” Arthur protested aghast at Merlin’s horribly proper demeanor all of a sudden.

“Don’t,” Merlin whispered. “Just—don’t.”

And before Arthur could say anything else, Merlin had turned and slipped from the room.

With a grimace Arthur slid his hands back into the water and bathed his face with the icy water. His thoughts were swimming with Merlin. He knew he had done the right thing. Merlin needed to understand that they couldn’t carry on with… whatever it was they’d started. It was too dangerous. Too risky. As it was, they would have to be careful not to fuel anymore speculation. Hopefully Morgana’s “spy” could be relied upon to keep her silence, for the time being. Damn Morgana. If she wasn’t defying their father, then she was tormenting him. And this time she had Arthur over a barrel. Just she wait until he got home. He would give her a piece of her mind.

Talking to Gwaine behind his back like that! How dare she. Arthur was angry. Angrier than he’d been in a long while. It was all that he could do not to go storming out to the stables, helping himself to one of Gwaine’s stallions whom were faster than his own mare, and tearing off home.

Except, of course he couldn’t do that. His father would never let him hear the end of it, causing such scandal when he’d been invited to tea at an Earl’s house. Even if that Earl was Gwaine.

Arthur dried his face once more and as he looked up he spied the writing desk in the corner. That would do nicely. He strode over, still in a fine mood and swiped at the quill. A stable boy would be happy for a pretty penny to deliver this to the Pendragon house, a herald to Morgana that he would not settle for her antics.

After he had poured out his displeasure onto the parchment, Arthur pulled out his sealing wax, melted it over a candle and pressed the Pendragon seal to it. Then he slipped off to the stables to ensure it's safe delivery.

Chapter Text

By the time Arthur had finished his discreet missive to Morgana—or at least, as discreet as he could make it given his outrage—and passed it to John to deliver, the dinner hour was almost upon them.

Before he attended dinner, Arthur made a brief stop in the East Wing to speak with Gwaine’s mother, knowing that the Countess liked to converse with all their visitors. She had been most excited that Gwaine was settling down and ready to carry on the family legacy. Even the fussy old lady couldn’t find fault with Elena. Of course, conversation soon turned to Arthur and she made subtle inquires about his own marital prospects; talking about how it had been such a shame that Guinevere Leodegrance had turned out to be such a heartless hussy. The whole prospect of marriage, along with his disastrous relationship with Guinevere (his fault, not hers) made Arthur immensely uncomfortable. He had done his best to defend Guinevere’s honour and deflect the shrew lady’s questioning, though he wasn’t sure he was very successful. He told her that he had no intentions of courting for some time (or ever courting again, if he had his way about it), and instead would be focusing on his literary pursuits. He hadn’t actually decided up until that point what he had intended to do in order to fill his time. But now with his thoughts had turned firmly towards his writing, he made his way to the dining room. Perhaps with a little focus and effort, he could write the next great British novel.

Shortly after the gong sounded, Gwaine and Elena emerged arm-in-arm, gazing besottedly at each other. It was disgusting. And dangerous to boot. Arthur almost wished they would slip on the stairs, his heart jealous and sore given how he had denied himself his own happiness only a few hours before.

He suppressed the urge to smile when Elena did indeed slip on the last step. But she merely giggled and Gwaine grinned genially as he steadied her. Arthur stifled a sigh and straightened his back.

“Miss Elena,” he said, as they approached, taking her hand and placing a kiss on it. “You are looking simply stunning this evening.”

Elena smiled widely at him. “Thank you, Mister Pendragon.”

“Please, call me Arthur,” he insisted.

“Arthur,” she amended.

They were interrupted by the clearing of a throat, and standing there behind them was Merlin, looking awkward and inelegant, the complete opposite of Elena's coiffed appearance.

“Sorry,” he said. “I left my… my paints are through here. In the solarium?”

“Merlin!” exclaimed Elena, clasping his hand. “Nevermind about those. Have you and Arthur agreed a date for you to commence Morgana’s portrait?”

Merlin exchanged a furtive glance with Arthur. “Um, not as yet.”

“Well then,” she said cheerfully. “You must join us for dinner, so that you may discuss it.”

“Oh. No. I'm not dressed to—I just—I just want to...” Merlin tried to edge past her, feeling for the door knob behind him. “...get my paints.”

“Nonsense, Merlin. I insist! Surely, you must be hungry. And no matter about your clothes. We are all friends here.”

Merlin glanced between Elena and Gwaine before fixing Arthur with a pleading stare—though, what he thought Arthur could do as a dinner guest, Arthur didn’t know. He didn’t want this arrangement anymore than Merlin did.

Shoulders slumping with resignation, Merlin said, “I, uh, I’d be honoured, Miss Elena.”

Gwaine thumped him on the back. “Good man! Now, shall we proceed to dinner?”

***

Watching as Gwaine and Elena fed each other forkfuls of food, despite eating the same dish, Arthur sighed. It had been one soppy thing after another with this dinner. Why had Arthur agreed to subject himself to it? Gwaine had become a giddy romantic now he had a fiancee. Flowers delivered to the table, love-sick gazes, gallant acts of chivalry; the works. He was truly a changed man.

To make the situation worse, Arthur had to suffer through it in an uncomfortable silence with Merlin by his side. Neither of them had dared to speak much. Only really daring to say anything of substance when Gwaine or Elena engaged them in conversation. They certainly avoiding speaking with each other unless strictly necessary. But nonetheless, Arthur had been painfully aware of Merlin’s presence, much like one would feel inextricable hot if they were sitting directly beside a roaring fire.

Elena patted her mouth with a napkin. “Gwaine darling, we must send our regards to Cook. That was simply divine!”

“Of course, my love,” he agreed readily.

“Arthur? Are you sure you’re quite well? You’ve barely said a word all night,” Elena said with concern.

Arthur glanced up from his half-finished plate of food, forcing himself to smile. “Oh yes, I am quite well, Miss Elena. Please, forgive me, I was lost in thought.”

“And Merlin, you’ve not talked much either. I wouldn’t worry, but well, normally you’ve plenty to say!” she pointed out.

Merlin grimaced and shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry,” he mumbled, not as easily able to mask his discomfort at their situation as Arthur.

“I’ve an idea that will cheer him up," piped up Gwaine. "Merlin, why don’t you fetch your paints before dessert arrives? And while you’re there, you could show Elena Mother’s portrait. It’s almost done now.”

With a relieved look Merlin hurried out of his chair. “With pleasure. This way, Miss Elena.”

***

When Merlin and Elena had left Gwaine lounged back in his chair and just looked at Arthur without a word.

“What?” asked Arthur with a scowl.

“I could ask you the same. What’s up with you and Merlin. You were acting peculiar at tea and now you—and Merlin, I might add—have been positively frigid and quiet all night. Didn't you both...” Gwaine waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Looking away, Arthur started to play with his fork. “I’ve no idea what you mean,” he said cooly. “Just because you and Morgana—” Arthur practically spat her name at Gwaine, “—have decided to engage Merlin in my service, does not mean I have to like the man. Nor does it mean I have to be civil and engage him in pointless chit-chat.”

Gwaine smiled at him, slow and sly. “Oh, from what I heard you more than like Merlin. At least, you did that night when you stayed over.”

Arthur opened his mouth to issue a shocked denial.

“You were both rather loud, you know,” Gwaine commented.

Clutching at the table, Arthur felt as though he couldn’t breath. His heart beat hard in his chest. Oh God. Gwaine really knew. Who else?

“Don’t worry,” Gwaine reassured him. “Elena doesn’t know. I told her it was Pellinore and a serving girl we’d been hearing.”

“I—”

“He’s heartbroken, you know,” Gwaine said, casting his eyes over to the Solarium where Merlin was gesturing with Elena. “I think you are, too. You were never like this with Gwen. Do yourselves a favour and sort it out.”

Arthur scowled. “There can be nothing between us. You know it could never be.”

Gwaine shot him a skeptical look as he rose to greet Elena. He pulled out her chair and helped her sit and smiled at Merlin.

“Now, where were we?” Gwaine asked. “Arthur, you were telling me about your future plans?”

"Oh yes," replied Arthur with false enthusiasm. "I've decided I shall take up writing again!"

Chapter Text

As the door closed behind him, Merlin glanced around the room with a sigh. That was it, he was finally moved into the Pendragon mansion. A day he had been fearing, and yet anticipating for weeks now. He took in the room around him with amazement once more. Despite the fact that it was not the most glamorous room in the house, it was still rather luxurious in his eyes. It was big enough to be considered spacious, but not so big that anyone would be under the impression that Merlin was a particularly prestigious guest. It was, however, much more than Merlin could ever hope for, or that he deserved, and much more than he should have been given, given his social status as a commoner, despite his talent for the arts.

It made sense though, that a family such as the Pendragon’s, whom were concerned with their image within society were not going to be viewed as giving poor accommodation to anyone who stayed within their home, nor were they going to be seen taking in someone so common as to be poor. That was why Gwaine had made sure that Merlin’s meager wardrobe had been replaced with something more suitable—much to Merlin’s chagrin—before he had left his home. The new clothes were certainly well-made, and Merlin was sure that even Arthur’s father, the notorious Uther Pendragon, would not be able to find fault in them, but they were stiff and uncomfortable. The collar was so starched that it chaffed as it rubbed against his neck. And the waistcoat and jacket were tight and neat, as was the current style. Merlin felt as though he had been pressed and ironed and crimped within an inch of his life. He would much rather be in his own clothes. But so long as he was going to be meeting with Arthur’s father he could not.

The fact that he was being housed in one of the less grandiose of the Pendragon’s guest rooms did not bother Merlin in the slightest. And if Arthur hadn’t said so, Merlin would never have known. He had grown up in an old, run-down cottage in the Welsh valleys, sharing the single-roomed dwelling with his mother. In comparison, this room with its woolen carpet, velvet drapes, hardwood furniture, four-poster bed and fire crackling merrily in the ornate fireplace, was a thing of fantasy. Merlin felt as though he were living in some kind of dream, upon where he had awoken to find himself some long forgotten royalty, such was the level of luxury and privilege in the world he had found himself so suddenly thrust into. All thanks to Gwaine of course and their chance encounter at the inn a scant two months previously.

Taking a deep breath, Merlin peered at himself in the mirror. He ran a hand through his hair in a vain effort to tame the mess of waves and curls upon his head. But as usual, it was not particularly successful attempt. He messed with it for a few more moments, before abandoning it as a lost cause. Instead, he cleared his throat and straightened his tie.

He had a meeting shortly with Arthur—no, Mr. Pendragon, as he had now been told him to call him—to introduce him to both the elder Mr. Pendragon and Ar—Mr. Pendragon’s sister, Miss. Morgana Pendragon. Of whom he would be painting. Merlin had heard that she was quite the beauty. He was rather looking forward to meeting with her. Then once that was all over he would be able to slip away, get out of these god-awful clothes, and resist the urge to drink himself unconscious.

This afternoon had already been pure torture, Merlin almost felt as though he should have a drink now, in order to steady his nerves and deal with the rest of his day. He had come to Arthur’s home today and been treated essentially as a stranger, when Merlin was willing to bet that he knew Arthur better than probably anyone else here under his father’s roof. It was enough to make him want to cry.

Although, Merlin contemplated, perhaps there was a reason for Arthur’s coldness and the way that he had so vehemently pushed him away. Perhaps Arthur was a cad and had a man—or a woman, for that matter—whom he carried on with here amongst the staff. Or a special friend whom often visited and Arthur did not want to upset the apple cart by bringing a former lover—Merlin, in this case—into his home.

Merlin shook his head. No, he was being silly. He could not believe that Arthur would be like that. Much like he could not bring himself to refer to Arthur as ‘Mr. Pendragon’ within his own head. Not after they had shared such intimacy. He also could not rid himself of the damned feelings that he had for the man, all of whom had come rushing back tenfold since he had arrived here at the Pendragon’s mansion. Coming here had been a bad choice. He should have found a way to escape from the trap that Gwaine had sprung upon them. But Gwaine had thwarted his every attempt and now here he was. Stuck in Arthur’s home for many weeks whilst he painted. Merlin resolved that he would do his best to keep his head down and work hard, both to produce a magnificent piece of art, and to keep himself busy and his thoughts distracted from Arthur. If Arthur wanted to pretend that they had a purely professional relationship and were barely even acquaintances instead? Well then, so be it. Merlin could pretend—outwardly at least—along with the best of them.

Speaking of Arthur, he had better get going and head down to the dining room before he got an earful from Arthur. He had been extremely explicit that Merlin not be late.

With a final glance in the mirror, Merlin tugged his waistcoat straight and went to open the door.

Standing there, with an annoyed look on his face, was Arthur.

“There you are! I thought we said that you’d been downstairs on time, Mr Emrys. Come on. Follow me.”

“Yes, my Lord,” replied Merlin, rolling his eyes at him. Trust Arthur to kick up a fuss for Merlin taking a few minutes to himself before dinner.