Merlin Emrys decides that he may as well just face facts. He has been born under an unlucky star. No, worse than that -- he is cursed. He is congenitally and irretrievably cursed.
He often finds himself wondering how the hell he got himself into x, y or z situation -- and at least six times a week he hears somebody saying "this could only happen to you, Merlin". He has grown used to coming home at the end of the day, collapsing onto his moth-eaten, lumpy sofa and laying his head in Gwen's lap to recite his woes as she soothes him with tea, soup and just a smattering of gentle teasing.
But today -- today reaches new heights, even for Merlin. At 9.30am on Tuesday morning he will find himself standing in the rain having done one or all of the following: called his boss a prat, mortally offended his very best friend in the world, probably almost definitely been fired and lost the keys to the house he will most likely soon be thrown out of for not paying his rent. From whatever way you look at it, this is not a good day in the life of Merlin Emrys.
But right now, at 3am on Monday morning, Merlin doesn't know that.
What he does know, however, is that one of the many curses in his life is thin bloody walls.
He has been kept awake for most of the night by Gwen and Lance -- again -- doing things he does not want to think about Gwen doing, thank you very much, let alone hear. When everything finally goes quiet he lies in his too-small single bed with the usual catalogue of insecurities running through his head.
Why doesn't HE have someone to cover his mouth to (fail to, if Gwen's anything to go by) prevent him from making too much noise whilst they do filthy and delicious things that make his toes curl?
When will Gwen and Lance get sick of having him in what was once Merlin-and-Gwen's but is fast becoming Gwen-and-Lance's house and kick him out?
Where will he go when he doesn't have any sort of decent career or even any idea of what he wants to do?
How long before he becomes one of those terrible, lonely old queens, cooing over the cat, flirting with straight men and, God forbid, posting fumbly, amateur videos online just for a bit of validation?
And why, why, why is it that no matter how many times he has his hair cut, no matter how much of his meagre pay-packet he spends on gel and wax and moulding clay, whatever the buggering fuck that is, it always looks a bloody mess?
As always, no answers are forthcoming, and he finally slips into a fitful sleep around 5am.
An hour and a half later, he somehow finds himself being bundled into the shower, still in his pyjamas, by a pair of smooth brown arms much stronger than his own.
"Merlin Emrys," a voice floats from somewhere above the arms, "You are going to be late and then you are going to be fired and then we are going to be evicted and I will be forced to sell your body to buy food for the cat." This dire pronouncement is accompanied by a blast of cold water that thoroughly rids Merlin of the last remnants of sleep and reminds him that today he starts his new job; a job at a mindless, soulless, blood-sucking corporation, a job punching numbers into a computer, a job that will slowly kill him with boredom -- but a job nonetheless, and one that he cannot afford to turn down. He doubts Gwen is lying about using his body as a means of the cat's survival. She loves that cat.
Through sheer force of will (and not a little fear) he showers and dresses, skidding around the kitchen trying to get himself together whilst an amused Lance (wearing Gwen's fluffy dressing gown) cocks one eyebrow at his rudimentary attempts to tie his own tie. "Over, under, around and through!" Lance sings, and Merlin shoots him a death glare and mumbles something about "Mr Perfect" through a mouthful of cold toast.
But there is no time for vengeance as he looks at the clock and -- fuck! -- dashes out the door, and -- double fuck! -- bashes his elbow on the door-jamb as he does so, and -- triple sodding fuck! -- loses half the contents of his bag halfway down the road to the Tube station. By the time he throws himself on the train -- ignoring the disapproving looks of his fellow commuters and the dire "please stand clear of the closing doors" warning from announcer of doom -- he is sweaty-faced, and thoroughly flustered. His tie is still skew-whiff and he suddenly realises he is not wearing matching socks and he has forgotten the packed lunch that Gwen lovingly made for him at some god-awful hour last night, and the memory of her cutting the crusts off for him because she always says his hair does not need to be curly "and end up more of a state than it already is, Merlin" brings a lump to his throat and he has to swallow twice before he feels sure he is not going to thoroughly shame himself by becoming the grown man crying on the Tube.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, breathes, props himself against the door and attempts to quiet his godforsaken inner monologue, just for a minute, please.
And when he concentrates hard, when he draws himself into the centre of his being and closes his eyes and focuses, it is blissful: everything slows down, all is quiet, and he can be still. When the announcer's voice rings through with the name of his stop he blinks and is amazed to find twenty minutes has gone past without him noticing, and the skin on the back of his neck prickles uncomfortably as he stores it in his mental file of "weird stuff that seems to happen to me".
As he emerges from the station, taking the stairs two at a time, he is greeted by the sight of the huge, imposing building that will be his home for the next however-many-months-he-lasts-without-getting-fired. It is breathtaking, really; cold, grey steel cutting angles into the skyline that make him almost wince in sympathy. Gwen has always said that it's weird for someone with such an affinity for nature to have chosen to move to London, and Merlin privately agrees. He longs for the rolling hills and vast expanse of green of his home town in Wales, and thinks about moving back fifty times a day. But something keeps him here -- the same thing that brought him here -- an indistinct, nagging compulsion that his destiny lies somewhere in this city he has come to love and hate with equal measure, and so when his mother murmurs promises down the phone that his bedroom is still waiting for him, he pushes the tempting thought of feather pillows and home-cooked breakfasts to the back of his mind and forces himself to count the great things abut his life in London.
Gwen, for a start. She is a great thing -- the greatest thing -- and has been since day one, when he turned up clutching all his worldly possessions and a scrappy piece of paper with her address on it. She took one look at him and opened her door and her spare room and her heart to this skinny boy with too-big ears and absolutely no sense of purpose aside from a vague muttering about "just needing to be in London".
It was not until a year and a half later that Merlin learned she had already promised the room to one of the other applicants, and had to make a very uncomfortable phonecall after he had collapsed into bed that night. She didn't tell him, and he resolved never to mention it, but when she came home to find the house cleaned from top to bottom and a vase of geraniums sitting on her bedside table, she hugged him very tightly and whispered "I've never regretted it, ever" into his hair, and they spent the evening watching Strictly and throwing popcorn at each other from opposite ends of the sofa -- their sofa.
And then came Lance, Merlin thinks, who at first seemed too big, too loud, too grand for their shabby little house, but wormed his way into Merlin's heart when he saw the way Gwen's eyes lit up when she talked about him, and who learnt to fold himself into corners and mysteriously melt away just when Merlin found himself getting a little bit jealous. Lance is another good thing, Merlin thinks, even with his sodding perfect hair and sodding muscles and sodding way of making everyone like him immediately.
Merlin could use a little bit of Lance's charm right now, he thinks, as he awkwardly negotiates the huge revolving doors that lead into Camelot Holdings, Inc.; the beginning of his new life as a corporate drone.
Arthur Pendragon is the luckiest bastard on the planet. He has heard it a thousand times and he knows it's true. He has money -- more than he knows what to do with -- and power, and a modest amount of fame, and good looks, and women falling at his feet, and did he mention good looks? Because he has those in abundance. He is the golden-haired boy who will no doubt inherit his father's vast business empire, marry some sort of minor European royal and spend the rest of his days at a glorious pile in the country polishing his collection of classic sports cars.
And yet right now, he feels about the size of an ant.
At the other end of the highly polished teak boardroom table sits his father. Uther is a cold, hard, relentless tyrant of a man who has built his business from the ground up by not caring who he tramples on to get there. Or at least that's how Arthur sees it at times like this. Right now, for instance, he is roaring at his only son in front of an increasingly uncomfortable board of directors, two bemused Japanese investors waiting patiently on video-link as their translator attempts to sum up "useless bloody playboy with an endless parade of bloody blonde bimbos" without resorting to crude hand-gestures, and one indiscreet cleaner, standing open-mouthed with duster in hand.
Arthur wishes it were possible to shrink himself until he vanished, but as it is, he tries to think about cricket to take his mind off the verbal onslaught, and avoids looking at his (otherwise beloved) personal assistant's face as she hides her smirk behind a perfectly manicured hand and pokes the corner of her tongue out at him. She, never having been the victim of one of these tirades, clearly finds it all very amusing and doesn't understand why Arthur can't.
But that's because, despite her best attempts, Arthur knows she does not know everything there is to know about him.
And because of that, she does not understand the secret that Arthur carries, knowing that one day it will destroy his father.
Arthur swallows twice, pushing back the dreadful, traitorous thoughts that he normally tries to keep right at the very back of his mind in a small, dark, tightly-locked place of his brain that is absolutely under no circumstances to ever be examined in detail, ever.
Uther appears to have finished now, and Arthur is grateful for the chance to come back to the conversation. It returns, slightly shakily, to the latest campaign in East Asia, which gives his father something other than him to rant about. But he knows the incident won't have been forgotten, and so as soon as the meeting is over he makes his excuses and hurries out, waving off Morgana's protests and attempting to look like he has some sort of purpose as he strides in the opposite direction to his office.
The Camelot building is huge, with an endless maze of corridors and offices, but somehow his father always finds him. At times like these there is really only one place he can hide. He checks for watchful eyes, and, finding nobody, creaks open the door to the boiler room and slips inside, gratefully sliding behind the pipes to his own private refuge.
He is not very good at living the life of a corporate playboy. He does love the money, it's true, and the power -- but he's also damn good at the business side of things. He has a keen mind and a solid command of the facts and figures, and despite being less cut-throat than his father, the increasing respect of the staff. But sometimes the endless whirl of meetings and corporate hospitality and proposals just all feels too much -- too fast, too hard, too intense -- and that's when he has to hide here, amongst broken chairs and old air-conditioning units and cobwebs, just to take a minute to collect himself.
He suddenly thinks of his mother. These thoughts always come unbidden, at the strangest of times: returning from a business trip at the airport in Hong Kong, watching a small boy run into his mother's waiting arms; walking past a greetings card shop; watching Morgana arranging a vase of roses. And here, in a forgotten, dusty room. He is overwhelmed in the dark, trying futilely to steady his shuddering breaths.
He's not sure what he misses, exactly -- she died in childbirth so he has no memories of her, specifically, besides the odd story his father lets slip by accident -- but he thinks it is just the idea of having a mother, of having someone who looks after you and patches up sore knees and listens to dreams that don't involve large sums of money, or takeovers, or acquisitions, or mergers.
Arthur respects and obeys his father, but he isn't sure he loves him -- he isn't sure he loves anyone, really, besides this phantom mother he has created from snippets of old movies and adverts and novels that he hid inside financial textbooks as a teenager.
Stop it, Arthur, he commands himself, pressing his forehead against the cool pipes. This kind of thinking gets him nowhere.
That's twice his brain has betrayed him today.
Merlin manages to only snort disparagingly twice during his induction, although he does permit himself four or five surreptitious eye-rolls. Camelot is everything he hates about big businesses -- pretentious and corporate and full of irritating business-speak. He has been here three hours and he is still not entirely sure what the company actually does, let alone what his part in it all is. He has a horrible feeling he's supposed to have figured that out by now, though, because he is already sitting at his desk -- his desk -- feeling vaguely nauseous and more than a little useless.
"Just familiarise yourself with the systems… have a look around the staff intranet… check your emails… I've sent you some stuff already…" his manager says, airily, as she spins on one ridiculous stiletto and heads off to torture some other poor newbie. Merlin drops his suddenly very scruffy-looking messenger back onto the immaculate desk and looks round at his fellow workers with what he hopes is an encouraging smile.
They all studiously ignore him.
Subject: trying to look busy and important
Hate it. HATE IT. HAAAAAATE IT.
Subject: stop trying to look it and actually BE busy and important
Don't care. Will feed you to the cat if necessary. So shut up and get on with it.
To: g email@example.com
Subject: i think it's working
But GWEN. It's AWFUL. I have to click a button every time I go to the loo. Seriously.
I think I may have to take up smoking again just to get away from my desk. In fact I think I may have to take up smoking right now .
Subject: DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT
MERLIN EMRYS IF YOU START SMOKING AGAIN I WILL TAKE YOU TO THE MIDDLE OF HULL AND LEAVE YOU THERE. I MEAN IT MERLIN. DO I HAVE TO GET LANCE TO BRING YOU HOME THE LUNG PICTURES AGAIN? BECAUSE I WILL. YOU BEST BE READING THIS AND NOT SMOKING. MERLIN. MERLIN.
Merlin is not reading Gwen's email. Neither, though, is he smoking, although that's what he told his manager, and that's the sign he put up above his cubicle (signs, he thinks, signs for bloody everything). Actually he is sneaking down the back stairs to find somewhere he can hide from everyone whilst he decides whether being fed to the cat would be preferable to this. It would be more entertaining, at least.
Suddenly he hears a familiar voice echoing down the corridor -- "uh-huh, I understand… uh-huh… no, I most certainly did NOT say that…" -- accompanied by the ominous clicking of stilettos. His manager. For some reason he is panic-stricken, like a schoolboy caught in the girls' -- all right, corrects Merlin, the boys' -- changing rooms when he shouldn't be. He can't face bluffing it out, not in a place that makes him leave signs indicating where he is at all times, so he clicks open the nearest door and squeezes his slim frame into the sweet sanctuary of… some kind of utility room, he thinks, with the distinct smell of rust and lint. Still, it's better than being out there, and he sinks onto a broken chair with a grateful sigh.
"Shit!" Merlin feels like he's been tasered (and he should know, having been dragged by Gwen to an anti-war walk that turned into a march that turned into a protest that turned into a riot). "Fucking hell, you made me jump. Jesus."
"Well, what the hell are you doing in here?" comes the reply, and Merlin is on the verge of replying with something facetious when the body the voice belongs to emerges from the dimly-lit corner of the room, and stops in a pool of wintry sunlight that's being cast through the iron bars at the narrow window. Merlin's first, bizarre thought is that the man is wearing very shiny shoes, and it doesn't get any more coherent as his eyes travel up the fine tailoring of the suit trousers to a broad chest, a strong neck, and a finely-boned face surrounded by the most ridiculously golden hair he has ever seen and had long since thought only to exist in fairy-tales. The steel blue of the man's eyes is tempered, Merlin thinks, by the coolly arrogant curl of his mouth -- and Merlin can't quite decide which he finds more appealing.
Merlin opens his mouth to turn his facetious comment into something witty and urbane, but what comes out is "Hiding."
Merlin has never been very good at talking to people he finds attractive. And this man is drop-dead, get-on-your-knees-open-mouthed-and-willing attractive. And boy, thinks Merlin with an internal groan, doesn't he just know it.
The man raises one (plucked?! Merlin thinks incredulously) eyebrow. "Hiding," he repeats, folding his arms.
"Hiding. From, uh, them." Merlin gestures helplessly at the door, attempting to ignore the outline of the man's bicep under the crisp white cotton of his shirt. "Oh God, it's just… it's my first day and I'm finding it all a little… overwhelming."
"You must understand; after all, you're hiding in here too. Unless you're Maintenance… which I somehow… er… doubt." He shoots a look at the shiny shoes. God, they are incredibly shiny. They are actually reflective. What a ponce.
The man shifts. "Well. Yes. I suppose it can be a little bit intense at times."
"Oh God," Merlin sighs, relieved to have found a semi-kindred spirit, even if it is a ponce in patent shoes. "Not just intense. It's all completely ridiculous. All the signs and the expensive coffee tables and the button clicking and the swipe cards and the immaculate haircuts. It's all… so bloated with its own self-importance. I mean, the first email I read this morning was from Arthur Pendragon, who I gather is something of a big cheese around here, introducing himself. It was a little potted biography. Like a bloody Miss World contestant!" Merlin is in full-flow now. "'My interests are classic cars, cricket and fine dining.'" he imitates, adopting a deep baritone. "I mean, come on. As if anyone cares. Surely everyone here just comes in, does their job and goes home. Nobody gives a crap about Arthur bloody Pendragon and his bloody classic cars. Right?"
The man's face is inscrutable, and for a minute Merlin is worried he has put his foot in it somehow. But then the expression twists into a smile, and the man says, "No. No, I don't suppose they do."
"Anyway, I'm rambling. Sorry. And I really should get back to my desk. Er… I'm Merlin, by the way." He sticks out a hand, surreptitiously wiping his palm on the side of his Primark trousers as he does.
"It's been… interesting," the man says, ignoring Merlin's hand and dropping his eyes to Merlin's still not bloody tied right tie and back up again to the messy sweep of dark hair. "And Merlin -- it's probably best not to go around insulting the MD's only son on your first day here. At least leave it a week." His tone is half-sarcastic and half… something else that Merlin can't quite put his finger on, but it's utterly withering, and Merlin feels he has no choice but to retrieve his hand and what little dignity he has left, and seek escape yet again.
It's not until he is safely back at his desk that Merlin clicks onto the staff intranet page and sees the same cold blue eyes staring back out at him, the proud mouth smoothed into a smile -- the photograph captioned "Arthur Pendragon MBA -- Vice President".
Subject: RE: DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT
Am going to get fired.
Please do not feed me to the cat.
Arthur vents his feelings by terrifying random passers-by on the way back to his office with incomprehensible orders, reprimands and several of his patented death-glares. He then barks at long-suffering Morgana to hold his calls until further notice. He slams the door to his office, taking solace in the childishness of his actions, and paces up and down in front of the huge expanse of window looking out over Canary Wharf. He is fuming. He has never been so angry. And he has no idea why.
Sure, the encounter had been completely demeaning. But Arthur is used to coming across the odd whisper disparaging his character -- it's part of the territory. He has heard much worse than what Merlin said. Hell, he hears much worse from his own father on a daily basis. He has -- after making the fatal error of Googling himself -- read blogs and messageboards dedicated to venting about working at Camelot, including a diary spoofing of his own life as an "international playboy". And none of them have hurt him (okay, perhaps the last one stung a little). But some jumped-up, opinionated, scruffy office clerk has him clenching and unclenching his fists and thinking about vengeance.
He slams his palm into the solid wood of his desk and stands, still as a statue, with his eyes closed and his chin tucked into his chest. Control, Arthur, he thinks, and forces himself to lower slowly onto the bottle-green leather of his office chair. He pulls his notepad towards him, uncaps his pen, smoothes his hand over a fresh cream page and begins to write.
When Arthur is angry, or upset, or excited, or feeling anything, really, he makes lists. It drives Morgana mad. She says it's unhealthy, refusing to give in to any emotion, distracting himself from the intensity of his feelings by writing it all out in crisp lines of black ink. She says that one day he'll fall in love with some girl and all he'll do is make endless lists of reasons why he loves her. She says that the reason he hasn't found anyone yet is because he never loses control enough to fall.
He thinks she is ridiculous. He tells her to stop being so impertinent, and not to forget that he could have her fired at any time. He ignores the cynical arch of her perfectly sculpted eyebrow. He reminds himself that she cannot ever know how wrong she is.
And so he makes his list. To work through the fury that is coursing through his veins, hot under his skin, prickling at his scalp. At the top of the page he writes Why has this made me so angry? and underlines it twice.
Then he crosses out this and replaces it with he.
Because he had disturbed Arthur's sanctuary.
Because he had shown no respect.
Because Camelot had done this idiot a favour by employing him when clearly he didn't belong, and this was how he repaid them.
Because he was wearing ridiculously cheap trousers and scruffy shoes and his hair looked like it had never even seen a comb, let alone actually come into contact with one.
Because what he was saying had some truth in it. (He flinches as he admits this one.)
Because his eyes were full of scorn and disdain.
Because they were the bluest eyes Arthur had ever seen.
He writes this last one without thinking, and drops the pen as if it's burned him. He glances around his office, stricken, looking for all the world as if he's being watched.
He takes his pen and crosses it out. Firmly.
There will be no tolerance of any of that nonsense here.
He thinks this to himself in his father's voice.
He picks up his phone and dials a familiar number.
"It's Arthur. Yeah. No, today -- at my office. Now. And be discreet."
But not too discreet.
Three hours later, Merlin is nervously chewing the end of his pen and waiting to get fired. He knows it's coming. It's just a case of waiting. He has put everything in his bag, ready for the inevitable click-click of stilettos coming to give him his marching orders. He cannot believe he managed to shut himself in a room full of rusty pipes with the Vice President -- the Managing Director's son, for Christ's sake -- and thoroughly insult him on his first day. He's had bad first days before -- terrible first days, even -- but this has reached new heights of crapness. He sighs miserably, and continues chewing on his pen, staring moodily at his computer screen.
He looks at the alert.
You have mail!
He blinks twice at the sender's address.
Oh. Clearly Arthur is so angry he has decided to fire Merlin himself. By email. Or -- worse -- he is inviting him to a meeting where he will proceed to fire him in person. Painfully. Or perhaps he's suing him. Could he be sued? Is calling someone a bloody Miss World contestant -- he winces at the memory -- libellous? Or is that slander? He can never remember which is which. One is written and one is verbal. Or something. Lance would know. Perhaps he'll call Lance, or -- oh, just open the fucking email, Merlin, and stop your wittering, he orders himself.
If you have such definite ideas about what I should and shouldn't be sending to new staff, perhaps you would care to write me a new introductory email? One that's a little less… Miss World? Or is that beyond your capabilities?
Relief washes over Merlin, flooding to his fingertips and making his limbs feel suddenly boneless. It is followed by a small spark of indignation. He has been sitting here going out of his mind for three hours while Arthur has clearly been thinking about something else entirely. Meaning he can't have been that bothered. And now he's ordering him about and insulting him all at the same time. In fact, Merlin thinks, Arthur has just reaffirmed himself as the arrogant, stuck-up arse Merlin suspected him to be all along -- playing mind games with someone whose livelihood depends on a job at his stupid company, pulling strings like Merlin is his bloody puppet, all because he can't even comprehend what it must be like to have to scrape for every penny, and has never experienced the soul-crushing sensation of being let go from a job so simple two dozen monkeys with typewriters could do it.
Merlin can hear Gwen's voice in his head telling him to sit on his hands and cool his temper before he replies, but he mentally brushes her away distractedly. Fifteen minutes later, he fires back his response.
Please find attached your new introductory email. Unfortunately, although I can re-write this for you, I cannot stop you from wearing those ridiculously poncy shiny shoes. If that's your idea of formal wear, I'd hate to see you in the swimsuit round.
As soon as he's hit the send button, a fit of remorse hits him in a nauseating wave, and he slaps his palm to his forehead with a soft groan. He is an idiot. This is why he always gets fired, because his mouth -- and his fingers -- work quicker than his brain.
He once overheard Gwen on the phone to his mum (an occurrence which would go on to become more and more frequent, much to his discomfort) describing him as not having an "internal filter". "I think it's because he's just so open," she had said with a sigh. "He never plots or connives or lies and so he doesn't understand that sometimes you have to just take a step back and adjust what you're thinking for the sake of a quiet life. I mean, everybody does it. But not Merlin. He opens his mouth and he just tells the truth and he trusts that will be okay. But it isn't. Not always."
Merlin had taken her point, considering he had failed his last five job interviews for merrily detailing his clumsiness and lack of attention to detail in answer to the question about his weaknesses. And tempering his bluntness had got him through the interview for Camelot, just about. But here he is, throwing it all away. For the second time that day.
"I am an idiot," he mutters mournfully, burying his face in his hands.
His new (and soon to be ex) colleagues continue to ignore him.
Arthur's face contorts into a scowl as he reads the idiot's response. He is not used to people speaking to him like this -- other than Morgana -- and it takes him aback; he's not sure how to respond in the face of deliberate, wilful impertinence. But when he clicks open the attachment he gets a further surprise. What Merlin has written is good. Really good. It has the perfect balance of humour and sincerity, and it has taken Merlin -- what, fifteen minutes? -- to write something that is far, far better than the original, which took the marketing team two weeks. The boy is talented. His manner leaves a lot to be desired, and his appearance is completely at odds with the image of the company, but he's got something there. Some raw talent.
But to tolerate such rudeness from a new employee shows the kind of weakness Arthur's father would never endorse. Arthur knows this, and knows he should fire Merlin, but something stops him. The same thing that had compelled him to send the damn email in the first place. The same thing that had led to him pulling Merlin's details from their staff database. The same thing that now has him thinking about what it would be like to see Merlin every day.
As a blonde girl emerges from his office bathroom, wearing nothing but his expensive suit jacket, he tells himself it would be a waste to lose a possible asset. It would be a mistake to fire Merlin before seeing if the company could use his apparent knack with words.
The girl kneels in front of him, expectantly. He unzips his fly, lies back in his chair, stares blankly at the ceiling and promises himself that keeping Merlin employed has nothing whatsoever to do with the blue of his eyes. As he spills himself into her waiting mouth, he almost has himself convinced.
Merlin isn't even sure whether he should go in today. He had gone home at 5.30 half-expecting to have his swipe card ceremoniously destroyed as he left the building, or something, and had been quite surprised to find himself at the Tube station unscathed. Once home, he had gone straight to his room, waving off Gwen's questions and concerned looks by mumbling something about being tired, and had lain awake on his bed for the majority of the night. What was Arthur playing at?
From what Merlin had heard around the office the previous day (gossips in the kitchen making huge mugs of tea, the mutterings of the disgruntled IT member who came to set up his computer), Arthur was notoriously touchy and hot-tempered and had frightened people into resigning (or had them fired outright) just for looking at him wrong, and yet here was Merlin, having insulted him in person and by email, seemingly still employed.
It's weird, Merlin thinks for the hundredth time, mindlessly slopping milk onto the kitchen table at breakfast the next morning. And it's irritating. He feels like he is being toyed with for entertainment, like a cat playing with a mouse before finally crunching its skull. And he does not like being the mouse in that analogy.
He has no idea what Arthur plans to do with him, but he has a horrible feeling that today he will find out.
Gwen tuts and lifts Merlin's cereal bowl to swipe a damp cloth underneath it. He doesn't acknowledge her, just continues to eat without a word.
"Merlin, for God's sake," Gwen says, startling him from his thoughts. "What is WITH you? You've barely said a word to me since you got in last night."
"Hm? Oh, God. Sorry Gwen. Stuff on my mind."
She raises an eyebrow. "So I see. I haven't seen you this distracted since… well, since you first met Will," she says, nudging him so hard he almost swallows his spoon.
"What?!" he chokes, retrieving a mouthful of Cheerios from where he's spluttered them onto the tablecloth.
"I just thought," she says, with a slight twinkle, "that you might have met someone interesting yesterday that you were thinking about. Or, er, not," she finishes lamely, seeing Merlin's growing look of incredulity.
"No!" Merlin says, shaking his head energetically. "I was thinking about my BOSS. And he is as far removed from interesting as someone could possibly be. He wears stupid shiny shoes and expensive suits and swans around playing GOD just because he can. And just because he's-- because people say-- conventionally he's-- just because he's a bit good looking doesn't mean I find him anything other than insufferable. Quite frankly, he's an utter prat and I most certainly do not find him interesting or attractive or anything remotely like Will, thank you very much, so just keep your nose out of it."
Gwen looks vaguely astonished. "Merlin, I was just asking…"
"Well DON'T," Merlin says furiously. "God. You're always asking and nosying and bloody going on at me. Why don't you go and phone my mother and you can both discuss my life in minute detail and come to the conclusion that I'm an utter failure." With this he gets up and stalks out the door, moodily slamming the door behind him.
As he stalks up the road (in the rain, having forgotten his umbrella and been unable to go back for it because he's lost his cocking keys, again) he has a vision of Gwen, standing stunned in the kitchen, the cloth dripping soapy water on the lino, and he feels a lump of guilt in his throat. They never argue, hardly ever, and he has never shouted at her before. And she hadn't even really done anything. He could pretend it was because she mentioned Will, but he knows it's not -- the two of them parted on fairly good terms over a year ago, and Merlin looks at photos of him and his new boyfriend on Facebook without so much as a twinge of jealousy these days. No, it's because Arthur has wound him up so much, he decides, and it is yet another reason to be pissed off at him. Now he has made Merlin offend his very best friend in all the world.
"If he doesn't fire me today, I'll quit," he mutters angrily, earning himself a baffled look from the woman sitting next to him on the Tube. Great, he thinks. Someone else who thinks I'm a nutter.
Tuesday has started about as well as Monday did.
For Morgana, Arthur's most annoying habit is that he is always early. Most men of his ilk -- too much money, not enough responsibility -- tend to err on the side of lateness, rolling into the office at 10.30, still hungover from the night before. But Arthur is always sat at his desk before 8.30am with a cup (never a mug) of coffee and an immaculately pressed shirt. Morgana, who has worked for a long line of playboys, longs for the days where her boss didn't arrive until lunchtime and she had a few hours to herself -- to kick off the regulation heels and excitedly phone friends to discuss plans for the evening. But not with Arthur around. He is ready and waiting to give dictation before her first shot of caffeine has even kicked in -- and he's always the last to leave at night.
It's why he's not more famous, she thinks. His peers leave work at 4 and parade around the city's evening hotspots, getting papped at celebrity parties and meeting It girls who they will later marry just to get the double-page spread in Hello!. But Arthur is still at the office, still perfectly dressed -- maybe with his shirtsleeves rolled up if it's been a really hard day -- until eight, nine in the evening. He's got no time for a serious relationship, as she has often heard him insist to Uther. Uther, of course, romanced Arthur's mother whilst establishing the company, found time for networking and hobnobbing and an engagement, and doesn't understand why Arthur can't do the same. But Arthur just shakes his head, and insists he's too busy to even think about settling down just yet.
When he had first started working for the company, this lack of a romantic life earned him quite the reputation within the office. He had a couple of girlfriends within that first year, Morgana remembers, girls left over from his days at university, some silly and giggly, some serious and passionate. None of them lasted. Then a long year without so much as a flash of a curvy redhead or a lean and toned blonde led to gossip in the office. Some of the girls thought he was waiting for the one, that he'd maybe had his heart broken and was now closely guarding it until he found someone he could trust.
So they would parade up and down outside his office, irritating her with their shrill laughter and over-abundance of cheap perfume, demonstrating their littlest skirts and sheerest blouses, hoping his eye would fall on them. And when it never did, the whisperings about his sexuality grew to more of a rumble -- fuelled partly by spurned hopefuls, and partly by jealous rivals -- a rumble which couldn't escape Arthur's attention forever.
Somehow, she had managed to help him keep it from Uther's ears, and in doing so prevented a disaster. Uther was notorious for the importance he placed on family values, and although it wouldn't be seemly for him to be heard airing any bigoted views, she knew that if he had heard so much as a suggestion that Arthur might follow a path other than the one Uther had planned for him -- the golden-haired princess and family of adorable cherubs -- he would have stopped at nothing to destroy any chance of happiness Arthur could have snatched from the fallout.
But she couldn't stop Arthur from hearing the gossip, and although he had never mentioned anything, she -- along with everybody else -- has noticed the girls visiting the office, a seemingly constant whirlwind of beautiful girls in expensive clothes and perfectly made-up faces, who Arthur sees for no longer than a month or two before trading in for a newer model. She sees them come in, smiles at them, sometimes even learns their names, then shows them into Arthur's office, hears, despite the thick oak door, their soft kittenish moans -- and then watches them disappear again, back out into the city, melting into the night.
Yes, Morgana sees all this, and reports back to the other Pas, who report back to their departments heads, who report back to their teams all about Arthur's latest conquest -- just as she is supposed to. Arthur has many faults, she thinks, crossing yet another item off her to-do list with a well-practised flick of her pen, but none greater than the way in which he underestimates the people who care about him. He underestimates her intelligence; she did not need to find the forgotten business card in his suit pocket to know that the perfectly presented, conveniently elusive girls were not all they seemed to be -- although she is glad that she did, and not the dry-cleaners. He underestimates her empathy; she knows what it is to have to pretend to be something you're not. And he underestimates her understanding of the grand plan. She understands it, and the part she has to play, only too well.
She opens her inbox to dozens of messages from people around the business asking for the scoop on the mystery blonde seen emerging from Arthur's office yesterday afternoon. She sighs, hits Reply, and begins her day's work. She knows her job, she thinks. She knows it better than Arthur would ever give her credit for.
Merlin is as surprised to find that he can get in to the building as he was to find he could get out of it the night before. He's even more surprised to walk past the security guard without being rugby-tackled to the floor, or tasered, or something. But his surprise reaches a critical point when he arrives at his desk to find--
"Er. Who the fuck are you?"
He is looking at an acne-ridden teenager with unfortunately scowly eyebrows. The teenager -- well, there's really no other word for it -- scowls at him, and taps his name badge.
"Right," Merlin continues, shifting his bag onto the other shoulder. "Er, hi, Ed. But when I said 'Who the fuck are you', I meant 'Why are you sat at my desk'?"
The boy looks at him in bafflement -- or anger. The eyebrows make it hard to tell. "S'my desk," he says. "They sat me here this morning." He shrugs, and thumbs in the direction of the placard on the edge of the desk which used to say Merlin Emrys.
"Oh, shit," Merlin says. "Sorry." He backs away, mentally listing all the possible reasons for this newest item of hellishness. Either, he thinks, I have been fired but I am so inconsequential they forgot to actually tell me, or I am at the wrong desk -- he KNEW he should have drawn a map -- or -- and here, a sudden spark of hope floods through him -- I actually dreamed all of yesterday and I am, in fact, not employed by this horrible bloody place with its horrible bloody prattish blonde idiot of a Vice Presi-
"Merlin Emrys?" A sharp voice interrupts his thoughts. Standing across the corridor is a creature so lovely Merlin only just manages to avoid his mouth dropping open in awe. She's all long limbs and sharp lines barely softened by the grey woolen dress she's sporting, her hair pulled back into a severe bun, her thick-framed but eminently stylish glasses framing her delicately-boned face. She is, in short, perfection, and despite having been very aware of his sexual preferences since he was five and told his mum he wanted to marry Phillip Schofield from CBBC, Merlin finds himself dry-mouthed and damp-palmed.
The creature tuts. "Don't just stand there gawping, Emrys. There's work to be done." She turns on her stupidly high heels (which Merlin recognises as Louboutin -- and mentally vows to quit reading Gwen's Vogue magazine) and gets into the lift. "Come on!"
Merlin blinks twice, and, seeing no better option, steps into the lift with the most terrifying woman he has ever encountered in his life.
Sent: 22/03/2009 9.11am
sorry sorry sorry sorry. if i die, u can have my dvds. i <3 u.
Sent: 22/03/2009 9.12am
2 explain - am in a lift with a dragon. in louboutins. sort of want to kiss her but think she may kill me. don't let me die hetero!
Sent: 22/03/2009 9.14am
ewan in moulin rouge. keanu in speed. leo in titanic. merlin, you are an idiot. just be nice to her.
Sent: 22/03/2009 9.14am
... and steal her shoes.
He has been sat at a desk opposite the woman for fifteen minutes now, surreptitiously texting, and he has not been fired yet, which he thinks is probably a good sign. He plucks up the courage to actually speak to her, and clears his throat, but is silenced by one long, manicured finger. "Wait," she says, jabbing a finger in the direction of the office door. Merlin realises, to his horror, that the brass sign adorning it says "Arthur Pendragon".
"Oh, fuck," he breathes, desperately. "Shit."
The woman's face twitches into a small smile and she flicks her eyes to his face. "Don't panic," she says. "If he'd wanted to fire you, he would have come down to do it in front of everyone."
"He doesn't want to fire me," Merlin moans, "he wants to kill me."
She arches a perfect eyebrow. "And ruin a perfectly good shirt? I doubt it. What did you do to him, anyway?"
"I called him a ponce," Merlin says, into his hands, "and made fun of his shoes."
"Oh my God." She lets out a small snort of laughter. "For being too shiny, right? I told him they were ridiculous."
Merlin peeps through his fingers. She's smiling at him warmly now.
"I'm Morgana," she says, extending a slim hand in his direction, "and I call him worse things than that all the time, and I'm still here."
Merlin beams back, and grasps her hand.
"Send him in," a voice barks from behind the door.
"Shit," Merlin says, nervously flattening his hair. "Morgana? Will you promise me something?"
"If I'm not out in twenty minutes... send my mum some flowers, yeah?"
It's only when he's halfway through his grand speech about pulling together for the sake of the company and ensuring they have the best talent available that Arthur realises he hasn't really been concentrating on what he's been saying for a good five minutes. Merlin (ridiculous name, must be Welsh or something) is staring up at him with a mixture of terror, bafflement and abject horror. Which is ridiculous, Arthur thinks, considering he has just bumped him about five steps up the corporate ladder, doubling his salary in the process.
He looks like a stunned deer, for crying out loud, those huge eyes in that pale, taut face, the gawky limbs scissored into the most ungainly fashion imaginable, and those ridiculous ears... But there's something about the jut of his jaw, the firm line of his full mouth, which makes Arthur think he has made the right choice in promoting him rather than packing him back off to the job centre in disgrace. There's something about him, and Arthur is determined to find out what it is.
"So you will report directly to me," Arthur says, carefully positioning himself in front of the large window in order to look his most imperious, "and you will be tasked with all my written correspondence, dealing with press enquiries and so on and so forth." So on and so forth, Pendragon? You idiot. He curses his father yet again for his Eton education. "Morgana will be around to help you if you have any queries."
Merlin stares at him blankly. "Um. So I'm not fired?"
"No, Merlin. You're not fired. This time."
"Oh... kay. Er. Thanks?" He shakes his head as if to dispel the onset of tinnitus, drawing Arthur's attention to his shocking haircut. That definitely won't do.
"Who on earth cuts your hair?" he says, irritably. "Freddie Krueger?"
Merlin laughs. Arthur can't help but notice how his smile spreads the whole way across his face, right to his eyes which crinkle in merriment. "No!" Merlin says, running a hand through it ruefully. "My housemate. And her boyfriend, when she gives up with it."
"Are either of them ...actually hairdressers?" Arthur asks dubiously.
Merlin is still smiling. "No. Gwen works in graphic design, and Lance is a surgeon."
"You'd think their combined artistry and skills with a sharp implement would leave you looking less like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards."
"Better than having hair like a bloody Ken doll," Merlin shoots back. Then -- "Oh God, sorry. I should really stop doing that."
Arthur tries to hide his smile by turning towards the window, but he has a sneaking suspicion Merlin has seen him anyway. "Morgana?" he calls. She is at the door in moments, as always. "Thank God. Take him and get his hair cut," he says, inclining his head in Merlin's direction. "And for God's sake, get him some new suits. I can't have him meeting clients in polyester trousers."
Morgana's eyes twinkle and she smiles at Arthur over Merlin's head. "Absolutely, Mr Pendragon. Come on, Merlin," she says, silencing Merlin's mumbled protests by ushering him out of the office.
"And Morgana?" Arthur says, as they reach the door. "Some better shoes, too. Really, really shiny ones."
He answers Morgana's grin with a rare one of his own. Something about this Emrys boy brings out his wicked side.
"You're not dead, then," Gwen calls out from the lounge as Merlin lets himself in that evening.
"No-o..." Merlin says, standing in front of the hall mirror and contemplating his reflection. "Not dead." Christ. He almost looks like Arthur. Only not as blonde and broad and annoyingly perfect, he thinks.
"Merlin?" Gwen says, her head appearing around the doorway. "Are you oka- Oh, my God."
He meets her open-mouthed astonishment with a shrug that turns into a grin that turns into a chuckle.
"No way," she continues. "No way. I have fallen asleep on the sofa and I am dreaming this. Lance, pinch me." There's a short pause. "Ouch. Okay, so I am not dreaming." She walks down the hallway as if sleepwalking and stands in front of Merlin appraisingly.
"You look like an undertaker," Lance says, leaning against the doorframe looking amused. Merlin grins at him.
"He does not!" Gwen says, her mouth still open in shock. "He looks like a movie star. Or a spy. With an actual hair style!" She runs her fingers through it disbelievingly. "An expensive hair style! Oh my God. Merlin. Oh my God. What happened? Are you ill? Did you win the lottery? Oh God, Merlin. Tell me you're not a rent boy. I was only kidding about selling your body to feed the cat."
"If you shut up and let me sit down," Merlin says, bending to unlace his (moderately shiny) shoes, "I'll tell you what happened."
"Right, right. Sorry. Tea!" Gwen says, clapping her hands together in a business-like fashion. "Lance, make some tea."
Lance raises an eyebrow, but slopes to the kitchen as commanded and switches the kettle on. Gwen continues to finger Merlin's suit (which had cost more than a month's rent) and digs through the armful of bags he has dropped at the bottom of the stairs. "Merlin, there is like five grand's worth of clothes in here. I swear these socks cost more than our weekly food budget. How the hell did you get all this stuff?"
"Well," Merlin says, after he has been deposited on the sofa, cup of steaming Assam in hand. "I got promoted."
"Promoted." Gwen says, dunking a Rich Tea into her cuppa.
"Yeah. To, er -- well, I'm not really sure to what. I think I have to write things. But I got a pay rise. And a desk outside my boss's office. And then he made his PA go out and buy me these clothes. And then she gave me the number for the firm's fleet of cars so I don't have to get the tube all the time."
Gwen's eyes widen and her mouth forms a little O.
"And an expenses account," Merlin continues.
Gwen's biscuit, unheeded, gives up the fight against sogginess and drops into her tea. She looks at it with a frown and sets the cup aside impatiently. Lance rolls his eyes and goes to make her another. "So, ah... very much... not... killed," she says, turning a little pale. "Jesus, Merlin. This would only happen to you."
"I know," Merlin says. "I don't understand it. I really thought he was going to kill me. And instead he bought me new suits."
"This is the shiny-shoed prat?" Lance calls from the kitchen.
"Yeah," Merlin says, flushing uncomfortably as he remembers that morning's conversation with Gwen. "Listen, uh... I'm really sorry about that... I was really... uh... out of order..." He tails off, lamely, and the two of them look at each other in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes. It's Lance that finally breaks it by appearing and clapping his hands together decidedly.
"Pub," he announces, thumping Merlin on the back hard, "and the first round's on Merlin."
Merlin beams at them both as Gwen flies towards him and kisses his cheek affectionately. "Bloody love you, you big idiot." She dissolves into noisy tears against Merlin's shoulder. He rubs her back and makes soothing noises, all whilst directing the international eye-roll for "Women, eh?" at Lance. As they head off to the pub, he feels a little bit like he's on top of the world.
Despite having never met, Gwen and Morgana have an awful lot in common. Both spend too great a portion of their salaries on glossy magazines and red wine. Both will still go and see any film that Leonardo DiCaprio's in, just because their thirteen-year old selves would never forgive them if they didn't. And both will be delighted by the way the next few months will play out for Merlin and Arthur.
Gwen, for her part, will watch Merlin go from the shy, stumbling, awkward boy who begged his way onto her sofa and into her heart, to a confident, capable man who works hard, dresses like a star (even making her catch her breath on occasion, until Lance comes wandering in wearing his scrubs and she goes all weak-kneed and wibbly) and, more surprisingly, pays his rent on time. He will no longer flit from job to job but instead appear to be an integral part of the Camelot machine, if the number of late nights and early starts will be anything to go by. She will miss him, of course - miss watching crappy TV with him, miss their regular "what shall we have for dinner / I can't be bothered to cook / oh fuck it, let's get pizza" discussions, miss him talking to her through the bathroom door while she relaxes in bubbles after a long day. But he will still be her Merlin -- just a stronger, better, brighter one, who buys her flowers and takes her to dinner and insists on paying and brings home expensive wine. Which can't be bad.
Morgana, too, will immediately love having Merlin around. For her own sake, for one thing -- to throw balled up paper at, to send irreverent IMs to when Arthur is pacing up and down the middle of their office berating them for one thing or another, to discuss Lady Gaga's latest questionable outfit choice with ("Lady Gaga is a style icon, Morgana - she is beyond fashion!").
But she will mostly love having him around for the change he will bring to Arthur.
Arthur's patience will lengthen considerably -- which, given that Merlin will do something to try it at least five times a day, will be quite fortuitous. He will be more willing to open up, to bring a bit more of his own personality into the office, and Morgana will be surprised to discover how much she likes him. When he gives dictation (usually to Merlin) he will actually pause to breathe, and make the odd joke, and even let Merlin make suggestions for improvements.
And although Morgana can't believe this now, on a Friday night, and sometimes the odd Thursday, and occasionally, if it's been a tough week, a Wednesday, the three of them will head to the local pub and have a drink, and Arthur will roll his eyes at the music Merlin puts on the jukebox, and Merlin will mock him in kind for his penchant for Dad Rock, and Morgana will sit back and smile indulgently as Arthur visibly relaxes and lets his guard down -- something he never did in the time she will come to label Before Merlin.
Of course, it won't be perfect. They will sorely try each other's patience. Arthur will be snappy and Merlin sarcastic. Arthur will tell Merlin he's incompetent and that he should never have promoted him. During his first performance review, Merlin will storm out and spend twenty minutes muttering murderous sentiments at Arthur's door. When Arthur is away at an important meeting with clients, Merlin will sneak into his office and rearrange his perfectly alphabetised books. The first time they go for lunch, Arthur will end up with a coffee stain on his most expensive shirt and Merlin will outright refuse to make a special trip to the dry cleaners, despite it clearly being his fault. Merlin will regularly call Arthur a stuck up imbecile when Arthur is out the room, but loud enough for him and everyone else to hear. Arthur will issue Merlin a written warning for being "late" (i.e., after 8.30am, despite his official start time being 9am) four times in a row and will have to rescind it when HR threaten to get involved.
But there will be no denying that they spark off each other, that they will do good, creative, interesting work, that they will have an easy banter that sometimes will make Morgana dizzy to witness. That they mark up exactly the same amends on a document, share a packet of sandwiches without speaking as they brainstorm ideas side by side, finish each other's sentences without even noticing. That it's like they were just waiting for the other all this time to spur themselves onwards, to move them towards something greater. That there is something wholly and almost unnaturally right in this thing between them.
And one thing both Gwen and Morgana are already noticing about Merlin and Arthur, respectively: how much more they smile these days.
It has been seven months to the day since Merlin elbowed his way into Camelot, and Arthur's office, and his life, and they have been working on this merger for several of those. Merlin has taken Arthur's meticulous calculations and projections and spun them into a proposal that Arthur is almost-kind-of-mostly certain the board can't possibly refuse, and now, having worked up until the very last minute, they are nervously chewing their nails and awaiting the verdict from the office in New York.
The move would be big -- huge, even -- giving Camelot a presence in the States that they could only dream of up until now. Whole departments have been given over to crunching the numbers but this, the final sprint, has been Arthur's baby, and he has worked himself to the bone for it. And so has Merlin; both have lost weight, Arthur looking lean where before he was brawny, Merlin's already delicate frame given over to gauntness. They have been surviving on caffeine and adrenaline, both driven by the desperate urge to prove themselves.
And now, all those weeks of work have come down to this; 2am on a Tuesday night, in a freezing office filled with old pizza and coffee and just a hint of hysteria.
Morgana gave up the ghost at about 10pm, but they were both too distracted to really notice her leave; just waved her off and returned to hunching over the laptop, making last minute adjustments to wording and graphs before sending them over to the board -- who have already been deliberating for what feels like days. Now, though, with nothing to do but wait (and, in Arthur's case, make a list of all the reasons the proposal won't be accepted), both are feeling her absence.
The two of them have completely different responses to tiredness, Arthur thinks. He had always thought Merlin would get even more hyperactive when teetering on the edge of exhaustion but instead he becomes brittle, somehow. Arthur, who has little patience at the best of times, assumed this would bring the worst out in him -- he can't abide weakness -- but instead he finds himself trying to soften his edges for Merlin's sake, and feels somehow better in himself for it.
And now, watching Merlin with his head tipped back in fatigue, swinging back and forth on the chair, he wants to say something or do something to make it better, cut the tension. Wants to take his thumbs and smooth the dark smudges away from underneath Merlin's eyes.
He settles for pressing his palms to his own eyelids, instead.
"God," Merlin says, dragging his feet across the expensive carpet, "if you had told me a year ago that I would be so nervous about the result of a business proposal that I would actually be feeling sick, I would have laughed in your face."
Arthur never ceases to be amazed by Merlin's capacity to unwittingly say exactly the thing he doesn't want to hear. "Sorry, Merlin," he says, scathing. "I know it's not saving the children or the rainforest or the whole bloody planet or whatever it is you care about."
Merlin laughs lazily. "No, it isn't. Which is why I really shouldn't care this much. It's hardly the big stuff, is it?"
Arthur idly wonders when exactly Merlin stopped being scared of him and scowls. "This might just be a distraction for you, Emrys, but for some of us, this is the big stuff. For some of us, we've got no choice but to care."
Merlin lifts his head and looks directly at Arthur. "No choice? Arthur, you always have a choice."
"Huh." Arthur chuckles bitterly. "You've met my father, Merlin. He's not the kind of man who offers one a choice." Oh God. Apparently he has caught Merlin's inability to shut up. He's practically committing treason here. For one awful minute he wonders if his father has bugged his office.
"That doesn't make him right, though. It doesn't make his way the best way."
Merlin's voice is soft. It feels dangerous.
"No, it just makes it the only way. Be quiet, I'm trying to concentrate," Arthur orders, and leafs through a file distractedly.
"Rubbish," Merlin scoffs quietly. Arthur is too bone-tired to argue.
"What would you rather be doing, anyway?" he says, flicking a curious look in Merlin's direction. He rapidly cycles through mental images of Merlin in a variety of careers, uncomfortably aware that he is lingering a little too long on the thought of Merlin rescuing war-torn children from bombed out orphanages.
"I dunno," Merlin says, looking thoughtful. "I've always loved to write. And I worked for a charity for a while when I was at uni; I guess I'd like to go back to doing something in that area. One day."
Arthur wonders if by "one day", Merlin means "after I retire" or "whenever I can get out of this hell-hole". His own career stretches out in front of him as far as the eye can see, and where before he found that comforting and reassuring, he suddenly feels stifled. "I always wanted to go into carpentry," he says, without thinking.
"Carpentry?!" Merlin is laughing now.
"Don't laugh!" Arthur reproaches, but he's smiling too. "I used to do it a lot as a hobby - furniture making and the like. I designed and built that desk," he says, tilting his head in the direction of his heavy oak desk.
Merlin whistles. "Hey. Wow, that's pretty cool." He grins at Arthur. "Maybe you're not just a ponce with shiny shoes."
Arthur can't help but grin in return. "Actually," he says, clipping Merlin's ankle with his foot, "I switched to suede. Thought that would be a bit less... Miss World."
Merlin looks from the shoes to Arthur's face and beams at him. "Yeah," he says, soft. "I definitely like that better."
Arthur is suddenly aware of the exposed patches of skin on Merlin's body -- the insides of his delicate wrists, behind his ears, the pale expanse covering the pulse batting away in his throat. He can't help but allow his gaze to meet Merlin's eyes too long, bright chips of blue rimmed by dark, dark lashes.
Just as he idly wonders what would happen if he just moved a little closer to Merlin, if he made that space between their bodies even smaller, if he allowed himself to give in to the want that curls dangerously in his chest and tingles in his mouth and the tips of his fingers, the phone rings and jolts him back into the cold reality of his world: his work, his responsibilities, his father.
And even when the news is good, the board's decision coming back as a solid yes, even as Merlin is popping the cork on the mini bottle of champagne they've kept in the office for this very occasion and thumping him on the back, he can't help but feel like he's lost something.
"Lance. Lance. Laaaaaaance."
When she gets no response but a muffled snore, Gwen resorts to the elbows. Her elbows, she has been told, are the pointiest in the world, and she can use them to deadly effect when necessary. Like now. Because it is 3am and Lance is not awake to listen to her Merlin-has-a-secret theory.
"Woah woah what oh my God is there a burglar oh God where is my cricket bat?" Lance thrashes about in the bed like a fish out of water until he realises that Gwen is sat straight up in bed looking perfectly calm. "Oh. No burglar?"
"Of course not, idiot," Gwen says, as if elbowing him awake for no good reason is a perfectly normal thing to do. "No, it's about Merlin. I've been thinking."
Lance sighs and sinks back into his pillows. It's never a good sign when Gwen opens a sentence with I've been thinking. Especially at -- Jesus -- three in the morning when he has a twelve hour shift the next day. "What about him?" he asks wearily.
"Well. He's been sort of... weird lately," Gwen continues.
"Yeah. All... dreamy, and distracted. Yesterday I came downstairs and he was sitting by the front room window staring at the garden wall. And then I went and put on a load of washing and played four rounds of Spider Solitaire and when I came back he was still there. Staring. Just staring!"
Lance hopes his silence conveys the answer Gwen is hoping to hear.
"I know, right?" she says, in a fierce whisper. "You know what his attention span's like. He can't even have a bath without doing something else at the same time. I haven't seen him this... odd... since -- well, since Will."
Lance raises an eyebrow. "What are you saying?"
"I dunno. Do you think maybe he's met someone?" Gwen says, thoughtfully.
"Where would he meet someone? He hasn't got any time. He's basically been at work for the last nine and a half months."
"Unless it's--" Gwen starts, looking doubtful.
"The shiny-shoed prat?" Lance asks dubiously. "He told me yesterday that he hopes Arthur drowns in his own jacuzzi."
"Yeah, you're right. It wouldn't be. I know. It's just... I don't know. I've known Merlin a long time. I know how moony he gets when he's in love."
"Like me," Lance says, nuzzling against her throat. "Mooooon."
Gwen giggles, shoving him off. "Shut up, Lance! This is serious." She sighs, distractedly stroking through his hair. "I really would love Merlin to meet someone. Cos, you know, as much as I adore him, and you know that I do... well, he can't stay here forever, can he?"
Lance smiles softly in the dark, and cups a protective hand over Gwen's soft belly. "No. But he's got another seven and a half months, eh? So maybe he has met someone -- just let him tell us when he's ready."
Gwen snuggles down into Lance's arms with a contented sigh.
As Lance rests his chin on the top of her head and closes his eyes, he finds himself wishing sincerely that one day Merlin will feel something like this.
He would never admit it, but Arthur Pendragon is heart-racingly, skin-tinglingly nervous. Nervous! He, who has so much of the world at his feet, who can usually guarantee (even if he would never admit it aloud) that he will be one of the best-looking and smartest people in a room, and definitely the one with the most money. He stands in front of some of the most powerful men in the country and gives them hell. He has fortunes at his fingertips. He has wined and dined minor royalty, for Christ's sake, and now he is standing in his office freaking out over whether or not to wear a tie for Merlin's bloody birthday.
Okay, so he has grown kind of fond of Merlin. It's mostly the warm glow of pride and self-satisfaction that comes with spotting talent before anyone else does, he's sure. And he knows that his rivals have tried to poach Merlin from under his nose already -- although of course, he tells himself, his rivals couldn't put up with Merlin's insufferable lack of respect and general failure of basic boss/employee etiquette.
Mind you, in his weaker moments, possibly after a couple of whiskeys in front of The X-Factor -- which he only watches so he can tell Merlin and Morgana what idiots they are for wasting their time on it -- he might admit to himself that the insufferable lack of respect is one of the things he likes about Merlin; the way that when it's the three of them -- him, Merlin and Morgana -- he almost feels normal.
Not Arthur Pendragon, Vice President and heir to the Camelot fortune. Not Arthur Pendragon, Uther's son. Not Arthur Pendragon, Cambridge graduate. Just Arthur, who gets mocked for making lists all the time and having the patience of a small child and caring way too much about designer labels. It's quite nice, really. Just to be Arthur.
Tonight, though, he is already feeling the pressure to make a good impression. Because it's Merlin's birthday, the three of them will be meeting up with Merlin's oft-discussed and clearly adored housemate and her boyfriend. Merlin evangelises over the pair of them so much Arthur privately suspects there may be some odd polygamous arrangement going on there, but perhaps he's just old-fashioned and it's totally normal to say "love you" at the end of a call to one's female friends.
Arthur wouldn't know. He doesn't have any female friends, really; just Morgana. And girls he pays for sex. Although Merlin arriving got in the way of that little arrangement; too difficult to bring them in without raising suspicions when Merlin has such a big mouth. (Or at least that's the justification Arthur firmly decides upon when he wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought that Morgana might have noticed.)
So he's not sure how to handle this housemate of Merlin's; he can't help but feel a little on display.
(And there's the other thing, too. The thing he dares not vocalise, despite Morgana's raised eyebrows; the thing where he can't help but desperately seek the approval of everyone Merlin loves; the thing where he sent Merlin's mother flowers when she was rushed to hospital and a strained, white-faced Merlin disappeared for five days without so much as a call and Arthur paced up and down beside his desk until he'd practically worn a hole in the carpet; the thing where he wrote to Merlin's Uncle Gaius and offered Camelot's sponsorship to his sexual health clinic, a decision that he had to spend the next three weeks justifying it to the press (and, more alarmingly, his father); the thing where he finds himself acting like a puppy doing tricks just to be rewarded by one of Merlin's huge, honest smiles.
Shut up, Arthur.)
"Morgana!" he calls desperately, trying to avoid treacherous thoughts of Merlin's smile. "Help me," he pleads as she appears in the doorway. "Tie on or tie off?"
Morgana wrinkles her nose appraisingly. "Off," she says, and glides across the room to straighten his collar, "and let me just --" She artfully ruffles his hair. "There. Fit for a prince. Ess. Princess."
Arthur most definitely does not blush. "Yes," he says, rather too quickly, "although I don't think it would be the done thing to pull on Merlin's birthday."
Morgana looks suddenly sad. "No. I guess not." She leans forward and kisses his cheek. "Just -- be happy, won't you, Arthur? There's more to life than what your father thinks."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Arthur responds, automatic. Morgana smiles at him gently, and turns to go.
As he watches her leave, Arthur balls a silent fist inside his pocket.
Merlin is delighted with how his birthday is going. Delighted delighted delighted. He has been drinking for three hours, which helps, but even more rewarding than his nice little beer buzz is the fact that Morgana and Gwen are cooing over ...actually, over what he suspects might be his baby photos, which he's sure he SHOULD be worried about but right now, seeing the two dark heads bent together in a giggly huddle just makes him feel amazing. And Lance, bless him, is manfully making conversation with Arthur about football and cricket and the stock market, and Arthur has even rolled up his shirt-sleeves and his hair is looking much less Ken-doll than normal and the crisp white of his collar really makes his blue eyes stand out and--
Merlin blinks, twice, and reminds himself (for the tenth time that evening) to stop staring. It's not that he's attracted to Arthur, so much as he objectively understands that Arthur is very attractive. And funny. And secretly insecure and awkward. And insufferably arrogant and proud. And he sort of wants to take him home and give him what he needs, which, Merlin suspects, is a good, hard--
Shut up, Merlin.
He doesn't normally let his thoughts go that far when he's sober.
Suddenly Gwen is at his elbow, dragging him to the bar. "Drinks! We are getting drinks," she announces, and Arthur (as he has done for every single round so far) gets up, gold card in hand. "No no no," she starts, only changing word when Merlin elbows her in the ribs. "No! This is my round, you've got practically all the others, you absolute darling." Merlin is tickled to notice that Arthur has gone a little bit pink. "C'mon, Merlin!"
They are only halfway to the bar when she starts. "Oh, MERLIN."
He looks at her sideways. "Er... what?" He flags down the barman and orders their drinks.
"He is so handsome. And generous. And funny! You never said he was funny! You said he was pompous, and stuck up, and boring."
Merlin colours a little. "Well. Um. I might have been a little bit harsh. You know how it is with bosses. What about Morgana; do you like her?"
"Oh, she's a hoot. We're going shopping at the weekend and then for a massage," Gwen says, waving her hand impatiently as Merlin baffles yet again at the female ability to make best friends in an instant. "But I am more interested in Arthur. More specifically, you and Arthur."
Merlin chokes on his pint. "What?!" he splutters, incredulous. "Me and-- that's ridiculous, Gwen, even for you."
Gwen waggles her eyebrows. "Uh-huh. So I've just imagined you staring at him all night."
Merlin opens his mouth but nothing comes out.
"And I've just imagined him staring at you all night."
"Yes-- I-- he's-- I don't even like him. He can be such a prat, and he's got this annoying habit of pacing, it drives me up the wa-- wait, he's been staring at me?"
"Oh, only for every minute that you haven't been staring at him. Oh, this explains so much! Why you've been all moony for the last few months," she says, grinning like the Cheshire cat.
"Shut up. Shut up."
"I didn't say anything." Gwen retorts in a Valley-girl accent.
"Gwen. Shut up. Now is not the time for Mean Girls. Well, actually it's always the time for Mean Girls, but-- no. Shut up. He has not. He's my boss. He's not even gay. I don't think."
Gwen snorts softly. "Uh-huh. And I'm Regina George."
"You wish," Merlin says blankly. He's not sure if it's the beer, but his stomach seems to be bouncing around between his throat and his feet (and, if he's honest, his crotch). "Oh shit. Gwen, I did not need that idea planted in my head. Seriously. Just-- shut it."
"As you wish," Gwen says, her eyebrows rapidly disappearing into her hairline. She pirouettes back to their table, somehow carrying Morgana's wine and her orange juice (and why exactly is she on the orange juice?) and Lance's cider, leaving Merlin with his own and Arthur's pint. Merlin sneaks a glance back at the table to find that Arthur is staring in his direction sort of... longingly. The beer, Merlin thinks firmly, he is looking at the beer.
He is less sure when Arthur's eyes meet his own, and he flashes Merlin a rare but dazzling smile.
Arthur thinks he might be slurring but he isn't really sure how to stop. The last time he drank this much in public was his first week of University and he ended up being sick in his bin and awoke to find his room covered in stolen road signs. He notices, five seconds too late, that he has clapped a hand on Merlin's shoulder. He's thankful that nobody else is nearby; Lance, Morgana and Gwen are flirting with the bouncers outside the club in an attempt to get them in ahead of the line (Lance appears to be having the most success, much to Merlin and Arthur's amusement).
"Happy birthday, Merlin. Merlinmerlinmerlin. Funny name. Funny face," Arthur continues. Merlin laughs, and Arthur realises that his insides go kind of liquidy when Merlin laughs. But he's sure that's the result of that third double whiskey, and the sheen of the streetlight they're standing under, and the blanket of stars just visible above the city fog. "Because you laugh like a girl," he says. Aloud. "Oops." Oh shit. That too was more, er, out loud than he had planned. But Merlin... good, lovely, funny Merlin, Merlin whose smile is too big for his face, is still laughing.
"You're drunk," Merlin says, patting his hand.
"So are you. Drunk, I mean. We both are. And stating the obvious."
"Are we what?"
"Stating the obvious."
Merlin is looking at him very intensely and suddenly neither of them are laughing. Arthur feels vaguely nauseous in a way he hasn't felt since he was fourteen and on his first date to the cinema with Vivian and he suspected she was about to hold his hand. Actually, he feels like his heart might actually have stopped, which is definitely a first, and quite frankly, a medical impossibility. He thinks.
"Um," he starts. Oh, well done, Arthur. You should be very proud of that conversational gem.
Merlin says nothing, just keeps staring at him with those gigantic blue eyes that are utterly devoid of secrets. Arthur wonders what it's like to be able to face oneself in the mirror without flinching.
"I don't think -- I. God. Merlin." And since when did Merlin's stupid, stupid name sound like that on his tongue; like a plea, like a prayer?
Oh God. He knows when. Has always known.
It was in the moment he walked back into his office after that first meeting and raged and raged.
It was when he promoted Merlin based on nothing more than a whim.
It was in every sunlight-filled afternoon spent batting insults back and forth, every long evening pouring over copy together, every working lunch that seemed to be less about work each time, every inside joke, every moment Merlin has made him feel like Arthur, just Arthur, with possibilities and choices.
"I think I want to-- I think--"
But before Arthur can finish his sentence, before he can do the supremely, sublimely and totally foolish thing he might have been about to do, he can't help but do something else equally as unfitting: he leans forward, puts his hands on Merlin's chest... and promptly vomits all over his shoes.
Morgana's patented Hangover Cure-All Kit hasn't had many outings since she's been working for Arthur -- not like in the old days, when she worked for men who had forgotten what it was like to wake up without a splitting headache and a mouth that felt like it was full of sawdust. But a few weeks after Merlin first started, she had dug it out again, just in case, and once the pub trips started, she had found herself occasionally dispensing the odd paracetamol.
This morning, though, she knew the full force of all the remedies she had to offer would be required, and so she had arrived early (not, of course, suffering from a hangover herself, having learnt a long time ago to stick solely to expensive white wine or vodka) and carefully laid the following on Merlin and Arthur's desks: two paracetamol tablets, a bottle of mineral water, an alka seltzer, a sachet of peppermint tea and two oranges -- and arranged for the mid-morning delivery of steaming hot black coffee and large bacon rolls.
Merlin is the first to slink in at 9.30am, which makes it the first time he has ever arrived before Arthur, Morgana notes. He slumps into his desk with a soft groan and lays his head against his desk in defeat.
"Oh God, Morgana. Oh my God. My first day as a twenty-five year old and I feel like I'm dead already. Or that I want to be dead." He raises his head and looks at her wanly. "How, exactly, are you looking so perfect?"
Morgana ignores him. "Coffee will be here at ten."
Merlin clutches at his pen pot. "Ten. Only thirty hellish minutes to go. Oh, Morgana, you are an angel. If I could bring myself to move I would be kissing your lovely ankles. Did I tell you they were lovely? They are lovely. I noticed them on my very first day when you were still the scary dragon lady in the Louboutins. Oh, is this paracetamol I see before me? Come, let me take thee." He downs two with a flourish.
"Merlin, you are such a drama queen. And a terrible suck-up. And Jesus, what is that smell?" She wrinkles her nose distastefully.
"SOMEONE," Merlin says, his cheek once again pressed to his keyboard, "was sick on my only decent pair of shoes. And someone ELSE, i.e. YOU, insisted on booking me a posh hotel suite for last night. Which meant I didn't have any other shoes with me this morning. So now my feet smell of sick. Which is not helping my hangover."
Morgana tsks and throws him the company gold card. "Go and get yourself some new ones before the coffee gets here. Go on! Consider it a present from Arthur seeing as he ruined your last pair."
She dispatches Merlin out the door, placating his grumbles with the promise of bacon rolls. Just in time, too, as Arthur emerges from the lift just after Merlin disappears down the stairs.
He doesn't say a word to her, but rushes straight past into his office and for the next ten minutes Morgana pretends to work whilst stifling laughter over the tell-tale retching sounds, followed by flushing and running water, all punctuated with the odd "fuck!" and "that IDIOT!" and "I don't care if it was his birthday, he is FIRED." When he emerges, wiping the corner of his mouth with an immaculately pressed handkerchief, he looks a little pale around the edges, but otherwise unrumpled, save for his slightly damp and dishevelled hair.
"Thank you for the painkillers, Morgana," he says stiffly. "And the water, but is there any--"
"Coffee? It's on its way."
"Thank God," Arthur replies, "I knew I did the right thing in hiring you. Unlike Merlin, that worthless reprobate. Where the hell is he? It's quarter to ten!"
"He's already been in," Morgana says, nodding at the contents of Merlin's bag which have spilled all over his desk. "I sent him out again to buy new shoes."
"New shoes?" Arthur says, puzzled. "What on earth does he need new shoes for? He's got shoes. The ones I bought him on his first day. The bla--" He stops, mid-sentence, a growing look of horror washing over his face. "Oh God. I think I-- Did I--?"
"Vomit on them?" Morgana says, mildly. "Apparently so, Arthur."
"Oh God." Arthur's voice is a horrified whisper now. "And that was just when I was about to-- Oh, God."
"About to what?" Morgana asks, puzzled, but her question goes unanswered as Merlin bounds in, looking a lot cheerier than he did twenty minutes earlier, and carrying four shoeboxes.
"I wasn't sure which ones to get," he says, from behind the boxes, "So I got all of them, as he's paying. He did bloody cover them in sick, after all, it's the least he can--" Dumping the boxes on his desk, he suddenly spots Arthur. "Oh shit. Er. Morning Arthur. Er. Sir."
"Merlin," Arthur says, stepping towards him involuntarily. "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have-- I mean-- of course I would have replaced them-- it was very unrefined and-- well. I'm sorry."
Morgana watches as Merlin's answering grin is reflected in Arthur's own face a moment later and silently marvels at the change in her boss. A year ago Arthur would have fired someone on the spot for even joking about abusing the company account. Especially if he had been sick on that someone's shoes. Hell, she thinks, a year ago he wouldn't have stood close enough to any of his staff to vomit on their shoes.
"It's fine Arthur, honestly. It was funny. Although the cab driver definitely did not think it was funny. He heard it all squelching as I got in the car, and the smell...! And nor did Gwen, come to think of it. Especially when we got in and the cat started licking--"
Arthur turns an unhealthy shade of green and dashes into his office again. From the sounds of it, he only makes it to his waste paper basket this time.
Morgana raises an eyebrow. "Unless your cat was in your hotel room last night, Merlin, I somehow doubt that story."
Merlin only grins.
"Was it necessary to go quite so far?"
"Hey," Merlin protests. "I had to walk around in pukey socks all night. That's worth more than a few pairs of shoes. Now I feel vindicated."
Morgana shakes her head and laughs. "You are a bad, bad man, Merlin Emrys." She looks at her computer screen and finds a series of increasingly hysterical IMs from Arthur that say things like "Do you think Gwen would prefer roses or lilies in an apology bouquet?" and "Wait, is it lilies that cats are allergic to?" and "Are flowers really the right way to say 'I'm sorry your cat ingested my vomit'?" and smiles. Merlin Emrys might be a bad man, but she thinks he is turning out to be rather good for Arthur Pendragon.
Arthur Pendragon, however, is not so sure that Merlin Emrys has been anything other than bad for him. Since Merlin stumbled his way into his life it has been almost unrecognisable compared to the one he had before. For a start, he has never been sick on anyone's shoes until now, and he suspects that's probably not even the most embarrassing thing he's done because of that damn crinkly-eyed idiot. Merlin makes him feel utterly out of control in a dizzying, delirious way, like a child on a rollercoaster with nothing to hold on to but that vague, nagging suspicion that it's not meant to be this frightening.
He is lost, lost for the first time in so long, and can only do the one thing he knows will help him calm down and organise his untidy mind. He opens his notebook to a blank page and makes a list.
1. Vomiting on his feet.
2. Donating a ridiculous amount of money to that damn shelter.
3. Buying different -- he cannot quite bring himself to write 'less shiny' -- shoes.
4. Watching The X-Factor. And Britain's Got Talent. And Glee.
5. Drinking on a work night.
6. Listening to The Smiths.
7. Not eating Marmite because the idiot is somehow convinced he can smell it through the WALLS.
At the eighth item on the list, Arthur starts to realise that it could go on for pages and pages, because the number of tiny ways that Merlin has changed his life appear to be almost infinite. But there's something more, something more there than introducing him to trash television and various disgustingly coloured alcoholic concoctions and sad bastard music. Something that goes deeper and touches a part of Arthur that hasn't let itself be touched in a very long time.
He puts pen to paper one final time and writes:
Almost kissing him.
Still wanting to kiss him.
And although the old prickling feeling of being watched still trickles uncomfortably over his skull, he refuses to cross the last two lines out. For once in his life, he thinks, he is going to give himself the chance -- just the chance -- of making a choice.
Post-massage-and-shopping trip (which quickly turns into a fortnightly occurrence), Gwen and Morgana are delighted to discover they have hit on the kind of friendship that comes completely easily; where affection flows so naturally between them that it's always a joy to pick up the phone to swap gossip and send changing room snapshots for instant new outfit feedback and bitch about Come Dine With Me over a bottle of Merlot.
And a rather worryingly large proportion of their friendship is based on exchanging emails about Merlin and Arthur's latest items of ridiculousness, and it is not uncommon for their threads to spiral into the dozens, daily; especially if "the boys" (as they call them) are being particularly adorable that day. Gwen can tell today is one of those days, as it's only 1pm and they are on email eleven already.
Subject: Stapler trauma.
A. just demanded that M. return his stapler or he would issue him with a written warning. M. denied all knowledge of said stapler and asked if A. had looked everywhere, and suggested perhaps A.'s subconscious was unable to see the stapler if it wasn't at perfect right angles on his desk. A. slammed office door but not before I saw the corners of his mouth twitching.
Subject: RE: Stapler trauma.
Ahahahaha. A tenner says Merlin has hidden it. Poor Arthur.
You know Merlin spent about twenty minutes polishing his shoes this morning.
Subject: RE: RE: Stapler trauma.
Oh, I'm sure he has. Of course I get the short end of the stick as A. has just asked me to go and find him a new one. Sigh.
Funnily enough A. has started wearing his shiny ones again. I suspect they're having a shiny-shoe-off. Why must their flirting be so competitive?
Subject: RE: RE: RE: Stapler trauma.
EVERYTHING Merlin does is competitive. It's like a disease. He and Lance actually have a chart stuck on the fridge with scores from a three-month long -- and counting! -- game of Guess The Advert.
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: Stapler trauma.
There are no spare staplers left in the entire building. Internal Services have somehow mislaid 47 brand new staplers. "Who would steal 47 staplers?" they asked. Applaud me for managing not to say M.'s name.
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Stapler trauma.
Oh, you are kidding me. That boy will get fired one of these days. One of these days probably being today.
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE:Stapler trauma.
A. went off in a huff to go and buy a stapler, and somehow, mysteriously, 47 brand new staplers and one labelled <i>A. Pendragon MBA</i> (in v. neat Dymo label) appeared on his desk (see attached photo). A. has just got back and I think M. might suffocate himself with his own tie which he has stuffed in his mouth to keep from laughing.
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Stapler trauma.
Oh dear. Guess I best start playing the lottery.
(Wait. Arthur has a Dymo label machine? AHAHAHAH. Oh, this cannot end well. Merlin doesn't even have a sock drawer, just a pile of socks that don't match.)
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Stapler trauma.
... A. has just spent all of M.'s lunchbreak stapling <i>every single page</i> of M.'s notebook together. And sorted the staplers into piles on M.'s desk labelled "too punchy" and "too soft" and "too flimsy" etc etc and left him a note:
Thank you for the selection of staplers you so kindly provided for my perusal. As you can see I have tested each one and chosen my favourite -- conveniently already labelled with my name! If I didn't know better, I would almost think it was my old one all along. Please feel free to donate these rejected staplers to Internal Services, who I'm sure will be grateful to receive them as they were apparently struck by a mysterious stapler theft this morning.
P.S. Unfortunately during the testing process, I accidentally stapled my wallet together. How clumsy of me! I'm sure you will be so kind as to cover my rounds at the pub this evening.</i>
I wish you could see the range of facial expressions M. is cycling through right now.
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Stapler trauma.
Let me guess:
And now he is gazing moonily at Arthur's door?
Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: Stapler TRAUMA.
You have got it in one.
Gwen smiles and fires up a blank email.
Subject: Wake up, sleepyhead...
Merlin, quit daydreaming about a certain blonde-haired, broad-chested adonis and do some work.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Subject: RE: Wake up, sleepyhead...
I hate you both, and I am not daydreaming about anyone. Especially not that prat. You should see the notes he just gave me slating my press release about the new waterfront development. "Perhaps you want to mention the retail opportunities, Merlin" and "vibrant would be a better word here, Merlin" etc etc. As if <i>he'd</i> know. He's like Keanu Reeves: body by God, brains by Mattel. You actual actual genius. It's tragic, really .
Yes, Merlin's pissed off.
And it's not about the email, or Gwen and Morgana's accusations that he might be mooning over Arthur.
No, it's the invitation he saw lying on Arthur's desk when he went in to drop off the drafted press release (a printed copy, of course, because God forbid Arthur have to proof something by email and actually, y'know, save a tree every now and again, oh no, because there's no electronic equivalent of his beloved red pen). The invitation -- shiny, silver, ostentatious -- was for a party celebrating the finalisation of the merger which he and Arthur had worked so hard on, the merger that had kept him so busy he had forgotten Lance's birthday, the merger that left him ten pounds lighter and with an addiction to disgustingly expensive coffee that he was a little bit ashamed of.
"Oh hey," he'd said, nodding in Arthur's direction, "that sounds like it'll be good -- cocktails next to the Thames! Might have to dig out the shiny shoes for that one." He had winked at Arthur and been mildly perturbed when, instead of responding in kind, Arthur had just reddened slightly. All had become clear later, though, when Merlin had sent an email to Leon, one of the guys on the Finance department who had done a lot of the figures for the project. It's for managers only, Leon had fired back, and Merlin could almost hear his sneer through the screen. Bunch of tossers if you ask me, wouldn't want to go to their sodding party anyway, and although Merlin had replied with a cheery agreement, he is still raging with anger, injustice, and, if he's honest with himself, a little bit of hurt, too.
It has been nearly five months since what Gwen refers to as The Night Arthur Almost Kissed You and Merlin stubbornly insists on referring to as The Night Arthur Vomited On My Shoes, because even if a little bit of him wants to believe Gwen when she says that's what was on the cards, Arthur has done nothing to suggest that's the case in all this time, and frankly, Merlin is pissed. And confused, and tired, and, to be honest, really bloody frustrated. Five months of not being able to even think about dating anyone else. Five months without so much as a fumble outside a club. Five months of spending at least sixty percent of the day fantasising about bloody Golden Boy (the other forty percent, naturally, is spent wanting to throttle him). It is irritating, to say the least.
After ten minutes of mentally running through all the insults Arthur has poured upon his shoulders in recent weeks (great in number as always) and inwardly, privately, fuming about the lack of kissing, he storms past a puzzled Morgana, cutting off her "... Merlin?" with a sharp "Don't stop me, Morgana, I've had it this time!" and flings Arthur's door open.
"Ah," Arthur says. "I presume you know about the party?"
"Know about the-- know about the bloody party? Yes, I know about the party. Were you planning on mentioning it?"
"Well... that is... I assumed you would find out from someone... you know, the office, ah..." Arthur waves his hand around vaguely. "The office gossip... ah... tree."
Merlin secretly finds it adorable when Arthur goes all inarticulate because he knows he's done something wrong. It makes telling him off kind of difficult.
"I would rather have heard it from you," he says firmly. "Actually, I would rather have not heard it at all. Arthur, we deserve to be at that party. Morgana and I. We worked just as hard on that project as you did. Not to mention the Finance team, and the guys in Marketing..."
Arthur lays his pen down and pinches the bridge of his nose in frustration. "I know, Merlin, I do, and believe me, I've tried... and of course I'll be inviting Morgana--"
"-- Morgana?" Merlin interjects, his mouth half-curved into a bitter smile. "Of course. Anything else would be... unseemly."
Arthur startles. "Merlin, you can't mean that I should-- my father-- you know my position-- I--"
Merlin shakes his head. It doesn't matter how angry he might be, he can't stand seeing the knots Arthur ties himself in over his father, over this whole fucking company. "I know, I know. I get it. I do. But honestly, Arthur, if you stopped worrying about what your bloody father wants for just one minute, and had the courage to do what you want... you might actually be happy, for God's sake. I know it seems like an alien concept right now--"
"Don't be ridiculous," Arthur snaps, "I am happy, Merlin, perfectly happy, and I think we should end this conversation right now before I'm forced to warn you for insubordination."
Merlin exhales in a sharp sigh. "Okay, Arthur. Whatever you say. Just... I didn't think you were the kind of man who forgot, you know, the peasants. But I guess it runs in the family more than I thought."
Merlin walks out of the room as steadily as he can manage, his heart thumping wildly. He closes his eyes, but he can't escape the imprint of his last view of Arthur: suddenly so small behind the huge desk, his mouth open in a silent protest that never quite forms. For the first time in his Camelot career, Merlin feels like he deserves to be fired.
Uther doesn't know what gets into the boy sometimes, but if he's prepared to give up his annual Easter break to Las Vegas so that a couple of dozen chaps from Finance and Marketing and that scruffy-haired assistant of his can come to the merger party, then so be it. He smiles fondly at the gold-framed portrait of Arthur at graduation that adorns his desk, and chuckles as he signs the cheque to the caterers. Sometimes he forgets that Arthur is Igraine's son, too, and he can't help being a little indulgent when Arthur does something like this which reminds him.
On Friday, Arthur waits until Merlin is on his lunch break to slip the envelope onto Merlin's desk before strolling back to his office and leaving the door slightly ajar so he can fully enjoy the reaction it causes.
Inside the envelope is one of the ostentatious invitations, addressed to Merlin Emrys and guest. Above the printed name, written in Arthur's strong, neat hand, is Neither forgotten, nor a peasant.
Sentimental and silly and more than a little dangerous, should it fall into the wrong hands, but Arthur has recently added Giving in to sentiment to his List Of Embarrassing Things Merlin Makes Him Do, and found himself writing it without really stopping to consider any consequences other than making Merlin smile.
He listens for Merlin coming back and he's excited, like a child on Christmas morning, finding he can't even concentrate on his work.
There's a short silence, and then an "About bloody time too," from Merlin (over-loud, no doubt for his benefit) and "It's a bit short notice, mind, I might be washing my hair."
Arthur chuckles, quietly, and tries to get on with work but can't stop himself from lingering on the small hope that Merlin is pleased, touched even, maybe smoothing a fingertip across Arthur's handwriting, maybe smiling a little. He shakes his head to try and clear it, turning his attention to his lengthy and extensive to-do list.
A few minutes later, he sees a slip of paper slide underneath his door. On the RSVP, Merlin has written "Merlin Emrys and
beard guest, Gwen Leodegrance, suppose they'll attend your stupid party, but only to take incriminating cameraphone pictures of drunken members of the management to use as future blackmail." Underneath that, the ink still wet, as if scribbled in haste: "Thanks, Arthur. There's hope for you yet. :)"
Arthur knows he should go out and mock Merlin for his habit of using internet emoticons in written correspondence, but he's too busy dreaming about champagne and canapés and, even though he dutifully tries to ignore it, slow strolls by the river under the moonlight with a certain wonderfully maddening member of his staff.
At promptly 8.30pm, exactly as the invitation states, Arthur and Morgana swoop down the stairs to the ballroom looking every inch the perfect couple, Morgana's dark beauty swathed in a floor-length deep purple gown and a perfect contrast to the dazzling golden perfection of Arthur's youthful good looks. Merlin knows this because he is currently looking at a picture message from Leon, which is captioned: "phwoar! surely morgana's tits in that dress r enough to turn the gayest of gay men?" They're not, but Merlin has to give them props for having a damn good try. He suspects they would have a greater effect in person, but, of course, he is not in a position to judge, because instead of swooping down the stairs himself, he is currently sat on Gwen's bed trying not to crumple his dinner jacket whilst she tries on everything in her wardrobe.
"I look fat!" she wails, coming out of the bathroom in the second green dress of the night.
Merlin is baffled. Gwen is a girly girl in so many ways -- hell, that's half the reason they get on so well -- but she's never been the type to ask if her bum looks big in something. Consequently he is rather unprepared for this sort of situation and he wishes Lance would hurry up and get home from work to take over. "You do not," he offers, tentatively, "you look... womanly!" That sounds good. He thinks.
Gwen obviously doesn't as she lets out a little moan of horror. "Oh God, you fucking skinny gay bastards, you have no bloody idea." She throws the dress at him over the top of the wardrobe door. "Fuck, fuck, fuck. Maybe something in black..."
Merlin extracts himself from the pile of satin and taffeta. "Er... are you almost ready, Gwen? It's just... we should have been there about three minutes ago."
"Shut up, Emrys!" she shrieks, "or I will kill you with my GHDs, so help me God. Argh. How about this one?"
She emerges from behind the wardrobe door in a short, black and electric blue concoction. Merlin suspects it would look very nice if he weren't being distracted by her flushed, slightly sweaty face, her dishevelled hair and her giant, fluffy, pink-nosed bunny slippers.
"Er..." he starts, but then he is saved by a voice at the door. It's Lance, looking exhausted after a fourteen hour shift, wearing scrubs that appear to have a vomit stain down the front. Merlin hopes it's only vomit, anyway.
"Gwen," Lance says, soft. "You look so beautiful." He stands there, just smiling, and Gwen's face crumples and she flies at him, vomit-stain and all.
"That's basically what I said about the last one!" Merlin protests uselessly, but he takes Lance's mouthed cue and makes himself scarce while Lance works his magic. "Thank fuck I'm gay," he mutters fervently, as he pours himself a restorative tumblerful of whiskey, "because I do not understand women."
Ten minutes later, Gwen comes tottering down the stairs in heels that Merlin knows full well will be discarded before the end of the night, but her make-up is done, her hair is immaculate and she doesn't appear to have any transferred vomit on her dress, which is about the best Merlin can hope for. "Thank God," he says. "Come on, we're so late.
"And you're sure I don't look... er... fat?" Gwen says, and gives Lance a look.
Merlin tuts impatiently. "God, Gwen, when did you start asking if you look fat? You look lush. Now get in the bloody taxi," he commands, and for once he's said the right thing, because Gwen kisses Lance goodbye and finally heads out the door.
"Don't wait up!" she trills over her shoulder to Lance.
Lance waves goodbye, smiling, and as soon as she's out of sight turns to Merlin with a grimace. "Wait up?" he says, slumping onto the stairs. "She's got to be kidding. I just assisted on a triple heart bypass. It'll be a miracle if I stay awake long enough to make it to bed. Keep an eye on her, won't you, Merlin? Remember, no--"
"Sailors, soldiers or anaesthetists," Merlin parrots, following Gwen out the door, "I know. Don't worry, I shall protect her honour at all times."
"Cheers Merlin. Ugrh, anaesthetists," Lance says, with a shudder. "Tricky bastards."
Merlin grins and shuts the door behind him. He's got a good feeling about tonight.
"Honestly, Morgana, I can't believe I went to all this trouble to get him a ticket and he's late," Arthur hisses, having extracted himself from yet another uncomfortable discussion with a board member who just happens to have brought his young, beautiful and did he mention single? daughter to the party. "And make yourself look more like we're secretly dating, or something. You're not helping fend off the hoards at all."
Morgana raises an eyebrow. "Clearly your good looks are just too big a draw for them to be distracted by a mere PA," she drawls. "Besides, some of those girls were lovely, I don't see why you don't give one of them a chance." She's all innocence now, her hand soft on Arthur's arm. "And I haven't seen you bringing any... ehm... dates around for a while."
Arthur's sure he should be worried by the knowingness of her tone, but he's too busy being distracted by the sight of the two most recent people to descend the stairs: Gwen, looking only ever so slightly like she might fall over in her heels at some point during the next few hours... and Merlin.
Merlin, whose hair is still not lying flat, who should probably have shaved before coming out, who is already carrying two glasses of champagne... and who is looking over at him with that grin. That familiar, wonderful, gut-wrenching grin. Looking like that. In a dinner jacket.
Ah, Arthur thinks, returning Merlin's smile, I appear to be fucked. He is mildly surprised to find that he can't bring himself to care much.
Morgana tugs on his arm. "Well, Gwen looks lovely."
"Lovely," Arthur echoes absently, steering her towards the bottom of the stairs.
"And doesn't Merlin look..." She pauses, and Arthur turns to look at her sharply, shaken awake from his reverie by the significance of the silence.
"Doesn't Merlin look what, Morgana?" Arthur says, drawing himself up. "Scruffy? Out of place? Big-eared? Like his suit is a size too big?"
Morgana smiles. "Yes, all those things, I suppose. But I was going to say handsome."
Arthur's mouth twitches and he lets out a short bark of delirious laughter. "Oh God," he says, glancing around him, "I suppose he does."
Morgana's smile breaks into a grin and she skips ahead to greet Gwen with a hug. "Gwen, you goddess, you look radiant."
Merlin sidles up to Arthur and nudges him with a skinny hip.
"Careful, Emrys, you'll crease my trousers. They're an Italian wool blend, not that I expect that to mean anything to you."
"I expect it means they cost more than the GDP of a small South American country," Merlin says cheerfully, handing him a glass of champagne, "but you do look very dashing so we'll let you off. Gosh, this is posh, isn't it?"
Attempting to firmly squash the excitement blooming in his chest at Merlin calling him dashing, Arthur looks round the room. He's been in a thousand different rooms like this on a thousand different boring occasions but now that he takes a step back and looks at it through Merlin's eyes, he supposes it is rather grand. "Those carvings date from the 1920s, you know," he says, and if you stand here--" he takes Merlin by the shoulders and spins him on the spot "--you can just about see London Bridge through that window."
Merlin squints dutifully. "Just about."
Arthur clears his throat, nervous. "Well, er, perhaps we could walk to the river later and, er, take a closer look?" He looks anywhere but at Merlin in an attempt to disguise what he has a horrible feeling might have been a come-on. A clumsy one. He really has lost all control of himself.
He can feel Merlin's grin, feel how it lifts his shoulder against Arthur's own. "Yeah, that sounds good. Let's have some champagne first, eh?" He clinks his glass to Arthur's. "To a hopeful-looking merger."
"Hopeful-looking? It's all gone through, Merlin, it's a done deal."
Merlin looks at him thoughtfully. "I never count my chickens until they're hatched."
Arthur feels a little bit hot under Merlin's gaze, and he's not sure it's just from the champagne. All in all he's rather grateful when Gwen grabs him by the hand and begs him to dance.
As she twirls him around the dancefloor he can feel Merlin's eyes still on him, a prickling warmth creeping across the back of his neck. He buries his head in the top of Gwen's head as the music winds towards a slow dance and is grateful for the chance to hide his smile.
It's a good job he can handle his liquor, Merlin thinks, because his willpower in the face of free champagne is sorely lacking. Apart from a few obligatory spins on the dancefloor with Morgana, Gwen, and a sadly misled (and slightly handsy) girl (who is, Morgana hisses, the daughter of someone Very Important), he has spent most of the evening sequestering himself at a table with the perfect view of the rest of the room, bitching delightedly with the girls about basically everyone present and waiting for Arthur to escape from his latest dull-looking conversation to join them.
These occasions, it turns out, bring out the worst (or best, depending on who you are) in Arthur, and in the short snatches of time he manages to spend at Merlin's side, he murmurs juicy titbits of scandal into his ear until Merlin's eyes are huge and his shoulders are shaking with suppressed mirth. Unfortunately, Arthur being who he is, his time is mostly monopolised by Uther, introducing him to this investor and that board member until Merlin thinks his head must be spinning with it all. But he is so good, Merlin thinks, the crown prince greeting the public who will soon be his loyal subjects -- or mortal enemies, depending.
He watches Arthur move through the crowd now, with grace, with just the right mixture of proud bearing and generous courtesy, and he is amazed again at how Arthur always has to be on, how there's never a moment's rest. "Really is like Miss bloody World," he mutters, as Arthur plops exhaustedly at his side.
"Oh God, if I have to spend another moment hearing about Lady Fortingbrass and her Miniature Schnauzer, I may make it my life's ambition to become prime minister and ban the sodding things." He gratefully downs the flute of champagne Merlin sympathetically pushes in his direction.
"You must be knackered, poor thing," Merlin says, patting his shoulder.
Arthur opens one eye in a half-hearted sideways glare. "Oh, all right, it's not building huts for malnourished children in Malawi or whatever, but--"
Merlin's gentle pat turns into a reassuring squeeze. "Arthur, I mean it. I don't know how you do it, always on display like that. And you're so good at it."
Arthur looks at him quizzically. "Well... anyone could do it, really, with enough practice. I've basically been in training to do it since birth."
Something in Merlin's chest constricts as he pictures a chubby-kneed Arthur shaking hands with whiskery men in suits and learning how to hold his napkin properly when Merlin was still crashing toy cars together and eating his tea in front of Power Rangers.
"Christ," Arthur groans, interrupting Merlin's reverie, "here comes Geoffrey from Archives. Boring tosser."
"Arthur!" Merlin hisses, half-amused, half-aghast, "someone'll hear you!"
"I know, I know. I'm just not sure I can bear to talk to him."
"Then... then let's get out of here," Merlin says, his hand slipping to Arthur's wrist. Across the room he can see Uther, glaring in their direction, eyebrows knitted. He crosses his fingers and hopes Arthur doesn't notice. "C'mon, we'll go down to the river for that walk." The tip of his index finger brushes against the inside of Arthur's wrist, just below the thick leather strap of his watch, and really, it is fucking ridiculous to start getting hard just from that tiny, tiny skin to skin contact, but he is.
He feels Arthur still next to him, and prays to all the gods he doesn't believe in, despite eleven years of being dragged to Sunday School by his mother, that he hasn't gone too far. The irony of praying to a religious figure about matters affecting his homosexual heart (and, er, cock) doesn't escape him and he expects to be struck down at any moment (by one of the gods he doesn't believe in). Sod it, he thinks furiously, skyward. This is Arthur. Merlin has a feeling he might be worth a decade or two in purgatory.
"All-- all right," Arthur says, slowly, and then: "Yeah. Yeah, come on, let's go."
As they stand to leave, an illicit thrill runs through Merlin, the likes of which he hasn't felt since he and Will cut double science to sit on the roof of the games shed and smoke substandard weed. Arthur's hand burns hot on the small of his back, through the layers of expensive material, right through to the base of his spine.
He can still see Uther, out the corner of his eye, starting to make his way across the vast ballroom looking purposeful. "Come on, hurry up," he urges, "before you get cornered again."
Arthur laughs, oblivious, and picks up the pace. As they slip out of the heavy double doors of the ballroom, Merlin glances back over his shoulder. Uther stands at the bottom of the stairs, close enough to shout, to stop them, but he doesn't. His face is unreadable, and as his eyes meet Merlin's, he nods, tightly, just once.
Merlin has the oddest feeling that battle lines have just been drawn.
Despite current appearances, Morgana doesn't often find herself in this position: that is, pushed against a seven-foot high box hedge, her skirt hitched halfway up her thighs, her skin flushed and her blood racing hot beneath the hands of an almost-stranger.
He is rather handsome, she thinks, as said almost-stranger bites kisses across her throat, all tall and broad-shouldered and with a vaguely rakish air, like any minute he might pick her up and carry her away like a conquest. Still, his hand is straying dangerously high up her thigh now, and worse, a few more kisses at her collarbone and behind her ears and she'll be too far gone to have the sense of mind to stop him. She gathers herself and pushes his shoulders gently, laughter bubbling in her throat.
"Stop it! Stop, stop," she says, breathlessly. He grins at her, but obediently extracts his hand -- what a shame, she thinks, tortuously -- and places it far more sensibly on her waist. "This is not me," she continues, patting her hair to find any stray bits of bracken. "I don't... snog strange men in bushes."
"Hardly strange," he says, reaching behind her ear and removing a leaf, "but I get your point."
"Thank you," she says, pursing her lips and drawing herself to her full height. "Now I think you should just... go inside. And I'll come back in a few minutes, so it doesn't look... er... obvious." She dabs ineffectually at the bright pink lipstick she has kissed all over his mouth. And neck. And -- dear God -- chest.
He takes her hand, and kisses her fingertips softly. The gesture somehow makes her knees weak. "Of course," he says, pressing her palm to his chest. "But Morgana?"
She nods, not really trusting herself to speak.
"I can call you, right?"
She smiles. "Yes, you may call me."
He grins again, wolfish, and with one more urgent, fierce kiss, he strides back into the hotel with an air of triumph. "Tomorrow!" he calls, over his shoulder, "I'll call you tomorrow."
Morgana allows herself a smile, but she doesn't have much time to enjoy the moment as she spots Arthur and Merlin emerging from the doors. She presses herself further into the hedge, hiding from view as the two men walk past.
Peering between the branches, she can see Arthur's hand, stretching towards Merlin's, almost touching, but then clenching into a fist, over and over again.
Her delight is cut short as Merlin's voice rings out in the still night air: "Hang on a minute... was that Leon covered in lipstick back there?"
Shit, Morgana thinks, and bites her knuckles to stifle a giggle. Nothing stays a secret for long at Camelot.
The Thames at night is one of the things Merlin loves most about London. When he first moved to the city and he was so homesick he could physically feel it, feel the weight of it hanging around his neck, he would come here. He would get the Nightbus into the city (concentrating hard on making himself invisible, folding himself into the seats and watching everyone -- the drunks, the coked-up party goers, the teenagers looking for trouble -- walk straight past him as if he wasn't there, their eyes sliding over him blankly, that familiar, odd, warm feeling prickling up and down the back of his neck) and come down to walk up and down the banks, staring out over the lights dancing over the still, murky surface.
And now he is here, doing the same thing with Arthur, and he's not entirely convinced it's just the cold making him shiver occasionally.
It's the way the conversation is suddenly stilted where normally their banter comes as easy as breathing; it's the way Arthur's little finger keeps brushing against his own, tentative but deliberate; it's the way he can see every hitch of Arthur's breath as mist against the cold air.
"What time is it?" he asks.
Arthur looks at his watch. "Just gone midnight."
Merlin grins. "In that case, it is now officially a year since my first day at Camelot."
"Is that right?" Arthur replies. "God. It seems much longer than that."
"You're telling me," Merlin says, and nudges Arthur with his shoulder. "That's 365 days I've put up with you for."
"Very funny, Emrys." Merlin can hear the smile in his voice. "Well, happy anniversary."
"Thanks. God, just think, if I'd never called you a shiny-shoed ponce, none of this would have happened."
Arthur laughs. "Yes, it certainly got my attention."
"I'll bear that in mind for future employers."
Arthur is silent for a while as they pause and look out over at London Bridge.
"Do you still think that?" he says, quiet.
"Still think what?" Merlin replies.
"That I'm a... uh... shiny-shoed ponce."
Merlin turns to face him, incredulous. Arthur steadfastly stares out over the river, his face set. "Arthur-- come on-- you know I don't-- surely you know."
Arthur stays silent. Merlin watches him for a moment, watches the slight twitch of the firm jaw, the way the blue light reflected from the river pools on his skin, spills across his throat.
"Arthur--" Merlin starts, and almost involuntarily puts a hand to the side of Arthur's face, turning it towards him. The steel-blue eyes don't meet his own, and Merlin tuts with impatience. "You must know how I feel by now. And you feel the same, don't you? I know that you do. I know that you wanted to kiss me, that night. My birthday. And I wanted to kiss you back, Arthur. I still want to kiss you back."
His heart is thumping wildly and as much as he wants to force Arthur to make the next move, to know that Arthur wants this as much as he does, he can't resist tracing his thumb along the line of Arthur's jaw, towards that full, strong mouth.
Arthur meets his eyes in an instant, as if he's suddenly awake, and he opens his lips, almost a kiss against the pad of Merlin's thumb, and whispers, broken: "Merlin--"
They are frozen, for just a moment; a long, quiet moment of things unsaid, things yet to be said, the air between them heavy with the weight of it all.
And then a loud, harsh, electronic ring breaks through the silence, and Arthur, reflexes honed for years, reaches for his phone the moment Merlin snatches his hand away, guilty.
"Yes?" Arthur snaps into the receiver. "Morgana-- what? She what? Oh God. Yes, of course, we're on our way. Thanks." He snaps the phone shut without saying goodbye, and when his eyes, full of concern, meet Merlin's, Merlin suddenly knows that something is about to change, and dread floods his spine like a shot of poison.
"Merlin -- it's Gwen--"
And that's all Merlin hears before he turns and sprints back to the hotel.
Arthur alternates between pacing the corridor, back and forth, and perching on the uncomfortable plastic chairs of the waiting room. He has commandeered Morgana's phone, having switched his off to avoid his father demanding he return to the party, and is making calls in quiet, urgent tones to anyone he can think of that might be able to help.
Morgana provides a steady stream of drinks from the nearest machine which sit, untouched, a constant reminder to Arthur that here, in this place, all the might of the Camelot corporation is useless, comes to nothing, nothing but cold tea in sad little paper cups. His throat is full and aching, and he can't bring himself to look back at Merlin, slumped in the corner, white-faced and silent, the back of his hand bleeding from being scraped against the wall as he was forcibly removed from Gwen's side.
At the hotel Arthur had been able to stand it. There was action, then -- the crowd surrounding Gwen at the foot of the stairs to be dispersed, the paramedics to talk to, calls to be made to Lance and, when there was no answer, anyone Merlin could think of that might know where he was.
And if, when Gwen, small and broken and frightened, had whispered: "Oh God, Merlin… I'm pregnant," he had wanted nothing more than to drop everything so he could figure out a way to wipe away that look, that look of terror that washed over Merlin's face -- well, nobody had noticed, nobody had seen his arms reach out, uselessly, and he had gone back to trying to locate Lance with renewed urgency.
But now there is nothing to do but wait.
Morgana sits next to Merlin, his hand in hers, occasionally whispering something reassuring against his hair. Arthur hates it, hates her, hates himself -- hates it that he's not there for Merlin to hold on to, hates that Morgana is, hates that he doesn't have the courage to be there.
He feels so helpless, in a way he has never felt before and it's as if he has crossed from one world to another -- from a world where his money and reputation could get him anything he wanted, to a world where that's all meaningless in the face of death.
He clears his throat to dislodge the lump forming against his will, and it seems to shake Merlin from his reverie. "Arthur..." he says, quietly.
Morgana, with years of practice, takes her leave discreetly, muttering something about "more tea".
Arthur wants to rush to Merlin's side, wants to whisper reassurance into his ear, wants to gather him up in his arms and smooth away the lines of worry from his face. But he can't. Not even now, after walking with him by the river, after brushing his fingertips across the inside of Merlin's wrist, after seeing Merlin's eyes filled with careful hope.
No, even now he isn't brave enough, and Arthur wonders, in this cold, white place, if he has ever disliked himself so much.
He takes a useless step towards Merlin, opens and closes his fists.
Merlin looks at him, looks at his hands. "I don't know what to do. If Gwen-- if I lost-- Arthur, I couldn't bear it."
Consolations and reassurances stick in Arthur's throat and he can't help it any longer -- he reaches out and places a hand on Merlin's shoulder, squeezing tightly.
When Merlin tilts his head to the side to rest his cheek against Arthur's hand, Arthur presses his lips together tightly, tips his chin into his chest, and they stand there for moments that feel like an age, unnaturally still, and Arthur can almost feel something flowing between the two of them -- compassion and energy and something that Arthur doesn't think he understands just yet, can't quite put a name to.
It's not until Arthur hears his name that he looks up, draws his hand away. Standing across the side of the room, his eyes narrowed, is someone who could prove to be Gwen's salvation. And, Arthur realises as he watches the man's glance go between he and Merlin, his own destruction.
He steps forward, extends his hand. "Uncle Gorlois," he says, his eyes flicking nervously back to Merlin, "Thank you for coming."
Gorlois nods, tightly. The distaste in his face, Arthur thinks, must be apparent to everyone. "Arthur. Where is she?" Arthur nods towards the door to Gwen's room, and Gorlois immediately walks through, flashing an ID card at the nurse posted on the door.
"Gorlois," Arthur says in answer to Merlin's unasked question. "A friend of my father. He's an obstetrician. Quite a brilliant one. And my godfather," he adds, with a rueful chuckle that turns into a sigh.
"Oh," Merlin says, then adds: "He didn't seem very fond of you, for a godfather."
"No. No, he's not. His son and I... when we were teenagers... we used to be... quite close, and... well, Gorlois thought that..." He trails off, uncomfortably aware that yet again he's starting to tell Merlin things he hasn't ever spoken of before. "Anyway. I've hardly seen him since then."
"What about his son?" Merlin asks, curiously.
"Gordon?" Arthur gives a short laugh. "The last time I saw him was at his wedding. By all accounts they're very happy, but Gorlois has never quite been able to forgive me. It was all rubbish, of course," he adds hurriedly.
"Of course," Merlin replies, quiet.
Arthur's skull prickles uncomfortably at the memory of stolen moments in his bedroom, a calloused hand cupping his jaw, fumbling fingers undoing his jeans. He sighs and presses his palms to his eyes. "But he's a brilliant doctor, quite revolutionary. And I just thought if I didn't call-- and Gwen-- well. It's better that he's here."
He means it, but he knows the words sound hollow as his mind can't help bringing forth recollections of Gorlois' face as his eyes had darted towards Merlin. Even now, he thinks, someone is probably calling his father.
"Thank you, Arthur," Merlin says.
"It's fine," he replies, with a tight smile.
As they sit back for another long wait, Arthur suspects that they both know that it's not fine. But even now he can't stop himself from thinking back to that moment by the river, to the feeling of Merlin's thumb caressing his mouth, and Arthur knows that they have started something neither of them want to stop.
When Merlin wakes, for a minute he has forgotten where he is. But the cramp in his neck from his uncomfortable position in the chair and the cold, disinfectant smell of the hospital reminds him, and with a rush of adrenalin he glances round the waiting room desperately. Morgana, opposite him, is tired and drawn, but as he meets her eyes with the question he doesn't dare ask she smiles, warmly, and says, "You can go in and see her."
Merlin doesn't wait to be told twice and dashes towards Gwen's door. It's ajar, and through the crack he can see Arthur standing awkwardly by Gwen's bedside, having his hand enthusiastically wrung by Lance.
"Arthur," Lance is saying, "thank you. I really don't know how to thank you."
"It wasn't me," Arthur says, uncomfortably. The back of his neck is flushed.
"But if you hadn't called him," Gwen starts, and her voice catches: "If I wasn't in here, then the baby..."
"Or Gwen," Lance says sombrely. "Honestly, Arthur, I owe you so much."
"And not just for however much this room is costing!" Gwen says, looking around her, and Lance nods.
"Yes, Arthur, you must tell me how much--"
"Oh God," Arthur starts, looking frantic, "please, please, don't. Honestly. Don't. Please. My father donates so much every year and I'm never ill. We're just getting our money's worth."
He gives an uncomfortable laugh. Lance looks as if he's about to continue but Arthur stops him with a firm hand on his shoulder. "Lance, please. It's really the least I could do."
Merlin decides now is a good time to step in because he's not prepared to watch a battle of the two most stubborn people he's ever met in his life. Gwen spots him at the door and beams. "Oh, Merlin."
He's next to her in a second, wrapping his arms around her neck and breathing in the warm, familiar scent of her hair. All he can think for a few moments is God, I might have lost her, and the idea is so dizzyingly terrifying that he finds himself having to compose his voice just to ask if everything's okay.
"It's fine," Gwen says, smoothing a hand over his back. "Or it will be. I have to take it easy and keep seeing Dr Gorlois, but the baby should be fine. Thanks to Arthur."
Arthur clears his throat, and Merlin looks up to see him sidestepping towards the door. "I should go… Gwen, I'm so glad-- well. And if you need anything-- Look, here's a list, here." He pushes a folded piece of paper into Lance's hand. "Some numbers of people that might be useful; that second one, she does yoga for pregnant women, and that fourth one down, he'll know all the best vitamins to take -- just mention my name when if you call, okay?" He turns to go, and Merlin moves to follow, but Arthur holds up a hand. "No, Merlin, stay. Stay with Gwen. I'll see you tomorrow, all right?"
Merlin holds Arthur's gaze for a second. Arthur's face is as composed as it was on the day Merlin met him, but Merlin has been studying this face for so long now, taken in every glance and every small movement of Arthur's mouth, that it no longer leaves him baffled. He knows, now, knows what Arthur leaves unsaid. He nods, slowly, and smiles.
The smile Arthur gives him in return is warm and full of promise.
"Tomorrow," Merlin murmurs softly, and his eyes don't leave Arthur's retreating form until the door swings shut.
When Arthur gets back to his apartment he shakes out his wet umbrella, deliberately ignores the blinking answer machine, throws his Blackberry onto the coffee table along with his keys, and collapses face-first onto the bed. He is exhausted; it's the kind of tired that seeps into his bones and presses hard behind his eyelids, the kind of tired that quiets even the most persistent of thoughts racing through his head and leaves behind just an impression, just a quiet anticipation of things yet to come that leaves him smiling against the pillow despite his fatigue.
When the doorbell rings ten minutes later his first thought is to ignore it, but whoever it is presses the buzzer persistently until he lets out a muffled groan and relents.
"Okay, okay!" he yells down the hallway, privately resolving to arrange for whomever is at the door (clearly now just leaning against the bell, damn them) to be smothered in their sleep. "I'm coming, I'm coming." As he pulls open the heavy black door he is already admonishing the culprit. "There's really no need to be so irritating…"
The words die in his mouth. Standing on the doorstep, soaked through, is Merlin.
"Merlin! Is everything okay? Gwen?"
Merlin nods wordlessly.
"Then why are you-- God, your jacket is sodden, and I bet that was expensive. Fine tailoring really is wasted on you, Emrys."
Merlin takes a step forward and slowly, deliberately, places a hand to the back of Arthur's neck.
A hot surge of want rushes through Arthur's body, flooding his spine and limbs and throat. He pulls Merlin towards him, roughly, urgently, nodding his consent mindlessly. "Yes--"
And he couldn't tell you who starts the kiss, only that it starts, and it is harder than he had anticipated, and scratchier, and more like fighting, which he supposes he should have expected, given the way they push and pull at each other every day of their lives. And he makes himself open his eyes, just to get a glimpse of Merlin's long lashes dusting his cheeks, Merlin's sharp face pressed against his own, his hand pushing over Merlin's jaw, through his dark hair.
It is brutal and tender and sweet and he wants to drink in every moment because if there is one thing Arthur has learnt in life, it's that good things go away, that the things he chooses get taken from him, and right in this moment he thinks this might be the best thing, the very best choice he has ever made.
When Merlin breaks away Arthur lets out a gasp. It's like someone has snatched away water when he's been desperate to drink for so long, too long, and he tries to pull him back again, pull him into the house, but Merlin just smiles and shakes his head. "It's been a really long night, Arthur, and I don't want you to do anything too-- I don't want things to go too fast before you've had time to consider--"
Arthur curses impatiently. "All I bloody do is consider, Merlin, and talk myself out of things and make sodding lists. I just want-- I want you."
The grin that spreads across Merlin's face is dear and familiar. "Arthur…" he begins.
Arthur puts a hand to Merlin's jaw, marvelling at the way the rough skin pulls tight across the bone. He longs to explain it all to Merlin; about Gordon, about the girls, about his father, about the relentless struggle he's gone through every day since Merlin walked into Camelot to not touch him, kiss him, be with him, and he wonders if one day he will tell him, but for now he settles for a smile, slow and soft and rare. "Believe me when I say, Merlin, that I have spent long enough thinking this over. I don't need any more time. I don't want any more time."
Merlin searches his face for a long moment and Arthur forces himself to hold Merlin's gaze. And Merlin seems to find the answer he's looking for, because he nods, says "All right, then," and takes Arthur's hand and follows as Arthur leads him over the threshold into the apartment.
Inside Arthur is suddenly bashful, exposed. He realises with a jolt that it's been years since he had someone back to his home who wasn't a business contact, and he can't help wishing he'd tidied up more, even though he has seen enough of Gwen and Merlin's home (folded himself into dusty corners, perched on top of piles of washing) to know that Merlin won't care that he hasn't put his umbrella away properly. "Do you -- um -- want a tour?" he offers. "Or a cup of tea? You must be freezing." That's good, he thinks to himself. Polite. Definitely what you're meant to do when someone comes round for the first time, even if you want you really want to do is press them into your mattress and make them come undone.
Merlin stares at him for a moment. "Are you actually--" He tuts impatiently and rolls his eyes. "Oh, for pity's sake. Come here."
Without warning or preamble, he brings his mouth to meet Arthur's, pushing him against the stairwell until their bodies are pressed together, and Arthur finds himself flooded with the most deliriously dizzying sensation, like he is falling whilst standing still. It hits him with a hot rush of arousal, floods through his veins until his limbs are heavy with it, his thoughts hazy, his body open and willing.
The tight knot of anxiety in his stomach uncoils, and he thinks this is it, this is right, and he almost laughs against Merlin's mouth at how easy it all is. Just to be here, to be in this moment, with this man before him. To be wanted by Merlin and to want him back.
He holds on to Merlin, balls the back of his damp shirt in his fists, drinks in his fierce kisses, and lets go.
Afterwards, Merlin goes for a shower, shouting from the en-suite about "the ridiculous amount of buttons on this thing, Arthur, honestly," and Arthur spreads himself across the bed feeling deliciously unable (and unwilling) to move.
In his head he is making a list, but this time not to calm himself, not to organise an untidy mind, but just for himself, to keep. To remember.
The way Merlin's eyes went warm and soft when he said Arthur's name.
The long, smooth, clean lines of Merlin's body, pale and sinuous and taut.
Threading his fingers through the damp curls at the nape of Merlin's neck.
Merlin's voice murmuring filthy things against his cheek.
Mouthing small, bruising kisses to Merlin's jaw, below his ears, the hollow of his throat.
How in bed, Merlin was still so delightfully Merlin; still cheeky and impulsive and impatient where Arthur was proper and languorous and slow.
Whispering, broken, in the ache of it all, promises and apologies into Merlin's skin.
It is almost frightening, Arthur thinks, when you realise that in one moment you have reached out and taken everything you wanted, things you hadn't even dared to dream about, and all of a sudden your life is unrecognisable.
When Merlin emerges from the bathroom, towelling his hair, and flashes him a grin, Arthur feels a little drunk with it; the heady knowledge that right here, right in this room stands the person who could be it for him, who could help him take down all the walls he's constructed over the years, unpick the tightly-bound knots that make up his existence, and build something better for himself, for them. It's strange and new and more than a little overwhelming and although Arthur can't quite bring himself to put it into words, he takes Merlin's hand and presses a kiss to the palm and hopes it says enough, for now.
"I should go," Merlin says, smiling. "Gwen will be wondering where I am. Actually, she probably won't be wondering, but she'll definitely be anxiously awaiting the gory details."
Arthur shakes his head, disbelieving. "And you'll tell her?"
"Well," Merlin says, slowly, "Not if you don't want me to, I suppose. But I do tell Gwen most things so she'll probably wheedle it out of me somehow. She's good with torture. Pointy elbows."
Arthur laughs, watching the bones in Merlin's spine, the muscles in his shoulders move beneath the skin as he pulls on boxers and socks. "No, no, I don't mind. It's just… God. I've never… I never tell anybody anything."
"Well," Merlin says, flopping down onto the edge of the bed, "Now you can tell me."
Merlin grins at him and reaches for his watch lying on the bedside table. There's a photo there, and he picks it up, looking curious.
"Who's this?" he asks.
Arthur is quiet for a moment. He takes the photo from Merlin. "It's my mother," he replies, his voice low. "It was taken the day she found out she was pregnant."
Merlin looks at the photograph over Arthur's shoulder, resting his chin in the hollow. "She looks really happy."
"She was," Arthur nods. "They'd been trying for a while, I think."
"I've never seen a picture of her before."
"No," Arthur says. "This is the only one I have." He feels the familiar flash of anger shoot through his skin as he says the words and bites his lip to suppress it. He hates himself for feeling so resentful towards his father when he thinks about his mother, but he can't help it. He has so little of her to hold on to. "My father-- he doesn't really like to talk about her."
"Oh," Merlin says, and then: "That's the same-- with my dad. He left when I was quite young and my mum never talks about him. I guess he didn't want to have a kid, I don't know."
"Do you miss him?" Arthur asks.
"A little bit. Yeah. But Mum was always there, I guess. She kind of… doubled her efforts to make up for it, I think. Do you miss your mum?"
Arthur runs his thumb across the glass of the photograph frame and shrugs. "I wouldn't know what to miss."
They are both silent, Merlin pressing his lips against the dip in Arthur's shoulder, until Arthur moves to put the photograph back and clears his throat, embarrassed. He sits on the edge of the bed with his back to Merlin.
"So," Merlin starts. "Tell me about this guy you've just started sleeping with, Arthur."
Arthur swallows hard, then turns with a smile, grateful for the change in subject.
"I hear he's quite the catch," Merlin continues, inclining his head. "Handsome, intelligent, funny…"
"Questionable dress sense, a habit of putting his foot in his mouth, ridiculous hair…" Arthur finishes, giving Merlin a shove.
Merlin laughs and pulls his shirt on over his head. "Apparently. But stupidly, crazily, remarkably head over heels for you, for all his sins." He leans down and kisses Arthur. It is soft and sweet and leaves Arthur wanting more.
"Stay," he protests.
"No, I really do have to go. But I'll see you on Monday, yeah? At work. And maybe we can go for dinner or something."
"I'll cook for you!" Arthur announces, and he is definitely not just trying to figure out how he can next get Merlin in the vicinity of a bedroom.
Merlin bursts into laughter. "Arthur. Have you ever cooked before?"
"I… well… that is to say… well. It depends if you consider toast cooking…"
"Mm-hm. I thought as much." Merlin pauses at the bedroom door. "Tell you what," he says, grinning, "We'll get takeaway."
When the doorbell goes again, a little while later, Arthur is more willing to drag himself from bed to answer it. He can't help but check his hair in the hallway mirror, and when he opens the door he's grinning to himself at his own foolishness.
"I knew you'd change your mind, Merlin; you never--"
He stops, mid-sentence, as he realises the figure standing in his porch is not Merlin, but his father.
Merlin takes the tube in to work that Monday morning, it being the first time in about six months he has woken up early enough to do so, rather than ending up in his usual routine of begging Gwen (through a mouthful a toothpaste) to call him one of the company's cars, and throwing himself in the back seat, half-dressed with a piece of toast in his mouth. He actually catches himself whistling on the way to the station, for Christ's sake, and he surreptitiously stops at every reflective surface to check his (still not bloody lying flat) hair. This is ridiculous, he tells himself firmly. It's ARTHUR. Yes, Arthur: Arthur who, less than forty-eight hours ago, was pressing kisses up the length of his spine; was kneeling before him, looking an intoxicating mixture of nervous and eager; was moaning his name into the back of his neck as if it were a prayer; was taking the length of his co--
Merlin bites his lip, hard, and admonishes himself for dwelling on such thoughts this early in the morning. It's the SCHOOL RUN, Merlin, he scolds, there are CHILDREN present. But try as he might, flashes of Arthur keep invading his vision -- the strong expanse of his back; his eyes, pupils blown; his full mouth, bitten red. It's quite a relief to arrive at the office where at least he might be able to persuade Arthur to have a little good morning snog up against that desk that he's so bloody proud of.
Merlin glances over to the source of the greeting, reddening slightly at his previous train of thought. Waving cheerily as he enters the lift is Leon. "Hey Leon," he nods, "How's things?"
"Bloody good," Leon replies, pressing the button for the second floor, "but not as good as for you, I hear!"
Merlin freezes. "What?" How on earth has the news about him and Arthur spread already? Unless Gwen has told Morgana and Morgana--
He's hardly listening to Leon, who is thumping him on the back. "...office. But it's fantastic news, it's a great opportunity."
Merlin says nothing, his mind racing. Maybe Arthur has told Morgana; after all, it's not like Gwen to blab. And if Arthur has told Morgana, that means he wants them to be open about everything and that is more than Merlin had hoped for this early on. A little fizz of hope bubbles somewhere near the base of his stomach.
"Er… anyway," Leon continues, looking vaguely confused, "This is me! So I'll, er, see you later, yeah."
Merlin waves a hand distractedly.
"Hey, Merlin," Leon says, putting a hand on the lift door to stop it from shutting, "Can you tell Morgana I have her umbrella at my flat?"
"Yeah, sure," Merlin replies. As the lift doors start to close, he realises what Leon has just said. "Hang on, why is Morgana's umbr-- Wait, that WAS you covered in lipstick at the party!"
As the lift pulls upwards, he hears Leon calling desperately, "I admitted nothing! Make sure you tell her that!"
Merlin shakes his head and laughs. Excellent ammunition. He and Arthur will definitely make full use of that little piece of information today, he thinks. Once they've got the snogging out of the way, naturally.
As he walks into the office, he's already planning the first round of mockery, but the sight of Morgana's face stops him in his tracks. She is as immaculate as usual, but her kohl-lined eyes are reddened, as if she's been crying. In all the time he's known her, Merlin has never seen Morgana even close to tears.
"Shit, Morgana, what's wrong?" he says, pulling a chair up to her desk. "Are you okay?"
"Merlin, I'm so sorry," she says, putting a hand to his arm.
"What? What's going on?"
She pushes a piece of paper towards him, shaking her head wordlessly.
To: MANAGERS ; PA TEAM
Subject: Merlin Emrys
Merlin Emrys, former assistant to Arthur Pendragon, will be taking forward a project to investigate the possibility of incorporating sustainable housing in the new Brixton development. Merlin's recent work on the alliance with Mercia Holdings, Inc. in New York, as well as his interest in ecological issues, made him an ideal candidate for this position. I'm sure you will all join me in congratulating Merlin and wishing him all the best in his new role, which he will take up at the Brixton office with immediate effect.
Please circulate this email to your teams.
It's like someone has poured cold water down the back of his neck, and a harsh shock thrills down his spine. Goosebumps prickle uncomfortably across his skin. "Morgana, what-- what is this?"
"Arthur called me yesterday evening to tell me. He wanted me to speak to you before you saw this. I-- I mean, it's a fantastic opportunity, Merlin. You'll have your own team and you'll be working on something that you're really passionate about--"
"Arthur knows about this?" Merlin asks. He can't quite get his brain to catch up with what Morgana is saying, his thoughts sluggish as if they're filtering through a thick fog.
Morgana nods miserably.
"I don't understand. This isn't-- he wants me out the office?"
"I don't know, Merlin. I wish I did. I asked him, of course I asked him. But he just said it was out of his hands."
"Oh God," Merlin says, burying his face in his hands. "Uther. Uther knows."
"He saw me taking Arthur away from the party. And Gorlois, Arthur's godfather, he saw us at the hospital-- and that night--" He pulls at his hair distractedly. Had he been seen leaving Arthur's flat? Or was what Gorlois had seen enough?
Morgana lays a hand on his knee, her lips pressed together in sympathy. "You and Arthur?"
Merlin doesn't answer, but he knows his silence will be enough.
"Fuck," Morgana curses. "That idiot."
Her anger shakes Merlin from his misery and he feels a quiet rage start to run hot through his spine. "He just-- he just let him do this. After everything. Is he here?" He glances over to Arthur's office door.
"No, no," Morgana says, hurriedly. "He said he wouldn't come in today."
Merlin doesn't believe her, not for a second, and he struggles hard to keep his hands from shaking. "I knew Arthur was many things, but I didn't know he was a coward. I can't believe he's done this. I can't believe he doesn't even have the decency to tell me himself. He's throwing away everything."
He knows that if Arthur can hear him, the words will sting, but he finds he doesn't care. He wants them to.
"Or maybe he just got what he wanted, got his fucking cheap thrills and now he's going back to pretending again. I don't know and I don't care. He's an idiot."
"I know, Merlin, I know; but you have to see the good things -- it really is a good job, you'll find it really rewarding, I'm sure--"
"I don't want his sodding job, Morgana! I never bloody did! I wasn't here for the money, or the business or for Uther fucking Pendragon! I was here for Arthur. And if he doesn't want me here any more, then I'm going."
Merlin stands up, slinging his bag over his shoulders. His blood is rushing hot and loud in his ears; he knows he should sit down, take his time, can hear Gwen begging him to curb his impulsiveness. But it doesn't matter, because he is sure of one thing: he never wants to work for Arthur Pendragon again.
"Merlin, please," Morgana says, laying a slim hand on his arm.
"No, Morgana. I'm sorry. I've loved working with you, you know I have, but Arthur has made his decision -- or at least Uther has made it for him -- and I'm making mine." His voice is loud even to his ears, his hand trembling as he tugs it through his hair in frustration. "One of us has got to have the strength to make our own choices and I should have known all along it wouldn't be him. But that's fine. He'll spend the rest of his life being paraded around like someone in a bloody beauty contest by his bloody father and be miserable. I'm not hanging around to watch that happen. I've done my best."
And he has, he thinks. He's exhausted with it all, exhausted with his mind and body thrumming with nervous excitement every time Arthur is around. Enough.
Morgana's green eyes run over his face, searching. He doesn't look away. "You mean it, don't you?" she says.
Merlin has never been more certain of anything in his life. He remembers Uther's wordless challenge from the party, remembers the way his chin lifted as if he was daring Merlin to defy him, and he hates that Uther has won. But he remembers that no matter how much Uther might have considered it his battle to fight, it wasn't -- it never was. It was Arthur's. And Arthur has chosen to let his father win.
Now all Merlin wants to get away from here, get away from everything and try to forget that it ever happened, forget about Arthur. "I do."
Morgana nods. "I'll tell him."
"Thank you for everything, Morgana," Merlin says, and bends down to kiss her cheek before walking out of the office for the last time, his eyes firmly set on anything other than the brass plate that reads "Arthur Pendragon".
Part of him wants to go back, wants to force his way into Arthur's office and press kisses to his jaw, his cheeks, his eyelids, wants to tell him that he's good enough, that he's perfect, that if Arthur will let him, he'll spend his whole life showing him that. But he's too angry, too proud, too embarrassed at having shared so much of himself with Arthur only to find himself discarded.
Besides, he thinks, staring blankly out of the window as his train pulls away, it won't do any good; Arthur has been faced with the two paths and if he's gone down the wrong one, the one that's lined with lies and frustration and leads to nothing but unhappiness, leads to Arthur ending up bitter and angry and unfulfilled because of his fucking father; well, that's his problem. All Merlin can do now is try and move on. Before it breaks his heart.
He somehow holds to that resolution until he gets home, at which point he finds Lance, asleep after a long night shift, and thrusts his phone into his hands. "Whatever I do, Lance, don't let me call Arthur, okay? No matter what."
He leaves Lance looking puzzled, and goes to lie face-down on the sofa to try to put his life back together.
After Merlin has left, Morgana unlocks the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and pulls out a bottle of Scotch she keeps for emergencies. Every good PA has one, but she's never had cause to use it before. She pours a tumblerful, takes a large gulp herself, wincing, then tops it up to take to Arthur. As she pushes the door open, Arthur lifts his head to meet her gaze and she is almost frightened; he is ashen, wild-eyed. His hair is a mess from where he's been dragging his hands through it.
"Oh, Arthur," she says, her anger dissipating in the face of how broken Arthur looks.
"Don't, Morgana." His voice is gruff, ravaged, and she knows he hasn't slept. "I don't deserve it."
"No, you don't," Morgana says, "and I should be so angry at you right now for making me do that."
"I know. I know. I'm so sorry. I just… I couldn't." He presses his fists to his eyes. "I couldn't."
She sighs. "Oh, Arthur. Why are you doing this to yourself?"
Arthur pauses for a moment, downs the tumbler of alcohol with a grimace when she offers it. "I didn't have a choice. My father -- you know what he's like, Morgana, he made it quite clear-- He wanted me to fire him but of course I wouldn't, and I-- I thought Merlin would like that job, I--"
"You underestimate him, Arthur. As always."
Arthur doesn't reply.
"You just won't let yourself be happy, Arthur. I don't understand it."
"You don't understand my father!" Arthur barks. "I'm all he has left! And he wants -- he wants me to have a life, to have children and get married and run the business -- to do what he should have done, but couldn't. Because of me, because of what happened to my mother. And now I'm all he has. I can't disappoint him."
"Arthur, it's not your fault that--"
"It doesn't matter how much you hate him, he's my father," Arthur continues in a fierce rush, "and he's all that I have, too."
Morgana shakes her head and gets up to leave. "He's not all that you have. You have me." She pauses, looking at him from the doorway. "And you had Merlin."
She closes the door on Arthur's still figure and pretends not to hear as he chokes back a quiet sob.
Lance knows that Gwen loves Merlin, she really does, but he also knows that there are only so many hours she can spend on the sofa listening to Merlin rage about "sodding perfect haired poncing idiots with the spine of a… a… Lance, what's an animal without a spine? An INVERTEBRATE, that's it. No sodding spine, that's what he's got!" without snapping, especially when she's dealing with a double whammy of morning sickness and sciatica. And he also has a vague, nagging feeling that Merlin might not move out before the baby arrives and Gwen's fantasy nursery (cream and yellow, duck-themed) might stay as Merlin's den of misery forever.
"I can't take it for much longer, Lance," Gwen hisses, up to her elbows in soapy water. "It's been three months and I know he's had his heart broken and I feel really awful for him, but seriously, he's going to end up making the baby depressed. IN THE WOMB. Do you WANT a depressed baby, Lance? Do you? I don't think so. So what do we DO about him?"
Lance dries a wine glass slowly, thoughtful. "He needs something to get him out of the house," he says, holding it up to the wintry sunlight to make sure it's clean. "All this lying around moping doesn't help anyone."
Gwen tuts impatiently and takes the glass to put it away. "I know that, but what?"
"A job," Lance says, taking the glass back out of the cupboard to polish off Gwen's soapy fingerprints. "That's really what he needs."
"But he won't apply for any. He doesn't need the money for now, not with all his savings, and he doesn't seem to have the drive to do anything at the moment."
"Mm. What he needs is an offer he can't turn down. Something that really grabs him, to hell with the money." Lance hangs up the tea towel and hops up to sit on the worktop. "Let me talk to a few people at the hospital. Maybe there's something I can do. He's got great experience now, after all. I just think he needs to meet the right people."
Gwen folds herself into Lance's arms with a sigh. "Including some potential housemates, preferably."
"Yes, ideally," Lance replies, patting Gwen's belly affectionately. "How's Arthur doing, anyway?"
Gwen screws up her nose and shakes her head. "Not good. Morgana says that he hasn't said a word about it since it happened; he just works ridiculously long hours and shouts at people a lot."
"If only they weren't both so stubborn…"
"Pot, meet kettle," Gwen laughs, "you're just as bad. Albeit in a gentler sort of way."
"I am not as stubborn as Merlin is being at the moment," Lance counters, and Gwen inclines her head in agreement. They've wheedled and cajoled and threatened, but Merlin refuses to call Arthur, or even to email him.
Just as Lance is pondering who he would bet on in a staring competition, Arthur or Merlin, Merlin comes padding into the kitchen. It's four in the afternoon and he's still in boxers and a crumpled Radiohead t-shirt. "'Lo," he yawns, stretching like a cat. "What're we talking about?"
"About how if you weren't so stubborn you would call Arthur and everyone would be much happier," Gwen says absently.
"Ah," Merlin nods, mock-casual. "That old chestnut. Gwen, he's the one that practically fired me. If he wanted to speak to me, he would have called by now. He's clearly not bothered. And if he's not bothered, I'm not bothered."
"Merlin," Gwen sighs, "Have you stopped to think that perhaps he's struggling too, but he can't make the first move because that would mean choosing between his father and you?"
Merlin scowls at her. "He already chose between his father and me, Gwen. He chose his father."
Gwen throws the soapy dishcloth into the sink in disgust. "I give up with him, Lance. Give up! He's miserable, Arthur's miserable, and they'll both be miserable forever, see if I care. But I will have my bloody nursery!" Her face crumples and she dashes out of the room (somewhat slower than she probably wanted for dramatic purposes, being six months' pregnant) and leaves Merlin and Lance staring at her retreating back in astonishment.
"Well," Merlin says, a few seconds later, "that was… unusual."
Lance nods. "I know. She's a bit hormonal at the moment. But she's also worried about you, Merlin." He decides not to mention the 'Merlin's depressing the baby' theory. Probably for the best, he thinks.
"I'm fine, Lance. Honestly. I'm just going to move on and get over him. It. Over it."
"Mm," Lance says slowly, "but you don't seem to be doing much actual… moving on."
Merlin opens his mouth as if to snap back a retort, but then covers his face with his hands. "God. I know, I know. I know. It's just… everywhere I look, there's Arthur, you know?" He gestures around the room wildly. "That's the mug he broke when he came round for the first time, and that's the shirt I wore to our first big meeting and he said was the colour of vomit, and right there, pinned to the fridge, that's one of his bloody lists… I feel like I'm going mad, Lance. I've been through break-ups before, I have. I mean, Will was no picnic. But nothing like this. And we only sodding slept together once." He looks up at Lance, his face pale. "I just… I honestly thought it was… he was it, you know?"
Lance puts a hand to Merlin's shoulder. "I know."
They are silent for a few moments until Merlin rubs his face with both hands and shakes his head. "Ugh. I'll survive."
Lance pats him on the back in what he hopes is a manful but sympathetic way. "Hang on in there. It'll get easier."
Merlin nods. "Yeah, I know. Just all seems a bit… pointless."
As he watches Merlin disappear upstairs (crossing with Gwen in the hallway where they exchange a wordless hug of apology), Lance tries to imagine a life without Gwen and can't help the shudder that runs through him. Gwen pads back into the kitchen and offers him a small smile.
"Sorry--" she starts, but before she can continue he pulls her into a tight embrace and buries his face into her curls.
"D'you know what?" he mumbles, inhaling her soft, familiar scent. "For an educated man, that Arthur Pendragon isn't half an idiot."
In the aftermath of Merlin's resignation, it didn't take very long for Morgana to work out that mentioning it -- or, indeed, Merlin himself -- in Arthur's presence is a very bad idea. Probably the worst incident came about a month after it happened, and Owain, the head of Marketing, had asked Arthur for Merlin's number. "Why would I have his number?" Arthur had snapped, but it was too quick, too angry a response to an innocuous question, and the muttering had started.
Four months on, and Arthur has maintained his silence. She had wondered if the girls would start up again in an attempt to quell the gossip, but it seems Arthur doesn't care any more. He's just going through the motions; he comes in early, works late, bids her goodnight, and goes home. And she has the horrible feeling that he does nothing else, just works and eats and goes running, and stares at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to come.
She and Merlin had vaguely attempted to stay in touch, but it was too awkward; they couldn't talk about Arthur, couldn't talk about work, and so now they have stopped returning each other's calls and texts, as sad as that makes her. But she still sees Gwen, so she knows how Merlin is doing, and it's because of her most recent visit with Gwen that she has to talk to Arthur today.
She knows she has to, but that doesn't make it any easier, doesn't make her legs feel any less shaky as she pushes open Arthur's door.
Stop being pathetic, Morgana, she tells herself, and takes a deep breath.
He is bent over his desk, writing.
"Arthur… I need to speak to you."
"Yes?" he says, not looking up. The room is dim, the blinds drawn, and she wonders briefly if Arthur is hungover; if he's taken to drinking himself to sleep instead of staring at the ceiling.
She clicks the door shut, biting her lip, and pulls a chair up to his desk.
"It's about Merlin."
Now he looks up. His eyes are thunderous. "What about him?"
"Arthur… look, I can't just… not tell you this, okay? I'm not saying you have to do anything, but I can't not tell you. I just can't."
"Spit it out, Morgana."
"He's got a new job," she says, slowly. "Working for Médecins Sans Frontières. Copy-writing for the website, press releases -- that sort of thing."
Arthur nods, tightly. "That sounds like the sort of thing he would-- But I don't know why you're telling me, I'm sure HR dealt with his reference."
Morgana takes a breath. "It's not based in the UK. He'll be abroad for the next two years. At least."
Arthur stiffens. "Two years?"
"Yes." Impulsively, Morgana reaches across the desk, takes Arthur's hand. "Oh, Arthur, can't you--"
He slides his hand away, drops it to his lap. "Thank you for letting me know, Morgana." His eyes fall back to his work.
"Arthur, come on--"
"That will be all."
She presses her fingertips to her forehead in frustration, but she knows when she's dismissed. Outside, at her own desk, she sends Gwen a quick text. "News imparted. No response. Guess that's it, then." She's sad; sad for herself, sad for Merlin, but mostly sad for Arthur, who doesn't seem to realise what he's throwing away... or that he always had the choice to take it back.
Later that afternoon, Morgana hears a crash coming from Arthur's office and finds him knelt over the remnants of the glass he has hurled at the wall, his hands bleeding onto his shirt, leaving blossoms of scarlet on the crisp white fabric.
"Oh God, Arthur," she cries, and kneels on the floor next to him, and she can't help but wrap her arm around his shoulders.
He is shaking, staring down at his hands with a look of shock. "I'm so sorry," he says, turning to her. His eyes are hollow. "I'll clear it up. Don't worry."
"Go home, Arthur," Morgana says, stroking his hair away from his forehead. "Just go home, okay? Just for today." She hugs him, pulling his stiff body into her own.
He nods, looking from his hands to the wall wildly. "I think-- I think I should. Will you cancel my meetings?"
"Of course," she says, "Just go. Try and get some sleep."
She packs him into the lift, forcing him to leave his laptop and his briefcase, and goes back to his office to shut down his computer and double-check his paper diary for any appointments she's missed.
Lying open on his desk is his notebook.
Morgana isn't a nosy person; she's a PA, it is more than her job is worth not to avert her eyes when necessary. But it's open to a page headed, in Arthur's strong, neat hand TV programmes Merlin and Morgana are always talking about, and she's too curious to resist.
She picks up the notebook and flicks through pages at random.
Potential hangover cures. Ten reasons the merger proposal
may will may get rejected. Potential birthday presents for Merlin. Embarrassing things that idiot has made me do. Topics to discuss at merger party. Vitamins important in pregnancy. Places I can take Merlin.
One makes tears come, unbidden -- a page headed Things I know about my mother, and underneath, nothing.
List after list after list.
And finally, one headed Things I want to say to him, with today's date, and she can't help but read.
He's my father. I can't help but love him. I can't leave him.
The time I spent with you taught me what it is to be happy.
I miss you, every day.
I hate what I become without you here.
You are all I want. Were always all I wanted.
I loved you all along.
I love you still.
She claps her hand to her mouth to keep from crying at the thought of Arthur scratching away at this, pouring his heart out through his fingertips to a blank page that can't answer.
She can think only one thing: Merlin has to see this notebook.
When the doorbell goes, Merlin is not really in the ideal position for answering it, being sat, as he is, in the middle of a very carefully constructed cardboard box fort. Still, neither Gwen nor Lance are in so he knows he has to extricate himself somehow; and, cursing himself for not leaving a doorway, he clambers over the box labelled "Books (storage)" and leaps down the stairs, congratulating himself for making it in only three jumps -- a new record.
He's peeling packing tape from his left forearm when he realises it's Morgana at the door, and he's not sure what gives him the bigger shock: how much it hurts to rip out arm hair with tape, or the fact that Morgana is here for the first time in months. He is decidedly happier about the latter than the former.
"Morgana!" he says, pulling her into a hug. "You fantastic creature, I've missed you a ton. Come in, come in. I'm packing, so bear with me." He leads her upstairs to his tiny bedroom and indicates a box for her to sit on. "That one's fairly sturdy and not too precious," he says.
"CDs (Sixth Form)?" she reads, raising one eyebrow.
Merlin nods. "Uh-huh. I got the urge to arrange them chronologically after seeing High Fidelity. There's a lot of shoegazer indie in that box. Hence why you can sit on it."
He grins at her and she beams back. "Oh, Merlin," she says, "I have missed you. But you look good; you look great, actually."
He inclines his head in thanks, widens his smile in determination as he pushes back the stray thoughts of Arthur that are never far from his mind no matter how hard he tries to ignore them. "I am good. I am. I'm really excited about this job -- I guess Gwen told you, right? I can't wait. Can't wait to get out of London, to be honest." He tries to keep the sharp note of regret from his voice. So much for your destiny being in London, he thinks, bitterly, and turns to label another box to hide his face.
"I'm glad," Morgana says, but she doesn't sound glad, not at all.
There's a silence for a few moments.
"So, um…" Merlin starts, but Morgana cuts in.
"Look, I'm really glad you're doing so well, I am. But Arthur isn't, Merlin."
Merlin sighs. He should have known why she would come here. "That's not my problem any more."
"But it is," she continues, insistent as he turns from her. "He's a mess, you don't know-- he's drinking and not sleeping and he's so angry. I found him bleeding today, Merlin, bleeding from trying to clean up the glass he'd thrown against the wall because he found out you were leaving and he doesn't want anyone to know how much that hurt. He won't let anyone in. He misses you so much."
Merlin bites his lip, his back to Morgana, watching the cars wind their ways home on the street below. He can't deny that it hurts, aches, hearing this, thinking of Arthur, alone, struggling. Can't deny that still, after all these months, he wants nothing more than to be with him, every minute of every day. "But that was his choice, Morgana. All of this was. And if he regretted it, he should have come to tell me himself. It's too late now. I'm leaving."
"Do you still love him?" Morgana asks bluntly.
"I never said I loved him in the first place."
Morgana tuts, and waves her hand. "Merlin, I'm not an idiot. A child could have seen that you two were in love with each other. I just want to know if you still are."
Merlin is silent.
Does he still love Arthur? Of course he still loves Arthur.
Four months isn't long enough to forget someone like that. Someone who was invitingly, addictively frustrating and delightful in equal measure. Someone who drove him crazy every day. Someone who was never, not for one second, anything other than fascinating. Someone who, behind all the walls, behind the overwhelming sense of propriety, behind the stiff suits and smirks, was warm and sincere and wonderfully true.
And it's definitely not long enough to get over someone he is sure -- so stupidly, naïvely sure -- is the love of his sodding life.
Morgana interrupts Merlin's frenzied thoughts by pushing a small black notebook into his hands. "Look," she says. "I know you don't owe him anything. But you should read this, for your sake. If you still love him."
She kisses him on the cheek, squeezes his arm. "I know he's difficult. But sometimes you are, too. And for what it's worth, I think you made each other something better. And I don't think you find someone like that every day."
Merlin barely registers the click of the door as she leaves; just stands amongst the scattered remnants of his life, turning the notebook over and over in his hands.
As a little boy, Arthur hadn't really missed having a mother; after all, he had his father, who he loved with a fierce loyalty that made it okay when he didn't see him for days on end, and a series of nannies who showered him with kisses and cuddles and gifts. But sometimes, just sometimes, he would wake in the night after a nightmare and something inside him, something primordial, would cry out for his mother before he was even half-awake.
He hasn't done it since he was small and had mostly forgotten it had even happened, forgotten the feeling of waking up feeling so utterly alone. But he remembers what it feels like now, his heart racing and mind filled with confusing visions of his father's anger and Morgana's pitying face and a pair of bright blue, searching eyes, hangovers from dreams that stay with him as he sits up with a start. And this time, the cry that dies on his lips is not for his mother, but for Merlin.
He sits up, swings his legs over the side of the bed and rubs his face with both hands. He can taste his hangover, sour in the back of his throat, and the smell of the whiskey from the tumbler next to his bed makes him recoil. He checks the clock, stands up with a groan and makes his way to the shower.
An envelope, lying on the mat, makes him stop. It's too early for the post, so it must be hand-delivered. Something in the pit of his stomach fizzes nervously as he goes to pick it up, and he can't believe how hard his heart suddenly thumps when he recognises the handwriting as Merlin's.
He opens the envelope carefully, trying to steady his fingers and calm his breathing as he pulls out the thick cream paper inside. He recognises it as a page from his own notebook and is filled with horror as he realises he left it on his desk, open, where anyone could find it. Where Morgana could find it.
"Oh God," he whispers, anguished.
Ten Reasons Why You, Arthur Pendragon, Would Never Win Miss World
1. You don't want world peace. Or maybe you do, but not as much as you want a first class carriage on Underground trains, the abolishment of the congestion charge and another series of Blackadder.
2. You would not look good in a bikini. Or an evening gown.
3. Your teeth are crooked.
4. With a name like Pendragon, you'd have no choice but to go Welsh for the national costume round, and I can't really see you in a red shawl and high hat. Although I am quite enjoying imagining it.
5. The chances of you being voted Miss Congeniality by your fellow contestants are about as good as the chances of me getting through a day without coffee.
6. Your talents are either a) not suitable for a Miss World candidate (e.g. carpentry) or b) not suitable for public display (e.g. cocksucking).
7. Whilst your charity work (including buying new suits for scruffy office workers) would make you a shoe-in for the Beauty With A Purpose round, you'd have no chance in the Miss Sports round, seeing as you are rubbish at all sports. Yes, even cricket.
8. When you think nobody is looking, or you're concentrating, or you're annoyed, or tired, or angry, or amused, or plotting, or basically doing anything at all, you make the most ridiculous faces. No, really. You do. Ask Morgana.
9. On first impressions, you can come across as something of a shiny-shoed ponce.
As he reads this first side, Arthur oscillates between confusion and dissent and amusement and shock and an overwhelming, aching fondness. He doesn't know what this means, doesn't know if it's sent to amuse or to wound, but he can hear Merlin's voice in his head and it hurts, it actually hurts to realise how much he's missed it.
He takes a deep, trembling breath before turning the page over to read the final point.
But most importantly:
10. Somebody fell in love with you despite -- or perhaps because of -- all the above reasons. Hopefully, because of that, you would have no cause nor motivation to change them, but might just be brave enough to choose to be yourself. And so you wouldn't win Miss World, Arthur. But you would have won me.
And it's here that he loses it, here that his vision blurs and his throat aches and he sinks to the foot of the stairs, hands pressed together to try to stop them from shaking, and it takes a moment before he trusts himself to read through the list again. This time, when he reaches point ten, he just sits in silence, staring at the wall, his mind churning with a thousand things.
After long minutes, he comes to a decision. He reaches for his Blackberry and presses the call button.
"Morgana? It's Arthur. I'm sorry to call you on a Saturday, but I need your help."
As much as he loves her, Merlin can't help but scowl slightly when he first sees Morgana. She's standing outside the entrance to the Camelot building, a splash of bottle green against the grey stone. "This file best be bloody important, Morgana," he says, pulling her into a hug.
"Oh, Merlin, thank God," she says, chewing her lip. "It is. I woke up this morning thinking about it and I got the oddest feeling I hadn't saved it properly, and I just thought, fuck, I don't care that it's Saturday, I have to check it's there. And it's not, I can't find it anywhere, and if it's gone… fuck, I don't know. I will actually get fired, I think. God," she moans, running a hand through her hair. "He'll kill me."
She looks wretched, and Merlin's heart softens. "Okay, okay. C'mon, don't panic until I've had a look, all right?"
"Thank you," she says, slipping her arm through his and squeezing. "I don't know what I'll do without you." She swipes her keycard and pushes open the glass doors.
"I didn't even know the building was open on a Saturday," Merlin mutters, his skin prickling with the strangest déjà vu as he walks through the lobby he used to know so well.
"It's not really," Morgana replies, leading him up the stairs, "You have to have special access. The only people allowed here at the weekend are the management and their Pas, basically. And security guards. Which reminds me, you definitely shouldn't be here, so if we see someone coming, you have to hide, okay?"
Merlin rolls his eyes. "Bloody hell, Morgana, if I'd known fixing your computer would be a James Bond mission I would have brought my silenced PP7."
She looks at him out the corner of her eye. "That's a nerd joke, right?"
"Thought so. Anyway, it's really kind of you to--" Suddenly her voice drops to a whisper. "Oh my God, what's that? Do you hear that? Is that someone coming?"
Merlin can't hear anything and opens his mouth to say so, but before he can speak, Morgana has opened a door and shoved him into the room, shutting the door on his protests.
He's left staring at the wood, shaking his head in vague amusement. That is until he hears a cough he knows all too well and with a sudden rush of realisation that coils down his spine he knows where he is.
The boiler room.
And of course Arthur is there, and he's standing beneath the same goddamn window, the same patch of light, still looking as fucking beautiful as the day Merlin first met him, and Merlin can't help but laugh because it's all so ridiculous. "As if Morgana would need my help with her computer," he says, shaking his head. "What an idiot I am."
Arthur looks like he might grin, but thinks better of it, the corners of his mouth twitching. "I was counting on the fact that you would go into full knight in shining armour mode and not think about it too hard."
Merlin rolls his eyes, but he can't bring himself to feel any malice, not with Arthur standing in front of him like this, looking so gaunt and drawn and tired and-- pleading, Merlin thinks.
"Merlin--" Arthur begins, and then takes a step towards him, his voice faltering. "I-- Do you-- Do you remember this room?"
Merlin hides a smile. Of course he does. "I seem to remember encountering an idiot in here, yes. A long time ago."
"The worst kind of idiot," Arthur says, somber, a little wrecked, even. "The kind that didn't realise what he wanted, didn't know what was important. I was a fool, Merlin."
"You still are, on occasion," Merlin replies.
"I know. I know. I'm an idiot. I know I am. I knew it the day you walked out of here, I've felt it every single day, Merlin -- you don't know, you don't know what it's been like." He's not looking at Merlin now, his eyes on the floor, brow furrowed.
"I do know, Arthur," Merlin says. There's a little anger in his voice now, and it feels safer; safer knowing he's not just going to fall back into a trap blindly. "I know because I bloody went through it, too."
"You read my lists?" Arthur asks after a moment, looking up.
"There was one… with things I wanted to say to you," Arthur continues, careful. "Did you read that one?"
Another nod. "You got my list, too?" Merlin asks, his heart stuttering.
"I did," Arthur says, "and I can't thank you enough-- before that, I didn't even dare to hope that you might consider-- but maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, maybe you won't, and I wouldn't blame you. I behaved abominably, Merlin, I know I did, and I really-- I can't tell you how sorry I am, but I-- I want to show you. I quit my job," he says, taking one step closer to Merlin. "I called my father and left him a message and I told him I that I was leaving, and I won't go back, Merlin, I won't. I won't be held to ransom any more. I love my father, and God, I understand now what losing my mother must have done to him, but I can't live my whole life being haunted by that. It's not my fault she's is gone. It's not. I have to make my own choices. And I choose you."
For a minute, Merlin's not sure he can trust himself to speak. He looks at Arthur and wonders at the changes: insignificant things, a myriad of them, small things that only someone so helplessly attuned to Arthur would notice.
An uneven line of hair at the nape of his neck that shows how long it's been since Arthur last had his hair cut. His shirtsleeves unbuttoned, rolled up to the elbows. Grey hollows beneath his eyes. His trousers too loose, held in place by a belt that's pulled several notches tighter than before. Two days' worth of stubble across his throat and jaw.
But more than that, there's something in Arthur's eyes that Merlin hasn't seen before -- a sort of surrender, a willingness. A freedom.
"Is this it, Arthur?" he starts, biting his lip. "I need to know. I need to know that this is really it for you. Because I can't get hurt like that again."
"Nor can I," Arthur says, soft. "This is it for me, Merlin. You're it."
Merlin holds his gaze for a long moment. Arthur doesn't blink, and in that moment, Merlin sees; he feels it, that familiar prickling warmth; and he just knows in his very bones, knows that this connection between them that has always drawn him in -- right from when Arthur was nothing more than that arrogant, beautiful, shiny-shoed stranger -- it's not going to go away, no matter what gets thrown in their path. Just so long as they're strong enough to walk it.
Merlin knows it's his turn to choose now. And he takes a step towards Arthur.
This time, it's Arthur that starts it, clutching at Merlin's shirt like a man drowning. He crushes their mouths together, and it's too hard, Merlin can feel lips catching on teeth but he understands it, he gets it, gets this need to possess and be possessed, to hold on, fiercely, tightly, to something so necessary, something so close to being lost, something so unbearably dear. He pushes a hand through Arthur's hair, remembering the feel of it, breathes in deep, pressing the length of his body against Arthur's as close as he can. "I'm sorry," Arthur is whispering, between kisses, and "I love you," and Merlin just nods, because he knows, and he whispers back, "It's okay, it's okay."
And it is.
He's not sure how long they're there, remembering each other's taste, each other's touch, but there's a noise from outside that breaks the spell. "Shit," Merlin says, laughing against Arthur's mouth. "I'm not supposed to be here."
"Technically," Arthur says, "neither am I."
Laughter bubbles from their throats as they approach the door, silently, and Merlin pushes the handle down to open it just a crack, but a weight on the other side sends him tumbling backwards -- and Morgana and Gwen collapse into the room.
"Shit," Morgana curses, from somewhere at Merlin's feet.
"You bloody harpies!" Merlin cries, cackling. "What on earth do you think you're doing? And how did YOU get involved?" he says, pulling Gwen in for a hug.
"Not my doing," Arthur says. "I only coerced Morgana."
"Well," Gwen says, "the plan was to not let you leave this room until you'd sorted things out, and I wasn't sure Morgana would be able to hold the door on her own."
Merlin raises an eyebrow. "And seven-month-pregnant you was going to help, were you?"
"Er… not exactly," Gwen says, eyeing the doorway. Hovering in the corridor, whistling guiltily, is a rather sheepish-looking Lance. He mouths "Sorry!" and does an exaggerated little mime that Merlin thinks is meant to mean my girlfriend is pregnant, I have to do as I'm told.
"Have you, er-- been listening the whole time?" Arthur suddenly asks, looking a bit pink.
Morgana grins. "No, only when we couldn't hear voices any more. We just wanted to make sure you were snogging, and not, y'know…"
"Shagging?" Merlin puts in, helpfully. Mostly just to see Arthur turn from pink to full-on scarlet.
"… hitting each other," Morgana finishes, swatting Merlin on the shoulder. "No shagging on company premises or I shall be forced to report you."
Merlin snorts. "Oh, as if you've never done it," he says. Morgana coughs and reddens slightly. "Speaking of which," he adds, airily, watching as Gwen's mouth drops open in shock. "Did you ever get your umbrella back from Leon's place?"
In the ensuing chaos, Merlin sidles up to Arthur and takes his hand. "So," he murmurs, "what say we get out of here and go back to your flat?"
He feels Arthur's smile next to him. "Should we leave the harridans behind?" Arthur says out the corner of his mouth.
"Doesn't matter." Merlin returns, "I'm planning on making you moan so loud they'll hear you from the other side of London."
Arthur's only answer is to squeeze his hand tightly -- and he doesn't let go the whole way home.
It's not all easy, of course, that night. Back in Arthur's flat, Merlin can't help but remember the last time he was there, and there are more recriminations and apologies and explanations to be given before they take things any further. And so by the time they are curled up in Arthur's bed, Arthur's spine pressed up against Merlin's chest, exhausted and sated, the sun has dipped behind the horizon, and Merlin can feel Arthur's breathing settling into a soft, regular rhythm. Merlin marvels at the fact that even though he's never seen Arthur sleeping before -- he briefly wonders how long it's been since anyone has -- it still feels warm and familiar and like home.
He pushes himself out of bed, carefully so as to not wake Arthur, and pads to the kitchen to get a glass of water. He stands at the window, watching faceless commuters hurrying past, back to their own lives, and wonders what will happen now. This time, though, he doesn't feel nervous. It just feels right.
In the gloom of the twilight, he suddenly spots a figure walking down the path, towards Arthur's front door, and realises with a start that it's Uther.
He's at the door in a flash, pulling it open before Uther can press the buzzer, steeling himself. He refuses to let Uther ruin this evening, refuses to let him wake Arthur up when he's sleeping, properly sleeping, for what Merlin suspects might be the first time in a while, and somehow that makes him brave enough to stand here (suddenly uncomfortably aware that he's wearing nothing but boxers and Arthur's t-shirt) in front of the most intimidating man he's ever met.
But he doesn't look intimidating now, Merlin thinks. He looks tired. He looks old.
"Good evening," Merlin says, keeping his voice steady.
Uther clears his throat. "Is Arthur-- ah--"
"He's sleeping." Even in his anger, Merlin is struck by Uther's mannerisms, the stiff, proud way in which he holds himself, how he bites off the ends of his sentences. Just like Arthur.
"Will you give him a message for me?"
"Please tell him that I spoke to Morgana, and I do not accept his resignation, and I expect to see him in the office on Monday morning."
"I'll tell him," Merlin says.
"And tell him--" Uther pauses, rubbing a hand across his jaw and his forehead. "Tell him that I would like him to come to dinner tomorrow evening. And-- if you're not busy-- I suppose you should-- well." He trails off uncomfortably.
Merlin refuses to fill the silence, still angry for the months he has lost because of this man.
"Merlin," Uther continues after a moment. "Arthur is everything to me, do you understand? Everything. He's my son. And I can't-- I can't lose him. Not him. And if he thinks he has to choose between you and I, then-- then we need to make him see that he doesn't."
"You asked him to choose," Merlin says, setting his jaw. It doesn't matter how lost Uther might seem, Merlin wants him to feel it, to feel the weight of the decision he put on Arthur's shoulders, to own to the fact that he was wrong to do so.
Uther is silent for a moment. "Yes. I was wrong."
Merlin wonders how many people have heard Uther Pendragon admit that.
"I'll tell him what you said," he says slowly. "But after that… what he does next is Arthur's choice, okay?"
Uther nods. "I understand. Then perhaps I'll see you both tomorrow."
Merlin shrugs. "It's up to Arthur."
"Yes." Uther turns, but when he reaches the end of the path he stops, leaning one hand on the gatepost, suddenly looking weary.
Merlin is struck by how small Uther seems, this great leader with all the money and power he could ever desire at his feet. He wears the haunted look of a man who nearly lost the only thing he truly needs.
Uther lifts his head, looking back at Merlin. "I just want-- I only ever wanted him to be happy."
Merlin gives him a small smile; it's the tiniest of olive branches, but it's an olive branch nonetheless. "He will be," he promises, as much to himself as to Uther -- but mostly to the sleeping form inside the house.
And later, as he slips back into bed, pulling Arthur towards him, wrapping an arm tight around his waist, he whispers the promise again, soft into the back of Arthur's neck.
Life doesn't really do happy endings, and it won't be any different for Arthur and Merlin. There will be sadness, and heartbreak, and betrayal, just as in every life. But somewhere in the middle, there will be wonderful things, too, for all of them.
Gwen and Lance will probably have the most success at avoiding the bad stuff. There will be, of course, several chubby-kneed, curly-haired babies, and a wedding, and dozens of domestics (all held at first in sing-song voices, and later on, in quiet, seething hisses, because the kids are around) which actually serve to stop things from getting boring and have, after all, a dear familiarity all of their own. Morgana and Leon will do the opposite; years of on-again, off-again, her hot temper and his stubbornness stopping them from ever properly settling down; but after a long period apart, their temperaments will soften enough for them to come to some sort of compromise, at least for a while.
Arthur will go back to work, of course, and it will be occasionally stifling, and his relationship with his father will remain fractious at the best of times, but the Sunday dinners -- at first just the three of them, later on incorporating Gwen and Lance, Morgana, sometimes Leon, and even later, their various families -- will continue, and when Uther passes away that will bring Arthur some comfort in the face of a grief that leaves him more bereft than he could ever have imagined. Inheriting the business will prevent him taking up carpentry as an occupation, but he will still dabble, and when Gwen and Lance present baby number two (Gareth, with a stubborn little mouth and a fondness for wrapping a sticky fist around Arthur's fingers) he will disappear to the shed and return two weeks later, triumphant, with a sturdy crib, decorated with hand-carved ducks. And Camelot won't feel like a burden any more, not most of the time, because it will no longer be his life, no longer be his sole reason for existing; not with Gareth and Merlin and everyone else tucked carefully into his heart.
Merlin -- Merlin will find his place, eventually. It will take some time; he's too hot-headed, too opinionated to stay anywhere for too long, but one day he'll settle down into a job that might not be changing the world in exactly the way he would have wanted to, but he'll be happy anyway. And yes, he will spend a long time wondering what he's here for, looking for his destiny in the furthest corners of the world, with that same nagging feeling still plaguing him. But then he will wake up on his thirty-eighth birthday to find Arthur nervously presenting him with a book of Merlin's own writing, a book he's had hand-bound. And it will be a combination of the gesture, and the way the morning light falls on Arthur's face, and the knowledge that even after all these years Arthur is still capable of surprising him -- something in that will make him realise, sudden and soft and sure, that oh, it was here -- here all along.
And one autumn, not long before he dies, Uther will give Arthur a photograph album filled with pictures of his mother. Arthur will be brought to his knees by it, and the afternoon he spends pouring over it will be filled with the strangest mixture of anger and regret and love, and when Merlin comes home that evening Arthur will hide the photographs without really knowing why. He will never show them to Merlin, but Merlin will notice the change even if he doesn't understand the reason; and it will be a calmer Arthur, a wiser Arthur, but a somehow sadder one that shares his bed from that night onwards.
And all the while, Arthur and Merlin will be falling in love, and out of it, a bit, and back again.
There will be holidays where Merlin wants to go to the museums and the art galleries while Arthur just wants to lie on the beach; romantic meals that Arthur will spoil by refusing to switch off his Blackberry; forgotten birthdays and half-hearted anniversaries and broken promises. They will fight and throw accusations and break each other's hearts in bitter flashes of cruelty neither of them ever suspected they were capable of.
But there will also be times where they stay up talking all night, even when they've been together for years and have started wondering what there could be left to say, and times where Merlin makes Arthur laugh so hard his sides ache, and times when Arthur does something that touches Merlin so deeply he can hardly bring himself to admit it.
There will be a day after many long years where they take their usual walk by the Thames and something about the evening light will remind them both, and although they won't put it into words, they will both stand for a moment, throats suddenly full, fingers curling tighter around each other as they remember.
It will never be easy -- it never was. Some days they will meet in the middle, and some days they will still feel poles apart. And sometimes they'll wonder why they're doing it, why they're working so hard at it, when it feels so much easier to give up. But in the end it will always come down to one thing: a choice. And it doesn't matter if they're in the middle of the good times or the hard times or even just the ordinary times -- they will always end up choosing each other.
And Merlin will think, at the end of it all, that it was enough just to keep on making that choice, to keep going, to be together; and his last conscious thought before slipping into the final sleep will be to wonder, to marvel, at just how blessed they both were.