The sky is dark as the car stop-starts through the busy streets of London. They’re half an hour into their journey and Merlin’s patience is beginning to wear thin. He hadn’t wanted to leave the warmth of his house in the first place. Now he has Morgana rabbiting on in his ear, and all he can think about are the five episodes of ‘Mad Men’ he has stored and waiting for him on his Sky+ box at home.
“…So just smile and say it’s coming along great. I’ll try to tell them what they want to hear, push them on a summer release being better for sales and all that. We’ll be fine…and you’re not listening to a word I’m saying.”
Merlin nods distractedly, gaze focused on the rush of headlights that blur past his window. Morgana sits beside him, fingers seamlessly clacking over the keys of her Blackberry and flipping through the latest record figures on her lap in unison. She shoots him a look under heavy lashes, waiting for a reply. Morgana can be scary when she’s like this: demanding and steely in her organisation. That’s what makes her the best manager in the industry.
“Yes, yes, okay,” Merlin replies quietly, twisting his body towards the door of the car and resting his forehead against the glass. He catches Morgana’s reflection in the window, sees the flicker of sympathy cast over her face and shuts his eyes. He doesn’t think he can take those looks much longer.
It’s bad enough that it continues to be splashed across every news station and paper across the country, every gossip magazine and internet forum that Google spits out. He thinks they’d have tired of it by now; found a new scoop worthy of their ad space. Yet it seems the downfall of ‘Britain’s top rising protégé’ is scintillating enough to warrant daily updates.
‘Has Merlin Emrys become a recluse?’
‘Gaunt ‘Do you Know Me?’ singer, Merlin Emrys, suffering from eating disorder.’
‘Triple Brit winner, Merlin Emrys, checks into the Priory.’
‘Will we ever see the full potential of recently orphaned Merlin Emrys now?’
Those words in black and white print, splashed across headlines had made him sick.
They say that calls received in the dead of night never bring good news. Neither would it seem do calls that come at innocuous hours on Tuesday afternoons. He’d been writing – he was always writing, back then. He can still recall the broken hitch in Morgana’s voice as she whispered his name over the phone-line, the tremor as she spoke of Kansas, his parents, their tour bus. ‘Collision’ she’d said – Six injured; three fatalities.
‘Your parents didn’t make it, sweetie.’
Morgana had driven round almost immediately. Had cursed and battled and reportedly whacked one of the dozen of paps outside his building with her handbag – ‘vultures’ she called them, Merlin tended to agree. He’d sat stoic in the middle of his stupidly large couch whilst Morgana breezed around him, making endless cups of tea and hushed phone-calls in the hallway. She’d stayed with him until dusk took the last rays of sunlight, then with a sad smile on her lips and a run of fingers through his hair, she’d left.
He hadn’t said a word to her all day.
That evening he’d sat at his piano, his mothers. He’d lifted a shaky hand and brought a finger down slowly. Middle C. The note had dragged out into the quietness of his flat. With a huff of frustration, he’d slammed the lid shut and pushed the stool back, the emitting screech sharp and painful.
He remembers his father sitting him down when he was a child, when they’d been on their various travels from city to city. Balinor had taken him to one side on some nameless stage in some nameless venue in some nameless town, and told him about the beauty of music. That true artists’ – true lyricists – put themselves into their music; play through their pain and channel it to create. Right now Merlin is carrying so much anger that he can barely contain it all without bursting. Playing had always calmed him through those times. It was his sanctum - and had been for most of his twenty three years. But now he picks up his guitar and the object feels foreign in his hands. The neck sits awkwardly between his fingers and the strings are so hard against the pad of his flesh that they cut through and bed deep red marks along his fingertips.
He couldn’t stand it. And one frustrating night he’d thrown his guitar across the room, and watched as it clattered into the wall with a dead thud, cracking and splintering, lying a broken mess on the floor.
Merlin had crouched down on the balls of his feet and run tired, terse hands through his hair, pulling hard enough to hurt, hard enough to feel.
Merlin lifts his head, as he’s pulled from his thoughts, and beads of cool condensation cling to the tip of his fringe. Morgana’s looking straight back at him, brow raised. “Look, I promise to step in and have your back on this but you need to give me some wiggle room, too. It’s been six months Merlin, I don’t know how much more time I can buy you.”
“I know, I know,” he mutters, fingers picking at a loose thread on his dark worn-out jeans. The car draws to a halt and he takes a deep shuddering breath.
Six months ago he lost his parents. But it feels like he lost himself too.
“So how’s the album coming along? We haven’t received any new demos for a while.”
The distant chatter from nearby tables only heightens the silence at their own. Merlin taps the prongs of his fork listlessly against the side of his glass, before Morgana gives him a sharp kick under the table. He drops his fork with a clang and meets Morgana’s sharp glare with one of his own before focusing on their dinner guests.
“It’s coming along fine.” Merlin tells them curtly, holding their gazes for a moment before dropping his eyes down to his lap.
Morgana watches the exchange with a weary sigh. “The album is going great,” she nods enthusiastically; subtly draping one of her arms over Merlin’s chair and giving the skin behind his ear a sharp pinch. He hisses and pouts but feigns interest anyway – anything to keep away from Morgana’s talons. “Most of the demo recordings have been made in Merlin’s own studio at his house. It’s a rather tight-knit affair, really.”
“Yes, be that as it may, it would be good to have a couple of our own producers take a look over the progress made so far.” A stiff gentleman around the table speaks up, dry cough tickling his throat and he lifts a small tumbler of bourbon to smooth it down. “See whether the new material is the direction we want to go.”
He nods to the younger gentleman beside him, who’s worn a permanently sickly-sweet smile since they entered the restaurant. He picks up the conversation. “We…understand that with recent events there is an expected delay with the release. But I’m sure you’re both aware that the contract you’re under demands a new album this year.”
“Yes,” Morgana grins wide, and Merlin knows it for what it is, her predatory sneer. “But as I’m sure you know, that contract also states the release will be delayed if either party feels the standard of material is not suited or adequate.”
“Quite. But said material actually has to be present for that to be the case,” the exec snaps back and Merlin can tell this isn’t going to be settled anytime soon.
“Excuse me.” Merlin stands abruptly. His hands clench into fists and rest on the table as he pushes himself out of his chair. “Duty calls.”
He feels like he’s suffocating in that room, at that table. There are people deciding his life out there, what he does, what he creates, what he sings. He’s unsure and confused, and the only people he wants to speak to, the only ones who would understand – he can’t. And that realisation makes the tiring load on his shoulders feel a bit heavier.
He just needs air. That’s what he needs.
Clear his head and he’ll be fine.
The rooftop terrace is beautiful. The cream marble floor underfoot is polished to a shine and the pillars littered around the terrace are adorned with ivy and twinkling fairy lights. It’s quiet, for a late Monday evening; Merlin’s not too surprised. There are a handful of guests huddled around the bar, stretched out along one length of the building. It’s lined with peculiar looking stools that are clearly there for aesthetic purposes rather than offering any source of comfort. It’s easy, therefore, for Merlin to tuck himself away in an undisturbed corner; to grip the handle of the balcony railing and look out upon the lights of London. It all seems so vast – 15 floors up. The few people he can see scurrying around below look small from this height, insignificant.
Merlin has spent the past six months feeling that way, insignificant.
His fingers tighten on the cool metal bar, chill creeping under his jacket and forcing an involuntary shiver down his spine. He’s barely been existing lately. Everything he came to know, everything he understood has been snatched away from him, and the future he’d planned is hazy and unclear. It’s like someone took the script he’d been working off and ripped it to shreds and he doesn’t know what his next line is or what he’s supposed to do.
It’s not the loss, as such. He was alone for most of his childhood, but was never lonely. Growing up with musicians for parents meant he was always on the road, never settled for too long, barely made friends before he was hopping back on the bus and driving to another city. He’d watch from the wings as his mother sang and his father harmonised behind her, strumming his Martin D-28. Then, as Merlin’s own career took off, the roles switched and they were there beside him, not always in person, but supporting him, advising him.
Music had been another constant. Always. It’s all he knows. If he doesn’t have that, he has nothing. He is nothing.
The distant sound of sirens and car horns shatter the peaceful quiet. Merlin just feels so lost right now. The tips of his fingers turn a ghostly white as his clutch on the railing tightens. So damn lost. Slowly, Merlin lifts one leg over the balcony bar and lowers it onto the thin ledge. A sharp exhale leaves his lungs. It’s almost freeing.
It takes a tentative few seconds, a few more gulps of air before he twists his hands on the railing and swings his other leg over the barrier. Merlin doesn’t look down, keeps his gaze focused straight ahead at the tops of the surrounding buildings and in the far off distance the peak of Big Ben shrouded in low hanging clouds. He’s never considered it would come to this. But he’s tired, so very tired.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you.”
“Jesus, shit.” Merlin gasps. The slack of his arms pull taut at the sudden voice from behind him. “You ever think creeping up on someone hanging off a balcony may be a bad idea?”
“It depends,” the voice says. Merlin can detect a hint of smugness, and it’s distracting enough for him to ask.
“Why you’re hanging off a balcony in the first place.”
Merlin pauses; he’s yet to turn and face this man. It would be so much easier not to look into another person’s eyes before he does this, before he ends it.
“It’s…complicated – Look, if you just go back inside and forget about any of this, it would be better for everyone. Believe me.”
“Ah, can’t do that I’m afraid,” he says again and Merlin’s frustration is teetering to the point where tears begin to prick behind his eyes. He just wants this to be over. “You see this is my uncle’s restaurant, and if he knew I could have stopped you and did nothing, then that really wouldn’t bode well for me. There’ll be police cases and docked wages and honestly, that just seems like an awful lot of hassle and I don’t have the time.”
Merlin scoffs, squeezing his eyes tightly shut and shaking his head. Who was this guy? Seriously. “You are the least sensitive person on the planet, aren’t you?”
“I prefer satirical. But hey, potatoe, potato, how about you hop back down here and tell me how much of a dick I am to my face?”
Merlin’s eyes are still closed, and all he can see behind his lids is his mother’s beaming smile, his father’s eyes crinkled with mirth as they sit either side of him at the piano. He remembers how his fingers flew effortlessly over the keys, instinctual, how proud his parents had been. The memory causes a dry whimper to catch in his throat and his feet shift nervously on the ledge. Merlin can hear a panicked rush of breath behind him and he wishes the guy would just leave already.
“Look, whatever the reason, whatever has happened…This is never the right option; this is never the way—”
“You don’t know.”
“I know. I understand. It may feel like there’s nothing but there is.”
Anger pools low in Merlin’s belly and his toes curl against the tight cotton of his trainers as this person, this – man, believes he could possibly understand what he’s going through. His resolve cracks and his voice drops low as he twists his neck to look over his shoulder for the first time.
“No, you don’t get it. I have nothing.”
Merlin’s eyes settle on the man’s legs. A short black apron is tied around his waist with a crisp white shirt tucked underneath. The cuffs of his sleeves hang open and Merlin barely allows his brain to register how powerful his hands look before his gaze travels upwards falling on broad shoulders, a chiselled jaw, plump red lips that look unfairly inviting. Until finally Merlin catches the man’s eyes, hidden away under a wind-blown dirty blonde fringe, and they’re the clearest blue he’s ever seen. Merlin allows himself to drink in and appreciate this man for what he is, gorgeous.
But after several moments the man’s gaze soon changes and the sick heavy feeling returns to Merlin’s stomach. It’s not sympathy or pity, or even fear, in those blue eyes but recognition. It’s clear that he knows who Merlin is, and the harsh furls of anger return as Merlin twists sharply back around.
“So now you know. I’m sure this little scoop will net you loads; just think of all the press it’ll get your dear uncle’s restaurant.”
The man is silent behind him and Merlin wonders if he’s just walked off or is actually seriously considering the possibilities this could bring. Merlin’s hands are beginning to ache and it would be oh so easy to peel his fingers away, one by one and just let go.
“What?” he finally speaks. “What are you saying? Don’t be stupid. No, just, come down. You don’t want to do this.”
“You don’t know what I want.”
“You have a gift, Merlin.” And the first use of his name makes him falter his grip, the cuffs of his shoes slipping across the paving. “You may not realise it, may not even want to accept it, but your music is important.”
“My music isn’t important.” Merlin tells him softly, his whole body aching with weariness. A howl of wind skates through his hair, brings tears to his eyes and he’s just so exhausted. But this man, who can’t be much older than himself, looks younger in fact, keeps on. His words are beginning to get frantic, desperate and Merlin knows it must be hard, to see someone at their weakest about to throw it all away, but really, he needs this to end now.
“It is important. It is, it helps people. You don’t—”
“Yes, it does, you need to—”
“Please, leave it, just—”
“It saved me.”
Merlin gasps and the sharp frigidness of the night lodges in his chest. He looks down, eyes wide at the man’s hand wrapped tightly around his wrist. The boy’s fingers are a warm press against his skin. The cuff of his shirt sleeve falls open further and then Merlin sees it – them. The scars are a soft pink, almost white in places. Five faded lines dragging horizontally down the inside of his wrist. Merlin swallows the lump pressed against his throat and lifts his eyes.
“I understand how dark it can get,” he speaks softly. He’s closer now and the heat from his body can be felt through Merlin’s jacket. “I understand. And this isn’t the answer; it’s not. Please, just come down, come on.”
He gives Merlin’s arm a quick squeeze and Merlin can’t draw his eyes away, wants to blink and move, but the man’s touch has him rooted to the spot. When the man before him nods, once, slowly, Merlin’s resolve finally cracks and it’s like a dam breaks inside of him. His legs quiver and for the first time he wishes he was on stable ground. So, careful now, he raises his leg to come over the bar. They manoeuvre silently; peals of laughter can be heard from the other side of the rooftop but the only sound between them is the man’s relieved sigh once Merlin is fully back across in the safety of the terrace. A hand is still wrapped around the jut of Merlin’s wrist but he doesn’t move to pull away.
“Right,” the man coughs suddenly, startling Merlin a moment and as though just realising, finally lets go of Merlin’s arm and rubs his hands on his trousers.
The kitchen isn’t the hive of activity Merlin was expecting. Most of the chefs have left already, the last of the orders being carried out by tired looking waitresses who paste cheery smiles on their faces. The busboys have already started to wash up, some wiping down surfaces as the others load up the sinks. Merlin watches them move around him, no-one stops to look, or offers any special treatment. It’s odd but welcoming. He’s sat up on the steel worktop, legs dangling off the edge, a mug of tea brewing warm in his palms.
The man from the rooftop (the waiter-come-barman as he’d been told) sits opposite him on an upturned pot. A plate of what looks like shepherds pie balancing on his knees, which he tucks into hungrily.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat?” he asks.
The man nods, and returns to his food. He lost his apron at some stage and the white button-down shirt lies un-tucked and open at the nape, revealing prominent collarbones that Merlin decidedly does not stare at. What he can’t tear his eyes away from, however, is the pushed up roll of the man’s sleeves, right to the elbow. In the sterile brightness of the kitchen, Merlin can clearly see the map of his skin. There are more scars. Some long, some short, some that appear like light scratches reminiscent of the marks that his old cat Archimedes used to claw into his arm. Others, others are noticeably deeper, richer in colour and more prominent scaring of new flesh.
“You don’t hide them?”
He stops mid-chew, eyebrow arched and brow furrowed. Merlin nods downs to his arms, and the man simply shrugs.
“There’s nothing to hide. They’re a part of my past, of who I used to be.”
Merlin meets his eyes for a second, before the man lowers his head and returns to his dinner. They’re mostly left alone in the back corner of the kitchens – sans the few waiters that weave back and forth. Merlin watches him over the rim of his coffee mug, the hot steam tickles the underside of his nose and he’s still feeling ever so slightly off his axis.
Until he eventually finds his voice and asks, “Why did you—you said I saved you? What did—?”
The sharpness of his name called out over the room is unmistakable. Merlin doesn’t have time to panic as Morgana barrels around the corner, eyes wild and cheeks flushed with excursion or rage – he can’t quite tell but he’s sure it’s both. The lines of her face are severe but there’s a softness in the pull of her mouth that looks a little bit like relief. She’s disappointed in him, that much is clear. Her hands are folded across her chest as she proceeds to trill on about the label executives in the next room and that this is his future - his future and doesn’t he realise that? Guilt sits heavy in his stomach and Merlin closes his eyes as Morgana continues on.
He was being so damn selfish.
When he opens them again they meet with the blonde man sat opposite, and God, he doesn’t even know his name, but it feels like it goes beyond that now.
“Do you even understand what this means if they—Merlin? Merlin! You’re not listening to me again, are you?”
Merlin blinks and pulls his gaze up and away and back towards Morgana who is staring down at him with a thunderous looking expression. He hops off the counter, placing his mug on the side.
“I’m sorry,” he tells her, covering her hand with his and he can already see the tension in her shoulders start to sag. “I just needed a bit of…fresh air.”
“So you hide yourself out in the sweaty kitchens?” she asks.
“That’s my fault.” The man beside them speaks up as he stands and runs a hand through the tufts of fringe that fall over his eyes. “We sometimes get…certain people looking for a speedy exit through the kitchens. I thought Merlin needed a few moments by himself. We’re very discreet here.”
“Except for one of your waitresses who came over and told me exactly where he was,” Morgana retorts with a quirk of her lips. The man offers her a smirk of his own and it’s almost like a challenge.
“Well, anyway,” she continues and pointedly turns her back and focuses on Merlin, “I told the gentlemen from Camelot Records that the seafood paella hadn’t agreed with you—”
“What? You wanted me to tell them you ran off and hid in the kitchens? Honestly Merlin.”
She rolls her eyes in an almost fond way and Merlin’s relieved that whilst she may not be entirely happy with him right now, most of the anger has faded away. She begins reeling off his schedule for tomorrow, side stepping around a worrying splatter of sauce on the floor as she heads back for the doors.
“Uh, just give me a moment, yeah?” Merlin asks. His voice is slightly unsure and Morgana looks at him puzzled for a moment before her eyes settle on the guy beside Merlin. A new look takes over her features and Merlin wants to shake his head and tell her, no, no it’s nothing like that, but she’s grinning in an entirely smug way and holding up her fingers to signal two minutes and is out of the door in a breeze of Prada and Kurt Geiger.
“I suppose I should say thank you.” Merlin turns, and Mr blonde-blue-eyes is standing with his hands in his pockets, looking up at him through his lashes. He has a small smile on his lips and this sudden shyness unsettles Merlin.
“I suppose I should too…for, well. Thank you.”
The man’s fringe falls in front of his eyes again and he’s so oddly endearing to Merlin that he’s just got to ask. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Arthur. It’s Arthur.” He holds out his hand and oh, it would be hilariously ironic if he wasn’t focusing on the heat of Arthur’s palm in his.
“Merlin,” he finds himself whispering and when Arthur cocks an eyebrow and smirks, a blush colours his cheeks.
“Really? Funny name,” says Arthur sarcastically and the lightness in his tone feels out of place and all too soon and he thinks of Morgana outside the door, of Arthur’s touch on his wrist up on the roof and it’s as if a shutter falls back down.
“I’ve got to- I’ve got to go,” Merlin tells him with a curt nod and forced smile and he’s just turned to leave when Arthur stops him yet again.
“Wait.” Arthur’s hunched over the worktop, scribbling something. When he twists back around, Merlin notices he has a napkin in his hand and a lump sticks in his throat.
Arthur’s holding the cloth out to him, ‘Agravaine’s’ logo stamped in one corner, an eleven digit number on the other. “If you ever need to talk…or you know,” Arthur says with a shrug and Merlin sucks his bottom lip between his teeth as he leans across and takes the napkin from Arthur’s outstretched hand. He stares at it for a moment, fingers the edges, before folding it and slipping it into his jean pocket.
It's four days later, the scratchy vocals of Robert Plant play out into the otherwise quiet flat. Merlin’s sitting on the sill of the window, watching the city live and breathe below. He’s spent countless hours in this spot – writing, reams and reams of poetic lines and sonnets, feelings that he eventually morphs into stories, lyrics. When Merlin was twelve, his mother presented him with his first notebook; bound in rich brown leather. He remembers how heavy it felt in his hands, empty pages that seemed endless and aching to be filled. Hunith told him to never doubt his words – never second guess himself, never stop himself from writing what he felt – no matter how fatuous or paltry it may seem. He’s lived by that ever since.
Countless journals from the past eleven years are stacked around him at this moment. Merlin hoped it would bring some sense of inspiration. Yet, the blank pages of the moleskin notebook in his lap stare back at him mockingly and he pushes it to the floor with a thud and rests his head against the cool pane of the glass.
The events of the other night still haunt most of his days – and most of his nights too. Sleep comes sparingly and fitful lately. Each day is a struggle to even get out of bed. His thoughts drift back to that brief moment of relief he’d felt standing on the edge of that rooftop, the grip of his hands on the metal railing the only thing keeping him from finally falling over and finding peace. That and Arthur.
Arthur, whose number still burns a hole in the pocket of his jeans from where he kicked them off at the end of the evening and tucked away in the farthest corner of his wardrobe. This man who was nothing like him, who was loud and vicarious and seemingly a bit of an arse when he wanted to be. He was nothing of what Merlin’s rather sheltered upbringing had taught him to be: cautious and withdrawn and calculating with whom he trusts. But then those scars tell a different story, offer a different side – and maybe they’re not so dissimilar after all.
Merlin releases a heavy sigh and watches as his breath fogs up the glass beneath his head. He brings a finger up to drag over the condensation, one line followed by another, and then another. When he sits up, he realises he’s drawn an ‘A’ on the surface. He watches until it disappears, furls in on itself as if it was never there. He weighs the decision in his mind, before eventually standing and retrieving the folded napkin from his cupboard. The ink has smudged slightly, the edges frayed, but the numbers are still plainly visible. Merlin paces nervously as he types in the first five digits and gnaws on the bow of his lip with a moment’s hesitation. He clears the numbers and sits back down on the wooden sill, hands clutching the phone between his knees. Merlin doesn’t know what to do. What does he do? He steeps his fingers in a silent prayer, shakes his head as his eyes drop on the scattered journals around his feet.
‘Maybe this is the start?’ he thinks – and dials.
The buzzer sounds sharp and Merlin finishes packing the last of his journals away before standing to move into the hallway. He glances into the monitor beside the door to see his personal driver’s smiling face beaming back. Over the man’s shoulder, Merlin can see a tuft of blonde hair and a niggle of doubt begins to settle in the pit of his stomach. He doesn’t do this. Invite practical strangers to his house, into his home. Seeing Arthur, even the small black and white version of him on the miniscule screen, sets Merlin’s heart beating faster.
“Pendragon,” Arthur throws in over his shoulder.
“Mr Pendragon for you, M,” the staticky voice comes over the speaker.
“Thanks Percy, send him up,” Merlin instructs, opening the door a crack and stepping back into the living room.
Merlin can hear the hum of the elevator travelling up and has a brief moment to panic and consider closing the door and dead bolting it shut. He’s usually so cautious, been accused of being aloof more times than he’d like to count. His mother, however, his mother was different. Always warm and welcoming to whomever passed her by. Hunith had urged Merlin from a young age to go out and make mistakes, learn from his own experiences. To live and love and get his heart broken, then come home and write a heart wrenching song about it. And he’d tried that – for a while. Until the first images of him kissing a gloriously fit bloke in the dark corner of a club surfaced in the papers. Nothing damaging, nothing scandalous, only worthy of page 6 gossip material, but that hadn’t been the point. It wasn’t the fact he was gay. It was the scrutiny, the invasion.
He was a musician but he was also a celebrity – and that’s where his whole outlook changed. So he kept himself to himself, low-key and quiet and guarded with his secrets. Yet, it all seemed to have backfired rather spectacularly. He was a ‘soul-searching lyricist’ according to The Guardian and labelled an ‘artificial whiney pop sprog’ by the NME. Either way, he was talked about, and the one thing the press loves more than an artist who acts like an arse, is one shrouded in mystery. So he’s learnt to deal with the paps outside his house, of the journalists who try to crash his own parents’ funeral. If he gives nothing away, then they can’t take anything from him – and that’s what he has to tell himself.
“So are you secretly Batman then?” Arthur’s voice pulls him from his thoughts, and Merlin turns swiftly to find him standing in front of the now closed door. The same ridiculous grin on his face from the restaurant that’s looking more like a smirk with every passing second. Merlin tells himself to stop focusing on Arthur’s mouth and it’s only then does he double take at Arthur’s greeting.
“Chauffer driven blacked out car, underground garage, keypad lift. I’ve got to say, it’s all pointing towards closeted super-hero here.”
“No,” Merlin replies dazed, somehow already wrong-footed within ten seconds of having Arthur in his home. “No closeted anything,”
“So I hear,” Arthur returns, voice sounding much closer and Merlin lifts his head to see Arthur’s moved into the room. He allows himself to meet Arthur’s eyes and he looks tired. Light shadows hug in the concaves above his cheekbones but his eyes shine with suggestiveness. It’s flirtatious and Merlin doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.
“Um, tea?” Merlin stumbles, “Coffee?”
“Coffee would be good.”
Merlin gives him a quick nod and darts into the kitchen. He fills the kettle, places it on to boil and takes a few deep breaths to calm himself. This is just coffee, just coffee, as a thank you, he tells himself. Drums it into his consciousness and hopes he’ll actually believe it. When he steps back into the lounge, mugs in hand, he finds Arthur fingering a photo frame on the mantelpiece. He doesn’t need to look to see which it is, and as he gives a courteous cough, Arthur fumbles with the picture and almost knocks it off the shelf.
Arthur’s cheeks begin to burn as he takes the proffered cup from Merlin’s hand and skittishly looks up at him through his fringe.
Merlin understands, he gets it; he would feel the compulsion to sneak a peek too if he walked in a room to find all the photos turned around, hidden. Merlin reaches across and twists it so it’s facing forward, the image of himself as a teenager staring back at him. He’s standing with an arm wrapped around his father’s shoulders, guitars hanging loose in both their fingers – similar, identical.
“They’re Gibson LG-1’s,” Merlin tells him, moving to sit at one end of the couch. “It’s the first guitar my dad learnt to play, and the first one he bought me.”
“That’s pretty special,” Arthur smiles, taking a seat beside him. There’s space in-between, just enough distance to not set Merlin’s heart racing. “Where is it?”
Merlin pauses, remembers that night months ago, remembers how lost he’d felt, as he’d thrown his beloved instrument against the wall and left the shards of wood littering his floor for days.
“It’s uh, I don’t have it any more.”
“Oh, okay,” Arthur says softly and lifts his mug to his lips. Merlin watches him for a moment before raising his own cup of tea and a lull falls over them. It’s gone vastly past the stage of acceptable and careening ever quickly into awkwardness.
“We could talk, you know,” Arthur eventually speaks up after what feels like hours. “I hear it can be a rather enjoyable pass time. You know, when one person says something and another responds?” Merlin ducks his head even further into his mug of tea, a scarlet flush running up his neck. “Though silence works too,” Arthur grins – and it’s bloody infuriating.
“You don’t hold back, do you?”
“I try not to.”
Merlin sighs and leans over to place his cup down on the short table in front. “I don’t know why I called you.”
“I didn’t ask,” Arthur twists to face Merlin head-on and brings up a leg to rest in the space between them. Merlin’s breath hitches as Arthur’s knee knocks into his and stays there, a searing presence of heat that burns through his jeans.
“You didn’t, uh—you didn’t go to the papers,” says Merlin and curses himself for stammering like some jittery teenager.
“Did you expect me to?” Arthur asks and there’s a flicker of hurt laced in his tone.
“No,” Merlin says quickly. He catches Arthur watching him with interest and he shakes his head. “No,” he repeats, “I hoped you wouldn’t, but well, you know.”
He shrugs his shoulders and can feel Arthur’s eyes boring into him but he doesn’t want to look up and meet them, not just yet. A low rumble sounds into the room and Arthur lets out a groan and places a hand over his stomach.
“Came straight from work,” Arthur tells him, setting his own mug down on the side.
“Oh, I’m sorry, if I’d—“
“No, don’t be,” Arthur cuts him off. “I wanted to come. It just seems my stomach is now attempting to punish me.” Merlin huffs out a dry breath that’s almost a laugh and absently picks at the hem of his t-shirt. He doesn’t know why, but there’s a twinge of disappointment that the night is ending so soon.
“We could always go out and grab something to eat,” Arthur’s hand reaches across and taps Merlin’s fingers innocently, “If you wanted?”
The touch is light, fleeting, but it sends a jolt of electricity through Merlin’s bones and it’s pathetic. Sad, really, how such an innocuous brush of fingers can cause his body to thrum with nervous energy and make the hairs on the back of his neck prickle with heat.
Merlin pulls his hand back and doesn’t allow himself to feel guilty about it. “Uh, I don’t really—“
“It doesn’t have to be a date if you don’t want it to be,” Arthur tells him so assuredly Merlin begins to wonder if he’s just a complete and utter fritz for freaking out over the briefest touch of hands. It’s just, its been so long since anyone has touched him like that, other than Morgana, and really despite her ethereal beauty her touches do nothing whatsoever to his libido.
“What? Uh, no that’s not—I mean, I don’t usually. Going out can be a bit difficult,” is what Merlin chooses to say and he can tell Arthur doesn’t quite understand but is trying.
“Right, sure. Take-away?”
Merlin looks pained.
“You got something against delivery guys?” Arthur asks with a tug of his mouth that quickly straightens back into a line at the serious frown on Merlin’s face.
“Only the ones pretending to be them,” Merlin tells him, walking into the kitchen, expecting Arthur to follow. “You’ll be surprised how many paps try and get up here with an empty pizza box.”
“You think I’m paranoid,” Merlin turns to find Arthur leant up against his kitchen work-top, hips canted, and the cheap polyester work trousers doing nothing whatsoever to avert his attention.
Arthur folds his arms across his chest, and that’s really not fair, Merlin thinks as the thin white material of his shirt hugs the muscles in Arthur’s arms and the tautness of his shoulders. “I think you’re many things, but not paranoid.”
Merlin coughs, and curses his traitorous Irish genetics that make him blush at the smallest remark. “I don’t think I have much,” Merlin says sadly, opening his fridge door wide and looking in at the sorry state of emptiness.
He’s just about to close it again when he feels Arthur’s breath on the back of his neck, and the heat of his body is close and warm. “You have eggs…mushrooms. We can have breakfast?”
“Breakfast,” Merlin repeats; nodding his head slowly, as Arthur moves around his kitchen with unremitting ease. It’s odd and unsettling, but Merlin’s reluctant to stop him. And when Arthur turns and waves a frying pan at him with a stupidly big grin on his face, Merlin can’t help but return it.
It’s late when Arthur gets back.
Having gone straight from a twelve hour shift to Merlin’s he’s absolutely shattered and all he’s craving now is his bed. However, as soon as he slips his key in the lock and pushes the door open, the hallway light flicks on to reveal Guinevere’s silhouette leaning against the doorjamb. He lets out a low groan. Ten seconds later and he’s barely managed to kick his shoes off before she’s frog-marching him into the kitchen, pushing him down into one of their old wooden chairs and demanding all the details, right this instant, because “It’s not everyday you go cavorting around with gorgeous celebs, you know?”
He shrugs off his jacket and toys with the ring on his thumb as Gwen moves around the kitchen.
“So you’re telling me you didn’t talk once about what happened last week?” she asks.
Gwen shakes her head, flips on the kettle and leans back against the worktop to face Arthur.
“What the hell did you talk about then?"
Arthur shrugs, folding his arms upon the table and resting his chin on his crossed hands. “I don’t know…films. Music.” He picks at the corner of a well-worn coaster, listlessly. “We had breakfast.”
“Breakfast?” Gwen looks over her shoulder with a puzzled tug of her brow. She reaches up on tip-toes to retrieve a couple of mugs from the cupboard and goes about setting them with hot chocolate powder and sugar.
“Yeah, that’s not important. Ignore that.”
“Right. So you got on?”
Arthur stops and thinks about that for a moment. “Kind of,” he says unsurely. It had been a bit awkward at first, sure, but after that, as they’d sat on Merlin’s couch, balancing plates filled with runny omelettes on their laps, watching old Doctor Who re-runs, it had been…nice. “I did most of the talking actually, come to think about it.”
“There’s a shock.”
“Hah bloody ha.”
“You know we all love you and your big mouth and the wonderful situations it gets you stuck in, darling,” Gwen drawls sarcastically, leaning over and pinching Arthur’s cheek before setting his mug down in front of him.
“Charmed,” he retorts, sitting up and taking a tentative sip. He rests back against the chair, tipping it on its hind legs and cradles the hot mug in his palms. “But Merlin, he’s quiet.”
“Quiet can be good.” Gwen takes a seat opposite, pouring a splash of milk into her mug. She kicks at his chair and he drops forward with a pout.
“No, I get that but I mean, he’s really quiet. It was difficult to get anything out of him tonight.”
“Are you surprised? He’s been in the limelight since he was what, five? Younger? He has people recording every step he makes, every thing that comes out of his mouth. It can’t be easy.”
Arthur chews the inside of his lip and pauses, “No I suppose not.”
“But it’s good he’s talking to you,” Gwen blurts quickly. “I mean, that he wants to talk to you, what with everything you’ve been through. I think you could help him.”
Arthur scoffs, bringing his leg up to rest across his knee. “I don’t think I’m fit to be advising anyone.”
“Has he seen your scars?” Gwen asks, watching him over the brim of her mug. Arthur’s quiet for a moment before he looks up and holds her eye.
“Yeah, he’s seen them.”
“Have you explained them?”
“Arthur,” Gwen chides.
“I’ll explain them when he asks.”
A trill sounds from the living room, as Gwen’s blasted cuckoo clock bleats into the night. Arthur had never liked the darn thing but Gwen’s dad had carved it himself, and well, Arthur didn’t have the heart to deny her hanging it; even if the blasted thing went off at all odd hours of the day. Gwen drains the last of her hot chocolate and makes to stand and place the mug in the sink. She had never been very good at keeping her feelings hidden and her disappointment even less so – Arthur watches as she silently runs the cup under the tap.
“You don’t think I’m doing the right thing?”
Gwen sighs, placing the upturned mug on the drainer and turning to face him. “It’s not about right or wrong, Arthur, or even about what I think you should do. If you want to help Merlin, you need to talk to him.” Arthur stares into the murky brown remnants of his cocoa as Gwen reaches an arm around and gives Arthur’s shoulder a gentle squeeze, “and not just about films.”
She presses a goodnight kiss against the side of his temple, and leaves Arthur more awake with his thoughts than ever.
The drive back from the label’s office has been predominantly made in silence.
The rescheduled appointment with the label had continued on in much of the same vein as their disastrous dinner meeting. Demands were being made for Merlin’s new album but Morgana wasn’t the most revered manager for nothing. She’d held her own and done her job. She’d bought him more time, an extra few weeks and he should be thankful, should be using this time to plan enthusiastically. Be making calls for studio musicians and producers and to his old friend Will who is the best engineer he’s ever worked with but also the biggest berk known to man. The thought of housing Will and his notoriously slobbish ways for weeks, possibly months, whilst they work on this album is enough for Merlin to put off thoughts of getting back in the studio even further.
The car rolls into the beneath-ground garage and Merlin chances a quick glance at Morgana to find her attention fully focused on her blackberry. He watches her for a few moments before he finally gathers the courage to speak.
“I’ll be needing a new phone.”
Morgana’s fingers still on the keys as she tilts her head towards him. “A new phone?”
“Well, me obviously,” Merlin tells her with a sigh, hands already betraying him as they begin to twitch nervously on the top of his knees. He quickly places them under his thighs.
Morgana rolls her eyes whilst her lips twist up in a rouged-tinted smirk. “Cute,” she says, pocketing her blackberry and turning in her seat to face Merlin head on. “I mean who are you using it for?”
“No-one, I’m just being extra careful – like you told me.”
“Hmm, this wouldn’t have anything to do with the pretty blonde from the restaurant last week, would it?”
Merlin chews on the inside of his cheek and curses Morgana’s almost bewitching ability to see straight through people. He looks towards Percy who is remaining stolid as ever, staring straight ahead. He catches Merlin’s eye in the rear-view mirror and briefly shifts out of his stilled position to give a quick shake of his head. Merlin had always liked Percival.
“It’s nothing like that, he’s-” Merlin pauses, not quite sure how to best describe Arthur, of who he is, or what he is to Merlin. Not a friend, not yet, but maybe, possibly. “He’s just someone to talk to, and I’m simply trying to cover our backs.”
Morgana brings a hand to rest gently on his leg. “You know you can always talk to me if you need to, don’t you?”
Merlin appreciates it, he does. But it’s almost like Morgana is too close, warped like he, in their own bizarre little bubble. Arthur. Arthur is something new, something outside of it all. He can feel Morgana’s breath against the side of his face as her chest falls in a deep sigh. She almost looks disappointed, but soon it flickers away and she’s giving his thigh two sharp pats before facing forward once again and pulling a compact mirror out of her handbag.
“You’re aging me, my boy,” Morgana tells him as she presses powder under her eyes. There’s the smallest smudge of dark circles marring her porcelain skin, but with a few quick strokes they’re disguised and she’s perfect again. “Now go and write some of your beautiful music, for both our sakes.”
Merlin gives her a brief smile as he opens the door and makes to step out.
“I’ll have your new phone delivered this evening,” she tells him.
Merlin doesn’t turn around as he mumbles a ‘thanks’ and heads into the house.
It quickly becomes easy to text Arthur; to immerse himself in this new relationship of sorts. Merlin finds his phone vibrating at all hours of the day and, quite unexpectedly, discovers he not only enjoys them, he’s come to rely on them. Those brief, short messages that are often so utterly innocuous can be the difference of whether he gets out of bed that day.
They help him.
So whenever he feels low, whenever his mind switches off and travels to places he really doesn’t want it to dwell, he picks up his phone and types out a message.
‘What are up to?’
‘Tell me about your day.’
Or sometimes…most times, just, ’distract me.’
It works – for the most part. They talk about the little things, random titbits of aimless chatter that diverges through tangents and before Merlin realises it they’ve been texting for hours and the alarm on his dresser reads 3am and sleep is the furthest thought from his mind.
Merlin states his opinions, and Arthur has this odd way of knocking them back and throwing him entirely off kilter. It’s almost offending; yet his words are said with jest and Merlin’s never had someone who hasn’t fallen over themselves trying to impress him, but Arthur doesn’t. In fact, he vehemently challenges nearly everything Merlin believes and it’s refreshing to not be blindly followed all the time.
When they get onto heavier topics though, when Arthur asks about his parents or that night on the roof, Merlin finds himself averting the conversation and holding his breath that things don’t get awkward.
‘I haven’t even told Morgana about you,’ Merlin types out one evening. He’s sat at his kitchen counter, mug of tea cooling in his palms.
’Does she have to know?’
And just like that Arthur’s challenging him again.
Then a text comes through that stops his heart.
‘Have dinner with me.’
Merlin stares at the message, taps out a response twice, before deleting it. Until, eventually, after half an hour he sends back a five letter reply – ‘I can’t’ – he types, switching his phone off and burying it in the bottom of the cutlery drawer. He keeps it hidden there until the next morning, when he awakes to turn it back on, his mobile trills with the alert of a flood of messages. Some short, some long, some that make Merlin snort through his nose and others that make him downright blush. They all make him smile however, and before he can think better of it he sends a text back of his own.
’God, you’re just full of it’
’You find me endearing really.’
And well, Merlin has to give him that one. ‘You’re confusing endearing with arrogant,’ he types, the barest hint of a smile on his lips but he pictures Arthur slouched on the couch, or better yet lying in bed and the grin stretches further.
‘Have dinner with me,’ Arthur asks again and this time, this time, Merlin says yes.