It takes much coaxing, and a rather ridiculous vow that he be held personally responsible should Morgana ever find out before Arthur eventually manages to get Merlin to leave the house. Cloaked under the darkness of Percival’s blacked out Jaguar, Arthur directs them through the white-bricked houses of Hampstead into the terraced streets of Shoreditch. They sit in mostly silence, but as the weeks have gone by, those ever frequent moments of quiet have grown less and less awkward.
They eventually pull up round the back entrance, into some darkly lit alleyway. A waiter is carrying out two black bags and slinging them into the large trash bin as Arthur gets out the car and walks around to Merlin’s side. The small slither of light from the open door highlights the man’s shaggy hair and Arthur smiles as he takes a step towards him.
“Arthur, my man, it’s been a while,” Leon calls, wiping his hands on his stained apron before giving Arthur a hearty slap on the back. “And I don’t think we’ve met,” he says looking over the top of Arthur’s shoulder and extending his arm in greeting, “Leon.”
“Merlin,” he replies, taking Leon’s large hand in his and Arthur can see Merlin’s waiting for that flicker of recognition, that slight change in demeanour, but it doesn’t come, just as Arthur had expected.
“Come through lads, take it the whip-cracker is expecting you?”
Arthur laughs, falling into step with Leon. “She’ll have your guts for garters if she hears you call her that.”
He stops when he realises Merlin’s still rooted to the place where he’d left him, eyes glazed as they stare off into the bleak stone-wall distance.
“Hey,” he says softly, nudging an elbow in Merlin’s side. “Come on,” and takes a hold of Merlin’s skinny wrist and leads him through the kitchens. Cat calls and yells of greeting filter around the staff and Arthur raises a hand in salute, throwing out names and ‘how are you’s’ to everyone he passes.
“Someone’s popular," Merlin says from beside him.
“Well they’re friends, aren’t they?” Arthur replies. He looks across to see Merlin nodding his head solemnly. Then it suddenly dawns on Arthur that whilst Merlin may appear to have countless people in his life, that doesn’t necessarily mean he has friends. Arthur thinks back to the images he’s seen of Merlin on the net - arms wrapped around fellow musicians or soap stars or TV personalities and he wonders how many of them he actually knows. So Arthur squeezes his fingers a little tighter around the jut of Merlin’s wrist and is rewarded with Merlin’s piercing blue eyes turning towards him. There’s something sad in the expression though, and Arthur gets the strong feeling he shouldn’t ask, so he doesn’t.
Leon turns to make sure they’re following and continues to shepherd them as they weave through the workstations.
“Elena’s set you a place at the back,” he says, and Arthur smiles politely, guiding Merlin along. When they reach the table, it’s just as Leon had said, secluded and tucked away, private enough for Merlin to hide away in the shadowed alcove without losing the view and ambience of the restaurant. Arthur’s not usually one out to impress, but by the way the tension in Merlin’s shoulders slacken as he slides into the booth, he takes it for the small victory it is.
There’s still a small quiver in the way Merlin holds up his menu though and Arthur opens his mouth to start off this – date? If it could even be called that, but everything his brain offers up is utterly useless, and it’s literally minutes later and Arthur is no closer to saying anything.
“We could try conversing. Someone told me once it could be quite an enjoyable pass time.”
Arthur looks up stunned and his damn mouth is still open and closing like a flipping goldfish, but at least now he has reason to because for a brief moment that sounds like flirting. Merlin’s meeting his bemused expression with a raised eyebrow and then he cocks the corner of his lips and leans back and damn this is a side to Merlin Arthur’s never seen before and it’s ever so intriguing.
“Touché,” Arthur says with a smirk of his own, flipping open the menu and browsing its contents – even if he knew all their dishes off by heart; having been trial guinea-pig for most of the sampling.
“Do you want a drink?”
“I don’t drink much really, I mean, I usually didn’t when I was writing, so-“
“Don’t worry,” Arthur intercedes. “Me neither. Not any more anyways.”
Arthur stops himself from saying anything further. He doesn’t want to scare Merlin off before they’ve even spent five minutes here. Getting Merlin out of the house and actually in an environment he’d never been before, without the presence of Morgana or his usual heaving mass of muscle he called security – granted Percy was still sat in the car outside, but still, it's progress - had been hard enough. He wasn’t going to treat this like some sort of intervention where he has Merlin sit down and talk about his feelings, cause God does he know, those types of situations never end well.
He can see Merlin’s about to say something else. Possibly ask and lean forward and see where Arthur was about to go with that comment, but then he looks up and there’s a blur of hair and coquettish laughter rounding the corner. Arthur rolls his eyes as his name is drawled in that thick Irish brogue he’s grown to love.
“I just had to come and see this for myself, our Arthur, booking a table and not eating out of our kitchens.”
“And a good evening to you too, Gwaine,” Arthur replies dryly, staring up into Gwaine’s shit-eating-grin that pulls his face wide and makes his eyes twinkle. “Are you actually going to play the role of host and serve us?”
“Well, only the very best treatment for my friend here,” Gwaine returns and both men laugh as they clasp each others' forearms in a tight grip.
“Good to see you, mate.”
“You too,” Gwaine takes a step back and turns his attention to the other side of the booth. “So you must be the bloke keeping our Wart hidden away?”
Merlin’s relaxed face soon pinches at the brow and he looks up in alarm. “I—no, I don’t think—“ He stumbles over his words and Gwaine throws his head back releasing a dry chuckle.
“Ah, I see why you’re smitten with him now.” He turns to Arthur and tosses a wink in Merlin’s direction, who’s flushed a shocking colour of beetroot.
“I’m Gwaine, by the way.”
“Good to meet you, my man,” Gwaine thumps a hearty pat on his shoulder and Merlin near topples and head butts the table. Arthur catches his eye and struggles to hide his grin.
“Whatever you lads want – on the house.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Merlin speaks up, looking between the pair of them.
Gwaine simply slaps another forceful hand on the back of the booth with a shake of his head. “Nonsense, it’s our pleasure. Arthur never brings any of his dates here so you’ve got to be special eh?”
Arthur brings up a hand to push back his fringe with a groan. He doesn't need to look over to know that Merlin’s trying to burrow himself even further into the corner of the booth.
“Plus my missus would kill me if she thought I’d let her precious Art go hungry.”
“Your missus is going to kill you if you don’t get back to front of house and seat those customers.” Elena comes up beside them, floating out of the kitchen with three plates balanced in her hands. This restaurant, Avalon, had been their whole life for three years – their baby as Elena often took to saying. Even though it was a fairly successful little bistro, prime centre in the heart of Shoreditch, they’d never taken a back seat. Elena and Gwaine, they grafted and got stuck in and were the type of people who’d rather get their hands dirty than watch their business from behind glass in broad pin-striped suits.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Elena smiles down at Arthur, curtseying ever so carefully to place a kiss on his cheek. Arthur always finds it astounding how Elena can glide with such grace and agility in her restaurant, but struggles to keep on two feet once she steps out of it.
“How you holding up, Eleny?” he asks and she sighs dramatically, blowing a puff of air that causes the curls over her forehead to flutter.
“Oh as well as a girl can do on four hours of sleep – with plenty of red bull and a boyfriend who actually does what I tell him.” She tilts her head back to look at Gwaine who scoffs and mock bows.
“Message received loud and clear, my lady.” He winks at Arthur and Merlin, before turning on his heel and scurrying off to the front of the restaurant.
“Let me just drop these off and I’ll be back with some drinks,” Elena nods to her full hands. “Cokes, yeah?” she asks and is looking not-so-subtly at Arthur who nods his thanks and pretends to not notice the way Merlin’s eyes dart between them, unsure and inquisitive.
He shrugs off his jacket and pushes the arms of his sleeves up as Merlin’s busy unwinding the longest scarf Arthur’s sure he’s ever seen from around his neck. He clasps his hands together and rests his chin upon them and is just about to regale Merlin all of his wondrous tales about Gwaine and Elena and one unfortunate incident with a goose when he notices Merlin’s eyes drop from his face and focus on his bared fore-arms.
He’s used to the looks by now, the double-takes, the moment when people stop seeing him as Arthur and start seeing him as a cutter. He hadn’t wanted to push Merlin, not tonight, but maybe, this wasn’t about Merlin at all. He remembers Gwen’s words from a few weeks ago – if he wanted to help Merlin, he’d have to talk to him. Maybe this was the first step?
“You can ask me about them, you know,” Arthur says, watching as the words register across Merlin’s face and his gaze flickers up with an almost guilty look in his eye.
“Sorry, it’s not my place.”
“Don’t apologise, it’s not like I hide them. I did at first though; I hated the thought of anyone seeing them.”
Merlin’s fingers are fiddling with the cutlery on the table and Arthur has to fight the urge to stop them, to cover Merlin’s hand with his and draw intricate shapes over the bump of his knuckles.
“You don’t need to tell me,” Merlin taps a fingernail against the edge of his knife.
Merlin probably doesn’t know what he’s doing, but seeing the tip of a blade against the delicate softness of Merlin’s skin causes a lump to stick in Arthur’s chest and he has to shake his head to clear the thoughts that threaten to cloud his mind every day. “Maybe not,” he answers eventually, throat slightly dry, “but you might want to know before you spend more time with me,” he says measurably. Merlin cocks his head with interest.
“Trying to scare me off?”
“If that’s what you think I’ve been trying to do these past few weeks, I’m clearly getting it all wrong.”
They laugh. Arthur can count the amount of times Merlin’s laughed in his company on one hand. He considers it the saddest thing that he can’t pull them out of Merlin more, because he honestly thinks it’s one of the most beautiful sounds he’s ever heard. They laugh until their breaths fall short and turn into heavy sighs. Merlin’s looking at him with such intensity Arthur isn’t quite sure how much longer he can hold it. He’s silently grateful, therefore, when Elena returns with their drinks, bending and kissing and generally fawning all over Merlin as if he’s to become her newly adopted BFF. She takes their order, in between even more cooing, and eventually leaves them with a swish of her skirts.
“She can be a bit…full on,” Arthur tells him as they both watch Elena spin aimlessly from table to table.
Merlin’s got a soft smile on his face and Arthur can tell it’s genuine and unreserved. “She’s sweet.” Arthur nods and takes a sip of his coke.
Merlin’s gaze keeps dropping to his wrists and Arthur wants to lean over and pick up Merlin’s hands and place them over his scars so he can feel them – feel him. And that would almost certainly be pushing things too far too fast but Merlin’s frowning slightly as he mutters, “I want to know…If you’ll tell me.”
They hold each others stare for a moment, before Arthur nods and drops his eyes, focusing on drawing a finger around the rim of his glass. “I was nineteen when I started though the depression kicked in a lot earlier.” Merlin is leaning back against corner of the booth wide eyes belying the calmness in his posture. “Though I suppose being disowned and kicked out of your home when you’re sixteen does that to you.”
“You were kicked out?” Merlin asks and Arthur hums an assent – head still bowed.
“Surprisingly my deeply Conservative father didn’t take too kindly to walking in and seeing his son getting sucked off by another boy.”
Merlin shifts further forward, one elbow coming to lean on the table between them. “He kicked you out? Just like that?”
“Well,” Arthur replies, a sharp bitterness in his tone that he’s unable to hide. “After he told me I was going to burn in hell for all eternity and that I was to be completely disinherited and that if he never saw me again, it’d be too soon.“
“Oh, don’t be sorry. Believe me, it gets much worse.”
“I don’t—“ Merlin tries, struggling to get his words in as Arthur steamrolls over them with a conviction that’s raw and almost painful.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur whispers, running his hands over his eyes. “If this is making you uncomfortable, I can stop.”
“No, no, not unless you want to, it’s—would I sound like an awful person if I said it was slightly comforting?”
“I don’t think anyone could ever call you awful, Merlin.”
Merlin moves to slap his arm and there’s a jolt of something akin to electricity that burns under Arthur’s skin. From the way Merlin sucks in a sharp breath and pulls his hand back, Arthur’s sure he felt it too.
“What did you do?” Merlin eventually asks.
“The only thing I could do. Slept rough, begged. Some nights I was able to get into hostels, other nights…not so much. It’s crazy, you know? When you’re on the outside looking in, it just all seems so simple, but when you’re there, when you’re living it, nothing makes sense. I got into drinking and then when that didn’t hit the spot, I turned to something stronger.”
Merlin’s biting on the corner of his mouth as he asks, “Drugs?” And Arthur closes his eyes as he shakes his head.
“I was, stupid, so fucking stupid, but it’s different, when you’re stuck there, you don’t ever think you’ll get out. You hope, but even after a while that leaves you. You turn to anything just to numb the pain for a few hours, do anything to get it,” Arthur pauses, runs the tip of his thumb over the plump of his bottom lip. He’s never said all this – out loud, in one go to anyone. Sure they all know, his friends, his uncle and aunt, they’d helped him, quite literally pulled him from the gutter at times. But Arthur’s never just laid it all out there, unbridled for Merlin to poke at. It offers him an odd sense of freedom but finds it absolutely terrifying at the same time. “I didn’t like the things I did, Merlin, I didn’t like myself, and that’s how it started. The cutting.”
“How did you get out?”
“Do you believe in destiny?” Arthur asks and watches intently as Merlin’s face changes to one of confusion.
“I’ve never had a reason to,” he finally answers and Arthur hums around a soft smile.
“Neither did I until a few years ago. There was a soup kitchen I went to some nights; hot food was a blessing if you could get it. Anyway, there was this volunteer.”
“You’d think,” Arthur chuckles, “but uh, no, no it was actually her brother, Elyan. He was a head chef at this restaurant and he would come across most evenings and bring all the left over stock. He was just one of the good guys, you know? But one night he brings his boss along and this guy is looking at me, I mean really staring me out and I start to think he’s going to swing a punch or something,” Merlin’s completely enthralled as Arthur remembers that night with a fond smile. “And then the guy says my name, out of the blue, Arthur Pendragon, and I remember thinking shit he’s a copper, he’s a copper and I’m going to get done…but then he hugged me.”
Arthur watches as Merlin’s brows rise in surprise and he laughs at the memory of his uncle barrelling towards him. “That was Agravaine. I don’t know how he recognised me, the last time we saw each other I must have been about nine, ten? But he knew. He pretty much saved me from that point.”
“So he helped you stop, with the drinking and the cutting?”
“He tried,” Arthur sighs, picking up his glass and taking a sip. He sets it back down and finds Merlin studying him. Arthur hopes it’s helping, in some twisted way or another. He wonders how much more he can say before he takes it too far, before he reveals too much. Though he’s not sure he can stop, with Merlin continuing to lean further across the table, subconsciously or not. With others, Arthur would see sympathy, or worse, pity, but with Merlin he feels something kindred.
“People like to think that once you’re saved, you’re healed. It’s not always like that though. Stopping wasn’t easy. You’d think it would be, I mean, what did I have to be angry about now? I had a roof over my head, food, a job, friends…but that doesn’t change the feelings I had about myself. Didn’t stop me thinking about all the things my father had called me.”
Arthur lays out his arms on the table, facing inwards. There are 34 scars on his arms. He’d counted, one by one as he’d made them. There are others on his thighs and the jut of his hips, silvery marks that are almost translucent. Those on his arms though, those are his battle wounds. He never forgets they’re there, no matter how flippant he may come across about baring them.
“It’s funny,” he begins, running the pad of his index finger over the darkest line on his left wrist. “You think you’ll never get to that stage where your life feels so worthless that it’s not even worth living. You think you’d never end up like that. You tell yourself that you’re cutting to make it stop, just for a little while. And yet, when you’re there with the razor in your hand…”
Arthur sucks in a breath, voice starting to strain as the moment returns to him in painstaking clarity. “Then one night I wasn’t going to stop myself. I was so…tired. I wasn’t—I pushed the blade harder. I was so close to ending it all. And then destiny stopped me.”
Merlin’s been quiet for so long that his voice comes out dry and choked when he murmurs. “Why do you say it was destiny?”
Arthur holds Merlin’s eye for a moment before he looks up and sees Gwaine coming towards them with their food. He shuffles awkwardly in his seat, sits back and fiddles with the napkin over his lap until he eventually lifts his head and faces Merlin once more.
“Because I heard your voice.”
Merlin barely slept that night, as he replayed Arthur’s words over and again in his head; staring up at the ceiling and listening to the second-hand on the clock tick idly by. His voice, his words – ‘your song rescued me’ Arthur had said. Merlin didn’t know quite what to do with that.
When he had so desperately needed them, the words failed him, as they have done for the past seven months. He’d sat across from Arthur, listened as he’d been brave enough to share himself with Merlin. And what had he done in return? Ran and fled like the weak man he is. Arthur hasn’t text him since; Merlin doesn’t blame him. He’d been so damn selfish.
All he wants is to hole up in his bed. To smother himself in his blankets and keep out the light of day so that all that surrounds him is darkness. It begins to feel like it takes every ounce of willpower to even move lately. So the last place Merlin wants to be right now is sitting in Morgana’s office. He feels like a school boy brought in for scolding, as she peers at him over thin square frames. Her walls are lined in plaques and discs – gold, platinum, some diamond – Merlin looks around and spots his own cover art staring back at him. He takes it all in and feels the burden of expectation fall once more on his shoulders. Merlin curls himself onto one of the ridiculous looking chairs that Morgana assures him is fine art, but leaves him feeling like he’s sitting on an egg more than anything. The toe of his Converse bounces up and down nervously as she continues to just stare across at him in that vaguely challenging way until eventually she heaves a sigh and pushes back from her desk.
“Please tell me you’ve written something,” she starts. “Got the beginnings of a melody, played a sequence of notes, penned a bloody sonnet, anything?”
Merlin continues to focus on the scuff of his shoes, drawing his knee up closer to his chest. He can hear Morgana begin to drum her fingers on the arm of her chair.
“I need something to show the label, Merlin, you got to give me something.”
“I’m trying but it’s just not coming.”
“Then tell me how to help you,” Morgana says voice strained, and it’s something Merlin never thought he’d see her do – plead. “Do you need me to get you in musicians, producers? Do you want me to phone Will? Should I fly you out to America?”
At the simple mention of the States Merlin collapses in on himself even more and vehemently shakes his head. “No, no I don’t want to go there. I just need you to get me more time.”
“It’s been three weeks since our last meeting with the exec team; they’re going to expect results soon. I’m fielding calls from them nearly every day.”
“Christmas; get me until then.”
“Merlin, honey,” Morgana slides her glasses further up the bridge of her nose. She’s looking through various papers on her desk and as her eyes land on a certain slide, she pauses and runs a finger over the print. “Look, this may not be your ideal route, and you may not like it all that much, but hear me out.”
Merlin gives her a silent nod, unfurling his legs and surprising himself when he actually manages to find a comfortable position in this monstrosity of a seat.
“The label has a number of successful, talented songwriters on their books…”
“If you just took a listen to some of the songs, you may find—“
“Morgana,” Merlin answers firm, the directness in his tone causing her to lean back in her chair with an alarmed expression. “I can’t sing other people’s songs. I just can’t.”
“They’d be your songs; you’d make them your own.”
“It’s not the same,” he argues. Merlin never usually allows his emotions to control him like this – he’s passionate about his music, of course he is, but lately he’s felt like he’s losing every thread of it. He can’t play, he can’t write and if they take this from him, if Morgana makes him fill his album with a collection of tracks that haven’t been created by him, then that’s music letting him down all over again.
“My dad has taught me my whole life to write my own music. It’s the one thing, the only thing that’s important. How am I meant to sing something I don’t feel?”
Morgana heaves a sharp breath and rises to a stand, placing her hands on the table with a dry slap. “I don’t get you contracts to feel, Merlin, I get you contracts to sing,” she snaps and Merlin’s eyes widen.
“No, you get me contracts to protect my best interest,” Merlin returns, “but maybe you don’t care about that any more.”
“Merlin,” Morgana sighs, tilting her head and lowering her eyes but Merlin’s heard all he can bear to. So he walks out of the office, the sound of Morgana calling his name ringing in his ears.
“How many days has it been?”
“Four,” Arthur replies, lifting two more freshly cleaned glasses from the crate and placing them under the bar. Four days of silence from Merlin. It doesn’t sound that long, to most others they wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but for Arthur it feels like weeks. Ever since they met, ever since that evening when they’d talked about everything but the one thing that mattered, they’d been a constant presence in each others lives.
Having Merlin run out on him hadn’t exactly been the reaction Arthur was looking for, after he’d eventually managed to get the words out. After he’d told Merlin about the blade in his hands, the two cuts already on his arm, and then the voice. The voice that filtered through his bedroom to where he laid slumped against the bathroom floor and how it had hit him square in the chest.
”Oh I would've known what I've been living for all along.”
The razor blade had dropped from his fingers – clacking against the porcelain tiles. He’d risen to his feet, blood still slowly sleeping from the few shallow cuts he’d made earlier. He had stumbled towards the bedroom and seen Merlin’s face on the screen, serene and beautiful as his body hunched over the keys of a piano. His face was contorted with each word, living each emotion.
Arthur hasn’t picked up a razor since.
He hadn’t known what to expect when he eventually told Merlin – how his words and music had not just helped but saved him…had actually saved him. But he'd left with a muttered curse of, “I can’t—I can’t –“ and fled through the kitchens they had only thirty minutes earlier entered.
It had hurt. Of course it had. But he didn’t push, allowed Merlin his space because, at the end of it all, what else could he do?
Gwen reaches across to cover his hand with hers; Arthur looks up and offers a sad smile in return. She gives it a gentle squeeze before returning to her end of the bar, continuing to stock the shelves with pint glasses.
“Maybe you should ring him?” she suggests. They’re the only ones on this side of the room, the clock hanging in the centre pointing ever closer to midnight. Arthur’s wiping down the black marbled surface, ensuring the bar is all set for tomorrow’s lunch diners. There are a couple of other waiters laying cutlery and wine glasses on the tables but they’re far out of ear shot and Gwen pushes further. “I’m sure we’d have read about it if something was wrong.” Arthur shoots her a look and she holds up her hands in a placating manner.
“I’m just saying, maybe you’re working yourself up over nothing?”
“Maybe,” Arthur concedes.
“But I did kind of…” fuck – he can’t believe he’s about to admit this out loud but if anyone’s going to understand it’s Gwen. “I kind of Googled him.”
She raises her eyebrows but says nothing else and Arthur runs a hand over his tired face before continuing. “He’s apparently splitting from Morgana.”
“Mmm,” Gwen hums nodding her head in agreement. Arthur shoots her a puzzled look and she scoffs, bending down to fill the bottom shelf, “I read Perez’s blog.” Arthur shakes his head and clucks his tongue.
“Hey, he’s the go-to source for daily happenings.” Arthur throws a tea-towel towards her and can't help but laugh at her motherly scowl as she yanks it from her head.
She straightens up and dusts her hands on her apron. “Do you believe it?”
“Not really – I mean, they have their differences but, oh who knows? I’m beginning to realise I may not have known him at all.” He leans against the bar, chin buried in his palm as Gwen sidles closer and runs a comforting hand over his back.
Then his phone rings
Arthur calls, after he’s turned the key in the lock and pushed through the door. He doesn’t have to venture far before he, quite literally, stumbles across Merlin sprawled across a beanbag tucked in the corner of the living room. A bottle of what looks like Lambrini dangles from his fingers, liquid spilling over the top as Merlin struggles to sit upright.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Merlin asks stubbornly.
“You called me, remember?”
From Merlin’s wide, guileless eyes, it’s quite clear he doesn’t remember, and if he does he’s a bloody fantastic actor.
“Right,” Arthur continues, shaking his head. “Well you called, I’m here, and from the smell of it you’re going to have a wonderful hangover in the morning, so let’s get you up and into bed eh?”
“How did you get in here?”
“You know, tall guy, big muscles, likes to wear a cap and call you Miss Daisy.”
“I know who Percy is,” Merlin all but snaps. Arthur is decidedly placing Merlin in the ‘sassy-angry-drunk’ phase of the evening. “I meant how did you get hold of him?”
Arthur folds his arms across his chest, watching as Merlin rocks back and forth, like an upturned turtle, and it is definitely not the most hilariously cute thing Arthur has ever seen. He quickly stifles the smile on his face as Merlin continues to look up at him with a suspicious glint in his eye.
“After you got him to drive me back and forth like a fair maiden, we did actually speak and hold conversations.”
Merlin groans, “You exchanged numbers?”
Arthur simply shrugs. “He’s an Arsenal fan,” he says as if that explains everything whilst Merlin breathes a heavy sigh and collapses back against the beanbag with an arm slung over his face.
“Remind me to sack Percival in the morning.”
“I’m sure he’ll be delighted,” Arthur replies. “What did you drink?” he asks, looking around the room, which, (for all intents and purposes) looks exactly like it always does. Merlin, it seems, is a rather tidy drunk. “Three cans of lager, peach schnapps and a bottle of Lambrini?”
“It’s all I had in the house,” Merlin’s sulking now and seems to have given up on getting out of the beanbag and instead finishes off whatever’s left of the bottle in his hand.
“You are a complete lush.”
“I told you I don’t usually drink. I just thought it’d help.”
“And did it?”
“No,” Merlin says sourly, and he looks so utterly ridiculous pouting away in a flipping beanbag of all things. “I sat there for two hours, and nothing,” he’s looking towards the piano forlornly. The lid is still up and the keys are glistening with what looks like spilled peach schnapps and Arthur frowns and begins to mentally Google whether that’s bad and possibly calling Percy for help with who he can get in to fix it when he hears Merlin sniffling from below. He’s not crying, not yet anyway, but his eyes are bloodshot and heavy – he doesn’t look like he’s seen sleep for days.
“I just want to play.”
Arthur crouches down beside him, knees clacking against the wood-panelled floor. “When did you last sleep?” he asks but Merlin simply rolls onto his side to face the other way, bottle clattering to the floor and blessedly not shattering.
“Why can’t I play anymore?” A broken sound hitches in Merlin’s throat and Arthur crawls across the floorboards to face him.
“Okay, I think this is definitely venturing into the emotional crying part of the evening. Let’s get you to bed.”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says quietly, bottom lip jut out and Arthur curses himself for not being able to look away. He brings up a hand to push back the stray strands of hair that fall over Merlin’s face – he looks so vulnerable like this. His usually guarded exterior breaks down and something twists in Arthur’s gut as he watches Merlin’s eyes flicker closed and he realises how tiring and all consuming it must be, to put on this front all day, every day.
Arthur allows his fingers to run to the back of Merlin’s neck, curl around the nape and brush a thumb back and forth lazily. “No need for drunken apologies,” he says quietly but Merlin continues to lie there un-answering. He moves his other arm to slot under Merlin’s knees and after rocking on the balls of his feet manages to spring himself upright and cradle Merlin against his chest.
The apartment-come-house is huge, but Arthur’s soon able to find the master bedroom after first stumbling into the bathroom and then what looks to be an actual pantry.
“Who has a bloody pantry these days?” Arthur mutters under his breath, and if Merlin’s face wasn’t pressed tightly into the crook of his neck, he’d be sure he heard “prat” whispered against his skin.
He eventually sets Merlin on the soft downy bed, which, (like nearly everything in his house) is huge and could quite comfortably fit four people. Arthur sits on the edge of the mattress as Merlin wraps an arm around a pillow and tugs it to prop under his chin. His shirt is sticky with alcohol and Arthur debates whether to wrestle it off him, but then what the hell would Merlin think when he wakes up and finds himself shirtless? The decision, however, is made for him, when Merlin’s hand flops on his chest and a frown pulls his lips. Arthur probably has an utterly soppy smile on his face but Merlin is all oddly long limbs and flailing grabby hands as Arthur finally manages to slip the shirt over his head. The pale expanse of Merlin’s chest is dusted with coarse black hair that tapers down his navel and further under the hem of his jeans. Arthur allows himself a brief look, just a short few seconds to memorise the angles of Merlin’s body before he pulls the ends of the blanket around him.
Arthur’s making to stand and walk out when cold fingers coil around his wrist and he turns to find Merlin’s sleepy eyes blinking up at him.
“I am sorry,” the words are said so quietly Arthur has to shuffle closer to hear. “For leaving, for walking out; I wanted to stay.”
“Don’t worry about it, just sleep.”
“I was scared,” Merlin’s eyes are half-lidded but the grip on his arm tightens and Arthur doesn’t think before he’s bringing his other hand to swipe over Merlin’s brow.
“Sleep,” he says again.
“Stay,” Merlin replies, and Arthur continues running his fingers across Merlin’s forehead until his breath evens out and he drifts into slumber.
Of all things Merlin expects to wake up to, it’s not to the smell of bacon wafting in through the open bedroom door. He pushes up on the palm of his hands and all too quickly slumps back to his elbows with a groan. His head catches up with his movements and a dull pain proceeds to pound against his temple. The blankets are pooled around his waist and he suddenly realises that he’s wearing significantly less clothes then he remembers. The night before returns to him in blurred snippets as he swings his legs over the side of the bed and tries to get the floor to stop spinning.
When he steps into the kitchen, (clean t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms in place), it’s to find Arthur at the stove, two frying pans on the go. The toaster pops and Arthur spins on his heels and finally notices Merlin stood in the doorway.
“You asked me to,” Arthur replies with an unreserved smile and Merlin can feel the tips of his cheeks already start to blush.
“Um, where did you get all this from?”
“I nipped down to the Tesco on the corner.” It’s as though Arthur can sense Merlin’s unease as he snorts and returns to buttering the fresh toast he’s pulled out. “Don’t worry I went undercover, baseball cap, sunglasses, the works.”
Merlin’s lips tug up despite himself as he takes a seat at the breakfast island to find a copy of ‘The Sun’ laid out. He swiftly folds it over and pushes it away.
“I almost don’t want to tell you I’m a vegetarian.”
Arthur drops the spatula in his hand against the edge of the frying pan, “Of course you’re a bloody vegetarian.”
“Fun Merlin fact 101,” Merlin says, “It’s in the annual.”
Arthur mock gasps, “There’s an annual?” he twists and gives Merlin a grin over his shoulder and they both chuckle under their breaths. “Scrambled eggs on toast do?”
“Mmm,” Merlin hums, resting his still-thumping head in the palm of his hand and allows his eyelids to drift shut for a few seconds. He only opens them again when he hears the clatter of a plate being put before him and he looks up to Arthur’s cheerful face as he slides in the chair beside his own.
They sit and eat in comfortable silence. Arthur’s foot coming to rest on the rung of Merlin’s stool and they’re not even touching but the closeness of it, the intimacy, causes something hot to pool in his stomach and it’s nice. Merlin hasn’t been this close to someone for so long he’s forgotten what it feels like to want it, to want more. He chances a sneak peak at Arthur through his lashes, focuses on the tufts of hair that hang low and dust across his eyebrows. Opening up to people has never been easy for him, lately more than ever, but he finds he wants to share these things with Arthur because he might just be the only person in Merlin’s life who understands.
“Thanks for this,” he breaks into the quiet, fork pointing towards his plate and Arthur’s glancing towards him with those wide blue eyes and the sensation of longing hits him square in the chest. “Thanks for last night, for coming.”
Arthur shrugs, “It’s what you do when you care for someone.”
The suggestion in his tone leaves Merlin with little doubt to his meaning. He’s lived with this control over his feelings for so long, always pushed his emotions towards his music rather than give them to the people in his life because people can abuse them – can twist and manipulate and worst of all leave. But music, music is innocent, yet now even that’s abandoned him. The thought of offering them up to Arthur leaves him terrified. But then Merlin casts his eyes over Arthur’s arms, and they tell a story of struggle – of… Merlin takes a shaky breath.
“When you told me, the other night, about what you’ve been through, about what you almost did, I— I felt unworthy,” Merlin sighs and doesn’t want to think about what he’s saying, because if he does the words will stop and he can’t stop now, he won't. “You’ve been through so much. Overcome more than anyone should have to and here I am whining over not playing a god-damned piano. It’s just—so insignificant in comparison.”
He can tell Arthur wants to say something, to probably tell him ‘no, you’re wrong’, and ‘don’t you see?’ but he stays quiet; waits.
“Why do you even want to spend time with me?”
Arthur drags his stool closer and the screech it draws out is painful to his ears. “You lost your parents, Merlin, in the most sudden and cruellest of ways,” he says quietly. “There’s no set guideline of what you must feel or how you cope. You should never feel unworthy over your grief.” Arthur places his hand over Merlin’s on the countertop, thumb rubbing back and forth over his knuckles.
“I like you, rather a lot actually,” Merlin’s heart quickens at the words and a small smile takes over his lips. Arthur’s fingers continue to stroke over the back of his hand, touch light but warm. “But,” he whispers and Merlin can’t help but draw his eyes up to look at Arthur, that small syllable hanging heavy between them. “If you want this, if we try to make a go of it, we can’t keep weighing each other down. There’s this guy that I talk to, I’ve been going to him for the past few years…”
“A therapist?” Merlin asks, worry lines creasing over his brow.
“Going to a therapist doesn’t mean you’re crazy, it just means you need a little help. There’s no shame in that.”
“No, of course, but…I want to talk to you.”
“And you can, God I want you to, I do, but I don’t want that to become all we are. We both have our baggage, Merlin, but that’s not who we have to be.”
“I feel like we’ve done this all wrong. That we know all this dark, awful stuff about each other and have completely skipped over the little things.”
“You want the little things?” Arthur asks with a smirk, tilting his head to meet Merlin’s eye. “My favourite colour’s red,” he starts. “I once got my ear pierced because I thought Nick from the Backstreet Boys was cute, my lucky number’s 13, I hate spicy food and I secretly quite like One Direction, but you can't tell anyone that, especially Gwaine. Better?”
“Well,” Merlin blinks, “I just found out you have a boy band fetish.”
Arthur laughs; the sound is low and Merlin can feel it rumble between them. “Only for pretty boys who can sing.”
“This boy hasn’t sung for a while,” Merlin tells him gently and Arthur is so, so close.
“He will,” Arthur whispers, the words sealed against Merlin’s mouth as he leans in the final distance and catches Merlin’s bottom lip between his own. A hand slides up to cup his jaw and Merlin finds himself unable to move or react, until Arthur’s thumb brushes against the arc of his cheekbone, their knees knock together awkwardly and it’s not perfect, but it’s just him and Arthur.
So he lets himself go and sinks into the solid lines of Arthur’s body, curls his fingers around the ridge of Arthur’s wrist and holds on for dear life. Arthur’s lips are soft as they lavish his mouth with sweet kisses. Merlin arches as Arthur makes the most delicious of noises against the round of his chin, peppers a trail down his Adams apple to the ridges of his collarbone. Arthur has one hand pressed against his chest, palm covering his heartbeat and he doesn’t need Arthur to tell him it's beating double time, he can feel it almost wanting to burst from his ribcage. A few seconds pass and Arthur returns to his lips, and Merlin finds his hands buried in Arthur’s hair pulling him closer. Merlin loses track of time but it doesn’t matter, because he never wants this to end.
When Merlin steps through the heavy oak doors, the first thing he notices is the light. Large paned windows cover two sides of the room, bathing the floor in mid-afternoon sunshine. There’s no chaise-lounge, but simply two leather armchairs, rich green in colour and definitely more inviting than the hideous contraptions in Morgana’s office. There’s a desk tucked away in one corner, a few photo frames on top, they’re turned away from view but Merlin imagines they’re filled with family or friends…or grandchildren, he thinks, as the door creaks open and an older gentleman walks in.
When Arthur had first suggested a therapist, Merlin wasn’t too keen on the idea. He associated going to therapy with being weak, unable to school your emotions to how you wanted them. It had taken a while for Merlin to realise that you can only control your feelings for so long, before the wall cracks and everything crashes down on you like a wave. You just have to try and keep your head above the water, Arthur had told him, and sometimes you need a lifeline. And that started with Morgana, apologising and opening up to her like he’d never done before.
Doctor Gaius wasn’t a high earning psychotherapist; his contact book wasn’t bulging with celebrity code names and he would always tell a patient what they needed to hear, not necessarily what they wanted to. Merlin knew he would need to consult Morgana with this, save the vultures swooping in and taking the few scraps of truths they can find to morph into an effusively more juicy fabrication. She hadn’t been thrilled by the prospect of Merlin pouring his heart out to a fortuitous shrink, but even she was beginning to clutch at straws for remedies to restore Merlin’s muse and their partnership.
“Ah, Mr Emrys, I presume,” he projects into the room, the boom of his voice reverberating off the glass. “Please take a seat.”
Merlin looks between the two chairs. “Which one?”
“Whichever you’d like.”
Merlin takes the one facing away from the desk, out towards the view of Hammersmith ten floors up. His eyes roam the tops of the buildings for a moment as Doctor Gaius settles in the chair opposite, Dictaphone in hand.
“Do you mind if I record?” he asks, placing it on the table between them where two tall glasses of water also sit. Merlin shakes his head and folds his hands in his lap, thumbs nervously twiddling together as he stares down at his scuffed Converses.
“Now tell me, Merlin, what would you like to discuss today?”
“Aren’t you supposed to ask me questions about my childhood, do blot-tests that kind of thing?”
“Some practitioners chose to do that, I, however, prefer to listen.”
Merlin nods and raises his head; the old-man is simply watching him, hands steeped and elbows resting on the armrest. “You’re not taking any notes?”
“No. I always think that’s rather rude, don’t you, if someone’s scribbling away writing whilst you’re having a conversation? Plus, the old memory hasn’t failed me yet.” He chuckles, tapping a finger against the side of his temple; Merlin offers him a tight smile in return and continues to fidget. This wasn’t at all what he was expecting and it’s thrown him slightly off-guard. The room isn’t dark or foreboding; no certificates hang on the wall. It’s light and airy and Dr Gaius is casting gentle eyes upon him as though he’s an old friend.
“I hear you’re a musician.”
“Do you like the classics?” Gaius asks, leaning back and stretching his legs out in front of him, ankles crossed.
Merlin’s mind drifts and remembers sitting beside his mother at the piano when he was a child, in awe of how supple her fingers moved over the ivory keys. Hunith’s arm would stretch around his body, cradle him to her side as her fingertips danced to the sounds of Liszt’s ‘Love Dream’. He could feel, rather than hear, her hum along to the piece, her whole body rippling with the melody as she’d finish the end of the refrain and beam down at him. He would look up to see his father watching them in the doorway, tresses of hair falling across his eyes as he launched into the room and swept Merlin up into his arms. He’d spin until they grew dizzy and then huddle together over a tub of ice-cream in the kitchen.
These are the memories he returns to every day; to times when he’d felt safe and secure and loved. They warm his bones in this cold November chill but they also cause something dark and yearning to stab into his heart.
“I do,” he finally replies, realising he’d been silent for several minutes. Doctor Gaius’ gaze is still on him, heavy lidded eyes watching him intently.
“Bach and Beethoven, those are names that’ll surpass through the ages.”
“Anton Rubinstein has always been my favourite,” Merlin supplies, finding the tension in his shoulders begin to ease and his limbs start to relax into the chair. “The way he played. It was all about the expression of the piece.”
“And that’s what you try to do with your work?”
“Yes, I try. That’s something my parents have always told me to do.”
“Tell me about them,” Doctor Gaius asks.
So Merlin does.
It’s easy after that for Arthur to seamlessly slot into Merlin’s life. The good, the bad, all of it mixed together.
Instead of texts, Arthur’s there in person and when Merlin gets those moments where he just wants to shut himself off from the world, Arthur’s around to pull him out of it. Merlin still finds it amazing how Arthur can be so upbeat, how he manages to school that big toothy smile on his face all the God damn time.
It’s not as simple as all that though, as he soon comes to learn. Arthur takes things day by day, and some of those are bad. He snaps and is short-tempered and then profusely apologetic about it all a few hours later. Those are the times when it’s Merlin’s turn to take care of Arthur. And within a few weeks, they’ve become more to each other than either knew they needed.
Arthur’s also grown to be close friends with Percival, as they spend their many car journeys discussing the merits of Arsenal’s Van Persie and cursing whether their club will ever see silverware again. Most evenings has Arthur travelling the short distance from Soho to Hampstead after work. They cook and watch movies, and get into arguments over ‘The Only Way is Essex’ versus ‘Made in Chelsea’. Arthur beats him constantly at Poker whilst Merlin has him won when it comes to Trivial Pursuit, though when the Scrabble board is brought out, it’s a whole different ball game.
They pull cushions on the floor, ones that probably cost a days’ wage for Arthur, and settle around the coffee table. Arthur challenges each and every one of Merlin’s moves, which Merlin finds hilarious considering some of the things Arthur tries to spell out.
“That is definitely not allowed.”
“It’s a word.”
“It’s a boy band!” Merlin cries, dimples forming in the creases of his cheeks. “And you can’t even spell it. N*Sync has an asterisk in it.”
“That’s what the blank tile is for.”
“You are the worst scrabble player ever,” Merlin intones dryly, watching as Arthur gleefully tallies up his points on the notepad. “I already gave you Westlife and Take That and even Boyzone, who really were just rubbish. No more.”
Somehow it ends with scrabble tiles scattered across the floor and Merlin pinned down into the cushions, Arthur mouthing “surrender?” against his neck between bruising kisses.
It’s at that moment of course when Morgana decides to burst through the door and scowl down at them with hands on her hips. Arthur laughs against Merlin’s chest and pushes up on his knees, straddled across Merlin’s lap, who is left a blushing mess hidden amongst the pillows.
“Hi, I’m Arthur,” he says, brazen as you’d like and it’s silent for a few moments until Morgana’s glare changes to one of amusement. Her lips pull over her teeth as she smiles down widely at the pair of them, dropping her hands and slipping her handbag from her shoulders.
“I like him. He can stay,” she decides, burrowing in her bag and pulling out a thick wad of papers that do not at all look like an exciting way to spend the afternoon. “But not right now, we have business to discuss. So crawl out from under those thighs and I’ll meet you in the office. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again, Arthur.” Morgana waves over her shoulder, and Arthur lifts a hand back as she stalks from the room in a clip-clop of Manolo Blahniks. Arthur’s hand is still raised as Merlin smacks him on the chest but that simply makes Arthur grab it between his and kiss Merlin’s fingers one by one.
“You know you could always come round mine?”
“It’s difficult,” Merlin sighs, pushing up on his elbows. He taps at Arthur’s side for him to move, which he eventually does, begrudgingly.
“We don’t live in squalor, you know?” Arthur rocks on the ball of his feet and pushes up to stand in front of Merlin, running a hand down his crumpled shirt. “Heated plumbing, running water, even have an indoor loo.”
“Remind me why I put up with you again?”
“My dry wit, my devilish good looks, my charm?”
“No,” Merlin teases, walking towards the front door, Arthur hot on his heels.
“Is it that thing I can do with my tongue, when I just—“ Arthur quickens his step and wraps solid arms around Merlin’s waist, holding him up against the wall, teeth and tongue working over the lobe of his ear.
“Arthur, no, shh,” Merlin squirms, hands falling on Arthur’s shoulders but making no effort whatsoever to push him away. “But yes, that’s all you're good for. Now go.”
Merlin finally ushers Arthur away, after stealing two more quick kisses, and leans back against the closed door, with a stupidly big grin on his face.
“Merlin,” Morgana’s voice pierces through his happy daze and Merlin heaves a sigh before pushing off the door and walking down the hallway.