Arthur was glad Merlin was tactful enough not to mention what he must have overheard. Arthur had been exaggerating, of course. He’d only drunk himself into a stupor half a dozen times in the seven months he’d known Merlin. He wasn’t in any danger of becoming an alcoholic by any means. Nor did he so heavily rely on Merlin to keep himself together...Probably.
The short three and a half hours before dinner were spent in mostly silence. They weren’t really in a relationship, after all. After unpacking and showering, Arthur left Merlin alone with his coursework. He replied to emails and attempted reading. Part of Arthur wanted to know if Morgana had asked any prying questions during the tour of the house, but Merlin looked so concentrated, Arthur let him be. In the end, he put on headphones and drove out thoughts of the upcoming dinner with loud music.
Arthur didn’t hear a knock on the door, but when Merlin suddenly raised his head and looked towards it, he figured someone had come to fetch them. As Arthur took his headphones off, Morgana slipped into the room.
“Is it that time already?” Arthur groaned.
At least Morgana seemed to be dreading it as much as him. She sighed in resignation. “You’re lucky you haven’t had to spend the last month here.”
Arthur was amused. “Even you, the girl who can do no wrong, hates this one?”
Morgana huffed. “Father has always left me to myself. Catrina...disapproves of me. She’s constantly meddling in my affairs and judging me with those stupid fake eyebrows of hers every chance she gets.”
Arthur burst into laughter. “Oh, yes, this is perfect! Finally, someone has found fault with you. This Catrina woman might not be as awful as I thought.”
Morgana frowned and crossed her arms over her low-cut dress. “She thinks I’m unlady-like. Whatever that means.”
“You are unlady-like.”
Merlin, who had put his nose back in his book, chuckled.
“Something funny, Merlin?” Morgana snapped.
Arthur expected at least a hesitation—Morgana was frightening even on her best of days—but Merlin didn’t even turn to face her when he spoke. “I just think it’s about time someone told Arthur to shut up,” he said flatly.
Arthur rolled his eyes and ignored Morgana’s startled laughter. “Come on, we don’t want to be late,” he said, heading for the door. “There’ll be plenty of time to bond over your mutual annoyance with me later.”
On his way, Arthur grabbed Merlin by the back of his collar and pulled him out of the chair. Merlin yelped but didn’t make much more of a fuss as they exited. He’d give Arthur hell for it when Morgana wasn’t around, though, Arthur was sure.
The walk to the dining room didn’t prepare Arthur for the staggering presence that was Uther’s newest bride-to-be Catrina. She stood poised and regal beside Uther at the head of the table, a toothy smile spread across her angular face. Her eyes were like piercing daggers, her skin too bronzed and papery-thin stretched across her cheekbones. Catrina was not the ordinary two-faced, scheming, dainty woman like the others had been. Her loose, crimson silk dress was the only soft thing about her. Catrina looked dangerous.
Her predatory smile broadened when Arthur entered. Arthur felt something akin to fear rise in his chest and his hand searched frantically for Merlin. Only once Arthur had a firm hold on Merlin’s hand did Arthur manage to collect himself.
“Arthur, how lovely to finally meet you,” Catrina greeted him in a strong, clear voice. She would be a formidable opponent, Arthur could tell.
Foregoing a smile himself—because it’s exactly what Uther wanted him to do—Arthur stretched out his arm to shake her hand. Catrina didn’t even glance at the offering, choosing instead to wrap billowy sleeves around Arthur’s shoulders and bring him into an embrace. Arthur was overwhelmed with the sharp smell of floral fragrance and held his breath as his nose was pushed deep into her hair. His one hand still joined with Merlin’s gave him the excuse not to fully hug back.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Arthur said stiffly as he was released. As soon as she stepped back to Uther’s side, he took a deep breath of fresh air.
Morgana interrupted what was sure to be an agonising silence with the screech of a chair. She took her seat noisily across the table, so Arthur took his cue to do the same. Catrina, unlike the other women before her, did not sit at Uther’s right side, but rather walked around to sit at the opposite end of the table. Merlin was the unfortunate soul closest to her.
After two servants entered with everyone’s food, the meal dragged on wordlessly, the only sound being that of silver cutlery against porcelain plates. And then the moment Arthur had been dreading came to pass.
“Arthur,” Catrina began. Arthur raised his eyebrows slightly in acknowledgement but didn’t turn to look at her. “Your father tells me you’re a solicitor. Litigation, isn’t that right?”
Arthur took a purposefully large bite to stall his reply. “Yes, that’s right.”
“I must say, after all I’ve heard about you, I was surprised to hear your expertise was dispute resolution.” Catrina took a small sip of wine before picking up her fork and gently stabbing a pre-cut slice of veal.
Across the table, Morgana shook her head slightly, giving Arthur a meaningful look. Arthur ignored it.
“‘After all you’ve heard?’” Arthur asked, glancing at his father to his right. Morgana reached for her glass and took a large gulp. “What exactly have you heard about me that makes my occupation come as such a surprise?”
“Well, it’s no secret you were quite the troublemaker when you were younger,” Catrina replied, laughing a little. “I simply find it—Oh, well, never mind what I find it. Uther assures me those days are behind you.”
Arthur gripped his fork tighter. Morgana sighed and plunged her own fork into her food as if it were Catrina’s neck.
Uther, of course, had to make things worse. “Don’t let Arthur hold your tongue, dear.” Since when did Uther call anyone ‘dear?’ “Please, say what’s on your mind.”
“Oh, no, it’s hardly appropriate. I wouldn’t want to seem antagonising and I’ve only just met him.”
Before Arthur could stop himself, he said, “You’ve already called me out on being a troublemaker; I don’t see how it could get much worse.”
Morgana rolled her eyes.
“Morgana, darling, you shouldn’t roll your eyes. It’s very unbecoming of a young lady,” Catrina said gently. To Arthur, she said, “Believe me, I didn’t mean it as an insult. I was only remarking how interesting it is that someone who caused problems so often before is now resolving them for a living. It’s a bit ironic, don’t you think? Like a boy that hates school ending up as a teacher.”
Arthur despised the way she batted her eyelashes innocently, all fake smiles and false charm. At least she looked less threatening while sitting down. Arthur didn’t think he’d be able to face her standing up. There was also a convenient table in the way, though at this range she probably wouldn’t miss with that knife.
He didn’t respond to her, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything nice to say, so he looked back down to his food. He’d mostly been picking at it. Merlin, on the other hand, was so pointedly fixed on his meal that it was half gone.
“Go on Catrina, what is it you were going to say?” Uther urged.
“Only that I find it odd how he is so talented at dispute resolution and yet cannot settle the petty issues he has with his own father. For someone who is only twenty-five, five years is certainly a long time to shun one’s family.”
“Arthur has always been stubborn, unfortunately,” Uther said, nodding in agreement. “But he is his own man now. If he wishes to live solely for work and exclude family from his life, it is his decision. As much as I disapprove.”
Arthur was about to disagree completely, try to prove them wrong. He wasn’t a workaholic or anything, not really. He simply didn’t like his family all that much, and was too busy with clients to have many friends. And the only reason he was ‘shunning’ his father was because the man was such a giant pillock who never once showed the least bit of interest.
But then, the more Arthur thought about it, the more he saw Uther might not be totally incorrect. Besides his paid encounters with Merlin, what else did Arthur really do with his time? It was no exaggeration that Arthur was good at his job. He came highly recommended, and made an effort to win every case, or to provide a pleasing settlement. Arthur didn’t really have any hobbies he could think of, nothing particularly exciting in his life.
So Arthur remained silent, letting these two people he loathed talk about him as though he wasn’t there.
“It is a shame that he didn’t go to medical school, though,” Uther continued. “He could have excelled so much.”
Arthur fought down an angry retort and focused on not hurling his knife at his father’s face. When Morgana took another large sip of her drink, Arthur seemed to see his own for the first time and followed suit.
“I wouldn’t say he doesn’t excel now. He’s simply reached the peak of his career and has come to a dead end,” Catrina remarked.
Morgana shook her head again, sensing Arthur’s rising anger, and even Merlin stopped inhaling food long enough to put a hand on Arthur’s knee under the table. Arthur bit his tongue until he tasted blood, but couldn’t hold back.
“And just what is it that you do for a living, besides draw on false eyebrows and wear a curtain as a dress?” Arthur snapped.
Catrina smiled like the outburst was just what she’d been waiting for. One of her perfectly drawn eyebrows raised and she said in her falsest voice, “An insult to my attire. How fitting for someone of your preferences. Tell me, do you think this style too last year? Or perhaps you think you could do my makeup better yourself.”
Morgana choked and her eyes bulged from their sockets. Uther, of all things, laughed outright. Merlin’s reaction was much closer to Arthur’s; he just gaped.
After shock, however, was fury, and Arthur wasn’t going to tolerate an attack on his masculinity. “I’ll have you know I was captain of my college’s football team. I’m not nearly as soft as you believe someone with my preferences to be.”
Catrina shrugged, looking unaffected. “Of course, real men play rugby.”
“Oh, please, do inform me what a ‘real man’ is, since you’re obviously the expert.”
“Arthur, that’s enough,” Uther interjected, the tone of his voice not to be disobeyed. “Apologise to Catrina for your behaviour.”
Arthur couldn’t believe it. “What? You’re joking, right? I have absolutely nothing to—”
“I would have thought someone who specialises in dispute resolution would know how to apologise,” Catrina mumbled, sipping her wine casually.
Rage reaching an all-time high, Arthur bolted to his feet so quickly his chair fell over. He had to get out of this suffocating dining room before his anger boiled over and he started throwing things. Arthur stormed out, shoving a nameless servant out of his way.
Arthur had his eyes closed and the volume of his music turned up all the way when Merlin came in and yanked his headphones off angrily.
“Thanks for abandoning me in the lion’s den down there,” Merlin yelled in Arthur’s face. “What a great fake boyfriend you are!”
Arthur sat upright on the bed. He couldn’t even think of it as his bed anymore, even though this had been the room he grew up in.
“Did you hear what she said?” Arthur replied, gesturing to the door. “And my father wanted me to apologise? I wasn’t going to sit there and...and be judged by some woman who’s only got to know me based on what my father tells her!”
“Yeah, I heard what she said, Arthur. And it only got worse after you so childishly left. But you could have at least taken me with you. I don’t know those people at all! Do you have any idea how awkward that was?”
Arthur frowned and really looked at Merlin for the first time since he’d burst into the room. He looked wrung out, agitated, exactly how Arthur felt after a conversation with anyone in his family. It hadn’t been fair of him to leave him there alone, especially since Arthur was the one that dragged him into this in the first place.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said weakly. He didn’t often say the words, and it was weird hearing himself say it, but there it was. “I was upset. I wasn’t thinking. I just...I had to get out of there. I’m sorry.”
Merlin sighed and went to look out the window. Arthur stared at the back of Merlin’s shaven neck, tracing the path of the hairline and following the sloping curves of Merlin’s shoulders to where his arms disappeared to cross in front of his chest. Merlin stood with his feet close together, one toe facing out to the right. His jeans hung from his hips—Odd, considering Arthur had only ever seen him wear tight clothing. Maybe out here, where there was nobody to display his body for, Merlin felt free to wear something more comfortable.
Interrupting Arthur’s musings, Merlin suddenly turned on his heel. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Arthur huffed a laugh. “What? Do you know what time it is?”
“It’s a full moon. And Morgana only pointed out the garden briefly, so I didn’t get to see it,” Merlin explained. He came over to Arthur with a cheerful smile. “Come on, let’s take a walk.”
“So Catrina can bring up a moonlit stroll among the flowers when remarking on my gay tendencies again?” Arthur muttered bitterly. “No thanks.”
Merlin sighed and pushed Arthur back to straddle him. He ran his hands up Arthur’s chest and sucked at Arthur’s neck. Arthur lay staring up at the ceiling, trying to feel it, but just not quite in the mood.
Sensing the futility, Merlin gave up and got to his feet, pulling Arthur by the hand. Arthur let himself be pulling into a standing position.
“That’s it. A walk is no longer optional,” Merlin declared.
“Merlin,” Arthur whined.
“Unless you want me to tell your family you hired a rent boy to pretend to be your boyfriend for a week, you’re taking this walk with me, Arthur.” Merlin held his gaze so fiercely Arthur had to look away. But he sure as hell wasn’t happy about it. “Like I said. No longer optional.”
Groaning, Arthur relented. “Fine. I’ll show you the damn garden. Let’s go.”
Seeing Merlin’s resulting smile made Arthur feel a little better. But only a little.
It actually was a beautiful night out. The clouds would pass in front of the moon every so often and throw the world in temporary darkness, but for the most part, the walk was well-lit.
Passing by a white rosebush whose leaves cast dancing shadows on the ground, Arthur thought the fresh air was exactly what he needed. Being inside the house felt like being trapped inside an iron maiden. The spacious rooms and high ceilings didn’t do anything to ease the suffocation. Maybe Merlin knew all along what Arthur needed.
In the breezy night air, Arthur’s rage simmered into simple irritation that he pushed to the back of his mind. He hadn’t planned on walking hand in hand with Merlin—because how sappy was that?—but he found he didn’t really mind when Merlin’s fingers threaded through his own and stayed there. It was as calming as the earthy scent Arthur breathed into his lungs.
Arthur knew it was going to be more than just a walk, so he enjoyed the silence while it lasted. Eventually, though, Merlin slowed his pace and came to a stop beside a wall of ivy.
“Listen, Arthur,” Merlin began. The oncoming sense of dread at what Merlin was about to say was somewhat overshadowed when Arthur got distracted by how beautiful Merlin looked in the pale light of the moon. “I know you think I’m just some poor student that fucks his way through uni—”
“I don’t think that at all!” Arthur protested. “I’ve never once thought of you like that.”
Merlin raised a sceptical eyebrow, and Arthur relented.
“Okay, maybe the first few weeks we knew each other,” Arthur admitted. “But we’ve always been more like friends with benefits. Paid benefits, sure, but friends nonetheless. At least, I thought so.” Arthur looked at the ground, suddenly unsure.
“Of course we’re friends, Arthur. I wouldn’t have agreed to come all the way out here and miss a week of classes for any of my other clients.”
Arthur released a held breath. For a moment, it had felt as if he’d given Merlin his whole life to hold in his hands, a fragile ball of glass that could easily break into a million pieces. But Merlin hadn’t let him down, thankfully.
“The point I’m trying to make is, we don’t know each other,” Merlin went on. “We’re friends, yeah, but it’s not like we get together to play video games or go out for a pint. So it’s not really my place to...to pry into your personal life.”
Arthur furrowed his brow. What did Merlin mean they didn’t know each other? Merlin knew Arthur better than anyone. Maybe even better than himself.
“Why don’t you just ask whatever it is you’ve brought me out here to ask?” Arthur encouraged him. “I’ll tell you whether or not you’re prying.”
Merlin shoved his free hand into his pocket, and Arthur didn’t know if the action was from nerves or the wind that had suddenly picked up. When Merlin bit his lip in contemplation, it suggested the former.
“Why do you hate your father’s wives so much?”
Arthur couldn’t claim he hadn’t expected such a question. He hadn’t made a secret of his distaste for his father’s women, or even his father himself. To anyone outside the family, it would look awful odd for Arthur to hate someone he hadn’t even met yet.
Running a hand through his hair with a sigh, Arthur prepared himself to say something he hadn’t told anyone, not even Morgana. “About a year after my mother died, Morgana came to live with us. My father said that he was taking her in because her father had been a close friend of his, and that he had died. Her mother had run away somewhere to be with someone else.”
Merlin didn’t look away for even an instant, his wide eyes staring into what felt like Arthur’s soul. Arthur couldn’t take the intensity and had to focus his gaze somewhere else. He picked a blade of grass.
“But one day I heard Morgana crying in her room—she must have been about thirteen then, I think—and she told me that all this time we have the same father. He had called her into his study to finally tell her that she wasn’t my adopted sister, but my half-sister.” Arthur wet his lips before continuing. “I was so angry. I marched in there and yelled at him. I can’t even remember what I said, only that I accused of not loving my mother because...because Morgana is only three years younger than me so he must have...while he was still with my mother...”
Arthur saw the day he walked into the study as clear as if it had just happened. All the conflicting emotions he’d felt at the discovery as a teenager suddenly came to the surface again, and it was only Merlin’s hand squeezing his that gave him the strength to continue.
“Shortly after I found out Morgana was my sister, he started seeing a woman named Helen. She was the first, and there were many after her.”
Arthur could remember her clearly; her long brown hair falling over her shoulders, her sweet smile, and gentle voice. She wasn’t anything like Catrina. Helen had been motherly and kind...Deceptively so. It wasn’t until after months of Arthur spurning her that she gave up, yelling that no amount of money would make her want to stay with a man who had such unruly children. Arthur hadn’t realised until after the second woman, Mary, why he hated them so much.
“My father’s relationships...they make me...” Arthur took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet-smelling garden air for strength. He could say it. He could. “They make me feel worthless.” There. It was out. “I’m just...I’m just a product of one woman in a long line of women. My father has never been the type to show compassion, not even to Morgana, who he treats like a saint. I was probably just...just a mistake. He probably wanted my mother to abort me—”
“So I guess I take it out on them, these wives of his.” Arthur wiped at his eyes, where tears had started to fall. Dammit, stop crying, he chided himself.
When Merlin’s arm wrapped around Arthur’s waist, Arthur instinctively flinched. Two halves of his brain were in conflict; one half yearned for the comforting touch while the other found the notion revolting. Arthur compromised and created some distance but didn’t let Merlin completely leave his side.
“Arthur, you can’t keep thinking of yourself as some sort of burden,” Merlin said gently. “I’m not saying your father is right to treat you the way he does, and I’m certainly not praising his lifestyle, but...I think maybe you’re being a little too harsh on these women. Unless they’ve done something to make you specifically feel—”
“What?” Arthur stepped away, not sure he was comprehending what Merlin was getting at. Despite Merlin’s obvious attempt to be gentle, his words sounded awful accusatory.
Merlin raised his hands defensively. “I just don’t think you’re being fair to—”
“You’re siding with them?” Arthur could scarcely believe it. Merlin was supposed to understand. He’d just poured his fucking heart out and Merlin was saying Arthur wasn’t being fair?
“I’m not siding with anybody!” Merlin declared. “I’m just saying that it’s your father you ought to work things out with, not—”
“I can’t believe you!” Arthur pushed Merlin away so hard Merlin nearly fell over The wall of ivy beside them hung low where Merlin clutched onto it, gaining his balance. “You can’t just—You don’t know anything! Maybe you really are just some stupid, poor student. You couldn’t possibly understand. Why I ever thought you would is a mystery.”
Merlin looked like he’d been stricken, and for a moment Arthur felt a stab of pain in his chest knowing he was the one to bring that look to Merlin’s face. Then Merlin turned angry and Arthur had to focus on standing his ground.
“I’m your friend!” Merlin shouted boldly, as if that statement alone would fix everything.
“No, you’re my rent boy.”
Merlin made a noise of disgust and shoved Arthur aside. Watching Merlin walk back to the house without him, Arthur felt like he had taken his own glass ball of a world and thrown it on the ground himself.