Arthur swore under his breath as the last of his lube decided to spill absolutely everywhere except on the plug he was about to put up his arse. A glance at the clock told him he had ten more minutes to wait before Merlin arrived and he did not plan on spending those minutes with his fingers where the plug should be. He shook the little bottle and squeezed until some drizzled onto the black silicone in front of him.
Arthur spread the liquid as generously as possible with his free hand, then lifted his leg and shifted his weight to push the plug inside. He was just biting his lip against the dull burn when three hard knocks sounded on his door.
Merlin was early. With a grunt, Arthur shoved the plug the remaining distance and put on his pants, for the sake of anyone who might be in the hallway. He wiped his oily hands on his legs as he went to answer the door.
“Hiya,” Merlin greeted him brightly and shuffled in quickly. He rid himself of his beanie and scarf quickly, throwing them carelessly on the sofa.
Arthur closed the door nearly on Merlin’s heels. “Hey. You’re early.”
Merlin pulled his jumper over his head as he walked toward Arthur’s bedroom. Arthur followed him.
“Yeah,” Merlin sighed. “My lecture finished early, so here I am. You weren’t busy were you? No, didn’t think so.” Merlin answered his own question without giving Arthur time to.
Arthur crawled onto his bed and peeled off his pants as Merlin toed off his trainers. “Have you got any lube? I’ve just run out.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow at the visible flared base of the black plug. “Couldn’t wait? Or are we in a rush today?”
Arthur began stroking his cock to hardness. Watching as Merlin revealed more and more pale skin was certainly helping.
“Wanted to get right into it,” Arthur admitted.
Merlin laughed and finally dropped his jeans, taking his pants along with them. His cock was soft but Arthur knew it was only a matter of time.
“You’re insatiable, you know that?” Merlin teased as he rifled through his pockets.
“Lucky you,” Arthur replied back easily.
“Lucky for my bank account. You’re my best client.”
“So you always say. Stop talking and fuck me, yeah?”
Merlin tutted but came over and got on the bed anyways, lube and condom in hand. Arthur noted with satisfaction that he had already started to harden. He widened his legs and inhaled sharply when the plug moved inside him just right.
Merlin dragged the tip of his cock down the inside of Arthur’s thigh. Arthur shivered and hardened along with Merlin as the teasing caress lingered on. Any other time, Arthur would ask for Merlin to trace his skin and leave glistening trails all over him, or to simply take the cock in his mouth and feel Merlin get fat for him on his tongue. This time Arthur just wanted it in his arse.
“Merlin, come on,” Arthur urged quietly. He wouldn’t have called it whining, though the tone of his voice was just barely off.
“Insatiable and impatient,” Merlin chided. “You do remember what happened the last time you were so impatient, don’t you?”
“You got yourself off before we’d even started and I had to wait twenty minutes,” Arthur replied, bristling at the memory. He’d also had to pay extra for the time. Merlin had filled the wait by fucking him with his tongue, but he also wouldn’t let Arthur finish, and that had just been cruel.
“You loved it,” Merlin said, smiling, as if he was reading Arthur’s mind.
Merlin said nothing, but the corners of his lips twitched up a little higher, almost imperceptibly if Arthur hadn’t been paying attention.
Then he couldn’t pay attention to anything at all save the sensation in his arse. Merlin removed the plug gently, placed it beside them on the bed, and fiddled with the condom wrapper. Arthur took slow, calming breaths as he let his eyes wander and finally fall to the plug. If this turned out to be one of their rougher fucks—and Arthur hoped it would—the plug would bounce off the bed and onto the floor fairly soon. Still, Arthur didn’t bother moving it.
Arthur looked up. Merlin was staring down at him with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. His strong, slender hands were running up and down Arthur’s thighs, leaving a tingling path of pleasure in their wake. Looking into Merlin’s seemingly endless eyes, Arthur felt something click into place, and nodded.
“Yeah, come on then.”
Merlin wet his lips and shuffled forward on his knees. When the head of his cock nudged Arthur’s hole, Arthur tried not to push forward too eagerly. He fought every urge to piston his hips up and take Merlin as quickly as human capability would allow.
Merlin seemed to enjoy taking his time. “Like slipping into the perfect size glove,” he’d always say. That’s exactly how it felt when Arthur slipped into Merlin and how it was now with Merlin’s cock pushing deeper and deeper. Just puzzle pieces slotting into place.
Arthur took a deep breath, and when he exhaled, Merlin had completely sheathed himself. Arthur shot his hand out to grab hold of Merlin’s wrist and nodded wordlessly for him to continue.
They’d been doing this for months. Merlin had become more than just a rent boy Arthur rang when he needed a good shag; he’d become a friend, of sorts. So Arthur didn’t have to tell Merlin to give it to him rough tonight, that he needed to be fucked so hard he forgot his own name. Merlin just knew.
Merlin retreated nearly all the way before slamming back in. Arthur let his head fall back, and his jaw slackened as Merlin rocked his body against the mattress. Arthur lost awareness of anything but the soft duvet beneath him and Merlin driving relentlessly into arse. His nerves were on fire and his vision pulsed around the edges in time with Merlin’s thrusts.
The faster the pace, the closer Arthur came to finishing. He curled his fingers tighter around Merlin’s arms, anchoring himself as Merlin rode him like a wave. Merlin had his head hanging low and his fringe tickled Arthur’s throat. Merlin’s breath danced hot across Arthur’s chest until Merlin leaned forward and attached his lips to Arthur’s neck. When Merlin moaned, Arthur felt it thrum through him.
Somehow Merlin had flattened himself to Arthur and Arthur absently wrapped his limbs around Merlin like a monkey. His cock rubbed rhythmically between them and he hugged Merlin closer for more. As Merlin’s hands snaked their way under Arthur to grab hold of his shoulders, Arthur felt his climax building low in his groin. He could feel it edging closer, feel his balls drawing up tight just as Merlin growled in his ear and grazed his teeth over sweaty skin.
Arthur clenched around the cock pumping inside him. He squeezed with what seemed to be every muscle in his body, and his nails dug into Merlin’s soft flesh. His body was locking up and he was so very close...
Merlin grunted again, gave a particularly hard thrust that caused a stutter in the rhythm. He shifted his weight and trailed a teasing hand up Arthur’s side. Arthur gasped for breath at the sensations it left dancing on his skin.
Then suddenly Merlin’s hand closed around his throat, grip tightening ever so slightly. Arthur swallowed and his Adam’s apple forced itself past Merlin’s thumb pressing against it. He made himself focus his vision and zeroed in on Merlin’s eyes. They were dark, the pupils blown wide with lust. Arthur forced a whimpering noise out of his throat and Merlin tensed up, his grip tightening just enough to bring Arthur over the edge as well.
When Merlin finished completely, his hand slid from around Arthur’s neck and he pulled out to collapse on his side. Arthur took lungfuls of air and looked around, feeling lost and dizzy. As his mind cleared and he came back down, he reached out for Merlin and found an elbow. He wrapped his fingers around it and held tight while he finished catching his breath.
“Bad week?” Merlin asked after a little while.
“Terrible,” Arthur said. “Today was the worst.” He let go of Merlin’s elbow and Merlin stood to clean up.
“Yeah? Wanna talk about it?”
“Not really. Tell me what you’ve been up to.” Arthur propped himself up and watched Merlin get dressed.
“Same as usual, really. Lectures, clients, revision. More lectures.”
“Hmm. Any shady clients?”
“You jealous?” Merlin cocked a cheeky eyebrow as he stepped into his jeans.
Arthur laughed. “Just want to know you won’t be giving me anything besides good sex.”
“Please, Arthur, it’s not as if I work street corners. You know that.”
Arthur did know. “Yeah. Just...be careful, okay? For your sake as well.”
Merlin put a hand to his heart and pushed his eyebrows up in a slant. “Oh, Arthur, I didn’t know you cared.”
“Oh for the love of—Money’s by the door, you idiot. Sod off.” Arthur sat up and shooed him away.
Merlin laughed and just smiled contentedly to himself as he tied his shoelaces. When he stood to leave, he hesitated at Arthur’s bedroom door.
“Really, though. You alright?”
Arthur sighed and ran a tired hand over his face. The truth was that he was fed up with his daft coworkers and was sick of having to clean up after them. But it wasn’t like Merlin wanted to hear about that.
“I’ll be fine, I guess. At the rate things are going, I’ll probably ring you again soon,” Arthur said.
Merlin nodded like he expected as much. “See you later then.”
On his way out, Merlin bent to pick up the plug that had landed near the door and tossed it back onto the bed. He left with a wink that had Arthur’s stomach fluttering.
“Hey, it’s Arthur. Are you at home?” Arthur switched his mobile to his other hand as he turned a corner, nearly running over a young man on a bicycle. It’d only been three days since Arthur had last seen Merlin, but after the day he’d just had, Merlin was the only thing that could keep him from going straight home to a bottle of vodka.
“Yeah,” Merlin replied. There was a shuffling of papers in the background.
“Is your flatmate there?”
“No. You wanna come over?”
“If you’re not busy.”
“It’s nothing I can’t put off. You’re gonna pay, right?”
“Of course.” Arthur was mildly irritated Merlin even thought he might try to take up his time without paying.
“Brilliant. Same rate as always when you come to me. See you soon.” Merlin hung up without another word.
Six minutes later, Arthur took the lift up to Merlin’s flat. He only had to knock once before Merlin opened the door.
“You look like shit,” Merlin said in greeting.
“I feel like it.”
Merlin sighed and pulled Arthur in. “C’mere and let me give you a rub down.”
Arthur felt the day’s tension drain from him instantly. Merlin always knew what he needed.
Taking off his clothes was like removing heavy armour. Arthur peeled away the layers of his exterior until all that was left was himself, naked and vulnerable. He stretched out on Merlin’s lumpy bed, one side of his face buried in the mattress, and relaxed. He waited for Merlin’s soothing hands to drive out all uneasiness and pain.
Arthur let his eyes fall closed and calmed his breathing as he listened to the sounds of Merlin walking around the room. There was the snap of a cap, the squelching sound of air being forced out of a tube, and then the shock of oil drizzling down Arthur’s spine. He shivered at the first contact and only relaxed when Merlin’s hands spread themselves wide, rubbing the massage oil into Arthur’s skin.
Sometimes Arthur would get scared. Sometimes, when he lay naked with his back to this man he didn’t really know, Arthur became aware of how much trust he was placing in Merlin’s hands, and it frightened him. Arthur depended on Merlin for majority of his happiness, possibly even his sanity. If Merlin were to disappear from his life, or to suddenly stop offering his services, Arthur didn’t know what he’d do.
“You’re thinking,” Merlin chided softly, his hands moulding to Arthur’s ribcage and working in circles. “No more of that.”
An oily finger came up and ran across the hair of Arthur’s eyebrow. Arthur realised he was frowning and made an effort to relax his face. He focused on breathing and compared each exhale to wind blowing through a field of wheat. Slowly but surely, Merlin’s hands kneading his muscles, combined with the pastoral view in his imagination, drove out all fears.
Merlin moved to Arthur’s shoulders, where the tension seemed the worst. Deceptively strong fingers dug into the muscle, massaged around the collarbone and the neck. Merlin shifted on the bed, straddled Arthur from behind for easier maneuverability, and moved flexible thumbs in circles in the divot between Arthur’s shoulder blades. Arthur moaned into the coarse blanket.
The hands worked downward, past Arthur’s back where they’d already performed their magic, to his thighs. Merlin squeezed and wrung out every last bit of tightness there until Arthur was pleasantly lax. He moved methodically down the calf, to the soles of Arthur’s feet, then back up to Arthur’s hands. When he finished there, he told Arthur to turn over, and started on the front.
The front was always better and yet worse at the same time. Worse, because Arthur was so unbearably ticklish. Better, because Merlin never failed to finish a massage the same way.
When the end was near this time, Arthur spread his legs and made room for Merlin’s body without needing to be told. He shivered as Merlin’s breath teased his skin, whimpered when playful licks of Merlin’s tongue made him yearn for more. He would force himself to hold on a few more minutes, endure a couple more wet kisses to the side of his cock before nudging Merlin’s calf impatiently with his foot. Only after Merlin had properly had his fun and drawn it out would he give in and take Arthur, slow and meaningful in his mouth.
Instantly, Arthur was on a cloud, floating above his petty problems of everyday life. His body was made of air and melted wax all at the same time. His cock, full and straining against the inside of Merlin’s cheek, was what kept sparks of pleasure shooting through his veins, kept his insides molten and electric. Merlin’s hands caressing him—the inside of his thigh, the cleft of his arse, up his hair-dusted torso—was what kept him from floating away entirely. It took the boundless pleasure that was seeping from him and was pinpointed wherever Merlin’s hands roamed.
Until, of course, Merlin sped up, pursed his lips tighter and sucked harder. His hollowed cheeks only made his angular cheekbones jut out more beautifully, and his plump lips became flushed and shiny with spit, cracked along the edges where they started to chap. Inside Merlin’s mouth was a hot, wet glove, a tongue that pressed itself flat against Arthur’s cock and licked the tip when it reached the top. Outside, was a young, yet wise, face, with piercing blue eyes that urged him to come, come—
All the pleasure kept in check by Merlin’s hands erupted in concentrated bursts from Arthur’s cock onto Merlin’s tongue. Arthur felt himself reach the peak of the climb then come slowly back down, his legs and arms trembling. Staring blearily at Merlin, he fully expected Merlin to pull off and spit out Arthur’s semen, as he’d done every time before. This time, Arthur watched in awe as Merlin very slowly, very purposefully licked his lips and swallowed.
One blink, then another, and Arthur’s mobile rang, the shrill tone cutting through the carefully constructed silence. Groaning, Arthur felt around on the floor for his trousers, then pulled out his phone. He groaned again when he saw the caller ID.
“Yes?” he answered.
“Arthur, you actually picked up! What a pleasant surprise,” Morgana sang.
“What is it? I’m busy.” In the corner of Arthur’s eye, Merlin was sitting up and getting off the bed.
“Alright, straight to the point then. Father is getting married.”
“To whom?” Arthur swung his legs over the side of the bed and began to get dressed as Merlin left the room, allowing him privacy for his conversation.
“Some woman named...Oh, what was it? Catherine, perhaps. Or Catrina? Yes, I think that’s it. Catrina. Though I do like the name Catherine much—”
“In a month. And don’t interrupt Arthur, it’s terribly impolite.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “This wedding is taking place where all the others have, I presume?” He said the word wedding as if it were a disease.
“Naturally. And you are, just as naturally, expected to attend.”
“Of course I am.”
“With your boyfriend.”
Arthur frowned. “My what?”
“Your boyfriend,” Morgana repeated. “Father is very excited to meet him, especially considering he hasn’t seen you in the past five years.”
“It’s only been four years.”
“Nearly five, but it’s not like he’s counting. Anyways, when can I tell him to expect you?”
Arthur mentally swore. He’d completely forgotten having told his father and sister that he was in a relationship. At the time, it had been simply to get them off his back. He never really thought to have to prove the validity of his claim. He couldn’t explain that relationships—and all the emotional drama they entailed—just wasn’t his thing.
Neither could he say that he’d broken up with the imaginary boyfriend. Then he’d have to explain why, and his father would chide him for not being able to commit to anything. That, as usual, there was no permanent fixture in Arthur’s life which he could assign value to.
There was a soft crash in the kitchen, and a muffled curse. Merlin was making tea, no doubt. The beginnings of a plan took form in Arthur’s mind.
“How long do we have to stay?”
“Well, you know Father,” Morgana replied. “He’d like it if you arrived tomorrow morning and stayed until long after. But I managed to talk him into a week before and a day after. You’re welcome.”
Arthur did the quick calculation. That meant he had three weeks to prepare Merlin to meet his family. They’d stay a week, attend the godforsaken ceremony, and leave first thing the morning after. No one would be the wiser.
Arthur wondered if he could afford that much of Merlin’s time, or if Merlin would ever agree to it.
Sighing, Arthur committed himself to his course of action. “Alright, I’ll see you then.”
“Excellent. Can’t wait to see who you show up with.”
Arthur was not afraid of his sister, but he still waited until she hung up to say, “Go die in a hole.”
“Who’s going to die in a hole?” Merlin asked, walking back into the room with two cups of tea.
Arthur received one gladly and took a large sip that went smoothly down his throat before answering. “My sister.”
“Ah. Familial affection. ‘Tis the greatest.”
Normally, Arthur would join in and reply with something equally sarcastic, but he couldn’t find it in him now. Merlin seemed to notice as well.
“Something wrong?” he asked, sitting on the bed next to Arthur.
“My father’s getting married,” Arthur said simply. “I’m expected to go to the wedding. With a boyfriend.”
Merlin nodded in understanding. “Which you don’t have.”
“Exactly.” Taking another gulp of hot tea, Arthur gathered his courage to leap forward. “I need your help.”
Merlin’s eyes widened. “You want me to—”
“Pretend to be my boyfriend. Yes.”
“You may not know this about me, but I’m a terrible liar, and an even worse actor. There’s no way it’ll work.”
“It will. And it’s only for a week. Please, Merlin, I’ll pay you, you know I’m good for it.”
Merlin bit his lip. “I’d have to miss a week of classes.”
“I know, but...you’re smart, you’ll catch up. Right?” Arthur knew it was a low blow, but he had no other choice. He couldn’t think of anyone else he could ask besides Merlin. “Please? I trust you.”
Merlin sighed and gave Arthur a look that said he knew exactly what Arthur was doing, pulling the trust card. Still, Merlin’s eyes had that particular shine they got when he made up his mind about something. Arthur took hold of Merlin’s hand and pleaded once more, driving it home.
Merlin gave up. “Oh, fine. Fine! But the rate is exactly the same—”
“And don’t even think about calling me some stupid pet name.”
“And you’re buying me a suit.”
“Oh God, obviously. If this is going to work, I’ll have to buy you a whole new wardrobe.”
“No. Absolutely not. I’m wearing my clothes, not dressing up as some posh, cardigan-wearing, private school student.” Merlin made a disgusted face just mentioning the word cardigan.
Giving Merlin a quick once-over, Arthur could agree he couldn’t see Merlin wearing anything but his own unique jeans and oversized jumper. His hair, however...
Reaching up to run his fingers through Merlin’s mop of black hair, Arthur found the texture surprisingly soft. Merlin jumped and looked at Arthur sideways but allowed the touch.
“You should cut your hair, though. It’s a bit...wild.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Wild?”
“I mean, I happen to like it this way, but my father would take one look at you and think—What?” Arthur cut himself off when he saw the way Merlin was staring at him, biting back a smile. “What?”
Merlin grinned. “You like my hair wild?”
Arthur blushed. “I didn’t say that.” He took his hand away and put it in his lap.
“Yes you did. You said it looked wild and then you said you liked it, therefore—”
“Therefore, shut up, Merlin.” Arthur nudged him with his elbow. “Just get a haircut in three weeks, and wear your sodding clothes, but wear your best clothes.”
Arthur set his tea aside and finished getting dressed, ignoring Merlin’s snickering.
“How much do I owe you?” Arthur asked, tying his shoelaces.
“Seventy-five.” Merlin lay back, folding his hands behind his head.
Arthur quirked a brow. “That’s all?”
“The blow job was free,” Merlin said, smiling.
Arthur laughed and pulled the appropriate notes from his wallet. He laid them on the bed by Merlin’s feet. “See you in three weeks then.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Yeah right. You’ll be ringing me in a week, at the latest.”
“You calling me an addict?”
Arthur chuckled and shook his head. “G’bye Merlin. And get a damn haircut.”
Mostly to prove that he was not, in fact, as codependent as Merlin seemed to believe, Arthur forced himself to go the whole three weeks without so much as shaking Merlin’s hand. Arthur did have to meet up with him to buy a few suits—”One just isn’t going to cut it, Merlin.”—but managed to keep his hands to himself. Merlin simply rolled his eyes at how dramatic Arthur was being.
Soon enough, a sleek black limousine pulled up to the front of Arthur’s building where he and Merlin waited with their bags. Merlin’s jaw dropped as the driver got out to place their things in the boot.
Arthur, on the other hand, shooed the man away and shoved his belongings in without finesse. He walked around and slid into the backseat with a huff.
It was only three minutes after the car rolled away from the kerb that Merlin’s wide eyes got to be annoying.
“Quit gaping, Merlin. It’s unattractive,” he snapped, turning to look out the window morosely.
Merlin only became more insufferable. “This. Is. Amazing. Just how much money does your father have?”
“Too bloody much,” Arthur muttered. “I can’t believe he did this. He always does this!”
“Does what?” Merlin stopped stroking the leather seat to look at Arthur seriously.
“Pick me up in this stupid thing! He’s always throwing his money in my face trying to make me feel inadequate. It’s like he’s saying ‘Oh, look what you could have had if you’d just done what I told you.’ Fucking prick.”
“What exactly did he tell you to do?”
“He wanted me to be a doctor.”
“And instead you became a solicitor. Well, at least you settled for something less posh.”
Arthur glared at him. Merlin simply laughed and clicked off his seatbelt.
“What the hell are you doing?” Arthur asked when Merlin shuffled onto his knees, using the extra space to his advantage.
“You need to calm down, Arthur. So I’m going to help you the best way I know how.”
“The only way you know how, you mean,” Arthur mumbled, but felt himself getting excited regardless.
Merlin nudged Arthur’s legs apart. “Come on. It’ll loosen you up before you have to face him.”
Arthur only gave it a moment’s thought for appearances. After the amount of times he’d hired Merlin, three weeks of nothing had felt like a year. Quick morning wanks in the shower were not nearly enough. Arthur was suddenly thankful that his father’s limousines at least had privacy screens.
Smiling triumphantly, as if he were the one getting a prize, Merlin undid Arthur’s trousers and freed the half-hard cock beneath. Arthur unclicked his own seatbelt, suddenly needing extra room to breathe.
“There we go,” Merlin cooed, stroking Arthur to full hardness and licking his lips in preparation. “Feels better already, yeah?”
Arthur grunted, kneeing Merlin in the side. He didn’t need words to tell Merlin to shut up.
Merlin’s other hand slid behind Arthur’s waist, pulling him forward. “Scoot up a bit.”
Arthur moved his hips forward until his arse was on the edge of the seat, bringing his cock closer to Merlin’s face. He felt the heat of Merlin’s breath on him and curled his toes, the cracking of bones audible even over the roar of the engine.
A bump in the road caused Merlin’s path downward to abruptly shorten, his lips coming to rest against the tip of Arthur’s cock all of a sudden. Seeming to improvise from there, Merlin extended his tongue, giving Arthur’s cock a deep sensual kiss before sliding more of the flushed length into his mouth.
Arthur exhaled and let his head fall back. Merlin was such a bloody tease, with his sparkling blue eyes devious as a sprite’s, and his twisting pink tongue. Maybe when they arrived he’d make Merlin use the full extent of his tricks and take pleasure in it. Right now he really did just need to take some of the edge off. Arthur closed his eyes and lost himself to Merlin’s mouth, ran his fingers through Merlin’s freshly cut hair as Merlin bobbed up and down. He loved that Merlin’s moans were only just loud enough for him to hear.
Each bump in the road was an excuse to jerk his hips up and force Merlin to take a little more. Though they did have time—the drive would take at least two hours—Arthur intended to make the most of that time. There were some rather important things he had to tell Merlin before they arrived, and unfortunately none of those things were ‘faster’ or ‘deeper.’
So Arthur curled his fingers tighter in Merlin’s hair, urging him wordlessly on. Tilting his head back up to watch his cock disappear between those sinful lips, Arthur saw properly how much Merlin’s haircut changed his face, accentuated his features.
The trimmed sideburns that weren’t really noticeably before now made Merlin seem older, more refined. The close shave at the back of his neck tickled the tips of Arthur’s fingers, and Arthur missed being able to grab onto something back there. Finally, instead of a sweeping fringe, Merlin’s hair was spiked in the front, revealing his forehead.
It also made his ears stick out more, but Arthur would mock him about that as soon as more important things were out of the way.
A particularly large jolt made Merlin’s nose plunge forward into the wiry curls at the base of Arthur’s cock, and Merlin’s hands came to rest on Arthur’s thighs. For all his practise, even Merlin couldn’t help but gag when Arthur’s thickness pushed deeper down his throat. Arthur saw the corners of Merlin’s eyes start to water and his orgasm inched closer.
“Come on, Merlin, I’m almost there, just...” Arthur pushed Merlin’s head down a bit more on each descent. Merlin stretched his mouth wider, spit dripping from his chin. He moaned and the vibration shot straight through Arthur’s cock.
As his breaths began to come in quick gasps, Arthur let his head fall back again and his neck lolled until he was staring out the window at the passing scenery. It was such an odd feeling, seeing trees go by in a blur while simultaneously having his cock sucked. It felt surreal.
Then Merlin squeezed his balls and reality slammed through him full force. He brought his fist to his mouth to stifle his moan and crammed his eyes shut as he came.
Arthur kept his eyes closed as Merlin tucked him back in and zipped him up. When he finally did open his eyes, his breathing had returned to some semblance of normal, and Merlin was sitting across from him, one foot perched on his knee. His grin was smug and therefore irritating.
Arthur cleared his throat, preparing to begin. “Don’t—”
“Is this where you tell me not to talk about being a whore or comment on your father’s obvious balding?”
Arthur gaped. “I wasn’t going to call you a whore.”
Merlin waved it away. “Prostitute, rent boy, escort. Whatever. You were going to say not to mention that, right?”
Arthur still didn’t like the way Merlin put it so bluntly, but... “Yes.”
Merlin nodded. “Just because I’m still in uni doesn’t mean I’m completely stupid.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, you still need to be informed about just what it is you’re going into. Besides not mentioning my father’s obvious balding—”
“Aha! I knew it!”
“—you should also never talk to this new wife of his, or wander about the house—because you will get lost—and definitely, under no circumstances are you to find yourself alone with Morgana.”
“No wife, no wandering, no witch. Got it.”
“When it comes to things you should do however, feel free to talk about how well you’re doing in school—”
“Aw, you really think I’m doing well in school?” Merlin held his hand to his chest with mock affection.
Arthur snorted. “Even if I didn’t think you were, I’d tell you to lie and say you are. Anyways, also be sure to compliment the windows—”
“Would you stop interrupting? Yes, the bloody windows. He loves the damned things. Says they’re a ‘gothic’ style or whatever. Also remark on the landscaping—not too conspicuously, just a passing comment to let him know you’ve noticed it. Always stay in the most common areas, and stick to my side like glue. I won’t be able to tell you what to say if you’re not near me.”
“I’m serious, Merlin. My family is...” Arthur searched for the right word. “Brutal.”
“Should I have brought protective eyewear? Will there be battles to the death fought at the dinner table?”
Arthur sighed and gave up. Merlin just wasn’t going to be serious about it. It was all a game to him. “Just...God, just don’t fuck up.”
“Glad you have so much confidence in me.”
If Merlin had been impressed by a simple limousine, he was absolutely stunned by the towering edifice that was Pendragon Manor. As soon as they drove up the cobblestone driveway, Arthur instructed Merlin to keep his jaw from hanging or he’d hold it shut himself. Merlin, for once, was cowed into submissive silence.
Arthur was pulling his bags from the boot when Uther and Morgana, in all their frivolous and exquisite glory, emerged from the entryway.
“Oh, Arthur, don’t bother yourself with that. George will take care of it for you,” Uther said, waving the driver over.
Not even a hello, Arthur thought bitterly. It’s been four years and the first words out of his mouth aren’t even a proper greeting. Of course.
Huffing, Arthur dropped his things, nodding at a wide-eyed Merlin to do the same. He fixed a false smile on his face and took Merlin’s hand in his own as he walked the remaining distance to his father.
“Welcome back, Arthur,” Morgana said, her cheer just as feigned. Arthur was grateful she had at least said ‘welcome back’ and not ‘welcome home.’
“Morgana.” Arthur nodded in his sister’s direction. “This is my boyfriend, Merlin. Merlin, this is Morgana.”
Arthur tried not to hold his breath as he watched Merlin’s slender hand reach out to shake Morgana’s. How fragile Merlin seemed then, in the face of these predators he had the misfortune to call family. Arthur was amazed Merlin was even able to speak. Stronger men had confronted this same pair and gone weak at the knees.
“Nice to meet you,” Merlin was saying.
“How old are you?” Uther asked.
“Father,” Arthur cut in before Merlin could reply. He turned to Merlin. “You don’t have to answer that.”
Merlin looked back and forth between them, seeming lost. Arthur saw the moment Merlin made up his stubborn little mind.
“Twenty,” he declared. Arthur watched his father’s face carefully. Anyone else wouldn’t have seen the eye twitch. Merlin certainly didn’t.
“I see,” Uther said. “Come along, Arthur, we have much to discuss. Morgana will show Melvin around.”
“It’s Merlin,” Arthur grit out, knowing Uther knew exactly what Merlin’s name was. Then the first part registered and he backtracked. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
Morgana laughed, and Arthur was reminded not for the first time of a mischievous pixie. “Why? Worried I’ll chew him up and spit him out and return him to you worse for wear?” She reached out and ruffled Merlin’s hair. Arthur pushed down a flare of anger, and Merlin tried in vain to slip away.
“Don’t listen to a word she says, Merlin,” Arthur told him. “Everything she says is a lie.”
“You two will have plenty of time to rekindle this petty rivalry of yours later, Arthur,” Uther interrupted and took Arthur by the elbow, as if Arthur were twelve again. “Come along.”
Arthur grinded his teeth and followed his father inside, looking over his shoulder not once, but three times to make sure Merlin was still in one piece.
When they reached the study, Uther gestured for Arthur to sit down. Arthur knew he was meant to sit in the chair across the desk, so he went to sit by the window. His father said nothing, but disapproval permeated the air in waves.
There was a reason Arthur never visited. Even after nearly five years, Uther still had the ability to make Arthur feel like a misbehaved child, when truly he was twenty-five and free to do as he wished.
“It’s about Catrina,” Uther began, to the point as ever.
“What about her?” Arthur knew already what his father would say, but it was meaningless. He didn’t care one bit about this latest wife and nothing would change that.
“You cannot treat her the way you’ve treated the others. Catrina is here to stay whether you like it or not.”
Arthur snorted. “Right.”
“Believe what you like, Arthur. Either way, you will respect her.”
“I haven’t even seen her!”
“What she looks like means nothing—”
“Really?” Arthur raised an incredulous eyebrow. Arthur was fairly certain that that meant she was mediocre-looking in the face but had large breasts to offset it.
“If she walked with a limp or had crooked teeth, I would still have you treat her better than you did those other money-grabbing—”
“You do agree then that they were simply pretty faces after your money?”
Uther sighed. “Not now, Arthur.”
Arthur stood. “Then what’s to stop you from saying the same about this one after she’s gone? I’m not going to waste my time trying to be friendly with someone who won’t even be around come Christmas.”
Uther’s lips trembled with rage, which Arthur thought looked a bit ridiculous. He saw clearly how old his father had become. Where before there was power in threat and an imposing figure, now resided bitter anger.
Reluctantly, Uther looked away first, his nostrils flaring. “Always so stubborn. Though it’s obvious where you get that from. Arguing with you is like beating my head against a wall.”
Arthur felt like he’d won and lost at the same time. He hadn’t budged at all in a fight against his father, but he didn’t want to be compared to the man either.
“Fine,” Uther continued. “You want to be as spoiled as ever and throw a tantrum when I marry someone you don’t like? Go ahead. But do not,” he returned his gaze directly to Arthur, “do not do anything to interfere with this wedding. If she decides not to go through with this simply because I haven’t managed to raise my son to properly respect women—”
“I respect women plenty, just not—”
“Enough. I want to talk about this boy of yours.”
Arthur furrowed his brow. That was certainly a turn in conversation. “Merlin? What about him?”
“Is he the same boy you mentioned over the phone last Christmas? Or have you already moved on?” Uther went to pour a glass of wine at his desk.
“I’m not like you, Father. I don’t move on to the next flavour when I tire of the first.”
The bottle of wine came down on the wood with a loud thud. Uther’s accompanying glare when he turned around was signal enough. Arthur was not to speak to him that way; it was still his father, regardless of their common disagreements.
Arthur went back to the window and slumped onto the velvet cushion. “Yes, he’s the same,” he lied.
Uther took a sip of wine and hummed in contemplation. Whatever followed what sure to be more disapproval.
“It’s only a five year difference. And you’re hardly one to talk considering the age of the last—”
“He’s naive. He’s hardly your type.”
“And you would know my type how?”
“I know my son. You’d never feel anything for such a...a...”
“He’s so frail! Where’s his strength? Does he have any ambition at all?”
“He’s strong...ish. I guess.” Arthur turned to look out the window.
Uther snorted. “Of course. He’s the damsel-in-distress type, isn’t he? I should have known. I bet he looked at you with those wide eyes of his and told you some sob story—”
“I’m not listening to this.” Arthur shot up and stormed across the room. He was about to throw the door open when he spun on his heels and pointed an accusing finger at his father. “You have some nerve dragging me in here, telling me to respect some bitch I’ve never even met and then turning around to disrespect my boyfriend. And you know what? I’m not nearly as strong as you seem to think I am. If it wasn’t for Merlin, I’d be a wreck by now. He’s probably the only thing that keeps me from falling into some drunken stupor every time I start feeling sorry for myself. And he’s much stronger than you’ll ever be.”
Arthur spun again and was all set to stomp out angrily, but was stopped abruptly when he came face to face with a smug-looking Morgana. Merlin was by the door trying to disappear behind a lamp.
Behind Arthur, Uther cleared his throat. “How did you find the house, Merlin?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. At least he’d gotten the name right.
Merlin blinked, then seemed to notice everyone’s eyes on him. “Oh, it was...it was lovely. The rooms are as grand as a hotel.” As an afterthought, he added, “And the windows are nice as well.”
Morgana snickered and Merlin turned deep red. Arthur sighed and side-stepped Morgana to finally take his leave.
“I’m glad you found our home to your liking. You and Arthur get settled,” Uther said. “Dinner will be in a few hours. And Arthur?”
Arthur halted in his tracks just as he grabbed Merlin’s hand in passing.
“I’m expecting you to be on your best behaviour. Catrina is eager to meet you.”
Arthur didn’t even wait until he was out of earshot to mutter, “I find that hard to believe.”
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.
Arthur didn’t know where Merlin slept that night, because it wasn’t in the bedroom. He could only hope that nobody had noticed, since they were supposed to be sharing the same bed. But the manor was big. Merlin wouldn’t have had trouble finding anywhere else to rest for the night.
Arthur was definitely not brooding when Morgana entered his room unannounced the next morning. “Get dressed. We’re playing chess.”
In his not-brooding state, Arthur had neglected to put on trousers. He was sitting at his laptop in nothing but his shirt and pants, not that Morgana seemed to care.
“Where’s Merlin?” she asked, looking around.
Arthur shrugged. “Dunno. He’s around here somewhere.”
Morgana’s eyebrows shot up. “And you aren’t with him why?”
“I have work to do, clients to email,” Arthur said, nodding at the laptop in front of him.
“God, do you bring that thing with you everywhere?” she sighed and walked over to the table. Before Arthur could stop her, she pushed the lid shut. Arthur opened his mouth to protest but she cut him off. “Put your job on hold for two bloody seconds to come play chess...Unless you don’t think you can still beat me?”
That was just low, appealing to Arthur’s sense of challenge. “Of course I can still beat you!” he replied indignantly.
Morgana stepped back and crossed her arms, a smug grin on her face. “So prove it. You do remember where our study is, don’t you?”
“Excellent. Put some clothes on, get your brain a nice healthy breakfast, then meet me there.” She turned and glided off with a wave of her hand. “See you later, dear brother.”
As soon as she was gone, Arthur propped his elbows on the table, put his head in his hands, and sighed. The last thing he felt like doing was pretending everything was fine and playing a game of chess, but maybe it would take his mind off his shaky situation with Merlin. And chess with Morgana was like a tradition. Whenever Uther had done something particularly irritating or Arthur felt so morose he couldn’t function, it was almost like Morgana’s duty to put everything on hold and distract him with a game.
Which was nice of her, really, but this time Arthur wanted to sit and tiptoe around solving his problems like a normal hopeless adult. He’d come to believe that seeking escape from reality was for children.
Wondering for the umpteenth time where Merlin could have strayed off to—and momentarily panicking that he might have hired a cab and left—Arthur stood to make himself presentable.
After dressing, Arthur brushed his hair in front of the mirror, idly wondering how Merlin best liked it styled. Maybe if he let it stick up a bit in the front, Merlin would notice and...
Arthur dropped the brush and smoothed his hair down with his hands. He gave himself one last look in the mirror, tried to smile at his reflection, then started off towards the kitchen for breakfast.
Arthur walked through the long corridors of his old home, praying he wouldn’t run into his father or Catrina on the way to his and his sister’s private study. During breakfast, Arthur had let his thoughts get the best of him, and texted Merlin a quick ‘where are you?’ Merlin had replied with ‘still here’ only a few minutes later. Arthur felt some weight lift from his shoulders, but not much.
Now, walking into the study designated only for the Pendragon siblings’ personal use, Arthur saw Morgana lounging on the sofa with her feet up, a large book in her lap. She seemed at ease waiting for him, but Arthur knew she would complain about how long he’d taken to arrive just on principle.
“I think my hair has started to go grey waiting for you,” Morgana stated, not looking away from her book.
Arthur went to the chess table by the window. The game was already set up. “Come on then, let’s get on with the massacre,” Arthur said, taking his seat in front of the ivory pieces.
Morgana laughed as she marked her page and set the book aside. She came over smoothly, her face a mask of determination and eager anticipation.
“White goes first,” Arthur reminded her needlessly.
“Has that ever bothered me before?” Morgana folded her arms on the edge of the table and smiled sweetly at him.
Arthur sighed wistfully, already getting back into the easy routine. He picked up his pawn and moved it two spaces forward.
“As headstrong as ever I see,” Morgana commented. She moved a pawn at the end of the board one space forward, freeing the square in front of her rook.
Arthur smiled. Nearly five long years might have passed but the game was still the same. Arthur moved his knight into the space his pawn previously occupied.
“Sending your knight in already,” Morgana tutted and moved a pawn to free way for her bishop.
That was familiar as well. Morgana had always abused her bishops. It was fun, she claimed, watching those closest to the king and queen take so much power for themselves. Arthur preferred to have his knights dominate the board, dancing around Morgana’s slippery bishops while his pawns did the real work in the background. He might occasionally have his own bishop step in, or even a rook, to pluck up Morgana’s pawns and line them neatly along the side of the table. Morgana said the pawns didn’t matter, that they were only a line of defence needed in the beginning anyways. But Arthur always argued that a piece was a piece, no matter how inconsequential.
The game was well underway, and Arthur had effectively forgotten his troubles—why he had slept poorly, why he was even back home in the first place—when the door to the study suddenly opened and a puzzled-looking Merlin walked in.
“Oh!” Merlin exclaimed upon seeing them. “Sorry, I didn’t...I got turned around. This house is...Sorry, I’ll just...”
Merlin spun on his heel to escape, and Arthur was going to let him, no matter how badly he wanted to scream for him to stay. But Morgana spoke up before Merlin could completely close the door behind him.
“Merlin,” she called. “Why don’t you join us?”
Merlin’s head peeked through the doorway. Arthur had never seen him so...so childlike. But that’s how Merlin’s looked now, tall and thin, wary and worried, like he might crumble at any second. When he walked into the room and glanced at Arthur, however, the look was anything but innocent. It was almost hateful, which tore Arthur up inside.
“I’m beating him at the moment,” Morgana declared proudly.
“No she’s not,” Arthur said. “She only thinks she is.”
Merlin cracked a small, fake smile and took a seat on the bench by the window beside them. After a moment of studying the board, he said, “Arthur has more pieces.”
Morgana huffed. “It’s not who has more pieces, Merlin, it’s how you use them.”
“What?” Morgana prodded.
“Nothing, nothing. Just...You can’t be using them very well if you’re losing them?”
Arthur laughed. “He’s right, Morgana. He doesn’t even know anything about chess and he knows that.”
Morgana grit her teeth and glared at the two of them. “We’ll see.” She moved a rook nearly all the way across the board, where it ended up dangerously close to one of Arthur’s knights.
Arthur frowned. He should have seen that move coming. He scanned the layout of the pieces, searching for a countermove. In his peripheral vision, Merlin sat on his hands, momentarily distracting Arthur with his presence.
In the end, Arthur just moved the knight away, buying himself time to think of a proper strategy. As the game went on however, with Merlin perched in front of the window—causing his shadow to fall over the table—Arthur saw his precious pawns slipping out of his grasp.
Arthur rubbed his forehead in frustration. It had all been going so well until Merlin showed up. He found himself fighting off intruding thoughts of how to apologise, or whether or not Merlin was still angry. But of course Merlin was still angry. Arthur had denied the friendship he had so dearly clung to, and called him nothing but a hired fuck. Unthinkingly, Arthur sent in his rook to capture Morgana’s bishop, only because it was the most obvious move he could make.
Then, from seemingly nowhere, one of Morgana’s knights swooped in a claimed it. Morgana smiled as she placed Arthur’s ivory tower in the line with all his other captured pieces.
Arthur had completely forgotten about Morgana’s knights. She rarely played them, choosing instead to hide them in the background. Arthur mentally kicked himself. She always did something stealthy like that with her knights. Would he ever learn?
“Why don’t you just give up now, Arthur?” Morgana said. “This is getting truly pathetic.”
Arthur looked at his remaining pieces: one knight, one rook, two pawns, one bishop, and his king. The knight and bishop were only barely defending the king, and they wouldn’t be able to do much against Morgana’s queen.
A sigh from Merlin interrupted Arthur’s strategising. Raising a brow at him, Arthur asked, “Bored, Merlin?”
Merlin smiled sheepishly, and the light shining through his ridiculous ears made it hard to keep up an irritated facade. “A bit,” Merlin nodded. “I’ve always found chess boring, to be honest.”
Arthur snorted. Of course. “Yes, well, it’s a good thing you’re not the one playing.”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed with anger, and his nostrils flared slightly. Morgana glanced between the two of them, and Arthur was convinced he had messed up and given themselves away. But Merlin only crossed his arms over his chest with a huff and Morgana simply smiled.
“I bet he’s still better than you,” she said.
Arthur laughed somewhat bitterly. “Hilarious, Morgana.”
“Have you ever played with him?”
“No, but I still don’t think—”
“So how would you know?” Morgana insisted. “Merlin, why don’t you play Arthur next? My brother here has such a big head, he thinks he’s invincible. I bet you could beat him easy.”
Merlin pursed his lips in thought. “How much?”
Morgana’s brow furrowed. “How much what?” Arthur was also confused.
Merlin perked up a bit, leaning forward. “How much do you bet? That I could beat him?”
Arthur laughed again. “Merlin, you’ve hardly got money to lose—”
“One hundred pounds,” Morgana said.
Merlin looked impressed by the amount. Arthur looked at them both incredulously. “You’re joking right? Morgana, it’s...it’s Merlin, for fuck’s sake.”
“So?” Merlin asked.
“So you don’t even like chess! I’ll play you if you want, but not for an hundred quid. That’s like...like robbery.”
“I’ll spot him the money,” Morgana offered. “If you lose, you owe Merlin one hundred pounds. If you win, I’ll give you the same amount.”
It sounded like an easy one hundred pounds. Plus, Arthur loved any chance to take money from Morgana. With a shrug, Arthur agreed. He shook Merlin’s hand to seal the bet.
“Great,” Morgana said, moving the pieces to set up the game.
“Oh come on, Arthur, we both know you were going to lose.”
“It would have been a stalemate, at least,” Arthur muttered, letting Morgana set up the table.
Morgana stood and gave her seat to Merlin. For a moment, Arthur felt disconnected. His two worlds seemed to clash—the old one of his miserable life at home, and the new one with Merlin. Merlin sitting across from him, where he’d so often battled his sister, was strangely surreal.
Merlin fidgeted in the seat, getting comfortable, then smiled brightly at Arthur. “Ready?”
Arthur felt a rush of blood shoot downward. That was what Merlin said whenever they got together: Ready? It was what Merlin had asked weeks before, the last time he’d slid into Arthur and fucked him, hard, like Arthur had needed it. Arthur blushed at the arousal he felt now. It was inappropriate not just because his sister was there, but because he was still at odds with Merlin over what happened the previous night.
Foregoing words, Arthur moved his pawn. The game began.
At first, it seemed like Merlin didn’t really know what he was doing. He moved pawns around the board experimentally, keeping his second row of pieces safe in their starting positions. Arthur had asked if Merlin even knew what actions the specialised pieces could perform. It was stupid to bet one hundred pounds when you didn’t even know how to play the game. But Merlin had simply glared at him and grunted out a “Yes.” So Arthur left it alone.
Then Arthur started losing pieces. The first was a pawn, and Arthur attributed it to beginner’s luck. He had made a careless mistake that left his pawn unprotected, and Merlin had taken advantage of the opening. The second, though, was a bishop, which Merlin stealthily captured with a knight. Arthur heard Morgana snickering from off to the side and got angry.
Keep a clear head, he told himself. You can’t win if you let emotions cloud your thinking. But it was easier said than done. Merlin kept coming from nowhere with pieces that Arthur had previously judged non-threats. One by one, Arthur’s ivory pieces disappeared from the board to be lined up beside Merlin.
“You knew!” Arthur accused Morgana, who hadn’t stopped laughing to herself by the window. “He told you he could play when you were giving him that tour yesterday.”
Morgana looked horrified by the suggestion. “He told me no such thing. And besides, he’s your boyfriend. You know him better than I do.”
Looking back to Merlin, Arthur saw him smirking in victory.
“You tricked me,” Arthur said, awed.
Merlin shrugged. “I just said I found chess boring. I never said I wasn’t good at it.”
Morgana laughed delightedly. “Oh, I like him.”
Arthur sighed and stared at the board moodily. He put every effort into formulating a strategy, doing his best to ignore the way Merlin’s hands fiddled with one of the captured pieces. After executing a few moves he thought were good, though certainly not his best, Arthur realised Merlin had him cornered.
“Checkmate,” Merlin’s low voice cut through the silence as soon as he placed his pawn.
Arthur blinked. He couldn’t believe it. Merlin had beat him?
He was still staring uncomprehendingly at the table when Merlin stood and walked to his side. Merlin’s voice whispered in his ear, “I’ll add that hundred quid to what you already owe me for the week. Don’t ever bet against me.”
After a quick peck on the cheek that was surely meant only to fool Morgana, Merlin shoved his hands in his pockets and left.
Arthur let his head fall to the table with a groan, the marble cool against his forehead. It seemed he’d only upset Merlin more by suggesting he was too incompetent to know how to play chess. Arthur felt even more hopeless than before.
He’d completely forgotten Morgana, until he felt a hand on his shoulder. He was startled and raised his head to look at her curiously, only to find her staring down at him just as puzzled. She seemed to be fighting for words, which was a rare occurrence in itself. But now she looked at him as if she didn’t know him, and Arthur wondered how he appeared through his sister’s eyes. How much had he changed to someone who hadn’t seen him for nearly five years?
Eventually Morgana just said softly, “What have you done, Arthur?”
Arthur didn’t have the courage to explain. He avoided her gaze until she gave up with a sigh and left him alone.
“Merlin beat Arthur at chess today,” Morgana announced that night at dinner. It was probably meant to direct the conversation towards less triggering topics, which was tactful of her, but also annoying.
Uther raised an eyebrow in Merlin and Arthur’s direction. “Oh? Is that where your strength lies then?” he asked Merlin. “In intelligence?”
Merlin shifted uncomfortably under Uther’s gaze. Arthur didn’t blame him; many men had felt the same piercing, judgemental stare.
“I suppose,” Merlin said. “I do like learning things. I always have.”
Arthur was surprised. He hadn’t known that, wouldn’t have even suspected it. But then, now that Arthur thought about it, there seemed to be a lot he didn’t know about Merlin.
“You’re a student, isn’t that right?”
“And what is it you are studying?”
Arthur tried not to appear too taken aback, but it must have failed because Uther said, “You seem surprised, Arthur. Didn’t you know?”
Merlin’s eyes flicked to his and Arthur tried to throw together a quick lie. “Of course I knew. I just—”
“I’d told him computer science before,” Merlin interrupted. “But I recently switched to engineering. He’s been trying to get me to do it for ages, and I finally did.” Merlin’s hand slipped into Arthur’s where it rested on the table and Merlin produced his most charming smile. “I didn’t really think I was good enough because engineering is so much more challenging. But Arthur has always believed in me.”
Arthur swallowed and fought down a blush. He ignored Morgana’s smirk across the table and didn’t dare look to see what Catrina thought. He turned to his father, his palm starting to sweat in Merlin’s strong hand, and stammered, “Uh, yeah.”
Uther nodded approvingly—much to Arthur’s surprise—and asked, “And your hobbies? Arthur himself seems to be sorely lacking in that department. Naturally I’m curious to know what it is his partner likes to do for fun.”
Merlin’s hand slid from Arthur’s to pick up his fork. As his smile slowly slipped into a much more genuine one, Arthur realised this was a topic which Merlin enjoyed.
“I love music,” he declared excitedly. “It’s practically my life. And since I like learning things, I’ve always found history interesting. If I could, I’d be an historian or an anthropologist maybe—”
“Why can’t you?”
“Oh, well, money, obviously. I’m better with numbers, so I figured I should use the skills I have to earn the most I can.”
“You’re skilled with numbers?”
Merlin backtracked through what he said, then, for some odd reason blushed. “I...A bit, yes.”
Uther chuckled. “Is there reason for embarrassment?”
“I, um,” Merlin faltered. He glanced at Arthur but Arthur had no idea about any of what Merlin was saying. It was the first time he’d heard it as well.
When there were no words, Arthur resorted to placing an arm over Merlin’s shoulders. He knew Merlin wouldn’t physically protest, since they were putting on a show, after all, but he wasn’t sure if Merlin would mentally welcome the action. When Merlin’s eyes didn’t give away any dislike, Arthur squeezed a bit and tried to smile encouragingly.
He ignored Catrina’s hawk eyes watching them over Merlin’s shoulder.
“My mind is, er, sort of different,” Merlin said. “I read something, or look at it, and I know it. I understand it. So with numbers and maths, it’s like...it just comes easily to me. I, erm, know the first hundred digits of pi by heart from when I saw it on a piece of paper a few years ago.”
“That’s quite impressive,” Catrina said.
Merlin’s head turned abruptly to look at her. “Thank you.”
“Ah. You have a photographic memory,” Uther said, taking a slow bite of food. The tone in which he said it was...off. It was almost as if he’d made a distasteful discovery. Arthur bristled.
“I suppose so, yes,” Merlin admitted. “Although I don’t really think there’s such a thing as photographic memories.”
“He’s quite amazing actually,” Arthur declared, sensing Merlin’s mood. “What’s two hundred thirty-six cubed, Merlin?”
Merlin thought a few seconds, then said, “Thirteen million, one hundred forty-four thousand, two hundred fifty-six.”
“Given that my father was born on the fourteenth of September, 1961, how many months has he lived so far?”
“Six hundred twenty-two.” Merlin paused. “Well, six hundred twenty-three, I guess, since this month is nearly over.”
Uther raised a brow. “That’s...”
“Odd,” Catrina finished.
“Brilliant!” Morgana exclaimed happily.
Merlin beamed at her, then at Arthur. Arthur thought—hoped—that maybe he’d made up for what had happened last night. He felt his stomach clench with anticipation and his arm tightened around Merlin, silently asking if he was forgiven.
Merlin reached up and squeezed the hand that was on his shoulder, the corners of his lips lifting just a little higher. Arthur exhaled. The rest of the meal, thankfully, was quiet.
Walking back to his bedroom, Arthur realised he should probably apologise to Merlin properly, with actual words. When they entered and Merlin made to settle at the table to do coursework, Arthur stopped him with a hand on his wrist. Merlin looked at Arthur questioningly.
Merlin put up a hand. “You don’t have to say anything, Arthur. Words are not exactly your area of expertise. I get it, okay?”
Arthur shook his head. “No, I have to say this.” He swallowed and took a deep breath, and continued when Merlin didn’t try to stop him. “I’m sorry I said you weren’t my friend. You know you’re more than just a rent boy to me. I only said that because I was angry. Well, there were a lot of emotions involved, I guess, and I couldn’t handle it. So I sort of...lashed out. And I was, um, wrong. To do that.”
Arthur waited for Merlin to say something, anything, in reply, even though he felt like there were a few more words he could have added.
“Sixteen thousand, seven hundred and eighty-four,” Merlin said flatly.
Arthur frowned. “What?”
“Sixteen thousand, seven hundred and eighty-four pounds. That’s how much money you’ve paid me over the seven months we’ve known each other.”
Arthur gaped. He was amazed by the amount. How had it managed to pile up so quickly?
“Friends don’t pay each other to stick around, Arthur.”
“I...But...” Arthur was momentarily speechless. What was Merlin saying? “You wouldn’t be my friend if I didn’t pay you?”
Merlin shook his head in frustration. “No, that’s—You only pay me for the sex. I’d still hang out with you—”
Arthur grabbed Merlin’s hand tightly. “So you are my friend.”
“Do you want to be?”
“Of course I do! I don’t know what I’d do without you!” Arthur stepped back. He hadn’t meant to reveal all that.
Merlin bit his lip and looked away. When he finally spoke, it was in response to Arthur’s earlier apology, tactfully not dwelling on what Arthur let slip.
“Look, I didn’t mean to sound like I was okay with what Catrina did to you last night. I guess that’s what you thought, right? When you said I was taking sides? But I only meant the women before. Obviously, I wasn’t around to see if they did anything similar to Catrina. I was just saying that, if they hadn’t, you should have given them a chance to prove themselves.”
Arthur was about to agree that yes, of course he’d been out of line. He had been young, angry, and impulsive. None of his actions had been warranted, none of the women before Catrina had ever been so malicious. But Merlin went on.
“That’s in the past now, though. You can’t really change your behaviour towards them since they’re long gone. And normally I would be all for an attitude change, now that you’ve realised your faults. But Catrina...”
“Is the devil,” Arthur finished, nodding in agreement.
Merlin laughed. “Definitely.”
Arthur grinned. He’d fixed it! He’d managed not to fuck up his relationship with his best and only friend!
But Merlin had become quiet again, and Arthur worried if he was thinking about what Arthur had exclaimed. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
“Did you...” Merlin began hesitantly. “Did you mean what you said to your father yesterday? About me being strong?”
Arthur felt his throat tighten with emotion and his face heated with blush. He tried to step away from Merlin, give them each some more room to breathe, but Merlin held him firmly.
“I meant some of it,” Arthur admitted. “You, um. You’re very important to me, Merlin. I would even go so far as to say I need you. But I’m not quite as dependent on alcohol as I made my father believe.” He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. He couldn’t believe he’d just told Merlin he needed him. It was true, but still...Once again, Merlin held Arthur’s life in his hands.
Those same hands now reached up to cradle Arthur’s face and tilt it just slightly upwards, forcing him to look Merlin in the eyes. Merlin stared at him like he never had before, seeming to search Arthur’s face for something. Arthur didn’t know what Merlin was searching for; he only knew that he wanted to give it to Merlin, would give Merlin anything gladly.
There was a frightening thought.
They had only kissed a handful of times. Occasionally, when they fucked, Merlin would bring their mouths together and ravage Arthur so thoroughly with his tongue that Arthur felt dizzy. Merlin would wrap his fingers around Arthur’s neck, squeeze just enough to make it difficult for Arthur to breathe but not enough to choke him, and suck Arthur’s bottom lip as he did it. Arthur could count on one hand the number of times he’d felt Merlin’s lips against his.
So it was surprising, even slightly shocking, when Merlin tilted his face to align their mouths and pressed gently against Arthur’s lips. Merlin had kept his eyes open, wordlessly asking if it was okay. When Arthur attached his hands to Merlin’s hips and parted his lips just a little more, Merlin’s eyes fluttered closed.
Arthur knew Merlin could be soft. Merlin had massaged Arthur’s worries away enough times for him to be well acquainted with the nuances of Merlin’s body. But kissing Merlin was an experience unto itself. There were little teasing bites and hitches of breath, fingers sliding into hair and flicks of tongue that promised more. Arthur’s head spun and he clutched Merlin’s shirt, holding onto the fabric as an anchor. He moaned when he felt Merlin’s tongue stop teasing and enter his mouth to fully explore. His heart hammered in his chest and he couldn’t get enough air into his lungs.
Before Arthur knew what was happening, he was pushed backwards and Merlin was straddling him on the bed. Arthur’s mind flew out in a thousand different directions. This was different—this was more passionate than any time before—but it was brilliant, too. Would he have to pay Merlin for this? What exactly was going on?
“Stop thinking,” Merlin breathed into his ear before sucking the lobe into his mouth and grinding his erection against Arthur’s. Following Merlin’s instruction was easy enough after that.
Merlin’s hands ran up the inside of Arthur’s shirt, fingertips dancing across hot skin before pulling the garment up and over Arthur’s head. Desire building, Arthur quickly removed Merlin’s shirt as well.
Arthur had wanted to take his time with Merlin many times before, to lay him out and devour him slowly. It had always seemed too personal to ask. But now, after the kissing, and seeing the way Merlin looked at him, the moment seemed right. Arthur rolled them over until he was above Merlin, laying flat between Merlin’s legs, and lowered his mouth to Merlin’s chest. Merlin arched his spine as Arthur placed wet kisses on his skin. Arthur felt Merlin’s stomach flutter when he attached his lips just beneath Merlin’s navel.
The jeans were going to be a problem. Arthur reached up to undo them, but Merlin swatted his hands away and had them off quickly enough. Arthur took the time to remove his pants and trousers as well, throwing them carelessly behind him before returning to where Merlin’s legs butterflied open invitingly.
Merlin pulled him forward for another mind blowing kiss, raising his hips to brush their cocks together again. Arthur gasped and grabbed a fistful of the duvet as he moaned into Merlin’s mouth. He stifled another when Merlin’s hand slid down to wrap fingers around both of them and start stroking.
Arthur had long lost the ability to keep himself from thrusting into Merlin’s grasp by the time Merlin whispered something else in his ear. “Open me up, Arthur.” Merlin’s hand fell away and Arthur scrambled off the bed for where he packed the lube, Merlin’s breathy laughter echoing through the room.
When Arthur turned around with the required items in hand, he saw Merlin stretched out, fisting his cock as he waited for Arthur to prepare him. Arthur felt a powerful bolt of nerves shoot to his groin. “Fuck, you’re gorgeous,” he blurted. Merlin looked like some sort of Greek god, all pale skin and lean limbs splayed across the bed.
Merlin grinned. “Get over here,” he said, speeding up his hand until it was a blur over his cock.
Arthur sprung into action, jumping forward onto the bed and stilling Merlin’s hand. He popped the cap off the lube and drizzled some over Merlin’s perineum where it dripped down into his arse, making him inhale sharply and shudder.
Arthur could also count on one hand the amount of times he’d had Merlin’s cock in his mouth, but if they were breaking all the rules, Arthur figured he should at least indulge. As he circled his finger around Merlin’s entrance, he leaned forward and took the head between his lips, twirling his tongue around and tasting the tangy precome.
“Ah, Arthur, fuck,” Merlin panted, his thighs quivering with the strain not to push upwards. “I always thought...Fuck, do you like that?”
Arthur nodded as he sank lower and finally breached Merlin’s hole fully with his finger. Of course he liked sucking Merlin’s cock. He loved it. It was only because Merlin was always so focused on giving pleasure instead of getting that Arthur was deprived of it. That, along with Merlin’s other mysterious clients making Arthur a little more cautious where he put his mouth.
“Did you want...” Merlin’s hand came to rest hesitantly on the top of Arthur’s head and pushed down slowly until Arthur’s nose was buried in Merlin’s pubic curls. Arthur could barely breathe and Merlin’s cock was large enough to make Arthur’s jaw ache with the stretch.
But Arthur understood what Merlin was asking. Merlin knew full well how much Arthur enjoyed having his throat restricted during the heat of the moment. He was—basically—asking if Arthur wanted to be choked with his cock.
Arthur pulled back a bit, spit dripping from his mouth and down Merlin’s shaft, only to lower himself farther on the way back down. That was answer enough for Merlin, who tightened his hold on Arthur’s hair and began fucking Arthur’s mouth with a low growl. Arthur shut his eyes and focused on controlling his gag reflex.
As Merlin pistoned his hips upward, his hole tightened around Arthur’s finger, and Arthur was reminded of the task at hand. As much as he loved the feel of Merlin’s cock sliding between his lips, making it hard for him to breathe and bringing black dots to his vision, he also wanted to finish what he started. Attempting to multitask, Arthur began to pump his finger in and out of Merlin’s clenching arse.
“Oh, oh, Christ, Arthur, how are you so—Fuck, fuck!” Merlin shouted as he tensed up and spurted release down Arthur’s throat. His fingers curling tight in Arthur’s hair were so painful Arthur thought Merlin might rip it from his scalp. Tears sprung to his eyes as he felt Merlin’s hot come hit his tongue.
Merlin was shaking when he came back down, and his chest heaved with each deep breath. Arthur let Merlin slip slowly from his mouth and swallowed the thick fluid that had accumulated. He waited until Merlin opened his eyes again to pour more lube onto his fingers and add another. Merlin snorted in amusement but hitched a leg up to better accommodate him.
It wasn’t five minutes before Merlin said he was ready. Arthur tore open the condom beside him, slipped it on with ease, and was about to line himself up with Merlin when Merlin rolled them over and straddled Arthur again.
“You’ve got to start giving me some warning,” Arthur said, voice hoarse.
Merlin smiled, but didn’t respond. He reached behind him and grabbed Arthur’s cock, finding the right angle to sink down on it ever so slowly.
Arthur held his breath as he watched his cock disappear into Merlin’s body. Merlin was panting again by the time he’d taken Arthur all the way. He lay his hands on Arthur’s chest while he let his arse get used to the stretch.
Watching Merlin breathe through parted lips, Arthur thought he’d really like to kiss them again. The thought took him by surprise. He hadn’t thought much of kissing Merlin before, had only taken it when it was given. Now he found himself craving it. He pulled Merlin down and forced their lips together desperately.
He indulged in Merlin’s lips as long as he could; sucking, licking, nibbling, teasing. Then Merlin began to move, rocking up and down on Arthur’s cock, and all Arthur could do was gasp into Merlin’s mouth, sharing the hot air between them.
Merlin kissed down Arthur’s jaw, to his neck, until he finally pulled away entirely and sat up again to ride Arthur properly. Arthur held onto Merlin’s hips as Merlin raised himself up and let gravity pull him back down.
Besides the tightening in his legs that made its way up into his groin, Arthur felt a tightening in his chest as well. It was as if someone had reached inside him, wrapped fingers around his heart, and started to squeeze. But it was a pleasant ache, the best sort of pain, because Arthur knew it was all Merlin’s doing. Seeing Merlin bouncing up and down, forehead breaking out in a sweat, Arthur thought—not for the first time—that Merlin was beautiful. Arthur felt incredibly lucky to have him here. Merlin made every muscle in Arthur’s body tight with emotion.
When Merlin entwined their fingers together, Arthur felt himself edging closer. Merlin must have felt it too, because he urged Arthur on, saying, “Come on, fuck me,” until Arthur started jerking his hips up to ram into Merlin harder. Then the only thing that came out of Merlin’s mouth was the occasional moan and whimper.
I want him, Arthur thought as his pleasure peaked. I want him, all of him, the part with a photographic memory, and the numbers, and the computer engineering part, I want the chess-playing part, I want him I want him I want him—
“Nnnngh!” Arthur’s eyes squeezed shut as he spasmed and erupted inside Merlin’s heat. He felt pleasure explode and seep from his skin in pulsating waves. He gripped Merlin’s thighs as he rode it to completion.
And I don’t want to lose him.
Arthur blinked his eyes open to see Merlin staring down at him, a dopey smile on his face. One of Merlin’s hands caressed Arthur’s cheek, brushed part of Arthur’s sweaty fringe out of his face, then caressed him again. Arthur felt like he must have been glowing with happiness. Everything felt so...right.
As Merlin lifted himself up and disposed of the condom for Arthur, Arthur felt uncertainty creep in. What they’d just done...that wasn’t anything like what they’d done before. It had been...strangely emotional. Arthur started panicking, but was careful not to let it show.
Merlin slipped beneath the duvet with a warm grin. “This bed is much nicer than the one I slept in last night. The mattress is a lot softer.”
“Yeah, the, uh, guest bedrooms aren’t really used,” Arthur said as he stood to put his pants on. He waited until he had joined Merlin beneath the duvet to ask the first question that plagued his mind. “Was that...Will that be added to what I owe you at the end of the week as well?” he asked with what he hoped was a teasing smile.
Apparently, Merlin didn’t find it funny. The colour left his face and he blinked a few times before his expression turned angry.
“What?” Arthur asked, confused.
Merlin, to Arthur’s annoyance, refused to say anything. He bolted from the bed, shoved his legs into his pants and jeans—completely ignoring Arthur’s pleas for him to say something—then left in a huff.
Arthur punched a pillow. What the hell had he even done wrong this time?
Arthur didn’t remember falling asleep; he only remembered tossing and turning for what seemed like an endless amount of time until suddenly the sun was up. Needless to say, he was completely knackered, physically and emotionally.
There was no Morgana to distract him with a chess game, and Arthur certainly wasn’t going to go out of his way to find her and ask for one. There were no clients to respond to because he’d managed to contact them all and clear his schedule for the rest of the week the day before. And he had no desire to walk aimlessly around the house he’d grown up in, because that would only bring back bad memories.
So Arthur lay in bed for two hours, listening to the wind beat the side of the house and the birds singing outside, until his stomach growled and reminded him that his body had needs. Groaning, Arthur sat up, stretched, and shakily got to his feet.
For once, Arthur was lucky. One of the maids was passing by as he opened his door. Arthur called out to her—a simple “Hey!” since he didn’t know her name—and told her to bring him breakfast.
She furrowed her brow and her thin pink lips turned down just a bit at the corners. “Do you know what time it is, sir?”
Arthur waved his hand in dismissal. “Lunch, then, I don’t bloody care. Just bring me something.”
“Of course, sir,” she said tersely and walked away.
Arthur closed his bedroom door with a sigh. Maybe after he ate he would go searching for Merlin, try to fix things yet again. But what would he say? He hadn’t the slightest idea what he should apologise for in the first place. Perhaps Merlin simply wanted space? If Merlin wanted to speak to him, wouldn’t he come searching Arthur out on his own? Surely, Merlin wouldn’t leave, either way. Not now that he knew Arthur needed him.
Arthur suddenly felt weak at the thought, and wrapped his arms around himself. Merlin knew practically everything now. Arthur had come right out and said he needed Merlin, and now they were in another disagreement and Merlin could...fuck, Merlin could ruin him!
Arthur had trouble swallowing and couldn’t manage to breathe easily.
What have I done? he mourned. This is exactly why I don’t get into relationships. Fuck fuck fuck, what have I done?!
Arthur had to backtrack a bit. Was it his friendship with Merlin he was trying to salvage, or something more? After last night, Arthur didn’t even know. Everything was all muddled. Arthur remembered thinking he wanted Merlin, every single spectacular part, but that had been in the heat of the moment, before it all went to shit.
What did Arthur want now?
A knock at the door brought him back to his senses and he realised he had sunk to the floor. He scrambled to his feet and balled his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “Come in,” he said at firmly as he could.
The maid he’d sent for food entered with a tray and quickly set it down on the table beside his laptop. “Will that be all, sir?” she asked, hands clasping in front of the square of her apron.
Arthur was about to send her off with a nod, but paused and reconsidered. “Has my boyfriend been around?” he asked. “He seems to have woken before me and wandered off somewhere.”
At first, she looked puzzled, then some sign of recognition came into her eyes. “Oh, is he the one with the...” She gestured to her ear and Arthur nodded, chuckling despite himself. “I passed him in the hallway earlier this morning. He had a book in his hand. Perhaps he went to read somewhere?”
Arthur felt only a little better knowing that Merlin was still on the property, and apparently reading. Maybe he was also trying to get his mind off of what happened, what it could possibly mean for them. Though if he was just as troubled as Arthur, why didn’t he come and say something? It was he who had left so abruptly, with no explanation, after all. Sure, Arthur was shit with words, but wouldn’t talking it out be better than this horrible limbo?
Dismissing the maid and sitting down to eat, Arthur decided that if Merlin wanted space, he’d give him space. If Merlin wanted to talk, he’d wait for Merlin to come and talk. Arthur had nothing to say, no idea how to fix things this time. And if he tried, he could possibly end up just making things worse. Arthur could only hope that whatever Merlin ended up doing wouldn’t make him feel any more broken than he already felt.
It was a tentative solution, but what else could he do? He had to guard his own heart somehow.
The only time Arthur saw Merlin that day was at dinner. Merlin had come to Arthur’s room around six in the evening, surprising Arthur out of his game of Solitaire on his computer, and said quietly, “Morgana says dinner’s ready. I figured we should show up together.”
The resulting walk to the dining room was awkwardly silent, the tension almost painful. Arthur waited in vain for Merlin to say something, but no words ever came. It was a miracle that they still somehow managed to feign an untroubled relationship for the entirety of the meal.
After dinner, Merlin made a show of walking at least halfway back to the room with Arthur, then disappeared down an adjacent hallway to do who-knows-what. All hope that Merlin might bring up what was surely on both their minds was crushed the instant Merlin left without so much as a grunt of farewell. Arthur fought with himself, wanting to go after him but not knowing what to say and fearing he might do further damage.
In the end, he dragged his feet all the way back to his room and continued sulking. He thought of the wine in the spiral cellar longingly, but cast aside that course of action bitterly. If word got out that he’d been down there, his father would know soon enough that something was wrong, and Arthur couldn’t risk that.
Arthur got to sleep no better that night than he did the last, but must have drifted off at some point, because again the sun surprised him the next morning. There was, however, another surprise in the form of Merlin dozing heavily in the armchair by the far wall.
Arthur sat upright slowly, not wanting to alarm him. He lost track of time staring at Merlin’s sleeping features: the subtle pout of his lips, the occasional furrow of his brow due to some event in his dream, the steady rise and fall of his chest. When the clouds suddenly made way for the sun and rays were cast on Merlin’s figure, Arthur felt the painful squeeze of his heart clenching again.
Shit, Arthur swore to himself. I’m in love. Shit!
Arthur tried to calm himself. He tried to imagine his life without Merlin, thinking that exercise would be as good a start as any to emotionally distance himself. But just the thought of enduring a whole day of work and not having Merlin to look forward to was dreadful. And—even worse—Arthur discovered that he didn’t want to try to imagine life without Merlin.
He was well and truly fucked.
Great job, Pendragon, falling in love with a rent boy.
Arthur threw back the duvet. He couldn’t take any more of this. He’d never been one for inaction. So what if he didn’t exactly have a plan? He’d shake Merlin awake and demand an explanation. From there...well, he’d just have to see how things played out.
Not wanting to wake Merlin a second too soon, Arthur tiptoed across the room as quietly as he was able. He was just about to reach out and touch Merlin’s shoulder when he spied the papers that littered the table beside him.
Arthur paused to look at them, transfixed by the numbers and symbols in Merlin’s spiky handwriting. It looked like a rather elaborate code for a program. But that was impossible, wasn’t it? People wrote code on computers. Even Arthur knew that there were data libraries used for reference, things that needed to be looked up before being implemented. Nobody wrote anything by hand anymore.
Unless they were a computer genius with a photographic memory.
Mesmerised, Arthur shuffled the papers around to study them more closely. Though Merlin’s handwriting was small, and he obviously pressed too hard to the paper at times, it was organised and consistent. Arthur knew next to nothing about programming, and had absolutely zero engineering skills, but he could tell Merlin’s work was precise and elegant. Arthur felt a warm sense of pride wash over him.
“Arthur?” Merlin’s tired voice sounded behind him. “What are you...what are you doing?”
Arthur stepped away from the stack of papers and went to Merlin, suddenly overcome with a need for knowledge.
“Merlin,” he began, putting a hand on Merlin’s shoulder as Merlin rubbed his eyes. “What the hell are you doing as a rent boy if you’ve got so much talent? You’re brilliant!” he exclaimed, gesturing at Merlin’s work. “You could probably hack into banks all across the world and take all the money you wanted!”
Merlin’s brow furrowed, and he looked at Arthur, blinking the last bits of sleep away. Arthur was going to say that he wasn’t serious, obviously, but the point was that Merlin could if he wanted to. However, Merlin said, “I was already...I already got caught changing people’s marks in college. I was lucky not to be expelled. I think I was put on some sort of list because I was told they’d be watching me.”
Arthur gaped at the revelation, but soon collected himself. “Either way, Merlin, there’s loads of companies that would pay for your skills. Why would you—You’re so much better than this, and you’re just selling your body like it’s—”
Merlin must have remembered he was supposed to be angry with Arthur, because just then he stood abruptly and pushed Arthur away to go shower. Arthur realised too late that he’d botched up his initial plan to get an explanation. There was no way Merlin would talk to him now.
Arthur listened to the spray of the shower and chewed his nails, something he hadn’t done since he was in his teens. He waited anxiously for Merlin to finish, but when Merlin came out and began to dress, he gave Arthur this look that said he didn’t want to talk. Arthur didn’t want to make things any worse, not when there was still a slight chance of saving at least their friendship. So he kept his mouth shut up until the point when Merlin opened the door.
“You can sleep in the bed if you like,” Arthur blurted out. Merlin froze with his hand on the door knob. “I’ll take the chair. And, um, thank you. For not leaving.”
Merlin didn’t look back, only sighed and exited without a word. Arthur mentally despaired again. He was just making a fool of himself at this point. But it was all Merlin’s fault! Merlin was making it too damn hard to approach him, what with his murderous glances and cold shoulder. Arthur felt like he was walking on eggshells. Finding out that he was in love with the stupid man only made things worse.
After showering and dressing himself, Arthur went out to the balcony that overlooked the forest on the eastern side. Spending the previous day indoors hadn’t done him any good, so he figured he’d give moping out in the fresh air a try.
He was in the middle of going over that pivotal conversation they’d had in bed for the thousandth time, when he lowered his gaze and saw his father having breakfast with Catrina below. Catrina was sitting ramrod straight with her legs crossed and one hand in her lap as she ate a strawberry, speaking with a smile on her face. Uther sat across from her, nodding at intervals, evidently hanging onto her every word. He had a rapt expression on his face, the kind Arthur had never before seen.
Arthur stared at Catrina a while, noting even from his distant place on the balcony the satisfied way in which she looked at his father, the little twinkle in her eye that came from the pleasure of having someone so tightly wrapped around her finger. Arthur watched in disgust, forgetting his own problems for the moment.
“Pathetic, isn’t it?” Morgana’s voice said beside him.
Arthur turned and saw with surprise that his sister had joined him in leaning against the balcony. “Quite,” he said simply, returning his gaze to the scene below.
“He’s so enamoured with her. He lets her get away with practically anything and gives her whatever she wants.”
“Clearly.” Arthur remembered all too well how Uther had just laughed when Catrina had mocked him.
“The key word is ‘practically’ though. Surely you’ve noticed our dinners are much more quiet since the first night?”
Arthur nodded. Hardly a word had been spoken between anyone at the dining table. Arthur attributed it to nobody wanting to raise another argument.
“One of the servants overheard them speaking after dinner. Apparently Father said she was never to treat either of us in such a way again,” Morgana explained. “Catrina apologised and said that she was only trying to bridge the gap between the two of you. She wanted you to ‘come to your senses and try to fix things.’ I’m still under the impression that she was just poking you with a stick.”
“More like a taser,” Arthur muttered.
Morgana laughed, the sound getting swept up in the wind and dancing off into the air. However, when she looked at Arthur, it was with a quiet sadness. Arthur hunched his shoulders, already somewhat certain of what she was about to say.
“Speaking of coming to your senses and trying to fix things,” she began. “I saw Merlin on my way here. He forgot how to get to the library and asked me to show him. He seemed pretty upset.”
Arthur wondered if she knew he and Merlin weren’t really together, that it was all a ruse designed to show his father that he actually could commit to something.
“What did you do, Arthur?” she asked, sighing as if she were the one frustrated.
Arthur shrugged. “I don’t know. We had a row a couple nights ago, and I thought we’d put it behind us. There was even makeup sex and everything—”
“Spare me the details.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “And then...Well, I guess I said something and he took it the wrong way. But I can’t imagine any other way he could have taken it, and now...I think he might...”
It was Morgana’s hand on his that made him realise he was shaking. He blinked in surprise but didn’t jerk away.
“He’s not going to leave you, Arthur.”
Arthur groaned. Morgana didn’t know the truth. She didn’t know how fragile the whole situation was. She couldn’t possibly understand that Merlin was just a rent boy/sometimes friend that had managed to worm his way inside Arthur’s heart and take up residence there.
“You don’t know that, Morgana.”
“Yes, I do. He loves you, Arthur.”
“He does. Any idiot that bothered to pay attention could see that. And clearly you’re more of an idiot than I thought you were.”
Arthur took his hand back and returned to watching the trees sway in the wind. Morgana didn’t know anything. It would be best to just let her call him names so she could feel superior as always.
Morgana huffed angrily and grabbed his arm, pulling him away from the balcony. “Hey!” Arthur protested.
“Go to the library and talk to your fucking boyfriend already. Between our father and Catrina, and you and Merlin, I’ve had it with the relationships in this house,” she said, throwing Arthur into the corridor. “Go sort out your shit!” She stomped off in the other direction without a second glance, obviously confident that Arthur would do as she ordered.
Arthur wanted to go right back outside and continue sulking, but he remembered waking up just that short time ago and seeing Merlin, beautiful and peaceful as he slept. That was what he was risking if he didn’t take initiative and try to fix things himself, if he ran away like he had with his father. He couldn’t do that with Merlin. Merlin was too precious.
Arthur went to the library.
The library was a room in which Arthur had spent little time as a boy. He enjoyed the smell of the books, and could appreciate the quiet peacefulness to be found there, but he’d always been the type of child that preferred being outdoors more.
Now, wandering through the rows of bookshelves, and noticing that his father had acquired quite the collection during his five year absence, Arthur realised he should have paid more attention to where things were located. He walked up and down aisle after aisle until he finally came upon Merlin where the books on Greek history were kept.
Merlin’s back was turned to him, and Merlin was looking at something in his hand. Coming closer and peering over Merlin’s shoulder, Arthur saw that he was looking up train schedules on his mobile.
“Are you leaving?” Arthur asked, startling Merlin.
Merlin spun around with a guilty expression on his face. “I...” He trailed off and turned back around.
“Please stay,” Arthur begged, touching Merlin’s shoulder. “It’s just a couple more days. I don’t think I can handle Catrina and my father on my own.” When Merlin didn’t reply, Arthur added, “I can pay you more, if that’s—”
“It’s not about the money, you idiot!” Merlin snapped, spinning around again. “Fuck’s sake, Arthur, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this!”
This is it, Arthur thought. This is when he leaves me and moves on.
“D-Doing what?” Arthur asked.
“This!” Merlin gestured to the two of them angrily. “Arthur, I’ve wanted you for months now. Not just paid sex, but you, the man. The only thing was that you don’t do relationships. So I thought fine, I’ll just take what I can get, and keep fucking you for money. And then you ask me to do this and...” Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose. “I knew it would be hell on my emotions. I knew it was a bad idea. But then you had to go and say you trusted me. And when we got here you told your father about how much you depended on me...How the hell was I suppose to respond to that? When you told him all that stuff, I thought there might be hope, that maybe you felt at least some of what I felt for you.”
“Let me finish!” Arthur shut his mouth. With a deep breath, Merlin continued, though he lowered his voice. “After what you said that night in the garden, I was so upset. You have no idea how hurt I was, Arthur. Every bit of common sense I had was screaming at me to go, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I kept thinking how you said you’d be a wreck if it wasn’t for me, so I stayed. And then at dinner, when I told everyone about my thing with numbers, you looked at me like...like you actually cared, so I thought...”
Merlin lowered his head quickly and pawed at his eyes. Arthur bit his tongue to keep from saying anything. He wanted so badly to speak, to wrap his arms around Merlin and comfort him somehow, but he had a feeling Merlin wasn’t finished yet.
Merlin wasn’t. He sniffled and looked at Arthur again after a few seconds. “I thought for sure what we did that night meant something. You looked...It felt...different.”
Arthur bit his tongue a little harder and nodded. If Merlin had felt it, too...Arthur just hoped he still had a chance at fixing things.
“But then you went and brought up money and I realised it wasn’t different at all,” Merlin spat. “I’ll always be just some rent boy to you, no matter how much you claim you need me.”
That was all Arthur could take. “Merlin, no!” he protested, grabbing Merlin’s arm. “I meant every word of what I said to you that night. That was the problem. I was...fuck, Merlin, I was scared!”
Merlin scowled angrily, but Arthur knew him well enough by now to know he was covering up confused hurt. “What do you mean ‘that was the problem?’ Don’t tell me you can’t deal with needing someone just because you’ve got too big of an ego—”
“I can’t deal with needing someone,” Arthur explained. “Merlin, I’ve always had to remind myself that no matter how special you make me feel, I’m just another client—”
“And I didn’t want to be used and tossed aside like my father does with everyone else, so I tried not to get too close. I mean, I failed miserably, obviously, because I did end up needing you, as I said—”
“Arthur, what are you saying?” Merlin asked, holding onto Arthur’s forearms just as tightly. Arthur realised they were both trembling.
Arthur looked deep into Merlin’s eyes, searching for an inner well of courage to continue on. “I’m saying...if I haven’t fucked things up too badly...I would like it if you were my boyfriend. For real.”
Arthur held his breath, watching Merlin carefully. It would never cease to amaze Arthur how much trust he’d put in Merlin, practically giving the man his life. This moment could literally break Arthur. Maybe not forever, but long enough to have lasting effects. Arthur would never be the same if Merlin rejected him now.
The only change in Merlin’s countenance was his brow furrowing a little more. His hands travelled up Arthur’s arms, latching onto bits of fabric like claws until they clutched fistfuls of Arthur’s collar and stayed there, holding him so close their noses touched.
“Arthur,” he breathed, his voice not far off from being a sob. “I would never ever toss you aside. Not for all the money in the world.”
It took a moment for the words to process, but when they did, Arthur felt his mouth spread in a slow smile, mirroring Merlin’s own. He laughed, giggling excitedly, and Merlin did, too. Arthur saw the future appear before him, ripe with Merlin-filled mornings and nights until the end of his days. He pulled Merlin to him, wrapping his arms around Merlin and clinging tightly. He buried his face in Merlin’s neck, loving the scent that rushed his nose, then began pressing quick kisses up the side of Merlin’s throat. Merlin chuckled and Arthur felt the vibrations against his lips.
“You’re mine, aren’t you, Merlin?” Arthur whispered affectionately after a few moments. “You’ll quit this rent boy business and let me give you everything you need, yeah?”
Merlin stilled, and Arthur thought maybe he’d gone and said the wrong thing again. Merlin pulled away just enough to look Arthur in the eyes, licked his lips and said, “I’ll stop seeing my clients but...I can’t ask you to pay for everything, Arthur.”
“I don’t understand. What else are you paying for besides your flat and uni?”
Merlin bit his lip and looked away. Arthur grabbed hold of his chin and made Merlin look at him. “What is it?” he insisted.
“You asked why I...why I sell my body. Some of it is uni, yeah, but most of it...It’s for my mum. She’s in hospital with breast cancer.”
“What!” How could Arthur not know? Even if he hadn’t known that much about Merlin, something as critical as this surely wouldn’t have escaped his notice. Why had Merlin never said anything before? “Is she—”
“It’s totally curable,” Merlin assured him hurriedly. “They caught it early enough. She’ll live. It’s just that I need money for her treatment, and I need it quick. I tried a normal job for a little while but it wasn't enough. So...” Merlin shrugged the rest.
“Oh God, Merlin,” Arthur groaned, pressing his forehead to Merlin’s. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not your problem.”
“Well, now it is. I’m paying for everything and you can’t stop me.”
“I mean it. I’ve already paid over sixteen thousand pounds for you and I’ll gladly pay more.” Now that Arthur was certain Merlin wouldn’t leave, he cradled Merlin’s face and kissed him confidently. “Let me take care of you, for once.”
Giving in, Merlin smiled and kissed back. “We’ll take care of each other.”
Two days later, Arthur woke up to the sight of Merlin staring fondly at him, and smiled.
“Morning,” Merlin said and kissed Arthur fully awake.
Arthur didn’t think he’d ever get used to the way Merlin made him glow with happiness not even one minute after opening his eyes each morning. And this was only the third one they’d shared together! Arthur got overwhelmed with emotion every time he thought about how many more mornings there would be to come.
“Morning,” Arthur replied, licking up the remnants of the kiss from his lips.
Merlin’s hand found Arthur’s beneath the sheets and entwined their fingers. “You ready for today?”
Before all of, well, this, Arthur had honestly been trying to figure out how he’d make it through the wedding. He’d been depending on the fact that Merlin would be by his side, solid and strong and reassuring simply with his presence. Merlin would still be by his side, but now Arthur was safe in the knowledge that he always would be, that Merlin’s strength would be there for him to pull from whenever he needed it.
Arthur felt like he could face anything.
“Yes. What time is it?”
Merlin twisted his torso and reached for his mobile on the nightstand beside him. “We have about two hours to get ready,” he said, then turned back to Arthur with a devious twinkle in his eye. “Want to save time and shower together?”
Arthur grinned back at him. “Sure. All for the sake of saving time, of course.”
Merlin nodded and moved a leg until it was positioned across Arthur’s waist, bringing their groins together. Arthur’s hand seemed to have a mind of its own and slid down naturally to cup Merlin’s arse.
“I’m still a bit sore from last night,” Merlin said in a low voice. “You know what that means.”
Arthur chuckled. “Your cock, my arse?”
Giggling madly, Merlin leapt out of bed and pulled Arthur by the hand to the loo. Even though Merlin’s hair was sticking up at odd angles, and he’d acquired a bit of scruff during the week, he was radiant. Arthur realised that he wasn’t the only one filled with seemingly endless ecstasy, and felt his connection to Merlin strengthen like a tangible bond as he was pulled along.
Over the past two days, Arthur had seen a side to Merlin that Merlin must have been keeping hidden. Whenever they’d got together before, Merlin was quiet, not in the sense that he didn’t talk much, but in that he simply didn’t raise his voice. He had gone about things in a serious manner, only occasionally making cynical jokes or teasing Arthur with a wry grin. Now Arthur saw that Merlin could be like a child in his excitement, loud and playful and boisterous. His smiles were much more free and relaxed, his eyes shining with unchecked admiration whenever he looked at Arthur.
It was with that air of playfulness that Merlin rid them each of their clothing and hustled into the shower. Arthur was already hard from the anticipation when they stepped under the spray. When Merlin bit his lip seductively and wrapped his fingers around Arthur’s cock, Arthur curled his hand on Merlin’s hip to keep his balance.
Merlin’s other hand came up to the back of Arthur’s neck to pull him forward for a kiss. Unlike the chaste kiss when Arthur woke up, this was deep and messy. Merlin’s beard was a rough tickle where it rubbed against Arthur’s skin.
Arthur moaned into the kiss when Merlin’s hand on him sped up. He trailed his own hand down and cupped Merlin’s balls in revenge, smiling triumphantly when Merlin gasped.
“Stop teasing,” he said against Merlin’s parted lips.
Merlin grunted and spun Arthur around. Arthur had to put one hand up on the tile wall and grab Merlin’s waist with the other to keep from slipping.
And then soapy fingers were at his arse, nudging his cheeks apart. Arthur helped by widening his stance and pushing back. He shuddered when Merlin’s mouth suddenly came to his ear and breathed heavily into it.
“No idea how hot you look with water dripping down your back,” Merlin whispered as the first of his fingers pushed its way inside.
Arthur keened and tilted his neck back until his head rested on Merlin’s shoulder, his cheek brushing the roughness of Merlin’s face again.
Merlin kissed the side of Arthur’s mouth as his finger moved in circles inside Arthur’s arse. His free hand ran up Arthur’s stomach, pulling him back until there was no space left between their bodies. Arthur felt Merlin’s erection prod him and was getting more impatient by the second. He raised up on tiptoes then came back down, fucking himself on Merlin’s single digit.
“Fuck, Arthur,” Merlin said shakily. He began jerking his finger in and out, giving Arthur some relief, a taste of what was to come, but not nearly enough.
“Merlin,” Arthur growled, impatience peaking.
Merlin sped up the pace, though it was obvious he wanted to take his time and enjoy their first shower fuck. By the time Arthur was sufficiently stretched, Arthur was still under the impression it could have gone quicker if Merlin tried harder.
He didn’t have much time to feel too bad about it though, because then Merlin pushed Arthur forward a little, bending him from the waist just slightly, and pushing his cock inside. Arthur pushed back, taking Merlin in in one swift motion that left both of them breathless.
Suddenly, Arthur realised it was the first time they’d fucked without a condom—the first time Arthur had trusted anyone enough to fuck him completely bare. Merlin had assured him that he was clean, so Arthur wasn’t too worried about that. He was more focused on the fact that there wasn’t a single layer between them, that he was skin to skin with Merlin and that Merlin’s orgasm would be spilled inside him. In his mind’s eye, he could already see the white fluid that would drip from his hole and down his thigh, how filthy he’d be full of Merlin’s semen and how he’d look from Merlin’s perspective.
He couldn’t wait to make it a reality. He started rocking back and forth on Merlin’s cock, clenching his arse to squeeze it tighter and wring Merlin’s climax from him sooner.
“Ah, Arthur!” Merlin yelped in surprise, hands going to Arthur’s waist.
Arthur reached back and held Merlin’s thigh, using his other hand to prop himself up on the wall. He rolled his hips so Merlin’s cock would hit every perfect nerve inside him, and took what he needed from Merlin’s body while simultaneously giving Merlin everything he had. He didn’t even need to touch himself; the feel of Merlin’s naked cock sliding in and out of him was enough to push him closer and closer to the edge.
“A-Arthur, I’m going to—fuck, I’m gonna—”
“Do it, come inside me, Merlin,” Arthur panted, picking up the pace. “Wanna feel you, come on, give it to me, please—”
Merlin’s fingernails dug into Arthur’s skin painfully, but Arthur barely noticed. He felt Merlin’s cock throb against the walls of his arse, felt Merlin’s orgasm shoot into him with a force he wasn’t expecting, filling his hole with a pleasant warmth. Merlin thrusted a few more times, pushing his come deeper inside, and that’s what finally brought Arthur over. He came without a single touch to his cock.
Arthur nearly slipped, he was so blissed out from coming, but Merlin’s arm crossed over his chest and managed to keep him upright. He felt the loss immediately when Merlin slid out, and despite the water already dripping down his skin, he was able to tell what was water and what was Merlin’s come running down the back of his thigh. He felt more satisfied than ever.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Merlin asked, still gasping for breath in Arthur’s ear. “You’ve never...never begged before. Here I was worried you’d want me to pull out and come on your back or something, and you spring that on me.”
Arthur smiled. “I’ve never let anyone come inside me before,” he admitted, turning around to face Merlin. “I wanted to know what it felt like.”
Merlin gaped a moment, then clamped his mouth shut and chuckled. “Just when I think I’m starting to get to know you. Who would have thought Arthur posh-pants Pendragon could be so filthy?”
Arthur laughed, the sound echoing off the tile walls. “It’s a good thing we’re already in the shower then, yeah?”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “At least your sense of humour is still at its standard levels.” He turned around. “Wash my back, posh-pants.”
Arthur was putting on a cufflink and walking to the loo to see what was taking Merlin so long when he stopped dead in his tracks.
“Is that my razor?!” he asked Merlin, who was standing with his shirt open and using a very familiar-looking red razor to shave his face.
Merlin met Arthur’s eyes in the mirror sheepishly. “I forgot to pack one.”
Arthur grumbled and looked back down to his cufflink, but was inwardly a little giddy with happiness. This was probably just the first time Merlin would use his things without his permission in the long relationship that lay ahead of them.
“You didn’t really expect me to attend a wedding like this, did you?” Merlin continued, dragging the blade down and revealing newly shaven skin across his jaw.
“I expected you not to nick my things,” Arthur replied flatly.
Merlin rolled his eyes in the mirror. “It’s dull anyway. Only had one good use left in it. I’m practically doing you a favour.”
“For someone who is studying logic, you certainly have an odd take on it,” Arthur mumbled, finally securing the cufflink to his sleeve. He gave Merlin one last once-over—his chest looked so much more attractive when framed with a white button-down...Who knew?—before turning and walking back to where he’d set down his other cufflink.
Not too much later, Merlin came out of the loo, shaven and maybe even glowing a little bit, as he buttoned up his shirt. Arthur had to do a double-take, and his hands fumbled with the shoelaces he was currently tying.
Merlin smiled, dimples appearing in the corners of his mouth. “I take it I look alright, then?”
“Um. Yeah. You look. Wow.”
Arthur’s brain seemed to have short-circuited as he watched Merlin’s slender fingers move up until they were at his neck. He caught Merlin’s eye and abruptly looked back to his shoes.
When Arthur stood up, Merlin was frowning at himself in the mirror where he was trying to put on his bowtie. Arthur walked over to him and said, “Here, I’ll help you. It’s easier if someone else does it.”
“Okay.” Merlin dropped his hands to his side and turned to face him.
Arthur was almost done when suddenly the door opened and Morgana walked in.
“Well, aren’t you two just adorable,” she remarked with a smug grin. Arthur had no idea what she had to be smug about. By this point in his life he was convinced she was just always smug, no matter what the occasion.
“Did you need something?” Arthur asked, raising a brow.
“I’m just here to tell you the wedding’s off.”
Arthur froze, and Merlin similarly seemed to stop breathing a moment. “Sorry, what?”
“The wedding’s off. Nobody is getting married today. You’re all dressed up for nothing. Sorry.”
“Why?” Merlin asked, saying what was on Arthur’s mind.
“Apparently, Catrina is still married to some bloke named Jonas.”
Morgana nodded. “‘What,’ indeed. And you should have seen him. Drab clothes, sunken eyes, funny ears, obviously poor as dirt. No offence to present company, of course,” she added, looking at Merlin.
“Anyways,” she continued. “This Jonas person shows up from nowhere claiming Catrina can’t get married because they haven’t got divorced yet. Father, as expected, was downright furious. After seeing that the last man she married is practically scum, I’d be a bit upset too. When Catrina begged and said they could still get married after she got a divorce, Father laughed in her face and replied that he didn’t want to marry someone who kept such filthy company. So, naturally, she’s been escorted off the property in tears.”
“Wow,” Arthur said. “That’s...”
Morgana shrugged. “Not the first time a woman’s left our house crying. At least it wasn’t your fault this time.”
“How did Jonas even find out about the marriage?” Merlin asked. “I thought it wasn’t publicly announced?”
“It wasn’t, at Catrina’s request,” Morgana explained. “I only just remembered that recently though, and since I thought it a bit strange, I had someone look into her.”
“So it was your fault,” Arthur said.
Morgana waved her hand through the air. “Fault, victory. Such similar terms, really.”
Merlin laughed and nudged Arthur. “I like her.”
Morgana smiled again, placing her hands on her hips, then quickly sobered. “The only problem is, Father’s taken this whole thing a bit harder than I anticipated. I’ve tried talking to him, but he won’t speak. I think you should go see him.”
“Me?” Arthur asked, just to be sure.
“What should I say?”
For once, Morgana seemed at a loss. “I don’t know. But you’d better go, preferably before he drinks all the wine in the house.”
After changing into something more casual—and receiving an encouraging kiss from Merlin for luck—Arthur navigated the elegant corridors to his father’s study. He still didn’t know exactly what he’d say to cheer the man up, but apparently he was the only one who could do it. No pressure or anything.
Taking one last deep breath, Arthur pushed the heavy wooden doors open and walked in. Uther was slumped in the chair behind his desk, the bottle of wine nearly empty in front of him. His eyes drooped and his face looked older than ever. Even though Arthur had spent the majority of his life hating the man, he felt a pang of sadness at seeing him reduced to such a pitiful state.
“So you’ve come to gloat, have you?” Uther drawled upon seeing Arthur. “Proven right yet again. And this time you didn’t even have to do anything to drive her off.”
Arthur swallowed his anger and stopped when he came to the desk. “I haven’t come to gloat, Father.”
Uther snorted. “You’re a better man than I am, then.”
Arthur tried to hide his surprise, but Uther didn’t seem to notice either way that he’d just praised his son for the first time in...ever.
Arthur was still trying to find the right words to say when Uther continued. “A shame, isn’t it? All these women, and not a single one of them decent. Not interested in me.” He swirled the wine in his glass and downed the rest of it bitterly. “Probably just isn’t meant to be. I’ll never find anyone like Ygraine again. No one’ll ever compare, not really. I should give up. I’m getting old.”
Arthur was even more taken aback than before at the mention of his mother’s name. He couldn’t help but ask. “You...you loved my mother? I mean, did you really feel that way about her? She wasn’t just—”
“She was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Uther said, voice breaking a little. Arthur had the urge to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. He was speechless. “I see so much of her in you, you know. When you left, it was like losing her twice.”
Arthur couldn’t believe it, but there it was. It was surely the wine that was causing Uther to spill all these truths and making him mourn his inability to find anyone that really loved him. Arthur couldn’t think straight for a moment, could only stare wordlessly as he watched his father pour himself another glass.
But then the words started to mean something, and he became angry. All this time Uther had never said anything and Arthur had spent so much energy hating him, feeling worthless in his father’s eyes. All this time, Arthur had been the product of Uther’s most valuable marriage, not the most hated one. He had always believed himself a burden, a mistake, and had spent some nights wondering if there was any point to go on living if all he was was the outcome of a failed relationship. If he had known how special he was...Well, it would have spared him a lot of self-loathing.
Arthur had scarcely opened his mouth to say as much when Uther kept going on. “I’m done. I was lucky enough to find love once, and that’ll just have to be enough. I’ll die with a son and daughter that hate me, and who’ll be happy when I’m finally gone.”
“I don’t hate you,” Arthur found himself saying. Uther finally raised his eyes to look at him, and raised a sceptical brow. “You’re just...You’ve never given me any reason to particularly like you. You’ve disapproved of everything I’ve ever done, mocked my opinions, and completely disregarded my feelings.”
Arthur knew that Uther would find the mentions of feelings pathetic, and wasn’t at all surprised when Uther snorted.
“I haven’t been that bad,” Uther said. “I think you’ve turned out alright despite my supposedly terrible parenting skills. You’ve found yourself someone who loves you, haven’t you? That boy must be at least half-decent if he can beat you at chess.” Uther chuckled at the joke and took a swig from his glass.
Arthur didn’t know what to say. He thought there might have been a compliment buried beneath the scorn, but couldn’t really tell. He did notice the remark about Merlin loving him, and realised in the span of a second that that was certainly true. They hadn’t said as much to each other yet, but he loved Merlin and Merlin loved him. It was strangely satisfying that even Uther could see that.
When Uther sighed, Arthur thought maybe he was on the way to resolving the conflict with his father, after all, though they still had a long way to go. One day he might be able to forgive him for all those years spent believing he was worthless, but now he just wanted to see his father as his normal self again. That Uther was much better than the pissed, self-pitying one, condescending tone and all.
“Go home,” Uther said before Arthur could say another word. “It was nice seeing you, regardless of how everything turned out.”
Arthur frowned. He hadn’t accomplished what Morgana had instructed him to do at all, but he couldn’t lie to himself and say he didn’t want to get out of there as fast as possible.
“I’ll visit again at Christmas,” Arthur said. He hoped at least that would raise Uther’s spirits a little.
Uther grunted in response, but when he raised his glass to his lips again, Arthur saw the corners of his mouth tilting a little. Giving his father a last nod of farewell, he turned and walked out.
“I don’t see why we have to carry all these bags when there are perfectly good servants standing around doing nothing,” Merlin complained a few hours later.
Arthur threw his head back and laughed. “Don’t tell me you’ve become spoiled after only a week, Merlin.”
Merlin just mumbled behind him, shuffling along with his heavy belongings.
When he saw the auto they were taking back to the city, he rose up a complaint again. “And we’re not even taking the limousine back? My legs need space to stretch out, you know. If I have to be trapped in this little—”
“Oh my God, Merlin,” Arthur stopped him, laughing hysterically. “You can put your freakishly long legs on my lap if you just. Stop. Whining.”
“I am not whining! I’m just pointing out things that could be easily changed for our benefit.”
Arthur shook his head, chuckling as he handed the driver his things to put in the boot. He opened the car door and got in after Merlin.
Merlin took Arthur up on the offer to stretch his legs out, but put his head in Arthur’s lap instead, resting his feet on the adjacent seat. He smiled up at Arthur and closed his eyes, settling in for the long ride. Arthur ran his fingers through Merlin’s hair, and was pretty sure he heard Merlin make a sound akin to a purr.
“There are some clients I have to see when I get back,” Arthur said as the car began to move. “And you should make sure you haven’t missed too much in your classes. But after that, I do want to take you on a proper date.”
“Mmm. That’d be nice.”
“And I want to visit your mum in the hospital.”
Merlin’s smile stretched wider. “She’d love that.”
“Think she’ll like me?”
“She’ll adore you,” Merlin said. “Won’t say anything to your face, of course, but in private she’ll go on and on about how handsome you are, how well-mannered...I expect to tire of it after about twelve seconds.”
Arthur laughed and tugged Merlin’s ear. Merlin opened his eyes and grabbed Arthur’s wrist, looking at Arthur intently.
“Seriously, though. Once she gets to know you, she’ll love you almost as much as I do.”
Arthur’s heart skipped. His mouth could barely form words. “A-Almost?”
Merlin licked his lips and nodded, the back of his head rubbing against Arthur’s thighs. “No one can love you as much as I do.”
Arthur swallowed past the lump in his throat. He had the feeling that he didn’t need to say anything; Merlin already knew. Arthur could see it in his eyes, and he had already said as much when he’d confessed to needing him. Now Arthur just wanted to kiss him, but the angle was all wrong and he couldn’t possibly bend forward with Merlin’s head in his lap the way it was.
He settled for touching. He moved his hand from where it rested across Merlin’s waist and ran it up the front of Merlin’s shirt, caressing him until he reached the curve of Merlin’s neck, where he cradled Merlin’s face and thumbed a cheekbone. Merlin placed his hand over Arthur’s and moved it down to his mouth, taking Arthur’s thumb between his lips and enveloping it with his tongue. Arthur let out a small whimper.
A cough from the driver’s seat snapped him back to their surroundings. Merlin looked at the the back of the driver’s head in annoyance.
Slipping Arthur’s thumb from his mouth, he whispered, “That’s another reason why we should have taken the limousine.”
Arthur laughed, but couldn’t disagree with him there.
Sighing, Merlin released Arthur’s hand and closed his eyes again. The moment passing, Arthur turned to look out the window.
It was odd. The last time he’d watched this stretch of scenery go by, he’d been running away from a part of his life he had wanted to put behind him, heading out into the great unknown. Now he felt like he was running not away, but towards something amazing, a future that would bring too many joyful moments to count.
As they finally left Pendragon property, Arthur’s thoughts went back to his father. He never really considered how alone the man must feel, with nothing but servants for company. Morgana only came to stay for a few weeks at a time, and was usually off on some adventure. This time she had said she was going to Paris to study art. Uther would again be left to himself, in a large, empty estate.
So many women had entered Uther’s life, only to be chased out by Arthur. Even if it was some hidden hand of fate making sure Uther never loved again, and even if Arthur hadn’t completely forgiven him for providing such an awful childhood, Arthur would make an attempt to be a more permanent fixture in his father’s life. He would try to be the better man that Uther claimed he was.
After all, Arthur had his own permanent fixture right here in his lap. It was hard to hold a grudge when he was suddenly so happy.