Word Count: ~8000
Summary: 'You can't keep him hidden forever, Arthur'. In which Merlin realises he doesn't know what he wants from the modelling world any more and that sometimes you need to start again to be truly happy.
Warnings: Infidelity (kisses only), slight intoxication & reference to drug usage. Not true to the fashion/modelling industry - I have no personal experience :)
Art link: Art can be found here by sallyna_smile! Rossella has been absolutely wonderful to work with and I've had so much fun writing this even though I came in late to the game as a pinch hitter!
This was written for 2012 merlinreversebb
Hot lights blink on overhead as Merlin enters the shoot. The room is a flurry of activity, but it’s not madness. It’s organised chaos and he finds his place instantly, slotting into the shoot like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
“We thought we’d try…” some of the technicians are speaking with the director, nodding furiously to his words. Merlin knows whatever he’s saying is a crock of bullshit anyway; Gwaine never works to a standard. He’s wild and free, like the wind.
Merlin knows the drill by now. He’s worked with Gwaine enough times to know what he does and doesn’t like. He’s been on enough shoots to know the basics, to know when he’s wanted and when he’ll just be in the way.
“Mr Emrys?” a timid voice says and Merlin smiles at Freya. She’s one of Gwaine’s few staff, one of the ones that can do an upstart job of anything, and she’s a good friend of Merlin’s now, one of the few he can trust in the industry. Business is still business though and she’s as formal as ever.
“We’ll be running some test shots,” she says, brushing her fringe from her eyes and directing Merlin over to the set.
The shoot is long and hard, though in reality Merlin technically doesn’t do much. He feels as though he’s cheated the others in the room just by sitting there, but without him he knows the whole shoot will crumble – and that’s enough to stave off the guilty feeling. The lights are hot and the clothes, while fitting him perfectly and looking wonderful, are not him. He’d rather be in sweats and a baggy t-shirt in front of the telly, the amount of time they’ve been going.
“Okay,” Gwaine calls suddenly, as if he can sense Merlin’s losing his concentration. “That’s it for today. We’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
He smiles at Merlin and pauses by his side to tell him he’s not needed until two in the afternoon. Merlin nods, thinking of the backlog of stuff he’s got to do at home, and pats his friend on the shoulder.
Gwaine is… well Gwaine. Merlin enters the changing room thinking of him and sighs. Gwaine is the one who will never settle down, at least not consciously. Maybe one day he’d fine The One, but he’d fight it tooth and claw. Every one of Gwaine’s lovers – past and present – knew they weren’t going to be the one Gwaine would fall head over heels in love for and while some couldn’t take that, when Merlin’s time had come to a close, he’d nodded, bowing out gracefully.
Perhaps that is why they are such good friends. They know each other so well, have been there through everything and were still standing side by side.
Merlin shakes his head, sighing and drawing the attention of a few helpers. They’re young, bug-eyed to be in the same room as him and they give him an even wider berth than before. Merlin just smiles to himself, remembering the first day he’d entered a big studio. Gwaine had been there, thankfully, but he’d been a nobody and had had to prove himself to be something.
He leaves the studio block with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He doesn’t know most of these people and they don’t really know him; they don’t expect anything from him and vice versa. It’s good, professional, yet cold.
Merlin goes home to a small apartment. Gwaine and Freya both say he could afford so much more, but Merlin simply shakes his head. It’s as if he’s saving for something, something big, and only Gwaine can probably guess what is at the back of Merlin’s mind.
The flat, while homely and full of Merlin’s possessions, doesn’t feel like home. Merlin’s never deluded himself into thinking that this is his home, but he’s accepted it over the years. He made his choice back then and has lived the life he’d always dreamt of.
A microwave meal goes in and the telly turns on and Merlin curls on the sofa with his dinner. Everyone back at the studio would bitch at him if they discovered he’s eating a crappy ready-meal, but Merlin doesn’t care tonight. He’ll care in the morning and he’ll care tomorrow night, but just not now.
Merlin ends up sleeping on the sofa and wakes with a crick in his neck. Work is demanding, but he gets through it, ignoring the way Gwaine’s eyes rest heavily on his shoulders.
Gwaine knows, he thinks, letting the make-up assistants touch his face up. Gwaine knows, but unlike a shoot, there’s nothing they can do to fix this mess.
Three Years Ago
Merlin has everything. He has a good job working for a major fashion company, a decent house smack bang in the centre of London (a rare find and something that had caused him to dig deep into the bank) and, most importantly, has a man that he loves by his side.
“You’re going to be late,” Merlin warns, leaning against the doorway to the lounge. He can see the front door and smiles as Arthur hops around, trying to slip his shoes on.
It’s like this every morning, without fail. It’s their routine, their life, and he’s never considered exchanging it for something else.
“I’ll see you later?” Arthur asks, shoes tamed and coat buttoned up. He has a shirt, tie and jacket on under that coat and Merlin bites his cheek, knowing he’ll pull Arthur down by that tie later, pull off Arthur’s shirt to reveal a deceptively muscled chest (no one expects the accountant to look so good after all) and sink down, down, down until-
“Later,” Arthur hisses in his ear, kissing his cheek with a grin. “I’ll bring home some wine.”
Arthur leaves and Merlin turns to grab his stuff. He has a thick was of portfolios to look through to help the team select the best model, the best photographer, the best director, everything that will make their next campaign a hit.
The office is bustling as usual and Merlin slips in, hidden under the flurry of activity. He leaves the folders on his desk and walks straight to his boss’ office, knocking gently on the door.
When he enters, Uther Pendragon is staring grim-faced at his screen. He gestures for Merlin to sit down, tapping a few keys before focusing his attention on Merlin.
Work had come before Arthur in the timeline of Merlin’s life. It was through work – and a function that Uther had brought Arthur to – that they’d met. It was due to Uther that he had Arthur and Merlin would never thank his boss enough for that.
“I wanted to know if you had a decision on the director yet,” Uther asks, voice level and familiar. He’s calm today, trusting Merlin’s judgement more and more, but there’s something in his eyes that makes Merlin uncomfortable, as if he wants to say something, but can’t bring himself to make that leap.
“I need to confirm if everyone else agrees,” Merlin begins slowly. “But I think working with Gwaine would be a step in the right direction for us.”
Uther doesn’t say anything for a while. He looks down at his desk, hands clasped and lips pressed tightly together.
“His contract with Caerleon just ended,” Uther murmurs. “Now would be a good time to snap him up.”
It’s Merlin’s turn to remain silent and he waits, fingers tightening around the seat of his chair.
“I trust your decision though,” Uther says, shooting Merlin a smile. “If the rest of your team agree that Gwaine is the best option, you can go ahead and try to book him. We’ll then have to arrange a time to meet with him to choose the rest of his shoot team.”
Merlin nods and stands, but something holds him back. He’s known Uther for years – both in and out of work – and there’s something wrong with him, something bothering him that he won’t say.
“Sir?” he begins softly. “Is something the matter?”
It’s all in the eyes, they say, and Merlin is shocked by the sadness Uther displays as he looks at him.
“Nimueh is fighting to gain control of a few of our clients,” Uther says, voice tired and so old.
Merlin looks away. He knows the trouble Nimueh caused to Uther and doesn’t know what he can say. Nimueh was the cause of Uther’s wife’s death, or so he champions. She had been a model, so beautiful and kind they say, and Nimueh had been her manager. Worked to the bone, Uther said Ygraine had been, and by the time she had to give birth (premature, complicated, far too long), she’d been exhausted. She’d died holding her newborn son in her arms and with Uther by her side.
“I stayed in this industry to keep people like her out,” Uther says, voice deep. “She won’t find any work here.”
“Would you like me to speak with Gaius?” Merlin asks, knowing Uther will not venture this weakness to anyone else. Merlin is lucky he’s been told at all and he will do everything he can to help. Uther isn’t just his boss; he’s the father of the man he loves, family.
Uther nods, not fully accepting the help, but close enough. Merlin sets off for Gaius at once, meeting him outside the photo developing rooms. He relays what Uther has said and Gaius nods, in turn going off to put in a phone call to the Dragon, the very head of the company. He’s a busy man, but somehow Gaius ended up with his personal number and, as such, is in the best position to make a request.
The day continues in a blur and the team manages to put their heads down and finally work out what Merlin has been trying to tell them for the past few days; Gwaine is perfect for this shoot. He puts in the call late afternoon, not expecting the man himself to pick up.
“Hello, Gwaine speaking,” a rough voice says and Merlin pauses, waiting to be asked to leave his message. “Hello?” the voice says again and Merlin starts, throwing the pen he’d been chewing on the table and speaking.
“Sorry, hello. My name is Merlin Emrys and I’m calling from Albion,” he reels off, wincing at how high-pitched his voice turns out. Gwaine doesn’t say anything, just hums, as if he’s expecting more information.
“We recently contacted you about the Perilous shoot, asking if you would be interested,” he continues and Gwaine finally replies.
“Yes, that shoot,” he murmurs and Merlin begins to wonder if he’s misjudged Gwaine completely.
“We’d like to offer you the job,” Merlin continues, ploughing on against all the odds.
“I don’t need a photographer,” Gwaine replies instantly and Merlin pauses, unsure how to reply. “I mean I’ll do it myself. And I already have a model lined up, as well as a core team.”
It’s almost as if Gwaine has been preparing for them to call him in, Merlin thinks. As if he was so confident that he’d be chosen that he’s jumped the gun and done their work for them.
“May I ask their name?” Merlin says, grabbing a sheet of paper and the chewed pen from before. He needs to check that the model is suitable or else the whole project with crumble.
“Well you see,” Gwaine begins, voice trailing off. “I don’t know his name.”
Merlin mutes the phone for a moment, sighs deeply and asks for Gwaine to meet them as soon as possible.
“I’m free now,” he says, voice sprightly. “Can I come now?”
Merlin looks around the office and winces at the chaos. No, Gwaine can’t come here now, but there’s nothing to stop Merlin going to him.
“How about I come to you?”
They meet at a local, family-run café. It’s a delicate looking place and the owners call out a welcome as Merlin enters, returning to their jobs with a smile. He can see why Gwaine likes the place and recognises him from the photo he’s been deliberating over for the past few nights.
“You’re Merlin Emrys?” Gwaine asks, smile on his face as he stands, shaking Merlin’s hand. Merlin blinks, nodding his head slowly and sitting down wondering why it’s so important that he is Merlin Emrys.
“Is that a problem?” he asks politely, aware that he can’t spend too long here. He hasn’t told Uther where he was going, simply saying he was taking a late lunch. He wants to get things sorted with Gwaine before he commits anything, especially in the light that Gwaine doesn’t know the name of the model he wants.
“It’s just,” Gwaine begins, raking a hand through his long hair and laughing. “I’ve been to Albion before to meet Mr Pendragon and when I saw you, I knew you’d be perfect.”
Merlin frowns, not understanding what Gwaine means.
“I’m sorry? he says, needing the clarification.
“You’re the guy I want to model for me,” Gwaine says with a smile. “In fact now I know you’re on the team already, I refuse to work with any other male model for Perilous.”
For the job, Gwaine is perfect. While Merlin didn’t expect him to be the one doing the shoot too, he knew that Uther would be happy to let him. Gwaine is a fantastic director, but he can also photograph from the heart. That is what they want for the Perilous line, someone who is able to bring out the best in the clothes, someone who can make the onlooker feel the emotions and that person just has to be Gwaine.
But he has conditions now. Conditions Merlin wasn’t sure he could work with and he excuses himself a short while later, trying not to smile too much at Gwaine’s jokes or focus on the passion Gwaine speaks with. He needs to talk to Uther and the team before he can decide things like this, but damn does Gwaine make for one persuasive force.
Uther sits up straight when Merlin tells him, narrowing his eyes and looking Merlin up and down. It’s not unheard of for a photographer or director to demand conditions or even to take a model from elsewhere, but Merlin is different. Merlin is part of the core team who will help run the shoot and produce the final product. He is essential and they can’t simply lose him just like that.
“Do you think you could do both?” Uther asks, weighing up Merlin’s abilities. “We could reduce your work load at the start if you wanted to do this.”
Merlin thinks. He asks Uther for the night and it’s granted. Only one, but Merlin’s never been one to linger for days on something so important. He doesn’t want to take this home with him, but he needs Arthur. He needs Arthur’s help and Arthur’s thoughts or else he’ll be done for. He won’t be able to do this alone and he needs Arthur.
When he arrives, Arthur is already home. He’s a hard worker, hardly ever bringing things back, and has already set dinner out. A glass of wine is waiting for Merlin, but he ignores it in favour of looking at Arthur.
“What happened?” Arthur says, as sharp as he ever was. You don’t grow up as Uther Pendragon’s son for nothing, after all. Arthur knows Merlin inside and out and it is too much for Merlin to ask that he stops looking.
“I…” Merlin begins, words choking in his throat. He knows Arthur won’t be happy, wont accept it. Arthur hates the modelling industry and Merlin blames part of that on Uther. Arthur had learnt to hate it through Uther’s attitude. He’d then learnt of Nimueh’s hand in his mother’s death and the hate had festered.
“We decided to hire Gwaine today,” Merlin says and Arthur nods, patient. “He has a condition, that… that I work as his model.”
The reaction is instant and Merlin closes his eyes tightly, not wanting to see the bitter anger on Arthur’s face.
“Surely you told him no?” Arthur says voice low. “You wouldn’t be so stupid-“
“It’s not stupid,” Merlin interrupts. He can feel his own anger at Arthur’s refusal to have anything to do with modelling bubbling up. It has always been a sore point between them, but Merlin had thought they were over it by now.
“It’s my job, Arthur. Gwaine is the best and all I’d have to do is sit for a few shoots.” Merlin sighs and opens his eyes.
“Sounds like you’ve made your mind up,” Arthur says, but his shoulders are relaxed and his voice is defeated.
“Yeah,” Merlin replies, thinking of Gwaine’s dedication and passion for his job. He wants to work with someone like that, wants to be part of something Gwaine creates. “Yeah I have.”
Arthur picks up the wine glasses, handing one to Merlin and raising his own. His jaw is still tight and the smile he gives doesn’t quite reach his eyes, but he toasts Merlin all the same and when Merlin kisses him, his arms hold Merlin tightly, seeking solace and forgiveness.
It’s not so easy though. Merlin works later and harder, getting ready to model as well as fulfilling his task duties. While it’s true his work load has decreased, there is still only so much that he can drop.
Merlin isn’t the only one feeling the strain. Uther has become more withdrawn (rumours of the Dragon sniffing around have reached everyone’s ears and that is enough pressure without the extended shoot going on), Merlin’s team are becoming more and more haggard every day, with some people choosing to work through the night and catch some sleep in the office and even Gwaine has to take a few moments to calm himself down, step out of the building and secret away a smoke.
One day Merlin catches him, escaping to the roof of the building they’ve rented for the shoot. Gwaine looks around in surprise, smoke curling from his open lips as Merlin opens the door to the roof and just stands there, stupidly.
“Merlin,” Gwaine says, delight in his tone. The air suddenly feels dangerous, but Merlin fights his instinct and walks towards Gwaine, smiling openly.
“Smoking? Really?” he says and Gwaine laughs, the sound so pleasant and lovely. Laughter is hard to find at the moment, both at work and home, and Merlin takes a moment to appreciate the sound.
They’re overlooking a warehouse plot on this side and Merlin wonders why Gwaine picked this side and not the park on the other. True, it’s a small park, but it’s still green and full of life, unlike the empty, bedraggled plot.
“I gave it up ages ago,” Gwaine is saying, puffing more smoke into the air. “It’s a bad habit that resurfaces when there’s a lot of stress.”
Merlin nods, thinking over the Perilous campaign. They want something big, something amazing, but want almost impossible deadlines. Only a company such as Albion can manage something like that and even so, they are struggling.
“We’ll manage it,” Merlin says, watching the cigarette fly over the railings as Gwaine flicks it away. “One way or another.” His voice is low and he’s suddenly aware of how close he is to Gwaine. He remembers Gwaine’s passion and his want to work with such a man and it’s almost unbearable.
Though it kills him to do nothing, Merlin lets Gwaine kiss him. It’s gentle, curious and nothing like Arthur.
He pulls back, apologises. Gwaine says nothing, just leans back on the railings ad shrugs his shoulders.
“How did that guy of yours keep you locked up for so long?” he asks, wistful, too wistful for Merlin’s likings and he flees.
Merlin doesn’t tell Arthur about the fleeting kiss. It’s nothing, a whimsy, and it’s quickly forgotten in the slew of everything else. There is too much to do, too much to think about now, and Merlin focuses on the camera and the look, pushing everything to do with plain-old-Merlin-Emrys away.
“Good job,” Uther says quietly one day, looking at Merlin with a sharp glint in his eyes. “You have what it takes,” he muttered, even more quietly that Merlin thinks he could have imagined it.
Arthur says nothing still, spending longer hours at the office and even brining work home with him. Merlin knows that he finishes his allocated work easily and wonders who he is asking to give him more. Someone with a family perhaps? Helping them to spend more time together while he can grasp at less?
It gets so bad that Merlin can’t take it. Gwaine invites him out one night and, like a fool, Merlin jumps to take it. He tells Arthur it’s a ‘work-thing’, avoiding the miserable look in his eyes and fleeing out the door.
The party is in full swing when they get there. It’s a club, off the main streets, in a dodgy alleyway, but the pounding music marks its existence metres back. Merlin’s nervous, excited too, and looks at Gwaine coyly. He can’t remember the last time he went out like this with Arthur and it’s nice to be out with someone, shake off the work and the responsibility and just be.
Gwaine drifts away some point during the evening, but Merlin has already picked out some people to stay with. They’re friendly, people Gwaine knew from Caerleon and Merlin likes them. They don’t know him and they don’t have expectations for him or avoid him. It’s good.
He’s drunk, Merlin thinks. The world is starting to sway a little, everything moving a little too far away and a little too close. Merlin feels knows he is drunk and smiles at the woman linking her arm with his. He can’t remember her name, but she has bright blue eyes and dark hair, the opposite of Arthur so Merlin almost thinks ‘well fuck it then’.
She kisses his cheek, offers him something he can’t quite see. It’s a small bag, something powdery and flashy and a warning sounds in the back of his head. She goads him though, pressing his buttons in ways only Arthur could and Merlin considers giving in, telling her that he would love to.
“Nimueh,” a deep voice says and Merlin turns slowly to Gwaine, smiling. Gwaine doesn’t look happy and Merlin leans against the woman a moment, mind only just registering her name.
Nimueh. Nimueh who he asked Gaius to call the Dragon about. Nimueh who most likely has a vendetta against him if she knows what Merlin did. Nimueh who drive Arthur’s mother to exhaustion.
“We’re going Merlin,” Gwaine snaps and Merlin doesn’t think he’s see Gwaine this angry before. They leave and Merlin keeps silent, guilt seeping into the alcohol and telling him that he did something wrong by being lured by Nimueh.
Merlin doesn’t know how they get there or where they are. All he knows is that at some point Gwaine took his hand and they’re now in a house – Gwaine’s house.
“She would have killed you Merlin,” Gwaine says and he looks so grave, so tired and serious. Gwaine shouldn’t look like that, Merlin thought and placed his hand on Gwaine’s cheek. It was warm, ruddy from drink, and Merlin couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so tender with someone.
He kisses Gwaine, trying to apologise and take his sadness away. He pushes Gwaine until he was against the wall, tilting his chin and kissing him even deeper, licking at his lips and trying for more, moremoremore-
“Merlin,” Gwaine says gently, pushing Merlin away and pressing a hand over his mouth. “As much as I want to, we can’t. You’ve already said no, back on the roof.”
Merlin stops, looks at Gwaine and realises that he did say no, is saying no. He lets his head fall into his hands and sinks to the floor, defeated. In a moment of weakness and alcohol he’d almost done something he would regret always.
“You’re not a bad guy,” Merlin says, peering through his fingers as Gwaine crouches beside him. “Not many people would be so decent to stop me.”
Gwaine shrugs, hauling Merlin to his feet. “You’re a friend and you have someone you love. I’m not going to rip that away from you.”
Merlin sleeps on the sofa. He dreams about Gwaine and Arthur and himself and wonders if Gwaine would laugh if he told him he’d already ripped it all away.
Arthur is sipping teach at the breakfast table when Merlin gets home. The Sunday papers are open, but he’s not flicking through and Merlin knows he’s in trouble.
“Merlin,” he says, voice stony when Merlin comes in. “I didn’t realise you were staying at Gwaine’s.”
It’s the tone and the way Arthur never actually does a damned thing. He lets things fester and it annoys Merlin. He’s tired and stressed from work and going out and Arthur doesn’t try to help, doesn’t try to understand or get over his problems. It’s the same damned argument they have every time and Merlin has had enough.
But he can’t lose Arthur.
“I’ll quit,” he rushes out, thinking of Gwaine and last night and the guilt and the stress and the tiredness. It’s almost too much to bear and he comes to stand beside Arthur, begging him to do something, to take some of the burden away somehow, in the way Arthur usually can. He’s Merlin’s prince, the knight who comes to save him, but when Merlin needs him he’s vanished.
“I’ll quit and we can go on that holiday we’ve always wanted. Well, one of the many ones, somewhere sunny with a nice view and a beach.” Merlin pauses, trying to keep the desperation from his voice. He needs this to work with Arthur; he can’t lose him even though the gap between them is almost too large. It took Gwaine stopping him to realise he never wants to let Arthur go, but is it too late?
“Merlin,” Arthur begins, standing and placing his hands on Merlin’s shoulder. They feel awkward and heavy and Merlin looks at him with wide eyes.
Arthur doesn’t say anything more. He kisses Merlin, not caring of the after-club scent still clinging to him. He kisses Merlin as if everything will be okay and right in the end and Merlin pushes up and back, scrabbling for his trousers and Arthur’s pyjamas.
They frot against each other, Merlin’s hands holding onto Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur’s grip on their cocks is steady and heated, holding Merlin quivering and on the edge until he can hold back no longer. He comes with his teeth biting into Arthur’s neck, one hand buried in a mass of blonde hair, calling for Arthur with every part of him, with everything in his body and Arthur responds, rocking against his hip and murmuring Merlin’s name so sweet and so soft.
“I’ll tell them tomorrow,” Merlin says as Arthur leans over him. They’re on the wooden floor, it’s uncomfortable and cold, but Arthur is here and holding him. It’s perfect. “I’ll tell them tomorrow,” he repeats, trying not to think of Uther and Gwaine or the rest of the team.
He has Arthur and that is all Merlin will ever need.
Monday arrives too quickly. Merlin leaves first, kissing Arthur and repeating his promise to quit. He’s not sure if he’ll be able to handle the storm (and he knows he can’t just walk away now, but at least he will be ending it in the future. He can’t take any more fights like this with Arthur and while it is a horrible compromise, he can’t bear to lose Arthur), but he’ll weather it out as best he can. This is something Merlin needs to do and it needs to start now.
The first person he tells is Gwaine. He doesn’t say why exactly, but Gwaine shakes his head anyway, telling Merlin that his boy is an idiot. He walks off and says nothing more, but it is enough to shake Merlin into silence. Uther is too busy anyway and he’s not completely sure he has Gwaine’s full comprehension. He’ll explain to Arthur what happened and he’ll talk to Uther tomorrow.
The shoot is long, but a weekend’s break has helped them all to recover. A small break and only superficial (almost everyone took something home to do after all), but well worth it. Gwaine leaves early, but Merlin doesn’t pay any attention to it, despite the fact Gwaine is usually one of the last to leave.
He gets home, but something is different. The house is almost completely dark, as if Arthur has been in one room for a long time and forgotten to look outside. Merlin slips in, listening out for any sound rather than announcing himself, and he is shocked to hear an argument in the kitchen.
It’s Gwaine, he realises. Merlin’s heart begins to race; what if Gwaine had told Arthur about the kisses? But no – Gwaine wasn’t an idiot. He wouldn’t come to provoke Arthur like that, surely.
“You can’t keep him forever, Arthur,” Gwaine is saying, as if they’ve been having this conversation for years. “He’s not yours and I can help him. He’s the perfect model, he has so much to express. He needs to do that – surely you can see how much the job he’s in is weighing him down?”
Merlin lets his back hit the wall in the hall, outside the kitchen. His eyes are wide and he can barely believe what Gwaine is saying. Is it that obvious? He’s always watched the models with a hint of longing, but no one has ever questioned him before. It is Gwaine’s job to see, but Merlin felt so naked now, everything laid bare.
Entering Albion had been done with intent. Merlin remembers intending to become a model, but he had scrapped that when he’d met Arthur. He’d fallen in love and while he does not regret it, he has never fully been able to drop that foolish, little dream.
“You don’t know-“ Arthur begins, but Gwaine has clearly had enough.
“You’re holding him back. He could be great, but he’s willing to give it up all for you.” Gwaine is angrier than Merlin has ever heard him. He hears stirring and knows that Gwaine is about to leave. He sits on the stairs and Gwaine storms past, grabbing his coat from the rack and slamming the door, not even noticing Merlin.
Arthur does though. Probably knew the exact moment Merlin walked through the door. He doesn’t say anything, just stands by the banister and looks at the closed door, hands. His eyes flicker to Merlin briefly and Merlin wonders what he sees, what he thinks. He doesn’t know Arthur anymore and it’s killing him.
“He’s right,” Arthur says, but doesn’t elaborate. He moves through the house and Merlin stays on the stairs while he packs a small bag.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” Arthur says, avoiding Merlin’s gaze. “I don’t… I want…”
Arthur never does finish what he wants to say and Merlin never finds out what he wants.
They get another request. And another. Merlin feels as though he’s almost buried in work now, but it’s what he wanted.
Some days he meets with Gwaine and whoever he’s fucking at the moment. He loves Gwaine, doesn’t think he would have survived the past few years without him, but they both realised long ago that their relationship was based on lust. The sex was good (amazing, Merlin would have to admit), but Merlin secretly thinks that there was only one person for him.
“I thought they’d taken down all those posters by now,” Gwaine is saying through the phone and Merlin rolls his eyes.
Merlin had made the mistake of modelling with Gwaine for a perfume. They’d been half-naked and had ended up fucking once the shoot was over – a momentary slip of weakness Gwaine had said, laughing. The posters are old now, in the modelling world at least, but it seems as though there are a few still poking about old London town here and there. Trust Gwaine to be the one to find it.
He is here for another job. It’s just something small, in terms of company size at least, but the project looks interesting. It’s about reincarnation, reinventing yourself, and Merlin smiles at the company name; Avalon.
“Merlin Emrys,” Merlin says as he arrives. Gwaine isn’t on this project, but he’s in London too, renewing a contract with Albion.
Merlin hasn’t thought much of Albion since he left for New York, three years ago. He’d separated from Arthur, quit his job and been preparing to leave with Gwaine when he’d received a call from the Dragon himself.
The Dragon hadn’t been pleased with his choices, even to the point where he had asked him to reconsider. Merlin had made up his mind though. He hadn’t left Arthur (or was it Arthur who had left him? Everything had been a blur of shouting and sadness in the end) just to back out of doing what he’d always wanted.
He’d still signed on with Albion though and considered the Dragon a friend now. They met in person and he is a good man, someone who wants to look out for Merlin. He is the one who had uncovered the Avalon job for Merlin and he wants to do it right, regardless of the company size.
The woman who meets him is called Morgause. She has a look in her eye as if she wants to devour Merlin, but he simply smiles and tries not to get too close. Morgana comes next and Merlin remembers her from the phone – she’d been his initial contact. She is nice enough, ruthless, and she in turn introduces the photographer, Mordred.
They seem a nice bunch. Various technicians mill about and Merlin sits in the middle of it all, watching the tenderness around him. This isn’t like a big shoot and the people around feel more like a family than co workers. It warms Merlin’s heart to see them so comfortable and remembers how it had been back at Albion, in his little team under Uther’s careful eye.
Merlin knows he’s getting far too sentimental these days. He may be on his own turf, but he can’t be too attached to it anymore, not when he remembers the pain of leaving London last time. He’d been a mess, too tired to pick himself up, and he’d messed everything up with Arthur.
They had both made the decision to part, Merlin recalls. They’d both been too tired of the same old argument, too angered with each other and had, to Merlin’s horror, given up. He still hates that he had given up, but it is too late to change the past now.
“We’ll wrap for the day!” Morgause calls and Mordred nods, thanking her. Merlin smiles and thanks the workers around him, being taken away so they can clean the make up from his face. He would do it himself, but the make up is complex for the shoot, various additions to his face in the form of sparkling gemstones. It sounds tacky and Merlin had blanched when he’d been told, but the effect made a real impression.
Avalon have what it takes, Merlin thinks.
He’s one of the last people there and is just walking to the door when he hears Morgana and a man. The voice seems familiar and Merlin pauses, backtracking until he stands by Morgana’s office.
“Just give me the accounts Morgana,” the voice says and Merlin frowns. “Father said you were struggling to do them and I know you’ve never been good at keeping them perfect.”
Morgana is silent for a moment and Merlin is practically begging that the man speaks again. It can’t be – it just can’t be and yet… yet he hopes it is.
“You’re so arrogant,” Morgana mutters, but Merlin can hear papers being shuffled and knows she’s going to give the files over. “Though all you do is work so at least you’re good at something.”
Merlin can see their shadows through the glass of the door and he slumps back against the wall, recognising that shape anywhere, even through the glass. Everything in him screams that it is Arthur beyond that glass, that Arthur is here and so is Merlin and yet…
“How are things going with the model?” Arthur asks suddenly and Merlin’s heart leaps.
“He’s brilliant,” Morgana says, not realising how much her words will mean. “I’ve seen pictures of him and thought it was due to the photographer, but… well Mordred says he just responds to every little direction and just has this amazing instinct of knowing what to do, no matter what situation.” She sighs and Merlin closes his eyes, waiting for Arthur’s scathing reply or laugh.
“He’s really that good?” Arthur says and Merlin starts. He sounds satisfied, happy even, but why?
“Whoever was hiding him away from the world did us all a disservice!” Morgana replies, laughing. “Now go on and get those done for us. And if I don’t see you before, I’ll meet you at Uther’s for Sunday lunch.”
Merlin walks off hurriedly, keeping his head down until he gets outside. He pauses a moment, standing in the dark car park, considering. It would be so easy to go back to Arthur, just to see him, but Merlin is scared. He never wanted to let Arthur go and the only thing more frightening is to try loving him again, to open his wounds and be prepared to have them widened.
He pauses for a moment too long and is just by his car when Arthur exits. He freezes, looking over at Arthur. He looks well – a little older, hair a little shorter and clothes a little less formal, and Merlin wonders if he needs Merlin in his life again.
Why else would he ask after him?
“I know you were there,” Arthur says. His voice is quiet and Merlin knows no one else would have been able to hear it, but he does. Just how Arthur always knows when Merlin is there, Merlin always hears Arthur.
“Yeah,” he says, stupidly. There’s not much to say now that they have this chance and all the words Merlin has wanted to say (I love you, never leave me, I’m sorry, can we make it right?) stick somewhere in his chest. It’s been three long years since they parted and he wants to laugh at the absurdity.
Meeting again in Avalon? It sounds like something from the myths.
“How do you know Morgana?” he asks and Arthur begins walking towards the car. They are on either side now, Merlin on the driver’s side and Arthur the passenger. They could get in, drive off where no one would know who they were and just talk.
Except that’s not how it works in the real world.
“She’s my half-sister,” Arthur says. “Tracked my father and me down last year and, well, sunk her claws in.” He smiles and Merlin looks away, a tight yearning rising in his chest.
They say no more that night and Arthur gets into his car, waving goodbye. It’s as if Merlin has entered a dream world and he goes home, lets Gwaine talk his ear off about how crap the trains are over the phone and goes to bed. He barely thinks about anything other than Arthur and thinks it a figment of his imagination when he sees him the next day.
“This is my brother,” Morgana announces to the entire room. “He’s sorting our accounts out and gave up his holiday to come in for us. Give him whatever he wants,” she orders and Merlin has to turn away, fight the smile. Arthur hasn’t changed and he can even see a bit of Arthur in Morgana, though he suspects she will deny such accusations.
The team do leave Arthur alone. He sits in the corner with a stack of papers, though Merlin thinks it would be a lot easier if he pinched an office instead. He begins to twig when he feels Arthur looking at him and is torn between putting even more effort in or staring back.
He settles for the former, no matter how much he’d prefer the latter.
Arthur stays late, but does not linger when Merlin comes out. It’s as if he is waiting all day to say something, but bottles out at the last moment. It happens again the next day and by the third, Merlin’s had enough that he tells Arthur to wait while he gets changed.
Dutifully, Arthur does. He looks out of place in his shirt, tie and slacks, sitting nervously at the little table that he’s occupied all week. Merlin watches him for a moment from the doorway and enters with his head down. It’s going to hurt, whatever comes next, but Merlin wants to try, just this once.
“I can see it,” Arthur says unexpectedly. He is smiling simply and without regret and Merlin wonders if he’s got it all wrong. What if Arthur doesn’t love him anymore? What if Arthur managed to move on?
“What Gwaine said. What Morgana said. I can see it and I know that Gwaine was right.” He swallows and Merlin knows this cannot be easy. Nothing about the past is easy and yet here Arthur is, blundering on through in that suave and calm way of his.
“I kept you behind for so many years, convinced I was helping when I didn’t do shit.” Arthur shakes his head and stands, coming to stand in front of Merlin. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not trusting you or your judgement. I’m sorry for picking fights when there was no reason. I’m sorry-“
Merlin kisses him, looping his arms around Arthur’s neck and pulling him close. He’s needed this for so many years that he can’t remember why he ever let Arthur go in the first place.
Arthur’s return kiss is hesitant at first and he pulls back, eyes wide and searching Merlin for something. He seems to find it for he returns, kissing Merlin without reservation and moaning deep in his throat. He pushes Merlin around, manhandling him to the desk and moving down until he is mouthing at Merlin’s belt, moving too fast and yet too slow.
“A-Arthur,” Merlin sighs as Arthur pulls his trousers and pants off, nosing Merlin’s cock and kissing it wetly, running his tongue up and down its length. He licks and sucks as if he’s a hungry man who has just been faced with a feast and Merlin is on the table moaning, body shaking as he calls out Arthur’s name again and again.
He doesn’t come. It’s been so long, but he manages to keep his control. When he feels the edge, the pressure building as if it wants to explode, he grabs Arthur’s hair, pulling him up brutally and kisses him hard.
Arthur’s lips are red and he licks his lips as he pulls back, a hand moving to his slacks. He pulls them down and reveals his cock, heavy and rigid, but moves to Merlin’s ear first.
“Are you sure?” he asks. “I can’t go back after this, not to how things were.”
Merlin almost screams out, shouting to the world that he can’t go back either, but Arthur kisses him softly, backing away for a moment. Merlin can hear him digging through the trolley of various products and he returns with a bottle and a condom.
“Morgana says that she thinks Mordred and Morgause have a thing,” he laughs, coating his fingers in the lube and passing the condom to Merlin. “One condom missing won’t hurt them.”
Nothing more needs to be said between them and Merlin rolls the condom over Arthur’s cock, sighing contentedly as Arthur strokes him with one hand, fingers pressing in with the other. He’s slow, cautious, and Merlin takes the time to adjust in stride, looking at Arthur and kissing him, sloppy and open, loving and wanting.
When Arthur moves, it is perfect. He’s the only one to have full mastery over Merlin’s body – just as Merlin has superior knowledge over his in turn. They are perfect and Arthur sets his pace, Merlin only just keeping his hold on this world.
“I love you,” Arthur whispers in his ear when they’re finished. He is panting and his hair is stuck to his face, but he is every bit as beautiful as Merlin remembers.
“Stay with me,” Merlin replies and Arthur nods, pulling him close and covering his body. Merlin feels protected somehow and buries his hands in Arthur’s hair, keeping close.
“It was my father who made me see how much of a mistake I had made,” Arthur whispers, lips against Merlin’s ear. “I thought I would be okay without you, as long as you were happy.” He laughs, preparing to ease off of Merlin, but Merlin catches him, almost panicking.
“Give me a moment,” Arthur says, kissing Merlin quickly and Merlin lets him. He cleans them, redresses them and then pulls Merlin down the corridor to Morgana’s office, where a bed is set out.
“We just fucked on a table and now you tell me there’s a bed?” Merlin asks, but there’s only amusement in his voice. Arthur pulls back the covers and it’s now Merlin realises how he gets here so early; he sleeps here.
“We saw that campaign of yours,” Arthur continues, as if they hadn’t paused their conversation at all. His arms are warm and strong around Merlin and he feels himself slipping into sleep. “The one you did with Gwaine.”
Merlin looks up, suddenly awake. Did Arthur think he had left him for Gwaine? Yes he had had a relationship with Gwaine, but it had been months after he’d left London.
“He asked me how I let you slip through my fingers.” Arthur laughs. “I stood there without a reply, wondering the same damn thing myself.”
He looks at Merlin tenderly. “I talked to him about my mother and Morgana’s taught me so much about this industry. If… if you wanted to stay with me, get back with me that is, then I’d support you.”
Arthur’s cheeks are flushed and Merlin can’t help but laugh.
“I didn’t talk to you. I promise,” Merlin says, “I promise we’ll make this work.”
He takes Arthur’s hand and smiles.
They make it work. Sometimes Merlin has to leave on business and sometimes it’s Arthur who has to vanish for a few days, but they make it work and that is what is important. They talk, even about the things they might not want to say, because the only other option is to keep to their silence. Last time, silence ruined them and they both cannot let that happen.
“We’ll get a house in the country one day,” Arthur says, spread out on the floor of his flat. It’s a small, one-bedroom place and there’s barely enough room for the two of them. Merlin doesn’t mind though. It’s a home, more of a home than all the places he’s stayed in put together in the past few years, and all because of Arthur.
“With a dog?” Merlin asks, grabbing a pillow and lying beside Arthur. “And some chickens!” he says excitedly, laughing into Arthur’s kiss.
“Yeah, we can get the ones that you rescue. You had the website up ages ago.” He shakes his head, rolling onto his side and looking down at Merlin. “They had woollen coats on because they’d lost their feathers.”
It takes a while and it’s not always easy, but one day when Merlin has flecks of grey in his hair and Arthur’s eyes are crinkled, Merlin slips a woollen jacket onto a featherless hen and laughs at the sight of Arthur surrounded by chickens. For this, he thinks as Arthur pulls him into the melee, kissing him when they’re shin-deep in clucking hens, for all this and Arthur, it was all worth it.