Epilogue: Happy Ever After
Morgana tiptoed down the stairs to the Conservation studios. This was difficult for her to do, as she was wearing a pair of stiletto heels, making tiptoeing almost impossible. Gwen had just let slip that she had seen the Assistant Director heading downstairs to talk to the junior conservator about the Legends manuscript, and for nearly two months Morgana had been dying to find out whether Arthur ever yielded to weakness and displayed affection towards Merlin whilst at work.
There was no doubt in anybody's mind that the two must be displaying their affection--privately--on a very regular basis. Merlin had packed up the contents of his small downtown flat and moved into Arthur's only a few weeks earlier. Since that memorable morning, the Monday after the Valiant incident, when the two had come to work together for the first time, the relationship between Assistant Director Arthur Pendragon and Conservator Merlin Emrys was regarded as having gone "officially" public. The press had had a field day for a week or so--Arthur had groaned to see that there were even articles on the subject in Time magazine and The New Yorker, with another in The Guardian, and nobody even dared to go near him with a copy of People. Vanity Fair asked to do a cover story on the Pendragon Institute, although it was obvious that what they really wanted was a story about the handsome Assistant Director and his photogenic young conservator. Within ten days, fortunately, news of their connection (they had been promptly tagged "Merthur" by the media) was eclipsed by yet another messy breakup of two drug-enhanced stars of a reality television show, and after that, photographs of Arthur and Merlin cropped up only occasionally in the society columns of glossy journals.
It was impossible to deny that some of these photos were epic. (Morgana was secretly cutting them out and pasting them into a scrapbook she meant to present Arthur and Merlin with on their first "anniversary.") Arthur and Merlin on the front steps of the Institute. Arthur playing football ("We call it soccer," sniffed the American photographer) with some old university mates in Central Park, with Merlin watching from the sidelines. Arthur speaking to the press. Merlin, cheekbones and boyish grin shown to best advantage, working on the Legends manuscript in the Paper Conservation studio.
In a tremendous gesture of goodwill towards the Metropolitan Museum, the Pendragon Institute had allowed the Legends manuscript to remain on display for three weeks, before taking it back. (Issues of blame and insurance--the Met could hardly deny that their conservator had damaged the piece--were being dealt with by the two museums' respective legal teams.) Merlin had been working on the manuscript for some time, and was now ready to show it to the rest of the staff, hence Arthur's descent to the Paper Conservation studio.
Morgana peeked through the partially open door of Paper Conservation, hoping the sharp tap of her heels had gone unnoticed. At the far side of the room was a long worktable, and Arthur and Merlin, standing a good two feet apart, were leaning over the Legends manuscript. Merlin pointed to the open page with a slender forefinger, said something under his breath, and Arthur laughed.
Oh, this was frustrating, Morgana thought, nearly stamping her foot before remembering that she was meant to be silent. Although she felt a bit voyeuristic, peering at them like this, she was livid with curiosity. At the Institute, the two treated each other with a cool but friendly professionalism, except when having one of their loud, work-related arguments. A stranger who knew nothing of their history would never guess that they were anything other than museum colleagues.
Their professionalism was terribly irksome to Morgana. Even during their shared three-day weekend at a ski resort in Vermont, a week ago, she had never once caught the two in an embrace, or doing anything that smacked remotely of lust. She and Leon had held hands freely, even kissed in public once or twice, but Arthur and Merlin had behaved very much like a couple of old school chums, jovially insulting one another ("Merlin, you idiot, don't forget your gloves this time!"), kicking snow in each other's direction, occasionally nudging each other and sniggering over some shared joke. It rather annoyed Morgana that their rooms had not been adjacent, so there was no opportunity to overhear any of the vigorous activity she assumed was taking place at night. On the other hand, neither Arthur nor Merlin had made any effort to deny the existance of a relationship, and had been quite open about the fact that they were sharing a room. When asked by an acquaintance, accidentally encountered on the slopes, whether he and Merlin were actually living together in the city, Arthur had said simply, "Yes," and then declined to elaborate further.
It had, in any event, been an entertaining break from the work routine. Whilst Arthur and Leon skiied the black diamond slopes, she and Merlin had sat below and watched them, bundled up in heavy jackets--Merlin with a knitted cap pulled down over those vulnerable ears--and fortified by numerous cups of (lactose-free) hot chocolate. Morgana was well versed enough in downhill skiing that she could navigate the green-labeled intermediate trails with ease, but by far the most memorable sight of the weekend had been Merlin, blue eyes wide with apprehension, attempting to tackle the beginner slope. As expected, he spent as much time on the ground in a tangle of skis and long limbs as he did upright. Arthur had collapsed with laughter, and Merlin had dumped an armful of snow on his head.
Back at work, things seemed to be going splendidly. Lance had finally put the question to Gwen, and they had announced their engagement during the very next staff meeting, to the sound of thunderous applause. As Gwen's father was deceased, Arthur had offered to give the bride away. ("Arthur! You're joking!" Gwen had exclaimed. "Why not? Since I'm a former, uh, significant other and current close friend," he had responded in a whisper.) As for Leon, his academic record had come in handy when he had applied for, and then been offered, a job teaching English literature at a nearby branch of the state university. He was in the process of considering it, and it had occurred to Morgana that this was one way of making certain Uther had no power over his career in the future.
"Morgana, what the fuck!" said Will, coming suddenly around the corner and nearly falling headlong over his senior curator. She made hasty shushing noises, her finger to her lips, and Will rolled his eyes.
Morgana glared at him, but it was difficult to be angry with Will these days. He had promised to organize Lance's bachelor party ("If you dare to hire a stripper, I'll never speak to you again," Gwen had snapped), and had taken over some of Merlin's duties to enable him to work full time on the damaged Legends manuscript.
"Morgana, are you outside the door?" Arthur called, and Morgana grimaced as Will sniggered. With a sigh, she turned on her heel and headed back up the stairs.
"Well, Merlin," Arthur murmured, staring down at the manuscript. "Gaius said that you've worked your magic again, and I have to agree with him."
He raised his eyes from the rich colors and gold of the restored page and ran them over his conservator, who was fiddling with a piece of gold leaf he had crumpled into a tiny ball. Merlin was thinner than he had been when he first came to the Institute and his hair recently had been cut a little shorter, the fringe trimmed high and spiky on his forehead, but his angular appeal was as intense as it had ever been, and the clear blue eyes were more serene; their gaze met the Assistant Director's with a mixture of confidence and relief.
"Thanks," Merlin replied, running his own eyes over the repair, which was virtually invisible to the naked eye. The tear had been mended, the edges perfectly fitted together, the pigments carefully consolidated. It was one of the most difficult jobs he had ever undertaken, but the result was more than satisfactory.
He met Arthur's stare again and smiled before lowering his eyes modestly. Now was not the time to think about the previous night, when they had flung themselves into bed after an early meal, and practically devoured one another with passion. Just the act of touching had felt so good, and then there had been all the rest of it. He had wondered whether Michelangelo felt like this when his hands caressed the marble of his David, but oh God living flesh and muscle felt so much more beautiful. When they finally fell apart, still trembling, still dizzy with pleasure, Arthur had put out a finger to touch the signet ring on Merlin's right hand, and Merlin had seen his lips curve upward in the light from the bedside lamp, fair hair damp with sweat and eyes heavy-lidded with exhaustion and desire.
"How long will this last?" Arthur asked quietly, pointing to the repair.
"As long as it needs to," Merlin replied just as quietly, touching the edge of the page delicately with his fingers. "In this day and age, as you probably know, all conservation work done by reputable professionals in any museum is reversible."
"Reversible," said Arthur.
"Erm. Yes. It's a matter of ethics, really. In future, science will come up with better and less invasive methods of repair, so we, er, use reversible materials that can be replaced--eventually--by the newly devised adhesives, or whatever. No conscientious conservator would do it differently. No one would ever try to stick anything together permanently because, erm, well, because you never know..."
Arthur knew perfectly well that Merlin was not simply talking about manuscripts or other works of art in need of restoration.
"There's no need for you to be concerned about ethics," he said, deliberately using his most arrogant tone of voice. "Because I've no desire to become un-stuck. Not ever, as far as I'm concerned. You may think differently, of course, but that's where I stand."
"Uther," said Merlin flatly, "will have a fit. If he hasn't had one already."
"It'll do him a world of good," Arthur replied. "It's absurd, he's got to let go sometime. Let him worry about Mordred's love life for a change."
Merlin bit his lip, but now was not the time to weep, or even to laugh, with joy. There were certain things to be planned for the future, certainly, including the early summer overseas visit to Hunith in Ealdor and then Uther in London. The thought of seeing the Senior Director again, and having to face the look of repressed disapproval that would doubtless be on his face, was not particularly thrilling (and he just knew that Uther would put himself and Arthur in separate bedrooms), but there would be the oddly interesting presence of Mordred to make up for it. Ever since the incident at the Met, he and Mordred had corresponded fairly regularly by email, and the boy had confided in him his fascination with the field of art conservation. If he didn't go into theoretical physics, he might actually consider following in Merlin's footsteps, although he didn't know how Uther would feel about that. Emails frequently concluded with pleas for more choc bars or other types of American candy, and Merlin found himself standing in long lines at the post office at least once a week with a parcel of sugary confections, wrapped in brown paper and labeled "printed material" to avoid Uther's detection, under his arm.
"Speaking of, uh, Father. If we have three free days after London we could do a car trip through Wales or something like that," mumbled Arthur, almost as though reading Merlin's mind. "I'll need something to clear my mind afer a week with him. I do hope, Merlin, that one of these days you'll consider getting your driver's license."
Arthur was standing close behind Merlin as he spoke, but as they were at work, they could not touch. Merlin turned to face him, and their glances strained together, mimicking what their bodies wanted to do. Then Arthur, in a heroic gesture, put both of his hands behind his back, and Merlin gave a little laugh.
"Excuse the interruption," came Gwen's voice from the door. "But if you lot have finished looking at that manuscript, Gaius is suggesting that we all go out to Hengist's Grill for lunch. I know, I know, Merlin, it's a beefburger place, but I've been informed they now have lovely salads on the menu. We can always sneak something in from the vegetarian restaurant across the street. But could you hurry, please, because the rest of us are starving. Leon's nattering on about chips and Lance is practically frothing at the mouth with the thought of bacon cheeseburgers. Man cannot live on love alone."