Disclaimer: Nope, not mine, no way. I'm not the BBC, are you the BBC?

Author's Note: This was inspired by alba17's fic 'My Kingdom for a Curling Iron' over on Archive of our Own and livejournal. Epilogue is optional.

Summary: Growing up, Arthur hadn't wanted to own a salon. But that's what he became, and he wouldn't change a minute of it. (Especially the minutes with Merlin.)

Warnings: Strong language in this part, and the epilogue is complete smut and avoidable if you don't want to read smut. But really, who doesn't want to read smut?

xxx

Growing up, Arthur hadn't wanted to own a salon. What little kid did? What kid ran up to his parents, gleefully admitting, 'Mother, Father! I'd like to own a salon!' Or when they got up in front of their class held out a shitty finger painting of themselves running tax forms and balancing bank accounts for a failing salon in New York. Instead, growing up, Arthur did shitty finger paintings of himself as knight, or a rock star, or, on only one occasion, a farmer surrounded by chickens and pigs holding a plate of eggs and bacon before Morgana, his slightly-older, slightly-insane and only slightly-sister (long story) explained to him where bacon came from and how they slaughtered pigs and how the pigs were kept in such horrid conditions. Arthur hadn't eaten bacon since and quickly abandoned his aspiration to become a farmer.

Andbutso, here Arthur found himself. Sitting behind his ridiculously cluttered desk, pulling out his hair as the numbers came up in the red for the third month in a row. He wished he could say he didn't know why, but he knew why. They had one extra staff they didn't need, but he couldn't bring himself to fire anybody on his team. He probably could, actually. But he didn't want to. In the past few years of owning the salon, he'd liked to think he grew some semblance of a heart that was bred out of him by his father.

"That bad?" Arthur looked up from the papers and sighed at his sort-of-sister.

"That bad," he confirmed, and Morgana let herself in, as she was wont to do, plopped herself in the seat across from Arthur and kicked her feet up on his desk. Arthur made a face at the disgustingly high high-heels.

Morgana noticed and laughed, "You're gay, you're supposed to love shoes!"

Arthur scowled at her, "Sure, I appreciate shoes, but not on my desk. You're messing up my papers."

Morgana huffed but moved her feet anyways. Instead, she leaned forwards, resting her elbows on the desk and showing off her cleavage in her inappropriately low-cut shirt. "What's the damage, then?"

"Two," Arthur sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose and shaking his head.

"Hundred? That's not so bad, we should go out for drinks to celebrate and all that nonsense. I've got a friend I've been meaning for you to meet…"

"Thousand," Arthur added. Morgana blinked.

"Oh. Well. I'm sure Father could help. About this friend—"

"Quit trying to set me up! And I refuse to run to Father for help. Can you just…get your breasts and your shoes and yourself out of my office before I snap," Arthur ground out through grit teeth.

Morgana stood up, looking offended. "Well, then. If you're going to be like that," she sniffed and tossed her hair in mimicry of one of Arthur's ex-girlfriends he had before he knew he was fabulously gay, as Morgana liked to put it. Arthur couldn't even muster up the energy to sneer at her as she left. He just needed some time alone to sit and think and brainstorm.

Gwen smiled at Morgana as she left, then entered Arthur's office, carrying her tips bag into his office and smiling her bright smile she always smiled that made Arthur smile. Except for today. And that made Gwen frown.

"That bad, hmm?" she asked, laying her tips bag on his desk and coming around the desk to bend down and hug him. She was always surprisingly open with her affection, which Arthur wasn't. Things were weird between them, though, since they dated in high school for a pretty long time, and he guessed they never really grew out of their ease with each other.

"It'll get better, Arthur, promise. I'll help anyway I can," she said, pressing a kiss to the top of his head and sighing.

"Thanks Gwen," Arthur smiled then, and Gwen smiled back, turning and leaving. And Arthur was grateful to be alone again, though that seemed to be a short lived gratefulness.

"Arthur!" Arthur groaned, letting his head fall forwards with a 'thunk.'

"Merlin," Arthur greeted.

"That bad, huh?" Arthur just groaned again.

"I brought the takings for today, and some coffee and some of those doughnuts you like from that place down the street," Merlin invited himself in as well, and Arthur supposed it was probably time to have 'that talk' with the salon again about how his office was his, and therefore off limits to them. But coffee did sound pretty stinking welcoming at the moment. He sat up and held out his hands; one for the money and one for his coffee. He was handed only the money.

Arthur glared, "Sorry, Arthur. I spilled your coffee on the way in. I cleaned it though. You can have the rest of mine. Though, it's kind of cold. And I still have those doughnuts…er, sorry, pastries, you like. I may have eaten one or two, but there's enough left for you. Tons left, actually. Your favorites, I promise. And also wemighthavelost…oh…aboutthreecases of product today. But it's no biggie, see? Gwen's put up her tips to help the difference and so has Morgana and Will put up only half of his, because his mum is still sick but I swear, it's covers like, at least half of the loss. Doughnut…pastry? Coffee?"

Arthur just stared blankly at Merlin, before taking the coffee and swallowing it down in one big gulp. He knew that, if he had to fire somebody (which was rapidly becoming a 'when' and not 'if') it would, logically, have to be Merlin. Merlin just worked the front desk, and he did it rather half-arsedly at that. But Arthur was strangely attached to the dorky, big eared Merlin who decorated his space with Star Trek figurines and often asked for days off to attend conventions. Dorky, disastrous Merlin, who had no doubtedly knocked over a display case that caused in the 'about three cases of product' loss earlier today. Adorable, horrible Merlin who was responsible for the current state of two of their hair-washing sinks (completely useless, and another long story).

Wonderful, too wonderful, Merlin, who brought Arthur coffee and pastries and made him laugh despite himself. Who Arthur may or may not have the tiniest crush on, and who was also completely, hopelessly straight and dating a nice girl named Freya who worked at the diner next door. She was slightly mousy and too plain looking for Arthur's tastes, but meh, whatever floated Merlin's boat, it wasn't him.

After Arthur had consumed two of his favorite pastries (he hated it when Merlin called them doughnuts, because Arthur Pendragon didn't eat doughnuts) he finally looked up at Merlin, fully intent on being angry with him, but just ended up sighing and thanking him for the coffee and pastry. Merlin just looked so sorry and sheepish and, Arthur loathed to think it, cute. Today he was wearing his required black 'Penn's' t-shirt, too small on him and faded from not being washed properly, and a pair of jeans that were equally as faded and two-sizes too big on him.

Merlin smiled brightly when Arthur thanked him, "Yeah. Anytime. I'm sorry, about today. It's just, I thought I saw Freya outside, with another guy, so I wasn't watching where I was going and I toppled a delivery trolley, but luckily we were able to salvage most of the bottles. But when I looked up I didn't see Freya anywhere. So it was probably just my imagination. By the way, you didn't look too happy when I came in. Was it Morgana? Or the…you know. The numbers thing again."

"You talk entirely too much, Merlin. And it was a little of both, if you must know. Morgana keeps insisting I go to my father for help with our…situation. And she keeps trying to hook me up with these guys she knows and she doesn't understand that I'm not looking. And plus, the last guy she tried to hook me up with had some kind of weird toe-nail fetish—"

Merlin jumped suddenly, then dug through his pocket for his phone, holding a finger up to Arthur. Arthur was outraged that Merlin would do that to him, would answer his phone in the middle of Arthur's rant.

"Hello?...Hey baby…Er. I'm still at work…Talking to Arthur…No, but…I mean he's…Yeah. Okay…Sure…What. No. I can't pick those up!...Yeah, but…No, but…Yeah, okay…Sorry. Yes. I'll stop on my way home. Sorry…" Merlin had the gall to shoot Arthur a sheepish, apologetic look, holding the phone away from him and mouthing 'girlfriend' as if Arthur were stupid or something. "Yes. See you soon, baby…I…Iloveyoutoo." He hung up quickly, shoving his phone in his pocket quickly, ducking his head and coughing into his fist.

"You are so whipped Emrys," Arthur drawled, trying to hide his curiosity and anger behind teasing.

Merlin spluttered, "Am not."

"Yeah, right," Arthur smirked and Merlin huffed and stood up, though he was smiling as well.

"I gotta go pick some things up from the store for Freya before I get home, so I should get going. If there's anything you need help with, you can totally not call me, because, as you've stressed before, I'm totally useless," Merlin smiled, then jumped again, pulling out his cell phone. He frowned at a text message then sighed, apologizing to Arthur again.

Arthur made the 'wh-tsh!' sound of a whip being cracked and Merlin stuck his tongue out before waving and backing out of the office.

Arthur didn't want to be a salon owner hopelessly in love with his secretary-of-sorts when he was growing up, but that's what he became, and he wouldn't change a bit of it.

xxx

"So! I was talking to Morgana and Gwen!" Merlin informed Arthur in an entirely too bright voice as he pushed Arthur's door open.

"Good morning, Merlin," he muttered, holding out his hand for his coffee which Merlin promptly handed him, piping hot and full this time.

"Morning, Arthur! Anyways, I was talking to Morgana and Gwen," he said again.

"Never a good thing," Arthur added.

"And we've come up with a solution to help the salon!" Merlin went on without acknowledging Arthur.

"Oh? What's this brilliant plan then?"

"Carr Wasch!" Merlin said excitedly, dropping himself into the chair he normally holed up in.

"Car wash, Merlin? What's next, a bake sale? Cheerleaders in short skirts and bikinis?" Arthur rolled his eyes. Merlin snorted.

"No, you prat. Carr Wasch. He's a photographer, and owns a small modeling agency. I happen to know a guy who works there, a model, and he's going to talk to Mr. Wasch about opening up an exclusive deal with us, where we do all the hair and make-up," Merlin said excitedly, practically bouncing in his seat.

This was good. This was actually really very good for them. Exclusive accounts were always a good thing. And models and photographers always were willing to pay top price! Even in this economy, agencies weren't really stingy, and they had just lost one of their agencies to More Goes, a new salon opened up down the street by Morgana's evil half-sister.

"His name is really Carr Wasch?" Arthur asked, and Merlin grinned.

"You would focus on that, wouldn't you? Should I tell Lance yes then? We'll take it?" Merlin asked, leaning forwards out of his chair, nearly falling off the edge.

"You mean you haven't said yes yet? Are you completely daft or just partially so?" Arthur asked. Merlin flashed him a brilliant grin that had Arthur turning away to hide his stricken look at the grin being directed at him. Morgana would laugh so much if she knew what Merlin did to him.

Merlin was already standing up and rushing to the front-desk to make the phone calls. And really, Arthur felt horrible for ever thinking that Merlin should be the one to go. He was a godsend, really.

xxx

Merlin was certainly sent up from the depths of the earth to make his life a living hell, Arthur was certain. Arthur now remembers why he didn't like working with models and their agents and their photographers and everybody else who thought they were important to models.

"It's too flat on this side," pointed out the director of the shoot, "It's got to be B-I-G. Do you know what B-I-G is?"

Arthur wanted to reply that yes, he knew what big was. It was the shoot director's big fat arse and big sweaty hands touching his things when they shouldn't. Instead he just smiled and nodded, then went about fixing the hair, trying to tease it even more, even though it was becoming quite impossible, unless Arthur suddenly learned how to defy the laws of gravity and hair.

When Arthur was a little bit bigger than little, but still didn't know he was gay, or even what gay was, he used to steal Morgana's dolls and do their hair. Not well, mind you, but he'd make the hair stand on end with glue and glitter. He found he rather liked it. He used to play with his mum's hair, when she was still alive. He remembered being three and running his chubby fingers through it, bright blonde and very soft, like his. It always smelt of strawberries or apples, and he'd bury his face in it and fall asleep. But she had died, and Arthur didn't want to think of that anymore.

Anyways, when he told his father at the tender age of 11 that he'd like to be a hairdresser, Uther nipped that right in the bud saying that being a hair dresser was a woman's job, and 'Arthur, you're a man. You'll have a man's job, like a banker, or a lawyer. Isn't that nice?' And of course 11 year old Arthur had nodded his chubby little head and agreed because he adored his father.

Eventually, after a very disappointing half-year at law school, Arthur dropped out and went to beauty school with Morgana, much to his father's chagrin. He had been practically disowned, except nobody in the Pendragon family actually disowned their family, otherwise Morgana would have been disowned at age 12 for admitting that she was a lesbian and that she thought Uther was quite like a communist leader that shall not be named (it was more the latter than the former that enraged Uther) and caused a certain bit of facial hair to be removed from Uther's face. Arthur and Morgana opened the salon together, and it was a high-end, highly sought after salon for ages, until the economy took a nosedive into the bitter deep end.

Arthur still enjoyed doing hair. Cutting hair, styling hair, dying hair. He loved all the different colors and textures of hair. Sometimes it'd be blonde and soft and thick like his mother's, other times it would be curly and snag around his fingers and nearly untamable, but Arthur could tame it. He loved the smell of the shampoos they used, of the products. He loved the calming sound of the dryers and sprayers and the 'snick snick snick' of the scissors. Arthur was made to work in salons, he was sure. Except for on days like these.

"OH. MY. GOD!" Arthur heard the high-pitched squeal of outrage and quickly whipped around to face the source, but not before carefully setting down his tools, because he was a good and safe hair stylist. He was greeted by the sight of Merlin rushing towards him with a long bit of blonde hair in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, his eyes wide and his lips moving too fast to form actual words.

Arthur was too angry for words. He just glared at Merlin, and pointed towards his office. Merlin had been working today because the agency had brought in a lot of their models for some kind of giant shoot, and they needed more hands for the hair. Merlin had gone to beauty school, but dropped out his last year to attend business school, and normally Arthur wouldn't let him anywhere near the scissors, not even for a kids' cut, but Merlin had begged. And Arthur could never, never resist his pout.

It was hard work, sorting out the business with the model and her agent and the shoot director. Eventually they found out it was just an extension that Merlin had cut out, and there was no harm done to the model's actual hair. It just seemed what they said about blondes was true sometimes; the girl had forgotten she had extensions and had thought it was her real hair grasped in Merlin's nervous, sweaty hand.

After having a quiet word with Morgana about handling the rest of the models while he spoke to Merlin, and getting an earful about how Gwen was flirting with Merlin's friend Lance, the model, and wasn't he just jealous, he made his way to his office, where Merlin was perched on the edge of his seat, fidgeting and twitching and still clutching the extension and scissors.

He leapt up from his seat when Arthur came in, holding the hair and scissors out in front of him as if they'd burn him. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It was an accident. I swear! She went to answer her phone and I was about to cut and I just jumped and it scared her and me and I'm so sorry. Please don't fire me."

Arthur sighed, turning towards the cupboard behind his desk and pulling out two glasses and his favorite scotch, pouring a generous amount in each glass. "I'm not going to fire you, Merlin."

"Oh thank god. Freya's just got laid off and I need this job, Arthur. Arthur," Arthur really wished Merlin would stop saying his name like that, like he was God or something, "you really don't know what this means to me. Thank you."

Arthur just sighed again, downing his glass, and when Merlin declined the other one, he downed that one as well. "Yeah. Well," he just shrugged, practically melting into his chair. "Today's been a pretty shitty day, I wasn't going to make it shittier by getting your girlfriend royally pissed off at me for firing you. She'd probably come in here with a sawed-off shotgun or something."

Merlin snorted, finally dropping the hair and scissors on Arthur's desk and taking the seat across from him. "I really am sorry. I know it's been rough for you. I wish I could help more."

"I think you've helped enough."

Merlin looked suitable abashed, before finally accepting a drink. "Can I be honest with you?"

"No," Arthur said bluntly, but Merlin went on anyways, figuring Arthur was joking. Arthur wasn't joking. Whenever Merlin was 'honest' with him, Arthur fell just that little bit more.

"Ever since Freya lost her job last week, it's like, all of a sudden she's some kind of monster. She's started planning our wedding," Arthur sucked in a sharp breath, and Merlin took it as sympathy rather than anger, "I haven't even proposed to her yet." Arthur hid his dejected look at 'yet' with a cough and another drink. "And now I'm the bread bringer, she sits at home and I cater to her every whim. She doesn't leave the house. She just looks through these catalogues for dresses and flowers and 'what shade of violet lilac would look best on the tables.' I thought violet and lilac were the same color! And it kind of scares me. I don't want to get married. I'm only twenty-four; I'm still in business school, for crying out loud!"

Arthur just nods along, because what's he supposed to say? 'Don't marry Freya, Merlin. Instead, you should dump the bi-polar bitch and we could totally shag like, everyday. You can move in with me and we'll talk about hair and play house.' It sounded stupid.

"It seems, every time I try to break up with her, something horrible happens. At first it was her brother going to prison for counterfeit African coins, then her grandma getting mauled by a panther. And now she got laid off because of some kind of flood or fireor something. I don't even know. And I'd just feel horrible if I try to leave now. I can't," Merlin was on his second glass, leaning back in Arthur's chair and looking suspiciously and horribly close to tears. Arthur wanted badly to go around the edge of the desk and just hug Merlin, except he didn't hug.

"If this is you asking for a raise, I'm sorry mate. We don't cover psychotic girlfriends on our insurance," Arthur informed Merlin, hoping to lighten the mood. Merlin just sighed and nodded.

"I wasn't…asking for a raise or anything. It just feels good to talk…to you," he set the glass aside and pulled his feet up on the chair, hugging his ridiculously knobby knees to his chest. He looked like a little kid, like the young Merlin Arthur saw in pictures at the front-desk, hanging off of Will at summer camp, grin too wide, ears too big, and limbs too long. Only this was like, bizarre-o summer camp Merlin, all depressed and almost-weepy.

Arthur stood up, leaning across his desk and nearly knocking over his glass so he could put his hand on Merlin's knee, the closest bit he could reach. He didn't really know what to say, but Merlin didn't seem to mind his silence. They just stayed that way for a while, Merlin staring blankly over Arthur's shoulder and Arthur half-kneeling on his desk, bent in half to touch Merlin's knee.

And they stayed like that until Morgana burst into the room, hair all frizzed out and poofed and make-up done like the models. "I'm going to be in the shoot, Arthur! They picked me!" Before she could go on she paused to take in the scene. Arthur quickly scrambled back to his place behind his desk, and Merlin straightened out in his seat.

Merlin was the first to talk, "That's great, Morgana," he said, grinning up at her. "Those clothes are pretty kick-ass."

Morgana grinned, waggling her brows at Arthur none-too-subtly before turning to Merlin, "I know, right? I think they want to sign me. That stupid blonde model whose hair you fucked up ran out in a fit of tears, so they got me instead. Arthur, consider this my two-weeks."

"You're kidding," Arthur, in his defense, really hadn't seen this coming.

"I don't kid Arthur. I'll talk to you later about…" she glanced between him and Merlin, before smiling at Merlin, "Bye, Merlin! You did a good job on the models' hair that you didn't screw up!"

Merlin stared after her thoughtfully, a little line between his brows indicating that he was thinking very seriously about something. "I'll see you later, Arthur," he replied distractedly, already pulling his phone out of his pocket.

Arthur barely had time to stutter a goodbye and good luck before Merlin was out the door.

xxx

The shoot lasted until the early hours of the morning, and Arthur had to beg off getting out of drinks. Morgana called him a not too polite word that rhymed with 'wussy' and Gwen was too wrapped up in the male models to actual help him out. But he got away relatively unscratched, and collapsed, exhausted in his bed. He had a few brief, silent moments to lay unmoving on his bed before his phone started ringing and ringing and ringing. He let the machine get it, but then had to spring up when the agitated voice of his father filled his flat.

"Arthur, I know you're home. Morgana has texted (Dear God, his father was texting!) me to inform me that you did not go out for drinks with them. Therefore, you are ignoring my calls and listening to me speak this very instant and I refuse to hang up until you answer—"

"Hullo, Father," Arthur answered, trying to sound less miserable than he felt.

"Arthur, you should have picked up first ring. And is that the appropriate way to answer the telephone? What if I had been a client calling? 'Hullo' would hardly do—"

"I get it, Father. I knew it was you. That's why I answered it the way I did. I'm awfully tired, so, if you could tell me why you called, then I could hang up and go to sleep."

Uther muttered something about rudeness and America and chili or something, "Morgana's been telling me your little salon has been in some trouble lately."

Arthur snorted, thinking of just hanging up right then, "We're doing just peachy, Father. It's nothing I can't handle."

"That's not what Morgana's told me. She says that you might have to get rid of a staff member to fix what damage you've done. Now, may I suggest that—"

"No, you may not suggest anyone, thank you Father. Morgana's just put in her two weeks notice, so that's that. I'll be going to sleep now, thank you."

"Morgana's quitting? Well then. Good luck with everything. Don't fail. If you ever need anything—"

"I won't call you. I've got it, thanks. Goodbye, goodnight, whatever." And Arthur promptly hung up. His father wasn't being particularly difficult or anything, or testy, even. Arthur was just a prideful man, like his father. He wouldn't accept the help, just as Uther wouldn't accept help from anybody else. But Uther would enjoy helping Arthur just to prove his point that 'salons are a wretched business, then. See, hadn't I said so? You're just lucky I'm here to help, Arthur. You'd be living on the street, else wise. How horrible would it be for a Pendragon to be living on the street? Why, if your mother…'

Arthur shook his head to clear the thoughts of his father, and the rather lifelike talking-to he was giving to himself, and laid back down, his face pressed into his pillow. He felt like screaming, but he hadn't screamed into his pillow since he was seventeen and had just come out to his father, whose only remark was, 'adopt strong boys, don't get AIDS.' Arthur had screamed for 30 minutes straight until he couldn't scream anymore and Morgana had brought him tea with honey and started talking about what boys Arthur thought were cute.

His mobile beeped at him then, and he groaned, flopping his hand around on the nightstand, ready to throw the phone across the room until the name caught his eye. He sucked in a sharp breath as he read Merlin's text, 'u home? can i come up?'

Arthur didn't bother answering, just flung himself out of his bed and rushed to buzz Merlin up with a quick, 'be quiet on your way up.' A few moments later Merlin was standing in Arthur's doorway, absolutely drenched and dripping all over Arthur's floor. Arthur hadn't even known that it was raining outside. And Merlin looked like a little kid whose puppy had just been drowned, while simultaneously being that drowned puppy. Arthur pulled him inside and took his jacket from him, dropping it by the door.

"Tea?" he asked, Merlin shook his head.

"Something stronger, then?" Arthur asked. Merlin nodded pathetically before dropping to the couch.

Arthur went to the liquor cabinet, brought out two glasses and a fine bottle of brandy. He poured them both a glass and handed one to Merlin, trying not to wince as Merlin dripped all over his nice sofa. He didn't ask Merlin anything, just waited for Merlin to explain it himself. He tried to ignore the way his heart was beating wildly out of rhythm for no particular reason other than Merlin was close.

Merlin downed his drink, poured himself some more and cradled it to his chest, "I broke-up with Freya," he said miserably, finally. Arthur just simpered sympathetically, resisting the urge to reach out and place his hand on Merlin's knee in a repetition of earlier that day…or yesterday, now. He waited for Merlin to go on, but he didn't. He just sipped at his drink and kept looking towards the door, as if he were about to make a break for it. Arthur didn't want that.

"Would you like a change of clothes? I've got some old things you could wear," Arthur suggested, once again ignoring his body as it warmed to the thought of Merlin in his things. Merlin nodded and smiled and said 'please' though it all seemed rather half-hearted. Arthur patted Merlin's knee awkwardly before standing up and going back into his room. His bed looked so inviting, so warm and toasty and he just wanted to lay down and curl up to sleep (with Merlin, maybe) but that didn't seem to be on his schedule for the day.

When he came back out into the living room with his clothes he saw that Merlin had moved. He was sitting in the middle of the couch now, leaning forwards with his hands on his knees and staring at a little black box on the table in front of him, his expression angry and determined, as if he were trying to set it on fire with his mind. Arthur cleared his throat and held out his things; an old white t-shirt and some cotton shorts he used to sleep in. Merlin jumped, like he had forgotten Arthur was there, or where he was at, and ducked his head sheepishly, standing up and taking the clothes without a word before moving to the bathroom.

Arthur sat back down on the sofa, avoiding the two spots of wet that Merlin had left. He studiously avoided looking at the little black box as well, having a sneaking suspicion of what it was. But when Merlin didn't come out in five minutes, he frowned, turning towards the bathroom. The shower was running, so Merlin must be washing out the chill and the rain. He turned back to the table, this time staring directly at the box. Glancing over his shoulder at the bathroom, even though he knew Merlin wouldn't be coming out any time soon, he leaned forwards, laying a hand on the velvet box.

It was exactly like all the other boxes he had ever seen in movies or in ads. He ran his fingers along the back of it, then took it carefully in his hand, as if it were fragile or dangerous. He supposed it might be both, if it was for what he thought it was intended for. He carefully prized the lid open, almost afraid to look at what was nestled in the white satiny stuff.

It was a ring, alright. A beautiful ring, delicate, with little white diamonds surrounding a rather large-ish black diamond. Obviously made for girls. He quickly snapped the box shut before he started thinking of Merlin down on one knee, proposing to Freya, and Freya, the frigid bitch, saying 'no, it's not enough, bigger better, Merlin.'

Arthur was just near frothing point when Merlin came back out in Arthur's old clothes. Arthur quickly set the box back down as Merlin came round the couch to sit back down. He, too, avoided the wet spots, which meant he was stuck sharing a cushion with Arthur, which Arthur didn't mind as his legs was tingling all up one side where Merlin touched.

"You're probably wondering what's up, yeah?" Merlin said after a while, glancing sidelong at Arthur, not completely making eye contact, but not avoiding him anymore, either. Arthur felt safe enough to make a little joke.

"Well, yeah. I mean, if you're proposing, I'm flattered, really. But I'm not an easy girl," Arthur teased. He wasn't prepared for Merlin's reaction.

Merlin just burst into tears, flinging himself into Arthur's lap and pressing his snotting, watering nose and eyes into Arthur's still nice pants. He sniveled and sobbed in turns, unabashedly wiping his nose on Arthur's trousers. "S'horrible, Arthur. M'sorry, but s'horrible."

Arthur went from awkwardly patting Merlin's back and making 'shushing' noises to running his fingers through Merlin's still damp hair. The slight curls curved around his fingers as if each single strand were hugging him. It felt rather nice. Merlin calmed down eventually and sat up, wiping at his nose with the back of his hand, muttering 'm'sorry' again before settling back.

"It's alright. I shouldn't have made a joke. I hit a tender spot, I apologize, too. Do you still…want to explain?" Arthur asked, half-way between reaching out to comfort Merlin some more, but aborted the action by coughing into his fist instead.

"Y-yeah, okay. Yeah, I'm sorry," Merlin sniffed once more before taking a deep breath, "Here goes. So, after Morgana gave her two-weeks, I took that as a sign that I wouldn't be getting fired, since the salon would be making enough money now, yeah? And that was my sign to do something about Freya and me. So I went right out and to a jeweler and bought the most beautiful ring I could find. You know, nothing less for Freya.

"And I fully intended on proposing to her as soon as I got home, I really did. And then when I did get home, Freya's there, planning the wedding, again. And I just…I just had enough. I showed her the ring, and she smiled and said 'yes' and then I just…I just said no. Just like that, I told her no. She looked so confused, so I said 'no to everything forever, bye' and I left. I just left. Just like that. And then I ran all the way here."

"All the way here? Are you crazy Merlin? That's like, six blocks!"

Merlin shrugged, wiping his nose on his hand again. Arthur wrinkled his nose and got up to fetch a box of tissues. Merlin accepted them gratefully and blew his nose before sighing and leaning back in the couch.

"Was I stupid? Was it really stupid of me to do that?" Merlin asked.

Arthur decided to answer truthfully, no sugar coating. "No, no you weren't. Freya was being stupid, no offense to her. I'm sure she's lovely, but she's just so controlling. And you're still young. You're both still young, she's the only girl you've ever dated. You can't possibly be ready for marriage yet. You've still got a lot of learning, a lot of experimenting and stuff to do."

Merlin was frowning at him, and Arthur realized he had placed his hand on Merlin's knee again and was leaning forwards earnestly, trying to really drive his point home subconsciously. He leaned away from Merlin, nervously snatching his hand back. But before he could withdraw it completely Merlin's hand shot out with surprising dexterity and pulled it back. He kept his hand wrapped around Arthur's wrist, his fingers stroking the inside of it.

"Thank you, Arthur," he said quietly, his eyes fluttering between his hand on Arthur's and Arthur's nervous looking face. Arthur was sure he was sweating or something. He just swallowed thickly and nodded, not trusting himself to speak. "I mean it. Thank you so much, for everything. Everything. You've been so good to me. More than I deserve, I'm sure. I don't…I have no idea how to repay you."

"I could think of a few things," flew out of Arthur's mouth before he could think, and he immediately wanted to snatch them back and shove them down his throat until he choked. Merlin's brows shot up, but he wasn't offended just…curious. And he hadn't let go of Arthur wrist, he still hadn't stopped stroking it.

Merlin swallowed, his eyes flicking down to Arthur's lips as he licked his own. Without really knowing what he was doing, Arthur began leaning in at the exact time Merlin was. "Yeah?" Merlin whispered, his lips so close to Arthur's that Arthur could taste and smell the fruity gum Merlin always chewed then stuck under the front counter whenever a customer would come in. Arthur would always make him scrape it off at the end of the week, and enjoyed it when Merlin griped about staying late, because then Arthur would have an excuse to stay late with Merlin and oh god, Merlin was kissing him. He was kissing Merlin. When had this happened?

They weren't really kissing, though. They were just touching lips, and that was almost enough for Arthur. But obviously not enough for Merlin. He pressed more insistently into Arthur, dropping his hand and cupping the side of Arthur's neck, pulling him closer and deeper and moving his lips against Arthur unmoving one. Arthur finally checked himself into the current situation and responded, his lips moving right back against Merlin's and it was a delicious friction.

It was pretty chaste, as far as kisses go. It lasted a couple of minutes; Arthur's hand buried in Merlin's hair and Merlin's hand clutching Arthur's shoulder as if he were an anchor. But Merlin suddenly pulled back, his eyes wide and horrified, his lips shiny and his hair all messed up. He looked almost comical, and Arthur would have laughed if it wasn't for the dropping feeling in his gut that maybe this wasn't the right thing to do at that moment.

"Oh god, oh god, no. I'm sorry! I'm sorry," Merlin leapt up from the couch. "I'm sorry Arthur. I shouldn't have…I mean, I'm not even broke-up completely and I'm not g—…Oh god, I'm horrible. I'm so sorry. I can't even…I don't even want…" Merlin didn't finish his sentence. Didn't even want? What didn't he even want? Arthur? Arthur frowned and bit his cheek as Merlin rushed around, gathering up his wet clothes and his almost dry jacked. He jammed his feet into his wet trainers and sent and worried look to Arthur before leaving.

It had stopped raining, Arthur noticed. And Merlin was gone. He noticed that too. He was too aware of that fact. He numbly cleaned up the tissues Merlin left laying around and threw them out. Then he finally kicked off his shoes by the front door. As he was shutting off the light in the living room, still kind of numb to process anything, he spotted the ring box Merlin left behind and took it into his room with him. He left it on his nightstand, changed into his pajamas, and went to bed staring at it.

xxx

He arrived late to the salon the next day, as did most the other employees from the night of celebrating and the late shoot. Merlin wasn't in, but he was never there early. Arthur stuck his hand in his pocket and fingered the velvet box, eyeing Merlin's station. He walked over to it and dropped the box there, as a peace offering maybe.

When he went into his office he scowled when he found Morgana sitting in his chair, fooling around on his laptop. "Good morning, Arthur dear! Merlin won't be in, he's e-mailed saying he isn't feeling too well."

Arthur frowned, shaking his head. Morgana was too cheery, and Merlin was too-not-here. "Get out," he grumbled, and instead of arguing, Morgana got up and left, but not before saying '13 days, Arthur, and I'm out!'

Arthur went through the day quiet, filling his appointments promptly and efficiently and avoiding the small chatter that stylists were supposed to make. On his way out he checked Merlin's station and saw the box was still there. He picked it up and shoved it in his pocket, then went home to drink himself tired.

The next day Merlin was a no-show, and Arthur still left the ring there. He went stupidly through appointments, but never messed up a bit. He felt horrible.

The next day he got an e-mail from Merlin telling him that this was his two-weeks. Arthur went home and almost cried that night. Almost.

Everyday Arthur still left the ring box at Merlin's station, even though he knew that Merlin wouldn't ever show up again. One day he found Gwen packing up Merlin's station to deliver it to him later. She was about to throw the ring box into the cardboard box labeled 'Merlin's Shit,' but Arthur stopped her and snatched the box away, shoving it in its familiar place in his pocket.

After two week, Arthur stopped putting the ring on Merlin's desk, and just kept it in his pocket. Morgana wasn't around anymore to tease him for it. And he was still utterly depressed, despite Gwen and Lance's (Gwen's new supermodel boyfriend) attempts at cheering him up.

xxx

Three long, horrible months passed. Horrible for Arthur, at least. The salon was doing stunningly well. It was late summer, and people were coming in from the heat just to get their haircut and styled for something to do. Gwen had the splendid idea to use Lance as a model for the shop, and to serve drinks. And to have Lance serve the drinks wearing fitted clothes and that was also doing wonder for their sales.

But it was getting hard for Arthur. He no longer had a co-owner, so all the work fell to him. He no longer had a front-desk worker (he never gave up hope for Merlin returning), so for the time being, that work also fell to him.

They weren't in the red anymore, and Uther stopped calling to ask if he needed help. Instead he called to complain about Morgana's scantily clad ads in the magazines and on billboards. Arthur didn't want to listen to that much, either. He was actually bringing home money for himself now, even if he didn't really have time to work on a lot of clients anymore.

"Arthur! You've got someone here for a cut," Gwen said, cheerily bursting into his office. He found it difficult to believe that still nobody knew what his office meant. It was near the end of the day, and Arthur really didn't want to deal with a pushy walk-in.

"I can't, I'm too busy. Have the new guy take them," Arthur said, waving his hand vaguely as he punched a couple of numbers into his calculator.

"No, I really think you should take him. He won't settle for nobody else, he says," Gwen said, sounding almost grave, which meant she was trying to hide something.

"Then tell him to come back another day when I'm not so busy. I'm happy to take appointments," he snapped, glaring at her from around his computer screen.

"Arthur, I really really think you should take him. He's uh…he's important," it was a lie, but Arthur figured she'd never leave him alone until he at least told the sucker to bugger off himself. He stood from his desk and pushed passed Gwen carefully, peering out the door. His customer was already seated in a chair, messy mop of dark brown curls bent over something. He frowned, feeling a pang in his chest. He frowned.

"Hey, you, it's close to closing time, come back tomorrow, yeah?" he called from his door. Gwen pinched him on his arm and he glared at her.

The customer stood up and turned to Arthur, and Arthur nearly lost his shit right there. He had to bite the inside of his cheek from crying out.

"He-ey, Arthur," Merlin said, sounding awkward and quiet and happy and so Merlin.

"Merlin," Arthur greeted, sounding stiff and afraid as he crossed the room, ignoring Gwen's chortle as she left to flip the sign to 'closed' on the front door.

"Long time no see, yeah?" Merlin said, scratching the back of his neck.

"Yeah," was all Arthur replied.

"I figured it was time for a haircut. I'm looking a little…shaggy. I came here because you're the only one I trust," Merlin admitted. Arthur found himself glancing down at Merlin's fingers, frantically scanning each one for a band of some sort and sighed in relief when he didn't see one.

"Sure. Okay. Sit down, then," Arthur said, offering the seat to Merlin again. Merlin obeyed, and Arthur swung the black hair-shield around Merlin. He raised the chair and began running his fingers through Merlin's hair. It reminded him of the night that Merlin was crying into his lap and he had done it to comfort him. Every strand was hugging him again, so soft and thick and too nice. He set about doing the trim. After a while Merlin spoke.

"You erm…you look…"

"Like shite? Yeah, I know. It's been kinda hectic lately."

"I was going to say good, but sure. Whatever you think," Merlin grinned at him, and their eyes met in the mirror. His grin melted away.

"Listen, Arthur. I'm sorry. I was an idiot, coming to your house and crying on you and then kissing you. I should have never dumped my baggage on you," Merlin said. Arthur's hands stilled in Merlin hair, still coming and wetting it, having foregone the shampooing.

He frowned thoughtfully, "You mean it was a mistake, kissing me."

"No! God no, I don't mean that. Arthur, you know I don't mean that," Merlin said, pleading.

"No, actually. I don't. You just got up, said 'I don't even—' and then left without an explanation. Then you quit and didn't even come to pick up your own crap. I was left without an explanation. I thought you had gone to go marry Freya or whatever," Arthur dropped his hands from Merlin's head and took a step back.

Merlin was grimacing now, looking pained and apologetic and Arthur wanted badly to forgive him. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Arthur, I didn't want to do that. I was just so confused. You said it yourself; Freya was my first and only girlfriend, I had just broken up with her, and then kissed you. I didn't even know I was gay until I kissed you. I still don't know. But I like you Arthur, and I never meant to hurt you."

"Then kiss me now. Right now, Merlin," Arthur said, setting his jaw in a hard line. He half-expected Merlin to laugh and say no and run out again. The other half was hoping Merlin would. Was hoping Merlin would just kiss him as good as he kissed him the night he broke up with Freya.

Merlin kneeled up on the chair, turning around and bracing both his hands on the back of the chair. He leaned forwards and craned his neck up a bit to smash his lips to Arthur's. It wasn't perfect, and it hurt a bit when Arthur stepped forwards eagerly, too fast, and bumped their noses together. But they got the angle right, and Arthur buried both his hands in Merlin's hair, and Merlin was clutching the back of the chair to keep from falling and to give himself leverage and they were kissing. It was good, so good.

It got filthier than their last kiss; hotter and wetter. Merlin licked at Arthur's bottom lip, bit it, then soothed it. Arthur wasn't happy with Merlin's surprise skill, and wouldn't be the lower-hand in anything, so he pressed more into the kiss, licking Merlin's mouth open with a hot, slick tongue, probing every inch of Merlin's fruity gum flavored mouth.

When they pulled back they were both flushed and panting and Arthur's hands were still tight in Merlin's hair. He let one fall to Merlin's shoulder, but the other continued to card through the still slightly damp hair as he pressed their cheeks together. "I waited so long, Merlin. I waited for you."

"I'm sorry. I know, I'm sorry," Merlin panted, reaching his hands up to clutch at Arthur forearms, "I'm sorry."

"Stop apologizing, you idiot," Arthur snapped, pulling back so he could look at Merlin, "I don't care anymore. I really don't."

"But I am. I am so—"

Arthur slapped a hand over Merlin's mouth, "Apologize one more time, and I'll tie you to this chair and leave you here all night to apologize to your reflection." He removed his hand.

"Getting into the kinky stuff already, huh?" Merlin teased, looking relieved and still slightly apologetic. Arthur wanted to shake him and really say that everything was okay. Everything would be okay. Because Merlin was here now, and Freya was out of the picture, and they were together and would be together forever, if Arthur had any say.

"You look like shite, Merlin. You really do need a hair cut," Arthur announced, ignoring Merlin's comment. Merlin grinned cheekily before plopping himself the right way in the chair, fastening the cloak on himself.

"Then get with it, Arthur," he said, meeting Arthur's eyes in the mirror. They shared a smile and Arthur finished the trim, both of them chatting about what had happened in their three months and two weeks apart. Soon it was as if they were never apart to begin with. They had first and foremost always been friends. Arthur loved that. When he finished they lapsed into silence, Arthur running his fingers through Merlin's now shorter and decidedly better looking hair.

He dug into his pocket suddenly, bringing out the ring box and holding it out for Merlin. Merlin eyed it curiously, before frowning, and then bursting into laughter. He nearly toppled out of the swiveling chair. He slid out of it to come around and properly stand in front of Arthur.

"What's so funny?" Arthur asked, and Merlin shook his head, holding up a finger, "Stop laughing, you idiot."

"Hold on, you prat. It's just…oh god," Merlin burst into laughter again, then sobered up with Arthur glared with all his Pendragon might. "So–, erm. It's just…ah," he shook his head before taking a deep breath. "Are you proposing to me?"

Arthur snorted, shaking his head, "You're truly stupid, Merlin. I don't know why I ever fell for you in the first place. I'm just giving it make to you. It must've cost a shit ton, and you'd want the money back, I'm sure."

"It didn't cost a shit ton, it's totally fake. It's pretty, yeah, but only cost fifty bucks. I don't think I ever really intended to propose to her that night, whatever I was feeling," he shrugged, then took the box from Arthur. He opened it, plucked out the cheap ring, then chucked it to the floor amongst his bits of hair. He grabbed a broom and swept all the shavings and ring to the middle of the floor with the fancy vacuum and that was that.

Arthur stared in shock for 2.3 seconds before Merlin was launching himself at Arthur and they were locked in a fierce lip battle again. And things couldn't be more perfect, even if it wasn't exactly what Arthur had in mind as kid. But then again, things rarely turn out the way you shitastically finger paint them.