Part III: Of Paparazzi, Mosaics, and a Love Story
"What is going on with Morgana?" Arthur asked himself out loud and, not surprisingly, this elicited a response from Merlin, who was just down the hall in the study.
"What's going on with whom?" he asked, peering into the sitting room where Arthur was perched on the window seat, newspaper in hand. He had showered earlier and his hair was still wet, sticking up on top of his head, and he was wearing a plain white tee shirt and a pair of narrow-cut jeans that had seen better days. His eyes were bright and alert in his piquant, narrow face, but the corners of his mouth were quivering with the vestiges of a yawn.
"I wasn't really talking to you," Arthur replied in his snootiest voice, but grinning, and Merlin gave his usual eye roll before disappearing back into the study. Arthur could hear the steady clicking of a computer keyboard and reasoned that Merlin had gone back to his research.
They had been together for over a year, and now, at a stage where most lovers begin to take one another for granted, Arthur was as riveted by Merlin's personality, quirky intelligence, and odd, waiflike beauty as he had been since the day they met in the Paper Conservation studio. Likewise, the sex was as remarkable, intense, and addictive as it had been from the very first time they had had it. It had become, if anything, even more exciting because of Arthur's increasingly democratic attitude about letting Merlin do to him whatever he did to Merlin. No matter who was doing what to whom, or who was on top, or who initiated which thing, it was never anything less than, er, mind-blowingly satisfying. Of course, Arthur still tended towards dominance, whereas Merlin (although perfectly capable of sexual assertiveness) was often selfless and deliciously yielding in bed, but there was no question that the playing field (if that was the right term) had been leveled considerably in that department.
Even the things about Merlin that many might have found frustrating – his remarkable awkwardness outside of the Conservation studio, which contrasted with his remarkable precision whilst inside it, his occasional cluelessness, and his reluctance to talk about himself – had become endearing as far as Arthur was concerned. Merlin was as appealing when he was bumping into furniture, walking into people's offices without knocking, or arriving at staff meetings five minutes late as he was when he was lying in Arthur's arms, his head thrown back and eyes closed, lips parted. Arthur loved the rapt expression on Merlin's face at such moments, and the way his eyelashes fluttered when Arthur kissed him.
For the past two or three days Merlin had been ever so slightly on edge. Not so much that anybody else would notice, but Arthur was slowly but surely learning how to read the nuances of Merlin's body language. The Institute's junior conservator was always faintly skittish when Uther was around, and for that reason Arthur had been unusually gentle with him the night before, handling him with as much delicacy as he would a month-old kitten. Merlin must have sensed his concern, because he had responded with a passionate gratitude that had left them both breathless.
Arthur shifted a little on the window seat and returned his attention to the newspaper in his hand. There, on the first page of the arts section, was a photograph of several museum professionals standing about on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum. In the crowd amongst them he recognized a local politician and an actor and actress from a television series (doubtless the reason for all the press photographers and freelance paparazzi crowding the museum steps). In the center of the group, cool, steely-eyed, and easily identifiable by her signature cascade of wavy blonde hair, was one of Arthur's least favorite curators of medieval art, Dr Morgause Lothian of the Metropolitan. Standing next to her, flashing a million dollar smile and sporting an elegant Prada suit, was Morgana. The caption beneath the photograph read: "Curators at the Metropolitan Museum host a luncheon for friends, benefactors, colleagues, and potential employees."
Just what was Morgana up to?
In spite of the genuine misgivings of both the Assistant Director and the senior curator, the Institute's holiday staff party – which was held several days before Christmas – started on a very positive note. Because it was a week night, and because the entire staff was invited, it began at six and was slated to end promptly at half past nine. Giving in to the pleading of his younger colleagues, Gaius actually donned a Father Christmas robe, although he removed the false beard about a half hour into the event. Gwen, Will, and several other members of staff, including a few of the security guards, wore silly elf hats made of felt. Leon wore a silvery plastic helmet and Lance bravely crowned himself with a set of fake reindeer antlers, shrugging off the inevitable "horny" jokes.
Uther, to everybody's amazement, arrived in a crimson cape, with a gold-colored circlet around his head. ("How did Elaine talk him into that?" Arthur asked Morgana. "Mum has her ways," was the cryptic reply.) Mordred wore a hooded cape and a vaguely medieval-looking tunic over his jeans, and was oohed and aahed over by all of the ladies present. Arthur wore a gold circlet similar to Uther's ("What? No Ray-Bans?" quipped Merlin), but no other costume, insisting that his loose fitting linen shirt was close to medieval or Renaissance garb in design, at least. Merlin wore the dreaded feathered hat, balanced precariously on his unruly dark hair, and his expression of exasperation and frustrated patience made most of his colleagues laugh even more than the hat did.
As promised, Lance had invited both Gwaine and Percival, who entered into the spirit of the party by proceeding to get joyously hammered. Even the tallest and most muscular of the Institute's security guards eyed the physically imposing Percival with respect, the more so when they found he could drink them all under the table. As for Gwaine, fortunately he was as charming when he was drunk as when he was sober, and he stationed himself next to Uther, suggesting that they match each other drink for drink. Uther declined to play any such game, but he clearly found Gwaine amiable and entertaining (as everybody did), and within a short period of time had allowed Lance's friend to ply him with enough alcohol to make him laugh at the silliest jokes and affect his ability to walk a straight line. ("Now we'll have to get him into a taxi," Elaine sighed.) This caused everybody at the party to relax, and Morgana – dressed as the evil Snow Queen with a crown and scepter of make-believe icicles – was able to exchange meaningful looks and smiles with Leon, from whom (because of Uther's presence) she had been keeping a discreet distance.
"Well done, mate," Arthur murmured as he passed Gwaine on his way to the heavily-laden buffet table, and Gwaine gave him a cheerful thumbs up in reply.
Mordred wasn't allowed anything stronger than ginger beer, but he seemed happy to sit near Gwen and listen to her account of recent textile conservation projects. His mother and half sister smiled to see the admiration and infatuation in the pale blue eyes of the youngest Pendragon, but they refrained from teasing him, knowing Mordred's tendency to take things a bit too seriously.
"How amazing to think that Mordred has three crushes at once," Morgana whispered. "Let's hope he doesn't grow up to be a promiscuous sort like Arthur."
"I am not and never have been promiscuous," growled Arthur as he walked past her. "I may have gone out with a number of people, but it was always one at a time."
"A number," said Morgana, opening her eyes wide. "That's the understatement of the year."
"I hope you're not implying," her stepbrother said between his teeth, "that I've been, uh, unfaithful to…to anybody in my…" His voice trailed off but his glance, when she met it, was chilly.
Morgana held his cool blue gaze and then her eyes fell. "No," she said quietly. "No, I can't say that you have." Moments later, having regained her air of almost cheeky self-confidence, she said, smiling, "I have a little announcement to make tomorrow, Arthur. D'you think the senior staff could meet in your office before lunch? I don't mind if Uther is there either."
Arthur looked questioningly in Leon's direction, but the Head of Security shrugged his shoulders and mimed total ignorance.
"What do you suppose she could be up to?" Arthur mumbled later that night into Merlin's ear.
"I have no idea," Merlin replied drowsily. He was lying in the crook of Arthur's arm, tucked snugly under the duvet. "But if I were you, I wouldn't ask her about it."
"Really?" Arthur asked. His teeth fastened softly on the lobe of Merlin's ear. "Why not?"
"It's obvious that she's going to surprise us with something," Merlin replied, squirming. "Don't spoil it. She'd be livid. Never try to thwart the wicked Snow Queen. Speaking of which, that was a good party. I feel sorry for the cleaning staff tomorrow morning. Have you got all of your presents wrapped, then?"
"No," said Arthur, nibbling. "But I'm certain you have."
"I did most of it yesterday," replied Merlin. "In between typing up condition reports. Are you going to – oh! – ask me to help you wrap yours?"
"I've got my hand wrapped round something else at the moment," Arthur said decisively. "Pay attention, Merlin, and stop thinking about presents."
"Bloody wanker," said Merlin with the ghost of a smile.
Some time before midnight, Arthur made a mental note to himself not to forget Merlin's Christmas gift, and sighed with contentment as he felt Merlin nuzzling his neck sleepily, curling closer for warmth.
The next day, in Arthur's office, Morgana dropped her bombshell.
There were actually two bombshells. Once the senior staff, including the visiting Senior Director, had assembled, she drew a folder of photographs out her shoulder bag and held the pictures up one by one.
"It's a late twelfth or thirteenth century mosaic," Morgana announced. "Originally from a cathedral in Palermo, Sicily. Some Italian scholars have been studying it, and they believe it depicts figures from Arthurian legend."
Her audience drew its collective breath. The photos showed a portion of a mosaic panel, definitely medieval, brilliant with color, mounted in a museum display case. The image depicted in the mosaic was of seven standing figures: three richly clad women in the center, flanked by two male figures on either side. One of the males wore a suit of armor, and another was a very slim youth with dark hair, his face in three-quarter view. The staff recognized the group of figures instantly.
"Except for stylistic differences, and differences in color," Arthur said after a moment. "The composition's identical to the composition of our Courtier's Tapestry. The one we got from, er, Cornelius Sigan last summer."
There was no question that the figures in the Institute's recently acquired tapestry were nearly identical in pose and placement to the figures in the mosaic. Given that the tapestry was centuries later in date, it was certain that they used a common model, or that the image in the later piece was derived in some way from the earlier one.
"An Arthurian image," said Gwen. "In twelfth or thirteenth century Sicily."
"That's not particularly surprising," said Uther, who looked surprised nevertheless. "The Normans took all of those legends with them when they invaded Southern Italy."
"Yes, busy chaps, those Normans," Arthur muttered. "That's why the Sicilians used to believe that King Arthur sleeps beneath Mount Etna, rather than in Avalon, awaiting the moment when he will return to the world of men. Not," he added, frowning, "that Mount Etna should be the most comfortable resting place, even for a mythic hero. Whom does this mosaic belong to, anyway?"
"Oh, that collector in Palermo," Morgana answered. "Giancarlo Schiavone. You've met him and his ex-wife. He mentioned you. With admiration, I might add. Not all of which was professional admiration."
For the life of him, Arthur could not recall any such person, and could only hope that he hadn't flirted with Signor Schiavone (or his ex-wife) at some museum reception or similar event.
"Well," said Morgana to the room at large and almost dancing with glee. "A comparison of this mosaic and our tapestry will make an excellent article, which I plan to write for the next museum Bulletin. But to get on with the rest of my news, I've been asked to join the staff of the medieval department at the Metropolitan Museum. They believe they could use some new blood."
There was a very loaded pause, and the senior curator appeared thoroughly delighted with the impact of her announcement.
"Of course I turned them down," she continued coolly, watching the faces of her audience go from pale to flushed and then to pale again. "I told them I'm perfectly happy where I am, thanks very much. I must admit I've been enjoying their efforts to woo me. Morgause must have spent a fortune wining and dining me this past month."
"Morgana," Arthur began, and then found that he didn't know what he wanted to say next.
"That's splendid," Uther said faintly, but Morgana hadn't finished speaking.
"And," she continued, clearly relishing the expressions of astonishment on the faces of her colleagues, "Vanity Fair is doing a story on me for their April issue."
"They did a story on the Pendragon Institute last winter," Arthur objected.
"This isn't about the Institute," Morgana said briskly. "It's going to be about me. I've spoken with one of their editors and they believe I'll make a great subject for an article. With lots of photos. It seems they think I'm photogenic. Now Arthur, don't be jealous."
"Jealous?" replied Arthur sardonically.
"You're not the only looker in this museum," she added, smiling sweetly. "So stop gnashing your pointy teeth."
"I do not gnash my teeth," Arthur said. "But if you don't stop sneering at me, I think you're going to lose some." He was joking, naturally, and his tone of voice was teasing, but he knew this would get a rise out of his stepsister anyway.
"Arthur, really!" muttered Uther sharply, under his breath.
"Sorry, Father," his son whispered back. "But she always knows which buttons to push."
Morgana's cheeks had gone pink with annoyance. The rest of the Institute staff was staring at this family tableau with wide eyes and open mouths. Finally Gaius cleared his throat loudly, and then coughed, startling everybody into a semblance of normalcy.
"Well, Morgana," Arthur said rather mildly. "So all of this explains why you've been grinning like a Cheshire Cat since Sicily. And why you've been hobnobbing with Morgause in front of the press cameras. Very impressive. I hope you publish your essay about the tapestry and fresco figures before Vanity Fair comes out with its article about you. Otherwise everybody in the museum community will think you're just another pretty face on the lookout for her fifteen minutes of fame."
The impromptu staff meeting broke up several minutes later, each person wandering off towards his or her office. Uther, looking remarkably cheerful, strolled away with Gaius. Morgana remained next to Arthur's desk, and when everybody else had gone – but for Merlin, who was still gathering his things together – she turned to her stepbrother with a longsuffering grimace.
"It seems that's made Uther happy with me," she said, wrinkling her nose. "Now perhaps he'll stop pestering me about my personal life for a while."
"Perhaps," said Arthur dryly.
"I didn't mention it, as nothing's been made definite," she continued. "But Giancarlo is willing to lend us that mosaic, if we want to display it next to the tapestry. He even said he'd cover the costs of packing, shipping, and insurance, which is usually the museum's responsibility."
"Good God," said her stepbrother. "He must want some publicity, then. Where on earth does his fortune come from?"
"He runs a company that makes organic products for bed and bath," Morgana replied airily as she reached for her notes. "La Bella Vita."
"Oh," muttered Arthur, and said nothing further. Morgana picked up her folder of photographs and strode from the office, her stiletto heels clacking smartly on the polished wood floor.
"La Bella Vita?" Merlin asked. "I've never heard of it."
Arthur studied the molded designs on the ceiling of his office with a deliberately casual air. "Oh, they make, er, bedroom and bathroom products for men and women. You know, shower and hair gels, shaving soap, moisturizers, and, you know, um, lubricants and the like."
"Oh," Merlin said after a moment. "They'd be pleased to know that we're keeping them in business, then."
He vanished out the door before Arthur could throw something at him.
By five o'clock, Arthur felt mentally drained and physically exhausted, but he realized that, in spite of the effort he had made to get his holiday shopping finished, he had left the most important thing for last.
Buying a Christmas gift for Merlin was not easy. (In addition, Arthur had to bear in mind that Merlin's birthday followed Christmas by a week; he would be reaching the grand old age of a quarter of a century.) He knew that Merlin liked to read and was a born researcher, so he went to the closest Barnes and Noble and purchased a gift certificate. This item seemed rather mundane and impersonal, however, so he cudgeled his brain for what to get as an additional present.
A half hour later, he walked into an expensive shop on Madison Avenue and plunked down several hundred dollars for a man's bracelet comprised of a slim black leather cord wrapped, in several places, in bands of sterling silver. It was not something he himself would choose to wear, but he thought that Merlin might like it.
"I can't believe that I've survived this week intact," groaned Arthur, flinging himself into an armchair and running his hands distractedly through his blond hair.
"It wasn't that bad," Merlin said from the floor, where he was sorting through a pile of art history publications they had been using for research on Sicilian frescoes. "Remind me to wrap those books on medical physics and alternative energy development for Mordred. Not the sort of gifts most children want to find under the Christmas tree."
Arthur coughed a little self-consciously. "You were right to advise me not to ask Morgana what was going on," he said almost reluctantly.
"You're hopeless at a lot of things, Merlin…but very occasionally, quite by accident, you say something useful," the Institute's Assistant Director continued in the most deliberately pompous voice he could muster.
"Really?" Merlin asked sardonically, peering up at Arthur from beneath his spiky fringe. "How profound, milord."
"In fact…if I didn't know you, I'd be completely fooled into thinking you were…"
"No," said Merlin with great fortitude and conviction, and they both laughed.
Arthur watched as Merlin proceeded to gather a pile of books in his arms and stand up, almost staggering under the weight of the heavy folios. It was becoming difficult for him to imagine his flat without his junior conservator; in fact, it didn't bear thinking about. Because even the thought of Merlin, with his flighty bones and his long limbs, his mop of dark hair, unbelievable cheekbones and clear blue eyes, his sense of humor and impossible, contradictory, infuriating habit of refusing to take Arthur seriously at least fifty percent of the time...just the thought of him being with somebody else...
"I don't suppose you'd ever like to marry me, Merlin?" Arthur asked, staring intently at nothing in particular.
There was a dreadful crash as Merlin dropped the heavy volumes onto the floor. Arthur scowled.
"What?" Merlin said faintly, and Arthur's scowl deepened.
"I'm not going to ask you again," he snapped. "It's too bloody embarrassing."
"Did...did you say, erm, ask...?"
"Yes I did," Arthur said, stalking across the room to retrieve the books from the floor. "Stop babbling like an idiot and give me an answer."
Merlin sat down hard on the sofa, looking completely taken aback.
"You're not waiting for me to get down on my knees, are you?" Arthur murmured in a dangerous tone of voice.
"No no no," squeaked Merlin, who appeared to be making a supreme effort to get his brain to function. "Of course not."
"Well, then?" Arthur said, attempting to sound patient, but realizing (and not really caring) that he probably sounded like a prat.
"Your…your father won't have it," Merlin said, standing up again. "It would kill him, or close to it. The tabloid press would probably drag your name through the mud. They'll interview all your ex-lovers, female and male, trying to get some dirt that they could print about you."
"I don't know that they'd find any," Arthur replied calmly. "I'm on perfectly cordial terms with all my ex-lovers."
"Then…then they'll make some up!" Merlin continued. "You know they will. I don't want people to think or speak ill of you!"
"Aren't you worried that people might speak ill of you?" Arthur asked curiously.
"I don't care what they say about me," Merlin replied dismissively. "There isn't much they can say about me anyway, I'm not a celebrity. Of course they'd all claim that I'm after you for your money, but I don't care if they say it because I know it's not true. But I won't have them printing lies about you."
In spite of his growing impatience, Arthur found that he was rather touched by that statement.
"And I refuse to be the cause of Uther's massive coronary," Merlin spluttered.
"Oh, Father will come round, eventually," Arthur said, supposing that this might even be true.
"And they haven't passed the Marriage Equality Act, or whatever it's called, in this state yet," Merlin said, backing away as Arthur advanced on him. "We'd have to go to V-Vermont, or Massachusetts, or somewhere it's legal, to do it. There'd be hideous articles in the tabloids, like 'Museum Director's Romantic Wedding Night in Cozy Vermont Inn,' or 'Same-Sex Lovebirds Take Refuge in Love Nest Outside Boston.'" His face had gone paler than usual, and his eyes were wide and a little panic-stricken.
"You're certainly making an effort to find reasons not to do it," said Arthur as he stopped advancing. He looked hard at Merlin, who had sat down again (having backed up against an armchair and realized that he could retreat no further), and then looked away; it seemed obvious that his conservator was not finding the idea of marriage to Arthur Pendragon particularly thrilling.
His hands dropped limply to his sides and he stopped looking fierce. "I'm sorry," he said, and even to himself he sounded alarmingly subdued. "I didn't mean to frighten you. I won't ask again."
He was about to leave the room, feeling confused and humiliated, when suddenly Merlin was on his feet; his hands were on Arthur's shoulders, and rest of him was pressed against the rest of Arthur. He wasn't smiling, and his brows had drawn together, but there was a pink flush on those cheekbones, those impossibly blue eyes were shining, and a moment later his fingers were in Arthur's hair.
"You didn't frighten me, you great stupid…" he said in a voice that shook a little, his accent thickening as he spoke. "I think it's a lunatic idea. Really insane. And the press would have a field day. You know that if you really want me, you can have me. For always. With or without m-marriage. I don't feel the need for a legal tie. But I l-love you, and so of course I'd…if it would make you happy…"
At this point Arthur didn't know whether to feel irritated or ecstatic, exasperated or jubilant. So he settled for amorous, a very reliable feeling when it came to his relations with Merlin, and he leaned in and kissed him as lingeringly, passionately, and vigorously as he was able without passing out for lack of oxygen.
"Are you going to say yes, then, you bloody idiot, or am I going to have to beat an answer out of you?" he finally murmured when he could trust himself to speak. Because he really was not going to put up with any more waffling on Merlin's part.
"I said," Merlin stammered, and he would have tripped over his own feet if Arthur hadn't been holding him upright, "if it would make you happy…"