A/N: This was written for a prompt on the Merlin Kink-meme over on Live Journal. I should be updating frequently as the story is complete already, it's just being betaed in chunks for me by the lovely Mamdi. There are nine short chapters in total.
The title of this fic is borrowed from a very interesting book by Sue Gerhardt. It's all about the importance of human touch, especially in relation to parenting, and how our early experiences affect our development. As the fic progresses you'll see why this seemed appropriate.
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters, I just borrow them and make them cuddle.
Arthur was listening to his father, really. But he was a little distracted – again – by his PA's lips as they closed tantalisingly around the end of his pen.
Damn. Arthur shifted in his seat. What the hell was it about Merlin's lips that constantly drew his eye? It was most inconvenient. Mercifully his young assistant seemed oblivious to the effect he had on his boss.
"So, Arthur," Uther's voice cut through his drifting train of thoughts. "You'll be coming with me to Naples at the end of the month when we go to finalise the arrangements with Kilgari."
Arthur snapped his head up to meet his father's stern, grey gaze. He nodded, not showing his surprise. "Yes, of course. If you think I'm ready for that."
Uther's grey eyes softened fractionally. "I'm quite sure that you are, and you have three weeks to prepare. I have every confidence in your ability and it will be an excellent learning experience for you."
Arthur nodded curtly but the flush of warmth at the rare show of approval from his father threatened to make his face split with an unprofessional grin. He schooled his features into an appropriate half smile. "Thank you. I'll do my best."
"Right," Uther waved his dismissal to the team who were gathered in the boardroom at Pendragon Enterprises. "Thank you everyone."
People started to drift away. Arthur closed his laptop and collected his notes. He stood to leave but was stopped by the sound of his father's voice.
"Arthur, I need a private word with you. Can you join me in my office?"
Arthur frowned slightly. Merlin caught his eye and his full, pink lips twitched in a grin of sympathy. Merlin had worked for Arthur long enough to know that Arthur didn't always find his father easy to deal with. Uther Pendragon was formidable, and the need for a private word didn't usually bode well.
Arthur followed his father as he swept regally into his office. He closed the door behind them and turned to face Uther who sat in his high-backed leather chair as though it was a throne. He gestured for Arthur to sit.
Arthur's previous feeling of pride was replaced by one of foreboding when he saw Uther's concerned expression. His father had a remarkable knack of making Arthur feel that he was never quite good enough, never quite the man that Uther wanted him to be.
"This deal with Kilgari is crucial." Uther's grey eyes were intent and serious. "I know that you're more than capable of handling the financial side of things for this deal. But I'm concerned that the social side will be a challenge for you when we get out to Naples." Arthur frowned, not understanding, but Uther continued. "Kilgari, like Pendragon Enterprises, are a family business. Roberto Kilgari likes to do business with people that he trusts and has a connection with. On my last visit to Naples he and his wife, Elena, insisted on taking me out to many social gatherings. They treated me as a friend as well as a potential business partner."
"Okay," Arthur nodded. "That's not a problem, father. I can be very charming when I try."
"I have no doubt of that, Arthur. But what you need to be prepared for is how physically demonstrative the Italians are." Uther raised his eyebrows.
Oh. The penny dropped and his father's concern suddenly made sense. Of course. "Um... okay," Arthur tried to look calm, but he was already freaking out on the inside and he was only thinking about being hugged.
"In Italy, in the south of the country particularly, people are very tactile," Uther kept his eyes fixed on Arthur. "Once you become a friend as well as a potential business partner, it is usual for men as well as women to hug and even kiss on the cheek when greeting each other at social functions. I know that this is something that will be challenging for you, Arthur. But you need to find a way to deal with it. Wincing would be considered very rude." Uther's lips quirked with amusement for a moment, but Arthur knew that he was serious.
So, Arthur had three weeks. Three weeks in which to overcome a lifetime of being uncomfortable with physical intimacy. Fuck.
Arthur stalked back to his own office and went straight to the window. He clenched his fists on the sill, looking out at the London skyline and took a deep breath, trying to centre himself.
His rational brain knew that he was being ridiculous. It shouldn't be difficult to hug someone, to peck them on the cheek and not flinch away. They were only people; it was only touching. But Arthur had always shied away from physical contact, it made him horribly uncomfortable.
Sex was different. Arthur had never had a problem with that. Lost in the moment of sexual intimacy he loved the feeling of another person's body against his own, but as soon as it was over he wanted his own space back. The idea of sleeping wrapped around another body made his skin crawl. He rarely stayed the night with a partner and his relationships tended to be casual and never lasted long. He was aware that he avoided intimacy, but preferred not to think too closely about why that might be.
He heard the sound of someone clearing his throat behind him. Arthur turned to see Merlin standing in the doorway, gangly and expectant.
"Are you okay?" his face was earnest, open. The dark blue eyes held genuine concern.
"Yeah," Arthur sighed and dragged a hand through his hair. "Come in properly, and shut the door."
"So what's up?" Merlin folded his lanky body into the chair in front of Arthur's desk. "Do you want to tell me?" He raised his eyebrows.
Arthur looked at him for a moment. Merlin had been his personal assistant ever since Arthur had graduated and taken up his position at Pendragon Enterprises. They had worked together for two years, and he counted Merlin as a friend as well as a colleague. Arthur didn't have many people that he considered to be friends. His long hours didn't allow for a lot of socialising, and although Arthur was charming, he habitually kept people at a distance. It took a long time to win his trust, but Merlin had somehow, surreptitiously managed to worm his way past Arthur's careful barriers.
"He's worried that I'm going to fuck things up with the Italians."
Merlin frowned. "But in the meeting he seemed to have total faith in you? I don't understand."
"It's not my work that's not up to par, it's my social skills." Arthur frowned, embarrassed at having to explain. "Italians are touchy-feely." He felt his cheeks heat as Merlin looked at him. "And I'm not. Really not."
"Okay," Merlin said, cocking his head slightly. "But you can handle it, yeah? Just grin and bear it."
"I don't know," Arthur admitted. "It's easy for you to say."
Merlin was the polar opposite of Arthur. Affectionate touch seemed to come naturally to him and he was very tactile. It was one of the reasons that all the women in the office adored him. He was always quick to hug someone who was having a bad day. He had never touched Arthur though, other than the handshake when they were first introduced. Arthur assumed that Merlin was perceptive enough to sense the 'fuck off' vibes that radiated from him whenever anyone got too close.
"I get that you don't like to be touched," Merlin said carefully. "But surely you can cope if you have to?"
"It makes me feel sick," Arthur tried to explain. "My skin crawls. I blush, and go as stiff as a board." Merlin snorted and Arthur glared at him. "Not like that, you idiot!"
"I know... sorry, I couldn't resist," Merlin chuckled.
"I'm really not very good at hiding it," Arthur said. "And my father's worried that I'll offend the Kilgaris."
"Well luckily for you, I have the perfect solution." Merlin said, his face serious.
"And what's that?" Arthur raised an eyebrow. "A personality transplant? A crash course on letting people invade my personal space without me hitting them, or running away screaming?"
"Something like that," Merlin grinned.
"So this is your mother's website?" Uther raised his eyebrows as Merlin pulled up the site on Arthur's laptop.
"Yes," Merlin replied. "I know it looks a bit wacky, but the workshops are really successful. Look at the testimonials page. And it's not unusual for people to come to them for similar reasons to Arthur. She's been known to run them as team-building exercises for very prestigious companies."
Uther looked sceptical. "And you'd be prepared to give this a shot, Arthur?"
Arthur shrugged. "Kill or cure. I think it's got to be worth a try if it'll help me to feel more comfortable around the Kilgaris and their associates. You told me to find a way to deal with it, I think this might be the way."
Uther studied the website again, scrolling through quickly. He clicked through to another page and raised his eyebrows. "A cuddle puddle?" His voice was dry but the corner of his mouth twitched. "You're really prepared to try this, Arthur?"
"I've not really looked at the details of it yet," Arthur admitted. What the ever-loving fuck was a cuddle puddle? "I thought it might be easier not to know too much in advance, just go into it open to the experience, you know?"
"Well that's very commendable," Uther looked at the laptop screen again, unable to mask the expression of disbelief on his face. "Right, well – if you're sure then go ahead and book it. Merlin, will your mother be able to fit him in at short notice?"
"I'm sure she can pull some strings," Merlin replied, then turned to Arthur with a grin. "I'll get onto it straight away and see if she can fit you to into one of her workshops this weekend, yeah? Better to get it over with, like pulling a tooth."
Arthur nodded, trying to quell his rising panic at the prospect. What the hell was he letting himself in for?
"Okay, so my mum will fit you into her Saturday workshop this weekend – provided that I come with you," Merlin said when he finally got off the phone. "She says it's far too long since I've been to visit, and she's right. So we can drive down in the morning. The workshop's the afternoon, and she's insisting that we stay over so that we can spend some time with her in the evening."
"Right, okay," Arthur replied glumly. He'd been half hoping that Hunith, Merlin's mum, would say that she had no spaces left. There was no getting out of it now. "Do you need to book me into a hotel for the night?"
"God, no!" Merlin laughed. "Mum wouldn't hear of it. Anyway there's no shortage of space at the commune. They'll be able to put both of us up in one of the guest rooms."
"Commune?" Arthur's voice rose in alarm. This was just getting better.
"Yeah," Merlin grinned. "Don't worry, it's not as bad as it sounds. It's like a huge shared house, but each member has their own living space. So Mum has her own flat, but there are communal areas too, and guest rooms for visitors like us."
"Won't you sleep in your old room?" Arthur frowned, confused.
"I don't have one anymore. When I left home Mum moved into a one-bedroom flat, so that a family could have the bigger one with more rooms. That's the way it works there."
"Sounds sensible," said Arthur, thinking of his father's enormous London town house and all its empty rooms that were hardly ever used.
"So anyway, we may need to share a guest room if that's okay? It'll depend on how many of the people coming for Mum's workshop are staying. I didn't think you'd mind." Merlin's lips quirked in a smile. "After all, you'll be desensitised to human contact by then and totally cool with having your personal-space invaded, so sharing a room with me will be a piece of cake."
Alarm bells immediately started ringing in Arthur's head at the prospect of spending a night in such close proximity to his PA.
"As long as it's a twin and not a double," he tried to cover his anxiety with a clumsy joke. But then he felt his face flame, as the thought of sharing a bed with Merlin flooded his head with very inappropriate thoughts.
Merlin's eyes flickered for a moment and he took just a fraction too long to chuckle in response. "Um... yeah. Don't worry, it won't be a double. We might even get bunk beds. If we do, I call top!" He grinned innocently at Arthur, whose thoughts were now positively x-rated.
I am so fucked. He turned away to surreptitiously adjust the erection that was starting to tent his trousers.
A/N: Thanks for reading, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the story so far. There will be more very soon.
Cuddle workshops really exist. Please see www(dot)cuddleworkshop(dot)co(dot)uk for the inspiration that provided the prompt on the kink meme.