Merlin has always loved painting. He loves the muddy mix of colors on his palette, the smooth stroke of a new brush across a canvas, the lingering scent of oils on his skin. He loves the way he can capture a moment in the pigments, trapping it there, preserving it, like magic.
Merlin has always loved men. He loves the hard lines of muscle, the sharp contours of hips and shoulders, the smooth skin pulled taut over a masculine frame. He loves the potential for beauty that rests there, waiting for the right moment, the right light to illuminate it, like magic.
Arthur has always hated painters. He hates the splattered cargo pants, the dark eyes and ever-present stubble, the constant, stagnant smell of turpentine. He hates the way they study him, like he's some sort of specimen in a Petri dish. And he hates the stares, the ones that sweep over his exposed body, mapping out his every contour to be documented forever on an over-sized canvas.
But he was broke and he was hungry and was willing to try anything that paid over minimum wage, even if it did involve painters.
OCTOBER 10, 2010
Richmond, Virginia, a city of some 200,000 people, was enough miles below the Mason-Dixon line to be considered "the South." It was as far-flung from New York City or Los Angeles as you could get, old houses and historic landmarks running into office buildings and bus terminals. Richmond was an isolated bubble of democratic thinking, surrounded by conservative, suburban soccer moms and Civil War relics still fighting a perceived war of Northern Aggression.
On first glance, one might see the droves of homeless littering the city, the steepled church on every corner, or the elaborate monuments celebrating close-minded military generals. Upon further inspection however, one might find the hidden treasures of the city. Cary Street, with its shops and restaurants celebrating the diversity of such a metropolis. The Byrd Theater, where you can sit in a squeaky chair amidst elegant chandeliers and watch a two-dollar movie. And the not-so-glamorous galleries, where struggling artists can display their wares to a community of interested and good-hearted folk.
In the middle of all this was Virginia Commonwealth University. Like the city itself, on first glance it was nothing special. It was all tall buildings and urban facades that masked an only slightly more exciting interior. But it was one of the top art schools in the country, and so Merlin was there, painting, and loving every minute of it.
The day dawned cloudy and damp, and Merlin hopped puddles haphazardly as he made his way towards the studio. His rucksack was full of brushes and paints and charcoal, waiting to be pulled out and put to work. In his arms was his absurdly large sketchpad, one he was quite helplessly trying to protect from the slight drizzle. But despite the general gloom of the day, Merlin was feeling good. They had a new model today, which would make a lovely alternative to Wallace, the overweight, middle-aged man who'd been posing as of late, one he'd taken to referring to as "Walrus" in his head.
Merlin made it across the heavy traffic of Broad Street without trouble, turning a quick left to walk towards Bowe Street, whistling a little tune to himself and imagining the sort of model he'd like to see this week. A man certainly. Someone young, maybe closer to his own age? Someone less portly, more defined, a model Merlin could really study. Images floated through his mind of anatomy book figures, with clearly delineated musculature and divine proportions, Merlin's rampant imagination filling in the rest. Shaggy hair, smoldering eyes, high cheek-bones, strong shoulders, big hands-
Suddenly and without warning, Merlin's fantasy was interrupted when he found himself tripping over a parked bicycle and flying headlong into an unsuspecting passerby, sketchpad soaring in a wild arc towards the nearest puddle. Merlin felt something twist in his gut (which he later realized was probably the handlebars of the bicycle) and lunged for his sketchpad, only to see it being caught deftly in the hands of a young (bloody gorgeous) man who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Merlin stared. A veritable Adonis stood before him. The man appeared to Merlin like a hazy vision, a golden god stepping through the fogs of reality to bestow beauty upon the unsuspecting patrons of this world. It had happened the same way in so many of Merlin's dreams, although never in front of a Sprint store, and usually not with a bicycle sticking into his spleen. He wasn't complaining though.
Merlin was shaken out of this revelry when he heard a muffled oomf from below him and realized he was still atop the poor man who he'd barreled into.
"Oh!" Merlin said, struggling to extricate his lower body from the bicycle and allow the man to stand up. "I'm so sorry! Completely my fault! Wasn't thinking- er, well I was, but not about walking, about something else, but you don't want to hear about that and I'm just making a mess of this aren't I. Do you need a han…"
Merlin trailed off as the man finally did make it back to his feet and he came face-to-face with Wallace, who was looking very put out.
"Oh Walru- Wallace. Wallace. Good to see you, Wallace. Sorry for the, you know," Merlin made a vague gesture with his hands that encompassed the bike and the sidewalk and Wallace's considerable paunch, "that."
Wallace just harrumphed and began his slow waddle back down the street, muttering something about "damn painters" and "head in the clouds" as he went.
Letting out a breath, Merlin turned back towards Adonis, who was now leaning nonchalantly against the doorway of the Sprint store, Merlin's sketchpad dangling from one hand, a cigarette from the other.
"Thanks for that." Merlin nodded towards the book. "Nice reflexes."
He raised an eyebrow at Merlin. "Reflexes?" His lips quirked into a sly little smile before he moved to pass over the sketchpad. "Maybe something you should work on."
It took a minute for Merlin to notice Adonis's outstretched hand as he was currently fixating on those quirked lips and the perfectly schooled British accent that was currently escaping them. It was only when the man's eyebrow went up again that Merlin's eyes flicked down to the proffered sketchbook, and he quickly snatched it back up and into his arms.
"Right. Thanks. Good of you. Appreciate it." Merlin managed to stammer out, becoming increasingly aware of his own accent, now seeming less refined than ever. Merlin chanced a glance at his watch, and realized with a start he was incredibly close to being late for class. "Erm, right. Gotta go, I have class and er, studio, and yeah. So uh, thanks again, mate." And with that he turned and walked as swiftly as possible towards the studio, keeping an eye peeled for bicycles and pointedly not looking back.
Arthur watched him go with part amusement and part annoyance. Bloody painters, always up in the sky when they should be more concerned with where they're sticking their feet. He took one last drag on his cigarette before letting it drop to the pavement and snuffing it out with the toe of his trainer. He made his way down the sidewalk, following in the wake of the ungainly painter. Arthur wasn't that surprised at the man's clumsiness, what with him seeming to be mostly limbs. It was a miracle in itself that he hadn't bowled over the entire pedestrian population.
Arthur yanked open the door to the studio building and started up the stairs with a sigh. Just another day of work, he reminded himself, nothing more than a job. He loitered outside the room for another few moments, hesitating as he always did. He had to psych himself up for this, two hours of sitting naked in a room full of clothed people staring at him. If my father only knew… He shook that thought out of his head. Not important. This was about staying alive, about having enough money to pay his rent and next week's grocery bills. It was definitely not, in any way, about his father.
Arthur grit his teeth, shook his head one last time, "if my father…" still rattling around inside, and pushed open the door.
When Merlin arrived at class, everyone else was already there and set up, easels primed and charcoal out for the first round of sketches. He dumped his stuff next to Gwen, who was looking at him with the bemused expression she reserved for such occasions.
"Rough morning?" Gwen asked, twirling a stick of charcoal between her fingers.
"Something like that," Merlin replied, placing his very damp sketchpad on the easel and pulling out his own stubby charcoal pencils. "I'll tell you later." He fiddled with his easel until it sat almost level, and flipped to the next clean page of paper, flipping quickly over the numerous Walrus sketches looming in earlier pages.
It was only moments before the door slid open again, and Merlin nearly fell off his stool when the rain-soaked Adonis walked into the room, shaking his head like a dog and scattering little droplets of water across the linoleum. Merlin's professor scurried over to him, pointing towards the changing area used by the models, and then towards the raised platform in the middle of the room.
No. Merlin thought frantically. No, no, no. This is not happening to me.
Gwen shot him a look, which he ignored in favor of not watching their new model (their new model!) walk towards the changing area. He also definitely did not watch as various articles of clothing started appearing thrown over the screen separating the model's corner from the rest of the room. And he most certainly did not watch as the man stepped out from behind the screen wearing nothing but his skin, his lovely, lovely skin, Merlin thought to himself.
Merlin was distantly aware of his teacher introducing the god as Arthur, who would be serving as their model for the next few weeks as they worked on a bigger painting project. Arthur (Really? His name is Arthur?) stepped onto the dais and sat down in the chair there, moving this way and that as the professor instructed.
"We'll start with a series of quick gestures, two minutes each."
Merlin picked up his charcoal, keeping his eyes firmly locked on the paper in front of him until he heard the tell-tale click of the timer starting. Letting out a breath, he darted a quick look to Arthur, who was sitting in the middle of the room looking completely at ease with the fact that seven people all had their eyes avidly fixed on his nude body. Merlin forced himself to see Arthur in lines and contours instead of broad shoulders and long arms, forms and shapes instead of hard muscles and sharp hips. The timer went off, the pose changed, and Merlin continued, capturing every movement, every curve of this new body, detaching it from ironic names and awkward encounters. He was in his element now, and when the timer beeped to signal the next pose, Merlin hardly blinked before his hand flew to the next empty corner of his paper, charcoal poised and ready.
They spent another fifteen minutes or so on quick gesture sketches before moving on to a longer pose, one that would last an hour at least. This was the time Merlin loved the most, when he had to chance to flesh out this body, add details, give it a face, an identity beyond that of the lines and contours, forms and shapes. Arthur stood up and swiveled the chair around so that he could sit on it backwards, before tilting his head to the side and back giving Merlin an almost perfect profile view of his face. He perched one elbow on the backrest of the chair, using his hand to hold up his chin, and let his other arm fall gracefully over the backrest, fingers dangling near his knees.
Merlin had traded his sketchpad for a red-painted canvas, brought out his battered palette and brushes, paints lying ready for him. He used charcoal to lay the foundations of the pose: spine, shoulders, and hips, marking where limbs fell and mapping out proportions with careful precision. Then he added form, showing where round thighs met hips and sculpted arms met shoulders. He drew in the chair, its sharp lines in high contrast to the curving figure that encircled it. He worked his way up to the face, sketching in the heavy eyes, the Roman nose, the quirking lips. Satisfied with the likeness, Merlin set aside his charcoal in favor of his oils, loading up his brush with a deep umber. He started to paint in shadows, the ones beneath the chin and along the tendons in the neck, down through arms and along the back, curving around to legs and down to the floor. Merlin's brush darted back to his palette to pick up some blue, before moving back to his canvas to add depth to the darks. He continued in this manner for what felt like ages, his hand flying between palette and canvas, swiping up bits of seemingly random colors and adding them to the fray as slowly, a second image of Arthur began to appear in front of him.
It was over too soon. The shrill alarm on the classroom timer seemed a million miles away to Merlin, but he was jerked back to earth when Arthur, sensing his job was done, stood up and walked back to his corner of the room, ensconcing himself once again behind the screen. Left without a model, Merlin reluctantly sat back from his work, dumping his paintbrush into the jar of turpentine on his left. He peeked around his own canvas to look at Gwen's drawing, and was duly impressed, as always.
"I swear, it's like you're channeling the Old Masters over there, Gwen."
Gwen looked up from where she was stacking away her charcoal to stick her tongue out at Merlin, before sneaking a glance at his painting. She snorted. "Look who's talking, Van Gogh."
Merlin stuck his own tongue out. "You're hilarious."
Arthur shivered a little as he ducked back behind the screen; the room was chilly when he wasn't sitting under a spotlight. Oh, and he was naked. Yeah, that might have something to do with it. Reaching up, he yanked his pants down from over the screen, hopping from foot to foot as he pulled them back on. He grabbed his t-shirt next, then shrugged into his hoodie, pulling on socks, and finally lacing up his trainers. He patted his pockets, checking for the essentials: keys, phone, cigarettes, lighter, before stepping out from behind the screen. He was met with the general end-of-session mayhem that involved easels being broken down, canvases and sketchpads being stored away, and the various tools of the trade all getting shoved into their respective owner's bags. Arthur tried not to look at all the images of himself floating around the room, still not particularly comfortable with that aspect of the job. He knew all these drawings and paintings would be pulled out again later to be tweaked, studied, perfected. The thought was mildly disconcerting.
On the far side of the room, Arthur saw the clumsy painter from that morning chatting amiably with another artist, a lovely girl with dark skin and flyaway hair pulled back into a loose ponytail at her neck. She was classically pretty, unlike her friend, who looked like he'd been thrown together on one of creation's off days. Arthur knew he was tall and gangly, his limbs now folded awkwardly to fit into the small space between his stool and his easel. He was, in Arthur's mind, an almost stereotypical image of a disheveled painter. He was wearing olive cargo paints and a red long sleeve shirt, both featuring a spectrum of various smudges. His jaw was lined with stubble, and he had dark, heavy eyes, making him look either permanently hungover or, as was probably closer to the truth, like an overworked art student. The only things that didn't conform to Arthur's canonic idea of painterly qualities were the enormous and slightly ridiculous ears that stuck out from below his five-dollar haircut, making him look like some sort of insane elephant hybrid. He watched as the girl elbowed her friend, nodding her head vaguely in Arthur's direction, and Arthur realized he was staring at them. And now they were staring at him, and Arthur was getting a clear view of the elephant's face.
It had changed.
It was something about the eyes. Arthur could have sworn they were blue, had looked at them out in the rain and been shocked by their clarity. But now, they looked almost gold, shining out from below the man's fringe. Arthur would have been faintly terrified if not for the shit-eating grin plastered across the lower half of the man's face, and the whole situation lost any intensity it may have had when the painter raised his hand in an exaggerated, goofy sort of wave.
Arthur's eyebrow shot up without him even thinking about it, which only seemed to make Dumbo smile even wider. Arthur glanced around for some excuse or method of escape, but couldn't find anything that wouldn't make him look either extremely rude or extremely terrified. He sighed before steeling his face into a practiced façade of polite disinterest and making his way over to the pair, the elephant still grinning, his companion smiling kindly next to him.
"Did you finish clearing the sidewalk of bicycles, then?" Arthur asked.
"Yup!" The man finally put his hand down. "All clean."
Arthur took in the smudged pants, the faded t-shirt, and the smear of a particularly unfortunate brown across the painter's face. "Too bad we can't say the same for you."
Dumbo's smile slipped a little.
The girl shot Arthur an appraising look before sticking out her hand. "I'm Gwen," she said.
Arthur looked down at her hand, which was covered in charcoal dust, and nodded, keeping his hands firmly at his sides. "Pleasure."
Arthur was aware he was being impolite, and several images of appalled tutors fluttered through his head, but there was just something about these two that threw him off-kilter. He thought it might be those eyes. They couldn't be natural. Maybe he was diseased, mentally unstable. The girl seemed nice enough, but Arthur wasn't going to take any chances. After another moment of her hand hanging uselessly in mid-air, the girl, Gwen, Arthur's brain now supplied, pulled it back, letting it rest on her bag in what Arthur suspected was preparation for a grab and go. She shared a look with Dumbo, communicating something silently before they both turned back to Arthur.
"You can call me Merlin," he said, his eyes flashing gold momentarily when they met Arthur's, and an involuntary shiver ran down his Arthur's spine. "And we have to go." He grinned again, waggling his paint-covered fingers. "Gotta get cleaned up."
They left Arthur standing amidst the empty easels, still seeing gold.
You can call me Merlin.
"Is a grade-A prat, yes," Merlin said, expertly balancing his grande chai tea latte and muffin atop his sketchpad before dumping it all in a graceful heap on a table.
"But a sexy prat," Gwen added, plopping down across from Merlin with her own steaming drink.
Merlin hummed in agreement around his cup, a small smile playing on his lips. "That he is."
They sipped their drinks in comfortable silence for a few moments before Gwen spoke up again.
Merlin's smile slipped a little. "Fine," he said, picking up Gwen's discarded coffee stirrer and starting to fiddle with it. "The same, I think."
"Is he still living in London?"
Merlin scratched out a doodle into the faded coffee stains on the table. "Yeah," he said quietly, "still in London."
"Is he dating anybody?"
Merlin snorted. "Why, are you in the market?"
"No!" Gwen sighed. "Just trying to make conversation, Merlin."
"Yeah. Sorry." He twiddled the coffee stirrer between his fingers like a baton. "He's got a boyfriend, I think."
"That's nice." Gwen cocked her head at Merlin. "That is nice, right?"
The coffee stirrer snapped between Merlin's fingers with a loud crack. "Yes Gwen, it's fucking fantastic that my ex-boyfriend is shagging some punk musician in my flat, in my bed, while I'm stuck here in a five floor walk-up bemoaning my miserable existence." Merlin carded his hands through his hair, smearing a line of red paint across the left side of his head. "Thanks for asking."
"There's no need to get testy, Merlin. It was just a question."
"Well let's just avoid those sorts of questions in the future, alright?" Merlin let his head drop onto the table, adding red paint to the coffee stains and pen scratches there. "And here I thought it was going to be a good day."
"Not so good then?" Gwen asked. "You never did tell me what happened this morning."
"Oh you mean me tripping over a parked bicycle and crashing head-on into Wallace the Walrus?"
Gwen's hands flew to her mouth. "No."
"Yes. And then having wicked fantasies about a particular man who so nobly saved my sketchbook from a horrid demise, only to find out he was to be our new model."
"Arthur?" Gwen was still valiantly trying to stifle her giggles. "What did he say?"
"He said I had no reflexes to speak of and basically accused me of accosting the entire pedestrian population."
When there was no response from Gwen, Merlin lifted his head to see her in peals of laughter on the other side of the table. He let his head drop back down with a dull thud.
"Appreciate the support, Gwen," he muttered, face half-smushed against the polished hardwood. "Ever the stalwart friend, courageous protector of my fragile sensibilities, gallant upholder of my reputation as a courteous pedestrian."
"Oh shut it," Gwen snapped. "It's not my fault you're a clumsy oaf."
"No. I blame the Queen."
"The Queen? Of England?"
Merlin nodded, or tried to anyway, his head still resting on the table. "More specifically Prince William."
"How in the world could Prince William be in any way responsible for your lack of grace?"
Merlin rolled his head so that he was looking at Gwen the right way up, letting his chin rest against the edge of the table. "I used to trip whenever I saw him on the telly. Completely baffled my mum. Then when me and Will… well, it made a lot more sense to her after that."
"So you're saying that you're clumsy because Prince William is attractive?"
"He was on the telly a lot."
Gwen just stared incredulously at him. "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard." She pointed a finger accusingly. "You are ridiculous."
"Never a truer word spoken."
Gwen whipped around in her chair. "Lance!" She said, a smiling blooming on her face.
"Gwen." Lance said, smiling back. He glanced down at where Merlin's head was still resting on the table. "Merlin. Looking ship shape as always."
Lance chuckled and Merlin let his head tilt to the side a little so he could look at him. Awooga, Merlin thought again, eyes sweeping appreciatively over Lance's classical figure, taking in the faded jeans and white button down, the dark hair that fell in neat curls over his eyes.
"Hey, you," Gwen said, slapping a hand at Merlin's face. "Save it for class."
Merlin stuck his tongue out at her. Gwen stuck hers out in retaliation, so Merlin threw his empty cup at her, which landed with a clatter on the next table over, having flown straight over Gwen's head.
"Children, fight nice," Lance scolded, retrieving the cup from the older woman at the next table, who was glaring daggers at Merlin and Gwen. Lance waited until they were finished snickering to ask, "Are you two toddlers ready to go? I've got to pick up a friend."
Gwen nodded and smiled, picking up her own cup to throw away. Lance reached down and hefted her bag over one shoulder, picking up her oversized sketchpad in his free hand. Merlin crammed the rest of his muffin in his mouth and started gathering his own things, shoving his chair back with his feet and promptly tripping forward into the table.
"Alight, Merlin?" Lance asked from somewhere near the door.
"Dofn men mu."
"I'm sorry? I don't actually speak muffin."
"Yeah, yeah," Merlin said, tottering carefully through the minefield of tables. "Shut up."
Arthur loitered awkwardly outside of Chipotle, the morning's rain having mostly dissipated, and waited for Lance's beat up Honda Civic to pull into the lot. His phone cheerfully alerted him to another new message, the name Agravaine ominously on the home screen. He deleted it. Five more minutes passed, and he was about to send an angry text to Lance when he heard the telltale rattle of the Civic coming around the corner. Shoving his phone back into his pocket, he started over to meet him. Or rather, them, as Arthur could make out two extra figures outlined in the tinted windows of the car. When it came to a stop, Arthur caught a glimpse of Gwen sitting in the passenger seat before the rear passenger-side door popped open, and Arthur got a clear shot of elephant-man, "call me Merlin," sitting in the back seat, smiling like a maniac. Splendid.
"Do you ever stop smiling?" Arthur asked, sliding into the backseat.
"Do you ever stop being a prat?" Merlin countered, sliding over to make room.
"Hold on," Lance said, pulling out of the parking lot and hooking a left on Grace St. "Do you guys know each other?"
"We had the pleasure of making Sir Arthur's acquaintance this morning in class." Gwen pitched in sarcastically from the front seat.
Arthur paled a bit as Merlin sniggered next to him. Lance shot him a questioning look in the rearview mirror. "You decide to pursue painting?" He asked.
"I wouldn't call it painting, exactly." Gwen remarked, and Merlin's sniggering increased.
"You going to explain this Arthur?" Lance asked. "Or I am going to have to beat it out of Merlin?"
Merlin produced a sound that could have been a squeak, or another equally girly vocal reaction.
Arthur swiveled to look at him incredulously. "Did you just squeak?"
A flush was slowly creeping its way up Merlin's face, but to his credit, he still managed to inform Lance about Arthur's new occupation. "He's the model," Merlin said, getting far too much pleasure out of it.
The car jerked to a startled halt a good ten feet before the approaching stop sign.
"We haven't actually reached the intersection, Lance." Arthur said calmly.
Lance turned around in his seat to look at Arthur. "We need to talk."
"Here?" Arthur said, a little desperately. The last thing he needed was a heart-to-heart conversation in a dangerously parked car with two people, two painters, he'd just met.
Lance glanced around at Merlin, looking much too curious for his own good, and Gwen, looking sharp and calculating in the front seat, before turning back to the road. "No. Perhaps not."
Arthur breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you."
Lance pointed a finger at him. "We will talk though. Soon."
"Yes, your highness," Arthur replied, bowing his head in sarcastic obedience.
Merlin started sniggering again.
"It doesn't take much to set him off, does it?" Arthur asked Lance, jerking a thumb in Merlin's direction.
"No," Lance agreed, ignoring Merlin's affronted shout, "It certainly doesn't."
The rest of the ride went in relative quiet, with just the hum of the radio and the rattle of the beater's engine to mix with Arthur's internal diatribe of practiced responses to the questions that were sure to come. Yes, I'm a model now. No, my father doesn't know. Yes, I realize I could be disowned. No, I haven't talked to Solomon. Yes, the weather is crap. Lovely chat, let's do it again the next time I run away to America to skive off my familial obligations.
All in all, Arthur was looking forward to it.
They dropped Merlin and Gwen off at a used bookstore in Carytown, and Arthur could see the words Chop Suey written on the flag in the window. They thanked Lance for the ride, Gwen's goodbye taking a little bit longer than was strictly necessary, before the doors of the Civic were slammed shut and the car lurched forward and back out into traffic. Arthur awkwardly scrambled into the front seat, putting on his seatbelt and rolling the window down, enjoying the warm breeze that was present even then, in October.
"So you ready to talk?" Lance asked, turning on Boulevard to head back to his apartment. "Or are we waiting until we get home?"
"Home," Arthur said, perfectly willing to put off this conversation as long as possible.
Lance sighed, but continued driving in silence. Arthur mapped out the route in his head, trying to ingrain it in his memory. Left on Boulevard, left on Broad, right on Hermitage. Lance's apartment was at the intersection of Hermitage Road and Leigh Street, in a complex called Southern Stove Lofts. It was a grand, red brick building with accompanying water tower, which Arthur had to assume was at one point used for the manufacturing of stoves. Lance hooked the car into the lot and parked in the nearest empty space. He shot a look at Arthur before pushing his door open and stepping out. Arthur rolled his eyes and kicked his own door open, slamming it shut behind him.
"I would appreciate it if you didn't abuse my car, Arthur," Lance said over his shoulder as he walked towards the building.
"Not like I could make it any worse," Arthur muttered, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hoodie and starting after him.
Lance's apartment was a one-bedroom, one-bathroom affair, but was fairly nice all things considered. He had a kitchen and a living room, and a semi-comfortable futon that Arthur was currently calling home. Arthur sank down into a kitchen chair and waited as Lance pulled out two mugs from the cabinet. Tea then. The British answer to everything. Arthur accepted his cup with a nod, wrapping his hands around the warm ceramic and inhaling the familiar scent of earl grey. Lance sat down across from him, took a sip of tea, and waited.
"So," Arthur said. "Merlin. Why did we drop him off at a bookstore?"
"That's where he works."
Arthur nodded. "And Gwen?"
"Works at the restaurant across the street," Lance said. "And you? Where are you working now Arthur?"
Arthur stared down into his tea, not willing to meet Lance's steady gaze. "Here and there."
Lance sighed. "Arthur this is ridiculous. I'm not your father; I'm not going to disown you," he said softly. "But you called me up out of the blue, and now you're living in my flat, and I would appreciate knowing what the hell is going on here."
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut. "I ran away."
"You're 24 years old Arthur. You can go wherever you like."
"No," Arthur said, opening his eyes to meet Lance's across the table. "No I can't." He took a sip of tea before continuing. "My father is… my father is not well."
Lance was quite for a moment. "Arthur, do you mean to tell me you left your ill father in England to come over here and sleep on my futon?"
"He's not ill!" Arthur paused. "It's just… he has been working his entire life and it's beginning to take a toll on him, especially after what happened in May."
A wash of understanding passed over Lance's face. "Morgana."
Arthur nodded. "After she left, he just hasn't been the same. He hardly ever leaves his room, just sits and stares and waits for her return. He hasn't been to work in months." He stared down into his tea. "And at the end of the year, if he is not fit to return to the House of Lords, I am…" He trailed off, the reality of his situation blooming once again in his head.
"You are expected to take his place," Lance finished.
"And do my duty for Queen and country, yeah."
"Arthur…" Lance stopped, apparently at a loss as to what he intended to say.
"I thought leaving would help," Arthur said, thinking about the other man he had left back in England.
Arthur heard his father's voice in his head, biting and cruel, and he saw Sol's long arms wrapped around someone else, filling the space Arthur used to occupy. He shook his head, "No."
Lance sighed. " You can't hide here forever, Arthur. Eventually you're going to have to go back."
Arthur said nothing, just brought his cooling tea up to his mouth for another sip.
Lance let it go, but not before bringing up an equally uncomfortable topic. "So that brings us to today," he said, carefully studying Arthur's face for some sign of… something, "and your new job."
"It's not new," Arthur said without thinking, then grimaced. Lance's eyes were getting wider. "I mean, I've done this sort of thing before."
Now it was Lance's turn to raise an eyebrow. "You've done this sort of thing before," he repeated. Arthur sensed a question in there somewhere.
"At St. Andrews, for the art students," Arthur said, unwilling to elaborate further.
"That's funny," said Lance, "I don't recall St. Andrews offering art."
Arthur coughed. "Well they don't. Not officially."
"And old habits die hard? Is that what I'm getting here?"
"No! God, I hate it, Lance." Arthur said, setting his mug down to pinch the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "But I'm broke, and it's easy, and the money's good."
Lance stared at him.
"You're broke?" Lance asked, disbelieving.
Arthur glared at him. "I've been cut-off."
"Who made that decision?"
"Agravaine," Arthur said with a snarl. "He's been making all of my father's decisions lately."
Lance nodded. "So you're modeling."
"It's really not that big of a deal."
"Your father might say differently."
"My father's not saying much of anything right now, Lance!" Arthur shouted, slamming his palms down onto the table, making the teacups rattle. "He might as well be a vegetable for all he's said to me in the last four months."
Lance was looking at him with what Arthur thought was pity, and if anything, it just made the situation ten times worse.
"Don't you dare," Arthur said, shoving an accusing finger at Lance. "Don't you dare pity me."
Lance raised his hands in what Arthur recognized as a sign of appeasement. "I don't pity you Arthur," he said quietly. "But I don't envy your situation." He let his hands rest palm up on the table. "I also don't think you can keep this up."
"Keep what up?"
"I'm not pretending," Arthur said, a little bit too quickly.
And there was that look again, the pitying look. Lance didn't respond, but Arthur had had enough.
"Look mate, I appreciate you letting me stay here." Arthur stood up and pushed his chair back, abandoning his now cold mug of tea on the table. "But I'm not sure this is going to work out."
Lance stood up too. "Arthur, come on, don't be like that."
Arthur whirled around. "Like what, Lance? Like what?" He shouted, waving his hands madly and taking a few aggressive steps forward. "Like a spoiled son of a Lord, running away from responsibility?" He stopped his advance and let his hands fall to his sides. "Like a coward who can't even look his own father in the eye because he's afraid of what he might see?" Lance was silent, but Arthur couldn't stop. "Like a hopeless, good-for-nothing 24 year old basket case with no career aspirations to speak of?" Arthur shook his head, before turning to grab his duffel from where he'd stashed it behind the futon. "Well you know what," he said, decibel level returning to normal, "I'm all of those things." He yanked the door open, turning back to look at Lance, who was standing silently in his kitchen, not appalled, not angry, just that same look of pity etched across his face. Arthur's gaze was pure steel as he said, "I was never pretending," and slammed the door shut behind him.
It wasn't until Arthur reached the corner that he realized he had nowhere to go.