In the slightly bedraggled dressing room of London's West Street Theatre, Arthur Pendragon wiped the last of the make-up off his face and contemplated the night's performance. Good, but as usual, it could have been better. The highlight was his big speech in the fourth act. He savoured the moment when the audience fell completely under his spell, like clay he could mold in any shape. It was an amazing feeling, a high like no other. If he could just achieve that every night, in every play...
The sound of slowly clapping hands broke into his reverie.
"Bravo, son," his father said, sweeping into the room with a swirl of his signature red cape. Only Uther Pendragon had the audacity to wear such a showy garment, but it suited the founder of the Britannia Theatres empire. He planted his walking stick in the middle of the floor like Columbus claiming America. "Marvellous performance. You'll be able to take on Henry V soon, I have no doubt." Uther was constantly going on about Arthur performing Henry V, the role he'd had to decline when Arthur's mother had her accident.
Arthur gave him a small grin in the mirror. "I hope so, Father." He stood and leaned against his dressing table, turning to face his father. "I'm so pleased you enjoyed the play."
"Oh, I just caught the last fifteen minutes, but it was brilliant, my boy, brilliant." Uther surveyed the cramped room, in which threadbare old costumes sagged like molted feathers on a rack shoved into one corner and everything stank of cigarette smoke. "Yes, well, I hope we can shortly get you into a, shall we say, higher class of theatre. Perhaps one of mine or even...films!" Uther's eye glittered at the last. "But patience, Arthur, patience. All will be yours some day."
Films - the idea piqued Arthur's interest; his name big and bold on the screen, his face spread larger than life in hundreds of theatres across the world. It got him to thinking. He'd have to dig that out that letter Lance had sent from Hollywood, see what he had to say. Lance had gone out there the year before, part of a big wave of foreigners recruited to work in the burgeoning film industry.
"You heard about Robinson, I suppose?" Uther asked. "A pity, really. Promising young man. But you find perversion in all levels of society these days. You were friends at school, weren't you?"
Arthur froze, then crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Yes. I haven't seen him lately though. We've grown apart, I suppose." It was true. Robinson had gone into finance and their paths rarely crossed anymore. There had been a time when they'd been close - very close - but the last thing Arthur wanted was for his father to question him further on that point.
Uther crossed to the dressing table and picked up one of the pots of makeup, examining it. "How is the lovely Vivian, anyway? You haven't said much about her recently. I trust she's doing well." He shot Arthur a piercing look. "It wouldn't do to wait too much longer, son. A man of your position, from a respectable family, needs a wife. Sooner rather than later."
"Yes, father." Arthur knew. He knew very well. There was no point in saying anything more. He knew what was expected of him. He just didn't know if he could go through with it. Hollywood was starting to sound very appealing.
Los Angeles, a few months later
"Is this Studio 28?" Arthur asked a dark-haired fellow leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette. He was tall and slender and wearing an ill-fitting white marching band uniform with gold trim, a plumed hat under his arm and a baton in his hand.
"Yeah. You an extra? Costumes in room A." He pointed inside the vast building and squinted at Arthur.
"Not exactly." Arthur stiffened at the man's mistake. "Is this where the auditions are for Prince Hal?" He'd wasted twenty minutes lost in the warren of studios that made up the backlot of Colossal Pictures and now he was afraid he'd be late. On top of that, he was hot and sweaty. Bloody California sun.
The man looked him over more carefully. "I think those are across the way, Studio 30. This is shooting for 'The Music Meister.'
"Oh, is that you?"
"Not exactly. I'm his assistant." Suddenly he smiled and his face transformed. "Some day though."
Arthur's breath caught. The man was beautiful. "Er, thanks." He headed in the direction of Studio 30, forcing his mind back to the words of Prince Hal's speech.
"Wait." A hand caught him by the arm. The man had put on the hat, which looked absurd, far too large for him, but somehow charming. His eyes were a deep blue. "Break a leg."
"Yes, thank you." Getting to the audition suddenly seemed less urgent. "I'm Arthur, by the way," he said, offering his hand. There was something intriguing about this fellow.
"Merlin." They shook hands and their eyes locked for a moment, their hands lingering longer than usual before letting go. Arthur felt heat at the back of his neck. "Always nice to meet a fellow Englishman. See you around?"
"I hope so." Arthur smiled before tamping down the sudden frisson of attraction so he could get on with the audition.
Arthur grabbed a tray and tried to identify the mysterious grey-brown meat on offer for lunch that day in the studio cafeteria. It was either that or the macaroni and cheese, which looked just as colourless. As he was weighing the unappealing options, he noticed the dark-haired Englishman - Merlin - out of the corner of his eye, eating lunch at a table by himself.
What luck. It had been two weeks since the audition and Arthur hadn't seen him since, despite keeping a constant eye out for him. The studio had yet to make a decision on the role of Prince Hal, but had offered Arthur a couple of smaller parts in films that were already in production. It had been great fun last week to play the son of a sheik kidnapped by brigands. This week he got to use his theatrical sword training in a picture about musketeers, which was brilliant, if not the lead role he was hoping for. Not bad for his first month in Hollywood.
"Is this seat taken?" Arthur asked.
"Oh hello," Merlin said, eyeing his costume. "It looks like you've settled in nicely."
Arthur doffed his plumed hat and bowed low. "Sir Aglante at your service."
Merlin laughed and put a hand to his chest. "Have you come to save a fair maiden?"
"Only if she'll have me."
Merlin's grinned and pulled out the chair next to him. "Bien sûr, mon ami. Enchanté." He held out his hand as if he were a princess whose hand should be kissed, and batted his eyelashes at Arthur.
Arthur arched a brow, his pulse quickening. He quickly scanned the cafeteria; nobody was paying the least bit of attention to them. But if anything got back to Aredian... He took in Merlin's features, the jut of his cheekbones, the plump curve of his lower lip, and his stomach fluttered.
Helplessly, he took Merlin's hand and lifted it to his lips. The skin was warm and smooth and as Merlin's fingers swept discreetly over his palm, heat spread through Arthur's body. When Arthur looked up, Merlin's eyes were on his.
"You look much better in a plumed hat than I do," Merlin said, and he cocked his eyebrow. "Although that goatee has got to go." That broke the tension and they both laughed. Arthur sat down and started in on his lunch. It was tasteless, but he knew he needed the fuel to get through the long day ahead.
"Okay, okay, I know the goatee isn't the best look, but you have to admit, being paid to walk around with a sword is bloody amazing. And besides," Arthur said. "I thought you looked quite charming in that hat." It was Merlin's turn to blush, which was even more adorable than he looked in the hat. "Still working on that picture?"
"No, that wrapped. I'm in for a couple of auditions today. You get Prince Hal?"
"Don't know yet."
"I hope you do." Merlin grinned. "An Englishman should play it, don't you think?"
"How long have you been here, by the way?"
"Just a few months. I like it here. It's new and exciting. Not like London." He made a face.
"I'm glad to be away from there too. I love the stage, but... Too many demands, family, that sort of thing. You can start fresh here."
They shared a look and something unspoken hovered in the air.
"Just wish I could get a break with the studio," Merlin said. "All I've gotten is small parts. That's the one thing I miss about London, lead roles. Well, that and my mum. And her cooking," he said, examining a forkful of his lunch.
Arthur chuckled. "I know what you mean. I'm sure you'll get something big soon. Those cheekbones must jump right off the screen," he said, picturing Merlin's face lit in stark black and white - gorgeous. Oh god, had he said that out loud? "Playing a musketeer is fun, but I'm really hoping for that Prince Hal role."
Merlin's gaze raked over him. "Yeah, you'd be perfect for that. All blond and...erm, royal-like."
Arthur wished he could stop himself from blushing. Something about Merlin made him lose all inhibition. "Er, thanks."
"So you alone here, then? Merlin asked. "I mean," he stammered, "any family, friends?"
Arthur's mouth twitched up. "Well, my friend Lance is here. He's doing a picture over at United Artists right now. He was the one who got me over here, kept sending me letters about how wonderful it was. So I thought I'd see for myself." He didn't tell Merlin how his father had been against it at the beginning, but came around when Arthur told him how many big names from Europe were migrating to the States, and how Arthur could become a far bigger star in Hollywood than he could at home.
"Oh. Are you...roommates?"
"Who? Lance?" Oh no, no, no. "No, I've got my own house." Uther had set him up nicely with a small bungalow in the Hollywood flats. He looked at Merlin from under his lashes. "You should come see it some time." There it was again, his mouth flapping with no filter whatsoever. And Aredian had told him to 'be discreet,' which was code for keeping it in his pants. He was starting to think that was an impossibility where Merlin was concerned.
Merlin smirked. "Your own house. How posh. Do you have etchings to show me?"
"Maybe. You'll have to come over and find out." According to the cafeteria clock, he had five minutes to get to the other side of the lot. "Oh bugger, look at the time." He scrambled to get his things together. "Look, I don't even know your surname."
"Emrys. And yours?"
"Pendragon. Arthur Pendragon."
Merlin look stunned. "Of The Pendragons? Who own Britannia Theatres?"
"Well, yes. Uther Pendragon is my father."
"Fucking hell. You are royalty. And he let you come out here to act in films? I'm impressed."
"He's more forward-thinking than you might guess. And besides, I'm my own man, Merlin. I make my own decisions."
"Uh-huh. I'm sure you do."
"Damn it, I've got to run. When can I see you again?" No sense in pretending. He didn't want to let another two weeks go by on the off chance he'd run into Merlin again.
"If you want to come by the Pasadena Playhouse Friday night, we can meet up after the show. I can't recommend the production though. The lead actor is terrible. The rest of the cast is brilliant." He smiled brightly. "Shall we say ten o'clock?"
Despite Merlin's warnings, Arthur came early to catch the play and the lead actor was, in fact, as brilliant as the rest of the cast.
"Merlin, you devil. Why didn't you tell me iyou/i were the lead?" Arthur clapped Merlin on the shoulder and let his hand linger. So stunned was he by Merlin's performance, it had taken him a few moments to rouse himself from his seat, and a few more to find the dressing rooms backstage where he found Merlin still in his costume and makeup, drinking a glass of water. "You've got more than cheekbones, mate. That was fantastic."
Watching Merlin on stage had been a revelation. A certain light came into his eyes and his voice took on a commanding timbre that drew the audience in, absorbing its energy and throwing it back so every eye was drawn irrevocably to him, hanging on his every word and gesture. Even the other actors seemed drawn into his spell.
"Thanks," Merlin said. Under his makeup he was still flushed from the high of performing and his hair was tousled. It suited him, made Arthur long to drag his hand through it and ruffle it more.
"I miss this, you know," Arthur said. "The energy, the audience, the instant feedback. I love films of course, there's nothing like sinking into another world in a dark theatre, but when you're shooting, there's so much waiting around and then the final product isn't done for ages."
"I missed it too. When I found out about the Playhouse, I rushed over here to see how I could get involved." Merlin cocked his head. "You should try out for the next play."
"Yes, maybe. Hopefully I'll be too busy playing Prince Hal."
Merlin pointed his index finger at him. "Right, yes. I hope so too." He pulled at his costume. "Listen, I'll get changed and cleaned up and we can go for a drink or dinner, yeah? I know a great little Chinese place around the corner."
They spent the evening eating chicken chow mein and drinking beer in a red leather booth surrounded by screens decorated with twining dragons. Arthur had never had Chinese food before - his taste in food was conventional and unadventurous - which led to Merlin ordering practically everything on the menu, until their table was cluttered with dishes.
Merlin moaned. "Mmm. Try this." He held out a pork dumpling dripping with sauce. "Just take a bite."
Arthur hesitated, then leaned forward and took a bite of the dumpling Merlin held in his hand. His mouth came perilously close to Merlin's fingers as he bit into the dumpling and the spicy rich flavour burst in his mouth. "Mmm," he said. "Oh my god. That is delicious."
"I told you you'd like it." Merlin looked gleeful and Arthur couldn't help the way his heart stuttered a bit at that dazzling smile.
From there the conversation moved on to London theatre gossip and where to buy decent tea in LA - Arthur tried to argue Merlin out of his bizarre penchant for lapsang souchong, which he considered undrinkable, but only ended up promising to go with Merlin to the shop to taste the foul stuff at the source.
Inevitably, the talk circled back to Hollywood. "I've been working on an idea for a screenplay." Merlin played with the salt and pepper shakers, moving them like game pieces.
"Go ahead," Arthur said.
And Merlin began to talk about his idea, a re-imagining of the King Arthur legend. "It has nothing to do with the fact that I'm named Merlin. Really. Pure coincidence. I just happen to be a bit of a King Arthur buff." It sounded grand to Arthur, particularly when he heard the passion in Merlin's voice, saw the colour in his cheeks as he got wrapped up in talking about it.
"You should write it," Arthur said.
"Well, it's mostly written already. I've been tinkering with it for ages."
"Finish it up. I'll take a look. Maybe you can get it made some day."
"I hope so."
As the meal came to a close, they laughed over the nonsensical fortune cookies.
"Let me see that," Arthur said, laughing and snatching at the tiny piece of paper Merlin held, their fingers brushing in the process. "'A closed mouth gathers no feet.' Ah. No wonder you got that one."
Merlin straightened. "I'm offended, sir. I might have to challenge you to a duel if you keep this up."
"Shall I remind you I'm a professionally trained swordsman?"
"Really?" Merlin drew out the word, glowering.
"All right, all right. For purposes of Shakespeare only, I have to admit."
"Then we're even. Although the last time I used a sword on stage, the theatre owner had to settle out of court. So you might win that one."
Arthur cracked open his cookie and pulled out the fortune.
"What is it? Come on," Merlin said.
"'The one you love is closer than you think.'" Arthur could feel his face heat up as he read the words out loud. He cleared his throat and slowly let his eyes meet Merlin's. They were dark, almost glowing in the dim light of the restaurant. He dropped his hand to the table so it touched Merlin's, just the sides, pressing. Merlin brushed Arthur's wrist with his pinkie, a soft light touch that sent a shiver of sensation up Arthur's arm.
Love. Arthur wondered where that fit into Aredian's command to be discreet. He had a feeling he was going to have to figure that out.
After several nerve-wracking weeks of waiting, the studio finally informed Arthur that he got the part of Prince Hal. The picture was an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, in which the young, ne'er-do-well prince becomes King Henry V and vanquishes England's enemy in a heroic battle. Aredian assured him he was perfect for the role and it would be a stepping stone to cinematic success. Uther was ecstatic. Arthur was finally stepping up into the role Uther had envisioned for him since he was a child.
"I'm so proud of you." Merlin said. He clasped Arthur's upper arms as they held each other in a loose embrace. "I knew you could do it."
Arthur swept Merlin into a giddy waltz around the small living room of his bungalow, where he'd invited Merlin for a celebratory drink. "You'll be next, I'm sure of it," he said, slightly breathless from the dance. "What about that script you were reading the other day?"
"What, the Western?" Merlin made a face. "They want me for the prissy schoolmaster." He sighed. "I'm afraid I'm not cut out for the leading man like you are. At least Hollywood doesn't seem to think so. I'm always the second banana to some big, dumb muscly fellow they've hired just because of his square jaw and noble profile." He glanced at Arthur. "Oh, um, sorry. I didn't mean you. Your profile's not noble at all."
"Merlin. It's only a matter of time. They'll learn to appreciate you."
"I don't know. They want me to ride a horse." Merlin grimaced.
"Oh," Arthur said.
Merlin was impressively clumsy, a fact that Arthur witnessed for himself when Merlin managed to sprain his ankle during a game of miniature golf. "Don't worry. I'll take you out riding and teach you. Hands-on training is always the best." Arthur slid a hand around Merlin's waist. "Listen, let's get out of here. I'm jumping out of my skin," Arthur said. "We can celebrate Prince Hal at least. There's this new place everyone's talking about, the Club Monaco. I hear they have ladies in tuxedos performing." Arthur waggled his eyebrows.
"Are you sure?" Two men simply did not go out alone without female dates. To do so would be to raise suspicion. "You don't want to call some girls to come with us?"
Arthur held Merlin closely and kissed him, soft on the lips. "Just for tonight. A special occasion," he said, pitching his voice low. Merlin's lips had become his new addiction over the last few weeks. He could build an altar to them, given the hours they'd spent kissing on Arthur's sofa recently. Forget sodding Aredian. He'd deal with him later if need be.
Club Monaco was hopping. There was so much traffic in front of the club, Arthur had trouble getting his car to the valet stand and they had to fight to get through the crowd jostling at the door. But once the maitre d' noticed Arthur, he waved them in and the crowd parted as if for royalty. Arthur caught Merlin's eye and winked at him as they wended their way inside, discreetly grazing his pinkie finger against Merlin's palm.
Inside, the maitre d' led them to a leather banquette, part of a semi-circle that surrounded the open area dotted with small tables. It was dim except for the bright lights on the small stage, where a small jazz band was setting up. Men and women in glamorous evening attire mingled at the tables and in a crush of bodies at the bar. Anticipation filled the air.
Merlin and Arthur slid into the booth, carefully keeping a safe distance from each other. Arthur settled for Merlin's warm smile and the close proximity of their hands on the table.
"Champagne?" he asked Merlin when a waitress appeared to take their order.
"But of course," Merlin replied. "We're celebrating."
When their drinks arrived, Merlin lifted his glass for a toast. "'Once more unto the breach.'"
"'Cry 'God for Harry, England and St. George!'" Arthur replied.
"You've got it already. I can just see you now, rallying the troops, all golden hair and broad chest." Merlin bounced in his seat and beamed at Arthur, who was helpless to do anything but beam back. "My knight in shining armour." Arthur felt his cheeks heat and he shook his head at Merlin's silliness, keeping the fluttering in his stomach to himself.
The singer appeared onstage and took a dramatic pose in the spotlight. As promised, she was wearing a tuxedo and a top hat, auburn curls tumbling to her shoulders. The crowd clapped as the band took up the cadences of a slow jazz number, the singer's voice low and sultry in imitation of the popular Marlene Dietrich.
"She's good," Merlin said.
"Mmm, sexy," Arthur said, as he watched the singer make a show of flirting with a female patron, then kissing her. The audience hooted and snickered in appreciation.
"Like you'd know," Merlin taunted.
"I'll have you know I can appreciate the female form," Arthur huffed. "Especially when it's in a tuxedo." They laughed. "As long as she doesn't try kissing me, I'm fine."
"I bet you'd look fetching in a frock." Merlin teased, eyeing Arthur's body. "Although finding one to fit those shoulders might be a challenge."
Arthur kicked him under the table. "Listen, the one time I wore a dress, it was to play Rosalind in 'As You Like It' at school and Leon pined for me ever after. So there."
As the evening wore on, the noise level in the club rose, the milling crowds grew thicker, and a steady trickle of people stopped by to congratulate Arthur. At one point, Arthur and Merlin had to make room for two other couples to squeeze into their banquette. They ended up with their sides pressed together from thigh to shoulder, making Arthur conscious of everywhere their bodies touched. Resentment coiled in his stomach as he observed his friends draping an arm over their girlfriend's shoulders or nuzzling the neck of their spouse, openly and easily, without fear or shame. He longed to do the same with Merlin, but he didn't dare.
With each round of friends came a new glass of champagne and Merlin's eyes were becoming glazed and unfocused, his laughter a bit more manic, his jokes more dirty. This was a side to him that Arthur hadn't seen and he found it amusing. Not that he himself was sober by any means, but the alcohol seemed to have more effect on Merlin.
When they were finally alone, it seemed much darker in the club than it had before. They hadn't bothered to move from their position crushed against each other. Arthur was feeling pleasantly boneless and couldn't be bothered to move from the warmth of Merlin's side, the lateness of the hour and the alcohol dulling his paranoia. Besides, Merlin was leaning into him like a sack of potatoes and he suspected Merlin would just fall over onto the seat if he pulled away.
"Do you know what I'm thinking?" Merlin slurred slightly, sliding his leg against Arthur's under the table.
"No, what are you thinking, Merlin?" Arthur played along.
Merlin's calf nudged against Arthur's and he leaned in to speak softly. "I'm thinking that we go to your place and I take off first your jacket." He stroked his foot up Arthur's leg. "Then your shirt." The foot slid back down. "Then your trousers." His breath was hot on Arthur's face, yet it made Arthur shiver as Merlin leaned in further and whispered, "And finally I'm going to peel off your undergarments with my teeth before I lick every inch of your hot, naked skin - "
Arthur had to swallow before he could speak. He darted a glance at the neighbouring banquettes. Thankfully, the tablecloth and the darkness made it impossible for anyone to see what was happening under the table. "Oh yeah? What makes you think I'd let you do something like that, you impertinent brat?" He failed to suppress a grin.
Merlin smirked. "Because of the way you've been looking at me all night." He licked his lips. "I already know how that sweet mouth tastes. I'd like to find out how the rest of you tastes." Merlin's vowels were like honey and Arthur was getting far too aroused. Maybe it was time to take this celebration somewhere more private.
"You are such a fucking tease, Mr. Emrys."
"Who's teasing? I'm deadly serious." Merlin pulled his face down in a mock show of seriousness. "In fact, I'm not sure I can wait."
Arthur's breath hitched and he slid the edge of his hand so it barely touched Merlin's where it lay on top of the table - the only skin to skin contact he dared - and the heat flared where they touched. Merlin's eyes, half-lidded, were trained on Arthur. What that look did to Arthur, dark eyelashes fanning across those delectable cheekbones, full lips parted as if in invitation. Arthur ached to clamp his mouth to Merlin's, to bite and lave that pout so it swelled even more. "Okay then. I'll just get the check," he said quickly. He dragged his eyes away from Merlin to wave down a waitress.
His mind was focused on getting Merlin home and stripped naked as soon as possible. Perhaps he was more drunk than he realised, because he thought nothing of Merlin taking hold of his hand right then. Heedlessly, Arthur squeezed it, overcome with lust and affection and probably just a bit reckless and giddy about Merlin and his feelings towards him. Everything about him made Arthur's pulse race, obliterated his inhibitions. He was the first person in a long time for whom he'd felt the possibility of real love. The thought of finally getting in bed together sent a fresh stab of longing through him.
It was at that very moment that Jimmy Mumsen appeared at their table. "Well, hello boys." Mumsen nodded at Arthur and Merlin in turn. "Out on the town to celebrate?"
Jimmy Mumsen was the influential gossip columnist for the Hollywood Tattler. He was in his mid-thirties, receding mouse-brown hair slicked back to expose a prominent forehead. His piercing hazel eyes were placed narrowly above a nose the burnished red of the habitual drunkard; they seemed to miss nothing. On his arm was a petite woman in a gaudy salmon-coloured dress that clashed painfully with her brightly dyed red hair.
Arthur felt ill. Mumsen had the power to make or break careers with a single mention in his column. Arthur traded a panicked glance with Merlin and realised with horror that they were still holding hands. He yanked back his hand as if it were burnt and instinctively placed it in his lap, over his crotch. He forced himself to carry on as if everything was completely normal, although his heart hammered wildly against his ribs. "Well, hello, Mumsen, everything going well in newspaper land? You heard that I got Prince Hal?"
Mumsen's glance lingered on Merlin's hand still lying on the table and then looked slowly between the two of them before replying. "I did. Congratulations! Pip pip, cheerio and all that, isn't that what they say back in merry old England?" Mumsen asked in a broad midwestern accent.
Arthur gritted his teeth. "They do indeed."
"This is my wife Penny, by the way," he said, introducing the woman next to him. "Arthur Pendragon and Merlin Emrys."
There was something about the way the reporter said their names, an undercurrent of innuendo that made Arthur's hackles rise. "Pleased to meet you," Penny simpered, fluttering her eyes at Arthur as if she were a teenager. "I loved you in that sheik picture. So romantic. I can't wait to see Prince Hal. The lead!"
Despite himself, Arthur was flattered. Like most actors, he was always happy to hear praise from fans. "Well, thank you very much. That's very nice to hear."
Penny turned to Merlin. "And you. Nino the Imposter is one of my absolute favorites. The way you performed those magic tricks!"
Merlin turned red and thanked her. Arthur knew he'd worked hard to perfect those tricks.
"Now now, Penny, that's enough. Boys, you have your own one-woman fan club right here. I'm sure there'll be plenty more. But I see our party over there and I'm sure you two would prefer a private celebration," Mumsen said. "Congratulations again, Arthur. You're perfect for the part. Good night, Merlin."
"Oh my god," Merlin said, after the Mumsens moved on. "Did you hear what he said? 'A private celebration'? We're fucked. We are so fucked, Arthur. He saw us holding hands." Merlin sat up stiffly, looking much more sober.
"Okay. Okay. Calm down." Arthur's mind ricocheted wildly. He had a brief, mortifying vision of himself selling apples on the street while Merlin performed magic tricks. "It didn't mean anything. We don't know what he saw."
"He saw it. I know he did. He looked at us like he knew everything."
"He doesn't know anything. Let's not jump to conclusions. It's dark, people are drinking, they could be seeing purple dragons for all we know." Arthur tried to quell his own rising panic. "This is what we're going to do. We're going to sit here calmly and have one more glass of champagne. Or perhaps coffee would be a better idea," he said, feeling distinctly ill-equipped to deal with the situation in his current inebriated state. "We're going to have a civilized conversation about current events or baseball or something equally manly."
"You don't know anything about baseball. Or current events."
Arthur scowled at him. "That's not the point, Merlin. And I know more about current events than you. Should I remind you that last week you asked me who the American prime minister was? Anyway, when enough time has passed, we'll leave normally, say goodbye to anybody we run into on the way out and go home." He had to get a grip and Merlin wasn't helping.
"And have a fainting spell. I know that's what I'm going to do."
"This will all seem better in the morning. It always does."
"Sure, when our names appear in boldface in Mumsen's column along with some heavy innuendo. Oh joy."
Arthur's mouth twisted into the semblance of a grin. "Let's hope not. That's certainly not the way I wanted to become famous."
The Actor shall not do or commit any act or thing that will tend to degrade him in society or bring him into public hatred, public disrepute, contempt, scorn, or ridicule, or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community or public morals or decency or prejudice the producer of the motion picture or theatrical industry in general.
Arthur looked at the contract Aredian had handed him and the blood left his face. "They can't be serious."
"I'm afraid they are. You know these morals clauses are becoming more common," Aredian said. He thumbed through some papers on his desk while carefully watching Arthur. He sat in a large maroon leather chair behind the antique desk in his study. A fire crackled in the fireplace. Aredian had one every night despite the fact that it was completely unnecessary in this climate.
As ever, Aredian's expression was hard and inscrutable.
"What happens if I refuse to sign?" Arthur asked, fingers clasped tightly around a glass of brandy.
Aredian's lips thinned. "Then there's no Prince Hal and you're out of the studio. And it's unlikely any other studio will take you on if you refuse. That would be a clear sign that you have something to hide." Aredian eyed Arthur speculatively. He knew very well that Arthur had something to hide. "There have been rumours, Arthur. I'm sure you're aware." He shook his head. "You know better, Arthur. Your father will be disappointed."
Aredian was an old friend of his father's, a trusted advisor with whom he'd worked closely for many years. Uther had sent him to LA to shepherd Arthur's Hollywood career. Although his father never discussed it with him - the topic had never been directly raised since Uther had given him a speech upon barging in on Arthur and his male understudy in flagrante one time at Arthur's London flat - Arthur knew that part of Aredian's assignment was keeping him out of trouble with boys. Uther was certain to have words with Aredian about what he would view as Arthur's slip-up.
Arthur sighed and took a sip of brandy. The soothing warmth of the liquor did little to calm his agitation. He looked into the fire but it failed to provide any answers.
"Jimmy Mumsen?" he asked, the brandy now eating at his stomach like acid.
Aredian nodded. "He's been whispering things, dropping hints. The studio got wind of it."
It was what Arthur had most feared since that night at the Club Monaco. He felt very cold, as if all the brandy and flickering fires in the world could never warm him. Everything he had worked for, all his dreams - and those of his father - was on the verge of being dashed to bits. "He hasn't published anything yet, though, has he?" Arthur asked with trepidation. "Surely he'd warn us."
"No, not yet," Aredian said. "But the studio - and I - think it's only a matter of time. This has got to be nipped in the bud now, Arthur, or you are finished. And I think you know what your father's opinion will be. If you agree now, there's no need to inform him."
Arthur snorted ruefully. He stared into his brandy, wishing he could lose himself in it.
"Arthur." Aredian's voice was steely. "You're going to sign this contract. I've allowed you some leeway up until now - I know about that Merlin boy - but it can't get in the way of your career. We've come too far."
"No." Aredian held up a hand to stop any further words from Arthur. "There's no other option. I think you realise that."
"What about Merlin? Did they say anything about him? He's on contract with them too."
"He's not my client. They didn't say anything to me about him."
Arthur's mind whirled. Maybe if they were more discreet, if they weren't seen in public together... Panic welled up at the thought of stealing moments to be together, like criminals.
"And there's one more thing," Aredian said.
Arthur stomach plummeted. What could possibly be worse?
"They want you to get married."
"What?" Arthur's heart beat wildly.
"They have a prospective bride for you, Elena Godwin. She's also on contract with the studio and in need of well, camouflage, the same as you, if you get my drift."
"Good god." Arthur shot out of his chair to pace the room, shoving a hand into his hair, trying to take it all in. He knew such things happened - it was common knowledge. But to him... and Merlin... it was hard to wrap his brain around.
Arthur knew of Elena; she was also British. He had met her a couple of times and she seemed nice enough. She was a stunning blonde presence on screen, known for her devil-may-care party girl roles. The studio was grooming her for greater things, he'd heard.
"You wouldn't have to, er," Aredian hesitated, "actually consummate the marriage. This is for show only. Obviously you'll have to live together and go out as husband and wife, make a convincing case."
"Won't people wonder why I'm suddenly getting married when we haven't even dated?"
"Nobody will wonder a thing. People do this all the time in this town. They'll be happy to see you're playing along, doing what you're supposed to. And don't worry, you'll go on a couple of dates before the wedding, get this talk of Mumsen's out of the way, show the press you enjoy the company of a pretty girl."
He didn't even want to think about how to tell Merlin about this. Merlin - his heart hurt just thinking about him. Not that he'd agreed to this ridiculous marriage yet. And what if they asked the same of Merlin?
Arthur gripped the back of his chair. "How long do I have?"
"They need the signed contract by the end of the week. And they expect you and Elena to go out this weekend. Whatever the most popular club is right now, that's where you'll be, at a prominent table."
Arthur heaved a sigh. "All right. I'll think about it."
Aredian gave him another pointed glare. "Don't take too long. Your career depends on this, Arthur. Whatever you do in private, your father will not have the Pendragon name splashed across the gossip pages in an embarrassing display. Your name means something. I haven't worked for your family all these years only to have it dragged through the mud."
Arthur didn't want that either. His heart felt heavy.
Arthur normally savoured eating breakfast on the tidy patio behind his house while birds twittered and clear lemony light filtered through the lush greenery. He loved the quiet time he spent perusing the morning's headlines and slowly waking up with a pot of Earl Grey from his mother's china. But this morning his eyes felt bruised and his head ached with lack of sleep.
He'd lain awake in bed half the night, his mind traveling in circles. He kept coming back to Merlin, his face bright, his mouth tender against Arthur's; his quicksilver talent and silly jokes. He hated the idea of hurting him, of quashing the tender shoots of love that had sprouted between them. But then there was his father to consider, the weight of his expectations, the prospect of his disapproval and disappointment. And Elena, whom he didn't even really know, but who was in the same boat as he was - now he felt some obligation toward her as well. Not to mention his own ambitions, the fear of failure and social ostracism. He'd come all this way, halfway across the world, left everything he'd known and he was just getting started - he didn't know if he was ready to throw it all away.
He'd felt sick at heart as the dark hours crept by without any solution. He'd stared at the same square of grey light coming through the window, increasingly convinced there was no way out. He had to do what the studio demanded or risk everything. As dawn gradually brightened, he'd decided he needed to talk to Merlin. Better to just get it over with.
An hour after his phone call, he heard Merlin's knock on the door. He'd spent the last hour nervously straightening every knick-knack and picture in his house. This wasn't going to be easy.
He opened the door and there Merlin was, hair curling at his nape and over his ears, unsuccessfully slicked back after his morning shower. Arthur longed to reach out and smooth it down. As usual, Merlin's face was open and cheerful, a smile spreading over his face when he saw Arthur.
"You called, sire," Merlin said. He hadn't even asked Arthur why he was demanding his presence so early in the day. He'd just come.
"Merlin, I...come on in." He had trouble meeting Merlin's eyes. "I was just having some tea. Would you like some?" He'd made a fresh pot in time for Merlin's arrival. He had no idea why he was taking such care over being a good host when Merlin might run out of the room as soon as he told him.
"Love to." When he saw the look on Arthur's face, he stilled. "What's wrong?"
Arthur put a hand to his forehead. "Oh god. Merlin, I...this is hard."
Merlin frowned. "What's going on? Please tell me."
Arthur took his hand. He'd better just come out with it. He looked Merlin straight in the eye. "The studio's asked me to sign one of those morals clauses in my contract. Jimmy Munsen's been talking. There won't be any Prince Hal unless I sign."
"What?" Merlin exclaimed.
"Don't worry, it's just the typical vague rumour-mongering. No one's said anything about you. But it's enough to worry the studio. And my agent. I have to sign or I'm out."
"Oh, Arthur. Really? God." Merlin put a hand on Arthur's shoulder.
"And that's not all." Here was the tricky part. His heart thudded with nerves. "They want me to marry Elena Godwin. Just for show. It's not real. You know her, she's at the studio. English, blonde. Turns out she prefers women." He realised he was babbling and fell silent, darting a guilty look at Merlin. It sounded perfectly awful when he said it out loud. He squeezed Merlin's hand.
Merlin was even more pale than usual, motionless except for the visible rhythm of his pulse in his neck. His adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed and his gaze slid away from Arthur. "I was afraid this would happen." Breathing harshly, he pulled his hand away, made fists. He flopped back onto the couch and sat there, staring ahead. "You're a Pendragon. You have to toe the line, be daddy's good little boy. God, I'm an idiot." He rubbed his face, flung his head back and looked up at the ceiling. "I can't believe he's let you on this long a leash until now. I suppose it's about time he reeled you back in. I should have known better," he said softly.
Arthur felt racked with guilt. Merlin's words stung. He knew there was an element of truth to them, but what were his options? He was on the verge of the biggest role of his life, the one for which his father had been preparing him since he was practically a toddler. He hated himself for what he was doing to Merlin, to the fragile blossoming of feelings between them, but he couldn't refuse.
He got up and knelt down next to Merlin, put a hand on his thigh, like a man proposing marriage - the irony wasn't lost on Arthur. "Merlin...I...I don't know what to say." He gripped Merlin's elbow, imploring. For what, he didn't know. Forgiveness would be a far stretch. "Sweetheart."
"Don't!" Merlin's eyes flashed at him, anguished, and he sprang up out of the chair, turned away from Arthur.
"I've come to really care for you in the short time we've known each other," Arthur said. "And I feel terrible about this. I know it isn't fair. But you need to understand something." He took a deep breath. "My father was scheduled to play this role when my mother had a serious accident. I was a baby and she needed several operations, round-the-clock medical care. My father turned down the role to take care of us and in the end, my mother died. He's been grooming me for this part ever since. So you see why this is important to me. Don't you?"
Merlin sighed. "I'm sorry about your mother. You never said anything." He paused. "So this is you breaking up with me, I suppose."
There wasn't any question of going on. A part of Arthur wanted to ask Merlin to keep seeing him, wanted to try to convince him they could continue even under the new circumstances. But he knew it was selfish. It wasn't fair to Merlin, and what kind of relationship would that be, always hiding? His mouth filled with bitterness and he couldn't say the words.
Merlin's eyes were hard, irises almost black. "Yes. Well. I see, Arthur. I do. I see why you think you need to do it. But in the end, you're going to marry a woman you don't even love, don't even care about, just to succeed. And I can't be a part of that. You do what you need to do. I won't be around to watch." He brushed quickly past Arthur, but paused before he left the room, his mouth in a grim twist. "Some day, Arthur, you're going to have to get out from under your father's thumb." Then he fled, the door slamming shut on his way out of the house.
When Arthur had met Elena Godwin the first time, she'd seemed a typical starlet: blonde, buxom and boring. Now that he'd spent some time with her, it was obvious why the studio wanted to marry her off. Her transformation onscreen into a glamorous, jaded sophisticate was positively magical; in actuality she was anything but. She was clumsy yet sporty, entirely lacking in any of the feminine graces, fond of trousers and rude jokes. She never wore make-up off-set and usually had a pretty woman on her arm. She was as obvious as they came.
But surprisingly, he and Elena got along very well. It turned out she was great fun - down to earth, self-deprecating, with a good sense of humour. He counted himself lucky. If he had to marry someone, he was glad it was her. In some ways, she reminded him of Merlin.
After his conversation with Merlin, he felt wretched and couldn't even drag himself out of bed for a couple of days, going over and over Merlin's angry words, composing furious telegrams to his father that he never sent, and generally obsessing about what a mess he'd made of things. But at this point, he had no choice but to move forward. The only way he could rouse himself to go through with the whole charade of dating Elena was to think of it as a part: the loving suitor. That helped him box off his emotions and get on with the their first date.
He met Elena at her flat full of horse figurines - he'd have to ask her about those - and presented her with flowers. (He'd never given Merlin flowers. Why was that? He should have. Now it was too late.) They drove together to a popular restaurant, where they were greeted by press snapping photos of celebrities. Arthur helped Elena out of the car like a proper gentleman and she gave him a rueful look, as if acknowledging their shared misery, before slapping on her public face. Then she alighted from the car and promptly tripped on the kerb. The press boys laughed but graciously refrained from taking any humiliating pictures. Elena swore colourfully at her high heels, made a big joke out of it, and they laughed even more.
All Arthur could think of was how it reminded him of Merlin's endearing clumsiness.
In the restaurant, Arthur was conscious of being on display, all eyes on him like a zoo animal. But Elena's non-stop comic commentary on the parade of humanity put him at ease and, combined with a few drinks, he began to relax. What's more, people immediately accepted them as a couple and greeted them as if they belonged. He hated it, but he was starting to see how marriage could oil the social machinery. He recalled his frustration that night at Club Monaco, watching the 'normal' couples, their ease in society. Much as he wanted it, he could never have that with Merlin, no matter where they went.
And so Arthur resigned himself to his fate and the studio's publicity factory began its work. The next day Arthur signed the contract with the morals clause, gritting his teeth every moment while Aredian looked on with a self-satisfied smile. Arthur later planted himself on a barstool and consoled himself with whiskey (suitably masculine) until he could hardly walk, going home to wank to thoughts of Merlin's hands and lips on his body.
Prince Hal wasn't due to start shooting for several weeks. With a lull in his work schedule, Arthur tried to keep busy with other things - anything to distract himself from the shame that twisted dark in his gut, the visions of Merlin that haunted his dreams. Meetings with Aredian, drinks with Lance, tennis with Gwaine. He took to taking long drives out to the beach and gazing at the surf, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He wondered if Merlin enjoyed the sea. He'd never find out now.
He and Elena dutifully went out every weekend, making sure to put in appearances at all the current hot spots around town. Arthur went through the appropriate motions as best he could. But the world was a wash of black and white, coloured only by the sickening feeling of loss whenever he thought about Merlin. Although they hadn't known each other long, there was something about Merlin that Arthur felt drawn to, like a magnet to true north, that felt good and true, that touched Arthur's core. He felt a growing sense of dread about the upcoming marriage.
According to studio PR, Arthur and Elena were having a whirlwind romance. So it wasn't surprising when their engagement was announced just a short time after they started dating. Uther sent Arthur a telegram of congratulations, saying he was glad to see his boy 'finally grow up.' But Arthur felt less of an adult than ever, like he'd ceded control of his life to others. Merlin's parting words to him reverberated in his mind as he sleepwalked through the wedding preparations, blindly signing papers and writing checks when asked. He signed his last name with a large flourish, as if to say, this is why I'm doing this and no one better forget.
The wedding was to take place the day before shooting on iPrince Hal/i began. Arthur had tried to study his lines, and even though his father had been tutoring him in this role for practically his whole life, he had trouble remembering them. Instead he kept hearing Merlin's voice in his head - You're going to marry a woman you don't even love...just to succeed.'
One day he went to the studio lot for a Prince Halread through. As he left the building, he saw Merlin walking ahead of him, wearing dark nineteenth century clothes, a long frock coat and trousers, a frilly white shirt. Arthur's chest tightened with shame and he suppressed the impulse to bolt in the other direction, mesmerised by the sight of Merlin in the costume, tall and sinuous, pale wrists emerging from fluttering white sleeves. As Merlin opened the door to one of the buildings, he turned and caught sight of Arthur. He hesitated a minute, just long enough for Arthur to get a good look at his face and feel a pang of longing, before he slipped inside.
The wedding was to take place at the courthouse before Aredian and some studio PR representatives. They had chosen a light blue chemise with pearls for Elena to wear, and a dove grey suit with a white shirt and tie for Arthur. For the occasion, his father had sent Arthur gold cuff links embossed with the Pendragon crest. That morning, as he got dressed, Arthur held them in the palm of his hand. They felt solid and sturdy as they clinked together softly, the light glinting off the dragon's wings. His sleeves hung loose until he fastened them with the cuff links, first the left, then the right, the fabric enclosing his wrists. The suit jacket was last; he pulled it on and straightened it so it lay smooth over his shoulders and chest. He looked in the mirror and squared his jaw.
Arthur emerged from the car and looked up at the towering palms in front of the courthouse, The sky was a brilliant blue. His heart felt squeezed tight, as if encased in iron bands. Elena arrived in a separate car and he went over to greet her. She was truly lovely, her hair gleaming in the sun, tightly bound in an elegant French knot at her nape.
"Ready?" she asked with a grim smile.
Arthur swallowed down his incipient panic. He glanced at the studio flacks climbing out of the car; people he didn't even know, people who didn't care about him or Elena. They were just doing their jobs. Then there was Aredian, his eyes flinty as ever, imposing in a jet black suit and fedora. Appearances were what mattered for him, preserving the Pendragon name. None of them counted Arthur's happiness as their first priority.
There was only one person for whom Arthur came first.
All at once, he knew he couldn't do it, that he'd regret it for the rest of his life. He grabbed Elena's arm and pulled her a few feet away. "Can I talk to you?"
Elena's eyes widened. "What is it?"
"I've got to talk to you alone. We're just going on ahead," he called out to the others. Arthur bustled Elena down the long walkway to the courthouse entrance.
When they got inside the building, he herded her into an alcove. "I'm sorry, Elena." He breathed in deeply. "You're a wonderful woman and a beautiful bride. But I just can't go through with this. I'm probably a fool, but I can't marry someone I don't love."
"Oh. I see." Elena searched his face.
"However, if you're determined, I'll do it. It wouldn't be fair not to, since I promised I would."
Elena considered and her gaze drifted to the entryway where the rest of their party would soon be arriving. "No. You're right. When you think about it, this is mad. We don't love each other. I was having second thoughts myself. Sometimes this town screws with your head and you have to be reminded of what's really important." She braved a bright smile and took his arm. "Shall we tell them?"
A short time later, Arthur and Elena climbed into Arthur's roadster convertible. In their wake, they left a red-faced Aredian and stunned studio flacks frantically looking for a telephone. "It's a beautiful day," Arthur said, starting up the engine. "I'd hate to waste it. Shall we drive down to the Santa Monica Pier for some candy floss and popcorn?"
She grinned. "I'd like that very much."
The fallout was severe, just as Aredian had predicted. The studio rescinded the Prince Hal offer and gave him no more work. His father sent him distraught telegrams, threatening all sorts of dire consequences that Arthur doubted he'd follow through with. He was the only Pendragon son, after all. Aredian tried to make him change his mind, but Arthur wouldn't budge.
"I can't live a lie," he told Aredian. Once he'd made the decision, he knew with his heart and soul that it was the right thing to do. He felt lighter than he had in years.
"Then you're a fool. You have no idea how the world works. This town will eat you alive," Aredian said.
"Perhaps. I'll take the risk." He decided not to mention the plan he was already contemplating. When the time was right, he'd talk to both Uther and Aredian about it.
He tried not to think of Merlin and whether he'd take him back, even though he yearned to reconnect with him. In the end, he hadn't done it for Merlin, but for himself, and he needed to sit with that, live with it in his bones for awhile and let the reality sink in. He felt too fragile right now to risk Merlin's rejection. For now, he just needed to be.
"You've done it again, you." Arthur laughed as he caught up with Elena. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks ruddy, blonde hair tucked tidily under her black riding cap. "One of these days, you're simply going to have to let me win," he huffed as his horse pulled even with Elena's. "I mean, my god, woman, you're a menace. Haven't you ever heard of male ego? It's worth stroking once in awhile, just for form's sake. Wouldn't want you to get out of practise with the studio execs."
She laughed along with him. "Oh really? That'll be the day. You just need to up your game, Pendragon. No excuses now." And she lifted the reins and spurred her horse into a canter across the dry, dusty field toward the stable.
"Hey!" Arthur kicked his horse into hot pursuit after her, enjoying the rush of air against his ears and the thrum of the horse's hooves reverberating through his body.
He'd been getting a lot of riding practice because Elena was obsessed. He found it endearing, particularly her penchant for wearing riding attire in her leisure hours and the ensuing admiring glances she got from certain women.
It was just one of many things he'd learned about Elena in the last few months. After the fiasco of the wedding, they'd become fast friends. Fortunately, the studio didn't deem marriage as much of a necessity for women as for men - Elena was kept on and was getting parts. Arthur was glad of that; it removed a source of guilt.
Moments later, they reached the stables, Arthur hot on Elena's heels. She'd already hopped off her mount and was fishing a carrot out of her pocket for her horse. She gave Arthur a quick glance, her brow furrowed. "Did you know Merlin has a new picture?"
Arthur busied himself with putting away the horse's gear. "No, I didn't."
"I'll show you the ad in the paper. He's got the lead. I just thought you might want a heads up."
Merlin was starring in a bio pic of Chopin, which explained the nineteenth century costume Arthur had seen him wearing. Arthur's stomach had flipped when he saw the full page ad with Merlin's name prominently displayed, his profile leaning over the keyboard of a piano. He'd even thought about calling him to congratulate him. But at the last minute, he'd put the phone down. He was thrilled for Merlin, but he just wasn't ready to take the plunge and try to talk to him again.
Still, there were times when he saw couples on the street walking arm in arm, sharing a kiss, and his heart simply ached.
On one of those days, he gave in and bought a ticket to Merlin's movie, Nocturne. He knew it was foolish but he needed to see Merlin, even if it was on screen.
He wasn't disappointed. He watched raptly as the camera zoomed in on Merlin's face. The dark and light created captivating shadows that highlighted his bone structure and brought out his eyes, just as Arthur had predicted. The costumes perfectly suited his supple frame, a waistcoat hugging his slim waist and dark trousers making his legs look miles long. His pale skin practically gleamed. The entire audience was firmly under Merlin's spell - there wasn't a sound as Merlin's slender fingers danced over the keyboard, as he leaned into his co-star for a kiss, long dark hair curling around his neck and tumbling over his forehead. A chorus of sniffling rose up as he languished in bed, coughing charmingly as the sickly Chopin, pale and anguished, his eyes full of tears. Every woman in the theatre was weeping by the end and probably a few men as well.
It was a hit. Variety gave it four stars and pronounced Merlin the next Valentino. Arthur went to see it a dozen times in secret, yearning for Merlin in the dark and feeling miserable.
Elena handed him two tickets.
"SS Camelot - New York to London?" Arthur read. "What's this?"
"You. Me. We're going home. A bit of fish and chips, London rain, a few West End shows. It will be good for you."
"You need to get out of here. You're moping, in case you think I hadn't noticed." Elena had her hands on her hips in a stance that brooked no argument. She looked like she might wrestle him to the ground if he resisted. "Look. The marriage thing didn't work out, but we're best mates and I can't stand seeing you unhappy."
Arthur rolled his eyes and snorted good-naturedly.
Elena swatted him on the arm. "So," she continued pointedly. "I don't have a job for the next few weeks and I think you've memorized that Chopin movie by now, am I right?"
Arthur's gaze skittered away.
"Yeah, right, just as I thought. When was the last time you went home, anyway?"
"I haven't," Arthur admitted.
"Exactly. I think it makes perfect sense for us to go back to England for a visit. Get your bags packed. We're going on the road."
Preparing for the long trip was at least a distraction. As their train chugged across the plains and cornfields of middle America on the way to New York, however, Arthur's thoughts kept returning to Merlin. He couldn't rid himself of the mental image of Merlin as Chopin, his handsome face intent over the keyboard, carried away by the music. He ended up spending a lot of time in the bar car.
New York Harbor: the bustle of passengers arriving on the dock, waving goodbye to friends and family and finding their cabins on board, the panoply of accents, all contributed to an atmosphere of giddy excitement in which Arthur was momentarily caught up. Elena had her best female drag on, playing the role of starlet to the hilt as they posed for some photographers on the dock before boarding. Thankfully, the New York journos didn't seem to know or care about Elena and Arthur's aborted trip to the altar and there were no questions about it.
The SS Camelot was the most elegant ship Arthur had ever seen. His cabin was appointed in the latest fashion, all clean lines in the modern style, done up in red and gold. It was as large as a good-sized apartment and surprisingly comfortable, with two twin beds and a lounge area that could accommodate a small gathering.
After their luggage was stowed, Arthur and Elena spent the first day exploring the ship's many amenities. The glittering first class dining room was on a par with the most refined restaurant on land, with high ceilings hung with sparkling chandeliers above, long pillars of lit glass along the walls, and thick carpeting muffling the waiters' steps below. There were indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a theatre and a restaurant that doubled as a club in the evening. It was spectacular. Arthur could get used to this.
He wished Merlin could see it. He wondered what he was doing now - was he promoting Nocturne, had he already moved on to his next film, or was he perhaps doing a play in Pasadena?
"A drink?" he asked Elena. A little blurring of reality might be beneficial right about now, as he felt the familiar ache start to take hold. He gestured to a small cocktail bar that seemed to appear out of nowhere, just one of many spots throughout the ship where one could stop for refreshment or entertainment.
"Oh, yes, that would be wonderful," Elena said, steadying herself on the counter top of the bar. It was taking her awhile to get her sea legs.
They watched as the white-jacketed bartender carefully mixed their drinks then settled in with martinis to watch the passing parade of people. As the ship was primarily first class, the passengers were dressed to impress and Elena kept up a constant patter of tart observation. She was trying hard to distract him.
The second day on board, the sea was less calm. They could feel the waves even through the vast bulk of the SS Camelot, the ship swaying noticeably as they awoke.
"Arthur." Elena looked pale, eyeing her eggs at breakfast as if they were sewage. "I think I need to go lie down. This knocking about is finally getting to me." She held her stomach, grimacing.
"Let me take you back to your cabin," Arthur said. He supported her with an arm around her back and they wended their way through the endless corridors, trying not to bang into things as the ship lurched like a drunken sailor.
The halls of the ship became more deserted as the day went on under skies thick with clouds. The great ship pitched and rocked. Waiters sidestepped across the floor to deliver their orders; the staff erected ropes to aid passengers attempting to walk through the ship but otherwise gamely forged on as normal. Bingo had to be cancelled for lack of participation.
Arthur tapped a cigarette against his case and inserted it in his mouth, thankful for his immunity to seasickness. He was sitting on a sofa in a small lounge area, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, smoking and staring down the hallway simply for something to look at. Occasionally someone would stagger down the hallway, pitching this way and that. He sipped slowly at a glass of champagne, trying to make it last.
Elena had taken to her bed, looking green and waving him off. "Go. Have fun. You and your cast-iron stomach. Be prepared to be punched in it when I'm feeling better." The ship rolled dramatically and she groaned. "Just leave me to my misery. You're entirely too healthy. Go take your hale hearty self to dinner and have a few drinks on my behalf."
Fun. Yes. Arthur wasn't sure how to go about that. There were plenty of activities on board, but nothing appealed to him. Apparently he preferred to stew in his own miserable thoughts. He heaved a sigh and took another sip of champagne.
When he'd finished his drink and cigarette, he ambled down the hallway and descended a grand staircase which opened onto a large sitting area dotted with a few hardy passengers. He plonked down into one of the red velvet chairs, wishing he hadn't left his book in the cabin. He was thinking about going back to get it when he heard the sound of a piano. The source was mysterious as there was no piano nearby.
He sat back and listened to the haunting music. It was beautiful; romantic; familiar. Arthur bolted upright. Merlin, or rather, Chopin, had played the very same piece in the movie. A nocturne, if he wasn't mistaken. The one they used for the theme music.
He swayed off the chair, the rolling of the ship hurling him out of the sitting area like a billiard ball. Down a nearby hallway he lurched toward the music, his heart knocking in his chest. It was coming through an open door that led to a room bright with primary colours. As he entered, he could see it was a playroom. The walls were covered with charming murals of Babar riding in a car and cavorting in the jungle. There were large stuffed elephants, toy trains and other toys scattered about, some rolling along the floor with the movement of the ship. But no children were there today.
Incongruously nestled in the corner was a grand piano. Behind the piano sat someone familiar, deep in concentration. Arthur's stomach clenched, but it had nothing to do with the waves.
It was Merlin.
Shocked, Arthur fell into the nearest chair.
Merlin finished playing and his fingers remained poised over the keyboard where they stopped, lightly touching the keys as the sound died away. His eyes were closed, his face still caught up in the spirit of the music. He was so beautiful he made Arthur's heart ache. When he looked up to see Arthur sitting only a few yards away, Merlin leaped to his feet.
"My God. Arthur. What are you doing here?"
"Play some more," Arthur said. "It's lovely." He stood up, needing to move, not knowing what to do with his body. Then the ship heaved and he stumbled closer to Merlin, grabbed onto a chair and fell into it. "I didn't even know you played."
Merlin was still gaping at him. "I...I didn't. Well, not very well. I brushed up for a role."
"Yes, I know. Chopin." Arthur's gaze wandered over Merlin's familiar features, drinking him in. "You were marvellous."
"You saw it?" Merlin's mouth twitched.
"Of course, you idiot," he said fondly. "More than once. I recognised the piece."
"Oh." Merlin ducked his head, a tentative smile playing on his lips. "So what are you doing here?" he asked again, looking up.
"I could ask the same of you."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"I'm going home. Just for a trip. I guess you'd call it a holiday," Arthur said.
"Are you alone?" Merlin's face was inscrutable.
"No. I came with Elena, she dragged me along. She thought I needed to get away, said a change of scenery would do me good." He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, blew out the smoke, giving himself a moment to adjust. "Merlin, I didn't marry her. I couldn't, in the end. You were right." He watched Merlin for his reaction.
"What, you know?"
"Of course, everybody did."
"Oh." Arthur hadn't expected that; it threw him off-kilter. "I haven't been home yet, you know."
"No, I haven't either. Mum begged me. I had a break and the funds, so here I am."
"Here you are." Arthur's eyes roved over him. He desperately wanted to touch him, but he didn't know if Merlin would permit it. Just a hand on his shoulder to reassure himself Merlin was real. But he had no idea where the boundaries were between them any more. His emotions matched the pitching of the ship, rocking wildly to and fro, not knowing where to land. "Look, as long as we're here, let's go get a drink. Just us. Elena's indisposed. Sea sick along with everyone else. Thank god for my iron constitution. I see you're doing all right in that department."
Merlin laughed. "Yes thank god." His face tilted up at Arthur, eyes crinkling and his lips curving into the broad smile that made Arthur's heart swell like nothing else. "All right, why not?"
"And then the director told her to kiss me and I said, why heavens, sir, I'm not that kind of girl." Merlin guffawed loudly and Arthur joined in. One drink had turned into a few and they were the only ones left in the lounge. The bartender wiped the counter with a rag over and over and periodically shot annoyed glances at them.
"Seriously, Merlin, your piano playing is exquisite. I'm impressed."
Merlin's cheeks turned pink and he nodded. "Well, I've always fooled around with it. Learned as a child but didn't really keep it up. I found an excellent teacher and it came back naturally. I love it."
"It shows. You were wonderful as Chopin." Arthur's voice was soft. "Your charisma on screen is amazing. Not to mention the costume suited you." His eyes raked over Merlin's slim torso. He knew he was playing with fire, letting himself get this close to Merlin, but there was something about being on the ship, with no one around - it all felt like a dream, completely unhinged from reality.
"Really?" Merlin looked at Arthur from under his lashes and leaned in so his hair brushed against Arthur's face. He could smell Merlin's cologne.
This was getting dangerous. He wasn't sure he cared.
After that, Merlin began talking about his next project and Arthur was happy to sit back and listen to Merlin's voice, watch his eyes and mouth, the way he shifted his limbs. He marveled at the fact that Merlin was sitting here with him, having a normal conversation.
The talk died down and they both stilled. Arthur's gaze caught in Merlin's, his eyes deep and blue. They stared at each other, the silence weighed down by everything that had happened, a thousand unspoken thoughts.
"I was proud of you, Arthur. I almost called to tell you," Merlin said.
"I couldn't go through with it in the end. I just kept thinking of you and..." Arthur's gaze skittered away. "I couldn't live with myself if I'd done it. I want to keep acting in films, see my name on the marquee, but not that way." He wanted to take Merlin's hand. "I'll find a way. I'm working on it. You know, I thought about calling you when I found out about Nocturne. The lead, Merlin, I was so happy for you. You deserved it. I didn't know if you'd want to talk to me though."
"I was angry with you, yes, and disappointed. When you didn't go through with the marriage, I had second thoughts, but then you didn't ring and well... " He trailed off, looking uncertain.
"Maybe we can start on a fresh foot," Arthur said.
Merlin gave a little smile. "Maybe."
Yet another silence spread between them and Arthur ventured a slightly brittle smile, his mind filled with countless warring thoughts. The bartender started whistling and they both looked up, surprised.
Arthur slapped his hands on his thighs. "I probably need to see how Elena's doing. Will you play for me again? I cut short your practice."
"All right. Tomorrow. I'll meet you in the playroom. They say the seas will still be stormy, so it should be quiet."
"That sounds wonderful. I look forward to it."
The sun began peeking out from the clouds the next day, but the ocean continued to toss the Camelot about as if it were a toy boat in a bathtub. Elena was still feeling poorly and didn't want to get out of bed. Arthur mentioned to her that Merlin was on board and that he'd had a drink with him.
She gave him a long, assessing look. "Is everything all right?" she asked. She knew something of what Merlin meant to him, although he'd never confided in her all the details.
"Yes. I think so. I...I missed him. It was good to see him."
Elena patted him on the hand and simply looked at him. "Go. Be with him. Nobody's here."
Arthur stared at her, swallowing down his trepidation. "I don't know." LA was far away but they had to return eventually. "The whole ship is sea sick. There's hardly anyone about."
"Yes, that's what I'm saying," she groaned. "Just go and leave me to my misery." He rose and she grabbed his hand. "Life's too short, Arthur."
The SS Camelot's hallways were endless, Arthur discovered during a morning of wandering aimlessly, venturing outside occasionally to peer at the dark, churning waves and smoke the occasional cigarette. The few passengers he saw seemed as disinterested in conversation as he was. Eventually he went for a swim in the indoor pool, tiled in a glorious, deep blue that made him feel like he was actually under the sea. Through the water he sliced his arms, working himself hard, hoping to achieve some clarity of mind by exhausting his body.
Elena was right. Life was too short. Seeing Merlin again had brought everything out in the open again, uncovered the seething mass of emotions that he'd taken such pains to bury. He was having trouble believing he could let them out to breathe in the open air.
The strains of a Chopin waltz wafted down the corridor, mournful and plaintive, the lilting rhythm echoing the rocking of the ship. Arthur stood in the door of the empty playroom, the toys forlorn in the absence of children to play with them. Merlin's head was bowed, a cap of dark curls above a sliver of pale face, and he swayed to the music as his hands moved deftly over the keys.
Arthur's gut twisted with want, a wave of it washing through him. The sadness of the music swirled into him, mixing with the desire until he felt like sobbing. Regret gnawed at him and his hands curled into fists. He focused on the glimmer of hope that had arisen since yesterday.
The waltz ended, the last chord resolving unexpectedly into a major key, resounding full and triumphant through the room.
Merlin looked up at Arthur. "Oh, hello." Merlin smiled, a simple and pure curve of his lips that made Arthur feel certain that everything was going to be all right.
"Hi." Arthur walked over and leaned into the nook of the piano. He gripped the edge to stop the trembling of his hands. Merlin's own hands were relaxed in his lap, the fingers nestled casually in his palm. Arthur couldn't stop looking at them, at Merlin's face, his dark eyelashes, his adorably prominent ears. Merlin simply stared back, silent, eyes dark and enigmatic. The moment blanketed them; the ship a cocoon swaddled in cloudy, pale light, adrift at sea, removed from the rest of the world.
Something resolved inside Arthur, clicked into place.
He skirted around to the piano bench and sat next to Merlin, who moved over to make room. Merlin's body warmth emanated through his clothes, made Arthur's breath catch. Merlin was wearing trousers of soft grey wool that draped comfortably over his endlessly long legs and a pale blue shirt that brought out the colour of his eyes, a deeper blue tie knotted at his neck. Arthur's gaze lingered at the spot where the collar met his skin, just below the jut of his adam's apple, imagining unbuttoning that top button and pressing his tongue to the hollow at the base of his neck. When he managed to drag his eyes up to Merlin's face, Merlin was looking at him with a bemused expression.
Arthur swallowed, unnerved by Merlin's eyes on him, so close. Their hips and thighs pressed together.
"What were you playing?" Arthur said.
"More Chopin. I haven't got round to learning anything else yet." Merlin snorted and one side of his mouth inched up in a small grin.
Arthur darted another glance down Merlin's chest. His fingers itched to loosen Merlin's tie, unpeel his layers. "Hmmm."
"It's a waltz." Merlin continued, looking at Arthur's mouth. His lips parted, rosy and glistening, and he raised his eyes to meet Arthur's. "I know you know how to waltz."
"Yes." Heat rushed to Arthur's groin. He found himself leaning into Merlin's side, their bodies molding together like two halves of something that had been broken and fit back together perfectly. It felt so good to be close to him.
Merlin didn't pull away.
Arthur took in a shaky breath, dangling on the edge of a precipice.
A hand settled on Arthur's back; the warmth of Merlin's palm seeped through Arthur's clothes, each finger pressing like an imprint, possessive. He thought of Merlin's fingers dancing over the keys. "Arthur," Merlin said softly into his ear, his breath gusting on his temple. "There's no one in my cabin. I'm here alone." His low voice sent a shiver down Arthur's spine.
"Okay," Arthur breathed out and he let his weight sag into Merlin's arm.
They made their way back to Merlin's cabin, which wasn't far from Arthur's. On the way, they kept bumping shoulders. They could blame it on the rocking of the ship. But the touch was teasing and Merlin kept looking at him, catching his eye. At one point, their hands brushed together, and Arthur briefly captured Merlin's fingers and half-smiled at him, a cautious curl of happiness unfurling in his chest. For a moment he was lost in the broad smile that Merlin threw back at him, all white teeth and full lips, his eyes lifting at the corners. Arthur didn't want to ever do without that smile again.
"We're here," Merlin announced when he stopped before the door to his cabin. He paused, eyebrows arched, as if to give Arthur a chance to stop things before they went any further. Arthur glanced around to make sure they were alone before he brought a hand up to cup the back of Merlin's neck.
"Go on then," he said softly before kissing his lips. His hand drifted down Merlin's back, the cotton soft under his fingers. "Open the door." He pulled Merlin in by the waist, pressing their hips together.
"Stop, you crazy," Merlin said, smiling.
What had come over him? Arthur didn't care if anyone saw, he didn't care what anyone thought. He just wanted Merlin with a burning desperation. And somehow, miraculously, after everything that had happened, Merlin wanted him too.
Merlin flung the door open and they stumbled in, limbs knocking together. They stopped in the entryway, mere inches apart, pausing to look at each other intently before Arthur abruptly crowded Merlin up against the wall, overwhelmed with the need to get his hands on as much of him as possible. Merlin made a strangled noise in his throat and tangled a hand in Arthur's hair as Arthur pressed in to devour his mouth, slide his hips against Merlin's.
Merlin was here, now, alive and so, so close. He couldn't get enough. Arthur's hands roved over Merlin's body as if to reassure himself he was real, not a dream or a flickering image on the screen. His fingers skirted over his skin, he kissed his mouth, filled his nose with Merlin's scent; he clutched at his arse and squeezed his thin shoulders; sucked and laved at Merlin's full, plump lips.
Merlin kissed him back avidly, forcing Arthur's mouth open to slip a tongue in. The taste ratcheted up Arthur's arousal and he ground his hips helplessly into Merlin's until he could feel his thick, hard cock straining against his trousers, rubbing against Arthur's own.
Merlin pushed back forcefully and walked Arthur backwards until they fell on the bed kissing. They writhed madly against each other, their movements gradually gathering purpose. Arthur nimbly peeled off Merlin's layers of clothing, unwrapping him like a present and carelessly tossing items of clothing about the room until they were both naked, Merlin's bare chest pressed blissfully against Arthur's.
"Missed you so much," Arthur said, trailing a path of kisses down the warm skin of Merlin's ribcage.
"Me too," Merlin replied, a hand grappling between Arthur's legs until his fingers, those supple, agile fingers, gripped Arthur's cock and twisted. Arthur clenched his eyes against the flood of sensation.
"Fuck. Merlin," he groaned, pulling Merlin close and sealing their mouths together in a deep kiss, his tongue seeking that arousing taste. The coiled ball of his feelings unraveled into the kiss; regret, sadness, relief and love, everything that said 'Merlin.' The frantic touch of Merlin's fingers, the desperate press of his lips and tongue against his, told him Merlin's emotions were running just as high.
The movements of Merlin's fist on Arthur's cock grew faster, slickened now with pre-come, and Arthur's own hand wrapped urgently around Merlin's dark, jutting erection, stroking tentatively at first, then curling his fingers over the tip to moisten his way.
The intimacy was intoxicating. Arthur felt shucked of all pretense, with no role to play other than himself, stripped bare under Merlin's touch. Soon his release shuddered through him, hot and messy on Merlin's belly. Merlin's breath was ragged against his neck as he pulsed out between Arthur's thighs, a silent cry on his lips.
They took up kissing again, this time languid and exploring, slow glides of tongue against tongue, a gentle bite to the lower lip, hips rolling together in a lazy, sticky grind, Arthur dragging a finger curiously down Merlin's softening erection. He hoped against hope that this was the beginning of something bigger and not just an interlude at sea.
He draped a leg across Merlin's and curled into him, pushing aside that thought so his mind was empty of anything but post-coital torpor and sheer bloody amazement. They lay together, the ship rocking them, and there was no one else, just them, together.
Now that the initial burning need had been sated, Arthur lingered over Merlin's body. He traced the protrusions of bone with his hand and mouth, the sleek stretches of muscle, then paused for an embrace, peppering Merlin's face with kisses. He nosed across his cheek and nuzzled into his hair, reveling in the dark thick waves, the way it contrasted with his pale skin and bright eyes.
Merlin pulled back, eyes roving over Arthur's chest. "Look at you." He stroked up the curve of Arthur's ribcage, then rubbed the pad of his thumb around a nipple until it formed a peak and Arthur helplessly arched his back. "You're bloody gorgeous under all those clothes."
"To run into you here of all places," Arthur murmured, twirling a strand of dark hair around his index finger. "It's unreal."
"It is a bit odd," Merlin said, thin fingers clutching Arthur's shoulders. His hand glided down Arthur's chest, rested against his heartbeat. "Maybe it was meant to be."
Ridiculous; Merlin must be teasing. But Arthur's heart knocked hard against Merlin's hand and the words reverberated in his mind.
Merlin squeezed Arthur's cock and balls in the palm of his hand and Arthur sucked in a breath.
"Oi, if you think my recovery time is that quick, you'd better think again."
Merlin chuckled and rolled on top of Arthur, looking down on him with wondering eyes, his hair tumbled over his forehead. With his swollen red lips, sweat-sheened cheeks and dishevelled hair, he looked like a debauched angel. Merlin twitched his hips. "Old man," he chided.
"I'm out of practice."
Merlin's eyes shadowed. "Yeah." He lay his head on Arthur's chest and looked away. Arthur sighed. He carded a hand through Merlin's hair and tried not to think about anything.
The ship rolled dramatically, almost flinging them off the bed and they clutched at the sheets to avoid falling. Arthur was abruptly reminded of Elena and her seasickness and all the rest of reality came crashing back in his mind.
"What are we going to do?" Arthur asked. After this, he didn't think he could let Merlin go again.
"I don't know," Merlin said quietly.
"They never asked you to get married, did they? When you took the Chopin role?"
Merlin raised his head. "No, they didn't. I don't know why."
They were silent for a moment, caught in their own thoughts.
"Would you? If they asked?"
"Don't..." Merlin turned away.
Arthur looked at the ceiling. "All right."
Merlin quickly sat up and faced the wall, away from Arthur. Arthur reached out and touched his back. "We've got some time until we get to England, yeah?"
Merlin looked at him over his shoulder, eyes full of unspoken questions. "A few days."
"Yeah." Arthur sat up and scooted next to Merlin, put his arm around him. Merlin leaned into him and Arthur kissed the side of his head, a mass of emotions pressing in on him, not really knowing what to say.
"You'll stay the night." Merlin made it a statement, not a question.
Merlin pulled the sheets down and they settled under the covers, curled together, Arthur holding Merlin tightly to his chest as the ship steamed through the black sea night.
Overnight, certainty lodged in Arthur's mind. Waking to Merlin's dazzling smile and welcoming arms was like a tonic. He felt clear as the sky outside the windows, where blue, becalmed waves reflected the sun.
"What are you smiling about?" Merlin asked.
Arthur pulled him in close, intending to never let go. "I'm happy. That's all. Just happy." And he kissed Merlin hard, passionately, until their lips ached.
It had taken a few months of planning and organisation, tedious meetings with lawyers poring over documents and financial details, but it was finally done. Thanks to Arthur's inheritance from his mother, he didn't need his father's help. The idea had been just a glimmer in Arthur's mind when Merlin had told him about his King Arthur screenplay; now it was about to become a reality.
After all that hard work, Arthur wanted to put the sign up with his own two hands. He straightened it just so and climbed down the ladder. With any luck, the gargantuan, mostly empty building would soon be buzzing with film sets, camera crews and costumed extras. He stepped back to join Merlin, wiping his hands on his trousers and pulling down his shirtsleeves. They looked up at it together.
The logo was a swirling red dragon, its tail looping around the letters. Arthur was particularly pleased with that part; it had been Merlin's idea.
Merlin bumped his shoulder and Arthur bumped back, and they grinned at the sign for a few minutes.
"You did it," Merlin said.
"iWe/i did it. You helped just as much," Arthur said.
"Well, I might have dashed in at the last minute a few times to save the day."
"If that's what you call bringing in Chinese takeaway and beer."
"You would have forgotten to eat and passed out if I hadn't, admit it," Merlin said. "Good thing I'll be helping out around here. Otherwise I might never see you, the hours you've been putting in."
Arthur put an arm around Merlin's shoulder. "You gave me the idea, you know. What you said about my father, getting out from under him. I needed to stake my own territory, not just follow in my father's shadow." He gently hit Merlin's other arm with a fist. "So, is your screenplay ready? Merlin and Arthur play Merlin and Arthur. It has a certain symmetry to it, don't you think? It should definitely be our first production."
The ringing of the office phone interrupted their reverie. Elena appeared at the door. "Arthur! Stop canoodling and get in here. The phone!"
"Our first phone call?" Merlin asked.
"Time to get to work," Arthur replied, flashing another smile at Merlin before dashing inside.