Howdy... Again :)
So, I thought, while living and all... that I'd start a Fanfiction based on many aspects... Mainly my life :P Because I'm that cool... But I'll include songs as well, for titles. So I disclaim owning them, and Merlin, unfortunately. Lots of 'One Day' again :D Lucky you :P
I'm so sorry for the long wait, but I hope the length makes up for it.
The Story Of Us
Chapter 5 – Summer Sunshine
Saturday 17th July 2004
Having finished college slightly early and in the mood to go something spontaneous that any nineteen year old would love... Arthur decided that Merlin needed a holiday.
And then some days you wake up and everything is perfect. Merlin thought.
This fine bright day found them under an immense blue sky with not the smallest chance of rain, on the sun deck of the ferry that steamed slowly across the Aegean. In new sunglasses and holiday clothes they lay side by side in the morning sun, sleeping off last night's taverna hangover. Day two of a ten-day island-hopping holiday, and The Rules Of Engagement were still holding firm.
A sort of platonic Geneva Convention, The Rules were a set of basic prohibitions compiled before departure to ensure that the holiday didn't get 'complicated'. Merlin was still single; only having to turn down one offer from Spike, a professional bicycle/motorbike repairman whose fingers smelt perpetually of WD40.
For his part, Arthur was being good... no not really. After things with Elena came to a mutual close, he had passed through Avril, Mary, a Sara, a Sarah, a Sandra and a Yolande before alighting on Mithian, an out-the-ordinary model turned actress who had been forced to give up modelling – she told Merlin this with a straight face – because 'with acting she can express herself much better, modelling just made people want to have sex with her.'
Mithian was the kind of girl who, once she found someone she really liked, would start beaming at the mention of their name, or giggle slightly maybe. And not that she felt threatened by Merlin, she understood the connection between the two boys, so it had been decided by all parties that it might be better to get a few things straight before the swimwear was unveiled, the cocktails were drunk. Not that anything was likely to happen; that very brief window had opened and closed almost unnoticed and they were immune to each other now, secure in the confines of firm friendship. Nevertheless, on a Friday night in June, Arthur and Merlin had sat outside the pub and complied The Rules.
Number One: separate bedrooms. Whatever happened there were to be no shared beds, neither double nor single, no drunken cuddles or snuggles or hugs; they were not students anymore. 'And I don't see the point of cuddling anyway,' Arthur had said. 'Cuddling just gives you cramp,' and Merlin had agreed and added:
'No flirting either. Rule Two.'
Well I don't flirt, so...' said Arthur, rubbing his foot against the inside of Merlin's shin.
'Seriously though, no having a few drinks and getting frisky.'
'You know what I mean. No funny business.'
'What, with you?' Arthur smirked seductively.
'With me or anyone else.' Merlin thought of a holiday based around Arthur eyeing every passing girl... his heart sank.
'In fact that's Rule Three. I don't want to have to sit there like a lemon while you're rubbing oil into Lottie from Stuttgart.'
'Em, that is not going to happen.' Arthur spoke sincerely.
'No, it isn't. Because it's a Rule.' And Merlin nodded to confirm this.
Rule Number Four, at Merlin's insistence, was the no nudity clause. No skinny-dipping: physical modesty and discretion at all times. He did not want to see Arthur in his underpants or in the shower or, God forbid, going to the toilet. In retaliation, Arthur proposed Rule Number Five: No Scrabble. More and more of his friends were playing it now, in a knowing ironic way, triple-word-score-craving freaks, but it seemed to him like a game designed expressly to make him feel stupid and bored. No Scrabble and no Boggle either; he wasn't dead yet.
Now on Day Two, with The Rules still in place, they lay on the deck of the ancient rust-spotted ferry as it chugged slowly from Rhodes towards the smaller Dodecanese islands. Their first night had been spent in some other island, drinking sugary cocktails from hollowed-out pineapples, unable to stop grinning at each other with the novelty of it all. The ferry had left Rhodes while it was still dark and now at nine a.m. they lay quietly nursing their hangovers, feeling the throb of the engines in their churning liquid stomachs, eating oranges, quietly reading, quietly burning, entirely happy in each other's silence.
Arthur cracked first, sighing and placing his book on his chest: Charles Dickens' Great Expectations,a gift from Merlin who was responsible for selecting all the holiday reading, a great breeze-block of books, a mobile library that took up most of his suitcase.
A moment passed. He sighed again, for effect.
'What's up with you?' Merlin finally gave him some attention, however without looking up from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
'I'm not in the mood.'
'It's a masterpiece.'
'It's making my head hurt.'
'I should have got something with pictures or flaps.' Merlin teased.
'No, I am enjoying it-' Arthur spoke in his defence.
'The Very Hungry Caterpillar or something-'
'I'm just finding it a bit dense at the moment.'
Merlin thought for a while.
'I thought you'd really suit it.' Merlin raised his sunglasses that Arthur got him.
'It's a very clever, extremely well written book. With lots of social morals and life lessons in it, among so much more, Arty.'
Arthur raised his sunglasses and made Merlin a look.
'Dickens wasn't a philosopher or physiatrist, Em.'
Merlin slipped his sunglasses back on and returned to his romance. 'He was with his words. Go to sleep if you're tired.' And with that, he shot Arthur a goofy grin.
Arthur settled his head once more against his rucksack, but two people were by his side now, casting a shadow over his face. The girl was pretty and nervous, the boy large in muscle and pale, almost magnesium white in the morning sun.
'Excuse me,' said the girl in a Midlands accent.
Arthur shielded his eyes and smiled broadly up at them. 'Hi there.'
'Aren't you the... the Duke of Devonshire's son... the Earl of Edinburgh also... sir?'
'Might be,' said Arthur, sitting and removing his sunglasses with a raffish little flick of his head. Merlin quietly groaned.
'You are... aren't you? That's amazing! Sir... sire, where are your bodyguards? Do you have bodyguards?' The girl questioned with anxious curiousity.
Arthur held his hand up. 'Guilty as charged! And I can't say about them.' He winked.
Merlin laughed briefly through his nose, and Arthur shot him a look. 'Funny bit,' he explained, nodding towards Austen. The bodyguards were all in disguise, keeping an eye and their distance, there was only about three anyway.
'I knew! I saw you on telly! And on newspapers!' The girl nudged her boyfriend. 'I said so, didn't I?'
The pale large man shuffled and mumbled, then silence. Arthur became aware of the chug of the engines and Great Expectations lying in his lap. He slipped it gently into his bag. 'On holiday are you?' he asked. The question was clearly redundant.
'Yeah, holiday.' Mumbled the man.
More dead air. 'This is my friend, Merlin.'
Merlin peered over his sunglasses. 'Hi there.'
The girl squinted at him, 'Are you noble too?'
'Me? God no.' He widened his eyes 'Though it is my dream.'
'Merlin here's trying out to be a teacher. An English teacher, part-time Drama.' said Arthur with a proud expression of adoration, a hand on his shoulder.
'Trying out, I work in a Café mainly.'
'As the manager. But he's packing that in and training to be a teacher, a bit young, but he's worth it, he's brilliant.'
Merlin looked at him levelly, 'Why are you talking like that?' he whispered.
'Like what? Can't I be proud?' Arthur laughed defiantly, but the couple were looking uneasy now, the man looking over the ship's side as if contemplating to jump. Arthur decided to round up the interview. 'So we'll see you on the beach or something. Get a beer maybe.' Both sides probably knew they wouldn't, but Arthur was being polite. The couple smiled and headed back to their bench.
Arthur had never sort out to be famous... and to be honest he was temperamental about it. On some days he was okay with it, he could handle the spotlight. But most days it weighed him down a bit and on those days when he got caught doing something, when the papers just for some reason decided to target him, he seemed tired on those days, as if he had aged within himself and just needed to sleep to blank out the world around him. Public recognition was also a new thing to him. Before it was the double-takes of maybe you have seen this man somewhere before, but now he was older, people seemed to have the courage to talk to him. He liked it sometimes, to know that he was noticed... but it got annoying, to put him bluntly, when he was talking to Merlin or his girlfriend. When he was eating or reading and just wanted some peace. However he was self-aware enough to know that he possessed a certain facility for what Merlin would call 'prattishness' and with this in mind he had been investing some private effort into working out what to do with his face.
Merlin was slightly amused by Arthur and so therefore had to, had to say something.
'You alright there?'
'How is being "famous"?'
Arthur looked at him through his sunglasses, 'I hate the word "Famous": makes me sound like a celebrity.'
Merlin smiled slyly, 'Okay, how about "Annoying" or "Big-Headed"... you could always go for "Supercilious"'
Merlin started laughing and Arthur went to hit him with his book, 'Just shut up will you?'
Arthur lay back down and closed his eyes. Merlin looked at him briefly to see if he was smiling, then smiled too.
Mid-morning approached and while Arthur slept, Merlin caught his first sight of their destination: a blue-grey granite mass rising from the clearest sea that he had ever seen. Merlin had always assumed that water like this was a lie told by brochures, a trick with lenses and filters, but there it was sparkling and emerald green. At first glance the island seemed unpopulated except for the huddle of houses spreading up from the harbour, buildings the colour of coconut ice. He found himself laughing quietly at the sight of it. Until now travel had always been a fraught affair; however he had always wished to do it properly.
Now, standing at the railing as the town came into clearer view, Merlin began to understand the point of travel; he had never felt so far away from home. It was as if the air was somehow different here; not just how it tasted and smelt, but the element itself. Here everything was bright and sharp, clean and clear.
Merlin heard the snap of a camera shutter and turned in time to see Arthur take his photo again. 'I look terrible,' he said as a reflex, though perhaps he didn't. Arthur joined him, his arms holding the rail on either side of Merlin's waist. Merlin felt his magic start to tingle within his skin.
'Beautiful, isn't it?' Arthur whispered in Merlin's ear... and if one were to be looking where Arthur eyes were directed, it was not at the coast, but at Merlin; his eyes slightly hazy.
'It's alright,' Merlin said, unable to recall a time when he had felt happier.
They disembarked – the first time Merlin felt that he had ever disembarked – and immediately found a flurry of activity on the quayside as the casual travellers and backpackers began the scramble for the best accommodations.
'So what happens now?' Merlin asked excitedly.
'I'll find us somewhere. You wait in that Café; I'll come and get you.'
'Somewhere with a balcony-'
'Yes, sire.' Arthur winked amusedly.
'And a sea view please. And a desk.'
'I'll see what I can do,' and, sandals slapping, he strolled towards the crowd on the quay.
Merlin shouted after him: 'And don't forget!'
Arthur turned and looked at him, standing on the harbour wall, adjusting his sunglasses and fiddling with his T-shirt. He smiled to himself, letting a warm breeze seize his heart: never had Merlin looked more care-free, he was wearing a low v-neck T-shirt, a deep purple, which Arthur believed made his eyes all the more beautiful blue. He was wearing navy shorts as well, just coming below his knees, with black flip-flops a size too big. The summer sunshine reflected off his skin to make it shine, as if Merlin was glowing, glowing like a star... No... Arthur thought: brighter than any star. Arthur realised just how flawless his complexion was also, how he had never seen such untouched skin. An exotic sunlight breeze floated past him, ruffling Merlin's hair into such cute disarray. He smiled to himself, thinking Merlin looked adorable and so, so fair... beyond any and all compare.
'The Rules,' Merlin said.
'What about them?'
'We need two rooms. Yes?'
'Absolutely. Two Rooms.'
Arthur smiled and headed off into the crowd. Merlin watched him go, then dragged the two backpacks along the quay to a small, wind-blown Café. There he reached into his bag and pulled put a pen and notebook, an expensive, cloth-bound affair (another gift from Arthur) which was to be his journal for the trip.
He opened it on the first blank page and tried to think of something he could write, some insight or observation other than that everything was fine. Everything was fine, and Merlin had the rare, new sensation of being exactly where he wanted to be.
Arthur and the landlady stood in the middle of the bare room: pale-blue washed walls, almost white, and cool stone floor, bare save for an immense iron-framed double bed, a small writing desk and chair and some dried flowers in a jar. He walked through louvered double-doors onto a large balcony painted to match the colour of the sky, overlooking the bay below. It was like walking out onto some fantastic stage.
'You are how many?' asked the landlady, mid-thirties, quite attractive.
'Two of us.'
'And for how long?'
'Not sure, five nights, maybe more.'
The landlady looked closely at Arthur, noticing his distant look, as if contemplating something, something of great important, she thought, judging by the slight frown and his delay in replying, as if he was distracted. His white shirt had a very low v-neck, nice buttons, with beige shorts to match it, and he reminded her of those romantics thinking of great love songs. She smiled inside, thinking she'd help things along.
'Well here is perfect I think.'
Arthur sat on the double bed, bouncing on it speculatively.
'But my friend and I, we are just, well, just good friends. We need two rooms...' But neither were convinced.
'Oh. Okay. I do have a second room.'
Merlin's soft, tender, flawless skin...
'So you do have two rooms?'
'Yes, of course, I have two rooms.'
'There's good news and there's bad news.'
'Go on,' said Merlin, closing his notebook.
'Well I've found this fantastic place, sea view, balcony, a bit higher up in the village, quiet if you want to write, there's even a little desk, and it's free for the next five days, longer if we want it.' Arthur sounded hopeful.
'And the bad news?'
'There's only one bed.'
'Really?' Merlin asked, suspiciously. 'One bedroom on the whole island?'
'It's peak season, Em! I've tried everywhere!' Stay calm, don't get shrill. Maybe play the guilt card instead. 'But if you want me to carry on looking...' Wearily he made to get up from the chair.
Merlin put his hand on his forearm. 'Single or double bed?'
The lie seemed to be holding. He hated to lie to Merlin, never did... but he needed to make an exception just this once. He sat again. 'Double. A big double though.'
'Well it would have to be pretty massive bed though, wouldn't it? To conform to The Rules.'
'Well,' Arthur shrugged, 'I suppose I prefer to think of them as guidelines.'
'What I mean, Em, is I don't mind if you don't.'
'No, I know you don't mind-'
'But if you really don't think you can keep your hands off me-'
'Oh, I can manage, it's you I worry about-'
'Because I'm telling you now, if you lay one finger on me-' They were both grinning.
Merlin loved the room. He stood on the balcony and listened to the cicadas, a noise that he had only heard in films before and ha half suspected to be an exotic fiction. He was delighted, too, to see lemons growing in the gardens; actual lemons, in trees; they seemed to be glued on. Keen not to appear provincial, he said none of this out loud, simply saying, 'Fine. We'll take it.' Then, while Arthur made arrangements with the landlady, he slipped into the bathroom.
His face in the mirror seemed strange to him now, bare and exposed. His eyes seemed too deep a blue, his skin too white, and his hair too black, his ears too big. He looked at his lips and noticed that they seemed more plump than usual. He then scanned his entire figure and decided that he was indeed skinny, but in the okay slim way... maybe...
He didn't notice Arthur catch him in the corner of his eye, and the reaction he had on him.
When he got back to the bedroom, Arthur was sitting on the bed, his shirt unbuttoned, muscles glowing. 'Em?' Are you crying?'
'No. But it's still early.'
They headed out in the oppressive lunch-time heat, finding their way towards the long crescent of white sand that stretched for a mile or so from the village, and it was time to unveil the swimming costumes. Merlin had put a lot of thought, perhaps too much, into his swimsuit, settling finally for a plain blue baggy pair of swimming shorts from John Lewis... As he pulled his shirt off and other shorts down, he wondered if Arthur thought he was in some way chickening-out by not wearing something... tighter. Not that he cared, though he did wonder, as his shirt passed over his head, if he had caught Arthur's eye flickering in his direction. Either way, Merlin noticed that Arthur was in a pair of... red Speedos... however with legs, and not too tight... they actually looked casual... thank God!
They sat, Merlin attempting to apply suntan lotion to his legs in a way that wouldn't make his thighs shake with the knowledge... Arthur was wearing not too tight red Speedos however with legs behind him.
'What is that stuff?' Arthur asked.
'You might as well lie under blanket, Em.'
'I burn, Arty. Irish.' As if that was the perfect answer.
'It's like house paint.'
'I'm not used to the sun! Not like you, you globetrotter. You want some?'
'I don't agree with suntan lotion.'
'Arty, you are so hard.'
Arthur smiled, and continued to watch Merlin from behind his dark glasses, noting the way Merlin's lean muscles rippled through his back, how if he sat at the right angle he could catch a glimpse of Merlin's groin outline. There was something about the gesture too, the tilt of the head and the pulling back as he applied the lotion to his neck, and Arthur felt the pleasant nausea that accompanied desire. Oh God, he thought, eight more days of this. Then Arthur realised Merlin couldn't really reach his back...
'Want me to do that for you?' he asked. Offering to apply sun cream was a corny, cheesy old routine, beneath him really, but he was reconsidering rapidly.
'You don't want to burn...'
'Go on then.' Merlin shuffled over and sat between his legs, resting his head forward on his knees. Arthur began to apply the lotion, his face so close Merlin could feel his breath on his neck, while Arthur could feel the heat reflecting off Merlin's skin, unaware it was Merlin's magic. Arthur felt soft, tender skin caress his fingertips and with the added smoothness of the lotion... his eyes glazed over. Both of them were working hard on the impression that this was everyday behaviour and in no way a clear contravention of Rules Two and Four, those prohibiting Flirtation and Physical Modesty.
'Don't want your, um, lower back... getting burnt either.' Arthur said, aware of his fingertips touching the base of Merlin's spine. Their breathes were suddenly fast and Merlin could hear his heart beating in his ears, as if he couldn't hear the waves; his whole body's concentration was on the caress of Arthur's fingers and the effect of the warm ripples from his heart. Arthur felt himself swallow, aware of himself hardening with gentle cascades of pleasure.
A silence followed while both of them thought oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God.
As a distraction Merlin placed his hand on Arthur's ankle and yanked it towards him. 'What's this?'
'My tattoo, from Thailand.' Merlin rubbed it with his thumb as if trying to wipe it off. 'It's faded a bit. It's the yin-and-yang.'
'It means the perfect balance of opposites.'
'It means put some socks on.'
Arthur laughed and placed his hands on Merlin's back, his thumbs aligned with the hollows of his shoulder blades. A moment passed and both realised just how close the other was.
'There.' Arthur whispered brightly against Merlin's ear. 'That's your undercoat. Now let's swim!'
And so the long, hot day crawled on. They swam and slept and read, and as the fiercest heat faded and the beach became more populated a problem became more apparent. Arthur noticed it first.
'Is it just me or-'
'Is everyone on this beach completely naked?'
Merlin looked up 'Oh yeah.' He returned to his book. 'Don't ogle, Dexter.'
'I'm not ogling, I'm observing.'
Merlin rolled his eyes and turned to face the tree-line, but over the years he had reached a level of familiarity with Arthur where it had become possible to hear an idea enter his mind, like a stone thrown into water, his thoughts ripples, and sure enough:
'So what do you think?'
Merlin felt his heart rush for a moment... was Arthur really thinking what he thought he was thinking?
'Should we?' And Arthur had a devilish look in his eye, and was somewhat hopeful.
'What?' Don't say it. Please don't ask.
'Take all our clothes off? Should we do it?' And Merlin wondered if Arthur's proximity was seductive or not.
'No, we should not take all our clothes off!'
'Everyone else has!' And Arthur was reminded of his fantasies...
'That's no reason! And what about Rule Four?'
'Not a rule, a guideline.'
'No, I'm pretty sure it was, it is, a rule.'
'So? We can bend it a little, can't we?'
'If you bend it then it's not a rule.'
Sulkily Arthur flopped back down on the sand. 'Just seems a bit rude, that's all.'
'Fine, you go ahead. I'll try to tear my eyes away.'
'No point if it's just me,' And Merlin was unsure if he was meant to be that touched by the slight sentiment that was in Arthur's voice.
Merlin lay his back down once again. 'Arthur, why on earth are you so desperate for me to take my clothes off?'
'I just thought we might be more relaxed, with our clothes off.'
Merlin... was almost speechless. 'Un-believable, just unbelievable – '
'You don't think you'd be more relaxed?'
'It – It doesn't matter why not! Besides, I don't think your girlfriend would be very pleased.'
'Mithian wouldn't care. She's very open-minded; she knows we're just friends – '
'Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Arty – '
'You don't disappoint me – '
'But there's a difference.'
'Well, Mithian used to be a model for one thing – '
'So? You could be a model.'
Merlin laughed sharply. 'Oh, Arthur, do you really think so?'
'For catalogues or something. You've got a lovely figure.'
'"A lovely figure", God help me – '
'All I'm saying is completely objectively; you're a very attractive man – '
' – who is keeping his clothes on! If you're so desperate to tan your bits, fine, go ahead. Now can we change the subject please?'
Arthur turned and lay down on his front alongside Merlin, head resting on his arms, their elbows touching, and once again Merlin could hear the sound of Arthur's thoughts... maybe it was his magic that was allowing this... Arthur then nudged him with his elbow.
'We could go behind the rocks.'
Now what the hell was that suggesting?
'Arthur – '
'And from what I've seen, I'm sure that you have nothing embarrassing to hide, in fact, you should be proud.'
Merlin felt his heart decide to run within his ribs.
'When have you seen – how have you seen – '
'From afar... it wasn't that much, saw your lower back was all, curving, arching as the sunlight filtered through your shirt to make that expanse of skin glow like starlight, your – '
Merlin hit him promptly on the nose with his book.
'Look, I'm not taking my clothes off alright? Sorry if that annoys you, but it isn't happening, okay? And tell me next time if my top rides up.' Merlin then retrieved his book... and after a short while became to quietly laugh to himself.
'What's funny?' he asked.
'"Skin glow like starlight".' Merlin laughed and looked at Arthur fondly.
'Oh, Arty, you make me laugh sometimes.'
'Every now and then.'
Gratified, he smiled and closed his eyes. Arthur hadn't forgotten what Merlin looked like and had retained a very vivid mental image of that day. Merlin was helping Arthur train with his fencing, and he imagined Merlin lying on the ground, arms through above his head in a beckoning way; his chest and torso glazed with a light layer of sweat, breaths heavy, and his flawless skin waiting... waiting to be claimed.
He fell asleep with a smile to his lips.
In the late afternoon they returned to the room, tired and sticky and tingling from the sun, and there it was again: the bed. They stepped around it and walked out onto the balcony that overlooked the sea, hazy now as the sky shaded from blue into pink of the evening.
'So. Who wants first shower?'
'You go ahead. I'm going to sit out here and read.'
Merlin lay on the faded sun-lounger in the twilight shade, listening to the sound of the running water and trying to concentrate on Austen. He stood suddenly and crossed to the small fridge that they'd filled with water and beer, took a can and noticed that the bathroom door had swung open.
There was no shower curtain, and Merlin could see Arthur standing side on beneath the cold water, eyes closed against the spray, head back, arms raised. Merlin noticed his shoulder blades, the long golden back, and the two hollows at the base of his spine above the small toned bottom. But oh God, he was turning now, and the can of beer slipped through his hand and exploded, fizzing and foaming, propelling itself noisily around the floor. He threw a towel over it as if capturing a wild rodent, then looked up to see Arthur, his platonic friend, naked except for his clothes held loosely in front of him. 'Slipped out of my hand!' Merlin said, stamping the beer foam into the towel and thinking: eight more days and nights of this and I will self-combust.
Then it was Merlin's turn to shower. He closed the door, washed the beer from his hands then contorted himself as he struggled to undress in the tiny, humid bathroom that still smelt of Arthur's aftershave.
Rule Four required that Arthur go and stand on the balcony while Merlin dried himself and got dressed but after some experimentation he found that if he kept his sunglasses on and turned his head just so, he could see Merlin's reflection in the glass door as he struggled to rub lotion onto the low parabola of his burning back. Arthur watched the wriggle of Merlin's hips as he pulled on his underwear, the concave curve of his back and arch of shoulder blades as he put on his low v-neck, the raised arms making it fall like a curtain.
He joined him on the balcony.
'Maybe we should just stay here,' Arthur said. 'Instead of island-hopping, hang out here for a week, then back to Rhodes then home.'
Merlin smiled. 'Okay. Maybe.'
'Don't think you'd get bored?'
'I don't think so.'
'Well my face feels like a grilled tomato, but apart from that – '
'Let me see.'
Closing his eyes Merlin turned towards him and lifted his chin, his hair still wet and messy, dishevelled, with his face shining and scrubbed clean. It was Merlin, but all new. He glowed, and Arthur thought of the words sun-kissed, star-bright, then thought: kiss him, take hold of his face and kiss him. Just kiss me...
Merlin opened his eyes suddenly. 'What now?' he said.
'Whatever you want.'
'Game of Scrabble?'
'Isn't that a rule?'
'Okay, how about dinner. Apparently they have this thing called Greek Salad.'
The restaurants in the small town were remarkable for being all identical. The air hung smoky with burning lamb, and they sat in a quiet place at the end of the harbour where the crescent of the beach began and drank wine that tasted of pine lemons.
'Christmas trees.' said Arthur.
'Disinfectant.' said Merlin.
Music played from speakers concealed in the plastic vines. They ate stale bread rolls, Arthur having some brunt but tender lamb, Merlin choosing salad soused in acetic acid, all of which tasted just fine. After a while even the wine became delicious, like some interesting mouthwash, and soon Merlin felt ready to break Rule Two. No flirting.
He had never been a proficient flirt. His spasms of kittenish behaviour were graceless and inept, like normal conversation on roller skates. But the combination of the retsina and sun made Merlin feel sentimental and light-headed. He reached for his roller skates.
'I've got an idea.'
'Well, if we're going to stay here for eight days we're going to run out of things to talk about, right?'
'But to be on the safe side.' Merlin leant forward, put his hand on Arthur's wrist. 'I think we should tell each other something that the other person doesn't know.'
'What, like a secret?'
'Exactly, a secret, something surprising, one a night every night for the rest of the holiday.'
'Sort of like spin-the-bottle?' Arthur's eyes widened. He considered himself a world-class spin-the-bottle player. 'Okay. You first.'
'No, you first.'
'Why me first?'
'You've got more to choose from.'
And it was true; he had an almost bottomless supply of secrets. He could tell Merlin that he'd watched him getting dressed that night, or that he'd left the bathroom door open on purpose when he showered. He could also tell Merlin that no matter how he tried to distract himself... Merlin always seemed to be the one who held his heart. He could tell Merlin how he adored his smile and would do anything to make it grace the world. He could tell Merlin that he thought Merlin's eyes were brighter than the stars and eclipsed the sun. He could confess everything right now... how maybe, once, or maybe even still, he had thoughts... that he loved Merlin. But 'love' was a strong word and Arthur felt his heart wither in something... fear.
He realised his pulse was racing.
'Well... I think you should go first, it was your idea.'
The waiter arrived with complimentary Greek brandies, the kind of drink that can only be given away. Merlin took a sip and winced then carefully rested his cheek on his hand in a way that he knew suggested a tipsy intimacy. 'A secret. Let me see.' He tapped his chin with his finger. Merlin could tell Arthur that he had watched him in the shower, and liked what he saw. Maybe expand on that and say that 'liked' was an understatement; that seeing Arthur naked had made his knees feel like they'd turned to liquid, that it released butterflies in his heart and that he had found himself numb and light-headed. He could tell Arthur how he disapproved of his going out with every girl that would say 'yes, why not?'... that all he had to do was ask someone closer, ask Merlin... and he'd reply, 'Forever and Always.' He decided that telling Arthur all these things had the dreading potential to shatter everything they had. So, he settled for an alternative way to confess such things without the emotional intensity that would tighten their hearts into an aching; each beat pulsing something a lot like hope.
And Merlin had known what he intended to say for this moment anyway.
He licked his lips and made his eyes sultry along with other tiny readjustments, until he had constructed what he believed to be his best, most attractive face, the one he used in photographs.
'When we first met, like when we were... four. Before we realised we were 'soulmates' as you put it sometimes. I had a bit of a crush on you. Not a bit of a crush, a massive crush actually. For ages. Wrote dopey poems and everything.'
Merlin bit his lip lightly and prayed that what he just said hadn't completely destroyed what they had... He felt his pulse start to quicken and had to beg himself to keep eye contact. When something glazed in Arthur's eyes, he thought that he'd completely and utterly fucked things up. He started to feel his heart pop at each seam slowly...
So, he was most surprised when Arthur replied with:
'I'm not proud of myself.'
'I see. I see.' Arthur folded his arms, put them on the edge of the table and looked down at him. 'Well, I'm sorry, Em, but that doesn't count.'
'Because you said it had to be something I didn't know.'
Arthur was grinning, and Merlin was reminded once more of his almost limitless capacity to disappoint. But then corrected himself, knowing that however infuriating, obnoxious, outrageous and completely stupid Arthur could be, he could never disappoint Merlin.
But maybe he had this time... for it seemed that Arthur had the mindset that 'Merlin's crush' didn't exist and was growing stronger every day, how these feelings hadn't gone away.
'God, you're annoying!' And Merlin slapped the reddest part of Arthur's sunburn with the back of his hand.
'How did you know?'
'Gwen told me.'
'Nice one, Gwen.'
'So what happened?' And Arthur looked hopeful once more, something in his eyes, the movement of his lips, the tone of his voice.
Merlin realised that he had the power here... that with one word like, 'Nothing.' Or one phrase like, 'I still feel that way.' could change everything for them and set Arthur's thoughts right.
However Merlin was hesitate and really didn't know anymore, didn't know if he would be taken seriously or if Arthur would walk out the restaurant without a backward glance.
He looked into the bottom of his glass. 'I suppose it was something you get over in time. Like shingles.'
'No, really, what happened?'
'I got to know you. You cured me of you.'
'Well, I want to read these poems. What rhymes with "Arthur"?'
'"Bastard". It's a half-rhyme.'
'Seriously, what happened to them?'
'They've been destroyed. I built a bonfire, years ago.' Feeling foolish and let down, Merlin drank once more from the empty glass. 'Too much brandy. We should go.' He began to look distractedly for the waiter, and Arthur began to feel foolish too. So many things he might have said, so why be smug, glib, ungenerous? Keen to find a way to make amends, he nudged Merlin's hand. 'So shall we go for a walk?'
Merlin hesitated. 'Okay. Let's go for a walk.'
They headed out along the bay past the half-built houses of the town as it spread itself along the coast, a new tourist development that they deplored in a conventional way, and while they talked Merlin silently resolved to be more sensible in future. Recklessness, spontaneity didn't really suit him, he couldn't carry it off, the results were never what he hoped for. His confession to Arthur had felt like swinging wildly at a ball, watching it sail high into the air then moments later hearing the sound of breaking glass. For the remainder of their time together he resolved to stay level-headed, sober and remember The Rules. Remember Mithian, beautiful, sweet Mithian, waiting for Arthur back in London. No more inappropriate revelations. In the meantime he would just have to drag the stupid conversation round with him, like toilet paper on the heel of his shoe... like a pebble in his shoe that was starting to hurt.
They had left the town behind now, and Arthur took his hand to support him as they stumbled woozily over the dry dunes, still warm from the day's sun. They walked towards the sea to where the sand was wet and firm and Merlin noticed that Arthur was still holding his hand.
'Where are we going anyway?' he asked, noticing the slur within his voice.
'I'm going for a swim. You coming?'
'You won't. Look, it's beautiful.' The sea was very calm and clear like some wonderful aquarium, jade with a phosphorescent gleam; if you scooped it up it would glow in your hands. Arthur was already pulling his shirt off over his head. 'Come on. It'll sober us up.'
'But I haven't got my swimming cost – ' A realisation dawned.
'Oh, I get it,' he laughed. 'I see what's going on here – '
'I've walked right into it haven't I?'
'The old skinny-dip routine. Get a guy drunk and look for the nearest body of water – '
'Merlin, you are such a prude. Why are you such an idiot?'
'You go on, I'll wait here.'
'Fine, but you'll regret it.' His back was to Merlin now, taking down his trousers then his underwear.
'Leave your underpants on!' Merlin shouted after him and if he felt his heart start the beat sharply and increasingly quickly, well, he tried to ignore it, watching Arthur's long golden back and perfectly toned buttocks... his huge balls just hanging just visibly between his god-like strong legs as he strode down to the sea. Merlin felt his skin flush and his veins boil with lust and tried to breathe with his heart keeping missing beats, sending coolly heated warmth throughout his body. And he cursed himself for feeling light-headed as all his blood rushed to make his cock flush, grow and throb into full attention, making his pants ever so uncomfortable due to the pressure. Arthur fell forward into the surf and Merlin stood, swaying woozily, feeling solitary and absurd. Wasn't this one of the experiences he craved? Why couldn't he be more spontaneous and reckless? If he was too scared to swim without a costume how could he ever be expected to tell a man that he wanted to kiss him? Before the thought was finished Merlin had reached down, grabbed the edge of his t-shirt and peeled it off in one fluid movement. He stripped himself of his shorts quickly and almost desperately. He removed his underwear, kicking the briefs off his foot high into the air, letting them lie where they fell, and ran, laughing and swearing to himself, albeit trying to will his erection away or pray Arthur didn't see, ran, towards the water's edge.
Standing on tip-toe as far out as he dared to go, Arthur wiped the water from his eyes, looked out to sea and wondered what would happen next. Qualms; he felt the onset of qualms. A Situation loomed, and hadn't he resolved to try and avoid becoming so explicitly attracted to Merlin for a while, to be less reckless and spontaneous? This was Merlin Emrys after all, and Em was precious, his best friend. And what about Mithian? He had tried to fall in love with her, she was sweet and practically everything a guy should want, but the more he tried distracting himself with her... the more his heart seemed to pull him towards Merlin. He heard a garbled shout of exhilaration from the beach and turned just too late to see Merlin stumble naked into the water as if pushed from behind. Honesty and frankness, those would be his watchwords. Merlin splashed towards him with a messy crawl, and Arthur decided to be frank and honest for a change and see where that got him.
Merlin arrived, gasping. Suddenly aware of the sea's translucency, he was struggling to find a way to tread water and cover one's self. 'So this is it then!'
'It is. What do you think?'
'It's alright I suppose. Very larky. What am I meant to do now, just goof around or splash you or what?' Merlin cupped his hand, and threw water lightly at Arthur's face. 'Am I doing it right?' Before Arthur could splash him back the current caught Merlin and pulled him towards Arthur, who stood with his feet braced against the seabed securely. Arthur caught him, their legs interlacing like clasped fingers, bodies touching then held apart again, like dancers. However, both seemed to, in that split second, feel the other's erection...
'That's a very soulful face,' Merlin said, to break the silence. 'Hey, you're not taking a piss are you?'
'No – '
'So anyway what I meant to say was sorry. For what I said – '
'Back in the restaurant, for being a bit glib or whatever.'
'It's alright. I'm used to it – ' Arthur took his chance. It was now or never and his heart was so frightened of the latter. Here he goes:
'And also to say I thought the same thing too. At the time. What I mean is I liked you too, "romantically", I mean. I mean I didn't write poems or anything, but I thought about you, think about you, you and me. Arty and Em. Em and Arty... still.'
'Really?' And Merlin's heart was caught off guard for this. Did Arthur just confess some sort of love for him? Did... did his Arthur, his Arty, just say that he thought, thinks, about them?
Merlin wasn't sure what to say, caught between running away, throwing himself at Arthur for a hug or to cry. He feared he'd do something similar to them all. He just hoped... he just hoped that, if his bloody light-headed state didn't ruin things, his racing heart pulsing warm chills through his nervous system didn't make him break down into pining thoughts... he hoped that Arthur wouldn't let him go. He didn't know what to think, he was unprepared for this, and Arthur's very serious, star filled eyes were making him breathless.
'Really? Oh. Really? Right. Oh. Right.' It's going to happen after all, he thought, right here and now, standing naked in the Aegean Sea.
'My problem is – ' and Arthur sighed and smiled with one side of his mouth. 'Well I suppose I fancy pretty much everybody!'
'I see,' was all Merlin could say.
' – anyone really, just walking down the street, it's like you said, everyone's my type. It's a nightmare!' What was he doing! Arthur felt like he was outside his body, watching himself be a complete and utter insecure prat who couldn't even tell Merlin that all he wanted was to kiss him.
'Poor you,' Merlin said flatly.
Arthur could see the light leave his eyes, and he panicked. That's wasn't true at all. The only person he wanted, has ever truly wanted to be with, to properly be with, as in holding hands in parks and kissing at the back of cinemas, buying sweet gifts, waking up in a tangle of limbs, smiling tenderly at each other, kissing deeply with such emotion and making love into the dead of night with a wedding ring caressing his forth finger on his left hand... is Merlin.
'I mean, I think I'm not ready to be... you know. Boyfriend Boyfriend. I think we'd want different things right now.'
'Because... you have an appetite.'
'I'm being serious, Em. And that wasn't – '
'Are you? Really? I can never tell anymore.'
'Are you angry with me Em?'
'No! I told you, it was a long time ago – ' I still love you ' – a stupid silly little crush, nothing major. It was – '
'However!' Under the water, Arthur's hands found his waist, his hands seeming to wrap perfectly around Merlin's hipbones, bringing him closer but not touching. He held on.
'However, if you wanted to ... experiment.'
'Break the Rules – '
'You know what I mean. A little light-hearted let's-see-what-happens. Just while we're away. No strings attached, no obligations, not a word to anyone. Our little secret. Because I'm up for it. That's all.' And Arthur thought to himself remorsefully that he wasn't worthy of his testicles anymore; that he was a fucking coward.
Merlin made a noise in his throat somewhere between laughter and a growl. Up for it. He was grinning shyly like a salesman offering great deals on finance. Our little secret, to add to all the others presumably. There was only one thing he could do, and oblivious to his own nakedness he bounced up out of the water and with all his weight pushed Arthur's head under the water and held it there. He began a slow count. One, two, three –
You arrogant, self-satisfied little –
Four, five, six –
And you stupid, stupid boy, stupid for caring, stupid for thinking that he cared –
Seven, eight, nine –
He's flailing now, better let him up I suppose, and make a joke, make a joke of it –
Ten, and Merlin took his hands from the top of his head and let Arthur bounce up. He was laughing, shaking the water from his hair and eyes and Merlin laughed too, a rigid ha ha ha.
'I take it that's a no then,' he said eventually, pinching the sea-water from his nose.
'I think so. I think our moment passed some time ago, if at all.'
'Oh. Really. Are you sure? Because I think that we'd be happier if we stopped being silly.'
'You know what I mean. Em. And if it doesn't work then we'll always then just feel closer. As friends. And we can work with that. It doesn't have to get serious if that's what you don't want. It can be completely casual even. A fling. A nice fling for the holiday.'
'You're worried that not sleeping together could spoil our friendship?'
'I'm not expressing myself very well – '
'Arthur, I understand you perfectly, that's the problem – '
'If you're scared of what people will say – '
'Me? That's rich coming from you! I'm not scared of people. I'm just not going to do it so that we can say that we've done it. And I'm not going to do it if the first thing you say afterwards is "please don't tell anyone" or "let's forget it ever happened". If you have to keep something secret it's because you shouldn't be doing it in the first place! So if that's how you feel, just shut up Arthur! For once in your life just shut up!'
Arthur went to say something but he was peering past Merlin now, eyes narrowed, towards the beach, and Merlin turned towards the shore just in time to see a small, slim figure hurting at great speed along the sand, carrying something over his head in triumph like a captured flag: a shirt, a pair of shorts.
'OIIIIIIIIII!' shouted Arthur, barrelling towards the shore now, yelling through mouthfuls of water, then taking startling high-kneed strides up the beach, pounding after the thief who had stolen all his clothes.
By the time Arthur made it back to Merlin, breathless and fuming, he was sitting on the beach fully dressed in a combination of Primark and H&M and sober once again.
'Any sign of them?' And Merlin turned his head for modesty sack.
'Nope! Gone!' he said tragically. 'Just completely fucked off and gone' and it took a light breeze to remind Arthur that he was still naked, and he angrily cupped one hand between his legs, but fumed in rage as that wasn't enough, needing two hands to cover everything, but he thought he looked like a right prat now.
'Did they take your wallet?' Merlin asked, his face fixed in an earnest rictus, although Arthur couldn't see, Merlin's head was still turned.
'No, just some cash, I don't know, ten, fifteen quids worth, little bastard.'
'Well I suppose that's just one of the perils of skinny-dipping,' Merlin mumbled, the corners of his mouth twitching.
'It's the shirt that winds me up. It was Helmut Lang! The underpants were Calvin Klein. Thirty bloody quid a go, those underpants. What's up with you? It's not funny Em! I've been robbed!' Merlin's shoulders were going.
'I know, I'm sorry – It's just you... so angry, and... no clothes...'
'Pack it in Em!'
When Merlin could control himself, they spent a while walking up the beach in silence, Arthur suddenly very cold and coy, Merlin walking discreetly ahead, looking at the sand and thinking that events had not gone as planned. 'What kind of little bastard steals someone's underpants?' muttered Arthur. 'Know how I'm going to find the little sod? I'm going to look for the only well-dressed bastard on the whole bloody island!'
When the search proved fruitless, they beachcombed for emergency clothing. Merlin found a heavy-duty sack in blue plastic. Arthur held it daintily round his waist like a mini skirt and Merlin really did try not to laugh.
The route home took them along the harbour front. 'It's a lot busier than I expected,' said Merlin. Arthur adjusted his face into an expression of larky self-deprecation and marched on past the pavement taverna, eyes fixed forward, ignoring the wolf-whistles. They headed into the town, and coming up a narrow alley they suddenly found themselves facing the couple from the ferry, red-faced with booze and sun, clinging to each other drunkenly as they tottered down the steps towards the harbour. They stared, bemused, at Arthur's blue sack mini-skirt.
'Someone stole my clothes.' He explained curtly.
The couple nodded sympathetically and squeezed past them, the girl pausing to turn and shout after them –
'It's Calvin Klein.' said Merlin and Arthur narrowed his eyes at his amusement.
The sulk lasted all the long way home and by the time they were back in the room, the fact of the shared bed had somehow lost its significance. Merlin went into the bathroom to change into an old grey t-shirt with a fresh pair of underpants. When he came out, the blue plastic coal-sack lay on the floor at the foot of the bed. 'You should hang this up,' he said, nudging the sack with his toe. 'It'll get creased.'
'Ha,' he said, lying on the bed, in new underwear, no shirt, and Merlin wasn't surprised by the bubble in his heart and stomach, however thinking now was not the time for dreaming or damned flirting that seemed to always be shoved down his throat with a slip of arsenic.
'So is that them?'
'The famous thirty-quid underpants. What are they, lined with ermine?'
'Let's just go to sleep, shall we? So – which side?'
They lay on their backs in parallel, Merlin relishing the sensation of the cold white sheets against tender skin.
'Nice day,' he said.
'Til that last bit,' Arthur mumbled.
Merlin turned to look at him, his face in profile, staring petulantly at the ceiling, and Merlin thought that even when sulking and pouting... Arthur still managed to look beautifully handsome. He nudged Arthur foot with his own. 'It's only shorts and a pair of pants. I'll buy you some nice new ones. Three-pack of cotton briefs.' Arthur sniffed and Merlin took his hand beneath the sheet, squeezed it hard until he turned his head to look at him. 'Seriously, Arty,' he smiled. 'I'm really pleased to be here. I'm having a really nice time.'
'Yeah. Me too,' he mumbled.
'Eight more days,' Merlin said.
'Eight more days.'
'Think you can hack it?'
'Who knows?' Arthur smiled affectionately and, for better or for worse, everything was just as it had been before. 'So how many Rules did we break tonight?'
Merlin thought for a moment. 'One, Two and Four.'
'Well at least we didn't play Scrabble.'
'There's always tomorrow.' Merlin reached above his head, turned the light off, then lay on his side, with his back to Arthur.
Hope it was alright. Let me know what you think. This story is in kind of parts. Part One and Part Two... That's my only clue for you :)