gwyllion: Merlin-Forever (Merlin-Forever)
[personal profile] gwyllion
Title: Rise
Author: gwylliondream
Artist: [profile] merlocked18 - Art Masterpost
Genre: Modern au
Pairing: Arthur/Merlin
Rating: NC-17
Warnings: None
Words: 15K
Summary: Arthur and Merlin embark on a week-long buddy road trip in Ireland and Northern Ireland to celebrate finishing uni. This is their last hurrah together before starting life for real—on separate continents.
A/N: Rise was written for the [profile] merlinreversebb. I had no intention of participating in the MRBB, except as a pinch hitter, until I saw [profile] merlocked18’s gorgeous pencil drawing of Merlin by the sea. I signed up right away and was fortunate enough to be matched with her art, my first and only choice. Her drawings for this fic are evocative and sensual, just like the landscape I was honoured to describe. Thanks to [profile] merlocked18 who was a joy to work with, to my fantastic Irish-picker [personal profile] camelittle, and to my wonderful beta [personal profile] lawgoddess.
Artist's Notes: Gwylliondream, thank you so much for picking my art prompt even though you had no intention of partaking in the fest. Thank you for matching my passion for this "Irish fic". The idea of our boys experiencing Ireland, Northern Ireland and discovering each other there just appealed to me on so many levels. Drawing Merlin in iconic Irish locations did things to me, I can tell you. Especially Giant's Causeway...I might have zoned out a bit drawing that. I am so glad you were just as enthusiastic about this whole thing as I was, and thank you for such lovely feedback, that does fuel the fire.
A massive thank you to the mods of the Merlin Reversebang Challenge. I think it's super that there is a bang for art prompts. So cool to see what pics can inspire in people. So, thank you, so much.
Disclaimer: All characters are the property of BBC/Shine and their creators.
Comments: Comments are welcome anytime! Thanks so much for reading!
Read on AO3





Go n-eírí an bóthar leat. ~ Old Irish Blessing
May the road rise with you. ~ John Lydon

Merlin closes his eyes and lets the rhythm of the music thrum through him. The bass beat makes his belly feel hollow. He taps his fingers on the table top, fights off the sleep that tries to lay claim to his gritty eyes and travel-weary back.

“I’ll meet you back at the room,” Arthur’s voice hiccoughs into Merlin’s ear.

Surprised that Arthur has the stamina to keep partying after the long day, Merlin leans closer.

“What?” Merlin asks. He jams one hand to his other ear, trying to block the noise of the band so he can hear what Arthur says.

“Later,” Arthur says, breath laced with whisky shots and Guinness.

He doesn’t know how Arthur keeps up. Merlin checks the time on his mobile, surprised that he’s only been awake for a dozen hours. It feels like midnight. After the graduation ceremony, easyJet dropped the three of them in Belfast--Arthur, Merlin, and Merlin’s mum, Hunith, who urged the newly-minted graduates to take her car on a sightseeing trip.

It turns out that the island isn’t as small as Merlin always thought.

“Arthur will only be here for a week and he’ll want to have a look around. I’ll just take the bus to work,” Hunith assured them, the way only a selfless parent could.

Arthur hugged her and accepted the keys.

Merlin always makes a conscious effort to appreciate his mum. He remembers that all boys aren’t as fortunate as him, when it comes to single parents. Uther Pendragon wouldn’t even leave work for long enough to attend his son’s graduation ceremony.

“I’m stepping out for a bit,” Arthur says, louder.

Merlin wants to tell Arthur that he’ll come with, but he knows better. He’ll stay behind, like he always does. He wants to protect his heart from getting hurt on this final trip. But despite his best intentions, his goal slips out of his grasp like a dry sheet on a windy clothesline. Not even one day has passed, and there’s still six more to endure after tonight.

It’s torture.

The bodies in front of the stage move as a single mass of flailing limbs and bouncing heads. Teenaged girls with fake IDs slosh their pint glasses with unpractised skill.

Merlin’s eyes narrow in the smoky pub while the band grinds out the last chords of Blitzkrieg Bop. The cheers of the Dublin pub folks can’t compete with the amplifiers and the sound of wrecked strings. A residual buzz drones in Merlin’s head when the music ends. When the cheers stop, he feels like he can hear again.

“I’ll meet you back in the room,” Arthur says, the only words that matter. “Later.”

Merlin becomes all too aware of the pair of hands that snake around Arthur’s torso from behind. The foreign fingers knead the front of Arthur’s faded crimson tee. They tease at Arthur’s nipples. A head of dark curly hair belongs to the man with the fingers. Arthur gasps and squirms.

Arthur’s blond hair makes him stand out in the sea of dark-haired natives. The golden strands beckon a ruffle of fingers from men and women alike. Drunkenness gives Merlin a plausible excuse for their intrusion.

“Yeah, mate,” Merlin says. “I’ll see you then.”

Arthur takes the pair of stray hands in his and stops their motion mid-stroke.

Merlin swallows and looks away.

Although he’s seen Arthur’s naked chest plenty of times in their four years of rooming together, Merlin finds it the most tantalising when the bare skin is covered with a layer of fabric. The hint of what lays underneath fuels his fantasies.

The tight fabric entices Merlin more than the sight of Arthur shirtless as he brushed his teeth in their bathroom mirror. And more than the glimpse Merlin once got of tanned skin and flecks of light chest hair hidden beneath a beach towel on the coldest Brighton day of last year’s Spring Holiday.

The thought of Arthur’s spandex bike shirt stretched over taut pecs fuels Merlin’s wanks. The pebbled nipples first instigated Merlin’s dreams on a chilly day of winter finals when Arthur forgot his hoodie to wear over his cotton tee.

The elusive smatter of chest hair has escaped into Merlin’s line of sight a hundred times. Most often, it peeked from between the vee of Arthur’s unbuttoned polo while he dipped his head to take a bite of microwaved breakfast porridge from his spoon.

Just this afternoon, the fine golden strands escaped the collar of Arthur’s button-down when he consulted the map for the best way from Dublin to the Blarney Castle.

Merlin shakes himself free of his obsession. He watches Arthur take the curly-headed man’s hands from his chest. He lets them rest on his hips instead.

Merlin licks his lips. He fights against the need to possess what the dark-haired man has taken from him. He wants to count Arthur’s abs, to trace them with reverent fingers. He wants to kiss and lick at the dip of his navel, to suck his beautiful cock. To give Arthur pleasure and watch him come apart, so much more familiar than the friends they have become over the years in uni. Instead, he nods dumbly and watches Arthur follow the stranger to the exit.

Merlin touches his fingers to the condensation on his mug, the third pint he downs in as many pubs that evening.

~

Merlin wakes. The burn from too many pints rises in his throat. He exhales into the mattress, the rumpled sheets catching his feet as he gets to his hands and knees.

He coughs. His breath smells like garbage, making him remember what a lightweight he is when it comes to alcohol.

Across the room, the hazy light filters through the window. Merlin groans and rocks back onto his heels, wondering when he became naked.

In the other bed, Arthur lies beneath the duvet. Soft snores rise from the pile of pillows and tangle of sheets.

Merlin collapses to the mattress and waits, his cock hard and disobedient.

He watches Arthur, like he always does. The familiar rise and fall of his chest, the rhythm of his breathing has lulled Merlin to sleep nearly every night for the past four years. Merlin’s chest aches, knowing he won’t have the opportunity to observe for many more days.

For four long years, Merlin silently praised whatever gods paired the son of business mogul, Uther Pendragon, with a naturopathy student from the tiny village of Ealdor. For four years, Merlin watched Arthur learn what he needed to become a CEO, while Merlin studied Reiki, healing massage, and herbalism. Surely this was a trick of Karma that Merlin was permitted to bask in Arthur’s golden presence while they shared a tiny flat on campus. They became the best of friends, confidants, but never lovers, although it was Merlin’s secret dream since they first met during a hot August day at orientation.

Merlin presses his palm against his cock, willing it to stop thinking on its own when he doesn’t have the bravery to act.

He wonders how much courage it would take for him to tiptoe across the non-descript B&B rug and slip into bed beside Arthur.

The thought that Arthur might murmur sweet words into Merlin’s hair, or wrap him in the strength of his arms is almost too much to bear. Merlin feels his cock leaking with slick anticipation. Arthur’s back, his chest, the power of his muscle would protect Merlin more than any chakra alignment or prayer circle, more than any Druid amulet or sorcerer’s spell.

Relieved that he hasn’t lost Arthur on their first night in Ireland, Merlin swings his legs over the side of the bed. He stands and fights to get his balance, dizzy from last night’s drunkenness. He stumbles across the room to the loo, snatching his discarded boxers from where they lie on the carpet.

Outside their door, Merlin hears the other B&B guests stirring. The red numbers glow from the digital clock, switching in a flash to 9:00.

Merlin stands in front of the toilet. For a minute, he worries that he might fall to his knees and puke his guts out. When the feeling passes, he points his half-hard cock to the bowl and pisses.

In the bedroom of the B&B, Arthur groans as he awakens.

“Is it time for breakfast?” Arthur asks.

“What time did you get in?” Merlin says over the sound of the flushing toilet. “I didn’t hear you,” he adds when he re-enters the bedroom.

“I don’t suppose you did,” Arthur says. “Not when half of Dublin got to hear you sing You’re the voice when that guitarist handed you the microphone last night.”

“I didn’t,” Merlin says leaning against the doorframe, remembering the second pub stop all too well.

“You did,” Arthur says with a grin. “Although you couldn’t help it when he shoved it right in your face like that. You were a good sport.”

Merlin was always a good sport. He has never wanted to rock the boat when it meant that he might lose his oars over the side. Still, the tips of his ears turn red at the thought of Arthur hearing him sing.

“Don’t remind me of this night ever again,” Merlin says. Then he adds, “What time was it anyway when you got in?” as if the missing number will help him discern whether Arthur pulled the bloke with the pretty blue eyes and curly dark hair.

Arthur doesn’t answer.

“You know what your problem is?” Arthur asks, getting out of bed, his black boxer briefs still in place on his hips.

Merlin can’t decide whether the question is rhetorical.

The pinch of Arthur’s warm fingers on Merlin’s chilled collarbone makes his blood sing. He has paused for too long.

“You think too much,” Arthur says with a laugh, removing his pinching fingers and playfully slapping Merlin’s bare shoulder. He pulls a clean tee from his travel bag and slips it on.

“Yeah?” Merlin asks, wishing he never started wondering so earnestly about the time Arthur got back to the room.

“I’m going down to breakfast,” Arthur says, zipping his faded jeans. “I’m starving.”

“I’m going to shower first,” Merlin says, hoping he’ll be hungry by the time the host prepares a full Irish for his guests. “Go without me, and I’ll catch up with you downstairs.”

If there’s one thing Merlin doesn’t want to do on this trip, it’s to leave Arthur with a bad memory of their last week together. He hopes his jealousy dissipates before Arthur notices that it exists.

~

Fifteen minutes later, with his hair still damp, Merlin descends the stairs to join Arthur for breakfast. The scent of bacon wafts from the kitchen and spills into the hallway of the old house. An unexpected surprise greets Merlin when he passes the window to the dining room. There, seated at the table with Arthur, sits… Morgan? …Mordred? …Martin…? Merlin forgets his name, but he can remember the way Arthur looked when he drunkenly fell into those foreign arms. Through the window, Merlin could swear he sees Arthur’s fingers caress the stranger’s neck. Jealously flares in Merlin’s gut.



When he rounds the corner and enters the dining room, Merlin tenses and schools his expression so he gives nothing away. “You’re the bloke from last night,” he says as he pulls up a chair across from the pair. “What are you two up to?” He hopes he doesn’t sound like a mother hen who’s just had her chick stolen by a fox.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Arthur says.

It takes everything Merlin has to keep himself from lunging across the table and screaming at Mordred, telling him that Arthur is his alone and he refuses to share him. His knee vibrates up and down with nerves before he remembers to breathe properly. Calmed again, Merlin hopes that this trip will be remembered for the moments he and Arthur would share together, not as a reminder of the time Merlin loved and lost without even putting up a fight.

Duncan, the B&B host, interrupts Merlin’s thoughts when he places a teacup by Merlin’s right hand.

“Good to see you lads this morning,” Duncan says, pouring. “I bet the missus a fiver that we wouldn’t see hide nor hair of you until noon.”

“Breakfast is ready,” Maeve calls from the kitchen door. She hands the plates over to Duncan. He balances them on one arm before setting them in front of Arthur and Merlin.

The steam rises off the scrambled eggs. Merlin smiles, knowing Arthur told Duncan that he prefers them that way.

“You ordering?” Duncan asks Mordred.

“Not me,” Mordred says, slapping his hands on the gingham tablecloth. “I’ll be on my way.”

“Suit yourself,” Duncan says. He takes a bottle of HP sauce from the table by the door and leaves it beside Merlin’s teacup.

Merlin stabs a potato chunk with his fork, ignoring the gazes exchanged between the men sitting across the table.

“Good to meet you,” Mordred says to Arthur, making a fist.

Arthur drops his fork and lightly punches Mordred’s fist with his own.

“Thanks for last night,” Arthur says, and Merlin nearly chokes on his tea.

Merlin keeps his eyes wide open, afraid of what he’ll imagine if he closes them and lets his thoughts wander. Better to see the dingy wallpaper and the scuff mark that a boot has left near the bottom of the door frame, than the passionate scene of last night’s escapades he might imagine.

“You too, mate,” Mordred says, jutting his chin toward Merlin.

Merlin can only nod, his mouth full of toast and regret.

~

“All this for love,” Arthur says as he strides away, his arms open wide.

“Love?” Merlin asks.

At first, Merlin thinks he didn’t hear right, but then he notices what Arthur is talking about. The arch of the bridge rises like a drumlin above the water. The white rails are dotted with colour. A river of tourists flows across the span, pausing to take photographs before moving along again from south to north. When space opens up along the side rails, Merlin notices the locks.

He and Arthur have decided to take a look around the city before they head further south into Ireland’s wilder countryside. The Ha’penny Bridge across the Liffey River is a five minute walk from the B&B, and that’s including the side trip to ogle Molly Malone’s breasts.

“I never knew they came in so many colours,” Merlin says, gently lifting a red padlock from where it dangles, its key lost somewhere in the depths beneath the bridge deck.

“Love comes in every colour of the rainbow,” Arthur says with a grin. “You, of all people, should know that.”

Merlin tries to disregard the barb about his homosexuality. He’s never known Arthur to be homophobic, but one never knows what lies beneath the surface of a perceived ally. But this is Arthur, and Merlin refuses to let it worry him. Merlin shakes his head. “I’ve never known you to be so romantic,” he quips.

“Who? Me?” Arthur asks as if it is the most absurd notion Merlin has ever voiced. “I’m as sappy as they get. You’ve just never paid any attention.”

Merlin wonders if Arthur’s new profession of romance has anything to do with Mordred. Perhaps the one-night stand has fuelled Arthur’s passions so he’ll want to stay in Dublin another night. Maybe he’ll try to ditch Merlin. The fleeting thought passes when Arthur tugs on his arm.

“Hey, check it out,” Arthur says. He drags Merlin to the opposite side of the bridge. The red padlock slips out of Merlin’s fingers and rests against the rail where he found it.

Following Arthur’s gaze, Merlin sees the ginger-haired girl with tears running down her cheeks. He stays with Arthur, keeping his blue hoodie in sight through the maze of oblivious tourists. When they get closer to the girl, Merlin sees him—the man on one knee. He holds a box in his outstretched hand.

Merlin stops beside Arthur as the man rises from the pavement. The ginger girl embraces him to the sound of cameras as the more observant tourists click away at the couple’s special moment.

Beneath the cloudy sky, Arthur brings his hands together and leads the applause. Other tourists join in the cheers. Arthur thrusts two fingers into his mouth and wolf whistles as if he’s watching a footie game, rather than a pair of lovers agreeing to commit to each other for the rest of their lives.

Merlin blinks back tears. It’s one of his most embarrassing traits. Movies, funerals, weddings, a proposal on the Ha’penny Bridge—Merlin can cry at the drop of a hat.

As he watches the couple, he feels a pang of sadness mix with the joy over what he has witnessed.

The couple’s utter happiness seems alien to Merlin. He wonders what combination of planetary alignment and spiritual enlightenment would have to occur before he might find himself experiencing the bliss of the newly-engaged couple. With his oversized ears and scrawny frame, Merlin laments that love always escaped his grasp, especially after he started at uni.

Except for their rogue friend Gwaine, who intrigued Merlin on principle, but not for the amount of STD testing Merlin feared he’d have to undergo if he dabbled with him, no one found Merlin interesting enough to claim. But then there was Arthur, sleeping in their shared flat, showering in their bathroom, scratching his balls when he thought Merlin wasn’t looking.

Merlin doesn’t regret that he didn’t have time for a boyfriend while he was in school. Too many late nights of studying got in the way of socialising. Except for the occasional gay soc event, he kept to himself. Fantasising about his toned and outgoing flatmate seemed to suffice.

Now, with school behind him, he finally understands that the opportunity to meet somebody new at school has passed. There won’t be another experience like uni. His chance slipped away like a retreating tide, only noticeable if he had been paying close attention.

Arthur pulled now and again, Merlin was sure of it. He hides a secret smile of schadenfreude when he remembers that Mordred had a long line of others who came before him. At least that is what Merlin suspects. Although it seems that Arthur never dared to get serious with a lover—his father was too overbearing, always checking to make sure Arthur kept up with his studies. He even hired a tutor when Arthur was failing his statistics class. Arthur had to know what he was doing before Uther handed over the reins to the family business that he had promised. Merlin was grateful for Uther’s interventions that made Merlin feel like he had Arthur all to himself.

“What do you say, Merlin?” Arthur says, punching Merlin lightly on the arm, breaking the spell of reminiscence.

“Yeah, we should head back,” Merlin says, forgetting his sadness along with the locks that signified some other lucky couple’s love.

They walk the five minutes back to the B&B where Hunith’s car awaits them. The Liffey continues to flow to the sea.

~

Riding shotgun, Merlin fiddles with the radio as they zoom down the E01. They’ve opted for some sightseeing along the coastal route and Merlin takes care to find the right station. He’s only graduated from uni yesterday, but he knows he’ll have to hold onto the memories the songs of this summer will evoke for the rest of his life.

“How far until we see something interesting?” Arthur asks.

In addition to the music, Merlin is in charge of the navigation. He switches stations every ten minutes as they travel through the mossy dips and craggy valleys on the coast. When the signal fades to zero bars on his mobile, he pulls out the map his mum keeps in the glove box. Unfortunately, he sucks at reading maps.

“You’ve got it upside down, mate,” Arthur says for the third time since they left Belfast the day before.

“If you’re going to continue whinging about it, you can read the map and I’ll drive,” Merlin says.

Arthur throws back his head and laughs while Merlin tries to hide a smile.

Merlin never bothered to learn to drive. City life provided convenient modes of transportation for him. Aside from vacation trips to the countryside with his mum long before uni, he’s never travelled far from the bustling city centres of Europe. He anticipates that will change soon.

“I suppose I’ll have to get my license in California,” Merlin says, and it makes him sad, like losing his innocence in cloud of exhaust and petrol.

Arthur smoothly shifts gears, making it look easy.

“It’s not like you don’t know how to drive, right?” Arthur asks.

“No, I know how, I just never took the test,” Merlin says, although it’s a lie.

A couple years have passed since Gwaine coaxed Merlin into the driver’s seat of his rusty Astra.

Merlin remembers how keen he was to finally be at uni. Everything was so new to him, and although he loved his mum, he longed to stretch his wings and learn more about the world outside Ealdor. When Gwaine approached him after class with the offer of driving lessons, Merlin couldn’t resist. He followed Gwaine like an eager puppy, anxious to learn how to run with the big dogs.

They drove out to the parking lot behind the science buildings. It didn’t take long for Gwaine to familiarise Merlin with his gear stick. However, it was too soon for Merlin. He laughed off Gwaine’s advances and rebuffed him gently. Flattered though he was, Merlin couldn’t imagine baring his pale skinny body for this virtual stranger, no matter how much the thought of it excited him.

Fortunately, Gwaine took it in stride with a toss of his luxuriant hair.

Merlin was glad when Gwaine pursued Percival for the rest of the semester. Merlin and Percival couldn’t have been more different, proving, not for the first time, that Gwaine would try to pull anything that moved.

Thinking back on the experience, Merlin realizes that he was already a little in love with his flatmate when Gwaine tried to get into Merlin’s pants.

He turns his head to look at Arthur and smiles.

“I’ve seen pictures of California, you know,” Arthur says. “The roads are wider than they are here, and easier to travel, unless they’re covered in snow.”

“I’m looking forward to that,” Merlin says, although his heart breaks when he considers that going to California means leaving Arthur on this continent. “I’d probably have a hard time if I had to drive in a city like London or Belfast. The mountain roads should be all right for someone as out of practise as me.”

“We should practise a bit this week while we’re away from the city,” Arthur says, “if you’re concerned about driving in the states.” He takes his eyes off the road long enough to give Merlin a sincere look.

“I don’t think so,” Merlin says with a laugh. “I want to return my mum’s car to her in one piece.”

An hour away from Dublin, Merlin directs Arthur to stop at Kilmichael Point.

“Everyone else must be at church,” Merlin says, gesturing to the empty car park.

“Lucky for us,” Arthur says, closing the car door behind him. He stuffs Hunith’s keys into the pocket of his jeans.

Merlin wanders past the rocks at the edge of the car park. The wind off the water is strong enough to take his breath away. He hunkers down low, making his lanky body smaller against the salty breeze.

Arthur joins him at the edge of the promontory that rises above the sea. He sits on the cold granite beneath an overcast sky. The waves crash, sending a spray into the air.

Merlin sits beside Arthur. The rocks poke his skinny arse that doesn’t have enough padding. Still, it feels good to stretch his legs after riding in the cramped car. He doesn’t speak. The sound of the surf would drown his words even if he could voice them.

Arthur lies back so he’s sprawled on the rock like a starfish.

Merlin leans over, propped up on one elbow. Above him, the warmth of the sun tries to bake its way through the grey sky. Merlin can almost feel the heat as he imagines the clouds parting to give him a peek of the blue behind them. The moments pass in silent repose. Merlin wishes he could ruffle Arthur’s hair as he lies there close-eyed above the angry sea.

~

They stop to eat at an inn where the worn shingle advertises Sunday Roast. The host takes them for tourists and asks if they’ve been to Ferns Castle.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a castle,” Arthur says between bites of his Yorkshire Pudding. He dredges a slice of buttered bread through the gravy that pools on his plate.

It’s so perfectly domestic that it makes Merlin want to weep.

“We’ll go then,” Merlin says, despite wanting to get to the Blarney Castle by mid-afternoon. He’d rather change plans than disappoint Arthur. He agreed to stop for Sunday Roast, although his Nut Roast is nothing more than a flavourless slab of mashed beans in a congealed sauce.

The host directs them to the castle before they leave the inn. After a two-minute walk, Merlin stares at the ruin in the middle of a housing development.

“This was not what I imagined,” Merlin says with a laugh.

“I don’t know,” Arthur says. “This is pretty class. I can imagine the knights jousting over there by the community building.”

“And the king holding court from atop these stones,” Merlin says.

“Within view of the school playground, of course,” Arthur says.

Merlin scans the castle grounds which are bordered by a chain-link fence separating a primary school from the ancient ruin. The swings of the playground sway gently back and forth in the breeze to the memory of the children who once sat in the rubber slings and pumped their feet to go higher. They monkey bars are silent. Merlin remembers what it was like to come across such an oasis of delight when he was a child and could reach from bar to bar, his grip solid and sure.

How simple it was then, to know only the joy of what the next day held, instead of the worry over driving on icy roads and the fear that no one will be able to understand his funny accent—instead of the sadness at losing his best friend.

“Of course,” Merlin agrees, turning his attention back to Arthur.

He’s climbed up the crumbing castle steps, carrying a length of discarded metal pipe he picked up from the litter in the adjacent construction site. The sun has managed to break the clouds apart, at least temporarily. At the top of the weathered stairs, Arthur turns and raises the makeshift sword high with an outstretched arm.

Merlin’s mouth opens in awe when Arthur’s golden hair catches the sun, the brightness shining like a halo encircling his head.

“For the love of Ferns,” Arthur shouts.

Merlin can almost imagine Arthur in his splendid velvet cloak and his mantle of plush ermine, the chainmail glinting out from beneath his kingly wrappings. He’d lead his army of men to conquer new lands far and wide. They’d follow him of the ends of the earth. Of course everyone would love him as much as Merlin did. How could they not?

“For the love of Ferns,” Merlin agrees, pumping his fist. “And feverfew, and tansy, and hyssop, and all the other medicinal plants I studied about these past four years.”

Arthur collapses in laughter and drops his play sword. He runs down the steps, nearly slipping as the gravel makes for a dangerous footway. At the bottom of the steps, he pulls Merlin into his arms and exclaims, “I can’t believe we’ve really done it—we’ve graduated.”

Merlin’s arms wrap around Arthur. His cheek presses against the zip on Arthur’s hoodie. Merlin makes sure to memorise the feel of Arthur’s arms around him, squeezing tight, the smell of his laundry soap faint on his clothes even though it’s the same brand that Merlin uses in the campus laundry.

By the time they arrive at the Blarney Castle, it has closed for the day.

~

Finding a B&B in Cork proved easy. Finding one with two beds available was more difficult.

“I’ll take the floor, mate,” Arthur says as they check in.

“It’s a king,” the landlord says. “You could sleep top-to-tail. That is, if you’re going to sleep at all. This is Cork—you realize. It might get loud.”

“We’ll see who passes out first, then,” Merlin says with a laugh, snagging the key off the counter.

Arthur offers to get the bags from the boot while Merlin checks out the room, not that they’ll have any recourse if the room is infested with vermin or if there’s a creeper in the shared bath. Before they left Belfast, Merlin threw a pair of old sleeping bags and a tent into Hunith’s car, just in case they were caught without accommodations. But Cork is a crowded city without much green space where Merlin and Arthur could pitch a tent in stealth. They’d have better luck finding free camping if they had stayed near the coast with its rocky enclaves and shady glens. Tonight, it’s a manky B&B.

Fortunately, the room passes the smell test, but after living in a cramped flat with Arthur’s dirty socks and sweaty running shorts, Merlin has grown more tolerant. He opens the window to let in some fresh air. Outside, tourists wander along the street below. It’s not yet half six, but Merlin looks forward to visiting the pubs tonight, although he worries about losing Arthur to a dark-haired native again. He plans to keep Arthur close. Maybe he’ll drink so much that he overcomes his fear of being rejected by the only man he has had eyes for in all these years. He tries to imagine how such a scene would play out… a few awkward words, a sultry gaze, and then his lips on Arthur’s, the taste of his lip balm on Merlin’s tongue.

Merlin jumps out of his fantasy when Arthur bursts into the room with their bags.

They spend the evening on Oliver Plunkett Street, moving from pub to pub, never staying in one place for longer than it took to drink a pint of Murphy’s. Merlin thinks that if he can keep Arthur moving, there’ll be less chance of a dark-haired Irishman laying claim to Arthur’s beautiful lips tonight. His eyes mist with sadness when he thinks that Arthur chose Mordred over him, although Merlin stood right in front of Arthur, available and eager to please.

“On to the next,” Merlin says slamming his empty glass on the bar. He shoves Arthur along before anyone can hit on him.

Focussing on the pub crawl keeps Merlin sane.

“Just one more stop,” Arthur says after another pub is visited. He stumbles off the curb and nearly gets run over by a taxi.

Merlin pulls him back onto the pavement before he gets himself killed.

“Get back inside,” the cabbie shouts. “You’re bloody langers.”

Merlin waves him off and sends Arthur on his way down the sidewalk.

“You’re going to get us beaten up,” Merlin says. He claps his hands to Arthur’s shoulders and tries to calm himself.

“Bloody cars shouldn’t be in the street this late at night,” Arthur says.

Merlin pats down Arthur’s arms with his palms. “You shouldn’t be out drinking this late,” he says. He wants to take Arthur by the hand. He wants to feel the warmth of Arthur’s fingers as they curl against his own. But like always, Merlin wants and he wants and he wants.

“We’ll go home after one more,” Arthur says, his words slurred. “How about this one?”

Merlin’s gaze follows Arthur’s pointing finger.

“How do you say it?” Arthur asks.

“An Bodhrán,” Merlin says. A group of revellers push past them and spill into the pub’s entryway.

“What’s a bodhrán? Some kind of microbrew?” Arthur asks.

“No, it’s a drum,” Merlin says. “I used to play one a bit before I started uni.”

“You did not!” Arthur says, throwing his head back with a laugh.

“I did,” Merlin says, and he can’t stop laughing at the drunken mess Arthur has made of himself. “I’ll show you some day.”

Merlin guides Arthur back to the B&B, sorry that the day when he plays a bodhrán for Arthur may never come. Perhaps if Hunith hasn’t donated his old drum to a charity collection, she still has it saved away somewhere in the attic in Ealdor. Merlin makes Arthur promise to remind him when they get back to Belfast later in the week, although he’s so drunk, Merlin doubts he’ll remember any such thing. Merlin’s heart aches when mentioning the return to Belfast. It makes it seem like their trip is almost over.

Somehow they find their way back to the B&B where they crash for the night. They both land two feet apart atop the quilted coverlet, too weary to get under the sheets.

The next morning, Merlin watches Arthur bend over backwards to kiss the Blarney stone. The front of his shirt rides up and Merlin stands mesmerized by the taut abs and by the trail of hair that leads from Arthur’s navel to dip beneath the waistband of his jeans. He licks his lips and averts his eyes away when the castle tour guide proclaims Arthur in possession of the gift of gab. Outside the tower, a teenaged girl notices Arthur taking photos of the castle grounds. She offers to photograph Arthur and Merlin together. Merlin closes his eyes, wishing he could speak his mind.



~

Arthur turns south on N71, reaching the coast at Clonakilty. From here, Merlin can rest his eyes, the smell of sea salt from the crashing waves making him drowsy. Since the only road leads west along the southwest shore of the emerald isle, there’s nothing to see but the rocky shore and the occasional sheep that ventures across the road to graze on the ocean’s side.

Arthur loves to drive, so Merlin lets him zig and zag down every peninsular side road that offers something new. They’re never more than a quarter mile from the sea. The inlets reach toward the highway and Hunith’s car rolls over bridges and through narrow passageways of stone that border the ancient roads.

Although he’s sleepy, Merlin stays awake, ready to agree with Arthur whenever he points out a stunning view or a shaggy sheep that escaped its summer shearing. The roads turn so jaggedly that Arthur rests his hand on the stick, ready to shift in an instant.

Merlin likes the way Arthur’s fingers wrap around the faux leather knob. His silver ring gleams when it catches the sun just right as they round a corner and Arthur has to shift from high to low. His bicep bulges nicely when he puts effort into moving the gear stick. The curve of muscle dips inward where Arthur’s sleeve ends. Settling deeper into the passenger’s seat, Merlin imagines what it would be like to feel his hands gliding across Arthur’s skin, to feel the muscle beneath.

Fighting back a smile, Merlin secretly hopes that Arthur will strain his back or wrench his neck one day on their road trip so he can offer assistance. He closes his eyes, regretting the one time he had the best opportunity to touch Arthur. Like every other time, Merlin skittered away, afraid of what he might awaken.

Healing massage 401—advanced level finals assignment: Find a student and bring them to class for your evaluation. But when it came time to perform a healing massage on one of his classmates, Merlin chose Gwaine for practise and to be his example because he was too shy to ask Arthur to be his guinea pig. Instead of skimming his hands over Arthur’s golden skin, it was Gwaine on the massage table while Merlin kneaded and rubbed, teasing each knot until it flattened beneath his palms.

Perhaps it was just as well, Merlin thinks. At least he passed his coursework using Gwaine as his client.

Merlin lets one hand slip to his thigh. He moves his palm back and forth along the fabric of his jeans, wishing that he could reach across the Styrofoam cups of tea that litter the console to where Arthur sits. He wishes he could feel Arthur’s skin, warm beneath his hands like Gwaine was that day.

Merlin dreams his way through the Ring of Kerry, past Bantry and Kenmare, to Waterville and Dunquin, imagining that his hands could travel the same path as Mordred’s. He can’t erase the memory from a few nights’ past, Mordred’s blue eyes roving over Arthur, his hands touching the places that Merlin never allowed himself to try to touch.

Through the day, they snack on a bag of crisps, a tin of roasted almonds, and a block of cheese. Arthur steers Hunith’s car among the seaside village shops and along the windswept shores of the rocky coast. Using his fingers, Merlin breaks off bits of cheese and passes them to Arthur. They wash it all down with tea and when that runs out, a Thermos of chilled water they filled in a coffee shop back in Cork. It doesn’t matter that their lips touch the edge of the same container. In a tiny uni flat, they’ve shared such intimacies for the past four years.

Arthur pulls Hunith’s car into the car park at Slea Head Farm. Merlin unfolds himself from the seat and yawns when he stands on the gravel. Together they walk across the green velvet path to where the land drops over crags to the sea.

“Take a good look,” Arthur says. He stands behind Merlin and squeezes his shoulders, pointing him toward the open sea.

“I see it,” Merlin says, knowing what Arthur is getting at.

“Across those waves, lies America. That’s where you’ll be a week from now,” Arthur says.

Merlin can’t decide whether there is a touch of sadness in Arthur’s voice.

“A few thousand miles from here,” Merlin says, and he can hardly believe it’s true that he’ll be separated from Arthur.

“You’ll text me,” Arthur says, “to let me know how it’s going?”

“Of course,” Merlin says, his heart breaking when he decides that Arthur is more excited than Merlin is about moving thousands of miles across an ocean to start a new job.

The waves crash as the tide comes in, leaving a mist hanging in the air. Merlin wipes his eyes, blaming his tears on the salty spray.

~

By the time they get to Tralee, Merlin has called ahead to reserve a twin room above the pub. Sean Og is a typical Irish bar with a cheap B&B upstairs. The pub boasts live music seven nights of the week, so tonight is no exception, despite it being a work night for most of the locals.

Arthur and Merlin stow their gear in the room and grab some pub fish and chips just as the music begins, some loud percussion band with an anti-synthetic philosophy. The bartender pulls two-minute pint after pint of Guinness as the crowd sings along to the songs that are familiar only to the people who live in this corner of the island.

The words may be strange, but music is a native language to most and the band encourages participation. During their set, the singer hauls a few unsuspecting pub-goers onto the stage. A pair of girls, drunk on gin, hang onto the nearest band member. They giggle and flirt, their fingernails plucking the strings of the dulcimer, their palms skimming over the skin of the bodhrán.

“Take me!” a blue-eyed lass calls to the bandmates. But they have other ideas as they scan the crowd for attractive folks who will bring the audience to its feet.

“Right here!” Arthur yells, shoving Merlin forward.

Merlin’s feet stutter on the sticky wooden floor.

Before Merlin can protest, the burly drummer locks Merlin’s hand in his grip and yanks him onto the stage. The chanting of the crowd suddenly seems louder as Merlin shields his eyes from the lights that illuminate the band. Above the noise, he hears Arthur’s unmistakable wolf whistle urging him on.

The blokes in the band seem nice enough. They get the newcomers started, familiarising them with the instruments with a thirty-second crash course in music theory. Merlin couldn’t care less, as he’s already drunk his fill. Besides, unbeknownst to most people, he took bodhrán lessons from the time he was in primary school until his sixth form.

The drummer starts off with a steady beat. Merlin’s head swims with the Guinness and he praises God that he already checked in with Hunith before he and Arthur ate their pub fare. The audience begins to clap in rhythm with the drum.

It’s easy for Merlin to be a showman when he’s drunk. His heritage demands it. He finds a bench on the stage and holds the tipper high over his head. Up until now, the girls have attracted more attention, but at six feet tall, Merlin waves the tipper and all eyes turn to him. At the drummer’s downbeat, Merlin plants his arse on the bench. Without letting a split second pass, he begins to play.



A scream goes up in the audience when someone recognizes that Merlin actually knows what he’s doing. The tipper moves smoothly between his fingers, although years have passed since he’s had a lesson or picked up the instrument that is buried somewhere in his childhood home. He taps his foot to the beat and tries to keep up with the rhythm set by the drummer. The girls join in on the strings and the rest of the band urge the audience on with their clapping.

When the song mercifully ends, Merlin feels his head spinning from the rush of alcohol and the thrill of satisfying his adoring fans. Somehow, he gets the bodhrán back to its owner. He sits on the edge of the stage, blinded by the spotlight. Squinting against the glare, he feels hands tugging at him. He slides off the stage and falls into welcoming arms.

Arthur pulls him close and whispers into his ear, “You were amazing.”

Merlin hangs onto him, memorising the satisfaction he gets from being held against Arthur’s warm chest, the thrill of Arthur being pleased with something he’s done.

Everyone wants to buy Merlin a pint. So, he lets them, hoping it makes him shine still brighter in Arthur’s eyes.

~

They finally stumble up the stairs while the band still plays.

Merlin’s head spins. He retches over the toilet, embarrassed at the sounds he makes, although it’s not like Arthur has never heard them before. As flatmates, they have spent the past four years taking care of each other when one sickness or another befell them.

Merlin flushes his sick down with a push of the toilet handle. He hears Arthur running the water in the sink. Sitting back on his heels, he feels Arthur press the damp cloth to his forehead.

“Here you go,” Arthur says. His voice soothes Merlin.

“That’s better,” Merlin says, trying to smile.

“So, it’s not true—what they say about Irishmen and their liquor?” Arthur asks.

Merlin ignores him as his stomach roils.

They linger in the loo, Merlin on his knees. The cool press of the cloth reminds Merlin of how much Arthur cares for him. Moments pass in silence.

“To bed with you,” Arthur finally whispers, easing Merlin onto his feet.

Merlin leans back and Arthur catches his weight. Arthur feels warm and inviting with his arms wrapped around him. The room spins and Merlin reaches for Arthur’s comforting arms with both hands.

“But first,” Arthur says, freeing a hand to rummage through Merlin’s kit for his toothbrush, “this will make you feel better.”

Merlin splays his hands on top of the vanity, steadying himself while Arthur fetches the toothpaste. The experience in the pub has put some of Merlin’s sadness to rest, although he wishes his stomach didn’t feel like a food processer is carving his insides into pulp.

Arthur squeezes out some toothpaste and hands Merlin his toothbrush. Merlin obediently turns on the water and brushes, the mint filling his nostrils and masking the scent of his sickness.

“All done,” Merlin says when he finishes. He giggles because he realizes that he sounds like little boy.

Arthur tosses the toothbrush aside and guides Merlin to the bed that he claimed by leaving his bag on it earlier. Arthur pushes the bag off the edge of the bed and turns down the sheets before lowering Merlin to the bed.

Merlin growls and shoves the remaining covers aside haphazardly. Downstairs, the beat of the music permeates through the pub’s ceiling and into the rooms of the B&B. Merlin’s head hits the pillow and the room spins.

Arthur finds the bin and makes a point of making sure Merlin knows that he has set it beside Merlin’s bed, standing ready should Merlin need it again.

“I see it,” Merlin says, his eyes half-shut.

“I’m just making sure,” Arthur says.

Arthur sits on the twin bed beside Merlin. He turns and leans toward the foot of the bed to tug at the laces of Merlin’s trainers. Merlin cooperates by kicking them off when Arthur finishes untying. They land on the floor with a thud. Arthur strips off Merlin’s socks and Merlin stretches his toes. When Arthur makes to stand, Merlin stops him.

“Come here,” Merlin says, catching Arthur’s hand.

Merlin feels the bed dip again when Arthur sits back down, his eyes on Merlin’s drunken smile.

“Thanks,” Merlin says as his eyes close. “Thanks for taking care of me.”

Merlin memorizes the way the pads of his fingers feel against Arthur’s warm skin in the cool night air of their suite. They’ve touched like this before, in school, once when Merlin was stressed out over his chemistry final. Arthur squeezed Merlin’s shoulders when he sat slumped over his desk, sure that he had failed.

They nearly kissed in another moment when Arthur had a monstrous zit on his cheek. He begged Merlin to look closely at it, making sure the job he had done hiding it with some of Morgana’s makeup had done the trick. Merlin had leaned over Arthur and adjusted his desk lamp to get a better look. With Merlin’s fingers touching Arthur’s jawline, a thumb sweeping the corner of his mouth, Merlin had whispered, “You’re perfect.”

The moment passed like the flick of a light switch. That time, like every other time, Arthur broke the spell by taunting Merlin with a noogie, capturing him in a headlock and mussing his hair with bony knuckles.

Merlin always took it well when Arthur was jovial about it. It allowed Merlin to keep his secret without revealing himself too deeply. Amid their peals of laughter, it was enough for Merlin to know he made Arthur smile.

It would have to be enough to last a lifetime.

Arthur’s hand clasps Merlin’s. In his drunken sleepiness, Merlin smiles and remembers the times they touched like this. As he drifts off to sleep, he could swear he feels Arthur press his lips to his forehead.

Merlin smiles, unwilling to let go of his bliss, even in sleep. He drifts off to dreamland relieved that he has no thoughts of Mordred to fight off tonight.

~

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