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09 November 2010 @ 02:06 am
Gibraltar May Tumble Part 1 for camelots_closet  
Due to the wonderfully long length (...XD) of this, I'll post the next bit tomorrow :D

Title: Gibraltar May Tumble
Author: shes_gone
Rating: NC-17
Word Count: ~25,000
Summary: Merlin's life in London is a bit of a mess: his career trapped somewhere between student and professional, his love life trapped in a relationship gone sour, and most days he feels physically trapped in the tiny, shared flat he can't afford to move out of—until an unexpected opportunity sends him packing for the coast. There, he meets someone who might be in a even worse fix than he is: Arthur, a Victorian-era sea captain who's trapped, a bit literally, between life and death, and who refuses to leave the house he died in over a hundred years ago.
Warnings: I suppose I need to warn for major character death, but, like. Only sort of. Trust me? :D
Disclaimer: Everything Merlin belongs to the BBC and Shine. I've loosely based the first half of this on the 1947 film The Ghost and Mrs Muir (♥Rex Harrison♥), so all of that belongs to either 20th Century Fox or R.A. Dick, who wrote the original novel. The title's Gershwin, ♥.
Author's Note: I hope you enjoy this! It's a product of the prompts: the coastal country house from Fleet Foxes' English House, and lily-of-the-valley. Huge thanks to my immeasurably helpful betas, and to the ever-patient and forgiving mod. ♥!


for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea

ee cummings


Gibraltar May Tumble


"Oh no," the man on the other end of the phone says. "You don't want to live there."

Merlin frowns. "Oh?" he says, clutching his mobile to his ear with a mittened hand. "I—sorry, why not?"

"Well it's—I'm not sure it's still available. Hold on." The sound of shifting papers comes over the line, followed by hesitant typing on a computer keyboard. "Gull Cottage, you said?"

"Yes," Merlin answers.

"And… where did you say you found this listing?"

"I didn't. I was just riding around town, trying to get the lie of the place, and I saw it. The rental sign in the window's got your number on it." He glances at the window again from his position at the cottage's front gate.

"Ah, so you're new to town?"

"Yes."

"Well you don't want to live all the way out there, then! You'll want to be closer to the town centre, where all the action is!" He pauses, probably waiting for Merlin to laugh. "Why don't you come into my office and we can talk about what sort of place you're looking for? I'm free all afternoon, so I can give you the grand tour of our fair village."

Merlin hesitates. "I'd like to see the inside of this one, please. If it's still available. Could you come out and meet me? I've only got my bicycle, and I'd rather not ride all the way in, just to come back out."

The house agent—Mr Coombe, Merlin eventually learns—hems and haws and makes a few more excuses, but finally agrees, on the condition that Merlin come back to town afterwards to see his other, far more desirable rental properties. His blue car pulls up to Gull Cottage a short while later, tires gritting over the stones in the road, and he emerges, folder of papers pressed firmly to his chest as his scarf whips about in the wind.

"So, Mr Emrys," he says, after shaking Merlin's hand and nearly losing his folder of papers in the process, "what brings you to Whitecliff?"

"Oh, you know," Merlin says. "Work."

Coombe's eyebrows rise. "Really? I don't think 'work' has brought anyone to this town in fifty years or so. What sort of work do you do?"

"I'm a pharmacist. Or, I will be. I've just finished my degree, and I've got to do a year of practical training before I can sit the exam and be fully qualified."

"Where did you take your degree?"

"University of London."

Coombe appears mystified. "And they've sent you all the way out here for training?"

"I wanted to go somewhere a bit different," Merlin says. "I've had enough of the city for a while, and a small community pharmacy sounded rather nice."

The truth, of course, is that there are only a very small number of pharmacies in the entire country that will train student pharmacists in both modern medical science and the more… traditional medical science. Which is a coy way of saying magic. Most of them are in London, though there's an odd cluster up north somewhere. Merlin can't quite remember where, because he never actually filled out any of the applications.

He'd meant to, of course, but they were all due the week he and Will had that last horrible row and, well. It got away from him. After months spent avoiding both his career adviser and his mother for fear of the bollocking he knew he deserved from both of them, Merlin had been casting about for how to spend the next year of his life when his adviser called him into his office, out of the blue, looking profoundly relieved.

"How do you feel about the sea?" he asked, as Merlin slumped into the seat opposite his desk.

"Um. For it, I guess. Generally. Why?"

"Because that's where you're going. You've had a huge stroke of luck."

"And now I have to go to sea?"

"Well. The seaside, not out to sea. To the village of Whitecliff."

"Where's that?"

"I have no idea. You should probably find a map."

"And what's there?"

"Magical pharmacy. Complete with magical pharmacist. Looking for a pre-registration student for this year."

"But I missed the deadline."

"So did he. Seems you're a match made in delinquent pharmaceutical heaven."

"That's... perfect," Merlin said.

"Now, look," his adviser replied, thinking Merlin's response sarcastic, "I know a year in some tiny village you've never heard of is probably not what you had in mind for your first year out of university, but this is huge. This will put you back on track to sit the exam with all your classmates next year."

"No, I mean it," Merlin said, "it's perfect." He thought of the small, tension-filled flat he and Will were still sharing because neither of them could afford to move out. "When can I start? Should I move now?"

"First of the year," his adviser answered, and that's how Merlin comes to find himself, three days after Christmas, in front of this empty-but-furnished cottage-for-rent by the sea.

"Well," Coombe says, "I'm very glad to hear Gaius will finally have some help in that pharmacy."

"You know him?" Merlin asks, and he shouldn't be surprised, because this place is clearly just that small.

"Of course. He's been running that place since I was a boy. Wonderful man. A bit off, perhaps, but wonderful."

"Off?" Merlin asks. He met Gaius briefly this afternoon, after his train arrived, and had spoken to him on the phone a few times prior to coming, but that's it.

"Just, you know," Coombe replies, "I think he gets up to something funny in the backroom."

Merlin's eyebrows go up.

"Oh god, nothing... sinister, just, you know. I sometimes think he's back there mixing magical potions or something."

"Oh," Merlin says, and smiles. "I'll be sure to keep an eye out for anything like that."

A particularly biting gust of wind whips up off the sea, blowing Coombe's scarf over his face, and Merlin gives an visible shiver. "Listen to me," Coombe says, "going on about this mediaeval nonsense when I've got a cottage to show you, and convince you not to rent."

Merlin laughs as Coombe unlocks the front door and they step inside, and then he has to laugh again because it's perfect, and he knows immediately that he's going to take it. "So, what's the matter with it, then?" he asks, looking around. "Looks to be in pretty excellent condition."

"The wiring's old," Coombe says. "At least fifty years, by the look of it, but we haven't got any record, so that's just a guess."

Merlin nods and doesn't particularly care about the wiring. He's been known to manage without electricity at all, in months when his finances were particularly lean. Magic, after all, is free. With no further comment from Coombe, Merlin continues his walk-through. He opens the door to the parlour off the front room, and startles at the sight of a face, staring at him from the wall inside.

"Oh," he says, hand going embarrassingly to his chest, "a painting. I thought for a moment—" He shakes his head at himself, and looks more closely at the large portrait. "Who's this, then?"

"The original owner," Coombe says. "He built the place, a hundred-odd years ago. Rumour has it, with his own two hands, but I suspect he had some help."

"A sea captain," Merlin says, taking in the uniform. "That explains the scheme of the decoration, doesn't it?"

"Which is in frightful taste."

"I like it," Merlin says, feeling defensive for no reason at all. "It feels very... sturdy. Like you don't have to worry about the whole place getting blown out to sea because she's probably perfectly seaworthy." Coombe just frowns at him. Merlin suppresses a grin. "What was his name, then?" Merlin asks, turning back to the painting.

"Captain, um… oh, something silly," Coombe says, and pauses before opening his folder of papers and flipping through them. "Ah, yes. Pendragon. Arthur Pendragon."

"Captain Arthur Pendragon," Merlin says, and smiles, because it is a bit silly. "Was rather pretty, to have been a sea captain, don't you think?"

Coombe just sniffs and throws the painting an angry look, before walking back out into the front room. "Have you seen enough? Or do you need to see the upstairs?"

Merlin has seen enough, in fact, but he insists on going upstairs anyway. It's all very quaint, and utterly, bizarrely charming, and the bedroom even has a large pair of French windows that lead to a balcony, complete with a telescope pointed out to sea, for watching ships.

It's more space and more privacy and more stuff than Merlin will ever need, and it's perfect.

He steps up to the telescope and peers through it, and for a moment he can imagine it, the sails rising over the horizon, followed by the great wooden belly, carrying her boys home. "There she is!" he says, in a ridiculous sea-captain-y accent, because Coombe already thinks he's mad. "The HMS Nonsuch and Commodore Hornblower," because it's the first thing that springs to mind.

There's a bellowing laugh from behind him, and Merlin turns around in surprise, because that's a much better reaction than he was expecting. It even sounds a bit like put-on evil, or something, and Merlin thinks for a moment that Coombe is actually playing along.

Coombe, though, isn't laughing, evilly or not. His eyes have gone wide and he looks panicked and horrified, and then he's turned tail and is thundering back down the stairs. Merlin hears the wind outside as the front door is thrown open. He stands very still for a moment, heart thumping. "Right, then," he says, before following.

By the time he's outside, Coombe is already in his car, hands gripping the wheel. "Get in!" he calls. "I'll bring you back for your bicycle later." Merlin walks down the front path and hears Coombe continue to mutter. "You had to see it, didn't you? I didn't want to show you, but oh no, no, you had to see it."

Merlin stops at the gate, turning back to look at the house. "So it's haunted," he says. "How perfectly fascinating."

"Fascinating?" Coombe gripes. "I suppose it's fascinating that this house is driving me to drink, to drink! Four times in the past year I've rented it and four times the tenants have left after the very first night. The owners are in Australia, some distant family of Pendragon, they'd forgotten all about the place until their latest patriarch died and they found the deed in with all his papers, and hired me to try to make a bit of money off it. I write to them, I call them, I tell them, I can't do this, the place is unrentable, release me, I beg them, release me, but they only ever reply 'Rely on you, Coombe,' but I tell you what, I don't want to be relied on. I never want to see this house again. I wish Captain Pendragon had lived to be a hundred—two hundred! I wish he'd never been born."

"I'm terribly sorry, Mr Coombe," Merlin says.

Coombe sighs. "Well. At least now you know why it won't suit you."

"I suppose," Merlin says. "Why does he haunt? Was he murdered?"

"No, he committed suicide."

"Oh." Merlin frowns. "I wonder why."

"To save someone the trouble of assassinating him, no doubt," Coombe replies. "Now, Mr Emrys, if you please, I have several wonderful places to show you in town. Cottages, if you like, or flats, anything you could want."

"I'll take this one," Merlin says.

"Ha-ha," Coombe deadpans. "Do you want a lift back to town, or do you want to meet me at my office?"

"I want to rent Gull Cottage."

Coombe just looks at him.

"I mean, honestly, Mr Coombe," Merlin says, straightening, "if everyone rushes off at the slightest sound, of course the house gets a bad name. But don't you think it's too ridiculous to believe in apparitions and all that... mediaeval nonsense?"

"But... you, you heard him laugh!"

"I heard what might have been a laugh, or what might have been the wind roaring down the chimney."

"Fiddlesticks," Coombe says, and Merlin has to suppress another grin. After a beat, "It'll be quite a commute for you, you know, on your bicycle."

"I like the exercise."

"I don't understand. Why do you want to live here?"

Merlin throws another long, considering glace back at the house, and can't get the image of that painting out of his mind. "I don't honestly know," he admits. "But I do."

Coombe expels a hard breath, and his knuckles go white against the steering wheel. "Fine," he says. "Fine. But. Only on the understanding that I disclaim all responsibility for what may happen."

"Understood," Merlin says, and grins.

♦♦♦

He moves in that night. It takes an hour, all told, and that includes the trip into town to sign Coombe's papers and pick up the duffle of clothes he left at the pharmacy with Gaius for the afternoon while he went house hunting. He hasn't brought anything else.

The first thing he does when he arrives is go back into the parlour, bag still hanging from his shoulder, and flips on the light, which doesn't seem to be suffering for its old wires.

"Are you here, then?" he says to the portrait. There's no response. "Well, if you are, hello. I'm Merlin. I'll be living here for the next year, and... I'll thank you not to be an ass about it."

He waits for a moment, expectantly, but there's nothing. So he goes upstairs and sets about the small task of putting his clothes away in the wardrobe. He turns at every sound, but it's only the wind rattling the windows, or the tree round back, scraping at the eaves.

Down in the kitchen, he roots around in the cabinets on a hunch and emerges victorious when he finds a tin of tea and an unopened bag of biscuits left behind by one of the recent tenants. There are matches, as well, in a drawer, so he fills the kettle and strikes one to light the burner.

The flame hasn't caught before it blows out. With a frown, he lights another, but it blows out, too. He looks around the kitchen suspiciously. Before striking the third match, he angles his body to shield the burner from a draught, or maybe just to hide it from sight, and lights the gas with a silent charm before the match has a chance to blow out.

Smug, he blows on the match and busies himself readying the tea for when the water boils.

He's just measured it when the lights go out.

His heart rate picks up a bit, he's not overly ashamed to admit. "All right," he says, "was that the wiring," into the dark room, still a bit eerily lit by the dancing flame on the stove, "or was that you?"

There's an obnoxious snort of a laugh from one of the darkened corners.

"You gonna show yourself, or what?" Merlin demands.

"If you think you can handle it," comes the answer, smug and bored, and sounding infuriatingly like every over-privileged prat Merlin went to school with.

Merlin just stares in the general direction of the voice, hoping he looks indignant and unimpressed.

He appears slowly, either because materialising takes time or because he's using the low light to be dramatic, and then he's there: the man from the portrait, all broad shoulders and square jaw and blond hair. Out of uniform, he looks younger, maybe not more than a year or two older than Merlin himself.

"So, you're the great Captain, are you? Pendragon, was that it? Arthur?"

Arthur frowns a bit, like he really hadn't counted on Merlin sticking around long enough for them to have to speak.

"I'm Merlin."

"I heard."

"OK. Well. It's nice to meet you."

Arthur scowls. "No, it is not. I am a ghost. What's wrong with you?"

"Just... being polite."

"Well, don't. Why are you here?"

"Because I need a place to live. Why are you here?"

"Because this is my house! And I have plans for it which don't include strangers barging in and making themselves at home."

"So you were trying to frighten me away?"

"You call that trying? Ha! I've barely started. It was enough for the others. Didn't even stop to weigh anchor, they just cut the cables and ran."

"I think it's very mean of you, frightening people. Childish, too."

"Childish? I am a captain in Her Majesty's Navy, I'll have you know. You wouldn't think me childish if you knew all I've done, all the glory I've brought upon this Empire."

"This Empire?" Merlin repeats. "Wow, you haven't been paying very close attention, have you?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, I hate to take the wind out of your sails, there, sailor—but, uh. There is no more Empire."

Arthur stares at him, blankly, for a moment. And then, "Oh, wonderful. The barmy ones are always the hardest to get rid of."

Merlin just laughs. "Why do you have to get rid of me? Seems to me you could use the company."

"I could not. I treasure my solitude."

"Oh yeah? How'd you die?"

"I beg your pardon?"

Merlin just raises his eyebrows.

"Very well," Arthur yields, "ignoring how astoundingly rude that question is, I—it—" he stops.

"Yes?"

"It wasn't suicide, if that's what they told you. That's what they wrote in the paper, but they were wrong."

Merlin can't stop a smile. "You do seem entirely too fond of yourself for that." Arthur glares at him. "So what happened?"

"None of your business."

"I disagree. It happened in this house—what if the danger's still lurking here somewhere? I have a right to know."

"It was just a stupid accident. Could've happened to anyone." Merlin waits, watching Arthur expectantly. Arthur rolls his eyes. "I was in bed, and a storm blew in. I got up to close all the windows, and kicked open the gas heater valve at my bedside without noticing."

Merlin blinks. "Seriously? That's how you died? Just accidentally kicking the gas on?"

"Oh and I suppose you've never made a clumsy mistake in your life."

"'Course I have, but wow, that's bad luck. You really could've done with someone looking after you."

"I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thank you."

"Uh—I know exactly one thing about you, and I already know that's not true."

"And I already know that you—are an idiot."

"Oi, now who's being rude?"

Arthur sniffs. "Your kettle has been boiling for nearly a minute and you haven't even noticed."

"Oh," Merlin says, blinking in surprise. "Thanks." He turns off the flame, eyes now well adjusted to the dark, and pours the water to steep. He hesitates before returning the kettle to the stove. "I'd offer you some," he says, "but I'm not sure if you..."

Arthur shakes his head no and shrugs.

After a moment, Merlin says, "Well I'm glad you didn't kill yourself."

Arthur looks surprised, and shifts uncomfortably. "For all the difference it made."

"If it makes you feel any better," Merlin says, "you'd be dead of old age by now anyway, so there's really no point feeling sorry for yourself anymore."

Arthur stares at him. "God, you are an idiot."

"But you're glad I'm here anyway, aren't you?"

"I've had enough of this, I'm going upstairs," Arthur says, and leaves.

"Stay out of my bedroom," Merlin calls after him.

"My bedroom!"

"Not anymore!" There's no response, and Merlin chuckles to himself as he goes to strain his tea. "Oi," he adds, loudly, "the least you could do is turn the lights back on!"

All the lights in the kitchen and in the hall and, Merlin has no doubt, in the entire rest of the house suddenly blaze at full strength.

"Not all at once! You're gonna blow out the—" there's a pop, and the house lurches back into darkness, "—wires," Merlin finishes. "Prat."

♦♦♦

Merlin returns home from his first day of work, pink cheeked and smiling. He flips the light switch out of habit before he remembers the power's still out, kicks off his boots and walks back into the kitchen, where he lights the lamps with a whispered word and then sets about making dinner.

"Oh good, you're back," Arthur says, deadpanning sarcasm and appearing in the doorway. "I was terribly worried you'd get lost between here and town and I'd never see you again."

Merlin grins at him. "Was a bit dodgy there for a while, but I found my way."

"Did you fix the lights?" Arthur asks, frowning up at the ceiling. "When did you do that? I thought you said you needed to call someone."

"Oh," Merlin says, shit, "um. Was a simpler job than I thought—just needed a new fuse. I picked one up in town, and replaced it just now. No problem."

"Mmm," Arthur grunts, like he hasn't got any idea what Merlin's talking about. Which he probably doesn't.

"I had an excellent first day of work," Merlin says, "thanks for asking."

"I didn't."

"I was a bit overwhelmed in the morning, to be honest, because the place was a beehive of cold-and-flu foot traffic—first day open after the holidays and all—but it calmed down a bit around lunchtime."

"Don't care," Arthur sing-songs, leaning against the kitchen table and crossing his legs at his ankles.

"And then, right before I left, this old man came in to pick up his wife's prescription, and after I gave it to him, he clasped my hand and thanked me so genuinely for it, saying how it's the only thing in the world that ever makes his wife feel better, and he doesn't know how they'd get by without us and the work we do."

Arthur frowns at him, his lip curling a little.

"It was really nice," Merlin insists.

"All right, firstly, some ill old man holding your hand is appalling, and secondly, it was your first day, so you are not responsible for any of his gratitude."

"Look, if you insist on haunting me, you might at least be more agreeable about it."

"Why should I be agreeable?"

"Because so long as we're living—I mean, if we're to be thrown together so much, life's too short to be forever barking at each other."

"Your life may be short, Merlin, but I have an unlimited time at my disposal."

"I only hope when I reach the afterlife, I have a little more dignity."

"Doubtful."

"It's too bad you can't be nice, because I got you a little something in town today, but now I don't think I'm going to give it to you."

"What is it?"

"Doesn't matter, you don't deserve it."

"Why should I be nice before I even know what it is? Could be utter rubbish, for all I know."

"Guess you'll never know," Merlin says, raising his shoulders.

There's a minute's silence while Merlin busies himself with food.

"I glad you had a nice first day," Arthur finally says, haltingly. "And I suppose that old man sounds… not completely appalling."

Merlin grins at the stove, but arranges his face into something more placid before turning around. "Thank you," he says. He goes over to his bag, and pulls out Arthur's prize.

Arthur frowns. "What's this?"

"A book."

"I can see that. It looks like a school book."

"It's not! Although, I suppose it could be," Merlin says, scanning the cover. "I borrowed it from the library for you. Britain in the Twentieth Century," he reads. "I thought you might like to get caught up a bit."

Arthur frowns at it, and then at Merlin. "Not at all worth my being nice," he says.

Merlin pulls a face, but then his eyes go wide. "Oh wait—can you not read it?"

Arthur scowls. "Of course I can read it, you fool. What sort of uneducated plebe do you take me for?"

Merlin rolls his eyes. "I mean physically, can you read it? Can you turn the pages? Or are you gonna need help with that?"

"I am not going to need help with that," Arthur says, "foremost because I'm not going to read it, but also because, yes, I can turn the sodding pages."

"Oh yeah? How?"

"As befitting any ghost worth his salt," Arthur says, haughtily, "I have limited telekinesis."

Merlin grins, impressed. "Which includes turning the pages of a book?"

"Of course," Arthur scoffs.

"Let's see it, then." Merlin sets the book on the table. "Open 'er up."

Arthur glares at him, but then looks at the book and ticks his head to the side, pulling open the cover and a handful of pages in succession. Merlin watches sections on the Second Boer War and the death of Queen Victoria appear and disappear. He grins. "Well done."

Arthur rolls his eyes and looks around the kitchen exasperatedly. "Merlin, honestly," he says in disgust a moment later, "the state of this kitchen is a disgrace. I wouldn't believe you'd only been here less than a week if I hadn't been counting the days myself. Do you ever clean up after yourself?"

"It's not really that bad, is it?" Merlin asks, scanning the sink and countertop. There are a fair few unwashed dishes, it's true, but it's nothing compared to how the kitchen he and Will used to share often fared.

"Not that bad?" Arthur repeats, astounded. "For god's sake, if we were at sea and you left the galley in this state for five minutes, I'd throw you overboard."

Merlin raises his eyebrows at him, and can't keep back his smile.

"If you think that I am joking, Merlin, I—"

"Oh, I know you're not, don't worry," Merlin laughs. "And you're right. I'm sorry I've let it get this bad. I'll take care of it right now."

With a thrill of nerves, Merlin looks at the mess and pushes it, and suddenly it all springs to life, the sink turning on and sudsing up, the dirty plates and pots and pans queuing up for a scrub and a wash and a dry, the cupboards springing open to accommodate them.

"What—" Arthur cries, and just watches a moment, astounded. "What on earth is this?"

Merlin smirks. "This would be unlimited telekinesis."

Arthur stares at him. "How are you doing that?" he demands.

Merlin just smiles.

"How are you doing that?" Arthur grits out.

"How do you think I'm doing it, Arthur?"

"I don't know! That's why I—"

"Yes, you do."

Arthur gapes.

"Just say it. The first word that came to your mind, just say it."

Arthur draws his mouth tight.

"Go on, you can do it. Just two little syllables. Starts with an 'm'. Ends with an... 'agic'."

"There's no such thing."

Merlin chuckles. "I could argue there's no such thing as ghosts, but you don't see me doing that, do you?"

♦♦♦

Merlin's first week rolls quickly into his second, and then his third, and if winter has a bit more bite to it a hundred yards from the sea than it does in the city, Merlin finds he doesn't mind overly much.

"Are you enjoying yourself here in Whitecliff?" Gaius asks him one evening, watching Merlin wrap the long woollen scarf his mother sent him around his neck in preparation for his ride home.

"You know," Merlin says, "I am. More than I thought I would."

"Have you found anyone to spend time with, when you're not stuck here with me?"

Merlin looks up at him and smiles. He had an instant fondness for Gaius when he arrived, which has already blossomed into something steady and firm, and feels like a piece of home. Mr Coombe, the house agent, wasn't at all wrong about the old pharmacist being a bit off, but he also wasn't wrong as to exactly why, so Merlin doesn't mind. Gaius is forgiving and kind, but expects a lot of him, and Merlin finds he really enjoys working with him.

"I like being stuck here," Merlin says, cheeky, and Gaius tuts at him. "Why'd you decide to bring on a student this year, anyway?" he asks. "After going so many years without one, I mean."

Gaius looks at him, and shakes his head. "I don't know that I know, really," he says. "I hadn't thought about it in ages, and then this year it just occurred to me, that I ought to be passing on the trade. Lucky I wasn't too late."

"Lucky," Merlin says, grinning.

"But I'm not ready to retire just yet, if you've got your eye on my premises," Gaius quips, and Merlin grins harder. "And don't think I didn't notice that you haven't answered the question—you're not too lonely, are you?"

"I'm really not," Merlin says, honestly.

♦♦♦

"You better not have moved any of my pieces!" Merlin calls into the parlour from the kitchen.

"As though I would need to cheat against you," Arthur calls back.

Merlin grins and tips a bit more whiskey into his tea, fighting off the last of the chill from his commute home. "That's the only way you're winning this one, and you know it," he says, walking back into the parlour. "Because I've won."

"You have not."

"I have! You can stare at the it for another fifteen minutes, if you like, but it's still checkmate."

"Haven't you have any friends yet?" Arthur says, glaring at him without any heat. "I wish you would spend more time in town."

"What, and leave you here all by your lonesome? I wouldn't dream of it."

Arthur just raises a resigned eyebrow.

"'sides," Merlin continues, "I've not got a whole lot of candidates for pub companions around here. Whitecliff doesn't exactly cater to my demographic."

"What do you mean?" Arthur asks.

"Just a bunch of pensioners, isn't it? Lovely people, don't misunderstand, but, well—not to be terribly morbid, but I'm not sure the pharmacy here's going to be doing a booming trade for many more years."

Arthur looks oddly frozen for a moment, then nods his understanding and turns his attention back to the board. "There's a move in here somewhere," he mutters, after a bit.

Merlin snorts. "What are you gonna do, bleed on me?"

"What?" Arthur says, darting vaguely concerned eyes at Merlin.

"Look, you stupid bastard, you've got no arms left!" Merlin replies, grinning.

Arthur frowns at him, expression somewhere between confusion and alarm. Merlin just continues to grin at him, enjoying the warm rush of the whiskey in his veins. Arthur shakes his head. "I don't lose at chess," he says. "So stop your nattering and let me focus."

"You're a loony," Merlin mutters, but falls silent for a few more minutes, letting Arthur grasp at strategic straws. There's something oddly endearing in the earnest knit of his brow, and Merlin finds it suddenly easy to imagine him in his element, commanding his men with careful consideration and confidence. Something warm curls unexpectedly through Merlin's stomach, and he has to look away.

"It used to be a nice place, you know," Arthur says, "Whitecliff," and there's something in his voice that makes Merlin frown.

"It's still a nice place," he replies, after a moment. "It's just—well, I'm only here a year, anyway. Not looking to get overly invested."

Arthur glances at him and away, and nods.

"Had you lived here long?" Merlin asks. "Before you—"

"I was born here," Arthur answers. "My family home is the one on the hill, you must have seen it. Just ahead of the, um, I think it's a golf course, now?"

Merlin chuckles. "That grand old manor house? Of course. Let me guess, it'd been in your family for generations before you came along."

"Yes," Arthur answers, looking a bit puzzled.

"And your people ran this town. Were the government. Watched over all the peasants."

Arthur frowns at him. "Is there something wrong with that, in your estimation?"

Merlin smiles, shakes his head. "Tell me about it," he says.

Arthur eyes him a moment, unhappily. "My family were very influential, yes. I don't know that we 'ran this town', but my father held a prominent seat in government, and he was a generous patron and benefactor of the people here. He ferried them through some very hard times, with his philanthropy and investments, money lending. He loved these people, and they loved him. It pains me to know that his legacy is… fading."

Merlin blinks at him, surprised at this burst of candidness. "A hundred years is a long time," he says.

"I suppose, but, if I hadn't—" Arthur falls silent, and there's pain in the set of his jaw. "He left, after I died. Sold the manor and never came back."

"And you think that's," Merlin says, frowning, "that that's why this town is in decline, a century later? Because your father wasn't here to protect and care for its people?"

Arthur stiffens. "And neither was I."

Merlin can't help a bemused smile. "And that doesn't strike you as absurdly paternalistic and condescending? They're people, Arthur, not children."

"I wouldn't expect you to understand," Arthur replies.

"I'm not surprised," Merlin shoots back, chuckling.

After a long moment, "Oh all right, fine," Arthur says. "I concede this match."

Merlin grins. "You are indeed brave, Sir Knight, but the fight is mine." He sends all the game pieces scuttling back to their starting position with a push of magic.

Arthur scowls at him. "You're lucky I'm not a knight—I'd have you burnt at the stake."

"And then I'd be the one haunting you. Your turn at white, go ahead."

Arthur sighs and eyes the row of white pawns. "Once more into the breach, dear friends," he says, and Merlin rolls his eyes as one of them springs forward.

♦♦♦

Spring arrives rather suddenly, and rather wonderfully, and Merlin makes himself comfortable in the afternoon sun on a particular Sunday, enjoying a book in the garden.

"Wow, I didn't know you could leave the house," he says in surprise, when Arthur appears next to him.

"I can go wherever I like," Arthur replies. "I just have no reason to."

"Yes, no point in seeing the world, certainly."

"Shut up. I've come out here because I am beginning to worry that there has been some sort of calamity."

"Oh?"

"Your little mobile device telephone has been making the most obnoxious noises imaginable for hours. A great many people seem to have something to tell you."

Merlin chuckles. "Sorry, should've shut the ringer off when I left it inside."

"You were expecting this?"

Merlin nods sheepishly. "Yeah. It's, uh—my birthday."

"What?" Arthur says, blinking down at him. "You didn't tell me that."

Merlin grins. "Would you have baked me a cake, if I had?"

Arthur tuts. "Well. Many happy returns, anyway," he says, and meets Merlin's gaze.

Merlin blinks up at him, and for some reason it's a moment before he can speak. "Thank you," he says.

There's a strange beat, and then Arthur looks away, turning his eyes out past the garden. "Why is it," he says, "that you don't want to speak with this legion of admirers, calling to wish you well?"

"It won't actually be a legion," Merlin says, sighing. "It'll just be my mum, who I'll phone later, and then a great many calls from—" He stops, not really sure why he doesn't want to say the name.

"Will?" Arthur supplies a moment later, and Merlin glances up at him in surprise. "I read his name on the… bit that lights up."

"Ah," Merlin says. "Yes, Will." He marks the page in his book and sets it down, feeling Arthur's eyes on him.

"He's the one you used to live with?"

Merlin nods.

Arthur just watches him, for a moment, before, "You don't think that you ought to find out what he wants?"

"No," Merlin answers. "I can guess. Birthdays always make him a little… sentimental."

"I see," Arthur says, and if he's curious about what that means, exactly, he doesn't ask.

Merlin lies back in the grass and closes his eyes, sighing contentedly at the sun's warmth on his face, and the welcome prickle of grass at the back of his neck. There's silence, for a few long minutes, and when Merlin opens his eyes, Arthur's still standing next to him with an almost wistful expression on his face as his eyes dart around the greening landscape, and up to the sun.

"Can you feel it at all?" Merlin asks, squinting up at him.

Arthur looks at him quickly, startled, and looks embarrassed. "No," he says. "Sometimes the memory of it is clear enough that I think I can, but—no. Not really."

Merlin watches him turn and walk away, examining the garden pointedly.

"Oh, I say," Arthur says a few minutes later, crouching down to look at a low growing plant. "I can't believe these are still here." He extends a hand towards tiny buds.

"What are they?"

"Lily of the valley," Arthur replies, and he's smiling in a way Merlin's never seen him do before. "I planted these! Well, not these, I suppose. They're perennials, but I don't think they live quite this long. Someone must have tended them, oh that's wonderful."

Merlin can't fight his grin. "Are those the ones that're all droopy? I think my mum likes those."

"They do not droop, they hang," Arthur says disapprovingly. "It's a sign of humility."

Merlin snorts. "Humility? Odd choice, for the likes of you. Unless—wait, you liked to pretend they were bowing down to you, didn't you?"

"Oh, shut up," Arthur scoffs, returning to his full height. "Lily of the valley portend the second coming of Christ, I'll have you know, and the return of happiness. They are also said to endow men with the power to envision a better world." He sniffs and holds himself up very straight.

Merlin barks a laugh. "Why on earth do you know that?"

Arthur frowns, but relaxes a little and rolls his eyes. "There was a lot of time to read at sea," he explains. "The so-called 'Language of the Flower' was very popular a hundred years ago, and some idiot I was sailing with brought a book about it onboard."

Merlin grins. "So, you can't be bothered to read a very basic, cursory history of the last hundred years, but you will memorise the contents of a book on the Language of the Flower."

"Like I said," Arthur grits out, "I had a lot of time on my hands at sea."

"Whereas you've got so much keeping you busy now," Merlin retorts.

"Oh, will you shut up—clearly it's all a load of bollocks anyway: these flowers haven't brought me Christ, happiness or a better world—they've only brought me you."

Merlin grins. "Dunno, I think that sounds about right."

♦♦♦

"This is a bad idea," Merlin says, underneath his breath as soon as they're far enough down the dock that he can get away with talking to himself.

"Nonsense," comes the disembodied voice next to him. "This is a brilliant idea."

"Arthur, I don't think you understand how little I know about this. I've literally never. been. on a sailboat. Let alone sailed one. Alone."

"You're not alone, Merlin. You've got me. And I was practically brought up on a sailboat."

"Didn't they already have those giant metal things with propellers and such, by the time you were in the navy?"

"Yes, but that's not what I mean. Look where I was raised. We kept several boats in this very harbour."

"Fat load of good that's gonna do me, you and your extremely limited telekinesis."

"Oh, stop your moaning, you're going to love this."

Merlin rolls his eyes, and then stares at the boat they've—he's—just rented with great trepidation. "Will they come rescue me if I flip it over?"

"We are not going to capsize."

"What if I just get stuck out there?"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Merlin. Two little syllables? Starts with an 'm'? Ends with an—"

"I hate you."

"Get in the boat."

"If I die, I'm moving into your house permanently."

"...you're right. Perhaps we shouldn't do this."

"Oh, fuck off, I'm getting in the boat."

Somehow, improbably—impossibly, someone who didn't know about magic might say—and with a great deal of arguing with seemingly himself, Merlin gets the dinghy away from the dock and out of the marina. It's inelegant, to say the least. Once they're out far enough, Arthur materialises, which helps Merlin relax a little bit, if only because he knows exactly where to direct the glare with which he responds to every barked order.

But then, seemingly all of sudden, he's done it. The wind's behind them, and all the various lines and sheets and halyards and downhauls—ropes, for fuck's sake, is what they all are, just ropes—have been tightened or loosened or tightened then loosened, and the sails are full, and the boat's cutting through the water smoothly and quickly.

The sun is on Merlin's face and the wind's in his hair, there's a spray of salt water on his lips and it's amazing. He can't help smiling, and after a few minutes he starts to feel sheepish for being so difficult about it. He looks at Arthur, perched on the side of the boat ahead of him, wanting to thank him, or apologise, or something, but the words die on his lips. Arthur is fucking gorgeous out here, all blond hair and blue eyes in the sunlight, and Merlin feels his heart break inside his chest, because Arthur's skin and clothes are bone dry, despite the sea's spray, and his hair rests motionless against his head, like there's no wind at all and he's never looked less real than he does right now.

The pain in his expression, however, is very real, and Merlin struggles to suppress the urge to reach out to him. They sail in silence for some time, the wind strong at their backs.

"It's picking up," Arthur eventually says of the wind, eyeing the arc of the sail above him. "We should reduce sail. Furl the jib first."

"'Furl the jib'," Merlin repeats, flatly. "Arthur, seriously, you've got to use words that have actual meanings."

"Yes, yes, all that means is—oi, look out!" Arthur shouts, and Merlin jumps as something comes swinging at him in his peripheral vision.

He leans back just in time, and the boom swings in front of him and across the boat. Merlin reaches for it with his magic, trying to stop it, but his magic is spread very thin right now, invested in a dozen inexpert knots and sticking spells all over the boat, and he can't get a grip on the bloody giant metal pole before it slices right through Arthur.

It slams to its limit after that, the impact reverberating through the fibreglass underneath Merlin's feet, and he just stares at Arthur in breathless, wide-eyed horror for a long moment.

"Are you all right?" he finally manages.

"Of course," Arthur says, rolling his eyes. "I'm already dead, remember?"

"Yes, but—"

"And I told you to watch for accidental gybing while we were running, didn't I? You're lucky that didn't damage any of the rigging."

Merlin clenches his jaw against the frustration and anger and hurt that bubble up inside his chest. "And I told you that I've got no fucking idea what that means!" With a torrent of magic and the angry rustle of fabric, both sails come whipping down from the mast, rolling and folding and putting themselves away.

"What are you doing?" Arthur demands.

"Reducing sail," Merlin grits out, angry and defiant. "I'll just magic us back."

Arthur's angry expression stutters towards something like regret, but he doesn't say anything.

"We should get back anyway," Merlin says, and he hates how apologetic it sounds. "I can't really afford another hour's rental."

Arthur nods, and, with a sigh, Merlin reaches inside himself and guides the boat back towards shore.

♦♦♦

The walk home from the harbour is long and tense, and Merlin has to stop himself several times from apologising to the invisible man next to him, because it really wasn't his fault, dammit, even if Arthur did look like a heartbroken little boy for most of what was supposed to be a pleasant day on the water.

They're nearly there when Arthur says, "It was too much to ask of you," surprisingly close to Merlin's ear. "I shouldn't have expected you to be able to sail without any experience, and I had no right to get angry."

It's a bit pathetic, how quickly Merlin feels the anger drain out of him. "Apology accepted," he says, and they walk in silence for a bit. "Could you feel it?" Merlin asks, hesitantly. "When it—went through you?"

"No," Arthur answers, after a moment.

"Well, that's good. I suppose."

"Did you enjoy yourself at all?" Arthur asks, sounding sheepish.

Merlin smiles. "You know what?" he says. "I really did. I mean, most of it was rubbish, don't get me wrong, but—for that bit in the middle, when it was working? That was brilliant."

"Bit like flying must be, don't you think?" Arthur says, and Merlin's heart seizes up a little.

By the time Gull Cottage appears over the hill before them, the anger between them is not only gone, but forgotten, and Merlin's laughing heartily at Arthur's retelling of one of the more elaborate blunders the men serving under him at sea had committed, through ignorance or mischief, or, more likely, a combination of the two.

And then, mid-sentence, Arthur goes silent, and Merlin has only half a moment to wonder why before he sees the man waiting for him at the gate.

♦♦♦

"I hope you don't think I'm a creepy stalker, or something," Will says as he follows Merlin into the kitchen. "I just really wanted to see you."

"Who gave you this address?" Merlin asks. "My mother?"

Will shakes his head. "No, she wouldn't. I, uh. I got the name of your pharmacy from the university, and then came down here, thinking I'd just wait 'til you were working, but that old man you work for told me where to find you. He seemed pleased that you'd finally have some company."

"Mmm," Merlin says, eyeing the kettle thoughtfully before going for the beer in the fridge instead. "You're not earning a lot of non-stalker points, I'll be honest."

Will drops his eyes embarrassedly as Merlin hands him a beer. "Bit of a weird place to live, isn't this?" Will says. "Kinda creepy, all the way out here, and the sea and everything. Why don't you live in town?"

"It's not creepy, and I like it. All the open space and the privacy—all the breathing room. It's a major improvement over my last situation."

"Were you really that unhappy?" Will says. Merlin just looks at him. "I mean, before. Before I bollixed it all up."

Merlin sighs and looks out the window. He wonders if Arthur's here right now, listening.

"Merlin, I'm sorry," Will says, cutting to the chase. "I was—stupid. Dunno what I was thinking, and I'm—so sorry. I'd give anything to take it back. I think about you all the time, and—is there any way you could—I mean, would you—"

Will trails off, and Merlin lets the silence hang between them a long moment. "No," he says. "There isn't. I appreciate the apology, and I do forgive you." Will looks up at him. "But that wasn't really the problem, was it? It was only ever a symptom, Will. You sleeping around. The real problem was that you and I just don't work like that."

"We could do. I promise, I won't—"

"No, we couldn't. I'm not sure we ever really did, we just didn't know any better."

Will looks at him. "Merlin, I—I've never loved anyone the way I love you."

Merlin shakes his head. "You've just never loved anyone as long as you've loved me. I've loved you a long time, too, Will—you're my oldest friend. But." He sighs. "Sometimes people stay together forever because they're so well-matched, and sometimes they stay together just because it's familiar, comfortable. And that's—that's not good enough on its own, Will. Not for either of us."

Will watches Merlin a long moment, considering, and takes an unhappy pull from his beer.

♦♦♦

Will is asleep on the sofa in the parlour when Merlin climbs into the bed upstairs. He's just shut off the light when he sees Arthur in silhouette, standing in front of the window.

"So that's Will," Arthur says, "your old... flatmate."

"That's Will," Merlin answers, carefully.

"And what brought on this visit?"

"Do you expect me to believe that you didn't listen to our entire conversation?"

Arthur's quiet a moment, and Merlin wants to turn the light back on, because he's had more than enough of talking to an Arthur he can't see today, and he'd really like to be able to see his face through this conversation. He doesn't move, though.

"Why's he still here?" Arthur asks.

"Because it's a long walk into town, and I'm not gonna make him go rent a room. We've made our peace."

"He hurt you," Arthur says, voice low and cold, and Merlin can't speak for a moment.

"Yes," he finally whispers.

"And you would let him stay, so that he might do it again?"

"I'm not letting him stay," Merlin argues, "I'm just letting him sleep on the sofa for one night. I don't intend to be hurt again."

"No captain intends to pile his ship up on a reef, but it happens!"

Merlin suppresses a smile. "Your concern is touching."

Arthur sniffs. "I just don't want you to be foolish."

"Well, thank you, but there's no need to worry. He's going back to London in the morning, and I'll be free as a bird."

"And you trust him? Trust that he won't sneak up here and—" Arthur cuts off.

"Captain Pendragon, are you worried about my virtue?"

"No, I—" Arthur falters, embarrassed, and Merlin blinks at the warmth inexplicably spreading in his chest. "Well, I'll just go down and keep an eye on him, shall I?" Arthur says, after a long minute. "Make sure he doesn't steal any of my things."

"Good night, Arthur," Merlin says, and gets no response. He lies awake in bed for some time, listening to the sea through the open window, and breathing in the faint fragrance of the lilies in the garden, carried into his bedroom on the breeze.

♦♦♦


Part Two
 
 
"We can name it later."minor_fifth on November 9th, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC)
I LOVE THIS. I LOVE IT SO HARD.

Can't wait to read the next part! (And of course I hold out hope for a happy ending even though one of them is effectively dead... says something about my sense of reality, doesn't it)
katzenjammerd: Kate Bush Is Unimpressedkatzenjammerd on November 9th, 2010 10:47 pm (UTC)
This is brilliant and such an interesting premise. Can't wait for the next part!
I MUST: Boosh --> Escape Realitysabriel75 on November 9th, 2010 11:55 pm (UTC)
Gorgeous characterization. Sweet and cautious but ever so enchanting.

Looking forward to reading its continuation.
wintersnap: merlin.BRADLEY&COLS {planning our futurewintersnap on November 10th, 2010 03:04 am (UTC)
Oh this is lovely!

I adore the setup and Arthur's gruffness that hides such a tender heart and loneliness and the scenery descriptions and, well, everything.
Amy: merlin: pendragonquarterwhore on November 10th, 2010 03:31 am (UTC)
Oh, this is so lovely. I love the world you've created here. The characters ring true to canon but are still unique to this. ♥
einahpets: Metal Pendragonreni_m on November 10th, 2010 08:29 pm (UTC)
Wonderful fic so far. Eagerly awaiting part two!
Anty: serving arthurantychan on November 10th, 2010 11:50 pm (UTC)
*looks* But...BUT...WHERE'S THE 2nd PART OMG?! *bites nails* This is lovely. And...Arthur! ;_;
boycotting FOX because they terminated T:SCC.: merlin} i thought you were going for a hxbriyeon on November 14th, 2010 01:47 am (UTC)
Am really not good at concrit so I'll just say that I really quite like this. =D
Yenny: Merlinyenny2206 on November 17th, 2010 06:06 am (UTC)
I love it!!
Jeannieshes_gone on November 24th, 2010 03:50 am (UTC)
Thanks again for your help! &hearts!!!
(Deleted comment)
Jeannieshes_gone on November 10th, 2011 08:43 pm (UTC)