Title: There's more to the Picture
Character/s: Merlin, Arthur, Gwen, Uther
Summary: There was always the fear, gnawing at Arthur, that perhaps it was more than work that was keeping Merlin away.
Word Count: 1500 (um... well, it's a neat round figure...)
Prompt: 125 - Priority
Author's Notes: This also fills my hc_bingo square 'Exhaustion' - that's 6/25 done. Thanks to deinonychus_1 for the beta.
There’s more to the Picture
Arthur peered sleepily at the alarm clock beside their bed. 2:14am. It didn’t matter how carefully Merlin tried, or how much he promised, he was still getting to bed later and later, and still always waking Arthur up when he did so.
Arthur could hear the tiredness in his voice, the weariness as Merlin settled down into the bed with a heavy sigh.
Arthur had already had over 3 hours sleep and knew he’d easily get 4 or 5 more before Merlin’s alarm woke them. There was no point in waiting up these days; Merlin rarely arrived home much before midnight and when he did then all he wanted to do was sleep.
“Don’t worry about waking me. Some days that’s the only time I ever see you.”
Merlin nestled close, but his eyes were already closing. “I don’t want you to always be tired because I don’t let you sleep properly,” he murmured.
Arthur looked down at him. Even in just the faint light from the street outside he could see how exhausted Merlin looked. He wondered if this was really worth it.
“I’m not tired,” he lied, because it was 2am and of course he was a little bit right then. But it was nothing, not in comparison. “But I’m worried about you.”
“I’m fine,” Merlin breathed.
He wasn’t, because it wasn’t like Merlin to just say two words. And there was always the fear, gnawing at Arthur, that perhaps it was more than work that was keeping Merlin away.
“You know I love you, don’t you?”
But Merlin was already asleep.
Another week passed. Twice Merlin didn’t even make it to bed and Arthur found him on the sofa in the morning, curled up under Arthur’s coat and the sleeping bag from the camping equipment in the hall cupboard. It was supposed to be for a holiday, but Merlin never had time to take one so everything sat there, pristine and untouched.
Arthur tried not to feel hurt by it, tried to believe Merlin when he stammered apologies over the steaming mug of coffee that Arthur pushed at him.
“I hate waking you up. It’s not fair on you.”
Arthur didn’t have dark circles under his eyes. He didn’t look bone-deep weary as he stumbled across their flat to the bathroom. His shoulders didn’t sag when his mobile bleeped for attention.
“Leave it,” Arthur told him. “Have breakfast first.”
Merlin gazed at him apologetically, but answered his mobile. It was the gallery again, pushing him to get the work finished faster. Merlin was already on his feet, picking up his coat and heading for the door.
He took the toast that Arthur pressed into his hand, kissed goodbye too quickly, without enough passion.
Arthur wondered if he’d soon stop getting even that.
Arthur’s coat smelled of Merlin and paint because he must have held it close when he slept. It was the familiar, reassuring smell that should have been in his bed instead. He hung it on the back of his chair in the office, keeping it with him because he had no idea when he’d see the real thing again.
When Arthur had first taken up with an artist, his father hadn’t approved because Merlin was never going to make much money. Except, suddenly Merlin’s work had taken off, become successful, popular. Uther had just as suddenly become interested in Merlin, almost approving. There had been sales, a small exhibition, then another one, and another. Finally he’d been offered an Artist’s Room at the Tate Modern and ever since had been working flat out on the new pieces he wanted to exhibit. There was less than a month to go before it opened and still apparently there were pieces not quite ready, not quite perfect.
There was nothing Arthur could do to help. Half the pieces in any of the galleries were completely alien to him. No matter which way he looked at them, he still couldn’t see what they were supposed to be. But he could see what Merlin’s pieces were, and found beauty in most of them. They were always paintings of something that Arthur could recognise. Merlin wouldn’t let him look at the latest batch, but that was nothing unusual, he was ridiculously precious about any works in progress, as if they would be harmed in some way by people looking at them. He hid away in his tiny studio, working.
At least, that’s what Arthur hoped he was doing.
He’d seen the agent who was promoting the exhibition. Gwaine was handsome and witty, and just a bit too friendly with Merlin for Arthur’s liking. He always stood too close, smiled too much, looked too intently into Merlin’s eyes. And that was just when Arthur was there. He was always calling as well. Arthur was sure he didn’t need to call so often. And then, when Merlin stopped working at some point in the day and called Arthur, invariably it would be from some restaurant that Gwaine had taken him to, just that little bit too far away for Arthur to come and join them, just that little bit too late for him to take a long lunch.
Arthur shrugged on his coat at the end of the day, and wished that Merlin’s scent wasn’t already fading. The flat, of course, was empty
The opening was massive and tiny at the same time. Massive, because there seemed to be people everywhere, rich people who could pay for this kind of art and who liked to be seen at such events, art critics, buyers, gallery owners. Tiny, because Arthur didn’t know any of them and he was left with Lance and Gwen from Merlin’s art college as the only people there that he knew and liked. He didn’t count his father who had marched on in ahead of everyone and had already gone in to look at the collection, never mind that Merlin was up on a temporary podium being interviewed and that they were all supposed to walk in and appreciate the works after that.
Merlin still looked too tired, Arthur thought, looked out of place in the designer suit he’d been forced into, and looked uncomfortable up there in front of everyone. He kept glancing at Arthur and his friends, and Arthur knew he was seeking out the comforting reassurance that they were there.
Uther had probably been on the complimentary wine already, he came out of the exhibition room far too loudly while Merlin was still talking. Too self-important to care, he clapped his son on the shoulder.
“Well, you can certainly see where Merlin’s priorities lie,” he announced happily.
Arthur knew. They weren’t with him, not any more, that had been plain over the past months. A strong work ethic and great success had always been the most important things to Uther. He’d probably insist on a wedding now.
Merlin smiled shyly down at Arthur, still looking nervous as the interview finished and people started to filter into the exhibit.
“It’s a wonderful exhibition!” Uther called up to him, then added to Arthur. “Fine work. Your mother would have loved it.”
Arthur couldn’t remember his mother, who had been an artist herself, but he wanted to think that she would have liked him to be happy. Merlin had managed to evade his admirers and was at Arthur’s side, at least for a moment. Arthur took his hand, hoping that he could keep him there.
“I hope you don’t hate it,” Merlin whispered as they walked in.
Mo shaol brí it said on the glossy pamphlet Arthur had been given, and in a bold sign at the entrance. Another of those art things that Arthur didn’t get, though he’d find it out later from Merlin.
“Oh, these are wonderful, Merlin!” Gwen exclaimed, walking just a little ahead. “That’s so lovely.”
It was a constant theme, all of the works were in monochrome, a location with a single colour figure painted somewhere within them or in some cases faintly layered like a watermark over the entire piece. It was a small figure, or part of a figure, but it was always there. In one it was just a few locks of blond hair, blown by the breeze just into view of the canvas. Arthur stared at them, then back at Merlin.
“That’s…” He didn’t know what to say. Merlin had always taken so many photographs. He’d thought it was of the scenery, reference shots for his paintings. He wasn’t wrong.
People were looking over at them, smiling and nodding approvingly.
“My life’s meaning,” Merlin translated.
Arthur gazed at the nearest picture, looking at himself on a forest path, then back at Merlin’s hopeful face. The tiredness was still there, but perhaps now that could stop, they could go home and life would calm down.
“Do you like them?”
Arthur leaned in close and kissed him, because that said what he wanted far better than any words.