Uther raised his head from the financial reports as the front door slammed and he heard two voices calling to one another as Merlin and Arthur clattered noisily up the stairs to Arthur’s room. Merlin had been an almost permanent feature in their lives since the moment Arthur had met him. At first, Uther hadn’t been sure about this boy, with his frayed clothes, well-worn schoolbag and a new blazer that was obviously two sizes too large and bought with an eye to lasting. For the first few months Arthur and Merlin knew one another Uther had actively discouraged their meeting; until the moment he’d walked in on Merlin giving Arthur a piece of his mind over some infraction or other. Uther had never got to the bottom of what Arthur had actually done but the sight of his son, so often arrogant and over-confident, standing shamefaced and pouting almost made Uther laugh aloud.
After that, Uther watched them more closely for a while; witnessing the effect of Merlin in their lives, the way he pushed back when Arthur pushed, the way he took no nonsense, the way Arthur began to copy Merlin’s natural good manners and even sometimes to think before he spoke. Unless Morgana was involved, of course, but then Uther had long since stopped believing in miracles.
Uther remembered when Arthur had returned home following the first time he met Hunith, Merlin’s mother. Uther wasn’t good with emotion and hadn’t known how to handle the conflicted boy; seeing him full of envy, as he’d obviously, suddenly and shatteringly recognised what he’d been missing all those years; half in love with Hunith and guilty without knowing why.
It was Merlin who’d marched in and taken charge, even so young he seemed to know how to deal with Arthur and how to ease and tease him back to good humour and equilibrium.
Uther winced as the door to Arthur’s room slammed shut and the music was turned on to a volume Uther normally wasn’t subjected to. The boys obviously didn’t realise that anyone else was home. He shook his head and tried to turn back to his reports, but his attention had been disturbed and the reminder of Merlin's mother had shifted the direction of his own thoughts.
His mind wandered to Ygraine. It wasn’t something he often allowed, the pain of loss always too close, but now he wondered what she’d have made of Merlin. He smiled slightly. They’d have adored one another, he decided. Merlin loved his books and art and he and Ygraine would’ve had long conversations while Uther and Arthur rolled their eyes and pretended they were bored. Uther's smile widened and the rusty sounding chuckle that escaped surprised him.
With a frown, Uther pushed the fantasy away. That way lay madness; there were times in the past when he could have sunk into such dreams and lost his hold on the reality of her absence.
Except, he couldn’t quite push her memory away just yet. His thoughts drifted to the days before Arthur’s birth when she’d gently revealed the secret she’d guarded for many months; that the doctors didn’t expect her to survive the birth of their child.
It was a shattering blow, and the days following the revelation were a haze as they’d spent the time talking, crying, but somehow laughing, too. How Ygraine had loved to laugh. Uther, faced with something he couldn’t throw money at to fix, had leaned on Ygraine as never before and in turn she’d seemed to grow and blossom in some way as she provided him with support, despite being the one who was facing the end of her life.
In the end she’d survived the birth by several hours and had been able to hold her son; to name him and talk to him, before she’d weakened and Uther had taken Arthur, holding Ygraine’s hand as she slipped away from them.
A burst of louder music brought him harshly back to the present and he realised he’d never get his work completed if the racket continued. Sighing, he got to his feet and trudged his way up the stairs.
There didn’t seem much point knocking and so he opened the door and walked in. As Uther did so, the beat from the music seemed to thrum through the soles of his feet it was so loud and he frowned at the music player, opening his mouth to complain as he turned his attention to the boys.
For a moment, he couldn’t quite grasp what he was seeing. In the next instant it was all too clear. There were clothes scattered all across the floor and both young men were on the bed, Arthur was sitting on top of Merlin and … oh dear God…
Uther must’ve made some sound audible even over the music, because suddenly Arthur and Merlin were both staring at him and Uther felt hysterical laughter bubble up at the twin expressions of mortification and shock.
Merlin positively squeaked in alarm and there was a flurry of activity as covers were grabbed in a vain attempt to cover what they were so obviously doing. Just as rapidly, Uther backed out of the room and slammed the door shut on the sight.
There was a sudden silence as the music was abruptly stopped and Uther hovered outside, wondering if he should swallow his own embarrassment and re-enter. No, he thought. If ever there was a time for a tactical retreat, this was it. That decided, he headed back to his study and straight to the whisky decanter on the polished oak sideboard. He set the glass on his desk and moved across to one of the old pictures lining the wall, shifting it to one side to reveal the safe behind it.
Once open, he reached in and curled his hands around a mahogany writing box, drawing it out carefully. He set it on the desk, too, standing and staring at it for a few moments before sighing and sitting before it. He drew a gentle hand across the polished surface and used the tiny, delicate key.
There was a waft of faded lavender and he swallowed as he reached inside and pulled out the notebook.
Ygraine had been busy in the months before Arthur’s birth, writing a handbook for Uther to help raise Arthur. Uther had loved Ygraine for her steady good sense and even more for her wicked sense of humour; but if he’d ever wondered how someone like her could’ve loved the emotionally stunted man Uther admitted to being, he’d found all the answers here. All the tears he’d spilt had been while reading her words. Ygraine’s family had disavowed any connection with Uther following the funeral. They had only seen the cold demeanour Uther had presented to the world as Ygraine had been laid in the earth, unable to see that it was shock and grief that had rendered him silent and stern. How could he find tears, he thought, when he’d died that day, too.
If it hadn’t been for Arthur…
If it hadn’t been for Arthur, Uther wouldn’t have been able to go on. He had the next generation of Pendragons to raise and he wouldn’t shirk in that duty.
If it hadn’t been for Ygraine’s funny, heart-breaking words, Uther knew he’d have made a damn poor show of it.
Carefully, reverently, he opened the book and reread, though he knew every word by heart, her opening sentences.
So I’ve had to leave you both to soldier on without me. Not that I’ll ever really be gone – as long as you remember that I love you both…
The pages were filled with sage advice about dealing with Arthur as he grew and Uther often wondered where that came from, given she would've been as much a tyro at parenthood as he, but her loving heart, and the intimate knowledge she had of Uther, seemed to giver her words an almost prescient nature at times. It was all in here; thoughts about what Arthur might look like as he grew, what he might want to do with his life, interspersed with what to do about nappy rash, how to deal with a tantrum, the whole concept of a naughty step, how to teach Arthur to tie shoelaces and so much more. At the end, she’d some final words for Uther.
I know you’ll want to bury yourself in your work and try to provide all the physical things Arthur might need. But it’s really you that he’ll need, love. He’ll need to know you’re there; that he can talk to you about anything; that it doesn’t matter what he decides to do with his life or who he decides to love; that you’ll always support and love him come what may.
So this is my charge to you- be there for every first; be there for every game; every concert; every time he needs you. Let him make his own decisions. Praise him for the effort he puts into things, not for the results. Encourage him when he fails, and teach him to see failure as a chance to learn.
Be there for us both – and never forget to let him know how much he means to me.
And never forget how much you mean to me, too.
Uther swallowed hard and turned back to the section she had penned on what he should do when the first girlfriend or boyfriend appeared on the scene, chuckling at her first admonition – three words written in large capital letters taking up one page: Don’t Lose It. Uther shook his head as he read on and loved the fact it hadn’t mattered one iota to her that her son might prefer his own sex to girls. Mind you, and he spoke mentally to Ygraine in a way he hadn’t done for many years, I think Merlin is in a category all by himself in some ways, magically becoming part of the family before anyone realised it. How you’d love him, Ygraine.
As he put the book away his hand hovered over a framed photograph that was placed face down in the box. The only other thing it contained was a bundle of letters bound together with blue ribbon. His hand brushed against them briefly and he smiled, closing the box and shutting away the scent of summer and Ygraine’s perfume.
At a loss for anything else to do, he turned his attention to his reports once again, becoming so involved in them that he was startled by the sound of knuckles rapping on wood.
“Come,” he said, and then winced. For a moment, he swore he heard Ygraine giggle.
There was a brief pause before his rosy-cheeked son opened the door and sidled into the room. Uther fought down sudden hysteria and instead raised an eyebrow, leaving it to Arthur to break the increasingly embarrassed silence. It might have been a little mean of Uther, but he’d been subjected to the type of sight no parent should ever have to witness, and so he decided he was due some payback.
Arthur fidgeted for a few more moments before he obviously realised Uther wasn't about to start the conversation.
“So, there’s something, something I’ve been meaning to tell – talk to you about – about me. I mean, well about Merlin, too, though you already knew about him. That is, we didn’t know you were home or we wouldn’t have. You know. Sorry about that.” He stammered his way through the garbled explanation and Uther was rather surprised by how much he’d understood of it.
Uther had teased enough. One of Ygraine’s nuggets of advice was to never take Arthur’s relationships lightly, however superficial they might look and however young Arthur was. And Uther knew that though Arthur was still young, this relationship would be anything but superficial.
Don’t Lose It.
“Sit down, Arthur.” Uther waited until Arthur had settled himself before asking. “So how long?”
“Not that long, really. It just felt right; as if it’s meant to be. I’m sorry to disappoint you –“
“Stop right there,” Uther saw Arthur wince as Uther’s voice sharpened, but this was something he needed to address immediately. “You have never, at any point in your life, been a disappointment to me, Arthur. And you never will. Merlin is a good boy and will be a fine man. However this goes for you in the future, you have my support.” It was no good, for all he tried to be otherwise, Uther was a reticent man and uncomfortable with too much emotion. He didn’t think he had it in him to be more open about this with Arthur, certainly not after the embarrassing situation they’d found themselves in earlier.
Like Ygraine, though, Arthur occasionally had her prescience where Uther was concerned and, while he flushed again, this time it was with pleasure. “Thanks, Dad,” he said and got to his feet.
“Is Merlin staying for dinner?”
“Yes. Is it okay if I ask Mrs Emrys to join us?”
“Hunith is always welcome – especially if she saves me from your cooking.”
Arthur attempted to pout at that.
“Is Morgana in?” Uther asked. “I suppose she already knew about the two of you?” Arthur’s step-sister was the same age, joining their family when Uther had ill-advisedly decided to marry her mother with the idea of building a family and providing a mother for Arthur. Unfortunately, he seemed to have picked the women with the least maternal instinct on the planet and it wasn’t long before she’d taken off. Morgana had calmly informed them all that she intended to stay and had immediately taken to calling Uther, father, something she’d refused to do until then. Uther never asked for explanations. Morgana was another force of nature.
Arthur shrugged. “She said she was going over to Gwaine’s and yes, she guessed.” Arthur correctly interpreted Uther’s facial expression. “She’s fine with it. Won’t stop teasing us, though.”
“What else did you expect? Right, if Hunith is joining us I need to get these finished.”
Arthur grinned and opened the door, turning again and saying softly, “Thanks, Dad.”
When the doorbell sounded he called out that he would answer it, guessing it would be Hunith, but he paused briefly to look into the lounge on the way. He threw open the door and greeted Hunith as warmly as he was able and she reached up to kiss his cheek. Despite his own inability to show much in the way of social graces, Hunith seemed to have an instinct, and a way of recognising and ignoring Uther’s moods in a way that often reminded him painfully of Ygraine. Over the years they’d become good friends.
“I gather I’m cooking,” she said.
Uther chuckled. “I think we’d all be most grateful if you did.”
“Just tell me there’s wine in the fridge. Merlin sounded distinctly odd when he rang and practically begged me to come.”
“Ah,” Uther felt himself blush and saw her eyebrows raise. Rather than trying to explain, he led her quietly across to the lounge and let her peer inside.
Merlin and Arthur had always been overly tactile with one another, although even Uther had noticed Merlin pull back from that somewhat after he’d admitted he was gay. Now, they were curled together on the sofa and appeared to be close to sleep. Arthur’s head was on Merlin’s chest and Merlin’s thumb was tracing an idle path across the nape of Arthur’s neck.
It was so obviously a lover’s caress.
Hunith’s mouth opened in a round ‘o’ and then like guilty children who’d been spying on the adults, they crept away to the kitchen. Trying not to laugh, Uther ushered her into the large space, wondering belatedly when he’d grabbed hold of her hand. Hunith looked a little flushed, but with a warm smile she headed straight for the fridge and hauled out a bottle of white wine.
Uther knew it was her favourite.
“Did you know?” he asked.
“I wondered if it would happen. I’ve known Merlin was in love with Arthur – has been almost since they met. They’ll be good for one another.”
“They’re so young.”
“They are at that. I take it you just found out?” Hunith gestured to one of the cupboards and Uther opened it with some aplomb, revealing that the crystal wine glasses had actually been moved to a shelf Hunith could reach.
She smiled at him, dimpled cheeks and bright eyes making her look like a girl.
“I walked in on them.”
“You walked in, oh,” Her hand flew to her mouth and Uther could see she was fighting a fit of the giggles. She sobered after a few moments. “I hope they were being safe.”
“Hunith!” He could feel the warmth of his skin.
“Oh, don’t be such a prude, Uther. Did you ask them?”
“No!” His voice reached several octaves above his usual register.
She took pity on him then. “I’ll talk to Merlin later. They’re both sensible boys, though, I’m sure it’s nothing for us to worry about.” She paused to take a healthy mouthful of her wine. “Now, what have you got in that fridge besides wine?”
A few months later
Uther was in the kitchen, sitting at the table and nursing a black coffee. It was the morning of Arthur’s eighteenth birthday and he had joined Merlin and Hunith the evening before as they took Arthur out for a birthday dinner as part of the celebrations. Uther had managed to stop himself offering to pay, knowing Hunith and Merlin had saved up to take Uther and Arthur to a fancier restaurant than they usually frequented when they all went out together. It had been worth it to see how pleased Hunith had been when she had picked up the bill at the end of the evening.
Arthur had returned to Merlin’s to spend the night. Uther smiled slightly as he thought about the past few months. If Uther hadn't known about the relationship, he wouldn't have noticed much change as the young men interacted much as they always had. The differences were subtle – a slight steadiness and calmness in Arthur; an ease and security in Merlin – and they seemed happy together. And Uther had learned not to enter Arthur’s bedroom when the music was playing. Merlin had become even more a part of the family and Uther had been almost as pleased at Merlin’s A-level results as Hunith was; knowing she was feeling the same about Arthur.
With surprise, Uther realised that over the years, a new family seemed to have built itself around him, and he hadn’t even noticed. Morgana, too, seemed to be settling down a little and the discovery of an older half-sister had steadied her. Morgause had been cool with them all at first, but Hunith had helped there and now the three of them were as thick as thieves.
You’d love them all, too, Ygraine.
He sobered as he looked down at the table. Apart from his coffee cup, there was one other item. The back door opened and Arthur and Merlin burst into the room, both seeming to be talking at speed and at the same time. Nothing new there.
The sudden silence when they spotted Uther wasn’t new either and he raised his eyebrows at them.
“Happy Birthday, Arthur.”
There was another moment of silence, before Uther spoke again.
“I’ve something for you, Arthur. Something I’ve been keeping for you.” So saying, he picked up the sealed letter and handed it to Arthur. "Your mother asked me to give you this on your eighteenth birthday.” Uther’s throat closed at the words and at the way Arthur flushed and stared in disbelief at the envelope.
Without speaking, Arthur took it, holding it close to his body for a moment, before turning away and walking steadily from the room.
Merlin moved to go after him, his brow furrowed.
“Merlin, stop,” Uther waited until Merlin faced him. “Give Arthur a little time.”
Merlin considered him for a moment, and Uther wondered when Merlin had grown so tall. There was a definite adult cast to his features now, and Uther could almost see him settling into adulthood.
With a sigh, Merlin stared in the direction Arthur had gone for a moment, before he turned and settled back into his seat at the table. When Uther looked up from his coffee, Merlin’s eyes were upon him.
“Something on your mind?” Uther asked.
“You’re spending a lot of time with my Mum,” Merlin replied.
“She’s a good friend.” He had a good idea what Merlin was getting at and it amused him to see just how far the young man would go.
“She likes you.”
“That’s good to know. I like her, too.”
Uther fought to keep his amusement from his expression; he would never want Merlin to think that he was being mocked for the concern he was showing about his mother. Uther kept his face straight, even when he imagined Hunith’s reaction to her son’s comments.
They sat together but didn't speak, each lost in their own thoughts and it was surprisingly comfortable; for all Merlin could talk the hind leg off a donkey when he was in the mood, he always seemed able to attune himself to Uther’s preference for silence. It wasn't the first time they'd shared a quiet room.
Uther’s mind turned to Arthur and he wondered, as he often had, what Ygraine had said in her letters and why this was the first; why she'd waited until his 18th birthday. Well, no doubt she’d had her reasons.
His reverie was interrupted as Arthur returned, his features calm, though his eyes were red-rimmed. Uther and Merlin both stood as Arthur approached. Without speaking, Arthur walked straight up to Uther and wrapped his arms around him. Arthur pressed his face against Uther’s shoulder and spoke quietly.
“That’s from Mum. I’m under orders.”
The surge of grief washed over Uther and he closed his eyes, resting his head against Arthur’s, swallowing down the lump in his throat and wondering, too, when his son had become a man. Uther was only half-aware of Merlin slipping out of the room and leaving them together.
Arthur’s arms tightened around him and they stood in silence for some time, united in grief, perhaps, but also joined together by the love Ygraine had for them both and had demonstrated today; eighteen years after her death.
When they finally released on another, the kitchen was silent and from the other room they could hear the sound of the television. Arthur scrubbed his hand across his eyes.
“I’d better see what Merlin’s up to.”
Uther nodded. “I’m saving your main present for dinner this evening, when Morgana and Morgause join us, but you’ll see your first present when you go up to your room.”
Uther wondered what had managed to escape his expression when he saw the suspicion flash across Arthur’s features. Uther smiled but didn’t say anything further.
“Okay,” Arthur drew the word out, casting another look over his shoulder as he left the room.
Uther followed him, hovering at the door of the lounge and he watched as Merlin glanced up and saw Arthur. Within the next moment, the television was silent and Merlin was on his feet with his arms wrapped round Arthur. There was a quiet conversation and then Merlin drew back, cupping his hand around Arthur’s cheek.
Whatever he said had Arthur’s cheeks flushing and Uther was stunned to see his assured, boisterous, extrovert son looking so shy. In the next instant, Arthur was dragging Merlin towards the door. Swiftly, Uther drew back, slipping into his study.
Standing by the door, he waited.
A loud and indignant squawk sounded through the house and Uther recognised Merlin’s voice raised in outrage. Over that rang Arthur’s laughter; loud and booming.
And if he listened really carefully, Uther was almost sure he heard the sound of the new lock he’d had fitted slotting into place.
Chuckling, he stepped over to his desk and opened the mahogany box. Taking out the photograph, he dusted it off and placed it carefully on the surface.