Arthur dreamt of blue eyes and soft kisses, of running his hands along a canvas of soft, pale skin, easily marred with the imprints of his fingertips as he gripped the thin waist and thrust frantically inside tight heat. Something was trying to tear him away but he was desperate to finish, to feel Merlin clench around him and send him flying. He woke, rutting against his mattress, to the incessant ringing of his mobile.
Opening one eye, he squinted and squinted at the clock, groaning when he saw that it was only 8.15. The ringing stopped briefly, then started again. For once Arthur was grateful he hadn't pulled the night before. He didn't think he could handle a needy bed mate with the headache that was cruelly bursting to the forefront of his brain, exacerbated by the summer sun pouring through the uncurtained windows of his flat.
After deciding the universe hated him, he flung the duvet back and went in search of his mobile, finding it in the pile of clothes he'd stripped out of in a drunken stupor the night before. The caller ID showed that the missed calls were from the concierge downstairs and just when he was about to ring them back, the display lit up again.
"Yes," he croaked, voice gruff from lack of sleep. "Sorry, you've caught me on a rough morning. What can I do for you?"
"Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you've received an urgent package from your father and I wanted to alert you that it's on the way up with one of the staff."
"Shit," he said under his breath. "Ahh, George. On top of things bright and early as usual, I see. Thank you."
"Not at all, sir. Good day," George answered.
Arthur ended the call and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Anything coming from Uther at that hour couldn't possibly be good. He wished he had gone home with someone the previous night after all, even though he tried to avoid waking up in strange places. Still, it would be a convenient way to avoid dealing with this business with his father, whatever it might be. Sighing in resignation, he managed to pull on clothes just in time to receive the package from the person at his door.
It was a large envelope with the bright red Pendragon Sports, Ltd. logo on the upper corner. Arthur rubbed his finger across it before opening the sealed edge, finding a slightly smaller, but otherwise identical, envelope inside. There was a note affixed to the front in his father's assistant's neat script; Arthur would know Vivian's handwriting anywhere. She had been Uther's assistant at PS since the day they opened their doors and was so much more than a PA. Arthur always wondered if there might be something going on between them, though she'd also tried to seduce Arthur at the height of his swimming career.
Arthur shuddered at the thought, then turned his attention back to the matter at hand.
Arthur, I expect to hear from you as soon as you receive this. Uther Pendragon.
"Warm as ever, Father," Arthur mused as he ripped the second envelope open.
A few loose, black and white photos tumbled out, and by the weight of the envelope, Arthur knew there was something else inside. His pulse raced as he got his first look at the pictures, and he hastily pulled out the rest of the contents. There were two large pieces of cardstock inside, the kind used for mock-ups at newspapers, one for each of the two trashiest redtops in England.
He looked at the first one, purporting to be The Sun, with the usual celebrity images and gossipy bits framing a pair of photos and a huge headline. The photo quality was a bit grainy, but they were not so blurry that there was any question as to the subjects.
They were profile shots, the first showing Arthur kneeling in a filthy alley behind some club in Soho, opening the fastenings on Valiant Adder's trousers, his intent clear as day. In the second photo, Arthur's face was hidden, but from the way Valiant's head was thrown back, his fingers wound tightly around Arthur's signature blond hair, there was no mistaking what they were doing, as evidenced by the headline: PRINCE OF THE POOL BOWS DOWN TO RIVAL.
Arthur dropped the mock-up on the table as if he'd been burned. He was afraid to look at the second, but there was no point in trying to escape it now.
The Mirror layout featured just one photo, equally damning and even more humiliating, accompanied by the garish headline: PENDRAGON SEX SCANDAL: Washed up heir gives new meaning to lip service! The photo showed Arthur on his knees, wiping a hand across his mouth and glaring up at Valiant, who was laughing with Arthur's hair still clenched in his fist. Though his memory of the night was hazy, Arthur remembered how angry he had been when Valiant surprised him, pulling out mid blow job and coming on his lips and cheek.
There were other photos of the same evening's events but Arthur had seen enough. He remembered how absolutely pissed he'd got that night after receiving the worst possible news from his doctors, drinking everything anyone put in his hand before dragging Val outside for a quickie. The bastard hadn't even returned the favour, though Arthur doubted he would have been able to get it up. Soon after, the news of Valiant getting caught up in a doping scandal had given Arthur a little more joy than was absolutely necessary, though none of that had any bearing on his current predicament.
"Fuck," Arthur whispered, flopping down on the couch, putting his head in his hands just as his phone began to ring. He felt numb when he answered, knowing his father was on the other end of the line, certainly none too happy about seeing evidence of his son in such a compromising position.
"Arthur," Uther said. "I've received word that the package was delivered, and yet you haven't called."
"Good morning, Father. I apologise for not calling straightaway." He paused, at a loss for what to say. "I just needed a moment to look things over."
"Yes. Yes, I imagine you would."
Arthur waited for Uther to continue, but the line remained quiet.
"Father?" Arthur asked.
"Yes, I'm still here," Uther answered. "I was waiting to see if you had anything to say for yourself."
Arthur took a deep breath. He regretted his actions with Valiant but what was done was done. He'd have to weather the media storm that was sure to result from the publication of those pictures. Arthur might be washed up now, but he had been the most promising swimmer to come out of Great Britain in recent history and, with his pedigree and good looks, he had become a media darling. The press had ignored some of his wilder antics after he was injured, but these photos were simply too good for the tabloids to pass up.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said. "I know this must be difficult for you."
"I can't say I'm pleased to see my son acting so submissively, especially to someone like Adder," Uther agreed, "but you're the one who should be embarrassed, son, not me."
Uther's words stung, but Arthur couldn't deny the truth in them. "Believe me, Father, I am. I assume you've come up with a plan?"
"Of course. Pendragon Sports hasn't become the premiere marketing agents for athletes without learning how to spin any story that comes to light. But in this case, thankfully, the solution is rather simple."
A feeling of dread washed over Arthur. Nothing with his father was ever simple; Uther was a man who got what he wanted, no exceptions, no matter what the cost.
"Is it?" Arthur asked.
"The answer, of course, is money," Uther answered. "The person who took the pictures was after money, not notoriety. I've purchased the photographs and have been assured that I now possess all of the digital copies as well."
"That's all?" Arthur's suspicion grew. There was always a catch with Uther.
"Ahh, no. Not exactly. This Valiant incident has cost me a great deal, as I'm sure you can imagine," Uther said thoughtfully. "The condition is that you put all of this nonsense behind you. No more swimming, no more partying until all hours or being seen in compromising positions. You are a Pendragon; it's beneath you, Arthur. It's high time you turned your life around and put this swimming folly behind you once and for all."
Arthur's shock turned to anger almost instantly.
"And by that, you mean I should come and work for you?" he seethed.
“Of course. There has never been any question about that,” Uther said dismissively.
"Father." Arthur paused to breathe through his anger. It would be counterproductive to raise his father's ire, especially when he clearly had the upper hand. "I've told you before, I have no interest in working for Pendragon Sports. I want to swim, but since I can no longer do that competitively, I'll find another way to stay active in the sport."
“Don’t be ridiculous. You're twenty-four.”
Arthur heard Uther rifling through papers on the other end of the line, not even giving Arthur his full attention when discussing something as important as his future.
“I allowed you to indulge in your little hobby, then stood by while you made a fool of yourself, tainting the family name when things didn't work out," Uther said. "Your behaviour over the past two years has been reckless and appalling.”
Arthur sputtered into the phone. “A hobby? Swimming was everything to me! I was good, very good. Had it not been for my shoulder, I would have been a favourite in Beijing.”
Uther sighed. "And then what? A career in sport is often short-lived; you should know that better than most. Even if you hadn't been injured, it was only a matter of time before you assumed a role at the company."
Uther's voice became muffled and Arthur heard him giving instructions to Vivian, as if their conversation was just another business negotiation getting in the way of his busy schedule.
"Arthur, you have always had a place here. It was just a matter of when, not if—"
"No," Arthur said, the fight going out of him even as he tried to argue his case. He felt his skin begin to itch at the mere thought of becoming a marketing rep, shaping the images of young, naive athletes and selling them to the media. "No. I—"
Arthur heard Uther slam his fist against the desk.
A moment passed, but Arthur knew his father wasn't finished.
“This is not up for discussion, Arthur. I’ve set you up in a corner office on the 38th floor. You'll be heading up our new youth division and will have a team and an assistant at your disposal come Monday. I expect to see you at 9.00 sharp."
"You will not disappoint me again."
The line went dead before Arthur had a chance to argue.
Arthur double-checked the address as he pulled up in front of a cottage, getting out of his car and stretching as he looked over his new home. He smiled, thinking of how much the little house suited Merlin, how much he would like it there. Fumbling with the key Leon had sent him the previous week, Arthur sighed in contentment, marvelling at how much had changed in just a few weeks' time.
Leon had been Arthur's housemate at Eton. Two years older, he'd taken Arthur under his wing and encouraged him to join the swimming team, for which Arthur had been especially grateful. They swam together for years, making up half of the 4x100 medley relay, and winning first place at the National Championships in that same event for the first time in Eton history.
More than just a mate in the pool, Leon proved to be a confidant and one of the few people who knew how much Arthur struggled to earn his father's respect. Having lost his own mother at an early age, Leon could relate to Arthur in a way few others could. He was also Arthur's first kiss – a rather awkward incident that ended in profuse apologies on Arthur's part for mistaking a deep and caring friendship for something more.
They'd remained close even after Leon went to Uni and married Elena, and while Arthur's post-injury antics had put a strain on their friendship, they still managed to keep in touch. He had been the first person Arthur thought to call after his heated conversation with Uther.
"Arthur! How's the world treating you, mate?" Leon had asked when he'd picked up the phone.
"I'm not sure it could be worse, I'm afraid," Arthur said. "Before I get into that, though, how are you? And Elena?"
"We're good. Couldn't be better, actually. We've moved out of the cottage in town and into a bigger place a little farther out. Got promoted at the school, too, so you're now speaking to one of the head swimming coaches at Avalon."
"That's great news, Leon," Arthur said warmly.
"It is, it is. But that's not why you called, so out with it. What's Uther done now?"
Arthur had laughed, a dry brittle sound completely devoid of joy, and filled Leon in on Uther's latest manoeuvre, leaving out the explicit details leading up to it for his friend's sake.
“I can’t do it Leon,” Arthur said. “Just thinking about sitting in that office day after day, preying on kids whose only crime is having exceptional talent? It makes me feel sick.”
"Arthur, while I don't agree with his business practices, I think your father has your best interests at heart—at least to some degree," Leon said gently. "It won't do any good to repeat what I've already said to you in the past, but I can't disagree that it's time for you to set some new goals."
Arthur sighed, knowing his friend was right in that regard.
"Funny thing, timing," Leon had mused. "I was actually planning on calling you this evening. Arthur, do you believe in fate?”
Dragging his boxes and bags to the front of the cottage, Arthur had to agree that fate certainly did seem to be on his side. He couldn't believe his good fortune when Leon had told him about the last minute vacancy on the coaching staff, one of the assistant coaches having eloped to some faraway land out of the blue, leaving Avalon School with a spot to fill before the start of term. Leon had already spoken with the director and other coaches, and while there had been some initial hesitation in light of Arthur's recent behaviour, they were excited about the prospect of having an Olympic-class swimmer join the team.
The matter of breaking the news to Uther wasn't quite so easy, but Arthur, with Leon's guidance, and his step-sister Morgana's help, managed to convince his father that an insider at the senior school level could only be a good thing for Pendragon Sports. In fact, with so many exceptional swimmers coming out of the region, Uther tasked Arthur with investigating whether it would be worth their while to open a small satellite office in nearby Glastonbury.
Of course Arthur had no intention of exploiting the students at Avalon School, or anyone else for that matter, but what his father didn't know couldn't hurt him, as far as Arthur was concerned. That it kept him out of the glass and steel confines of the offices for another year was just a bonus.
Three whirlwind weeks later, after interviews with the Headmaster and various directors, a full battery of health and fitness evaluations and a promise, in writing, to abide by Avalon School's strict code of conduct, Arthur was ready to start the newest chapter of his life.
He opened the door and stepped inside the simple but airy house. It felt right, being there, as if something big was on the horizon. Arthur couldn't wait to find out what it was.
Arthur woke early the next day feeling grateful for the fresh start, far away from the pressures of London and his father's overbearing ways. He lay quietly, savouring the warm morning breeze floating in through the open window as he remembered the fun he'd had the night before.
Not long after he'd finished unpacking, Leon and Elena had popped round to check up on him and show him the town. Ending up at the pub down the road, they had run into Lance and Gwen, a married couple who taught at Avalon. They were also the houseparents at Albion House, where several of the school's best swimmers lived, and seemed blissfully happy.
Being out with the two couples had left him feeling warm and nostalgic for his own lost love. Arthur wouldn't call himself a romantic—growing up under Uther's thumb had made him far too realistic for that—but he clung to the hope that he would feel that kind of joy again, that Merlin would return to him one day.
Arthur yawned and stretched, hand slipping below the soft sheet and stroking himself lazily as his thoughts drifted to the boy who so often pervaded his dreams. He tightened his fist around his cock as recollections of Merlin flooded his mind, how it felt to kiss his beautiful mouth, run his rough fingers over Merlin's soft skin, watch his eyes light up as he came apart under Arthur's hands. He thought of lying naked with Merlin for the first time, hands wandering, eyes bright with wonder that anything could feel so good, nothing between them but pockets of warm summer air and the haze of their own desires.
A strong breeze ruffled the curtains as Arthur's hand picked up speed, bringing him closer to release with every stroke and favourite memory. He had been with other men over the years, more than his fair share some would say, but they were nothing to him, warm bodies and a means to an end. Not a single one could touch what he felt for Merlin.
Arthur sought out one final memory as his hips began to thrust, of Merlin ripping at his clothing when he'd returned from a long absence, bending Arthur over his bed none too gently and taking him, possessing him in every way, not caring who else would hear the sounds of their passion. As his body began to seize, he could almost feel Merlin gripping his hips and coming deep in his arse with a roar of pleasure, and Arthur spilled over his hand, crying out with equal parts relief and longing.
Arthur arrived at the aquatics centre a couple of hours later, hoping to get his part of the office sorted, and to have a quiet moment to absorb the feel of the place before he took charge of his group of swimmers. Avalon swimming practices weren't slated to begin until the following day, but Leon had scheduled a meeting for that afternoon to introduce Arthur as one of the team's new coaches. The strong scent of chlorine assaulted his senses when he opened the door. Arthur craved it like others might the smell of freshly cut grass on a football pitch. Other than the years he'd spent with Merlin, the pool was where he'd felt most at home.
The facilities at Avalon were impressive, even by Arthur's posh standards. He closed his eyes and let the atmosphere wash over him, relaxing into the sound of the pumps echoing in the vastness of the space and breathing in the warm, humid air as it settled over his skin and seeped into his pores.
A loud bang interrupted his reverie and two boys tumbled in through the changing rooms. One was dressed in Avalon warm-ups but the other, a redhead, was in regular swim trunks and t-shirt. Both boys pulled at their clothing but Arthur's eyes focused on just one. He couldn't see his face, but he watched as the boy stripped off his tracksuit bottoms and jacket, raising slender arms above his head and showing off broad shoulders and well-defined muscles. He had messy dark hair and the most gorgeous fair skin Arthur had ever seen, the bare expanse of his back a perfect contrast to the midnight blue swimsuit he wore. The red-headed boy dove in neatly, but the boy Arthur was focused on teetered on the edge, then fell into the water, stomach first, breaking the surface with a cringe-worthy slap.
They laughed and splashed about, flailing their arms and bobbing up and down. When the redhead pushed Arthur's boy under the water and held him down for a moment, a memory hit Arthur with a ferocity he'd rarely felt before. As the boys played, Arthur could only see young Merlin in a swollen early spring river, water rushing past and pulling him under, his bloody shoulder exposed where his tunic had been ripped by the sharp edge of a rock. He shouted for Merlin to grab onto a branch or a root, anything that would prevent him from being carried downstream, but the current was too strong. Arthur heard him calling out, frightened in the icy water, lips turning blue.
"Merlin!" Arthur shouted.
Before he could give it a second thought, Arthur was in the pool, racing through the water with powerful strokes. He reached Merlin in mere seconds and pulled him to the side, holding them both up on the edge of the pool deck.
"Merlin, you idiot!" he whispered into the boy's hair. "I've got you. You're safe. We'll get you out of here."
The redheaded boy pulled himself out of the pool and stood over Arthur and Merlin, giving Arthur the strangest look.
"Don't just stand there! Help him out!" Arthur sputtered.
Merlin offered his hand to his friend and was pulled to safety just as a great behemoth of a man joined them on deck.
"Oi! What the hell do you think you're doing?" He lifted Arthur out effortlessly, then stood by the boys and crossed his thick, muscled arms, glaring at Arthur menacingly.
"Merlin. He was…" Arthur came back to himself, saw the small crowd that had gathered behind the two boys, but couldn't take his eyes off of Merlin. Merlin, who was standing two feet in front of him, younger than Arthur had ever seen him, but undeniably his.
At the sound of Leon's familiar voice, Arthur's focus shifted, still keeping Merlin in his line of sight. His heart hammered in his chest and he felt like he was going to vibrate out of his skin.
"Well, this isn't going exactly how I'd planned it, but for those of who don't already know, this is—"
Another boy, one with longer brown hair and a devilish grin, interrupted with a scoff. "Even looking like a drowned rat, only a fool wouldn't know who he is!"
Leon's laughter broke the tension. "Yes, I suppose that's true. Well, just to keep things nice and official, this is Arthur Pendragon. As I'm sure you've heard, he's going to be coaching the 15 and older boys this year."
The boys looked at Arthur with equal parts awe and confusion, wondering why their new coach, the famous Arthur Pendragon, had just jumped in the pool fully clothed. Leon tried to smooth things over and made a quick round of introductions, pointing at each group of kids as he rattled off their names.
"And this," Leon gestured to the group of five that included Merlin, "is your 4x100 medley team. You've got Elyan on back and Owain on breast." Two of the boys raised their hands when their stroke was mentioned. "And this cheeky chap is Gwaine. He swims butterfly. And you seem to have already met our star freestyler—"
"Merlin," Arthur said, voice full of wonder.
"Ha! You're already famous, mate!" the redhead shouted. He reached over and slapped Merlin on the shoulder and Arthur had to shove down a powerful urge to smack his hand away.
"Oh, and this ragamuffin over here is Will," Leon said, ruffling the boy's hair. "He doesn't go to Avalon, but we let him sneak in to swim with Merlin sometimes." Leon put a finger to his lips to emphasise the secret but gave Arthur a quizzical look at the same time.
Arthur shook the water from his hair and cleared his throat, trying to get a hold of himself before his new career was over before it even started. "Well, yes. Hello! Sorry for making such an entrance. I promise I won't be demonstrating lifesaving techniques before every practice."
The group laughed, still seeming unsure about Arthur but forgiving in a way only awe-struck teenagers could be. The giant of a man who'd pulled Arthur from the pool held out his hand.
"I'm Percy. I keep them fit when they're not in the water," he said with a smile.
"Don't let his size fool you, Arthur," Leon said. "He's our gentle giant who just happens to be very protective of our charges."
"Duly noted," Arthur said. "And thank you."
The team broke up into smaller groups and Leon took a moment to pull Arthur aside.
"What the hell happened, mate?" he asked, concerned.
"I'm sorry, Leon. I heard shouting and saw the boys flailing around in the water and I suppose instinct just kicked in. Better safe than sorry, yeah?" Arthur flashed him a weak smile, hoping Leon would give him a pass.
"Right. Well, let's not have it happen again, yeah? Nothing personal, Arthur, but we don't want word to get out that the new coach has already gone round the bend."
Relieved, Arthur nodded and smiled in thanks, then grabbed a dry set of warm-ups from the office and changed quickly. The rest of the meeting went smoothly, everyone eager to get started and excited to have their new, famous coach on board. Only Merlin seemed a bit subdued and kept sneaking looks at Arthur, who could barely keep his eyes off the boy.
As the meeting broke up, Merlin treated Arthur to a gorgeous, shy smile, the kind he used to give Arthur when they first became friends in Camelot, a pink flush bright upon his cheeks and a tiny sparkle in his deep blue eyes.
After the kids had gone, Arthur reassured Leon and Percy that all was well, then hurried from the swimming centre, a tumult of thoughts racing through his mind.
Merlin had been a part of Arthur's consciousness for as long as he could remember, too real to only be a dream. As a boy, Arthur had been drawn to stories of kings and queens, quests and magic, but as he grew older, his memories burst forth with more detail and frequency, and he was able to piece together much of what he came to understand was his former life. For years he'd thought he had lost his mind, was terrified of what his father would think if he spoke of the past life that existed in his head. But when memories surfaced of the bold, fresh-faced boy who changed everything he thought he knew, Arthur held his secret close to his heart, unable to bear the idea of someone trying to take his Merlin away.
Arthur walked back to the cottage as quickly as he could, then fell into the nearest chair and laughed through his tears. He didn't know what he was going to do, seeing as how the love of his life, the boy he'd been dreaming for as long as he could remember, was a sixteen year old pupil at his school, and didn't seem to remember Arthur at all.
Arthur was relieved to find that settling into a routine was easier than he'd initially thought. It felt good to have a set schedule again after almost two years of chronic depression and partying until dawn. He worked well with all the boys, easily finding excuses to work closely with Merlin since they swam the same events. A few of Arthur's swimmers were cocky at first and bristled when Arthur gave them advice, but when his instruction began paying off in the pool, the boys started to toe the line. Merlin was always grateful for any advice Arthur was willing to give, and took Arthur's instructions to heart.
Arthur found Merlin to be a study in opposites. His body was slender and lean, but he was a vision in the pool, using every bit of powerful muscle he possessed to slice though the water gracefully. Outside of the pool, Merlin seemed methodical, examining things from every angle, but in the water, he seemed to move on instinct. He was a confident swimmer and frequently could be seen joking around with a few of the other boys, but around Arthur he was shy, sneaking glances at him, a gorgeous flush heating his face when Arthur paid him a compliment.
Still, Merlin showed no signs of recognizing Arthur or gave any indication he'd had any memories of their past. Arthur was extremely frustrated but refused to give up hope. He relied on the fact that fate had finally brought them together again, and he resolved to bide his time until things could be different. After all, it wasn't the ideal situation for their reunion, considering their age difference and Arthur's position at the school.
In the meantime, he found himself spending more time with Lance and Gwen, meeting them for lunch from time to time, or for a drink or two at the pub when they were free. It was another stroke of luck that they were Merlin's houseparents and he could glean information from them when he needed to feel connected to Merlin.
A few weeks into term, Arthur spotted Merlin and Gwaine together on the school grounds. They were sitting on a bench, Merlin reading and Gwaine constantly poking him in his side. Merlin was laughing, swatting Gwaine's hand away. Moments later, Gwaine swiped his book, slung his arm over Merlin's shoulders and placed a loud, smacking kiss on Merlin's temple. He pulled Merlin up and they headed off in the direction of Albion House with their arms linked. White hot jealousy coursed through Arthur's veins and he was still feeling shaken when he met up with Gwen at the pub a short while later.
"Arthur! What's wrong?" Gwen asked.
"It's been a long day is all, and I got a bit of bad news this afternoon," Arthur said, trying to play it cool. By the look on Gwen's face, she wasn't fooled, but he couldn't tell her about Merlin, for obvious reasons, so he'd skirted the truth.
"I saw a bloke I'm interested in this afternoon, only he was with someone else," he said.
Gwen gave him a sympathetic smile. "There seems to be a lot of that going around. A couple of boys in my house have been having heart troubles already this term."
Even though it was a long shot, as there were fifty boys in Albion House, Arthur's ears perked up at the possibility of hearing something about Merlin. He tried to remain nonchalant when Gwen, possibly having had too much cider, let it slip that poor Gwaine had been dumped just that afternoon.
"I think he deserved it," Gwen whispered. "He's too much of a flirt to hold onto one girl. Poor dear was broken up about it though. Luckily, he has Merlin to help him through it."
"Ahh. Gwaine and Merlin," he said, fearing that anything Gwen divulged was going to break his heart.
"Oh! Nooo." Gwen giggled into her glass. "Not on your life. Merlin's far too respectable to go down that road and I'm certain Gwaine wouldn't try anything with Merlin either. Merlin is a bit…innocent, from what I can tell. When he's not in the pool, he's focused on his schoolwork and has earned high marks in all of his subjects. I hear a lot of gossip about who's doing what with whom, but never anything at all about Merlin, come to think of it."
"Good." Seeing the confused look on Gwen's face, Arthur hurriedly continued, "I mean, good that Gwaine's not the type to take advantage of a friend."
"Mmhmm. He's too much of a ladies' man, if you know what I mean. Thinks the world of Merlin and would strangle anyone who tried to harm him." Gwen took another large sip, draining her glass before continuing. "A few years ago, when Merlin first arrived, some of the posh kids gave him a hard time. He was invited here from the swim club in Glastonbury and is on a huge scholarship, which sometimes causes problems with the wealthy students. Gwaine took on the lot of them, saying Merlin was a better man than they would ever be and a fantastic swimmer to boot. It's sweet how protective he is, actually."
Arthur flushed with anger at the thought of anyone trying to hurt Merlin. At the same time, he had a much higher opinion of Gwaine, who had already struck him as an all right kid, but who was a little too close to Merlin for Arthur to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"Good," Arthur replied again. "I'm glad they've become such close friends. It reminds me of myself and Leon a bit, except we were both posh kids, I'm afraid."
Gwen laughed, then got up to fetch another round, leaving Arthur to let what he'd learned about Merlin settle in.
The autumn term passed quickly and the Avalon swimmers were experiencing unparalleled success. Merlin had taken Arthur's advice about his elbow position and the length of his glide into the flip turn and had already shaved a full second off his 100m time. He was swimming exceptionally well, coming in first or second at almost all of their meets.
The medley relay team was also shaping up nicely, and hadn't lost a single competition under the winning combination of Elyan and Owain's brilliant starts and Leon and Arthur's tutelage. They had only truly been challenged twice—the first time at the Inter-County meet in October and again at the South West Regional meet in November. Mercia started out strong at the IC meet, but Gwaine opened up a nice lead, leaving Merlin plenty of room to beat their swimmer in the last leg. Mercia had been good sports about the loss, having swum against each other for years and enjoying healthy competition.
The same couldn't be said for the SW Regional meet, however. Escetia was fiercely competitive and with a new boy swimming the last leg, Cenred and rest of the relay team were best the school had seen in years. Word spread early that they were gunning for the Avalon team and didn't give an inch in the pool. Elyan had a bad start and Escetia took the lead early while Owain struggled to keep up. Gwaine made up precious seconds against Cenred, but Mordred still had a slight head start over Merlin.
Arthur watched with bated breath as Merlin dove into the pool. He blocked out all of the other swimmers, eyes fixed on the two centre lanes, counting Merlin's strokes and breaths, watching him catch up until he was neck and neck with Mordred.
"C'mon Merlin. You can do it," Arthur whispered.
The noise level at the swimming centre was loud, fans cheering enthusiastically from the gallery, but Arthur kept his focus even when it seemed like time had slowed down. He felt it before it happened, impossible as it might seem, and when he looked up at the results, he whooped with joy when he saw they had beaten Escetia by .02 seconds.
The Avalon team went wild, pulling Merlin out of the pool and sweeping him into a group hug. Meanwhile, Cenred kicked over chairs and Mordred, still in the pool and resting on the lane line, was shaking with anger as he glared daggers at Merlin's back.
Arthur prickled at Escetia's unsportsmanlike conduct, but in the end, the best thing he could do was finish out the meet and get his team back home. They returned to Avalon exhausted but flying high after such an exciting meet, and the boys noisily headed back to their boarding houses for a celebration.
All except for Merlin, who Arthur found lingering by the door.
"Coach," Merlin said, a pink flush high on his cheeks. "I just wanted to thank you for all the extra time you put in with me. I never would have been able to beat Mordred if you hadn't taught me how to improve my turn."
"You're welcome, Merlin," Arthur said. His heart swelled with pride and affection. "The whole team did well today, but I was particularly impressed with your performance. You held up under pressure, and I know from experience that's not always easy to do."
Merlin's face lit up in a brilliant smile, basking in the glow of Arthur's praise. He stepped closer to Arthur, blushing to the tips of his ears and letting their arms touch. "It's going to sound strange, but even though I'm usually able to shut everything out in the pool, I felt something today during that last race."
Merlin bit his lip and leaned in, dark lashes fluttering as he closed his eyes. He was so close Arthur could feel puffs of warm breath against his cheek. "It was like someone was giving me a little extra push, cheering me on inside my head, telling me I could do it if I just focused."
Arthur felt his jaw drop open, wondering what that could mean. Was it possible Merlin had somehow heard him silently chanting during the race? It was a ridiculous idea; they had never been able to share thoughts before. And yet…
"Merlin," Arthur whispered. "Did you—"
The sound of Arthur's voice seemed to startle Merlin and he stepped back quickly, eyes darting around, looking anywhere but at Arthur. He cleared his throat. "Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks."
Merlin turned to walk down the path, then spun around again and launched himself at Arthur, wrapping him in a tight hug. Arthur thought he felt a slight pressure against his neck, warm and wet and right where Merlin's lips would have been, but it was over so quickly he couldn't be sure he hadn't imagined it.
"See you at Monday practice, Coach," Merlin called out as he took off towards Albion, leaving Arthur completely stunned.
The next three weeks were hell.
If Arthur had thought he'd been preoccupied with Merlin before, it was nothing compared to how obsessed he'd become since Merlin hugged him. He found himself wanking every morning and afternoon, just so he could control the urge to grab Merlin and drag him into his office during practices. It was torture watching Merlin swim, seeing his lithe body on display each time he exited the pool, water running down all of that smooth bare skin.
It didn't help that Merlin seemed to be underfoot every time he turned around, showing up early for practices and lingering afterward, falling into step with Arthur as he crossed the grounds to the car park. Their hands brushed as they walked, too frequently to be coincidence, hidden and safe from wandering eyes in the cover of darkness. Arthur knew it was dangerous but he couldn't bring himself to put a stop to it, not when Merlin was giving him the tiniest shred of the attention he craved.
Arthur slept poorly each night, dreaming about Merlin almost non-stop, or not being able to sleep at all because he couldn't get the boy out of his head. Needing a release from his pent up frustration, Arthur began swimming each evening after the team practice. It was the only good he could see coming out of his situation, finding his rhythm again as he slowly got his stroke back, not nearly as smooth or fast as he used to be but making progress nonetheless.
On the last day of practice before winter holidays, Arthur's nerves were on edge. He'd just found Merlin, and as hard as it had been over the last few months, the thought of not seeing him for four weeks seemed unbearable. He'd already taken one of the team photos from the board in the office, a candid in which Merlin was laughing at something Arthur had said, beaming his bright smile directly at him, but one photo was not going to be enough to tide him over for the entire break.
Arthur pushed himself hard during his post-practice swim, not stopping until he felt weak as he climbed out of the pool. Leon and Percy had already gone home to their families but as much as he usually loved having the aquatics centre to himself, the pangs of loneliness, of already missing Merlin, had his stomach tied in knots. Stripping down in the changing rooms, Arthur stepped into one of the shower stalls and let the hot water pummel his skin. He soaped up, spotting a blue swimsuit flung carelessly over the divider when he tipped his head back to rinse the suds out of his hair.
He had no way of knowing who it belonged to, but just the sight of it had Arthur imagining Merlin coming in after practice, pale skin luminous against dark blue, peeling the tight fabric down over his slim hips and tossing it carelessly to the side as he stepped into the shower. The thought of Merlin, completely bare, where Arthur now stood, was enough to elicit a groan from his mouth. He felt filthy, disgusted with himself, but he couldn't resist grabbing the Speedo and fisting his cock, the slippery fabric soft against his hardening shaft, gliding even more smoothly after adding a pump of shampoo to his hand.
So close already, Arthur gave into his urge for more, sliding a soapy finger down the cleft of his arse, imagining it was Merlin with him in the shower working him open, long fingers twisting and stretching, preparing him for his cock. Or kneeling down behind him, spreading him open and letting the foamy bubbles rinse away before teasing his arse with his tongue.
He was so wrapped up in his fantasy, imagining Merlin whispering dirty things in his ear as his cock slid between Arthur's cheeks, he didn't hear the door to the changing rooms open, or the footsteps slapping noisily against the wet tiles. He had worked himself into a frenzy, moaning like a whore, and it wasn't until he heard a sharp gasp that he swung around and saw Merlin standing before him, mouth agape, cheeks flaming crimson.
Cursing his stupidity, Arthur turned back toward the taps, trying to cover his cock with the tiny blue swimsuit. Shame radiated from his every pore.
"Merlin, I—" Arthur was speechless, knowing there was no feasible explanation as to why one of the students would find his coach getting off in the swimming centre changing rooms. The fact that it was Merlin made it that much worse. Not only was Arthur still hard, he was desperate to pull Merlin in with him and beg him to do every filthy thing he'd imagined.
"I forgot my swimsuit," Merlin said, his voice barely audible over the spray of the shower.
"Oh god," Arthur groaned. His cock throbbed at the thought that it was actually Merlin's suit wrapped around his cock.
"Merlin, please leave. I'm begging you."
Arthur heard Merlin shuffle closer. "Please don't stop."
Arthur remained hunched, ashamed, and shook his head. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
He had to get out of there, quickly, before he did something so rash, so foolish he would never be able to live with himself. He couldn't take advantage of Merlin; he was just a boy, one of Arthur's charges, and it didn't matter that Arthur wanted him more than anything in his life. If he could just get Merlin to go, he might be able to salvage a tiny shred of his dignity.
Except Merlin didn't leave. He stepped even closer, so close the water soaked his trainers and the hems of his jeans, travelling up his legs slowly and soaking the denim. When he reached out, barely grazing Arthur's shoulder with soft fingertips, Arthur jolted at the sensation.
"I won't touch you," Merlin said, voice hoarse and unusually deep. "You can pretend I'm not here, but please don't stop."
Arthur choked out a laugh. The thought of pretending Merlin wasn't there was the most absurd thing he'd ever heard. It was because of Merlin that he was in this mess. How much was one man supposed to be able to withstand?
"I just want to see you," Merlin said, stepping closer and tugging on Arthur's elbow a little to turn him around.
Arthur closed the taps, covered himself as best he could and turned to face Merlin, whimpering when he saw the dark, needy look in his eyes, lids heavy with desire. When Merlin licked his lips, sucking the bottom one between his teeth, Arthur lost control completely. He dropped to his knees, rubbing his wet cheek against the stiff outline of Merlin's cock through his jeans, then tugged open the zip and yanked the damp fabric down Merlin's pale thighs.
"Can't stop, can't," Arthur babbled. "Tell me to stop, Merlin. God, I need you."
Merlin reached down and gently ran his fingers through Arthur's wet hair, smoothing it back and skimming his cheek on each pass. He shook his head.
"Don't want you to stop," he whispered, then pushed his pants down to join the jeans bunched at his thighs, freeing his erection mere inches from Arthur's face.
"Tell me you want this, Merlin," Arthur growled, saliva pooling in his mouth at the sight of Merlin's cock. "I need to hear you say it."
"Yesss," Merlin said, hand forming a tight fist in the hair at the nape of Arthur's neck. "God, I want it. I want it."
Arthur shuddered, took Merlin's shaft in his hand and slid the head past into his mouth. The first taste of salt on his tongue had him keening with pleasure. He wasted no time, wrapping his lips around Merlin's cock and sucking him in as deep as he could, licking and slurping, swirling his tongue, choking himself on it like he was starving. Merlin tasted so sweet in his mouth, new and exciting but familiar all the same.
Merlin cried out, standing stock still as Arthur's mind flashed to something Gwen had said months earlier.
Merlin is a bit…innocent, from what I can tell.
The idea that Merlin had never had a blowjob before made Arthur's blood race through his veins. He shuddered, slowed down, lazily licked at the head of Merlin's cock, and pulled on his own erection for mere seconds before he spilled on the floor.
Almost immediately after, he began sucking Merlin off with even more vigour, teasing his tight balls with gentle tugs and rolling them in his palm. Remembering something that used to drive his Merlin wild, he flicked his tongue in one particular spot under the head as he slipped a finger behind his balls and pressed lightly. He was rewarded with a sinful wail as Merlin shot down his throat. Swallowing gratefully, Arthur moaned around Merlin's cock, savouring every moment of holding Merlin in his mouth, feeling bereft when it slipped past his lips.
Arthur waited for Merlin to emerge from the fog of his orgasm and run from the room, but the boy surprised him and didn't flee. Instead, Merlin sunk to the floor and kissed Arthur, hard and messy, with little skill and too much teeth. Too soon, Merlin jumped up and stammered out something about needing to go. He was a gorgeous mess as he tried to shimmy his wet pants and jeans back into place, lips swollen and face flushed bright red. He snatched his swimsuit from Arthur's hand, gave him an embarrassed smile and a tiny wave, and was gone in a flash.
Arthur collapsed back against the shower wall and laughed, a loud uproarious sound that echoed throughout the changing rooms. He had an entire month to panic about what had just happened. He would surely spend every minute of his holiday waiting for the police to show up at his door and haul him off to prison, but for one night, he was going to savour it, karma be damned.
The winter holidays passed in a whirlwind and Arthur was back at Avalon before he knew it. He'd spent a week in London with his father and Morgana, and other than a few vague conversations about how the scouting was going, his father seemed to be too wrapped up in his own affairs to pay Arthur much attention—a holiday miracle in itself. He'd also not received a visit from the police, for which he was eternally grateful.
When Leon had rung him on Boxing Day, he'd feared the worst, but he and Elena were only calling to invite him down to the pub the following Friday for a little post-holiday cheer. Elena, ever perceptive, said there was something different about Arthur and asked if he'd met someone. He told her the same thing he'd said to Morgana at the Pendragon Sports holiday party—that it was none of her business but he was happy, thank you very much.
Arthur's weeks away from Avalon were not without plenty of soul searching, however, and he fell into a panic on several occasions. He had broken the law, put his very freedom on the line. The age of consent might be sixteen for anyone else, but as a coach, Arthur was held to the same, higher standards as teachers, which meant he was to view Merlin as a child until he was eighteen. He couldn't even imagine what his life would be like if anyone found out. He beat himself up about it, drilling into his mind how very wrong his actions were. He was ashamed that he had given in to his own desires and taken advantage of an innocent boy.
Then he remembered that Merlin's cock had responded to a little trick Arthur had used to use, and though guilt and fear weighed heavily in his mind, his heart took solace in the fact that some part of Merlin remembered him. He went back and forth, remembering how good it had felt, how impossible Merlin had been to resist, how he'd been begging Arthur to do it. There was no doubt it had been a mistake, but Merlin obviously hadn't told anyone, and by the time the first swim practice of the new year came about, Arthur had convinced himself that if he could just manage not to do anything like that again, maybe everything would be fine.
And things were fine when he returned to Avalon, save for the nausea Arthur felt when he first met Merlin's eye, a deep blush flooding the boy's cheeks as he quickly averted his gaze. He seemed unusually quiet during the first week of practice, even when they met one-on-one, but he was more focused, too. The entire team seemed to be in a bit of a post-holiday funk, so Arthur tried not to give it too much thought, an endeavour that ended up a complete and utter failure.
The one time Arthur tried to pull him aside, Merlin whispered, "Not now, please? I have some big meets coming up and I just need to focus on that."
Ashamed at putting his personal needs before those of the school, the team, and especially Merlin, Arthur had nodded and said, "I'm sorry. Of course."
But Arthur knew he couldn't let things go on like this forever, not when the other boys were giving Merlin quizzical looks and even Percy asked him and Leon if something was wrong with the boy. He vowed to talk to Merlin after their next meet, a new, three-region event being held in London.
There were no relay medley events at the Zone Championships, but a number of Avalon swimmers qualified in their individual strokes. On the ride up, Merlin sat alone, earbuds stuffed into his ears, completely focused on whatever was going on in his head. Arthur only had a moment alone with him before his first race of the meet, but he took advantage, squeezing Merlin's shoulder and whispering a quick, "I know you're going to be great," in his ear. Merlin thanked him quickly, nodded and gave him a determined smile. Arthur was still worried about Merlin's behaviour, but he knew all too well how necessary it was to clear his mind before a competition.
The school did well overall, but Merlin had a spectacular meet. He set his third personal best of the season in the 50m free and another in the 100m race. He took first place in each event, and for the first time in weeks, Merlin's dazzling smile was back on his face. At the end of the meet, while the other swimmers were loading up their gear, Merlin took a quick look around to make sure no one was looking and then gave Arthur another quick hug.
"You swam beautifully today and made us all proud, Merlin," Arthur said, unable to resist giving him a tight squeeze before gently pulling away. It wouldn't do to be seen hugging Merlin, regardless of the circumstances.
"Thank you, Coach," he said. "Your confidence in me really means a lot."
"You're welcome," Arthur said. "Now, time to head home so you boys can celebrate."
Merlin beamed at him, then dutifully boarded the bus with his teammates.
Arthur felt a cool hand on his arm and turned to see Morgana standing before him, her expensive suit and heels out of place in the setting, but pure Morgana nonetheless.
"Arthur," she said, proffering her cheek for a quick kiss.
He obliged. "Morgana, this is a pleasant surprise."
"Well," she said, "Uther has been hounding me to follow up with you on your progress, and when I heard you were going to be so close, I had to come."
"Of course. It always comes back to my father, doesn't it?"
"He wouldn't have it any other way, Arthur, and you know it," Morgana replied. "You may have been the media's darling for a short time, but Uther is the one who hates sharing the spotlight."
"So, you've seen me in action," Arthur said. "What are you going to tell Uther when you report back?"
"I am going to tell him that you're far too busy working with championship-level swimmers to have given much thought to the satellite office."
"That's it?" Arthur asked, sceptical.
"Yes. Except…" She paused and looked toward the bus with a raised eyebrow. "That boy, the skinny one I saw giving you a hug a moment ago?"
"You worry too much, Morgana," Arthur said with a forced smile. He felt heat rising on his cheeks. Morgana had always been especially perceptive and he needed to quash any misgivings she might have. "Merlin just posted two personal bests. You can't blame him for being excited."
"Perhaps," Morgana replied. "Be very careful, Arthur. You're in a position of authority at Avalon and in the eyes of the law, he's still a child. Even the hint of an inappropriate relationship could ruin you."
With that, she kissed his cheek and walked away.
Despite what she'd said about Merlin, Arthur was pleased his conversation with Morgana had gone so well. They had never been particularly close, but things seemed to be improving now that Arthur wasn't acting like the world's biggest prat. It felt good to have her on his side. And even if Merlin didn't remember their previous life together, Arthur could feel their bond strengthening every day. It would take time, certainly as least until Merlin finished at Avalon, but someday… He started losing himself in daydreams about a life with Merlin when Leon sat down next to him.
"We need to have a talk, mate," Leon said, glancing over his shoulder to make sure they weren't being overheard.
An icy chill ran down Arthur's spine. "All right," he replied.
Leon looked around the crowded bus. "Not here, but soon. I'll check with Elena and let you know when I'm free. In the meantime, I have to ask you to keep your distance from Merlin."
He patted Arthur's knee, then got up and took another seat, leaving Arthur to his thoughts, the heavy weight of guilt and fear settling back onto his shoulders.
It was a busy time for the swimming programme and Arthur hadn't heard anything further from Leon until the end of the week. After a smaller event at their pool on Saturday, Leon pulled Arthur aside.
"Fancy a trip to the pub tonight?" he asked.
"Definitely yes," Arthur answered as cheerfully as he could. "Should I try to round Percy up for it too?"
Leon shook his head. "I have to talk to you alone tonight, I'm afraid."
Arthur swallowed against the lump that had formed in his throat. "Of course. Let me wrap up here and I'll meet you in front."
"See you in an hour or so."
A short while later, they settled themselves at a table at their local, Arthur picking at a thread on his sleeve, waiting for Leon to break the tension.
"I need to talk to you about Merlin, Arthur," Leon said. "I don't know what's going on with him, but there's something you're not telling me. And if you're not telling me, it's probably something I don't want to know."
Arthur took a sip of his pint, then another. He'd been thinking about what he would say to Leon, but before he spilled all his secrets and ruined anyone's life, he needed to know what Leon was thinking.
"I'm not sure what you mean," Arthur said, looking Leon directly in the eye.
"I've seen how he looks at you and I know what you're like when someone's caught your eye. It's the kind of thing that can destroy your life," Leon said. "It would be different if you didn't work for the school, but to us, he's still legally off-limits. Tell me I don't have anything to worry about, mate."
Arthur ran his hands through his hair and tried to choose his words carefully. He'd never shared his memories about Merlin with anyone, and he wasn't going to start now. He couldn't let on that something had already happened between them, but he owed Leon an explanation. "It's complicated. I feel like I know him and it’s more than just a few moments of familiarity. I can’t explain it, but there's something there and it's stronger than anything I've ever felt. I need him in my life.”
Leon gave him a sad smile. “Arthur, you're like my brother and you know I want you to be happy, but nothing can happen with Merlin, at least not while you're at Avalon. You will end up in prison, for a long time, and then live the rest of your life labelled as a sex offender. This is serious business."
"I know, but you don't—"Arthur tried to interrupt but Leon kept speaking, drowning him out.
"I don't doubt your feelings, but he’s just a kid, and you're his coach. I see how he acts around you; he'd go for it in a second. But you are the adult here, Arthur. Do you have any idea what it could do to him if you pursued this?"
"I know, Leon, and I hammer the same things into my head every day. And then I go to the pool and I see Merlin and I feel like I have no control over myself where's he's concerned." Pausing, he took a few deep, calming breaths. "I know this is a disaster waiting to happen. Some days I wake up and think I should just go back to London, where there were always blokes clamouring to get into my bed. But I can't go back to that now, not after—"
“What the hell is wrong with you, you selfish bastard?” Leon's glass hit the worn wood of the table with a thud. He looked around sheepishly when he realised he'd drawn some very unwanted attention. When he spoke, his voice was lowered but Arthur couldn't miss the seriousness of his tone. “You say you need him, but what about what he needs? Think of what it could do to him, how it could affect his life."
"You don't understand," Arthur said, slouching down in his seat and crossing his arms.
"No, it's you who doesn't understand." Leon pushed his pint away, fingers gripping the edge of the table tightly. "Merlin is already an outsider here and swimming is the only thing he has that allows him to fit in. Opportunities like this don't come around often for kids like Merlin. Do you think bloody Avalon would keep him if he was tarnished by this kind of scandal? It would be a media circus. Jesus, Arthur. Think about someone else for once in your life.”
Arthur sat in stunned silence, ashamed he'd never taken the details of Merlin's situation into consideration. Hell, he only knew about Merlin's scholarship because Gwen had had one too many glasses of cider. Arthur couldn't pretend to know what it was like for someone like Merlin, having always had the best of everything within his reach. Merlin had potential to do great things, both in the pool and out and Arthur couldn't be the one to get in the way of Merlin's bright future. He'd waited so long for Merlin, been blinded by the sheer joy of having him back in his life, but he saw now that the time wasn't right, no matter how much he wanted it to be.
“You’re right,” Arthur said. "Things are more complicated than you know, but it doesn't change anything."
"I hope you do the right thing, Arthur, because if you don't, I won't be able to stand by you," Leon said. "Elena's pregnant, and I won't lose my job over this. If something happens with Merlin, you're on your own."
Arthur clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Congratulations. I mean it when I say I'm thrilled for you both. I'm sorry for even putting you in this position."
"So what are you going to do?" Leon asked.
"There's only one thing to do," Arthur answered. "Finish out the season, avoid being alone with Merlin, and then walk away."
After bidding Leon goodnight and sending his best wishes to Elena, Arthur took a meandering route home and pondered everything they'd discussed. It was against his very nature to give up on something he wanted, and there was nothing he'd ever wanted more than to be with Merlin. Even his dreams of being an Olympic athlete paled in comparison to the idea of sharing a life with Merlin again, to have Merlin remember him and how they used to be. He felt sick at the thought of pushing Merlin away, but Leon had opened his eyes to realities he foolishly hadn't considered.
Eyes downcast as he shuffled up the walk, Arthur didn't realise until he opened the front gate that there was someone slumped against his door. Someone slender with wisps of unruly dark hair peeking out from under his beanie, dressed in a very familiar school jumper.
And just like that, it was as if his conversation with Leon had never happened.
The boy scrambled to his feet in a bit of a daze, eyes slightly unfocused as he blinked slowly to alertness.
"Hi." Merlin yawned and scratched his belly, leaning against the doorframe for support when he lost his footing. The faint scent of stale booze wafted toward Arthur.
"Christ. Are you drunk?" Arthur asked.
"Umm. Dunno? Maybe a little. Was celebrating with the lads. I just had two but it might've gone to my head."
"Idiot. Maybe that should tell you something," Arthur laughed, his own inhibitions lowered from the drinks he'd had with Leon. He should turn Merlin away, but Arthur couldn't deny how good it felt just to see him like this, a little silly and carefree. "Speaking of foolish choices, do you care to tell me why you thought it was good idea to get pissed with your mates and then show up on your coach's doorstep?"
The mood changed instantly, electricity seeming to crackle in the air. Arthur could almost taste it on his lips, like the moment before the heavens lit up the sky and sheets of rain drenched the earth.
Merlin stepped closer and murmured in Arthur's ear. "Can't stop thinking about you. About what happened in the changing rooms and how much I want to do that to you, too."
Arthur groaned. God, he wanted Merlin, wanted to know how those lips would feel around his cock. He'd dreamt of it so many times but this Merlin, in the flesh, was so much more sinful than any centuries-old memory or recent fantasy he'd had. He was tempted, so very tempted, all rational thought quickly losing the battle against the sheer amount of want burning in his blood.
"Please. Need to know what you taste like," Merlin said. He pressed himself along the length of Arthur's body, long limbs and sharp angles slotting perfectly into place. Warm puffs of air washed over Arthur's neck as he spoke. " Never done it before but want it so bad. Please, let me in? Show me how?"
"Christ, Merlin," Arthur said, meaning to push Merlin away but helpless to resist when Merlin slid their mouths together. The kiss was wet and sloppy, reeking of Merlin's inexperience and foul-tasting from the alcohol they'd both drunk.
Arthur couldn't get enough.
When Merlin opened up for him, Arthur grasped his face in both hands, tilting his head to get better access to the depths of his mouth. It was filthy and desperate and Arthur's very soul fuelled his need to possess Merlin completely. He mouthed at his jaw and dragged his teeth down Merlin's neck, knowing he should be more careful about leaving marks, but unable to stop.
"Fuck, Merlin, your skin drives me insane," Arthur said, pushing aside the collar of Merlin's button-up and nipping at his collarbones. "Want you. Shouldn't, but fuck it all, I do."
Merlin's tilted his head, exposing more of his neck while his hips moved in tiny thrusts against Arthur. "Yeah. Feels so good. Don't stop. I'm sixteen, so it's not like it's illegal or anything."
Arthur stopped, panting against the kiss-damp skin of Merlin's throat. "The rules are different for teachers, Merlin. Coaches, too."
Saying it aloud, to Merlin, drove the point home. Even with the numerous extenuating circumstances, even if no one ever found out, Arthur wasn't sure he'd ever be able to forgive himself for taking advantage of Merlin. Again. He added it to his rapidly growing list of offenses.
"Jesus, this is wrong."
"No! It's not. Feels right. Please. I won't tell anyone." Undeterred, Merlin surged forward for another kiss, then pulled away just enough to slide a hand down Arthur's body and give his cock a gentle squeeze through his trousers. "I can keep a secret. Please, Coach. I want this so much."
And that was the crux of the problem, Arthur thought. Merlin was physically attracted to his coach, desperately so, but Arthur had fallen in love with the boy, and desperately loved the man he used to be. He was Arthur's destiny for all ages, but he didn't even remember who Arthur was. Could there be a crueller fate?
"No. Stop, Merlin. Stop! I can't," Arthur said, extricating himself from Merlin's embrace.
For all the reasons Leon mentioned, and all the others swirling around in Arthur's mind, he summoned every bit of his willpower and gently pushed Merlin away. "I'm so sorry, Merlin, for leading you on, taking advantage, for letting myself get caught up in this even knowing how wrong it truly is."
"I won't say it was a mistake because I'm selfish and I wanted it, want you so badly. But I can't invite you in, and this can't happen again."
Arthur unlocked the door and blocked Merlin easily when he tried to follow him inside. He allowed himself a final look, his heart breaking when he saw sad confusion in Merlin's eyes and his once excited blush turn dark with shame as he awkwardly tried to cover up the bulge in his jeans. His eyes shimmered and Arthur ached to rescue Merlin's beautiful kiss-bruised lip from where it was trapped in the hard bite of his teeth.
Wanting nothing more than to comfort him, to make him understand, Arthur pursed his lips, more grimace than smile. "Go home, Merlin," he said, before closing the door and sliding down to the floor on the other side.
The next few weeks passed in a flurry of activity as Avalon played host to the Somerset County championships, the last big competition of the season spanning three weekends. Arthur worked tirelessly with his boys, tweaking their workouts to ensure proper rest time so that each swimmer would be at peak performance for their events at the meet. Coupled with typical end of term giddiness, the aquatics centre buzzed with excitement.
For Arthur, however, it was sheer torture. After the most recent incident with Merlin, he was plagued with terrifying dreams. His mind conjured up memory after memory of occasions when his Merlin's life had been in mortal peril, caught in the clutches of evil sorcerers or sacrificing himself in order to save Arthur. Even worse were his memories of learning about Merlin's magic, of casting him off and sending him away, even when it had broken his heart to do so. It had been a dark time for Arthur, and he felt fortunate that fate had brought them together again, despite his foolish pride.
His waking hours were equally distressing. He still worked with Merlin; Leon tried to help wherever he could, but Merlin was in Arthur's group and he refused to abandon him completely so close to the end of the season.
But even as he struggled to keep things strictly professional, it was impossible not to notice the slump in Merlin's shoulders, the way his ribs protruded a little more prominently, and the dark circles marring his beautiful face. More than anything else, Arthur couldn't stand to see the dead, lost look in Merlin's eyes. Even when he was completely focused on preparing for a race, there was usually a bit of a sparkle in Merlin's eye, a calm determination that Arthur had admired and grown so fond of seeing. Now, Merlin seemed to be going through the motions, eyes flat and cold.
"Jesus, Arthur," Leon said one morning, clearly concerned. "I told you to cool things off, not kill the kid."
Arthur squared his shoulders in an attempt to convey a confidence he didn't feel. "He'll be all right."
"I don't know what you said, but please, for Merlin's sake, fix it," Leon said.
Arthur wanted to, so badly, but when he tapped Merlin on the shoulder before the medley relay on the first weekend of competition, Merlin whipped around, anger flashing in his eyes. "Don't touch me, Coach."
Arthur held his hands up defensively, shocked at Merlin's intensity. Gwaine, who had witnessed their exchange though he was too far away to hear what Merlin said, walked over and slung an arm around Merlin's shoulders and led him away. Arthur heard him asking Merlin what was going on, and telling him to get his head back into it. The rest of the relay team gave it their all and built up a substantial lead, and even though Merlin's time wasn't his best, they performed well enough as a team to eke out first place.
The following week, Merlin placed second in the 100m free. Arthur could see the disappointment radiating off of him, but kept his distance, allowing Leon to step in to support Merlin and encourage him to look ahead to his next event. Merlin seemed more focused during the next week of practice, and Arthur held out hope that he'd do well in the final session of the competition.
He swam well in his 50m heat, easily making it to the championship round, but when the swimmers took their mark, Arthur had a sinking feeling in his stomach. He closed his eyes, silently took up his usual chant for Merlin, and flinched when he heard the buzzer indicating a false start. He knew without even opening his eyes, but when he did, it was Merlin in the pool ahead of the other racers. He was disqualified.
After the meet, Arthur made one final attempt to talk to Merlin privately, his very soul desperate to provide comfort, his mind all too aware of how devastating it was to lose in that fashion, with no one to blame but oneself. But there was someone else to blame, and the guilt Arthur felt was eating at him from within.
"Merlin," Arthur called out to him as he prepared to leave with Elyan and Gwaine. "A moment, please?"
Merlin hesitated, then waved off the other boys. "Meet you back at the house."
"I'm sorry about the race, Merlin." Arthur longed to reach out and comfort him but knew he could only use words to convey his sympathy. "You had a great season overall. You're only sixteen and have already accomplished so much. Next year, when it comes time for Nationals, you'll be ready; I know it."
Merlin shrugged. "Is that all, Coach?"
Arthur nodded. "I'm proud of you, Merlin," he said, voice catching.
Tears shimmered in Merlin's eyes and clung to his lashes, threatening to spill over. He swiped at them angrily. "I'm sorry I let you down."
Arthur fought every instinct to pull Merlin into his arms, to tell him he was wonderful and loved, needed and wanted. Instead, he swallowed past the lump in his throat, stood perfectly still and watched Merlin walk away from him.
"Well, that was a disappointing finish," a familiar voice said from behind him.
"Hello, Father," Arthur said without turning around. "What brings you here?"
"I'd like to have a word," Uther replied. "In private."
Arthur waved over his shoulder, gesturing for his father to follow him into the office. He knew he was being rude, but he was too exhausted and mentally drained to care. Uther stepped past Arthur, taking the seat behind his desk, leaving Arthur the option of standing or taking one of the smaller chairs where the boys usually sat.
"It's been a long day," Arthur said, running a hand through his hair.
"Yes, I'm sure it has," Uther said, "so I'll get right to it. You've done well here, and identified a region full of swimmers perfectly suited for Pendragon Sports."
Arthur shook his head in disgust, completely devoid of patience, but remained silent.
"I've decided to put you in charge of our new office in Glastonbury. I've already secured space and I'm interviewing candidates to assist you in the company's newest venture."
"No," Arthur said.
"I am not making a request, son," Uther replied. "I've been looking over your team's statistics. You and Leon have done great things at Avalon this year, and with the Emrys boy in particular, though today's performance was quite a disappointment."
"He had one false start. It's not the end of the world," Arthur said defensively, not adding that he was certain Merlin felt like it was. "Merlin's an exceptionally talented swimmer. I've already put together a plan to help him work on his entry and Percival, the PE instructor, has worked up a new programme to make sure he stays strong during the summer."
"You certainly seem to have taken a special interest in the boy," Uther mused. "It's a shame you'll have to give him up."
Anger flashed in Arthur's eyes and he clenched his hands into tight fists. "I'll never give up on Merlin."
"No, I don't suppose you would." Uther slid a mailing envelope across the desk, and Arthur felt a sickening sense of déjà vu deep in his gut.
His fingers trembled as he tore the envelope open. A small stack of photographs fell out, fanning across the desk. They were all of him and Merlin, kissing on Arthur's doorstep several weeks before, Arthur's hands buried in Merlin's hair while he trailed kisses down his neck. Conflicting emotions swirled in Arthur's belly—longing for Merlin, heartache for what he could not have, unadulterated rage that their privacy had been violated, and seething anger at Uther for treating it so casually.
"In cases such as this, I find it's best to cut ties quickly, to avoid messy complications," Uther said. "Now, as soon as you can convince this Emrys to sign a contract, I have a few other prospects I'd like you to consider."
Uther pulled another photo out of his breast pocket. "This one, Freya something or other, is exactly what we're looking for. She's also on scholarship at Avalon and has a less than ideal home life. She's ripe for the picking, only she's just fourteen, so do take care when pursuing this one, won't you, Arthur? God knows we don't need you to cause any more scandals."
"You bastard!" Arthur shouted. "I would not become involved with a student to get them to sign a contract for you!"
Uther's steady gaze travelled from Arthur's face to the stack of photos and back again.
"It certainly doesn't seem that way, not that I can blame you. Emrys doesn't appear to be much up front, but there's something about him, isn't there? It couldn't have been too much of a hardship to get what you wanted from that one." He leered at Arthur. "It's not that I disapprove of your methods, son. I just didn't think you had it in you."
Before Arthur could launch himself at his father, Morgana swept into the room carrying a manila folder and stepped between them.
"As much as you would like it to be true, Uther," Morgana said sharply, "I don't think anyone who truly knows Arthur would think him capable of what you're suggesting. And Arthur's not the one who has anything to be ashamed of."
Morgana tossed the folder across Arthur's desk, the contents spilling out overtop the photographs of Merlin. There were several of pictures of Arthur and Valiant from the night in the alley, and dozens of others documenting Arthur's fall from grace. While he absorbed what he was looking at, Morgana pulled a tiny recorder from her purse and pressed play. Arthur could easily pick out Uther and Vivian's voices, and another that sounded very familiar. It wasn't until he heard them coming up the headline that appeared on the mock-up for The Sun Arthur received so many months ago that he realised it was his Uncle Agravaine.
"You?" Arthur asked, incredulous. "You were behind the blackmail campaign with Valiant? You had, still have, apparently, photographers following me. Why?"
Uther looked only vaguely fazed by the unfortunate revelation.
"Don't look so shocked," he answered. "It all worked out for the best, didn't it? You've done well at a prestigious swimming programme and led your team to unparalleled success, which can only lead to more clients for Pendragon Sports. This boy will get over you and move on soon enough."
"Merlin is nothing like that," Arthur spat out. "He's only sixteen!"
"Careful, Arthur," Uther said. "We wouldn't want it getting out that you've a special fondness for young boys."
Stunned, Arthur gaped at his father. "How could you—"
"It would be a shame if Emrys lost his scholarship at such a critical time in his academic and athletic career, especially as a result of a tawdry scandal," Uther said, fingering the stacks of photos and pushing one of Merlin back to the top. "But perception truly is reality in cases such as this. Did I mention that the Headmaster was in my house at Eton?"
"Fuck you!" Arthur shouted, face flushed bright crimson as his rage boiled over. "I won't let you do this to Merlin."
Morgana placed a cool, dry hand on Arthur's arm. "May I?"
Arthur shrugged her off and began to pace.
"I'd be the one worried about things getting out if I were you, Uther." She narrowed her eyes, a direct contrast to the saccharine smile playing on her lips. "Agravaine and Vivian have worked under you for quite some time."
"They wouldn't dare," Uther said. "Agravaine thinks he can cut Arthur out of the company after I retire so he has no reason to betray me, and I have no doubt as to Vivian's loyalty."
"Mmm. You might be right about Agravaine, the fool. But Vivian? I'd agree if it wasn't for the little problem of Catrina," Morgana said. She perched herself on the corner of Arthur's desk. "We've gotten to know each other quite well over the last few weeks, Vivian and I, ever since I let it slip about your whirlwind engagement to Catrina."
Uther's mouth tightened into a thin line. "How dare you interfere with my personal business."
"You wouldn't believe how distraught she was," Morgana continued, as if Uther hadn't said anything at all. "I thought you would have told her, knowing how close you've been all these years, but then again, you haven't even told your son, have you?"
"You're getting married?" Arthur asked, watching the colour drain from Uther's face.
Uther and Morgana ignored Arthur's question completely. She leaned across the desk and whispered loudly into Uther's ear. "I think Vivian was holding out hope you'd give in and make an honest woman out of her someday."
Acknowledging the absurdity of the idea, Morgana let a tinkling laugh slip through her perfectly painted lips. "Poor dear. What's that saying about a woman scorned? I think you'll find her resignation on your desk when you return to London. But don't worry Father, I made sure she took copies of everything she needed before she left."
"Father?" Arthur interjected. "What's going on?"
Morgana tore her gaze from Uther. "I can't say I'm surprised he didn't tell you that either. Apparently Uther had an affair with my mother while my father was on assignment overseas. Imagine my surprise when Vivian divulged that interesting piece of information."
"Morgana, I—" Arthur began to speak, but found he had no idea what to say.
"No, Arthur. I don't want your pity and you certainly have nothing to apologise for." Her face crumpled, and only just, before her careful mask slipped back into place. "It all makes sense now, how everyone thought we'd be an ideal match during our Uni days, but Uther was adamantly opposed. What a scandal that would have been!"
It was all too much for Arthur to take in, and the need to flee threatened to overtake him. Uther rose and prepared to speak, but Arthur raised a hand and cut him off with a fierce look. For once in his life, he was going to have the last word.
"Father, you will not do anything to hurt Merlin, or any other student at Avalon. As for me coming to work for you, or even setting foot in PS again? Well, that's clearly out of the question," Arthur said. "And I would seriously reconsider the idea of the satellite office. Gossip is just as likely to spread in small towns as it is in your social circles in London."
He walked behind his desk, drew himself up to his full height, and stood toe to toe with Uther. " You are not the man I thought you were. If you dare to interfere with Merlin's future, I will ruin you. Goodbye, Father."
Arthur turned to Morgana and offered her his arm. "It seems we have a lot to catch up on. Care for a drink?"
Morgana stared at Uther, not breaking his gaze until his shoulders slumped and his eyes travelled to the floor. He walked out of the office without looking back at his children.
Morgana nodded in satisfaction, then silently gathered all of the photographs and tucked them safely inside her bag. "Yes, thank you. I think that drink is long overdue."
Arthur arrived home exhausted but sober, knowing if he'd had more than two drinks he wouldn't have been able to stop himself from doing something rash. As it was, the only thing he wanted was to fall into bed, hoping he would wake up and find that the entire day had been a horrible dream. He grabbed the post and thumbed through it carelessly until he saw a letter from Avalon, staring at it for a moment before he laid it down on the table. It was his contract for the following year, something Leon had told him to expect.
After everything that had happened, all the secrets and the lies, his inability to control himself around Merlin and the heartbreak he felt every day when he couldn't hold him in his arms, the decision was an easy one for Arthur to make. Arthur thought about how boyish and carefree Merlin could be, like he was the very first moment Arthur laid eyes on him when he was horsing around with his friend Will in the pool. It was how Merlin should be at his age, and Arthur couldn't continue to take that away from him. He knew he would have come to the same conclusion even if Uther hadn't threatened to have Merlin's scholarship revoked, and he would play no part in ruining his future.
He wouldn't give up on Merlin; the idea of doing so was something Arthur couldn't even comprehend. But Arthur had to leave the school, allowing Merlin to flourish and achieve his goals. Arthur would cling to the hope that they would reconnect one day, but it wasn't their time, as Arthur had mistaken it to be. At peace with his decision, no matter how heartbreaking, he fell into bed and quickly surrendered to sleep for the first time in weeks.
Arthur woke to the sound of a storm raging outside, rain beating down against the windowpanes. Lightning flashed through the thin curtains, bathing his bedroom in a fierce, white glow. A sharp crack of thunder followed almost immediately, close enough to shake his tiny house to its foundation, so loud he almost didn't hear the insistent knocking at his front door. Arthur freed himself from the twisted duvet, tumbled out of bed and pulled on a pair of sleep pants before shuffling to the door.
The last thing he expected to see was a wild-eyed Merlin standing on his doorstep, drenched to the bone.
"Arthur," Merlin said.
Arthur rubbed his eyes. "Merlin? What are you doing here? I told you, we can't—"
"You're Arthur," he insisted. "The Arthur. With knights and castles and a round table. I saw you. Only it wasn't you. At least I don't think it was. You were wearing a red cape, brandishing a sword."
Arthur's jaw dropped. He sucked a deep breath sharply through his teeth, afraid to consider the possibility that Merlin was remembering after all this time.
"And I was there too, only it wasn't me, it just looked like me, but sometimes older in fancy robes. But you – the other you – called me¬¬—" Merlin said.
"Mine," Arthur whispered. He reached out to the steady himself on the doorframe. "I called you mine, didn't I?"
"Yes," Merlin answered shakily.
Arthur had been waiting for this moment for as long as he could remember and he heard his pulse hammering in his ears. "What do you remember, Merlin?"
"Remember?" he asked. His voice rose higher, louder as he continued. "What are you saying? Were they memories? Was it us – really us? There were so many things: battles, magic, us together, in a tent and sharing a bed." Even in his frenzy, a deep blush coloured Merlin's cheeks. "I don't know what any of it means!"
"Okay. It's okay. You're still you, here, now." Arthur paused, unsure of how much to say. What if Merlin's revelation was a one-time event? Was this all they'd ever have, just a few flashes of past events, long forgotten? He'd all but given up on Merlin remembering, so if this was all he ever got, he'd take it. "You're still Merlin, the same person you've always been. Only, you're—only, you're my Merlin, too."
"I know I'm Merlin. Of course I am. But who else am I? I don't… I… This doesn't make any sense!" Merlin shouted, confused and frantic. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he grabbed his head in his hands. "It hurts. My head – it hurts."
Arthur shushed him softly, trying to soothe Merlin while a million thoughts ran through his own mind. He took a negligible step forward, as if he was approaching a wild animal, careful not to startle the trembling boy on his doorstep. His need to touch Merlin was so great he was nearly vibrating with it and Arthur opened his arms and gestured for Merlin to come inside, then quickly closed the door behind them and waited for Merlin to accept his embrace. When he did, Arthur pulled him in close and buried his face in Merlin's wet hair as Merlin tucked his face into Arthur's neck. His heart raced and he took deep cleansing breaths of Merlin's scent. It was as if he'd been ensnared in the murky depths of a long forgotten lake and finally managed to break free and breach the surface to take his first gulps of fresh, sweet air.
"Shh. It's okay Merlin. It's going to be okay." Arthur tightened his grip, surrounding him, trying to protect him from the confused barrage of thoughts he knew must be racing through Merlin's mind like a tornado, fierce and devastating. He couldn't bear the thought of Merlin not wanting to remember, not wanting him the way he once did long ago.
Arthur felt a hot rush of breath against his skin as Merlin's mouth opened, then closed again.
"It's alright, Merlin. I know this is confusing. Terrifying, even."
"It's not that. Well, it is – both of those things." Merlin mumbled into Arthur's skin, then stopped and choked out a laugh. "Shit. I don't even know what to call you."
"You used to have some rather creative ways of addressing me, now that I think about it." Arthur laughed softly, remembering, then gently took Merlin's face in his hands. "But you said once that you liked calling me by name, instead of sire or other, more appropriate titles. Of course, things are different now. You can call me whatever you'd like."
"Arthur." Merlin tried it out, paused, then said it again, as if he was getting used to the feel of it in his mouth. The third time, he looked at Arthur through damp inky lashes. "Arthur," he said, soft and sweet and perfect.
Arthur leaned forward until their foreheads touched, sighing against Merlin's lips. Merlin shivered, fat drops of icy water falling from his fringe, hitting Arthur's bare skin and running down his chest like tiny rivers.
"We should talk. There are so many things you don't understand yet," Arthur said, bottom lip brushing Merlin's. He wanted to kiss him so badly, to reclaim him as his own, but he knew if he started, he wouldn't be able to stop. Not when his Merlin was here and finally, finally remembered.
"Don't care. There's always been something about you. I felt it the first day in the pool, but I didn't know what it was. Arthur? Need to—" Merlin surged forward to close the tiny gap between them, urgently pressing his lips to Arthur's and opening up for him almost instantly.
The kiss was different than the others they'd shared in this lifetime, and Arthur took his time exploring Merlin's mouth, lips and tongue sliding smoothly over familiar terrain, kissing away the sweet taste of rainwater and salty residue from Merlin's tears until nothing foreign remained. He pulled Merlin closer, then yelped when his sodden clothing clung to his skin.
"Christ, Merlin. You're soaked through," Arthur said.
"Ran over as fast as I could. Had to see you, Arthur. Doesn't matter," Merlin answered, trying to pull Arthur back into his embrace.
"It will matter if you catch pneumonia and can't swim for two months," Arthur retorted.
Contrary to what he was saying, Arthur leaned in for another kiss, this one hungrier than the last. He pressed Merlin up against the door, shifting a leg between his thighs and feeling the growing hardness against his hip. Merlin groaned, bit at Arthur's lips, thrust his tongue inside Arthur's mouth, deep and desperate, scrabbling against Arthur's bare skin with frigid fingertips in an effort to bring him closer. He was completely wanton, and Arthur knew he wasn't solely being driven by lusty teenage hormones, that the emotions Merlin was feeling might still be buried, but were there, swirling just under the surface, ready to break free. He couldn't resist touching him; Arthur slid his hand inside Merlin's joggers and shoved them down around his thighs, then wrapped his hand around Merlin's cock through his soggy pants.
"Ah-ar -Arthur," Merlin gasped. "Oh, god."
Arthur tightened his grip, used the wet fabric to ease the way as he worked his hand up and down, pulling back the foreskin and twisting his wrist so the swollen head of Merlin's cock brushed against his palm. Merlin was barely kissing him any longer, instead panting warm and wet into his mouth. Arthur sucked on his bottom lip, then bit down on it gently. He did it again, this time with a little more teeth, hoping to elicit another sweet moan from Merlin's mouth. His efforts were rewarded and Merlin's hips jerked once before his release pulsed into Arthur's hand.
"That," Merlin said breathlessly, "was brilliant. Er…sorry about the mess."
Laughter bubbled up from deep inside Arthur's chest as he pulled his hand from Merlin's pants, letting the waistband snap back into place and wiping the residual mess on his pyjama pants. Despite Merlin's efforts to draw him back in, he gave him a quick kiss but didn't linger. He was still hard, aching for Merlin's touch to the depths of his bones, his whole body crying out for more contact, but he forced himself to step away when Merlin's still-frigid fingertips trailed down his side. Arthur turned and walked toward his bedroom and called out over his shoulder, "I'll get you something dry to put on and then we should talk. I can make some tea if you'd like?"
He was rooting around in his closet, grabbing some clothes for Merlin and some clean things for himself, when he felt Merlin's hand on his shoulder. His body relaxed into Merlin's touch immediately, as if by instinct.
"Arthur? A cup of tea is the last thing I want right now."
Arthur turned to face him and watched as he toed out of his wet trainers with a squelch, then began stripping off his clothing without the slightest hesitation. In the course of the school year, Arthur had seen Merlin nearly naked more times than he could count, but this time was different. Merlin was undressing for Arthur, uncovering each bit of bare skin for Arthur's benefit, exposing himself completely.
When there was nothing left to take off, Merlin reached for Arthur, pushed down his sleep pants and wrapped himself around him. He kissed Arthur softly and then led him over to the bed, pulling back the covers and climbing in. He waited for Arthur to do the same before dragging the duvet up over their heads. They fit together seamlessly in their warm cocoon and while Arthur was most certainly aroused by Merlin's proximity and the sensation of his rapidly warming bare skin pressed up against his own, he couldn't recall ever feeling more satisfied and at peace.
"Arthur," Merlin whispered. "I know we have to talk, but can we stay like this for a while, just for tonight?"
Arthur nodded and tightened his arms around Merlin, nosing behind his ear and burying his face into his thick hair once again. He smoothed his hands over Merlin's back, hands unable to stop touching Merlin everywhere he could reach. It's wasn't long before he felt Merlin go slack against him and he too drifted off to sleep.
Merlin slept fitfully, often startling awake with fear in his eyes as new images and memories flooded his mind. Each time, Arthur talked him through it, sharing what he could from his own recollections, whispering stories of great quests and ferocious beasts they'd bested or simply soothing Merlin with assurances that he was all right. They clung to each other throughout the night, awake and asleep, kissing frantically at times, tasting and marking each other and making new sense memories.
They spoke of the present as much as the past. Arthur was going to leave Avalon School as planned, saying he wouldn't be able to stay away from Merlin now, and certainly couldn't continue being his coach. Merlin hoped to continue on with Sixth Form and swimming, and dreamt of qualifying for the next Olympic Games. Arthur put Merlin's mind at ease when he spoke of setting up an advocacy group for young swimmers in the area, promising not to go far and knowing that it wasn't just Uther who would see opportunity for exploitation. There were a number of community pools and swimming clubs in the region, and Arthur looked forward to getting back in the pool himself. He knew he'd never be as competitive as he once was, but that was no longer a good enough reason not to try.
Hours later, with the rain still pattering against the rooftop and the dull grey light of midday keeping them swaddled in their blissful haven, Arthur woke to Merlin straddling his hips. He had his head down, messy fringe hanging low over his eyes, and was opening himself up as he gasped and writhed above Arthur.
"Merlin," Arthur moaned through the fog of sleep. He reached between Merlin's legs, circled the wet clench of his body where his slippery fingers were twisting and sliding in and out. "Let me, let me."
Merlin shook his head, pulling his fingers free and working the slick down Arthur's cock, taking very little effort to bring him to full hardness, while he kissed him hungrily. "Been up for a while, watching you sleep, getting myself ready for you. Don't want to wait. C'mon, Arthur, c'mon." He lifted himself up, trying to position himself over Arthur's cock.
Arthur gripped his slender hips, holding him in place. "Merlin, wait. I need you to know I'm clean. I got tested for everything before I was taken on by the school and I've not been with anyone but you. I promise, I'll never, ever do anything to hurt you."
"I know. I know you wouldn't," Merlin said, then leaned down for a deep kiss. "I trust you, Arthur."
Groaning, Arthur lined himself up and pushed in, earning a sharp, "Oh!" from Merlin.
"It's okay, Merlin," Arthur said, rubbing small circles in his skin, twisting up to place soft kisses wherever he could reach. "We'll take our time. Just move down onto me when you're ready."
They joined together slowly, inch by inch, until they were as close as two people could be. The feeling of being enveloped by Merlin's body, to be able to touch him again, inside and out, was incomparable. Arthur wrapped his arms tightly around Merlin when he fell forward onto Arthur's chest, lifting his hips and sliding into his body, whispering words of devotion into his skin: so beautiful, Merlin, and need you, and mine and never letting you go.
"Once and future," Merlin gasped, eyes wide and bright as a new memory came to the surface. "What does that mean? Is that us, Arthur?"
"Oh, god Merlin. Yes. Always."
After, Merlin tucked himself snugly into Arthur's side and traced lazy patterns over his chest. He yawned, eyes drooping slightly, his thick, dark lashes tickling Arthur's skin. "Arthur? What happened to us, the last time?"
"I don't remember every detail, but there was a battle and I couldn't be saved." Merlin shuddered beside him. "It's okay, Merlin. You tried, I know you did, with everything you had. But it was too late for me. You kissed me and told me to wait for you, that you would find a place, or a time, where we could be together again. I'm not sure how you made it happen, but I've known you in my dreams for as long as I can remember, and now here we are again."
"So, all of those myths about the old sorcerer Merlin were true? I was magic in that life?"
"You were the most powerful sorcerer the world had ever seen. You saved my life and protected the people of Camelot too many times to count. And you saved me from an eternity in the afterlife without you—a fate worse than death, I assure you," Arthur said. He kissed Merlin then, sweet and slow, as if they had all the time in the world, and beyond. There were so many unknowns and obstacles ahead, but now that Arthur had Merlin again, he had no doubt they would find ways to overcome them, as they always had.
"I didn't know where to find you but I always had faith you'd come for me. You didn't just have magic in our last life, Merlin. You still have it, in some form or another, and it brought us together again, at Avalon."