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A Prayer Before Birth

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He’s normally so careful.

If there’s one thing he’s learned over the last three years, it’s caution. He doesn’t break curfew, doesn’t track mud into the house, doesn’t drop things or play loud music or speak out of turn. Doesn’t do anything, in other words, that might attract unwanted attention towards himself.

But today. Today was different. Today was The Day.

Because Merlin had kissed him.

Had thrown down his console mid-game and turned to Arthur, blue eyes darkening with intent before muttering ‘Oh, fuck it’ and smashing their lips together. And for three long seconds Arthur had done absolutely nothing, frozen in shock while fireworks exploded behind his eyes; long enough that Merlin began to pull back, a look of panic crossing his face, before Arthur had surged forward and returned the kiss as though his life depended on it.

Then it had been a haze of kissing and talking and snuggling up together on Merlin’s bed as Arthur rested his head on his friend’s chest and listened to him wax lyrical about how long he’d wanted to do that.

“But I didn’t know how you felt and Gwaine was all ‘Arthur likes you’ and I was all ‘how do you know?’ because I kept thinking what if I went for it and you were like ‘back, demon’ and then our friendship got ruined and I’d be so embarrassed I’d have to move to Mexico and I don’t even speak Spanish so I’d probably starve to death and-”

And Arthur had laughed softly because one of the things he likes best about Merlin is he can talk on and on for hours with precious little encouragement. Arthur doesn’t say much himself but Merlin’s one of the few people to make him feel like that’s okay. He sometimes worries he bores people, leaving them to pick up the conversation when he can’t quite think of the right words to say but Merlin always chats away with him happily, as though Arthur’s the most scintillating raconteur since Oscar Wilde.

Arthur used to talk a lot more, he thinks. But then he realised people didn’t always like it when he spoke, especially because he always said the wrong things. And that got him in trouble.

“I do like you,” he says shyly when Merlin finally takes a breath and his friend laughs and presses a kiss to the top of Arthur’s head.

“I should bloody hope so.”

They lie in silence a while, then he hears Merlin take a breath, like he’s building himself up to say something.

“Do you want to- you know, sort of… go out? But not like go out go out exactly but you know, see each other or do things or whatever, I don’t know…”

Arthur smiles into Merlin’s t-shirt.

“Are you asking me to be your boyfriend?”

“That depends. Are you saying yes?”

Merlin sounds flippant but Arthur can feel the way his muscles have tightened slightly. He nuzzles into Merlin’s chest.

“Yes.”

He can feel rather than see Merlin’s massive grin and his own smile widens.

Then a sudden fear grips him.

“Would we tell people?” He asks carefully.

“Eh? Oh, I dunno. Should we? I suppose we should. Gwaine’ll be bloody insufferable though…”

“It’s just… people might,” Arthur tries to find a plausible excuse for his reticence. “People at school will talk about it all the time and it might ruin the… the specialness.”

“‘Specialness?’ Is that even remotely a word?”

Arthur elbows Merlin as best he can from his semi-supine position.

“Alright, easy Carol Vorderman, I know what you mean. I wouldn’t mind keeping this just between us either. Something only we know about”

Arthur exhales in relief.

He doesn’t really care what people from school think and he’d secretly like nothing more than to shout it from the rooftops that Merlin is his boyfriend but…

If his father found out.

It’s a thought that makes him actually shiver and Merlin grips him tighter.

“Arthur?”

“Yeah, no, just… that sounds nice.”

Merlin relaxes and immediately starts burbling on about first dates and how he hates ten pin bowling but he loves laser tag and Arthur tunes him out, content just to lie there and feel the buzz of Merlin’s voice vibrate through his chest.

He must have been more content than he realised because the next thing he knows Merlin is gently shaking him awake.

“I fell asleep?” he says slowly and Merlin giggles.

“Yes, genius. On me, I might add. You’re lucky I’m such a tolerant boyfriend.”

Arthur sits up and stretches. Then he turns and kisses Merlin on a whim because he’s allowed to do that now and the thought makes him so happy he feels giddy.

Then.

“Wait, what time is it?”

“Er, it’s like eight,” Merlin says, looking at the clock.

Shit. Shit shit shit.

“I have to go,” Arthur says, scrabbling for his shoes.

“What, now? Have dinner, Mum left me some stew in the fridge, there’s enough for two.”

“Can’t,” Arthur says tightly as he reaches for his jacket because he’s completely panicking and he can’t let Merlin see.

“Why not?” Merlin says plaintively.

“I have to get home, promised my dad,” Arthur says as he turns towards the door.

“Okay, well, text me later?”

Merlin sounds so mournful that Arthur just has to run back to the bed to press a kiss to his lips, even if it costs him a precious few seconds.

“I will,” he promises and then he’s out of Merlin’s room and through his front door, setting off running down the street.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

 

The porch light is on when he finally makes it home, and there goes his last hope that Uther was working late or out at a client dinner or anything else at all that meant he wasn’t sat here waiting for Arthur to get in so he could…

Arthur forces himself to catch his breath, over-exerted from the sprint home. It won’t matter to his father that he tried to make it back as quickly as possible. The circumstances around you breaking the rules are irrelevant, all that matters is you broke the rule.

He has trouble fishing his keys out of his bag because his hands are shaking so badly, and then he can’t fit them into the lock properly and he has to remind himself to calm down because getting hysterical only makes it worse.

He takes several deep breaths in and out. Then he fits the key in and unlocks the door.

The house is ominously quiet and while Arthur isn’t actually foolish enough to think he can escape to his bedroom, he takes three hopeful steps towards the staircase before the voice rings out.

“Arthur.”

He freezes in place then slowly turns towards his father’s office. For a moment he thinks he won’t be able to walk forward. He closes his eyes, lets himself remember what happened earlier, Merlin’s soft lips on his own, tries to take strength from it. There’s a reason he’s late today and it’s worth whatever Uther can dish out.

The door to the office opens soundlessly and he slips inside. His father is sitting at his desk, still in his work suit. Arthur wouldn’t be surprised if he had just sat there since he got home, waiting for him.

“Why are you late?”

Uther’s tone is flat and quiet. Arthur never knows which he’s more scared of; the times when his father’s drunk and shouting, calling him every name under the sun or the times like this when he’s perfectly calm and controlled. The rages are scary because Arthur can’t tell how far Uther will go but he thinks he prefers it to the coldness. When his father’s drunk he can at least blame his actions on the alcohol. When he’s sober and in control Arthur can’t hide from himself how much his father genuinely seems to hate him.

“I was at a friend’s and I fell asleep.” Arthur says, trying not to sound afraid. His father doesn’t like that.

“Dinner was laid out at half past seven and you were not here.” Uther’s voice is still emotionless.

“I apologise, father.”

“You know the rules.”

Uther has risen from his chair and moved round the desk to stand in front of Arthur.

“Yes father, I-"

“Shut up. Do you not know the rules?”

Arthur is torn momentarily, between answering the question and shutting up like he was told.

Crack.

The force of the slap knocks Arthur’s head back to smack against the door behind him and his eyesight blurs for a second.

“Answer me.”

“I know the rules, I just fell asleep-“

Crack.

It’s a stinging blow to the ear this time that rings through his head like a car alarm.

Uther won’t hit his face again because it’s too risky when Arthur has school tomorrow. He’ll stick to parts of the body that aren’t visible to prying eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur babbles, “I didn’t mean to break the rules, it was a mistake-“

Crack.

The third blow, to the back of his head, is so hard that Arthur loses his footing and ends up on the floor at his father’s feet. Uther looks down at him coldly.

“I don’t ask for much, Arthur,” he says, and his voice is smooth as marble. “I put a roof over your head, feed you, clothe you, provide you with everything you need, and the only thing I ask in return is that you obey a few simple rules. Why is it that you cannot do even this for me?”

Sometimes this part hurts worse than the blows, when Uther makes him feel like a failure, an ingrate.

“I’ll try harder,” Arthur says, trying with all his might to blink back the tears pricking at his eyes because his father hates any sign of weakness. “I’m sorry, sir.”

Uther regards him for a few seconds and Arthur tenses, waiting for another hit. But Uther merely shakes his head, as though his son isn’t even worth the trouble.

“Cellar, now,” he says and his tone is a dismissal.

Arthur scrambles to his feet before his father can change his mind. He follows Uther out of the door and across the hall, where his father unlocks the cellar door. He makes to go inside then Uther’s hand clamps down on his shoulder, forcing him round to meet his father’s eyes.

“I will not be so lenient next time, Arthur,” he says softly and Arthur swallows hard, nodding. Then Uther shoves him through the door and he has the presence of mind to fumble for the light switch and turn it on before the door slams shut behind him. He hears the key turn in the lock and then his father walks away.

Arthur lets out a breath before walking down the stairs. The cellar is mainly used for storing wine although there a few odd bits and pieces of bric a brac lying around on the hard stone floor. In the corner are two threadbare blankets that Arthur picks up and tries to lay out in some semblance of a bed.

The tears that threatened before come now, unbidden. He wipes at them almost distractedly as he rearranges the blankets – an inevitable aftermath of the fear and pain, like the shaking of his hands.

It could have been worse.

It could have been worse.

It could have been worse.

He walks round the room until the tears have stopped coming, then he lies down carefully, trying not to shiver as the cold of the floor seeps through the thin cover. He’s hungry and he wastes a few minutes thinking about the untouched dinner upstairs that his father will no doubt be throwing away right now. His head aches and it’s hard to find a good way to lie down without it hurting, but he knows he got off lightly. His father hadn’t used the cane at least, or anything else. A night in the cellar was uncomfortable and unpleasant but he preferred it to the alternatives.

It’s hard to fall asleep but Arthur tries to think about Merlin; think about the little sounds he made when they kissed, about how he could hear his heartbeat through his chest, about the clumsy/adorable way he asked Arthur to be his boyfriend.

What had he said? ‘Something only we know about.’ The thought makes something warm uncurl in Arthur’s chest. In the dark of the cellar, he hugs his secret and waits for morning.