It definitely wasn’t that Arthur was nervous. No way. As he had told Merlin grandly on many occasions, Pendragons don’t get nervous. They have iron in their veins.
“Everyone has iron in their veins, idiot. It’s called blood,” Merlin had replied, showing about as much reverence for Arthur’s family name as he had come to expect. Never mind that Pendragon Industries was one of the biggest companies in London, never mind that it had recently set up new offices in Paris, Moscow and New York, never mind that Uther Pendragon regularly topped various newspaper lists of Most Influential British Businessmen. His boyfriend couldn’t care less.
He’d proved that pretty decisively the day they’d first met, when Merlin’s bike had clipped Arthur as he got out of his car. Arthur’s attempts to pull rank fell on entirely deaf ears, Merlin insisted it wasn’t his fault and seemed totally immune to Arthur’s threats about suing for damages.
“As if that would ever get to court,” he’d said later, smugly grinning over the hot chocolate Arthur had eventually bought him, sensing that the only way of beating Merlin was to join him.
“My father’s company employs some of the finest lawyers in the country,” Arthur had said, trying to sound stern. But Merlin had just giggled.
“I’d represent myself. I’d wow the jury. Instant acquittal.”
“I suppose you might get off on sympathetic grounds,” Arthur mused. “They’d take one look at your shabby clothes and realise you had nothing worth going after anyway.”
Merlin hadn’t deigned to reply, simply flicking a marshmallow at him.
Then somehow, Arthur had agreed to meet Merlin the next day, ostensibly to allow him time to take his car to a garage and check there was no damage. But of course he never did that, and it never came up at lunch anyway. And then there was a trip to the cinema, just because both of them wanted to see the same film and they might as well go together. Then Merlin accompanied Arthur to a dinner party to save him from boredom, then Arthur repaid him by driving him to Merlin’s friend’s party and then just stopping in for one or two drinks.
Then Merlin came round to Arthur’s to cook for him as a thank you and they ending up abandoning the dinner to have amazing sex on Arthur’s leather sofa.
It had been almost one year to the day since then, and Arthur had never been gladder than someone had looked past the Pendragon name and stood up to him.
Except now he was on his way to a farm up in Lancashire to help a load of sheep give birth and if it wasn’t for the fact that Pendragons don’t get nervous, he would have admitted he was very nervous indeed.
It was all Merlin’s stupid fault. It was him who came by a couple of weeks ago and just announced that he was going away for a week.
“It’s lambing season, and normally Kayleigh from the village helps, but Mum’s just rung to say she’s got glandular fever so she can’t come by this year. So I’m gonna go lend a hand.”
“What, you’re taking a week off work, just like that?”
“Gaius doesn’t care, he’s been telling me to take a holiday for ages. And I doubt he’ll suddenly be swamped, it’s not like some six hundred year old monks are gonna turn up with few more pages.”
Merlin worked with an archivist who specialised in medieval religious documents. They were currently sorting through a collection discovered in a Northumberland library, or church, or something like that, because to be honest Arthur made groaning noises whenever Merlin tried to talk about his work. He felt entirely justified in this, considering Merlin made gagging noises whenever Arthur recounted his day at the office.
Their friend Gwaine had once described their relationship as ‘somehow functional shit-storm of eye fucking and mutual disrespect’.
So it was Merlin’s fault, for upping and leaving him like that, but it was maybe Arthur’s fault a little as well since he was the one who technically asked:
“Can I come?”
It was irritatingly hard to take Merlin by surprise, so Arthur was gratified to see his boyfriend looked genuinely shocked.
“You want to come with me?”
“I consider that obvious in light of my previous question,” Arthur said loftily.
“Excuse me? Have you recently suffered some kind of traumatic brain injury? You want to come and stay on a farm in Lancashire and help with the lambing? In the cold and the rain? With mud all over your designer shoes? I don’t think so.”
“How dare you?” Arthur said. “You make me sound like some sort of city slicker wimp.”
“If the boot fits…”
“One more word Merlin, and you’ll be tickled to within an inch of your life,” Arthur threatened, knowing full well Merlin’s weak points and being entirely prepared to fight dirty.
“Anyway, I’ve never met your mum. It’s been a year now, that’s ridiculous. You met my dad ages ago and he’s like the father in law of everyone’s nightmares.”
“I prefer to think of him as more of an end level boss in a video game,” Merlin said musingly.
“So it’s high time I met her. And lambing sounds… fun.” Arthur was slightly less sure about that part, but he’d surely figure it out when the time came. How hard could it be?
Merlin had a funny expression on his face; halfway between affection and exasperation. With a little hint of something else mixed in, which Arthur uneasily identified as mischief.
“Okay. Let’s do it!” Merlin said, grinning wide. Then he cocked his head and added: “City slicker.”
Just for that, Arthur tickled Merlin anyway.
Merlin must have noticed Arthur was unusually quiet in the car ride, because he began to mercilessly tease him, like the bastard he was.
“You might want to take your Rolex off, love, considering where you’re gonna be sticking your arm soon.”
“You might wanna drop that sarky tone from your voice before I wrap my arm around your neck,” Arthur retorted. Honestly, it wasn’t even the farm bit that was putting him off right now. It was the whole ‘meeting the mother’ thing.
What if Hunith didn’t like him? Merlin loved loved loved his mother. She raised him all by herself and he never had a bad word to say about her. If Hunith took against Arthur, who knows if Merlin would even want to be with him anymore?
He didn’t have great form with meeting parents. He somehow managed to spill red wine all over Sophia’s father within ten minutes of meeting him, and his brief ill-fated fling with Leon was pretty much over the minute he accidentally sent Leon’s mother a text describing in graphic detail what he was going to do to her son that night.
Those incidents were bad enough but this was Merlin. He was more serious about him than he’d been about anyone else he’d ever dated (though he rarely admits it to the smug little git, and even then only after massive alcohol consumption). And, despite all efforts to deny it, he kind of was a city slicker. He was no good at roughing it. He’d never set foot on a farm in his life, nor had any inclination to. He couldn’t help picturing Hunith as some kind of weatherbeaten farmer who spent her days branding cattle and raising barns and her evenings eating city boys like him for dinner.
Maybe this was a bad idea.
He tensed slightly and Merlin must have noticed because he glanced over and smiled reassuringly.
“I’m only messing Arthur. You don’t have to do any of that farm stuff. You can just stay in the house and drink tea with my mum.”
“Will there be baby photos?” Arthur said hopefully.
Merlin sighed heavily.
“Probably, since my failed attempt to burn them on last year’s bonfire.”
“Can I use them for blackmail?”
“Not unless you want me to take Morgana up on her offer to make me a copy of your seventh birthday video…”
Arthur’s head whipped round.
“She told you about that?”
“Apparently someone got very very frightened of the clowns that Daddy hired, and hid under the table until they went away,” Merlin sing songed and not for the first time, Arthur cursed his evil step-sister.
“They were really creepy,” he said sulkily.
“I’m sure they were, pet,” he said and reached over to squeeze Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s first reaction when he saw Hunith was to laugh, which thankfully he managed to repress. It’s just – she looked so unlike what he imagined. Instead of a hardy country woman with a ruddy face and thick brown boots, she looked… gentle. Like a sort of earth mother, almost hippy-ish with a purple head scarf on, dressed in a long green cardigan, brown hair wisping around her face.
He remembered himself enough to stick his hand out.
“Hello, I’m Arthur,” he said, ignoring the snort from Merlin beside him. Merlin thought he was too formal in pretty much every situation.
He appeared to be right about this one though, because Hunith knocked his hand out of the way and pulled him straight in for a hug.
“So nice to finally meet you, dear. Merlin never shuts up about you.”
“Mum,” Merlin protested half-heartedly as Arthur turned to shoot him a triumphant look.
“Come in, come in.”
Hunith made Merlin carry their bags upstairs while she settled Arthur down in the living room with a cup of tea.
“I were beginning to think I’d never lay eyes on you,” she said, offering him a plate of biscuits. “Especially since I knew about you from the very first day he met you.”
“Really?” Arthur said.
“Oh yes, he rang me up and told me all about bumping into you and how unreasonable you were and I knew straight away it wouldn’t be the last I heard of you.”
Hunith winked at Arthur.
“Merlin only gets that het up if he really likes someone.”
Arthur smiled back.
“The feeling’s mutual,” he said.
They’d spent a relaxing evening talking and eating. Hunith turned out to be a wonderful cook, causing Arthur to speculate aloud as to why Merlin was so terrible. The elbow he got to the ribs in return was perhaps well deserved.
Arthur expected to be sleeping in a guest room, but as Merlin pointed out, the farmhouse wasn’t exactly palatial.
“You’re bunking with me,” he said, gesturing to his three quarter bed.
“But… I mean, is your mum cool with us sharing a bed?” he asked in a hushed tone, and Merlin burst out laughing.
“I’m twenty four Arthur; I think she’s come to terms with the fact that my virtue has been well and truly sullied by now.”
“Merlin! Well, bed sharing is all it’s gonna be. If you think I’m getting up to anything else in your mother’s house…”
“Since when did you become Mr Abstinence? I seem to recall a certain incident at a company dinner with your father in attendance when hands wandered to decidedly inappropriate places…”
Arthur allowed himself a small grin at the memory. Merlin had almost jumped right off his chair when Arthur slipped his hand into his boyfriend’s lap.
“Yeah, well, I’m a reformed character, so keep it in your pants,” he said strictly.
Merlin took this honourable pronouncement with all the grace and maturity of a grown adult, by stripping down to his boxers and draping himself over the bed in a pose that was decidedly not chaste.
“She’ll hear us,” Arthur hissed, already fatally weakened by the sight of his boyfriend stretching his lean body over the- good God, was that a Batman duvet cover?
“She wears earplugs,” Merlin said dismissively. “And she lives in the countryside; she’s used to hearing sex at odd hours.”
“You’re depraved,” Arthur said, feeling himself walking over to the bed as if his legs were working independently from his body.
“I know,” Merlin said, wiggling his eyebrows.
“This is a terrible idea,” Arthur said as he climbed up on the bed to straddle his boyfriend.
“No more talking,” Merlin said and surged up to capture Arthur’s mouth in a kiss.
Despite himself, Arthur sank into the kiss, pushing back against Merlin’s lips and bringing one hand up to run through his hair.
Merlin reached up to tug Arthur’s t-shirt off and Arthur shucked off his own jeans to save time, before pressing himself up against his boyfriend’s nearly naked body.
Merlin was just so lean, taut in all the right places, his pale skin smooth and soft. It still drove Arthur crazy, after all this time, and he bent his head to lick at Merlin’s neck, to trail down and mouth at his boyfriend’s nipples. They were ridiculously receptive, stiffening almost instantly as Arthur swirled his tongue around them. Merlin always loved Arthur playing with his nipples, and now was no exception; he arched up into his lover’s body, panting slightly.
Arthur continued his slow trail down his boyfriend's stomach, pausing to nuzzle at Merlin's stomach before reaching up to tease his boxers down slowly. Merlin was already hard, and he gasped as Arthur licked a long stripe up the underside of his cock, before taking the whole thing in his mouth.
If there was one thing Arthur prided himself on, it was giving blowjobs. He'd always been good at it. And Merlin was so insanely responsive to everything Arthur did to him, it was intoxicating. Compared to how implacable he was in everyday life, Merlin in bed was almost shockingly pliant. He lost control so quickly, eager to submit everything to Arthur as long as he kept touching him in the right way. Arthur loved it; loved the way he could reduce Merlin to a quivering wreck in mere minutes, loved the way his boyfriend hummed with need every time they made love. Sometimes Arthur simply pinned Merlin to the bed and covered every inch of him with kisses, until Merlin was weak as a kitten. It was so hot to Arthur the way Merlin could shake apart with minimal stimulation.
But tonight he didn't have time to work on Merlin properly. Conscious of where he was, Arthur pulled his mouth off Merlin's cock after a couple of minutes and got up to rummage through his bag. He located the lube and an erstwhile condom, and approached the bed again, tugging his own boxers off as he went.
Merlin was splayed out on his back watching him, his face already blissed out with pleasure. Arthur arranged Merlin to his satisfaction, then quickly lubed his fingers up and began working them one by one into his boyfriend. Merlin moaned, pushing back down on Arthur's fingers, eager for more sensation.
"Patience," Arthur whispered, leaning up to press a kiss to Merlin's lips. But he felt impatient himself, and he quickly withdrew his fingers to line himself up at Merlin's entrance.
Arthur met Merlin's gaze as he pushed in, feeling the familiar resistance as the tight heat enveloped him. Merlin was moaning again and Arthur feared he would be heard, so he reached up to cover Merlin's mouth with his hand. But Merlin simply sucked his fingers into his mouth, the sudden stimulation sending a jolt straight to Arthur's cock. He sped up slightly, sensing they were both eager to go quick and was rewarded by Merlin bucking up against him.
He set a fast pace and Merlin responded in kind, and soon it was Arthur's turn to bite back his moans as he moved inside his boyfriend.
He ended up coming first and collapsed on Merlin's chest for a moment.
"You wanna finish in my mouth?" he whispered but Merlin shook his head, still whimpering slightly as he wrapped his own hand around his cock and began fisting it. It didn't take long for him to come either, with a stifled moan. Arthur pulled out gently, and got rid of the condom before curling up beside Merlin.
"We need to clean up," he murmured sleepily but Merlin just pulled him closer.
"Later," he said, and they slept.
When he woke up the next morning, at around ten, Merlin wasn't there. But Hunith was in the kitchen and she set about making him breakfast.
"Merlin went out around six this morning. There's a lot to get through, and it's best to start early. I'm going back out in a minute to give him a hand."
"What exactly do you have to do?" Arthur asked, curiosity piqued.
"Well, basically, it's lambing season and while most of the flock give birth right enough themselves, some need a little more help. I'm around to look after the new-borns and check if there's any problems but what Kayleigh usually does, and what Merlin's doing now is helping the stubborn ones birth."
"So the ewes get a kind of bag of fluid under their tails when they're ready to birth. And if the baby doesn't come within a certain time, we have to chase them down to help."
"Chase them?" Arthur said, wondering if it was some kind of expression.
"Oh yeah, they put up a good fight. That's part of the reason Merlin and Kayleigh are better than me, they're faster. Sheep can run surprisingly fast when they put their minds to it."
Arthur squinted, trying to square this information about speedy sheep with all the docile flocks they'd seen on the drive up.
"So when they chase them down…"
"If the lamb isn't coming naturally, they need to reach up inside and pull it out. Maybe more than one. We scan them all to see if they're carrying one or more lambs and then we mark them green if they're having two so we know when they birth that there's one more to come out."
"Don't they know?" Arthur said and Hunith grinned.
"You'd be surprised at how many ewes pop out one baby, then waltz off thinking their job's done. I don't hold with those who say sheep are dim, they've got their own kind of intelligence, but I have to admit they're easily distracted."
"So it's that easy. Just reach in and pull it out?"
"I wouldn't call it easy. Lambs can be breeched, just like children, so sometimes you have to get in there early and move them around. And even when you get them out, they sometimes have a caul on their face."
"A caul?" Arthur asked.
"Like a membrane. If it's covering their face, it stops them breathing so you need to get it off quick as possible. Sometimes you can help kick-start their lungs a bit by taking them by the back legs and gently swinging them in the air."
Arthur digested all this information for a moment. It was interesting, and also somehow terrifying, especially since…
"Merlin said I'd have to help out," Arthur said nervously.
"I'm sure he did, my son think he's a right comedian. But don't worry, you're safe."
"Because I don't have the skills?"
"Because of your hands."
Hunith picked one of Arthur's hands up and held it in front of him.
"They're too big. You need to have small hands to reach up inside the sheep and get the bairn. You wouldn't be able to."
Realisation dawned on Arthur.
"Has small hands. I daresay you've noticed. That's why he and Kayleigh are so useful come lambing time."
Arthur bit back a smirk. He certainly had noticed Merlin's hands, and had teased him about it on many occasions. His boyfriend had never admitted they were small, but now he had it from his mother's mouth.
As if summoned by Arthur's inner mockery of him, Merlin appeared at the door. His jeans were filthy and his face was splattered in mud.
"How goes it?"
"Had to practically rugby tackle that last one, but I got her to rights eventually."
Arthur noticed, with a funny sort of dip in his stomach, that Merlin's Lancashire accent was stronger around his mother. It was… somewhat hot, to be honest.
"Coming out to help me Arthur?" Merlin asked teasingly.
"Ha ha. Your mum's just told me that I can't."
He waggled his fingers at Merlin.
"Not with these big manly paws. If only I had delicate little hands like you, darling."
Merlin narrowed his eyes.
"See if these delicate little hands ever touch you again, smartarse."
"For my own sanity, I'll pretend I didn't hear that," Hunith said, getting up from the table and walking towards the door.
She turned back at the last second.
"Just like I didn't hear anything last night," she said and winked merrily before striding off.
Arthur buried his head in his hands.
"Oh my God."
He looked up to see if Merlin was in the same state of mortification, but of course Merlin was creased up laughing.
"I told you, Arthur. Country folks think all sex is the same – sheep, people, whatever."
"You're a terrible human being and I never should have let you have your way with me."
Merlin just continued to laugh.
For all his initial nerves, Arthur found himself having a very good time. Hunith was often around to chat to, and Merlin ducked in and out from the fields all day. They all ate dinner together in the little kitchen and Arthur managed to coax many tales of Merlin's childhood out of Hunith.
He had also started going out to watch Merlin at work. It was kind of fascinating to see. He could tell without knowing much about farming that Merlin had a natural gift for this sort of thing. He chased the sheep down with ease, and was surprisingly adept at birthing the lambs.
The first birth Arthur had witnessed had almost turned his stomach. There was a lot of goop and mess and the lamb that came out was surprisingly ill looking. But it had gotten easier since then, and he was beginning to look forward to the moment when the lamb would take its first breath in a whole new world. He still tried not to look too hard at the afterbirth though.
On Thursday, Arthur was watching Merlin as usual, sat on a stump in the back field, the furthest piece of land Hunith owned. They'd already lost a lamb this morning, Merlin couldn't turn it in time and it suffocated. Arthur could see his boyfriend had taken it to heart, even though he hadn't said much about it. Supposedly they got used to death like that in the country, but Arthur knew Merlin had a soft heart above all else, and it would have upset him.
Merlin had just delivered another baby and set it down next to its mother. It was very small, and bit sickly looking. Merlin cleared the mucus from its nose and surveyed it critically as its mother give it a good licking. After a few minutes, he lifted the lamb to clip the umbilical cord and spray it down. Then he stood back and frowned.
"This little chap doesn't look right. Mum's better at judging this than me, I better show her," he said, wrapping the lamb in a towel.
He hopped on the little tractor to take it back to the house for Hunith's assessment and Arthur was left alone. He'd wandered over to see the birth and now was regarding the mother, who seemed to be breathing in a slightly odd way. Then again it was all odd to him, this.
The ewe rolled over slightly and Arthur saw, just at the side of her belly, a faint green mark. But he was pretty sure Merlin had said there was just one to come out…
Is it possible he missed it? The mark was very faint, after all.
After a moment's pause, Arthur went up to the ewe and very hesitantly laid his hands on her stomach. He didn't know what he expected to find, how would he even know what he was looking for?
But there did seem to be some movement inside. Or was Arthur just imagining things?
He stepped back to assess the situation and then the ewe suddenly stood up and wandered away. Cautiously, he followed her. She walked to the corner of the pasture and then lay down on her side.
Arthur had seen enough in the week to know what contractions looked like. He scanned the fields, desperately hoping for Merlin or Hunith to appear. But they were at the farmhouse and who knew when Merlin would be back? He'd have to go and fetch him.
But then he looked back at the ewe shaking her head back and forth and realised that there might not be time.
He knelt down beside the ewe and tried to remember everything he'd seen so far. It seemed shockingly little. Luckily the gods of farming threw him a bone as the sheep rose to her feet again and he could quite clearly see something white starting to poke out. For a moment it seemed that he was saved; the ewe was apparently giving birth of her own accord. But when the lamb was almost fully out, Arthur noticed it didn't seem to be moving at all.
As carefully as possible, he reached forward and pulled the lamb out, laying it on the ground as Merlin had done so its mother could come to clean it. But the lamb was completely still.
Arthur began to panic. What was he supposed to do? Was it even breathing? How could he tell?
Suddenly Hunith's words came back to him. Stooping, he lifted the lamb by its back legs and swung it through the air in a gentle arc above his head.
For a moment nothing happened. Then the lamb gave a small twitch and began to stir slightly. He laid it back on the ground and it wriggled feebly. The ewe immediately came over and began vigorously licking at her new baby.
After about ten minutes of watching, Arthur felt confident enough to clip the umbilical cord. When he finally heard Merlin's tractor in the distance, he got to his feet, flushed with elation.
"Merlin, I did it! I birthed one!"
Merlin looked all at once shocked and anxious. But when he bent to examine the lamb, a smile crossed his face and he looked almost prouder of Arthur than Arthur himself was.
"Well, I call this a successful visit," Hunith said, raising her wine glass in a toast. "Here's to my lovely son, for coming back to help me out. And here's to his lovely boyfriend, who's now a bona fide farmer himself."
Arthur grinned and clinked his glass with hers. Merlin was smiling at him fondly.
"He'll be thinking he can do anything now," he said, rolling his eyes.
"It's your turn to get out of your comfort zone next Merlin. I'm gonna bring you to my office and make you file my tax returns." Arthur said.
"The horror," Merlin drawled, pretending to stab himself with the butter knife.
Their last night passed without incident (although Arthur point blank refused to have sex with Merlin since the first time) and Arthur felt almost sad when it was time to go the next day. It was surprisingly relaxing to be out in the country, to be able to walk in the fresh air and not have to worry about spreadsheets or finance reports or any of that.
Still, he cheered himself with the thought that he could always come back. The curse of meeting the parents had been definitively broken with Hunith, as evidenced by the massive hug and kiss she gave him as they said goodbye.
"Take care of my Merlin, won't you?" she said, and he assured her that he would, ignoring Merlin's exasperated exhale behind him.
"I've got your mum's blessing now," Arthur said as he climbed in the car. "She loves me."
"That's because she doesn't know how evil you are," Merlin informed him as he reversed out of the driveway.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm top dog around here. Got the good looks, the charm, the farming skills…"
"Don't be jealous Merlin, it doesn't suit you."
"One more word and I'm getting that birthday tape off Morgana when we get home."
"Mutually assured destruction, is it?" Arthur said with a sly grin.
"Well, it turns out your mum did have some embarrassing photos after all. And she was kind enough to gift me with…" Arthur pulled a wad of pictures out of his pocket. "…the whole of Princess Sugarplum's debut."
"Bollocks," Merlin said, a look of horror crossing his face.
"Oh don't worry, I think it's adorable. You see, your mum explained how there weren't enough girls in your class so one of the boys had to play a princess in the school pageant."
Arthur turned to smile sunnily at his boyfriend.
"I take it they picked you because you already had the hands for it?"
"Just you wait, Pendragon," Merlin said, seething. "When we get back, I'm uploading that entire bloody video on Facebook!"
"Good thing I already tweeted most of these then," Arthur said triumphantly.
Merlin seemed to know when he was beaten.
"I tell you what, you're lucky I love you."
"I know I am," Arthur said. And he did.