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After The Heart Goes

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“Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was?”

~ Stuart, A Life Backwards

 

Merlin’s mother dies on a Wednesday. He knows this because Wednesday is finger painting day at school, and the day they come to get him he has paint all over his hands. All the way to the hospital he keeps thinking that he should have washed up before he left; that his mum will scold him when she sees him looking so messy.

As it turns out, he doesn’t get to see his mum anyway. The nice lady who brought him from the school sits him down on a plastic waiting room chair while the man with her talks to the doctor. When he’s finished he comes over and shakes his head at the lady. They have a brief whispered discussion before she walks back over.

“Where’s my mum?” Merlin says.

The lady bends down next to him.

“Merlin, I’m afraid we have some bad news. Your mummy was in an accident when she was driving in her car. She was hurt very badly and the doctors couldn’t make her better. I’m afraid she died.”

Merlin thinks about this for a second.

“Can I wash my hands?” he says.

The lady nods and takes him to the bathroom. When they come back out, he turns back to her.

“Can I see my mum now?”

“I’m afraid you can’t, sweetheart,” the lady says gently.

“When can I see her?” Merlin says, getting a little frustrated. If they’re not going to take him to see her, then why did they drag him out of school in the first place?

“Merlin, your mum has died. Do you understand what that means?”

Merlin considers.

“Our class goldfish died,” he said at last. “Miss Maine said he’d gone to heaven and we got a new one.”

“Okay, so do you understand what happened to your mum?”

“She got hurt in a car and I can’t see her right now.”

“You won’t be able to see her later either. Because she died, it means that she’s gone and you can’t see her anymore.”

“What, ever again?” Merlin says incredulous, because that’s just silly.

The lady looks very sad and nods.

“But she has to pick me up from school later,” Merlin points out.

The man suddenly reappears.

“Hey buddy,” he says, which irritates Merlin. He’s not this man’s buddy.

“We can’t find a number for your dad. Do you know it?”

“My dad’s not here,” Merlin says, annoyed. “He went away when I was little.”

The man and the lady exchange glances.

“Does anyone else look after you other than your mum? Like a grandma or an uncle or anyone?”

Merlin shrugs. It’s always just been him and his mum.

“I’ll call the school,” the man says and he strides off again.

“Are you hungry?” the lady asks and Merlin nods because it’s probably lunch time now and he left his food at school.

The lady gets him a chocolate bar from the vending machine and Merlin doesn’t tell her that his mum doesn’t let him have chocolate in the day time. It’s like a special treat.

The lady finds him a colouring book and he fills a few pictures in, even though most of the felt tips are running out.

The man comes back after a while and tells him that his Uncle Gaius is coming to pick him up.

Merlin tries to remember Gaius, and has a vague impression of white hair and eyebrows that looked like black caterpillars inching across his forehead.

“Looks like you’re gonna stay with him for a bit, buddy,” the man says, ruffling his hair.

Merlin scowls up at him. He doesn’t want to stay with Gaius, although he supposes he’ll have to live somewhere until his mum comes back. Couldn’t they just let him stay with her in her hospital room?

He voices this idea and the lady looks sad again. The man opens his mouth but she shushes him.

“Maybe his uncle can explain better,” she says in a low voice.

But he can’t. It takes a good six months before Merlin finally begins to understand that his mum’s not coming back, not ever. And even after that, he still nurses a vague hope that there’s been some mistake somehow, that one day she’ll walk back through the door and he’ll run into her arms like he used to.

He keeps this hope private, and he can’t remember the day when it fizzles out completely.

 

______________________________________________________________________

 

But living with Gaius isn’t bad. He calls him uncle but Gaius is actually Merlin’s great uncle, and he initially seems impossibly old to Merlin. Yet Gaius manages to constantly surprise him with his energy. He’s retired from being a GP but he stills volunteers at a clinic, as well as writing complicated papers with long names that other people read and praise. When Merlin can’t get to sleep, Gaius always threatens to read his latest paper to him. But he never does, he reads story books or makes up his own tales, usually about wizards and dragons and magic. Merlin loves the way he does the voices; growly for the grumpy old dragon, high pitched for the princess, low and mystical for the wizard. Gaius promises to read him a book called The Hobbit when he gets older, which he says is full of dragons and magic.

He has to move schools, because Gaius lives over an hour away from his old house. He doesn’t mind the new school but he does miss his old house terribly. One weekend he persuades Gaius to drive back to his old street to take a look, but when they draw past the house, he can see evidence of a new family living there – a new car in the drive, a trampoline in the front yard. It makes him cry and Gaius spends all day trying to cheer him up. They don’t go there again.

Gaius makes sure that there are pictures of his mother all around the house, and they talk about her a lot. Gaius relates how he used to babysit her when she was young; about how she once ran away to his house in the middle of the night when she was sixteen because her father wouldn’t let her wear a miniskirt. Merlin doesn’t understand half the stories but he loves them anyway because he likes hearing about his mum.

Gaius likes to teach Merlin as well. He’s always been good in school but Gaius shows him things they never cover in class. They go on trips to the local forest and Gaius shows him how to find different plants, how to pick up rocks and look at the insects underneath. In the summer, they go to the seaside and explore the rock pools; Gaius explaining to Merlin about crabs and starfish.

Merlin is curious about his days as a doctor too, so Gaius digs out his old skeleton from the surgery and tells Merlin about the different bones in the human body and what they do. He can never remember any of the complicated Latin names but he loves seeing how they connect to one another.

“Do you think I could be a doctor?” he asks Gaius one day.

“Of course, my boy. I think you’d make a fine doctor. You certainly get on well with old Bones here,” Gaius says, wiggling the skeleton so that Merlin giggles.

From then on, Merlin decides he wants to go into medicine. Gaius buys him an outfit for his birthday, complete with stethoscope and lab coat and Merlin sets up a hospital in his room with all his cuddly toys. Gaius has to put a halt to one or two particularly gruesome ‘surgeries’ on hapless teddy bears, but other than that he’s fully supportive of Merlin’s new obsession.

He tests his toy stethoscope on Gaius too sometimes, pretending to hear his heartbeat. One day Gaius gets out his real one and Merlin listens, fascinated, at the steady thump of Gaius’ pulse.

“Mine sounds different from yours,” he says when he tries it on his own chest.

“That’s because you’re young and healthy. My old ticker’s getting on a bit,” Gaius says, his eyes twinkling.

“Maybe you could get a new one?” Merlin suggests. Gaius had explained the concept of heart transplants to him once and it seemed simple enough.

Gaius laughs heartily.

“I’ll bear it in mind, Merlin.”

 

It’s his heart that goes eventually, not that Merlin knows that on the day he rushes into Gaius’ bedroom and finds him stiff and unmoving in the bed.

“You didn’t wake me up and it’s past nine,” Merlin frets as he tugs at the bedclothes. He hates being late for school, he’s always worried he’s going to miss something important.

Gaius doesn’t respond.

“Gaius? Come on, wake up, I have to get to school!”

Merlin goes round the other side of the bed to shake Gaius’ shoulders.

“Get up, we’re late,” he says, panting with the exertion of trying to rouse his great uncle. But Gaius doesn’t move.

It takes five more minutes of pulling and shouting before Merlin realises there’s something wrong. He remembers how Gaius taught him to take a pulse and he clambers onto the bed, feeling the spot in the neck where it comes through strongest.

Nothing.

And it’s the paleness and the coldness and the rigidity of the body in front of him that brings home to him what’s happened.

He doesn’t cry, not yet. Instead he climbs in the bed beside Gaius and burrows into him, trying to put some of his warmth back into the cool body.

He lies there all day, ignoring the phone when it rings mid-afternoon. He has an idea he should call somebody, but he doesn’t know who. He decides to wait instead, because the minute someone else comes, they’ll take him away from Gaius and then it’ll be just like his mum all over again. If he lets Gaius out of his sight, it’ll be the last time he ever sees him.

He stays there for two days, only leaving the bed to forage some bread from the kitchen and use the bathroom. The knock comes on the second evening. They keep knocking for a while, then there are several minutes of silence before the sound of a key in the lock.

He hears his and Gaius’ names being called as someone enters the house, but it isn’t until the bedroom door opens that he recognises the voice. It’s Miss Lindley, his class teacher, followed by his elderly neighbour Mrs Atkins. Mrs Atkins gasps when she takes in the scene but Miss Lindley keeps a calm expression on her face as she walks over to the bed and lifts Merlin out. She carries him downstairs and then there are lots of phone calls and conversations and cars with flashing lights showing up. Miss Lindley rocks him gently on her lap the whole time, and while part of him wants to protest – he’s ten after all, not a baby – another part of him wants to cling tight and never let her go.

He has to though, later, when a man comes and helps him pack a bag before driving him away to his new home.

 

__________________________________________________________________

 

The children’s home is called Sycamore House, though the sign outside has been defaced so it reads Sick More instead. Merlin doesn’t remember much of the first night there, only that Tristan, the man who drove him, makes him a cup of hot cocoa before showing him to a little bedroom. He later learns that all the new arrivals get the little bedroom; he only spends one night in there before being moved into a room with a boy named Gilli who has a crooked smile and talks in his sleep.

He meets Gwen, his case worker, the morning after he arrives. She’s a pretty, smiley woman in a yellow spotted dress who has to clear a lot of papers off a chair before Merlin can sit down in the office. He assumes she works there but later finds out this is Geoffrey’s office, the man who runs Sycamore House, and Gwen doesn’t live in the house with them like Tristan and Elena and Vivian do.

She tries to talk to him about Gaius but he doesn’t want to. It’s not like with his mum this time, he knows Gaius isn’t coming back, but it hurts more than he can bring himself to feel so he stays silent and unresponsive.

She lets him go eventually and he runs into Elena, who insists on giving him what she calls the ‘grand tour’. She introduces him to the other kids on the way, although he doesn’t get all their names straight for at least a week. In the living room they find Sophia, a sulky looking girl of fourteen, watching TV next to a pale, dark haired eleven year old called Freya. Sophia barely looks over but Freya gives him a shy smile and a wave. In the kitchen are a clutch of little ones; Gavin and Kara and Rose and Tom, varying in age from three to seven, currently baking fairy cakes with Tristan. Elena leads him into the back yard, a worn patch of grass with a treehouse in the middle and a yellow swing set. A fierce looking girl with blue streaks in her hair is sitting on a swing, listening to music on her headphones. She nods briefly at Merlin, and Elena informs him her name is Nimueh and she’s just turned fifteen.

“Her bark is worse than her bite,” Elena stage whispers and Merlin blushes as Nimueh glares over at them. Elena takes him back inside and helps him move his stuff into his new bedroom. The boy lying on the bottom bunk introduces himself as Gilli, and Elena leaves them to “get to know each other”.

“How old are you?” Gilli says when they’re alone.

“Ten,” Merlin says, trying to keep the tremble out of his voice. The numbness he felt earlier is beginning to wear off and he’s suddenly terrified at the idea that he’s going to be living here with all these people he doesn’t know.

“I’m fourteen. Did you meet the others?”

Merlin nods.

“They’re mostly okay. Sophia’s a bit of a bitch, and Nimueh’s scary if you get in her way but they won’t bother you. Alvarr and Val are worse though, you wanna steer clear.”

“I didn’t meet them,” Merlin says, pulse already quickening to think he might have enemies already in this place.

“I’m older than them so they don’t mess me around too much but they like picking on new kids.”

Merlin swallows a lump in his throat and Gilli must notice because his face softens slightly.

“Don’t worry kid; I’ll watch your back.”

Merlin tries to smile his thanks but all he wants to do is cry. He climbs up onto the top bunk and lies down for lack of anything better to do. He curls on his side and traces the name carved into the side of the bunk.

“Who’s Ethan?”

There’s a slight pause.

“He used to have your bed.”

“Where did he go?”

There’s another silence.

“Tell you later,” Gilli says eventually. But later never comes, and it ends up being Val who gloatingly tells him a month in that he’s sleeping in a dead boy’s bed.

 

_______________________________________________________________________

 

He’s been at Sycamore House for over a year when he first meets Leon and Mithian.

Every so often the house has open events that people who might be interested in fostering or adoption can come to. Val and Alvarr call them cattle markets, and sneeringly decline to attend, but Merlin quite likes them. Tristan makes lots of special cakes and sandwiches and they put up a marquee in the garden for games and activities. Gilli’s already told him that most people are looking for little kids and not to expect to meet anyone, yet he can’t help but be hopeful. He always dresses in his best clothes and tries to stick his unruly hair down with water in the hope of attracting someone’s attention. He’s learned to get along at the home over the last year, but he doesn’t want to stay there. He wants to be part of someone’s family again.

As usual, most of the visitor attention is focussed on the youngest kids, but Merlin hangs around the edges and tries to look friendly and well behaved. He’s fiddling with the mini foosball table when someone sits down next to him.

“Hello. Fancy a game?”

The speaker is a tall man with curly hair and a fuzzy beard. He has a nice crinkly smile and Merlin smiles back automatically.

“Okay.”

“I’ll be reds then,” the man says, fishing the ball out from under the table. “I’m Leon by the way, what’s your name?”

“Merlin.”

“What a great name! I’ve never met a Merlin before.”

They play for a minute or so, concentrating on the game, and Leon cheers when Merlin scores.

“Are you supposed to celebrate my goals?” Merlin can’t help asking and Leon winks at him.

“I just appreciate great sportsmanship.”

“He’s lying,” says a female voice from behind them. “You should hear him when I beat him at Jenga.”

A petite woman in a white summer dress sits down beside them and Leon smiles widely.

“Merlin, this is Mithian, my lovely wife. Who never beats me at Jenga, by the way.”

“Hello Merlin,” Mithian says. “What a nice name.”

“That’s what I said,” Leon grins.

Merlin blushes slightly, not used to so much adult attention.

“How old are you then, Merlin?” Mithian asks sweetly.

“Eleven,” Merlin says. “How old are you?”

Mithian and Leon both laugh like he’s said something very funny.

“I’m thirty three,” she says, “and this big lunk is thirty seven.”

“Big lunk, yourself,” Leon says. “You’ve interrupted our game.”

“Oh I’m sorry, do continue,” Mithian says, and she sits and watches them, congratulating Merlin every time he gets a goal, much to Leon’s mock fury.

Merlin ends up spending the rest of the afternoon for them and when it’s time to leave Leon walks over to talk to Gwen while Mithian stays with Merlin. When he comes back, he says:

“It was great to meet you, Merlin. We’d both really like to see you again, if you wanted to?”

Merlin nods quickly.

“Yeah, that’d be… yeah.”

They both smile wide at him and promise to arrange a visit soon. When they leave, Gwen comes over to ask him how he liked them.

“They’re nice,” he says.

“And you want to see them again?”

“Yeah.”

“Good,” Gwen says and squeezes him on the shoulder before handing him the last fairy cake.

 

He sees Leon and Mithian a lot after that. They go for days out at the weekend, walking through parks or going to the zoo or visiting local funfairs.

One day Gwen stops by for a chat.

“Have you been having a good time with them, then?”

“Yeah, really good.”

It’s the most fun he’s had since Gaius has died. Leon and Mithian are so easy to be around, and they really seem to like him. He spends his whole week looking forward to their visits.

“That’s great, Merlin. Because I’ve been talking with them, and they’d like to see about adopting you, if you wanted them to.”

Merlin can’t speak at first. It seems so unreal, the Holy Grail of what all the kids at Sycamore want, and he doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve it.

“Merlin?”

“Yes,” he whispers, overcome. “I really want that.”

Gwen beams at him, pulling him in for a hug.

“Fantastic! Now you know it’s not an instant process, these things take time and we’d want you to do a couple of weekend visits first. And they’ll need to be assessed…”

Merlin’s not listening anymore. He’s thinking of his new life, living with Leon and Mithian, having a house of his own, parents of his own…

It’s only one month later that it all falls apart.

He’s about to go on his first weekend stay with them and he’s been packing and repacking his bag all day. But when their car pulls up and he runs outside, he sees that Gwen is with them, which makes no sense.

“Let’s all go into the office,” Gwen says when she sees him, and her voice is unusually quiet.

He figures it must be more boring paperwork or something like that, but when they’re all sat down, he notices Mithian and Leon look strangely sombre.

Mithian is the first to break the silence.

“Merlin, we’ve… we’ve had some news.”

She takes a deep breath and Leon reaches out to take her hand.

“I don’t think we mentioned this, but we tried to have a baby for several years. I had a lot of different treatments, but in the end the doctors said it wasn’t going to happen.”

She pauses and seems lost for words. Leon takes over.

“But we went to the doctor yesterday because Mith had been feeling ill, and it turns out she’s three months pregnant. It’s actually twins, which apparently is common after some of the treatments…”

He trails off.

Merlin doesn’t understand why they’re talking so seriously. Isn’t this a cause for celebration?

“That’s really great,” he says and for a moment an image of him as an older brother flashes into his head, holding a baby in each arm. He’s always wanted siblings.

“I love babies!” he says enthusiastically, because it seems like they’re worried he’s going to be upset about the news and nothing could be further from the truth.

But they still look sad.

“Merlin, we really wanted to adopt you because we wanted to have a family of our own and we like you so much,” Mithian says softly. “But now that I’m having two babies, we think it might be too much to look after both them and you at the same time.”

Merlin doesn’t quite get it.

“So… I mean, you’re not going to give the babies up?”

“No,” Leon says slowly. “It means… it means…”

He can’t seem to continue and Gwen steps in.

“Merlin, I’m so sorry, but Leon and Mithian won’t be able to adopt you anymore.”

Merlin blinks.

“What? Because… because it might be too much? But I just said I love babies. I take care of the little ones here all the time; I can help with yours too. Gwen, don’t I look after Kara and Gavin all the time?”

“You do, Merlin, but…”

“And you wouldn’t need to take time away from them to look after me, I can look after myself. I don’t even need my own bedroom, I can sleep on the floor of the babies’ room, and that way if they wake up in the night, I can help them. You won’t even need to get up.”

“Merlin…”

“You won’t even need to buy me any stuff, or take me out or anything. You won’t even notice I’m there, I promise!”

“Merlin-"

“Please adopt me. Please.”

Merlin doesn’t care that he’s begging now, he can see it all slipping away from him, and for such a stupid reason. He’s great with kids; he’d be no extra hassle. He just has to make them see sense.

Mithian’s crying now and Leon has his arm around her, looking close to tears himself. Gwen walks over to crouch next to Merlin.

“It just can’t happen,” she whispers in his ear, and there’s a note of finality that Merlin can’t escape from.

He doesn’t cry. He feels his whole body stiffen up, like he’s turned to stone. Leon and Mithian are apologising but he doesn’t want to listen.

“We still want to see you Merlin,” Mithian’s saying desperately. “We can still go out at the weekends. And when the babies are born, you can be like their older brother, and come round to play with them.”

“Can I go now?” Merlin hears himself saying to Gwen, and his voice sounds very distant.

“Merlin, just listen to-”

Merlin grabs his bag and walks out of the office, ignoring the voices calling after him. He goes into his room and slowly unpacks his things. He intends to climb onto his bunk and lie down but he can’t quite find the energy, so he just lies down on the floor. Gilli finds him that way later and picks him up, propping him on the bottom bunk. He tries to cheer him up by showing him a dirty magazine he bought, but Merlin isn’t interested. Eventually Gilli tucks him into his own bed and leaves him to sleep till dinner time.

Word has spread by then and he can’t stand the sympathetic looks that Freya and Tristan are giving him. Then Val makes a sniggering comment at the table about Merlin getting left on the scrap heap and Gilli knocks his head into his plate so hard that Val’s nose starts bleeding. Gilli gets put in the time out room and Merlin uses the commotion to slip away. He should be grateful that Gilli stuck up for him, but all it confirms is that he’s one of them now, a Sycamore kid through and through.

Leon and Mithian call for him for several weekends but he refuses to come out and see them, and after a few months they stop trying.

 

_________________________________________________________________________

 

When Merlin is thirteen, he’s fostered for the first time.

After Leon and Mithian he tells Gwen he doesn’t want to be up for adoption anymore. He needn’t have bothered, as Nimueh matter-of-factly informs him later. After the age of twelve, no-one much stands a chance of getting adopted. Parents want little kids, young enough to imprint their parenting on, Nimueh says. The older you get, the less desirable you are. She tells Merlin he only stood a chance while he appeared younger than his age, while he was still small enough to look like he needed taking care of.

Looking in the mirror, Merlin still feels small, but apparently he’s outgrown his chance at real parents now. He tells himself he doesn’t care. Why does he need parents anyway?

But he isn’t thick skinned enough not to feel a small spasm of excitement when Gwen tells him a couple wants to meet him with a view to fostering.

“How do I know they won’t change their mind at the last minute?” Merlin says coolly, to hide his nascent eagerness.

“They’re fostering two other boys already,” Gwen reassures him. “They know what the process is; they’re not likely to get cold feet.”

“I might not like them,” Merlin says damply.

“No,” Gwen agrees. “But you might. Do you want to meet them and find out?”

Merlin half shrugs. Gwen takes that as the acquiescence it is and arranges a meeting.

In the end he’s not sure if he likes them or not. The lady, Mary, is thin and very quiet. When she does speak, her voice is slightly reedy and nervous. Her husband Cenred on the other hand is talkative enough for the both of them. He claps Merlin on the back the second he meets him and starts talking about football and how they can go to a game together or have a kick about in the back yard.

Merlin doesn’t like football but he nods along anyway. Cenred and Mary are no Leon and Mithian, but look how that worked out anyway. If these two want to take him, he’s happy to go. He’s sick of Sycamore House; sick of never having anything of his own, sick of riding the stupid minibus to school, sick of being woken in the night by people crying, sick of the way they can’t go one day without someone kicking off and having to be put in time out. Cenred’s already talking about how he can decorate his room, how they can all go camping in the summer, how they can buy a ping pong table for the basement.

His grin is slightly too wide, his voice slightly too hearty, like he’s putting on a show for Elena and the others but Merlin decides it doesn’t matter. He’s not looking for a dad; he’s just looking for a new place to crash. And Cenred seems easy going enough; surely they’ll get along fine.

Cenred and Mary pay a few more visits, and they pass pleasantly enough. Merlin tries to tamp it down, but he can’t help the anticipation building inside of him. When Gwen finally asks if he’s ready to go, he’s quick to say yes. They may not be the parents of his dreams, but he’ll be living in a proper home and he’ll have someone looking out for him. That’s enough, as far as he’s concerned.

Cenred’s already told him about the two other boys they foster. Evan, who’s fifteen, and Daniel, who’s nine. Gwen says that Daniel has learning difficulties and goes to the Oak Ridge special school across town, but Evan goes to the same school as Merlin. Merlin tries to remember if he’s ever heard of Evan, but he draws a blank. It’s not like he socialises much in school anyway.

The day he moves, everyone gathers round to say goodbye, except for Val and Alvarr who sneer as they push past them all, loudly talking about how Merlin will be back within a month.

“Don’t listen to them,” Freya says, her eyes bright with tears. “But you’ll come back and visit, won’t you?”

Merlin promises, hugging her close. He pats the little ones on the head, exchanges one armed hugs with Gilli and Sophia, and waves to Nimueh in the corner, who has deigned to stick around to see him off.

He feels sick with nerves in the car because it all seems so final suddenly. Gwen seems to understand he’s not in the mood to talk because she turns the radio up. After a while she starts singing along and Merlin can’t help but giggle at her inability to carry a tune.

“Are you laughing at me, you cheeky so and so?” Gwen says, smiling, and she starts singing even louder, throwing all semblance of rhythm to the wind until he begs her to stop, stomach hurting from laughing.

She turns off the radio.

“It’ll be okay, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, looking out of the window.

“And if it’s not, you can come straight back.”

Merlin nods. He can, but he hopes it won’t come to that.

Cenred greets him with a vigorous handshake at the door and Mary gives him a careful hug. It’s the first time she’s hugged him, and he can feel how thin her limbs are, he’s afraid of squeezing too tight.

Cenred helps him take his things upstairs; he’s been for one weekend visit before so he’s already seen the room he’ll be sharing with Daniel. The boy was on a school trip that weekend so Merlin hasn’t met him yet, but a tousled blonde head appears at the top of the stairs as they make their way up.

“Danny, come and say hi to Merlin,” Cenred says and the face vanishes.

“He won’t be shy for long,” Cenred says jovially, and when they’ve finished dumping Merlin’s possessions in the room, the little figure appears again. He’s small for his age, even smaller than Merlin was then, and one of his eyelids is slightly droopy.

“My name’s Daniel and I’m nine years old,” he says shyly, holding up eight fingers. Merlin smiles.

“My name’s Merlin and I’m thirteen, but I don’t have that many fingers. Maybe I could use my toes?”

Daniel squirms with laughter, like Merlin’s said something hilarious.

“That’s my bed but you can have the other one,” he says, pointing across the room. “And you can play with my train set and my Lego but not Mr Cuddles because he’s missing an ear and an eye so only I can touch him.”

He points at the teddy bear on the bed and then frowns, like Merlin might be sad about that.

“But maybe we could hold him together sometimes.”

“Thank you,” Merlin says solemnly.

Cenred winks at him behind Daniel’s back, but it’s not quite friendly. There’s something almost mocking in it, which makes Merlin uneasy. But he pushes it out of his mind.

 

He doesn’t meet Evan until after Gwen’s had a cup of tea and left, promising to come and see Merlin next week. Evan comes in just as Mary’s setting the table for dinner.

“I hope you like chicken,” she says softly to Merlin in that slightly reedy voice, and he’s assuring her that he does when the door slams and Evan walks in. He’s tall, with messy brown hair and a hard straight line for a mouth.

Mary starts slightly.

“Evan, you’re back. This is Merlin.”

Merlin says hello but Evan only nods at him before sitting down. Daniel smiles up at Evan, who quickly ruffles his hair before picking up his fork.

“Wait for Cenred,” Mary says, but it doesn’t sound like a reprimand. Merlin’s surprised that Evan listens, but he throws down his fork, huffing impatiently.

Cenred comes in from the kitchen with a beer in hand.

“Nice of you to join us Evan,” he says and Evan sneers at him.

He doesn’t say a word the rest of the meal. Cenred doesn’t seem to notice, effortlessly dominating the conversation, occasionally firing the odd question at Merlin. He can only choke out vague answers, too overwhelmed by all the new experiences, but Cenred seems satisfied.

After dinner, they sit on the sofa and watch television. Evan disappears to his room without saying a word. When it gets to nine, Daniel begins yawning and Cenred says it’s time for him to go to bed. Merlin volunteers to take him, he’s shattered himself.

“Already making yourself useful, eh?” Cenred says with that same odd wink.

Merlin wishes them both an awkward goodnight and starts up the stairs. On the way, Daniel takes Merlin’s hand in his own sticky one. It feels surprisingly natural to lead him up the stairs and help him brush his teeth and change for bed. He’s done it before for the little ones at Sycamore, and Daniel’s much less trouble than any of them. Gavin used to jump out of the bath and run naked around the house till someone caught him, and Kara fought hell for leather whenever anyone tried to brush her hair or her teeth. But Daniel placidly allows his face to be washed, and obediently sticks his hands in the air for Merlin to put on his pyjama top.

When Merlin tucks him in, Daniel presents his cheek to be kissed and Merlin does. For a moment it feels like this really is his house and Daniel really is his little brother.

 

______________________________________________________________________

 

Merlin doesn’t speak to Evan properly until a week later. He’s just put Daniel to bed – which seems to be his unofficial duty now, not that he minds – when Evan walks in and shuts the door behind him, sitting down on Merlin’s bed.

“What’s wrong with you, then?” he says with no preamble.

“Sorry, what?” Merlin says, aiming for polite.

He’d have to be blind not to notice Evan’s massive attitude problem but it doesn’t faze him. Most of the older kids at Sycamore House had an axe to grind, one way or the other, and he’s used to people being rude or sullen. But he’d also rather stay on Evan’s good side when it’s just the three of them here.

“What’s your damage? Why did Cenred pick you?” Evan says brusquely.

“What?” Merlin says again.

“Well I’ve got “behavioural problems”,” Evan says, with exaggerated air quotes. “And the kid’s retarded, so what’s your issue?”

Anger flashes through Merlin.

“Don’t call him retarded,” he hisses, glad that Daniel is already asleep and not listening. It hasn’t been long but he already feels attached to Daniel in a way he never let himself feel with any of the kids at the home, and he won’t let him be insulted.

For a second Evan looks abashed, almost as though he knows he went too far, but then his face becomes a mask again.

“Fine, whatever. I’m just saying, there must be something wrong with you.”

“Why?”

“‘Cause Cenred gets more money for the ones with ‘extra needs’.”

“More money from who?”

“The care system, idiot. You think Cenred took you in out the goodness of his heart? He does it for the money.”

“Bullshit,” Merlin says.

Evan shrugs.

“Don’t believe me then. I’ve been here a year, I’ve seen three kids come and go already. He takes ‘em in, gets his pay-out, then moves ‘em on.”

“So why wouldn’t he move you and Daniel on then?”

“I told you.” Evan rubs his fingers together. “We’re bigger earners, us broken ones. It suits him to hang on to us.”

Merlin doesn’t know whether to believe him or not. On the one hand, he doesn’t trust Evan at all. He seems like just the kind of guy who would make up stories, who would try to unsettle the new boy. Besides, if foster kids earned people that much money, surely half the country which be fostering, which Merlin knows they’re definitely not. Evan’s probably either paranoid or lying.

On the other hand, he can’t shake the slight feeling of unease that sometimes rises in him when he sees Cenred. There’s something wrong with a man whose smile never reaches his eyes…

“I don’t believe you,” he says at last.

“Your lookout, kid,” Evan says, standing up. “Don’t say I never warned you.”

He pauses at the door.

“I think I get why he picked you, anyway.”

Merlin knows he shouldn’t respond but he can’t help himself.

“Why?”

“You don’t look like you can put up much of a fight.”

A slight chill spreads through Merlin’s body as the door clicks shut.

What the hell did that mean?

But Evan was probably just trying to scare him. He was a troublemaker. There was no point even thinking about it.

 

Despite his vow to forget Evan’s words, they haunt Merlin for the next few weeks.

The thing is, something does seem to be off in the house.

Merlin initially assumed Mary might talk a little more in her own home, but she remains almost completely silent. All she ever seems to do is housework: cooking dinner, hanging up washing, sweeping the floor. Merlin tries sitting with her in the kitchen sometimes, to be companionable, but she can’t seem to relax around him. And he can’t stand her tuneless humming, something he’s sure she doesn’t even know she does. At first he thinks it’s just him that makes her nervous, but he soon comes to recognise she’s that way with everyone. After a while, he just leaves her to it.

Cenred doesn’t ignore him exactly, but he’s not around much either. He’ll talk over dinner but it’s more at him than with him. In the evenings he usually parks in front of the telly or goes to the pub. He does much the same at the weekends. The promised football matches or kick-abouts in the yard never materialise, and while Merlin’s no football fan, he can’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Why had Cenred fostered him if he didn’t seem to want to spend any time with him?

Evan’s theory about the money is starting to look a little more likely.

Well. So what? He only wanted to get out of Sycamore House anyway. At least here there’s less chaos, at least here there are things that belong to him. What does it matter if Cenred cares more about the money than him? Merlin tells himself he didn’t come here looking for parents anyway. That’s kid’s stuff and he’s too old for it now. He doesn’t need a mum or dad.

He can’t admit to himself that he’s lonely. That sometimes he even longs for the noise and clutter of Sycamore House; that sometimes he misses all the things he looked forward to getting away from.

There’s one thing that’s the same here. At night, he sometimes hears someone crying.

___________________________________________________________________________

 

It’s precisely three months, two weeks, and five days since he moved in that Cenred hits him for the first time.

In retrospect, he should have seen it coming. The way Mary skulks around in the shadows, too nervous to speak; the way Evan gives Cenred a wide berth wherever possible, unexplainable bruises coming and going on his face.

Merlin’s first thought oddly, as he crashes to the ground, is that he’s glad Daniel’s not in the room. His second is of pain.

The glass of milk he dropped lies shattered in pieces around him, liquid seeping into his trouser legs. What a thing for Cenred to finally lose his cool over.

No use crying over spilt milk, Merlin thinks stupidly, barely suppressing the laugh that bubbles to the surface. He really wants to laugh all of a sudden, because of course this is the way it is, of course. What made him think this could work out for him? That the family thing was third time lucky?

“Godamnit Merlin, don’t be so clumsy. Clean that up now.”

Cenred’s voice is harsh above him but he’s hardly listening. He cleans the spill mechanically before heading upstairs.

He goes to the bathroom and dabs at the blood that’s trickling down from his split lip. It’s already swelling up, but he can easily say that he fell if anyone asks.

When he leaves the bathroom, Evan is in the hallway. Merlin thinks he sees a flash of sympathy in his eyes before he walks away.

 

They don’t talk about it until the third time though. The time when Merlin tracks dirt in the house and Cenred shakes him so hard it feels like his bones are rattling; before pushing him into the bookcase. He goes down hard, scraping his left arm against the bookcase’s sharp edge, and watches in sick fascination as blood wells up on his skin.

There are only plasters in the bathroom and the gash is too big. Merlin is debating using a strip of material from an old t-shirt when Evan appears on the landing and beckons Merlin into his room.

He’s never been inside before, and he weirdly expected something a little more reflective of Evan’s personality – perhaps black painted walls or skull and crossbones posters. But the walls are a dull beige colour; there are no pictures or photos to be seen. Evan’s been here at least a year but his room looks like he’s just passing through. Which Merlin supposes is the point.

Evan doesn’t say anything, just opens a drawer to reveal a roll of bandages nestled amongst a bottle of TCP, a tube of arnica cream and other miscellaneous medical supplies. He motions for Merlin to sit down on the bed, and then begins wrapping his arm.

“Thanks,” Merlin says awkwardly when he finishes.

“If it happens again while I’m out, you can come in and get what you need,” Evan says dismissively, like he’s offering use of his hair gel or something.

Merlin doesn’t bother to say that he hopes it won’t happen again, because clearly it will, and from the look of Evan’s drawer, Merlin was lucky to go three months untouched.

A part of him is looking for sympathy, to get Evan to commiserate with him, but that’s baby stuff and he knows Evan won’t go for it. Instead, he voices the other thought preying on his mind.

“Does he do it to Daniel?”

“No. And if he ever does, I’ll fucking kill him.”

Evan’s tone is all rage and pain and Merlin’s not cruel enough to point out that there’s little chance of Evan protecting Daniel if he can’t even protect himself.

Perhaps Evan sees a little of that in Merlin’s expression anyway because he adds, defensively.

“He wouldn’t dare anyway. It’s not like you and me, at a school with what – like a thousand students? There’s only six kids in Daniel’s class and they all get a loads of one-on-one time. Someone’d notice.”

“Okay,” Merlin says and the fear that’s been pooling in his stomach ever since that first time lessens somewhat. He’s already been keeping a watchful eye on Daniel for bruises, and once or twice he’s tried to hint around the subject of Cenred’s temper with the younger boy. It’s a relief to know that Daniel really is as innocent as he seems.

There’s silence for a moment, then:

“Why d’you never tell anyone?” Merlin blurts out.

Evan shrugs.

“Like anyone’d care. Anyway, it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’m sixteen in seven months, then I’m out of here for good.”

Merlin doesn’t say what he’s thinking, that a lot can happen in seven months, but again Evan seems to read his mind and his shoulders sag slightly.

“I tried to tell my case worker once. But he… well I kind of have this history of lying, so he didn’t believe me, and then he said he was gonna call Cenred and I just told him to forget the whole thing. Said I was making it up.”

Sorry doesn’t seem like an adequate response but Merlin says it anyway and Evan half nods before his face becomes impassive again.

“Anyway, I got stuff to do, so…”

Merlin takes his cue and leaves. He goes back to his room and lies on his bed. His arm is throbbing steadily, not as bad as the time Val pushed him out of the treehouse, but painful all the same.

Tears threaten at his eyes as he thinks about Cenred grabbing him but he refuses to let them come. Crying won’t help. Cenred already sneered at him for being a baby when he cried the second time he got slapped.

Maybe it’s not such a big deal. Gilli always used to come back from monthly visits with his mum with some new bruise and he never cried about it. The one time Merlin asked him about it, he simply said: “She’s my mum. She just gets like that. It don’t mean she doesn’t love me.”

“Would you wanna live with her? Even when she does that?”

“Course. Families aren’t meant to be perfect; you just do the best you can. I’d rather put up with her getting mad sometimes than wasting away in this shithole.”

And that’s his choice now too. Back at the home no-one would hit him (Val and Alvarr aside). But he’d be back to having no privacy, back to noisy communal dinners, back to being marked out as a children’s home kid by everyone who saw him.

Wasn’t it better here? If he keeps out of Cenred’s way, he can mostly just do what he wants. The food is better, Mary gives him pocket money each week, and he doesn’t have to wait until his trainers are literally hanging off his feet before he can have a new pair.

Merlin tries to weigh it up. He knows he can go back. Evan might have struck out but he’s pretty sure if he tells Gwen what’s happening she’ll believe him. He could be out of here by tonight.

The ache in his arm makes it very tempting indeed. But then he looks over at Daniel’s bed and sees Mr Cuddles propped up on the pillow.

He can’t leave Daniel. He’s like the little brother he never had, and he’s not going to abandon him.

Decision made, Merlin curls up in a ball and tries to get some sleep.

____________________________________________________________________

 

Keeping out of Cenred’s way is more easily said than done. It’s a small house and there aren’t many places to avoid him. He can go out but there’s not much to do. He doesn’t have any friends from school, the only people he really knows are the ones at Sycamore and he doesn’t want to go back there. On weekends he sometimes takes Daniel out to the park or the library, and it’s fun, but they have to come home eventually. And Cenred’s always there, invariably in a foul mood.

Merlin’s only been there four and a half months, but he can see that Cenred’s getting worse by the day. He drinks more, shouts more, swears more. Evan gets it in the neck more often than Merlin, mainly because he goes out of his way to provoke the man. Merlin thinks he understands why; as Val always said of his stepfather: if you’re gonna get hit anyway, you might as well make sure there’s a reason why. So Evan talks back and breaks curfew and gets suspended from school and Cenred hits him and locks him in his room and tells him that he’s nothing, he’s just some worthless care kid that nobody wanted and he should be damn grateful anyone took him in.

Merlin watches all this, torn between exasperation and admiration for Evan’s defiance. He doesn’t have it in him; he can’t help but shrink when Cenred’s glare is turned on him and he’d rather whimper out an apology for doing nothing wrong than risk being smacked for refusing. Sometimes he hates himself for being such a coward, but he can’t seem to help it.

For all his efforts, he gets hit anyway. Nowhere near as much as Evan, but enough that he starts flinching at sudden movements, and trembling slightly whenever Cenred walks past him.

He and Evan still don’t talk much, but he lets Merlin dab antiseptic on his back on the horrible night that Cenred takes a belt to him. And if he’s around when Cenred starts on Merlin, Evan usually finds some way to divert the attention onto himself and save Merlin a beating. Cenred gets wise to this eventually but Merlin’s grateful all the same.

No-one notices at school, not even on the rare occasions Cenred forgets himself and hits Merlin on the face. His form teacher clucks his tongue disapprovingly one time and advises Merlin not to get into so many fights, which is how Merlin learns that his classmates and teachers just assume he spends all his time out of school scrapping.

It doesn’t matter. Daniel’s safe and that’s all that counts. The best part of Merlin’s day is coming home to help Daniel with his homework or to read him a book or play with his train set. Sometimes Merlin tells him made up stories at bedtime, the kind that Gaius used to tell, about dragons and warlocks. Daniel oohs and aahs at all the right moments, and cheers whenever the handsome prince shows up.

“Is magic real, Merlin?”

“You bet. My mum named me after a magical wizard, you know.”

“So you can you do magic?”

“Course I can,” Merlin says, waggling his eyebrows dramatically. “Here, I’m putting a spell on you.”

He waves his hands theatrically around the bed and Daniel squeals with laughter.

“There! It’s a protection spell, so none of the dragons or monsters can get you.”

“Do one on yourself.”

“I already have! No-one can hurt me.”

Daniel’s little face suddenly looks very serious.

“What about Cenred?”

Merlin blanches, then tries to recover.

“What about him?”

“He shouts a lot.”

Daniel’s voice is very quiet.

“Does he shout at you?” Merlin says softly.

“No, not really. But he does at you. And I saw… I saw him push Evan over. And Miss Farley says we’re not allowed to push because it’s not nice but Cenred did it.”

Merlin doesn’t know what to say. He feels like an idiot for assuming that Daniel wouldn’t pick up on what’s been going on in the house.

“Miss Farley’s right,” he says slowly. “It’s not nice and Cenred shouldn’t have done it. He shouldn’t shout either.”

“So why does he?”

“Sometimes… sometimes adults don’t behave very well. Just like Andrew in your class, when he throws the books around.”

“Miss Farley says Andrew gets angry and it makes him feel bad so he does something bad.”

“Right. Well, that’s a bit like Cenred. He gets angry sometimes and he doesn’t know what to do about it, so he shouts.”

“Is he angry at me?”

“No, of course not. And he’s not really angry at me and Evan either, I promise.”

Merlin lifts Daniel’s chin up so he can be sure he’s meeting his eyes.

“But if he ever does get angry and shout at you or… or push you… you come and tell me or Evan straightaway, okay? Promise me?”

Daniel nods.

“Okay. Time for bed, then. Let’s get Mr Cuddles nice and warm under the covers with you.”

Merlin tucks him in and kisses his forehead. He’s lucky in that Daniel can fall asleep with the lamp on, meaning Merlin can stay up and read for a few hours. But tonight he doesn’t want to read. He sits on his bed, thinking. How long before Cenred turns his anger on Daniel?

___________________________________________________________

 

Not long, as it transpires. It’s Merlin’s sixth month of living there and he reckons Gwen’s put a big fat tick next to his name in her records. To all outward appearances, it seems like a successful fostering. Whenever Gwen drops by, Cenred’s as polite as can be, ruffling Merlin’s hair like they’re inseparable pals. Merlin plays along because he’s made his choice and he has to stick to it. Even when Gwen takes him out a café and tells him he can speak freely, he lies and says it’s all good, even though he feels like he’s nearing his breaking point. Last week, Cenred locked him in the garden shed all night for “insolence”. When Evan tried to jimmy the lock and break him out, Cenred kicked him till he couldn’t stand and then threw him in the shed with Merlin. Neither of them got much sleep that night and Evan could barely walk the next day. Since then, Evan’s been much less defiant towards Cenred. Merlin thinks he’s reaching his breaking point too, but neither of them knows what to do about it.

He feels angry all the time. At Cenred for being a bastard and Mary for being too afraid to protect them and Evan’s shitty social worker for not nipping this in the bud when it all started.

But he’s holding on, just about, until the summer holidays roll around. Merlin’s dreading the fact that he can’t escape to school anymore, and he’s even more worried about the fact that Daniel will be home all the time, easy prey for Cenred’s wrath. He tries to spend as much time as possible in his room with Daniel; Cenred rarely bothers to seek him out there.

But he can’t hide forever and things come to a head one night at dinner. It’s been a hot, humid day and Cenred’s irritable from the moment he walks in the door. He sits chugging his beer and ranting about his piece of shit boss and his lousy co-workers and how he should pack it all in because no-one appreciates him.

Merlin wishes he wouldn’t swear so much in front of Daniel but he knows better than to say anything. When Mary serves up the stew, there are a few minutes of blessed silence before Cenred starts in again.

“Jesus, this is bland. You couldn’t have put some flavour in it?”

Mary mumbles something about following the recipe.

“Well you should throw that recipe out; I’ve had cough syrup that tastes better than this crap.”

“I like it,” Daniel pipes up unexpectedly.

“Yeah, no shit, kid. You’d probably eat dog dirt if I told you it was chocolate pudding.”

Merlin tenses. Cenred doesn’t normally deign to address Daniel, preferring to roll his eyes or shake his head to indicate his lack of interest when the boy speaks. It drives Merlin mad to see Cenred mocking Daniel that way, but it’s better than him actually expressing it verbally.

“I wouldn’t eat dog dirt,” Daniel says firmly. “Miss Farley says that’s naughty.”

“‘Miss Farley says that’s naughty,’” Cenred mimics in a high voice. “God help the teacher that has to spend all day with you retards.”

“Shut up,” Merlin says before he can stop himself. Across the table he can see that Evan is gripping his fork very tightly.

“Excuse me?” Cenred says slowly.

“Don’t talk to him like that,” Merlin says.

“Or what?” Cenred says in a dangerous tone, leaning towards Merlin.

Whether by accident or on purpose, Mary chooses this moment to knock her water over into Cenred’s lap.

“Jesus!” he shouts, jumping to his feet.

Mary starts muttering out apologies, grabbing some kitchen towel from the side but Cenred pushes her hands away.

“I might as well just change,” he snarls and storms out of the room.

Mary finishes wiping off Cenred’s chair and then gives the boys a small smile. It doesn’t quite fit on her face and it makes Merlin’s heart hurt.

When Cenred returns, Merlin’s transgression seems to be forgotten and for a moment he thinks there might be no disaster tonight at all.

But then Cenred starts on Daniel again.

“What did you do today?”

“Me and Merlin went to the park and made paper boats to float in the lake. I want to be the captain of a real boat when I’m older,” Daniel says happily.

Cenred snorts.

“That won’t happen, kid.”

“Why not?” Daniel asks.

“‘Cause to captain a ship you have to be clever enough to know how to navigate and steer and you ain’t.”

Evan makes a kind of choked noise from the back of his throat.

“I am clever,” Daniel says, sounding upset.

“Who told you that?”

“Miss Farley.”

“Well sorry bud, but she was just being nice. When God was handing out brains, I reckon he gave you one meant for a goldfish.”

Daniel’s face screws up like he’s about to cry and Merlin opens his mouth to cuss Cenred out, regardless of the beat-down it’s going to get him, but Daniel gets there first.

“Shut up! I hate you! You’re mean!”

And, like in a nightmare where time slows down and you’re powerless to act, Merlin watches in horror as Daniel throws his glass of milk in Cenred’s face.

For a long second there’s total silence, then Cenred lunges forward and both Merlin and Evan jump to their feet at the same time.

Cenred manages to knock Daniel to the floor before Evan gets in front of him and tries to hold him back. They grapple for a while, while Merlin tries to get Daniel to his feet and out of the room, but then Cenred breaks free and punches Evan full force in the face. He drops to the floor, dazed, and Cenred advances on Merlin and Daniel.

Merlin pushes Daniel towards the door, blocking the way with his body, but Cenred growls and deals Merlin a stinging blow across the face that sends him crashing into the wall. Before Merlin has time to recover, Cenred picks Daniel up and heads for the stairs. Ignoring the way his head is spinning, Merlin chases after them, reaching his bedroom door just as it’s locked from the inside. He pounds on the door, desperate.

“Cenred, please! Don’t hurt him! He’s just a kid!”

He can hear Daniel screaming and the sound of flesh hitting flesh and he can’t bear it.

“Motherfucker! You fucking coward! Come out and fight me, you bastard!”

He yells it at the top of his voice, hoping to goad Cenred into coming out, but there’s no reply; just the horrendous, heart-breaking sound of Daniel’s cries.

“Stop! Stop it! Cenred!”

By the time it’s over, Merlin’s voice is hoarse and his hand is numb from banging on the door. Cenred steps out and Merlin looks at him, hate flowing through his veins like blood.

“Bastard,” he spits.

Cenred comes very close, grabbing Merlin by the hair and yanking his head back.

“This is my house and I make the rules,” he hisses. “That little retard breaks them and he suffers the consequences. Just like you will if you ever talk like that to me again.”

He releases Merlin and strides away downstairs. Merlin goes straight into the bedroom, swallowing bile when he sees Daniel lying crumpled on the floor.

He walks over and Daniel whimpers in fear.

“It’s okay, it’s just me, I’m not gonna hurt you,” he says soothingly.

Daniel is a mess. There’s a bright red mark on his cheek, a cut on his eyebrow, and his lip is bleeding. When Merlin lifts him onto the bed and gently takes his t-shirt off, bruises are already developing all over his torso.

Merlin wants to cry but he can’t so he squeezes Daniel’s hand and tell him he’ll be back in a minute. He runs to the bathroom and runs the tap on a flannel. Then he goes to Evan’s room and grabs some supplies from the drawer.

Oh God, Evan.

Merlin debates going downstairs to check on him but reasons that Mary is there at least, and Daniel needs him more right now.

He goes back into the bedroom and starts to patch Daniel up. Daniel cries throughout, his whole body shaking. He’s in shock and once Merlin’s finished, he pulls the blankets up around him to try and warm him up.

“It’s okay, sweetheart, you’re safe now,” he whispers, stroking Daniel’s hair.

“He-he hurt me,” Daniel sobs out.

“I know, I know. It won’t happen again, I promise you. I’ll never let him near you again.”

Daniel cries for so long that Merlin eventually gets into bed with him, holding him close. He’s given him a paracetamol but Merlin knows it won’t help much with the pain. Fortunately, it does relax his muscles enough to send him to sleep.

When Merlin’s sure that Daniel’s fast asleep, he slips out of bed and goes downstairs. Evan’s sitting at the kitchen table, holding a bag of frozen peas to his face. From the sound of it, Mary’s washing up in the kitchen.

“Cenred?” Merlin says, tense.

“Gone out,” Evan says and Merlin instantly relaxes.

“Are you okay?”

“Had worse,” Evan says. “Bastard knocked me for six, I couldn’t… I couldn’t get up in time.”

There’s shame in his eyes.

“Neither could I,” Merlin says, because the only one who should be feeling shame about what happened is Cenred.

“How is he?”

Merlin shakes his head, and suddenly the tears that have threatened for so long begin to slip down his face.

“He’s… not good.”

He scrubs furiously at his face but Evan doesn’t look contemptuous of his weakness.

“Let’s go see him,” he says and stands up, giving Merlin a quick squeeze on the shoulder as he passes.

Daniel is thankfully still asleep when they creep in. Evan swears softly when he sees him.

“I’m gonna fucking kill him,” he says vehemently.

“He’ll kill you first,” Merlin says tiredly.

All the fight seems to go out of Evan and he sags down on Merlin’s bed.

“Yeah, probably,” he mutters.

Merlin goes and sits beside him, and his voice is firm when he speaks.

“I’m calling my case worker tomorrow. It’s enough now, okay? It’s enough.”

Evan looks like he might protest but he glances at Daniel’s bed and that seems to make up his mind.

“Okay. I’ll back you up.”

Merlin nods his thanks. It’s barely past eight but he feels totally exhausted.

“I’m gonna sleep with Daniel tonight. Do you wanna-”

He gestures at his own bed.

“Yeah,” Evan says. “Probably a good idea.”

It seems unlikely there’ll be another confrontation with Cenred tonight, but neither wants to take any chances. Safety in numbers and all that. And Merlin doesn’t know about Evan, but he doesn’t feel like sleeping alone.

The next day, they wait to hear Cenred leave the house before getting up. Daniel wakes up crying from a nightmare at seven, and Merlin spends the next hour whispering stories to him as they hear Cenred walking around the house. Evan doesn’t say anything, but Merlin thinks he might be listening too.

Merlin tells Daniel he has to stay in bed for the day, and it’s a mark of how much pain he must be in that he agrees, because he normally hates not being active. Evan brings up toast with jam and Merlin feeds it to him, trying to turn it into a game. Daniel still looks shell shocked, a purple bruise livid on his cheek. His split lip makes it hard for him to eat, and Merlin gives him another paracetamol when he’s finished. By the time Merlin and Evan are dressed, Daniel’s asleep again.

They tiptoe downstairs and find Mary in the kitchen.

“How is he?” she says quietly.

“Like you care,” Evan says rudely and Mary flinches.

“We’re going out,” Merlin says in a gentler tone. “Can you keep an eye on Daniel?”

She nods and he almost laughs at how wrong this all this, like he’s the parent and she’s the child.

They walk briskly to the payphone down the street and Merlin dials the number he knows by heart.

He doesn’t explain on the phone, just asks Gwen to come and meet them in the bandstand of the nearby park. When she arrives, she blanches at the obvious bruises on their faces.

“What happened?”

“Cenred,” Merlin says wearily.

“He hit you? Both of you?”

“Yeah, but that ain’t the worst of it,” Evan says, a scowl set on his face. Merlin’s aware that although he agreed to come along, Evan has no reason to trust Gwen like Merlin does.

“Gwen he… he beat up Daniel,” Merlin says, a little desperately.

He can see the pain in Gwen’s eyes but her voice is calm when she speaks.

“Okay. How bad was it? Does he need medical attention?”

“I don’t think so; I mean I tried to patch him up but…”

“Is he at home now?”

They nod.

“Is Cenred there?”

“No, he’s at work, won’t be back till six.”

“And Mary?”

“She’s there, but she’s not… she won’t hurt him.”

“But she didn’t call the police when this happened?”

“Nope,” Evan says bitterly. “She’s right under his thumb.”

“Evan,” Merlin says. “She’s his victim too.”

Evan just shrugs.

“Okay, let’s go back and see Daniel then,” Gwen says and they set off walking.

They let themselves in and Merlin ushers Gwen upstairs. When they enter the bedroom, Daniel wakes up.

“Merlin?” he says sleepily.

“I’m here, sweetheart,” Merlin says, perching on the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Hurts,” Daniel says.

“I know,” Merlin replies, stroking his hair. “I brought a friend to see you. You remember Gwen?”

“Hi Daniel,” Gwen says, coming forward. “I want to just check how you are, if that’s okay?”

Daniel looks anxiously at Merlin, and he nods reassuringly.

“Gwen’s a good friend of mine, she’s here to help. Will you let me take off your top to show her your tummy?”

Daniel nods slowly, his eyes frightened. Merlin helps him out of the t-shirt as gently as he can.

Gwen steps forward and looks at the bruises. They’re much worse in the morning light and he sees Evan clenching his fists in the background.

“Does it hurt when you breathe Daniel?” she says softly.

“Not really,” Daniel mumbles.

“Okay, that’s good.” Gwen says encouragingly. She leans in to look at the marks on his face and Merlin grabs Mr Cuddles to distract Daniel.

“Mr Cuddles wants to go for a teddy bear’s picnic when you’re feeling better,” he says.

“Yes I do!” he adds in a growly voice and Daniel giggles.

“But now Mr Cuddles wants to take a nap and he wants you to nap with him.” Merlin says, making the bear walk across the covers.

“Okay,” Daniel says, yawning widely. He reaches out for the teddy and then flops back onto the pillow.

“I’ll just be over here,” Merlin says, and he kisses Daniel’s forehead before walking to the other side of the room with Gwen.

“I think he’ll be alright. Physically I mean,” Gwen says. “You two did a good job fixing him up. Now, I need to ask you boys some questions.”

Evan looks vaguely mutinous but they both sit down on Merlin’s bed.

“Is this the first time that Cenred’s been violent?”

When it looks like Evan isn’t going to answer, Merlin does.

“No. He hits us all the time. It’s just the first time he ever touched Daniel.”

“And how long has this been going on?”

“A few months for me. Longer for Evan.”

Gwen looks stricken.

“Merlin, why didn’t you tell me? When I came to visit you?”

Merlin shrugs, uneasy. He doesn’t really want to explain his thought process because it barely makes sense to him, let alone anyone else.

Luckily Gwen drops it.

“Evan, when Merlin says it was longer for you-"

“I moved in a year and a bit ago,” Evan interrupts. “He started on me the second month.”

“And did you ever tell anyone?”

“Nope,” Evan says defiantly.

“Okay. Well I’m glad you both called me. Obviously you won’t be staying here any longer.”

Merlin’s heart lifts but Evan looks sceptical.

“Cenred won’t let us go without a fight,” he says grimly.

“Cenred will be behind bars if I have anything to do with it,” Gwen says fiercely and for the first time, Evan cracks a smile at her.

____________________________________________________________________

 

Despite how slow all the care processes feel sometimes, Gwen keeps her promise of getting them out of there straightaway. She takes them to Sycamore, where the police come to interview them all and take photos of their injuries. She tells them that Cenred has been arrested, and they may have to testify at his trial at some point.

“Not Daniel?” Merlin says anxiously, because he doesn’t want to put him through that.

“He can probably testify by video link,” Gwen says reassuringly. “You probably all can.”

“Hell, no,” Evan says. “When that bastard gets sent down, I wanna be looking him in the eye.”

Merlin snorts with laughter, glad that Evan’s rebelliousness hasn’t been completely stamped out by recent events.

Gwen goes to get them some lunch and Merlin follows her into the kitchen.

“What happens now?” he says. “I mean, I guess I’m coming back here but-”

“Well, Evan will probably go back to the home he was in before he was fostered. And possibly the same will go for Daniel, I’m still waiting for his case worker to call me back.”

Merlin doesn’t make a plea for Evan because he knows when he turns sixteen in a few months, he’ll be leaving care for good. But he has to try for Daniel.

“Can’t he stay here?”

“Oh, Merlin. There’s no room here, it’s sheer luck that your bed was still available.”

“He can share my bed,” Merlin argues. “People come and go all the time here; I bet a place’ll come up soon.”

“But his school is too far away from here. He’d be better back at Burnham House, that’s much closer.”

“He’d be better here with me,” Merlin says firmly. “I know how to look after him.”

“I know you’ve formed a bond with him but-”

“Can’t you just listen to me, for once?” Merlin explodes.

“I am listening. But I can’t change the circumstances,” Gwen says sadly.

“This is bullshit,” Merlin shouts. “It’s just… it’s bullshit!”

He storms out of the kitchen and into the backyard, planting a firm kick against the big old tree.

Here he is, back again, because apparently he can never get away from this place. And now the one good thing that’s happened to him since Gaius died is gonna be taken away from him.

Merlin swears, punctuating each word with a kick to the tree.

He becomes aware of someone watching him after a while and turns to see Evan.

“Is that helping any?”

“No,” Merlin says, aiming one last savage kick anyway.

“I heard you in the kitchen.”

“What’s it to you?” Merlin says rudely.

“Nothing,” Evan says, with his trademark shrug. “Just reckon it’s a waste of time beating up a tree when you could be enjoying your last day with Daniel.”

He wanders back inside and Merlin takes a second to be irritated with the fact that Evan’s somehow become the sensible one before he follows.

Daniel’s still sore, so Merlin tucks him up in the little guest bedroom and sits by his side. He tells him more stories and they make up silly songs together.

Merlin asks him how he feels about going back to Burnham House and Daniel says he doesn’t mind.

“I don’t want to go back to Cenred,” he says, and Merlin assures him that will never happen.

“Can you come to Burnham with me?” Daniel asks and Merlin has to fight back tears as he shakes his head.

“But I will get the bus over to see you on the weekends, okay?” he says and Daniel nods happily.

He ends up sleeping in with Daniel that night, and Evan sleeps in his old bed. The next morning, a car arrives to pick up Evan.

“Is that your case worker?” Merlin says, peering out suspiciously.

“Nope,” Evan says cheerily. “I may have let it slip to Gwen that Robert knew all about Cenred and did nothing, and I may have heard her make a few angry phone calls in the office afterwards. I reckon I might be getting a brand new case worker.”

Merlin smiles.

“Well you’ve got my email,” he says, knowing full well that Evan won’t write.

Evan nods.

“I’ll see you around school, Merlin.”

He picks Daniel up in the air and smacks a big kiss on his forehead.

“See ya kiddo,” he says, and Daniel waves frantically as the car pulls out of the drive.

Merlin feels a twinge at seeing Evan go, but it’s nothing compared to how he feels when Daniel leaves. The lady from Burnham who comes to pick him up gives him a genuine embrace when she sees him and that makes Merlin feel slightly better about where Daniel’s headed.

“Okay Daniel, I’ll see you soon,” he says, hugging him carefully, so as not to press on his bruises.

Daniel holds on tight.

“Promise you’ll come visit?” he whispers and Merlin nods, not trusting himself to speak.

He eventually lets him go and watches as Daniel climbs in the backseat of the car. He goes out to stand in the road so he can wave for as long as is possible, and he doesn’t stop until the car is long out of sight.

_________________________________________________________

 

In the end, Cenred pleads guilty so none of them have to testify. Merlin’s relieved, he just wants to forget the whole thing and get back to normal. Luckily, none of the Sycamore kids are particularly interested in probing him about it; getting smacked around by a guardian isn’t exactly new to most of them. Freya and him start to spend a little more time together, but she doesn’t mention it either; seeming to understand on the days when Merlin is brooding and silent. And Gilli’s nice enough not to comment on the nights that Merlin wakes up in a cold sweat, trembling all over from a nightmare about Cenred.

His weekend visits to see Daniel continue for almost six months, until the news comes that Daniel’s being fostered again. He seems so excited that Merlin has to try and be happy for him, even though his new family live two towns away, too far for Merlin to visit. He makes sure he gets Daniel’s address and has him swear to write if anything at all goes wrong, but his new parents seem to be good people. Merlin writes every week anyway and sticks the drawings Daniel sends him up by his bed.

Sycamore doesn’t feel like it’s changed much in his absence. Nimueh is gone and has been replaced by a gentle girl named Alice, who’s deaf and can read lips. She hangs out with Freya and Merlin sometimes and makes them laugh by pretending to lip read Val and Alvarr’s conversations, which usually descend into mad declarations of love for one another.

Val and Alvarr are still as offensive as ever but Merlin’s not scared of them anymore, not after so many showdowns with Cenred. They mostly leave him alone now, and he sometimes steps in if he catches them picking on the little ones.

School is the same too, the only difference being that Merlin’s grades are in decline. They’ve been slipping ever since he went to live with Cenred, and even though he’s back in a (slightly) more stable environment now, Merlin’s not particularly interested in correcting them. He’s been back about six months when Elena sits him down with his latest report and asks if there’s a problem. He points out that getting Bs and Cs isn’t exactly disastrous compared to every other kid in the house, most of whom are outright failing. He’s pretty sure Val doesn’t know how to read, and Freya’s severely dyslexic, and most of the rest of them just can’t be bothered. Hence he’s still doing the best in the house. So what if he used to get straight As?

“I thought you wanted to be a doctor,” Elena points out in her usual frank way.

“Too much hard work,” Merlin says.

Elena sighs heavily.

“Seems like a waste of a lot of potential.”

Merlin gives her a blank stare, one he’s been perfecting over the last few months when his teachers ask him why his homework’s late or where his textbook is. He may not be an A student anymore, but he’s smart enough to know that his teachers have basically no expectations of care kids like him. They don’t push him, don’t give him extra reading, don’t take him aside for little motivational pep talks. Everyone knows that care kids don’t achieve in school, often leave before their A-Levels, and almost never go to university. As far as they’re concerned, he’s a fourteen year old lost cause.

It suits Merlin that way. He drifts, wanting to go unseen, be lost in a crowd. He used to crave adult attention; now it’s the last thing he wants. Alone is better. Alone is safe.

It’s as much of a surprise to him as it is to anyone else then that he agrees to be fostered by the Muirden family.

He’s fifteen and he’s finally had a growth spurt, though he’s still among the smaller ones in his class. But he’s no longer so small that he looks younger than his age. He’s one of the older ones in Sycamore now – Gilli and Sophia have both aged out, and he shares his room with a skinny eleven year old called Owen who he's never heard utter more than two or three words at a time. The silence suits him anyway.

It’s only a few days after his fifteenth birthday that he meets Edwin for the first time. Not that he hasn’t seen him before – Edwin came to the last house event, and his face sticks in the memory. There’s a jagged scar running across one side, as eye-catching as any he’s seen in a gangster movie.

He asks Edwin about it when they first speak, because he says what’s on his mind nowadays and isn’t too interested in how it makes him come across.

Edwin doesn’t seem offended. He laughs.

“Guess.”

“You got in a fight with a bear,” Merlin says instantly.

“If only.”

“Your first wife caught you cheating and attacked you with a broken bottle.”

“I only have one wife, and if she caught me cheating I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t leave me alive.”

“You got in deep with the mob and they carved you up as a warning.”

“Oh dear, the truth’s going to be very uninteresting after all this.”

“What is it?”

“I used to be a mountain climber, and I took a nasty fall when I was twenty five. Tore my face up on a rock.”

“Boring,” Merlin says.

Edwin smiles regretfully.

“It is, isn’t it? Do you think I should start telling people the bear thing?”

“Definitely,” Merlin says, sitting down on one of the plastic lawn chairs.

Edwin sits next to him.

“It’s Merlin, isn’t it?”

“How do you know?”

“I asked. The nice blonde lady over there with the insane jumper on.”

Merlin follows his eye line and sees Elena, clad in one of her customarily awful sweatshirts – this one seeming to be made entirely of rainbow coloured puffballs.

“Why did you ask?”

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“About fostering me?”

“Bit early for that. But yes, it crossed my mind.”

“Why?” Merlin says bluntly. “Why me? Why don’t you want a little kid or a girl or someone who didn’t walk up to you and ask what was wrong with your face?”

Edwin laughs again.

“You don’t beat around the bush, do you? Fine, total honesty, cards on the table. I have a son about your age. He’s been sick for quite a while, and though he’s better now, he’s still recovering. My wife is the director of a company and travels extensively. I work too, and I worry that he’s on his own all the time. His confidence is a bit shot by being ill for so long, and he doesn’t have much of a social life.”

“So you want me to come and be his buddy?”

“Something like that. I think it would be good for him, for all of us, to have another young person in the house.”

Merlin stares him down for a while.

“If you tell them lot that, they won’t let you foster me. You’re meant to be here because you and your wife love kids and your family isn’t complete and you want to nurture my young soul.”

“I do love kids,” Edwin says calmly. “I always wanted another child, but there were complications after Mordred was born and my wife couldn’t have any more. I often brought up the idea of fostering and adoption. But she was less keen and Mordred being an only child mattered less until the last couple of years. Now she agrees with me.”

“And what makes you think I’d be interested in being some bought playmate for your son?”

For the first time, Edwin looks pained.

“That’s not what this is Merlin, believe me. I do think it would be good for Mordred having someone his own age around, but I also want another kid, always have. I’d only want you to come if you wanted to.”

He pauses for a second, then turns to look directly at Merlin.

“I didn’t have the greatest childhood, and my parents weren’t up to much. I want better for my kid, and in a way I want better for all kids. I doubt you’re looking for a new mum or dad Merlin, but if you want to stay with a reasonably sane family who would genuinely like having you around, the offer’s there.”

He stands up.

“Look, this is all a bit heavy for a first meeting, and it’s probably not what you’re looking for, but I wanted to be honest with you.”

He starts to walk away and part of Merlin wants to let him go, but another part…

“Wait!”

Edwin turns back.

“You don’t know me,” Merlin says.

“No,” Edwin agrees.

“And I don’t know you. But I guess maybe you could come by again and we could see how it goes.”

He’s not really sure about the words coming out of his mouth but there’s a voice in his head saying, at least try. No commitments. Just try.

Edwin smiles, nods.

“Okay. Let’s do that.”

So they do. Edwin brings his wife Catrina along the next time and she’s nice enough. She’s clearly a powerful woman; dressed in a smart blouse and trousers, with little clicky heels and an iPhone that never stops ringing. It seems an odd contrast to Edwin, who wears jeans and jumpers, and has a relaxed, unassuming air about him. Merlin senses that Catrina’s the kind of woman who always has one eye on business matters, whatever she’s doing, but that doesn’t particularly bother him. She’s so clearly the alpha in her and Edwin’s relationship that he doesn’t feel anxious like he did with Mary, knowing she couldn’t protect him.

Not that Edwin seems like the kind of man that Merlin would need protection from, however. With Cenred in mind, Merlin spends several of their visits attempting to goad Edwin into losing his temper, into finally revealing his true colours. But Edwin remains affable throughout.

“I have no idea why you’re fighting so hard, but you’re not driving me away you know,” he says, a few of months after the first meeting.

Merlin scrutinises him.

“Let’s just say I have my doubts,” he says at last.

Edwin smiles.

“I’ve never met such a suspicious teenager in my life. You’d make a good private detective.”

Merlin laughs in spite of himself, and Edwin grins back.

“Regular Philip Marlowe you are.”

“Who?” Merlin says.

“He’s a PI from a series of books. They made films too; do you know who Humphrey Bogart is?”

“No.”

“Then I must introduce you to the man and the legend! He played Marlowe in a great film called The Big Sleep; we’ll have to watch it some time.”

It’s that that does it for some reason. Looking at Edwin, nerdily excited about the prospect of showing Merlin some old movie, just seems to clinch it. He’s not a danger. He’s not in for the money. He’s just a normal, unthreatening guy who could make Merlin’s life a lot easier.

He says yes to being fostered. He thinks he’s figured Edwin out, that he’s going in this time with eyes wide open. Years later he’ll reflect that at fifteen he had no way of knowing how well people can conceal themselves; no way of understanding that those who seem most unthreatening can strike in unexpected ways.

 

___________________________________________________________

 

Gwen is more guarded the second time around when driving him to his new foster home. She exacts a solemn promise from him to call her the instant anything goes wrong, not to suffer in silence like last time.

“Not that anything will go wrong, Merlin. I just want to be clear.”

Merlin nods. Leaving Sycamore was easier this time, although Freya had wept horribly. It helped a bit that he’d already been on a weekend visit to the Muirden’s, and the house was – to put it simply – incredible. He’d figured that Catrina probably made a fair bit of money as a company director but he hadn’t expected a mansion. The place had six bedrooms, three Jacuzzis, and a huge garden that extended way out behind the house. His room was huge, with his own en-suite bathroom and a massive double bed with the softest sheets he’d ever felt.

He’d met Mordred too, and was pleased to find he had no reason to be intimidated. He had a vague idea Mordred might resent him for muscling in on his house and family, but he’d seem no sign of it yet. Not that Mordred had been effusive in greeting him, as he was still obviously quite ill. He was well enough to get out of bed and move around the house, which Edwin said was a massive improvement, but he was pale and thin; dark eyes like tunnels in his face.

But he’d shaken Merlin’s hand and offered him use of his many game consoles any time he wanted. Merlin was happy with that. If he was going to live in this palatial house (where he suspected every material whim would be catered to) he was more than willing to pal around with the sickly son in exchange.

Mordred comes down to greet Merlin again as he enters the house, and they all have dinner together. Gwen leaves shortly afterwards, and Edwin suggests a board game. Merlin doesn’t think much of that idea but it turns out to be surprisingly fun; even Catrina puts her phone aside to get involved. Although Mordred plays, he remains almost silent throughout, and Merlin realises that he must get tired very quickly. This is confirmed when Edwin suggests he go to bed at half eight and Mordred made no protest. Merlin stays where he is, suddenly awkward, but Edwin notices.

“Don’t worry Merlin, you live here now, you’re not obligated to do anything. Go to bed if you want, read a book, watch TV, it’s all fine.”

Under Edwin’s warm smile, Merlin relaxes. He decides to go and unpack, and then spends a while just admiring his new room, running his fingers along the pale blue walls and smooth oak furniture.

He can’t believe he lives here now. It doesn’t seem real.

 

That feeling persists through the first few months he’s there. Edwin wasn’t exaggerating about Catrina’s work schedule, she seems to be away much more than she’s home, so it’s usually just the three of them.

Mordred has a tutor come in the day while Merlin goes to school. Mindful of his unspoken promise to Edwin, Merlin makes sure to spend a good part of his free time with Mordred. It’s a mixed bag. They hang out most evenings and weekends, but Mordred always seems so exhausted, and Merlin sometimes worries he’s tiring him out. Most often they end up watching movies sat in Mordred’s bed, that way Mordred can drift off if he needs to.

Mordred still doesn’t talk much, but the silence isn’t unfriendly. There were a few quiet types at Sycamore and Merlin doesn’t mind it. What he does mind is the fact that Mordred’s so obviously unhappy and Merlin can’t seem to cheer him up. It seems the illness has taken a terrible toll on Mordred’s general wellbeing; he seems constantly sad and distant. The comedy films they watch barely make him laugh, and he doesn’t react much when Merlin tries to jolly him along.

He doesn’t mention it to Edwin because he knows the man is well aware of it; can see it in the mournful way he watches his son across the room sometimes. Merlin’s known a lot of broken kids in his life, and he can see it in Mordred, but what can he do? Only hope that the guy can get well enough to recover his lost confidence.

The situation with Mordred is the same for so long that the day it’s not is extra jarring. It’s a Friday night, and Merlin’s so tired from being forced to participate in a cross country run at school that he ends up being the one to fall asleep in Mordred’s bed while the film’s on.

He wakes with an odd feeling, like someone’s tickling him or something, only he’s not being tickled, it’s…

Mordred has his hand on Merlin’s crotch and he’s rubbing it slowly.

“What the fuck?” Merlin says instantly, without heat. He’s still in a daze.

Mordred stops rubbing but he doesn’t take his hand off Merlin’s jeans.

“I wanted to say thank you. For always hanging out with me. I know it’s boring.”

Merlin gapes.

“That’s how you say thank you?” he says, shoving Mordred’s hand off his lap.

Mordred shrugs.

It’s such an intensely weird moment. It’s not as if the first time something like this has happened to Merlin; loads of the Sycamore kids had all kinds of fucked up sexual boundaries, and things sometimes got out of hand. Sophia had tried to climb into his bed one night when he was thirteen but Gilli had sent her packing; and a short stay kid called Julian had a habit of trying to molest anyone he could get his hands on at the dinner table before he was moved on.

But it’s Mordred, silent, inert Mordred who can barely walk all the way up the stairs and suddenly he’s trying to jack Merlin off? It makes no sense.

“Why would you do that?” he says.

“I thought you’d like it,” Mordred says without emotion.

In another time, another place perhaps… Merlin’s known for a little while that he’s gay. Girls have never done much for him, but he’s increasingly been noticing the boys in his class, as their voices drop and their muscles develop. He sits next to a guy called Max in English and he often imagines what Max might look like naked, how it might be one day if they met up outside of school and one thing led to another…

He hasn’t acted on any of this. He’s still the freaky care kid at his school anyway, and he highly doubts Max would give him a second glance even if he was gay, but the thoughts still linger. He is a fifteen year old boy; he’s naturally keen for someone other than himself to touch his privates.

But now, like this…

Mordred is not unattractive. He may be pale and too thin, but his skin is creamily soft and his eyes are big and dark, with long feminine eyelashes. In other circumstances, Merlin would be quite happy to let him continue, but this is just weird. Wrong. They’re foster brothers for a start (not that Merlin’s felt any particularly brotherly feelings towards him as yet) and he’s meant to be looking out for Mordred. Edwin definitely didn’t bring him into his house to molest his son (not that Merlin’s the one doing the molesting at the moment).

“Probably a bad idea,” Merlin says as gently as he can. He doesn’t want to start yelling at Mordred; the situation was awkward beyond belief, and yes it was creepy that he waited for Merlin to be asleep before he made his move, but Mordred’s not an enemy. Merlin can only assume he’s just incredibly confused.

Mordred makes no further attempts, just nods and lies back down on the pillows. He’s asleep within minutes, leaving Merlin to slip out of the room and back to his own. He sits down on his own bed and tries to gather his thoughts.

Just an awkward pass from a kid who hadn’t been around other young people for too long. Probably too much time away from people your own age could warp your idea of what was acceptable. Merlin resolves to put it out of his mind.

___________________________________________________________________________

 

In retrospect, Mordred’s action serves as an early warning but by the time Merlin understands why, it’s far too late.

Perhaps it was too late the day he walked into the house. Or the day he first met Edwin. In his more melancholy moods, Merlin wonders if it was too late the day his mum died.

The night Edwin climbs into his bed, Merlin freezes.

At school he was taught about the fight or flight instinct. Then he saw it in practice when he spent all his time trying to run from Cenred while Evan hunkered down for the fight. Much later, he learns that it’s more often called the fight/flight/freeze instinct nowadays. There’s more recognition for the fact that in some traumatic or life threatening situations, the body just shuts down. No burst of adrenaline to help you flee or struggle. Just the sudden inability to move in any way, as if an animal playing dead in front of a predator.

The second he wakes up to feel Edwin pressing a kiss to the back of his neck, his whole body pressed against him under the duvet, he goes completely still. He doesn’t move a muscle, not even when Edwin slips his hands into his pyjama bottoms and begins to stroke him. His brain feels stuck, like a record when it scratches, he can’t really think of anything other than staying as motionless as possible.

Edwin doesn’t speak the whole time, and after he’s gone Merlin could almost believe he imagined the whole thing, but for the stickiness in his underwear.

He gets up to take a shower in the en-suite, moving on auto-pilot. When he’s finished, he changes his pyjamas and gets back into bed. The next day he gets up, has breakfast, and goes to school as normal.

It doesn’t happen again for a month, in which time Merlin’s almost convinced himself that it was a one off. This time, he doesn’t open his eyes at all. He has a wild, desperate hope that maybe Edwin will think he’s sleeping and leave him alone.

He doesn’t.

And it doesn’t work the next time either.

Merlin feels… nothing. Everything has changed and yet it hasn’t at the same time. In the day, Edwin is the same as he always was, joking around and burning toast and raving about old movies. Merlin can’t connect the dots. It might be different if Edwin ever spoke to him on the nights he comes, but his silence separates him from the daytime Edwin, as though he’s some kind of doppelganger. They’re not the same person in Merlin’s mind, and it’s this disconnect that allows him to carry on functioning – to sit at the kitchen table and watch television and drive to school with Edwin like he did before.

To this end, he reasons that night-time Edwin must be thwarted, the doppelganger laid low. He hatches a plan; he starts slipping into Mordred’s bed after dinner to watch films with him and then falling asleep right there and then. The doppelganger can’t get him if he’s not alone.

The night that Edwin comes into Mordred’s room, Merlin thinks he’s been found out. Then he sees the look of surprise on Edwin’s face, and realises that Edwin hadn’t come looking for Merlin at all.

Edwin leaves instantly, and Merlin spends the night staring at the wall.

The next day he can’t think of any better plan than to sleep in Mordred’s bed again. But this time when Edwin enters, he closes the door behind him.

“How long has this been going on?”

His voice is loud enough to stir Mordred from sleep but there’s no anger in it.

Merlin’s never heard the doppelganger speak before, and his mouth runs dry.

“Dad?” Mordred mumbles, hazy with sleep.

“Why didn’t you tell me you and Merlin were together? Did you think I’d be mad?” Edwin says.

Mordred doesn’t answer but he sits up against the pillows. Merlin remains lying down, frozen in place.

“I’m not mad. I think it’s great.”

Edwin smiles at them, the moonlight reflecting off his face.

“Why don’t you show me what you get up to?”

Merlin’s eyes are fixed on a moth on the ceiling. It walks back and forth, fluttering its wings slightly.

“It’s okay,” Mordred’s voice says near his ear, then he feels his pyjama bottoms being tugged down. The cool air hits him, then there’s a soft wetness closing around him.

Merlin stares at the moth, watching as it flits from side to side, never breaking into flight. Edwin’s making soft groaning noises from across the room but it doesn’t matter because Merlin’s not really there, he’s on the ceiling with the moth, walking back and forth, back and forth.

When it’s over, and Edwin leaves the room, Merlin thinks he hears a small “sorry” in the darkness. He doesn’t say anything, just gets up slowly and opens the door, picking his way across the landing until he reaches his bedroom. He dresses quickly, and tiptoes downstairs, puts on his brand new, incredibly expensive quilted jacket that Edwin had insisted on buying him for the winter, and slips out of the house.

It’s about one in the morning and the sky is clear. He walks for a long time, his feet leading the way, until he finds himself outside the house where he and Gaius lived.

There’s some plants sitting on the windowsill that weren’t there before, and the front door’s been painted green, but other than that it’s the same as he remembers it. He sits down in the tiny front garden and doesn’t think about anything for a long time.

When the sun rises and he sees the paper boy at the end of the street, he gets up and walks into town. He finds an all-night café and sits there until it’s past seven. Then he asks the waitress if he can use the phone and dials Gwen’s number.

 

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He goes back to Sycamore House and stays there until he’s seventeen. Then he manages to get a job in a local garage, and one of his co-workers, a blunt speaking twenty year old called Will, offers to let him crash on his sofa if he chips in with the rent. Merlin drops out of school the very next day and moves his belongings into Will’s tiny flat. Elena and Tristan advise him against it, but there’s nothing they can do legally. Gwen tells him she’ll continue to look out for him until he turns eighteen, and he can come to her anytime if he needs her. He never does.

Merlin’s new life begins. He works five days a week at the garage, plus any extra shifts he’s offered. At night he goes out to bars or clubs or even just local parks, and picks men up. He goes back to theirs, unless Will’s away; and if they don’t want him coming home with them he’ll just pull them into a toilet or an alleyway or wherever’s near and convenient. He uses condoms when they insist, doesn’t when they don’t, and if the opportunity presents itself he slips his hand into their pocket and steals their wallet.

After a year or so, he and Will are both earning enough to move into a flat with two bedrooms. He still tends not to bring men home because, despite Will not caring about him being gay, he’s rarely impressed with the calibre of man that Merlin entertains.

Merlin’s not interested in their calibre. A fuck’s a fuck as far as he’s concerned, and so much the better if he can help himself to a couple of tenners at the same time. Once or twice he gets caught and gets the shit kicked out of him, but it’s not enough to make him stop.

Will looks at him some mornings, the ones when Merlin blearily staggers into the kitchen with bloodshot eyes and puffy red lips, and it seems like he’s going to say something. But he never does and Merlin’s grateful because in fact Will doesn’t have to. Merlin knows it all already. Knows he’s a slag, knows he’s an waster, knows he drinks too much and thinks too little and he’s never gonna be anything more than this. He knows all this and he doesn’t care.

And then Arthur comes along.