Good parents give their children roots and wings. Roots to know where home is, wings to fly away and exercise what's been taught them. -- Jonas Salk
At times like these, Arthur wanted to curse his mother for dying while she was still young and beautiful.
It lent the whole thing a certain sense of tragedy it wouldn’t have had otherwise, of course, and he was enough of a corporate shark to appreciate the genius marketing opportunities that came with figure-heading a beautiful young woman and her beautifully orphaned son for a children’s charity.
On the other hand, Arthur was a corporate shark-ish type who, at twenty-eight, didn’t really care to figurehead a children’s charity. He supported it, with all his heart and most of his income, he invested whatever time he didn’t spend at work into it, and he had never agreed to be its spokesperson. And yet he constantly found himself shaking hands and kissing cheeks and goofing around for toddlers, and by God, he would put out an advertisement for some other attractive orphan as soon as he got back to the office.
He didn’t even like children all that much.
Up on the podium, Lady Helen, a middle-aged woman in sensible business dress tapped her microphone. “We’ll get to the food in a minute, I promise,” she said, to a little bit of polite tittering. “But first, as a thank you, the children of the Ygraine Pendragon Battersea Home would like to perform a small show.”
Arthur didn't groan or roll his eyes. He was the charity's figurehead, however involuntarily, and he refused to undermine it that publically. However, that didn't stop him from slipping covertly away, smiling politely on his way through the small crowd assembled around him. Up on the stage, a group of freshly scrubbed children around primary school age gathered around Lady Helen and a man with a sweater vest and a truly impressive crown of hair. The newly arrived gentleman produced a tuning fork and lifted his hands, and Arthur escaped from the crowd just as the kids started singing.
He breathed a sigh of relief. He was shielded from the stage by guests in expensive suits watching little children sing - badly - like it was the greatest thing they'd heard all year, and he was near the food. Clearly, fate was courting him today.
With a bit of a chuckle at himself, Arthur wandered over to the dining area. Tall tables with long white tablecloths held glass trays overflowing with food. They were still unavailable to the guests, but surely it wouldn't hurt if Arthur were to take a preemptive look at the buffet.
Upon closer inspection, it looked a lot nicer than it actually was. It was fairly fancily done, he had to admit, but Arthur had grown up upper-class and he could differentiate between cut glass and pressed. The food looked good, at least, and Arthur reached for what looked like a blue cheese tartlet. It was his sacred duty, after all, to make sure they were actually edible, and not just a pretty-looking assault on the senses.
Behind him, the singing grew a little more off-key. Arthur had enough manners not to scoff, but he still pinched his nose and muttered something unflattering under his breath.
“You don’t have to be such a prat, you know,” somebody said.
Arthur looked around. He could have sworn that was a child’s voice insulting him, but the only children he could spot were all up front near the stage. In fact, the only people in his vicinity were guests staring at the performing kids. They were all middle-aged and older, and the closest one of them was several feet away.
“I don’t think someone insulting strangers really has any ground to stand on in terms of prattishness,” Arthur said, quietly.
“Oh, please,” came the reply.
Arthur glanced left and right again, and then, slowly, bent down towards the table. The “The truth doesn’t make me a prat, you dollophead,” that came next was a little louder, and with a bit of a grin, Arthur squatted down and lifted the tablecloth with one hand.
He’d expected a street urchin, maybe, a grimy, grubby little boy dressed in rags with a cap on his head. Instead, the kid was clean and fairly well dressed, even if his clothes were obviously hand-me-downs. He’d pulled his knees up to his chest but still managed to look defiant while he was doing it.
Arthur had to admit he was impressed. “You have all the manners of a toadstool,” he told the boy. “How did you know I was here?”
The boy nodded at Arthur’s leather shoes. “I saw you,” he said. Arthur couldn’t tell from his voice if it was intended to be accusing or just amused. “You’re supposed to be watching the stage, you know.”
Arthur nodded slowly. “And aren’t you supposed to be on stage?”
The kid looked away and shrugged, that ‘I refuse to acknowledge I know exactly what you’re talking about’ shrug that Arthur didn’t usually see in pre-teens. “I snuck away,” he said. He turned exasperated eyes on Arthur. “I’m too old for that sh- that.”
“And how old is too old?” Arthur shifted his weight when his knees began to twinge.
“Seven. Allegedly.” The kid gave him a shrewd look, and Arthur had to admit he didn’t seem seven. He acted more like a grumpy old man in a child’s body.
He didn’t point out that some of the kids he’d seen onstage were certainly older than eight. He’d encountered the boy’s type before, the kind that was trouble before they even got started, and no amount of well-meaning chiding from strangers had ever amounted to anything. He had a stubborn set to his jaw that Arthur had learned to watch out for, not only in the children he encountered through the charity but also in his own family: his father, his sister Morgana, and most likely himself.
“I’m Arthur,” he said instead. He’d been introduced already, at the start of this whole affair, but he didn’t think it would hurt.
The boy nodded slowly. “I’m Merlin,” he said. He pointed at the tartlet still in Arthur’s hand. “Are you not going to eat that?”
‘Merlin’ was halfway through his second sweet, talking through a mouth full of crumbs and sticky fingers, when the tablecloth was abruptly yanked from Arthur’s hand.
“Get up,” Morgana hissed at him, and then turned back to the stage with a gracious smile.
Arthur rose just in time to burst into enthusiastic applause when the children on stage took their clumsy bows. “Thanks,” he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, and his sister shook her head.
“What were you doing, looking for dropped change?” She gave him a hard look and, without pausing for breath, turned to an older man standing close by and said, sweet as honey, “It’s lovely how talented these children are, isn’t it? When I was that age, no one in my class could even carry a tune.”
Arthur didn’t see the boy after that. He kept half an eye out for him, but he couldn’t look for him when he was called on stage to say some prettily worded, inspirational tripe, or when – as was usual with these things – two tiny children came to present him with a bouquet of flowers, and by the time open season was finally declared on the food and the buffet table was swarmed with half-starved do-gooders, the kid had apparently made the wise choice and beat it.
“What is with you today?” Morgana asked him out of the corner of her mouth, concealing the question with a cheese cube held daintily to her lips. “Did you lose a cuff link or something?”
Somehow, Arthur didn’t think a half-pint like Merlin would appreciate being compared to a cuff link. He wondered how the kid might react, though, and lost himself in imagining the indignant sputtering until the heel of Morgana’s stiletto descended warningly on his toes.
“It’s fine,” he said.
She didn’t look convinced, of course she didn't, but at that moment a pig-tailed little girl came over to invite Arthur to play a round of hopscotch with them, and for the first time in his life, Arthur found himself actually eager to accept.
Towards sunset, after most of the kids - yawning and bleary-eyed - had been ushered out, even Arthur was given leave to go. He shook hands with deCatha and leaned in to kiss Lady Helen on both cheeks. He didn’t look for the boy as he said his goodbyes, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t disappointed not to see him.
The first Tuesday of every month, Arthur had a lunch meeting with the executive board of the Ygraine Pendragon Children’s Foundation: his father, the founder and mostly retired; his sister in an eye-candy capacity (she'd once confessed to only attending the foundation’s events for the free food and ego-stroking); Alator deCatha, who was really the brains of the operation; Iseldir, the head of human resources and PR; and Isolde, the extremely pretty and extremely married fundraising and finance manager.
With the Battersea meeting just a few days past, their meeting that week consisted mostly of congratulating themselves and each other. There were also logistics - names, numbers, paperwork, and the inevitable laundry list of things that had been forgotten or delayed. There was a flurry of papers to sign and improvements to nod off, and the ever-dreaded information round-up for the shelter that could really be sent in the mail but, for the sake of good relationships, someone really ought to deliver personally.
Iseldir tapped the thick folder expectantly on the table.
Usually, Arthur studiously looked down at his notes along with the rest of them until someone caved to the silent pressure and volunteered. He glanced down at the papers in front of him, feeling Morgana at his side do the same. Mandatory counselling session for recent arrivals, the top page said, listed inconspicuously amongst the services the Battersea home offered, and Arthur remembered a flash of dark hair, an unimpressed smile.
With a sigh, Arthur held out his hand. “I’ll take it.”
Morgana frowned at him, but in the general mood of ‘Thank God it’s not me,’ nobody bothered to ask him any questions.
The Battersea group home, Arthur found, was a lot less dreadful when it wasn’t decked out to wow the suits and gowns. Instead of tasteful decorations, there were children’s toys scattered everywhere. The previously oppressively tidy children themselves were yelling and shrieking like any other kid would, and Lady Helen herself looked a lot more at ease in designer jeans and a cashmere cardigan when she welcomed him into her office.
“Mr. Pendragon,” she said, waving him into a seat. “It’s a pleasure to see you again so soon.”
Arthur replied in kind, and for a while they actually managed to talk shop. Once their conversation devolved into friendly chitchat, however, he couldn’t help fidgeting a little bit, trying not to peer around the office like someone might be hiding behind the shelving. He didn’t think Lady Helen would let anyone eavesdrop on them, but he did know at least one little darling at this establishment who was quite adept at getting away from her.
Lady Helen tilted her head. “Is there something on your mind?”
“Um.” Arthur, to his horror, felt heat rising in his cheeks. “It’s, um. Actually.” He took a breath, gathered himself and said, slipping back into his most charming persona, “When I was here last, I encountered a young boy – about so high, dark hair. Said his name was Merlin. He seemed a bit – lost, I suppose, and I was wondering if you could tell me if he’s doing alright?”
“All our children are a bit lost, Mr. Pendragon,” Lady Helen said, but with a hint of self-deprecation that suggested that Arthur already knew that.
Which he did.
The woman tapped her neat nails lightly against the surface of her desk. “Merlin isn’t the most carefree child, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, but…” She narrowed her eyes at Arthur thoughtfully. “I’m sure we could arrange for you to go up and see him, if you’d like?”
She smiled, despite the way she’d caught him off-guard. Or maybe because of it. He wouldn’t put it past her.
“What better time, seeing as you’re already here?”
She had ulterior motives, Arthur suspected, but as he couldn’t quite read them on her face, he settled for a gracious smile. “What better time, indeed.”
Lady Helen walked with the quiet dignity of the impeccably raised. Arthur knew she was old money and that running the children’s home was her idea of a delightful little hobby, but there was knowing, and then there was watching a woman stride through a squabbling crush of schoolchildren like a queen. Arthur followed after her, well aware that when he passed by, there was a hush of silence followed by frantic whispering. It reminded him of secondary school, of swaggering down the halls with his rugby mates, although he suspected these children were looking less for a love interest to swoon over and more for a parent, and the idea that some people might look at him and consider his ability to be their father was just altogether too horrifying to contemplate.
In front, Lady Helen swept up some stairs, her cardigan billowing after her like a gown, and then waited for him on the landing while he huffed his way after her. She wasn’t even out of breath.
“This is the boys’ floor,” she explained. She looked like she might offer him a handkerchief, actually, and Arthur quickly produced his own to dab at his forehead. No wonder all the children looked like they were starving waifs, if just getting to their bedrooms required more energy than Arthur spent at a visit to the gym.
Come to think of it, hadn’t Arthur made some kind of New Year’s resolution to go at least once a week?
Well, too late now. Arthur tucked his handkerchief away and offered Lady Helen a beatific smile.
She indicated the hallway with a nod. There were doors leading off on either side, most with a hand-drawn sign with two names and a bit of the London skyline sketched underneath. A couple of the doors were bare; Arthur let his gaze trail over them, remembering vaguely what she’d said at the charity event about not quite being at full capacity at the moment. None of the signs said ‘Merlin,’ though, and he turned to give his companion a helpless look.
"Right here," Lady Helen said, smiling, when he cast her a helpless look. She knocked on one of the doors and, after there was some sort of noise from inside, opened the door.
"Merlin?" she asked. "There's someone here to see you."
The noise was slightly more inviting this time, though not overly so. Indulgently, Lady Helen waved Arthur over and ushered him inside.
The room was smaller than Arthur had expected, though cosier. Two beds stood parallel to the hallway, separated by a large nightstand. Two chests of drawers were set against the wall opposite, and a handful of drawings and posters decorated the walls. It had a bit of hotel room flair, overall, both beds with identical covers in neutral beiges and browns, the walls a gentle cream. Arthur wouldn't have expected the room to be occupied by two little boys at all, had it not been for the mop of hair taking up space between the two beds.
The boy turned and, yes indeed, was the kid who had insulted Arthur so eloquently at the charity meeting. When he caught sight of Arthur, something swept over his face that Arthur didn't know how to read - something almost wistful, except it looked out of place and strange on such a little boy. Then he grinned and suddenly looked just like a regular kid again, except perhaps a little more goofier than his peers would, with too-large ears that a terrible haircut did nothing to hide and a wide gap between his incisors.
"Hello, Arthur," he said.
"Merlin." At Lady Helen's look, Arthur gently squeezed past her into the room and crouched down in the narrow space next to the boy. "How is everything?"
To his surprise and, admittedly, dismay, that made the kid frown. He muttered something under his breath that Arthur couldn't decipher and then turned his attention back to the toys he had apparently been occupied with before they interrupted him, two plastic knights about the size of Arthur's palms, one missing an arm.
Alarmed, Arthur cast a look at Lady Helen who, smiling serenely, was exactly no help at all.
"Fine," the kid growled eventually, into the silence. "Everything is just peachy."
"Right," Arthur said slowly. He hesitated. “Are you sure? I mean, um.” He waved his hand at the mostly bare walls, at the deserted hall outside. “Wouldn’t you rather be outside?”
Arthur shifted uncomfortably, wondering if perhaps he hadn’t been supposed to ask that. It wasn’t like he cared, in the end, but he’d been the kind of kid to run out of the house at the first break in rain and he couldn’t imagine anybody voluntarily staying indoors when the weather was this nice. But maybe that was a sign, wasn’t it, that he couldn’t even imagine that, because how on Earth was he supposed to relate to a kid that wouldn’t even leave his room if Arthur was that shit at being empathetic, and clearly, this whole thing had been a terrible idea from the start.
The sound of Lady Helen clearing her throat behind him startled him out of his morose musings.
“Merlin, why don’t you tell Mr. Pendragon why you aren’t playing outside with the others?”
The boy shot her a look over Arthur’s shoulder. When Arthur turned to look, he caught the woman’s firm nod, and Merlin’s sigh.
“I skimped out on my chores,” the boy said, face settling into a grumpy scowl.
“Well,” Arthur said, at a loss. Was he supposed to reprimand him now? Encourage him for rising up against the patriarchy? Matriarchy?
Merlin stabbed one plastic knight in the chest with the other’s lance. “I don’t need a babysitter,” he growled, and Arthur was about to rise and beg off of what was clearly an incredibly ill-advised visit when Lady Helen scoffed.
“I can’t leave you alone with a stranger, Merlin, you know that.”
Merlin scowled fiercely at that.
“However,” she added, making Arthur turn his head again and wondering if he was going to have whiplash tomorrow, “if you promise to do your chores ahead of time next week, perhaps you and Mr. Pendragon can have a chat downstairs, and I’ll be minding my own business at the other end of the room.”
Merlin deliberated on that for a moment before he rose, with one plastic toy still in each hand. “Fine,” he said. “But no listening in.”
Lady Helen held up her hands in surrender. “No listening in, I promise.”
The boy appeared a bit happier once he’d gotten his way, with he and Arthur seated catty-corner at one end of the dining hall while Lady Helen looked through some files at the other, but that didn’t make him any more talkative. Instead, he carried on with his toys, having them go through battle after half-hearted battle while Arthur sat nearby, at a loss.
He startled when Merlin dropped the toys onto the table top without warning. “You’re here,” he said.
“I am,” Arthur said slowly.
“I wasn’t sure you’d be back.” The boy gave him a shrewd look, like Arthur had somehow – against all odds – managed to exceed his expectations, but he wasn’t yet sure whether to be happy about it or suspicious.
Well. Arthur had never been particularly good at dealing with people’s low expectations, so he pointed out, a little snidely, “You know, you were the one who disappeared at the event.”
“Ah, yes.” Merlin inclined his head, chagrined. “Well, I had to run for cover once Ms. Mora made it off the stage, and then Mike and Joseph – well, let’s say I had to hide for a bit, and then the hallways were blocked, and then you’d left already, so I wouldn’t say it was entirely my fault.” He offered Arthur a beatific smile. “Would you?”
Arthur watched Merlin’s face for a moment. There was something odd about what he was saying, or perhaps how he was saying it – Arthur couldn’t really say what it was, but despite the innocent expression, he didn’t actually believe the boy.
“You’re a bit of a shifty fellow, aren’t you,” he said eventually.
Merlin slumped onto the table with a groan. “I got – overwhelmed,” he said, muffled.
Arthur looked down at the unfortunate bowl cut. Apparently whoever was responsible for hair in this place was still living in the nineties. “I suppose I can understand that,” he said. As Lady Helen had said, most children in group homes were just a little bit dysfunctional, and that someone like Merlin, who hid underneath buffet tables to get out of going on stage, was a bit more peculiar than most wasn’t such a stretch.
Merlin turned his head to stare at him, though he didn’t actually raise it. “Can you?” he said.
Arthur frowned. “Well. A little bit, yeah.”
The boy considered him for a moment. Finally, he pushed one of the soldiers at Arthur. “There,” he said. “You can hold that.”
The holding bit was apparently quite literal. Merlin kept his fingers wrapped tightly around his remaining toy but didn’t seem particularly interested in actually playing with it. Instead, he worried the table with it absently. Most of his attention was on Arthur instead.
Arthur held his toy soldier tight. He didn’t know what else to do.
Merlin blinked a few times. “Did you know King Arthur had several sons, according to legend? He killed one of them himself.”
Arthur blinked back at him. “I did not know that,” he said.
Merlin was a wealth of knowledge on King Arthur, apparently. King Arthur and Merlin, apparently, and once he’d started talking about them, it was hopeless trying to get a word in edgewise. Some of the things he said sounded a bit dodgy to Arthur – he was reasonably sure Queen Guinevere hadn’t been a maid at Camelot, and that Merlin had been quite a bit older than the king, but the kid sounded so steady, so sure, that Arthur wouldn’t have contradicted him even if he’d known it for a fact.
Merlin talked for a long time. Every once in a while he glanced at Arthur through his lashes, like he was hoping for a particular reaction, but he never seemed to find what he was looking for and Arthur didn’t really know how to react, so he kept his face open and receptive and nodded encouragingly and hoped that was enough..
The boy was never disappointed enough to stop talking, in any case. Arthur wasn’t the best with kids and quickly found himself growing bored when confronted with their meandering stories, but with Merlin, he found himself intrigued in spite of himself. When Merlin talked, ancient myths about dead kings sounded fun.
Merlin eventually started coughing, and made Arthur talk about himself for a while. Arthur didn’t really know what aspects of his life might interest a kid; work (corporate) was out, as was his family (dysfunctional) and his hobbies (non-existent). After some frantic casting about, he dredged up a memory of starring as the Green Knight in a school play once, and talked about that. Merlin’s fascination was palpable, and Arthur became so absorbed in his own story, hamming it up for the boy’s benefit, that he actually started when Lady Helen cleared her throat behind them.
“I’m afraid it’s almost time for dinner.” She softened her words with a smile. “But perhaps you’d like to visit us again sometime?”
Arthur darted a helpless look at the boy. “Um, I, yeah,” he said. “If that would be alright.”
Lady Helen smiled at that; not quite patronizing enough to be condescending, but still enough to ruffle Arthur’s feathers a little.
“I’m sure Merlin would be quite pleased to see you. Isn’t that right, Merlin?”
Merlin pretended to think that over for a second. “No,” he finally said, with a mischievous grin. “No, I don’t think I would.”
Lady Helen smiled, pained, like she wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, but Arthur found himself grinning in return.
“Careful,” he said. “If you give me that sort of ammunition, I might come by every day just to get on your nerves.”
By the time spring rolled around, Arthur was on a first-name basis with every adult working at the group home, as well as most of the kids. He also knew more about Merlin than he’d ever suspected there was to know, with a steady stream of information coming his way either through Lady Helen or the workers or the boy himself. Apparently Merlin was tall for his age, which meant he was still pretty damn tiny. The way his ribs showed when he stretched wasn’t unusual either, not for active little boys his age. His eyesight was fine, his immune system more than capable of handling the constant strain of being around a baker’s dozen of snivelling, snotty children at any given moment, his psychological development quite good given the circumstances, his hand-eye-coordination abysmal. He didn’t mind playing sports most days even though he was terrible at them but watching them was akin to torture. He liked to complain unless something was actually really wrong with him. And he thought other children were nothing but a trial to live through until he was old enough to no longer officially count as one of them.
“It’s just that everybody expects me to act like them, too,” he’d burst out in exasperation on one of their walks, when Emily chased Mike and Jamil down the street with her pink jacket raised threateningly over her head. “I’m not going to run screeching down the street just because somebody’s wearing something pink.”
Privately, Arthur thought it might be good for the kid if he allowed himself to act even remotely close to his age some of the time, but, well. Arthur had to admit he’d probably also take Merlin less seriously if he suddenly developed a burning dislike for ‘girl colours.’
Still, he had made it his personal mission to educate Merlin on the fine art of having fun. Once he’d realized that really, Merlin had no particular hobbies or interests besides ‘no other kids,’ Arthur started coming by every week or two, schedule permitting, determined to get the boy to smile every once in a while. Morgana suspected he’d found a new – adult – playmate, and Arthur was fine with the ribbing as long as it kept her out of his hair.
With a wave to Marissa on his way across the front lawn, Arthur took the stairs two at a time. He nodded at Santos, the handyman, peeked into Lady Helen’s currently empty office, and turned towards the boys’ sleeping quarters just in time to duck out of the way of an overly enthusiastic redhead shooting down the hallway.
“Hi, Mr. Pendragon!” she yelled, flying by him.
“Hi, Liz,” Arthur called after her. “Be careful.”
“She won’t be,” Merlin said. He sat crouched halfway up the stairs, arms wrapped around his knees, and stared after his fellow housemate with raised brows. After a moment, he let his head fall back to look Arthur in the eye. “She’s got a crush on the mailman. I’m serious!”
In the face of his indignation, Arthur tried to swallow down his smirk. “I believe you,” he said. “But come on. She’s what, five?”
As expected, the kid grinned at that. Arthur still hadn’t really figured out why he didn’t get along with most of his housemates, just that there was something about Merlin that kept the other kids at bay.
“Eleven,” Merlin said. “Old enough to lust after thirty-somethings destined for beer guts, apparently.”
Oh, actually, Merlin’s inability to have friends his own age was probably due to him being a crotchety old man on the inside, but no matter.
“Charming,” Arthur said. He let his temple fall against the rough wallpaper. “You wanna go outside for a bit?”
“Are you going to make me exercise?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. He seized the kid by the scruff of his neck and hauled him to his feet, despite Merlin’s laughing protest. “Footie isn’t exercise, it’s fun,” he said.
“It’s torture,” Merlin corrected him. “The most vile, awful, horrible torture imaginable.”
“I’ll torture you,” Arthur said, laughing, and sprinted after the kid when he made a break for it.
Every other Sunday, everybody at the Shelter walked over to Battersea Park, armed with brollies and footballs and hula hoops and whatever the hell two dozen children and adults needed to entertain themselves for an afternoon. Arthur got himself invited along early on. He always joined in the matches because some of the older boys were actually really good, good enough for Arthur to have to exert himself if he wanted to beat them, and one of the younger girls had the sort of potential it’d be a crime not to foster.
Merlin rarely played. He didn’t seem to mind kicking a ball around if it was just him and Arthur in the backyard, but any sort of competitive sport was too hectic for him. Instead, he kept his watchful eyes on Arthur running up and down the field, bringing over water bottles if he thought Arthur might need them and maybe talking to some of the adults if they initiated a conversation, and otherwise not really interacting with anyone.
It made Arthur feel strangely guilty to be enjoying himself when the boy looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. He made a point of trying to include Merlin in the proceedings as much as he could, and although Lady Helen and the other minders looked on approvingly, it made him feel like a sham most of the time. He couldn’t help but be awkward about the whole thing – what did he know about children, really? He hadn’t been around any on a regular basis since he and Morgana were children themselves, and neither he nor she could really claim any sort of normal for themselves. He didn’t really know how to interact with Merlin, either, feeling strange and unsure around a kid he likely would have made fun of at that age, and it was tempting to stay with the soccer kids who loved sports and loved to impress people. Those were things Arthur understood – not little boys who didn’t play games and talked to adults more than anyone else their age.
Still, it was Merlin he was there for, and so, even after a particularly spectacular game when he wanted nothing more than to trade high-fives with the kids and carry the boy who scored the final goal around the pitch a couple of times, he detached from the group and returned to Merlin.
With a groan, Arthur dropped down onto the blanket next to the kid. "That," he said proudly, "was a good game." He was panting but he didn't really care. Some of those kids were good.
Merlin nodded, eyes hidden behind overly large sunglasses with a Disney logo on the side. "It looked like fun," he said. He probably couldn't have looked any less enthused if he'd tried.
Arthur grinned, half-hoping that would get the kid to smile as well. "Are you sure you don't want to play?"
"I don't mind watching," Merlin said after a while. "It reminds me of how things used to be."
"With your mum?"
Merlin's look was all disbelief. "No." He didn't explain, though, and Arthur was suddenly too annoyed to ask.
With effort, he reached out to ruffle Merlin’s hair. The boy allowed it for a moment before he drew away, which was more than he usually did
“Not everything’s the end of the world, Merlin,” he said, and Merlin wrinkled his nose disdainfully and turned away.
March brought unusually sunny weather. They spent far longer at the park than usual, Arthur laughing and yelling with the kids while they went through game after game, and it wasn’t until someone declared they were going home and Merlin took off like a shot that Arthur realized how much quieter than usual - even quieter than usual – the kid had been.
He traded a sceptical look with Lily, one of the other minders, before he loped after him. Merlin was on a mission, but he was still a kid, and it took Arthur hardly any time at all to catch up with him.
Merlin didn’t say anything.
Arthur stayed at his side, ahead of the others, crossing Battersea Bridge Road and York Road before he got fed up with the oppressive silence. “You’re grumpy today.”
If anything, Merlin's scowl grew even fiercer. Arthur waited for a moment and, when no answer was forthcoming, prodded, "Wanna tell me why?"
After a moment's consideration, Merlin glanced over his shoulder at Mike and Niall, two of the rowdier boys in the group.
Arthur felt his hackles rise. "What'd they do?"
Merlin shook his head. "Laughed," was all he said, but Arthur had grown up with Morgana, after all, and knew just how hurtful a laugh could be.
He prodded Merlin's shoulder. "Why?" he asked, voice low.
“Because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” Merlin said bitterly. It sounded like something the victim of a mob hit might say, in words as well as tone, and that brought Arthur up short. Either he was going to have to bring up TV censorship with Lady Helen, or Merlin was the oldest seven-year-old Arthur had ever encountered.
“Shut about what?” he asked. If there’d been a murder around the home, he was going to have words with Lady Helen.
Merlin turned his head to look up at Arthur, allowing Arthur to steer him around smaller obstacles like fire hydrants and street lights with a firm hand on his arm.
“You don’t remember me,” he finally said, sounding determined but resigned.
“No, I’m pretty sure I remember you,” Arthur said. He could feel his eyebrows climbing. “Unless you’ve magically turned into someone else in the last five minutes?”
Merlin gave him a shrewd look. “Not in the last five minutes, no.”
Arthur spread his hands, honestly befuddled. “What’s the problem, then?”
“You don’t get it,” Merlin muttered.
"Okay, so enlighten me." Arthur bit down on a smile. He had the feeling he ought to be taking Merlin and his obviously very grave little boy problems more seriously than he currently was, but honestly. How dramatic could a seven-year-old's troubles really be?
Merlin gave him a skeptical look.
Arthur nodded, encouraging smile firmly in place. He could do this - he could make this boy believe he was being taken seriously, no matter how badly he wanted to ruffle his hair and tell him to grow up first.
"Well." Merlin looked down at his hands. "I - I'm a wizard."
For a moment, Arthur was speechless. Then he bit down hard on his lower lips until his mouth stopped twitching. "Really?" he said.
Merlin shot him a suspicious look, but relaxed when Arthur kept his face impressively blank.
"Yes," he said.
"Like your namesake, then?"
The boy shook his head. "Not my namesake," he said. "I am Merlin."
That did throw Arthur just the tiniest bit. "As in, the mythical adviser to King Arthur."
Merlin nodded again. "Yes," he said. "That's you."
Arthur blinked a couple of times. "What is?"
"King Arthur," Merlin said, some of his patience slipping away. "That's you."
Arthur turned an incredulous laugh into a cough. "I... Did not see that coming, I have to admit. I'm glad you told me, though. It's an important thing to know about oneself."
He'd overdone it a little bit, he realized, when Merlin's face turned suspicious one again. "Don't make fun of me," he said.
"I'm not." Arthur raised his hands in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture when Merlin glared at him. "Honestly. I appreciate you telling me - I know it must have been scary, working up the nerve."
“Not as scary as last time,” the boy admitted. “But magic was outlawed, then, so it was kind of a bigger deal, then, too.”
All in all, Arthur thought he did an admirable job of keeping his face straight. "You have magic?" he said.
Merlin looked up at him for a moment, searching Arthur's face for something he couldn't rightly identify, but eventually shook his head. "No," he said quietly. "Sometimes I think I feel it, but holding on to it is like..." He shrugged half-heartedly. "Like catching a shooting star, or something. You think you know where it is but it's gone before you can react."
"That sounds frustrating," Arthur said, and he meant it. It was also quite poetic, for such a little boy.
Merlin looked up at him again. Arthur was getting the distinct feeling that he wasn't reacting the way Merlin had figured he would, but he also didn't know what else to do.
"It is," Merlin said finally. "Especially because it used to always be there, and now it's not." The look he fixed Arthur with was extremely earnest. "I was very powerful."
Arthur nodded. "Everybody knows Merlin was the greatest wizard of all time," he said. "I don't doubt it."
Merlin’s brows furrowed. "You're taking this a lot better than I expected you to."
"I don't know whether to be flattered or offended," Arthur said.
Merlin bowed his head, flustered. “I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” he said. “I’ve just – not had good reactions, so far.”
Oh, Arthur could imagine. Kids Merlin’s age were amongst the most unforgiving creatures on the planet, and Merlin and his grand ideas of reincarnation, as well as his apparent delusions of grandeur, were bound to make him an instant outcast. No doubt Mike and Niall thought he was weird as shit. In fact, even Arthur thought he was weird as shit, but it was a strangely endearing kind of weird – something that would no doubt stop being cute if he didn’t grow out of it soon, but to have a seven-year-old boy proclaim himself a reincarnation of the great wizard Merlin was as surreal as it was adorable.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about me,” Arthur said, when Merlin cast him an uncertain glance.
They’d almost reached the home, now, and Arthur slowed his steps. He let Lady Helen unlock the front door and the children spill into the hall before he ushered Merlin in as well. Before the boy could disappear on him, however, he took Merlin’s arm.
“Listen,” he said quietly. “You said you’ve been getting a hard time because of it, because the other children don’t understand. But that’s their problem, alright? You’re brilliant, and just because they don’t get it doesn’t mean you should start hiding who you are. Okay? Never stop being yourself.”
He let go after that, caught off guard by his own pathos, and waved Merlin off. “Go on, then,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Head on up.”
The others kids headed upstairs with an apparently necessary amount of yelling and shoving, but Merlin hesitated. He folded his hands and fixed Arthur with an earnest look. "Thank you," he said formally. "You're a lot wiser than you used to be."
Despite the ridiculousness of the situation, Arthur found himself mimicking his tone, adding a little bow at the end for posterity. “Thank you,” he said. “You’ve always been quite wise, yourself.”
Merlin cut his eyes away, mouth growing tight. Arthur’s stomach dropped, since apparently he’d once again managed to upset the kid and he didn’t even know how, but before he could put his panicked thoughts into order, Merlin nodded curtly. “Thank you, sir,” he said, or something like it, before he turned and made his way up the stairs.
Arthur watched him go, heart sinking. He hadn’t been lying – Merlin was a brilliant kid, but there was no way in hell he was going to make it through school unscathed, let alone make any friends, if he went around telling tales of how he was a reborn medieval wizard. The very idea was ludicrous, and with Merlin just going to go around telling people stuff like that, his entire childhood was going to be hell.
Strangely enough, the thought of Merlin hurt and lonely made his stomach turn, and Arthur watched him drag his feet up the stairs like that alone might keep the kid safe.
He didn’t turn away, not even when he heard soft footsteps approach from behind him.
Lady Helen laid a hand on his arm. “I can put you into contact with his case worker, you know?”
Arthur would like to say that he didn’t even hesitate. That he didn’t even blink, that he said ‘Of course,’ before his brain had even properly processed the question.
Instead, he halted. “I’ll – I’ll get back to you.”
“Of course,” Lady Helen said, with a graceful incline of her head, and took her hand away.
Arthur nodded jerkily. He shoved his hands into his pockets and he walked away, walked away without ever looking back.
Arthur spent that night sitting on his couch with a beer in his hand, staring blankly at the wall above the telly.
A kid. Did he want a kid? He was at home here, in his modern high-rise with the parking garage and the work-out centre downstairs, the balcony where you could just barely see Tower Bridge in the distance. He loved his gigantic television and the beer in the fridge and his usually empty but decadent four-poster bed – his painstakingly perfected bachelor pad.
A kid would change everything. No more getting drunk over video games, or deciding to go out at one in the morning on a Saturday, or staying late at work when he’d spent the afternoon procrastinating with funny cat pictures on the internet. No more walking around naked on those rare hot days or living off take-out for weeks on end.
He’d have to move.
A kid would change everything. Merlin would change everything, every single thing Arthur loved about his unplanned lifestyle, his bouts into workaholism, his occasional nostalgic nights of partying until dawn. Merlin meant planning ahead and knowing what he was doing and having arguments over the sweets at the check-out at Tesco’s and being responsible for a tiny little person that already had plenty of issues on its own, and it was a terrible idea.
He ended up calling her at half nine in the evening, after two glasses of port because sober, he’d chickened out every time he’d tried dialing her number.
“I – Yes. Yes.”
Mithian, the case worker, was younger than Arthur had expected. She wore a sharp suit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Arthur’s office and her hair in a braided bun, and, wonder of wonders, she seemed to actually like Arthur.
“You seem like a good man,” she said, when Arthur, laden down with paperwork and informational pamphlets, managed to ask her why.
She stacked a handful of forms together and placed them on top of Arthur’s ever-growing pile. “And God knows Merlin could use a good man in his life.”
The next time Arthur was in Battersea, Lady Helen beckoned him into her office. They still hadn't told Merlin anything, but she smiled like the whole thing was a foregone conclusion. Arthur was only a little surprised when Mithian showed up a few minutes later. He was even less surprised when there were more forms to fill out and questions to answer, but eventually, Mithian laid the paperwork aside and smiled at him.
“Are there any questions you have right now?”
Arthur didn’t have to think about that. “Is his name really Merlin?”
Her lips quirked. “Certainly not,” she said. “But as far as we can tell, he’s refused to answer to anything else ever since he’s been old enough to pronounce the word.”
Lady Helen set a cup of coffee down by his elbow. "According to the neighbours, it had always been just him and his mum, and she never tried to make him go by anything else."
"She died when he was very young," Mithian added. "Merlin has spent most of his life without a patent figure of any kind, so I hope you're prepared for a challenge."
Arthur frowned. "But if he came into the system so young, wouldn't he have been adopted already?" Mithian had told him there was a shortage of foster parents, but surely a toddler shouldn't have been too hard to place.
Lady Helen pursed her lips. "Well, you've no doubt noticed that he's a little - peculiar, at times."
Arthur had, actually, but it still annoyed him to think that people would look at the kid and dismiss him out of hand just because he was, well... weird. He wrinkled his nose. "As far as I'm concerned, that's just another party of his charm."
He thought it sounded pretty good, but apparently that had been the wrong thing to say; Mithian's face fell a little.
“Arthur, have you considered that living with Merlin will be difficult at times?”
“An eight-year-old who badmouths complete strangers and thinks he’s some eighth-century wizard?” Arthur feels his lips tug upwards. “I think I got that, yeah.”
The two women traded a look.
Arthur bit back an annoyed comment. "I promise," he said, "that I know what I'm getting myself into."
"Oh honey." Mithian leaned forward to pat his arm. "Nobody ever knows what they're getting themselves into, with kids."
In the end, it was as painless as a voicemail he found after a meeting with city planning – congratulations, Mr. Pendragon, you’ve been tentatively approved as a foster parent.
Actually having Merlin come live with him involved quite a bit more legalities, parenting classes, concessions, planning, but Arthur barely even heard any of that. He’d been approved. From here on out, the hard part was over.
Actually, as Arthur found out some ten days later, the hardest part was asking Merlin for his approval – he was fairly certain the boy was going to say yes, but his palms were still sweaty and his heart still beat steadily in his chest. He hadn’t been this nervous since the first time he’d asked a girl out on a date, thirteen and spotty, and while that had felt like the most important moment of his life at that point, this was so much bigger than that. He talked himself up and he talked himself down, he spoke with Lady Helen and Mithian, he convinced Merlin to come sit in the garden with him – not for footie, just to talk – and then couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
It would have been better if they didn’t have an audience, he thought. He didn’t turn to look, but he had a feeling that at least half the kids and staff were plastered against the windows, anticipating what was coming like foster home bloodhounds. Merlin, if he noticed anything odd about the situation, didn’t seem to care; instead, he sat quietly on the bench next to Arthur and fumbled the toy soldiers he’d brought with him into half-hearted poses.
“Merlin?” Arthur prodded his side. He didn’t get eye contact, but there was an absent hum, and he wasn’t sure he would get the words out as it was. “Merlin, I’d like to ask you something.”
Merlin glanced at him for only a moment. “What?”
Arthur licked his lips. “You see, ah,” was all he managed. He spent a hysterical moment feeling like he was about to propose, which was both disturbing and frighteningly accurate. After all, was he not about to ask Merlin to share his life with him, for better or for worse, until the end of their days?
With a sigh, Arthur covered Merlin’s hands with his own. “Put the toys down for a moment,” he said.
Merlin obeyed. He turned curious eyes on Arthur then, and leaned his head to the side. “What is it?”
Arthur licked his lips again, cleared his throat. “You like hanging out with me, right?” he asked. “You like me.”
Merlin tilted his head to the other side. “For certain values of the word ‘like,’ yes.”
It took Arthur a moment to realize he was teasing. Usually, he would have responded by rubbing his knuckles over Merlin’s scalp, but it didn’t seem appropriate now, so he quirked his lips a little instead.
Merlin, who clearly had been expecting a different reaction, stared at him.
“That’s good,” Arthur said. “Because I like you a lot, and I like hanging out with you, and I had a talk with some people, and well.” Swallowing, he withdrew his hands from Merlin’s and settled them in his lap instead. “How would you like to come live with me?”
The boy didn’t react right away. While Arthur held his breath, Merlin picked up his soldiers and contemplated first one, then the other. “Okay,” he said quietly.
Arthur frowned. “'Okay,’ or, ‘Yes, I want to?’”
Merlin looked up. There was a brilliant smile on his face. “Yes, I want to.”
Mithian was actually quite an attractive woman, Arthur mused when he showed up at her office with his last parenting class completion certificate in hand. He’d hit on her if he was willing to ruin his chances of getting his hands on Merlin. But her smile was lovely, warmer than ever now that the ball was really rolling, and she didn’t even seem to mind telling him that practically everything in his life would have to change, from his working hours to his occasional forays into dating.
Arthur, stupidly, found himself smiling back at her, even when she looked up from his file with a crease between her brows and said, “You know your current living arrangement won’t work with Merlin there?”
Arthur nodded. “We’ll move into a house,” he said.
Mithian, forehead creasing, gave him an evaluating look. “A move will eat up additional funds, you do realize?”
Arthur felt the corners of his mouth curl up. He eased the notepad from her fingers, jotted down a number, and handed it back to her with a flourish.
Mithian blinked. “What’s this?”
“My salary,” Arthur said smoothly. “Monthly,” he added, and took great delight in watching her go a little green. “We’ll move into a house.”
Arthur got permission to take Merlin house shopping with him, and for several weeks in a row, they spent their Saturdays driving with the estate agent all over London in search of a good place to live. Most of them were terrible, even with a financial limit that had had stars sparkling in the agent’s eyes – too small, too big, terrible conditions, terrible neighbourhood, thirty minutes’ walk from the nearest tube station.
“You have a car,” the agent hesitantly pointed out, and clearly regretted it a moment later when Arthur launched into an automatic rant about carbon emissions, gas usage, and the horror of driving in London in general.
Arthur was just about starting to despair when, one afternoon, she met them at the agency’s door with an incredibly pleased look on her face, something she managed to make look charming rather than smug.
“I think I have something for you,” she said, and pointed them to her car.
Arthur had barely laid eyes on the place when he started to get the feeling she was right. She’d brought them to a charming little townhouse in Canons Park, thankfully separate from its neighbours, with recent renovations and on a quiet street. There was space for Arthur’s seldom-used car at the front and a small garden accessible from the living room through a sliding door at the back. There’s a spacious kitchen, too. Together with the living room, it made up most of the lower floor.
A rickety staircase that creaked with every step headed up to the second story. Merlin, of course, stomped up and down three times before he discovered the thrill of the upstairs bedrooms. Arthur heard him clomp down the hall, yelling, “Hey, there’s-“, then, more faintly, “This is wicked,” then, with increasing volume, “Arthur, you have to check this out!”
Arthur looked up to see Merlin practically slam into the landing’s railing.
He smiled up at him wryly. “I take it you approve?”
Merlin, like he sometimes did, suddenly seemed to switch personalities entirely. “Oh, you know,” he said with a shrug. “It’s alright.”
Arthur didn’t bother disguising his grin. With pointed leisure, he made his way up the stairs while Merlin shifted on the landing with increasing impatience. Dimly, he heard the agent comment that she’d let them have a look around undisturbed, but Arthur didn’t care about that very much – not when he had Merlin tugging on his hand, trying and failing not to look excited.
Merlin’s birthday was in September. Arthur had hoped to have custody by then, so he might be able to take Merlin somewhere nice to celebrate the occasion, but as he hadn’t yet been cleared, another group outing was the best Lady Helen could do. Two weeks, she and Mithian had said. In two weeks, he could take Merlin home.
They walked all the way to the Tate Britain to get ice cream, Arthur’s treat. None of the kids seemed to care very much that it was Merlin’s birthday, and Merlin didn’t seem to care very much about the other kids. He stuck close to Arthur’s side the entire way.
With his mouth sticky with chocolate, he told Arthur some long and meandering story about that time ‘Elyan’ had stolen a pie from the kitchens and everything that happened thereafter, and only stopped when Nicolette overheard and started laughing.
He didn’t say anything else after that.
Arthur dropped his cone in the nearest bin, appetite lost. “Two weeks,” he said.
Merlin nodded. “Two weeks,” he said quietly.
It ended up being closer to four. By the time Mithian called him to say he could pick Merlin up that Saturday if he liked, Arthur felt like he’d walked grooves into their new living room, and he’d possibly worn through the skin of his lower lip with his teeth. Still, he managed a perfectly civil conversation, thanked Mithian for the news, for her dedication and support, promised his utmost dedication to Merlin’s welfare (again), and wished her a pleasant week.
Then he dropped his five-hundred pound phone, yelled his joy out to the heavens, collapsed on his recently displaced couch and just about had a panic attack.
He barely remembered the rest of the week. Meetings and briefings and emails rushed by in one large, corporate blur, and then Saturday morning crept along in Technicolor glory. Arthur was aware of every detail; his breakfast cereal, the shirt he had to wear because he'd stained his favorite with printer ink two days before; the news show about the cost-benefit of alternative energy that he'd usually have watched with obsessive interest and now could hardly pay attention to. He wondered what Merlin was doing - was it just an ordinary morning for him, or did they have a ritual for these sorts of things? Did he have a party last night? Arthur hadn’t actually talked to him since everything had been approved, and that part made him infinitely nervous. What if Merlin had gotten cold feet? What if Arthur had gotten cold feet, and he just hadn’t noticed it yet?
Driving down to Battersea at least gave him something to do. He didn’t have the energy to curse at the cabbies and the buses and the tourists who somehow thought driving through London in their imported cars was a good idea, but at least they gave him something else to concentrate on than his own ever-circling thoughts. Thinking about traffic was preferable to that uncertain limbo he’d found himself in that morning. Anything was better than thinking about Merlin, or himself, or what the hell Arthur thought he was doing with his life.
Lady Helen opened the door with a smugly pleased smile Arthur was fairly sure she wouldn’t have allowed to remain on her face if she’d been aware of it.
Still, it made him feel a little better, knowing that she so clearly approved. He let her usher him into the entrance hall, then told him to wait while she fetched ‘the boy.’ With the sound of her heels fading on the stairs, Arthur cast an uncertain look around. He had a bit of an audience, though not as much as he’d been expecting; Santos gave him a furtive thumbs up, and Marissa and Lily were loitering quite unsubtly by the office doors, but none of the kids were there. Arthur had expected the whole lot of them to be there, to gawp, and he couldn’t deny he was glad they weren’t there. He wasn’t sure what they felt about him and Merlin, but no matter how they reacted – disappointment at not having been chosen, envy, scorn, anger, resignation; even if they were legitimately glad to see Merlin go, Arthur didn’t think he’d be able to stand it.
Lady Helen’s heels, hitting the ground slower than before, alerted him to her return several seconds before she came back into view. For a wild moment, Arthur thought the lack of a second set of footfalls meant Merlin had decided not to come with him after all, until the woman and her charge came into view and he realized the boy couldn’t be heard because his steps were soft, hesitant, dragging his feet as much as you could when you were ushered down a winding set of stairs.
It wasn’t a very encouraging sight.
Still, Lady Helen had a suitcase with her, and she urged Merlin forward halfway through the hall. She set the luggage down and then retreated to her co-workers at the office door, keeping a pointed eye on the proceedings from an equally pointed distance.
Merlin - a thick, handsomely bound book clutched to his chest - stared at Arthur.
Arthur swallowed. He waited for a while, keenly aware of their audience, the silence in the hall, someone yelling upstairs. Of Merlin’s eyes on him, the way he licked his lips and then didn’t say anything.
Slowly, he knelt down on the ground to meet the kid at eye-level. “Hey,” he said quietly, wary of chasing the boy away.
Instead, Merlin shuffled closer with his eyes shyly turned away, and came to a hesitant stop several feet away. “Hullo,” he said.
“Hello,” Arthur said cautiously. He could feel his heart beating painfully fast, now that the moment was finally here – some sort of strange mixture between excitement and nervousness, because what if this didn’t work out? What if it did?
Silence fell. Arthur knew there were eyes on them, could feel them prickling at the back of his neck and the top of his head, but he wasn’t willing to rush this. He’d never claimed to be a particularly sensitive individual, but he refused to rush a child into a decision like that, no matter how uncomfortable Arthur might be.
When Merlin shifted on his feet, the movement drew Arthur’s attention back to the book in his arms, and his white-knuckled grip on it.
“What have you got there?” he asked, his voice soft.
Hesitantly, Merlin offered him the cover to read – Arthur of Albion. “They give one to every kid who leaves,” he said quietly. “Usually it’s fairy tales.” He shot a dark look at Lady Helen. “But not this time, because they think they’re funny.”
“I think it’s kind of nice, actually,” Arthur said, and cursed himself when Merlin immediately fell silent.
He shifted from foot to foot, darting a solitary glance at Arthur before he curled back in on himself and the book in his arms. He certainly didn’t look like a boy ecstatic about his new home – more like a boy marching off to face an evil stepmother, or something of the sort, and that more than anything managed to unleash a fresh wave of doubt in Arthur, as well.
He didn’t think he’d be able to ever get the words to cross his lips, but somehow he managed to say, with a voice that was mostly steady, “You know, it’s okay to change your mind.”
The horrified look the kid shot him was more than a little gratifying. “No,” he said loudly. He fell silent again a moment later, fidgeting uselessly with the hem of his shirt. “I’m not,” he said, then broke off once more. He shot Arthur a quick look, then let his eyes flicker away again. “It’s just – I waited a long time.”
Arthur’s heart clenched painfully. It felt like he himself had been waiting for sheer eternities for this moment, like all he’d ever done was wait for this, for years, decades, centuries – but a year ago, he hadn’t even known Merlin existed. Merlin, on the other hand, had spent most of his life waiting for someone to come for him, to get him out of here, and to him, the many years of his short life must have seemed never-ending.
Arthur swallowed heavily before he produced a smile – a bit sad, perhaps, but heartfelt, and he hoped Merlin could see that. Quietly, he said, “Don’t you think you’ve waited enough now?”
Merlin’s lips parted soundlessly. He took a careful step closer, and another. His mouth opened, but no sound would come out, and it seemed to take painfully long moments until he forced his head into a jerky nod. He didn’t return Arthur’s smile, but considering the state he seemed to be in, that was probably asking too much anyway.
With cracking knees, Arthur pushed to his feet, intending to say goodbye to their audience. He glanced down in surprise when a moment later, Merlin pressed his forehead into Arthur’s stomach, neck tilted at an awkward angle and eyes firmly closed.
He didn’t reach out for a hug, didn’t even seem willing to lighten his iron grip on his book, so Arthur didn’t hug him back. He had a feeling Lady Helen and Marissa and Lily were all waiting for it, but Arthur had stopped letting other people dictate his actions a long time ago. Instead, he cupped the back of Merlin’s head and scratched ever so lightly at the boy’s scalp.
“Come on, kid. Let’s go home.”
Arthur, because he’d figured that Merlin’s arrival should warrant something special, decided on some sort of roast and mash, traditional stuff, for a ‘welcome to your new home’ dinner. Really, you put the meat in the oven, how hard could it be?
Arthur made Merlin climb on a kitchen stool and fan the smoke away from the shrilly blaring smoke detector while he inspected the damage. The bird had turned to crispy black charcoal, and when he checked the potatoes, they’d fallen apart in the water. With a sigh, Arthur dumped both and surveyed what else they had stowed away in the cupboards.
He gave Merlin an assessing look. “How do you feel about beans on toast?”
Merlin, strangely enough, turned out not to be a picky eater. Sure, he made faces like he was handling raw slugs instead of beans from a can, but, when served with a slice of warm toast and a can with a fork in it, he ate without a word of complaint. Sure, the people from Arthur’s parenting classes were probably turning in their – not graves, since he assumed they hadn’t died in the past couple of months. Beds, perhaps? – but he figured it was sustenance first, proper nutrition second, and managing to feed the kid something edible without poisoning him or lighting him on fire was most likely a step in the right direction. A small step, but a step nonetheless.
After the first round, Arthur got up to make more toast, feeling less like an enormous failure than he had thirty minutes ago. It was strange, of course, hearing the kid making happy noises behind him, humming and kicking his feet in a way nobody who came to visit Arthur ever did. The counter was different from his old one, at the flat he’d lived in for the better part of a decade, and the walls, and the windows, and everything had changed the moment he’d decided to have Merlin be a part of his life. It was startling, and not altogether pleasant, but it was the way things were going to be now, and Arthur was okay with that.
Epiphany over with, he returned to the table and laid the painfully hot slices on Merlin’s plate before siphoning one off for himself. “Go on,” he said. “When Mithian comes to check on us, I want you to have gained at least five stone.” He laughed when Merlin rolled his eyes. “If I don’t have to roll you to her, I’m not doing it right.”
Merlin spooned a few more beans out of the tin and, abruptly, smiled shyly at Arthur.
“I like this,” he said. “S’nice.”
He gazed expectantly – anxiously – at Arthur, who couldn’t help but smile back. He bumped their shoulders together and, as he reached for the tea pot, said, “Me too, kid. Me too.”
Merlin slept sprawled out. He somehow covered the entirety of his bed, in the room he’d picked out that Arthur had gotten together but left pitifully undecorated. He had one arm flung across his pillow and the other stuffed below it. His hair was falling into his face and his mouth hung open. One foot dangled over the edge, but his sleep-soft expression registered no discomfort.
He slept like a child.
It was easy to forget, sometimes, that for all his big words and overly flowery imagination, Merlin was a child. A child that Arthur was now responsible for, nothing but Arthur standing between him and the big bad world, a thought so abruptly terrifying that it sent Arthur’s heart hammering away in his chest. He was determined to protect him, to do everything in his power to keep him safe, but that didn’t make the thought any easier to bear.
With a sigh, Arthur flicked the light switch and plunged Merlin’s room into darkness. There was a laundry list of things he had to take care of if he really wanted to do this parenting thing right, and leaning against the doorway, staring at Merlin while he slept, wasn’t one of them.
“So we’ll be taking the tube together in the mornings,” Arthur said, trailing a finger along the grey line.
Merlin knelt next to him on the sofa, so close Arthur could feel his breath on his arm, inspecting the map spread out on the coffee table with a critical eye.
“…All the way to Swiss Cottage, and then I’ll keep going until Canary Wharf.”
Merlin nodded slowly. He bit his lip, and fidgeted a little bit, and started when Arthur poked him in the shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
The kid shot him a look. “Are they gonna think it’s weird I’m starting after half-term?”
The honest answer was ‘probably.’ But then the kids in his class were likely going to think Merlin was weird regardless of when he started, simply by virtue of Merlin being the kind of kid who identified more with an old man from ancient legends than whoever was big on the Disney Channel at the moment.
“I don’t think they’ll care too much,” Arthur decided on, in the end. “I think you’ll be fine.”
Merlin hummed, unconvinced, and Arthur felt a sudden stab of guilt that he’d simply decided for Merlin to switch schools – because this new one was more convenient for Arthur, without even considering that starting at a whole new school with completely new classmates in the middle of term would be extremely inconvenient for Merlin.
With his heart in his throat, he asked gently, “Would you have wanted to stay at your old school?”
To his relief, there was no hesitation when Merlin shook his head. “They were stupid,” he said.
“Oh, good.” Arthur ducked his head to hide his relief. He’d chosen St. Paul’s Primary School fairly carefully, with Mithian’s help, and considered everything from available tutors to a lack of tie in the school uniform because Merlin would probably manage to strangle himself with it within days, but he’d never actually asked Merlin what he wanted. Apparently he had a ways to go yet as far as consideration towards others went. It was an inherited trait – Uther, when he’d decided on what he thought best, steamrollered over everything in his path. Arthur had always tried not to do that himself, but apparently determination wasn’t everything.
“Anyway,” he said. “School ends at three, but I have to be at work until five or so, so we’re going to get someone to pick you up from school and get you home – make you something to eat if you’re hungry, help with homework, whatever.”
Merlin looked less than impressed, so he added, “Someone fun. Okay? You get to veto. Within reason.”
Merlin’s eyes, which had lit up at the promise of veto-power, narrowed unhappily.
Something in the hall hit the ground with a thud.
“Did your new house eat you, or something? I swear to God you haven’t answered the phone in days.”
Arthur had grown so used to Morgana barging in wherever and whenever she wanted over the years that her sudden commentary barely registered. What caught his attention, however, was the way Merlin stiffened at his side, silent but so violently Arthur wasn’t convinced the kid hadn’t strained something.
Morgana, in her favourite black dress, appeared in the doorway. Her hair was open and willowy and she was as pale as ever even though he knew she’d gone to Egypt with her newest boy toy just a couple of weeks ago. She leaned into the room with her hands on either side of the doorway, lips already parted to go on, and then she caught sight of Merlin and froze.
“I didn’t know you’ve started babysitting,” she finally said.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “This is Merlin, Morgana, I told you I was thinking about fostering.”
“Yeah.” Morgana didn’t stop staring. “I just didn’t think you were serious.”
Merlin, when Arthur cast him a look, wasn’t taking the surprise visit too well. He’d gone paler than Arthur had ever seen him, even in the early spring when he’d only left the house when Arthur dragged him out. When Morgana came a step closer, he shuffled behind Arthur to hide himself from view.
It felt fairly shallow, but Arthur still got a thrill from that; that Merlin trusted him to protect him from the scary intruder. He leaned his head towards the kid to catch his attention and smiled.
“This is my sister Morgana,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about her, okay? She stopped biting people a long time ago.”
Morgana lifted a haughty finger. “I’ll have you know that I only bit you when you deserved it,” she said, but her gaze drifted back to Merlin a moment later. Or his hair, anyway, because just about everything else of the boy had shrunk behind Arthur. She rose onto her tiptoes and craned her neck, and when that only made the kid retreat even farther, she sighed and settled back down.
“I’ll go make myself some tea,” she told Arthur. “You have until then to come up with satisfactory answers.”
She swanned into the kitchen with a haughty flip of her hair. Arthur rolled his eyes at her retreating back. He scoffed, and then looked around for the boy, and had to keep turning and turning his head because Merlin had practically disappeared entirely behind Arthur’s back.
It was a sobering sight.
“Hey,” Arthur said quietly. He lifted his arm and, when Merlin made to draw back again, settled it around the kid’s shoulders.
After a hesitant pause, the boy relaxed into the touch.
“You really don’t have to be scared of her, okay? She acts tough, but she’s a good person at heart.”
After a moment’s consideration, Merlin knee-walked closer and tugged on Arthur’s collar. When Arthur turned, he cupped a hand around Arthur’s ear and whispered, “It’s just because I can’t do anything, you know? I know she couldn’t touch me otherwise.”
Arthur blinked a couple of times. “Right!” he said after a moment. “Listen, if she freaks you out that much, you don’t have to hang around, okay? You can head upstairs or something. Barricade yourself in your bedroom.” He grinned. “I’ll hold her off, I promise.”
At the kid’s sceptical look, he added, “She’s not going to do anything to me, Merlin, really. She’s my sister.”
Merlin stared at him.
With a roll of his eyes, Arthur pushed him towards the stairs. “I promise to yell really loudly if she tries to strangle me, okay? Go on.”
Merlin, clearly unconvinced, tottered off towards the stairs. He nearly tripped over his own feet because he wasn’t willing to take his eyes off the kitchen doorway for even a second. Arthur kept a straight face until the moment the boy was out of sight, and then he allowed himself a moment of unrestrained grinning before he swallowed it down and went to find Morgana.
She was still rummaging around with the tea. Arthur had vaguely suspected her of giving him time to talk things over with Merlin, uncharacteristically sensitive of her as that might be, but, given how flustered she seemed to be, perhaps she was trying to get herself settled, instead. She jumped when she caught sight of him, sending her favourite mug clattering into the sink, and startled again when Arthur gently pushed her aside.
“Why don’t I do that?” he prompted. “Before you send my kitchen up in flames.”
Morgana stepped aside. Arthur fixed tea for the both of them, pretending not to notice the way she was staring at him. “Sugar?” he asked, like he didn’t know exactly, and pushed the sugar bowl and cup over to her.
“You know,” Morgana said slowly, with the spoon clinking gently against the porcelain, “your sudden decision to move makes a lot more sense now.”
Arthur shrugged, embarrassed. Okay, so he shouldn’t have kept the whole thing from her. He probably should have told his father at some point, too, but, well. Arthur could stand to procrastinate for a couple more days before he faced that particular dragon.
“He seems like a sweet kid.” She took a calculating sip of her tea. “A little jumpy, perhaps.”
“Maybe it’s because you terrified the almighty dickens out of him.”
She managed to actually look contrite at that. Of course she rallied a moment later, saying, “Well, he caught me a little off guard, too, you know. You never even said anything!”
She had a point there. Arthur pulled a face. He ran his hands over his face and confessed a muffled, “I didn’t want anybody to talk me out of it.”
“Well,” Morgana said, with the sweet levity Arthur had learned early on to dread. “Why ever would you be worried about somebody trying to talk you out of something like that? It’s almost like you knew it was a bloody ridiculous idea.”
Arthur winced at her sudden increase in tone, but instead of cowering under her temper like he usually did – eventually – he found a spark of anger to thrust back at her. “Will you keep your voice down?” he hissed back. “Think about me what you’d like, but you’re not going to make Merlin doubt his place here, not while you’re swanning around my house.”
For a moment, he thought Morgana would deliver a stinging retort. Instead she deflated. “I don’t mean to,” she said. “I just- Arthur, you never said anything.”
It wasn’t strictly true – Arthur had, in fact, mentioned hypothetical adoption to his family, met disbelief at every turn, and decided to let the matter drop in favour of turning the hypothetical into facts. He’d known even at the time that it wasn’t the smartest course of action, but the whole business with Merlin had been staggering enough without bringing his reluctant family into the mix.
“He’s important to me,” Arthur said, when the silence dragged on too long to be comfortable.
It probably said a lot about his family that, instead of berating him further for his secrecy, especially because Merlin was apparently so important to him, Morgana’s expression turned soft and sympathetic. Those were Pendragons for you – Heaven forbid any of them ever admit to having feelings.
Merlin, when Arthur went up to check on him, had curled up on his bed in the corner the room with his Arthurian legends – no great surprise there. He didn’t seem to be reading them, though, just sitting with the closed book in his lap. He watched Arthur’s advance into the room warily, but obligingly scooted over when Arthur took a seat next to him.
“Hello,” Arthur said.
The boy looked at the book.
Arthur counted to fifteen in his head, and when Merlin had yet to answer, said, “Do you want to tell me what your problem is with Morgana, perhaps?”
Merlin’s decided shake of his head did manage to make him laugh.
“Fair enough,” he said. Despite Merlin’s aborted noise of protest, he lifted the book from his lap and – carefully – leafed through the first couple of pages. “Anything good in here?” he asked. He didn’t think he’d ever read to anyone before, not outside of being forced to read aloud at school, but that was a thing parents did, right? They read to their kids?
Merlin, reluctantly, unfurled enough to point out a specific page. “I like that one,” he said.
Arthur flipped to the page in question and eyed the illustration with his eyebrows raised. A young Arthur was about to pull the sword from the stone, while a bearded man in severe robes looked on. If you asked Arthur, his namesake looked like a right twat in his tights and hat, but Merlin didn’t seem to care much about that. Instead, he jabbed a finger at the wizard, nailing him right in the thigh even though he was mostly looking out the window.
Arthur raised his eyebrow at the old geezer in his patterned cloak. “That’s Merlin, yeah.”
“Yeah,” Merlin said. He flipped a couple of pages ahead, past a couple of pictures, until he came to one of a hooded figure, a woman with dark tresses and an intense, pale stare. “That’s Morgana.”
Arthur considered the picture; he could feel Merlin’s eyes on him and figured that if he wanted to convince the kid of anything, he was going to have to feign some seriousness. Even if he really wanted to knock Merlin’s head with the book until he remembered that it was a story, for God’s sake, with pictures by some guy who wasn’t even remotely alive at the time of the potentially real Merlin, and Merlin-the-kid lived in an entirely different century and was honestly getting to sound the tiniest bit insane.
And alright, fine, he could see how the picture could be frightening. “Well,” he said slowly, mind whirring. “This is Morgana the legend, though, right? Not my sister.”
Merlin gave him an unimpressed look, and Arthur hurried on with, “You know. She’s not actually a thousand years old.”
The kid had a speculative glint to his eyes for far longer than Arthur was strictly comfortable with, because he was sure thirty seemed ancient to a child of Merlin’s age, but there was still kind of a difference of, oh, a millennium or so.
Eventually, though, Merlin shook his head. “No,” he said. “Everybody’s…” He waved a hand and didn’t elaborate, and Arthur took a relieved breath.
“So it’s kind of like everyone’s getting a second shot at it, right? You, me, Morgana…? We’re not forced to make the same mistakes all over again.”
Merlin considered that for a moment before he said, voice small, “I guess not,” and Arthur reached over to jostle his shoulder.
“Maybe you could try to give her a chance this time around then? I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be judged on things you did a thousand years ago.” As soon as the words are out, Arthur felt a surge of pride. He sounded like an adult. It was easily the most gratifying experience he’d had all week.
And even better, it actually seemed to work, because Merlin wavered. “I guess,” he mumbled, and suffered through Arthur scrubbing a rough hand through his hair. He looked up at Arthur through his lashes – it wasn’t cute or innocent, not with that stubborn set of his jaw. “If she tries to poison me, all bets are off.”
Taking care of a child, Arthur found himself realizing over the next couple of days, was less about knowing what you were doing – because you didn’t – and more about preventing every foreseeable disaster so you had time to deal with all the horror scenarios you hadn’t seen coming. He was gladder than ever for the time off that Merlin's half-term break provided, because it left him with just enough time to buy school supplies, wander around the shops with a list of approved foods in his hand, and Merlin-proof the entire house. He needed the time, too, because all the time they’d spend with feach other once Merlin went back to school and Arthur went back to work – early mornings and evenings – was now allotted for getting a cranky Merlin out of bed and fed, or learning to cook edible food, or learning to cook food Merlin was actually willing to eat, or trying not to call Mithian in a panic every time the boy so much as twitched.
It was exhausting, always having at least half an eye on Merlin, and keeping an eight-year-old boy entertained was actually kind of painful, especially since the kid didn’t actually seem to like doing anything his peers did. He did like telling his stories, though, and could usually be distracted from whatever he was doing with a little bit of prodding, though he never seemed to be quite satisfied with Arthur’s reactions.
He was also less than pleased at the thought of a nanny picking him up from school and staying with him until Arthur made it home, but if Arthur budged on that he might as well turn his parenting license right back in, so he ignored Merlin’s pouting and spent an entire afternoon on the couch watching mind-numbing cartoons when the agency could send someone by.
Freya was mousy until she smiled, and then she was simply stunning. Merlin took to her like a duck took to water, too, despite his protests. He refused to even look at her half the time, but Arthur had seen the way he tugged on the flow-y sleeves of her hippie Baja cardigan the moment her attention left him.
Freya, Arthur decided after an afternoon of watching her calmly deny Merlin everything Arthur seemed to cave on, like junk food for dinner and extra telly before bed, without a single tantrum on the boy’s end, was like magic. According to her, it was because she was a future professional. Apparently that meant she was a grad student in child psychology, with all evening classes that explained both her willingness and her ability to babysit Merlin every afternoon, so Arthur felt fairly confident in leaving Merlin in her care. He wouldn't manage to run her off on the first day, at least. Hopefully. Perhaps Arthur could bribe her with hazard pay.
Arthur managed very neatly to get out of taking Merlin shopping for new clothes – because the shelters tried their best to clothe the kids well, but there was no denying that all of Merlin’s jeans were a good four, five centimetres too short – by sending him off with Morgana and her shiny fuel-nightmare of a car. It’d be good for the boy, he figured, to see that Morgana was perfectly lovely when she wanted to be, and it would be good for Arthur not to stand around shops all day hating his life.
On the downside, it meant that Arthur sat around on his recently supplanted couch, staring at an unfamiliar living room and wondering what on Earth he thought he was doing, taking on the care and feeding of a child when he couldn’t even make himself take said child clothes shopping. He watched Gordon Ramsey be semi-constructive for a while, accidentally saw five minutes of a rerun of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings before he got disgusted with himself and the beeb, and then settled for watching the digital display on the DVD player switch and switch and switch again. A perfect opportunity to contemplate all the ways sending Merlin and Morgana off together had been one of the worst decisions of his short foray into parenthood so far. Arthur had never considered himself a particularly creative person, and yet his imagination was running wild. It was the worst kind of hell, and when he heard Morgana’s key scrape in the lock, he found himself on his feet without even thinking about it.
Merlin was first through the door. He shot Arthur a shrewd look before dropping whatever bags he was holding at Arthur’s feet. Arthur couldn’t tell if it was petulant or declaratory, like a cat might bring in a mauled mouse, but he could tell just from looking at him that the kid was exhausted, pale and bleary-eyed and casting longing looks at the stairs.
“Hello,” Arthur said.
Merlin whispered something, but Arthur was distracted from asking him to repeat himself when Morgana struggled through the door practically loaded with bags, and by the time Arthur had helped her divest herself of her shopping, the boy had disappeared.
Arthur swallowed down a sigh. “I hope most of these are yours,” he told Morgana. “Because with these shops,” he said, nudging a Stella McCartney bag with his toes, “you would have blown the budget with a single bag.”
Morgana handed him his credit card back with a flourish. “Not a pence more than you okayed, brother dear,” she said. “The rest I paid for, because I refuse to let my new nephew wander around dressed like a street urchin.” She laid a dramatic hand on her heart. “Think of what the papers would say.”
“We don’t actually make the society pages,” Arthur reminded her. Sure, Vivienne and Uther together made quite the power couple, and they did show up at Paparazzi-relevant events, but it wasn’t like they were royalty, or anything.
Morgana rolled her eyes. “I have friends, and so do you,” she said. “And these people are filthy rich and expect us to dress the part also, so I’m just making your life easier in the long run. And besides,” she added, pointing down at the very same bag Arthur had singled out, “I made sure they’re all Arthur-approved brands, and I paid for them all, so there is nothing for you to complain about.”
“Right.” Arthur sighed again. He was weirdly exhausted, even though the most tiring thing he’d done all day was throw left-over pizza in the microwave. Speaking of – “Merlin?” he called. “How d’you feel about food?”
Upstairs, a door opened. Merlin didn’t actually come into view, but he heard shuffling footsteps, and then a small, “Yeah, sure.”
Arthur frowned, taking a step towards the staircase.
Morgana caught his sleeve. “Hey,” she said quietly. She waited until the footsteps upstairs had faded away, and then she said, voice low, “Go easy on him tonight, okay? I tried my best, but I think he still spent the better part of the day terrified.”
She smiled wryly when she let him go. Arthur knew her well enough to tell that she was hurt, even if she would never admit it, and caught her hand before she could get away. He pressed a quick kiss to her knuckles.
“Thank you,” he said, letting his earnest appreciation bleed through.
With a reluctant smile, she tugged her hand away. “You’re not supposed to actually kiss me,” she said.
“I’m not actually a medieval knight,” Arthur reminded her. “Do you want to stay for dinner?”
Morgana ran her hand through her hair, sending it tumbling over her shoulders in a move worthy of a shampoo commercial. “I’d better not,” she said, with a regretful glance at the ceiling. “I think Merlin’s had about all of me he can take.”
“He’s going to have to get used to you eventually,” Arthur reminded her. “You’re my sister, after all. I plan on you being around for a long time.”
She smiled, charmed despite herself in a way Arthur only occasionally managed to coax out of her, but shook her head again. “He doesn’t have to get used to me right now,” she said. “I actually want him to like me, Lord help me, and that might just take a bit of time.” She chucked Arthur underneath the chin. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m older and wiser, remember?”
“And uglier,” Arthur added automatically, and she smiled at him.
“And busier.” She tugged her clutch underneath her arm. “I’m off. Keep me in the loop, will you?”
Arthur waved her off. He waited until the door had clicked shut behind her before surveying the mess of bags at his feet with his hands on his hips. If she’d wanted to be truly helpful, Morgana might have remembered to buy a second dresser, as well.
Merlin, Arthur was quick to find out, was the most accident prone child in the history of accidents. He tripped over things, bumped into things, dropped things, and fell off things. He scalded his tongue on his tea, cut his fingers when trying to chop vegetables, and on one memorable occasion, tried to get a spoon out of the drawer to eat his cereal with and ended up with a giant bleeding gash in his arm.
“I have no idea what happened,” Arthur pleaded with the doctor on duty at the emergency clinic. “I know it looks bad, but I’d never hurt him. I don’t know how he does it.”
Doctor Finna twisted her mouth like she was trying not to laugh. “I’ve called his social worker,” she said. “She’s on her way. I’m sure everything will sort itself out.”
Arthur spent the next half-hour on hot coals, shifting around in his plastic seat while behind the curtain, Merlin told the nurse patching him up half-coherent stories. She didn’t seem to mind, at least, making noncommittal but compassionate noises, and kept saying things like, “You can go home soon enough,” and “It’s not bad at all,” that Arthur had the sneaking suspicion were for his benefit far more than Merlin’s.
It didn’t help much – he was a mess of nerves by the time Mithian showed up, looking like she’d thrown a blazer over her outfit to take it from day-off to professional, which didn’t do anything to improve Arthur’s mood. He would manage to have her called to the A&E on the one day she didn’t actually have to work.
At least she didn’t seem upset. Calm and cool, she had Arthur describe what happened, and then talked to Doctor Finna for a while, and then the nurse drew back the curtain and ushered Merlin over to them. The kid was pale, bandages swelling his arm to twice its size, but he lit up when he saw them waiting for him.
“Arthur,” he exclaimed, delighted, like he’d forgotten entirely that Arthur was there.
Arthur couldn’t quite stay mad at him, though, not when a moment later Merlin pitched face-first into his stomach and clung there, and not when Arthur, halfway through wrapping his arms around the kid, caught Mithian’s approving look.
With a groan, he slid his hands into Merlin’s armpits and lifted him up to rest against his chest. “Come on,” he said. “Time to go.”
Arthur took two days off work, and then asked Freya to hang around for one more, and then spent the weekend watching Merlin alternately whine about his injuries and run around like nothing could possibly bother him. They played video games for a while, switching to movies when that proved too frustrating, and then to junk food when the movies proved too much temptation for unwanted commentary. Merlin, Arthur quickly figured out, was a lot less likely to share his opinion on anything and everything when he was stuffed to the teeth with snacks.
Not that he didn’t try. Arthur had never met anyone so determined to continue speaking even with his entire mouth full of food. Merlin was a slob. It was horrifying.
Finally, in the middle of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Merlin passionately and barely intelligibly dissecting Indy’s life choices, Arthur burst out with, “You know, Vivienne always used to say that multitasking was a fine and admirable skill to have, except for when you’re eating.”
Merlin stuffed another handful of crisps into his mouth and grinned when Arthur cringed. “Who’s Vivienne?”
“My stepmother,” Arthur said. He reached over to tug the bag from Merlin’s greasy fingers and wiped crumbs from the kid’s cheek with his thumb. “Morgana’s mother.”
He could see the confusion on the boy’s face, which wasn’t fine because everybody got confused. So he tossed a crisp into his mouth and said, “She and my father were married before he met my mother, and after my mother died he went and married her again. She took him back, but she’s still bitter about it.”
“Your family’s whacky,” Merlin said.
Grinning, Arthur reached over and scrubbed his hand through the kid’s hair. “That’s good, though. You’ll fit right in.”
Christmas time had, in recent years, mostly passed Arthur by. Rain was rain no matter the season, and aside from the occasional reindeer decorations and platters of cookies in the break room, the only indication that something festive was going on had been the annual invitation to the family Christmas party at Morgana’s.
Apparently things were a lot different when you had a kid. It seemed like every day there were festive activities to somehow get out of – cookie baking for charity and nativity plays and invitations to go ice-skating that Merlin begged him to decline. Merlin helpfully caught a cold that was hell to deal with but at least meant they could skip the class trip to the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, but he still brought home pictures and straw stars and window decorations, and they weren’t even halfway through the month by the time Arthur started wondering if he’d signed the boy up for a school or a crafts camp.
At least the cookies were good. Every time Merlin brought home a bag, they ended up sprawled on the couch after Freya had left, Merlin with hot cocoa and Arthur with the largest mug of coffee they had in the house, getting crumbs all over themselves and the cushions while they watched the Star Wars Christmas special. It was shit, but at least it had Boba Fett in it.
It also kept Merlin’s whining about his stuffy nose and sore throat and green snot to a minimum, and every so often he’d actually fall asleep leaning against Arthur’s shoulder, and Arthur would rescue his mug before it tipped over and not hate the entire Christmas season quite as much as he usually did.
Friday before the holiday, Arthur was pretty much the last person left in the office at one o’clock, and so he gave Freya a ring and went to get Merlin himself. It was more than a little gratifying, after spending what felt like forever standing outside the school gates with a handful of other shivering parents, to see Merlin’s eyes light up when he caught sight of Arthur. He wasn’t wearing a coat, even, the brat, but he did walk into Arthur’s side and rest his head against Arthur’s stomach for a moment before he pulled away.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Where’s Freya?”
“At home, I assume,” Arthur said. “I thought we could go to the Christmas Market on the South bank.” He ruffled Merlin’s hair. “I’d suggest ice skating, but I happen to like your head attached.”
“Funny,” Merlin said. “Can we go if I promise to only crash into you? Would that make you feel better?”
Arthur shook his head, doubtful. "I'd feel a lot better if you'd put on your coat, actually," he said. "The last thing I need is Mithian breathing down my neck because you managed to contract pneumonia."
"But I'm not cold!" Merlin flapped his arms, perhaps to prove his point, but mostly he looked like a freezing idiot.
"Coat," Arthur said, and Merlin rolled his eyes and went to put it on.
They did go ice skating in the end, on the rink at the Eye, and Merlin miraculously wasn’t that bad at it. Oh, he fell all the time, but from what Arthur could tell, he wasn’t much worse than any of the other kids wobbling around the enclosure. Plus, he tried his damnedest to keep his promise, smacking into Arthur at every opportunity, and once Arthur had stopped rolling his eyes and then stopped being annoyed, it was actually kind of funny.
“Hey,” Merlin said at some point, when Arthur had narrowly yanked him out of the way of an overzealous teenage show-off. “Can we go again on Christmas?”
Arthur shook his head. “We’re going to Morgana’s for Christmas,” he said. “Family tradition.”
Merlin turned away, but not before Arthur caught a glimpse of his grimace.
“Hey,” he said, firmly annoyed again. “It won’t be that bad. Perhaps you’ll even enjoy yourself if you stop being so determined to suffer.”
Merlin attempted a pitiful smile. “Sure,” he said. “Sounds like fun.”
The plan was to head over to Morgana's house after a light lunch - spaghetti and pesto, because Arthur's culinary skills may only be improving slowly, but they were improving. Morgana was the one responsible for providing the lavish Christmas dinner to impress their parents. Arthur would have felt bad for her, but since she insisted on hosting the get-together every year, really, she brought it on herself.
They'd been celebrating Christmas at hers ever since Morgana bought the place. Arthur didn't mind - his own residences never lived up to the opulence Morgana and Vivienne, at least, favoured, and he suspected that having the celebrations on her own turf gave Morgana a sense of control she so desperately craved. Having Arthur usurp her place as the family darling and steal her father away in one go, he suspected, had left a bit of emotional damage she was still struggling to work through thirty years later. If she could assuage all that by showing off her lavishly decorated tree in her impeccably decorated living room, Arthur was more than fine with it.
Unfortunately, Christmas on Morgana's terms also meant being dressed to the nines, because Heaven forbid anybody wear anything comfortable for the holidays. Arthur generally got through it by pretending it was another business function to get through – which said a lot about his family, come to think of it – but Merlin eyed the ensemble laid out for him with a mix of horror and disdain.
"You cannot be serious," he all but whined. "I thought this was supposed to be fun."
Arthur smiled wryly. He knotted his tie with the practiced movements of someone who'd done so every day that he could remember, and said, "I have no idea how you came to that conclusion."
"Arthur," Merlin pleaded.
"It's a shirt and a tie, Merlin," Arthur said. "Just put them on. They're not going to hurt you, I promise."
"It's a tie," the kid said. He gathered the clothes up looking like he wanted to detour straight to the bin instead. "Christmas is about love and family and all that rot, not Project Runway."
Arthur thought about telling him that it was a family tradition to substitute love and attention with things, but figured that was a bit callow, even for him.
"We can look good and feel good at the same time," he said instead. "They're not mutually exclusive."
Merlin rolled his eyes on his way out the door.
"I saw that!" Arthur yelled after him.
"You were supposed to!" Merlin yelled back, matching his tone almost perfectly, and disappeared before Arthur could come up with a suitable reply.
Merlin, when he had climbed out of Arthur’s car in Morgana’s extensive driveway, took one look at the house and gulped. “I thought we didn’t live in castles anymore,” he said.
Arthur handed the kid a bottle of Littorai Chardonnay. “Chin up,” he said. “It’ll be over before you know it.”
To be fair, the kid tried. He sketched a stiff bow in front of where Morgana was draped decoratively on the couch and thrust the bottle of wine at her. He even gave Uther a sharp nod before he ran away, ostensibly to the washroom. When he came back ten minutes later short a tie and with his hair all mussed, Arthur wearily gave up on decorum. He pulled the kid against his side and laid his arm around Merlin’s shoulders.
“Two hours, okay?” he whispered to him. “Then we can go.”
“Since now? Or since we got here?” Merlin raised meaningful eyebrows. “Because it’s been at least, um, five minutes.”
“Since now,” Arthur said. He tried not to laugh too obviously when Merlin’s expression drooped, and steered the boy over to the minibar, where Vivienne was hogging the bartender’s services.
He wasn’t surprised that Morgana had hired a private bartender for what was supposedly a family dinner, nor that the man was stunningly attractive. He also wasn’t surprised that Vivienne seemed disinclined to leave the comforts of just-barely-still-fashionable inebriation, although Merlin’s open-mouthed gape reminded him that perhaps the Pendragon way wasn’t entirely normal for everybody.
Still, he leaned in to kiss his stepmother’s cheek in greeting before he turned to the barkeep. “Beer, if you’ve got it,” he said. “And something non-alcoholic for the sprog.”
“You’re a twat,” Merlin said, but he didn’t complain when Arthur lifted him onto one of the barstools. He didn’t even comment when Arthur, having learned from the past, kept a firm hand on the scruff of his shirt. He had absolutely no desire to spend Christmas day at the A&E.
“Is this the boy?” Vivienne asked. She was a beautiful woman, pale and ethereal even with the glassy sheen of alcohol to her eyes. The smell of it on her breath still made Arthur cringe a little.
“Yep,” he said, affecting a cheerful tone. “This is Merlin. Merlin,” he turned the kid to face her by the shoulders, “my stepmother Vivienne.”
“Hello,” Merlin said. He gave her a shy nod, the likes of which Arthur had never seen on him. No matter who they encountered, Merlin seemed to decide whether or not he liked them almost before they even met. He immediately either liked them or he hated them, and he left no doubt as to which way the decision had gone.
With Vivienne, it was almost as if Merlin was actually faced with a stranger. He gave her a curious look, and a polite expression that was probably mostly for Arthur’s benefit. Then he turned towards Arthur and leaned into his shoulder just far enough that he could hide his face in it - but not so far that he might have to give up the act of being oh so grown-up and mature.
He’s sweet, Vivienne mouthed at him.
Arthur smiled. It wasn’t exactly his adjective of choice, but yes, given the circumstances, he had to admit that Merlin was actually being what could be termed sweet. He rubbed at Merlin’s back while the barman mixed their drinks before gently urging him back onto his stool. When Vivienne’s attention was momentarily derailed by her empty glass, he leaned in close and said, voice low, “You wanna check the telly? Make the time go faster?”
With a grateful smile, Merlin slid off his seat. Arthur caught his glass before it could tip and spill all over the bar, and handed it down when the boy was safely on two feet.
Telly would be good. It’d distract Merlin from Arthur’s mess of a family, and it’d distract Arthur from Arthur’s mess of a family, and perhaps they could all go home without politely worded insults and stony silences.
He’d expected his family to rebel when Merlin asked to put on a Blue Peter rerun, but they didn’t. Morgana seemed especially keen on doing ‘normal’ things for Merlin’s benefit – Arthur didn’t have the heart to tell her that Merlin was about as far from normal as a child could possibly be – and Uther apparently actually wanted to watch the show, citing nostalgia. Apparently he’d spend quite a few Christmas days in front of the telly as a child, with both his parents at work. It was odd to be reminded that his father was a blue-collar child of blue-collar parents who’d worked himself up to the wealth he had now, and the reminders were few but jarring every time. His father, as well-known as he was for being one of the richest men in the country, had started with next to nothing. Vivienne was the one with the title and the estate, and every so often she reminded everyone of the fact that she was old money and her husband was new money, and that there were certain differences there that could never be erased.
Arthur assumed she hadn’t minded at one time, considering she married him – twice – but ever since he could remember, there had been snide looks and pointed-but-pleasant comments on the matter. Never aimed at him, because Vivienne might not be the most accepting spouse but she was never a cruel stepmother, but he was not at all surprised when she pursed her lips irritably at the reminder.
Still, she settled on the couch next to her husband and gestured at the gigantic flat-screen. “Are we going to watch, then?” she said.
They watched. Merlin, wary of spilling his cranberry concoction on Morgana’s cream-coloured sofa, settled on the floor in the general vicinity of Arthur’s armchair. Morgana and their parents settled on the couches. There was too much space for the atmosphere to truly be cosy, but there was an enormous, utterly tasteful tree in the corner, and after a while the bartender retreated to the kitchen to prepare dinner, and even if it wasn’t what Arthur would have chosen for himself on Christmas day, it was actually kind of… nice.
“Well, that was – charming,” Morgana said, once the credits were rolling.
Merlin, who’d spent most of the rather terrible show staring at the screen with an intensity that Arthur had never seen before, flinched. Considering the overall quality of the programme, or lack thereof, Arthur suspected the kid had been having his own nostalgic moment, and he had to bite his lip to keep from snapping at Morgana about it. He settled for a silent glare instead.
She returned it, uncomprehending and annoyed, before her gaze drifted down to Merlin. Then there was a flicker of guilt, which of course only lasted for a moment. Then her face smoothed over and she said, "I believe it's time for presents," and got to her feet in one fluid movement.
Excepting a cautious smile from Merlin, she didn't garner much of a reaction. They'd stopped exchanging gifts a while ago - once it became painfully obvious they were all wealthy enough to buy anything they might want, although the fun had gone out of it years before that, when Uther and Vivienne decided they were too old to keep pretending they were delighted by arts and crafts. This year, because of Merlin, Morgana had declared an exception, but she'd simultaneously reiterated her lack of interest in receiving anything for herself, so Arthur wasn't all that clear on how she expected this to go.
Their parents looked equally lost, an expression entirely at odds with the poised way they occupied the couch, and their elegant outfits. Arthur shrugged in their direction and earned helpless looks in return.
Morgana, annoyance tinting her features, held up a hand. “I’ll start, then,” she said. She left the room, heels clacking on the floor, leaving the rest of them behind in the awkward silence she’d created.
“I think she means ‘present,’” Vivienne finally said, hushed.
Arthur’s father nodded.
Arthur shrugged again, despite Vivienne’s displeased look. She liked elegance and poise, and shrugging did not qualify. But then Arthur liked knowing what on Earth was going through Morgana’s head, and he never got what he wanted there, so why should anyone?
A quick, furtive tug at his knee got his attention. “I thought we already had presents,” Merlin whispered.
Arthur reached out to squeeze his shoulder. The kid was technically too far away, but Arthur managed, just barely.
The boy had a point, too. He and Arthur had unwrapped presents that morning, including that from Arthur’s parents – a beautiful book on Greek mythology that was far too expensive for a kid of Merlin’s age and clumsiness, but something Merlin had admired nonetheless. Arthur didn’t think he cared about myths in general as much as he did the King Arthur legends, but he still applauded his parents for trying to expand the boy’s horizons.
“Guess there’s more,” Arthur told him.
As it turned out, Vivienne was right: It wasn’t ‘more presents’ so much as it was ‘one more present,’ and it was very specifically for Merlin. Arthur just barely managed not to roll his eyes at Morgana’s histrionics when she returned, smiled widely at the kid, and handed him a large box with bright red wrapping paper and an enormous silver bow on top.
Merlin stared at it like no one had ever given him a present before.
“Go on then, open it,” Morgana urged. Arthur had only rarely seen her looking that pleased with herself, and never in relation to children. Merlin didn’t look like he quite believed it, either. He shifted closer to Arthur’s feet on the carpet, but he didn’t take his eyes off the gigantic box, and Arthur couldn’t blame him.
When Merlin, after Arthur gave him a little nudge, started in on the wrapping, Arthur turned to Morgana with a pleasant smile fixed firmly on his face.
“That had better not be a puppy,” he hissed at her.
Morgana, with an angelic smile, replied, “Oh Arthur, live a little.”
It was not a puppy. In fact, it was possibly worse than a puppy. It was a bright orange plastic dragon that shuffled around when activated and alternately let out a tiny roar or proclaimed, “It is your destiny!” when you pressed a hidden button. Which Merlin did, repeatedly, eyes wide and shining with delight. The dragon was apparently part of the “Arthur’s Adventures” SuperToy™ series. Arthur quietly started calculating how long he had to wait before he could accidentally smash the thing with a sledgehammer without breaking Merlin’s heart.
At least Morgana had the brains to talk him into leaving it under the tree when they all adjourned to the dining room for dinner. Merlin held his cutlery stiffly, nervousness making him far clumsier – and thus making the situation far harder to bear – than usual, and jumped even when someone passed the basket of rolls down the table or Arthur leaned in close to top up his glass with juice.
Mostly he kept quiet, though, eyeing Arthur and his family with wide eyes, silently listening in on whatever safe topics they could usually come up with – politics, the economy, global warming. Anything that wasn’t Vivienne gripping the neck of the champagne bottle tightly, or Uther failing to even acknowledge her behaviour, or Morgana’s sharp-tongued commentary, or Arthur adopting a child without so much as an email notification. All was perfectly pretend-peachy in the land of the Pendragons, and Arthur resolved firmly to make sure Merlin got at least two helpings of dessert for watching his family politely dance around personality and opinions without so much as a single comment.
Merlin didn’t realize the two hours had long since passed until they were in the middle of dinner, and although he shot Arthur a hilarious glare, he did seem to have enough manners to know that they couldn’t pack up and leave halfway through the second course.
“Soon,” Arthur promised him. He was actually hoping himself to be able to get away before anyone started to question him on his decision regarding Merlin. There were bound to be some critical comments, and he really didn’t want Merlin to be present for that kind of grilling. The kid had enough issues as it was.
He had positive qualities, too. Arthur was deeply impressed when Merlin not only stuck it out until after dessert but even managed to sit quietly on the couch afterwards. He was even more impressed when, despite the looks he was earning from the rest of his family, nobody was crass enough to mention the whole ‘Arthur fosters a kid’-thing in front of said kid. Apparently even Pendragon dysfunction only went so far before it ran headfirst into the wall of good manners.
He didn’t realize he’d just been leaning against the wall, staring at the kid, until Vivienne touched his wrist with light fingers and a soft smile. “Would you like a drink?”
Arthur shot a look at the kid visibly drooping on the couch. “I think it’s time to go, actually,” he said. “Thank you, though. I’ll see if we can’t swing by one of these days.”
She nodded slowly, her smile just a shade shy of wistful. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?” she asked. “Raising a child. Ha. Heart failure is nothing compared to losing a toddler in a shopping centre for the first time.”
“Something to look forward to, then,” Arthur said faintly.
She grinned at him with a wickedness he wasn’t used to from her but certainly explained where Morgana got it, and Arthur smiled back at her. It wasn’t often they had meaningful conversations like this. He’d grown up around her, yes, but distantly; she’d been perfectly civil to him, but he couldn’t blame her for not wanting to be constantly reminded that she hadn’t been good enough to keep Uther’s attention in the end. And Arthur had spent too much time being reminded of his beautiful, wonderful, singular mother to ever accept another woman as a substitute.
So even though he’d known her for quite a while, he could count the moments he’d classify as ‘intimate’ between them on one, maybe two hands. He’d missed out, he decided when she reached out and squeezed his hand in commiseration. Something to change in the future.
Considering Merlin was practically asleep on his feet, their goodbyes were brief – a handshake from his father, a kiss on the cheek from his sister and Vivienne. Merlin, despite leaning into Arthur’s legs with his eyes barely open, endured similar treatment before they managed, among waves and last minute orders and reminders called across the driveway, to escape to the car.
Arthur waited in the front seat until Merlin had buckled himself in with exhaustion-clumsy fingers before he started the car. The streets were quiet, not only in Morgana’s posh little neighbourhood but also on the drive over to their own. Apparently very few people could be moved to actually go places on Christmas, which was just fine with Arthur – he’d had quite enough human interaction for one day.
At a red light, Arthur glanced over his shoulder. Merlin sat slumped against the window, his dragon in his lap. He fiddled with it absently, stroking over its plastic wings and bending the moveable limbs.
Arthur smiled in spite of himself. “Did you have a good time tonight?” he asked.
Merlin scrunched up his nose, considering, then he reached under the dragon’s wing.
“It is your destiny!” the dragon roared.
Arthur snickered. The light turned green and he eased the car forward. “Still scared of Morgana?” he said.
“Raaahhh!,” went the dragon.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Arthur mumbled. He set the signal and pulled the car into the turning lane. The arrow turned red before he got there, of course. Arthur, tiring of the glances into the mirror, turned in his seat to look at Merlin over the edge of his seat. “Seriously, though,” he said. “Morgana – she’s not all that bad, is she? Now that you’ve met her properly?”
Merlin tilted his head back against the headrest of his car seat. He eyed Arthur for a moment through mostly-closed eyes before he mumbled, “She was nice in the beginning.”
Arthur frowned. “Was she not nice later?” he asked. Perhaps she’d said something during dinner that the kid had interpreted badly – she had a habit of rubbing people wrong, one that Arthur barely even noticed anymore because he had, after all, grown up with her.
“Light’s green,” was all Merlin had to say to that.
Cursing, Arthur twisted in his seat and hit the gas. He barely made it across the deserted street on the orange light, his movements erratic and his mood sinking.
When he remembered to look at the kid in the mirror, Merlin had his eyes closed. His head was lolling to the side at an uncomfortable angle, and the dragon had slid halfway off his lap.
Merlin jerked awake when they pulled into the driveway, mumbling unintelligibly. With his toy clutched to his chest, he let Arthur usher him into the house. He scrubbed his toothbrush through his mouth a handful of times and pulled on his pyjamas with vague, lacklustre movements, which appeared to be the extent of all the energy he had left. Stuck halfway between annoyed and amused, Arthur walked the boy into his room and nudged him to get him to crawl under the covers Arthur had lifted in invitation.
He didn’t realize Merlin was still holding fiercely onto the toy until he went to pull the blanket up to the boy’s chin, but when he went to set it aside, Merlin shook his head.
“I’d miss him,” he said, although Arthur could have sword it sounded like, ‘I missed him,’ instead.
“Suit yourself,” Arthur said. Far be it from him to prevent Merlin from sleeping with a hard plastic toy with ridges and bumps and sharp edges. “You good for the night?”
Merlin nodded slowly. He turned his head to the side, regarding the lamp on the nightstand for a moment, before he said, “Maybe she is different here.”
Arthur had no idea what to make of that statement, and was about to say as much when Merlin burrowed the back of his head deeper into the crease of his pillow and offered him a sleepy smile. A wave of tenderness crashed over Arthur at the sight, a burst of affection exploding in his chest that he hadn’t even known he was capable of feeling, and he prodded the boy’s nose and smiled back.
Arthur brushed a few hairs off of Merlin’s forehead, then he switched off the lamp and got up to go. “Goodnight, Merlin,” he said.
“You are an odd child,” Arthur told him on his way out the door.
“It is your destiny!” the dragon bellowed after him.
“What are you working on?” Arthur asked, trying to elbow Merlin’s piles of papers and notebooks spread out on the kitchen table into enough of an order that he could put down the pot of spaghetti in his hands.
Merlin – absently and ineffectively – moved to help, pushing a book aside with one hand without ever looking away from his essay. “Ms. Miller wants us to write thank you cards for our Christmas presents,” he said. He smirked a little bit, which was quite disconcerting on such a little kid. “Parents and grandparents, at least.”
“Right.” With a sigh, Arthur set the pot down on a chair and gathered up Merlin’s mess. The paper with his aborted drafts ended up at the very top, crossed out sentence after crossed out sentence after crossed out sentence. “Not getting anywhere, I take it?”
The boy shook his head. “She didn’t say what to do in my case,” he said. “Maybe I should write them anyway so she can’t not pass me.” He snickered. “’Dear mummy – I would have had a great Christmas with you if you weren’t dead.’”
It was callous enough that Arthur could feel his eyebrows climbing, but he remembered his own resentment at his mother for dying when he’d grown old enough to realize what having one around actually meant; packed lunches and homework help and easy affection and no pitying looks from his classmates.
So he shuffled Merlin’s papers onto a different chair and said, lightly, “Do you remember her at all?”
“Not really,” Merlin said. “Not this time. But I know what she was like before.”
Arthur translated that to mean that Merlin was blithely making things up, but he figured the topic was touchy enough without rubbing Merlin’s nose in it. Instead, he returned to the sauce still on the stove. He was getting better at cooking, even if it was still mostly pasta, but getting several dishes done at the same time was something he was still trying to get the hang of.
At least he’d remembered to take his white shirt off before facing a pot full of tomato puree, this time.
“What was she like, then?” he asked. “Your mother.”
Merlin made a little noise behind him. “Brave,” he said. “And nice. She did everything for everybody but she never let anybody bully her.”
When Arthur glanced back at him over his shoulder, Merlin’s mouth had twisted into a wry smile. He’d pulled up a worksheet, something about biology that apparently required him to pick the right animal out of a line-up, and was now looking it over with a sort of fascinated boredom. “She wanted me to have an education,” Merlin said, as he gamely picked up a pencil. “Not sure this is what she had in mind.”
Arthur felt a familiar clench in his gut, one that always came when he was reminded of his own mother – not the invocations of her name that happened daily with a charity that had never even occurred to her, but the real, living, breathing woman who’d been wonderful enough to entice his father away from his high society wife and his two overachieving daughters. He had no memory of her, just as Merlin had to have very little of his own, but sometimes he figured her theoretical approval would still mean a whole lot more to him than that of many a living, breathing person.
He stirred the sauce with a little more force than necessary until he’d gathered himself together enough to remember that they were talking about Merlin’s mother, and not Arthur’s. “She sounds like a lovely lady.”
Merlin nodded. He drew a determined circle around the seal, and then said, “She always wanted what’s best for me. Even if it wasn’t the best for her.”
“Do you think she would approve of me?” Arthur asked. He tried to keep the question light, just a bit of teasing, but he had to admit it wasn’t working so well.
Merlin didn’t look up. “She liked you,” he said.
Arthur turned his head to give him a look. “Would have,” he prompted.
“Yeah,” the kid said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Goes to show what she knows.”
Arthur’s parenting classes had informed him that eight-ish was the point at which children developed their own likes and dislikes, and Merlin very clearly liked legends. Arthurian legends. He scoffed at the fictionalized ones and spent most of their attempt at watching the Disney movie muttering disdainfully to himself, but he practically slept with his story book under his pillow, and when he wasn’t reading that, he was making up stories himself.
Arthur had been genuinely surprised to find out that the kid was actually quite a gifted storyteller. The wording itself was that of a child's, of course, but everything he talked about had monsters, schemers, mortal enemies, last minute rescues, hypocrisy and deceit. It was great.
Arthur, in turn, seemed to always get everything wrong whenever he tried to join in, so he resigned himself to asking leading questions and letting Merlin have all the creative decisions.
And creative he was. Everything turned into a story. Waiting for the tube in the morning led to a story about horses. Mentions of Arthur’s father were followed by stories about witch hunters. A long-avoided visit to the dentist prompted a story about a mysterious illness sweeping the land, and a white-haired physician who tried his best to save them.
They all, predictably, starred Merlin as Merlin the sorcerer and Arthur as King Arthur, but Arthur didn’t mind that. It was like a serial, learning about someone’s life in snippets and pieces until it was almost as familiar as one’s own.
Most of Merlin’s stories were good – some were just too depressing for Arthur to really enjoy – but Arthur’s favourites were the ones about Camelot. He liked the ones about hunting, or quests, or epic battles with other kingdoms, but the tales about the castle were the ones he loved, relished, would sometimes request to hear again. The servants, the nobles, the knights. Little of it was glamorous, and Arthur himself rarely came off well, but he usually had his noble moments and Merlin made sure to always save the day with a bit of magic, and Arthur had always been a sucker for a happy ending.
“You know,” Arthur said, when a trip back from the co-op for that night’s spaghetti sauce had turned into a long, meandering story about rats, “you have quite the imagination for such a little kid.”
Merlin nodded. "I've lived a long life."
He said it so quietly, so unassuming, that the words barely even registered with Arthur at first. But yes, he had a point. Compared to some of his peers, Merlin was practically ancient – in temperament, if not in body.
“I haven’t,” Arthur said, gently teasing. “I’m not even thirty.”
He’d expected Merlin to react incredulously at that, tell him what an old geezer he was at twenty-nine, but instead, Merlin’s face turned solemn.
“No, you didn’t,” he said.
Arthur mulled that over for a moment. “So I at thirty am basically still a grasshopper, but you at eight have lived a long and fulfilled life?”
Merlin rolled his eyes for a moment, nudging Arthur’s thigh in reproof. “A thousand and eight,” he said quietly. “More or less.”
Arthur pursed his lips to keep from laughing. “You’ll have to tell me what anti-aging cream you use, then.”
He was fairly sure Merlin knew he was being made fun of, but the boy didn’t respond in kind, just nodded. “The magic helped,” he said. “Not at first, of course, but after – afterwards, it helped a lot.”
"Right," Arthur said, grinning. He nudged him with his knees. "Lead on then, court sorcerer."
"I was never a court sorcerer," Merlin said.
Arthur surged forward, jamming his fingers into the boy's sides to hear him squawk. "How remiss of me," he said. “Clearly, I was a bit of a twat at the time.”
Merlin laughed again, breathless. When Arthur glanced at his face, his eyes shone with an adoration that had Arthur’s stomach in flurries, and not necessarily in a good way. He wasn’t sure he liked being the object of that much admiration. Merlin, youth aside, looked like he would lay his life down for Arthur if Arthur only commanded it, and Arthur wasn’t sure he knew how to deal with that.
The tube was usually packed full in the mornings out where they lived. Not packed, but crowded enough that it was a relief when St. Paul’s had some sort of function or other - Freya explained, but Arthur wasn't really paying attention - and they could go in an hour later than usual.
Arthur flopped down on an empty seat with relish. Merlin, because he was a little freak that couldn’t enjoy the good things in life, stayed standing by the doors, reading signs he'd read a million times before and fiddling with his uniform.
Their carriage was nearly deserted, so it took Arthur longer than it really should have to notice the two boys loitering around their golden-haired mother. In fact, they were almost all the way to Merlin’s stop when Arthur, catching sight of the emblem on the boys’ jackets, leaned forward to catch the woman’s eye. “I was beginning to think I was the only one doing the school run by the tube,” he said with an easy smile. She was quite pretty, so it wasn’t like it was a hardship.
She looked up, slightly startled, but smiled herself a moment later. It was gratifying to know he hadn’t completely lost his touch.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It can be a pain, no doubt about it. I wouldn’t want to drive, though. I don’t know how everybody else does it.”
“Slowly, I imagine,” Arthur said.
It made her burst out laughing; a honking, snorting kind of laugh that was uniquely charming in how well it suited her, but it made Arthur’s brows rise regardless.
When she boxed his shoulder, it actually hurt. “Not for me, I don’t think. They’d all flee the moment they saw me coming.” She grinned at Arthur, who tried very hard not to rub. “I’m a menace behind the wheel.”
“Lovely to meet you,” he said wryly. “I’m Arthur.”
“Oh, of course.” She held out her hand. “Elena. These are my boys,” she added, pulling the younger between her legs. “This is Galahad, and that’s Geraint.”
“Merlin,” Arthur replied, waving a hand at the kid.
“Well, he’s a bit of a dreamer, isn’t he?” she said.
Considering Merlin, instead of interacting with Geraint, was fidgeting with the seat cushions and whispering to himself, Arthur had to agree with her. He didn’t like it, but he did.
Elena didn’t seem to mind, at least – in fact, she sounded rather charmed by the kid’s lack of social skills. Arthur was a little disappointed to find out she already had a boyfriend – a “long-term life partner with no need to slap a label on it” – but it was nice enough to talk to someone in a similar boat as he was in, juggling work and child-rearing and a life. She got off with her sons at Swiss Cottage, like Merlin did, and promised to leave her number with Merlin on the way. “Maybe you two and my boys could meet up for footie sometime,” she said. “I think you’d get along.”
“Sounds great,” Arthur said. The train slowed, the dark tunnel exchanged for the brick of the station. “Have fun,” he told Merlin, leaning up. Merlin dutifully kissed his cheek. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, as usual.
At least Elena laughed. “I think you and my not-husband will get along splendidly,” she said. The doors slid opened, and she ushered all three of the boys out. “See ya, Arthur.”
“I hope so,” Arthur replied automatically, waving through the closing doors.
Elena's not-husband's name was Gwaine, and it took Arthur approximately five seconds to figure out that he did not like him at all. They all met up to play football – or some approximate version of it, considering half their players were in primary school and terrible – at Hampstead Heath, Elena tripping through the grass in her ballet flats, and after about five minutes of Gwaine, Arthur started grinding his teeth so hard it hurt. Gwaine grated on him from the very first smarmy grin all the way to the overly solicitous way he passed the ball over to Merlin despite being on a different team when it became clear that Merlin sucked at football just as bad as ever. The kids were fine, and Elena's grin so hopeful Arthur grit his teeth and smiled back, but Arthur was not going to be friends with someone who called him princess and offered to find him a bright pink ball if he'd prefer.
At least he kept his mouth shut when he was sprinting after the ball.
The first time Arthur got a call from the school, he was reading a recipe for risotto on his computer and contemplating calling for pizza, and almost fumbled his mobile off the kitchen table when it buzzed.
“Pendragon,” he said.
“Good evening,” a professionally polite voice greeted him. “Am I speaking to Mr. Arthur Pendragon?”
“Yes, this is he,” Arthur said. “Who’s this?”
“Mary Howden from St. Paul’s Primary,” was the reply, smooth and bland enough to raise all the hair on the back of Arthur’s neck. “There are some – concerns about Merlin that we’d like to discuss with you in person.”
“Concerns?” Arthur said, voice sharp.
“In person,” the disembodied voice reminded him.
“Um,” Arthur said, which was apparently code for, ‘Of course I’d love to come by, do let me know a date and time that is good for you,’ because two minutes later he an appointment with Merlin’s principal, a stern reminder to be there because the matter was quite delicate, and a dial tone.
Of course Merlin came barreling into the kitchen a moment later, yelling for juice, while Arthur was still frowning at the phone in his hand. The kid didn't notice his mood, too preoccupied with rifling through the fridge, and started when Arthur caught his arm.
“Sorry,” Arthur said, drawing back. "Everything okay at school?"
Merlin gave him a puzzled look. He could have been faking his innocence, of course, but Arthur liked to believe that he could tell when Merlin was lying by now, when he was guiltily shifty, and now he just looked confused.
"Don't worry about it," he said, before Merlin could ask, and nudged the boy aside. “What kind of juice did you want?”
Ms. Annis, the principal, had that sort of stern authority that had Arthur immediately feeling like hewas a student again, and in trouble, even though she was smiling at him.
"We like Merlin, we do," was her opening gambit, which had Arthur suspicious immediately.
He shifted on the hard wooden chair set opposite her desk and said, a little brusquely, "Then what's the problem?"
She pursed her lips with a sigh, picked up a pen only to drum it against the surface of her desk. “There are certain… behaviours of his that we have become concerned about.” She set the pen aside, abruptly, and laced her hands together. “Do you have an idea of what I might be talking about?”
Relief crawled up Arthur’s spine, hesitant but there. “You mean his stories.”
Her gaze flicked up to meet his. “Yes.”
“Ah.” Arthur waved her off. "It's a game."
Annis considered him. "Is it?"
"Yes," Arthur said slowly. "What else would it be?"
Arthur grit his teeth. Annoyance welled up sharply, like he wasn't a highly paid professional negotiator and used to talking to people who were clearly less informed than he was and still considered themselves superior. “If you have a different assessment, Ms. Annis, please.” He extended a beckoning hand. “Tell me.”
Her face tightened in annoyance, however faintly, something that Arthur really should not have been so pleased about.
“It’s not the stories so much, Mr. Pendragon, as the way he tells them. He doesn’t act like a little boy retelling tales or putting into words something he’s imagining. Merlin insists on these fantasies being the truth with a vehemence that is, quite frankly, a little disturbing."
“Right,” Arthur said slowly. He could feel the doubt creeping in, that all-too-familiar fear that every idea he had was wrong and he was a failure at everything he touched, but most of all, he felt disbelief. Couldn’t they have emailed him about this?
Annis leaned forward a little, eyes earnest. “We’re not trying to alienate you, Mr. Pendragon. Or Merlin. We’re simply trying to forestall any future problems. Merlin is a sweet boy, but he’s quite clearly had some traumatic events in his past, and imagining himself as an ancient, powerful hero is not so incomprehensible a coping mechanism.” She smiled a little. “Really, as out-of-control as a child with Merlin’s experiences must feel, it’s not so far-fetched at all, and he must have figured out at some point that fairy tales and myths are commonly accepted avenues for children to explore-“
"If you've quite finished psychoanalyzing my boy," Arthur said. Snapped. Whatever, she deserved it.
She hesitated, clearly caught off guard. It wasn't as satisfying as Arthur would have thought. Instead, it made him feel stupid and impulsive. Overzealous. He'd thought he'd gotten past letting people get to him like that.
Annis rallied. Into the uncomfortable silence, she said, "My goal was not to offer a psychiatric evaluation," she said. "Merely to point out a matter of concern to us."
She hesitated, and Arthur just knewshe was about to suggest a shrink for Merlin anyway. He stood abruptly, chairs legs scraping over the floorboards.
"Of course," he said. "I do appreciate you bringing your concerns to my attention."
Regret made the words stiff and unwieldy in his mouth. He shouldn't have been so rude to her. Yes, she'd wasted his time and hers, and insinuated ridiculous things, but she meant well. Making an enemy of Merlin's principal was a sickeningly stupid idea, not only because of Merlin but also because what she had to say mattered with Mithian. Arthur had enough obstacles in his way without adding a handful of his own making.
Merlin just made him feel so out of his depth all the time, and Arthur didn't seem able to do anything but overreact whenever the subject came up. At least most newly made parents had the time to get used to having a child while the kid was screaming and tiny and terrifying, and not when it was old enough to run away and argue and, apparently, develop delusions about being an ancient wizard destined to save the world.
"Thank you for your time," Arthur forced out. He held out his hand.
Annis shook it, still wearing that half-concerned, half-pitying expression, and Arthur made himself smile. He refused to let her see how much she'd rattled him.
"I hope," she said, and then broke off, thank God.
"Have a good weekend," Arthur said. He showed himself out.
Predictably, they got stuck in traffic on the drive back. Arthur had foolishly agreed to let the kid sit in front, hoping to keep a better eye on him, not remembering until it was too late that Merlin would take it as an invitation to chatter away. And he did, telling Arthur everything about his day and yesterday and the day before, most of which Arthur had already heard, before abruptly segueing into, “So what did Ms. Annis want?”
Arthur, sitting at a red light, closed his eyes firmly for a moment.
Merlin shifted in his seat. “Did she say anything bad about me? I mostly liked her so far. You know, I think I remember her-”
Arthur held up a hand. "Not right now, Merlin, please."
The boy fell silent. Arthur could feel his eyes on him, puzzled and a little hurt, and smiled tightly at the steering wheel.
"I'm not upset," he said, which was a blatant lie, but Merlin didn't need to know that. "I'm just not in the mood for playing right now."
Merlin was silent for a long time. "Playing?" he finally said.
“You know.” Arthur waved an impatient hand. “You’re a sorcerer, I’m a king, Morgana is an evil witch out to kill me. That whole bit.”
“Playing,” Merlin said.
Arthur gripped the steering wheel so tightly the leather creaked under his hands, and didn’t say anything.
Merlin unbuckled and pushed open his door before Arthur had even killed the engine, face thunderous. Arthur almost regretted giving him his own key when the kid unlocked the door and slipped inside, slamming it shut in Arthur’s face. At least he hadn’t gone far before Arthur let himself in, standing in the middle of the living room with his back to Arthur and his hands balled into tiny fists.
Arthur sighed. He dropped his keys onto the hall dresser with a clatter that made both of them flinch, unexpectedly jarring in the tense silence.
“I’m sorry if I made you upset,” Arthur said. He still didn’t have one bit of a clue what was going on here, but that seemed like a good place to start.
Merlin didn’t seem to agree – he shot Arthur a look so full of venom Arthur actually found himself recoiling a little bit, stung.
“You’re a liar,” the kid hissed at him. “You are a liar.”
“When have I ever lied to you?” Arthur asked. There were probably a few instances, but nothing that necessitated this kind of anger.
“All the time!” Merlin was getting louder now, turning to Arthur to let him feel the full force of Merlin’s wrath, Arthur supposed.
“About everything. You said you believed me.”
“What, about your fairy stories?” Arthur let out a tired chuckle. “Merlin, come on. What, you think you’re actually a thousand-year-old wizard? I’m the once and future king? You can’t honestly tell me you mean that.”
Judging by the way Merlin’s face fell, he did actually mean that. Aghast, Arthur stared at him, and Merlin stared back, chin trembling and nose red. When he blinked, two fat tears escaped and rolled down his cheeks. With an impatient, desperate noise, the boy swiped his palms hard across his eyes, raised his chin into the air, and gave Arthur a challenging look.
How was Arthur supposed to stay aloof in the face of that? "Merlin," he sighed, reaching for him.
He wasn't prepared for Merlin to yank sharply out of his grip.
"No!" The boy snapped, and fled for his room before Arthur could catch him again.
When Arthur finally went looking, Merlin was bright red from burrowing under the covers in the middle of the day, overheated as well as sulky. He batted at Arthur's hands when Arthur tried to uncover him, and when Arthur yanked the blanket off the bed entirely in his frustration, he pulled his pillow over his face instead.
"Don't - don't suffocate yourself, Christ." Arthur relieved him of that as well, leaving him with no option but to cross his arms and pout at the wallpaper instead.
Arthur sighed. "I'm sorry, alright? I shouldn't have snapped at you. I was a bit stressed, that's all."
Merlin grumbled something. Arthur wasn't sure they were actually supposed to be words, and he certainly didn't understand any of them.
"Come on, kid." He poked at Merlin's ribs, going for his ticklish spots. "Come ooon."
He thought he’d succeeded in getting the boy to unfurl, but instead, he leaned over the edge of the bed and pulled his pillow back into his arms, from the pile of bedding Arthur had abandoned it on. “You think I’m a liar,” he said, hugging it tightly to his chest.
“I do not!” Arthur forced himself to take a deep breath. “Listen, there’s nothing wrong with telling stories, okay? With games. That’s fun, isn’t it? Fun is totally okay.”
Apparently it wasn’t. Merlin’s face crumpled unhappily.
Arthur hid a wince. Clearly, his parenting skills lay elsewhere. Apparently he had no idea how to cheer Merlin up when Arthur himself was the bad guy. He couldn’t even in good conscience promise it would never happen again, but he could at the very least try to make amends.
"Come on." He waved a beckoning hand. "Tell me a story. We're, uh, we're in the woods, and there are bandits..."
"No," Merlin said.
Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Okay, so there's a monster...?"
Arthur rolled his eyes to the heavens. "What, then?"
Merlin turned to hide his face in his pillow. "Nothing," he said, muffled.
“It’s clearly not ‘nothing.’” Arthur reached over to rub the boy’s shoulder. “Come on, tell me. What’s eating at you?”
Merlin pushed him off. “Nothing.”
“Oh, good,” Arthur said, when he peeked into the bathroom around nine and Merlin was already in front of the mirror, toothbrush in his mouth and foam leaking down his chin. “Don’t forget to floss,” he added after a moment, and reached past the kid to turn the tap off.
Merlin scowled. "Stop treating me like a child."
Arthur, torso still bent at an awkward angle, sighed. "You are a child, Merlin."
"I'm not." Merlin gave him a serious look, but it still came off less grave and more petulant. "I have several centuries on you, you know."
"Ah yes." Arthur felt his mouth twist, not sure if he was going for amused or disgusted. He straightened, dried his hands on a towel. "You're an immortal wizard. I forgot."
Merlin didn't reply. When Arthur glanced down at him, he had his head bent low, hair obscuring his features, toothbrush still clasped loosely in one fist.
"Not immortal," the boy said after a while, quietly, like he knew arguing the point was pointless. "I was reborn, wasn't I?"
"Oh. Of course. I'm so sorry." With a light tug, Arthur freed the brush from Merlin's fingers and returned it to its glass. He was trying not to sound too sarcastic, but it was hard. "Phoenix wizard, of course, how could I get the two confused?"
"Stop it," Merlin said, very quietly.
"Or what? You'll turn me into a toad?"
"I should." Merlin looked up at him then, and his eyes were blazing. "You don't have to be such an arse about it."
Arthur's eyebrows listed of their own accord. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me." The boy's expression grew steadily darker. "You've made it abundantly clear you don't believe me, but you don't have to mock me just because you don't remember."
“I will never be able to remember something you’ve made up,” Arthur said, stung.
Merlin threw his hands into the air. He pushed past Arthur violently, shoving him into the doorframe as he passed, and stomped down the stairs.
Arthur caught up with him in the living room. “I’d can the attitude if I were you, young man,” he said.
“Or what?” Merlin snapped, whirling around. He still had toothpaste on his chin. “You’ll take it out on a kid?”
“I thought you were an ancient wizard,” Arthur said, because he evidently had no idea when to leave well enough alone.
“I am!” Merlin yelled. His voice cracked. “You just don’t believe me.”
Arthur felt a smile curl at the corners of his mouth. “You’re a wizard.”
The kid pushed his jaw forward. “I’m the wizard,” he said. “Merlin the sorcerer.”
"Okay. Fine." Arthur lifted expectant hands. "If you're such a great and powerful wizard, then prove it to me. Show me. Just a tiny bit of magic, it can’t be that hard."
"I can't," Merlin snarled at him. His voice was thick with tears. "You know I can't."
Arthur thought vaguely that perhaps he was supposed to hug him now, but the boy looked about as receptive to it as a hedgehog might, and Arthur really wasn’t the type to go around forcing affection on people, so he crossed his arms instead. "So I'm sure you can forgive my scepticism then."
Merlin's face crumpled. Rather than have Arthur see him fall apart, though, he covered his face with his hands and whispered something that might have been "I hate you," or might have been something else. It sent a nasty jab of something through Arthur's heart, though, and he felt his face grow cold. "Be that as it may," he said, "until you can back up your little story with some action, I'm going to take it with a grain of salt."
Merlin didn't look up.
Sighing, Arthur dropped to his knees on the carpet. “Merlin,” he said. “Kid. Come here.”
The boy shuffled closer. He didn’t resist when Arthur pulled him close, but he stayed stiff and uncooperative, and Arthur ignored that, just like he ignored the way the rejection stung. He lifted the boy into his lap, cradling him against his body, and sighed. “What am I going to do with you?” he whispered.
Apparently that was the wrong thing to say, too, because Merlin pushed his arm away. “You don’t have to make it even harder than it already is.”
“I don’t want to make it harder,” Arthur said. “I want to make it easier. You just have to let me.”
Merlin didn’t seem to agree. “You just have to believe me,” he said.
“We’ve been over this,” Arthur reminded him, a sharp note creeping into his voice again. It was scary, knowing his kid, this child he’d come to care so much about, apparently had serious emotional issues, and knowing that Arthur himself didn’t have the first clue as to what to do about it.
“Let’s not fight,” he added. The anger was gone, now, replaced by something pleading. “Alright? I’m sure we can work things out together. Figure out the truth.”
“You don’t want to know the truth.”
Arthur tightened his grip on the boy. “Merlin.”
Merlin slumped against his chest with a quiet noise, tension draining out of him, but it didn’t feel relaxed. It felt like resignation.
In the end, Arthur called Drea who’d run one of his parenting classes, and she gave him the name of a child psychologist in Islington.
"He does psychiatric evaluations as well as behavioural therapy," she gushed, and Arthur could practically see the hearts in her eyes. "He's a bit on the alternative side, but he's really quite good."
He was also quite cheap, as Arthur found out when he rang Doctor Lancelot duLac's to make an appointment.
"It's because the doctor believes in making his care affordable to everyone who needs it, and not just those who can afford it," the secretary explained. She sounded as thrilled as Drea. Idly, Arthur wondered if she fancied the good doctor.
"Sounds like a regular white knight," he mumbled, and asked after evening appointments before she had a chance to chide him for it.
Arthur almost jumped out of his skin when he looked up from the newscast he had slumped down in front of and found Merlin standing next to him, face pale and jaw set.
“Hello,” he said, after a deep breath. Hope blossomed in his chest. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of their strange stalemate, the unhappy mood that had been hanging over the house for days. It wasn’t hard to dredge up a smile. “Come sit.”
The boy did. He didn’t seem to care about Arthur very much at all, keeping his eyes fixed on the screen instead. Footage of burning streets was replaced by a news anchor sombrely listing body counts. Actually, Merlin should probably not be watching any of this, but it was too late now, anyway.
“What a world, huh?” Arthur said weakly.
Merlin glanced over at him. “Doesn’t it bother you?” he asked, when the show abandoned unrest in the Middle East to report on violence-overshadowed elections in central Africa instead. “To know that there are people out there, dying, and we’re just sitting around here, fat and happy?”
“Well, yes.” Arthur frowned. “Of course it does. But there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.”
Face twisting in distaste, Merlin pushed himself off the sofa. “You could,” he said. “You could do anything. You’d just have to want to.” And then, with a huff, he stalked away.
Arthur stared after him. “You’re a little idealist, aren’t you?” he said, but Merlin was no longer around to hear him.
Doctor duLac was an unfairly attractive man with a charming smile and a head full of curls. He met them in the lobby of his fourth-floor practice and made a point of introducing himself to Merlin first before he reached out to shake Arthur’s hand.
“Let’s get you situated, hm?” he told the boy.
Merlin cast a doubtful look at Arthur. Arthur had to admit that while he wasn’t really cooperative, he also hadn’t sabotaged the proceedings, and his voice softened as he gave Merlin a nudge. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go take a look.”
Even if nothing else came from this visit, the validation Arthur got from duLac’s approving look would have made it worth it.
DuLac led them down the hall a ways, pausing in front of a playroom with a large window set into the hallway wall. Toys were scattered around inside – not very many, but something for everyone: books, coloured pencils, blocks, toy cars, stuffed animals. DuLac invited the boy to occupy himself before he closed the door and ushered Arthur into his office opposite.
“Right then,” he said, waving Arthur into a chair. “What seems to be the problem?”
Arthur had to give the doctor one thing – there was absolutely no censure in the man’s tone or expression. He listened to Arthur’s explanation without a single twitch, said “I see,” a handful of times, and then stood and held out his hand. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll have a chat with Merlin now, then.”
The doctor stopped him in front of the overlarge window. Peering in, Arthur saw that Merlin had sat down amidst the blocks and started stacking them into a crooked tower. He didn’t look like he was having a good time, and Arthur wasn’t sure why there was an entire room for him to hang around and be bored in. Couldn’t they just have left him up front with the receptionist?
Catching Arthur’s expression, duLac smiled. “How children interact with their toys tells us a lot about how they interact with the world around them.”
The kid hadn’t noticed them yet. He didn’t seem particularly absorbed, but he still didn’t look up from the construction, not even after he’d placed the very last block at the very top.
Merlin, suddenly scowling, struck out at the tower without warning, sending it all tumbling to the ground.
Arthur turned to give Doctor duLac what was probably a horrified look. “Wait, so what does that mean?”
DuLac grinned toothily. “In my professional opinion, I’d say that what we are witnessing here is an early warning sign of an acute case of boredom. Please excuse me.”
And then he simply left Arthur standing there, jaw ticking with annoyance, while he went to figure out what was wrong with Arthur’s kid.
“You can sit down if you’d like,” the receptionist told Arthur eventually, when she walked past to find Arthur still standing abandoned in the corridor, staring at the door duLac had closed between them.
Arthur offered her a wan smile before he returned to the waiting room she’d pointed him to. He dropped down in a not-quite-comfortable chair and checked his phone. He answered two emails from subordinates and one from Ginns in Marketing, then he tucked it away again. He read a handful of health and fitness mags and a back-copy of CHESS before he gave in to the urge to drum his fingers against his knee. The receptionist glanced over but didn’t say anything, so he couldn’t be bothered to stop. He debated calling Morgana for a bit, but he hadn’t actually confided in her about Merlin and his story-telling... issues yet, and he was in absolutely no mood to be judged right now.
When he heard steps in the hall, he bounced to his feet immediately, once again drawing a look from the receptionist. He didn’t care overly much, not when duLac was ushering Merlin back into the waiting room, looking tired but composed – both of them, actually, and Arthur was torn between embarrassment and pride. Pride that Merlin could get the better even of people whose very job it was to understand him, and not just clueless, underprepared idiots like Arthur.
“Here we are,” duLac said gamely. “Would you mind waiting for a moment while I have a chat with Arthur?”
He very pointedly did not say ‘father,’ Arthur thought. He wasn’t sure if that was something Merlin had protested or something duLac had figured out himself, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Merlin shrugged, brushing past Arthur on his way to the beanbag chair in the corner. Arthur watched him for a moment, the way his face was so incredibly blank, his movements tight and controlled.
When he glanced at duLac, the man was watching him.
“Shall we?” he asked.
“So.” Arthur drummed his fingers against the armrests of duLac’s visitor chair. “What’s wrong with him?”
DuLac grimaced. “There’s nothing wrong with Merlin, Arthur, please don’t think like that.” When Arthur nodded curtly, he said, “He does, as expected, carry some scars with him – the loss of his mother, the uprooting he experienced, the not-quite-ideal conditions of the group home with other children similarly at sea.” He smiled a little. “But I can assure you, all those traumas are quite normal and expected, considering Merlin’s history.”
“No, the-“ Arthur waved a finger at his own head. “With the stories.”
“Ah, yes.” duLac shuffled some papers.
Arthur braced himself.
The doctor slipped the disorderly stack into a folder and the folder into a drawer before he leaned forward in his chair and drew his shoulder back.
“Quite honestly, Mr. Pendragon?” he said. He looked Arthur straight in the eye. “Merlin is fine. He’s an imaginative little boy who’s gone through a lot in a very short life, and he’s dealing with it the only way he knows how.” He shrugged a little, losing some of his stern demeanour. “Compared to some of his peers, he’s actually dealing with it fairly well. He’s not violent, he’s not even particularly unworldly, and right now – and bear in mind that I’m losing business by saying this – I really don’t see how meeting with me will benefit him unless he starts becoming less willing to interact socially rather than more.”
When Arthur frowned at him, duLac reached out to pat his arm. “It’s a good thing, Merlin telling you his stories,” he said. “And you’re doing fine. Let him tell you what’s on his mind, make sure he interacts with the real world as much as possible, and if the school keeps giving you grief, for God’s sake, find him another one.”
For half-term, Arthur, exhausted and wrung out, booked them both a trip to the Mediterranean where the most dangerous business Merlin could get up to is tripping over sandcastles. He did manage to cut his feet open on a couple of stones and burned his nose to peeling even though Arthur slathered him in sunscreen at every available opportunity, but at least they both lived to tell the tale.
Merlin fell asleep on Arthur’s shoulder on the way back, chest pressing against his arm on every inhale. Arthur refrained from rolling his eyes at the flight attendant’s sappy smile, but he still tucked the kid under his arm and didn’t move until they were ready to land, even though he had to use the loo so badly it hurt.
It was the day after they got back, when Arthur had dropped Merlin off at school and was getting his morning fix at the coffee shop on the corner when he saw her. She was over by the milk and sugar, a paper cup clutched in one hand and a laptop bag in the other, contorting herself to keep the file folder under her arm from slipping. She looked like she was debating whether to drop her coffee or her computer, and nobody around her seemed to care.. With a shake of his head, Arthur abandoned his place at the front of the – very long – line and walked over, took drink and laptop out of her hands and smiled when she looked up at him with a startled expression.
“Thank you so much,” she told him once she had gotten her folder under control and safely tucked into the computer case. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“It was no problem,” Arthur assured her. “I couldn’t just leave you to your plight.”
Her smile made Arthur’s throat go a little dry. “And here I was, thinking chivalry was dead,” she teased.
Arthur can feel a blush staining his cheeks.
“But since these are modern times and all, could I get your drink? You just rescued me, after all.”
“I’d love to,” Arthur said regretfully, “But with the line this long, I wouldn’t be able to make it to work on time.”
“That’s too bad.” She looked like she meant it. “But it was nice meeting you.”
There was an awkward shuffle when she tried to shake his hand and he tried to hand back her drink, but with a little nervous chuckling and eye rolling, their fingers managed to meet somewhere in the middle.
“I’m Sophia,” she said with a sweet smile.
“Arthur,” he replied. He resisted the urge to kiss her hand and started to walk away instead, already kicking himself.
When he turned, heartbeat kicking up a notch, she was scribbling something on a business card before she held it out with two fingers.
“Here,” she said. “Perhaps you’d like to have a drink sometime.”
By the next day, Arthur knew that Sophia was the best thing to have happened to him since the Battersea charity function. She was brilliant and funny and drop-dead gorgeous, and she seemed to be as taken with him as Arthur was with her. He broke one of his own cardinal rules and texted her while in the office, and when he was on break, and when he was walking home from the tube, and then spent an hour on the phone with her after dinner when Merlin was tucked up in bed.
He hadn’t had more than a handful of weeklong flings since Maria after getting his Masters, some three, four years ago now, and he’d almost forgotten how it felt, that zing of mutual attraction. He’d never had to plan around a child before, so that bit was new, but Sophia didn’t seem to mind and Merlin didn’t know, and Arthur was more than content to leave it at that for a while.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked Merlin, settling down on the couch next to him after his usual song and dance with Freya on his way in and her way out.
The kid showed him; he’d uncovered one of Arthur’s old photo albums, pictures yellowed and cracked, that he kept in the living room next to his books and games. He hadn’t gotten very far, yet, just a few pages in, gaze flickering over landscape shots of the Scottish highlands, a log cabin with mountains in the distance, a once-stunning sunset faded into garish orange with time. The pictures awoke a sudden nostalgia in Arthur that he thought he’d gotten past by now – a sharp regret for time passed by, which quickly crested into annoyance at the boy for taking him by surprise with this. He wanted to yank the album from Merlin’s hands and tell him off for prying, for snooping, but he knew perfectly well that it was an irrational response to emotions he usually kept buried, and that if he didn’t rein in his temper, he would most likely say something he’d regret further down the line.
So he pointed at the photo of the cabin instead. “That was my mother’s favourite vacation spot,” he said. “Or so my father said. He took us every Easter, and Vivienne always stayed home. They fought about it every time, the night before we left and the night we got back.”
Merlin wrinkled his nose. He was still fantastic at getting his disdain for Arthur’s dysfunctional family across, although he was getting better about not saying anything out loud.
“It got better after a while,” Arthur said, “but for a bit there, I think if they hadn’t fought, they wouldn’t have had anything at all to say to one another.”
Merlin’s expression didn’t ease, but to his credit, he still didn’t say anything. Instead, he turned the page, leaning back so the cardboard wouldn’t get caught in his shirt, and grinned when he got to the people photos – younger, more awkward, slightly blurry pictures of people he actually knew. He took particular delight in the picture of three children by a creek somewhere in the countryside, a stocky blonde boy next to a tall girl with gorgeous curls next to a dainty little brunette wearing pink rain boots, pig tails in her hair and covered from head to toe with mud. Young Arthur at least had had the intelligence to take his shirt off, leaving only a few smudges of brown streaked down his pale chest.
Merlin leaned over and pointed at the tall blonde girl in the picture. “Who’s that?” he asked.
“Oh, did I never tell you about her?” Arthur chuckled. “That’s Morgause. My other sister.”
Without warning, Merlin’s eyes went huge. “Morgause?” he squeaked.
Arthur nodded. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Morgause, Morgana and I. She’s a lot older than us. She was already in school when I was born.”
Merlin slowly, slowly leaned back against Arthur’s side. “She’s not around?” he asked.
Arthur shook his head. “She’s in South America somewhere, cataloguing butterflies. She sends post cards sometimes.”
Merlin nodded. “Okay,” he whispered.
“Right,” Arthur said.
There were teacups on the coffee table, both empty, and that reminded Arthur that he’d been at work all day with nothing but mediocre cafeteria food. “Tea?” he asked Merlin, who nodded absently and was no help whatsoever.
Going through the familiar motions of making tea soothed Arthur somewhat, distracting him from the odd turn their conversation had taken. It was natural for Merlin to be curious about his new family, he figured, but his reaction hadn’t seemed very much like curiosity – rather, it had carried a sour undertone, like someone frightened and trying not to show it.
Still, any success he’d had in calming himself down evaporated once he was done with the drinks. When he emerged from the kitchen, cups in hand, and set them down on the coffee table, Merlin had gone back to staring at the photo. He didn’t even seem to be studying it – just staring at it, like it might strike out to bite him any moment now.
Arthur cleared his throat. “Are you okay? You’re white as a sheet.”
Merlin gave some kind of jerky nod. “Fine,” he said. He bit his lip. “Do you know a Gaius?” Off Arthur’s blank look, he added, “Or Guy, maybe? Old guy, long white hair? I mean, maybe?”
Arthur, frowning, blinked hard a couple of times, but when he looked back at the kid, Merlin returned his gaze with a hopeless but determined expression. “No, Merlin,” Arthur said slowly. “I can reasonably say I don’t know anyone of that description – Gaius or otherwise.”
Merlin’s face fell. “No Gaius?” he asked. “But everybody else-“
“What?” His voice came out wrong, flat and harsh, but he didn’t know what to do about it. Lord in Heavens, what was wrong with this kid? “Everybody else what?”
“Nothing,” Merlin said quietly. He sidestepped past Arthur and walked, on silent feet, up the stairs. A moment later, Arthur heard the boy’s bedroom door shut with a quiet, but final, click.
Merlin didn’t ever bother to explain his sudden snit, but he seemed mostly fine again the next morning, so Arthur let it go. In fact, he forgot all about it until the next time they went to Morgana’s for brunch, and the two wandered off into the living room while Arthur was, as usual, stuck with the dishes. He rinsed the last of the soap suds off the fancy, too-delicate-for-the-dishwasher bowls, and then went over to join them, hesitating just out of sight when he realized the two were actually talking to each other.
Or rather, Merlin was talking, because Morgana tried chattering at him all the time – Arthur had just never gotten the impression that the kid reacted to it, before.
“Does she ever talk to you?” Arthur could hear him ask now.
“Sure.” Morgana sounded surprised. “She calls every now and then.” A moment of silence. Then: “Would you like to talk to her sometime?”
“No,” Merlin said, too quickly. “I was just wondering how close you are.”
“Pretty close, I’d say,” Morgana said. “We didn’t have much to talk about for a long time, but once I started uni, we got a lot more comfortable with each other.”
“Right,” Merlin said quietly.
Arthur gave up on stealth, then, rounding the corner to find the boy staring at his shoes, and Morgana looking entirely as puzzled as Arthur felt.
Still, Merlin didn’t mention the whole thing again for so long that Arthur allowed himself to forget about it, wrapped up in doing the shopping and getting his work done and still coming home to Merlin at a reasonable time. Also, at a time that still allowed Freya enough time to get to her classes, after he’d once made her late for a lecture because a meeting ran over.
He was pretty sure she’d forgiven him a lot more quickly than he’d forgiven himself, and he made sure to be especially sincere when they exchanged their customary four, five sentences when he got home. She grinned like she knew what he was thinking, but didn’t say a word, and Arthur eventually let himself be lulled into a false sense of security that everything was fine and would be fine. He believed it right until the day he went scouting for the kid in the living room to find Merlin staring at a picture of a primary-aged Morgause posing with a stroppy pony, a riding hat covering the top of a truly impressive mane of hair.
He started when Arthur sat down next to him, but went back to staring at the picture a moment later.
“We could figure out what she’s up to at the moment,” Arthur said. “I’m sure she’d like to meet you.”
Merlin shuddered. “No, thank you,” he said.
“She’s very nice,” Arthur said, a sharp note creeping into his voice. “I think I can safely say she feels no desire to torture you, or whatever else you always seem to think.”
The boy whipped his head around. For a moment, his expression was mulish, until his lip began to quiver and his eyes took on a glassy shimmer. He didn’t cry – that, at least, wasn’t something to torture Arthur with. “That’s not fair,” Merlin bit out. “It’s not like I can help it.”
Arthur crossed his arms. “Can’t help what? Always assuming the worst of my family right off the bat?”
“Yes,” Merlin snarled at him, harshly enough that Arthur was just the tiniest bit taken aback. “It’s their own bloody fault, after all, isn’t it?”
“No, it isn’t!” Arthur bit his lip before more than just that one exasperated retort could escape him. There actually was something wrong with Merlin. It wasn’t something the boy could help, acting like the entire world had wronged him somehow, because one half of it probably actually had and it was only to be expected that he had some trouble putting his faith in the other. Arthur had gathered as much from his parenting classes. It just didn’t make the whole thing any easier to bear.
When Merlin crossed his arms as well, jaw jutted out as stubbornly as an eight-year-old was capable of, Arthur ran his hand over his face. “Morgause has done nothing to you, Merlin. She’s never met you. You didn’t even know who she was when you saw her picture.” With a sigh, Arthur went to his knees before the kid and squeezed his shoulders. “And I’m sorry if the idea of even more family scares you, Merlin, I truly am, but you need to learn to distinguish between what’s in here,” and he laid his palm against Merlin’s temple, “and what’s actually happening.”
“That’s easy for you to say!” Merlin hissed at him. He pulled sharply out of Arthur’s grip, assuming a rebellious stance in front of the couch. “Everything’s so easy for you, isn’t it, because you just get to live this one life, don’t you, and everything’s hunky-dory and easy and problem-fucking-free, and everybody thinks I’m crazy because destiny just had to fuck me over one more time.”
“Merlin,” Arthur snapped.
“No!” Merlin screamed at him. He’d turned decidedly red, and the neighbours could probably hear him, at this point, but at least it sounded like angry yelling and not like Arthur was hurting him. So there was even a silver lining while Arthur’s kid was having a melt-down. Great.
Too bad he wasn’t finished yet. “You don’t get to tell me off just because I’m the only one who knows! All of you are fucking adults and I’m the kid and yet I have to be the one shouldering the responsibility? It’s not fair, it’s not fair, and don’t you dare yell at me just because you don’t know what I’m going through. And – and – and your family’s a bunch of nutbags, and the least you could do is admit it.”
“Quiet!” Arthur shouted back at him.
The sound seemed to shock the boy into silence. He stood there, face still red and chest heaving, but he’d stopped yelling, at least.
Arthur took a deep, steadying breath. Nobody had bothered to warn him about this part of child-rearing – the part where you had to hang on to your temper with an iron grip because by God, they just knew how to push all your buttons, didn’t they?
“Go – upstairs,” he bit out.
Merlin hesitated, and Arthur showed all his teeth.
“Do not test me on this, Merlin. Just go.”
He did, thank God. Arthur waited until the door had shut upstairs before he collapsed on the couch with a groan. He thought he heard his mobile crunch under his weight, but when he dug it out of his back pocket it was fine, and lit up with a text from Sophia:
Hello, handsome. Got the flat to myself this weekend. :)
Arthur smiled weakly. He remembered making vague noises to Merlin about going down to the Electric Cinema, but then he also remembered the boy being a right snot to him not five minutes earlier, and his jaw set. He flicked the message closed and pulled up Freya’s number, who picked up on the third ring.
“Hey,” he said. He was quite proud of how calm he sounded; not at all like he wanted to sprint up those stairs and strangle somebody. “Any chance you can take over for me Friday night?”
Sophia was more than a little amenable to the idea of Arthur finally spending the night, which was, Arthur had to admit, a bit of ego bolstering he could well use. It wasn’t hard to forget about Merlin and all his frustrating bloody tics when he had Sophia’s mouth on his, and Sophia’s hand trailing down his body, and Sophia there in the morning with a cup of coffee and a blurry-eyed smile.
“I can’t stay for much longer,” Arthur said, with a regretful glance at the clock.
She waved him off. “No matter,” she said. “Not right away, though, right? I still have time for a shower.”
“Oh, yeah,” Arthur said, slurping a bit of coffee carefully so he wouldn’t splatter it all over his bare chest. “Go shower. I’ll try to wake up a bit more.”
She winked at him, and got in a good-natured grope before she disappeared down the hall.
Arthur rolled over and buried his grin in her pillow. He lay there, perfectly lazy, until his stomach growled a bit, at which point he dragged himself out of bed, fished around for his boxers, and wandered down the hall in search of the kitchen. The bathroom door was ajar, and when he passed it, he caught a glimpse of violent movement. When he paused, intrigued, he caught sight of Sophia in panties and a top, dancing around with her iPod plugs in her ears and the machine balanced precariously on the countertop. She was shaking her ass to whatever music is playing on her iPod right now, mouthing lyrics. As he watched, she grabbed a shampoo bottle and silently belted out the chorus, eyes closed in blissful dorkiness. Her hair went flying everywhere.
Arthur tried to hide his smirk. No doubt she’d be embarrassed if she noticed him watching, but quite frankly, it was ridiculously hot. Arthur liked confident women – women who didn’t feel the need to hide who they were, who were honest about what they liked, who didn’t mind acting a little ridiculous if that’s what they were in the mood for.
He retreated on silent feet. Perhaps it was time to discuss introducing her to his family, and he suspected that would go better if she wasn’t mortified.
Arthur slipped into the meeting seconds a hair’s breadth away from being late. The other junior and senior directors were already seated, though still exchanging small talk – or what passed as small talk in these meetings: the stock market, the Reynolds-Lorillard merger, the melting of Antarctica’s Smith Glacier.
An assistant hovered by the door with a cart loaded with croissants and coffee, and offered Arthur a paper cup with a smile. Arthur grimaced as he took it – they were two doors down from the kitchen, what was wrong with using a mug? – and slid into his seat moments before Alice looked up from her laptop and cleared her throat.
Directors’ meetings were generally horrifyingly boring, because any subject was of interest to no more than two or three attendees at a time. This time, though, after a brief welcome and a recap of last week, Alice closed her laptop’s lid, leaned back in her chair, and said, "As the rumor mill has no doubt already informed you, Hyperion Industries have shown interest in a collaboration.”
Arthur sat up straight, along with most of his colleagues. He had in fact heard a rumour, but the gossip mill had been churning out stories about collaboration with the notorious Helios and his company just about since he’d started, and he’d stopped putting a lot of stock in them.
Alice confirming it, of course, brought the game to a completely different level.
“Nothing has been decided yet,” Alice hastened to add. “As we all know, Helios in business negotiations is more volatile than a minefield, so while he’s expressed an interest in working with us, we will not be able to guarantee anything before the ink is dry.”
Heads bobbed solemnly around the table.
Alice folded her hands and leaned forward, pinning each of them in turn with a look, like a kindly grandmother who would not stand for disappointment. “There is a significant chance that each of you will interact with Helios personally at some point during the negotiations. I do not want to hear about a single one of you inadvertently sabotaging the negotiations, so watch your step.”
More nods, encouraging this time. As far as Arthur knew, Helios was ruthless, a business man through and through. Noble causes wouldn’t sway him. Charity couldn’t melt his heart. The only thing the man seemed to enjoy, besides money, were children. His own children, and their children, and other people’s children. If it had big eyes and a macaroni necklace, Helios loved it.
Adults, on the other hand could labour for years just to merit a handshake, and would fall from grace with a single misstep.
Alice, it seemed, had heard so too. “Be on your best behaviour,” she warned. “Tell your departments. Polite, professional, charming – be whatever you have to be. For the love of God, don’t ask him to go golfing. Talk to him about his kids. Your kids. Exploit his weak spot, but do not let him catch on that that’s what you’re doing.”
She waved a hand. “Arthur, didn’t you just adopt a boy? Maybe that will soften him up a bit.”
Arthur nodded, pretending not to notice the curious stares from most of the rest of the room. He didn’t like the thought of using Merlin as a means to an end, but this thing with Hyperion was something he’d been working towards for years. Helios was a business mogul of incredible wealth and power, and having him on their side would put developments previously hopelessly out of reach firmly into their grasp. With Hyperion at Arthur’s back, doors would start opening left and right.
If mentioning his kid and maybe bonding a bit over the pictures in their wallet would help this deal go through, then Arthur was on board.
Sophia, when he asked how she felt about meeting his family, squealed so shrilly Arthur’s ears started to ring. She calmed – deflated – a little when he explained that it was Merlin who’d be first to meet her, and not his rich father and blue-blooded stepmother, but he and Merlin were a unit now. The kid had to come first.
Of course, letting Merlin know was a whole other story. Arthur chickened out several times over the next couple of days, finally swearing to himself one Thursday that he would tell him, that night, over dinner. He refused to procrastinate a single day more.
The fact that Sophia was supposed to come over on Saturday had the tiniest bit to do with it.
So when Merlin climbed into the seat next to him and helped himself to an enthusiastic serving of pasta, Arthur stilled his twitching knee and pinched his lips together. He was pretty sure even introducing his father to his first girlfriend hadn't been this bad, even though she'd been so nervous she'd turned green.
But there was nothing to do but suck it up, so while Merlin was busy drowning his meal in a truly disgusting amount of pesto, he cleared his throat and said, "So you've probably noticed that I've been going out more lately."
Merlin didn't have to answer that - the incredulous expression on his face said it all.
Arthur cleared his throat again. "That's because I've met someone."
Merlin did look up at that. "A girl?"
Arthur bit his lip to keep the corners of his mouth from curving up. "Yes, Merlin, a girl."
The kid ate his tortellini for a while, considering. Halfway through, he gave up on eating entirely and, spearing a bit of pasta with his fork, contemplated that instead. Arthur made himself concentrate on his food and raised nonchalant eyebrows when Merlin pointed at him with his cutlery.
"Yes, Merlin?" he said.
The boy narrowed his eyes at Arthur. "Does she have curly hair?"
Arthur just barely kept his smile from turning into a disbelieving laugh. Did she have curly hair? Who cared? He didn't really think so, but he was fairly sure he'd seen a hair straightener somewhere in the chaos of her bathroom, so perhaps?
"Yes," he said firmly.
The kid twisted his mouth from side to side. "And you like her?"
This time, Arthur didn't hesitate before nodding. “I care about her more than anyone.”
A smile blossomed on Merlin's face at that, jarring in its sweetness, unsettling because every book Arthur had read, every website he'd checked, every parent he'd asked - not that he knew very many - had warned him to expect the worst. Merlin beaming at him over dinner was not the worst.
Instead, there was a strange little smile on his face, secretive and pleased. "Is she lovely?" he asked.
Perhaps 'lovely' wasn't quite the right word. Still, there were things Arthur wasn't ready for Merlin to know yet, so he smiled back and said, "Yes, quite lovely."
Merlin smiled at him still, suddenly looking old and wise beyond his years. “Then I’m happy for you,” he said and, while Arthur stared at him, dumbstruck, returned to his meal.
Merlin was practically buzzing the morning of his and Sophia’s scheduled first meeting. He didn’t actually admit to any sort of excitement, but his chatter was even more mindless than usual, and he flitted through the house and the garden and even, occasionally, before he caught himself abruptly, dropped back into his storytelling mind-set, offering some tidbit about handmaidens or besieged villages or the ghosts of dead kings before he snapped his mouth shut.
Arthur didn’t want to admit that he’d missed it.
Arthur made pizza for lunch just to have something to do, and because he didn’t trust himself around a hot stove. Merlin’s restlessness had made him jittery as well, and after lunch he spent two hours sitting on the couch with his knee twitching up and down while Merlin rummaged around upstairs, waiting for the clock on the DVD-player to switch over to 3.
Sophia had texted him when she’d set out from the tube station, but the buzz of the doorbell was no less jarring for all he’d been expecting it.
“I’ll get it!” he called. He could hear Merlin trample down the stairs behind him and quickened his step. “Hello,” he said to Sophia and, with barely any pause, wrestled her indoors. She’d dressed in a sweet, demure pink number that was no doubt intended to be both endearing and child-friendly. It didn’t really do much for Arthur, but that wasn’t the point.
Merlin’s footsteps came to an abrupt stop in the corridor behind him. Arthur shared a glance with Sophia – mutual terror – and then stepped aside so she was no longer hidden from view by his broader, bulkier body.
And so had perfect view of the moment when Merlin’s anticipatory half-smile slipped away.
Arthur wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was supposed to have done. In fact, she hadn’t even set down her purse or slipped out of her heels, and yet, face blank and unreadable, Merlin stared at her.
Arthur felt his stomach sink. It wasn’t that Merlin was frowning, or growing tearful, or yelling out his disgust, but his behaviour was still such a marked change from the previous mood of the morning that there could be no doubt Sophia had already failed to live up to his expectations. Somehow.
Still, Arthur ushered her forward, steering her down the hallway and gently bringing her to a stop in front of the boy.
“Merlin, I want you to meet Sophia.”
“Hello, Merlin. It’s nice to meet you.” Sophia smiled too brightly, no doubt affected by the sudden change in mood, and Arthur winced. Merlin was already irrational enough when it came to liking and disliking people – offending him by being too nice was not going to win Sophia any points.
He had a brief moment of hope when Merlin contemplated the hand Sophia thrust out at him. Then the boy took it – with his left –, looked up and smiled grimly. “There must have been beer goggles involved.”
In the silence that followed, he dropped Sophia’s hand and adopted what Arthur had come to call his ‘fighting stance’: Feet planted firmly on the ground, arms crossed, and his jaw set stubbornly forward.
Sophia gasped for air. She turned to Arthur and opened her mouth again, but the only sound she made was an outraged squeak.
Arthur considered drowning himself in his tea cup. “Merlin, apologize to Sophia,” he said.
Merlin shook his head ‘no’.
Too exhausted to even be angry, Arthur took hold of Merlin’s shoulder and turned him towards the stairs. “Why don’t you go upstairs to your room, then?” he said. He breathed a sigh of relief when Merlin cast an uncertain look back at them and then silently did as he was told.
He took the still speechless Sophia by the elbow and steered her into the kitchen. He gently nudged her into one of the chairs and started taking teabags, cups, and saucers out of the closet. “I’m sorry,” he said, when the silence grew dark and oppressive around them. “He can be a bit peculiar.”
“Peculiar?” Sophia repeated.
She nodded, face still dark, and then made a visible effort to smile, and Arthur was all the surer of his decision for it. She’d be good for them – bring in a bit of normalcy and perhaps a maternal touch that Arthur didn’t know how to provide, and every book and article and talk Arthur had gone through on the subject had warned him that Merlin likely wouldn’t react well at first.
“I’ll talk to him,” he said.
Sophia reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “I can go.”
For a moment, Arthur wavered. He’d rather not let Merlin work himself into a snit, but perhaps the time apart would give both of them a chance to calm down. He didn’t exactly know Merlin well enough to predict how he’d react to being punished, so really, he was flying absolutely blind.
Sophia reached for her bag, and Arthur reached a split-second decision. “Stay,” he said. “For tea. Merlin will survive, and you were going to tell me about your presentation.”
She grinned at him, relinquishing her hold on her purse and heading for the kettle instead, and Arthur found himself grinning helplessly as she started to talk. God, he was such a lucky guy.
Tea ended up lasting longer than expected, spilling over into another round and then some kissing at the door. Arthur refused to acknowledge the growing twinges of guilt at leaving Merlin alone for so long, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there, and when he caught himself not only clearing the used dishes off the table but also wiping the surface down for invisible crumbs, he forced himself to head up the stairs. It wasn’t fair to make Merlin miserable just because Arthur was being a coward.
He hesitated at the landing, anyway. It was quiet up here, quiet in the whole house. Arthur drew back his shoulders. He rapped his knuckles against Merlin’s door and then turned the handle to let it drift open on its own.
Merlin was sat on his bed, book open in his lap, but Arthur could tell he wasn’t reading a word.
“Hey,” he said, pulling the door shut behind him.
It took Merlin several moments to drag his eyes over to him.
“Put the book away for a moment,” Arthur said. He crossed the room while Merlin obeyed with unsteady fingers, shoving the book under his second pillow stuffed halfway into the gap between bed and wall. Arthur sat down next to him on the mattress. He opened his mouth to say what he’d rehearsed on the way up, about being reasonable and mature and keeping an open mind, but none of it would pass his lips. Instead he was suddenly tired, bone-weary and exhausted, and he reached up to wipe at one eye and didn’t say anything.
“Are you m-mad at me now?” Merlin asked. He was going for defiant, Arthur could tell, but the quaver in his voice gave him away.
“I’m certainly not pleased with your behaviour,” Arthur said sternly.
Merlin swallowed and looked down at his hands, balled into tiny fists, lying in his lap. “Oh,” he mouthed.
Arthur settled back against the wall and sighed. “Look, Merlin, you know perfectly well that I like Sophia. I like her a lot. I don’t want you to be best friends, okay?” He reached over and brushed the hair out of Merlin’s forehead, but the kid had his head ducked so low that Arthur still couldn’t see his expression. “All I’m asking is that you try to get along.”
“She doesn’t like me,” Merlin said quietly.
Arthur frowned. “Merlin, you barely exchanged two sentences with her. She was perfectly civil to you. Why would she not like you?”
“She tossed me into a wall,” Merlin said. He kept his head down, but Arthur could hear the spark of anger in his voice.
“When was this?” Arthur asked. Underneath his confusion, he could feel a spark of righteous anger, threatening to grow into some rash reaction. If he found out she’d done something to harm his kid while he wasn’t looking, there would most certainly be hell to pay.
Merlin’s voice was very quiet when he said, “Before.”
Arthur smoothed the frown out of his voice when he brushed the hair out of Merlin’s forehead again. “In this lifetime?” he asked, half-joking.
Merlin darted a hopeful look at him before he quickly looked away. “No,” he said softly.
Arthur sighed. Merlin flinched at the sound and didn’t look up, not even when Arthur bodily picked him up and settled him into his lap. They shuffled around for a moment, getting Merlin’s limbs arranged so they were at healthy-looking angles and nothing was going to give Arthur bruises, and then Arthur buried his nose in Merlin’s hair and closed his eyes.
“Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you,” he whispered. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud, not really, and was proven right when Merlin flinched at the words.
He mumbled something that might have been, “Sorry,” and Arthur sighed.
“I’m not after an apology,” he said. He squeezed Merlin’s upper arms; they were stick-thin. Arthur couldn’t remember ever being that small. “I just want you to try to get along with Sophia, okay? I really like her.”
Merlin was silent for a while. Eventually, so quietly Arthur had to strain to hear, he stammered “But you’re in love with Gwen,” into his collar.
“Who the fuck is Gwen?” Arthur asked. He felt bad about the swearing a moment later, but given the circumstances, he couldn’t say he hadn’t meant it. He tried to peer at Merlin’s face, but the kid kept his head turned away.
He didn’t reply, either, and Arthur got the feeling he hadn’t been supposed to hear that last part, so he let it go.
Merlin did not get acclimated to Sophia. In fact, the more the two interacted, the more his dislike for her seemed to grow. From what Arthur could tell, Sophia tried every trick in the book in their interactions, from overenthusiastic interest to casual nonchalance, and Merlin responded to each and every advance with a frown and a disdainfully wrinkled nose.
On the plus side, disliking Sophia seemed to at least give Merlin and Morgana a chance to bond. Morgana and Arthur had decided on a bi-monthly Saturday morning brunch so Merlin would have a chance to convince himself that no, Morgana was not about to shackle him to the ceiling for her nefarious plans, and while those had gone fine for the most part, Merlin had never really warmed up to Morgana until the two discovered their mutual hatred for Arthur’s new girlfriend.
Arthur rolled his eyes and told himself that it didn’t matter what they thought; that the fact that Merlin could conquer his fear of Morgana was a good sign that he’d grow to like Sophia, as well, as soon as Arthur introduced him to someone else to irrationally hate. It didn’t make it any easier for him to overhear their displeased whispers over whatever atrocities Sophia had committed this week, but Arthur was trying to be a mature adult, here – he could grit his teeth and bear it if he absolutely had to.
He’d be fucked if he was still doing their dishes, though.
There was a heat wave in early May, bad enough that Arthur had to take an extra shirt to work because for several days, he inevitably emerged from the tube soaked in sweat. Thursday during lunch, when he thought he saw the ceiling fans melt, Arthur caved and phoned Morgana. He left the office early to collect a miserable, sweaty Merlin from an appreciative Freya and took the kid straight to his sister’s house, where enduring her gloating was sweetened by the fact that she had a private pool.
“See, that’s what you get for having such a sustainable house,” Morgana said smugly when he emerged from her downstairs bathroom in his swimming shorts. “You have the clean conscience; I have the clean, lighted and heated swimming pool.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “The planet thanks you, Morgana, I’m sure.”
“Condemn me all you like,” she said, hands lifted in mocking defence. “I’ll doubt you’ll be complaining when you’re in it.”
True, he wouldn’t be. That didn’t mean he had to admit it, though, so he turned towards the upstairs, where Merlin had been spirited away to get changed himself. “Kid!” he called.
Morgana’s new bloke, a guy called Val with a buzz cut and a ring in one ear, snorted from where he was hip-deep in the fridge. He seemed like an okay guy, even though he was shirtless and wearing those thigh-high hipster shorts. So far he’d said hello and laughed at everything Merlin had done, not meanly, but in a ‘kids are so strange’- way that Arthur could seriously identify with.
“Coming!” Merlin yelled back, annoyed. He trampled down the stairs a moment later, stumbled three steps from the ground and fell neatly into Arthur’s chest.
“Very graceful,” Arthur said. He set Merlin on his feet on Morgana’s lovely cream carpet and gave him a little push. “Go on.”
“Why do I have to go first?” Merlin asked, frowning up at him.
“Because I said so.” Arthur had only recently discovered that magical phrase, and although it only worked as often as not, it was so satisfying on a primal level that he used it all the time now.
Val snickered again.
Merlin pulled a face. Sure enough, he didn’t take a single step towards the terrace, though he did shoot the wide glass doors a sceptical look. After a moment, he reached up to take Arthur’s hand into his clammy fingers; when Arthur glanced down at him, surprised, he didn’t even seem to be paying attention.
“Let’s go,” Arthur prodded. He gave Merlin a little nudge, and the boy nodded and didn’t move.
With a roll of his eyes, Arthur led the way in the end. The heat when he opened the sliding doors was like walking into a wall, and he untangled himself from Merlin's grip and dove headfirst into the pool. The cold water was a shock to the system at first, enough so that he came up sputtering, but once he’d caught his breath and wiped the liquid from his eyes, it was amazing to feel cool wetness on his skin that wasn’t his own sticky sweat. Grinning so broadly it almost hurt, he did a couple of quick laps around the pool. It was too small to be really satisfying, but the pull of long-neglected muscles and the feeling of the cold water running down his back made up for a lot.
Afterwards, he pulled his feet under himself and stood. At the narrow end, the water only came up to around his thighs, leaving him half chilled and half toasting. It was glorious.
Apparently Merlin didn't think so, because he was standing, dubiously, by the stairs Arthur had happily ignored. As far as Arthur could tell, not even his toes were wet.
"Come on," Arthur said, waving him in.
The boy shook his head.
Arthur made a move towards him, intending to bodily pull him in if he had to, and Merlin, with a speed Arthur hadn't thought him capable of, latched onto the stairs' metal railing and held on tight.
Frowning now, Arthur waded closer. "What's going on?" He asked. "Come on."
Merlin shook his head again.
“Come on,” Arthur said, splashing water in Merlin’s direction – lightly, because the boy looked like he might start crying any minute. Because when could anything ever be easy with this kid?
Merlin’s dubious expression didn’t ease. He kept clinging to the rails with all the strength in his scrawny body and, when Arthur sighed and took another step towards him, blurted out, “But what if you drown?”
“What if I drown?” Arthur repeated blankly.
Merlin nodded frantically. He still didn’t let go of the rails.
He blanched when Arthur drew himself up to his full height, letting the water pool from his body, and waded over to the steps with determination.
“Merlin,” he said. He didn’t think he sounded too condescending, but good God, this kid drove him up the wall sometimes. “This pool barely comes up to my hips. It’s absolutely clear so there are no monsters in it, and there are several adults that could pull me out in a heartbeat if they needed to.” He reached up and pried Merlin’s fingers away from the sun-warmed metal.
Before the boy could regain his iron grip, Arthur scooped him up and lifted him bodily into the water. Merlin clamped his thighs around Arthur’s waist and damn near strangled him with his arms around Arthur’s neck, but he didn’t start screaming or crying, so Arthur counted it as a success.
Slowly, with Merlin clinging to him like a barnacle, he moved away from the edge of the pool. He didn’t go any deeper – because there was tough love, and then there was torture – but he did move out into the open water, where there wasn’t an edge to cling to and the sun reflecting off the surface stung his eyes.
“See?” he said quietly. “It’s just a pool, Merlin. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Hesitantly, cautiously, Merlin peered down at the distorted sight of Arthur’s legs and feet under the water’s surface. “You’re not going to drown?”
“I’m reasonably sure, yes.” Arthur could feel the sarcasm creeping into his voice and swallowed it down with determination.
Merlin nodded. He glanced around then, at a loss, before settling down more firmly on Arthur’s hip. Arthur had the sneaking suspicion that he’d never been in a pool before and didn’t understand exactly what ‘having fun,’ meant, in this instance in particular as well as generally. Which just meant that Merlin was lucky that Arthur was there to show him the ropes.
He squeezed the kid’s waist, gently, and waited until he had Merlin’s uncertain attention. “Can I toss you?”
Merlin’s eyes darted towards the deep end and back. He nodded.
“Are you sure?” Arthur pressed.
Merlin nodded again, and Arthur moved before he could change his mind, sending him crashing into the shallow end with his arms and legs flying. The kid broke the surface sputtering. Arthur waded over and caught him before he could panic after all.
“Okay?” he asked, when Merlin had wiped the water from his eyes. “Again?”
“Again,” Merlin confirmed, with barely any hesitation, and shrieked in delight when Arthur sent him hurtling into the air towards the deeper end.
Morgana’s bloke eventually came out to say goodbye, which Arthur took as a cue for them to get going as well. His fingers were starting to prune and with the sun dipping behind the house, it wouldn’t be long before Merlin started shivering. Merlin didn’t complain overly much. He pouted a little but let Arthur boost him out of the water without much more than a moan of protest.
Morgana met them at the door. “There are towels on the sofa,” she said. “Arthur, beer?”
She disappeared when Arthur nodded. Arthur squeezed the worst of the water from his hair and tried not to ruin her carpeting on his way over to the couch. While Merlin rushed off for a shower, Arthur draped a beach towel with tastefully muted colours over his shoulders and shook his head to get the water out of his ears.
“Don’t you dare drip on my coffee table books,” Morgana’s voice drifted over from the kitchen.
Arthur glanced down at the display laid out under the glass surface – Modernist Cuisine, The Times Atlas of the World, the complete paintings of Gustav Klimt. Privately, he figured that a whole lot of them would be improved by a few waters stains, but he knew better than to say that out loud.
Still, Morgana must have guessed at his thoughts regardless, because her look when she returned with two open beer bottles in hand was the stern kind of disapproving only a displeased older sister could properly manage. She didn’t have the opportunity to reprimand him, though, before there was a crash and a squawk of alarm from somewhere inside the bowels of the house.
Arthur raised his voice. “Did you die?”
“I’m okay!” Merlin’s reply drifted back to them, and Arthur raised his eyes to the ceiling and shook his head.
When he looked over again, Morgana was watching him with a thoughtful expression.
“You know, it pains me to say this, but you might actually be pretty good at this fatherhood thing.”
Arthur laughed. “Don’t hurt yourself,” he said, mostly to cover the blush creeping along his neck. He wasn’t sure he really believed her, but it felt undeniably good – the thought that maybe, just maybe, there was somebody somewhere who couldn’t tell how badly he was fucking this up.
June brought with it a conference in Madrid for Arthur to attend, forcing him to leave Merlin in Morgana’s tender care. He hadn’t dared inflict the boy on Sophia, not with Merlin’s alternatively panicked and then churlish attitude over the fact that Arthur was leaving at all, and he wasn’t convinced he was ready to leave the kid at Sophia’s mercy. At least staying with Morgana seemed generally acceptable to the kid, and Arthur only had to reassure him of her lack of ill will and her general affection for Merlin a handful of times.
It didn’t matter, in any case, because the conference was part of Arthur’s job, one he’d quite like to keep, and the boy had to stay somewhere. Morgana would manage splendidly, Arthur was sure.
The only problem was, Arthur realized when he was leaning against the window of his room at the Hilton, looking out at the brightly lit streets with Carlisle Shean lounging on the other bed and Danica Roufall in the room across the hall, that Arthur hadn’t accounted for his own feelings in the matter. He’d done his absolute best to make sure Merlin was safely taken care of before he’d set foot inside the plane, and yet… and yet he had never even bothered to contemplate how he might fare, being separated from the boy for so long.
The thing was, Arthur missed him. He’d figured he’d be relieved to spend a couple of days away from the kid, that he’d enjoy a couple of drinks after dinner without having to worry about the time and the babysitter. Instead, he had had to constantly check himself to keep from looking around for him, had let the quick check-up call on Saturday turn into a half-hour long chitchat, and even managed to sneak a souvenir for the kid into his bag. He was hopeless. It was ridiculous.
“You’re antsy to be getting home,” Carlisle commented casually when the fasten-seatbelt sign faded into nothingness and Arthur practically sprang from his seat.
Arthur hesitated for a moment, feeling foolish, then shrugged the sentiment off. “I suppose,” he said, slipping on his blazer. “Aren’t you?”
“Not that antsy,” Carlisle muttered.
Danica, seated in the row behind, snickered under her breath – perhaps at Arthur, perhaps at Carlisle and his apparent marital problems, who knew.
Arthur lifted down their carry-on suitcases, picked up his briefcase and nodded at the flight attendant. “Just good to be back, I guess.”
They made small talk on the walk through the terminal (where they’d transfer to from the Piccadilly Line), interrupted only briefly by Border control. Arthur explained about having moved, vaguely, but didn’t mention why, distracted as he was by the thought of heading over to his sister’s house to pick up Merlin, who’d no doubt be grumpy about having been in her clutches for three whole days and would not be near as pleased to see Arthur as Arthur was to see him. Danica unwittingly saved him from having to explain by going off on a tangent about house-hunting with her boyfriend, and Arthur barely paid attention to the familiar walk past the last duty-free shop and out into the arrival hall.
The call had him jerking his head around to see Merlin barrelling towards him across the hall, Morgana trailing behind quickly left in the dust. Arthur dropped his briefcase and his carry-on and knelt down to catch him, even though his bag held his laptop and important documents and the fall made his knees ache. Who cared when it ended him with an armful of scrawny boy who looked too pleased to see him to mind the kisses Arthur pressed all over his face.
“You’re back!” Merlin mumbled instead, muffled in the collar of Arthur’s shirt, clinging tightly to Arthur’s neck.
Arthur was vaguely aware they were causing a scene – they had to be, didn’t they, since they were blocking the exit and Arthur’s things were scattered all over the floor while a little boy wrinkled his suit.
Funnily enough, he didn’t give a damn.
“I am,” he murmured instead. “And you’re here.”
“It was Morgana’s idea,” Merlin told him. He drew back a little bit, glancing over Arthur’s shoulder curiously. Right on. His colleagues.
“I couldn’t take his moping any longer,” Morgana explained, finally arrived.
Arthur smiled at her. “Take that,” he told Merlin with a nod towards his briefcase. Then he stood, righting his suitcase along the way, and leaned in to kiss her cheek. “Thank you,” he said quietly. He tipped his forehead against Merlin’s. “Were you good for her while I was gone?”
In response, Merlin stuck his fingers into his mouth. “Er. Mostly.”
“That’s a no, then,” Arthur said wryly. He cupped the back of Merlin’s head and pressed one last kiss to his temple, and then turned to face his other life.
“Danika, Carlisle, have you met my son?” Arthur gave them both a sunny smile, ignoring the flabbergasted looks on both their faces. He wasn’t surprised he’d caught them off-guard. Arthur was known around the office for being ruthless in pursuit of his goals, no matter how noble those goals might be, and it was no doubt a shock for them to have to reconcile his sharp suits and sharper words with the Arthur who showered his little boy with kisses.
Merlin, of course, chose that exact moment to grow unusually shy. He buried his head in Arthur’s neck when Carlisle cleared his throat and said, “Hello.”
“And my sister Morgana,” Arthur added, indicating her with a wave of his hand.
Morgana smiled graciously, with just a hint of bite. “It’s lovely to meet you.” To Arthur, she said, “I brought the car.”
“There’s a perfectly serviceable tube line,” Arthur felt obliged to point out. “In fact, I took it to get here.”
Morgana scoffed. “Loathe as I am to deprive you of the pleasantness of the London Underground, I will be driving my car back to Northwood regardless, so you might as well ride with me.”
With a quiet sigh, Arthur nodded his assent. Morgana took his briefcase from Merlin’s grubby fingers, waved at Arthur’s colleagues and sashayed towards the elevators.
“Have a good trip home,” Arthur said to Danica and Carlisle. With afternoon traffic being what it was, they’d most likely arrive before he did. He tried to get Merlin to say goodbye as well, but the boy seemed content to cling to Arthur with all his might, so Arthur offered them a what-can-you-do smile and followed after his sister.
He thought he felt their stares boring into his back as he walked away.
Arthur, pink from speed-walking all the way home from the station, almost dropped his keys fumbling them into the lock. He set his briefcase down and hung his dry-cleaning up on the coat rack and yelled, “Merlin, you better be ready.”
There was no reply from the boy. Instead, he thought he heard Sophia’s voice, indistinct but identifiable, from somewhere. He found her in the kitchen, in front of an empty cup and saucer, and brushed around her on the way to the fruit basket.
“Hi Sophia, I’m sorry but I can’t right now, I have to take Merlin to my parents’, and we’re already a bit behind schedule.”
“Who’s Gwen?” Sophia asked.
Arthur raised his brows. “Who?”
Her expression was all venom when she snarled at him, “The woman your son keeps talking about.”
Arthur blinked at her a couple of times before it finally clicked. “Oh, Gwen,” he said. “I’m not sure she exists, actually. He’s been talking about her since I met him.”
She stared at him for a moment, and he stared back at her until she seemed to remember that it was Merlin they were talking about, and a made-up invisible girlfriend for his foster parent actually was the most reasonable and logical explanation.
“Right,” she said, grimacing. “I should have figured.”
Arthur tried not to let his annoyance show. If she was going to show up uninvited, she was going to have to live with the consequences, too, and part of that was dealing with Merlin’s quirky side. Making disparaging comments about it really wasn’t helping anybody.
Determined to let the matter drop before it turned into a fight that he didn’t have time for, Arthur peered into the living room. “Where’s Freya?”
“I sent her home when I got here. Figured Merlin might open up a bit more if it’s just me and him.” She faked a grin. “I won’t be making that mistake again.”
“Sophia,” Arthur said, but he had nothing to follow it up with, and after a moment of impatient waiting, she gathered up her things.
“It’s fine,” she said. She gave him a quick peck. “You’re busy and I have better things to do than sit here.” And listen to this,, she didn’t say. “I’ll call you.”
“Right,” Arthur said. Belatedly, he remembered to pluck an apple and a banana from the fruit bowl and leave them on the shoe cabinet on his way up the stairs.
Merlin’s door was closed. Arthur managed the barest of knocks before he pushed open the door, and almost groaned when he saw Merlin sitting on the floor in his socks, fumbling around with his plastic knights. Merlin didn’t usually play – he read his book a lot, and every once in a while he’d make a mess of whatever toys people had gifted him with, but Arthur rarely saw him engaging in the kind of games other boys that age seemed to like – the sort of playing Arthur remembered doing himself; running through the house yelling, being pirates and pushing toy cars around or fashioning police guns out of, well, anything. Even now, what he was doing wasn’t playing in the traditional sense – he had his soldiers battling each other, sure, but it didn’t look like he thought it particularly fun.
Arthur blew out a sharp breath and resigned himself to being late.
“Hello,” he said then, to the boy who just barely peeked back at him over a cautious shoulder.
Merlin bit his lip, so even if he hadn’t pissed her off intentionally, he still knew something was up. He stiffened guiltily when Arthur plopped down behind him, and froze when Arthur wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close.
“You,” Arthur said silkily, right in his ear, “are a bloody menace.”
Merlin’s face twisted unhappily. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Yes, you did.” Arthur forestalled further argument by laying his hand on Merlin’s mouth. “Have you got your kit?”
The boy nodded, wide-eyed, and Arthur released him. “Well then, get it and let’s go.”
Merlin kept his mouth shut until they were almost at the M25, which was quite a while considering the traffic. He did shoot Arthur continuous quick glances, but it wasn’t until they’d passed the Edgware tube stop that he said, voice small, “Aren’t you mad?”
Arthur pointed a warning finger at the boy. “Oh, I’m plenty mad, believe me. I’d roast you over a fire pit if I had one, so really, it’d be in your best interest to stop reminding me.”
Merlin hummed thoughtfully.
“I hope my father makes you play monopoly all night,” Arthur muttered under his breath, deeply gratified when the kid’s horrified look assured him that it would be sufficient punishment.
Arthur was loitering around the staff lounge, waiting for Aislinn in the corner office to send him the newest batch of data, when Marks showed up. They were usually friendly enough, but certainly not friends, and Arthur found himself growing annoyed when Marks first needed something from that cupboard and then something from that drawer, forcing him to keep shuffling around the kitchen area until he finally gave in and fled to the other side of the room.
He thought he saw Marks grin.
“Something the matter?” he asked.
Marks pulled a mock-considering face. “I hear you have a son now,” he said.
Arthur raised his brows. “What of it?”
“Oh, nothing.” Marks shrugged, in a way that made it obvious that it was indeed something. "It's just convenient, isn't it? We start working with this ruthless corporate giant whose only weak spot are his children, and suddenly you have a kid of your own." He showed his teeth. "How very relatable you suddenly are."
Arthur felt his jaw drop. A dozen thoughts ran through his head; how dare you; is that how low you would sink?; you're crazy. In the end, he didn't say any of them though, just brushed by Marks on his way back to work.
"You okay?" Elena asked, peering past her ice cream cone at Arthur's face. She’d insisted on treating them, as a ‘summer’s over’ consolation for the boys. "You've been all..." She waved her free hand. "... broody today."
Arthur pulled a face. “It’s fine,” he said. He waved her off. “It’s just been a long – everything.”
“Fine, clearly,” she said.
Arthur didn’t say anything for a long moment. He could handle anything life threw at him, he’d learned, except for nice people, so he kept his eyes firmly fixed on Merlin and Gwaine up ahead, arguing happily about something or other, until the urge to break down in a pathetic ball of misery had passed.
“Nothing I can do anything about,” he said.
Elena grimaced. “Sorry to hear that,” she said.
Arthur waved her off. “Things’ll get better,” he said. He took a deep breath, and smiled. “They have to.”
Annis met Arthur in the corridor. “Mr. Pendragon,” she said. She sounded cold.
Arthur didn’t think it was anything he’d done. Her anger must instead be aimed at Merlin, then, but the thought didn’t really make him feel any better. He’d had to abandon a site inspection in Reading, spend a good hour or so stuck in London traffic, and was now apparently tasked with dealing with the principal’s bad mood. His day just wasn’t shaping up very well.
“Ms. Annis,” he said.
Her expression didn’t lighten. “I’m glad you could finally make it.”
"Yes," Arthur said. "And I’m sure it must have been very important for you to ask me to miss work.”
“You could say that, yes.” Annis’ face was pinched. "Would you step into my office?"
"In a minute." She beckoned him into her office again. "I'd like to have a word about what happened, first."
Arthur followed her reluctantly. She seemed determined not to be rushed, though, making sure he was settled and offering him tea - tea! - before she sat behind her desk. She cleared her throat and shifted, and it was all Arthur could do not to roll his eyes.
“You wanted to have a word,” he reminded her.
“I did.” She brushed her hair off her shoulder. “From our correspondence with Merlin’s caseworker, we’re aware that Merlin does not usually tend towards violence.”
“He doesn’t, no,” Arthur said. Violent stories, yes. Not actual violence.
Annis nodded grimly. "You should know, then, that he was involved in an altercation today."
Altercation. Good Lord. Considering the damage Merlin could do to himself, Arthur didn't actually want to know what he'd look like when somebody else got to him.
“Is he hurt?” he asked. At least it couldn’t be that bad since they were still here, and not at the hospital.
“No, he’s fine for the most part. One of our staff checked him over.”
Annis gave him a significant look that he didn't really know how to read, so he nodded. "Can I see him now?" he asked. He'd have a clearer head and more patience with the principal if he knew what the damage was, he figured.
"Yes, of course." Her face was still pinched as she leaned over to pick up the phone. "Mary, could you send in the boys, please."
Arthur gripped the arms of his chair and steeled himself. At least Annis didn't look any more at ease, tapping the end of her pen against her desk in the tense moments of silence before the door opened and Merlin and another boy were ushered inside.
Merlin was fine. Utterly fine, besides a raised welt on his forearm that looked like it hadn't even broken the skin. Perhaps a bit red-eyed, and definitely on edge, but he looked like no one had tried to touch a hair on his head.
The boy beside him, though… he was a mess. He had cuts on his lips and cheek and a black eye and bruises on his arms and around his wrists, and he was six years old, at most.
Arthur gave Merlin a disbelieving look.
Merlin crossed his arms in front of his chest, going for defiant, but from his expression, it was clear he knew he had crossed a line. And thank God for it. Arthur wasn’t sure what he would have done if he’d turned out to have a budding sociopath on his hands.
“Are you satisfied?” Annis asked, voice low. She didn’t look perturbed by Arthur’s glare, turning to the two boys instead. “Mordred, your mother will be here in a moment.”
The little boy looked so relieved that Arthur felt an odd, displaced anger on his behalf. He shouldn’t look like he’d just been run over, not at six, and Arthur wanted to protect him, to show the world that messing with the child would not go over well. Even if the person messing with him was Arthur’s very own.
The guilty look on his kid’s face didn't help.
“Miss Howden will get you both a snack,” Annis said.
Merlin tried to catch Arthur’s eye when the obviously pregnant secretary ushered them both out. Arthur wasn’t sure what his face was showing at the moment, so he kept his face turned firmly away.
“Tea?” Annis offered again.
“Please,” Arthur said, mouth uncomfortably dry, only to nearly upend the drink in his lap five minutes later when a woman burst into the office, snarling, “I am going to kill that little bastard.”
Nimueh, apparently, was Mordred’s mother. She had striking blue eyes and long hair of that rich red colour that Henna dye gave you, and apparently quite the temper. She was a single parent too, and Arthur had hoped that might give them something to bond over, a bit of a, ‘Haha, our boys; let’s figure out how to get this straightened out.’
Instead, she hated Merlin
It didn’t help that Mordred had been at St. Paul’s for no more than three weeks and was mostly a charming little angel, and that Merlin apparently had a reputation around school for being an antisocial weirdo. A reputation that Mordred had already heard and told his mother about before Merlin ever grew aware of his existence, and that she now slung back in Arthur’s face like it was his fault.
“Yes,” he said into the expectant silence. Denying it was pointless. “Merlin does have some issues. He’s a sweet boy usually, but he does have his issues.”
The way Nimueh was eyeing him, he was fairly certain she was fantasizing about strangling him. “Oh, and I guess that makes beating my son’s face to mush a-okay, then?”
Arthur clenched his jaw. “No, of course not,” he said, after a moment. “And I never said anything of the sort.”
Nimueh laughed sharply. “You’re one of those ‘boys will be boys’ - types, aren’t you? Violence and disrespect and bullying is all fine and dandy, because Lord forbid you admit to fathering a fucking psychopath.”
He sucked in a harsh breath. “Now wait just a minute,” he snapped. “Merlin is not a bully, and he’s not a psychopath.”
She sneered, and Arthur took a deep breath to keep from snarling at her. If some teenager had made Merlin look like that, he’d have wanted to strangle them as well. “I understand you’re upset,” he said slowly. “But please do watch your tone. Yes, hurting your son was not okay, but I won’t have you talking about my kid like that.”
“Oh, like father, like son, then.” She laughed again. “Is he making you proud? Were you beating up little boys for lunch money at that age, too?”
“There’s no need for that,” Arthur ground out.
“Oh, there is every need.” She raised her hand, and for a moment Arthur thought she might slap him, but in the end she only clenched her fingers back into her purse. “There is every need when my son ought to be in hospital and yet here we are, with the person responsible giving everybody big doe-eyes and you offering me lame excuses!”
“I’m not excusing anything,” Arthur snapped. He was getting loud again, he could tell, but this whole business really wasn’t good for his blood pressure. He took a deep breath and said, “I’m trying to explain, alright? Merlin’s been through a lot, and he’s a little messed up. He’s not a bad kid.”
“He’s a little devil,” Nimueh snarled at him, “and I won’t rest until he’s been expelled.”
Ms. Annis cleared her throat. “Here’s what’s going to happen,” she said, when both of them had turned to her. “Mordred will be excused from classes until he is well enough to return. Merlin will be suspended for two weeks, during which he will speak to a psychiatrist and a behavioural therapist.” She set her teacup down. “Is that something both of you can live with?”
Nimueh bared her teeth. “Not even remotely,” she said, but she got to her feet and stomped out before anyone could say another word.
Arthur gave Annis a sardonic look. “I do hope you’ve achieved your goal, here,” he said.
Annis inclined her head. “We’ve spoken with Merlin’s caseworker,” she said, “as is protocol. She requests you go see her before you take Merlin home.”
“Lovely.” Arthur got to his feet as well. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Annis,” he said. “I suppose we won’t be seeing you for a while.”
The corridor outside the office was deserted, almost dark, with only the windows set into the distant doors providing any sort of light. Arthur strode towards them. He needed air. Air, and five minutes away from everybody.
Soft footsteps trailed after him, stopping abruptly when Arthur whirled around, and somehow, that of all things passed his breaking point. He threw his hands into the air, making Merlin flinch, paced the width of the corridor once, stopped and stared down at the boy. "What the fuck, Merlin. What is wrong with you?"
The boy flailed his hands around, an uncoordinated movement that would have made Arthur laugh any other day. Today, he felt like he might never laugh again.
"You don't know what he did," Merlin protested.
"Oh, please," Arthur barked, with a sharp movement that silenced the boy immediately. "He's six years old, Merlin, what could he have done? What could he have possibly done to deserve that?"
Merlin dropped his gaze. He rubbed his fingers along his nose. “You don’t know what he did,” he repeated quietly.
“Oh, really?” Arthur snapped. “Did he steal your favourite cuddly toy in your past life? I thought we were getting past this, come on.”
With a hissed breath, Merlin drew away from him.
“It’s – it doesn’t matter.” Arthur ran his hand through his hair. “It doesn’t matter what he did.” He tightened his fingers, hoping for the burn to ground him. “For now, let’s just - Let’s just go.”
The yard was deserted. School had let out a while ago, leaving a deserted playground behind, and Arthur’s car parked just beyond the gates. With the way things were going, he firmly expected a ticket under the wiper. Instead, the sun was shining overhead and a bird was chirping somewhere. It was a lovely day.
He covered his face with his hands and took a couple of deep, raggedy breaths. It was fine. Everything was going to be fine.
A small hand touched his leg. “Arthur…”
Arthur raised exasperated hands, and Merlin drew back.
“Get in the car, Merlin. Please.”
The boy hesitated. “I didn’t mean to,” he whispered.
Arthur didn’t say anything, and after a long, silent moment, Merlin got into the car.
Merlin spent the car ride staring at his toes, and Arthur spent every moment they weren’t actively moving staring at his downturned face in the rear view. The silence in the car was deafening ever since Arthur, in a fit of annoyance, had flicked off the radio, and it was a relief when he finally pulled into the lot behind the Centre for Social Services where Mithian worked.
“Come on,” he told Merlin. “Out you get.”
Merlin cast a sluggish, confused look around, giving Arthur enough time to get out, open the back door and reach for his seatbelt. He lifted Merlin up and out of the car, and that was when Merlin finally seemed to catch on to where they’d gone. He let out a screech Arthur had never heard before, halfway between scream and a whine, and twisted away from Arthur so violently Arthur nearly dropped him. He hardly managed to get the kid out of the car, screaming and flailing, wind-milling hands clipping him underneath the chin.
He swore. “Merlin, stop it.”
Merlin didn’t. Instead, he redoubled his efforts, writhing in Arthur’s hands until Arthur, ears ringing and palms sweaty, gathered his bony wrists in one hand and managed to clamp his free arm tightly around the boy’s waist.
“Will you calm down? What is the matter with you?”
More screaming, more struggling.
Arthur gave him a little shake. “Stop it. Stop it!”
“No!” The boy yanked at Arthur’s hands. “No, I won’t, I won’t.”
Arthur hissed when those struggling arms collided with his jaw once again. “Calm down,” he snapped. “I am your king, and you will obey me.”
The boy went silent as abruptly as if Arthur had flipped a switch. All tension seemed to drain from his body and he slumped in Arthur’s hold, feeling more like a ragdoll than the child who had been fighting Arthur so desperately only moments before. Eventually, while Arthur was still holding his breath, his arms came up around Arthur’s neck. Arthur couldn’t tell if he was crying, but that was certainly not just him who was shaking, right there.
Slowly, so as not to disturb the fragile quiet, he closed the kid’s door and let the locks chirp shut. Merlin remained slack in his arms on their way up the stairs and through the main doors, didn’t move even after Arthur had checked them in at the front desk, even though they earned some curious looks from the women behind it. He actually grew quite heavy after a while, but Arthur didn’t feel any particular desire to set him down until they’d taken the elevator up to the fourth floor and found Mithian’s office.
Arthur’s knock echoed strangely down the bleak corridor. He didn’t think the place had been this oppressive the last time he’d been here, but then he also hadn’t had Merlin in his arms, or, after he’d set him down, clinging to his leg like a limpet.
Mithian opened the door like she was marching into battle. One look at the pair of them, though, and she softened, then sighed. “I’ll need to speak to you at some point, but for now I’ll try to keep it short,” she told Arthur. “Come on, Merlin.”
The kid didn’t move.
“Go on,” Arthur said, to similar results.
Mithian gave him a look that very clearly expected him to fix this, so with a sigh and a heavy heart, Arthur dropped down to his knees.
“Mithian just wants to talk to you for a minute,” he said. “And I’ll be right here when you’re done.”
Merlin looked away. “You promise?”
How, how had Arthur ever thought this would be a good idea? Stomach in knots, he turned Merlin back to face him with one hand on his tiny cheek. “I’m not going to leave you here, Merlin, okay? Not now, not ever. Even if you were dying in a ditch somewhere, I’d come find you, okay?”
Arthur didn’t need Mithian’s raised eyebrows to know that was crap as far as motivational speeches went, but wonders never ceased – Merlin actually seemed to calm down a bit. He didn’t reply, but he did nod at Arthur seriously before he shuffled past Mithian into her office.
The woman gave Arthur an exhausted smile before she closed the door in his face, and Arthur took a deep breath. Okay then.
He paced for a while, straining to hear even the faintest murmur of voices through the wall. When that didn’t work, he gradually expanded his pacing horizon, returning to the door periodically to see if perhaps they were through already.
They never were, and if Arthur were being honest, he was a bit relieved by the fact. The moment Mithian finished with the kid, Arthur was going to have to take over again, and he still had no idea what to say or do. He wasn’t even sure what to think.
Groaning, Arthur pressed his hands to his temples. Coffee would soothe the burgeoning headache, he hope, so he dragged himself down the corridor to where he’d spotted a vending machine.
The caffeine helped, some, despite being terrible, but not enough to steady his hands around the waxed paper cup. Sighing, Arthur bummed a cigarette off a guy flipping through promotional pamphlets nearby and found an exit to loiter outside of. He’d smoked some in his uni days, though never enough to fuck with his endurance for footie. He’d stopped around the time he’d gone corporate, since it was impossible to look imposingly professional while hanging around the back stairs with a fag, but every once in a while he picked up a smoke because just going through the motions calmed him down.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Mordred’s face. Seeing those bruises, and knowing it was Merlin who was responsible for them, that the boy he was so extraordinarily fond of could do that to a defenceless little kid. That at not even nine years old, Merlin was apparently capable of being that irrationally, and indefensibly, vicious. Merlin, who most of the time seemed oddly, well. Sweet.
Arthur smoked his cigarette down to a nub and crushed it under his heel. He wasn’t about to fly off the walls anymore, but he didn’t really feel any less terrible. He wasn’t willing to let Merlin go, he wasn’t, but how on Earth could Arthur claim to be equipped to handle this? He couldn’t even deal with his own issues half the time.
Maybe Mithian could talk some sense into the boy. She had to have experience dealing with difficult children, didn’t she? No doubt she had a degree of some sort. Or Freya, Freya knew what she was doing. Or that psychiatrist he’d taken Merlin to. Maybe his father – no, not his father.
He realized belatedly that he’d begun pacing again and stopped, running his hands through his hair. He already missed his cigarette and was seriously debating going back to find the bloke and asking for another when his mobile rang.
“Mr. Pendragon,” Mithian said. “Where are you?”
“At the vending machine,” Arthur said, because ‘smoking’ would probably make him look bad.
Mithian breathed in through her nose. “Would you mind returning to the office, please?” she said, with a bit of a quake in her voice, and rang off before Arthur could reply.
Frowning, Arthur made his way back to the elevator. His feet sped up seemingly of their own volition, the tone of Mithian’s voice unsettling him more and more the longer he had time to dwell on it.
The lift spat him out after what felt like an age. The hallway was dim, despite the white walls, but Arthur had no difficulty spotting Merlin and Mithian waiting for him, standing side by side by her office door. Merlin watched him approach with no change in expression, clinging to Mithian’s hand so tightly his knuckles were turning white. Mithian didn’t twitch, though, even though it had to hurt.
“Hey,” Arthur said, cursing the guilt that was making his tongue clumsy. He raised questioning eyebrows at Mithian, who looked back impassively, and then knelt down on the hard linoleum floor in front of his kid.
“Hey,” he said. He reached out and caught Merlin’s chin between his fingers. “I said I wasn’t going to leave, didn’t I?”
Merlin’s brows drew together unhappily. “You said you weren’t going to leave me here, but you did.”
Arthur sighed. They could argue the point all day, probably, but he had to admit that in Merlin’s position, he would likely have gotten upset also. “I’m sorry there was a misunderstanding,” he said. “I just went to get a drink. I’d never just leave you somewhere, alright? Especially not after I promised I wouldn’t.”
Unconvinced, Merlin nodded.
“Well,” Arthur said after a while. “Now that we’ve thoroughly let each other down, what do you say we move on from this bit of unpleasantness?”
“Okay,” Merlin said, barely understandable.
With a groan, Arthur lifted the boy and settled him on his hip. Merlin wasn’t usually the cuddly type, but Arthur wasn’t particularly surprised when the kid clung to him with all his might, half strangling him, and buried his face in Arthur’s collar.
“Let’s just go home, hm?” Arthur said.
Merlin nodded immediately without so much as raising his head.
With a sigh, Arthur held his hand out for Mithian to shake. “Thank you,” he said. “Would it be alright if I called you tomorrow?” He indicated the clinging kid with a tilt of his head. “I think we’re done for today.”
Mithian nodded, her lips curling into a commiserating smile. “Tomorrow.” She stepped closer and laid a hand, briefly, on Merlin’s back. “I’ll be waiting for your call.”
“Goodbye, Mithian,” Arthur said. He looked down at Merlin to see if the boy had anything to add, and, when the kid’s eyes narrowed to unhappy slits instead, gave the woman a helpless shrug. “We’ll be in touch.”
There were lights on at the house when Arthur pulled the car into the driveway. He flipped off the ignition and leaned his head into his hands. He supposed he should have been grateful that Sophia was there, that there was someone waiting for him to help him carry the burden of parenting, that he could relax and unwind and maybe figure out what to do.
Instead, he could only think that the last thing he needed was another round of Sophia and Merlin: The Uphill Battle.
Basically, Arthur was capable of being a father or a boyfriend, but he had no idea how he’d ever come to the conclusion that he could manage both.
Still, sitting in his car in the encroaching dark had never helped him any, and Sophia had no doubt heard the car pull up. A glance in the mirror told him Merlin had fallen asleep in his seat, so at least any flipping out that was likely to happen would at least only be one-sided.
With a deep, heartfelt sigh, Arthur went to extract the kid from his seat for the second time that day. This time, though, Merlin didn’t struggle. He woke up just enough to clamp his knees around Arthur’s waist, giving his already rumpled suit a swift mercy killing, and closed his eyes again.
Arthur’s back was going to kill him tomorrow. So was his boss, and probably various individuals from Merlin’s school. He gritted his teeth and lugged the boy’s dead weight to the door, sliding the key into the lock as quietly as he could. He toed his shoes off in the hall without finding the light switch and followed the dim electric halo spilling out of the kitchen, where Sophia stood by the window, staring out into the dark.
Arthur attempted a smile, a tired greeting at the tip of his tongue, when she caught sight of his reflection in the window and whirled around.
“I’ve been trying to call you for an hour,” she hissed.
Over the mess of Merlin’s hair, Arthur gave her a stern look. She was upset, he got that, but there were times for expressing grievances, and when he had his exhausted kid in his arms wasn’t one of them.
“I was occupied,” he said, voice low, and indicated the boy with his chin.
Her lips tightened unpleasantly. “Too occupied to pick up the phone?” she asked, although at least she, too, kept her voice quiet.
Arthur tilted his head to the side to shoot a quick glance at Merlin’s face. The kid had his eyes shut, although whether or not he was still asleep wasn’t so easy to tell. “Frankly, yes,” he said. He pushed past her into the kitchen, hoping for some left-over coffee. The pot was drained and in the sink. Sophia’s doing, no doubt, and while it wasn’t fair to be irritated with her for cleaning up, he couldn’t help a sharp stab of annoyance.
He shifted the dead weight in his arms, and Merlin moved with him, a grumble of protest escaping his parted lips. Arthur didn’t know, though, if he was easing out of sleep or sinking deeper into it.
“Look,” Arthur said, as quietly as he could without his voice losing its stern note. “I’ve had a long bloody day, and the last thing I want to do right now is fight with you. Anything you want to rake me over the coals for, it can wait until the morning, alright?”
Her glittering eyes followed him on his way out of the kitchen. Arthur bit down on his tongue hard enough to hurt to keep from saying anything else. He concentrated on Merlin instead, on lugging him upstairs, on pulling his shoes and socks off and getting him settled under his bedcovers. He stared down at the boy for a moment, at the sweep of his lashes and the way his dark hair fell into his eyes. With a sigh, he switched off the light, and then he stretched out next to him, at the very edge of the bed, and stared at the slack face.
Merlin was out cold, so deep into sleep that Arthur’s hand in his hair didn’t even make him twitch. He was asleep and likely wouldn’t stir again until well into the morning. There was no reason for Arthur to stay anymore, and yet he found himself unwilling to leave. Instead, he ran his fingers through his kid’s hair, leaning in to kiss his forehead every once in a while. He had no idea what he’d even been thinking, bringing a kid this damaged to live with him. He knew, though, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was going to fight tooth and nail to keep him, now that Merlin was his.
Movement in the hallway had him turning his head. It was Sophia, a black silhouette against the dim light in the hall. He couldn’t see her expression, and when he made no move to get up, she disappeared without a word.