Life is a dream, realise it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is life, fight for it.
-- Mother Theresa
The air swims around him muggy. Summer evening chill clinging to Merlin’s skin as he steps outside. Blends of orange hues chasing pinks dance above as the night draws closer to darkness. Sparse beams of light cast halos on the gravelled floor from the streetlights overhead, their glow wrapped in shadows as the wiry arms of the trees wrap around the cool metal pole. Years spent twisted and moulding, hugging the scattered lampposts tightly in their grasp, causing its foliage to blaze in neon light.
The courtyard is empty, save him and the figure of a small boy across the way. The child can’t be more than six, shaggy brown hair tousled over his face as he runs and jumps across the playground equipment in the fenced off section. High pitched giggles echo across to Merlin’s ear, the boy’s carefree laughter piercing Merlin’s heart through with sadness.
Swallowing he sets down his bag, taking the few steps across to the play area, flinching at the loud screech the rusted gate exhales as he pushes it open. The little boy stops swinging on his seat, eyes wary and unsure. Merlin offers him a bright smile, comes to sit on the swing-seat next to him and pushes off the ground gently.
“Hi” Merlin tries. The boy remains quiet. “I’m Merlin. What’s your name?”
“Mum says I’m not to speak to strangers.”
Merlin lets out a soft chuckle, “Your mum is very wise.” He stops swinging and looks at the small child beside him. “Didn’t she also tell you to not be out so late?”
“She’s sleeping… I just wanted to play.”
Merlin hums, casting an eye back towards his bag set just outside the fence. “I haven’t seen you outside playing before. Are you new here?”
The little boy nods uncertainly, big round eyes peek out from deep raven lashes. “Me and mum moved here two days ago… My name’s William by the way.”
“Nice to meet you William… Is it just you and your mum?”
William nods, hands squirming as he clutches at a little plastic toy in his lap.
“You like dragons?” Merlin smiles, eyeing the gold painted figurine, tints of red glistening under the streetlamps. The little plastic toy is probably from a Happy Meal box but by the way William holds it close to his chest, Merlin can obviously tell it’s precious to him. He gets up and heads over to his bag, pulls out a few t-shirts and pairs of socks until he finally finds what he’s looking for. Running a delicate finger down the spine, he turns and finds William hanging nervously by the gate. “Now William, I’m about to go away, see?” He looks across at the duffel holder and back at the little boy whose eyes are raking over the wooden figure in his palm. “I need someone who’s going to take extra special care of this for me. Think you can do that?”
William’s fingers slowly reach out, smiling as he holds the two dragon toys in his hands; he nods emphatically. “Yes”
“Good lad. Now you better get back home before your mum wakes up huh? You need to take extra special care of her too”
William cocks his head to the side, gives the toys in his hand once last look before grinning at Merlin widely, yelling a “thank you” as he runs back to the staircase, nearly knocking someone over as he goes.
“Hey, you ready?” the voice says and Merlin nods.
.: 9 months earlier :.
Merlin would dream most nights of another life.
He’d live in France, Paris naturally, (wasn’t that where all the best artists lived?), he’d have one of those swanky converted loft apartments along the Cours La Reine; and if he leant out his window just so, tilt his head to the right and there, there he would see the Eiffel Tower, in all its beautiful splendour. His days would be spent in boutique cafes. A cappuccino cooling in the soft spring breeze as his fingers dusted charcoal across the notepad spread in his lap, the smudges and shades moulding into a young girl, no more than six, her tight auburn curls danced across his page; her lips pursed as the soapy liquid at the end of her wand created a sprinkling of bubbles that glinted multi coloured in the late afternoon sun. Her peal of laughter echoed in his mind, the carelessness reverberating against his ears, deafening, the noise taking an almost hollow cackle as it built and built and built… until the sound of some rather large, previously unmovable object, shook him from his dream, landing against the other side of his wall with a thud.
Merlin can barely decipher the screams from next door but the yells of anger are still loud enough to rouse him from his slumber. He rubs his eyes, blearily pulling the tattered curtains back to reveal the same dull grey London skyline that had greeted him every morning for the past seventeen years. A harrowing shriek of “Get out, you lying pig!” has Merlin collapsing back in bed, cursing just how far away Paris really is.
Living here, the days seem to blur together. Merlin follows the same routine every morning: Get up, brush teeth, have a shower (if there was still enough hot water left in the tank) and get dressed. He stumbled into the kitchen, pulled out a slice of bread from the freezer and shoved it in the toaster, the bread tacky and sticking to the roof of his mouth. The only thing keeping him sane most mornings was a sharp hit of tea; flicking the kettle on, Merlin reaches out to pull the teabags from the cupboard and – ah.
There is the note for today.
He and his mother seem to communicate via notes of late. He finds them on the table (Remember to put the washing on before you go to school dear), or pinned to the fridge hanging from a magnet found at the bottom of a cereal box six years ago (Working the night shift at the hospital again love, make sure to fix yourself something for dinner). Or like this morning when he pulls it off the empty PG Tips packet (Out of teabags – could you be a dear and fetch some? Ta, love mum x). Merlin smiles softly to himself as he turns off the kettle and fills himself a glass of water instead; taking a seat around the decrepit kitchen table, he allows himself a few minutes of solitude before facing the sullen life outside the door. Not that he should complain really, he’s been living the same life for as long as he can remember and from what his mother has told him, she’s been living it a lot longer than that.
Merlin dreams of getting off this estate every damn day. Some places have a shiny glossy exterior, like one of those girls he’d see running after the night bus, in plastic heels, with plastic lashes and plastic smiles on their faces. Some places have a veneer that hide something dark and ugly underneath, but here on the Holly Street estate there is no cover, no caked over painting of a happy neighbourhood.
No, Holly Street is just as ugly on the outside as it is on the in. Not only that but it makes the people who live there ugly too.
Merlin can never shake the pitiful looks he receives from the school receptionist when he rattles off his address, or the disapproving glances he gets from those on the bus when he gets off outside the tall dark grey buildings: “Oh, he’s one of them,” he could hear them whisper, and well, isn’t that just sweet prejudice in its truest form? The fact is that they aren’t the nicest flats - none of the fancy big televisions or latest gadgets - but they make do and with Hunith spinning three jobs on the trot ‘making do’ was the best they can manage. Truth is, he wants to be free of this estate as much for his mum as himself; he owes her everything. After his father passed away when he was barely a few days old, Hunith was left on her own, no money to afford the rent and no job willing to take on a young mother with a baby in tow. If truth be told, Merlin still doesn’t understand how she managed it, how she coped with it all. She refused even to let him leave school and help her with the bills.
“No, Merlin, I want more for you, so much more. Study and craft, find something you love, my dear boy; find something you’re passionate about. That’s all I want for you.”
So he studies. Hard. He’s currently sat at an ‘A’ for all his A-levels (Maths, Physics, and Art); the term ‘nerd’ is often brandished as a taunt in the hallways; but the truth of the matter is for Merlin, it all comes naturally. He may not be able to tell you the score for the West Ham game last weekend but ask him what the square root of 832 is and he can tell you at the drop of a hat (it’s 28.8 by the way). But his true passion, the thing that often got him through the lows of feeling inadequate, useless - stuck - the only thing that pulled him through is art. Be it the afternoons he spends in the school studio, hands cracking with dry paste, shirt sprinkled with blasts of colour that only a strong dose of white spirit would ever be able to remove; or those quiet moments where he lies belly down on his bed, headphones plugged in to the latest Death Cab for Cutie album, pencil in hand simply sketching whatever came into his head - those were the moments he clings to.
The sharp sound of a klaxon shatters his contemplative silence, his phone flashing 8:30am, time to leave. Merlin shuts off the alarm and reaches for the tatty bag that he’s owned since he was twelve, slinging it over his shoulder as he steps out of the house. The wind whirls around his ankles, three floors up the cold is a hard smack in the face, making Merlin grab the ends of his jacket to zip it up quickly. He stumbles down the staircase, skipping a couple steps as he goes. Rounding the corner onto the courtyard, he sidesteps quickly out of the way of the bratty school kids whizzing by on their heelies (are those blasted things even cool anymore?).
“Oi, Oi, big ears!”
Rolling his eyes, Merlin turns around and keeps walking.
“Hey,” a breathy greeting comes from his left and Merlin can’t suppress his small smile at the bundle of blonde hair and bright teeth that face him.
“You’d think after eight years, you could come up with a more inventive nickname,” Merlin sighs.
“Now where would be the fun in that eh?” the boy laughs, nimble fingers coming to flick playfully at Merlin’s, now rather red, ears. ‘You got them off your father,’ his mother would say as she stroked his hair – Damn genetics.
“Jesus, Arthur, get a new pet to fondle, will you?”
“Oh but Merlin, you know you’re my favourite thing to fondle.” He practically purrs; lips stretched wide.
Arthur was…Arthur; a class prat with a heart of gold. Sometimes Merlin would look at his friend and see the same wide-eyed eight year old he’d met when Arthur first moved in. He’d been nervous, unsure, like a woodland creature that was startled with every creak of the building and every shrill of a siren that aired during the night. Hunith took him under her wing, as she did most of the children on the estate, forcing Merlin out from behind her legs to smile shyly at this new boy. When Merlin had fallen off his new skateboard the next day Arthur had been sat on the wall quietly watching; before he’d jumped down, ripping a tear of his shirt to bandage around Merlin’s scabbed knee, muttering “idiot” under his breath as he did so. Being Arthur’s friend after that became second nature.
Arthur may not have lived this life as long as Merlin had but in some ways Merlin thinks that’s worse. To know, to remember how things had been. To recall a time where life hadn’t been dossing in a fifth floor poky flat, where walls weren’t covered in graffiti, where hallways weren’t shrouded in darkness and littered with dirty syringes. But Arthur had settled, more than settled he’d grown. Become a part of the Holly Street Estate, bedded his roots and staked his claim. Merlin was just thankful he’d been taken along for the ride. Being best friends with Arthur was never easy, but it was safe, and that was a precious thing on these streets.
Merlin pushes him away with a chuckle as the boys fell into step, “Sod off, you bloody prat.”
“So where you off to?” Arthur asks.
“Oh, I don’t know, where would I be going at half eight on a bloody Wednesday morning?” Sarcasm rolls off his tongue. “I’m going to school, which is where you should be heading too!”
“Nah, I don’t feel like it today, bunk off with me.”
“Arthur, we have mocks in two months! What exactly are you planning on doing instead: head up to the hill and get stoned?” he scoffs. The hill is in fact not much of a hill, more a mound of dirt spattered with clumps of dry grass and stones that dig in the most inconvenient of places. There are only ever two reasons one goes there: to cop a feel or to get high. There is, however, one other thing ‘the hill’ did afford – a pretty splendid view of the entire East End. Not that the East End was a particularly breathtaking view mind, but still, on a clear night when the smog had taken leave you could just make out Canary Wharf and the bright lights of Central London, and for a while, you could pretend you were somewhere else, someone else.
“We don’t have to get stoned…” Arthur shrugs, “We could just get pissed.”
Merlin rolls his eyes, “I’m not getting pissed… not that I could afford it anyway.”
“Come now Merlin, we both know you don’t need money to get a bottle of vodka.”
“I am NOT nicking booze for you, Pendragon! Especially not from old man Gaius on the corner; you know what happened when I last went in there for fags, batty old man clipped me round the head with a broom!”
Arthur laughs at the memory, “Yeah, but you were a perfect distraction for me and the lads to bag that whiskey.”
“Well, I’m so happy to have been of service.”
“Oh don’t be like that, come on…”
“Piss off,” Merlin throws over his shoulder.
“Merrrrlin, just a couple of cans,” calls Arthur, jogging to catch up, slapping a playful hand on his shoulder as he overtakes him, proceeding to walk backwards.
“You really are the biggest twa—"
The words die on his lips as Arthur’s fingers grip Merlin’s elbow tightly, swinging them both until Merlin’s back hits the stone wall of the alcove alleyway. A hiss of pain escapes his lungs, which is quickly masked by Arthur’s hand coming to seal his mouth. And God since when have Arthur’s eyes been so blue? The narrow pathway leaves little room for one person, let alone two, as Merlin’s chest heaves with undulated panic, his body brushes against Arthur’s and Christ he was like a furnace. All warm heat and soft skin, and yes, he still has his sodding great big hand over Merlin’s mouth. His eyes however are trained on the courtyard they’ve just vacated. Merlin follows his gaze, catching sight of four boys – no, not boys, they were built more like men - strolling across, clearly looking for something… or someone. And well, it doesn’t take Sherlock-fucking-Holmes to figure it out. Merlin cuts his eyes to his friend in front of him and brings his teeth down to nip at the fingers sealed across his lips. Arthur growls his annoyance as he finally pulls his hand free and wipes it across Merlin’s shirt.
“What the fucking hell you got yourself involved in, Arthur?” he hisses, worry making his words come out dry and hushed, less angry than he intended.
Arthur doesn’t answer. Just keeps his hand braced against Merlin’s chest to peer out from around their hiding spot, scanning the area. He takes a cautious step free of the shadows, then two more assured ones, before turning his blinding smile back to Merlin as if the past five minutes hadn’t happened.
“So, school you say? Sounds like a plan,” Arthur grins, grabbing Merlin’s arm and all but dragging him, mouth agape to the high street.
“Are we seriously going to pretend like that didn’t just happen?” he asks incredulously, feet scuffling, trying to keep up.
Arthur gives him a look, one Merlin’s been subjected to countless times before - one that tells him simply, ’just leave it’. So Merlin nods, lips tightly drawn, adjusts his backpack one last time and takes a quiet seat on the bus stop bench.
A beat later Arthur sits beside him, shoving him lightly with his shoulder, and just like that it becomes a bit easier to breathe again.
There are few occasions when Merlin can say he is able to enjoy the tranquil moments in life. Right now, however, is not one of those occasions.
“Oh, will you look who’s here, the boy wizard himself.”
And isn’t that just bloody brilliant. Lifting his arm over his eyes, Merlin squints up into the warm afternoon sun. As if some sort of epiphany or holy ascension, a shadow falls across him and he’s looking up into beaming eyes and hair - so much fucking hair – which, if it’s even possible, looks glossier and gleaming with the halo of sun bracketing him.
“A good afternoon to you too Gwaine.” Merlin sighs, struggling to sit up as Gwaine gives a kick to his ankle and comes to plonk down beside him.
“Skiving off again?” he asks, hand coming to tussle Merlin’s hair, and why does everyone think he’s some kind of dog that needs constant petting? Trying futilely to bat Gwaine’s hands away and get his hair somewhat back to its styled state, he mumbles out a ‘you can bloody well talk’ - the Irish man just chuckles.
“Gwaine, do you always have to fucking shoot up here, it’s not a bloody race, y’know? Oh… hey Merlin.”
Merlin smiles over his shoulder at the pure muscle that greets him. Percy scared him shitless the first day of school; he was certain that those pretty impressive biceps were going to do some pretty impressive damage to his face. Yet, for all his worries, Percy is the biggest damn softie around, which is why Merlin has taken to calling him the BFG, though never to his face, never, ‘cause well, Merlin isn’t stupid.
Lance, Elyan and Leon all follow in his wake, stepping over the ladder that leads to their perch on the rooftop of the science building, with various forms of greeting: Leon gives him a fist to the shoulder as he leans across to pinch the fag Gwaine just spent the past two minutes rolling. An indignant ‘Hey!’ is exclaimed from his left as Merlin laughs heartedly at their antics, taking a long drag when Leon passes him the cigarette.
“Skipping P.E. again Merlin?” Lance asks, shrugging off his leather jacket and placing it on the gravelled lining of the roof top, hanging just a little bit back from the edge. Everyone presumes it’s because Lance is one of those introverted types, but Merlin really knows it’s because he’s scared of heights.
“Forgot my kit.” Merlin answers, flicking the cherry of the cigarette over the roof edge before finally passing it back to a brooding Gwaine with a smirk.
Elyan smiles, “Mmm, likely story.”
“Its rugby, Els, rugby.” Merlin states, flipping Gwaine the finger as he appears to choke on his inhale, probably from the image that a rugby playing Merlin conjures up, “For some reason I don’t see that being a future career choice.”
“Now, now Merlin I thought your ability to flail like a girl and fall over air made you an excellent candidate.”
The others laugh around him as a grinning Arthur comes into view; he flops down beside Merlin and throws a friendly arm across his shoulder. He can feel the heat of Arthur’s arm across his neck, the skin damp with sweat - and it should stink, he should find it bloody disgusting, but it only serves to offer an odd comfort that sits low in Merlin’s belly and has him clearing his throat before answering, “Yeah well my hiding up here only prevents my ability to catch an odd shaped ball, you lot on the other hand are missing out on fundamental business skills!”
Arthur snorts and removes his arm to flip out a cigarette from his own Benson & Hedges pack whilst Merlin tries to hide his disappointment at the cold air that hits his previously warmed skin, “I think we’ve all managed to grasp the strenuous principle of supply and demand.”
“See, I was under the impression that when demand falls, that’s when you stock up on shit loads of supply.” Leon remarks sarcastically, sucking the last remnants of Gwaine’s roll up before tossing it over the edge of the building.
“Had it escaped your notice, Merlin, that we are geniuses?” Gwaine smirks, arms spread wide in an air of defiance.
“Ah right, so you staying behind for extra tutoring sessions with Mr Simmons last week - that was what? Lessons in the art of something else?” Merlin waggles his eyebrows suggestively as the rest of the lads burst into various levels of disgust and hilarity. Lance chokes on his can of Coke, only managing to calm down after a fair few serious pounds on the back from Percy.
Gwaine looks a mix between pissing angry and an odd sort of pride that Merlin is able to be that quick witted. “You cheeky shit!” he cries, scrabbling to his feet ready to land a few soft blows to Merlin. But then Arthur’s wrapping an arm around his neck, bringing him into an uncomfortable headlock that Merlin weakly attempts to struggle out of.
“Alright, alright, Emrys has somehow managed to develop a sense of humour, lets not knock it out of him,” says Arthur, palm wide and predatory across Merlin’s shoulder blades.
Gwaine shakes his head and pretends to make another lunge before laughing it off and taking a seat across the rooftop. If either boy notices how Merlin’s fingers gripped the front of Arthur’s t-shirt - neither say anything.
Merlin tries to resist the shiver that passes down his spine as Arthur’s hand traces the length of it, coming to rest on the gravelled floor behind him. The closeness of Arthur’s hand to his ass is like a fire which is quickly put out when he hears the low whistle of approval beside him.
“Looks like the matinee performance is about to begin, boys!”
The others laugh and try not to seem too eager as they huddle to the roof edge, just as the year 13 girls exit the changing rooms and step onto the court below. Dressed in tight white polo shirts and fanned out little red skirts, the image they make is any teenage lads’ wet dream. Well, most teenage lads at least, most bar Merlin of course. He tried, spent many an afternoon huddled under his duvets, laptop shakily resting on his legs, hands down his pants, the latest titwank from RedTube loaded up on screen – and nada. He’s no blushing virgin either; Freya from the year below made sure of that. So when he tried and failed to have another early morning wank to busty blondes, he hesitantly shifted the cursor along and clicked the ‘gay’ tab.
It took him just 20 seconds to come.
That pretty much summed it up for him. And then of course there’s Arthur. Arthur who is all gloriously sun-kissed skin and dusty golden hair and the clearest blue eyes Merlin has ever seen. Arthur, who is currently lying flat on his belly atop the rooftop floor, nudging Leon and Percy whose eyes bulged at all the flesh on show below – Arthur who is very much his best friend, and clearly, very much straight.
“Oh man, would you look at the legs on her!” Leon exclaims, edging closer still, eyes firmly fixed on the strawberry-blonde Sophia’s striking tanned pins. The rest of the boys are making noises of agreement, banter and comments flittering back and forth.
“Mm, have to say there’s a couple things about Vivian that are grabbing my attention right now,” says Gwaine, a sly smile and wink sent across to the rest of the group.
“She is rather lovely,” says Merlin, “and smart too.”
“Ah Merlin, you expect too much of me!” laughs Gwaine, nudging him into a rather bemused, yet quiet, Arthur. Merlin studies him for a beat, the strong line of his shoulders flexing beneath the thin black cotton t-shirt he wears. He daren’t cast his eyes lower, already knows he’ll be greeted with the sight of a gorgeously pert ass encased in tight dark denim. Arthur isn’t a skinny jeans kind of guy, how could he with thighs as thick as tree trunks. Thighs that Merlin has not fantasised about pinning him against walls, or wrapped around his neck as he went to town on…no. Merlin has no such thoughts. But still, Arthur has the physique of a Greek God, strong yet lean; muscular but not too so; in all senses of the word Arthur is perfect.
“Who’s got you all porny-eyed!?” asks Gwaine, elbow digging into Merlin’s side, and it’s only then he realises the rest of the group are staring at him with various smirks and knowing grins on their faces. He feels the blush spread across his cheeks as he casts his head down to avoid their heated stares.
“It’s that Nimueh, isn’t it? Cracking sort, bit crazy mind, but you’ve always liked a pretty brunette, eh?” says Gwaine, pushing Merlin’s head down even further in a jovial shove.
He laughs, they all laugh - except Arthur.
Arthur’s eyes are trained on the side of Merlin’s face; he can feel it, a piercing gaze that leaves something heavy and weighting in his throat. And it’s moments like those, moments that have become all too frequent over the past year that make him wonder, maybe, just maybe… and then, within a blink of an eye, it’s gone, replaced with one of those blinding smiles that’s all crooked teeth, “Nah, she’ll eat him alive!”
“That’s what he’s hoping for, ain’t it my man?” Leon slaps him on the back, the lads fall in to fits of wolf whistles and cat calls - and just like that the tension in his chest eases.
"It’s what we're all hoping for," says Gwaine, eyes twinkling as he takes in the display the girls make below, "So many ladies, such little space on the 'Gwaine love train,'" he sighs.
"Keep calling it that and you'll have no fucking passengers," says Arthur, bringing snorts of laughter around him.
"Ah, and what about our dear little Wart, none of those beauts down there catch your eye? Not even the gorgeous Gwen? You know you wanna tap that."
"Hey!" Elyan suddenly pipes up, pointing an accusing finger towards a bemused Gwaine, who simply holds his hands up in a placating manner. "No one, no one, is tapping anything of my sister's!"
Leon stands and places a friendly arm around his shoulder, pulling the dark-skinned man to his side, "Come now Els, who would you rather see your sister with? Sir Shags-a-lot or our very own shining Prince Arthur?"
"Neither of you pricks are getting anywhere near her!" laughs Elyan, but the meaning behind it isn't lost. Gwaine goes on to display an act of theatrical indignity whilst the rest of the group settle down and argue over which of the year 13’s would give the best head.
Merlin keeps his eyes focused on Arthur; follows his gaze to the slender figure below, the one with a pretty head of ringlets and honey coloured skin. He knows just as well that Lancelot's eyes are on the same path. He doesn't say anything.
Merlin comes slamming into the flat, throwing his bag on the nearest available surface, whistling that new bloody Cheryl Cole tune he’s had stuck in his head for the whole god-damn day.
He dances around the kitchen table, opens the fridge expectantly, eyes scanning the sparse shelves that consisted mostly of various forms of processed meats and suspiciously curdled milk. Merlin's head is buried deep in the fridge, looking for anything to calm the late afternoon munchies that are currently making his stomach sound like something out of a Jurassic Park movie, when he hears the creaking of a door. He takes a steady breath, then two more, grasping the closest thing to hand, and lets out an almighty roar as he turns to face.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph, is that how you greet your mother now, boy? And what were you going to do with those eggs -- make me into a bloody omelette?"
Merlin places a hand on his chest as he collapses against the counter.
Hunith sighs as she strides across the kitchen and takes said eggs out of her son's hand still raised mid-air. She places them back in the fridge, kissing the top of his head as she goes.
"What are you doing home? Aren't you supposed to be at the Heights?" Merlin asks, the pounding in his heart steadily returning back to normal.
"Well it's nice to see you too.” Hunith quips, pottering around in cupboards, taking out a couple of mugs and switching the kettle on. She pulls down the newly opened pack of tea-bags, sending Merlin a quick quirk of her lips in silent thank-you. “Susan asked if I could take the night shift instead for her, her ma’s poorly so can’t look after the kids so I said I'd swap rotas.”
"Jeez mum, when are you going to sleep?" asks Merlin, lines of worry forming across his forehead. The Heights is a care home in the north of Dalston; it’s a stressful, tiring job, one which involves copious amounts of cleaning, patience and bloody hard work, which wouldn't be too bad -- except this is Hunith's third job. Besides her moon-lighting at the care home, she also spends most mornings dealing with the early risers at the local cafe around the corner, before heading to Homerton University Hospital where being a receptionist on the A&E ward provides equal measures of drama and amusement. It is understandable, therefore, that Merlin worries. Hunith smiles back at him, a tenderness in her eyes that never fades despite the dark circles that line them.
"Well, that's exactly what I was trying to do when a stampede broke through my kitchen," she smiles, lips quirked softly as she comes to sit down next to Merlin, pushing across a bowl of noodles that are no doubt her lunchtime leftovers.
’Sorry’ he mumbles, eyes cast low, fork poking and twisting around the lukewarm strings. Hunith leans across towards him, brushing the dark tufts of hair off his forehead, "All’s forgiven, my boy... At least now I get to see you. Gosh, are you even eating?" She grasps his chin in her pale ivory fingers, tilting his face left and right, running a questioning thumb along his cheekbone.
"Course I am mum," he grumbles, pulling his face free, and twirling a load around his fork raising it to his mouth with an arched eyebrow, a look of 'See, I eat'. "You know it'd be much easier if you'd just let me go out and work."
The look Hunith shoots him stops his train of thought dead. "All I want you to worry about is your A-Levels, you hear me?" Merlin simply nods. "How is school? I haven't had any letters from Mr Clark in a while, you actually enjoying P.E. now?" she asks. What she doesn't realise is that Merlin has a stack of about four letters regarding Merlin's 'unfortunate lack of any form of hand-eye co-ordination and balance' -- no need in giving his mother extra worry.
So instead he answers with a, "Yeah we're doing hockey," and an "I think it's something I'm actually good at." Hunith simply hums in reply and if Merlin didn't know better he'd say it was her, 'i-know-you're-lying-but-hearing-your-rambling-excuses-is-too-amusing' face. Strangely, Arthur seems to wear the same look whenever Merlin goes off on one of his inane chatters too.
"So did you manage to get that light room....or night--?"
"Dark room," Merlin clarifies. "Yeah, they finished installing it last week. Still have a few bits and pieces to add, mind, but I should be able to get into it by Friday.”
"That’s brilliant darling," says Hunith, patting Merlin's hand, “How lucky am I to have such a talented artist for a son, huh?” she smiles, giving Merlin’s fingers a tight squeeze.
Merlin’s cheeks turn a dark crimson as he casts a glance at his mother under his lashes.
“Right, well,” Merlin stutters, eager to break the awkward silence that has fallen, standing up he clears his bowl away in the sink. “I’ll just head out and get out of your hair.”
“You don’t have to do that, love.”
“No its ok, I need to pick up something from Arthur’s anyway.”
“Mmm, tell that boy to come round for dinner sometime. I saw his father the other day, poor man.”
“He’s a bloody drunken slob,” states Merlin, a hint of bitterness in his tone.
“Merlin James Emrys! There is no need for that, he’s been through a lot,” Hunith chides.
“Maybe, but he still sits on his ass all day doing jack shit and living off the benefits –“
“That is quite enough.” Hunith cuts him off. “What their family go through is their own business. You just worry about yourself.”
“I worry about you too.” says Merlin, gifting his mother with a weary smile, “I don’t like you working the night shifts, be careful on your way home, ok?”
"I will, my boy, and be careful yourself, I heard from Marge next door that those lads from Green Street Estate have been nosing round here. Nasty bit of work they are Merlin, you know what happened last time... that poor boy. I hope you're not getting involved in any of their mess."
"Me?" Merlin splutters, "Why would I have anything to do with them?"
"You or any of your friends...." Hunith says softly, eyes shining with concern, there’s no hiding the insinuation under her words, "I worry."
"Arthur's not like that."
"No," Hunith agrees, having had the younger Pendragon run around her ankles as much as Merlin - she knows him just as well, "but I worry about him too."
Merlin sighs, standing to wrap his arms around her shoulders, chin resting atop her head. He closes his eyes for a brief moment and savours these quiet few seconds with his mother. He doesn’t get them enough. "Go get some sleep," he says, planting a kiss to her temple, "and make sure someone gives you a lift home. I don't want you getting the night bus back."
"Who’s the parent here?" she laughs, fingers gripping the hem of his tattered jumper. With his free hand, he pets her hair, and he feels like he's five years old again.
Merlin takes the stairs two at a time, hands swinging by his sides to give him momentum, never touching the hand rail - that was a lesson he learned all too soon. You never hold onto the railing, for fear of what you'll find there when you retract your hand. He can hear snippets of conversations from the flats lining the front balcony. The walls to the lodgings aren't particularly built for loud conversations or sordid activities. They may as well have been partitioned by sheet paper for all the good it did - makeshift ear plugs in the form of cotton buds have been Merlin’s salvation for most of his teenage years. He finally reaches the fifth floor (two up from his own) side-stepping around a shaggy haired mongrel of a dog that’s tied to the banister, yapping at his heels.
As he nears lodging 522 he can already hear the loud slurs that shake from its walls: a drunken cry of "fucking useless" followed by a deep hollow thump. Merlin swallows nervously; the desire to turn, to run back downstairs and huddle in his room is overwhelming. Then he pictures his mother feeling guilty for sleeping when Merlin is home, arguing that she should be making the most of the time they got together, and he raises his fist to the door, knocking gently.
The arguing continues, his presence unanswered and unheard outside. Another dull thud echoes through the walls, causing Merlin to jump back suddenly. Whatever has been thrown lands solidly against the front door, footsteps drawing closer in order to retrieve it.
"What a waste of fucking space" is spat coldly, words clipped and harsh through the thin wood door. Merlin can't help but curl his lips at the tone and knocks again - louder. The footsteps halt, the previously loud shouts turning into grumbling murmurs. A few moments later, the door swings open revealing a dishevelled Arthur, clothes askew, eyes dark and heavy. He can make out Uther in the background: grey hair receded further then when he last saw him with what look to be at least six days worth of stubble over his face. The older man is struggling with his jacket, arm chasing the sleeve with increasing difficulty, knocking him into the pointed end of the coffee table with a curse.
Merlin casts his eyes back to his friend in front of him, offering a half turned smile, "Bad timing?"
Arthur scoffs, his face softening slightly, “I’ve come to expect nothing less from you, Merlin.”
Merlin smiles shyly, hands fiddling in the pockets of his overly baggy hoodie, frayed and grey from the numerous washes but way too comfy to ever throw out.
"I can go," he offers meekly.
"Um, it's kind of --"
Arthur is cut off by Uther pushing roughly at his shoulder, trying to move his son from his stance across the doorway.
"Would you sodding well get out of my way." He gruffs out. This close, Merlin can see the ragged tiredness on the man's face, lines etched into the skin around his eyes making him look much older than his youthful forty years should allow.
"Dad, we hadn't finished talking." Arthur cuts in, placing a gentle hand on his father’s chest that is just as quickly shoved away.
"I'm heading down the pub, said I'd meet Geoff and Roy there."
"But dad --"
"Oh for Christ’s sake, we'll talk when I get home." Uther is forcefully pulling Arthur's arm from its place on the door jamb, "Look, you've got..." He looks at Merlin, clearly struggling to remember his name, "this sod here, now just piss off... move out of my way, boy." That he directs at Merlin as he stumbles into him and out of the flat, pulling the collar of his jacket up against his jaw as he goes.
Arthur has already turned around, walking back into the quiet living room whilst Merlin stays uselessly at the door. He's about to open his mouth to make some excuse or reason to bolt back off home when Arthur's voice cuts through him, "Well, if you're coming in, bloody hurry up - and shut that door; it's fucking freezing." Merlin does as he's told.
Flat 522 is fairly different to his own (314) downstairs. Whereas Hunith still finds time to give their dire surroundings a 'mother's touch,' it's clear that Uther has had no such desire. The walls are a dark shade of blue, the carpet a grotty brown that was once red but now scattered with patches of questionable colour and substance. Merlin never gets used to it, struggles to grasp how Arthur can be such a cheerful bundle of energy - all happy teeth and bright blue eyes - then come back every night to this and still have the energy to get up every morning. Merlin thinks he would have given up years ago.
He kicks his way through the living room, watching silently as Arthur pulls out a black bin-liner from the kitchen and dutifully begins picking up the strewn cans that litter the floor - some half-empty with slurring liquid still swishing inside, threatening to leak out onto the already stained furnishings - some have been used as ashtrays - Merlin concludes those are the worst. Arthur doesn't offer a thank you as Merlin bends down, fills his own hands with sticky Carling cans before throwing them into the outstretched liner. He does smile though, softly. To Merlin that’s thanks enough.
Once the sitting room reflects a somewhat liveable space again, Arthur proposes a round of 'Call of Duty' which has them scurrying off to his room to spend the next few hours shouting orders and shooting people. It's very cathartic.
After far too many hours, Arthur eventually begins to get bored, if the half-hearted attempts to take out the enemy with one hand on the controller, the other dangling a fag loosely between his fingers, is anything to go by. Merlin watches him stealthily out of the corner of his eye, gaze firmly fixed on the small TV screen in front of him.
“So those guys the other day…” he begins casually, thumbs jabbing at the buttons as Arthur’s man on screen comes to a halt.
“What guys?” Arthur asks eventually, air of faux flippancy in his tone.
Merlin scoffs and pauses the game, turns to face Arthur at the foot of the bed. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe the ones you dragged me into the alleyway to avoid? The ones that have had you on edge for days now?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Jesus mate, just be straight with me. Did you and Gwaine get into a drunken fight with them or something?”
Arthur ignores him, resolutely staring straight ahead as he starts back up the game. Merlin releases a heavy sigh as he thumbs at the controller to pause it again; that eventually gains him eye-contact, even if it is an aggravated annoyed gaze.
“Would you just sodding well drop it!” Arthur cries out, face turning cloudy with frustration, a look that is rarely directed in Merlin’s direction. “For your own good just leave it.”
The game sparks to life again under Arthur’s fingers as he jabs out the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray lying on the side. Merlin watches him for a moment longer before returning his attention to the screen. Fine - if Arthur wants to keep his secrets, let him bloody well keep them. Merlin wasn’t going to worry himself over them anymore; he was going to do exactly as Arthur asked – leave it.
Merlin leaves it for five days.
After that, it becomes pretty hard to avoid, especially on the following Wednesday. The cold September air is crisp and sharp. It pierces Merlin’s lungs with each intake of breath, so when Arthur suggests they head to the local chippy to get something to eat, he eagerly agrees, tugging the rim of his beanie down lower over his ears. The pair stumbles back across the courtyard with warm smiles and easy nudges. Their fingers are greasy with vinegar and ketchup, and if Merlin’s breath catches a couple of times when Arthur sucks the chip fat off his fingers, the whistling wind disguises it.
They bump shoulders; the scattered lampposts surrounding them offer sparse light, entangled by overgrown trees that cast eerie shadows on the pavement below. Arthur scrunches up his empty chip wrapper, tossing it with effortless style into the rubbish bin on his left. Merlin continues to pick through his, fingers tingly numb from having removed his hands from the warmth of his gloves for so long. Arthur nudges across him and swipes a chip from the greasy newspaper. Merlin lets out an aggravated ’Hey!’ as Arthur lifts the offending chip to his mouth, a drop of ketchup trailing down the side before he swipes it away with his tongue a second later, eyes fixed solely on Merlin.
“Tastes good,” says Arthur, quietly, so hushed and lost to the wind that Merlin almost misses it, but his eyes are trained on Arthur’s face, the bow of his lips, the flush on his cheeks. And no, there is no way Merlin can miss any of this. He simply nods, fingers flexing in the wrapper beneath his hands, releasing a chest-purring hum before he’s yanked back forcibly.
He stumbles, trainers scratching uselessly at the paved ground to remain steady, trying to get some form of grip as he’s pulled taut, arms pinned behind his back, fat heavy hands gripping his shoulders.
“What the fucking fuck!” His eyes dart panicked around him; he knew these type of things happened on run down estates like Holly Street. Not just muggings either - other things, terrible things. He never experienced them himself though, never been jumped on like this, there are certain benefits to being Arthur Pendragon’s best friend - having an odd sense of protection is one of them. However, from the curses and scuffled noises coming beside him, he realises that even being Arthur Pendragon himself sometimes isn’t enough to save you.
“Christ… Fuck! What are you-?”
A sickening thud sounds to his right, followed by a hiss of pain which sparks Merlin into struggling against the death grip he’s held in.
“Easy there, Snow White,” a harsh voice hisses in his ear, causing a sickening feeling of dread to lurch in his stomach. He tilts his head up - finally taking in the men either side of him. Both tall, much taller than him, though not as substantially built as he imagined. They are lithe, slender, but muscled and strong. Merlin whimpers softly as the one on his left reminds him of that fact, pulling his shoulder back till it clicks painfully.
“Looks like we got a screamer ‘ere, mate!” The guy laughs and in the barely-there light, Merlin can see his face is scarred. He doesn’t want to think how he got those marks, or what a man like that can do to someone else.
“We’ll get on to him, Muirden,” a voice sounds from the shadows, sharp and clear. He sounds different, the tone of his voice not holding the usual East-London twang that most on the estate possess. If Merlin knew any better, he’d suspect the man of coming from the toff-end of Richmond or Knightsbridge. “I want to deal with our friend Pendragon first.”
“You don’t fucking touch him! You hear me, Myror? Deal with me, yeah? This is between us. Let him go.” Arthur cuts in sternly. Merlin can hear the slight waver in his words and is left in no doubt that this Myror has too.
“Well isn’t that… touching.”
“Look, I know I was meant to come and see you, and I was going to, I swear—“
“Hmm… well, isn’t it lucky for you that we ran into each other?” Myror’s mouth quirks upwards as he slowly steps out of the shadows, offering Merlin his first opportunity to size him up. Myror’s clothes are tailored, dark jeans meet dark zip up top, a solid mass of muscle with eyes deep and rich, lips pulled in an unwelcome sneer. This Myror is a riddle. One of those blokes that appear so charming and suave yet can stop you cold with just two fingers against the side of your neck. In any other circumstances, Merlin may have even considered him good-looking, but right now there was only one adjective that sprung to mind – deadly.
"See, Arthur you owe me money... and I don't like it when people owe me things."
"I just... I just need a bit more time."
"Time? Right. It didn't take you much time to take the stash I gave you, huh?" Myror quips, raising his eyebrows in a silent signal that has the men flanking Arthur pull tighter. "When I took you on, I had no idea you'd be such a liability."
"I-- I got done over by a customer… Valiant the other day, refused to pay up, that's why I'm short. I'm going--"
"Not my problem." Myror cuts him off, hands flexing in front of him, nimble fingers cracking with each breath of wind. "When you said you could manage to deal on this estate, I believed you... and now you've let me down. I hate it when people let me down." He sighs, shaking his head as Arthur stammers to retort.
Myror tilts his chin, eyes staring cold and hard through sooty lashes - he squints, takes a couple of steps to the left, almost circling the both of them, drinking them in. It's unnerving. How silent the estate has now become. Myror stops, searches Arthur's face - a beat, a breath and then a chilling light gleams in his eye, the sides of his lips pull up in a shit-eating grin. He turns to face Merlin and silently nods.
It’s a split second before Merlin realises that the sharp scream that pierces the air is not his own, but Arthur's. Then the pain hits him. The heavy draws of breath as blows of fists and feet work into his stomach, the hands that braced his chest and shoulders, now possessing his throat as his knees give way. He sinks to the ground as gracelessly as a rag doll. He can hear Arthur cursing - hoarse cries and futile struggles. A litany of "Stop! Please just stop. Stop... Merlin, I'm sorry, just stop -Please."
It feels like hours. Merlin knows it has barely been minutes, seconds. But his wafer thin figure isn't built to withstand a scrape on the knee let alone showers of bloodied knuckles. When it stops, when it finally stops, Merlin curls himself into a ball, closes his eyes and tries to bite back the tears that threaten to spill down his aching cheeks. He just wants to go home, dive under his duvet and wish the taste of blood out of his mouth. He can faintly hear Arthur above him, soft mutterings of "Please just take it out on me, deal with me. Leave him alone, please."
He cracks an eye open as he takes in the six men surrounding Arthur, his own crumpled body left used and trodden in the shadows. "Consider him collateral damage." Myror hisses, taking Arthur's jaw in his dark strong hand. "A warning for if you fuck me over again." He spits, dragging Arthur's head down, forcing him to meet his eye.
"I want my money, Pendragon. All £800 of it, and if I don't get it by Friday, I'm going to whore your pretty ass out until I do, ok?" he sneers, releasing his grip on Arthur's chin with a fierce shove back. He takes a step - pauses; considers his options before drawing an arm back and releasing a sickening blow to Arthur's temple. The skin breaks, a trickle of blood marring his dusty eyebrows. Myror gives a low chuckle before clicking his fingers and the men promptly drop Arthur to his knees, energy and fight and consciousness knocked out of him. Merlin can hear the men retreat, footsteps quieting to a faint echo as they draw further away. Arthur wheezes beside him, coughs once, twice, then scuttles across to Merlin's prone figure, lying silent and unmoving on the asphalt surface.
"Shit, fucking shit, Merlin... Merlin, Merlin, please come on... come on."
A raspy breath escapes his lungs and a dull drone fills his ears. He can hear Arthur's hushed urgent words over him. They feel distant - far away under water, cloudy but reassuring. Fingers trail his face, shaking and unsure, before timidly carding through his matted hair. He’s torn between wanting them to stay there forever and wanting to hit Arthur square in the face.
It takes all his energy to finally move. To cough, spit out the blood that’s stuck to his teeth. He shuffles in his spot on the floor, tries to sit up, but there's a dizziness in his head that threatens to cast his world into blackness so he slumps back down the remaining few inches to the ground. Arthur breathes a sigh of relief, hand coming to rest behind Merlin's head to cushion it from the concrete floor.
"Thank Christ," he whispers, bowed over Merlin's body, forehead coming to rest in the centre of his chest. Merlin can feel the heat of Arthur’s breath warming his skin. Months ago, it would have made his heart flutter, hell – minutes ago, it would have felt like some dream-state-fantasy, but now. Now, the hot gust of air feels dirty, laden with lies that have resulted in him lying here. A bloody mess on the grotty streets of East London sprawled beneath the neon trees. Looking like any other sullied-good-for-nothing-estate-life-teenager on the wrong side of the tracks. That isn’t him. He tried so vehemently for that not to be him… and he hates Arthur in that moment for making him so.
And yet, this is the most tender Arthur has been with him in their whole nine years of friendship, making Merlin wish he was able to offer a calming touch back, but he just… can’t. So he settles for quiet words, murmurs of "I'm fine... really."
Arthur seems to snap to attention, lifting his face to take in Merlin's features, "No, we need to get you to hospital."
"No," Merlin croaks, voice harsh and rough, scratching his throat raw. "No," he repeats softer, "No, just get me home."
"Merlin, you... you may have broken ribs or… internal bleeding... God, we need to get you checked over."
"Arthur, nothing is broken,” says Merlin, having finally pushed himself up into a seated position. “Just, no. My mum is working the night shift at A&E. I can't... I can't let her see me like this."
He can't hide the slight wince that escapes his lips as a sharp electric pain shoots up his right hand side; his fingers move quickly - pressing to alleviate the pressure. Arthur casts him a worried glance, eyebrows furrowed, worrying his bottom lip with anxious ferocity. Merlin steels his glare, gritting his teeth, "Take me home."
A flash of hurt passes Arthur's face as he nods silently, bringing an arm around Merlin's shoulder, balancing his weight as he helps him stand. Merlin flinches at the first touch and hangs his head as Arthur’s fingers shake. They stumble their way up the three flights of stairs, Arthur's attempt at conversation and mutterings of "no bloody lifts" and "cheap council stranglers" go unanswered.
They finally reach Merlin's flat, the landing bulb flickering above them casting their faces in shallow light, highlighting cuts and skin beginning to mar with dark hues of purple. Arthur can't look.
"I got it from here." Merlin says quietly, removing his limbs from Arthur's tight hold. He leans against the doorjamb as he fumbles in his jeans pocket for his keys, cursing as they slip from his shaking fingers. Arthur bends down quickly, batting Merlin's hands away as he leans across and opens the front door, moving to aid Merlin in as he steps into the cold and dingy flat. Merlin simply shrugs him off again, flipping the light switch inside the hallway. “I said I've got it from here," he repeats, turning to close the half-opened door in Arthur's face. He’s too slow, however, and tuts as a grotty trainer sticks out to prevent the wood from slamming shut. Arthur closes his eyes and takes a deep shuddering inhale before lifting his blue glazed-over eyes to meet Merlin’s.
“Please, Merlin. I’m so… so God damn sorry. Please let me just make sure you’re ok.”
“I’m fine,” Merlin hisses, brings a hand to his face as the skin around his eye pulls tighter, spiking flashes of pain shooting behind his eyelid. Arthur reaches out a steadying hand to his side, his grip soft yet secure. Merlin tries again to retreat but Arthur holds firm. His thumb absently strokes the jut of Merlin’s hipbone and against his better judgement; it sends a shiver from the tips of his fingers to the soles of his feet. Merlin lets out a shaky sigh; damn Arthur for being able to get under his skin this way: a simple touch and his resolve is broken. He glances up through dark lashes, nodding his head before turning and taking shuffled steps deeper into the flat. He hears the click of the door closing behind him, then the scuffle of shoes being kicked off. Merlin keeps walking, silently turning into his bedroom and perching on the edge of his mattress. The springs’ moans mirror Merlin’s as the aches of his body begin to ease; the desire to throw up fading more with each passing minute – much to his relief. He cradles his head in his hands, wincing as he catches the cut across his cheekbone.
“Idiot,” whispers Arthur, the plastic swivel chair squeaking under his weight as he rolls across the scrubby carpeted floor, deftly lifting Merlin’s pale tapered fingers from his face running a damp flannel across the stains of blood before pressing a bag of frozen peas in its place. Merlin winces at the sudden coldness, catching Arthur’s wrist instinctively. He means to push his hand away, honestly he does, but instead finds his fingers coiling tighter. Tips pressed against the pulse point that beats a steady drum mirrored inside Merlin’s own heated chest. Arthur smiles at him softly, genuine, eyes pliant, warm and happy, despite the splattering of blood that’s drying flakily above his brow. It’s that image that has Merlin snatch the bag from Arthur’s grasp, dropping his wrist in the process. What the fuck has he got to be happy about?
"Thanks but I think I can manage just fine on my own now." Merlin states coldly, eyes flittering to the spot above Arthur's shoulder, refusing to surrender to the wounded look in his friend’s eyes.
The rickety chair squeaks loudly in the otherwise silent room, faint murmurings and hums from television sets reverberate from the flats below. Merlin can feel the deep sigh of regret against his face.
"I know what just happened out there... Merlin, you must know that I never - never wanted anything like that to happen -"
"Drugs, Arthur?" Merlin cuts him off, weariness laden in his broken voice, "Christ, I mean, I know you liked the odd spliff now and then... but dealing? Shit, what was it? Crack? E? God, it wasn't heroin, was it?"
Arthur lifts a hand to his brow, running his fingers through his dusty golden locks. Tresses fall back over his eyes as Arthur hunches forward, curling in on himself. "It was... It was coke mostly. The odd bit of weed too. I--I never took any of it myself. Well, a bit of hash now and then but never the stronger stuff."
"Boss doesn't like you sampling the merchandise?" Merlin snarks.
Arthur raises his head - hurt. "No. I don't want to end up a dead beat junkie."
"No of course not... it's not like you're a fucking drug-dealer or anything! Fuck. How did you—Why?"
"Don't get all high and mighty on me, Merlin. We all do things we don’t like to survive. I'm sure you so desperately needed those new Nike Airs, didn't you?" Arthur smarms, glancing down at the black stylish trainers on Merlin's feet. He’d pinched them two weeks ago. His much-loved red Converses had begun to tatter - the soles scuffed away, holes breaking through. He’d got caught in one of London's notorious autumn downpours, returned bones shivering and teeth chattering. Feet frozen like ice as he peeled the sodden socks from between his toes. Arthur knew this - knew that, yes, he had needed them... to survive.
Merlin lowers the ice packet from his face, unable to hide the disgust in his eyes. Arthur twists his body away.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean... Fuck, I'm not doing any of this right."
Merlin releases an exhausted breath. "Just tell me the truth."
Arthur clasps his hands on his knees, bouncing skittishly. "Dad... Dad had gambled the electric money for the month. Lost it on the bloody dogs. He was – well, you know what he's like, Merlin. Said it was my responsibility… that I have to go out and provide for us... that... that he'd supported my sorry ass for long enough and it was time I took care of him."
"Bastard." Merlin whispers. Arthur offers a sad smile, blinks furiously to bat away the tears that pool resolutely in the corner of his eyes. Merlin is so close to reaching out - placing a reassuring hand on his knee. He doesn't.
"He's my father." Arthur shrugs. "So I just needed an escape - a kick, you know? So I went to Myror. Jeez, I got so fucking high! I started sprouting out all this crap about my dad and the money and all this shit. He... He made me an offer. I'd be his man on this estate, sell his gear and in return, I’d get a 30% cut on all the dealings. It sounded... simple."
"Simple? Shit, Arthur - do you hear what you're saying? How can getting involved with someone as fucked up as Myror be simple?"
"Well, it’s been going fine all this time... till that bloody Valiant double crossed me. The prick!"
"How - How long have you been doing this?" Merlin asks quietly, tilting his head to catch Arthur's gaze. They dance around it; Arthur remains silent. Merlin reaches out tentatively, lean fingers curved around the older boys shoulder.
Arthur presses his tongue against his bottom lip, takes a deep breath. "A little over a year."
Merlin's hand drops. "Fuck."
"I'm going to get out of it. As soon as I pay him off - I'm gonna get out. I don't care how I get the money; I might have to pawn a few things... Merlin?"
Merlin has remained still, chest heaving with shallow breaths, in, out... in, out. "A year?" he whispers, hands folding cautiously in his lap, "How didn't- How were you doing this for a year and I had no idea?" Merlin peeps though his lashes, lying damp and soft against the paleness of his skin. His heart is breaking bit by bit, and it's etched in every crevice of his face. How could he have not known that his best friend needed him? Why wasn't he told?
"How could you not tell me?"
Arthur cracks. "Because-" A broken sob catches in his throat as he slips from the chair to his knees, palms spread wide across Merlin's thighs. He takes a moment, fingertips flexing in the tight denim encasing Merlin’s legs before he licks the dryness from his lips and continues on a shattered breath. "Because of this exact reason."
"I don't follow."
"Merlin, I didn't tell you 'cause I didn't want you to be involved. I knew what people like Myror did to those that... slipped up. They know that the way to keep people under control is to hurt the people they care about... and Christ, Merlin, I just wanted you to be safe. I wanted to protect you."
Arthur crawls closer; head bowed watching his own fingers as they dip over Merlin's thighs. “I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone hurting you. You’re my best friend Merlin, I can’t—”
Merlin doesn’t realise he’s closed his eyes until he feels the brush of Arthur’s thumb over the plump centre of his bottom lip. His skin is dry, chaffed as it strokes a lazy pattern back and forth over the reddening flesh, pulling it down slightly in a pout. He hisses as Arthur nicks the cut at the corner of his mouth, tender and sore. Arthur’s thumb stills at the sound, turning the depths of his deep blue eyes to Merlin’s. Arthur pushes up so their faces are but an inch apart. The air between them swirls and spirals until it no longer becomes his or Arthur’s, his heart races, a quickening beat that only increases as Arthur’s hand splays across his cheek lightly, gentle.
“I promise you I won’t let them hurt you again.” The words are mouthed against his lips.
There's a lump caught in his throat that he tries to swallow down, and Christ, Merlin doesn't know what this is. What version of Arthur he's being shown right now - but the vulnerability in his eyes and the quiver in his jaw has Merlin guessing that this is the truest form of himself Arthur's ever shown anyone. So he takes it. Takes it all. Gladly and eagerly. Fervent touches, soft presses of lips and hushed soliloquies of promises.
The flat of Merlin’s back hits the mattress, Arthur’s figure swimming into vision above him, all blonde hair, furrowed brow and Arthur. Just Arthur. Merlin opens his legs wider, cradles him between his thighs – it’s glorious. He wraps a foot around Arthur’s calf, a sharp gasp of pleasure bites off his tongue as their cocks brush for the first time.
Arthur stills above him – and all too soon the press of his body is removed. “Shit, am I hurting you?”
Merlin wants to laugh at the absurdity, but finds he can only wheeze out a strangled, “No… No, just, just move. Keep moving.”
Arthur’s self-satisfied smirk returns as he rolls his hips down and slots himself fully into the crevice of Merlin’s legs. It’s perfect. It feels like coming home, like a jigsaw finally fitting together and all those other rom-com bullshit clichés that’s had Merlin snigger and roll his eyes in the past. But now its true and he gets it. He understands that feeling right now with Arthur’s lean mass of muscle pressed along the entire length of his body, all hot heat and wet lips, sucking, marking, claiming.
Merlin can’t help the little ‘ah, ah’ noises that gush from his lungs in every exhale; in every press of Arthur’s groin to Merlin’s. The pace quickens. The desperate urge for more, more, more is overpowering. The bed creaks noisily beneath them, the metal frame groaning with each undulating roll of their bodies that forces the headboard to beat a steady rhythm against the wall. It’s intense. Stronger than anything Merlin’s ever felt. It leads his brain to conjure dirtier thoughts of – God, if he’s s so turned on right now, how would this feel without clothes on? The image of Arthur’s red hot cock in his hand, long, thick, elegant – slick with pre-come and his own spit – has Merlin keening loudly, digging the heel of his foot deeper into Arthur’s denim clad ass.
“Fuck. Merlin, so fucking amazing.” Arthur gasps against his neck, mouth pliant at the hollow of his throat, teeth catching and grazing against the stubble scattered there. Merlin has his own lips wrapped tightly around Arthur’s earlobe, tongue lapping at the soft mound of flesh. He bites down hard as one of Arthur’s hands slots at the curved underside of Merlin’s knee, pushing it further against his chest. He presses down the remainder of the way, the action bringing them even closer together. They groan in unison, the angle hotter, dirtier; Arthur lifts his head to catch Merlin’s lips in a sloppy open mouthed kiss that’s more tongue and teeth than finesse. Merlin whimpers as Arthur bites down on his bottom lip, drawing blood from the cut Myror left earlier – Arthur suckles it into his mouth.
“Shit. Fuck. Arth—I’m gonna—“
Merlin pushes at his chest but Arthur pins him down firmer, thigh pressed harder, rougher against his cock. Merlin’s eyes roll as the snap of hips quickens all over again, hands clasping at Arthur’s shoulders in a desperate bid to hold on against the achingly bruising tempo. Arthur’s tongue comes up to lick the underside of his top lip, grazing against his teeth – an action so tender and soft contrasting to the furious pounding of their hips.
Then it’s all white noise.
Shallow gasping cries ransack his body and leave him boneless. He can feel the hot warmth trapped inside his jeans, a sticky wetness that spreads uncomfortably down his legs. His hips ripple through the aftershocks as Arthur pants and ruts above him desperately. Merlin cards his hand through the sweat-damp hair stuck to Arthur’s forehead, tugs just this side of harsh as he licks a hot wet stripe up the shell of his ear.
“Come on, Arthur.” He whines, tone almost begging, and Arthur’s eyes squeeze shut as his body jolts forward one more time. He grunts, heady sighs dampening the strong line of Merlin’s cheekbone. Arthur’s wet heat presses against Merlin’s, their jeans slickly rough against their tender groins. They collapse against each other, limbs boneless but still thrumming with a gold coil of energy that hums beneath their skin. Arthur’s face is buried in Merlin’s neck, hand low and trembling against Merlin’s stomach. He slowly trails it up Merlin’s chest, bringing the sweat-damp t-shirt he wears with it, revealing expanses of pale warm skin. He’s sure it would look as sparkling as porcelain under any other light, but now it is tarnished - a canvas of ugly shades of purple-blues that dip and sink into each hollow. Arthur’s eyes follow the path of his hand, skimming the jut of Merlin’s collarbone, tips caressing over another mark marring his beautiful skin; this one harsher, rich rose red that he made with his own lips. Merlin watches through hooded lashes. Arthur’s eyes train on the curve of his neck, tongue lathing at dry lips as his fingers trace the pattern he made.
Merlin holds his breath. “Arthur…”
Arthur snaps his eyes up, pauses for a second. “Fuck,” he gasps. His body retreats in a flash, and Merlin is mourning the loss of heat on top of him instantly. He doesn’t watch as Arthur leaves. Keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the cracked white ceiling above. He hears the door shout loudly, ostentatious in the silence of the room. He doesn’t blink. Keeps staring upwards at the fragmented walls that encase him.
He doesn’t blink.
It’s over a week before Merlin sees Arthur again. To say that things have been awkward between them, since the ‘great-big-rutting-until-we-came-in-our-pants-incident’ or just ‘the incident’ as Merlin had taken to shortening it, is an understatement. Arthur has failed to show up for school at all during that time. Leon and Gwaine have made it their life’s mission to pester Merlin everyday about it, asking the whereabouts of their little group’s leader.
That is until the following Tuesday when a flash of blonde hair from across the cafeteria floor catches his eye. There’s Arthur, head thrown back in the midst of one of his overpowering laughs, sat at a round table tucked away in the left hand corner. Leon and Percy flank his right, bursts of happiness ring out across the room twining with the noisy bustle of the lunchtime period. To his left however (where Merlin would usually sit) is a shock of dark curls set around deep chocolate eyes. Gwen's warm smile can be felt from across the room, her teeth pearly white as she animatedly talks to her fellow netball teammates who fill the rest of the table. One of Arthur's hands is twiddling the straw in his cup the other, however, is spread along the back of Gwen's chair. Fingertips curled, drumming an unknown beat against the arch of her shoulder - it’s casual, the act unconscious - and it stabs through Merlin's heart sharper than air. He finds himself rooted to the spot, frozen in place whilst his fellow classmates weave past him jovially, shovelling all manners of crap fast-food-junk into their mouths. A few clatter into him, one taking time to yell ‘fucking move, idiot’ - that has him finally snap out of his trance, swallowing the lump that clings in his throat.
He can’t take it - he needs to get out. Without another glance at the table, he throws his uneaten food in the rubbish, sliding his tray on the top of the bin as he goes. He has an unsettling feeling that he’s being watched but can't bring himself to turn or care whether deep blue eyes are following him out - he just bolts. Merlin’s pace quickens as he exits the canteen, past the reception and straight out of the school gates, his feet continuing until he reaches the end of the street where he hops on board the 221 taking him straight into town. The bus is quiet at this hour, filled with mothers picking their younglings up from nursery, so many blasted buggies that clip his ankles causing him to curse as he stumbles down the walkway.
When he finally reaches Kingsland Shopping Centre, he strolls around aimlessly. A face lost in a sea of people who meander just as fruitlessly through the day break. Merlin returns home with quite the bundle; a new pair of Converses, two DVDs, Mumford and Sons’ latest album, a bottle of that perfume his mother likes as well as a dark charcoal Fenchurch hoodie from Republic... He still, however, has the same amount of money he left with in his wallet.
Today is a bad day.
Merlin goes back to school the next day, vowing to make it through the whole six monotonous hours. He immerses himself in the art department, finally able to discover the dark room he campaigned so tirelessly for the previous year. His art teacher Ms LeFay is one of those crazily eccentric women, eyes bright with a twinkle that speaks of a life full of adventures, of dreams never quite fulfilled. She supported him throughout, urged the head teacher that a fully developed photography department is essential to the future of this school’s devotion to the arts. Most of the student population fancy the pants off her, and why wouldn’t they? With cascading black locks and piercing green eyes, her youthful skin shines ethereally pale, casting her easily as the hottest teacher of the school. Sadly for Merlin, she is missing one key appendage below the waist. However, they have come to form what he hopes is a tight friendship and mutual respect over the years. She has a warmth in her heart that is filled with genuine love for her students and their creativity which Merlin can’t help but be awed by.
So he busies himself in what was once the old supply cupboard, now a fully functioning dark room housing such beautiful equipment that he runs his fingers over attentively. The room is cast in a lazy red hue from the safelights that dangle overhead, disguising the tired circles that hug around his eyes. His fingers work deftly over the enlarger, hands instinctively turning dials, adjusting, flittering around the room as if he lived here all his life. A soft knock makes him pause; he checks the trays of negatives around him before murmuring a ‘come in’. The heavy black curtain in front of the door is pulled aside swiftly as Ms LeFay’s ridiculously high heels click into the room.
"Already getting familiar with the place, I see?" she smiles.
"Uh yeah, I hope that's OK," Merlin lifts his head, a flash of worry passing behind his eyes, "I mean, no-one was in when I got up here and--"
Ms LeFay cuts him off with a raised hand, "Merlin, Merlin, its fine... really. If it wasn't for you, we probably wouldn't have this place at all."
Merlin's lucky the room’s lighting easily hides the deep rouge blush spreading to the tips of his cheekbones; unfortunately, it does nothing to control the tug of his lips. "You did a wonderful job, Miss, putting it all together..."
"I just hope other students will appreciate it as much."
"Oh, I'm sure they will," he insists, moving around the long rectangle table to check on a couple of trays down the end. Merlin lifts the paper out of the water, fingertips carefully nimble, the grin on his face is breathless as he happily clips them in place on the line above.
Ms LeFay watches on proudly, "Quite – Well, I'm glad I found you in here, Merlin 'cause you're precisely who I was looking for."
Merlin startles at her words, hand slipping as he pegs another print to the wire, "Oh?"
"Yes, have you heard of the YBA exhibit?" At Merlin's blank stare and small shrug of his shoulders, she continues, "It’s specifically designed to highlight the bright young talent of future artists in the field of contemporary pieces." She pauses to take Merlin in, his eyes are still unsure, something not quite--
"I'd like to enter your work... if I may?" she finishes, fingers drawing lazy circles on the wooden table. He follows them with his eyes, almost lost in their hypnotic allure, before snapping to attention as what she just put forward sinks in.
"Me? My--? I really don't think my pieces are to that high a standard..."
"Nonsense!" she exclaims, eyes wide and affronted, "Merlin, some of your work is the most engaging I have ever seen, at any level, let alone for a boy your age."
Merlin watches as she stops herself, almost debating how best to articulate her words. She catches his eye, sees his hesitation. "If you're uncomfortable with the idea, Merlin, I'll let it lie, but I would hate for you to not apply due to a lack of self-confidence. You are an extremely talented young man, and I would very much like for the rest of the country to see that."
Merlin looks across the line of photographs he's just processed, landing on one he took of Arthur's hands as they coiled around a Coke can, the lines stark as they contrast against the black and white backdrop. He looks back towards Ms. LeFay, smile soft, he nods, "Okay, I--Okay."
"Well, I knew it would happen eventually. Marriages never last these days... Shame. Too much bloody monogamy if you ask me –“
Merlin lifts his head from his still-full plate – Dinner lady O’Brien’s famous ‘Meatloaf Surprise’, the surprise being it was fucking awful – his lips quirk as Gwaine swishes (with all manners of grace) into the seat beside him.
He’s smiling at Merlin, teeth glistening white; it leaves him with an unsettling feeling of suspicion and amusement. “I could pretend to know what the hell you’re talking about but seriously—“
“You and Pendragon.”
Merlin arches an eyebrow.
The action has Gwaine sigh dramatically running a hand through his ‘L’Oreal shine-worthy’ hair. “The two of you have barely said a word to each other for bloody weeks and I come in now and see him making moody faces in one corner, you sat over here looking like someone’s kicked your puppy….”
“I don’t have a pupp-“
“Anyway, the point is, it’s getting fucking ridiculous, and it’s giving me a headache.” Merlin scoffs but quickly stifles it after Gwaine shoots him a warning look. “So whatever’s under your bonnets, can you have it out already, throw a few punches if needs be, so we can all get back to some form of normality.”
“Do you even understand the concept of normality?” Merlin asks cheekily, spearing his fork and lifting it to his lips before remembering how God damn awful it tasted and dropping it back down.
“Tried it once, didn’t agree with me,” says Gwaine matter-of-factly. Merlin barks out a deep rich laugh which is too contagious for the Irish man to ignore, “Seriously, mate,” he continues, placing a warm hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “Just sort it out… You’re friends, yeah?”
Merlin sobers quickly, studies Arthur from across the canteen. Their eyes meet for an instant - stark blue against blue - and then it’s lost as he turns to Leon, shares a joke and a smile that leaves Merlin feeling even emptier still. “Yeah… friends.”
The cool October air whistles around the rooftops, the clouds hang dark and foreboding across the afternoon sky. Merlin glances upwards; the fear of impending rain makes him move his thumb more urgently across the page. His lithe ivory fingers are smudged with shades of grey matching the sky above as the stub of charcoal chases shadows across his pad. He’s skipping P.E. again, of course. Merlin readily accepted long ago that anything involving a ball or running or any form of strenuous exercise just isn’t for him. So he escaped to where he always does; the rooftop of the science building wasn’t exactly designed to house truant teenagers, but well, Merlin has his ways of getting up here unnoticed. The only drawback however, is that Merlin isn’t the only one with such skills. The clatter of the metal ladder alerts him that his silent sanctum is soon to be intruded upon.
Sandy tufts of hair peek over the ledge, soon followed by the rest of him. Merlin narrows his eyes as Arthur pole-vaults over the ridge, landing swiftly on the gravelled rooftop.
Merlin rakes his eyes over his old friend before clicking his tongue, returning to run deft fingers over his art pad, smudging the dark image into shape.
"Hey," he breathes, standing so very un-Arthur-like, shrunk in on himself, with a nervous twitch to his left leg that has it jittering rapidly.
Merlin looks up at him again, making a great show of looking around the deserted rooftop before raising a challenging eyebrow back at Arthur. "Oh... you talking to me? Sorry, hasn't happened in a while, not used to it."
A part of Arthur's usual cockiness returns to him in that instant; hands no longer shoved in pockets, but folded determinedly across his chest. He sees Merlin's eyebrow and raises a smirk. "Yeah well, I've been missing a prized idiot. Percy and Gwaine aren't quite up to your level of stupidity; it’s highly disappointing and not nearly as entertaining."
Merlin stares at him incredulously for a beat then shakes his head, unable to quell the pull of his lips. “Prat," he scoffs.
"Idiot," Arthur retorts, and that's all that needs saying as they release a breath of laughter, an easiness falling between them that has been gone for too long. Their gasps for air quiet down and they're left staring at each other. Arthur releases a deep heavy sigh as he strolls forward, flopping down beside Merlin against the edge.
“Look... about what happened... that... time. It was -- can we just put it down to a hideously drunk mistake?"
Merlin slides a sideways look across. "You and I both know neither of us were drunk that night."
"Or high," Merlin adds, knowing Arthur all too well when it comes to excuses.
"Fucking Christ, alright, can we just... put it down to adrenaline or something? ... I don't know, I just... I just want my friend back alright?"
Merlin breathes out long and hard. He wants to rub his hands over his face, scrub the tiredness from his pores, but his hands are caked in fucking charcoal, and whilst it may get a laugh off Arthur and break this awkward tension, he really doesn't want to walk through the playground to the toilets looking like a black and white minstrel. Instead he rubs them on his jeans, slow and measured.
"Adrenaline, huh?" he asks, eyes locking onto Arthur's for a moment before they cast back down to his hands clenching his jeans. Flashbacks to Arthur’s hands doing the same thing just a few weeks ago has him nodding his head. "Ok, adrenaline... we can go with that." He smiles as Arthur's face seems to lighten instantly. The sun cracks through the dark clouds overhead, bathing them in swathes of searing heat; Merlin's not sure if it's a coincidence or God having a fuck off laugh at them.
He somehow thinks it’s the latter.
Things do go back to normal… somewhat. They go to school most days, spending every Tuesday and Friday afternoons atop of the science building smoking and laughing as Leon does his Monty Python Brian impression, Gwaine hollering ’How should we fuck off O’Lord!’ which has them all promptly rolling on the floor. They also spend way too much time playing FIFA ‘11 and even more time playing Call of Duty - ‘Arthur watch out he’s—Arthur he’s… fucking hell, you dickwad, HE’S BEHIND YOU!’ After much coaxing from Gwaine, plus the worst puppy-dog eyes in the history of begging from Arthur, Merlin eventually agrees one day to swipe them some vodka from Gaius’s off-license down the road – He still has the lump on his head from the old man’s swinging broom. They do manage to keep the alcohol though; whilst Gaius sure puts up a mean fight, his sprinting days are somewhat behind him, and they make it back to Merlin’s flat with relative ease. The vodka however does not go down as easily, and when Gwaine disappears for an age and returns with a bottle of tequila, well… Merlin doesn’t quite remember how that night turns out but he’s sure it’s not good.
They also continue to get stoned. A lot. Which is how Merlin comes to find himself one chilling Saturday evening, laid flat on his back, limbs stretched wide proudly proclaiming himself ‘a starfish’ atop of the Hill. “It’s because I’m a star, see?” He states rather matter-of-factly to Gwaine, who tilts his head as though inquiring Merlin’s shape.
“Ah, but you’re not sparkling… stars sparkle.” Gwaine points out, rollup secured between his lips. Merlin pouts.
After Arthur’s discovery of god-knows-how-old weed down the side of his bed, they’d all declared a trip to the Hill was in high order. All that is bar Percy, Lance and Elyan, the three of them are absolute chimney-pots when it comes to actual smokes but are quick to draw the line at anything stronger. Merlin admires that about them in a way. He, however, loves the craic, needs those few moments in his life where the most imperative of concerns is who would win in a fight - a badger or a mole? Leon has argued a good case for the mole - ‘They’re sneaky,’ he said. Quite.
“If the poor bastard wants to be a star, just let him be a fucking star.” Arthur comments from beside him, a glazed expression over his face, spliff hanging loosely in his fingers. Gwaine rolls his eyes, flopping back on the grass with a dramatic sigh as Merlin smiles smugly and sticks his tongue out, flapping his arms up and down wildly.
“What are you trying to do now? Make a snow angel?” asks Gwaine, taking a long deep drag, releasing a ringlet of O’s into the crisp-night sky.
Merlin shoots him a look that clearly means he is some deranged fool. “Not a snow angel, Gwaine, a grass angel… duh.”
“I thought you were a starfish?” Leon pipes up, sitting at the very highest peak of the hill, legs crossed and eyes closed. He looks like some kind of hairy ginger Buddha, which Arthur is quick to point out and receives a clump full of dry grass in his face.
“Yeaaaaa I got bored of that.” Merlin whines, arms propelling twice more, before he heaves panting breaths from his excursions. He flips over to his stomach, half landing on Arthur who puffs out an ‘oof’ as well as a ‘bloody gangly oaf’ whilst trying to shepherd Merlin off him. Arthur manages to free his arm from under Merlin’s chest but they’re still touching, pressed against each other from shoulder to ankle. Merlin’s not sure whether it’s a side effect from the weed but his skin is prickling hot, cold shivers shooting through his right hand side – a crackling charge that arouses and frightens him in equal measure.
Merlin is half aware there is a rather heated debate taking place between Leon and Gwaine something to do with whether a kangaroo can jump over a pig… or a sheep… or some kind of farm animal. Merlin is rather more fascinated with the spliff Arthur is currently twiddling between thumb and forefinger. The blonde is paying just as much attention to their boisterous friends as Merlin, eyes vacant as they stare straight upwards into the midnight blue abyss. Merlin studies him silently for a while, explores the contours of his face, the way his honey-suckled skin draws tight around his cheekbones, his jaw, the prominent curve of his Adams apple. There’s a small cut to Arthur’s lip, the plump cherry tainted bow scarred. He claimed he nicked himself shaving. Merlin has an awful suspicion it was more likely the handiwork of Uther – despite Arthur’s constant insistence that the old man never laid a hand on him.
Regardless, Arthur’s face only seems to hold this tranquillity when high off the good stuff or absolutely wasted. It is a sad state of affairs but worth it to see no lines of worry or stress pull at his features. Merlin grins to himself as he snatches the smoke away from Arthur’s hand with distracted ease. Arthur turns his head lazily, tongue coming to wet his lips as he watches Merlin’s eyes flutter shut and inhale deeply around a soft hum. Merlin looks down at him through his lashes, pupils blown as he leans up on his elbow and crowds closer against Arthur. They watch each other throughout. Merlin takes another drag before blowing the smoke slowly over his friend’s face. Arthur can’t keep his eyes open as Merlin’s warm breath dances across his skin; the scent of the weed makes his head dizzy as his fingers clutch into the dirt under his hands, struggling to keep himself from floating away.
Merlin stares as Arthur gasps pocketfuls of cool night air into his lungs, chest heaving as if he’s sprinted a hundred metres; his eyes are once again trained on the smog filtered sky. He rakes up and down Arthur’s face once more before flopping onto his back again, raising his arm across to Arthur’s mouth so he can wrap his lips around the stub and take a drag. Arthur inhales sharply, spluttering as the taste sticks in his throat, scratching against his tonsils. He pushes Merlin’s arm back, and he simply shrugs and raises the spliff back to his own mouth.
“Do you think—“ Arthur begins, voice barely above a whisper. “Do you think when people die they… they watch down on you?”
Merlin nods vigorously, grass falling over the top of his hoodie. “Oh, yeah, mate, totally. My dad’s up there somewhere, they’re stars, you see, like me –“
“I thought you were an angel now?” Arthur quirks.
“I’m part time angel, part time star.”
“Right, I see,” he giggles, hushing when Merlin’s rather pointedly bony elbow nudges into his side, “Okay Okay, so stars, you say…”
Merlin heaves a put-upon sigh as he picks up his story, “Yes, you see, when those we love pass on, they turn into stars. We may not be able to see them all the time but when we need them, we’ll feel them. That warmth you get in your chest… when you’re just trying to make sense of it all? That’s them; shining their light within you, guiding you… they’re there with you every step of the way."
Arthur’s soft laboured breaths mingle with Merlin’s own as they both stare intently at the few specks of starlight that have burst through the hazy evening cloud.
“You think my mum’s one of those stars?”
Merlin turns his head to meet Arthur’s gaze, the blue of his irises seem deeper, like liquid, and he can’t help but catch his breath at the intensity behind them. He swallows as he nods his head gently, “Of course Arthur, she’s the brightest one.”
They’re no longer touching but the charge that ran through Merlin earlier that night spikes back with full spark. Not only down his right side this time, but throughout his entire body, his nerves tingle alive, acutely aware of every hair on his body, every pore of his skin as Arthur’s eyes bore into him greedily, unblinking.
“Oi, you two. We need your help, seriously important philosophical question here,” yells Gwaine up above, and it’s like a freezing ice-bucket of water has been poured over them both. Arthur grants him one last look before unsteadily rising to his feet and taking the few wobbly steps that lead him to the two slurred men. Merlin follows shortly after, wavering above them precariously until he is tugged down by an insistent Leon.
“Seriously important question,” Gwaine reiterates.
Merlin nods, “Okay.”
Leon waves his arm in front of them before making a huge circular motion, “Ginormously life affirming.”
“Right,” Arthur adds.
“Can we just cut to the fucking chase, lads?”
Gwaine looks at Arthur and Merlin in turn, before levelling his gaze at Leon who nods, “Who… has the shiniest hair?” he asks.
The question leaves all four of them in hysteric bouts of laughter and faux fighting. Gwaine and Leon spend most of the evening petting each other’s heads, Leon cursing Gwaine’s ‘voluminous waves’ while the Irishman retorts that he is just as jealous over Leon’s ‘buoyant curls’. Arthur and Merlin think they’re both fucking bonkers – but then they haven’t really taken their eyes off each other for most of the night so Merlin doesn’t think they’re that fit to comment.
Hours pass quickly and all too soon the chirps of birds and other woodland creatures remind them that it’s ass-o’clock in the morning and really the buzz will be wearing off soon and wouldn’t they all much rather be tucked up in bed when that is the case? They manage to stumble back between them with no major injuries; Gwaine has a rather unfortunate encounter with a rose bush but other than that, the four make it back in one piece. Gwaine and Leon holler and stumble across to West Court as Merlin and Arthur bid them adieu tripping over each other as they take to the concrete stairs into Holly Street gingerly.
They reach the third floor and Merlin nearly tumbles to the ground when an unexpected arm lands heavy across his shoulders, “Coming back to yours, mine’s too far.” Arthur slurs in his ear, Merlin trying to work out why he – ‘the skinniest fucking one out of the pair of them’ – is the one who has to prop them both up.
“Fuck off; it’s only two more flights.”
“Come on, your mum’s at work… I’ll make it worth your while!” Arthur sing-songs and for a sickening moment, Merlin’s heart leaps to his throat as he turns wild eyes on his friend. It’s a peculiar sense of relief yet disappointment as Arthur reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and retrieves a clear plastic bag, shaking the mouldy green contents with a smirk.
“You cheeky -- been holding out on us?” Merlin chokes, fingers clutching at air as Arthur snatches back the bag too quickly, eyes dancing with stoned mirth.
“Nah mate, just saving the best stuff for you and me.”
When Arthur’s looking at him like that – all tousled hair and blinding crooked teeth, Merlin knows he’s done for. He raises a quizzical eyebrow and adopts the air of someone mulling over a decision before breaking out into a wide grin of his own, “Flattery will get you everywhere. Come on then… It better be good shit, mind.”
“Fuck, that’s good.” Merlin sighs on a heavy exhale, wisps of smoke curling before his eyes. He’s sat on the floor, back pressed up against the foot of his bed, long lithe legs stretched out endlessly in front. Merlin tilts his head back, neck craning over the comforter as Arthur swims into vision above him.
“Told you, didn’t I?”
He’s happy. One of those genuinely broad smiles on his face, eyes light despite his level of intoxication. The bed shakes under Merlin’s head as Arthur squirms to get comfortable, finally deciding to rest flat on his back, head hanging over the edge next to Merlin’s. ‘Fuck – he must be getting blood rush to the brain,’ Merlin thinks as he rests his cheek against the edge of the mattress and watches as Arthur takes a couple heavy drags, eyes closed. When the blonde opens them, the startling blue of his eyes are fanned by long amber lashes that flutter against the ringlet of smoke as it seeps out of his lips.
Merlin takes the rollup from Arthur’s proffered hand, studying the stub between his fingertips, afraid of the question on his lips and the answer it could provoke.
"So where'd you get the stuff?" Merlin finally asks. Even with the window open the heat of the room is suffocating, causing his skin to break out in red prickly splotches.
"Hmm?" Arthur hums, non-committal, and it’s only when Merlin raises the spliff in his hand in way of explanation does Arthur offer any forthcoming, "Oh, uh, some stock I had left over from well... you know."
Arthur stumbles over his words, preferring instead to pinch the smoke back from Merlin's hand, taking three or four deep pulls. Merlin tilts his head back further to watch, struggling to garner Arthur's attention as the blonde vehemently keeps his eyes shut. "Myror?” Merlin supplies.
Arthur nods, head lolling off the edge of the bed, "Yeah it's uh... We're sorted now. We weren’t exactly talking when I… I paid him his money that Friday... We're all square now. It’s done."
"Done?" Merlin repeats, staring down at his hands. The grass is kicking in more and more as the time passes and – Christ, have his fingers always been this long? - Not the point; he shakes his head, trying to clear the fog that is creeping behind his eyelids. What was Arthur saying? Dogs? Drugs? DRUGS! "Done with Myror or done dealing?" he pushes.
Arthur is shifting atop the mattress again, before drawing his neck even further back, face directly in line with Merlin's. "Both" he states, eyes locked on each other.
"Good. That's...good." Merlin surmises as Arthur smiles lopsidedly at him, placing his hand in front of Merlin's lips, allowing the younger man to take a deep drag. Merlin keeps his eyes open as he does so, can feel the rough skin of Arthur's knuckles as his lips pucker around the spliff.
"Mmmm," Arthur agrees, taking in the upside down world around him.
It’s two days later at ridiculous-o’clock in the bloody morning again when things seem to come to a head. The covers are a warm comfort from the blistering cold that threatens to seep in under the windowpane as Merlin burrows closer, deeper. The building never sleeps, always offering moans and groans from TV sets or foxes crying into the night below. A noise Merlin doesn’t expect or greet warmly however, is the sharp pounding on the front door, insistently loud. He rouses groggily, contemplating just staying in bed because really, who the fuck would be barraging their flat at this hour? It’s only the quick flash of worry that maybe Hunith has forgotten her keys that finally has Merlin pulling back the covers with a heavy sigh and scuffle across the flat with all the graces of a newborn lamb. He jams his knee into the edge of the couch, gasps ‘Fuck’ as he hobbles the rest of the way, peering through the peephole curiously. The curse leaves his lips again as he unlocks the chain, pulling the door wide to greet the slumped form of his best friend.
“Arthur?” he asks curiously, hand coming to rub at tired eyes.
Arthur is drunk. That much is obvious. If it isn’t clear just from the stench of him, Merlin can tell from the way his eyes dart around the place, comically wide, pupils blown around red-swollen rims. His hair sits haphazardly, tufts of blonde sticking every which way, clothes askew as if he dressed in a hurry. For all intents and purposes, Arthur Pendragon looks like a broken man; that thought alone tears something deep in Merlin, who can do little more but clutch on the door and try and make sense of it all.
“Arthur?” he says again, bringing a hand to tug at his friend’s sleeve.
The action seems to trigger something in Arthur who snaps his attention to Merlin’s face before slumping further against the doorjamb. “He was right,” he mutters; the words are softly spoken yet laced with a bitter edge. “I’m just a fucking mess. Always have been, always will be.”
Merlin looks at him uncertainly. “Don’t say that… Look just, come in, yeah?”
Arthur pushes away from the door, plans of a fast retreat etched clear on his face. “I don’t know why I came here…”
“Well, you obviously can’t stop thinking of me,” he deadpans.
Arthur scoffs, lowering his head, unable to suppress the soft chuckle that escapes him; Merlin smiles.
“Come on, Arthur.”
This time, he sways nearer to the door. His eyes rake over Merlin, making him flush; he feels naked under that gaze, suddenly wishing he’d slept in more than just boxers and a light tee. Arthur guides himself to the couch, flopping down dramatically as he throws his head over the edge, closing his eyes tight. Merlin slides the lock across the door, turning and pressing back against it for a few moments. “So what happened?” he asks, shuffling across to the couch, swatting Arthur’s legs to make room for him to sit down, which Arthur does with a put-out sigh.
“Oh, nothing my father hasn’t deemed fit to tell me countless times before: that I’m a useless, pathetic disgracing waste of space. You’d think I’d have got used to the soundtrack by now.”
Merlin makes to cut in but Arthur continues. “But that’s the thing, isn’t it? He’s right. What have I ever done to prove him different?”
“Arthur, you shouldn’t listen to Uther; he’s a –“
“A bastard? Yeah, I know. Still, doesn’t mean what he’s saying ain’t true.”
Merlin’s face flashes with hurt, anger; incredulity that a father can make his own son feel this way, “It’s not though! How can you--? Arthur, you are nothing like what he says you are. “
Arthur snorts dryly, arm coming to cover his face. “It’s okay. I’ve come to accept it actually. Same old shit day after day, becoming him eventually…”
“Don’t.” Merlin says harshly, words crisp. “Don’t say that. You are ten times the man your father is; you will never be like him.”
“It’s inevitable, Merlin. I know it, he knows it—“
“Well, I don’t.” Merlin declares. He shifts across to the coffee table, perches on the edge so he’s directly in front of Arthur, saddened by the resigned nature on his face.
“You will not become you father, Arthur, because I won’t let you. You are a clever, strong, funny, brave man… a bit of a prat now and then,” he nudges Arthur’s knee with his own, smile shy as Arthur gazes up at him through his lashes, “but you’ve got a kind heart. You care about others, about your friends… You care… and that makes you completely different from him.”
“It’s easy for you to say all that but, the truth is everything I touch, I fuck up. School and dad, and Christ… Myror? How are you even still talking to me after that?”
Merlin’s eyes flitter down to his lap, his ragged breaths sound increasingly louder in the dull quiet. “I’m not going to say you’re not to blame,” he begins, fingers drumming a nervous pattern on his knee, “because, really, you were an utter twat for getting involved with someone like him, but… Arthur, you weren’t to know what they’d do. It wasn’t you who threw any of those punches and you tried—“
“Not hard enough. They still hurt you,” he whispers.
“Yeah…” Merlin watches the path of his own hand as it slowly traces across from his knee to Arthur’s, touch soft, hesitant, “and I’m still here… with you.”
Arthur’s whole body is shaking under his fingers, mouth pulled in a grimace as he runs terse hands through his hair. “I don’t know what… Merlin, I don’t know what the fuck this is, or what I’m feeling about myself or-or… or you. It’s all just one big fucking mess and I—I can’t screw this up, I won’t. You’re pretty much the only true friend I have and—and I bollocks things up, that’s what I do! But I can’t—if I do that with you, Merlin, I couldn’t… I wouldn’t—“
Merlin’s scrambled to his knees and is in front of Arthur in a breath, hands gingerly coming up to pull clenched fingers from his tresses. A litany of quiet promises - “Shhh, it’s ok… It’s all going to be okay.” - are whispered in the space between them. Arthur’s eyes are hauntingly clear, vacant of any trace of intoxication as they watch Merlin’s thumb rub soothingly over his knuckles.
“I don’t want to fuck this up.”
Merlin runs his tongue over his dry lips, the cool air making them tingle. “I won’t let you do that,” he half-smiles, eyes dazzling as they peek up through sooty lashes.
The sight is too much to resist as Arthur brings a thumb up to run curiously over Merlin’s bottom lip, just as he had done the first time. Tip hanging weighty on the soft plump flesh, he spreads the rest of his fingers to fit around the curve of Merlin’s jaw. All sharp angles and ivory skin, the shape of his cheekbone strongly carved under Arthur’s palm as he directs Merlin’s face close to his own, and slowly closes the distance. The first touch is gentle, barely there, lips too dry and noses too close, then Merlin pushes up on his knees, tilts his head just so - and then it all makes perfect sense. Their mouths fold together effortlessly - eager biting nips which are lapped away with affectionate tongues. It’s different from their first kiss months ago, feels different. Merlin’s fingers grip at Arthur’s thighs, drawing him closer to the edge of the couch widening his legs so he can slot between them. Arthur’s have taken residence in Merlin’s hair, gripping and pulling the short strands as their kiss turns deeper. They part eventually, dry pants landing heavy on the other’s face, foreheads pressed together. Arthur curls his bottom lip between his teeth, the hint of a smirk forming there. “God, you’re good at that,” he rasps, fingers loosening their grip, coming to curl the unruly dark locks behind his ears.
Merlin lets out a long satisfied hum; it reverberates through his chest like a purr. “Now do you believe you’re nothing like Uther?”
It takes Arthur a while to process the words, so content is he in stroking back Merlin’s hair from his forehead when, “Wha—did you have to bring up my dad now? Honestly, Merlin, why am I not surprised? You really are the biggest mood kill—“
“Well, let me help you forget then,” he grins mischievously, catching Arthur’s disgruntled pout between his lips, sucking gently with intent. Arthur is laughing against his mouth, taking Merlin’s kisses eagerly. All too soon, the laughter gives way to moans as Merlin’s hand, which was previously riding high on his leg, thumbs easily at his jeans, popping the button and sneaking inside. This is all new, flesh on flesh, fingers curled around blistering hot heat. It’s fast, and urgent and over way too quickly.
None of this fazes them though.
After all, they have the whole night.
Things change after that… except they don’t. They continue to go to school, continue to get helplessly drunk under Gwaine’s instructions (although Merlin has never returned to the tequila). They also continue to get stoned now and then up at the hill, even managing to convince Percy to join them one time, resulting in their burly friend attempting to cartwheel down it before clattering into the now infamous rosebush… He’s not touched the stuff since.
The only thing that has changed is there’s now groping involved - lots of it. Oh, and kissing, plenty of that too. And really, when Arthur does that thing with his fork in the canteen while sending Merlin come-blow-me eyes, who is he to complain? That really is the state of their relationship for the daylight hours, all suggestive glances and wicked comments that teeter just on the edge of fucking dangerous. Where it changes is when the sun gives way to night, when the air cools and the safety of locks and solid doors keep them from the outside world. Here Arthur spends hours spread lazily atop Merlin’s bed, fingers gliding teasingly over the sole of Merlin’s feet as he works flat on his belly doing his homework; when Merlin squeals with laughter as Arthur tackles him to the floor after his stealthy photo-taking skills of Arthur dozing failed spectacularly. There are even the quiet moments when they simply sit back and watch a DVD. They don’t snuggle, not really, but Arthur rests his hand on top of the couch, fingers coming to stroke the back of Merlin’s neck. He leans into it, purses his lips and lets out a deep sigh. They’ve never actually managed to watch a film in its entirety.
They’re careful to not take it out of the security of their flats, rarely even taking it out of the security of their own bedrooms. Chancing it only when they’re sure Hunith’s working the night shift, and even then, it leaves them on edge. Which is why Merlin is so startled when, without warning two weeks later, the thick heavy curtain of the dark room is pulled back and Arthur enters.
Merlin has a brief moment to panic over the exposure to his prints before he turns curious eyes to the door. “What are you doing here?”
The words may have come out harsher than he intended, judging by the brief flicker of hurt on Arthur’s face, but whatever was there is quickly schooled into an easy grin as he raises his hands to clutch at his chest. “You wound me, Merlin.”
“Not that I’m not happy to see you or anything, of course, but… really, why are you here?”
“What? I can’t take an interest in my boyfriend’s work?”
And really, did Arthur expect him to come up with a witty retort after that?
“I assume you don’t go around blowing Lance or Gwaine, and this is kind of a one-on-one type thing.”
“What!?” Merlin splutters, and suddenly, his mind is full of images of Gwaine, lying back, legs akimbo, arms behind his head with an all ‘It’s not going to suck itself’ look on his face and that was quite more than he ever wanted to envision. “Of course not, no. It’s you, just you.”
Arthur flashes him a toothy smile. “Good.”
“Good,” Merlin repeats, still feeling he’s ten paces off this conversation. “So boyfriends?”
“Secret boyfriends.” Arthur corrects, taking the time to walk around the table towards Merlin, eyeing the photographs that were hanging up to dry.
“You do understand the concept of secret, right?”
“And accosting me - at school, no less - that seems fine to you?”
“Merlin.” Arthur drawls. His steady steps have brought him right in front of the younger boy. He takes an inch nearer, not touching. Merlin’s head spins as the dim red lights illuminate Arthur’s face, making the contour of his jaw seem more refined than ever. “The whole point of secret relationships is that you sneak around… and I don’t see anyone here, do you?” The last he whispers against Merlin’s ear, the heat of his breath prickling Merlin’s skin.
“Arthur, we can’t…” Merlin’s hissed protest is caught short as Arthur ducks his head and mouths his way down Merlin’s neck, nosing his way past the stubbly jut of his jaw. Merlin really should be pushing him away right now, but when Arthur flicks his tongue over his pulse point and puckers his lips to suck bruising kisses into his flesh, it’s all Merlin can do to not come right there and then. His breath stutters into choked out gasps, fingers gripping tightly in Arthur’s hair, keeping him in place as he burrows closer. He tries to keep his eyes open, cautiously trained on the door but then Arthur brings his teeth down hard and Merlin is powerless to stop as they flutter closed. Arthur’s grinding into his hip, movements jerky as he tries to control the pressure in his jeans. Merlin’s nails scrape over his scalp, and Arthur breaks free for air, panting breathlessly against damp skin. His hands move further along the table, trying to grasp some sort of purchase, pushing and… Shit!
“Fuckity-Fuck-Fuck!” Merlin curses, pushing Arthur away from him as the tray of water sloshes across the table soaking into the back of his jeans and onto the floor. His fingers move quickly, tearing off reams of tissue paper to mop the table before turning his attention to the negatives swimming in the shallow tray. His shoulders slump as he lifts them out, and catches the smear running down the side. He clips them up to dry anyway, just to see what a total disaster he’s made of it.
Arthur is stood to the side, teeth fretting at his lips, looking for all purposes like a naughty school boy about to be scolded. Merlin offers him a deep sigh and a ruthless smile. Arthur’s gaze flits to the floor before tracing up to the little photographic-disaster-zone he’s just created. “Oops?”
“Big fucking oops!” Merlin says, tone meant to be mock-stern but the lilt of affection creeps through.
“No more accosting you, I swear!” He raises his fingers in a Scout’s honour; Merlin’s pretty damn sure Arthur has never spent five minutes in the Scouts. He hums instead, eyes narrowed before turning to finish tidying up the clattered trays of chemicals.
He senses Arthur’s presence behind him before he feels it, heavy arms coming to wrap around his waist. “I genuinely am sorry,” Arthur murmurs against his temple, hands rubbing back and forth against his stomach.
“What happened to no accosting?”
“I can’t help myself when your ass is all wet.”
A rich laugh rumbles through Merlin’s chest as he swats playfully at Arthur’s hands until he’s released.
“I am sorry though… If I’ve fucked up your grade piece.”
Merlin’s eyes soften. “You didn’t. This… this is something else.”
“Oh?” A silence hangs over them as Merlin busies himself around the room, darting from corner to corner, efficiently dodging eye contact; Arthur’s brow furrows.
“Generally an ‘Oh?’ is a hint for you to go on.”
“It’s...” Merlin pauses mid-flurry, arms coming up to try and gesticulate… something. “It’s just this exhibit thing.”
“Exhibit thing?” Arthur pushes.
Merlin heaves a heavy sigh; he really didn’t wanted to share this with anyone else, let alone Arthur. Because Arthur gets excited – way too easily, and what is he to tell him when he gets rejected, because, come on, really, his work is nowhere near good enough, but then Arthur’s attempts at puppy dog eyes always manage to wear him down, and before he can help it, he finds himself muttering, “Ms LeFay’s entering my work into this Young British Artist programme. They’re having an exhibit up in Liverpool of the top ten artists under 20 in the country. They’ve asked everyone to compile a photographic portfolio; it’s nothing serious, I won’t even get it anyway…”
The words stumble over each other, quick in their hurry to leave Merlin’s lips. Arthur watches him curiously for a beat before one of his dazzling smiles takes over his face, and he’s back to crowding into Merlin’s space.
“You’re gonna get it. You know that, don’t you?” Arthur says with such assurance and belief, Merlin can’t help but blush, grip his shirt and pull him in for a quick peck on the lips before shoving him away with a hand in the face.
“It’s a wonder, really; how your atrocious levels of hand-eye coordination extend into the virtual world as well.”
“Would you piss off! It’s not my fault you can’t move your fat ass out the way.”
“Now, now boys, we don’t want any domestics!” Leon’s staticky-voice comes through their headphones whilst Arthur shoots Merlin a ‘you-happy-now?’ look, as he promptly gets blown to smithereens on the television screen.
Merlin grits his teeth as he shuffles to get more comfortable at the foot of Arthur’s bed, elbows resting on knees, control in hand, fingers jabbing furiously with more determination than finesse. “There wouldn’t be any domestics if my own bloody teammate stopped getting in the sodding way.”
“Oh sure, blame the one who’s covering your backside, I’m the front line of defence man! I’m already likely to die without you throwing grenades at my back!”
This time, there’s a trio of what Merlin determines as ‘evil-laughs’ crackling through their headsets. He vows to personally jab Lance, Elyan and Percy hard in the arm when he next sees them… well, maybe not Percy.
“Jeez, this is like listening in to an episode of Maury!”
“Nah, this is more on the Jerry Springer level” That’s definitely Leon. A chorus of ‘Jerry, Jerry, Jerry’ echoes through their ears.
Merlin turns to glare at Arthur, who’s lounged on top of his mattress, back propped against the headboard. He raises a questionable eyebrow that has Merlin rolling his eyes heavenwards as he turns back to the screen.
“Alright, lads, pipe down – last game, winner takes all,” says Arthur, who stretches his leg to run the tips of his toes across the dip in Merlin’s spine. He’s promptly shoved off which has him releasing a deep chuckle before turning his game-face on and focusing on taking out his other four friends.
After ten more minutes and a series of “Arthur—right there, just—“
“I can see him, I’m waiting for you to… oh bloody hell, look what you did!”
“Me? You pompous arse, it was—“
“Oh, will you shut up?”
They’ve managed to tune out the laughter flooding into their ears, scowls set deep as they provide endless amusement to their dear friends, who are showing no mercy whatsoever and are thoroughly whipping their butts. It ends as predicted: Elyan and Leon are victors, Percy and Lance finishing a respectable few points short… then of course, there’s Merlin and Arthur. Last… by a long shot. A string of catcalls and insults are heralded down the line followed by a rather genuine ‘Well-played lads’ from Lance, who honestly is far too nice and wholesome to hang out with them. Arthur and Merlin continue to bicker as they log off, Elyan’s snorted, “Oh, just kiss and make up, boys, we’re taking your asses tomorrow” rings through before he’s promptly hung up on.
“Well, that was successful,” says Arthur, standing from the bed to cross over and turn off the console.
Merlin takes the opportunity to push himself further up the mattress, claiming a pillow and tucking it behind his head. “A whole barrel of fun!” he mutters sarcastically.
Arthur throws him a querying look over his shoulder as he powers off the television. “What’s got your panties in a twist?”
Arthur cuts his eyes, slotting the controls back in place. “Someone’s in a good mood.”
“Yeah, well, what do you expect? We finally have your flat to ourselves for four bloody hours, and what do we do? Play Call of fucking Duty…”
A smirk forms on Arthur’s lips as he rises from the floor, coming to stand by the foot of the bed, looking down at Merlin. “Well, aren’t you a horny bastard!”
Merlin shoots him a look. “I’m not a—“
“All because you didn’t get your cock sucked.”
“Ugh, you’re vulgar.” Merlin turns his head, unable to deny the sudden peak of interest said region has taken to Arthur’s words.
“Mmm, and you love it.” His voice is closer now. Merlin can feel the bed dip under the new weight as Arthur comes into view on top of him, legs straddling his hips. “Now Merlin, you know all you have to do is ask.” The grin on Arthur’s face is too self-satisfied, cocky and all-knowing; Merlin tries to squirm away as Arthur makes to catch his lips. Grunting out a futile curse as he’s finally successful, before eventually melting into it like he knew he would.
Merlin’s lungs fill with heat as Arthur bunches his t-shirt up under his arms, mapping the newly-revealed skin with nips and licks as he moves lower down Merlin’s abdomen. “God, you’re a dominating prat,” he breathes, hand coming up to fiddle in his hair regardless.
It’s typical therefore that just as Arthur gets to the trail of hair that dips under his jeans, the front door bangs open loudly, clattering off the wall before being slammed shut.
Arthur is off the bed and by the door in a fraction, Merlin’s body left cold and bereft from the heat of Arthur’s mouth.
“Fuck, that’s my dad.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” says Merlin as he shuffles to pull his t-shirt back down. He could attempt to fix his hair but really, what’s the point?
“Just, just stay in here. He’s probably just looking for some cash for the pub.”
“You mean he hasn’t gone to the pub yet? Where’s he been all this bloody time?”
“The bookie’s, no doubt – look, just stay here; I’ll be right back.”
Merlin flops back on the bed with a ragged sigh. “Hardly gonna jump out the fifth floor window, am I?” but Arthur’s already gone, door pulled firmly shut behind him. The sounds of Uther moving around the living room, yanking drawers and slamming cupboards, reverberate loudly through the paper-thin walls.
Merlin’s fortunately not had many encounters with the stern figure Uther Pendragon cuts - a man who was once a successful accountant in the city transformed into a drunken gambling lout whose few pleasures come in a cold glass of Guinness and the opportunity to belittle his son. Merlin has never seen pictures of Arthur’s mother, but then again, neither has Arthur. In one inebriated act of foolishness, Uther had got rid of all traces of Igraine, burning photographs and letters, any memento or token that reminded him of the life he once had. All save her ring - that Arthur found one day buried deep and forgotten in their untouched cabinet – he’s worn it on a chain around his neck every day for the past six years. Merlin imagines Arthur looks like her, for he certainly didn’t get his kind eyes or gentle smile from the bitter old man on the other side of the door, who is currently grunting monosyllabically, the screech of a chair being pushed across the linoleum kitchen floor piercing through the quiet.
“Dad, look, it’s all we have, yeah? I need to get out and do a food shop later in the-“
“Liar!” Uther roars. “You’re keeping money from me, boy; I know it. I bet you got it stashed in your room…”
Merlin’s ears perk up and he stands quickly, ready to throw himself under the bed or in the wardrobe in case a thunderous Uther storms through the door. He’s just cultivated a plan that involves contorting himself to fit in the bedside cabinet when a heavy thud sounds against the wall. Arthur’s hard, broken cries of, “Stop, just calm down” ring out.
“You’re just like your mother, leeching off me, bleeding me dry… a bloody parasite, that’s what you are!”
The words are cruel, but it’s the sickening tone they’re delivered in that has Merlin wanting to wrench open the door and offer Uther some home-truths of his own. He continues to mouth off, the insults slurred as they’re matched with stumbled clatters and curses.
“Just give me that tenner then, better than having to stay here…”
Merlin guesses Arthur hands over the cash by the sound of the front door opening a moment later.
“I’ll be back when I’m back” are Uther’s final words as the slam of the door closing echoes through the walls. Merlin releases a heavy sigh as he sits back on the bed, blood red anger rushing through his veins. The creek of the bedroom door makes Merlin lift his head, watching timidly as Arthur slowly clicks it closed before sinking to the floor, back against the frame. He brings his knees to his chest, head resting atop of folded arms, and looks up, catching Merlin’s eye. Neither makes any attempt to move.
“I hate him,” says Merlin, tone steely and raw.
The side of Arthur’s mouth pulls up slightly in a sad smile. “I know.”
“God, I hate Christmas mass… all that singing.”
“Oh, don’t be such a bah-humbug.” Hunith smiles, patting his hand as they walk arm in arm along the snow slick pavement.
Merlin guides them around a section of hard black-ice before leading them up the concrete stairs. “Really, what’s to be thankful for at winter? It’s bloody freezing, the pathways are like an ice-rink and all the shops ever play is sodding Mariah Carey!”
“Aw, I like that song,” Hunith hums, the tune undoubtedly now caught in her head and sooner or later will also be stuck in Merlin’s. “And I don’t know; you seem to be in a chirpy mood these past few weeks. Maybe you have something to be thankful for that you’re hiding from your dear old mum?”
Merlin nearly trips up the last few steps, thankful for the cold wind to excuse away the fiercely deepening blush sweeping across his face.
“What? No, what would I hide from you?” he stumbles out, not at all happy with the suspiciously knowing smirk on his mother’s face. She seems to drop it at least, well, until they round the corner to their floor.
“Oh, well, isn’t this our very own special Christmas present!” Hunith coos cheerfully. Merlin is so lost in not slipping and falling arse-over-tit that when he finally looks up to where Hunith has now quickened her pace, the sight of Arthur having the life hugged out of him by his mother has him pause in his tracks. Merlin’s face flitters between shock, confusion, then quiet happiness before he asks, “What are you doing here?”
“Dad's already head off to the pub for the day—“
“It’s 11am…on Christmas day!” Merlin states incredulity, receiving a sharp smack round the head from his mother. ”What the- ?” he turns and hisses at her quietly, whilst Arthur chuckles at the pair of them.
“You know him, any excuse for a drink. Anyway, I just—“ He glances down feebly at his hands, a small green packaged present clutched tightly. “I didn’t know if we were doing gifts or…” He stumbles and Merlin’s eyes soften.
Hunith steps in then, a warm hand reaching out to grip his forearm. “You must have Christmas lunch with us.” Arthur begins to protest but Hunith silences him with a gentle squeeze. “I won’t take no for an answer.”
Arthur smiles up at her under fanned-out lashes. “Thank you, Ms. Emrys. I’d love to.”
She claps her hands together happily as she slips between them into the flat, reeling off a list of things that need doing before the turkey is cooked. They’re left standing awkwardly in the doorway, Arthur shuffling the present between his hands. Merlin’s fingers reach out to steady them before he halts himself, looking around the deserted floor warily. Instead, he gives Arthur’s ankle a soft kick as he brushes past him. “I’ve got you something too, idiot.” He grins, tongue poking out between his teeth as he skips backward into the flat.
Lunch passes in a flurry of laughter, food and exceedingly competitive games of charades. (Arthur refuses to admit he lost because “Really, Merlin, who is able to guess ‘Shawshank Redemption’ when you’re stood there flapping your arms about?”). They pull crackers, wear the brightly coloured paper hats pulled out of them and snigger at the crappy jokes that come inside. Just when they possibly think they’re burst to completion, Hunith appears with the most scintillating chocolate cake either of them has ever seen, and well, they manage to find room for a small slice. They sit through the Queen’s speech as well as yet another re-run of Only Fools and Horses. By the time the Top of the Pops theme tune thrums out, Hunith is passed out snoring peacefully in her trusted armchair whilst Merlin and Arthur are having a thumb war on the couch. They say that because it’s too hard to admit they like holding the other’s hand – so thumb wars it is.
Arthur’s mid-guffaw during Merlin’s bizarre impression of Florence and the Machine (that’s looking more Kate Bush on steroids than anything else), when his eyes land on the green parcel on the coffee table.
“Hey,” he murmurs, leaning over to pick up the package, placing it in Merlin’ lap. “Merry Christmas.”
Merlin smiles shyly as his fingers run over the shiny wrapping paper. He grabs Arthur’s hand, pulling him up and leading him to his bedroom. He closes the door with a soft click, turning to rummage at the bottom of his wardrobe before pulling out a bundle wrapped in tissue paper. “Sorry, it’s… I couldn’t get wrapping paper.” He shrugs, coming to sit down on the bed. “Unsurprisingly, there’s no good place to hide a roll of that stuff when you’re trying to make a quick getaway!”
“They could have just thought you were very well endowed.” Arthur smirks, drawing his legs up on the mattress facing Merlin. They laugh awkwardly for a moment, neither knowing how to begin.
“You first.” Merlin says, pushing the present closer, drawing his thumb into his mouth as he watches Arthur tear the sheet of tissue back, revealing the rich navy ‘Bench’ hoodie underneath.
Arthur’s smile is warm and wide as he pulls the soft cotton jumper from the tresses of ripped shreds, fingers gripping the material as he turns bright shining eyes to Merlin. “I love it,” he says, twisting it in his hands to pull it over his head, leaving his hair skewed so that Merlin reaches across to pet it down. Arthur catches his wrist as he pulls his hand away, pressing his lips to the pulse point delicately. “Thank you,” he mouths against his skin. Merlin flushes, a streak of red gracing his cheeks and tinting his ears.
“Your go.” Arthur grins, releasing his arm to pass across the present. Merlin takes it eagerly, peeling back the corners tenderly, not wanting to rip it. The idea that Arthur actually sat down to carefully wrap this for him flutters something deep in the depths of his stomach. “It’s not much, I couldn’t… Well, it’s just Primark but… anyways…” Arthur babbles, as Merlin finally touches the wool under his fingertips. The scarf is soft to touch, the rich red wool knitted finely into intricate criss-cross patterns. “You’re always so bloody cold so I thought—“
Merlin leans up on his knees, reaching across the shredded bits of paper to press a firm lingering kiss to the side of Arthur’s mouth, sucking his bottom lip between his own before pulling back slowly. “It’s perfect.”
They spend the next few minutes like that, lazily sharing kisses, tongues dancing idly together. Merlin pulls back gradually, lips tingling. Arthur’s clear blue eyes are trained on him for a moment before they reluctantly pull away to glance at the door. “I have to go.”
“Stay,” says Merlin hopefully, fingers twining the toggles on Arthur’s jumper.
Arthur watches him unmoving. “I can’t. Dad will probably be back, wondering where his dinner is.”
Merlin’s face remains sombre. “Does he even know it’s Christmas?”
“He has other priorities.”
“More important than spending time with his son?”
“It would seem.” Arthur offers with a grim pull of his lips, shoulders raised in a ‘what-ya-gonna-do?’ manner. It all feels horribly wrong to Merlin. “I really have to go,” he drawls, shifting off the bed to pull on his trainers. “Thanks for today; your mum is…. amazing. And for the –“ He gestures to the hoodie.
Merlin brings his hands to dust over Arthur’s shoulders, skimming his arms over the blue cotton. “It suits you.”
Arthur smiles, hooking his fingers through the belt loops of Merlin’s jeans and drawing him close. “Does it bring out my eyes?” he asks in falsetto, fluttering his lashes dramatically, face hovering close.
Merlin laughs, palms coming to cup Arthur’s cheeks as he murmurs “Yes” over his lips again and again.
Four days later, as Merlin is busy mapping the contours of Arthur’s nipples, the blonde’s mobile vibrates against the bed sheets, signalling a text. Merlin sighs, resting his chin on Arthur’s chest as he reaches across to retrieve his phone. “It’s from Gwaine,” he mumbles, thumbing across the pad.
‘If you have any plans 4 NYE cancel them, Lances sis is in Brighton, free flat in Bermondsey, B there by 9 for serious drinking – Flt 22b SE16 1JH.’
Arthur reads it out, raising an eyebrow in silent question. Merlin glances down at his own pocket, quiet and still.
“Well, clearly I haven’t been invited,” he says with a pout, rolling onto his back.
Arthur scoffs at his dramatics. *beep beep*
‘Tell Merlin will you. No point wasting a text when he’s probably with you anyway.’
“You happy now, drama queen?” Arthur smirks, showing Merlin the screen as he leans up to snatch it away.
‘Plus he’s technically impaired’
“Cheeky shit!” Merlin exclaims, pulling out his own mobile and punching out a furious reply, whilst Arthur cackles ruthlessly on the covers.
‘Look at me being so technically IMPAIRED. We’ll be there you bastard’
Merlin sets his phone down besides Arthur’s, resuming his previous position, his body trembling under Arthur’s continued hysterics. Merlin scowls down at him. “Oh, I’m sorry; did you want me to blow you? Maybe I’m impaired at other things too…” He drawls, making to move up and away. He’s yanked back with a growl as Arthur spins, pinning him down on the bed quickly. This time, it’s Merlin who can’t stop giggling.
“Happy fucking New Year, boys!”
The sight that greets them is one that would shock most others, but once you’ve known Gwaine for half your life, his little idiosyncrasies become oddly endearing. Also, rather alarmingly, it’s not the first time Merlin’s seen Gwaine in nothing but a hula skirt with ‘Hello Kitty’ stickers on his nipples. The hair tied back with a marigold glove, however, is new.
“I’d ask, but I think I’d rather not know,” says Merlin, casting his eyes around the rather plush flat. A heavy bass shakes through the floor that’s littered with twenty or so others in various states of intoxication.
“All that’s important my friend is that you brought booze.”
Arthur lifts the heavy crate of beer from behind his back as Gwaine’s eyes dance excitedly. He grabs Merlin’s face and plants a loud wet smack of a kiss on his cheek. “You beauty!” he coos, taking the beer from Arthur’s proffered hand and shuffling them in.
Merlin rubs at his slick cheek, grumbling, “Yeah, trying to steal 24 cans on New Year’s Eve of all nights was no easy task.”
“Well, as I said, you shall be rewarded.” Gwaine grins, pulling from somewhere (he doesn’t like to think where) a rolled-up spliff. “Don’t smoke it all at once now.” He pats him on the head, tucking the cigarette behind Merlin’s ear before flaunting off in a sashay of dry grass – and yup, he was naked underneath there. Wonderful.
For Merlin the evening passes in a mixture of alcohol, weed and an absolutely disgusting bottle of plonk when Big Ben finally strikes twelve. Afterwards Leon calls them all in for a truly horrendous game of truth or dare that Merlin would really rather forget about. By the time 4am rolls around, the majority of the netball team, including Gwen, have decided to call it a night, stumbling drunkenly under the chaperone of Elyan to run for the night bus. Percival and Lance passed out some time ago, both struggling to stay balanced on the bean bags they’d perched themselves on. Only four of them remain up and somewhat close to coherent. Gwaine is sat – sans hula skirt now – butt naked on the ill-advised white sheepskin rug by the coffee table. Leon lounges across the armchair next to him, blowing ringlets of smoke into the air. Arthur and Merlin had claimed the couch for most of the night, sprawled at either end, their legs a tangle of limbs in the middle. Merlin’s eyes are beginning to weigh heavy, lids struggling to keep open as he burrows closer into the cushion under his head. One of Arthur’s sock clad feet is running soothing circles across his ankle, dipping under his jeans. Merlin sneaks glances at him under hooded lashes, body lazy and lax; an easy smile on his lips that lifts higher as he catches Arthur watching. A half empty can of lager hangs loosely in Arthur’s fingers, the flat a quiet hum around them as they continue to stare at each other silently.
“What d’ya say we keep this party going, chaps?” Gwaine says enthusiastically, standing a bit too quickly for his intoxicated brain to handle. The others groan, raising their hands to cover their eyes, as Gwaine quite literally lets it all hang out. The situation isn’t helped when he ignores their cat calls and proceeds to turn on them, bending over to dig in the pockets of his jeans.
“Fucking hell, mate, at least put the skirt back on.” Leon calls, closing his eyes and tipping his head further over the armrest.
When Gwaine spins round to face them, he’s shaking a small plastic bag, a thin layer of wide powder lined along the bottom. Merlin’s face drops.
“Coke?” he asks, suddenly much too awake to be dealing with this. Gwaine simply grins, returning to his perch on the floor, clearing space on the table in front of him. Merlin casts uncertain eyes towards Arthur, who is rather pointedly not looking at him. Flashbacks to that night a few months ago come flooding back, Myror standing over him, self-satisfied smirk on his face. How can anyone do drugs when you have to deal with people like that? After that night, Arthur’s broken down sobbing confessions - he doesn’t think he can even look at the stuff.
Leon is leant across the table, prodding the powder with a finger as if the bloody thing is going to jump out at him. “Never done coke before,” he murmurs, eyes skittishly flittering between Merlin and Gwaine.
“Me neither, mate, but I bet it’s a proper good kick,” says Gwaine, looking for something to cut lines with.
Arthur has yet to say anything, despite Merlin boring a hole into the side of his head; he gives a sharp kick to Arthur’s shin. The blonde turns to glare at him pointedly, folding his knees up into his chest.
Merlin simply shakes his head. “Lance will fucking kill you – are you crazy?” he says, making to stand.
“Aw, come now, Mer, it’s just a bit of fun.”
“No, it’s not, you cock; it’s fucking cocaine!” Merlin says, exasperated, hoping the actual seriousness of the whole situation will finally sink in to their dead-brained skulls. When none of them offer anything further, Merlin throws his hands in the air, stomping around Gwaine on the floor, heading for the door, “I’m off. You utter prats can snort your brains out without me.”
“Oh, Merlin, you’re no fun.” Gwaine calls; ignoring Merlin’s angry half muttered grumbles of ‘shiny haired pricks’ and ‘idiots with beards’ and ‘stupid fucking blonde ex-dealers’. He’s stopped trying to shove his foot into his unlaced trainer by a solid presence at his back, a warm hand sitting low on his spine.
“Come on, let’s go,” Arthur murmurs close, leaning into Merlin as he reaches to pull his jacket from the hook by the door.
“Now, Wart, where you off to?” asks Gwaine, once again rising to his feet, stumbling disconcertedly towards them. “I know you won’t let me down on this. Hey, hey,” he nudges Arthur's side over enthusiastically, a suspiciously knowing wink and gleam in his eye. Merlin watches them both curiously. He can’t mean? Arthur doesn’t do coke, does he? No… surely not. Arthur stands there silently, flapping at Gwaine’s elbow as he continues to dig it into his ribs. A nervous flush has flared up the side of his neck, staining his cheeks and making his eyelashes flutter swiftly – and well, Fuck, he’s wearing his lying face and that’s pretty much all Merlin needs to effectively storm out the flat.
The first calls of his name barely reach his ears as he hurries to get out of the building. His feet hardly touch the ground as he flies down the stairs, desperately needing to take in a few deep gutfuls of air. His head feels light. A moment of weightlessness shakes his limbs as he pants heavily, having to stop and grab onto the railing for support.
“Merlin… Christ, would you just wait a minute?” yells Arthur, coming to a halt in front of him, hands clutching into his sides as he bends over to catch his breath.
“Oh, I’m sorry; I thought you’d be too busy snorting charlie with your buddy Gwaine there.”
“Fucking hell, I got up to leave with you, didn’t I?”
“Well, what was all that wink-wink-nudge-nudge business about then? Sure looked like he was hinting that you do the stuff!” Merlin spits, wrapping the ends of his jacket tighter around himself, purposely not taking out the warm scarf that’s tucked deep in his pocket.
“And that makes it gospel? If you hadn’t noticed, Gwaine’s off his fucking face right now.”
Arthur reaches out to grab his arm but Merlin shrugs him off coldly, a steely glare warning him off. “You know… after everything that happened with Myror, I thought you’d actually know better not to get messed up in actually taking the darn thing.”
“Hey, hey,” Arthur soothes, grip firm as his fingers curl deep around Merlin’s shoulders, refusing to let the younger man go despite his initial struggles. “I promise you I’ve never taken anything,” says Arthur, bending gently, coaxing Merlin’s startling blue eyes to look at him. He holds his gaze as he continues, quieter, “A bit of weed now and then, like you, that’s it. I may have dealt it… but, actually take it… never have, never will.”
“No more,” says Merlin suddenly, hands burrowing deep in his pockets.
Arthur looks down at him confused. “Huh?”
“Weed, no more weed. We both stop. I don’t want drugs to have anything to do with our lives ever again.”
Merlin looks up hopefully, watching as Arthur’s gaze drops, tongue coming out to run across his bottom lip. The fingers gripping his shoulders go slack on his arms, and a sinking feeling hits Merlin’s stomach at the thought that a bit of hash is clearly more important in Arthur’s life than himself. But then Arthur’s hand lifts to curl around the back of Merlin’s neck, face set firm as he nods. “No more… Okay.”
Merlin’s smile is blinding.
Merlin drops the brush in his hand, sending a sprinkling of red paint dancing across the table.
“You are shitting me.”
Ms LeFay chokes back a laugh, bringing a hand to cover her mouth as she comes to perch on the edge of his desk, careful to avoid the splattering of paint. “I assure you Merlin; I am not… shitting you,” she whispers, her warm smile wide. “In two months’ time, your work will be proudly on display at the Walker Art Gallery.”
“Two months?” Merlin repeats softly, eyes scanning over the unfinished canvas laid out in front of him.
“Oh, don’t worry,” she says, reaching to place a comforting hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “They don’t expect any new pieces. They’ve already selected the five works they’re going to host. All you have to do is attend, which the school will fund by the way,” she adds reassuringly. Merlin silently thanks her with a nod for not drawing out the whole ‘I-know-you’re-a-poor-little-arts boy-that-needs-government-funding’.
Instead, he offers her a nervous smile. His hand is still slightly shaking at the thought of anyone else bar his teachers seeing his work. He very rarely even shows his mother his art, always shaking his head with a self-deprecating smile and an ’It’s not really finished yet’ before shuffling off to his room and closing the door. But now his paintings are going to be on full view for the whole of Liverpool to see.
“Oh, and there’s going to be a feature of all ten of you in ‘Art Review’ magazine,” she adds. And suddenly Merlin is definitely getting the feeling he’s going to throw up.
“You are… pleased, aren’t you, Merlin?” Ms LeFay asks, pulling back slightly to meet his eye. “It’s just… you’re looking a bit pale.”
He turns wild eyes to her, pupils blown wide. “Yes, yes... I mean, of course I’m happy. It’s just a bit of a shock, that’s all… You sure they didn’t make a mistake?”
Ms Lefay laughs softly, swishing her long raven hair over her shoulder. “I’m quite sure,” she says, standing to retrieve a piece of paper off her desk before placing it in front of Merlin. “You should be really proud of yourself… I’m sure the subject of your paintings will be happy too,” she winks, light twinkling behind her heavily-mascaraed lashes; Merlin promptly feels his face flushing an awful shade of red.
All he can do is flash her another awkward smile as well as a soft muttering of ‘thanks’ as she gathers a few supplies and heads out the room, leaving him to gaze over the letter of acceptance in his hand.
His fingers trace over the black lettering carefully. “Dear Ms LeFay, It is with great pleasure that we wish to inform you that your application of Mr. M. Emrys into the Young British Artist of the year programme has been successful…”
“We look forward to seeing you, him and his works on May the 5th. Sincerely, S.D. Kilgharrah. Oh my god, honey, that is incredible!” Hunith coos, waving the sheet of paper in the air before pulling Merlin tightly to her chest. “I am so proud of you, my boy,” she sighs into his hair, arms rubbing comfortingly between his shoulders.
“Thanks, mum.” He says softly. “And the school is going to pay for me and Ms LeFay to go up there – they’re even forking out to put us up in a hotel the night before. Train fares, food, everything - all covered.” He smiles, sitting back down at the kitchen table as Hunith turns to flip the kettle on.
“Oh, isn’t this all so exciting.”
“It all seems a bit surreal to me.”
Hunith pulls out the chair beside him, hand covering her son’s, giving it a soft squeeze. “Never doubt your talents love; keep faith in yourself and your dreams and you’ll go far. I just know it.” She sucks her lips in over her teeth, biting on them gently as she brings a finger up to run under her eye.
“No, no, no, don’t get teary on me, mum, you know you’re going to set me off too.” Merlin says, shaking his head, as if that will wish away the warm liquid gathered in the pool of his eyes.
Hunith chuckles lightly to herself as she bats at her lashes furiously. “Sorry, my boy, but oh… I love you, sweetheart.” She leans over, planting a soft kiss on his cheek, before standing to pour two mugs of tea. “Oh, we should celebrate!” She exclaims, flashing Merlin a toothy grin.
“With tea?” asks Merlin. “At least whack out the hobnobs as well.”
“Hah, hah.” Hunith sticks her tongue out, but nevertheless opens the cupboard beside her and pulls out the biscuit tin with a flourish. “I’m serious though; I’d like to take you for a nice proper dinner uptown.”
Merlin stops mid chew, oat crumbs trickling down the side of his mouth. “Mum, you don’t have to do that; don’t be silly.”
“Nonsense, I want to. This is a big thing-“
A knock at the door halts Hunith mid speech, Merlin pushes back his chair to get up and answer it. A rain soaked Arthur greets him, droplets hanging from his shaggy blonde fringe.
“Hey,” he breathes, breath misting in the cold March air.
“Hey yourself, didn’t see you at school today,” Merlin perches himself gangly across the door.
“Yeah, I-uh, had a couple things I had to sort out… Are you busy?” he asks, tilting his head.
“Arthur,” Hunith calls, pulling the door wider as she slots in the gap under Merlin’s arm. “Perfect timing; we were just sorting out a celebratory dinner for this Friday, we’d love if you could come, wouldn’t we, Merlin?” she nudges him with her hip.
Merlin flushes as Arthur looks between the two of them, confused. “Uh… celebratory?”
“Oh, hasn’t Merlin told you? He got accepted for that art exhibit! He’s going be the next Michelangelo!”
“Mum!” Merlin cries, blush escaping to the tips of his ears as he feels Arthur’s eyes bore into him.
“What - I can’t be proud of my boy?”
“You really got it?” asks Arthur; the quiet smile on his lips tugs at Merlin’s heart: it’s genuine and soft and shy, and it’s all for him.
“Yeah.” He breathes, biting his lip.
“That’s… That’s brilliant mate, really. Congratulations.”
“What? You two too manly for a hug?” Hunith laughs, turning her back to return to the kitchen, pulling out another mug from the top shelf.
Merlin chokes out a sound that’s somewhere between a chuckle and a snort, nervously looking at his feet. When he cautiously casts his gaze upwards Arthur’s much too close, especially with his mother in the next room. But his eyes are focused solely on Merlin as he steps forward further still and closes the door behind him with a click. His arms come to enfold Merlin’s waist, snugly fit there like his body has done for the past five months, like it belongs. Arthur nuzzles his nose against the side of Merlin’s neck as he wraps his hands around Arthur’s shoulders, melting into the hold. “So proud of you, baby” and that’s the first time Arthur has ever called him that. The first time Arthur has used any pet name in any context. The words trickle down his skin like honey, flowing through his veins and pooling hot and deep and low in his belly. If Hunith hears the soft moan that escapes his lips, or witnesses the way Merlin presses firmer against his best friend, she doesn’t say.
Just hollers at them that tea is up and they pull back smiling and head into the kitchen.
“Honestly, Ms. Emrys, I don’t think I could eat another thing,” says Arthur, leaning back on his chair, bringing a hand to rub soothingly over his belly. The platter of buffalo wings to start and the huge steak he’s had for mains sits heavy in his stomach and for the first time in ages, he feels full.
“Poppycock,” says Hunith. “There’s always room for dessert, and really, how many times must I tell you it’s Hunith?” She smacks his hand lightly.
They’ve found themselves in a Garfunkel’s restaurant off Leicester Square. The bustle of Friday night tourists mixing with boys and girls dolled up for a night out, trotting over the cobbled streets in ridiculous heels, to pay ridiculous prices to dance to some truly ridiculous music for a few hours. Merlin watches them all lazily through the window, happy and sated as he tries to take it all in. For a few moments, he’s able to forget the dreary grey building of home, the cold, dank walls of his room. Right now, he feels like any other teenage boy, out for dinner in a nice restaurant with the two people he cares for most in the world at his side. It’s what he wants every day to feel like: Arthur’s knee pressed tight against his own whilst his mum regales them with the tale of some hilariously tragic A&E patient who stumbled in half-cut last night. It is only when both sets of eyes turn to him that he realises he’s been daydreaming.
“Huh?” he offers rather inarticulately. Arthur snorts beside him; Merlin makes a point to stamp on his foot in retaliation.
“I was asking what you’d like for dessert,” says Hunith, battling to hide a smirk of her own.
“Oh right... Um, you choose - toilet!” he answers quickly, jumping to race to the restroom.
Arthur watches him go bemusedly, eyebrow raised he turns back to Hunith. “I have to say, that is one strange son you have.”
“Hmmm, and yet you put up with him anyway,” she muses from behind her wine glass.
“What can I say, I’m a saint.” Arthur smiles, taking a long sip from his glass of Coke. He can feel a silence beginning to fall between them and is anxious to break it. He knows how this goes, how the long drawn-out pauses are followed by awkward smiles and stilted laughs as they finally, finally breach it by bringing up something mundane like the weather of all things.
He smiles tightly before taking another long drink from his glass. “So… a lot of rain we’re having, huh?”
Hunith’s eyes twinkle in what Arthur can only describe as a ‘bewitching’ way. Everything about her character is warm to him. Crinkle-cut eyes, plump rosy cheeks, all sweet smiles and soft round the edges; it’s what he’s always pictured a mum to be.
“You know, I’m glad he has someone like you looking out for him,” Hunith says suddenly, drawing Arthur’s attention. “I try my best but I sometimes wonder if he’s missing out on a male influence in his life.”
“Trust me, he’s not.” Arthur answers quickly, fingers tracing the cool drop of condensation running down the edge of his glass. “Having a dad ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“I know your father loves you a lot.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so somehow.”
“Of course he does; why wouldn’t he? Look at you. You have grown into a wonderful young man, Arthur… and I know my son; he doesn’t hang around with idiots.”
Arthur laughs quietly, fingers now drumming a steady beat against his glass, “I don’t know about idiots but he does have the habit of calling me a prat every now and then.”
“Well, prats, maybe.” Hunith winks, a mischievous lilt to her tone that wraps Arthur in fuzzy warm feelings he’d never experienced when speaking with Uther. Hell, he can’t even remember the last time the two of them had a conversation that lasted this long. Hunith steals his internal monologue with the solid clasp of his hand; she’s looking at him with all the gentleness of a mother to her son, and it causes something large and heavy to stick at the back of Arthur’s throat.
“He cares for you a great deal…” She whispers out, eyes tired and haggard but still wide with earnest.
Arthur finds himself nodding slightly. “He’s my best friend” are the only words he can find inside himself to say.
The answer seems to please Hunith, who answers with a kind smile and a ‘Good, I’m glad’ before giving his hand a tight squeeze and promptly returning to her menu.
Merlin sits down a beat later, barely glancing at the dessert list in front of him, before he declares that the apple pie is the one for him. “Think of that in the loo?” Arthur teases, letting out an over exaggerated ‘Ow!’ as Merlin jabs an elbow in his ribs.
“Prat,” Merlin mutters.
Hunith catches Arthur’s eye across the table and smiles.
When Arthur pushed Merlin to share the news with the rest of the group, they all smiled encouragingly with firm pats on the back and warm words of congratulations. Gwaine, however, insisted that a proper night out was in order, for ‘our boy wonder here’, capturing Merlin in a headlock. Which is how Merlin now finds himself back in Leicester Square a week after his quiet dinner with Hunith and Arthur; dressed in a crisp black shirt, dark jeans and his worn-out old school shoes from when he was 15. A heavy drinking session took place at Leon’s flat earlier that evening, cheap Tesco’s own brand vodka going down with ease until Percy emerged from the kitchen an hour later; one arm full with a bowl of limes, the other with a rather large bottle of Tequila. Merlin’s stomach is still not feeling right as he sways unsteadily into Lance’s side. The tall tanned man smiles down at him, the model of sobriety as he chucks a steady arm across Merlin’s back with a, ”You alright there, mate?”
The heavy thump-a-thump of bass music spills out of the club’s doors as people enter and leave. The thrumming beat makes Merlin want to dance. He begins jiggling his hips about, knocking into Lance completely out of time with the music. His frantic hip thrusting comes to a halt as a hot hand slides possessively round his bicep, dragging Merlin up to stand to full attention. It’s no surprise that when he tilts his head, it’s Arthur’s big blue eyes that greet him.
“Act sober!” He hisses in Merlin’s ear. The bouncer, who Gwaine spent the past ten minutes chatting to, casts a quick glance around all seven of them, before pulling the rope back, ushering them quickly inside.
“He didn’t check if we had ID!” Merlin exclaims drunkenly loud as they manoeuvre down the sticky corridor. Much to Arthur’s dismay, Elyan beats him to his emphatic reply by cuffing Merlin round the back of the head.
He scowls at Elyan purposefully before turning doe-eyed and pouty to Arthur, who just sighs as he runs his fingers through Merlin’s dark locks, pushing him forward to the main room. “Bloody tequila.” Arthur curses under his breath.
“Oh, I love this song!”
“You love every song!” Arthur yells, arms resting over the metal barrier balcony, his fingers cradling the neck of the bottle in his hands, thumb picking absently at the label. Merlin is bouncing beside him, using the bar in front as his make shift drum-kit, fists pounding along to the steady beat of the latest Rihanna track blasting from the dance floor below. Somehow over the course of the night, Arthur was lumbered with babysitting duty, making sure Merlin stays upright and doesn’t put his fingers anywhere inappropriate. He hasn’t seen the others in over an hour; with the club spread across three floors, he’s beginning to wonder if he ever will again before the night is out.
His thoughts are turned back to Merlin, as the tall limbed boy presses firmer against his side. “Dance with me,” he purrs; mouth intoxicatingly close to Arthur’s ear.
“Are you crazy? No way.”
“Oh, come on, one dance.”
Arthur casts him a sideway glance. “And if anyone sees us, recognises us, we’re fucked.”
Merlin’s heaved out sigh curves hotly against the side of his jaw. “Arthur, look down there, look,” he insists, smushing his hand in Arthur’s face, directing it to take in the throng of dancing bodies below. “It’s a struggle to make out who’s male and who’s female, let alone anyone’s faces; it’s packed, we’ll move right into the centre. No-one will see.”
Arthur takes a deciding sip of his beer, as the heat from Merlin’s body sears against his skin. Merlin is right though. The dusky strobes of light do little to offer any clear view of the crowd below; just a sea of arms as the heavy thump of the bass reverberates through the walls directly against their chests. Merlin’s hip bumps Arthur’s once, teasing. That seems to do it, if the deep growl that rolls off Arthur’s tongue as he slaps his now empty bottle down on the table is anything to go by. The next moment he’s stalking off for the stairs a grinning Merlin scurrying quickly after him.
They weave their way through the mass of bodies as the whirrs of a smoke machine pumps more dry air into the muggy room making their shirts cling damp against their skin. Merlin finally reaches the spot he wants, allows the music to wash over him as he closes his eyes, tips his head back and lets the pulse of people’s limbs hug him. Arthur barely manages to stay in front of Merlin. He’s pretty sure some girl has her boobs pressed into his back, the steady thump of some random guy’s arse bumping into his side. He allows himself to sink into the flow of the room, hips swivelling to the beat pulsating through the speakers. Merlin hums contentedly, arms hooked above his head as he feels Arthur’s hands snake around his waist, drawing him closer, till their groins are pressed firmly together. They stay like that for a couple of songs. Arthur’s fingers hooked in the curve of Merlin’s back pocket as their hips slide in an easy tango under the shroud of darkness. Arthur brings his forehead to rest against Merlin’s, droplets of sweat beading off his fringe before sliding down his cheek.
“See the world hasn’t ended,” says Merlin, tugging his bottom lip between his teeth with a cheeky grin.
Arthur tracks the plump flesh as it turns from dusty pink to white under the pressure.
“God, the things I want to do to you.” The words are hushed out in a hot breath, much too soft to carry over the thrum of music. But then Merlin’s eyes are staring straight into Arthur’s as their bodies come to a stop, moving gently against the tide of the crowd.
“So do them,” whispers Merlin, and there is no point pretending to act shy or unsure or curious because they both know what they’re talking about. Sex. The places Merlin’s mind has gone every time Arthur has laid him down on his bed, discovering and learning every contour of his body, every taste of his skin. The mere thought of it has made him come like nothing before, shaking under the spray of the shower as his hand flies over his cock with alarming speed. They’ve spent the past five months practically doing everything else. Merlin discovered a love for the heat of Arthur’s mouth wrapped around his member, whilst Arthur himself has become pretty enamoured by Merlin’s tongue up his ass. The act of anything further has never been breached; the idea of… doing that seeming more intimate, more definitive of what they are than they’re comfortable enough discussing… because they don’t.
Discuss things, that is. Not anything.
The one time Merlin tried, Arthur moaned about titles and labels, and really, wasn’t it much better that his mouth got on to more important things than talking – and at the time Merlin couldn’t help but agree. So the subject of sex, the conversation of who would top and how they’d lead into it and where it’d be and who’d buy the damn stuff, has never entered their world but instead burrowed away quietly at the back of their minds.
Arthur’s jaw twitches as his eyes flutter shut, fingers flexing nervously, lifting across Merlin’s ass to trace patterns against the damp skin above his jeans. “Fuck. Yeah, okay, let’s…”
“I’ve got stuff,” says Merlin, battling to keep the nerves from showing on his face. Arthur’s pupils blow wide, a needy whine spills from his lips as the hand at Merlin’s back grips the sweat soaked fabric of his shirt, tightly pulling him across the floor in the direction of the loos.
They’re laughing, giggling like bloody schoolgirls, as they playfully nudge into each other’s side, thankful that the toilets appear empty as they bustle through. A line of urinals present themselves across one side of the wall opposite two stalls. Arthur grabs Merlin’s wrist loosely as he pushes back the door to the stall on the left and promptly let’s go. Merlin bumps into Arthur’s static form, eyes turning and catching… and…
“Shit! Fucking Christ!” cries Merlin, dropping to his knees on the cool tiled floor. The sight that greets him stops his heart cold. Gwaine lies limply atop of the toilet seat, neck rolled forward as the shaggy mane of his hair hangs across his face. Merlin scuttles closer. “Gwaine, Gwaine… Can you hear me? Fuck.” He brushes the dark tresses of hair off his friend’s face, the fear coursing through his blood sobering him instantly. Merlin watches as Gwaine’s eyes flicker fleetingly, a sliver of drool hanging from his parted lips. He turns worried eyes to Arthur, who has remained rooted to the spot; the blood has drained from his face leaving him pale. Merlin gives him a few slaps to the leg to draw him back.
“Arthur, look at me. I need you to go get help; go to the guys on the door, say we need an ambulance immediately, try and find the others too, Go!”
Arthur’s gaze flitters from Merlin to Gwaine then back again before the urgency to move finally kicks in, his legs shaking as he flees from the room.
Merlin’s fingers run over Gwaine’s face, pulling the lower lid of his eye gently only to see stark white. “You fucking idiot,” he whispers, checking the pulse point on his wrist. The beat is strong and loud and impossibly quick, and Merlin curses under his breath yet again. He doesn’t have much time to panic further as Arthur returns clattering through the door, two burly men flanking him; as they try to usher Merlin out of the stall.
“What’s his name?” One of them asks, running through a few vital checks whilst the other busies himself on a walkie-talkie.
Merlin stammers, unsure - shit – they’re underage – “Uh… Gwaine… Gwaine Anderson.”
“What’s he taken?”
Merlin shakes his head. “I don’t… I don’t –“
“Cocaine,” Arthur supplies, hand running shakily through his hair; pulling slightly as he ducks to avoid Merlin’s gaze. “He had about 500 milligrams on him; I don’t… don’t know if he took the lot.”
Merlin stands there numb, unshed tears pooling in his eyes as he watches the two men furiously moving around Gwaine.
“I’ll go look for Lance,” Arthur offers quietly, slipping out the room; Merlin can only watch him go silently.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay here… We’ll let you know if there’s any change.” The nurse tells them patiently, like she has probably been taught to do, leaving the three of them, side by side in the eerily vacant corridor. The ambulance ride was just as stilted. Merlin sat across from Lance, a lifeless Gwaine between them as medics strapped contraptions and prodded him with needles; he purposely avoided Arthur’s eye throughout the journey.
“Someone should tell his dad,” says Lance, the words ringing out hollow in the sterile corridor.
Merlin brings his head to rest in his hands. “Crap, I didn’t even think of that.”
“Hey, it’s all good.” Lance stands beside him, placing a steady hand on his shoulder. “I’ll give him a call; see if I can get hold of Leon and the boys too.” He gives Arthur’s knee a hearty slap and turns round the corner. The creak of his footsteps dying down into silence, leaving a heavy awkwardness in its wake. Tension rattles between them palpably; the heavy draws of their breath intermittent with the distant laugh of the nurses at their station.
“So,” Merlin starts, the words sounding foreign in the quiet. “Are we going to talk about how you knew Gwaine was taking coke or is this just another thing we pretend is not happening?”
“How long has he been taking it?” Merlin asks, face stoic and closed off as he continues to stare straight ahead, the vast whiteness of the wall burning his eyes.
He can hear Arthur shuffling beside him, the gap of the seat between them growing wider with every passing second. “Since New Year’s,” Arthur finally says and Merlin can’t help the scoff that leaves his lips. New Year’s? That night comes back to him in a flood of drunkenness; he can remember the rustling of the small plastic bag, the sinking feeling of dread that hit him when he laid eyes on it. Can remember Gwaine’s drunken stumbling as he made to leave and can most clearly of all remember his friend’s all knowing eyes and nudging smiles directed at Arthur. Shit, it all makes sense now.
Merlin pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and finger, the flickering strip lights above creating a steady staccato that thumps in his head. He doesn’t know how to voice the next question. He feels like he’s back in his bedroom six months ago, with Arthur sat opposite him blathering about Myror and money and drugs, and shit, he had hoped they managed to put this behind them. That they weren’t becoming stereotypical fucked up estate kids who could do nothing more than cheat and scheme and lie and get junked up to deal with it.
He’s tired of it. Of the weight of constantly feeling like a lesser person; of feeling like he’s not good enough because of where he lives, and the one time he actually has something to celebrate, something to be proud of, the night has been tarnished. Trod on and turned into a fucking nightmare, and he has an awful sinking suspicion that Arthur has a hand in it more than he’d like to admit.
So with a heavy heart, he asks, “And… and when did you start taking it?”
A broken down apology, maybe a brief amount of denial is what Merlin’s expecting in response, but what he does receive however is such a vehement cry of indignation that it makes his heart flutter with something akin to hope. “What? I haven’t… Merlin, I told you I never took coke once; I haven’t touched anything since you asked me.”
“So, what, Arthur, you just happen to know exactly how much Gwaine had on him how? You know exactly how long he’s been taking the stuff because –“ Merlin’s rant is cut off by the choked gasp that clutches at his lungs, a vice around his heart. It’s slotting together, like some hideous puzzle that Merlin wants to stop, to distort so it doesn’t fit… so it isn’t true. But as he turns to look at Arthur for the first time since they started talking, he can tell it is. “Oh God,” he breathes as he drops his head fully in his hands, willing away the nausea swimming in the pit of his stomach.
Arthur scuttles closer, narrowing the distance by shepherding into the seat next to him. He can feel the brush of Arthur’s leg against his own. “Merlin.” His name is whispered, and for the first time, it sounds disgusting to his ears.
“You know… because you dealt him the stuff, didn’t you?”
Arthur’s breath is hitting the side of his face, hot and damp and wrong, so wrong; he wants to move, get away, but he doesn’t trust his legs to carry him. Then Arthur’s hand is curling around one of his wrists, softly trying to peel it away from his face. His touch is gentle, delicate, but his fingers scorch like fire through Merlin’s skin, and he snatches it away quickly with a hissed, “Don’t fucking touch me.”
Arthur’s shaking; it vibrates through the chairs and through Merlin’s own body. He’d be concerned if he could find it in him to care. A litany of apologies rain from Arthur’s lips, whispers broken on dry sobs. Merlin ignores them all.
“When? When did you get back into it… become Myror’s little bitch again?”
“It’s not—you have to let me explain, Merlin, please. I didn’t want you to know, to get hurt again…” Arthur stammers, as he turns sideways to plead his case. Merlin still can’t meet his eye. “Dad and money, it’s hard… and with Christmas—“
“Oh, God,” says Merlin, eyes fluttering closed. He feels like he’s on a loop, a broken record, but each new revelation claws deeper under his skin, gnawing at his chest and clutching his heart. “You didn’t… you never stopped, did you?”
A snuffled whimper is his only reply as a hand reaches out to touch, to comfort, but Merlin doesn’t want it. Doesn’t want any of it anymore. He shuffles as far away as the chair will allow, the thumping in his head echoing the thumping in his chest as his voice quietens to a broken plea. “Get out.”
Arthur’s in front of him then, on his knees. This close Merlin can’t avoid taking in his face, flushed with eyes red-rimmed, “You think I want to be doing this?” Arthur hisses, fingers clutching at Merlin’s jeans, “I can’t fucking stand it, it’s killing me… but I don’t have a choice”
Merlin’s not sure who he’s looking at anymore. The boy in front of him is so far away from the friend he knew, the boyfr--, the person he’d thought he could be. This isn’t the Arthur he wanted. “You’re wrong. Not only are you putting your own life at risk; you’ve put your friend’s too… and mine. After that… that night, I thought things had changed, thought you’d realised how dangerous this was…”
“I wouldn’t let him hurt you again.”
“You can’t promise that!” Merlin cries, throat hoarse. “Just one slip up and he knows how to make you pay… You – you’ve lied to me this entire time. I can’t… I can’t even look at you right now. I need you to go.”
“Leave, Arthur… or I swear to god, I will hit you.”
The hall is quiet and still. Arthur’s shoes barely make a sound on the linoleum floor as he pushes silently on his knees and stands. Merlin thinks Arthur’s about to argue, or sit down next to him and insist on making him see why he’s done this, or even just run his fingers through the top of his head like he’s done countless times before. He does none of those things. Simply does as Merlin asks – leaves.
He’s left alone until Lance returns a few minutes later. Unquestioning of Arthur’s absence, they sit in silence until a nurse comes round - sad eyes telling them softly there’s been no change. They wait there until Gwaine’s dad arrives, looking hurt and angry and confused; they wait until he asks them to leave. And then they do.
Merlin’s unsure whether he’s welcome as he steps quietly into the Lambeth ward. Gwaine’s dad was anything but pleased last night when Lance valiantly tried to explain what had happened, using words such as ‘cocaethylene’ and ‘metabolites’ whilst Merlin stood beside him silently shaking. He just needed to get out of the flat. Arthur had taken to hammering on his door for most of the morning, his booming voice hollering through the letterbox that he’d wait all day if he had to. It turns out his neighbours weren’t too keen on this arrangement or his insistent level of noise and soon told him to scarper, quickly. That’s when the calls started. The whole situation gives Merlin a throbbing headache, piled on top of already the worst hangover ever. By three-o’clock, he gave up, grabbed his coat, praying Arthur had not taken residence on the staircase, and hopped on the first bus into town to St Thomas’s Hospital.
Which is where he now finds himself; pacing outside room 320, a row of hospital beds lined either side, partitioned with curtains that never quite seem to close fully. He can make out Gwaine four beds back, his dark matted hair lying spread out across the crisp white pillow. He’s awake. Merlin’s heart is immediately at ease. He’s sitting up and he’s breathing. His father is beside him reading the paper. He should turn around, leave them to each other; he wanted to make sure Gwaine was ok, and he can see that now, so he should go. But he has questions. So many fucking questions of why and how and seriously, coke, really? Looking in on them one last time, he decides his answers can wait. It’s typical, therefore, that at that moment, Mr Anderson raises his head and stares directly at Merlin. Shit! He should go; he definitely needs to go now. He twists from the door to walk down the corridor, back the way he came.
The hand on his shoulder a moment later isn’t entirely unexpected but causes him to flinch anyway; he really doesn’t fancy getting yelled at in front of passing nurses and patients. When he turns to face Gwaine’s dad, however, the man doesn’t look like he’s about to explode; instead he just looks tired, worry lines frown his brow, the droop of his eyes indicating little, if any sleep has been had. “Merlin, isn’t it?” he asks, hand dropping to his side.
“I didn’t say it last night but… thank you for getting him to hospital in time.”
Merlin can tell the words are painful to say, the thought of possibilities, of what-ifs sinking in his stomach uncomfortably. He can simply nod awkwardly, hands buried deep in his jacket pockets. “Of course… it was nothing, really. I mean I wish I knew — could’ve helped him or stopped him… I’m sorry; I tend to ramble.”
There may be a hint of a smile on Mr Anderson’s lips, but if there is, it falls just as quickly. He coughs, straightening up to look down at Merlin. “I need to go pick his brother up from school. It would be good if Gwaine had some company while I was gone,” he says, offering Merlin a brief pat on the back before stalking down the hallway. He stands there for a beat, trying to get his head straight before walking back to the room. He peers through the circular window in the door once more before forcing himself to push it open and stride over to the Irishman’s bed.
Gwaine clocks him as soon as he’s walked through, a rogue smile on his face, eyes crinkled. “Merlin, my old friend, you look terrible.” He greets him, nodding toward the chair next to him.
Merlin pulls off his jacket and sits, dragging it closer to the bed and resting his clasped hands atop the blankets. “Could say the same for you, mate.”
“Yeah, hospital gowns do nothing for my image.”
Merlin chuckles, “I bet you’ve got all the girls in here swooning when you turn around though.”
“Of course, my arse is my best asset!”
They both titter off a laugh, struggling to keep eye contact for too long. “So, how are you?”
“Oh, grand. Now they’ve pumped out my stomach and made my heart stop beating like a fucking racehorse.” says Gwaine, tight smile pulled on his face.
Merlin shakes his head, pulls his bottom lip between his teeth.
“Coke though, Gwaine?” He finally asks, turning questioning eyes to his friend.
Gwaine takes a heavy sigh, bringing a hand to settle the blankets over his thighs before meeting Merlin’s gaze. “I know; I’m a bloody eejit.”
“But… But why?”
“Because I thought it’d be a laugh… Yeah, no great excuse really. I just thought I’d give it a go, see what the craic was. And then she became a bitch and wouldn’t let go.”
“S’pose it doesn’t help when you’ve got a mate pushing it at you on the side,” says Merlin bitterly, picking at his nails.
Gwaine raises an eyebrow before shuffling to get comfortable on the narrow hospital bed. “Arthur told you then, I gather?”
“Not really. I—sort of had my own ways of finding out he was dealing.” He lets out a wry chuckle, hollow and humourless. “Didn’t know he was dealing to you though.”
“Yeah, well, he’s helped me out for a while now; where’d you think I got all that grass from?” He winks, prodding at the pillow behind his back until Merlin leans across and fixes it for him. “Saw him about eight months ago, exchanging hands with some shady character.”
“Myror.” Merlin supplies coldly.
“Mmm.” Gwaine hums, head lolling back. “Asked what the deal was, he filled me in. - just the usual bit of weed every now and then. Christmas I asked for something stronger; he didn’t want to give it me, mind—“
“He shouldn’t have.” Merlin cuts in.
“You know me, Merlin, never one to back down. It’s not his fault I’m in here, you know.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Merlin mutters, head hanging low. Gwaine whacks him on the arm, shoots him a pointed look as Merlin pouts and mumbles a pitiful ‘ow!’
“A foolish man blames others for his own decisions,” he states clearly, a tilt of a smile on his lips as he watches Merlin rub the red mark on his arm covertly. “No one drew a line in front of me and forced me to snuff it up.”
“Yeah but still, if Arthur—“
“If Arthur hadn’t sold it to me, I’d have gone to someone else,” says Gwaine simply. Merlin rubs his hands over his eyes, digging the heel of his palm tight into the crevice, the headache he felt building all day beginning to come to a head.
“Still doesn’t make it right,” he says. Gwaine simply looks down at him with tired eyes.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“I’m sorry; you’re looking shattered. I should leave you to rest.” Merlin makes to pull his jacket back on but Gwaine reaches out an arm to grip his fingers.
“Be careful with Arthur.” He says softly. Merlin opens his mouth to protest but Gwaine continues, “I’m not talking about the drugs…”
“I don’t know—“
“Look,” Gwaine interjects. “You’re being subtle enough; don’t worry about that, but I’ve know the both of you for far too long, plus I’ve had my fair share to know when two people are going at it like rabbits…”
Merlin’s eyes widen, his jaw drops and the sinking feeling of ‘Shit!Shit!Shit!’ flashes through his mind. “We haven’t even—“
“I really don’t want to know who tops or bottom.” Gwaine says with a raised hand; his face changes in that instant, schooled into seriousness. “But mate, you can’t keep it going; you know that… not here.”
Merlin tries to pull his arm free but Gwaine simply tightens his hold, “I’ve seen people get done for a lot less on Holly; if you get caught by anyone who doesn’t like it…”
Merlin gets that – he does. The locals on the estate aren’t exactly welcoming to the gays. Even the brief hint or taunt of ‘fag, poof, bender’ will gain you cautious looks and heaps of unwanted attention.
“Don’t worry; we’re done.” Merlin says sombrely, really wanting this conversation to end right the fuck now.
“Cause if it’s about… getting a bit, there are places you can go, hushed on the other side of town, but, if you’re doing it on Holly, mate… I don’t want anything to happen to the pair of you.”
Merlin wants to ask how the fuck Gwaine is suddenly the expert on where he can go to get some gay sex on the sly. And shit, was he really entering into a conversation over his sexuality with Gwaine of all people, in a bloody hospital? He needs to get out now – the nausea from his hangover is starting to pull forward, the sound of a tiny marching band strumming along in his head. He wants to curl up in bed with his mum, drink tea and eat chocolate covered hobnobs, laughing at the idiots on Jeremy Kyle.
“Thanks… I think.” Merlin utters eventually, after an awkward moment of pure silence; he finally pulls free and finishes threading his arms through his jacket, coming to a stand. “But we’re over, so it’s not an issue anymore.”
“Right, well… Thank you.” Gwaine says softly, tilting his head back further into his pillow. “Medics say I had a scrawny bloke with unfortunate ears to thank for getting me help in time.”
“Oi, less of the ear jokes!” says Merlin, laughing, jabbing a light punch to Gwaine’s shoulder before uncoiling his fingers and giving it a tight squeeze. “I’m glad you’re safe. You know I’m here for you to help you get off the stuff.”
Gwaine pulls him down for a hug, clasping Merlin’s back with a wide palm. “Cheers mate. Help Arthur too, yeah?” he whispers, pulling back with a wink, before he shuts his eyes to drift into slumber. Merlin tucks the blanket around him further before leaving.
When Merlin opens the front door, he isn’t expecting to see his mother sat at the kitchen table, a mug of tea cooling between her palms. Yet, a wave of relief washes over him at the thought of spending a quiet evening with her after the absolutely monstrous twenty-four hours he’s just lived through. That is, until he turns from hanging up his coat and catches the weariness on her face.
“Mum, why are you home? What’s wrong?” he murmurs, slipping into the chair beside her, pulling one of her hands from around the mug. The tea is still filled to the brim, but he can tell from the brief touch of his fingertips, the liquid inside is now ice cold. Hunith looks up at him, dazed, almost as if she hadn’t even heard him enter.
“Hmm?” she hums, eyes glazed over. “Sorry, love, was out of it for a bit.” She smiles softly, petting his hand the same way she has done countless times before.
He wraps his fingers around hers. “You not feeling well?” he asks unsure.
Hunith turns a blinding smile to him then, and for a brief moment, she seems perfectly fine. “Oh, yeah, I’m fine, love, just have a headache… been feeling a bit tired lately so the Heights send me home. Anne said she’d cover my shift tonight at A&E too.”
“That’s good… but why aren’t you sleeping then? You need to catch up on your rest, Mum.”
“Well, I was until Arthur near enough pounded down the door,” says Hunith, watching Merlin carefully the intensity making him duck his head from her gaze.
“Yeah?” he asks, nervously twining his fingers along the seam of her sleeve. She merely hums in assent.
“He told me what happened last night… to Gwaine.”
Merlin snaps his face up; shocked that Arthur would divulge the events to his mother of all people. “Oh?”
“Merlin, I know they’re your friends and they mean a lot to you but… I never wanted drugs to become part of your life,” she says, near tears, throat swallowing thickly. “That’s – That’s why I worked so hard to provide you with a life where you wouldn’t need to turn to that.”
“You did. Mum, I promise you, I’ve never taken cocaine or E or heroin,” he whispers the last part, suddenly feeling a guilty stone weigh heavy in his stomach that he was for a while stupid enough to smoke weed. “I don’t want that for me either… I’m not involved in any of that.” The ‘anymore’ is left unsaid.
“I would hope so.” Hunith replies. She sits up straighter, subtly brushing away the pool of unshed tears with the back of her hand. “Drugs are a nasty bit of work; they can change a person Merlin, good people, and make them a shadow of themselves. I only want everything that is good for you, my boy.”
He stands to hug her tightly from behind, arms wrapping fiercely protective, soothingly whispering into her hair over and over. “I promise, I promise.”
A week later, and he has still yet to see Arthur in person.
He’s received a barrage of texts, an endless stream of voicemails as well as a rather pissed off Leon; who is acting like some fifth grade messenger boy passing notes back and forth. The more he thinks of Arthur, the angrier he gets. Yet Merlin fears all it’d take is one look at his stupidly blonde hair, his disgustingly blue puppy dog eyes and he’d be falling back into him deeper than ever before. So he keeps away, resolves himself to it.
He is doing a pretty damn good job of it too. That is, until he runs bang smack into him, of course. Rounding the staircase onto the courtyard, he’s all but barrelled over, kept on his feet purely by Arthur’s tight grip on his elbow. And really, Merlin’s not all too convinced that he hasn’t just been suspiciously lurking there, waiting.
“Still unable to operate on two feet, I see.” Arthur says, smiling. The bastard actually has the audacity to smile at him? Merlin pulls his arm back sharply, side stepping him with little more than a glance before continuing on his way.
He can hear Arthur following behind. “Come on, Merlin, please, can’t we just talk?”
“I think I’ve heard everything you’ve got to say.” Merlin says, eyes resolutely staring straight ahead; not wanting to see the hurt or anguish that is no doubt painted across Arthur’s face. He should not be made to feel guilty; he just really, really wishes Arthur would leave him alone now.
Arthur grabs his arm again. “No, no, you haven’t. You haven’t allowed me to explain.”
“What is there to say, Arthur? You said you’d stopped and you hadn’t. The people you work for beat the shit out of me and yet you went back for more! You lied to me, Gwaine ended up in fucking hospital - what else is there?”
Merlin can hear Arthur’s heavy pants in the chilled air; there are kids playing in the jungle gym to the right, a few mums with push buggies sat on benches. It’s quiet enough, but still neither the right time nor place for them to do this. “I think you should let go of me.” Arthur’s fingers coil tighter, his irises darkening in tone.
“Arthur, people can see. Let. Go.”
He finally does with a curious glance around, shoving his hands deep in his jeans.
“I just want you to give me a chance to explain.” Arthur says quietly; the first splattering of rain begins to fall, heavy droplets blinking into their eyes.
“That really won’t change anything.” Merlin utters the words sadly, drawing the hood of his jacket over his head. “You want to fuck up your own life with drugs, be my guest, but that is not going to be my future.”
“I’ve quit dealing,” Arthur replies, so sincere that Merlin wants to believe him, yet he still can’t help the light scoff that tumbles from the back of his throat.
“Forgive me if I have a bit of trouble actually believing that.”
“Well, that’s brilliant for you.” Merlin says, an edge of irritability biting through. “But it still doesn’t change the fact that I want nothing to do with you.”
There’s no escaping the flash of pain that darts across Arthur’s face, and for an instant, Merlin feels guilty for his clipped tone. “No, no, come on, you don’t mean that.”
Merlin sighs, the bitter rain is beginning to fall harsher around them; his limbs starting to shake - he’s not sure whether it’s due to the driving rain or Arthur still not getting it, so he tells him straight. “Look, I’m not ready to forgive you yet. I don’t want – You’re just not what I need in my life right now… so just leave it, yeah?”
He doesn’t look at Arthur’s face as he zips his jacket up and turns to face the howling wind. Arthur doesn’t follow him this time, as he walks off with all the conviction a man can muster, feeling hollower with every step that he takes.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Merlin cries, slamming his phone shut and tossing it across the bed. The sun is just beginning to lower in the sky on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and that was the third time Arthur had called. After their run in the other day, Merlin expected that the hurt look on Arthur’s face as he strolled away meant he had finally got the hint. The 10 texts and 15 missed calls since however would suggest otherwise.
“Well, seems like you’re handling things just fine,” says Gwaine with a chuckle, back perched against the head of the bed, ankles crossed.
Merlin looks up at him from where he’s sprawled across the bottom, resting the crick of his neck across Gwaine’s shins. “He just doesn’t understand I need time to think.“
Gwaine cocks his head, gazing down at his friend with an impish grin. “To be fair to the lad, he’s been used to getting it regularly and now his source has been cut off, he’s bone dry. It’s like starving a man of food and water… You’re a cruel bastard, my friend.”
Merlin rolls his eyes, flicking Gwaine on the ankle. “How many times do I have to tell you we didn’t have sex!“
“And yet again I say, spare me the details.”
“Well, stop bringing up sex all the time.”
“Who mentioned sex? Did anyone mention sex?” Gwaine asks, bringing his hands up in defence, “I think you, my old chum, are suffering from a good ol’ case of blue balls.”
Gwaine laughs as Merlin’s attempt to hurl a pillow at his face ends up rather pathetically sailing five inches wide. Instead, he jigs his leg up and down, unsettling Merlin who finally growls out his annoyance and sits up. “Say what you like, but I bet since your little tiff, you’ve thrown out any such wank fantasies about our dear Wart and now you and your little… friend down there have had very little hand to face time. Am I right?”
Merlin’s face clouds over in a wave of shock or disgust; he’s not quite sure which. “I am not discussing my wanking schedule with you!”
“Ah, don’t be such a prude,” Gwaine says, folding his arms behind his head. “Never know. I may be just the person to help you out.”
And now it’s definitely shock that pales Merlin’s face, causing all moisture in his mouth to dry up, barely allowing him to splutter out. “You’re—you’re offering to…?”
The almost double take Gwaine does is part amusing, part insulting. “Wha--? No… No! I mean, not that you’re a munter—“
Gwaine cuts him a look. “But, I barely know what to do with my own cock, let alone anyone else’s.” Merlin sniggers, folding his legs underneath himself on the covers. He’s not offended at Gwaine’s words but really, did he have to mention sex and cocks, ‘cause the only thing that flashes behind his eyes at those words is one royal prat who he is vehemently, definitely not entertaining any such thoughts of. No way. So determinedly focused on not having these thoughts is he that he almost doesn’t hear Gwaine continuing.
“I do know, however where you can… acquire such services.”
That really wasn’t what he expected to hear. “I’m not going to pay anyone, Gwaine.”
“No, no, it’s not like that. It’s more of a… meeting place for men with similar… urges.”
Every time Merlin thinks he’s just about managed to work Gwaine out, up he pops with yet another random insight. “It baffles me how you know all this.” Merlin tells him dryly under a raised eyebrow.
“Look, just give it a go. God knows you need to loosen up a bit. You’re stretched tighter than a g-string on ol’ Grunhilda upstairs.”
Merlin’s almost gagging at the thought. “That’s just… God, why do you insist on inflicting such hideous images on my psyche?”
“Because it amuses me the way your left eye twitches… Right…” Gwaine says, rolling to the end of the bed, hovering over Merlin’s prone figure, “...there.” He jabs a chubby finger directly into the corner of Merlin’s eye, the resulting scuffle pathetically tame.
Merlin’s left flat on his stomach, Gwaine mirroring him; he flicks his leg up to whack the crook of Gwaine’s knee. “Cock.”
Gwaine hums low and deep in his chest, nestling his head on his crossed forearms. Merlin smiles down at him softly. “Speaking of twitches, how are the shakes?”
“Better,” Gwaine says, holding his right hand out off the bed as proof. “Doctor came round today. He’s sorting me out with a sponsor, group sessions once a week. Said I was lucky that I wasn’t on it for longer… Apparently if I didn’t have the attention span of a two year old, I would have got more addicted. Don’t know whether to take that as an insult or a compliment.”
“I’d say just roll with it.”
“Yeah… it’s hard though.”
Merlin smiles sadly. “I bet.” They sit quietly as rays of sunshine skirt through the cracked shutters, bathing them in late afternoon warmth. “Which is why you have me here to beat your ass at blackjack.”
“Oh, is that so?” Gwaine laughs, sitting up to retrieve the pack of cards from his nightstand. He shuffles the deck with the flair and ease of a pro, casting sly glances across at Merlin as he begins to deal. “I know you think you’ve cleverly dodged the subject, but I’ll text you the address of that place… Who knows? Maybe it’ll be what you need to finally let him go?”
The address, he double checks on his phone, leads him to the wrong side of Hackney Wick. Considering the entire area of Hackney Wick is pretty down-beat, the signs aren’t looking good.
He’s not even sure why he’s here. He’s angry – that seemed a good enough reason. It was the sight that greeted him when he returned home from school three days later. Arthur was sat at his kitchen table, zoning in on the glass of water he was currently tapping his fingers against. After a fair amount of expletives, Merlin finally discovered that Arthur had sweet-talked Hunith into letting him wait inside for Merlin while she’d gone off to work. After yet more expletives, Arthur was promptly kicked out. Merlin then decided that maybe Gwaine was right – which is never a good thought – but on this occasion, it was the only one he had going for him. That’s how he finds himself anxiously glancing around the derelict street corner: a row of backend garages, the odd late-night kebab shop and a couple of rather shifty-looking alleyways. He’s close to bolting right back out, hopping on the bus home, maybe grabbing some chips on the way and spending the evening watching Eastenders.
But then across the street, a man unfurls himself from the shadows, lithe body leaning engagingly against the brick wall behind him; a lazy smile and knowing eyes grab his firmly. The man tilts his head, locks of shoulder length brown hair cascade across his eyes; he runs a hand through it to push it back – from here, it looks glossy with shine. Merlin finds himself unable to move. What’s the exact etiquette for ‘I’ve come here for a blow-job’ when the guy could just as likely be here to mug him off and maybe even beat the shit out of him whilst he’s at it? Then again, the man doesn’t exactly look that built; Merlin’s pretty sure he could take him if push comes to shove.
The man cocks his head again a moment later, the bow of his lip tucking under his teeth as he sends across a wink before slowly slithering around the corner of the ledge into a small passageway. Merlin follows.
As he walks deeper down the alley, he finds him once again leaning by the wall, one foot kicked up against it; he’s smoking the last of a roll-up. Tobacco, not weed – Merlin can smell it. He takes a step closer. The man isn’t as young as he first looked - late 20’s, 30’s maybe; either way he exudes an air of confidence and experience that immediately sets Merlin’s heart beating faster.
“You’re new.” The man purrs, stubbing the cigarette out with the heel of his shoe before walking towards Merlin, crowding closer until he feels the sharp coarse brick at his back. “I’m Cedric.”
“Merlin.” He finds himself saying, words hushed in the vast echo of the alley. Up close, Merlin can see that Cedric’s hair is not shining with gloss, but looks tacky with grease, the stubble on his jaw a ratty-looking coarse beard that is now brushing against his temple.
“Mmm, you smell good.” Cedric grins, lips wide and round as they brush along the length of Merlin’s jaw, down his neck. “Want to know how you taste.”
Deft fingers work open his belt, Cedric making a one hand job look easy as the other palms up Merlin’s abdomen, riding his shirt higher with each stroke. He eventually pops the button and draws the zip of his jeans down, sinking to his knees to mouth at the soft fluff of hair beneath his belly button. Merlin closes his eyes. He’s hard; that he can’t deny – bound to be when anyone’s hot breath is tantalising him through the thin cotton of his underwear. To an extent, it feels the same, coarse fingers dipping tight into the crevice of his hip, tongue running long wet stripes along the jut of bone. What is new, however, is the deep onerous feeling of self-loathing that sits heavy in the pit of his stomach. He feels sick, dirty, cheap. Cedric’s hands are palming his arse; the globe of his cheeks squeezed tight, the draw of his lips now humming lower, teasing over the rim of his boxers.
Merlin doesn’t think. Just runs. The sudden movement tips Cedric off balance and onto his arse. Merlin can just barely hear the “Fucking cunt!” yelled into the night air as he sprints as fast as he can, haphazardly zipping himself back up as he turns back onto the high street. Thankfully, the bus only takes five minutes to arrive and he hurries to the top deck and curls himself into the back corner – the stench of smoke still lingering on his clothes, the dampness of licks and kisses still seeping through his skin.
He wants to cry but the tears won’t come. He has fallen so far from who he wanted to be, who his mother hoped he could be. Instead he’s become the type of person that has resorted to this; hiding in darkened alleyways, letting any bugger who’s willing have a go on his cock. And right now there’s only one person he blames. Well, fuck him.
He doesn’t want Arthur. How can he want Arthur if he doesn’t know who Arthur is? He doesn’t want him. If he tells himself that enough times, maybe he’ll start to believe it.
Spring bursts through in late April. The days become a bit warmer, the sun shines for a bit longer, trees begin to bloom and daffodils sprout along the roadside. It would all be rather quaint if Merlin actually took a moment to enjoy it, but he’s done such a good job this past month of avoiding things—well, one thing in particular, that the days mould into one; seasons can come and go, and to Merlin, it’s still the same old shit with every day passing to night. He hasn’t returned to that place since that night – the very thought of stumbling across Cedric again makes him heave.
It was hard at first. To blatantly cut out his best friend from his life. To ignore the plethora of texts and calls that flooded his phone. (They all varied along the lines of apologies, forgive me’s and please just answers.) But Merlin never did.
Avoiding him in person, however, proved to be trickier. When Arthur wasn’t waiting for him by his locker, or god forbid, outside his front door (as he’d taken to doing), he was snuck behind alcoves, darting out, taking Merlin by surprise in the most unusual of settings. When Arthur opted to stake out the dark room at school, two weeks after their argument, he inexplicably startled poor Ms LeFay half to death; which resulted in Merlin letting out an annoyed tirade the next time Arthur caught him on the bus ride home, telling him to ‘Please just drop it. Stop… before you kill my art teacher before I even get to Liverpool!’ The last part came out a bit fond, causing Arthur to smile at him slightly with downturned eyes, and no, no, that wasn’t the most adorable thing Merlin had ever seen. It wasn’t. To prove his point, he stood and got off at the next stop. Twenty minutes earlier than he should have. Still… principles.
After a month, it finally sunk in. The texts stopped coming, the phone stopped ringing, and when Merlin turned the corner onto his floor, Arthur wasn’t waiting outside his door. He got what he wanted. Whenever he has a feeling of doubt, of weakness or loneliness, he remembers why he’s done this, why he can’t bear to look Arthur in the face, and he’s sure again.
To make matters worse, he’s seeing even less of his mother than before. Her days at A&E are getting longer. ‘It’s the sun,’ she says, ‘Makes people do crazy things’ whilst packing her work bag and slipping out the door. More shifts at the hospital lead to earlier starts and later nights; they sometimes pass in the kitchen, her coming home, him going to school. She pets his cheek, whispering a goodnight before heading deeper into the flat to the sanctuary of her bed whilst Merlin steps out into the blistering sunlight. She’s beginning to look older, weighed down with fatigue. Merlin tries to suggest he works again, does it via the safety of a post-it note tacked to the fridge one Monday morning. When he returns from school, the note is ripped in half on the kitchen table, a blue one of her own in its place: ’Don’t even think about it, my boy – I’m just having trouble sleeping, nothing to worry about. You focus on becoming the new Da Vinci.’. He smiles softly, folding the piece of paper before sliding it in the back pocket of his jeans. Michelangelo? Da Vinci? His mum really needs to brush up on some modern painters.
He glances up from the tray slopped with the latest dish of the day provided by the school’s canteen.
“Your turn today, is it?” he asks, fork prodding at the orangey-brown mixture on his plate… Maybe a spoon would be better.
Lance sits down with a heaved sigh, ushering across a spare spoon from his tray at Merlin, who takes it shyly with a small smile. “I wish you’d stop saying that – you know that’s not what’s going on.”
“Look, I get it, you know, when two people in a group of mates stop talking, it gets awkward.” He indicates with his newly acquired spoon to the other side of the room where Leon, Elyan and Percy are valiantly trying to engage a morose looking Arthur into conversation. “I just don’t want you to feel you have to sit here with me to make up for it.”
“That’s not why I’m here.” Lance replies, unwrapping his rather much more appealing sandwich and taking a deep bite. “Besides, does that really look like the fun table to you?”
They laugh quietly, comfortable in the temporary silence that lulls over them. Lance’s eyes cast over to the five or six black binders lain on the table between them, each wrapped in supple leather casings. “Those for the exhibit?” he asks.
Merlin rests a gentle hand atop of the files, fingers stroking the black lining. “Mmm, Miss Lefay put them together for me, in case any potential investors wanted to take a copy of my portfolio.”
“More nervous,” Merlin tells him honestly, giving up on the foul excuse of lunch in front of him to take a swig from his bottle of water. “Can’t believe its next Wednesday.”
“Time flies.” Lance says softly. Merlin hums. He can feel Lance watching him cautiously, always practised and measured with what he says.
“Spit it out, Lance. Whatever it is has you looking like a constipated cow.”
Lance shoots him a bewildered look. “A constipated cow?”
“Yup, nasty things, so… out with it.”
“It’s just—It’s been two months” Lance starts carefully, “can’t you see to forgive him now?”
“It’s not as simple as that” says Merlin shortly, jabbing the fork into his plate of goo hoping it offers some cathartic measures – it doesn’t.
“Look, he’s a dick for doing what he did, we all get that and he feels like shit over the whole Gwaine thing but…he’s still our mate. He needs us all to stick by him whilst he sorts himself out. We all do things we’re not proud of….I thought you of all people would get that”
Merlin glances sideways across at him, a niggling irritancy crawling through his skin, “what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing alright, it’s just…when we’re tight for cash or – struggling, we each do what we have to yeah, but we always have each other’s back. Sure dealing is the stupidest one of the lot but—“
“I knew before.”
Lance pulls his brows together, lines of confusion running in between, “What? I—“
“I’ve known he’s been dealing…I found out last October,” says Merlin, drawing the cuffs of his hoodie further over his wrists.
“Oh-“ Lance seems surprised, darting quick subtle glances across the canteen to where Arthur is slumped in his chair, scrolling through his phone, “so why are you now—“
“He told me he’d quit.”
“He promised—you know what, it doesn’t even matter anymore…” Merlin trails off, running the tip of his tongue across the scales of his teeth. He knows that their conversation is being lost in the sea of students yet he still finds himself unable to look up and catch Arthur’s eye….just in case. “I better go, I need to pop into the art block before registration” Merlin says eventually, standing, leaning across the table to gather his portfolios. Lance watches him for a beat before placing a hand atop of the black books, preventing Merlin from lifting them.
“I’m not going to try and understand what’s happened between the two of you,” he starts, “all I know is you’re best friends and you’re both looking so damn miserable right now…and for what it’s worth he genuinely has stopped. Took Percy with him to meet this Myror, squared It all up with him, he had to sell his mother’s ring to do it but he did.”
Merlin swallows the lump caught at the back of his throat – he’d known how much that ring had meant to Arthur, knew it had been his only last reminder of her. It still didn’t change things though.
“I have to go” he says, fleeing from the canteen, straight into the school toilets before promptly throwing up.
A week later, he finds himself being shepherded out the house, rucksack packed – filled with four square cut ham sandwiches and a flask of tea – Hunith faffing with his scarf on the doorstep.
“Mum, mum, I’m fine! It’s just one night,” says Merlin, trying to fix said scarf from his mother’s insistent fingers. She’s one step away from smudging her thumb at the side of his mouth when he grips her shoulders and crushes her in a tight hug. “I’m 18 now; think I can wrap a scarf round my own bloody neck.”
“Oh, of course I know that, dear, but I hear its cold up North – even in May; now you packed that jumper, didn’t you?”
“The hideously brown moulting one? Yes, I did; now you need to get some sleep… I thought you were meant to be getting off at 3 this morning?” He asks, shuffling the straps of his bag firmly over his shoulders. He thought he’d have to creep out this morning at 7am, all ready to leave his mother a post-it note goodbye whilst she slept off the nightshift; except she wasn’t in bed, but rather just stepping through the door herself.
“Mmm, was a nightmare shift, we were just swamped, and then this poor little thing comes in with a fever, had the whole of us fearing it was meningitis - thankfully not, bless the lord - but look at me now, I’m rambling; you best be off, do you have everything?”
“Yeah, I think so. Are you going to be ok?”
“Of course, darling. I’m only at the Heights for a couple of hours this afternoon and then not back at the hospital until tomorrow morning. If anything, it’s a quiet few days! Now remember to call me tomorrow morning before the exhibit and straight afterwards, ok? I want to hear all the wonderful things they said about you!”
“Muuuum.” Merlin rolls his eyes, bending down to wrap his arms once more around her shoulders. He can feel her wistful sighs against his neck.
“I am so very proud of you, my boy… Now go knock ‘em bandy!” she smiles wide, crinkles setting deep in the corner of her eyes. Merlin gives her a quick wink along with a slight wave before bundling down the stairs – feeling like, maybe, just maybe his life is about to start.
“You excited?” Miss LeFay asks, black duffel bag clutched tight in her neatly manicured fingers. They dodge and weave down the bustling Paddington platform and Merlin can only nod in reply as they locate their carriage and step on board.
The train trundles down the line, a sea of green fields whipping past his eyes at alarming speed as the train picks up pace. Ms LeFay is heavily engrossed in the book in her lap. Merlin slips his headphone buds in his ears, scanning down to something decidedly mellow and fitting. An hour in, and his phone beeps, the vibration running down his leg. When he sees Arthur’s name flash across the screen, he can’t help the sharpness of his breath – it’s been over a month since Arthur last messaged him; seeing the new text now seems unreal. The words stand bold against white, making the flutter in his chest move down to swim in his stomach: ‘Good luck tomorrow, it will be brilliant – I’m so proud of you. A x’
He doesn’t reply, just grips his phone tightly in his hand, presses it against his heart as he rests his head against the window pane. The world is moving fast around him, but he’s holding onto this moment.
“Very nice work, Mr. Emrys. You really have a good hand at acrylics.”
Merlin has been virtually mute for the past ten minutes, looking more like the nodding Churchill dog with every compliment bestowed upon him, as the organisers and exhibit board take their time perusing the various individual works.
“Ah, but this is my favourite.” A deep booming voice sounds from the front of their little crowd, an elderly looking gentleman with soot coloured hair and round bifocal glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. The piece is of Arthur, as most of the other work is also, an action shot that Merlin snapped during one of their groups’ football sessions. The track of his movement stretched off behind him in a black and white haze making him look like some crazily speedy cartoon character. But to Merlin, this is just Arthur – he has to admit it’s probably one of his favourites too.
“Thank you, sir.” Merlin replies arms locked fiercely behind his back, shielding his shaking hands from view. The man, the head of the whole exhibit, Mr. Kilgharrah steps casually around Merlin’s partition, eyes roving over the various prints and canvases, before he comes to stand directly in front of him. His eyes bore straight through his tinted lenses, faintly squinting as though trying to read his thoughts. A twitch begins to pull in the side of Merlin’s cheek at the intense scrutiny until Mr. Kilgharrah sticks his hand out to shake. Merlin does so happily, giving his palm a quick wipe on his trousers before clasping the man’s firm grip.
“I feel we will be hearing your name a lot in the coming years, Mr. Emrys.” Kilgharrah smiles, the taut pull of his lips making the action seem rare. “Keep a’hold of your muse… I sense you have a great destiny to share in the future.”
Merlin stammers out a ‘Thank you’ as he tries to make sense of the words. The other members of the board nod and acknowledge him before moving on to the other artists involved. Ms. LeFay grabs his elbow as soon as they’re out of ear shot.
“They said you were amazing! You must be so thrilled!” she coos, and right at that moment, Merlin wants to hug her but fears the boundaries he may be crossing, so he simply offers her a beaming grin instead. Flagging down one of the waitresses dressed all in black, Ms. LeFay picks up two of the glass flutes of champagne, passing one to Merlin before raising it in a toast.
“To the future superstar of London’s art scene,” she says, eyes twinkling through thin wired frames. “Who will remember his dear old art teacher when he’s living in Paris or New York and showing in all the top art galleries in the world making millions!”
He laughs, clinking their glasses together. “Of course; I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you!”
“You’re here because of your talent, Merlin… which has got the whole of Liverpool abuzz! Cheers!”
“Cheers!” He salutes, gulping down the fine tasting alcohol, bubbles tickling the back of his throat.
“Right, shall we check out the competition?” she asks, passing her empty glass back to a waitress.
“It’s not a competition, Miss”
“No, because if it were, you’d be winning!”
He chuckles, feels lighter than he has in days, weeks - hell, he can’t even remember the last time he felt this genuinely happy and content, alive with a sense of pride that only comes with the knowledge that something you’ve done, something you’ve created, has succeeded. The buzz of euphoria filling his veins is like nothing he’s ever felt, his heart is skipping beats, as he struggles to grasp that this is his art hung up on walls where other people can actually see it. He’s on a completely organic high and he never wants to come down.
The whole afternoon is unequivocally a success. He’s met some pretty amazing people too, including a lad from South London, Gilli, whose sculptures took his breath away. He also has the business cards of three men who hinted at possible work on advertising campaigns when he finishes school. Looking around the room, Merlin finds it hard to believe that he’s actually here, stood in the back corner gazing out at all these beautiful crafts of art. He spots Ms. LeFay walking through the doors a moment later; slipping her phone back in her bag as she comes towards him, her heels clacking on the cream marbled floor.
Merlin smiles at her as she approaches, but the corner of her lips are pulled downwards, her eyes no longer twinkling with light but filled with sadness. His heart kicks out at his chest, dread washing over him.
“Merlin,” she speaks softly. “I need to—I need to talk to you. Can we step outside?”
She cups the bow of his arm, hooking her fingers around him as she leads them both to the small courtyard outside the gallery. He’s worried now as she motions for him to sit on the wooden bench lining the stone wall entrance. She perches beside him, deep heavy breaths snaking out in the cool northern wind.
“The school just called me. They’d tried to get through to you but it kept going to voicemail… I’m afraid your mother’s been rushed to hospital,” she says, her hands folded nervously in her lap. “She’s suffered a heart attack. That’s—that’s all we know at the moment.”
Merlin stays silent. He feels like the bottom has fallen out from under his feet and he’s free-falling into an endless pit of darkness. The air trying to breech into his lungs sticks heavy in his mouth, making him choke out dry gasps. He can’t—he can’t lose her; she’s all he has. LeFay places a gentle hand on his shoulder, easing him back from where he’s hunched over himself. “We’re going to head to the station now and get an earlier train home. I need you to go pack up your stuff from the hotel, ok?” She says soothingly, rubbing wide circles across his shoulder blades.
Merlin barely finds the strength to nod, his body utterly wracked numb. “But she’s… she’s okay, yeah? I mean—they would have said if she’d died, wouldn’t they? They’d have said she died from a heart attack, not suffered, wouldn’t they?”
Ms. LeFay tilts her head to catch his eyes, perfectly white teeth dragging over her upper-lip. “I would guess so, Merlin… I’m hoping so.”
Shakily, he stands; his suit feels much too large and much too heavy as it hangs off his wiry frame. He’s still a boy, just turned eighteen; he’s still a babe who only wants his mother to hug him tight and tell him that everything’s going to be okay. The euphoric highs of earlier seem a distant memory, as that possible world of such beauty and colour is cruelly ripped away from him and he sinks back into the depths of greyness.
The train journey feels like it takes forever. Ms. LeFay ushers Merlin into a taxi as soon as their feet touch the grotty tiled floor of Paddington station. She offers to go with him, but he shakes his head and makes a protest at the crisp bills she places in his lap. She simply squeezes his hand for a moment before shutting the taxi door and instructing the driver to take him to Homerton University Hospital. The journey’s lost in a sea of thoughts and fears, of what-ifs and could be’s. He watches transfixed as the dark London skyline, sprinkled with gold light, zips past his window, huffs of air steaming the glass beneath his head. It curls out in rasps, before dissipating in on itself – again and again.
When the roll of tyres finally pulls into the hospital, he’s greeted by Anne on reception who immediately catches his eye. She stands up, exits through a side door and embraces Merlin in a tight hug. She nods back to her colleagues before leading him down the generic white corridor.
“Oh gosh, Merlin, we were all so scared, couldn’t believe it when the call came through the system. Doctor Martins has been looking after her; we’re so sorry.” Anne rambles off in one breath, guiding him to stand outside room 22b. Looking through the clear-cut glass, he can make out his mother’s peaceful face. Eyes closed, hair brushed back, arms resting calmly at her sides. It would all seem quite normal if it wasn’t for the number of wires encased over her, in her, machines humming softly through the door. “It may be best to wait out here for now, son. I’ll go fetch Dr. Martins for you.”
She scurries off, sneakers catching on the linoleum floor. Merlin is still stood at the door, eyes trained on his mother. He’d never seen her ill. Sure, she’s been tired lately, and she has the odd cold or flu now and then, but in a hospital? Never.
The sight causes a lump to stick in his throat as he takes small cautious steps backwards, eyes trained forward, until the rim of a plastic chair hits the back of his knees and he sinks into it – limbs pliant. Nurses bustle pass, clipboards tucked tightly under arms, always looking at their watches, always in a hurry. The blur of those coming and going zip past his eyes; his gaze has long since begun to haze over, a film of tears clinging against his lashes. He hears the sound of someone slotting into the chair beside him, the long white fabric of their coat tickling his knee; when he looks up, he meets Dr. Martins’ solemn face and the world begins to slow down again.
“Hi, Merlin. Would you like to come with me so we can discuss this somewhere more private?”
Merlin shakes his head, eyes darting to the door where his mother remains motionless. He wasn’t here when she needed him the most – he won’t leave her side again. “No, no—it’s - it’s ok; you can tell me everything here.”
“Very well,” says the doctor, drawing the sand coloured file onto his lap. Emrys, H, is typed neatly in one corner. He takes a moment, folds his hands atop of the folder before turning to face Merlin. “Your mother suffered from an acute myocardial infarction, a heart attack that was caused by a major blockage to a couple of her arteries. She’s stable now, but I’m afraid the delay in treating the attack has resulted in severe damage to her heart.”
“Delay?” Merlin asks, trying valiantly to wrap his head around this whole thing.
“Yes, unfortunately we estimate your mother waited around two hours after the initial symptoms to alert the emergency services. It’s a very common incident in female sufferers; they tend to excuse the signs as simple chest pains or fatigue. We got the call just after half past two this afternoon.”
Probably around the same time he was laughing with Ms. LeFay at the exhibit, he thinks, a sickening feeling punctures his gut.
“We’ve run a series of tests, taken some bloods; hopefully we’ll have more answers soon but—your mother, as we all know here, has been under a severe amount of stress for many years - she also has recorded quite high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. We’ve put her on ACE inhibitors which will hopefully help with that. However, that’s only one aspect we can control. The heart attack left your mum with quite a lot of damaged heart muscle. Whilst we’ll do everything in our ability, the likelihood of a second-heart attack is relatively high, especially if it’s returned that there is a history of heart disease in the family.”
“My—my grandfather died from a heart attack.” Merlin barely manages to breathe out.
“I’ll make a note of that… Do you have any questions?” Dr. Martins asks quietly, leaning across to place a comforting hand on Merlin’s shoulder. He shakes his head. “We don’t know enough yet for certain. Your mother is a fighter – that we all know. I’ll get the nurses to set up a cot for you tonight.” He adds, giving the tense muscle under Merlin’s collar a sharp squeeze before standing and walking down the corridor.
Merlin doesn’t sleep that night, just grips his mother’s hand tightly and prays.
When Hunith re-awoke she squeezed Merlin’s fingers, whispered out a cracked apology before breaking down into a quiet sob that shook against Merlin’s chest as he held her close. Doctor Martins came back the following day, sat down to explain fully the results of the ECG and numerous blood tests they’d carried out. Merlin struggled to process it all, but the key words struck out like a beacon in a storm: ‘damaged muscle’, ‘clogged arteries’, ‘second heart-attack.’ He watched as his mother sat up, back taut, face completely impassive as she allowed the words to sink in. Then he mentioned surgery, angioplasty. Merlin’s eyes widened at the thought. ’But that’s a last resort,’ the doctor said so he pushed it to the back of his mind. How his mother remained so calm, collected, as the doctor rattled off all the risks she still had to overcome, is a mystery to Merlin. She turned to him after Doctor Martins left the room with a tight sad smile, hand coming to run through the top of his head.
“Aren’t you scared?” he asked.
“We’ll be fine, sweetheart.” She replied wistfully. “You’ll be just fine.”
So after rigorous sets of tests, scans and X-Rays, Doctor Martins finally signs Hunith out four days later with a prescription list ridiculously long, as well as an order for her to rest and not to return to work or strenuous activities for at least a month.
Merlin shepherds her home, supports his mother by the crook of her elbow as they slowly make their way up the dim-lit staircase. So focused on Hunith’s gradual baby steps was he that Merlin doesn’t notice the crouched figure beside their door until he’s right in front of him, a small bouquet of flowers twined in his hands.
Arthur stands when he sees them approaching, eyes uncertainly casting over Merlin before moving to the other side of Hunith and taking her arm.
“I—I heard from Lance what had happened. I’m so sorry you had to go through this, Ms. Emrys.”
“How many times must I tell you, my boy: call me Hunith,” She pats his hand gently as Merlin allows Arthur to prop his mother up whilst he goes to open the door. They guide her through to the bedroom together; plump her up against the pillows as Merlin bends to shirk off her shoes.
“I’m not an invalid, son.” She says with a joking lilt, but he can tell that there is an aggravation behind the words – his mother so used to her independence suddenly at a loss to her extreme fatigue.
“Make the most of it.” Merlin chuckles, gaze flicking to Arthur who is stood in the back corner of the room, an uneasiness eking through his body. “Would you like some tea?” he asks; Hunith smiles and nods. Merlin moves to the door, with a flick of his head at Arthur who dutifully follows him out.
“I’m sorry.” Arthur says as soon as the door clicks close. “I know you don’t want to see me and I’ve been trying to give you space but— this isn’t about us. I wanted to be here for your mum.”
A lump catches in Merlin’s throat at the sincerity in Arthur’s eyes. The emotions he’s coursed through the past couple of days have wracked his body, leaving him with a throbbing in his head and an ache in his heart. Arthur being here right now is only adding to the confusion. “Thank you, Arthur. It’s just—“
“I know, I know, bad timing.” Arthur finishes for him, nervously worrying his lower lip. “I wanted to give her these. I was going to leave them by the door, but well, you know people round here; they’d be gone as soon as I turned the corner, so I thought I’d wait.” He passes Merlin the bouquet, a mass of carnations in shades of soft pinks and oranges. Merlin’s fingers brush Arthur’s as he takes them and he tries hard to hide the jolt of his heart at the touch.
Instead, he lowers his face to the bloom of flowers, inhaling their fragrance. “Thank you Arthur, I’ll put these in a vase for her,” he replies, turning his back to fill the kettle. “I’d ask if you want a cup of tea…” Merlin begins, voice carrying across the kitchen. He may be an utter chicken for not facing Arthur when he says this, but it’s just too hard.
“But you’d rather I go… I get it.” Arthur says, tongue clicking at the back of his throat. “I hope—I hope she gets better soon. I know you probably won’t but… if you need me, you know where to find me.”
Merlin casts a glance over his shoulder, holds Arthur’s gaze for a beat as he gently nods his head, the slight pull of a smile barely tugging their lips until Arthur eventually breaks contact, lowering his lashes. He exits the flat – the pull of the door clicking shut purposely reverberating through the walls.
The following week is a hectic bustle of activity – for Merlin, that is. Hunith is under strict instructions to do as little as possible. It caused a few arguments… Well, okay, a lot of arguments, but Merlin is feeling like his mother is a fragile doll who will splinter or crack with the lightest of touches. She fights him, as she has always done on particular issues she feels strongly about, until eventually one of them caves and they resort to burrowing under quilts on the couch watching awful daytime TV with heaps of tea and plenty of biscuits (for Merlin, not Hunith; she’s under strict dietary orders too). He’s been missing school – just one of the reasons that arguments erupted – so most afternoons are spent doing revision in the kitchen, whilst he keeps a careful eye on his mother who is usually perched in her favourite armchair, watching TV or completing the latest crossword in the paper. Gwaine or Lance pop round the majority of evenings, bringing him various notes from class as well as filling him in on the latest gossip, always managing to bring Arthur’s moping into conversation. After he’s cooked dinner, he joins his mother in the living room, curls up in the corner of the couch, sketch pad balanced precariously on his knees as he loses himself in the strokes his fingers create. He can feel Hunith’s eyes on him, almost memorising the lines of his face as she places her glasses down on her lap, marking her spot in the book she’s reading.
“Headache, mum?” he asks, pausing his work, gnawing on the eraser tip of his pencil.
“Just feeling a bit nauseous… I think I’ll turn in for the night.” She pushes herself up, shooting Merlin a pointed look when he moves to help her. He stays sitting, ready to jump if she needs him. “Night, son,” she says when she eventually reaches the bedroom, his answering ‘sweet dreams’ a stolen whisper.
Three days later as Merlin is unsteadily attempting to balance a bowl of soup and a glass of juice with the daily paper tucked under his arm and open the door at the same time – he near on drops the lot and surprisingly doesn’t for once.
“Mother! Get back to bed!” he curses, waddling over to her nightstand and placing the hot bowl and drink there before stalking across to where his mother is busy tiptoeing at the foot of her wardrobe.
“Oh Merlin, I’m fine,” says Hunith, pouting, her 5ft”4 frame not offering the greatest help when trying to reach the top shelf.
“You know what Doctor Martins said, no strenuous activities.”
“I hardly think trying to reach something from a closet constitutes as ‘strenuous activity.’” She air quotes, sending him a cheeky smirk. Merlin simply puts his hands on his hips, frowning down at her. She lets out a deep sigh, glancing back to the box at the head of the wardrobe. Bringing her bottom lip between her teeth, she pauses a moment before moving back to the bed.
“Could you fetch the blue box at the top there for me then, dear?” she points before pulling back the duvet and sinking into the plush mattress. The weariness in her body can be seen clearly on her face as she rests her head back against the plethora of pillows behind her. Merlin turns and does as she says, pulling down the small shoe box, no label, no decoration. He carries it to the bed, placing it on his mother’s lap before turning to leave. Hunith reaches out then, catches his wrist in her pale lithe fingers. “Come sit, my boy.” She smiles, the deep rise of her chest expanding with each inhale-exhale.
Merlin walks round to the other side of the bed to hop up and perch by his mother’s feet, facing her. He eyes her curiously; her breaths come quicker and harsher; he covers her hand with his own. “Mum?” he asks, tilting his head, lines creasing across his brow.
Hunith looks up then, meets his gaze. She smiles softly before lifting the lid and pulling out a curled up photograph. She runs her fingers over it gently before passing it across to Merlin.
He casts his eyes over the black and white print; a sad smile tugs at his lips as he takes in the young fresh faces of his mother and father. It was one of the few photographs he’s actually seen; though the last time he looked upon it was many years ago, back when he was a young boy returning from school with questions of – ‘Why don’t I?’
Hunith mentioned him very little back then, speaks even less of him now. Merlin knows his name was Balinor, that he was a mechanic with a passion for music - he loved to play the guitar - but that’s virtually it. He too runs his finger over the photograph, placing it down on the quilt between them. Hunith sets the box to the side. From where Merlin’s sitting, he can see it’s filled with many more photographs, a significant amount more than he has any recollection of seeing.
“I was not much older than you when I met him.” Hunith finally speaks, gaze focused on the black and white stark photo set against the cream sheets. “He was a beautiful man,” she sighs wistfully, eyes beginning to glaze over. Merlin stays silent, hand still covering hers.
“I—I am scared Merlin… I’m scared to leave you on your own.” The words catch on a broken stutter. Merlin squeezes her hand tighter, shifts further up the bed, to wrap an arm around her covered legs.
“Don’t talk like that.”.
“I need to… I can feel it in my bones. I—I need to be honest with you, so I can still hope for the best future for you.”
Merlin’s eyebrows furrow close, over the bridge of his nose. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve – I’ve lied to you, my boy. I’m so sorry, but it was - it was the only thing I could do to protect you. Please don’t hate me, I couldn’t take it…” She mumbles, hands clinging tightly to the sleeves pulled over Merlin’s wrists.
Merlin watches her desperate fingers claw at his arm, her eyes wide, frantic, pleading. He’s never seen his mother like this, fraught worry deeply set over her face; it makes something dark and ominous scratch under his skin. ’Lied’, his mother lied to him. That was… crazy. She’s the worst liar on the face of the planet; her eyes crinkle, the dimple in her left jaw flickers - she has the worst poker face known to man; how did she manage to keep something from him for so long? By the way Hunith is restlessly shaking her head side to side; whatever she kept quiet is something big and ugly. The thought leaves Merlin shaking himself. “Mum, please just tell me what you’re talking about. You’re scaring me here.”
“Your father… He – he never passed away,” whispers Hunith, the light beginning of tears trickling softly down her cheeks, streaking across her skin. Merlin’s hands drop heavy in her hold, his whole body going numb. “Merlin please let me explain first, please…”
The room is silent except for the distant sound of children laughing below, riding the curl of the wind through the slightly open window. Merlin has the odd sensation that he’s dreaming, or maybe trapped in some parallel world – that’s a thought. Because really, how is one person able to go through such ridiculous lengths of highs and lows in a week – surely it can’t be possible. His heart hammers against his chest, the heavy beat reverberating against his ribcage like it’s going to burst. All the while, Hunith is watching him carefully, face awash with worry and sorrow and hurt.
Merlin opens his mouth to speak, to try and figure out where he can even start. “Why?” he asks – that seems like a good place.
Hunith rubs a hand across her face, catching the still flowing tears under her lashes. “I honestly was going to tell you soon… regardless of—” She waves a hand at her chest. “I was waiting ‘til you turned eighteen, until you were old enough to make up your own mind, your own choices… but then you had the exhibit, and I was so, so proud of you. I didn’t want anything to mess that up.”
“So, my father's alive?” Merlin asks, the taste of the words feel foreign on his tongue – they’re bitter, harsh, and he’s never spoken to his mother like that before.
She seems to notice the tone too by the way she flinches. “I’m not sure. I imagine he is… I haven’t seen him since I found out I was pregnant with you.”
“Christ!” he curses, retracting his arms from their once comforting embrace; he wants to stand and walk out, go… somewhere, anywhere, because right now, for the first time in his life, he doesn’t think he can stand to look his mother in the eye. “How could you keep this from me?”
“Well, you thought wrong, God. I could have had a father all this time and you hid him from me. I had a right to know!” Merlin cries, anguish and anger and hurt propelling him forward; he knocks his arm into the small shoebox perched on the edge of the bed, photos, mementos tumbling free. Hunith’s tears are trickling down her face as she sniffs, hands flying over the mattress to place everything back into the safety of the box. Merlin takes deep breaths, tries to slow the quickening thump-a-thump of his heart as a quiet fury rages underneath. She looks so small, frail and weak; Merlin’s resolve breaks as all the stress that has pulled his body taut whistles from him leaving him to sag boneless against her side. “I’m sorry, mum, I’m sorry…” He whispers gently, catching her wrist. She pauses, a soft hiccup leaving her lips.
“No, no, my boy. You’re right, I should have told you, I just…” She stops as Merlin turns her palm over, moves his fingers down to trace the small ornament in her hold. “Your father made it.” She smiles slightly, twisting the miniature wooden figure upright, the smooth edges carved intricately into a beautiful dragon. Hunith passes it across to Merlin, the figurine feeling delicate in his hand. He runs a finger along its curved back. “He said it was to go on the mobile when we started a family.” Hunith tells him, wiping her eyes with the corner of a tissue.
Merlin stops; looks up. “He wanted a family?” Hunith nods, a hitch sounding in her ragged inhale. “So why aren’t we one?” he asks. Merlin doesn’t understand, it all seems so simple. But here he is, holding something clearly made with love and devotion, fatherless.
“God, I imagined telling you this so many times, and now I don’t even know where to begin.” Hunith shakes her head, a wry smile tugging her lips. “I was twenty when I met him, down at O’Neill’s pub in Islington. He was in a band, couldn’t sing to save his life, but boy, could he play.” She chuckles quietly to herself, fingers worrying at the beading on the quilt. “I fell in love. Completely - hook, line and sinker. Within a year, we were living together, just a small flat in Bow, but it was home. He was a good man, a kind man… but, he had another life. Merlin, your father used to deal drugs.”
The revelation shudders through his body like an electric current, rattling his bones, leaving him feeling completely disconnected. A vision of Arthur swims before his eyes; dealing drugs - how so suddenly has drugs wrapped itself up as part of his life? He looks up at his mother, the set of her jaw twitching against the small shakes that reverberate through her chest. Is this what’s going to become of him? Has he fallen for Arthur due to some pathological daddy issues? Mouth dry, Merlin runs his tongue over the plump bow of his lower lip, unsure how he’s ever going to comprehend all this information.
“He was a junkie?” Merlin asks, gaze flittering to the crumpled photograph lain between them, eyes focused on the man staring up at him. Thoughts of where he is now, what he’s become, images of a skunked up tramp flit past his mind.
Hunith catches his hand again, palms warm. “No, he- he wasn’t a saint; he did the odd stuff now and then but, no, he was never an addict… He knew enough people that were though.” She says sadly, sighing before tilting her head to meet Merlin’s eye. “He didn’t mix with the best people. Some of them… Gosh, Merlin, some of them scared me half to death.”
“He wouldn’t stop for you?”
“He tried… He went through stages of stopping, but the money was too great a pull. He’d always say ‘just one more month, one more month and then I’ll quit, then we’ll save up and get out of here… Start a family.’” A dry gasp catches in her throat as she goes on. “Some days, we were happy… but then he’d grow cold, distant, get angry that we didn’t have enough food for that week, and then he’d slip right back into it all over again.” Merlin clutches her hand tightly, silently. “The nights were the worst. We’d have people banging on our door at all hours - strangers, junkies looking for their fix; it terrified me what they would do if they didn’t get it… the violence surrounding it all. I couldn’t cope much longer… and then I found out I was pregnant and—how am I supposed to bring a baby into that type of world?”
Merlin tries to swallow back the lump that’s wedged in his throat, but its bone dry, a sharp burn that runs rough through his sternum, stings behind his eyes. He wants to be angry. He’s been lied to over and over again, by the two people he cares for most in his entire life. He has a father… a dad – he doesn’t know quite how to deal with that. “You should have told me… sooner,” he says; a solitary tear trickles down over the jut of his cheekbone.
Hunith quickly chases it away with her thumb, opening her hand to cup the side of his face. “I know, son; I’m sorry, but you’ve got to know all I’ve ever done is with your best interest at heart. I hope that now your father will try to do the same.”
Merlin lifts his head, his mind working at twelve to the dozen. “You think I should look for him?”
“That’s not for me to decide, but… it will leave me with better peace of mind to know that when—if something happens to me, that there is someone looking out for you.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you.” Merlin says vehemently.
Hunith smiles at him tenderly, trailing her fingers to brush back the short dark tresses that hang over his forehead. “Well, just in case.” She winks, the dry chuckle sounding anything but joyful as it slips through her lips.
“I don’t know where to start.” Merlin chokes out in a broken whisper, pressing his face closer against his mother’s open palm.
“That’s what I’m here for.” Hunith replies, bringing him against her side. They hold each other until night falls.
Smoke coils through the air as the sharp screech of the coffee machine whirrs in the corner. The café isn’t anything special, just a greasy spoon in the heart of Camden. Girls with purple hair dressed in black sit next to skater boys in baggy jeans whilst workmen in overalls sip at lukewarm tea, a copy of The Sun spread out before them. Merlin sits quietly on his own; the small mug of tea he ordered ten minutes ago just barely heating his palms as they clasp around it tightly. He tries to focus on the book he has opened, his maths textbook to be more precise. Exams are coming up at the end of the month, and finding the time to study is growing more difficult as the days draw nearer. Yet, his eyes stray upwards with every ding of the front door, the brass bell overhead releasing a gentle trill into the bustling sound of the café.
Two days ago, he made the call. His mother’s hand clutched tightly in his own as eventually after shifting through various phone books and Lance’s expert skills of internet searching (Lance was the only one he felt he could tell yet), he found that one Balinor Jefferson currently resides in North West London. The few words they exchanged were brief; the shocked gasps Merlin could detect down the line making the hammering in his heart build steadily. They didn’t go into details. Balinor stuttered out that this all felt strange. “We need to do this face-to-face… Can we meet?”
Swallowing his nerves back, Merlin eventually murmured, “Yeah, yeah okay.”
They agreed on this place, a kind of middle ground for their first interaction. He didn’t know what to expect, what to look for. Would Balinor still have long hair like in the photographs he and his mother sifted through or would he now be some clean-cut corporate tycoon city-type? The bell rattles yet again, a gaggle of school girls entering. Merlin casts his eyes back down to his book. He’s five minutes late. Ten. Merlin glances to check the grey clock hung over the counter. 5.15pm. Fifteen more minutes, he tells himself, then he’ll go. At twenty-five past five, a bedraggled man enters, harsh pants racking through his lungs as though he’s just come in a sprint. His eyes are dark, the mop of hair on his head darker still, seeded with specks of grey, falling in loose waves that just barely touch his shoulders, beard groomed to no longer than an inch. The man scans the café until his eyes fall on Merlin, and he instantly knows.
Merlin nervously takes him in as Balinor hesitantly steps towards him. He’s dressed in a smart shirt and jeans, hard top boots, slightly dirty, on his feet. He looks older, obviously – a few lines beginning to set across his forehead, in the crevice of his eyes. Merlin’s knee begins to jig; his tongue feels like it’s stuck to the roof of his mouth and a sudden wave of doubt floods over him. Maybe this was a bad idea – he should have left the past buried in the past. But then Balinor is in front of him, stood beside the table looking just as anxious as him. “Merlin, I’m guessing?” He says; a twang of an Irish accent buried deep in his gravelly tone.
“Yes, um… Yes, that’s me… Balinor. I mean, you must be Balinor. I’m Merlin,” the words leave his lungs in a sudden whoosh, making him feel stupid and foolish. But then Balinor is smiling kindly down at him, and he can tell that the line of his nose mirrors his, the cut of his jaw is just as sharp, and the nervous rubbing of his hands is a trait he posses likewise. He takes a deep shuddering breath and asks, “Tea?”
The waitress takes their order after they spent a few moments awkwardly studying the menu. The silence stretches for a beat, neither knowing how to start. Where do you begin after eighteen years?
“So,” Balinor says, running a hand through his hair. “I’m afraid I’m not great at this. I… I don’t know what it’s like to have a son.”
“Nor me a father.”
“Suppose we best work it out together then, aye?” says Balinor with a wry chuckle, as the waitress returns with his cup of tea. He takes a generous sip before continuing. “I never knew Hunith was pregnant; if I did, I would have searched hell and high water for you.”
The sincere conviction in his tone causes something hard and hot to jab right against Merlin’s ribs. “I—I know. She told me she left without a word…”
“I didn’t blame her.” Balinor supplies quietly. “At the time, I was hurt, angry. She was the love of my life and she’d waked out on me, but… I never blamed her. I put her through more than most women could ever stand.”
Merlin watches him discreetly through his lashes. “Yeah, she-she said that your, uh, line of work wasn’t the, uh, wasn’t the best.”
Balinor barks out a laugh; there’s a twinkle in his eye as he shakes his head. “No, it, it wasn’t the best, not at all. I was a stupid young man that only cared about getting money in the easiest way I could. I was foolish to think my actions didn’t hurt anyone other than myself. I left that life behind a long time ago though. I hope - not that I’m exactly innocent to judge, mind - but I really hope you haven’t made the same mistakes I did.”
Bright blue eyes flash behind his lids, blonde hair, bright smile, crooked teeth - “No, never.”
“Good. That’s good.”
They sip at their tea, Merlin’s now virtually ice cold. He winces as it tickles down his throat. “So what is your life like now then?”
“Well, about four years after your mother left, I eventually gave up dealing; a mate, well, someone who used to be a friend set me up over a deal, ended up getting a smashed bottle to the gut.” Merlin’s eyes widen, gaze flittering down to Balinor’s stomach. “So that shook up my perspective of things. I decided there and then that I was getting out. I’d saved up enough to move, lived around here for a bit actually, got work as a mechanic and set up my own garage; that was pretty much my life for the next ten years. Then I, um, I met my wife…”
“You’re married?” Merlin states dumbly. He didn’t know what he was expecting. It’s only then that he registers the simple gold band on Balinor’s left hand.
“Last year.” He smiles, the fingers on his right hand coming to drum an innocuous beat over his left, tapping against his ring. “She’s… We’re expecting a baby in November.”
“Wow.” Merlin whispers. He’s not quite sure what to say. An odd dread pools in his stomach. He’s not exactly sure why – he’s not sure what he expected to come out of this. That they’d go off and play football in the park, have a laugh over a game of catch as Balinor tells Merlin all about the birds and the bees? Why would he want to do that with Merlin now he has his own perfect little family set up with a baby on the way? A sudden urge to flee runs through Merlin’s veins, to part with a nod and a good luck and never cross paths again.
“That doesn’t change the fact that I want to get to know you… if you’ll let me.” Balinor adds, warm brown eyes seeking his. “I know you’ve got your own life, your own friends. You’ve coped long enough without a father, but, I’d very much like to be a part of that and… me and Helen really want you to be a part of ours too.”
Merlin chokes back the wave of emotion that engulfs him; the past two weeks have worn him thin, and this right now - he wants it, wants it badly. “I would—I would like that, a lot actually.”
“I’m glad,” says Balinor, eyes glistening with unshed tears. He coughs gently, takes a drag of his mug, glances across the table. “Ah, you study maths? A-Levels?”
“Hmm?” Merlin’s eyes dart to his closed textbook, places a hand across the tattered cover. “Yeah, I have exams at the end of June.”
“What else are you studying?”
“Physics and Art.” Merlin replies, leaning back as the waitress places a hot plate of eggs and chips in front of him before leaning across to deliver the same to Balinor.
“That’s quite a workload there; you obviously got your mother’s brains.”
They laugh, tension not entirely gone but seeping away gradually with every light comment and easy smile. They move onto artists; discuss the merits of Whistler against Rossetti. Balinor mentions an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum; they agree to go next week. Merlin doesn’t tell him about Hunith’s health, doesn’t discuss his fucked up feelings for his best friend. He simply enjoys the company of this man, who’s slowly becoming a father.
They end up talking for three hours straight, moving from the little café to the Worlds End pub a few doors down. Outside the streets buzz with music and laughter. It has been easy, a hell of a lot easier than Merlin anticipated, and when it came to saying goodbye at the end of the evening, Merlin doesn’t want to leave. Sat on the night bus home, head resting against the smudged upper-deck window; the weight of the day begins to drop on him like lead. He met his father… a father that until a few days ago he’d believed was dead. Not only that but said father is also an ex-drug dealer, a lifestyle that so closely mirrors Arthur’s, it shakes through Merlin’s bones. The rumble of the bus’s engine vibrates through the depths of his belly. Now that his evening has ended, an odd sense of loss settles there instead. He knows that as he gets to know his father, his mother is becoming weaker; each day he can see the illness of her heart making her wearier. He feels like he is suddenly gaining a father only to have the one constant in his life taken away from him. It’s not fair, because soon, even Balinor will have a new child, a proper child. And where will Merlin be then – alone. The thoughts plague his conscience the entire journey home, and it isn’t until he’s stood there on the fifth floor knocking on the door that reality catches up with him.
Arthur’s hair is mussed, blonde tufts sticking up at the most endearing of angles; he rubs at his eyes, the rims red. He’s wearing the hoodie Merlin bought him for Christmas - the rich blue one.
“Merlin?” Arthur asks, clutching on to the frame of the door as he pokes his head out further to look up and down the corridor. Merlin stands there unsure, shuffling from foot to foot; he didn’t think it was that late; the time on his phone indicated it was barely ten o’clock.
“Sorry if you were sleeping, I was—“
“No, no.” Arthur cuts him off, hand raised to reach out towards Merlin’s wrist; but he allows it to drop before they even touch. “I was just revising.”
The news takes Merlin by surprise, an eyebrow rising of its own accord.
“Stop looking like that, you cheeky shit.” Arthur smiles, wide like he always has, gleaming with crooked teeth. The sight of it fills Merlin’s chest with warmth. He hasn’t seen that smile in so long… too long. The side of his lips tug upwards too. He looks down at the ridge of his red Converses. They’re caked with dark crusts of mud which he pokes at lightly with the cuff of his toe. “I don’t know why I’m here.” He speaks softly, voice carrying just enough to reach Arthur’s ears. He looks up at the blonde through his lashes.
“Wasn’t that my line last year?” Arthur chuckles gently, propping his side up against the jam of the door, the elastic waistband of his jogging-pants dipping just below the jut of his hip. Merlin’s eyes are drawn to it for a beat, can see the slightly sun-kissed skin damp with sweat; he quickly averts his gaze upwards.
“Well, it seems quite appropriate seeing as it concerns daddy issues.” Merlin replies dryly, hands shoved deep in the pouch of his hoodie. “Look, I should go. I really don’t know why—“
“Stay.” Arthur says. This time his fingers don’t hesitate in gripping Merlin’s bicep, the pad of his thumb rubbing soothing circles over the grey cotton. The harsh pants of their breath fill the space between them, the night turning cool in the cloudless sky.
“Is Uther in?” Merlin asks, tongue slipping out to run across his dry lips – Arthur watches the action attentively.
“He left half an hour ago, probably won’t be back all night… You want to come in?” he kicks the door wide, still gripping Merlin tightly with one arm. Merlin takes a step towards his friend, then another, until there’s barely a few inches between them. He watches as the deep exhales of his breath rush across Arthur’s face; tickle the tip of his fringe, flutter against his lashes until they flicker close. He stays there for a moment; feels the radiant heat that thrums through Arthur warming his own skin. He takes another sigh and sidesteps into the apartment, Arthur’s hand trailing down the length of his arm.
He moves into the living room, the soft pull of a smirk tugs at his lips as he takes in the spread of textbooks littered across the coffee table, reams of notes in multicoloured highlighters. The door clicks closed as Arthur comes to stand beside him, his bare toes curling in the carpet.
“So do you want to talk about it?”
“Really, really not.” Merlin shakes his head; his hands hang by his side, the cuff of his hoodie brushing against his knuckles. Arthur mirrors him, the ends of his jumper frayed; dark coils of thread dangle loosely. Tentatively, Merlin reaches between them, the tip of his middle finger running gently over the inside of Arthur’s wrist. The beat of his heart quickens against his rib cage. He can hear the rise and fall of Arthur’s chest as dry puffs of air escape from the round pout of his lips. Arthur turns to face him, the action bringing Merlin’s hand to brush across his palm, the blunt of his fingernails teasing.
“Merlin?” asks Arthur delicately.
Merlin threads his fingers fully through Arthur’s hand, tips snugly fitting between each crevice; his thumb rubbing back and forth atop of their closed palms. “I really – really don’t want to think right now. I’m so damn tired and I just… I missed you… I needed you.”
Arthur pulls on their joined hands, forcing Merlin to tumble into him rather clumsily, his other hand coming up to plaster against a hot rigid chest. He feels Arthur’s free hand snake around his waist, palm spreading wide across the dip in his spine, fingers dancing across the ridge of his jeans. It’s so warm, being in Arthur’s arms again, feeling the steadiness of his breath against his neck, the overwhelming sense of security in his hold. Merlin can’t help the choked sob that catches in the back of his throat as Arthur just pulls them tighter together, places an open mouthed kiss in the space where neck meets shoulder. They stay like that for a while, hands still entwined, until Arthur leads them to his bedroom, locking the door firmly behind him. They sprawl on the bed; Merlin curled in on himself until Arthur’s soft caresses and tender words unfurl him, until their bodies are pressed so closely together no air passes between them, just the shallow dips of their breathing as they drift into a dreamless slumber.
Cracks of sunlight peel through the shuttered blind, streams piercing through the hazy morning directly into Merlin’s eyes. He grunts, attempting to burrow further into the shadows away from the blasted sunny morning determined to wake him up. Instead, however he finds himself pressing further against warm skin. Warm naked skin. His eyes pan down. The curl of soft blonde dusty hair is unmistakeable; Merlin raises a finger to run through the sprinkling of light hair before tentatively brushing it around the sharp nub of a pink puckered nipple.
“You do know I’m awake, don’t you?” Arthur sounds above him, amusement in his tone as he watches through heavy lidded eyes. One arm behind his head, the other wrapped loosely over Merlin’s waist.
“Well, I do now,” says Merlin, trying to hide the cheeky pull of a smile by sucking his bottom lip between his teeth. “Thanks for last night.” He whispers against Arthur’s skin, nose buried deep between the lines of his pecs. A beat later, he shoots up, back straight, wide eyes scanning the room. “Shit I… I stayed here last night.”
Arthur’s eyes drop, head hung low as he pulls the tail of the sheets further up his body. “Is that a problem?” He asks; an edge to his tone.
“My mum! I didn’t come home last night and my mum is going to freak the fuck out!”
Arthur’s chest lightens, and he squeezes Merlin’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. I called her.”
“You…” Merlin stammers, swinging his gaze down. “You called her?”
“Last night after you fell asleep; I guessed she didn’t know you were here, so I called her off your phone. I didn’t tell her anything, just that you were tired and crashed… You can check if you—“
“No, no… It’s—it’s okay,” says Merlin, a grin plastered on his face as he sinks back down into the mattress, slotting himself against Arthur’s chest once more. “Thanks again, I guess.”
“Of course, you looked… lost. I hate seeing you look like that,” says Arthur softly, temple resting against the top of Merlin’s head.
“You said you needed me.”
“I did.” Merlin replied, hand continuing to map its way across Arthur’s chest.
“Did or do?”
“Did - do what?”
“Did you need me, like was… Was last night just a one time comfort thing or—or do you need me?”
Merlin’s fingers stop their pattern, the hitch of his breath presses damp against skin. “I need you… God help me, but I think I need you.”
Arthur cups the jut of Merlin’s chin between thumb and finger, tilts his face up, their eyes meeting as Arthur lowers his head to press his lips against Merlin’s lightly. The touch is soft at first; mouths unsure after so long. Until eventually Merlin sucks Arthur’s bottom lip between his own and the resulting moan turns everything hotter. God, he’s missed this, Arthur against him, beneath him, flushed so fully that every arch of their bodies brings them even closer. The kiss turns deeper, messier, tongues lapping fiercely, fighting for dominance as their touches remain tender, fragile. Merlin pulls back first, nose brushing along the ridge of Arthur’s, red-raw mouths wide and panting. Arthur’s hand trails behind Merlin’s ear to cup the back of his neck, fingers twining in the short coarse hair at his nape. “So are you going to tell me what got you in such a state last night?” he asks, words forming against Merlin’s lips.
Merlin lies still, offering only slight whimpers when Arthur’s blunt nails scratch knowingly at the back of his head. He keeps quiet until Arthur winds his fingers around a few strands and tugs purposefully. “Prat.” He hisses, pressing a closed mouth kiss against the side of Arthur’s jaw, teeth nipping lightly. “I met my father yesterday.”
The hand in his hair stills. Fingers come to run down his spine, stopping at the base. “Your—your father?”
“Don’t worry; I haven’t checked into the loony bin. My mum… she lied, kept it from me; she thought… You know, this is a really long story—“
Arthur curls his leg across Merlin’s shin, soothingly rubs the dip of his back. “I have time.”
So Merlin tells him everything; Hunith’s heart attack, her illness, the lies, the drugs, the meet-up in the café; everything. Afterwards, Arthur kisses him soundly, palms cupped around his cheekbones as Merlin pushes all the hurt, all the pain and all the love into it. Arthur then shares with him his own tales. Of how tough Uther can be, the tightness that had clutched at his heart as he’d sold his mother’s ring and how he’d eventually left Myror’s clutches. They talk until dusk comes around again and at the end, Merlin doesn’t feel quite so alone anymore.
“A toast! To the end of an era!”
“Thank fuck – it was a bloody long era!”
Gwaine smacks Leon upside the head with his spare hand, the other still holding his can of Carling aloft, as the others laugh around them.
“Get on with it, mate; my arm is killing.” Elyan cries, matching can of beer also held high as they crowd around in a circle atop of the science building – probably for the last time all together.
“What I was saying until this wanker interrupted me… was that we made it, lads. Exams are over, we are now of legal age,” he winks, “and we’re going into the big bad world of work… or Uni for our own fucking Ally McBeal over there.” The group cheers as Percy grabs Lance into a headlock, the flush on his cheeks darkening with each pat on the back. “Well, anyway, boys – we made it… The Hackney boys done good!”
The rings of ‘Oi, Oi!’ and ‘Hear hears!’ clatter together under the early July sun. The school virtually deserted apart from some students coming and going from exams. They bring their cans together, spills of lager slopping over their hands, sticky. Merlin feels lighter than he has in days, having just finished his last physics exam two hours ago. The knowledge that he is no longer a student is scary yet thrilling in equal measure. The past month has been challenging to say the least; Hunith has her good days, where she demands to go back to work – ’at least for a couple of hours’ - but all too soon they are hit with the bad, rendering her too weak to get out of bed. Those days were the hardest, when Merlin feels so utterly useless that he can’t do anything for her, can’t help. At night, he prays, begs for answers - ‘Just tell me what I can do to make her better’ – but no answers come. The past three weeks have also been a period of catching up for Merlin. He sees his dad at least twice a week; he’s even met his wife Helen once, when he was invited for dinner – who really is too sweet to be real. She reminds him of his mother and a sad sense of loss stabs through his gut at the thought that this could have been their life if things were different… if Balinor was different. Then of course there’s Arthur - Arthur who’s standing across from him, jovially slinging an arm around Leon’s shoulder and breaking into some bizarre jig.
“Still can’t take your eyes off him, I see.”
Merlin turns to find Gwaine beside him, an all-knowing shit-eating-grin on his face.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Merlin flatly.
“Of course not, princess.”
Merlin raises an eyebrow at the nickname, and when Gwaine drops his wrist in an overly camp gesture, bucks his hip whilst pushing his lips into a ridiculous pout, they both bark out a laugh that shakes through their bodies, leaving tears in their eyes.
“Thanks for snagging the booze though, mate. Didn’t have Gaius chase you down the street again did ya?”
“He didn’t have to; I bought them.” Merlin says, taking a tentative sip as he watches Gwaine’s eyes widen over the rim of his lager.
“Is that so?” Gwaine smiles, head tilted. “Our boy wizard has come good.”
“Figured it was time to grow up a little… Also, if you can give up crack, I can certainly stop nabbing a couple of cans every now and then.”
Gwaine gives him a hearty thump on the back, palm wide. “Look at us, my friend; we’re maturing.”
“Ding dong, lads; girls are having a water fight below!” Percy hollers, and really, it’s no great surprise that Gwaine’s new found ‘maturity’ lasts all of ten seconds as he nearly careens over the side in his haste to get to the ledge. Merlin shakes his head as he sidles down further along, away from the catcalls and Elyan’s long whistles to dangle his feet over the ledge.
“Bet you couldn’t wait for this year to be over.”
Merlin squints up into the sun, hand rose to shelter his eyes as he watches Lance swing a can of lager loosely between thumb and finger, brown hair flopping over one eye.
“Longest school year ever.” Merlin agrees, taking a swig from his own can, as Lance drops down beside him, legs hanging over the ridge. Merlin shoots him a curious look, eyebrows raised at his friend’s nonchalance.
Lance grins back. “Figured I have a hell of a lot more to be scared over than heights.” Merlin chuckles as Lance leans forward to peer down at the drop. “Then again, that is pretty high.” He shuffles back a bit, folding his legs under himself.
Leaning back on an elbow, Merlin cast his eyes up. “So, Manchester then?” He asks, hoping he manages to cover the quiver that shakes his voice. Their little group is breaking up, and while at first he may have felt that they were more ‘Arthur’s’ friends who only tolerated him, the past few years have seen them grow tighter, a band of brothers. Like Merlin, Lance is a quiet soul and they’d hit it off immediately. The knowledge that his calming presence is going to be 160 odd-miles away come next month is a hard pill to swallow.
“Yup, just sorted out hall accommodation yesterday.”
“Jesus, mate, you actually did it.”
“I know.” Lance lets out a deep sigh, running a fingertip around the rim of his can. “I can hardly believe it myself some days… you know you can do it too, don’t you? You’re predicted all A’s, Merlin.”
He shrugs. Merlin can’t lie, he’d thought about it. It could be his ticket out of here, just like Lance. Blag all the government funding he could get and get as far away as possible. Sheffield, Liverpool… Newcastle even; he knows he could probably qualify for a scholarship if he put his name down, but how could he leave his mum, now when she needs him the most? They got in an argument about it the other day: Hunith demanding he doesn’t ruin his education for her, to make a better life for himself. He pushed back; stormed out to seek solace in Arthur’s arms, lips, tongue, before returning bashful and apologetic to hug his mother tightly as they fell asleep to the sound of the ten o’clock news. Merlin looks at Lance again, sighing longingly as he shakes his head. “Nah, it’s not for me, mate… though you know who else is going to Manchester Uni.”
Merlin chuckles behind his can. “I’m just saying, away from London, away from Els, who knows what’ll happen. Maybe you and Gwen can finally give it a shot.”
“Maybe… And you with Arthur?” asks Lance, always so fucking coy and calm. Merlin nearly splutters back into his lager - if Gwaine has opened his big fucking mouth, he’s going to have words.
“We’re friends again.” He says simply.
“I’m glad… but that wasn’t what I meant,” says Lance, eyes sliding across to Arthur who’s standing a bit back from the horny teenaged ogling; he looks back to Merlin with his lips curled up slightly.
“Christ, does everyone know?”
Lance pats him on the thigh, lips pulled tight in a grimace. “I think the others are a bit slow on the uptake but… mate, you know what you’re letting yourself in for, don’t you? If you two… are outed or whatever, it’s going to be dangerous.”
Merlin bites the corner of his lip anxiously; he knows what the risks are, has heard them enough from Gwaine who has taken to reminding him near enough every day since Arthur and Merlin rekindled their… thing. “Don’t worry; I don’t see that happening any time soon.”
“Hey guys, how’s it going?” Arthur asks cheerfully, coming to plonk himself down in the minuscule space between them, dislodging Lance’s hand from Merlin’s thigh in the most blatant act of jealousy-induced possessiveness. Lance however, simply chuckles, nodding as he leads into discussing university plans and Arthur’s new apprenticeship with an electronics company. Merlin simply elbows Arthur in the ribs as he catches Elyan and Percy’s bemused eye. At this rate, everyone will frickin’ know.
The rest of July passes in a haze of blistering heat and cloudless sunny days, the mugginess of London in the summer bogging them down. The majority of Merlin’s time is occupied by his new job, newly appointed barista at the local Starbucks in town. The first few days have been expectedly disastrous – resulting in a couple (more like six) broken mugs. However, by the end of the week, he and the coffee machine managed to call a truce. The hours are one of the main reasons he took the job; working from 6am till two in the afternoon means most mornings were spent with him grouchily stumbling around half-asleep, but also getting back early enough to spend time with his mum – as well as the occasional trips out with Balinor he has planned.
Merlin actually allows his mother out of the house now and again to enjoy the rare British sunshine. He holds her hand carefully as they take a wander around London Fields, stopping every now and then at one of the wooden park benches for a rest and a bite to eat. The one-off dinner with Balinor and Helen has progressed to a twice weekly event; each visit seeing Helen’s baby-bump grow slightly larger. When his father tells him he’s due to become a half-brother to a little baby sister the tears flow quickly between the three of them. Arthur is a constant too. Most evenings he comes straight over after his apprenticeship is done for the day, sits watching ‘Come Dine With Me’ with Hunith while Merlin cooks them all supper. He’s even once tagged along for dinner at Balinor’s, introduced solely as the ‘best friend.’ Regardless of the suspiciously curious, knowing looks passed between his dad and wife, the evening was an overwhelming success. Arthur and Balinor discussed cars for most of the night while Helen and Merlin washed up to the sound of ‘A lack of Colour’ streaming through the stereo speakers.
“I just love Death Cab for Cutie, don’t you?” she cooed, swaying her hips as she hummed along, dipping her hands into the soapy sink. Merlin laughed and agreed; the song played out with them both singing along; a sad smile took over his face as a rush of guilt flooded his stomach. People aren’t meant to like their step-mothers, are they? The woman who has replaced his own mum’s affections in his father’s heart… That isn’t entirely the case here, but still, Helen has the ideal family set up while Hunith lay ill in bed in a downtrodden flat – it isn’t fair. The rest of the night passed with a quiet sombre feeling sat in his chest until Arthur suggested they head off early, leaving Merlin wondering when Arthur had become able to read him so well.
Things grew to some form of normalcy; even Gwaine’s maturing seems to last longer than ten seconds, though Merlin has a feeling that has more to do with his sponsor Elena than anything else. Which is why, when he gets out of work on the last Saturday of July to find five missed calls and two voicemails from Arthur, the sinking feeling that has been absent for so long returns to the pit of his stomach. Untying the apron from around his waist, he slams his locker shut hastily, half-heartedly waving to his colleagues as he steps out in the late afternoon sun. Walking down the high street, he taps at his phone with shaking fingers, clicking to listen to the first message;
’Hi, Merlin, it’s me… Look, can you give me a call when you get this? Cheers.’
He quickly moves on to the next.
’Hey, I really don’t want to do this over the phone; call me please as soon as you get this… Call me.’
Merlin has to stop to lean against a shop window as all the worst case scenarios plough through his head; after the third attempt, he manages to scroll down to Arthur’s name and hit dial. The rushed urgency of Arthur’s breathing as he picks up after just the second ring doesn’t help either.
“Merlin, thank God.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” asks Merlin, palm pressed hot and damp against the glass behind his back.
“It’s your mum…” says Arthur. “You need to get down here.”
Merlin finally makes it to the hospital; after possibly the slowest bus journey known to man; he has to weave through a sea of people crowding up the A&E department. Until a flash of golden hair catches his attention, sat in the back corner, head propped in hands that rest on jerking knees.
“Arthur,” Merlin exhales heavily, practically jumping over the tables and chairs in his way. “Where is she? What have they said?”
“They won’t let me in, I’m not a blood relative.” says Arthur. He makes to stand, probably to wrap his arms around Merlin, but he can see the hesitance in Arthur’s eyes as they dart swiftly around the bustling room – he remains seated. Any comfort from Arthur will have to wait for when they’re in private, it would seem. “We got here about an hour ago. I keep asking but they won’t tell me.”
“What happened? Why were you… Why were you there?”
“I forgot you were working, came round to see you but your mum answered, insisted I come in.”
Arthur stands then, begins a steady pace in front of Merlin. “We weren’t even talking that long, when she started shifting awkwardly, said it was just a stiff neck, but then she was wheezing… and, and she started getting chest pains so I just dialled 999 straight away. She…” Arthur’s voice cracks as he runs a hand through his distressed locks. “She could barely stand, Merlin. But they took her in and – I don’t know; they won’t tell me anything.”
Merlin nods silently, fearful that any attempt to speak will be swallowed by the dry choking sobs that are clinging against his throat, threatening to spill over. Wordlessly, he turns to walk towards the reception desk, praying there is someone on duty who he knows, who may be able to speed things along for him. Unfortunately, there isn’t, and typically it seems everyone has come to Homerton University Hospital to treat their ailments on this Saturday afternoon. In most walks of life, he hates queue jumpers; truly he does, but there’s a nauseous anxiousness humming through his veins, making him desperate for answers. He needs to know what is happening right the fuck now – he’s all she’s got in this world, and he’ll be damned if he’s not there with her through all this. So he sidles up to the side of the desk, leaning over the counter towards the pretty red-haired girl behind it.
“Hi, excuse me; my mum checked in here about an hour ago. She suffered a—a heart attack, I think; please, I just need to know where she is. Its Emrys, Hunith Emrys—“
“Sir, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait; there’s—“
“Please.” Merlin cuts her off, fingers curling against the cool wooden counter. “Please, this…this is her second heart attack; I just need to be with her.”
The woman’s eyes soften at Merlin’s tone, and she bites the bow of her bottom lip as she takes in the line set to the side before tapping against the keys of her computer quickly. She darts an eye to the two women beside her before swivelling in her chair, turning her back to them.
“She’s in the Edith Cavell Ward, room 5B,” she whispers, a twinkle of a smile as she spins back around, calling for the next in line to come forward. Merlin thanks her quietly, glancing at the map of the hospital.
He flashes a look at Arthur over his shoulder, finds his friend stood exactly where he left him, nervously wringing his hands. ’Come on.’ Merlin mouths, tilting his head towards the Cardiac department, pace rushed, anxious; he nearly trips over his own feet, trainers screeching. Then a steady hand rests on his back, a warm heat searing through his t-shirt right between his shoulder blades. Arthur’s fingers rub over the space gently, clenching in the thin fabric, and Merlin finally manages to catch his breath as they continue walking down the endless corridor.
Merlin’s prepared from last time for the sight that greets him. Various tubes and contraptions are hooked up to his mother, making the most disconcerting of noises. She’s awake though – that’s something. The heavy lids of her eyes are barely open when she tilts her head to the side at the sound of the door.
“My darling boy,” she coughs; voice thin, barely above a whisper. Merlin rushes to her side, perching on the edge of the bed, careful to not dislodge any wires. He grips her hand tightly, biting back tears as he feels it shaking under his fingers.
“God, mum,” he cracks, a solitary tear running down the ridge of his nose.
“Sssh, sweetheart, be brave.”
“It’s not good though, is it?” says Merlin softly, teeth catching his upper lip tightly, turning it a bruising white. He can just about see Arthur in his periphery vision, stood by the door. Hunith reaches up a hand to cup his cheek, wipes stray tears away with her thumb as they continue to fall.
“Everything will be fine… Everything will be just fine.” She murmurs into his hair, futile promises they both know aren’t true.
“I’ll step outside – give you two a moment.” Arthur eventually speaks, shifting towards the door, but Hunith is quick to halt him.
“No, no, you don’t, my dear. Come sit here beside me.“ Hunith says, using her free hand to indicate the orange plastic chair beside her bed. “I want both of my boys around me.” She smiles warmly. Arthur darts a questioning glance to Merlin before stepping past the curtained railing to the other side of the bed. Hunith grips Arthur’s fingers as he lays them atop of her blankets. Nearer under the light, Merlin can tell Arthur’s been crying too; clear crystallised tracks stain his cheeks, the rim of his eyes blistering red. They sit there in silence for a while until Hunith leans her head back gently against the pillows, allowing her lids to drag shut.
“Mum?” Merlin asks, cautiously looking between his mother and Arthur and then towards the emergency nurse button.
“I’m just tired, son.” Her fingers unfurl from both their hands to fold neatly across her stomach. “Just resting my eyes for a bit,” She hums, the steady beep of the heart monitor providing a welcomed calm as it reverberates through the room.
Hunith flitters in and out of consciousness, fluttering her eyes open a crack for a few moments before the weight of fatigue bore down, making them fall shut again.
The stretch of silence has hung between them for an age, growing more uncomfortable with every tremor of Hunith’s chest rising, every clinical beep the machines around her exude. Merlin moves to sit in the chair beside Arthur, hands wringing in his lap.
“I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” Arthur eventually whispers into the quiet.
Seconds pass into minutes until, with a sniff, Merlin finally replies, “It’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not.”
The heat of Arthur’s body next to him burns deep behind his ribcage. Merlin knows Arthur is trying to be reassuring, comforting, but the words are lacking. The thought behind them is sweet enough, but how can Hunith compare to Uther - one so loving and full of life, the other degrading, cold and hostile? For Merlin, Hunith is more than just a mother; she’s a father, a confidant, a friend, the most amazing woman in his life, and just when he re-found his father, the Gods threaten to take his mother away from him instead. A constant stab of pain jolts deep within him with every glance towards the hospital bed before him, his mother’s wearied figure lying helplessly upon it.
“She’s all I’ve got… Without her, I have no-one. I can’t lose her.” Merlin’s voice catches on a broken cry, one hand clutching at the blanket under his fingers, the other coming to cup over his mouth.
“She’s not the only person you have, Merlin.” Arthur says softly, pressing the side of his knee against Merlin’s thigh. Heat radiates through their jeans as Merlin watches Arthur lift a hand carefully, senses the tension in his palm as he allows it to hover over the bed for a long moment. Merlin holds his breath, waiting to see what Arthur will do, chances a slight peek from beneath his lashes to study the side of Arthur’s face as he eventually lowers his hand, so close to covering Merlin’s own, before he places it beside his instead. Their little fingers brush innocently against each other, the action huge yet insignificant all at the same time. The brief touch is soon broken by a gentle tapping on the door before its pushed open and Doctor Martins pokes his head around. Arthur jolts back instantly, the side of Merlin’s hand cool in its absence – Hunith awakens at the sound, struggles to sit up properly until both Merlin and the doctor aid her.
“How are you feeling?” he asks, eyes scanning over machinery as his pen furiously scribbles across the clipboard in his hands, noting down figures.
“Tired.” Hunith supplies, rolling the arc of her shoulder back with a painfully loud click, “And achy.”
Doctor Martins smiles softly, checking her IV drip. “Any chest pain?”
Merlin and Arthur sit mutely, watching with cautious eyes as the doctor moves around the bed, making sure to double check everything.
“It feels a little bit tight.” She admits, the turn of her lips sliding down, the frown so unnatural on her usually light, breezy face.
“I’ll make sure Nurse Collins ups your dosage of clopidogrel to make you more comfortable.” He nods before turning his head to the side. “Ah, Merlin, would you mind stepping outside with me for a moment?”
Merlin stands, giving his mum’s hand a light squeeze before following Doctor Martins into the corridor.
The half din of their conversation is washed out as nurses, patients and loved ones pass through the ward, alive with chatter and thrumming with energy. Arthur shuffles along in his seat, sitting himself in Merlin’s vacant chair.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Ms. Emrys?” he asks, the feeling of uneasiness refusing to leave the pit of his stomach. Hunith turns her head to him with half-opened eyes, stained with weariness but still warm with love.
“Hunith,” she chides jokingly, a dry chuckle stifled by a heavy cough. “Just look after him for me,” she says, words shaking out of her lungs, chest rising fitfully as she tries desperately to claw back the dry sobs wracking through her body.
Arthur leans across to clutch her hand firmly, throat working over as he swallows back his own pain. “I will, I promise.”
“I know there is a love there between you – much deeper than any brotherly affections…” says Hunith, eyes pooling with unshed tears; she grips his hand tighter. “Give it to him.” She urges, eyes pleading. “Don’t hold back. You’ve both grown up without witnessing it. How special it is when you find that other half… Don’t ever let it go, Arthur.” She shakes her head, eyes locking with Arthur’s.
Sorrow sits deep in his heart, and he realises he is grieving before Hunith has even passed away. She’s been a mother to him when he’s had none, non-judgmental, always forgiving; she’s broken his heart with her kindness, a parental love that overlooks blood. He meets her eyes and finds only her pure belief and hope in him. He wants to live up to it – be the man she is asking him to be – but the thought of doing so is so utterly paralysing. He can’t maintain eye contact any longer and with a flutter of his lashes he casts his head down. He feels Hunith’s cool fingers touch his cheek, her long lithe hand carding through the tufts of blonde fringe dusting his eyebrows.
“Look at what became of me and your father.” She hushes almost silently. “To live without your soul mate is a terrible existence. Be brave, my darling Arthur – for the both of you.”
Arthur tilts his face into the touch, allows her fingers to brush through his hair – like a mother would. He sniffs, breath shaky as he allows the rhythmic coaxing of her touch to soothe him, to numb his senses as he whispers, “I love him.”
“I know you do, my boy, and he loves you,” says Hunith, mouth set in a tragic smile, “and that leaves me with enough hope to let go.”
Arthur’s tears fall freely as he edges further on the end of his seat to wrap his arms around Hunith’s prone figure, clinging to every last memory he can. She holds him back just as tightly, murmurs the same promises of comfort in his ear as she’s done her own son. They offer little relief from the heartbreaking knowledge. When Merlin re-enters, eyes bloodshot, he silently slinks over to the both of them and curls up on the bed against his mother, silent sobs choking out so that the room is filled with their heart-ache.
Later that evening, with Arthur coiled in on himself in the armchair in the corner and Merlin hanging limply from the chair by the bed; head nestled in his mother’s lap, Hunith takes her last breath – she gazes between the two of them with a fond smile, a whispered “Love you” and a silent prayer before her eyes flutter closed for the last time.
It’s fitting that as Merlin steps out of the sleek bar car in front of the crematorium, the sun is shining.
The clouds part like the sea, allowing warm rays of light to bathe across the green courtyard of Abney Park Cemetery – searing through the fabric of his dark charcoal suit. For the past five days, Merlin has been living in a surreal numb bubble. When he wasn’t spending the hours fitfully crying tears that never ceased to fall, he was lying in bed – in his mother’s room, just trying to be a bit closer to her. The idea of funeral preparations only entered his mind after Hunith’s friend Anne visited, sat him down with a cup of tea and assured him she could handle it all for him if he wanted. Choosing the coffin, flowers, music, it all felt wrong – he’s only eighteen; he isn’t meant to be picking out this stuff for his mother.
Arthur, Balinor and Helen are an unwavering presence by his side, simply sitting with him, holding him if he needs it. One afternoon Arthur suggested sorting through Hunith’s clothes; Merlin lasted all of ten minutes before he came across the soft cashmere cardigan he had got her last Christmas, the one she had taken to wearing most days. He brought it to his face, inhaled the lingering smell of her perfume before folding his body up on the bed, clinging to the small piece of his mother. On the third day, Balinor and Helen came round to help pack up some of Hunith’s belongings; carefully organising ornaments, tokens into specified boxes. During their quiet work, Balinor placed a heavy hand on Merlin’s shoulder, led him to sit on the couch, Helen coming to perch on the arm beside them.
“We’d like you to come live with us.” He said; eyes round and sincere. Helen reached across to rub the pale skin of his arm, her hand stroking rhythmically back and forth, warm like his mother’s.
“Thank you, but…” Merlin stuttered. “I can’t leave this place… I can’t leave her.” They nod gently, giving his knee a soft squeeze. Helen smiled sadly before returning to the kitchen to pack. His father stayed behind, head tilted, considering, “If you ever change your mind… we want you there, Merlin.”
The words linger still, buried beneath a deepening hurt that has yet to lessen, as Merlin raises a hand to shield his eyes. He gazes up into the clear blue sky above, the first few guests beginning to arrive behind him. “Thanks, mum.” He whispers before stepping inside.
The coffin sat at the front is daunting. The rich mahogany gleams beneath the snow white fragrant lilies that adorn it. The smell is almost overpowering as he steps into the small room, already beginning to fill with distant family members, work colleagues and friends from the estate. Arthur and the lads are huddled together on one side of the pews; Lance offers him a sad small smile. The pretty blonde girl next to him is new, but by the way Gwaine has his arm wrapped around her shoulders, he’s guessing it’s his sponsor and new found girlfriend Elena. They all offer him supportive glances, mouthed words of friendship until he’s brought out of his reverie by a soft touch to his forearm. Swivelling round, he comes face to face with Ms. LeFay dressed elegantly in a simple black dress, a dark matching hat hanging low across her eyes.
“I am so sorry for your loss, Merlin.” She says kindly, acrylic nails trailing across his jacket.
“Thanks for coming, Ms. LeFay—“
“Please, Morgana, you’re no longer a pupil.” She pulls him in for a light hug; the touch is stilted at first but soon melts into a comforting embrace, feeling much like an older sister taking care of a brother. Merlin lets out a deep sigh as he presses his palms into her back, the action making him feel safe.
“If you need anything…” She says pulling back, holding his shoulders the unspoken words of support go unsaid. “Don’t give up on your art, ok? Use it. Let it help you get through this.” She gives him one more gentle squeeze before side-stepping into the rows of seats.
Merlin slowly makes his way to the front, can feel people’s eyes on him as he comes to stand in front of the closed casket, the detailing on the wood simple, classic, just like his mother. He brings a hand to run across the gloss panelling; fingertips trace the etched plaque on the top.
Tapping his fingers across the cool metal for a beat, he turns to sit himself in the front row - empty, vacant, apart from himself. His knees jerk nervously under sweaty palms as Balinor places an encouraging hand on his back from the row behind, the weight a comfort that sits low in his belly. He leans back to flash them a tight smile; Helen bends forward to place a delicate kiss against his cheek.
Then the music is starting, the soft beginning strings of “Ave Maria” peal through the tinny speakers. The congregation stands as the priest enters to begin proceedings; he opens with a prayer, a nod, and everyone sits back down. The brush of a leg against his makes him turn, shooting a confused glance across to Arthur who has come to sit flush by his side. He offers him a sparkle of a smile, teeth glistening white against full red lips. Merlin smiles back, small and shy. He faces forward again; listening to the sermon Father John is giving until he almost jumps out his seat at the touch beside him. Glancing down between them, he shoots a nervous look to Arthur. The tips of Arthur’s fingers are tracing across the top of his palm, cautious, as he darts unsure eyes around the room, before, with a sharp intake of breath, he covers Merlin’s hand with his own.
A half-formed gasp catches in Merlin’s throat as he gazes down at their clasped hands, shoots Arthur a worried look before dropping his voice. “Arthur, what are you doing?”
“Being there for you,” He side-whispers; face impassively staring straight ahead, a fierce resolve in the tightness of his jaw.
“People can see.”
“I don’t care.”
Merlin flexes his hand; the heavy weight of Arthur’s above doesn’t budge. Father John is still talking but his words are nothing but hollow background noise to the heavy thuds of his heart, the thrumming pulse matching Arthur’s as it flickers against his wrist. “Don’t be stupid; think about what this looks like.” He hisses.
Arthur turns to him then, eyes soft and impossibly blue – bluer than he’s ever seen. “If you want to let go, then fine, but I’m not. I’m not ashamed to hold my boyfriend’s hand.” He squeezes it gently. There were probably more words planned, a speech to rival many, but in the end, a simple touch spoke volumes. Merlin’s teeth worry at his bottom lip as he hold Arthur’s gaze. Then he turns his palm. Arthur’s brow furrows in hurt as he makes to move his hand back, but Merlin’s fingers are sliding into the creases of Arthur’s, wrapping tightly. He clings, holds on for dear life as his stomach feels like it’s dropping out beneath him, and Arthur is his safety net – keeping him afloat.
As the sermon continues, Merlin shuffles closer, side pressed completely against Arthur’s, hands firmly clasped together throughout. And after Merlin can barely see through his tears as he reads his eulogy, after he feels like the dryness in his throat will render him wordless, Arthur’s hand finds his when he returns to his seat – warm and sure and everything.
The service is beautiful.
Merlin’s eulogy pretty much leaves the whole room in tears, and as Hunith’s coffin makes its last journey behind the velvet curtains to the melodic riff of “Always” by Bon Jovi Merlin is left feeling entirely drained. However, there is the reception yet to attend, a small gathering of friends in the church hall next door. Merlin goes through the pleasantries, thanks people for coming, shakes hands, kisses cheeks. After Father John declared the service over, Merlin stood to leave, dropping Arthur’s hand only once he absolutely had to, smiling down at an equally beaming Arthur. Once the last of the people left the crematorium, after Gwaine pulled him into a fierce hug with whispered words of ’you bloody handsy bastard’ smirked into his ear with a wink; after Percy placed a heavy hand on his shoulder a silent smile on his lips, his eyes gentle, speaking volumes of ‘I will stand by you and Arthur to the hilt’, Merlin finally allows himself a moment to collapse into the back row and release a deep sigh. The room is empty, save for the overpowering fragrance of the lilies and Merlin stares at the closed purple curtains at the front of the hall.
He just said goodbye to his mother, the only constant he’s ever had in his life. Closing his eyes, he can see her joyous smile behind his lids; the tinkle of her laughter echoes in his ears, and if he breathes deep enough, the classic smell of her Chanel perfume tickles his nose. He doesn’t ever want to lose this – the memories. Merlin can’t bear the thought that one day; he’ll wake up and forget the shade of hazel her eyes were, or the dimple that would sit in her left cheek when she grinned. Yet, he also fears his grief will consume him. Leaving him immobile to cherish each day for what it is. The idea of returning to the flat where they shared all their life is a dread that strikes against his chest. The door creaks open as a figure enters to slide beside Merlin, reaching out a hand. The firm touch on his knee is familiar; he opens his eyes to find Balinor sat beside him, dressed smartly in a simple black suit.
“How are you doing, son?”
Merlin rubs tired hands over his face, kneading at the pressure points over his brow. “Ok, I suppose. I don’t know. How are you supposed to feel?”
“I think you’re handling it grand…” Balinor says kindly, giving Merlin’s thigh a gentle squeeze. “I can see your mother in you. You have her strength. You’ll be just fine.” He says reassuringly and Merlin simply hums, considering.
“I wish I had got to see her one last time,” says Balinor quietly, head ducked low, curls of hair falling across his face. Hunith made it clear when Merlin got back in contact with his father that she didn’t want to see him again. She had no qualms about Merlin meeting up with him, she encouraged it even, but for her, seeing Balinor’s face would bring up too many emotions from too long ago. ’I’d rather keep my memories,’ she said. Though now, Merlin is beginning to wonder whether it was because she did not want Balinor to see how ill she had become - a once so vibrant woman, struck down with constant fatigue. It was a hard sight to bear. A second later, the click of the door resounds in the empty room as Helen pokes her head around before side stepping in. She runs a hand along the back of the pew, across both of the men’s shoulders, walking to the other end and shuffling across beside Merlin.
“Your eulogy was beautiful, sweetheart.” She tells him, neatly folding her legs as she leans back against the bench, twisting her body to face the both of them.
Merlin mumbles out a ‘Thanks.’ They sit in an awkward silence, everything still so new and unsure. The hair on the back of his neck flutters lightly as Helen nudges Balinor in the shoulder across him, the tilt of her head and look in her eye sweetly obvious and not at all subtle.
Balinor coughs uselessly, standing to tug the cuffs of his sleeves down fully. “I’ll go have a word with that Arthur of yours.”
Merlin scoffs as Helen giggles. “He’s not my Arthur.”
“Let him have his ‘protective father’ moment.” She smiles, pressing against Merlin’s side. Balinor gives them a little wave as he strides out, Merlin cringing at the thought of what he’s going to actually say to Arthur when he runs in to him. But then Helen’s leaning into him, baby bump poking at his side. “I’m glad you came into his life… into our life, Merlin.”
Merlin shakes his head. After two months, he still finds it hard to grasp that he is a part of this entirely new family unit now, made up of Balinor and Helen and a little bundle of a baby girl that is soon to arrive. “I’m glad I have you guys… especially now.”
Helen squeezes his knee, leaves her hand there lingering. “Move in with us.” Merlin starts to speak but she halts him with a finger. “You can bring Arthur, you know; the spare room has a double bed.”
Merlin has to clear his throat around the shock. “What? No, no, that’s—why would you burden yourself with the both of us?”
Helen grins knowingly at Merlin’s flailing attempts to hide the blush spreading across his cheeks. She sobers quickly though, turns her body to face Merlin head on. “Me and your father both know how hard it is to get yourself out of a rut… not that we’re saying you’re in one, but I’ve struggled in the past, lived in really… not nice areas. So we want to help. You’re a part of our family now, Merlin… and those closest to you - they become part of our family too.”
Merlin holds her gaze for a moment before sagging his shoulders, sigh heavy. “I don’t—I don’t think I can stay in that flat. Everywhere I look, I see her… It’s too hard.”
“Then you’ll stay with us.” Helen says simply, curling an arm around Merlin’s shoulders.
A cool gust of air trickles across his skin from the open window, sending shivers through him. He twines his fingers nervously in his lap, hesitant. “I feel like I’m leaving her behind.” He whispers, guilt sitting heavy in his chest.
“I’m never going to try to replace her, ok?” Helen tells him, fingers running up and down his arm. “She must have been the most amazing woman to have brought up such a loving son like you on her own.”
“I know you’re not, which is why it just makes things even harder… It’s all just really confusing right now.”
“I know, sweetie.” Helen soothes, running a hand over the top of Merlin’s head. He rests it against her shoulder, and they stay like that for a moment, calm, the early evening sunset casting the room in an orange hue.
“You know, I think me and your mum would have got on.” Helen whispers quietly, a strange lilt to her voice as if she’s struggling to hold back her emotions too. Merlin considers her words, her unwavering caress as she strokes his hair, so achingly familiar.
“Yeah, I think you would have.”
The reception – which Merlin finds way too weird to say because he feels he really shouldn’t be drinking or laughing or socialising a mere few hours after saying goodbye to his mother – is in full swing. People appear to be having a good time, though again, Merlin’s unsure whether that was the aim of the whole event. Either way, the room is getting too claustrophobic for him; the endless condolences and comforting hands are lovely but all too meaningless. Wordlessly, he slips out the side door into the night, the late July heat making the air stick humid. The grass bank surrounding the venue is crisp and dry underfoot, starving for water under this unusual British summer drought. Merlin walks further into the clearing until he comes to a large oak tree, standing tall with deep hung branches. Shrugging off his jacket, he lays it on the ground before settling down, closing his eyes and resting back against the solid trunk. These few solemn moments allow him to reflect on things, to try and drink in everything that’s happened in the past few days. The hum of nightlife around him settles his thoughts; leaving him feeling like a very small insignificant being in his bereft state. The sense of loneliness is almost overpowering, even though the hall across the way is packed to the brim of loving, caring friends, even though he may have finally found his salvation from the Holly Street Estate through his newly found father – he is still here, on his own.
“Is this tree taken?”
Merlin looks up straight into a set of twinkling blue eyes. He shuffles over to make room on the jacket so Arthur can take a seat next to him, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to his elbows, tie hanging loose around his open collared neck. All in all, the sight makes his heart lurch.
“Too much in there?” Arthur asks, bringing his knees up to his chest and resting his arms atop of them. He nudges himself further back so he is pressed up against the tree trunk.
“Just a bit,” says Merlin, taking a deep lungful of air. His eyes drop to Arthur’s fingers as they drum a beat upon his raised legs. “You held my hand.”
“Wow, Merlin, really, it was like you were actually there.”
“Stop being a prat…” says Merlin with an eye-roll, jabbing an elbow to Arthur’s side before allowing himself to rest the length of his body into him. “What does this mean then?”
Arthur presses back until they’re pasted together along one side. “I’m not sure.” He answers honestly.
“I’m moving… to Wembley.” Merlin says quietly, chin tucked against his chest, unable to meet Arthur’s eyes, afraid to see the confused hurt in them. “Balinor asked me to live with them and… I’m thinking it may be for the best.”
Merlin doesn’t need to look up to tell that frown lines have burrowed their way across Arthur’s brow, or that the clucking of his tongue is a nervous habit he picks up when he’s upset. “Come with me.”
Merlin does look up then, forces himself to turn his head, to hold Arthur’s gaze as he asks, “Helen… Helen said you could come live with them—us—if you wanted?” The surprise on Arthur’s face is expected but still, each second drifts into an even greater awkward silence that sets butterflies to flight in Merlin’s stomach. “I mean, it’s not… I—I want you to come with me.”
“I can’t.” Arthur rasps, and right, so it does seem as if this night could get worse, great. Sensing the change in Merlin’s expression, Arthur catches his wrist in a firm grip. “I want to… You know how much. I want to get off the estate more than anything, but I have my dad; I can’t leave him. He may be a dick most of the time but I’m all he’s got… You get that, right?”
Merlin swallows, nods; he looks down at Arthur’s hand, traces the movement of his thumb as it tracks over his own pulse point. “I’m just scared for you.”
Merlin tries to pull his wrist away but Arthur just tightens his hold. “You held my hand… in front of everyone. It’s going to get around, Arthur; there are going to be some idiots who will… try stuff.”
Arthur pulls Merlin’s arm closer towards him, draws it across his still raised knees, focuses on the little patterns he’s mapping out on his pale skin. “I can take care of myself, you know.”
“Yeah, but…” Merlin watches as Arthur’s fingers cause the dusting of hair on his forearm to stand to attention. “I don’t want anything to happen to you… I can't—I can't lose you too.”
His hands stop. “That won’t happen… This, us - people may not get it but that doesn’t matter, as long as we know… We’ll make it work, together, ok?” Arthur is looking at him with such conviction that all Merlin can do is nod, allowing Arthur’s fingers to soothe him as one hand continues its ministrations on his arm, the other running teasing strokes over his knee.
“You know what you said to me, last year, up on the hill?” asks Arthur.
Merlin crinkles his nose in confusion. “I’ve said a lot of things to you up on that hill”
A deep blush colours the tip of Arthur’s cheeks, not alluding Merlin at all to what particular moments he was recalling. “No, it was—you said that when those we love pass on, they turn into stars, looking down on us, guiding us… Your mum will look after me.” Arthur says quietly, hand gripping Merlin’s knee to turn his body in towards his. “She was kind of rooting for us, you know?” Merlin hides a shy smile, curling towards Arthur the remaining distance, to rest his forehead against Arthur’s own.
“I know.” He whispers. They sit like that for a moment, breathing in the wisps of air that coil between them. “I’m just so damn tired right now.” Merlin sighs against Arthur’s lips.
“Stay at mine tonight.”
Merlin casts his eyes up from under his lashes. “Arthur…”
“Staying in that flat on your own… all those reminders, it’s not good for you,” says Arthur seriously. He lowers his legs, draws them out in front of him, tapping the toe of his shoe against Merlin’s ankle. Tilting his head Arthur’s fringe brushes against Merlin’s temple, the tip of his nose nudging against his cheekbone. When Arthur next speaks, the words are mouthed along Merlin’s jaw. “Let me take care of you.”
The heat of Arthur close to him warms Merlin’s skin, has him curling towards Arthur even more. “Yeah, ok.” He whispers into his ear.
It’s gone midnight before the two eventually make their way back to Holly Street. After endless goodbyes and ‘thank you for coming’s’ they eventually managed to leave the hall and travel the short distance back to Arthur’s flat. The lights are off, the house quiet as they enter, stopping just briefly to fetch a glass of water before heading to Arthur’s room, shucking off their clothes and tumbling into bed a tired sated pair of limbs, wrapped only in each other.
It’s well into the afternoon when they eventually rouse; the beams of early evening sunlight warming their skin, encasing them in a hazy half-aware doze. Merlin has his face buried deep in Arthur’s armpit, nose tickling the short strands of hair, while Arthur lays spread eagled underneath. A possessive arm curls around Merlin’s waist, fingers dipping low under the waistband of his boxers at his spine. The emotional stress of the past few days seem to have caught up to both of them as they lay still in their dreamless slumber, unaware of the loud click of the front door, or the stumbled curses until the door to Arthur’s bedroom is flung open and they’re greeted to the angry roar rising deep from Uther’s gut.
Merlin’s the first to move, near clear on leaps from the bed, almost banging his head against a low hung shelf as he reaches for his white shirt, hurriedly fumbling with the buttons. Arthur jumps up too, quickly pulling his trousers on. Merlin is shooting Arthur frantic looks; were they really so clumsy as to not lock the bedroom door? Shit!
“Dad, it’s not—” Arthur starts and is quickly slammed down by Uther’s fist connecting heavily against the now shut door, denting the wood as flakes of white paint cling to his knuckles.
“What disgusting filth is this?” Uther hisses low, threatening. Merlin can see the flickering of his pulse as it strains against his neck, the red flush running down his jaw, disappearing under the seam of his grubby grey t-shirt. He’s stumbling to get his trousers on, almost tripping over in his efforts to pull them up as fast as possible. He’s heard enough of Uther’s tirades to know that this is never going to end well; his instincts are screaming at him to bolt, but Uther is blocking the exit. Still, he won’t leave Arthur alone during this. Merlin is not entirely trusting of Uther when it comes to the treatment of his son, fearful that what has been years of verbal abuse was soon to turn physical.
Arthur shucks on a t-shirt found on the floor, hastily pulling it over his head. “Father, please…”
“I nearly cuffed them both, you know! George and Harry down the pub when they were speaking of my son, my boy, holding the hand… of another man. And now I come back to this?”
“I should go.” Merlin mumbles, head down as he scrambles for his shoes, opting to leave his socks because the seconds are drawing out even longer, becoming more and more uncomfortable.
“No, you don’t.” Uther stops him with a look, the dark set of his pupils blown wide, near black in their intensity, full of so much hate; it halts Merlin in his tracks. “Filling my son’s head with vulgar thoughts, making him do things, trying to make him a filthy queer-- you bastard boy!”
Arthur takes a step forward then, shields Merlin from view as he faces his father, head on. “Hey, that’s enough.”
“I’ll tell you when it’s enough! Look at what he’s done to you! Turned you into a fucking sick fag!”
“Stop it! You don’t know anything!” Arthur yells. His throat feels like sandpaper, dry and red raw, as the words leave his lips.
“I know you have brought shame on me, on this family.” Uther cuts his eyes at them both, draws his shoulders back so he’s even taller, even more imposing, but Arthur is matching him for height, refusing to break the eye contact they’ve been drawn into. “If your mother was alive today, she would disown you.”
Merlin can’t help the disgusted grunt that leaves his lips, wants to reach out a reassuring hand, to comfort Arthur like he did for him yesterday, but he knows the slightest touch or show of companionship would set Uther off even more.
“No, mum would just want me to be happy… to be able to be with the person I loved.”
The silence in the room is deafening, the heavy pants of their breath ringing ragged in the air. Merlin can’t see Arthur’s face, only the deep set of Uther’s as he seethes in rage. Love. Arthur said love, didn’t he? The stupid sod had only gone and confessed his love in front of his father. Merlin has half the mind to whack him over the head. The other wants to draw him close, whisper the same words against his heart. The feeling is mutual; of course it is, but they never got round to actually saying it to each other before, and now, well, now isn’t probably the best of times either. But before he can dwell on it further, Uther has stepped forward, eyes focused directly on him, sending a cold chill shooting down his spine.
“You disgusting vermin - what have you done to my son?” Uther cries, lunging past Arthur to knock into Merlin, arm raised to sling a sickening right hook into the jut of his jaw. Thankfully, the countless pints he consumed – going by the stench of his breath – left his balance shot to hell, allowing Uther to catch Merlin much more lightly on the chin, tumbling them both to the ground. Uther attempts to strike Merlin with a few more punches as Arthur struggles to pull Uther’s solid weight from its intimidating loom. Merlin crowds in on himself, squeezes his eyes shut as flashbacks to nearly a year ago flitter past his lids; memories of lying on cold cement, facing brutality under Myror’s thugs’ hands. Now here he is again, cowering blows from yet another vicious bully. He doesn’t put up a fight, doesn’t make a noise but for the painful gasps as Uther’s heavy punches land firmly yet sporadically against his gut. The sound of Arthur’s angry roar as he finally pulls Uther free rings in his ears, making him flinch at the loud thud that resonates when Uther lands heavily against the chest of drawers across the room. Then Arthur’s standing above him panting, limbs shaking, as he extends his hand in offering to Merlin. He casts a wary eye across to the old man, struggling to sit up in the corner, before clasping Arthur’s fingers tightly and hauling himself up. He staggers at first, teeters against the edge of the mattress but Arthur grips his elbow securely, hauling him against his side.
“That invitation to move in still open?” He asks against his ear, the flutter of his voice nervous, unsure.
“Of course,” Merlin tells him, heart still thundering against his ribcage.
Uther is watching them with a sneer on his face, lips pulled tight in a grimace as he cradles the bow of his arm. “Fucking filthy fags.” He spits. The anger radiates off him in vicious waves as he lies drunk and useless on the floor. Merlin pities him.
“All my life, you have made me feel worthless, like I was the scum on the bottom of you shoe, and all I’ve ever done is try and make you proud, happy. Shit, dad, do you even understand what I went through for you? I’ve risked so much…” says Arthur, the words coated in pain as they travel over his tongue. He glances at Merlin as if gathering strength. “But that’s it. I can't do it anymore.”
“You are nothing. You took away the one thing I loved most in this world.” Uther pushes his back against the wooden chest.
Merlin can hear Arthur’s breath catch in his throat, watches as his knees shake beneath him; he places a steady hand on the bottom of Arthur’s spine, pressing the pad of his fingertips reassuringly against hot skin. Arthur stands straighter then, draws himself taller, stronger, more determined. “Then you finally have what you want, because from now on, you’re nothing to me. You’re on your own.”
Maybe as an act of further defiance or simply a desperate need to keep grounded, Arthur reaches back for Merlin’s hand, slotting their fingers together as they walk out of the flat, side by side, leaving Uther, leaving everything behind in their wake.
Arthur’s shaking when they get to Merlin’s, legs numb; face white as Merlin quickly locks the door and brings him close to his chest, running his hands up and down Arthur’s back, murmuring soft words of affection. The flat is quiet and still as their ragged pants make the air hotter around them, the beat of their hearts racing against each other’s chests. Merlin’s fingers curl around the nape of Arthur’s neck, twining the short strands at the base. He allows his lips to tease against Arthur’s ear as he whispers, “I love you too, you know.”
The arms around him squeeze tighter, and he can feel the curl of Arthur’s lips against the cut of his jaw before they pucker and leave a lingering kiss there. “We should get moving.” Arthur says reluctantly. “Before dad goes and runs his drunken mouth.”
Merlin releases a heavy sigh, allows himself to rest his forehead against Arthur’s for a few lingering moments before they eventually pull apart. With two large black duffel bags, Arthur ventures to Hunith’s room while Merlin goes to his own, throwing in the few essentials he needs. They’ve spoken to Balinor on the phone, listened as he instantly insisted on driving round to pick them up – no argument. He told them to gather everything precious; the rest they would collect in the next few days. Pulling open his chest of drawers, Merlin’s so engrossed in grabbing a handful of socks; the sharp slice across his finger causes him to gasp a curse under his breath. Removing his hand, he notices the brightly coloured post it note tucked away at the back of the drawer. Sucking his paper-cut finger into his mouth, he pulls out the note and almost breaks into a sob at the token it’s attached to. He stumbles back to the bed before collapsing down upon it, heart stuck in his throat.
Don’t ever give up, my darling boy. Keep love in your heart and it’ll help you to fly. I am always with you to guide you.
Tears shine behind glassed eyes as Merlin strokes a thumb over the flow of his mother’s handwriting, lingering over the kisses at the bottom. He pulls the note free from the familiar small wooden toy it’s attached to. The curved arch of the dragon’s back moulds beneath his hand perfectly. Merlin swallows the lump in his throat as he tucks the figurine that his father crafted so long ago carefully into the bag between t-shirts. He then picks up the pink note, reads over his mother’s words once more, wipes away at the stray tear that tumbles down his cheek as he places it neatly in the pocket of his wallet, keeping it safe and close.
A couple of hours later and the majority of stuff has been packaged into boxes, the few precious mementos and tokens kept sacred in the bag Merlin is zipping up. Looking around the flat, the walls feel sparse without the photographs Hunith loved adorning them. With the last bag plonked at their feet, they stand together in the hall, Merlin’s eyes raking across the flat, trying to memorise every last inch of the place he called home his entire life.
Arthur is in front of him, wrapping a casual arm around his waist, drawing him close. “I’m going to nip back and grab some stuff,” Merlin opens his mouth to protest, but Arthur’s finger presses against his lips. “He’ll have gone back to the pub now, drowning himself in liquor; I’ll be quick, I don’t need much… That’s if he hasn’t trashed it all.”
Merlin shakes his head, the tufts of his hair dancing across Arthur’s temple. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to lose a parent too.”
“I think we both know I lost him a long time ago, Merlin.”
They stay there for a moment, just enjoying each other’s closeness. Merlin’s hand reaches up to run across the back of Arthur’s neck. “Okay, I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“Yeah,” Arthur hushes as he tips forward to press their lips together. The kiss is soft, gentle, a familiar touch that sends warm hope shooting through his veins.
“We’re going to be ok, you know,” says Arthur, reluctantly pulling free of Merlin’s safe hold to head towards the door.
Merlin smiles, adjusts the strap of the bag on his shoulder as he takes one final look around the near empty flat. His hand sneaks into his pocket, clutches the wallet tucked deep against his thigh before his eyes fall back on Arthur standing in the doorway. After all his hopes, prayers, dreams of finally breaking free of the clutches of this estate, he never imagined it’d be like this, without his mother, supported by his father, but most importantly, with Arthur by his side. It isn’t perfect, not by a long stretch, but it is salvation. It’s happiness, and if Arthur keeps looking at him like he is now, Merlin’s pretty sure it’s all going to be okay.
.: Seven Years Later :.
The sketch in his lap is nowhere near completion. He’s been brainstorming the idea with his department for weeks, arguing over the type of image that would be needed to really make their billboard advertisements snap. Yet after five hours in the office, and four more at home, the creative flow has managed to desert him, the sound of his mobile blaring out some non-descript galling tune a welcome relief.
“’Ello?” he asks, cradling his phone in the crook of his shoulder not bothering to check the ID as only one person would set his ringtone to that annoyingly irritating jingle.
“Merlin, my man, how are we?”
Ah, Gwaine. “Not bad, mate. We still on for tonight?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was ringing to tell you. Now Lance and Gwen are coming down and Percy’s gone and found himself some bird, the restaurant doesn’t have a table big enough, so we’re having dinner round ours.”
“Isn’t that bloody brilliant? He tells me this half an hour ago!” An all too familiar voice comes down the line. “Hello, my darling. By the way, you’re not still allergic to nuts, are you?”
Merlin laughs. “Afraid so Leny.”
“Got Elena working hard, I see?”
“What can I say? She lives to please me.” Gwaine’s rolling Irish accent transcends the phone; Merlin can practically hear the smirk on his face.
In the distance, he can just make out Elena clattering in the background. “Like the bastard would know what to do with a pot and pan!”
“Yes, well, dinner is now at 8pm.”
“Eight? How are we going to get across to New Gate in two hours?” asks Merlin, glancing down at his far too comfy yet scruffy track pants and t-shirt – he hasn’t even managed to jump in the shower yet.
“Well, you better get your ass into gear, or I’ll give it a good pounding… but then again, you’d probably love that.”
“Hmm, maybe. Arthur can be a very greedy bottom… He always—“
“Lalalalalala!! What have I told you about details!”
“You’re the one always talking about cocks and arses and pounding!” Merlin purrs, curling the last word around his tongue in a teasing manner.
“I am hanging up on you now, pervert – 8 o’clock, ours. See you and your skanky ass there.”
Merlin is still laughing as he shuts off his phone, tossing it to the other side of the couch. He looks at the clock on the wall, then back at his sketch pad, which is filled with many half-finished plans. Just twenty more minutes, and then he’ll get ready, he decides.
Ten minutes later, the sound of the front door closing echoes through the flat. Merlin doesn’t glance up until he feels the plush leather seat dip next to him, and he’s faced with the long expanse of Arthur’s throat as his head is tipped over the back of the sofa, eyes closed.
“Long day?” Merlin asks, putting his pen down on the crease of the pad and lifting a hand to run his fingers through the strands of dark blonde hair that fall across Arthur’s forehead.
“Exhausting. The new garage is proving to be a lot more work than we thought, but Balinor’s hired two more apprentices for the Acton branch so hopefully that’ll lighten my load…” Arthur says before flicking his eyes open, staring up at Merlin.
“Hey.” He murmurs softly.
“Hi.” Merlin replies just as quietly, teeth drawing into his bottom lip before he bends over Arthur to give him a sweet slow kiss. Arthur brings a hand to cradle the back of Merlin’s neck, holds him in place a while longer after he swipes over the roof of his mouth with his tongue. They part with a few more short kisses, lips brushing feather light across the edge of their mouths.
“Remember we have dinner with the guys tonight.” Merlin tells him, settling back on the couch and drawing the pad back over his lap. Arthur groans, shuffling to rest his tired head on Merlin’s bony shoulder.
“Do we have to? I’m tired.” Arthur’s whines could outdo a five year old.
“Yes. I think Gwen is going to announce they’re pregnant… or engaged or something. She’s been brooding,” says Merlin, contemplating his and Gwen’s coffee morning the other week where even the sight of a baby got her teary. “Oh, and change of plans: Elena’s cooking.”
If it was possible, Arthur’s groans got louder.
“Oh come on, you know how much she loves to cook.” Merlin says, swatting Arthur with the rolled up TV Guide. Arthur snatches it out of his hand, flicking to today’s schedule. “Yes, and I know how crap she is at it. Merlin, she almost killed me last time.”
Merlin snorts. “She did not.”
“So the chicken was a little pink. Still—”
Arthur almost propels himself from the sofa. “A little pink? It still had a pulse!”
“Oh, don’t live up to the gay-drama-queen stereotype, darling; it really doesn’t suit you.”
Arthur chuckles as he presses his face closer against Merlin’s neck. “Can I live up to other gay stereotypes though?”
“Like?” Merlin asks, tilting his head to give Arthur better access.
“Liiike.” Arthur hums, lips trailing along the length of Merlin’s jaw, teeth nipping at his day-old stubble. “Fucking you over the couch so hard that you won’t be able to sit still tonight, filling you up and leaving you like that so everyone will know.” He catches the soft flesh of Merlin’s earlobe lightly, suckles it into his mouth wet and hard.
Merlin lets out a whimpered sigh. “Gwaine will be disappointed.”
“You’re seriously bringing up Gwaine while I’m trying to talk your pants off?” Arthur pulls away with an annoyed tug of his eyebrow.
“It’s just - he thinks you’re a filthy bottom – might spoil the dream.” Merlin tries to explain, all the while clutching at his boyfriend’s shirt to bring him back to nibble at that spot again.
“Mmmm, I suppose we could take it in turns – we have time, right?”
“Plenty,” Merlin smirks, wicked grin flashing over his shining teeth – the others can wait half an hour. He stares up into Arthur’s eyes, a smile of equal radiance on his face.
“I’m so happy we got here.” Merlin whispers awe and wonderment casting over him as he rolls into the hot press of Arthur’s body. His lashes flutter against his cheek as Arthur forces him down into the cushions, looming over him, lips rounded. His eyes scan across Merlin’s face, hover over his mouth, quivering with anticipation, before they linger across to Merlin’s wrist, held tightly above his head. Merlin inhales a gasp as Arthur places a light kiss against the pulse point, lips gentle, soothing, whispering a prayer against the delicate cursive lettering that stands bold against Merlin’s pale skin. The word ‘mother’ has been tattooed there since a month after they’d left Holly Street, a month after they both lost her.
The words ‘I love you’ aren’t needed as Arthur dips down again to seal his lips over Merlin’s, because he finally has a future he never dreamed of, beyond the neon trees.