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Arthur Pendragon knew he was in trouble the moment he pulled into the car park. The area was surrounded with council estates, and when he slowed down to turn, he was sure he had heard some chav yell something foul in his direction.

When he had expressed his concern to his father in a terse phone call, he had received the silent treatment, again. Apparently fearing for his car, if not his life, in a rougher part of the city was part of Uther Pendragon's plan to scare Arthur straight. So to speak.

He maneuvered his Audi in between the battered Peugeot and the newer Ford, and when he exited, he double checked the steering lock and his alarm. The building across the street was plain, worn red bricks and glass doors, and Arthur now knew what Hell looked like.

Hell was Centrepoint Warwick House, a hostel for homeless teenagers, and apparently Uther Pendragon was Satan, because this is where he sent his son after his fall from grace.

Or did that make Uther God, and Arthur Satan?

Arthur wasn't exactly sure. He'd never really paid attention in church. Blah, blah, sin, blah, blah, my redeemer liveth, whatever. In one ear and out the other. When he was little, he ignored the sermons in favour of seeing how many times he could pinch his stepsister, Morgana, before she smacked him around the head. When he got older, he thought mostly about sex while he was in church. Didn't everyone?

The priest at church, and then chaplain at his secondary school, had despaired of him, but Arthur always managed to squeak by on his charm and not inconsiderable wealth. Those unimpressed by his pedigree would call his father, who would shout for a bit, make a few threats. But his credit card bill was always paid and his allowance always found its way into his bank account.

So, when his supervisor at uni become so frustrated with Arthur's increasingly tardy appearances and his increasingly nonsensical essays that he had called his father, Arthur wasn't worried. He'd be off the phone and back inside the bar in no time.

--

"This is unacceptable, young man!" Uther roared so loudly that Arthur was forced to hold his mobile several inches from his ear just to maintain the integrity of his ear drums. "After everything I have given you, the privileges you've enjoyed, the opportunities you've been afforded, this--this-- is how you repay me? By falling behind in your lectures, by not completing your assignments? At this rate you won't even be permitted to sit for your exams! You're ruining your life!"

Arthur rolled his eyes. Typical overreaction. His father really was such a drama queen. "Relax, dad. I can catch up on the work; it's not that big a deal." He heard his father take a deep breath, about to splutter with rage again, no doubt. "Besides, it's not like I'm going to end up homeless or something," he chuckled.

Uther remained silent on the other end for a long moment before speaking. "You believe I will let you lay about the manor for the rest of your life, doing nothing but playing your video games and going on the lash with Gawain and Leon? Like you do now, instead of putting even the tiniest bit of effort into your studies? Studies that I am paying the fees for?"

Arthur didn't know how to respond when he put it like that. "I didn't mean--" he began.

"Save it, Arthur. I'm very disappointed in you. Very disappointed. You will come home this weekend so we can discuss this further."

"Yes, Father," Arthur replied, sullenly. His mind was already whirling with possible excuses for why he couldn't make it home that weekend. Leon had scored great seats for the footie, and afterward they were going to go to Bouji's with Sophia and her brother, Ben. If everything went well, it'd be roast dinner at the pub with the boys after he got Sophia (and if luck was on his side, Ben too) out of his flat the next morning, and then a quick visit to the library so he could finish his essay. Well, start his essay. It wasn't due until Monday afternoon. He had loads of time.

"And I don't want to hear any of your creative excuses for not coming home, do you understand? If you are not sat at the dinner table with me by seven o'clock on Friday evening, I will cancel your credit card and take away your car."

Arthur sighed. Fucking hell. He'd never threatened the car before. "Yes, sir."

--

Uther Pendragon knew someone on the board of Centrepoint, a charity for homeless kids. Uther Pendragon knew someone on the board of every fucking organisation in the country, it seemed, but the board member from Centrepoint was an old tennis partner of his. Since Uther had used his position and pedigree to get said partner a membership in the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club some 20 years previous, he went to great lengths whenever Uther needed a favour.

That favour was how Arthur came to be sitting at a communal table, eating a truly horrific curry, surrounded by homeless ASBO kids and drug addicts.

--

His visit home had been a little different than each of the visits that had preceded it. Typically, his father would yell, Arthur would pretend to listen, then he would say all the right things and Bob was his uncle and that was that. This time, though, his father was determined that Arthur learn a lesson by forcing him to live in a homeless hostel for a day.

"It will be good for you," his father had intoned, "to see what happens to those who don't have family wealth to fall back on when they bollocks up their lives."

"I could lead a clean up of one of the parks instead?" Arthur countered, desperately. Uther glared at him. "Or...I could visit the elderly at St. Helen's!"

"No, Arthur. Alfred will inform the staff that you are participating in an experiential learning activity, and I have already given them a generous donation in advance. I will find out if you don't uphold your end of this agreement, and then I will take your car. In fact, Morgana always liked your car. Perhaps I will give it to her."

When he had fumed to Leon about this unfair punishment, Leon had just scoffed. "It's hardly the end of the world, mate. It's just a day." He rested his feet on the table, just so that Morgana would shout at him when she got home. Leon had some sort of humiliation kink or something, Arthur was certain. "Sophia's going on holiday with her step mum, and maybe you can find us a new supply chain."

Antony, the kid with the best stuff, had been sent off to a military school after his parents found out their little star was also dealing on the side. And Will's weed might as well have been actual garden weeds, it was so rough. Leave it to Leon to be thinking practically.

"I don't think a hostel for homeless kids is a great place to find a new dealer, Leon," Arthur had protested. "If they were any good, you'd think they'd make enough to a get a flat or something."

Leon reached over and switched the channel to Match of the Day. "I don't think that's quite what life is like in the real world, my friend."

"And what the fuck would you know about the real world? Your dad got rich off inventing concrete barriers!" It was true. Leon's dad had invented the Y-shaped concrete barriers now ubiquitous on both sides of the ocean in a post-9/11 and -07/07 world.

"Yeah, well, your dad inherited his money from a family that ran plantations in Jamaica."

"Yeah, well, my great-great-whatever grandfather voted for abolition in the House of Lords, too. While your family were harvesting wheat by hand or whatever peasants did back then."

"Kept the money though, didn't he?"

"Gambled it all away. The money we have now came from good, honest speculation and price-gouging," Arthur insisted. He gave no more thought to his his upcoming Real World Experience, as he was now referring to it in his head. He wondered if he should blog about it or something, maybe turn it into an extra-credit assignment.

--

Back at the communal table with the awful curry, Arthur found himself squirming as thirty pairs of eyes, by turns sullen, curious, or downright lit, followed his every move. He looked over at Gwen, the frazzled services coordinator. He had brought a box of Belgian chocolates with him, since he knew he was sure to encounter a female staffer or two and he wanted to have a back-up in case charm alone didn't get him out of sleeping in the dorms. She had turned down the sweets, telling him she couldn't accept gifts from clients. When he'd protested that he wasn't actually a client, not like those cases out there, she had thrown him out of her office.

Since he was to receive no solace with Gwen, he looked around at the kids who were staring at him. They all looked pretty bad off, but some were worse than others. They were all sixteen or seventeen, Arthur knew, since this hostel was especially for homeless kids working toward some qualifications for employment or additional education. Arthur was a little old to be among them, but apparently the power of the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club could not be denied even in the face of age disqualification.

He turned to the girl next to him. She had mousy brown hair and bloodshot eyes, but she was one of the only ones who had said more than a few words to him since he arrived. That is, if "budge over, that's my seat, cunt," counted. It did to Arthur, anyway, but only because the pickings were so slim.

"So," Arthur began with his best winning smile, "what are you in for, then?"

The girl stuck two fingers up at him and went back to her curry.

"This isn't fucking prison, mate," one of the boys across from him called out.

"Right," Arthur said. "Erm, sorry."

The dinner continued on, and Arthur decided it would be wise to not try to make conversation. He just listened, half convinced most of the stuff these kids were talking was bullshit. No one lived like that.

After supper, a couple of volunteer mentors showed up, uni students like Arthur, to help the kids with essays or revising. A few others met with a counselor who came by twice a week to help the kids who were trying to work through some really awful shit. When the tired-looking man came up to Arthur and asked him if he wanted to book an appointment, all Arthur could do was stammer "no, thank you." Did this guy think Arthur was there out of choice? That it was his only option in life?

He wanted to shout that he didn't belong here, that he had his own bedroom and ensuite in a house with servants, plus a flat near the uni and an Audi that was currently sitting in the carpark with a giant STEAL ME, KEY ME, DISMEMBER ME sign flashing above it in neon pink. He had family and friends and a dog, for crying out loud. He wasn't one of these dead-eyed kids, and never would be, no matter how much he pissed off his father.

Arthur put off getting ready for bed until the last minute, which is how he came to be in the lounge when the door buzzer rang many times in succession, bzzzt, bzzzt, bzzzt.. Gwen was gone for the evening, and in her place was the night steward, a young guy with a full beard and clothes that needed to be washed or perhaps burned, and who sat reading the same two pages of Mao's Little Red Book over, and over, and over.

Both he and Arthur jumped at the sound of the buzzer, and as soon as Bearded Maoist Steward leaned on the door release, a tall, skinny kid with big ears burst in through the door with his hand pressed to one of his eyes. Arthur could see a little bit of blood seeping through his fingers, and without thinking, reached for the paper towel roll still sitting on the dining table. He knew injuries, whether they were from fists or footballs. Bearded Maoist Steward guy (he surely had a name, but Arthur wouldn't be there long enough to learn it) led the kid to one of the sofas, and Arthur rushed over with the towels, pressing them to the kid's face.

"Merlin," Bearded Maoist Steward spoke gently, "what happened? Are you hurt anywhere else?"

Merlin, presumably the dark-haired kid belonging to the blood Arthur was mopping up, just shook his head. "It's nothing," he insisted. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine, mate," Arthur interjected, without thinking. Bearded Maoist Steward glared at him, but Arthur paid him no attention. The skinny kid had shaken Arthur off and lowered the towel. He regarded Arthur with a combination of curiosity and disdain.

"Who're you then?" Merlin demanded, looking down his smudged nose at Arthur's designer jeans, expensive trainers, ring, and clean tee-shirt.

"My name's Arthur. I'm...ah, staying here."

Merlin scowled as Bearded Maoist Steward brought some ice over and pressed it to Merlin's eye. "You sure you're in the right place, Arthur?"

"No," Arthur replied. "No, I'm quite sure I'm not in the right place at all."

Merlin grinned at that. He had a beautiful, almost innocent smile, and it sent a curious shock to Arthur's gut. "Sounds like you'll fit in just fine, then."

"I'm only here for tonight," Arthur insisted.

Merlin huffed quietly, in amusement or indignation, Arthur couldn't tell.

Bearded Maoist Steward, who was rifling through the first aid kit, looked up at that. "Yeah, you're a tough guy all right, Merlin," he chuckled. "Brawling by night, studying like a madman during the day." He nodded to Arthur. "Merlin here is the smartest kid this place has ever seen."

Arthur wasn't sure if Bearded Maoist Steward was being sincere or sarcastic, but Merlin's embarrassed scowl suggested that maybe it was the truth.

--

Once they had determined Merlin didn't need stitches, Bearded Maoist Steward (or 'Stewey" as Arthur now referred to him in his head) instructed Arthur that it was time to sleep, so Arthur went to get ready for bed in the communal bathroom. He dragged his feet as much as he could, not looking forward to a night in the dormitories, especially when there was no booze to be had and it hadn't even gone eleven o'clock. As he bent over the sink to clean his teeth (with his own toothbrush, thank you. The hostel could keep their cheap freebies) he wondered what the skinny kid's-- Merlin's-- story was. Where were his parents? How did he come to be here, if he was so smart?

As he was wondering, something hit his back, making him jump up and look around the blue-green tiled room with alarm.

He looked down, and saw his wallet spilling out on the floor.

"Sorry," Merlin said, lounging against a row of battered lockers, and looking far hotter than a teenage street kid with a black eye had any business looking, if Arthur were honest with himself. "Couldn't help myself."

Arthur glared at him. A quick glance in the mirror showed him that the effect was probably greatly reduced by the toothpaste foam stuck to his upper lip.

Merlin had changed out of his skinny jeans and hoodie and was wearing a plain tee shirt and shorts. His hair was wet, which made his ears look even bigger and his face even younger. "You don't want to leave your stuff laying around like that," he said, motioning to the duffel bag that held Arthur's stuff. "They'll take anything not bolted down in this place."

"Why?" Arthur asked, without thinking.

Merlin set down his own toiletries, neatly arranged in a clear polyethylene bag as if he were about to board an aeroplane. "Are you seriously asking why a street kid would want to steal a wallet that has a driving licence, a platinum credit card, a hundred quid and two condoms? Not to mention the lube."

Arthur flushed.

"Couldn't blame them myself," Merlin smirked at Arthur's discomfort. "Good lube is hard to come by and it makes things ever so much more pleasant."

Arthur turned away to wipe his face off. Merlin just got closer in his face. "Does that shock you, Arthur Pendragon?" Merlin picked up Arthur's wallet for him and pressed it into his hands. "You obviously don't belong here, so what the fuck, man? You an anthropologist? Social experiment for your course? Gonna write a blog, get some bleeding heart MPs in here? Documentary?"

Arthur shrugged Merlin off and stuck his wallet into his pocket. "Fuck off, kid."

"Seriously. You've had your fun, my friend. Run off back to daddy."

Arthur whirled around. To think he had felt sorry for this annoying twat just an hour before. Just like every other kid in this place, rude and disrespectful. Did they think it was really his idea to be there?

"I just met you and you're calling me a friend?" he asked, instead.

"That was my mistake."

"Yes, I think so."

"I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass. A pompous, rich, piss-taking ass. Looking forward to telling your friends all about the little beat-up queer you met, are you?"

"You don't even know me, you knob! What's your problem?" They were nose to nose, now. Nearly. Merlin was younger and scrawnier, but he had Arthur in height.

"Smug, rich pricks like you are my problem," Merlin shouted.

Arthur rolled his eyes and ducked when the kid's fist came flying at him. If this was how the kid fought, it's not wonder he had that shiner beginning to bloom around his eye. When Arthur caught Merlin's other fist in his hand, Merlin flinched and ducked away from the expected blow. Whatever had happened to this kid earlier that evening had probably happened before, and Arthur wasn't going to add to it, no matter how much of a little wanker the kid was.

Arthur held Merlin immobile as he struggled. Merlin was stronger than he looked, but still not a match for Arthur. When his struggles turned into a resigned whimper, Arthur let him go as he'd been burnt. Merlin tore out of the bathroom without looking back, leaving his bag behind. It was carefully labelled 'M. Emrys: Do Not Take!'

--

Arthur slept horribly that night, his arms entwined around his duffel bag and his wallet in his pyjamas since Merlin warned him, in his particular way, about thieves. He woke just as the sun was coming up, and in the dim light he could see the other boys in the hostel all passed out in their beds, a couple of them clutching their bags much as Arthur did. It occurred to Arthur that if someone stole his bag, he'd just buy another pair of jeans, get a new wallet, report his credit card missing and send away for a new licence. What if Merlin's bag got stolen? He'd have nothing of his own at all, and while the kid might be a git, he surely deserved to have something that was his.

Merlin was in a lower bunk across the room, curled in tightly on himself as he slept. He didn't look a day over fifteen, although the file Stewey had left open gave his age as seventeen. There was a photo stapled in it, too, of Merlin, face smudged with dirt and his eyes much less alive than they were the previous evening when they had fought over Arthur's wallet. Arthur had had to stop himself from reaching out and touching it. There was something about him that he just couldn't put his finger on.

Arthur laid in his narrow bunk, watching Merlin for a few minutes before he shook himself. He decided to just get out of bed; it was obvious he wouldn't be getting any more sleep.

He stole out of bed and was almost out of the room when he had a thought. He crouched down and searched through his bag, coming up with the box of chocolates he had brought as a potential bribe. He opened up the box and stuffed the cash from his wallet inside, then tiptoed over to where Merlin slept. He slid the box into Merlin's stuff before leaving the room. Maybe the kid would go buy some fattening food and a better pair of trainers. That is, if he didn't use the money on booze or drugs, which was actually what Arthur would have spent it on if he had hung out with Leon and Gawain the night before, instead of sleeping in a homeless hostel.

--

Arthur was stuck at the hostel until dinner time. He was missing one of his lectures, but his father had rung the instructor who had wished him luck with his noble undertaking (Arthur wasn't sure if he was taking the piss or being sincere) and excused his forthcoming absence. After breakfast, during which he studiously avoided Merlin's eyes, the kids studied, or went to enrichment activities. The staff didn't let the kids lounge about much. There were classes for the kids trying to finish their GCSEs, and special programs for kids trying for their A-levels; kids who had been academic stars until they discovered drugs, or booze, or an adult had fucked them over. When not studying, some of the kids went to a financial skills class where they learned about bank accounts and the dangers of credit from an earnest-looking guy not much older than Arthur himself. Others kicked around a football in the small courtyard, or smoked cigarettes whilst discussing Yeats.

Merlin, he noticed, was working on his A-levels.

It wasn't that much different from college, really. These kids might have been kids he had gone to school with. On the surface, anyway; he was pretty sure none of his friends had dealt with the same sorts of things these kids had. It was incomprehensible to him.

Arthur spent the first part of the morning showing off his footwork with the football, until Gwen returned and suggested tartly that he make himself useful helping prepare food. He was handed a paper apron and a hat and instructed to chop a mountain of fresh veg, some of which, Gwen proudly pointed out, was grown right there on the property. "Jamie Oliver visited us last year," she added, as if that explained everything.

He was halfway through the pile of carrots when Merlin joined him in the kitchen. Lovely. He was back in the skinny jeans, this time with a brown hoodie and a red scarf wound around his neck. The effect was made even more bizarre by the apron and the hat that kitchen workers had to wear.

"Cold?" Arthur asked, by way of greeting.

Merlin grunted. "My chemistry group down at the college isn't meeting today, so Gwen said I had to help you. Pass me an aubergine, would you?"

Arthur passed over the vegetable and raised his eyebrow as Merlin began violently hacking at it. Merlin must have felt Arthur watching, because he looked back up and scowled.

"What's your problem?"

Arthur returned to his carrots. "I don't have a problem, man. You're the one acting all prickly."

"'m not," Merlin said quietly, still scowling.

"You are." Arthur paused. "How's your eye?"

Merlin didn't answer.

"Does it hurt? I've got some codeine in my bag. Unless you already nicked it." Arthur winked, and hoped his smile would convince Merlin to relax a little.

Merlin looked up with a glare, but within moments he had started to smile a little in response. "I'm fine," he replied. After a pause, he added, "thank you."

"You're welcome."

"Does it have paracetamol?" Merlin asked.

"What?"

"Your codeine. Is it combined with paracetamol?"

"Um, yeah, I think so. Why?"

"You take it for hangovers?

"Yes. Again, why?"

"You shouldn't too often. That combination is brutal on your liver."

"Thank you, Doctor Emrys, for your valuable advice." Arthur turned to Merlin to roll his eyes at him, but when he saw the kid's face, it was wistful.

They chopped in silence for a while, until Merlin blurted out, "So, really, why are you here? I don't think you're actually homeless."

Arthur told Merlin about his father's punishment for Arthur's cock-ups at uni.

Merlin seemed unimpressed. "So, I was right. Must be nice. What were the chocolates for, then?"

"Originally? I tried to bribe Gwen with them. I thought maybe she might let me hide in a staff room or something."

Merlin laughed out loud. "Not very bright for a uni kid then, are you?"

"Apparently."

Merlin's gaze shifted, became calculating. He backed Arthur into the stainless steel counter and rested one of his long-fingered hands on Arthur's belt. "Why'd you give 'em to me, then?"

Arthur shrugged. He wasn't sure himself.

"Were you hoping to...persuade me into something?"

Arthur brought both hands to Merlin's chest and gently pushed him away. "I...no. I couldn't."

Merlin's calculated look became uglier, almost disappointed. "No, of course you couldn't. Not good enough for a golden prick like yours, am I right?"

Arthur caught Merlin's elbow as the boy made to leave the kitchen. "Did you open them?"

Merlin yanked his arm away. "Did I open what?"

"The chocolates."

"No. I was going to..." Merlin trailed off, the harsh angles of his face softening. He really had the most mercurial face, Arthur thought. Punk with attitude one moment, childlike the next.

"What?"

"I was going to save them. Bring some down to the guys I know by the docks."

"One of those guys the one that gave you that shiner?" Arthur demanded. "Because those were for you, not your pimp."

"I don't have a pimp," he snarled. "Unless you'd like the job? Bet a guy like you has loads of bi-curious mates with money to spend."

"Jesus Christ, will you stop it?"

"Or what? You'll throw your carrots at me?"

"Never mind."

They chopped in irritated silence for a while, Arthur moving on to the tomatoes while Merlin took on the celery. He didn't try to leave again.

"One of them's my uncle," Merlin said, eventually.

"What?"

"One of the guys down by the docks. He's my uncle. I lived with him after mum got sick when I was in sixth form."

"Sorry."

"It was hard, but I finished lower sixth down here with him. I was doing well, too."

Arthur looked over. "What happened?"

"He's a chemist, but he sold alternative medicine too. Herbs, and stuff that he grew himself, if you know what I mean. He got shut down, and at his age he couldn't find more work. Couldn't afford our flat, even with me working after school. So we ended up..."

"...by the docks," Arthur finished.

"Eventually. Plus my mum died. Got pretty depressed, stopped going to school. I just...couldn't, you know?"

Arthur didn't know, not by a long shot, but he didn't want to spook Merlin into shutting down again.

"Uncle Gaius put me on the register for this place almost right away, but there's always a wait list," Merlin finished.

"What did you do in the meantime?" Why did no one help you? he wanted to ask instead.

Merlin laughed. "I don't think a nice boy like you wants the details, Arthur."

Arthur didn't want the details, but he could guess. He'd heard about such things. He watched Law & Order even before they made the shit British version. He'd never actually met someone who had lived it, though. A person, with an uncle and a dead mum and good grades in school and blood that seeped out of a cut above his eye, the same as anyone else's would.

--

Arthur was finishing up a story about one of his batty lecturers at university when they finally finished chopping the vegetables. Merlin was looking at him with an expression that could only be described as longing. It only took a few moments for Arthur to realise that the longing wasn't directed at him, but at the idea of going to university. From their conversation alone, it was apparent that Merlin was a quick-witted boy under his mocking, bitter exterior.

"You really should be in school," Arthur blurted out.

Merlin tossed a cucumber slice at Arthur's face. "That's why I'm here. Try to scrape together some A-levels, get myself into a course somewhere." He looked down at his shoes. "I already have one AS in Religious Studies. But I can't live like this much longer, and neither can Uncle Gaius."

Arthur said nothing, just threw a tomato wedge in retaliation for the cucumber. It hit Merlin on the cheek, causing him to laugh. It was a very pretty laugh, Arthur thought, and he was really in trouble if he was going to start referring to boys' laughter as pretty.

"I'd like to be a doctor," Merlin added. "It's daft, I know, but I was always good at science."

"It's not daft," Arthur protested, even though he knew it probably was daft. Homeless street kid to doctor? The odds weren't in his favour.

"Don't humour me."

"I'm not."

Merlin sighed. "I'm not that far behind, you know. I'm doing great in chemistry and biology, but the maths is kicking my arse."

"I got an A in maths," Arthur blurted out. Well, it was true; he did.

"Then there must be hope for me after all, if an idiot like you can make an A," Merlin scoffed.

--

After lunch, Merlin disappeared, presumably joining another class. For all his posturing, he really did seem to take his studies seriously.

Arthur sat in on group therapy, something that made him deeply uncomfortable and he was sure it shouldn't even be allowed but apparently his father requested he have the full experience, so here he was. It's not like he had any need for counselling. Well, he did have the whole dead mother thing, but loads of people had dead mothers. Including Merlin, and including a lot of the kids currently taking turns speaking. Some of them without dead mothers would have been better off if they had. One of them had been sold--sold by her mother into marriage with a much older man, and had run away. Another had been abused by her mother's pimp. Fathers weren't off the hook, though. Thrown out for being gay, thrown out for doing drugs, thrown out for resisting molestation.

Arthur thought of Uther Pendragon, with his ridiculously high expectations and his punishments and his disappointment, and remembered how he had tossed Arthur in the air when they went swimming, or how he had taught him to shoot a rifle, drive a car, and balance a chequebook.

To think that just last night, he had been convinced his father was the evilest sort of sadist for making Arthur sleep here.

When it was his turn to speak, Arthur found that he wanted to say so many things. He wanted to blurt out that he was really sorry they all had been so fucked over. He wanted to throw a big party, with lots of food and free tee-shirts, and invite them all so they could use his pool and drink from the top-shelf for once. He wanted to tell them he didn't belong here, and he felt ridiculous, and he also wanted to shout out that he was so fucking lucky and glad he could go home tonight and he knew it.

Instead, he mumbled something about it being his fault his mother died, and that he drank too much and didn't know what to do about it. Both were true enough on the surface.

In the back of his mind, though, he was starting to get an idea.

--

After therapy (and Arthur swore he would never, ever plonk on an assignment again if it meant he didn't need to do that again), Arthur hung around the common room, waiting until Gwen finished up her intake on another hollow-eyed kid. When she had shown the girl to the dormitories, Arthur approached her.

"I don't want your chocolates, Mr. Pendragon," she insisted again.

"No, I know. I was just wondering if, well, if you needed anyone to help with maths mentoring? Merlin said he was having trouble, and I got an A on my maths A level and I'm studying business now and I could come down and help maybe?" He said it all in a rush.

Gwen looked at him sharply for a long moment. She must have judged him to be sincere, because she smiled briefly and clapped him on the shoulder. "You know, I believe we could use a maths mentor. I have to admit I'm a bit surprised, though."

Arthur swallowed. "You and me both."

"Would you mind staying a little later tonight, until after dinner? Red does the volunteer scheduling. We'll work something out with him."

"Red?"

"Yeah, Mark. We call him Red, though, what with being a communist and all. Never goes anywhere without his Quotations from Chairman Mao."

--
Arthur kept himself busy for the rest of the day, first helping Hew, the janitor, replace a cubicle wall, and then sticking labels on envelopes intended for a donations drive. He was about to go mad from boredom when Merlin stormed into the little conference room he was working in. He had the angry face back on, except now the effect was much less don't fuck with me and much more pat me on the head and pinch my cheeks. Or maybe that was just Arthur.

"What is this?" he demanded, shoving a handful of tenners in Arthur's face.

Apparently, Merlin had opened the chocolates.

"Look," Arthur started. "It's nothing, I just--"

Merlin cut him off. "Nothing? Must be nice that a hundred quid is nothing! If I wanted your money, I would have taken it when I had the chance."

Arthur shook his head. "You're not a thief."

Merlin laughed. "Yes, I am. I'm a thief, a liar, and a whore, depending on how hungry I am that day."

Arthur caught his eye. He was beginning to suspect Merlin talked bigger than he lived. "You eat here, so I assume you mean depending on how hungry your uncle is."

Merlin threw the notes at Arthur, orange-tinted Queen Elizabeths raining around him, and whirled around to leave.

"Wait, Merlin!" Arthur called out. He bent down and gathered the money back up, pressed the crinkled mass into Merlin's hands. "Look. I want you to have it. Go buy your Uncle Gaius some food. Get yourself some new shoes, or whatever you want."

Merlin looked down at their joined hands, covered in ten pound notes. "Why?" he asked, his voice tinged with suspicion. "If you don't want me to--"

Arthur didn't reply, but his eyes raked up and down Merlin's form involuntarily. Merlin's gaze became knowing.

"So, you do want me to--"

"No."

"Liar." Merlin breathed the word into the narrow space between their faces.

Arthur met Merlin's eyes. "Yes," he admitted. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to do anything about it." And wasn't that a surprise? "Now," he folded Merlin's hands around the notes, "you keep this, and you work on those maths. In a few years' time, I want to walk into A&E after a pub brawl and find you patching me up."

Merlin stuffed the money in his pocket, a small smile tugging at his lips.

--

Arthur said goodbye to the Centrepoint hostel after dinner, a mentoring timetable in his pocket. Most of the residents didn't even acknowledge his departure, but Merlin waved at him with an expression on his face that very nearly approached "fond" and might have had a touch of "sad" in there as well. Arthur didn't offer to stay in touch. He knew he would be back to volunteer at least a few times to see if he was any use. He didn't tell Merlin he'd be back, though. Arthur wasn't sure how he would take the news, but he'd find out soon enough.

His car had been right where he left it, unmolested. That night, Arthur met Leon and Gawain for drinks, but he begged off early, claiming he hadn't been able to sleep at the hostel. It was true enough. When Leon and Gawain pressed him for details, Arthur was vague. He couldn't make a joke out of those kids, not even Merlin.

Especially not Merlin.

He did tell Morgana about it, though, and for once, she didn't have a single scathing remark. Instead, she rallied a bunch of her activist friends and within three days, one of the local charities was delivering hot food to the men down by the docks.

Arthur's father rung up two days after he left the hostel to tell him he had heard Arthur had volunteered for mentoring, and that he was proud of him. Arthur stayed in that evening to work on his assignment. Leon and Gawain must have thought Arthur had gone a little mad, no doubt from some traumatic experience at the hostel, but as long as Arthur let them use his Xbox and his Wii, and Morgana kept walking around in low-cut tops, they didn't complain too much.

--

When Arthur returned to the hostel late the following week, he had a rucksack full of grid paper and pencils and a graphing calculator, along with some of his old notes and a bunch of Cadbury's. Gwen had rung him to confirm the time, and agreed that he should help out Merlin with his maths work.

"He does really well in his other subjects," Gwen confided. "He's so good we have to send him down to the college for their classes. We couldn't keep up with him, here."

"Not that you'd know it," Arthur remarked.

Gwen paused for a beat. "Merlin's had a lot to deal with. He's really a good kid, despite his talk."

"Yeah," Arthur replied. "Anyway, should I bring anything on Tuesday?"

Gwen had told him to bring whatever he thought would be useful for studying maths, and told him she'd see him soon.

The grim building didn't worry him as much this time, though he still said a small prayer to whatever minor deity protected prized automobiles that his car would be safe again. He strode in through the glass doors when Gwen buzzed him in, and looked around.

Gwen stepped out from behind the desk, much less frazzled than the last time he had been here. Arthur had learned that his visit had caused quite the stir among staff eager to please their board member, and eager to secure the patronage of Uther Pendragon. Gwen, it seemed, had been one of those opposed to his little field trip. No wonder she hadn't been exactly receptive, but he must have risen in her estimation, judging by the smile she gave him when she held out her hand.

Arthur took her hand, and instead of shaking it, he kissed it, which made Gwen stammer.

"Arthur," she greeted him. "Welcome back."

"Thanks."

Gwen led him to the table where he had eaten that first, awful curry. "I've got some paperwork for you to fill out here. We have all our volunteers do it, just the usual confidentiality and indemnity agreements you fill out whenever you volunteer somewhere."

Arthur nodded, pretending to know what she meant. He'd never actually volunteered anywhere before.

After he filled out his forms and signed his name in eight different places, Arthur handed the paperwork back to Gwen, who pointed him toward one of the small rooms that lined the back of the building. "Merlin's waiting for you," Gwen told him. "He'll probably piss and moan and argue that he doesn't want your help, but I'll tell you a secret. He lit up like a Christmas tree when I told him you were going to mentor him."

A unexpected wave of affection settled over Arthur as he made his way to the classroom on the left. When he opened the door, Merlin looked up from his books, a pencil dangling from his mouth. He didn't smile, but Arthur didn't expect he would. Merlin was protective of his hard-edged, bratty exterior. Arthur could tell that after only having known him a day.

"Hey," Arthur greeted him. "Eye's almost normal again, huh?"

Merlin grunted in response, then scowled down at the papers in front of him.

"What?" Arthur teased. "Aren't you glad to see me? It's been almost two weeks since you had a rich daddy's boy to tell off."

Merlin looked up as if startled. Arthur winked at him, and he could have sworn he saw a smile form on Merlin's lips. His lovely, very full lips. Arthur started to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all, but then, were there rules against this sort of thing? He probably should have read those papers he just signed a little more closely. After tossing his rucksack on the table, Arthur grabbed a chair, spun it around, and sat on it backwards. "So, what are we working on tonight?"

Merlin took the pencil out of his mouth. "Differential equations."

Arthur dug through his bag to find the appropriate notes. He still had them, even three years later, because his father had drilled the importance of being organised into his head from the time he was in nursery school. He used to have to file his finger paintings, for crying out loud. He also took out the chocolate, and offered one of the bars to Merlin.

He took it easily enough, although his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What is it with you and chocolate, man? You know I'm easy, right?"

Arthur whacked Merlin over the head with his pad of paper. "There is nothing about you that is easy, Merlin. Now, let's focus."

--

Arthur volunteered at the hostel twice a week for a month, during which Merlin made solid progress on his maths. His prickliness came and went, but Arthur was beginning to see a pattern to it. Merlin was quieter and less angry when he had been down to the docks to see his uncle. Merlin the Twat came out when he was feeling sorry for himself, or worse, was feeling inadequate next to Arthur. Arthur, who clearly had a life most people envied, even if his partying ratio was way down and Sophia had stopped ringing him up for casual sex.

Leon rang him up one evening when Arthur was correcting the last week's assignments. Merlin was quieting working on coordinate geometry.

Arthur glanced apologetically at Merlin, and then picked up the call.

"'Lo."

"Hey, Arthur. I can't find your other Wii mote, and Gawain and I wanna play Mario Kart. You know where it is?"

"Um, try under the settee?"

He heard vague shuffling as Leon presumably searched under the settee. "Victory!" Leon crowed. Arthur went to hang up when Leon asked where he was.

"I'm at the hostel right now; I told you yesterday, man," Arthur reminded him.

"Right. Mate, I don't even recognise you anymore. You drink half as much. You're helping punks with their homework, and you barely have time for video games anymore. You're probably rocking all your essays, too, aren't you?"

"Not hardly," Arthur scoffed, although, were the truth known, he was doing much better on most of his assignments. The ones he wasn't doing much better on were those that tended to be due the morning after a mentoring night.

When he ended the call, he looked up to see Merlin looking at him curiously.

"Who was that?" he asked.

Arthur wanted to tell him it was none of his business, but Merlin was in a good mood right from that off that evening, and Arthur was loathe to ruin it. So he answered honestly. "That was one of my mates. He couldn't find one of the controllers to my Wii."

"Oh."

"Yeah. It was under the settee, though."

"I heard."

They went back to their work in silence for a bit, until Merlin spoke up again. "Do you let your friends into your flat when you're not home?" he asked.

Arthur shrugged. "Morgana's there. My stepsister. We share the flat. And anyway, if I'm not going to use it, someone else may as well, right?" he asked.

"Right. Wait, did you say your stepsister was Morgana?"

"Yeah."

"The same Morgana who I met when she was interviewing the guys down at the canal for some sort of advocacy editorial on homelessness? The one who brings the food sometimes?" Merlin's tone was undecipherable.

Arthur flushed. "Yeah, so? Is that a problem?"

Merlin looked at him unblinking for a long moment before biting his lower lip and lowering his eyes. "No, it's not a problem. It's..."

"What?"

"It's really, you know, good. Of you."

"Of Morgana."

"She come up with the idea on her own, then?"

Arthur didn't answer.

Merlin chewed his pencil again for a few seconds. "Uncle Gaius has been doing a lot better," Merlin said, finally. "He had gotten so frail for a while, but he seems better now."

"I'm glad," Arthur replied, twisting his watch around his wrist.

"Me too," Merlin agreed.

After another pause, Merlin spoke again. "So, Morgana is your step-sister. No wonder you have so many friends."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"I just mean, you know," Merlin mumbled, and held his hands out in front of his chest.

"Merlin!" Arthur barked. "That's my stepsister you're talking about!"

Merlin slouched. "It's not my fault she's well fit."

"I didn't realise you swung that way," Arthur mused. "I could have sworn..."

"I'll swing whichever way fills my stomach. With food, I mean," Merlin drawled.

Arthur heard that familiar tone, so much less common these days, and sighed. "Why do you do that?"

Merlin shrugged a slim shoulder.

"If you won't answer me, I'll tell you why I think you do it."

"Enlighten me then, rich boy."

Arthur opened his mouth to start his diatribe, but something in Merlin's face stopped him. It was that same longing look he got when Arthur spoke of university, or of his horse growing up, or of the trips his father took him on. That same longing look when Arthur spoke of his flat, his friends, his video games.

Instead, he asked, "What do you do on weekends?"

Merlin frowned at the change in subject. "Not much. See how far out I can get on the train without being caught without a ticket. Homework. Visit Uncle Gaius. Maybe watch some telly."

"But you're allowed to leave the hostel?"

Merlin looked at him like he was stupid. "It's not exactly jail, you know. None of us here have done anything worth locking us up over."

Arthur raised an eyebrow.

"Okay," Merlin conceded. "None of us have been caught doing anything worth locking us up over."

Arthur nodded to himself. Right. "Tell me, Merlin, have you ever played Mario Kart?"

--

That weekend, Arthur drove to the hostel, picked Merlin up, and drove them back to his flat. Merlin had very nearly dressed up for the occasion, wearing his best tee shirt, his least ragged jeans, not that that was saying much, and his new trainers that he admitted to buying with some of the cash Arthur had given him that day at the hostel.

Arthur teased him about his clothes until his ears turned red. "Hoping Morgana will be there, Merlin?"

"No," Merlin huffed from the passenger seat. "She's out of my league, anyway."

Arthur patted Merlin on the shoulder, noticing how the skin beneath his palm rippled with goose flesh. "She's out of everyone's league. Don't feel too bad about it."

As it happened, Merlin had never played on a Wii before, but he learned quickly. They played Mario Kart, then endless games of tennis. When Morgana came home with Chinese takeway and enough beer to make a football team die of alcohol poisoning, Merlin almost swallowed his tongue and would barely lift his eyes past his shoes. Morgana managed to get him talking again over dinner, and then the three of them played Rock Band until they were so exhausted and drunk (well, Arthur and Morgana were drunk; Arthur only let Merlin have two beers) that they sprawled together on the floor in front of the television.

"Shit," Arthur mumbled. "The hostel..."

Merlin stretched his arms over his head so that his shirt rode up exposing his belly. Arthur studiously pretended not to notice this, and instead dialed the hostel's number on his mobile while Merlin protested that it was hardly the first time he's stayed out all night.

When Red/Stewey answered, Arthur told him that he and Merlin had worked on maths all afternoon and then lost track of time playing video games, and would it be okay if Arthur drove Merlin back the next morning, since it was so late?

Red said it was fine. The staff at Centrepoint had warmed up quite a bit to Arthur in his time there. The monthly donations from his father probably helped, too.

"Sorry guys," Morgana began. "But I have to go to bed. We have a rally tomorrow morning and I need to be there early to make signs." With that, Morgana stumbled out of the room towards her bedroom, leaving Merlin and Arthur sitting close together on the floor.

Merlin broke the silence. "Thank you," he started.

"What for?" Arthur was drunk and spoke without thinking.

"For, you know, all of this," Merlin said, sweeping his arm around the room. "You do these things, and you never want something back."

And there was something Arthur still didn't quite understand. He'd never felt bad about using someone before. Oh, he usually made sure his partners had a good time, even when it was a one-night only thing, but he didn't usually turn down a pretty face when it was so obviously available, either.

Closing his eyes, Arthur imagined how easy it would be to ask for something back. Merlin didn't think he deserved any of this. It would be so easy to get Merlin on his knees, sucking his cock out of obligation if not gratitude. It made Arthur vaguely ill to consider, even as his body responded to the image of those full lips wrapped around his cock, that dark head sliding back and forth as he took him all the way down his throat. He'd wanted it since that first confrontation in the hostel, and he was pretty sure Merlin wanted it, too. Really wanted it, not just talk.

He wanted Merlin out of the hostel more than that, though. "You rock those A-levels, and you can consider me repaid in full," he told him, holding out his hand. "Deal?"

Merlin looked down at Arthur's hand for a second before grabbing it. "Deal," he agreed, and then shocked the hell out of Arthur when he used his grasp to pull Arthur into a hug.

"What are you doing?" Arthur blurted out.

"I'm hugging you; don't have a heart attack."

Arthur smiled, and let himself hug Merlin back. He made Merlin sleep in his room that night, while Arthur took the settee. When he went to wake up Merlin the next morning, he found him in the bath, surrounded with bubbles.

"Sorry," Merlin said sheepishly. "It's just, my mum used to put bubbles in the bath, and it's been ages since I even had access to a bathtub, and..."

Arthur couldn't help being charmed. Who could resist the site of Merlin with bubbles in his hair? "It's fine. How do you want your eggs cooked?"

--

Arthur continued to mentor Merlin as winter gave way to spring. Merlin was doing much better in maths, and was getting into fewer fights. His regular teacher was full of glowing praise for Arthur, relayed via Gwen.

He took Merlin places, too. The cinema a few times. A football match that Merlin didn't even pretend to care about. Out for burgers. Nothing too extravagant, and not every weekend, because that would probably raise some eyebrows at the hostel. It would probably also end up with Arthur conceding defeat and putting Merlin's surly mouth to better use if he had too much time alone with the kid. For whatever reason, Arthur just couldn't.

Some said Arthur was a changed young man, which was mostly true. He completed his assignments on time, and he worked with Merlin at the hostel, hardly ever missing a twice-weekly session. In fact, as the term wore on, he spent additional evenings with Merlin, pushing away at formulas and statistics and geometry. Merlin didn't belong in some homeless hostel. He belonged at a university, where he would continue on the path he had set out for himself before things all went to hell through no fault of his own. Arthur meant to see that happen, or die trying. Most of the time.

Some nights, though, he just wanted to get drunk and maybe a little stoned with Leon and Gawain. They were still his best mates, and community service could only change a person so far. It didn't make him a terrible person, or anything.

They were just stumbling back to Arthur's flat from their local one night when Arthur noticed Merlin sitting on the steps to his flat. He was in the skinny jeans again, with the oversized hoodie and the once-new trainers that were growing scuffed from so much wear. He looked up, saw Arthur, and smiled.

Arthur disentangled himself from the grip of Leon and Gawain, who were singing a particularly bawdy rugby song, and rushed up ahead to where Merlin sat. "Hey, kid!" Arthur called out in greeting. "Wassup?"

Merlin's face started to fall, but before he could reply, he heard Gawain yell. "Hey, who's the chav?"

"Shut it, Gawain," Arthur hissed.

"No, really. He looks like a rent boy. Wanna suck my cock, pretty boy?" Gawain was one of those drunks that found gay sex endlessly fascinating, only to deny it all the next morning. Arthur loved him; they had been mates for ages. But right now he wanted nothing more than for Gawain to knock himself unconscious or to have never been born or something similarly overdramatic.

Before Arthur could do anything, Merlin's expression hardened, and he threw a malicious grin at Gawain. "No, but I bet your friend here would," he yelled back, nodding toward Arthur. "He's cheap, though. Pays with chocolate, and chocolate doesn't do much besides give you spots."

Leon roared with laughter at that. Merlin hunched his shoulders underneath his hoodie and took off into the darkness.

The pavement was tilting beneath Arthur's feet as he tried to figure out a way to salvage the situation. He turned to go after Merlin, and Gawain laughed. "That kid just called you a poof, mate! Aren't you gonna go after him?"

"That kid," Arthur ground out, "is Merlin. The student I'm mentoring." That brought Leon and Gawain up short. Shortish. Short for drunk dickheads. Arthur took one look at them, falling over each other, and made up his mind. He turned the direction Merlin had gone in.

"Merlin? The homeless kid?" Leon asked. "The kid-who-tried-to-lift-your-wallet-and conned-you-into-mentoring-him Merlin?"

Arthur was seething as he started walking. He hadn't told his friends much about Merlin. They were good guys, but he knew they wouldn't understand. Arthur didn't understand himself half the time.

"What the fuck, mate?" Leon called after him. "At least let us in!"

"Are you bailing on us for that little prick?" Gawain protested. "What the fuck is wrong with you? What happened to Bros Before Hos?"

Arthur threw his keys over his shoulder. "There," he yelled. "Go inside and get sober before you ruin anything else!"

He took off at a run. He was sobering up quickly, panic and guilt and exercise and fresh air all conspiring against the alcohol, and the more sober he got, the shittier he felt.

It wasn't long before he caught up with Merlin, who was still walking, still hunched over. Arthur slowed to a jog, then to a walk alongside him.

"They're complete prats," Arthur started. "Even when they're sober, they're prats. When they're drunk--when we're drunk-- we're completely vile."

Merlin didn't say anything.

"I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that," Arthur tried again, willing Merlin to look at him. Merlin just shrugged. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

Arthur heard Merlin sigh. "They're letting me sit for my exams," Merlin said in an uncharacteristically small voice. "I wanted to tell you about it, and you weren't answering your mobile."

That explained the eight missed calls on his mobile. "How'd you get here?"

"I blew a guy in exchange for a lift," Merlin cracked, but he didn't put much bite into it.

"Don't."

"I took the train. Even bought a ticket this time."

The footpath was dark, the nearest streetlight far enough away that only the vaguest sodium-orange light illuminated Merlin's face as he finally turned to look at Arthur. Arthur was shocked to see that Merlin's face was wet. Without thinking, he reached out and brushed his fingers over the skin beneath Merlin's eyes, wiping the tears away.

"I'm sorry," Arthur whispered again. He cradled the back of Merlin's head with one hand, and slid the other around his waist, pressing him into a tight hug. Merlin didn't resist at all, not when Arthur hugged him so tightly he was sure to be suffocating him, and he didn't resist when Arthur slid his mouth against his, lightly, as if asking. Merlin parted his lips under Arthur's, and suddenly Arthur was kissing him deeply, running his tongue over Merlin's lower lip, between his teeth, up along his palate until Merlin's voice caught in the back of his throat and both of his hands were buried in Arthur's hair.

Arthur was the first to pull away, and something on his face must have given his thoughts away, because Merlin looked like he wanted to cry again. "Don't," he whispered. "Don't you dare tell me you don't mean it."

"I--" Arthur began, but he couldn't finish. Of course he meant it. Goddammit. He lowered his head away from Merlin's knowing eyes.

"Not yet," Arthur tried again, and when Merlin started to protest he pressed his fingers, gentle, to Merlin's mouth to shut him up. "Not now." It was so difficult, denying him. For the last few months, Arthur had been only a few syllables away from inviting Merlin to come live on his sofa, to persuade his father to find some menial job for Merlin's uncle, to take him shopping on Arthur's platinum card and give him everything he deserved to have instead of a narrow bunk in a hostel and a dufflebag full of his only possessions.

He couldn't, though. Merlin might have talked big, but he was no whore, and Arthur wouldn't make him into one, not even in a roundabout way.

"When, then?' Merlin asked, plaintive.

Arthur bit his lip. Never, he should say. You deserve more than a less drunk but still pampered uni student who takes advantage of a homeless kid. He knew it to be a lie, though, so instead, he took a deep breath and said, "When you've got those As in your hand, maybe we can give it a go."

Merlin frowned and tried to shrug out of Arthur's arms. "What? Am I not good enough for you like this?"

"You're plenty good enough, Merlin," Arthur promised. "Pretty soon, you'll be far too good for someone like me."

"How is that any better?"

Arthur ran a finger down Merlin's cheek. "It's better for you." Merlin had had it rough, but he was so smart, and he worked so hard. He made Arthur feel ashamed for how easily things had some to him in his life.

"Well, then," Merlin began, shoving his hands in the pocket of his hoodie. "I guess I'd better keep working." He didn't sound terribly pleased about it, but he wasn't running away, either.

--

Arthur patched things up with Gawain and Leon shortly afterward. Both of them were good guys, if a bit spoiled, and Arthur thought they genuinely regretted acting like douchebags to Merlin. The next time Arthur had Merlin over, he invited them too, and enjoyed watching both of them letting Merlin beat them at Mario Kart.

The end of term saw Arthur an exhausted mess as he struggled to revise for his own exams while still coaching Merlin harder than ever. Merlin would be sitting his exams in just a few weeks, and Arthur was beginning to think his life's happiness rested on Merlin's ability to get into a university course. The thought probably should have alarmed him more, but there it was.

Of course, Merlin wasn't going about it the usual way. Usually, for a spot in medicine, you had to apply by October. Merlin hadn't been anywhere near ready to apply then, so he'd be taking an enforced gap year regardless of his results. If his results were good enough, he'd apply to a medicine course the October coming. If they weren't, he'd apply to a different course.

Merlin sat the A-levels just after Arthur's last lecture. Arthur drove him to the testing location each day, and waited outside while Merlin wrote his exams. Merlin was subdued after each one, not wanting to debrief at all. "If I start realising what I did wrong," Merlin explained in the car, "I may start cutting again."

"You never cut yourself, you twat," Arthur countered, shifting gears. "That's something you made up for group therapy."

"You know me too well," Merlin said, pouting.

And that, Arthur Pendragon thought, was one of the truest things Merlin Emrys ever said.

--

Over the summer, Merlin remained at the hostel. Arthur still came over often, when he wasn't on holidays, and together they helped Gwen with office work and chopped a few piles of vegetables for old times' sake. Their understanding remained mostly unspoken, for the most part, but both were looking forward to 20 August with excitement, anxiety, and not a little bit of lust.

"You're so weird," Merlin drawled one day as they sorted through postage.

"How so?" Arthur asked, one eye on the wall-mounted television. Arsenal was on.

"Your whole "waiting" thing," Merlin made air quotes at that. "Leon said you used to pull every weekend. Boys, girls, whatever came easy."

Arthur tore his eyes away from the game. "So?" he challenged.

"So, the first night I met you I offered to suck you off. Even before you gave me the chocolate. I'm pretty sure I offered on at least a weekly basis for months."

Had he ever. "And?" he huffed.

"Well, you've never taken me up on it. Why them but not me?" Merlin almost sounded hurt.

"They weren't like you," Arthur said.

"And what am I like?"

"You're..." Brilliant. Important. "Special," he finished, lamely.

Merlin flopped his arms down on the table and rolled his eyes, while Arthur pretended not to notice how his thin, black tee-shirt hugged his wiry arms. "I'm special?"

"Yes. Special," Arthur insisted, and then gave Merlin a noogie.

--

For all Arthur's odd dedication to only being friends until Merlin's results came in, they did slip up a few times. The first time was when Arthur had a barbecue at his father's house and invited Merlin. Merlin had pretended not to be completely gobsmacked by the ridiculous display of largess that was Pendragon Manor, and had managed to be only slightly sullen and withdrawn in front of Arthur's friends. That is, until Uther had shown up and pumped Merlin's hand enthusiastically.

"Mr. Emrys!" Uther bellowed. "What a pleasure to meet you at last. You saved my boy's life, you know."

"Father!" Arthur groaned, while Merlin just blinked, bemused.

"Well, it's true, Arthur. You were a disaster until you met this young man." Uther gestured with his glass. "I understand you want to be a doctor, is that right, Merlin?"

Arthur ignored the urge to swoop in and save Merlin from his father, instead watching the scene with growing interest.

"Yes sir, that's right," Merlin replied in a voice that was almost steady.

"You know, I used to shoot with the Dean of Medicine at Arthur's university," Uther added. "Did Arthur mention that?"

"No, sir."

"Because I didn't know myself," Arthur interjected.

"Yes, well," Uther continued. "Once you have your results, have Arthur remind me to ring him up. It won't get you in, but it would be good for them to know who you are."

"Thank you," Merlin replied, sounding like he was at a loss.

"And what will you be doing for your gap year?" Uther continued. "Arthur spent his in Australia, didn't you, Arthur?"

"Um, yes?"

Arthur knew that Merlin wasn't quite sure what he would be doing for his gap year. He thought he might get a job, try to help out his uncle. If he earned enough, maybe he could get a bedsit or a room in a flat so he could leave the hostel.

"I thought I might get a job," Merlin stammered in response to Uther's question.

"Someone who values hard work. Excellent." Uther swallowed the rest of his beer, as if he had ever held a job that didn't have "CEO" in the title, and gestured to Arthur. "Arthur's godfather works in the pharmaceutical industry, you know. We could ring him up, find out if one of his laboratories needs any help over the summer."

Merlin nodded, wordlessly, as Uther shook his hand again and then took off back toward the house. When he was out of earshot, Merlin turned to Arthur.

"Did your father just offer to help me get a job?" Merlin asked with a laugh of disbelief. "And if so, why did you take so long to introduce me?"

"Sounded like it to me," Arthur said with a grin. "And I didn't want to distract you from your exams with exciting thoughts of menial labour and minimum wage."

"I applied for so many jobs last year," Merlin reflected. "None of them wanted me, then."

Arthur pulled Merlin by the elbow until they were hidden from view behind a gardening shed. He wanted to hug him again. In absence of shagging Merlin's brains out, Arthur had resorted to hugging him. All the time. It was ridiculous, and Morgana had mocked him for it, but he didn't care.

This time, when Arthur went to hug Merlin, Merlin resisted. "It's not very fair, is it?" Merlin asked, looking a little sad.

"What isn't fair?"

"This. You know, if you know someone important, you don't have to try as hard, don't have to worry as much. Don't have to fight for everything you own. You just have it handed to you."

Arthur pulled Merlin's forehead down to meet his. "No," he began, thoughtfully. "It's really not fair. Life's been unfair for both of us, I think, just in opposite directions. Don't you think it's time it was unfair in your favour for once?"

Merlin's eyes met his for several heartbeats, and without another word he leaned forward to press his lips to Arthur's. Arthur couldn't help himself; he took altogether longer to pull away than he should have. Merlin's lips were lush against his own and all Arthur could think was that he really hoped his father was sincere about getting Merlin a job, because this being mature and honourable shit sucked.

--

The second time they slipped was not nearly as fun.

Arthur was playing footie with some friends when his mobile started ringing incessantly. When he picked it up, Merlin was on the other end. He was almost incomprehensible, so much so that Gwen had to take the phone back from him and explain to Arthur that Gaius had collapsed early that morning. Merlin had found him when he went down to visit him, and had managed to ring for help. He was in hospital now, and Gwen had gone over to sit with Merlin while he waited for the doctors.

"I need to get back to the hostel, though," Gwen admitted. "I would rather stay here with him but I can't look like I play favourites."

"I'm on my way," Arthur said, snapping his phone shut. He grabbed his gear and took off for his car, not bothering to change out of his kit. He made it to St. Clara's in record time, and rushed into the waiting area. Merlin was curled up in a corner seat, his blotchy face resting on his knees. It was hard enough to resist Merlin at the best of times; a miserable, frightened Merlin turned Arthur into a complete sop. Arthur dropped into the seat next to him and wrapped an arm around Merlin's thin shoulders, squeezing him tightly.

"What happened?" Arthur asked. "I couldn't understand you on the phone."

Merlin cleared his throat. His voice sounded raw. "He was unconscious when I got there this morning. I looked for the other guys, but no one was around. I checked for his pulse and his breathing and ran off to find someone with a mobile who could ring 999 for me. The ambulance brought him here, and they called Gwen for me. That's all I know."

Arthur didn't reply, just rubbed his hand between Merlin's shoulder blades, wishing he could do something, anything to make this work out. He wondered if his father had ever gone hunting with God and could put in a phone call. He snorted at the thought, and when Merlin looked at him askance, Arthur said it out loud. It made Merlin smile a little.

"That's better," Arthur said. Merlin let his head tilt onto Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur couldn't help himself. He kissed Merlin right there, in full view of the hospital waiting area, one hand curled into his hair and the other resting on his hip. When he pulled away, Merlin was smiling a little, and Arthur found himself wanting to do whatever he could to keep that expression on Merlin's face.

It didn't last long, as Merlin seemed determined to blame himself. "I could tell he wasn't well the last couple of months. Remember how he was doing better when you first started? He wasn't the same the last few weeks and I've been too wrapped up in exams, and results, and daydreaming to help him."

"It's not your fault," Arthur assured him, hugging him closer.

They waited for what felt like hours for a consultant to come out and update them on Gaius' condition. When she did, she explained that they had found Gaius had uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension, and needed to be admitted whilst they got his blood sugar stabilised and checked his kidneys and other organs for damage.

The day passed in a haze of questions from doctors, questions from nurses, and questions to doctors and nurses. Morgana stopped by after she heard the news from the food delivery team, and not long after that, a lot more doctors and social workers were asking more questions.

"My father," Arthur stated shortly, after a senior doctor came out to talk to them personally.

Merlin was growing tired of questions, Arthur could tell. He became defensive when they asked why Gaius was living on the streets, why he wasn't drawing a pension, why he wasn't living in a group home or some sort of facility. Arthur didn't know why Gaius lived on the streets, other than the fact that he and Merlin had been evicted. This was Britain, after all. His taxes (okay, his father's taxes) were supposed to fund the safety nets that kept things like this from happening.

Whatever had caused Gaius to fall through the cracks, Arthur could see it was about to end. He thought back to Merlin's observation, that it wasn't fair how money and influence could make things happen, but he couldn't get too angry about it. Not when it took so little effort on their parts to make such major differences to others.

The next few days passed in a blur of doctors, phone calls, paperwork, and meetings. Arthur stayed with Merlin for all of them. Merlin wasn't yet eighteen, but he was Gaius' only living family. He had no choice but to be the one people came to with questions, for updates and test results and social worker briefings, even if he couldn't officially serve as next-of-kin until he turned eighteen.

Gaius improved each day, and once they knew he was stable, Arthur took Merlin to stay at his flat near the university. It was a longer drive, but Merlin didn't need to deal with thirty pairs of curious eyes at the hostel. He didn't have many friends there, anyway. He tended to keep to himself, Red had told him once, and when Arthur showed up, he started sticking to Arthur.

Strangely, it actually worked out quite well, if near-death experiences could work out well. Gaius was treated and eventually released. Since he would need assistance, he was given a place in a care home, with a nurse who stopped by twice a day to check on him.

Gaius resisted strongly at first, preferring his difficult but independent life on the street to one where too much of his daily routine was dictated to him. Merlin had persevered, though, convincing Gaius to take the place in the home. If Merlin could put up with living in an institution for his own good, so could Gaius, he argued. Gaius, having run out of arguments, and not willing to hurt Merlin further, moved into the home. He made his carers' lives difficult with his complaining, and the nurses were constantly despairing and threatening to lock him in his room if he kept wandering away for hours at a time, but he was safe, with a roof, food and medicine.

--

20 August got closer and closer, and Merlin grew more and more anxious. Arthur returned from holiday in France the weekend before results, and did his best to distract Merlin that week by having him over for video games and pizza and absolutely no snogging, something which drove him mad but couldn't be helped. Morgana was still on holiday with her girlfriends, and Gwen of all people, with whom she had struck up a friendship when they met at a fundraiser. That left Arthur alone with Merlin, and he knew once they started, he'd have trouble stopping. He hadn't been properly laid in months, not since before Merlin's A-levels. Not for lack of trying, but his heart just hadn't been in it. He'd left more than one disappointed person behind at their local.

Time marched on, though, and while Merlin sat around listening to Arthur's ipod and wringing his hands, Arthur was stealthily making plans for a celebration. Because that was what it was going to be, he was certain, a celebration. He made the reservations, made sure to top up the petrol in his car, and raided his father's wine cellar for a few bottles of hideously expensive wine that Merlin wouldn't be able to tell from a 3 quid bottle from Tesco.

The results were sent to the hostel, and Arthur waited on tenterhooks for the phone call. Merlin had asked him not to be there in person, had told him he would ring from Gwen's phone so they could meet up after the results were in. Gwen had come back from holidays just so she could be there when Merlin got his results; Arthur suspected that there was quite a lot of cake in Merlin's near future.

Arthur waited, and waited, and waited, until finally Gwen's number lit up on his phone.

"What did you get?" Arthur asked without preamble. "If it's all A's, I might have to pour this champagne on you and lick it off, just to give you fair warning."

Silence.

"Well, that's a new one," he heard a woman's voice say. Gwen. Shit.

"Oh, hello, Gwen," Arthur stammered. "I was only kidding. You know how I am."

Gwen snorted. "Arthur, it's not like the entire staff and most of the kids hadn't already figured it out."

"Wait, what?" Arthur thought he had shown remarkable restraint all these months, and yet apparently they all thought he and Merlin were shagging. Which they weren't. And they weren't even bothered by the idea, which made Arthur wonder if he hadn't been a bit silly about the whole thing after all.

"Anyway," Gwen continued, breezy, "someone here would like to share some news with you."

Merlin's voice came through the phone. "I made 3 A's. I MADE THREE A's, ARTHUR!"

Arthur couldn't stop himself from jumping up and down like a child. They had done it. Well, Merlin had done it mostly, but Arthur had helped, and now Merlin would be going to university. He'd study medicine, and become a doctor, and he'd never have to wonder where he would sleep or eat, and he'd never have to suck anyone off for money, or joke about sucking anyone off for money to be more accurate, and most importantly, Arthur could now shag him stupid without feeling quite so dirty. That last point was probably the least significant, but it was the only one Arthur could really focus on at the moment.

"Arthur?" Merlin asked. "You there?"

"Yeah, I'm here. I'm just..."

"What?"

"I'm just really happy," he finished.

"Yeah."

"Anyway. Have any big plans this evening?" Arthur feigned nonchalance.

"Let's see. I have an hour free between seven and eight, but otherwise my diary seems to be full. Bad chicken at six, Doctor Who DVD in the common room at eight, and at nine I seem to have a lengthy appointment with clothes washing. Did you have something in mind?"

"I do indeed, but I am afraid you'll have to clear your diary for this, straight through until tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Merlin didn't sound that surprised. Intrigued, maybe?

"Yes. Tomorrow," Arthur confirmed. "Pack your rucksack. I'll be there in an hour."

--

Merlin didn't even ask where they were going, just let Arthur drive. They were headed in the opposite direction of Arthur's flat. It wasn't the way to Gaius' care home, or even to Pendragon Manor. After about an hour, the landscape started to change, the hills starting to roll gently, and suburbia gave way to countryside.

Arthur pulled off the motorway at Oxford, guiding his Audi down London Road, into the city. He was pretty sure Merlin had never been to Oxford before; had never seen Christopher Wren's theatre, or Tom Tower. Arthur had, back when he had tried for a place at Keble College, but his results hadn't been quite good enough. Merlin's, though...Merlin's might be good enough. Oxford wasn't precisely known for its equitable access; students from comprehensives had difficulty getting in, never mind students from special programs for homeless street kids. But Arthur had poked around on Google, and found that several of the university's colleges, mostly the newer ones, participated in a variety of schemes for students like Merlin.

Arthur made his way over to Parks Road and parked the car. Merlin got out without a word, following Arthur's lead. Arthur grabbed a bag and a blanket out of the boot, and together they walked through the gates of the University Parks.

It was sunny, and warm, and the ducks were out on the river. Arthur spread out the blanket, and Merlin helped find rocks to hold down the corners. When they were situated, Arthur pulled out a bottle of champagne and two plastic cups.

"Classy," Merlin commented.

"Shut it, you," Arthur replied as he popped the cork. He passed a cup to Merlin before taking up his own.

"I'd like to propose a toast," Arthur said, raising his cup. "To Merlin Emrys, the smartest annoying twat I have ever had the pleasure of mentoring."

Merlin tilted his cup to return the salute. "To Arthur Pendragon, the least obnoxious rich kid I never sucked off."

"I'm not sure I want to drink to that, but what the hell," Arthur said, taking a sip.

Merlin took a sip of his own, coughing a bit at the bubbles.

Arthur grinned, and slid a hand into Merlin's hair to bring their faces closer together. "I'm really happy for you."

Merlin nodded. "I keep thinking I'll wake up soon and it will be last week, and there will be no results, or...or, worse, it will be last November, and I never actually met you, and I was still hating maths and didn't actually believe this could ever happen," he confided.

Arthur pulled Merlin close. "This is real," he promised. "You did it."

"Yes," Merlin agreed. "I guess I did."

As they finished their wine, Arthur brought out the chocolates, the same brand of Belgian chocolate that had started this whole non-affair.

Merlin had an eye for detail; he recognised the brand right away and carefully slid the lid off. "No cash?" he teased.

"Wanker."

They walked around town after the finished their wine and chocolate. Banbury Road to St. Giles to Broad Street, Merlin taking in the views from every angle. Term hadn't begun, of course; there was nary a gowned cyclist to be seen, but they'd gone into Christ College, and Merton College, and Merlin kept pointing out buildings he recognised from Harry Potter or the Golden Compass, which were both included in the hostel's small DVD collection.

At the top of Carfax Tower, Merlin turned to Arthur.

"Not that this isn't great, because it really is," Merlin began. "But why aren't we somewhere more private? With a bed, or at least some manner of flat surface? Because it's only that it's 20 August, you know, and I rocked my A-levels, and I am going to try to go to your uni, and my whole life just improved by a factor of at least forty-two, and all of that means that we have fulfilled your prerequisites to shagging."

Arthur laughed out loud, even as he turned Merlin around so they were both facing the same direction, looking out down the High Street.

"Stephen Hawking went to Oxford, you know. John Radcliffe. Tolkien. Eliot. Raleigh. The Schrödinger's cat guy. Bill Clinton." Arthur listed off the names.

"So?" Merlin asked.

"You've heard of them all, haven't you?" Arthur waved his hand to their view. "You could be part of this. You're good enough."

"Why not Cambridge?" Merlin asked, rolling his eyes.

"I didn't feel like driving that far," Arthur retorted. "But the same applies, and the list is no less impressive."

Merlin blew out a long breath and rocked back on his heels, surveying the view. "I can't even imagine it. I'm not sure I'd want it, even if I could. I mean, medicine at Oxford can't be easy. Not to get in, and certainly not to finish."

"What you just did wasn't easy either," Arthur countered. "But you did it."

"No, it wasn't easy, but I did it thanks to you. Unless you're planning on moving to Oxford, I'm not sure I'd want to be here without you."

Arthur was a little stunned. He couldn't imagine life without Merlin around, either, not anymore, but Merlin was the braver of the two of them to say it out loud. "Well," he said. "You've got a little time before you make your applications to consider it."

"I don't think I need to," Merlin insisted.

"Just...pretend to think about then, okay?"

They retrieved the car after their visit to the tower, Arthur driving it a short distance to the Old Bank Hotel. After the valet took the car, Arthur led Merlin through the lobby so he could sign them in. As he filled out the details, he saw Merlin from the corner of his eye. He looked a little overwhelmed; his eyes were wide and his shoulders had that hunch they took on when he was expecting a fight. Maybe he thought the furniture would bite? He all but jumped when a bellman offered to take his bag upstairs for him.

"My mum took me on holiday when I was little," Merlin said once they were in the lift. "We went to Weymouth and stayed in a Holiday Inn."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I collected different rocks along the water, and then compared them to the ones in the book to find out what period they were from. I wanted to find a fossil, but I never did."

"See? That's why your tough talk doesn't work," Arthur pointed out. "Underneath it all, you're just a science nerd."

Merlin tried to glare, but his face till shone with the memory. Maybe one day, Merlin would tell a story about the time Arthur brought him to Oxford.

After this exchange, Arthur was expecting Merlin's reaction when he opened the door to the suite he'd booked. He wasn't disappointed when Merlin gave him an incredulous look as he took in the parlor and then the bedroom, a look that clearly wondered how there were people with so much money to spend that they had to spend it on this--then ran over and bounced on the bed before falling back onto the mound of feather pillows.

Arthur laughed at Merlin's reaction, which was exactly what he had been hoping for. Arthur was really splashing out, but it wasn't to show off, or to try to make up for Merlin's dead mother and sick uncle and the years of his childhood that had been lost through no fault of his own. He hoped Merlin didn't think it was, or didn't think Arthur was a jerk for bringing him to a hotel, no matter how fancy. He wasn't going to set him up with a new wardrobe, or take him to the opera in borrowed jewels or anything. He just wanted to make him happy.

When Arthur shook himself out of his thoughts, he realised that Merlin had gotten up off the bed and was now standing very close to him. Now that they were here, Arthur found himself not quite ready to give in. Habit, he supposed; conditioning reinforced through long months of his head bent to Merlin's as they plotted figures on graphs or worked through equations. Longer nights, drifting off to sleep with different scenes playing on his eyelids: all the other ways their first meeting could have gone (Merlin could have stolen the wallet, or Arthur could have taken him up on his offer of a blow job.) He never really understood why he hadn't, not then. Later, when he knew Merlin, he knew he couldn't, not yet. It didn't stop Arthur from imagining Merlin's face, heavy-lidded and adoring, when he got himself off before sleeping.

He reached out for something, anything to ground him, because he really was in danger of losing control of this entire tableau. His hands alighted on a leather-bound book; the in-room dining menu. He pulled it toward him and held it up between them. "Hungry?" he asked, weakly.

Merlin rolled his eyes and yanked the book from Arthur's hands so he could fling it over his shoulder. "Are you stalling?" he challenged.

"What? No."

"You are. You are stalling, still. Seriously, man? In case you didn't understand me before: My results are fantastic. You're here, and you're fantastic, at least when you're not being a prat. And I'm here, and I haven't made a cocksucking reference in weeks and don't think it didn't take a lot of forbearance on my part because it totally did. Also, this room only has one bed. So let's go."

Arthur burst out laughing. "Forbearance? That's a big word, Merlin. Did you sit a stealth English A-level as well?"

Merlin growled. "Countdown to bratty cock sucking reference in 3, 2, 1..."

"Nah," Arthur grinned. "We've come a long way from those days, haven't we?"

Merlin's expression didn't change, but he took a deep breath and before Arthur could figure out what was going on, he had an armful of Merlin, and Merlin was kissing him with an intensity to manage his A-level revising. Relentless and determined. The first touch of Merlin's tongue to Arthur's upper lip, and he was gone. He opened his mouth for Merlin, his moans muffled by Merlin's tongue tangling with his. Merlin pressed his advantage, sliding his fingers under the hem of Arthur's shirt, up his flanks. When he brought his hands back down Arthur's skin, over his chest, his fingers caught on his chest hair. It shouldn't have been as sexy as it was.

Merlin broke the kiss to pull Arthur's tee-shirt off. "Will you please drop the whole big-brother-with-occasional-incestuous-lapses crap, now?" Merlin panted in Arthur's ear, as he flung the shirt to the furthest corner of the room. "It's been going on much too long."

Arthur hummed in agreement. He slid his hands down Merlin's back, finally palming arse through his jeans. He used his grip to crowd Merlin over to the bed, and when Arthur knelt down between Merlin's splayed legs, Merlin's eyes glittered in the semi-lit room. Arthur worked Merlin's belt buckle with one hand, and hooked the other one behind Merlin's knee to bring Merlin sitting closer to the edge of the bed.

Merlin didn't say anything, just watched through his eyelashes as Arthur pushed Merlin's jeans and pants aside and pulled out Merlin's cock.

From his position on his knees, Arthur threw Merlin a smug grin. "You know, if there were ever a time for a bratty cock sucking reference, it'd be now." He punctuated it by tracing a single finger down the length of Merlin's cock to his balls.

Merlin, for his part, made an inarticulate noise and let his head fall back, exposing the sinews of his neck. Arthur really wanted to see his collarbones, too, so he leaned up a bit to slide Merlin's shirt up and over his head. While he was up there, he pressed a series of wet kisses across Merlin's collarbone, left shoulder to right shoulder. His hands curled around Merlin's hips as he dropped back down to his knees, and got to work.

It didn't take much to make Merlin come, just a few wet, tonguing slides over the head while Arthur's hand worked the shaft and soon enough breathy, pleading groans fell from Merlin's lips. Arthur kept his eyes up, watching Merlin's face as he swallowed around Merlin's pulsing cock. It was certainly a sight to see, and Arthur had waiting far too long to see it.

Merlin was a bit useless afterwards, so Arthur let him sleep a bit. He retrieved his tee-shirt, and ordered room service for dinner while Merlin sprawled gracelessly across the crisp hotel sheets. He woke up when the food arrived, and he teased Arthur throughout the meal with bites of food he would hold out and then snatch back when Arthur tried to bite it. Arthur tolerated this for a few minutes, but eventually, he might have suggested Merlin stop being a tease.

That put an end to the meal right away. "A tease, am I?" Merlin taunted. "I'll show you tease." He slid a hand into Arthur's jeans, groping his arse thoroughly before extracting Arthur's wallet from his pocket. He flipped it open and pulled out the condom and lube packet he knew Arthur kept in there.

"Not the same ones from the night I met you, are they?" Merlin joked.

"No, sorry," Arthur said with a shake of his head. "But they have been in there a few months, if it matters."

Merlin leaned over to kiss Arthur quickly. "Maybe a little, but I don't really care about a few months ago. Just now, and later," he replied. "And speaking of now, which one of these do you want?"

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Depends. Which of them do you want, and how do you want to use them?"

"I asked you first."

"You're the one with the three A's. You choose."

"You sure?" Merlin asked, biting his lip.

"I'm sure I'll love it no matter what you decide, so your call," Arthur encouraged him.

"Well, then," Merlin began. "Would it be too much of an inconvenience if I asked you to fuck my brains out?"

Arthur made a slight bow, as much as he could from his seated position. "I think I can handle that, yeah." He took the condom and the lube packet out of Merlin's hands, and made a show of going over to his overnight bag, from which he retrieved a tube and a box.

Merlin shucked off his jeans and his pants, so he was entirely naked. "Aren't we prepared?"

Arthur drank in the view, Merlin's long, lithe body stretched out over the ocean of a bed. He walked over to the bed and pressed Merlin down to the sheets. "Be quiet now," Arthur told him. "I've got work to do." Arthur finally stripped out of his own clothes, tossing them haphazardly about, and joined Merlin on the bed.

Arthur took his time opening Merlin up, layering sensation over sensation until Merlin was clawing at the sheets to stop from bucking desperately into the air. He arched when Arthur rubbed over his prostate with two fingers and used his other hand to stroke Merlin's cock, driving Merlin closer to what Arthur was confident would be one of the most incredible orgasms he'd ever had. It was, after all, a day of amazing accomplishments. When he stopped, Merlin let out a long wail that ended on a whimper.

“Close,” he gasped. Arthur smiled against the side of Merlin's face before brushing a line of kisses along his chin.

“Too close,” Arthur agreed, and slid his lube-slicked hand down Merlin's cock to squeeze it at the base.

"Don’t!” Merlin begged.

"Don't?” Arthur murmured into his ear again as he rubbed his cock against Merlin's.

“Please,” Merlin gasped. “God. Will you please just do it?”

Merlin visibly jolted when Arthur finally hitched one of Merlin's legs high around his waist and slid the other over his shoulder so he could push into him. Merlin grunted, and clutched at Arthur's forearms, tense with exertion.

When he hit bottom, Arthur looked down at Merlin. “Alright?”

“Yeah," Merlin nodded, eyes screwed shut but mouth slack with pleasure.

Arthur began thrusting then, several shallow strokes followed with a sharp, hard stroke that made Merlin gurgle. He varied the rhythm, keeping Merlin on edge, unable to predict when a particularly well-placed thrust might make him scream.

"You know," Merlin panted, "you're way better at this than at maths. Why weren't we doing this all along instead?"

Arthur's laugh was more of a stutter.

Arthur did make Merlin scream a little, then, pumping his hips for long minutes while Merlin's untouched cock dripped pre-come onto his belly. When Merlin reached down to touch himself, Arthur slapped his hands.

“Wait,” he insisted, and Merlin moved his hand away, gritting his teeth.

Arthur's thrusts finally grew less rhythmic and more urgent, causing Merlin to wail. “Arthur, please," he breathed.

A handful of hard pulls on Merlin's cock was all it took. Moans caught in the back of Merlin's throat as he came, hard and shaking and utterly beautiful. When Merlin fell back to the bed, exhausted from his orgasm, Arthur pumped his hips hard and fast until he groaned with his own release. When Arthur collapsed, panting, Merlin drew lazy patterns in the sweat cooling between Arthur's shoulder blades.

It was a few minutes before either of them could speak.

"Right," Arthur started. "Well done on those results."

"Cheers," Merlin replied, curling into Arthur's side.

They laid quietly for a while. Arthur was just drifting to sleep when Merlin spoke again. "University is going to be difficult. I might need additional incentives along the way if I have any chance of making it the whole way through."

Arthur stretched his arms over his head. "Is that right?"

Merlin nodded, solemnly. "Yeah. It could be a weighted scale. Hand jobs for lectures. Blow jobs for lab reports."

"What about leaving exams?"

"For those, I think I should get to fuck you stupid like you just did me."

Arthur raked his hands through Merlin's sweat-damp hair. "Merlin, there's no way I am waiting until your leaving exams for that. You'll be doing that later tonight."

"Oh, will I?"

Arthur was nonplussed. "Well, I mean, only if you want to. I just assumed you'd want to."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Hmm, let me think on it." He paused for the barest of moments. "Okay, sounds fine to me. But first, can we sleep? I didn't get any rest last night. Too nervous."

"We can do that," Arthur assured him, and he brought the duvet up to cover them both.

--

In September, Arthur's godfather hired Merlin to work in his lab as an assistant, basically working the autoclave and making agar. Nothing exciting; six quid an hour, but it was paid work and related to what he wanted to study. The lab was on the other side of the city from the hostel, so Merlin planned on using his first few weeks' paypackets to find himself a bedsit. He'd passed his exams and his birthday was coming up shortly. Gwen wasn't forcing him out, but they really needed to open up his spot for someone who needed it more.

Arthur had offered to loan him the money so he could move out immediately, but Merlin had refused. "I just want it to be my way," he explained one night, before Arthur drove him back to the hostel. "That's okay, right?"

"No, Merlin, of course it's not okay," Arthur said, sounding very put-upon. "How dare you want to make your own way in the world." He had to duck when Merlin's pillow (well, the pillow on Merlin's side of Arthur's bed) came flying at him.

"Anyway," Merlin continued. "I found a few possibilities on the internet." He spread out the printouts before them on the bed. "What do you think?"

"What do you think? You'll be the one living there."

"Yeah, but..." Merlin chewed the edge of his thumb. "I just., I mean, I've never had to sort something like this out before. I'm a bit..."

"I know."

"You know about this stuff, though, so I thought you could help me."

Arthur pretended to consider the papers in front of him. "Definitely not this one," Arthur declared. "And not this one; way too many animals. Or this one. God, could you imagine?"

Merlin sighed.

"Now this one," Arthur said, holding it up. "This one is promising. Business student has furnished double room to let, £300 monthly, bills included. Ideal for gap year students working in nearby laboratories. Wireless internet, secluded garden, and driving instruction included. Cocksucking by negotiation."

Merlin snatched the paper from Arthur's hands, giggling. "It does not say that. Stop taking the piss."

Arthur released the sheet of paper, and leaned back against the headboard. "It could say that, though," Arthur started, and held up a hand when Merlin opened his mouth. "No, listen. Morgana got that UN internship. She's going to Bangladesh next month."

Arthur watched as understanding lit on Merlin's face, followed quickly an expression that read "I am both stubborn and unimpressed." Arthur pressed two fingers to his lips, rubbing them a bit without even meaning to, just to feel them against the pads of his fingers. He'd never tire of it. "The room'll just sit empty, otherwise."

Merlin glared, but without much heat. "It'll sit empty if I move into it anyway," he countered. "I'd spend all my time in your room."

"I fail to see that as anything but a plus."

"I don't want you to support me, Arthur. I was looking forward to doing this on my own."

"Hence your paying rent," Arthur explained patiently.

"Yes, and extremely discounted at that," Merlin waved that away. "But we both know you'll be feeding me your food, buying me things, and taking me places and before I know it, I'll be a...a...I dunno, a kept man."

"A what? What on earth have you been reading this week, Merlin?"

"My point stands."

"Merlin," Arthur said again, and he knew he said it far more than necessary for casual conversation, but it was such an unusual name, and felt so good on his tongue. "How often are Gawain and Leon over?"

"Way too much," Merlin huffed, crossing his arms over his bare chest.

"And what do they do while they are here?" Arthur prompted.

"Eat all your food, drink all your beer, and play video games you buy especially for them."

"See?" Arthur pointed triumphantly. "They don't pay me either, and I don't care, because they're my mates. If you lived here, you'd pay for the room, and anything else would be the same as if you were one of them."

"Is that so?" Merlin didn't seem convinced.

"Yep."

"So, Gawain and Leon get to do this, do they?" Merlin teased, and reached over to pinch one of Arthur's nipples. "Or this?" he continued, running a hand down Arthur's chest, down the trail of hair that led to his cock. When he found it, he wrapped his long fingers around it and pulled, just once. "This, as well?"

Arthur's head fell back. "Well, not exactly as if you were the same as one of them," he breathed.

Arthur never did drive Merlin back to the hostel that night, but as they drove back the next afternoon, Merlin turned to Arthur and simply said, "okay."

"Okay?" Arthur asked.

"Okay, I will pay you 300 quid a month for a room I won't even sleep in," Merlin elaborated. "And I'll pretend not to suspect that you take the money I give you in rent and put it into some sort of account you're going to give back to me next year, when I am even more in love with you and don't care as much that you're a high-handed rich kid."

"I had not planned anything of the sort."

"Sure."

Arthur drove in silence for a few minutes. "So, even more in love with me?"

"Shut up."

"You shut up."

Merlin paused. "I always want to make a yer mum joke there, but I guess that would be misplaced. Since neither of us even have mums."

Arthur reached over to grab Merlin's hand between gear shifts. "We've got each other, though," he said, bringing Merlin's hand to his lips.

Merlin was looking at him like he has grown another head. "What, was that too much, "Mr. Even More In Love With You"?" Arthur teased, and reached over instead to pull on Merlin's ear. "This better?"

Merlin leaned toward the car door to escape Arthur's prodding. "Very funny."

"I thought so."

When they reached the hostel, Arthur walked Merlin to the door. A couple of the kids Arthur had gotten to know were working on the vegetable garden, pulling out the last of the peppers and the beans before the nights started to cool. There was an older man and a youngish woman talking to Gwen: Gaius and one of the caretakers from his home. Merlin rushed over, and Arthur watched with affection as the two embraced. Gaius was settling down, and getting much more comfortable with his home and his room. Charlotte, the attendant with him, didn't put up with his grumpy ways, and Gaius seemed to respect her a little more for it. He still tended to wander off from time to time, usually visiting the other guys down by the canal docks. But he always made it back in time for his insulin jabs.

Arthur made polite conversation with Gaius, Charlotte and Gwen for a while before going back to his car. As he excused himself, Merlin yanked on his arm and hugged him close, in front of everyone. Before Arthur pulled away, he tilted his mouth to Merlin's ear. "You know I love you too, right?" he asked.

Merlin looked at him like he was particularly dim, and then shoved him away with a smile. "Sod off. See you tomorrow."

Arthur practically bounced to his car. Soon, they'd be flatmates. Merlin would organise the medicine cupboard into groups: analgesics, cough/cold, antacids, prescriptions, and Arthur already knew his kitchen was about to get an influx of elaborate cookery gadgets, because Merlin treated cooking like chemistry.

Arthur, for his part, would continue to despair over Merlin's lack of football knowledge. He'd do the washing-up that resulted from barely edible chemistry experiments, and next month, he'd help Merlin finalise his university application, because once a mentor, always a mentor, apparently.

This time next year, Merlin would be on his way to a university medicine course and to a future that could be anything he made of it. Arthur secretly hoped Merlin chose his university, but if it did end up being Oxford, or London, or God forbid, Scotland, well, Arthur would just have to go along. He'd be done by then, and could do his Master's someplace else.

Arthur was certain of all of it, as certain as he was that being forced to sleep at a homeless hostel would go down in history as the best thing that ever happened to him.