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Ashes, Embers, Flames

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Merlin sees him across a crowded living room and promptly spills his beer down the back of the couch and over some hapless stranger’s neck. “Sorry – sorry!” First he mops ineffectually at the bloke’s collar, then raises his hands slowly and backs away, reading the body language quite clearly. “Really sorry.” The guy rises from the couch, shakes his head in irritation and turns away, headed for the bathroom.

“Right,” Merlin says to himself and retires to a dimly lit corner. “Just the usual, then.” One disaster to another.

He sneaks another glimpse at The Guy and swallows.

Bloody gorgeous. Aloof. And alone. How is that happening?

And then he watches. A tiny brunette trips over to him, captivating dimples appearing as she speaks. Introducing herself, looks like. The Guy leans in, listening politely, lets a small curve appear at the corner of his luscious mouth.

Hi, Merlin fills in the blanks for himself, instantly depressed. I’m adorable, funny and extremely talented in bed. You’re clearly the hottest piece of arse in this room, possibly in all of London. How about you and I do all the ordinary bastards a favour and remove ourselves from the dating pool?

The Guy makes a brief reply. Probably, Yes, I can see the logic of your argument. It would be wrong of me to remain single too long. Or, Merlin tries to be fair, possibly it’s his name.

The dimples deepen and she slants a glance up into his face. Your parents would love me, and I am absolutely up for a threesome at some point in the future when we’ve established enough trust.

Fatalistic, Merlin waits to see The Guy snap her up. Instead he gives a kind of one-shoulder shrug and speaks for a little longer this time. He’s drunk enough that for one minute he imagines it’s Listen, I should tell you, while I absolutely have a thing for willowy brunettes, what I’m actually after is a pale, clumsy type with a penis.

But probably not. Still, whatever it is, it’s a good brush-off. The brunette makes a kind of oh-well sad face and shrugs, then goes on her merry way.

Merlin blinks. Okay. There’s only two brush-offs that work that neatly. One is the I’m married and she’s standing right behind you type, and the other is, I play for the other team.

Oh man, like that was what he needed - faint hope.

“Who are you stalking now, Emrys?”

He turns swiftly. “Nobody. Just watching the world go by, you know.” He meets Will’s amused eyes and painstakingly does not glance over to The Guy.

“Mm-hmm.”

“So where’s Edwin?”

“Finishing up his last-minute shite at the office.”

Merlin doesn’t grimace. He’s a supportive friend. Gah.

Will, of course, sees right through him. “I know you don’t get it,” he says, soft and serious. “But I’ve honestly never been this happy.”

He relents immediately. “I know that. I do.” It was the only consolation he had in the middle of the whole mess. Will was… centred now. More confident. Whatever the hell it was Edwin had, it was exactly what Will had needed all these years. It was just a little disconcerting to see your childhood friend – your best friend - fall head over heels for a buttoned-down risk management specialist. Whatever the hell that was.

“So how are things with the new flatmate? I was tempted to drop over and give him some clues on surviving the Emrys experience, then I decided some things only made sense after actual, bitter experience.”

Merlin grimaced before he could catch himself. “Um.”

“What.” Will is already bracing himself for drama.

“He bailed.”

What?”

“Yeah. Um. Broke both his wrists falling out of a cab, apparently. Can’t play guitar, no money, so... He had to go back to Glasgow and move in with his parents.”

“So- what are you doing, then?” Will face was full of concern. He knew Merlin couldn’t make the full rent much longer… “Listen, why don’t you let me-”

No,” he says firmly. “You’re not paying for a room you no longer live in.”

“Merlin, it wouldn’t-”

“No, Will.”

“Don’t be stupid. We both know Edwin doesn’t need any contributions from me, and I moved out with almost no notice, so-”

“And you paid the next two weeks anyway. We’ve been over this. You’re not going to bloody pay rent for a place in London when you’re living in Zurich. No.”

Will sighs, clearly recognizing the stubborn note in Merlin’s voice. Sometimes there were advantages to being friends your whole life. There’s a kind of shorthand, I mean it like I meant it about the boat when we were ten.

“So what’s the plan, then?”

Merlin shrugs. He really doesn’t want to go into this. He glances across the room just in time to see The Guy fend off another advance. This time it’s Terence, the concierge from Gwen’s hotel. Again, he gets the hapless wooer to back off, though this time Terence lingers and tries a few more lines, then gives a little shrug that says maybe next time. Or possibly, I’ll try again when you’ve had some tequila shots and your guard is down.

In-ter-est-ing.

A warm hand cups his shoulder. “Merlin.”

He sighs and glances back at Will. A rueful smile tugs at his mouth. “I’ll figure something out,” he says, answering the worry on his face rather than the question.

Will’s frown deepens, and he feels a sudden rush of love and affection. He sets his beer down on the telephone table without looking and Will nudges it back from the edge without missing a beat, saving both their jeans from a dunking.

Merlin reaches up to cup Will’s face in his hands. “I love you, you prat,” he says, and he can feel the movement under his fingers as Will swallows. “And I will be fine without you watching over me. All right?”

For a moment neither of them moves. Will is fighting back tears, but he manages a smile. “All right,” he says simply, and the hug is long, heartfelt, and silent.

“I’m glad you found your Edwin,” Merlin eventually whispers in his ear, and for once he’s not rolling his eyes at all. “Even if he is going to turn you into yuppie Eurotrash.”

“Fuck you,” Will snorts, arms tight.

“Matching chocolate Labradors,” Merlin adds, fingers gripping tight for a second, “a subscription to Gourmet Traveller.”

The laugh bubbles out of Will and he straightens. “We’ll always be us, Merlin,” he whispers. “Whatever happens, you and me will always be.”

“I know,” he says, and he’s blinking back tears too because a few years ago, it hadn’t looked like that would ever be true again. His hand has trailed down to rest at Will’s hip, and they both feel the vibration of his phone at the same time. He manages a wobbly smile. “Edwin?”

Will tilts the screen up and nods, his smile a little shaky too. “He’s picking me up. Straight to the airport from here.” He inclines his head toward the window and they both glance out at the Jag as it pulls up.

“You all packed?” He feels Will nod but doesn’t glance away from the car. Erik gets out and rounds the car, then hesitates, obviously catching a glimpse of them through the window. In his peripheral vision he sees Will raise a hand in a wave, and Edwin pauses, then leans back against the car, hands sinking into his coat pockets, waiting.

“Okay,” Merlin says. He swallows hard and draws a long breath, preparing.

This time when he turns back he’s really smiling. Not going to send Will away with a big scene. It’s not easy, especially when Will cups his face in his hands and kisses him once, firm and loving and all the years behind them filling up the spaces. But something in Merlin’s chest unfurls at the realization that Will can still love him like this, even with Edwin looking on.

It’s going to be okay. Distance will be a new thing, but they’ll adjust.

“You already said goodbye to Gwen?” Will nods, stubble scratching against his cheek. “All right,” he finally says, squeezing Will’s arm. “Go on then.”

Will just nods, lips pressed tightly together. Their eyes meet one more time, and then he’s gone. Merlin doesn’t watch him make his way to the front door, instead he turns and stares out through the window.

Edwin meets his eyes, steady and calm, then his attention flicks to the front door and his face changes, like someone turned on the Christmas lights. Watching him watch Will, Merlin takes a deep, satisfying breath.

They meet by the car, a sweet, casual touch of hands, and both glance his way. He raises his own hand, feeling oddly like he’s blessing them, like some ancient pagan priest, yeah, presiding over their gay druid wedding and the thought makes him laugh to himself. And he sees the tension go out of Will, at that.

The Jag pulls away and it’s a wrench, but when he steps away from the window he’s feeling oddly light.

 

 

He drifts to the edges of a group and chats lightly, and when he glances over to the corner The Guy is gone. Right. Not like he had any kind of shot. But, you know. Would’ve been nice to hear his voice.

He lopes into the kitchen a few minutes later, seeking food, and he’s scooping unidentified dip onto a corn chip when he spots The Guy, clearly trying to say his farewells to Gwen.

She’s shaking her head, implacable, and the gentle hint of a smile on his face as he stares down at her is lovely. On a long breath in, Merlin focuses on The Guy’s wrist, a narrow line of skin visible beside one of those wide leather cuffs that also forms the band of his watch. Damn. Even his wrists are hot.

Merlin shifts to make room for someone bearing a bottle of scotch and four glasses, and it brings him within hearing range, though he carefully turns a shoulder so as not to be caught watching. Gwen’s far too observant.

“…just for a few minutes. There’s someone I wanted you to meet.”

“Gwen, honestly-” he says, and Merlin takes a slow breath. Nice voice. Calm and low. Accent in the upper-crusty range.

“There – Merlin.

He blinks. Then he turns slowly on the spot toward Gwen. “Um?” he says, eyes wide.

“Come here,” she gestures. “I wanted to introduce you to an old friend of mine.”

He takes two short steps forward, feeling like he’s about to fall down the rabbit hole. He can’t even begin to guess why Gwen would want to introduce him to- “Um.”

“This is Arthur Fitzroy. Arthur, this is Merlin Emrys.”

“Merlin,” the golden god says, and offers a hand to shake.

Merlin almost hands him his beer, then catches himself in time to switch the bottle to his left hand and shakes like a fricking grown-up. He catches Gwen’s half-suppressed grin from the corner of one eye. “Lovely to meet you,” he says helplessly, and watches those blue eyes widen.

Oh bollocks. Arthur is still gorgeous, even up close. Was it too much to hope for that he’d have at least one flaw? Horrible acne scars, anyone? Perhaps he sounds like a donkey when he laughs.

There’s a momentary pause, and he glances over at Gwen, suddenly realizing why she’s doing this. She knows Will just left, and wants to distract him. He grins at her in sudden, warm affection.

Arthur shifts at his side and opts for a conventional opener. A reluctant party guest, but not rude. “So how do you two know each other?”

“Oh, Merlin and his boss are regulars at the auctions,” Gwen provides carelessly, squeezing Merlin’s hand for just a moment, a wordless you okay?

“Yes,” Merlin says, squeezing back fine so far, “and Gwen terrifies all of us into submission with her clipboard. It’s not easy getting the antiquary nuts and the investors to all assemble in one spot without bloodshed. Last week there were very nearly fisticuffs over the provenance of a Toby jug.”

“So… which are you?”

Merlin raises his brows in enquiry, then backtracks through his own sentences. “Oh. Nutter. Definitely.”

Gwen laughs. “Merlin works for one of the smaller, independent valuers. But he’s got an amazing eye, according to, well, everyone, actually.”

“Gaius talks me up,” Merlin says, flushing a little and taking a deep drink of his beer. “It makes the firm look good.”

Gwen shakes her head at him and then catches sight of something just past his shoulder. “Oh crap. I told them not to- here.” She shoves her drink into Merlin’s hand and snatches away his now-empty beer before charging past, off to fight dragons in her living room.

“So… how did you get started in antiques?” Arthur asks. He’s no longer trying to edge toward the door, his manners are truly excellent, and Merlin gives him a lot of credit for not just bailing the minute he was out of Gwen’s line of sight. Not that he needs any extra credit.

“Mm,” he shrugs, “Well, I did a lot of extremely impractical classes like Art History at uni and, sadly enough, I ghost around antique shops in my spare time. I’ve always liked old things.” It’s almost as though they talk to me, he doesn’t say. He’s well aware he comes off as gawky and weird without helping things along.

He glances up, checking for boredom-glazed eyes, but Arthur looks genuinely interested so he kept going. “One day I was at a car boot sale and I spotted something – well, I thought looked like something special. I took it to a dealer - actually, this was about the ninth time I’d done that, and it turned out I was usually right. The guy, I dunno, took a shine to me and introduced me to a friend of his who ran an auction house. Rest is history, really.”

Arthur is smiling now, like there’s a joke Merlin missed. “What?” he says, curious.

“I’m a car boot sale addict,” he admits. “Not for antiques, though. You just…”

“…never know what you’re going to find,” Merlin finishes for him, and now they’re smiling at each other.

“So you spend your days among priceless works of beauty. I suppose your home is full of the same stuff?”

Merlin snorts. His home is full of unfolded laundry and stale take-away containers. Then he sobers, reality slapping him in the face again. “Actually,” he says, “I’m on the verge of being homeless.”

Arthur pauses with his beer pressed to his lips, lowers it. “Homeless.”

He shrugs and leans back against the table. “Well, on paper anyway. My flatmate moved out and the replacement guy I lined up has bailed too.” He catches the speculative glance and snaps, “And no, there’s nothing weird going on. I am not driving them away. Will is moving to Switzerland with his boyfriend and the new guy had an accident and had to move back home so his family could care for him.”

Those beautiful lips twitch. “Oh, I never doubted it. Why not just get another flatmate, though?”

Merlin sighs. “Because I’ve been paying double rent for longer than I can afford and I don’t want to sign a new lease without knowing I can honour it. Better to bunk on people’s couches for a while until I can figure something else out.”

“That’s your plan? It’s a bit inconvenient, isn’t it, dragging all your stuff around?”

“Yeah. I dunno,” Merlin says, hopeless and helpless as usual. “Something will come up, I guess. It always does.”

Something might be a shitty bedsit in a street that makes him feel like he’s living in 28 Days Later, but something always comes up for Merlin. Usually at the last minute. He shrugs, philosophical and glances over at Arthur who is still exuding a charm that appears to be innate.

“No-one else you could stay with long-term?” There’s something in Arthur’s tone that he can’t quite place.

Merlin thinks it over. Gwen’s the only one besides Will he’d want to live with long-term, but the flat they’re all crammed into for tonight’s party is only just big enough for one. He shakes his head. “Nope.”

And then Arthur glances down and to the side, a strange, rueful smile touching his lips just before he says, “I have a spare room at my place. Actually.”

There’s a beat of silence.

“You’re shitting me,” Merlin finally says, drink frozen halfway to his lips. “You are shitting me.”

And Arthur shakes his head, wry, shooting a glance across the flat at Gwen that says I’ll get you for this.

“Nope,” he says, then shrugs. “But it’s pretty bad. I mean, seriously. I’m- it’s a wreck. I’m renovating the entire place. There’s no working bathroom at the moment, I have to clean my teeth in the kitchen sink. Most of the rooms have no carpet or doors.”

He looks over and blinks, probably because Merlin is seriously gaping at him like a mentally-challenged yokel. Something will come up… something always does.

“Uh.” He swallows. This cannot be happening. This ridiculous… luck of his cannot be giving him the chance to live under the same roof as this golden, glowing creature. “Where is it?”

“Muswell Hill.”

Now he shakes his head, still waiting for the down side. “Um. Good pub there.” And brilliant location for Merlin’s commute.

“I know,” Arthur says, wry.

But how the hell does someone Arthur’s age afford a place in Muswell Hill? He glances over again and adds up the incredibly posh accent, impeccable manners and extremely well-cut jeans, and thinks, old money. “Are you- seriously, you’re offering me your spare room? You just met me.”

He shrugs with one shoulder, eyes remote as they focus on the other side of the room. “I trust Gwen’s judgment. Besides, it’s not a long-term commitment. If it isn’t working out for either of us, at least it gives you time to find a better place.”

Merlin nods on automatic. He can’t really imagine it not working out. He’d probably agree to live at the bottom of a lake if there was a guaranteed glimpse of Arthur amongst the reeds each morning.

“But you might want to see it before you get too excited. I’m not kidding when I say it’s a wreck. The reason no-one but me is living there is because it’s barely fit for habitation. I’m in the middle of sorting out the heating, which is getting kind of urgent. There’s constant noise and dust from sanding and construction, water and power go on and off constantly while I sort out the plumbing and wiring and there’s a very pervasive smell of paint stripper and turpentine most days.”

“Wait – you’re actually doing the work?” Oh shit, like he needed more fantasy material. Arthur with tools in his hands, faint sheen of sweat on that skin and fierce concentration… Merlin tosses back his drink and promptly chokes, since Gwen is drinking strong vodka tonics, not beer.

“It’s what I do,” Arthur says, “This is the third property I’ve renovated. So if you’re considering it, you should really check it out first. Not many people want to live that way, and it’ll be like that for months.”

“Right.” Down, boy. “Well, um, I’m interested.” A small grin escapes him. “Definitely interested.”

Chapter Text

 

Merlin’s a little bit terrified of moving in with Arthur. It’s all too perfect.

Well, Arthur’s perfect. Merlin’s as much of a disaster as ever. And, well, the house is. Ahem.

He hadn’t been sugar-coating that, certainly. It’s dark and dusty and fairly shitty, though there’s clearly going to be an amazing result once it’s done. And – well, it’s an entire house, so yes, trust fund, definitely. Not a flat in a shitty block of units, not even a terrace that’s been turned into apartments. It’s oddly grown-up, this transformational thing Arthur has going, like he has a sense of responsibility far beyond any other twenty-something Merlin has ever met.

It’s just – sometimes this feels like some kind of glossy, this-is-how-you-want-real-life-to-look Taylor Swift film clip. There’s Arthur, impossibly photogenic, and Merlin, always typecast as the bumbling, quirky love interest… except, of course, that Arthur is not hopelessly in love with some anorexic cheerleader, or anyone at all, as far as he can see. He’s like a closed circuit, needing no-one and nothing. And Merlin will not be able to simply whip off his oversized glasses and ta-dah, be magically revealed as a smokin’ hot piece of arse who is, coincidentally, the answer to Arthur’s romantic dreams.

But it all feels unreal, is the point, right up until the moment where they’re struggling to get one of Merlin’s very few decent possessions - an art deco mirror - up the second flight of stairs and it somehow gets jammed up against the knob of the bathroom door.

“‘Brothers, we should be struggling together’,” Merlin mutters to himself.

“‘We are,” Arthur quotes back without looking up, the laugh buried in his voice and suddenly Merlin can breathe.

This will work. This is going to happen.

And then he gets to the top floor and sees his room. His freshly painted room, with actual carpet. Unlike any other room in the house.

“Uh,” he says, “why does-”

“Sorry if the smell of paint lingers,” Arthur says, and forces Merlin into the room by the simple tactic of not stopping. His end of the mirror just keeps on coming and shoves Merlin backwards into the bedroom. “I only finished it this morning.”

They carefully leverage the thing into a spot against the wall, and then Merlin turns. “Why did you just finish this morning?”

Arthur frowns, clearly confused. “Um. Because I had to let the second coat of paint dry before I could lay carpet?”

“No, I mean, why does my room have carpet and a beautiful paint job when yours doesn’t?” He’d been happy that the room was crap. It’d seemed balanced, somehow.

If anything, Arthur gets even more nonplussed. “I invited you to stay here, Merlin. I felt at the very least I should-”

“Arthur,” he snaps, exasperated, “you told me the score, and I accepted it. And you specifically said you’d kept the rent low because of the living conditions. I absolutely do not need special treatment. For God’s sake, you don’t even have a bed.” Not that he’d taken a long look at the mattress on the floor where Arthur slept. Warm. Soft. Sleepy.

“That’s a deliberate choice,” he defends. “I don’t enjoy lugging furniture all over the house so I keep it simple until the painting and floors are done.”

Merlin shakes his head. “You’re mental.”

Arthur’s lips twitch. “Yes, well. Best you discovered that early on.” And he turns to jog back down the stairs.

“Prat,” Merlin mutters after him, eyes locked firmly on that delicious arse.

 

* * *

 

Merlin enters the house one Thursday evening to find it empty and echoing. For a moment he’s oddly off-balance – it’s been ridiculously easy to get used to coming home to Arthur.

He showers and changes from his work jeans and button-up into soft, old jeans and a t-shirt, watches some crap telly while he actually folds his laundry, for once, and he’s just thinking about dinner when he hears the sound of a key in the lock.

“Hey, mate,” he says without looking up from the menus spread out on the couch. “You eaten? I was thinking about popping out for a curry. The usual?”

“Fine,” Arthur says, head down as he tosses his keys into the bowl by the door, and Merlin breezes past, clapping him on the shoulder.

Half an hour later when he enters the house he almost doesn’t notice Arthur, slumped on the window seat and staring out into the night. Only the lamp in the corner illuminates the room.

“No, don’t get up,” he mocks gently, hand out as if to hold Arthur back. He slings the bag onto the seat beside Arthur and heads into the kitchen, snags some forks and two beers and returns, toeing off his shoes before curling up, back braced against the frame opposite Arthur. He points the remote at the TV out of habit, but keeps the sound on mute for now. Arthur doesn’t even glance over at the screen.

He doles out the food, forks and beer, and only as he dips into his chicken tikka does he realize Arthur hasn’t spoken another word since he entered the house.

“You all right, Arthur?”

Arthur shifts, reaching for the food and Merlin’s not sure how he knows, but he’s moving a bit blindly, on automatic. “Yeah,” he says quietly, “I’m fine.”

Oh no you’re not, he thinks, but he hesitates, not sure how much he’s allowed. It’s only been two weeks, and there’s just something about Arthur - a wall that fends off everyone and everything. “Rough day?” he tries, wishing he’d bothered turning a light on. The TV is flickering in the corner but doesn’t really let him see Arthur’s face.

There’s a long silence, then Arthur says, “Long day.” He pokes at the curry with his fork but doesn’t eat, and as Merlin watches he sighs, replaces the lid and slides back to lean against the window frame again. “Very long day,” he says, and he’s silent and still for the rest of the night. Merlin can’t think of anything to do but sit there, with him, legs occasionally brushing against one another as the time ticks by.

 

* * *

 

He tucks the phone between his shoulder and his chin and yanks the fridge open. Gwen’s crisp voicemail message chirrups in his ear.

“Gwen,” Merlin begins, “uh, it’s me. Listen, call me when you get this, yeah? I’m just wondering… uh, how much bother it would be, or how difficult, to get me a dead cheap room at that over-decorated hellhole you work in. Just for a night. Maybe two. Ta.”

He drops his phone into his pocket, snags some sandwich makings and staggers over to the bench, catching Arthur’s sidelong glance.

“Romantic getaway?” He starts the kettle and reaches up for the mugs, silently asking with raised brows if Merlin wants one.

“Huh?” he nods, yes please, and then puts it together. “Oh, the room. Oh, no, it’s not for me. For my Mum.”

“Oh.” There’s a pause as Arthur retrieves teabags from the box on the bench. Then he says carefully, “I thought maybe you were feeling, um. Well. I’ve noticed you haven’t had your boyfriend over here yet.”

“What?” Merlin stares at him blankly, knife poised over the slices of bread.

“I maybe should have said, you’re welcome to have him stay here.” Arthur is ladling sugar into cups and doesn’t look up.

“My boyfriend.” And when Arthur nods he says slowly, “I don’t have a boyfriend.”

That gets him looking over. “But.” He hesitates, then says, “At Gwen’s party. When we met. I saw you-”

Merlin frowns, backtracking through the night. He’s had his fair share of drunken hookups – more than his fair share, according to some – but not that night. He’d been too focused on Arthur, for one thing. And of course-

Will!” he exclaims, and things come clear. “Oh, you mean Will.”

Arthur raises his eyebrows. “I suppose I must. Will must love it when you forget his very existence.”

“Will’s not my – he’s my best mate, and my flatmate.” Arthur, his current flatmate, stares coldly at him.

“Sorry, was my flatmate. Force of habit. That was – he was leaving that night. We were saying goodbye.” And he glances away, feeling the fresh ache at the memory.

The kettle clicks off and Arthur pours the tea in silence. Then he says, “The one who was moving to Zurich.”

“Right.” Merlin returns to his sandwich, but his mind is clicking over double time. Arthur thought he had a boyfriend all this time. And he does not look happy to hear that Merlin is single. Shit. Has he been horribly obvious in his crush? Probably, he thinks, depressed. And it likely happens so much to Arthur – people falling over themselves to adore him – that he has a kind of sixth sense about it.

And Merlin makes a soft oh as he realizes something else. That’s what Arthur had meant by ‘anyone else you can stay with’. That had been code for why don’t you move in with your boyfriend?

“It was quite a– you must be very close.” Arthur finally says, jiggling the bags in the water.

“We’ve been mates since we were little kids,” Merlin says, voice thick. But he knows what Arthur means, knows how it must have looked, the long embrace and the intimacy that comes with years. He finishes the sandwich and cuts it, but makes no move to eat. Between Arthur-the-untouchable and Will-the-absent, he suddenly feels very depressed.

And then Arthur is there, shoulder bumping his as he offers the cup of tea. “You must miss him.”

“Yeah.” He takes the mug with a sigh and slumps against the counter. “Fucking Edwin. I wanted to kill him for a while. Or well, at least, make his hair fall out and get his American Express card refused in some public forum. I spent one miserable hung-over Sunday morning trying to make it happen using the power of my mind, but…”

From the corner of his eye he sees Arthur bite back a smile and sip his tea.

And somehow, he feels a little better.

Of course, it’s probably lucky Arthur doesn’t know that it’s the making it happen part Merlin couldn’t manage. He’s done far more difficult things using the power of his mind, it’s just that it’s always bloody involuntary.

“So… just mates?”

Merlin shoots him a sidelong glance. He could lie, of course, and avoid depressing himself even further. But lies were seldom worth the trouble. He drags his mind away from his weird luck-thing. Keeping that secret isn’t a lie. Not really.

Right?

“You’ve got a good eye,” he comments. He slides up onto the counter and swings his feet idly, heels banging against the shitty cupboard doors Arthur is yet to replace. “We were best mates our whole lives,” he says, and the smile just comes, unbidden. “Grew up in the same tiny village, did everything together.”

Arthur just waits, quiet, like he really wants to know the tiny details of Merlin’s boring life, so he shrugs and keeps going.

“All I had was Mum, and all he had was his Dad, so I guess we… kind of all stuck together. We came up to London at the same time… got a flat together, everything was great. I was at Uni, he was waiting tables and sketching on the side. And then um,” he swallows and lowers his tea, staring down at the cloudy brown. “We. Um. Got together.”

“Not good?”

The gentle question has him breathing deep. He hasn’t thought about this in ages.

“Good for a while. Great for a while, actually. But, I dunno.” He stares across the disaster area that is Arthur’s kitchen and says slowly, “He felt weird about not going to Uni, and it was worse when we were out with my new mates. I didn’t see it, of course, to me he was just… Will. And we fought about, Jesus, the stupidest things. I don’t think either one of us could figure out what – why we suddenly couldn’t talk to each other, after everything. We’d never really fought before, not like that anyway. I guess you could say, we didn’t know how.”

He shakes his head. “So then we were – nothing. Not together, and definitely not mates.” He grinds to a halt, tries not to remember how hollow everything had felt, how angry he’d been, how bitter and stupid.

How confused.

“How long?”

He lets out a long breath. “Months. Worst months of my life. Nearly a year, actually.” He sighs and takes a sip of tea. “And then one day we just ran into each other. Literally. Tripped over each other in the rain. I wasn’t looking where I was going,” he says and he’s not so distracted that he doesn’t notice the amused twitch of Arthur’s mouth. He ignores it.

“I’d started working for Gaius by then, just a few hours a week till I finished my degree. He walked me there, we talked and… I dunno. It took a while, but eventually we got back to being friends again. Moved back in together a while after that.”

“Never tempted to try again?”

Merlin shakes his head emphatically. “Nup. That wasn’t us. In fact-” He stops.

He’s never said this to anyone before. But Arthur is waiting. He’s not asking, just listening. And so Merlin says, “Sometimes I think we only got together because it seemed to make sense, you know? We were so close, such great mates, so much in common. We knew everything about each other. Everything. You’d think we’d have been perfect, the perfect couple, when we both turned out to be gay.  I think in a way it was like, well, this is probably how it’s meant to be, right? This makes sense. Except.”

“Except it wasn’t meant to be.”

He half-laughs. “It’s so weird. Edwin, the new boyfriend? Jesus. I hated him. This high achieving corporate arsehole. It makes no sense that he and Will would work. I mean, Will’s an artist, for God’s sake. But- they do. They just do. On paper it should have been us. But in real life, it just… couldn’t happen.”

Arthur is silent for a long time, staring down at the floor. And then, out of nowhere, he says, “Why does your mother need a hotel room?”

 

 

 

They argue it out for days. Gwen is checking reservations for the Friday night, there’s some kind of conference block booking complicating matters, and Arthur is making disappointed faces at Merlin every time she calls.

“I don’t want to take advantage!” Merlin says for the hundredth time.

“It’s not taking advantage if I fucking tell you to invite her here,” Arthur thunders back. His formality and his manners simply evaporate when he’s exasperated. It’s a bit insane just how much Merlin likes that. “I know the house is a mess but I can-”

“Arthur,” Merlin shoots back, “it’s not the bloody house, the house is a bloody palace, all right? Mum’s seen the typhoid laden hell-holes I’ve lived in-”

“Then what’s wrong with-”

“Because you’ve already put yourself out finishing my room before your own.” He’s waving his arms wildly, aware this is not his best look, but, “Now you want to do another room for Mum - it would be imposing-”

“It can’t possibly be imposing when I’m doing the inviting, you total idiot,” he cries, and storms off to – as Merlin later realizes – rant at Gwen. An hour later the half-promise of a room at the hotel is withdrawn.

It doesn’t help that Merlin is stuck with lame excuses instead of saying I don’t want her to see what a horribly hopeless crush I have on you. He’s already had more than his quota of painfully honest conversations with his Mum.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

It’s only by accident that he discovers even the tiniest snippet about Arthur’s past. Merlin is helping Gwen deliver yet another load of boxes to the battered women’s shelter when she lets it slip.

“Well, he’s definitely the tidiest flatmate I’ve ever had,” Merlin is saying. “Which is kind of weird. Every time he speaks I feel like I’m in an episode of Downton Abbey, except he’s the one doing the manual labour, and the bulk of the dishes.”

“Yes, apparently miracles can happen,” Gwen huffs, dragging a box out of the back of the laundry van. “I can only assume the Army sorted him out, because he was the slobbiest bloody teenager you could imagine.”

“Really?” Merlin blinks at her, then hefts a box of his own and bumps the van door shut with his hip. Glenda, the driver, leans out to check they’re finished and drives off with a wave. Apparently her first husband had been a nasty-tempered drinker, and she’s happy to help out with unofficial deliveries to a place that offers a haven for other battered wives.

“Oh God, don’t get me started.”

But I want to, Merlin thinks.  He’s been wondering how someone beautifully ordinary like Gwen had met Arthur. Until now he’d been going with the ‘guest of the hotel’ scenario, but this fits much better with the way he’s seen Arthur look at her. Deep, unabiding affection, with a trace of something sad.

She tosses her head and heads up the path to the front door. Morgause is waiting there, door already open, so the moment is gone as far as sharing confidences go. Still, now he has the mental image of Arthur in uniform in his head. Hmmm.

Morgause gives Merlin a cool, measured glance, like always. She’s agreed to his presence, of course, but having a man on the premises makes a lot of the women uneasy and he always tries to get out of there as soon as possible.

“Through there,” Morgause indicates the front room with a wave of her hand. Merlin’s never gone past this front room, unlike Gwen, who seems to have the run of the place whenever she likes. She was part of the establishment of Shannen House, apparently, something Merlin has only figured out from the tiny scraps of information the staff let fall. He sends Morgause a quick wave and turns his attention to the boxes while Gwen disappears out the back, the door closing behind them both and shutting out the miniscule sounds of the women and children living here.

It had taken some convincing, but Gwen’s hotel is now resigned to donating the unclaimed lost property to Shannen House, and once a month Merlin spends an afternoon sorting through the stuff. Gwen had found it odd that he wanted to do it, and he couldn’t exactly explain that sometimes he could tell who it belonged to and if it was truly missed or needed. But he feels better about using his ability for something other than his own devices.

He shifts the boxes around until he’s satisfied and clears a space on the coffee table. Just before he starts, he crosses to the window that looks out onto the street. It’s a nice street, and a bloody beautiful house. The only time he’s ever seen Morgause even close to smiling is when she talks about the amazing good luck of having a piece of real estate like this donated to something as unsexy as a women’s shelter.

It’s a good place. You can just feel it. There’s pain and anguish within these walls, of course – too much of it – but this is a haven and a shelter for those who need it most. And as he does every time he visits, Merlin runs his fingers over the window sill, beneath it, until his fingertips brush over the small shape he’d discovered by accident.

His vision washes gold every time he touches the tiny dragon, burned into the timber beneath the window sill, almost entirely concealed. It’s not an image, instead every time he touches it he can feel the love, the protection, the fierce will to do good in this world. Someone wonderful had a hand in this place.

He’s smiling when he turns back to the job at hand.

 

*  *  *

 

It happens, as fucking awful things always do, on a perfectly ordinary day. They’re sprawled out in front of the television, arguing gently over which of them should gather up the dishes.

“I cooked,” Merlin points out.

“Yes, Merlin,” he responds, wry. “You certainly did manage to heat up some frozen pies and chips. Kudos to you. Of course, I am the one who provided the essential condiments and set the table.”

Set the-” and Merlin actually snorts a laugh at that before he catches himself. “We ate on our knees, you tosser. And HP Sauce hardly qualifies as a condiment.”

“It completes the meal,” Arthur says airily.

Which I cooked.” It occurs to Merlin they’re both enjoying this a little too much.

“Goodness, I hope you didn’t strain your delicate wrist with all that complicated turning of the oven knob-” Arthur begins, breaking off when Merlin shifts toward him and accidentally places his elbow on the volume of the remote control.

“Sorry-” he mutters, juggling the remote. It’s an overly loud ad for some crappy show with mediums and psychics, and Merlin hesitates for a moment, abruptly focused on the screen. He can’t help it. He’s always curious. Maybe this one will have a genuine talent? He can’t be the only one who can do weird stuff.

Right?

“Oh my God,” Arthur says, and for the first time since they met Merlin can hear the Old Etonian sneer in that voice. He flinches automatically and glances sideways as Arthur continues. “Don’t tell me you actually watch that shit.”

Merlin blinks at him, a little stunned at the out-of-nowhere tone of attack.

Please,” Arthur raises a brow scornfully. “I had a higher opinion of you than that, Merlin.”

“I-um,” he stammers, glances at the screen and then back again, not sure whether he wants to say don’t be such a snobby prat or what the hell gives you the right to take that tone and instead settles for... “You-um, you don’t believe in the paranormal, then?”

“It’s garbage,” Arthur says harshly, “it’s the kind of destructive shit that ruins people’s lives, Merlin.” And he launches himself off the couch, plate in hand, storming into the kitchen.

Merlin sits there, numb, listening to the angry sounds of Arthur doing the dishes and all he can think is good thing I didn’t tell him about me, then.

 

* * *

 

Arthur meets Gaius about five weeks in. Merlin calls him with a typically odd request – you can build shelves, Arthur, can’t you? In your, um, spare time?

As it turns out, Arthur can. Because, as it turns out, he is completely incapable of saying no to Merlin on a good day, let alone when that bloody gorgeous voice of his gets a slightly tentative note to it, as if he’s afraid he might be overstepping somehow by asking for a favour. So Arthur finds himself spending a Tuesday morning at Albion Antiques, measuring and hammering and hoping to God nothing of his falls on or knocks over anything older than he is.

Merlin, oddly enough, disappears part way through the morning into the staff only area and is neither seen nor heard for half an hour. Gaius remains where he is, unpacking a consignment of silverware and tut-tutting over the inaccurate inventory that accompanied it. He is also casting curious glances at Arthur whenever he thinks he won’t be noticed. He’d frowned as Merlin had introduced them – you look familiar – and Arthur had smiled politely to mask the terror that the older man might actually, somehow, know his story. Gaius doesn’t ring any bells at all for him, so maybe it actually is just one of those things.

Finally, Gaius raises his eyes to the grandfather clock by the stairs and shakes his head, muttering “Merlin,” with great meaning, and then he shuffles out the back, from whence muffled arguments can soon be heard. After about two minutes Arthur stops pretending to work and unabashedly listens.

It’s almost entirely Merlin’s side of the argument he hears. Whatever’s going on, Gaius remains calm and reasoned. So all Arthur gets is muffled fragments like ridiculous circus and why don’t you go, then and cruel and unusual with some more ridiculous and pointless at the end.

Finally they both emerge, and Arthur is extremely fortunate he’d already put down his hammer, because it would have taken a chunk out of his trust fund to fix the things he was currently perched over.

Merlin looks… amazing. Polished. Urbane. A brighter version of himself.

He’s wearing a sharply cut suit – no tie – and a deep burgundy shirt that make his eyes pop the most vivid blue Arthur’s ever seen, and that includes the incredible sky over southern Afghanistan. The punch of heat in his gut should be familiar by now, but this is – it’s like his normal attraction on steroids.

Oh shit. Why couldn’t Will have been the long-term and extremely possessive boyfriend Arthur had pictured? Can he never catch a bloody break?

Merlin’s never looked more pissed off, and he blows past Arthur - who’s frozen, halfway up a ladder - like he’s forgotten his flatmate’s even there. Which, apparently, he has. He pauses at the door and looks back at Gaius, vivid colour in his cheeks as he raises a threatening hand, Finger of Doom pointing back at his employer.

“This is the last time, Gaius. I mean it.” The stern tone of Merlin’s voice goes straight to Arthur’s cock and he swallows, hard.

“Of course,” the old man nods sagely, and Merlin’s eyes narrow.

Arthur bites back a laugh at the muttered stream of curses that provokes, and he hastens down the ladder as Merlin pushes outside without another word.

Arthur glances from the door to Gaius, whose lips are openly twitching, and half-jogs to the door. He’s completely at the mercy of his own arousal, amazement and amusement, moving without conscious thought. He pulls the door open just in time to see Merlin disappear into a taxi, slamming the door for good measure.

Merlin glances back and spots him, blinks a few times as he clearly recalls the scene and realizes Arthur witnessed the whole thing. He grimaces and rolls down his window. “Sorry,” he mutters. His pale skin flushes again.

Arthur just grins. “Merlin,” he calls, leaning casually against the door frame.

“Yeah?” He squints suspiciously, awaiting the mocking.

“That’s a good look for you,” Arthur says instead, voice suddenly soft and a lot deeper than he’d meant it to be. “A very good look.”

Merlin’s eyes widen, and a second later the taxi pulls away with a jerk.

Arthur watches it go while he takes a minute to remember how to breathe, and then heads back inside, eyeing Gaius curiously. “Where is he going anyway? And where did he get that suit?”

“Off to lunch at the Savoy,” Gaius says, matter-of-fact. He returns to his spot at the counter, though he shoots one appraising look across the store to watch the effect of his words.

Arthur freezes. “What?” Merlin at the Savoy? It’s like picturing a giraffe on ice skates. Although - in that suit…

“The suit, well,” Gaius says, “I made him buy a few years ago. He kept insisting on going to these lunches in jeans and a t-shirt. I keep it here at work to prevent him from sabotaging it. That boy has a genius for trouble.” He turns to head out back again, then pauses. “Or is it Claridges this year? I can’t remember. It’s always somewhere good, anyway.”

“Who on earth is Merlin meeting at the Savoy?”

“My competitors, of course,” he replies, brows rising. “The big fish. Sotheby’s, etc. They try to recruit him every year. There used to be a series of lunches and dinners, he somehow convinced them to throw in together so he only has to do it once. It’s something of a tradition, now. I hear the staff at Christies treat it like some kind of bank half-holiday nowadays. Last year he apparently taught them some horrid kind of drinking game and the year before two of the Lloyds people ended up on TubeFace or whatever it’s called, planking in the British Museum.”

Arthur just stands there, mouth agape. “And you encourage him to go?”

He tips his head, regarding Arthur carefully. “Of course. He has options, he should know it.” For a moment he hesitates. Then he says softly, “Sometimes I almost wish he’d accept an offer.”

“Why?” The affection between Merlin and his employer is obvious to anyone with eyes. This is more than a working relationship – not that Merlin could maintain something so cold anyway. He’s too impulsive for that, too messy. He’s always involving himself with people, twining himself into their lives until they can’t do without him. Arthur blinks and swallows at the uncomfortable realization skimming beneath that thought.

Gaius sighs, and his eyes roam around the space. “Well, it would make my decision for me, I suppose. I’d have to sell up and get out. And I could lose some of the guilt.”

Arthur frowns, and he clarifies. “I can’t pay him what he’s worth. I mean, I’ve raised his salary as high as I can and still stay afloat, but it’s nothing compared to what he’d get at Lloyds or Christies.”

It’s no surprise to hear that Merlin isn’t tempted by money. “He doesn’t seem to care,” Arthur says softly.

“Of course he doesn’t,” Gaius rolls his eyes, and his tone is not complementary. “That boy has no more sense than a whippet when it comes to the people he loves. He’d live on bread and water rather than leave me, the idiot. He could be making money hand over fist if he wanted. But no, he’d rather stick here out of some sense of obligation…”

Gaius sighed, and Arthur only hesitated a second before he said, “You know it’s not obligation that makes him stay.” There’s silence, and then he adds, “He’s happy.”

A smile touches Gaius’ face, and he gives Arthur a long, unreadable look. “Yes. I know.”

They don’t speak again, and Arthur is putting the finishing touches to the shelves when Gaius startles him. “Arthur Fitzroy,” he says slowly, thoughtfully. “Hmm. What was your mother’s name, Arthur?”

For a moment he’s frozen, then he swallows and turns slowly, staring down at Gaius from the top of the ladder. “Igraine,” he says, voice rough. Doesn’t see the point in lying. All his thoughts are turning around MerlinMerlinMerlin, because there’s no way Gaius will keep this to himself-

Gaius smiles, broad and pleased and the terror in Arthur’s chest unclenches just a little. It’s not about that, then. Nothing bad.

“Lady Igraine Shannen,” Gaius finishes, clearly delighted. “I knew I recognized you. Well, the resemblance, anyway. My dear boy,” he steps back as Arthur climbs down to floor level, “I met your mother once, spent a week with her at her godmother’s house. In fact, I think – yes, I’m sure – she was pregnant with you at the time.”

Arthur hangs on to the ladder as he stares. “You knew her?”

“Briefly,” Gaius says. “Only briefly. But she made an impression.” He shakes his head, “You’re very like her, you know.”

“Yes,” Arthur says, and takes a quick breath. “So I’ve been told.”

“Well,” Gaius says, suddenly awkward and not sure where to look. That’s how Arthur knows he’s just remembered that Igraine died in childbirth, that he’s talking to the reason she’s no longer on this earth. “Well,” he repeats. “I’m very pleased to have solved that mystery, Arthur. It would have bothered me for days.”

Arthur just half-smiles and turns away to gather up his tools. “And just in time, too. I’m finished here.” He gets out of there as quickly as he can. He doesn’t want to spend any time wandering down memory lane with Gaius. No matter how tempted he is by stories of his mother.

 

Chapter Text

 

Perhaps he should have been better prepared. Gaius had certainly supplied enough detail to warn him. But somehow he hadn’t quite put it together.

It was the suit, Arthur decided. The bloody suit had completely done him in. Packaging Merlin like that – all long, clean lines and seductive collarbones. He was going to have bloody wet dreams about that suit.

So he was a little less than on the ball when a cab lurched to a stop outside the house late that night. He hesitates, hand twitching for his sidearm before he can catch himself. Right.

As if – he – would just catch a cab to Arthur’s house. He clicks off the telly and goes to the door.

Merlin emerges from the cab in a stumble which is, sadly, probably not at all caused by his undeniable drunkenness. Arthur sighs and heads down the front path, ready to manhandle him inside and pay the cabbie. He’s not ready for the chorus of wolf-whistles and cat-calls that emerge from the cab’s interior.

“Merlin, you lucky bastard,” a blonde girl yells from inside the cab. “He really does look like Prince Charming.”

“Shut up,” Merlin slurs, head in his hands. “Oh god please all of you shut up.” He looks up, blue eyes pleading. “Arthur,” he says earnestly, “I’m really sorry.”

“You didn’t say fucking gorgeous, Emrys,” another blonde leans out the window, which does wonderful things for her cleavage. “Or mention the body.”

“To be fair,” a tall man unfolds from the front passenger seat and quirks an eyebrow over the roof of the cab, “he did say broodingly handsome.”

“Kill me,” Merlin mumbles against Arthur’s shoulder. “Kill me now.”

Arthur finally gathers his wits. “Lovely to meet you all,” he says, taking a definite step backwards and dragging Merlin with him.

“Oh God, did you hear that accent? I think I just came.” The words drift out the window and now even the cabbie is craning his head for a look.

Arthur can feel the blood rushing to his face. For Christ’s sake, he’s been on benders with special ops soldiers, he can handle a couple of drunken antique valuers, surely?

“Arthur,” the second blonde purrs, still hanging out the window as he backs away, “please say you’ll come to lunch next year. You can be my date, if you don’t want to be Merlin’s. Or you can just show up… have your pick, once you get there, if you like. Everyone was extremely impressed with your photo.”

“The others are going to be so pissed we saw you in person,” the tall man is grinning as Arthur finally, finally manages to press Merlin up against the front door.

Oh God, he’s pressed against Merlin, who’s pressed against a door. I did not dream of this, I did not dream of this, I did not-

“Good night,” he manages, praying fervently that Merlin didn’t do anything stupid like offer them a nightcap. They practically fall inside the house to a chorus of “Good night, Prince Arthur.”

He drags Merlin upstairs – I did not dream this – and lets him fall into bed in the suit. He’s not about to trust himself to remove, well – anything. Okay, maybe just the shoes. Then he stands back, surveying the wreck of Merlin.

“I didn’t start it,” Merlin mumbles without lifting his head. “You sent me a text and they saw your photo on the screen. Bastards.”

“It’s fine, Merlin,” Arthur says, trying not to smile.

“Bastards,” he mumbles again. “Oh God.”

Arthur jogs down to his own bathroom and returns with a glass of water and some Advil. “Take these,” he advises, wondering if Merlin’s a vomiter. He eyes the new carpet, resigned, and makes another trip for an old ice-cream container he uses for soaking his paintbrushes.

When he comes back Merlin has struggled out of the jacket and dragged a few buttons of his shirt open. Arthur bites back a breath at the sudden appearance of pale skin and carefully drags the comforter up over Merlin.

“Go to sleep, idiot,” he says softly, and clenches his hands into fists at how much he wants to h– oh fuck it all.

To hold him.

 

 

 

Two days later Merlin arrives home from work with an exquisite silk lampshade cradled inside a sturdy box. He places it on the kitchen table and steadies it carefully to make sure the table’s permanent angle isn’t going to cause it to slide off and crash to the floor. Arthur takes a moment to marvel at the way Merlin can fumble a simple passing of the salt, but has never, according to Gaius, so much as chipped an antique.

“It’s from Gaius,” Merlin says before he can ask. “For the shelves.”

“What?”

“Payment for the shelves,” Merlin says, already turning for the stairs.

“No,” he says on automatic. He blinks at it, then calls, “Merlin. I can’t possibly. This is-”

Merlin shrugs from the half-landing. “You can argue it out with him,” he yells back. “I’m just the messenger, here.”

Arthur stares at it. It’s beautiful. Then he notices the small envelope tucked under the lid. The note inside feels like parchment, spindly handwriting wandering across the page.

Arthur,

If memory serves, this is almost identical to a piece your mother admired from the estate collection I was valuing (her godmother’s). Please accept it with my thanks for a job well done, and in memory of a true lady, someone whose company I greatly enjoyed.

Gaius

He is still staring at it when Merlin comes back downstairs. Merlin grins as he passes the table. “Go on. Go ahead. Call and tell him you can’t possibly. I guarantee you’ll end up thanking him profusely instead. He’s extremely hard to say no to.”

“Fine,” Arthur shoots back. “I will.”

Merlin smirks and keys the number into Arthur’s phone, then ambles off to make tea. He places a mug in front of Arthur in the midst of the world’s most fumbling conversation and Merlin’s eyes fall on the note. Arthur watches his face as he takes it in the contents, the way it goes carefully blank, but the sympathy clearly written beneath.

He swears later, to himself, that’s why he ends up accepting the damn gift.

 

*  *  *

 

Merlin takes a trip to see Will after about two months of living with Arthur. Edwin’s away for part of the weekend, so it’s like old times in many ways, talking shite and eating and talking more shite, laughing like loons at things no-one else would find funny.

He tries very hard not to sound too different when he mentions Arthur, but from the look on Will’s face he’s not fooling anybody. There’s a photo of Arthur and Gwen on Merlin’s phone and Will whistles softly when he sees it, making Merlin’s face heat.

Still, he’s allowed to leave with only a long, measuring look, and a warm hug which says about as much of a be careful as mere words would have done. His flight back is brief and uneventful, and he forces his mind away from Arthur by flicking back over images of Will in his head, and then on his phone. He looks happy.  His painting has improved, too. Still.

Fucking Edwin.

It’s a typical cloudy London afternoon when Merlin walks home from the Tube, his carry-on slung over his shoulder. He’s thinking of nothing much and listening to one of his playlists. He lets himself in and keeps the music on until the end of Moves Like Jagger, which is possibly why he’s made it inside the house, through the front room and all the way to the stairs before he hears it.

Arthur. Moaning.

He freezes, just freezes, halfway up the stairs, earbuds dangling from one hand. The punch of desire is ordinary – baseline – ever since he started living with Arthur. But it’s the stab of hurt, of jealousy, that catches him off-guard.

Who the fuck is upstairs with Arthur, making him sound like that?

His feet completely disobey him and resume climbing the stairs. Oh, shit, no, stop, he has time to think and then everything short-circuits again because the low voice murmuring over the top of Arthur’s contented sex noises belongs to a woman.

Merlin drags in a shaky breath. Righto. He’s an idiot, then, and the object of his uncontrollable crush is bloody straight.

One more step brings him to the landing where the half-open door of Arthur’s room gives him an abbreviated glimpse that is still more than he ever wanted to see.

Not only is Arthur straight, but he is apparently being stroked into oblivion by a fucking supermodel.

Merlin hates her immediately. It’s a toss-up whether it’s more for the long, slow strokes of her fingers over Arthur’s gleaming back, or for possessing flawless porcelain skin and raven hair that actually tumbles down her fucking back in storybook fucking ringlets.

“Oh my God,” Arthur slurs into the six-inch pile of towels beneath him. For some reason they’re not having sex on his mattress, instead he’s sprawled out on the floor on a pile of what looks like every towel in the house. Whatever.

Princess Raven Tresses is still fully dressed in jeans and a shirt so simple they scream exclusive and expensive. Arthur is covered only by a towel over his arse and Merlin doesn’t want to know if he is stumbling into foreplay or afterglow, he just really, really needs to find a drink or ten and then make some terrible random hook-up that will give him something else to focus on – like a nice dose of ordinary shame - instead of-

“You should really do this as a regular thing, you know,” Tresses is saying, her plummy voice low and even and she really doesn’t seem into this at all, even as her hands work over the hills and valleys of Arthur’s lower back. “The kind of work you do…”

Stupid cow. Merlin silently lowers his bag to the floor. Who the hell could possibly underappreciate Arthur? Why isn’t she gasping and shrieking at her unbelievable good fortune-

Arthur just makes another low sound and then flinches when her fingers sweep under the towel to fondle that beautiful bum.

“No matter how you frame it,” he mumbles into the towels, “you touching my arse is inappropriate and, well, weird.”

Tresses shrugs, but there’s a laugh in her voice when she rolls her eyes and says, “For God’s sake, Arthur, I’m a professional. But if it makes you feel weird then perhaps you should stop carrying so much of your tension there, you tosser.”

And Arthur snickers.

Not exactly pillow talk. Merlin frowns and shifts his weight, trying to think around the haze of jealous hurt in his head. He should also go back downstairs and out the front door.

He doesn’t.

A professional? Surely Arthur wouldn’t hire a-

Princess Raven Tresses spots him in that exact moment and sits back on her heels, hands sliding out from beneath the towel.

For a moment her eyes are hard, measuring, and then she keeps going, working her way down Arthur’s legs as she says, “So you’ve got a flatmate now?” She never looks away from Merlin, who blinks at her stupidly. And then he gets it.

Ohhhh. Masseuse. Not a girlfriend or a fuckbuddy or even a prostitute. The sun comes out just as Arthur says, “Yes,” his voice slurs slightly, turning husky as he says, “Merlin.” The sound goes straight to Merlin’s cock, oh my god what he’d give to hear it said like that against his lips-

“Tall and lanky, is he? Pale? Given to open-mouthed staring?”

And just like that Merlin is back to stupid cow.

Arthur jerks upright, bracing himself on his elbows as he swings his head toward the door.

“Careful,” Merlin says without thinking, “You’ll undo all the good work.”

She sits back on her heels, eyebrows delicately rising at the implied compliment.

“Assuming she does any, that is,” he adds, glaring at her. She could have given him a chance to clear his throat or stomp or something, before she outed him like that.

Green gimlet eyes bore into him.

Merlin,” Arthur says again, and his face is flushed from lying down. Or possibly from being almost totally naked. Apparently there were cotton boxers under that towel. Damn it. “Uh. This is… Morgana.”

Morgana and Merlin stare at one another, unimpressed. Arthur doesn’t notice.

“Morgana, this is Merlin,” Arthur completes the introduction and gets to his feet, offering a hand to the supermodel. And Merlin’s not too proud to fleetingly glance and check. No erection.

Her brow flicks up again as she gracefully rises, and he just knows she noticed where his eyes went. Damn. He waits for another sneering remark, with absolutely no idea how he’ll combat it.

He’s absolutely gone for Arthur. He knows it, Arthur suspects, it’s likely there are tribes living in the outer provinces of Uzbekistan with no electricity or running water who are discussing his hopeless crush on Arthur over their evening campfires.

But Arthur speaks before she can, half-laughs, soft and relaxed as he runs a hand through his hair and says, “And she does excellent work, actually.” And he pauses, then says, flushing, “Sorry, I know this must look, well-”

Morgana’s eyes widen as if she’s seeing something for the first time in a long time, and her gaze turns back to Merlin again, curious, as Arthur continues.

He gestures to his near-nudity and the pile of towels and, well, everything, “I’m afraid I didn’t get the shower working in your mum’s bathroom yet, I shouldn’t have stopped, I know-”

 “It’s not Mum’s bathroom,” Merlin shouts, exasperated. There’s no real reason why this should be what makes him snap but Morgana is glancing back and forth between them, blinking, and he couldn’t give a toss what she’s thinking, frankly – beautiful cow with her elegant hands all over Arthur’s smooth, oiled up skin-

“It’s your bloody house, your bloody schedule and you work like a bloody navvy so don’t apologize for taking half an hour to get a fucking massage, especially not to me.”

And he storms upstairs, leaving surprised silence in his wake.

 

 

“So…” Morgana drifts up to Merlin’s door and leans against it, casually elegant. She drops his carry-on just inside the doorway. “Merlin. Merlin Emrys.”

He casts a bad-tempered look her way.

“Tell me your life story, Merlin,” she says, and perches on the end of his bed, uninvited.

“Hmm, how about, no,” he says, trying to hold his temper.

“Gwen likes you,” she says thoughtfully, “and I like Gwen, very much. So there’s a chance I don’t want to have you killed.”

She says this shit like it’s normal and he’s about to fire back when he realizes what else she just said. “You know Gwen?”

“Mmm,” she says, eyes roaming around his room and he is not going to be self-conscious about the huge pile of dirty laundry he’d meant to take care of before he left for the weekend, his bloody unmade bed or the stack of Will’s artwork that is still leaning against his walls instead of hanging.

“How do you know Gwen?”

“We grew up together,” she says softly, “Arthur and Gwen and I.”

“You.” He straightens, phone dropping from his hand onto the bed and bouncing onto the floor. “You what?”

“Arthur didn’t get a chance to mention that I’m his cousin, before your charming bout of temper,” she drawls, rising to stand in front of Will’s paintings and not looking at Merlin.

“Um.” He blinks. “No.”

“We grew up together,” she says, voice empty of anything that might resemble emotion, “after my parents died… we were like brother and sister.”

“Oh,” Merlin says stupidly. He’s not sure what to make of that. This is the first hint of any kind of family in Arthur’s life. He knew about Gwen, but neither of them ever mentions specifics, he doesn’t even know what part of England they grew up in. “Er.”

“So,” she says, turning to face him, “You can understand why I’m curious.”

“About… me?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, um,” he frowns, still not sure why, oh hell, unless she can see right through him the same way Arthur can. God, he must be the most obvious idiot on the face of the earth and now Arthur’s cousin thinks he’s a lovesick stalker. “He had a vacant room and I was looking for a new place. My best mate moved to Zurich.”

She just keeps watching but there’s not a whole lot left for him to say. What does she want him to do, audition?

“I’m, uh, not a serial killer or anything – look, is there something you want to ask me?” he finally says, helplessly.  

“Arthur can be very… commanding,” she says after a long pause, tipping Will’s canvases forward one by one, perusing.

Merlin blinks at the back of her neck.

“But he’s not always right about what he needs.” And finally she turns to look at him. “Don’t let him talk you around too much, Merlin.”

He stares at her for a very long time. “I have absolutely no idea what you mean by that.”

And then she smiles. “I know.”

But it sounds like she’s thinking he’s not a terrible flatmate for Arthur, or even a generic idiot, and so he hesitates. “Okay.” And when it becomes clear that she’s not going to elaborate on that, adds, “Um, thanks?”

The smile widens and she glances down at the artwork again. “Are these yours?”

“Oh God, no,” Merlin says, “I’m pants at anything artistic. They’re Will’s – my best mate. The one who moved away.”

“They’re quite good,” she says softly. “I like this one, especially.”

“Well.” Merlin says, liking her a fraction more. “Um. He has a website. If you’re interested.”

“I am,” she smiles a small, controlled smile in his direction. She’s very reserved, which just makes it even weirder that someone like her would touch strangers for a living. Not that she needs to make a living, judging by the jewellery she’s wearing. Merlin knows enough to recognize Cartier and Tiffanys when he sees it. Maybe the massage is just a weird hobby, like Arthur’s renovation kink.

“I’ll leave you alone now,” she says, drifting toward the door. “Arthur is making noises about going out for dinner later. I hope you’ll join us?”

“I guess. Um. Yes. Thanks.” And when she disappears he suddenly strikes a thought and dashes out to the landing. “Morgana?”

“Yes?”

“Are you… staying here?”

“God, no,” she laughs. “Unlike Arthur, I feel no compulsion to live in a construction zone. I have a flat in town, even though I’m hardly ever there.”

And he watches her drift down the stairs, completing the picture he’s been sketching in his head of Arthur’s life. She’s clearly a child of privilege, her clothes would cost as much as Merlin could make in a month, she has the same cut-glass accent and air of confidence, and is also carrying what looks like a metric ton of emotional baggage. At the same time she’s a mystery. A woman like that – working as a masseuse?

They head out for Thai food and it’s not as excruciating as Merlin had expected… Morgana puts her sneering on mute through the shared entrée and it’s something to see Arthur relaxed and laughing with someone else, for a change. Still, neither of them mentions any event or person from earlier than five years ago, as if they both just appeared on the planet as fully-formed adults.

He’s intrigued.

It’s not until the waiter is collecting their empty plates that he realizes Morgana has been watching him even more intently than he’s been watching Arthur. She narrows her eyes at him as Arthur rises to visit the loo, and Merlin hastily backtracks through the past few minutes. Had he done something wrong? Said something stupid?

Well, stupider than usual. “Is something wrong?”

For a long time she says nothing, and Merlin raises his eyebrows. “I haven’t seen Arthur look this relaxed in a very long time,” she finally says.

“Oh. Good.”

She doesn’t move, and he says uncertainly, “That is good, right?”

“How did you come to move in with him?” she asks, and Merlin hesitates. Didn’t they already cover this?

“We, um, met at a party of Gwen’s.”

Morgana looks like she’s reconsidering the whole I like Gwen thing.

“I said I was looking for a flatmate and he offered me his spare room. No big deal,” he says, despite the look on Morgana’s face that says it’s a huge deal.

“Just like that.” She’s skeptical.

“Well.” He hesitates. He’s not sure why he’s considering telling her more, then he shrugs. Family. “He um, thought I had a boyfriend. He saw me with an old mate and um, he thought…”

“Ahh,” Morgana says, sounding somehow appeased. She leans back in her chair. “Now I see.”

Merlin can feel his face flush. “Yeah. Right. I guess he didn’t want a single roommate who was gay in case of… complications.”

Her brows flick up in a tiny movement. “Hm. Well. I think it might have been a little more specific reason than that, but still.”

He puzzles over her words for a moment. “I’m not sure I-”

“Don’t worry about it, Merlin,” she says, lips twitching. “I’m a bit of a cow at times, I’m afraid. You’ll get used to it.”

Will I? Merlin thinks. Going to be seeing a lot of her then. Oh, good.

Chapter Text

 

 

Arthur is lolling around Morgana’s flat on a cold, clear Saturday morning, waiting for her to get out of the shower so they can head to lunch, when his phone rings.

“Hello?” He flicks open the cover of some overpriced glossy fashion rag and stares down, nonplussed, at a shampoo ad that looks more like a fruit and veg promotion. Avocado nutrients. Really?

“Is this Arthur?”

“Speaking.”

“This is Lee Gaius -”

Arthur blinks. “Um. Hello?”

“- Merlin Emrys’ employer.”

“Yes, I remember you, sir. Uh-”

“I apologize for the intrusion – I still have your number from-”

“-that’s quite all right.”

“Well. I was rather hoping you could help me track down Merlin’s friend, Gwen.”

 “She, uh, she’s probably on the Tube at the moment,” Arthur begins, still slightly confused. “I’m actually meeting her for lunch.”

“Ah. Right.” There’s a pause where the older man is clearly making up his mind.

“Would you like me to pass on a message?” Arthur asks.

“No, that’s all right,” he says slowly. “If she’s not close by she probably can’t be of much assistance to him anyway. It was, as Merlin would say, a long shot.”

Arthur straightens. “Merlin needs assistance?”

There’s another pause. “Ah. Hm. Well. Yes, I think he might. Unfortunately I’m in Surrey this weekend, visiting friends, so I’m not able-”

“I’m in town right now,” Arthur interrupts. “Tell me what’s going on.” A beat later he realizes that was probably a little overbearing, and he winces. It’s not easy overcoming years of training.

Gaius speaks more slowly this time, but thankfully he doesn’t sound annoyed. More like… curious. “Hm. I received a phone call a few minutes ago asking about Merlin. From the police.”

Arthur is on his feet and scribbling a note for Morgana as Gaius continues speaking. “They’ve asked Merlin to come down to the mortuary in Westminster to identify a body.”

What?”

He continues, unphased by Arthur’s exclamation.

“Apparently Merlin’s business card was found on a deceased individual last night.”

Arthur blinks. “Okay,” he says.

“I think…” there’s hesitation now, “I think perhaps Merlin might need some support. I was hoping Gwen could make it there.”

“I’ll go,” Arthur says, still trying to figure out if Gaius means might-get-arrested kind of support or about-to-see-a-dead-friend kind. “I can be there in fifteen minutes or so.”

“Good,” Gaius says. “The officer said Merlin was at home when they called, he should be en route.”

“All right,” Arthur says, shoving his note onto the middle of the dining table and disappearing through Morgana’s front door. He’ll google the address from the cab. “I’m on my way there now.”

 

 

Arthur’s cab is actually rounding the corner when he sees Merlin climbing the steps of the mortuary. He’s pale, as usual, head down, shoulders hunched under his coat and something clenches in Arthur’s chest at the sight of him.

He throws too much money at the cabbie and jogs across the street, still not quite sure what he’s going to say or do here.

“Merlin,” he calls, but the heavy doors close him out and he takes the steps two at a time, trying to catch up. When he drags the door open again it’s to hear Merlin giving his name - that beautiful voice subdued and rough - at the front desk.

“…they’re expecting me.”

The woman behind the counter simply nods and picks up the phone, which is when Arthur says, “Merlin.”

He doesn’t jump. He just turns slowly, blinking, frowns, then blinks some more at Arthur.

“Are you all right?” he asks, approaching carefully, voice low.

Arthur?”

“Gaius called me,” he says, “are you all right?”

“Gaius?” His voice is slow, on the edge of shocky and Arthur is suddenly very glad Gaius called.

He nods and waits.

“Am I…” and he glances down at the floor before he says, “I’m all right. Yes.”

Arthur steps to his side as the woman puts the phone down and mumbles something about someone being right out. He nudges Merlin away from the counter, tilts his head and waits again. He’s not about to badger Merlin with questions even though he’s screaming to know what’s going on. He knows from experience just how shitty it is to be forced to talk when you’re reeling with shock.

“Arthur,” he says again, and this time his brow crinkles a little. “Why are you…”

“Moral support,” he says, easy, and lets his shoulder brush against Merlin’s. “Don’t worry too much about it, all right? You’re not on your own.”

He nods slowly and then a door opens and they are calling Merlin’s name. Arthur keeps pace with Merlin as he moves toward a stocky guy in a cheap suit.

“I’m Merlin.”

The guy – a cop, Arthur can still recognize them so easily – nods, and flicks a glance at Arthur. “And you are?”

“Arthur Fitzroy,” he says calmly, and lets his hand come to rest on the back of Merlin’s neck. “We live together.” He can feel the little tremor that runs through Merlin at that, and thinks just let it stand, let me be here for you, just once.

There’s a short pause, then the cop says, “Sergeant Gawain. You’re welcome to wait here if you’d like, Mr Fitzroy.”

“I’d really prefer to stay with Merlin,” he says, carefully taking any aggression or arrogance out of his tone, just making it a simple statement. He hasn’t got a single leg to stand on, and they both know it. “He’s a bit upset.”

Gawain gives him a long, measuring look, but it’s a fair enough statement, surely. Unless the guy can’t cope with seeing two men holding h- “All right,” he says after a long pause, and his eyes rake over Merlin’s lean frame. “Follow me, please.”

They trail down several corridors of institutional white walls and an extremely easy-clean floor covering of some kind. Arthur tries not to think too much about the smells and sounds that drift his way, or why exactly the floor needs to be so low maintenance. He’s never had to visit a mortuary before, thank God.

“Through here,” Gawain says, and they file through a doorway into another space where the ammonia smell is much stronger and the lights seem slightly brighter. Arthur can feel Merlin tense beside him and he grasps his hand instinctively, trying to warm the fingers that thread through his. They are both staring at the double swing doors ahead of them.

Gawain pauses, and Arthur watches as he peruses his notes one more time, seemingly for no good reason other than to give Merlin time. His shoulders relax just slightly at this small consideration – whatever’s going on Gawain doesn’t seem to be looking at Merlin with suspicion. Arthur can detect that vibe blindfolded from twenty feet away.

“Now, Mr Emrys,” Gawain says. “I’ve explained to you already the circumstances in which the body was found.”

Merlin nods once. He hasn’t looked away from the doors since they got here.

“Your card was the only identifying item found on him.”

“Was he wearing it?” His voice comes out rough and Arthur’s fingers curl tighter around his.

“I’m sorry?”

“The coat. Was he wearing it?”

There’s a pause and Gawain looks uncomfortable for a brief moment before he says, “It was… draped over him. Like a blanket.”

Merlin’s face spasms for a second. Then he just nods, helpless.

There’s another pause and then Gawain says, “Whenever you feel you’re ready, we can go through. There’s nothing to worry about,” and now his tone is gentle, “nothing bad to see. He isn’t injured, he looks as though he’s sleeping.”

“Yes,” Merlin says, voice dull with pain. “I can imagine.”

“If you are able to identify the individual, I’ll have some questions for you after. All right?”

He swallows. “If it is who I think it is, I probably can’t tell you much. But I’ll try.”

An expression passes over Gawain face that has Arthur tensing, a cynical weariness that should never be directed at Merlin. Not Merlin.

He feels Merlin take a deep breath before he lets go of Arthur’s hand, steps forward and pushes through. Arthur hesitates for the first time, flicks a glance at Gawain who is watching him narrowly, but makes no move to prevent him from following Merlin through the doors.

Someone in blue scrubs is waiting inside, hands folded on the edge of a gurney. She waits until Gawain is inside the room, has rounded the gurney - to get an unimpeded view of both their faces, Arthur realizes - and then she looks to Merlin.

“I’ll lift the sheet when you’re ready,” she says, her Scots accent very soft, and Arthur has a moment to be thankful that people who work amongst ugly death every day can still remember how hard it is for the rest of them.

“I’m ready,” Merlin says, and his hand finds Arthur’s again as she reaches for the sheet.

Arthur keeps his eyes locked on Merlin as she folds the fabric back and exposes a face. All the breath goes out of Merlin in a rush and Arthur can’t take his eyes off Merlin’s face, waiting for- watching for-

He’s sad. Shattered. Disappointed. But it’s not that gut-wrenching look of grief Arthur knows, Merlin doesn’t look the way Gwen had looked when-

He wrenches his mind away from that time and refocuses on Merlin.

“It’s him,” Merlin says finally, voice low and tired.

“You know this individual?” Gawain is formal and patient.

Merlin nods and Arthur looks down at the body for the first time. Oh shit. Fuck. It’s a – it’s a kid.

A teenager. His colour is all wrong, he’s pale - of course - the waxy skin unmarked, though he’s clearly much thinner than he should be. There are cracks at the corners of his mouth and a cold sore on his bottom lip.

“I… know him,” Merlin is saying, hesitant. “Well, I mean, we’ve… spoken. I don’t know much about him, really. Probably nothing you haven’t already guessed, anyway,” and the last words are heavy.

Gawain nods to the woman who covers up the face.

“Very well, then.”

“Do you-” Merlin says suddenly, hesitates, than finishes, “can I see the coat?”

Gawain pauses, and Arthur sees the narrowing of his eyes, the first sign of real suspicion as he looks at Merlin. “Yes,” he says slowly, and steps over to a corner of the room, to a stainless steel table with a large bag on it. He snaps on a glove and reaches inside the bag, drawing out a folded navy wool coat spattered with indeterminate stains Arthur really doesn’t want to think about.

Gawain watches narrowly as Merlin reaches out a hand, hovering. He closes his eyes, lets out a short breath and simply places his hand flat on the fabric. Arthur shifts to see his face, the stainless steel and the lights around them creating an odd flash of light over Merlin’s closed lids for a second, and his lips compress, sadder than ever. Then he draws his hand back.

“Thank you,” he says, and turns away.

Gawain blinks, suspicion fading, and Arthur realizes he’d thought Merlin was going to try to search the coat or something, perhaps palm something from a pocket. It pretty much confirms his ideas on how a kid that young and so dreadfully skinny ended up dead.

The cop leads them out of the room and down some more corridors without another word. It’s not until they reach another room that he speaks again. “If you don’t mind, Mr Emrys, I’d like to ask you some questions. We might also need to ask you to sign a formal statement at some stage.”

Merlin nods, weary and Gawain looks Arthur over but doesn’t argue when he files into the interview room as well and takes one of the seats opposite the sergeant.

“What was the nature of your relationship with the deceased?” he begins, and Arthur shoots him a furious look, knowing full well what Gawain is implying. Gawain stares flatly back, no doubt secretly amused at the display of jealousy.

“We were… God, I don’t know. I couldn’t exactly say friends. Acquaintances?” Merlin shrugs, then says matter-of-factly, “I wasn’t a client, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t patronize hookers, and even if I did, he was just a kid.” Arthur winces, flashing back to that pale, slack face. A kid indeed, and the kind of things he’d had to do to survive didn’t bear thinking about.

“You knew he was a prostitute, then?”

Merlin shrugs again, but the words are heavy. “He was a teenage runaway living on the streets. I don’t think he was in a position to make many good choices. He was probably anything and everything, if the opportunity arose.”

Gawain nods slowly at that, and Arthur can tell he believes what he’s being told. “Can you tell me his name?”

“He always told me to call him Mo.” There’s a pause, then Merlin says slowly, carefully, “He did let a name slip, once. Mordred. I don’t know if it was a first or last name. I don’t know where he came from, either, though I’d say he wasn’t a Londoner. I had an idea he might be from the west, not really sure why.”

Gawain nods and makes a note. “Can you tell me how you came to meet him?”

Arthur relaxes a little at the conversational tone. There’s no threat there. Not now.

“I was walking home from the pub one night, late,” Merlin begins. “Someone tossed him out of a moving car at the end of the block. I went and helped him up.” A tiny smile touches his mouth, “I think he was giving them lip, whoever they were.” Then he saddens, abruptly. “He had an extremely smart mouth.”

Gawain waits.

“Anyway, I bought him a cup of coffee and a kebab. He abused me a bit and strolled off into the night. I didn’t see him again for weeks, but then one night I was walking home from the same pub with a mate,” he glances sideways at Arthur who thinks, Will, “and there he was on the corner. He offered- well,” Merlin shrugs. “Anyway I bought him something to eat, again, and he laughed at me some more. But after that he seemed to relax a bit, stopped offering to suck m-” he stops, flushing. “We ran into each other a bit more often after that, probably once or twice a month, I guess.”

“How long did you know him?”

“That first time we met was probably… eighteen months ago?”

Gawain nods slowly, making some more notes. “Did you know he was a drug user?”

Merlin’s mouth turns sad and Arthur places a hand flat on his back, rubbing just slightly. “I figured it out after a while. I used to drop by with sandwiches or whatever and sometimes he was – well, the mood swings were a big clue. And then… he got so thin.”

There’s silence for a while. Then Gawain says, “Tell me about the coat.”

Blue eyes blink at him across the table. “Winter was coming on. All he had was a denim jacket. I went to an Oxfam shop and got him a proper coat.”

Oh, Merlin, Arthur thinks, heart aching.

There’s another pause, then Merlin leans forward, rests his head on his hands and says, “I tried to… well, I talked to him about kicking the habit. About the same time as the coat. It was a good day, he was – tired. Not angry. So I tried. I’d found a treatment centre not far away. I made an appointment, and he never showed.”

He swallows, staring down at the table and Arthur’s hand keeps moving on his back, instinctive. “I went looking for him and he was… well, he was high. I tried again a few days later and he promised to come to the next appointment. I gave him my card, and my number in case anything went wrong. And this time he showed. But they’re so… it was three months before they could offer him a place and he just-” Merlin scrubs a hand over his mouth. “He was angry at himself this time, I think. Wouldn’t listen to me. And that was the last time I saw him.”

Gawain lets out a long breath that’s just short of a sigh. Arthur doesn’t want to think about the number of times he’s heard a story like that one.

“Did he – you said he had the card on him?” Merlin asks. “I thought he must’ve tossed it.”

Gawain hesitates, eyes flicking to Arthur before he says, “It was… hidden inside the lining of the coat.”

Merlin closes his eyes at that and leans back, hands falling into his lap.

Then Gawain nods to himself, back to business. “Did he give you any indicators of why he was on the streets? What had driven him away from home?”

Merlin’s mouth tightens. “I think… I don’t think it went very well when he came out. In fact I think you could say it went pretty fucking badly.”

Arthur reaches for his hand under the table, squeezing hard. Merlin is shaking at whatever memory that question has dragged up and he wonders for a moment about Will’s past. The way Merlin talks about his mother, well. Arthur can tell Hunith hadn’t withdrawn from Merlin for being gay, so it’s someone else’s pain he’s reliving.

Gawain nods slowly. “Right,” he says softly, makes another scratchy note on the file and then sits back. “Well, Mr Emrys. I, ah, thank you for your time.”

Merlin doesn’t move. “Was it the drugs that killed him?”

Gawain blinks. He hesitates, then says, “It does look like an overdose, yes. We haven’t performed an autopsy yet.”

Merlin nods, miserable.

“I know this has been difficult,” Gawain says, very low. He hesitates, then says, “I’m sure you’re wishing you could have done more, but… I’m afraid that’s not always possible.”

Merlin hunches lower in his chair, and Arthur turns to place a hand on his shoulder, glancing across at Gawain.

“We’ll …let you know if there’s any more information.”

“Thank you,” Arthur says, and he means it. Gawain could have played this quite differently.

The next several days are quiet and sad around the house. Merlin is haunted and Arthur has no idea how to fix it. So he does what he always does, instead. He fiddles around with things in the background. Fixing from a distance.

“John Mordred,” Merlin says, hanging up his phone on a sigh. “From Cornwall.”

Arthur blinks up at him. “My mother was from Cornwall.”

“Well I sincerely hope she wasn’t a Mordred,” Merlin says, lips in a flat line. “The arseholes don’t want anything to do with him, apparently. Not even now that he’s dead and can’t taint them by being gay anymore.” He swallows, hard, and then says, voice breaking, “Arthur, he was only sixteen. Which means he was fifteen at most when I met him.”

Ah, God.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly, helplessly. He doesn’t know what else to do. Merlin has spent the past few nights out, at Gwen’s place one night, and, he’s pretty sure, on another, walking the streets Mordred had once worked, talking to the boy’s friends. There was a very long phone call with Will, which seemed to help for a little while. But his eyes are heavy and red, the spark has gone out.

“I know you are,” Merlin says, and manages a smile. “I know.”

 

 

 

“They’ve released the body,” Merlin says, appearing suddenly in his bedroom doorway. “It’s already gone. Who would’ve-”

“I made some arrangements,” Arthur says, surprised into admitting it. Then says, “Um.”

“You – what?”

He shrugs, uncomfortable. “I thought… there should be a proper burial.”

Arthur,” Merlin says, eyes wide. “I… you didn’t have to… that’s - thank you.”

He shifts on the bed. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” Merlin says, very soft. “Not to me.”

He raises a shoulder and keeps his eyes on his book. “The funeral home should be calling you today,” he says instead. They were supposed to have called him by now, actually, so that there would have been no need for this conversation.

Merlin nods and holds up his phone. “Battery dead. I’m about to plug it in,” he says, eyes narrowing as he stares at Arthur. As if he’s now a mind-reader, he says, “You wouldn’t have told me. Would you.”

Arthur stares blandly back. “Why on earth would you think that, Merlin?”

He doesn’t answer, but the tiny smile at the corner of his mouth is the first Arthur’s seen in days, and when they attend the funeral on Tuesday morning, he looks a little less haunted, stands a little straighter.

A silent, shattered young girl has shown up from Cornwall, a high school friend apparently, and it seems to lighten Merlin’s load somehow, that someone cared enough to come from home. It’s a small, sad group gathered to farewell the boy, including Gwen and Gaius, and it rains enough to evoke every movie cliché. Merlin slides his hand into Arthur’s at the graveside, and holds it all the way home.

 

 

 

A few days later Arthur arrives home with his hands full of grocery bags to an empty house. He frowns for a moment, low-level worry for Merlin at the back of his mind as he restocks the fridge and pantry. He’s been better, ever since the funeral, Arthur thinks. Still sad sometimes, but recovering. He stacks a box of tea on top of the biscuits and opens the pantry.

The door gives up the will to live in that exact moment, falling off its hinges completely and he barely avoids getting smashed in the face, staggering back with his hands full of hideously ugly laminate and broken biscuits. The tea lands on his foot and he sighs.

“You couldn’t have held on for two more weeks?” he murmurs to the door. Ah well. He’s lived with worse. He’s leaning the door against the far wall when the back door flies opens in a hurry and startles the bloody life out of him.

“Arthur, are you-”

Jesus, Merlin,” he says, gasping. He drops his hand hastily. He did not just clutch at his chest like someone’s maiden aunty.

“I heard a- oh,” Merlin says, his eyes fixing on the pantry. “Finally crapped out, huh?” He refocuses on Arthur, “You’re all right, though?”

He rolls his eyes, thinking, if I survived roadside bombs in Afghanistan I can cope with a wonky cupboard door, but if he didn’t say that stuff to Morgana a year ago when it was fresh he’s certainly not going to say it to Merlin, now. So instead Arthur shrugs and returns to the shopping. “I’m fine. We knew it wouldn’t last much longer.”

“Yeah.” Merlin eyes him and shifts from foot to foot, then leans back to look at something outside. “Um.”

He slides the tea and biscuits onto a shelf and sighs. He knows that Um. It’s the first word he’d ever heard Merlin say, completely ridiculous that it had somehow sunk into him and lit up every particle of his skin, alive for the first time in years, possibly ever. The same Um that had charmed him into building shelves for Gaius and absolutely did not appear in his dreams.

“What have you done now, Merlin?” he turns and folds his arms, trying to hide his amusement and affection. Merlin has a beautiful, open nature, but there’s no point letting him know just how very far Arthur is prepared to indulge him.

One of these days Merlin will leave, and if he doesn’t, then Arthur will have to do the leaving. No point both of them getting hurt, which means Merlin is better off thinking Arthur only tolerates him.

“Nothing,” Merlin says defensively, eyes sliding away from Arthur’s face. “Um.”

Arthur bites back a laugh. “So… you haven’t done anything… yet.”

He flushes.

Arthur saunters forward, toward the back door and Merlin’s eyes widen. He slaps a hand to either side of the door frame and clings as he’s just created a force field that will hold Arthur back. “I, was actually, I was wondering…”

“Yes, Merlin?” he keeps going, and only then does he realize that this little game of his is going to put them right up against each other if neither of them backs away. He halts, abruptly, still very close to Merlin, close enough to feel the chilled air coming through the half-open door.

“If you had any objection to uh, pets.” Merlin swallows and raises his eyebrows hopefully. “At all?”

Arthur blinks at him. “Pets?”

A pet,” he says hastily. “One. Singular.”

Singular, all right, Arthur thinks, and sighs. “What, exactly, are we talking about, Merlin?” He’s pessimistic enough to be picturing Saint Bernards and noisy parakeets as he steps forward again and this time Merlin yields. So he’s completely wrong-footed when he steps outside and is confronted with the world’s most pathetic looking cat.

For a start, it’s damp from the rain. And thin. There’s patches of fur missing and several nasty looking scars around one ear and one eye. It’s curled in a defensive crouch, up against the back wall of the house, beneath the old bench the previous tenants had left behind.

“Oh.” He says.

Shit, is what he’s thinking, because the cat alone is enough to do him in, and Merlin hasn’t even turned on the pleading eyes yet. He is not supposed to be acquiring things to care about. He already has Gwen and Morgana and Lance. And, oh fuck, just admit it, Merlin.

“You know, Merlin,” he says, trying to stave off the inevitable, “sometimes a stray can’t adjust-”

“He’d be no trouble,” Merlin begins.

“He might not even want-”

What? Regular meals? Not to be thrown off a fucking roof?”

Arthur takes a step back at Merlin’s vehemence. “No, I- Merlin. I’m not saying no. I’m just saying, be careful.”

Merlin is flushing, he glances away, hands sliding into his back pockets. “Sorry. It’s just – he’s been mistreated, Arthur. That doesn’t make him dangerous, or, or undeserving. Everything deserves to be cared for. To feel safe and- and loved.”

Arthur swallows. “Merlin,” he says slowly, “it’s none of my business if you want to keep it. You don’t have to ask my permission. I just don’t want to see you scratched to ribbons by a feral animal.”

Merlin’s head turns and Arthur blinks at the warm amusement appearing on his face, on the heels of that righteous anger. His lips twitch before he says, “It actually is your business, Arthur, considering it’s your house.”

Oh. He blinks. Right. He keeps on bloody forgetting that part and he has the distinct feeling Merlin knows it. It’s just - it feels like Merlin’s been with him always. “Well I’m not some Nazi landlord,” he blusters awkwardly, “you’re a grown-up. If you want the cat, then have the bloody cat. As long as it doesn’t crap all over the house or shred my sheets, I don’t care.”

He has absolutely no way of dealing with the deep, knowing affection on Merlin’s face, so he turns his gaze back to the cornered-looking thing. They stare at each other balefully for a moment and then, on instinct, Arthur says, “You’ve already named it, haven’t you?”

Merlin shifts beside him and says, “Um.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Dragon.”

Merlin shrugs.

“You’re honestly – you’re calling a bloody cat, Dragon.”

“It feels right.”

“It feels moronic,” Arthur snorts, eyeing the beast again. It’s been bathed, now, and through some feat of magic Merlin was not completely shredded in the process. Of course, that made it look even more rat-like for the first half hour or so, until the fur had started to regain some bulk as it dried. But Merlin’s right. Some arsehole had – he took a deep breath. The cat had been badly treated. There were more scars beneath that fur.

“The name reflects his nature, not his size,” Merlin says loftily. He’d have a bit more convincing authority if his hair wasn’t sticking up in small tufts. Arthur has somehow neglected to mention the effect of soapy hands running through Merlin’s hair. He’s already emailed a photo to Gwen and Morgana.

“He’s a proud fighter.” Merlin looks down at his rat. “On the inside,” he amends.

“I’m sure,” Arthur says dryly.

“He is. He was tortured, Arthur,” he says, suddenly impassioned. “He could have become completely twisted but he didn’t let them change who he was.” He blinks under Arthur’s surprised stare and pulls back inside himself, colour in his cheeks. He grins suddenly, “He likes the pantry, though.”

“Yes,” Arthur sighs and eyes it balefully. It’s probably the by-product of a long-term stray’s instinct for the next meal that the cat is sitting on the packet of broken biscuits, staring haughtily back. “I had noticed.”

 

* * *

 

They’re waiting to use the chip-and-pin machine when it happens. The guy in front shoves his cash into his pocket and turns, his eyes dropping to where Arthur had rested his hand, just for a second, on the nape of Merlin’s neck, giving a gentle rub. He’s been doing that a lot since Mordred. Whenever he senses Merlin is feeling blue – which actually, is pretty often, since Mordred.

“Fucking fag,” the muttered words almost don’t register for Merlin over the warmth of Arthur’s hand. Almost. No-one in this day and age can quite ignore that stuff and he carefully takes note of their surroundings, the near-empty street, the gathering darkness.

At his side, Arthur straightens, his hand dropping away from Merlin as he turns, putting himself squarely between Merlin and the homophobe. “Excuse me?” he says without hesitation. It’s a perfectly measured response, flat and strong and unafraid.

“Arthur-” Merlin begins, one hand reaching.

The stocky man sneers. “You heard me.”

“Yes I did. And though it’s hard to believe, your manners are even uglier than your coat. You owe us an apology.”

Merlin turns the other way, eyeing the two blokes who’d sauntered off to wait for their friend on the corner. They’re outnumbered, which is never good, and he’s pretty crap at fighting. Running is more his lark, and he’s never been too sure just what, exactly, his stupid luck could do to help in this kind of situation. But he can tell Arthur isn’t going to let this go, it’s written in the set of his shoulders. So Merlin keeps his eyes on the bystanders and waits.

“Fuck off,” the idiot says with a sneer, and without any warning, takes a swing at Arthur.

There’s about four seconds of confusion where Merlin instinctively stumbles out of the way to avoid tripping Arthur, the two guys on the corner take a couple of steps forward and then everything stops.

“Oh dear,” Arthur says, his voice light and utterly controlled. “That didn’t go very well for you, did it?”

Merlin just gapes.

Arthur has the guy pressed against the building, cheek grinding into the brick. One of Arthur’s hands is on the back of his neck, the other is holding the man’s right wrist, extending his arm back behind him in a straight line. He’s not even breathing heavily. He has complete command of the idiot bully, and it’s one of the hottest things Merlin’s ever seen.

The dickhead is trying to struggle under Arthur’s hands, his curses indistinct considering his mouth is dragging against the wall. Arthur casts a casual eye toward his friends on the corner who are mouth-open-blinking like they’ve just seen an alien craft landing on Clerkenwell Road. They’re not moving. No-one with a surviving hindbrain would step toward a display of power like that.

“Now,” Arthur says, “I may be, as you so charmingly remarked, a fag. But I just so happen to be a fag who formerly served as a para in Her Majesty’s Army, and I can happily do this all night.”

He doesn’t tighten his grip or raise his voice, this is exactly the same Arthur who mused thoughtfully over what kind of tile to use in the upstairs bathroom, and at the same time he’s a stranger. Merlin swallows, torn between nervous adrenaline and lust. This possibly explains where Arthur goes when he leaves the house in loose, worn clothing and comes back dripping in sweat.

“So.” Arthur tilts his head. “I’m going to give you a choice over what happens next. You can stamp your foot once to say I’m a dickhead and please let me go, or stamp your foot twice to say I would like to try my luck again. But I am telling you now,” he continues, matter of fact, “that if you choose to keep going, at least one of your knees will never be the same again.”

There’s a pause. Then he says coolly, “It’s up to you.”

He’s still so bloody posh, Merlin thinks, equally amazed and amused. He shifts to keep the two guys waiting at the corner in view, over Arthur’s shoulder. They’re shuffling like restless horses, but never actually getting any closer.

The guy struggles under Arthur’s hand for another few seconds, then goes very still. Arthur turns his head to regard the two guys on the corner thoughtfully, and the shifting ceases abruptly though they continue muttering back and forth. Then there’s the sound of a foot stamping on the bitumen, once.

Arthur refocuses on the back of the guy’s head.

Excellent,” he says, and releases him, stepping back calmly. He stays within reach, positioned between Merlin and the other man, watching as the guy pulls his arm forward, wrapping it protectively around himself and glares at Arthur in fury. He opens his mouth to speak and Arthur’s eyebrow flicks up.

He stops. His eyes flicker to his mates, then to Merlin, then back to Arthur. His fury is palpable, but he steps away, shoulders hunched.

“If I hear of any gay bashing in this area,” Arthur says softly to the man’s back, “I’ll come looking for you, mate. I hope you understand me.”

There’s a hitch in the guy’s step, but he doesn’t look back. Arthur watches him all the way to the corner, the bad tempered way he shrugs off his mates, and then they round the corner and are out of sight. Then he turns back to face Merlin, who is gaping.

“Arthur,” he says helplessly, “that was bloody unbelievable.”

Arthur shrugs, face unreadable. “Merlin, it was nothing.” And he waits patiently while Merlin draws out some cash, then commences strolling toward the pub like he’s actually telling the truth.

 

* * *

 

They are sprawled on their stomachs in the kitchen, allegedly testing the underfloor heating system Arthur has just helped to install. Winter is closing in and they apparently need to figure out how long it takes to heat up, so Arthur can set the timer on the system. Dragon is sprawled out nearby, boneless, but he keeps getting up and circling to a new spot. Arthur thinks he’s testing for the best possible vantage point. The perfect storm of warm floor and weak sunlight, he’d said, mouth quirking.

Merlin props his head in his hands and narrows his eyes at the game in front of him. “B7,” he says, and has another sip of beer.

“Miss,” Arthur says, smug as ever. He has an extremely competitive streak that isn’t particularly attractive.

Finally, Merlin thinks morosely. More than three months in and he’s discovered one thing about Arthur that isn’t completely captivating.

“E3,” Arthur says. He’s staring at the game intensely, as if he can instinctively divine Merlin’s tactics. His big mistake there is assuming Merlin has any. He’s done his usual Battleship technique of clumping all his ships together. If Arthur gets a hit at all he’s totally fried, but it’s worth a shot, and since Arthur’s never played before, there’s a chance he won’t guess what Merlin’s doing. He’s fairly certain that Arthur, on the other hand, is re-enacting some famous naval battle in his head.

“Miss.” He sets his beer down and shifts onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. He slants one look over at Arthur, remembering the way he’d stood before the woman’s table at the car boot sale, frowning at the Battleship box, one ripped corner joint just like every pre-owned kid’s game in existence, saying Well, I’ve never played.  “K2.”

“Miss. B3.”

Shit. “Hit,” Merlin mutters, resigned to losing now, and Arthur makes a small noise of satisfaction. “Put a red thingy on that spot.” He can’t even mind, really, though Arthur will be insufferable for a good half hour after winning. He’d bought the damn game, after all.

“Yes, Merlin, I remember the incredibly simple principles you explained.”

What sort of bloody childhood had Arthur had? Never played Battleship? “D4.” And then the words just slip out, “Arthur, how rich are you?”

“Miss,” Arthur is already saying when he chokes on his beer. “What?”

Merlin can feel the flush spreading across his cheeks. “Um. Sorry. Not to be crass, but.”

“B4,” Arthur says automatically, still staring.

“Hit,” Merlin says, and rolls onto his side, meeting Arthur’s eyes with difficulty. “I um, was just – you’ve really never played Battleship?”

“Is it an essential part of English childhood?” Arthur asks slowly, and he’s wary now.

“I dunno.” Merlin is feeling stupid, but he has to try to explain. “I just – it’s not that I care. About money.”

And oddly enough, Arthur relaxes at that, murmurs, “I know that, Merlin,” in a low tone that warms the room more than the underfloor heating.

So he shrugs. “I’m just, curious, I guess. There’s this house,” he waves his hand, “and…” Morgana, and well, you. He swallows and hesitates.

“B5.”

“Miss.” There’s a dissatisfied noise from Arthur that has him grinning, and gives him courage enough to say, “I guess I’ve been wondering if you’re just in the, um, old family money category or is it the I invented YouTube thing where you own your own Caribbean island and Richard Branson calls you for favours.” Then he adds, “A4.”

Arthur is staring again but some of the edge has gone. His eyes flick down and he says, “Miss,” automatically, then kind of shrugs. “Um. It’s the former. There’s a trust fund.”

Merlin nods hastily, “Right.” He doesn’t want details. He still can’t quite believe he actually said that to Arthur, oh god he really is an idiot sometimes. There’s an awkward silence and then he says, “Your turn.”

“B2.”

He sighs. “Hit and sink.” Here we go.

It was totally worth the two quid he paid for the game to see Arthur’s smile.

 

 

* * *

 

His mother arrives by the early train one Friday morning. Arthur, of course, being Arthur, has completely ignored his painstaking renovation schedule. He’s abandoned the rest of the kitchen and finished the upstairs bathroom instead so that Merlin’s mother would be able to shower and apply cold cream to her slowly-ageing face in comfort.

They had finally reached a painful compromise wherein Hunith stays in Merlin’s room – still the only one with a finished paint job and floor coverings - while Merlin sleeps on a mattress in the room across the hall, where the belongings of the mysterious ‘Lance’ are stored.

“Oh my goodness,” his mother is saying as he opens the front door. “What a lovely neighbourhood. Oh, Merlin, you’ve fallen on your feet this time, love.”

“I know,” he huffs, and drags her bag over the threshold. “Come on, Mum, come in and sit down.”

Arthur appears in the hallway as Merlin is closing the door. He smiles at Hunith, who blinks, dazzled just like every other poor human that crosses Arthur’s path. “Mrs Emrys,” he says, “Welcome. It’s lovely to meet you.”

“Oh.” Merlin’s extremely proud that she gathers herself together in less than three seconds. Better recovery than her son can manage, at any rate, and he’s had considerably more practice. “Well. You must be Arthur. You have a fabulous home, my dear.”

He flushes and smiles wider at the compliment than Merlin’s ever seen him do for a personal one.

“Well, hopefully we’ll be able to do it justice. You’ll have to come back and see it in all its glory, when we’re done,” he replies, ushering her into the kitchen smoothly and leaving Merlin to hump her bag up three flights of stairs. Halfway up he realizes Arthur had said when we’re done and he flushes. God. Typical Arthurian generosity, making it seem like Merlin was part of the effort when all he’d done really was help to rip up some carpet and carry the other end of the heavy items.

When he makes it back down to the kitchen he is completely unsurprised to find Arthur and his mother bonding over tea and special biscuits – they’re not just chocolate, they’re from Harrods – which had mysteriously appeared in the cupboard yesterday. They don’t appear to be missing Merlin’s presence at all. He’s beginning to suspect Arthur might be a bit in love with Hunith.

It probably helps that she’s exclaiming over the heated stone floor that’s just been laid in the kitchen, Arthur had agonized over that choice for a month, and then sweated over the installation for another week.

His mother beams over at him as he sinks into a chair beside her, and the absent squeeze she gives his hand brings the same warmth it did when he was nine, or fifteen. I love you best, and always. He squeezes it back, hoping she can translate it the same way he does, that she hears the you’ve always been my best and I know I’m lucky that he always bungles if he’s saying it aloud.

It burns a little brighter today, thinking of poor Mordred and the hundreds of other young sods who don’t have a Mum like his, one who’ll blink and say, oh darling, I knew that when he’d painfully stammered out the I think I’m a bit gay speech, and then enfold him in the same unaltered love every day since. He squeezes her hand again, for luck.

There’s a cup of tea waiting and he sips slowly, leaning back to make room for Dragon when he leaps up into Merlin’s lap. He listens to his mum and Arthur discuss the birthday present for Hunith that prompted the trip - tickets to the ballet - and whether spring can hold on just long enough so they can visit Alexandra Park tomorrow, and then the talk slowly turns to the house and what’s going to be done in the kitchen. Then they decamp so that the whole house can be properly examined as part of a tour. Merlin rinses out the cups in the kitchen, smiling to himself at the mingled sounds of their voices.

 

 

Having Hunith in the house is both torture and pleasure for Arthur.

Up to now he’d been half-inclined to believe mischievous elves left a newborn babe under an oak tree somewhere, so fey and unexpected was Merlin. Half a dozen times he’d wanted to ask about Merlin’s family, only to bite the words back because inevitably, it would lead the other man to ask about his family, too.

But now she’s here, and he can see the shrewd, kindly nature that has shaped Merlin into the clumsy, beautiful, magical idiot that he is. And it leaves Arthur aching, suddenly and sharply, for the mother he never knew, and wondering if it would have made any difference at all.

Then, of course, comes the backlash of guilt, for wishing, even faintly, that someone else might have had to share the hell he’s been through. It’s wrong, he knows it. This burden is his to bear. After all, he’s been groomed to bear responsibility his whole life, and only a coward shuns his duty. It’s bad enough that Morgana caught the edges of it.

“Arthur?” The soft voice is unexpected, and he jumps, starting upright from where he’d been slumped against the back wall of the house. Dragon eyes him balefully, as usual, and re-curls himself into a grey ball on the bench next to Arthur.

“Mrs Emrys.”

She closes the back door gently, the way she does everything, it seems and slides onto the bench beside him before he can stand, almost lost in an oversized cardigan. “What a pretty spot,” she murmurs. “Oh, this’ll be lovely in the warmer months.” Her hand comes to rest on Dragon’s head and she scratches his ears absently, without looking down.

Arthur squints around the garden. Well - the overgrown mess of green he inherited. “Ye-es,” he says doubtfully. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with growing things.”

“Merlin’s got a bit of a green thumb,” she offers. “I can come back and work on it with him sometime if you’d like. He’s too lazy to start it himself but once you get him going…”

He swallows, unused to such careless generosity. “I’d like that,” he says. “Thank you, Mrs Emrys.”

“I think,” she says, “you should call me Hunith.”

And when he looks over at her she is smiling at him very warmly. “I’m so happy to have met you, Arthur,” she says. “I was worrying about Merlin a bit - with Will gone. But I can see he’s found a true friend in you. I can go home and worry about other things instead,” she says with a wry smile.

He’s not sure what to say to that, but she doesn’t seem to require a reply.

“Now, what have we here?” She reaches for the basket resting on the bricks at their feet.

“A bit of a mix,” he says, clearing his throat. He’s stopped the major construction after Hunith’s arrival, Merlin had rolled his eyes when Arthur had mumbled about the noise. It’s been busywork and mad cleaning for the past few days, except for when Merlin and Hunith had gone out Friday night, and yesterday’s walk in the Park. “Mostly door handles, hinges. Things like that.”

“All bits you’ve removed from the house, are they?”

He nods, and restarts his cleaning, scraping the stiff wire bristles over the stubborn paint. “I try to reuse as much as I can. Some are from my previous projects – you never know what might be useful.”

“Smart,” she approves. “And thrifty.” Arthur’s hands fumble for a moment. He’s not used to praise on either of those fronts.

She takes a rag from the pile and tips some turpentine onto it, commences cleaning before he can protest. And she talks quietly about the garden, the paving they can already see beneath overgrown grass, something about north-facing and the view from the wide kitchen windows. By the time Merlin stumbles outside, rubbing his eyes, she has a tentative plan sketched out in her head and Arthur has the feeling he’s been firmly adopted.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Um.” Merlin starts, and he’s aware this is not the best way to begin. “Arthur.”

“Yes, Merlin,” he says without looking up from sanding the stairs.

“I’ve bought something. For the house.”

Arthur stops sanding and glances back over his shoulder. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

He unfurls his hands and gestures, then proffers his phone. Words aren’t really working for him today, and he’s so oddly nervous. It’s not like it’s such a big deal, as Arthur keeps saying, he lives here, he’s not a guest. But he feels – somehow the stakes are high.

He wants Arthur to feel the same way he does – oh, nice, now even his subconscious is being ironic – about the table, just about the table.

Arthur rises and steps softly down to the hallway, taking Merlin’s phone and, after one quizzical look, glances down at the picture on the screen. He blinks.

Merlin leans in, biting his lip, wanting to see it again.

“It’s um, from an old school,” he begins, nervous. “Was used in the staff dining hall, apparently. Schofield’s an old liar, so for all I know it’s actually a seventies knock-off he’s had out the back of his place for years…” Arthur slants him a look that says we both know better than that, Merlin, and he flushes at the implied compliment.

He can’t say it was a good place, a nice school, and the Headmaster was desperately in love with the German teacher who was unhappily married, even though that’s what flashed through his head when he touched it. He’s never been able to tell anyone that stuff - well, only Will, and his mum. Sometimes he’s on the verge of telling Arthur, and then reality washes over him again, the way Arthur had sounded – cold and deadly – when he’d said, It ruins lives, Merlin.

“I um, there’s a church pew as well that would go nicely on one side,” he goes on, nervously, swipes at the screen until he finds the photo of it. “I spotted it a few weeks ago in Brixton but it seemed mad to just, you know, on the off chance, but now…”

He gestures toward the kitchen and the crappy round laminate table they’ve been eating at for months. It lists heavily to the right, making soup and cereal one hell of a challenge.

He glances up, arrested because Arthur’s not looking at the phone, he’s staring at Merlin. And smiling. Small, bemused, fond. “You found the perfect setup for this house,” he says, wondering.

He shrugs, and the butterflies in his stomach escape into prattle. “It’s no big deal. I love this place, and I just – this was the right table, I knew it the minute I saw it. If you’re not sold on the pew- I mean, I didn’t have any measurements so I’m not even sure if it’ll fit against the wall…”

“Merlin,” Arthur says, handing back the phone. “I’m sure it’s just exactly right.” He sounds very serious, and Merlin’s eyes fly to his when he cups his shoulder, squeezes briefly. “Thank you.”

 

* * *

 

The shared lazy mornings are the best part of the weekend, both of them gathered around the long table that’s taken pride of place in the kitchen. They make a massive pot of tea in the fat brown teapot Merlin had brought home from an estate auction… a Sadler? I don’t think so, Ted  – and he’d unleashed his skeptical eyebrow, shamed the dealer into admitting it was nothing special and promptly bought it for himself for a song…

Then they spend the next hour or two sprawled along the church pew, lazily sipping, making toast and leafing through their respective addictions.

Arthur’s is an eclectic bunch. Often, of course, it’s home renovation/building/landscaping/real estate stuff. Work stuff, as Merlin thinks of it. Sometimes it’s TIME magazine or National Geographic. But he’s just as likely to be reading Nelson Mandela’s biography or books with titles like The End of Poverty.

Merlin’s is always work related, sad sap that he is. Antiquities and collectibles, lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Lately he’s trying to get ahead of the flood of Chinese and Asian works that are passing through the auction houses.

At some point one of them trawls through the newspaper and they idly plan a trip to a local boot sale or market for the afternoon or the next day. There’s never any hurry.

But it’s the quiet that makes these mornings magic. Neither of them ever suggests putting on some music, or the telly. Their phones are usually left in the front room, too. They just… breathe.

 

* * *

 

It’s another Thursday, Merlin notices absently, when Arthur comes home late, silent and tired and hurt, somehow. And it’s the look on his face that triggers the memory.

There was that first time, when Merlin had wondered if perhaps it was an anniversary of something sad. His mother’s death, maybe? Gaius had said she’d died young. But it’s happening too frequently for that. There’d been another day, early on – he’s not sure when exactly – but he’d seen the same look on Arthur’s face before he’d shut himself in his bedroom and not emerged until morning.

And now this.

Merlin hasn’t long arrived home himself, having gone on for drinks with Gwen in town after an auction. Perhaps that explains his persistence this time, swaying gently in the kitchen doorway and asking what’s wrong.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Arthur’s voice is quiet but firm, and he hits the switch for the kettle but makes no move to find a mug or the tea.

“Something is. Something’s wrong.” Something’s hurting you, he can’t bring himself to say.

“I’ve had a long day and I’m tired, Merlin,” he says, and there’s a finality to it like a blade held against the skin.

Merlin goes cold all over, and he’s suddenly very, very sober. The sick feeling in his gut won’t let him step back from this. Not from this man, and never when he’s hurting. “Arthur,” he says slowly, “I …I understand that you are doing me an incredible favour, here.”

Blue eyes blink at him in confusion and he clarifies, “Letting me stay here. Accepting ridiculously low rent.” Tolerating my clumsiness and my inappropriate way with words.

“But-” he swallows as he closes the gap between them, wondering if he’s about to screw it all up irretrievably, “-if the price of that is that I’m expected to pretend, to make out that I don’t notice there’s something ripping you to fucking shreds, then Arthur, I’m afraid I have to break our deal. I can’t pretend, I won’t.

Now Arthur draws himself upright, denial at the ready. The kettle hits boiling point and clicks off, leaving the kitchen silent except for their voices.

“Please.” Merlin whispers it. “Please. Can’t you tell me? I know I act like an imbecile half the time but you can trust me, Arthur. I’d never betray your confidence, I’d never hurt you, I wouldn’t-”

“Merlin,” Arthur breaks in, “you’ve got the wrong-”

Don’t,” he says, twisting away. “Christ, don’t tell me nothing’s – don’t lie right to my face, Arthur.”

There’s silence - hollow and full of regret.

“Merlin,” Arthur finally says, “I can’t. I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry.” And he sounds wretched, like the words are being torn from him. “I trust you, I do. But I just-”

He just nods, staring down at his feet for a minute. Then he swallows. “Right then.” And lifts his head, looking Arthur straight in the eye as he steps forward. He’s almost giddy with the risk he’s taking and he’s dimly aware it might, possibly, just might be the whiskey talking. “If you won’t talk to me about it, you’re going to have to let me help in some other way.”

Polite confusion is forming on Arthur’s face, and it drops away like a stone when Merlin reaches out to place his hand over the crotch of Arthur’s jeans. He stutters, blinking madly.

“If you can’t tell me,” Merlin whispers, leaning close enough to kiss, but not actually going that far, “If you won’t let me listen, then I am going to wipe that look off your face the best way I know how.”

“Merlin.”

He draws in a slow breath, feeling Arthur’s cock spring to hardness beneath his fingers. First question answered, then. “Last chance,” he murmurs. “You can talk to me about your problems, or I can suck away all your cares and woes. For a while, at least.”

Merlin,” Arthur chokes, voice wracked with the sudden onslaught of lust.

“All right, then.” And he flicks open the button with one hand, peels down the zipper and listens to the shaky gasp that flies out of Arthur’s mouth. He doesn’t have to ask to know it’s been a while. A long time since Arthur was touched like this. He’s a freaking island, always aloof, always thinking he can’t have the things everyone else takes for granted.

He looks up, meets Arthur’s eyes and holds that look as he sinks to his knees.

Arthur gasps, staring down at Merlin like he hung the moon.

Merlin parts his lips and gently fists Arthur’s cock, slides it inside the wet heat of his mouth.

“Fuck,” Arthur moans, and it’s absolutely guttural, like it was wrenched out of his chest against his will. “Merlin.”

He closes his eyes and lets the sensation guide him, tongue running over the hard length, listening to Arthur’s gasps and choked-off cries, feels the way he’s holding himself so still, won’t thrust forward or shove blindly, Merlin knows this without thinking about it. He sucks hard, suddenly and feels the tension ratchet up a notch inside Arthur. The man has so much bloody control.

Merlin’s free hand slides inside Arthur’s underwear, cupping his balls gently, rolling them between his fingers and that prompts another explosive gasp from Arthur, a solid clunk like – oh, one foot slamming back against the kitchen cupboard.

Merlin opens his eyes and drags them upward, unwraps his hand from around Arthur’s cock and reaches down to undo his own jeans. Jesus, God, this is the hottest thing that’s happened to him in years. Possibly ever. Arthur’s cock in his mouth and – their eyes lock.

“Merlin,” Arthur moans and he’s shattered, red flush high on his cheekbones and eyes hopelessly dilated, biting madly at his lips and the sight of it just as Merlin’s hand finds his own dick is just too much. He tongues the slit, then sucks hard, hollowing his cheeks and moving his hand frantically and Arthur flings his head back, a choked, “Oh God, Merlin, I-” and then he’s coming, wordless and broken and Merlin is swallowing, moaning around it as his own climax smashes through him. He finally releases Arthur and slumps against his leg, shuddering through the aftershocks for long, silent seconds, wave after wave after wave while Arthur gasps above him.

When he finally stands, he’s oddly calm. He reaches around Arthur for a tea towel and cleans himself up, listening to Arthur’s still-shuddering breaths. He straightens their clothing, returns them both to a state of decency and folds the cloth over in his hands until it’s a neat little parcel.

Then he leans in, lips against Arthur’s ear. His eyes, angled down, catch the shift as Arthur’s belly hollows and his chest expands on a sudden inhale. Responding to Merlin.

“Arthur,” he murmurs, very soft. “You are one of the finest people I’ve ever met. You shouldn’t be so alone. Whatever it is you think you’ve done, you don’t deserve this punishment.”

And then he leaves.

 

* * *

 

God knows how things would have gone after that if they’d run into each other at breakfast. But instead of some pretence at normalcy, or sudden awkwardness, or a painful conversation about what had happened in the kitchen, they get a whole day apart to decompress, and then a sudden explosion of larger-than-life personality.

He lets himself into the house in the afternoon, heart hammering, and instead of awkwardness in the hallway gets a hard glance and an overly large hand engulfing his. “Merlin, right? I’m Lance.”

“Um. Hello?” Merlin says, confused. The man is dark and beautiful, and he’s giving Merlin a careful once over in a completely non-sexual way.

“I’m a mate of Arthur’s.”

“Right. Oh,” he says then, suddenly remembering the pile of ‘Lance’s stuff’ stored in the small room where Merlin had slept while his mum was in residence. He drops his keys on the bookcase and shrugs out of his coat. “Lance, yes, right. I remember.”

He’s probably not showing to best advantage, he’s spent all day conducting various imaginary arguments with Arthur. To be honest, it’s a little disappointing not being able to use his best material, plus some of those arguments had ended with the two of them in bed, since part of Merlin’s particular brand of self-delusion was that hope apparently did spring eternal. He’s been torn between arousal and nerves all day.

“Gwen’s working,” Lance says, like this should mean something to Merlin, who nods gamely. “She won’t be over here until late so we thought we’d head out to the pub first. You up for it?”

“Uh… sure. I guess.”

So… Lance and Gwen, then? This possibly explained the tense lines Gwen got when relationships were the topic of conversation. Because other, incidental hints were surfacing now, helped along by Lance’s buzz-cut and overdefined muscles. He’s a soldier, on deployment somewhere sandy and insanely dangerous.

Arthur appears at the top of the stairs then, and there’s a frozen moment where they don’t quite look past each other, a kind of inevitable your-dick-in-my-mouth-just-yesterday awkwardness.

“Hi,” Arthur finally says. “You met Lance, then.”

“Yep,” Merlin says, equally obvious and idiotic. “Just now.”

“Glad we sorted that out,” Lance raises his eyebrows. “How’s about we start drinking?”

 

 

 

It’s without a doubt the stupidest drinking game Merlin’s ever participated in, which – well, the list is long, but still. It can mostly be blamed on the players.

“Okay,” Gwen shifts around and gets more comfortable, legs tucked under her. “Okay. The cast of Sherlock.”

“Hmm,” Arthur narrows his eyes, thinking hard.

“There’s not even any chicks in that,” Lance protests.

“Then broaden your horizons,” Merlin says lazily, grinning.

“There’s Anthea,” Gwen offers. “Y’know - she’s always on the phone. And Sally Donovan - the mean cop.”

“Fine.” Lance scowls. “Cliff bloody Sherlock, shag Sally, marry Anthea.”

“Cliff Mycroft, shag Sherlock, marry John,” Arthur says, but he doesn’t sound sold on his choices.

“Cliff Moriarty, shag Sherlock, marry John,” Gwen corrects.

“Oh my God, you two are so boring,” Merlin moans. “And shortsighted. Clearly the correct answer is cliff John, shag Sherlock, marry Lestrade. Have you never heard that man speak?”

“Hm, I forgot him,” Arthur says. “You’re right, he’s got… something. But – cliff John? It doesn’t seem right, somehow.”

“It’s nothing personal,” Merlin defends. “I like John, it’s just. There’s just no way you could pass up shagging Sherlock.”

“Excellent point. Okay,” Arthur says, “how about the cast of the Star Trek reboot?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Lance says, “how about we pick something with some women in it?”

“You’re outvoted,” Gwen says airily and Lance mock-glares at her and murmurs something about discrimination.

“Cliff Chekov, shag Spock, shag Kirk, shag McCoy, shag Sulu,” Merlin says, giggling into his glass. “Shag Pike and Nero, too.”

“I concur,” Gwen snorts, leaning into him.

“Hell, shag Uhura as well,” Arthur says, “seriously. She is hot.”

“My turn,” Merlin says, and Arthur’s lips twitch like he knows exactly what’s coming. “Reservoir Dogs.”

It takes Lance a second to realize it’s an all male cast. “Oh, fuck you all,” Lance says, and storms off into the kitchen.

They fall over one another laughing, and Merlin can’t remember the last time he felt this loose.

Two hours later Gwen is asleep on the couch, a blanket tucked in carefully around her by Lance. Merlin watches, dumbstruck, at the gentleness of those meaty hands and the darkness of regret and desire in his eyes as he sinks down next to her and just watches her sleep.

When Merlin glances over to Arthur he finds nothing but a locked-down profile as he stares out into the night. There’s the oddest feeling of a silent battle occurring in the room. Finally Lance sighs and says, “I can’t just stop being what I am, Arthur.”

It has the tired sound of an old argument and Merlin freezes in his spot by the iPod dock. He’s fairly sure they’ve forgotten he’s there.

“You do have other choices, though,” Arthur says, voice extremely controlled. “You don’t have to join the SAS.”

“You of all people know what it took to earn that,” Lance says tightly. “I worked my arse off, for years.”

And then Arthur sighed. “I know. I know, mate.”

They’re both staring moodily into the distance when he slinks off to the kitchen to try and get a grip of his stupid emotions. Poor Gwen. Also, he’s suddenly remembering the way Arthur had handled himself on the street with that idiot not so long ago. He swallows hard and tries not to picture Arthur in a dress uniform – correct and upright and brave and strong. Oh hell.

He makes a cup of tea, somehow the drinking part of his night seemed to be over, and hesitates before heading back into the front room. He can tell from the hallway that the immediate tension has passed.

“In some parallel universe,” Arthur is saying, eyes on the ceiling, “Gwen and I are happily married, I’m sure of it. Raising our three kids. And you, my friend, are circling on the edges, wailing and gnashing your teeth about the one that got away.” There’s an open bottle of red wine in his hand, and a surprising amount has vanished while Merlin made tea.

“Gnash, my arse,“ Lance says, waving a glass of whiskey. “I’d hang around like a bad smell and steal her from you the first time you fucked up.”

“You would, wouldn’t you.”

Merlin walks in on this drunken conversation, eyebrows raised. “Are you two actually arguing over which one of you would win Gwen’s heart in an alternate universe?”

“Yes,” they replied in unison, and he shrugs.

“All right.” He sinks onto the floor and leans back against the sofa, close to Arthur’s feet. “Would it end the argument if I pointed out that the alternate universe theory means there would at the very least be one universe where Gwen is with each of you, so you both win?”

“Yes but the point,” Arthur maintains, hand waving, “the point is, in my alternate universh, does he respect our marital bond or not?”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “I think it’s far more interesting to figure out if there’s an alternate universe where the two of you get married, and Gwen wins X-Factor.”

There’s silence and he glances around nervously. What he sees is Arthur and Lance, staring at each other, narrow-eyed.

Then, “I call top,” Lance says, and Arthur immediately bolts upright and cries, “Bullshit you’re topping me.

Merlin snickers and sips his tea.

Lance ends the argument by staggering off to the bathroom, and Merlin and Arthur lapse into companionable silence. He shifts a little further along the couch until he’s halfway down and has a half-chance of glimpsing Arthur’s face. Sadly, this kind of maneuver is automatic now. The next time Arthur puts the wine bottle back on the floor it wobbles a little and Merlin reaches out to steady it, his fingers trailing over the wide leather cuff of Arthur’s watch. The jolt he gets is like a punch in the face and he straightens, gasping aloud.

“Merlin? Are you all right?” Arthur is struggling to push himself up onto his elbows. “Merlin?”

He is staring at Arthur, mouth agape, fingers still burning – or at least, that’s the sense he’s left with. “I. Um.” He blinks a few times, hears Lance’s footsteps in the hall and swallows hard. “Yeah. I’m fine. I uh, scratched my hand. That’s all.”

Arthur blinks at him a few times, then seems to accept the idiotic explanation. He tips his head back and says as Lance walks back into the room, “Merlin hurt himself.”

“Jesus,” Lance retorts, “I was only gone three seconds. You have got to be the biggest klutz I’ve ever seen, Emrys.”

“Yes,” Merlin says slowly, staring down at the floor. “I suppose I must be.” He can’t lose the image of that face that had been entwined with Arthur’s pain. Cold, hard and cruel.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Jeremy’s nice enough. Last night had been… nice. But now.

Now it’s daylight. In Arthur’s kitchen. And Jeremy is just – all wrong. Merlin lets out a slow breath and resolves never to drink again.

All right, he admits immediately, he is of course going to drink again. But not when he’s feeling lonely and particularly self-conscious about his ears, anyway. And perhaps, also, the teensiest bit proving to himself how he’s completely gotten past how reckless he’d been right here in this kitchen, not so long ago. Forgotten it just as swiftly and easily as Arthur seemed to.

He bites his lip. At least it’s Saturday and Arthur’s away for the weekend so this is, it doesn’t have to be…

Whatever. Merlin’s not at all prepared to finish that thought.

He smiles, half-hearted at Jeremy, and wishes he had never thought of offering a cup of tea.

“I had fun last night.” Jeremy’s hands are wrapped around the mug, eyes hopeful over the rim.

“Um. Yeah. Me too.” Merlin looks down at the floor, remembers leaning over Arthur’s shoulder to flick through catalogues of stone and tile and under-floor heating systems. He’d had as much fun doing that as he’d had getting a blow-job from this stranger last night.

I am so, very… so very very fucked.

“Maybe we could do it again sometime?”

“Uh.” He blinks and looks up, meeting sincere brown eyes. “Oh. Um.”

Jeremy looks away. Clears his throat. “Okay. Or not.” He puts his mug down on the counter and straightens.

Merlin puts his tea down, too. “Jeremy…” he begins, guilty. “I think that, um-”

“It’s all right,” he says, and he smiles suddenly. “The earth didn’t exactly move, did it?”

He grimaces. “Well. No.” He takes a deep breath lets it out again, shifts so that he is leaning against the cabinets beside Jeremy, arms brushing. This isn’t going to be colossally awkward and he’s suddenly extremely grateful to the guy.

Jeremy shrugs. “But, it was nice to be with someone and you know, you’re good to be with. Not a tosser.” He leans in and elbows Merlin gently, reaches out to tuck a lock of hair behind Merlin’s ear.

Merlin laughs at that, then glances down at the floor, shamefaced that he’s going to get out of this so easy.

Which is when the back door opens.

He gets one clear glimpse of Arthur’s face as he takes in the scene. White to the lips, body hunching as if he’d been punched.

Oh. Fuck. Oh, no.

Lance and Gwen are behind him, faces equally shocked and dismayed, while beside him Jeremy is straightening and Merlin cannot look at him, cannot look anywhere but at Arthur, who has turned his head away, eyes angled down at the key still entrenched in the lock.

Merlin is breathing rapidly, and at some point in the past two seconds he has stepped forward, away from Jeremy, one hand reaching automatically for Arthur.

“Sorry,” Gwen manages, voice far too high and breathy, “we’ve startled you.” She gives Lance a none-too-subtle poke in the ribs and he moves forward, into the kitchen, past Arthur who is still holding tight to the door.

“I-” Merlin manages, “We, uh.” Fuck oh fuck oh fuck. Arthur.

“I was just going,” Jeremy says gracefully, flicking a glance at each face in turn as he steps forward.

Merlin blinks, finally catches the blank look on Lance’s face as he crosses into Merlin’s line of vision and suddenly he has no problem believing that Lance kills people for a living. Arthur still won’t look at him, Gwen is biting her lip and watching everyone with worried eyes.

“I’ll see you out,” he says faintly. The sooner Jeremy is gone the better. It’s all he can think. And after that-

He follows Jeremy through the house to the front door.

“I didn’t take you for a cheat,” Jeremy says finally, as Merlin reaches for the door, and something just explodes in his head.

“I’m not,” he says, voice breaking. Because if even Jeremy , a stranger, can see this, then he’s not imagining it. “We’re not together.” He looks up beseechingly, which is mad because it’s not Jeremy’s forgiveness he wants. And - what the?

Forgiveness?

“We’ve never been together,” he says finally, “He doesn’t even-” want me.

He stops, finally, because he just can’t get any more confused. And yet. He does feel guilty.

“Sweetheart,” Jeremy says, “that’s really not how it looks.”

Merlin swallows helplessly.

“Goodbye, Merlin.” And thank God, he doesn’t say thanks or good luck. Merlin just nods and watches him walk down the front path.

When he sets foot in the kitchen twenty seconds later, Arthur has himself absolutely under command. He’s still pale, posture rigid with hurt, but he meets Merlin’s eyes and nods a greeting. “We found some chairs that’ll go along the other side of the kitchen table” he says, as if absolutely nothing has happened. “Just came home to get the car.”

Gwen has already grabbed Lance’s arm and hauled him into the front room. Merlin barely notices.

“Arthur,” he begins, wretched. “Can we please talk about this?”

Arthur snags his measuring tape from the top of the fridge and turns. “About what?” he asks, and his eyes are impossibly bright, impossibly blue.

“Arthur, please,” Merlin whispers. “Please.”

“There’s nothing to talk about, Merlin,” he says. His voice is extremely soft, a touch of silk and Merlin flinches.

“I didn’t know,” he says, and to be honest, he still doesn’t know. Doesn’t understand what just happened here. Because Arthur had looked like – he looked like Merlin had stabbed him. And now here he is, smiling meaninglessly, about to set off on another homeowners buying spree like any other Sunday. What would – why would he bother with the pretence? Surely he can tell by now that if he just asked, Merlin absolutely would- Why can’t he be honest? What on earth is the point?

“Gwen, Lance, you ready?” he calls, and they appear a few moments later, reluctant.

“Actually, I might stay here,” Gwen says, after a brief look at Merlin. “You boys go and pick them up.” Lance glances between them, face betraying absolutely nothing, but whatever Gwen said to the guy, Merlin feels slightly less like he’s about to get something sharp shoved into the back of his skull.

“Fine,” Arthur says, and heads straight for the car, keys dangling from his index finger.

The door closes behind them and Merlin just stands there, his whole body one simple concept that translates into Whatthefuck?

It doesn’t take long for anger to kick in. “What the fuck, Gwen?”

“Merlin.”

“I mean, what am I supposed to – he doesn’t say or do anything, never gives the slightest sign that he’s interested in me at all. Which I totally get, I mean,” he gestures expansively at himself, “why would he?”

“Merlin-”

“And then he looks at me like I’m some kind of-”

“He got a shock.”

“And I didn’t? Jesus. Am I supposed to apologize for cheating on a non-existent boyfriend, who not two minutes later is acting like nothing happened, like I barely even fucking exist?” He’s shouting by the end, but happily Gwen is not one to be cowed by that. She steps forward and grabs Merlin’s wrist.

“It’s all right,” she says, “calm down.”

“It’s not all right, Gwen,” he retorts. “It’s not all right at all. I don’t want to be bloody calm.”

“I know, Merlin,” she soothes, “and you’re right, he’s not being fair. But he was hurt. He is hurt. Just like you are.”

It’s as though she ripped the scab off. He sinks down at the table and covers his face with his hands. “Shit, Gwen,” he whispers. “Oh shit. The look on his face.”

She wraps her arms around him. “I know.”

“I’d never want to hurt him. Never.

“I know,” she says again, cheek pressed against his hair. “And listen, Merlin. He knows that too. He does. I think that’s why he was trying to- to hide it, how much it hurt. He knows it’s not fair to make you carry the guilt when you didn’t know how he felt.”

“And why didn’t I?” he asks suddenly, pulling back. “Why is he hiding, Gwen? Am I so – would it be so horrible if he actually started a relationship? Or God forbid, flirted with me once, see where it went?”

She flinches and looks away. And in that moment Merlin knows that he is the only one in this little drama who doesn’t understand the why of what’s going on. Gwen knows. Morgana must know. Lance too, he realizes, and isn’t that a slap in the face. Whatever Arthur’s reasons, there’s only one person being kept in the dark.

He slides out of the hug and stands up, putting distance between them. “You won’t tell me,” he says, and it’s not a question.

“Merlin,” she begins, pleading.

He bites hard on his lip and looks away. Then he begins to work his way through it, thinking aloud. “You won’t tell me, Morgana just drops cryptic bloody hints, Lance won’t say anything, and we both know with a great deal of certainty that Arthur is never going to let me in on whatever the hell is going on here.” His voice comes out cold and bitter, and he can’t even be sorry to see the flinch. In fact, he’s glad.

He gets as far as the door before he glances back. “He’s got no right to make me feel like this, none. I could go out and shag the entire Territorial Army, Gwen, and it would be none of his business. Because that’s the way he wants it.” And he storms out of the kitchen wishing his rage would keep him warm.

 

* * *

 

It’s chilly and silent around the house that night, Gwen and Lance make themselves scarce like the fucking cowards they are and Arthur is forced to hide in his room while he tries to figure out how his life became even more of a mess. And this time there’s no-one else to blame, oh no, this is all his own great big mistake. He falls asleep sitting up in bed, surrounded by reading material that failed to distract him at all. By the flat sound of the house Merlin has already left for work, and so he sighs and shuffles further down the bed, absolutely wallowing for once in his life.

His phone rings and he sighs but answers anyway. “Hello.”

“Arthur Fitzroy?”

“Speaking,” he says, voice clipped. He stares blankly out his bedroom window, too busy hating himself to pay any attention to the voice at the other end of the line. Merlin’s face keeps appearing before his eyes. A soft-half smile on his face, body leaning inward toward another man, toward Jeremy, who’d had an entire night with Merlin, and who could have many more, if he chose to. Bastard.

Arthur closes his eyes, trying to swallow down his jealousy and his rage. He doesn’t want to know this side of himself. It’s not a path he can afford to travel. And remembering Merlin, in that same kitchen, on his knees, is not-

“This is Detective Inspector Greg Travers.”

And Arthur blinks. His focus switches in a heartbeat, fear skittering over his skin in a Pavlovian response he can’t begin to help. He sits up slowly. “Yes.”

Oh fuck. The thud of his heart is slow and heavy. What now - what?

“I’d like to speak to you, if I may, about your case.” There’s a low cloud of sound from the DI’s end of the call, but Arthur ignores it.

His mouth is too dry for him to actually form words for a moment, and then he swallows hard. “Is there new information?”

“Not as such, no.”

“I don’t recall your name, I’m afraid.” He drags in a slow breath, trying to actually think.

“I’m new to the case, you could say. I’ve just transferred to this section and I’m looking over cold cases. I’m not-” there’s hesitation, and then he says delicately, “entirely happy with the way your case was handled.”

That makes two of us, Arthur thinks. But all he says is, “I see.” He breathes in slowly, trying not to get his hopes up that this time there’s a cop that will listen to him, and consider the idea that a crime involving a gay man might possibly be unrelated to the gay part of the equation.

“Could we meet?”

“I – yes,” he finally says. What else can he possibly say? “Certainly. I can come down-”

“No.” He’s interrupted very firmly. “I’d rather meet you at a location outside of the station, if you don’t mind. I’ll explain my reasons when we meet.”

“All right.” His doubt is clear in his voice, but he can’t see any danger in it. He’s steeling himself to revisit a crime scene when-

“Grand,” he says. “Now. Why don’t you pick a pub, and I’ll meet you there for a quiet pint this evening?”

Arthur blinks at the phone for a moment, wondering if perhaps he’s already spent too long at a pub – like several days – and is imagining the entire call. Then he raises the phone slowly back to his ear and says, “Um. The Green Man?”

“Near Alexandra Palace?” Which means the DI knows where Arthur is currently living.

“Yes.”

“Wonderful. I’ll be there tonight from six.”

“O-kay then,” Arthur says, and hangs up, still frowning.

Well. At least there’ll be some part of today when he’ll surely be distracted from Merlin.

 

 

He’s leaning on the bar, staring down at the pint he hasn’t yet touched, and wondering just how much more fucked up his life can get. What the hell is he going to do? He can’t have Merlin. He knows this. And yet – how can he send him away?

Even the thought of it sends pain lancing through his chest. He can’t imagine the house without him anymore.

Another body fills the gap to his right, and he notices automatically, the kind of instincts an elite soldier carries for life, whether he’s active or not. And he is not thinking bitter thoughts about that, either, the life he had to leave behind. The man to his right is stocky, average height, and slightly nervous. On the heels of that he’s not surprised when the other man speaks.

“Arthur Fitzroy?”

Arthur turns his head and meets tired grey eyes. “Yes,” he says, and offers a hand.

“Greg Travers.”

“Detective Inspector,” he says, as they shake. He’s not about to call the bloke by his first name, for God’s sake.

“I appreciate you agreeing to meet me like this, I know it must seem odd.”

It didn’t seem odd. It was odd. Skirting towards misconduct area, really. Arthur has already calculated the size of the bribe the DI is likely chasing. Not that he’d pay it.

“It’s nothing untoward,” the DI says, as if reading Arthur’s mind. “I can assure you, my interest in your case is real, and I’m pursuing it through the usual channels.”

Arthur lets one raised eyebrow ask the question.

“The reason I asked to meet you like this,” Travers says, squinting up toward the football match on the big screen, “is that I’m fairly confident that you are under some kind of surveillance, Arthur. And I’m extremely keen not to tip off any interested parties that the case is being reviewed.”

There’s a sensation equivalent to ice water being poured down his spine and Arthur shifts, glancing away before he reaches for his pint and takes a deep drink. It’s not like he hasn’t had his own suspicions on this topic. But it’s different, especially to hear it from this source. He hasn’t had a whole lot of heart-to-hearts with the police over this stuff, and in truth, he’s mostly spent his time lying awake at night calling himself paranoid and fucked up with this insistent feeling of being watched.

“Surveillance?”

“I think so. Yes.”

“As in, I’m being followed by men in trench coats? Or my phone is bugged?”

“I don’t think it’s bugged, no,” Travers says thoughtfully. “That’s harder for a layman to do than you’d think. My guess is more that your billing information is being examined, or perhaps even simpler, that someone is occasionally able to access your phone itself and take a look at your call log. It’s why I placed my call to you from a pay phone.” He takes a quick sip. “I think the tailing is also a possibility, though I’d guess it’s infrequent at best.”

There’s a long pause as Arthur stares straight ahead. He can see a fragment of DI Travers’ face in the mirrored back of the bar, between the bottles of whisky. “You’re serious.”

“I’m deadly serious, Arthur,” he says, and the choice of words was no accident.

He takes a few slow, steady breaths, then he says, “What do you need me to do?”

 

* * *

 

Perhaps it’s the presence of the police in his life, yet again, that makes him face up to things. Perhaps it’s just the general acknowledgement that he’s being a twat. Either way he climbs the stairs to Merlin’s room when he gets home from the pub and knocks on the door.

It opens quickly enough, though Merlin’s carefully blank face is more painful than a kidney punch.

“Could I have a word?”

His eyes flicker, then Merlin shrugs and opens his door wider. His room is in near darkness, lit only by a lava lamp. Instead of coming in, Arthur shifts around in the hallway until he decides to just lean on the door frame, then clears his throat.

“I wanted to um, clear the air. Tell you that I’m sorry if I – if I made you uncomfortable, yesterday.”

Merlin stares at him, then sinks down onto the bed. “Uncomfortable,” he echoes.

“If I made you feel as though you’d… done something wrong.”

“I haven’t done anything wrong, Arthur,” he bites out, and Arthur just nods.

“I know. I’m sorry.” It’s all he can offer. He runs a weary hand over his head, backwards and forwards. Looking into your case… surveillance

“You’re sorry.”

“If I’ve made you feel – if you want to move out, I’ll understand.”

“You want me to move out.”

No,” he says swiftly, too fast to catch himself. He shouldn’t have said that, he should be doing everything he can to push Merlin out that door. But some lies are just too big for him to tell.

He says more slowly, “I don’t want you to move out, but I’ll understand if I’m making it too difficult for you to live here. I know I’m not an easy person to be around and Merlin,” he hesitates, then sighs and says, “I’m not going to get any easier.”

“Your… secrets.”

He just nods. There’s a long silence and then he forces himself to say, “I can’t tell you about it, Merlin. I’m sorry, and I’ll understand if that’s-”

“Stop saying you fucking understand, Arthur.”

He just nods at that, too. Fair enough.

There’s another long silence, then Arthur says roughly, “I’m uh. Tired. I’m going to bed.”

Merlin just nods. The last image Arthur has of him is a pale face, resting on clasped hands, his skin milky in the darkness as he stares at the floor.

 

 

He meets the DI at the same pub a few nights later.

“You really need to call me Greg,” is the opening remark.

Arthur raises an eyebrow.

“We’re trying to do this stuff clandestine,” he clarifies, “it’s going to completely fall over if someone hears you calling me by my rank.”

“Right.” Arthur nods. “Sure. Greg.”

His lips twitch. That had sounded about as natural as the first time Arthur had said Detective Inspector. “Excellent,” is all he says. “Now. I believe I have a plan.”

Chapter Text

 

Merlin is staggering through his life in a haze ever since the if you want to move out, I’ll understand conversation. He doesn’t know what to do.

Two mornings after that conversation he descends the stairs slowly, Dragon winding between his feet and bringing him very little comfort. He trails his hands along the railing, up, over and around, dragging his feet as he passes the master bedroom. Arthur was up early, off to somewhere probably marked Parish of Avoiding Merlin on the map and he sighs. He doesn’t want to leave.

He doesn’t want to leave. But being here like this is – it’s crap. When he knows how good it can be – how good it could be, if Arthur would get the giant stick out of his-

His vision washes gold as his fingers trace over something small and familiar. He freezes and the cat bumps against his legs before continuing on his way. Merlin stays where he is, feeling that familiar emotion, tracing the familiar shape beneath the railing.

It’s – it’s his dragon. He drops to his knees, peering up at the underside of the railing. Arthur had slaved over it, doing something mystifying with complicated power tools in the kitchen, of all places, trying to match the scrolls and patterns to the remaining railing on the other floors. Merlin had never heard such inventive cursing.

He runs his fingers over it again and sees the flare of gold, the same feeling, the same fucking feeling as he gets at Shannen House, determination and protectiveness and love.

He lets out a startled half-laugh. “It’s Arthur,” he says aloud. “Arthur.

Of course it is, he thinks a moment later. Who else – what other half-decent person thinks so little of himself? That all he has to offer is the things he can do, hidden behind a calm façade of keep-your-distance. Arthur renovated Shannen House and donated it. The prat.

Merlin sinks down on the stairs. God fucking damn it. As if he needed a reason to love the tosser more. Dragon winds his way back up the stairs and does some self-scratching under Merlin’s limp hands. “I can’t leave, mate. I can’t leave him.”

He sits there for a long time. He’ll figure it out. He will. He has brains and determination and his stupid power and he will fucking find a way to make this work. “I’m not leaving,” he says to Dragon, finally scratching with a will. “I’m not ever leaving him. We’re in this together, even if he doesn’t know it yet.”

It’d be nice if that little discovery made him feel any better but he’s under no delusions about Arthur’s own stubborn nature and the dedication he’s putting into keeping Merlin locked out. This isn’t going to get easy anytime soon.

On his way home from work that night he detours to the Thai restaurant he and Arthur had gone to with Morgana and orders the same meal, just – well, to really wallow in it, if he’s honest. He’s leaving with his food when he glances up, across the street and sees Arthur push through the door of the local pub. There’s something about his face, set and determined, that has the hairs on the back of Merlin’s neck standing up, and he hesitates for a long moment before he sighs and turns toward the pub. Evening traffic is thick and it’s a good minute before there’s enough of a break for him to cross the street.

Who are you stalking now, Emrys? He can hear Will in his head, clear as day as he shoves the doors open and glances around.

Arthur’s at a corner table with a much older bloke, the conversation is intense and serious, and the one beer on the table is untouched. Arthur’s gaze is focused on the table, he’s thinking furiously, the kind of look Merlin sees when he’s contemplating large, complex decisions like restructuring the flow of rooms in the house, or where to guess next after he’s scored a hit in Battleship.

The conversation is rapid, flows back and forth and reminds Merlin oddly of the last-minute consultations he and Gaius share just before they enter an auction. Tactics and reserve prices.

He blinks, confused, and fades back to the other side of the pub so he can think, but by the time he’s found a seat with a view the conversation appears to be over. The older man sits back and finally picks up his beer, takes a deep drink and carefully does not look at Arthur.

Arthur is staring down at his hands, beneath the table Merlin can see he’s turning something over, something small, but before Merlin can see what it is Arthur slides it into his coat pocket and takes a deep breath.

He speaks, one short sentence and the older man nods deep and solemn and sure. Arthur’s mouth tightens, and then he gets up, steps away from the table with a sharp nod and doesn’t look back. Merlin leans back until he’s concealed behind a portly Arsenal fan, expecting Arthur to head for the door. He has that look about him of someone about to bungy jump off a bridge, or go down on one knee with a ring in his hand. But instead he heads straight to the bar, slots into a spot, props one foot on the brass bar and waits. The deep breath he takes is the only indicator this is a bit… strange.

Merlin frowns and turns his gaze to the older bloke. He’s turning his beer in circles on the table, carefully not looking Arthur’s way. He looks nice enough. Tired, a face worn down by care or sorrow, but nothing about him that seems enough of a reason for Merlin’s stomach to be tied in knots the way it is.

His eyes turn back to Arthur, on automatic, and he shakes his head even as his eyes drift over the very appealing rear view. What am I even doing here? So Arthur had a quick chat with a stranger in a pub. He gets up slowly and heads for the side door, glances back as he gets there and can see Arthur clearly now, in profile. Merlin isn’t Arthur’s keeper. Not his mother. Certainly not his-

Every train of thought Merlin has slams to a halt. The bartender -  a bloody giant of a man - has appeared in front of Arthur. He’s young, muscular, and ridiculously good looking. And he’s looking across at the bar like Arthur is a particularly gorgeous specimen – which, fair enough – that’s fallen into a vat of chocolate and is requiring a volunteer willing to spend the rest of the night just licking.

And Arthur. Arthur raises his head slowly. Meets the bartender’s eyes in a long, hot look. And then he smiles.

Merlin stumbles out of the pub, gasping.

It takes him a full minute to still the shaking in his legs. When he can leverage himself off the wall of the pub, he heads back the way he came. He can’t go home right now. That look had held… heat. He can’t – what if they – he doesn’t want-

He can’t.

 

 

“Merlin. Is something – did something happen?” Gwen’s phrasing it delicately, probably because she has no clues to go on other than Merlin appearing at her front door, white-faced, a bag of cold Thai food bumping against his leg.

He’s staring down at the tea, stirring way more than is needed. He can’t lose the image of Arthur staring across the bar in unmistakable invitation. The kind of look that has never been sent Merlin’s way. God, why would it?

“I love him, Gwen,” he says out of nowhere.

There’s silence. He can tell she’s gone very still, in the middle of putting the milk back in the fridge. Then she says, gently, “I know.”

“He’s the best person I’ve ever met.”

“Yes.”

And he’s hurting me- so much. But that part he doesn’t say. Doesn’t have to. He drags in a deep breath and picks up the tea, takes it to the tiny table he’d leaned against the night he met Arthur and they drink in silence.

“Is he – is he ever going to let me in?” he finally asks, helplessly, forehead resting on one hand. The bartender’s face swims through his mind. Young and beautiful, openly admiring Arthur. “Because right now, I just. I have no hope.”

“Oh Merlin,” she says, but there she stops.

So. That’s a no, then.

He sits there for a long time, Gwen’s hand resting on top of his, and the tea goes cold because he can’t choke it down, there’s no room left between the anger and the hurt lodged in his throat. Not just at Arthur, but at Gwen, too. And the same question keeps running through his head on a loop. Why did he look at me like that – with Jeremy?

“I should probably go,” he says finally, and her hand tightens on his.

“He just wants to keep you safe, Merlin,” she whispers, and he raises his head to give her an incredulous look. Her eyes are shimmering with tears but he can’t let that affect him, not when she’s keeping Arthur’s secrets, too.

“How would you feel, Gwen? He looks at me like I’m a cheat one minute, and the next he’s-” He chokes on the words, can’t tell her what he’s just seen. His voice comes out rough. “If it was Lance, and he wouldn’t touch you, wouldn’t talk to you, and every fucking person around you knew why but no-one would tell you?”

She bites her lip and looks away. “I’m not with Lance,” she chokes out, and wow is that the wrong thing to say because Merlin completely loses his temper at that and at least this situation is one he can damn well fix.

“That’s right, you’re not.” He slaps a hand down on the table, “and why the fuck is that, exactly?”

She sucks in a startled breath.

“Look, Gwen, I can’t pretend to even remotely understand how fucking terrifying it must be to know that he’s out there facing bullets and explosives every day. But here’s the pearl of wisdom I’ve gathered in the past few months – if you love them, it doesn’t even matter if you’re with them or not. Can you honestly tell me if that call came through today, if you got the worst news you can imagine, that you wouldn’t be absolutely fucking destroyed?”

She’s pale, face turned away. “Don’t. Merlin, don’t.”

“You already love him, Gwen,” he says, and he can’t be gentle. It hits too close to the bone. “You’re already in it, even if you never saw him again in your life. So why the hell would you deny yourself the happy part? At least,” he gasps, the pain solid and real in his chest, “Gwen, at least you know he wants you.”

He closes his eyes, mouth twisting. “If the pain is yours, then get the bloody joy while you can. Hold his hand and listen to his crap jokes and screw his brains out and-”

“Merlin.”

It’s only then that he realizes he’s crying.

Her hands cover his, gripping tight.

I would.” And he looks up, miserable. “Gwen, if he gave me the slightest chance, if he’d let me in at all I’d clutch on so hard he wouldn’t know what hit him.”

“Oh, Merlin, love,” she whispers.

He takes a shuddering breath, “Living there, it’s torture, sure, because I can’t be with him, but if he disappeared from the face of the earth right now at least I’d know how he looks in the morning and whether he snores at night and the way he eats all the crunchy chips first and the deeply crooked fantasies he has about Kevin McCloud-”

“Merlin-”

“At least that I’ll never lose. I know him. I love him. Those parts of him are mine and no-one can take them. Not even Arthur can take that from me.”

 

* * *

 

Merlin is sorting through his wardrobe aimlessly when he hears the familiar sounds. He freezes, straining to track Arthur’s progress as he unlocks the front door, retrieves his keys and closes it quietly behind him. The soft clatter of the keys as he places them in the pottery bowl by the door, and then silence.

His hands tighten on the sleeve of his suede jacket. He hadn’t realized until lunchtime that the ‘trip’ mentioned in Arthur’s note was almost certainly another of his mysterious Torturous Thursdays. It seemed to be a pattern. Once a month, probably, though Merlin can’t be sure if it was quite that regular. Between his visits home, and seeing Will, and the buying trip he’d taken up to Scotland, he’d been away for a few of the possible dates.

It takes a while, but finally Arthur’s feet can be heard on the stairs – heavy and slow, weighed down. He must be able to see the light in Merlin’s room by now, the half-open door. But he won’t call a greeting, won’t pop his head in the door. Not today.

Well. Not at all, lately.

They’ve been communicating via notes on the kitchen table and stilted hellos for the past two weeks. It’s worse because Lance has been gone, visiting family up north. But… there’d been no sign of the bartender around the house, no mysterious absences overnight, either.

He swallows and tries not to think about that anymore. He’s been obsessing about the bartender ever since that night. Arthur’s free during the day, probably the bartender is too. They could be-

And yet. Arthur doesn’t look like he’s… involved. He’s still pale and unhappy. Tense. Sliding guilty looks at Merlin on the very few occasions they’ve been in the same room at the same time. And then there’s tonight.

Merlin closes the wardrobe door silently and turns, catching sight of himself in the mirror. He doesn’t move as Arthur enters the bathroom, closes the door, there’s the sound of water running, silence, more water in the pipes, the door opens again and he stumbles into his bedroom. And Merlin just stares at himself in the mirror.

Are you going to do this? Again? He asks himself silently. Even after Jeremy? And the bartender?

The first time had been a mad impulse. He’d just – done it. Right there in the kitchen, on his knees on their new stone floor. And somehow – it hadn’t shattered this… friendship. But it could have. The Jeremy mess – the bartender – what was he doing?

If he went to Arthur now – if he made a deliberate choice – that was different. What was he even doing? Friends with benefits? Amateur sexual therapy? The world’s most pathetic crush?

But the silence drifts up the stairs and Merlin stares into his own eyes in the mirror. He can’t ignore it. Arthur’s in pain and Merlin just - he just can’t ignore it.

At the bottom of the stairs he pauses in the doorway. Arthur is sitting on the corner of his bed, staring blankly at the window. He’s turned on a lamp in the corner of the room – just enough light gleaming on the glass to show a ghostly Merlin hovering to one side of a pale, still Arthur.

Merlin takes a deep breath and crosses the room to sink down on the bed behind Arthur. No-one moves for a long time, Merlin is honestly still trying to figure out just how crazy he is, if he’s really going to do this again. In the end, he scoots forward on the bed and simply wraps an arm around Arthur, curving around his shoulders. His forearm rests across Arthur’s chest, their cheeks brushing together, chest and back pressing close.

He still hasn’t made a decision, this is just – instinct. He wouldn’t leave anyone to suffer on their own this way if he could help it, but never, never could he abandon Arthur. No matter what the cost.

Arthur breathes. In the window reflection, his eyes close briefly, nothing else moving, and Merlin simply aches to see all that control, like he’s not supposed to have feelings, or something equally stupid. And that’s really what decides him.

He shifts around on the bed, draws his legs up until he’s sitting on his heels, tucked up flush against Arthur’s back, legs spread either side, bracketing. It won’t hide the erection that’s starting to build but honestly? They’re a bit too far gone for that kind of sophistry and he won’t pretend he doesn’t love the way Arthur’s heat seeps in through his thin pajamas.

He keeps his left hand flattened on Arthur’s chest and raises his eyes to the reflection in the window, looking at their faces side by side. All the colour is drained but they stare at one another, into one another, as Merlin slides forward just enough to be able to reach around Arthur’s body with his right hand.

The button fly pops open one silver circle at a time.

Arthur breathes, one quick inhale, belly pulling back under Merlin’s hand, but he doesn’t move, doesn’t shift away at all and about twenty seconds later he is released from both jeans and underwear, rock-hard and bloody gorgeous.

He swallows audibly.

“Relax,” Merlin murmurs. “Just let me.”

He raises his hand to Arthur’s mouth and turns his head to watch. Arthur hesitates, breath coming quickly. Then he moistens his lips, clenches his hands into fists and licks a long stripe down the centre of Merlin’s palm, and there he lingers, tongue chasing across the skin.

“Yeah,” he whispers. “Just like that.” And then he curls his fingers around Arthur’s length, hot and rigid and Arthur jerks against him, tiny quick breaths Merlin hadn’t expected to hear. His face reveals almost nothing, even now, and Merlin turns his eyes away for a moment, presses his cheek against Arthur’s instead.

Merlin moves his hand slowly. “Look at you,” he says into the silence, because he is. Is watching Arthur’s skin slowly flush with arousal, lips part just enough to hint at the wet warmth inside. It’s impossible to tell in the reflection, but Merlin wants to believe his pupils are blown wide with the burning pleasure being brought to him now.

Arthur’s head tips back, he won’t watch even though it clearly gets him hot, instead he rolls his gaze to one side and focuses on Merlin’s face, just as intent as ever.

“You’re so beautiful,” Merlin continues, eyes on their reflection, his free hand sliding down, “so perfect.”

There’s a small, discontented noise of disagreement at that one, and he licks a quick strip behind an ear in retaliation. “Beautiful, I said,” he repeats sternly, and Arthur’s hips twitch against him, trying to shift against the flat hand Merlin has positioned over his belly, holding him firmly in place.

“No,” Merlin says, calm. He rolls his forehead against Arthur’s temple so the words will drop right into Arthur’s ear. “Stay right there,” he whispers. He wants to kiss him, so badly, but that’s Merlin’s wants and needs, not Arthur’s. He won’t kiss Arthur while he does… whatever this is. Arthur doesn’t want to date Merlin, this isn’t romance.

It’s a line of some kind, and apparently there’s one left that he won’t cross.

He shifts against Arthur, a tiny movement but his erection sends out fireworks, yes please, more of that, and Merlin’s breath stutters for a moment before he regains focus, twists his hand around the hot length and feels the sharp surge in Arthur’s hips.

He takes his time. It’s dark and silent, and outside it’s started to rain. He watches the streaks form on the window, obscuring their reflections even more, and it seems to give him permission to talk, somehow.

“I love the rain,” he murmurs, hears the hitch in Arthur’s breathing at the painstakingly slow pace Merlin is setting. He wants it to last. “The sound of it, the smell. And here? Now? It’s like a curtain between us and the rest of the world.”

Arthur’s reflection licks his lips and Merlin swipes his thumb through the moisture gathering in his slit. “We’re here, where no-one can touch us,” he whispers, “we can see out, but no-one can see in. And we can do this all night. I can make you last all night, Arthur.”

He gets an involuntary shudder at that. A small, needy noise.

“Would you like that?” he breathes it into Arthur’s ear. It’s counterintuitive, of course, because clearly the more he talks about it the hotter Arthur gets, but he’s caught in his own trap - in the idea that his voice is part of what is getting Arthur so hot.

Merlin,” he says, it’s low and husky and wrecked and he nips at Arthur’s ear just once, hears the gasp and slows his hand almost completely, not ready to give this up just yet.

“I think you would.” He lets his tongue wander down Arthur’s neck, aware that his own heart is hammering and he’s crossing a few lines here, this is veering toward intimacy, not like last time when there’d been almost no talking at all.

“I think you’d like to lose a whole night that way, hours and hours of soaking up just the right kind of touch. Fast and rough, and then slow enough to drive you insane. Hot and wet, and then slow again…”

Arthur’s belly is shifting against Merlin’s hand, breathing choppy and he’s trying for control, for leverage, for something but Merlin won’t give it and finally, finally the need is starting to show on his face, control slipping as he reaches back with one hand, opening the clenched fist to grip Merlin’s thigh, hard, pulling their bodies even closer together.

“Sometimes it’d be all about your dick and sometimes I wouldn’t touch it at all, for hours,” he keeps going, breath and tongue brushing against Arthur’s ear, and he’s a little stunned at hearing the words coming out of his mouth, “not until you begged me.”

Merlin,” he says again, heaves in a huge breath of air and Merlin speeds up his hand suddenly, jacking him fast and ruthless and Arthur’s head falls back to rest on his shoulder, gasping and pushing his hips and then making a pissed off noise as Merlin’s hand slows again, but he takes the chance to close his mouth over that straining throat, a hot wet suck that draws an audible moan from Arthur.

“And then when you begged me – would you beg, Arthur?” he lets his breath flow over the wet skin, “Would you?”

“Oh God,” Arthur moans. His other hand comes up to cup the back of Merlin’s neck, locking them together. He’s a shambles, Merlin can see when he lifts his head. Lips bitten red, licked-shiny, open and gasping, face flushed and slack with pleasure, and Merlin’s hand never stops moving.

“I think you would.” He swallows, trying not to lose it when he glances up at their reflection again. Arthur has made no move to change anything about this, to stop Merlin, to guide him or speed it up and the knowledge that he’s given up all that power is erotic as hell. He’s locked in position, one hand clutching Merlin’s thigh and the other clasped at his nape, thighs falling open, a straining portrait of utter surrender.

“Mmmhnh,” Arthur is trying to hold the sounds back, biting his lips again.

“I think you’d do anything,” Merlin lowers his head so he can murmur into Arthur’s ear one more time. “Anything if it just meant you could finally come. Not used to waiting, are you?”

He’s relaxed his other hand slightly where it had held Arthur’s hips still all this time, and Arthur is thrusting into Merlin’s fist, slowly at first, as if he’s not sure it’s allowed, but he begins to speed up as Merlin says, “You’d beg me to suck you.”

“Jesus,” Arthur gasps. “Yes.”

“But I’m not going to,” he says lightly, adding a twist of his wrist but keeping the rhythm smooth. Arthur is leaking steadily now, the fluid making everything sticky and slick and wonderful. “Not tonight.”

“Please.” It bursts out of him suddenly, “Merlin, please.”

And somehow everything changes in that instant. Merlin blinks, sucks in a stunned breath at hearing those words, the desperation from Arthur.

Arthur,” he says, low and hot and wanting, and he bites down on the pale column of his neck as Arthur’s thrusts get stronger, hand biting into Merlin’s thigh and his breath ragged from lust.

“Merlin,” he gasps it once, and then folds up, coming hard, “God, oh, God, oh my fucking God.

He takes it all in, the broken, shaking sound of Arthur’s voice, the solid warmth pressed against him as he stays with Arthur, fingers biting bruises into his thigh and the knowledge that it’s him, he’s the one who broke that reserve.

It won’t last, he knows that, but for now it’s enough.

It’s far too soon but Arthur is straightening, breathing like he’s run a marathon. When he lifts his head, Merlin can see in the window that he is schooling his features into a mask again. And for some reason that’s the moment he realizes his hand is still wrapped around Arthur’s cock.

He blinks, fingers loosening, and just as he starts to pull away Arthur lowers his right hand from where it had been clutching at Merlin’s nape and wraps his fingers around Merlin’s wrist, grip firm and somehow commanding.

They both freeze for a second, then Arthur shifts sideways, completely ignoring his own softening cock, still falling out of his jeans. Merlin’s pulse is thundering under those fingers, he knows Arthur can feel it, and he watches him desperately, with no idea of what’s coming next.

Arthur shifts sideways on the bed. They’re close, near enough to feel the other’s breath on their lips, and Merlin swallows. Something has shifted in the past few seconds, something wild in Arthur’s clear blue eyes.

The hand wrapped around his wrist flexes, and then Arthur slowly lifts his arm, bringing Merlin’s hand between them, still wet with Arthur’s come. Arthur presses forward.

Merlin sidles backwards on his knees, unsure if that’s what he’s meant to do, then follows the silent urging of Arthur’s hand between them, maneuvering Merlin, and a second later he falls backwards onto the bed, silent, breathing hard. His hand is still clasped in Arthur’s firm, heated grip.

Arthur reaches for Merlin with his other hand. Fingers brush over his hipbone and he bites his lip, achingly hard, desperately aroused. Neither of them speaks, all is silent and dark except for the steady sound of the rain and their mingled harsh breathing.

Arthur’s free hand tugs Merlin’s pajamas down, over his hips and Merlin lifts up, automatically helping anything that might bring his swollen erection some relief. Slowly, so slowly, Arthur’s head turns and he stares down at Merlin, gaze dragging from his cock up to his face. He rears up, eyes locking on Merlin’s, and then he slides one leg over, straddling Merlin’s thighs, still holding Merlin’s come-soaked hand.

Merlin swallows with an audible click, and Arthur’s eyes return to his erection. Oh God. The look is as good as a touch. Then he raises his eyes back to Merlin’s as he draws their hands inexorably toward it. Merlin’s panting now, but somehow unsurprised when Arthur guides Merlin’s hand onto his own cock. Those fingers finally loosen and he leans back, sitting on his heels, ready to watch.

Merlin licks his lips. Arthur’s pupil’s flare.

His hand is moving automatically, this is going to take no time at all because he’s already on fire, burning from the madness of watching Arthur shake to pieces. Every slick stroke of his hand reminds him of what just happened, what’s coating his fingers and now Arthur is looming over Merlin, watching it all, taking in everything, the way Merlin likes a twist at the head and the steady build from slow to fast and rough, biting down on his bottom lip when the burn starts, and he gasps as Arthur drops down suddenly.

His hands land on either side of Merlin’s head, body held only inches away from Merlin’s, he can sense Arthur’s warmth through his clothes and he digs a heel into the bed, fighting the instinct to arch up and grind into the solid heat above. “Ohh,” he gasps, can’t stay silent any longer and he tips his head back, closes his eyes for a second because it’s too much- Arthur’s body a cage above his-

He shoves a hand into his hair, yanks hard and opens his eyes, Arthur’s face so close, so beautiful and he chokes out, “Arthur,” just once before his body arches in ecstasy and he’s coming harder than he ever has in his life.

 

 

The room is silent in the aftermath.

Oh fuck, Merlin has time to think tiredly. What did I just do?

He’d definitely screwed things up this time. No simple physical release, instead he’d gone tripping down fantasy lane like a bloody idiot. Exposed his own sweaty, dark-of-night dreams and, possibly, Arthur’s too. Oh crap, talk about complicated.

Arthur is lying silently beside him, not close enough to touch. Both of them are breathing like bloody racehorses.

Merlin jackknifes to a sitting position. Arthur doesn’t move.

He turns his head, just slightly, stares down at Arthur’s knees, and searches blindly for words. When he draws a blank he sighs, shakes his head and gets to his feet, dragging his pajamas up over his hips. With no idea of what comes next, he walks out the door without a backward glance.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The next morning is – well, it’s beyond awkward. Especially when Arthur’s phone rings as Merlin is making tea in the kitchen. He stares at the phone for a long moment, and his body goes extremely still. When he raises it to his ear Merlin catches a glimpse of Arthur’s face before he turns away and it’s a half-second of agony that has him stepping forward on automatic.

“Hello.”

Merlin swallows and drops his hand. Still, he stares at Arthur’s back for a long moment, heart aching.

“Yeah. Hi. It’s – good to hear from you, Perceval. I, uh, wasn’t sure you’d call.”

He blinks into the short pause. Arthur’s tone is warm and intimate. Flirtatious. And Merlin’s body goes cold all over because he just knows. It’s the bartender.

“No, I’m glad you did. Very glad.”

Merlin spins on his heel and stares blindly down at his tea. He wants very badly to vomit. Why did I do it? Oh, fuck, why?

“I’d like that,” he says after another pause, and he just knows Arthur’s glancing his way, hesitating. “No, tonight’s fine. It’s… tonight’s great,” he says, swallowing hard.

Nervous, Merlin thinks miserably. This is how Arthur sounds when he’s talking to someone he fancies. Not the amused, easy tone he’s always had for Merlin.

“That sounds great,” he pauses, then adds, ”Why don’t we meet there and see what we feel like?”

What we feel like, Merlin echoes. Like… if you feel like coming back to mine… or… if we impulsively feel like hopping a flight to Paris for a dirty weekend. The kind of things you do when you’re young and infatuated with each other. Not the opportunistic fumblings that happen in a quiet space when you’re so lonely you could choke on it.

He doesn’t hear the rest of the conversation, just stands there stupidly, head bent over his tea while the milk goes warm in its carton.

Arthur hesitates for a long moment after he hangs up, Merlin can almost feel the weight of the gaze across his back. He doesn’t move or speak, and finally Arthur just sighs softly and leaves. Merlin waits until he hears Arthur’s bedroom door close and then he tips his tea into the sink, grabs his keys and his coat and lets himself out.

He goes to Albion Antiques. There’s a narrow bed out the back, tucked away beside the tiny kitchenette, Gaius has slept there once or twice while waiting for international phone calls or late shipments. Merlin spends the weekend curled up on the bare mattress, miserable, rejecting calls from Gwen and staring blankly at the heavy glass jars that hold Gaius’ many varieties of loose leaf tea, biscuits and sugar.

Finally the phone rings again and as he goes to reject this one he sees it’s Will.

Merlin closes his eyes. Shit. He can’t – he promised. Years ago they’d struck a solemn deal. Whenever they were geographically separated, they’d never dodge each other’s calls. They each had no family other than a single parent. So. No tantrums, no hurt feelings - no exceptions.

“Hey,” he manages through a tight throat.

“Hey.” Will’s subdued tone tells him that Gwen has told him… something. But honestly, what could she know? Unless. Oh fuck, of course, Arthur has told her all about his hot date and Gwen has easily guessed the nature and extent of Merlin’s misery.

There’s silence. “Are you… all right?”

He tips his head back and surveys the ceiling. “Not really. No,” he says, but at least he sounds pretty calm, not raw and frozen like Kate Winslet at the end of Titanic, which is pretty much how he feels.

There’s a sigh. Then Will says, “He’s a fucking tosser, Merlin. Has to be. If he can’t see what’s right in front of him-”

“He’s not a tosser, Will,” Merlin says wearily. He knows this is Will’s role, here. He’s the sympathetic best friend, dissing the other party is like, No 2 on the list of Things To Do In a Romantic Crisis. But Merlin isn’t angry at Arthur. Not even for keeping quiet last night and letting things happen. That was entirely on Merlin.

And he certainly can’t blame Arthur for being attracted to a hot, buff bartender who can probably talk for ten minutes without once saying um. He’s probably French, the fucker. Or Irish. There’s a charming accent in there, somewhere, Merlin just knows it. And a slight edge of danger. Which is bound to appeal to the soldier in Arthur. He stops that line of thought because he’s starting to feel physically sick again.

“He’s just – utterly out of my league. And I forgot that. This is totally self-inflicted.”

Bullshit out of your league-”

“Honestly, he is. I’m not saying it to wallow – well, not only to wallow. He’s like, uber-crush material – seriously, there should be a warning. Ignore the good looks and he’s still smart and funny and sexy and loving and self-deprecating and protective and capable and nice to my Mum and-”

Merlin.”

He takes a breath. “Sorry.”

“I wish – I wish I was there,” Will says, and for the first time since he left he sounds genuinely miserable.

“Me too.”

Merlin folds up, rests his head on his knees and hugs his legs. Then he moves the phone away from his mouth and takes a huge, silent breath. And another. Then brings the phone back. “Look. I’ll be okay. I will.”

He even sounds more normal when he says it, thank Christ Will can’t see his face. He’s a pretty good liar, he’s had to be, to hide his stupid power, and he can at least save Will a sleepless night or two. “I’ll – I’ll get drunk. With Gwen,” he adds hastily. “I’ll get roaring drunk and horribly sick and then I’ll be ready to call him an arsehole and it’ll help.”

“And you’ll move out.”

Merlin freezes.

“Merlin.”

“I. Um.”

“You can’t stay there, Merlin. Not if you- You have to get out.”

“I’ll-”

“Merlin,” Will says, suddenly stern.

“Just give me some time,” he whispers, suddenly broken. “Just let me- let me get used to-”

“Oh, mate.” And now Will is the one that sounds heartbroken. “Fuck.”

“It’ll be all right,” he says, still a whisper. And they both know he’s lying.

 

 

He goes home late Sunday night. The house is dark, he can’t even tell if Arthur is home and he very carefully tries not to confirm either way. He keeps his headphones on, falls asleep with them in so he doesn’t have to have an action replay of hearing Arthur in the throes of ecstasy and know that this time it’s real, this time-

Pale morning light. His hand is clenching around his toothbrush and he carefully unfolds his fingers, takes a deep breath. When he looks in the mirror he’s dressed for work with no memory of doing so, and he hastens down the stairs and straight out of the house without venturing near any of the common spaces of the house.

He buys a takeaway coffee – needs the caffeine to make up for the shitty night of not-sleep – and stares morosely at the other commuters on the Tube on his way to work. It’ll get better. Soon. It fucking has to.

Perhaps it’d be better to meet the bartender. Perceval. He might stop making things up, at least, just torturing himself. His throat tightens with the sudden misery and he glances away, biting his lips hard enough to bruise.

He’s got two choices. In one of them he leaves and there’s a great big Arthur-shaped hole in his life. In the other, he stays, suffers like a fucking martyr by his own choice, and still sees Arthur every day.

Right. Torture or… other torture.

He takes a deep breath and pulls his phone out of his pocket as he steps off the tube. Types a text to Gwen as he climbs the stairs to the surface. Sorry about yesterday. Didn’t want to talk. I’m doing okay.

He hits send once he’s on street level and lets his feet take him to work.

Two choices. He closes his eyes for a second. Fucked if I know which one is right.

 

 

 

Merlin takes a deep breath and fixes his eyes on the TV screen. He can do this. They can do this.

It’s the first time they’ve done anything remotely normal in the past month. Arthur had finished the first coat of paint upstairs and ensconced himself in the crappy recliner he bought at yet another car boot sale, and Merlin thought to himself, screw it. It’s not just the sweaty dreams part of things, not just the fucking flirtatious phone calls with the bartender he keeps overhearing.

They’re friends, or they were, and he wants it back. Choice made.

So he’d sunk down onto the couch and turned on the TV. Awkward silence had reigned for a while and then Merlin had snorted at something particularly vile on display, Arthur glancing up to share the joke. It had almost been like old times. He was genuinely relaxed, when-

“The sword’s nice, though,” Arthur says idly, as Dragon rubs his chin along Arthur's free hand. He’s still sketching something on scrap paper, mumbling measurements to himself and pretending he doesn’t secretly love Antiques Roadshow.

Merlin rolls his eyes. “A sword? Seriously. Could you be any more phallus-obsessed? Arthur,” he says lightly, I can do this I can do this I can, “you are a man badly in need of a boyfriend.”

Arthur snorts. “Merlin,” he says without looking up, “why on earth would I need a boyfriend? I already have someone who steals all the milk and doesn’t replace it, forces me to watch crap TV and is completely incapable of maintaining personal boundaries.”

It’s not entirely inaccurate, but it’s a little bit mean, and the sudden knife of it has Merlin gasping, eyes locked on the blonde head opposite. He breathes carefully, trying to think, and has the sudden sensation of finding himself at a crossroads he hadn’t understood was approaching.

Can’t maintain personal boundaries – is that how he thinks of it? Of that first, impulsive blow job in the kitchen, and the oddly intimate mess they’d made of each other a few nights ago?

Fuck this noise, he thinks, I’m doing it. Everything that’s been pent up for weeks-

Merlin hits the remote, sudden silence like a bomb in the room. He watches the splendid grounds of Unforgettable Castle fade to black and then he says, voice shaking, “Is that what I am, then? Your pathetic,” he spits the word, “and mostly platonic boyfriend?”

“What?” Arthur jolts upright, eyes wide as he looks at Merlin for the first time in half an hour.

“Because it would explain a lot.” And he takes a few deep breaths, not sure where this rage is coming from but it’s coursing through him already, a wide, rushing river of it and he knows from long experience that he’s not going to be able to be reasonable for this discussion.

“I-” Arthur just gapes at him, poleaxed.

“Jeremy, for a start,” Merlin says deliberately. “It would explain why I got the patented Fitzroy-Eyes-Of-Betrayal for bringing someone home. Because stupidly, I thought I was single, and perfectly entitled to screw someone.”

Pencil and paper fall from Arthur’s fingers but he’s recovering now, swiftly, and he says, “I’ve never tried to stop you from dating.”

It’s a typical Arthur reply, giving away precisely nothing and it flicks Merlin entirely on the raw.

“You looked at me like I was the worst kind of whore,” Merlin says matter-of-factly. “You looked at him like you wanted to wipe him from the face of the earth.”

And Arthur blanches, actually makes a solid noise of pain that has him hesitating for a second. But then Arthur puts out a hand, beseeching, and shakes his head. Please don’t. And that’s just …not an option anymore. Merlin is bleeding, has been for months, and he can’t keep on letting Arthur do this.

“I suppose it’s my fault for muddying the waters.” He wobbles a little, then, not sure he has the guts to say it in unforgiving daylight. “Not that some incidental touching gives you any right to-”

“I know that,” Arthur says, hurried, head down. When he does look up he’s pale and tense. “And I don’t think you’re any kind of wh-”

“Actually I suppose you don’t really think about me in that way at all,” Merlin muses, from somewhere remote. “I’m just here, aren’t I. Always here, with idiotic conversation and takeaway menus and the occasional free orgasm, so of course you’d get used to the convenience.”

No,” he says, swift and convincing, half out of his chair. “It’s not like that.” Dragon leaps down, offended, and stalks out of the room. 

“There’s no need to feel guilty, Arthur. It’s only human nature, after all. I made it easy for you, made it safe. My mistake. You don’t actually want me,” Arthur jolts in his seat at that but Merlin can’t stop, pushes to his feet, restless, “and at least you have the moral high ground of knowing you never made a move, I did this all on my own.”

“Wait. Merlin, stop.”

“But you are responsible for some things, Arthur. I won’t accuse you of leading me on, I’ve done that to myself just fine, but you should have said something after Jeremy. You should have made it clear that it was surprise and fucking prudery that put that look on your face, not any personal objection, not really anything to do with me.”

“No, you’re wrong.”

“Then explain it to me,” he shouts suddenly. “Say bloody something besides wait, and that’s not it.”

There’s silence, deep as a well, dark. He waits. And waits. And finally Arthur speaks, sounding as helpless as he’s ever heard. “Merlin...”

But nothing else. He bites his lip, clenches his fists against the burn in his breast. He stares across the room, barely able to believe that Arthur is just going to sit there, when Merlin is begging for some kind of – for something.

“Then I am going to start dating, Arthur,” he says, bewildered and hurt. “And I’m not going to ask your bloody permission for that. I am going out looking for a man who could possibly, one day give a shit about me, and I am going to be bringing people home.”

Arthur just sits, silent. There are fine tremors in his hands.

“I might actually call Jeremy,” he says, musing. And God, where has this streak of cruelty come from? But he’s so angry, angrier than he’s ever been in his life because Arthur is lying to him, and Merlin has let him keep the lie going, all this time.

“He’s a nice guy,” Merlin says, watching. Arthur flinches a little at that. “And miracle of miracles, he actually wants to be with me. Said it out loud and everything.”

And Arthur still won’t move. His hands are biting into the arm of his chair, jaw rigid and eyes locked on something at the far side of the room.

They sit in silence, feeling this, whatever it is – oh God, their home - splinter and crack around them and after long, silent seconds, Merlin takes a shuddering breath and turns away. It’s time to quit. He knows it. And thank God, it doesn’t hurt yet. There’s a distant emptiness in him, and when reality finally hits it’s gonna be worse than anything, worse than the day he’d watched Will slam out the front door full of bitterness and sarcasm. But for now he’s just numb.

His hand catches on the doorframe, like a claw. “I’ll start looking for another place,” he says, low. His fingers dig into the wood. “But I’m serious about going out again. About dating. Because this situation isn’t fair to either one of us. I’m not waiting, Arthur, and I can’t go back to pretending, either. You need to understand that.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Some kind of shiver runs over Arthur as he walks into the hallway but Merlin climbs the stairs, slow, picking his way around the crap that’s covering half the steps and all of the landing. Arthur is finally finishing his own room, and he has simply pulled everything out and stowed it on the edges of every available space. Mattress, bedside table, a small stack of books, lamp and clock and all his other belongings, and it hurts just to see them, even as he hears Arthur’s voice, distressed, calling, “Merlin.”

So he hastens past, reckless, taking the stairs two at a time, and it’s not until he’s reached the second flight that he bumps against something, causing a chain reaction of dropcloths and old newpapers. They spill out like an avalanche beneath his feet. He loses all purchase, slips toward the standing lamp with the leadlight shade. Merlin flinches away from the heavy glass on instinct, jerking sideways and it would have been a brilliant save if it weren’t for the fact that he’s now pitching headfirst over the banister on his way to a broken neck.

Time slows down, possibly. Or everything else speeds up – either way he has enough time to watch the lamp tip forward into the space where he’d been standing, knocking against the edge of the propped up mattress. His vision flares gold and he gets that deep certainty that whatever this luck of his actually is, it’s going to save him again.

There’s time enough to hear Arthur’s voice, utterly changed, a deep broken grind of sound that is his name, again, “MerlinNO-

And his centre of gravity tips over the railing just as the mattress topples forward, sliding longways onto the stairs a microsecond before Merlin lands, danger transmuting into anticlimax with a solid ‘oooomff’ that hurts nonetheless and then he slides down the mattress, headfirst and face-down, coming to a undignified stop on the landing outside Arthur’s bedroom.

“Merlin.”

The rawness of it is awful to hear, the gasping breath at the end of the word as Arthur scrambles, graceless, up the stairs to his side. He takes a deep breath and turns his head slightly, mind catching up with the last few seconds and adrenaline firing through his body.

“Oh my God.” Arthur, that beautiful face hovering above him and Merlin starts to laugh, helplessly. A bit hysterical – possibly.

“Are you- Merlin.” And he sounds shattered, out of all proportion to what was, essentially, an idiotic pratfall. One of Merlin’s finest to date.

“Arthur, it’s okay.” Oh God. He can’t even fake the pretence of dignity. He doesn’t bother trying to get up, just flops over onto his back like a fish, still on the mattress, head lower than his feet like a Chaplainesqe clown. What a ridiculous end to their argument. All laughter dies as he sees Arthur’s face, whiter than bone, mouth slack with terror.

“No-”

“It’s okay,” he says automatically. One of his hands flies up, outstretched, clasps a shoulder.

“It’s not ok. You could have you should have died.” And his voice breaks on the last word. “Merlin.”

“Ssh. It’s fine, don’t worry,” now he’s trying to sit up, still upside down, and Arthur’s hands are clutching at him.

“Merlin.”

“I’ve told you. Just lucky.” Just magical enough to be saved from my own idiocy. And shit, it is absolutely not fair for Arthur to sound like that – like he cares.

“You can’t do that,” Arthur is gasping, hunched over him, “you can’t do that to me. Fuck. Oh god, you mustn’t.”

He levers himself up to his elbows and swings right-way-up, frowning, as Arthur backs away.

“You have to be safe, Merlin,” he’s saying, heel of his hand pressed to his chest, hard. He falls back against the door frame. “You have to be.”

“Arthur,” he says, bewildered. What is this? Hadn’t they just established Arthur didn’t care?

“I can’t have you, I can’t make you happy - I know that, I’ve admitted - but you, there’s no point to it if you’re - oh God, I just stood there watching and you should have died.” His face is buried in one hand, words muffled.

But Merlin is frozen on the spot. “What- what do you mean, you can’t have me?”

You can totally have me, you daft git. I’ll never be happy without you.

“How can you possibly think you wouldn’t make me happy?”

“I can’t-”

Arthur’s hand falls away and his face cracks, just for an instant, and Merlin sees the terror beneath. He’s frozen in place, control clearly shredded by adrenaline and fear.

“Arthur,” he breathes, pushing upright, “Jesus, what-”

He can see the moment that iron control breaks. It’s like a dam bursting, immeasurable weight flooding past the barriers, unstoppable in its momentum, carrying everything on that first, immense wave. Their eyes lock.

And then Arthur pounces, hands hard and possessive.

It’s a kiss to consume, a conflagration. Merlin opens beneath him, helpless as always to resist him, and finally they’re doing this, oh God the kisses he’s dreamed of, pined for and dreamed of again only to wake, aching and alone.

“Arthur,” he’s gasping, completely overwhelmed, and Arthur makes a sound so filthy he moans and shudders, biting at the lush bottom lip pressed against his own.

His clothes are disappearing, when he opens his eyes it’s to find Arthur dragging Merlin’s shirt over his head with absolute focus, question not even asked and Merlin gasps, shock of arousal running through him at what he sees in Arthur’ face.

“You’re mine.” Arthur growls it. All of that bloody-minded determination is suddenly on Merlin, and he’s helplessly aroused to see it, with a fair amount of stunned thrown in.

“Yes-”

Mine.” It’s accompanied by a bite to the neck, hands busy with buttons and zippers.

“Yes.” He drags in a breath, “God, yes, just, do it, just- Arthur, please.

Arthur drags his own shirt up and off, the bare skin of their chests bumping together as Merlin surges beneath him, some part of his brain functioning enough to remember that they need supplies, that there is bedroom furniture scattered everywhere on the staircase and surely-

The back of his searching hand knocks against wood, Arthur’s bedside table, and he manages only to gasp, “Arthur, we need-” before he is sidetracked into licking that perfect chest.

Arthur makes a pornographic noise and surges forward, digging into the top drawer while Merlin bites across his abdomen, fingers making swift work of the jeans below, underwear, hearing a very satisfying moan when he frees that beautiful cock and wraps his fingers around it. Arthur slides back down his body at light speed, lube and condom falling to the floor beside them.

“Merlin, you must, you must,” Arthur is gasping into his mouth, moving back down to strip Merlin’s jeans away and he is kissing back wordless agreement to anything he wants, yes, of course as his hands slide inside Arthur’s jeans, cupping his beautiful arse.

“You must be careful,” he finally manages, pressing Merlin back against the mattress.

Merlin can’t contain the wild laughter that bursts out of him at that moment, not that he has control of much at all with Arthur’s hand wrapped around him.

“Arthur just do it, just take me, mark me, make me,” he is gasping, hips lifting restlessly into Arthur’s free hand, hears the familiar snick of the lube and then long, slick fingers are sliding, pressing inside and he moans, hard and long and shameless.

“That’s good,” he pants, “that’s great. Come on.”

He gets a wordless sound of disagreement against his throat, teeth and tongue driving him crazy.

“I’m not delicate, Arthur-”

Arthur’s head lifts at that, blue eyes blazing down into Merlin’s, and he freezes, arousal winding impossibly high as the second finger slides in. How had he not known Arthur could look like that?

His face is taut, all planes and angles and want and yet the implacable core of him remains, burning bright, burning for Merlin. And those clever fingers keep on working inside Merlin as Arthur looms over him, like the sun.

“Mine,” Arthur says, his voice thick. He scrapes ruthlessly over Merlin’s prostate and catches the broken-off shout in his mouth, biting and sucking. Raises his head again, eyes blazing. “Mine.”

Yes.” Oh, fuck. He’s so close. He can barely keep his eyes open, but he is utterly incapable of looking away from the vision above him. …this is Arthur it’s really Arthur he wants me look at how he wants me

Braced above him on one shaking arm, fingers moving relentlessly, Arthur says, “Mine to take. Mine to keep. Mine to care for.”

And Merlin comes hard, arse clenching, voice utterly broken around Arthur’s name.

When the world returns again, he can hear the blessed sound of a foil wrapper being torn open. “Yes,” he manages to hiss, and lifts his head just enough to watch Arthur slide the condom over himself. “Oh yes,” he says, and their eyes lock. He can’t hold back the full body shudder. Arthur’s eyes are black with lust and Merlin is, oh God he wants.

He reaches for Arthur with heavy arms, hand wrapping around his nape as he tilts his hips up, feet braced flat, inviting. That lush, hot mouth opens over his and Arthur moans, long and low as their bodies align. “Oh,” Merlin pants, “oh God,” he gasps as he’s slowly filled, perfect and implacable, Arthur. One leg wraps around Arthur’s hips, drawing him closer, further.

“I knew you’d be like this,” he manages. “I knew you’d ruin me.” And through half-closed eyes he watches Arthur’s face harden, lust and triumph and relief stripping away the civilized veneer. In that instant he’s a warlord, a conqueror revealed.

Merlin,” is all he says, low and loose and sex. And then he begins to move.

Merlin is twitching and crazed in under a minute, and Arthur, of course, is relentless. All that fucking control doesn’t just evaporate, he moves inside Merlin like they’re balanced on a highwire, slow and rhythmic and perfect and oh shit, this is going to take them so high they’re never going to recover and he’s gasping the words aloud, watching Arthur bite his lips until they’re swollen because apparently Merlin’s voice is his kryptonite.

His rhythm stutters, speeds up and Merlin smiles, sly, keeps talking when he can manage actual words, the coil of heat in his gut winding so tight all he can manage mostly is Arthur and yes and God and more and fuck. His hands move over Arthur’s bare skin restlessly, can’t get enough, learning and relearning the planes and angles and heat.

“Merlin,” Arthur gasps, eyes closing as he tips his head back. “Fuck, so good.”

“Waited so long,” Merlin moans, thrusting up, fingers digging, “oh God I’ve wanted you so long, Arthur.”

Arthur’s head drops down, eyes dazed as they lock on Merlin’s face and his lips part, panting, teeth gritted as the pace increases and he’s so close, Merlin can see it, then he shifts to one arm and reaches for Merlin’s cock.

“I want,” he manages, and Merlin groans shamelessly as Arthur’s strokes drive him higher, timed perfectly.

“Arthur,” he grinds out, throat tight with longing and maybe it’s the sound of Merlin’s voice that has Arthur crying out, shocked, coming, hand still moving on Merlin so that a few seconds later his vision whites out and he’s gone.

They are gasping into each other in the aftermath, and Merlin’s arms close around Arthur even as he pulls out and tosses the condom aside.

Two world-class orgasms in the past half-hour has clearly derailed his brain because instead of wallowing in afterglow he stupidly speaks. “Are you, Arthur are you going to…”

The words disappear into a long, deep kiss because apparently someone else does want to wallow. It feels like twenty minutes before Arthur lifts his head and says hoarsely, “What?”

Merlin blinks at him, mind blank and Arthur parrots back, “Am I going to what?”

He swallows. Okay then. He’s going to ask. “Is it going to be like this never happened? Because honestly? I don’t think I can take that. I just can’t.”

“Merlin,” he murmurs against his jawbone, “do you honestly think I could go back now?”

“Yes,” Merlin says immediately, and his tone is full of such absolute certainty that Arthur flinches. “Yes, I think you would drop me like a stone.”

That golden head lifts and Arthur just stares, undone.

Merlin sighs and cups his cheek tenderly. “If you decided it was best for me.”

Those blue eyes don’t blink, never falter, but his arms are shaking.

“I’m not sure what this is about,” he continues slowly, letting his thumb stroke over flawless skin and watching the face he dreams of posed above him. “But …there’s something about you, Arthur. You’re – bound, somehow. There’s something holding you to ransom, something that has you convinced your happiness isn’t important. That all you’re worth is what you can do for others, never for yourself.”

His breath is coming fast. “Merlin,” he begins, voice light.

“I want you to tell me.” Now Merlin swallows, “I need you to tell me. Because you’re wrong, Arthur. You’re wrong about what you deserve.”

And he dives into another kiss, slow and soft and all the words unspoken float between them. He’s cupping Arthur’s face in gentle hands, thumbs stroking over his cheekbones. He’s going too fast. He knows it.

Whatever Arthur is hiding, whatever it is he fears, it’s going to take time before he can talk about it. You don’t just give up something you’ve been hiding for years, even for one amazing shag. If anyone knows that, it’s me, he thinks guiltily of his own little secret.

So Merlin sinks himself into the kiss and by the end he thinks hazily that maybe he can wait to hear it. For kisses like that he’d wait decades. When he finally pulls back he whispers against that swollen mouth, “Come to bed. Come on.”

Arthur blinks stupidly at him and Merlin doesn’t grin, just tucks that expression away to gloat over later. He rolls to his feet and pulls Arthur up the stairs behind him, unable to stop the constant, glancing touches to whatever skin is nearest. All the small affections he’s been holding back for months are flowing out in one long burst.

He pulls Arthur briefly into the shower to clean them both up, can tell by the silence and the drooping eyelids that the adrenaline from Merlin’s fall and the aftermath have hollowed Arthur out and so he dries them both swiftly and pulls Arthur into his room where they can tumble onto – thankfully – clean sheets.

They align themselves on their sides automatically, faces close.

“Why did you laugh?” It starts as a mumble into the pillow but Arthur turns his head to watch Merlin answer, eyes serious and watchful. He doesn’t even have to clarify, doesn’t have to say when I told you to be careful.

For a moment he considers lying.

“Arthur,” he says finally, tasting the truth and the sadness all at once, “being with you is the most reckless thing I could possibly do.”

Those blue eyes blink at him. The silence stretches taut enough to snap before he says, “Why?

“Because. You are going to smash me into a million tiny pieces when you’re done with me,” Merlin says, and he’s known this for so long it’s not hard to sound matter-of-fact.

He props himself up on his elbow, lips parting to deliver an instinctive denial. Then Merlin looks up and meets his eyes.

Arthur stops. Expressions chase across his face, guilt and surprise and joy and fear and he says in a rush, “You have to protect yourself. Merlin. Please.” Even against me.

He reaches up to cup Arthur’s head and draw him down for a kiss. “I’m sorry,” he whispers against those lips, “That’s just not possible.”

Arthur huffs out a breath at that, a denial that’s almost a sob, and Merlin just kisses him. “Go to sleep, Arthur,” he says, and it’s so easy to be gentle, so easy to let everything he’s been feeling just show. “We can talk about it later. All of it.”

And Arthur’s eyes close on the command.

 

Chapter Text

 

It’s hours later. They are curled around one another, silent in the near-dark when Arthur says, “Merlin.”

“Mmmm.” The sound that emerges is sleepy and sated, and Merlin grins a little. He’s never heard that sound in his own voice before, not like that.

“You must be careful.”

“Hmm. You keep saying that.” His head falls back as he stretches.

“Merlin. You must promise me.”

He lifts his head, watching Arthur’s face in the darkness. The glint in his eye. “All right,” he says slowly, “I promise I’ll be careful.”

“Because if you,” he swallows, “if anything ever happened to you. It would destroy me.”

He blinks slowly at Arthur.

“I don’t just mean I’d be devastated by grief. I mean that, if you died, well.” He shrugs, grim. “I don’t really see…” and he doesn’t finish, but Merlin gets what he means just fine.

“Arthur,” he whispers. “Don’t you – don’t you dare say that.”

His face has closed up again, going to that place where there’s only duty and no emotion, that place Merlin fucking hates, and he reaches out to kiss it away. “You need to tell me,” he whispers against those lips. “Arthur, please tell me.”

He can’t hide the instinctive flinch and Merlin sighs, digs deep for patience. “All right then,” he says against Arthur’s throat. “How about if I guess?”

“What?”

He leans back and switches on the lava lamp, wanting a tiny bit of light so he can watch Arthur’s face for this bit. He knows some of it, but not everything. But he has new information now, and he is going to figure this out.

“You care about me,” he starts there, tasting the words and the wonder of it, gathering his courage. “And you want me.” He can’t hide the amazement in his voice and Arthur’s face softens, a visual representation of of course I do, you idiot. “If I’d known that, I might have figured out this mess a bit sooner.”

“I don’t…” he frowns.

“Arthur,” he says, suddenly soft, “you’re not the type to hold back because you’re afraid you’ll get hurt. You’re far too stupidly brave for that. If you want me but you didn’t act on it, it’s because you were protecting me.”

Arthur just blinks.

Yes, Merlin nods to himself. Bingo.

“And you’re not worried you’ll hurt me emotionally,” he says, because the image of Arthur falling back against the stairs, clutching his chest like he’s afraid his heart will stop, is not going to fade anytime soon. “You’re physically afraid for my safety.”

This time the yes is in his sudden stillness. Merlin takes a slow breath, turns it over very slowly in his mind. I don’t like where this is going…

“But you wouldn’t hurt me like that. You wouldn’t hurt anyone that way. And if you had some terrible disease or something, you’d have just told me. So the only thing that’s left is – there’s someone else.” Arthur doesn’t flinch. His body is under careful control now, and Merlin goes on, voice getting softer. “There’s someone in the picture who would hurt me if they knew I was involved with you.”

He waits, but Arthur doesn’t speak. And that’s when he makes another connection. “That’s why you were upset that Will wasn’t my boyfriend. Not because-” he stops there, abruptly.

He’s feeling pretty cocky right now, with Arthur’s naked body pressed against his. But he’s still not quite in a place where he can easily say not because you knew I had a pathetic crush and might embarrass you with it. He slides down in the bed instead, closer to Arthur. “You wanted me to have a visible boyfriend, so no-one would think we were together when I moved in.”

Arthur takes a deep, steady breath. Hands flex against Merlin’s skin and he arches into them, automatic. It’s dizzying, this feeling that he can have, of all unlikely things, Arthur. Still, they need to move forward somehow. So he nuzzles that perfect neck and says, “Can you help me out here?”

“I can’t-” Arthur begins, and Merlin’s heart sinks. Then he says, “I’ve never… talked about it.”

He takes a breath, tightness in his chest easing. “Yes, I think I guessed that part.”

He can feel the glance Arthur shoots at him for that.

“Arthur-” he takes another breath and says, “are you in any danger?”

No,” Arthur says, clearly disgusted.

Merlin manages not to roll his eyes because of course, Arthur would prefer someone was trying to hurt him. But at least he’s tacitly admitted something is going on.

“But I might be?” he asks, delicately. “Physical danger, you mean?”

Arthur is pale as milk. “Yes,” he says, voice shaking. “I don’t know if he’ll… fixate on you, I’ve never really understood what makes him react, but Merlin,” he takes a shuddering breath and it’s clearly taking everything Arthur has to finish this sentence. “He’s killed people.”

Merlin’s eyes open wide and he stares up at Arthur. “Oh,” is all he says.

He hadn’t expected that. Gwen and Lance’s silence is suddenly a lot more understandable, if Merlin’s life is possibly on the line.

They stay as they are, leaning together and breathing shakily for a while. He’s killed people.

Finally, Merlin’s brain starts working again. “But if he’s – Arthur, if he’s killed people surely the police-” he hesitates, doesn’t want to sound accusing. “I mean, is he-”

“He’s in an institution at the moment,” Arthur says dully.

“So… there’s not really much danger, then. Right?”

And Arthur flinches away, though he’s only moved a few inches before Merlin’s hands fasten on him instinctively. “The last time,” his head drops, braced on Merlin’s shoulder, and he takes a breath. “I’ve only ever had one serious boyfriend, Merlin.”

He brings his hand up to cup the back of Arthur’s neck, rubs gently as Arthur goes on, talking to Merlin’s chest.

“It was when I was in the paras. He was locked up then… and Leon’s apartment was blown up anyway.”

Holy shit. Merlin’s body jerks, just a little. Oh, Arthur. On one level he’s aware that all of this has meaning for him personally, specifically, but overlaying all of that is the sense of puzzle pieces falling into place. The great big puzzle that is the man in his arms. “Did he…?”

“He survived,” Arthur says, but from his tone of voice he might as well be saying I tortured him and chopped him into pieces. “Sheer dumb luck. He’d gotten a letter meant for his neighbour by mistake, he’d just stepped into the hallway to return it.”

“All right,” Merlin says softly, eyeing Arthur’s exhausted face. “All right. Enough for now. Get some sleep.” Arthur’s hands skitter restlessly over his skin, as if he can instill some kind of protective field with a touch, and Merlin just presses closer until he feels some of the tension ease away, drops kisses on his face until those blue eyes close, and he lies awake for a while staring into the night, wondering.

 

 

He’s awoken by the divine scent of frying eggs and bacon. Arthur blinks about eleven times before the fog of sleep lifts and he realizes where he is, who is cooking, and what happened last night.

He bolts upright in Merlin’s bed, diverted from full-scale panic when a piece of paper flutters down to land in his lap from where it had been resting on his naked chest.

Don’t move. I’ll be back in a moment, bearing food.

He stares down at the precise, yet loopy handwriting. Something is trying to fight its way out of his chest.

Could be a panic attack. Could be happiness.

He slides out of bed, still holding the note, and sneaks into the bathroom, not sure why, exactly, he’s sneaking at all. When he’s done he washes his hands and face, cleans his teeth and retrieves the note from the side of the basin. Back in the hallway, he hesitates, then hunts out his pajama bottoms from the pile on the stairs and pulls them on before heading back up to Merlin’s bed. He’s still clutching the stupid note.

Merlin’s treads on the staircase give him warning, at least. He slides back until he’s leaning upright against the wall, eyes fixed on the doorway.

A tousled head of dark hair appears, with a grin bright enough to blind him. They look at one another for a long moment before Merlin says very softly, “Morning.”

He slouches around the corner, hands carefully balancing their one and only chopping board and its contents – pot of tea, two mugs, spoons, sugar and a jug of milk.

“Morning,” Arthur remembers to say, belatedly, as Merlin sets the board down on a corner of the bed, then crawls across the sheets to press his mouth against Arthur’s. It’s deliberate, slow and warm and sexy as all hell. Arthur’s actually leaning forward to follow that mouth when Merlin withdraws. A tiny curve at the corner of Merlin’s mouth is the only sign of smugness as he turns back, grips the tea ‘tray’ and tugs it up the bed, stopping when it’s level with Arthur’s hips.

“You make the tea,” he says, wriggling backwards, “I’ll be back in a second with the food.”

“Merlin-” he begins, then stops, not sure what exactly he was going to say.

“Don’t worry,” Merlin says from the doorway. The look he sends over his shoulder is both affectionate and amused. “I don’t think it’s possible to actually break out in hives just because you’re the one being taken care of, for once. And besides,” he continues as he walks out the door, and the rest of the sentence is muffled by distance but Arthur’s pretty sure he says, you’re going to need your strength today.

Arthur stares blankly some more, then collects himself enough to assemble two mugs of tea and set everything else on the floor by the bed. Just in time, as Merlin enters the room fully-laden. He has acquired the short, squat stool Arthur uses to reach the tops of window frames, and when he sets it down on Arthur’s lap like some freakish Mother’s Day offering, they’re both grinning at the ridiculousness of it.

 

 

 

And as it turned out – Merlin was quite right. Arthur did need his strength. All day long.

 

 

 

 

The sun is rising, perfect and new and it’s sappy symbolism but he needs to make this clean and honest and now seems to be the time. He watches the miracle in his bed, absorbing all the small touches that he wants to believe no-one else will ever see – the way those clumsy limbs curl into elegant and graceful lines as Merlin sleeps, the angle of his impossible cheekbones, the tiny twitch in the curve of his bottom lip that signals he is waking.

He could watch for hours. Weeks. If fate is kind, perhaps he’ll get the chance before it ends.

Merlin stretches before he opens his eyes. Still clinging to sleep, but as Arthur watches he sees the transition, the slight parting of those lips in a silent oh as something brings it all back. A twinge of soreness, perhaps, whisker burn on soft skin. Perhaps their scents, mingling on the sheets.

Whatever it is, as his eyes fly open he smiles, and the sheer sweetness of it has Arthur’s chest near to bursting.

“Mmm,” he hums, and his eyes are wicked above that honey smile. Without moving at all, he has Arthur tied in knots, and he’s crouched over Merlin, kissing him slow and deep before he actually makes a decision to move.

“Morning,” Merlin whispers against his lips. “And by the way? You’re gorgeous.”

Arthur manages a smile, “Let’s not start with an argument,” he says softly, “But I’ve been watching you sleep and I’m pretty confident I could provide statistical proof that actually, you’re gorgeous.”

Merlin shakes his head, sleepy idiotic smile on his face and Arthur closes his eyes. For a moment the rage sweeps up. Fuck it all. Why can’t he just have this? Why can’t he just roll back into Merlin’s arms and never leave, spend the morning fucking him slowly into the mattress until they’ve both lost their minds?

“Whatever it is, you can say it,” Merlin murmurs against his throat. “I’m awake and aware, and waiting isn’t helping your blood pressure any.”

Arthur blinks and draws back. He knows Merlin’s incredibly bright, obviously, but somehow he still gets lulled into forgetting, falling for that mild, wide-eyed thing he does.

Suddenly, Merlin’s shark-like success rate in finding undiscovered antiques is explained. He could probably stroll through Buckingham frigging Palace and convince them to sell him a Boule table for a fiver.

A tiny smile touches the corner of Arthur’s mouth even as he shakes his head. It’s a weird time to discover that he’s proud of Merlin. “You do it on purpose,” he says, sliding back until he’s standing by the bed again, dressed only in his pajamas. “That wide-eyed idiot look.”

Merlin’s lips twitch. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, Arthur.” And then he sits up, draws his legs up under the sheets and leans back on his arms, taking a deep breath. Slightly defensive. Ready.

Arthur falls back to lean against the window, the newly-finished sill digging into his rear end. He grips it hard and swallows, keeping his eyes locked on Merlin’s face.

“I haven’t been honest with you, Merlin.”

The other man resists the opportunity to say, duh, which displays more self-control than Arthur had expected. Instead he wraps his arms around his knees and waits.

“It’s not an ex-lover.”

There’s the flicker of an eyelid as Merlin places the reference, knows what they’re talking about.

“The… man who wants to-”

“-control you,” Merlin says, just as Arthur says, “-hurt you.”

They blink at one another for a moment, bemused. Then Arthur swallows hard.

“It’s my father.”

Merlin just blinks at him. The room isn’t silent, Arthur’s breathing too heavily, heart beating too hard for that. There’s a wash of white noise in his ears at knowing he’s finally going to – he’s doing it. He’s going to tell Merlin everything.

“Your father.”

He nods and finally drags his eyes to Merlin’s face, wondering what he’ll see there. It’s mostly confusion and a kind of distaste, and though that’s not a complete surprise Arthur realizes a beat later that he’s led Merlin astray in the path he’s taken to get here, making a comparison to stalking-

“No,” he says hastily, “it’s not – not like that. It’s not sexual.”

Merlin is frozen, uncertain, and he sighs. Admitting defeat, he turns until he’s leaning against the wall and lets himself slide to the floor before his nerves take all his remaining strength. “The attack on Leon was – unusual. It’s not about jealousy. He was punishing me for – disobedience, I guess he’d call it. His other crimes, his original crimes were… for other reasons.”

Merlin takes a deep breath and slides out from under the covers. He pulls on a pair of pajama bottoms and sets himself up opposite Arthur, on the floor, leaning against the bed. Their knees bump as he says softly, “Tell me.”

Arthur tips his head back and swallows hard. “He’s… insane. He believes-” he scrubs a hand over his face and just says it, hating the words, “he believes he’s descended from royalty. That he’s the rightful King. Of England,” he adds, in case there was any doubt.

He risks a glance at Merlin, sees the wide eyes before he hears the murmured, “Fitz-Roi. Descended from the king.”

Trust Merlin to know the provenance of Arthur’s surname. He manages a wry smile. “Exactly. He has this detailed, elaborate family tree. And I mean, some of it is- he does have royal connections, but Jesus, who doesn’t? There’s probably ten different families who could claim the same thing – if this succession had gone differently, if they hadn’t been disinherited or married a Catholic or lost the marriage certificate…”

He leans back against the wall again and keeps his eyes on Merlin this time. There’s been no instinctive recoil from the word insane, and he probably should have known that. There’s too much love in that big heart of Merlin’s for anything else. He swallows and forces himself to finish.

“Anyway… as far as I could tell, he was mostly all right when I was growing up.” His hand strokes over the leather cuff of his watch for an instant. “Mostly. He was strict. And snobby. But… all right. But the older I got the more he seemed to obsess about this theory – he was determined to find a way to ascend the throne and pass it to… his heir.”

He sees Merlin bite his lip and forges on. “There were things I didn’t know about – still don’t really know, to be honest – things he never told me outright. But he would allude to this conspiracy that was keeping him from his birthright, hidden enemies…” Crazy stuff, he thinks despairingly. Even back then, Uther must have been unbalanced. Not that the boy he’d been had realized that. He’d believed his father blindly, for far too long.

“Anyway,” he shakes his head, presses his hands to his eyes and leaves that mess for another day. The real stuff is more than enough to start with.

“When I was away at school, there were… incidents. The house of some minor nobility burned down, someone I’d heard him rant about before. He was – pleased. I thought it was just… sour grapes. The family moved away, they didn’t have the capital to rebuild. A local historian disappeared. Everyone thought he’d run off with his girlfriend to Spain – his bookshop was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.”

Merlin’s hand wraps gently around Arthur’s ankle and he takes a sharp breath, focuses his eyes on it those long, familiar fingers. It’s getting to the hard part now. Those stories were bad enough but-

“Then there was Tristan. He was the son of a local barrister, a bit of a twat but no big deal. He used to bully the local kids a bit. He and I constantly locked horns. His Dad was trying to edge my father out of the role of local magistrate. The two of them died in a house fire while I was home from uni, one Christmas. The fire was… suspicious.”

He clenches his fists, hard. “Gwen- Gwen’s Dad was a firefighter. Her Mum had worked for us as a cook for years, she died of cancer when Gwen and I were eleven.” Merlin’s fingers tighten and he scoots forward a little, warming Arthur with his presence. “Gwen and I were always great mates, even when I went away to school. And then Morgana came to live with us a few years after that. Her parents lost control of their car on a mountain road in Switzerland somewhere while she was at boarding school… the three of us spent a lot of summers together as teenagers.”

There’s silence and then he says, “Gwen’s Dad was injured trying to pull Tristan out of the fire. He spent months in hospital, Gwen had to leave school to care for him and finally he- he died.”

“Fuck,” Merlin says softly. “And the fire…”

“My father did it,” Arthur says flatly. “I know he did.”

“But… it’s never been proved?”

“I was his alibi.”

Merlin’s head jerks at that. Their gazes lock and Arthur waits for the blame, the suspicion. It never comes. “Tell me,” Merlin says.

Arthur sighs, scoots down further until his legs are pressed against Merlin’s hip. “We were watching football,” he says. “Premier League.”

Merlin nods, fingers stroking Arthur’s ankle.

“Morgana was spending the night in London with a friend. My father had made mulled wine, he poured me a glass and we sat on the couch together, just talking about the game. It was… nice. We didn’t do stuff like that very often.”

He closes his eyes, bringing the night back to mind. “The rest of the night is a haze. It was horrible weather, just horrible. An ice storm, sleet. The game… I only remember a few bits and pieces. There was a penalty… West Ham scored from an absolutely spectacular corner… at some point my father spilled the bowl of popcorn all over the floor. And somewhere on the other side of the village Tristan and his father were dying of smoke inhalation.”

Merlin’s frowning, confused. “I thought you said-”

“The storm,” Arthur said dully. “It brought down the TV relay tower for the entire county. Nobody in town saw the second half of the match, when that penalty happened. The signal was out for an hour, well past full time. But somehow I saw it. I can’t remember the rest of the match but I remember that. It took me days to work it out – well, at first I was only thinking about Gwen and her Dad. But I just couldn’t forget-”

He takes a shaky breath and leans forward. “The police questioned me. Dad was a suspect, he and Tristan’s father had argued a month before. But no-one seriously suspected the magistrate, not when his son said they’d watched the game together, precisely when the fire was being lit.”

He slants a look up at Merlin and says dully, “He roofied me. He taped the match earlier from our satellite feed. I think he played it on a loop, knowing the drugs would screw up my sense of time. He was there at the start, and there again at the end, did something memorable so I’d have a story to tell and when I was confused he joked with the cops about how I was a lightweight drinker.”

Merlin just stares.

“Morgana’s the one who figured it out. I couldn’t- couldn’t think. I knew something was wrong, I knew the whole night had been – off. But I couldn’t…” he breathed in again. “I didn’t want to suspect him. And then there was Gwen-”

“But Arthur,” he begins slowly, “how do you – that’s pretty complicated. How do you know?”

“One of the locals had just been convicted for slipping GHB to some tourists at the local pub. Morgana convinced the local superintendent she’d been roofied and got him to check the evidence. There were three pills missing from the evidence bag.”

“And your father-”

“Had access,” Arthur says heavily. “It’s a small town, no-one suspected anyone of anything until it was far too late.” He shivers, and Merlin’s hand slides up and down his calf, calming, comforting. “I confronted him and he – didn’t deny. Didn’t get angry. Didn’t get anything. Merlin, I looked him in the eye and I just knew. He’d done it, and he wasn’t the least bit sorry, not even about Gwen’s Dad.”

“But they didn’t charge him?”

“There was no real evidence. My testimony was fucked up, it looked like I’d changed my story once already and by my own admission I’d drunk alcohol and my recollection was hazy. There was at least half a dozen different people who could have taken the pills and used them for almost any purpose, there was no physical evidence linking him to the fires…”

“So – what happened?”

“Morgana and I confronted him. We told him we’d go to the Press if he didn’t confess. He refused, probably knowing we didn’t have enough for any paper to actually publish and risk a legal battle. But we persisted and there started to be… talk. And after a while…”

Arthur shrugs. “He didn’t like the idea of the family name being sullied by rumours. He agreed to resign as Magistrate and check himself into a clinic. The local superintendent wouldn’t listen to us but there was a younger cop in town who believed it. He said he’d keep an eye on my father. It was the best we could do.” He sighed, heart heavy.

There was a long pause. “It took a long time for me to really believe. Morgana was the one who – I can see now she’d never really liked my father, she’d always had a feeling there was something wrong. She’s the one who went back and checked on old, suspicious deaths linked to …the area, to my family. That’s how we know about the first big fire, about the historian who’d argued over some point of my father’s claim… he’s never been seen again. I don’t know if there are others or not.”

Merlin is shaking his head, eyes shadowed. “Arthur. That’s. Bloody hell, that’s-”

“I know.”

He lets out a long, slow breath. “So – what’s the situation now? I mean. Are the police – are they doing anything?”

“Well.” He hesitates, then says, “There was nothing happening, for a long time. All the old cases are either still open, like Tristan’s case, or else they were ruled accidental like the first fire. Leon’s apartment… well. The guy in charge of that case got kind of fixated on the gay element, saw it as a hate crime. He wouldn’t believe me, didn’t really pursue the possibility that my father was responsible. So he’s never been charged with that, either.”

“But – there’s a new… well. A DI called me a few weeks ago, a new guy. He’s just been transferred to the Met from up north and he wants to look at it again. He thinks-” Arthur licked his lips and stopped, suddenly wondering if this was all too much. If it will make him sound – crazy.

“Keep going,” Merlin said quietly. “I want to hear it. Everything.”

“He thinks there might be something to it – my suspicions. That possibly.”

Merlin just waits.

“That my father might have me under some kind of surveillance,” he finishes in a rush. There. He hasn’t actually said it, but Merlin’s no fool and this will, he’ll understand now just how twisted this is, how dangerous. I asked you to come and live here even though there’s a madman watching me.

He’s silent for a long time, and Arthur swallows silently and gathers his strength. He’s not going to make this harder for Merlin, if the younger man wants to leave-

“What does this guy look like? The DI,” he clarifies at Arthur’s confused look.

“Uh.” He casts his mind back, wondering why on earth this would be important. “Older. Dark hair. Kind of tired. Greg Travers.”

“You met him at the pub.”

“Yes.” Arthur nods, then jerks his head up swiftly. “What?”

“I was picking up takeaway at that Thai place a few weeks ago,” Merlin says softly, he’s gazing past Arthur, an odd smile on his face. “I saw you at the pub with this guy – it seemed like a weird conversation. Kind of gave me the willies, to be honest, so I…” colour appears on his cheeks, “hung back, watched.”

Arthur just nods. Then he bites his lip. “He gave me an untraceable phone so we could talk about the case – it’s possible my father is somehow accessing my phone records.” Merlin just nods, and he adds painfully, “There’s um, something else, too. A kind of – well, he suggested, and I’ve been-”

“The bartender,” Merlin says very softly.

Arthur just stares. “You-”

“I saw you at the bar.”

He can feel himself flush, deep red. That must have looked- and then, after the other night- and the phone call next morning. Oh, shit.

“I’ve been, um. A bit panicked. About you- y’know, living here, with you. Greg finally suggested that I-”

“-embark on a public flirtation,” Merlin finishes for him, more kindly than he deserves.

“Perceval, he’s a constable, he’s working undercover for the DI, Greg thinks we can draw my father out, maybe. It’s not – I don’t, I mean - nothing’s hap-”

“Arthur,” Merlin says, very soft. “It’s all right.”

Arthur looks up at him. All the desperate shame he’s been hoarding is just welling up inside. “After – that first night, Merlin. When you- in the kitchen. I wanted to – I wanted so much to-”

“It’s all right.”

“But I couldn’t.” His voice is hoarse. “And then. The other night. You saw everything, you always see right through me and I lay awake all night, I was so afraid that you’d- and I had to keep you away somehow-” he gulps in a huge breath of air. “I staged that call, Merlin, so you’d hear it. I sent Perceval a text while I was upstairs getting dressed and I came down and just fucking waited for the phone to ring so that you’d-”

Merlin is moving, toward Arthur again, always toward Arthur, never away, never leaving the way he should, the way Arthur deserves and he closes his eyes, as if he might fly apart with everything inside him as he feels Merlin straddle his hips, foreheads resting together, hands running up and down Arthur’s arms. “It’s okay, Arthur,” he’s whispering. “It’s okay now. I’m here.”

“You shouldn’t be,” he whispers back. “You should be running for your life.” I should make you run.

“I promise,” he says, cutting through all the bullshit, typical Merlin. “I promise you I’ll be careful. I won’t act any different. I won’t call you, I won’t touch you in public, I won’t tell anyone about us. I promise. You don’t have to worry about me, Arthur, I promise you.”

His breaths are shuddering out, then in, and he curls his fingers very carefully around Merlin’s wrists. He doesn’t have the edge he used to, when he was active in the paras, but he still can’t just let go of his emotions. It’s so very easy to hurt someone.

“I won’t make you carry that,” Merlin whispers, “you worry enough already. No-one will know anything is different.” There’s a long pause, then he says, low, “I’ll move out, if you want.”

His fingers flex on Merlin’s wrists before he can control himself. “For how long?”

“Until-”

Arthur lets out a sharp bark of laughter as he sees the realization dawn. “Right. Until it’s over. Which will be… when? When we catch him? When he confesses?” When I’m an old man myself?

Merlin bites his lip, hard. “We’ll figure it out,” he says, firm and sure.

Arthur takes a big, shaky breath. He’s going to have to fight him on this, too, fight until Merlin’s self-preservation instinct kicks in and he realizes the only place that’s safe is far away from Arthur. Well, Merlin’s the wide-eyed, trusting type, while he’s the big tough ex-soldier. He’ll win in the end.

His eyes meet Merlin’s, and he blinks slowly at the mule-stubborn look he’s receiving.

Okay. He’ll probably win in the end.

Blue eyes burn into his. “I’m not leaving you, not ever,” Merlin says, and his tone gives the distinct impression that somewhere those words have spontaneously carved themselves into a granite boulder. “Forget it.”

Maybe he’ll win.

Merlin’s hand strokes gently over Arthur’s chest.

Sixty percent chance.

Then he smiles, very slowly, and the sunlight streaming through the window catches his ears.

Okay, fuck. Forty.

 

                                                                                                                               

Chapter Text

 

Merlin’s long, clever fingers dance over the leather cuff on Arthur’s wrist. “You never take this off,” he says, his voice taut.

Arthur doesn’t speak. His entire focus is on the tight heat of Merlin around him, the achingly slow build of pleasure as he moves. They are twined closely together on Arthur’s bed, on their sides, pinned together by Arthur’s arm across Merlin’s chest and Merlin’s hand at Arthur’s hip.

He opens his mouth against Merlin’s spine, lets his tongue taste and hears the hitch in Merlin’s breathing.

“Can I?” he persists, and Arthur forces his eyes open, barely able to think, let alone speak.

“Mnmfh,” he groans against Merlin’s nape, uncaring about anything other than the tightening at the base of his spine. Still, when he feels the leather cuff loosen on his wrist his hips stutter for just a moment.

Merlin presses back against him and Arthur rolls his eyes up toward the ceiling as he slides further inside that heat. “God,” he manages, “oh God.”

Merlin draws Arthur’s hand to his mouth, sliding his tongue around warm fingers as the watch thuds to the floor and Arthur grips his hips harder, convulsive. “Merlin.”

“Hmm?” It’s deplorably innocent, that sound, considering Merlin is fellating his fingers like a French prostitute and Arthur speeds up, helpless, thrusting harder and biting his lip at the sound Merlin makes even as his runs his fingers, feather-light over Arthur’s scar.

Then the scar and the bed and the fucking time-space continuum itself disappear in the fevered drive that takes him over, lost completely to the utter ecstasy of having Merlin in his arms, surrounding him, with him. The open-mouthed gasp from Merlin as Arthur reaches around to palm his erection slams him completely past restraint and he comes, hard, barely aware of Merlin’s mouth closing over his scar, biting hard as he fucks Arthur’s fist, his orgasm punching out bare seconds later.

They’re still gasping into one another, minutes later, when Merlin mumbles a “Sorry” against Arthur’s throat.

“What?” He’s nuzzling Merlin’s ear, pure gluttony of joy and sensation.

“Sorry for, you know. The bite.”

“Unh?” Arthur raises his arm hazily, has a momentary jolt when he sees the scar and the band of pale skin that’s usually hidden by his watch. But overlaying the scar is a neat set of toothmarks, a part of Merlin left on his skin and when he flexes he feels the ache.

There’s silence as he stares at it stupidly. The bad and the good, written on his skin, side by side. A hot poker and the sense of stunned anger and bewilderment, a moment so far back in childhood sometimes he can almost pretend he’s forgotten, and now… Merlin. Lost in pleasure, leaving his mark on Arthur in so many ways.

“It’s fine, Merlin,” he finally says, and flexes again just to feel it, to be reminded. His fingertips drift over it again a second later, and he doesn’t put his watch back on until the morning.

 

 

 

Merlin’s watching that leather strap slide back on to cover the bite mark and the scar beneath when it just… slips out. “Thursdays,” he says suddenly, and Arthur entire body tenses beside him.

There’s a pause, and then Merlin asks, “Where do you- what do you do?”

It’s a long time before Arthur answers, reluctant. “I visit.”

“Visit who?”

And maybe that reluctance should have told Merlin, but he’s still stunned to hear Arthur say, “My father.”

“Your- your father? You visit him?”

There’s silence and he’s honestly dizzy trying to make sense of this. The words just spill out unbidden, “But- but he killed- but Gw-” Merlin swallows the rest of the sentence as Arthur’s entire body flinches away.

“Yes,” he says, very distant. Expecting to be judged and Merlin’s throat is closed tight in shock and confusion.

“I – I don’t.”

“I know.” Arthur swings out of bed and throws on some clothes. His face is closed and full of pain. “I don’t understand any of it either.”

And then he’s gone.

 

 

 

“Arthur,” Merlin begins when he finally comes home. “Look. I’m sorry. That was – I shouldn’t have sounded so…”

Repelled? Arthur supplies silently. Horrified?

“…judgemental,” Merlin finally says. He takes a deep breath. “I’m really sorry. Especially because – well, to be honest, there’s stuff about me I haven’t told you yet, either. Secrets. I have – Arthur, I have a secret, a big one. And I’m really hoping you’ll be, ah, considerably more understanding than that when I finally find the balls to tell you. So. Um.”

Arthur’s mouth twitches. The tightness in his chest loosened the minute Merlin said sorry. “It’s okay, Merlin.” He wonders idly what someone as open and sunny as Merlin thinks of as a juicy secret. His father’s identity, perhaps? He’s secretly Cliff Richard’s love child?

“It’s really not,” he returns, serious. “You deserve better than that from me. I know you well enough to know that you must have good reasons for what you do.”

Arthur manages a smile at that. “Well. I hope so. I don’t- I don’t want to talk to him, Merlin-”

“I know that, God,” he interrupts. “You don’t need to tell me that, Arthur. I’ve seen what it does to you, what it costs you each time you go there.” And Arthur looks away.

Merlin crosses the room and takes Arthur’s hand, tugs him toward the extremely crappy couch. “Come here,” he husks, and tugs until they’re both sprawled on the couch, invading each other’s space, breaths mingling. He kisses Arthur, slow and thorough. “Don’t say stupid things to me,” he whispers. “I’m the stupid one here, okay? That position is filled.”

Arthur smiles against his mouth, involuntary. “Hm, right,” Arthur replies, knowing Merlin can hear the disagreement in his tone.

It’s not hard to admit Merlin is far smarter than he is, it’s been clear to him from the start but it doesn’t bother Arthur in the least. They have entirely disparate talents and interests and in his hazier, more optimistic moments he thinks they could complement each other beautifully for all the years to come. Then life crashes over him again.

They lie in silence for a while and finally Arthur says, “I went to see him a few times when he first went into the clinic, I was still hoping he would confess and they could close the cases. Give Gwen some kind of apology.” Like that would make any difference.

“Arthur, you don’t have to-”

“But he wouldn’t admit it,” Arthur went on, hearing the anger in his own voice, “and I couldn’t keep- just, sitting there and listening to his garbage. So I. I stopped.”

Merlin swallows, his hands stroking over Arthur’s skin as he listens.

“He warned me. He… required my presence.” He stops for a second, struggling for control. “I was at Sandhurst then, and he… accepted my absences on that basis but whenever I was on leave, he expected me to visit. I refused. He warned me,” he said again “that he would - take steps.”

Merlin’s hand drifts down to toy with Arthur’s watch. His cool fingers soothe the memory just enough that he can say, “There was a fire. One of the patients died.”

Merlin freezes, eyes closing. “Arthur,” he breathes.

“Of course, there was no fucking proof,” he ground out. “Again. I stormed down there to confront him and he – he smiled at me.” He’s shaking at the memory, he realizes in sudden wonder, part fury and part heavy guilt.

“I was deployed to the Middle East a few weeks later. It was – it wasn’t an easy place to be but,” he shook his head, “In a way - I was away from it all. I was glad.”

“I can imagine.”

“Whenever I was home on leave I always visited him once. It seemed… safest.” He doesn’t describe the impotent rage that fills him every time he walks through the doors of that place, knowing that he is giving in, that Uther was still controlling him, even now.

“You were protecting people,” Merlin says. “You still are. It’s what you do, Arthur. Putting everyone else ahead of what you want.”

He gives an instinctive headshake, but Merlin goes on, fingers curling around Arthur’s face. “I’m proud of you, Arthur Fitzroy.”

Arthur closes his eyes and stores that away for a rainy day. “Merlin,” he manages, “you are completely mental.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Arthur,” Merlin begins and he freezes because nothing good ever comes of that deliberately casual conversational tone. The atmosphere is already awkward enough, with Perceval dozing upstairs in Lance’s room. Still, Merlin is surprisingly good at pretending he’s not bothered by Arthur’s raging ‘affair’. He even supplies the lovebites that adorn Arthur’s throat every time Perceval sleeps over.

“Merlin,” he returns. And waits.

“You said this was the third property for you.”

Every inch of his body relaxes and he returns his attention to the spreadsheet. A cup of tea appears at his elbow and he murmurs absent thanks, enters two more receipts and watches the total grow.

“What did you do with the other two?”

“Hmm? Oh, uh, the first was a flat in Notting Hill, it was just cosmetic stuff really, new paint, new floors and a bit of storage.” Jesus, paint was expensive. “The second one was a bloody monster of a house, I got a bit more ambitious there. More than I was ready for, to be honest. Spent nearly a year redoing it, bathrooms on every floor, couple of kitchenettes, good security system…” he trails off and squints at a handwritten docket. Was that the timber for the stairs, or the butler’s sink? And how could those words possibly look similar in any way, unless the handwriting belonged to a well-trained baboon?

“No, I meant, what did you do with them. Sold them?”

He stops again, turns his head toward Merlin without meeting his eyes. There’s that careful tone again. “Uh.” He hesitates, “Well, um, no the flat is um, a mate of mine is renting it, actually.”

Merlin nods, encouraging, and slides the biscuits across the table. “A mate. From the paras?”

“Y-yeah.” He frowns. “How did you-“

“Something Lance said,” he replies easily. “He’d been hurt, I think?”

Arthur takes a biscuit. “Yeah.” He glances away, trying very hard not to picture anything at all. Not to hear the sounds again. He hadn’t been there that day, but there had been plenty of others where he had. Watched too many medical evacs and known nothing would ever be the same for those guys. He draws in a slow breath and says, “Lost a leg, actually, to a roadside bomb.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah.”

Arthur eats the biscuit slowly. Elyan’s return home is all mixed up in Arthur’s head with his own fucked-up issues. It had been only two months after he’d resigned his commission. “He has a much younger sister,” he says slowly. “Twelve year age gap. And he – he was in the middle of rehab, getting prosthetics fitted, all that, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.”

He hears Merlin’s sharp intake of breath. “She was dead ten weeks later.”

Fuck,” he says again, low and heartfelt.

Arthur pushes his laptop away across the table and reaches for his tea.

“So you offered him the flat.”

Arthur shrugs. “I’d finished the work and put it on the market. The real estate agent kept harping on about the amazing school just around the corner and how heaps of people would buy the place just to get a foot in the door with the school. Everyone in the unit knew his sister was some kind of genius, he never used to bloody shut up about her. I just thought-“

He shrugs. “Why shouldn’t she get that kind of chance? Twelve years old. She’d had enough shitty luck for a lifetime already, and Elyan was ripping his hair out trying to afford a place for two on his pension, and hating himself because he couldn’t keep her in her old school.”

He lets his eyes wander around the kitchen while he remembers the seemingly endless arguments with Elyan. Until he’d brought first Lance and then, awkwardly, Leon on board to argue it for him. And hadn’t that been a fun phone call, talking to Leon for the first time since the apartment fire and Arthur’s sudden discharge. But they’d gotten past it, for Elyan’s sake.

It’s not charity, it’s a helping hand… she deserves the chance…   He still remembers his own, desperate need to feel like he was doing something – something good -after the mess of the past year.

“From the look on your face I’m guessing you had to talk him into it,” Merlin says. “Stubborn bunch, the paras, I’ve observed.”

“I didn’t need the fucking rent,” he bursts out, oddly furious all over again. He sinks lower in his chair, embarrassed, feeling Merlin’s eyes on him. When he finally glances up, those blue eyes are smiling across the table at him.

“You’re a good man, Arthur Fitzroy,” he says, and pushes away from the table. The fingers that run through his hair as Merlin leaves the room are rough, casual, and it’s a touch he feels all day.

 

 

* * *

 

It’s just a kiss.

Should have been one of those swift, warm pecks people exchange as they pass by on their way out. Lance and Arthur are meeting some of their old unit at a pub in town before they’re all deployed again. But something prompts Arthur to deepen the kiss, to dive into Merlin.

“Mmmfnh,” Merlin hums against his lips. If this is Arthur’s way of saying yes my ex-boyfriend will be there but you don’t have anything to worry about, he can totally get behind that. Then he grins and pulls back. He huffs out a satisfied breath and the words emerge throatily, “Don’t start something you can’t finish, love.”

Arthur opens his eyes slowly and Merlin has just enough time to realize that he’s done something to set Arthur off. Somewhere in the distance there’s the sound of Lance’s ringtone.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, close to his ear. “You shouldn’t challenge me.”

There’s a sound from the top floor, footsteps, then Lance’s voice floats down. “Arthur? It’s Kappa again. You mind if I take this?”

“Go ahead, I’m in no hurry,” Arthur calls, eyes lighting up with purpose and Merlin’s knees give just a little.

Arthur moves forward, implacable, and Merlin finds himself backed up against the staircase in their narrow hallway, right into the corner, half-hidden from view.

“Arthur,” he says, curious and a bit warning.

Merlin,” he returns, and leans in for another kiss, his body heavy against Merlin’s, hands slowly tracing up, past hips, stomach and ribs until he reaches Merlin’s shoulders, cups his biceps and urges them up, raised in a straight line, Arthur’s hands dragging along the length of them until he curls his fingers around Merlin’s wrists.

He lifts his head, their faces only an inch apart and Merlin is already breathing heavily. Somewhere upstairs Lance’s voice can be heard periodically, his door isn’t even closed and Arthur clearly doesn’t give a toss. He’s winding Merlin’s hands around the banister railings and Merlin swallows. Arthur’s large, work-roughened hands cover Merlin’s, press with a firm grip until he understands he’s not to let go.

“Arthur-”

There’s no response, instead Arthur leans in for another kiss, mouth opening over Merlin’s with unmistakable intent. It’s deep and slow and utterly erotic, the kind of kiss Arthur only gives when he’s already deep inside Merlin, moving slowly enough to drive them both out of their minds, wringing the pleasure from both their bodies.

Merlin trembles and gasps against the heat of Arthur’s mouth, sense memory of other kisses like this taking him halfway there already and his hands tighten around the railings, managing a heartfelt, “Oh, fuck,” as he recognizes Arthur’s resolve. This isn’t going to be some hasty, fumbled toss.

Arthur’s hands have travelled down his body as they kissed, and now he’s freeing Merlin from his jeans and underwear, moving so slowly Merlin shudders again. The contrast between the urgency in his head – here in the hallway, Lance is just upstairs – and the deliberate movements of Arthur’s hands is doing things to him, stripping away any sense of control at the same time as it takes him to the point where it’s impossible to do anything but want more more more, fuck give me more.

When Arthur’s fingers close around him he sighs in relief, hips straining forward on instinct but Arthur doesn’t stroke him, just leans in for another deep, filthy kiss and Merlin is gasping for breath by the time it ends, “Arthur, please.”

Lance’s voice becomes louder, he’s clearly wandering around his room, closer to the open doorway as he speaks, and Merlin bites his lips as Arthur leans back, holds his gaze and drops to his knees.

Oh thank Christ. His head drops forward, partly to watch and partly because he just can’t seem to hold it upright anymore, eyes drooping, breath coming in sharp pants. His fingers flex and tighten around the railings, convulsive.

“Yeah. Listen, mate, I was just heading out-” Lance’s voice drops down the stairwell in the unmistakable wind-up, and Merlin flinches, stares down at Arthur wanting it so badly, this is it, he’ll take Merlin into his mouth and oh God, it won’t take much-

Arthur, of course, the fucker, does no such thing.

A pale pink tongue emerges from his mouth, just one delicate flicker that dances across the head of Merlin’s cock. Merlin gasps.

A trail of soft kisses down the side. A gentle, soft nip halfway down. The fingers of one hand slowly stroking the underside of Merlin’s balls.

He’s playing.

As if they’ve got all day, a rainy Sunday spent lolling about in creased sheets, fumbling lazily together. Arthur licks a slow deliberate stripe along Merlin’s length as he lets out a sobbing breath, so hard now and leaking, desperate, “Arthur,” he chokes out. “Arthur, please.”

He doesn’t grin. There’s nothing remotely lighthearted in his eyes as he stares up at Merlin, but he closes his eyes and parts his lips and Merlin sucks in a breath as that wet heat surrounds him, his head falls back against the banister with a low thunk and he shoves a hand into Arthur’s hair and then, unbelievably, everything fucking stops.

He blinks stupidly at the newly-papered wall opposite, then glances down. Arthur has pulled back, still kneeling at Merlin’s feet, hands clenched on his thighs. There’s space between their bodies now, his eyes fixed on Merlin’s face, unmoving. Their eyes lock and Merlin remembers, a second later, how this started.

“You bastard,” he breathes, and draws in a shuddering breath. He withdraws his hand, wraps it around the banister again as Lance’s voice drifts down -just a few drinks with the lads, yeah, I’ll tell them- and Arthur leans forward, takes Merlin’s length into his mouth and this time there’s real suction, a reward, the prat, and Merlin’s eyes roll back in his head as his hands tighten, tighten around the slender lengths of timber.

“Arthur,” he chokes out, everything forgiven if only he’ll, oh God please he needs this now, doesn’t care anymore about where they are or who might hear, only that it never stops, “oh my- oh fuck, oh God Arthur please don’t stop,” the harsh whisper just spills out of him and it’s happening, the rise of heat washing through him and he sucks in a huge breath, oh God he wants to scream-

“Yep. Tuesday, then,” Lance’s voice is suddenly louder, he’s on the top landing and Merlin turns his head into his shoulder to hide his face, Arthur’s mouth drawing the ecstasy out of him and the low, harsh whine that breaks out of him is only partly muffled by his own skin as he comes, comes endlessly, body one long shudder of absolute pleasure.

He’s shaking, hands still gripping the -something- above his head when he blinks back into the world again, and Arthur is crowding against him, hands gentle as he settles Merlin. He unwinds Merlin’s fingers from where they’ve frozen into place on the railings, nose bumping against Merlin’s cheek and then he turns his head and nuzzles, a hand coming down to stroke over Merlin’s ribs, which is when he realizes he’s breathing like he’s run a bloody marathon, slumped boneless against the wall.

Lance’s feet creak on the stairs above their heads and Merlin’s eyes fly to Arthur, who cups his face, thumb stroking, a wordless it’s alright, and only then does Merlin realize he’s decent again, tucked back into his underwear and jeans and probably the only sign that anything happened here is the colour in their faces, and the raging hard-on inside Arthur’s jeans.

He glances down at it and raises an eyebrow as he meets Arthur’s eyes. “Serves you right,” he grinds out, throat still tight, and Arthur gives an odd grin. It’s part rueful and part stupid satisfaction and then he leans in to kiss Merlin again, gentle and loving this time, and Merlin wants to hug him but honestly he doesn’t have enough muscle control right now to raise his arms.

He stays where he is, slumped against the wall and lets his insanely hot boyfriend kiss him some more, soaks up the small, soft strokes of Arthur’s hands over his shoulders, his neck, gentling him through the aftershocks that are still coursing through his body.

“All right lads,” Lance says easily from behind Arthur, “don’t start something you can’t finish.”

Chapter Text

 

Leaving Merlin in the hallway, flushed and soft with pleasure is one of the hardest things he’s ever done. He draws in a deep breath as they step into the garage, blinking against the sudden flare of the fluorescent light and Arthur adjusts himself as inconspicuously as possible. He’s going to be hard for half the night at this rate.

Totally worth it, though.

“Lance,” Arthur says suddenly, as that thought of Merlin flashes through his head and the usual, low-level worry flares into something higher, “Not a word about Merlin tonight, yeah?”

Lancelot shrugs and yanks the Land Rover door open. He’s texting Gwen – again, ugh, probably closer to sexting – and only half-listening.

“I mean it,” he says, and waits until their eyes meet. “Not to anyone.”

“Yeah, fine,” Lance says, with a one-shouldered shrug. He doesn’t ask for an explanation. Doesn’t need one.

Arthur gives one sharp glance, satisfied. Then a small movement catches his eye and he glances over to the connecting door and freezes.

Merlin’s face is pale, mouth set in an angry line. For a moment Arthur just goggles at him, replaying what he just said and how it must have sounded.

“You dropped your phone,” Merlin says flatly, and tosses it across the car with a snap of his wrist. Arthur moves to catch it automatically and by the time he looks up again Merlin is gone and the door is slamming shut.

No, he has time to think, and bolts after him. But the connecting door is somehow stuck, it costs him a precious few seconds before he can get it open, calling Merlin’s name through it like that will somehow fix things. He finally kicks the fucking thing open, timber splintering, and scrambles through the house, up the stairs, heart pounding and frantic and it’s only when he reaches the top floor and Merlin’s not there that he realizes the house really is as empty as it feels.

He clatters back down the stairs again and out through the front door but Merlin is nowhere in sight, he’s wasted precious time searching the house and now he just feels sick.

He spins back, makes it as far as the garage where Lance is waiting, one hand braced on the car roof. He takes one look at Arthur’s face and says, “Just drop me at the station. I’ll crash with one of the lads tonight.”

Arthur doesn’t even bother replying as he starts the car. He double parks outside the Tube station and runs inside with Lance, on the off-chance Merlin is using that route to get away from Arthur. When it’s a bust, he spends the next hour driving around the darkening streets, heart in his mouth. He dials Merlin’s number twenty seven times, unsurprised when the calls are rejected, he calls Gwen who doesn’t answer and Gaius who hasn’t spoken to Merlin since Friday.

Finally he gives up and heads home again, checks every room in the house just to be sure and then ends up huddled in a heap halfway up the stairs. He wants to curl up in Merlin’s bed and breathe in his scent but the way Merlin had looked at him – he can’t assume he has the right to do that any more.

So he sits, and stares at the empty doorway of what used to be the second bedroom.

It’s after midnight when he hears the door open and all the air leaves his lungs in a rush. He jumps to his feet, about to fly down the stairs, then hesitates at the sound of Merlin’s footsteps, swift and angry. The indecision leaves him caught with no real options, like an idiot, and so he sinks back down on the stairs before his legs give out completely.

“It’s not how it seemed,” is the first thing out of his mouth when Merlin finally appears on the landing below.

For a long moment he thinks Merlin won’t even speak to him, oh God I’ve fucked it all up and his guts are twisted in knots by the time that beautiful voice emerges.

“Not how it seemed? Not how it-” He cuts himself off and falls back against the wall, arms folded, face harder than Merlin’s should ever be. One deep breath and he barrels on before Arthur can speak.

“Hmm. Well, it seemed to me as if you took the time to demonstrate your absolute mastery of me,” Merlin says, bitter and angry, “by blowing me in the hallway of your house even though Lance could have walked in on us at any minute. You wound me up until I was desperate and begging you for it and then, not five minutes later, Arthur-” his voice is sharp and shaking and he looks away, swallowing, which is how Arthur knows that all of the anger is just covering up an ever larger well of hurt.

“You would have still had the taste of me on your fucking tongue. And there you were making damn sure that no-one ever finds out that I even exist – not your friends, and sure as hell not your fucking ex-boyfriend. That’s how it seemed to me, Arthur.”

“That’s not what I was doing,” he says, beseeching. Please understand. “That’s not why I said it.”

“You honestly think there’s a why that will make it okay?” It’s a cry of raw pain and Arthur’s throat closes over. He’d made Merlin sound like that.

“Look, you don’t really need to explain. I get it.” Merlin glances away, head lifted as if staring into the distance. His shoulders lift, folding in to protect himself. “I don’t fit into any part of your life, Arthur. I didn’t attend public school,” his lips twist, somehow bitter and self-mocking.

“I don’t play polo, I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, and don’t even try to deny that stuff because even though you’ve never told me a single fucking detail about your life I can guess your family history well enough to know I can’t possibly meet the lofty standards of the circle you grew up in.”

Arthur just gapes at him, glad he’s sitting down. Where the fuck had this come from? Of all the things he’s anticipated, he never pictured this one as an issue between them. He’s too stunned to string together a reply and Merlin is forging ahead, arms wrapped around himself, defensive.

“And then there’s the other half of you, which once again I’ve mostly fucking guessed. But sure as hell I’m no tough as nails paratrooper, unlike your mates, unlike your ex. I can barely manage to climb the stairs unscathed., I’m just the comic relief around here. I don’t make sense in your life, Arthur, we both know that. So let’s just-”

“Don’t make- are you completely fucking crazy?

Merlin just stares back at him, flat and hurt and grim.

“You think-” Arthur is only just starting to understand what the fuck Merlin’s saying. “You think I’m ashamed of you?”

He shrugs and looks away and the emotion that swamps Arthur is so bloody unexpected that for a moment he honestly can’t even speak. From shame and remorse to white hot rage in under three seconds.

“I-” Arthur chokes. “I could fucking kill you. You idiot. Ashamed? Of you? Merlin, you’re the only thing in my life I give a shit about, the only thing that makes sense to me, the only fucking reason I get out of bed half the time. Ashamed of you?”

Merlin is frozen on the spot, staring.

Arthur gets to his feet and stalks toward him. He’s never felt less like a lover, what he wants to do mostly is to punch Merlin’s stupid face for thinking so little of himself, so little of Arthur, that a stupid fucking concept like public school might have for one second, gotten in the way of a miracle like Merlin being in his life.

He drags in a deep breath and reaches for control. It’s no joke when someone with his training loses their temper and so instead of grabbing Merlin he clenches his fists and leans in close.

“Just so we’re clear,” he grinds out, “I don’t give a flying fuck whether you ever went to school at all, let alone where you went. I don’t care if you’re poor, if you don’t know the correct protocol for greeting a member of the royal fucking family, if you’ve never held a gun in your hands and you can’t throw a punch to save your stupid fucking life. I don’t give a shit about any of that stuff, I have never in my life cared about that and I never will. I love you for who you are, you absolute tosser, not for where you come from.”

Merlin is pale, staring, and clutching at the door frame when he speaks again. “What. Wh-what did you say?”

Arthur takes a few deep breaths, still grappling with his temper. “What?”

“Did you just-” he pushes off the frame and takes a step forward, closing the gap between them. The familiar scent of him reaches Arthur and relaxes something deep inside, something animal and raw he doesn’t usually acknowledge. Then Merlin says, wondering, “You love me?”

It’s like being dipped in ice water and he jerks back. “What?”

“You love me.” This time, when Merlin says it, it’s not a question.

“I.”

Arthur stares at him, replays what he just said. Oh. Right. Yet another good reason why he tries so hard to keep a grip on his temper. And while he’s processing, Merlin is leaping miles ahead with that intuition of his.

“You love me. And you were never going to tell me,” Merlin says, very calm, like it’s all rolling out in front of him, finally making perfect sense. Which, perhaps it is. He knows Arthur better than Arthur had ever intended to allow. Terrifyingly well.

And then Merlin smiles.

It’s pure reflex. Arthur smiles back.

His plans, his emotions, his bloody life is in tatters around him, adrenaline and temper still coursing through his body and at the very far back of his mind he’s still sexually frustrated from that little interlude in the hallway. And saturating everything is the instinctive fear that’s consumed him all night… I’ve lost him.

But Merlin is smiling, which means all is right with the world.

Arthur sighs a little, and lets go of that last little bit of resistance within himself. He’d been trying so hard to hold it back, to pretend he hadn’t crashed completely off the cliff. No point pretending now.

They could be floating on a burning raft in a sea of molten lava and if Merlin smiled at him like that, then the world was a good place and Arthur would grin back, like the idiot he was.

“I think,” Merlin says solemnly, hint of dimples giving it the lie, “that we should perhaps kiss now.”

“I suppose it is customary,” Arthur allows, feeling his heart rate begin to slow, since clearly this was neither a time for flight, nor fight.

“Well, let’s not buck tradition.”

Arthur snorts a laugh. “Yes, we’re both such sticklers for tradition.”

When Merlin smiles, it’s against Arthur’s lips. “Are you somehow implying that my insanely hot toffee-nosed ex-special forces boyfriend who renovates properties as some kind of one-man social engineering project is not a traditional life choice for a working-class antiquary nut?”

 

 

 

“You said- my house.”

“What?” Merlin’s voice is sleepy. The edge of one ear is visible in the light streaming in from the street, through the small gap left by the old bedsheets he’s tacked up for privacy. At some point he’s going to have to let Morgana loose on the unsuspecting house to do the window furnishings. It’s the one part of renovation Arthur can’t abide.

“You said, before, I blew you in the hallway of my house.”

“Mmm.”

“It’s not-” he licks his lips. Takes a breath. “It’s our house, not my house.”

Merlin’s head lifts and he blinks at Arthur stupidly. It’s a very long time before he even tries to speak. “I-”

The confusion, the wonder on his face make Arthur smile and he relaxes back, content.

Arthur,” he says, very soft, and Arthur runs his fingers over Merlin’s lips, feeling the words form. “I don’t know what to- that’s-”

“Sshhh,” he says, and lets his eyes close. They’re silent for a long time before he swallows and says, “Merlin – about my unit. The guys – tonight.”

The skin beneath his hand tenses and then he feels Merlin relax deliberately.

“They were the only ones who knew about Leon,” he manages to say. “That he and I were together.”

Merlin raises himself up on one arm and he opens his eyes to find blue eyes blinking at him, still not understanding.

“The night Leon’s apartment was torched – the information had to come from one of them.”

He hears Merlin’s sharp intake of breath but he can’t look, he’s gazing down at his hands now, still finding it so hard to say the words. “I didn’t want to believe it – still don’t want to believe it, but-” he took a quick, gasping breath, “it’s the only thing that makes sense and I don’t know which of them, I don’t know who- but I-” and now he glances up into those blue, blue eyes and it all comes out in a rush, “I can’t risk you like that Merlin, I can’t ever live with that fear for you, I can’t.”

“Shit,” Merlin whispers helplessly, “Arthur.”

“They were my unit, Merlin,” he manages to choke out. And somehow Merlin understands what that means to a soldier, to a paratrooper. “They were all I had.”

“Oh, Arthur.”

“I’m not ashamed of you, Merlin, I could never be-”

“Shh,” Merlin murmurs, arms wrapping around Arthur. “That’s enough. I understand, love. Let it go.”

There’s silence for a long time, the mood slowly shifting into mellow and Arthur’s eyes are finally closing when Merlin says, “Can I say something?”

“Mff,” Arthur snuffles, meaning, yes, you idiot.

“If this is our house…”

He cracks an eye to watch Merlin’s face, sees the way he slows down to taste the words as he says our house, and the quick breath to gather courage before he blurts, “When is the main bathroom going to be finished?”

Arthur snorts involuntarily. “Wow. That didn’t take long, princess. Possessive much?” But he doesn’t even try to hide the warm glow from seeing how quickly Merlin slots straight into the sharing a home headspace, and lets his eyes half-close instead.

“Well, I’m confused,” he frowns at Arthur across the pillow. “You’ve practically killed yourself to finish every other room in this place, but the main bathroom is somehow going on for months.”

“It’s a process,” he slurs into the pillow. “There’s structural stuff. Don’t worry your pretty head about it, Merlin.”

“Twat,” Merlin mumbles back, his head a comforting weight at Arthur’s shoulder. His voice gets softer and slower. “And I am not a princess.”

They drift off to sleep in one another’s arms, and when Arthur blinks his eyes open in the slowly-growing daylight, he’s bemused. From the immaculate state of the bed, neither one of them has so much as moved all night.

The bone-deep contentment remains, and he stays as he is, locked in Merlin’s arms as the light grows. When he finally feels Merlin stir he tilts his head just enough to watch him awaken, that same slow stretch he’d watched the first morning, and it gets him, right in the gut, just like it did the first time.

“Morning,” Merlin mumbles, and Arthur lifts a hand to stroke his face, his cheekbone, ears.

Everything feels new and somehow trembling. I love him, he thinks deliberately, for the first time, and his hand shakes a little, at having something so precious, something to lose. He takes a breath. “Morning.”

He drops a soft kiss to the hand on his chest and gets that first, sleepy Merlin-smile of the day. It draws his own smile to the surface, unbidden. They lie in silence for a while before Arthur sighs and drags himself out of bed. “Tea?” he asks.

Merlin nods, still stretching, and Arthur stumbles out of the bedroom before he can pin the other man down and start something neither of them is ready for. He takes a leak, washes his face without looking himself in the eyes in the mirror and staggers downstairs to make tea. For some reason his thoughts turn dark the minute he’s away from Merlin, standing there in the half-finished kitchen, staring out the window at the garden as the wind whips the trees into a fury.

He makes the tea on autopilot and brings it back upstairs. Merlin looks more awake, sitting cross-legged on the comforter, fringe slightly damp from his own visit to the bathroom. Perhaps it’s the way it makes him look younger, more vulnerable. Or perhaps it’s a sign of how completely raw they both are that Arthur just says it.

“I could kill him.” It’s conversational, and he’s not so far gone that he doesn’t understand that’s a Bad Sign. Killing someone should never be a calm topic of conversation. But.

Merlin lifts his head, eyes wide and confused as his hands close around the mug. One look at Arthur’s face and he understands who they’re talking about.

“I think about it,” he admits, lets his body sag against the window frame while Merlin is still processing. Then squints up at the ceiling. “Actually. I have thought about it. A lot. Pretty much every time I’m due to visit him.”

“Arthur,” he breathes. “No.”

“It would be so easy.” He still can’t look at Merlin, leans back to peer out the window instead. A sheet of crumpled newspaper dances down the street on cold winds and he tracks it all the way out of sight. “I mean, I’ve killed people before, in the Army. It’s not like I’d even need a weapon, thanks to my training. The world would be a better place without him in it.” Now, finally, he turns his head and looks into those wide blue eyes and the deepest truth just bubbles to the surface. “You’d be safe.”

“You can’t,” Merlin murmurs, but he’s moving closer, not away, not scared as though Arthur is something ugly. Even though he knows deep inside that Merlin’s wrong, that part of him is ugly. “Arthur, you mustn’t.” He scans Arthur’s face, clearly not satisfied with what he sees and tries another track. “You’d end up in prison. Your whole life would be ruined, on the off chance that he might come after me.”

“I’d do anything to keep you safe,” he murmurs, avoiding the promise he knows Merlin wants to hear. He steps forward and brings up a hand to cup Merlin’s cheek, thumb tracing the shape of those ridiculous ears. God, how he loves them.

“Not that, Arthur.” Merlin shoves his tea onto the nightstand.

“I know,” he says, and pulls his hand back. “What kind of monster wants to kill their own father?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Merlin says, catching his retreating hand. “Come here. Look at me.” He stays silent until Arthur complies, finally draws him down onto the bed and then climbs all over him, hands stroking and soothing and his face full of pain and worry. “You’re not a monster. What kind of idiot thought process led you to that?”

“It’s not natural,” Arthur mumbles. “To wish your father dead. To want to do it.”

There’s a gentle breath. “Arthur,” he says gently, “he’s the unnatural one. He’s the one that’s destroyed the natural order of things. He’s the monster, and it’s only natural for someone as protective as you to want to take care of the threat. But you can’t do it that way, love.”

I could, Arthur thinks, mulish.

“It would hurt you,” Merlin says simply, and Arthur’s gaze flies up to meet his. “You’d hate yourself, after. No matter how justified you felt, you’d be sorry afterwards, Arthur.” His hands tighten and he leans in close. “Please promise me you won’t ever do that. Not in cold blood.”

“That’s – that’s why you’re saying don’t?”

Merlin blinks at him. “Yes. Why?”

“I thought you – I thought you’d be disgusted that I even thought of it.”

His eyebrows flick up for just an instant but Arthur can see in that glimpse a far older, wiser Merlin than he usually sees. “You thought I’d be too delicate for the idea of killing? You don’t think I’ve sometimes felt like he deserves to be wiped from the face of the earth for all the ways he’s hurt you, or for what he did to Gwen?”

“You wouldn’t,” Arthur whispers. “You’d never.”

“Kill someone?” Merlin’s face stills and he glances away. “I don’t know. I’ve never had to ask myself the question. But honestly? I think I could if I had to.” He takes a long slow breath, then another, and turns back. Their eyes lock and he says, very softly, “I could kill for you. To protect you, Arthur. I do know that.”

And looking into those blue eyes, Arthur absolutely believes him.

He takes another shaky breath and looks away, something hot inside his chest at the thought. That’s not – it’s not supposed to. He’s the soldier, the one who’s supposed to protect-

“What if I’m like him?” he chokes it out.

“What?”

“I want to kill him, Merlin.” He takes a slow, controlled breath. “I mean, some part of me really wants to. I’ve – I dream about it, sometimes. In detail.”

Merlin stares at him, uncomprehending.

He swallows hard and turns his face away. “That’s not normal.” His voice is shaking when he forces it out, “What if this is the start? What if I go insane like my father-”

Arthur Fitzroy-” Merlin says, and he sounds more furious that Arthur has ever heard him, which is saying something.

“My mother,” he hastens to say, and it’s probably the only thing that could have derailed Merlin’s rage.

He takes an unsteady breath before he grinds out, “What about your mother?”

“She was… wonderful, by all accounts.”

“Yes,” Merlin is hesitating, temper abating. “Gaius said.”

“Loving. Smart. Funny. A real catch, my uncle used to say.”

“Yes,” Merlin murmurs, “like you, I imagine.”

“But she married him.” he glances up, sees that Merlin doesn’t get it. “He can’t have always been mad, Merlin. He was charming enough, smart enough, normal enough to attract my mother.”

Now there’s comprehension on Merlin’s face. “And you think that’s you.” A slow blink. “You think that’s us.

“I don’t know,” he says it helplessly, but what else can he do? How the hell can he ever know he’s not that fucking rotten apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree? “He’s… charismatic. He can seem- normal, sometimes. Most of the time. How do I know that this isn’t-”

I know,” Merlin says, controlled and utterly sure.

“No you don’t, Merlin. You want me to be all right, that’s not the same as-”

“Arthur, I know.

He stops arguing. Tries for the smile he knows Merlin wants to see, and lets himself come to rest against the other man’s chest. The sense of comfort is familiar, the scent as welcome as ever. But beneath it all, like a raging river, is the doubt, and the deep, aching fear. A fear that stretches back as far as childhood.

He’s never said he loves me.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

They finally – God, what were they waiting for? - move Lance’s stuff to Gwen’s place on a rainy Tuesday afternoon and leave them beaming at one another in her tiny flat. Then they arrive home, and Merlin is privy to one of the most excruciating conversations of his entire life. And that was just Arthur’s half.

“I cannot believe I am discussing my sex life with Scotland Yard,” Arthur mumbles, head in his hands, when it’s all over.

Merlin opens his mouth, then closes it. There’s really nothing he can say.

“The DI wants to meet you,” he continues, without looking up.

“Oh.”

Yep, he still has nothing to say. Will would be amazed.

 

* * *

 

Arthur sends a text already at the pub by the time Merlin leaves work, so he heads straight there, trying not to get any more tense than he has been all day. Right now his neck feels like steel cable from the combination of incredible tension, and the need to act like Nothing Is Wrong Or At All Different, just in case someone is watching. How has Arthur lived like this?

He pushes through the door and into the pub, marveling at how much things have changed in his own life since he was last there. He spots Arthur at the same table, and this time he gets a good look at the man from the Met. Because honestly? The sight of Arthur and Perceval eye-fucking across the bar had seared pretty much everything else right out of Merlin’s brain.

As he approaches the table the DI looks up – oh, hello – and Merlin can feel his polite smile widen into a grin, can’t for the life of him rein in the cheekiness.

“Merlin,” Arthur says as he slides into the vacant chair. His tone is careful and slightly chiding, which probably means he’s seen that look on Merlin’s face before. “This is Greg.”

“Inspector,” Merlin says softly, still smiling, and holds the man’s hand a trifle too long as they shake. Arthur stiffens. “It’s a pleasure.” He slides his chair a little closer to the DI and tilts his head.

The older man’s eyebrow flicks up for a half-second. Then he speaks, and his voice is whisky-rough, “Its, uh, yes, but you really need to call me-”

“Greg, yes I know,” Merlin says, and glances at Arthur for a half-second. As the man reaches for his beer he mouths, Lestrade, at Arthur, eyebrows raised suggestively. Greg half-chokes and Merlin smiles innocently. “Sorry. Old joke.”

Arthur looks like he swallowed a lemon. Greg glances sideways at him and relaxes a moment later, as if he’s guessed at least part of the joke. “No apologies necessary, Merlin,” he says easily. “I’m a bit of a fan myself.”

Are you,” Merlin says, and leans in, flirting shamelessly. It can’t hurt the public image they’re building, right? And surely Arthur’s aware by now just what a little bugger he can be.

Greg’s smile widens again and he scratches the back of his neck, nonplussed but hiding it pretty well. He’s taking the flirting in his stride for a decidedly straight man, and Merlin feels the tension in his chest unwind just a little. It’s a snap decision, sure, but he trusts the man. Believes he’s genuinely trying to help Arthur.

“Uh, Perceval’s arrived,” Greg says a moment later, which doesn’t improve Arthur’s mood any.

But he takes a deep breath and collects his beer, muttering “Behave yourself, Merlin,” as he strides off to the bar for some fake flirting of his own.

There’s a moment of silence and then Merlin says softly, “Are you going to get him?”

The DI gives him a long, considering look.  He doesn’t seem at all surprised by the shift in topic or Merlin’s sudden focus. “I certainly intend to.”

“But you can’t do this forever, right?” He inclines his head toward the bar. The Met wouldn’t pay one of their officers to tend bar for long.

“Correct,” Greg says, and he’s watching Merlin thoughtfully. Seconds tick by in silence and then he seems to come to a decision. “I believe,” he says carefully, “I believe we should – escalate the situation.”

Merlin drops his eyes to the table. “Escalate how?”

Again, he hesitates. “The last time Arthur stopped his regular visits…”

Merlin nods thoughtfully. Neither of them speaks for a good minute and then he offers, “Good luck convincing Arthur.”

He smiles, rueful. “Actually, I was wondering if you’d be any help with that.”

He shrugs, appreciating the honest approach. “I can try.” He bites his lip, remembering the look on Arthur’s face when he said if anything ever happened to you…  “Honestly?” he meets Greg’s eyes, “The best help I could probably give you would be to leave the country for a month or so. He’s… extremely concerned. And his default setting is overprotective, so-”

“To tell you the truth, Merlin, I’d feel better if you did.”

Their eyes meet, and Merlin swallows hard at the level look Greg gives him. It’s one thing to hear Arthur’s concern, know it’s based in emotion and guilt. This is – this is a professional opinion, that Merlin might be in real danger. Mum’s going to kill me if she ever finds out about this.

“I want to get actual evidence on this guy. Badly. But I’m not interested in sacrificing anyone to do it. Now… I really believe the only way we’ll get him is to force him to move, to make a mistake. And Arthur is the only leverage we have. He won’t harm Arthur, I’m sure of that. It’s the people around him that would be at risk.”

“And that’s why he’ll never agree to it.”

Greg shrugs, acknowledging the truth of that.

There’s a long silence, and finally Merlin sighs. “I’ll talk to him. I’ll try.” He chews at his bottom lip. “And I’ll. I’ll go away.” The words taste bitter in his mouth, but. It’s the only kind of peace of mind he can offer Arthur. “I’ll go visit my Mum.” He glances over at Arthur, the tense shoulders and sighs again, “Or maybe Will.” He’d promised, after all.

I’ll leave. I won’t make you carry that.

Whatever other lies he’s told Arthur – is still telling – he’d meant what he said that day.

 

 

 

Arthur takes the suggestion about as badly as they’d predicted. Which is to say, he’d gone white and cold and furiously quiet in a way Merlin sincerely hopes he’ll never see again.

“You cannot be serious,” he says again, biting out the words.

“We can’t just let this situation keep going the way it has for years,” Greg tries for calm reason. “Arthur, as things stand, he holds all the cards. We change the game, make him react to us-”

“Yes because that went so well the last time-”

“We weren’t ready for him the last time, Arthur. This time we will be. I can put security on Gwen and Morgana, since Uther already knows about them. Your other friends are deploying in a few days, they’re effectively hidden from your father once they’re overseas. If Merlin moves out, he should be off Uther’s radar, but just in case he’s not, he’s going to leave the country for a while. There’s absolutely no way your father’s reach can extend beyond borders, especially when he has no good reason to focus on Merlin in the first place. And most important of all, Arthur-” he leans in, catching his eye, “every single person involved knows exactly how dangerous Uther is. He won’t catch us off-guard again.”

“You don’t know him,” Arthur says, and turns away.

“Arthur, please,” Merlin says softly. “Please consider it.”

All they get is his back. Hands on his hips, intractable rage in every line of his body.

 

* * *

 

“This is never going to be over.” Arthur is staring at the TV, morose. He handles his ‘dates’ with Perceval even worse than Merlin, always low and angry and guilty for hours after. It helps, in a way, Merlin can hardly be jealous when Arthur so clearly hates all of it.

“Of course it will,” Merlin says quietly, safely perched on the edge of an armchair. They can’t even sit together because the window leaves them visible from the street and Greg insists they spend at least some time with the curtains open, the way they used to. These are the moments that bring Arthur to the edge of frustration, when Uther’s presence invades their home, invisible but undeniable. “We’ll find a way.”

“Right.” His head falls back against the couch. “A way where I have to ignore you when we’re in public, and make out with a fucking stranger-”

“Don’t go.”

Arthur looks at him.

“Next week. Don’t go to see him.” And Merlin draws a deep breath. He hadn’t planned on saying it. Arthur’s reaction to Greg’s suggestion had left a searing impression.

Arthur freezes. “You can’t mean that.”

“Gaius has a friend with a flat in Kensington. She’s going away for a month, and I’m going to house-sit for her.” He licks his lips, nervous. He hadn’t been sure he was going to do it, not until he’d seen the despondent look on Arthur’s face tonight. “I’ll go to Will’s for a week or so, and then I won’t come back here, I’ll be somewhere he’s never heard of, can’t trace.”

“You can’t possibly be-”

“Arthur. We can’t keep on playing his game. You said yourself you don’t want to-”

“What I want doesn’t matter, Merlin,” he snaps. “I’m not going to put people in danger just because I don’t like being in my father’s company.”

“It’s not about your feelings, Arthur,” he shoots back, because he hates it when Arthur says what I want doesn’t matter, “it’s about finishing this. It’s not just you and me, either. What about Gwen? And Morgana? You don’t think this lives inside them, the same way it does for you?” He takes a deep breath and pushes on, “We’ve got the police with us, people we trust, who know what’s going on and are ready to protect us. This is the time, Arthur.”

Arthur, he – he bolts from the room without a word.

Merlin sits there, stunned, cursing himself, then follows more slowly, through the hallway and into the kitchen.

Arthur is in the garden, pacing. After a while Merlin sees there’s a rhythm to it, thinks it’s something from the paras, something safe that he knows. He leans against the back door frame, feeling the cool night air on his face. He waits.

It’s probably twenty minutes before Arthur turns back toward the house. He sees Merlin waiting there and hesitates. Finally he approaches, sinks down onto the old timber bench and lets his head thud back against the wall. He looks old and tired and fragile, something Merlin's never seen before and it twists something in his chest. Arthur finds the strength to bear everything life throws at him - except when he can't protect the people he loves.

“I hadn’t – thought about it that way,” he finally says. “That Gwen and Morgana might – might want this to be over, too. They never mention him, and I thought- They’re probably trying to forget.”

Merlin thinks about the incandescent rage on Morgana’s face when Arthur had mentioned his ‘visits’, the way Gwen goes soft and silent whenever fathers are mentioned. “Maybe we should ask them,” he offers.

Arthur swallows. Then nods. “It’s just. Merlin. I don’t think I can – do that. Live with that.”

Merlin sinks slowly down onto the bench beside him. He has to get this right. “Arthur. When you were in the paras, you had to let others take risks for you, yeah? Lance and the others? You all worked together as a team, right? And sometimes it was them running in front of bullets or whatever. Not you.”

He draws in a shaky breath and doesn’t answer.

“We may not be soldiers, Arthur, but we all know exactly what’s at stake, exactly what the risks are. And we all have good reasons for wanting this thing to be over. So if Morgana and Gwen and I want to try the DI’s plan – can’t you trust us to be careful? To be smart?”

Arthur leans forward, arms braced on his knees. He’s shaking. “I don’t. I don’t know.”

“I promise you, Arthur,” he slides forward, drops to his knees in front of Arthur, faces close together, “I swear Arthur, I am so very very motivated to be careful. To know that this is finished, that you’re free, that we’re free, that Gwen can get some kind of closure – to never have to see that look on your face again when you come back from there, to – God, just to hold your hand when we walk down the street-”

Arthur’s eyes close.

“I’ll do everything Greg suggests, I’ll do anything you want that’ll make you feel like I’m safer. We can do this.”

 

* * *

 

Merlin,” Arthur husks, and collapses forward, onto Merlin, who is already slumped over the coffee table, shivering in a post-orgasmic haze. “Oh, Christ.” He places an open-mouthed kiss on the nape of his neck and soaks up the rough moan it evokes.

“Wow,” Merlin pants, “holy crap, just.” He drags in a huge breath, apparently just for the purpose of saying again, “Wow.”

And for just that moment, everything feels all right. As it should be. Together.

It doesn’t take long for reality to intrude. For one thing, they’re in a stranger’s apartment. Arthur dumps the condom in the bin and scowls at the living room and the private park visible through the window. He fucking hates Kensington.

Merlin pushes off the table and sprawls across the floor, utterly unselfconscious despite the fact that his trousers are bunched around his knees. “Good God,” he says, and huffs out a breath. “That’s one hell of a solution for a tension headache.”

One corner of Arthur’s mouth curls up. But the feeling can’t last, and finally he does up his jeans and falls onto the couch, sullen. He stares up at the ceiling. “It’s been three weeks.” His hands twitch with the effort it takes not to shove Merlin into a car and drive him to Budapest. Or Shanghai. Or Hell. Anywhere Arthur knows he’d be safe.

“I know.” That, at least, gets Merlin sitting up and righting his own clothing. His face is blank, too calm. Arthur knows he’s working so hard to show no fear, no concern for his own safety, for how long this is taking, for the way Uther’s not making a move at all. He’s determined there’ll be nothing else to weigh Arthur down, and Arthur loves him for it at the same time as it makes him want to scream. A little bit.

“He’s done nothing.”

“I know.”

There’s silence, swollen with all the things they aren’t saying. Dragon strolls into the room, tail flicking in disdain at all the noise they’d just been making.

“Mum’s enjoying her Greek getaway,” Merlin offers as he rubs an absent knuckle over Dragon’s scarred face.

Arthur doesn’t even respond to that one. Hunith had no idea why she was out of the country, of course. The fight over why Merlin shouldn’t go with her and just stay there until it was all over had been a doozy. It’ll just draw attention to me, Arthur, he’d yelled, and Greg had made the massive mistake of agreeing – don’t give him a reason to look at Merlin.

He still hasn’t patched the hole in the living room wall.

“Perceval’s dangling there like a big fat fish on a hook.” Arthur lets his head drop into his hands. “He’s spending nights at the house, we go out for fucking dinner and a movie like some longtime married couple - why hasn’t he made a move?”

Merlin crawls across the floor and comes to a stop in front of Arthur, hands on his knees. “I don’t know. Arthur-”

“He knows.”

“He can’t know.” Merlin hesitates. “Perhaps he can’t do anything. Perhaps his co-conspirator has left, or died, or given up.”

“And perhaps the genie will turn me into a prince for real this time, and give me a magic kingdom of my own-” he stops himself on Merlin’s quiet sigh.

He lets his head drop forward, further, runs his hands through his hair and clutches. Merlin’s hands come up to cover his a half-second later, lips touching the shell of Arthur’s ear as he says, “He’s got no reason to come looking for me. I’m safe.”

But what if you’re not?

Arthur can’t stop the shudder that runs through him, but he says nothing, and Merlin doesn’t either. There’s nothing either of them can say to change this. They’ve started down this path and it’s a one-way trip for all of them.

 

 

 

“Hello?” The querulous voice drifts up the staircase, just a touch of urgency. “Is anyone there?”

“Hi,” Merlin calls back automatically, slowing down as he nears the corner. He runs through his routine – the OCD is newly acquired courtesy of Arthur and Detective Inspector Cutie. He touches the phone from the police in his shirt pocket, his own phone in the back pocket of his jeans and pulls up the zip on his hoodie. Then he slides his free hand into his pocket to grasp his keys, just in case, and tightens his grip on the milk he’s taking in to work.

He takes one step forward and leans over the staircase railing, peering down – there’s an older man standing in the middle of the common foyer, on the ground floor.  The face is unfamiliar and he relaxes just slightly. “You all right, mate?”

“Not really, look, do you know Mr Diggs from number thirty-two?”

“Sorry, no, um, I’m new, don’t know anyone really.” It’s not the kind of building where you run into people too often, which had made Arthur and Greg relax just slightly. The less new faces, the better, at the moment. Four weeks since Arthur stopped his visits to Uther, and nothing’s happened yet. They’re all tense.

“Oh. Well, it’s just that there’s a bit of a fracas out the back here, in the lane, and Diggs is the only one in the building that I know with a pet. Someone’s old cat has eaten some poison. Poor old thing, his face is already a mess-”

Merlin barrels down the stairs like the hounds of hell are after him. “Dragon-” He can hear the sounds of a cat in distress as he flings himself past the older man and out the back door.

And then he just stops. The lane is empty. There’s no people, no poison and most definitely, no injured cat. Just a cardboard box full of pissed-off feline. The door slams shut behind him and he’s an idiot. A colossal, fucking-

“So you’re the current distraction.” The voice is deep and controlled and would probably sound lovely reading an audiobook. There’s no real reason for it to have Merlin’s gut clenching, other than animal instinct. The man is all wrong.

“I must say, I fail to see the draw.”

He turns slowly, keys falling from his hand to the pavement. He reaches up to tug weakly on the zipper of his hoodie.

Arthur’s father is standing beside a stack of boxes – it’s how Merlin missed seeing him – and at the exact moment Uther steps forward Merlin realizes the van in the loading zone two doors down is parked with the engine running.

That’s bad.

His eyes search frantically for a weapon, something, anything, but all he has is the carton of milk in his hands which he immediately flings toward Uther. Perhaps the distraction will be enough-

There’s a wash of gold across his eyes that comes far too late as something heavy smashes into the side of his skull.

 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur is pacing the grounds of yet another neglected house when his police-issued phone rings. He snatches at it as though it’s set to explode on the third ring.

“Yes,” he says, holding up a hand to the estate agent in a half-apology.

“Arthur,” Greg says, and the overly controlled sound of his voice has his guts twisting immediately.

What?”

“Your father’s escaped,” he says heavily, and rushes on, “at least three hours ago. Possibly longer. We’ve got units on the way to your house, I’ve placed an officer with Gwen at her hotel and called your cousin to warn her. We’re going through security footage now to find out if he has access to a vehicle.”

Arthur’s knees have given way, he blinks and finds himself leaning against the garden wall. There’s only one person he hasn’t mentioned. “Merlin.”

He can actually hear Greg swallow. Oh fuck. “He’s not answering either phone as yet, we’ve got units in the area on the w-”

He hangs up the phone and starts running. He’s idling at a red light the next time he’s aware of having a rational thought, and it’s enough for him to pull over hastily, blocking the intersection but he’s far, far past caring about that.

Have a backup for your backup.

He hadn’t even had to ask. The police had given Merlin a second phone, they’d set up surveillance around Albion Antiques and the Kensington flat, he’d gone to Switzerland, for Christ’s sake, and still, when Arthur had held out the tiny GPS beacon, Merlin had simply taken it and hooked it onto the zipper of his favourite hoodie. “I promise,” he’d said.

And Arthur believed.

I’ll be careful, Arthur, he’d said, all those weeks ago.

“Please,” he can hear his own ragged voice in the silence of the car, “please please please please please,” he stares down at his phone, hand clenching hard as he waits, waits, angry horns sounding from the cars lined up behind him, “pleasepleaseplease Merlin,” and sucks in a huge breath of air, “Oh fuck,” at getting a result. His vision goes black for a moment and then he pulls it together, draws on every discipline the paras ever taught him to get himself focused, to make a plan.

He throws the Land Rover into gear and speeds toward the motorway. It’s not until he’s already on it that he realizes where this road leads. It’s another bitter trip down memory lane, but for once in his life there’s some luck involved – he’s only forty minutes away.

 

 

 

When Merlin opens his eyes he’s jolting around the back of a van, hands and feet bound tightly with overly sturdy cord. He swallows twice - once for the dryness and the second time for the heart that’s currently lodged in his throat. Fuck. Oh, fuck, this is very, very bad.

Arthur will – Arthur will completely lose it. Merlin closes his eyes and tries to figure out how the hell to make this right, to save himself before it’s too late. If only he could channel Harry bloody Potter and decide on something magical, fucking Reducto! or some kind of action that might help. But instead he’s just lying here, glancing frantically around the empty back of the van, struggling against his bonds until his hands and feet are numb.

This is panic, a calm voice says in the back of his head. It’s not helping.

He drags in a deep breath and focuses on thoughts of his Mum, instead of Arthur. He can’t bear to think about Arthur right now, about how he’ll blame himself if-

Calm down, love, he can almost hear Hunith’s voice. The way she used to when he first started doing paranormal things. Calm down, and think.

The van halts, engine still running and he realizes there are voices coming from the front. Uther’s not working alone, then. The old man in the lane… Right. That’s, well – it makes things worse. Shit. But it does explain how Uther had knocked Merlin out from three yards away. And on the heels of that thought he becomes aware of a savage throb down the right side of his head. There’s blood drying on the side of his face.

A door opens and shuts, and then the van begins rolling again. Uther just – what? – dropped somebody off? Insano kidnappers who also stop for pizza?

They drive for about another minute, possibly two, by which time Merlin has established there’s absolutely nothing left in the back of the van he can use. Either Uther and his accomplice are extremely domestic, or they carefully cleared it after seeing Merlin use magic. Because he’s fairly sure that he levitated a pile of rubbish at Uther’s head, right before they knocked him out.

They roll to a halt and the rear doors fling open ten seconds later. Merlin blinks against the daylight and feels his magic flare to life anyway, thank God it doesn’t seem to require him to plan anything – or, apparently, require a physical weapon the way he’d always assumed. Uther stumbles back against the shove that surges out of Merlin, a startled yell coming from his throat and Merlin flings himself toward the doors. He thuds to the ground with a jolt and searches frantically for anything to cut the bindings on his legs, rolls and rolls as far as he can, still searching, until he slams up against something and gasps in pain. He screams for help, just in case anyone is nearby, but the little he can see doesn’t give him much hope there.

He’s scrabbling upright against the wall, trying not to panic when he sees the black marks on his clothes, his hands. The house, the whatever it is, it’s a burnt-out shell. Window frames are empty, part-walls collapsed inside the framework, and oh God this has to be one of Uther’s former-

His head explodes in pain again and everything goes black for the second time.

 

 

 

Merlin,” he hears Arthur’s voice before he sees him and it’s hardly possible he can be so devastated and so relieved, at the same time.  I don’t want him to see this married tightly with he’s here he’s here HE’S HERE.

He looks up in the direction of that voice even though it hurts his head to move, trying to convey regret and sorrow and love in the one long glance. He can’t seem to remember how to get air into his lungs, and the look of terrified rage on Arthur’s face doesn’t help one bit. His vision blurs, the concussion probably not helped by the sudden surge of tears.

Merlin’s thoughts are scrambling and he can’t seem to shake off the image of that building - a place where someone else died screaming at Uther’s hands. Not when the only other image available is the wreck in which he’s standing. An abandoned theatre of some kind, weirdly enough, small in size but complete with balconies and opera boxes. Arthur is pacing along one of the balconies to the left, stair access destroyed by time, or possibly Uther, who waits in the wings, on the right. And Merlin is centre-stage, ready for his big death scene.

“He performed magic, son,” Uther says, voice urgent and excited and triumphant all at once. “I should have considered it, should have realized they might target you in this way. He’s using you, positioning himself to get close enough to strike you down.”

“Father,” Arthur says, and the sick sorrow in his voice brings fresh tears to Merlin’s eyes. Oh fuck, what a mess. For once in his life Uther is right, and Merlin is the proof that he’s not quite as entirely mad as his son believes. At least now he knows now where Arthur’s loathing of the paranormal comes from.

He rolls his head to one side, carefully hiding the blood trickling from his right temple from Arthur’s gaze and praying that the cops are on their way, that this will somehow come out okay for one of them, at least. He’s kind of given up hope for himself.

He’s firmly lashed to a huge, heavy beam, and he’s standing on top of a pile of firewood soaked in petrol. Uther is smoking casually nearby, kicking the empty fuel cans to the side.

It’s pretty much the textbook illustration for fucked.

Still, when his eyes land on Arthur he feels, just for half a second, better.

Oh, he is so gone. Crazy in love, if he can feel brighter and warmer on any level, in a situation like this. I should have told him. He should have heard me say I love you.

“Or perhaps this was the plan instead,” Uther is saying, and his voice is arctic. “Something rather more subtle and insidious. To turn you against me. Have your loyalties diverted from their natural path to someone… undeserving. It surprises me that the only loyalty I can count on is from a virtual stranger, someone far less worthy than my own flesh and blood.”

He hesitates, turns his head and Merlin sees clearly for the first time the bloody scratches down one side of Uther’s face and neck. How- and a second later Merlin thinks oh, of course. Dragon. He very nearly smiles as Uther asks, “Where is Geoffrey, by the way?”

“I took care of him,” Arthur says, lethally calm. “He won’t be coming to help you.”

Uther just nods and turns his gaze back to Merlin, who struggles frantically against the ropes, biting back panic under those eyes, eyes that make him feel like a fucking science experiment. Trapped under glass, or watching the scalpel approach. He can feel the anger drain out of Arthur in an instant at having to watch this, pain surging across his face instead.

“Please. Sire,” Arthur says, voice deep and strong through the pain and Merlin starts, realizing all at once that this is a learned behavior, ingrained, that Arthur doesn’t mean sire as in father, but as in, my lord.

Uther responds with a slow, considered turn of the head and it’s like a quick glimpse into Arthur’s childhood. The father that should have nurtured him, built him up to understand how special and wonderful he is, and instead –

Sire. Creating distance instead of intimacy. Position before family. Responsibility instead of affection. You bastard, Merlin thinks, struggling harder, oh you complete and utter bastard.

“Please. Sire. Father. I’m begging you. Please don’t kill him.”

Uther hesitates and lifts his eyes to the balcony and Arthur, on his knees now. Merlin bites his lip at the raw pain in that voice.

“I’ll come with you. Now. Everything will be just the way you wanted. I’ll never see him again, I’ll never-” his breath hitches for a half-second, “-never even speak his name. I’ll come with you and you’ll teach me all of the things you wanted me to know, now that I… understand. I’ll stay with you and never leave, I swear it.  Just… just come with me now and leave him.”

“I cannot shirk my duty,” Uther says, unyielding. “I had thought you were made of the same stuff, Arthur. I had thought you understood-”

“It was Ygraine’s choice,” Merlin says, his words dropping into the conversation like an anvil. Both men flip toward him involuntarily, but he keeps his eyes on Uther. Doesn’t want to see the pain on Arthur’s face anymore.

Uther’s face is rigid, mingled pain and fury. “You dare,” he gasps, shaking with the force of it, “you dare to speak her name to me-”

“It was Ygraine’s choice and you know it.” It had been involuntary, like fucking always. Uther had brushed against him, busily tying a groggy Merlin to the beam with heavy ropes, and the vision had flashed gold behind closed eyes. Just like that, Uther’s painful history – Arthur’s, too – laid itself out in front of Merlin. “This isn’t for her. It’s for you, and you know it.”

“What – Merlin?” Arthur’s voice is unsteady. “What are you-”

She took my wife from me,” Uther hisses, and for the first time he sounds truly deranged. “Sucked the life from her as she lay in my arms.”

“F-father?”

“She wanted her child to live,” Merlin says, very soft. “Ygraine made her choice and she didn’t regret it for a second.”

“It was sorcery. And you are no better, spilling lies into my son’s ears with your forked tongue, turning him against me-”

“You can burn every person on the face of this earth,” Merlin chokes out, not easy to say burn when he’s currently standing on his own funeral pyre, “and it will not bring her back. You’re only driving Arthur further away.”

“Father,” Arthur says, voice breaking, “he’s right. I can’t – support this. What you’re doing is wrong. I know this, I’ve always known it. It’s nothing to do with Merlin. I can’t stand by and let you kill innocent people.”

“I cannot continue to forgive your disloyalty, Arthur.”

“I know that.” His fists clench at his side and Merlin sucks in a quick breath, conscious of the feeling that things are spiraling, beyond any of their control.

“If you do not stand with me-”

I won’t let you hurt Merlin.”

“You cannot stop me, son,” Uther says simply, secure in the knowledge that there’s no way for anyone to reach him before he simply flicks the cigarette onto the pyre, and Arthur takes a deep breath. He’s made a decision, Merlin can sense it but he can’t see, he doesn’t know what Arthur could possibly-

“If you do this,” Arthur says, and his voice is dead. Merlin’s head falls back against the beam, his throat working. Arthur should never sound like that. Never. “Then there’s nothing left for me.” And he steps forward, levers himself easily over the balcony’s edge, first one leg and then the other. His fingers curve over the top of the woodwork in a loose, easy grasp, the only thing keeping him safe, two stories up.

“Arthur,” Uther says, voice suddenly harder than before. “What are you doing?”

“The only thing I can do,” he says, “the only thing that’s left.” And he looks down at Merlin. His eyes are clear, and a smile touches his face, it’s small and relaxed. Fond. Nothing at all like the insanity he’s contemplating. There’s no hint of fear in him.

“Arthur, don’t,” Merlin cries in horror. He eyes the size of the fall, the likelihood of landing on the dusty rows of seats stacked beneath his balcony if he doesn’t leap out far enough- “Don’t.”

Uther’s voice is cold. “This won’t change my mind, son, it’s a poor attempt at blackmail.”

Merlin watches his fingers uncurl from the railing. “It’s not an attempt at anything,” Arthur says, and leaps, eyes locked on Merlin.

NO,” Merlin’s cries mingle with Uther’s and he’s never been so fucking glad to see a wash of gold over his vision, something is happening that will help Arthur, something that will-

He lands heavily, with a muffled grunt of pain.

Arthur,” he screams, straining forward against the ropes. “Arthur.

He’s landed on the very edge of the stage, one sharp groan escaping as he clutches at his leg. But beneath him is a huge expanse of red fabric, the ragged curtains from the stage area coiled beneath him in a makeshift landing pad that has partially softened the blow. Gasping, Merlin watches as Arthur rolls to his knees, hands clenching the fabric as he shakes his head as if to clear it, frowning. He takes a breath, then two and raises his head to look at Merlin.

The stunned look on his face says it all. He saw. Merlin’s eyes, the magic, all of it. “Merlin-” the choked-off whisper falls from his lips.

I told you,” Uther’s voice shakes in excitement. “I told you, and now you see it. Now you will believe.” The command in his voice is absolute, an expression of total confidence and suddenly Merlin can see how he convinced others to do his bidding. His charisma is difficult to resist. It’s cold, and empty beneath, but there’s something about the man.

Merlin swallows and keeps his eyes on Arthur. Will he- surely he won’t.

He loves me, he says desperately to himself. He loves me. He won’t-

“Arthur,” he whispers, and Arthur just crouches there, still staring.

“You – you performed magic,” he says, his voice just a thin thread.

“I told you I had a secret,” he says weakly. “Arthur-”

Those blue eyes fly to his father’s face. “You didn’t make it up,” Arthur says, wondering. “Magic is – magic is real?

“Yes, son,” Uther says, voice suddenly deep and affectionate, a warm curl full of the promise of fatherly love. Merlin’s jaw clenches in sudden fear. How can Arthur possibly resist that? It’s what he’s longed for all his life. “It’s real. The enemy is real.”

Arthur’s eyes flicker at that, toward Merlin and then away.

No, Merlin has time to think, gut wrenching at the thought of being Arthur’s enemy. “I’d never hurt you, Arthur-”

But Arthur is staring down at the red pile of curtain at his feet.

“He must burn, son,” Uther says, and Merlin flinches at the calm, regal weight behind the words. “It’s the only way to remove the threat. Step back, Arthur, and let this end.”

Arthur draws in a deep, shuddering breath, eyes still focused on the pool of red at his feet. He bends, clutching the fabric in his hands. Merlin is shaking so hard he’d be on his knees if it weren’t for the ropes binding him.

“Arthur,” he whispers, hands twisting uselessly in the small of his back and he looks up, away, for anything, anything, fuck, why can’t he get free, why can’t he control it, why is it always this ridiculous involuntary accident crap- “Arthur-

“Then do it,” Arthur says, the words grinding out of his chest. “Do it and let this be over.”

“Step back,” Uther says, and Arthur obeys, dragging the curtain with him.

Merlin is frozen. Silent, staring at Arthur, who won’t meet his eyes. “No,” he whispers. “Arthur, no.” It’s going to happen anyway, he knows that, but for Arthur to agree to it- he just chokes on that thought. Oh God, he’ll be so sorry later, the hurt is fresh right now but Arthur wouldn’t ever-

“Merlin,” he whispers, eyes focused on the red fabric in his hands, the proof of Merlin’s betrayal. “You could have told me. Should have told me.”

“Arthur,” he’s sobbing it now, can’t look toward Uther, can’t look away from that face, let it be the last thing he sees, “I’m sorry, I know.” He sucks in a deep breath and grinds out, “Don’t blame yourself, Arthur, it’s not your f-”

Enough,” Uther says, and flings his cigarette at Merlin’s feet.

 

Chapter Text

 

Arthur is moving before Merlin can process it, he doesn’t even have time to tense his body in anticipation of the flames. His eyes flare gold one more time but he stares at Arthur through the haze, doesn’t even know what his magic did - all that matters is Arthur is moving toward him, toward the fire, he’ll be burned too-

No,” Merlin screams, straining against the ropes, kicking wildly, this is worse than being abandoned-

“Arthur, no-” His eyes drag down against his will but he has to know, he has to see the flames-

There’s nothing. Just the same putrid, fuel-soaked wood and he blinks just as Arthur reaches his side. He drops the fabric, oh, of course, meant to smother the flames. Then there’s a sound that can only be one thing – fire bursting to life – and they both glance toward it on automatic, even as Arthur’s hands scrabble for the ropes binding Merlin.

The cigarette – Merlin’s magic must have flicked it back, toward Uther, who is blinking stupidly – landed amongst the fuel cans littering the stage. Arthur sucks in a sharp breath as the first one bursts into flame, but doesn’t stop what he’s doing.

“Oh God,” Merlin breathes, watching the orange flames spurt from the open mouth of the can. Droplets have scattered across the floor from Uther’s careless handling, they’re catching alight in swift succession and there goes another one-

If just one of the sparks flies in their direction…

“Fuck,” Arthur breathes, and spins back, resolutely focused on the ropes.

“Arthur,” Merlin begins, and he shakes his head, face set.

“Shut up, Merlin.”

He can’t help it, run is on the tip of his tongue, but Arthur’s face is already telling him that’s never going to happen, and also, that Merlin was a prize idiot to think for one second that Arthur would ever leave him to his fate. He drags his eyes to Uther instead, knowing they’re nowhere near out of danger just yet, and watching is all he can do right now.

Uther is reaching into his pocket for – oh fuck, a lighter – and Merlin sucks in a breath. His own potential danger doesn’t seem to phase Uther at all, his eyes are lit from within by his unholy crusade, his determination to see Merlin and his magic turned to ashes. “Arthur,” he chokes, “better hurry.”

“No, really?” Arthur murmurs. “I thought this might be a good time to dally-”

“He’s coming, Arthur.” It’s taking everything Merlin has not to struggle against the bonds, but he knows it’ll only hinder Arthur’s efforts. He’s shaking with the effort of holding back his panic, no movement and no unnecessary words either, because if he talks too much he’ll lose it entirely and devolve into some kind of shrieking mess.

Arthur’s shaky breaths get a little louder but there’s no other reply and Merlin can’t even see what he’s doing, only that his arms are moving frantically and the bonds seem just as tight as ever-

Traitor,” Uther grates out, low and vicious and Merlin swallows. Three more cans burst into flames behind Uther, the first two are burned out, they’d only held enough fumes to burn for a few seconds but the demonic visual of spurting, moving fire isn’t helping Merlin’s terror levels any. But at least now Uther has to approach and light the damn thing by hand, he’s not going to give Merlin the chance to use magic again. It’s buying them a few precious seconds.

Arthur,” he warns, low and extremely panicked and just as Arthur snarls his father bends to touch his lighter to the edge of the pyre. Oh God, what now – and then the ropes around Merlin’s chest loosen just slightly. He  wriggles his shoulders, tastes blood on his lips.

“Fuck,” Merlin cries, “Arthur, get out-” and he watches, helpless, as the tiny flame leaps in a playful dance from piece to piece, multiplying and spreading more quickly than he can really comprehend as Uther steps back, triumphant. He sneers at Merlin and slides to the left, lights another section and then continues around again to light another. They’re surrounded inside of four seconds and then Uther is backing away from the heat, face set in a snarl as he watches.

Merlin glances down, the rising flames creating a golden haze oddly similar to his magic and a half-second later Arthur makes a strangled sound, crouched now, trying to free Merlin’s legs. Outside the circle of flames Uther shouts, startled and full of rage.

Move,” Arthur growls, wrenching at the rope. It gives another inch or so and Merlin arches his back, trying to help but the flames are leaping forward faster than light, faster than thought, smoke rising beneath their feet now. The flames encircling them are waist-high, working inward toward Merlin and he flinches back automatically. He gasps as his wound slams into the rough wood of the beam one more fucking time and then Arthur’s hand is wrapped around his arm, brutal strength hauling him over to one side. The loose pile of timber shifts beneath their feet and Merlin flings out a hand for balance and snatches it back with a yell at the burn of flying embers on his skin.

The ropes are still binding his feet but they’re looser and Arthur is dragging at them blindly as Merlin struggles, frantic. Arthur’s breath is catching in near sobs from the smoke, close to Merlin’s ear and he wants to tell him to run but there’s no air left now for talking-

He’s dizzy, too dizzy to see but he can still feel, and there’s the smell and the smoke and the bright vicious pain of a burn along one shin as his jeans catch fire. Incredible heat builds beneath his feet and sparks starting to fly around his head and Arthur’s hand on his arm pulling, pulling Merlin through the wall of flame and there’s high pitched screaming that seems very far away.

He hits the floor hard, head bouncing yet again and maybe that explains why the screaming won’t stop, impossibly loud and someone’s dragging, pulling him aside, making it cooler and darker and he forces his eyes open, coughing and coughing and coughing

He turns his head, Arthur, and sees blood on his cheek and blonde hair matted with ashes through the tears streaming from his eyes. Arthur is patting frantically at the spot-fires on both of their clothes, fuck, my leg, he seems mostly unharmed and Merlin manages one clear breath on that thought. He turns his head, watching Arthur hack and hack for breath, just like Merlin, both braced on their hands and knees on the stage.

He reaches out a weak hand, grasping, some part of his mind still aware of Uther and even as the thought springs free Arthur’s eyes meet his, one quick nod before he rolls to his side, scanning for danger, ever the soldier. There’s a serious knife in one hand and now Merlin understands how the thick ropes and stubborn knots were handled.

A second later he realizes the screaming he was hearing isn’t precisely screaming – it’s sirens, oh thank Christ, but there’s something else beneath that, and just as he’s shoving himself upright he hears Arthur’s choked-off cry.

“Father-”

Oh, fuck. Across the pyre Uther is- he flinches back and turns his head away. Uther’s clothes are completely alight down the left side of his body, he is staggering back into the wings, fuel cans scattering as he goes. Arthur surges to his feet, stumbles unheeding over the edge of the burning pile as he runs across the stage and tackles his father to the floor.

He rolls Uther over with brutal efficiency, smothering the flames as best he can and Merlin staggers to his feet and stumbles around the flames in the opposite direction, gathering up a length of the red curtain. He runs to Arthur’s side and flings it over Uther and together they pat down the last of the flames, just as the sound of running feet in heavy boots can be heard.

 

 

* * *

 

Cliché or not, he hates the smell of hospitals. He breathes in deeper and tries to absorb only the scent of Arthur, who should really be in his own bed, not half-reclining on Merlin’s. He watches the familiar face for a while before he speaks, soaking up the sheer luxury of being alone with Arthur, no doctors, no firefighters, no police. No spectre, living or dead.

“There were complications at the end of your mother’s pregnancy.”

Arthur shifts restlessly. “I know, Merlin,” he mutters.

Merlin strokes a hand over his uninjured cheek. “He didn’t tell you everything, though.”

A slow breath escapes Arthur and he nods, once. Merlin thinks of Uther, cuffed to a bed in Intensive Care, and relents.

“We don’t have to talk about it now-”

“No. I-I want to know,” he says, voice low.

Merlin shifts on the bed to get an unimpeded view of that face. His fingers still moving on Arthur’s face he says softly, “She loved you so much, Arthur.” Even Uther’s… grief couldn’t dilute that. Merlin could still feel it.

There’s a brief spasm of pain and then Arthur says, “You said… it was her choice.”

Merlin nods. He forms his words slowly, giving Arthur time to stop him, to think, to feel.

“The doctors warned her that the delivery would be dangerous. She couldn’t deliver naturally, they were arranging a caesarian but even then the risks to both of you were high.” He hesitates. “She had an old friend from school, Nimueh. She could do magic, and Ygraine knew. Uther suggested perhaps she could help. He meant, could make sure you were both safe, but…”

He thinks back over Uther’s memories. The pensive look on Ygraine’s face. “I think she knew, from the start, that there would be a… price if they tried to use magic.” He hesitates, “I can’t prove it. It’s not how your father remembers it but – I saw her face in his memories and she-”

He stops. “Oh,” he says soft on the realization.

“What?” Arthur asks, eyes fixed on his hands. They’re both bandaged, one more heavily than the other.

Merlin watches him, feels a smile tug at his lips. “She looked just like you do when you’ve made up your mind about something.” Arthur glances up. “The same way you did when you jumped off that balcony. Damn the torpedoes.

He shifts, glancing away, and Merlin says gently, “She smiled when she saw you born, Arthur.” He wishes, oh how he wishes he could show Arthur what he saw in Uther’s mind… Ygraine’s pale face, set with triumph as she closes her hands around a tiny, pink-skinned bundle, her mouth moving, naming him, Merlin thinks, just as her eyes close for the last time.

Arthur drags in a heavy breath and Merlin pulls him close. “She made her choice, Arthur. It wasn’t your doing and it’s not your fault. That’s what mothers do. I just – I don’t think she understood what it would do to your father to lose her- like that.”

“But it was – it was his idea.”

Merlin nods. “I think maybe – maybe that’s why he just… lost it. He blamed the magic but beneath it all I think it was guilt, Arthur, that sent him over the edge. You were right, love,” he whispers, “he wasn’t always like that. He was that guy, the one your mother loved, but he couldn’t – couldn’t deal with her loss, with feeling like it was his fault she was gone. He had to put all that rage somewhere…”

Arthur just nods, tired, and Merlin stops. Some part of Arthur is always going to blame himself, and there’s probably nothing anyone can do about that.

They lie there in silence for a while, hospital sounds in the background and finally Arthur says, “So… you know all this because of your… magic.”

Merlin tenses. Arthur’s voice sounds – not right when he says that word.

“How does it work, exactly?”

He draws in a long, slow breath and keeps his eyes firmly fixed on Arthur’s face. His fingers dance around the dressing along Arthur’s left cheekbone, a flying ember caught him there and it will scar. “I’ve never called it that, you know.”

“What?”

“Magic. I always thought of it as… luck, of a sort.”

Arthur frowns.

“Well, the thing is – I’ve never been able to control it. Things just happen.”

“Like… moving things.”

He nods. “Yes. Things move, and also I.” He stops and swallows. Then drops his hand to the cuff of Arthur’s watch, “Sometimes I can sense things. From objects.”

Arthur blinks slowly at that. Then he looks down at the leather cuff. “Sense things?”

“The past. Like your father’s memories of your birth.” He hesitates, then adds, “And that night, at the house, with Lance?”

“You touched my watch,” Arthur says slowly.

“I saw your father’s face.”

Arthur draws back, just slightly and Merlin stops, waiting.

The silence lasts for a long time and then Arthur says, low, “You saw how I got – why I wear my watch all the time.”

Merlin nods, heart beating fast.

Arthur stares down at it. “It’s my earliest memory,” he says softly, and Merlin winces. He can still see Uther’s face, twisted with rage, the small, skinny arm in his grasp, firelight flickering and the sudden burst of pain. He doesn’t have to imagine the scent of burning flesh, it’ll be a long time before that sense memory leaves him. It’s all wrong – for those things to be Arthur’s first memory.

“Merlin,” the voice is impossibly soft, “don’t worry about it.” Now it’s Arthur’s turn to be stroking his face, slow and measured and loving. “You need to get some sleep.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to sleep if you had concussion,” he says, yawning.

“I imagine they’ve got a handle on things, seeing we’re at a hospital,” Arthur says drily. His face sobers. “It’s all right. I’ll still be here. Just get some rest, and tomorrow we’ll go home.”

He blinks up at Arthur. “I couldn’t say it.” The words come out slurred, as if being given permission to rest has brought his absolute exhaustion crashing into every cell of his body. “I couldn’t tell you that I loved you when I was hiding the magic from you.”

Arthur’s hand stills. His throat moves as he swallows.

“But you knew,” Merlin says, even sleepier. “You must have known. Will could see it all the way from Switzerland.”

Arthur huffs out a half-laugh.

“Shit,” Merlin forces his eyes open, “I’m falling asleep in the middle of – God, I’m terrible at this, but you believe me, right, you still want-”

Hot lips brush his. “Merlin.”

“Mm?”

“Go to sleep,” Arthur murmurs, and he’s smiling. “I’ll be here when you wake up and we’ll make embarrassing declarations by the dozen.”

“M’not having your babies,” he mumbles, eyes already closed. “Anything else you want, though.”

There’s a stuttered laugh full of affection as he slides sideways into sleep.

 

 

 

Merlin’s deeply under by the time Arthur feels capable of moving. It’s partly exhaustion, but mostly the deep abiding desire to be within arm’s length of Merlin for at least the next several weeks. Possibly longer.

Still, that pale face and slack mouth beneath the bandages is reminder enough that the other man needs healing sleep more than anything else right now, so Arthur slides himself off the bed and takes up residence in the chair instead. He leaves his hand in Merlin’s, wishing the light bandage wasn’t there.

An hour ticks by and he’s stiff and uncomfortable, but it’s not until the night nurse comes in to check their vitals that Merlin sighs in his sleep, rolls over and Arthur’s hand comes free. She shakes her head at him, and he forestalls her, climbs back into his bed, even though he’s fine. It’s a testament to the power of money that they let him stay overnight at all, considering all he has is a sprained ankle and some minor burns.

She takes his temperature, checks Merlin’s blood pressure swiftly enough that he immediately drops back to sleep, and once she’s gone Arthur slips out of bed again. He needs to stretch out the kinks, visit a bathroom and find something to eat. He hadn’t been able to choke down the hospital dinner earlier, but the time for such indulgence is past. A soldier learns fast to be pragmatic about the essentials, he won’t do any good for Merlin by making himself weaker.

He limps to the ensuite and when he’s done there, lets himself out into the quiet hallway. They’ve been moved far from the chaos of the emergency department to a little pod of private, protected rooms. The stern-faced matron at the nurse’s station points him toward the nearest vending machine, with obvious disapproval at seeing a patient wandering about unsupervised. Still, she doesn’t argue, and as he makes his way to the machine Arthur wonders if it’s the police presence in the hospital that’s keeping her quiet, or his own injuries. And just like that his mind is back on Uther.

He selects a sandwich at random and eats it standing up, tasting nothing, seeing the flames and the smoke and Merlin’s pale face, set against the pain and the fear. Sees the moment Merlin believed Arthur would turn on him and every fucking stroke of the knife on those ropes.

He tosses the empty package into the nearest bin and walks without thinking, down two flights of stairs and into another, slightly busier hallway, ignoring the ache in his leg beneath the strapping. He gets a couple of glances from staff, which he ignores, but the long, careful look from the uniform sitting outside Uther’s room is another matter.

“Mr Fitzroy,” he says, rising slowly to his feet and dropping his newspaper to the floor. He’s balanced lightly on his feet, ready for trouble, and Arthur halts, mouth twisting. The DI must have warned the locals to expect Arthur.

I could take him. He’s got the advantage, injured or not, unless this guy is the county Ultimate Fighting Champion or something equally ridiculous. But he’s not completely lost to propriety, and he doesn’t want to endanger the other patients on this floor for his own revenge. Besides…

“Is he dying?” he asks bluntly. Uther’s own machinations might well be the end of him, and then he won’t have to try to hide from Merlin what he’s done. He doesn’t want to be the cause of more worry for the younger man. It’s enough that Arthur is bitterly angry with himself for his instinctive reactions back at the theatre. Merlin, of course, has already forgiven the half-second of recoil from the idea of magic. But it’s a betrayal Arthur still can’t quite believe he’d almost committed.

His fists clench and he glares at the room again, impotent. Why the fuck did I help to put him out when he was burning?

He turns his head toward the burly male nurse hovering nearby. Hm. Greg must have been very explicit in his warnings. “Is he going to die?”

The man takes a slow breath and says evenly, “It’s very possible. Some of the burns are to his throat, and with his airways compromised-”

Arthur gives a short, brutal nod. “Good.” He turns on his heel and stalks away.

 

Chapter Text

 

Merlin struggles to the surface before he’s ready but something – there’s something going on outside his room. There’s daylight trickling in past the blinds on the window and in the hallway, low voices.

“Is he-”

“He’ll be all right.” That’s Arthur.

“Oh thank God.” And Gwen. The first voice he still hasn’t quite placed-

“And Uther?” Oh. Morgana.

“His injuries might prove fatal,” Arthur says, voice like winter. “I went up last night to- check.”

Oh, Arthur. Merlin bites his lip. He knows exactly what Arthur went up there for.

There’s silence, then Morgana says, “You look like hell.”

There’s a pause – probably Arthur shrugging how very much he doesn’t care – and then she says, more gently, “I’ve got rooms for both of us at a little B&B just around the corner. I brought some of your clothes. Why don’t you go back, take a shower and change. The doctor says they’re happy to discharge you.”

He must shake his head or something, because Gwen murmurs, “We’ll stay with him, Arthur, the whole time. It’ll do him good to see you looking more like yourself.”

There’s another pause, then he seems to murmur reluctant agreement. Merlin lets his eyes close, knowing Arthur won’t leave if he sees Merlin awake, and once he hears Arthur’s footsteps come to the door, pause, then finally recede he opens his eyes, lets first Gwen and then Morgana look their fill.

“Hey,” he says, sliding up the bed with a wince. It must be early morning, breakfast will be by soon and then, please God, he can leave this place.

“You were awake, then. Sneaky.” Morgana sounds approving.

“He needs to get out of here for a little while,” Merlin says. “He’s brooding.”

“Well, this was his worst nightmare come true,” Gwen murmurs, brushing Merlin’s hair out of his eyes and avoiding the bandage with extreme care. “How are you?”

“Okay,” Merlin shrugs. “Be better once I get out of here.”

“Lance says hello and that he’s extremely pissed off, by the way.”

Merlin hums at that. Not sure if she means Lance is pissed at him for getting hurt, or at Uther for being an arsehole, or generally at the world. Not really like he can argue, anyway.

“I spoke to your mother this morning,” Morgana circles the bed and sinks down at his side.

“Oh.” Merlin winces. “How – um, is she?”

“She’s …okay,” Morgana says doubtfully.

She’s pissed off and panicked but controlling it, Merlin thinks, rueful.  Ah well. He’ll be in for some serious coddling when she gets back to England.

“She landed about an hour ago, didn’t want me to pick her up.”

He nods, slides a little further up against the pillows and let the two of them coo softly over him as breakfast comes and goes. No-one asks too many questions, he volunteered what he could but honestly, he didn’t want to go over it again, not when he knew the police would be back this morning. As if on cue, there’s a knock on the door. Merlin looks up as the nurse bustles in.

“There’s a policeman here to see you,” she said, tightlipped and disapproving. She slides the rolling table away from the bed, Morgana and Gwen scattering in her wake. “I told him not until I’ve seen to your vitals.”

“He ate a good breakfast,” Gwen offers, and the nurse nods. He’s still not sure how they even got in here before visiting hours, possibly it has something to do with the private suite he’s in. He feels oddly like Beyonce or perhaps a royal, with all these privileges.

“It’s okay,” Merlin croaks while the blood pressure cuff squeezes his arm to a pulp. “I don’t mind seeing him.”

She sniffs and scribbles on his chart in silence, then peers under the sheet at his leg. “Very well then.”

She opens the door and watches a subdued Greg Travers all the way into the room. “No upsetting him,” she says sternly. “No stress.”

The older man just nods, clearly not enjoying the looks he’s receiving from Gwen or Morgana. Merlin is charmed to see the return of the gimlet glare, when it’s not turned on him, that is. Morgana really is very intimidating, there’s a sense of the ‘might go rogue at any minute’ about her.

“Greg,” he says, taking pity on the man. “This is DI Travers,” he adds, for the girls’ benefit.

“Merlin. How are you?”

“I’m all right,” he says, just as Gwen says, “He’s concussed.”

“And burned,” Morgana adds.

“I’m all right,” Merlin repeats, and waves toward a chair. “You need my statement, right?”

“If you’re up to it. There’s really no urgency, what with all the physical evidence, but- I thought perhaps you’d prefer to get it over and done with now, rather than have to think about it once you get… home.”

Merlin nods, then winces at the flare of pain it causes. It’s a nice distraction from the real pain in his leg. That hasn’t improved overnight at all, he notices uneasily. “Yeah. Um, no, you’re right.”

“Arthur’s not here?”

“I sent him away to shower and hopefully sleep,” Morgana said, arms folded. “He’s not in much better shape than Merlin.”

“No,” Greg says, definite guilt in his face now. “No, I suppose not.”

“It’s all right,” Merlin murmurs. “I knew the risks. We took precautions, and because of that Arthur found me in time. Come on,” he waves to the girls to back off a little, “let’s do this.”

They’re about halfway through the story – and Merlin is able to genuinely appreciate the benefits of concussion, since he can go all vague when Uther’s belief in magic is mentioned – when a uniformed officer appears at the door. Greg is up swiftly, and Merlin watches his face, the swift passage of emotion across it, a few short words exchanged and then he turns back.

He’s struggling with something and Merlin waits a few seconds before he says, guessing, “Uther’s awake.”

Greg nods as Morgana stiffens beside him and Gwen turns abruptly away.

“He’s asking for Arthur,” Merlin goes on, because that’s the only thing that would make Greg look quite that uncomfortable.

No fucking way,” Morgana’s voice whips out. “There is no way-

“We can’t make that decision for him,” Merlin says wearily. “It’s his father.”

“He’s a monster-” Morgana begins.

“-no argument there,” Merlin says, still soft. “He’s a nightmare, a million times over, Morgana, trust me I have no illusions about that.”

She shuts up instantly, a slight flush across her cheekbones that’s the first he’s ever seen on her face.

“But it’s Arthur’s decision to make.” He turns his head toward Greg, tired, and says, “You should call him. He has his phone.”

“No need,” Arthur’s voice is clear and cool from the doorway.

Merlin’s eyes snap to his face, then past his shoulder.

“I’ve brought a visitor,” Arthur says, voice a little gentler as he steps aside for Hunith.

Merlin,” she says, and engulfs him, extremely gently.

“Mum,” he says, completely overwhelmed. It’s the scent of her, he thinks. It drags up the small boy inside him, every time. He wraps his arms around her and hugs, hard. “I’m all right,” he manages.

“You- oh, Merlin, I could murder you,” she half-sobs, half-laughs into his hair.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

He gets a glimpse over her shoulder of Arthur, face full of guilt, and then, like a psychic, his mother turns and reaches out a hand. “Come here, love,” she says, and unwilling, Arthur does.

There’s some muttering and shuffling in the background as Arthur approaches and allows Hunith to wrap an arm around him, and then, suddenly, the door closes and the room is silent – the three of them are alone.

“You poor boys,” she croons. “What you’ve both been through.”

Arthur flinches, and she lifts her head. “Arthur Fitzroy,” she says, stern, “don’t you dare try to tell me you’re trying to take responsibility for this.”

“It happened because of me,” he says, voice thin. He’s not looking at either of them.

“It happened because of Uther,” she shoots back. “Morgana told me all about it. You tried to protect Merlin in every way you could, and at the end you were there to save him. I don’t want to hear any more of this, Arthur.”

He stays as he is, staring down at Merlin and Hunith’s hands, entwined.

“Good luck convincing him of that, Mum,” Merlin says, faint smile touching his mouth. He leans back, trying not to let the pain show on his face. His bloody head. And there’s an unforgiving throb in his shin, as well, a too-warm feeling.

“Oh, don’t you worry, love,” she says, and he watches Arthur blink at the steel in her voice. Merlin just barely holds back a snort. Lots of people underestimate his mother – it’s the calm quiet way she speaks, they have no idea who they’re dealing with.

“Now,” she says, straightening. “What have the doctors said?”

“My head’s okay,” he says, and she is looking him over carefully. “They’re a little concerned about my leg, but they’re going to look at it today. But I think I can go home.”

“We’ll see,” is all she says. “Burns are tricky.” She turns her head. “And you, Arthur?”

“I’m fine,” he says, very definitely, and takes a step back. There’s a knock on the door and they all glance over. It’s DI Travers.

“I’m um, heading off now,” he says. “Merlin, I got everything I needed, thank you.” Merlin just nods, then sees a trace of indecision on the older man’s face.

“What is it?”

Greg’s mouth flattens into a line. “I’ve, uh, I think I’ve found out how Uther discovered Perceval was a decoy.”

“What?” Merlin’s head snaps up and he winces at the sudden movement, which derails Arthur’s white-lipped rage nicely. Hunith strokes a hand down his arm and he takes a visible breath.

Greg sighs. He looks ten years older through all this. “Apparently Perceval’s girlfriend is pregnant. She showed up at the pub when she found out, made a bit of a scene about him never being home anymore-”

“When was this?” The question whips out of Arthur.

“Two weeks ago,” Greg says heavily. Before anyone else can speak he raises a hand. “He didn’t report it. Worried about getting into trouble, I expect. I didn’t know a thing about it until this morning.”

There’s silence. Arthur turns his head away. Merlin bites his lip, worried, then glances at Greg. He tips his head toward the door and Greg takes a slow breath, nods and retreats.

“Arthur.”

He doesn’t answer.

“Arthur.”

“Just. Give me a minute.”

Merlin nods, worries at his lip some more. The words just burst out, “He couldn’t have known-”

Arthur raises a hand and Merlin stops. There’s silence, and just as Greg steps back into the hallway, Arthur turns. He hesitates, then says heavily, “I’m going to go down to the ICU.”

Hunith’s face settles into a calm mask, she just nods. Greg is left blinking in the doorway, one hand braced on the frame. Behind him Gwen and Morgana are talking quietly and texting on their phones.

“Arthur?” Merlin can’t help but ask. “Are you sure?”

He just nods once, briefly. “Yes, Merlin. I’m sure.”

Merlin takes a deep breath. “All right, then.” He bites his lip. “I’ll um, I’ll be here.”

A very faint smile appears on Arthur’s face, all the small muscles in his face relaxing at those few words, as if he’d been worried, underneath, that Merlin might vanish somehow. “Yes, Merlin. I know.” He runs a gentle thumb over Merlin’s face. “I’ll be back soon.”

 

 

Arthur shoves past Greg and doesn’t make eye contact with Gwen or Morgana on his way to the lift. He presses the button and then turns his head. “Coming?” he says, voice flat. The girls are watching him with pale, worried faces, and in his cousin’s case, tightly-wound fury. He’ll have to explain this to her later. If that’s even possible.

“Uh. Yeah, I guess,” Greg says, and reaches his side just as the doors open.

The lift is empty and Greg takes a quick breath, says, “Arthur-”

“I know.” Arthur cuts him off. He’s not being intentionally cruel, he just can’t stand any more fucking apologies right now. He’s too full of his own regrets to absorb more, right now those words are just ripping holes in him, and he can’t afford that for what he’s about to do.

He walks up to the ICU desk, Greg at his side, and says, “I’m Arthur Fitzroy.” He’s interrupting some kind of murmured conference, change of shift probably, and an older woman looks him over, nods while the redheaded nurse looks up, her face changing in a way that says she’s heard all the juicy details about the burns victim under police guard who’d tried to kill both his son and the boyfriend.

“You’re here for…” the older nurse runs a finger down a list, “Uther Fitzroy?” She’s clearly unaware of any drama.

“Correct.”

Her eyes shift to Greg, then narrow. “And you are?” As though she hasn’t already recognized what Greg represents.

“DI Travers,” he says, shows his ID.

“The patient has requested to speak to his son,” she says icily, “not the police. He’s in a great amount of p-”

“His son won’t speak to him without the police,” Arthur says, flat and intractable. “His choice.”

She blinks at him, wrongfooted. “I.”

The redhead cuts in and sends the other woman a warning look. “Mr Fitzroy,” she begins, soft, “if you’d just wait for one moment.” She hustles back to the room behind and emerges with a young, tired looking doctor. The four of them drift past the stony faced nurse and away from the desk to a quiet corner of the hallway.

“Mr Fitzroy,” he says, and Arthur nods again. “Your father indicated his wishes early this morning – that is, to be taken off the respirator.”

Arthur just nods.

“Effectively, he’s asking us to let him go. His burns are severe, he’s in considerable pain. You understand, he won’t be able to breathe on his own for too much longer.” He eyes Arthur carefully.

Arthur just nods again, feels his hands unclench at knowing this won’t be his decision. “I understand,” he says. “Thank you, doctor.”

The doctor nods to both of them, Greg standing a few feet behind, and leaves.

The redhead remains. “I’ll just see if he’s awake,” and goes back to the desk to collect her colleague. They disappear out the back for a brief, whispered History of Arthur’s Fucking Life and then the redhead flits into Uther’s room. Greg gives a quick jerk of the head to the constable by the door, who vanishes without a word.

“He will see you now,” the nurse says when she emerges, expressionless.

Arthur doesn’t take a deep breath. He just puts one foot in front of the other and walks forward, locks down every emotion he’s ever felt and hides them away.

The machines dominate the room. It’s odd, for a man like Uther to be reduced to this, an accessory, given leave to exist because of electricity and science. Arthur looks him right in the eye, but shifts so that DI Travers stays in his peripheral vision. It’ll remind him why he’s there.

“Arthur.” The rasp is barely recognizable. Almost one-half of his face is covered by surgical dressings, his throat and neck as well. His visible eye is fixed on Arthur’s face.

“You asked to see me.” His own voice isn’t much better, remote and thin. “If there’s something you want to tell me, I’ll listen. But first you need to answer some questions.”

There’s silence. He’s tempted, so tempted to leave. But he fixes Gwen’s face in his mind instead. “You’re dying.”

Greg shifts uncomfortably behind him.

“There’s nothing left for you to lose, surely you can give Gwen and the other families some closure. Admit what you did.”

“I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I’m not here for a conversation about morality. If you’re prepared to speak honestly, I’ll stay. Otherwise, consider this my farewell.” He turns.

He’s cold. So fucking cold. He needs Merlin. He needs Morgana and Gwen and Hunith and fucking Dragon.

“Arthur.” It obviously costs him something to speak, and Arthur pauses. Takes a deep breath and glances back over his shoulder.

“You always wanted me to show resolve, Father. Decisiveness and a will of iron. Well here it is. You admit your crimes,” he swallows, hating what he’s about to offer, “and I will keep vigil here. I’ll stay with you.”

Those eyes flash, rage and helplessness and it’s an awful end, even for Uther but he doesn’t shift an inch. Each one of them stays frozen in place, beeps and hisses the only soundtrack until finally Uther husks, “Very well.”

Arthur swallows. He exchanges a glance with Greg, who looks sick, and then steps forward, rounding the bed. Arthur stays on Uther’s blind side, a few feet from the bed, crosses his arms hard over his chest and hangs on as Greg flicks on a recorder and begins to speak.

After the first few minutes he tunes out the raspy confession. The names, the details are more than he can bear right now, it’s enough to know Uther will at least tell the truth, this once, and finally there will be answers, if not justice.

 

 

 

He has no idea how long it takes. He tunes in to the equipment, their regular rhythm, the sheer unrelenting consistency of machinery and tries to be like them. Matches his breath to the drip of the I.V., his blinks to the heart monitor.

At some point he’s aware that Greg leaves. The nurses come in and out again, one of them speaks to him but he can’t answer, he just – he can’t. He glances her way, enough that she backs away and leaves him be, standing silent by the bed of his dying father.

“I did what I had to do,” Uther says, a long time later. His voice is incredibly thin, there’s none of the charisma and vitality Arthur had always idolized, tried to emulate.

Arthur can’t speak. He just fucking can’t.

“I was doing it for you,” he tries again. “To give you your rightful-”

“I never asked you for any of this,” Arthur snaps, goaded beyond belief. “I never wanted any of this garbage, it was all for you, something to fill the empty spaces she left behind because I wasn’t enough.” And by the time he gets to the end, he’s shouting. He glances away and smothers his mouth with his hand.

Uther falls silent, his one visible eye fixed on Arthur. His breath is slowly becoming choppy, laboured, and Arthur swallows, sensing the end. When he speaks again, Arthur leans helplessly forward to hear it. “It never would have worked,” he’s murmuring, dreamy. “All those years, wasted, for an undeserving heir… I see nothing of myself in you.”

Arthur jolts. He stares down at that ruined face.

Those words revolve around the frozen heart of him. Nothing of myself… it’s as though he’s suddenly seeing the sun for the first time. He can feel the echo of those words travelling, cell to cell to cell, thawing out the terrible fear, the silent horror he’s held tight all these years. I see nothing of myself in you.

“I’m not like you,” he whispers, and Uther blinks, slowly. “Am I.”

He stares down at his father, the groove tracing down his cheek, frown lines on that regal forehead.

Arthur takes a shaky breath. “Am I like her?

Another slow blink, and the glaze of pain in Uther’s eyes clears for just a moment as he stares up at Arthur. “Ygraine,” he whispers, and his free hand lifts, reaching. “Ygraine,” he says again, and the eyes close.

The breath eases out of his chest and Uther stills.

Arthur breathes in, a huge gasping chunk of air that sticks in his throat and he grips the sheets, fingers twisting. He’s shaking, trying to breathe out, when the redheaded nurse appears and silently switches off the machines.

She stands on the opposite side of the bed for a moment, not speaking, then reaches over to close Uther’s eyes with a gentle hand. Arthur finally lets out a breath, head dropping down. He’s shaking, shaking, can’t stop it, can’t stop-

“Take as long as you need,” she says softly, and leaves.

 

 

 

He takes some time to be alone.

He does not cry. But he sinks into a chair and tries to put his thoughts into some kind of order.

His father is dead. The monster is dead. The man who boasted to his friends when Arthur had won a fencing tournament as a fourteen year old. The man who had tried to burn Merlin alive.

I think it’s going to take some time to work this out, he finally thinks, and laughs a little, passes a hand over his face. It sounds like something Merlin would say. But the heavy stone that’s been lodged in his gut for the past few years is gone.

There’s nothing of me in you. The magic bloody words, apparently. Then snorts as he realizes what he just– magic.

Finally he pushes up out of the chair and leaves the room. At the door he pauses, but doesn’t look back. If he’s going to remember his father, it won’t be as the broken, empty husk left behind in this sterile room.

He glances up, meets the eyes of the redheaded nurse, sees in a glance her handbag and keys on the desk behind her, the cardigan she’s drawn on over her uniform. She’s off-duty, but she waited, to see him through, rather than hand him over to a new face. He crosses to the desk.

“Thank you,” he says and he’s never meant it more.

She nods, her face sad and gentle. Hesitates, then presses a hand to his for a moment, says, “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

 

 

Arthur steps into the hallway on Merlin’s floor and takes a moment to gather himself. He doesn’t want to– he’s not up to making some big announcement. Not now. And he’s hesitating too, because – he hasn’t let himself think until now, but. What if- what if this has changed things? His father tried to kill Merlin. He can’t just assume.

He takes a shuddering breath and pushes on.

When he reaches the room, however, there’s not really any chance of an in-depth conversation  happening, on any topic.

“But surely I can have antibiotics at home,” Merlin is saying. Whining.

“It’s important we monitor-”

“Argh,” Merlin lets his head fall back in frustration, then winces.

“It’s only one more night, love,” Hunith soothes, exchanging a glance with the doctor, an older woman with breasts so generous even Arthur looks twice.

“I want to go home,” he insists.

“Causing trouble again, Merlin?” Arthur asks, forcing a smile, and every eye flicks to him in an instant.

“Are you alri-”

“You’re keeping him in another night?” He looks straight at the doctor.

“That’s my recommendation, yes,” she says, glancing from Merlin to Hunith and back again. “He has the start of infection in the leg. I’m not happy sending him home until we’re sure it’s under control.”

Arthur nods, and finally meets Merlin’s gaze as he rounds the bed and sinks down onto it. “It’s just one more night,” he soothes, and lets the other man look his fill as he takes Merlin’s hand.

“Are you-”

“Merlin, I’m fine,” he says, and it’s almost true.

“All right then, Mr Emrys,” the doctor says, and heads for the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow, hopefully for discharge.”

“Grr,” Merlin mutters, but doesn’t glance in her direction. Hunith follows the doctor and, with a hesitant glance at Arthur, closes the door and leaves the two of them alone.

“He’s gone,” Arthur says immediately. Not going to make him ask.

Merlin nods once.

“And yes. I’m all right.”

There’s a tiny line between Merlin’s brows and he’s watching Arthur carefully. “You are?”

He nods. “I am.”

Merlin takes a short, hitching breath. The frown lines deepen. “Okay.” But it sounds like a question, and Arthur bites back a smile.

“He confessed, to Greg,” he says quietly, and shuffles closer until their thighs are pressed against one another, separated only by the sheet. He stares down at their joined hands. “And I – I stayed with him until he- he went.”

Merlin swallows audibly.

“He said – right at the end.” He takes a long breath and raises his eyes to Merlin, “He said that he couldn’t see anything of himself in me.”

Merlin’s eyes are very blue, unblinking. Some of the tension goes out of him at whatever he’s seeing in Arthur’s face. He nods very slowly, as if to say, yes, that’s right, and Arthur manages a rough smile. “I’m okay, Merlin,” he says, “I am.” Or maybe, in time, he will be.

Then he swallows. Now that he’s thought it, he has to know. He’ll go mad wondering…

“Merlin,” he begins, and meets those blue eyes. “I haven’t asked.”

Merlin turns his head a little deeper into the pillow, eyes watchful and knowing.

“It’s just that.” He looks down. “It occurs to me that you might – after everything-”

“Arthur,” Merlin says, impossibly soft. “No.”

He lifts his head, blinks at the other man. He hasn’t even gotten the question out-

“You and me,” Merlin raises their hands to his lips. “That’s it. Wanting out – it’s just never going to happen, you understand? Not from my end.”

There’s a knock at the door and Merlin’s hand tightens around his as he sighs, longsuffering and says, “Come in.” Arthur’s not sorry the moment is broken, it’s all becoming a bit too much, to be honest. His breathing is shaky and his eyes are blurred.

A new nurse, approximately fourteen years of age by the look, bustles in and drops a pen and card on the bedside table. “You’ll need to order your meals, Mr Emrys, since you’re staying. And I’m just going to change your dressing.”

“Ugh,” Merlin scowls horribly at her and Arthur is completely enchanted by this display. Oh hell, he thinks, I’m even charmed when he’s being a twit. He shifts off the bed and watches her closely, since either he or Hunith will likely be doing this once Merlin comes home.

There’s another knock, tentative this time.

“Um, Merlin?” It’s Gwen, hesitating in the hallway. Her eyes flick to Arthur in surprise, and she seems on the verge of stepping back when the two of them motion her forward. “I just got a text from Will. He asked me to- um.”

“What?” Merlin still doesn’t give up the grumpy face, which Arthur understands, he doesn’t want Merlin in hospital any longer than he has to, but he’s not going to side with him on this one, either.

Gwen shrugs and slides a glossy magazine onto Merlin’s lap. The cover is obscured by a sheet of paper, a printed receipt by the look of it and as Arthur leans over, he can see it’s a three-year subscription to…

Merlin slides the paper aside.

Gourmet Traveller.  Arthur raises an eyebrow and shares a confused glance with Gwen.

Merlin snorts. “Prat,” he says, but his fingers stroke over the cover and then he laughs and laughs and laughs.

 

* * *

 

“I’m sure this isn’t proper health and safety,” Merlin whines. His hand touches the blindfold yet again. “Isn’t this house still technically a building site?”

“Report me,” Arthur says, smirking. There’s something very …beguiling about having Merlin completely at his mercy. He files that thought away for future reference. “Right. Now the stairs.”

“Really? You think I’ve forgotten where the stairs are, in my own home? I was only gone a few weeks, Arthur.”

Arthur’s hand tightens on Merlin’s at the reminder. It had been a long, lonely series of endless days in this house, waiting for the worst to happen. Hard to believe he’d started out this way, just Arthur Fitzroy in one ramshackle abode after another. Always on his own, always a just a house, just a place.

Then he replays Merlin’s voice saying my own home, and something deep inside him relaxes.

“Just reminding you, that’s all,” he says absently.

“Just bossing me around,” Merlin mutters. There’s the hint of a dimple in one cheek as they reach the half-landing. “And loving it, you prat.”

Arthur shakes his head but makes no denial as he guides Merlin the rest of the way up the stairs and into the bedroom.

“There’s not, like, a surprise party in here or anything, is there?” Merlin asks, suddenly nervous. “I don’t like surprise parties. I had to hide in a dark pantry with three strangers once while we waited for the birthday girl who was forty fucking minutes late. You cannot begin to imagine the awkward small talk, not to mention the accidental body contact-”

“No, Merlin, it’s not a surprise party,” Arthur rolls his eyes and backs them into the walk-in-robe. Only Merlin.

He veers a little to the left before Arthur can correct, brushing against his own shirts on the hangers. He’d moved all of Merlin’s things here one morose, lonely evening, brooding over what Will must be saying to Merlin, all those miles away.

Get out, get out now, he’d been assuming. He takes a deep breath and shakes it off.

“Your mother told me once that you were a terror for avoiding your bath as a child.” Arthur shoves the connecting door with his hip so that it opens all the way and finally lets Merlin halt in the open doorway.

“Oh my God,” Merlin moans. “What have you two been talking about now? And when are these conversations even happening?”

He backs away, moving very slowly so as to make no sound, give no clues to what he’s doing as he toes out of his shoes and yanks his shirt over his head. He’s enjoying the whole idea of a surprise far more than he’d thought he would.

“I thought perhaps you lacked motivation.” He shimmies out of his jeans and kicks the clothes aside on his way to the corner. First one leg, then the other. He sinks down very slowly and leans back with great care.

“Were there pictures? Oh God, not the one with the birthday cake.”

He’s biting back a grin now. “You can take off the blindfold.” Arthur stretches his arms out and lets them relax, raises one eyebrow in his best lord and master imitation as Merlin reaches up to the bandana tied over his eyes.

“If there is some hideous portrait gallery-”

He breaks off and stands there, open-mouthed. His eyes flick to every corner of the room, to Arthur’s face, the room and then back again. He lingers over the enormous freestanding oval tub where Arthur is reclining, the stained glass with a tiny dragon in the corner that’s replaced the old window, the enormous shower built for two. “I. Um.”

Arthur swallows as the silence lengthens. He’s suddenly nervous.

“You finished it,” Merlin whispers. “Oh my – it’s beautiful. I can see what you mean by structural,” he adds, eyeing the place where the second bedroom used to start, where the huge tub now sits. “Oh, Arthur.”

Arthur takes a deep breath. “So you think perhaps you’ll make use of it?”

Merlin stops, caught between a scowl and smile. “You idiot. Of course I’ll–” he’s already stripping off his clothes, voice muffled for a moment as his shirt snags on his ears. “As if I need any motivation to go into a room that’s likely to have you in it, naked.”

“There’s just one problem,” Arthur says slowly, watching Merlin’s skin revealed. It’s been too long. Far too long.

“Hmm?”

“Well. I had to fill the tub before I came to get you. So as not to ruin the surprise.”

Merlin hesitates halfway through skinning his jeans down his legs. He blinks. “That must have been almost two hours ago.”

“Yup.”

He blinks. “Oh my- Arthur Fitzroy. Are you honestly telling me you’re sitting in a bathtub full of freezing cold water?”

Arthur raises his eyebrows. He’s fairly proud that he hasn’t started shivering yet. “I am.”

And at that point the whole gesture starts to lose its romance. Merlin is clutching at the heated towel rail, doubled over with laughter, pants pooling around his ankles.

“You- you id- you total and utter-“

He snorts. “Oh. My. God. Arthur.”

Arthur shifts, feeling ridiculous, then winces as the cold water laps a little higher and hits his nipples. Merlin steps toward him, still snickering and dips a hand into the icy water. He shakes his head.

“I should have waited until you’d gotten in,” Arthur mutters. “Ungrateful-”

He breaks off as Merlin takes a huge gulping breath and steps straight into the tub without hesitating. “You absolute nut-” Merlin’s voice stops abruptly and this time, for the first time Arthur sees properly the wash of gold in those blue eyes that mean magic.

He sucks in a breath at the sight and surges upright, sloshing water everywhere. Those eyes are   - alien. Otherworldly. Beautiful.

Even better, a half-second later he registers the steam rising from the surface of the water and every pore in his skin pops its head up to say thankyouuuu.  “Ohhh.”

Merlin lets out a startled half-laugh. He folds up, slow and graceful for once, eyes watchful on Arthur’s face but whatever he sees there reassures him enough to turn, stretch his legs out and lean his back against Arthur’s front. He lifts his injured leg out of the water, lets it rest on the rim of the tub. They’ll have to change the dressing sooner rather than later.

Merlin’s head drops back onto Arthur’s shoulder, warm breath on his neck.

“Oh,” Arthur sighs, and lets his head fall back against the rim. Every single kink in his muscles is loosening. “That’s – wonderful.” He brings one arm up, wrapping around Merlin’s chest, the other slowly tracing the shape of his ear, and the room has time to go silent, rippling water finally still.

Everything settles around them, silent and complete. The water. Their home. Their life.

Then he says, “This is hands-down the most wonderful feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

Merlin’s eyebrows lift and he angles his head to look up at Arthur. “Well, enjoy it,” he says, wry. “I can’t guarantee it will ever happen again.”

Arthur just smiles, and turns his head to drop a kiss on Merlin’s lips. His hands tighten.

“Merlin,” he says softly, “I really wasn’t talking about the magic.”