The first time Merlin hides a bruise he is eight years old. The man’s not his father, not really, but he’s been married to his mother for 6 years now, and it’s all Merlin has ever known. He has a photo, tucked away tight in a box at the very back of his wardrobe. It’s worn around the edges, and creased straight down the middle as if it used to be folded. It shows a man in his early thirties, hair so dark it’s almost black, like Merlin’s own. His smile reaches his eyes; he looks happy. This man is Merlin’s real father, but that’s all he knows, he doesn’t even have a name.
He had purple finger marks encircling each wrist, and an angry red bruise blossoming out across his tiny ribs. He was meant to be getting changed for PE, but he just sat there in the changing rooms, jumper sleeves pulled down low over his hands, fingernails bitten raw.
When all the other boys had filed out, he’d breathed a sigh of relief. It would be ok, no one would see now. Just as he’d started to pull his clothes over his head, the PE teacher, Mr. Fisher had stormed in, demanding to know why he wasn’t out there in the hall with the rest of his class.
Merlin had frozen in place. He knew what his father had told him last night; that only bad little boys get punished, and did he, Merlin, want the whole school knowing how bad he’d been? No, he’d shaken his head, tears falling silently, no he didn’t. Well you’d best keep quiet then boy. Yes sir.
And so Merlin had just stood there in silence, while Mr. Fisher got angrier and angrier as Merlin refused to either get changed or offer an explanation. Eventually the man gave up, leaving him alone in the changing rooms.
Merlin had been kept behind after school that day as punishment. When he’d got home late, his father had hit him again, without even giving him a chance to explain. He’d had to take a week off school for the swelling to die down.
It’s not the first time that he’s been knocked around a bit, but it’s the first time that it really shows. In his earliest memory, he thinks he is 4 years old. He’d been trying to climb up a chest of drawers in order to open the curtains, using each drawer as a step. When he got to the top, he’d succeeded in his goal, but in trying to climb down, he slipped, landing heavily on the stained carpet. He’d cried for almost half an hour before his mother had stumbled out of the next room, yanking the curtains closed and telling him to shut up.
When he hadn’t stopped crying, his father had appeared as well, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him roughly.
For god’s sake boy, shut the fuck up.
He’d been dragged into the hallway, and thrown inside the cupboard where several old brooms and a broken mop were kept. The cupboard had been locked from the outside, and Merlin had learnt very quickly that no matter how much he cried, he wouldn’t be let out until much later. And only then if he was silent and obedient.
He remembers that cupboard well, he’s seen the inside of it many times since. Mostly he remembers the smell of alcohol, it’s the most prevalent smell of his childhood.
The second time Merlin has to miss school to hide bruises that are far too obvious he is 12. It’s not actually school. It’s Merlin’s first year in secondary school, and over the Easter holidays the school offers an extra week of lessons for the more promising students. Although it’s predominantly aimed at the older students, those studying for GCSEs and A Levels, they offer it to every year; there’s no harm in encouraging them young. For the youngest students it’s mostly a glorified book club, but to Merlin it sounds great.
Merlin likes reading, he likes books, and he likes his English lessons. In fact he likes his English teacher so much, that he thinks he might become one himself when he’s older. So when Mr. Reed had asked if he’d consider attending extra school in the holidays, Merlin’s only question had been how much it would cost. After being assured that it was free, Merlin had signed up.
When term ends, Merlin’s father presents him with a list of chores to be done over the holidays. There’s a whole side of A4 filled with his father’s cramped illegible handwriting. Merlin can just make out fix the oven, and wonders how the hell he’s going to do that, let alone get all these things done in between attending extra school.
“I—” Merlin starts, but he doesn’t know what to say.
His father only looks at him.
Merlin steels himself and tries again.
“I won’t be able to do all this.”
“Why not?” His father’s tone is short, clipped, expending the very minimum of effort needed to communicate with his son.
“I’ll be at school. There’s extra lessons, in English, to help¬—” If Merlin had been paying attention, he would have seen the way his father’s eyes had narrowed dangerously.
“Extra lessons? Why haven’t the school been in contact?”
But he doesn’t let Merlin speak, instead backhanding him across the face.
“You’ve been failing classes, and keeping it from me? How dare you.” His voiced is raised in anger now.
“No. No—” he’s crying now. “It’s optional, it’s extra. I’m not in trouble.”
His father laughs. “Optional school? Who ever heard of such a thing? Don’t lie to me.”
He hits Merlin across the face again.
“I’m not lying!” he shouts out through the tears.
But Merlin’s father doesn’t heed his cries, he just continues to hit his son until there are no tears left inside him at all, and Merlin is left cowering on the kitchen floor, feebly still trying to protect his head within the curl of his thin arms.
Later than night Merlin lies in bed and stares at the ceiling, breathing shallow and unable to sleep due to the constant pain throbbing through his chest and ribs. Merlin knows that if he actually started missing too much actual school, then child services might get involved, might even see a bruise they want to question further. But the bruises are always under clothes, hidden from sight, and it only gets really bad during the school holidays.
Merlin thinks that his father must be cleverer than he looks after all.
Merlin doesn’t attend a single day of school in the holidays. Once term starts up again, Mr. Reed only gives him a disappointed look and a shake of his head. He doesn’t try to lend him extracurricular books anymore, and never asks him why his homework is late. He just thinks Merlin doesn’t care about school, like most of the other kids there.
Merlin is fifteen when he comes out to his parents. Looking back on it now, it’s probably the stupidest thing he’s ever done. He could have died. He should have just left home and never looked back; the end result would have been the same, either way, without the hospital visit.
“Son, can you tell me what happened?”
The doctor’s tone is kind, gentle. This man is clearly someone’s father, and the good kind too. He knows how to deal with scared children; that’s all Merlin is really, not yet sixteen, still just a child.
Merlin has three cracked ribs, one of which ripped into his lungs, causing the left side to fill up with blood and bubble up out of his mouth when he tried to speak that night. His face is so swollen and beaten that he is barely recognisable, but by some miracle he still has all his teeth. His nose is broken. He has knife wounds running up and down his arms from defending himself, as well as a long shallow cut along the left side of his torso. The worst injury is the deep wound bisecting his left bicep, deep enough to expose the muscle. It had been bleeding heavily when the ambulance arrived, but had been stitched up by the time Merlin regained consciousness. He can’t feel it now, can’t really feel anything actually.
Tell me what happened, the doctor repeats, but his voice is small and distant.
Merlin knows exactly what happened. He also knows what his father has already told the police; that Merlin had been mugged on his way home, and his father had found him in the street after he’d gone looking for him when he hadn’t arrived home on time. His father plays the part of worried parent perfectly. His mother remains silent.
Gang violence is commonplace in their neighbourhood, and the police make little more than a token effort to investigate the crime; the facts are obvious. The knife used is nowhere to be found outside, but that’s not unusual in this type of crime. Little do the police know, it’s still sitting in the family kitchen, washed off and used the very next day to make dinner. His father feels no remorse.
Merlin repeats his father’s story. It’s what they want to believe anyway.
He has one friend who comes to visit him in hospital. He doesn’t know how Freya found out he was there, but he presumes his parents must have informed the school to explain his absence. She looks at him with sad eyes, as if she sees right through him and his lies. She leaves after an hour, and she doesn’t come back. He doesn’t return to that school ever again, and they don’t keep in touch. It’s probably for the best.
He moves in with his aunt in Hammersmith, on his mother’s side, of course. It’s barely 10 miles from Hackney, but it’s not like he has much choice. Merlin sleeps easier at night knowing his father can’t touch him here though. He doesn’t talk to his mother, but he suspects that his aunt sometimes tells her things about him. He doesn’t care. He never wants to see her again, especially not while she’s still married to his father. While she’s still drunk more than she’s sober. She’s no mother to him, she never had been.
The second bedroom is so tiny there’s barely enough room for a single bed, and there aren’t even any curtains. Merlin thinks he prefers it that way.
Merlin works hard for the next year. He keeps his head down in school, and gets all his coursework done on time. He doesn’t make any friends, but he doesn’t make any enemies either. He has a part time job, stacking shelves in Tesco. It’s only minimum wage, but it feels good, like maybe he’s in control of his own life.
He does well in his GCSEs the following summer, and picks his A Level subjects; his favourite subject is still English. The scar on his arm fades from an angry red to a glassy white, and Merlin thinks that life is pretty ok, all things considered.
They say it’s psychological though, don’t they? That you can’t break away from what you know. It’s not quite Oedipus, but Merlin definitely seems to gravitate towards a certain type of man, and it’s not the kind who brings flowers.
At seventeen, in his A2 year, Merlin gets his first boyfriend. Mark is several years older than Merlin; he works as a mechanic in the garage across from Merlin’s block of flats. He kept seeing him in Tesco, until one day the older man had approached him, asking for a date. Merlin had been flattered.
It’s nice. Mark takes care of him, takes him out to clubs, buys him clothes and tells him what to wear so he’s suitably dressed when they go. Merlin starts spending most of his free time with Mark and his mates, often down the pub.
His grades start slipping; nothing dramatic, and not on graded coursework, he’s not that much of an idiot. But, you know, just on the other stuff. The in-class tests, the homework assignments. Merlin heads to the pub after his shifts in Tesco, instead of heading home to study, stays up late in Mark’s bed instead of at the computer.
Mark praises him on how well he sucks cock, and Merlin lets him fuck him. It’s good to feel wanted, to feel like someone cares. The attention is addictive.
It all comes crashing down at the beginning of May. His coursework folder is one essay short.
“The Catcher in the Rye essay Merlin, where is it?”
Merlin stares blankly back. Did they even study that book? He tries to bluff it.
“Err, do you not have that one?”
“No, Merlin. My records here show no grade for it. You haven’t given it to me.”
“Oh, I must have forgotten. It’s probably just sitting on my hard drive.” Like fuck it is.
He’s running through his memory at a million miles an hour, trying to recall even reading the book in the first place, let alone writing an essay on it.
“Monday, Merlin. On my desk. Otherwise you’ll have to submit an incomplete coursework folder, and there’s no chance of an A Grade then.”
When Merlin gets home that evening, the first thing he does is boot up the computer. He is painfully aware of how long it is since he last did so. It’s a rickety piece of shit, so old it’s running Windows 95 and still has to tell you “It is now safe to turn off your computer”, after you’ve shut it down. The flat is quiet; his aunt works late most nights.
There’s nothing there on Salinger. And Merlin is even more certain now that he hasn’t read the book. He heads into his room, and digs under his bed for his English folder, flicking frantically through the pages, until he finds the coursework outline. There it is; two different essay titles to choose from. On a book he hasn’t read.
He scrabbles under the bed further, praying to every god imaginable that he actually has a copy of the sodding book. His prayers are answered. The book is fairly short, and that’s a miracle within itself. Merlin figures if he stays up reading it tonight, he can still write an essay, and not have to skip out on his Saturday afternoon shift at work. He won’t get much sleep, but fuck, he needs to do this.
He gets up and sits on top of his bed, and starts to read about Holden Caulfield, and none of his David Copperfield kind of crap.
The phone rings, startling him out of Holden’s world. It’s Mark.
“Merlin, where the fuck are you?”
Shit. He’s meant to be down the pub.
“I’m really sorry. I’ve got this coursework I completely for—”
“Coursework? Fuck that, it’s Friday night, we’re going out.”
“I can’t, I really need to get this done.”
Mark swears, and hangs up. Merlin thinks nothing more of it.
Soon, there’s a pounding at the door.
It’s Mark. Merlin lets him in.
“What’s all this then?”
“I’ve got an essay, I really need to do it, or I’ll be in such shit.”
“Merlin, it’s a fucking Friday night, I really couldn’t give a damn.”
“No buts, we’re meant to be trying out that new club in Vauxhall.”
“Well you’ll have to go without me then.”
“I’ll have you go without you? When I’ve already bought your fucking ticket?”
Merlin doesn’t reply.
I don’t need this kind of shit from you, Mark snarls, as he makes his move.
Merlin isn’t expecting it.
Mark has Merlin by the throat against the wall, lifting him off his feet and cutting off his windpipe. Merlin chokes as he tries to prise Mark’s fingers off.
“You do what I say, when I say it. That’s what we have here. Do you understand me?”
Merlin only nods, eyes wide. Mark doesn’t actually hit him, but it’s a close thing.
He lets him go, and Merlin falls to the floor, gasping for breath. Mark kicks him once in the ribs, before turning to leave.
“Stay here you little shit. I don’t want to see your pathetic face tonight anyway.”
Merlin stays on the floor struggling to breathe evenly for long after Mark has left.
Sunday night, when Merlin has finished his essay, Mark comes round. Merlin doesn’t question the love bites he finds on the other man’s chest and neck, and Mark kisses his apology into Merlin’s bare skin. I promise I won’t do it again. I love you.
Merlin believes him. It was his own fault anyway.
He wears a scarf to college on Monday, hands the completed essay in. Nobody notices the finger marks around his neck.
On his second week at King’s Merlin meets Arthur Pendragon at the welcome meeting of the LGBT society. Merlin’s only thought for several minutes is just, he’s beautiful.
Arthur, even though he’s only a second year, is already president of the society, of course. He’s immensely popular, everyone around uni seems to know him; he’s on the lacrosse team, and the rugby team, although lacrosse always comes first.
Arthur seems to take up all the space around him, seems to fill up the whole room, and squeeze the breath out of Merlin’s lungs. Merlin hadn’t been sure about joining the society, he’s never been entirely comfortable about his sexuality. Given his history, it’s understandable.
He’d wandered over to the stall at Fresher’s Fayre, and surreptitiously tried to read one of the leaflets scattered across the table. Counselling. The word had jumped straight out at him, heart beating fast in his chest. He signed his name down immediately, giving a brief smile to the girl sat behind the table. He thought that maybe talking to someone for once might help.
He tried to hide in the corner at the meeting, willing himself to blend into the background, like he’d always wished he could do as a child. But it hadn’t worked. Arthur had come right up to him and introduced himself, his bright smile brimming with confidence. Merlin had been completely struck dumb. Arthur had only smiled again; it’s nice to meet you, Merlin.
A few weeks later, he bumps into Freya. He had no idea she was at the same uni. She gives him that same sad look she’d given him that day in the hospital but doesn’t say anything.
They grab a coffee and catch up. Freya’s studying Biochemistry, Merlin is studying English. Freya tries to ask Merlin about the last couple of years, but he only offers vague statements, talking about his schoolwork more than anything else.
He tells Freya he has a boyfriend, and he manages a smile when he says it. Mark hadn’t been thrilled about Merlin heading off to uni, and moving into halls rather than staying at home, but at least he’s still in the same city. Freya says that she’d like to meet him.
Coffee becomes a regular thing, and they often hang out in the library together, although they have no modules in common. Being friends with Freya feels normal, easy.
Being friends with Arthur is a different kettle of fish entirely. Merlin still isn’t sure why Arthur wants to spend time with him, why he bothers when he has so many other friends. But he does. He pops round to Merlin’s halls, often on the pretence of lending him some notes, or a book; Arthur is studying English too. If Merlin’s not studying with Freya, it’ll be Arthur by his side in the library. They normally see each other at least once a day, even if it’s only for a quick mug of tea.
Being friends with Arthur isn’t normal, or easy. It makes Merlin nervous, it makes his heart race. It makes him blush, and fumble his words. It’s glorious and frightening all at the same time. Seeing Arthur is always the highlight of Merlin’s day.
He also starts seeing someone, a counsellor, every week. He thinks it’s helping, although sometimes it’s impossible to speak, and he chokes on the words stuck in his throat. He doesn’t tell anyone.
In the last week of the winter term, Merlin brings Mark to the student union. The other man had insisted, wanting to know where Merlin spends all him time. It’s just Merlin and Mark, none of his friends, and it feels pretty normal, Merlin is happy.
Several drinks in, Merlin spots Freya by the bar, and waves her over. He introduces her, and she sits with them for a while, chatting with Merlin about her week.
“Merlin, get me another drink.”
Mark had been sitting there in silence ever since Freya had joined them. Merlin glances down at Mark’s empty pint glass before rising to his feet.
“Sure, same again?”
Freya jumps to her feet as well, offering to help, and the two of them leave Mark at the table alone.
The chat more freely at the bar while they wait to be served. Freya fills him in on the cute boy she’s been flirting with. They laugh over Freya’s ridiculous impression of her statistics lecturer. Merlin is leaning on Freya for support while he laughs, tears in his eyes, when Mark appears behind him.
He grabs Merlin by the wrist and drags him out of there.
They don’t bump into Arthur. He’s really fucking glad.
Mark doesn’t say another word until they’re back in Merlin’s room. The rest of the building seems deserted, which Merlin is thankful for. He’s pretty sure he’s about to get an earful from Mark, and doesn’t really want anyone else overhearing.
Mark starts ranting and raving about Merlin, and his inappropriate behaviour around Freya. You’re sending out the wrong message, you little slag; everyone will think you’re fucking her.
To be honest, Merlin is mostly just relieved that Mark doesn’t know about Arthur. That Merlin spends half his time with the other man, had even gone to watch him play lacrosse. That Merlin thinks Arthur is beautiful. At least Freya he can deny with total honesty.
Something just snaps inside him though. It’s all ridiculous. Mark is there accusing him of having something going on with Freya, for god’s sake. And so he shouts back.
“How fucking dense can you be? Of course I’m not interested in Freya, I’m gay you dickhead! I’d thought that much was pretty obvious.” It feels good to stand up for himself.
Mark punches that defiance straight off Merlin’s face.
Merlin drops like a stone. Mark has a lot of weight on him, and he put it all behind that punch.
The next moment Mark is by his side, I’m sorry Merlin, you made me do it. His hands are cradling Merlin’s face, assessing the damage, you just made me so angry, love.
Merlin just lies there on the ground for a moment, mind reeling with a thousand memories of his childhood all at once. And then he does something that surprises both Mark, and himself.
He stands up, pushing Mark’s hands away.
His knees are shaking, and his hands are shaking. Fuck, the whole of him is shaking. But, it’s about time.
“I didn’t make you do anything.” It’s hard saying it, and Merlin’s come a long way just to be able to start believing that.
“We’re done. I don’t need you.” A deep breath. “Get out of my room.”
Mark looks stunned. Stunned that Merlin is saying this to him. Merlin. He looks like he’s about to argue for a second, retaliate, but all the fight has gone out of him. He follows Merlin’s command, and he leaves.
Merlin slumps down on his bed the second he’s gone; the adrenaline has fucking wrecked his body for anything else right now, he’s still shaking. But, something feels different, like there’s no longer a tight band squeezing his chest, forcing all the air out. It’s something he’s never felt before, and he falls asleep that night marvelling at the wonder of it.
He bumps into Arthur the next day, who whistles softly at the shiner on Merlin’s face.
“Woah, what happened to you?”
“Got mugged.” The excuse had worked before.
“Shit man. What did they take?”
“Nothing. Got scared off. Not before they gave me this though,” gesturing to his face.
Arthur reaches up, mimicking Merlin’s movement. He flinches away from Arthur’s touch.
But he never sees Mark again.
It’s several months later, and spring is starting to turn into summer, when Merlin’s mother shows up.
Arthur is in Merlin’s room with him, they’ve been dating since around February, but they’re taking things slowly, no pressure. Merlin hasn’t told Arthur all his secrets but maybe, he thinks, he doesn’t need to.
The two of them are sprawled across Merlin’s bed. Ostensibly they’re revising, but the way that Arthur’s hands have been wandering up Merlin’s legs for the past twenty minutes is not helping his concentration.
There’s a knock on the door. And when Merlin opens it, his mother is standing there. He hasn’t seen her since he was 15, fresh out of the hospital, and removing all of his belongings from his childhood home. She looks like she’s aged nearly twenty years since then. Her face is grey and ragged, her eyes sunken and lifeless.
Arthur looks at Merlin in shock. Not once has he ever mentioned his family. Arthur knew that he lived with his aunt, but he didn’t know why. He’d assumed that Merlin’s parents were dead.
Merlin and his mother stared at each other in awkward silence. Arthur, sensing the tension, excused himself and left. He was insanely curious, but he knew when he wasn’t welcome.
Merlin’s mother doesn’t stay for very long, and once she’d left, Merlin made his way over to Arthur’s flat. It’s good to get outside into the fresh air, and the walk gives him time to think, to process.
Arthur looks at Merlin warily when he opens the door, unsure whether he should ask or not. He decides he may as well, as they sit down on the sofa, Merlin can always refuse to answer if it’s none of his business.
“So that was your mum.”
“What did she want?”
“Tell me my dad’s dead. Funeral’s next week.” Merlin seems disinterested, and doesn’t meet Arthur’s eyes; he’s picking at a loose thread on the arm of the sofa.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
“I’m not sorry. And I’m not going to the funeral.”
“He’s your father, Merlin!”
“He’s no father of mine”, he replies. And he walks out. Arthur doesn’t see him for nearly two weeks.
When he sees Merlin again, he doesn’t ask if he went to the funeral or not. The thought that he didn’t go makes him uncomfortable; family is important, and Arthur doesn’t want to see Merlin as someone who doesn’t share those values.
Apart from that, things are ok between them, until the night exams are finally over.
The boys go out to celebrate, along with pretty much every other student in the university. Apart from the medics, the medics are still studying like always.
The night is going well, everyone is happily drunk, and Arthur is pressed up close to Merlin, trailing hot wet kisses down his neck to the open collar of his shirt.
Someone, apparently, takes offence at this.
“Oi, faggot. Get a room.”
Arthur breaks away from Merlin, eyes like steel, all traces of drunkenness gone.
“What did you just call me?”
“I told you and your faggot boyfriend to get a room. So the rest of us don’t have to watch.”
To say that Arthur’s reply was dignified and civilised would be a lie, and the other guy punches him in the face in response.
Within seconds the two lads are on the floor, grappling with each other like UFC fighters in the ring. Merlin is appalled.
“Arthur, Arthur stop!”
But Arthur doesn’t hear him. Merlin tries to grab Arthur’s arms, to pull him off the other guy. And that’s when it happens.
One of Arthur’s elbows flies out behind him, catching Merlin straight in the face.
For one long moment, the world goes still.
Arthur turns around to see what he’d connected with, and is faced with Merlin’s horrified expression. He hadn’t even realised Merlin was behind him.
Arthur quickly scrambles to his feet.
“Oh my god Merlin, I’m so sorry. I had no idea you were there.”
He reaches up to inspect the damage, but Merlin jumps away from him.
“Don’t touch me! Don’t you dare fucking touch me!”
Arthur see’s the tears threatening to fall from Merlin’s eyes, before he turns and flees. Arthur is left standing there, completely at a loss.
The fight has dissipated as quickly as it started, and Arthur looks around, wondering if anyone else can explain what just happened. He spots Freya at the bar, looking on with the same horrified expression Merlin had been sporting moments before. He heads on over to her.
“What the hell was that all about?”
Freya eyes him, sizing him up almost, before replying.
“You don’t know?”
“Don’t know? Don’t know what?”
Freya sighs heavily, before grabbing onto Arthur’s arm and leading him out of the bar. Not here, she says. And he follows in silence.
Freya takes him to her halls. It’s not the first time Arthur’s been there, but he’s only ever visited with Merlin before. It feels strange without him.
Neither of them speaks until they’re inside Freya’s room.
“Ok... So do you mind telling me what’s going on now?”
Freya gives him that look again. “You really don’t know?” Disbelief.
“Don’t know what Freya?”
“Merlin...” But she just can’t finish that sentence.
She takes a deep breath and tries again. This isn’t her secret to be telling, but she thinks it needs to be said.
“Merlin was abused as a child. And... And since then, as well.”
Arthur is silent for a moment, before he sinks down onto the bed, all the air leaving his body in one short whoosh.
“What? No way.”
Arthur is adamant. He knows Merlin, knows his bright smiles, and his affection. There’s just no way.
“For god’s sake Arthur, are you blind as well as stupid?”
Arthur, perhaps wisely, doesn’t answer.
“Didn’t you ever wonder about that boyfriend of his?”
“Not really, they broke up...”
“Yeah, they broke up right after he gave Merlin a black eye.”
Arthur looks horrified.
“And didn’t you wonder why he refused to go to his father’s funeral? Haven’t you ever wondered about that scar on his arm?”
“No...” This is far too much for Arthur to take in.
“His father tried to kill him, when he was 15, nearly succeeded too. That scar’s from a knife.”
Arthur feels sick. He’s seen that scar a hundred times, trailed his tongue down it, kissed it. He’s never once asked how Merlin got it. Never. And the black eye, Arthur remembers that black eye. Merlin had said he’d been mugged. Arthur had believed him.
And then he realises what he’s just done; the black eye that was no doubt forming on Merlin’s face right that very moment.
Merlin had been hurt by those people who were meant to love him, and Arthur had gone and done the exact same thing.
He stumbles to the bathroom, and really does throw up. It’s half from the alcohol, but half from shame and sadness.
Freya only looks at him, pityingly. I had no idea, he rambles, voice thick with tears, no idea Freya. She turns away. She’s crying too.
When he’s done emptying the contents of his stomach, Arthur hauls himself to his feet. He has to see Merlin, right now.
It’s nearly 4am in the morning by the time Arthur makes it to Merlin’s halls, and the sun is just beginning the creep above the horizon.
Merlin is lying on his bed fully clothed, staring at nothing, when Arthur opens the door.
Barry let me in, Arthur says as way of greeting, as if that explained everything. Although who Barry was, Merlin had no idea.
Merlin’s only acknowledgement of Arthur’s presence is to sit up. He doesn’t say a word, or get to his feet.
When it becomes clear that Merlin isn't going to move any closer, Arthur walks over to him, and kneels before the bed. Carefully, slowly, he raises his hands and holds Merlin’s face gently, his thumbs brushing lightly over his cheekbones.
"I'm so sorry. I had no idea."
Merlin tried to look away. Tried to avoid Arthur's gaze, but his hands held him fast
"So Freya told you then?"
"Yes, I—" but Arthur hasn't got any words to explain just what he is. This is so far outside the scope of his experience, his privileged upbringing, that he really has no idea what to do or say.
I’m so sorry, Merlin, he repeats, and there are tears in his eyes.
That night Merlin stays up well past dawn with Arthur, voice quiet but fingers restless, and he tells Arthur everything.
Arthur for his part, sits there in silence, taking all the information in. After a while, he reaches out to take Merlin’s hands within his own.
When Merlin is finished Arthur leans over and kisses him gently, before just holding him within the warmth of his arms. Merlin closes his eyes, feeling the exhaustion of the last 19 years wash over him. Maybe it’s over, maybe this time he really is safe.
They lie down on the bed together, and Merlin is just drifting off to sleep, when Arthur speaks again. He whispers softly, ever so softly, I love you. I’ll never hurt you. And finally, Merlin lets himself believe it. It’s the truth, after all.