Chapter 1: Part One
At around ten o’clock on Christmas Eve, Arthur Pendragon walked his usual beat along Oxford Street towards Tottenham Court Road. The usually bustling street had begun to empty as shops shut for the night and people hurried home, or to the pub, or to holiday parties. Arthur would be doing the same in another hour; by then the festivities at his sister Morgana’s would be in full swing. After some persuasion, he’d promised to drop by after his shift ended.
His first Christmas without Sam didn’t feel like cause for celebration, but he never really could say no to Morgana. She and Leon were worried about him. Not that he could blame them, as he was aware he’d been on automatic pilot for months now. Still, he was tired of people hinting it was time to move on. They hadn’t been there during the end when the cancer was too strong, when Sam couldn’t even walk, eat, sleep without pain. Arthur had. He’d been there until the very last breath.
A woman overloaded with packages nearly slammed into him. She looked up, muttering profuse apologies. Arthur helped her hail a taxi just as his pager went off.
“There’s a 209 on Oxford and Vera. Restaurant owner says some kids are causing trouble, bothering diners,” said the dispatcher, who Arthur recognized as his friend Gwaine. “Can you respond?”
“Merry Christmas to me,” Arthur said, turning round to head back in the other direction.
“I hear you, mate. Bloody little twats. Cheers.”
Dealing with kids disturbing the peace was preferable to dwelling on things he’d rather forget. He figured it was the same group as always—kids from the suburbs with absentee parents who came into the city to bother tourists and generally make themselves nuisances, probably out for a lark on Christmas Eve. Arthur quickened his pace.
When he arrived at the rather posh restaurant to shouting in the back alley, he rounded the corner, hand on his baton as a precaution. It wasn’t likely things would get violent, but recent gang activity in the city had the Met on high alert.
There were two kids, older teenagers from the look of them, confronting a man dressed in black tie, who stood glaring at them, his mouth twisted with a sneer of disdain.
“—my money!” One of the kids was shouting up in the man’s face. The man didn’t flinch, but upon Arthur’s approach he turned his head and gestured, stepping around the yelling kid.
“What appears to be the problem?” Arthur addressed his question the man he figured was either the maître’d or the manager.
“Constable, these hoodlums are disturbing the guests of this restaurant. I’d appreciate it if you’d escort them off the premises.”
For the first time, Arthur got a close look at the two in question. The kid who’d been yelling was on the short side, face ruddy from cold. His clothes looked warm enough, but worn from wear. This definitely wasn’t a suburb kid—he was London through and through, and likely homeless.
But it was the other boy who arrested Arthur’s attention. He was tall, almost willowy, with prominent cheekbones and a set of the most ridiculous ears Arthur had ever seen. He bit at his bottom lip, focusing his wide-set, calculating eyes on Arthur.
“He won’t pay me my money,” the shorter kid said, crossing his arms. “I been workin’ here for two weeks, yeah? Doin’ dishes in the back for them rich geezers. Said ’e’d pay me twen’y quid a day.”
Twenty a day was hardly anything for a glass washer. Arthur looked to the manager, who stammered, “I-I’ve never seen this boy in my life. He’s lying.”
“I ain’t lyin’, am I, Merlin?”
“No,” said the taller boy. He crossed his arms, jutted his chin.
This wasn’t the first time one of London’s elite restaurants had exploited the underserved population. If the body language and discomfort of the manager proved anything, he was lying, though Arthur had no proof. Just his word against theirs.
“I had a contract, right?” the short boy said. He looked to the other for confirmation.
“A verbal contract. That’s right.” Merlin had a lilting accent, one that Arthur finally placed as Welsh. His tattered coat seemed worse off than his friend’s, but at least he had a scarf and gloves.
The manager scoffed. “A verbal contract, indeed.”
“Fine, don’ believe me. Yeah, that’s alright. It’s Christmas, mates, cheers. Bugger it, bugger all’a you.”
The shorter boy turned to storm away, but the other—Merlin, odd name—grabbed his coat to hold him in place.
“My mate Will Sacks has been working here for two weeks, and this man hasn’t paid him. Ask anyone in the back,” Merlin said to Arthur, gesturing toward the restaurant. Then he scowled. “On second thought, don’t. They’ll probably want to keep their jobs.”
Arthur cleared his throat, turned to the manager. What he was about to do was unorthodox, but he didn’t see any other choice, not with the way Merlin was looking at him, like he expected the worst from a policeman.
“I suggest you pay Will,” he said. “Or else we can wait until Monday and he can file a complaint to see if there’s any validity to his claim. It’ll be more of a hassle, probably cost you more in the long-run, but that’s the alternative.”
The man regarded Arthur curiously, surprised. “You can’t be serious.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes.
“Fine,” said the manager. “I’ll pay him.” Still, he made no move.
“I’ll wait here and see that you do,” Arthur said.
With a huff, the man disappeared back into the kitchen, opening the door and letting aromas of butter and bacon waft into the cold air. Arthur kept his eyes on the two boys, not missing the fact that Merlin turned his head toward the smell. The longing on his face was replaced by indifference when he noticed Arthur watching. None of them spoke.
The manager reappeared just as the silence became uncomfortable. He thrust a wad of notes into the short boy’s hands and cast a glance of displeasure at Arthur before turning and retreating from where he’d come without another word.
Will counted the notes in his hand, then shoved them into his pocket.
“Thanks,” he muttered in Arthur’s direction, though he didn’t seem particularly grateful.
“In the future you shouldn’t take a job someplace unless you sign a written form of employment. Or else you might never get your money.”
“Right,” Will snorted a laughed. “No place’ll hire me on the books. I ain’t got no references, no address.”
“Are you at a shelter?”
Will shook his head, kicked the ground. “They’re full up, mate. It’s bloody Christmas. Listen, I gotta run. Merlin, I’ll see you later, yeah?”
He took off at a jog, leaving Merlin and Arthur standing alone.
“He’s in a bit of a hurry,” Arthur said, feeling uneasy.
“Yeah, well, he doesn’t trust pi—constables like yourself. Probably thinks you’ll arrest him all the same and pocket his money.”
“What about you?” Arthur had no idea why he cared what this kid thought of him. Still, he didn’t like the way Merlin’s face seemed untrusting, like he didn’t know what to think of Arthur.
“I figure if you were going to arrest me, you’d have done it by now.”
Arthur wasn’t exactly sure what he should do; maybe he should see if any spaces had opened up at one of the local shelters. He could call Gwaine . . .
“It was good of you, though, to get him his money,” Merlin said, interrupting his thoughts. “Most police would have taken that arsehole’s word. And Will needs it for his mam.”
“What’s wrong with his mum?”
“I can’t exactly tell you that, can I?” Merlin wrinkled his nose. It was probably something illegal, then; drugs, perhaps.
A few stray flakes had begun to fall, and Merlin looked up, frowning as the snow danced, whipped by the wind in the low light of the alley.
“So why’d you believe us?” Merlin asked.
“It’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this,” Arthur admitted, though he had no business out here talking to this homeless kid when his shift was over and Morgana expected him. But even imagining a house full of happy family and friends seemed tedious, all of them watching him out of the corners of their eyes and talking in hushed tones when they thought he didn’t notice.
Such a tragedy.
“I believe that. Bloody exploitation, and they get away with it too.” Merlin didn’t try to hide the bitterness in his tone.
“How old are you?”
“How old are you?” Merlin shot back.
One thing was for sure, the brat was quick. Arthur smirked. “Touché. So, where are you living then, Merlin?” It was a mythic name for a street kid, yet strangely, it suited him. There was something going on behind those eyes, something Arthur wasn’t sure he trusted.
He sounded older than his age—which Arthur guessed at around sixteen or seventeen—and he seemed smart. Arthur sighed at the vague answer, a momentary compulsion making him say, “There are programs, you know, for kids on the street. I could help you find a place to stay.”
“I don’t want anything to do with that.” Merlin’s voice darkened. “I’m legal to be on my own and you can’t force me.”
At least seventeen, then, if he was telling the truth. Arthur held up his hands. “No one said anything about forcing you.” Bloody hell, the kid looked hunted, eyes darting around. For his height, he really was far too skinny. It could be drugs as likely as hunger. They did it for warmth just as much as for the high—usually huffing, sometimes meth or crack. Not too long ago Arthur’d had the unfortunate experience of arresting a kid years younger than Merlin on possession. Fucking dealers.
“Right. I’ve had adults concerned about my welfare before. I’m really not interested.”
The snow fell more thickly now, whitening the ground between them.
“Do you have a place to sleep?” Arthur asked. It was his duty, after all, to help people, and this kid’s coat didn’t seem warm enough to get him through the night.
“I’ve . . . Yes, I do.” Merlin’s reply didn’t sound certain. Then his face lost all expression except for a certain glint in his eyes. “Why? Want me to come to yours?”
“Yes,” Arthur said, before he even had time to think.
Merlin smirked, fluttered his lashes. “I see. Well, why didn’t you just say so, Constable?”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Arthur said, aghast. He held up his hands as if to fend off the accusation. He wasn’t a dirty policeman, and even if this kid was attractive, he would never take advantage of his power in that way. It was unthinkable.
“Whatever you say, Constable.” Merlin swayed his hips as he stalked forward, the predatory look on his face suggesting this wasn’t the first time he’d propositioned someone, or been propositioned. Arthur found himself frozen in place despite the warning bells thundering through his head, but got himself together to hold Merlin at arm’s length.
Up close, the kid was even more striking. His skin was fine, smooth and pale almost to translucence, except where the cold touched his cheeks and his nose. Under the thin layer of his coat, Arthur felt the bony protuberances of his shoulders. Bugger it, he was nearly skeletal.
“What gets you off?” Merlin asked, licking his lips. “Is it the age thing? Got a bird who doesn’t put out? You like tight young arse? You want me to suck you? I can do all of that.”
Arthur couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Sam’s face flashed before him, brown eyes and crooked smile slamming into Arthur like a punch to the gut. He released Merlin, stepped away as if he’d been burned. “No. I’m not looking for that kind of thing. But you should sleep someplace warm tonight. Since the shelter’s are full, you can stay in my spare room, have a good night’s rest and something to eat.”
“Oh, you’re a goodie, then.” Merlin hit Arthur with a flirtatious smile. “I was hoping you’d be bad.”
Arthur crossed his arms, gave Merlin his most practiced stern look. “Cut the shit, kid. I’m serious. You’re welcome to come with me and spend a night out of the cold, but under one condition; I don’t want drugs in my flat.”
Merlin’s face flashed with hurt before he schooled his features and said coolly, “I don’t do drugs.”
“Fine. Good. In any case, you shouldn’t be freezing out here on Christmas.”
Merlin took a step back, raised his eyebrow. “How do you know I won’t steal from you? Off you in your sleep?”
“I don’t. But I’m hoping you’ll restrain yourself,” Arthur said wryly. “And I promise to do the same.”
“Oh, I hope not,” Merlin said, offering another devastating smile. Arthur blushed, making a mental reminder to choose his words carefully around this kid.
“Listen,” Arthur said, his voice warning.
Merlin crossed his arms. “Fine. I’ll come with you. But you’re wrong about one thing,” his eyes flicked to Arthur’s badge, “Constable Pendragon.”
“And what’s that?”
“Everyone is looking for that kind of thing.”
— — — —
The taxi ride back to his flat gave Arthur plenty of time to wonder what the fuck he was doing.
He called Morgana and made his excuses, citing tiredness and yawning to emphasize the deception. No way he could tell her the truth; she’d think him insane for taking some street kid back to his place, or worse, suspect him of impure motivations, as Merlin had. For his part, Merlin had stopped making advances. Perhaps he’d finally decided Arthur was serious, or maybe he was just waiting for another window of opportunity. In either case, Arthur was grateful for the reprieve. This kid was more than he’d bargained for.
They pulled up in front of Arthur’s building, and Merlin spilled out onto the sidewalk behind him, all gangly arms and legs.
“Posh neighborhood,” Merlin said as they climbed the stairs. “You can’t afford this on your salary. What is it, a two-story?”
Jiggling keys in the lock, Arthur nodded. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I got a small inheritance from my father when he died.”
“I’m not. He was a right bastard.”
“At least he left you some money.”
“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t taken it.” Of course that was only partially true; it had helped pay for Sam’s treatment, and that had been worth it, even if it’d only bought him a few months in the end.
“My da’s dead, too,” said Merlin as they entered the flat. He shifted from one foot to the other, as if unsure where to stand, eyes roving around.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Arthur said, not wanting to press further.
“Yeah, well. Shite happens.”
Arthur divested himself of his coat and hung it up in the closet, then held out his hand for Merlin to do the same. Merlin complied, took off his scarf and gloves. Underneath he wore a blue jumper about three sizes too big.
They stood looking at everything but each other.
“Would you like some tea?” Arthur asked finally. “Something to eat?” He experienced a momentary fantasy of plying Merlin with cakes and cookies until he fattened up.
Merlin nodded, followed as Arthur showed him to the living room. “Wait here. I’ll give you the tour later,” he said. “Food first.”
Sitting with his hands clasped between his knees, Merlin looked almost obedient when Arthur left to throw something together. He was an atrocious cook; Sam had done most of it when he was healthy. Once he’d gotten ill, though, Arthur hardly gave a thought to food, caring little what he ate so long as he didn’t have to leave Sam to get it. Lately, Arthur had been living on marmite and toast and frozen dinners from Sainsbury’s. He scanned the disappointing contents of his fridge and finally settled on omelets. Omelets, he could manage.
“This is a nice place,” Merlin called from the other room. “Big fuckin’ posh sofa.”
Arthur cracked an egg against the side of the bowl and smiled.
“And Jaysus, look at your telly, mate!”
Things were quiet for a while as Arthur made them tea and cooked, and he had the unsettling suspicion Merlin was going through his things. He could be a thief, after all. Not that Arthur had anything he’d really miss; it was all just stuff. Still, he didn’t like the idea, although he’d opened himself up to it by inviting a stranger into his home.
He returned to the living room, two plates in hand, half expecting Merlin to have disappeared along with the telly, but was startled when he saw the boy standing at the mantle holding a picture of Arthur and Sam. It had been taken at Morgana and Leon’s wedding two years before. Sam was wearing a fitted grey suit, maybe the only time he’d ever put one on, and he was kissing Arthur on the cheek. Four months later, they’d learned about the tumor in Sam’s brain, the fast-acting cancer that would steal his life in less than a year.
Arthur cleared his throat; Merlin almost dropped the frame, and then hastily replaced it.
“Sorry, don’t mean to pry. This bloke, he’s cute.”
“Yeah,” Arthur agreed, putting the plates down on the coffee table. “That’s Sam.”
“He your boyfriend?”
“What, did he dump you or something?”
“No,” Arthur said, “he died. Here,” he motioned toward the food, “start eating. I’ll get the rest.”
In the kitchen Arthur leaned his elbows on the counter and rested his head in his hands, took a deep breath, and then got the tea ready. Maybe he should have lied about Sam, gone along with Merlin. Somehow it seemed easier.
Merlin hadn’t touched his food when Arthur brought in the tea.
“Eat,” Arthur said, picking up his own plate. “It’ll get cold.”
The kid picked up the plate and the fork and did as he was instructed; the eggs disappeared in a few giant bites, and Arthur regretted he hadn’t made more. Looked like Merlin could use a couple dozen, at least.
“So you really are a poof,” Merlin said, staring at the empty plate in his lap.
“Yes, I’m gay. I thought you suspected as much when you propositioned me in the alley.”
Merlin smirked. “You’d be surprised how little straight men care about who sucks their dick, so long as it’s getting sucked.”
Arthur nodded, though in his experience straight men most certainly did care—to a fault, in some cases. He didn’t want to be having this conversation, though; it was hard enough imagining Merlin doing those things with nameless, faceless men who probably didn’t pay enough for the exploitation. As if there could ever be a high enough price.
“Do you want some more?” he asked.
Merlin nodded, embarrassed, and Arthur got up to make toast.
— — — —
“Here’s where you’ll be sleeping,” Arthur said, opening the door across from the guest bathroom, “and there’s the loo. I guess that’s all you need to know.”
Merlin trailed behind him, looking uncomfortable.
“I’m tired, so I think I’m headed to bed. Do you need anything else?”
“I would really like . . . um . . . a shower would be nice,” Merlin said. The bravado he’d exhibited earlier had vanished, and Arthur wasn’t sure if he missed it or not.
“Of course,” Arthur replied, shamed he hadn’t thought of it. And clothes. The truth was, up close, Merlin smelled.
Arthur went to his room and grabbed his smallest t-shirt and a pair of flannel pajama bottoms he’d had since uni and brought them to Merlin, along with a warmer cotton jumper and a towel.
“They might be a little big, but they should be long enough.”
“Thanks,” Merlin said, holding the clothes as if trying to discern whether they’d been doused with poison.
“There’s soap and shampoo and all that. If you want to shave, there are razors under the sink. And toothbrushes.”
The kid nodded, met Arthur’s eyes for a moment, and there he saw it—shame. He wasn’t used to accepting help. They stood awkwardly in the hallway for another minute until Arthur said goodnight and went to bed, satisfied he’d done the right thing. Still, he locked his bedroom door.
— — — —
Arthur woke up late on Christmas morning; the clock read after eleven. He lay looking at the ceiling for a moment, an awareness of something or someone skirting on the edge of his consciousness. Merlin.
When he got up to check, the door to the spare room was open, the bed empty and made up. An odd panic swelled in his chest, but then he noticed Merlin’s old clothes folded neatly in a pile on the desk, his worn trainers placed side-by-side under the chair. He grabbed the clothes, wrinkling his nose at the smell, and brought them down the hall to the laundry for a wash.
Downstairs, Merlin was in the kitchen. Singing. Arthur stifled a laugh because his voice was terribly off-pitch, and yet he was singing with such gusto as might wake the neighbors. Arthur hovered in the doorway, watching as Merlin stirred something in a pot. The pajama bottoms were slung low on his hips, giving just a peek of bare skin, and Arthur remembered he hadn’t thought to give Merlin pants . . . but that would have been strange, wouldn’t it? And why was he even considering such things? He shook his head and cleared his throat.
Merlin jumped, turned, hand clawing at his chest.
“Jaysus fucking Christ! You scared the piss out of me.”
“Sorry,” Arthur said. “I didn’t want to interrupt the performance.”
“What performance?” Merlin looked down, hoisted his bottoms. Arthur glanced away as the fine trail of hair disappeared.
“You were singing.”
“Yes, you were singing some God-awful Christmas carol.”
Merlin’s skin mottled with pink from his neck to his ears. “Well, so what,” he said defensively. “It’s Christmas, after all.”
“It is.” Arthur felt a bit bad for poking fun. “And you’re cooking.” There was coffee too, which smelled perfect. He poured himself a cup.
“Yeah. I hope you don’t mind,” he said. Arthur shook his head. “Not much to work with, though. What do you eat? I mean, you’re obviously not starving.”
“What are you saying? That I’m fat?”
Merlin’s eyes traveled up and down. “Maybe just big-boned,” he said with a grin, arching one brow.
Deciding not to pursue the matter further, as it was entirely inappropriate and possibly illegal, Arthur sipped his coffee. And no, he should not be thinking about how soft Merlin’s hair looked now it’d been washed, feathering over the tips of his ears.
He sat down at the kitchen table and grabbed the paper. “What are you cooking?”
“Uh.” Merlin glanced down into the pot. “Tomato jam.”
“Yeah. You had tomatoes and onions and some spices. Sugar. My mam used to make it. I don’t know how good it’ll be, but options were limited.”
“Sounds . . . interesting. I have tomatoes?”
Merlin grabbed a couple slices of bread, stuck them in the toaster. “You don’t have to eat it. And yes, you have cans of tomatoes. A lot. You must really like them. Or else maybe you’re a weirdo tomato hoarder.”
Arthur didn’t like tomatoes all that much, but Sam had. He barely knew what sorts of things were still stowed away in the cupboards, collecting dust. It happened again, that old familiar knife twisting in his chest . . . last year on this day Sam had been alive. Of course he’d been so sick it wasn’t like they’d really celebrated. He’d wanted a tree, though, and they’d gotten one, Arthur decorating as Sam lay on the couch giving him instructions of where to put what until he’d dozed off, exhausted from pain medication.
It hadn’t been a good Christmas, but Arthur had wanted to memorize every moment. Even now those moments slipped from him, elusive.
He breathed deeply, the sting in his eyes abating as Merlin chattered on. “—with clotted cream. What’s yours?”
“You’ve not listened to a word I’ve said. Reading something interesting?”
Arthur glanced down at the page of adverts, then up at Merlin, whose bottoms were sagging low again, and bloody hell, his hipbone . . .
“Sorry.” Arthur reached for his coffee to distract himself. “What were you saying?”
“It’s not important. Just that I wish we had some scones and clotted cream. What’s your favorite breakfast?”
“Bangers and eggs,” Arthur replied absentmindedly.
“I’ll bet, Constable.”
Arthur shook his head at Merlin, who grinned and went back to his cooking.
A few moments of companionable silence passed, allowing Arthur to wonder what he was supposed to do with the kid now. Obviously, he wasn’t going to send Merlin away on Christmas, not with the shelters over-capacity. But he couldn’t exactly keep Merlin, either.
Merlin interrupted his train of thought by sliding a piece of toast in front of him. It smelled peculiar—a mixture of tomato and a sweet something that Arthur hoped to God wasn’t cinnamon. The bite that followed burned the roof of his mouth with one of the most horrible substances he’d ever willfully ingested.
“How is it?” Merlin asked, his face expectant.
Arthur tried to chew without tasting, swallowed. “Really good,” he lied, taking another bite. “But it’s hot.”
Merlin sat down across the table with his own slice. “So, why did a posh bloke like you join the police?”
“I wanted to help people,” Arthur said, deciding to ignore the almost-insult. “I guess it sounds foolish.”
“Nah. I get it. Theoretically, I guess that’s what police are supposed to do, you know, serve and protect and all that.”
“I take it that hasn’t been the case in your experience?”
“I’m sorry about that. Most police aren’t arseholes,” Arthur said, though he didn’t know if that was the truth or not. He’d been harassed by people for being openly gay, and had seen some pretty atrocious treatment of societies ‘undesirables’, even by members of the Met.
Merlin leaned forward to blow on his jam. “Well, you’re all right.”
“Thanks.” Arthur forced another bit of toast down, wondering how on earth Merlin could like this stuff. “What about you? You’re not from London.” For a minute Arthur didn’t think Merlin was going to answer, but then the kid cleared his throat.
“I’m from Wales, a village with more sheep than people. You probably haven’t heard of it; no one has. Town called Ealdor.”
“It is,” Merlin said. “Or it was.”
“My mam remarried.”
“You didn’t like the bloke?” Arthur asked, trying to keep his voice casual. He was curious, but Merlin was like a skittish colt.
“I didn’t like the way he used my face as a football, not really, no.”
Just because it was a familiar story, it didn’t make it any easier to hear. The thought of anyone hitting Merlin made Arthur’s guts twist with anger. He frowned. “So you ran away.”
“Yep. When I was fourteen.”
“What about your mum?” As soon the words left his mouth, Arthur knew he’d asked the wrong question. He found himself on the receiving end of a vicious glare.
“I left her, all right? I left her there like a fucking coward.”
“I’m not accusing you. Jesus, Merlin. You were just a kid. You should have been protected. It was her job to protect you.”
Merlin’s chair screeched across the floor as he stood up, furious. “I’m leaving. You can’t talk shite about my mam. I’m not your Christmas charity case.”
Arthur stood, too. “Don’t. Please. I’m sorry.” He wasn’t that sorry, but he didn’t want Merlin to go, which was a bit absurd because he barely knew Merlin, and the kid had baggage too heavy for Arthur to deal with, at least without professional help.
“He never touched her, it was me he hated. He hated me because she loved me. She loved my da.”
“I’m sure she did. Does,” Arthur corrected, holding up his hand.
“She tried to stop him, but she was afraid. I wanted . . . it was okay if he hit me as long as he didn’t hit her,” Merlin said. The logic was alarming, but Arthur nodded all the same.
“I’m sorry, look, we’ll talk about something else. Here, you haven’t even eaten.”
The kid slumped back into his chair. “Fine. But I’m leaving after this.”
“Okay,” Arthur said, watching as Merlin took a bite.
Merlin pulled a face, spat the food onto his plate. “Ugh, ugh, ugh,” he said, swiping at his tongue. “It’s horrible.”
Arthur grinned as Merlin groped for his coffee to wash away the taste.
“How did you eat this?” he asked, gasping.
Arthur shrugged, polished off the last bite. “It kinda grows on you.”
— — — —
“I have stuff, you know,” Merlin said the day after Christmas. Despite his threat to leave, he hadn’t, and Arthur hadn’t brought it up. It was nice to have company, even if it was that of a moody street kid. They’d ordered take-away from the only restaurant open in Notting Hill and watched a film, then played videogames until Merlin started nodding off.
“I mean, I don’t just walk around with nothing. Will and I have a spot. But we rotate, you know, so you blokes don’t catch on.”
Arthur knew a lot of rough sleepers, so the fact he’d never come across Merlin or Will before suggested they didn’t stay in the same place for long. It was a hard life. Most homeless people spent the majority of their nights in shelters, but some chose to sleep in the open. Mental disorders and drug problems were rife in that population; many died before they reached middle age.
“Have you ever thought about getting a job, maybe going to uni?”
Merlin barked a laugh. “Oh you lot’re all the same. It’s easier said than done, yeah? Gotta have an address to get a job. And the jobs I’ve had have all treated me like shite, like I’m nothing. So I quit.”
“What about school?”
“Didn’t finish. Maybe I will, one day. I was pretty smart, you know, got good grades.”
“I can believe that.”
As he readied to leave for work, Arthur contemplated what to do about Merlin. He still wasn’t comfortable with Merlin alone in the flat, though thus far the boy had proven himself to be honest. He was lounging on the couch in a pair of Arthur’s jeans and a jumper (swimming in it, really) and flipping through channels on the telly.
“There’s crap on in the morning,” he complained. “What is this bollocks? Do people really watch this stuff?” He’d landed on some morning talk show with sarcastic, over-compensating hosts.
“You know, I could come up with something better than this in my sleep. Maybe I’ll write for the BBC. Maybe I’ll—” He finally noticed Arthur preparing to leave and sat up.
“I’ve got to work,” Arthur explained.
“I should probably get leave, too. Will’s gotta be worried about me by now.”
“You can stay another day,” Arthur said.
“Nah, I couldn’t impose on you anymore. This has been great and all, but I can take care of myself.” Merlin stood, patted his pockets as if he were locating keys, or his wallet.
By charging for sex? Arthur wanted to ask, but held his tongue. Why the thought made him so bitter, he didn’t know.
“Listen, I appreciate all of this,” Merlin said, gesturing around, “But this isn’t my life.”
“Just stay another day.”
“Because,” Arthur said, thinking on his feet. “I need someone to cook for me.”
“You tasted that shite I made. It was horrible.”
“But there are cookbooks; I even own a few. You can follow recipes, I presume?”
Merlin rolled his eyes.
“Just stay one more day. I’ll be hungry when I get home. Look,” Arthur said, pulling out his wallet. He tossed Merlin a couple of notes. “Go to the store, make whatever you like. I’ll eat anything.”
“The spare key’s under the mat.”
Merlin frowned at the money in his hand. “I have to go see Will. Let him know I’m all right.”
“Fine,” Arthur said. “Just come back tonight. Will can stay, too.” He didn’t particularly want another houseguest, but he’d allow it if it meant Merlin wouldn’t be on the street.
“Will would never, ever stay here.”
“Okay, well, that’s up to him. But I’m counting on you, Merlin. Have some pity; you can’t let me starve. You’ve seen the abysmal state of things in the kitchen.”
“Your reverse psychology is extremely rusty.”
“Is it working?”
“Maybe a little.”
“Good,” Arthur said, holding in his grin.
— — — —
At the station, Arthur’s curiosity got the better of him. He looked up Merlin’s file.
Merlin Emrys, now aged 17, missing since October 2009. The rest of the report was short. Hunith and Cenred Jenkins had reported the disappearance of their son three days after they’d last seen him.
Three bloody days.
After an initial search around the local area, officials had determined Emrys a runaway. There were no signs of foul play. His photo had been distributed around the UK, but no further developments had been reported. Disappearing into a city of millions, Merlin had left his past behind. But not really. Arthur knew you never really forgot your past, even when you wanted to.
Fourteen-year-old Merlin smiled out at Arthur from the computer monitor. His face looked open without the hard, distrustful stare Arthur’d seen plenty since they’d met. Damage like that couldn’t be undone, so why did Arthur want to try?
If Merlin suspected Arthur had researched his case, he never asked. Arthur certainly wasn’t going to turn him in; he was legal now to do what he liked, and Arthur wasn’t the kind of officer who thought being homeless was a crime.
For the next few days, a routine of sorts developed.
Arthur got ready to leave for work, and he and Merlin had the same conversation; Merlin would declare it was time for him to go, and Arthur would convince him to stay, citing his need for Merlin’s culinary expertise. Arthur would leave Merlin some money, more than Merlin would need for groceries, and hope Merlin understood he was to pocket the difference. He seemed to, because Arthur never received any change.
The food was generally terrible. Merlin turned broccoli to mush, made crunchy rice, and overcooked steaks to the consistency of shoe leather. Still, Arthur washed the food down with beer or water and pretended he couldn’t get enough, while Merlin looked at him with wide-eyed incredulity.
“You can’t actually like this,” Merlin said on the fourth night, scraping the remains of their dinner into the bin.
“I loved it,” Arthur said. “Best meal I’ve had in ages.” Even as he said the words, his stomach muttered in protest.
“You’re mental. I mean seriously mental.”
“Maybe so,” Arthur said. Merlin washed the dishes, and Arthur couldn’t help noticing how ridiculously large his clothes were.
“Here,” he said, once Merlin had finished. “Get yourself some new jeans tomorrow, something that fits. And whatever else you need.”
“Oh my God.” Merlin eyed the cash in Arthur’s hand. “At least let me suck your cock if you’re gonna get all Pretty Woman on me. I’ll do it so nice for you, Arthur. I bet you have a delicious cock.” Merlin looked down at Arthur from underneath long lashes, and Arthur felt a stab of hopeless longing, punctuated almost immediately by guilt.
“It’s not a lot; I just think you should have some clothes that fit, is all,” he said.
“Why? You worried my trousers’ll fall off?” Merlin wiggled his hips and the loose jeans slipped dangerously low, showing a hint of that pale skin. Arthur swallowed, looked away. “Oooh. That is it, isn’t it, Constable?”
“I just want my clothes back,” Arthur snapped. Leaving the money on the table, he stalked upstairs and shut his door. What the hell was he doing? He knew he needed to examine his motivations; they couldn’t go on like this indefinitely. Merlin needed a place to live and a job, and Arthur would inquire with his colleagues tomorrow. Gwaine had worked at some half-way houses before he’d joined the Met, so he’d have information, maybe even some tips on how to deal with Merlin, get him to cooperate. It just wasn’t on for Arthur to be giving the kid money and making him stay when he didn’t want to. Yes, he’d figure out a way to get Merlin off the street and out of his flat.
— — — —
Arthur meant to bring up Merlin’s situation to Gwaine the next day, but there was a vicious mugging near Selfridges that left a woman badly wounded and Arthur and a few other officers chasing the suspect through the post-Christmas shopping crowds. By the time he got home, he was exhausted—and pleased to see Merlin in a new set of trainers, jeans, and a jumper that actually fit.
“Wow,” Arthur said without meaning to.
“You like?” Merlin asked, twirling. Arthur rolled his eyes and tucked into pasta that was just shy of al dente, unwilling to let his mind even go there.
“No, I’m just surprised you have the capacity to listen.”
“Prat,” Merlin said, taking a bite of his own meal. He shrugged, looked surprised. “I’d call this a triumph. Maybe pasta is my signature dish.”
“It’s good,” Arthur said, and meant it. “It’s actually good.”
“Of course it is. I’m a wizard in the kitchen.”
Later, after they’d eaten, Arthur and Merlin settled on the couch to watch the news.
A woman is still in critical condition after being repeatedly stabbed by a gang member outside of . . .
“Oi!” Merlin exclaimed, pointing at the telly; Arthur, who’d been halfway to unconsciousness, opened his eyes, only to be greeted by video footage of himself and Leon, a mate from the force, bringing the mugging suspect into custody.
“That’s you!” Merlin bounced excitedly.
“Oh, bother,” muttered Arthur, moving to turn the channel.
“No, no, I want to watch. I know that tosser! His name’s Mordred and he’s a real arsehole; stole fifty quid from me last year, gave me a black eye.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, shocked. “Why didn’t you report it?”
“Are you kidding, mate? Come on.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “They wouldn’t have cared, believe me, and then I would have gotten my arse beaten worse on top of it all. Mordred has connections, get it?”
Arthur felt indignant; he would have cared. Fuck.
“So you arrested him?” Merlin asked.
“He stabbed that woman pretty bad, sounds like.”
“She was bleeding out when I arrived on scene, but we got her to hospital quickly. She should be okay.”
“Glad that bastard finally got his,” said Merlin, brow furrowed as the news cut to another story. Arthur could have pressed for details, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He did wish he’d been a little more forceful with the suspect, though, maybe given him something more substantial than an elbow to the ribs.
They flipped the channel to a stupid game show for some mind-numbing entertainment, though Arthur’s fatigue had worn off. He couldn’t explain the protective urge that formed as he watched Merlin’s features gradually soften until the kid was snoring, mouth open, drooling on a throw pillow. Arthur chuckled and stood, covering Merlin with a blanket and shutting off the light.
Up in his own bedroom, Arthur immediately noticed something . . . off. He couldn’t account for it until he saw the pile of laundry folded on his dresser: all of the clothes Merlin had borrowed during the past few days. And his bed, which he never made, was neat, the sheets smelling of fabric softener. Merlin had cleaned.
The master bathroom, too, seemed to have gotten some attention, though Merlin’d left the toilet brush in the bowl.
Back in his room under the cover of darkness, Arthur drifted to sleep, a bloom of something sweet and unexpected spreading over his limbs like the fall of warm rain.
— — — —
On New Year’s Eve, Morgana called to invite Arthur out, but he made more excuses. He couldn’t exactly bring Merlin, and he didn’t want to leave the kid on his own. He claimed he had to work, which wasn’t exactly truthful since he’d put in his holiday time on Christmas Eve.
They ordered pizza and Arthur bought virgin apple cider for Merlin and some beer for himself.
“I’m seventeen,” Merlin complained as Arthur unloaded the groceries. He frowned at the cider, wrinkling his nose. “I’m allergic to apples. And I’ve had beer before, Jaysus.”
“You’re not allergic to apples.”
“How do you know? Ever seen me eat an apple?”
“You’re not legal.”
“God, you’re worse than a parent. Just let me a have a beer for fuck’s sake. I promise I’ll behave.”
Merlin batted his eyes and Arthur rolled his. “Fine. One. But that’s it. I can’t believe I’m allowing this.”
“Relax, Constable,” Merlin said, puckering his lips to take a swig of his beer. “It’ll be our little secret.”
That was precisely what Arthur feared.
Merlin, it turned out, didn’t need more than a beer to get very silly indeed. His face flushed as he ate his pizza, pulling off the mushrooms because he thought they tasted like dirt.
They watched the bells, and when Arthur came back from the loo after midnight, he found Merlin in the kitchen swilling another beer.
“Hey,” Arthur said, crossing his arms. “You sneaky bugger.” The chastisement came out more as bemused, since Arthur wasn’t exactly sober himself.
“Oh, lighten up. Like you never drank before you were eighteen.” Merlin gave him an innocent grin.
Feeling a bit hypocritical, Arthur thrust his hands in his pockets. “Fine. But it’s the last one.”
“Okayyy.” Merlin breezed by him, still holding the bottle to his lips. “Let’s do something fun,” he said when they were back in the living room.
“What?” Merlin was fiddling with the stereo, turning on some hip-hop Arthur’d never heard before. He was more of a classic rock kind of bloke—the Beatles, the Stones. Most contemporary music sounded the same: terrible and loud.
Merlin didn’t seem to share Arthur’s taste. He twirled around, moved his hips to the beat.
“Come on,” he said, holding out a hand.
“No,” Arthur said. “I don’t dance.”
“Suit yourself. But I’ll have you know you’re a sorry excuse for a gay man.”
Arthur settled in an armchair, the farthest seat away from where Merlin was dancing, and tried not to stare. It was difficult, because Merlin was mesmerizing. He bent his knees and rolled his pelvis, and Arthur’s face grew hot. He took a swig of his beer and willed himself not to get a hard on. Unfortunately, his body didn’t seem to be communicating with his brain, especially when Merlin ran a hand along his torso, pulling up his shirt a bit to reveal his flat belly, the happy trail that made Arthur’s throat dry. It was wrong on so many levels; Arthur willed himself to think of Sam, of anything but the fact that Merlin’s arse looked incredible in his new form-fitting jeans.
“I love this song,” Merlin called out, shaking the object of Arthur’s attention. “You sure you don’t want to dance?”
“Yes,” Arthur said, shifting in his chair. He was well past half-mast now, and feeling more than a bit disgusted with himself. Merlin was just a fucking kid and he trusted Arthur; there was no way anything could ever happen between them. And Sam, there was Sam smiling at Arthur from his place on the mantel. Arthur set his beer down.
“I’m going to bed,” he said, trying to keep his voice calmer than he felt. “You have fun. But no more beer, okay?”
Merlin pouted, stopped dancing. “You’re boring, Arthur. It’s bloody New Year’s.”
“Yeah, and I’m tired. I’m old.”
“You’re not even thirty yet.”
But he would be soon, and Merlin was just a teenager. For his New Year’s resolution, Arthur vowed to take a good, hard look at what the hell he was doing. “I have to work in the morning,” he said.
“Bo-ring,” came the sing-song reply.
It was difficult to stand without giving his predicament away; luckily, Merlin chose that moment to turn around and switch off the stereo, enabling Arthur to adjust himself.
“Goodnight, Merlin,” he said.
Merlin threw him a displeased look, flopped down on the couch. “’Night.”
— — — —
Arthur couldn’t sleep due to his rather persistent erection. It was days since he’d last wanked, and the memory of Merlin’s dancing was playing havoc with his libido.
He grabbed a tissue and reached under the covers, stripping himself with quick, harsh strokes, not letting himself think about it. If he could just get this over with, he could fall asleep. In the morning things would be back to normal.
Just as his orgasm started to build, there was a knock at his door.
“Fuck,” he muttered to himself, panting.
“What is it, Merlin?”
“Can I come in for a second?”
Frustrated beyond belief, Arthur blew out a sigh, straightened the blankets. He removed his hand from his aching cock and said fine.
He was not expecting Merlin to enter clad only in his pajama bottoms. He turned on the light. Arthur’s dick leapt at the sight of Merlin’s naked torso, his dusky nipples, collarbones. The soft jammie bottoms didn’t hide anything, either; Merlin was sporting a rather substantial boner, completely unashamed about it.
“What do you want?” Arthur asked hoarsely. Merlin smiled, his eyes traveling over Arthur.
“I want to help you out,” Merlin said.
“What?” The arousal fogging his brain stopped him from protesting when Merlin sidled toward the bed, slipped under the covers.
“Is this for me?” Merlin asked, his hand cupping Arthur’s cock over his pants. “I saw you watching me downstairs. Is that why you came up here so fast?” He squeezed and Arthur’s eyes rolled back in his head—he’d been so close . . . if he could just get Merlin to . . .
“No, don’t.” Arthur pushed the hand away, biting back a moan as his body tightened with want. Merlin smelled good, and his hair was soft against Arthur’s shoulder. The kid slid against Arthur’s thigh, letting him feel the evidence of his own erection.
“Why not? I want it. Let me get you off, Arthur. I want your cock so bad. It’s not like I haven’t sucked dick before.”
It was exactly the right, or wrong, thing to say. Arthur stiffened, pushed Merlin away. The kid’s pupils were blown wide, his mouth made for kissing.
“Go to bed. Now.”
“This is absolutely not happening.”
“But you want me. Arthur—”
“No.” Arthur hardened his voice. Merlin’s face grew stormy.
“Fine,” he said, flinging back the covers. “I don’t fucking care.”
Arthur groaned as Merlin shut the light and slammed his door. Despite everything, his dick was still rock hard. It was wrong, so wrong. He hadn’t wanted anyone since Sam. It was a betrayal; and worse, Merlin was only a helpless kid. God, but he was so. Fucking. Beautiful. Arthur came hard in less than ten strokes, painting his stomach in a release that felt like pain.
— — — —
The next morning, Arthur went down to breakfast with plans of being an adult about the whole thing.
Merlin sat on the couch, fully dressed and freshly showered, which wouldn’t be unusual, save for the shopping bag at his feet filled with clothes.
“I’m gonna go,” Merlin said. “Get out of your hair.”
“Listen, about last night. I just don’t think—”
Merlin held up his hand. “I get it. I do. You don’t want a filthy cocksucker like me in your bed.”
Arthur’s eyes widened in alarm. “No, that’s not it at all. I don’t think you’re filthy. I think you’re confused. It wouldn’t be right—”
“You don’t get to tell me I’m confused, because I’m not.” Merlin stood up, came around the couch and got up in Arthur’s face. “I think you’re the confused one. You’ve got a boner for me but you’re not gonna take advantage of a street kid, hmm? So noble,” he said, scoffing. “You’re worse than the tossers I’ve got off with on the street because at least they’re not hypocrites. You think I would’ve come to you last night if I didn’t want it?”
“Maybe,” said Arthur. “There’s a power difference, here, Merlin, whether or not you want to admit it. It would be wrong for me to . . . do that with you.”
Merlin’s eyes flashed. “Fuck you, Arthur. Just . . . fuck you. I’m not your charity case. I don’t need saving. You can go straight to hell. And take your money with you.”
Merlin threw down a wad of notes; Arthur watched them scatter on the floor. “No, that’s your money. You’ve earned it from everything you’ve done around here. Take it, please.”
The corner of Merlin’s mouth curled up. “Ha! Maybe I would have earned it, if you’d have let me.”
Arthur reeled as if he’d been slapped. He didn’t call after Merlin when he stormed out the door.
Chapter 2: Part Two
Life without Merlin in the flat was too quiet. Arthur had work as a distraction, but even so, he worried. Somehow the kid had gotten under his skin, brought him out of that dark space in his head where he’d lived alone with his grief. He hated imagining Merlin on the street, making a living in whatever way he could—no, Arthur didn’t like to dwell too much on those possibilities. He looked in the places Merlin had mentioned as being part of his and Will’s rotation, enquired at shelters, all with no luck. No one had seen Merlin. The kid had a talent for vanishing, that was certain, and Arthur didn’t want to think about what he was doing to survive.
Astonishingly, the man they’d arrested for the stabbing was sprung by an anonymous benefactor before he disappeared. Mordred didn’t show up at his court date, either, which was a serious blow to the morale of the department. The woman he’d assaulted had made it out of the ICU alive, though her survival had been uncertain, and Arthur hated thinking of a man with so little regard for human life walking free.
Morgana noticed his concern at dinner one evening. She and Leon had insisted on a visit, not having heard from him for a while, and when she opened the door, she took one look at him and frowned.
“Arthur, you look horrible.”
“Thanks.” He gave her an eye roll and accepted a hug before she led him inside.
“What’s going on? Is it . . . is it Sam?”
For the first time in months, Arthur could honestly say no, a fact that both unsettled and relieved him. He didn’t have time to think too deeply about this development because Morgana was shooting questions, ushering him into the living room.
“There’s a kid, a homeless kid,” he said, taking a deep breath and blowing it out. “He stayed with me a few days and now he’s disappeared. I’m just a bit worried about him.”
“Wait a minute,” Leon said, joining them. “What’s going on?”
Leon worked in city government, and he and Arthur had been friends since primary school. It was only after they were all at uni together that Morgana and Leon had finally discovered what Arthur had known all along: they were mad for each other.
Morgana shot her husband a worried glance. “I think you better start at the beginning, dear,” she told Arthur. “What kid is this? Some kid off the street? Is that why you’ve been so dodgy?”
“I haven’t been . . . dodgy.”
He knew he’d have to gloss over some of the more intimate elements of the story, so he did, describing their initial meeting, how he’d invited Merlin to stay because of the snow, how Merlin had done some cooking and cleaning for him, how he’d learned about Merlin’s past. His sister’s face grew troubled.
“I’m not sure that’s legal,” Morgana said. “Is it?”
“He’s not an illegal or a minor.”
“But still . . . I mean, I appreciate your wanting to help him, Arthur, but you don’t know anything about kids.”
“Merlin’s not a kid,” Arthur said a bit defensively, though he’d often thought the very same thing.
“Sure, okay, but he’s a teenager. He’s young, is what I’m saying. And he’s obviously got issues. Are you sure he’s not dangerous?”
“Yes, I’m sure he’s not dangerous.” Arthur glared at her. “In any case, all of this is irrelevant, since I can’t find him.”
“Have you tried the shelters?” Leon asked. He seemed less bothered than Morgana, so Arthur latched on.
“Yes, but he’s funny about those things when he doesn’t want to be found. He’s had some bad experiences; his stepdad beat him and he’s been on the streets since he was fourteen.” Just thinking about it had Arthur simmering, balling his fists. If he ever got his hands on Cenred Jenkins, the man would be lucky to come away with his face intact.
“Wanker,” said Leon.
“Exactly. In any case, we had a misunderstanding. I need to fix it.”
“Well, I can ask around, discreetly of course.”
“I’d appreciate that, Leon.”
Later that evening, before he left, Morgana took him aside.
“You seem to really care about this kid,” she said.
“He’s on the streets. He could use a hand.”
“It’s not just that; it’s the way you describe him.” She shrugged. “Your eyes light up.”
“He’s a good lad. Just needs some help.”
He didn’t like the way Morgana was regarding him like she knew something he didn’t. It was one of her more annoying habits.
“Arthur,” she said, “It’s not just the age thing that bothers me. Merlin has been abused, and you don’t really know anything about him. In your state . . .”
“You like to help people, Arthur, but sometimes I . . . I worry that you don’t think enough about yourself. You’re still grieving over Sam; I wouldn’t want to see this kid take advantage . . . ”
“No,” Arthur said. “You’re wrong about him. There’s something special about him, Morgana. Something different.”
“Okay,” she said, backing off. “I hope you find him. But be careful.”
— — — —
About two weeks after he’d last seen Merlin, Arthur arrived home at around eleven p.m., surprised to see his windows lit.
His first thought was Merlin had returned, but that didn’t seem particularly likely, given how angry he’d been when he’d left. But would a burglar be so stupid as to turn the light on? Heart pounding, Arthur bounded up the stairs and turned the handle, finding it unlocked.
“Merlin?” he called as he entered the foyer. There was some noise coming from the other room. He rounded the corner, inhaling sharply at the sight.
Merlin was there, yes, but something was wrong. Will stood over his friend with a worried frown on his face.
“’e got a kicking,” Will said.
“What happened?” Arthur asked, pushing Will aside. Merlin was pale, his lip split open. A dark bruise purpled one cheek, and the other sported a substantial lump and a slight cut. One of his eyes was swollen shut.
“Jesus,” he said, kneeling down. He touched Merlin’s hair and came away with blood on his hand. Upon closer inspection, he noticed a wound on Merlin’s scalp, but nothing too deep. Still, it was likely he had a concussion, at least.
“You know how he likes to run his mouth? Well, yeah he was runnin’ it. Said something Mordred didn’t like and he and Alvarr kicked the crap out of him. Prob’ly would’ve done worse but I showed up with a couple’a me mates and we got ‘em off.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, trying to control the panic welling inside. “Can you hear me?” He felt for Merlin’s pulse, which was quick but strong, and Merlin moaned, his unhurt eye fluttering open.
“Hi,” he whispered in a cracked voice.
“Hi,” Arthur said, stomach churning.
“I think ‘e might’a got a busted rib, too,” Will said. “’e said it ‘urt him to breathe.”
“Why didn’t you take him to hospital?”
“Didn’t want to go,” Will said. “Wanted to come here. They ask too many questions, them doctors.”
Arthur resisted the urge to throttle the lad. He was especially worried about the damage done to Merlin’s head, but the ribs were a concern, too. In any case, he needed medical attention, and more than Arthur could give.
He moved to stand, but felt a weak hand on his wrist, pulling.
“I don’t want to go to hospital,” Merlin said. “Please. I’m okay. I’ve had worse than this . . . please.”
“Has he sicked up at all?” Arthur asked Will.
Arthur bent down again, gently stroked Merlin’s hair away from his face. “I know it hurts, but I’m going to need you to stay awake, okay? Can you do that for me?
Merlin coughed. “I’m not . . . a baby,” he said. “Bloody hell, Arthur.” Arthur smiled, the adrenaline of relief very welcome. If Merlin could mouth off to him, he couldn’t be that badly injured.
“I need you to stay with him,” Arthur told Will. “Make sure he doesn’t fall asleep. I’m going to call someone to come take a look.”
“Who?” Will narrowed his eyes.
“A family friend, a doctor.”
Will nodded, glanced down at Merlin, whose good eye had closed again.
“Oi, mate. Don’t sleep,” he said as Arthur went to make the call on his mobile.
Merlin grumbled. “Not sleeping. Resting.”
Once out of earshot, Arthur rang Gaius; he’d been a longtime friend of Uther’s, but shared none of the prejudices of Arthur’s father. In fact, when Arthur had come out, Gaius had been one of the most supportive people in his life, even at the cost of his relationship with Uther. Though he was getting on in years now, he was an excellent doctor, and above all, Arthur trusted him. He just hoped Gaius was awake.
“Arthur?” said the kind, familiar voice.
“Gaius,” Arthur said, “I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“You didn’t. I don’t sleep well these days, you know. What’s happened?”
“Listen, there’s a bit of an emergency. Can you come over? And bring your medic supplies?” He peeked back into the living room, noticed Will standing over Merlin, and saw himself and Sam from a year ago.
No, I don’t want a doctor. I don’t want to live out my last days in hospital.
Sam . . . God, he’d gotten so thin, almost skeletal. Arthur nodded, held his bony hand.
“Are you hurt?” Gaius asked, pulling him away from the memory.
“No, it’s a . . . friend of mine. I think he might have a concussion, maybe a broken rib. He was in a fight.”
“Is he conscious?”
“Yes, but in pain. He won’t go to hospital, but he’ll need pain medication. Something strong.”
“Of course, son,” Gaius said, making Arthur wish—not for the first time—that Gaius had been his father.
Back in the living room, Merlin was conscious, but barely. Arthur brought a towel and an ice pack; he knelt by the couch, applying the ice to Merlin’s swollen eye, wiping the blood off his forehead with the warm, wet towel, as Will stood behind.
This wasn’t Sam, Arthur told himself; Merlin wasn’t that badly hurt. Even so, his heart twisted in his chest when Merlin whimpered.
Arthur bit his lip, skirted around the worst of the bruise. The wound on Merlin’s head had stopped bleeding, thank God. He thought about having Merlin take some Paracetamol, but surely Gaius would bring something better.
Merlin opened his eye, which was very blue and very bloodshot, and looked at Arthur. “Sorry for . . . all this.”
“Don’t be,” Arthur said, trying to keep his tone light. “This is the most fun I’ve had in ages.”
“Still a prat, I see.”
“And you’re still an idiot. What happened?”
“Ran into Mordred . . . fuck . . .” Merlin winced as Arthur hit a sensitive spot. “He started a row with me, so I told him I sucked off the constable who arrested him . . . you know, as thanks for the public service.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, not sure why he was shocked.
“Told you ‘e likes to run his mouth,” said Will. “Gonna get ‘im into real trouble one of these days.”
As far as Arthur was concerned, that day had already come. Merlin had goaded Mordred, knowing, and not caring, about the danger. It was enough to make Arthur want to throttle Merlin himself.
A few minutes later, a knock on the door startled both boys.
“It’s just Gaius,” Arthur said. He looked up, addressing Will. “Can you go let him in?”
Will grumbled a bit but followed the request, disappearing out into the foyer, leaving Arthur to turn his attention back to Merlin. “Why did you do that?” Arthur asked. “Why, when you know what could have happened?”
“Dunno,” Merlin said.
“Promise me you’ll never do something like that again.”
Merlin offered one of his impossible to translate expressions, and Arthur knew he had no right to ask Merlin to make promises. But maybe someday it would be worse than this. Maybe someday it wouldn’t be a fist that Merlin collided with, but a knife, even a gun. And why was he even thinking about someday?
“Arthur?” Gaius asked from behind him. He hadn’t even realized the older man had come into the room. “Is this our patient?”
“This is Merlin, yes,” Arthur said, straightening.
“My, my,” Gaius said, not unkindly. “Looks like you’ve got yourself into a bit of a scrap there, lad?”
Merlin groaned, which made Arthur want to comfort him, which was ridiculous and probably all sorts of improper. He stood back, though, holding the bloodied towel and giving Gaius room to conduct his examination.
“Does this hurt?” Gaius asked Merlin, prodding at his belly. “How about when I do this . . .”
“Is ‘e gonna be all right, you think?” Will whispered to Arthur.
“Of course he will,” Arthur said. “Gaius worked in a trauma surgery for forty years. He’s one of the best.”
“Good. Merlin deserves the best,” said Will in a funny tone. He cocked his head, and Arthur braced himself for whatever came next. “’e likes you, you know, for some reason. All I ‘eard this week was Arthur this and that and bloody ‘ell, it was startin’ to drive me barmy. But ‘e’s arsed at you, too. You do somethin’ to ‘im?”
“No,” Arthur said. But he’d begun to wonder. “Maybe.”
“You better make it right,” the kid said, crossing his arms. Scrappy bugger. “Or you’ll ‘ave me to answer to.”
“You do realize I’m a constable.”
“I don’t care if you’re the bloody Prince’a Wales. I’d do anything for Merls. He’s like me brother, get it?”
“What are you two talking about over there?” Merlin’s voice was thin, reedy with pain.
“Nothing,” Arthur said, coming over. “Just about what an abysmal cook you are.”
“You like my food, you . . .” Merlin trailed off, eyes unfocused.
Gaius snapped off his plastic gloves, turned to Arthur.
“He’s got a substantial contusion on his cheek, some bruising. The eye looks worse than it is. There’s a shallow cut on his hairline, but no concussion. He’s breathing fine; I didn’t hear any damage to his lungs or windpipe. I suspect at least one cracked rib, but I can’t be certain without an X-Ray.”
“No,” Merlin said with as much authority as he could muster. “No hospital.”
“Are there any alternatives?” Arthur asked. “Do you think he needs the X-Ray?”
Gaius shrugged. “There’s not much they could do for a cracked rib, but it would ensure it hasn’t completely snapped and caused internal bleeding—”
“They didn’t kick me much,” said Merlin.
“. . . which,” Gaius continued, gripping Arthur’s shoulder in assurance, “hasn’t happened. If it had, he’d be in a lot more pain and there’d be extensive bruising at the surface.”
“Be honest, Gaius, what would you suggest?”
Gaius gave Arthur the look, which meant they needed to speak privately. The two men went into the other room, despite Merlin’s displeased frown.
Once they were safely out of earshot, Gaius asked, “I presume this boy is homeless?”
“Arthur . . .”
“I know what you’re going to say, but he’s seventeen; I’m not turning him in. He doesn’t want to go to hospital because he doesn’t want his stepdad to find him.”
“I see . . . but he needs care. He can’t go back out there in his condition.”
“He’ll stay here.”
Gaius’s eyebrows traveled up his forehead.
“If he wants to,” Arthur amended.
“Are you sure you’re—”
“I’m fine.” Perhaps he was being petulant, but Arthur was tired of people treating him with kid gloves. He really was fine, and perfectly capable of making sure Merlin had a place to heal. After that, well . . .
“I’d suggest bed rest for a least a few days. I’ll give you some anti-inflammatories and a mild opiate for the pain. He’ll be sore for a couple of weeks, but he’s young; he should heal nicely.”
Back in the living room, Will paced back and forth, eyes lighting on Arthur when he re-entered. “So what’s the story?”
“He’s going to be all right, but he has to stay off his feet. Merlin . . .” Arthur went to the couch and gently touched Merlin’s shoulder. He opened his eyes, smiled with one side of his puffy mouth. “Gaius is going to give you some medicine for the pain, but we think you should stay here for a while. Is that okay?”
Merlin nodded, but his smile had gone.
“If you want, Will can stay with you,” Arthur said, unable to hide his disappointment at Merlin’s obvious distress.
“Will?” he asked, brow furrowing.
“I’ll stay tonight, but I gotta see to me mum tomorrow.”
So it was decided; Will and Merlin were arranged in the guest room and Gaius bandaged Merlin’s visible wounds, making sure Arthur had plenty of supplies and medication. Before he left, he gave explicit instructions to call at any hour if Merlin’s condition deteriorated.
The painkillers made Merlin sleepy; he murmured silly things as Will and Arthur helped him out of his clothes and into bed. Arthur winced at the bruise discoloring Merlin’s side, but Will seemed to take it in stride. He’d probably had worse, too.
Will was in the loo washing up and Arthur was just about to head to bed when Merlin called, “Arthur—”
Arthur approached the bed with some trepidation; Merlin looked so pale.
“Are you sure . . .” He gestured vaguely. “This is alright?”
“What? Will? It’s fine.”
“No . . . me.”
“You?” Arthur asked incredulously. “Merlin, you can stay here as long as you want. I . . . like having you here.”
It was only after he’d said the words that he realized how true they were, and that at that moment he wanted nothing more than to curl around Merlin and fall asleep to the sound of his breathing.
Merlin smiled, closed his eyes. “Mm-kay.”
— — — —
Will had already gone by the time Arthur woke the next morning, but Merlin lay fast asleep, his swollen mouth open. Arthur closed the door carefully and went downstairs to call in sick.
After assessing the sad lack of food in his pantry and fridge, Arthur popped out to the shop, not quite sure what Merlin would want to eat, if anything. Oranges, Arthur thought, remembering Merlin devour an entire bag in less than two days. Prawn crisps. Merlin liked those. And bacon. Cadbury’s—because Merlin once said it was the one thing he’d bring with him on a desert island even though Arthur had maintained he wouldn’t last a week on such a diet—and cranberry juice because it was supposed to be good for you. Canned chicken soup just in case. And crackers, to go with the soup. But Merlin loved scones and clotted cream . . .
“Pregnancy run?” the cashier asked.
She gestured and Arthur regarded the random assortment of items on the conveyor belt.
“No . . . I’m not married.”
She smiled at him. “Don’t have to be married to be pregnant, love.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, paid, and took his things.
He went to check on Merlin mid-morning, and found him awake. “Good morning,” he said.
“Is it?” Merlin grimaced. “I feel like I’ve been mauled by a bear. Will left?”
Arthur nodded, not knowing what to do with himself. “Before I got up.”
“Oh, yeah, well, he doesn’t like you much.”
“I figured that.”
Merlin grimaced, struggled to push himself up.
“Don’t . . .” Arthur said, springing to the side of the bed.
“I have to take a piss, Arthur, and I’m not interested in doing it in bed. Unless it’s something you’d enjoy?” Merlin laughed at Arthur’s shocked expression, then grimaced. He touched his fingers to his puffy lip. “I must look horrible.”
He really did, but the swelling in his eye had begun to recede, at least. Arthur shrugged. “I’ve seen worse,” Arthur said, using Merlin’s favorite phrase. “What’s more important is how you feel.”
“Like I need a lot more of that medicine.”
“Ouch,” Merlin said, trying to move. “I really have to pee. It’s critical.”
“Oh,” Arthur said. “Can you . . . are you okay to . . . ”
“I’ll be fine if you can just help me up.”
“Okay,” he said again. Merlin watched him expectantly, and Arthur leaned down, sliding an arm underneath Merlin’s back, easing him up. Merlin grabbed onto his chest to steady himself, and after a bit of wrangling, they managed to get Merlin upright and lead him to the toilet.
“I think I can manage to hold my dick by myself,” Merlin said, and Arthur realized he was standing too close. He blushed, retreated out the door until he was called for.
Once they’d got him settled back in bed, Arthur brought Merlin the medicine. He watched as he took the pills and sank back down onto the pillows, closing his eyes.
“Are you hungry?” Arthur asked.
“Okay, well. I got a few things, so just let me know.”
“Why aren’t you working?”
“I called in sick.”
Merlin opened his eyes and stared at Arthur for an almost uncomfortably long period of time before he said, “Thanks.”
“It’s nothing. I have loads of time off I haven’t taken.” It was a lie, as Arthur had been regularly absent from work to care for Sam and had nearly been put on notice; only Leon’s intervention at the end had saved him his job.
“It’s not nothing,” Merlin said, his voice sleepy as the drugs began taking effect. “It’s . . . you’re nice, Arthur.”
Arthur chuckled, let himself tuck the blankets around Merlin since the kid wouldn’t protest in his half-high state.
“Arthur, barthur, marthur . . .” Merlin said.
“You just get some rest.”
“Darthur, larthur . . . you know what?”
“What?” Arthur asked, wishing he had a tape recorder to capture this moment and tease Merlin about it later.
“Nothing rhymes with Arthur . . .”
“That’s highly interesting, Merlin. You should write a treatise.”
Arthur rolled his eyes and laughed. “Now that’s a first.”
“Nooo. You’re funny. I really like you.”
The laughter died on Arthur’s lips as he realized he was holding Merlin’s hand. It felt warm and soft, and seemed a strange, not-at-all-strange thing to be doing. He held it until Merlin drifted to sleep.
— — — —
The next few days passed much the same. Arthur made sure Merlin took his medicine and ate on a regular basis, and Merlin accepted his help without too much fuss. By the end of the week, the swelling had all but vanished and the bruising showed signs of lightening, though Merlin was still in pain. He didn’t complain. It was a bit disturbing, the equanimity with which Merlin accepted his injuries as if they were familiar, if unwelcome, friends.
They had regular visitors: Gaius stopped by every evening to check on ‘his favorite patient’ (an appellation which Merlin complained about in private because it made him feel like a baby), and Will dropped in, always unannounced, with bits of news or stories from the street to entertain Merlin. Arthur would leave them alone to talk, fighting the temptation to eavesdrop outside for news of Mordred.
Arthur had gone back to work a couple days after Merlin’s injury (Merlin had basically kicked him out of the house, whinging that Arthur was hovering and that he could bloody well look after himself for a few hours). The Met kept looking for Mordred, but the general consensus was that he’d left the city to avoid arrest. Of course Merlin wouldn’t file a report against him because it would mean exposing himself, so Arthur had to hope that when they did catch Mordred again—and they would, he’d see to that—the arsehole would get what he deserved.
“I want to go for a walk,” Merlin called from the couch where he’d been sitting and playing video games since before Arthur had left for work eight hours before. Arthur shut the door behind him and kicked off his shoes. It had been almost two weeks since Merlin’s attack, but it still pained Merlin to move. Too much physical exertion would make things worse, though Gaius had mentioned a bit of non-strenuous exercise could do him good.
“Hmm. It’s late tonight,” Arthur said.
Merlin groaned. “Jaysus, it’s like I’m in bloody prison.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. If you were in prison, you’d know it.”
“I’m dying of boredom.”
“Okay, like I said. Tomorrow. I have off. We’ll go then. But nothing major, Merlin, just a walk around the park.”
“Where’d you get that word?” Arthur asked, coming round to sit on the edge of the sofa. Merlin sat up, fighting the wince he knew Arthur was watching for, and held up a book.
“Edith Wharton?” Arthur teased. Merlin’s face pinked.
“Like I said, I’m bloody bored.”
“You don’t have to justify yourself to me. It’s good for you to be expanding your horizons.”
“Shut up. It’s your stupid book.” He threw it on the coffee table and crossed his arms.
Arthur swallowed, looked away. It had been Sam’s.
— — — —
Sunday proved to be a relatively warm, sunny day for January in London. Arthur and Merlin struck out at around noon and looped down Kensington toward Hyde Park, one of Arthur’s favorite walks.
The park was filled with old men and women walking their small dogs, couples holding hands. Merlin kept a slow pace but Arthur didn’t mind, and if Merlin leaned on him a little every once in a while, he didn’t mind that so much either.
They still hadn’t discussed what had happened before Merlin left. It would have to come out sooner or later, he supposed. They hadn’t talked about what would happen after Merlin’s injuries had healed, either. Arthur hoped Merlin would decide to stay at least until he could help him find a job and his own place. One thing remained clear; Merlin couldn’t return to his life on the streets.
“What’s that?” Merlin asked, pointing at a stately brick and white building with huge multi-paned windows.
“Kensington Palace. The Orangery’s in there.”
“The Orangery?” Merlin wrinkled his nose.
“It’s a tea place,” Arthur said. “You know, sandwiches and champagne and all the like.”
“Have you ever had a proper English tea?”
“Nah,” Merlin said. “Too posh for me.”
Despite his derisive tone, something made Arthur guide Merlin toward the building. “Come on. Let’s go. I could use a cuppa, and I’m starving. Aren’t you hungry?”
“No. I can’t.” Merlin’s voice took on a panicky edge. He stopped walking, pulled away from Arthur.
“Why not? It looks fancy but dress is casual.” Since Merlin’s old clothes had been ruined, Arthur had taken the liberty of buying him some new things, and he thought Merlin looked particularly nice.
“My fuckin' face, Arthur. I can’t go in there like this. They’ll think . . .”
“Who cares what they'll think?”
“Oh my God, you’re really serious,” Merlin said, feet dragging a bit. He came more easily when Arthur promised he could have a glass of champagne, too.
Inside, the high ceilings and white walls made the light and airy room almost summery. The waitress who showed them to their table hardly gave Merlin a second look, which made Arthur incredibly grateful. He ordered the works—cakes and scones and sandwiches, tea and champagne—and Merlin tried very hard not to be impressed.
“How is it?” Arthur asked as Merlin polished off his third scone with cream.
“Not too bad. I’ve had worse.” He winked.
Arthur leaned back in his chair and whistled. “Well, if you don’t really like it I guess you won’t want the chocolate cake, then.”
Merlin’s eyes brightened. “There’s chocolate cake?”
“It’s the best in London.”
“You just want me to get fat like you.”
“I guess I’ll just have to eat it all by myself,” Arthur said as the waitress brought their slices.
“How surprising, reverse psychology.”
A few customers had the audacity to stare at Merlin, but Arthur frowned at them, and, embarrassed, they turned away. Luckily, Merlin hadn’t noticed. He moaned and licked the last of the frosting from his spoon, eyeing the rest of Arthur’s partially eaten piece.
“Go for it.” Arthur slid his plate over. “I’m full.”
There was probably something very wrong with him, Arthur thought, considering the delight he got from seeing Merlin eat. Already he’d filled out a bit since their first meeting, his features angular now, rather than sharp. It suited him, made him look healthy in spite of his injuries. Arthur watched as Merlin licked his lips. He cleared his throat and called for the bill, ignoring the persistent voice that told him he was lying to himself; it was the way Merlin ate that really fascinated him.
Back at the flat that day, it was clear their outing had taken a toll on Merlin. Arthur tried not to fuss over him as they settled on the couch to watch a film; Merlin wanted to watch The Princess Bride.
“I liked it when I was a kid,” he explained, somewhat sheepishly.
“Me too,” said Arthur.
“Wesley’s hot, don’t you think?” Merlin asked, pulling the blanket up under his chin. Arthur sat on the other end of the couch.
“Not really my type,” Arthur said, surprised but trying not to show it as Merlin wormed his feet onto his lap. What is your type, the nagging voice asked, Merlin?
“Hmm. He’s mine. Blond, strong, mmm. I bet he has nice muscles. Not too big, not too small.” The feet in his lap wiggled, and Arthur flushed as his cock took an interest. “He’s a hero, but he’s not overly heroic. Like, he lets Buttercup save him right back. It’s both of them, together, you know?”
“Yeah,” Arthur said, but he wasn’t really paying attention.
“Rub my feet?” Merlin asked.
Arthur did, all the while alternating between reciting the periodic table in his head and trying to focus on the film. Both tasks proved futile; he was too acutely aware of Merlin on the couch, the warmth of his feet, the way he recited lines under his breath and laughed at his favorite parts. He’d stopped intentionally trying to tease Arthur, which somehow made it worse. If Merlin moved his feet just a few inches to the left, he would have easily discovered Arthur’s erection. For some reason he didn’t, and Arthur wasn’t sure if he was grateful or not. He was aching and confused . . . he shouldn’t want this. It hurt to want anyone other than Sam. Not to mention any of the other reasons why it was wrong, wrong, wrong. But when Merlin dug his toes into Arthur’s thigh, he couldn’t deny the throb of longing that ran through his body.
That night, they stood together at the top of the stairs, just outside of the room Arthur had begun to think of as Merlin’s.
“I had a good time today,” Merlin said, almost shyly.
“Me too,” Arthur said, heart picking up when Merlin stepped closer.
“I’d like to go back there, to that place. It wasn’t as stuffy as I thought it would be.”
“Well, we will. I like it, too.”
He was just about to turn to go when Merlin caught his shoulders, pressed a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth.
“Good night,” he said, leaving Arthur standing there, fingers on the place Merlin’s lips had touched.
Chapter 3: Part Three
After Sam died, Arthur dreamed of him every night. Always in those dreams, Sam was healthy and alive, which made waking up even more difficult, the reality shocking all over again.
Gone. Sam was gone.
The dreams had tapered off as time went on, a development which at first had been alarming, evidence he was forgetting. Though he knew, rationally, it was okay to let Sam go, he’d held on, drawing him to mind just before sleep to force the dreams that both tortured and sustained him.
For a while he’d clung like this, but it had been months since he’d dreamed of Sam.
And so when Arthur woke up in the middle of the night, body bathed in sweat, aroused, he’d immediately tried to recall the dream he’d been having, distressed when the man who came into focus wasn't Sam.
It was Merlin.
Arthur had dreamed of Merlin wrapped up in his sheets, his body twisted beneath him. He was so beautiful, so right in his arms. And Arthur was so, so very fucked.
— — — —
The anniversary of Sam's death snuck up on Arthur, but one day he woke up and realised it had been a year.
He left work early and went to the cemetery with flowers and a bottle of Sam's favourite wine. Sam had been a food and drink snob, always teasing Arthur for his inattentiveness to such things, trying to get him more interested. It had been a fruitless endeavour.
No one was around; the St. Mary's churchyard was dark and still, and Arthur bent to clear away some leaves that had fallen since his last visit. He hadn't been here often enough, he realised—only twice.
"I'm sorry," he said, not knowing why.
After opening the wine, he took a swig from the bottle and set the rest down next to the flowers, wishing he believed in heaven.
"I miss you."
He stood for another half hour, ended up polishing off most of the wine to ward off the evening chill and, if he was being honest, because he wanted to get drunk. He decided to go because Merlin had probably started to wonder about him. Arthur hadn't mentioned the anniversary and didn't plan to, since the kid had enough to worry about without all of Arthur's issues. But just imagining what Merlin was doing back at the flat made Arthur want to be there, too.
When he left the cemetery, he hated himself a little for being so eager.
Back at home, Merlin was sitting in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn and a tray of burned tortillas covered in something resembling sick but which Merlin declared was chili.
"I thought we could have appetizers tonight," he said, grabbing a bag of crisps Arthur hadn’t noticed and tossing them to Arthur.
Feeling slightly drunk from the wine at Sam’s grave and a bit crazed, Arthur laughed.
"Well, you know me."
Arthur sat down next to Merlin with the unopened crisps.
"Aren't you hungry?" Merlin asked. He'd moved closer to Arthur on the couch, pressing their legs together.
Merlin sniffed the air. "Are you drunk?"
"A little." Arthur thought about lying, but figured it wouldn’t serve any purpose. He pretended to be interested in whatever silly show Merlin was watching, something about sixth formers with attitude problems.
When Arthur didn't answer, Merlin just sighed and settled back, picking at the popcorn. He didn't touch the tray of "nachos."
Arthur couldn't think about anything but Merlin's warm thigh against his, how ridiculous it was that such an innocent thing could make his cock hard.
He got up to get another beer, guilty.
— — — —
The dreams didn't stop. They became more and more visceral, more maddening. Merlin rolling his hips on top of Arthur, their cocks sliding together. Opening Merlin up and fucking inside, the two of them groaning.
Arthur came in his sheets like a thirteen year old and laundered them before Merlin could get to them while he was at work, should he decide to do the washing.
— — — —
“Hey, Arthur?” Merlin asked. They were in the kitchen reading alternate sections of the paper, and Merlin had clearly gotten bored.
“Will you tell me about Sam?”
Arthur started. He didn’t talk about Sam much, even to his own sister, but something about Merlin’s expression, his curious, sad smile, made Arthur say, “What do you want to know?”
“How did you meet?”
Arthur put down the paper, steepled his hands. He sighed. “On the tube.”
“Yeah. He sat next to me one day. I was going to work; I’d just become a constable and I was running late. He said he liked my uniform.” Arthur chuckled at the memory. “The next day, we ran into each other again. And then again. Turns out he was riding the train just to talk to me.”
“Wow,” Merlin said, “Sounds like a movie.”
No more than the way we met, Arthur wanted to say, but didn’t.
“So yeah, he asked for my number and we went out. The rest is history.”
Merlin nodded, glanced down at his hands in his lap. “So your da didn’t like it?”
“I just thought, because you said he was a bastard, maybe it was related.”
Arthur sighed. “He didn’t really approve of my lifestyle. Good thing was, I didn’t really care whether or not he did, not once I met Sam.” Arthur closed his eyes. “So, anyway, yeah, he didn’t approve, but he got over it eventually. He never completely accepted Sam, but things got better. Before he died, my father and I made our amends.”
“How long were you . . . you know, with Sam?” Merlin asked the question sheepishly, as if he was afraid of offending or prodding too deeply, so Arthur smiled.
“Five years.” It seemed an eternity now, but it had passed so quickly.
“Wow,” Merlin said, Adam’s apple bobbing with a deep swallow. He looked down at his tea. “You must really miss him.”
“I do. A few months ago I would have sworn I’d never laugh again.”
“You don’t really laugh a lot now,” Merlin said.
“I laugh with you.” He hadn’t thought the words out, and now Merlin was looking at him with wide, serious eyes, lips parted. Arthur flushed hot, half-remembering his dream from the night before—Merlin's mouth and so many sinful things.
“But I know what you mean,” Merlin said. “I used to miss my mam a lot. I mean, I know she’s still alive but it’s kinda like she’s dead because I never see her. I still miss her. You think she was a bad parent, I know, but she wasn’t.” Merlin shook his head, predicting Arthur’s response. “She didn’t know about Cenred when she married him. He had money, you know, and we were poor. My da died and we didn’t have anything. It’s hard, in that village. No jobs. My mam never went to school. She was really young when she got pregnant with me; did laundry for the richies, worked in their houses. Pay was shite.”
The usual expressions of empathy seemed trite, useless, so Arthur held his tongue and listened.
“She always tried to stop him when he hit me. Once he flung her back so hard I thought she’d . . . that was the last time he touched her. I told him he could hit me all he wanted so long as he never laid a finger on her.”
“Jesus, Merlin.” Arthur didn’t know what to do with the impotent rage simmering in his gut.
“Sometimes I worry . . . that maybe when I left . . . fuck,” Merlin said, turning away. He wiped angrily at his face and Arthur realized he was crying. When he faced Arthur again with perfectly schooled features, Arthur wondered how much practice Merlin had in repressing his emotions. He was a consummate actor, hiding his pain under a tough veneer.
“Do you ever think about going back?”
“All the time,” Merlin said. “But I’m a bloody coward. He said he’d kill me, and he meant it.”
“Because I was gay. He found me kissing another boy once. Said he was going to make a man out of me whatever it took, and I told him he could go to hell. That’s when it got really bad.”
Merlin told the story like he was reciting a grocery list, dead calm, and Arthur felt the sickening need to destroy something. His hands clenched into fists and he really would have punched something—the wall, perhaps—if Merlin hadn’t come to him and curled on his lap like a gangly cat.
“It’s okay, you know,” Merlin whispered against his neck, faint puffs of breath punctuating his words. “I’m okay.”
“It’s not okay, Merlin. That bastard should pay for what he did to you.” Arthur wasn’t sure if he was shaking or if it was Merlin. He wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, careful not to squeeze too tightly and hurt his ribs. Merlin sighed.
“I just want to forget about all of that.”
Merlin was heavy in his lap, but Arthur didn’t care. He stroked up and down Merlin’s spine, feeling the curve with an unsteady hand, breathing in his smell, oranges and cinnamon and the milky tea he’d drunk for breakfast.
“Let me help you,” Arthur said. “Stay with me.”
Merlin snuggled closer, his lips sweeping against Arthur’s jaw in a way that must have been intentional. If Arthur just turned his head, they’d be kissing and there’d be no stopping it; it was painful, resisting something that his whole body wanted, but no, not when Merlin had come to him for comfort. He was too vulnerable, still injured. Arthur clenched his teeth and stayed still.
“I don’t want to be your charity case,” Merlin said, sounding defeated. “I don’t want you to think of me as . . . pathetic.”
“You know that’s not what I think. You’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.”
“Don’t do that. I’m serious. There’s no shame in letting someone help you. I know you can survive on the streets by yourself, but don’t you want something more?”
“What do you mean?” Merlin asked, muffled against the skin of his neck. He was leaving small, surreptitious kisses there that Arthur needed to stop, but didn’t.
“I’m . . . I’m talking . . . about helping you find a job. Or finishing school, whatever you want.” The press of Merlin’s lips became slower, more sensual. Arthur thought he felt . . . fuck, Merlin was tasting him.
“Why?” Merlin asked, and Arthur shivered, his arousal growing in spite of himself. Merlin wiggled on his lap, indicating that he knew. This was absolutely wrong. It couldn’t happen.
“Because you’re important. And you’re important to . . . me.” Arthur wondered with the part of his brain not drugged by Merlin’s kisses how in just a few short weeks that had come to be true.
Merlin murmured something and Arthur drew in a sharp breath as the mouth on his neck opened, sucked gently at first, then more insistently. Hands were in his hair, drawing his head to the side. God, Merlin’s face was beautiful despite the old, yellowing bruises, his eyes sleepy with want.
“Kiss me,” Merlin said. He scrambled a little so that he was straddling Arthur’s lap with strong thighs; Arthur gasped at the press of Merlin’s erection against his stomach, the jolt of lust that ran through him.
“Fuck, Arthur, just kiss me. All this talk about letting someone help me, care for me, what about you? What about what you need?”
“Merlin.” The word came out like a plea, only for what, Arthur didn’t know. His own desire was obvious, impossible to hide, and Merlin was looking at him like he might break if Arthur said no.
“You want me; it’s okay. It’s okay to have what you want.”
“I just don’t . . .”
“You deserve to be happy again. Let me help you.”
Arthur opened his mouth but no words came out. He ran his hands down Merlin’s sides, realized he was trembling.
Merlin made the decision for them both; he leaned down and kissed Arthur like he was born to do it, tongue slipping inside, gliding against Arthur’s. It was possessive, not at all hesitant, and Arthur’s body went rigid with desire. He grabbed at Merlin’s hips to pull him closer and for a second Merlin froze, huffing air against Arthur’s lips. Then he leaned in again and Arthur knew the sweetness of Merlin’s mouth, devoured his pleased noises like a starving man, all the while holding himself back from being too harsh, too hard, because Merlin’s lips were just healed.
He let one of his hands travel up Merlin’s back to rub at the nape of his neck and card through his soft hair, making Merlin smile against his mouth, and how could this be wrong? Angling his head, he let Merlin guide the kiss, which was wet, and sloppy, and a bit uncoordinated, and simply wonderful. Arthur shuddered as Merlin’s erection poked him again, unwilling to be ignored, but somehow Arthur did, because kissing, yes, kissing he could handle but he wasn’t sure about that other thing, how he would survive it. He already felt like he was shattering apart.
Merlin made a pained sound that broke through to Arthur’s higher faculties, and he pulled back, worried he’d been squeezing too tight, that he’d hurt Merlin’s rib.
“Sorry,” he said, eyes widening, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m fine. No, it’s fine. I’m just . . . I just want you so bad.” Merlin rocked forward again, lowering Arthur’s hands from his waist around to the curve of his arse. Before he even knew what he was doing, Arthur was kneading into the firm, lovely flesh there, guiding Merlin’s motions, the slow gyration of his hips. Merlin was breathless above him, bracing his hands on Arthur’s shoulders, shuddering with each press of their clothed cocks.
“I just want to ride you. Jaysus, Arthur, I want this inside me.” He reached down, palmed Arthur’s length through his pajama bottoms and squeezed, and at that moment Arthur realized he was going to hell.
“Yes,” he said, thoughts not coming in fully formed sentences. “But not here. Bed.”
Merlin grinned and clambered off Arthur’s lap, offering his hand as if they were going for a nice stroll outside instead of upstairs to fuck each other senseless. It made Arthur wild.
He stood and probably would have thrown Merlin over his shoulder like some sort of Neanderthal if it hadn’t been for the tiny portion of his brain that reminded him Merlin was still healing. In any case, somehow they made it to Arthur’s room, where Merlin didn’t waste any time. He was already naked and sprawled on the bed, cock full and jutting proudly between his thighs, before Arthur had scrambled out of his pajamas.
Merlin cocked an eyebrow and reached out as Arthur crawled toward him.
“I knew you would have a nice cock,” Merlin said, pressing Arthur down on the bed; Arthur let himself be manhandled, ready for whatever Merlin wanted, but he wasn’t ready for the swirl of Merlin’s tongue around the ring of foreskin, a slow, tormenting motion that he repeated again and again before taking the whole head into his mouth, concentrating the suck there. Arthur’s toes curled, and he was so close to coming already he had to push Merlin away after a few moments. He wouldn’t last long, but it wouldn’t do to come before a seventeen-year-old did, for God’s sake.
“We . . . we should talk about protection,” he said, and Merlin blushed brightly.
It was painful to think about Merlin’s history, in this moment particularly, but they had to deal with it.
“Okay,” said Merlin. “Do you have condoms?”
“Yes,” Arthur said. Morgana had purchased some for him as a not-so-subtle hint that maybe he should get out more, but he’d never touched the package.
“Good,” Merlin said. Arthur was poised to retrieve them when an expression on Merlin’s face made him pause.
“What is it?” he asked, concern making his erection wilt slightly.
“I . . . when I left before, what happened made me think. I mean, I’ve always been safe doing . . . you know, but I went to a clinic and got tested to be sure.”
Arthur sat, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Merlin smiled, but the wan expression didn’t touch his eyes. “I’m clean.”
A substantial wave of relief nearly bowled Arthur over, but something was bothering Merlin, something big. He was picking at the pilled fabric of the comforter, half hard now and growing softer, and he’d never looked so vulnerable. Arthur reached out and touched his shoulder.
“That’s a good thing. Very responsible of you. I’m clean too. I haven’t been with anyone since . . . well, you know . . .” Arthur couldn’t think of Sam, not now, or this would never happen and God help him, he wanted it to happen. But Merlin still seemed troubled. “Merlin? What is it?”
“I . . . I never thought much about it, you know. Before. I didn’t feel too bad. But when I met you, you were just so different and . . . fuck, I don’t know. I felt dirty that night, when you pushed me away.”
Arthur grimaced, remembering their fight the morning after. “It wasn’t that, believe me, okay? I wanted you. I didn’t think you were dirty. I don’t think you’re dirty. I thought I was the one who—” But Merlin wasn’t listening.
“I haven’t let that many fuck me. Just a few. Just when I really needed the money. Most of the time it was just easy things, hand jobs and stuff . . .” He was babbling now, eyes shut, refusing to look at Arthur. “And I didn’t like, have a pimp or anything. It was on my terms and it wasn’t—”
“Stop,” Arthur said, tugging Merlin into his arms, “just stop. You don’t need to justify yourself to me or to anyone. Please,” he kissed the top of Merlin’s head, brushed his hair back in what he hoped was a soothing gesture. Merlin stilled against his chest, and Arthur felt a warm wetness tickling his chest hair.
“Shit,” he said. “Don’t cry.”
“Ugh.” Merlin buried his head. “This is so not sexy.”
Arthur sighed, drew them up towards the pillows, which was difficult with Merlin clinging to him like a koala.
They didn’t speak for a while, and at first Arthur thought Merlin had fallen asleep. Then he felt lazy circles being drawn on his stomach and looked down. Merlin was hard again, twitching and beautiful, and the sight immediately sent a new rush of blood to his own prick. He held his breath as Merlin noticed, stroked him slowly to full arousal.
“Arthur,” Merlin murmured, kissing his chest. “Do you still want me?”
“Of course,” he said, drawing his face up to kiss. Merlin’s lashes were still wet, but he didn’t look sad anymore. Arthur wanted to take care of him, really take care of him, in a way he suspected no man had done before. “Here,” he said, shimmying out from underneath Merlin’s body, moving down between his legs.
Merlin’s cock was lovely, long and lean like him. Arthur licked a stripe up the seam of his taut sack to the tip and Merlin keened as he slipped his mouth over the head, taking him deeply in a full, wet suck. He moved slowly, letting Merlin fuck his mouth and fist his hair.
It had been so long since Arthur’d had someone in his mouth; he was heady from Merlin’s scent, the soft hair that tickled his nose when he licked down the outside of the shaft. He used one hand to massage the firm, pink bollocks, sliding one finger back to tease the furl of Merlin’s hole before pushing it inside, the way slicked by saliva and precome.
Merlin opened his legs wider, encouraging, and Arthur took the hint, sucking on the soft taint under Merlin’s balls and licking back, lifting Merlin’s legs so he could get at his rim, giving him soft, broad sweeps with his tongue to relax the tight muscles. Merlin made little noises when Arthur did something he liked and Arthur gave him with more of whatever he wanted, tonguing his arse and pressing in alongside his finger, rubbing over the slit of Merlin’s cock, pulling back his musky foreskin and licking the wetness gathered there.
“Sorry, it’s . . . good,” Merlin said when his hips jerked up and gagged Arthur on his cock. He sounded drunk, so Arthur just sucked harder, fucked Merlin with a second finger and contemplated lube. He was close to coming himself, rubbing against the comforter to relieve some of the tension, mesmerized by Merlin’s swollen prick, how thick it became, what a delicious colour.
When Arthur pulled away completely, he was met with a frustrated whimper. But Arthur put an end to it by skimming up Merlin’s body, pressing a soft kiss to each his fading bruises as he went. Merlin’s nipples were soft and inviting; Arthur couldn’t resist them either. He sucked one into a peak, then the other, and Merlin rewarded him by pulling at his shoulders for a slow kiss. He smiled at Arthur, rubbed their noses together.
It was too late for second thoughts or feeling guilty, but Arthur realized, surprised, that he felt neither. He only felt the warmth of Merlin’s body and that this was right despite how fucked up it all was, because Merlin’s hair curled too-long over his ears and he needed someone to nuzzle into that crease, and Arthur had just the right technique.
He kissed the silly ear and Merlin laughed, tickled, but then they both grew serious.
Merlin ran his hands along Arthur’s back, snapping his hips up, and Arthur wanted nothing more than to turn him over, pour lube over his crack and slide his cock in the crease before losing himself in fucking. He wanted to erase every man Merlin had ever been with, every bad experience, so there was only him, only Arthur.
“I want . . . I want . . .” Merlin was really moving now, body tense, hands everywhere like he couldn’t touch enough places. One finger crept into the crease of Arthur’s arse, and his desire burgeoned into a sweet pain. But then he realized he was pressing Merlin into the mattress; he was too heavy because Merlin was recovering from injuries and maybe this wasn’t the right way to go about things after all. He had a suspicion even if it did hurt, Merlin wouldn’t have told him.
“Will you fuck me?” Arthur whispered. He normally preferred topping, but for some reason the idea of Merlin doing it seemed right . . . Merlin’s hips stopped moving and he stiffened.
“I haven’t . . . ever.”
The confession made Arthur’s chest swell possessively. “Do you want to?”
Merlin nodded, and then blushed. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t,” Arthur said, though it had been a while. He’d definitely need to locate the lube.
“I probably won’t last.”
“That’s okay. Neither will I.”
Merlin nodded again, bit his lip in a way that made it look a delightful thing to do. Before he lost himself to utter delirium, Arthur ferreted out the lube from the side table and turned onto his back. Merlin watched raptly, stroking his cock as Arthur spread his legs to open himself up.
“Can I help?” Merlin asked.
Arthur relinquished the lube and watched as Merlin slicked his fingers, sticking out his tongue in concentration as he slid the first finger inside. It felt amazing, and Arthur’s prick twitched on his stomach as Merlin leaned down, kissed the inside of Arthur’s thigh with trembling lips.
“You can add another,” Arthur said. “You won’t hurt me.”
The stretch burned, but Arthur willed himself to relax as Merlin breached him with another finger.
“It’s okay.” Merlin was moving so slowly as if he was afraid he’d hurt Arthur, and Arthur wanted it harder. “Faster is okay.”
He lost much of his hesitation after that, fucking Arthur with one hand while he stroked his erection with the other.
“Now,” Arthur said, too close to coming, “come on.”
“Should we get a condom?” Merlin asked, slicked and primed for entry. His arms were shaking as he held himself over Arthur, rubbed his cock over Arthur’s readied entrance.
It was probably a good idea, despite Merlin’s earlier confession, but Arthur felt reckless, and moreover, he trusted Merlin had told him the truth. He shook his head and hitched his legs higher for a better angle. Merlin leaned down to give him another kiss and pushing the blunt head inside, eyes losing focus.
“Oh Jaysus,” he said. “Oh my fucking God.”
He was barely in, but Merlin trembled, limbs unsteady with the effort of holding back. Arthur pulled him closer, wrapping his legs around Merlin’s slight hips and kissing his neck to show him he was okay, that it didn’t hurt. With a quiet moan, Merlin seated himself, filling Arthur up in a quick motion that kicked the breath out of him. Once Merlin was fully inside he looked at Arthur, worrying his bottom lip before rearing back and thrusting again.
“Oh God,” Merlin said again, eyes focused on his cock appearing and disappearing, and Arthur watched his face until it was too much, until Merlin was too beautiful, licking his lips, kissing the inside of Arthur’s calf with those obscene lips. Arthur closed his eyes, focusing on the drag and push of Merlin’s cock, the tightening in his balls as Merlin forced himself inside like he couldn’t get enough, like he was trying to plant something good and deep. Arthur took it all, groaning when Merlin brushed against his prostate.
“There,” he said, “like that.”
Merlin’s brow furrowed in concentration, but he was panting as he angled for the right spot, whispered dirty things Arthur didn’t quite catch. And his noises . . . Arthur wasn’t even sure Merlin knew how loud he was, each thrust punctuated with a grunt. He loved it.
Merlin kissed Arthur’s ankle, he bit at the arch of his foot, muttered, “wanna come.”
“Do it,” Arthur said, and that final permission had Merlin fucking him harder with punchy, long strokes. Arthur gripped his own prick and it only took two pulls before he was coming, being ripped apart and blinded with white. He spilled hot and slick over his fist as Merlin’s movements became erratic, hips snapping.
Merlin opened his mouth to say something but it was unintelligible, just a sweet groan that Arthur reached up to devour. He cupped Merlin’s face and kissed the bliss off him as Merlin emptied inside—deep, wracking spasms that Arthur felt in his bones.
Merlin fell on his chest, spent and breathing heavily, and Arthur marveled at the weight of him, how substantial he was despite his slim frame. He rubbed his hands up and down Merlin’s back, wincing as Merlin’s erection softened and slipped loose, come pooling uncomfortably beneath his arse.
“Um . . .” Merlin said.
“I . . .”
“Don’t tease me when I’m delirious,” Merlin grumbled, pulling a face. Arthur rolled them over so they were side-by-side, unable to stop touching him.
This was the moment he could panic. It wouldn’t take much to turn what had happened into something wrong—to think about Sam, to remember how young Merlin was (even if he didn’t usually seem it). Morgana wouldn’t approve, and shit, he should really call his sister back. There were a whole host of reasons why this hadn’t been a good idea.
“Hi,” Merlin said, his features guarded. “Are you . . . are we okay?”
Arthur decided that the only right answer was to kiss him again.
— — — —
It turned out, once you’d kissed Merlin Emrys, it was impossible to stop. When they were at home it was all Arthur wanted to do.
Merlin pretended to get irritated, but Arthur knew he loved it when Arthur approached him from behind and kissed his neck, or the tip of his ear. His lips belonged in the hollow at Merlin’s throat. He was positive he hadn’t lived until they found the concavity beneath Merlin’s ribs, which, now they were no longer sore, were ticklish.
“You kiss me too soft.” Merlin would laugh sometimes when Arthur got in one of those moods, and so Arthur would kiss him hard, and then he’d open Merlin up with fierce kisses and fuck him with long, sure strokes. Or sometimes Merlin would ride him slowly, letting Arthur kiss all of the places he loved in whatever way he liked.
Merlin took to climbing into Arthur’s bed at night, a maze of arms and legs among which Arthur found himself hopelessly lost. He grinned stupidly for no reason, walking his beat and thinking about what Merlin was doing, if he was using a new recipe they’d found, whether he might bring Merlin a new book to read.
He finally called Morgana and gave her a very edited report, which he wasn’t sure was convincing or not. At work people thought he’d gone round the bend. Gwaine wanted to know all about the bloke that had Arthur arse over tit, and those were the moments when reality threatened . . . when he knew that maybe something was wrong because he didn’t want to say he’s seventeen. Christ, only fucking seventeen. And Arthur’d be thirty in just over a month.
Some days he felt guilty over Sam, but before he’d died Sam had made it clear he’d wanted Arthur to find someone else. At the time Arthur had just shook his head and said no, impossible. Sam had just smiled.
Arthur didn’t think Sam would judge him, not when he was finally happy again. He’d always espoused the belief you love who you love, and it wasn’t as if Merlin was a minor.
Just barely. But still, there was that at least. He wasn’t breaking any laws. And who had said anything about love? Love? Was this love?
Once Merlin’s injuries were fully healed, Arthur started leaving subtle hints around the house—mostly brochures for A levels and continuing education. At first Merlin looked at them with a troubled expression. Arthur asked him what was wrong.
“You want me to leave.”
“No,” Arthur said, “I want you to stay. But I thought you might, I don’t know, read up on it. See if it’s something you want.”
Merlin seemed placated after that, and one day Arthur came home to find him bent over some literature, a pad of paper in hand.
“What’re you doing?” he asked, trying to keep from smiling.
Merlin shrugged. “It says to make a list of the things you like . . . the things that interest you. So you know which courses to take, you know, at college.”
Not wanting to appear too keen, Arthur struck his best casual stance. “Oh yeah?” But his attempts to surreptitiously glance at the paper were unsuccessful. Merlin called him nosey and passed it over.
Likes: Talking to people. Helping people. Reading. History.
Dislikes: Maths. Being told what to do. Dissecting anything.
“Okay, so being a doctor is out,” Arthur joked. “But you think you might want to help people?”
“Dunno. I mean, there’s a lot of bloody awful social workers out there, yeah? I’ve met a few.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Anyway, it might be good for someone like me . . . someone with experience. I could help kids.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Arthur said, heart thumping.
“I can think of worse things.” Merlin gave Arthur a cheeky grin. “The police, for one.”
“Oh, there are some perks,” Arthur said. “Handcuffs, for one.”
Merlin’s grin grew salacious. “How very kinky of you, Constable.”
That evening Arthur and Merlin got takeaway and were half-dozing, half-watching telly. They’d contemplated the handcuff scenario, but decided on Britain’s Got Talent. Then came the sound of a key in the lock.
“Arthur?” Morgana called. Fuck, he’d forgotten she still had a set from the days when she’d pop by to check on Sam while Arthur was working. It wasn’t like her to barge in, but under the circumstances Arthur figured she’d justified the intrusion as the responsibility of a worried older sibling. Her next statement confirmed his assessment. “You won’t answer your mobile and Leon’s ready to ring the police, only you are the pol—”
She rounded the corner, eyes popping when she noticed Merlin on the couch.
“Oh . . . hello,” she said.
“Hi,” said Merlin, offering a tentative smile. They’d been spooning, but Arthur had sprung away when he’d first heard his sister’s voice.
“Morgana,” Arthur said, rising, “this is Merlin. Merlin, this is my sister Morgana.”
Merlin stood and shook her hand, all the while he was throwing surreptitious glances at Arthur.
“So where are you from, Merlin?” Morgana asked once they’d done a reasonably good job of introducing themselves.
“Ealdor. It’s a village in Wales.”
“Oh, lovely. Wales has such beautiful countryside. I had a friend from Cardiff at uni.”
“That’s nice,” Merlin replied. “I've heard Cardiff is . . . nice.” He seemed to be at a loss of what to say, though it was clear he wanted to make a good impression. Arthur could have cursed Morgana for putting him in this position.
“And you’re how old?”
She steepled her finely manicured fingers. “So, how long are you going to be staying with my brother?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin said; he was starting to bristle a bit under the questions, and Arthur couldn’t blame him. He looked to Arthur for help.
“What’s with the inquisition, Morgana?” Arthur demanded.
“I’m just curious, trying to get to know young Merlin here.” She emphasized the word young pointedly, giving Arthur a look that couldn’t be misinterpreted. Arthur flushed.
“Well, you can get to know him by having a conversation, not by firing questions.”
“Sorry,” Morgana said. She turned to Merlin. “I apologize.”
The rest of the visit passed with small talk and the occasional tense silence. Finally, Morgana got up to take her leave and said goodbye to Merlin; Arthur walked her out.
She gave him an appraising look in the hall.
“Don’t,” he said, gritting the word through his teeth. He wouldn’t be surprised if Merlin was listening.
“We’ll talk another time, then,” she said, offering a half-smile. “I just wanted to meet him. I’m sorry for dropping by like this, but I wouldn’t have to if you would just talk to me when I call.”
Arthur glared at her, and she leaned forward, gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Ta, dear,” she said.
— — — —
“She doesn’t like me,” Merlin said.
“Yeah. It was a little on the obvious side.”
“She’s just protective of me,” Arthur said. “Older sister and all.”
Merlin nodded, but still looked troubled. “You don’t want to tell people about us, do you?”
“Fuck, Merlin. I do.”
“It’s because of the homeless thing?”
“The age thing, then.”
Arthur didn’t know what to say. “I’ll tell her when it’s right. I promise.”
“Okay,” said Merlin, frowning.
— — — —
“I want to make a shepherd’s pie,” Merlin said.
“Yes. It seems easy enough. Beef, potatoes, carrots. How could it go wrong?”
Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin’s waist, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. He was running late. “It sounds promising,” Arthur lied. Merlin’s skills in the kitchen hadn’t improved much, though most of the time the things he made were edible.
“Don’t sound so enthusiastic.” Merlin wrinkled his nose, kissed Arthur back.
“I’ll be home at seven,” Arthur said. “And I’ll be ready for pie.”
Work turned out to be much more dramatic than Arthur expected; there was a report that Mordred had been sighted near Piccadilly Circus, and Arthur went out with a team to scout the area. It wasn’t likely they’d find him, but when they actually had, things got more than a bit insane. Arthur and Leon took after the arsehole on foot, a chase through the West End that finally ended in the guy coming into unfortunate contact with Arthur’s fist . . . multiple times. Remembering what Merlin had suffered made Arthur’s vision go black with rage, and Leon had to pull Arthur back before he did serious damage. The wanker put up a hell of a fight, though, and left Arthur with a cut lip. It was worth it, Arthur thought, spitting blood.
When he arrived home at half seven, Merlin was standing in the kitchen with his hands on his hips.
“Sorry, sorry,” Arthur said, unbuttoning his shirt. He was covered with dirt and sweat and wanted nothing more than a hot shower and a drink.
Merlin’s displeasure quickly faded when he noticed the state of Arthur’s mouth. “Shite, what happened?”
“Mordred,” Arthur said. “But we caught him.”
“Seriously? Jaysus.” He fussed getting a wet paper towel and dabbing at Arthur’s lip, though the blood had long dried.
“Yes, and from the looks of it he won’t be making bail any time soon.”
“Aren’t you the sexy hero.” Merlin fluttered his eyes, hand to his chest. Arthur laughed.
“I’m dirty, is what I am. Do I have time to shower before dinner?”
Merlin nodded. “I forgot the cheese for the top, so it’s not ready yet. I was going to pop down to the shop, but I was waiting for you.”
“Okay, well go, go. I’ll be down in a bit.”
Merlin kissed the side of his mouth that wasn’t bruised and Arthur jogged upstairs. He was naked and about to head toward the bathroom when his mobile rang. Morgana. Shit, he hadn’t spoken to her since she’d been by the week before and she was probably arsed at him.
“Hello Morgana,” he said when he picked up the phone. “I’m alive, and no, Merlin hasn’t burned the flat down.”
“Ha. Really funny. I’m only thinking about you, you know. I mean, I’m your sister, your family.”
“Yes, I know, and I love you, but you really don’t need to be so worried. I’m an adult.”
“It’s just . . . crap. I ran into Gwaine today.”
Arthur’s sighed, rubbed his forehead. He knew exactly what was coming.
“He says you’re seeing someone new. Always chipper at the station, he said. Wanted to know who, so he asked me.”
“It’s Merlin, isn’t it?” When he didn’t answer, Morgana let out a sharp exhalation. “It is. Arthur, are you shagging him?”
The way she said it made it sound so tawdry, so wrong, Arthur groaned with frustration, scraped his hand through his hair.
“Oh my God, you are shagging him. Arthur!”
“You know nothing about him, now you’re shagging him. He’s barely legal. I can’t believe this.”
“It’s none of your goddamn business,” Arthur seethed. He wasn’t going to put up with Morgana’s shit, not when he finally had something good in his life again.
“But isn’t it? Arthur, you took care of Sam for so long, you loved him. You two were great together. And then he died and you were lost and in comes this street kid, this Merlin, and you think you can help him, fix him, you know, like you couldn’t fix Sam.”
“Merlin is nothing like Sam,” Arthur said, voice growing louder. “This isn’t the same thing. I should know, Morgana, I’m in it.”
“Please tell me you’re not in love with him,” she said.
“I can’t,” Arthur realized, and the revelation, as obvious as perhaps it should have been, bowled him over. It wasn’t a distressing feeling, however. It was warm and right and perfect, and Arthur wondered what Merlin would say if he knew—if he’d feel the same. If he’d be happy.
“I think you can’t let Sam go, and you’re projecting those feelings onto Merlin. You still love Sam.”
“What are you, a bloody psychologist?” Arthur asked. “I’ll always love Sam, you know that . . .”
“See, I knew it!” Morgana said, cutting him off, and Arthur cleared his throat, walking into the master bath to start the shower while he waited for her to finish shouting in triumph. She was so like their father in many ways: never one to listen.
“I’m not saying he won’t always have a place in my heart, but Sam is dead; I know that. I’m moving on and he would want me to. I suggest you do the same.”
“But Merlin’s so young . . .”
“If it’s a mistake, then I’m the one making it, not you. I know you want to help, but this isn’t the way.”
“You really care about him? And you don’t think he’s just using you for money?”
“Fuck no.” He was anxious to get off the phone and into the shower, soothe the muscles that had begun to ache from the fight.
“Okay. Well, I can see you’re not in any mood to talk rationally right now. I just think you should take a long, hard look at why you’re doing this, Arthur.” Arthur rolled his eyes as he hung up, though he couldn’t deny his sister’s words had slightly unsettled him.
After a particularly long, indulgent shower that Arthur knew Merlin would reprimand him for, he toweled off, dressed, and went downstairs. The kitchen smelled of something burning and he went to the oven, groped with a mitted hand for Merlin’s dinner.
“Merlin!” he called out. The potatoes were singed, but they’d had worse. They could just scrape off the top.
When no one answered, Arthur turned around, confused. Merlin should have been back long before now; he’d been in the shower and . . .
That’s when he saw it—a wedge of cheese, some loose change on the counter.
His first irreverent thought was to wonder if shepherd's pie even had cheese. Then his stomach plummeted.
“Merlin?” He called again as he made his way to the living room, then upstairs, still calling Merlin’s name.
Back downstairs, he realized the door was ajar. Merlin’s coat wasn't in the closet.
Barefoot, Arthur ran outside, gripped in full-fledged panic. He looked up and down the street, didn’t see anyone. But why would Merlin have gone? Why . . .
Merlin is nothing like Sam.
I’ll always love Sam.
Fuck, fuck, fuck! Arthur took off down the street towards the closest tube station, still barefoot, paying no heed when he stepped on something decidedly like glass. Perhaps Merlin had come home and listened to his conversation with Morgana, heard things out of context and, hot-headed and stubborn as he was, assumed the worst.
When he arrived at the tube, his eyes darted madly from person to person as they streamed in and out of the entrance, looking at him askance because he was the crazy person with no shoes.
Fuck knows where Merlin could have got to by now, and without a mobile because he’d refused to accept one when Arthur had offered.
Gone—no. He couldn’t have gone. He’d be back. He’d come back when he realized he’d misheard. He’d be back because Arthur loved him. Goddamn it, why couldn’t he have waited?
— — — —
“Oh, Arthur. I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.”
“I have to find him, Morgana.”
His sister gave him a pitying look, and Arthur grabbed his coat. He’d stopped by Morgana and Leon’s after work to ask for suggestions, but they, like everyone else, had the same answers.
We’ll keep a look out.
He’ll come back when he’s ready.
They didn’t know what Arthur knew, how easily Merlin could fade away when he didn’t want to be found.
Merlin had been gone for three days.
Chapter 4: Part Four
“Do I really have to wear this?” Arthur fiddled with the tie at his throat. He’d never been one for fancy dress and had always disliked bowties in particular, but according to Morgana it was the done thing to wear a tux to charity benefits.
As his de-facto date for the evening’s event in support of the homeless, his sister took over tending to his wardrobe malfunction. “Everyone will be wearing the same. And you’re the one being honoured.”
“I know, but it’s just a bit ironic, isn’t it, a roomful of do-gooders wearing thousand-pound suits, sipping champagne, and throwing money at a problem they’ll never see first hand?”
“Very. But that’s the charity world for you.” Finally satisfied, she smiled and looped her arm through his. “You look dashing, darling.”
They took a taxi downtown, and Arthur rehearsed his speech in his head, his nerves starting to flare as they passed St. Paul’s and neared the benefit hall. Three years ago, he’d never have predicted the path his life would take, but it had changed for the better because of Merlin, even though he’d lost him in the end.
When Merlin’d first left, Arthur had been consumed with finding him. Now days, even weeks would pass without Merlin entering his thoughts; occasionally he’d see a dark-haired kid on the tube or glimpse a boy in a crowd with ridiculous ears and his heart would stop. Just as he was about to call out, the illusion would dissolve. The kid would be too short, or too tall, and Arthur would chide himself for his absurdity because wherever Merlin was, the nearly four years that had passed meant he’d be twenty-one, not the teenager Arthur imagined.
The energies Arthur had originally channeled into searching for Merlin, and the connections he’d made with various homeless organizations as a result, had evolved into something more. He found himself volunteering in his time off, and then, later, worked in tandem with Avalon, a nonprofit aid organization, and some colleagues at the Met to introduce more humane police policies for dealing with London’s homeless youth, including a peer mentoring system and training for the officers. It was for that work Arthur was being honoured tonight. When Gwen, Avalon’s Chief Operations Officer and now a close friend, had called to tell him they planned to give him an award at their annual benefit, he’d been humbled to silence. She’d just laughed and told him to be there on time.
And on time they were. The taxi pulled up to the front of the hall at eight. Arthur and Morgana entered, exchanged greetings with the people Arthur knew, got introduced to those he didn’t. A few friends from the force were in attendance—Gwaine was already halfway to drunk and hitting on someone—but Arthur didn’t have long to talk to them. Gwen had linked her arm through his, ushering him from person to person, gushing in the barely restrained way she had while Arthur smiled and tried to be charming so that the people he schmoozed would give Avalon lots and lots of well-deserved money. The giant ballroom was decorated in red and gold, Avalon's colours, and waiters dressed in tuxes that looked nicer than Arthur's passed hors d'oeuvres on silver trays. It was all a bit much, really, but Avalon was one of the favoured charities of the royal family.
“So wonderful what you’ve done,” one woman, an older benefactor, said, squeezing his hand. “Lovely to see young people getting so involved with such an important cause.”
Arthur fought to retain his snort, because at thirty-three he didn’t exactly feel young anymore, though he knew he technically was.
“It’s the least I can do,” he said, always shy of compliments. He didn’t have to hedge long; Gwen nudged him, indicating it was time to take their seats.
“Oh, wait, there’s one more person I want you to meet.” She scanned the room with hawk-eyes, guiding him across to the other side. “One of our brand new student-mentors—hmm, where did he go? He’s in his first year at LSE and we’ve been really impressed with him so far.”
Though Gwen was still talking, Arthur’s mind went blank, unable to process what he saw. His body flashed hot, then cold, and the blood rushed to his feet, a dizzying process that almost made him stumble. How, how could Merlin be standing just five yards away, champagne in hand, talking to some long-haired bloke Arthur didn’t know? How could he be the exact same, but different, wearing a suit and putting his lips to his glass like it was the easiest thing in the world? Then the other man moved away—but not before patting Merlin’s arm, Arthur noticed—and Merlin was alone, unaware they were walking towards him.
For a moment Arthur wondered if he’d gone completely mental. He waited for the disappointment that always came after such sightings, the flush of adrenaline leaving him shaking.
This time it didn’t happen. Merlin was like a beautiful ghost in his dark suit, still pale and slim.
Gwen tapped on Merlin’s shoulder, said his name, and Merlin turned to face them. His hand shook, an almost imperceptible movement that unsettled the liquid in his glass. For a moment he looked exactly like Arthur felt—like he couldn’t quite believe his senses—but then the impression vanished, the shutters drawn tight.
“Arthur,” Gwen said, “This is Merlin Emrys. Like I was just telling you, he’s one of our new student mentors, studies public policy at LSE. Merlin, meet Arthur Pendragon, though I know you already know everything about him.” She smiled, not aware she’d said far too much. “Merlin is a big fan of yours, Arthur.”
“Oh, really?” It came out a little more like a whisper than was probably good, though Gwen didn’t seem to notice. Merlin was a fan? So Merlin had been around . . . he volunteered at Avalon and he knew Arthur had started the peer-mentoring program and . . . how . . . how had he come here? What had he been doing all of these years? Where the fuck had he gone? But god—thank god—he was alive. He looked well. Nothing else mattered. Arthur memorized the slight crookedness of his tie, his disheveled hair, like the details were fleeting gifts. He was heartbreaking—day-old scruff on his face. A man.
“Sergeant Pendragon,” Merlin said, extending his hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
So they were pretending not to know each other. That was how it was to be, though Merlin had obviously heard about Arthur’s promotion, knew he would be here tonight. After all the worrying Arthur had done over him, imagining horrible scenarios, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to hug Merlin or strangle him.
Somehow Arthur managed to shake Merlin’s hand and let it go when he wanted to keep holding it, drag him out of the room, demand answers, and maybe provide a few himself. His skin prickled where they’d touched.
“Very nice to . . . meet you. Merlin.”
“Oh!” Gwen said as a glass was clinked. “Dinner. We’d better go sit. Merlin, maybe you can talk with Arthur more afterward?”
Arthur didn’t hear Merlin’s answer as Gwen whisked him away. Everything inside him screamed against the distance. He turned his head back to see Merlin staring at the glass in his hand.
“He’s a nice lad,” Gwen said. “Smart too. You look at a kid like that and you wouldn’t believe he’d ever been homeless.”
Gwen hadn’t been at Avalon when Arthur was looking for Merlin, and he’d never mentioned his name to her, so she knew nothing about the nature of their previous acquaintance. Outside of Morgana, Leon, and Gwaine, no one did. So it was disconcerting that now Gwen knew more about Merlin’s life than Arthur; his brain teemed with questions, unable to choose which to ask first.
“How long has Merlin been volunteering?”
“Just about a month. Came from Wales. I suspect he’s had a hard life, but he doesn’t talk about it much. He’s very dedicated, though; the kids love him. A bit of a smart arse, but so are all young people these days.”
By now they’d settled at their table along with Morgana and a few members of the Avalon board. He wanted to know more, but another guest immediately engrossed Gwen in conversation. Arthur tried to pay attention as talk turned to other topics over dinner, but he found himself responding absently to people, his eyes roving to the opposite end of the hall where Merlin sat next to the man he’d been talking to earlier. He was older, maybe Arthur’s age, and attractive, with almost shoulder length brown hair and a close-trimmed beard. They seemed to know each other well, so friends at least, maybe more. When the man laughed at something Merlin had said, Arthur forced his eyes away.
His food tasted bitter. He pushed it aside, sipping a glass of water and trying to calm the urge to go over there, demand to be introduced. How was it possible to be affected like this after three fucking years and just a minute of conversation?
“Are you okay?” Morgana leaned over to whisper. “Nervous about your speech?”
Morgana’s mouth gaped. “Oh my God, really?” She started to look around but Arthur grabbed her arm, shook his head.
“Don’t. I don’t . . .”
“Is he with someone?”
“Not sure. I—” Arthur cut himself off when he noticed Gwen watching them curiously. “Later,” he told his sister.
Once dinner plates had been cleared, speeches began. Fund-raising was the primary purpose of the benefit, so the three-hundred-person crowd listened as various Avalon officials gave recent updates, discussed successes, and detailed future plans. An envoy for the Prince of Wales, the charity’s principle beneficiary, gave a speech-by-proxy while Arthur tried not to look at Merlin; he failed miserably until Gwen indicted it was his turn to speak. He rose, accepted a good-luck squeeze from Morgana, and followed Gwen to the stage where she introduced him to a round of polite applause.
Arthur gripped the podium. The speech he’d rehearsed had vanished, but he knew he had to pull himself together.
“I’m greatly honoured to be here,” Arthur began once the clapping had died down. “People have asked me why I began doing the work that I do.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose my sister would tell you I have an obsessive compulsion for helping people.” The audience tittered and Arthur glanced at Morgana, who gave him her best mock-glare. “Maybe it’s true.” He shrugged, didn’t look in Merlin’s direction.
“In my ten years working in law enforcement in this country, I’ve seen people treat the homeless with suspicion and indifference. The word that comes to mind is invisibility. How many times have you walked by someone on the street and pretended they weren’t there? Why do we do that? Maybe to protect ourselves. Stop ourselves from caring because there’s so much pain in the world it’s overwhelming. And maybe we’re more than a little ashamed of the things we have that they don’t. But there’s also another side, a side maybe we don’t like to admit to, a voice that tells us maybe whoever it is deserves to be where they are.
“I’m not excluding myself here. I’m implicated. We’re all implicated in one another’s suffering, and we’re all obligated to help when we can.”
He swallowed away the stop in his throat because there was something else he needed to say. “That’s not the only reason I’m standing up here tonight. Three years ago I met someone and, whether he knows it or not, he changed my life. I started working with Avalon for him, and I wound up doing it for me. I would thank him if I could.” At that moment Arthur let himself look toward Merlin, though he couldn’t see him because of the lights glaring in his eyes. “Because if there’s anything else I learned, it’s that the homeless don’t deserve our pity. They do, however, have a right to our understanding.
“I’m honoured to be here, but there are hundreds of people who work doing the same thing I do, and they’re all entitled to tribute for the difference they’ve made. You can make a difference too by donating generously. Thank you.” Applause erupted again. Somehow Arthur made it back down the stairs, wondering if he should go to his table or head outside for some air. He couldn’t breathe.
The decision was made for him when Morgana swept up to the stage to take his arm, looking regal in her emerald green dress.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said, eyes shining. “That was a lovely speech. From the heart.”
“Thanks,” Arthur said, remembering the things he’d forgotten. He didn’t suppose it really mattered. Morgana said something else but Arthur had stopped listening—all he wanted to do was find Merlin. What if the moment slipped away before he got the chance?
The mingling had begun again, though; before Arthur could escape he found himself in a circle of people who wanted to hear more about the man Arthur had mentioned in his speech. He demurred, wondering if he shouldn’t have mentioned Merlin at all. Merlin. Merlin.
Even among so many guests, Arthur’s gaze landed on Merlin whenever he turned his head, as if he were a compass needle and Merlin due north. Sometimes they caught each other’s eyes, and Arthur felt an irrational dislike for the person he was conversing with because he wasn’t Merlin. He hated the people he saw Merlin talking to even more, especially the long-haired man, whose proprietary stance (a hand on Merlin’s arm, a pat on his back) made Arthur think unkind thoughts. The only thing that held Arthur back from walking away mid-conversation was his blasted English propriety, that is, until he looked for Merlin and couldn’t locate him. He scanned the room, panicked.
“I’ve got to go.” He interrupted the grey-haired man, some royal cousin, mid -speech. The man gave him a displeased frown. “Sorry. Sorry,” he apologized, not sorry at all as he walked away.
He circled the room—saw the man Merlin had come with speaking with Gwen—but Merlin was gone.
It was that night all over again, that same distress tugging at his ribs, prodding him forward. He went toward the exit, determined that this time Merlin wouldn’t evade him.
The voice stopped him mid-stride. He turned, shoes squeaking on the laminated floor of the lobby.
Merlin looked nearly frantic. He closed the distance between them in three paces. “Are you leaving?”
“No. I . . .” His words trailed off, light-headed as he was with relief.
They stood, staring, as a couple passed by. Merlin opened his mouth as if to say more, then closed it, biting his lip instead.
“I thought you’d gone,” Arthur said.
“No. Just went to the loo.” Merlin offered a hesitant smile. “The line for the gents was long. Everyone's getting pissed, I guess.”
“When I got back, I thought maybe you’d left.”
“No. I was looking for you.” Saying those words felt like giving an intimate confession; Arthur shifted, unsettled by the sense he’d just given a piece of himself away and wasn’t sure what Merlin would do with it.
“Do you want to . . . take a walk?” Merlin asked, offering a smile that helped Arthur regain some of his equilibrium.
“That’s probably a good idea.” They’d already begun to draw interested glances, and Arthur didn’t want an audience for whatever conversation they were about to have.
Once outside in the warm late summer air, Arthur almost believed he could handle this. They walked away from the building in step, taking in the odd feeling of just being together.
“Your speech,” Merlin said after they’d got as far as a block from the hall. “It was . . . were you talking about me?”
Though a sarcastic response was tempting, Arthur nodded instead.
“There are so many things I want to say to you,” Merlin said. “I—”
“I know why you left.” Arthur cut him off because he had things he needed to say as well. “But you misunderstood what you overheard and I never got a chance to explain.”
“Please don’t tell me that.” Merlin’s voice was filled with a quiet sadness that Arthur only partially understood. “Jaysus, please don’t tell me that.”
“Because I always worried maybe I’d been wrong. Not right away, but a few months later. I started to . . . forget . . . and shite . . .” Merlin ran his hands through his hair, making it stick up in a way that would have been endearing if he hadn’t looked so unhappy.
“Why didn’t you come back to find out? I loved you, you know.” He hadn’t planned on telling Merlin this, not now, but somehow the words had slipped out and couldn’t be taken back. He watched Merlin warily. They’d stopped walking and moved closer to each other, so close that Arthur could reach out and touch Merlin, if he wanted to. Did he want to? The thought confused him and Merlin was quiet, so Arthur filled up the silence with more words. “I didn’t know it myself until the night you left. I thought you might have felt . . . the same, but—”
“I was a fucked up kid, Arthur. I didn’t think anyone cared about me, not even you, good as you were to me.”
He hadn’t answered the question Arthur had inadvertently posed; it was a sharp, unwelcome reminder that Merlin hadn’t necessarily loved him. He waited, jaw clenched, as Merlin continued.
“Whatever I heard that night doesn’t matter. It could have been anything—I was waiting for it to end, for all my fears to be confirmed. It made sense that someone like you could never feel . . . like I did.” Merlin’s words came in a rush, his eyes on the ground. “If you’d told me you’d . . . cared about me, I don’t know if I would have believed you.”
Arthur shivered despite the warmth of the night. All he’d wanted was for Merlin to be loved, not to be hurt anymore, but he couldn’t make Merlin feel deserving when he didn’t, no matter how much he’d wanted to.
“And now?” Arthur asked.
“There are good days and bad. But I’ve had help working through some stuff. I’ve been seeing someone, a psychiatrist; I still can’t even believe it.” He sighed, glanced quickly at Arthur. “You probably think I’m crazy.”
Arthur shook his head. “No, it’s good. I’ve gone myself.” Before he knew what he was doing, he touched the edge of Merlin’s sleeve, and then dropped his hand to his side and clenched it there.
Merlin swallowed. “Did you worry about me?”
Worried hadn’t been half of it, not really, but while part of him wanted to make Merlin understand how many hours he’d spent looking, carrying Merlin’s picture along with him in his wallet, he also understood. Merlin had been on the run, even from him, apparently.
“Of course I did. I looked for you everywhere, even harassed Will to tell me, but he wouldn’t.” He grimaced as soon as the words had escaped his lips, thinking of how Merlin’s friend had been found murdered only a few months after Merlin had left. Gang violence, and somehow Will had found himself caught in the middle. Fuck, he didn’t even know if Merlin knew. He turned to Merlin, trying to think of how to broach the topic, or if it was even the appropriate time. Merlin saved him the anxiety.
“I know,” he said softly. “I know Will’s dead. That’s one of the reasons I left London.”
“Where did you go?”
“Drifted for a while. Then a couple months later I went back to my mam.”
Arthur drew a sharp inhale. Perhaps it had been naïve of him, but he’d never, ever suspected Merlin would return to Ealdor. “No, but, Cenred—”
“Don’t worry—he wasn’t there. My mam got help from a women’s shelter and left him after I ran away. So I stayed. Yeah, I stayed. I mean, I didn’t want to at first, but I had nowhere else to go.” He sighed, as if there was much more to tell and no idea where to start. “It wasn’t easy with us. I was really angry with her, even though I didn’t know it at the time, but things have gotten better now. Mostly.”
Arthur nodded. “And here you are.”
“Here I am.”
“It looks like you’ve done well for yourself, Merlin. I’m so . . . glad about that.”
“Is it not good that I came tonight? I understand. I mean, it was a pretty stupid thing to do. Surprising, probably.”
“Probably.” Arthur snorted. “Why did you come?”
Merlin thrust his hands in his pockets. “I wanted to see you.”
“But you could’ve dropped by, you know, before. Called. Sent an email. Anything.”
Merlin winced at Arthur’s tone, worried his lip again. “I got back to London a couple months ago and looked you up, found out about Avalon. What you’d been doing with the Met training. It’s . . . wow. It’s great.”
“It’s not a big deal.” The words sounded foreign on his tongue, as strange as the notion Merlin had been back in London for months. “But, why tonight?”
Merlin’s hand was in his hair again, a habit Arthur didn’t remember. “Because I couldn’t wait any longer. It’s . . . fuck it, the truth is I was afraid you wouldn’t want to see me . . . that maybe I’d muck up your life again or something. So I volunteered with Avalon because I couldn’t get up the courage to do anything else.”
Arthur didn’t know how to negotiate this new-old dynamic in a way to keep it from going completely awry. “You didn’t muck up my life, Merlin. Don’t ever think that, okay?”
“Okay,” Merlin said, not sounding especially convincing despite his assent.
“You must be doing a good job. Gwen’s quite taken with you,” Arthur said, hoping to find some neutral ground.
“Yeah,” Merlin said, smiling. “She’s great. She talks about you all the time. Are you two . . .” He made a vague gesture with his hand.
“I’m gay, remember?”
The knowing look Merlin shot at him made Arthur flush; it was clear that Merlin did indeed remember. They stood so close Arthur could feel Merlin’s body heat, smell his woodsy-citrus aftershave and, under it, Merlin himself. It hit him like a revelation, bringing him back three years to the sheets and pillowcases Arthur had reluctantly washed weeks after Merlin had left. By then, they’d lost all trace of him, anyway.
“I’m so sorry, Arthur,” Merlin said. “For leaving like that. At the time I didn’t think you’d care. I don’t like to think that I’ve . . . made you suffer. You were the only one who saw any good in me; fuck, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for you.”
Merlin stepped forward, and Arthur found himself leaning into Merlin’s body, the arms around him squeezing so tight Arthur wondered if maybe he was falling and this was how it was to be caught just in time. Impossible, he thought, how sturdy Merlin was, how lovely. It would be so easy to pretend three years had never happened.
“Now’s the part where you hug me back,” Merlin said. Arthur fell into the embrace, eyes clenched tight, hands fisting Merlin’s suit jacket, not caring that his was being wrinkled just the same because Merlin was here and alive, so much more solid than anything Arthur could remember. Merlin’s cheek scratched against his freshly shaven face and he relished the sting.
“I never thought I’d see you again,” he whispered into Merlin’s ear, because it had been what he was thinking and he wanted Merlin to know what he’d said in his speech was true.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said again and again.
It wasn’t clear to Arthur how long they stayed that way, clinging to each other on a nameless London street. At some point Arthur realized Merlin was crying against his shoulder, quiet, eyes just leaking tears. He didn’t seem to mind when Arthur ran his hands up and down his back, wondering what would happen after they let each other go. When they finally broke apart, it was Arthur who pulled back, watching Merlin’s glassy eyes, black as his hair in the dim streetlight.
“I’m sorry. I wish we had more time to talk,” Arthur said. “But we should probably get back. Morgana probably thinks I’ve run off and left her and I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Yeah, I’m sure Lance is probably wondering where I’ve got to.”
Hearing the unfamiliar man’s name brought reality crashing back. Arthur was positive that this Lance character was Merlin’s boyfriend, but he didn’t want to bring it up and have it confirmed. He didn’t want to know, not right now. Not tonight. They turned and headed the way they’d come, both lost in thought.
As they approached the benefit hall, Arthur knew his pace had begun to drag for a reason. He wanted to see Merlin again. Soon. He knew what he should do; ask for Merlin’s number, set something up for coffee, maybe next week. They’d talk about what they’d been doing for the past three years and catch up. He should be responsible and not jump into anything.
“Maybe we can get together and . . . talk soon,” he said.
Merlin smiled, the first true smile he’d given Arthur all evening. “I’d like that. When?”
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Arthur asked, ignoring the voice that told him to be reasonable because he was tired of reasonable and if he wanted to see Merlin he bloody well would.
“Nothing,” Merlin bit at his bottom lip and cast his dark eyes on Arthur. “I mean, studying, but nothing else. No plans.”
“Do you want to, I don’t know, get a pint or something? Go on a walk? Or coffee? I don’t know, see a movie?”
Merlin laughed. “That’s a long list. Um. A pint would be nice, yeah.”
They exchanged numbers and Arthur tried not to dwell on the simple but somehow devastating fact that Merlin now had a mobile. And when they hugged again, lingering with their whole bodies, Arthur wiped away a couple stray tears from his face before he got hold of himself. He hoped Merlin hadn’t noticed.
Back inside, the benefit was wrapping up; people were getting ready to leave, and Arthur soon lost sight of Merlin as he sought out his sister. His hand clenched his phone, which now contained a number he’d already instantly memorized.
“Where did you—” she started to ask, but then she saw his face. “Merlin?”
“We talked a bit.”
“You look—God, Arthur, are you sad or happy?”
“Both,” he said. “I’m both.”
— — — —
The next day Arthur’s stomach fluttered with nerves when he rang Merlin, though he wasn’t sure why he was behaving like a fifteen year old. When Merlin didn’t answer for a few rings, Arthur experienced a momentary panic that perhaps he’d misheard the number after all or worse, but then Merlin answered the phone, sounding out of breath.
“Hi,” he said. “Sorry. I was in the shower. Just got up.”
“It’s after one,” Arthur said.
Merlin laughed and Arthur could hear the shrug in his voice. “I sleep late on the weekends.”
“Oh, to be young.”
“I’m getting up there,” Merlin said. “Twenty-one, now.”
“I know,” Arthur said, feeling old.
“So how about that pint? When are you picking me up?”
Arthur rubbed his chin. “Where do you live?” He had to remind himself that the idea of Merlin, now a college student, thinking this was a date was ridiculous, especially given the probability he was already attached.
Merlin gave his address, a side street in Bloomsbury, and Arthur promised to be by at seven. He was good for nothing until then, performing perfunctory chores to distract himself but never really getting anything done.
It turned out Merlin was renting a room from an old woman with two cats and a green-feathered parrot, which squawked loudly when Arthur rang the bell and proceeded to utter a string of very loud curses.
“Bugger it!” the parrot said as the landlady led Arthur upstairs to Merlin’s room. “Bitch!”
“I’m terribly sorry,” she said, embarrassed. “My late husband had quite a sense of humour.”
She knocked on Merlin’s door. “Merlin dear, there’s a young man to see you.” She turned to Arthur. “He’s not allowed to have lady friends over, you understand, but I don’t mind a nice boy like you. Still, no visitors after nine. Eight on weekdays.”
Arthur had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing because, unless something had drastically changed in the past few years, she had no reason to fear any amorous lady visitors whatsoever. Merlin answered the door, face flushed. God, he looked good in blue—Arthur glanced appreciatively at the button down shirt and dark jeans. He was barefoot, and the sight of Merlin’s toes had Arthur spinning back three years to an afternoon on his couch with those feet in his lap.
“Hi,” Merlin said, smiling shyly. “You’re early.”
“Ten minutes, but that’s okay. That’s great. Come on in. I just need to get my shoes on.”
“You boys let me know if you need anything,” said the landlady. She gave Arthur a pat on the shoulder and stood as if she were expecting to be invited into Merlin’s room for tea.
“Thanks, Mrs. Collins,” Merlin said, pulling Arthur in and shutting the door with an eye-roll. “She’s sweet,” he whispered, “but nosy.”
“The parrot’s something else.”
Merlin had turned around, grabbing a pair of socks off his floor. “Oh, you met Kilgharrah?”
“Not formally, no, but he swore at me on the stairs.” The tiny room felt cozy, though very old fashioned. The bed was so narrow Arthur doubted Merlin could have an overnight guest if he tried.
“That means he likes you,” said Merlin, pulling on his second shoe. “He reserves his best insults for his favourite people.”
“What does he call you?”
“Bloody git,” Merlin said. “Arsehole, when he’s feeling affectionate.”
Arthur chuckled, running his hand along Merlin’s textbook-littered desk. It was far too small for the mounds of books heaped upon it. “This place is . . . nice,” he said.
Merlin wrinkled his nose. “It’s crap, isn’t it?”
“It’s crap,” Arthur agreed.
Merlin sighed. “I know. But the rent is cheap and meals are included, so it works for me for now.”
Arthur nodded; he surely didn’t want to make Merlin feel bad for his living arrangements. “I’d stay just for the parrot.”
“He is pretty great. Let’s go get him to say cock and balls before we leave.”
— — — —
There was a tiny pub around the corner from Merlin’s that he claimed had the best fish and chips in London. That’s where Arthur found himself ensconced in a booth a short time later, sharing a basket of chips with Merlin, who liked vinegar but only when it was dripped in moderation from a very great height so as not to sog the food. Arthur sipped his beer and watched Merlin, listened to his talk about his classes at LSE. The entire surreal experience had thrown him, making it unclear if they were supposed to have a serious conversation or if that kind of thing could wait.
When Merlin finally noticed Arthur wasn’t eating, his chewing slowed. “This is weird, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Good weird,” Arthur said. “But a bit weird, yeah.”
“I’m sorry if I’m talking too much about stupid things; it’s just a bad habit when I’m nervous.”
Arthur smiled, grateful that he wasn’t the only one feeling a bit on edge, but not happy with Merlin’s self-deprecating remarks.
“It’s not stupid. I like hearing about what you’re doing now. It’s good you’re excited about it.”
“Well, I mean I’m not far along yet, and it’s a bit strange being older than the rest of the students, but I like it so far, yeah.”
“So I take it you finished your A-levels back home?”
Merlin nodded, sipping his drink. “My mam made sure I did. But I wanted to, you know . . . even before that.”
They sat watching quietly for a minute, staring at each other, until Arthur noticed Merlin’s ears redden. He laughed softly and looked way.
“What?” Arthur asked, smiling because Merlin’s was contagious.
Merlin turned back to him. “You. It’s just . . . you look the exact same.”
“Should I take that as a compliment?”
“You don’t, look the same, I mean. Don’t like shaving anymore?”
Merlin scratched at his face, a movement Arthur found maddeningly charming. “I’m just lazy, I guess. Why, you don’t like it?”
“No, I do. I like it.” You look gorgeous, he wanted to say. His heartbeat picked up and he drained his beer to stop himself.
“Another?” Merlin asked, gesturing at the empty glass. His own was still half-full, and Arthur realized he’d better slow down if he wanted to make it through the evening without making an arse of himself.
“Sure.” He moved to stand up, but Merlin held up his hand.
“It’s on me,” he said, giving his pocket a pat. Arthur nodded and watched as Merlin walked up to the bar and ordered two more beers. He chatted with the barman as he poured the pints. Arthur watched, mesmerized, as he tipped his head back and laughed, Adam’s apple bobbing at some joke the guy had told. When he turned back to Arthur, eyes still crinkled, Arthur had never seen anyone so beautiful.
“I don’t like drinking it when it’s warm,” Merlin explained, pushing his old pint away when he sat back down.
“You’ve gotten very particular in your old age.”
“Ha. I guess now I can afford to be. But what about you?” Merlin asked. “I’ve heard all about your professional life, of course, but I don’t feel like I know anything else.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I don’t know . . . um . . . you still live in your old flat?”
Arthur nodded. “Yes, though I’m not there much anymore. Busy.”
“Seems that way.”
“That’s all you want to know?” Arthur teased. “Whether I live in my old flat? I thought you already knew that.”
“I don’t know . . . I guess there’re some things I feel shy asking.”
“Merlin Emrys, shy? I can’t believe it.”
“Fine,” Merlin said, accepting the challenge. “You said . . . what I overheard that night, that I misunderstood you. And I was wondering how.”
This was the question he’d been waiting for. “Well, you’ve probably already figured I was talking to Morgana.”
“Yeah.” Merlin’s nose wrinkled slightly.
“I know you don’t like her, Merlin, but she’s a good person. Basically, she was worried that I was just replacing Sam with you, using you as some sort of surrogate. She didn’t approve of how young you were, either, but I suppose I can’t fault her for that. In any case, I was trying to explain to her that it wasn’t like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I loved Sam, but he was gone. I had decided to move on. You weren’t a replacement; you were something different. But that didn’t mean you meant any less.”
“Oh,” Merlin whispered, eyes growing wide. His hands gripped his glass, knuckles whitening. “I really bollocksed things, didn’t I?”
Arthur sighed. “It’s in the past now. I don’t suppose there’s much use dwelling on it, is there? I suppose I’ve come to accept that maybe I never should have . . . gone . . . there with you. Our relationship wasn’t exactly healthy for you, Merlin.”
“Don’t you dare say that,” Merlin said, eyes flashing with anger. “It was the only good thing that ever happened to me, and I won’t have you take it away.” His voice rose as he went on. “What is healthy, anyway? You’re just saying that because you think other people wouldn’t have approved, and maybe they didn’t, but they didn’t understand. You meant everything to me. I didn’t want you to love anyone else, even a dead man. I was selfish, maybe, but that’s why I left. I couldn’t bear you not feeling the same way. I don’t care if it was healthy or not, because whatever I had before certainly wasn’t healthy, and you showed me it didn’t have to be like that. So I don’t really give a rat’s arse about what other people think.”
While Merlin talked, Arthur’s hand slowly inched across the table almost without his awareness. For years he’d comforted himself with justifications that whatever they’d had was doomed from the start, that it would have ended eventually. Imagining the opposite was too painful: that Merlin could have been it for him, and he’d lost him.
He swallowed, dared to touch Merlin’s hand. Merlin looked down, than across to him, eyes accepting the invitation. His hand was cool and a bit damp from his glass. Arthur cupped it in both of his.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s okay,” Merlin said, his posture softening. He squeezed Arthur’s hand, entwining their fingers together. “I know it must have been weird for you, my being so young. But that’s how I felt.”
“Okay . . . that’s good.” Arthur stared at their hands on the table, Merlin’s long fingers threaded through his, and wondered if this had suddenly become a date. They weren’t holding hands like two people comforting each other; they were holding hands like lovers. That remembered heat returned, warming him from the tips of his toes and fanning out through his chest and limbs. If the table hadn’t been between them, Arthur would never have resisted kissing Merlin just then.
For a while they sat, hands clasped, silently nursing their pints, until Merlin made a proposal. “Do you want to go for a walk? There’s something I want to show you.”
Arthur nodded, reluctantly releasing Merlin’s hand so they could gather their things.
“So Lance,” Arthur said as they began to walk, arms brushing against each other every so often. “From last night. Is he your boyfriend?” He tried, not sure if he was succeeding, in keeping his inflection neutral.
Merlin chuckled. “He’s my professor.”
Arthur smiled grimly through the drop of his stomach.
“No, no, it’s not like that,” Merlin said. “Professor DuLac’s my advisor, but he’s also become a sort of a friend. His research is on inner city youth and public policy and he’s the one who got me into the mentoring program. I think he’s interested in Gwen, actually; they seem to get on. I don’t know why he just doesn’t go for it, you know, ask her out.”
“Oh. Really?” This DuLac character was awfully touchy-feely for an advisor. Then he remembered he’d seen him talking to Gwen before he’d left to find Merlin.
“Yeah. He’s a good bloke. Straight as an arrow, though.”
“Such a waste,” Arthur joked, giddy with relief.
“I’m actually not seeing anyone,” Merlin said, too quickly, too nervously for it not to mean anything. He glanced at Arthur out of the corner of his eye. “Are you?”
“No.” The truth was he’d been so busy the past few years he’d hardly given a thought to romance. Sam and Merlin had happened so closely together, had drained so much from him, that sometimes Arthur wondered if he’d ever be interested in dating again. There had been a couple of one-offs, but Arthur soon decided those didn’t work for him, either. Casual sex had never really been his thing, even in his younger years.
“There’s something I want to tell you,” Merlin said. “And it’s a little embarrassing, so . . .”
“Okay,” Arthur said, not sure where this was going. “I mean, I won’t laugh.”
“You’d better not.”
“So what’s the big secret?” Arthur asked, debating whether to take Merlin’s hand again and wondering why he couldn’t get the courage to do it.
“I haven’t shagged anyone since you,” Merlin said. “There.”
“Oh.” Wow. Not for the first time that evening, Arthur was speechless.
“Don’t get a big head. It wasn’t because I was pining after you,” Merlin said. “Well, not only.” He grinned and Arthur couldn’t tell if he was teasing or not. “For a while I didn’t date because of therapy, basically . . . I have some issues, which you know about. And I decided it would probably be better not to get involved with anyone, that way, until I worked them out.”
“That sounds very adult,” Arthur said.
Merlin gave him a mock-glare. “I am an adult.”
“I know. I know you are,” Arthur said.
“Anyway, I just wanted to tell you. So you’d know.”
“Thanks . . . for trusting me.” It wasn’t exactly clear why Merlin had brought it up; perhaps he was warning Arthur away from thinking about the potential for more between them, or maybe he wanted Arthur to know he’d been working through—things. He decided not to press the issue. “Where are we going, by the way?” he asked to distract himself, because surely he shouldn’t be glad that Merlin hadn’t been with anyone else since him.
They’d already walked a distance from the pub, and Merlin was leading Arthur down a maze of streets he didn’t think he’d ever been on before. Gradually they left behind the touristy part of Bloomsbury and entered a tree-lined, residential neighborhood, not unlike his in Notting Hill.
“You’ll see,” Merlin said. “I don’t even know if it’s still there, anyway.”
As they walked, talk shifted to easier subjects. They reminisced a bit, Merlin assuring Arthur he was a much better cook now and pledging to show him one day. Just a promise made lightly, not anything to plan on. Arthur knew this, yet still found himself hoping they could be friends, even as it became clearer to him by the second that he wanted more. Merlin was more subdued than he’d been at seventeen, but he still liked to tease Arthur. His smile was the same, though it grew a bit sad when he thought Arthur wasn’t looking. Little did he know Arthur couldn’t tear his eyes away.
Finally, after another turn down a quiet street, they found themselves in a small park. It only had a couple of benches, but it was filled with plants, some of them more exotic-looking than any Arthur’d seen in London before, though the dark made it difficult to tell. Not that he really knew much about plants, anyway. Merlin seemed happy, throwing his arms out wide and spinning around.
“I’ve missed this,” he said. “I don’t know who takes care of this garden, but I used to come here sometimes to think. It’s peaceful, you know?”
Arthur sat on one of the benches, letting his ears adjust to the quiet punctuated by the distant rumble of city traffic. It made sense, why Merlin sought this place amidst his chaotic life.
“That’s one of the things I love about home. I was always outside as a kid, helping my mam in the garden. She’s got a way with plants.” Merlin looked down, smiling, and Arthur patted the bench beside him.
“What else did you like to do?” Arthur asked, inhaling in surprise when Merlin sat down on his lap as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. He threw one arm around Arthur’s neck and settled back, leaning his head against Arthur’s shoulder and resting his feet on the bench next to Arthur’s thigh. Arthur swallowed, overwhelmed by the smell of beer and oranges and soap, and Merlin’s soft hair tickling the side of his face.
“Oh, you know, run around,” Merlin said. “Gather weird insects and keep them in jars. Things boys do. Why, what did you do as a kid?”
Arthur had grown up in London; he’d played in parks but never open countryside. In fact, he couldn’t remember playing much outside at all, except when they went to their summer home on the coast. His heart pounded aggressively and he wondered if Merlin could feel it.
“I used to like the ocean,” he said, swallowing to wet his dry throat. “The sand. There’s something about looking out over the sea that makes you feel small, but not in a bad way. Just that you’re part of something bigger.” He let one of his hands encircle Merlin’s waist tentatively, exhaling in relief when Merlin pulled it closer. His face warmed Arthur’s cheek.
“You know I’ve never even been to the sea?”
“Really?” They did, after all, live on a small island. “Not even as a kid?”
“Well, maybe once. But I was too young to remember. We didn’t really have much money for holiday and Ealdor’s inland. So . . .”
“Right. Stupid of me. Sorry.” He wanted to make promises that they’d go one day, but kept his mouth shut. Still, when Merlin snuggled closer, he could believe that they would—that Merlin was his. A languid arousal began to grow as Merlin shifted in his lap.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to edit everything you say,” Merlin murmured. “What else did you like about the beach?”
Their eyes met, faces mere inches apart, and Arthur’s mouth was painful with the need to kiss Merlin’s.
“I used to like dunking Morgana,” he admitted.
Merlin laughed. “I bet she deserved it.”
“She’s not . . .” Arthur began, though he wasn’t really in the mood to defend his sister.
“I know,” Merlin said. “I think it’s great that she cares so much about you.”
“Mmm-hmm. I worried about you less.”
“Oh?” He’d never imagined Merlin would worry about him. And had he ever noticed before how long and dark Merlin’s eyelashes were, curled slightly at the ends?
“Yeah, I worried about you,” Merlin said. “I even used to have nightmares.”
“That something bad happened to you on the street. That . . .” he broke off, looked away.
“Nothing like that’s going to happen.”
“You can’t know that. In any case, I wasn’t here and I worried. So there.” Merlin stuck out his tongue.
“I kind of like that you worried about me. Is that weird?” Arthur asked.
“Very,” Merlin said. “You’re very strange, Sergeant Pendragon.”
Arthur huffed a laugh. “You’re one to talk.”
“I never said I wasn’t strange. We’re a perfect pair, then.”
The words knocked the air from Arthur’s chest, and the ache only became more acute as Merlin disentangled himself.
“There’s another reason I wanted to come here,” Merlin said as he stood. He glanced down at the walkway, toeing the stones with his shoe. Then turned, started counting under his breath. Arthur watched as he bent down, wiggled a stone from its place. “I can’t believe it,” Merlin said softly.
Merlin stood, blowing dirt off something in his hand before returning to the bench.
“Yep.” He held out his fist, and Arthur turned his palm up, hoping Merlin wasn’t about to unleash one of his childhood insect friends.
“It’s . . . a key.” His eyes widened in recognition. “It’s my key.”
Merlin nodded. “I stowed it here for safe keeping. Just in case I came back and I needed a place to stay.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, filled with wonder. The tiny object in his hand was rusted beyond belief.
Merlin reached out his hand, his touch at the back of Arthur’s neck sending a frisson up his spine, and when their eyes met, Merlin’s were serious. Hopeful. It was all it took for Arthur to lean forward, press a kiss to his warm lips. Merlin immediately responded, angling his head to take the kiss deeper, licking greedily into his mouth. It was like nothing Arthur had ever felt, the joy of having Merlin’s hands in his hair, on his face. Being able to touch Merlin. He stroked the much-loved neck, all of the places he’d missed as they kissed and kissed on the bench like teenagers. Merlin’s tongue was soft and wet, and it made Arthur want like he’d never wanted anyone. It made him weak, stomach gone warm and heavy with desire.
“I don’t know what will happen . . . but I,” Merlin said as they broke apart. “I’ve never stopped loving you. I think about you all the time, Arthur, all the time. I thought you’d be with someone when I came back and I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t.” Arthur shushed him, drew him closer, careful not to drop the key. Soon Merlin had straddled his thighs, hands moving restlessly on Arthur's shoulders, dipping under the neckline of his shirt to touch the skin underneath.
“I’m still messed up, and some days are bad, and you should know that I would probably drive you mad, but I just need to know if there is any way that maybe I could know you again. And that you could know me. We can take it slow, whatever you want. What I’m trying to say is that I—”
Arthur guided Merlin's head down and kissed the wet traces on his cheeks, silencing him. “Of course,” he said, filled with a joy too quiet and perfect to name. He pressed the key back into Merlin’s palm and kissed him again, this time putting all of the love and longing he’d repressed but which had never really been gone, just sleeping, waiting for Merlin.
They sat like that until Arthur's legs went numb and he was delirious from Merlin's mouth, his proximity, the fact this was real. Even so, through the haze of it all he knew there was something Merlin needed to hear. Arthur took Merlin's scruffy face between his hands, thumbed over his cheekbones. “I want that so much you have no idea. All of it, everything. Because I still love you,” he said, pressing his lips against Merlin’s once more. “You’ll always have a home with me.”