"Watch out for the right cross," Elyan tells him several times before the match. "I know Emrys doesn't look like much, but he's finished more fights with that cross than you've had hot dinners."
Arthur doesn't need the warning. Emrys won the 1931 prize-fight against Percival Gully, and any man that could take down Gully shouldn't be underestimated. He's heard other boxers speak of him derisively – one said he had a face so delicate, he didn't know whether to fight him or fuck him. But that was a man who Emrys had beaten in two rounds, so Arthur didn't take his word for much.
He makes his own judgements, nowadays.
He doesn't see Emrys in person until they're on opposite sides of the ring. His face truly is delicate, but it's sharp at the edges too, with a thin white scar running down his left temple. His body is lean and wiry, and he reveals a labourer's tan when he strips to the waist.
Arthur's skin is still pale, like it hasn't adjusted to his new place in the world yet, like it doesn't know he's not a Pendragon anymore. But his hands understand better. Already they're callused and hardened, the knuckles permanently bruised and painful. They know that when Uther said get out, he meant forever, and a bare knuckle boxer is all Arthur is now, all he'll ever be.
Emrys winks at him as the caller announces the fight, and Arthur stares him out. He can't think about the invitation in Emrys' grin right now; can't afford the distraction. He needs to take home the money today.
Emrys jabs out the second the bell rings and Arthur elbow blocks with ease. He swings a haymaker but Emrys ducks back. He's quick on his feet, though Arthur knew that already. But Arthur's got more blunt force behind him and he slips through Emrys guard to land an uppercut that sends the other man reeling.
He recovers quickly and they jab back and forth a while, neither landing many blows until Arthur catches Emrys with a hook to the ribs.
Suddenly Emrys is clinching him, pulling Arthur close in a strange parody of an embrace. Arthur breathes in the heady smell of the other man's sweat for a moment, feels the heat of his skin. Emrys' arms are hugging his so tight he can't move, but Arthur needs a breather too so he allows it for a few seconds before shrugging him off.
Their bodies are still very close and Arthur just has time to notice how blue Emrys' eyes are.
And then the right cross takes him down, of course.
It's no surprise that he finds himself in Emrys' boarding house room three hours later, drinking cheap whiskey and comparing battle scars.
It's even less surprising when Emrys backs him up against the wall and bites a kiss onto his lips that makes Arthur dizzy with want, more punch-drunk than he's ever been in the ring. He lets Emrys throw him on the bed and then he spreads his legs, offers himself up like a prize. To the victor, the spoils.
Emrys fucks like he fights, all relentless energy; pushing Arthur further than he thinks he can go, and making him like it. He pins Arthur's hands to the bed as he thrusts into him, swallowing Arthur's moans and cries with a greedy, hungry mouth. He licks up the blood still trickling from Arthur's split lip, sucks fresh bruises into his neck; finishes what he started in the ring by marking Arthur all over as his own.
Arthur wants it – no, he needs it. Needs to feel like he belongs to someone again, that he's not alone in the world.
It's only after they're done and Arthur feels the familiar shame creeping into his chest that Emrys surprises him. Wraps his arms around him with a tenderness Arthur never expected. Presses a lingering kiss to his swollen cheek, and says to call him Merlin.
"Whereas Arthur Smith is a very ordinary one. Much more ordinary than, say, Pendragon."
Arthur freezes but Merlin just hugs him closer.
"Don't hide. What happened?"
"My father disowned me."
Heart thumping, Arthur reaches out to stroke along Merlin's thigh.
Merlin's eyes are sharp in the dim light.
"More fool him."
They don't speak again, just lie together and wait for morning, when they will rise; bruised, and aching, and ready for the fight to come.