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In Spite of Everything, the Stars

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When Merlin is ten years old, his father leaves.

He remembers his early childhood as happy, mostly. They live in a small house on the outskirts of town, the best feature of which is a leafy, overgrown garden that dominates most of Merlin’s free time. His dad helps him build a little treehouse in the sturdy oak at the bottom of the garden, and Merlin spends much of his time conducting solemn business in it with his teddies and his toy soldiers. He’s usually up there alone. While there are other children in the neighbourhood, they don’t seem to want to play with him. His mum tells him there’ll be plenty of time to make friends when he starts going to school.

But before he can start school, he has to go to registration. His parents have explained registration to him but he doesn’t really understand it. All Merlin knows is that the amount of magic he has will be tested somehow. His mum reassures him that the test isn’t painful, save a tiny little injection, but that doesn’t explain why there’s so much worry in her eyes whenever the subject comes up.

Then one night his parents sit him down for a chat.

“Merlin, you remember when we talked about registration. Remember how I told you they’ll be checking your magic levels and giving you a microchip like Daddy has?”

“Yeah,” Merlin says, fiddling with one of the wooden dragons his dad regularly carves for him. He wonders if anyone at his new school will like dragons. Maybe he can invite some of the kids round to see his whole collection…

“Merlin! Are you listening?”

His mum looks anxious and he feels bad so he nods and sits up straight. There’s a short silence and then his dad leans forward.

“Son, your powers are very special. They’re different from everyone else’s.”

His dad pauses, weighing his words.

“Some people find it hard to understand when things are different. So to make it easier for them, I’m going to teach you a spell that makes your powers look a bit more like other people’s.”

Merlin squints up at him.

“Isn’t that lying?”

His mum had told him off for lying the week before, when he broke a bowl and tried to blame it on the cat.

It’s his mum who answers now.

“It’s not lying Merlin, it’s just trying to protect people’s feelings. Which is a nice thing to do.”

She smiles at him and he feels reassured.

“I’m going to practice the spell with you,” his dad tells him. “It won’t work for very long; you’ll have to do it just before you go in for your appointment. So we need to go over it a few times.”

A few times turns out to be an underestimate. A whole month before his registration date, his father starts teaching him the spell; taking him down to the bottom of the garden in the evenings and drilling it into him. It’s not like the times his father’s taught him magic before; the two of them joking around, laughing when Merlin mispronounces a word or mixes the sequence up. There’s a sense of urgency that he’s never felt before–his father’s face is serious, grim. When Merlin gets it wrong, Balinor doesn’t laugh. He makes Merlin do it again, and again, and again.

They only do it for half an hour a day usually, but the night before registration his father makes him practice for so long he’s nearly crying in frustration by the end. He gets it, he can do it, why do they have to keep going over it? When he hears his mum’s voice calling him for dinner, he jumps up eagerly but his father grabs his arm.

“One more time, Merlin.”

“No!” he yells, because he’s tired and hungry and they’ve been doing this all day and he doesn’t even understand why.

Suddenly Balinor is on his feet, looming over him, gripping his arms in an iron hold.

“Do you think this is a game?” He shouts. “Do you know what they’ll do to you if they find out what you’re capable of?”

Merlin whimpers, terrified. His father’s never once shouted at him before, never once laid a hand on him.

“They’ll take you away! Lock you up in a lab and experiment on you! We’d never be able to see you again!”

Merlin bursts into tears, loud wailing sobs that summon his mother from the kitchen and down to the bottom of the garden.

“Balinor!”

His father jolts at the sound of her voice, as if snapping out of a trance. He looks down at Merlin and releases his grip like he’s been burned, just in time for his mother to draw level with them and snatch him up in her arms.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” She hisses at her husband, while Merlin clings to her neck and weeps.

He doesn’t hear what Balinor replies, but when his mother marches back to the house he can see his dad over her shoulder. He’s staring at his hands like he can’t believe what he’s done.

Inside the kitchen, his mother sits him on her lap and spoon feeds him his dinner, using a napkin to dab at the tears still dripping down his face. Merlin knows he’s too old to be fed like this really, but he’s scared and sad and he wants his mum.

“He… said… they’d… t-take me away,” he chokes out at one point and his mother shushes him.

“No-one’s going to take you away, I promise. I wouldn’t let them.”

Despite her reassurances, Merlin can’t get his father’s words out of his head. He’s not sure what ‘experiment’ means, but it sounds scary and horrible and he doesn’t want anyone to do it to him.

He understands what being locked up is though, and that’s awful enough to contemplate. He cries all the way through the meal, even when Hunith lets him have two helpings of chocolate mousse for pudding.

They’ve just finished eating, and Hunith is rocking him back and forth in her arms, when Balinor comes in. Merlin tenses up, burrowing further into his mother’s embrace.

His father comes and sits on a chair a little distance away from them.

“Son,” he says, and his voice cracks on that one word. “I am so, so, sorry.”

Merlin can’t quite meet his father’s eyes.

“I didn’t mean to shout and I certainly didn’t mean to grab you like that.”

“Have you seen what you’ve done?”

Hunith’s voice is cold enough to freeze water, and Merlin feels her shift him until he’s facing his father, and then she rolls his sleeves up. He looks down at his own exposed arms, sickly fascinated by the hand shaped bruises rapidly blackening on his skin.

He hears a funny choking sound and it’s enough for him to finally lift his head and look at his father.

Balinor is crying.

His shoulders are shaking and tears are slowly trickling down his face.

Merlin’s never seen his father cry before. He’s a big man but he looks small right now.

“I’m sorry, Merlin. I didn’t mean to… I just want to keep you safe. I just want to keep you safe.”

“Daddy,” Merlin says and suddenly he’s straining out of his mother’s arms because it’s so wrong, seeing his dad cry like that and look so small. Merlin wants to make him feel better…

Hunith tightens her hold on him for a second and then reluctantly lets him go. He drops down off the chair and runs towards his dad, and then Balinor is picking him up, hoisting him onto his lap, pulling him close to his chest.

He can hear his dad’s heartbeat, loud and strong, and he lets the steady rhythm sooth him.

“I love you, little man. Never forget that.”

Balinor kisses the top of his head.

“I promise I won’t hurt you again.”

“You better not,” Hunith says from across the room, but Merlin can hear her voice has softened slightly.

He stays in his dad’s arms for the rest of the night, listening to his parents talk softly until he’s lulled to sleep.

His mum drops him off the next day but she’s not allowed any further than the entrance lobby. So he has to sit in the waiting room on his own, save for the four other kids in there. He tries talking to them but they look scared and no-one answers. He’s the last one to be called and when he hears footsteps approaching the door, he quickly recites the spell under his breath and hopes for the best.

When he gets into the office, he’s surprised to find that it’s set up like a doctor’s surgery. The similarities don’t end there, the severe looking man inside makes him stand on the scales and measures his height and then looks inside his eyes and ears. Then he tells Merlin to sit on the chair in the middle of the room and be very still. Merlin tries his best not to fidget as the man attaches two small pads to his head; pads that are connected by wire to a flat grey device. The man turns it on and Merlin experiences a moment of panic, suddenly afraid the machine will shock or hurt him. But it does nothing but emit a faint hum, different numbers flashing up on the screen at a rapid rate. For about a minute the man does nothing but take notes of the numbers. Then he nods, satisfied, and removes the pads from Merlin’s head.

“Below average ability.”

Merlin almost gets annoyed, but then he remembers the spell and keeps his mouth shut.

The man then disconnects the pad wires from the device and attaches them to a small black box with a tiny glowing chip embedded in the middle. He taps a few buttons and nods again.

“I’m going to inject you with the chip now. Put your head forward.”

Merlin steels himself as the man walks behind him and takes hold of his neck with a none too gentle grip. He doesn’t like injections, but he promised himself he wouldn’t cry or make a fuss so he bites down on his bottom lip.

It hurts a lot. Much more than his mum said it would. The needle feels like it’s going in incredibly deep and Merlin can’t help but let out a little sob.

The man snorts dismissively.

“It’s all done now, no need to cry about it.”

Merlin angrily blinks back tears, not wanting this man to see him upset. He waits for the man to put a plaster over the injection site and then he gets up, head held high.

“Can I go?”

The man looks vaguely amused.

“Yes, you can go. Just remember…” He taps his nose. “We’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

Merlin flees.

 

Two more memories from his childhood stand out.

One is the day it snows almost eight inches overnight. He presses himself against the window until his mum relents and bundles him up tight in a fleece jacket and a bobble hat before letting him run into the garden. They play out there all morning, his dad teaching Merlin how to make a snow angel. They build a huge snow sculpture that’s meant to be a dragon (it comes out a little lopsided), but Balinor lifts Merlin up to sit on its back anyway. He makes dragon sounds while his parents pretend to be villains chasing him, throwing snowballs at his back. Then his mum brings them back inside and makes cocoa with marshmallows and they all sit in front of the fire for the rest of the day, telling stories and playing games. It’s the happiest day of Merlin’s life.





The other memory is the weekend his mum takes him to visit an old friend in Liverpool. Merlin’s excited because they don’t tend to travel much. In fact, his parents rarely leave the house. He bounces up and down on his seat in the train, watching the trees and buildings go rushing by, excited to see a bit more of the world.

He doesn’t remember much of what they actually do in Liverpool; it’s the train journey there and back that sticks in his mind.

That, and the fact that when they get back home on Sunday night, his father is gone.





When Arthur is ten years old, his father tells him he is a soldier.

We are at war, son, and the hardest part is that the enemy hides in plain sight. Fooling the common people, passing themselves off as decent members of society. Spreading their poison to everything they touch.

Uther tells him that he’s old enough now to know the truth.

Magic killed his mother.

If he doesn’t join the fight, it’ll kill him too.

He has to toughen up, body and mind, in preparation for the war that’s coming.

The war to stop the Magicals from infiltrating their society, from threatening everything they hold dear.

The war to make sure innocents like his mother never suffer again.

Arthur listens. He grows up tall and strong because anything else would be unthinkable.

He trains his body like a soldier. Up every morning at six am; push ups, sit ups, half-hour run. His father shows him how at first, later he trusts him to do it himself. He learns to cook at age thirteen, when Uther starts spending more time away from home. Healthy food only; perfectly measured portions of protein and vegetables, lots of brown rice, lots of chicken. Uther doesn’t allow chocolate or crisps in the house. Or fizzy drinks, or fast food, or sugary cereals. Even when Arthur turns eighteen, he's expected not to drink alcohol. There’s a long list of things that Uther believes to be distractions from ‘the cause’ and Arthur tries to learn them all as best he can.

In physical terms, he’s as fit as any soldier. Mentally, he’s a failure.

As a child, he remembers Uther reading to him before bed, and all the stories being about the dangers of magic, in one way or another. When he gets older, Uther replaces the story books in his room with textbooks, the kind that have graphs and charts and statistical evidence to show that Magicals are less intelligent, less empathetic, more prone to violent crime. The documentaries Uther makes him watch in the evenings tend to reach the same conclusion. They’re mostly old though, the quality blurry because, as Uther puts it, the liberal media is too cowardly to make shows that tell the truth anymore. The action films they watch are dated too, relics from a bygone era when it was perfectly acceptable to portray Magicals as hooded eyed, long fingered sadists who lure innocent women and children to their evil lairs before the hero bursts in to save the day. The genre was mostly played out by the 1970s, which is another thing that Uther blames on political correctness gone mad.

Arthur doesn’t mind the books or the documentaries, and he quite likes the action films. It’s the other films he can’t stomach. The videos that Uther brings home in plain cardboard cases, and stores neatly in the hidden room in the basement.

Videos that show Magicals fighting in vicious underground cage matches; owned and controlled by red-faced managers who scream violent encouragement from the side-lines. Videos filmed on shaky cameras that show Magicals being accosted on the street, knocked to the ground, kicked from all sides until their faces collapse in a horrible mess of flesh and bone. Videos of mock-trials where Magicals are tied to chairs and made to account for their various crimes—before being sentenced to brutal and humiliating punishments by a jeering mob.

Arthur never knows where his father gets these videos from. All he knows is that they make him physically ill. He has nightmares about them, waking up in a cold sweat after dreams in which he’s the Magical and they hunt him down instead. But Uther can never know his weakness, so he locks his horror up inside. He sits in front of the television, nails dug so far into his hands that they occasionally bleed, praying that his face isn’t giving him away.

His father figures it out eventually. Figures out that while Arthur might have trained himself to be the perfect physical specimen for the war on magic, his mind is sadly unfit for the task at hand. He hides it as best he can, but Uther sniffs it out.

His father doesn’t give up on him, not right away. That comes later. At first Uther seems convinced he can bring Arthur around to the right path. Arthur’s set to inherit the family business: Arkstone. Officially, it’s a conglomerate dedicated to research into Magical affairs. Unofficially, Arkstone is dedicated to detecting and eliminating the Magical threat in British society. A company like that needs a committed leader and so his father tries every method he can think of to awaken the kind of fervour inside his son that will remove any doubts about the anti-Magical crusade.

Until one of his methods almost gets Arthur killed.

Arthur doesn’t remember that much about the night he nearly dies. The first part is clear enough, but after the spell hits it’s all fragmented pieces. His recollections are blurry, out of focus. He has little details but not the full picture.

He remembers Uther sitting him down in the morning and telling him that they were going somewhere special that night. That usually only adults went, but he was taking Arthur because he knew his son was mature enough to handle it.

Arthur remembers basking in the praise. It came along so rarely in his house.

He’s excited all day, rushing around the house, getting all of his chores done so he’d be ready to leave. Uther takes the Jeep, which is unusual, but it turns out to be quite a drive to their destination. The terrain gets bumpy about half an hour in and Arthur realises they’re leaving the city. He wants to ask more questions but Uther doesn’t like that so he stays quiet and stares out of the window.

When the car finally slows, Arthur looks out to see a gigantic disused warehouse. It’s clearly been abandoned for quite some time, several windows are smashed and the signs are long faded. When they walk up to the entrance, a burly man is standing guard.

“Alright Pendragon?” he grunts.

“Myror,” Uther nods.

The man turns his gaze on Arthur.

“What’s this, take your daughter to work day? Isn’t he a little young?”

Arthur glares up at him. He’s fifteen, he’s not a child.

“He’s old enough,” Uther says coldly. “If you’ll excuse us.”

He pushes past the man and Arthur follows, ignoring the smirk that this Myror sends his way.

It’s dark inside the warehouse and it takes a second for Arthur’s eyes to adjust.

He sees a crowd of people huddled in one area of the warehouse, in a rough kind of circle. They seem to be staring at something in their midst, but Arthur can’t see through the throng to spot what it is.

He’s craning his neck when Uther grabs his shoulder, spinning him round to face him.

“Stick close to me,” he warns. “I don’t want you wandering off.”

Arthur nods.

“What are they all looking at?”

His father’s face splits into a slightly feral grin.

“Come and see.”

He follows his father to the outskirts of the circle, where Uther taps a bald man on the shoulder.

“Uther, good to see you!”

“Brought the boy with me,” his father says, jerking his thumb in Arthur’s direction. “Any chance we can get him a better view?”

“No problem,” the bald man says and he effortlessly cuts a path through the people in front of him. They grumble a bit but he must have some authority in this area because no-one objects. He feels his father’s hand at his back, pushing him forward through the newly created space.

It’s stiflingly hot the closer he gets to the centre and when he finally makes it to the front the sight that greets him is anticlimactic. It’s just a few men milling around, some chatting with each other, one clutching a hold-all bag that appears to be full of loose bank notes.

He looks quizzically at his father, who checks his watch.

“Shouldn’t be long now.”

“What shouldn’t be long now?” Arthur asks, but Uther just grins in that same strange way.

Ten minutes later Arthur gets his answer. A roar suddenly goes up among the crowd as there’s some movement in the back of the warehouse. The circle parts across from him and suddenly four men are walking into the ring.

That’s not technically correct. Two men are walking and the other two are being lead on chains.

The bottom drops out of Arthur’s stomach and his whole body chills, despite the heat of the warehouse.

The men on chains aren’t being dragged. It’s not like in some of the videos Uther’s made him watch, where captured Magicals get punished in front of screaming crowds. The men aren’t being restrained so they won’t escape.

They’re being restrained so they won’t tear each other apart.

They’re pulling against the chains around their necks, eyes wild and rolling, sweat pouring down their faces, both shirtless. One of them seems to be drooling slightly, and the other’s twitching and shaking.

They’re clearly drugged. Arthur doesn’t know with what, but he’s heard about drugs that can mess with a Magical’s nervous system; concoctions that keep them compliant or docile. Or–in this case–ready to fight.

The two men are taken to opposite sides of the makeshift ring, growling and snapping at one another across the space. The man with the hold-all full of bank notes steps forward.

“Ladies and gentlemen! You’ve had plenty of time to place your bets, the show is about to begin! In the blue corner we have Tauren, our reigning champion, just as mean and hungry as he always is! And in the red corner our challenger Alvarr, all the way from Donegal, and itching to take home the prize!”

The one the man names as Tauren bares his teeth. He’s taller than his competitor and better built too. Alvarr is slighter, wirier. He’s the one who can’t stop twitching, every so often he flicks at the back of his head like he’s trying to knock a fly away.

Arthur wants to leave. He wants to go, right now, and never find out what happens next. But Uther is right behind him, and Arthur would never be forgiven. Clearly his father wants him to witness this for whatever reason. He’s been deemed ‘mature’ enough. He can’t let Uther down now.

So he grits his teeth and stares straight ahead, trying not to look too closely at either Magical as the minders unhook the chains from round their necks.

“Are you ready?” The hold-all man roars and the crowd screams in reply.

“Three, two, one, FIGHT!”

The Magicals are suddenly shoved into the centre of the ring, straight for each other. Arthur expects magic to be used straight away but Tauren’s first move is purely physical. He sinks his fist into Alvarr’s chest and Alvarr falls backwards, the force of the blow knocking him off his feet. Tauren moves to deliver a kick but suddenly Alvarr’s eyes flash and Tauren reels, four ugly scratch marks appearing on his ribcage. He stumbles for a second, then his own eyes flash and Arthur winces to see Alvarr’s head bang hard against the concrete floor, as if of its own accord.

The fight begins in earnest then. Arthur shuts his eyes for much of it, praying that Uther can’t see him. But he’s honestly worried he’ll throw up if he has to watch it all, the way the men are ripping each other apart without even laying a finger on each other.

The crowd lets out a particularly rowdy cheer and Arthur opens his eyes to see Alvarr’s eyes bulging, his face slowly turning red like he’s being strangled. Arthur’s never seen a fight like this before but surely Alvarr’s about to pass out, he’s been on the back ropes the whole time and a body can only take so much.

Then, unbelievably, Alvarr breaks free from the strangulation spell. He sucks in air while Tauren watches in amusement, seemingly ready to strike the final blow. But then Alvarr’s eyes flash once again and the crowd turns expectantly to Tauren to see… nothing. No new marks, no wound inflicted.

Then Tauren lets out a terrible noise, a sort of guttering, choking sound. His body convulses and he drops to his knees as blood starts to pour from his mouth. Arthur can only watch in horror as Tauren spasms, more and more blood coming up from his throat. He wants to scream at Alvarr to stop it but there’s nothing anyone can do now and they all watch as Tauren keens, body twisting desperately, before finally collapsing face down on the ground. He does not move again.

There’s a tiny pause.

“Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for our new champion, Alvarr Jones!”

The mob around Arthur goes wild, chanting and whooping as hold-all man lifts Alvarr’s arm in the air in triumph. Alvarr can hardly stand, his twitching has intensified to the point where his whole body is strung tight as a bow, but he manages a hazy sort of nod to the crowd.

“The prize fight might be over but we have plenty more entertainment for you tonight, so stick around!” The man announces happily.

Arthur’s had enough. He can’t stay a second longer.

He turns to his father.

“Dad, can I go wait in the car?”

Uther glares at him.

“The next fight will be starting soon,” he says, displeasure clear in his voice.

“I know, I just… please Dad,” Arthur begs.

Uther looks vaguely disgusted.

“Fine. Feel free to come back in if you grow a pair,” he says coldly.

Arthur flinches. Uther hands the keys over silently and Arthur bolts.

There’s no one guarding the entrance as he flees, and he’s grateful for that because he throws up almost the second he leaves the warehouse. When he’s finished retching, he shuffles over to the Jeep and climbs into the backseat. He presses his head against the cool leather of the headrest and tries to calm down.

Was Tauren dead? Arthur didn’t know for sure, he could just be unconscious. Surely they wouldn’t let them kill each other? Someone would find out and the police would have to get involved. A blind eye couldn’t be turned to actual murder. Could it?

He shuts his eyes but images of the fight replay in his mind like some kind of sick film that he can’t turn off. Why would his father go to something like this? Did he enjoy it? Did he think Arthur would?

He doesn’t know how long he stays like that but eventually he must doze off because he jerks awake when the car door opens and someone slides into the backseat next to him.

“Dad?” He says sleepily. “Can we go now?”

“Give me the keys, kid,” an unfamiliar voice says and Arthur’s eyes fly open.

It’s Alvarr. Still bloodied and battered from the fight, sweat soaked and stained.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Arthur says, mouth so dry he can barely force the words out.

Alvarr laughs, showing a glimpse of sharp yellow teeth.

“No, you got it in one kid. I’m not supposed to be here. That’s why I’m getting out and this car’s the way I’m doing it. So give me the keys.”

Arthur doesn’t know what perverse part of him makes him tighten his hands around the keys. It’s probably that part that tells him he already disappointed Uther once tonight and if he just gives up their Jeep to some insane Magical…

Where is his father?

“Come on,” Alvarr says and he sounds more desperate now. “Don’t make me hurt you.”

Arthur’s fingers clutch the keys harder even as panic rises in his throat.

“My dad’ll be back any minute,” he says shakily.

Alvarr explodes.

“For fuck’s sake!”

He lunges for Arthur, pinning him to the seat and grabbing at his hands.

“No! No! Dad! Dad!” Arthur shouts, and just as Alvarr’s painful squeeze on his wrist makes him drop the keys on the car floor, the door behind Alvarr is ripped open.

“Get the hell away from my son,” Uther says, and Arthur sobs in relief.

Uther’s got the bald man behind him, but Alvarr reacts quicker than either of them expect.

He kicks open the opposite door and then jumps out before dragging Arthur with him, holding him against his body.

“You try anything and he dies,” he yells as Uther runs round to their side of the car. “I can tear him apart from the inside, you know I can.”

Uther turns murderous eyes on the bald man next to him.

“How is he doing this? I thought you were keeping him under control.”

“I don’t know!” The man whines. “He must have found a way to flush the drugs out his system.”

Arthur whimpers, feeling Alvarr’s arm tighten round his neck as he shifts his hold on him. He can feel the sweat from the other man’s heated body seeping through his t-shirt, the tickle of his erratic breaths on his face.

“Help me,” he begs and Uther takes a step forward.

“Don’t fucking move!” Alvarr screams. “I will shred him into little pieces!”

But Arthur sees that Uther’s gaze is looking beyond them and he only has a second to wonder why before the grip holding him in place suddenly slackens, and he feels Alvarr crumple to the ground behind him.

He turns to see Myror standing there, brick still in his hand.

“I told you he was too young,” he says grimly to Uther and for once his father has no reply.

Arthur runs across to his father, only turning back when he’s at a safe distance. Alvarr’s on the ground, groaning, barely conscious. The bald man steps forward, a bag of white powder in his hand.

“Help me get this down his throat,” he says to Myror, who nods and hauls Alvarr into a sitting position.

Arthur can see the exact moment it happens, Alvarr’s eyes focus a little and he sees the bag of powder dangling in front of him. What happens next seems like a primal, instinctive reaction.

Alvarr’s eyes flash and both Myror and the bald man are sent careening backwards, smashing down onto the hard concrete.

Then Alvarr raises his hand and points it straight at Uther, his lips forming the words of a new spell. With only a split second to think about it, Arthur realises the man intends to do more damage than just knocking Uther out.

He doesn’t have time to consciously make a decision. All he has time to do is step in front of his father. Then the spell hits him.

Pain. That’s all he remembers. Pain starting from his stomach and then stretching out across his whole body. Pain that spirals out from the central point, filling him with such unrelenting agony that it feels like his very skin is screaming, the fibres of his body stretched taut, the blood boiling in his veins…

Then, nothing. Darkness. For a long time.

He wakes up in hospital three weeks later.





Uther is sat by his bed, face worn and grey. When Arthur’s eyes blink open for the first time, his father’s fill with tears.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he croaks out, after the doctor has come in and pronounced Arthur to be in stable condition. “They had to restart your heart so many times. I thought the magic was going to overpower you.”

He grips Arthur’s hand above the coverlet.

“What you did for me… I won’t forget, son.”

Arthur doesn’t forget either. Even if he wanted to, his body carried a permanent reminder. The magic left a scar. A small dark mark, to the side of his abdomen, and a series of spidery scars splintering out from it like exposed veins. It doesn’t fade or change colour like a normal scar would, it stays exactly the same. And it twinges, very occasionally. Not enough to hurt. Just enough to notice.

Arthur’s secretly fascinated by it in those early days, he’s never seen anything like it before. But Uther hates it and so Arthur learns to hate it too, to be ashamed of it. He never swims or goes shirtless in public and even in the shower he avoids looking directly at it.

When he brings home lovers, he never lets them leave the light on.