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Nineteen Years & Counting

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He doesn't have anything against the royal family per se. But it's hard to really like the people who run your mum ragged on a regular basis and use things like sending you to a decent school on their bill as a reason to make her keep coming back for more.

He can't blame them either – not really. She's always been damn good at her job. He grows up in Clarence House, peeking his head around the swinging kitchen door and watching her half-run, half-stumble down the corridor to serve tea as a child. He’s even been caught staring and shooed away to 'finish your homework and study hard, Merlin. Don't want to be serving tea for a living, do you?' before she disappears around a corner, only to come back sighing and tired, pressing a kiss to his forehead and reminding him how much she loves him. After, she moves on to the next meal or the list of things Prince Arthur or Lady Morgana needs done by the end of the day and, no matter how tired she obviously is by the time they walk home, she never complains.

Most of his interaction with the family is limited to the moments when he catches Prince Arthur peeking from around the edge of the kitchen door, blue eyes bright and curious, staring at Merlin while he does his homework or has a late afternoon snack before he and his mum go home. For the most part he attempts to ignore the Prince, but there are rare occasions when he glances up at the movement in the corner of his eye and is lost in a sea of royal blue, pale lashes and an entirely too perfect face that screams of the same royalty that his mum runs ragged for, lives and struggles to serve.

He doesn't really understand why she does it until later. When he's six and staring at Prince Arthur's awed expression, lips parting and fingers gripping the edge of the kitchen door he's peeking through for dear life, Merlin doesn't realise that his mum wakes up early, works late and never gets a good night’s sleep because she's taking care of needy, rich people like Prince Arthur to make Merlin's life better. He can only see the little boy his mum dedicates more hours a day to than him and thinks it's just not – fair.

He's even more angry when he's eight and Prince Arthur is ten, flaxen-haired and loud with his demands as he walks past the laundry room and complains about the tea he spilled on his favourite shirt, the stain it'll leave if they don't hurry up and get – it – out.

Merlin doesn't intentionally hit Prince Arthur in the face with his pencil. "Maybe the spy should learn to time his arrivals more strategically," he pouts when his mum points her finger angrily at his face and asks what, exactly, he was thinking when he chucked a pencil at the bloody Prince of Wales.

It's the first time he's heard her curse and, for a second, he's awe-struck and nervous and incapable of forming thoughts, much less words because... Christ, his mum cursed. What was the world coming to?

Again, more slowly and a little less sure of himself, he repeats, "Mum, I threw the pencil at the door; he pushed the door open. He's always doing that – spying. It's his own fault."

She makes him apologise to the red-faced, confused-looking Prince the next day and though Prince Arthur doesn't say much as far as accepting his apology, he does stare stupidly at Merlin's ragged trainers and the loose thread at the edge of his sweatshirt. It makes Merlin's face and neck flush, embarrassment flooding his chest as he looks away and, so quietly that his mum can't hear, mumbles, "you great prat" after his insincere, "I apologise, your Highness, for hitting you in the face with a pencil."

The 'no matter how much you deserved it' is heavily implied, even if his mum did make him scratch that part of his apology out.

A few months later, mid-summer when the air is humid and the clouds sometimes leave them a little sun, his mum returns from her Saturday shopping and, with more enthusiasm than he's ever heard, says, "Prince Arthur asked you to come to his eleventh birthday gathering. Isn't that nice of him, Merlin?"

She's blatantly displeased when he raises a brow, pencil stilling over his maths homework, and replies, "Why would I want to go to a birthday gathering–" He makes air quotes with his fingers, not impressed by the formal title given to a bloody party for royals. "for Prince Arthur? He's... weird."

She doesn't understand that even if he and the Prince were best mates, he doesn't fit in places like Clarence House's gatherings. He's awkwardly shaped, lanky and long and not yet grown into his over-large feet. Unlike the beautiful boys and girls who parade down the corridor with Arthur, every hair with a specific place on their head and clothes bright and new, he wears faded hoodies and jeans that are already too short despite being bought less than two months ago. His hair never behaves the way theirs does and he’d starve before remembering which fork is for his salad and which is for his meal.

Not to mention his magic, top secret though it may be, flares around Arthur like no one's business. He refuses to tell his mum about that. He only recently started showing her the things he can do when he really focuses – lights flickering to life without a switch, curtains sliding open gracefully with no help at all, laundry folding itself (though she's not well pleased about that). Before, she'd called all the strange goings-on figments of her imagination. Merlin's pram had pushed itself in the park when he was two and she'd told herself it was a gust of wind she'd been too busy to notice and, when Merlin was three, she swore she had a touch too much wine in an effort to dissuade herself from thinking that Merlin's stuffed dragon actually responded to one of his half-babbling questions, saying, "You, young warlock, have a great destiny that will not be achieved should your mother continue to serve you peas."

She hadn't bought peas since then. The wine had really done a number on her.

He can't risk the candles on Arthur's cake lighting themselves or him stopping time to save the Prince from scraping his knee should he trip and fall. Those reasons are serious enough without the fact that he really just can't – stand – Arthur.

As in Merlin can't stand him at all, much less for four-plus hours at his birthday gathering where he'll be expected to smile and pretend to be enjoying himself while everyone else looks at him with wide eyes and pointing fingers like he's some kind of animal from the zoo, delivered for their entertainment.

He left his fur and stripes in the womb, sorry.

"You're still angry about the crayon incident, aren't you?" She asks, holding the refrigerator open with her hip. She unloads vegetables from the paper bag on the floor and sticks them wherever they'll fit around Merlin's heat-and-eat meals for days when she's at work late or too tired after serving the Prince steak and potatoes to make food for her own son.

Which, Merlin would like to add, is shite considering he hasn't eaten steak in nearly three years. "Mum," he starts firmly, giving her the most serious expression he can manage, "It was a pencil and no, I'm not mad about the bloody pencil incident a year ago; I just don't like him." He could probably continue with a list of reasons why that would include the fact that Arthur doesn't have anything at all to say when his posh mates make jokes about Merlin's ears when they visit, that Merlin's mum spends more time preening over Arthur than she's ever spent even talking to Merlin and, most importantly, he has no reason at all to like Arthur. They've hardly spoken more than twenty words to one another in their entire lives and, for the most part, those words are been limited to 'move', 'stop looking at me' and 'go away'.

He's not going to embarrass himself trying to get the attention of someone like Arthur, Prince of Wales, okay? He'd rather his mum just give him an hour of her time without mentioning Arthur or work or the great long list of things that she needs to get done before she goes to sleep.

To assure she fully understands the situation between he and Arthur, Merlin says, "He's weird, not to mention a royal pain in my --"

"Don't even think about finishing that sentence." His mum adds, as an afterthought, "You're not so normal yourself."

Merlin isn't a mum – never will be, ha! – but he's pretty sure you're not supposed to tell your son, who is already awkward enough being magical and all, that he's weird on top of that. Mums are meant to be supportive liars, aren't they? Shouldn't she be nodding and agreeing, telling him she understands?

"Children all over the country – the world, Merlin – would be honoured to be invited to Prince Arthur's birthday party. They'd kill for the opportunity."

"Gathering," Merlin corrects firmly, daring a stern look in his mum's direction, "and let they fight to the death for my spot then – Hunger Games style. I'm – not – going."

*

Merlin skips Arthur's birthday gathering that year. His mum shows everyone in the kitchens his naked baby photos as punishment until the new year and Arthur gives him long, befuddled looks when he peeks through the propped open laundry door or the swinging door in the kitchen for a month or so afterward, as though he can't possibly understand why Merlin wouldn't want to spend time with him.

 

All the same, Arthur never makes any moves to actually talk to him. He peers around corners when Merlin helps his mum stack china before rolling it back to the kitchen and he always seems to be wherever Merlin is five minutes after he arrives, like he senses Merlin's presence and searches him out in the most common places. It’s strange that, with all the run-ins they have, Arthur doesn’t even bother to say ‘hello’.

Not that Merlin is complaining, mind you. A mute prince is the only bearable kind, in his opinion.

 

One day, six months after Arthur's birthday, Merlin agrees to help his mum make the beds when some of the help is sick. She sends him ahead to Arthur's room, says, "Just strip the sheets, I'll be there in a moment" and sets to righting Morgana's room, waving him along when he pauses to ask, "Arthur's room?", hoping she'll catch on to the desperation in his voice and tell him 'nevermind', save him from possibly being stuck alone in a room with Arthur.

She pays no mind to his worries as she gathers Morgana's scattered clothing from the floor with one hand while the other waves him off.

 

He enters cautiously, knocking first to avoid walking in on Arthur starkers or jumping off the edge of his bed in a cape and bright red pants, is slightly surprised (and ridiculously relieved) to find it empty.

While he expected Arthur in some way, shape or form, he didn't expect the warmth of the red paint on the walls of Arthur's room and the Leeds United picture beside Arthur's four-poster bed. There are pencil-drawn sketches on the wall, too – uneven, beautiful knights in shining armour with great, frightening beasts bowing before them that Merlin runs his fingers across, traces before moving toward the bed where he finds the sheets pulled tight, folded over at the top as though someone inexperienced in making a bed attempted to complete the task themselves.

 

He has a hard time believing Arthur would even attempt to do anything on his own but he's not willing to askto be sure, either.

He pulls the sheets – soft beige cotton, not quite the expensive silk he was expecting – from the bed and throws them in a heap in front of the door. They smell like the coast; cool sea water and warm sand with a hint of musk – of spice that reminds Merlin of the few weeks when Arthur was trying to learn how much cologne was just enough and how much was way – too – much. It's muted here in Arthur's bedroom, enough to arouse the memory but not so much that his head hurts in the way it –

 

There's a click, a quiet noise Merlin probably would have missed if he hadn't been so guarded in the Prince's bedroom, followed by a mumbled, "Ouch," in a voice Merlin knows all too well.

“You’re spying on me again!” is what Merlin shouts when he yanks to the door of Arthur’s wardrobe open and finds him huddled there, eyes wide and mouth agape. His trousers are wrinkled, creased at the knees from resting on them for too long and Merlin fights the irrational desire to push Arthur back flat onto his arse because it’s rude to stare and, frankly, Merlin is more than a little tired of being stalked.

“I’m not –”

“You’re not what? Spying? You’re camping out in your wardrobe waiting for someone to come change your sheets because you think it’s normal?”

Arthur huffs. His cheeks are flushed, red and stark on his face. Merlin has never seen him as flustered as he is when he says, “Not someone – you.”

Merlin stills, both amazed and disgusted by Arthur’s admittance. It’s not like he hasn’t noticed – it would be impossible not to – but assuming the bloody Prince of Wales is stalking him and hearing from royal lips that actually has been is... off-putting. “You are so weird.”

“I’m not weird!” Arthur protests, breathing heavily through his nose. He stands quickly, shooting up from his position on the floor and, though he’s a touch wider and a touch taller than Merlin, he’s not much to be afraid of no matter how close he gets, how hard he stares down at Merlin’s face. “You can’t say things like that about me!”

“Why not?” Merlin asks, genuinely confused for a moment. Since when has the truth been wrong?

“Since I’m a prince, Merlin!”

“You’re a spy is what you are! A bloody weird one, to boot!”

“Stop that!”

“Stop what?”

It’s not really something Merlin is expecting. He’s generally pretty alright with being taken by surprise – shocked or scared – but when Arthur reaches forward, slams his palms against Merlin’s chest and shoves him back, Merlin isn’t quite sure what to do. He saves himself from falling to the floor through luck (and maybe magic, if he’s honest) alone. It’s a moment of distraction, though, and the curtains slam open, heavy fabric smacking against the wall and light flooding the room as brightly as it can before he realises that he did that.

Arthur looks shocked – nervous, even. But, thankfully, it’s not the curtains that he stares at. Not so thankfully, it’s Merlin.

His eyes are so wide that Merlin would be tempted to laugh any other time but, for now, his chest hurts where Arthur’s hands slammed against him and his breath is caught in his throat, waiting for Arthur to realise that something pulled the curtains open and he’s too busy worrying about all of that to give a damn about how stupid Arthur looks. He gasps, “I’m so sorry” as he reaches for Merlin’s hand, looking wounded when Merlin steps back and says, “Don’t.

Merlin doesn’t pull away because he’s afraid of Arthur; he pulls away because he’s afraid of his magic and what it might do.For the very first time, he can feel it under his skin, alive, thrumming and powerful. It’s terrifying and suffocating in turns and no matter how many times Arthur steps forward to try again, apologises and swears he didn’t mean it, Merlin steps back and says, “it’s fine, it’s fine" even though he's not sure who he's trying to console himself or Arthur.

“I accepted your apology when you hit me with a pencil!” Arthur looks defeated, angry. His face is flushed again, infused with colour high over his cheeks and at the collar of his shirt. It had been white in the moments following his hands hitting Merlin’s chest and, though Merlin will never admit it aloud, it’s nice to see him back in his comfortable state of prattish-ness. He’s not stepping forward anymore, though. He’s not chasing Merlin and that’s good – great, even. “I didn’t mean it!”

“It’s fine, I said! I just need a moment is all!” His head is starting to hurt, the tips of his fingers are starting to burn the more he tries to reign everything in, control the urge to slam the windows open or to show Arthur that, though he may not be royalty, he's not your everyday poor kid either and he deserves attention, too; he deserves to be noticed.

“It’s your fault, anyway!” Merlin stills at how high Arthur’s voice gets, magic forgotten in the sudden rush of discomfort he feels when Arthur repeats himself, tone bordering on panicked. He's too loud,confusing, when he yells, “I wouldn’t – If you would just – I hate you!”

Well, since they’re expressing their true feelings... “I hate you, too!” Merlin yells, ignoring the way Arthur stumbles back as though he’s been slapped, the way his angry face drops into one of absolute horror. “You’re weird! Spying on everyone all the time, following people around! My mum –”

"Merlin!” He hadn’t intended to say ‘my mum has awful timing’ but he thinks, now, that it would have been just as fitting. “We apologise, Prince Arthur,” she says, voice soft for Arthur as she reaches for Merlin’s shoulder and tugs him away. “Merlin gets a little over-excited in the summer – too much pent up energy; I’ll keep him out of your room from now on.”

Arthur doesn’t reply;he looks away, nods just once and let’s Merlin’s mum drag Merlin’s out by his bicep, arm trapped tight in her claw-like grip. In the corridor, after Arthur’s door falls shut with a snick, she leans close and says, quiet with a thinly veiled threat, “Stay away from him, Merlin. I won’t have you picking fights with the Prince of Wales all summer.”

Prepared to tell her that that’s what he’s been trying to do, that it’s Arthur who’s been searching him out, Merlin opens his mouth. His mum is quick to pop it shut, hand tight over his bottom jaw when she pushes it up to meet his top. “It doesn’t require a response. Now, go find something productive to do before you get me sacked.”

They give up on assigning him tasks after the first hour, though. He’s hopeless, wandering around and splashing dishwater over the floor and his shirt... He tells his mum that night that he’s tired, that it has nothing to do with “that thing with Arthur” and tries to convince himself that it’s true, that he doesn’t fall asleep wondering what the hell it is about Prince Arthur of Wales that drives him (and his magic) so bloody crazy and why he hates the idea of Arthur hating him as much as he does...

*

Over the next few years – four, to be exact – Arthur gets... Well, fat. It’s not an awful sort of fat, really. His face gets softer though, plump and rounded in a way it hasn’t been since he was a baby (though Merlin has only ever seen that in photos) and he has to buy new trousers every other month or so until he looks a bit like Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films and walks with an undeniable waddle. Most of the guests his age stop visiting and those who do still come spend most of their time giggling behind their hands; Merlin doesn’t defend Prince Arthur when he flushes and looks away, pulling at hem of his shirts in an effort to pretend it’s not him they’re laughing at.

He does feel bad for Arthur, though; they are nothing close to friends, that’s for certain, but he knows what it’s like to be stared at – to be thought of as less than based on looks alone and he can only imagine how small it makes Arthur, who had been so proud and mighty aside from his strange tendencies, before.

Merlin’s mum comes home two weeks before Arthur’s sixteenth birthday out of sorts and sour-faced, mumbling so lowly Merlin can just barely hear her over the sound of the Playstation in his hand. He sets it on the table in front of him with a click, watches the screen dim. “What?”

“Nothing, Merlin.”

“What did you say?”

She sighs, falls into the seat across from him and says, louder than before, “King Uther is considering banning cake from Prince Arthur’s birthday gathering this year. He says the prince’s weight is an embarrassment.”

“He is –”

“He’s a growing boy, Merlin,” she interjects, cutting him off before he can finish. Her face is stern, unyielding and Merlin is reminded of how close she is to Arthur. She’s watched him grow much the same way she’s watched her own son grow and, while he tries to keep in mind that Arthur is her job, nothing more, it’s sometimes hard not to feel a little insignificant when she mentions how hard King Uther is or how she wishes she could spoil Arthur just a little, give him some sweets or a pat on the shoulder because “Children grow in their own ways, Merlin” and “It’s just a stage; he’ll look just like his mum soon enough.”

Merlin says, “Sure, mum” and goes back to his game, already bored with the conversation. He knows as well as any of the help about Arthur’s diets and his daily exercise regimen, about how the cooks have been told to watch the sweets in the house. He also knows that they’ve been doing all of these things for three years and every time Arthur gets a bit taller, he gets a bit wider, too. Arthur seems to hate it just as much as King Uther does. He doesn’t search Merlin out half as often as he used to and though they haven’t said a word to each other since the day they argued in Arthur’s bedroom, Merlin notices that Arthur refuses to meet his eyes sometimes and that in the summer when Arthur is home from Eton, he spends twice as much time working out – trying to get fit.

Of course, Merlin doesn’t have much room to talk. Nearly fourteen and he’s still built like a beanpole, long and thin and fragile looking. His stomach is a flat mass of stark white skin, no muscles to be found and his arms are lanky and seemingly weak; he thinks that he and Arthur are a bit alike that way – too much of one size and not enough of another. If they were closer – friends, maybe – he might consider consoling Arthur with that idea, reminding him that Merlin didn't plan on being too skinny forever so Arthur shouldn't plan on being too fat forever, either.

But, as it is, they're not friends and Merlin has no plans to try and console Arthur.

“He’ll probably invite you to his party again this year, Merlin.” He struggles not to roll his eyes. He really, really does but... it happens anyway. He rolls them, long and hard until his mum says, “He’s invited you since he was ten Merlin and you turn him down every year. You’d rather sit at home on that thing –” she gestures at Merlin’s Playstation like she doesn’t know very well what it’s called “– when you could be celebrating with Prince Arthur?”

“He won’t even be having cake, mum. What kind of party has no cake?”

“A health-conscious one,” she replies. “There will be plenty to nibble on – veg, fruit.”

Merlin gasps. “Fruit? Oh, mum, I have to go to the birthday party.”

“Mind your cheek, Merlin.”

“My cheek is mindful, mum. It’s the rest of me that’s confused.”

She pushes herself away from the table with a sigh. “You,” she starts slowly, pointing a finger at him, “Are going to that party if he invites you. Prince Arthur thinks very highly of you and it hurts his feelings when you ignore him; his friends haven’t been very supportive of him as of late.”

“He told me he hates me.” It’s the first time he’s mentioned it – what Arthur said that day in his room. His mum has asked, of course. She’s been curious and worried and angry and demanded answers he refused to give her but now, looking her dead in the eye and knowing very well that Arthur doesn’t think very highly of him at all – he repeats: “He hates me, mum – said so himself – so stop trying to guilt me into being his mate. We’re not going to be mates; it’s not just my fault.”

She looks old for a moment – tired, weary. He feels bad for being honest; she probably liked the idea of he and Arthur being mates more than finally getting the answer she’s been asking after but... She shakes her head, leans across the table to press a warm kiss to his forehead and her hands are cool over his cheeks, calming when she says, “I sometimes wonder if you boys will ever learn.”

*

“You’re not supposed to be in here.”

Arthur jumps away from the refrigerator, one hand loaded full of carrots and another with the freshest cherry tomatoes known to man. He looks guilty, even with just veg in his hand until he realises it’s Merlin; he purses his lips and says, “I can do what I want.”

Merlin doesn’t argue . Frankly, he’s not employed with the royal staff and his being allowed in Clarence House at all is an oddity. He’s heard the staff murmur about Arthur's mum and the promise King Uthermade to Merlin’s mum but he doesn’t ask to be certain and the gossip is known to be wrong from time to time. He doesn’t care either way; he’s still not volunteering to be the one to squeal on the Prince of Wales for sneaking veg in the middle of the afternoon.

He tells Arthur as much. Shrugs when Arthur says, unsure, “So... you’re not going to tell your mum?”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Tell my mum that you’re stealing carrots and tomatoes? She’ll probably tear up at the reminder of your oppression and sneak you a chocolate orange.” He turns away when he’s done, fully expecting Arthur to take his stolen food and run. Thinking he’s alone, he settles his messenger bag over one of the chairs in the kitchen and rummages through the contents, shoving aside two folded comics and a book he’ll never read in an effort to find his new shorts, ones that actually fit because it’s hard to find them long enough without having to push extra holes in his belt to keep them around his waist..

He votes to change his shirt too, if only because he’s eager to wear something new so he pulls off his old shirt quickly, shoves it in the corner of his bag and then reaches to unbutton his shorts, tugging them down his legs before bending to retrieve them from the floor around his feet. He hears Arthur’s quiet groan then – the soft, bitten-off noise he makes before there are carrots and priceless tomatoes rolling over the floor and Merlin turns, in nothing but his pale blue y-fronts and says, “What a way to waste the veg, mate” as he kicks a tomato away from his toe. It takes him a moment to realise the situation and, when he does, it all comes together very slowly...

First, Arthur is still in the kitchen. He’s just watched Merlin undress and the suspicious noise he made a moment ago sounds a lot like the noises Merlin chokes off when he – Yeah. Okay. No. He’s not relating those sanctioned moments to the bloody Prince of Wales, thanks.

Second, Arthur has dropped over-priced, perfectly ripe food to the floor. The hand previously holding the carrots is now braced against the worktop, fingers clutching the edge to save Arthur from falling over and the other is between his legs, clutching his... “What are you holding onto it like that for?” Merlin asks firmly, waving his hand at the hand Arthur has pressed between his legs, clearly holding down his cock for dear life. It’s terrible, how roughly he’s treating it. Merlin winces just watching it. “You’ll suffocate it – stop. I mean, really, it can’t be that bad, can it?”

Third, Arthur’s face is beet red. It’s not like the times before where his cheeks were rosy and his neck was flushed. He’s crossed the line between embarrassed and mortified and, Merlin isn’t positive why, but he thinks it may have something to do with the way Arthur bites back a pitiful groan when Merlin says, ‘it can’t be that bad, can it?’ because he looks away and bites his lip.

Fourth, no matter how fat Prince Arthur may be, he’s still a self-entitled pillock. When Merlin laughs, says, “Christ, you grab it like it’s special or something”, Arthur says, “Fuck off, Merlin” and turns around, hand still clutched between his legs. Nearly naked as he is, Merlin probably shouldn’t be half as loud as he is when he says, teasingly, “It’s alright if it’s distorted, sire; it’s not like anyone will date you for the sex, yeah?” because he’s trying to be funny and cock jokes are always funny... right?

Arthur doesn’t look much like a prince when he bolts from the kitchen, face still bright red and his gait a little awkward with all of his extra weight. Merlin remembers when he was thin and long like a prince is meant to be – when Arthur’s cheekbones were stark and not hidden under layers of the ‘baby fat’ Merlin’s mum claims has suddenly surfaced. He giggles for a couple days under his breath when he catches Arthur, wider than the poles and corners he’s peeking around, staring at him worriedly but he doesn’t realise he’s really done something wrong until Arthur’s birthday comes and goes and he gets no invitation.

His mum gives him dirty looks for a week or so after Arthur’s party and then, the day that Arthur – or, well, the staff really – packs his bags of Eton, she comes home stern-faced and tired as she explains that things are going to change, that Merlin is going to learn to be respectful and focus because she “can’t have this nonsense anymore, Merlin” and he’s become “a danger to himself, if nothing else.”

A week later he leaves for boarding school, fighting down the bursts of magic that seem in opposition to what his mum demands. He packs his bags four times only for his magic to unpack it all, fold it and sort it neatly into its correct drawers until Merlin’s mum gives up packing entirely and hands him a small fist full of money to buy clothes when he gets there. He hopes all the while that her tears and his uncontainable magic might convince her to change her mind and let him stay.

He asks once if she’s punishing him for making fun of Prince Arthur or if it’s his magic, freakish and unheard of. He says, “Mum, it was a joke is all” and “I’ll try to control it, I swear” until his face is red and he’s breathless but she shakes her head, presses a kiss to his forehead and says, “You’re perfect, Merlin... Sometimes, you’re even too perfect for your own good.”

*

Merlin comes home for the summers but doesn’t spend much time at Clarence House. Arthur is gone, too – off doing things that are apparently far away from the eyes of the paps because there are headlines all over the newsstands about Prince Arthur missing key events and how King Uther has only said: “My son needs time to enjoy adolescence out of the eye of the public” even though, technically, Arthur’s only job in the world is to be in the eye of the public. Merlin hears through the grapevine (a grapevine named Hunith, aged forty-one years and currently employed by the King of England) when he comes home for good that Arthur is enrolled at Cambridge, studying political theory and is still “unattached.”

Merlin asked her once in the past if that meant he was still a virgin or if it meant he was fucking people without the ‘girlfriend’ title; she wasn’t very happy with him over that one.

They go another four years without speaking. Not that Merlin is counting, mind you. His mum brings it up at dinner his first day home, along with: “He’ll be home this summer, you know. Now that you’re both older, maybe you could try being friends again?”

“Won’t be spending much time at Clarence House, will I? I have my internship, mum.” It’s nothing difficult – a few days a week at the Children’s Hospital where he’ll work the donations desk and direct people who are confused about where the loo is in the right direction (“Next hallway, on the left”) until fall when he leaves again for his first year of university.

“You’ll have days off every once in awhile, you could stop by and visit everyone. They were talking about baking you a cake to celebrate being done with school; they’ve missed you.”

“Wouldn’t have reason to miss me if you hadn’t sent me off,” he replies, attempting to sound casual as he stabs a bit of broccoli with his fork. He shouldn’t be so petulant after all this time but it’s still more than a bit disconcerting, knowing his mum sent him off to boarding school on King Uther’s dime because it was ‘best’ for him – to hell with what he wanted, really. He wonders, if Arthur had been her son, if she would have been able to ship him off to boarding school without batting a lash.

He thinks it may have had a bit to do with the magic though she refuses to admit it. She’ll never say but he thinks he scares her sometimes – especially in the summer when she makes casual comments about how Arthur is doing and his magic flares under his skin, blows up the vase she bought in Italy or rearranges the furniture in the living room until everything is on the ceiling. He can’t explain those incidents, why his magic behaves the way it does when Arthur is mentioned and, while it might make Merlin nervous, he’s pretty sure it actually terrifies her.

She says, quietly, “When you have children, Merlin, you can judge. Until then, let it rest.”

*

Aiming for a degree in social sciences brought ‘round a few raised brows. The royal family, despite all of their negative qualities, took care of Merlin and his mum – provided them with good Christmases and a warm meal (even if it wasn’t always up to standard) every evening. Merlin didn’t really understand what it was like to struggle or need for much if he was honest but that didn’t stop him from learning about others who had – hearing about how many jobs his mate Will’s mum worked to send him to a first-class school and keep him involved in local activities during the summers. Some laughed, mentioned that though he didn’t always have the best, he always had something and thought it strange for a boy who’d grown up with as much as he did to focus on charity as a career.

“You’ll get paid shite, mate,” the cooks said and Merlin, fifteen and struggling to survive the rest of summer in the kitchens, shrugged as he peeled potatoes and replied, “Yeah, I know.” The summer after his mum woke him up with a tug at his shoulder, murmured, “You’ll never operate a good charity if you don’t learn to get out of bed before noon” and Merlin curled deeper into his blankets, grumbled, “Christ, mum. I’m sixteen, not forty. The more sleep I get now, the less I’ll need when I study my arse off later.”

Nothing dissuaded him, though. He nodded when they tried to warm him off, kept in mind that they were just being supportive of his future, if not his dreams, and focused on proving himself. He buckled down, volunteered at school events and kept track of internships focused on community relations and charitable causes. So, it came as no real surprise when he found the position at the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital because he knew that there was two open every year and he’d mostly been biding his time to take one for himself. It didn’t require much experience and the few things he lacked, he made up for in letters of recommendation from his teachers and cheesy grins that seemed to win over the heart of most of the volunteers.

Wednesdays through Fridays and every other Saturday are Merlin’s days. He tells people about medical research, where it is versus where it needs to be and about the cost of medical treatment – how MRI machines often cost between 2 and 3 million pounds and that regular maintenance averages between 300 thousand and 500 thousand pounds a year. He stresses the hospital’s focus on patient and family support, how the hospital offers accommodations for the parents of sick children and how donations make all of that possible. And, when the numbers and the facts and the empowering stories fail, he smiles and wishes them a good day, often surprised when they reconsider and donate something – small, large or otherwise.

He’s most surprised on the second Thursday of May when, idly flipping through a few pages of the first Harry Potter book to keep him occupied through the slow hour, he feels the pull of his magic low in his belly, unwinding and spreading through his chest and into his fingers. The corner of his page folds itself over, marks his place as the sound of footsteps near and Merlin looks up, struggling to reign in his wayward magic as it shuffles around him, pushing notepads and making pens dance around each other in the box near his feet.The bloke in front of the desk is standing a little too close, shifting his weight awkwardly from one side to the other and peeking over his shoulder often, as though someone might come out and bite him at any moment. His sunglasses are dark, expensive if Merlin were to guess but it’s hard to see them properly when the his cap is pulled low over his face, chin tilted downward to his chest and the head of his hoodie is held close to his jaw, shadowing the little bit of him that isn’t protected by his cap.

What Merlin can see are his shoulders, wide and strong and the shadowed line of lips that are full and slightly familiar, as though he knows them. He tries to commit as much of it to memory as possible – red hoodie, dark wash jeans, likely flying fit under all those clothes – because, for a moment, he feels like the bloke in front of him might actually be considering trying to rob him.

So... Do you want my watch or my money? I think I might have twenty-five cents if you let me reach in my back pocket and find it.”

What?”

“And I think I have six pounds or so left on my Lush gift card, too,” Merlin adds quickly, attempting to subtly shift in his seat and make sure his wallet is actually stored in his back pocket and not still sitting on his dresser at home. A Lush gift card might be the difference between life and death at this point – what has his life become?

“I don’t need your money,” the bloke says, sounding half-shocked and half-scared. He switches his weight to his opposite hip, looks over his shoulder and then shoves his hands in his pockets. Merlin notices his watch then – expensive, detailed. No, it doesn’t look like he needs Merlin’s Lush gift card after all...

“You’re here to donate, then?”

“This is the donations desk, isn’t it?”

“Yes–” you cheeky fucker “– it is, actually. There are a ton of amazing things your donation supports, you know? Medical research for –” Merlin goes silent as the man pulls his hands free from his pocket, a folded wad of colourful banknotes sliding out with his fingers. He shoves it Merlin’s way, long, tanned fingers pushing it forward while Merlin stumbles over his words. There’s at least five thousand quid in his hand and, tempting though it may be, Merlin shakes his head, pushes his hands against the man’s and struggles to ignore how soft and cool the bloke’s skin is because no. “Mate, honestly, you’re going to want to fill out a form and all with that kind of donation. They send you a thank you letter and some other cool shit – Fuck – I mean, other cool stuff.”

The pens in the box stop dancing, Merlin's book falls shut with a thump that he just barely manages to pretend to make and he feels his magic's urge to pull the bloke closer, to own him just as thoroughly as it apparently owns Merlin.

Merlin hears the bloke's laugh, low and warm and it settles his magic, gives him enough time to to glance away from the money and see if he can catch a bit of the man’s face – enough to pinpoint where he might recognise his lips from or help him rationalise why a stranger would walk in off the street with more than five thousand quid in his pocket, a posh watch on his wrist and a desire to keep his identity secret...

Maybe it’s a test to see if Merlin follows the correct procedures. Fuck if he isn’t tempted to just take the cash and run but... “You really should fill out a donation letter,” he says earnestly, trying to swing the man to do as he says with a smile. “Only takes a minute. We don’t get cash donations that size often and... Well, they like us to try and put a name to the money, yeah?”

“Merlin, just –”

“What?” The man stills; he takes a step back and pulls his money close. For a moment, it looks like he might leave so Merlin struggles to clear the shock fast enough to lean forward, bum rising off his chair and hips pressing hard against the edge of the desk in order to reach the man’s wrist and hold it tight. “How do you know my name?”

“I guessed.”

“You guessed my name was Merlin over – I don’t know, Steve?” Merlin asks in disbelief. The information and donations desk is a long square line, mostly empty space but there’s a computer to Merlin’s left and a bit of paperwork to his right and he thinks that, though he can’t risk letting go long enough to actually come around and figure the bloke out, he could...

“Fuck it,” Merlin mumbles, hand still gripping the man in front of him as he stands, pushes his knee up on the desk and gives himself enough height and leverage to lean over, push the man’s hood down and tug his cap off of his head, clutching it between his fingers while his eyes try to process the entirely of the face before him – capture it, memorise it before he realises exactly what he’s looking and fucks it all up epically. “You’re not fat,” Merlin announces while his knee slides off the desk. His legs feel a bit like jelly, uneasy and uneven so he braces his hands palm down on the desk and leans into the coolness of the wood. All of a sudden, his magic acting out makes perfect sense. “You actually look like a prince.”

Colour rises to Arthur’s cheeks from his neck, tense muscles looking like they might explode under all the pressure as Arthur – older and firmer and fucking gorgeous – looks away. His hair is still light, filtered with darker strands now that add definition to what used to be a solid gold head of hair and his eyes are more stern, set firmly in his face above plump lips Merlin has seen pictures of for ages and a long, straight nose that most plastic surgeons would look at and think: absolute perfection. He’s fit now, too – gone is the baby fat Merlin’s mum swore would drop overnight and what stands before him, though hidden under layers of clothing meant to hide him from view, is a body that Merlin can only imagine built and grew and flourished to envious proportions if Arthur had continued to do half the physical work he’d done when he was chubby.

“Don’t you have people to do all of your charity work for you?” Merlin asks when he manages to look away from the line of Arthur’s biceps under his hoodie. Christ, being that fucking gorgeous should be illegal... Why couldn’t Merlin just have half of that? “Or do you enjoy living on the edge? Is dressing up like you’re prepared to rob a bank and then donating more than most people earn in a month to a children’s hospital some kind of attempt at normalcy?”

Arthur says, “You still have no respect, do you?” and doesn’t look the least bit surprised when Merlin raises a brow and replies, “Plenty of respect for people who matter, Arthur. Ghandi, Mother Teresa...”

“How about someone who’s still alive, Merlin?”

“My mum?”

“Point taken.” Arthur stares at Merlin, considering. Merlin struggles to recount whether he took the time to properly brush his hair this morning and if he’d managed to get out most of the ketchup he’d spilled on his shirt during lunch. There’s something about Arthur – always pristine, even in his awkward stage – that never ceases to remind Merlin of his place in the world, how tiny he is in comparison. Arthur’s eyes aren’t strict, though; they’re warm, friendly... And, if Merlin were anyone else, he might say the prince looks awe-struck. And then Arthur says, “Your mum told me you work here during breakfast and I thought...” and Merlin remembers exactly who Arthur is – deeper than just an achingly gorgeous shell.

" I wanted to –”

“Flaunt the fact that the amount of money you carry around in your pocket on a regular basis to spend on nice shoes and posh polos could be the difference between a working MRI machine and a big, useless chunk of metal?” Arthur looks down at his polo as if he’s disgusted with it and Merlin feels a little throb of pleasure for having made a point.

“Your mum told me you work here,” Arthur tries again, holding a hand up when Merlin goes to speak. Shockingly enough, just seeing that little bit of power being used against him (for the first time ever, Merlin notes) keeps him silent. “I thought you’d be able to take a lunch if you had enough donations –”

“No. You don’t raise five thousand quid and then go off for lunch; that isn’t how it works, Arthur.”

Arthur’s face flushes, cheeks tinting with embarrassment; it reminds Merlin of their rare but memorable arguments over the years – when Arthur had sputtered and yelled and pouted and Merlin had made him feel small, felt powerful for once after succeeding in making someone with everything feel like they had nothing at all, making Arthur feel as small as Merlin felt on a daily basis.

“And even if that was how it worked, I wouldn’t go to lunch with you,” Merlin says.

Arthur looks away, nods and says, “Yeah, alright then – good to see you, Merlin."

The rush of pride Merlin expects to feel never comes. Instead, he spends the rest of the night mulling over the regret that chews at his insides and reminds him that it’s really not Arthur’s fault that Arthur has everything... It’s the fault of the rest of the world.

*

"The Prince of Wales wanted to buy you lunch and you turned him down?" Gwaine whistles, leans back in the driver's seat and adds, “Go on then, tell the story!”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “There’s no story to tell; he asked, I told him no.” There is a bit more to the story to tell – years worth of angst and childish antics – but Merlin isn’t about to drudge all of that up when he’s only got a few minutes left before Gwaine leaves, anyway. They spent the day in London, stopping in random shops and picking up little things along the way and it isn’t like Gwaine doesn’t already know how Merlin feels about Arthur, he’s just looking for another funny Arthur story to take home and Merlin isn’t willing to provide this time; he’s still too unsure of what exactly happened – it’s all still too fresh, too different.

He and Gwaine have been friends for a few years; they met at school, visited each other a few times over their summers apart and when Merlin was sixteen and decided to just admit he was gay and quit pretending to pine over girls he really had no interest in, Gwaine was all for helping him in any way he could.

Of course, ‘any way he could’ included at least a blowjob a day and a month's worth of sex in a single week but Merlin appreciated it all the same. There weren’t feelings to complicate things and Gwaine didn’t promise Merlin anything more than a good time so it kept things simple, easy and just the way someone like Merlin – who had magic and a closeness to the royal family that made most seek him out just for the chance to spend a week in Prince Arthur’s presence – needed them.

“Was he angry?”

“No.” Merlin shrugs. “Disappointed, I guess? A little.”

“I’m not surprised.”

Frowning, Merlin asks, “Why?”

Gwaine leans forward in his seat, taps his fingers against the wheel without any sort of pattern (so like Gwaine to not make anything harmonious) and says, “Well, I don’t know much about the Prince of Wales but I will say that, from what I’ve heard, he’s probably got a bit of a hard on for you.”

“That’s disgusting.” Merlin can’t even hide his disgust. It floods through his words, comes out harsher than he means for it to and then he has to turn away from Gwaine’s amused gaze because he can feel the flush crawling up his neck and he’s not thinking about Arthur’s hand over his crotch in the kitchen that day and wondering if that’s what happened. “He’s the fucking Prince of Wales, Gwaine; he can’t be gay.”

“He can be gay,” Gwaine corrects, “he can’t act gay. It’s all okay with the world if they don’t know it’s happening, yeah? He used to follow you everywhere, Merlin, and he practically admitted it when you cornered him in his room.”

“No, he didn’t,” Merlin argues simply. He pushes open the car’s door, throws one leg out and says, “He said he hated me, not that he wanted to fuck me –”

“I would hope he didn’t ask to fuck you when he was eleven; prime blokes like that are limited – to me, mostly.”

“– and I have never thought of Arthur as more than a nuisance.”

“Even when he came to donate to the Children’s Hospital just to say hello and invite you for sushi?”

No. Yes. Of course – not. Of course not. “Especially when he came to the hospital,” replies Merlin. He presses a firm, perfunctory kiss to Gwaine’s lips just to keep him from whinging before he steps out of the car and lets the door fall shut behind him. He waves over his shoulder while he walks away, marching up the walk to Clarence House and nodding his thanks when Alfie throws the gate open for him, welcoming him back and hoping he had a good day out.

Gwaine yells, “See you around, Merlin!” as he pulls away but Merlin is too annoyed with him to answer. He’ll text later, when he’s not still considering strangling Gwaine for his stupid ideas and he ridiculous assumptions.

Or, worse, before he starts to think Gwaine might be fucking right for the first time in his life. Impossible, he knows, but that doesn’t help him push the thoughts out of his head.

The corridors are mostly empty; there’s the occasional employee passing, a gaggle of women with white linens piled high in their arms the closer he gets to the laundry and he pauses to say hello to the familiar faces but doesn’t pay much mind to his surroundings beyond them. He knows this house better than his own, could guide a blind man through to every one of the rooms from memory alone so he’s not exactly surprised when he bumps into someone because he’s not paying attention, moving without watching.

“Who was that?”

Arthur’s hands are on his arms, fingers just tight enough around his biceps to help him balance himself but he shakes them off anyway, mindful of the way his magic had surged to reach the place where Arthur's skin, for a moment, had been pressed tightly to his. He takes a step back and says, “What are you talking about?”

“The person in the car,” Arthur explains, lips set in a thin line, “that dropped you off.”

“Gwaine?” Merlin asks. A beat later, fingers clutching at his sides, he says, “Christ, you were spying again, weren’t you? Did you really never grow out of that?”

Arthur huffs, looks away. “I was looking outside –”

“Of course you were, you... spy.”

“– when you pulled up.” Arthur bites, “I wasn’t spying.”

“But you watched us.”

Arthur’s face is flushed, his eyes are wide and his hands shake at his sides, as though he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. He looks strangely vulnerable for a Prince even when he’s angry, frustrated. “What makes going to lunch with him better than going with me?”

“The fact that he isn’t you,” Merlin answers promptly. It’s a little cruel to say it just like that – to announce it so firmly, without hesitation. But, to be fair, it was the first thing that came to his mind and... “Gwaine is a friend; we went to school together.”

“You kissed him.”

No, duh.

But it’s not posed as a question and Merlin isn’t sure how he’s meant to respond to a statement like that. Is this when the Prince of Wales announces that he hates gays? Should he pull out his mobile and try to record this? Sell it to the news rags for more money than he’ll spend in his entire life and run away to a foreign country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the UK?

...Belize? Singapore? Christ, he really should have paid more attention in school.

“On the lips,” Arthur adds slowly, as though waiting for Merlin to deny it. When Merlin is quiet, his response nothing more than a raised eyebrow that says, ‘Yes, and?’ rather than, ‘Oh, no!’, Arthur looks like he might be ready to fall over.

Or kill something, Merlin amends when he realises that Arthur isn’t stepping away from Merlin, he’s stepping toward him – crowding him against the wall, breathing just a little more heavily and staring with such blatant bitterness that Merlin can’t even think of something witty or biting to say to get him out of the situation except, “Christ, when did you get so tall?” because... Well, what else is he meant to say when his eyes are level with Arthurs’ for the first time in forever and his breath is warm across Merlin’s face, against his lips until said lips are pressed – against – Merlin’s.

Holy fuck.

It’s not soft; it’s not comfortable or welcoming, it’s demanding and forceful and Merlin can hardly breathe around Arthur’s tongue pressed inside his mouth and Arthur’s fingers tight in his hair and the way his magic flares inside of him, struggling to press as close to his skin as it can and reaching out for everything – the frames on the walls, the curtains pulled tight over the windows – to distract itself, and Merlin, from the way Arthur is holding Merlin so close their chests press together and their hips slide against one another/

Then Arthur pushes Merlin back against the wall, tilting his face in the process to get even closer and controlling his magic is a lost cause; it's gone, dancing around the room and making a mess of nearly everything in the corridor.

It takes a moment to respond because... Well, what the fuck? Really? Merlin probably couldn’t count the number of teenage boys and girls around the world who dreamed of the Prince of Wales shoving them up against the wall and having their wicked way with them on a billion and one hands but he never wanted to be one of them and Arthur isn’t a great kisser and this is all a mess and...

“Stop, stop.” Okay so maybe Arthur’s kissing was pretty shite because his lips hurt and apparently the lack of response does nothing to turn Arthur off but his chest under Merlin’s palms is really not so bad and... No. No, it’s bad. So bad. Wanting the Prince of Wales that Merlin has hated since (he assumes) birth is wrong. “What are you doing?” Merlin asks, ignoring the unsteady beat of Arthur’s heart under his hand and the way Arthur’s eyes are wide, eager and embarrassed and angry all at once and how it shouldn't be half as sexy as it is. “You can’t just– You’re not allowed– You’re not even gay!”

Arthur sounds confused, unsure when he says, “I was kissing you" as though maybe he's already forgotten what exactly he was doing seconds before.

“Right. Again: what are you doing?”

“You let him do it,” Arthur says, looking just like the petulant child Merlin always assumed he’d grow up to be. He wants to say, ‘it sucks not being allowed to have things someone else does, doesn’t it?’ but holds his tongue, listens to Arthur when he adds, “He shouldn’t have.”

“Because he’s a bloke?”

“Because you’re not his.”

Merlin laughs, lets his hands fall to his side when Arthur steps back in surprise. Merlin’s back is still against the wall, steadying him when he shakes his head. “Well, if anyone gets claim to me it would be Gwaine; he’s–”

And this time it’s just as unexpected as the last but it’s softer, easier – better. There’s care in Arthur’s fingers when he presses his thumbs to Merlin’s cheeks, tilts their heads so their noses don’t mash up the way they had before and lets his lips linger against Merlin’s, tongue asking instead of demanding and just as eager but clearly more restrained when Merlin thinks, ‘fuck it’ and let’s him in, let’s their breath mingle between their open mouths before Arthur’s tongue slides against his, over the roof of his mouth before he pulls away to grant the breath Merlin most definitely needs because his vision is getting a little fuzzy and his mind is starting to think about crazy, fucked up things like pulling Arthur closer, Arthur’s tongue pressing just as deliciously to the head of Merlin’s cock and– Arthur’s pulling away, stepping back and breathing heavily, shaking his head and then turning away, storming down the corridor while Merlin stands still, chest heaving and wondering, over and over again, what the hell just happened and how the hell Arthur hadn't noticed the fact that there's no wallpaper left on the wall.

*

"I just want one good reason for what the hell happened yesterday," is what Merlin says after evading Arthur's oddly specific Merlin-radar and catching him off-guard, tugging him into a cupboard not far from the laundry and pinning his back against the door. Merlin's chest presses close to Arthur's, giving himself a few extra stones of holding-power that his still-too-lanky arms wouldn't have afforded him against Arthur otherwise.

Arthur says, "I'm sorry," but he doesn't sound sorry; he sounds angry and frustrated – bitter, even (and Merlin’s never heard Arthur sound bitter).
.

He's not sure he likes it, either. "Yeah, it's alright but – I mean, it's not alright to just throw that on someone but I'll let it slide, I just want to know why."

And then the prat in Arthur is rearing its head, muffling the human-side Merlin experienced the day before and forces Arthur's shoulders to tense and his chest to tighten under Merlin's hands. He doesn't respond this time though, he doesn't move at all and it's almost like he's waiting for Merlin to continue... to press until he can say whatever is sitting on the edge of his tongue.

Thinking about Arthur’s tongue makes Merlin think about the way it pressed against his lips, his own tongue and the roof of his mouth yesterday and he blurts, "Christ, you're not even gay, Arthur!" so loud that he wouldn't be surprised if all of London didn't just hear him tell the bloody Prince of Wales all about how not gay he is.

"I'm not allowed to be," Arthur replies. The resentment in his voice undeniable, filling the tiny dark cupboard. Merlin's head hurts from the pressure of just being close to Arthur, feeling the bitter frustration boiling under his skin and in his mouth. "And even if I was, what difference would it make to you? You'd have anyone except me, wouldn't you, Merlin? So why are you bothering to ask?"

It sounds a million times worse coming from Arthur's mouth – Merlin's words were meant to hurt Arthur and having them hurled back, repeated in a way that was probably kinder than the one Merlin afforded Arthur hurts. It makes him angry.

"Fuck you, Arthur; you don't know anything."

"Neither do you."

Merlin isn't sure what happens between the moment Arthur speaks and the moment their teeth and lips clash but there's something he can't quite put his finger on – some kind of need to one-up the other and prove to Arthur he knows plenty of things, like how to make Arthur moan and how to make Arthur shut up and how to make Arthur really kiss, without all the extra spit and fury that came with the one from the day before.

He guides Arthur's chin with his fingers, tilts their heads just right and pulls apart to grip the lobe of Arthur's ear with his teeth, worry it between kisses and Arthur's breathless gasps as Merlin's hands trace the lines of his abs and his fingers dip just below the waist of Arthur's briefs, sliding teasingly over the warm skin there where very few – if any, Merlin thinks – have ever touched before him. He's the proud owner of a secret piece of Arthur; it belongs to only him and it's ridiculous how full that makes his chest feel, how proud he is when he steps back and says, "Don't presume to understand me, Arthur. You never had the time or inclination to learn a damn thing about me," before he takes advantage of the worn, unsure state of Arthur's body and pushes him to the side. He leaves him in the cupboard to collect his bearings and arrange his clothes while Merlin walks away, both delighted and disgusted with the turn of events that weren't supposed to be anything more than a not-so-friendly 'please don't molest me in the future' conversation that took a turn for the worst.

Or the best.

Fuck. Merlin just can't decide.

*

After that it's a game. On some of Merlin's days off he walks to Clarence House with his mum, shuffles around the kitchens for an hour or so, takes a seat on one of the stools in front of the long bar and looks over paperwork, gets himself comfortable with maps of his future campus and ideas for community outreach programs he'd like to see happen in the future and then, from seemingly out of nowhere, Arthur is there. He'spinning Merlin's stool around and pressing Merlin's back against the marble while his knees knock Merlin's apart, giving him room to step between them and press himself impossibly close, draw Merlin up, up, up with his teeth and his tongue and then step back, chest heaving and lips upturned before he walks away.

Other days, Merlin slips into Arthur's room, hides in the closet the same way Arthur did so many years ago and listens for his approach, prepares himself for the ultimate destruction and then manages to succeed in making Arthur hard, slick-lipped and desperate before he steps back, watches Arthur pant and struggle to stand upright against his bedroom wall before Merlin leaves him there, struggling to ignore his own hard-on and pretend that its heaviness between his legs is not defeat, just... a minor setback on the way to his ultimate victory.

There are days where Arthur stays fully clothed, where Merlin's hands cling to the soft cotton of his polos and others where the air conditioning is chilly around them in the cupboard of their choosing or the corner of Arthur's bedroom and gooseflesh rises on Merlin's bare skin, his and Arthur's shirts somewhere behind him or to the side of him, eagerly dismissed so their mouths could access skin – new skin, fresh and clean or old skin, faded bruises in the perfect shape of Arthur's mouth or Merlin's mouth across their shoulders and their necks.

Arthur manages to get his hands on the zip of Merlin's jeans one day, two weeks into the competition-cum-contest of who can find a spot they can stay in longest without being caught because they've scraped past housekeepers time and time again by the skin of their teeth, perfecting wide, confused looks and falsely assured, "Hiding in the – No, we're not hiding in the cupboard! We were looking for a broom!" But, Merlin doesn't give a flying fuck about where they are or who might catch them when Arthur's hand is around his cock, unsteady and unsure; his eyes are wide, blue and curious, watching Merlin's face as he pulls and twists his wrist and repeats the motions that make Merlin moan, mumble, "Christ, yes" and "Fuck, fuck" because Arthur is well-practised in the art of pleasing people and Merlin never thought he'd say it but, thank fuck for that.

"Okay?"

"Perfectly fucking okay," Merlin moans. He braces a hand on the wall behind Arthur's shoulder, feels the twinge of pleasure in the base of his spin when he bends forward, struggles to hold himself upright under Arthur's touch. His breath is coming in warm, loud pants over Arthur's shoulder when he says it, mutters, "Christ, how am I going to go two weeks without this? Fuck."

Arthur stills; Merlin thinks it's probably because his wrist is aching, arm shoved in the tiny space Merlin's body has afforded it in his haze of pleasure and it's rude to not be considerate of shit like that when he's the one with his pants around his knees and his cock out between them, unhindered in the way that Arthur's is in his pants, leaking head leaving a wet spot against pale blue cotton and Merlin really wants to press his mouth there... Really wants to...

"Where are you going?"

"My uncle's –" and fuck if that isn't a mood killer "– for two weeks. Can we just..." Merlin presses a teasing bite to the lobe of Arthur's ear, tugs it and then presses a kiss to the spot just below it, trails them wet and warm over Arthur's shoulder until Arthur's hand starts to stroke again, slow at first but increasing in speed the more Merlin groans, the more Merlin presses his hips into Arthur's hand.

"When are you leaving?"

"Fuck, Arthur –" So, so fucking close. If he would just... "– can you focus, please? Please, focus. This is, like, a training exercise for the future of your country and I really need you to – Christ, yes." Arthur continues but his shoulders are stiff, his jerks are less even and rough in the non-sexy way. "Come –"

"With you?"

No. No. No, that is not what he meant. That was... Completely out of context and –

Arthur's hand speeds up, levels out and he slides his lips against Merlin's, presses his tongue in Merlin's mouth and when they part for air the entire cupboard seems like it's shaking under the pressure of Merlin's moans, the lights flicker as he gasps unevenly for air and then comes the moment he groans, "Fuck, fuck, you can come with me if it means I get to have this" which is both unplanned and potentially fucking disastrous but his visions disappears in a flash of white, his body shutters under Arthur's touch and he comes over Arthur's hand and the front of Arthur's pants and the edge of Arthur's shirt before he has time or enough available brain cells to care because... Well, Arthur has been good lately and two weeks on the coast might just make him even better.

"Did you mean it?" Arthur asks that evening, hours after the incident in the cupboard when Merlin's arms are full of extra fruit that wouldn't be eaten in time if it was left in the kitchens and Merlin's mum is steps away, laughing and waving goodbye tiredly. "Should I ask my father?"

Merlin's mum looks curious but she doesn't ask when Merlin shrugs, says: "Sure, yeah. If you want to come, you can; it's just Cornwall but..." His speech dies there. Arthur is already nodding, smiling so wide it makes Merlin's face hurt just to look at it. Arthur waves over his shoulder, says,"I'll ask. Thanks, Merlin."

"Friends, now?"

"Shut up, mum," Merlin grumbles, expecting the swat she gives his arm and her wide, proud grin as they make their way home. "We're just..." Yeah. He doesn't even know.

 

*

Gaius is the only one who really understands Merlin's magic. He talks about it on occasion, treats it as though it's something to be proud of rather than ashamed of but, then again, Gaius is kind of an old coot who talks a lot about the age of dragons and sorcery and how Merlin is a fool if he thinks his magic is a curse and not a gift. Merlin doesn't think his sagely advice is very sagely at all... It's more like a death wish the way he treats it, always telling Merlin to make the dishes wash themselves when his mum is watching from the living room, eyes like a hawk, or when the line at the bakery is long and Gaius doesn't really feel like waiting, suggesting that Merlin just make the muffins float to him.

Like it's not stealing if it's done with magic.

Arthur thinks Gaius is great, though. The topic of Merlin's magic is avoided when Arthur is around because Merlin's mum's stare is both terrifying and rare and Gaius, though it looks like it pains him, cuts off his sentences before the word 'magic' slips off his tongue. Instead he tells Arthur about the coast, Cornwall and the places he's visited – things he's seen, people he's met and, loosely without using the actual word, magic.

It's Merlin's mum that Arthur spends most of the first day with, though. Merlin makes the beds in the guest rooms, one for him and Arthur to share (Fate hates him. Magic, boarding school and now a bedroom with the Prince of Wales? Yeah, fuck you, too, fate.) and the other for his mum. While he shakes the sheets out and tucks them in the corners, he watches Arthur and his mum stretch out on the sand, heads back and eyes skyward as though the clouds in Cornwall are the most interesting things they've ever seen.

He stands in the doorway behind them, just far enough to hear without being heard and stills when his mum says, "I wanted to raise Merlin in Cornwall. Your mum came here with me just a short while before she had you and we talked about... children, hopes for our future. We made a pact that we'd bring our kids here together. You'd both be boys because you already were and that's what I would have to have eventually, too, so you could be the best of mates." She gives Arthur the pained half-smile she makes when she talks about things she'd rather pretend didn't exist because they're real and they hurt. Merlin can't blame her; he'd rather pretend the hard things in life didn't exist, too. But, Merlin has never heard anything about Arthur's mum – not about how they were friends or that she ever planned on raising him here, near the ocean and the calm where there is no King Uther to take care of and no Prince Arthur to follow around, picking up everything he drops whenever he gets tired of it. It's a little – okay, a-whole-fucking-lot – unfair that Arthur is hearing this first; Merlin is her son, he deserves to know things like this. "Her biggest fear," Merlin's mum continues, ignorant to the way Merlin shifts in agitation behind them or the seething feeling that settles in his chest that Arthur has one more thing he doesn't, one more moment that Merlin was never graced with, "was that you'd grow up without a friend who saw you as just Arthur and not Prince Arthur of Wales. She had a hard time finding that when she was growing up – the balance between someone who wanted to be her friend because she was herself and someone who wanted to be her friend because she had a pretty title and a lot of promise to become Queen."

Arthur is clearly riveted and pained in turns. He doesn't know much about his mum. Most don't speak of her and those who do speak very little; they make comments in passing about how she'd loved lemon tarts and that his dad had wooed her with sweet little magic tricks and not roses and poetry. Merlin knows it's hard to wonder – to have no idea about the other half of yourself, what they were likelike or how different you might be now if they'd been around. Arthur's mother had died, though; she'd been forcefully taken and Merlin's father had left voluntarily, because Merlin, even in infancy, had been too much. So Merlin gets it, he does, but that doesn't mean Arthur deserves more – that Arthur deserves stories and Merlin's mum's hand on his knee or the soft, proud look in her eyes when she says, "She'd be proud of you – happy."

He can feel Gaius behind him, the change in the room and the creaking noise the floorboards make when he walks in. He says, "Merlin?" quietly and Merlin notices then that the pots and pans are stuck to the ceiling, the old sofa is turned upside down and the tiny television in the corner is smoking, filling the room and clouding the air. His mind kind of feels like it's filled with smoke, too – like everything is blurred and nothing makes sense because he's angry and bitter and disappointed in himself all at once for being unnatural and seemingly unworthy of the simplest things in life like a mother who doesn't want to ship him away to boarding school and friends who don't have to pass some kind of investigation to hang out with him because he spends summers in the general vicinity of the Prince of Wales who, at the time, he hadn't even spoken more than ten words a year to from the time he was born. Fuck, he can't even be angry right – not without silently blowing up televisions and flipping rooms upside down without blinking an eye.

He's still fuming when Arthur comes to bed, tip-toes into the room with a murmured, "Merlin?" that Merlin doesn't answer because a) fuck Arthur, b) fuck Arthur and c) he doesn't feel like talking or exchanging handjobs or pretending to like Arthur, thanks ever so.

Oh, and yeah, fuck Arthur.

Actually, he doesn't really have to pretend to like Arthur. The entire drive to Cornwall Arthur was beaming, talking constantly about how awesome it was to be getting away and how he can't believe Merlin's mum convinced his father to keep most of the body guards in London (though the one they did have to bring along looked a little peeved when Arthur said he really wished he didn't even have to bring one along) and Merlin had pitied him, kind of enjoyed the way Arthur had shuffled just that little bit closer to Merlin in the back seat so their thighs touched and their shoulders bumped. It's easy to like Arthur in moments like that – the rare seconds where he's human and touchable and real, not just a pretty face for the public to coo over.

And all that frustration? The anger? Gone. Right then. Dissolved in sappy ass recollections of Arthur's fingers hidden between their too-close legs, minutely swiping back and forth over Merlin's khaki shorts in a comforting motion meant to be their secret.

Fuck.

"Do you know much about your mum?" Merlin doesn't open his eyes but he hears Arthur still, his breath catch and then his quiet, "Not much, no." That's what Merlin expected, though; he knows all about being the child of a single parent, even if their reasons are different and their upbringing was completely opposite.

He listens to Arthur slide into bed, his body shuffling under the sheets that aren't quite what he's used to. He sounds wide-awake though when he whispers, "It's strange to hear about her; she's practically unreal. It's like a piece of me is missing and I can't... I'll never find it, you know? Because it's not around to be found."

"What about you?" Arthur asks a second later. "Do you know much about your dad?"

Arthur's eyes are dark in the low light of their shared bedroom, deep blue and curious in a way that doesn't feel piercing or investigative; it's friendly, understanding. Merlin shakes his head. "My mum doesn't like taking about the past much; he's a sore subject, I think." But Arthur's mum wasn't, apparently, and that's not fair.

He doesn't ask before he slips into Arthur's bed, stripped to his briefs and revelling in the feel of so much of Arthur's bare skin against his own when he slides under the coverings. He pushes one leg between Arthur's so their thighs touch and curls his toes against Arthur's calves, hardly dissuaded by Arthur's murmured, "Merlin, you don't really want to..." because it's not firm, not a demand and he feels like he's free to ignore it, to slide just a little closer when Arthur doesn't argue. Their hips press slightly as Merlin fidgets to get comfortable, one arm curled under his pillow and the other settled in the scant bit of space between their chests. When Arthur's fingers search his out, sliding over his wrist and then his palm before slipping between Merlin's own fingers, they go slow, giving Merlin plenty of time to pull away from the intimate gesture he swears he doesn't want. Merlin sighs, bringing his eyes up to meet Arthur's and lets go – allows himself a moment of weakness where Arthur's touch is what he needs to ease the animosity from under his skin.

He doesn't anticipate their mouths meeting; Arthur's hand skating over his ribs, down his side to curl against his hip or the soft, anxious groan Arthur makes when Merlin can't keep his hips still any longer, when he rolls them into Arthur's and their cocks slide against one another, cursed pants in the way of warm, slick skin-on-skin.

In hindsight, he'll realise that the shocked little moans Arthur gives when Merlin's hand rubs against Arthur's cock through his pants isn't the pleased kind, it's the unsure kind and he'll think back on the way Arthur kept saying, "let me – Merlin, just let me do you" and realise that Arthur wasn't just being selfless, he was protecting himself from – Well, from Merlin, as much as it bothers him to admit it. Because Arthur does both of those things; he gasps and pulls Merlin's hand away from his cock half a dozen times, tells Merlin 'it's okay, don't worry about it' after Merlin presses his hips forward again, rocks against Arthur's body and says, "Christ, you do me all the time. Just, let me –"

Arthur struggles a little when Merlin's hands dip below his pants, fingers skating over the head of Arthur's cock before they grip, tug from base to tip just once. His moan isn't filled with anxious pleasure, it's terror and Merlin wonders for a moment, during the first few strokes of his hand over Arthur's cock, why he's still arching away, eyes wide and fingers reaching for Merlin's wrist and then he feels it – he tugs up, rubs the bead of precome gathered at the head of Arthur's cock with his thumb and then pulls back down, stilling when he notices that the skin isn't one smooth length of flesh, that his grip is forced to loosen to accommodate... He's not sure what it's accommodating, only that it's on Arthur's cock and his hand is over it, palm pressed tight around the swollen base and –

"I told you," Arthur whispers harshly, his voice quivering under his attempt to be tough. "I told you to stop, Merlin."

Merlin doesn't really hear any of it, though. He's tugging his hand free from Arthur's pants, staring at the outline of Arthur's cock and wondering what the fuck his hand just pressed against. He's no virgin – he's had more than one cock in his mouth and watched just as much porn as any horny straight teenage boy would have but... He's never ever seen or heard of anything like whatever Arthur –

The floorboards just outside their door squeak and the door to the loo across the corridor slips shut with a snick that sends Merlin flying from under Arthur's sheets, stumbling back to his own bed while Arthur says, anxious, "Merlin, it's – Merlin, I tried to tell you."

He listens to Arthur say his name a dozen and a half times, just quietly enough to not wake anyone but growing more and more nervous each time, as though he's the one who should be afraid – as if Arthur should be afraid of Merlin – until Arthur finally falls to sleep, his face still twisted in fear when Merlin rolls out of bed before dawn, tugging random clothes and his mobile free from his bag and slipping down the stairs with as little noise as possible. He dresses in the loo downstairs, texts his mum to let her know he'll be out for the day and makes his way out of the door, still wondering what the fuck actually happened the night before.

*

Merlin thinks he should probably be more freaked out than angry but he can't find a healthy balance between them; one minute, he's so furious that his mug shakes in his hands and the next he's such a curious, nervous wreck of mortification and uncertainty that he is unable to move at all, much less shake.

And then Arthur corners him and all Merlin can do is shake. The loo in the coffee shop is made for one person, not for someone aiming to keep a large, unhindered distance between he and someone else – namely the Prince of Wales and his incredibly unexpected cock because – Christ, Merlin just doesn't know what to do with all of this right now and Arthur is – not – helping by being so damn close all of a sudden, out in a semi-public area only guarded by a tiny wooden door that Merlin wouldn't trust during the zombie apocalypse, much less now which is much, much worse.

Being the victim of a gruesome brain-chewing is always better than being this close to Arthur. Always.

"It's not what you think it is."

Not what he – what? "I don't know what to think it is!" Merlin argues. He inches back when Arthur tries to step forward, presses his back so hard to the wall that he thinks the tiles and his shoulder blades might meld together by the time Arthur gives up. The inability to tell when you're arguing a losing battle is common amongst these royal types, isn't it? "All I know is that it's weird and I'm not –"

"I warned you," Arthur tries, voice urgent. He's shifting forward again, dragging his feet. The movement is loud in the tiny, closed space. "That day when I saw you and your friend, I told you you wouldn't want me."

Merlin chokes a little on his spit, stuttering out a: "You – You didn't specify that you have some kind of – kind of sexually transmitted abnormal growth on your –"

"It's not sexually transmitted, I'm a virgin! It's genetic – to ensure conception!" Everyone in the coffee shop probably heard that; it was certainly yelled loud enough. And then, more quietly, Arthur adds, "and it seconds as a chastity belt, I suppose. I mean, you wouldn't be the only one to react that way."

The attempt to sound non-nonchalant fails. Arthur sounds downright pitiful and Merlin kind of feels for him for a moment. Being a virgin of your own violation at nearly twenty-one is one thing but being a virgin because you have to be – because you were royally, genetically created to ensure proper lineage is... Well, it's fucking sad.

But – "I don't think I can do this."

And – "Yeah, I didn't think you would."

Except – "What is that supposed to mean?"

Arthur's brows draw together, lips falling open for a moment before he says, "I thought if it ever got there that it would scare you."

"I'm not scared," Merlin points out. "I'm not scared." He isn't. He isn't scared of anything, much less Arthur's cock because – fuck, it had been perfect before it had gone off and got all weird on him; long and hard and flushed deep red, begging to be licked and sucked and – No, Merlin wasn't scared.

Doubtful, Arthur replies, "You leaving last night said otherwise" and Merlin scowls, stills with his back pressed against the wall and then steps forward, crowds Arthur's space until his eyes go wide and he mumbles, "Merlin?" questioningly because Merlin doesn't like be doubted and he doesn't like when people assume they understand how he's feeling. He hates how simply Arthur throws around the idea that anything about him – cock included – is something to be feared or made a big deal of because it's not and everything in the world doesn't revolve around Arthur. Not everything about him has to be special, dammit.

So, yeah, Merlin's annoyed; he's angry, he's furious. The doubt is set in Arthur's face, in his brows and the tight line of his lips and Merlin takes it all in as he moves forward – watches the intensity in Arthur's face morph into uncertainty and then understanding when Merlin's lips find Arthur's, when the sharp lines of their hips bump and the line of Arthur's cock, hard under his jeans, presses against Merlin's. Arthur is restless when they kiss, eager and greedy with his hands and his lips as though he's trying to get as much from Merlin as he can before he pulls away, freaks out and runs for the hills. And there's that doubt again, the kind Merlin hates, that drives him to move forward swiftly, push and push until Arthur's back hits the wall and his tongue slides against Merlin's, giving just as much as he's taking.

Christ, princes aren't supposed to look so good with sweat-damp foreheads and wide, uncertain eyes. How has anyone ever let Arthur walk away? If he told Merlin 'nevermind' right now, Merlin isn't sure he'd be able to stop.

That's what drives his fingers to the button of Arthur's jeans, tugging it free and then the zip while his mouth keeps Arthur's lips occupied and the murmured words of confused, lust-stricken doubt trapped tight without the promise of ever really being heard. It's the same feeling that pushes him to his knees, makes him press open-mouthed kisses to Arthur's cock, trapped under the tight black cotton of his pants. It's the sudden need to have Arthur, desire from the night before that hasn't left – just took its time, settled in under Merlin's frustration and waited for the next moment it could be free.

Arthur pants, "Merlin, Merlin" as his fingers wrap in Merlin's hair, holding Merlin's mouth against his cock as it twitches and grows, hardens under Merlin's tongue when he sweeps it out over the fabric. Arthur doesn't start to get shaky – anxious – again until Merlin pulls away from his hands, pulls his briefs down to his knees and just stares. After a moment, Arthur says, "Merlin, you don't –"

That's when Merlin's tongue presses against the head of Arthur's cock, laps at the precome there and can't hold back the pleased little moan that escapes his lips, pleasure and pride and fuck yes because he's not afraid, he's not going to stop and there's something pretty amazing about being Arthur's first. People don't forget their firsts and Merlin knows that somewhere down the line, years after Arthur is married with two children and a fucking country that adores him, Arthur will remember the moment Merlin presses forward, works Arthur's cock with his tongue and hums as he retreats, watching Arthur's eyes widen and then shutter closed when Merlin goes down again, deeper this time and then even deeper the time after that.

He doesn't think much about the – the thing until his lips press against it, slide just barely over the swell and his tongue swipes at the base, the tiny bit of it he can reach around Arthur's cock. It's strange – not uninviting, but weird nonetheless and Merlin isn't sure what to do with it, how to respond to it. Would Arthur prefer he avoid it? Should he just go for it? Christ, only Arthur's dick could ever be so complicated.

Arthur presses his hips forward, pushes back against Merlin's hands and he groans – deep and low, the muscles of his stomach clenching before Merlin's eyes – and Merlin knows right then that Arthur doesn't mind Merlin's lips sliding over what he can fit or Merlin's tongue sweeping up and over, his mouth retreating to tease just the swollen base of Arthur's cock while his hand works the rest, up and down in slick, smooth movements until Arthur is groaning, coming over Merlin's hand, shirt and the previously spotless floor of the cafe's loo in thick white strips that come and come until Merlin finally pulls Arthur into his mouth and swallows the rest down, not looking forward to the awkward moment one of them will have to either wipe the floor and pretend like they're the ones who didn't leave the mess.

And after all the time they've been locked together in the loo, who is likely to believe them?

"I'm not scared of you or anything about you," Merlin says when Arthur finally stops coming, when he's breathless and panting and his hands are braced on Merlin's shoulders, holding on so he doesn't fall over. Merlin remembers that boneless feeling that comes with an orgasm so strong that you forget to breathe, to think about anything but the rush of pleasure coursing through each and every nerve.

"Yes, so I've experienced." Arthur's laugh is breathless. It annoys Merlin to no end.

"I'm not joking with you; I'm not scared of – this," he pauses to gesture at Arthur's cock, the bulge just barely visible now that Arthur is soft, "because whether you like it or not, you're human. Flaws are... normal."

"It's not a flaw," Arthur argues. He looks a little angry, a fire in his eyes that wasn't there before. He's getting pompous now, straightening his spin and squaring his shoulders like the idea of being imperfect is mortally wounding him. Merlin isn't impressed. "It's a genetic –"

"Anomaly. That means: not normal. Odd. Peculiar. Strange."

"Merlin –"

"Look –" Merlin stands, rolls his neck to work out the kinks and stares, unashamed, at Arthur's annoyed face, the blistering frustration settled in his eyes "– I'm saying I don't care about it, alright? It's summer, we're young and I don't... I don't mind it so just... Let's just fuck and not be emotional about this, okay? We're not lesbians, this doesn't have to be all about our feelings."

"Don't insult the lesbians." Looking like he's prepared to give a speech of lesbian rights (which Merlin thinks would be great, by the way, because it was a joke but gay jokes are never really appropriate), Arthur presses his lips together in a frustrated line that only parts when Merlin lines forward and kisses him, smooth and quick.

"I'm complimenting them," Merlin argues when he pulls away, still close enough to feel Arthur's breath over his lips. He runs a hand over Arthur's barely mussed hair and his perfect polo, wrinkled where Merlin's hands bunched and pushed it up when he'd leaned from below to mouth the base of Arthur's cock, made him moan and press his hands into the tile for balance. "I've never met one half as pompous as you and that makes them fucking fantastic."

"So, are you okay with this?" he asks a moment later, when Arthur doesn't respond to the apparently not-so-witty shouldn't-have-been-used-at-all joke. "Are we fucking or are we hating each other, Arthur?"

Arthur says, "I don't want either" but Merlin isn't even paying that any mind, he's already saying, "You don't always get what you want" before Arthur can finish. And Arthur's face is petulant for a moment, bordering between disappointed and angry before he surges forward, grips Merlin's face between his hands and kisses his mouth open, wet and eager.

"Yes to fucking, then?" Merlin asks.

He nods, breathlessly replies, "Yes."

(Because he's too good for a normal 'yeah'.)

*

"I don't know how this is supposed to work," Arthur groans. His fingers flex over the bare skin of Merlin's hips, nails biting into flesh sliding over bone. He's said that one too many times in the last two weeks, though. Ever since they came back from Cornwall they've been sneaking touches in the corridor and barricading themselves in Arthur's room on the rare occasion that they can make it there with their pants still on and their hands in their pockets, leaving the maids who trail in and out of the guest rooms every day unsuspecting.

It's been a long two weeks.

Merlin rocks his hips, cock slipping over Arthur's as he leans forward, braces his hands on Arthur's shoulders and mumbles, "Christ, I know, but it's a cock. Unusual –" Here Arthur glares, blue eyes hard and unamused "– or not, it's meant to work the same way, yeah?"

"Not 'yeah'," Arthur replies sternly. "I just told you I don't know how it – Fuck, Merlin."

"We don't need to figure it out now," Merlin says, thumb swiping across the head of Arthur's cock. Just loud enough to be heard over Arthur's groan, he adds, "We've got the rest of summer."

*

"Merlin, hand me a water."

Glancing away from the screen, game freezing as Merlin's finger presses the pause button, he says, "What? No. Get your own damn water."

Arthur has been increasingly bossy, to the point that Merlin stopped texting him during one of his Saturday shifts at the hospital because Arthur was being a prat. And during the few instances he's overheard Arthur actually speaking to someone who wasn't Merlin since they returned, Arthur has been ridiculous with his demands – pushy, prince-like.

He says as much and Arthur shrugs, tells Merlin that Princes are meant to act prince-like and then shoves at his shoulder, tells him to turn the game back on as he settles on his stomach next to Merlin, their feet bumping over Arthur's pillow and their sides pressed so close that Merlin's mum actually waivers before she leaves Arthur's room later, eyes stuck on the spot where Arthur's shoulder meets Merlin's, like it's some sort of sign that they're planning on fucking like mad as soon as she shuts the door.

"I was only ever that awkward around you because I liked you," Arthur explains. Then, as if he hadn't said anything unusual, he shoots a zombie wandering straight toward Merlin and yells, "Christ, come save me!" when one pops up from behind him, sending him straight into last-stand. "Now that I have you, I don't have to tip-toe around trying to catch your eye."

"You still don't have me," Merlin replies, awe-struck. His fingers are limp over the controller, eyes too busy watching Arthur's face to pay any mind to the game.

The screen freezes. Arthur's thumb is set over the pause button, neck twisting to face Merlin. His brows are drawn close but he looks... annoyed, not disappointed. It's another reminder that he's changed, grown somewhat into his skin over the summer.

But, then again, maybe he's always been like this. Maybe he's always been twice the pompous, spoiled git Merlin assumed he was and the story was true – he was just wallowing in his own self-pity over the fact that there was something – or someone – in the world he wanted that he just... couldn't have.

And Merlin had given into him. He'd rocked into his touch, whispered in the shell of his ear late at night when all of Clarence House thought they were up playing video games and not wrapped naked around each other, lips swollen and eyes bleary and bodies thrumming with the remaining pleasure from their orgasms.

Nothing changes the fact that, at the end of the summer, Merlin and Arthur are both leaving – going to two different universities, following two different paths that lead them into two different lives. Arthur can't turn away from his family name, the crown or his country; he was born for something greater than pub nights with Merlin on Thursdays or flat-hunting on a Saturday afternoon in late fall or arguing over whose turn it is to take the dog for a walk when it's rainy and wet in winter. It's idealistic (and pretty fucking pitiful, really) to have ideas like that before he's even out of university (much less ideas like that around Arthur, who couldn't live a life like that even if he wanted to) but it's the kind of lame shit he's thought about on nights where he couldn't fall asleep or when Arthur's head presses against his shoulder, breath warm and steady in his sleep while Merlin is wide awake, staring at the ceiling and trying to remember why exactly he shouldn't bother getting too comfortable.

So, no; he's not Arthur's. They're not together – not really – and no matter how hard Arthur stares or how dark his frown gets, deeper and deeper around his lips, Merlin doesn't waiver. He raises his brow, says, "What?" and waits for Arthur to argue, for him to say something – anything – but still finds himself surprised when Arthur says, "I'm the Prince of Wales, if I want to keep you forever, I'll find a way to" and then looks away.

Done. Conversation over.

Merlin gets killed five times before he snaps back to the game, too busy focusing on how much better Arthur looks when he actually smiles – really smiles.

 

*

There's a chip in the paint on the ceiling. It's just a tiny crack but Merlin focuses on it, takes it all in and counts the splinters that stem from it. It's the only thing that keeps him from coming all over Arthur's face, lips barely parted and way too close to Merlin's cock while he strokes slow and firm, thumb teasing the head occasionally. His other hand is between Merlin's legs, two thick fingers sliding in and out, brushing over Merlin's prostate and making him groan or cry out, murmur Arthur's name breathlessly until he can't even remember where he is or how to speak because Arthur's sliding a third finger in, saying, "Christ, you're so tight" and "Merlin, how is it – Will it fit?" Merlin rolls his eyes and replies, "Yes, it'll fit" and then there's Arthur's breathless, wonder-filled, "Fuck, you're going to feel so good."

It's not dirty talk; Merlin's heard better, but there's something about the awe in Arthur's voice, the way Merlin can feel his body trembling, shaking with nerves and anticipation and excitement. He's pretty sure no one has ever wanted him half as much as Arthur does when he leans forward, clamps his teeth into Merlin's shoulder to hold back his groan and slides just the head of his cock in, pushes ininin and erases the pain and the burn right after he creates it.

For the first few seconds – the first few uneven thrusts – it's just like below-average sex with anyone else; it's not steady, not half as good as some of the sex he's had before but Arthur's voice, low and drowning in pleasure, moans Merlin's name so perfectly that his fingers can't help but curl over Arthur's back, tips pressing into the strong curve of Arthur's spine.

Then Arthur shutters forward, the head of his cock hitting Merlin's prostate and the shock of solid, undeniable euphoria that fills his veins, clouds his thoughts with nothing but ArthurArthurArthur is enough to hide the beginning slide of the rounded, swollen base of Arthur's cock until the next time when there's more, when Merlin actually shudders and says, "Christ – Fuck, Arthur" because it hurts and he's starting to doubt himself after already telling Arthur it's going to fit.

Arthur doesn't say anything. He probably can't even think enough to form words; his eyes are lust-blown, staring as he presses forward again, slides just a little deeper until Merlin tries to pull away. He stills then, looks away from where their bodies are joined and says, "It's okay, yeah? You're okay?"

Merlin doesn't say, 'we're blokes, we don't ask if it's okay' but he certainly thinks it before Arthur leans forward, kisses him soundly – all lips and tongue, smooth and distracting. Then, when he cants his hips forward, pushes deeper, Arthur bites at Merlin's lower lip and groans, his chest vibrating under Merlin's hands when he reaches up to distract himself from the burn, the undeniable rush of painpleasure that is both intoxicating and terrifying all at once.

It's new. This, all of it, is new. It's not just Arthur's cock, the swollen base that feels like it might be slowly splitting Merlin in two, but also the way Arthur can't seem to stop staring at Merlin's lips when he pulls away or Merlin's hands when he twines their fingers together, presses them into the cool sheets and then when their eyes meet, Arthur's strikingly blue when he makes the final push, the hard shove past the last bit of resistance left in Merlin's body so that he's fully seated, still thickening and stretching and demanding more.

But it's not so bad when Arthur starts to thrust, when he pushes forward and groans and the head of his cock meets Merlin's prostate again. It's teasing at first, a bare brush until Arthur seems to lose control and pulls himself up, let's go of Merlin's hands so he can grip at Merlin's hips and pull him down with each one of his thrusts. He doesn't move in and out – he can't, really. Not with the base of his cock still swelling, still pressing at Merlin's walls and pushing him open further. But there's forwardforwardforward brushes that are more than enough, that drown out the pain and fill Merlin with wonder and spine-tingling pleasure that distracts him so much that his magic flares and the crack in the ceiling stretches, the curtains over Arthur's window shake.

It's enough without Arthur's hand around Merlin's cock, without Arthur fucking forward with all his worth, tendons in his neck strained and chest glistening in sweat, fringe plastered to his forward and over his eyes as he stares down again, endlessly fascinated by the way their bodies meet. Merlin almost wishes he could see it – see what has Arthur staring and shaking his head and groaning, "Merlin – Merlin, fuck –"

Merlin comes, back arching and mind reeling at the feel of Arthur's cock inside of him, swollen so full that he swears he can feel it throughout his body – from head to toe, the unforgettable feel of being so undeniably filled that he's not even sure he'll ever be able to view sex with a normal person the same after this – after Arthur has had him, ruined him for the rest of the world, unintentionally crowded his mind with silly fantasies that replay over and over in the few minutes after Arthur starts to come, while his cock is still pulsing slowly, thick and irremovable and though Merlin expected it, read the same tiny passage of the book Arthur manages to steal from the royal library, it's still slightly strange to know that they're going to be stuck lying chest to chest, Merlin cradled in Arthur's arms and thinking that some of the dreams – the stupid, idealistic ones – might come true as Arthur murmurs his thanks, tells Merlin he'll never let him go, never let him go...

*

The first time is the hardest. There's more pleasure and less pain afterwards; it gets to the point where Merlin locks his heels around Arthur's thighs, pulls him forward when he's going so slow that Merlin thinks he might come from just the teasing press of Arthur's cock against his hole and the knot – a term Merlin has giggled over and Arthur has scowled at – becomes one of Merlin's favourite things to look forward to. It never feels the same; sometimes it's less swollen than others but Merlin learns, over the month that he and Arthur can't manage to keep their hands off of one another, that the more keyed up Arthur is, the more he swells and Merlin uses it to his advantage. He teases until it's so big that he feels it pop through, feels Arthur tease and quiver, and he smirks when they're hidden somewhere in the daylight and Arthur has to bite his groan into Merlin's shoulder or calf.

Merlin makes the Prince of Wales lose control; he's proud.

And, between the sex, they talk. Merlin meets a few of Arthur's friends from uni and, on the rare occasion Arthur can manage to get more than 10 kilometres away from a guard in public, they manage to half-disguise him in big glasses and thin hoodies that give them just enough cover to have lunch at the sandwich shop around the corner.

It almost feels natural to wander into Arthur's room after awhile; even when Arthur isn't tugging his arm, dragging him over the threshold. Merlin doesn't feel the urge to stop or stumble or stay entirely too close to the door in case he needs to flee at a moment's notice. They even get to a point where they don't rush to get each other naked every time they manage to secure quiet time together behind a closed door. They watch movies, throw popcorn at each other and then Arthur listens to Merlin rage about how careless he is and how he'll make a mess out of anything because he's never had to clean it up his damn self and –

Then Arthur usually kisses him and Merlin doesn't tend to argue through that...

His magic is calmest when his back is pressed to Arthur's headboard and when Arthur's head is pillowed in his lap, fingers pulling through his hair subconsciously while they watch television. It's not like the weekends he spends at home when Arthur takes a short trip to France to visit a distant relative or when one of his mates invites him for a week in Italy. Merlin can't sleep those nights; his magic burns under his skin and his focus is non-existent. At work he Googles Arthur's name, scrolls through pixelated pictures scanned from magazine covers and reads articles about his whereabouts, who he's visiting with and what he's doing and late in July, when Arthur is gone again on a trip with his father and Merlin is reading an article about another wealthy man's daughter, how she might be a good match for the Prince of Wales and how they'd like to start seeing some promise of line succession, there's a sudden sound of shattering china and tea all over the floor before Merlin even realises it was because of him.

"Something wrong?"

"No," Merlin snaps, shutting his laptop too hard and pushing his chair away from the table.

His mum is already cleaning up his mess, drying up the tea that drips from the edge of the table to the floor and the bits and pieces of ragged china spread throughout the mess. She looks at him with disbelief.

When did they get to the point where Merlin's feelings were more important than his wayward magic?

"Seriously, mum," he insists when she side-eyes him again. He writes 'new cups' on the list of things he needs to do this weekend and then reaches for a biscuit, mumbling, "bit annoyed is all" around it.

"A bit?" she asks, waving at him with the tea-soaked dish towel. He feels bad for not helping her clean up but he doesn't want to take the risk of getting to close, of being within arm's reach of her, because she might try to hug him or reach up and run her fingers through his hair and then he'll be forced to admit the truth – tell her about all of his wayward feelings and the way he can't seem to let Arthur go for hours, much less days or weeks or months when he starts Uni. He doesn't want to admit that, though it makes him sound like a teenage girl, he doesn't think he's going to be able to let go.

And this is all on top of the fact that she has no idea that he and Arthur have been spending half as much time together as they have and that they've spent about an hour a day (on average) naked next to one another and that he promised himself more than once, and even forced Arthur to acknowledge that fact that, they were nothing more than two people who enjoyed having sex with one another.

His mum makes that 'hmmm' noise that drives Merlin mad before she asks, "So, it has nothing to do with Prince Arthur being gone, then?"

Merlin doesn't answer. Fuck her motherly intuition; it's only ever been a hassle. "No."

"And nothing to do with the nice girl he met in –"

"No, mum, it has nothing to do with the nice girl he met. They don't even really get along; Arthur already texted me."

She smiles, proud. "So you're close, then? International texting and all that? Were you going to warn me my bill was going to be sky high?"

"Mum, seriously – no." His mobile vibrates in his pocket as he turns away, walking away from his mum's murmered, 'whatever you say, Merlin' to read his new text: be home late monday night. breakfast tuesday?

And so what if he smiles? He can't help himself. It doesn't mean he's in, like, love or anything.

*

Tuesday takes too long to arrive. And, when it finally does, it's not half of what Merlin expects. Arthur ends up spending most of the day with his father, sending texts like 'just a little while longer' and 'dinner instead? need to talk xx' until he finally sends the official, 'i'm done, when can we talk?' text that makes Merlin's heart race and his magic flare, his laundry dancing out from under his bed and over the back of his chair to pile itself neatly in his basket while he grabs his house keys and his mobile.

Arthur's room is dark when he slips in. The telly is on mute and the lights are all off, the screen illuminating the floor just enough for Merlin to find his way to the bed without slamming his toe into the corner. Arthur, reading something on the screen of his mobile, smiles briefly over the edge before going back to what he was doing.

It's not quite the welcome Merlin expected. What he hoped for was an anxious press of lips, Arthur eager to touch him and maybe some sort of verbal acknowledgement of being missed but he accepts the smile as he settles at the edge of the bed, toeing off his shoes before crawling over the covers to where Arthur is sitting, back against the headboard.

"How was it?"

Arthur shrugs. He taps something into his mobile and then sends it, going right back to it when it beeps a moment later. "It was alright," he answers, not bothering to look up. "More than I expected."

"Nice."

"Yeah."

Merlin waits – for something, anything – but Arthur doesn't look away from his phone, the tiny chime of letters being pressed and the beep it makes when it receives a response. He says, "Sooo" and then, when Arthur doesn't speak, he adds, "did I come over just to watch you text?"

This time Arthur looks up, eyes stern and mouth set in a solid line. "Merlin, can you just wait a minute?"

"I've been waiting."

"Then keep waiting. Christ."

"I didn't come over here to waste my time," Merlin argues, leaning forward to tug Arthur's mobile away. He's surprised when Arthur grips his wrist, stops it before he manages to get hold of his mobile. "Let go."

"What is it with you and being so impatient? I'm trying to figure something out and you're –"

"Waiting to be acknowledged? I mean, fuck, you asked me to come over. I set aside my entire day for –"

"Well get used to it, Merlin, the entire world doesn't revolve around you. I have things I'm responsible for and they have to come first."

So this is the Arthur Merlin always assumed existed, the one he struggled to avoid and hated purely on principle. This is Prince Arthur, not the little boy who once peeked around corners or who hid his hand between their legs to offer Merlin a bit of comfort on the ride of Cornwall. Long gone is the bloke Merlin said he'd miss during the trip and who'd told Merlin he wouldn't have an opportunity to miss him, he'd text him every minute of the day.

"What happened?"

Arthur sighs, brushes his fringe away from his eyes with the hand that isn't clutching his mobile like a lifeline. "My father and I spent the day discussing potential wives."

"You're upset because your father is getting remarried?"

Merlin feels slightly stupid when Arthur looks up, says, "No, Merlin; my father isn't getting remarried" because it clicks then and all Merlin can say is, "oh."

There is silence after that. Occasionally Arthur's mobile beeps but he doesn't answer it; it sits cradled in his hands but he doesn't look away from Merlin's face, from the way Merlin's biting at his bottom lip and can't seem to focus on just one thing. He feels this irrational urge to tell himself, "I told you so" because... Well, he told himself so. He knew from the very beginning, told Arthur himself, that this was sex – it was fucking, not dating – and they weren't friends. They each had two separate lives to lead, two different paths to follow and Arthur had more than himself to think about.

Merlin had nothing but himself to think about and he'd still lost track of that, allowed himself to feel things for Arthur when he knew that it was silly, stupid – wrong.

"I'm working something out, I think. I can't come out and tell her I'm gay just yet but a girl I met on the trip was one of my father's suggestions and –"

"And you want to use her to cover up the fact that you’re gay?"

Arthur nods. He gestures at Merlin with one of his hands, eyes stony and lips down-turned. "How do I explain you to the world?"

"You can't."

"Exactly, which is why –"

"But I don't want to be someone's secret, either," Merlin interrupts, finally focusing on Arthur's face. He watches the storm of emotion – the anger, the understanding, the resentment and then, finally, the betrayal. But it's not fair that Arthur is the one who feels like Merlin is in the wrong – anyone who genuinely cared wouldn't expect someone to live their life in secret, would they? Merlin doesn't think he could ever look someone in the eye and say, 'I love you but no one can know', 'I'm going share a bed with someone else but I'll come around to visit, I swear', 'We're having a baby but you can help pick the name, okay?'

Aloud, Merlin says, "I have a life to live too, Arthur. There is more than just your reputation involved in this scenario." If he sounds a little angry, that's probably because he is. He is angry. Mostly it's at himself but... But he's having a hard time remembering what he's even angry about at the moment, he just knows that he is and that it hurts and that he's already tired of it.

"Merlin, if I really cared about my reputation I wouldn't have introduced you to my friends –" Merlin remembers them; they were nice people, better than the ones Arthur used to spend time with. Hell, they were even slightly normal. So why... "– and let them see that I regularly spend time with someone who can't even wear a shirt that hasn't been washed so many times that the colour is practically gone? I've never seen a dirtier pair of trainers in my life than yours and –"

"Go on, tell me how you really feel, then!"

"– and you don't even have any real plans for yourself. You want to spend your life doing charity work. How is that meant to pay the bills, Merlin? How is anyone meant to survive that way?"

Merlin can't hold back his laugh. "What would you know about bills and survival?"

That's the key, though; their differences are what define them, not their similarities. All the days Merlin spent pretending otherwise make him feel like a fool. It makes him feel sick – not the slightly nauseous feeling he's been getting when he rolls out of bed too fast to make it to work on time or to dress before the maids come in for Arthur's sheets but the slow, all-consuming feeling of sickness that makes his knees feel like jelly and his stomach clench, leaves his legs shaky and his fingers trembling.

For a moment he feels so much that he can't describe a single thing. It's all a mess of want-hate-need that he's torn between forcing himself to stay, to take what's being offered and try to make it work and just getting out while there's still hope for not becoming so attached that he'll never be able to let the memories of his summer go.

He thinks he might already have problem enough trying to forget them as-is, much less after two years of holding on to them while he and Arthur fall apart.

Arthur has the nerve to look mad. He doesn't look disappointed when Merlin says, "Whatever, Your Highness" and "This was going to happen anyway"; he doesn't look like he's reconsidering a single thing he said when Merlin stands, lifting his leg and reaching back to pull the edge of his trainer over the back of his foot as he struggles to make it to the door as fast as he can manage without seeming desperate.

Because he's not desperate; he doesn't give a fuck what Arthur has to say.

Really.

Except that he kind of does. He gives a fuck. He cares so much that he thinks about it the entire way home, so much that he stops and buys himself a new pair of trainers – clean, white Adidas that cost him more than he's ever paid for trainers and then pushes a bottle of the shoe cleaner at the sales woman before he checks out just to make sure they stay that way, to save himself from ever having to listen to someone talk about how dirty his trainers are ever again.

And if someone does, now he can say 'I've heard worse from better' because... Well, he heard pretty bad from the fucking Prince of Wales, yeah? Not many rank higher than that... and that's the problem.

*

"Alright?"

He probably looks pretty ridiculous. He's wrestling his clothes into his bag and half of his boxes are bumping into one another, hopping across his barren room. The tape ran away hours ago, his comb has been raking through his hair for twenty minutes without pause and he's pretty sure that even if he does manage to get what is left of his clothes packed, half of the stuff he packed before will be out and in need of being repacked. "Perfect," he answers as he struggles to get the zip of his duffel to shut; he curses quietly when it catches the fleshy tip of his finger. "Obviously."

His mum says, "Yes, clearly" as she steps forward. She kicks one of Merlin's worn t-shirts out of the way and he doesn't jump to collect it; staring at it – colour faded, edges torn, stitches frayed – reminds him of his argument with Arthur though and maybe his mum is a mind-reader (or just has bloody awful timing) because she says, "Arthur asked about you today; he seemed pretty disappointed when I told him you were leaving tomorrow."

Not talking with his mum about this. Nope. Not happening.

"He says he texted you..."

Right on cue, Merlin's mobile vibrates in his pocket. It's the short, two second buzz of a reminder rather than a new text and Merlin knows are from Arthur. He's only peeked at them, caught a glimpses when he's tried to clear his notifications. He hasn't gone far enough to delete them though. That would mean tapping the list and he doesn't think he'd be able to stop himself if he started... "I've been busy."

His mum doesn't argue. She can't. He's kept himself busy enough to be out when she's home, to avoid conversations like these.

"It's fine," he tries. "I'll text him when I get there."

"What happened?"

"Nothing happened." After a moment he adds, "Seriously" to sound a bit more convincing; she's looking at him like he's lying and, though he may be, she doesn't need to know that.

She doesn't need to know anything about it because it's over – done. Merlin is letting it go and maybe he's not losing his feelings for Arthur quite as fast as he gained them but he's making a fucking effort and he will succeed.

He's not toting around memories about being Prince Arthur's experiment for the rest of his life. He's better than that.

*

He's better than that until Christmas break when, weary and hidden under layers of clothing, Merlin arrives in Cornwall two days before his mum. Thankfully it gives Gaius just enough time to walk in on Merlin tugging off his shirt and raise a brow -- the one that means 'what have you done now?' -- because Merlin's always been on the lean side, bordering on lanky through more of his teenage years but now his stomach is outstretched, round and bordering on unnatural. Originally he chalked up his stomach issues -- the inability to hold anything down, the constant nausea -- to stress from being somewhere new, from the need to succeed and from the sudden separation from Arthur which, unexpectedly, fucking hurt. Then, when the nausea lessened and the roundness in his centre started, he blamed it on his insatiable desire for food. There was never enough, never anything sweet enough or sour enough or just right and he hadn't been so desperate food snacks at all hours since puberty when he's grown and grown and never felt full.

Gaius says otherwise. He says it's not food, it's destiny and Merlin rolls his eyes, gets ready to tell Gaius a few stones (which, okay, it's more than a few and he'll never be comfortable shirtless in front of someone again if it stays like this because... Well, it looks like a bump and -- yeah, no) doesn't have anything to do with destiny when Gaius says, "Does Prince Arthur know?"

And then all hell breaks loose.

They argue for two solid days about magic and how it works and Merlin denies, over and over again, that he's – you know, up the duff, because blokes don't have babies and he's known he wasn't interested in the opposite sex for a long time which has given him ample opportunity to research adoption and get comfortable with the idea of loving someone who might not have his nose or his colouring. Of course, it doesn't help that while Gaius is tugging dusty, ancient books off of a shelf in the corner and murmuring, "I'll show you, boy," there's a flutter of movement under Merlin's skin, right under the hand he has subconsciously resting over his swollen midsection.

It's even worse when Merlin knows, right then, that Gaius isn't lying. He's not sure what convinces him it's the truth, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, but he does. He doesn't even have to really read the passage about previous situations like his – years and years ago when 'destiny' was always involved – to, with a deep sigh that shutters through his body, accept the fact that, yes, he is having a child and, yes, it half-belongs to the Prince of Wales.

They don't talk about Arthur, though. It's the first thing Merlin says after Gauis explains the situation over Christmas dinner. He says, slowly so they both understand, "It's mine – just mine" and stares at them long and hard, daring either of them to argue.

Thankfully, they don't. It's probably the shock but, still, he appreciates that, for once, they keep their thoughts to themselves.

He feels bad about his mum uprooting herself, though. They tour flats together near Uni and she sighs, deep and sad, through the gritty noise from his speaker when she tells him that she's put in her notice and should be able to arrive within the week; the King is writing her an excellent recommendation and she's welcome back any time.

They both know she won't be back; she'd have to choose between Arthur and Merlin and... Well, for once he doesn't feel like he's in second place. For the first time, as juvenile as it sounds, he feels like he's important.

Then he feels terrible for finding something positive in the mess he's managed to make. He's forced himself and his mum both into a situation very few ever experienced – that none have experienced openly – and it's hard, for both of them, to balance work with finding the time to understand what exactly is going on, how it works and to put together the pieces of how they're going to manage to keep Merlin in school and his mum at work between caring for an infant.

His mum says, late one night when Merlin's back hurts and he's finally free of his layers in their relative peace of their tiny flat, "We're going to make it work" while Merlin pages through the baby name book she bought him months ago. He's still undecided and, as frustrating as it is, he can't stop wondering what Arthur would think about each and every name he highlights. He tosses and turns when he finally manages to fall asleep about what Arthur would do if he found out, how they might make it work and how King Uther might just allow it because, against all odds, Merlin and Arthur managed to define history again, unintentionally creating life that neither expected was even a possibility to –

He usually wakes up then, the shadow of Arthur's smile fading with his sleepy state until he's forced to face the world again, dress in layers though it's already April and warming quickly and pretend he can focus in class around the rough kicks against his bladder and the feel of his child rolling, twisting and squirming until it settles.

He just wishes he could be less worried and a bit more excited. After all, he'd wanted a piece of Arthur for himself at one point, hadn't he? And his magic had given him just that, even if it had done it in a completely unorthodox manner.

*

She's born on the 26th of May; the birthday of the solicitous adventurer and Merlin scowls at the great big book of birthdays in the book shop when he sees that his daughter is a born politician who is meant to inspire others with her charisma and persistence. She makes plenty of noise, that's for certain and she's persistent, no doubt – most especially when she's hungry or angry or restless.

He names her Olivia; he likes the relation to the olive branch, how it symbolises truce and starting over. It's not really a possibility now and Merlin thinks that, even if it was, he probably wouldn't go back to Arthur but... Well, he remembers when he stares down at her sleeping face in her cot that she's something bigger than herself, is more dear to him than she will ever understand and is, without a doubt, the very best thing Arthur will ever do.

And if Arthur never knows that, it's his own damn fault for not giving Merlin enough time to show him.

Of course, when Merlin says that one morning while he spoons mashed peas into Olivia's unhappy mouth, his mum kicks at the legs of his chair and replies, "You know just how to find him, Merlin; he asked for you, tried to make things right and you –"

"Refused to be his hidden lover; yes, I can see how that would upset you," Merlin interrupts, attempting to keep his voice calm and his smile wide as he wiggles the spoon against Olivia's lips and tries again.

"He had a duty, Merlin."

"As do I." He points at Olivia, peas smeared over her lips and her cheek, blue eyes wide and pale hair a mess over her crown. She waves hello, curling her fingers as she says, "nan" until Merlin's mum can't help but smile and say, "Yes, you most certainly do."

*

Merlin sees Arthur on the cover of the newspapers on his walks to work and when he gets stuck queuing at the grocers and his heart aches just a little every time but he moves on, takes the steps forward and focuses on school and then, when he's finally defied the odds and finished, his career. As Olivia grows, he's forced to listen to the endless stream of interviews and public gossip on the telly when he's at home watching her learn to talk and teaching her to read or, later when Olivia is in her first year of school and already struggling to prove just how independent all that time teaching her made her, while he's making dinner next to his mum or wrestling Olivia into her pyjamas, promising fifteen more minutes if she'll just give – him – her – arm.

Like tonight.

"Olivia, I had a long, long day at work," Merlin tries, shaking her pale pink sleep shirt in an attempt to force her to take it. He bites his tongue from announcing just how much she reminds him of her father when she rolls her eyes, cocks her head to the side and replies, snootily, "Daddy, I had a long day, too. But I'm not ready for bed."

Of course, how could he forget? Wake up at eight, spend half a day at school, come home to lunch and free-time; the life of a child with everything is so, so rough... There are technically no laws against using magic on your children. It wouldn't hurt her much if he just... stunned her into being still, would it? "Olivia, please."

"I don't want to wear that shirt. Purple is my favourite colour this week."

"Olivia, now."

She sighs, taps her little foot and it takes all of Merlin's control not to just grab her and force her into the damn shirt himself. He's a grown man with magic; he can take a shaking, squealing six-year-old and win.

Maybe.

He gives up, tosses her pyjamas over the back of the sofa. "You're so much like him," is what he mumbles when he walks away and then, a moment later when Olivia rushes to stand in front of him, discarded pink shirt clutched in her hand, he realises that was exactly what she wanted – a mention of 'him', another reminder.

Christ, when is he going to stop being such a sucker?

"Who, daddy?" she presses. "Who am I like?"

"Me," Merlin answers honestly. She blinks slowly, scowls slightly and is obviously displeased with his answer even though it's as true as they come. She is manipulative in a childish way, knows that since she came home and told him that he was going to be 'dad' from now on because she was too old to call anyone 'daddy', that she could throw out the title anytime she wanted something especially difficult and Merlin, more often than not, would give in – pleased, secretly, to be reminded of the fact that she was still his little girl. She's also obnoxiously persistent; some days when she won't let something go, Merlin remembers pestering his mum about boarding school, begging to stay home and asking why?, why?, why? at every turn.

When they said payback was a bitch, they weren't lying. If he'd know then what he does now, he wouldn't have asked half as many questions as a child.

Olivia holds her hand out, presses it against his stomach in a movement meant to halt him. Her blonde hair is a mess, ponytail loose and fringe scattered in awkward directions over her forehead but her eyes are stern, collected. "No."

"You'll have ears like mine soon, too," Merlin whispers, ruffling her hair. She groans, 'dad' pitifully and he smiles, tells her again to go get changed. When she looks like she's prepared to argue, he offers her another fifteen minutes if she hurries up and then she's gone, sprinting off to her bedroom and declaring claim of the telly until she has to go to bed.

In the kitchen, hands deep in the soapy sink water, his mum shakes her head at him. "You let her walk all over you." Then, to add insult to injury, adds: "Arthur didn't even have that much freedom and he was –"

"My parenting skills are shit, I get it. You don't have to throw him into the mix to get your point across."

She raises a brow, hands him a dish towel and a clean, dripping plate and puts him to work. For a few short minutes they work in silence. She washes, scrubs the remnants of dinner from the plates and cutlery and then passes them to Merlin, watches him dry them and put them away just like they did when he was younger, working for allowance rather than much needed silence.

"I recorded the interview for you," she mentions when the telly in the living room comes to life. He can hear Olivia fumbling with the remote, laughing every once in awhile and then moving on to the next programme. "She'll probably watch it with you."

"I'm not interested." The plates clink when he stacks them on top of one another. He's seen enough – the grainy pictures blown up to triple their size on the cover of magazines, the rumours in big, bold print and the video clips that always appear in some portion the nightly news without fail.

His mum, as though she didn't hear him, says, "It was a nice interview; you'll enjoy it. He's very well spoken, now – grown out of his shell since we last saw him."

Right on cue, Olivia yells, "Dad, Gran said you would watch the Prince's speech with me tonight!"

And then his mum is off, drying her hands and pressing a kiss to his cheek, telling him to enjoy his Saturday tomorrow and make sure that Olivia doesn't manage to get lost in the park again because 'you shouldn't let her walk around like she's some sort of princess, Merlin.' She's out of the door before Merlin can argue, tell her to piss off or ask what the hell she was thinking when she promised he would watch Arthur's bloody engagement interview with Olivia.

"Dad!"

"Let me get a shower," Merlin replies, stepping out of the kitchen and into the living room. He ruffles her hair as he passes, tells her to go grab her brushand they'll watch the interview when he's done. She doesn't leave much time for anything more than the 'shower' part, though. She's knocking on the bathroom door as soon as he shuts the water off, demanding he hurry up as though it's on live television and not saved, available at any point in time until he deletes it and then, as he's sliding a shirt over his head and opening the door at the same time, her hand is gripping through the barely open space and attempting to pull him out, fingers tugging as she marches toward the sofa.

He settles on the centre cushion, parts his knees and let's her get comfortable on her bottom between them, handing her brush over her shoulder while he fiddles with the remote, scrolls down the list to find the programme and then presses 'play' before he gives himself enough time to 'accidentally' delete it. The current show freezes, flashes and then the pre-interview starts. Between tugging Olivia's brush though her hair, pulling each strand until it's knot-free and smooth, Merlin catches glances of Arthur and his soon-to-be bride, Sophia. The voice in the background details their history – how they met in France and tip-toed around their feelings for one another for almost a year before Arthur finally asked her on a date, flew her to Brazil for their first anniversary and now, nearly three years later, they're finally announcing their engagement. The voice guiding the show reminders viewers that Arthur and Sophia's courting period was filled with endless beautiful trips around the world and countless summer nights under star-bright skies in the countryside. Great Britain would only prove to prosper under his and Sophia's love – love just as true and passionate as the kind King Uther and Queen Ygraine shared before her untimely death.

Here Olivia sighs, head cocking to the side and unintentionally knocking Merlin's shocked-still hands loose from her locks. When he regains his thought, tells himself to quit watching the nonsense and just go about what he's doing because Arthur doesn't matter anymore, this – brushing Olivia's hair before bed, being close to her when she's still small enough to want to be close to him – is what matters, he pulls Olivia's hair up, wraps it tight in an elastic and then brushes it out, tightening the ponytail so that it'll make it through the night. "Daddy, everyone at school says Prince Arthur is cute. Do you think Prince Arthur is cute?"

"Prince Arthur is an adult, little girls shouldn't think he's 'cute' or otherwise," Merlin mumbles in response, shifting over when Olivia rises from the floor and presses herself onto the sofa, half in Merlin's lap and half on the cushion. He avoids the question, though. Arthur doesn't look 'cute', but he is just as striking as Merlin remembers him that day at the children's hospital. His face is more stern now, his eyes aren't quite as bright and he stands solidly, a sharpness in his walk that never existed before. He's royalty now, not just the boy Merlin teased when he was twelve or the teenager who, in a fit of jealousy, kissed Merlin in the middle of the corridor in Clarence House, not caring at all that anyone could catch them.

Merlin wonders if him leaving has anything to do with it – with the layers of thick skin Arthur has grown over the years and the loss of softness around his eyes and his lips, where wide, uninhibited smiles used to start.

Olivia squeals when Arthur and Sophia come to the screen, fake smiles plastered on their faces and backs straight, eyes focused on the pale blonde woman in the chair across from them who asks them to start off with the engagement – when, where and how? Merlin tunes that out, though. He doesn't care – not really. He strokes his fingers through Olivia's hair, twists and wraps it until she sighs and leans her head against his shoulder, mumbling about how maybe she'll marry a prince someday and have a dress like Sophia's.

It takes all of Merlin's power to say no daughter of his will ever be part of that world. He made sure of it.

"Do you remember Prince Arthur? Nana says you do."

"If Nana says I do, why are you asking?"

She shrugs, her shoulder bumping Merlin's arm. "You don't act like you do."

Sophia's dark hair is loose over her shoulders, it sways when she leans toward Arthur and smiles, saying something like: "Of course. Arthur is my first love; he's everything to me."

Ugh.

"That's romantic," announces Olivia, as though she can feel the annoyance rolling off him in waves. Was there nothing less cliché she could have said? Christ.

But then the interviewer looks at Arthur. She says, "Well, Prince Arthur? Is Sophia your first love?" and Merlin's chest gets tight. His mind goes blank with the first flash of true emotion that presents itself on Arthur's face – hurt.

"Well," starts Arthur, slowly and kindly with a bright smile that may just be enough to fool the world but isn't nearly enough to fool Merlin, "I don't think my feelings for Sophia can be explained in such a short word but, I can say that it's not always about loving someone; the most important thing to try and find is someone who can feel something for you in return and this is the first time I've found that."

Oh. That hurts.

Arthur tilts his head toward Sophia, gives her a winning smile and adds, "We look forward to spending our life together."

Then the woman interviewing asks about children, a little boy or girl with Arthur's colouring in the future and Merlin turns it off, presses the power button and ignores Olivia's indignant squawk by tugging her forward off the sofa, telling her that her fifteen minutes have long been up and she needs to rest if she wants to get anything accomplished tomorrow.

It's Merlin who doesn't sleep.

*

It's stupid – so, so stupid – but he writes letters to Arthur occasionally. When Olivia teethes and keeps him up all night, Merlin writes about how hard it is even with his mum's help and when Merlin graduates University and gets offered a job with a charity, he writes another letter about the flat he bought on his own and how he stayed up well past two in the morning the day he was supposed to start because he wanted Olivia's room to be perfect before she moved in. Then he writes a letter on her first day of school about how hard it was to let her go and all the crazy ideas she came home with. Between those letters are ones from days Merlin passes Arthur's face on the cover of magazines and Merlin writes how amazing it is to see Olivia in each and every one of them, even if he is the only one who really notices.

He's writing one of Monday evening when his mum comes to visit. He's on the line about how ridiculous it is that someone mentioned a child who looked like him and Merlin was the only person in the entire would who thought, 'there already is one' and then felt a ridiculous surge of jealousy at the idea that there will be another one day, one he shares with Sophia. Merlin admits that he's petty, though; he was there first so he wins, obviously, and what he wants for Olivia isn't anything close to what Arthur is able to offer and he mentions that at the end of every letter, as a reminder to himself more than anything that his decision was the right one, that even if Arthur knew and understood, there wouldn't be able to be anything for Olivia anyway.

"Why write them if you'll never send them?"

"Write what?" Olivia asks, bouncing around the corner to wrap her arms around her Nana's waist. "What is daddy writing about?"

There goes that 'daddy', again. Always so nosey – spy-like, one might say. Merlin actually smiles at that, though. It's nice when the more adorable sides of Arthur shine in her, rather than just the annoying ones.

"Nothing," he and his mum answer in unison, pushing Olivia off to the living room when she pouts and asks again.

"I have an invitation, you know? We could go; you could –"

"We weren't friends, mum. We weren't anything."

"You were something," she argues plainly. There is no push in her voice, no attempt to convince him. They've debated this more than once – loudly, angrily – and it's come to an impasse.

'Which means,' he thinks, 'it's meant to be left alone.'

Olivia laughs at something in the next room and his mum turns to watch her through the archway. Merlin, from his spot at the table, can see the peeking blonde head over the edge of the sofa and way Olivia wiggles when she finds something funny, a habit she just can't control.

"It's a shame he'll never experience this." Quiet Monday evenings, Olivia finally dressed in her pyjamas without argument and dishes put away, the street below buzzing quietly with life and the sky fading to a dark, welcome shade of grey.

"No," Merlin replies, turning back to his letter. "It would be a shame if she was expected to live the way he did. She deserves better –"

"You were envious of that life once."

"I was envious of how much more you gave to him than me." Merlin doesn't look up when she goes still. He doesn't have it in him to look at her now. "You never told me you knew Arthur's mother or about how you'd wanted to live in Cornwall," he says, remembering the boiling frustration that had pooled in his chest that day in Cornwall, that had led to him finding the knot and learning about 'guaranteed conception' and – Christ, they really hadn't been lying, had they? "The Pendragons, they ruined that for you; they made it so you couldn't leave and you doted on him regardless, gave him anything he could have ever asked for."

"They did me a favour, Merlin."

"A favour? How was any of that a 'favour'?"

"I named you for Arthur," she says suddenly, cutting Merlin off before he can ask what that has to do with anything. "Ygraine was a dear friend and she worried he'd only ever been seen as a prince but I knew when I had you that you'd challenge him, that you were meant to be something amazing together."

"I don't care, mum."

"Apparently you do if you're so upset that I told Arthur a little something about the mother he never met." He feels small when she looks at him like that, stern-faced and tense. "Ygraine arranged for my job with the Pendragons; she ensured I was taken care of while I worked there, even after her death. Do you think most employers let single mothers bring their children along to work? Did anyone else have that option, Merlin?"

Merlin feels hot around the collar, like he's suffocating under all her feelings – the stress in her voice, her sudden need to get it all out and the slightly crazed way she reaches for his hand, pushes the pen away from his fingers and holds tight to his fingers, squeezing them until they hurt within her own.

"If not for yourself or Arthur, Merlin, think of her." Her voice is low, too quiet for Olivia to hear but he looks into the living room anyway to make sure she's not listening. "You both know what it's like to grow up wondering –"

"That's your fault." Even though she nods in agreement, he feels awful for saying it. His mum has never done wrong by him – has pushed and pushed and up and left her entire life behind to follow him when he found himself in a position he couldn't explain. She came with him to university to help raise his daughter, held him when he said he couldn't do it and promised him he could, that she'd show him how. She'd made him the man he was, one who succeeded in every endeavour but love and... Well, she deserves better than his interruptions, true or otherwise.

 

Merlin remembers Arthur in Cornwall, when he'd lain on his side and murmured, "It's like a piece of me is missing and I can't... I'll never find it, you know? Because it's not around to be found" and, at the time he'd told Arthur he sounded like a girl but Merlin had understood more than anyone – the questions, the doubt, the endless feeling of being incomplete.

He wants Olivia to feel complete; to be able to ask questions without being told 'never mind' or 'it doesn't matter' because it does matter. Arthur matters. Olivia's feelings matter. As much as Merlin wishes that none of it did, that it could be swept under the rug and left there, hidden in the darkness with all of his other terrible secrets – his feelings for Arthur, still humming lightly in his chest and his fears for Olivia's future, what might happen if, for some strange reason, someone were to discover the truth – there is no way at all he can deny what Arthur is to Olivia, no way he can pretend he doesn't care forever.

He'd like to not care. He doesn't want to care.

"I talked to him."

Well there goes that bout of affection he was feeling for her... "You talked to who?"

"To Arthur," his mum confirms.

"What?"

"He was your friend, Merlin." She runs her fingers through his hair, unruffled when he steps away. "He wanted to make things right." Merlin can't hide his annoyed scoff but she pushes on, adds, so quietly he almost misses it: "He thought she was beautiful."

"You told him?" Merlin might be yelling; he's pretty sure he is because Olivia rises on the sofa cushions, peers over the edge and says 'okay, dad?' before his mum has a chance to properly shush him, push him further into the kitchen in out of sight while she answers, firmly, "No, of course I didn't tell him."

She's not making any sense. Her voice is low, quiet enough that Olivia doesn't hear but she talks about how Arthur showed up on the stoop not long after Olivia was born, how Merlin was out and it wasn't as though she'd expected to find him standing there when she opened the door. Things had still been struggling to fall into place, Merlin had just started writing letters he planned to never send and Arthur had shown up with one, the very first Merlin ever wrote. There was no stamp, no sign of ever being sent in the post but it was there, re-folded so many times that each time he waved it at her it looked as though it was close to tearing.

Merlin hasn't seen her so unsure before; his mum has always been great at hiding her less-pleasant emotions in front of him but this – her face, grim and uncertain – looks as though, for the first time, she's the one needing him to understand, make sense of it all as she speaks.

"It's like," she starts, pausing and looking away to consider her words, "it was magic."

And, in any other family, he'd laugh or roll his eyes but, all things considered...

The box under his bed looks untouched; there's a bit of dust on the lid from lack of use but, sure enough, the first letter he ever wrote is missing. The others are still there, hidden between the flimsy cardboard he trusted to keep his secrets, folded in order of how he wrote them but the very first – the one he wrote about how happy he was to be able to take off his hoodies now and how, in a bout of frustration, he didn't think he'd ever be willing to forgive Arthur for being who he was, for being in a position where he had no choice but to choose.

His mum's shadow is dark across the floor of his bedroom, long and terrifying and he stares at the motion of her hand when it rises to brush the fringe out of his eyes. "He didn't stay," she reminds him, "But I think he would have, if you'd asked."

If she's still trying to convince him to change his mind, to go to the wedding, she's not succeeding. He feels less certain, less secure, now than he ever has. There's always been a blanket of comfort that came with knowing that Arthur didn't know and now, she's tugged the comfort away, left him open and vulnerable and he dreads, absolutely dreads, the day it will all come back to get him.

Because it will. It always does.

*

Two weeks later he walks into work worried about one thing: coffee. He needs coffee. So much fucking coffee.

"Long night?" Freya's face is soft, concerned. She's the best assistant he could ever ask for and the little tidbit about her having occasionally uncontrollable magic doesn't hurt. She's a good friend – dependable, true. Probably the best he has beside Gwaine who, strangely enough, makes it a point every time they speak to bring a copy of the latest rag with Arthur's face splashed across it and mention, oh so casually, that he knows a little girl who looks strangely familiar...

Merlin shakes his head, knowing that if he nods Freya will assume his wily daughter kept him up late giving him a run for his money again. For once she offered him no cheek about going to bed at a decent time and dressed herself without complication, going so far as to brush her teeth without having to be told and his mum left soon after, not even bothering to apologise for her blatant abuse of his trust.

Today will be shit; that's how it always works. "I'm fine; I just need coffee."

"Coffee I can do," Freya answers. Merlin sighs as the door clicks behind her, computer beeping with every new e-mail as they organise themselves across the screen. It's still a little too early to function and, frankly, half of the office won't be there until closer to nine so he takes his time clicking through them all, reading about new research programs that need funding and organization ideas that have no way to start.

He decides to hide his face in his hands and wait for the coffee instead. He's not sure he can take actually working just yet; his brain can only handle so much.

Thankfully the door is sliding open again soon enough, slipping shut right after and Merlin knows he should stop ignoring his magic when it starts to buzz under his skin but, dammit, he's so tired. "Perfect timing," he mumbles, head still hidden in his hands. "Have I told you how absolutely perfect you are today?"

"I don't think you've ever told me how absolutely perfect I am," says a voice that is decidedly not Freya's. There's still the familiar sound of a coffee cup sliding across his desk, though, pressed close enough for him to blindly grope for.

"I would hate to inflate your ego," Merlin mumbles around the bile in his mouth. There's no way to describe the sudden rush of panic in his veins, the flood of magic that surges and pulses in his chest in response to Arthur's quiet laugh, only half-familiar with the hint of royalty added to make it sound polite, not unhindered.

Arthur's trained, now. He's no longer a boy hidden in a prince's clothing.

"You have to quit cornering me at work."

Arthur doesn't bother to reply. He settles in the chair across from Merlin's desk like he belongs there, each strand of blonde hair neat and his suit pressed, clean cut and fitted in all the right places. There's no longer that constant hint of a smile around his mouth like there'd been when Merlin was visiting every day, learning who Arthur was and nudging shoulders during late-night Call of Duty matches. He says, "I got your letter" and Merlin finally realises that he can't feel anything – there's no fear, no anxious terror. He's not scared or nervous or angry he's... empty, stuck between feeling so many things that he's not feeling at all. All he can think to say is: "You weren't supposed to."

"Your mum told me as much. But... I wanted to see for myself; she looked a lot like you."

"My mum?"

"Olivia."

Oh. "Not really, actually. The hair, the eyes, the nose, the ears – thank Christ – are most certainly not mine."

Merlin doesn't realise that he's fallen into a trap until after Arthur says, "I find that hard to believe." Without thinking, he's reaching for the frames at the corner of his desk, spinning them each one at a time away from him and toward Arthur. He remembers, after Arthur's face has gone soft and his eyes are so focused, so seemingly determined to remember it all that he doesn't even take notice when Merlin says, "Christ, this is ridiculous" because Olivia plays him the same way, makes her innocent-sounding statement into a way to make him give her something she hasn't even claimed to want yet.

"You're not angry."

Arthur looks up, gaze firm and, as if he's practised for this meeting forever, says, "I've had a lot of time to get used to it all of it... The idea, at least. I was angry at first, though. If you'd been there that day, I'm not so sure I would have been able to not pummel your skinny arse."

Merlin shrugs. "Your position doesn't give you much room to be your gay, magical not-boyfriend's baby's father" and then, a silent, awkward moment later, he decides to make it worse by adding, "Congratulations on your engagement." He tugs the frames back into their proper spot, purposely not watching Arthur as he does.

Arthur is still, tone formal as he says, "Thank you" and reserved when he adds, "It should have been different but, we all work with what we have, yeah?"

If that isn't the truth, Merlin isn't sure what is. "Right."

Merlin thinks he should probably be angrier. Or nervous, he should definitely be nervous but Arthur is... Well, he's not pushing for once. Maybe it's come with age or with stability or with Sophia, who knows?, but Merlin's finding it hard to look up and be bitter with Arthur for proving to be all the things Merlin assumed he'd become – stiff, perfect and living his life as dictated by his father.

Even before Olivia, Merlin accepted the fact that Arthur could never be his. He's had years to stop caring – to give in, accept the inevitable.

It doesn't mean that he's succeeded, mind you. But he's certainly tried.

"Is there a reason you came?"

"Because I'm a masochist, obviously," Arthur replies slowly. In a display of normalcy, he even shrugs. "I wanted to know what I was giving up."

"You can't give up something you never had."

"I had you once." Merlin doesn't dwell much on that; he's too busy watching Arthur rise, straighten his jacket and tug his tie. He should probably ask Arthur to stay, give him a reason to because his magic is telling him to, vibrating and wanting. "If I said," Arthur starts when he reaches the door, back to Merlin, "that I wanted to make it better, do you think I could?"

Merlin doesn't even think about his answer. He remembers the night in Arthur's room, when he was angry and hurt and couldn't figure out why Arthur didn't understand. He says, "I'm still not willing to be your secret."

Arthur doesn't respond as he leaves.

*

It takes Olivia all of two minutes to fall in love with him; a week to stop babbling endlessly about how Prince Arthur took her shopping and how Prince Arthur invited her to London and how Prince Arthur says she's the prettiest girl he's ever seen and a less than a month for her to pull away while Merlin is brushing her hair one night and say, "Do you think I look like Queen Ygraine? Prince Arthur says I do" because Arthur promises not to keep her a secret when he comes over two days after ambushing Merlin at work with all of his regrets and not-feelings and, true to his word, he isn't too ashamed to let the world see her. He doesn't tell them they're right when they print bold titles that say: PRINCE'S SECRET LOVECHILD REVEALED, but he doesn't deny her either and that's enough for Merlin and Olivia both.

He isn't really sure when he starts to get comfortable with the idea of having Arthur in his kitchen, though; he thinks it's the third weekend Arthur shows up at his door with a bag of takeaway and, for once, makes the security staff wait outside. Olivia is running errands with Merlin's mum and they're alone, Merlin's back pressed against the worktop and Arthur's fingers tapping irregularly at the worn oak table. "Sophia and I cancelled the wedding; we're going to wait a week or so before we tell the press but I thought you should know."

Merlin should probably say 'what?' or 'why?' because he's thinking both but he... Well, he thinks he knows why but he doesn't want Arthur to tell him. He doesn't want to hear it aloud; he might not be able to stop himself from wishing again if he does.

It took too long to get used to the idea of Arthur being normal, even longer to get used to the idea of actually caring about him and years to accept the fact that Arthur wasn't quite as permanent as he'd originally thought.

Arthur shrugs, offers Merlin an uncertain glance as he stills his fingers. "I can't be out and proud; the world isn't ready and there's no way to explain Olivia, either, but I want to be here."

"I waited a long time for you to see me as someone worth your time," Arthur continues. He pauses, laughs quietly. When he does, it's the laugh Merlin remembers from those days hidden away in Arthur's room, when they lived in their own world away from reality, where it was okay to be messy and to love a boy because there was no one to see but one another.

And, Merlin thinks that if the world worked like that, it'd probably be a happier place but it's not something he has time to dwell on because Arthur isn't getting married and he wants to stay and Merlin isn't sure how he's meant to respond to that. Be okay with it? Say 'no'?

In the end, after Arthur says, "it's your choice, of course" and "fuck, Merlin, I was wrong but you were too and I'm angry but I'm trying my fucking best to look past it" Merlin shoves himself away from the worktop and says, "Tea? I think we're going to need some" because he remembers what his mother said about wondering and what Arthur said about never being complete because half of him was missing and... He's going to try this. He's going to give a little and maybe, just maybe, this time, it'll work.

*

Life is a difficult thing and it doesn't work quite the way Merlin expects. First, he falls in love with the boy he swore he'd always hate and then, before he's out of Uni or has time to see if he can even manage to keep a fish alive, he has a baby who grows up to be a constant reminder of the same person he couldn't be with. He doesn't get to flat hunt in fall because the paparazzi won't let him but he does get long mornings in bed listening to Arthur's heartbeat while Olivia sighs in her sleep, snuggles closer on Arthur's other side and gropes sleepily for Merlin's hand, settled when he brings his fingers to meet hers over Arthur's chest before they move to Clarence House and those days become fewer and farther between because Olivia gets older and it's not much fun to cuddle any more (no matter how many times Merlin tells her there's no age limit). He and Arthur don't argue over who walks the dog when it rains because they don't have one and, even if they did, there's probably a Royal Dog Escort wandering around somewhere in Clarence House waiting for them to get one.

It's not as easy as it seems in the romantic comedies Merlin is fond of but it's not just difficult because of the press and the situation and the fact that Arthur doesn't ever shout his love from the rooftops; it's difficult because they never really stop growing up, changing and becoming new, different people with every passing day. Merlin's mum says one week while Arthur's gone, visiting some foreign country to hug starving children and give them hope, that surviving change is what makes a relationship strong and Merlin pushes his mug away, reminding her again that what they have isn't really a relationship because they're not allowed to – they're just not.

And they're not allowed to be a couple, a real couple, for awhile. Olivia is nearly fourteen, brimming with secrets that make having friends difficult and the world is set in a state of constant curiosity before Arthur smiles in the middle of a televised interview and says, "Sophia has found someone who makes her very happy and she was, ultimately, very happy that Merlin and I found one another" and that's all it takes for the world to realise that, yes, Prince Arthur of Wales loves a man and, yes, that man is Merlin.

The interview makes life both easier and harder in turns. Olivia has always known, in her own way, that things would never be normal for her or her family – Merlin's magic and Arthur's position would never allow it – but she reminds them regularly that she loves how there's always something about them that she'll never have to share with the world, that she doesn't mind the story they've made up about her birth to keep the press off the impossible truth and, though Merlin always wanted better for her, he thinks maybe this was always what was best.

He watches Arthur kick the football to her on the lawn of Clarence House when she's twenty and so gorgeous that sometimes he can't believe that she's his and Arthur's and that, for once (or maybe it's been working towards this forever, who knows?) his magic did something right.