Actions

Work Header

... and grasp the world

Work Text:

The phone wakes him. Not his mobile, but the landline. It unsettles him, because no one but his mum ever calls on his landline, and for her to call this early... At least a dozen scenarios play through his mind in the moments between waking and grabbing the receiver.

"Mum?" Merlin croaks.

"Is this Merlin Emrys?" The man at the other end sounds like a very stern BBC presenter.

"Are you calling from the Antiques Roadshow?" It’s the only explanation he can come up with, the only reason someone from the BBC would call him.

The man doesn't reply.

Merlin clears his throat. "Is it about the grandfather clock we brought for validation?"

"Is this Merlin Emrys?" the man repeats. His voice has gone chillier.

Merlin clears his throat. "Yes."

"My name is Uther Pendragon." Something about his voice screams authority, and it's frightening in a strange, Kafkaesque way.

"It would seem that you don't know me," he says when Merlin fails to say anything at all. "Is the name Pendragon familiar to you at all?"

"So this isn't about the – the grandfather clock?" Merlin stutters. "Because I'm sure it must be worth more than – "

"I haven't called you to discuss clocks, you babbling imbecile,” the man says, interrupting Merlin quite rudely. “My call concerns my family honour."

"Your what?"

"My family honour."

Uther's outlandish topic makes him less frightening. Merlin blinks his eyes open and gropes for his mobile. "Christ," he exclaims. "It's half six in the morning. What sort of a freak calls someone at half six in the morning?"

"I rose at exactly a quarter past five today, as is my custom. Any decent man would do the same." Uther is scary enough to get away with something which would sound petulant coming from anyone else.

"It's Sunday! And why am I still talking to you?" Merlin says.

"I am calling to let you know that I will be with you in twenty minutes. Good bye, Mr Emrys."

Merlin is now certain that Uther Pendragon must be a Bond villain. It's impossible to stay in bed under such circumstances, and he decides to eat something instead. He's just sipping his tea when there's a knock on the door. A look in the peep-hole shows a grey-haired gentleman in an impeccable suit.

Merlin opens the door, with the security chain in place, just in case, and they stare at each other.

"I would appreciate if you let me in," Uther says. "The matters I wish to discuss with you are better dealt with in private."

"What if you try to kill me?"

"Had I wanted you dead, you would have been so already, Emrys," Uther says, managing to sound reasonable. "Now open the door."

"You're not a madman?"

"Let me in. Now. My patience is running out."

So Merlin opens.

Uther walks into the kitchen, seats himself by the window and motions for Merlin. "Sit down."

Merlin stares at him.

"Sit down," Uther repeats, so Merlin does. "I wish to discuss my son with you."

"I don't believe I've had the pleasure – " Merlin says, but Uther interrupts him.

"You've had the pleasure, Emrys, hence my visit."

"But I don't – "

"Arthur," Uther says. "My son's name is Arthur."

And.
oh.
OH.

Arthur.

Merlin has known Arthur Pendragon for almost a year, but he's never learned Arthur's surname until now.

Arthur is a study in contrasts. He's obviously posh, but barely keeps body and soul together by working at a crappy plant nursery. He talks about medieval battles like he's lived them, even though his only experience of it is re-enactment with like-minded weirdos. He walks like he owns the place, belying the fact that he lives in a tiny bedsit Merlin's never even been allowed into.

Merlin knows a lot about Arthur. He knows that Arthur's body is paler than his own in the places where it's usually covered by clothes. He knows that Arthur has a mole on the right side of his belly. He knows that Arthur bites his lower lip as if to keep from crying out when they have sex, but that his mouth opens silently when he comes. He knows that Arthur takes up more than his allotted space; talking too loud and sitting with his legs splayed and walking with an irritating swagger.

He knows that Arthur always sleeps curled up, with his hands fisted and tucked in tightly under his chin, and sometimes he –

But this, Merlin didn't know.

"You're Arthur's father."

"We have already established what I am, Emrys," Uther says. "It is what you are that interests me."

"What I am?"

"I want to know what you are to my son." Uther hands Merlin an envelope.

It contains photos: Of Arthur, of Merlin. All of them far too close and far too intimate. Arthur on all fours with Merlin behind him. Arthur on his back, one hand on his cock and the other fisted in the sheets, with Merlin leaned over him, taking him. It's sickening, seeing such an intimate encounter like this.

Merlin stares at a close-up of Arthur's face screwed up in pleasure that looks almost like pain. It had been the most intimate thing Merlin had ever shared with another. Like this, it looks like run-of-the-mill amateur porn.

Their first time together, on display. It feels like being kicked.

"Do you know how old my son is?" Uther asks, and the question makes Merlin's blood run cold.

"Twenty-three," Merlin says. They'd celebrated Arthur's twenty-third only last week.

"Arthur is nineteen."

It rings true. Merlin has always thought Arthur looked young for his age, but then again Merlin is twenty-eight and still regularly gets mistaken for a teenager, so who's he to judge? But there's something else; Arthur's innocence and his ridiculous arrogance.

"He can't be," Merlin says at last. "He told me he went to uni. He said he got a third in maths or something."

Uther clears his throat. "Arthur studied mathematics at Oxford. He gained entry at fifteen and graduated, with a first, at seventeen. He went missing two days after his graduation, and his whereabouts remained a mystery to me until half a year ago. Since then, I've had him under surveillance. From the reports I've received, you seem to feature quite prominently in his life. You're not all that I've hoped for, but under the circumstances – "

"What?" Merlin manages, wondering if this is his life, or if he's dreaming. "What do you want with me?"

Uther gives him a look that manages to convey both contempt and patience. "As far as I've been able to establish, you were the one to take my son's virginity. Now, I've come to understand that such matters are inconsequential among... your kind, but I was brought up to believe that sexual relations have no place outside a marriage. As homosexuals are now allowed some sort of marriage, I have come here to ask you to take your responsibility. I will buy you a house and find a suitable career for Arthur. Your role would be to ensure that he behaves himself and is happy."

And that does it, really. "Get out," Merlin says, and his voice is calm, despite what's building inside him. "Get out before I call the police. And take these pictures with you." He manages not to throw them in Uther's face.

"Will you marry my son?" Uther replies. "Do I have your word that you will do it?"

"Just get out."

"What about Arthur?"

"What about him?" Merlin asks. "Arthur is a grown man. He's not something you can sell, he's not yours to give to anyone. If this is how you've always behaved towards him, I can see why he ran away. Now get out."

Uther stands up, very collected, as if he's the maligned party. "I will leave, but you haven't heard the last of me."

Merlin slams the door after him. He stands frozen for a minute, before he can think clearly again. Arthur. Oh, god. Arthur. What's to say that Uther isn't after Arthur as well? Instead of running over to Will's and borrowing his car, Merlin sprints down the stairs, fetches his bike and makes his way to Arthur's place. He pedals faster than he's ever done, almost getting hit by a car.

It doesn't matter. Everything that matters is getting to Arthur before Uther does.

+

When Merlin reaches the building Arthur lives in, the buzzer isn't working. Fortunately, the lock is wrecked, and he gets in. As he runs up the stairs, he vaguely remembers Arthur mentioning living at the top floor, jokingly calling it his penthouse.

Merlin barges in without knocking and finds Uther already there. Father and son couldn't be more different; Uther is taller than Arthur, but more delicately made. At the moment, his suit is a complete contrast to Arthur's hoodie and shorts. Arthur must just have returned from his morning run.

They both turn and stare at Merlin, and it occurs to him that he might not be needed, but he's got too much momentum to stop.

"Leave Arthur alone!" he gasps. He can taste blood in his mouth and his legs feel as if they're made out of jelly, but he'll be damned if he's going to give Arthur up without a fight.

Uther manages to look almost concerned. "You should consider letting Arthur take you with him when he runs," he says before he turns back to his son. "I seem to have outstayed my hospitality, Arthur. Good morning."

"So now you've met my father," Arthur says as Uther's presence cease to cast its spell. There's not a trace of feeling in his voice.

Merlin laughs shakily. "I think I need to sit down."

Arthur frowns. "You have the constitution of a ninety-year old." He puts an arm around Merlin's shoulders and leads him to the bed, pushes him to lie down. "Stay here while I take a shower."

"I need a shower too, I think... when I get home. But I can't walk, and my lungs hurt."

Arthur sighs, and closes the distance between them, sitting down at Merlin's side. "You're such a baby." His voice is not unkind.

Arthur's words shake Merlin out of his complacency. "I'm a baby?" he says. "You're a teenager! I'm your sugar-daddy! I'm almost ten years older than you!"

"Age's just a number."

"You lied to me," Merlin replies, before he realises that there are more important things at stake than his own pride. He makes his voice gentler. "You could have trusted me." He takes Arthur's hand.

Arthur sags. "I'm sorry."

Merlin presses Arthur's hand hard against his own bony chest.

Arthur mumbles something. The words disappear, too insubstantial to be heard.

"What?" Merlin says.

But Arthur closes his eyes and shuts Merlin out, which hurts more than any angry words could. Merlin laces his fingers with Arthur's and waits for him to speak. It occurs to him now that Arthur's always been reserved about his past. All Merlin knew before this morning was that he was an only child, that his mother was dead, that he didn't have much contact with his father.

If Merlin's ever allowed himself to wonder about the discrepancy between Arthur's upper-class manners and his poverty, he's explained it away by thinking that Arthur's family might have lost their money. Merlin's mum writes romances for Mills & Boon, so the idea of an impoverished nobleman or even prince isn't as outlandish to him as it might be to others.

And now he's something even stranger, a child prodigy escaped from his deranged father. And isn't that a weird thought. Geniuses are supposed to be socially awkward and nerdy. Not arrogant, athletic and handsome.

"Do you want to tell me?" Merlin asks, at last.

"Not really," Arthur says, his shoulders still hunched. "Although I suppose I owe it to you. I've wanted to tell you almost since I met you."

Merlin moves a bit closer to the wall, leaving almost enough space for Arthur on the narrow bed. "Lay down your head, my lad," he says, channelling his mother. "And tell me all about it."

Arthur frowns. "I'm sweaty and disgusting." But even while he's talking, he's kicking off his trainers and then he stretches out next to Merlin. There's barely enough room for them both. They lie on their backs, staring up at the damp-stained ceiling.

"Tell me about yourself," Merlin says.

Arthur keeps his gaze on the ceiling. He smells of sweat; a fresh, childish sweat, like one of Merlin's students when they're late for class, having run from one end of the building to the other.

Arthur's hair sticks to his temples, darkened and damp, and like this he really looks his age, or even younger. He doesn't seem aware of Merlin's gaze. He frowns, deep in thought, before he speaks again. "My mother was a mathematician. A brilliant one. Father dedicated his life to her and her career. She died when I was three, and then he transferred his ambitions to me. All of my life was just about maths. Hours and hours of it, every day. I hated it, but I didn't know any other life. So I just went along. Until I didn't."

"You ran away."

"I was a coward," Arthur says dismissively. "I was weak and stupid, and instead of standing up to him, I took the easiest way out. I should have known he would find me in the end. He wants me to go on and and do a PhD. He's got my entire career mapped out...” His voice is flat.

Merlin wants to hold him, but knows that Arthur can't stand being pitied.

"But you're an adult now." Merlin tries to stay vague and not give in to the surge of affection he feels. "You don't have to live your life like your dad wants you to."

"So what do I do instead? Keep on living like this?" Arthur makes a gesture which involves everything around him. Merlin can't help but wonder if he, too, is part of this grubby world.

Not that Arthur notices. "I guess since he knows where I am, I don't really need to worry about him tracing me through my credit card. I can use my account again, unless he's emptied it. I can get a real job, under my real name. Move out of here."

"You can stay with me," Merlin says.

"I don't want your charity," Arthur replies, his tone cutting.

They both fall quiet.

"I'm sorry," Arthur says, eventually. "All this... It's not your fault. It's me. I've dragged you into this mess."

Merlin just touches Arthur's shoulder, doesn't say anything.

Arthur scratches his head. "It's just... hard. You know?" He sounds boyish, his voice a little higher pitched. "It's... I don't know. He's the only family I have, and I'm the only family he has. He's getting old. He looked old and tired. I'd never realised before. I felt like such a bad son."

"So you'll live a life that's someone else has mapped out for you because of duty?"

Normally, that's something that would get Arthur pretty angry, but now he only sighs. "You don't understand. You haven't lived my life."

"But I could try to understand," Merlin exclaims. "If you told me things."

It's strange to talk to this sad, resigned Arthur and Merlin finds himself longing for one of Arthur's tantrums instead.

"What's there to tell?" Arthur asks. "Father isn't evil, whatever you think of him. Whatever he did to me, he did because he believed it was for the best."

And well, Merlin can't just accept that. "Arthur," he says. "Do you know he went to see me first?"

"He said he'd talked to you."

Merlin swallows. "He wanted me to marry you. Because I'd taken your virginity." Merlin regrets his words almost immediately, but by then it's too late.

Arthur rolls over, grabs the collar of Merlin's jumper. His anger is like radiation; like pins and needles all over Merlin's body. Merlin's frightened, not for himself, he realises later, but afraid that Arthur will do something he'll regret.

"Don't ever mention that again," Arthur says. The words are choked. "Don't you fucking dare to say that again." Arthur's unusual in that he never, ever swears, so the words have a double impact. They stare at each other, and Merlin thinks he should look away, but he can't. There's so much pain in Arthur. Some huge, dark space inside him which he tries to fill with anger.

The moment is broken when Arthur lets go of Merlin and gets out of the bed. "You should leave."

Merlin scrambles up, sits at the edge of the bed. "I can't leave you like this."

Arthur is by the window now. "Like what?" He doesn't turn to look at Merlin. "I'm not a girl, I'm not going to have some sort of breakdown. Just leave."

"Arthur – " Merlin says.

"Can't you understand that I want to be alone? Why do you have to... Just leave me alone!"

And Merlin does. He's going to question his decision in the future, but right now it seems the easiest thing to do.

+

Merlin texts Arthur the next day, but there's no reply. He sends an email. He doesn't get any replies. It's happened before, once or twice, because Arthur has a tendency for overreacting, and sometimes he needs a day or two to cool down. When there's still no sign of him on the third day, Merlin goes to Arthur's place after work.

The outer door still isn't working, so Merlin enters. The door to Arthur's bedsit is open, but instead of finding Arthur, he's met by an unknown woman.

"You're early," she says. She's beautiful in the mature fashion which would have labelled her a 'handsome woman' a century or so ago, but her smile seems as fake as the auburn tint of her hair.

"I'm looking for Arthur."

"The boy who used to live here? I'm afraid he's left, darling. I thought you were the new prospective tenant."

"Did he leave a forwarding address?"

She looks him over, knowingly. "No. He said he wanted to start afresh. Leave the old behind," Her mouth widens into an unpleasant smile. "Sorry, my dear. I guess that includes you."

+

Some days later, Arthur texts him.

Don't contact me again. Sorry.

It hurts like few things have ever hurt before.

+

Uther shows up on Saturday morning. He doesn't call, this time. Merlin is in his couch, where he fell asleep earlier in the morning, marking the essays he should have marked days ago.

He thinks it's Arthur, at first. Arthur is the only person he knows who knocks in that manner; hard, distinctive knocks, always three of them.

"I need to talk to my son," Uther says when Merlin opens the door.

"So do I," Merlin replies. He isn't frightened of Uther this time.

Uther closes the door behind him. "Don't play games with me, Emrys. I'm a busy man, and I have no time for this nonsense. My son has moved out of his flat. He must be here."

"He isn't."

"That's absurd! Where else would he be?" Uther stares at Merlin as if he's attempting to read Merlin's mind.

"Have a look, then. If you don't believe me."

And Uther does, either because he's terribly literal about everything, or because he feels entitled to. It doesn't change the fact that, fifteen minutes later, Arthur is still nowhere to be found.

"Enough," Uther says. "You've managed to waste my time. Now tell me where Arthur is."

Merlin is torn between anger and an unexpected compassion. "I have no idea where he is. He threw me out the other day. And yesterday I got a text from him saying that he didn't want me to contact him. I assumed he'd gone with you."

"The condition for taking him back was that he marry you." Uther's voice is level, but he is clearly struggling to keep it that way.

"Well maybe he didn't want me," Merlin says, and fortunately, he's angry enough not to break down and weep. "Or maybe he didn't want to come back to you, because now he's gone!"

Merlin's distress seems to disgust Uther. "Put yourself together, boy," he says. "I've lost my only son! What have you lost? A... catamite? You'll get over it. As for me, I'll have to continue my search. Good bye."

Merlin throws a book after him, but by then Uther is long gone.

On Sunday, Merlin hardly leaves the couch. He stays home on Monday and Tuesday, claiming to have caught the flu.

+

Merlin goes to work on Wednesday. His mind keeps wandering off during his classes. His last class for the day is a small one, with eight upper sixth students. They're all bright kids, and he knows they'll do well on their A-levels. For all that, he finds himself staring out the window while they all discuss Federico García Lorca with a level of enthusiasm and fluency most Spanish teachers would envy him.

Freya lingers as the other students leave. "Are you OK, Mr Emrys?" she asks, reverting back to English. "You look pale."

Merlin rubs his eyes with the back of his hand. "I'm fine, Freya. I'm just tired, that's all." He starts collecting his things, hoping for her to leave. But she follows him, even as he turns the lights off, leaving them both in shadows.

"I don't want you to be sad," Freya says, and she's so close. Her schoolgirl crush has always just been a minor source of pity. Only now, when his own heart is in tatters, is he capable of grasping the sadness of it.

And god, there's so much he should tell her about what a spectacularly bad idea it is to try to snare an older man, but he's too tired for it. "I'm not sad. I've been ill, that's all." He pushes her away, as gently as he can and escapes.

He thinks about Arthur when he cycles home; Arthur who's just a year older than Freya, but whom Merlin had no compunction about having sex with. It makes him feel sick.

+

When he gets home, he googles Arthur Pendragon. There are mentions of a boy genius being offered a place at Oxford, but Arthur is never really the focus of these articles. They mention him, as if in passing, before grabbing at the opportunity to talk about his mother.

Igraine Dubois is a popular theme, even for those less interested in maths. She was the first, and so far only, woman to have won the Fields Medal (which Merlin learns, is the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel Prize), but seems to have made a name for herself as the charismatic figurehead of an ambitious campaign to get more girls into science.

A photograph shows a woman very similar to Arthur; strongly but elegantly built with slanted blue eyes which narrow as she smiles. She has Arthur's lips, Arthur's teeth, Arthur's cheekbones, Arthur's hair.

There are no recent mentions of Arthur. Certainly nothing to suggest that he's been reported missing. Why wouldn't Uther report that? Don't rich people report their runaway kids, for fear of scandal? Merlin might be angry and hurt by Arthur's actions, but suddenly he finds himself more hurt for Arthur than he is for himself.

He remembers the first time they met.

+

He's cycled out to the plant nursery to buy something for his mum for Mother's Day. It's one of those lovely days barely a week into March, but feeling like May. The Snapdragon's Plant Nursery is out of his way and the service tends to be rather dreadful, but it's where Hunith likes to buy her things.

He's wandered around for ten minutes, looking at fruit trees and rose bushes, trying to assess them based on the pictures on the labels, before he realises that he hasn't met the old man who runs the place yet. Normally, he would be around, muttering incomprehensible things and looking busy without really doing much, but now he's nowhere to be found.

Instead, Merlin catches sight of a man arranging small pots with herbs in them. The smell of thyme and mint is carried on the light breeze and reaches Merlin's nose. He stands watching the man, looking at the outline of his broad shoulders underneath the clingy t-shirt.

Merlin ogles him for an embarrassingly long while before the man turns round. The front of him isn't as pretty as the back, Merlin thinks. He looks a bit spotty, and his mouth is odd. He seems more a boy than a man.

"Could you help me with something?" Merlin asks

True to the spirit of the place, the man only shrugs.

"I need to buy something for my mum. For Mother's Day."

The man shrugs again.

"Are you just going to stand there and ignore me, or are you going to help me?"

"I'm busy. Can't you help yourself?"

"You're just faffing around with the thyme. You haven't done anything useful for at least the last five minutes."

The man smirks, making his wide mouth widen even further, and curl, just on the one side. He rolls one shoulder leisurely, like he's stretching, or warming up.

"Is that so? Have you been watching?"

"No!" Merlin exclaims, feeling his face heat.

The man throws his head back and guffaws with laughter. "You wouldn't be the first," he says when he stops. The glance he gives Merlin is surprisingly dirty.

Merlin backs away, angry and something else, when he stumbles over a garden gnome and falls on his back. He retreats without having bought anything. He makes Hunith a cake.

He doesn't return until late summer. It's apparently a slow day, because there's only one old lady in front of him in the queue to the till. This time, the unhelpful assistant's got a name tag. His name is Arthur.

He doesn't recognise Merlin, at first, and then Merlin stumbles on something, and almost falls into a stand full of seed bags.

"Oh, it's you," Arthur says. "Are you always this clumsy, or is it just me?"

Merlin doesn't reply. He pays for his things and leaves.

But when Merlin's unlocking his bike, Arthur is suddenly next to him.

"I'm going home now. He said I could leave early. Slow day, today."

"Good for you," Merlin mutters.

"I was going to ask you for a ride into town, but..." He looks pointedly at Merlin's turquoise, foldable Brompton bike.

"Do you usually bully customers into giving you rides on their bikes?"

"Only the pretty ones."

"I'm still not giving you a ride," Merlin says, adjusting the handlebar. He moves the bike away from Arthur when Arthur stops him.

"Don't run away!"

They end up walking into town together, Merlin leading his bicycle and Arthur walking next to him. Somewhere along the road their banter turns into small talk. They don't have much in common.

Over the next weeks, their paths keep crossing, and soon enough they're regularly going on some sort of non-dates.

Arthur flirts with everything, which makes it difficult enough to determine whether he's interested or not. It's resolved when Merlin finds Arthur staring a little too long at his mouth. That's when Merlin loses it and pulls him in for a kiss.

After that, a large amount of their time together is spent in Merlin's couch, kissing like teenagers. At the time, Merlin thinks Arthur is bewildered by the thought of being attracted to a man rather than a woman. Thinking back on it now, he wonders if it was the first time Arthur kissed anyone at all.

When Arthur touches Merlin's cock for the first time he seems curious rather than excited. It's the hottest thing Merlin has ever seen and he comes within seconds, a drop of his seed landing on the beautiful frowned lines between Arthur's eyebrows.

Still hazy with his post-coital glow, Merlin takes Arthur in his mouth. Arthur makes these surprised moany sounds and grabs Merlin's hair, like he can't decide on whether to push him away or pull him closer. It's dark when they're done, the outside world lost to rain. Arthur sleeps in Merlin's bed that night.

It's the first time Merlin sees Arthur sleep; the first time he sees Arthur curl up like a little thing, tucking his fisted hands under his chin. That's when Merlin falls in love, even though he doesn't realise it until later.

When night falls, he can't help but wonder where Arthur is sleeping, and the possible answers keeps him awake.

+

He asks for Arthur. At the Snapdragon, where the old man only says something vague about Arthur going on other quests, and shouldn't Merlin have looked after him, and something that sounds like "destiny". At the medieval re-enactment guild, where he's told that no one's seen Arthur for over a week, and that they miss him too.

+

Merlin is torn. Deep inside him there's an instinct - awoken by Arthur's brittle arrogance as much as his vulnerability - to protect Arthur, to die for him if the need should ever arise. Closer to the surface and more rational, there's the knowledge that Arthur told him to stay away.

Merlin goes for a compromise. He doesn't report Arthur missing, but he tracks down and starts Facebook stalking people who knew Arthur at Oxford. All he learns, when he digs deep enough, is of the rumour circulating when Arthur first disappeared. It seems people were willing to believe that Arthur had been institutionalised, or possibly sent to some clinic to sober up.

Merlin realises that a person can disappear so very easily, like a stone sinking in a deep pond, the surface unchanged once the faint ripples die away.

+

Hunith removes her reading glasses and looks up from her laptop. "There. Five thousand words written today," she says proudly. "Not even the blessed Nora Roberts herself does better than that. And now, my boy, now I've got all evening to devote to my favourite son."

"You only have one son," Merlin says, aiming for light-hearted but sounding petulant, instead.

"And he's the very best son a mother could hope for."

Hunith stretches her back, then undoes the strict bun her hair's tied in. For as long back as Merlin can remember, undoing her hair before loosely braiding it means that his mother is his again, not an obsessed woman in front of a computer screen.

It's Friday, and he's taken the bus to Ealdor, not having seen her in weeks. Heartache hasn't served to make him sociable.

"You look worn," Hunith says. She rolls her office chair closer to the couch Merlin's sitting in.

"I don't want to talk about it."

What is there to say? Arthur burst into his life all of a sudden, and disappeared just as quickly. Merlin still can't find the words to convey everything that's in his heart. It's like a no-man's land inside him, somewhere he can't quite make himself reach into.

Hunith sighs and touches his hair very gently, before she braids her own.

He hasn't really told her anything. Just that he's broken up with Arthur, and that Arthur's left. He wonders what she makes of it, if she dislikes Arthur for hurting him.

"Let's have something to eat," she says.

They don't talk much. They eat their risotto, and the cake Merlin brought for afters, and their silence is unusually tense.

"I've made your bed for you," Hunith says, later. They've watched a film, and Merlin has just woken up to realise that the credits are rolling. "I hope you'll stay until tomorrow. I could use some help with tidying up the garden."

When he gets into bed, he can't sleep. It's dark and comfortable, filled with the sounds and smells of childhood, but the safety of it only makes the guilt he feels about Arthur grow worse.

+

He thinks back to exactly one year ago, one of those cold, rainy Fridays in late November.

When Arthur enters, his hair is damp, his shoulders speckled with wet. He smells of rain and greenhouse and sweat. His hands are cold as they dig inside Merlin's jumper and his shirt, his lips are cold on Merlin's mouth. But the inside of his mouth is warm.

"Don't," Merlin gasps, when Arthur's strong body crowds him against the wall and Arthur's mouth is on his neck. "There's food... and things..."

"Only want you," Arthur whispers, his breath hot and suddenly too close to Merlin's left ear.

By the time the smell of food from the kitchen makes Arthur stop, Merlin is making embarrassing noises from the focused attention to his neck.

"I guess I should have a shower first," Arthur says, grinning wickedly. "I'm so dirty, you see." And he backs away, making his way towards the bathroom, pulling off his layers of clothing as he goes.

Merlin follows, picking up Arthur's discarded clothes, so close to pressing Arthur's sweaty t-shirt to his face and smelling it. When they make it to the bathroom, Arthur is down to his briefs, and his smirk has softened into something that warms Merlin's heart as well as making him irritatingly hard.

They've never been completely naked together, and they don't get to be, this time, either. A burnt smell wafting in from the kitchen interrupts them.

When Merlin comes back, the bathroom door is already closed, and he can hear water running inside.

+

"Would you like to come with me and meet my mum some time?" Merlin asks later, as they eat apple crumble.

Arthur is quiet for a long while. He's not the sort of person to speak with his mouth full.

"She wants to see me?" He seems surprised.

"Of course she wants to. I've been stalling it, just in case you didn't want to."

Arthur smiles. "No, I want to. Of course I want to."

Merlin can't help but laugh. He's been worrying about this, had expected any answer but a positive one.

+

"I'm looking forward to meeting your mother. She raised a very... gifted son." Arthur says, and they're in the bedroom now.

Merlin looks up. "Don't talk about my mum when I'm giving you head, you git. Just don't."

Arthur's mouth curls up, unapologetic. He's down to his t-shirt, a worn red one of Merlin's. His briefs are lost somewhere, and it occurs to Merlin that he would finally be completely naked if he would just remove the stupid t-shirt.

"I'm sorry," Arthur says.

Merlin swirls his thumb lightly round the head of Arthur's cock. "You're not. Do you want me to stop?"

Arthur swallows and he's needy and boyish once again. "No."

"At least lie down, then, so I can get into bed with you. My knees hurt."

Arthur laughs. "You're not that old."

But he obeys; scrambles back, looks almost haughtily at Merlin before he pulls his t-shirt over his head in a slow, determined movement. When he lies back he looks like a young king waiting to be served. He's beautiful, all of him. His body is sturdy; muscled but not ridiculously chiselled. His skin is smooth, the hair on him soft and golden.

When Merlin starts pulling at his own shirt, anxious to be naked too, Arthur stops him. "No. Just... Just keep your clothes on."

Merlin's desperate to be naked. The heat of his moving body is trapped by the bed and by the proximity to Arthur, making him sticky under his arms, between his shoulder blades, in his groin. But then Arthur licks his lips; shy now, not playing at being coy and Merlin can do nothing but obey.

He goes down on Arthur lovingly; not quite daring to take Arthur too deep, fearing it will all be over too quickly. Arthur arches up against him, making muted sounds, increasingly desperate. When he comes, Merlin swallows it all, before he lies down; head pillowed on Arthur's thigh, petting him gently.

Arthur lies quiet, once his breathing goes back to normal. His body is pliant, like an over-sized rag doll. When he curls slightly to lie on his side, Merlin follows, lies with his head in the warm space by Arthur's groin. He keeps petting, keeps pressing little kisses to Arthur's moist, soft cock, until it hardens again, even though Arthur's half-asleep. Merlin opens his mouth, takes the tip of Arthur's cock. It still tastes bitter, from before. It tastes like Arthur. Merlin closes his eyes and sucks lazily.

He only looks up as he hears the muted, content sounds coming from Arthur. What Merlin sees confuses and alarms him at first; Arthur's left hand is tucked in under his chin as usual. The right hand is in front of Arthur's face, its thumb in Arthur's mouth. It takes a moment or two for Merlin to properly process the fact that Arthur is sucking his thumb, like a little boy. As Merlin stares, still in shock, Arthur makes a pathetic, moaning sound, and Merlin's heart jumps.

He's not entirely sure this should be so erotic, but it is.

For all of Arthur's attitude, there is always something guarded about him, something which has slipped away now. This Arthur is someone Merlin knows no one else has seen, and it makes him feel so very possessive.

It's the most intimate thing he's ever lived, and he gives in to the sensation; snuggles in close, close to Arthur and takes his cock again. He worships it gently, making it last, while Arthur suckles his thumb. When Arthur finally comes, he gasps around his thumb, sucking it desperately through his orgasm.

Merlin presses a last kiss to Arthur's cock before he sits up and strips down to his underwear. He doesn't want to be naked until Arthur allows it. He manages to get Arthur under the covers, before he spoons round him and falls asleep almost immediately.

+

It becomes an obsession after that. Merlin finds himself watching Arthur sleep, relishing the times Arthur slips his thumb into his mouth. Merlin's own mouth falls open as he watches Arthur, and he's overwhelmed by all sorts of feelings he can't quite name.

The sucking only happens when Arthur is almost asleep, which makes Merlin double his efforts in sucking Arthur's cock to bring him to that deeply relaxed state.

One of Arthur's front teeth is wonky, sticking out a little. Merlin finds himself wondering whether the tooth is like it is because of Arthur's sucking, or whether it's just convenient to put the thumb there.

Merlin never mentions Arthur's thumb-sucking, doesn't know how to approach the subject. Arthur doesn't know that he knows.

+

Merlin thinks about it now, when he's alone in his childhood bed. He thinks about Arthur's thumb stuck obscenely inside the plump pout of his mouth, gnawing at it with his oddly-angled tooth. He sneaks his hand into his pyjama pants, and comes as he imagines spooning Arthur and fucking him gently, just rocking into him while Arthur sucks his thumb; half-asleep and perfectly at ease.

+

Merlin helps Hunith with the garden in the morning. The autumn sunshine is warm, yesterday's rain already drying up.

"What happened to Arthur?" Hunith asks, as they take a break for elevenses. Taking advantage of the nice weather, they're sitting outdoors, on the little bench by the pond.

"He's gone."

"Did he move?" Hunith takes a sip of her tea.

Merlin keeps his eyes on the water, refusing to look at her. But he replies, at last. "We had a fight. He doesn't want me to contact him, and no one seems to know where he is. It's like he vanished from the face of the earth."

Hunith is quiet for a while as if she's thinking things over. "Don't make the same mistake I did," she says. "Don't be too proud to look for him. Arthur was... well, he was a shy boy at heart, wasn't he?"

Merlin chuckles, without any real mirth. Shy is probably the last thing anyone would call Arthur, but there is truth in it. Arthur doesn't easily open up to people. He hides himself behind a façade. And yet, when Merlin took him to meet Hunith, he'd taken easily to her, and she to him.

It was on the first night that Arthur spent in Merlin's childhood home that he'd told Merlin about his own mother.

+

"She died when I was three," Arthur says.

Merlin, who lies with his head on Arthur's shoulder, holds Arthur tighter. "I'm sorry."

Arthur shrugs. "I never talk about her. It's... it's private."

"Do you remember her at all?" Merlin asks.

When Arthur replies, his voice is hushed. "I remember her fingers smelling like orange when she peeled one for me. She died of cancer, but I don't remember that. I don't remember her being ill."

"Was she like you at all?" Merlin can't resist asking.

"I look like her, but she was intelligent. I'm mediocre, like father."

"You're brilliant," Merlin protests.

"Idiot," Arthur says, affectionately. "Of course I am, but not like that, not like her."

"What did she do, your mum?"

"She was a... teacher. A maths teacher."

Merlin snuggles closer to Arthur, relishing his warmth. "I was crap at maths. Had to go to special classes and spend ages and ages on stuff others did in five minutes."

His words makes Arthur laugh, but the laugh is hardly more than a vibration. "I hated maths," he adds, in a sudden outburst of feeling. "God, I absolutely loathed it."

"Didn't you do a degree in maths?" Merlin asks, remembering another titbit Arthur's shared with him.

Arthur hums, and Merlin doesn't ask more.

They're quiet, until Arthur speaks again. "What about your father? There are no pictures of him."

Merlin makes himself more comfortable on Arthur's arm. "You really want to hear? It's a long story."

"I'm not going anywhere."

So Merlin tells him. About when Hunith was eighteen and decided to spend her gap year travelling through Europe. How she'd met a man in southern France: a tall, whip-thin Basque. They'd made their way through lands Hunith had only ever dreamt about or read about in novels. The mountains and towns which still carried, at least to her, some of the romance and tragedy of the Cathars.

And then, one morning, she woke up alone. She'd asked for him, but no one knew anything and she'd gone back home.

"The Basque was your father?" Arthur asks.

Merlin only nods.

"I thought there was something foreign about you," Arthur remarks, triumphant.

That night, Arthur sucks Merlin's cock for the first time. He's clumsy, but a natural. He takes Merlin deep, making breathless sounds. Merlin thinks about Arthur sucking his own thumb as he fills Arthur's mouth, and Arthur swallows it all.

+

Merlin takes the bus home on Sunday. When he gets home, he googles Uther Pendragon and manages to find his address. Perhaps Uther knows something, Perhaps there's some clue there.

+

Nearly a week later, on the first Saturday in December, Merlin finds himself in Oxford, standing outside Uther's door. The house is large, the neighbourhood affluent. Upper-upper middle class.

No one opens when he knocks, and he knocks again. After more than a minute, he walks away, both relieved and disappointed. He can leave now, go on with his life. No one can argue that he didn't do enough.

And then he hears the door open.

The man in the door is not Uther. He's much younger, but dressed in a way which Uther no doubt approves of; neatly and probably expensively. His hair is shorter than when Merlin last saw him.

It's Arthur.

+

"Arthur!" Merlin exclaims.

Arthur holds the door, seems to consider whether to close it again. His face has gone pale and taut when faced with Merlin. "How did you know where to find me?"

"I didn't. I came to ask if your dad knew your whereabouts."

"I told you not to contact me," Arthur says and his eyes are dark, his mouth a thin line. "Did you just ignore that?" His tone, his entire dismissal of Merlin's feelings, hurts.

"I couldn't not look for you!" Merlin says, willing himself to hold Arthur's gaze. "I couldn't not care!"

Arthur folds his arms over his chest. His rolled up sleeves still reveal impressive lower arms. Whatever he's done to himself, he hasn't been idle. "No one came for me the other time I disappeared, so why are you so difficult to shake off?"

Merlin takes a step closer, and Arthur doesn't back down.

"Did you expect me to let it be?" Merlin asks. "That you could just leave me like that, without an explanation? Your dad came to my place and searched it. Searched it! Even the kitchen cabinets. I had no idea where you'd gone, and now you're here? Back with him?"

"You better come in," Arthur says. "I won't have you making a spectacle of yourself." He sounds like Uther.

Merlin hesitates. "Is he here?"

Arthur shakes his head. "He's away for a few days." There's hesitation in his voice. He collects himself immediately, so quickly Merlin isn't even certain he's seen the weakness.

He takes Merlin's jacket, like a good host. Merlin doesn't see what he does with it, is too caught up with looking around at the dark, understated elegance of Uther's home.

They end up in the library, an airy room lined with books and large windows overlooking a garden that's mostly well-tended lawn and elegant trees. Merlin sinks down in the large armchair he's offered. It feels as if it's trying to swallow him alive.

They sit on opposite sides of a small table, a weird arrangement that Merlin doesn't understand. Arthur fingers the spine of one of the books lying there.

"Why did you leave?" Merlin asks. “There was just the thing with your dad, and then... then everything we had just ceased to matter."

Arthur tenses. "You wouldn't understand."

"Of course I don't understand if you don't explain anything."

It looks as if Arthur might get angry, but then his face changes again and he seems sad. "I don't want to drag you into all this. I thought I was allowed to be happy, but I was wrong. You deserve someone better, someone you can have a normal life with."

The pain with which he says it touches Merlin, and he rises from his seat to kneel in front of Arthur, and rest his cheek against Arthur's thigh.

"There is no one better. I only want you."

They're both silent, and Merlin allows himself to relax. Arthur doesn't push him away, and eventually Merlin feels Arthur's hand in his hair.

"Merlin," Arthur says. Nothing else is needed. They sit like that until Merlin's legs ache. Arthur's hand is gentle, taking away some of the pain. "I'm sorry," he adds. "I'm so sorry for all this." He sounds quietly resigned. Merlin thinks that no nineteen-year old should have to be sad in this grown-up fashion. He puts his arms around Arthur's waist, and Arthur leans over him, holding him.

When the embrace ends, Arthur leads him upstairs. Uther's house is dark, and silent but for the ticking of clocks. Arthur's room is different; the walls are cream, all of the bedding white. There are orchids sitting in pots on the windowsill, a desk with a closed laptop, a few bookshelves lining one of the walls, a chest of drawers, a wardrobe.

"My cell," Arthur says.

It's easy to imagine it, a little boy spending hours here, studying; denied the company of other children.

"We really should talk," Merlin says as they sit down on the bed, but Arthur interrupts him.

"We'll talk. We'll talk later, I promise."

"Later?" Merlin wishes he could keep the smile from his face, but Arthur is smiling, too.

"Later," Arthur confirms, before he leans over and touches Merlin's mouth with his own. When his lips part, letting Merlin in, Merlin notices what is wrong.

"Your tooth," he exclaims. The weird tooth has fallen back in line with the others, and Merlin is unduly saddened by it.

"I had it fixed."

"That's... nice," Merlin says, trying to sound cheerful.

And then they're kissing again and it's difficult to care.

It is nothing like make-up sex should be; it's not frantic or frenzied, but sweet and gentle. They kiss until Merlin's mouth tingle and they've lost all their clothes. He lets Arthur push him down, happy to lie naked in the bed that Arthur has never shared with anyone before. It smells clean, too sterile for Merlin's taste. He wants it to smell of Arthur.

And then Arthur lies down at his side, and Merlin can smell him again, taste his mouth. He wants more than that, he wants so much he doesn't even know where to start. He needs to be closer, further in.

Arthur locks his legs around Merlin's waist and they rub against each other, kissing while they do so. Arthur fucks the hollow of Merlin's mouth with his tongue, quick and deep. His strong hands hold Merlin's head in place, cradling and stroking him. Merlin pulls away before he finishes, traces Arthur's mouth with his fingers, not even daring to voice what he wants.

But Arthur wants too; he opens his mouth, lets three of Merlin's fingers inside. He doesn't close his eyes, but keeps watching Merlin, even with his mouth stretched around the fingers. He doesn't even close his eyes as his cheeks hollow and he starts sucking on them. And Merlin comes at that, spills into the warmth between their bodies, onto the sweat-damp skin of Arthur's stomach. Arthur's mouth opens further into a silent shout as he, too, climaxes.

They lie forehead to forehead at first, before Merlin slips to lie at Arthur's side, still leaning over him, unable to watch his fill of him. Arthur's mouth is red and plump and Merlin still wants more of it. He touches Arthur's face, traces his hand further down, along the sparse hair on Arthur's chest to Arthur's stomach, where their mingled come still pools around his navel,

At first Merlin only touches it with his finger, scooping the seed up where it's making it's slow way down Arthur's hip to soil the sheets. He swallows when he looks away, looks up at Arthur's face. Arthur's lips parted, as if he's waiting. Merlin can't refuse him like that. Almost without thinking, he brings his fingers up, wets Arthur's lips before going further in. Slowly, little by little, he feeds Arthur their mixed come, and Arthur suckles it from Merlin's fingers as if it's a delicacy.

"I need you inside me," Arthur says, having licked away the last traces. Evening sunlight shines in through the window, illuminating him and turning him into something dirty and angelic. There's nothing coy about him; as if Merlin exists only to please him. "Make me forget," he says.

Merlin doesn't ask. They'll talk later.

"There's lube in the underwear drawer." Arthur points lazily towards the chest of drawers. "Under the socks," he adds, as Merlin gets up and starts to rifle through the first drawer.

Merlin sits down at Arthur's side again, the small bottle in his hand. "Condoms?" he asks.

Arthur's glance turns defiant. "Don't have any. I hardly thought I'd have any use for them ever again."

"I didn't exactly bring any with me."

"Do it anyway." Arthur makes it sound like a challenge.

Merlin puts the lube down. "Arthur... I can't do that." Knowing that he's so much older than Arthur makes him the responsible one.

Arthur's mood changes from the tense beginnings of anger into something heartbreaking and irresistible.

"I've never... done it with someone else. I've never even kissed another, ever." His eyes bore into Merlin.

"I haven't had anyone after you, and before you there were never very many," Merlin replies, beginning to give in. “I was tested, not long before I met you, and I was clean.”

"Then what's the problem?" Arthur's already reaching for Merlin.

"It's not meant to be like this, Arthur. We're meant to get tested, both of us, before we decide on doing this and being exclusive." Sometimes being an adult is horrible. He wants to be as young and impulsive as Arthur.

"I don't want anyone else," Arthur says. "I knew from the first time I saw you. I knew."

Merlin lets himself be pulled down onto the bed again, lets himself be dragged into Arthur's arms and be kissed to within an inch of his life. He knows that they're going to do this, whatever the consequences.

When Merlin sits between Arthur's parted thighs, reaching down to touch between the cheeks of that perfect arse, all he can think of is getting inside. Arthur tenses as Merlin's fingers touch in the place where no one else has ever touched him. The skin there is soft to the touch; moist and sensitive. The very centre; the pink, bunched skin of Arthur's hole, is tense too. A hard muscle, clenched to a pinprick.

Merlin leans in to kiss Arthur's hip before opening the bottle of lube and pouring a dollop of it on his fingers.

"I'm going to open you up now," Merlin says.

They've only ever done it twice before, and even though Arthur is smiling he's tense, his mouth twitching as Merlin fingers him. Arthur takes a deep breath, lets it out. The tiny clench of his hole relaxes slightly, but not much.

Merlin leans down again, trails kisses on Arthur's hip, his belly, his cock; all the while twirling his finger round Arthur's virgin-tight hole without entering it.

"I'll lick you, if you want to," he says. "Maybe it's easier for you."

Arthur lifts his head from the pillow. "You want to rim me?" He sounds far too shocked, as if Merlin's offering something incredibly debauched.

Merlin presses a kiss to the head of Arthur's cock. "You don't want it?"

"I don't want you to do something disgusting."

"It's not disgusting. Not to me."

Arthur closes his eyes, clearly conflicted. "Okay," he says, at last, holding his legs up against his body. The first swipe of Merlin's tongue sends a shiver through Arthur's body, and Merlin stops. He touches Arthur's wrist, holds it as he licks away the sickeningly soapy, chemical taste of the lube and finds Arthur's own taste. It's been long since Merlin did this, and it's so much better than he remembers.

Arthur is sensitive and responds beautifully. Soon enough, Merlin can tease a finger inside him, and then another. When he stops licking and adds lube and a third finger, Arthur hums, as if he agrees.

"Do you want me now?" Merlin asks. His throat feels raw, and the words come out all husky.

"Yeah," Arthur replies.

Merlin moves his fingers, testing. Arthur is open enough to take him. He holds Arthur's gaze as he slicks his cock, as he pushes. The muscle dimples at first, before it gives in to the relentless pressure. He feels the rings of muscle around him, and then he's further in, sinking until he's fully seated, surrounded by Arthur's warmth.

Arthur bites his lip. His eyes are large, the pupils pools of black inside the blue. Merlin can't tell if he's frightened or having some sort of rapture. Not until Arthur pulls him closer, locks his legs around Merlin's waist again.

"Do you love me?" Arthur asks, and his voice is low.

Merlin tries to form a word, but his throat feels dry, and the words don't come. He nods instead, cards the fingers of one hand through Arthur's hair.

"Show me," Arthur says and his eyes are shiny but his voice commanding.

Merlin does, and it's different from anything they've done before; the closeness, the perfect unhurried intimacy. They kiss while Merlin takes Arthur with deep, loving strokes. He touches Arthur's face just before he comes, and Arthur finds his fingers, mouths at them as Merlin comes. He continues, even though he's slowly softening and over-stimulated, until Arthur climaxes, clenching down tight on Merlin's cock.

+

When Merlin wakes up, only just realising that he's been asleep, Arthur is watching him. He is still rosy with afterglow. The room is lit by a lamp on the nightstand; night has fallen.

"What time is it?" Merlin asks.

Arthur, who's been lying on his side, facing Merlin, turns and reaches down to search among his discarded clothes until he finds his mobile. His back is beautiful, the golden light accentuating the muscles under the soft skin. "Two minutes past seven."

"My train left five minutes ago."

Arthur lies down again. "Then stay the night," he says, and even though they've already had sex, he manages to make it sound immoral. "Leave tomorrow."

The thought is as tempting as it's frightening. "What if your dad should come home and find me here?"

"He's away until tomorrow night. Don't worry."

"But – "

"Please." Arthur never begs, so Merlin goes quiet. Arthur grins. "I should use that word more often. But really, stay. I want you to."

Merlin nods.

"I'll get us something to eat," Arthur says, obviously pleased.

Merlin tries to sit up, but Arthur puts a hand to his chest. "No, stay here. You're my guest. What sort of a host would I be if I let you slave away all the time?"

"Trying to woo me with your cooking skills?"

Arthur chuckles. "God, no. That would be a waste of time. But I'm sure I can find something for you." He slips out of bed and leaves, without bothering to dress. Merlin stares as his pale, perfect backside disappears.

After waiting for a few minutes, Merlin becomes too interested in his surroundings. He looks at the books in the bookshelves, at the neat stack of papers on Arthur's desk. There's very little in the way of personal effects in the room. The books are either highbrow novels or stuff on mathematics or other sciences. The wardrobe and the drawers are filled with clothes which look too sombre to be Arthur's. White and light blue shirts, white or black socks. Grey jumpers, grey trousers, grey or white briefs. Grey suits.

Nothing red or blue, the colours which Merlin has grown used to seeing Arthur in.

When Arthur returns, balancing a tray, Merlin is still staring at the clothes in the wardrobe. "You're not very discreet," Arthur says, apparently mildly amused.

"Why haven't you got any colourful things?"

"Because father thinks it's too gaudy."

"What is he, Amish?"

Arthur puts the tray down on the desk. "He's still my father, Merlin. I would appreciate if you wouldn't speak ill of him."

There's enough force behind the words that Merlin realises that it is a soft spot. "We should speak, though," he tells Arthur. "About him. About us."

Arthur nods. "I know."

They eat in bed, naked, with the tray over their laps. The food is an odd combination of posh sandwiches, wine, apples cut into segments and a bowl of walnut halves.

Arthur is still sipping his wine when Merlin breaks the silence. "Why did you leave?"

"What would you have done?" Arthur asks. He looks down at the wine, twirling the glass slowly in his hands. "Try to imagine that you're me. That you've been a freak for as long you can remember, with no real friends and no real life. You've always known that you're attracted to boys rather than to girls, and you've always been taught that that's wrong. And then one day, you break free. You're suddenly the master of your own life. You see this beautiful man, and you dream about him for months. When you meet him again, you gather all your courage and you go after him."

"It turns out he likes you too, and life's good for a change. Then, one morning, your father comes over to tell you that the fun is over, that you're spoiled goods and you should marry the man who did it to you. And when the man in question shows up, and he knows about your father's mad plans, because your father has already been threatening him. Wouldn't you want to sink through the earth if you'd been me? Wouldn't you prefer to leave, so that the one you love can find a normal person to have a healthy relationship with? Wouldn't you think that you owe him that, at least?"

Merlin takes the glass from Arthur's hand and places it on the nightstand, together with the tray. "Arthur," he says. "You don't owe me anything. I've never been so happy as when I was with you."

"Really?" Arthur asks, and he seems so ridiculously surprised.

Merlin straddles Arthur's lap and holds Arthur's face in his hands. "I've never felt what I feel for you for anyone else. It was strange when I thought you were five years younger than me, and absolutely bloody frightening when I realised you were nineteen, but that's the way it is."

"Told you," Arthur says, and his face is flushed now. "Age's just a number. I wouldn't care if you were sixteen or forty-eight or sixty, I'd still want you."

He presses their foreheads together, before he nips at Merlin's lower lip, opening him up for a kiss. Like this, sitting in Arthur's lap, Merlin feels ridiculously small and dainty, even though he's the taller of them. Arthur's cock is hardening against him, and Arthur's large hands are on his lower back.

Merlin breaks away, relishing the hungry, abrupt sound that Arthur makes as their mouths part. "You can... You can fuck me, if you want to."

He grinds down on Arthur, to illustrate his point. It's scary, the fact that he wants to ride Arthur like this, sitting in his lap like a girl, with Arthur's cock up his arse and Arthur's thumb in his mouth. It's scary because he's always been a top, and the only time he bottomed, it hurt so much he couldn't even finish. With Arthur, he doesn't really think it would hurt, and he'd want it even if it did.

Arthur stares at him, open-mouthed. "No," he breathes.

Merlin frowns. "Why not?"

"I've spent my life trying to perform. I don't want – " He swallows and blushes. "Sorry."

Merlin rakes Arthur's fringe back, holds his face. "Would you like me to take care of you? Now? With my cock?"

And Arthur grins, lopsided, and it doesn't even matter that his stupid teeth are more even now, because he's still Merlin's silly boy when he wants to be. "From behind, this time," he says, voice already husky with want.

Merlin presses his lips to Arthur's forehead, before he says: "That can be arranged."

He's happy to oblige; happy to have Arthur on all four, with his plump arse in the air, waiting to be served. It's easy this time, because Arthur's relaxed and his hole is a soft, succulent little morsel that Merlin licks clean of any remnants of come before he slicks it up again until it's red and glossy, loose enough for Merlin to feed his cock into. He still can't believe he's actually being allowed inside Arthur like this, with nothing between them but the slippery coating of the lube. It feels like a gift.

When Merlin presses his swollen glans against Arthur's pucker it opens up beautifully, allowing him to bury himself, slowly, until he's all the way in. Arthur's insides are hot and sleek, fitting Merlin like a glove and Merlin has to stop and take deep breaths, ensuring that he doesn't embarrass himself. He closes his eyes, tries to think of something boring: marking essays, doing the washing up.

The moment passes, and he opens his eyes again. He touches Arthur's back reverently, tracing the long line of his spine with trembling fingers. What has he ever done to deserve this?

"I love you," he says, even though he's always found it such an awful, clichéd thing to say during sex, but it's different now. Everything's different with Arthur.

"And I you." Arthur's voice is muffled by the pillow. He relaxes further around Merlin's cock, and Merlin takes it as his cue. He pulls back, slowly, before pushing in again, biting his lip. It's too good, even though he's already come once before. Arthur sighs, rocks back against Merlin. His arse is thick and firm in Merlin's hands, and life is beautiful.

They manage it for longer than what seems possible. When Arthur finally sinks down on one elbow to touch his own cock, Merlin speeds up. He floods Arthur's insides just as Arthur gasps and spurts into his own hand.

They lie down, afterwards; Merlin resting his head on Arthur's strong shoulder, and Arthur holding him. Reality has taken on the fuzzy, drifting quality of a dream, and Merlin is happy to lie there and being held, safe in Arthur's arms. When Arthur's fingers slip down, along his face, Merlin takes two of them in his mouth, quite shamelessly. It's soothing, even with the bitter taste of Arthur's come.

"Sleep," Arthur says, touching Merlin's cheek. His voice is gentle; enveloping Merlin like a warm, cosy blanket. "We'll talk in the morning, my love."

+

When Merlin wakes, it's still dark outside the curtains. There's no clock in the room, and he can't reach for his mobile without stirring Arthur. Arthur is sleeping, curled on his side; the little spoon to Merlin's larger spoon. Rising up on an elbow Merlin can just make out a shock of pale hair, paler skin and the graceful curve of a shoulder in the dark. When Merlin leans in close, he sees that Arthur's hands are loosely tucked under his chin.

His right hand is more unclenched than the other, the thumb close enough to his mouth to Merlin's cock harden almost instantly, poking into the cleft of Arthur's arse. Arthur sighs, presses back against the intrusion. His body is lax, all warm and slack with sleep. Merlin rocks into him, very gently. It would all be cosy if he wasn't hard enough to be jittery with it. Between Arthur's buttocks it's warm and moist; supremely intimate. Merlin wants that tiny, snug space all to himself, wants to bury himself there and fuck Arthur gently into a new day.

"Arthur," Merlin whispers. His voice is rough. He doesn't really want to wake Arthur, but he has to.

"Hmm?"

Merlin nudges him.

"Mmm." He sounds so content, as if they're back in Merlin's bed without a care in the world.

"Arthur, wake up," Merlin insists, rubbing Arthur's arm. "Please wake up."

He sees Arthur blink his eyes open. In the dark, Merlin can't make out the colour; everything is just shades of grey. Arthur unfolds to lie on his back.

"What?" Arthur's voice is gritty. "It's not even day yet," he adds, not sounding overly pleased.

Merlin leans in closer, rubs his erection against Arthur's thigh and flank. He kisses Arthur's high cheekbone, his nose. Arthur makes another sound at that, less grumpy.

"Oh, so that's what you want," he kisses Merlin back, and it doesn't matter in the least that his breath is stale with sleep. "Dirty old man."

Merlin means to laugh, but it turns into something resembling a giggle, instead. "How am I supposed to resist you when you're all warm and soft?"

Arthur smiles at him, and his eyes crinkle. "Tell me what you had in mind."

"I woke up with my cock halfway inside your gorgeous arse. Go figure."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Arthur says folding his arms behind his head and flashing Merlin a smug grin.

Merlin drapes himself over Arthur, kissing his neck. "What if I'm gentle?" he asks.

"Not before breakfast," Arthur replies, pushing him away. He's always been one to take breakfast seriously. "I'm starving."

Merlin knows from experience that there's no point arguing with him. "Let's have breakfast, then," he says.
+

Some things haven't changed. Arthur still makes the best scrambled eggs Merlin's ever tasted, and he remembers that Merlin wants his toast to be almost charred and that his warm beverage of choice is hot chocolate with the tiniest trace of coffee in it. They eat in the kitchen this time, watching the drab grey morning outside while their feet touch under the table.

"When is your dad coming back?" Merlin asks, as Arthur piles up the plates on a tray afterwards.

The beginnings of a smile on Arthur's lips fades. "I'm picking him up later." He watches Merlin for a little too long, as if he's about to say something, before he takes the plates to the dishwasher.

"We need to talk about him," Merlin says as he joins Arthur.

"I know."

"I just want to know why you came back to him. That's the part I can't understand."

Arthur nods. He looks increasingly uncomfortable. "Not here, though."

They end up in bed, next to each other and staring up at the ceiling, like they did that other time, before Arthur disappeared.

"He found me," Arthur says. "I didn't bother to cover my trail. I wanted to show him that I didn't have to hide from him."

"What happened?"

"He needs me."

"To fulfil his ambitions for him?" Merlin can't quite keep the anger from his voice.

Arthur doesn't even bother to tell Merlin off for that. "No," he says. "To care for him."

"Did he say that?"

"Of course not. He told me that he didn't want to die not having made peace with me." Arthur swallows, before he adds, "Pancreatic cancer."

Merlin is silent at first, quiet despite the flurry of emotions inside him. "I'm sorry," he says, at last.

"Not your fault."

"So are you picking him up from – "

"Chemotherapy, yes. He doesn't let me see him at his weakest, but I'll guess he'll have to get used to that, soon."

"Is he..." Merlin can't quite finish the sentence, and the words are left hanging in the silent air.

Arthur shrugs. "There's a small chance, that's why they're still trying."

"He's not that old."

"He's almost seventy. He was fifty when they had me."

There's so much Merlin should say, but all he can think of is Arthur carrying a burden that's too heavy, even for him.

"Is he really all the family you've got?" Merlin asks.

Arthur doesn't look at him, but keeps his gaze on the ceiling. "I think so."

Merlin moves closer, manages to rearrange them so that he's got his arm under Arthur's head. "Do you have any friends or anyone?"

Arthur shakes his head. "We're not really... Not close ones."

"Arthur, you're nineteen," Merlin says. "Not even someone double your age would be expected to have to face this alone. Why didn't you call me?"

The conflicting emotions in Arthur's features tell him more than any words ever could; pride and shame and gratefulness. "But I left you. I don't deserve – "

"You never left me, not in your heart," Merlin interrupts, cradling Arthur closer. "Not in any way that matters."

When Arthur's body softens against his, that's all the answer Merlin needs.

They spend the rest of the day in bed, doing things that will keep them alive all of the days when they're apart.

+

Being Uther's carer takes almost all of Arthur's days, so they talk or message all night. Merlin learns to function on a minimum of sleep, and no doubt Arthur does too. It's not ideal, and sometimes the strain of it is almost too much.

Uther grows steadily worse. Arthur hardly ever speaks of him, but Merlin knows from the dark shadows under Arthur's eyes and the tension in his shoulders. There are some burdens Merlin can never hope to carry for him.

They don't meet again until the first week in February. Merlin stands on the platform almost twenty minutes before Arthur's train is due to arrive. He's never been this early for anything in his entire life.

The train is almost empty. It's just before noon on a wintry February day; it's a wonder there's anyone travelling at all. The last person to step out on the platform is a tall-ish young man in a dark grey coat.

Merlin feels his face rearrange into a silly smile at the familiar, and yet somehow unexpected, sight of Arthur. They both walk towards each other, before finally meeting in the middle.

"Hi," Merlin says, and his voice has gone ridiculously high-pitched.

Arthur doesn't reply, just locks him in a tight embrace that erases everything else. When the hug ends, Arthur keeps a hand on Merlin's arm.

"It's been a while," Arthur says.

Merlin stares at him, gorging himself on Arthur's presence. He's mostly the same, although he seems to have lost weight. His face is that of a man now; all harsh planes and sharp angles. Caring for his father has pushed Arthur into adulthood faster than having to care for himself for a year ever did.

"Are you just going to look at me, or are you going to take me home?" Arthur manages to infuse the words with something that's wonderfully ambiguous. To anyone else it could mean anything; to Merlin, it's pure seduction.

They walk back to Merlin's place, Arthur's arm linked in Merlin's while Merlin leads his bike with his free hand. The grass crunches under their feet, stiff and brittle with frost, as they take a short cut across the park.

"It looks just like it did... before," Arthur says as they stand in Merlin's flat.

"Disappointed?" Merlin asks, and it's not just a joke. He really wonders whether everything looks shabby to Arthur now, when he's used to his dad's house again.

Arthur grins. "No," he says. "I like that some things haven't changed. It's comforting to know."

"My cooking hasn't changed, either," Merlin tells him, before he starts pushing Arthur in the direction of the kitchen.

"Still secretly stewing rats?"

Merlin huffs. "That was tempeh, you prat. I was trying to widen your culinary horizons."

"They don't need widening," Arthur replies, before he pulls Merlin in for the first kiss in weeks.

+

"I'm not managing on my own any longer," Arthur says later. They're in Merlin's bed now. Arthur is still on top of Merlin with his face close to Merlin's neck. "We've hired a live-in nurse." Arthur pauses, as if he's thinking. "He would have preferred not to involve strangers, but I guess he's accepted that it's become inevitable. And I'll be free to see you every now and then."

Merlin holds him, stroking the broad back and shoulders. Arthur is solid, his body strong and warm, and yet he's so very fragile, just like all humans are. A complex machine that can break down in a thousand different ways at any given moment.

"He's refused further treatment," Arthur says. "There will be medicines to keep the pain at bay, but that's all."

At that Arthur's body grows heavier in Merlin's arms, as if the admission has sapped all energy from him. Merlin finds that it doesn't matter. Arthur will never be too heavy a burden for him to carry. He'll always find the strength to be whatever Arthur needs him to be.

Right now, Arthur needs his body, and Merlin is happy to offer it.

+

When Merlin finally tumbles out of bed, his legs are wobbly. He stands, unsteady, trying to focus on food rather than sex. The sudden presence of another body behind him unsettles him, even as that other body presses up against his back and holds him tight.

"I thought you were asleep," Merlin says.

Arthur spreads one palm over Merlin's chest, the other over his belly. They're wonderful hands, big and strong. Merlin places his own over Arthur's and leans back into the embrace.

"I forget how tiny you are," Arthur says, slowly caressing Merlin's skin. His voice is husky from sleep.

"I'm still taller than you."

"All gangly and thin," Arthur breathes into Merlin's ear. "I could take you apart with one blow."

Merlin thinks of Arthur's blond head, bobbing up and down in his lap and laughs.

"I know, I know," Arthur says fondly. "And you can take me apart with less." He takes Merlin's right hand, lifts it and leans over Merlin's shoulder to kiss his fingers.

"Aren't you hungry, though?" Merlin says, forcing himself to be adult and responsible despite Arthur's shameless mouth and his body and his erection, standing proud against Merlin's arse.

Arthur doesn't reply at first, just takes Merlin's forefinger into his mouth, twirling his tongue round it before he really devours it, like he would Merlin's cock. He sucks hard enough for it to tingle, and Merlin feels his knees go weak again. He makes an undignified sound before Arthur scoops him up in his arms, just like that, as if Merlin really is tiny and weightless.

"I'm not going to waste my time with you eating," Arthur scoffs, and carries Merlin back to bed.

But he gives in, eventually; when Merlin has used his fingers and his mouth to reduce Arthur to a boneless lump of overgrown boy. By then Arthur doesn't protest when Merlin leaves for the kitchen. He just watches through half-closed eyes, smiling sweetly, as if he's under the influence of some mind-altering substance.

Despite his protests, he eats everything that Merlin puts in front of him. The ice cream, which Merlin brought on a whim, seems to have sparked dirtier thoughts in Arthur. If someone has ever licked ice cream from a spoon in a more seductive manner, Merlin hasn't seen it. It should be ridiculous, but instead it makes Merlin's heart beat wildly and erratically in a way that only over-much caffeine has ever managed.

When Arthur decides to forgo spoons and dip Merlin's fingers in the tub, Merlin's befuddled brain merely has time to react to the cold before there's heat. He stares at Arthur's face, at Arthur's mouth as Arthur latches on to his fingers, one by one, and suckles them clean. It's a revelation, to say the least. Merlin has always known that fingers can be used to bring about pleasure, but he's never realised before how they can also register it.

It makes sense, Merlin thinks fleetingly, as Arthur sucks his entire ring finger into his mouth. Fingers are sensitive, just like lips. Even the skin between his fingers is receptive to Arthur's mouth. Merlin shudders as Arthur's tongue plays on it, as he goes further and licks Merlin's palm and his wrist before capturing Merlin's thumb and sucking on it with such abandon that Merlin lets out a high-pitched noise.

Arthur lets go of Merlin's thumb with a wet little plop, but he keeps holding Merlin's hand in both of his. "You don't like it?" he asks, even though his smile - laced with just enough arrogance to make Merlin think he might as well give up and just spend the rest of his life in Arthur's bed - suggests that he's fully aware of the fact that Merlin likes it very well indeed.

He licks at Merlin's fingertips again, just letting the tip of his tongue touch Merlin's skin. "I love your fingers," he says quietly, between licking. The arrogance of a moment ago is lost in one of his mercurial mood swings. "I've wanted to do this for so long."

Merlin touches Arthur's cheek with his free hand. "Why didn't you?"

Arthur shrugs. "There's so much I want, and so little time." A corner of his mouth twitches into a smile.

Merlin moves to straddle Arthur's lap. It's not something he'd do for anyone else, but with Arthur it comes naturally. Arthur's body is made to hold him, it's pointless to resist. "I want to do everything with you," he says, and Arthur's expression changes into hunger.

It fills Merlin with a wild tenderness. He wants to fuse his very being with Arthur's, become one and become nothing together. He cups Arthur's face in his palms, stroking Arthur's lips with his thumbs, until Arthur opens up and mouths at his fingers. There is no sustenance to be had from them, but Arthur still needs to suckle. His hands have moved away from Merlin's back and are now on Merlin's wrists, keeping Merlin's hands where he wants them.

But when Merlin wriggles free and takes Arthur's hands, pressing their palms together, Arthur sucks at their joined fingers instead. He does it so beautifully; needy and desperate. Merlin bows his head, leans in to let his mouth join Arthur's. It's the wettest, dirtiest kiss he's ever experienced, their lips and their tongues slipping and sliding between their fingers. It's sensual, in every meaning of the word.

Merlin swipes at Arthur's mouth, between the V of their joined middle- and forefingers before he backs away. He knows that if he doesn't say it now, he might never do it.

"Please suck your thumb for me," he whispers, and his throat seems to go dry, despite the wetness of their mingled spit.

Arthur leans back, watches him with eyes which have widened considerably. "You know," he says, and several emotions seem to battle for supremacy inside him. His face is flushed. "And you don't think... You think it's..." He shakes his head, frowning. "You're turned on by it?"

"You did it once, when I sucked your cock. You were half asleep." Merlin looks down, not even capable of facing Arthur. "I still can't stop thinking about it. I'm not sick, I just – “ He swallows.

"I suspected you might have seen it..." he pauses, looking as if he doesn't have the will to feign outrage. "You don't think it's strange?"

Merlin smiles, daring to meet Arthur's eyes again. "Of course I think it's strange, but it's good strange. Sexy strange."

Arthur chuckles, as if he's surprised.

Merlin laughs at that, and it comes out as a giggle. He feels weightless. He wants to know more, wants to hear Arthur talking about his thumb sucking nearly as much as he wants to see it.

"Why do you do it?" he asks.

"It's soothing," Arthur replies, knitting his brows in thought. "And forbidden. Like comfort food, I suppose, or wanking." The last word make his eyes darker, and he bites his lip.

How can someone find confidence sexy when insecurity is this erotic?

"Do you do it when – "

"Yeah," Arthur replies, his voice just a breath.

Merlin doesn't really know what to say, all he knows is that he needs to speak before silence engulfs them both. But Arthur beats him to it.

"Father used to punish me for it. He said only babies sucked their thumb, not big boys."

Merlin leans in closer and holds Arthur tight, cradling Arthur's face against his chest. "I wouldn't mind," he says. "You could suck your thumb and still be my big boy."

Arthur's hands come to rest just below Merlin's shoulder blades. "I want that. If you want it too."

Merlin kisses the top of Arthur's head. "Do you want it now?"

Arthur looks up at him, through his eyelashes. His lips are parted and the lower lip is bitten red. In anyone else, it would seem coquettish. In Arthur it's all too raw to be affected. "I want you to tell me what you want," he says.

"I want to suck you," Merlin replies, tracing his fingers along Arthur's mouth. "And then I want to fuck you, nice and slow while you suck your thumb and feel good."

Arthur's eyes flutter shut, as if he's embarrassed, and he takes Merlin's hand and kisses the fingers. Then he inclines his head in the slightest, regal nod.

+

It's all that Merlin could have wanted for, and more. Arthur lies on his back, his smile somewhere between lust and embarrassment as he takes his thumb in his mouth. Merlin kisses him, completely overwhelmed, before he settles between Arthur's thighs and takes Arthur's erection in his own mouth.

Arthur makes wonderful, whining noises as Merlin sucks him. He barely lasts a minute. He goes on sucking, contentedly, while Merlin opens him up.

Entering Arthur, and taking him, is even better. They lie on their sides; Merlin spooning Arthur's sated, relaxed body and lifting Arthur's thigh, holding him open. Arthur suckles sleepily at his thumb while Merlin takes his pleasure slowly, to make it last for as long as possible. When Merlin comes, he holds on to Arthur, kissing his neck and his shoulder, filled with a happiness so intense it hurts.

"You're insane," Arthur whispers, just before the kissing reaches his mouth. "You're clearly insane, and I don't deserve you."

+

They run for the train on Sunday afternoon, after having spent most of the day in bed. At Merlin's side, Arthur looks radiant, like someone in a moisturiser commercial. He seems unaffected by the marathon sex and lack of sleep, making Merlin feel ancient. Just before Arthur gets into the train, he grabs Merlin's face and kisses him quite thoroughly. Merlin doesn't even notice the people staring. He walks back home in a daze.

+

They manage some time together. It's mostly a single day here and there, but sometimes they manage an entire weekend. It's never enough. Merlin longs for the day when they can be together every day, and then he watches Arthur's now gaunt face and remembers that Arthur's freedom will come soon enough, and at a very high price.

So they soldier on; living in the now and never thinking too much of the future.

+

Arthur calls him one Thursday, just as Merlin is leaving for work. Arthur is nothing if not a creature of habit, he never just calls.

"What?" Merlin asks, immediately regretting how rude he sounds. He takes a deep breath and tries again. "What's happened?"

"It's father," Arthur says, and his voice sounds so far away. "But not... I mean, he's fine. It's just that he asked about you."

"He asked about me? Have you told him about us?" Merlin lodges his mobile between his shoulder and his ear as he unfolds his bike.

"Of course I didn't, but he notices things. Like the bruise you left on my neck the other day. I couldn't lie about that. He wouldn't have believed me if I'd told him some random girl did it. Not when it looks as if I've been attacked by a dentally challenged vampire." Despite the situation, there's something gently mocking in Arthur's voice.

"I suppose he wants to kill me now?"

"He's never wanted to kill you," Arthur insists in a long-suffering tone which might be real or affected.

"If you say so."

"He asks if you would come down this weekend."

"He what?" Merlin almost trips over his bike.

"You heard me."

"You want me to come over and spend the weekend with you, and your dad. Your dad who wanted me to make an honest man of you because I took your virginity. Is he planning something?"

He can hear Arthur make some sound on the other end. Perhaps a sigh. "I hardly think he's going to be waiting with an officiant and the customary fish slice. Don't be ridiculous." Arthur has a knack of making Merlin feel like the young and irresponsible one.

Merlin opens his mouth several times before a sentence emerges. "What the hell is a fish slice?"

This time Arthur's sound is definitively a sigh.

+

So on Friday afternoon Merlin boards the train that will take him to Arthur. They meet on the platform.

"It'll be all right," Merlin says, when they get into the car. Arthur only smiles a tired-looking smile.

+

The Pendragon residence is dark and cold, despite the balmy May evening. Merlin has to force himself to step over the threshold and enter.

"You could still leave," Arthur says, and perhaps it is meant as a joke.

"I wouldn't." Merlin touches Arthur's arm before he closes the door behind them.

Even that small touch seems to lighten Arthur's mood. "I'll show you to your room," he says.

"Don't I get to stay with you?"

Arthur chuckles. "Merlin. It's my father we're talking about. Of course you're not."

The guest room he's given feels like a hotel room; it's completely impersonal. He leaves his overnight bag there, goes to the bathroom to wash his hands before joining Arthur in the kitchen.

Uther is absent, preferring to eat in his own rooms these days.

He waits for them in the library.

+

Uther doesn't look like Merlin expected. He doesn't look like a dying man, whatever a dying man is supposed to look like. His skin is jaundiced and papery, stretched thin over the bones of his face and his hands are skeletal, but he's still got his hair, and there's strength in him, a sort of authority that holds him together, even in the face of death.

At the moment, he seems to be discussing something with a young woman at his side.

"Father," Arthur says, interrupting them. "Merlin is here."

The young woman turns round. Next to Uther's sallow features, she looks radiant; full of life and youth.

"This is Gwen, our nurse," Arthur says. "Gwen, this is Merlin, my – "

"Boyfriend," Merlin fills in.

Gwen takes Merlin's offered hand. "Merlin, how nice to meet you."

"You too," Merlin says, even though a small, nasty part of him wonders if she is lovely enough to for Arthur to –

Uther interrupts his unworthy thoughts. "Would you leave us, Miss Thomas?"

Gwen nods politely. "Of course, Mr Pendragon."

"You too, Arthur," Uther adds. "I would like to speak to Emrys alone."

Arthur looks as if he might protest, but he leaves, following Gwen.

"So, Emrys," Uther says, as Arthur closes the door. "I seem to have underestimated you."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"Sit down." Uther motions towards a chair. "We have much to talk about."

Merlin does as he's told. Uther's eyes - still piercingly blue despite the yellow-tinted whites - makes him uncomfortable. Merlin waits for him to say something.

"I underestimated your feelings for my son. I didn't think that... well, people like you, homosexuals that is, developed deeper feelings for each other."

Merlin has to take a deep breath not to reply to that.

Uther doesn't seem to notice, but goes on, musing on his theme. "It all seems very sordid. Doing things in public lavatories and so on... Going on like schoolboys..." He shakes his head, apparently deep in thought. "But Arthur seems very taken with you. I'm afraid I have misjudged him, too."

"Maybe you should discuss that with him," Merlin replies.

Uther waves his words away with a lofty gesture. "All in good time, Emrys. First I need to talk to you. I'm worried about my son, you see. I am dying, and when I'm gone, Arthur will be alone in the world. We wanted... His mother and I..." Here Uther pauses and takes a sip of water. "But we were never able to give him a sibling."

"I'm sorry," Merlin offers, not knowing if he's allowed to say anything.

Uther shrugs. "It wasn't meant to be." He pauses, folding his hands. "You must think me a tyrant," he says. "And perhaps there's some truth in that, but at least I've always believed in admitting one's wrongs. I've had much time to think after Arthur ran away, and even more since he came back to me. I was wrong in trying to mould him in his mother's image. Arthur is gifted, perhaps even more so than you know, but mathematics was never his passion. I suppose he never mentions it to you."

Merlin shakes his head.

Uther sighs. "Igraine had a way of making theoretical mathematics sound like poetry. She made it into something beautiful. I had always hoped Arthur would come to see it like that, one day. I expect he never will, now. But he's still young. He can do something he loves, like Igraine did. Or he can love, with all his heart, and devote his life to one person, like I did." He smiles, and that smile reveals more of the man than all of his words could ever hope to do. It's a brief, magnificent spark that makes his tired eyes gleam with life. It is the smile of someone who has burned brightly for a short while, and then spent the remainder of his years as ash.

"I love Arthur," Merlin says, overwhelmed by the sudden need to say it. "I won't leave him."

Uther nods. "I know that now, and it is a comfort to me. I regret the way I behaved when I asked you to marry my son, but I won't deny that I still wish you would. I think you would be happy together." There is some tiny speck of humour there, so brief that Merlin almost doesn't notice it.

When he fumbles for a reply, it seems that Uther has had enough of emotions for one day.

"Leave me," Uther says. "I need to speak to my son before I retire for the night. Would you ask him to join me?"

Merlin rises. "It was nice talking to you," he offers.

Uther nods.

+

Arthur is in his room, staring at the screen of his laptop.

"Your father wanted to see you," Merlin says.

"What did he say?"

Merlin comes forward, leans his chin on the crown of Arthur's head. "We'll talk about that later."

They stay like that for a moment, relishing the brief respite before Arthur moves, and Merlin lets go of him.

"I'll need to get him ready for bed," Arthur says. "I'll probably sit with him for a while. You don't need to wait up for me, just go to sleep." He kisses Merlin in passing as he leaves, just a tiny peck high up on Merlin's cheekbone.

Merlin stays behind. He sits down on Arthur's bed, watching the room around him. It looks much the same as the last time he saw it, except that the orchids aren't flowering at the moment.

He goes to the bathroom, brushes his teeth. He can't force himself to go to the room he's been given. Instead he returns to Arthur's room and Arthur's bed. There's the smell of him on the pillow. A scent Merlin associates with the nape of Arthur's neck. The bedding is too warm, but Merlin undresses and lies naked in it, surrounded by the familiar scent. He falls asleep there, and it feels as though only a moment has passed before a pointed cough wakes him.

"Emrys."

Merlin groans, tries to wake up. It's like being underwater and swimming for the surface.

"You need to come." Merlin opens his eyes and is faced by Uther of all people. It's not yet dawn and the grey light from outside has washed all colour from his face.

Merlin gathers the bedding around him, covering up his nudity.

If Uther is outraged at Merlin's presence in Arthur's bed, he doesn't mention it. "You need to come with me."

"What's happened?"

"Arthur needs you."

Something about Uther's demeanour makes Merlin refrain from asking questions. He pulls on a t-shirt, boxers and his trousers while Uther stands there, staring at him. When Uther leaves, Merlin follows, half running. He still loses sight of him. It is the faint rim of light under one of the doors which guides Merlin. He opens the door, unsure of whether he is allowed to enter.

Uther's bedroom is large and dark, lit by a single lamp by the bed. The curtains are drawn, making the air stuffy. It feels like the air does before a storm.

Arthur is kneeling by the bed, his forehead against the side of the man lying there. Uther.

"Arthur." Merlin's voice feels too loud even to himself. It cuts rudely into the heavy silence. "Arthur," he repeats, when there is no response.

This time, Arthur lifts his head. He looks tired, and somehow both younger and older than when Merlin last saw him. His eyes are rimmed with red and his face is very pale, but otherwise he seems collected.

"Your father," Merlin says, wanting to reach out to Arthur but hesitating.

He's never seen a dead body before, but some animal instinct tells him that he and Arthur are the only ones in the room. The thing in the bed is no longer a person.

Arthur watches Merlin, but doesn't speak.

"I'll get Gwen. We need to..." Merlin doesn't know what one does in these situations, not really. "We need to make... arrangements."

"Let her sleep," Arthur says. "Let me sit with him for a little while."

They know each other well enough by now, so Merlin doesn't protest. He leaves the room, closes the door behind him. When he's given Arthur that measure of privacy, he seats himself outside the door, guarding it and guarding Arthur until the sun rises and the world belongs to the living again.

When Arthur emerges, they breakfast in silence before waking Gwen, who makes the necessary phone calls.

The rest of the day is a blur; a long procession of unusual circumstances. Uther is pronounced dead, his body removed. Arthur opens all the windows of his father's room when the body is gone.

Gwen orders take away, but no one's really hungry. It's a hot day, more like July than May, and they all seem to have a headache. She offers to stay on for a few days, but Arthur demurs. Her brother comes and picks her up in the late afternoon.

Merlin sits with Arthur on the terrace until the garden is full of shadows and it's finally cooler. That's when he leads Arthur up the stairs and strips him and takes him to bed. He lies down on his back and Arthur lies on top of him, taking some of his weight on his elbows but still being pleasantly heavy.

The living must take care of the living.

Merlin tightens his arms, holds Arthur closer and Arthur takes him like that. It's Merlin's cock inside Arthur, but Merlin can't really explain the act in any other way than by admitting that it is he who submits to Arthur and not the other way around.

Merlin remains on his back - helpless - as Arthur briefly fingers himself open and takes what he needs. It's unlike any sex Merlin's ever experienced, having Arthur hold his cock and his body and owning him completely. It is enough to turn his entire world turned inside out and upside down. Arthur holds Merlin's gaze throughout, his irises icy blue around dilated pupils as he stares into Merlin's very soul.

But Arthur's strength is a mirage; when he climaxes, there are tears brimming in his eyes, clumping his lashes together. Merlin comes moments later, inexplicably drawn over the edge by the act of kissing those tears away.

Arthur's mouth is open as he weeps, and he shakes in Merlin's arms but doesn't make a sound.

"It's going to be all right," Merlin says, cradling his orphan boy in his arms. "I'm always going to be here for you. I'll never leave."

+

Epilogue

+

However surprising it may seem at first, life does go on. They have Uther's house cleaned out and put on the market. Arthur keeps very little from it, only his own things and some keepsakes. They hold a small memorial service, attended only by a few friends and colleagues of Uther's. Afterwards, Arthur scatters the ashes in the same woodland where Uther once scattered Igraine's.

+

"What happens now?" Arthur asks that night, when it's obvious to them both that the other is still awake. Outside the window, the sky is already turning grey.

"Anything," Merlin says. "Whatever you want." Which is as frightening as it is exciting.

"I think I'll ask if I can get my old job back," Arthur says.

"At the Snapdragon?"

Arthur hums in response.

"But you could get something much better, even with the economy being what it is – "

He doesn't mean to be critical, but he realises that the surprise in his voice can be interpreted as censure, which is just what Arthur does.

"What if I don't really want that?" Arthur says, and Merlin can hear how uncomfortable he is. "What if I want to be able to just leave at the end of the day, without overtime and without having to bring work home with me? Money isn't everything. I should know."

"You really want to work at the Snapdragon?" Merlin replies, still taken aback.

"What's so wrong with leading a simple life? I enjoyed working there."

Merlin takes Arthur's hand and kisses it, wanting to calm him. "Nothing. It's just... Well, it's you. You're intelligent, you could do anything."

"You're too good to be in a relationship with someone who does manual labour?" Arthur say in a pointed tone.

"You know that's not what I meant."

"Whatever," Arthur replies.

They fall asleep back to back.

+

When Merlin wakes, Arthur is gone. Merlin searches the flat, but after the first, brief, bout of panic, he realises that all of Arthur's clothes are still there. The only shoes missing are his running shoes. Merlin takes a deep breath and goes to make himself some breakfast. He's still sipping his orange juice when Arthur returns, looking all sorts of dishevelled and irritatingly handsome.

"You could have woken me up," Merlin says. "I worried about you." He hates these exchanges, the ones which makes him feel like he's Arthur's parent rather than his partner.

Arthur leans against the door frame, exaggeratedly nonchalant. "You looked as if you could use some sleep."

"I thought you'd left me. For a moment I really thought you had." Merlin's voice is already cracking by the last word, and then, staring at Arthur, he starts to sob.

Merlin cries easily, but he never does it in front of Arthur, who has enough to burden him already. Merlin doesn't even know exactly what it is he's crying about. All he knows is that it won't stop.

Arthur remains by the door, his mouth open in a little grimace as he watches. "I wouldn't go away," he says.

"I wouldn't," he repeats as he comes closer and pulls Merlin into an embrace. He's far too warm and he's sweaty and disgusting, but he's there, and Merlin clings to him, wetting Arthur's shoulder with his stupid tears. Arthur holds him throughout and whispers things Merlin can't quite make out.

Suddenly Arthur's the strong one.

"I'm sorry," Arthur says as Merlin stops sobbing. "Look, if you can stand on your own, I'll give you a paper towel to wipe your eyes and... hm, your nose with."

"I didn't really think you'd disappeared," Merlin explains, when they're both sitting in the couch. He dabs at his eyes again, before he crumples the paper into a little ball in his fist. "But... The first time was bad enough. I don't really think I could cope if it happened again. You'll have to warn me, first."

Arthur holds him closer. "I'm not leaving. I'll never leave you, not if I have a choice."

"You always have a choice."

"My mother didn't want to leave my father, and he didn't want to leave me."

"Oh, Arthur," Merlin says, before Arthur hugs him close enough to make Merlin feel as if he is being crushed.

+

They manage by taking life one day at the time and accepting that some days are going to be bad.

On the whole, Arthur does better than Merlin thinks he himself would have, under the same circumstances. Once a week, he sees a therapist to work through issues which not even Merlin knows everything about. On other days he's with his medieval re-enactment group, getting rid of his aggressions with swords and maces. It helps, apparently.

Arthur still works at the Snapdragon. Merlin still teaches Spanish. Their life is quiet, as it needs to be.

+

Merlin is doing the washing up after dinner one evening when Arthur sneaks up on him and hugs him surreptitiously from behind. He rests his cheek on Merlin's shoulder.

"Come."

It's been one year since Uther's passing and Arthur has had some bad days again, almost a week of them. Any change from that is a good change, so Merlin lets Arthur lead him to the bedroom.

"Do you know what my father told me when I last spoke with him?" Arthur says, when they're both seated on the bed.

Merlin takes Arthur's hand, letting his thumb graze over Arthur's knuckles. "No, how could I know?"

"He said he was proud of me and that I was the best son he could ever have hoped for." Arthur smiles wistfully. "The funny thing is that he never said something like that before, so I always assumed I was a disappointment to him."

Merlin pulls Arthur's hand into his lap, holding it between both of his. He doesn't say anything, just lets Arthur continue.

"I spent all that time trying to live up to his expectations, and it was such a waste of time. If I'd known how few years I had with him, I would have spent them doing something meaningful. I feel like I never really got to know him, and I don't want the rest of my life to be like that. I don't want to waste my time with you. I know you think I'm young, but – " He takes a deep breath and manages to look almost aggressive. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

Merlin's mouth aches to smile, but he can't afraid that Arthur would take it the wrong way. "Are you asking me to marry you?"

"No!" Arthur exclaims. "Or yes, if that's what you want. I just want you to know that I want to be with you... well, more permanently, I guess. And I wanted to know if you wanted that too."

It's the sort of muddled but ultimately beautiful thing Arthur would say.

"Yeah, I would be up for it," Merlin replies, well aware of how his casual tone clashes with his flushed face and obviously racing heart.

"I'm not going to give you a ring," Arthur confesses. "I have something else, though." He finds a small box from somewhere and gives it to Merlin. "Here you go."

The object inside looks like a coin, or a medal of some sort. Merlin turns it over, carefully. "It's something to do with mathematics," he says, reading the Latin inscription on one side. The other side has a man's head, and another inscription. Finally, as he reads the name along the rim - Igraine Ada Dubois - it all makes sense. "This was your mother's."

Arthur takes the coin from Merlin's hands and turns it over. "It's her Fields Medal. It's all I have of hers. Father threw away everything else, he was so distraught when she died."

Merlin draws back, pulls his hand away from Arthur's. "I can't accept it."

Arthur frowns. "I want you to have it." He pushes the medal into Merlin's hand again. "I know it's nothing, really... But it means something to me. Take it, please." He closes Merlin's fingers around it, and he looks so sincere that Merlin gives in.

"Of course I'll take it if you want me to," he says. "I guess there's not really any difference, since we live together."

"Good."

"What does the inscription say?" Merlin traces it with a finger.

"Transire suum pectus mundoque potiri," Arthur reads in a serious school boy voice. "It's either translated as to pass beyond your understanding and make yourself master of the universe, which does sound a tiny bit pretentious, doesn't it? Or as to rise above oneself and grasp the world, which sounds better."

"... and grasp the world," Merlin repeats. "I like that. That's what we should do."

Arthur laughs, and finally - finally - he pulls Merlin close, and sucks at Merlin's lower lip in that irritating way of his, until Merlin bites back, just a little, so that they're not-quite-kissing.

"I'd rather grasp you," Arthur says between nipping at Merlin's mouth, and his hand hand sneaks in between their bodies to cup the bulge of Merlin's cock. "Don't care about the world. The world can go fuck itself for all I care."

Arthur cursing is always shocking and a bit absurd, and Merlin is caught between hilarity and lust. "Naughty boy," he whispers, fingering Arthur’s mouth. "If you're going to use words like that I'll have to lick that dirty mouth of yours all clean."

And then he grabs Arthur and does, and it's shameless and perfect and leads to other things. It leads to lots of groping and the removing of clothes until they find themselves naked, grinding their bodies together until they come, far too quick and messy.

"I think we'll be happy," Merlin says, when Arthur lies in his arms all heavy and golden and boyish in his afterglow. "We'll buy ourselves a little house with a garden, adopt a cat or two or even some kids. We'll never work more than we need to, and we'll go on adventures together. Maybe we'll go to Spain and try to find my dad... And we'll argue about things which don't really matter, and we'll shout at each other and then we'll make up again and have lots of sweet, kinky sex."

"And we'll grasp the world," Arthur fills in, as if it's terribly important. His voice is drowsy.

Merlin ruffles Arthur's stupid, perfect honey-blond hair and says, "You're my entire world, silly."

But Arthur doesn't hear the heartfelt words; he's already asleep, snoring softly against Merlin's left nipple.

And here this story ends.

+