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Bend Before the Sea

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Thus--with your favor--soft, with a reverent hand,

Bending your beauty aside, with a step I stand

Before the sea, on the firm-packed sand,

Free

 

- The Marshes of Glynn, Sidney Lanier

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What about that one?” she giggled.

Arthur looked the other passenger over. He was huge, flannelette shirt stretched wide over a vast expanse of belly – yet the way he carried himself spoke of years of muscle born of hard work resting beneath the flab. He had a scratchy black beard, a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a hat. All in all, a walking stereotype of a Scottish fisherman. Typical of the Orkneys he supposed.

Which meant he had to be something different. Arthur had only met Gwen a few hours ago whilst waiting for the ferry over to the island, but a couple of rounds of “Guess our fellow passengers” had taught him two things about her:

One, that Gwen had been born and raised on the island, and knew everyone on it, including everyone onboard the ferry.

Two, that Gwen delighted in using this knowledge to point out the biggest stereotypes she could find and giggling as Arthur discovered that, for example, the lanky, pallid man who swore like a sailor that he had pegged for the island junkie turned out to be the island vet, or that Gwen herself, pretty and sweet and surely the local florist in fact ran the local pub.

“Well he looks like a fisherman,” Arthur said, “so he must be a vicar or something.”

Gwen laughed.

“Close but no banana.” She waggled her eyebrows as though giving him a hint.

“He....has suffered a stroke?” he asked, following the contortions of her eyebrows.

Gwen screeched and slapped him.

“I do not look like I’m having a stroke!” she laughed, “how dare you?”

Arthur laughed along with her, to cover his growing nervousness. Her friendly slap had been entirely too familiar, and while Arthur was glad he’d met someone he got along with, he didn’t want to lead her on.

“Um,” he said, “he....is the island homo.”

“No,” Gwen laughed.

“Right,” Arthur said, “that’ll be my job I suppose.”

Gwen’s eyes widened in surprise for a split second before she quickly schooled her features back to normal.

“Right, yeah, need one of those I guess,” she said. Putting on the voice of Matt Bellamy, she said: “you’ll be the only gay in the village!”

“Yay,” Arthur said dryly.

“Sorry,” she said wincing.

“Good thing I didn’t come out for the hot boys,” Arthur said, moodily leaning on the railings of the rocking ferry and looking into the steel grey, foamy water beneath.

“Why did you come out?” she asked. “Not many people do – actually, I can’t remember the last time someone did.”

“So it’s clearly a hive of activity,” Arthur said. He felt disappointed, then stupid. He’d known it was going to be tiny before he’d come here. But he hadn’t been able to stop the fantasy, little as he usually indulged in fantasies, that some quaint island way of life might exist that made the whole place endearing and exotic as opposed to just remote and boring. He’d have a new life as well a new father, and something to distract him from memories of the old one.

“Sorry,” Gwen said again, but she was still watching him, waiting for his answer as to why he’d come out.

Arthur sighed. He liked Gwen, but he’d only just met her – he didn’t want to go into the full story.

“I found out I was adopted,” he said shortly, “and I wanted to meet my birth father.”

“He’s on the island?”

“Yes.”

“What about your birth mother?”

“She died during childbirth apparently. I think that’s why I was given up.”

“Your father’s Uther Pendragon?” she asked in surprise.

Of course. She knew everyone on the island.

“Yes,” he said.

“Oh,” she said delicately and Arthur was filled with trepidation.

“He’s alright isn’t he?” he asked, “he’s not….the island wife beater or something?”

“Oh, no,” Gwen said sincerely, and Arthur’s brief moment of relief was quickly swallowed up by her hesitant pause. “He’s….he prefers his own company. I don’t really know him very well. For someone on the island at least.”

So he was the island recluse then. Well, Arthur could deal with that.

They were silent for a moment while they each stared at the angry ocean beneath the ferry, listening to the shouts of the crew.

“Bloody selkies,” one crew member to their left was saying, eyeing off the grey cloud and rolling sea, “she’ll be a hell of a storm, and that’s just what we don’t need with two trips left to make.”

“I keep tellin’ ya, you piss em off puttin’ your ugly face so close to the water,” the other teased, the first crew member shoving him good-naturedly in return.

“So,” Arthur said turning back to Gwen before the break in conversation between them could grow too awkward, “what does that guy do anyway?” He pointed toward their friend with the belly and the Styrofoam cup at the front of the boat.

“Oh,” Gwen said, “he’s the greengrocer.”

Arthur was stunned. “How was I supposed to get that from your eyebrows?!”

“They weren’t - ! It was the close but no banana expression, get it? Greengrocer?”

“That’s terrible,” Arthur said, “I bet you don’t even get bananas here.”

“Oh shut up.”

ooOOoo

Arthur’s first order of duty was to find a place to stay. He had set aside a whole afternoon for the task (perhaps optimistically; the island didn’t look that large even in the brochure) but suddenly found himself with hours to spare when, after asking Gwen where he should begin his search once they landed, she revealed that the only bed n’ breakfast in town was actually part of the pub, and therefore owned by her.

The ferry docked against a long wooden pier. To the right side of the pier was a lonely white house just before a long craggy finger of rock, the furthest outcrop of a headland. To the left of the pier stretched a wide, grey, stormy bay, bordered at the far end by a high cliff topped by a lighthouse. Along the sea was the short main street, every building facing out onto the open ocean. Spray from the roiling ocean flecked their lower windows. There was little else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Come on,” Gwen said cheerfully, upbeat despite the relentlessly moody grey of the weather. Perhaps it was always like this, and she was just used to it.

She led him to a large white building in the middle of the town.

“Home sweet home,” she said, opening the door and walking inside. It was dark inside the pub – the windows were not large and there was little light outside courtesy of the brewing storm – but homely nonetheless. Everything seemed to be either wooden or red.

“Just have to put my stuff down first, then I’ll show you through,” Gwen said, walking behind the bar and opening a wooden door next to the fridge that led onto a steep staircase.

She collected her bags and disappeared upstairs and Arthur settled onto one of the stools to wait.

He fidgeted around awkardly on the stool for five minutes and then ten. Growing bored, he made to get up but the sound of muffled giggling from the staircase behind the door halted him – Gwen was coming downstairs again.

He waited. Nothing, only more giggling. Frowning, he pulled his watch out when he heard thumping on the steps, growing louder and louder until finally the door flew open with a bang and Gwen ran out giggling, chased by a (rather good-looking, Arthur couldn’t help but notice) man with long brown hair.

Gwaine,” she admonished, out of breath. “Gwaine, we have a guest.”

“Oh,” the man named Gwaine replied, and then with a cheeky grin he scooped her up and dipped her in a display straight out of an old Hollywood classic film. “What do I care?”

“Hi,” Arthur said, struggling to remain patient. “I’m Arthur, I’ll be your paying customer if you’ll let me.”

Gwaine slowly let Gwen back up.

“This is Arthur, he’s staying on the island,” Gwen said unnecessarily. “This is Gwaine, my husband and the local GP.”

“You’re a doctor?” Arthur asked, surprised. He looked like the island biker. So of course he’s a doctor, Arthur mused.

“Degree and everything,” Gwaine said dryly.

“Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that,” Gwen said.

In fact, Arthur had meant it like that, but he wasn’t about to apologise. If he hadn’t apologised to Kay he wasn’t apologising to anyone. “So what brings you to the island then? I’m surprised this place is big enough to need a GP.”

“It’s not really,” Gwaine replied, “But I grew up on the island. Went to uni absolutely stoked to get off it, but I found I missed it after awhile. Certain incentives kept drawing me back,” he grinned at Gwen. “So I set up a clinic.”

“Get much business?”

“Not really, but the missus does alright out of this place, so I got free beer and someone to sponge off. Everything I need really.”

“You won’t have anyone to sponge off if you don’t let me show him where he’s staying,” Gwen said, pulling Arthur through a door much further along that led into a windy courtyard. On the other side of it was a small white cottage, a replica of the pub in miniature.

Arthur followed close behind Gwen as she crossed the courtyard, almost bumping into her as she stopped dead, letting out a loud string of swear words that would have made his Dad blush. Jumping up and down and rubbing her toe, she aimed a kick at an off-centre slab of stone, clearly the culprit, before shoving it back into place and fumbling in her pockets for a big slightly rusty key.

“Now,” she said, stepping in and turning on the light. “It’s not much. One floor. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, sitting room. There’s street access to Gedref Lane through this door down here,” she crossed the sitting room and demonstrated. “I think that’s everything. We can fix you up a late lunch in the pub if you like?”

“No thanks,” Arthur said, “I’ll just get settled in.”

“Right,” Gwen said, “Well come and give us a shout if you need anything.”

Arthur promised her that he would, then shut the door behind her and began unpacking.

Once done, he flopped into the squashy armchair in front of the television with a sigh. Checking his phone for the time, he saw, despite the gathering darkness of the storm, it was only 3 o’clock.

He glanced down to the icon that signified his contact list, a spike of nerves rising through his chest as he opened it and looked up “Uther Pendragon”. He hovered his thumb uncertainly over the call button.

He didn’t know why he was so nervous to meet him. After all, he’d already spoken to him on the phone to arrange this trip. It was still early, he was otherwise unoccupied and he had travelled thousands of miles to do it. Yet now that it had come to the point of it, Arthur found he’d rather double check his unpacking, or perhaps pop into the pub for a pint, and never mind how rude Gwaine was.

He pushed those urges down with a fierce swallow of his throat. Dad – Ector – oh hell he’d been Dad all his life he shouldn’t stop calling him that just because now he had another one – had always proudly declared to anyone who would listen that his youngest son would never chicken out or back down from anything: “He’s a real fighter, in the old fashioned style.”

Arthur could still feel the fond ruffle of his hair that would always come after such a statement.

He pressed call.

“Hello?”

He took a deep breath and gathered his wits and his best “cool and polite” tone of voice.

“Yes, it’s Arthur. I was just calling to let you know I had arrived.”

“Arthur,” Uther said, in a polite and distant voice that Arthur couldn’t help but notice was very similar to his own, “Splendid.”

And then nothing.

Arthur floundered momentarily – “splendid” was, in his experience, the beginning of a sentence not the end of one – as in, “splendid, let’s have lunch,” or “splendid, would you like a cup of tea?” But before he could formulate a polite inquiry into Uther’s health and wellbeing to get the conversation going again, Uther said: “would you like to come around so that I may meet you?”

“Er – “

Arthur quickly snapped his mouth shut before he became too obviously flustered.

“Certainly,” he said, though it was far earlier then he had anticipated meeting him. “I’ll – finish my unpacking first, and then be over shortly.”

“Good,” Uther said. “I live in the house on the other side of the pier from the town, close to the headland.”

“Ok,” Arthur said.  

“See you soon.” Uther hung up.

Arthur stared at his phone incredulously.

Uther’s conversation had been blunt, shorn of all courtesies and small talk when Arthur had first rung him up to say “hi, my Dad died, and when his lawyer was going through his documents afterward, he found out he wasn’t even my dad and guess what you are” but at the time, Arthur had appreciated it. He’d been far too raw for useless niceties. He’d been too raw even to cry. Too much had happened afterward for him to shed even a single tear for his Dad’s death.

He used the door into the lane rather than the one into the pub courtyard to leave the house, and then wandered very slowly up to the main street facing the sea. Nerves made worse by Uther’s abrupt phone manner, Arthur dragged his feet down the street before deciding on the spur of the moment that it was absolutely necessary to take a walk along the pier while he was here, despite the black of the clouds and the pier's unsavoury condition – it was rotting in several places.

Thunder rumbled threateningly as he made his way over the water. What few people were out and about quickly scurried inside, leaving the town deserted.

Arthur lifted the collar of his jacket against the growing wind. He walked resolutely down the pier, reaching the end of it just as the heavens finally opened. The wind kicked up, screaming all around him, almost knocking him over as he turned around to make his way back.

He was soaked within seconds. The rain was so thick and the wind so strong that he could hardly see – it was like a wall of water all around him. He could feel the spray of the ocean as it came tantalisingly close to spilling over the pier.

He walked faster, anxious to be out of the storm, and not a little bit afraid of its ferocity. If anything, it seemed to grow even darker. Arthur sped up again, all his willpower focused on staying upright in the brutal wind and holding himself back from running on the slippery wood, until a massive clap of thunder sounded right beside him and he startled, all control slipping as he broke into a run.

He could hardly see as he ran toward the closest bit of white, which had to be the shore, only to almost run smack into one of the railings on the side of the pier. Grabbed it to steady himself against slipping over after the sudden stop – and the whole world tilted forward as the rotten wood gave way. He windmilled, trying desperately to right himself before he fell off the side, but the wind was against him, pushing like a live thing against his back, and the next thing he knew, he was falling.

The freezing water hit him like a punch to the chest.

The cold knocked the air clean out of his lungs. Winded, Arthur gasped reflexively, and swallowed a mouthful of seawater. Immediately his lungs screamed at him to cough, pulling his chest taut, every muscle tight. His torso curling forward in response, his face pulled closer to the water. Slipping under. No!

He tried desperately to loosen his chest, kick his useless legs, get back up to the surface. The pain in his chest was a vice, squeezing him slowly. He had to cough. But he couldn't. He was underwater. He had to get to the surface first and where was it? Above him, water, around him, water, below him, water, everywhere water. He was lost. His chest was agony. He needed air now.

Swim! He told himself, but the command was nuetralised immediately by another, spoken in his own voice, though he couldn't remember thinking it - you're going to die here. He was sinking. Black spots danced over his eyelids.

His last thought was that if God had his shit together at all, he would send his Dad to come and get him.

ooOOoo

He woke coughing and heaving to the feel of someone’s mouth on his.  Arthur felt them scramble quickly out of the way as he struggled to sit up, coughs racking his body.

“Lean forward,” they said, putting an arm under his to help him up. “Lean forward, lean forward, lean forward....”

Arthur got partway up before turning his head to vomit seawater all over the sand.

The stranger grabbed his arms and pulled until he was sitting totally upright and then sat with a hand on his back while Arthur choked and coughed until he could finally control himself enough to stop.

He was soaking wet and freezing. Shivering, Arthur looked up to behold his rescuer....and saw a pale, skinny man roughly his own age, black-haired and completely naked.

Arthur started and quickly looked away.

“Are you alright?” the man asked, apparently totally unconcerned by his own nudity.

“Er – yes, thank you. What happened?”

“You were drowning, so I rescued you,” the man said matter-of-factly.

“Oh,” Arthur said, turning back toward the man and very carefully positioning his head so that he could see only his face. “Well – thank you. I don’t....thank you. I can’t begin to think of how I can repay you.”

“That’s alright,” the man said, standing up. “I don’t need payment.”

He turned away from him, out toward the sea, so Arthur chanced to look at him again. He appeared to be scanning the beach for something.

Perhaps his clothes, Arthur thought in sudden inspiration, he must have taken them off to rescue me so they wouldn’t weigh him down in the water.

The realisation left him feeling a whole lot more comfortable with his rescuer.

“Listen,” Arthur said, teeth chattering from the cold, “I’d be delighted if you came back to where I’m staying after you get your clothes. A cup of tea and a biscuit and you can warm up. It’s the very least I can do.”

“No thank you,” the man said.

“What’s your name?” Arthur pressed, struggling into a standing position.

“Merlin.”

“I’m Arthur,” Arthur said, holding out a hand. Merlin’s eyes flicked from the outstretched hand to Arthur’s face several times, before he finally extended his own. Arthur shook it. Merlin watched the handshake with a frown; and then all of a sudden, like the sun breaking through the clouds, he smiled.

“I always wondered why people do this,” he said, and then immediately stiffened. “I didn’t mean to say that,” he blurted, looking a little fearful.

Arthur laughed. “It’s ok. I’ve never seen two people shake hands in the freezing rain while one of them is naked before or I’m sure I would have wondered why people do it too.”

Merlin’s face relaxed into a tentative smile.

“So –“ Arthur started, but before he could finish, a shout rang out through the storm like a gunshot.

SELKIE!!”

Merlin and Arthur both jumped and turned to see a middle-aged man with grey hair and a scar on the right side of his forehead pointing an accusing finger at them both.

Merlin visibly paled and gripped Arthur’s arm with all the force of a closing vice.

Arthur looked at Merlin’s fearful face in confusion, but before he could wonder at his terror, the man charged straight at them like an oncoming bull.

“Sir!” Arthur shouted as commandingly as he could, squaring his shoulders. “What –“ but before he could finish his sentence, the man reached into his back pocket and pulled out a gun.

Arthur immediately raised his arms on an instinct born of watching too many cop movies, and cursed himself for the fool that he was when the man pointed it straight at Merlin.

“Scum,” the man said with deadly seriousness.

Merlin dropped immediately to his knees.

He didn’t beg, cry, whimper or plead. He simply rested on his knees, with his shoulders straight and his face open and said: “Please.”

The man’s face only darkened further. Arthur quickly stepped between the two of them, facing the man with his palms held outward.

“Listen,” he started and then hesitated. What should he say? The man was obviously crazy; reasoning was unlikely to get through to him. He decided to go for authoritative instead.

“Put the gun down,” he said, trying his best to sound commanding, despite the fear pounding through his system.

The man’s attention slid from Merlin to Arthur.

“Who are you?” he asked bluntly, and Arthur thought there was something familiar about his voice.

“That is unimportant,” Arthur said, not letting himself be distracted. He held the man’s gaze and took a step forward, trying to force the man to take one back, away from Merlin. “Put the gun down right now sir.”

The man stood his ground, glaring right back at Arthur. Well if it was a staring contest he wanted, that was fine by Arthur. This man only needed to ask Kay how good he was at those.

Arthur stared right at him and said as slowly and wilfully as he could: “Put. The gun. Down.”

Very stiffly, as though involuntarily, the man took a tiny step back.

Yes!

But Arthur’s victory was short-lived: out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of movement as Merlin decided to take advantage of the man’s distraction and try to make a bolt for it.

Don’t!” he screamed, but it was too late; the man had seen. Arthur flung an arm out to try to grab him, end this physically if he had to, but the man danced beneath Arthur’s outstretched arm, aimed wildly at Merlin, and fired.

Merlin dropped like a stone.

No!”

The man was smiling, lifting his gun again....

Without thinking, Arthur ran at him and rugby tackled him to the ground. They hit the sand heavily, gun flying out of the madman’s hand, and for the second time that day, the wind was knocked out of Arthur’s lungs. Time narrowed to a single second, as Arthur lay face down on the sand, watching as the man used that one second to slowly put his hands either side of himself, and begin to lift himself up.

But then his mouth was opening and air was pouring into his lungs and time sped up again as oxygen flooded his muscles and they switched on like an engine. Scrambling up as fast as he could, Arthur jumped at the man as he tried to reach his gun and knocked him down to the sand. Lying with his full weight on him, Arthur stretched until the tips of his fingers just grazed the handle of the gun. Acting fast, he pulled it in, hauled himself to his feet and pointed it square in the middle of the older man’s back.

“Don’t move!” he commanded. His ears were ringing with fear and adrenaline. He could hardly believe he was pointing a gun at someone.

The man obediently stretched his arms out on the sand, slowly lifting his head to smirk at Arthur.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I got him. He can’t swim like that.”

Arthur allowed himself the briefest of glances in Merlin’s direction.

He was sitting upright, cradling his right hand against his chest. It was streaming blood down his wrist.

Arthur’s blood ran cold. What did it mean to be shot in the hand? Was it like having your wrists cut open, would Merlin bleed to death? He needed an ambulance, but Arthur couldn’t call one – his phone would be useless courtesy of his earlier adventure in the water, and in any case he didn’t even know if there would be an ambulance on the island.

But there is a doctor, he thought suddenly, remembering. Gwaine.

But how could he run to the pub without leaving Merlin alone with this lunatic?

There was nothing else for it.

“Up,” he said fiercely, waving the gun at the man.

The man stared him.

Up, get up!” Arthur screamed. He was shaking now, with cold or adrenaline he didn’t know.

The man rose slowly to his feet.  

“Walk,” Arthur commanded, pointing at the main street, and amazingly, the man obeyed without fuss. Perhaps he thought he’d already achieved his aim of killing someone. Arthur pushed the thought immediately out of his head.

“I’m coming back Merlin,” he said in as clear a voice as he could manage, praying Merlin would hear him over the storm. He could not afford to turn around and take his eyes off the man in front. “I’m coming back and I will bring you help.”

ooOOoo

The three patrons Gwen was serving at the bar promptly screamed and dropped to the floor when Arthur entered, pushing the man by the scruff of his collar and waving a gun.

Arthur!” shouted Gwen, apparently also unable to resist the movie-instilled urge to raise her hands when she saw a gun. “What –“

“You need to call the police,” Arthur said, shoving the man forward, “and you need to fetch Gwaine, there’s a man on the beach who’s been shot in the hand, he needs help.”

Gwen covered her mouth. “Who –

“He’s bleeding really badly,” Arthur cut her off pointedly.

Gwen immediately moved to do as he commanded. Arthur waited until he saw Gwaine run out the door with a medical bag in one hand, followed furtively by the other patrons of the pub, before shoving the man onto a bar stool and collapsed wearily into one opposite, holding the gun half-heartedly aimed at his chest.

Gwen hovered uncertainly behind the bar, worry written clearly all over her face. She knew everyone on the island. Was she friends with Merlin? Had they grown up together, joked together, would she have to tend to his chores while his hand healed, stand over his coffin because Arthur hadn't got Gwaine out there fast enough? He wanted to say something to her, but he couldn't. He felt like someone had pulled a giant plug in the middle of his soul, and all the adrenaline of the fight and the energy it carried was draining out of him, leaving nothing but the exhaustion of nearly drowning behind. He couldn't do anything, but try to point the gun at completely impassive madman opposite him. The three of them sat in silence until it was broken by a police siren.

Utterly exhausted, he let the gun fall as the doors opened to admit a tall, slim, blond haired man with long hair and a scruffy strawberry-blond beard.

“Leon,” Gwen said, running over to him.

Leon's expression upon entering the pub was one of total surprise. He stared blatantly at Arthur and the madman before finally settling his gaze on the gun on the floor. He gaped at it, as though he couldn't believe guns were actually real, before drawing himself up, puffing out his chest and saying in his best impression of Reggie from The Bill: “What’s going on here?”

“This man shot someone on the beach by the pier,” Arthur said. “I tackled him, took his gun, and brought him here to await arrest and sent Gwaine to the injured man for help.”

“Wow! Thanks!” Leon said. Arthur stared at him incredulously. Leon immediately straightened up again.

“I’m going to have to take you both down to the station for statements,” he said, in a deeper voice.

“I’ll give you my statement right here Leon. Man was a selkie,” the madman said.

Leon looked temporarily dismayed by this statement, probably wondering (Arthur thought) what on earth he would do with a mad prisoner. Valiantly he wrenched his professional expression back onto his face and said: “Er – be that as it may, we should probably do this one by the book Uther. I’m going to have to take you down to the station.”

Arthur felt himself winded for the third time that day.

Uther?

“So, Uther’ll go first and you can wait here where it’s more comfortable till I come for you ok?” Leon said, leading the older man out.

Arthur didn’t reply. He couldn’t even if he wanted to. Gwen was watching him pityingly, and in that look, he saw the truth of the situation confirmed.

“Uther Pendragon?” he said as soon as the door was closed.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

“You could’ve warned me he was the island madman!” Arthur shouted. He felt exhausted, wobbly, like a building that had had its foundations ripped out and was waiting to fall. One father dead and a liar and the other insane. There would be no new life for him here, nothing to replace everything that had been ripped away from him when Ector died.

“He’s not,” Gwen said quietly, “Well, I mean – he’s never been like this. He’s never hurt anyone before. He just never really spoke to anyone that was all.”

“Yeah well now we know why,” Arthur said bitterly. Tears were stinging behind his eyes, but he didn’t shed them. Now, as then, he had no time to cry.

“I’m going to get changed into dry clothes,” he said. “Shout for me if Leon or Gwaine return.”

ooOOoo

Gwaine was the first back, Gwen announcing it through Arthur’s door almost immediately after he had finished tugging a shirt over his head.

The worry in her voice told him something was very wrong.

He ran across the courtyard and wrenched open the door to the pub. Gwaine was drying his rain-soaked hair with a towel Gwen had given him, while Gwen rubbed his back.

“Well?” Arthur asked.

Gwaine shook his head.

“There was no one there,” he said.

“What?!” Arthur said.

“I looked and looked. I could see a patch of blood on the sand that must have been where he was, and a few spots of blood here and there up the beach, but apart from that, nothing. He’d left. I thought he must have gone to get my help, but I went to the clinic and there were no signs of anyone having been there.”

“He must have returned home in a panic or something,” Gwen said. “We need to make a house call. Arthur who actually saved you? Did he tell you his name?”

“Merlin,” Arthur said.

Both Gwen and Gwaine frowned in puzzlement.

“Who?” Gwen asked.

“Merlin,” Arthur repeated. He received only more blank looks, so he elaborated. “You know, young, skinny, black hair, blue eyes....can’t tell you what he was wearing though.”

“There’s no one like that on the island....” Gwen said.

“He must have arrived on the ferry with us,” Arthur said.

“You were the only new arrival to the island on the ferry,” Gwen said. “You’ve been the only new arrival for years.”

“Well there must have been someone else on the ferry then. We can’t have seen everyone,” Arthur said, but Gwen was sharing a Look with Gwaine. Arthur had no idea what was being communicated, but he knew enough of sharing looks like that to know that whatever they were silently discussing, he was being left out.

“Hey,” he said, “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Gwaine said, turning away from Gwen and toward Arthur. “I better leave and wait in the clinic in case he does show up later.”

Arthur waited by the bar, refusing Gwen’s offer of a cup of tea, until Leon showed up.

“Ready for you,” the blond man said.

Arthur followed him five big white buildings down the street until Leon led him through a door in the last one into a tiny reception room. There were two chairs and a desk separated from them by a glass screen. Over the glass was written “Police”.

Leon led him down a hall past the desk and through a door on the right. Inside was a desk on one side and a small cell on the other.

And inside the cell, sitting on the edge of the tiny bed with his hands resting on his knees, was Uther.

Was it the knowledge that this man was his father that made him look so different? On the beach he had seemed crazed, dangerous, and Arthur could have sworn that his eyes were wide and bulging. Now, his eyes were normal, his expression one of perfect calm. The set of his shoulders, the straightness of his back and the focus of his gaze seemed to radiate authority – not the kind exhibited by those in actual positions of power, but the kind exhibited by the especially charismatic, those who knew they would always get what they wanted, and if they didn’t they could make it so.

Uther looked up, glance keen, and Arthur quickly looked away.

“Now,” Leon said, leading him over to the desk.

“Er...” Arthur said, looking at Uther. “Shouldn’t we be doing this somewhere else?”

“Only cell and interview room we have I’m afraid,” Leon said, “It’s just this and reception. Anyway, he won’t bother us. Now...” he switched on a tape recorder.

Arthur told him everything, beginning with Merlin rescuing him from drowning, though he neglected to mention why he was on the pier in the first place, with Uther himself within hearing distance.

“And,” Arthur said, once he had finished. “There’s something else you need to know. You need to put out a search for this man; he’s missing.”

Leon looked startled, at Arthur’s ordering him about or at the news Merlin was missing, Arthur didn’t know. He recounted everything Gwaine had told him, then settled back in his chair.

“Right,” Leon said, with a strange look on his face. “I’ll – er – get on that, right away.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur said immediately, mistrusting Leon’s hesitancy.

Uther chuckled. “He’s got a damn sight more sense than you son. He’s island born and bred, he recognises the signs of a selkie when he hears them. Not going to waste his time on a manhunt for it is he?”

Arthur rankled at the term “son”, though whether Uther knew the truth of whom he was or simply used the term generically, Arthur didn’t know.

“You need to shut up about crazy myths and start worrying about prison,” he said, but Leon was looking supremely uncomfortable at Uther’s statement, and Arthur’s blood ran cold.

“You don’t believe him do you?!” he asked, while Uther laughed again. “You are going to put out a search for him?”

“Of course,” Leon said immediately, smoothing his expression. “Of course I will. Now, that is the end of your statement?”

Arthur nodded, waiting while Leon fiddled with paperwork and the recorder.

“Oh, and I’ll need a name. Should’ve asked that earlier,” Leon said sheepishly.

“Reginald,” Arthur said sarcastically, drawing out his chair. “Can I go?”

Leon looked surprised, but nodded, and let him leave without trying to stop him.

Don’t suppose he needs to chase my name for a statement he’s going to do nothing about anyway, Arthur thought, storming furiously down the street.

He could hardly believe that Leon would let a man wander about wounded without looking for him. Was the whole island insane? Were they all that ridiculous, did they all believe in selkies and mermaids and god knew what else?

Arthur stopped in his tracks, suddenly remembering the strange look that had passed between Gwen and Gwaine when he’d insisted Merlin must have come to the island on the same boat that brought him.

Surely they didn’t....but what if they did? Was Gwaine truly waiting in his clinic in case an injured Merlin made his way to him? What if he hadn’t even looked for him down at the beach?

Fear sped his heart, travelling through his blood until it was twisting his feet down to the pier before he even knew what was happening.

“Merlin!” he shouted, when he hit the sand. “Merlin!”

He could see at a glance that the beach was indeed empty, but he refused to give up and leave his rescuer to die because of the superstitions of a bunch of crazy islanders.

He ran to where he’d last seen Merlin, finding a faint patch of blood on the sand, though it had nearly been washed away by rain. He walked up and down the beach, but there was no sign of him. Knowing he would already have been spotted if he’d gone into town, Arthur made his way over to the rocky headland.

Should I really be doing this? he thought, looking at the powerful swell crashing against the rocks, ready to drag him out to sea at the slightest slip.

He couldn’t see why Merlin would come this way, unless he was trying to make his way around the headland for some reason.

Sighing, Arthur began scrambling down the rocks, but it was no good; he only got a hundred meters or so of carefully picking his way through before it became clear that any further rock he could walk on was currently being pounded by the storm-swell.

He turned around and made his way back toward the sand. He was walking over the final few rocks when his right foot abruptly slid down the rock, and wedged itself in a small crevasse. Reaching down to yank it out, he saw he had slipped over something small and brown, whose shape he couldn’t make out.

He crouched down and touched it. It felt thick, like a wetsuit, but vaguely slimy. He picked it up and held it out.

It looked like an animal skin.

Against his will, Arthur remembered the way Merlin had been scanning the beach looking for something before Uther had interrupted them. Weren’t selkies supposed to be seals that could turn into humans by shedding their skin?

Now you’re going crazy, he thought sternly. Even if it is a seal skin, that doesn’t make selkies real.

He couldn’t think of any natural way an animal would come to lose its entire skin, which meant it couldn’t be an animal skin, seal or otherwise. Whatever it was, it was useless.

Nevertheless, Arthur was hesitant to put it down.

Looking left and right for signs of anyone to observe him, Arthur rolled up the smelly, slimy thing and put it under his arm as best he could, and made his way back to Gwen’s pub.

He used the Gedref Lane entrance to his cottage so he wouldn’t be seen, though what he was afraid of being caught doing he had no idea.

He shook the thing out once safely inside. In the small, warm space its smell was even more pronounced, so Arthur filled the bathtub with water and dumped it in.

Then he donned his raincoat, and went back outside to resume the search for Merlin.

ooOOoo

Come nightfall, Arthur had to concede defeat, and admit that Gwaine hadn’t been lying when he’d said he couldn’t find Merlin.

He ate dinner in the pub that night, too tired and lazy to cook his own. He could feel Gwen watching him, sadness and pity in her eyes, but he didn’t want to discuss either Uther or Merlin so he ate without saying much and took his leave as soon as his plate was clean.

He collapsed into the squashy armchair and switched on the television, settling on one of the bad reality shows that Kay loved out of habit.

You know who’s gonna win don’t you Wart? He could almost his brother say, watching various contestants of Britain’s Got Talent strut around a stage.

Guilt squirmed in Arthur’s belly like a dozen wriggling worms. Arthur quickly switched the television off, leaving no sound in the house but the loud ticking of a clock on the mantelpiece and the ghosts inside his head.

He could almost see them, memories made corporeal, his father as he’d last been, grey-bearded, happy and still entirely his father, no half-crazed men with scars and guns vying for the position as well, and Kay, Kay as he’d last been, angry and in tears, you don’t know what you’re saying Wart, but Arthur did, it was Kay who didn’t understand, it was Kay’s fault, he wasn’t going to think about it, he didn’t need -

Boom, boom, boom, sounded from the other side of the sitting room, doom, doom, doom.

Arthur jumped halfway out of his chair, but when he listened again, it was only a rapping on the door, tap, tap, tap, on the door to Gedref Lane.

Taking a breath to calm his racing heart, Arthur squared his shoulders, paused to collect  himself, and then marched across the room, yanked the door open and there, pale, bloody and soaking wet, was Merlin.

“Give...do you have my...” he wheezed out, and collapsed.

Arthur stared at his pale, naked, bloody body uselessly for several seconds before the realisation It’s Merlin! He needs help! kicked his brain into gear like a jump lead and he was acting so fast he barely had time to process what was happening.

Arthur scooped Merlin up, and lay him on the sofa, then ran to the hall cupboard to find some blankets.

Tucking him hastily in, he ran to the pub as fast as he could ever remember running in his life and pounded non-stop on the door until it opened.  

“He’s back,” he said, as soon as Gwen had opened the door, “Merlin’s back, Gwaine has to see to his hand. He’s on my sofa.”

He raced back to the cottage, and plucked Merlin’s mangled hand as gently as he could from beneath the blankets, for Gwaine to have a look at when he arrived.

Arthur heard the sound of knocking and jumped up to admit Gwaine into the cottage.  Gwaine stopped as soon as he stepped inside, and sniffed at the air.

“You got some fish in here or something?” he asked.

“What?” Arthur said blankly before remembering, “Oh, no, that’s just something I found on the beach. Here...”

He led him over to Merlin. Gwaine walked over far too slowly for Arthur’s liking.

“What did you find on the beach?” he asked.

“Just some little brown thing, does it matter?? Look at his hand!”

Gwaine put down his medical bag, and removed a set of gloves, instructing Arthur to boil the kettle. Once it was done, he gently bathed the hand, and inspected it.

“It was a clean shot through the palm so no damage to the rest of his hand. Most of the bones in the palm have been shattered,” he said, “He’ll need to go to hospital to get them rearranged properly by a surgeon. He’s lost a lot of blood, but plenty of rest, food and water and he should be fine on that account. Other than that, he just needs stitches.”

“Where’s the nearest hospital?” Arthur asked.

“The mainland, but the ferry doesn’t leave till morning,” Gwaine replied.

“Well can you deal with his broken bones as best you can then?” Arthur said.

Gwaine sighed. “If I do it, it won’t turn out well. I’m not a surgeon.”

“No but he needs stitches pretty much now right? I mean look how much blood he’s lost!”

“It’s clotted as best it can, but yeah, hole like this, location like this, yes he needs stitches now,” Gwaine said.

“Then do it!” Arthur said.

Gwaine groaned and rubbed his face with his palms. Arthur glared at him.

“Ah fuck it,” he relented, “Who needs full use of both hands anyway. Pull me over that coffee table will you, I need a bench. And – no stop – stop you have to disinfect it first, Jesus fuck.”

Arthur pulled out every cleaning product the cottage had and set to work on the coffee table while Gwaine filled a syringe with something. Merlin moaned.

“He’s awake?” Arthur asked.

“He’s been drifting in and out of it for awhile now,” Gwaine replied calmly.

“But he was unconscious!”

“People only stay unconscious for more than a minute or so in the movies,” Gwaine said with an eyeroll. “But this should keep him asleep for awhile.”

“What is it?” Arthur asked. “Anaesthetic?”

“Christ do I look like an anaesthesiologist to you?” Gwaine said. “It’s morphine. Now you got that coffee table ready yet Nurse or what?”

Arthur scowled at the “Nurse”, making Gwaine smirk, but he nonetheless obediently pulled it over against the sofa and Gwaine rested Merlin’s outstretched arm on it.

“You ready?” Gwaine said seriously.

“Me?” Arthur squawked.

“Can’t hold his arm steady and work on his hand,” Gwaine said. “You got this?”

Arthur swallowed.

“Yeah,” he said, “Yeah I got this.”

Holding Merlin’s arm, he forced himself not to look away as Gwaine pulled out what looked like a pair of tweezers and a small metal pin, lined up Merlin’s hand and dived in.

It was a tense few hours. Gwaine shouted orders at Arthur for everything from “hold his thumb down” to “get me the smallest pin – no not that pin the other one Christ – well don’t get angry at me he’s your mate!” Arthur obeyed as best he could without hesitation, even forgetting to be annoyed by Gwaine calling him “Nurse”.

Finally, finally, the last stitch pierced the skin and Gwaine pulled it closed, tied it up, and snipped the rest of the string with an audible crow of triumph. Arthur collapsed back into his seat watching Gwaine bandage it up.

“Now,” Gwaine said, “I obviously don’t have plaster. So I’ve tied this up as tightly as I can and his arm’ll have to be in a sling for awhile, but make sure he doesn’t move it. At all.”

“Ok,” Arthur croaked, exhausted.

Gwaine laughed.

“Not bad for your first time Nurse,” he said.

“Can’t call me that now, surgery’s over Doctor,” Arthur said with half a smile.

“Princess then,” Gwaine said, standing up.

Arthur glared and Gwaine laughed, which he knew meant he was “Princess” from now to eternity.

“Come on Princess, work isn’t over yet. We’ve gotta clean all this blood off him now, can’t leave him to sleep in it.”

Arthur groaned.

“Come on,” Gwaine said, wetting a facecloth and throwing it at him, “fill us up a bowl of water.”

“We’re not putting him in the bath?”

“If you wanna carry him there we are,” Gwaine said, which was more than good enough for Arthur. He filled a bowl with warm water and helped Gwaine wipe all the blood from Merlin’s chest and arm, though when Gwaine started to roll the blankets down further, Arthur blushed and asked if Gwaine could finish the rest by himself.

Gwaine rolled his eyes at him and asked him to go and fetch some spare clothes and cleaned the rest of Merlin and dressed him himself.

There was silence after that, nothing but the sound of the clock again, as Gwaine began to pack up. Arthur watched without seeing as he cleaned all his tools in a plastic tub of boiling water from the kettle.

“What happens now?” he asked softly. “There’s no hospital or other B&B on this island, does he just stay here to recover?”  

Gwaine’s hands slowed as he moved the last item from the sink to the bench.

“Arthur,” he said finally, turning around and looking at him square in the eye. “Show me this thing you found on the beach.”

So Arthur led him to the bathroom, where the thing was still floating in a tub of now freezing water, forgotten.

“It’s just – I dunno, a thing,” he said, quietly. He felt afraid, though he could not say why. Or perhaps he could, he just didn’t want to.

I always wondered why people do this.  

“Uh huh,” Gwaine sound, crouching by the tub. He put his hand in. “Animal skin,” he said.

Who had ever wondered that? Who said that?

“Right,” Arthur said.

“Seal skin,” Gwaine said, picking it up.

Give...do you have my....

“Could be any skin,” Arthur retorted.

“No, it’s definitely seal. See?” He spread it out on the floor and arranged it with the limbs pointing outwards and the head facing forwards, and now that it was like that, it did look like a seal.

Arthur had nothing to say.  

For the first time, Gwaine’s look was somewhat gentle.

“Arthur,” he said, “I know you’re new to the island and this must seem impossible, but even you must know it’s his.”

“But...” Arthur said. Stupidly, he felt tears prick behind his eyes. For some reason, he couldn’t bear the idea that Uther was right. First Uther was going to be a saviour, then he was a nutjob now he might be only partly crazy? What did he do with that? It had been too long a day for this. Arthur decided to put all that out of his mind and focus on the problem at hand.

“Alright,” he said, quickly blinking away the prickling feeling in his eyes, “Alright, he’s a selkie. What do I do?”

“Give him the skin,” Gwaine said immediately.

Arthur’s mouth fell open. “What?  Youtold me not to let him move his hand at all! What’s he going to do if he gets the skin, jump into the ocean and start swimming around? How is that good for him?”

“Look,” Gwaine said. “I’m not a vet. I can’t say how a shot in the flipper would affect a seal, but I do know human hands are a lot more complex than seal flippers and it would probably take longer for him to heal in this state. And anyway, if the wound transfers from hand to flipper, wouldn’t the surgery transfer as well? He’ll be fine.”

“I can’t believe you’re telling me to just let him go when he’s injured after all we’ve done tonight to help him!”

“Arthur,” Gwaine said seriously, “Listen to me. He looks human but he’s not. Selkies have no love for the land. He won’t thank you for keeping him here. We’ve done the best we can for him, let’s just leave it.”

“He saved my life,” Arthur said stubbornly, “I can’t just let him die. I’m sorry, but I’m not giving him the skin until his hand is fully healed.”

He folded his arms and set his jaw in the way that would always make his Dad cave to his wishes, because he knew nothing he did would make Arthur change his mind.

Ugh,” Gwaine said, throwing up his hands. “Fine whatever.  He’s just gonna grab the skin and be gone within a few minutes of waking up anyway you know that right?”

“So where should I hide the skin?” Arthur asked.

Gwaine groaned. “I’ve already helped you out tonight you know Princess.”

“I know,” Arthur said, trying to look grateful and puppy-eyed at the same time. “And I appreciate it, I really do. Thanks Gwaine. You don’t need to do anything further. I’m sure I can figure the rest out by myself.”

“Exactly,” Gwaine said, but Arthur continued trying to look pathetic and Gwaine’s stoic expression crumbled almost at once.

“Ok,” Gwaine sighed in defeat, “Ok. Fine. First thing our selkie’s going to do when he wakes up is look for his skin, and the last thing he’s going to do before he sleeps is look for his skin, and all his day in between will be looking for his skin. A selkie’s one true love is the sea, he won’t ever stop trying to get back to it. So when you hide the skin, it’s not under your bed or in your top cupboard you get me? It’s somewhere really good.”

“Ok,” Arthur said, “then what?”

“Make sure he doesn’t move the hand and gets plenty of rest, however much he complains about it. Try and keep him entertained or distracted so he’s not looking for the skin and injuring himself. He needs antibiotics so he doesn’t get an infection, and painkillers, I’ll give you both of those. He needs plenty of food and water – seriously, make sure he’s drinking a lot, he needs fluid to replenish his blood ok?”

“Ok,” Arthur said, nodding.

“And check his bandages every day, they’ll need changing. While you’re doing that, have a look at the wound, see how it’s going. Selkies are magical creatures, they might heal differently from us, I dunno. Just check on it.”

“Got it,” Arthur said.

Gwaine shook his head at him, muttering words like “mental” and “idiot”, before leaving the bathroom, and unpacking from his medical bag a host of pill bottles into Arthur’s hands, with instructions as to how Merlin should take them.  

With a final shake of his head at Arthur, he was gone.

Arthur immediately went back to the bathroom, let the water of the tub, and picked up the skin. Where to hide it?

He thought briefly of maybe climbing up into the roof, but didn’t like the idea of any rats that might be up in there getting to it. He opened a few cupboards at random, but quickly dismissed the idea of hiding it anywhere inside the house.

He had the whole island to hide it in he supposed, but he didn’t want it too far from where he could keep an eye on it.

Finally, he went outside into the courtyard. It was largely stone, with a few tables and chairs, offering even fewer hiding places than the house. Frustrated, he kicked out, and his stubbed his toe on the same loose slab that had already claimed Gwen’s. Cursing, he hopped up and down....and stopped, thinking.

He walked over to the slab, pulled it and yes – the whole thing lifted cleanly away.

Where to find a spade? He dashed over to the only door in the courtyard that didn’t lead to the pub or his cottage and tried it, revealing a small shed. Working quickly, he lifted the slab and dug into the earth beneath. Then he ran into the house, put the skin into a garbage bag, that garbage bag into another garbage bag just in case, and tied the whole lot as tight as he could. He placed it carefully into the hole he had dug, replaced the stone and swept the whole courtyard to hide any evidence of his work.

Then he returned inside, collapsed into the armchair by the sofa, and sank quickly into an exhausted sleep.

ooOOoo

He woke the next day to the sound of kitchen cupboards being opened and closed.

“Wha...”

Opening his eyes, he looked over to the small kitchen area and saw Merlin using his good hand to feel around a cupboard that was too high for him to see into properly.

“Merlin!” he said.

Merlin jumped.

“Good morning,” he said uneasily.

Arthur yanked off his blankets and ran over to the kitchen.

“How’s your hand?” he asked.

It was a good thing Gwaine had already put it in a sling. Merlin had wasted no time in getting up and about.

“It’s fine, thank you for tending to it,” Merlin said politely.

“Oh no, that wasn’t me, that was –“

“I saw you at the beach yesterday,” Merlin interrupted.

“You were there?”

“I was hiding,” Merlin said, still in a very formal, polite tone of voice. “From Uther and....any others that arrived. I thought it safest to hide and wait until dark to leave.”

“Oh,” Arthur said. “Well –“

“But I saw you arrive, and pick something up and leave with it. Do you still have it? Just...wondering what it was.”

He was a terrible liar.

“Merlin,” Arthur said gently. “I know you’re a selkie.”

Merlin stiffened and immediately took a step back.

“But, it’s ok, I don’t care, I have nothing against selkies, I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, holding his hands out palm up.

Merlin flicked his eyes down at Arthur’s hands and back up again, relaxing slightly, reminding Arthur irresistibly of when they had first met and he offered Merlin a handshake.

“Then you have it,” Merlin breathed, eyes shining, “You have my skin?”

“Yes,” Arthur said, seeing little point in lying.

Merlin’s face lit up. “Can I have it please?”

“I....Merlin, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to do anything but rest until your hand is healed.”

Merlin’s expression immediately closed. “What?” he said in a hard voice.  

“Listen, you need to heal. And once you have, I will give you back your skin and you can be on your way I promise.”

Merlin looked at him incredulously. “So, until then, what am I expected to do, simply stay here with you?”

“If that’s alright,” Arthur said, a bit worried and not a little offended at Merlin’s poor reaction.  

Merlin chewed his lip a moment. Finally, he said hesitantly: “So I stay with you?”

“You stay with me,” Arthur confirmed.

“And we can practise our handshakes?” he said hopefully.

“Er – yeah, we can have another handshake,” Arthur said.

Merlin smiled nervously, and reached out a hand. Arthur extended his….and then abruptly, Merlin snaked his hand past Arthur’s and slapped him upside the head.

“GIVE ME MY SKIN!” he demanded.

Arthur gripped the side of his head.

“You slapped me!” he said in shock.

“Yes I did,” Merlin said, looking pleased with himself.

“I saved you!” Arthur said crossly.

“No I saved you,” Merlin said, “And you said you wanted to repay me. Well I want my skin. That’s my repayment.”

Part of Arthur wanted to give Merlin his stupid skin and tell him to shove it. The other part was impressed with the way he’d slapped him. Begrudging admiration for Merlin’s sneakiness won out.

“Look,” Arthur said, “I’m not doing this for shits and giggles. That’s a serious wound. I had you looked at by a doctor, and if you leave now and start....I don’t know, swimming around –“

Merlin made a face.

“ - or whatever it is you do all day,” Arthur continued impatiently, “Then there’s every chance you’ll open up your wound it’ll either bleed out or become infected.”

Arthur paused for a moment to let Merlin absorb the full implications of that.

“You saved my life, and you’re right, I owe you repayment for that,” he went on, “This is my repayment. I’m helping you the way you did me. So you can try and find your skin, but you won’t.”

Merlin bristled, but Arthur folded his arms and matched him glare for glare until Merlin looked away, resentful.

“You have to take an antibiotic now that you’re awake, and you have to eat to take one,” Arthur said triumphantly, “So you might as well sit down I’ll make you breakfast.”

Merlin trooped back to the sofa and flopped into it, hissing at the pain when the action jarred his hand. He glared at Arthur as though it were his fault.

“What do you like for breakfast?” Arthur asked, ignoring it.

“I don’t know,” Merlin replied mulishly.

“Come on Merlin we’ll be staying with each other a few days yet, make at least a little effort.”

“I don’t know!” Merlin insisted. “I’ve never eaten breakfast.”

Arthur paused in the action of opening the pantry.

“You’ve never eaten breakfast?” he said.

“I’ve never eaten in this form,” Merlin said.

Arthur’s jaw dropped. “You’ve never eaten in this format all?  Why not?”

Merlin shrugged. “Never stayed in it long enough.”

Great. What did one feed a petulant, ungrateful selkie who was effectively eating for the first time?

“Well I like porridge,” Arthur said, “Would you like to try that?”

Merlin assented in a way that made it clear he couldn’t care less whether he was eating porridge or human shit, so Arthur made two bowls and tried not to imagine himself strangling him.

 “Ok,” Arthur said, putting the porridge on a tray and bringing it over to Merlin, “So, you use the spoon, like this...”

“I know how to use a spoon,” Merlin said rolling his eyes, “I may not have eaten myself but I have seen people do it.”

“Right,” Arthur said, gritting his teeth, “I’ll just leave you to it then.”

He sat down in the armchair to eat his porridge instead of taking it to the table however. He couldn’t help but be curious about how Merlin would like his very first human meal.

Merlin very awkwardly balanced the spoon in his left hand. Too late, Arthur realised he should have helped him, but there was nothing he could do about it now. Merlin brought it up to his lips and chewed very slowly.

Arthur watched with baited breath.

“Is all food like this?” Merlin asked, face screwed up.

Arthur let out a groan.

“Well if you’re not happy that it’s so unsatisfying you should give me my skin and let me hunt for myself!” Merlin snapped.

“No,” Arthur said quickly. He stormed over and snatched away the bowl. “I’ll find you something else.”

So Arthur brought him bacon, and Merlin complained about the texture. Arthur brought him eggs, and Merlin declared them flavour-less. Arthur brought him kippers, and Merlin said his human tongue ruined the taste of good fish.

“No,” Merlin said, rolling the fried tomato around his mouth. “It tastes strange, take it away.”

Arthur took the plate with one hand, balling the other into a fist in his pocket so he couldn’t grab the plate two-handed and bring it down on Merlin’s head. At this point it would almost be easier to just give in and hand Merlin his skin.

“Something wrong Arthur?” Merlin asked lightly, face the very picture of innocence, but his eyes were glittering with mischief, and in that sparkle Arthur read his intent as plainly as if were written on his face.

Fool! He’d almost fallen prey to Merlin’s conniving again. Arthur cursed Merlin’s cunning even as a small, treacherous part of him admired his determination.

Well, Arthur could play games of his own.

“Nothing at all wrong Merlin,” Arthur replied, sugary sweet. “Let me just fetch you something else.”

“Bleerrgghh!” Merlin cried, pushing away the toast on which Arthur had spread marmite so thickly it was almost as wide as his thumbnail, “What was that???”

“Oh I’m sorry,” Arthur said smirking, “I didn’t realise it wouldn’t be to your taste.”

Merlin glared at him before his lips quirked a little and he asked: “Do you have any fruit? I’ve heard lots of People talk about that.”

Arthur knew Merlin would only reject it, but Arthur had a competitive streak, honed by years of football training, and it was already excitedly planning ahead to his next move.

So he brought him an apple, which Merlin bit into and promptly declared “unnatural-tasting” before throwing it at him, landing it squarely on his chest, where it bounced off onto the side of the coffee table and broke, leaving juice all over the carpet.

Merlin grinned at him openly.

“Ok,” Arthur said, breathing hard to control his temper, “Ok, fine. Cereal.”

Merlin smiled in wicked anticipation when he saw Arthur bring a bowl of cornflakes sloshing around in milk....until Arthur poured it all over his head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“How do you like them apples?” Arthur crowed watching Merlin splutter and gasp as milk ran down his hair and over his chest.

Merlin growled before scooping the cornflakes out of his hair and flinging them in Arthur’s face with a splat.  

After that it was game on. Arthur bent for the apple but before he could throw it, Merlin had bounded off the sofa, pain in his hand apparently forgotten as he raced to the kitchen his eyes clearly on the marmite toast Arthur had left on the kitchen bench.

“Not a chance,” Arthur said grinning, racing after him. He shouldered up to Merlin, knocked his hand out of the way of the plate, picked up the toast and pressed it into his face.

He bent almost double, wheezing with laughter at Merlin’s shocked expression, silently congratulating himself on victory until Merlin used his distraction to snatch the mushy apple out of hand and crush it into his hair.

Merlin gave a bark of laughter at Arthur’s surprise, and quickly ran back into the sitting room before Arthur had a chance to reach up into his hair for the apple and throw it at Merlin.

Arthur gave chase, the thrill of the game making him laugh as he ran, but Merlin was too clever for him; he made straight for Arthur’s forgotten bowl of porridge and scooped it out and flung it in Arthur’s face.

Arthur slowly wiped the porridge from his eyes until he could see clearly again, while Merlin howled with laughter, clearly thinking him defeated. But Arthur never quit until he won. He stomped away into the kitchen, a plan forming in his mind, silently chuckling to himself in wicked anticipation as Merlin followed, laughing as he ran.

Merlin made straight for the bench, positioning himself so that he was blocking the pile of half-eaten breakfast dishes, but Arthur had other ideas. Going to the fridge, he pulled out a bottle of milk and laughed as the grin slid straight off Merlin’s face when he spotted it.

“Truce!” Merlin cried, holding out his good hand, milk and marmite dripping down his front. “Truce.”

Hah!

“Alright,” Arthur agreed mildly, the gracious victor as always. “But you have to agree to eat breakfast and take antibiotics.”

“Done,” Merlin said, and to Arthur’s surprise, he turned around and plucked some bacon from one of the plates and bit into it.

Arthur raised an eyebrow.

“I liked the bacon,” Merlin confessed with a sheepish smile, “and the fish.”

So Arthur made him a plate of bacon and kippers, and himself a new bowl of porridge, and together they sat at the table and ate their breakfast, smelly, sticky and dripping.

Not wanting to repeat his earlier mistake of not helping Merlin eat with only one hand, and his left at that, Arthur reached across Merlin to cut his food up into bite size pieces for him, trying not to notice that his arm was brushing against Merlin’s as he did so.

“Will you stop doing that?” Merlin demanded.

Arthur immediately pulled his arm away from Merlin’s, thankful that he didn’t blush, before feeling ridiculous; he had nothing to be embarrassed about.

“I’m just trying to help you,” he said defensively.

“No not that,” Merlin said, “Stop smirking at me.”

“I’m not smirking at you,” Arthur said, a memory of Kay complaining that Arthur walked around smug for hours after beating him floating to the surface of his mind.

“You are,” Merlin said, and then his eyes widened. “You’re smug that you got me to call a truce aren’t you?”

“No,” Arthur said, immediately defending himself against a years-old accusation from Kay, “I’m a good winner.”

Merlin stared at him incredulously and then threw back his head and laughed. Arthur noticed that his smile made his eyes crinkle up almost into crescent moon shapes, and he had a cute little sort of dimple in one cheek.

“You’re unbelievable!”

“So I’ve been told,” Arthur said, “I’ve also heard ‘amazing’ ‘fantastic’ and whatever else you care to think of.”

“Idiot, arse and prat?”

Arthur glared at him. “Hah bloody hah.”

“So who told you were a bad winner then?” Merlin asked.

Arthur stilled.

“What?”

“Well you said you were a good winner,” Merlin said, spearing some bacon and lifting it to his mouth, “But you’re obviously not. So someone told you that you weren’t once, for you to say that.”

Arthur felt his belly drop at the thought of speaking about Kay.

“Just someone I used to beat at football all the time,” he said quickly, ducking his head and returning to his porridge.

“Oh!” Merlin said, face lighting up. “I know about football!”

Arthur hid a smile at Merlin’s obvious excitement.

“Really Merlin?” he drawled.

“That’s what I said,” Merlin said, immediately growing cross. “Everyone has teams and they all support them somehow against the evil refs who are all cunts.”

There was a moment of silence in which Arthur thought his internal organs might actually burst with the effort of trying not to laugh.

“Where,” he said slowly, “Did you get that idea?”

“The fishermen,” Merlin answered, which Arthur supposed made perfect sense. He’d literally sworn like a sailor. 

“Well that’s not quite how it works,” Arthur said with a small smile.

“How does it work?” Merlin asked.

“Well – er- imagine this salt is the ball...”

Merlin pushed aside his plate and propped his chin up on his good hand, looking at the salt intently.

Arthur was temporarily taken aback by Merlin’s attention. With his chin resting on his hands, his face was now below Arthur’s and the strange angle threw his cheekbones into sharp relief, highlighting the smoothness of his skin. It was almost difficult to remember he was the same trying, obnoxious idiot who’d begun a food fight with him only half an hour ago.

“Ok, and this fork is the goalie –“

“Wait,” Merlin interrupted, “What’s the point of this? I mean, why does football exist?”

“It’s a game,” Arthur said, “Ok, so, my plate is –“

“What’s the point of the game? Hey, how many other games do People have?”

Ah, Arthur thought, feeling frustration begin to bubble in his chest, there’s that obnoxious idiot.

He struggled valiantly to continue his explanation of football, but Merlin kept interrupting with increasingly inane questions until Arthur abandoned his makeshift football field to pull Merlin’s plate back in front of him and tell him he’d better finish his food before it got cold or Arthur lost his temper, whichever came first.

Merlin threw a brief glare at him but returned to his food without saying anything.

They ate in silence for a few moments until Arthur felt guilty and cast about for something to say.

“So how did you come to be separated from it anyway?” Arthur said finally, referring to Merlin’s seal skin.

Merlin swallowed an over-large bite of kipper before answering. “I had it next to me when I brought you ashore. But the storm made the waves wild so I had to pull you further up the beach. It must have got dragged out to sea and washed back in while I was saving you.”

Merlin glared a little at Arthur here, but Arthur shrugged it off easily. Merlin continued: “I couldn’t look for it after you left. I saw Gwaine coming and you after him, but I had to wait till nightfall to follow you, so no one else would see me.”

“Wait,” Arthur said, “How do you know who Gwaine is?”

“I know everyone on the island,” Merlin said.

“How?”

Merlin shrugged. “It’s my island.”

“What do you mean it’s your island?”

“These are my waters.”

“So what – this is like, your territory?”

“That’s too small a word for what I mean,” Merlin said, “It’s so much more than that. These waters belong to me and I belong to them. They’re a part of me. I know everything in them. Including the island.”

“So you know everything about the island?”

“Well,” Merlin admitted, “What I can see, hear and know from the sea. But the whole town’s laid out on the shore,” he said defensively, seeing Arthur’s face, “so I know all about the People.”

“Riiiiight,” Arthur said, grinning when he saw Merlin’s scowl. There was a certain enjoyment in being able to tease Merlin so easily.

He stood up, scooping up his empty plate.

“Want me to take yours?” he asked Merlin.

“Sure,” Merlin said, “And then bring me another one.”

Arthur spun round in surprise and indignation – if he wanted more he could bloody well learn to make it himself, he wasn’t the maid – then saw Merlin’s teasing grin.

Arthur rolled his eyes and stuck his tongue out at him and Merlin laughed.

ooOOoo

“We should probably have a bath now,” Arthur said, once the dishes were done and all the food thrown around the kitchen and sitting room cleaned up.

“Alright,” Merlin agreed.

“Not together!” Arthur said hurriedly, “I didn’t mean together.”

Merlin looked at him blankly.

“Never mind,” Arthur said.

“So what’s involved in having a bath?” Merlin asked cheerfully, following Arthur into the bathroom and looking curiously into the tub.

“I thought you knew everything about People?” Arthur said.

“I do! I mean – I know you bathe obviously. I’ve heard of it before. I’ve just – it’s not as though People drag their baths outside for me to have a look at is it?” Merlin said.

Arthur bit back a laugh. “Well – you rub soap on yourself and wash it off. It’s pretty straightforward.” Merlin nodded like this made sense to him, but Arthur couldn’t be completely sure that it did – he seemed to know what soap was but became dismayed when Arthur began running the tap to fill the bath.

“What is the point of water you can’t swim in?” he asked, looking at the tub morosely.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said awkwardly. He knew Gwaine would be telling him to distract Merlin, to take his mind away from the wide oceans under an even wider sky he was so clearly missing looking at the puddle of water in Arthur’s tiny tub. But Arthur felt it insulting to Merlin, looking at the wistfulness and longing writ plain on his face, to imagine that he could be distracted.

“It’s alright,” Merlin said heavily. “I understand you think you’re helping me.”

Arthur didn’t know what to say to that. He wanted to argue that he didn’t think he was helping him, he was helping him and simultaneously to reassure Merlin that it would be over in no time at all. Torn between the two desires, he said nothing, hovering about uncertainly, entirely useless. Eventually Arthur decided it was probably easiest for both of them to simply leave Merlin be.

“Well,” Arthur said, making a vague, awkward hand gesture he hoped conveyed “I’ll be outside if you need me”. Spinning on his heel, he stepped gratefully toward the bathroom door, thinking that he could not walk away fast enough, until he looked in the bathroom mirror, and saw Merlin’s face.

Merlin was looking down at his clothes, with the kind of upset confusion that came only from being too proud to ask for help. Arthur knew it well. He was more than familiar with that feeling himself.

He hesitated at the door. He wasn’t a nursemaid. His version of cheering someone up was a punch to the arm and a “chin up mate” and failing that, a beer and a phone call to Mithian to ask her to sort it out, and that was for people he’d known longer than one day.

He tried to take another step closer to the door, but he knew as soon as lifting his leaden, reluctant foot, he wouldn’t do it.

Cursing himself, he turned around. “Would you like some help?”

“I’ve worn clothes before,” Merlin said quickly. “I do know how to do it, it’s just...”

“Your hand, I understand,” Arthur said gently.

“Yes,” Merlin said, “But ordinarily...”

“I believe you,” Arthur said quickly. Merlin’s face relaxed a little.  

Arthur approached Merlin, eyebrows raised in a silent question, and Merlin nodded. Arthur slowly unbuttoned Merlin’s shirt and held the sleeve of Merlin’s good arm as widely as possible, catching Merlin’s eyes to try and communicate his meaning. Merlin wriggled his arm out of the sleeve himself, giving Arthur a tiny smile of appreciation at his small concession to Merlin’s pride.  

Arthur stepped forward again and gently held the wrist of Merlin’s bad hand, trying to keep his touch as light as possible so as not to jar it. Brushing over Merlin’s hand with his fingertips in a few test rounds, Arthur slowly lifted the hand up, until it was no longer resting on the sling. Moving even closer to get a better grip on the sling, he pushed it off to the side and then lowered Merlin’s hand, never letting it go, until it was all the way down by Merlin’s hip. He slowly reached around behind Merlin, temporarily embracing him while he grabbed his shirt, and pulled it down Merlin’s lowered arm until it was completely removed.

He let out a slow breath and then placing one gentle hand on Merlin’s elbow and the other just above the wrist, he pulled Merlin’s hand slowly back into the sling.

“Thank you,” Merlin said in a soft voice that completely startled Arthur. Focused on undressing Merlin, he hadn’t realised how close to him he’d become. But now that his attention was brought to Merlin’s face, he saw that he was standing with both hands resting on Merlin’s arm, close enough to feel Merlin’s breath on his ear. He quickly stepped backward, heart racing.

“Er – are you ok to...” he gestured towards Merlin’s bottom half, “by yourself?”

“Yes thank you,” Merlin said. He seemed completely unperturbed, making Arthur curiously ashamed of his own flustered reaction. He suddenly felt angry.

“Right well –“ He stopped, annoyed with his  inability to find the right thing to say, and becoming frustrated with his own irritation, he spun on his heel and left the bathroom altogether, slamming the door behind him.

Regretting his inexplicable over-reaction, he reached up to rub the bridge of his nose to clear his mind, only to find it covered in porridge. Flinging the offending food as hard as he could into the wall opposite he stalked away into the sitting room.

ooOOoo

He had only minutes to wait until Merlin entered the sitting room, wet hair dripping into Arthur’s borrowed trousers (he hadn’t attempted to replace his shirt) to inform him it was his turn for the bath. Apparently he’d taken Arthur’s definition of a bath as “soap, rinse, repeat until clean” very literally, and hadn’t lingered in it at all.

Ashamed of the way he’d slammed the door on Merlin, Arthur bathed quickly. He wanted to return to Merlin as bright and cheerful as possible, so the man – or selkie, as it happened – didn’t think Arthur was angry at him for no reason.

Once finished and dressed, he walked into the sitting room as cheerily as he could, stopping in surprise when he saw Gwen sitting opposite Merlin on the sofa, apparently deep in conversation.

“Oh hello!” Gwen said brightly, standing up. “I thought you might need cleaning up or something over here, after the surgery last night. Gwaine told me about it.”

She held out the bloodied blankets Merlin had slept under last night in demonstration, but Arthur wasn’t fooled for a moment.

“Right,” he said dryly, raising an eyebrow, “And I’m sure you weren’t at all curious about meeting a selkie.”

Gwen blushed but Merlin came to her rescue. “Well she has heard about me all her life,” he said.

“Oh so it was you? Always you?” Gwen asked, sitting back down and ignoring Arthur completely.

“Mostly,” Merlin said. “When I was a child there was my mother as well of course, and Viviane before us, but Vivian moved away before I was born and my mother moved on to Escetia when I came of age. Uther’s become really bad, and Camelot is so populated now.”

“Populated?” Arthur said, laughing. “What are you talking about?”

“It used to be smaller,” Merlin said.

“It couldn’t possibly have been,” Arthur said, “You can’t get much smaller.”

“Lance moved here last year,” Gwen said, “And Bayard a few years before him.”

Merlin nodded without a trace of irony, as though two extra people in more than as many years was a sincerely dramatic increase in population.

“So were they all you then?” Gwen asked, resuming the conversation, “How many are natural?”

“Oh, most of them are natural,” Merlin said, “But the really good ones are me. The really big ones. The ones that make waves so big they bring the sea to swallow the land itself.”

“Wow,” Gwen said, eyes shining.

“What are you talking about?” Arthur asked, rather childishly feeling left out.

“Storms,” Gwen said, “Selkies make storms.”

He swivelled to face Merlin, curiosity immediately swallowing him up. “Really?”

“Yes,” Merlin said pride evident in his voice, “I made the one yesterday.”

 “What?” Arthur said. “That thing almost got me killed!”

“Well I wasn’t expecting you to go walking along the pier in the middle of it was I?” Merlin retorted, “What’d you do a silly thing like that for anyway?”

“I....” Arthur was reluctant to admit he’d been procrastinating from meeting with Uther, since Merlin (justifiably) disliked him.

“Well, why did you even make a storm yesterday in the first place?” he asked instead, wincing at this transparent attempt to turn the argument back onto Merlin.

Merlin laughed at him, and Arthur scowled.

“Cedric,” Merlin said once he was done, answering Arthur’s question.

“The ferryman?” Gwen asked.

“Yes,” Merlin said, “His face annoys me. And he keeps putting it too close to the water.”

“So are all your storms just punishing people for being ugly?” Arthur asked.

“Of course not,” Merlin said.

“Why do you normally do it then?” Arthur said.

“Sorry?” Merlin said, frowning in confusion.

“Why do selkies make storms?” Arthur clarified.

“I don’t understand,” Merlin said.

“Why –“

“That’s like asking why People walk or why we talk,” Gwen interrupted, “We’re just made that way. There’s no reason to selkies making storms, they just do.”

“Oh,” said Arthur, feeling foolish.

“So you said ‘when you came of age’ – how old are you?” Gwen said, turning back to Merlin and changing the subject.

“I don’t know,” Merlin answered, “Coming of age is more of an agreed feeling of one’s maturity in us than it is an exact year as with People. But when I was a child you were a child too.”

“Did you see me?” Gwen asked, surprised.

“Of course,” Merlin said. “I see everyone on the island.”

“Did you see Elena then?” Gwen asked excitedly “My best friend?”

“The blonde girl who moved away? I liked her. I don’t think she should have left.”

“Oh you know else shouldn’t have left?” Gwen said, and they were off, do you know so-and-so who left the island, such-and-such who had a baby, who-and-who whom you’d never expect to have stayed...

Arthur listened as best he could, but there were too many names he didn’t know, and his attention kept being called away by an absurd, tiny feeling of jealousy. He’d taken it upon himself to care for Merlin until he was healed, and yet he’d squabbled with him most of the morning, whilst Gwen had waltzed in and befriended him in a matter of minutes, complete with conversations about former islanders and selkie abilities he was totally ignorant of. Soon he began to fidget, and then to wriggle.

Merlin rolled his eyes at him.

“Hey!” Arthur said, annoyed, “I can’t help that I don’t know who you’re talking about!”

“You wriggle about like a fish,” Merlin said, “Didn’t your mother ever tell you it’s rude to fidget?”

“Do they even have fidgeting under the sea?” Arthur said, “What would you do, wave a flipper?”

Merlin’s lips quirked upwards, but he quickly retorted: “I couldn’t have slipped my skin more than ten times in my life and still I know it’s rude to fidget. What’s your excuse?”

“I’m a very active person not a dreamy seal?”

“OI!” Merlin said, “I’ll thank you not to compare me to a common seal!”

Arthur grinned. “You ever seen a mirror in your other form Merlin? Or, well, I suppose you wouldn’t need one, the seals in the ocean would serve the same purpose...”

“It’s a shame you don’t have another form you can use instead of inflicting this one on the world Arthur,” Merlin said, eyes sparkling.

“And this from someone who does have two forms and still manages to look like a walking horror film in both.”

“I don’t know what a horror film is but I still know I’m prettier than you,” Merlin said, mock-haughtily.

“You don’t know what a horror film is?” Arthur asked, and even Gwen was looking at Merlin in curiosity now.

“I know what a film is,” Merlin said defensively, in what Arthur was beginning to realise was a characteristic urge protest any implied ignorance.

“Yes Merlin,” Arthur said, grinning and reaching over to ruffle his hair because he knew such condescension would irritate him, “Of course you’ve heard of films.”

Merlin turned on him a death glare so strong it would have melted steel. Arthur laughed, which only made Merlin pout, and Arthur laugh even harder.

“Should we actually watch a film?” Gwen asked, “If you’ve never seen one Merlin?”

Merlin suddenly looked a little nervous, the subject of the questioning gazes of both Arthur and Gwen, but he said “alright” in a quiet sort of voice and tried (and failed dismally) not to look curious or apprehensive.

“What should we watch?” Arthur asked Gwen.

“Nothing you like,” Merlin interjected.

“Hey!” Arthur protested.

“Well you liked porridge,” Merlin said with a small smile, “I wasn’t lying when I said I hated that.”

“I put you onto bacon in the end didn’t I?”

Merlin grinned to himself in response. Gwen looked between them curiously before suggesting she run back to her house to fetch The Princess Bride. Merlin agreed enthusiastically when he discovered it was Gwen’s favourite film and ten minutes later, the three of them were seated on a sofa beneath a blanket, Merlin between Gwen and Arthur. Merlin kept looking nervously at the screen, waiting to see what it did and Arthur and Gwen kept sneaking glances at Merlin, to watch his reaction.

“Ready?” Gwen said. Merlin nodded.

He shrieked when television turned on to reveal the DVD menu screen. Arthur failed to hide a smile, and Merlin swivelled to say something to him, but Gwen pressed “play” before he could and his attention was quickly diverted.

He watched the screen in silent wide eyed wonder. Arthur watched him, smiling at his fascination, but his smile faded quickly as Merlin’s wondered silence dissolved into questions. Hundreds and hundreds of questions.

“So, what is this?” “Oh, so a photograph is like a still version of this?” “So if this is a story about People why don’t they look like People normally do, why are they dressed like that?” “Who is that man?” “Where did Buttercup go?” “Who is that man?” “Wait, I thought he died.” “What about that man?” “How long does this last?” “Who is th-“

“Do you ever shut up?” Arthur asked in exasperation.

“How am I supposed to know if I don’t ask?” Merlin said.

“If you watched the film instead of talking you would answer your own question.”

“Well how was I supposed to know that, this is my first film!”

“You would know if you weren’t a complete idiot Merlin.”

“I’d rather be an idiot than a dollophead.”

“A what?” Arthur asked, laughing. Merlin opened his eagerly to elaborate but Gwen interrupted them.

Children,” she said, “I hate to break up the fun.”

“I’m not having fun, he’s been abusing me all day,” Merlin said, but the twitch in his mouth gave the lie to his words, and Arthur felt absurdly pleased with himself. After the twin disasters of breakfast and bathing this morning, it felt good to think that he had made Merlin enjoy himself. Perhaps forcing him to stay and heal wouldn’t be the complete failure Gwaine predicted. Perhaps he might even – god forbid – make a friend, selkie and total idiot though Merlin was.

“Call it what you will, in any case, its past lunchtime and unfortunately I have to leave. I need to open the pub and these blankets won’t wash themselves. It was lovely to meet you Merlin.”

“You too,” Merlin said warmly, standing up, and then to Arthur’s and Gwen’s surprise both, he reached over and pulled her into a hug.

Arthur had shuffled a little to the left, waiting awkwardly for them to finish so that he could say goodbye to Gwen himself; the slight change in angle was the only reason he caught it. Merlin pulled Gwen in close with his good hand, and Arthur watched as he whispered something in her ear. He looked at her anxiously, but she only smiled at him sadly, and turned to make her way to the door.

“What did he say?” Arthur hissed anxiously, following Gwen to the door, pulling her aside just before she walked through it.

She looked at him and then back at Merlin, and there was pity in her gaze, though for whom Arthur wasn’t sure.

“He asked me if I would help him find his skin,” she said, and walked out the door, leaving Arthur with a hollow feeling where his hopes for a friendship with Merlin had resided only moments before.

ooOOoo

Merlin looked up at Arthur from the sofa when Arthur returned to the sitting room and smiled. Arthur returned it, a thin grimace that slid quickly from his face.

“You need to take your medication again,” he said wearily, “And I should probably look at your bandages, see if they need changing.”

“Alright,” Merlin said, watching him with a frown. Arthur tried to sound more cheerful as he asked: “So what would you like for lunch?”

“Not porridge,” Merlin answered.

“Right,” Arthur said. Suddenly too tired to try and guess what food would be to Merlin’s taste, he put together a plate containing some of everything in the kitchen he could find.

He brought the plate over to Merlin who eyed it with surprise. He glanced up at Arthur but something of Arthur’s mood must have shown in his face, because Merlin accepted it without complaint or question.

Arthur lifted Merlin’s bad hand out of his sling and inspected his bandages while Merlin nibbled quietly on a piece of cheese. Deciding that they did need changing, Arthur unravelled them slowly from Merlin’s hand.

“This isn’t so bad,” Merlin said, a little awkwardly, “What I’m eating.”

Arthur glanced up at him before returning to his work. “Mmm,” he said non-commitally.

“What is it?” Merlin asked.

Arthur pulled the last of the wrapping away from Merlin’s hand, trying not to wince as he looked at the wound. “It’s cheese,” he said, reaching for the new bandages Gwaine had left him.

“Oh,” Merlin said.

There was another heavy silence in which Arthur focused as hard as he could on tying the wrappings tight without hurting Merlin.

“Are you upset about something?” Merlin interrupted softly.

Arthur’s hands slowed in his work. He’d never been a liar, nor one to mince an uncomfortable truth for the sake of sparing someone’s feelings. He looked up and held Merlin’s gaze. “Yes.”

“Why?” Merlin asked.  

“Did you ask Gwen to help you find your skin?”

Merlin sighed heavily. “Yes.”

“Why? Why go behind my back to my friend and ask her to conspire with you?”

“Arthur,” Merlin said gently, “It’s nothing personal against you. But I’ve spent a little time with you, and I admit, though I still don’t know you very well, I’m beginning to see that you truly believe you are doing the right thing. I don’t think you can be persuaded to give up the location of my skin, until you think I’m healed.”

“Right,” Arthur agreed.

“Then,” Merlin said, “That’s why I asked her.”

“But –“

“I don’t like it on the land Arthur,” Merlin said frankly, “I want to go home.”

“But how do you know you don’t like it on the land,” Arthur protested, “You’ve hardly spent any time here. You don’t know anything about it except what you’ve seen on shore and heard people talk about on boats.”

“I know it’s not the sea,” Merlin said, “That’s enough.”

“No,” Arthur said stubbornly. He couldn’t let Merlin go into the sea with his hand like this but nor could he let him waste away in misery for the week or two he’d be here. There had to be another way. “You can’t make a judgement on something without truly experiencing it first. If I show you life on land, all of it – Merlin you won’t hate it. Maybe you won’t love it like the sea, and that’s fine, I’m not asking you to live here forever. Just let me give you a proper tour of the land, and you won’t be unhappy I promise.”

“You can’t make me happy Arthur,” Merlin said with a small smile.

“I’m doing it right now,” Arthur teased.

“Are you always this stubborn and arrogant?” Merlin asked, grinning.

“My Dad hated it about me,” Arthur answered. Merlin smiled. “Come on Merlin. Give it a try.”

“I’ll let you give it a try,” Merlin said instead.

“Close enough,” Arthur said, good mood restored. “Now you should try some of that food on your plate so I know what you like to eat in future.”

Merlin returned to his lunch while Arthur finished bandaging his hand. Once done, he gave Merlin his medication and inspected the remains of his plate.

Merlin didn’t seem to like anything sweet and he didn’t look any fonder of bread than he had been of porridge. On the other hand, anything salty or savoury was completely finished, which Arthur supposed made sense - everything was salty in the ocean. He resolved to cook him fish and chips that night.

“So,” Merlin said, “When does our ‘Grand Tour’ start?”

“This afternoon I suppose,” Arthur said, “Might as well start with a tour of the actual land. Let’s go around the island.”

“Alright,” Merlin said, “Where’s Uther?”

“Uther?”

“So he doesn’t see us. If he sees me he’ll try and kill me again.”

“Oh,” Arthur said, “He’s in jail – well, sort of – he’s kind of in a – see they don’t have - never mind, point is, he can’t get to you where he is.”

“That’s very reassuring,” Merlin said dryly.

“He is! I had him arrested for shooting you.”

“He’ll have been let go,” Merlin said, “I was an unknown, unclothed man on a beach never seen on the island before or since. It will have been obvious to Leon he was telling the truth and I’m a selkie.”

“It’s still against the law to shoot someone,” Arthur said, though doubtfully; he was remembering his own similar impressions of Leon before he’d even known Merlin to be a selkie.

“The law was made for People,” Merlin said, “Not selkies.”

Arthur sucked on his teeth for a moment, thinking.

“Alright,” he said, “Let me go and confirm he’s still locked up, and then I’ll come back and we’ll start our tour.”

Merlin agreed, so Arthur walked across the courtyard to the pub and through the exit to the main street, checking surreptitiously on the way that the stone he’d buried Merlin’s skin beneath wasn’t loose.

“Hello?” he called, entering the tiny police station.

“Hang on!” a voice called from the back. Arthur waited in front of the empty reception desk for a few moments before Leon hurried out to the front, sheets of paper flying out of his hands as he walked.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, assuming a deeper voice.

Arthur didn’t know if he would be allowed to visit or even ask after Uther, so he decided to simply act as though he was and see if Leon would follow his lead.

“I’ve come to visit Uther,” he said confidently.

Leon squirmed. “Oh....er.... I confiscated his firearm of course but circumstances... in absence of a human victim – sorry, victim - “

“Thank you Leon,” Arthur said brusquely, “That’s all I wanted to know.”

Leon blushed. Arthur cursed him internally, but gave him a small smile of encouragement anyway. There was no need to make him feel bad. His actions were understandable; he’d probably just thought Merlin had disappeared back into the sea, safe.

Still, Arthur thought as he hurried back along the main street, there was no denying Merlin was now in danger.

Did Uther know where Merlin had gone? He knew Arthur had reported Merlin missing – surely he would assume Merlin had slipped his skin and returned to the sea? He didn’t know Merlin hadn’t been able to find his skin – or did he? What if he’d seen Merlin scanning the beach for his skin while Arthur had still been hacking water out of his lungs? And even if he hadn’t - after just a day with Merlin, Arthur already knew enough of selkies to know that Merlin wouldn’t have stuck around talking to Arthur after he’d revived him if he’d been able to slip his skin. Surely Uther, who spotted Merlin for a selkie immediately, would recognise that. It could even be the reason he’d attacked, seeing that Merlin was vulnerable.

Arthur hesitated. He should check where Uther was, before he took Merlin out. It would be beyond reckless not to. But how did he do that? Waltz up to his front door and ask him what he was up to and would he please mind not leaving the house for awhile? By the way, it’s me, your biological son?

Arthur cursed himself, because, of course, that was the solution. If he visited Uther, if he had the meeting he’d originally come to the island for, he could simply ask him about what had happened on the beach. It would be understandable, Arthur wanting to know why his first meeting with his father had ended in Arthur arresting him.  He could ascertain from Uther’s answers whether or not he knew Merlin was still on the island, and how much danger Merlin was in.

Arthur groaned out loud. He didn’t want to see Uther, and not only because it would mean leaving Merlin alone for hours. He had no illusions about what Merlin would use the time for. No, it was more than that. It was the queerly mixed up feeling in his chest whenever he thought of his biological father. It was the disappointment and anger mingled with the faint maybe he’s not completely crazy, he was right about Merlin after all. It was the fear of Uther that warred with the tiny part of him that still wanted Ector back, his father, any father. Maybe that part of him would never die. Maybe it would live forever, as Ector had not.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. There had to be another solution, but Arthur couldn’t see it. He couldn’t sit on his hands and hope Uther wasn’t looking for Merlin.

Trudging more slowly than he’d ever walked anywhere in his life, Arthur reluctantly turned his feet toward the white house at the end of the pier.

He didn’t have long to ponder the rightness of his decision. The pier came into sight and there was Uther, mouth full of nails, hammering a white plank into the broken part of the railing where Arthur had fallen through.

Arthur hesitated a good twenty feet away from the pier, hands stuffed in his pockets.

“That your job or the council’s?” he finally called out. Spotting him, Uther spat out the nails, pocketed the hammer and strode over. Arthur’s heart beat faster with every step Uther closed in on him.

“Council’s too busy with the bigger islands like Escetia and Nemeth to care about us. I am the council of this pier.” Uther stopped in front of him, and looked him up and down. Arthur shuffled nervously.

“You look a lot like her,” he said finally.

“How did you –“

Uther snorted. “Only new person on the island. Of course it’s you. Should have seen it before.” He paused. “I suppose you came to ask about that selkie.”

Arthur didn’t want to prove Uther correct yet again so he kept silent.

“I thought so,” Uther said. He turned away and marched toward the house. Arthur floundered for a moment – was he expected to follow? Brushing aside irritation that he hadn’t asked Arthur if he would like to go inside, Arthur grit his teeth and walked up the stony path to Uther’s house.

Inside, the hallway was dark and low-ceilinged, with no furniture save for a coat stand. Arthur shrugged his coat off at the door, feeling apprehensive.

“Tea?” he heard Uther call from deeper inside.

“Er – yes,” Arthur walked through the hallway into the dining room, following it through to the sitting room, prying unashamedly. He hadn’t been properly invited after all there was no call to be polite.

He was surprised by how neat and clean everything was. Arthur would have expected the home of an older man who lived alone to be cluttered and unkempt but there was little Arthur could see that was not absolutely necessary – no useless knick knacks, no photographs, no trophies or decorative pictures or paintings.

There was nothing, save for the mantelpiece.

Arthur wandered over to it, its clutter in the bare room calling out to him like a siren.

Everywhere were pictures in frames. A baby, a black-haired toddler riding a tricycle, a girl of roughly ten years, standing smiling in what looked like the middle of American desert – the same girl, Arthur realised, growing up from picture to picture. He stopped at the last one, in a frame that said “21”. A beautiful, dark-haired, pale skinned, green eyed, young woman smiled confidently out at him. At the bottom of the frame were tiny black plastic letters, carefully glued on, that spelled out in curly decorative writing “Morgana”.

But who was Morgana?

“Cup of tea?” Uther said, appearing suddenly at his elbow with a mug and a frown. Arthur almost jumped out of his skin.

“Er – thank you,” Arthur said, accepting the mug awkwardly out of Uther’s hands.

Uther’s eyes slid from Arthur to the mantelpiece.

“In the dining room,” he said pointedly. Arthur followed him, feeling inexplicably as though he’d been caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

“So,” Uther said gruffly, sitting down at the head of the table.

“So,” Arthur repeated.

Silence stretched between them almost as long as the table, but Arthur stubbornly refused to be the first to say anything, despite being the one to have sought Uther out. A small, petulant part of him didn’t want this meeting to be easy on Uther.

Finally Uther broke the silence with a snort.

“It’s plain as day on you,” he said, “You hate me. But you shouldn’t. Selkies are evil.”

He stopped, clearly seeing Arthur’s disbelief.

“Oh, I know you don’t believe in them, you and all the other city types. But they’re real, as real as you and me, and they’re duplicitous, and manipulative, and they’ll destroy a man if they can. I did the world a favour.”

Arthur breathed hard through his nose, trying not to let anything of his feelings show in his face. Annoying Merlin could definitely be, but a manipulative evil mastermind, Arthur knew he was not. Merlin probably didn’t even know how to work a toaster. Struggling to regain control of his anger, Arthur said in as level a voice as he could manage: “So he’s definitely dead then?”

“Nothing is definite,” Uther said, “I haven’t seen him.”

“So he’s returned to the sea?”

“You believe he’s a selkie?” Uther asked shrewdly, narrowing his eyes.

Shit.

“Just trying to work out what you believe,” Arthur said, as coolly as he could.

Uther continued to watch him with suspicion so Arthur changed the subject.

“Look, I didn’t just come here to talk about why you shot a man,” he said, “I want to know....”

He cast about for something to say.

“I want to know about my mother,” he said in sudden inspiration.

And now that he’d said it, he realised, it wasn’t completely a lie. Even when he’d believed Ector his father, he didn’t have a mother. Kay’s, the woman he’d believed his own as well, had died when Arthur was only a toddler.

Arthur’s words seemed to transform Uther’s entire face. Suddenly, he looked every year of his age.

“What about her?” he asked wearily.

“Well who was she?” Arthur demanded, and with an anger he hadn’t felt since before he’d arrived on the island. “Why did she give me up?”

“She didn’t,” Uther said, “I did.”

He had no affection for the man, and yet Arthur felt his statement like a slap in the face.

For the first time, Uther softened a little.

“I loved her,” he said, “Your mother. She died in childbirth. We thought we could do it here you see, have you on the island, with only a midwife, save the trouble of going to the mainland. We loved this place and we thought it would be more meaningful to have you here instead of in some hospital we didn’t know. The midwife we hired told us she could handle anything, but she couldn’t. Nimueh,” he said it like a curse. “She told me Ygraine was dead, then she handed me you and I just......couldn’t. Without her.”

He stopped and then added: “You look a lot like her.”

“Yeah you said that,” Arthur said.

He felt the prickly sensation behind the eyes, though he knew it wasn’t enough to make him cry. He wondered who he was feeling sad for, Ygraine or Uther. Or maybe even himself. But then he looked at Uther, and remembered his real father and thought: No. I was lucky.

And then the prickly feeling began to solidify into tears because, of course, Ector was dead.

“What was she like?” he asked instead, blinking hard. “My mother.”

“She was good to me,” Uther said, which wasn’t any kind of answer at all, nothing Arthur could work with.

He wanted to leave. But he couldn’t without confirming absolutely that Uther wasn’t looking for Merlin.

“So,” he said, expending every bit of energy in his body to stay here, to get the conversation back onto Merlin, to sound nonchalant, “Did my mother believe in selkies too?”

And immediately, Uther looked alert again.

“Everyone does,” he said, “Everyone who grows up in this area.”

“Do you think the man you shot believes in them?”

“When he’s trying to swim with only three good flippers, I doubt he’s thinking one whit of what land-dwellers like us believe,” Uther said.

So you think he’s in the ocean then. Finally.

Arthur cast around trying to think of a way to wrap this conversation up so he could leave.

“Why do you think they’re evil?” he asked instead, curiosity getting the better of him in spite of himself. Too late, he realised he should still be pretending not to believe in selkies. But Uther didn’t seem to notice.

“Because I’ve had experience with them,” he said, “I know. And everyone who’s met one knows.”

Not me, thought Arthur, my selkie’s nice, when he’s not eating porridge. He didn’t say anything, just tried to look at Uther as though he thought he was crazy.

Abruptly, Uther stood.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” he said oddly formal. “It’s been informative.”

Arthur was surprised but relieved, so he rose and handed Uther his mug. “Thank you for having me.”

It was as he was walking through the house to the hall that he remembered. The manners he’d been taught as a child told him not to, but he quickly stifled them; he wasn’t planning on returning here. Boldly, he turned to Uther as he collected his coat and said: “Who’s Morgana?”

“No one for you to be concerned with,” Uther said coldly.

“Bullshit,” said Arthur, because there was only one person she could be, and he’d known it when he first saw the photos. Who else did you keep pictures of on a mantelpiece, from first steps to 21? “She’s my sister isn’t she?”

Uther said nothing.

“So you give up me,” Arthur said furiously, fighting down the irrational feeling that wanted to make his throat close up and his eyes water, “But you don’t give up on her.”

“It isn’t like that,” Uther said, “You don’t know about - you wouldn’t understand.”

Arthur scoffed, and walked away.

ooOOoo

Arthur walked back to the cottage with his coat turned up against the wind, mood as shaken by tea with Uther as the leaves on the trees currently blowing in the brewing storm.

When he unlocked the door, Merlin quickly scrambled up from his hands and knees, obviously looking under the sofa.

“Am I that bad company?” Arthur asked with a wry smile that belied how worn out he really felt.

“No,” Merlin said, “It isn’t – I don’t –“

“It’s ok Merlin I was teasing you,” Arthur said tiredly.

“What’s wrong?” Merlin asked immediately.

“Nothing,” Arthur said, rubbing his eyes with one hand.

“Did you find Uther?” Merlin asked.

A wave of confusion and grief roared up in Arthur. “Yes.”

He could not take his hand from his eyes. He mustn’t. He didn’t know why he was feeling this way, now of all times. Kay had told him at the funeral that if he didn’t cry then it would just come out later, but Kay had been nothing but wrong so far, and Arthur would make him so again.

“And?”

“You’re going on your tour,” Arthur said, trying to sound upbeat, normal even, but it came out as a croak.

He heard Merlin shuffle until he felt him standing beside him.

“Arthur?” he asked in a very quiet voice.

Arthur said nothing. He couldn’t.

“Whatever it is,” Merlin said softly, and Arthur could feel him watching him, kindly, carefully. “Whatever it is, I’ll listen.”

“It’s just –“ Arthur choked. Breathed until his throat was normal again, pressed down on his eyes so hard he was seeing spots. “It’s just……I came to this island for a really stupid reason. And now I feel like an idiot.”

“What reason?” Merlin asked gently.

Don’t lose it, don’t lose it, don’t lose it. You’ve got this.

He took a deep breath. “Couple of months ago…couple of months –“

He stopped and shook his head. He reached up to press a second palm into his eyes and ended up covering his entire face with his hands.

“Go on,” Merlin said.

He took a deep breath, held it, and said in a rush on the exhale: “A couple of months ago my Dad d-“

But he couldn’t finish it. His breath was turning to gasps, his words becoming sobs.

If you don’t do it now, you’ll end up having a breakdown about it later, Kay had said, and he was right, goddamn him he was right.

Arthur slid down the wall next the door, pulled his knees up to his chest, put his head in his elbows and cried.

He felt Merlin settle next to him and rest his hand on his shoulder, but he said nothing.

“It’s just –“ he sobbed out eventually, “I loved him. He was my best friend and I thought it was because I was like him!”

He sniffed, the old anger rising again. “I was his favourite! I know parents aren’t supposed to have favourites, but I knew I was his! I thought it was because of all that shit he said about how I took after him, I fucking believed that but the whole time I was adopted and he didn’t even tell me. And now how can I say that? How can I say I’m proud of my Dad and I’m proud that I’m like him when I’m not really, I’m not even his son?”

“Did he raise you?” Merlin asked.

Arthur nodded.

“Then,” Merlin said, “You are his son. You can take after him. Who you are isn’t just something you inherit.”

“Yeah that’s what Kay said,” Arthur said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that Dad lied. And now there are all these questions I have about myself that I’ll never know the answer to because he never told me, and he’s not around anymore to answer. It’s not fair that I should never know those things.”

He laughed bitterly.

“And I thought I’d come here and at least learn one half of those answers right? Like if I can’t know why I was adopted I can at least know why I was given up. And if my Dad wasn’t who I thought he was anymore at least I can get to know my other father. But that turned out to be a fucking bust didn’t it?”

“Who –“ Merlin asked, but now that it was all coming out, Arthur didn’t want to stop.

“And the worst bit is I fucking busted up with Kay over this. He told me this would be a waste of time and I should just accept Dad was my father but I just told him…”

Fresh tears leaked out of his eyes. “I just told him, how the fuck would he know. I said if Dad wasn’t my father, then he wasn’t my brother either. I was just so angry that he would side with Dad that he couldn’t see my side at all, so I told him I was going to find a new family and he could just fuck off out of my life.”

He exhaled long and painfully. “I stuck to my word,” he said, tears streaming down his cheeks, “Because I’m stubborn. Even after I knew I’d been stupid, I couldn’t give up on this, the island, and I wouldn’t talk to him till I proved I was right. And I haven’t. I haven’t spoken to him in months. And now all I have is fucking Uther.

There was a ringing silence. Arthur sniffled and wiped his face, oblivious to all but his own misery, until a quiet voice beside him said, “Uther?” and he froze.

He’d completely forgotten.

“Merlin….” He had no idea what to say. Would Merlin even want to look at him now, now he knew who he was? He could make Merlin stay, but not happily. The thought stabbed Arthur like an icicle. He didn’t want Merlin to hate him. The miserable truth was he was all Arthur had for the next week or so until he healed. Then Arthur could be gone from the island, forever.

Merlin was looking at him uncertainly.

Arthur looked away.

“Well,” Merlin said finally, “It’s a good thing you were adopted. Or you might have ended up crazier than you already are.”

Arthur looked back, hope blooming a little in spite of himself. “What do you mean?”

“Well you might have ended up selkie-hating and violent under Uther. Instead I just have this other Person to thank for you being arrogant and a prat.”

“Ector,” Arthur said, smiling a little, “His name was Ector.”

“Tell me about him,” Merlin said softly.

So Arthur did. He spoke for hours about his father, his brother, his childhood, his extended family, his friends, and how they had all loved his Dad, universally. He spoke about how he wished he had spent more time with him while he had the chance, wished he hadn’t taken him for granted, how he would never do that to anyone else again. He spoke about Kay and growing up with him and his regret over giving up on him out of stubbornness. He stopped to cry every so often and Merlin let him. His jumper was a mess by the time he was done (he wasn’t carrying tissues).

He stopped halfway through a story explaining who Mithian was and how his father had tried to set him up on a date with her until Arthur finally had to come out of the closet when his stomach grumbled loudly, and he looked around to see it was dark.

“Oh,” he said stupidly. “Are you hungry?”

“Thought you would never ask,” Merlin said grinning, “I was getting sick of your whining.”

“Oi you,” Arthur said, shoving him lightly. “Come on.”

He showered and ran next door to the pub to ask Gwen if he could order two plates of fish and chips and take them next door.

“Am I going to like this?” Merlin asked sceptically.

“Trust me,” Arthur said, “You definitely will.”

Merlin made a face.

“No I,” Arthur took a deep breath. He was notoriously bad at this kind of thing. Best to do it in a rush, like ripping off a bandaid. He put his head down and said: “I made sure it’ll be something you like. As a....thank you. For you know....listening to me and...”

He trailed off, but when he looked up, Merlin was smiling, more beautifully and genuinely than Arthur had seen him do yet.

“In that case,” Merlin said, “I’m sure I’ll love it.”

Arthur smiled hesitantly back.

They ate them in front of the television, which Arthur switched on for Merlin’s sake, instantly regretting it when Merlin proved most interested by the news and Arthur had to try and explain world affairs to him.

His explanations became more garbled as  the exhaustion of the past two days slowly began to spill down from his shoulders like treacle. He adjusted his position on the sofa so that his head was resting on the back of it, and went to continue his explanation of the conflict in Turkey.

Two hours later, he awoke to Merlin shaking him gently by the shoulder.

“Hey, what –“ he looked blearily around. The room was dark but for the television, but he could feel something warm and comfortable against the side of his face. He looked down to see that he had fallen sideways in his sleep, and was resting against Merlin’s good arm.

“Sorry,” Merlin said.

“That’s alright,” he said, hurrying to sit up. He turned back to apologise to Merlin for falling asleep half on top of him, but the television was illuminating him in a white glow, startling on his pale skin against the dark room, and Arthur forgot the words completely.

You look really pretty, he thought stupidly.

He felt the strangest, most overwhelming desire to reach up and brush his hand against Merlin’s face. He startled slightly, surprised at himself.

“Erm,” Merlin said uncertainly, seeing Arthur’s small jump. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you - I didn’t want to wake you but –“

“Oh right!” Arthur said, thankful it was dark. He almost felt like he was blushing, except that he didn’t blush. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to take up the sofa. You probably need to sleep.”

As soon as he said it, he realised Merlin couldn’t sleep out here. Gwen had taken all the blankets for washing, and she hadn’t returned them yet.

“Er....” Arthur said. He hesitated. He didn’t want Merlin to think he was coming on to him, or be in any way uncomfortable. Then he remembered Merlin was a selkie and would likely care less than Arthur would. “I don’t have any blankets for you tonight. Would you mind sharing the bed? There isn’t a spare one I’m afraid. We can sleep top to toe.”

“What’s top to toe?” Merlin asked. Arthur explained.

“That’s ridiculous,” Merlin said, standing up. “What would we need to do that for?”

Arthur couldn’t help but blush. “Er...no reason. It was a pretty stupid idea.”

So Merlin took the last of his medication for the day and they both changed into different pairs of Arthur’s pajamas, and a few minutes later, they were side by side in bed.

Merlin fell asleep almost immediately but Arthur, refreshed by his nap, lay awake, staring at Merlin’s black hair in the moonlight, and thinking that even if this was a failure of a trip that lasted only a week, it may yet be a week well spent.

ooOOoo

He woke Merlin early the next day, who, to Arthur’s surprise, turned out to be a terrible riser.

“Go ‘way,” he grumbled, pulling the blankets up over his head.

“Come on,” Arthur said, “I bet it’s already....I don’t know, fish o’clock or something in the sea. If you’d slept in this late in your normal form the regular seals would have got them all by now.”

Merlin pulled the blankets down just enough for his eyes to peek out.

“You’re an idiot,” he said.

“Well you’re a dollophead,” Arthur said cheerily.

“That’s my word.”

“And it suits you perfectly.” He ripped the blankets from Merlin who groaned and curled up into a ball. “Come on.

They went next door to the pub, after checking there was no one in it, to ask Gwen if they could borrow her car. Unfortunately, it was not Gwen that answered, but Gwaine.

“You want to do what with my car?” Gwaine asked, “Nice to meet you by the way Merlin.”

Merlin waved nervously. Arthur knew that he was apprehensive of People as a general rule, the attitudes of most of the islanders toward selkies being closer to Uther’s than anything else. Arthur briefly wondered how Gwen had managed so quickly to get him to trust her, before putting it down to the magic of Gwen and saying: “Merlin, this is the man who saved your hand.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, visibly relaxing, “Hello.”

“Yeah hi,” Gwaine said, “You’re not taking the car.”

“Oh come on,” Arthur whined.

“You ever driven into the interior before?” Gwaine asked.

“No.”

“Exactly. It’s a lot more difficult than you’d expect.”

“Come on,” Arthur said, throwing his arm around Merlin and pulling him closer, “Would you deny a selkie his first taste of the real island?”

“It’s land. He probably doesn’t even care that much about it.”

Merlin’s face brightened. “Yes exac-“

Arthur elbowed him.

“I mean – I’ve been looking forward to it ever so much Mr – er – Gwaine.”

“Little less Oliver Twist next time,” Arthur hissed in his ear.

“Who’s Oliver Twist?”

Gwaine smirked at them.

“I’ll pay you for it,” Arthur begged, “Come on.”

He stood on Merlin’s foot until his face was pleading too (Merlin’s puppy dog eyes being much more powerful than his own) and Gwaine relented.

“Be back by 5,” he said, handing them the keys.

“Will do Mr Gwaine sir,” Arthur chirped, with a deliberately cheeky grin at Merlin.

“Why couldn’t it have been Gwen that nearly drowned?” Merlin said, following Arthur to the car, “Or Gwaine? I wouldn’t have minded staying with them.”

Merlin hesitated at the door of the car, and Arthur pretended not to notice the way he closely observed how Arthur opened the door, sat down and buckled his seatbelt, before slowly imitating him.

“Ready?” Arthur asked, once Merlin was buckled in and rubbing his good hand over the seat.

“I don’t know, am I?”

“Looks it to me,” Arthur said, “Now remember Merlin. Try and keep an open mind and enjoy yourself yeah? You’ve only got a few days here then you’re back in the sea, so you may as well try to enjoy them alright?”

“I am trying,” Merlin said, a shadow of a smile playing about his mouth, “But every time I think I’m succeeding you go and open your big mouth.”

“Ha bloody ha,” Arthur said, starting the car. “Let’s go.”

They quickly left the town behind, tiny as it was. They struck down the main road, surrounded on either side by wide, flat plains, yellow grass and windswept heather growing out of the stony soil. Arthur was making for a hill he could see at the end of the road but it was taking a lot longer than he expected. He drove and drove but it never seemed to draw nearer; the island was bigger than he had thought it seemed.

They passed a lone white house on the side of the road, Merlin swivelling his neck as far as he could to watch it until it passed out of sight.

“Are there going to be People where we’re going?” Merlin asked. Arthur could tell he hadn’t expected to find any living out past the town.

“There might,” Arthur said, “I don’t know.”

“Oh,” Merlin said. He sounded nervous. Arthur felt bad for him.

“Why don’t they like you?” he asked. “The islanders. I mean, not you in particular of course but....”

He was thinking of Leon, who’d released Uther because he hadn’t considered shooting a selkie a crime, Uther himself and even Gwen and Gwaine, initially unwilling to continue a search for Merlin upon hearing evidence he might be a selkie.

“We make storms,” Merlin answered, “I know that makes life a bit harder for People here, since many of them are fisherman – it makes it dangerous for them. But I think it’s more....”

He trailed off.

“Yes?” Arthur asked, curiosity peaked.

Merlin stared unseeingly at his good hand for a long time. Arthur didn’t think he’d seen him so quiet.

“I think People think...that selkies are temptresses,” Merlin finally said.

What?” Arthur burst out laughing. “What you mean like, that you seduce them? That’s ridiculous! How are you supposed to do that, a sexy fin wave? To what end?”

He chuckled at the ridiculousness of island superstitions that would equate selkies with sirens or something similar, but he looked over and Merlin and saw that he wasn’t saying anything, simply staring out the window.

“Can selkies even...you know, with People?” Arthur hoped Merlin knew what he was talking about, because he didn’t think he could say it any clearer without blushing.

“Selkies can lay with People,” Merlin said quietly. He chewed on his lip a moment before adding: “My father was a Man.”

Arthur almost stopped the car.  “Really? So you’re, what, half-human?”

“No,” Merlin said, “It doesn’t work that way. You are a selkie or you are not, you cannot be half a selkie. If you are born on land, you are human, until you enter the water. Then, you will change your form for the first time, and you will be a selkie.”

“Did you used to be human?” Arthur asked.

“For a few minutes. My mother escaped my father, and took me into the water when I was just a babe.”

“Escaped?”

“He had her captive,” Merlin said. “He was hiding her skin. But she found it. She left it where it was, so as not to arouse his suspicion, and when he was busy with the doctor that delivered me, she snuck into his room and took it. She knew he wouldn’t think that she would be active so soon. So she seized her chance.”

“Your mother sounds like quite a woman.”

“She is,” Merlin said, “She knew another selkie in the same position who didn’t get to leave with her child.”

Another one? How many of you does this happen to?”

“I don’t know,” Merlin said, “But I know that when it does, the People blame us.”

“And then the tales get spread that you’re all evil and manipulative seducers,” Arthur said, fuming. “That’s not fair.”

“Mmm,” Merlin said. He didn’t say anything further, but turned his head to continue looking out the window.

Arthur looked at him curiously out of the corner of his eye, wondering at his suddenly sombre mood when it hit him.

“Merlin,” he said, “You know that’s not what I’m doing to you?”

Merlin didn’t say anything, merely turned to look at him.

“You said it yourself yesterday,” Arthur said, desperate for Merlin to know that he wasn’t like that, he would never keep Merlin prisoner. “I’m doing this because I’m helping you.”

“Yes,” Merlin said quietly. “I know.”

“I won’t keep your skin,” Arthur said, “Not once Gwaine gives your hand the all-clear. I promise. Merlin? I promise.”

Merlin watched him for a very long time; nervous, Arthur lifted his gaze momentarily from the road to meet Merlin’s.

But when he looked at him, he saw no fear, only an emotion that Arthur could not name; one that softened Merlin’s eyes, and ghosted a smile across his mouth.

“I know,” he said, “You’re different from the rest.”

“Good,” Arthur said, relieved. Then he smirked. “Pray tell me all the ways I’m different Merlin.”

“Oh no,” Merlin said.

“Better looking,” Arthur listed, smile growing wider as Merlin groaned, “More intelligent. Way more charming....”

Merlin banged his head against the side of the car window, and Arthur laughed.

ooOOoo

Arthur thought the road would travel up the hill but he was wrong. The road swerved around it, and when Arthur rounded the bend, he saw why.

It fell away into one of the most staggeringly beautiful cliffs Arthur had ever seen. Pounded by the ferocious salt winds of the island’s powerful storms, the cliff had been eroded so that its face was not sheer, but curved; a rounded overhang at the top of the cliff curved inwards before twisting abruptly out again, creating what looked almost like a bubble of rock. The effect was repeated, over and over leaving the rock rounded and misshapen, in a wholly staggering way.

And in the middle, an enormous waterfall, glittering in the sun like a thousand diamonds, thin and straight as the cliff was twisted and sinuous. At the bottom of the waterfall was clustered the only group of trees Arthur had seen on the island.

Arthur stopped the car.

“Wow,” he breathed, and even Merlin had nothing to say.

“Let’s go closer,” he said, climbing out of the car.

Like the drive, the walk was longer than it first appeared, but Arthur was so entranced by the striking beauty of the site that he finished it in what felt like minutes.

“Come on!” he called to Merlin, who had stopped to look at the trees. Merlin held out his hand and fingered a leaf gently between thumb and forefinger.

Arthur approached as close to the waterfall as he could without getting wet from the spray. It fell several feet out from the cliff itself, and behind it, at the base he thought he could see a cave.

“Let’s check this out!” he called out to Merlin, who was now standing beneath a fir tree and gazing up into the canopy.

“Alright,” Merlin said, wandering over very slowly, looking at the leaves and moss on the ground. Arthur clicked his tongue and tapped his foot impatiently.

“Here’s a treat for you Merlin,” he said, when Merlin finally arrived, “We’re going into the land itself.”

Merlin’s eyes widened, but Arthur grabbed his good hand and dragged him forward before he had time to protest.

They edged along the base of the cliff, keeping as far from the spray of the waterfall as they possibly could, Arthur still dragging Merlin along by the hand. It didn’t feel necessary to let it go just yet.

Finally, Arthur felt the cliff yawn open behind him and pulled Merlin in.

It was dark inside, but surprisingly large. Arthur waited for his eyes to adjust, feeling Merlin settle in beside him. At one point, Arthur must have let go of his hand, because Merlin quietly slid it into his again.

Arthur’s heart began to race, but he swallowed and said: “shall we go deeper?”

Immediately he cursed his poor choice of words before remembering Merlin wasn’t likely to notice the accidental innuendo.

“I can’t see,” Merlin complained.

“Just give your eyes a minute to adjust,” Arthur said. He waited without saying anything for Merlin to tell him it was ok, and used to time to silently will his heart to stop pounding over Merlin holding his hand. He was probably just doing it because it was comforting in the dark and he didn’t realise the action had meaning.

“Do you see that?” Merlin asked softly.

“What?” Arthur asked, realising he’d been looking at Merlin instead of the cave.

“Over there.”

Arthur turned, and after a moment, he thought he could see what Merlin was talking about; a faint glimmer of light deeper in the cave, where there should be no light at all.

He took a step forward and stumbled; the rocky floor was uneven. He picked his way through the cave carefully, guiding Merlin by the hand through the dark.

He followed the curve of the wall with one hand, until it fell away, and rounding the small corner, Arthur saw it.

Light, like someone had taken the stars and strewn them across the roof of the cave creating his own private milky way. Everywhere, covering the roof and the upper walls were thousands of tiny pinpricks of beautiful, brilliant light.

“Wow,” he whispered.

He felt the cave deserved more words than that. It deserved someone who could do justice to the miniature galaxy hiding in the heart of the earth – a poet maybe, or an artist. But Arthur was neither of those things, so he felt it best to say nothing at all.

“What is it?” Merlin asked, so Arthur continued to follow the wall until he reached a point where the roof was low enough for him to inspect one of the tiny points of light.

“Glow worms,” he said, looking at it. “It’s an animal. They make the light to attract prey.”

He could hardly believe Camelot had been boasting a cave of glow worms all this time, beneath one of the most spectacular cliffs he’d seen, and he’d never known about it. This island had to be one of the best in the Orkneys, and it wasn’t advertising itself at all.

“I should bring Kay here,” he said. His brother had studied tourism at university. Maybe, with Arthur’s help, he could set up a small business here, hire a ferry to bring people over to see it. Arthur could help with the marketing – he’d recently graduated with a degree in business, though he hadn’t yet found a job.

He could hear rushing water from deeper inside the cave, but decided it was too dangerous to venture any further in the dark, so he simply stood hand in hand with Merlin looking about the cave until Merlin asked if it was time to return to the cottage, and he led Merlin outside again.

They separated hands once they reached the small copse of trees. Arthur continued to lead the way back to the car, feeling Merlin’s eyes on him the entire walk back; he wondered if Merlin had something on his mind, and hoped that the trip had managed to impress him.

At the car, Arthur turned back to the cliff for one last look. He felt he couldn’t have offered Merlin a better taste of the special kind of magic of the land.

“Well Merlin,” he said, “I hope you liked it.”

He turned expectantly to Merlin but Merlin only smiled and said:  “I like that you liked it.”

It was like a punch to the chest. All of that, and Merlin was unmoved.

But Merlin was still smiling at him, and Arthur knew logically that he couldn’t hold his likes or dislikes against him, so he tried to swallow his disappointment, and smile back.

He looked up to meet his eyes and his breath hitched. He felt a powerful tug deep in his chest and he suddenly found himself vowing silently: One day, I will make you see it.

But he only said: “Come on Merlin,” and they climbed into the car, back toward the town once more.

ooOOoo

Merlin kept sneaking glances at Arthur the whole way back to the town. He never said anything however, and Arthur was too mired in his own confusion, disappointment and something else he dared not contemplate to even begin to try to pick Merlin’s brain, so they drove back in silence.

Arthur turned off the car and climbed out on auto-pilot, wandering distractedly into the pub, throwing open the door and calling: “Hey Gwaine, got your –“

He stopped dead. Uther was looking up at him from a bar stool.

And Merlin was about to follow him in.

“ – car back,” he finished, quickly slamming the door the behind him and holding it shut.

Knock, knock, knock, came Merlin’s soft tapping on the door.

“Something wrong?” Uther said mildly.

Knock, knock, knock.

“It’s cold out there,” Arthur said, “I don’t fancy letting the wind in.”

He could feel Merlin trying the knob, but gripped it with all his might.

Please Merlin, please. Try the Gedref Lane entrance to my cottage. You must try the other entrance.

“Fair enough,” Uther said, “But you appear to be keeping the other patrons out.”

Merlin jiggled the knob more insistently. Arthur gripped it harder than ever.

Leave Merlin, hurry.

Uther got up from his stool.

Leave Merlin. Now!

Arthur began to sweat. Uther approached ever closer.

Hurry Merlin!

“I don’t think you should be locking other people out in the cold,” Uther said. He stared Arthur right in the eye, as he reached around behind him for the doorknob.

There was nothing Arthur could do. Sweat pouring down his brow, he squeezed his eyes shut and opened the door.

Uther ducked out onto the road and looked around.

There was nothing but the wind blowing a plastic bag across the road in front.  

Arthur sagged against the doorframe in relief.

“What were you doing before you came to the pub?” Uther spun around and demanded of Arthur, and there was nothing mild in his voice now.

“Took Gwaine’s car for a drive,” Arthur answered honestly. “Fancied a look at the interior. You were right about this island. It’s lovely.”

Uther glared at him.

“But – well – cold – if you’ll excuse me –“ he ducked into the pub and slammed the door behind him.

“Why did you lock me out?” A voice in front of him demanded.

Sssshhhhh!!!” Arthur hissed, grabbing Merlin by the elbow and dragging him to the other side of the pub, close to the door to the courtyard. He looked around desperately. 

"Here," he said to Merlin, dragging him over to a booth. "Hide underneath that."

"Why -"

"Just hide!"

Arthur walked over to the front door and pressed his ear up against it, listening for Uther. He tried not to imagine Uther doing the same thing on the other side of the wood, listening for Merlin. 

But there was no sound. Finally, Gwen said from behind the bar: “I think he’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?” Merlin asked grumpily, crawling out from under the booth, “Why did I have to walk all the way around to your cottage and through the courtyard to get in? And why did I have to hide under there? Gwen, there is a spider so big beneath that booth it's about to rise up and declare itself your overlord.”

“Uther was here,” Arthur said quietly.

Merlin immediately paled.

“I’m sorry Merlin,” he said, “But I don’t think we should go outside again for awhile.”

ooOOoo

Arthur locked the door behind him, utterly dejected. After all the effort to ascertain whether or not Uther was hunting for Merlin, he’d ended up being the one to signal to him that Merlin was still on the island.

“Are you alright?” Merlin asked, smiling at him comfortingly.

“I’m sorry Merlin. I didn’t mean to get you locked up in here.”

“It’s alright,” Merlin said, rubbing his arm consolingly. His hand left a trail of tingles up Arthur’s side. “I was only interested in the beach anyway.”

Arthur smiled ruefully.

“What should we have for dinner tonight?” Merlin asked, in an obvious effort to distract him.

Arthur thought hard. Something salty or savoury, preferably with fish in it, but not fish and chips again.

“Tuna bake,” he decided.

“I’ve never eaten tuna,” Merlin said.

“Really?” Arthur was surprised. “Is there no tuna around here?”

“No there’s tuna,” Merlin answered, “But they’re too big for me.”

Arthur pursed his lips in confusion before realising. Full grown tuna were enormous fish, forming huge schools and Merlin in his other form...

He stopped. For some reason, thinking of Merlin as a seal was suddenly distasteful to him, in a way it never had been before.

“Well you’ll like this,” he said, “It’s basically just fish and cheese.”

“You can show me how to cook,” Merlin said, dragging Arthur along by the arm to the kitchen. Arthur gave a small smile despite himself and Merlin spotted it, his face lighting up. His talk became more animated.

“It’s about time you showed me something useful,” he said, grinning, “I mean, I might get stuck in this form again and need to know how to feed myself and really all you’ve done to prepare me is show me I hate porridge.”

“Now that’s not fair Merlin,” Arthur said, putting aside his fears and confusion and joining in, “What would you have done if left to your own devices, eaten raw fish?”

“Well show me how to cook it then,” Merlin said, smiling wide.

Damn you, Arthur thought, feeling his heart melt. God fucking damn you, you can’t do this to me, you don’t return it, you don’t even know what you’re doing.

“Sure,” he said, mouth dry.

Merlin hovered by Arthur’s side as he opened the first can of tuna over the sink, promptly declaring it “cheating” when he saw it contained fish that had already been cooked.

“This is how you cook Merlin,” Arthur said, “This is what everyone does.”

“How am I supposed to cook tuna in future?” Merlin asked.

“You won’t have to. You’ll go to the grocery store and buy a can like everyone else.”

Merlin pouted at that idea and Arthur tried not to notice how adorable it was.

Merlin made things even more irritating by standing far closer to Arthur than he needed to watch him grate cheese. Arthur could feel the heat of Merlin’s body sending shivers all the way up his side, and kept missing the cheese with the grater.

“You don’t seem very good at this,” Merlin said smirking.

“Well someone keeps distracting me,” Arthur snapped without thinking.  

Merlin blushed and quickly stepped back, leaving Arthur reeling.

If Merlin stepped back, did he know he’d been standing too close? What did that mean?

Stop it, Arthur told himself, you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Nevertheless, the meal was an awkward affair consisting more of stolen glances than of any actual eating and when Arthur awkwardly suggested they go to bed, he thought he wasn’t the only one lying awake.

ooOOoo

The next morning, Arthur awoke hard.

He lay awake for several minutes trying to picture his least favourite school teacher, a woman by the name of Grunhilda, naked in an effort to will down his erection, but Merlin lying right next to him was too powerful distraction.

In the end, he was able to sneak out of bed for a cold shower without disturbing Merlin, and once done, he walked straight over to the pub and asked Gwaine if he could take a look at Merlin’s hand and tell him how long it would be until he could leave.

“Gimme a ‘ec yeah?” Gwaine said, spraying scrambled eggs everywhere, while Gwen rolled her eyes at him, “ ‘aven’t ‘ad a sho’er yet.”

He returned to the cottage to find Merlin sitting on the edge of the bed. He stood up as soon Arthur walked in.

“Where were you?”

“Just asking Gwaine to have a look at your hand, make sure everything’s coming along fine,” he said.

“Oh,” Merlin looked down at the arm in a sling, and abruptly Arthur realised that he hadn’t changed Merlin’s bandages the previous day like he was supposed to.

“Sit down,” he told Merlin. “Can’t have Gwaine thinking I’m neglectful.”

“What?” Merlin asked, but he did as he was instructed.

Arthur left the room and returned with fresh bandages, crouching on the floor in front of Merlin.

“Give us a look at that arm...” he said, reaching up to remove it from the sling.

But Merlin did not respond. Instead, his eyes travelled slowly up from Arthur’s hand to his face, locking like a magnet onto Arthur’s eyes, and he did not look away.

Arthur slowly unravelled the bandage, letting his fingers brush over Merlin’s, locked in his intense gaze, and before he knew it, the bandage was on the floor, but Arthur was still crouching there, still stroking Merlin’s fingertips, still looking into his blue eyes and he couldn’t stop, he was stuck.

“Merlin....” he said, but Merlin was leaning forward and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world, to rise up on his knees and meet his lips with his own.

Arthur had expected that Merlin would taste cool and salty, just like the sea, but he didn’t; he tasted like a normal person. His lips quivered shyly and invitingly under his and Arthur shifted his bottom lip, pushed it between Merlin’s, coaxed his mouth open –

Bang!

“Sorry,” Gwaine called, as Arthur and Merlin sprang apart, “Didn’t mean to open the door so hard. Hey where are you?”

“Here,” Arthur called, once he had found his voice, “In the bedroom.”

Gwaine marched in swinging his medical bag. Arthur retreated as far from Merlin as he possibly could, trembling all over. For some reason he could not fight the urge to hold the back of his hand in front of his mouth, as though wishing to hide the evidence of what Gwaine had almost caught them doing.

“Already got your bandage off I see,” Gwaine said, giving Merlin a friendly smile, “Give us a look at that hand.”

He spent a long time inspecting it. He muttered a lot about the the pins holding the shattered bone in place and the need to keep the muscles and tendons in the hand moving, before wrapping it up again and placing it back in the sling with a smile.

“I know you don’t want to stay here longer than you have to,” Gwaine said, “But this really is a long term injury that needs long term attention.”

Arthur’s heart leapt at the same time that it tumbled.

“So how would you feel about starting some exercises for it in a couple of days, and if they go well, Arthur can give you your skin on the condition that you return for checkups on its progress once a week for a few weeks?”

Merlin let out an audible breath and smiled, broadly and genuinely. “So I can be gone in a few days?”

“If all goes as well as it has been,” Gwaine said gently.

“Excellent,” Merlin said sincerely. He smiled hopefully, unaware that his obvious desire to return to the sea was currently slicing up Arthur’s heart.

Gwaine looked to where Arthur was standing in the corner, chewing on his thumbnail. “I’ll see you in a couple of days then,” he said, expression inscrutable. “In the meantime Merlin, keep up with the antibiotics.”

Arthur nodded and Gwaine returned to the pub, leaving a heavy silence in the room behind him.

“I should make you breakfast,” Arthur said breaking it jerkily, “So you can take your pills.”

Merlin nodded watching him closely. “Arth-“

But Arthur was already heading out the door.

He hardly watched the eggs he was frying in a pan, too busy listing off all the reasons it would be stupid to let himself get attached to Merlin.

He was still busy on the list when he turned to put the eggs on a plate and found Merlin himself right in front of him. He halted momentarily before pulling himself together and deftly swerving around him.

“Here,” Arthur said, dumping the plate on the table.

Merlin looked from the plate to Arthur with something like irritation in his eyes, but before he could open his mouth, Arthur spoke first.

“What I did in the bedroom....I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t fair to either of us and I won’t do it again.”

Merlin jutted his chin boldly and asked: “Why? I liked it.”

Arthur was temporarily stumped.

He liked it?

Traitorous, treacherous hope bloomed in his chest.

“You....sorry, what? You liked it?”

“Yes.” Suddenly Merlin smiled. “You’re a stubborn arrogant prat, but I like you.”

Arthur couldn’t speak. His ears were rushing, his heart charging like a bull. His brain seemed to have switched itself off, the mantra he likes me, he likes me repeating over and over, chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga, rhythmic like a train.

“Oh,” he said idiotically, “Ok.”

Merlin laughed at him. Then he sat down and ate his eggs (well-salted) as though nothing at all had happened.

Arthur stared at him.

He’s not staying, a voice inside Arthur was saying, from deep inside the wound Merlin had inflicted only a few minutes ago, when he had seemed so happy to be leaving soon. He’ll hurt you.

He likes me.

I can’t be left again. Not after Dad.

He likes me.

Arthur cleared his throat.

“Listen,” he said, “I like....I like you too. Even though you’re an idiot.”

Merlin looked up from his eggs, face warm and sunny.

“But,” Arthur hurried on, before that face could melt his resolve, “I don’t think it would be a good idea to do anything about it. With neither of us staying once your hand is healed, it...doesn’t seem very prudent.”

“If you say so.”

See? He didn’t put up much of a fight.

Arthur took a breath and held it. He did not exhale until he had pushed every single emotion warring inside of him deep down into himself to be dealt with later.

“So, we shouldn’t let you out where you might be seen by Uther for awhile....what would you like to do today then?”

“How should I know?” Merlin laughed, but his smile was warm and Arthur knew he was asking the question literally, not sarcastically.

Arthur thought for a moment.

“Internet,” he decided. If there was a bigger time suck than youtube Arthur didn’t know it.

“I’ve never been able to work out what that is,” Merlin said conversationally, as Arthur pulled out his laptop and switched it on, “I’ve only ever heard the islanders complain that it’s crap out here.”

“I suppose it would be,” Arthur said, balancing the computer on his lap. Merlin plonked down beside him and leaned across him a little to look at the screen, and damn him, he was testing Arthur’s resolve already.

“So, basically, the internet is like television crossed with books, except you get to choose what you want to read or watch by typing in search terms,” Arthur said. Merlin was so close Arthur’s breath was ghosting along Merlin’s ear and Arthur’s body was responding accordingly – he was half-hard already.

I shouldn’t be doing this.

But he didn’t push Merlin away.

“What do you want to watch?” he asked.

“The sea,” Merlin answered, in a voice full of longing, and Arthur felt an irrational anger rise in him in response. He didn’t want to show Merlin the sea. He wanted to show Merlin the land.

But he couldn’t deny him, so he opened youtube and typed in “selkies” instead. The search mostly turned up some songs about them, though there was one old animated tale called “The Selkie Bride”. Merlin scoffed at the notion that selkies came ashore to dance at the very beginning of the tale, and so Arthur was spared watching what he was sure would be a story that hit far too close to home.

He clicked on a suggested video about mermaids instead and laughed at Merlin’s aggravation.

“People can’t get anything right!” he said, “That’s not what a mermaid looks like! And why are all the sea creatures in these stories always women?”

“What do mermaids look like then?” Arthur asked teasingly.

“Well not like People for a start. Their eyes are much bigger, so they can see underwater, and their hair looks like seaweed for camouflage, and they have gills on their necks and their fingers end in claws for defence.”

“Defence against what?”

“Mermaids are vicious territorial,” Merlin answered. Abruptly he shucked off his shirt, making Arthur blush. “See?” he said, pointing at a thin white scar on his shoulder, “I got that from a mermaid. Swam too far into her territory, on my way to see my mother.”

“Wow,” Arthur said. He didn’t know why, but it hadn’t occurred to him that if selkies were real, all other manner of magical sea creatures, and maybe even magical land creatures, must be real too.

He pointed at a much larger scar on Merlin’s chest, right over his heart. He couldn’t help but begin to trace it softly, before realising what he was doing and pulling back. Merlin shivered.

“What’s that from?” he asked.

“The old sea witch,” Merlin answered.

“Sea witch?” Arthur asked. He was put in mind of the character Ursula, from the little mermaid. “Let me guess, they don’t look like half-women, half-octopuses?”

Merlin laughed.

“No. Sea witches don’t really have one form, they’re fluid, like the ocean – they change it all the time. You can always tell it’s them though, by the....I don’t know....feel of them.”

“What do they do?”

“They rule,” Merlin answered, “They tell the mermaids which territories are theirs – mermaids are always fighting over that kind of thing you see – they allocate storm quotas to selkies and keep the sea dragons under control –“

“What do you mean under control?”

Merlin hesitated. “Well....sea dragons eat People. There can’t be too many boats sinking each year or the People get suspicious.”

Arthur’s mouth fell open.

“But the old sea witch, she hated this island. She attacked it personally a number of times, I saw her, always the headland by the pier.”

Near Uther’s house, Arthur thought.

“She was making it dangerous for the People, but that’s not what a sea witch is supposed to do. She’s supposed to keep the balance of the sea, not concern herself with the land. If she’d been doing her job, I never would have been attacked by that mermaid swimming to Escetia for example, because she never would have given him territory so many other creatures need to use. So I deposed her.”

“How did you do that?” Arthur asked, impressed.

“I made the journey to the kingdom of the neighbouring sea witch,” Merlin said, “It took me a long time. I’d never really left this island, these are my waters, and for a selkie to leave, it’s a dangerous thing. Someone could supplant me while I was gone, and in the open waters I was exposing myself to kelpies and mermaids, but I knew I had to do it. I slipped my skin and walked on land where I could. I reached Morgause and I petitioned her on behalf of our kingdom to expand hers. Sea witches are concerned naturally with balance, but they are also greedy. They don’t attack one another because it is not in the best interest of the balance of the sea, but I knew that if I could convince her that peace would jeopardise balance, then her natural greed for power would ensure she would attack the old sea witch. And she did. But I’d forgotten how much the old sea witch’s hatred of Camelot drew her here, and she’d noticed it was my mother swimming these waters, not me. She found out what I’d done and attacked me.”

“What happened?” Arthur asked in a hushed whisper.

Merlin shrugged. “The new sea witch arrived, just in time.”

“Wow,” Arthur said, settling back. Then: “The sea sounds like a dangerous place.”

“It can be wild and terrible,” Merlin agreed, “But its wildness is part of its magic I think. It’s untamed. You are tamed by it, not the other way around, as People do with the land.”

Can I tame you? Arthur thought, before telling himself he was being stupid. What were glow worms to kelpies, the internet to ferocious mermaids, trees to the towering heights of a wild wave in a storm? What did he have to offer?

He likes me.

He needed to bury that thought. But surely, Merlin wasn’t like the other sea creatures. By his very nature, he belonged at least partly to the land, or why did he possess the ability to change his form?

He was treading on the thin ice of madness he knew. He shoved the computer onto Merlin and quickly stood up.

“I’m....” but he couldn’t think of anything he needed to be doing.

And Merlin was sitting there, skin as pale as sea foam and eyes as blue as deep water, corded muscle rippling like a wave as he stood up.

Arthur took a step back, heart racing.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked, stepping toward him, “What’s wrong?”

And like the dam inside that had flooded to let out his pent up grief, something inside Arthur snapped all at once.

Suddenly, he was moving toward Merlin, he was grabbing him forcefully by the waist, yanking him close, and before he knew it, he was kissing him hungrily.

Merlin was a fast learner. His mouth opened to Arthur’s quickly this time, no encouragement needed, and Arthur was already sliding his tongue in. Wildness had overcome him, and he started backing Merlin up until he hit the wall with a thud.

Merlin hissed as the action jarred his hand, but Arthur couldn’t stop. He ground his hips down until Merlin was hissing for a very different sort of reason, and began sucking his way down his neck, reaching for the fly of Merlin’s trousers.

He stopped just short of yanking them down, pulling back to scrutinise Merlin’s face, but his pupils were blown wide and he knew he wanted it just as much as Arthur did.

He reached for his own trousers with one hand, and with the other, he reached in to Merlin’s trousers, cupped his balls, and then took him in hand.

Merlin’s head fell back against the wall with a thunk, his good hand scrabbling at the wall for support.

Arthur leaned in and placed a soft kiss to his neck, while he slowly undid his own trousers. Carefully, he lined himself up with Merlin, and began stroking them both at once.

Merlin was breathing hard, his pulse beneath Arthur’s lips racing. Arthur sped up his pace, reaching down with another hand to fondle Merlin’s balls and –

Merlin came with a full body shudder.

The sight of him was enough to send Arthur over the edge not long after.

Merlin slid down the wall until he was resting on the floor, looking up at Arthur through heavily lidded eyes.

“Come on,” Arthur said, smiling down at him and giving him a hand. Merlin took it with his good one and pulled himself up.

Arthur cleaned them both up, guilt beginning to curdle in his stomach. He shouldn’t have done that. He should have known better than to give in to his impulses. Nothing about this situation was a good idea.

But it was difficult to remember that, in the face of Merlin’s smile. It was hard to remember, when Merlin sat so close to Arthur on the sofa and it felt so natural to put an arm around him and pull him in as they watched television. It was strange to recall, as Arthur found a box of crayons where the dvd player should be, and spent the afternoon teaching to Merlin to draw, laughing as they drew increasingly ridiculous pictures of each other, with devil’s horns and pug noses and labelled them accurate.

He thought Gwen might know what he was trying to remember, as she came over that evening to return the blankets, her eyes sliding suspiciously from Arthur to Merlin.

But that night, when Arthur slipped into bed beside Merlin anyway, and curled an arm around his chest, he found he had forgotten.

ooOOoo

The next day was a torment of confusion to Arthur.

Merlin seemed happy, his usual bright and bubbly self, dancing around the cottage to a ridiculous music video Arthur had shown him on youtube, accepting all of his kisses with a broad smile and sometimes a suggestive look that made Arthur’s blood run hot.

By the afternoon, Merlin had wound Arthur up so much that he’d given in to the desire to show Merlin what could be achieved with his mouth, as well as his hands, and Merlin had come so hard he’d cried Arthur’s name.

But Arthur knew that Merlin still craved the sea.

He spent every waking minute that he was not with Merlin researching things that might catch his interest; exotic locations, magical creatures that might still exist, havens of culture and entertainment. If any one of these could make him happy, then surely he could be persuaded to put aside his skin, and leave the sea forever.

And every time he thought he was crazy, that there was no way that plan could work, that it was in no way right that he should even try, he would catch Merlin’s eye, and Merlin would kiss him and his heart and resolve would melt a little more.

ooOOoo

But Gwaine arrived before Arthur could put his plan into motion.

He had thought, from information sourced of hours of hard searching on google, that he might be able to find some faeries deep in the remaining forests of the Scottish highlands.

He had asked Merlin, how would he like to see some land magic?

“That’s silly,” Merlin had laughed, “There’s no more magic on the land. The People drove it away.”

But this page said that there was, in a few very select places in the world, and Arthur had trusted it because it was accurate in its description of selkies.

“Maybe there is,” Arthur said, pulling Merlin close and kissing under his ear, “Don’t you want to see if there is?”

Something flickered in Merlin’s eyes, as he turned to study Arthur, something unreadable.

“Maybe,” he said unenthusiastically, and then he’d pushed himself up from the sofa, away from Arthur, and excused himself from the room without listing a reason.

Arthur had taken it as good as a yes, or at least as close to a yes as he was likely to get, but then Gwaine had come for Merlin’s check up.

“It’s healing faster than I would have expected,” he said, flexing Merlin’s hand and smiling at him. “Must be part of your selkie magic trying to get back into the sea.”

 “How long until I can?” Merlin asked.

“You won’t be here for too much longer,” Gwaine smiled, while Arthur’s blood ran cold, “Only another few days and then you can return. Provided you come back for checkups of course, that’s still non-negotiable.”

Merlin nodded.

 “I’ll show you some exercises now,” Gwaine said, and they began working the hand, oblivious to the terror rising in Arthur.

Merlin couldn’t leave. Arthur still hadn’t managed to convince him to stay, if he left now.....

But he likes me.

Arthur knew he did. But still...

Fear was rising in Arthur like a wave, until an insidious thought trickled across his brain and washed it away.

He can’t leave.

Until Arthur gave him the skin, he was physically incapable of it.

No, he thought quickly.

Arthur couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t.

He walked away from Merlin’s hand exercises, intending on drowning his sorrows in a bath, but as he passed the window onto the courtyard, he looked out at the stone that he knew hid Merlin’s only means of escape, and felt it calling to him.

Or was it his own guilt?

I won’t do that. I mustn’t.

He continued past the bathroom, and lay fully clothed on the bed instead.

There was little here to distract him from the enticements of that idea, of hiding the skin forever until even Merlin forgot what he was; even less to distract him from the awful fear of that horrible, insidious temptation to put aside all morals and give in to his desires.

I don’t need to keep it forever. I wouldn’t do that to him. I just need to keep it until I can show him he’d be happy here, that’s all.  

But I promised I’d give it back as soon as his hand was healed.

He lay staring up at the ceiling, half drowning in the raging arguments inside his own head, until Merlin entered half an hour later.

He quickly sat up and pasted a smile onto his face.

“Gone soon,” Merlin declared happily.

No you won’t be, whispered a little voice inside Arthur. He pushed it down, and stretched his smile wider for Merlin’s sake.

He stretched a hand out to him, and trailed it softly up Merlin’s neck, cataloguing every detail while they were still his to catalogue. Merlin’s eyes closed, and when they opened again, his stare was hard and his pupils dilated.

“Come here,” whispered Arthur.

Merlin shuffled forward on the bed, stopping centimetres from Arthur’s face. Arthur leaned forward and captured his lips as gently as he could, taking his time with them; he brushed lightly, tasted them with his tongue, pressed harder with his bottom lip until they opened beneath him.

He ran one hand up Merlin’s bad arm until it was resting on his shoulder, snaked the other up his side and around his back, and in one fluid movement, he gently flipped Merlin down onto the bed and rolled on top of him.

Merlin’s legs wrapped around him, pressing their hard cocks together through the fabric of their pants. Arthur moved down his neck and lifted Merlin’s shirt and pressed kisses down his stomach. Merlin bucked his hips once Arthur reached his trousers in expectation of the blow job Arthur had given him last time, but Arthur had other ideas.

This time was special.

He sat up and pulled off his shirt and trousers, and then reached across to the bedside table where he’d put the lube he’d packed out of habit.

He returned to Merlin’s chest, sucking at the nipples until they pebbled, and then slowly pulled Merlin’s trousers off, and lowered his mouth to the head of Merlin’s cock.

Merlin gasped as he took as much of him in as he could in one go; he had never done that before. But this was not the end point of tonight’s adventures, so Arthur swirled his tongue around the head while he uncapped the lube.

Merlin stopped mid-moan when he felt the lubed tip of Arthur’s finger press gently at his hole.

“Trust me,” Arthur said, catching his gaze.

Merlin held them with eyes wide and uncertain, but the trust that Arthur was looking for was there too. He nodded.

Arthur pressed in. Merlin hissed, but Arthur rubbed the top of his thigh reassuringly until he relaxed, then wriggled around until he found the spot that always made men come apart.

He knew he’d succeeded when Merlin gave a startled shout. “What’s –“

“I told you to trust me,” Arthur said with a smile.

Merlin lay back with a grin. “Sometimes I don’t know about you.”

Arthur smiled, and then added another finger. Merlin grimaced, but Arthur kissed him, and he slowly exhaled and relaxed.

Arthur rubbed at the same spot he had before, making Merlin moan, until he scissored his fingers apart. Merlin sat up a little in shock, and looking at Arthur’s erection, his eyes widened and Arthur knew he’d put two and two together.

He looked up at Arthur.

“Only if you want to,” Arthur said gently.

Merlin swallowed, and nodded.

Arthur removed his fingers, lubed up a third, and put all three in at once. Merlin stiffened but Arthur didn’t need to tell him to relax again; he was already breathing slowly, and Arthur bent down and swallowed him almost to the root as he worked Merlin open.

He slid up and down the shaft until he was sure Merlin was ready; then he looked up.

“Ready?” he asked.

Merlin nodded.

Arthur rolled on a condom, slicked himself up and pressed in.

Merlin was warm and tight; Arthur groaned.

Merlin’s breath hitched and his eyes were wide, so Arthur took it as slow as possible, stopping every few seconds to allow him to adjust.

Merlin was breathing deep and Arthur kissed him until finally, after an excruciating few moments, he bottomed out.

He stopped again, kissing Merlin on his eyes, his lips, his neck until he felt him stop trembling.

“Tell me when I hit that spot again yeah?” he whispered.

Merlin nodded, so Arthur slowly pulled back and then thrust experimentally, watching Merlin’s face. Merlin’s eyelids fluttered, but he was still relaxed, so Arthur changed angles and thrust again, and again, until he found what he was looking for; Merlin’s eyes flew open and Arthur knew he’d found it.

He grinned, and thrust deep and slow, building up a rhythm.

Merlin was panting, moaning and sweating, and yet, Arthur thought he’d never looked more beautiful than from this angle. He drove in again and again, making Merlin cry out, feeling his heart swell with his impending orgasm, until Merlin came. Fuelled by Merlin’s pleasure, Arthur thrust harder until, unable to stop himself, he said: “I love you” as he came.

He froze, realising his mistake.

“I love you too,” Merlin croaked.

Arthur’s heart soared.

Merlin loved him!

He loved him.

Arthur couldn’t throw this opportunity away, both for his own sake and Merlin’s. How often did love come along? He hadn’t known Merlin very long and already he knew he loved him and what was more, Merlin loved him back.  

And if Merlin loved him back, then Arthur couldn’t let him leave. At least not until later, until after he’d shown him he could be just as happy on land as in the sea. He had to give this a proper chance. If his father’s death and his estrangement from Kay had taught him anything, it was that you should treasure people while you still had the chance; you should hang on to them, as tight as you could, because one day you would be woken by the cold voice of a half-interested doctor telling you they were gone.

If he let Merlin go, Merlin would return to the sea and look back on these days and what he had lost and regret it, and Arthur....

He rolled off the condom, lay beside Merlin, wrapped his arms around him and listened to his breathing become slow and rhythmic.

Until then, he’d have to keep hiding the skin, a bit longer than he’d said he would.

He squirmed guiltily, but pushed it down.

It was for the best.

ooOOoo

The next day, Arthur woke early and booted up the laptop while Merlin was still asleep. Then he booked not one, but two tickets off the island for the following week.

He steepled his hands together once it was done, thinking. He could easily lend Merlin some clothes as he had been doing, at least until they got to the mainland and bought some more, but how to hide the skin.....?

Eventually he decided the risk of Merlin finding the skin in the luggage outweighed Arthur’s desire to make sure it was safe by having it with him at all times. He would have to leave it buried under the stone in the courtyard; it was well hidden there, if Uther somehow concluded they hadn’t taken it with them when they left the island.

The only remaining problem was Gwaine. Arthur couldn’t have him telling Merlin he was alright to go back into the water; Merlin would think Arthur was keeping him prisoner if he didn’t immediately return the skin.

He’d have to keep them separated. He could tell Merlin that Gwaine had told him his hand wasn’t recovered enough to return to the water yet, and hadn’t wanted to deliver the bad news himself. Then he could suggest waiting on the mainland for something different. He’d already decided on visiting the faerie site. Merlin was a creature of magic, magic was the most likely of Arthur’s options to appeal to him.

Then, he would stay on the land of his own accord.

“Morning,” Merlin said, wandering out and startling him. Arthur hurriedly snapped the laptop shut.

“Morning,” he replied. He stood up and gave Merlin a soft kiss.

“What’s for breakfast?” Merlin asked cheerfully.

Arthur cooked a fry-up and suggested that they spend the day walking the cliffs along the shore of the other side of the island, away from where Uther might see them.

Merlin’s face lit up at the notion of spending the day by the sea, and after packing a picnic they walked over to the pub to borrow Gwen and Gwaine’s car again, though only Arthur had checked it was Gwen, and not Gwaine they were borrowing it from; he didn’t need Gwaine reminding Merlin to do his hand exercises. If Merlin could be consistently distracted enough to forget, then saying his hand’s recovery had slowed wouldn’t be a lie.

It was, for once, a beautifully sunny day. The sunlight danced and sparkled off the ocean, the waves were beautiful, long even rows of straight lines that broke crisp and clean, and the wind was soft against their faces.

Merlin drank it all in with a sigh.

Arthur tried not to be jealous. Soon, he reminded himself, we’re leaving soon. Nonetheless, he could not resist the urge to take Merlin by the hand and try to distract him from the view with playful shoving, kisses and conversation until it was time for lunch.

Afterward, they made love in the grass and napped in the sunshine.

“Don’t you think this is perfect?” Arthur asked Merlin once they woke up.

“I told you it was,” Merlin said with a smile.

“Not the sea,” Arthur said, “This.”

Merlin’s smile faded.

Arthur waited for him to respond to tell him yes it was or no it wasn’t, but he never did. Instead, he abruptly stood, shaking himself free of Arthur’s embrace, and suggested shortly that they go for a walk along the cliffs.

As they walked, Arthur tried to shake him from his fey mood by engaging him in conversation once again, pointing out this seabird or that spectacular wave, but Merlin only smiled weakly at him, and when Arthur turned away, he thought he saw, from the corner of his eye, a small look of worry in his eyes.

ooOOoo

Arthur encouraged Merlin to go to bed early that night and read a book with him. He had discovered the previous day that Merlin couldn’t read, to his great surprise (though it shouldn’t have been – where was he likely to find books underwater after all?) and was determined to teach him.

He’d hoped that the exhausting activity conducted in bed after such a long day would mean Merlin fell asleep without doing his hand exercises, but to no avail; Merlin unwrapped and stretched and twisted his hand whilst listening to Arthur teach him the alphabet.

“But I still don’t understand why C says ‘kuh’ and ‘suh’” Merlin complained.

“It just does,” Arthur said a little snappily.

Merlin smirked at him. “See you think it’s stupid too.”

“Look, just because it’s stupid doesn’t mean that’s not what it says alright? It’s ‘k’ and ‘s’, deal with it.”

“Ok,” Merlin said, still smirking and wrapping up his hand, “But I want to continue this tomorrow.”

And so they did, scratching out letters on paper strewn all over the kitchen table, until there was a knock on the door.

Gwaine.

“Er....Merlin you stay here, practise sounding words out.”

“Alright,” Merlin said, frowning over a book.

Arthur got up and hurried to the door, opening it only as much as he needed to slip out and closing it behind him again.

To his relief, it was not Gwaine, but Gwen.

“What?” he snapped.

She raised her eyebrows in surprise.

“I mean – I’m sorry, that was rude of me.”

“That’s alright,” she said slowly, “I was just coming over for a visit, see how you guys are getting on. Maybe spend some time with Merlin again before he leaves.”

“You can’t,” Arthur said quickly.

She stared at him in disbelief.

“He’s sick,” Arthur said, thinking fast.

“I’ll fetch Gwaine then,” she said, turning away in concern but Arthur grabbed her arm before she could leave.

“No don’t!” he said without thinking.

Her eyes travelled meaningfully to where his fingers were digging into her elbow, and he let go, ashamed.

“Arthur,” she said gently, “We need to have a talk.”

“We have nothing to talk about,” he said gruffly.

“I think we do,” she said, in a tone that brooked no argument.                             

He looked back anxiously at the door – Merlin would be waiting for him – but Gwen cleared her throat, and he knew he had no choice but to follow.

She walked behind the bar, pulled two beers, and led Arthur to a booth in the corner.

“Tell me what’s been going on with Merlin,” she said, pushing a beer in front of him. Arthur sipped at it politely, and pushed it away.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Really,” she said dryly.

“Yes.”

“Well that’s good,” she said, “Because if there were anything going on, my advice to you would be to always remember that a selkie’s one true love is the sea.”

“What do you mean by that?” he asked, suddenly angry.

“It means,” she said carefully, “That no matter how much he might seem to feel for –“

“He does love me,” he said, earlier denials already forgotten.

“Be that as it may,” Gwen said carefully, “Selkies aren’t humans. They don’t feel things the way we do. It won’t matter to him that he loves you what will matter to him is that he doesn’t love you as much as –“

“You don’t know that,” he said.

“Arthur,” she said, “Listen to me. I grew up around here, I know a bit about selkies. There’s no shortage of stories of People falling in love with selkies, and they all end the same way. A selkie can’t be parted from the sea, no matter how much you will it.”

“Is that all?” Arthur growled.

Gwen sighed.

“Yes that’s all,” she said.

“Good,” he said.

He left his beer unfinished and trudged back across the courtyard alone, taking some deep breaths to calm himself before opening the front door – he didn’t want to upset Merlin.

“I hate C’s,” Merlin declared as soon as he saw him, throwing a piece paper on which he’d been writing with his left hand over his head.

“What about oceans?” Arthur joked.

Merlin glared at him. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Arthur sat beside Merlin and quietly watched him painstakingly scrawl the alphabet across a sheet of paper, unable to stop replaying his conversation with Gwen in his head – or completely quash the feeling of guilt it raised.

“Merlin,” he said finally, “You do love me don’t you?”

“Yes,” Merlin said in surprise, “Why?”

“No reason,” Arthur said quietly. I just needed to remind myself I’m doing the right thing.

A selkie’s one true love is the sea.

Not this one, he thought. Merlin had trekked for weeks through oceans and over land to find a new sea witch to replace the old one when by his own admission, selkies never left their waters. Merlin had battled mermaids and witches and Uther.

If ever there were a selkie that could be convinced to change, he told the nerves and uncertainty beginning to curdle in his belly, surely, it would have to be Merlin.

ooOOoo

Arthur woke Merlin early the next day and told him they were going to climb the hill with the cave today.

Merlin didn’t seem overly enthused, but acquiesced without fuss.

“Come on,” Arthur harried, watching him slowly eat his eggs, “hurry up, we have to leave soon.”

“What’s the rush?” Merlin asked.

Today was the day Gwaine came for Merlin’s final check up. Arthur felt the anxiety pounding through him like waves crashing through his veins.

“No rush, just come on.”

They left the cottage while the sun was still coming up. Arthur told Merlin it was too early to wake Gwen and Gwaine; in reality, he had gone to the pub the previous night and met a friendly farmer with enormous arms named Percival who had agreed to lend them his car.

“Why couldn’t we just wake up later and borrow Gwen’s?” Merlin complained as they walked down the main road out of town, teeth chattering, “I’m cold.”

“This way we get to see the sunrise,” Arthur said breezily, trying to keep his pounding heart under control.

Soon, he would have to tell Merlin he couldn’t return to the sea. A rush of fear rose up from his belly, but Arthur met it head on. He was doing the right thing. Merlin might not like it initially, but if he was forced to give it a chance, he would change his mind, Arthur knew he would.

“Warm me up would you?” Merlin asked, shivering all over. Arthur smiled and wrapped his arms around him from behind, pressing all of his body against Merlin’s.

“Better?” he asked.

“Just barely,” Merlin responded cheekily.

“Here, stand on my feet,” Arthur said. Merlin laughed as Arthur tried to walk the both of them up the lane leading from the road to Percival’s lone cottage.

“No, – one two, one two – get it right Merlin, Jesus.” They collapsed breathless and giggling on Percival’s doorstep.

I can’t give you up, Arthur thought, looking at Merlin’s rosy cheeks, reddened by the cold, and broad grin, if I don’t learn to hang on to the things I’ve got, what was the point of Dad’s death?

But the nerves did not retreat. And no matter how often Arthur tried to rationalise or will them away, he was plagued by them for the rest of the day.

They were there when Merlin reached for his hand in the car, smiling at him. They were there when he raced Merlin to the top of the hill, laughing and shoving all the way. They were there when he spun Merlin to face him at the top, and pressed against him body to body, and kissed him in the sunshine. He took no joy in any of it.  They were all distractions from the knowledge of what he must do when they returned to the cottage.

“Who is that?” Merlin asked, as Arthur’s phone rang for the third time.

Arthur shuffled awkwardly to reach it in his pocket; Merlin was lying across his lap. He forced himself to look at the phone as he silenced it. The guilt would be made worse by not facing it, and Arthur didn’t need that – he was doing the right thing.

“Don’t know,” he answered, rejecting the call from a number he knew must be Gwaine’s. “Here I’ll put my phone on silent.”

“No need,” Merlin said, “We should probably return to the cottage anyway. Gwaine needs to see me today.”

Guilt squirmed uncomfortably in Arthur’s belly, but he said only: “If that’s what you want.”

So they drove back, Merlin’s silence far more comfortable than Arthur’s.

They walked back to the cottage hand in hand and once there, Arthur told Merlin to wait inside, and he would go and fetch Gwaine himself.

He trudged heavily to the pub, took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and then marched inside, asking a startled Gwen behind the bar if he could see Gwaine.

“I’ll let you upstairs,” she said, perhaps reading some desire for privacy in his face. He walked around behind the bar, and opened the door to the staircase that led to Gwen and Gwaine’s home above the pub.

“Finally,” Gwaine said, throwing open the door at the top when Arthur had knocked and announced himself, “I’ve been calling you all day.”

He stopped, seeing Arthur was alone. “Where’s Merlin?”

Arthur had thought long and hard about what to tell Gwaine, but in the end, had decided that one lie was too already too many to keep track of.

“He’s not coming,” Arthur said softly, “And you can’t see him.”

It was as though Gwaine’s shock was sucking all sound from the room, leaving nothing behind but a thick silence.

Arthur didn’t break it. He had nothing further to say.

Finally, Gwaine let out a long breath. Then he squared his shoulders and raised himself to his full height. Arthur hadn’t realised until now that he was taller than him.

“Listen Princess,” he said coldly, “I’m not Gwen to try and make this nice and easy for you. Merlin is a selkie. I’m not certain what you think you’re playing at, but I think I know, and let me tell you something. The list of things Merlin truly loves is only one item long, and it doesn’t include you.”

Arthur was flooded with rage, and before he knew what he was doing, he was moving forward to strike Gwaine but Gwaine grabbed him by the hand.

“Going to hit me over it?” Gwaine asked.

Arthur glared at him.

“You need to get a few things sorted,” Gwaine said, “Starting with this. If you think you can stop me from seeing my patient, you’re mental.”

“Yeah?” Arthur asked, “What if he doesn’t want to see you?”

“I highly doubt that,” Gwaine said, “I’m his ticket away from you.”

“You fucking –“

Gwaine tightened his grip on Arthur’s hand, but Arthur swung with his left and caught him in the temple. Gwaine staggered to the floor and landed with a heavy thunk, dragging Arthur down by the wrist.

Arthur landed sprawled on top of him, but he was quicker on his feet; within seconds, he’d scrambled up and aimed a kick –

GWAINE!” came a voice from behind him, and Arthur turned to see Gwen rushing through the door, crouching next to Gwaine who was pulling himself up, glaring daggers at Arthur.

“He wants to leave!” Gwaine shouted.

“Yeah?” Arthur said, “Well I’m the one with the skin, and I say he doesn’t. And if you come over or try to contact him in any way, I’ll burn it.”

There was a shocked silence.

“Arthur,” Gwen whispered from beside Gwaine, tears in her eyes, “This is madness.”

“No it’s not,” Arthur said, breathing hard, “This is necessary.”

He turned and left them there, staring out in shock after him, anger and adrenaline pounding through his veins.

He all but raced through the pub, knocking over one of the other patrons without stopping to help them up or even see who it was, beyond the brown leather shoes they were wearing. He wanted to get the next part over with while there was still some fight in his system, all confrontation and no fear.

No guilt.

He threw the door open with a bang.

Inside, Merlin jumped.

“You scared me,” he said, “What’s wrong?”

I’m right, Arthur reminded himself, picturing Gwaine’s face, his hateful words, I know I’m right.

“Merlin,” he said, and hesitated.

Do it. Just do it.

“Merlin....Gwaine says...I went to see him and....he says you’re not ready to return to the sea yet.”

It was like watching the slow melting of a candle. The smile slid from his face first; his wide, trusting eyes shuttered, his flushed skin paled, his expression sank from relaxed to fearful.

What?!” he whispered.

“Merlin,” Arthur said, taking a comforting step toward him, but Merlin stepped back, away from him.

“He didn’t want to disappoint you,” Arthur said desperately, “He didn’t want to tell you himself.”

“No,” Merlin said, taking another step back.

“Merlin,” Arthur said desperately, moving toward him with his palms outstretched. “Please...”

But Merlin shrank back from him.

“You promised,” Merlin said, almost choking on the word, “You promised you’d give me my skin back, as soon as my hand was healed!”

“And I will,” Arthur said desperately, “I will, but first –“

“But nothing!” Merlin said, “You promised so give it back!”

“I can’t, not until –“

But Merlin was making disgusted noises in the back of his throat. He stepped toward Arthur and briefly, Arthur thought that he’d got through to him, but then he saw that Merlin was storming around Arthur, toward the still open door, and all at once, Arthur saw that he intended to leave, and he couldn’t let it happen. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d slammed a vice-like grip over Merlin’s upper arm.

Merlin froze.

“What are you doing?” he asked fearfully, looking at Arthur’s fingers digging into his arm, but it wasn’t like that dammnit, Arthur had to make him see, but he couldn’t think of the words, and now Merlin was squirming in his grip but Arthur needed him to stay still and just listen, and in his desperation, he shook him.

Merlin quailed.

“No!” Arthur shouted, seeing the naked fear in Merlin’s eyes. “I’m not –“

This was all falling apart. “Merlin – just, look, you have to stay, just for a bit longer, if you stay, you’ll like it, you’ll see –“

Arthur was aware he was babbling, but Merlin was now looking at Arthur as though he’d never seen him before and Arthur couldn’t get the words right, if only he could get the words right, then Merlin would see, but –

“I didn’t want to believe it of you,” Merlin said quietly, eyes roaming over his face.

And all at once, the insane, desperate babbling in Arthur’s head fell silent. Arthur felt naked beneath Merlin’s gaze, exposed, as though he was having his whole being analysed.

“A couple of times, these past few days, I thought....but then I told myself, not Arthur. He wouldn’t do that to me, not you...”

Arthur felt tears prick behind his eyes. “Please –“

“More fool me,” Merlin said quietly.

Wait...” Arthur sobbed.

Merlin shook his arm free, spared him one final look of disgust, and walked to the bedroom and slammed the door shut.

Arthur fell to his knees at the sound.

He’d fucked everything up. Merlin would never consent to stay now. Was this to be the rest of their lives, Merlin cold and angry, and Arthur constantly shuffling his skin from hiding place to hiding place, so he couldn’t escape?

He couldn’t let it be that way. He couldn’t lose Merlin the way he’d lost his Dad and his brother.

He gave in to his fear and grief and wept, uncaring of the cold and darkness slowly creeping in through the still open door, and this time, there was no Merlin to comfort him.

There was none but Arthur in the cold and empty house; no one, until a gentle hand laid itself on Arthur’s shoulder.

“Merlin?” he asked stupidly, hope getting the better of him, but when he turned to see who it was, he saw only a pair of brown leather shoes. The shoes of the patron he’d knocked over in the pub.

He’d followed him into the house?

Arthur’s eyes travelled up the shoes to the trouser leg, the trouser leg to the dishevelled jumper, and finally up the face, and when he beheld it his blood froze in his heart.

Uther.

He’d been so stupid.

Arthur quickly scrambled to his feet, and assumed a fighting stance.  

Uther did not look the least bit afraid.

“I told you,” Uther said quietly, “That selkies are selfish and manipulative and you refused to listen to me. And now look at you.”

“It’s not Merlin’s fault,” Arthur said immediately.

“It’s always their fault!!!” Uther screamed, and the spittle flying from his mouth and the rage in his eyes should have made him look deranged but it didn’t. He looked like what he was, a man consumed and obsessed by bitterness and frustration.

And suddenly Arthur thought he knew what was driving those feelings, with the same feeling of clarity he’d had when he looked at Uther’s mantelpiece and known Morgana for his sister.

“Now step aside,” Uther said, breathing heavily, eyes glinting with rage. “And let me find him.”

“No.”

“What?”

Adrenaline was flowing through Arthur like the cool tide of the ocean. He didn’t know if Merlin would forgive him or give him a chance to try and make what they had between them work, but he did know one thing.

He would not let Uther kill Merlin.

“No,” he repeated, more firmly.  

Uther glared at him.

“Step aside!”

“If you want him,” Arthur said, “You’ll have to go through me.”

“You think so?” Uther sneered, but Arthur was straightening, raising his fists; he was a rotten son, a worse brother, and a mad, horrible boyfriend but this at least he knew how to do and do well.

“You won’t beat me,” Arthur said with complete certainty, letting his confidence infuse his voice.

Uther looked him up and down, appearing to size up his words.

“No,” he said finally, “I can’t. But if I burn your selkie’s skin, I’ve as good as destroyed him anyway.”

“You don’t know where it is,” Arthur said confidently.

“I’m no silly little selkie to waste time searching in likely-looking places you won’t have hidden it,” Uther said, “I know where it is.”

“Where is it then?” Arthur asked. He began to walk forward, trying to back Uther out the door. As soon as he was in the courtyard, Arthur could lock the door, locking Merlin away from him.

Uther’s eyes roved about the cottage.

“Too small,” he said decisively, “No hiding places but the cupboards and beneath furniture. It won’t be in here.”

Arthur backed Uther up until he was standing in the doorframe, and Uther let him, smiling slightly.

“Now where else?” he asked, “You love him, so you won’t have risked hiding it somewhere far from where you could keep an eye on it, as you should have. So that just leaves...”

Uther stepped out into the courtyard, and suddenly afraid, Arthur glanced quickly at the stone beneath which Merlin’s skin was buried.

“Ah-hah,” Uther said triumphantly, and too late Arthur realised his mistake.

“MERLIN!” he screamed, running at Uther and tackling him to the ground, “MERLIN RUN!”

Uther took advantage of his moment of inattention and punched him in the jaw.

“MERLIN!!”

Uther used his heel to kick Arthur square in the ankle. Pain throbbed through Arthur’s whole leg, and he reflexively clutched for it, releasing Uther. Uther heaved Arthur off him and ran to the door just as Merlin entered the living room.

For a moment, Merlin was like a deer in the headlights; then he was running faster than Arthur would have believed possible.

Arthur shot up as quickly as the pain in his jaw and ankle would let him. Too far away to grab Uther by the torso, he fell instead on his legs, tripping him up.

Uther swore as he hit the ground, but never broke his concentration. He lashed out with his heel and kicked Arthur in the jaw, so hard Arthur thought his neck was going to break.

He released Uther who took off after Merlin immediately.

Merlin.

Arthur struggled up, wanting to chase after Uther and Merlin. But night had fallen; what if Uther lost Merlin in the dark, and decided to come back and take advantage of Arthur’s absence searching for them to steal the skin?

He was torn – help Merlin or protect the skin?

But how much help could he really be, when he didn’t know where they’d gone?

Cursing, he limped as fast as he could to the cupboard where the spade was kept and turned over the stone, digging as fast as he could until he struck the plastic garbage bag the skin was hidden in.

Then he grabbed the bag and ran out the door.

“Merlin!” he shouted, running down the lane onto the main road.

He ran first down one end of the road, then down the other, but there was no sign of either Uther or Merlin.  

“Merlin!” he shouted again.

He can’t answer you without giving himself away, a voice inside Arthur said, so think. Where would he go?

It wasn’t a difficult question. There was only one place he would go. Whether in possession of his skin or not, Merlin’s instincts would drive him to the safety of the sea.

He turned around and ran as fast as he could toward the beach.

Skidding onto the sand, Arthur stopped and forced himself to be quiet. He couldn’t alert Uther to his presence. Taking a few deep breaths to quiet his panting, he looked around the beach for the figures of either Uther or Merlin.

And saw no one.

Fighting the rising, useless panic, Arthur ran toward the pier. It would offer more shelter for Merlin than the open end of the beach.

The sand was soft, his feet were sinking into it, making it difficult to run on, but Arthur kept his eyes on the pier, chanting Merlin, Merlin, Merlin to himself like a mantra until the big, slightly rotten, wooden columns of the pier were in sight, and he was standing on the sand beneath them. It was low tide.

“Merlin!” he hissed, praying Uther wasn’t around to hear, “Merlin!”

And there! A shadow up ahead, flitting from one wooden post to another.

“Merlin! It’s me, it’s Arthur.”

The shadow stopped, hesitated; then it slowly walked up the sand to Arthur, stopping when it was illuminated by the light. The light from Uther’s house.

“Merlin,” Arthur said in relief, seeing his face. “Come on, we have to go.”

“No,” Merlin said.

Arthur stopped. “What?! Merlin, Uther is still out there, he’s looking for you, we have to go. We can return to the cottage while he’s still outside, lock ourselves in, and in the morning, we can be on the ferry out of here away from him, I’ve already booked the tickets.”

“No,” Merlin repeated.

“I know you don’t want to leave,” Arthur said a little impatiently. “But if we don’t at least get back to the cottage tonight, he’ll catch us.”

“He will catch us,” Merlin breathed, “And soon. I know where he is.”

Arthur stared at him. Something wasn’t right. “Where is he?”

“He’s in his house,” Merlin said pointing, and sure enough, there, in the lit windows of Uther’s house, a shadow flickered. Uther’s shadow. “He’s getting whatever weapons he still has. To kill me.”

Arthur paled.

“Ok,” he said, thinking fast. “Ok, we won’t make it back to the cottage, it’s too far. The police station. It’s closer, Leon will have to let us in.”

“No,” Merlin repeated.

“Merlin we have to!” Arthur shouted.

The shadow was moving, it was floating from the back window to the front.

“Ok,” Arthur said desperately, “I know you don’t want to go on the ferry tomorrow, and we won’t, I promise. Just, please Merlin, come on, we have to leave.”

Uther’s front door knob was jiggling, they had but seconds to spare.

“It’s too late,” Merlin said, but there was no trace of fear in his voice, only hard determination. And then –

“Give me the skin,” he said, holding out his hand.

Arthur heard it like a blow to the chest.

“No,” he whispered, clutching the bag to his chest. If he gave Merlin the skin now, Merlin would never return.

“You have to,” Merlin said, in that same hard voice. Behind them, Arthur heard Uther bellow as he left his front door. “It’s too late Arthur, it’s over. My only escape is the sea.”

“But –“ Arthur felt himself crying freely but he didn’t care.

“Give me the skin!” Merlin cried.

I can take Uther on, a treacherous voice inside him whispered, the same voice that had told him that Merlin couldn’t leave if he didn’t let him.

But if he did, then what?

Even if Uther was arrested again and Merlin made safe, even if he managed to get Merlin off the island like he hoped, what would he have? Maybe Gwaine was right about Merlin not loving Arthur, and maybe he wasn’t, but he was right about one thing, and Gwen was too; a selkie’s one true love was the sea.

Merlin would never be happy. Arthur would become Merlin’s father.

Perhaps he already had.

And deep down, Arthur had known that all along.

He opened the bag.

“Please,” Arthur whispered, tears pouring down his face, hand trembling as he held out the skin. “Please visit me sometimes.”

He closed his eyes as he felt the skin leave his hand; heard Uther’s roaring as he came charging down the beach; felt the soft press of lips to his cheek; and when he opened them, there was a ripple in the water, and Merlin was gone.

ooOOoo

“Merlin said,” Arthur said, taking a sip of tea from his cup, “That there was another selkie in these waters that moved on around the time he and his mother arrived. Vivian. She was yours wasn’t she?”

“Yes,” Uther sighed.

It had been three days since Merlin left. Arthur hadn’t seen him again.

He’d gone home and locked himself in the cottage, and for all of that night, and all the following day, he’d cried; cried for Merlin, cried residual tears he didn’t know he still had for his Dad, cried for Kay and his own stupidity.

But mostly for Merlin.

He’d given himself all the time that he needed to do it. Kay had said that if you didn’t do it at the time, it would just come out worse later, and he’d been right. Arthur had learned that lesson at least.

 Then, he’d gone into the pub, and demanded to see Gwaine.

Gwen had looked on the verge of protesting; but Arthur’s seriousness was clearly not to be fought, and she closed her mouth with a snap, and rang him up. He’d been in his surgery.

When Gwaine arrived, Arthur grabbed him and Gwen both and marched them upstairs, into their flat.

Then he’d sat them down and apologised sincerely for his appalling behaviour over the past few days.

“That’s alright,” Gwen said, forgiving him immediately. Of course she did. “You were....not yourself. I understand. You’ve dealt with a lot of loss lately –“

“It was no excuse for attacking you,” Arthur said to Gwaine, cutting Gwen off. He appreciated her forgiveness, but some things were still too raw to be discussed. Gwen fell silent, but gave him a small smile to show she didn’t hold that against him either.

“It’s ok,” Gwaine said. There was an awkward silence.

“Listen,” Gwaine went on, “I know I said he didn’t love you –“

“You were right,” Arthur said heavily.

“No I wasn’t,” Gwaine said gently, “He did, everyone could see that.”

Arthur looked up, surprised.

“You shouldn’t take it personally Arthur,” Gwaine went on. “It’s just that, even though he loved you, selkies, they –“

“A selkie’s one true love is the sea,” Arthur said with a small smile. “Yeah. I know.”

And then, the next day, he’d come here. To Uther’s house.

He felt he was owed some truths.

“She was injured,” Uther said, “An over-zealous orca. I saw her on the beach, she’d slipped her skin hoping to find some help amongst the humans. And she found me.”

He sighed.

“I fell in love with her. When the time came for her to return to the sea I found I couldn’t let her go. I thought she wanted to stay. She told me she loved me.”

Arthur wondered how many men just like him had imprisoned selkies because they’d believed that their love for anything on land could outweigh the magic that tied them to the sea – because they’d allowed themselves to believe they could be that special.

He felt a deep squirm of shame.

“She became pregnant,” Uther continued, “And some weeks after giving birth to the child, she found her skin, and tried to make off with it and the girl.”

“Morgana,” Arthur guessed.

“Yes,” Uther said. “I found her before she could enter the water. I tried to take skin and child both but could only manage one. I was left with Morgana and she returned to the sea.

I knew that children born of a selkie and human union could remain human as long as they never entered the water. So I sent Morgana off to be adopted as far from the ocean as I could. I found a couple for her in a desert property in Arizona. I asked that they keep me updated on her life, so I could make sure she was always far inland, away from the sea. They send me photographs.”

He gestured toward the mantelpiece.

“I didn’t consider on the sea witch. But she considered the balance of the ocean disrupted by my sending Morgana away. She’d spoken to Vivian and thought that she was owed to the ocean. She came to me and asked for her back, and when she learned what I did, she grew angry. She threw storm after storm and wave after wave at me on this rock, but everything she did, I thought I could weather. I was wrong.

A new girl came to the island. Ygraine. I fell in love with her immediately, and she with me. I felt I was finally moving on with my life, I’d never been so happy. We were married, and then she became pregnant with you.”

He sighed.

“I already told you that we opted to have you on the island. We sent for a midwife and one came, but not the one we’d thought. It was Nimueh, the sea witch in disguise. She used her magic to kill Ygraine as punishment for Morgana. I thought that if I gave you up, the child of my true love, the child I wanted to keep...”

Here he stopped, and there were tears in his eyes.

“I thought if I gave away everything that made me happy, it would stop her. Giving you up for adoption would have to mirror Morgana’s wouldn’t it? Restore balance, that’s what those sea witches are all about. But it wasn’t enough for her. Nothing was enough but Morgana. She hated me for what I did to Vivian.”

He laughed bitterly.

“She should have been hating Vivian for what she did to me. If I hadn’t met her, I would still have your mother, and you would have been raised with us.”

“Well I can’t speak for how that life would have been,” Arthur said, “But for the one I had...it was a good one. And I don’t regret anything in it.”

He saw it now, spread out before him. He could choose to remember his Dad as a liar, or the loving father he had been. Just as he could choose to become angry and bitter toward Merlin, as Uther had toward Vivian and all other selkies, or he could remember with fondness the time that they’d had together.

“That’s good I suppose,” Uther said. They finished the rest of their tea in silence, and then Arthur got up to leave.

He stopped, by the pictures of Morgana, and turned to face Uther again.

“Merlin had Nimueh killed you know,” he said, “Just in case you were wondering why her attacks on this island had stopped.”

Then he turned and walked out the door leaving Uther gaping in shock behind him.

ooOOoo

Arthur had come to the island looking for family in Uther, and though he hadn’t found what he was expecting, he had still, in a way, found what he was looking for.

There were two people Arthur needed to talk to, and he tackled the first one after leaving Uther’s house, phone number in hand.

“Hello?” A thick American accent answered.

Morgana was everything her pictures promised – smart, confident, interesting. She was surprised to hear she had a brother, though not as much as Arthur had been to learn he had a sister – she’d known she was adopted her entire life.

She was delighted to learn she was older than Arthur, and took great pleasure in speaking to him rather condescendingly for the rest of the conversation – to make up for lost time, she said.

Something about the way she teased him reminded him a little of Merlin, and before he knew what he was doing, Arthur asked if she would like to meet in person.

She hesitated.

“I don’t like to travel,” she said.

Arthur reassured her he was more than happy to come to her, when he had the money, and she immediately relaxed, agreeing with pleasure that it would be fun to meet.

“Out of curiosity,” Arthur said a few minutes later, “Why don’t you like to travel?”

“People think I’m crazy,” Morgana said, and Arthur’s interest was immediately piqued. He thought he knew where this was heading.

“I won’t,” he promised sincerely.

“I don’t mind cars and planes, it’s not the method of travel, it’s the destination.”

She stopped. “At some point, sooner or later, you end up near the sea. And...”

“You don’t like the water?”

“No,” she said very quietly, “It’s not that. But....”

She paused. “I can feel it calling to me. And I know that if I go in, I’ll never come out.”

Arthur said nothing for a long time.

“Believe me Morgana,” he said finally, “You’re not crazy. You’re more sensible than you know.”

ooOOoo

A few days later, Arthur left the island.

He watched it retreat silently behind the ferry, the little spike of the inland cliff marching further into the distance with every spray of sea foam kicked up by the ferry, taking him further, forever, from Merlin.  

But he felt no regret.

He might see Merlin again, he almost certainly would not, but he knew this would not be the last time he’d see Camelot Island in his life.

He still had one more person to talk to.

The most important.

He touched down in Heathrow Airport and without even bothering to telephone ahead, made straight from the airport to Kay’s door.

“I’m coming!” Kay called in the voice that Arthur recognised as the one that meant he’d been watching the football. “I’m coming, stop knocking, yeesh....”

His mouth fell open in a perfect “o” of surprise.

“Arthur!”

“I’m sorry,” Arthur blurted, “I’m sorry for the all the stupid horrible things I said to you, you were right, you’ve always been right and I’m sorry for every stupid horrible thing I’ve ever said to you throughout our entire lives ever.”

He hung his head, waiting for Kay’s response, but Kay didn’t give him one.

Instead, he bounded down the stairs and pulled Arthur into the tightest hug he’d had in years, possibly his life.

“You idiot,” he said gruffly into Arthur’s shoulder, “Of course I’m always right.”

Arthur laughed.

“But I’m glad you’re back,” he said, releasing him with a smile. Arthur smiled back.

“So?” Kay asked. “Did you go? How was it?”

Arthur sighed. “It was a mess,” he confessed, “Just like you said it would be.”

“Oh Wart,” Kay said, throwing his arm around his shoulder and leading him up into the house. “Come in and tell me about it, we’ll have some tea.”

“You got tea now as well as just whisky?” Arthur asked with a grin.

“Hey I still got whisky if you prefer,” Kay grinned back.

“I think we might go the tea,” Arthur said, “You still trying to find a job in tourism? Because if you’re interested, I’ve got a business venture that we should start.”

Epilogue

He sighed.

Kara was lapping it up of course. She loved this kind of shit. He didn’t know why they couldn’t have their one holiday to go somewhere sunny with beaches you could actually swim in, but Kara was set on the gloomy Scottish islands and she would never give an inch when it came to decisions they were supposed to make as a couple. So here they were, on the Orkneys, as if the Hebrides hadn’t been bad enough.

He tuned out as the tour guide took them further into the cave, droning on about the biology of glow worms. Mordred was surprised he didn’t have any stories to tell about faeries or some shit in here. The man loved his fairy tales. He must have told a million about selkies and sea witches and mermaids and crap already.

“Keep up!” Kara hissed.

She was enchanted with the tour guide because he was good-looking, and the “A” of “K&A” tours, even though he was in his thirties and about ten years too old for them anyway.

And despite the fact she was taken already of course.

Mordred shot another glare at Arthur-the-tour-guide just for good measure.

The tour finished with a trip to the cliffs on the far side of the island, and then it was back in the bus to the crowded B&B in town.

Apparently, when the island had been much smaller before A&K had set up their tour company, the only B&B used to be the one attached to the pub via a small courtyard. Now, the pub had bought several of the surrounding buildings, their original occupants moved to new ones built on new streets as the town expanded, but it meant that Mordred could never tell which of the identical white buildings were the pub’s or not, and often got lost.

The bus stopped outside the pub, and a host of tourists eagerly poured in seeking the warmth and hospitality of the pub and its owner, Gwen.

Mordred liked Gwen. She was friendly and rather attractive for an older woman. Kara of course hated her, even though she was already married to the local doctor.

“Come on,” Kara snapped, just as he was about to make his way inside, “Let’s eat dinner in our room.”

“But I want to eat in the pub,” Mordred said.

“It’ll be more homely this way,” Kara said, lying through her teeth. “Come on.”

They walked across Gedref Lane to the building they thought housed their room, but of course, they were wrong.

“I’m sick of being lost,” Mordred complained, “Let’s just eat in the pub.”

No,”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“I’m going to ask for directions,” Kara said, and marched off.

He knew she’d gone in to ask Gwen where they were – she was the only one who would know. Kara was allowed to speak to her, but not Mordred.

He wandered down the street, suddenly sick of her. It still wasn’t a long street by any stretch of the imagination, and he soon found himself on the beach.

Rubbing his hands against the cold, he looked out across the bay, eyes settling on the pier.

Arthur-the-tour-guide was wandering along it, up-and-down, up-and-down, who knew what for. Maybe just trying to keep warm like Mordred.

There was a splash beneath the pier, and Mordred jumped when he saw what it was. A seal!

He raced excitedly toward the pier, slowing when reached the water beneath it, so as not to startle the animal.

Now this was exciting! He’d always loved zoos, but Kara had always refused to go to one, citing her vegetarianism, though what that had to do with anything had always mystified Mordred. It wasn’t like he was asking her to eat the animals, just look at them.

The seal dipped its head above water and blew water out its nose before diving back under. Mordred watched, fascinated. It was a beautiful animal. Rather small for a seal, with an odd way of swimming.

He peered closer until he saw the reason – it had a gimpy flipper on its right side. Cute.

He watched it swim for a while, back and forth along the pier. Was there a school of fish there? Up and down, it swam, over and over.

Then Mordred looked up onto the pier itself. Arthur-the-tour-guide was still there, still pacing, up and down, up and down...

Mordred’s eyes returned to the water. Was the seal following him in his course along the pier? Maybe Arthur fed it. With a flipper like that, it probably needed a bit of help.

“Mordred!” he heard Kara call.

“Hey!” he turned around, “There’s a seal look!”

“Where?” she asked excitedly, panting as she reached him.

“Just....” Mordred pointed, but squinting, he saw that it had gone. “Sorry,” he said disappointed. 

“That’s alright,” she said, taking him by the hand, “I found our room anyway, come on.”

“We should come back here tomorrow morning with some fish or something, feed that seal,” Mordred said thoughtfully, as they walked back up the beach.

“Where are we going to get fish?” Kara said, laughing. “Anyway, what makes you think we could feed it?”

“I think Arthur must feed it,” Mordred said, “It was following him.”

“Maybe it’s one of his selkies,” Kara said, “And they’re friends or something and that’s why it follows him.”

“Now Kara,” Mordred said mockingly, “That couldn’t possibly be true. A selkie would never care enough about People to follow one around. Didn’t you listen to a word Arthur said about selkies? After all - ”

He paused and continued in the smooth, deep, perfect English accent of Arthur.

“A selkie’s one true love is the sea.”

Finis