She was screaming.
Ygraine knew that it wasn't queenly: that she'd verbally and mentally been through this birth a hundred times, had read all of the books, heard all of the stories. She knew that it would hurt: that this was the price of being a woman and having to bear an heir for her king. She knew that this would be worth it in the end. That the months of sickness, and pain, and waking up in the middle of the night with burning fever would disappear when she saw her beautiful son's face.
But now she was screaming, screaming as she was ripped apart from two ends: her throat felt stripped raw and burning, barely making noise as she'd been at it for nearly twenty-one hours. Her fists weakly punched the bed, the hand that Uther gripped squeezing to the point of pain. And below, where her precious child was to come, felt so absolutely terrible, so painful that she sobbed and begged God for mercy.
Drugs? A myth, a far reaching pleasure that her body didn't seem to be able to grasp.
This is it, the midwife, Nimueh, was saying, her young, pale face sweating from between Ygraine's legs. Just one more push, lovely. Just one more push.
And Uther was pressing kisses to her hand, soft touches on her fingers that barely registered. She knew that she was supposed to hate him, curse him with slurs and promises of never touching her again, but she loved him too much for it. And a realization had hit in that ninth month, one that she'd taken care to keep quiet.
“I love you,” she sobbed now, covered in blood and sweat and tears. “Take care of my baby take care of my baby, TAKE CARE OF--!”
And with one final, gut wrenching scream, Ygraine pushed.
Ygraine bled out. Uther stood there for every moment of it, even when he was pushed aside by doctors rushing to save his wife. He could only stand numbly and watch as the life drained out of her face.
He was heedless of the crying of his son in the background, the son that they’d worked so hard for. The child was background noise: something that Uther could barely even bring himself to look at.
And when they announced her time of death in somber tones, said I’m very sorry, Your Highness with eyes that were wide with fear, he let go of her cold hand. He stumbled out into the corridor, sightless through his blurry vision. He barely registered the dark spot in the corner of his eye, the hair that tumbled from the midwife's head as she closed Ygraine's eyes.
This entire floor had been cleared of anyone other than doctors on standby. Uther was alone, free to slide down the wall as his legs gave out from under him.
The king pressed violently trembling fingers to his mouth, smothering the sob that was dying to be released. It slammed against his throat like the desperate beat of a drum. He couldn’t stop the tears that were streaming down his face, though, the way that they hit the floor with dull plops.
It was silent, which was why he heard the footsteps from afar. He looked up.
The midwife was coming toward him, her expression perfectly blank.
At the sight of her face, a rage, so powerful that it nearly shook him, flooded through Uther’s body. He had found someone to blame, and he had the right to blame. She was the one who had promised a safe miracle cure for their inability to produce an heir. She had been the one who had brushed aside their fears and worries, lulled them into a false sense of security. She had been the one to operate when Ygraine’s water had broken, had been the one to refuse a C-Section because it wouldn’t have been “safe for the baby”.
And now Ygraine was gone and she was just so perfectly blank.
With a snarl, Uther was on his feet and striding toward her in great, furious steps. His rage was scarlet and wet, and he gripped her by her upper arms and shook.
“You killed her,” he roared, blind with grief and hatred. “You bitch, you killed her and you aren’t even sorry.”
“King Uther—“ she started, and he hated everything about her so much at that moment—her words, the lies that she would spew from that pretty mouth—he needed her to shut up, she needed to just be silent for once—
He backhanded her across the mouth, his rings catching her pale skin and tearing even as she flew to the floor.
“I’ll see you imprisoned,” Uther promised with wild, savage words. “I’ll see that you and your family and everyone and everything that you love is destroyed, just as you’ve destroyed what’s mine.”
He left her, then, lying on the ground with blood on her cheek.
“And the child?” she called, her voice rough.
Uther did not turn around. He didn’t answer, either.
Across the world, Hunith was blinking in confusion at her doctor. “I'm sorry, what?”
“You now have a beautiful baby boy,” the woman beamed at Hunith as she and the nurses began wiping down her child. There was the snip of the umbilical cord, movement as each of the nurses cooed at him.
“Wow,” Hunith muttered.
“He just slid right out of there, didn’t he?” A smiling male nurse walked up to her, leaning down to put her baby in her arms. “Less than five minutes of labor. That’s a hospital record, ma’am.”
And he was there, suddenly, a shock of dark hair. Tiny, pink, wrinkled, and so beautiful her heart ached. Suddenly, the months of swollen ankles and pitying looks from everyone in town didn’t matter. And though she knew that it was part hormones, part drugs talking, she couldn’t help but marvel at her little life. A life that she’d made.
“Like magic,” she marveled quietly, a finger tracing his ears. Those was her ears, and maybe his father's eyebrows. She didn’t quite know his name. Even that little fact seemed insignificant.
“Do you have a name for your son?” The same male doctor asked, poised to write something down. He seemed a little excited about the birth.
Hunith couldn’t help but smile as she looked up at him. “Yes. His name is Merlin.
“Don't go too far!” Hunith called after her hyperactive five year old son.
“Okay!” Merlin yelled back, breathless, and darted along the path. Leaves crunched under his feet as he ran, grinning from ear to ear. He loved going to the park in the summer. The leaves on the towering trees around him were so bright and pretty, greens and even reds when he was lucky. His mommy had called it pig-something. Merlin wasn't sure. But he knew that they were really nice looking.
After a while, he slowed down to a walk, panting. He could still see his mommy from here: she always made sure to wear bright colors, so he could barely see her through the trees, sitting on a bench. But if he closed his eyes, he could pretend that he was lost in the forest all by himself.
It would be so fun, he thought, picturing a walk through the woods. His mommy wouldn't be worried because he was a big boy, and he could take care of himself. He'd make a fire and catch some berries (rabbits and squirrels were too nice to be eaten) and maybe, if he got really hungry, he would eat a caterpillar. It would be itchy and hairy, but he could do it. He always ate his veggies even though they were nasty.
He'd live in a big cave all by himself, and a bear would come along and keep him warm, and--
Wham! Something big and warm collided with him. All of the air whooshed out of his stomach as he hit the ground hard. His eyes, burning with automatic tears, flew open.
Wide, equally surprised blue eyes stared back at Merlin. They were the color of the sky in the morning, when Merlin's mommy grumpily made coffee for herself and juice for Merlin. They were the color of the sea, where they went when they had time. It was a color that had something in Merlin's brain clicking into place, like a final puzzle piece.
Merlin realized that he was holding his breath. He inhaled in a ragged gasp.
“Are you gonna cry?” The little boy with eyes like the sea and the sky sounded put out. Now that Merlin was paying attention, he could see that he had bright, sun colored hair and dark eyelashes.
Merlin frowned at him. “No. Are you gonna get off me?”
“Maybe?” Merlin asked. His lip began to automatically pout, and tears threatened again. Now that he was paying attention, his body was throbbing.
“If you cry, I won't.” the boy told him quickly.
Merlin wrinkled his nose, tears gone in an instant. Outrage replaced them. “That's not fair! You're a butthead. And a meanie.”
The boy looked like Merlin's mommy did when someone said something shocking. And then he said: “No, you're a meanie.”
“You ran into me!” Merlin protested hotly.
“You were in the way!”
“I was petting my bear, Theo,” Merlin informed him, glaring. “You're the stupid head that didn't see me.”
“I--” the boy started hotly. Then he stopped, looking interested. “You have a pet bear?”
“Not really,” Merlin rolled his eyes. “It's pretend.”
“I knew that!” The little boy got off of him and stood, brushing off his clothes. He was wearing a green t-shirt and shorts with sneakers. The t-shirt had a dragon on it. Merlin was silently jealous.
“Where's your mommy?” he asked instead of telling him that he liked his shirt. This boy was mean, so he wouldn't be nice to him.
“She wanted to stay home, so I'm by myself.” the blond boy's chin tilted up with pride.
Merlin couldn't help but be impressed. “Really?” he marveled.
“Nah.” his blond eyebrows furrowed. “She wanted to stay in the car. She's only a little away.”
“Oh,” Merlin frowned in disappointment. He'd wanted to meet a wild boy. “Mines is too. Her name's Hunith. She's over there, see?” he pointed to the faint blue through the trees. His mommy waved. Merlin and the little boy waved back.
“My mommy's name is Nim. I'm Arthur. Like the king of Camelot,” Arthur bragged.
Merlin gasped in excitement. “My name's Merlin!” he said, beaming. “And my mommy—she says Merlin was a wizard and King Arthur's best friend!”
Arthur frowned in thought. “D'ya think we should be best friends, then?”
“I dunno. You're kind of mean.” Merlin told Arthur matter of factly.
“Well your ears are weird.”
Merlin's hands flew to his ears. “They are not!” he squawked.
“It's okay,” Arthur assured him, “this makes us even. So are we best friends?”
They thought about it for quite some time, very, very seriously. Arthur even paced like he'd seen people on movies do. He got tired of pacing after a while, though, so they just stared at us.
“If you can be nice, we'll be best friends.” Merlin decided finally. “'Cause best friends are really nice to each other.”
“I'll try,” Arthur replied earnestly. “And your ears aren't that bad.”
“Thanks!” Merlin beamed at him. “You wanna play tag?”
Arthur darted forward, suddenly, and touched him on the shoulder, surprisingly gentle. “Tag! You're it!” he grinned and took off.
“Hey!” Merlin shouted, shaking his fist. “That's no fair!” he began running after him. The grin on his face was stretched a mile wide.
…Whatever. Arthur was still a bit of a meanie.
Arthur, Merlin soon learned, was a meanie. But he was a really nice meanie. When Merlin tripped and fell on a sharp rock, Arthur went really, really pale. But he stayed and helped Merlin pick the leaves and dirt out, and he didn't laugh when Merlin started crying (it really, really hurt). He even helped Merlin put on one of his cool Scooby Doo band aids.
And they both didn't have daddies. Arthur said Nim said his died in a accident, and his mommy never liked to talk about it. Merlin knew about that. His mommy didn't like to much talk about his daddy, either. She just said he had to go away.
“I wish he'd come back, sometimes,” he whispered to Arthur, under the trees where his mommy couldn't hear. “I think that would be nice.”
“It would,” Arthur agreed. “I hope he does.”
Merlin gave him a tiny smile.
Hunith didn't like Nim, but that was okay, because Nim didn't much like Hunith either. They tried to pretend for the sake of the boys, but neither Merlin nor Arthur were dumb.
After they'd finished playing that first day, Hunith had taken Arthur back to the parking lot. But Arthur hadn't seen his car.
He'd tried to pretend that it didn't bother him that his mommy was gone, but Merlin saw him blinking a lot. Merlin's mommy probably did too, because she gave them lollipops. Arthur had looked at his suspiciously, like he knew he was secretly being cheered up.
“It's good,” Merlin told him, sucking on his own Cherry flavored one happily. So Arthur ate his and nodded like he agreed. When they were done, they played on the swings and raced around the play set and the slide.
The sun was almost down when a shiny black car pulled into the parking lot. Arthur's face lit up.
“There's my mommy!” he said. Hunith held his hand to keep him from running over there. Instead, they all walked together.
Merlin's first thought about Nim, as she got out of the car, was that she was really, really pretty. Not prettier than his mommy of course—which he and Arthur had agreed to disagree about, earlier—but she had really big blue eyes and shiny dark hair. She was wearing a white dress and high, high heels. When she saw Arthur, who was bouncing with happiness, she did not smile.
“Arthur,” Nim said, “stop bouncing.”
Arthur stopped bouncing. His smile went away a little too. Merlin did not like this. He squeezed Arthur's hand with his own. Arthur squeezed back.
“Mommy,” he said a little less excitedly, “this is my new best friend, Merlin.”
“How...nice,” Nim said. Her eyes slid over Arthur to Merlin.
Her gaze was like ice. Merlin shivered slightly, suddenly chilled on the warm day, and subconsciously scooted closer to Arthur.
“I'm Hunith, Merlin's mother.” Hunith stepped in front of her son, interrupting Nim's stare. She slowly looked at Hunith. Her lips pressed togehter. “Charmed,” Nim said, accepting the handshake.
“It's very nice to meet you.” Merlin's mommy did not make it sound like it was very nice to meet Nim. “Merlin,” she continued, “will you and Arthur go and play while Nim and I talk for a moment?”
Arthur and Merlin went to play. They didn't go very far, just heading the swings so they could see their mom's faces. Neither of the women looked very happy.
“They don't like each other,” Merlin said as soon as they were out of earshot. Him and Arthur were still holding hands, but he didn't mind. Arthur didn't seem to either.
“Not really, no,” Arthur admitted.
“Arthur.” Merlin worried his lower lip in thought. “What if they don't want us to be friends anymore?”
“That's not gonna happen,” Arthur said firmly. “They'll just have to deal.”
“But what if--”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, long-suffering. He made them stop walking. “I'm not gonna let something happen. Stop being stupid. Jeez.” To take away the sting of the insult, he reached up and ruffled Merlin's hair. Merlin scowled and worked to smooth it back down. Arthur laughed.
As it turned out, Arthur was right. Hunith wasn't happy and neither was Nim, but they dutifully brought their sons to the park every day. Sometimes, Arthur even got to go over Merlin's house.
In Merlin's backyard, he and Arthur played wizards and knights. They befriended imaginary dragons and rescued puppies (“'Princesses are gross, Merlin, what are you thinking?”). When Merlin was in a really good mood, he pretended to be in distress and let his king save him from the big, bad queen. Arthur really felt proud of himself after that, so he kind of got stuck up until Merlin shoved him.
Fall steadily snuck up on the boys until suddenly, there was school to be had. Merlin's mom took him and Arthur to the store to shop together. (Nim didn't want to go.)
They bought shirts and pants and brand new book bags. Merlin got new shoes that lit up, so Arthur wanted a pair too. They also got crayons, which Merlin liked because he loved to sit and draw pictures. (Arthur also liked Merlin drawing pictures of him. He had about fifty pictures of Arthur, Merlin bet.)
Merlin's mommy got into this yelling match with a lady about the last pack of markers. It turned out to be okay, though, because they told each other sorry. After the exciting shopping trip, Hunith drove the boys back to Merlin's house. They played catch with Arthur's big red ball and had turkey sandwiches and chips when Hunith called them in for lunch. As soon as she deemed that they're food had settled, she let them play outside again.
When the sun began to set, Hunith made them come in and play inside.
“I'll just call your mother, Arthur,” she said. “You guys can watch a movie, if you want? Merlin, dear, go ahead and put something on.” she walked into the kitchen.
Merlin looked at Arthur eagerly. “Whaddya want to watch? My mommy loves cartoons, so we have lots.”
“I do not!” Hunith called from the kitchen.
“Do so!” Merlin called back. Arthur smiled and went to help Merlin pick out a movie.
As they knelt by the entertainment center together, Arthur bit his lip. Merlin didn't notice at first, as he was busy picking out his favorite movies. And then he felt eyes on the side of his face and looked up. He blinked in confusion. “Arthur? What's wrong?”
“Nothing.” Arthur shrugged his shoulders a little, his head low. “It's just...your mommy's really nice.”
“I know,” Merlin said knowledgeably. “It's because she's a mommy, Arthur. They're always nice.”
Arthur's brow furrowed in distress. His eyes, big and blue and Merlin's new favorite color, squinted. He looked like he was about to cry. “Not mine.”
“Well maybe she just needs more practice,” Merlin said, looking at Arthur. “My mom could teach your mom, maybe. She can't be that bad. Does she give you snacks?”
“Yeah,” Arthur said. He wrinkled his nose. “Carrots. Blah.”
“Those are good for you!” Merlin said, cheered. “So that's a good mommy point. Um. Does she read to you?”
“Not really.” Arthur thought. “Sometimes she'll read a fashion magazine out loud.”
“That counts,” Merlin told him.
“Sometimes she forgets me at places though. Like at the store. And I feel like crying, but I don't, 'cause I'm not a girl.” Arthur folded his arms.
“Boys cry,” Merlin pointed out. “I cry. Like when I'm hurt or something.”
“You're different,” Arthur said stubbornly. “You're allowed. I'm not, 'cause crying never solves anything.”
Merlin stared. “But it feels good to cry. That's really stupid, Arthur.”
“Still,” Arthur said stubbornly.
Merlin figured that he wasn't going to change his mind. Arthur always looked like that when he was stuck on something. Like when he decided that he was going to have a real kingdom of his own one day. Merlin tried to tell him that they didn't just give out kingdoms, but he didn't listen.
“All right,” he said now, instead of arguing, “Does your mommy hug you?”
Arthur didn't answer. Instead, he began pulling out tapes and stuff. Merlin opened his mouth to ask again, but then Hunith came in.
“How would you like to stay over for the night, Arthur?” she asked. Her face was all red and her mouth was a thin line on her face.
Arthur seemed to brighten and fall at the same time. “My mommy's not coming to get me?” he asked, playing with his fingers.
“I'm afraid not, love.” Hunith walked into the living room and knelt next to Arthur, cupping his face and smoothing his hair. Arthur smiled a tiny smile. Merlin knew how good that felt. His mommy had the softest, kindest hands in the world. “But we can have dinner and watch movies, and I'll even let you two have ice cream. How does that sound?”
It sounded awesome. It was even better when they did it. They watched The Fox and the Hound while Hunith made dinner, and when it was finally done they had spaghetti and meatballs with rolls. Arthur ate very neatly, and when Merlin slurped his he gave him a disgusted look. Merlin smiled at him with tomato and meat in his teeth.
“Merlin,” Hunith scolded, trying not to grin. They all laughed when Arthur made a silly face back.
After they'd finished dinner and dessert, they took baths (which involved a lot of splashing and giggling) and Arthur borrowed some of Merlin's pajamas to wear. (Merlin let him have some of his newer, cooler Superman pajamas and he took the stripey ones).
When they were bathed and clean, Hunith ushered them to Merlin's room.
“I'm not tired, Mommy,” Merlin protested, yawning. “We—we could watch another movie. Or we could even play--” he yawned again.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Hunith said warmly. “Right Arthur?”
Arthur's eyes were drooping as he shuffled along next to Merlin. The pair of them were so adorable that Hunith wanted to snap a thousand pictures or so. She already had a multitude of them in her room. She couldn't understand why Nimeuh wouldn't want to spend every moment of her day cuddling her child.
“Yes ma'am,” he said, always terribly respectful.
They all went into Merlin's bedroom. It wasn't pristine, but it wasn't messy either. Merlin did try to complete his chores. When she was newly pregnant and decorating her house, Hunith seen an image clear as day of a little boy running around. So, she'd painted it bright blue. The borders were puffy white clouds with dragons darting through them. There was a bookshelf full of books in the corner and Merlin's dresser, and a mini desk where he could draw.
“Up we go,” Hunith said, drawing back the dark blue comforter. The boys clambered in without hesitation, first Merlin then Arthur. They settled in a distance away from each other.
“What story would you like tonight?” she asked.
“Um,” Merlin cut off with a yawn. “You wanna pick, Arthur?” his words were slurred with drowsiness.
“Do you have a book about magic?” Arthur's voice was shy.
“Of course,” Hunith said. She walked over to the shelf and picked out what would become a well worn favorite.
She settled into the rocking chair by the bed and cleared her throat, looking to make sure that both of the boys were paying attention. Two sets of blue eyes looked at her from under sheets. A smile on her lips, she began: “Once upon a time, there was a wizard. He was a very lonely wizard, all alone in his little hut, and he did not like this very much at all...”
By the end of the story, both of the boys were sound asleep. Merlin had his mouth wide open, snoring gently, while Arthur was silent. Hunith rose from her seat and tucked them both in, pecking each on the forehead before she left with silent steps.
Merlin woke up in the middle of the night with the niggling feeling that something was wrong.
He didn't really know what it was: he was warm and safe in his bed, and he wasn't shaking from a weird nightmare. Drowsy and blinking in the dark, he realized that the bed was moving.
But the bed wasn't moving, it was Arthur moving the bed. All Merlin could see was the curve of his back. It took him a few moments to get that Arthur was crying.
“Arthur,” he whispered, frightened. “Arthur, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Arthur whispered shakily. “Go back to sleep, Mer.”
Merlin didn't go back to sleep. Instead, he scooted closer and closer, like he would if he was trying to pet a scared kitten. When Arthur didn't start yelling, he wrapped an arm around him and pulled him into a tight, one armed hug.
After Arthur was done, he whispered, “My mommy doesn't hug me that much. She always says I'm too dirty. So I try to stay clean, but...”
“Whenever you want a hug, I'll hug you.” Merlin promised fiercely. “I'll give you the best hugs ever, even if you are dirty. I promise.”
Arthur turned around to look at Merlin. His eyes were wet still. He rubbed the tears away with a fist. “Thanks, Merlin.”
Merlin hugged him again, just because, and they fell asleep under the plastic, glow in the dark stars on the ceiling.
“Are you gonna watch the special on TV?”
Vanessa Clark was one of the most hyper girls that Merlin had ever seen. She was always chewing gum and talking and flipping her hair and talking. It was absolutely baffling to ten year old Merlin.
“What special?” Merlin and Arthur asked at the same time.
“The royal special, sillies,” she said impatiently. “The king of England's gonna get on TV and talk about the lost prince.” she sighed dreamily.
Arthur and Merlin exchanged looks of confusion. “The lost prince?”
“You haven't heard?” Otis Preston turned around, his eyes wide behind his glasses. “About the prince who was stolen from the castle when he was a baby?”
“Sounds like a fairy tale,” Merlin said, tilting his head.
“Everybody knows he was stole from the hospital when he was born,” Vanessa said. She looked insulted on their behalf. “Have you two been living under a rock?”
Merlin glared at her. “No.”
Arthur was trying (and failing) to look uninterested. “They haven't found him?”
“Nope. Today would be his tenth birthday, so the king, he's gonna get on TV and talk.”
“Today's Merlin's birthday too,” Arthur reminded everyone for the fourth time today. Merlin would stop him, but everytime he said it he felt a warm glow in his chest. So he let Arthur have his fun. “His mom's gonna bring cupcakes.”
Vanessa wasn't listening to him. “That poor prince,” she rested her head on her hand and sighed dreamily. “Maybe he'll find me, and then they'll find him, and I'll be a princess.”
“That sounds nice, doesn't it, Vanessa?” Mrs. Resa came into the class, smiling gently. Merlin really liked her. She smelled like apples and she never yelled, not really. “To your seats, everyone,” she said in a louder voice. “Yes, yes, today we'll be talking about the lost prince and the royal family of Britain...”
As she started the slides showing pictures of the Buckingham Castle and the royal family, Mrs. Resa explained who everyone was.
“And this is Queen Igraine,” Mrs. Resa's voice softened. “She died giving birth to her son, the lost prince.”
“Hey Arthur,” Merlin leaned over whispered very, very quietly as he took in the bright blonde hair and those sky blue eyes. “She looks kind of like you, huh?”
“No,” Arthur said firmly. And like most history facts, this one was forgotten in favor of playing pretend at recess.
They were twelve when Merlin's magic came in.
Middle school was exhilarating and scary: it was middle school, where there were girlfriends and boyfriends and even more classes. All of it was extremely daunting. At least, it was to Merlin.
Much to his dismay, Arthur took to school like a duck to water. He had friends everywhere, even if he could be a bit of a jerk sometimes. All of the girls liked him, which was ew. He was on the soccer team. He was always one of the first ones to get picked for kickball. Arthur was like the sun, and everyone around him was like planets in orbit around him. It was uncanny.
Merlin, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. He had enough friends, but he wasn't very popular. He liked to focus on his studies more than socializing. Last month, he'd driven his gym teacher to frustrated tears. (Granted, his wife had divorced him the week before, but Merlin's flailing was like the straw that broke the camel's back).
However, everything was okay. Because in the end, it was an undisputed fact that Merlin was Arthur's very, very best friend and vice versa. Everyone knew it, and everyone respected it. They weren't Arthur and Merlin, they were ArthurandMerlin. It had been that way since they were five years old, and it wasn't going to change anytime soon if either of them had anything to do with it.
“Jenny Filch,” Arthur said now, climbing over a moss covered log.
Tripping after him, Merlin panted, “No.”
Arthur had figured that it was high time for him and Merlin to get girlfriends. When Arthur decided to do something, it was always, “Come on, Merlin, let's climb that tree together,” or, “Come on, Merlin, we're not going to get caught.” (They always did.)
Arthur had his eye on Lani, a pretty red haired girl in class. Merlin thought that she was nice. She would read with him sometimes, and she smelled like strawberries. But she always blushed this bright red color and stopped talking when Arthur ran over to Merlin at recess. And for some, unfathomable reason, Arthur and Lani being ArthurandLani hurt. Hurt like he'd accidentally swallowed too-hot hot cocoa again.
Anyway, now that Arthur had found someone to like, he was suggesting girls for Merlin.
Today was one of the rare days when Arthyr wasn't playing after school with his other friends and he didn't have to practice something. Along with sports, Nim made Arthur take piano lessons. (He hated it with a passion, and spoke of his teacher with vitriol.) Hunith let Merlin and Arthur walk to the park on their own now. (She made them promise a thousand times to be very careful.)
It was spring and bright and clear. They had the day off school because a little snow apparently freaked the teachers out. The last time it had snowed in Florida was some thirty years ago. There wasn't even enough to throw properly, much to Arthur's disappointment.
Arthur looked put out as he glanced over his shoulder, waiting for Merlin to catch up. “Why not? She's pretty.” Through the green of the trees, the light caught his hair and glowed. His breath came out in thin clouds of fog. In his big, puffy red jacket and gloves, Merlin reflexively shivered.
"She also sounds like a banshee when she's upset,” he replied dryly.
“Do you remember when Mark spilled chocolate milk on her favorite t-shirt?”
Arthur winced at the memory. “Point. All right, how about Georgiana?”
“She's...nice,” Merlin allowed. He ducked under a branch as he finally caught up with Arthur.
“And she likes you,” Arthur told him, knocking their shoulders together.
Merlin's jaw dropped. “No she doesn't!”
“She does,” Arthur insisted.
“How do you even know?”
“I have spies.”
Merlin snorted. “You have lackeys who eavesdrop.”
“Same thing.” Arthur grinned. He had this shameless, boyish smile that Hunith called 'charming'. Merlin only associated that smile with getting into trouble.
“Listen to your elders, Merlin,” Arthur continued. “They always know better.”
Merlin sputtered. “You are exactly one month older than me!”
“One month, a year,” Arthur said, blasé. “Same difference.”
“Hardly!” Merlin's protest echoed through the trees. They both stopped to listen to the echoes: that's why they heard the snaps of twigs coming from the left where they hadn't before.
Arthur and Merlin froze at exactly the same time. They made eye contact, sharing their alarm, before they looked for the source of the sound.
They whirled around.
Three men, probably in their late forties or early fifties, were standing against the trees. It was impossible to tell: all three of them had thick stubble and disgusting, yellowing teeth. Their jean jackets and boots were worn, and not made for the current weather. Merlin imagined that he could smell the alcohol coming off of them from where he was standing.
He stepped closer to Arthur and found his hand. Squeezed it.
"Leave us alone,” Arthur said, his expression stubborn. “We don't want any trouble.”
The graying one spoke up, stepping forward. His smile was pure filth. “Can't help but give trouble, what wi' you two out here by yourselves like this. And so pretty.” his gaze locked on Merlin. “Especially the little dark one. That pink mouth.”
“Merlin,” Arthur said, low and urgent. His voice was trembling. “We're going to run, okay? Don't let go of my hand.”
“I won't,” Merlin said, forcing the words out of his tight throat. “I won't, I--”
They ran. Arthur's grip on Merlin's hand hurt, and his lungs were burning with sharp, cold air within moments, but he ran. Behind him, he heard a bark of laughter, the sound of snow under crunching boots as the men gave chase. Merlin was slowing Arthur down, they both knew it, but the other boy's grip didn't slacken once.
“Faster, Merlin!” Arthur was tugging Merlin now, dodging trees and logs that they'd played around as children. They knew the forest, Merlin thought with a sudden determination. They could do this.
But as soon as he decided that, something fisted his jacket and yanked. He yelled out, struggling against the big hands that suddenly had him.
“Merlin!” Arthur shouted, stopping. His expression was furious as he launched himself at the man holding Merlin, beating him futilely with his fists.
“Let him go, let him go!"
“Run, Arthur!” Merlin shouted, but it was too late. The other two men grabbed Arthur, one by his hair, the other by his new jacket. They grinned as they shoved him to the ground.
The one holdng him by the hair, a balding, tattooed man, knelt down to Arthur's eye level. He wore a huge grin. There was a thick scar under his right eye. “No need to be bitter, darling,” he crooned, cupping Arthur's cheek.
With a savage growl, Arthur turned his head and bit. Merlin could hear the squish of skin breaking. The man screamed, wrenching his hand away, and back handed Arthur across the face. The harsh slap resounded through the trees.
“You little bitch.”
“Arthur!” Merlin yelled, fighting to get away.
“Easy, princess,” the man holding him, the one who'd first spoken had thick, foul breath. Merlin gagged at the smell, then froze as he began trailing a hand lower and lower...
“No,” Merlin whispered as Arthur was wrenched up by his hair and punched in the stomach. The nasty man began pressing kisses to Merlin's neck. Each one felt like acid. “No no no.”
“Yes,” the graying man grinned maliciously, and slammed his lips—his filthy, unworthy mouth--to a struggling Arthur's.
“No,” Merlin said, his voice deeper, more ancient.
The world went golden.
For a split second, time seemed to suspended, as if everything in the world had ceased to move. The power thrummed under his skin like sparks licking brush, eager and ready. And then Merlin exhaled in a whoosh, and those sparks became a fire that roared out of him, seeking its targets.
Merlin heard screaming, and then everything went black.
When he came back to himself, Arthur's arms were around him. He was trembling.
Without hesitation, Merlin turned and wrapped his arms back around his best friend. The dirt was cold and damp and seeped through his jeans, but he didn't care: they were safe, somehow. He closed his eyes, not wanting to see the blood on the ground or the gray flakes that were gently falling from the sky.
“Arthur?” he asked quietly, trying not to shatter the silence. Arthur's breath was warm and fast against his neck.
“Am I a monster?”
Arthur pulled back, looking at him seriously. He looked older somehow, like there was an innocence that had been ripped away. Merlin imagined that he looked the same.
“Never,” he swore without hesitation. He darted in, lightning fast, and kissed Merlin on the forehead. The spot where his lips had pressed bloomed warm. Merlin closed his eyes again, leaning his forehead against Arthur's, and let out a half sigh, half sob.
They both froze at the voice, their eyes flying open.
“Mom?” Arthur asked in disbelief, getting to his feet and pulling Merlin with him. Merlin swayed as exhaustion suddenly hit him. Arthur tightened his grip on his shoulder.
But no, they weren't imagining it: Nim was standing about five feet from them, wearing a blue tailored suit. Her grip on her purse was casual. She didn't seem to be bothered by the unconscious bodies that were sprawled around.
The area that they were in looked like a disaster zone. All of the snow had gone, leaving a muddy slush of ground. The trees had what looked like scorch marks on them, yet they all seemed to be leaning toward Merlin. The bodies of the men were sprawled around awkwardly, like discarded toys. There was blood streaked across the graying man's face.
“You've made quite a mess haven't you, Merlin?” Nim tutted, stepping forward. She nudged the bald man with her foot.
“I...” Merlin stopped.
“That's alright,” Nim said. She looked up at the gray sky and smiled a little. “Go to the car, boys.”
“But what about--” Arthur started.
Nim's eyes flashed. “I don't like to repeat myself, Arthur,” she said coldly. “Go.”
They went. They sat in silence, holding hands tightly. And when Nim came back with a small, satisfied smile on her face, they said nothing more.
Merlin woke screaming with the force of a nightmare.
He hadn't had them in a long time: not since he was really little, when he'd had dreams of war and death and an older version himself sobbing as something was torn away. But after Nim had dropped Merlin off to his house, she'd taken Arthur away. He hadn't seen his friend in over two weeks. When he and Hunith had dropped by his house, the lights had been off and the driveway had been empty.
Panting, Merlin roughly wiped his eyes.
“Oh, honey,” Hunith said, and then arms were holding him. He knew that he was too old for hugs—he was almost thirteen, for goodness sake—but she was warm and murmured soft words. Merlin turned and silently cuddled into her side for comfort.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
Merlin was silent. She hummed. “Okay. That's alright.”
“I've been thinking,” Hunith said quietly after a while. “How about we get a dog? I know you've been wanting one for a while.”
“I want Arthur,” Merlin whispered.
“I know,” Hunith agreed. “I think we both do. But for now—oh my goodness, is that glass?” she noticed the shattered window for the first time. “Merlin, did you hear anything?”
“No,” Merlin said. He knew that he'd done it though, just like he'd made hairline cracks in the wall that he'd moved his posters around to hide. They looked weird, but they got the job done.
“Jesus,” Hunith said, standing. Her night slippers crunched over glass. “Just—Merlin stay there while I get the broom, okay? I have no idea...” she walked away, her steps hurried.
Merlin didn't go back to sleep that night. The next morning, Hunith took him to the local animal shelter.
There was a time when he would have been excited about this: he'd wanted a dog for years, and he and Arthur had always had long discussions about what kind of dog they'd get if they ever got one.
Arthur wanted a huge, muscled Great Dane or a Dalmatian. Merlin himself liked border collies and even large, furred sheepdogs.
The woman who guided Merlin and Hunith around the shelter was nice. It wasn't her fault that Merlin barely saw the puppies who thumped their tails in their carriers, or the cats who looked at him lazily.
His mom seemed to sense that he wasn't interested, because she finally escorted them out. They stopped for ice cream on the way home; Merlin didn't taste his.
This all changed when they rounded the corner to their neighborhood. Merlin was looking down at his melting ice cream cone, but something made him look up.
And there, sitting on the front steps of the porch, was Arthur.
Merlin was out of the car before Hunith had even parked. Arthur made an odd sound as he slammed into him, sending them both down in a painful tangle of limbs.
“Merlin, you idiot,” Arthur protested, yet he was ruffling Merlin's hair and clutching him back.
Arthur tentatively began the Matilda jokes after about three months. Merlin couldn't do much: once, a rat ran across his foot and he took out all the light bulbs in his house, but other than that there were no major incidents. (Well, there had been that time when he'd levitated Arthur in his sleep, but the boy got all huffy when they talked about it.)
Nim was not discussed, nor was Arthur's time away, no matter how much prodding Merlin did. All he knew was that Arthur stayed the night a lot more.
Merlin was sixteen with Jackson Page's tongue down his throat when Arthur burst into his bedroom.
They all froze. Well, most of them: the bookshelves in the room shuddered with Merlin's sudden explosion of emotion. Jackson looked freaked.
And Arthur looked like he was going to faint. His eyes were huge as he took in the scene. There was a baseball bat clutched in his white knuckled grip. He was rapidly going from pink to scarlet.
Merlin hurriedly shoved Jackson off of him and pulled the sheets up to his chest. “Arthur, I--”
Arthur threw up a hand in the universal sign for 'Shut up'. Merlin's mouth snapped shut.
They sat for a few minutes at least. Arthur took deep, steady breaths.
Finally, he exhaled and looked up. He was back to his regular coloring, but his expression was unreadable. Merlin hated that. He could always read Arthur until he used that face. He supposed that it was something that his best friend had picked up from Nim.
“You have five seconds to leave,” Arthur told Jackson, “before I use this bat.”
Jackson darted out of the room without looking back. Arthur scowled as he went past, but he let him through the doorway. They could clearly hear the slam of the front door.
Silence reigned again. Arthur seemed to be okay with leaning in the doorway. He was wearing a red shirt with dirt-flecked khaki shorts and sneakers. Nim wouldn't let him wear anything worn, so it all looked rather new.
Over the years, Arthur had changed. They both had: it was illogical to assume that they wouldn't. Merlin had hit a growth spurt when he was fourteen, making him spring up. However, where he stretched like taffy and had a slimmer build, Nim signed Arthur up for the local gym—it was not optional.
Arthur's shoulders broadened and his chin grew more defined. He grew his hair out a bit so he could ruffle it while he grinned rakishly. Now, in their junior year, he was the quarterback on the football team and one of the most popular—if not the most popular—boys in school.
Merlin couldn't help but stare sometimes. Arthur was effortlessly gorgeous and he knew it, so he wasn't shy about walking around the house shirtless or even—on some days, when the universe was being cruel—in a towel. And he felt terrible about it, always, because this was his best friend that he was perving on. Arthur had no clue.
Merlin had woken up with the realization one day: I'm gay, he'd thought clearly.
He'd quietly freaked out for a week (during which Arthur looked at him worriedly and tried to feed him a lot of sweets). Then, he'd accepted it. He hadn't told anyone about it though.
He couldn't bring himself to tell Arthur. There was an openly gay guy at school, George Brians, and Arthur always sneered when someone mentioned him. Merlin was terrified that he'd ruin their friendship if he said anything.
And now there was this. Merlin thought he was going to be sick.
“So I might be gay,” his lips said without his permission. Apparently, his body couldn't stand the silence either.
Arthur didn't look up. “Might,” he said dully.
“Um.” Merlin swallowed the bile that was coming up. He inhaled sharply. “There's no 'might', actually.”
“I could see that.”
Merlin squeezed his eyes shut. He was being so cold. “If you want to yell,” he said, “I won't stop you. And I get it, if you don't want to come over anymore--”
“What the hell are you talking about, Merlin?”
Merlin opened his eyes. Arthur looked angry and confused now, his brow furrowed.
"You don't like gay people,” Merlin blurted. “I know, and I'm okay with--”
Arthur looked like he'd just been slapped. “You think I'm homophobic?”
“You don't like George Brians!”
“I don't like George Brians because George Brians is a pissant little shit who treats his car like crap. It has nothing to do with who the hell he wants to bang.” his tone grew a little wistful. “If I had a Mustang like that, I'd clean it with my tongue.”
“Oh,” Merlin said dimly. He was slightly distracted by the image of Arthur cleaning a car with his tongue, but it didn't sway him from his mortification.
“Yeah, 'oh',” Arthur said, snapping back to the present. “And for your information, Kaleb is in a long distance relationship with a boy named Nico.”
"The running back?” Merlin couldn't help but let his voice go a bit squeaky. Kaleb was a huge, bulky guy that Arthur hung out with sometimes: who'd have guessed?
“The running back,” Arthur confirmed. For the first time, a smile passed along the edge of his lips before it disappeared. He scrubbed a hand across his face. “I'm sorry for making you freak out. I don't have a problem with it, I can promise you that.”
“Oh,” Merlin repeated. He looked down at his lap, suddenly feeling like a terrible person for assuming.
“Besides, you utter moron: I already knew.”
Merlin's head jerked up so fast he hurt his neck. “You what!?”
“I knew.” When Merlin continued to gape, he shrugged nonchalantly and began to lay out the evidence. “You never enjoy the dates I set you up on, even when I managed to bag you Vanessa Gilmore, who's pathetically obvious about her crush on you.”
“She's a perfectly respectable girl,” Merlin protested, glaring.
“Yeah. But she also tried to grope you under the table, didn't she?” Arthur flopped into a chair and didn't wait for an answer. “Plus, I found your 'secret' magazines. Under the mattress? Really, Merlin? You huge amateur, you're supposed to use a floorboard or something. I realize that you're kind of dim, but I didn't know that you could go low. I don't know why you're so surprised. You, of all people, should know that I'm not totally stupid.”
“But...but...” Merlin's mouth worked to form words. Couldn't.
“The only thing I'm pissed about is the fact that it took you so long to tell me. Were you even going to--? You know what? Never mind. I'm covered in sweat and dirt and I really need a shower. We'll talk about your horrid standards when I get out, yeah?” And without waiting for an answer, he turned and began heading for the back.
“Jackson Page,” Merlin heard him mutter. “Honestly. For god's sake, he'd better be a virgin.”
“That's none of your business!” Merlin shouted, snapping out of it.
“Says you!” Arthur hollered back, and shut the bathroom door.
It was kind of inevitable that it would come down to this, but Merlin had thought he'd be a bit more prepared for it.
He wasn't. He really, really wasn't.
See, Arthur threw everything, every part of himself into what he felt was important. He stood by his friends even when they'd screwed up majorly. (Kenneth last year, when he stole his dad's car and accidentally hit someone.) He played every football game like it was going to be his last. And now, since Merlin was apparently a little different, he was determined to understand this new thing.
He and Hunith (who were, apparently, in on it together) sat around with pamphlets called 'So Your Best Friend/Son/Other Likes Boys' that he'd said he'd gotten from the school counselor. Tuesday movie nights that used to be horror flicks and humor--and the occasional tragedy, when Merlin was feeling morose--was filled with Brokeback Mountain and I Love You, Philip Norris.
Merlin didn't mind. Not a lot, anyway. He was too freaked out about Arthur being so incredibly nonchalant about it all.
It was downright unnatural. Merlin stared at Arthur as Arthur looked at the two men kissing passionately on the TV. He was eating his popcorn, looking nothing but mildly interested in the plot of the movie. Something about a painter. Merlin did not care.
“Okay, that's it,” Merlin stood, stepping over pillows spread on the ground. He turned off the TV with a sharp jab of his finger and turned around, folding his arms across his chest.
Arthur looked put out. “I was watching that, Merlin.”
“I know,” Merlin snapped, “that's the problem.”
“That I want to watch a movie on movie night?”
“Stop playing dumb!” Merlin shouted in frustration. He felt like a child, but this was getting ridiculous. “You know exactly what I'm getting at!”
“I really don't, Merlin.” Arthur blinked at him from his position on the couch. He was wearing a ratty tee and sweatpants with bare feet, his golden hair mussed. If Merlin took a picture of him and put it on the internet, he'd have stalkers.
“You're going to make me say it,” Merlin said flatly.
“If you stopped being insane, then maybe I'd know what I'm trying to make you say.”
“You know what I'm trying to say.”
“I really don't.”
“I think you do.”
“I really don't.”
“Oh my God.” Merlin scrubbed a hand over his face. “You actually don't know.”
“That's what I've been telling you,” Arthur said. The 'You idiot' at the end of the sentence was heavily implied.
“Alright, fine. Arthur, you are being vicariously gay.”
“Excuse me?” Arthur's voice cracked.
“You are,” Merlin started pacing. “You totally are.”
"What proof do you have?”
Merlin stopped and flailed a bit. “The shirts.”
“The...shirts?” Arthur raised a skeptical eyebrow, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.
“Every shirt that you've worn this week has had a bit of pink on them. Which is, frankly, a bit insulting. I've never worn a pink shirt in my life.”
“Because you look washed out in them,” Arthur nodded.
“Aha!” Merlin pointed triumphantly. “And you keep on commenting on my fashion sense!”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I'm always commenting on your fashion sense, you nitwit. I can't help it. It's like you cover your eyes and grab at random clothes that are located in the 'ridiculous' section of your closet. The instinct to belittle you is impossible to suppress. Believe me, I have tried.”
“You have not.”
“You're right, I haven't. Your 'insulted' face too much fun.”
“You once gave someone a busted lip because they called me 'Dumbo ears'.” Merlin said flatly.
“Well obviously I'm the only one who's allowed to do the insulting,” Arthur said in a 'duh' tone.
Merlin refused to dignify that with a response. They'd just start bickering, and he had a point to make.
“The point is,” he said, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice, “you're acting weird, and I've had enough.”
“I--” Arthur opened his mouth.
“Enough.” Merlin stressed. “I don't want to talk about guys. Yes, I would bone Colin Farrel. No, I don't want to talk about it with you. I don't want to read another pamphlet, or go on that anonymous gay site again, and for God's sake, Arthur, if I have to watch one more gay movie I will lose it.” At some point of his speech, he'd started pacing again. And he was pretty sure that his hair looked ridiculous, as he'd been combing his hands through it. He forced himself to stop and looked at his best friend.
Arthur looked...shocked. “I had no idea.” he said dimly, staring at nothing in particular.
“I can see that.” Merlin heaved a sigh and walked over to flop onto the couch next to him.
They sat in silence. The living room was dark for the movie, but the stove light in the kitchen was on, so it was at least a little bright.
“Sorry,” Arthur muttered finally, after a few minutes.
Merlin felt himself melt a little. “'S alright,” he said gruffly, reaching over to nudge Arthur with a shoulder like he used to do when they were little. “I'm just glad that you're taking this so well.”
“You know I was trying to be...supportive, right?” Arthur asked tentatively. As tentative as Arthur, who seemed to fill up an empty room with his presence could, anyway.
“I know.” Merlin grinned at him. “Just try a little...less. No rainbow shirts.”
“That's not fair,” Arthur said with a hint of a pout. “I happen to look hot in rainbow colors.”
“Fine. No more gay movies.”
“I dunno. I actually liked them, I think.”
At Merlin's glare, he threw up his hands. “But I'll give them back to Kaleb tomorrow. Promise.”
“Thank you. Now, can you please put on Mission Impossible or something? Like, now?”
"Actually...” Arthur trailed off.
Merlin raised a brow. “What.” he stated.
“I have a few conditions myself. Since this is, apparently, going to be a thing.”
“Do I look like I am?”
Arthur did not look like he was joking. Stifling a suddenly sick feeling in his stomach, Merlin swallowed. “Go ahead.”
“Stop looking at me like I'm about to kick you in the balls, Merlin.”
“I'm not looking--”
“Yes you are.” Arthur looked at him impatiently. “And I don't like it. If I had a problem with this, you'd know it, Merlin. Am I the type of person who tries to bullshit about stuff?”
That was, admittedly, true. Arthur made his feelings clear from the start, damn whoever thought he was an asshole.
“Right,” Merlin licked his lips. “Go ahead.”
“I reserve the right to interview whoever you want to go out with.”
Merlin stared at him in disbelief. “What am I, your virgin daughter?!”
“Daughter, no.” Arthur said smoothly. “Virgin, yes.”
Merlin picked up a pillow and smacked him with it. Repeatedly, until Arthur shouted, “Alright, I won't interview them! I won't!”
He so would. They both knew it.
Merlin glowered at him for the future embarrassment. “Go on.” he said frostily.
“Menace,” Arthur said, dusting himself off. His face was pink and his hair looked insane. “Alright: the minute you lose your virginity, I want you to call me.”
“I did it for you,” Arthur argued.
“And I still have sleepless nights because of the too much information, Arthur.”
“Okay, that's a bit ridiculous,” Arthur conceded. “But seriously, you have to tell me.”
“Fine,” Merlin snapped. “I'm almost afraid to ask what the next one is.”
“It's my last one,” Arthur promised with a hint of a smile. It slowly disappeared. “I want you to be careful.”
Merlin tried not to laugh. “I'm gay, not an alien hiding from the law, Arthur.”
“I'm serious.” he wasn't smiling. “There's diseases and ignorant assholes and stuff that I don't like, Merlin. Promise me.”
Merlin huffed without feeling and looked off to the side. “Fine,” he said, going for sarcasm. “Since you apparently care so much.”
Arthur relaxed, his face breaking into a wry grin. “Of course I don't,” he said easily, standing to head over to the stack of DVDs on the TV stand. “However, Hunith's heart would break if she lost her prized elephant.”
Merlin flicked his hand up and over, and a couch cushion soared over to Arthur's head. The blond looked up and back at Merlin. “Merlin,” he said warningly.
His concentration had grown much better. He could pick things up (the remote, when he was feeling particularly lazy, or a heavy item) and move it, and he could sometimes do things through sheer intent. Like now, for example.
The cushion slowly rose into the air as if pulled by invisible strings, then began rapidly beating him over the head. He yelped and started heading for Merlin to stop him. The teenager laughed and hopped over the couch to run away.
“Damn it, Merlin!”
Merlin cackled, until Arthur seized another cushion and began a war. And then there was laughter, and they knew that things would be okay.
They were eighteen and the television inside was, once again, playing the yearly conference held on the date that the prince of England had gone missing, the anniversary of the queen's death.
King Uther looked like a very cold man. His mouth moved but his face did not as he delivered a speech about the importance of appreciating family and asking, once again, anyone who had information about the prince to step forward.
Merlin had been watching when Arthur had walked into the house. Back from screwing some girl most likely. He'd glanced at the television, disinterested, then dragged his best friend out to go and look at the sunset.
They laid on the grass in the backyard under their tree, looking at the sky. It was familiar, almost achingly so, but at the same time, it wasn't: Arthur smelled of sex and had the distinct air of one who was satisfied. Merlin had just been reading over the package that Florida State had sent for the thousandth time.
The sky was streaked with gold and pinks, the same color as Arthur's hair. Sun rays seemed to stretch, reaching for something. The air was soft.
Of course, Arthur couldn't just let it rest. “You ever think about it?”
“Think about what?” Merlin asked, used to his best friend's sporadic train of thought. His mind was organized, but his childhood habit of latching onto an idea and taking everyone with it had never faded.
“That poor bastard prince, out there somewhere.” he waved a vague hand. “If he isn't dead, I mean. He's probably oblivious, living out his life all normal-like, and everybody's looking for him. Everybody wants him.”
Merlin shifted, rolling his thin ankles until one popped. “This sounds personal.”
Arthur went quiet. Merlin watched the sky and waited.
“I'm adopted,” he said finally. “That's what Nim and I talked about, those weeks when...” he trailed off. Neither of them liked to speak of that year. He cleared his throat. “Nim says it was for the best.”
For the first time in a very long while, Merlin wasn't sure what to say. Are you okay? sounded like something that would get him punched. A joke wasn't good either. It was times like this when he wished they were still five years old, pretending to live in caves and eat caterpillars.
Finally, he asked, cautiously, “Are what do you say?”
“You know, Merlin.” he rolled over and propped his head on a hand. “I have no idea.”
“That's all right, I think.” Merlin shrugged. “Because no one really does, do they? I think we all just sort of putter along in this life. Pursuing our happiness. Are you happy, Arthur?”
Arthur smiled. It was lovely and white and broad across his tan face. “You're such a girl,” he joked, uncomfortable. When Merlin just watched him, he sobered a bit. “But yeah. I think I am.”
Of course, that was when he tackled Merlin, because he couldn't just let a moment like that rest.
“Merlin,” Arthur whined, flopping down on his stomach onto his best friend's bed. Merlin studiously ignored him, typing on the laptop that Arthur and Hunith had surprised him with as a graduation present. It had a few dings and scratches now, because Merlin had never claimed to be the most graceful person, but he hadn't dropped it into a toilet yet. He was pathetically grateful for this.
Right now, though, he was trying to rewrite a paper because, apparently, when you saved something to Microsoft Word it disappeared into oblivion. Never again, he promised himself, viciously pecking at the keys. He was so irritated with the entire thing that he nearly snarled when Arthur poked him in the stomach.
“Not now, Arthur,” he snapped.
Arthur poked him again, of course. Years of practice made him able to know exactly where all of Merlin's ticklish spots were, and he gleefully abused the knowledge. “You're not fun anymore, Merlin,” he said, a hint of an honest-to-God pout in his voice.
Merlin did not tear his eyes away from the screen. “Yes,” he said, his patience very, very thin. “That usually comes with the territory of being a junior in college.” He pulled away from the keys to crack his knuckles, each one popping satisfactorily. He nearly smirked when Arthur winced. The blonde hated the noise.
“Now you're just being mean,” Arthur gave him a look that was half-glower, half-puppy dog eyes, his head propped up on one hand. He was wearing a plain white shirt and jeans, his socked feet flexing.
“I'm working on two hours' sleep. I'm allowed to be mean.”
“That makes no sense.” Arthur made a face. He reached out, gripped one of Merlin's ears and gently tugged. “Come out with me and the guys tonight. Well, not come out, because you've already done that. Obviously.” he chortled a little at his own joke.
Merlin looked at him, his face completely deadpan. “That,” he said clearly, “was awful.”
“It wasn't that bad,” Arthur disagreed. He flopped onto his back, scooted closer to Merlin so that their sides were pressed together. Even as busy as he was, Merlin took in the contact greedily.
It seemed like college had them running everywhere. Arthur had a group of friends who he went to parties and drank with, buddies who liked to wake up at ungodly hours of the morning and run—for fun. Merlin had friends, too, but the different sort: ones who he sat next to in the library and quietly ranted to about that goddamn Professor Ronald.
Arthur was studying at the College of Business while Merlin had decided on an English major. Combined with their social lives, Arthur's bar hopping and sleeping around and Merlin's tendency to go into hard study modes, there simply wasn't enough time in the day to be around each other.
But they'd text, and sometimes Arthur would bring back Chinese takeout or pizza and they'd sit in their tiny dorm on Merlin's bed and watch Netflix movies. They'd argue about the mess on Merlin's side of the room and the bra that Merlin found in his pillowcase that is not mine, Arthur, do not get punched in the face today.
But Merlin was glad for those small things.
“I know that face,” Arthur grumbled, snapping Merlin out of his thoughts. He was giving his best friend a narrow eyed glare. “You're being sappy. Stop it.”
“I'm not,” Merlin protested futilely. When Arthur simply raised an eyebrow, he shrugged and went back to his paper.
They sat in a comfortable silence for nearly an hour. Arthur dozed off about fifteen minutes in, a hand curled gently around his best friend's thigh. Merlin had to forcibly stop himself from just giving up on the damn assignment and curling up with him.
As Merlin was typing his final paragraph, there was a familiar knock at the door.
“Come in,” Merlin called, keeping his voice low.
Gwen stepped in with a huge smile on her face, her eyes bright with happiness. She was wind swept and gorgeous: dark eyes, honeyed skin and the sweetest personality that any of Arthur's girlfriends had ever had. If Merlin was straight, he'd marry her in a heartbeat. He wasn't, so he'd rooted for Arthur to marry her instead.
As it was, in their third month of dating Arthur and Gwen quietly broke up. Merlin still didn't know why, but it'd all worked out on its own.
“Aw,” she cooed now, creeping forward in her flats. “Look at the sleeping Arthur.”
Arthur wrinkled his nose, as if conscious to her scrutiny, and turned his face into Merlin's side, nuzzling. Merlin felt his face go hot.
“I suppose you're going out with him, then?” he asked as he took in her attire. Classy-hot black dress, sparkling flats, bright electric blue earrings—she looked fit to kill. Still, Merlin smirked. “Are you visiting a bar or a funeral?” he teased.
“Shut it,” Gwen said affectionately, close enough to lay a kiss on his forehead. He felt the stickiness of lip gloss and grimaced, rubbing it off while she laughed.
“You should come with us, Merlin,” she said, when she'd sobered. “We'd both love it. He pines when you're not around.”
“He pines for someone to ridicule.” Merlin replied, rolling his eyes.
Gwen smiled at him. “You know that's not true.”
“I know. But--” Merlin gestured to his laptop. “Study-aholic. What can you do?”
“We can drag you,” Arthur murmured against his stomach, a warm spot that sent shivers up Merlin's spine. “Kicking and screaming.”
“And I'd never forgive you.”
“You would when you got laid.” Arthur looked up at him with a smirk. “What's it been, Merlin? Three months?”
“Just because I'm not a total slut--” Merlin began hotly.
“Boys.” Gwen's tone left no room for argument. They both looked at her, Merlin still angry and Arthur unrepentant.
Gwen looked at them, her usually kind face creased into a stern expression. She looked almost like a school teacher, chastising a pair of naughty kids. Merlin twitched a little. “No fighting.”
“I know that bickering is a good twenty percent of your interactions, and that's fine. But I want to go and drink without Arthur whining--”
“--and Merlin not texting me anxiously every five minutes to see if you're still upset.”
“I do not,” Merlin muttered mutinously. It had to be ten minutes, at the most...
“Get ready,” Gwen told Arthur. She addressed Merlin. “Finish your paper. I'll be flirting with your next door neighbor, if you need me.” she smiled at them and left, quietly shutting the door behind her.
Arthur sighed. “Why are we friends with her, again?” he asked.
“Because she's awesome.” Merlin informed him solemnly. “And, she makes a mean key lime pie.”
“Of course, I remember now.” Arthur got up, leaving a cold space where his body had been. Merlin tried to surreptitiously tug the sheets higher around his legs to replace it. (It wasn't the same.)
“So,” Merlin started, semi-awkward. He wasn't sure where they were with their earlier argument.
“You can fuck whoever you want.”
“What?” Merlin's eyebrows crumpled.
Arthur was smoothing the sides of his leather jacket in the mirror, not looking at Merlin at all. Their dorm was small: just two beds, two dressers, and space for a desk, but that was it. Merlin knew, without Arthur telling him, that Nim had wanted her son to stay in the apartment-dorms but he'd refused.
Sometimes his entire body ached, when he thought about Arthur.
“You can fuck,” Arthur made a crude gesture here, “whoever you want. Like, anytime. At your own pace.”
There was a small silence. And then, Merlin said in amusement, “Seriously?”
Because this was always Arthur's own, awkward way of apologizing, and even after all these years it was never not entertaining.
Arthur certifiably growled. “Shut up. Dick.”
“My name's not Richard.”
“Damn it, Merlin, you know I hate it when you say that.” Arthur pulled a face. “It's so corny.”
“Which is why I say it.”
Arthur finally looked at him to glower, the expression becoming something closer to genuine affection. “You are such a nerdy bastard, you know that?”
“You have informed me of this many times over the years,” Merlin replied.
“Yeah, yeah,” Arthur turned away from the mirror to walk over to the bed, in front of Merlin. Blue eyes looked down at him in concern. “Seriously though, Merlin. You've got to get wasted sometime during your college years. 'S tradition.”
“Is that so?” Merlin cocked a head at his best friend, raising an eyebrow.
“It's definitely so.” Arthur smirked, suddenly: before Merlin even had time to be wary of that look, he was in a headlock, his laptop jostled on his knees.
“Let me go you asshole!” he punched halfheartedly at Arthur's ribs.
“Not until--you agree to come next time.” Arthur huffed out breathlessly. Merlin was basically sticks and pale skin, but he was still strong.
Merlin wiggled skinny fingers into Arthur's rib cage, right where he knew he was ticklish. His best friend half laughed, half yelped-- “Oh, you bastard!”--but he didn't release his best friend.
“Don't make me come in there!” Gwen's voice called from outside the door.
“Promise,” Arthur grunted, grinning even as he shied away from Merlin's fingers.
“Fine! Fine--” Merlin made a disgusted sound when Arthur dug his fingers into his hair then twisted around, mussing his hair, before he released him. “You are such a spoiled brat.” he ineffectively combed his fingers though his hair, trying to straighten it.
“I knew you loved me,” Arthur said sweetly. His shirt had ridden up in the scuffle. Merlin's eyes found skin and honed in before he knew what he was doing.
The correct response here would be to scoff and shove Arthur, as always. But that flesh was tan and ripped—and it was stupid, so stupid, because he'd seen Arthur shirtless probably hundreds, thousands of times, but that white shirt and his skin--
Without his permission, Merlin's hand rose and reached over to tug the fabric back in place, barely brushing Arthur's skin. As always, the contact sent shivers through him, but these seemed more...electric. Barely perceptible to anyone but Merlin—because he was the only one on the planet who knew his best friend inside and out—Arthur shuddered.
Merlin jerked his hand away. “Right,” he said, his voice off. His cheeks hot, he averted his gaze down at his lap. “I guess you've got to go now.”
Arthur practically radiated apprehension. “Merlin...”
“Don't get blind drunk, yeah?” Unable to help himself, Merlin looked up at Arthur.
There was a soft, pink flush on his cheeks. Merlin wanted to reach up and...
There was a pause. Then, “Sure. See you,” Arthur said roughly, running a hand over Merlin's hair.
And then he was gone, leaving Merlin with flushed cheeks, forbidden thoughts, and an unfinished paper.
Merlin woke groggy and disoriented. For a minute, he had no idea why he'd woken. And then:
“Merlin,” Arthur half hissed, half giggled, sounding quite drunk. As if to prove Merlin's theory, the other man hiccuped, loud in the quiet room.
Merlin squinted, just barely able to make out a halo of blond hair and white, gleaming teeth. Arthur was grinning. This was unprecedented. Usually, Arthur was quite the moody, rude drunk. Not—Merlin took in the hands on his shoulders, just a bit too tight—handsy.
“Merlin Merlin Merlin.” Arthur near-bounced in place.
“What?” Merlin asked grouchily. “What is it?”
“Merlin,” Arthur sighed dreamily—his eyes were wide and bright in the dark. “Merlin, I'm in love.”
For one, completely irrational moment, Merlin's heart stopped. And then he brushed the statement away and said, plainly, “You're drunk.”
“Obviously,” Arthur giggled some more, sloppy. He must have drank a lot—and knowing Gwen, she wouldn't have been able to stop him once he'd really gotten started, not with Arthur's thick skull. Merlin was still a bit pissed off at her as he sat up, gripping his best friend by the shoulders and trying to make room in his own bed, as they would usually do.
They didn't sleep together as often as they had when they were kids, but it was obvious that it was better for them both. Plus, this way Merlin would be able to torment Arthur more easily in the morning.
“All right, Arthur,” he said soothingly, resolving to pry the story out of his best friend in the morning. “That's great. Just come to bed, okay?”
“No!” Arthur jerked away, almost punching Merlin as he staggered.
Merlin watched with cold shock as Arthur scowled at him, dark and serious. “No.” he growled, sounding a bit more sober. “I'm hers.”
"Okay.” he realized that his voice was a near whisper and cleared his throat. “Okay, um—your own bed, then?”
Arthur looked at him with suspicion. “And you won't try and crawl into bed with me?”
And okay, that hurt. Because Arthur had never, ever refused to sleep with him, not when they'd had their worst fight. (Arthur had been accepted at Berkeley, of all places, and had refused to go even when Merlin demanded it. Just flat out refused to leave. It was half heart breaking, half gratifying).
“I won't,” he promised, looping his arms around his knees. “Just get in bed, okay? And you might want to take off the jacket, and those jeans. They might be uncomfortable.”
“Fine,” Arthur said shortly. “Close your eyes.”
It was like a punch to the solar plexus. “Excuse me?” he asked, his voice coming out raspy. It had been a source of humor between them for years, Arthur constantly flaunting his body around Merlin.
“Close. Your. Eyes. I won't have you ogling me. My body is hers, now.”
Merlin stared at him, searching for some sign that this was all a cruel, horrible joke. My body is hers? What even.
Arthur stared back. Waiting.
Merlin closed his eyes.
There was the rustle of cloth: uncoordinated, with a bit of cursing. Merlin could picture it without even opening his eyes: the way Arthur would trip over his feet, his normally graceful movements inhibited by the drink. A near miss with the dresser—once it hadn't been a miss and Merlin'd had to drive them to the emergency room, a half dressed Arthur holding a bloody t-shirt to his head. The squeak of the bed as Arthur climbed in, tossing and turning, before he settled.
“Okay, Merlin.” his voice was still in that same, cold tone that made his best friend want to curl up somewhere.
“Are you all right?” Merlin couldn't help but ask. He lay back down and turned to face his friend, blinking in the darkness.
Arthur had left his clothes where they'd fallen. He was turned on his side, facing Merlin as well, his eyelashes casting shadows across his cheeks.
He finally smiled, goofy. “'Course I am, Merlin. I'm in love.”
The second time didn't hurt any less. Still, he forced a smile. “She's a lucky lady.”
“I'm lucky,” Arthur argued, his lips forming a pout. “She's beautiful, and kind, and pretty, and nice, and...and beautiful.”
He was drunk. That was the only explanation Merlin had for it. He shoved down the tiny part of himself that fervently prayed that Arthur's so-called love was only a part of the alcohol. His best friend deserved love. That was all there was to it.
"What's her name?” he asked. Maybe he was masochistic, or something.
Arthur sighed dreamily. “Sophia.”
Sophia. It was a pretty name for a doubtlessly pretty girl. Merlin turned in around in his mouth like a sweet, over and over, until it started to taste a little less sour.
Things would be fine, he tried to convince himself as he turned on his side.
Everything would work itself out.
Things were not working themselves out.
“What--a grade A--bitch.”
Merlin gaped at Gwen, uncomprehending as she slammed her lunch tray onto the table and sat down with a huff. She picked up her apple and bit into it with a vicious crunch.
“What?” she snapped, when she saw him looking at her. “You know exactly who I'm talking about, and the fact that you do only proves that I'm right.”
He did know.
Arthur had been in love exactly three times in his life already. The first time, they were ten years old and Merlin's mother was working overtime to pay for car repairs. She'd had to hire a babysitter for the boys.
Alyssa Mallory had been dark haired, sixteen, and beautiful. Arthur had gone on and on and on about the girl, who tolerated his awkward blushes with a smile. She didn't mock him for it and she was willing to play hide and seek sometimes. Merlin had liked her.
And then Arthur'd found out that she had a boyfriend. The subsequent snit had lasted for weeks. Needless to say, that soon died a natural death.
Next love? Fourteen years old, Maria Suarez. They circled each other for weeks, weeks, Arthur's normal brash confidence failing him. Merlin had sighed, stomped over to the group of girls that Maria was hanging out with and said, quite plainly, “If you don't do it, he never will.”
He'd watched in satisfaction as his best friend began dating her. He was the best wing man ever, if he did say so himself. Maria didn't even have a problem with the abnormally close friendship between Merlin and her best friend, just grinned with it. She'd become a very close friend of Merlin's actually.
And then her father decided to take a promotion in San Francisco—far, far away from little New Haven, Florida.
At first, they were determined to keep contact. It was cute, actually: late night texts and calls where Arthur tried to cover up the fact that he missed her with bravado that fooled no one. But, as all things went, it faded. One day, Arthur stopped calling.
“Nim says that long distance relationships rarely, if ever turn out,” he'd told Merlin, a firm set to his mouth. “After some thought, I'm inclined to agree.”
“But you could have given it a chance--” Merlin protested.
“Just leave it,” Arthur had snapped, and Merlin had been furious at his best friend—for his cowardice, for never saying 'no' to his mother, for the fact that Maria had called and cried over the phone the night before--
And then he'd seen the red tint to Arthur's eyes, the dark circles, and his anger had faded to a deep, aching kind of sadness.
But that had been the past, and this was now—and in the present, Sophia was, as Gwen said, a Grade A bitch.
Merlin usually made a point to be respectful to women. Growing up with a middle class, honorable single mother would do that to a guy. But from the very first moment that he'd met Sophia Tirmor, something about her had simply rubbed him the wrong way.
The morning after Arthur had fallen asleep, Merlin had expected to wake up to the melodious sounds of vomiting. It was custom, after all: Arthur would get drunk. Merlin would put him to bed, grumbling. Merlin would wake up to Arthur hugging the porcelain goddess, swearing. Merlin would sigh, get up, grab a bottle of water and walk into the bathroom to rub Arthur's back, because despite how much he protested (and he did protest, in the beginning) he secretly loved it.
This morning, however, had been different.
Arthur's bed had been messy. That in itself was a rarity: the man had always been a clean person, and he liked to bitch about Merlin's less than military corners.
Immediately worried, Merlin had gotten dressed and called Arthur three times. Each message was a little more frantic than the last—Arthur always answered the phone, especially when it was him. When he failed to pick up for the third time, Merlin deliberately calmed himself, sat on the edge of his bed, and closed his eyes.
Meditation had been suggested by, oddly enough, his neighbor. Freya had moved into the abandoned house across the road when Merlin was seventeen. She'd been dark haired and had liked herbal teas and beanies. She had also been the first magical person that Merlin had ever met.
(Other than Nim, of course. But they didn't talk about Nim.)
“Well,” she'd said, beaming at him when he'd gone over to deliver the cookies that his mom had made. (“It's called being friendly, Merlin.”) “Aren't you a powerful one?”
He'd really liked her. It helped that she knew all sorts of things—how to make potions, stop the windows from cracking when Merlin was mad. How to move water and rock with nothing more than muttered words, actually see his magic at work.
“You're my Hermione,” he'd told her laughingly.
She'd blushed. Freya was twenty-one—still a girl, his mother said. He knew she liked him, but he'd explained, stammering, that he was gay—and then she'd just been delighted.
“So the blond, hot one is yours?” she'd demanded. “He's a bit surly, isn't he?”
Arthur had been extremely jealous. It'd been a bit gratifying, actually.
“He's not mine,” Merlin had protested, blushing at the thought. “Well, he is, but—he's just my best friend.”
“And the pixies are perfect angels.” she'd eyed him, but let it drop.
(And hadn't that been a revelation—there were magical creatures in the world. Even Arthur, with all of his feigned disinterest, couldn't resist interrogating Freya about it.)
For all of her fun, though, Freya was a wanderer. Three months and a firm, thorough kiss on the mouth later she was gone, faded into the wind. Merlin missed her sometimes.
But she'd given him a great gift: the ability to sense Arthur. Apparently they had a “deep and powerful bond”--her words, not his. His first instinct was to roll his eyes, but he'd smothered himself and let her teach him.
It wasn't hard to slide into his inner mind. They were chaotic, disorganized and threatening to be tangled with his magic again—he hadn't done this in a very long time.
Breaths slowed. His heart steadied. He blocked it all out: the hoots of some idiots down the hall, the trees brushing the window as they were pitched about, his own worries about his paper--
And he was in.
Merlin fancied his mind to be a bit like a busy library. A little unorganized, kind of dusty in some corners, but overall, pretty organized. He walked past the shelves of his experiences and his knowledge stacked in books. He would have paused to look, as he'd liked to do when he first learned this skill, but he pushed past that and into the staff room of the place.
The staff room was like his bedroom, but filled with windows and a transparent ceiling. Above, a black, star filled sky glittered down at them. Tiny globes, a lot like crystal balls, floated around. Merlin had looked up at it for long moments, remembering.
Freya, when she'd come here with him, had explained that each of these globes were bonds that he'd made throughout his life. The bigger the globes were, she told him, the more attached he was. They each glowed with a faint gold light, some of them tinted with black.
“There's a lot,” Merlin had marveled, looking around.
“See that one?” Freya had pointed to a tiny globe that was nearly hiding in the room, black seeping over it like an infected limb. “Bring it here.”
“How?” Merlin had eyed it.
“It's your mind,” Freya had looked at him. “You're the one with the power here, Merlin. Call it to you.”
Sighing—because of course she wasn't just going to tell him, Merlin had held out a palm. “Um. Here, please.”
To his astonishment, the globe had slowly, reluctantly, began to float over, bumping past all the others in a clumsy fashion. Eventually, it came to a stop over Merlin's hand then, without fanfare, dropped like a rock. Merlin had closed his fingers around it and--
Ice blue eyes cold as they watched him and her son play/”He can't come over today Merlin” sneering/”that woman and her annoying son/can't you find someone else to play with Arthur/”we'll move I swear we will”/bad influence--
“Nimueh.” he said, certain without knowing why. He turned the little globe over in his hands. “This is my bond with Nimueh.” He wasn't exactly sure why he was upset, but he was, in a strange, sad way. He curled his hand around the poor thing even more. It was like ice in his palm.
Freya whistled. “You must really dislike her.”
“She's Arthur's mother.” he'd replied through numb lips. It wasn't much of an answer.
“Ah.” Freya knew that there was some tension there. Merlin hadn't gone into detail: that would've been a betrayal to Arthur, whether the man heard about it or not.
“I shouldn't even have a bond to her.” Angry now, Merlin let go of the globe. It fell quickly, and for half a moment, he was frightened that it was going to shatter against the floor—but it brought itself into a hover at the very last moment. Up, up, it floated until it was almost in front of his face. When he didn't reach for it again, it seemed to sigh before slowly, tiredly, floating away. Merlin and Freya watched it go in silence.
Finally, Freya said, almost carefully, “I know you feel like you shouldn't. Like you hate her. But you're always going to have at least one good memory of her—that's why the globe's a little golden, darling.” she'd brushed her fingers along his cheek then turned away, the corner of her mouth lifting. “Here: this'll make you feel better: find Arthur.”
Both then and now he could find Arthur's immediately. It was hovering near the ceiling, easily one of the largest globes (if not the largest). The only one who could possibly rival that was Merlin's mother's.
Merlin had called it to him with a thought. It sailed down, bright and golden like the sun, as eager as a puppy. It was one of the only bonds with no big blotches of black.
The globe was about the size of a basketball, warm light swimming within. Merlin caught it with both hands, pressing his palms to its warm sides, and--
Summer nights laughing Arthur tries fails to catch grasshoppers/Sky blue eyes warm bright handing him hangover coffee/Seventeen my boyfriend's got a girlfriend but it's okay Arthur's there/warm hugs/“Never”/love you idiot--
He'd jerked himself out of the memories, trembling. If he had to describe how that felt—and Arthur was always, always pressuring him to do it—he wouldn't be able. There were simply no words in any language for it.
Merlin waited for the tremors to stop, then went back to his task.
Where? Show me. He projected to the bond. It was eager, always ready to please. Almost like a puppy. He silently laughed at the comparison, even as it hummed, a deep, vibrating note. A small, golden fog drifted up and into his body. Arthur's location was revealed almost immediately.
Thank you, he had smiled at the globe, stroked it for good measure, and turned it over in his hands. As he did so, something caught his eye.
A tiny, almost unnoticeable pink blotch hung around the sea of gold. It was about the size of pinky nail, but it was there. He'd stared, not knowing what to make of this new addition.
Hesitantly, Merlin reached out and touched it with a single index finger. He jerked away as static leaped from it, shocking him. The closest he could pinpoint the sensation was the time when Arthur dared him to stick a finger into a light socket. But that hadn't left him feeling like he was going to hurl.
Unable to shake the sensation, Merlin had gently let the globe go. It sadly floated away.
When he sank back into his own body, the first thing that Merlin did was reach for the trash can by his bed. He was just in time—his body ejected last night's dinner and possibly the lunch before that. When there was nothing left he sat on his knees, gagging for long minutes.
That had never happened before.
Miserable, he had stood and reached for the half-empty water bottle on his dresser and rinsed his mouth out.
He was understandably cranky when he finally found his best friend, laughing under an oak tree with an arm slung around one of the most beautiful girls that Merlin had ever seen. Arthur was perfectly okay. Peachy keen, even.
Relief was felt for a fleeting instant—and then frustration and anger and something that Merlin refused to name, something that curled hot and dark in his belly, rose into his throat. He'd consciously kept his steps from becoming stomps as he crossed the grass.
“Arthur,” he'd called.
Arthur had looked up, eyes sparkling. They faded into something resembling concern. “Are you okay? You look kind of pale.”
Maybe there was hope. “I--” Merlin started.
“Arthur,” the beautiful girl—Sophia, he assumed—interrupted smoothly. Her voice was surprisingly light: Merlin had subconsciously been imagining her with Ursula the Sea Witch's tenor. “Who's your friend?”
Like a switch, Arthur's attention had snapped from his best friend—practically brothers, something in Merlin said petulantly—to the girl.
“Darling,” he said, sounding stupidly besotted, “this is...this is...”
“Merlin,” Merlin said, his voice cold even in his own ears. Sophia had been smiling in a secretive, satisfied fashion. “My name is Merlin. You must be Sophia.”
Arthur stroked Sophia's copper colored curls. She was wearing a white sun dress, her pale legs folded under her like a lady. Why isn't she at least a little dirty? Merlin had thought, slightly hysterical.
“Merlin,” Sophia smiled, sphinx-like. “I don't remember Arthur mentioning you, but I'm sure he did at some point. We just--” she cut off with a laugh as Arthur, completely oblivious to the barbs that his new girlfriend was throwing, began pecking short, enthusiastic kisses to her milky neck. She moaned, loud and unashamed. Merlin just wanted to kick the both of them.
“I just wanted to see if you were okay.” he'd said instead.
“You're still here?” Arthur asked, disinterested. The giggles became laughs.
Merlin tried one more time. “Arthur--”
“Fuck off, Merlin.”
“Yeah, Merlin.” Golden brown eyes met his, winking mischievously. The memory of a pink blot and harsh static had Merlin rubbing his index finger. “Fuck off.”
Now, Gwen was poking him back into the real world with her free hand, still clutching her apple. It was nearly gone. “Merlin. Earth to Merlin. Merlin.”
“I'm listening.” he sighed, picking up a fry and dunking it into ketchup. Over and over.
“Good,” Gwen snapped, vicious. “Then you know all about my plan to find a nice, abandoned elevator shaft and shove that girl—and possibly Arthur—into it.” she wrapped the apple core in a napkin with quick, jerky movements.
Merlin paused, watching. Gwen was actually, genuinely upset. There was a fine tremble to her hands, a certain set to her mouth. Merlin brought his own hands up to cover hers and gently hold them.
“What happened,” he asked, quiet.
Gwen looked furious. “I went to say hello,” she practically hissed, gripping his hands. “Be friendly. I didn't believe you when you said—I just figured you were--” she cut herself off, looking down at the table for a moment, before she went on, hushed. “I just wanted to say hi. Introduce myself. And do you know what she called me?” she didn't wait. “'She called me a 'nigger', Merlin. Like we're in some racist, backwater, 1960's place.”
Merlin was gaping again. He couldn't help it. “What did you do?”
“I wanted to slam her head against a table or two.” Gwen admitted with a laugh. 'Sweet girl' Merlin's ass—but he wanted to do the same. “But I just walked away. I don't even think I knew what to say.”
For the first time in a very long time, he actually wanted to hurt someone with his magic. Badly.
“And you know what the worst part is, Merlin? The very worst part, I think is that he was--”
“Sitting right there,” Merlin finished with her. Unbidden, the plastic cutlery next him began to rise. He reigned in his magic with a sharp jerk. No. They clattered back to the table.
Luckily, Gwen was too upset to notice. “There's something wrong with him, Merlin.” she whispered. “That's all I can think.”
Thinking. That was such a strange, foreign concept right now, when pure emotion was slowly clouding his sanity.
It had been a week since Arthur had met Sophia in that bar. A week since Arthur had slept in their dorm. Merlin caught glimpses of him—changing his clothes, picking up a paper—but Sophia monopolized his time in an ugly way.
He sneered at conversation attempts. He avoided Merlin's touch. He even stopped and just started smiling in this vague, crazed way, and the wistful sighing--
Merlin was going to start hitting things.
“You need to talk to your best friend,” Gwen informed him, “before I set Elyan on him.” Her brother, Elyan, was big, broad, and fiercely protective of his little sister. He was one of the main reasons why Gwen was treated like a lady during her and Arthur's entire relationship.
“He's not going to listen to me,” Merlin pointed out reasonably, despite how much that stung.
“Honey.” Gwen reached for his hands again and leaned forward. “I think the only person he does listen to is you. Now--” she pulled back, abruptly sunny. “I'm going to file an official complaint about one Ms. Sophia whatever-the-hell-her-last-name-is. I'll see you later, Merlin.” she darted in, fast as a minnow, and landed a kiss on his cheek. “Good luck!”
She left. Merlin watched her retreating back and decided that she had a point. After all, he'd stopped Arthur from doing epically stupid things before. (And Sophia definitely counted as being an epically stupid thing.)
They'd talk, and it would go well.
It had to.
The talk wasn't going well.
“Why won't you just listen to me!?” Merlin shouted, feeling three inches away from ripping out his hair. He wanted to cry, or scream, do something to get the words that he was saying through his best friend's thick skull.
“Because you're being an idiot, Merlin.” Arthur's voice was cold, even. It was like icicles were dancing down Merlin's spine. “She loves me. I love her. I don't understand why you can't process that.”
“There's something not right,” Merlin whispered, the fight still there but unwilling. He could only search Arthur's face for something—recognition, affection, something that didn't say 'you are an insignificant ant'. “You're different.”
“Love changes people.”
“It doesn't turn them into monsters.” he shot back.
Arthur snorted, a harsh, ugly sound. His mouth twisted. “Like you're one to talk about being a monster.”
The very air seemed to drop in temperature—and then Merlin realized that it had. His hands, without his permission, were curled into ready, dangerous fists. Something was building in him: that same fire from that day, taking over like a primal, wild thing, and there was nothing Merlin could do to stop it. He didn't want to stop it. His breath, when he exhaled, congealed in a white cloud in front of him.
“Take that back. Right. Now.” He barely recognized his own voice.
Arthur smirked. His eyes weren't the color of a day's sky anymore: they were dark, and there was nothing familiar about them. “Push a button there, did I?” he asked lightly, stepping forward. The movement was predatory. “I suppose you can't handle the truth. Never could, really.”
“I couldn't?” Merlin laughed sharply. “Who's the one hiding from his biological parents?”
It was a low blow—lower than anything he'd ever said, ever done, and as soon as he said it, Merlin wanted to snatch the words and stuff them back into his mouth. But he was human and he was hurt. He wanted Arthur to feel what he was feeling. This agony, like he was stretched too tight in his own body, reaching for something that wasn't there.
Arthur's lip curled into a snarl. “Shut up, faggot.”
“Don't call me that,” Merlin snapped.
“Why? Isn't that what you are?” Arthur stepped up until he was in Merlin's face. They were eye to eye, and Arthur was hideous in his anger, throwing words like knives. He knew exactly where the bull's eyes were. “A disgusting faggot. I wanted to vomit all those years ago, when I caught you writhing under that pig like some bitch--”
“I'm the bitch?” Merlin laughed, but it was more like a sob. “Who can't stand up to his own mother, who, of course I forgot—isn't his mother?! 'Sit up, Arthur', 'Don't eat that, Arthur', 'Bend over so I can fuck you over a bit more, Arthur'--”
“You're just angry because I'm with Sophia.” Arthur was panting like he was in a race, the words coming sharp and fast, practically hisses. “She was right. She was always right. You're in love with me, aren't you?”
The words stopped the air in his throat. “Don't flatter yourself.” Merlin rasped. “Don't even--”
“Do you want me to fuck you, Merlin? Do you wish you were all those girls that I banged over the years—I bet you'd beg for it—”
“Shut up.” Merlin whispered.
“But let me tell you a little secret, darling.” His eyes were hand and cold and he loomed, a giant slap in the face. “I don't love you. I'll never love you. No one is ever going to love you, Merlin—do you know, your mom thought about aborting you? Less than a month in her stomach, and she was sick of you, just like me.”
“I said shut up!”
“I love her.” he was unflinching. “I love kissing her, making love to her, doing all the things you'll never get to experience because Merlin, I think—no, I know everyone can smell the 'freak' on you. They can tell you're not normal. And you are going to become an old, old man, all alone with nothing else, because eventually, we're all going to leave.”
Later, he wouldn't know who threw the first punch. He wouldn't even remember the sensation. Because all he could think, in a dazed, horrible sort of way, was that it was like watching a car crash when you're one of the drivers.
Arthur was stronger, but Merlin had magic and pure, unadulterated fury on his side. They slammed into the ground, exchanging blows, clumsy and and fierce and just wanting to damage each other in a way that they never had before. Merlin was aware that he was sobbing as he threw his fist into Arthur's nose, that blood and snot and tears were getting spread all over his face and agony—oh, that hurt—when he was thrown into the dresser. He snarled with it and all of the books flew off the shelves, targeting Arthur but hitting the both of them.
They used fists and teeth and strength and Merlin somehow got on top, just hitting Arthur, over and over again, because he hated him, he hated him so much--
“I hate you,” he sobbed, of course he was saying it out loud, “I hate you so much--”
“I hate you too.” Arthur rasped through a bloody mouth, and he meant it, he meant it and Merlin--
Merlin kissed him.
Their lips slammed together painfully, and Arthur made a strange, bellowing sound under him, trying to buck him off—but Merlin gripped tight to his hair, too tight, really, but he didn't care he didn'tcare because he was licking into a reluctant mouth and he felt better than he had in days. He found a tongue and sucked, tasted the copper and salt and static, that same goddamn static that had started all this, on his lips, his tongue and he lapped it away like a crazed personuntil Arthur arched, hissing.
Merlin kept one tightly clenched hand in his hair and slammed his shoulder into the floor with the other, grinding his hips down in one, rough movement. Arthur keened, began to kiss back, and that was even better, even if it was vicious and he bit at his lips more than pecked at them. His big hands were broad and possessive on Merlin's back, gripping hard enough to leave bruises.
He didn't know how long they were there, just doing that. It was violent and primal and everything about it was so, so wrong—but Merlin would give his soul to stay. The feeling was so intense that he could have wept—was still weeping into Arthur's mouth—his best friend's mouth--
Merlin wrenched himself away with a cry, throwing himself on the other side of the room—and promptly held back a scream. Everything hurt. He was bleeding, he was painfully aroused, and he had to go because Arthur was staring at him. His lips were wet and red and swollen, his eyes completely blown, yet clearer than they’d been in days, and his expression was--
Merlin didn't know.
He didn't stick around to find out, either.
He didn't know how he got to Gwen.
He was dimly aware that people had winced his appearance, asked him if he was alright, if he needed medical attention. Some of the gasps were so shocked that he wondered, with dark humor, if he looked as bad as he felt. Every breath hurt, every step hurt, and it wasn't even just from the fight.
He had just enough energy to smile at beautiful Gwen's face—blatant, sagging with shock from what he could see out of swollen eyes—and slur, “'Din't go well,” before he passed out.
The knights were all laughing around a campfire as Percival told a story involving a bar maid and a squire. It was crude and Elyan was looking at them all with a somewhat scolding face, but even he couldn't keep from laughing along.
“Merlin!” Prince Arthur's voice called. “Get over here!”
“Yes your royal brattiness,” he grumbled under his breath, grumpy yet fond, and he stood, turning away from the fire to--
Look at Nim with the best pleading eyes that he knew, because Arthur was depending on it. “Please ma'am,” he warbled. “He would take real good care of it, and--”
“And a pet is out of the question,” her voice was sharp and deadly, as always. It made Merlin's skin crawl to be around her, but at seven years old he was stupidly loyal and even more determined. He looked over his shoulder at his oblivious best friend, who was playing with the kitten.
“It's cold outside,” he pleaded. “It's tiny—it won't survive. And my mom can't get 'round cats 'cause her throat'll close up--”
“Then let it close up.” And she was like glass, always like glass, and he was--
Pressing his fingers against the fish bowl, his eyes wide as he watched her swim around and around. “This is cool,” he assured Arthur, who was still quiet after the kitten's burial. “You should name her Nemo.”
“That's a boy's name,” Arthur said after a minute, making a face and--
Nineteen, making funny looking, twisted faces in the window but unable to help it because he was burning, needed something, anything to help him cool off and he whined--”Arthur” and Arthur, beautiful Arthur, his Arthur swore viciously about spiked drinks and assholes, his knuckles split as he held Merlin's shaking hands--
Thirteen and kissing a girl and trembling--
Twenty-five and there's a dragon talking to him under the castle--
Six and beaming as candles are blown--
Thirty watching Arthur die in his arms--
Twelve and running, running because they can't catch us, can't ever catch us, the Lady will claim us and we don't even have Excalibur--
Old, so old his bones rustle together like dry sticks, waitingalwayswaiting--
The wait is over.
Merlin jerked awake with a strangled gasp, slivers air tearing down his throat like knives. His eyes were sore and watery, and he reached up to rub them without thinking.
“Don’t!” Gentle hands, despite the sharp tone, brought his hands back down. “You’ll just make them worse. I’ve been applying cold packs, but you still look like a raccoon.”
“Gwen?” His voice crackled, his throat drier than sandpaper. He blinked blearily in the dim dorm room, searching even as his body shouted at him. Pain was lancing through his head like a bad omen, but he couldn’t rest. “Wha—where’s—“
Memory of how exactly he’d gotten into this condition slammed into him with all the force of a freight train. All of the air whooshed out of his lungs, the shame and self disgust that he felt was so great. He just wanted to curl up and die.
He wasn’t sure exactly what his face was like in that moment, but Gwen hummed, pressed cool, soft fingers to his face. Lips pressed against his forehead, comforting. “It’s okay, Merlin. It’s okay, just go back to sleep.” She guided him to a laying position on his back and crawled into the bed, slow, careful. Merlin’s eyes fluttered as he curled around her.
She wasn’t firm and in danger of overheating, and she didn’t kick, or mumble in her sleep. She wasn’t him. But Merlin was exhausted and hurt and he could barely think at the moment. He sighed, settled further into the bed and closed his eyes.
Gwen's roommate was staring at him.
Merlin looked up from his book for the fifth time just in time to see her jerk her head away, a blush on her pale cheeks. She was actually quite pretty: her hair was short and bright, fire truck red, combed neatly to tuck under her chin. If he had the patience that he normally had, he would have just ignored her and went back to his work.
However, today—these past few weeks, in fact—weren't the best of his life. He was avoiding Arthur, Arthur seemed to be avoiding him, and he just didn't have time for foolishness. He jerked his eyes up and snapped his book shut, watching with dark satisfaction as she jumped at the noise.
“Was there something you wanted, Heidi?” he asked pleasantly, catching her gaze and holding it.
She fidgeted, flushing even more under her gaze. “I--”
“Yes?” he snapped.
Her chin tipped upward, and he saw a flash of—something--before the girl said, in a harder voice, “I just wanted to know if you were all right, is all.”
Gwen had asked that too, in a number of ways—she looked at him like Hunith might have if she knew they were fighting. (Which she didn't. One concerned tone from her and Merlin would be a blubbering mess). She looked after him, constantly, and basically had hovered until Merlin was close to snapping. Right now she was in class.
Gwen had asked, yeah. But somehow this person, this girl that he barely knew, made something crack around the hard shell that he'd wrapped around himself. He swallowed convulsively around the lump in his throat until he could speak. “Not really.”
“You and your...Arthur. You're fighting, right?”
He laughed, but there was no mirth in it. “Fighting, avoiding each other—same difference, right?”
She stood, suddenly, and walked over to Gwen's bed where he sat. Her fingers touched the very tips of his. “It's okay to feel like crap,” she said kindly. “I know you guys are inseparable. Gwen's told me all about it.”
“She did, did she?” Merlin raised an eyebrow. Gwen had also "told" Arthur of her displeasure: runmor had it that the man had gotten kicked in the balls in the middle of the school courtyard. Good ol' Gwen.
Heidi lifted a shoulder, her lips curling in a soft smile. They were bright pink. Not her normal color—she usually wore bright red lipstick. Maybe she wanted a change. “She worries about you two.”
“Seems like that's all she does,” Merlin grumbled, looking down at his hands. “I just—you ever feel like you've made a huge mistake? And you'd do anything to go back in time and stop it, but at the same time--” he cut off, shame burning through him. He couldn't even say it—At the same time, you never want to forget?
“I know what it's like to want someone, like you do now.” Heidi replied. Her voice was closer than Merlin had anticipated, and Merlin looked up--
--To feel lips on his, soft and sickly sweet, like someone had just placed electrified sugar in his mouth. For a moment, his head felt like it was resting on clouds.
Then familiar nausea roared in, curdling in his stomach to rise in his throat. He wrenched his head away, but not fast enough—some of his vomit splashed in Heidi's lap. She shrieked in revulsion, falling off the bed, while Merlin heaved and heaved, his body rejecting everything until he was left shaking. His lips felt too big on his face. He pressed a hand his lower one. It was swelling.
“--sorry! God, I knew I shouldn't have trusted that girl--”
He snapped into awareness. “What?” he demanded hoarsely.
Heidi was flushed and close to tears. “This girl told me that I could have any guy I wanted if I wore this.” she dug around in her jeans pocket and then whipped out a silver tube of lipstick, presumably searching for ingredients . It gleamed in the overhead light. “She said she made it herself—and of course you're allergic to it, I'm so sorry, Merlin--”
But Merlin wasn't listening to her apology. “You say a girl sold this to you?” he asked, his heart thudding in his chest.
Heidi nodded miserably. “I spent the rest of my paycheck on it. But she'd been wearing it that night when she hooked up with Arthur, and when she kissed him, it was like...” she trailed off, a small, sad smile on her face. “Like she was the only person in the world."
All of the pieces clicked into place.
Arthur's sudden, love struck appearance. That small pink dot on Arthur's globe. The static. Merlin being sick. The way his skin crawled when he was around Sophia.
Arthur had been potioned.
The first emotion that Merlin felt? Relief. Staggering in its intensity, it fell so hard that Merlin was hard-pressed not to float, as he tended to do.
He stared at Heidi, this ridiculous, love-struck girl who had no idea, and he could have kissed her feet. “I'm gay,” he told her, very plainly. “I always will be. You should find yourself a nice, beautiful boyfriend and ride off into the sunset without—“ he plucked the lipstick from her still, shocked hands and shook it at her-- “The assistance of this.”
And then he left, because on the heels of that relief had been something dark and rolling. Something that made his light steps become trods and the people in his way hurriedly jump to the side.
William Congreve once said “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”.
He'd never met Merlin Emrys.
He slammed into his dorm room, prepared to dig into the potions supplies that Freya had left him to make an antidote--
--To find Arthur, lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling. When Merlin burst in, he jerked viciously.
Merlin wasn't taking any chances. This was perfect. He threw out a hand and with a thought, had Arthur pinned to the bed, spread eagle.
His best friend struggled against his invisible bonds, his eyes wild. He clearly didn't know whether to be shocked or furious. “Merlin!” he shouted. “What the hell!?”
“It's okay,” Merlin said soothingly, knowing he sounded deranged but not caring. “It's okay, Arthur, I'm gonna fix you.” he dove under his bed, wiggling and reaching, until his finger tips snagged a familiar box. He yanked out of the darkness and flipped it open.
Arthur had begun to struggle in earnest. “Merlin!” he yelled again.
“Mint, hair of a mole,” Merlin muttered, ignoring him. “Sage...”
“I know what you're doing,” Arthur snapped. “You're making a general antidote. But if you would just stop and listen, you utter idiot, you'd know that this isn't necessary!”
“You're under the influence of a love potion,” Merlin snapped back. “So right now, your opinion is—like--” he made a tiny space with his pointed finger and thumb-- “This much, Arthur.”
“I know about the freaking potion, damn it!”
That really got Merlin's attention. He snapped to faster than a pointer dog on a hunt. “Excuse me?” he was aware that his voice was a little shrill, but that didn't really matter right now.
“After we fought,” Arthur snarled impatiently—still tugging at the bonds, always going after he wanted like a persistent headache-- “After we--you know--my head felt clearer than it had in days. I didn't love Sophia anymore, I didn't even care about her, and I think I saw her using magic a couple of times. I was simply too out of it to care.”
Merlin sat on his butt. It was more of a collapse, all of his bones going limp after all that rage. “Oh,” he uttered.
“Let me up,” Arthur said. His voice left absolutely no room for argument. With an absent-minded flick of Merlin's finger he was sitting up, stretching his back and rolling his wrists.
“So you just...drew the right conclusion.” Merlin said.
“I'm not stupid, you know. There was a heart on that lipstick tube with lightning through it.”
“You once insulted a troll without realizing it.” Merlin lifted his eyes to his best friend's.
“One time! You call a supernatural creature an 'ignorant fucker' one time and they never let you forget it.” Arthur rolled his eyes, obviously smothering a grin. Then, he held out a hand. “Come on, get off the floor. You scared the absolute shit out of me, bursting in here and pinning me like that.”
“Hm,” Merlin said, utterly unrepentant. He was doing what he had to do. Without thought, he took the hand.
Familiar, breathtaking sparks leaped from the contact, leaving Merlin breathless even as Arthur hauled him up. Caught off guard he stumbled into his best friend's chest.
For a moment they stood there, staring at each other with wide eyes. Merlin was close enough to see the small, hidden freckles on Arthur's face, the splashes of silver in his sky blue eyes. He inhaled, an inappropriately shuddery breath.
Arthur, being Arthur, didn't take the obvious opportunity to step away. Instead, he lifted a hand, slowly, to curl it around the side of Merlin's neck. It rested there, heavy and possessive and so good that Merlin could have cried in relief.
"What happened to your lip?"
"My--oh." Merlin reached up and touched it. It was still a bit large. "Nothing."
Arthur's gaze lingered on Merlin's fingers. And then, “I'm sorry,” Arthur said, slowly and deliberately.
And Merlin could have cracked a joke about apologies and a blue moon. He could have remained angry, demanded more than what Arthur was offering. He could have wrenched himself away and nurtured the wounds that Arthur's words had caused, rather than let them heal.
Instead, he reached up and brushed a lock of blond out of those eyes. “It's okay.”
And for a while, it was. It took a few weeks to get back into the rhythm of things—Arthur would tease about something that sounded too similar to their shouted words, Merlin would hesitate to drop a hand on a shoulder where he would have before. They'd said things that they couldn't take back, did things that they had to work around.
The Kiss, for example, was not mentioned, alluded to, or acknowledged. Though it was immature, both Arthur and Merlin seemed content to simply ignore it. But there were moments where they would be laughing, falling all over each other where things seemed...too close. But that was all right too, Merlin supposed.
One thing that Merlin was upset about, though, was the fact that Sophia had simply disappeared.
“Good riddance,” Gwen decided. She was still a bit cold toward Arthur, but he was good at sucking up. She pinned Merlin with a glare. “And we are going to Macy's to pick out a new comforter set for me, Merlin Emrys.”
Merlin wasn't content with it. The idea that she was out there somewhere, having gotten away with taking Arthur's free will—it made something in him burn. He could do a tracking spell and hunt her down like a dog, of course. However, Arthur seemed to want to forget the entire thing. Merlin's internal Arthur Fretter worried about that too—sometimes the blond seemed too quiet.
Sophia, Merlin decided, would meet the concept of being flung through walls if he ever laid eyes on her again.
Nine months later, Merlin nearly tripped over the basket sitting at their doorway. When his foot made contact with it, a put-out, thin wail rose from the thing.
Arthur swooned. Later, Merlin would look back on this and laugh so hard he nearly pissed himself. For now, he was trying to keep his best friend from cracking his skull.
Arthur pressed a cold pack against the impressive knot on his head and blinked, and blinked, and blinked.
“You could do something else,” Merlin snapped, awkwardly pacing with the baby in his arms. She was whimpering now, her tiny lips pursed and searching for milk. God, she was tiny in everything: fingers, toes, eyebrows, and a belly button that, frankly, looked rather frightening. She was small and pink and Merlin, who had spent years seeing every single feature of Arthur's face, knew the slope of her nose, the set of her small, blonde eyebrows.
All babies have blue eyes at birth, he remembered, pulling the factoid from somewhere out of his panicked, half asleep ass. They change color later.
Yet as those familiar sky blue stared up at him, clear and utterly trusting, Merlin felt like he couldn't breathe.
“I--” Arthur started, his voice odd.
“She needs food,” Merlin said. The only thing that the girl was wearing was a white onesie. There had been legal documents—such as a birth certificate declaring Arthur the father-- and a very short, to the point note. Merlin wanted to fling things when he read it.
Here, it had said, and Merlin could just hear Sophia's haughty tone, This is yours. Do what you like, it's not my problem anymore. SBT.
“And clothes,” he continued, forcing his voice not to shake. “And diapers and—Jesus Christ, Arthur, what do we even know about changing diapers?” The baby—Sophia had given no name for her—whimpered at his tone. He hushed her, bouncing her in his arms. He'd held exactly one baby in his lifetime, and that had been when he was twelve—it had been forced on him so he could hold it to take a picture. Arthur had stood to the side, laughing at his misery.
And now he was here, in this situation. It was almost like a sick, extended sort of karma.
“You need help,” Merlin decided.
“You need to call my mom, or Gwen, or someone, and you've got to decide what we're going to do--”
“We're going to keep her, of course.” Arthur said.
Merlin looked up from where the baby was sticking her fist in her mouth.
When they were kids, Arthur always wanted to be Batman, not Robin. (“You're always Batman, Arthur, let me be him for once!” “You can barely do a tumble, Merlin. I can do a front flip.” “That's a cartwheel, you jerk!”)
Merlin would try to convince him, over and over again, but Arthur would get this set to his jaw that said he wasn't budging about it, not ever. He had that same, dreaded jaw right now.
Merlin never did get to be Batman.
“It's going to be hard.” Merlin warned, knowing that any attempt at discussion was useless. However, it was always better to warn Arthur before crazy things like this. That way, when things inevitably went to shit, he'd be able to comfort himself with the reminder that he'd tried. He raised an eyebrow. “And who is this 'we'?”
Arthur summoned his old, rakish grin from somewhere. It was pale and shaky, but it was there, even as he lowered his ice pack and set it on the bed. “You and I both know that you're the brains of this operation. Plus,” he added, before Merlin could properly glow in the compliment, “I'm going to need someone to change diapers.”
“Ha ha,” Merlin rolled his eyes. The attempt at levity was nice, but the fact was, there was a baby in Merlin's arms. A baby that Arthur had decided to keep, but hadn't even held yet.
That, Merlin decided, was to be rectified immediately.
He'd didn't ask Arthur to come to him: there might've been much stalling and avoidance on Arthur's part, and he didn't have time for that. Instead, he walked up, right into his best friend's personal space, and ordered, “Hold out your arms.”
“I'll drop her.” Arthur's eyes were wide with alarm. “I don't—I've never--”
“Which is why I'll help you.” Merlin said patiently. “That’s what you just said, right?”
“I have a head injury,” he said weakly.
Merlin looked at him sternly. “How are you going to raise this kid if you can't even hold her?”
Arthur opened his mouth. Shut it. Held out his arms, robot-like, with his brow—that egg of a knot hovering over it—scrunched with anxiety. Still: “We,” he said, even as Merlin carefully, carefully moved that tiny bundle to him. “How are we going to raise this kid.”
The baby stirred and her bright blue, clear eyes slid to her father. Arthur held her like someone might hold a priceless glass, or a bomb.
And as Merlin watched, his best friend fell in love for the fourth time in his life.
‘Exhausted’ wasn’t quite descriptive enough to describe what Merlin was right now. Maybe later he could think of a clever SAT word that would fit his current state, but right now all he wanted was to shower off three layers of grease and take a nice, long nap.
As soon as he walked up to the door of his and Arthur’s tiny apartment, though, he heard the squalling behind the door and knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it wasn’t to be so. Merlin sighed, his shoulders slumping a little bit more, and walked through the door.
The scene that greeted him was one that had become familiar: Arthur, eyes bloodshot and hair a mess, walking back and forth in their living room with an inconsolable Caroline in his arms. His eyes were already trained on the door when Merlin opened it. He looked three seconds away from snapping into a thousand tiny, stress filled pieces.
“Good you’re back,” Arthur said, brusque, and unceremoniously walked over to set the baby sling over Merlin’s shoulders—gentle though, always gentle. “I’m going for a shower.” His voice was rough—probably from singing everything he could think of for hours. “Just.” He stared at his daughter, looking dangerously close to crying himself, then whirled around and stomped into the bathroom. The door slammed shut behind him.
Melin sighed again and looked down at the watery blue eyes staring back at him. The poor baby was flushed and sweating, despite the relatively cool air. Both father and daughter seemed exhausted.
Colic, one particularly blunt baby book had said, is a small preview of what awaits you when you go to hell.
Even now, Caroline Hunith Black was crying, a thin, frail sound, like her voice was going to give. Merlin adjusted her in his sore, tired arms and pressed her small head against his collarbone, where she could hear his heartbeat.
“Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” he tried.
Liney kept on screaming. Merlin sighed. “I didn't think so. Come on then, darling.” He adjusted her in his arms then stepped forward into their small, sparsely decorated living room and sat down on their worn couch, slowly humming. Outside, the sun was setting, throwing the room into shadows. His fingertips came up to touch her cheek.
In the second month that they'd had her, her hair had started falling out. Arthur'd been frantic.
“What if she grows up bald?” he'd asked anxiously, stealing glances at her as they went to the doctor. “What if the other kids pick on her and stuff? I can't go to jail for kicking a five year old's ass, Merlin.”
“I'm sure it's nothing,” Merlin had said soothingly.
And it was. Her hair grew back thicker and more importantly, darker, a thick brown color. Her bright blue eyes on the other hand hadn't changed at all.
“Once upon a time,” he began softly, over all of the crying, “there was a princess born, one so beautiful that the very stars looked down on her in awe.” Running on instinct and the very vestiges of his energy, Merlin didn't think before he balled up a fist, pressed it to his mouth, and blew into the crease.
Magic is intention, he remembered, and beautiful golden lights, like fireflies, exploded from his hand. They flew into the air and hovered over the pair of them like Merlin's globes.
And Caroline...Caroline stopped crying.
The sudden silence was so stunning that Merlin could only blink for a few moments. And then Liney began to hiccup, a sure sign that she'd start up again if he didn't continue, and he cleared his throat.
“The little princess was very loved as she grew up in her castle. Her mother taught her how to sew--” the lights darted around to form a large, glowing needlepoint and thread, weaving through the air-- “And her father taught her how to ride.” A unicorn reared and kicked its legs, much to the delight of the wide eyed baby-- “Most importantly, though, her aunt taught her how to speak to birds.” A long, graceful swan swam on an invisible lake, wings tucked and head held high.
Merlin continued on, his voice low and soothing, until, at last, Caroline's eyes began to droop. He went on and on, not daring to hope even after they finally shut.
The sun had gone down, the stars brilliant against the night sky. The view was one of the only things that was good about this apartment—the window was wide and from nearly the ceiling to the floor.
“The Goose Girl,” a low voice came from behind him. Only the knowledge that there was a sleeping baby in his arms kept Merlin from jumping.
“Arthur,” he said, just as low. He turned his head, but his best friend wasn't looking at him. His gaze was focused on the lights, the blue in them bright despite the darkness around him. “Thought you'd be sleeping.”
Raise a baby. It had sounded so easy on paper, so wonderful to have this tiny person that you could mold and watch grow.
But they hadn't factored in the time that school would take, the money that they would need. The hours that would have to be spent watching over her.
In the beginning, Arthur had bought two shopping carts full of things for his daughter. It was easy to do that when he had a little black card with a truly unreasonable amount of money on it.
However, Nim was no one's fool. Within hours, she was on the phone, querying about the expenses.
Merlin and Arthur had looked at each other, asking silently if they really, really wanted to say anything. They could have lied, said that Merlin had found a young mother in need—Arthur often indulged his best friend in his humanitarian moments.
But Arthur made this little shrug, looked at Merlin almost helplessly, and told his adopted mother the truth.
“Surely you won't be able to raise a child,” Nim had said immediately, once he was finished. Merlin, leaning in to hear, could almost picture her red mouth twisted with scorn. “No, Arthur. You'll bring the girl to me.”
And Arthur, without hesitation, said, “No.”
To her credit, Nim recovered more quickly than Merlin, who was still gaping at his best friend. “No?” she'd asked, her voice utterly polite. It took years of knowing her to detect the subtle layer of warning under it.
“I want to raise my daughter, Nim,” Arthur had said, sounding remarkably composed. Merlin was barely leashing his magic. It whipped angrily at its bonds, a live, wild thing ready to dive through the phone and strangle the woman.
Attempting to calm himself, Merlin looked over at the bed where the baby was sleeping, surrounded by pillows on all sides. Mine, came the thought, unbidden. He didn't bother correcting it.
“Arthur,” Nim began, and now, now she was speaking in the voice that Merlin had silently named 'Mother Knows Best'. It had only fanned the flames. “A child is a large responsibility. I will not tolerate such a burden on your education.”
Arthur's white-boned grip on the cell phone became even tighter. “She will not be a burden.” he near-snapped.
“And your little friend doesn't have large ears,” Nim retorted, a hint of impatience finally touching her voice. “I know from experience, Arthur—you won't be able to handle this. Now I am not arguing with you, I am telling you—this weekend, you will drive to town and hand her over to my care.”
“And if I don't?” Arthur had challenged.
“If you don't,” Nim'd replied, “You'll have to fend for yourself until you see reason.”
The phone had clicked as she ended the call.
Arthur brought his cell away from his ear and looked at it. His shoulders had looked tense enough to snap a board across them.
Merlin's own anger had evaporated with the look on his best friend's face. “Arthur?” he ventured, cautious. He laid a hand on a shoulder very, very lightly.
“The baby needs to be fed,” he'd said finally, his voice scarily calm. “Get the formula, will you Merlin?”
Merlin hesitated. He took a look at Arthur's blank expression for a few, long moments. Then he nodded, and went to get the formula.
It'd been rough, those first few months. Was still rough. Hunith was unsure but supportive, and sent enough money for them to start renting an apartment. It was a tiny two bedroom thing, but it was theirs. Arthur switched to online classes so he could stay with the baby because “She needs me, Merlin”. Merlin got a job at the McDonald's five minutes away from the college and went to his classes when he was off. Arthur was a part-time waiter at a bar during nights. It wasn't perfect, but it worked.
Nim didn't call back, not once. Her silence, however, somehow unnerved Merlin more than if she'd called continuously. For weeks he woke up in the middle of the night roused by an uneasy feeling and went to go and check on the baby. Just stand there in the dim light and watch her breathe. Arthur sent him puzzled glances when he first started doing it, but he didn't question him.
Now, the very corner of Arthur's mouth tilted upward slightly. It wasn't a happy smile, though. “And miss the show?” he asked. He looked better: his hair was still slightly wet from the shower, sticking up. Though he still looked drawn with exhaustion, he was in fresh plaid pajama pants and his skin had more color to it.
“Oh, that,” Merlin shrugged. “I--”
“Just whipped out your fancy lights and did what I've been trying to do for hours.” There was the slightest bit of resentment in Arthur's tone. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned further the door frame.
If it was a fight that he was looking for, Merlin wasn't going to give it to him. He stood from the couch, his knees popping, and carefully supported Liney in her sling. She didn't so much as stir as he slowly hobbled across the living room. The lights, not to be forgotten, followed the slow walk.
“Oh my God,” Arthur huffed, suddenly by his side. The weight of a baby on Merlin's shoulders was lifted away as he took Liney into his own arms. “Sit down before you collapse, idiot.”
“I'm fine,” Merlin gritted out. His legs were screaming at him to follow the order, but his pride kept him walking with Arthur to the nursery.
Putting together the baby's room had taken three days. It was a group project, of sorts: Elyan bought them a gorgeous red wood rocking chair, which sat in the corner. The crib alone had taken five hours to assemble, much to the amusement of Gwen, who sat by and watched them struggle.
(“You two, parents?” she'd asked, looking between them with a half-concerned, half-amused expression. “This I've got to see. I'm godmother, by the way.”)
The crib sat in the middle of the room, a white, sturdy thing. Leon, a friend of Arthur's bought a baby crib mobile with little stuffed pink and white birds on it.
(His already large hands had looked even larger, carefully cradling Caroline. “You guys are practically gay married now,” he'd said, a smile stretched across his face, and Merlin glared, his cheeks getting hot. Arthur just laughed, albeit a bit uncomfortably.)
There was a changing station, pink and green decorations on the walls, a baby monitor and a night light that was plugged into an out of the way socket. Toys were scattered on the floor.
Arthur carefully laid her on the clean white sheets and tucked her baby blanket around her shoulders.
They both walked to their shared bedroom in silence.
“She's a monster,” said Arthur, shutting the door behind him.
“Watch your mouth,” Merlin said mildly, attempting to finally take off his shoes. 'Attempting' was the word here, due to the fact that he apparently had double vision. His fingers fumbled with the laces. “That's your daughter--”
“Your daughter that you're talking about.”
Arthur turned slightly, his profile nearly curled in on itself. “She hates me.”
Merlin barely resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Caroline does not hate you.”
“Does so,” Arthur said, petulant, and Merlin so could not deal with this standing up. He sat down heavily on his small double bed, bringing his leg up to try again with the laces.
“She's a baby,” Merlin said, monotone. “She doesn't have the--” he cut off with a huge yawn-- “the capacity to hate yet.”
“If she did, she'd hone in on me.” Arthur snapped back. Still, he came over and knelt in front of Merlin, unlacing the shoes then sliding them off his feet. The socks received the same treatment. Merlin, too tired to do anything but watch, took all of this in with a certain amount of detachment.
Merlin sighed. “Are you on for a shift tonight?” He asked, trying to change the subject.
His best friend gave him a look for it, but he acquiesced. “I leave at two.”
“Gonna sleep?” Merlin started on the buttons of his bright red shirt. Arthur batted his hands out of the way and began doing it himself.
“For all of--” Arthur glanced at the glowing alarm clock on the stand by his bed-- “One and a half hours? Sure.” Finished, he leaned back to let Merlin lift the shirt over his shoulders and onto the floor. Arthur scooped it up with only a slight pinch around his mouth.
“Pants.” He said instead, actually reaching for the button.
Merlin swatted his hands away. “I think I know how to undress myself, thank you Arthur.”
His best friend grunted, as if he didn't believe him, but backed off anyway. “Hungry?”
“Not particularly.” Merlin replied, shimmying out of his pants. They fell into Arthur's waiting hand and were promptly put in the laundry bin.
“Then I'll just turn on the shower. You smell like grease and sweaty fat people.” Finally, finally there was a hint of teasing in his voice.
“Ugh,” Merlin groaned, “Don't even get me started.” But a reluctant smile was curling his lips. He stopped, considering, then said what had been on his mind since Caroline had stopped crying.
“You know,” he began, slow, “I've barely used magic around the baby since she got here.”
Arthur had stiffened. “It was what we agreed on,” he replied, just as slow. All levity was gone, vanishing as fast as it had appeared. Merlin wanted desperately to drag it back but they had to talk about this.
“I know, and at the time it seemed really smart. But.” Merlin bit his lip. “Freya and I talked once, about kids with parents who had magic. Their children thrive on them using it around them. It was different for me but,” Merlin shrugged, just the slightest bit self-deprecating, “I've always been an odd one.”
“I don't have magic,” Arthur said.
“But Sophia did,” Merlin retorted, no nonsense. “Otherwise she wouldn't have been able to make the potion, Arthur. You know this.”
“So babies like that—Caroline might--” he stood, suddenly, and began pacing, his feet near-silent on the carpeted floor.
“It doesn't necessarily mean that she has magic,” Merlin hurried to assure him. “It doesn't.”
“But she might.” Arthur said, his expression unreadable.
“She might,” Merlin agreed. He was suddenly wary. “But it wouldn't matter even if she did, right?”
“Of course not. Don't be a moron.” Arthur frowned at him. Then, he smirked. “Besides. It would only be fitting, seeing as Papa Merlin is magic too."
Merlin scowled. “If she starts calling me that, I will hurt you.”
“You can try.” A shadow of a cheeky smile flashed, brief and gorgeous, before it fell. Arthur scrubbed a hand across the stubble on his cheeks. “So apparently she's been crying for magic all this time.”
“I might be wrong.” Merlin pointed out.
“It's more likely that you're right.” Arthur sighed. “I just want her to stop crying.” He ruffled Merlin's hair. “Go take your shower before you fall asleep.”
“Fine,” Merlin hefted himself and started toward the bathroom. “We'll experiment with it tomorrow.”
Later that night, half asleep, Merlin drowsily heard a muttered goodbye and felt a hand on his cheek. He smiled drowsily then drifted back into his dreams.
“Where the hell are you, Arthur?” Merlin looked around in the parking lot of the school. “The play starts in five minutes.”
“I'm on my way, I swear. Shit--” Merlin heard the HONK! as Arthur's hand collided with the steering wheel. “Traffic out here is a bitch today, I swear to God.”
“If you're late,” Merlin began.
“I won't be, will I? Now go inside with Hunith. I can tell that you're standing outside fretting. You did bring the video camera, right?”
“I don't fret.” Merlin scowled, even though Arthur couldn't actually see it. “And yes, I brought it. I doactually want to live to see next week.” Gwen hadn't been able to drive down for the show so she wanted Merlin to record it. Her threats if he failed to do so had been quite...colorful.
Arthur laughed. “Get inside, ears. I'll be there in a minute.”
“You'd better, asshole.”
“You kiss our daughter with that mouth?”
Merlin hung up on him. His lip twitched as he stowed the phone in his pocket and turned to walk back into the crowded school building.
The noise level in the auditorium had gone up since he'd last been in there. Merlin walked across the shiny linoleum floor near the front where Hunith, in a blue dress and heels, was chatting happily with a woman next to her.
Exactly eight minutes and seventeen seconds later, Arthur slid into the jacket-covered seat next to Merlin. He was still in his suit from work but he'd loosed his tie and rolled his shirt sleeves up, revealing firm tanned forearms.
Three quarters of the women in Liney's class had a crush on Arthur. It was an honest-to-God shame, especially since they all thought that he was gay.
“Made it,” he muttered, smirking a little as he noticed the looks. Absolutely shameless.
“You're late.” Merlin muttered back.
“The principal's still droning on and on about the boring-ass PTA. I'm fine.”
“I'm a part of that boring-ass PTA, if you'll remember.”
“That's because you're secretly a woman.”
Merlin shot him a filthy look. “We make things happen. And that's sexist. I'll have you know that there are two other men that go to the meetings--”
“We have actually discussed why Bill and Murphy don't count--”
“Would you both be quiet!” Hunith hissed, exasperated. “The show's about to start!”
Sure enough, the principal was walking off the stage. The lights in the auditorium began flicking off, one by one.
“The camera, Merlin!”
“I've got it. Christ.” Merlin flipped open the camera and turned it on, adjusting it just as the curtains began to open. He hit RECORD.
New Haven Elementary School's annual Spring Spectacular went off without a hitch. Caroline stood in front, her dark hair pinned up and away from her face and her chubby cheeks flushed. She was the prettiest little girl there, dressed in a pastel blue dress and small flats that Hunith had bought. The woman was absolutely thrilled with having a granddaughter. Caroline'd been too disciplined to wave at her family when she saw them, but that smile stretched into a huge, gleaming grin that Merlin loved.
Her voice was high and squeaky, easily detectible throughout the others (some kids were honest-to-God screaming). Beside Merlin, Arthur was so puffed up with pride it was a wonder his chest didn't actually swell.
As the curtain closed, all of the children bowed. Merlin was on his feet with the camera while Hunith and Arthur hooted.
“That's my granddaughter!” Hunith shouted, just as proud as she'd been when it was Merlin and Arthur on that stage. The nostalgia of the moment caught in his throat, and he turned to see Arthur smiling at him, the same thought on his mind.
Dear God, he thought, I'm old.
A weight slammed into Merlin's legs with all of the force that an excitable five year old girl could exert. Before Merlin could even stumble she was gone, giving Arthur the same treatment. “Did you see me!? Did you see me daddy? Papa?”
“I saw,” Arthur told her, lifting her into his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck, legs going to his waist.
They were gorgeous together. His hair was light where her's was dark, chocolate brown and tied back with red bows. Matching blue eyes gleamed with the same touch of mischief.
“Did I do good, grandma?” she asked.
“Darling you were amazing,” Hunith crowded in close to mother and father, pressing kisses to Liney's face. The girl squirmed, laughing.
“Papa Merlin!” she protested. “Help me!”
“We dealt with it, now so can you, Liney,” Merlin smirked at her. The look she gave him in return was so undeniably Arthur that he had to press his lips together to keep from laughing.
They went out to dinner that night, laughter and sparkling cider passed around. Liney happily ate her kid's meal and for once Arthur didn't fret about her getting ketchup on her dress. The local restaurant was packed with many people from the school, so the atmosphere was filled with a pleasant warmth. Merlin relaxed a bit and allowed himself to lean against Arthur's side. He could feel the man give him a surprised look before he tucked him a bit closer, ignoring the look that Hunith was giving them.
“So when are you going to make my son an honest man, Arthur?” she'd asked, holding a baby Caroline in her arms. It had been the first meeting between mother and granddaughter—because Caroline was Hunith's granddaughter, there was no doubt about that. When they'd told her Liney's full name, the woman's eyes had welled with tears.
Right then, though, Merlin had spat out the water that he'd been drinking. Arthur's reaction had been more composed, but only by a hair: he'd gone white as a sheet.
“Excuse me?” he'd asked, his voice squeaky.
Hunith had laughed. “It was a joke, boys.”
Still, Merlin thought, she'd been joking a lot lately.
Not that her jokes weren't without some merit. Merlin and Arthur lived together: they had separate bedrooms and separate cars, but Merlin went to Arthur's monthly football games and Arthur sometimes dropped off lunches for him at work.
He shoved the thoughts away, as he tended to do—THAT WAY LIES MADNESS warned the road maps in his head. Instead sighed, deep and satisfied. The burger that he'd eaten felt good and heavy in his stomach.
“Someone's falling asleep,” Arthur said. Merlin could hear the smirk in his voice.
“Even I'm more awake than you, Papa,” Liney bragged, kicking her legs under the table.
“That won't last,” Merlin murmured, too low for her to hear.
“She had three sodas,” Arthur countered, just as low. “She'll be up for a while before she crashes.”
“It's a bet, then.”
“What are you whisperin' 'bout?” Liney looked at them suspiciously.
“Nothing.” Arthur smiled sweetly. He gently nudged Merlin into sitting up. “Up and at 'em, then.”
He paid and they left, Hunith pressing kisses to their cheeks with a reminder to drive carefully.
“Oh yes! I almost forgot, Merlin.” Arthur had already headed to his car with Caroline, who wanted to ride with him. “A very, very old friend is coming to visit this Friday. Have I ever told you about Gaius?”
“No.” Merlin tilted his head, smiling teasingly. “Old lover?”
“Hush.” she swatted him on the chest. “He was a friend of my mother's. I haven't talked to him in a very long time. He also works at Buckingham Palace with the king of England, so I want you and Arthur to be on your best behavior.”
“We always are.” Merlin pouted.
Hunith merely looked at him.
Merlin lost the bet. When he got to their house, a few minutes behind Arthur and Liney, the latter was already changed into her pajamas and ready for a long story.
“You've got the dishes tomorrow,” Arthur grinned triumphantly as he unbraided the plaits in her hair. The presence of a small, easily impacted child was the only thing that kept Merlin from giving him the finger.
“Let me go and change into my own PJs and I'll be right with you, okay?” he told Liney, who was humming a song from the concert tonight. It sounded vaguely like 'Jingle Bells'.
“Kay, Papa.” She was playing with their dog, Kilgharrah's huge paws. The reddish chocolate Labrador was sprawled across the bright pink bed, blinking lazily at the sensation.
“Did you brush your teeth yet?”
“Yes,” she huffed imperiously. “I'm not four you know.”
“Yeah, Merlin, Princess Caroline's not four you know.” Arthur snickered.
Merlin's middle finger twitched. If Caroline turned away just for one second...
“I'm going to change,” He left before he could corrupt his daughter.
Changing into his pajamas took only a few minutes. He scrubbed a hand through his hair as he brushed his teeth, smacking his lips before he went back.
Caroline's hair was loose and curly, Arthur was carefully brushing through it as she happily babbled about her day. He hadn't changed into PJs yet, but when Merlin came in he didn't leave. Instead, he edged over and patted the bed.
“Join the party, Merlin.”
Merlin rolled his eyes but sat comfortably in his usual spot, his socked feet coming up to rest on the foot of the bed.
“Alright princess, let's get you tucked in.” Arthur lifted the sheets. “Down, Kilgharrah.”
The dog gave him a look that said he was only tolerating him. Finally, after a significant pause, he slid its bulk off the bed and onto the floor, where he curled up again in his usual spot.
Merlin knew that he just curled up on the bed again once they left, but he liked to leave Arthur to his delusions of being in charge.
“Ugh,” said Arthur. “Dog gives me the creeps.”
“Don't say that, he'll--” Caroline yawned wide-- “He'll hear and you'll hurt his feelings.”
“He's just a dog, Liney. He can't understand me.”
“Mhm,” Merlin said, unconvinced. There'd always been something strange about the reddish brown Lab ever since he'd followed them home as a puppy, but he was protective of Liney, and that was always alright. “Okay, Lin. What do you want to hear about tonight? Dragons? Princesses?”
“I wanna hear about um.” she bit her lip, considering, and hummed, sinking deeper into her pillows.
“And his faithful talking dog, right hon'?”
“Alright. Get the light, Arthur.”
“Why didn't you hit it on the way in?” Arthur asked.
“Because I wanted you to have to get up and do it.”
“You hear that, Caroline? That's pettiness. Don't be petty like Papa Merlin when you grow up, okay?”
“No promises,” Liney returned with a grin. Merlin winked: that's my girl.
When the light was off (the nightlight, of course, turned on in its wake) and Arthur was settled again, Merlin summoned Caroline's lights. It came as easy as breathing now, after years of doing it. Tonight they were eager, sinking out of his palm and into the air. Two brushed Liney's cheeks, tickling them as she giggled.
Magic was something that Caroline had grown up with. Merlin used the lights, cleaning spells, levitating spells to make the child fly around the room—all the things that he could come up with.
“But it's a secret,” Merlin had explained, smoothing a hand over Caroline's hair. “People don't know that magic's real, and if they found out they'd want to do bad things to me. You wouldn't want that, would you?”
Caroline had shook her head, blinking a lot. “So I can't tell my friends about you making Mr. Bear talk?”
(That had been a one time thing. After the bear started to swear profusely, Merlin had shut the entire operation down.)
“No,” Arthur'd answered for him. “I'm sorry, sweetheart. But you'll be helping Papa Merlin be safe by doing this. And that's important, right?”
The little girl had nodded, and Merlin had tickled her with invisible hands to cheer her up.
Now Arthur began. “Once upon a time,” he said, deep and soothing, “There was an--”
“Obnoxious prince,” Merlin cut in. “With long, flowing, golden locks that he was always applying conditioner to.” The lights swirled into the air to form a huge, angular head with long hair. A crown sat on top of it. Kilgharrah was utterly unbothered by the display, snoring softly as he slept.
“Split ends are an actual concern, Merlin, of course he applied conditioner--”
“I swear you're more gay than me sometimes.” The lights appeared to be waiting patiently as they bickered. Caroline, used to it, merely smiled.
“Anyway,” Arthur said loudly. “This prince was, apparently, very concerned with hair care. Then one day, along came an evil, evil witch who was jealous of his long locks. So she cast a spell to make all of his hair disappear.”
“It disappeared?” Caroline asked, looking concerned.
“It disappeared,” Merlin confirmed gravely. “So the prince had to find someone, anyone, who could fix his problem. And wouldn't you know a young warlock happened to be visiting the kingdom that day...”
They'd moved back to New Haven soon after they'd graduated, living with Hunith in their old bedroom. Nim had apparently moved somewhere, without warning or even a simple message. The house was sold to an old couple. Merlin was pretty sure that Arthur had gone there, just to stare up at the house, but he didn't pry.
Merlin soon got a job at the local library: the old librarian, Mrs. Tolroy, hired him nearly on the spot.
“I remember when you were this high,” she said, her eyes twinkling as she held her hand low. “Spent hours in the mystery section until that boy of yours finally dragged you outside.” She'd sniffled, a bit. “And now you've got your own tot. Lovely name, Caroline. And named after your mother, too. Simply lovely.”
Merlin was 75 percent sure that he hadn't mentioned Liney's middle name in this conversation. “Um.”
She'd leaned in conspiratorially. Merlin had leaned in too, just to hear her. “Never liked your young man's mother. What was her name? Prim. Nim.” she'd frowned. “You know something's wrong when a boy calls his mother by her first name. But anyway,” she'd sighed and smiled gently at him. “You start on Monday.”
Arthur's job was in the city. It was a thirty minute drive to Porter & Wallace Inc., but they made it work. Friday morning, Merlin drove Liney to school and dropped her off, getting out of the car to get a hug goodbye.
“Remember, last day of school before Winter Break so have fun.”
“Okay. Bye, Papa,” she squirmed away and skipped off. He watched her go meet up with some of her friends, waved to a few of the parents that he'd come to know and headed to work.
Merlin worked with three other women: Christie, a soccer mom who drank too much Red Bull and was always “organizing” the male magazines (Merlin had caught her in the back of the library, mouth open and pages turning, numerous times). Tina, a younger high school girl who blushed uncontrollably whenever she saw Arthur and Merlin together. (“Yaoi manga,” a friend of hers had told him wisely. “It rots the brain.”). Finally, there was Patricia, a quiet widower who was the most normal out of the bunch of them.
One thing that they all had in common, though, was their penchant for gossip.
“Heard you and your boy were making out against the tables,” Christie greeted him with a smirk. Her broad frame leaned forward, eyebrows waggling. “Do tell.”
He sighed and walked through the doors to drop his bag and take off his jacket. “Good morning to you too, Christie.”
“Oh leave the boy alone,” Mrs. Tolroy scolded. “At least wait until he's settled in, then interrogate him.” Tina was nodding, her own eyes sparkling. The high school had let students out a day earlier.
“Caroline was very pretty at the concert last night,” Patricia said, a sweet smile curling her mouth. “She sang well, too.”
“Thank you,” Merlin beamed at her. “For both the compliment and the fact that you're not jumping all over me like some harpies that I know--”
“You love us,” said Mrs. Tolroy. He jumped as she swatted him on the butt. “Now do be a dear and go straighten up the children's section, would you? I'd like it to be some semblance of clean before the afternoon rush.”
“That's workplace harassment,” Merlin said loudly, rubbing his sore butt. “And I resent it. A lot.”
“Okay dear.” she waved him away while the other two women laughed behind their palms.
The day was surprisingly busy, for all that people had work and school. Merlin straightened up the stacks and put away new books and generally earned himself new papercuts. During his lunch break, he drove down to the local coffee shop.
When the day had slowed some and it was time, Merlin left to pick up Caroline from school.
The first day of kindergarten had been more rough for Arthur that it'd been for Merlin. It was a close call, but Merlin hadn't cried: Arthur, on the other hand, had to pull over the car and sniffle a bit while Merlin tried not to laugh.
Then, three weeks later, Caroline had come home with a mark on her cheek.
“I fell,” she'd said, her head tilted upward proudly. Her eyes met Merlin's squarely. “Off the swing,” she added.
“Okay, Lin,” Merlin had said. He didn't quite believe her, but Liney was a Black: they didn't crumble under outside pressure, they just became stronger for it. Or in this case, clammed up even more. He stood, rubbing a hand over her head, and left her to toss a ball with Kilgharrah.
Arthur'd been on him the minute he'd come back inside. “What did she say?” he'd demanded.
“That she 'fell off the swings'.”
They frowned at each other.
The next day, she “tripped on the sidewalk”. After that, it was a “fall off the monkey bars”.
“I'm fine, Daddy,” said Caroline.
And Arthur said, “Enough.”
One stare down, a box of tissues and two cookies later, Arthur was walking out of her bedroom, his expression flat.
“Some Bible thumping moron's been telling their kids that we're of the Devil, and they've been going to school and terrorizing her for it.” he sat down, leaned forward and put his head in his hands.
Merlin felt his stomach curl with guilt. He hadn't exactly been discreet with his dating, and it had been explained to Caroline that Papa Merlin liked boys instead of girls. (“Why don't you and Daddy get married, then?” “Because Daddy likes girls.” “But Daddy likes you even more than girls.” “'Daddy' is standing right here, you know.”)
A sharp voice had snapped him out of his thoughts. “You're not to blame for ignorance, okay? Now stop being stupid. I'm going to need you to keep me from breaking my foot off in someone's ass tomorrow.”
So Merlin did, and Caroline was transferred to a different classroom.
Now she was being walked to the car by her much nicer teacher, Mrs. Bradbury. She was practically bouncing as she walked, wrapped up in a pink and blue striped scarf with matching gloves and a thick blue sweater, though it couldn't have been less than 55 degrees out. (Arthur was the mother hen of the pair of them.)
Normally Caroline would go home where their baby sitter, a sixteen year old girl named Delilah, would watch her. But Delilah was sick, so Liney would go back to the library with Merlin.
The rest of the afternoon was spent juggling books and entertaining the little girl between the shelves. She didn't have any homework so Mrs. Tolroy, who doted on her, brought sweets and extra coloring pages for her to carefully color in. There was a brief fight when she wanted a pink crayon and they couldn't find one, but it was quickly resolved after a stern look and a long, sulky silence. She bounced back quickly though.
Finally, Merlin's shift ended at six o' clock. He helped Lin carefully pack up her drawings to show to Arthur later and hauled everything to the car.
By the time they got home, Arthur's car was already in the driveway. Lin unbuckled her seat belt and waited for Merlin to open the door for her—the child lock was a beautiful, beautiful thing—before they headed into the house.
Arthur was on the phone, but he still smiled when they came in. “...the meeting's Monday at four. No, not Tuesday, Mr. Wrice will be attending a funeral that day. Who died? I dunno, his cat or something—the point is, it's Monday so those sheets have got to be done. Mhm. Okay. I'll see you tomorrow, my kid's giving me the evil eye because I haven't said hi to her yet. Okay, bye Arnold.”
He slid his phone shut with a decisive 'click' and stepped forward, opening his arms. “How was your last day?”
Merlin walked away, loosing his tie as the sounds of Caroline talking slowly lowered. He could hear the deep rumble of Arthur's laugh as he chuckled at something that she'd said—probably the earthworm story.
He changed quickly into casual clothes that would be good enough for dinner at his mother's with a guest.
Gaius. Merlin didn't remember the name, but his mother had sounded pretty fond of him when she'd described the dinner.
Arthur dressed in a simple button down with jeans, while Caroline wore her bright blue sweater with jeans and polka dot rain boots. Her hair was in one French plait that Arthur had done neatly—he was much better at it than Merlin.
The drive to Hunith's house was a mere ten minutes away, so it was practically uneventful. In the back seat, Caroline sang along to the pop music playing over the radio.
They pulled into the driveway just as a song that Arthur loathed came on. He flipped off the ignition quickly and turned around to grin conspiratorially at Lin. “Alright, kid, let's go and embarrass grandma.”
“Best behavior, both of you,” Merlin said sternly. Along with Hunith's beat up Chevrolet, there was an older gray car—obviously a rental—in the driveway. “If you're good, Caroline, Mr. Gaius might even tell you about the King Uther.”
“A real king?” Caroline scooted forward.
“Mhm. And there's a princess too, named Princess Morgana.” He ignored the look that Arthur was giving him. So he'd done a little research. And? Arthur's odd grudge against the royalty of England hadn't spread to Merlin.
“So you'll be on your best behavior, right?”
“Yes, Papa.” She wriggled a bit. “Can we go in now? Grandma keeps peeking out the window.”
Merlin and Arthur blinked and turned. Sure enough, the curtain was just falling shut. Merlin felt his lip twitch. “And she wonders where I get my impatience from.”
“Let's go before she bursts something,” Arthur said.
They exited the car just as a light rain began to fall. Merlin hurried Caroline to the door, Arthur by his side. The door opened before they'd even hit the stoop.
“Come in, come inside before my poor baby catches a cold.” Heedless of the wet on Liney's clothes, she hauled the girl in for a hug. Merlin and Arthur merely got a look. “You were almost late.”
“But we weren't,” he said smoothly, kissing her cheek as Merlin helped Lin get her coat off. Arthur took his own off, hanging it on the peg, and smiled charmingly. “So, what's for dinner?”
“Can you think of nothing else?”
“No ma'am.” he said, utterly unapologetic. “I've been yelling at people all day: I deserve a good meal.”
“It's not nice to yell at people, Daddy,” Caroline informed him. “That's what Papa Merlin says.”
“Yes, well, these people are really stupid, princess.”
She looked at Merlin. “Is it okay to yell at them then?” she asked hopefully. “If they're really stupid?”
“No,” Merlin replied, glaring at Arthur. He had the grace to look slightly abashed.
“And on that note,” Hunith clapped her hands together. “I would like you all to meet someone.”
They walked through the living room to the kitchen where there was, surprisingly, an old man standing at the counter with his sleeves rolled up. His hair was long and white, about to his shoulders. He was scooping carrots into a small pan, his movements careful. When he heard them come in, he turned, a small smile ready on his weathered face.
The pan fell to the ground with a loud 'CLANG!' Everyone jumped, but Hunith leaped into action, and concerned mouth and hands. “Gaius? Are you all right?” she looked three seconds away from delivering CPR.
But the old man's watery blue eyes weren't rolling back in his head: instead, they were trained on Arthur. They were almost transfixed for a moment—which was really really weird. And then Hunith touched his shoulder. “Gaius?”
He jerked his head toward her and smiled—a weak pull of lips, really.
“Terribly sorry,” he said, using his voice for the first time. He sounded so bloody posh that Merlin could feel Caroline wriggle next to him, ready to launch into questions. “I just thought I'd seen someone familiar.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Arthur said, his voice injected with false cheer. He stepped fully into the kitchen and walked to the cabinet door, pulling out a broom with the ease of a man who'd grown up in this house. The dustpan was hauled along too.
“You must be Gaius,” Merlin stepped forward as well, a hand outstretched. “I'm Merlin. That's Arthur.”
The man shook his hand, but his kept on flicking over to where Arthur was sweeping up the vegetables. Merlin decided to ignore it, pasting a smile on his face even as Hunith fussily checked Gaius' pulse. “And this is our daughter, Caroline.”
The little girl stepped forward, shy—especially after the previous display. “Hi, Mr. Gaius.” she hovered close to Merlin.
For the first time, the old man reluctantly dragged his eyes away from where Arthur was in favor of looking at Liney. “'Our daughter'?” he echoed.
“Yes,” Arthur said firmly. The implied Problem? was there in his voice.
“How nice,” Gaius said, his voice utterly neutral. However, his eyes had piqued with even more interest. Oddly enough, Merlin didn't feel the urge to stuff Liney behind him. There was something about this old man that seemed...trustworthy. Almost familiar, like the way he'd felt when he'd first collided with Gwen.
“Caroline Hunith Black,” Hunith said with forced cheer, subtly answering the unspoken question. “My prettiest granddaughter.”
“I'm your only granddaughter,” Liney said, her nose wrinkling.
That dissolved the tension a bit. Merlin set Liney to the task of setting the table while he took over cooking, Hunith bullying Gaius into the living room. His mouth went stern and stubborn for a moment, but Hunith had raised two boys into men by herself. She spread her legs a bit, ready to give him the look/ But Gaius suddenly relented.
“If you insist.” he gave Hunith a look that was unmistakably fond, and for a moment Merlin thought he'd get the chance to talk to Arthur. (Who was looking extremely weirded out, so much that even Liney looked like she was about to say something inopportune--most likely embarrassing--about it, as she was wont to do.
“Arthur, would you mind keeping an old man company?”
Merlin's best friend gave him a look. It was half pleading, half utterly bewildered, and Merlin could only give him a tiny helpless shrug in return.
'You will pay for this later' Arthur's eyes said as he left the room with Gaius. If the old man noticed, he didn't comment.
'Really, really sorry' Merlin replied, blinking.
Arthur left. Merlin rolled his eyes and went back to the pasta. Honestly, he acted like he was going to his grave or something. To make him feel a bit better, when Lin was done setting the table, he sent the girl into the room with her daddy.
As he worked, Merlin peeked over his shoulder into the living room a few times. The conversation didn't look like it was going too badly: when Arthur was uncomfortable his back went ramrod straight. (A remnant of Nim's teachings, no doubt.) From what he could tell, Gaius had Caroline on his lap and he was gesturing as he told some story.
Dinner was soon ready. Merlin and Arthur sat on either side of Caroline, making sure that she didn't spill her dinner on her clothes. She was a delicate eater, but she was five. Hunith and Gaius, with his unwavering stare, sat on the other side.
As usual, Caroline kept things from getting awkward.
“Have you met the king?” she burst out with, about a minute into the meal.
Gaius blinked. Then, he smiled. It was a small, oddly sad thing. “Yes, I know the king.” he said gently. “I also knew the queen.”
“You did?” Like most little girls, Liney was enamored with the story of the lost prince. Merlin couldn't fault her for it: it sounded like something out of a Disney movie, not something meant to happen in real life.
“I did,” Gaius nodded.
“Was she a nice lady?” Merlin nudged her, silently reminding her to eat. She scooped up a forkful of spaghetti with one hand, shoved it into her mouth, chewed for a few moments then swallowed painfully. Hunith hummed anxiously and handed her a cup of water. “Be careful, child.”
Gaius tactfully ignored all of this. “She was. She was very kind to the people who worked for her and they adored her in return.” At Liney's confused expression he corrected himself. “They really liked her.”
“Oh,” Lin said. “Were you two best friends?”
“We were close, yes. I was very upset when she died.”
“I'm very sorry for your loss,” Caroline said promptly. She looked at Arthur and whispered, quite loudly, “Did I say it right, daddy?”
“Yes. Good job, kiddo.”
Gaius was smiling at Caroline. If Merlin wasn't mistaken, his eyes were a little misty. “You are in incredibly smart little girl. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Yes,” Liney nodded.
From there, it went from stories about Hunith as a child (to which she blushed and protested while Lin giggled and Arthur smirked), to Lin's excited retelling of her spring concert. So despite the awkward start, the dinner went rather well.
“You know,” Hunith said casually over the phone the next day, as Merlin made sandwiches. “Gaius was seemed very interested in Arthur yesterday.”
In the living room, Finding Nemo was playing in the background as Princess Caroline held court with Kilgharrah, Mr. Bear, Hailey the Purple Pony and Jerry Giraffe.
(“You may go,” she'd said imperiously when Merlin had 'asked' if he could make everyone lunch. “And don't forget the chips, Papa Wizard.”)
“Interested as in interested?” Merlin asked, his brow arching high. He carefully moved around the kitchen with peanut butter and jelly in hand, the phone cradled between his jaw and his shoulder.
“Good lord, no. Simply...” Hunith paused as she searched for the right word. “Curious,” she settled. “Far more curious than was necessary. Did you hear him asking about Arthur's parents?”
Arthur's spine had gone straight but surprisingly, he'd answered truthfully.
“Maybe he does have a crush.”
“Ha ha,” she said dryly. Then, “I'm sure it's nothing. He left today, anyway.”
Merlin frowned, licking away a bit of peanut butter from his thumb. “I thought he was supposed to stay until Wednesday?”
“Apparently there was an emergency back in England.” Hunith sighed. “I was sad to see him go. It must have been important, though. I swear the old man looked almost jittery.”
“Maybe we'll see it on the news,” Merlin suggested. If Gaius was as close to the king as he'd implied the night before, it had to be an emergency from the higher-ups.
“If it's something simple, I'm going to fly up there and kick his ass.” Hunith huffed. “What is my granddaughter doing?”
“Never mind, dear, just put her on the phone.”
“You saw her yesterday.”
“Put her on the phone.”
Merlin grinned. Some things just never changed.
Some things fucking changed.
“Merlin,” Arthur shook him roughly. Merlin sleepily batted him away, grumbling, and tried to hold on to his dream involving Johny Depp and whipped cream. “Is it Caroline?” he groaned.
“Go the hell away.”
The sheets were snatched off of him, plunging his body into the icy air of the room. Merlin hissed like a soaked cat, blindly scrabbling to get back.
“Merlin, the fucking king of fucking England is at the fucking door.”
Merlin sat up so fast that he nearly knocked Arthur unconscious. “What?” he hissed.
“I'm not kidding.” Now that he was paying attention, Merlin could see Arthur's eyes, wide and nervous. “He just keeps fucking knocking--”
“Okay,” Merlin said, holding up a hand. “Stop talking before you owe the swear jar your entire wallet.”
“We don't even use the swear jar anymore--”
“Arthur.” Merlin brought his hands up to hold Arthur's face in his hands. He leaned their foreheads close. Though his heart was thundering in his chest, he forced himself to breathe in, deep. “Calm down.”
“Calm. Down.” he repeated, staring him down.
They sat for an entire minute, until Arthur's breaths slowed and the panic slowly faded away from his eyes. Merlin waited, letting small tendrils of magic flow through his fingertips to help.
Finally, Arthur nodded. Merlin reluctantly moved his hands. “Now: I'm going to put on a shirt and we're going to answer the door. After all,” Merlin smiled thinly. “You don't keep the fucking king of fucking England waiting.”
Arthur stepped back without an answering smile. Merlin sighed, sliding out of bed and fumbling around in the darkness for a shirt thrown somewhere. His hand landed on one and he blindly shrugged it on.
He led them through the house with soft footsteps, navigating every corner expertly. With every other step he glanced back, trying to keep his expression light for Arthur. Inside, though, his heart was climbing into his throat.
And then they were at the front door, and there was nothing else to do but open it.
“Dibs on not opening it,” Merlin whispered, in a childish moment.
Arthur looked at him, exasperated fondness glancing over his features for barely a second. But that second seemed to be enough: he reached out with the hand that wasn't clutching Merlin's and opened the door.
The fucking King of fucking England was standing on their fucking porch.
Merlin could have fainted.
King Uther was ten times more intimidating in person than he was on TV, that was for sure. He had cold, gleaming silver eyes and severe features, his white hair combed neatly. He was wearing a tailored gray suit with diamonds cufflinks. Gaius stood by his side, his expression utterly impossible to read. Merlin thought he saw a hint of apology in his features. On either side of the men, four huge bodyguards loomed in all black. Behind them an unfamiliar black car sat in the driveway behind Merlin's Prius and Arthur's Accord.
Merlin had the wildly inappropriate urge crack a Men In Black joke. There was something wrong with him.
“Well,” said the King of England, “are you going to let us in or will we be having this conversation out in the cold?” His very tone spoke of royalty.
“That depends,” Arthur said. “Are you going to be a dick once you get inside?”
Merlin swung his head so quickly that his neck popped. He could feel the laser eyes of the bodyguards on their faces. Don't get us killed, he tried to telepathically send to his best friend. For once, for the love of god, just be quiet.
Of course, Arthur being Arthur, he completely did the opposite of what Merlin said. “I mean,” he continued, totally oblivious to the STOP DANGER SHUT UP signals that Merlin was trying to send via hand squeezes, “You're the one showing up at our doorstep at five in the morning. Why should we let you in?”
There was a tense moment (where, Merlin was sure, everyone marveled at the sheer amount of balls that Arthur had.
And then the king smiled. It was just a slight upturn of a lip, not even enough to be considered a real smile, but somehow Merlin could tell that it wasn't something that he did very often. “Because a DNA test says that you're mine,” he said. “But you have Ygraine's eyes.”
With a sudden clarity, Merlin remembered the wince that Arthur had made while he was giving Gaius a requested hug.
“Sorry,” the old man had apologized as Arthur brought a hand to his head, “Something on me must have caught a hair.”
That sneaky old bastard.
“Hi,” Merlin hurriedly stepped forward before Arthur could slam the door on the man's face. “I'm Merlin, this is Arthur. Come in, please.”
They both stepped to the side as the whole group walked in. Merlin watched as the king swept a cursory glance over the living room and the kitchen, his eyes lingering over Caroline's surprisingly artistic drawings that were framed on the walls. Her tricycle was sitting in the corner of the living room, bright pink and white. Pictures of them were on the walls and coffee table, one of which had Arthur playfully kissing Merlin on the cheek while Merlin grinned.
Oh my God, Merlin thought, kind of horrified, we look so gay.
“Would you like some refreshments?” he asked, since apparently Arthur had decided to become Silent Bob. “Water? Soda?”
“No thank you.” King Uther answered him, after a too long pause. He looked at Merlin like he was something unpleasant that he'd found on of his shoe. Granted, his face just seemed to be set that way, but it still made Merlin want to scowl.
He forced himself to smile. “Okay. What can we do for you on this fine, early morning?”
“I am here to speak with Arthur.” There was a deliberate pause. “Alone.”
“Merlin's staying.” Arthur finally spoke up. He stood beside Merlin, utterly unwavering.
“This is a private conversation.”
“You can tell us both,” Arthur said, an edge to his voice, “Or you can tell neither of us.”
Again, there was a long moment where two opposing forces locked eyes in a silent battle of wills. Arthur seemed determined to fight what he knew—what everyone knew—was coming. What the King of England had flown all the way down here for.
Finally, the man inclined his head, just a bit. He didn't look very happy about it, though.
“Good.” Arthur smiled. It was more of a grimace. “Would you like to take a seat?”
They all sat. King Uther and Gaius took the loveseat, the bodyguards flanking them. Merlin and Arthur sat on the larger, black leather couch.
(“Leather,” Merlin had argued when they'd had a spectacular argument in the furniture store, “Is easy to clean and doesn't stain. White couches belong in snooty bachelor pads! Do we look like bachelors to you!?” Two year old Liney had chosen that moment to let out a huge, snotty sneeze. Arthur reluctantly conceded that maybe Merlin had a point.)
“You may have guessed why I'm here,” Uther began.
“No,” Arthur said sarcastically, “We have no idea.”
“Young man,” Gaius spoke up. “You will show the king the respect that he deserves.”
Arthur looked like he was about to snap out something rude. Merlin hurriedly grabbed his arm. “You know what?” he asked with false cheer. “I think I'll get that water anyway. Just in case. Want to help me, Arthur?”
He half-led, half dragged Arthur into the kitchen, the wooden door swinging shut behind them. He whirled around.
“Are you trying to get us shot?” He hissed. “You can't just talk to the king like that, Arthur!”
“Well, if he's supposed to be dear-old-daddyo--” Arthur began acidly.
“I know you're scared.” Merlin stepped closer to him. “I know this is freaking you out, and I know you want to run. Or swing on something. I honestly can't decide which one I want to do. But right now there's a man out there who's been pleading with the public every year for twenty-seven years, looking for his son. And you're it, Arthur.”
“You fucking can, because I'm going to be right here, okay?” He reached out again and flicked Arthur on the forehead, laughing a little. “Me and Caroline, we'll still be here, no matter what happens. Okay?”
Arthur was staring at him. This seemed to be a common occurrence, over the years. “Arthur?” he asked, unsure.
And then a big hand was cupping his chin and pulling him in, and before he could so much as breathe Arthur was kissing him.
Their first kiss had been violent, bloody and broken. This one was more like a homecoming. Arthur moved his lips softly against Merlin's, patient, until Merlin's eyes closed and he began to respond, sliding his hand up to cup Arthur's cheek.
They parted with a soft sound, watching each other.
“Do you mean it?” Merlin asked.
“Yes,” Arthur answered.
And that was that.
They went back into the living room holding hands again. King Uther raised a brow and his mouth went down slightly, but he said nothing as they reseated themselves. No one said anything about the fact that they'd come back with no water.
Gaius opened his mouth, presumably to try and begin again. Before he could, though, a small voice interrupted them.
Everyone, even the body guards, turned at the voice. Caroline stood in the living room doorway, her dark hair mussed and her eyes wide. Mr. Bear was clutched firmly in both arms.
Merlin stood at the same time that Arthur did.
“Liney,” Arthur said, soothing, “Everything's okay. Why don't you go back to bed?”
Merlin knew the exact moment when Liney caught sight of King Uther, because her blue eyes grew impossibly wider. He inwardly sighed. There went the idea of 'sleep'.
Instead of starting the argument that would surely come if they sent her back to her room, Merlin walked over and scooped the little girl into his arms. Kilgharrah stayed close, a low growl in his throat as they crossed the room.
“Yes, Lin. That's the king.”
Merlin settled on her onto his lap, letting her sink into him as she grew shy. Arthur curled an arm around the both of them. And together, they faced the unknown.
Merlin flopped face down onto the couch with an exhausted sigh.
Caroline had been absolutely thrilled with the idea of moving to the castle. She'd babbled about it for days, happily helping them pack their things. She was a princess and the king of England was her grandfather and daddy was a prince and everything was just sunshine and roses. She didn't go back to school: there was no way that she'd be able to hold everything in, and the public hadn't found out about Arthur yet. But she was perfectly happy.
Until the realization that they'd actually have to leave in order to live in that castle hit.
Arthur, the lucky bastard, was out when the storm came.
The girl—Arthur's daughter, through and through—actually stomped into the room where Merlin was slowly folding his clothes.
“Papa,” she'd said, and her very tone spoke of what was about to come. Sure enough: “I don't want to go to England.”
What had followed had been a creative mixture of pleading, being unmoving on the subject, and finally blinking back his own tears as the girl began to sob about the unfairness of it all. Merlin held her to his side and rocked her, ignoring Kilgharrah's judgmental eyes. You made my girl cry, they seemed to say.
Dog was creepy.
Finally, the girl fell into an exhausted nap. Merlin carefully covered her with a blanket and walked into the living room.
Which was where he was now. Just breathing in Arthur's aggressive Febreeze spraying on the couch cushions.
The front door opened. Without looking up, he said, his voice muffled, “You are such a bastard.”
“I'm sure that Arthur would take offense from that. After all, he has just discovered his father--”
Merlin was up and throwing out a binding spell before his mind could even register the fact that Nim was in his freaking living room.
They hadn't spoken to the woman since Caroline was a year old, after a visit when they'd decided to 'try'. It had ended in disaster. After that, it had been no phone calls and no sign of her. They'd honestly thought they'd seen the last of her.
Apparently, life just wasn't that easy.
Nim deflected it easily, a small smile playing about her red lips. She looked exactly the same: dark, flowing hair, a light blue dress, heels made to kill. She barely looked winded by Merlin's attempt.
“What are you doing here?” Merlin asked, his voice hoarse.
“I'm not here to cause trouble, love.” She sauntered forward, predatory.
Merlin slowly began edging his way toward the hallway, trying to block her way to Caroline. “Somehow,” he said, “I don't believe you. After all, what's one little girl for a woman who had the balls to take the Prince of England?”
“If I wanted Caroline I would have taken her a long time ago. I thought about it, too.” She traced a finger along the wall. “It would have been easy. After all, visiting her when she was a baby was as simple popping in--” she snapped her fingers. “And out.”
Merlin swallowed a slew of curse words. He knew something had been off.
“But no,” she sighed, “I got the feeling that history would repeat itself if I took her.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Merlin asked acerbically. His gaze kept on sliding to the front door, where Arthur would be coming any minute now. Stay away, stay away.
“It means, pet, that you'd kill me.”
Merlin's head snapped toward her. “What?” he demanded.
“You killed me.” Nim shrugged, her head tilting prettily. “You don't remember now. I'm not sure if you ever will. But I am not willing to risk that again. Not this time around. After all,” she laughed bitterly. “We have wifi now.”
“You're batshit,” Merlin said slowly.
“Am I?” Nimueh seemed amused at the prospect.
“You killed the queen.”
The amusement fell from her face. “I did not kill her,” she said through her teeth.
“Gaius thinks you did.”
“Gaius is an old and a fool. A life for a life.” She tilted her chin. “That is the way of things. This was explained, and Ygraine agreed without reservation.” She began to pace, slowly, her heels making a soft 'thud' on the carpet with each step. “They probably told you the Disney version of things. An evil midwife who was punished by the king after his wife's death, and in vengeance stole his precious son.”
“Sounds about right,” Merlin said warily.
“Oh? And did they tell you about the part where the midwife was the queen's best friend? Where the midwife, who could See things, Saw a future of hurt for that precious baby boy of her's? Everyone makes mistakes, Merlin, even someone like me.” She stopped, suddenly, and looked up. And despite her youth, she looked very, very old.
“Arthur, she said.” Nim was almost speaking to herself. “She told me when we were all alone and she was feeling pains from carrying. She wanted him to be called Arthur. Do you know that I was the only one she told? And then I Saw, when she died, I Saw what Arthur would go through if he were to be raised by that man...not that I did much better. Children are so easy in theory. Feed them, clothe them, make sure that they're fit to become successful in life. They say love, of course, but I forgot how to love a long time ago.”
“You want to keep them? Fine. But you're going to prove your worth first.” Nim snapped her fingers.
Merlin staggered with his landing. Suddenly, they were in a wide, grassy plain. In the distance, a mountain rose into the gray sky. Thunder rumbled overhead, and lightning streaked the sky.
“First blood wins,” Nim said, grinning fiercely. Before Merlin could even open his mouth to ask questions—the main one being what the actual fuck—she lifted her hands. Light rose into the palms, bright blue and threatening, and she flung them toward him.
Merlin moved on instinct, ducking the lights before he threw his own palms up. Dirt flew into the air, clouding the space with dark brown and clogging his lungs. He forced himself not to cough as he searched, squinting.
For a moment, all was silent but the lightning streaking the sky. And then Merlin heard the soft scuff of dirt. He flinched away, whirling around. A small streak of light flew past where his ear had been.
"Clever." Nim's voice came. A powerful wind blew, and the air cleared, revealing her to be standing about five feet away. "But is it clever enough?"
Merlin grit his teeth. Now he was pissed off. "That would have killed me."
"Then you wouldn't have been worthy." Nim was utterly composed. She smoothed a hand down the front of her dress.
"I'll show you worth, you bitch."
They fought. Merlin let his magic flow free, coursing through his veins like fire. It burned and threatened to consume him even as he threw himself at Nim.
Killed her in the past life or not, it was goddamn hard to get a freaking mark on the woman. She danced and dodged like a ballerina. By the time Merlin finally managed to catch her by surprised with a stray shard of rock, he was ready to resort to petty fistcuffs.
He stood, trembling with exhaustion, as the woman drew a hand across the mark. She looked almost satisfied at the blood on her palm. Merlin had aches and bruises, but like hell he'd actually let her get a scratch in.
"If I may ask one more request?"
“And what would that be?” Merlin was ready to say screw it and murder Nim. Arthur would forgive him. Eventually.
Nim smiled, an honest, white smile. “Hug them.”
And as quickly as she'd been there she was gone, leaving Merlin staring at the surroundings of his living room.
"I'm home," Arthur called as he walked in, holding a bag of groceries. "And I come bearing snacks so..." he trailed off as he saw Merlin's appearance. "What in the hell happened to you?"
"I was worthy." Merlin smiled at him before he collapsed.
Buckingham Palace was large, beautiful, and, on most days, extremely easy to get lost in. Perfectly for hide and seek.
Merlin supposed he could use a simple searching spell as he passed the same vase for the third time. But Morgana would know, as she always seemed to, and tell Caroline and they would both give him a judgmental look until he crumbled and let them dress him up.
Princess Morgana of Cornwall was Arthur's half-sister. In public, she was gorgeous, aloof, and dignified. In private, she was all of that—with the added benefit of being a total terror to the men in her life. The only exception was proving to be Mordred, a pocket beagle that a fan had gifted Caroline—now Princess Caroline--with.
He was a small, shy thing that Liney carried everywhere with her, much to the delight of England. Forget Arthur—Lin was their new darling.
It had taken months for the general hubub about the new prince of England being—apparently--gay to die down. Endless talk shows, radio shows, TV specials, hate mail, and sobbing to Gwen over the phone at three in the morning and Merlin was finally able to walk around without feeling like the worst person in the world.
It hadn't been all bad, of course: you had the obsessive fan girls who wrote smutty fanfiction (that Merlin did not secretly read, fuck you very much for saying that on national television.)
(He was not a whimperer! There was no whimpering during!)
(Okay, so he whimpered a bit. But in his defense Arthur was--)
Anyway. There were also the calm, supportive people who sent them love mail, gifts, and even who—in Ellen Degeneres' case—made them t-shirts.
(Team Merthur. Who would've thought? Arthur wore one in every color of the rainbow and then in the colors of the rainbow, much to the chagrin of their publicist.)
He finally found them both under the staircase, Caroline trying and failing to stifle her giggles in Kilgharrah's fur. Mordred lay between his huge paws, looking small and sleepy.
“You found me!” Caroline pouted.
“I just followed the smell of little girl.” Merlin playfully snuffled at her neck, grinning as she giggled even more. He held out a hand, reaching out to help her up. “Come on. Let's go find Auntie Morgana.”
“Okay!” Caroline took the hand and scooped Mordred up with an arm, standing. She was a wearing a bright, multicolored dress with yellow high tops—probably Morgana's doing. She started pulling Merlin by the hand. “Come on! Auntie morg likes to hide in the real, real hard spots.”
“Patience, my young padawan.” Merlin ruffled her dark locks, just to see her wrinkle her nose.
They searched every where that Caroline could think, even enlisting the castle staff for help. They were all a little afraid of Morgana, but no one could resist Liney's puppy dog eyes.
They finally tracked her to Arthur's office. Merlin knocked twice before entering, knowing that the man didn't have any meetings with anyone right now.
(Whenever he did, he bitched like an old woman in the morning. Parliament this, asshole ambassador that: Merlin just had to shut him up with a kiss.)
Arthur was sitting behind his desk, a multitude of papers in front of him. He was hovering over one with a pen when the group entered. A smile turned into a smirk as he put the pen down.
“I told you they'd find you in here,” he said to seemingly no one in particular. Then he winced, jerking and slamming his knee into the desk. “You little—did you just bite me?!”
“I wouldn't have had to if you weren't such a git.” Arthur's leather chair—which was amazingly comfortable, Merlin knew from experience—slid back. Morgana's head popped up as she gracefully stood, turning. Despite the fact that she'd been hiding under a desk, woman looked utterly unruffled.
Arthur and Morgana's relationship was...odd. It was a mixture of passive aggressiveness, the solidarity that comes with having to deal with Uther Pendragon on a daily basis, and-no matter how much they protested it—love.
At first, things had been odd—probably because Morgana was a lot like Nim, in her own way. Arthur and Nim--it was obvious that that in itself was complicated, especially after Merlin had returned from that test looking like hell. But Morgana was also her own person with her own thoughts and attitudes and she made sure that they knew that from the start.
(She and Gwen got on like a house on fire. Lance, Gwen's new boyfriend, confided that Gwen would cackle after she got off the Webcam with the princess.)
“You found me,” she told Merlin flatly, then smacked Arthur on the back of the head.
“Ow! What the heck--”
“You cheated, daddy,” Liney said solemnly. Merlin couldn't stop his grin.
“That's how you see it, do you?” Arthur stood, heading for Caroline with a mock scowl on his face. “I'll show you what you get for siding with your Aunt instead of your Daddy.”
“No!” Caroline shrieked, and dashed away from his scrambling hands. Momemtns later, she was hovering in the air, getting higher and higher. Merlin looked at Morgana. The woman smirked at him.
“Now that's cheating!” Arthur scowled at his half sister. Morgana twitched a hand, and Caroline began to spin in circles. Kilgharrah and Mordred were looking up, their heads following the circles that Liney made as she squealed.
“Put my daughter down,” Arthur said neutrally.
“That's cute: You actually think I'm going to listen to you.”
Merlin sighed and, with a flick of his wrist , Caroline slowly began to sink down. She whined as she did so.
Morgana scowled at him. “Whipped.”
“Happily,” Merlin grinned at her.
“Tosser.” she muttered.
“Daddy, what's a skank?”
Merlin sighed in relief as he slowly undid the tie from around his neck.
“That was one of the worst dinners I've ever been to. And that includes the one where Mark—you remember Mark, right?--when Mark made a 'that's what she said' joke at the table. Mom looked like she was going to pulverize him.”
“Stop talking about your ex. boyfriend.” Arms snaked around Merlin's waist and Arthur rested his chin on Merlin's shoulder, looking at them in the mirror. “It makes me grumpy.”
“How in the hell did you get undressed so fast?” Merlin blinked at him.
“Practice.” Arthur ran his mouth along Merlin's chin, down his neck, dropping kisses on the skin that he could reach. “I could help you, if you wanted. I'm a nice person.”
Merlin couldn't control the way his heart began to go triple-speed in his chest. “You're the devil.”
“That's Prince Devil to you.” Arthur gripped him by the hips.
“That was horrible English--”
Arthur shut him up with a kiss.
Some time later, Merlin rested his head against Arthur's collarbone, panting. “Been a while.”
“Mhmm.” Arthur kissed his head. “I missed the whimpering.”
Merlin smacked him in the the chest, hard. Arthur just laughed, dragging the man closer to his side. They lay in contented silence, Merlin tracing figures on the chest that he'd just smacked. His eyes began to droop.
He yawned. “Yeah, Arthur?”
“I love you.”
It wasn't the first time that he'd said it, but there was something in the way that Arthur said it that made Merlin look up.
“I love you, too. Even if you are a meathead who doens't know how to watch where he's going.”
“I believe you called me a butthead, asshole.”
Merlin laughed. “Shut up, Arthur.” He kissed him.
It wasn't quite happily after: Liney burst into the room, Kilgharrah and Morded hot on her heels as she babbled excitedly about something that she'd forgotten to tell her Daddy. Morgana trailed after them, looking at all the clothes scattered everywhere and raising her eyebrow in amusement.
Uther was going to be an asshole at breakfast, because he always tended to do it even if he didn't mean to. Kilgharrah would chase another tourist around the castle for fun. Arthur would miss Nim and pretend not to. Hunith would call and yell at them for not feeding her granddaughter, and eventually move to England because “someone needs to take care of you all” and Uther would bicker with her in a completely undignified fashion while Gaius rolled his eyes. Morgana and Gwen would cackle, and Lancelot would worry. There would always be people who were against them.
But Merlin and Arthur would be together with their daughter and their crazy family, and that was better than any fairy tale ending.