It was long after midnight, and the darkened alley in the backwaters of town wasn't somewhere a ten year old was supposed to be. Merlin knew that. Knew that he belonged in bed, somewhere safe and warm, tucked in with a goodnight kiss on the forehead. Sometimes, when he closed his eyes and tried really hard, he could catch a faint impression of what that would feel like, and he'd insist that it was not merely a fantasy but a memory from his past when a place like that had still existed.
On this fateful night, the dark corner behind a row of wheelie bins was the best he could find when his feet would no longer carry him. Carefully, he lowered himself to the ground next to an air vent where the exhaust coming from some burger joint made the surroundings at least a little warmer, even if it smelled of old grease. The rustle and patter in the darkness made him nervous, reminding him of rats and other kinds of things that might be hiding in the shadows, but, in the end, his bone-deep exhaustion won out and he drifted off to sleep with his legs pulled up to his chest and his head resting on his knees.
He was pulled out of confusing dreams by a pair of rough hands, and then the stench of beer and old sweat filled his nose as a thick, hairy forearm pinned him against the solid body of the man at his back. With his heart racing in his chest, Merlin's mind struggled, unable to connect the dots of what was happening or where he was and how he had come to be there. It took a few moments until he realised that someone was talking to him.
“What're you doing here kid, hm? Snoopin' round where you don' belong?”
Fingers dug into Merlin's jaw and his head was turned to face a second man, this one reedy, with long, greasy hair falling into his eyes. Merlin tried to pull away, but the hold the other man had on him was unbreakable.
“What's it? Cat got your tongue? Or do you want us to beat it out of you?”
Merlin tried to shake his head, panic crawling up his throat to choke him, but all he could do was dart his eyes around in an instinctual urge to look for help, knowing it was unlikely to come. At first, he thought that his mind was playing tricks on him when he caught a movement at the edge of his vision. But, no, there was something there. Just a little further down the alley. It looked almost as if the night was turning solid, and then a figure melted out of the shadows, a dark shape looming like paper cut against the foggy light of the single street lamp.
“Let him go.”
The voice was low and strangely mellow, but that only made the command it carried stronger. A shiver ran down Merlin's spine while a tiny hope flared up inside of him. The man at his back shifted on his feet, suddenly a little nervous, but his companion scoffed and raised his chin in defiance.
“Fuck off!” he called and then spit out, as if to underline his disdain.
For a second nothing happened. Then there was a flurry of movement, so quick it made Merlin dizzy, and all of a sudden he was free and thrown against the brick wall behind him. One of his attackers was on the ground, whimpering and groaning, and the other was running down the alley as if the hounds of hell were at his heels.
The man who had come to Merlin's rescue turned around, and the first good look Merlin got of him was in the dim light of the street lamp as he licked blood from his teeth. Merlin's heart was hammering, his breath was coming short, and all he could think was, “Holy shit, he's a vampire”.
The teeth didn't quite look like in the movies, and there were no ridges on his forehead. But the guy on the ground was bleeding from his neck and, really, it didn't take the over-active imagination of a ten-year-old to put two and two together. Besides, Merlin knew better than most that some things were real even if no one believed them.
The man who was possibly a vampire was staring at him contemplatively, and, for a moment, Merlin wondered if he had gone from the frying pan into the fire and would become the next vampire snack. But he also knew he stood no chance if he ran. All he could do was stare back as his heart was doing its best to fight its way out of his throat. The man frowned a little and then let out a huff, turning his attention to the guy on the ground. With an expression of disgust, he kicked at him to roll him over on his back and dropped down into a crouch so that he could rifle through the guy's pockets. When he found a wallet, he pulled out the cash before lobbing the rest into one of the wheelie bins.
Through it all, Merlin didn't move an inch. And he wasn't sure if he could have when those unnaturally blue eyes turned to him again, making him feel as if he was pinned to the spot. As Merlin studied the man—who was most definitely a vampire—he started to look less frightening. Mostly, he looked tired. His skin was pale, the blond hair a little too long and the suit he was wearing could have used an iron, or probably a thorough dry-cleaning, as did his formerly white shirt that was sporting dark rusty specks on the collar.
“What are you doing here?” the vampire asked softly. “This is no place for little kids.”
That made him smile—a small, amused curl of his lips—and any residual fear that had still lingered in Merlin vanished.
“What's your name?”
“Well, Merlin, I'm Arthur.” The vampire rose to his feet in a graceful movement. “Come along then.”
With that he turned towards the busier street beyond the alley, not waiting to see whether Merlin would follow. Merlin hesitated. He had that strange feeling of standing at a precipice, the edge of a whole new world that could be better or worse, and all he had to do was inch his toe across. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then pushed away from the brick wall, breaking into a run and catching up with Arthur just as he turned into the street.
Half an hour later, Merlin found himself sitting in a brightly lit diner. He had a plate full of pancakes in front of him, and a vampire facing him from across the table, watching with a mixture of pain and amusement as Merlin stuffed the food into his mouth.
“Looks like you've been hungry,” Arthur remarked, and Merlin shrugged. It wasn't like Mr. Edwin had starved any of the kids, but all Merlin had had since yesterday morning was an apple and a handful of chips that someone had left on a park bench.
“Why were you sleeping in that alley? Don't you have a home?”
Merlin shook his head, prioritising food over conversation.
Arthur raised his eyebrows. “Did you run away?”
With his cheeks heating up, Merlin stopped in the middle of chewing. He regarded the vampire nervously, who calmly held his gaze and took a sip from his coffee. Putting the mug down on the scratched surface of the table in front of him, he leaned forward a little and said, “Look. I don't know what happened. But don't you think your parents will be worried?”
Forcing down the half-chewed pancakes, Merlin lowered his eyes. “My parents are dead.”
The vampire sighed deeply. “I'm sorry. But you must have been staying with someone?”
“Foster care. But— Mr. Edwin—” Merlin glanced up hesitantly before he continued. “He doesn't like me much. He says I'm a freak.” When Arthur frowned, Merlin's stomach twisted. “I don't want to go back there.”
Merlin held his breath as Arthur looked at him for a long moment before he finally gave a small nod. “Eat your pancakes,” he said and signalled the waitress for another coffee.
Merlin couldn't have said why he trusted Arthur, he just had this feeling deep in his guts that he could—and so far that had never steered Merlin wrong. After finishing the food, he followed Arthur down a quiet street to a townhouse in the better part of town and stood silently as the vampire hovered on the doorstep as if he had to persuade himself to ring the bell. As soon as he did, he melted back into the shadows, leaving it to Merlin to face the man who pulled the door open a few moments later. The man was tall, wore nothing but a pair of pyjama bottoms, and looked down at Merlin with both surprise and alarm from under a wild shock of copper locks.
“He said you'd help me,” Merlin told him a little uncertain. “He said you can find a place where no one will punish me for being weird.”
The man looked stunned, but then raised his head, eyes searching the night around him. “Arthur?” he asked quietly, with a strange note of hope in his voice.
For a moment all that was heard was the wind in the trees and the low hum of traffic further down the road, but then Merlin's new vampire friend stepped out into a pool of light across the street, and the man in the door let out a sharp breath.
“Please,” Arthur said in that low, gentle voice of his that felt almost like a caress. “Help him.”
Merlin didn't quite know what to make of the rush of emotions chasing each other over the other man's face, but they finally settled into a wistful kind of fondness, and he held out his hand for Merlin to shake. “Hello. My name is Leon. And Arthur is right. I promise I'll find you a place where you're safe. That's my job.”
As Leon led Merlin inside, the boy turned around. Arthur was nowhere to be seen, but Merlin sent the brightest of smiles into the darkness, nevertheless.
A square of deadly sunlight was creeping slowly across the floor on the other side of the abandoned factory as Arthur watched from the perch of his makeshift bed, up in the shadows of the catwalk. Even if he closed his eyes, he would still be able to feel it in his bones: the altitude of the sun, slowly sinking towards the horizon. There were a good two hours left until nightfall, and Arthur stretched out with a sigh, listening to the sounds of the summer evening outside. Insects were buzzing around, and with a bit of concentration he could hear the drum concert of little hearts from all the rodents and crawlers hiding in the shrubs around the compound.
When his ears picked up a more familiar heartbeat, Arthur cocked his head and allowed himself a private smile. It was coming closer—accelerated and accompanied by a slight panting and the slap of running feet—and then the heavy gate on the north side was dragged open and the smell of cotton candy and an approaching thunderstorm tickled Arthur's nose. It was the first thing he had noticed, back when he met Merlin in that alley over three years ago.
“Arthur? Arthur, are you awake? I think I found it!”
Arthur closed his eyes as Merlin stomped up the metal stairs with his usual racket, radiating anticipation and his own special brand of enthusiasm. He didn't stir, even when Merlin dropped down on the mattress next to him, slightly out of breath, and started shaking his shoulder.
“Come on, Arthur, don't play dead on me.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow but kept his eyes shut—which didn't stop him from catching Merlin's wrist with lightning-speed reflexes when he tried to poke Arthur in the side with a sharp finger.
“I'm not playing dead,” Arthur grumbled. “I am dead.”
“Just because your heart's not beating doesn't mean you're not alive!”
There was a hint of indignation in Merlin's voice, but his heartbeat remained steady. He truly believed what he was saying. But then Merlin was only thirteen years old, his world view was mostly shaped by TV and comic books, and it probably wasn't a coincidence that his favourite show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Merlin didn't fully understand the monstrous consequences of what Arthur was, what he had become on the day he was murdered only to be resurrected as some grotesque version of himself.
Even now, Arthur could still feel it, the urge to rip into the delicate skin and pulsing veins of a human throat, to keep going until he was bathed in the tangy, sticky blood of his victim. Learning to not give in to that had taken him years, living in the shadows, far away from humankind, until he hardly remembered how it felt to not be alone.
When Merlin had started to seek him out after Leon found him a new home, Arthur tried to discourage it. But Merlin was incredibly persistent, and after a while Arthur had begun to welcome the distraction of Merlin's boundless energy and ever-flailing limbs, which was such a contrast to the stillness inside of Arthur that had been haunting him ever since he had been turned. It was a weird friendship they had—Merlin was barely more than a kid, after all—but it wasn't like Arthur had anyone else who wanted him to be a part of their life.
As Merlin stretched out on his stomach beside him, idly kicking his feet, Arthur couldn't help but think that he was far too at ease next to a supernatural predator. Somehow Merlin had never really been afraid of him.
“You should totally become a superhero,” he said just then, apropos of nothing. “I mean, you have super strength and all that. It would be totally legit.”
Arthur snorted. “I'm not going to become a vigilante and wear a cape. You better get that out of your head right away.”
“You don't have to wear a cape. Spiderman doesn't have a cape.”.
“Yeah. Only a tight spandex suit. Not in a million years.”
“I could be your sidekick,” Merlin went on, undeterred. “I help you overcome your mortal weakness, and then we fight crime and evil together. No villain will dare to stand against us!”
Arthur huffed out a laugh and turned his head, opening his eyes to look at the boy with fond exasperation, and was surprised when he was met with a solemn expression.
“No, really,” Merlin said, and his hand sneaked out to wrap around Arthur's broader one. “I really think I found the right spell this time. To protect you.”
Arthur's lips curved into a pained smile. He had learned the hard way that there was far more between heaven and earth than he had ever imagined, and Merlin's magic was one of those things. His new foster parents were a nice, older couple that ran a special kind of apothecary, and they were helping Merlin to understand and control his abilities. Arthur was glad that Merlin had found this kind of support, and as a result, he no longer thought of himself as a freak. But he had also become quite a bit over-confident, and he kept insisting that he was going to help Arthur like Arthur had helped him.
“Will you let me try?” he asked, looking at Arthur beseechingly now and Arthur let out a heavy sigh.
“Fine,” he said. It wasn't like there was much that could harm him, even if it didn't work, which he wasn't expecting it to. This wasn't Merlin's first attempt at magically 'healing' him, because Arthur was an idiot who couldn't say no to a pair of hopeful blue eyes. No, Arthur was much more concerned for Merlin, and how the boy would deal with the inevitable disappointment. “What do you need me to do?”
As it turned out, what Merlin—not me, Arthur, the spell—needed, was for Arthur to get buck naked and stand in the middle of a pentacle that Merlin had drawn on the floor with charcoal.
Arthur's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “You sure this is necessary?”
Merlin nodded. “The spell has to be able to engulf you, uh, whole.”
Arthur closed his eyes and shook his head. “Honestly, the things I'm doing for you,” he muttered but pulled his shirt over his head. He hesitated before he popped the button of his jeans, shooting Merlin a look over his shoulder. “This really doesn't seem appropriate.”
Merlin rapidly blushed to the roots of his hair. “I—uh, what? N—no. I won't, you know...uh, look.” He waved one hand in Arthur's direction, who stood half turned away from him. “Not more than necessary, anyway.”
Arthur arched an eyebrow.
“Which is hardly at all!” Merlin blurted, face on fire. “I'll just stand here. And do the spell. With my eyes closed. All good.”
Arthur kept his back turned to Merlin after he had lost his jeans and underwear, and then Merlin started to chant. The unfamiliar words of the incantation washed over Arthur, setting his teeth on edge as his skin began to tingle and his hair stood on end. He felt cold, which was unusual for a vampire, and when he looked down on himself, he saw a sheen of frost crawling up from his ankles all over his body. It wasn't until he was covered in it that the feeling subsided and Merlin stopped with an audible gasp.
Arthur let out a harsh breath through his nose. He felt... different somehow. But he couldn't quite say how. “So. Did it work?” he asked, quickly grabbing his jeans from the floor and pulling them up over his hips, not bothering with his underwear.
“I—I think so,” Merlin said, sounding slightly out of breath. “There's only one way to find out.”
Arthur knew what he meant, and his eyes jumped to the square of sunlight that was just touching the wall now. Every instinct he had was yelling at him to stay away, and he had to force himself a little to slowly walk towards it. His bare feet looked disconcertingly vulnerable a hair's breath from the sharp line of the shadows in which he had been living for years. Slowly, Arthur raised his right arm and moved his hand towards the light, eyes determinedly focussed on the dust motes, dancing in the rays of the evening sun.
When he reached out into the sunlight, he could hear Merlin holding his breath. But nothing happened. The skin of Arthur's hand looked so pale in the light, it almost seemed to glow. But it didn't burn. It didn't wither. Arthur looked at it with awe and then turned to Merlin with a stunned smile, disbelief and elation nearly making him dizzy. Merlin was beaming, reeking of happiness, and it made Arthur's dead heart burst with joy and pride and affection.
Then he felt the first itch. Suddenly his skin felt like a million ants were setting him on fire and Arthur pulled his hand back with a curse, staring with a stony expression at the angry red blisters that were covering his raw skin. The shock and disappointment was like a bucket of ice to his head, and he felt numb—strangely disconnected from the excruciating pain in his hand.
“No!” Merlin rushed forward, happiness souring to heartbreak. He snatched Arthur's unresisting arm and looked at the damaged, bloody flesh covering the back of his hand. “I'm sorry,” he sobbed. “Arthur, I'm so sorry. I was sure it would work. I was sure it had worked!”
Tears sprung up in his eyes, and he tried to blink them away, but they kept coming as he whispered apology after apology.
Arthur looked at his hand, cradled gently in Merlin's smaller ones, and when he lifted his eyes to the boy's distraught face, the pain hardly registered any longer. Merlin had not given him the sunlight today, instead he gave Arthur something else. Something equally warm and bright, but much more tender. After a moment of hesitation, Arthur lifted his uninjured hand and placed it on top of Merlin's head, gently stroking down to the nape of his neck and letting it rest there.
“You tried,” he said, with a soft smile. “That's more than most would have done. Thank you.”
Merlin looked up at Arthur from red-rimmed eyes. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Arthur. I'll do better. I promise. I'll keep trying. I won't ever give up on you!”
His heart beat fast but steady in his chest, and Arthur knew he meant every word of it.
The tracks leading to the old industrial complex were overgrown with weeds, and Merlin kept kicking at them, muttering darkly under his breath as he walked along. School sucked on a good day, but today it had been especially awful. First, there had been the surprise test in French. Then, in gym, Valiant had pushed him to the ground when he stopped him from scoring and called him a fag. Merlin had taken his revenge later during chemistry, magically messing up the other boy's experiment and apparently turning it into sulphuric acid—which had been kind of cool, but backfired spectacularly when they both ended up in detention.
Now Merlin was late to meet Arthur for their night of video games. Playing with Arthur was surprisingly fun because—while he had way better reflexes—he had no clue about video games and also had a noble streak a mile wide which Merlin was all too happy to exploit.
It was already getting dark when he made it to the factory, the sky a colourful display of orange and purple, and Merlin froze when he rolled the gate open to the sight of what looked like hundreds of candles burning all across the vast space, bathing it in golden light and deep shadows. The old dusty sofa was covered by some sort of velvet throw and there were carpets and pillows on the floor that Merlin had never seen before. It was beautiful, if a little corny, but it was obvious that someone had made an effort, and Merlin couldn't help his heart speeding up in his chest.
There was this flicker of hope that he had been trying to squash for way too long—ever since he had started to have dreams that involved Arthur pushing him down on his bed, a moment of panic when he moved in for his throat, and then Merlin moaning in pleasure when all Arthur did was kiss and suck bruises into his skin. It had been quite the epiphany for Merlin and, ever since, this little fantasy had been his shameful, horrible secret.
At fifteen, Merlin was gangly and awkward, with limbs like sticks and too big ears. He knew that Arthur would forever see him as a kid. A friend, yes, but certainly not someone he would consider in a romantic or even sexual way. And now there was this. Merlin told himself that it didn't mean anything, that Arthur had just been tired of the lack of creature comforts his home offered. It certainly wasn't about Merlin.
“Well, hello, and who are you?”
Merlin whipped around at the voice coming from behind him and found a boy launching on the sofa in a lazy sprawl, dressed all in black. Merlin swallowed hard. He had no idea where the boy had come from, but he looked as if he was probably a few years older than Merlin and beautiful in an ethereal way. All pale skin and slender built, with huge, luminous eyes and dark locks falling to his shoulders. The picture was slightly ruined by the haughty expression, though, mouth pulled into a frown as he looked Merlin up and down as if he was an exhibition piece.
“Good Lord,” he finally drawled, letting out an exaggerated sigh. “Arthur really has no taste, does he?”
“What?” Merlin watched the boy warily as he got up and stalked forward, circling Merlin and examining him with scornful eyes.
“I mean, I guess you have the whole nubile thing going for you. But if that's what you want, why pick some unkempt loser? Surely there must be better in this town. I really have to teach Arthur some standards.”
Merlin bristled and shot the boy a deadly glare as he crossed his arms over his chest.
“What are you doing here? And where's Arthur?”
The boy cocked his head. “Arthur's picking up snacks. Personally, I hope for a brunette or a redhead maybe. Something sweet and innocent.”
A leaden feeling settled in Merlin's stomach. “You're a vampire,” he said, and he wasn't really afraid, but suddenly there was a different sort of explanation for the whole display of kitschy romance.
“Clever boy.” The vampire's eyes glowed and there was an intense look in them as he said, “Now why don't you go and sit in the corner until your master comes back?”
Merlin scoffed. “Yeah, sure. If you say so.”
The glowing eyes narrowed. “Sit in the corner. Pet.”
“Why don't you go sit in the corner?”
“Do as I—”
In that moment the gate was pushed back with a bang and Arthur stood there, fangs glinting and two shopping bags seemingly forgotten at his feet. “What the fuck is this? I thought I told you I had plans tonight and for you to piss off, Mordred.”
The other vampire—Mordred—raised his eyebrows. “Is that the way to treat your eternal mate?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I wouldn't know. I'm not in the habit of reading trashy vampire novels like you do.”
“Oh, Artie, don't be that way.” From one blink of an eye to the next, Mordred was draped over Arthur's side like one of the gaudy, new curtains. “I thought Morgause had taught you to share your toys,” he said, licking his lips. “I mean, this one's a bit shabby, but I'm willing to overlook that since I'm feeling rather peckish." He frowned down at the shopping bags. "And apparently you haven't brought anything else.”
Arthur visibly grit his teeth but sent Merlin an apologetic look as he wrapped one strong arm around Mordred's waist.
“I'm sorry, Merlin,” he said. “But I think it would be better if you go. We can play another time, okay?”
“Why send him away?” Mordred leaned forward in Arthur's embrace. “I love to play games. I'll be the cat, and your little boy looks like a perfect fit to play a mouse.”
Arthur ignored him. “Please, Merlin. Just go home. And don't take any detours either. I'll explain later.”
Merlin didn't know what to say. His throat felt constricted and his stomach was twisting itself into knots. He realized that Arthur probably wasn't celibate, but he had always done his best to not think about it, and up until now Arthur had never let it get in the way of their friendship. Up until now he had never chosen someone else over Merlin.
He nodded silently, not trusting his voice. As he walked past Arthur, he ducked his head and didn't look at either of them, hoping that the dim light was hiding the hurt on his face. He didn't want to give Mordred the satisfaction. And he didn't want to know that Arthur had seen and didn't care.
As soon as he thought he was out of hearing range, he started running. He didn't cry. Crying would have been stupid. It was just the wind stinging his eyes. When he reached his house, he felt a little better, as if the run had been cathartic, had burned away the heartbreak and left only anger and determination. Because Merlin was not a little boy that got pushed around by vampires. He was a fucking warlock, and he would show them.
Locked into his room with Alice's scrying bowl sitting on his desk, he took a deep breath and started to chant.
“—don't know why you have to be so difficult, Arthur.”
A blond woman was sitting on Arthur's couch as if it was her throne.
“Then maybe you should think harder.”
“He got himself a sweet little puppy,” Mordred said mockingly, dropping down next to the woman and putting his head against her chest. “But he sent him away. You should have seen his sad little face.”
“Is that so?” The woman arched an eyebrow. “Maybe I should make him your pet, if you're so hung up on him. Is that what you want?”
“Don't you dare touch him,” Arthur spat, his eyes glowing blue.
The woman laughed, but it was an ugly sound. “Or are you waiting for him to grow into those cheekbones?”
“How do you—?“
“Oh, Arthur, you didn't think I wouldn't go and take a look, would you?”
Arthur growled. “Stay away from him!”
“Really?” The woman sighed. “I'll give you that he has potential but there are other boys out there who are ripe for the taking.”
“Why would anyone prefer humans over their own kin?” Mordred muttered, wrinkling his nose.
“What are you even talking about?” Arthur asked disgusted. “He's a kid. And I'm not a bloody pervert.”
“No,” the woman snapped, standing up and stalking towards Arthur. “You're a vampire. Maybe you should remember that.”
Arthur let out a bitter laugh. “As if I could ever forget that. But maybe you should remember something as well. You might have made me what I am, but that doesn't mean you get a say in what I do with it. I don't have to play your sick games.”
“You might think that, Arthur.” The woman stroked a hand down Arthur's cheek, her long red fingernails looking like talons. “But you'll always be mine.”
She leaned closer, about to kiss Arthur—
Merlin only realized what he had done when the scrying bowl banged against the wall, water spraying all over his floor. He was panting a little, feeling sick to the stomach, and his eyes were burning. He was stupid. So, so stupid. He should have know that he was just a distraction to Arthur. An amusement to pass the time, but never an equal.
He lay down on his bed, pulled the blanket over himself and buried his head under the pillow. Even if his sheet got a little wet, it didn't count as crying.
It was a few hours later when Merlin blinked his eyes open and realized he had fallen asleep, not really sure what had woken him. Sitting up, he felt a cool breeze coming from the window, and when he looked over, he saw a shadow lurking outside. Throwing off his blanket, Merlin scrambled out of bed and whipped back the curtains.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, glaring at Arthur. “Playing Edward? I think you might have the wrong window for that.”
“Yeah?” Merlin gave him a mulish look, crossing his arms over his thin T-shirt. “For what?”
“For cancelling our plans. For Mordred upsetting you. It's not what you might think. He's—we share a Sire. That's all.”
“Is that the blonde?”
Arthur narrowed his eyes at him. “How do you know about her?”
Merlin pulled a face. “I might have peeked. A little. With magic. Don't tell Gaius.”
The look Arthur gave him was exasperated but fond and went right to Merlin's heart. He shook his head and reached out to ruffle Merlin's hair, and Merlin wanted nothing more than to lean into it, while at the same time there was a gnawing feeling of disappointment at the friendly, almost brotherly nature of the caress.
“I'll keep my mouth shut, this time,” Arthur said. “But no more scrying. And don't you dare go and sneak after them. They'll leave the day after tomorrow and I want you to promise me you'll stay away until then.”
“What, don't want me to interrupt your kinky sex parties?”
Arthur choked on an unnecessary breath. “That... really isn't what this is about. Jesus, Merlin. Where do you get these ideas? I just don't want you to get hurt!”
Merlin made another grimace but nodded reluctantly. “Yeah, yeah, fine. I'll be a good boy. Go straight home after school, eat all my vegetables.”
Arthur flicked his ear so quickly, Merlin didn't even see him move. “Don't be stupid, you hear me? They can be dangerous. And I care too much about you to risk anything happening to you. Especially because of me.”
Merlin swallowed at the serious look on Arthur's face, heart pumping blood at a speed that made him dizzy. “Okay,” he whispered.
“Good.” Arthur silently studied him for a moment. “And stop watching those awful vampire flicks. Twilight, Merlin, really? That's an insult to my people.”
Merlin huffed and rolled his eyes. “That awful new décor at your place is an insult to your people.”
Arthur gave him an amused look. “I'll make sure to tell Mordred you said that. See you Saturday?”
“Sure. I'll—I'll be there.”
Arthur smiled and then winked at him before he dropped down to the lawn, vanishing in the shadows a moment later.
Merlin sunk down to the floor and buried his face in his hands with a groan. “I'm so fucked,” he muttered.
Nope, his asshole of a brain supplied. You're really not. Which is precisely the problem.
Arthur's relationship with the sun was complicated. Half of him longed for it and wished nothing more than to feel the warmth of its rays on his skin, soaking through to his very bones—he could still remember what that felt like. The other half of him hated the sun with a vengeance and was angry, feeling betrayed and rejected that he was considered so much of an abomination that something as simple as the light of day would destroy him.
In a way, he had come to like the darkness. It was his refuge, a soothing balm on his soul, welcoming and safe. But the shadows... the shadows were his prison where he had to wait for the night to come and release him.
Tonight, he barely waited for the last glow to vanish behind the treetops before he slipped out the door. He took the path through the small grove separating the old industrial complex from the town, where dusk had settled deeper already, and by the time he emerged it was almost completely dark. Only a faint glimmer to the west remained from his adversary.
This far out from the city centre, the streets lay empty in the summer night and the silence was only disrupted by the crickets and the low murmur of voices from people going about their evening business. As he reached the house, Arthur knew right away that Merlin wasn't in. There was only a single heartbeat, slow with the slight irregularity that came with old age.
“Arthur.” Gaius' hoarse voice came from the porch. “Is that you? If you're looking for Merlin, you're out of luck.”
“Good evening, sir.” Arthur stepped into the beam of light coming from the lantern on the porch, looking up at the old man with his hands casually buried in the pockets of his jeans. He was just being polite, not trying to look harmless because Merlin had told him that his lurking around in the shadows made him seem creepy. “How are you?”
“Oh, same old, same old.” Gaius waved his hand. “Been some exciting few months, but we'll have enough peace and quiet once the boy's off to college. Can't believe he's already graduated.”
“He's grown up a lot,” Arthur acknowledged with a nod. It had taken him the longest time to realise, but over the past few months it really had sunken in. That Merlin was no longer a kid. At eighteen, he was almost an adult. “Where is he, if you don't mind me asking?”
“Ha.” Gaius' eyes sparkled with glee. “Boy's on a date, if you can imagine.”
Arthur blinked. If it had not been impossible, he would have sworn his heart had just taken a beat. “R-Really?” he asked, taken aback. “I didn't know he—“
“Well, it was about time, I'd say. But I guess, it's a little bit more difficult for him. Never easy to be different.”
“No,” Arthur said softly. “It's not.”
Gaius cocked his head and regarded him with a contemplative expression. “That reminds me. Leon's been asking about you. Said he hadn't seen you in a while.”
Arthur made his way up the porch steps, settling down in the lawn chair next to Gaius with a sigh. “It's... complicated.”
Gaius raised one expressive eyebrow. “My dear boy, it does no one any good if you keep yourself from being happy.”
It gave Arthur a strange feeling to be called that. Gaius' acceptance of him still came as a surprise. “It's not that easy,” he muttered.
“Yeah?” Gaius gave him a challenging look. “Why not?”
It was about two hours of—mostly casual but surprisingly satisfying—conversation later that Gaius got up and patted Arthur on the shoulder. “I'm afraid I'm not as young anymore, and neither do I have supernatural abilities. So I need my sleep. And I guess, with you here, I don't have to wait up for him, do I?”
He shot Arthur a wicked smile and Arthur shook his head with a snort. “Sure,” he said. “Let the vampire play the chaperon.”
Gaius chuckled. “You might be surprised how effective that's going to be.”
It took another forty-five minutes until Arthur heard the approach of a car. And, when he did, he suddenly felt incredibly silly and out of place, sitting on Merlin's porch, obviously waiting for him to come home. He had no idea what he had been thinking. Well, nothing, apparently, since he had just let Gaius put him in this weird position.
The car stopped in front of the house, and Arthur could hear two heartbeats now. One—unmistakably Merlin's—was elevated, like he was anxious.
“So,” Merlin said. “I... uh... had a good time, tonight.”
“Well, baby,” a smarmy voice replied, raising the hairs on Arthur's neck. “I could show you an even better time if you'd let me.”
Arthur jumped up from his seat and down from the porch before he even knew what he was doing. He knew his eyes were glowing, and he tried his best to keep his fangs from dropping.
“What the fuck—Merlin, no, don't get out of the car!”
But Merlin was already opening the passenger door, almost falling in his haste to get out. “Arthur? What—Did something happen?”
“Merlin, stay away from him!” A guy with hair falling to his shoulders and honest-to-god stubble—seriously how old was that wanker?—was scrambling out of the car and stepping up behind Merlin, trying to hold him back. His eyes, which were fixed on Arthur, were glowing golden.
“What?" Merlin frowned. "Why? That's Arthur. He's a friend of mine.”
“He's not who you think he is.” The guy shifted on his feet, his whole body tense, and while his eyes had turned back to their murky brown colour, they never wavered from Arthur. “Okay, so this might sound crazy, but... he's a vampire.”
“Uhm... yeah, I know. But how do you know that?” Merlin eyed him suspiciously now. “Gwaine?”
“Yes, Cain,” Arthur said sarcastically. “How do you know?”
“Sorry, my bad.”
“Oh my god,” Merlin muttered under his breath. “This is not happening.”
“Exactly.” Arthur took a menacing step forward, glaring Gwaine down. “Whatever you think you're doing here,” he said, voice dangerous and low. “You better forget about it and get the hell out of here!”
Gwaine glared at him, and a low growl erupted from his chest. “What, because you have a claim on him? These things can be broken quite easily by a stake through your heart!”
“What the fuck, Gwaine?” Merlin whipped around with his mouth hanging open and quickly took a step between them. Or rather, in front of Arthur—the idiot.
Arthur couldn't help it; he felt his teeth prick at his lower lip, and knew his eyes had just turned a bright, icy blue. Merlin might not be his, but he certainly wasn't Gwaine's either, so who the hell did this guy think he was to have a right to get territorial?
“So tell me, Gwaine,” Arthur slowly moved forward until his shoulder brushed against Merlin. Maybe it wasn't overly subtle, but then he didn't think Gwaine would have recognized subtle if it bit him in the ass. “Were you planning on telling Merlin that you're a werewolf? Or do you think you're so superior that you get to make his choices for him?”
“Coming from a vampire, that's hilarious,” Gwaine spat. “What have you done to Merlin?”
Merlin let out a frustrated groan. “Jesus, Gwaine, what are you even talking about?”
“Merlin. You've got to believe me, he has you under his thrall. He's probably using you as a—“
That was the point where Arthur saw red. His fangs were out and he was ready to rip that jerk apart, when he felt a hand wrap around his own, squeezing gently, and he heard Merlin's voice, quiet, as if it was coming from far away.
“Arthur would never do that. He saved my life a long time ago, and there is no one in this world that I trust more.”
“I'm sorry, but I think you should go now. We can talk at school tomorrow.”
Gwaine looked as if he wanted to argue, but knew he had been defeated. Arthur tried his best not to look too smug about it.
As soon as the tail lights of Gwaine's car had vanished, Merlin slapped his hand against Arthur's chest. “Oh my god, put that smirk away! You should feel bad for the way you totally cock-blocked me there.”
Arthur shot him a disbelieving look. “He’s a werewolf, Merlin!”
“Yeah, I know.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “I'm not stupid, you know. I was waiting for him to tell me on his own terms. It's not like I came out to him as a warlock, yet. I understand that you might want to ease someone into that a little.”
“So you like him.” Arthur knew he could have made more of an effort to sound supportive about that, if the pained look Merlin gave him was any indication.
“Well, yeah,” he said, not meeting Arthur's eyes. “But it's not like—it was only our second date.”
“Second—you didn't tell me.”
“And I wonder why, seeing how awesome tonight went.”
The realization hit Arthur like a truck. “That's—I'm sorry. I shouldn't have—“
“No, no. You're right. Your— It's none of my business. I'm sorry I overstepped.”
Maybe it was a cowardly thing to do, to just vanish on Merlin, but Arthur very much didn't want to be there and have that conversation any longer. He didn't even know what was going on, why he would feel that way. He should be happy for Merlin, but all he could feel was the dark twist of hurt and jealousy. And he had only himself to blame. He had let Merlin—or their friendship, really—become the centre of his life. He had become dependant on a boy who would soon go out into the world, spread his wings and leave his childhood companion behind.
When he came home—and, fuck, this wasn't even a home, it was a freaking dump barely disguised to look habitable—he swung himself up to the rafters and hooked his feet over an iron bar. Dangling head first from the ceiling, he was immediately assaulted by the memory of Merlin from a few weeks ago, looking up at him with an amused expression and asking if Arthur was 'brooding again'.
Which he had not been. He had been exercising.
The truth was that Arthur could think better this way. Something about seeing the world from a different perspective cleared his mind, and made him see what should have been obvious, but wasn't before. And just the same, Arthur realized what he had to do.
It was stifling hot in the city, and Merlin rubbed his sweating palms against his jeans-clad legs, staring blindly at the door in front of him with its flaking blue paint, trying to gather the courage to knock. His shirt was sticking to his back uncomfortably, and he didn't remember a single sentence of his carefully crafted speech; all he could hear was the rush of blood in his ears, wondering if Arthur could hear it too.
The evening sun was just turning golden around the edge of the shadows, but the entrance to the basement flat was conveniently facing north, hidden away at the end of a flight of stairs. It was perfect for a vampire, or at least a vampire who lacked the pretentiousness of his people, and Merlin felt his face split into a painful smile as he took in the wrought iron rail and the window box full of bright red geraniums sitting on the sill in front of a small window. It was so much like Arthur to literally plant a humongous 'fuck you' right on his door step.
Sucking in a deep breath, Merlin raised his hand and knocked sharply. His chest felt too tight, and his heart was hammering. For the past three years, he had been awaiting this very moment, planning and preparing and working hard on becoming the kind of person Arthur might look at with different eyes, and so the anticipation of seeing him again, the knowledge that he was so close, was both frightening and exhilarating.
Only the door didn't open. Didn't reveal an Arthur who smiled or frowned or glared—or any of the hundreds of other reactions Merlin's mind had come up with during his long journey. It was depressingly anticlimactic. Merlin hesitated for a moment—aware of the intrusion of privacy—but then he firmly put his palm against the door and allowed a trickle of magic to float out like an echo, only to sag a little when he found the flat empty. He let his hand drop by his side, and watched as the magic spooled in his empty palm like a golden thread, only to unravel again and start drifting up the stairs with an impatient tug.
Merlin didn't quite know what it meant—his magic could be capricious sometimes—but he followed the softly glowing twine through the streets of a foreign city into the slowly descending darkness. Evening sun gave way to neon lights as summer heat mellowed down to a balmy, star-studded night. People were gathered outside, some in front of pubs with their pints in hand, others strolling along the river to places unknown, voices and laughter blending with the sounds of the city.
At first, Merlin hardly registered the music drifting faintly through the air. Not until it turned more and more pervasive and he realized he was leaning into it as he would with a lover’s caress. It almost seemed to melt with his magic, pulling him down some smaller side streets to a corner where people were lining up at the entrance to a club. Apparently this was the source of the haunting melody, deeply sad and yet with an underlying note of hope that seemed to fill Merlin up until he was drowning in it. There was a woman's voice, rich and soothing, like smoke and chocolate, but it was the saxophone that pierced Merlin through with its painful longing in every note and riff.
He drifted past the waiting crowd, right up to the door, where he was stopped quite abruptly by an arm in front of his chest. A broad black guy with a shorn head and strangely golden eyes was looking at him with raised eyebrows.
“Can't just walk in there, lad.”
With a sudden burst, Merlin's magic rushed up, and Merlin sucked in a shocked breath when the bouncer, who was probably twice his size, was pushed back. But the man just raised his eyebrows.
“You must be Merlin,” he said with a small, satisfied smile. “Go on in, then.”
Merlin had no idea what had just happened, how the guy knew his name, but he didn't question his fortune, not when the need to get closer to the music was starting to become painful.
Inside the club was filled with swaying bodies and the taste of other. Looking around, Merlin realized that about half of the people most certainly were not fully human, even if it was hard to say what kind of creature exactly they might be. But all of them—whether they were human or magical or something in between—were focussed towards the stage where the spotlight was on a woman in a flowing red dress, with a head full of black curls and skin like milky coffee, who was singing with a voice that seemed to reach right into your soul.
But before Merlin could let himself really fall into it, the saxophone picked up the tune and the cone of light moved to a gorgeous blond man with glowing blue eyes, and for a second Merlin forgot how to breathe. Because right there on the stage was Arthur, unlike Merlin had ever seen him before. He had not even known that Arthur could play, and certainly not like this—which maybe just showed how little he had known of Arthur, of the person he had been before they had met. But what was maybe even more amazing was how confidently and proudly he took his place in the spotlight. He looked unreal, dangerous and vulnerable at the same time, and somehow comfortable in his own skin, with exactly who and what he was. And then his eyes—had they always been this blue?—found Merlin's right there at the back of the crowd and suddenly the heart-wrenching music made a beautiful sense. Finally, Merlin understood.
“I think I loved you from the moment I first saw you,” Merlin whispered when Arthur pressed him against the brick wall out back, his arms caging him in, keeping him safe.
“You were a kid,” Arthur said, his voice wistful and fond and full of wonder.
Merlin smiled. “I'm not a kid anymore.”
Arthur hands tightened against his hips, and he closed his eyes, taking a deep and unnecessary breath. “I'm still a lot older,” he said softly, leaning in, as if he couldn't help it, brushing his nose against the soft skin of Merlin's jugular.
“Is that why you left?”
“I wasn't what you needed, Merlin. Not what you deserved. If I was a better man, I would have left a lot sooner.”
Merlin shook his head. “You're the best that ever happened to me, Arthur. How can you not know that?”
Arthur drew back with what came close to a whine. “You have your whole life in front of you,” he said, but the longing in his eyes told a different truth.
“So do you.” Merlin didn't allow him to cede any personal space. “You're not dead inside. No one who is could play like this. No one who is would have done for me what you have done.”
“You deserve so much more than I can ever offer you, Merlin. Someone to share your life, build a family, stand in the sun with you.”
“Then we'll work on it.” Merlin pressed closer. “I made you a promise, remember? I'm not ready to give up.” Sneaking a hand around Arthur's neck, Merlin pulled him down, capturing that beautiful, dangerous mouth. “And even if I should fail, it won’t change anything.” He kissed Arthur again. “Then I'll make a home with you right here. In the shadows.”