Merlin is running. He's running and laughing, eight years old and heart close to bursting with joy, with the ease of running. He never wants to stop. Wants to go right for the horizon and find whatever adventures lie waiting for him beyond the fields that stretch out in the summer sun. It's the best feeling in the world to just run and run and run, his long legs working under him in a smooth rhythm while his heart is pumping in his chest like a perfect drum. Thump thump thump thump. He can see the row of bushes that mark the end of their property ahead, but he's not going to stop there. He can run even farther. If he just keeps going, Merlin is almost sure he can take off and fly, can soar up into the wide endless blue of the sky like the bird he's named after. Laughter bubbles up inside of him as he runs with the wind in his hair and the sun in his face and he's free, so free, and nothing is going to stop him—
Merlin woke up with a start, heart beating fast in his chest as if he had really been running, the feeling of elation still lingering as the dream receded. He closed his eyes and tried to hold on, tried to go back to that carefree feeling of being a child when everything seemed possible and the sky was the limit. But, as dreams are wont to do, the memories ran away from him like water from cupped hands. His right leg was aching. It often did in the mornings, and even though Merlin knew that was technically impossible, there was no use lingering over it. Since he had an early class to attend, he pushed himself up with a sigh, taking a moment to collect himself as he stared out at the orange glow of the sun coming up behind the treetops.
Merlin’s morning routine was a repetition of steps that had become so much a part of him that he could almost do them in his sleep. He unplugged his prosthesis, took the socks and trousers from the bedside cabinet and put them on the artificial limb. Then he grabbed his crutches and hobbled to the bathroom to take a shower. He washed himself left-handed while bracing himself against the tiles with his right, an awkward posture he’d long adapted to.
When he had dried himself, Merlin put on the liner and the leg and dressed himself fully before he stepped into his little kitchenette to prepare some tea. The leg would stay on for the whole day because Merlin didn't like crutching around much, even if he was staying in his room.
It was going on ten years since Merlin had lost his leg, and over the time there had been many changes. Merlin had grown out of his prosthesis like he had grown out of his winter coats and with each new leg came new materials and different technology. These days there was even a microprocessor in Merlin's knee joint that tried to fulfil the tasks where his brain and nerves no longer reached, where flesh gave way to silicon and carbon fibre. The improvements had been helpful, had made his life easier, even if it wasn't the same as having two functioning legs—but that was something Merlin could hardly remember outside of his dreams. There were some things you couldn't change, and for Merlin that meant living his life one leg short of being whole. Everyone carried some sort of burden. Some dreams just died earlier than others, but that didn't mean you stopped, and it didn't mean you gave up.
Arthur was running late. Ha. Running late. As if that was even possible. He could not even walk properly because of the sharp pain piercing his knee whenever he put too much weight on it. It served as a constant reminder of what he had lost: his career, his future, his whole fucking life.
Ever since Arthur had watched his first game from the top box when he was a little boy, all he had wanted was to play football. Back then, no one had paid the blond, chubby-cheeked son of Uther Pendragon much attention as long as he wasn’t caught trying to sneak into the locker room to see his idols. But even then he had followed the game with keen eyes, and there had probably been no other eight-year-old who knew more about the game than he did.
But Arthur had wanted more. He had wanted to be part of it, to stand on the pitch himself and score the winning goal. It was a dream that a lot of little boys dreamed, but not everyone had Arthur's determination or his potential and, in the end, his father gave in.
By the age of seventeen Arthur had grown used to people clapping him on the shoulder, telling him that he was the born central midfielder. That he would go all the way to the top. When he was called into the U-18 national team to play for England, Arthur felt like he owned the world, and he knew—with absolute clarity in his heart—that this was what he was meant to do. This was his destiny and it was only just beginning.
Instead it had all come to an ugly, painful end. All it had taken was one stupid, bloody useless foul and it had been over. With the ground wet from the rain and that bull of a Mercian defender crashing into him at full speed, Arthur went flying and slipped through the mud, his knee twisting so badly that he ripped every single ligament in it. The pain was excruciating, leaving him lying on the ground breathless and gritting his teeth so hard his jaw cramped. He felt like throwing up, and for the first time since he had been that little boy, Arthur succumbed to tears. It wasn't about the pain, it was the sickening knowledge that right there, on that muddy pitch, his dream had just died.
Still, Arthur was determined to try. But as soon as he came home from the hospital, his father had called him into his office, looked at him with cool detachment and bluntly said, ''It's time to grow up, Arthur.''
"What does that mean? I'm not—"
His father silenced him with a hand. ''You've had your fun. But Camelot FC isn't a charity foundation. No club would be crazy enough to take the risk of signing a crippled, once-upon-a-time-promising newcomer. I have to keep the financial interests of the club in mind. I can't make exceptions to indulge the whims of my son.''
Arthur had been barely able to keep himself upright on his crutches, but this was the moment he truly felt the ground giving way beneath his feet.
''I pulled some strings,'' his father continued, completely missing the devastating effect his words were having on his son. ''There's a place at St. John's College waiting for you. Once you have your business degree, I'm sure there will be a position in management opening up.''
Arthur had stared at his father uncomprehendingly. ''Business degree?''
''Of course. You're a Pendragon. I always expected you to follow in my footsteps once you got over your silly ideas about running around after a ball on the pitch instead.''
''It's not—It's all I ever wanted! And I am good at it!''
Uther huffed impatiently. ''I'm not denying that you possessed some talent, but that's neither here nor there. Your injury has put an end to this nonsense, and now I'm putting an end to the discussion.''
With that, his father had turned back to the papers on his desk, effectively dismissing Arthur, who limped back to his room in a daze of hurt and shock.
After that, Arthur spent his days lying on his bed, alternately staring at the ceiling and watching the footage of his life ending covered in mud on the pitch over and over and over again. There was something almost beautiful in witnessing his own destruction. But after two weeks of that his father lost his patience and demanded that Arthur snap out of it. The fight that followed was epic and ended with Arthur moving out. He was eighteen now, and having lost the one thing that had made up his whole life so far left him aimless and depressed. All he wanted was to play football, but that was no longer an option. So here he was, hobbling down the corridor to his first lecture in Sports Medicine, two weeks after the start of term, cursing his knee as he tried to speed up.
He was quite certain that being late in more than one regard wasn't a good way to endear himself to the professor, but he had taken a wrong turn and it wasn't as if he could rush anywhere these days. In the end, he managed to be only a few minutes late. The lecture was just starting when he limped in, leaning on his crutch a little exaggeratedly. Thankfully, the professor just gave him a curt nod when he apologised, and Arthur made his way to the back with some relief.
That was when his eyes caught on a cute guy with dark hair and pale skin, who was sitting in the last row, watching Arthur with a curious frown. There was a strange tingling sensation in Arthur's stomach and after a moment of hesitation he stalked over, trying to put on a friendly smile.
''Hi. Is this seat taken?''
That earned him an amused look from the boy. ''No. Make yourself at home. I don't think there will be anyone else daring to come late to Professor Monmouth's class. You can be glad he didn't rip you a new one.''
Arthur rolled his eyes. ''I couldn't find the lecture hall at first,” he whispered as he slid into the seat. “And I can't exactly run to catch up, even if I'm late.''
''Yeah. What's up with the crutch? Twisted your foot?''
''Ripped all the ligaments in my left knee.''
The boy raised his eyebrows. ''Ouch.''
The professor, who had started to write on the blackboard while laying out their topic for the day, shot them a glare over his shoulder and the boy quickly ducked his head, sparing Arthur from answering any more questions about his injury. He hated how people loved to revel in all the dramatic details while giving him sympathetic looks, only to end up asking the ever same question: When will you return to the pitch?
Arthur loathed their easily made assumption that all would be well in the end, that it was just some bad luck but not a catastrophe, surely. Resented how they dangled his loss in front of him when all he wanted was to forget—even though that was a futile endeavour—and it gave him the overwhelming urge to punch people in the face. This had made his therapist—whom he visited exactly twice—diagnose him with 'anger issues'. Obviously, the therapist had been incredibly perceptive, but at least Arthur had refrained from punching him in the face.
But the cute boy, thankfully, said nothing of that sort. When the professor’s attention had moved on, he just smiled and held out his hand under the table.
''I'm Merlin, by the way.''
Merlin's handshake was warm and just firm enough without becoming a contest in manliness. Arthur also couldn't help but notice his long, elegant fingers.
''I haven't seen you in this class before,'' Merlin said, keeping his voice low, and Arthur let go of his hand, feeling embarrassed and trying to fight off a blush when he realised he might have held on a little too long. ''Are you sure you're in the right place?''
Arthur pulled a face. Merlin had no idea how often he had asked himself that in the past few days. It had been Arthur's uncle Tristan who had brought up Sports Medicine, and in that moment it had seemed as good an option as any. At least it was something Arthur could relate to that was not just about making money out of athletes. But the loss of his future was still to raw to do anything more than go with the flow.
When Merlin gave him a curious look, Arthur let out a small, slightly self-deprecating chuckle. ''Yeah, I just started.''
''Two weeks into the semester?'' Merlin asked with a frown. ''I didn't even know that was possible.''
It wasn’t, usually. The official application deadline had long run out, but with Tristan's connections that could be circumvented. And so, a few days after Arthur had shown up on his uncle's doorstep, he had a place at Tintagel University. But that wasn't something Arthur felt comfortable sharing. He had had enough experiences with people dismissing him because they thought he was riding on his father's coattails, and it wasn't as if Arthur didn't have the grades to earn the spot.
''Yeah, I.. uh... had to get another surgery,'' Arthur finally explained, trying to remain vague.
''Oh. That sucks.''
Arthur bit the inside of his lip, reminding himself that Merlin had no idea what Arthur's injury truly meant. Staring down at his hands, he said curtly, ''Yes. It sucks balls.''
From the corner of his eye, he saw Merlin's smile falter and immediately wanted to kick himself. He really didn't want to alienate the first person he got to know here, especially since Merlin seemed nice—not to mention cute enough to cause butterflies inside Arthur's belly.
''Listen,'' he started hesitantly. ''I have probably missed quite a lot in the last weeks. Would you maybe be willing to give me a bit of a leg up with the stuff you've been through so far?''
To Arthur's confusion, that caused Merlin to cough violently into his fist before he turned around, looking at Arthur with wide eyes. ''You want me to give you a leg up?'' he asked, voice filled with awe and disbelief.
Arthur stiffened. ''Well, obviously you don't have to if it's too much of a bother.''
Arthur was even more confused when, instead of pointing out that, yes, it actually was a bother, Merlin just grinned at him broadly. ''Oh, no no,'' he assured Arthur quickly. ''I'll be happy to help. If you want, we can study together? Mind you, I can't promise you I got everything. Professor Monmouth has a very... uh... hypnotic voice sometimes.''
''Makes you want to fall asleep instantly.''
Arthur felt his own lips spread into an answering smile. There was a glint in Merlin's eyes that made Arthur wonder whether he was trying to flirt with him, which led to the realisation that Arthur wouldn't be opposed to it if he was.
Arthur had always been careful about his flings and hook-ups. Despite all the talk and good intentions, in the world of football, you still kept any unusual urges closely guarded if you wanted to make it to the top. In Arthur’s case that meant only his two very best mates knew about his bisexuality. And since Arthur had never met a boy who seemed worth the risk of exposure, he mostly went for girls. They were safe, and he liked them well enough. But that didn't mean that Arthur wasn't intrigued by the lean frame and solid strength of a man, by broad shoulders and a firm arse. It didn't mean that he didn't fantasize about cocks. Merlin had lovely hands and cheekbones and very blue eyes, and if he should be interested... Well, there was no need to be careful anymore.
So Arthur lifted his eyebrows a little, as if he was posing a question, and said, ''A study date sounds like a great idea.'' He hesitated for just another second, but then added with a smirk, ''Although, I'm not sure whether I'll be able to concentrate on the subject in your company.''
Merlin at first looked completely dumbstruck. Then he ducked his head, a faint blush colouring his cheeks. But the look he shot Arthur from under his lashes was cheeky and almost a little fond. ''Wow, that was really bad,'' he said with an exaggerated wince. ''I think it might be in the running for the cheesiest line of the year.''
Arthur huffed out a laugh, but shrugged, giving Merlin an unapologetic look. ''I first thought about quoting poetry.'' He nodded at a book, lying on the desk in front of Merlin. ''So I think you got off lightly.''
''Yes, thank you for sparing me that. I suspect that would have been truly tragic.''
Arthur shot Merlin a mockingly outraged look. ''I'll have you know that I can be quite poetic!'' Putting a hand to his chest, he declaimed in a whisper, ''Roses are red, violets are blue, but they don't compare—''
Merlin snorted and put his hands over his ears. ''Stop! Stop! Please! I give in... whatever you want, but please stop!''
Arthur raised his eyebrows with a suggestive smirk. ''Whatever I want? Be careful what you promise, Merlin.''
''I meant in regard to me helping you with Anatom—the subject!''
Merlin's blush was truly epic now and Arthur threw his head back and laughed, which earned him a glare from the professor and some curious looks from their fellow students, but Arthur couldn't make himself care. ''Okay,'' he said, lowering his voice again and sending Merlin his most charming smile. ''How about tomorrow evening then? I have a few appointments today, but tomorrow I should be free.''
Merlin's own smile was adorable in his mixture of cheek and shyness. ''Tomorrow sounds good.'' He bit his lip, looking a little uncertain. ''Could you come to mine, though? It's a little easier for me that way.''
Arthur blinked. He had no idea what Merlin meant by that, but he wouldn't say no to setting their study session up somewhere a little more private than the library. Who knew, there might even be snogging involved that way.
Having agreed on that, they finally turned their attention back to the professor, only occasionally shooting each other grins or—in Arthur's case—giving Merlin disbelieving looks, mimicking nodding off and drooling on the desk. It made Merlin roll his eyes, but he was unable to suppress a chuckle, and so Arthur would grin at him unrepentantly, and Merlin would duck his head again, his ears turning a bright red. Arthur found himself a little mesmerized by it all.
After class, Arthur contemplated whether it would be too forward to ask Merlin if he wanted to grab a coffee somewhere, turning to him to shoot him a smile, only to have it drop off his face.
Merlin had gotten up and was packing his stuff away into the messenger bag sitting on the table, but Arthur's eyes were drawn further down, to where Merlin was wearing baggy cargo shorts which left his legs bare from the knee down. Only there wasn't a leg. Well, there was. But only one. Sticking out of the right leg of Merlin's trousers was... some vaguely calf-shaped metal form with bolts, leading to a rod that vanished into a sock and trainer.
''So,'' Merlin said, turning to Arthur with a bright smile. ''I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then...'' He trailed off when he saw Arthur's aghast look, and his smile slowly extinguished.
Arthur tore his eyes away from Merlin's prosthesis—a prosthesis, because Merlin had just one leg. He tried hard not to look at it again, tried not to stare, because how rude and awful was that?
''What's the matter?'' Merlin asked, and there was a hint of an underlying wariness in his voice.
''Nothing,'' Arthur replied quickly. ''Just, you know... uh... thinking about my next lesson.''
''Oh. Okay. So... tomorrow night? I live on campus, in Dragon House, 1c. Unless... You still want to meet, right?''
''Yes!'' Arthur nodded vehemently. ''Yes, of course I do.''
''Okay... Around seven? That leaves us some time to go over what we've done so far.''
''I'll be there.''
Merlin gave him another small smile, shifting uncertainly on his feet... foot... prosthesis. Arthur quickly looked away, fiddling with his notes. There was a cough, and then Merlin said quietly and maybe just a little defeated, ''Okay. See you then.''
Arthur watched him walk away from the corner of his eyes, staring after all, now that Merlin couldn't see it, and feeling like a complete git because of it. His head was filled with questions he would be much too embarrassed to ever ask: What had happened to Merlin? Had he been born that way? How did a guy as young as Merlin lose a leg? Did it hurt?
Merlin's gait was a little stiff, but if he had worn long trousers, Arthur might not have noticed there was anything amiss. He didn't understand why Merlin would expose himself like that—not that he should have to hide it, but Arthur had always been taught to not let anyone see his weaknesses. After all, in the Pendragon household, there was no middle ground between perfection and failure.
Merlin imagined he could feel the prickle of Arthur's stare at the back of his neck. He really should have known better. He had been so taken by the blond boy and his smile, which became more and more open while they were talking, until it was the most brilliant thing in the room. Merlin had been so enthralled that he had disregarded the fact that Arthur had arrived when the rest of the students, including Merlin, had already found their seats and that the desk would have hidden Merlin's prosthesis.
It explained the pun with the leg, which hadn't been a pun at all. And it explained the change in Arthur's attitude, as soon as he caught on to the fact that Merlin was missing one.
As an amputee, there were a lot of things Merlin had to get used to, and one of the first had been the stares. Sometimes they came accompanied by whispers, dripping with pity and laced with just a hint of excited horror: ''Have you seen? That poor boy!'' And Merlin's favourite: “What a shame!” —because obviously Merlin's life had become barely worth living since he didn't have ten toes to wriggle.
Another thing, one that was maybe even harder to bear, was the dismissal. When Merlin was ten, the boys his age had discounted him as ''that kid with the leg''. It was obvious to them that Merlin couldn't do what they could do, and so they never asked him to come over and play with them. Of course that had only made Merlin more determined. Under the open-mouthed stares of the village boys, he had climbed the large oak tree in the school yard, all the way up to the top, grim resolve burning in his guts when he heard the shouts of ''Wow, look at leg boy!” and ''Wicked!''
Even when he fell and broke his arm in the end, Merlin had counted it as a success. If anything, the fact that he had just gritted his teeth and hardly cried at all impressed the other boys even more. His mum hadn't been thrilled, but there had been a fierce look in her eyes when she hugged him after a thorough dressing down, and Merlin knew that she understood.
From that day on, Merlin was known as ''the wicked kid with the leg'', and Will, the worst lout of them all, decided that Merlin was cool enough to be his friend. This had the rather disconcerting effect that Will started to beat up anyone who dared to mock Merlin or look at him weird—both things Will had done himself every other day up till then. But in a way it was strangely endearing and probably Will's way to apologise.
The truth remained, though, that, however much Merlin pushed himself, however much he tried to be just Merlin, an ordinary young man with the same dreams and hopes and fears as everyone else, people always saw his leg first.
Merlin had had exactly one relationship so far—if one could call it that—which had been when he was sixteen. Gwen, a girl from his class, had asked him out, and since she was pretty and sweet and kind, Merlin had been all too happy to say yes. Only Gwen didn't really want to kiss him and mostly just behaved like a slightly awkward friend. So when Merlin had asked her why she had wanted to go out with him, she admitted that she felt sorry for him and—feeling pressured by a lot of boys their age—had thought Merlin would be safe.
They had parted more or less amicably, and soon after, Merlin realised that he found a man's firm backside much more alluring than the soft curves of a woman. But that didn't help much either. It was hard not to get frustrated when someone smiled at him on the streets or the library or the café—shyly or maybe even flirtatiously—only to quickly look away in embarrassment when they saw his prosthesis, as if missing a leg meant you were missing your heart or your cock for that matter. Merlin had friends, lots of them actually. But when it came to dating, it seemed people expected perfection, picking you up like a piece of fruit in the supermarket, only to discard you when they found some sort of blemish.
Merlin sighed, thinking that comparing himself to apples or tomatoes didn't bode well for his sanity. It was just annoying that everyone paid so much more attention to what was missing instead of what was there. And while, yes, Merlin had gotten used to it, today it had hurt worse than ever. Because for a moment Merlin had thought this stupidly gorgeous boy might like him. He had flirted with Merlin, right? Merlin had not imagined that. Arthur had been flirting with him right up until he saw his fucking prosthesis. Then he suddenly froze up like a popsicle and couldn't meet Merlin's eyes anymore. Merlin had no idea why it was always the gorgeous ones that were such utter dickheads.
The next day at seven o'clock sharp, Arthur was standing in front of Merlin's door, shuffling his feet. He had never been so nervous, not even before an important match. On the pitch, Arthur had felt in his element. Some games were better than others, but he had always known he was right where he belonged. Now he felt like a fool, out of place in his own skin and unsure how to act and what to say. Already, he had to struggle to keep up with his classes, and his knee was aching after a long day on his feet and sitting at narrow desks with little legroom. He felt like a failure, and on top of that he knew that he had behaved like a complete arse towards Merlin the day before.
Thinking of how he had asked the other boy whether he could give him a leg up, made Arthur's neck prickle with mortification. It wasn't as if he could have known, but somehow that didn't make it any better. What should he do now? Should he apologise? Would bringing it to Merlin's attention again only make it worse? Yesterday, Merlin had seemed mostly flabbergasted when Arthur had unknowingly shoved his foot in his mouth, but there was no way to know what he had actually been thinking. Arthur just had the strong suspicion it might have been something along the lines of 'Oh my god, I can't believe you're such a giant stupid asshole.'
Taking a deep breath, Arthur knocked on the door with quite some trepidation, which turned into worried confusion when the answer was some faint clattering, followed by a crash and a curse. Slightly uneven footsteps neared the door and a second later it was pulled open by a flushed and ruffled looking Merlin.
''Sorry, uh... you're early,'' he muttered, looking up at Arthur with wide eyes and scrunching up his nose in the most adorable way Arthur had ever seen. Then he opened the door further, revealing that he wasn't wearing a shirt.
Arthur stood frozen to the spot, his mouth suddenly dry. At Camelot, he had seen naked men on a daily basis in the locker rooms and the communal showers. The sight of Merlin therefore really shouldn't do such things to him. But there was something different and much more fragile about Merlin's pale, naked skin, his lean torso and the lanky arms he was wrapping around himself as if he was cold. Arthur noticed his surprisingly broad shoulders and the smattering of black hair on his chest which narrowed down to a thin trail, running into the low hanging waistband of his jeans. Arthur swallowed heavily.
Tearing his eyes away with a blush, he sputtered, ''S-Sorry. I thought I was on time?''
Arthur bit his lip and tried desperately to find somewhere to look. He didn't want to stare at Merlin's leg again, his naked chest didn't seem to be a much better option and he just couldn't make himself meet Merlin's eyes.
Merlin frowned a little and then cocked his head to glance down at Arthur's wristwatch. ''Well, I guess technically you are. It's just that when you say 'around seven' most people come about five or ten minutes after.''
''Ah.'' Arthur nodded as if that made actually sense. ''Well, I was taught that punctuality is a courtesy.''
Merlin chuckled. ''I knew you were a posh bastard.''
Arthur raised his eyebrows, suddenly meeting Merlin's eyes wasn't that difficult anymore. ''Because I wasn't raised in a barn?'' he asked pointedly.
''I doubt many people are raised in barns these days,'' Merlin replied with an amused look and then stepped back. ''Come in, I just need a second.''
He went over to his wardrobe, leaving Arthur to stare at his back and smoothly carved shoulder blades and the way his jeans clung to his arse. Merlin's prosthesis was hidden apart from where the right leg of his trousers rode up slightly around his ankle, but the reminder was enough for Arthur to blush and turn away. He really shouldn't have such lecherous thoughts about Merlin; it felt wrong somehow, as if he was preying on someone vulnerable.
''Sorry about the mess. I was just tidying up a bit.''
''You didn't have to...''
Merlin pulled a shirt over his head and closed the wardrobe, shooting Arthur a small smile before he went over to his desk, where a few books lay on the floor next to a knocked over chair. Arthur realised that this must have been the source of the commotion he had heard and wondered whether Merlin had fallen, whether that happened often, and then rushed forward when the other boy bent down to pick up the mess.
Merlin gave him a puzzled look when Arthur quickly dove to grab the books and handed them to him with a flustered smile.
''Thank you,'' Merlin said raising his eyebrows. He waved his hand towards the chair Arthur had rightened. ''Make yourself comfortable and I’ll get us some tea, all right?''
''Uh, sure. If it's not too much of a bother, I mean. You don't have to.''
Merlin rolled his eyes but laughed. ''It's really not.''
He squinted at Arthur questioningly for a moment, as if he was a riddle Merlin couldn’t quite figure out, and Arthur tried to put on a friendly, unassuming smile. Since this was not an expression he'd normally use, it probably resulted in something more akin to a weird grimace.
''Do you want me to...?'' he started, but then faltered because Merlin's look became even more confused.
''Uh... help, I mean. With the tea.''
''Oh. No. I've got it. You can have a look at my notes, if you want.'' Merlin gestured towards the desk. ''It's that blue folder over there.''
While Merlin made his way over to the small kitchenette, Arthur turned his back towards him, closing his eyes in mortification. Really, what the hell was wrong with him? When had he lost even the most basic skills of human interaction? He felt like a stupid, fake copy of himself and he didn't know how to stop it.
Arthur knew that others often found him to be rude or arrogant, even though that wasn't his intention. He had simply never learned to make nice or mince his words. His father had never been a soft-spoken man and the tone on the football pitch was harsh, even worse were the slurs in the locker room. Arthur had no idea how to talk to someone like Merlin, and the thought of putting his foot in his mouth once more made Arthur so nervous that he kept talking like a pompous arse or a Victorian maiden.
Shaking his head, he reached for the folder Merlin had pointed out, but then was distracted by a series of framed pictures hanging on the wall above the desk. Most of them showed Merlin—sometimes with other people, sometimes alone—but what startled Arthur was that they didn't seem to match the image he had created of Merlin in his head. The boy in the pictures looked cheerful and comfortable in his own skin, whether he was on horseback, standing on the summit of a mountain with a proud looking older woman, or next to a boy who had his arm slung across Merlin's shoulders, their bikes leaning against their hips and faces flushed.
Arthur wondered whether there were any pictures of him where he looked this relaxed and full of joy. There were certainly photographs of him cheering after a goal or celebrating after a won match, but those were moments when adrenalin was running high or when he was bone tired and wanted nothing but to collapse into bed. It somehow didn't seem to compare, exactly.
''My mother fancies herself a photographer, so she likes to take pictures of me,'' Merlin suddenly spoke up from behind him. ''It's a bit embarrassing, but I think these are pretty good.''
''They are.'' Merlin looked gorgeous in every single one of them.
'''That's my mother.'' Merlin pointed at the picture taken in front of a very blue sky and a rocky mountaintop. ''She took it with a tripod when we went on vacation at the Lakes after graduation.''
''She looks nice.'' The woman in the picture had the same bright smile and kind blue eyes as her son. ''I didn't think you'd—''
Arthur winced. He had meant that he had not thought someone like Merlin would be able to go mountain climbing, but suddenly that felt like an awful thing to say. ''I, uh... didn't think someone your age would still go on vacation with his mother.''
''I have you know that my mum is awesome!'' Merlin said wryly. ''Why? When was the last time you had a family vacation?''
Arthur snorted. ''My father doesn't do vacations. He only does business trips.''
''And your mum?''
Arthur swallowed, his mouth dry all of a sudden. ''She died when I was six.''
''Oh.'' Merlin's smile faltered. ''I'm sorry.''
Arthur shrugged, feeling embarrassed because he couldn’t quite fight the lump in his throat. It had been such a long time ago, he really ought to be over it. When Merlin's hand pressed against his forearm in a barely there touch, it still felt like the best condolence Arthur had ever received.
''My dad died too,'' Merlin said softly. ''He was a pilot with the RAF. He died shortly after I was born so I never really knew him.''
''Oh. That sucks,'' Arthur said, feeling horribly inadequate. He really was awful with this whole sharing your emotions business. Another thing that wasn't really done in the Pendragon household.
But Merlin just grinned. ''Yes,'' he agreed with obvious cheek. ''It sucks balls.''
For a moment Arthur was too stunned to reply, but then burst out and laughed. ''Ha bloody ha. Very funny, Merlin.''
''I'm a funny guy.''
''Thanks for letting me know.''
They jibbed a little more at each other, but the tension had been broken and when they started to go over the notes the mood was relaxed. They worked together, with Merlin explaining whenever something wasn't clear to Arthur or he couldn't decipher Merlin's handwriting. When they had gone through everything from the first week Arthur had missed, they decided to call it a day and Merlin went to make another cuppa.
''So,'' he said, his back turned to Arthur. ''Are you going to tell me how you injured your knee?''
Arthur sucked in a sharp breath. His heart was beating faster and he felt sick. The story of his injury gnawed at his insides with all its bitter anger everyday, but he had not thought of it for the last few hours, Merlin's company distracting him better than anything else had so far. That Merlin would ask this now felt almost like a betrayal, but that was ridiculous of course. To Merlin it was an innocuous question, and yet Arthur felt like the floor was being ripped out from under him again.
Merlin shot him a questioning look over his shoulder. ''You fell? That's all?''
''Must have been one hell of a fall.''
Arthur hoped Merlin would get the clue and leave things well enough alone, but of course the other boy had no idea that he was prodding at a wound that was still too fresh, only hastily buried under denial and false acceptance.
Merlin curiously raised his eyebrows. ''What?'' he asked, eyes sparkling with amusement. ''Was it that embarrassing?''
''No,'' Arthur pressed out. ''It wasn't.''
''Then why don't you—?''
''I was playing football, okay?'' Arthur snapped. ''I got fouled. I slipped and fell and crippled my knee. End of story.''
Merlin stared at him wide-eyed and mouth slightly agape, and it was only now that Arthur realised that he had shot up from his chair and stood, in the middle of the room, hands balled into fists.
''I'm sorry,'' Merlin said, looking chagrined and uncertain. And then, almost like a peace offering, he asked, ''Do you want to know how I lost my leg?''
Arthur's stomach dropped. ''What?'' he asked faintly.
''You can ask me, you know. It's okay.''
Arthur stared at him, appalled. ''Why would I do that?''
Merlin blushed and ducked his head, eyes on his hands when he muttered, ''Don't know, just thought you might be curious since I caught you looking.''
Arthur felt sick. Was that what Merlin thought of him? That he was some bloody vulture looking for cheap drama and sensation? That he would eagerly revel in someone else's pain just to satisfy his own curiosity?
''You... you think I'm that kind of a wanker?''
''What? That's not—''
''It's late,'' Arthur said, taking a step backwards, stumbling a little. His heart was beating so fast he felt dizzy and his stomach was twisted into knots. He had no idea why Merlin would go and leave himself open like this, making himself vulnerable and inviting people's scrutiny and judgement. All Arthur wanted was to hide himself under a rock, so full of anger and hurt and disappointment that it was threatening to choke him.
And it wasn't as if Arthur had lost his fucking leg; his circumstances could never compare to the tragedy that must have happened to Merlin, so how could he ever tell him his stupid sob story without feeling even more like a bloody wimp?
''I've got to go. I have an early class tomorrow.''
And now Merlin looked like a kicked puppy and Arthur felt like even more of an arse. Congratulating himself for bollocks-ing this whole thing up so royally, he turned away, but Merlin called after him.
''Arthur! Do you...''
Arthur glanced back and Merlin asked in a rush, ''Do you maybe want to do this again? We haven't gone over all the things you've missed yet.''
A part of Arthur wished he could have said no, but another part was yelling at him to not be so bloody stupid and push Merlin away completely. It might have gone either way but most of all Arthur couldn't resist Merlin's hopeful blue eyes and the smile that was tugging at the corners of his mouth, small but sincere.
''Yeah, of course. Thank you.'' Once more he had the urge to apologise, but he didn't know how, and so all he said was, ''Good night, Merlin.''
Merlin's dejected ''Good night, Arthur'' felt like a stab in the gut.
When the door fell shut behind Arthur, Merlin cursed. He had no idea how the evening had managed to go to hell so fast. While things had been awkward when Arthur had first arrived—though less so than Merlin had feared—their study session had actually become rather enjoyable once Arthur relaxed a little. Merlin wasn't sure whether it had been his imagination, but he would have sworn Arthur had even been checking him out.
So what on earth had just happened? Why had asking Arthur how he had injured himself sent him running like that? Merlin had the suspicion that there was more to it then Arthur was admitting, but he couldn't imagine what. Of course, it wasn't his business. If Arthur didn't want to tell him, that was fine; Merlin just had not expected it to be such a big thing. Maybe Arthur was just a very private person; he certainly had seemed shocked by the idea of asking Merlin about his amputation.
Or, a nasty little voice in the back of his head said, he just was interested in your notes and not in you. Merlin pulled a face and shoved that voice away. Whatever Arthur's issues might be, it seemed obvious that they weren't really about Merlin. And as intriguing and good-looking as Arthur might be, Merlin wouldn't be interested if he turned out to be a jerk anyway.
But that night, Merlin was running again.
The field stretches out ahead of him and the summer breeze ruffles his hair as he runs. Thump thump thump thump. His heart is light and his feet are even lighter and he thinks that he could just keep running until he reaches the horizon. Nothing is going to stop him, he can run even faster, and faster still, until he soars up into the air, just like his dad, finding him up there in the endless blue of the sky.
The slope leading up to the street is nothing, it's just a few wide paces, thump thump thump thump. Merlin bursts through the shrubbery and onto the street, his eyes on the stubblefield and the forest beyond. There's a screeching sound and something hits Merlin with a bang that shakes the earth, turns it upside down, and the next thing he knows, he's on the ground. There is scalding fire down his side. His body is screaming with it but Merlin can't hear through the throbbing in his head. Thump thump thump thump. Merlin's body has become heavy, chaining him to the ground. The blue sky above him is out of reach now. He's not going to fly today. Quite possibly, he's never going to fly again.
It wasn't often that Merlin dreamed of the accident. It wasn't like that day still haunted him after all these years. But on the nights he did dream of it, it left him with a lingering sense of being constrained, shackled down and damaged like the battered bonnet of the car that had hit him. Merlin still remembered that it had been blue and smoke had been curling up from it. He didn't remember much of the man, apart from the fact that he had been wearing glasses and his face had been distraught. The world had narrowed down to the asphalt under his sticky fingers, the slow pulsing pain in his side and the pounding in his head. He had woken up in the hospital three days later, with his leg gone and his life changed irrevocably.
Merlin had long ago stopped to wish that he hadn't been running that day, that he had not gone so far, that he'd just not been there, in that moment. Wishing to change what was over and gone was a stupid waste of time, and Merlin didn't like to waste anything. But when he sat in class the next day, Merlin couldn't help and wonder what might have gone different last night if he was, well, normal. Would Arthur have made a move if Merlin wasn't the strange boy with the leg prosthesis? Or was Arthur's awkwardness due to his own insecurities? And what reasons did a boy like Arthur have to be insecure? Maybe Merlin should just ask Arthur out. Then, when Arthur rejected him—which he might—Merlin could stop thinking about it.
By the time his last lesson had ended, Merlin was in a right mood. If he could have stomped, he probably would have. As it was, he contented himself with scowling at everything and nothing when he made his way down the stairs outside the lecture hall, ready to go home.
That's when he saw Arthur. With his new prosthesis, Merlin hardly ever fell these days, but he still nearly took a tumble when he caught sight of the blond idiot standing across the yard with another guy. A guy who was equally good-looking, if slightly rougher around the edges, with longish hair and stubble on his face. They seemed to be arguing, but while Arthur's face was set into a mulish expression, the other guy was grinning like a smug bastard.
Merlin really didn't mean to eavesdrop, and he wouldn't have, but they were standing only a few paces from the lamp post where Merlin had chained his bike, so it just couldn't be helped.
''What? Aren't you happy to see your boyfriend?'' Stubble Guy was asking Arthur with an amused expression.
That question made Merlin's heart jump in his chest before it took a nose dive to the ground. So apparently Arthur was into guys. Only the guys he was into were the built, scruffy kind with two legs, none of them computerised. Merlin had never felt so stupid, and he was just grateful that his embarrassment had at least been contained to his own head this time.
''Not especially, no,'' Arthur replied darkly. If the way he was gripping his crutch with white-knuckled fingers was any indication, that was the truth.
''Aww, come on, Artie, don't be that way! We all miss you. What the fuck are you doing hanging around up here, anyway?''
''It's called a university, Gwaine. Look it up.''
Merlin frowned to himself. Had Arthur not told his boyfriend he was going to attend university? Maybe they had broken up. Merlin inched slowly closer, trying to look inconspicuous.
''You know what I mean,” Stubble Guy said, having grown serious. “Why aren't you back at Camelot, training?''
The look Arthur shot him was one of disbelief. ''Did you miss the memo where I fucking crippled my knee? Because I thought you were right there on the pitch with me. ''
Gwaine raised his eyebrows, looking unimpressed. ''And? They'll give you a special training schedule for recovery.''
Arthur's face was a study in conflicting emotions, and Merlin couldn't help but make another step forward, feeling strangely drawn by this cesspool of anger, bitterness and disappointment, mixed with embarrassment and heartache.
''I won't be back, not for recovery or anything else,” Arthur pressed out through gritted teeth. “I'm out.''
''Out?” Gwaine looked flabbergasted. “One little injury and you're abandoning us?''
''It's not just a fucking little injury, okay?'' Arthur shouted, drawing looks from the other students around them. ''It's over! Even if I wanted to, there's no place at Camelot for a cripple!''
Merlin wasn't sure whether it was the ugly word, the volume of Arthur's voice or the obvious hurt in it that made him flinch back, but whatever it was, now he did stumble—right into a row of parked bikes. Merlin instinctively tried to catch a hold somewhere, but that only made it worse because the bikes started to topple over in a perfect domino reaction around him, dragging Merlin down with them.
''Merlin? Oh my god, are you alright?''
It was Arthur's voice that came from somewhere above Merlin, sounding anxious, and Merlin could feel the hot prickle of a blush creeping up his cheeks, mortified at having made a complete fool of himself in front of Arthur and his boyfriend.
''Uh... yes, I think so. I just—''
Merlin tried to push himself up, but couldn't find a place to securely put his feet, or a hold that wasn't a half-tumbled bicycle. Wobbling a little on his bad leg himself, Arthur nevertheless reached out with his right to help Merlin up and Merlin took it with an embarrassed smile. He was certain that this couldn't get any worse, when his prosthesis gave out under him when he was half way up to his feet. He would have fallen again, but Arthur quickly caught him around the middle so that he ended up with his face buried into Arthur's chest.
With his eyes pressed close Merlin inhaled in a sharp gasp, and was assaulted by the delicious smell of Arthur, which reminded him of sunshine and freshly cut grass and summer days with skies as impossibly blue as Arthur's eyes. His heart was beating almost out of his throat, and Merlin realised that even the fact that Arthur was a dickhead had not saved him from developing a massive crush on him in the matter of days. Maybe he should just get his head amputated as well, it was obviously completely useless.
A cough coming from their left reminded Merlin of the fact that they weren't alone and that Arthur wasn't his cuddly toy either. He probably should let go of him now. Pushing himself away from Arthur, he ducked his head in a futile attempt to hide his burning face.
''Are you sure you're alright?'' Arthur asked with obvious worry, and Merlin glanced up to see a frown on his face and slightly pink tinged cheeks.
''Yes, thank you. I'm sorry, I uh—''
''Aren't you going to introduce us?'' Stubble Guy interrupted at that moment, regarding Arthur with expectantly raised eyebrows.
For a moment Arthur looked taken aback, as if he had completely forgotten about his boyfriend standing right next to him.
''Uh, sure. This is Merlin, he's in my Anatomy class.''
''Hi.'' Merlin gave Stubble Guy a weak smile and then looked back at Arthur, who took a moment before he caught on.
''Oh. And this is my mate, Gwaine. Who came all the way up here because he can't mind his own bloody business.''
''Your mate? Not your boyfriend?'' Merlin blurted out—because apparently he had just given up on trying to not act like a complete idiot.
Arthur barked out a shocked laugh. ''What? Oh god, no, not for all the riches and free porn in the world.''
''If I was your boyfriend, you wouldn't need porn.'' Gwaine waggled his eyebrows.
''I'm really not interested in watching you get it on with three girls at the same time.'' Arthur grimaced. ''Also, I might need brain bleach now, so thanks for that.''
''But he said he was your boyfriend.'' Merlin winced at the accusatory tone in his own voice.
Arthur rolled his eyes. ''That's because he's a wanker.''
''True.'' Gwaine smiled broadly at Merlin. ''So you were eavesdropping, huh?''
''What? No! I was just walking over to my bike. It's not my fault you were talking so loudly.''
Gwaine pursed his lips, looking as if this was all highly entertaining. Then, all of a sudden, he asked, ''So you're free right now?''
Merlin blinked, a little lost by this sudden turn of a question. ''Uh, yeah? I was just about to go home.''
''Excellent. Why don't you join us? We were going to the pub.''
Arthur shot his friend a weird look. ''No, we weren't.''
''Of course we were,'' Gwaine said. ''You don't think I'll come all the way up here just to see your ugly mug while my throat goes dry?''
''It's only four p.m.''
''Which leaves us just enough time to enjoy ourselves.''
Arthur gave Merlin an awkward look. ''You don't have to. Just ignore him.''
Something about the way that Arthur kept insisting Merlin didn't need to do things—apparently for his own good—really started to rub Merlin wrong and so he raised his eyebrows challengingly.
''Why not? I'm actually in the mood for a pint myself.''
''Good man!'' Gwaine clapped Merlin on the shoulder enthusiastically and started to pull him with him so that Arthur had no other choice but to follow.
They made their way down the road to a pub that was frequented by a lot of Tintagel's students—mostly because the beer was cheap—but Gwaine declared that to be the best recommendation for a drinking establishment. Arthur had become strangely taciturn, though, glancing between Merlin and Gwaine with an uncomfortable expression, and Merlin couldn't help but wonder whether Arthur simply didn't want him there.
They bought their pints and found a free table in the corner, Arthur and Merlin sitting somewhat awkwardly while Gwaine just plonked down into his chair, raised his glass and took a big gulp before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Then he turned to Merlin.
''So, what's up with your leg?''
Arthur nearly choked on his beer and sent Gwaine an outraged death glare, but that didn’t seem to faze him. Merlin honestly didn't mind. He'd rather have people be upfront with their questions, than having them stare while trying to not talk about it when they obviously wanted to.
''I had an accident when I was a kid. Got hit by a car. The leg was too damaged to save, so they had to amputate.''
''Oh, wow. That's gross.'' Gwaine looked a little shocked now. ''How old were you?''
On Merlin's other side, Arthur shifted in his seat with his head bowed, obviously uncomfortable. ''I'm sorry,'' he said quietly. ''I can't imagine—that's just awful.” He looked up, and his gaze was so earnest and determined, it was kind of endearing. “I mean, it must have been for you. When you were so young.''
Merlin quirked one corner of his mouth into a half smile and shrugged. ''I'm not saying it was easy, especially at first, but I guess I got used to it. With the prosthesis I can still do most things, and I was lucky to survive, so I really can't complain.''
“That's—“ Arthur swallowed before becoming deeply interested in the perspiration coating his beer glass. “You're really— I mean, for you to see it that way—I don't think I could be that strong.”
Gwaine clapped Merlin on the shoulder with enough force to make him bump into Arthur. ''Yeah, you're obviously a great guy. And I think you're just what this idiot here needs. You know, since we established that I’m not—and never will be—Arthur’s boyfriend.''
Arthur made some sort of choking noise, and Merlin raised his eyebrows at Gwaine, who slung his arm over the back of Merlin's chair and leaned in, lowering his voice as if he was about to convey a great secret. “Let me tell you that you're much more his type anyway.''
''Gwaine!'' Arthur hissed, but the man in question just lifted an eyebrow, not bothered at all.
''What? I'm sure his kit is still up and running, so to speak. Right, Merlin?''
He winked lecherously, and it was so ridiculously over the top that Merlin had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from laughing. He felt a little sorry for Arthur who looked as if he was seconds away from strangling Gwaine, when his friend was completely unrepentant and obviously taking evil pleasure in Arthur's discomfort.
Merlin rolled his eyes. ''Yeah,” he said, turning towards Gwaine. “My kit is indeed in full working order. Thanks for mentioning it. Although I hope you don't expect me to provide you with evidence.''
Gwaine grinned and took another swig from his beer. ''Nah. You've got an honest face. But maybe you could give Arthur a demonstration some time? He sure is in dire need of a shag.''
''That's enough, Gwaine!'' Arthur's face had turned an interesting shade of red, but the look in his eyes was furious. ''You can go home now. Tell the lads I'm fine, and that they should really get your head examined. Or maybe have you committed right away. If not for your own sanity then surely for everyone else's.''
Gwaine cocked his head and then pushed himself up from his seat. “Sanity is overrated, my friend,” he said, patting Arthur on the shoulder. “And I can't go home after just one round. Let me buy the next one.'' He emptied his glass with one long pull and shot them a smirk over his shoulder as he strolled up to the bar.
''God, I'm so sorry,'' Arthur groaned into his hands, pressing the heels against his eyes. ''He's not a bad guy, usually, but he's also completely bonkers and has no filter between that excuse for a brain and his mouth.''
Merlin chuckled. ''It's alright. He's kind of funny. In a mildly inappropriate way.''
Merlin grinned and shrugged. He would have told Arthur that inappropriateness was better than pity, but it seemed to be a difficult topic with him, and so he tried to find a more innocuous one.
''So, you two played football together? At school?''
Arthur looked away and cleared his throat. ''Yeah, kind of.''
''What did he mean with you coming back to training?''
Arthur grimaced and shifted in his seat. Merlin had no idea why he felt so uncomfortable talking about this. When he finally opened his mouth to answer, Gwaine pushed himself between them, setting three more pints down on the table. He looked from Merlin to Arthur and back, surprised. ''What, didn't Arthur tell you that he's the up and coming star player at Camelot FC?''
Arthur stiffened, his face turning blank, while Merlin blinked at the both of them in confusion. He might not exactly follow the games of the Premier League, but he would have to live under a rock to not know the name of one of the most successful clubs in the country.
''Camelot FC?'' he asked dubiously
''The very same.” Gwaine nodded proudly. “Arthur here is the best player to come out of our youth program in the past years. He's damn talented—even if I'll deny ever having said that. Of course then that stupid Mercian bastard comes in and smashes him to pieces, and now he thinks he stands no chance at playing again when he just has to work on it!'' Gwaine turned to his friend then, punching him in the arm with an eye-roll. ''Your daddy owns the damn club, Arthur, you really think he'll cast you out?''
Arthur looked white as a sheet now, and his voice sounded dry and dead when he said, ''As a matter of fact that's exactly what he did, yes.''
“Your father owns the club?” Merlin asked just as Gwaine sputtered, “What do you mean, that's what he did?”
Arthur pulled a grimace and didn't quite meet Merlin's eyes when he mumbled, “He's not the sole owner. He's the main shareholder.” Then he shot a glare at Gwaine. “Which is why he looks out for the club's business interests. The doctors said it would be unlikely that my knee recovers enough to play professionally again. That are the facts.”
“That fucker!” Gwaine spat, not chastened much by Arthur's deadly look.
“Yeah, well, that's my dad for you,” Arthur said, voice devoid of inflection. “Will you bloody well leave it alone now and go home?”
His face was set into a mask, but he wasn't very good at hiding his emotions, and it was clear as a day to anyone with eyes that he was hurting. Merlin understood his reaction from the night before a little better, now that he realized what must have been at stake for Arthur. But running away was never a solution, that Merlin knew. Recovery was hard to predict, he had seen that in his uncle's clinic with patients who had suffered similar injuries, but if there was any chance at all for Arthur to heal, he had to pursue it. Some things couldn't be changed, but you had to fight for those who could.
“Are you sure it's irreversible?” he asked Arthur, reaching out and placing a hand on Arthur's arm.
“Yes, Merlin,” Arthur pressed out through his teeth, apparently about to reach the end of his tether. “I've been assured so by more than one medical expert.”
“But it couldn't hurt to consult another,” Merlin tried to encourage him. “There's a doctor here at the clinic in Tintagel, who is famous for his alternative and new approaches. I swear Gaius has magic hands. Don't just give up on your dream, Arthur.”
Arthur's head slowly swivelled around to him. “Don't just give up?” he asked, low and disbelieving. “You think I just gave up? I've fought for this ever since I watched my first match when I was six! I trained every waking hour. Took all the bullshit about not having gotten in by myself, just a daddy's boy, and I proved them wrong. You think I just don't have the guts or the will to do it?” Arthur pushed himself up from his chair, staring at Merlin with his hands flat on the table. “You have no fucking idea what you're talking about! You have no idea what it's like when when you have a life one second and the next you're a fucking cripple!”
He froze, eyes wide, looking at Merlin aghast as his face went from snow-white to tomato-red. His mouth kept working for another moment, but then he turned around without another word, staggering and toppling chairs as he made his way to the door, not even bothering to pick up his jacket.
Merlin stared after him, shocked into silence.
“Well, that went well.” Gwaine coughed into his fist. “You know, despite all evidence to the contrary, he's a good guy. And great in the sack from what I've heard. Even if he suffers from foot-in-mouth-disease.”
Merlin turned around to him slowly, raising his eyebrows in disbelief. “However astute an observation that might be,” he said pointedly. “I'm sure you have even less legs to stand on than I have.”
Gwaine blinked, speechless for a long moment. Then threw his head back, roaring with laughter. “I like you, Merlin,” he said, wheezing a little as he tried to catch his breath. “And I think you'd be perfect for Arthur. Would do him good if someone finally managed to pull that stick from his arse.”
“Well, I'd be more than happy to,” Merlin muttered, taking a sip of his pint and shooting Gwaine an innocent look. “He's got an incredible gorgeous arse.”
Gwaine raised his glass in a salute, and Merlin gave him a cheeky grin. “I'll tell him that you said that.”
“I hope you do,” Gwaine said with a wicked glint in his eyes. “Torturing Arthur is my favourite pastime. Well, second favourite. Okay, maybe third.”
Merlin shook his head, laughing. “You're a very bad man, Gwaine. And I'm not sure whether I should trust you, but since you're my only source of information...” He leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. “Tell me how to woo Arthur Pendragon.”
Gwaine's grin got even wider as he leaned back in his chair and took a deep gulp from his glass before he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “All right, listen carefully, my friend...”
“Fuck!” Arthur punched the wall, cursing some more when the impact split the skin on his knuckles. He couldn't believe he had said something so incredibly stupid, and to Merlin of all people. Merlin who probably got all kinds of stupid shit, all the time, from morons who didn't realize how great he was. How kind and funny and brave. Merlin, who was strong enough to take a hit and get back on his feet—even if one of them was now artificial—and keep going at life without this lump of bitter resentment and despair festering inside of him.
Arthur threw himself down on his bed, frowning when the screen of his laptop that was sitting by his feet lit up, flooding the darkening room with painful brightness. His insides twisted when he saw himself, frozen with an expression of determined concentration, the ball at his feet, going for the goal. There Arthur was: whole and without a clue that a few seconds later he would be broken. That all his efforts, the sacrifices and endless hours of training, would have been for nothing.
Arthur had watched this video so many times he had long lost count. It was so easy to imagine how it could have gone differently. If he had just been a little faster, if he had turned a little more to the left or maybe passed the ball to Elyan at the outside right. He'd be at the championships in Germany right now, sweating and running, pushing himself to find that space for the perfect pass, the perfect angle. He would be where he belonged.
And he would never have met Merlin. Arthur didn't quite know what to think about that. He wished with all his might that he was whole. But he couldn't wish he'd never come to Tintagel, not when Merlin made him feel all hot and happy inside. Maybe if he went to the doctor Merlin had mentioned—Arthur clamped down on that thought quickly. There was no going back and getting a do-over. There were no miracles, and Merlin should know that better than anyone.
Arthur stayed there, stretched out on his bed, not bothering to get up and turn on a light, not even when the last glow of sunlight slowly faded from the sky. He tried not to think about football. Tried to picture a different Arthur with different dreams, someone with a limp in his gait but a smile on his face, but that guy was like a stranger to him.
He nearly jumped when, a long time later, there was a knock on the door and, glancing at his watch, he saw that it was already close to midnight. It had to be Gwaine. If he hadn't found a willing woman—or maybe even if he initially had—he was bound to come looking for a place to sleep. Arthur didn't really want to see his stupid mug, and for a moment he contemplated ignoring him, but in the end he wasn't enough of a jerk to let Gwaine sleep on a park bench. His father certainly would blame him if Gwaine got arrested. Again.
As he dragged himself up, he once more jostled the laptop but quickly looked away this time. He didn't bother to pick up his crutch—let Gwaine wait a little—and rolled his eyes when the knocking turned more insistent a moment later.
“Yeah, yeah, I'm coming you wanker. No need to break down the—“ He yanked the door open and sucked in a sharp breath when Merlin stumbled right into his arms.
“Heeeeyyy...” Merlin drawled, pushing himself back a little to give Arthur a lopsided grin.
“Merlin? What are you doing here? Is—is everything alright?”
“Yeah.” Merlin straightened himself, but didn't immediately take his hands back from where they were resting on Arthur's chest. “I just—you forgot your jacket?“ Arthur’s windbreaker was indeed slung over Merlin’s arm, and he shook it a little as he glanced past Arthur at the nearly dark room before turning his eyes back on him, squinting. “And, well, Gwaine told me that you have a penchant for brooding. Which it seems he was right about. Just saying.”
“Yeah? Any more wisdom that Gwaine had to share?”
Merlin cocked his head and his mouth pulled into one of these cute, cheeky smiles. Arthur’s stomach lurched uncomfortably. He was so fucked.
“He also said that you're bad at apologizing. So I was thinking I could be the bigger person. Make the first step. Ha!” Merlin’s face broke into a full grin and he poked Arthur in the chest. “Get it? That was a leg joke.”
Arthur could just stare at him, helpless and overwhelmed, and it made Merlin pull away, coughing a little as he quickly ran a hand through his already dishevelled hair. “Uh, yeah, anyway... I was possibly a bit insensitive. I didn't mean to imply that you—” He stopped short and gave Arthur a truly rueful look. “I know you're a fighter,” he said with endearing earnestness. “You're strong. And you're brave. And I just wanted you to know that I care and that I want to help if I can. Have your back. And ass. You have a really great ass. Which I just said. Out loud. Bollocks. I probably shouldn't have had that last pint. I might be a little tipsy.”
Merlin’s mortified deer in the headlights look was hilarious, and Arthur couldn’t help but burst out laughing. Merlin was ridiculous and adorable and sort of amazing, and the dark lump that had been sitting in Arthur’s stomach was suddenly gone. He felt lighter than he had in a long time. “Just come inside,” he said with a fond smile and an affectionate shoulder bump. “Idiot.”
Merlin stepped past Arthur, his cheeks red and his eyes wide. “Just... I'm really sorry,” he said, shooting Arthur a sheepish look.
Arthur made a face. “You don't—it's me who should be apologizing. What I said was unforgivable. I know that what happened to you—it doesn't even compare.” He swallowed hard, but forced himself to meet Merlin’s eyes. “Of course you know what it feels like. To lose your whole life from one moment to the next. And I'm sorry, I—”
“But I don't.” One of Merlin’s hands had found its way to Arthur’s chest again, maybe to hold him back, and now his long fingers were smoothing out the fabric of Arthur’s shirt, right over his heart, as if it was the most important thing to do. He looked up at Arthur with a warm smile on his face. “I didn’t lose it. My life. I still have it. I'm still me. I have friends and a mum that's really awesome—if a little embarrassing at times, but I think there's an ancient rule that mums have to be that way. I still have dreams, Arthur. Like becoming a doctor. Or learning to fly. I mean, like, getting a pilot's licence not actually flying in my own right—obviously. I'm not that drunk.” He ducked his head and huffed out a laugh. “And, well, I really would like to find a nice guy who likes me back. Who maybe is interested in kissing and stuff. With me, I mean. And I know Gwaine's an idiot but he heavily implied—and maybe he's wrong, maybe I've been wrong when I previously thought you'd been checking me out, but—“
Merlin blinked, his eyes wide. “I—no?”
“No.” Arthur gave him a nervous smile. But it was the good kind of nervous, the one that felt like butterflies and bees were buzzing in your stomach, that made your heart beat faster with anticipation. “I've, uhm, definitely been checking you out.”
“Yeah?” Merlin leaned a little closer, his eyes crinkling with glee or maybe just plain old happiness.
Arthur didn’t care, he slid his hands around Merlin to the small of his back and pulled him closer still. “Yeah,” he whispered, feeling Merlin's breath ghost warmly over his lips. “And I'm definitely into...”
And then he just did. Leaning forward, he pressed his lips against the bright smile splitting Merlin's face, a giddy feeling spreading through his whole body when Merlin hummed happily and snaked an arm behind Arthur's neck before letting his tongue slide along the seam of Arthur's mouth as if asking for entry.
Merlin's mouth was warm and tasted a little bitter from the beer, and for a long while Arthur just let himself explore, loving the enthusiastic little sounds Merlin made. He didn't really know when, exactly, they had made their way over to his bed, just that he loved the feel of Merlin's strong and slender frame under his own broad palms. The warmth of his skin when he sneaked a hand under Merlin's shirt, making him shiver. Arthur let his hand drift down, following the soft trail of hair along Merlin's stomach, down to his low-riding shorts, but stopped when Merlin suddenly tensed up.
“Merlin?” Arthur pulled back a little and gave him a worried look. “Is this too much?”
“No! It’s not—Sorry.” Merlin ducked his head. “I'm just a little nervous. I've never... I mean, no one has ever really wanted—“
Arthur reached out and hesitantly rubbed his thumb along Merlin’s cheekbone. “I do,” he said. “I really, really do. I want to do so many things with you. But we don't have to. Certainly not tonight, if you don’t want to. We've got time. I just really want to make you feel good. If that's alright with you.”
“Yeah, uh, that’s—that's fine with me,” Merlin stuttered, but he was grinning and the look he gave Arthur was—no one had ever looked at him like that. As if Arthur was this one perfect thing Merlin had always been hoping for. “I mean, it’s more than fine. It’s fantastic, really. A brilliant idea, absolutely, yes, we should do that.” And then Merlin wriggled his eyebrows at him and said, “Come on, Arthur, sweep me off my remaining foot!”
“Oh my god.” Arthur let his head drop down on Merlin's shoulder with a tortured moan. “I hate you.”
“Aw, come on.” Merlin nudged him, laughter in his voice. “I'm just pulling your leg.”
“Wanna pull mine?”
Arthur raised his head, with a pained whine. “Merlin!”
Merlin looked at him wide-eyed, licking his lips, and Arthur's eyes immediately dropped to his mouth.
“Shut up,” he said and then leaned in to kiss him until he did.
They stretched out on the bed, kissing and touching each other without much hurry—like Arthur had said, they had all the time in the world. And maybe the dark made it easier for him because after awhile he started talking, low and quiet and halting at first, and Merlin listened, his head resting on Arthur’s shoulder and his palm resting over Arthur’s heart. When the first blue of dawn started seeping into the sky, they fell asleep still in their clothes.
Merlin is running. Running like he’s never run before, his legs longer and his lungs stronger and his heart so light he is hardly touching the ground. The horizon is right ahead, the sky bright with sunshine, and Merlin lets out a whoop of laughter, turning his head to look over his shoulder where Arthur is right behind him. He’s gaining on Merlin, reaching out to catch him around the waist and suddenly Merlin’s on the ground in the soft, warm grass, looking up at Arthur’s laughing face, his eyes the same bright blue as the sky above, and Merlin feels free. So free. Like nothing is going to stop him and the sky is the limit.