The first time Uther saw the homeless boy, he nearly called the police.
Most people who knew Uther wouldn’t have said that he was the type to frequent a street-food truck, but Mehmet’s Delights was the exception to the rule. Every Friday after work, Uther stopped off to buy a strong black coffee and, weather permitting, sat on one of the folding chairs in the little yard to savour it.
It wasn’t that the coffee was good (though it was), or that Mehmet was a gracious host (though he was). It was that this had been one of Ygraine’s favourite spots to come and eat. She loved Turkish food, dragging him to this very truck on their first date; astounded to hear that he’d never had a true doner kebab before. Uther had been sceptical but between the well-seasoned meat and Ygraine’s smiling face, he’d found something to enjoy.
They’d gone to Turkey on their honeymoon, and just ten months later he was rushing Ygraine to the hospital, excitement and joy flooding through him as they prepared to welcome their first son.
Ygraine never left the hospital. Arthur stayed for two weeks, recovering from the surgery that saved his life but left his leg permanently damaged. And Uther returned home a widower, terrified and lost and more devastated than he could bear.
Sadness turned to rage. Uther had been angry for a long time after. At the hospital for not saving his wife, at Ygraine for dying, at himself for not preventing it. Arthur was a gift to him but Uther struggled, especially in the early years. He’d never been good with children and Arthur’s disability made Uther over-protective and anxious. If it hadn’t been for Gaius and Alice helping out with babysitting and advice, he could hardly have coped at all.
Slowly but surely, things had improved. Arthur was seventeen now and full of the same headstrong independence Uther recognised from his own youth. He did well in school and seemed happy most of the time and Uther couldn’t ask for much more than that. As for himself, he had rebuilt as much as he could. Accepted that his life would never be the same as it was, that he could not replace what he’d lost. But he took joy in Arthur and his work and if he still missed Ygraine every day, it wasn’t with anger anymore.
Coming to Mehmet’s helped. A peaceful little space once a week where he could sit and be silent and remember her.
A peace that was utterly destroyed one warm Friday evening when some young rascal tried to steal Uther’s wallet.
He’d only closed his eyes for a few seconds to enjoy the last of the summer sun, when he felt something brush against his sleeve. His eyes shot open to see someone crouched next to his chair, dipping their hand into his pocket.
Uther may not have been the sportsman he once was but his reflexes were quick. He shot out to grab the thief’s wrist and held tight.
“Oh no you don’t.”
The boy – for it was a boy – struggled in his grip.
“Get off me!”
“Drop my wallet,” Uther said sternly and the boy opened his hand, letting it fall to the floor. He tried to pull his wrist away again but Uther’s grip was strong.
“Mehmet, call the police,” he said loudly and the boy’s eyes widened. They were red rimmed, smudged black underneath with bags. No doubt a drug user, picking pockets to fund a filthy habit. Uther would put a stop to that right now.
“Don’t call the- look, I dropped it. You’ve got it back.”
His voice was less rough than Uther had expected; perhaps he had come from decent stock at one point. He’d obviously descended very far since then, with his dirty clothes and his generally scruffy demeanour.
“Mehmet, the police!” he called again and Mehmet hurried over, his hands raised in front of him.
“Perhaps this time we let the boy go?” Mehmet said uneasily. “First time he cause any trouble and-”
“Do you know this young man?” Uther said, faintly outraged.
“He sits near the van for warmth sometimes.”
“You should send him home,” Uther snapped and the boy snarled a little, making another desperate tug at freeing his wrist.
“What home?” he spat and Uther rolled his eyes.
“If you are homeless – which I sincerely doubt – then avail yourself of one of the many homeless shelters in this city.”
“Not always safe for young men,” Mehmet interjected sagely, which Uther thought was a load of rot. More likely the boy just wasn’t allowed to get his fix inside a shelter so refused to go.
Anyway he must have been older than Uther thought if he really was homeless. The council would have sorted out anyone under eighteen if they were living on the streets. This boy was really a man, and a thieving one at that.
“If you won’t call the police, I will,” Uther said sharply and reached down to his briefcase for his phone.
This turned out to be a mistake. The boy twisted his arm and pulled back suddenly, causing Uther to nearly fall off his chair. He had to let go of the boy to steady himself, and the boy was off in an instant.
“Come back here!” Uther roared, but he could see it was futile. His sprinting days were behind him and the boy had already all but vanished into the streets leading to the south-side of town.
He glared at Mehmet instead, who had been no help at all. Mehmet simply shrugged again.
“He tried to steal my wallet!” Uther said indignantly, hoping to squeeze at least a little contrition out of the other man.
“He must be very desperate to do that,” Mehmet said. “Like I say, good boy before. No trouble.”
He looked to where the boy had run off, and sighed.
“There are shelters, there are support services, there are lots of places he could go,” Uther said irritably, because somehow Mehmet was making him feel like he’d done something wrong. “If he even is homeless. A lot of them fake it, you know – out all day begging and then home for a nice warm meal in their parent’s house.”
Mehmet nodded distractedly, then turned back to the table.
“Your coffee spilled, I’ll get another. On the house.”
“No, don’t bother,” Uther said. The peace of the ritual had been shattered, thanks to that damn brat. “I’ll see you next week.”
Uther was on the lookout the next few Fridays at Mehmet’s, but the boy didn’t return. Mehmet looked sad when Uther asked and said he hadn’t seen him since – which was a blessing in Uther’s book. He’d obviously found some other business to case – Uther might have saved Mehmet from having his truck robbed by the boy and his criminal friends.
A month later he’d nearly forgotten the whole affair, until one Friday evening he approached the entrance to the company car park and nearly tripped over a pile of rags.
Except it wasn’t a pile of rags. It was a person, lying curled up on their side, looking oddly familiar…
The thief! Uther moved to stand over him, in case he tried to run again.
“Now I’ve got you,” he announced, but the boy only moaned, curling tighter in on himself. Uther leaned down a little and his righteous anger evaporated.
There was blood covering the boy’s face – most coming from his nose but there was a cut on his forehead that was oozing steadily. He had a red bruise forming on one cheek and he was holding his stomach in a way that suggested the beating had not been confined to his face.
The police would have to wait. Uther wasn’t heartless and he could see the boy needed medical attention.
“Stay still, I’ll call an ambulance,” he said briskly, crouching down next to the lad. But no sooner had he pulled his phone from his pocket than the boy gasped, reaching out one shaky hand.
“No ambulance… please…”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
To Uther’s horror, the boy turned on his front and began to try and drag himself across the concrete.
“Stop that,” Uther said sharply. “You’ll injure yourself further.”
The boy carried on, though it was clear from his pained wheezes he was doing himself a great disservice.
“No… hospital…” the boy choked out.
There was a strange determination in the boy’s voice and for a moment it reminded Uther of himself as he’d been at that age. Wrongheaded, certainly, and foolishly proud, and yet…
“Alright,” Uther said, as irritated with himself for conceding as he was with the wilful boy. “I have a doctor friend, will you see him?”
The boy stopped moving.
“Who is he?” he rasped out after a pause.
“He runs the walk-in centre on Dartmoor Road.”
The boy raised his head slightly.
“The white haired man…”
“Gaius, yes. I’ll drive you to my house and he can meet us there.”
The boy recoiled.
“Not… getting in a car with you.”
“Why ever not?” Uther said, fully exasperated at this point. But he never got an answer because at that moment the boy’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped to the ground.
Alarmed, Uther crouched down, but the boy’s heartrate was steady, his breathing clear. Exhaustion must have gotten to him.
Carefully, Uther slid his arms under the boy and picked him up. After a moment of indecision, he reluctantly picked up the boy’s filthy backpack too.
The boy was disturbingly light but it was still awkward making it to the car and getting him settled on the back seat. Uther got in the front and drove to the carpark exit. The boy had passed out now; there was no reason for Uther not to disregard his foolish notions and take him straight to hospital, where he clearly belonged.
The boy moaned quietly and Uther sighed, before making the turning for his house.
Fifteen minutes later he was drawing up to his house, thanking his lucky stars he could already see Gaius and Alice’s car parked on the street. They were stood on the doorstep waiting for him, turning in alarm to see him hurry up with a battered young man in his arms. He’d had no time to explain the full circumstances in his hastily sent text but he noted with relief that Gaius had brought his kit bag as requested.
“Uther, what on earth-”
“He’s been attacked,” Uther said brusquely. ““I found him on the street. The door – the key’s in my pocket.”
Gaius unlocked the door just in time. Almost the second after Uther stepped inside the boy began to struggle in his arms.
“I don’t know who did it, he- ow, stop that!”
The boy was clawing at Uther’s chest, eyes now open.
“Put me down! Let me out!”
Gaius switched instantly into doctor mode.
“Through here,” he said, throwing the door open to the living room. “On the couch.”
The minute Uther let go of the boy, he shot off the couch and into the corner of the room, back against the wall like a cornered animal. He must have been holding himself up by sheer adrenaline alone, for Uther could see the shake in his legs.
“Don’t touch me,” the boy hissed. “Perverts.”
“Now, see here,” Uther began hotly, because what kind of way was that to talk to them, but Gaius shushed him.
“My name is Gaius,” he said in a very calm voice, addressing the boy directly. “I’ve been a doctor for over thirty years now.”
The boy swallowed.
“Don’t come any closer.”
“I won’t,” Gaius said. “I’d like to take a look at your injuries but I won’t do anything without your permission.”
He gestured around.
“I’m normally a doctor at a walk-in clinic, do you know what that means? It means you don’t have to give your name or any details about yourself to me to get treated.”
He pointed at the door.
“My wife Alice is just there and there’s a phone next to you on the windowsill. You’re not alone here. If you like, we can leave the door open while I treat you and anytime you want to leave, you just get up and go.”
The boy’s eyes darted between the door and Gaius.
“I can leave?”
“You can leave right now if you want, I promise we won’t stop you. But if you’re willing to stay for just a little while, I can sew up that head of yours and give you some medicine so you don’t get sick.”
Uther didn’t quite understand what was happening – why wouldn’t the boy want treatment? Why was he so skittish? But Gaius seemed to be taking the right approach so Uther held his tongue.
The boy bit his lip, looking at the doorway. Uther followed his gaze to see Alice smiling at him encouragingly.
“I can sit in, if you like,” she said gently. “Or I can stay out here, it’s up to you.”
The boy heaved out a laboured breath.
“I want the door open,” he said at last.
“That’s fine,” Gaius said soothingly.
“And I want him gone!” The boy pointed at Uther.
Of all the ungrateful!
“Why’s that?” Gaius said evenly.
“He wants to call the police on me.”
Gaius turned to frown at Uther, which really was entirely unfair.
“He tried to steal my wallet!” he protested. “Anyway, I’m not… I have no intention of calling the police anymore.”
The principle of the attempted theft remained but Uther couldn’t quite imagine having the boy arrested in this condition. It seemed needlessly punitive.
“Will that do you?” Gaius asked the boy but he still looked mulishly unconvinced.
“Alright Uther, hand over your mobile phone.”
“You can’t be serious!” Uther squawked.
Gaius gave him The Eyebrow.
“The patient’s wishes come first, as you know Uther. Hand it over.”
Uther was about to point out this wasn’t the only phone in the house anyway when he looked back at the boy and saw the trembling, white-knuckled grip he had on the window sill, which seemed to be the only thing holding him upright.
Beneath all the bravado, the boy was scared. And right now Uther was the one making him so.
Letting out a huff, Uther took his phone from his pocket and relinquished it to Gaius.
“In return, I’d like a name to call you please,” Gaius said to the boy. “Doesn’t have to be your own, I just don’t like addressing patients as ‘you’”
The boy thought for a second.
“Merlin,” he said.
“Merlin, lovely,” Gaius said, as though it wasn’t a ridiculous choice on the boy’s part. “Now then, Uther…”
“I’ll be outside,” Uther said, knowing when he was beat, and Gaius nodded to him in gratitude.
Nearly forty minutes later, the boy (or Merlin, as it now seemed easier to call him) reappeared. The door had been open that entire time but Uther had stayed in the study (after being glared at by Gaius for hovering).
Merlin looked a lot better than he had before. The cut on his head was neatly stitched and his face was clean of blood. The bruise on his cheek was still purpling but the swelling had gone down considerably.
“Let’s get you a glass of water to take those painkillers.” Alice said, gesturing Merlin towards the kitchen. Uther made use of the moment to join Gaius.
“How is he?” he said quietly.
“No permanent damage. Some bad bruising to his ribs and back though, he’ll need to take it easy for a while.”
“Which is rarely an option on the street.”
“You think he is homeless, then?”
“From the way he smells and the age of his clothes, as well as how thin he is, I’d say he’s definitely been sleeping rough for a while.”
Uther scrubbed at his face.
“He must be over eighteen; the council wouldn’t allow it otherwise.”
Gaius shook his head.
“I’d be shocked if he was even seventeen, though he wouldn’t tell me his age. He did confirm he wasn’t from around here though.”
“What about a shelter?”
“I suggested it, he doesn’t want to go. Says he’s tried a few and his things have been stolen, or he’s feared being attacked by the other men.”
“Surely they wouldn’t allow-”
Gaius gave him a piercing look.
“When was the last time you went to one of the shelters? I go to the one on Morecambe Street for a health clinic once a week, and it’s no paradise. Dormitory bedrooms, no real privacy, men with serious addiction problems and mental health issues. I can understand why Merlin would be reluctant.”
“He needs to go back home, then,” Uther said decisively. “Wherever he came from.”
“I don’t know if that’s much safer,” Gaius said. “I can’t be sure but there’s signs he’s been beaten before like this.”
Uther felt something tighten in his chest.
“Impossible to say. The old fractures seem to be about the same age, which more suggests a one off attack – not that once isn’t bad enough. Could have happened on the street, could have been the reason he left home. Either way he vehemently refused when I asked if there were family of his I could call.”
“And did he say who attacked him tonight?”
“’Some drunks’ was all I got from him, and the fact that they threw his sleeping bag in the canal. Sounds like lads out on the town for the night – it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve patched up a homeless person who had a run in with those types.”
Uther glanced back to where Merlin was sat on the couch with his water, fidgeting as Alice spoke to him.
“He needs a bed for tonight,” he said, making his mind up. “Tomorrow we can think about talking to social services and all the rest.”
“You’re right but we’ve only got the one bedroom in the bungalow,” Gaius said worriedly. “I wonder if I can call a friend of-”
“I meant here,” Uther cut him off and Gaius’ eyes widened.
“Are you sure?”
“Plenty of guest bedrooms,” Uther said defensively. “I don’t see what else we can do. It’s nearly ten, social services will have gone home for the weekend.”
“They have an emergency line,” Gaius pointed out.
“Yes, but it’ll take forever and you’ve seen how jumpy the boy is – he’ll likely do a runner if they show up.”
“He might do the same when we call them tomorrow.”
“Better he runs after a good night’s rest,” Uther said decisively.
A sort of wry half smile crossed Gaius’ face and Uther chose to ignore it, because he knew he was over-justifying and he didn’t care.
“Well, let’s propose it to him, though he hasn’t taken much of a shine to you so far Uther.”
Uther waved his hand dismissively.
“It’s either that or go back on the streets. I hardly think he’ll say no.”
Merlin said exactly that.
“You’re just keeping me here so you can call the police on me!”
“I said I wasn’t going to do that,” Uther said, exasperated.
Merlin’s face screwed up.
“So you wanna fuck me, is that it?”
“Language!” Uther said, because he was so appalled by the accusation he didn’t know what to say. “And no I do not, I can’t think why such a terrible thing would even enter your head-”
“Merlin,” Gaius said, placing a restraining hand on Uther’s shoulder. “You’re right to be wary.”
Uther made a dissenting noise and Gaius hushed him.
“You’ve had to survive using your instincts on the streets and I know it’s hard to switch that off, but I promise that you’re safe here. Alice and myself will even stay the night too if you’d prefer that.”
Merlin half rose from the couch, then grimaced and put his hand to his side.
“You’ve taken a bad beating, not to mention a serious knock to the head,” Gaius said. “I’d be very worried about you spending the night on the street in this condition. But, again, it’s entirely your choice.”
Merlin looked between them all, then frowned down at his lap. He made a forlorn figure, hunched up small, tension written in every line of his body. It was clear this was no easy decision to make.
“You’ll stay over?” he said to Alice and Gaius after nearly a full minute had passed.
“Of course, dear,” Alice said.
Then Merlin turned to Uther.
“I’ve got a pen-knife in my bag,” he said. “I’ll sleep with it under my pillow and if you come near me in the night I’ll-”
“There’ll be no knives in this house,” Uther said immediately. Merlin narrowed his eyes and Uther held up a hand to cut him off. “But I do have an alternative suggestion.”
Inspiration had come to him in a flash.
“There’s a deadbolt in the shed. You can fit it inside your room and no one will be able to get in without your say so.”
The deadbolt had been an aborted threat of Arthur’s, who’d haphazardly hammered it to his door one night in a fit of fourteen year old rage about Uther coming in his room unannounced. It had only lasted two days until Uther had made a solemn promise to always knock first (and little did Arthur know that Gaius’ warning that Uther would walk in on his son masturbating sooner or later had put Uther off more effectively than Arthur’s fit of adolescent pique).
It didn’t take Uther long to affix it to the guest room door on the second floor, Merlin watching him suspiciously the whole time. He tested it for a while after Uther finished and finally stood back, seeming to find it to his satisfaction.
“There’s an en-suite in there if you want a shower before bed,” Uther said, and Merlin touched his head gingerly.
“Will be perfectly fine if covered by a shower cap,” Gaius said.
“I’ll help you find one,” Alice said. “We can pop all your clothes in the wash too, so they’ll be all nice and clean for tomorrow.”
“I’ll have nothing to wear,” Merlin said awkwardly.
“You can borrow something of Arthur’s,” Uther said.
Merlin seemed to look Uther in the eye properly for the first time.
“You have a son?”
“Yes, about your age,” Uther said. “He’s sleeping at a friend’s tonight.”
Merlin thought for a moment.
“Where’s his mum?”
It was a question that never failed to cause Uther a sting of pain, but it was not as potent as it once had been.
“My wife Ygraine died giving birth to Arthur.”
Merlin didn’t say sorry but a flash of sympathy crossed his face.
“Well. I’ll find some of his clothes for you.”
Uther and Gaius shut the door behind them, heading to Arthur’s room across the hall. It was typical chaos – clothes on the floor, dirty mugs on the desk – but for once Uther didn’t mind. He sank down on the bed and looked up at Gaius.
“What the hell am I doing?”
“Something good, I think,” Gaius said, patting him on the shoulder.
Merlin didn’t emerge the next morning until Alice knocked on his door. He had let her take his bloodied clothes to be washed last night, had even passed over the other pair of jeans and t-shirt from his tatty rucksack. The clothes weren’t dry yet so Gaius coaxed him into the living room for another examination when he got up. He emerged in the dining room looking a bit better than the day before, but still horribly bruised and clearly in quite a bit of pain.
He was also rather swamped by Arthur’s top and jogging bottoms, which only emphasised the thinness of his frame. Gaius had commented the night before that Merlin was hovering on the edge of malnourishment – perhaps it was this that sent Alice into the kitchen to prepare a full English breakfast and slap a plate down in front of Merlin before he had time to protest.
“You too Uther,” she said firmly. “I know you’re always skipping lunch at the office, you need to eat better.”
Merlin ate anxiously – bent over his plate like he was shielding it from being snatched away – but he did finish most of the meal. Uther tried his best to do the same under Alice’s watchful eye.
When the clothes came out of the dryer, Merlin retreated back upstairs to change. He was still having some difficulty moving around, heavily favouring his ribs, and Uther noticed every small wince.
He couldn’t go back out there yet but they’d have a hard time keeping him here.
Merlin brought his rucksack back down with him, clearly intending to make for the door as soon as possible.
“Oh lovie, you’re not going back to the street like that, are you?” Alice said worriedly. “A stiff breeze could knock you over.”
“Thanks for the help,” Merlin muttered, half to Alice and half to the floor. “I’ll be alright.”
“You don’t even have a sleeping bag.”
That did seem to give Merlin pause for a second.
“I’ll be alright,” he said again and Uther had never heard anything less convincing.
“Merlin,” Gaius said. “I have a lot of homeless patients come to the walk in. I’ve started making up little kits for them to take back out on the streets. Some first aid equipment, cereal bars, gloves and hats and such the like. Will you at least allow me to fetch you one of those?”
Merlin squinted at him.
“S’pose,” he said.
“I can go and get you a sleeping bag too,” Alice put in. “We’ve one from our camping days we’ll never use again, you can have that.”
“Are you willing to stay here until we come back?” Gaius asked.
Merlin looked at Uther suspiciously.
“You can stay in your room with the lock on if you want,” Uther said, because it was clearly no use trying to convince the boy he wasn’t a threat.
“How long will you be?” Merlin asked Alice.
“A couple of hours.”
Merlin nodded then, quickly, as though he might change his mind at any moment.
“Alright,” Gaius said. “We’ll see you shortly.”
Uther experienced a vague moment of panic as he saw Gaius and Alice out, whatever was he going to do on his own with the boy? It would almost be a relief if Merlin did go and shut himself away upstairs.
But he was still sat in the kitchen when Uther returned. Ill at ease, Uther cleared his throat. He wouldn’t ask any more questions, it would only put the boy on edge. Silence, however, seemed only marginally less tense.
Then Uther had the idea to flick on the television. It was set to BBC News 24 and soon a reassuringly smooth voice was talking through the day’s headlines. Uther snuck a glance at Merlin but he was watching the screen, not showing any signs of wanting to run from Uther yet.
That had to be a good thing, surely?
He didn’t have much chance for further analysis, as not five minutes later the familiar clatter of Arthur’s cane sounded in the hallway.
“Hey Dad, I-”
Arthur stopped short at the sight of Merlin and for a moment the two just stared at each other.
“Arthur, this is Merlin. Merlin, this is my son Arthur,” Uther said awkwardly, muting the television. “Merlin is Gaius’, er, friend who we’re hosting for the day.”
Arthur looked from Merlin to Uther and then back again.
“What happened to your face?” he said, rather rudely.
“What happened to your leg?” Merlin shot back, scowling.
“Boys!” Uther said, appalled at the both of them. He didn’t know who to tell to apologise first.
But then a strange thing happened. Arthur’s glare softened and he began to laugh. Even stranger, Merlin followed suit until they were both sniggering away.
“Birth defect,” Arthur said, gesturing to his leg.
There was a short pause.
“I mouthed off to some rugby lads,” Merlin said, a little ruefully.
“You shouldn’t pick fights,” Uther said automatically.
“They picked one with me!” Merlin said, indignant, and Uther decided to leave that one there.
“Come and have some breakfast, Arthur, you’ll be late for school.”
Arthur stared at him like he’d grown two heads.
“Dad, it’s Saturday.”
Oh. So it was. Perhaps Uther had lost track a bit following the night’s events.
“Yes, well. Eat your breakfast anyway,” he blustered, turning away too slow to miss Arthur tapping his finger to his head, his favoured sign for ‘Dad’s losing it’.
“I saw that,” Uther said and Merlin giggled. It was such an unexpected sound that Uther had to keep himself from staring. The boy looked much less world weary when he smiled.
Uther had worried about how to make Merlin stick around after breakfast but Arthur solved that one – asking Merlin if he’d like to play a video game. Uther held his breath but Merlin agreed with little fuss. He seemed vaguely fascinated by Arthur – listening intently as Arthur chatted through breakfast, managing to include Merlin in the conversation without ever asking him a direct question. It was surprisingly deft considering Arthur usually veered more to the blunt side (a family trait, Uther could admit) but perhaps the bruises on Merlin’s face had persuaded his son to be gentle. Either way, Merlin seemed much more comfortable around Arthur than he had around any of the adults in the house.
It boded ill for whoever the adults had been in Merlin’s former life. Uther slipped into his study when he was sure the boys had settled, determined to find out where Merlin had come from and what had made him so afraid.
Annis answered on the first ring and she didn’t seem surprised when Uther asked for a favour.
“Straight to the point, Uther, that’s what I like about you.”
Uther explained the situation as briefly as he could and Annis didn’t press for details. He had always admired that about her, she took the facts as they were given.
“I know it’s a long shot but if you could do a search on Missing Persons,” he finished up and Annis made a sound of assent.
“Anything more to go on? Age, accent, unusual features?”
“He looks about fifteen. White, dark hair, thin. Sort of a Midlands accent. No unusual features…”
“Well he’s calling himself Merlin but I highly doubt that’s his real name.”
“Worth a shot,” Annis said and Uther heard the sounds of tapping on a keyboard.
“Hmm, let’s see. Merlin Jarrett… wrong age, he’d be nearly thirty now. Merlin Barlow… no he’s only ten. Merlin Edan, that’s a girl… What about middle name? I’ve got a Thomas Merlin Emrys here, he’s white with dark hair.”
“Sixteen, and he’s from Wolverhampton. Sending you a pic.”
Seconds later his phone beeped and Uther opened the attachment to see what was unmistakeably a picture of Merlin, dressed in school uniform and smiling anxiously at the camera.
“That’s him,” Uther said. “What more do you have on him?”
“Born in Stafford, no father registered on the birth certificate. Mother was Hunith Emrys but she died two years ago. Guardian after that was stepdad Lucas Kanen. Hang on, there’s a note here.”
Uther heard the sound of rapid clicking.
“Right, Social paid a visit after a teacher reported concerns about Merlin seeming withdrawn and jumpy – they found nothing suspicious and there were no marks on him.”
“Could have been grief for his mother,” Uther said slowly.
“Could have. Anyway that was October last year. He ran away in April, the week after he turned sixteen. Stepdad didn’t report it for a couple of days. He was investigated but then a train guard came forward to say he saw Merlin get off the train at Bristol. CCTV confirmed it, police marked him as a runaway. You know the rest.”
April. Merlin had been on the street six months already. It was far too long for a vulnerable sixteen year old to have fended for himself.
“You’ll need to report this,” Uther said woodenly.
“I know it’s just…” Uther massaged his head. “He doesn’t want to go back home.”
“He doesn’t have to,” Annis surprised him by saying. “He’s sixteen, he’s legally allowed to leave home.”
Uther supposed on some level he must have known that but somehow he had forgotten, translated it to eighteen in his mind. He was surprised by how relieved he felt. They wouldn’t have to turn Merlin over to social services, something the boy so clearly feared.
He expressed this out loud and Annis seemed surprised.
“But you’ll still need to call the council Uther, he’s homeless. He needs temporary accommodation, and to be added to the list for housing.”
“Oh,” Uther said, because of course that made sense and yet… “Couldn’t he just stay here?”
There was a surprised cough down the end of the line.
“In your house?”
As with Gaius before, Uther found himself on the defensive.
“Not forever, obviously, just a day or two. I was under the impression housing lists move fairly slowly?”
“Well, yes they do, but you really don’t have to take the boy on Uther, no one’s expecting that.”
“I know,” Uther said. “I’ve no intention of taking him on. It’s just a temporary solution.”
“Well. Alright. We’ll see what they say. I’ll file the report now and give them your number, someone will probably be around later today to see him.”
“Great,” Uther said, rubbing his head again. “Now I just need to find a way to tell him that.”
Uther waited for Gaius and Alice to return before broaching the conversation. He sent Arthur out to town, anticipating the fireworks to come, but even he wasn’t prepared for how badly Merlin would take it.
“You said you wouldn’t call the police!” Merlin shouted, face screwed up with rage.
“My boy, please, you’re not well,” Gaius said, alarmed at the way Merlin was pacing up and down.
“I didn’t call them about the phone!” Uther said. “And it’s not like that, you’re a runaway, they’re only changing your status in the records.”
“And coming here to arrest me and take me back to- back to-”
Tears seemed to threaten but Merlin forced them back.
“Anyway, I’m eighteen so you can’t send me back anywhere!”
“You are not eighteen, Merlin.”
“I talked to a detective, I know you’re sixteen.”
Merlin’s mouth set in a grim line.
“I’m leaving now, don’t try and stop me. You’re not sending me back.”
He grabbed his rucksack from the corner and started to hobble towards the door.
“Merlin, wait!” Uther said and perhaps it was the desperation in his voice that made Merlin turn around.
“We won’t. We can’t. It’s legal to leave home at sixteen, no one can make you go back.”
Merlin’s mouth opened and then closed again. He looked entirely caught off guard and half disbelieving.
“No one,” Uther repeated. “Not even the police.”
“It’s true,” Gaius said swiftly. “As shockingly young as it seems to me, you are allowed to live on your own at this age. Though the ideal living situation is not on the streets, needless to say.”
Merlin reached for the door handle, then dropped his hand. He leaned against the door for support, breathing heavily. Uther was worried it was all too much for the boy to take in whilst in such a weakened state.
No one spoke until Merlin drew in an audibly ragged breath.
“Will they… will they tell him where I am?”
“Are you talking about your stepdad?” Uther said, as softly as he could.
There was a pause, then Merlin nodded
“Perhaps it’s time to tell us why you left home, m’boy,” Gaius said gently.
Merlin’s face clouded over for a second, then the mask shuttered down.
“I just didn’t like him. And he didn’t like me. So I’m not living there again.”
Gaius gestured at the study.
“We could talk in private if you prefer. Or you could go with Alice-”
“There’s nothing to tell! We didn’t get on. Nothing more than that.”
“Was he ever violent towards you, Merlin?” he asked quietly.
“No. And he never touched me up, either, since I know that’s where you’re heading,” Merlin bit out and Uther winced at the bluntness.
“Very well,” Gaius said calmly. “But if he didn’t like you, as you say, why would he come to find you?”
Merlin shifted from foot to foot.
“I don’t know,” he muttered. “Might think he… owed it to my mum or something.”
Uther wasn’t stupid. He knew there was more to Merlin’s story than he was letting on. But the look in Merlin’s eyes reminded him of the first time Ygraine had asked about Victor. How he’d clammed up completely and she had changed the subject; and how much he had loved her for that.
“Well he can’t come here,” he said loudly and Merlin jumped slightly.
“This is my home, it’s not a way station for all comers. If he shows up, I’ll send him away.”
Uther tried to use his most imperious voice, to leave Merlin in no doubt that Kanen wouldn’t stand a chance if he squared up to Uther.
“You’re an invited guest, he isn’t,” Uther said, deliberately pompous. “If you don’t want him here, then he isn’t coming in.”
Merlin took his time scanning Uther’s face, and Uther could see the exact moment the boy believed him, because he let his rucksack fall from his shoulder.
Gaius clearly saw the same thing because he swiftly joined the conversation.
“You can talk to whoever they send round, too. Ask them not to inform your stepdad of your whereabouts. They’re familiar with family breakdown situations, it won’t be a request they haven’t had before.”
“And once you’re off the missing persons list, you’ll be able to join the housing wait list,” Alice added kindly. “It’ll make everything much easier.”
Merlin hefted his bag in his hand for a long moment, then dropped it to the floor.
“Alright. As long as… alright.”
“Lovely. Now, we brought food for lunch, let’s all eat before we do anything else.”
Gaius followed her into the kitchen, leaving Uther alone in the hall with Merlin.
“Well,” Uther said after a pregnant pause. “I should ask, is it Thomas or Merlin?”
“Merlin,” he replied, with a kind of grimace. “Thomas was just for teachers and that. My… my mum always called me Merlin.”
“I’m sorry she died,” Uther said, meaning it very much.
“Yeah, me too.”
Merlin fixed his eyes on Uther.
“You really don’t think I should go back home, then?” he said, and there was the faintest challenge in his voice.
“No,” Uther said. “I left home at seventeen myself and it was the right decision. My father and I… didn’t get on either.”
Merlin’s nod was different to the ones he’d given Uther before. It was a nod of understanding and – if Uther wasn’t mistaken – the beginnings of trust.
When the social worker arrived – a small unflappable woman named Freya – she took Merlin into the living room to speak with him in private. Uther paced in the kitchen, turning the events of the day over in his mind.
“You did well to keep him from leaving,” Gaius said.
“For however long it lasts,” Uther replied shortly.
“Any night spent off the streets is good,” Gaius said, clapping him on the arm.
Uther’s mind was still on the conversation earlier
“When he said Kanen never hit him, or… or touched him…” he said at last. “It sounded like he was telling the truth.”
“That was my instinct too,” Gaius said.
“But I don’t buy for a minute he ran away just because they didn’t get on.”
“Perhaps someone else was involved?”
“I don’t think we can push him about it yet,” Gaius said seriously. “Even being here has brought him right to the edge of his comfort zone.”
“I agree,” Uther said. “I could ask someone else though.”
Gaius gave him a shrewd look.
“You think Merlin would thank you for going to see his stepdad?”
“No,” Uther said grimly. “But he might thank me if I can cut ties between them once and for all.”
Gaius looked like he was about to argue when suddenly the door opened and Freya and Merlin came in.
“Everything alright?” Uther asked.
“Yes, we’ve had a chat and I’ve been over Merlin’s options with him,” Freya said. “He’d like to stay in the city, which is fine, but the wait for a flat won’t be a short one unfortunately. We have some temporary accommodation options-”
“The shelters,” Merlin muttered.
“-so Merlin’s just having a think about that. I’ve also asked him to think if there are any family members or friends he might be able to stay with for a while.”
“Are you going to tell his stepdad where he is?” Uther said, somewhat brusquely. Freya seemed unfazed by his tone.
“We’ve had a chat about that too and though local police will be informing Mr Kanen that Merlin is no longer missing, we won’t disclose his location at Merlin’s request.”
“Good,” Uther said, giving Merlin a nod.
“Right, Merlin, you’ve got my card and I’ll be in the office till six. Let me know if you change your mind about the shelter tonight.”
Gaius offered to show Freya to the door, no doubt with a follow up question or two about the housing list.
“Change your mind about what?” Uther asked when it was just the two of them.
“I don’t want to go to a shelter again,” Merlin said firmly. “I’d rather spend the night outside.”
“Or you could spend another night here. It would seem to be the simpler option.”
Merlin regarded him warily.
“I won’t force you to stay,” Uther said tiredly. “I would simply prefer it.”
Merlin seemed to deliberate, biting his lip.
“I can keep the lock on my door?” he said at last.
“And if I want to leave tomorrow…”
“I won’t stop you.”
The pause seemed to last forever. Uther was itching to bark out an order, to tell Merlin to stop dithering and unpack his things, but he knew he couldn’t take his normal approach to this. The boy had to decide.
“Just one night,” Merlin said eventually and Uther was surprised at the depths of the relief he felt.
“Excellent. Dinner will be at seven, don’t be late.”
Arthur seemed pleased to see Merlin still around when he returned from town. It made Uther wonder, a little guiltily, if Arthur had been lonely in the house before.
“Call of Duty?” he said and Merlin nodded. Uther left them to it – he detested those war games and was still in two minds about letting Arthur play them at all. But he couldn’t help enjoying the sounds of laughter he heard coming from the other room as he read the paper.
Of course, Arthur needed to be in the loop if Merlin was staying for a bit. Uther wasn’t quite sure how much to say, mindful of not breaking Merlin’s confidence, but it turned out he needn’t have bothered. He raised the subject when Merlin went to wash his hands before dinner and found Arthur nodding along.
“He’s been sleeping rough, yeah, he told me.”
“He told you?” Uther said, slightly incredulous. So far Merlin hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with personal information.
“Yeah, I mean, I knew he wasn’t Gaius’ mate, Dad - he’s like my age. So I asked where he came from and he told me.”
“Er, right. Did he tell you why?”
“No, he didn’t wanna say.” Arthur’s eyes were suddenly lasered on Uther’s. “Can he stay here?”
“Well, I mean, he is for tonight-”
“Yeah but after.”
“It depends what he wants,” Uther surprised himself by saying.
“I think he should,” Arthur said decisively. “We’ve got loads of room, it’s stupid him being homeless when there’s space for him here.”
“I agree,” Uther said, wishing life was as simple as his single-minded teenage son believed it to be. “But again, he might not want to.”
“Yeah, don’t think he’s totally sure about you yet,” Arthur said casually. “He was asking me questions about you earlier, like he was trying to scope you out. I said you were a bit of a helicopter parent but mostly alright.”
Uther rolled his eyes.
Arthur grinned back but then his face fell a little.
“S’pose you never did anything that made me want to run away from home, though, which sounds like more than he ever had.”
“If you could be a friend to him, I think that would be a great help,” Uther said and Arthur nodded.
The next morning Uther announced he was going to the office and gave Arthur permission to order a film from the on-demand service for him and Merlin.
“He’s not up to going out yet – make sure he doesn’t strain himself and get him to take his painkillers at lunch,” Uther instructed.
“I am here, you know,” Merlin said and Arthur snorted.
“So water skiing’s out the question? Got it, Dad.”
“I’ll be back in time for dinner. Behave, both of you.”
Arthur just grunted acceptance; Uther having to work on the weekend wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Merlin gave him an oddly sweet sort of half wave as he left the house which Uther took to be a good sign – he hoped with all his heart he wouldn’t come home to find Merlin had changed his mind again and upped sticks.
He wasn’t going to the office, of course. He’d called his old PI friend Olaf last night and cashed in a favour – a text rolled in after midnight with Lucas Kanen’s address in Wolverhampton. He’d also spoken with the company lawyer Mithian and she’d faxed over certain custody documents – he didn’t yet know if he’d need to use them. It all depended on what he found when he came face to face with Kanen.
The drive was two hours long and Uther felt tense all the way. He finally drew up outside a fairly run down looking semi-detached house – paint peeling from the door and window sills, and an overgrown front garden that seemed to be more weeds than grass.
He knocked on the door and heard a corresponding shout almost immediately, though it took nearly a minute for the door to open. Uther was not at all impressed at the sight that greeted him.
Kanen was dressed in a stained t-shirt and combat trousers, with at least three days of scruff on his chin and red, bloodshot eyes. He also reeked of alcohol, despite the fact it was barely eleven in the morning.
“Yeah?” he said and Uther drew himself up to his full height.
“I’m here about Merlin.”
That sobered the man up. He looked Uther up and down, almost fearfully, and stood back a little.
“‘E’s not here anymore.”
“I know,” Uther said. “Can I come in?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, pushing past Kanen into the small living room beyond. There wasn’t much of note in there beyond a television and a stained settee set. A few empty beer cans were strewn around the armchair, as well as what looked like the remains of a Chinese takeaway.
“You might have already been informed but Merlin is no longer missing,” Uther said, getting straight to the point. “He’s been sleeping rough and now he’s staying at mine for the time being.”
“Where?” Kanen said instantly.
“He doesn’t want you to know that.”
Kanen began to worry his lip.
“What did ‘e tell you?” he said and Uther could see he was trying to hide how nervous he was.
“He’s told me nothing about you,” Uther said curtly. “Now why do you think that is?”
Kanen’s shoulders slumped in relief a little and Uther made a mental note of it.
“Dunno,” he muttered. “Always was ungrateful.”
“I think there might be more to it than that,” Uther said deliberately and Kanen’s eyes flickered.
“Who the ‘ell are you, anyway? Why you taken ‘im in? You a pervert or something?”
Uther refused to rise to the insult.
“I have taken him in because the streets are no place for a teenage boy. He has been homeless, Mr Kanen, did you hear me when I said that or do you simply not care?”
Kanen shrugged sourly.
“Shouldn’t have run away, should ‘e? Had a home here.”
“Yes, clearly an excellent one,” Uther sneered, gesturing at the filthy room.
Kanen’s eyes narrowed.
“What you even doing ‘ere, if you can’t tell me where ‘e is?”
The real reason had been to see Merlin’s stepdad for himself but Uther didn’t want to say that.
“I came to collect any things he might have left behind,” he said imperiously.
“Fine, whatever,” Kanen said disgustedly. “Right ‘and door upstairs, take what you want. I junked most of it when ‘e first did a runner.”
There were plenty of things Uther wanted to say to that but he restrained himself. Giving Kanen one last glare, he left the room and climbed the little staircase. The carpet was sticky under his feet and Uther wondered if the house had been this dirty when Merlin had lived here, or if it had gotten worse. He had to hope it was the latter, this was no place for a child to live.
He turned to the right hand door at the top of the stairs. There was an oddly familiar mark on the door jamb and Uther studied it a moment before pushing the door open. A rank smell greeted him and he wondered when the room had last been opened. Like the living room, there wasn’t much inside. A pine wardrobe, a small bed, a single shelf with a couple of books on. Uther decided to take them with him – they seemed to be school books and perhaps Merlin would need them again (though that was thinking optimistically).
There wasn’t much of use in the wardrobe and Uther balked at bringing back some of the ratty jeans and ancient t-shirts in there. He grabbed a halfway decent hoodie and the least objectionable pair of jeans. It had been six months since Merlin ran away and teenage boys grew like weeds, but Uther doubted he’d put on weight on the street – more likely the reverse.
The acrid smell was stronger with the wardrobe open so Uther crossed to the little window. It took all of his strength to force it open, it had clearly been closed a long while. And strangely enough, there were two little holes going straight through the wood at the bottom, almost as though…
As though it had been nailed shut. With a sudden lurch of his stomach, Uther realised what was familiar about the marks on the door jamb. They were the same ones that Arthur’s short-lived deadbolt had left on the paintwork.
Only this door had been locked from the outside.
Uther stood still for several minutes, breathing in and out. It would do no good to lose his temper. This one had to be by the book, for Merlin’s sake.
Oh but he was angry. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt such rage. Perhaps when those older boys at school had stolen Arthur’s cane, but he had known what to do then, known exactly the right thing to say to the school, to the head, to the boys, to make sure it never happened again. To make sure Arthur was looked after.
Well he could do that here, at least. He couldn’t fix what had gone before but he’d damn well make sure Merlin was protected from now on.
When he walked back into the lounge, his face was perfectly blank. Kanen was sat in the armchair, nearly through another can of lager.
“Merlin will be staying with me until a permanent solution is found,” he announced, drawing the papers Mithian had prepared from his bag. “You are relinquishing all custodial rights you had over him, now and forever. You will sign these and I will be in touch if you are needed to sign any more.”
He fixed the odious man with a stare, daring him to object. Kanen looked at him a long time, then shrugged.
“Never wanted ‘im anyway,” he slurred out, taking the papers with unsteady hands.
Uther stood by his shoulder, tersely pointing out each place to sign and snatching them clear when the man was done.
“As I said, I may be in touch,” he said stiffly.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kanen said, in a late attempt at bravado. “Some thanks I get after all I done for ‘im.”
“Oh I know exactly what you did for him,” Uther said and Kanen quailed at his tone, shrinking back in his chair.
“I never touched ‘im,” he said fearfully. “Ask the school, ask Social, never a mark on ‘im.”
“But you locked him up, didn’t you?” Uther said, almost choked by rage. ”Like he was a dog.”
Kanen went pale. Clearly he thought his hasty rearrangement of Merlin’s room would be enough to throw anyone off the scent. Uther supposed social services had been too busy to do a thorough check, especially since they already knew Merlin had been seen in Bristol.
“’E… ‘e was naughty,” Kanen said and it came out like a whine. “I grounded ‘im, that’s what parents do.”
“How long did you used to leave him in there?” Uther hissed. “Every evening? All weekend?”
The look on Kanen’s face told him all he needed to know.
“’E was out of control,” Kanen pleaded. “I ‘ad to do something.”
“He was a grieving child,” Uther said, and his voice was as cold as his blood was boiling. “If I had my way…”
If Uther had his way, he’d beat Kanen to a pulp and drop him off at the nearest police station. But Merlin came first. Get the custodial ties severed first, then sort out the rest.
“You will complete whatever other documents are needed,” Uther said, tucking the papers back into his bag. “And you will never come near Merlin again or I will make you regret it.”
Kanen gulped but didn’t respond. He looked small, hunched in his chair, but Uther had no doubt he’d been a tyrant in Merlin’s life.
He strode out of the house before he could do something he’d regret.
Uther could barely concentrate on the way home, nearly losing his way several times. His hands gripped the steering wheel so tight it hurt and he couldn’t get the smell of the house out of his nostrils.
He was angry, but he was distraught too. Uther didn’t consider himself a sentimental man, but being a father meant everything to him. From the moment Arthur took his first breath, Uther had known he’d always do whatever it took to protect him. He was sure that Merlin’s mother had felt the same way. Uther thought of Hunith, a single parent like himself, both of them doing all they could to care for their child. If he had died and Arthur had fallen into the hands of someone like Kanen…
He couldn’t mask his dark mood when he arrived home. Arthur asked if he was alright the second he walked in.
“Arthur, I need to speak to Merlin alone, please.”
Arthur looked between them both and Uther reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty.
“Go and get us some pizza for dinner.”
“Domino’s?” Arthur said, his face lighting up. Uther generally only allowed takeaway on special occasions.
“Yes, fine,” Uther said and Arthur bounded out, not before giving Merlin a little pat on the shoulder. Merlin had picked up on Uther’s mood immediately, he was twisting his hands together anxiously.
“What is it?” he asked when the front door slammed shut.
“I went to see Kanen today,” Uther said.
Merlin’s face lost what little colour it had.
“You did what?”
“I didn’t tell him where you are. I didn’t tell him anything,” Uther said plainly.
Merlin looked almost too shocked to be angry.
“You-you… What did he say?”
“Very little,” Uther said. And then, because it felt better to get it all over in one go somehow, like ripping the plaster off: “I saw your bedroom though. I know about the lock.”
Merlin’s face went from confusion to anger to something much more raw.
“Sounds like you know it all,” he said flatly.
“Did he give you food?” Uther asked.
“When I cooked it for him first, yeah.” Merlin’s tone was hard. Uther had to keep himself from reacting angrily, it wouldn’t help. So Kanen had treated Merlin like a servant on top of everything else.
“I used to piss in the wardrobe,” Merlin said suddenly, chin jutting up defiantly. “I suppose you think that’s disgusting.”
Uther’s heart could break for the look in Merlin’s eyes. The boy probably felt older than he was but to Uther he seemed impossibly young, impossibly fragile.
“No,” Uther said simply. “I don’t think anything that happened in that house was your fault.”
Merlin bowed his head, shoulders slumping. Uther wanted to reach out and touch him, to reassure him somehow, but he knew it wouldn’t be welcome.
They sat in silence for a while and then Merlin spoke again, not looking up.
“Why did you go?”
“For these,” Uther said and withdrew the forms from his bag. He spread them out on the table and Merlin leaned in to see.
“He relinquished any custodial rights over you,” Uther said and Merlin’s mouth dropped open.
“Yes. I’ll fax them to my lawyer tonight so she can move forward. I know it’s a formality in some ways as you’ve already left home-”
“No- it… it means a lot. I don’t want to be his family.”
Merlin was looking Uther in the eye again and Uther couldn’t begin to say how relieved he was.
“I also rescued a few items,” he said, hoping Merlin might be pleased.
Merlin’s nose wrinkled when he saw the textbooks but his eyes lit up when Uther handed over the hoodie.
“Thanks, I… I didn’t have room for this when I left.”
He hugged it to his chest and Uther wondered if it had meaning to him, if perhaps it was something his mother had bought him.
He felt bile rising in his throat again when he thought of what Merlin had gone through since his mother died.
“You can talk to the police about what Kanen did,” he said. “He can still be charged.”
“No,” Merlin said and it sounded like a plea. “I don’t want to, please don’t make me.”
“Alright,” Uther said. “I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to. But can I reserve the right to revisit the topic in the future?”
Merlin nodded grudgingly.
The conversation was going better than Uther had thought, despite its painful content. Merlin seemed to be making a massive effort to stay and engage, rather than lash out or run away. Uther hoped that meant a little more trust was growing between them. He decided to push his luck a bit.
“Arthur asked last night if you could stay here for a while,” he said carefully.
“He did?” Merlin said, seeming surprised.
“He pointed out that we had the space,” Uther said. “I would not be opposed to the idea either.”
Merlin looked cagey.
“So you have the chance to get back on your feet.”
“Yeah but why do you care?”
Uther had to think about that one. There were lots of reasons. Because Merlin was a child and children shouldn’t be homeless, because he had suffered and it made Uther angry, because it was dangerous on the streets, because Arthur liked him already, because because because…
If someone had asked Uther a week ago whether he’d be willing to take a homeless person in, he’d have laughed in their face. But fate seemed to have pushed Merlin into his life and the boy needed help. Help that Uther was capable of giving. What better reason was there?
It was awkward to articulate, however. Uther tried for a bit of bluster.
“There’s no life for you on the streets,” he said briskly. “You’ll only fall into crime and end up in prison or worse.”
“So you’re doing this for society?” Merlin said, mouth twisting in what looked almost like amusement.
“Yes. No. Look, society will benefit and you will benefit and Arthur will benefit and…”
“Arthur will benefit?”
“He never had a sibling,” Uther said promptly. “It’ll be good for him to learn how to share.”
Merlin stared at Uther for a moment and then let out a bark of a laugh, as though he couldn’t help himself.
“Oh for… will you give it a week at least?” Uther said, because clearly pretending to be detached wasn’t working.
Merlin thought for a moment.
“A week,” he said.
Good enough, Uther thought. For now.